Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Zucchini fritters w/ beetroot salad


Yum yum. Nice summery dinner here.

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3 or 4 large-ish zucchini (or courgette, as they say on the continent)
1 wedge of fetta, small cubes
half a bunch of dill, chopped finely
1 or 2 corn cobs, just cut the kernels off
1 crushed clove of garlic
3 eggs
roughly 100-150 grams flour (you'll be eyeballing this)
pinch of baking powder

Grate the zucchini up, then squeeze the ever-loving shit out of it. You want to get as much fluid out as you can. Dump it in a bowl with the fetta, dill, corn, garlic and eggs. Give it a stir, then start stirring in flour and baking powder. You want it reasonably soft - think gloopy playdough. Remember: you can always add more if it's too soft, but there's no going back if you put in too much. Fritters should be egg-y, and springy, not chewy and dry.

Shape into patties and fry in some extra virgin olive oil on a medium heat for about 4 minutes on each side, until browned and yummy. Delicious!

Very simple salad:

1 beetroot, grated
pack of mesclun +a small cos or whatever you want
1 cucumber, sliced
just a little bit of chopped salad onion, or some shallots, something for a little bite.
olive oil
vinegar

Grate the beetroot, toss through the salad with the onion and cucumber. Dress it with just a little bit of extra virgin olive oil and a splash of raspberry vinegar (or you could go with lemon for something more pedestrian!). Simple, but sets off the fritters very nicely.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Frittata with orange salad


There are a few meals that regular appear in our summer menu - the weather calls for salads. Tarts, pasta with acidic, salsa-like sauces and frittata.

What's not to love about frittata? An eggy, cheesy base that marries with almost anything; a meal that is equally good hot or cold; a meal you can prepare quickly, cooks in several different ways, and you can leave alone until it's ready. Fantastic.


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This particular Fritta used:

3 or 4 waxy potatoes like desire, sliced
10-12 eggs (it was a big 'un!)
1/4 of a spanish onion, chopped
8-12 cloves of garlic, chopped
a small handful of grated parmesan
200 mls or more of milk
some semi-dried tomatoes
some kalamata olives
a bunch of continental parsley, chopped
a bunch of rocket, chopped

But you can put anyhting in a frittata, really, that's the beauty of it!

So, slice your potatoes thinly. Put a layer of potatoes across the bottom of a non-stick pan. In a bowl, combine eggs, garlic, onion, milk, 2/3 of the cheese, semi-dried tomatoes, olives, parsley, and rocket. Whisk it a little, then pour about 3/4 over the potatoes.

Spread another layer of potatoes on top, then pour over the rest of the mix + rest of the cheese. You may need to top up with more eggs + milk whisked together. Don't stress it, just keep adding until the mixture is over the final layer of potatoes.

Traditionally at this point you'd slap that puppy on a hot plate, but because I make such large frittatas and I prefer a little consistency, I actually put it in an oven pre-heated to 180 then forget about for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the size.

Meanwhile, you can make this delicious salad, courtesy of Jamie Oliver, with a few additions:

1 summer bulb of fennel
1 red onion
1 cucumber
1 bunch of rasdishes
4 oranges, peeled, segmented and cubed
Some radicchio and other lovely italian leaves
2 tsb of nice vinegar (I used walnut vinegar)
6 tbs olive oil

Basically slice everything except the lettuce and orange as thinly as possible, as cold as possible without freezing. Mix it all (except lettuce) together, then mix up your vinaigrette, dress the salad a little and taste (you might want more vinegar, I did). Put the slicey goodness on a bed of the lettuce and you're done!

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Braised fennel & artichoke Salad, with warm lentil tabbouleh and Lemon Thyme Tea


Yup, I'm back. Got something to write about again, to wit; our slow but sure move to eating little but vegetarian at home. Lynn and I have always eaten 3-4 vegetarian meals a week, but as this year has progressed, I have been pushing that number higher and higher for health, environmental, and ethical reasons. So I'll be posting up my vegetarian recipes here.

First entry (and last of 2009!) is a doozy: two beautiful warmish salads, and a great summer drink.

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Braised Artichoke & Fennel Salad with Potato

  • Olive oil
  • 1 bulb baby fennel, sliced
  • 1 small bottle of baby artichoke
  • 4 small, waxy potatoes such as Desiree, sliced
  • a bitter salad mix
  • salt for seasoning
Put a dash of olive oil into your pan, followed by the fennel, saute is _gently_. Meanwhile, heat a small pot with boiling water and add the potatoes. Rinse the salad with water and set aside.

Once the fennel has browned nicely on both sides (about 10 minutes), take the pan off the heat. Drain the potatoes and set aside, then tip the fennel into the now-empty pot. Add the entire bottle of artichoke hearts, then put it back on a low heat, with the lid slightly ajar.

After 5-10 minutes, take the lid off and let the liquid evaporate. Once it's nearly dry, plate your salad mix, then mix the potatoes in with fennel and artichoke, and spread the mix over the leaves. Garnish with tips from the fennel bulb.

Warm Lentil Tabbouleh with Fetta

  • scallions (shallots to us Aussies), finely chopped
  • 6-8 garlic cloves (or more, woo!), finely chopped
  • 1 can green or "puy" lentils, drained
  • 1 slice of fetta, cubed
  • a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • salt and pepper for seasoning
Heat a pan to low, add a dash of extra virgin olive oil. Add the scallions and garlic, some salt and pepper, and saute _gently_ for 5 minutes or until translucent. Add the lentils and stir the mixture for 3-5 minutes. Once it's nice and warm, add the fetta and parsley. You're done!



Lemon Thyme Tea
This is really, really good. Delicous! The perfect thing for a summer arvo.

  • half a bunch of lemon thyme (the younger the better), chopped
  • a decent glop of honey (maybe 2 tbs? maybe 3?)
  • juice of two limes
  • juice of one lemon
Put all the ingredients in a teapot. Add boiling water. Let steep for at least five minutes. Fill a glass with ice, add the tea. And enjoy. You will.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Pappa al Pomodoro e' Pasta Zucca


Italian bread tomato soup and pumpkin pasta. A nice meal tonight, just as well because I suspect the freestyled semolina bread I have rising in the oven will not have been a good experiment. In my opinion, semolina breads just take so damn long to proof, I always underestimate, especially when using a levain. Anyway.

Pappa al Pomodoro
  • ripe roma or any other kind of tomato
  • basil
  • 400g tin of tomatoes - chopped, dice, wholepeeled: it don't matter.
  • five cloves of garlic (or more! I usually go to town!), thinly slice
  • olive oil
  • water
  • preferably stale bread - roughly 400gms, but don't be too obsessed about it.
Slice the romas in half, season them, tear in some basil, drizzle on some olive oil, and into a 180' oven for 20-25 minutes. Meanwhile, fry off the garlic and the chopped stalks of the basil, after a few minutes, add the tin of tomatoes, plus a tin full of water. Boil it for 15-20 minutes. Add the bread, torn into small chunks. and simmer for another ten minutes or so, and then add the tomatoes from the oven, plus some more torn basil. Garnish with a little cracked pepper, maybe some parmesan - delicious!

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Pasta Zucca (Creamy Pumpkin Pasta
)

There's some carbonara elements to this, smooth, and subtler than you might think.
  • four drumsticks
  • a small butternut pumpkin half
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 4 small onions, or two big ones
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh oregano
  • small container of light cream
  • two medium eggs
  • 40 grams or thereabouts parmesan
  • a sploosh of dry white
  • Whatever pasta takes your fancy
Dice the pumpkin into finger sized segments, cut the onions into wedges, then combine them with the chicken, garlic, 3/4 of the oregano, salt and pepper, and olive oil, and bung it in a 180' oven for 20 minutes or so.

Put your pasta on now if it takes more than ten minutes to cook.

When the chicken is cooked, scrape the meat from the bone (skin is up to you, I didn't use it), and chuck into a pot with the rest of the oven mix, and put it on a low heat after giving it a vigorous stir witha fork (we're trying to break up some of the pumpkin here).

Add the cream, eggs and parmesan. More vigorous stirring (now we're trying to mix up that egg and cream).

After it has mixed, add a sploosh of white wine to taste. Don't let it get too hot!

Spoon it into the pasta - it's rich, so don't go nuts. In my opinion, people tend to oversauce their pasta in general. Garnish with the remaining oregano. Yum yum!

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

I christen thee Bake-Tacular



Ahhhh. Experiments. Sometimes they go right. Right = Happy Paddy. Prancing about the lounge, lovingly gazing at my creations, and hopelessly covetous; I regret eating the beautiful food I have created! Even though it tastes sooooooo good!

Bad experiment. Sigh. Bad = Sad, Angry Paddy. A divot in my brow like a hole in a golf course. Not even Survivor is enough to make me smile.

Today was a success. Four baked goods, three experiments, and potentially three successes - two guaranteed.

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1. Cinnamon Scrolls


From my lovely friend Sarah. I have been meaning to make these for a while. Sarah said they were easy, and hot damn she was right! I'll be making this babies over and over. Delicious, and surprisingly low on the butter and sugar. Yeasty though. Lord are they yeasty!


2. Danishes

From the inimitable Wild Yeast. I confess - I had grave doubts and concerns about this one. The recipe is really (ultimately a little needlessly, in my opinion) complex - there are dozens of steps, with hours rest in between.

Puff Pastry traditional works through a kind of lamination process - where you roll it out flat, and butter it - over and over and over. Keeping the dough cold is crucial. It's not a fun process, and in my opinion the gains over store bought puff are marginal at best.

This is a different process, it involves rolling out a barely incorporated dough with _huge_ chunks of butter in it. I admit I was skeptical, but wouldn't you be? Look at this!

Look at the butter! Ye gods! THE BUTTTTTTTEERRRR!

So you have to roll it out:

*Hands belong to Awesome BakeFriend Pat.

Unbelievably, it started to incorporate. The dough - partly because it's so cold - is very stiff. Stiff and yellow. It reminded me of nothing so much as pasta dough in its qualities.

After appropriate chill-out times, you have to shape it. Because I need to change my middle name to: "Let's Make A Double Batch!", Pat and I had quite a few danishes ready to go: way too many for my meagre kitchen.... 38 or so...


After, smear on the cream cheese mix, peach halves, morello cherries and boysenberries, then you're good to go!

I couldn't believe it: they tasted as good as the looked!!!



Key learnings from this: Breaking up this recipe as Wild Yeast implies can be done is probably a good idea. Individually, the steps are not too time consuming. All together they are pretty damn time consuming. The biggest step is combining the butter and the flour. That's a lotta rolling!

This said, I think that this recipe could do with some work: all those refrigeration times are definitely not required. They are only there to keep the dough cold. If the weather is cold, or you're able to contain yourself and keep your groping hands off the dough, they won't be necessary.

Also: I would be reluctant to refrigerate the dough to the outside of those time limits. 4 days, etc. is a really long time in the fridge. Too long, in my opinion. Sure it would work, just maybe not well.

Finally: don't use too much cream cheese; it will inhibit the rise a bit if you do.

3. Jeffrey Hamelman's 66% Rye Sourdough from Bread.

Still getting the hang of Hamelman, I think. His book is a tremendous wealth of knowledge, but the two recipes I have tried so far, whilst not bad, haven't been up there with my favourite recipes.

I am finding his doughs in general have a higher hydration than I would expect, and the dough then has a kind of satiny, silky feel. Also, I'm not getting the proofing rises that I general ly expect from these doughs. Both recipes I have made so far have stayed very flat in the proofing process, far less than my trusted recipes. I've waited over his leavening times, and still, not much action.

I get an oven rise, to be sure. but it's - hmmmm - it's just not quite right. Despite slashing, I get rise lifting up the bottom of the loaf (hexagon loaves! No fun!). Also I find on cutting the bread that I get a slightly dense, almost rubbery texture - not the soft or chewy texture I generally prefer.

This all said, I haven't cut the loaf yet, so the jury's out. The loaves are the front two in the first pic.

4. My Trusty, Delicious Wholemeal Loaf.


From Boas, formerly of Folding Pain, now of Grain Power. I have to say; this is the my favourite bread that I have ever cooked, and that's saying something. The flavour is brilliant. The texture: both soft and chewy. It keeps well, and makes great toast. And most importantly, it's practically indestructible - you can screw around with it endlessly and it still holds up. This recipe is fantastic.

What a blissful day of baking! I wish every day could be like this!

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Baked Donuts

Donuts, so delicious, yet so incredibly, incredibly fatty. For example, The original glazed Krispy Kreme donut weighs 52 grams and has 12 grams of fat. The New York cheesecake donut has 330 calories, of which 170 are derived from fat. This bad boy has 19 grams of fat, 30 per cent of the daily requirement! In one donut.

So, the prospect of baked donuts with less fat (but still not guilt free!) is an appealing one.

The recipe I used can be found here. I would be tempted to add a little more butter to this recipe next time.

The donuts were good - make no mistake, they're not as good as fried - kind of like a chewier, moister brioche. They cook like lightning, so whip em out of the oven pretty fast.

I do think that sourdough has slightly ruined me for yeasted breads, however. I find myself questing for that complex malty, nutty, three-dimensional taste that you can only get from a long ferment and a natural levain. Sourdough donuts?? Hmmm, an interesting possibility.

The big question, is do I like these more than the different, but delectable, choux pastry?? Hmmm, probably not. Choux pastry is about as easy, and so light and versatile. It's easy to eat more of it though.... They are beautiful, glistening like calorie snowballs in the light...


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Monday, June 02, 2008

A brief note for everyone

This is a crisis:

Burma

This is not a crisis:

Paying a bit more for petrol

Get the fuck over it. 5% extra for petrol = roughly $5.50 per 70 litre tank@$1.60 a litre. Big whoop. In Europe, it's like $2.50 a litre. Shockingly, the continent somehow manages to survive without catastrophe, armageddon or ritualised cannibalism.

The interesting thing about this is that the price isn't being dictated by scarcity (peak oil people need to relax, too), but because of (hedge fund) investment. A bubble. But will this one burst?

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Turkey with a raspberry jus


Ah, Friday night and I want something easy, yet delicious. This fits the bill nicely.
  • Turkey thigh cutlets
  • A carrot
  • Broccolini
  • Raspberry Jam
  • White balsamic vinegar
Season the cutlets lightly with salt and pepper, meanwhile heating up a fry pan with a very healthy splash of olive oil to medium high.

Add the cutlets, three minutes on each side, no wanton flipping! We want some caramelisation here. At the same time, add the carrots, wedged nicely, also no unnecessary flipping.

Once the cutlets have cooked, and the carrots are nice and sauteed, take them out of the pan, chuck on a plate and pop it in the oven (circa 70'C) to keep warm.

Now add the broccolini to the pan, it will soak up most of the oil, that's cool. Turn it with some tongs every now and then, it will be nicely cooked in about three minutes. Flipping at this point is fine! And into the oven with this too.

Deglaze the place with 50-60mls of white balsamic vinegar. You could just use white wine vinegar, but it will take longer and probably won't taste as good. This is all about easy.

Let it bubble away, and stir, stir, stir. Grab the raspberry jam and add three or so teaspoons, keep stirring. If it looks too thick, add some more vinegar. At this point, you can turn the heat to low.

Keep stirring as it reduces, and take a break to plate the meat and veges, and once the jus is nice and tacky, drizzle it over your dinner. Remember, the jus will thicken once it cools down (dependent on how much jam), so don't go too nuts with reduction.

Brilliant, albeit a little more Pollock than Turner. And it only took fifteen minutes from woah to go.

The only thing that could make this meal better would be using the meat it was intended for: a succulent, gamey duck breast. But, they go for about forty bucks a kilo, so we make little comprises. Oh, and I forgot one more ingredient - a restorational gin and tonic in the biggest glass you can find. It is Friday night, after all.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Public Intellectuals

This article at bookforum.com came out last year, but I only read it today. I have to say, it's one of the best pieces I've read for a while.

It's about the public intellectual - or rather, the decline of the public intellectual.

This in itself is a pretty interesting idea if you ask me. An age where think tanks are growing faster than lesions on a leper. Yet, by its own definition - disinterested public intellectual are about as common as a jackalope, and no less ersatz.

I like this piece because - beyond being well written - the author of both the article, and the original book, talk about something that rarely crops up in discussions of writing and writers: the day-to-day existence of being one, which is typically not a particularly pleasant existence especially compared to the well-compensated benefits of tenure or the comforts of a well-paid think tank gig.

There was one quote, however, which really got my attention, situated as I am (or briefly was) between these two definitions.
...publicist. It had once referred to an informed and authoritative writer on public affairs—something like wonk but with more honorable overtones. “‘Publicist,’” wrote Jacoby, “if it once connotated an engagement with the state and law, is almost obsolete, victimized by Hollywood and ‘public relations’: it now signifies someone who handles and manipulates the media, an advance or front man (or woman). A public intellectual or old-style publicist is something else, perhaps the opposite, an incorrigibly independent soul answering to no one.”
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Now, I can easily see the temptation to deride this metamorphis as another cheapening blow to meaning; taking away the edenic perfection of the naked idea and adorning it with nipple tassles, twirling them for change. But I think there's more to it than that.

Publicists - in the original sense - were decoders. Analysing ideas, pulling them apart and putting them together again, interpreting for us - us being a general public with a far wider communal, public knowledge than we have today.

Publicists as we know them now are quite different. They are spruikers; touters in an intellectual - or retail - marketplace. Decoders, certainly, but for different reasons. But I don't think this changes are bad, necessarily.


Rather I would say that firstly, the contemporary marketplace for ideas is both a crowded and a neo-liberal one. Gone is the quiet agora of yesteryear, with big papers, and big radio, big tv. This has been shattered, taking with it much of that shared public knowledge (or shared consumption, at least). Secondly, there are so many ideas, so many public affairs, they need promoting.

The decoding is now already done now. I think our stories, discourses, whatever you want to call them are that much more sophisticated; they have decoded themselves. To paraphrase McLuhan, I think the message is the message.

Thus, what is effectively public has changed. We don't need decoders now, we are swimming in a sea of interpretations; the story itself - its mere existence - is an interpretation. Contrary to crotchety protests otherwise - it's not the Dead Sea, you can sink in this body of water. So we need heralds. And so, we are given the modern publicist.

I'm not defending the job of the publicist, it can be as moral or immoral as you like, but by the same token, it's a role we all play: touting the ideas we like, writing and talking in blogs, forums and newsgroups about them.

Though the author of the piece talks about over-educated, disaffected youth creating the right conditions for a new generation of public intellectuals, of publicists in the classic sense of the word, I think he has ignored the greater implications and potential of the change he discusses.

Publicists have changed, because public has changed. To communicate to the masses now is not for decoding and interpretation - they do that themselves. It's for promoting, fighting to get to the forefront.

The rigorous analysis of idea still happens, but not to the masses. Those days have gone; the masses have shrunk. And in these new, dwarven audiences - perched on the giant shoulders of thousands of ideas - we still have publicists. Dozens of them, well-educated, well-qualified and frequently disinterested, at least no more interested than a half hour at the bookends of the day will allow.

Certainly, there are the blowhards and cretins; bombastic and wasteful, but the idea of a cadre of universally well-respected public intellectuals is a nostalgic myth, as false then as it is now.

So I don't despair about these differences, they make perfect sense to me. And frankly, I think a new definition of both public and intellectual is in order. We have moved to a more egalitarian and democratic vision of both.

Does this make sense? Or am I just raving, trying to do a little decoding of my own?

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Iron Chef America

Interesting article here about a restaurant critic who went along to an Iron Chef America filming.

The article is a bizarre mix of legitimate complaints about the the whole premise of the show, and the hopeless whiny mewlings that - gasp! - things take a lot longer in real life than in a one hour tv show.

For me, the most disturbing accusations are that a) the chefs know the ingredient ahead of time, and b) prepare a menu ahead of time, and c) get their sous chefs to prepare the meal a second time for the tasters.

The fact that the competition is stacked in the competitor's favour shouldn't surprise anyone who has watched the show. I'm cool with that, but I do expect them to make up the ingredient, that's just shit otherwise.

update: For another, less-hysterical-but-similar account, go here.

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Bread


I have been baking bread, have even become a little fanatical dare I say. Bread making is, I suspect, like that a little bit. The internet has a treasure trove of breadmaking sites, redolent with advice, mouth-watering photos and fascinating possibilities.



Bread-making is both surprisingly scientific, and deeply intuitive. The science equips you with a knowledge of what the changes in the dough mean, but only your hands, plumping, twisting, knocking back and dusting, futiley shaping batards, boules and syphilitic bagguettes; knobbly and uneven, can tell what the bread is. The nature of the bread, as it were.



I have started my own sourdough - caught and tamed the wild yeast quietly grazing on the dry flour, prodding and agitating it until I have a toro; an aggressive, agitated beast apt to leap on the smallest feeding of flour and water and punch it full of bubbles, sour it with its constant companion and friend, the lactobacillus.



I have made sourdoughs and ciabattas, pain au provence and ryes. Wholemeals, linseed loaves with a crunch like crackling, and brioche. Some have been excellent, some a bit so-so, but not outright failures; bread is tricky to get right, but harder to get wrong.

That doesn't mean you can make some old favourites, however...


The only thing you really need for successful bread - beyond that holy quartet of flour, yeast, salt and water - is time.

Bread would test a menhir's patience. Sure, you can make it quickly with vast quantities of instant yeast, or even faster with baking powder. But that is an unsubtle, boorish bread; barging about in your mouth like a gatecrasher, and leaving nothing but a vague, gummy taste.

No, for a good loaf, you will have to wait. It's not a lot of work, but you will need to forget it; plant the seed and wait patiently for the harvest. As the yeast goes about its work, the carbohydrates get broken down into different things, and something magical happens.

Something nutty. Malty. Complicated. Something subtle, and perhaps smoky; a deep taste that - if chewed in the right spirit - can transport you to the German hearth from whence it originated. The tall, brick oven in a French backyard, the hurly-burly of a San Francisco minefield.

In short, something delicious. Expect more posts to follow; bread is surely all about the bacteria, because I have definitely been infected with something!

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Photos from Vietnam

Powerlines in Saigon.

Saigon powerlines were astonishing in their variety and complexity - a gordian knot with a bristling electric core. I was constantly amazed that I didn't see more of these broken down, or lashing charred corpses. God only knows how many people are actually paying for their power.

On our way to the airport, there was a massive traffic jam (and when 90% of the traffic is on scooters that obey - shall we say - flexible road rules, you know there's a real problem), due to one of the overloaded towers falling down. Lucky there wasn't anyone selling fruit or books underneath it.


Vietnamese Coffee

You don't need to be a genius to see how this one works. Hot water and a shitload of coffee go in the aluminuim container. It drizzles down onto the layer of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom. Teeth-shatteringly sweet, and stronger than Ronnie Coleman, I reckon they could use this coffee in place of adrenalin shots for anaphylaxis cases. Needless to say, other than a cautious sip of someone else's, I stayed well away.


Orchids

There lots of brilliant gardens and gardeners in Vietnam. The climate is a horticulturist's dream - stunning variety and no dearth of rain anywhere.

Roses, day lilies, astonishing produce all abound, but there were two things that really stood out. The bonsais - I had no idea that Vietnam loved bonsai as much as the Japanese - and the amazing orchids.

Coming from Queensland - no slouch in the orchid stakes - I can only imagine how British and American tourists found the riotous displays of orchids - dazzling colours and varieties. This was at the Dalat Annual Flower Festival, and was one of thousands of stunning orchids we saw on the day.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Vacation!

I'm off to Vietnam for three weeks! Woooooo! I'll try to post when I'm over there, but no promises.

In the meantime, I had an intensive, bread-tastic day on the weekend with my friend Pat, it was so so awesome.

Full details are over at her blog. Check it out, I implore you, the pics speak for themselves!

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Give a little bit


Interesting post over at Passport, Foreign Policy's blog, asking the question that I'm sure has been on all our lips at one time or another: What if America was more like Sweden?

Dara has just realised their Humanitarian Response Index, and the US is ranked a pretty dismal 16 - about halfway down, but still beating France and Japan (they are very tight with aid).

Predictably, Nordic countries take out the top three spots, and Australia is only marginally better than the states at 14. What really lets us down is - of course - working with humanitarian partners, which we are totally shit at, preferring to go it alone in most cases (let the record reflect, there is a certain regional limitation here, but it still doesn't explain the shoddy overall score).

New Zealand manages to rank 7 (also not great with humanitarian partners). It makes me think of a fascinating little what-if scenario, given that around fifteen years ago, our countries were in quite similar positions regarding many policies, particularly welfare, and I've little doubt we would have scored as well or better than them with an index like this.

In some ways - and I'm sure the long white cloud 'twixt our islands manages to mist over quite a few things - I feel like as a nation, we decided to turn away from many of the commonalities we had with New Zealand, and pursued instead a more reactionary, populist, dare I say a somewhat easier way of doing things.

Passport's own little thought experiment gives rise to some depressing numbers; if the US gave as much aid as Sweden, many of the world's problems could be addressed.

The most disturbing thing was that large numbers of Americans think the country gives a whopping 25% of GNI as aid. The reality is 0.22%. I have seen a similar attitude in Australians regarding our own aid contributions. which is surely a slap in the face to libertarians who fancy that charities will pick up any slack. Clearly, people expect their governments to be more charitable. In all honesty, I'm surprised they aren't.

In Australia for example, with the ludicrous amount of spending going on pre-election, a billion here or there wouldn't have been missed - probably not even noticed - and I fail to see how being more generous and caring could be a negative in the electorate (well, most electorates). Then again, John Howard has been in for eleven years, and his platform wasn't exactly Mother Teresa's. Perhaps I'm being naive, over-expecting people to be more generous than they are.


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Monday, December 03, 2007

Ciabatta


Well bugger me twice and call me Shirley, this recipe didn't just exceed my expectations, it lured them into a dodgy nightclub, gave them a fizzy blue drink, beat them, raped them, and left them to wake up in a bathtub of ice with a dull ache in the small of the back.

Heading back to the website I mentioned about a month ago, The Fresh Loaf, I settled on this recipe, for ciabatta.

I confess; I was skeptical. This was well beyond my meagre breadmaking experience, and breadmaking I think attracts some.... strong personalities. There's a lot of misinformation out there; people with cooking in general - but certain areas in particular - seem to fall in love with the process, forgetting what they're actually doing it for.

People always seem to think - in cooking as in life - that there's only one way of doing things. One way of making curry, one way of making bread. I have rarely found this to be the case.

Hence, this recipe calls for a dough mixer. In my house, I am the dough mixer. So, another reason to be worried.

But, I discovered the most _amazing_ technique. It's called stretch and fold, and as the name implies... you stretch the dough, and then - ta da! - you fold it.

I've always hated the kneading aspect of bread. It's bloody hard work; I defy anyone not to crack a sweat in ten minutes of proper kneading. Worse, it's only sporadically effective. Sometimes, the bread rises, sometimes not so much.

And of course, if you think about it, kneading is a terrible way to get bread to rise and develop properly. What you're trying to do with kneading is stretch the gluten fibres. Obviously rolling and pushing the bread around is not a very efficient way of stretching the fibres, especially compared actually stretching them.

I was shocked at how effective this was. The dough in ciabatta is like 90% hydrated (nearly equal parts water and flour), and it looked like this:


That is sloppy man, practically pancake batter. Wetter than a sauna. But, almost miraculously, I could actually feel the dough forming as I stretched and folded. I have never experienced anything so effective in my prior dough-making adventures.

Not to say it was thick after the many risings, hell no. I thought it would simply end up a doughy puddle in the oven, but lo! It rose, and yea, it was delicious. Really delicious. I'm going to make this next weekend, too. It was indistinguishable from what you would get from a baker.

Breadmaking, a brave new world for me!

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

True Love

Ooooh, I read a review of a really cool sounding book last week.

Michael Dirda is the Washington Post's chief book reviewer, but more than that, seems to be their chief book lover. In addition to his reviews, he has a live column every week where people just natter about books.

His latest book is called Classics for Pleasure, and it's about classics that you may not be aware of, or may not consider classics. It sounds awesome.
Rather than reiterate the merits of a Shakespeare or Dickens, he takes you along less-traveled but equally scenic and adventurous routes: Rider Haggard's She, Jean Toomer's Cane, G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk. Also the poetry of George Meredith and Anna Akhmatova, the fantastic tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann and H.P. Lovecraft, and the novels of Eca de Queiros, Jules Verne, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. He explains his choices persuasively: his love of great stories, exciting poems, and humanist philosophies.
Those are some of the writers I really enjoy, but more than that; this is an area of literature I adore: the small alleys and byways, forgotten treasures and undiscovered country.

Some of the most intriguing, fascinating authors I've ever read have been stumbled upon this way. You find them at the Lifeline book fair, old, gigantic second-hand bookshops redolent with the musty aroma of yellowed pages, and under the table stacks at remainders bookshops.

But you can't find them just by looking, at least not usually. Sure, the occasional treasure glints at you from amongst the Clive Cusslers, but usually it's an obscure corner of the internet that furnishes you with the name. Perhaps an interview with an author, or a recommended list they've provided. I've found the individual prefaces in front of short stories often make great recommendations, particularly in older or reprinted anthologies.
Dirda has written a lot of other, similar books, and I'll be acquainting myself with his back catalogue in short time I suspect. I'll leave you with a quote he has about one of my favourite books, Rebecca. I couldn't agree more with his conclusions.
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." With these unforgettable words the reader is launched into one of the most powerful visions of .  .  . what? Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a far more complex work of art than commonly believed, being one of the half dozen greatest romance novels of the century and a subtle undercutting of the whole romance genre. It is simultaneously a devastating examination of the sexual politics of marriage, a haunting study of jealousy and psychological obsession, and a classic of suspense.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Somalia


Oh man, I've been reading about the latest travails of Somalia at the moment, an international conflict - and catastrophe - that hasn't been generating as many headlines as it should.

The many troubles in Somalia are an excellent example of how the U.S can be so myopic when it comes to international relations; feverishly pursuing its aims with no recollection of why those aims exist, and no recognition of its limited reach as a nation. In shying away from an unpalatable future (some would say reality), the United States has encouraged something arguably worse, with little regard its consequences in the region more broadly.

Some context: The situation in Somalia is very bleak at the moment. Hundreds of thousands of people - maybe millions - are dead, and even more are refugees. The situation is comparable to Darfur, perhaps even worse. The background to this fighting has six or so players involved:


More...


  • The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), who briefly attained power in 2006, though they have been agitating for it for a much longer period. The UIC are very conservative, banning footballs, music, videos and women working. However, they are _relatively_ popular, and - though their ideas of it may not be wonderful - they are at least interested in governance, as opposed to simply taking what they can get, at least in the short term.

  • The current transitional government, who have been in power since they overthrew the UIC. Though internationally recognised, this government is widely seen as ineffectual, corrupt, and worse. Many members are undoubtedly former warlords from the area, and the behaviour patterns haven't changed much. UN and other aid workers have been held and shot at by police and army forces; allegations of abuse are widespread. Worse, several areas of the country are declaring independence, and the UIC and other Islamic rebels are certainly not being kept in check, nor is piracy in the Aden Gulf.

  • The United States government, who have been unsuccessfully involved with the area for decades. Terrified of a rising tide of Islamic governments, like they once were of communists, they have been launching strikes against Islamic rebels, and the UIC in its many forms. Perhaps, too, the US is genuinely opposed to many of the things the UIC stand for: the government certainly could be viewed as terrorist friendly, unlike their other ally in the region...

  • Ethiopia, whose army was responsible for deposing the UIC, backed by the US and the North Korean arms they purchased with US approval, in stark contravention to international sanctions. Of course, Ethiopia is hardly a paragon of human rights, and they certainly aren't in Somalia for altruistic reasons. In reality, the two nations have their own complicated history, and Ethiopia - whilst eager for US dollars - no doubt covets much of Somalia for its own, as it has down for years.

  • Much as it covets Eritrea, whom is supporting the AIC. The reasons are not religious - only half of Eritrea is Muslim and the rest Christian - rather they are hoping that by supporting the AIC, the war in Somalia will take some of the heat off them. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been fighting over borders since the country first declared independence. Eritrea hates Ethiopia with a passion, and vice versa.

  • and finally, the often-referenced, not-so-often-seen Al Qaeda, represented heavily in reports from the US military and intelligence agencies, the claims of the transitional government, and the presence of Yemenis, Afghans, Iraqis and others in a location that shouldn't technically hold much interest for those nationalities, beyond strategic. The relationship between Al Qaeda, the UIC, and other conservative, Islamic governments in the region is not really well defined, and god knows the US has certainly seen the smoke of Islamic governments and assumed the fire of terrorism before (or at least promoted the association). That all said, there is clearly are some links, however.
As you can see: a complicated situation, but the one 'player' I haven't mentioned yet are the poor bloody civilians of Somalia; starving, killed, raped and imprisoned on a daily basis in huge numbers. Staggering numbers.

The United States is worried about a spread of conservative Islamic government in Africa, especially in a nation that could - if in the the right position - control or seriously effect the flow of traffic into the red sea, and thus the Suez canal, and thus a gigantic chunk of international trade.

However, I seriously question the wisdom of promoting the current situation in Somalia, and through the highly dubious Ethiopian government at that. Christ, didn't they learn from their efforts in the Congo, or indeed Somalia the first time around?

There is nothing stable about what is going on currently. Of course, the lives at stake are black, and unfortunately for them of little relevance to international trade, but nonetheless the US should be able to remember that the friendly dictator today is the Saddam Hussein of tomorrow, and their stated goals of democracy and candy for all certainly don't gel with either the Ethiopian government or the warlords currently in the transitional government (or out of it; simply doing whatever the hell they like in the area).

Whilst many of the aims of the UIC are not particularly worthy - downright horrible in fact - they seem to be offering millions of people the best chance of stability, and simply making it through the day, than any other alternative at the moment. The threat of terrorism in Somalia has certainly been realised under the transistional government, and I genuinely question whether the UIC would make that any worse.

But instead, the US have continued to alienate what look to be the eventual rulers of the country, rather than trying to bring them into the fold. It's an interesting attitude, in contrast to how the US treat the Saudis; an equally conservative country that fields accusations of supporting terrorism and a governmental model equally enimical to the candy/democracy doctrine. Of course, the Saudi government has the power to screw with the states, whilst the Somalis can barely manage to get their own house in order.

Meanwhile, we prevaricate and Somalis die. It's a horrible situation, and one that deserves more attention.

More info here, here, and here.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trendy Restaurants


Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bombs.

Gah. I went to Billy Kwong last night, home of celebrity chef Kylie Kwong, and allegedly one of the best Chinese restaurants in Sydney.

It was average. And when you're paying $90 a head, average becomes bad. In a 9 course banquet menu, there was only one dish I couldn't have made, easily, at home. The flavours were about as complex as primary school maths, and the meals - though not badly made - were no better or worse than literally dozens of other Chinese meals I've had for considerably less than ninety bucks.

Trendy restaurants, in my experience, are almost always disappointments. This is not a case of high expectations, either. I had no expectations whatsoever when I went to the Danks St Depot earlier this year, and the meal - again - was very average indeed. Not bad, but absolutely nothing special whatsoever.

But back to Billy Kwong: I cannot understand how this restaurant can be feted so much when it was so very, very ordinary. It merely confirms to me that reviewers - floating around in the rarefied atmosphere of the foodie world - have in fact completely lost touch with what real food is, and also are completely powerless to resist the lure of hype and spin.

The food was essentially home cooking. Fish steamed with soy and ginger. And nothing else. Now, I am the last person to deride home-cooking, but there's a reason it's called home-cooking: Because you make it at home. I go out to eat food that is either too much trouble for me to make, or simply beyond my capabilities - criteria that cover everything from $3.00 banh mi to $50 mud crab.

It genuinely surprises me that people who profess to be so genuinely in love with food, can fall so head over heels with something so pedestrian. Clearly, it is not the food these people love - they obviously don't know anything about food. This kind of thing really pisses me off: when something so accessible, so democratic - anyone can get, and appreciate, a good meal - gets turned into some bourgeois, secret, trendified form of knowledge that only a certain type and class of people can understand. The same thing happens with literature all the time.

By the same token, I need to get over myself. People who really love food, they don't give shit that some over-priced restaurant in the inner suburbs is parting fools from their money. They know as surely as I do that something as simple as a good pickled onion and some bitey cheese can provide a culinary pleasure to be reckoned with, and that there are a wealth of wonderful, accessible things to eat, both in the home, and outside it.

Nonetheless, my resolve is firm. No more trendy restaurants for me; it is a waste of time.

Lynn tells me that very few Asians she knows recommend Billy Kwong because it's basically home cooking, and they know there are dozens of better Chinese restaurants in Sydney. And, I should add, my three fellow diners were also distinctly underwhelmed with the restaurant, and they don't bring the culinary baggage I do to the table. So word to the wise, avoid it, a $10 plate in Chinatown will be no different.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

The night before


Well folks, we stand on the cusp of an election - an election where the possibility of change hangs nascent in the air, dawn stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops - but will it come?

God, I hope so.

I'm nervous tonight. Nervous, excited, a small medley of emotions threatening to break out circa 7:00pm tomorrow night. I was fifteen when John Howard was elected Prime Minister of this country, my political knowledge and awareness was very low - or rather, around the same level as most Australians making a decision tomorrow. I can't even remember what I thought; whether Howard was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.

How times have changed. In those eleven years I have literally grown up. I now have a political science major, I've worked on election campaigns, my interest has sky-rocketed, and now I'm in no doubt as to whether John Howard is a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing. John Howard is a Fucked Thing.

I will be really, really sad if the Coalition win tomorrow. Yet I will try to counter that disappointment with the knowledge that - even after eleven years of a corrupt, incompetent, morally evil government - the country is still doing okay. Not great, but okay.

And it's because of good people, working hard to to expose, oppose, and try to solve the problems. Governments may come and go, but people tend to stay the same. So take heart, fellow readers and friends, that if Labor loses, we'll still all be around, and if they win; so will the other bastards, so let's not get complacent.

Keep your powder dry.


PS, fabulous odds at Portland Bet if you want to put your money where your mouth is and you think Labor will win a lot of seats. For your information, I have money riding on 89, 90, 91, and 92 seats. Big odds, but damn it, I want to believe!

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Whatever it takes



Ah, I can only imagine Liberal HQ's all over the country are starting to take on a certain "fuhrerbunker" atmosphere. This week has seen some increasingly desperate (and pathetic) attempts by the Libs to try and rein in what I pray to God is an imminent Labor victory.

The latest culmination of this is Liberal Party members distributing fake, racist flyers branded as Labor material in the seat of Lindsay.

The extra charming part is that the group of individuals behind it include the sitting members' husband, and allegedly at least one member of the state executive. Lovely.

That all said, I can understand that impulse that drives these doltish poltroons. It reminds me of one Graham Richardson, who infamously said he was going to stiff Bob Hawke - the prime minister he helped install - after missing out on a plum ministry job he coveted (he did, by the way, for any non-Australians reading).

When you're involved in anything you feel strongly about, it's very seductive to buy into that 'whatever it takes' mentality. The other guys can seem so wrong - so evil, if you want to take it that far - that any small moral compromises you make, even some larger ones, are all in service of a greater good.

Of course, when couched in terms like that, it seems silly. A six year old can tell you that the ends do not justify the means. However in the hurdy gurdy of a campaign - political or otherwise - the lesson is not so clear cut.

I think the reason why this kind of thing is so alluring, is because it's actually right, to a small degree. Some means do justify some ends. That can mean compromise sometimes, or simply something morally grey in exchange for something morally fantastic. But it's a dangerous path to tread, and one that involves constant self-interrogation, at least in my limited experience.

It's also a form of discrimination, I think, because it involves demonising who or whatever you're fighting against. It's a kind of game theory: positing two oppositional forces, and the only way to win said game is, of course, by winning it. I despair of this kind of thinking: it has blinkered many a brilliant political mind.

But real politics - or rather, real democracy - isn't just about winning, much as we may think or wish it so at times. The madness of campaigning can make even the most level head forget this, and with heads that are not so level (in this case tilted so firmly to the right they make Quasimodo look like a member of the Queen's guard), the results aren't pretty.

Democracy and governance are in fact not about winning at all, and the status of one party or another is - or should be - immaterial. One of the many reasons why I loathe this government so much is because of the calculated and joyful disregard it has had towards these two things; democracy, and governance. Here, clearly, is a group of people that care more about winning more than the actual prize they are competing for, and most certainly the citizens they are duty-bound to represent.

I don't mean to say the Liberal Party has a monopoly on such personalities: I'm quite certain every party has its fair share. But you only have to look at the campaigns run by the various parties this year to see the difference.

Those voices - the gamers - will always clamour to be heard, but sometimes they need to be disregarded; condemned and denied, whatever it takes. That's the real challenge, and it happens far away from the letter-boxes and daily grind of the hustings.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Believing in fairy tales


Interesting couple of articles over at The Guardian, tackling that old chestnut (or I should say, 1ppm chestnut), homeopathy. Jeanette Winterson, award-winning writer, is a fan, though she can't say why exactly:
it is hard to talk about what it is that homeopathy actually does, or why it works. For my part, I want to know more, not less, but I can't dismiss the thing in the way that Sense About Science, many doctors, and some journalists are asking me to.
Ben Goldacre, Doctor, blogger at Bad Science, not so much:
By pushing their product relentlessly with this scientific flim-flam, homeopaths undermine the public understanding of what it means to have an evidence base for a treatment. Worst of all, they do this at the very time when academics are working harder than ever to engage the public in a genuine collective ownership and understanding of clinical research, and when most good doctors are trying to educate and involve their patients in the selection of difficult treatment options. This is not a nerdy point. This is vital.
The differences between to the two articles are stark, and a potent reminder to anyone who thinks that right-wingers have a monopoly on sloppy reasoning and egregious ignorance (I know it seems that way sometimes, but no!).

Goldacre sets up the various strawmen employed by homeopathy advocates and calmly sets them alight.
Everything from trials, publishing, and the actual reality of thinking that something that is one part in millions can do anything gets a guernsey. I applaud these debunking articles; they're important, for the reasons that Goldacre talks about in his piece.

It makes me shake my head that people can lap up such rubbish, but at the same time, it doesn't surprise me.
Before anyone starts accusing me of deriding anything outside the mainstream, allow me to defend myself.

I think that anybody who is as sickly in general as myself will have had a few experiences with so-called "alternative" therapies. Heck, their GPs may have suggested it, as mine have many times over the years, and my specialists.


So I have tried a few different things, some were more successful than others, some (most, sadly), not at all. But the difference between homeopathy, herbal supplements, and acupuncture is simply this: evidence. Many, many studies have confirmed that things like acupuncture, St John's Wort, valerian and so on, actually work, to some degree or another. Homeopathy is distinctly lacking in the old double-blind, clinical test department.


So yes, it surprises me that people can believe something so manifestly silly. But then, we all have to believe in something, don't we? Just the other day, I was hectoring someone about the importance of authenticity in Communications as a field, and I prefaced my lecture with the following, which I believe very firmly:

"There are so many messages out there nowadays, spun in a hundred different ways; people can just pick and choose what they want to hear."


And I think, by and large, that's what we do. Sure, homeopathy has no basis, but shit, neither does intelligent design, or religion in general, and that doesn't seem to stop anyone.

I myself, have deeply held prejudices; welfare, for example. Sure, I will always heark back to the evidence to back myself up, but even if there wasn't any evidence, I would have a hard time letting go; it's just something I believe in. Plus, there's just so much evidence. Dig about, and you can find someone saying anything, many of the people respectable by various standards, however worthless. The medium itself can confer respectability - a blogger not so much, but when Paul Sheehan writes about Miracle Water in the SMH, people start thinking, "I'm thirsty!" (yeah, ploughing through that much bullshit sure works up a sweat).

I think this capacity to believe so irrationally is a fairly human trait, and it's the same thing that lets us enjoy movies, read novels, etc. Blowing fifty bucks on some wheatgerm pills seems a small price to pay for such joys.

But also, I think it's a reminder that letting individuals makes all the decisions is generally speaking a very bad idea. Malcolm Turnball has just got in trouble for giving his mate $10 million for a magic rain-making machine. A cynic might suggest that Malcolm wasn't too concerned with whether said machine actually worked, but other coalition ministers have made equally stupid decisions about stupid technology (Brendan Nelson leaps to mind).

Policy is important, it takes the emotion out of these decisions, or at least tries to, and so does the public service, when it's run properly. Tempting as it might be, I hope Kevin Rudd resists the temptation to dump many of the people who now lead government departments (with a few exceptions: Peter Shergold, Barbara Bennett).

Homeopathy ain't gonna make it onto the PBS, and that's as it should be. But I believe there has been plenty of equally moronic decisions in eleven years of this government, and sadly that's not just something I feel: the evidence in this particular case is overwhelming - in spite, not because of - the double blindness of the media and the Australian people.

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My new addiction


This has been on the internet for a while I believe, but it has sunk its razor-sharp, philanthropic claws deep into me!

Freerice.com donates 10 grains of rice to the United Nations World Program, for every word you get right in a vocabulary guessing game.

Needless to say, this is a vice that particularly appeals to me - all the more so because it's for a good cause. Have a go, see how far you get; I seem to bottom out at around 46, 47. After that, I seem to get as many wrong as right, and so it grinds to a halt. Good fun!

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Chorizo and feta salad


This is a good salad. I was a little worried that some of the flavours wouldn't mesh, but my instincts were right. This was delicious; a real melange of textures and flavours, smooth and crunchy mixing so well with salty and mild. The only thing I would change is to add one more cucumber. That's the perils of freestyling sometimes: ratios can be hard to guess.

  • A wedge of Bulgarian feta.
  • One Chorizo sausage
  • Some mesclun salad mix
  • some fresh or frozen peas
  • a cucumber
  • eight or so small truss tomatoes
  • some dry white, ciabatta style bread
  • a lemon
  • olive oil
  • vinegar
  • salt and pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 200' celsius. Dice the Chorizo finely, put it in a large pot/pan and put it on a low heat, stirring occasionally - not too much, we want some caramelisation.

Cube the bread, pop it on a tray, and put it in the oven.

Peel the cucumber's skin, and then peel the rest of it into ribbons. Add it into a bowl with the mesclun, and the peas (thawed/cooked if they're frozen, and there is nothing wrong with frozen peas, don't let anyone tell you otherwise).

Cut the feta roughly into cubes. Treat it rough, we want some crumbling action here. Add that to your big salad bowl.

By now the Chorizo should be hissing like a cut snake, and your kitchen filling up with a delicious smoky aroma. The bottom of the pan will have a disturbingly large amount of fat in it. Take the bread/croutons out of the oven, chuck them in the pan, and crank the heat up high. Stir it, stir it like you just don't care! (this is smoky, so unless you have a range hood, watch out!)

The croutons will soak up the fat, and become even crunchier. Once you're happy with their delicious toastiness, turn the heat off.

Slice the truss tomatoes into wedges, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with balsamic or red wine vinegar, and pop em into the oven for 10-15 minutes.

Whilst that's semi-baking, combine the lemon juice and olive oil, salt and pepper, and shake it to make a light vinaigrette.

Take your tomatoes out, toss the salad with the chorizo and crouton mix, and the lay the tomatoes on top. Drizzle with the dressing (not too much! There's plenty of acidic things in this dish already). And you're done. Yum, a great, light summer meal.

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Total Recall



I read an interesting article at National Geographic (one of the most excellent Magazine websites, by the way) about memory.

In some ways, however, I find our current ideas about memory more interesting than any one article. I think memory is a growing preoccupation with western society in particular. This is tied intimately to the growth of the internet, I believe, which - as an expression of memory and thought - is virtually unparalleled, and growing exponentially.

Articles and studies are popping up every where on the net, and to be sure it's an attractive subject. With so much knowledge swirling about in the world, I'm sure everybody has fantasised about retaining every mote we come across, I certainly have.

But I think the prospect of total recall is a somewhat disturbing one, also; promising a definitive world where none exists. Like a movie, memories - however perfect - do not show you what is happening off the screen, in our minds. A deep focus can be just as ambiguous as a shallow one, and to pretend otherwise is an exercise in futile positivism.

More...

The article talks about AJ, a person whom I've read about before, who apparently remembers virtually everything that's ever happened to her. Scientists are at a loss to explain why this is so; AJ's neural structures are not so different from ours, according to the research.

AJ's differences, however, seem to be more in her method than her madness, so to speak:
To supplement the memories in her mind, AJ also stores a trove of external memories. In addition to the detailed diary she's kept since childhood, she has a library of close to a thousand videotapes copied off TV, a trunk full of radio recordings, and a "research library" consisting of 50 notebooks filled with facts she's found on the Internet that relate to events in her memory. "I just want to keep it all," she says.

Preserving her past has become the central compulsion of AJ's life. "When I'm blow-drying my hair in the morning, I'll think of whatever day it is. And to pass the time, I'll just run through that day in my head over the last 20-something years—like flipping through a Rolodex." AJ traces the origins of her unusual memory to a move from New Jersey to California that her family made when she was just eight years old. Life in New Jersey had been comfortable and familiar, and California was foreign and strange. It was the first time she understood that growing up and moving on necessarily meant forgetting and leaving behind. "Because I hate change so much, after that it was like I wanted to be able to capture everything. Because I know, eventually, nothing will ever be the same," she says.
What a sad, sisyphean, picture that seems to me: An endless struggle to retain something forever sliding away, like trying to hold water in your hands or run up a loose sandhill.

From this description, it doesn't sound to me like AJ remembers everything at all; indeed, it sounds more like she's trying to memorise everything. As a professor of psychology points out in the article: perhaps AJ isn't so different at all: everyone remembers what's important to them.

And there's the rub: we remember what's important. It might be books we've read, people we've met, events, or scents. Whatever. But this, I think, is largely self-fulfilling. If we didn't forget, if we remembered everything, how would we know what is important?

As humans, I think we have developed the mental pattern of accepting our memories as important, or at least relevant. If, suddenly, our minds were flooded with not just the relevant or meaningful, but also the meaningless - the babel of society - how would we separate the two? Everything would become important, and, and like poor AJ, we would be left forever scrambling after the tiniest memory - the breakfast we had in 1997, number of fireworks in the 1986 Maleny Show.

As attractive as that idea may seem in abstract, from a more utilitarian point of view, what good are those memories? How do they serve us - not only on a day-to-day basis - but as people, as cultures?

I think forgetting is an essential element to change. If we never forgot - if everything stayed the same in our heads, why would we let go? Open ourselves to new possibilities when the old are still so tangible to us?

I suspect a total recall would give us a sense of false confidence. If we could remember everything, we could be so wise, so knowledgeable. But wise and knowledgeable people have made many terrible mistakes, as they should, because not everything is knowable, and our fallible memories serve as a potent reminder of that.

Paradoxically, a perfect memory devalues knowledge. It implies no need to learn, because everything would be simply known. Much like Neo in The Matrix, we could just upload the skills we needed. Effectively, what we do with the internet every day. But this of course isn't real learning. Another article I read highlights this difference:
Real learning modifies the human being who undergoes it. We change; we grow; we see reality differently. If we don’t, then we have not, in fact, learnt: we have merely skimmed the surface of a learning subject. Learning is participatory, which is why in any text-based subject, reading is usually more educative than watching a DVD. The more passive the student can be, the more the information simply passes over the mind, rather than entering it
A perfect memory would be the ultimate form of passive learning. And we would all become experts, shovelling facts away without questioning them, or ourselves.

No thanks. I'll stick with my finite memory, and use the internet and my filofax to fill the gaps in between. I'm sure, if it's important, it'll come to me.

Picture above is a palimpsest; a piece of writing on top of another.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Booking it


I was recommended the most _amazing_ website recently, it's called The Book Depository.

Books are one of the few things that I'm deeply, truly and helplessly materialistic about, and this website is like a dream come true - a beautiful, nerdy dream!

So what's so special about the Book Depository then? Well, think Amazon, with one important difference: Free postage. Yup, free. Even to Australia.

Let me give you a minute to allow that to sink in.

Most people don't know, but in Australia, we really get stiffed for book prices. Paperbacks, particularly, are considerably cheaper overseas. This wouldn't bother me so much (actually, I lie; it would. Thirty five bucks for a paperback is ridiculous), if the author was seeing any of this money - but they get sweet FA, and royalities have in no way increased with rocketing prices.

So, the Book Depository, without the ball and chain of postage, is a cornucopia of very cheap books indeed, and as my order arrived this week, I can assure you it's pretty fast and exactly what it says it is.

Even better, the Managing Editor has a blog, and it's good one, too. Short but sweet. His latest post is about how impoverished novel writing is. This is another thing that I don't think people are aware of. In Australia for example, a bestseller is considered circa 20 000 copies. Provided your publishers have played their guessing games right, selling 6000 books will result in an invitation to write another.

6000 copies in Australia. With the writer getting somewhere between 60 cents and 2 dollars a copy. So between $3500 and $9000 - pre-tax - per book. And you can take 5-10% of that off for an agent, which you won't get published without. . It's a mug's game, if you're in it for a living, and never think otherwise. Even a national bestseller will get you under $50 000, which is why getting published in the states is such a big deal for Aussie writers.

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