Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Short Rights Movement: A Brief History (Partial)

Note: This essay is complete baloney, except for the statistics, which are all true.


Looking back over five decades of progress in securing the rights of Short-Americans (SAs), one cannot fail to marvel at how rapidly this group transformed from second-class citizenship to full membership in the diverse communities that make up contemporary America. In the early 2000s, studies showed alarming disparities at both ends of the economic scale. The working-class SA could expect 2.6% lower earnings for each inch of height deficit after controlling for other variables. And fully 90% of CEOs were above average in height, with only 3% being shorter than 5' 7". No President since McKinley has been shorter than 5' 9".

Discrimination against SAs extended to the social realm as well as the economic. Confirming a long-suspected truth, women reported that, other things being equal, a 5' 4" man would have to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more per year to compensate for his shortness, compared to a six-footer. Incredibly, personal ads at dating sites allowed women to specify a desired height, often stating things like "Under 5' 8" need not respond." However, women themselves were not immune from anti-Short discrimination. In fact, a significant thread of the women's movement pinned their inferior status not on gender, but on the height differential between the average woman and the average man.

The media compounded the problems by consistently portraying short people as somehow defective. Joe Pesci made a career playing obnoxious short men, and fictional characters like George Costanza of Seinfeld, Lord Farquad from Shrek and Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel Air were objects of ridicule because of their below-normal height.

The first rumblings of discontent were, as usual, heard on college campuses. SAs at Princeton, Yale and other elite schools formed chapters of Short Advocates. This group's stated mission was to "raise awareness of issues affecting SAs by any means necessary." A more radical group, Napoleon Complex, lambasted the Short Advocates' mission statement, claiming that the phrase "raise awareness" tended to privilege height. Napoleon Complex was implicated in several violent disruptions of college basketball games in which especially tall players were "pantsed" by activists equipped with portable ladders. Their most famous event was of course during the 2023 NCAA Championship in which they replaced the display cards of the Georgetown cheering section with cards that spelled SHORT HATE MUST DIE. A visibly moved Bob Costas could be seen briefly clenching his fist as the broadcast was cut to the studio while order was restored.

At this point I had to stop writing the essay on account of excessive silliness.




The Brain Is A Third-Rate Author

Once in a while I'll dream that I'm reading a book or a newspaper or some other kind of extended text. Except for a special situation that I'll describe later, if I try to actually read the text versus just sort of looking at it, something interferes. For example, the light dims, or a towel or something moves over the text to obscure it. Or, I might see what looks like a page of text but the closer I look, the less sense it makes. There might be a few words, but separated by unintelligible runs, like

Mary had fffesgre g       fe   little f^&GR lamb and not with.

I think what's going on is that the brain can only generate "generic" images for the dream; it isn't smart enough to generate real text.  If you see a tree in the dream, your brain has seen enough trees and has evolved over thousands of generations to be good at recognizing them, so it can paint a pretty good picture of a tree for you to "see" in your dream. You can focus in on the leaves and bark, and they look real -- real enough that the generic tree your brain generates is indistinguishable from a real tree.

But a generic book is just a rectangular object with a cover and some pages, and the pages contain letters and typical words like "and" and "or". Beyond that, each book you have on your bookshelf is different. It has different words and pictures. It would take conscious effort to synthesize a new paragraph of logically connected ideas, and you're not conscious when you're dreaming. So the best your brain can produce is a book-like object with a bunch of hash on the pages.

Now to the special exception. If I've been really scrutinizing a book (the typical situation is an advanced technical book, where I have to read and think through each paragraph multiple times to understand it), shortly afterward that book or one much like it will appear in a dream, and I can actually read it. I don't know whether the text is sensible or an exact reproduction of what I'd been reading, but it's close enough that it seems real during the dream. Sometimes this can even happen before I fall completely asleep. An image of the book appears and I can read it out loud for a bit. This has never happened in the presence of another person so maybe it would just sound like gibberish, but it's close enough that it seems like a real book, versus the "generic" books that I know are fake even during the dream.

I wonder if certain "holy" texts or pseudo-academic papers of the type you see in modern literary criticism were produced in such a semiconscious state, after the author had been intensely studying similar religious or academic texts. For that matter I wonder if the normal writing process is not wholly unrelated to this "book-imitation" process your brain can do in a dream. I can certainly write about things I have no actual knowledge of, but in a way that is better than gibberish. The key problem in hermolinguistics may be described as one of scale. Many researchers claim that scale is at best an ephemeral artifact, but clearly, structure cannot be imposed without sizing of some sort. Each substructure can, likewise, be subjected to a process of subconscious or semiconscious scaling. See, I did it just there. Maybe I'm still doing it now.  How do I know when I'm doing it and when I'm not?!...








Saturday, May 20, 2017

Are We Headed For War?

I used to think historical events could be explained by the personalities of "great men." It's probably a byproduct of the way history is taught in school. For example, the pat explanation for the American Revolution is that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. loved liberty and made it happen. I never stopped to consider that liberty-loving people have lived in every age and place, but can only put their ideas into action when other factors out of their control happen to line up.

Generational trends, meaning changes in the collective personality of a population that occur over the scale of several decades, are one of those historical forces that do not move according to the desires of a few "great men." Generational trends used to be commonly discussed, but most historians today only care about race and gender as drivers of history.

The runup to the Civil War was dominated by the Transcendental Generation. The Transcendentals came of age during the boring 1820s, the so-called Era of Good Feeling. Without external events to react to, the young Transcendentals turned to perfecting themselves from the inside.

The Transcendentals were intuitionists. They believed you should just make up your mind about things, and then defend your opinions rigidly against such inconveniences as tradition, reason, the opinions of other people, and science. An important feature of the Transcendentals was that it was not enough to simply march to the beat of your own drum - it was important to live in a community where everyone else marched to the beat of that same drum. I'm caricaturing here, but you can draw your own conclusions from a few historical examples.

When John Humphrey Noyes conjured a variety of strange sexual rules in the 1840s, he didn't just go around giving speeches about them. He started his own town, the Oneida Community, in which these rules would be law. The Brook Farm community allowed people to do whatever type of work they wanted and still receive equal pay. The Fruitlands people shunned hot baths and drank only water. None of these ideas worked for very long, but that wasn't the point. The point was, you drew morals from deep down, then demanded that they be law.

As applied to private conduct, Transcendentalism looked like harmless eccentricity. And it had a universal brotherhood theme. Here's Emerson in 1841 bursting with love for friend and stranger alike:

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.  Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.

But when rationality is rejected, compromise is impossible. This inevitably drew Transcendentals out of their inner perfectionism to meet the great political and moral question of the day, slavery. The Transcendentals offered the harshest criticism of the Compromisers who kept the nation together through the 1850s. For the most part the Transcendentals came to believe slavery was the most important moral wrong of the day, and if it took war to end it, then so be it. Emerson sounds positively pacifist in the quote above, but listen to him in 1860:

Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution, [are] more rich in the central tones than languid years of prosperity.

But I'm talking about the Transcendentals as a complete generation, not just the adherents of a philosophy out of Harvard. The Transcendental generation of the South said that slavery was not merely an economic arrangement, but, guess what, a moral imperative. Here is John C. Calhoun in 1837:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

Conventional histories tell us that the special nature and urgency of the slavery issue, abetted by increasing cotton prices, made civil war inevitable. But cotton production had been booming since the cotton gin was invented in 1793. Why did a resolution of slavery become urgent in the 1850s? Why did war come in 1860 and not 1800?  To answer that, we have to look at generational changes in mood. Heading into the 1860s, a generation came to power that would not compromise. They thirsted for a final and total resolution, got the war they wanted, and then largely departed from public life. As soon as the war was over, the younger generation began undoing the Transcendentals' resolution, with the Jim Crow system enforced in the South and tolerated by the North.

The Baby Boomers have almost perfectly recapitulated the evolution of the Transcendentals from gentle philosophizers to fire-breathing warmongers. Like the Transcendentals, the Boomers came of age during the culturally sterile 1950s. Their parents doted on them in new, child-centered suburbs. And like the Transcendentals, the Boomers came to detest the very stability and calm their war-scarred parents and grandparents had offered. They searched for the inner demons and demanded everyone else join them, or at least honor their struggles. The Boomers carried out their inner perfectionist program from 1964 to 1980, and after a lull, Act II may be upon us.

If the Boomers are the new Transcendentals, what is going to be their galvanizing issue, their slavery? I think it could be globalization, or the financialized economy, or whatever you want to call it. (It'll have a name in fifty years.) The Boomer generational personality wants a final, climactic resolution of something, and this may be it. They auditioned one thing, the Vietnam-era draft, but that was mainly an issue for the young.  The economy affects everyone. The Boomers may finally have their cause.

On one side, you have the Boomer Donald Trump, who is a pragmatist (not a Boomer characteristic) but also carries the classic Boomer/Transcendentalist personality of apocalyptic rhetoric, disdain for custom, and a resistance to analysis. On the other side, you have the Washington establishment, largely a creation of Boomer presidents Clinton and Bush, with its consensus of globalized, neoliberal economics and military interventionism, and most importantly, its institutionalized deformation of what is allowed to be debated (leave trade deals to the experts, but please do wear yourselves out arguing over transgender bathrooms.) Are we headed for war? I would look for the withering away of compromiser voices in Congress. I would look for a sustained, calculated urgency, the drumbeats like the Southern secessionist conventions of 1860 and Lincoln's refusal to yield federal property to the seceding states.  Finally, I would look for acts of violent resistance like the Harper's Ferry raid.

Other American generations have driven us to war. The generational theorists call them "prophet" generations. When the next younger generation (always a less ideological, more pragmatic, but more passive generation) is at least assertive enough to restrain the prophet generation from its excesses, the outcome is positive. An example is World War II, when the prophet generation of that time, the one of FDR and Douglas Mac Arthur, was restrained by the next youngest generation, the "Lost Generation" of Patton and Eisenhower. Today's equivalent of that younger, more practical generation is my own, Generation X. We are a hardened, cynical, sometimes selfish bunch. Are we up to the task that fate may be about to dump in our lap?






Sunday, April 9, 2017

Caponata

Caponata is a Sicilian version of ratatouille.  Sicily was ruled by the House of Bourbon at various times during the 1700s-1800s and the ultimate status symbol for an upper-class Sicilian was to have a French-trained chef. There are many influences in Sicilian food. In the east, where my great-grandparents were from, the food is not too different from the southern Italian mainland which is only a couple of miles across the Strait of Messina, but there was a Greek influence. Sicilian pizza is traditionally thick and rectangular like a flatbread and features aromatic sausage heavy on the fennel seeds. I'd eaten a lot of rectangular sausage pizzas before I ever saw a round one with pepperoni.

The ancient peasant foods of Sicily are the fish dishes and the many creative ways to use cheap vegetables like "cardoony" that we almost consider weeds today. Granita, gelato and a lot of the sweets, especially the ones with nuts and candied fruit, are from the times of Arab rule. The Arab influence is stronger in the west, towards Palermo. When potatoes and tomatoes came from the New World, they were incorporated immediately.  The Sicilian signature is contrasting combinations like sweet-and-sour, or even sweet-and-bitter, that can be hard to get used to. There's a salad of oranges and onions that I like but nobody else in my house can stand, so we never have it.

Caponata is very close to ratatouille but the Sicilian influence creeps in in the form of green olives and a little sugar. This recipe is from my great aunt Mary who was 100% Sicilian, born just a few years after her folks came to America. She died in 2013 at 94.


This is a really old picture of Aunt Mary - maybe from 1935 or so. My parents rented a house she owned when they were first married - we may have been living there when I was born, but I'm not sure.



2 Tbsp. olive oil [Aunt Mary didn't have to say this in her time, but avoid the really cheap olive oils that are out there today. Some of that stuff I bet is just canola with green dye in it. You can get good California or Italian olive oils for less than $10 a pint.]
Medium yellow onion sliced thinly
2 stalks celery sliced thinly [Non-classical suggestion: celery leaves add great flavor to a lot of things so you might chop up a few and put them in too.]
A big eggplant, diced, with the skin left on. [Try to get a young, shiny, solid-feeling, dense eggplant - they have fewer seeds and a milder taste. I got a really good one today - probably from Mexico this time of year. Some people will tell you that male eggplants have fewer seeds and can be identified by a certain shape of the end, but this is not true. Eggplants don't have a gender.]
8 oz can tomato sauce
14 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1-2 tsp. sugar
1/2 cup pitted green olives. [You can use a Sicilian olive called a castelveltrano, or just regular Spanish green olives]
2 Tbsp. capers

Saute the celery and onion in the oil about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the eggplant and saute another 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and tomatoes and let simmer under low-med heat, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar, one tsp of sugar, the olives and capers, and let simmer another 10 minutes. The fussy cooking times have to do with getting the texture of the different ingredients right. Let cool and add salt, pepper and a little more sugar if you want, to taste. Then store it cold, overnight if you can. You would normally eat it at room temperature, as a starter or on bread, but it's OK to warm it a little.

Another famous Sicilian recipe is braciole ("brazhool" in dialect.) I'll do that one in a future post, but it's so typically Sicilian, it's good illustration of what I wrote above. In Sicily (and much of Italy for that matter) most people could afford very little meat, and what there was, was bad.  So they took a tough old piece of beef, sliced it thin, and rolled and stuffed it with chopped-up boiled egg, salami, cheese, and - yes - raisins.  You would eat it like a meatball or sausage link, with spaghetti. A couple hours simmering in sauce and it tastes like high-class food.







Friday, March 31, 2017

Greatest Birthday Gift Ever

For my birthday this year, my wife is giving me a truly incredible gift.

Our society now accepts that people can choose their own gender and even invent new ones. While some may find this confusing and even upsetting, change always brings opportunity.

Over the next 12-18 months, with the moral and most importantly financial support of my wife, I will be transitioning from a man into a MAN. A MAN is a gender I invented that is like a regular man, only more so. A MAN has twice the manliness of a man. Let me explain what will happen on this exciting journey.

I will undergo hormone and steroid enhancement resulting in a Neanderthal-like appearance, including profuse body hair, except that the top of my head will go completely bald. Then, I will be fitted with a custom robotic exoskeleton nearly 12 feet tall (2x average male height). Its hydraulic actuators will double my strength-to-weight ratio even as I take on colossal dimensions. It is expected that I will be able to dead-lift one metric ton, run as fast as an automobile, and hammer an 8-penny nail with my bare hands. My diet will consist solely of whiskey and the reddest meat I can kill. I will dress in canvas bib overalls and my enormous, heavy-browed Neanderthal head will be crowned by a cowboy hat approximately three feet in diameter.

But that is not all. I have also begun cognitive-behavioral MAN therapy to exaggerate my typically male intellectual and emotional traits. I will lose the ability to express myself verbally and, by 2018, will communicate only through numbers, equations, graphs and various grunts and bodily eructations. During “very special” sitcom episodes, instead of responding with sympathy toward the characters’ plight, I will chuckle. I will lose the ability to remember anniversaries and birthdays, but this would not matter, as despite my new MANly physical abilities, I will be unable to approach the greeting card aisle. It is one of the few physical acts a MAN cannot do. 

Politically, I will adopt views slightly to the right of Nathan Bedford Forrest. I will be joining the Marine Corps as its oldest recruit, and expect to complete basic training and Navy Seal training in two months, after which I will ask to be deployed to Mosul on a nation-wrecking mission, even though Mosul is not even in a naval theater of operations. I will engage in a program of cultural appropriation, microaggressions and violent mayhem the likes of which have not been seen outside a Quentin Tarantino film. 

While my new gender assignment may seem to imply multiple female partners, as a gesture of appreciation for her financial support of my transition, I will remain married only to my wife. She is woman enough even for a MAN. However, much as Bruce Jenner has done, I will take on a new name more reflective of my identity. Starting today, please refer to me as Hercules Rocksplitter. 

They say it takes a real man to show emotion, but that's just a bunch of headshrinker horseshit from 1973. (This was covered in my first session of MAN therapy in those exact words.)  So I won't be expressing any overt gratitude for your embrace of my new identity. You will have to accept stony silence and offers to help you move your refrigerator using my Dodge Ram 3500 with Cummins Turbodiesel engine as my way of saying thank you. I must wrap up for now because I'm attending a nostalgia screening of Patton later on. It's a great movie but I always thought he went a little soft on his guys in that speech before the big battle. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sandwich Recipe So Good It Should Be Illegal

Sticking with my resolution not to post anything political.

Take about a pound and a half of pork chops, bones removed. Pork loin will also work but you have to slice it into flats so it can be browned in a pan. Sprinkle them generously with salt and pepper, and brown on both sides in a couple tablespoons of olive oil over high heat in a heavy skillet. Try not to overcook them - a very slight pinkness in the center is perfect. Remove from the pan.

Then mince all together:

half a medium-sized yellow onion
a cup of pitted Kalamata olives (Note: If Kalamata olives are too strong for you, substitute regular canned olives for half the cup or more. But you really should use at least some Kalamatas.)
three cloves garlic

Add 1/3 cup of a good olive oil (doesn't have to be extra virgin) to the pan, then fry the olive mixture until the onion is turning clear.

While it's cooking, slice the pork thinly and add to the pan. Cook everything together for a couple minutes, again not overdoing the meat, to make the sandwich filling.

At this point you can cool the filling and save it in the refrigerator overnight, which will make it even better, or just go straight to the sandwich now.

Slice a good baguette lengthwise and spread half the filling on each side. Bake at 300 degrees until the bread is crisp, just a few minutes. You want to bake the bread with the filling on it so that the oil soaks down into the bread. Put the two halves together and cut into individual sandwiches.

This would probably also be good with mozzarella cheese and/or banana pepper rings on it, but I haven't tried that yet. Enjoy!






Monday, January 30, 2017

Orange Juice Pie Recipe

You probably thought this was a fake title to get you to read another crackpot political screed, but no, this post is really a pie recipe.

I've always liked lemon pie and key lime pie, and wondered if other citrus fruits would work too. Well, oranges do! But orange juice is a lot sweeter and less tart than lemon or lime juice, so you can't just go swapping out lemon juice for orange juice on a one-to-one basis. You would end up with essentially a very watery sugar pie.

Here's how I made an orange juice pie that has good consistency and lots of orange flavor.

1 completely baked and cooled 9-inch pie shell. My wife makes an excellent pie crust from the basic Cook's Illustrated recipe and that's what we used here. If you really want to go hardcore, make a lard-based crust.

Filling

2 c. orange juice. Plain old from-concentrate juice will work fine; the juice is going to get cooked anyway, so don't mess around with fresh-squeezed or premium.

3/4 c. white granulated sugar

1/4 c. cornstarch

1/8 tsp. salt

6 large egg yolks (Save the whites if you want to make meringue)

Zest of a medium orange. A microplane is the best tool for zesting. Only scrape off the outer orange stuff, not the inner white stuff.

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

In a heavy saucepan, bring 1 1/2 c. of the juice, plus the sugar, cornstarch and salt to a simmer (very slowly bubbling) over medium heat, whisking constantly. The mixture will eventually thicken and expand. When this happens, whisk in the egg yolks, two at a time. Then whisk in the orange zest, the butter and the remaining 1/2 c. of juice. Whisk as much as you think you need to, then whisk some more, or else you'll get lumps. As soon as the butter is melted and the mixture slightly bubbles again, remove from heat and pour into the pie shell. Cover with plastic wrap and let cool to room temperature on the counter, then chill in the refrigerator for about an hour and a half.

If you like meringue, top with meringue and finish with a torch or under the broiler. If you use the broiler to singe the meringue, you'll probably have to put the pie back in the refrigerator for a little while to chill it back down.

If it's for a party or a contest or something, use a sharp knife to peel off some skinny strips of orange peel and garnish the top of the pie with it.

I took a picture of my pie, but it's the day after it was made and it's mostly eaten and kind of beat up, so I'm not posting it. The pie looks pretty much exactly like you would expect. Any kind of citrus pie really needs to be eaten within 24 hours or else the meringue starts to weep and the filling gets syrupy.