I've been obsessed lately with Blixa Bargeld, the front man for Einstüzende Neubauten (and formerly with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds). He's aged remarkably well! The middle picture is early 80s Blixa doing his more-heroin-chic-than-Peter-Murphy look. The other two images are from his latest videos where he looks like your cool degenerate uncle. Looks much healthier with a little meat on his bones.

Looks aside the new album Alles in Allem is excellent. Taken as a whole it's a love letter to Berlin, with four songs explicitly about various neighborhoods and the whole thing having a Berlin cabaret feel. The two videos are a good place to start: Ten Grand Goldie and Alles in Allem. But the whole album is great and very listenable. If like me you mostly think of Einstüzende as the arty machine noise group from the 80s, you missed their turn to more lyricism. Still plenty of unusual percussion sources though, not to mention Blixa's trademark shriek. May they have another forty years as productive.

  2020-08-04 17:07 Z

(CW: rape, racism). Ken and I watched Gone With the Wind this week. As if it were prestige TV, in one hour segments over four nights. It’s imminently watchable that way. And for a movie as early as 1939 it still feels very modern. It’s completely enjoyable by modern standards, no early film awkwardness of plotting or direction. Well written characters, amazing sets and costumes, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film.

It’s also a racist piece of shit of a film. And deeply steeped in rape culture. And these sins don’t just mar the surface; you can’t watch the movie and just sort of ignore them. The entire intent of the film is racist, the racism is woven throughout the whole story. It’s a Lost Cause fiction about a Gallant South, about how Georgia suffered unjustly under the evil invading Union forces. I was prepared for the racism part; the film is notorious for it. I was less prepared for the rape culture.

The center of the film is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It’s excellently written and both actors are amazing, so the performance is exhilirating. It’s also absolutely awful. The first time they kiss, it’s as they’re fleeing the burning of Atlanta and the destruction of Scarett’s world. Scarlett keeps saying "no" and pushing Rhett away, hitting him, pleading him to stop. And he literally forces a kiss on her against a blood red sky. To the film’s credit she holds her ground, pushes him away and slaps him, but Rhett doesn’t even look surprised.

It gets worse with the actual rape on the staircase, a drunk Rhett violently attacking his wife, grabbing her and carrying her up the stairs. To impregnate her, after she’d already told him she didn’t want a second child and implied she wanted no sexual relations of any kind. The hideous thing is in the morning she’s shown waking as from a dream, with a smile, a happy smile, because apparently… I can’t explain it, it’s simply rape culture and it’s awful. Particularly for Scarlett. In many ways she’s a great character, a strong woman who survives no matter the circumstances, uses men and sexuality for her own purposes. To have her so violated and then shown to enjoy it is deeply offensive.

Young Black
slave girls fan the white ladies and it goes entirely

There’s nothing I can say about the racism in the film that’s not been said better elsewhere. Happy slaves, noble Klansman (barely disguised), the whole mythology of plantation life… it’s all awful propaganda. What I didn’t know before reading about the movie this week is how there were protests about the film both during its making and in its premiere in 1939. It was a hugely successful film but its hatefulness did not go unnoticed. Just most white Americans didn’t care. The Jim Crow South in particular was eager for a film that justified its continuing racism.

I don’t know what to say about the stereotype character Mammy. When I was a little kid I had a nanny like Mammy, a big caring middle aged Black woman who loved children. So this Mammy stereotype is deeply wired into me. And Hattie McDaniel’s performance is excellent. I particularly like how much latitude she has in the household, how she can speak the truth and be sassy and be respected. OTOH Mammy is only written as a character to support the white people in the movie. Nothing at all is said about her own life, or what the transition of emancipation might have meant to her, or whether she had her own children or life outside of being Scarlett’s minder. None of the other Black characters get any better treatment, the film is entirely blind to the reality of life in that place.

My mother loved Gone With the Wind. She loved the fantasy of the antebellum South, the costumes, the performances. She might have acknowledged the fantasy depiction of plantation life but would have found it unobjectionable. But I think what she really liked is Scarlett, a strong woman, a woman who survives very difficult times through grit and shrewdness and clever use of her feminine wiles. I don’t know what she would have thought about the rape culture, I think she bought into it as much as most people her age. That it was romantic for a man to ravish a woman. What an awful thing.

Next up: Giant.

  2020-08-02 15:18 Z

America has failed to contain Covid-19. It seems the virus will continue to spread unchecked and every American will be exposed in the next few months. So now what? Is there any point in even trying to isolate?

I feel like people haven’t yet recognized the magnitude of our failure to control the disease. We are at 45,000 new cases a day; a significant increase over the early April peak of 30,000. And the rate is accelerating. We have uncontrolled growth in the wake of states relaxing social restrictions. There’s now a move to improve distancing a little bit but the only thing that would stop this kind of spread is a lockdown even more severe than those of March and April. No one is talking about doing that.

To be clear, this loss of control is a uniquely American failure. Compare to Germany, Spain, Canada and China. All had an infection spike, some quite a bit higher on a per capita basis. All tamed the disease and are now finding 0-10 new cases a day. Pretty much all developed countries have controlled this disease; you have to look to Brazil for a catastrophe as bad as ours.

We gave up on containment. My question is… now what? We seem to have accepted that the whole country is going to be exposed to Covid-19. Is there any point in trying to socially isolate or distance now? Why go through enormous restrictions on your personal life if you’re just going to get infected anyway despite best precautions? If 10% of the people in your town are infected, the only way you’re going to avoid getting it yourself is extreme isolation. Washing your hands and trying to maintain six feet from others isn’t going to save you, particularly when the Trump mouth breathers around you won’t even wear a mask.

The main communal reason I see to continue to distance is to try to at least slow the spread down. The pressing danger now is we get a big enough spike in critical cases that hospitals are overwhelmed and people start dying again for lack of medical care. A miserable year+ of semi-lockdown might help. That seems to be what California is governing too, at least. But that’s an altruistic argument. My own personal case isn’t going to overwhelm the hospitals, so why deprive myself?

For me the personal motivation to continue to maintain isolation is moral. I don’t want to get sick, but I really really don’t want to get other people sick. Like my partner Ken, who is old enough there’s a significant risk to his life if he gets a bad case. So I feel like I have a moral responsibility to continue to distance myself. It’s very hard to maintain that standard when so many Americans don’t.

Our government has completely failed to protect the public welfare. Trump’s deadly ignorance is well documented and bears a lot of the blame. The Republican leadership mostly repeats his Covid denialism. But the Democrats aren’t doing much better. Here in California, Newsom’s informed and well-meaning policies seem to be failing nearly as badly as the ruinous Republican policies in Texas and Florida. We have week-long delays for test results, not enough contact tracing, and uncontrolled spread in half the state. Even my little small town mayor has failed her people.

America is simply incapable of dealing with a national health crisis. We’ve defaulted into a path where everyone gets sick and too bad for the millions who will die. We have failed. What’s the appropriate personal response?

  2020-07-03 17:26 Z

I joined the Instant Pot religion. I mostly use it as a pressure cooker, but the fact you can also saute and brown things in it, simmer them, etc makes it really versatile. The cooking modes are confusing though and the pressure cooker is lower pressure than typical American electric pressure cookers.

Here’s a cheat sheet to temperatures for the Instant Pot. I believe these come from the official manual. There’s also great detail in this review.

Pressure Cooker
Low 5.8–7.2 PSI
High 10.2–11.6 PSI
Slow Cook
Low 82-88°C (180-190°F)
Medium 88-93°C (190-200°F)
High 93-99°C (200-210°F)
Custom choose 40°C-98°C (104°F–208°F)
Low 135-150°C (275-320°F)
Medium 160-176°C (320-349°F)
High 175-210°C (347-410°F)
Custom choose 40°C-170°C (104-338°F)
Keep Warm
63-78°C (145-172°F)
Custom choose 40°C–90°C (104°F–194°F)

Note that simmering means to keep the pot just below 100°C. It’s not quite boiling, but there’s still a little steam nucleation which makes the tiny bubbles. In an Instant Pot that means Slow Cook on Medium or High, probably with the lid off.

  2020-06-22 01:23 Z

A friend from Houston posted an article on Facebook: Daughter of Astros legend Ken Caminiti calls out racism she experienced growing up in Pecan Grove. She talks eloquently about the racism inherent in the street names of Pecan Grove, TX, a 1970s-era Houston suburb.

When your white children tell their black friends that they live on Plantation Dr, Confederate Ct, or Brown School Ct, these black children do not think of streets, they think of racism.

Pecan Grove being largely white, there’s some pushback to that criticism. And the immediate cry of "don’t make us change the street names! Don’t erase history!". That got me curious about Pecan Grove’s actual history, beyond the romantic racism of "Old Dixie Dr".

Mind you, I’ve spent all of thirty minutes on this, a real historian could do a much better job. But even with such little effort I did better than the neighborhood’s own history page, which presents Pecan Grove as springing fully out of nowhere in 1973. This online history is a little better and in particular highlights the presence of the Hunter Plantation. Which was presumably mostly sugar but had one fine pecan tree as well, hence the name. I'm not 100% certain Pecan Grove is built exactly on the Hunter Plantation land, I did not do that research, but given their excitement to use the word "Plantation" on parks and street names I think it's likely connected.

The Hunter Plantation founder Johnson Calhoun Hunter was one of the Old Three Hundred, some of the first white non-Spanish settlers in the area. His children took over the plantation and ran it right through the slave years and on until about 1900.

The Hunters were slavers. According to the 1860 Slave Schedules they owned at least 53 slaves. Thomas Hunter (born 1821) listed his occupation as "Overseer" in 1850 and "farmer" in 1860. He owned 39 people. Martha Hunter (born 1790) owned 13. William Hunter (born 1830) only owned 4 human beings. A disappointment to the family, I’m sure.

Sadly, the Slave Schedules tell us next to nothing about the victims themselves, the slaves. No names, no histories. The ages are pretty horrifying though. 16 of Thos’ chattel slaves were fourteen or younger. Do you suppose Thos waited for the little girls to reach puberty before taking "his privilege" on them? Did he force the 55 year old men to work in the fields? Wm’s slaves were 33, 24, 31, and 10. Martha had a 4 month old baby to call her own.

How many slaves do you suppose are buried in unmarked graves under the suburban streets? I wonder what happened to them after Emancipation. Something tells me they aren’t living in Pecan Grove now.

Pecan Grove does have a Plantation Memorial Park. But it’s not a memorial to the slaves who worked and died at the plantation. It’s a memorial to military veterans. Which is certainly fine (it’s not a Confederate memorial), but one wonders why the word Plantation is on it. Pride in their white heritage, no doubt.

  2020-06-11 16:18 Z

Like everyone I’m riding out this Covid-19 lockdown with a mix of depression, anxiety, anger, boredom. And obsessively reading every detailed quality article I can find about both the disease and the politics around the disease. And it’s just all too much. Ordinarily my goal is to research something and get at some truth people don’t know about, then report it. I did this a couple of weeks ago about an unfounded theory that SARS-CoV-2 was in California last fall.

But right now there’s so many awful things going on. And I go deep on some topic and it doesn’t matter because it’s just all too much. People don’t care about the details of some particular nuance of antibody test specificity and Bayesian statistics. They just want to know "is the medical science going to make us safe?" "Are our politicians doing a good job helping us be safe?"

The top level answer on medical science is "science will make us safe, but it takes time". The top level on the politics is "America is doing a terrible job". The Trump administration is full of vandals and science deniers. Trump himself seems worried only in trying to save his re-election chances and lurches day to day to new outrages. Some of the states, including California, are doing better but it’s all going way too slow. My particular anger is focussed on the lack of testing capacity. We are way below what we need to safely reopen the country.

Anyway, it’s all too much. So rather than meticulously run down a bunch of complicated stories I’m just going to list a bunch of the big outrages with minimal references, just so I don’t lose track or forget that they have happened.

It’s not a comprehensive list, it’s just the outrages of the last two months I could remember offhand. It’s too much.

If you made it all the way to the bottom of this bummer post, let me give you one silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud. J. Kenji López-Alt, my favorite food nerd, has been doing an excellent series of home cooking videos. They are a delight.

  2020-04-24 19:53 Z

I have some tips for avoiding the spam that inevitably follows from making political donations. It’s not perfect, but it helps.

The problem: I donated to 10 congressional candidates in 2018. This election cycle I’ve gotten personalized fundraising requests from about 40 candidates; a few of those 10, a lot unrelated. Email, cell phone calls, it’s never-ending. I feel like I’m being punished for supporting my candidates. How to stop it?

The cause: campaign donations are public records. Any time you give money to any campaign or party, your contact info goes to the FEC who then publishes a list of every donation made in the country. This information quickly gets picked up by the political parties and other data brokers into something called "the voter file", a giant spreadsheet with 2000+ rows for every voter and donor in the US. Your name, your address, your phone number, your email, your donation history, and a bunch of direct marketing data like demographics, political leanings, etc. It is basically impossible to avoid getting on this file.

The solution: give the bare minimum information when donating. I believe this is name, address, and employer. Phone number is explicitly not required; leave it blank or make one up (I use an obviously fake number). Email address is definitely not required by law, although many online sites do require it themselves. For those I use special burner email addresses, things like nelson+polspam@monkey.org. Sometimes that makes it easier to filter in Gmail.

A special note about ActBlue, the online donation platform for most Democrats. They’re great! They also have a very clear privacy policy where they only share your info with the receiver of the donation and the legally required FEC. However they do also share email and phone even if they don’t have to; that fake phone number and burner email can be a help.

Even if you put all this in place carefully stuff will leak through. Given a person’s name and address you can quickly find all sorts of extra data about them, particularly once you go to marketing databases that have been around 30+ years. They will end up with your cell phone and email and spam text you anyway. There seems to be no way avoiding it entirely.

One special trick for cell phones: reply to spam with the text STOP. Legitimate actors will typically honor that, although I’m not sure it’s perfect.

A request for my friends who work in voting data: please, please have some sort of opt out database. One central list of "this person really does not want to be contacted via cell phone". I know it looks like it will harm your business, but the unstoppable intrusion on donors’ lives will also harm your business.

  2020-03-01 18:50 Z

A favorite indulgent potato chip dip. It's the mild egg flavor with a bit of smoke makes this special. We generally have it as a holiday treat but there's nothing particularly Christmassy about it. Ken says he got the recipe from someone who worked with his Mom around 1960.

  • 1 8oz pkg regular cream cheese (room temperature)
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1/3 cup regular mayonnaise
  • 1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp hickory smoked salt
  • 1/2 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1 tsp dried marjoram (or basil)
  • 1/2 tsp granulated onion
  • 1/2 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1/4 tsp fenugreek (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard

Chop the eggs in a food processor fairly fine. Put the cream cheese into a wide, shallow bowl. Add the eggs and mayonnaise and mix well with a fork. Add the remaining seasonings and mix again. Enjoy with your favorite chips. This is a mild dip so plain or mild flavored chips are a better choice.

I posted this recipe three years ago but that was me trying to reconstruct it; this better version is from Ken's own hand.
  2020-01-22 17:58 Z

One of my mother’s favorite Christmas recipes dating back to at least the 1970s were her cheese balls. Nothing unique about the cheese ball or cheese log for Christmas. But ours were specifically Texan. I have a photograph of her recipe card, here’s the ingredients. I think things in parentheses were variants.

Cheese ball (3 fist size balls)

  • 1 lb cheddar (+Swiss)
  • (3 oz blue cheese)
  • 6 oz cream cheese
  • 6 dashes Liquid Smoke
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • garlic - dried onion - 2 or 3 pinches cayenne
  • 1 1/2 Tb prepared mustard
  • Red wine or sherry 2 or 3 Tb

Her recipe didn’t include any notes on actually making it, but it’s basically "put it all in a bowl and mash it together". Grate the cheddar first (she used a sharp cheddar) and don’t be afraid to use your hands to mush it all together. To finish she would roll the balls in bright red mild paprika, mostly for the color. Sometimes in pecans but I never much cared for that.

What makes this Texan? The sharp cheddar, the liquid smoke, and the garlic/onion/cayenne that are chili seasonings. All it’s missing is cumin! (Don’t use cumin.) The prepared mustard is a bit of a curveball for a Texas dish but it’s good. And the touch of wine adds a sophistication.

I was reminded of this because Homesick Texan just posted her Aunt Betty’s cheese ball recipe. That recipe is similar to my mom’s but there are some interesting differences. I like Fain's Worcestershire and the idea of rolling in chili powder (itself a spice blend, including cumin). Wouldn’t be my Mom’s though without the liquid smoke and I suspect the prepared mustard is doing some magic not in Fain’s recipe.

I wonder at the history that gives us these two similar Texas cheese ball recipes. Knowing my mom I’m guessing it was Helen Corbitt. Indeed Corbitt has a cheese ball recipe involving mustard and smoked cheese. And horseradish and pickled beets?! Maybe not.

Update: just made this and it's as good as I remember. Mix the (scant) non-cheese ingredients first, then mash that into the cream cheese, and only at the end add the cheddar. The finer grated the cheddar is the better, but don't use pre-grated; the grocery store stuff is coated with anti-caking powder. I mixed with my bare hand, the warmth helping melt the cream cheese, then froze it for half an hour to shape.

  2019-12-20 22:51 Z

I fear a lot of white people in America don’t understand the pervasiveness of our culture of white supremacy. Growing up I was indoctrinated in racism and white supremacy and it’s taken many years to understand how those hateful ideas have invaded my mind and try to influence every aspect of my thinking. I think most white Americans are similarly indoctrinated and don’t recognize it. As we face a violent flareup of white supremacy in our current political world it’s important to understand how entrenched the idea is in white Americans that we are superior and the country belongs to us, the "real Americans". Recognizing this indoctrination is the first step in fighting it.

My grandmother was my personal teacher for white supremacy. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Houston as a rich white boy, I was immersed in the culture of white superiority that is the birthright of most white Americans. But it was my grandmother who taught me the specifics. Content warning: the rest of this post discusses racist indoctrination in frank terms. It’s an awful thing, but it is my history and I need to claim it.

My grandmother, Lou Ward Jones, was a hateful woman in many ways both personal and petty and also large and broad. She was a virulent unrepentant racist, albeit a socially acceptable one. She was careful not to say N— out loud where polite people would hear her. That word was saved for moments of anger and for my private education. She interacted with Black people: the waiters in restaurants, a live-in maid in her house. But never as an equal. She wasn’t terrible to "her" maids but also was certainly not kind. That servant / familial relationship that is the uncomfortable way of the South.

Here’s some of the things my grandmother taught me

  • Black people were better off under slavery.

  • The South was the blameless victim of the Civil War.

  • The maitre’d at the Houston Country Club was called "boy". Occasionally to his face and often deliberately in his hearing. A polite and professional Black man of age 50, he would smile and say "yes Mrs. Jones."

  • Slaves were happy, their masters took good care of them.

  • Brazil nuts were called n— toes, this word taught with an impish smile like a naughty girl getting away with something.

  • Desmond Tutu was only a "so-called Archbishop".

  • Little Black Sambo was great and it was terrible you couldn’t buy the books any more. I may still believe this one a tiny bit.

  • The KKK was a necessary civil defense force to protect whites from rampaging N—s.

  • Nelson Mandela was a criminal and it was terrible that he shared a name with her husband and me.

  • N—s were and are too lazy or stupid to care for themselves.

  • Martin Luther King was violent and wanted to kill white people.

These are some of the nuggets of white supremacy I was taught growing up during weekend visits. Not as a programmatic thing, just the background radiation of the white South. But my grandmother made an explicit effort to indoctrinate me. It seemed entirely unremarkable to me at the time, a lot of white people I grew up around talked this way. I absorbed these lessons from my family just like any little kid does.

Fortunately I learned better. My mother would occasionally push back; while she thoughtlessly harbored racism herself she also knew her mother’s racism was wrong. She made it clear I would not be calling the maitre’d "boy". My school did a good job teaching critical thinking and historical facts somewhat free of Southern bias, particularly my junior year US History class. And I developed my own ideas of social justice starting in high school. I became skeptical, anti-racist, argued back. Not so much against my grandmother though; she was a cruel and abusive woman and none of us talked back to her. I learned to hate her instead.

But the indoctrination was strong. The core message was that as a white person I was inherently superior. That these other races of people were here to be servants, or dumb labor, and while regrettably we couldn’t own them any more we could still treat them as lesser people. No matter what challenges I faced I was white and America belonged to me. It’s a comforting and empowering belief, being raised a white supremacist. It is poison.

I’m sorry to write out all this hateful and horrible stuff. But so much of white America is still awash in these attitudes, infected with them. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to get out of the grip of this indoctrination and I still have tendrils of it in me. Pervasive racism is the single biggest social challenge facing America today, one of the core reasons why roughly half the American population starts life with a significant disadvantage. It goes a long way to explaining Trump’s popularity; people voted for him because he’s a racist, not despite that. This is America.

This essay inspired by Michael Twitty's essay about white visitors to Southern plantations.
  2019-08-21 21:03 Z