Mimesis and Violence

September 21, 2008, 11:08 pm
Filed under: Food, Recipes

My recipes from tonight’s potluck:

Harissa (Surprise!)

A mildly inauthentic but not at all mild north-African style chili paste.

* 20 dried chili de arbol
* 4-5 ancho chilies (dried poblanos)
* 2 habanero or scotch bonnet chilies
* 8 cloves garlic
* 1 tablespoon whole cumin
* 1/2 teaspoon coriander or caraway seeds
* 1/4 cup olive oil

– Remove the stems from the dried peppers (ancho, de arbol), discard about half the seeds, and let them soak in water for 10-15 minutes.
– Crush the garlic, cumin, and coriander/caraway in a mortar and pestle (alternative: food processor).
– Strain most of the water from the dried chilies, add the garlic mixture, and pound into a bloody pulp with a pestle (alternative: food process).
– Admire your new forearm strength.
– Roast the habaneros under a broiler for a few minutes – until their skin is lightly scarred with burn.
– Seed the habaneros (DON’T TOUCH YOUR EYES), add to the harissa mixture, and unleash a fury of blows onto it with a pestle or machete.
– Feed to unsuspecting friends with excess machismo and a taste for spice.


* 3.5 cups chickpeas (canned or dried and soaked overnight)
* 1/2 cup tahina (roughly)
* 1/2 cup olive (roughly)
* Juice of 3 lemons
* 4-5 mushrooms
* 1 teaspoon harissa or cayenne pepper
* Salt and (fresh ground) pepper

– Mix 3 cups chickpeas, tahina, olive oil, lemon juice in a bowl and chop/crush with a mezzaluna chopper until they reach a chunky puree (alternatively: food processor).
– Add salt and pepper to taste and let the hummus chill covered for a bit.
– Saute the remaining chickpeas in a few tablespoons olive oil with the mushrooms and harissa until suitably delicious smelling.
– Serve the mushroom/chickpea mixture hot over the chilled hummus.

Falafel (balls)

* 4 cups chickpeas
* 4 large handfuls parsley, finely chopped
* 3 large handfuls cilantro, finely chopped
* 8 cloves garlic
* 1 finely diced shallot
* 1 tablespoon cumin
* 1 teaspoon harissa
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 3 heaping tablespoons flour
* Soybean oil for frying

– Crush garlic, shallot, cumin, and harissa in a mortar and pestle.
– Mix together chickpeas, parsley, cilantro, and garlic mixture. Crush/chop into a pasty mixture with a mezzaluna chopper or a food processor.
– Add the baking powder and flour, mix in thoroughly until the mixture is easily formed into cohesive balls. If this doesn’t work you can add a little olive oil to lubricate the works.
– Form small balls with your hands or with a spoon. Fry them in about 3 inches of hot oil in a wok, pan, or deep fryer until brown and delicious looking.


July 27, 2008, 10:01 pm
Filed under: Film, Rants

Pulpy movies are one of life’s greatest guilty pleasures. Picked ripe, juiced, viewed alone in a darkened room in grainy glory from a full-screened YouTube-style flash player when the alternative of social exertion seems too exerting, or in a theater when you can muster the friends or the willpower to go alone… nothing better.

For serious: overtones of misanthropy notwithstanding, I love shitty action movies, cartoons, bottom-of-the-barrel comedy, and classless whirlwind dramas. I once watched the Hulk, Blade 3, and Dr. Dolittle 2 back to back on tv-links.co.uk; Put me on a plane or in a dorm room and I’ll happily watch the dregs of Hollywood for hours and then wax eloquent with friends about the mathematical relationship between the number of Eddies Murphy in a film and its greatness.

From the outset this summer seemed like a windfall of pulp that only Tropicana could best. We were going to get another Hulk film, another Indiana Jones film (which was awful), a girl with a pig’s nose, a Kung-Fu panda, Angelina Jolie killing people (again), Adam Sandler playing a mossad agent cum hairstylist, another Will Smith July 4th blockbuster, another Judd Apatow joint, and another Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly romp. Life was looking UP in May and June.

To my great chagrin I have seen none of this summer’s mind-numbers, bullet-benders, toilet-humorists, or feeble heart-string-tuggers, and no Eddies Murphy. None! Somehow I instead managed to see two flicks besotted with cultural criticism, movies of some depth, films that vie for the soul of modern man: Kung-Fu Panda, Wall-E.

What what what!? Yup yup yup. I’m serious. For realsies.

I was supposed to see Kung-Fu Panda with my sister and my college roommate, but the roomie somehow ended up in the wrong showing and we saw it separately at about the same time. After recapping the plot twists that led to us seeing the movie in different theaters, roommate and I get to talking about the film. So I’m loving the Panda, enamored with the use of food as motivation for Kung Fuing, ready to adopt ‘skidoosh’ into my vocab, when roomie says that he really liked the Kung-Fu tiger of doom more than panda, that his jail escape was really cool, that the tiger worked really hard to become the “Dragon Warrior” and the Panda basically did nothing other than idolize other Kung Fu-ers and over-eat, that it is absurd that the ‘secret ingredient’ should make up for years of hard training and general awesomeness.

At first blush it would seem like the point of Kung-Fu Panda is that practice and training are nothing in the face of well, a belly and blind luck, that the universe chooses (the Dragon Warrior in this case) and there’s nothing to be done to change that choice (“there are no accidents”). It seems rather abhorrent to panda suit Jack Black for the purpose of telling kids that they too can do whatever they want without significant training or practice, even be fat Kung-Fu champions.

Blush one more time and realize that the movie is not quite that simplistic (though still pretty simplistic). Though he trained for a comparatively short time, Po needed a trainer, a great trainer, a trainer who realized the unique way in which he could be trained effectively, in order to become great himself. Moreover, Po needed to come to the secret of the ‘Dragon Warrior’ himself (the fact that there is “no secret” is a secret in its own right).

Insight is the nub of greatness in the Pandaverse. The ability to see a situation in a new or counter-intuitive way, to train people with an appreciation of who they are rather than what you would like them to become, can brings about greater leverage than years of narrow training in a discipline. Like most morals this one has some truth to it, but it’s a very modern conceit, very Freakonomics logic that perhaps doesn’t apply in the realm of precise hand-to-hand combat (or even more broadly?).

Despite roomie’s great points, I think I’ve successfully justified enjoying Kung-Fu Panda. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it was a cinematic achievement of any sort, though. Kung-Fu Panda was a wholly enjoyable computer animated martial arts flick for kids and immature adults like myself. Wall-E, in it’s renewal of silent film for our times, was an impressive achievement. The range of emotion displayed by basically voiceless robots in the first forty minutes of the movie is absolutely breathtaking.

Not to denigrate the success of Wall-E, but an achievement of cinematography wrapped in a polemic wrapped in a wrapped in a cop-out ending needs to be considered for it’s content too.

Wall-E, for those of you who don’t know, is a tireless little robot of a model intended to clean up the Earth after we lazy humans laid waste to it and fled into space to live lives of slovenly luxury waited on hand and foot by robots. Over the years Wall-E developed personality in addition to diligence and now combs the land for memorabilia of humanity that he finds interesting in his extremely cute way.

Over those same years Humans have grown even more lazy and even more fat. In contradistinction to the Pandaverse, Wall-E portrays the obese remnant of humanity as incapable of fending for themselves, let alone fighting off Kung-Fu tigers, slurpy slurping babies in the form of atrophied adults, full-body pajamas and all. Only once they learn to act independently of their robot babysitters/overlords can humanity re-establish itself on a renewed Earth.

Laziness and apathy are the core evils of a film that doesn’t go light on the preaching, and as evils go these are pretty trite ones at that. The transparent preachiness of the tale and Pixar’s trade of a happy-ending for a G-rating are probably the greatest failures of Wall-E. It is interesting to notice, however, that it takes a robot of human construction endowed with a human personality by rummaging through human waste and uncovering the gems of human ingenuity and creativity to free humanity of its self-imposed bondage and sloth.

In Wall-E-Land, unlike Pandaverse, problems are not solvable by fate or chance or even particular insight. They are solved by the hard work, the development of a sense of duty and self over long period of exploration, and by the persistence of the few who labor to achieve something meaningful (Wall-E and EVE working to return humanity to Earth in this case).

OK, so from a philosophical perspective both movies are pretty weak. If they are at war over the soul of modernity it’s a pretty paltry war. What’s interesting, though, is that both films are ostensibly for kids and neither film shies from preaching. Makes me pine for the bikini clad Disney girls of yore, when at the least a young boy could be easily distracted from any moralizing in his media.

Leica D-LUX 3
June 18, 2008, 9:31 pm
Filed under: Friends, Photography, Technology

Got my new Leica plaything in the mail Monday.

First impressions:

I was looking for a point-and-shoot with a nice lens and a fast enough shutter to catch friends off-guard and unposed. My other camera is a Nikon D50 which is real good at surprising friends and real bad at fitting in pockets. The D-LUX 3 has a surprisingly small body, a rather comforting heft, a super snappy shutter, and takes truly vivid pictures, but the protruding lens is suboptimal for pocket-fitting. In my first two Leica outings I found myself carrying the camera.

Other random thoughts: the D-LUX feels overly light sensitive to me. In auto mode with full light my pictures are often over exposed. The camera’s menu UI is clumsy and makes it hard to change settings on the fly. Leica is very clearly not a software shop. I really like the ability to quickly change aspect ratio with a little toggle on the lens and I wish more things were quickly manually settable like that. These are all basically minor complaints, though. It’s a wonderful little toy, feels great in my hands, and, even with my meager skill, takes damn pretty photos (see this Flickr set).

This is Pretty Cool
April 22, 2008, 8:10 am
Filed under: Computer Science, Internet, Photography, Technology

Someone at Yahoo! Research used Flickr tags and geotags to generate a map. I like.

See also: Other Yahoo TagMaps; VARY Image Search.

Phorming a Case for Privacy
April 3, 2008, 9:35 am
Filed under: Advertising, Internet, Law, Privacy, Rants, Technology

My buddy Harran [sic] and I were talking last week about this company Phorm and privacy online. Phor those of you who don’t know, Phorm’s business model is to make deals with various internet service providers to allow them to track everything you do online in order to show you targeted advertisements. To their modest credit Phorm claims that they do not actually keep records of what you do online, rather they continuously update a profile of your interests and associate that profile with a random number so that they “cannot know who you are.”

Check out the sweet slideshow where they make these specious claims here.

Harlan’s piece over at FTT makes some great points about how a sufficiently granular profile of a person is basically equivalent to storing all of that person’s history and about how similar Phorm’s records are to the dataset of search records AOL released to so much public shame. However, personally my initial reaction to Phorm was simply “this shouldn’t be happening dammit!” which is to say that the very act of tracking people on the Internet is repugnant and takes the people doing the tracking down steep and narrow roads that towards dank and dark places. Admit it – the very idea that there is a system that tracks what you’re up to online and doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of letting you do those things – you find that repugnant too.

Reexamining my initial repugnance to Phorm’s business the question arises: why is privacy important at all? Don’t we value transparency too?

Ed makes a compelling arguement that people actually don’t place a very large value on privacy and that consequently neither do web services. But I think most of us would agree that we value our privacy, or at least we care to guard against the worst violations of personal privacy and that in doing so we must guard against some more minor ones. But again, why do we care about privacy at all?

Despite how silly I found them on my first couple readings, Justice Blackmun’s often-mocked words in Roe v. Wade have been hitting home for me lately when I think about the value of privacy.

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the state.

Forget this crap about the mysteries of the universe and just concentrate on the heart of Blackmun’s point, which is that society at large often has values and conceptions of how people should act, but that individual’s values and actions often don’t match those standards, that only in certain very restricted instances is society justified in forcing individuals to comply to an external conception of how to behave, and, finally, that this idea of restricting societal coercion to the absolute minimum is essential to what makes an open society function.

The malleability of self-definition, the ability for a person to constantly redefine themselves and project different selves in different situations, is at the heart of our democratic value system and underlies concepts of equality and upward mobility. Without it we’d have no hands to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps with, so to speak. Without the ability to reinvent ourselves each of us would always be what we ever were, whether it’s the poor kid, the shy girl no one knew but everyone thought was weird, the stoner, the jock, the slacker, the nerd, the immigrant, etc. Society has no data for computing our orbit than other than our past acts and if they don’t know our (private) past acts then we are maximally free to reinvent ourselves, which is a good thing.

Projecting this argument onto the sphere of privacy it seems to me that we need to do a better job delineating those places in life where transparency is important (government, corporations) and those places where privacy reigns (individuals lives) and enforcing this higher value (the delineation of realms) in law.

Should I be denied a job I’m qualified for because online I’m an anti-war crusader (or Iraq hawk for that matter)? Clearly not. Should it matter that my senator watches porn? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that, while I am interested in breasts and I am interested in what my senator is up to, those interests shouldn’t collide except in very rare circumstances. But if my senator is watching child porn? Well then he’s breaking the law and also a very strong societal value around the protection of children and should clearly lose his job.

Technology, like government, walks a fine line between being truly supportive and being truly invasive. It is the great challenge of our age to see the relationship between the two and guide them both hand in hand into a pristine future of golden delicious promise and hope. (Yay, hope!) A future with form and substance but hopefully one without Phorm. Maybe we can?

See also: Harlan’s follow-up piece on Phorm.

Ira Glass on Failure
March 30, 2008, 9:23 am
Filed under: Art, Video

I’ve been listening to This American Life on and off for most of my American life. So much so that Ira Glass’ voice has become emblematic for me of good, interesting, well-expressed talk radio. Yet I never bothered to find out what Ira looks like.

I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this…

Anyway, thought this was a cool little piece on exploring lots of ideas and aggressively killing the bad ones. Probably applicable in more places than just radio broadcasting.

This video is actually part 2 in a series of 4 videos of Ira Glass on storytelling and producing good creative work. Here are 1, 3, and 4.

See also: Really interesting This American Life piece on testosterone, Signal vs. Noise making rather obvious points about this very video.

I can’t stand this commercial
March 29, 2008, 3:52 pm
Filed under: Advertising, Race, Rants, Rap, Ridiculous, Video

It’s got an incredibly annoying thumping Reggaeton beat with some of the weakest rap lyrics that have ever graced the small screen (this is a medium that gave air to This is Why I’m Hot), clearly misogynistic, possibly a bit racist, and has a SEA MONSTER.

It’s also brilliant advertising.

I don’t care what demographic you fall into, I dare you to watch this ad once and not know the phone number for Optimum Triple Play. My brother knows the whole rap by heart.

My hat’s off to you, Mr. Ad Man.