Friday, March 31, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2017

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump's America
Editors: Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians
via Amazon
We're living in interesting times.

My wife's most recent Family Book Swap book for me was What We Do Now, a collection of essays from a range of left-leaning leaders.  Included on the roster are current senators (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), a former cabinet secretary (Robert B. Reich), a Nobel laureate (Paul Krugman), leaders of powerful political organizations (David Cole and Cornell William Brooks) and even novelists (Dave Eggers and George Saunders).  Okay, so "left-leaning" is an understatement.  These are the true blues.  All write in response to the current liberal panic: how do we survive a Donald Trump presidency?

As a rule, I avoid discussing politics on the blog.  Here, as in the real world, it's an easy way to lose friends.  But we're living in interesting times and it's becoming darn near impossible to avoid discussing where we suddenly find ourselves on the American cultural journey.  For those of you who visit regularly, my own positions probably aren't too difficult to suss out, though I'm sure this post will resolve any lingering confusion.

The liberal objections to the rise of Trump are both numerous and obvious.  I think it's important, though, to delineate between objections to the Orange One himself and objections to policy shifts that would have occurred with any Republican victory in November.  Narcissism, paranoia, contempt for humanity, lack of experience: that's all Trump and frankly, there are plenty on the right who find those qualities just as terrifying as I do.  (Any bets on which Republican senator will ultimately take him down?  My money's on Lindsey Graham.)  Trump certainly owns the ridiculous Muslim ban, the stupid border wall, his attacks on the press and his way too cozy relationships with white supremacists.  But overturning Obamacare, backslides on race relations, LGBTQ rights, women's rights, climate change?  Those were likely with any White House party switch.

All of the book's essays are well-written.  Unfortunately, not all of them do genuinely offer constructive solutions.  There's a lot of admiring the problems.  Too many of the writers focus too much on their own areas of interest (though to be fair, that's probably exactly what the editors requested of them).  I can't say the book actually made me feel any better, though I do feel I have a better grasp of some of the issues.

I did have one important epiphany after reading: perhaps we, as liberals, have bigger problems than losing one election.  Maybe there are good reasons why our side lost and failing to attend to those matters is why we lost.

Clinton lost the election because she lost three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  The last Republican to win any of those three was George H.W. Bush in 1988.  The last to win all of them was Reagan in '84.  All three were close.  Trump won Pennsylvania by 68,236 votes, 1.2% of the votes cast.  Wisconsin: 27,257 votes, 1%.  Michigan: 13,080 votes, 0.3%.  All three states have been hit harder than most by the changes in industrial America over the past generation.  As Eggers pointed out in his piece, 110,000 voters in Michigan chose neither presidential candidate in 2016, twice as many as in 2012.  To be clear, these are not people who didn't vote at all.  These are people who dutifully filled out ballots, making their choices in statewide and local races, but left the Clinton/Johnson/Stein/Trump boxes blank.  110,000 people were so disgusted by the choices at the top of the ticket that they chose no one.  110,000 people felt that no candidate was doing anything to address their interests.  If 13,081 of them could have been convinced that Clinton was the best choice, she would have carried the state.

But it's not Clinton's fault.  It really isn't.  Yes, I know all the Bernie supporters (of which I was certainly one) say he would have won and maybe he would have but that's beside the point.  Those 110,000 people in Michigan are right to be disappointed with the Clintons and with the Democratic Party at large.  When you make free trade agreements that help the stockholders but screw the workers, you're going to pay for it at the ballot box.  Sure, the Republicans aren't really offering much help either but the Dems are supposed to be the pro-labor party.  For too many in this country, the Dems dropped the ball.  For those 110,000 people in Michigan and the thousands of others like them in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, etc., the lesser of two evils isn't good enough.  And it shouldn't be.

For me, it all boils down to this one simple truth: we, as an American society, are not good at dealing with poverty.  Americans see being poor as personal failure, not as an inescapable reality in an economy built on inequities.  We're great at scapegoating.  The inner cities would be better if there weren't so many poor people.  Let's gentrify!  Public schools can be saved by upper middle class parent involvement!  The far right blames minorities, immigrants and labor unions for the problems of the working poor.  Democrats blame Republicans, knowing full well their own campaign coffers are just as dependent on big-moneyed interests.  We on the left would rather blame Trump and what could only be his racist and misogynist supporters or question the validity of the Electoral College than own up to our shortcomings.

Meanwhile, poor people are left to wonder who the hell is actually going to help make their lives better.  No one does so they lose faith in the whole process.  Who can blame them?  Oh, that's right.  We do.  All the time.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post April's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is April 28th.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Clone Wars: Bound for Rescue

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Bound for Rescue"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 8
Original Air Date: November 16, 2012
via Wookieepedia
The Young Jedi arc continues, part three of four.  Ahsoka has been kidnapped by Hondo who apparently intends to sell her for profit.  The Younglings are now on their own with help from the Republic not forthcoming any time soon.  So, they set off to rescue Ahsoka on their own - foolhardy, to be sure, but how else is the story going to move forward?

What has been a strong arc so far, the story goes a bit off the rails as the Younglings join a traveling circus in order to infiltrate the pirate camp.  Now, I realize they have to get in somehow and Force-sensitive children as acrobats is certainly plausible.  It's just hokey.  This episode has a lot of strong elements nonetheless.  The Younglings finally succeed in assembling their lightsabers and the Wookiee Gungi's has a wooden handle - very cool.
Gungi's lightsaber via Wookieepedia
Petro is the hotshot bad boy of the Youngling crew.  He is a human from Corellia.  Hmm, a Corellian with a sneering, rebellious streak.  Where have we met one of those before?  Petro is voiced by Jeff Fischer.
Petro via Wookieepedia
Fischer was born in 1968 in the United States.  He has the usual long list of voiceover roles, most notably a character named after himself in American Dad!  Fischer is also a vintner.  His Habit Winery is based in Santa Barbara, California.
via American Dad Wiki

Next week: "A Necessary Bond."

Friday, March 24, 2017

Squid Eats: East West Cafe

via yelp
Saturday night was Vermont Symphony night for us.  We went to East West Cafe for our pre-concert dinner.  A relatively new Thai place in downtown Burlington, East West is tiny with seating room for maybe 15.  It's popular, too.  We had the place to ourselves when we arrived around six but it was full when we left, with a steady stream of take out customers, too. 

No wonder.  The food was great.  We shared gyoza and duck salad for appetizers.  I had pad kra pow for my main course.  They are not wimpy with the spices!  Mind you, I like heat but this was just short of painful.  I expect we'll definitely be back but I'll request medium spicy next time.  Of course, mango sticky rice for dessert makes everything better.

It was a nice concert, too: the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th, Beethoven's 2nd Piano Concerto and Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony.  The Mahler was especially lovely.  Joseph Kalichstein was the pianist for the Beethoven.  His is a wonderfully elegant touch.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Clone Wars: A Test of Strength

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "A Test of Strength"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 7
Original Air Date: November 9, 2012
via Wookieepedia
This week's featured episode is the second in a four-part arc following a group of Younglings in their Jedi training.  Having successfully found their Kyber crystals in the previous episode, they now receive instruction from the droid Huyang in how to assemble their lightsabers.  The similarities between Huyang's workshop and Ollivander's Diagon Alley wand shop assuaged my suspicions of a Rowling influence upon this story arc.

In fact, this episode represents a convergence of elements from several science fiction and fantasy idioms.  We've got the Potter thing going with the lightsabers/wands.  The ship they're traveling on gets boarded by Hondo and his band, bringing with them elements of Star Trek (Hondo's voice is modeled after Khan's) and, of course, good old-fashioned pirate tales.  There's one scene with a definite Monty Python flavor to it.  Plus, Huyang's voice seems awfully familiar...
via Wookieepedia
The saber builder droid is voiced by none other than David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor in the Doctor Who series.   Tennant was born David John McDonald on April 18, 1971 in Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland.   Tennant is a lifelong Whovian, first inspired to become an actor at age three because of the show.
via Wikipedia
At 16, he passed an audition for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to become one of their youngest students.  He already had a considerable resume by the time the Doctor gig came his way in 2005 including, wouldn't you know it, an appearance in a Harry Potter film: Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  He's got major Shakespeare cred, too.  With the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was Touchstone in As You Like It, Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors, Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.

Doctor Who was the big score.  The role catapulted Tennant to major, international superstardom.  He did plenty for the show, too, as he was easily the most popular Doctor since Tom Baker (#4).  Even two Doctors later, Tennant is still the Doctor for many Whovians, especially those who discovered the show in its 21st century relaunch.

Tennant won a Daytime Emmy for his performance as Huyang, the only acting Emmy for The Clone Wars.

Next week: "Bound for Rescue."

Friday, March 17, 2017

Squid Brews: Rooty Toot Root Beer

Ladies and gentlemen, we have root beer...

Yet another recipe from Homemade Soda by Andrew Schloss, this "Rooty Toot Root Beer" is quite intensely flavorful: not especially sweet, though.  My daughter, while she liked it, even described it as a little bitter.  For me, it was alright but not as satisfying as the orange honey ginger ale from a couple months back.  We still must see if it passes the ultimate root beer test: floats!

The carbonation process is a bit mysterious.  The way it's supposed to work, after you add the yeast and bottle, the plastic bottles sit for a few days.  You know the yeast has done its job when the bottles harden - and they're really supposed to be rock hard.  That worked beautifully for the ginger ale but not as well this time.  They were harder after a few days but not quite what I expected.  I saw bubbles, though, so I figured the soda was, in fact, carbonating.  Once the bottles harden, they go in the fridge for a week to slow the carbonation down.  I took a chance and put them in, hopefully not prematurely.

I needn't have worried.  The bottles were downright explosive when I opened them.  I don't know if it's worth looking into reducing the carbonation.  I have the same issue with the beer.  The mess is a drawback, of course, but I also regret losing so much of the liquid to foam.  On the other hand, I don't exactly understand all of the microbiological processes involved so perhaps best not to tinker until I learn more.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Gathering

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "The Gathering"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 6
Original Air Date: November 2, 2012
via Wikipedia
To kick off a new four-part arc, we are introduced to a group of Younglings (including a Wookiee - huzzah!) about to embark upon a crucial step in their training.  They must build their own lightsabers.  Ahsoka brings them to the planet Ilum where Yoda sends them into their Crystal Caves to find the Kyber crystals they will need.  Just as with the wands at Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, each crystal is Jedi-specific so each Youngling must find his/her match.  Naturally, each must overcome his or her own personal weaknesses to fulfill the quest.

This is not the first time I have sensed J.K. Rowling's influence on The Clone Wars and, knowing something of what's coming as we near the home stretch, I expect it won't be the last.  It's hardly surprising, perhaps even inevitable.  Hogwarts has been one of the most powerful forces in pop culture over the past 20 years, arguably attaining Star Wars-like status.  A nod to the Potterverse is appropriate, even if unintentional.  If anything, I'd love to see more of this idea in science fiction.  I have long thought that Star Trek, for instance, would do well to create a series set at Starfleet Academy.
via Wookieepedia
Katooni is a female Tholothian Youngling.  In the cave, she must overcome her fear of heights to get her crystal.  She is voiced by Olivia Hack.
via Hey Arnold Wiki
Hack was born June 16, 1983 in Beverly Hills, California.  She started young in the business, getting her first commercial spot when she was eight months old.  She is best known as the voice of Rhonda Wellington Lloyd in Hey Arnold! and as a highly authentic Cindy Brady in the Brady Bunch films.

Next week: "A Test of Strength."

Friday, March 10, 2017

Squid Eats: Montreal 2017

A couple weeks ago, our family made its annual winter trip to Montreal, just a two-hour drive from our home in northwest Vermont.  For me, the highlight of these visits is nearly always the food.  One of the world's great cultural crossroads, Montreal boasts top-notch restaurants across a broad range of cuisines.  Here are a few of my favorites among our new discoveries:
  • La Taberna - Potuguese - Chicken piri-piri is the star of the menu. 
    The bird is perfectly cooked and had us plotting future visits.  It's Montreal so, of course, the restaurant offers its own version of poutine featuring said chicken.  We didn't try it but we will next time.  They offer pastéis de natas: lovely but overpriced.  There are more reasonable Portuguese bakeries in town, including the one I wrote about here.
  • Otto - Japanese - There are a couple aspects of Japanese culture that I will miss for the rest of my life: good train service and great bars.  Izakayas are magical places for me and North America facsimiles rarely live up to my memories of the real thing.  Otto comes pretty darn close.  For starters, it smells right.  The music's a little loud but the food's great and not outrageously priced at all.  Kawa (chicken skin) yakitori was my favorite, not included in the photo as we'd already gobbled it up before we thought to take pictures.
  • Mei Yuan - Chinese - Our daughter loves dumplings of all varieties so we generally try to find at least one good dumpling restaurant when we travel.  Mei Yuan has many to offer, including soup pork dumplings.  My favorite was the curry dumplings, a little soupy themselves and yummy.
  • Café Reine Garçon - café - True to its French roots, Montreal has a thriving café culture.  There are Starbucks around, though they seem more than a little silly with so many high-quality local options.  Café Reine Garçon was right around the corner from our hotel, a delightful spot for breakfast.  The offerings are simple and wonderful.  I had the smoked salmon bagel and pain chocolat both mornings we went.
And yes, we did find a few things to do between meals.  Our top museum discovery was the Stewart Museum which focuses on Montreal history, particularly the early European influence.  The current featured exhibit is called Curiosities, basically an organization of various smaller items from the museum's collection in "cabinets of curiosities."  Lots of fun.

We also attended part of the String Quartet Marathon held as part of the city's Montréal en Lumière festival.  The group we saw was quite capable, though the selections a bit too modern for our tastes, even our daughter who likes the weirder stuff.  Modern string music is interesting for its exploration of the full instrument, using harmonics and other unusual techniques.  Three of the composers were in attendance, too, which is always fun.  But afterwards, I could have used a heavy dose of Vivaldi to bring me back to equilibrium.

As always, we were sad to leave but happy to get home.  We'll be back.  There's talk of gathering the family in Montreal for Christmas, in fact.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Lee Lowenfish

Title: Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman
Author: Lee Lowenfish
via Amazon
It's no stretch to say that Branch Rickey was one of the most important figures in the history of baseball, particularly among executives.  He will always be best remembered as the man who signed Jackie Robinson, thus paving the way for integration.  However, his contributions extend far beyond that one extraordinary moment.  As general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919-1942, he developed a farm system of minor league teams, the first of its kind in baseball.  His idea of using affiliated teams as a development system for players contracted to the major league club has since become standard practice, even spreading to hockey and, more recently, basketball.  I knew both of those things before reading Lowenfish's book.

What I didn't know was Rickey's role in advancing Major League expansion beyond the original 16 teams.  It's worth noting, however, that he didn't get quite what he wanted in that instance.  He wanted to start a new eight-team circuit, the Continental League, for which he would have been president.  While that didn't pan out, the pressure exerted by Rickey and his backers did force the existing leagues to expand.

Lowenfish's biography is certainly thorough, covering all 83 years of Rickey's life over 598 pages.  Glimpses of baseball history are always fun for me and in particular, I learned a lot about the politics around expansion that I didn't know before.  Following the sport from an executive's perspective is certainly different from the player view one usually gets in biographies.  As can be expected of a book of such length and breadth, the text does frequently get bogged down in details - there's no way I was going to remember all of the players mentioned, for instance, apart from the most colorful superstars.  Lowenfish's overuse of words like paterfamilias suggest that more heavy-handed editing might have been in order, too.  The writer does lapse into hero worship from time to time, always a danger with biographies, but he succeeds in providing a multi-dimensional view of the subject.

Overall, Branch Rickey is an engaging book that reads surprisingly quickly.  I don't know if it holds much interest for anyone not already a baseball fan but I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Clone Wars: Tipping Points

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Tipping Points"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 5
Original Air Date: October 27, 2012
via Wookieepedia
The four-part Onderon civil war arc concludes this week.  There are several interesting developments, though not all of them can be shared just yet.  In less spoilery news, Hondo shows up again and serves an important narrative purpose, too.

The Onderon arc has quite a lot going for it.  It revives the interesting Ahsoka/Lux Bonteri relationship.  It introduces Saw Gerrera, who resurfaces in Rogue One.  Most importantly for the series, it provides essential character development for Ahsoka in regards to her loyalties.  Most importantly for the franchise, it supplies an early history for the Rebel Alliance.  Not bad for 92 minutes of material.
Dendup image via Wookieepedia
Ramsis Dendup is Onderon's true king and the rebels fight on his behalf to oust the pretender, Sanjay Rash.  This arc is Dendup's only appearance in the series.  Dendup is voiced by Barry Dennen.
Dennen image via Muppet Wiki
Dennen was born February 22, 1938 in Chicago and his career path is one of most interesting I have come across.  He dated Barbra Streisand for three years in the early '60s and helped her to develop the nightclub act that started it all.  He spent years doing stage work in London, including the master of ceremonies role in Cabaret.  He also played Mendel in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof.  His best known role is that of Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar on the original album, in the Broadway production and on screen.  In addition to Clone Wars, he has voice credits on The Dark Crystal, DuckTales, Batman: The Animated Series, Animaniacs and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Next week: "The Gathering."

Friday, March 3, 2017

Squid Brews: Mosaic Single Hop IPA

This was actually my fourth time making my own beer, though it's been a few years.  To this point, I have only used mixes, all from Brooklyn Brew Shop.  This time, it was the Mosaic Single Hop IPA.  The beer turned out just fine but I won't kid you, making beer is a royal pain, especially in comparison to making soda.  Admittedly, most of the process involves waiting: waiting for water to boil, waiting for the brew, waiting for fermentation, waiting for carbonation, etc.  But transferring liquid from one vessel to another is always a hassle, especially bottling.  Again, the beer is good but is all the effort worth it?  Even if I had better equipment?

I do live in a land of fantastic beer.  Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state in the USA and most of the product is top-notch.  Is it worth making my own if I can easily pick up something better at the local store?  The soda I recently made, on the other hand, was much better than anything I've ever bought and that was on the first try.

My wife is the one who has encouraged me to try brewing my own and is willing to invest in better gear.  After all, she reasons, I really like beer - true.  She suggests, however, that I should get away from the mixes and make them from scratch.  I do have a couple books with recipes.  I'll give the idea some thought.