Tuesday, December 22, 2009


From NASA's Image of the day: "The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this view of the Chesapeake Bay region as the clouds were clearing on December 20. The snow highlights the courses of the Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay. The ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains are similarly highlighted. The forested peaks are darker than the snow-covered valleys."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Beef Stew of Hope

I'm in a complicated but strangely contented mood today: it's a day of long contemplative silences, of playing music, reading, looking at the snow, lying on the floor with the cats, and every so often stirring the pot of stew I've got bubbling away in my oven.

Heat your oven to 300 degrees. Take two or more pounds of good quality non-factory-farmed chuck, two big carrots, two ribs of celery, six cloves of garlic, and a couple of fist-sized potatoes, and cut them into sizes and shapes you wouldn't mind finding in stew. Toss the meat in flour and brown it in bacon fat over medium heat in a well-seasoned cast-iron dutch oven. Do it in small batches. Once the meat is all browned and set aside, add the veggies to the pot and cook them for a few minutes till the onions are translucent. Combine last night's leftover wine with enough beef stock to make four cups or thereabout. Return the meat to the pot and pour in enough of the stock/wine mixture to just cover (add more stock if necessary). Add a couple of branches of thyme, maybe a tablespoon of salt (depending on how salty your stock is), lots of black pepper, and a tablespoon of tomato paste. Cover the pot and put it in your oven. Cook the stew for three hours or more, until it's perfect.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Start this at about 4:00 on a clear, cold Saturday afternoon.

In a small frying pan, toast a teaspoon of cumin seeds until they're light brown and fragrant.

Take a hunk of pork shoulder meat weighing about two pounds and put it in a pot and cover it with water. Throw in a half onion into which you've speared a couple of cloves, four cloves of garlic which you've lightly smashed with the heel of your hand, half your toasted cumin seeds, and five peppercorns. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for an hour or so.

While the simmering is going on, assemble the rest of your meez. Pulverize your remaining cumin seeds in a mortar and combine them with a half-teaspoon each of ground black pepper, ground cloves, and cayenne. Put a spring of oregano where you can find it later. Roast a couple of nice big poblano or New Mexico chiles and peel and chop them. Chop an onion and another three or four cloves of garlic. Open and drain two cans of white hominy. (For the maximum posole experience, you would of course have started soaking four cups of dried hominy the night before. But now it's too late. Canned is fine; the texture will be a little different, but it will taste right.)

All that should keep you busy for an hour or so, after which time pull your meat out of the broth and cut it into stew-appropriate cubes. Strain the broth. Do not strain your broth into the sink: keep the liquid, discard the solids. Open your second beer.

In a big heavy pot, saute the onion and garlic with a tablespoon of salt until the onion is translucent. Add the spices and the oregano and cook for a minute or two more until everything is acquainted. Add the meat, the hominy, the chiles, and five cups of the broth. Simmer, covered, for an hour or more, until the meat and the hominy are tender. Serve topped with cilantro in big bowls, with warm tortillas.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The average color of the Universe...

...is pale beige. Or as NASA prefers, cosmic latte.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I'm still here, honest

See, a long stretch of nonblogging doesn't happen without a bunch of contributing factors. One thing that happened is Facebook, which totally undermined my blogging reflex. Another is that Vaca Estupenda suffered a severe loss of purpose once I decided it wasn't a food blog anymore. During the election I kind of drifted into a vague kind of poliblogging, but once we won that focus, too, fell by the wayside. And there are only so many cute kittycat photos one can post in lieu of substantive content.

But there's tons to write about: I've started a new band with my friend Liza, who's an unearthly great singer, and I never did finish building that damned mandolin, and I do still cook and eat with great enthusiasm. Assuming there's still anybody around who wants to read it, I'm going to make a concerted effort to get this thing going again. So stay tuned.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Some Spices Soothe

Just a quick note: you should all go read this new Open Salon blog, which is authored by an old and dear friend of mine. I'm honoring her desire for anonymity, though I think those of you who know her will recognize her instantly.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The music teacher I'd like to be

Paul Reps tells a version of this story in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. A great Zen master was sitting in meditation beside a lake. A man approached him and said, "Master, I've traveled many miles to receive your teaching. I humbly ask that you accept me as your student."

The master grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck, dragged him into the lake, and held his head under the water for a minute or two. When the master finally let the man go, he let him cough and sputter and catch his breath, and then he looked him in the eye and said, "When I was holding your head under the water just now, what did you desire most of all?"

The man said, "Air."

The master said, "Go away. Come back when you desire my teaching as much as you desired air."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

No Fun

If you've ever played a crap gig with people you're sick of, if you've ever felt that awful helpless dog-being-given-a-bath kind of humiliation that comes with knowing the music you're playing is sucking worse than anything has ever sucked before and you can't do a damn thing about it, if for any reason you've ever found yourself on a stage wanting to be somewhere, anywhere else, preferably thousands of miles away where you will never have to look at the pathetic bunch of wankers you've gotten roped into doing this stupid gig with ever again, then you will feel Johnny Rotten's pain in this video. This is the last song from the Sex Pistols' last show.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

California, despite a previous blog post to the contrary, does not rock

"In addressing the issues now presented in the third chapter of this narrative, it is important at the outset to emphasize a number of significant points. First, as explained in the Marriage Cases, supra, 43 Cal.4th at page 780, our task in the present proceeding is not to determine whether the provision at issue is wise or sound as a matter of policy or whether we, as individuals, believe it should be a part of the California Constitution. Regardless of our views as individuals on this question of policy, we recognize as judges and as a court our responsibility to confine our consideration to a determination of the constitutional validity and legal effect of the measure in question. It bears emphasis in this regard that our role is limited to interpreting and applying the principles and rules embodied in the California Constitution, setting aside our own personal beliefs and values.

Second, it also is necessary to understand that the legal issues before us in this case are entirely distinct from those that were presented in either Lockyer or the Marriage Cases. Unlike the issues that were before us in those cases, the issues facing us here do not concern a public official's authority (or lack of authority) to refuse to comply with his or her ministerial duty to enforce a statute on the basis of the official’s personal view that the statute is unconstitutional, or the validity (or invalidity) of a statutory provision limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman under state constitutional provisions that do not expressly permit or prescribe such a limitation. Instead, the principal issue before us concerns the scope of the right of the people, under the provisions of the California Constitution, to change or alter the state Constitution itself through the initiative process so as to incorporate such a limitation as an explicit section of the state Constitution."


"Describing the effect of Proposition 8 as narrow and limited fails to acknowledge the significance of the discrimination it requires. But even a narrow and limited exception to the promise of full equality strikes at the core of, and thus fundamentally alters, the guarantee of equal treatment that has pervaded the California Constitution since 1849. Promising equal treatment to some is fundamentally different from promising equal treatment to all. Promising treatment that is almost equal is fundamentally different from ensuring truly equal treatment. Granting a disfavored minority only some of the rights enjoyed by the majority is fundamentally different from recognizing, as a constitutional imperative, that they must be granted all of those rights. Granting same-sex couples all of the rights enjoyed by opposite-sex couples, except the right to call their "'officially recognized, and protected family relationship'" (maj. opn., ante, at p. 7) a marriage, still denies them equal treatment.

There is no doubt that the ultimate authority over the content of the California Constitution lies with the people..."

Read the rest if you want.
It's logical and legal, but it's also weaselly and reprehensible. Lucky thing these guys weren't deciding Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka.

Monday, May 25, 2009

One of the little-known hazards of baldness

Scary grocery cart wrangler at the Flower Avenue Giant: "Can I hit you on the head for good luck?"

Me: "Excuse me?"

Scary cart wrangler: "Can I hit you on the head for good luck?"

Me: "No."

Scary cart wrangler: "Ok."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sensory Overload

Drool... gibber... er... MASTODON! Last night. 930 Club. Wow. Man. Yeah. Er.

And Intronaut. And Kylesa. But especially Mastodon. Yeah. Unbelievable.

More later, I think.

Later. Ok, Tes, here you go.

Intronaut: thunder and crystal, hard nasty grooves. A richly nuanced sledgehammering.

Kylesa: two drummers, frontwoman Laura Pleasants (could a metalbabe have a better name?) pumping sheer brutality out of her gold top Les Paul and growling and snarling like some kind of growling snarling thing. I lean over to Tina and shout "I'm in love!" in her hear.

All this stuff is, of course, unbelievably loud. The music is tactile. My pantlegs are flapping. Every thump of a bass drum sends a ripple through my torso. This is the sensuality of metal. It's a full-body experience; it demands surrender. You cannot maintain a safe intellectual distance. Resistance is futile. I'm really happy I brought earplugs.

Mastodon's first set is the new album Crack the Skye verbatim. It's a huge, sprawling work that I'm still getting my head around. There are indescribably beautiful moments: the surprise last chorus of "Oblivion," the point at the beginning of "Quintessence" when the arpeggiated guitar figure kicks in, the restatement of the first verse at the end of "The Czar." Projected images behind the band from Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky. The band is tight, professional, and clearly having the time of their lives. We're up in the balcony on stage right, close enough to see Brent Hinds grinning ear to ear. Most of the floor of the club is a mosh pit. Three security guards, calm and impassive in the storm, watch the writhing pile of humanity from behind the barricade and pull crowd surfers out when they get too close.

The second set kicks things into an even higher gear: time to have some fun with the back catalogue. "Bladecatcher," "Colony of Birchmen," "Crystal Skull," "Iron Tusk," "I am Ahab," "Magalodon." The closer is "March of the Fire Ants," Brent Hinds swaying in ecstasy during the intro. As the house lights come up at the end, Brann Dailor comes out to the edge of the stage with his quiver of drumsticks and throws them, one by one, into the crowd.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ah, the smell of solder on a sleepy Saturday afternoon

This is one of those posts that's only going to be of interest to other guitarists, possibly only to other telecaster guys.

Stock telecaster wiring looks like this.*

Zooming in on the critical area:

Now, this works perfectly adequately (of course it does, otherwise Fender wouldn't do it this way), but it presents a few problems. I like to use the volume knob to control my level of distortion, but with the pot wired this way, the treble dies as I roll off the volume. Things get way too muddy way too fast. Plus, the tone knob doesn't seem to really do anything until it's turned almost all the way down.

But there's a very easy mod that makes all this better. Just move the wire from the outside lug to the middle lug of the volume pot. Piece of cake.

This changes the order of the two controls: the tone control now comes after the volume control in the signal path. It makes the machine come alive! My tone stays the same all the way through the volume knob's range, and for the first time on any electric guitar I've owned, the tone knob is useful. This is an enormous improvement to a guitar I already loved. I don't know why all telecasters aren't wired this way at the factory.

So now it's on to practicing my Roy Buchanan licks. Based on watching this video, I'd be willing to bet that his guitar was wired this way.

*The wiring diagram is copyright 2006 Seymour Duncan/Basslines. I shouldn't have cropped off the copyright statement, but the diagram would have shown up illegibly tiny otherwise.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easter Dinner

April 12, 2009, Pearl and 14th Streets, Boulder. Pity you can't really see the pigeon.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Boulder again

Well, I'm here in Boulder, and maybe it's just because I've been reading Paradise Lost, but I feel like the surly, pasty, criminally out of shape, old, bald snake in the garden.

Abashed the Devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely; saw, and pined
His loss.
I never feel less attractive than when I'm here. The humidity, as a rule, is roughly 30% lower than it is at home: I get nosebleeds. The air is thin: walking up two flights of stairs makes me pant.

Everybody here is tanned and vigorous and healthy. Everybody hikes and climbs rocks and rides mountain bikes and skis. Everybody is so fucking nice. Oh, how I hate them all.

And yet. I'm in a meeting at the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Mesa Lab, looking out enormous windows at the Flatiron Range towering up over us. A couple of deer have been nosing around out there most of the afternoon. Tonight we're having dinner at L'Atelier, which I've heard raves about. Maybe later I'll see if the same cute bartender as last night is working at my hotel. Maybe she'll overlook my east coast urban hideousness.

Update. The trip wasn't a total loss by any means. There was that aforementioned dinner at L'Atelier (duck confit, foie gras, a really nice Australian shiraz I can't remember the name of). There was another dinner at Sunflower (beet "carpaccio," hanger steak with bearnaise, and a salad of arugula and truffles that I could have made a meal of by itself). There was a beery late night playing nine-ball at the Catacombs. There was Left Hand Books, a store that is desperately needed in DC. There was the fact that the downtown Borders closed, which surely was a big shot in the arm to all the cool little independent bookshops around there. There was an hour I spent on the Pearl Street Mall watching a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon.

On the other hand, I missed my flight this morning and I'm on standby for the next one. I really hope I get out of here soon. I'm way too familiar with this airport.

Friday, March 20, 2009


(From the amazing Richard Thompson.)

Saturday, February 28, 2009


Ladies and Gentlemen, feast your eyes upon my new Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi fuzz pedal. I bought it on Ebay a few days ago.

Fuzz is a new thing for me. I've had other distortion pedals, mind you, but that's quite a different aesthetic. Most distortion pedals are designed to emulate the sound of an overdriven tube amplifier, or simply to push your amp's tubes into overdrive. That's the ubiquitous electric guitar sound: rich, singing, saturated with overtones. (Incidentally, the highly musical way tubes distort an audio signal is the reason why twenty-first century guitar amp technology still uses them. Most solid state amps are sad, buzzy things.) My go-to distortion pedal is one of the best, a Fulltone OCD. It's known for being extremely touch-sensitive -- I can control the amount of distortion with my guitar's volume control or by varying how hard I play -- and for how little it colors the tone of the guitar.

By contrast, a fuzz pedal like the Big Muff makes your amp sound like it's about to vomit its guts across the room.

Fuzz is the earliest form of distortion effect. It has its origins in the 50s and early 60s, when guitarists like Link Wray and Johnny Burnette were doctoring their amps to get the sound: slashing their speaker cones with razor blades, removing a tube here and there, maybe plugging the speaker output of one amp into the input jack of another (which must have sounded amazing until they exploded). That's the kind of thing a fuzz pedal emulates. It's the sound of damage, chaos, and violence. Of shoplifting, driving drunk, and having unprotected sex with heavily tattooed strangers. It's a horrible, horrible thing.

As a recovering classical guitarist, having spent so many years refining my tone, obsessing over the fine details of string gauge and fingernail geometry and angle of attack and other nuances of technique, I'm finding this thing more fun than a bathtub full of guppies. I've been spending hours in my music room, ladling out earfuls of primitive audio sludge and giggling like a madman.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Really, I mean it. STOP DYING, people.

It's getting to be a bad time to be a famous person I like. I just found out Erick Purkhiser died a couple of days ago. He was better known as Lux Interior, cofounder and lead singer of the Cramps. I can't really describe what a loss this is. Damn it. Damn the world.

(If you know the Cramps and their work, then you can guess exactly how safe for work these videos are. If you don't, you have only yourself to blame.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

One winter night...

...thousands of years ago, the day's hunting had been good, and we were lounging around the fire with full bellies, telling stories and belching. And there was a slight rustling, and a wild cat cautiously emerged from the underbrush. We fell silent, mindful that our spears were close at hand, and watched as the cat slowly padded into our circle, slowly sat and narrowed her eyes in the firelight.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Out with the Old

Things are looking pretty good so far.

By the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to improve the effectiveness of human intelligence gathering, to promote the safe, lawful, and humane treatment of individuals in United States custody and of United States personnel who are detained in armed conflicts, to ensure compliance with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions, and to take care that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed, I hereby order as follows:

Section 1. Revocation. Executive Order 13440 of July 20, 2007, is revoked. All executive directives, orders, and regulations inconsistent with this order, including but not limited to those issued to or by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from September 11, 2001, to January 20, 2009, concerning detention or the interrogation of detained individuals, are revoked to the extent of their inconsistency with this order. Heads of departments and agencies shall take all necessary steps to ensure that all directives, orders, and regulations of their respective departments or agencies are consistent with this order. Upon request, the Attorney General shall provide guidance about which directives, orders, and regulations are inconsistent with this order.

. . .

(c) Interpretations of Common Article 3 and the Army Field Manual. From this day forward, unless the Attorney General with appropriate consultation provides further guidance, officers, employees, and other agents of the United States Government may, in conducting interrogations, act in reliance upon Army Field Manual 2 22.3, but may not, in conducting interrogations, rely upon any interpretation of the law governing interrogation -- including interpretations of Federal criminal laws, the Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3, Army Field Manual 2 22.3, and its predecessor document, Army Field Manual 34 52 issued by the Department of Justice between September 11, 2001, and January 20, 2009.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pre-Inauguration Trivialities Mix

  • Friday's high temperature in Takoma Park, Maryland: 18 degrees. Friday's high temperature at McMurdo Station, Antarctica: 34 degrees. Of course it's summer down there, but still. I've started growing my hair back. Usually when I try this it gets about three millimeters long, and I behold how tragically bald and grey I've become, and then I shave it all off again, but if this weather keeps up I'll need all the scalp-warming I can get.

  • How in the world did I get through the 80s and 90s without ever once hearing the Urban Dance Squad? This stuff is amazing. And Tres Manos is a telecaster guy.

  • From Serious Eats, this is an odd little video of Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain talking about food and sex. I post it here only because Bourdain echoes something I've been saying for years, viz. that whether a prospective partner enjoys sushi is a reliable indicator of how well I'm going to get along with her. If she doesn't like uni, or ankimo, or otoro -- my god, how can there be anybody anywhere who denies the near-hallucinatory deliciousness of otoro? and yet such people exist -- the prospects are very, very grim. Which is why I find Japanese restaurants to be ideal for first dates.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tools for warding off a cold

  • Hot lemonade: Juice of a lemon, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 cup hot water.

  • Ginger tea: grate a thumb-sized hunk of fresh ginger, steep in a mugful of boiling water for five or ten minutes.

  • Hot whiskey: two parts hot water to one of your favorite Irish whiskey, a spoonful of sugar, a squeeze of lemon, two or three cloves.

  • Chicken antioxidant soup.
Any others?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

District of Noise!

Did you hear? All Things Considered did a story tonight on experimental music in DC. It's pretty amazing to have been working on my stuff all this time, thinking I'm a lone voice in the wilderness, and then discover that I'm in fact living in the best place in America for destroying the earth with noise. It takes a village, you know.

Would everybody please just stop dying?

Vaca Estupenda lights a candle and chugs a pint of bourbon for the great Ron Asheton, guitarist for the Stooges, a huge influence on me and on many other guitarists I've admired. The world just got a little less loud.

"Look at B.B. King, what is he, 80-something? That's the beauty of being a musician. They can't take it away from you. It's your music, and you're pumping it out. You just play 'til you drop."

Friday, January 2, 2009

My new year so far

I have no heat in my house. The repair guy was supposed to be here at 3:30 this afternoon. I left work early. It's now 7. He's running late. I haven't had dinner yet because I wanted to go to the gym first, which I still hope to do if he makes it here before 8. It's 58 degrees in my living room. I can't feel my fingers. I'm an angry, angry, cold, angry man.