Book Report: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada

Good writing can help your work's longevity. But it doesn't fix everything. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada is a well-written book. It's from 1872. Charles King was a good writer. But... it was 1872.

Back then, there weren't way too many color photos of Yosemite cheaply availableto the public. So if you were writing about the Sierra Nevada mountains, you felt obliged to describe them, you know, verbally. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but back then, pictures were expensive... so it was cost-effective for a writer to write a thousand words. So the present-day reader finds himself slogging through piles of verbal description, muttering "Yeah, you like the mountains, it's okay we understand."

Also, back then racism was pretty normal. It's tough to read what King wrote about some people of his day. He wasn't mean-spirited. But he was wrong. He didn't like Chinese cooking. I thought back to Chinese immigration in Texas, German immigration to Texas, and how El Paso food turned out so bad compared to that of San Francisco. But it was a near thing. What if more Californians had listened to Charles King?

But if you can get past that, there are some good parts.

There was no foothold above us. Looking down over the course we had come, it seemed, and I really believe it was, an impossible descent; for one can climb upward with safety where he cannot go downward. To turn back was to give up in defeat; and we sat at least half an hour, suggesting all possible routes to the summit, accepting none, and feeling disheartened.

Now I don't feel so bad about falling down while stumbling down some trails I'd had no trouble climbing up.

On history of architecture versus geology:

In the much discussed origin of this order of building [Gothic], I never remember to have seen, though it can hardly have escaped mention, any suggestion of the possibility of the Gothic having been inspired by granite forms. Yet, as I sat on Mount Tyndall, the whole mountains shaped themselves like the ruins of cathedrals,--sharp roof-ridges, pinnacled and statued; buttresses more spired and ornamented than Milan's; receding doorways with pointed arches carved into blank façacdes of granite, doors never to be opened, innumerable jutting points with here and there a single cruciform peak, its frozen roof and granite spires so strikingly Gothic I cannot doubt that the Alps furnished the models for early cathedrals of that order.

He visited the top of Yosemite falls in October, as did I, and his experience was similar:

In this strange, vacant, stone corridor, this pathway for the great Yosemite torrent, this sounding-gallery of thunderous tumult, it was a strange sensation to stand, looking in vain for a drop of water, listening vainly, too, for the faintest whisper of sound, and I found myself constantly expecting some sign of the returning flood.

I bought this book because I was in Yosemite and found out that my mobile phone's data connection wouldn't work there. This book spared me some hours of boredom. It has its good parts. And if some parts haven't aged so well... It's a good thing for a reader of any time to remember to keep his wits about him as he reads.

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Link: Two Narrow Establishments in the Inner Sunset

My neighborhood has a hot dog shack: Underdog. It's at around 18th Ave and Irving. I like it, and suspect that my foodie friends might like it, too. They might not trust my judgement, of course. I've mentioned that since becoming a vegetarian, I don't miss meat--but I do miss the taste of preservatives from hot dogs. But that's not why I like this particular place. Underdog has organic hot dogs and sausages. They also have a few varieties of vegetarian 'dogs to choose from; so far, my favorite is the Polish. Usually, I shop in the evening, after work. The place isn't so busy then, and so far I've been able to snag one of the place's two tables each time. Yes, just two tables. The building is narrow. Somehow it feels cozy instead of claustrophobic.

A couple of blocks away, a new cafe opened up, Hollow. My friend 'Lene posted a list of her favorite cafes. She mentioned that she liked Ritual coffee. So I went to the Ritual homepage to see what places served their coffee. They mentioned one nearby that was opening soon. I gambled that the Ritual folks maybe don't update their pages very often, and sure enough Hollow had opened. Another small space with just a couple of tables. I liked it. Maybe living in my teeny, tiny apartment made me appreciate these spaces?

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Book Report: On Food and Cooking

Here is the recipe I follow for tamales: 1. remove two tamales from package. 2. place in pot with steamer rack 3. place on high heat 4. get distracted by computer stuff, lose track of time 4. when apartment is full of smoke, the tamales are done. Remove from heat and hold out window. 5. remove tamales from corn husks, cover with salsa, and serve.

My cooking skills have atrophied in recent years.

I think that explains why I didn't finish reading McGee's On Food and Cooking. The parts that I read were pretty interesting! (Usually when I don't finish a book, it's because I was bored.) I read the chapter about dairy products. It discussed the history of humanity's use of animal milk. It was fascinating. It discussed the chemical transformations by which cream turns into whipped cream and other delights. That was fascinating, too.

But when I tried to remember these things a few hours later, they'd already leaked out of my brain. There were parts of my brain that were once dedicated to thinking about cooking, I'm sure. So I could, say, sit down to surf the web but a couple of neurons would keep track: has it been 15 minutes since you set that stuff cooking? Those neurons went away; I lose track of time. I recommend this book for most people, but it wasn't for me.

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Site Update: Food Photos

That day when I ate at all of the cafeterias at work (a few weeks ago), I brought along a camera, yay! Uhm, but I ran out of batteries early on and I hadn't brought any spares, whoops. So I emerged with only four photos. Ideally, I would have emerged with many many photos and chosen the best four. Ah well. Nevertheless, these photos do bring back memories. I look at them and I feel so full. Then again, maybe that's because I just ate some tamales. And some bread dipped in olive oil. And a couple of carrots.

It's like I'm in training for when the 18th cafeteria comes along.

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Not-exactly Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere

Item: Saturday, I wanted to vote, so I walked through the Haight and down to City Hall. In the Haight, I noticed some young folks in matching t-shirts scurrying around. So I observed and eavesdropped. It was Cal Berkeley students, doing some sort of a hunt. I think it was called something like the "Bear Hunt". But it didn't look puzzly. It looked like they were just getting riddly clues that would point them at some storefront. Bah. I wasn't interested. But there was another batch of students with similar t-shirts close to city hall. Was this a city-wide hunt? I don't know. I kinda stopped paying attention when it looked like there weren't puzzles.

Item: In theory, Ravenchase held a treasure hunt in San Francisco on October 20. I exchanged mail w/someone from Ravenchase a while back--I volunteered to playtest their puzzles for the then-planned SF hunt. And they wrote back. But they didn't write back w/a playtest. And their hunt doesn't seem to have generated any blog items or any entries on their forum.

Item: My challenge for today was nothing to do with puzzles. I ate at 17 cafeterias. That's all of my employer's cafeterias in Mountain View, CA. And then I went back to one of them for dessert. I was done by 1pm, but at least one person was faster than I was.

Item: In hindsight, this blog post doesn't have much substance, not much of interest to most of this blogs' readers. I'm sorry, but I'm really too full to do anything about that now.

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Link: Steven Pitsenbarger on Anthotypes

Steven Pitsenbarger writes about making pictures of plants from their own juices.

And that, children, is why you should never leave your salad out in the sunlight all day. It will become part of your salad plate forever! Especially if you accidentally reduced most of it to concentrated pigment earlier. Don't do that. You should eat the salad instead. It's good for you.

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Book Report: Lunch Lessons

Those Debian install CDs showed up. Fortunately, I have two computers. So here I sit, typing on the laptop-- uhm, excuse me. OK, I'm back. Here I sit on the laptop, occasionally pausing to swap CDs, hunching over the drive and-- uhm, excuse me. Hmm, errors processing libc6. That sounds bad. It didn't like the libc6 that I downloaded, didn't like the one from the CD-ROM. Hmm, that seems bad. Man, I hate computers. Let's talk about a book instead. Let's talk about Lunch Lessons.

This book was good. But it was not aimed at me. I was reading the wrong book.

This book, by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes, is about nutrition and sustainable food, applying good food techniques to school lunches. I wasn't the person who should be reading it--it's preaching to the converted.

I was hoping the book would have anecdotes about introducing healthy food to kids raised on junk food, how they were brought around. I thought I saw some magazine article about that... I forget who wrote it. I guess when I heard about this book Lunch Lessons, I assumed that magazine article was promoting this book. How many people could be out there, writing about school lunches, right?

This book didn't have much in the way of anecdotes. It had sound advice. I read it through. But if I'd had another book in my backpack, I don't know that I would have finished it. Oh, I didn't finish it, not really. A lot of it was kid-friendly nutritious recipes. I don't have kids and I don't cook, so I skipped that part. And then I was done with that book, and I was still on the bus and the bus was still in South San Francisco and I had nothing to read. Watch out for those recipes--they'll make you think that it will take a while to read this book, that you won't need another book for your commute. But you'll be wrong and bored in South San Francisco.

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Book Report: Dishwasher

Dave Hill wrote in to say that he'd been reading some of my old web pages. (He didn't say so, but he probably started browsing because he was hoping to see some kind of writeup about the the No More Secrets Game. I finally got a chance to play in a Game with Dave Hill! In the No More Secrets Game! So there should be a writeup! Which I'm working on. Slowly. Well, which I'm slowly procrastinating on.) Specifically, he wrote to say that he'd met Dishwasher Pete. This just goes to show that while I have some book learning, Dave Hill has genuine punk cred.

Yesterday, as part of my strict procrastination regimen, I went to the comic store. There on the shelf was Dishwasher, the new book by Dishwasher Pete. I read it this morning, couldn't put it down. I was staying by the phone, wondering if the BATH3 organizers were going to tell me what I'm doing next weekend, if I should buy a sleeping bag or what... Anyhow, I sat and read. This is the guy with the quest to wash dishes in all 50 states. He wrote a zine about dishwashing with neat asides about labor history. Then the zine stopped. So you might be wondering what happened with the quest? Well, he met this nice girl, and wanted to settle down, so the quest turned into kind of a sprint and...

But that is not the point. The point is that I got into reading the 'zine late in its run, and I didn't know about the early years. This book filled me in on that time. There are other dishwashers who taught Pete secrets of the trade. There are good things in Portland, OR. There are... Look, just go read the darned thing.

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Book Report: BAE05: Ellen Ullman's "Dining with Robots"

The Best American Essays 2005 contains two essays which pay homage to the then recently-deceased chef Julia Child. One of them is by Ellen Ullman. Ellen Ullman is a geek; she writes about software development; here in the essay "Dining with Robots" she writes about a clunky metaphor. When she was learning to write computer programs, she heard this metaphor; when I was learning to code, I heard this metaphor. Maybe it's universal. The metaphor is this:

A computer program is like a recipe. It's a set of instructions.

Ellen Ullman points out that this metaphor doesn't work when you look at a recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking--she looks at a recipe that mentions "important guests" and "a good bordeaux". These are real-world concepts, not easily expressed as computer data structures.

This leads Ms. Ullman to some musing on the topic: AI is a hard problem. More specifically, creating artificial intelligence that will interact with humans is a hard problem. But she wrote this article for non-technical people, so she doesn't talk about various past AI techniques which flopped. Instead, she talks about the peculiarly human thinking we do automatically at a dinner party: sitting in a chair, understanding the utility of an ice-cream spoon; tasting.

Then it gets weirder. What a fun essay.

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Book Report: Garlic and Sapphires

I am basically over my cold, but the sore throat remains. Thus, I wanted soup. Citrus Club, a soup place on the Haight, was closed. I guess they wanted to enjoy their holidays or something. So I did something I haven't done in a while--I bought groceries and cooked dinner, a big soup. It was an evening of sitting around and thinking about food. It was a good evening to read Garlic and Sapphires, a memoir of restaurant criticism.

What is the nature of the self? And how can we shape the self to enhance the ability to experience some of the best and/or fanciest of New York's restaurants?

Ruth Reichl worked a stint as restaurant critic at the New York Times. The restauranteurs knew she was coming, were looking out for her. She quickly figured out that this would heisenbergly prevent her from being a good critic. Restaurant proprietors would trot out the best food, the best service for the Times Critic--better stuff than her audience could hope for.

So she donned disguises. She didn't just don disguises, she made up personalities and cloaked herself in them. She acted differently, moved differently, became a different person. But she seems to have snapped back to herself for a few seconds whenever an especially interesting taste hit her tongue.

If you've read one of her other memoirs, Close to the Bone or Comfort me with Apples, you will cringe when you hear the phrase "Ruth Reichl's mother." At one point, Ruth disguises herself as her mother. Then, posing as her mother, she treats the waitstaff badly.

It also talks wigs and chemotherapy. (This put me in mind of Twisty Faster, former restaurant critic and writer of I Blame the Patriarchy, currently undergoing chemo. Someone who didn't like Twisty dissed her criticism as controversial. Ruth Reichl says that a good critic is controversial. Therefore, Twisty Faster has gone about her life the correct way. Thus do I admire her even as I continue to oppress her in the framework of the patriarchy.) If you aren't a woman of a certain age and you enter a wig store, the propietor worries that you've got cancer. S/he doesn't normally think you just want a disguise. That's what's wrong with the world today: too many sick people, not enough superspies.

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Book Report: The Man Who Would Be King

A U.S.A. citizen went to Afghanistan and got mixed up in the local wars and politics. In the 1830s. This is his story. Ben MacIntyre wrote this book about Josiah Harlan, foreign meddler. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to have been a huge culture of journalism in 1830s Afghanistan, so much of the story relies on Harlan's own memoirs--and those parts aren't always self-consistent. So there are at least a few lies scattered about.

But it's a ripping yarn none-the-less. And it's nice to read about a time when Kabul had good fruits and veggies.

(This is not an example of light summer reading from the San Francisco Public Library. This is an example of spring reading from the U.C. Berkeley library. But I'm just now getting around to uploading the book report.)

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Book Report: Consider the Oyster

Holy moly, M.F.K. Fisher sure could write. I don't want to eat oysters, but I could read Fisher's writings about oysters all day. Except I can't really, because this was just a short little book. But it was full of poetry. Not poetry as in poems, those awful things. This was poetry as in prose that sings.

Apparently, she's a well-known food writer. I think I should seek out more of her stuff.

What would you do if you had a time machine? Some people would go back in time to kill Hitler. Some would visit with Buddha and ask for clarification on a few topics. Me, I would scoop up M.F.K Fisher and John McPhee and send them to an appropriate time so that they could write about the dawn of the Mission-style burrito.

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Book Report: Something From the Oven

Laura Shapiro wrote this awesome book about home cooking in 1950s USA. There are many interesting stories here. There is the tragic tale of Poppy Cannon who tried to convince the world that canned tomato soup was a good start towards a gazpacho--but the really tragic part was her personal life. There is the emergent persona of Betty Crocker, including Marjorie Child Husted, one of the main components of that persona. There are failed food industry campaigns--after the success of fish sticks, they tried to sell fried breaded everything.

There are many good stories in this book. You should read it. Ideally with the song "Betty Crocker, Punk Rocker" playing in the background. But if you can't swing that, don't let it stop you from reading this.

Also thanks to this book, I know I should check out some food writing by M.F.K. Fisher.

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