I went to DC a few weeks ago and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an excellent pair of museums, I strongly recommend anyone visiting DC make it a priority. It’s still free and still a hot ticket but easier to get in to than before. If you’re going in summer reserve tickets three months in advance for your best experience. But you can also get same-day tickets and walkups, particularly outside of peak season.

The museum is clearly designed as two separate sections. Downstairs is history, upstairs is culture. The bottom half of the museum is a fantastic history of African Americans from the earliest days of slavery, through slave uprisings, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. It’s ambitious. It will leave you exhausted at the end with no energy for the other half of the museum, the cultural museum. Which is also fantastic, a celebration of African American cultures. Food, textiles, sports, music, TV. I mean, they have the goddamn P-Funk mothership! It’s a lot of fun. Definitely also worth a visit, but plan a break for lunch or something in the middle.

I approached this museum from the background of having visited a lot of German museums about Nazi history. I was wondering how the Smithsonian would deal with America’s enormous crime against humanity. Thoroughly and honestly, but very differently from the German museums. The Nazi memorials tend to a direct documentation of how the genocide and other crimes were conducted. They are focussed on a recent history in living memory, and one that is meticulously documented in precise bureaucratic detail. By contrast formal American slavery is 150+ years old and there’s precious few direct records of, say, individual slaveholders and their daily abuses. The historical distance demands a different telling. Also the Smithsonian has made a decision to tell as uplifting a history as possible; in every room details of African American resistance, strength, and heroism are highlighted. I think that’s admirable but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for documenting the horrible abuses. Those are documented, but only as one facet of the whole museum.

So I was a little conflicted. Honestly I think America needs a fully uncomfortable museum about slavery where the abuses are the focus. How American people and government worked to subjugate other Americans, to keep them and their children in slavery. Far too many people still think that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or wasn’t really Americans’ faults, or that slavery is over so what’s the big deal now? The German museums exist to ensure that no German can be at all confused about what happened in the Nazi regime and could never consider even slightly lionizing that era. Plenty of Americans still celebrate Confederate "heroes" and do not admit to the horrible abuses of slavery, not just in its time but the echoes of it today. I fear in softening the message the Smithsonian does not do enough to communicate how horrible American slavery was. There are a couple of museums that are more focussed on the mechanisms of abuse which I need to visit; the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans and the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery.

One other thing I can’t let go… Nazi memorials in Germany are in no way museums of Jewish culture. They are museums of German history. The Smithsonian has chosen to put museums of both Culture and History together in one place. I think they’ve done an excellent job of it. The separation of floors makes for a separation of concerns. And I like the uplifting message in the history section, the story of how African Americans shall overcome. So the combination works, but it still makes me uneasy.

culturetravel
  2019-06-14 17:40 Z

I’m reading The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. It’s by an Economist journalist, a book about the taboo topic of engineering our way out of global warming. It starts with two questions. Do you think global warming is a real threat? Do you think reducing CO2 emissions to near zero is very hard?

If you answer "yes" to both, then maybe you’re open to an alternate solution to climate change: geoengineering. Active measures to combat global warming other than just telling everyone they have to stop using energy. Some of these methods seem plausible and inexpensive and worth discussing.

One example idea is stratospheric aerosol injection. You fly planes or balloons regularly up to 60,000 feet or so and spray sulfur dioxide. There it turns into various gasses that reflect sunlight, replicating more or less what volcanoes already do naturally. Estimates are it’d cost $2B–$8B per year to completely counteract global warming, a small amount of money. The intervention is temporary, the sulfurous particles don’t last forever. That’s a good thing in that if something goes catastrophically wrong it’s not permanent. Also a bad thing in that it’s an annual cost that has to be maintained. Note the cost and technique is simple enough any individual country could choose to do this unlaterally, at any time.

There’s other possible techniques for geoengineering. Chemical carbon capture, planting enormous forests, orbital sun shades, … But the topic is nearly taboo in environmental circles; a recent UN meeting failed to get consensus to even decide to discuss the idea further. If you believe global warming is a threat to humanity and that our current efforts to stop CO2 emissions are failing, it seems worth thinking about alternatives. Even if you don’t like the idea of geoengineering it’s worth studying in case some other country decides to just do it on their own.

Me, I like the idea. Because I’m a technocrat. I want to believe science and engineering can solve any problem. Also because it doesn’t require demanding that the 50%+ of the world that’s not yet industrialized goes years more without cheap power because we’re mad they’ll put as much carbon in the air as the rich countries already have. The risks are obvious and enormous. But they are also hopefully manageable and the risk is absolutely worth it if it saves our planet.

tech
  2019-06-13 17:01 Z

The Supreme Court yesterday heard a case about whether the US census can include a question on whether the person is a citizen, a question placed there by Wilbur Ross for the Trump administration. They’ve already lost this case in three federal courts but now it’s going to the Supreme Court. Despite the politics, there’s some important non-political arguments here that matter and aren’t being well reported. Let me highlight them.

The goal of the decennial census is an accurate count of all people. The basis of the Census comes from Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution as amended by the 14th Amendment. The key phrase here is "counting the whole number of persons in each State". Not counting just citizens. In particular, representatives to the House are apportioned based on the entire population of each state, not just the population of citizens.

The accuracy of the count matters. It directly affects the number of House of Representatives seats and also Electoral College votes. The count also greatly influences funding apportionment, social security, etc. It’s not just statistical data for planning purposes, it is the count of record for all sorts of legislative matters.

The citizenship question would result in an undercount. The problem with the citizenship question is it will cause a lot of non-citizens to not answer the census and thus not be counted. It’s not hard to imagine why someone who is living here illegally would not want to disclose that fact to a federal officer, particularly now. But the citizenship question also discourages people who are here legally. Don’t take my word for it: the Census’ Chief Scientist John Abowd said "Three distinct analyses support the conclusion of an adverse impact on self-response and, as a result, on the accuracy and quality of the 2020 Census."

We already ask about citizenship. In addition to the decennial census, the Census Bureau also runs a fantastic demographic research program called the American Community Survey. They send detailed questionnaires of various types to a subset of American households, some every month, and collect detailed data on ethnicity, education, economics, even a count of how many people own computers. The ACS also asks about citizenship; here’s a quick view of the some of data.

We know the citizenship question will result in an undercount because of the ACS’ experience with the question. They have detailed estimates of how many people don’t answer the census at all, don’t answer the citizenship question, or quit the survey right where the citizenship question is asked. Abowd’s memo about this is long (100MB PDF), here’s a shorter relevant excerpt. Broadly speaking there’s two separate concerns; that the census taker doesn’t answer the one citizenship question, or that they don’t answer the whole census because of the presence of that one citizenship question. There’s corroborating studies from outside Census that also show the question will result in a significant undercount.

The decennial census has to be an exact count. Thanks to a 1999 Supreme Court decision the Census data used for apportionment must be an actual head count. No form of sampling or extrapolation is allowed, despite the fact that would result in a number closer to the true count. That means there’s no way to correct a census flawed with an undercount from the citizenship question.

I’ve tried to present politically neutral arguments above. How do we most accurately get an exact count of people in the US? By not adding a new question about citizenship. But of course the politics of the census can’t be ignored. The Census estimates 6.5M people may be undercounted because of this question, that’s nearly 2% of the US population. The people being undercounted tend to be Hispanic and immigrants and also tend to be pro-Democrat. Those people will be denied representation in the House and those states will be underfunded.

It’s not an accident that this question the Republican administration wants to ask just happens to help Republicans. It’s there because Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach asked Wilbur Ross to put it there, a fact that Ross apparently forgot about in earlier testimony. Ross tried to claim the Justice Department asked him to add the question but it turns out they only asked because Ross requested they ask him. The White House is now refusing to cooperate with a congressional investigation into how the question came to be on the census in the first place. There’s a detailed timeline of the political process. It’s gone much faster than the usual multi-year process for questions to carefully be added to the Census.

The Census Bureau is a competent, careful, non-partisan government agency. It’s a shame to see their work corrupted.

politics
  2019-04-24 22:34 Z

Reminder: it is not normal for the President of the United States to openly embrace the language of fascism.

I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.

Update: Trump tweeted a link to his interview, then deleted it after someone inspired by him murdered 49 people in New Zealand.

politics
  2019-03-15 14:47 Z

I’ve learned to make a simple Korean stew that’s delicious and foolproof. Doenjang Jjigae (된장찌개) is a homey stew made with a flavor of fermented soybean paste, something like miso only more rustic and spicy. Serve it over rice with some banchan (side-dishes) and you have a simple reliable meal. There’s a zillion different recipes online. Maangchi’s recipe is good or see here for a second opinion.

The core flavor comes from the broth made from doenjang paste dissolved in water. The broth is easy since the flavor comes from a pre-prepared product. You can find doenjang in Asian groceries or at a markup on Amazon.

Garlic and chile is added to the broth for heat and flavor. Korean ground red chile is best (Amazon) or you can use most anything; red pepper flakes, cayenne, maybe some hot paprika for a bit of smoke. The broth can also be upgraded by starting with anchovy stock instead of plain water.

Once you have the broth you add the rest. Common vegetables include zucchini, daikon or mu, onion, fresh chiles, potato. Proteins include tofu, shrimp, clams, or my favorite: fatty pork. You can pretty much just boil everything together, although if you’re using pork you should render the fat first in the pot before making the broth.

I serve it in a bowl over short grain rice with whatever side dishes I can muster. A full banchan spread is a ridiculous amount of work. But I almost always have a jar of kimchi on hand. These marinated mushrooms are also super easy to make and delicious.

culturefood
  2019-03-11 20:07 Z

Mexico City is famous right now for its food culture. From the temples of fine dining like Pujol to casual street tacos people love to eat well in CDMX. I made thorough notes on all the places we ate on a short trip. My favorite places were Carmela y Sal, Corazón de Maguey, and Taqueria Califa.

Cafe Tacuba for lunch. Our tour guide suggested this as something near the Cathedral. I really liked it, a funky throwback cafe with a nearly ossified traditional Mexican menu. Honestly the service was a bit off and slow, but that was offset by the place being so retro and comfortable. I liked my chile rellenos quite a bit although I would have traded one of the two enormous chiles for a more complex sauce. Ken’s enchiladas tapatías were good.

Carmela y Sal for dinner. We told some of the hotel staff we were going here and they were all very excited; apparently chef Gabriela Lugo has made quite an impression in town. Us too, this felt like the exciting, trendy, yet comfortable kind of place that everyone says Mexico City is great for. The highlight dish for us was the "liar’s tostadas", a vegan preparation of coconut doctored up to taste like crab pork. Delicious on their own merits even without the hilarious cooking trick. My Poc Chuc was also fantastic, as was Ken’s creamy canneloni. Great wine list too. This restaurant was where we figured out Mexican portions are huge, we ordered way too much food. As dining mistakes go that’s not so bad.

Corazón de Maguey. Our tour guide took us here for a mezcal tasting; they are serious about mezcal here. Which was great, it’s interesting to taste a bunch of mezcals against each other. Nice restaurant too, good basic Mexican vibe with a leaning towards Oaxacan cuisine. I loved the Coyoacán neighborhood this is located in, the restaurant is right on the lively main park / square that defines the neighborhood.

Capital Grille. We decided we might want some familiar American food one night, and who doesn’t like a good steak? They delivered well here, although other than a couple of Mexican cocktails we could just as easily have been in Duluth or Miami or Toronto. Was nearly empty on Saturday night other than a lunch party that’d started 7 hours before; I suspect this is a businessman’s dinner kind of place. If you want a US steak at US prices go here, otherwise go somewhere Mexican!

Taqueria Califa. Casual and fast tacos but in a nice well lit place with table service. Certainly a good choice for gringos who want street food but are nervous about it. My favorite here was the classic tacos al pastor; with fresh onion, cilantro, and pineapple setting off the roast pork so well. Great place for a quick snack or casual full meal.

Porfirios. Dinner at a hilariously trendy / fancy restaurant. I think every single table had at least one tableside preparation, whether molcajete or something set on fire or the lady wheeling around a street corn sign. Great looking grilled steaks and shrimp, but we stuck with simpler chiles rellenos (good) and enchiladas mole (too sweet). This seems to be a place wealthy locals go to celebrate. The lighting in the restaurant is tragic though; so dark all the waiters have flashlights handy for reading menus but then also a super bright TV in the bar annoying everyone having dinner. On the balance I think the theater of it overcame the quality of the food. It was fine, but I wouldn’t go back.

Restaurante Meztli. Not in CDMX but rather right next to the pyramids at Teotihuacán, a good spot for thirsty tourists. Margaritas, micheladas, good guacamole and enchiladas. I can’t say it’s anything special but for the middle of a tourist zone it was quite good. The owner was super friendly, too.

Zanaya restaurant at the Four Seasons. Traditional Mexican, not great. Dinner felt more like an obligatory hotel restaurant than a place someone was running with love. Absolutely beautiful outdoor patio in the hotel’s magnificent garden courtyard. Sadly we had to sit inside which is not nearly as nice, despite the cool retro tile. Good cocktail list but the food seemed a bit ordinary, certainly not elevated. Definitely would not make a trip to dine here. (Breakfast here was good, but is a whole different thing.)

So those are all the places we dined. In addition I polled friends for places to go, here’s a list sorted by popularity: Pujol, Azul, Lardo, Tetetlan, La Clandestina, Alba in Roma Norte, Quintonil, Casa Hevia, Brassi, Dulce Patria, Casa Virginia, La Docena, Chureria El Moros, Rokai, Elilsito, La Capital, Lucerna Comedor, Rosetta, Masala y Maiz, Contramar, Maximo Bistro.

culturetravel
  2019-03-09 01:44 Z

For my birthday this year we visited Mexico City in early March. It was great! I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who’s interested in going to a big city that’s vibrant and has a long great cultural history. Also relatively inexpensive for American wallets. We went for four days and that was a good taste of the city. But there’s so much to do and enjoy I could see spending much longer, particularly if you start getting into neighborhoods and enjoying daily life.

There’s some photos here on Twitter. I didn’t do as good a job taking pictures this trip as I usually do.

I have to confess this trip was a bit of an education for me. I grew up in Houston with severe prejudice, so much that "Mexican" sounds like a slur to me, not a description of nationality. I think I’ve grown past the outright bigotry but my brief tourist jaunts across the border and on the coast didn’t really cure me of the idea that Mexico was somehow lesser. Mexico City is a whole different thing, a sophisticated international city bustling with life and excitement. Sure some taxis will rip you off and as a visitor you probably shouldn’t drink the tap water. But it’s a home to 21M people, fully modern, and full of excitement and modern culture and history and great food. Also people seemed very friendly, relaxed, and welcoming. I’m looking forward to going back.

We stayed at the Four Seasons which treated us very well. This hotel’s rooms all front on an enormous central courtyard so it’s quiet and beautiful. Service was excellent. Didn’t love their casual Mexican restaurant for dinner although breakfasts were great.

We booked this trip with a tour guide and driver via Journey Mexico for four full days. It was great; we saw a lot more than we would have on our own and understood more about what we saw. It was also exhausting and I think next time we’ll probably plan half days, stop at lunch. It’s an expensive way to travel but you can get a lot of the same value by hiring tour guides day by day and taking Uber everywhere. Here’s what we did:

Day 1: City Centre. The Templo Mayor museum, the Diego Garcia mural at the National Palace, and a quick visit to the San Juan Market. (We were supposed to see the Cathedral and the Palacio de Bellas Artes too, but skipped them). The museum offered us a remarkable view of historical Mexico City, the way the new city was built right on top of the old Aztec temple center. And the Diego Garcia mural is phenomenal, you can get something of a view of it here. I wish we’d spent more time just walking around the streets and less at the Templo Mayor, but we were moving slow. Fun retro lunch at Cafe Tacuba.

Day 2: Rivera/Kahlo/Trotsky and Coyoacán. The highlight here was visiting the Casa Azul, a privately run museum about Frida Kahlo at her home. The exhibitions were quite good and personal. Huge line to get in, even with advance tickets. We also visited the Rivera and Kahlo studio which was interesting architecturally but the exhibits are not so exciting. OTOH the Trotsky museum was fascinating; I had no idea Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico City and met a dismal end with an ice axe stuck in his head by a Soviet assassin. All these sites are near each other in the southern part of the city in the absolutely charming Coyoacán neighborhood where we had a great lunch and mezcal tasting at the Corazón de Maguey.

Day 3: Chapultepec Castle and the Anthropology Museum. The castle is a walk up a big hill but the views and exhibits are worth the effort. A preserved vestige of Hapsburg and French meddling in Mexican politics, the brief-lived Emperor of Mexico. Unfortunately that left us without enough energy for the anthropology museum, one of the best in the world and the very best for Mesoamerican history. I want to go back to Mexico City just to spend a couple of days slowly working through its treasures. For lunch I had the best tacos al pastor of my life at Taqueria Califa.

Day 4: Teotihuacan. An hour drive NE of the city, Teotihuacan is an enormous archaeological site of a city that lived from 150 BC to 600 AD. At its height it had some 200,000 residents, making it one of the largest cities in the world. It’s totally worth the drive to visit, particularly to see the reconstruction of the 2.5 mile long Avenue of the Dead and the scale of the Pyramids and Temples built alongside it. There’s also a lot of beautifully preserved original carving and painting on-site to see and a small museum of artifacts. If you want some companion reading this recent museum exhibition catalog is very up to date and has both great text and photographs. Lunch was nearby at the surprisingly good Restaurante Meztli.

In the evenings we went out mostly to fancy restaurants. See my companion blog post for more, but our favorite was Carmela y Sal. Our trip was a nice mix of ancient history and recent. If I had to pick three highlights off the list, I’d say the Diego Garcia mural, the Casa Azul, and the anthropology museum. What I wish we’d done more of was just getting into the town, walking around and enjoying neighborhoods and cafes. But that takes more time and local knowledge (not to mention language) than we had this first visit. But I’m sure Mexico City is a place I will happily return to, enjoy and experience more.

culturetravel
  2019-03-09 01:43 Z

I ruined Christmas in 1979 with an Atari 2600 gift. I was 7 years old.

The Atari was all I wanted. I started asking for one around Hallowe’en. My single Mom couldn’t possibly afford it. We weren’t poor, but all the money we had went to mortgage and school and we never had much extra for fun stuff. She told me there was no way she could buy it. It was $200, or about $800 in today’s dollars, and by that age I already understood what that meant.

Early December my sister, my older should-have-been-wiser sister, tipped me off that our mother had bought me the Atari. That it would be my Christmas present. I didn’t believe her, so she told me where it was hidden. In a gross dusty back closet in the garage. So when Mom wasn’t home I snuck into the closet and very, very carefully peeked and there was the Atari under some musty old polyester blanket.

I kept the secret for about three days. But I couldn’t contain myself. It was already bought and in the house! Even if Christmas was weeks away, surely I could go ahead and have it now and play it now? What would be the harm? So by my 7 year old logic I told my Mom I knew about the present. And informed her that since I knew about it, she might as well give it to me right then.

That was the second time I can remember my mother outright crying. The first time was two years earlier, when my father died. The third time was a few years later when I was 12 and so upset I told her I hated her and she’d ruined my life and honestly meant it in the moment.

But there in early December 1979 she burst into tears of anger and frustration because her big Christmas plan was ruined. She was so, so mad at me. Of course I couldn’t have my present. In fact since I’d been so naughty I was getting no present at all. She was going to return the Atari and give me nothing.

Sure enough, I had no presents under the tree. A day or two before Christmas she relented, a couple of small boxes appeared. I tearfully asked what had happened to the Atari. "It’s gone. I got you some underwear because, well, you need underwear anyway. You can open it on Christmas Day". I was no longer in a rush.

I felt so terrible. I knew how happy my mother was to have been able to buy that gift for me, how much it must have cost to have saved the money aside to be able to afford it. And then all that generosity and joy was ruined because I peeked at my presents.

So it was a pretty glum Christmas morning. I mean we had our stockings (with an orange in the toe), and candy, and nuts. There were a few boxes under the tree for me. I’d picked out my presents for everyone and they were ready to give, but I didn’t get much joy from that. I was just sad for my lost Atari.

Finally it came time to open presents. And my Mom handed me a small box, a cube, and told me to open it first. Inside was an Atari 2600 joystick! That confused the heck out of me. Then I opened the second box and it was a Combat game cartridge. Then another joystick, and an RF adapter, and then finally my mother took pity on me and hauled the last box out from where it’d been hidden; the Atari console itself, wrapped separately to hide what it was.

Best Christmas ever.

life
  2018-12-26 12:21 Z

One of the conveniences of Berlin city life is the Späti or Spätkauf, the local convenience store. It’s like your corner bodega in New York, a little market that sells essentials and is nearby and open late. Beer, newspapers, fresh baked goods, condoms, a couple of cooked meals, some minimal groceries. There’s one on nearly every block.

It’s particularly useful in Germany because laws and customs strictly limit how late stores can be open. For instance almost no one is open on Sundays, including grocery stores, without special exceptions. But somehow the neighborhood Späti is open every day, often 6am to 11pm or some even longer. The name literally means "late store".

In nice weather the Späti often have a couple of tables outside. And there’s no rule against drinking beer outside so they become a low cost alternative to going to a bar. There’s even Späticrawls where people spend the evening wandering between their favorite Spätis drinking beer on the way.

One other handy thing about the Späti, they often double as a formal package receiving service. My local has a deal with Hermes where a package can be delivered to them and they’ll hold it for a week. Fairly serious system for pickups too, an ID check and a signature and a record made. Amazon is happy to deliver to these so it’s easy to buy things from them in Berlin.

culturetravel
  2018-12-19 16:50 Z

I’ve had a mantra since Trump was elected: "it is going to keep getting worse". It’s depressing but I find being clear helps bolster me for the upcoming pain. There is no realistic scenario where the next two years in America are going to go better politically.

The midterms were a success for the Democrats. They decisively took the House. A victory, hooray! But what does that victory get us? Very little. At best, it slows down the horrible deluge of atrocities that are still coming.

Trump will remain President. There’s no likely path to an actual impeachment; even if Mueller has clear evidence of treason the Republicans in the Senate will protect Trump. And if they decide to get rid of Trump the result would be President Pence. That may be less stupid and crazy but Pence is also a bad and dangerous politician. And it is the entire Republican party that is the problem, not just Trump, and they will remain in power.

The best outcome from these midterms is the Democrats will use the investigatory powers of the House to unearth some of the Trump Administration’s crimes and malfeasance. (There’s an active debate on how aggressive the Democrats want to be.) A little truth-and-reconciliation would help things. Unearth the Trump Organization’s financial double dealings that corrupt the presidency. Get to the bottom of how our country stole thousands of children from their parents at the border and then lost several hundred of them, permanently orphaning the kids. Expose the Republican strategy of denying people voting rights to win elections. A little fresh air will feel good but it won’t actually change anything. We are way, way beyond where appeals to truth or decency matter.

Meantime, the Republicans will continue their campaign of vandalism. They will continue to undermine Obamacare. They will continue to demonize immigrants in a rank display of racism. They will continue to undermine LGBT rights, particularly transgender peoples’. They will continue to destroy our economy with reckless tax cuts. If not via legislation, then via executive action.

And forget our government taking normal action on necessary things like funding infrastructure, improving healthcare, setting reasonable foreign policy. Gridlock is better than active harm, but the best we have to hope for is gridlock.

That’s normal politics. It could get much worse. Trump is entirely unpredictable. It seems quite likely he will draw a page from the Putin playbook and start a war next year to help galvanize support for his re-election. Maybe Iran, Venezuela, Yemen. Maybe some "shithole" country he decides to attack. Nothing will stand in his way of creating a war.

Even that’s somewhat normal by American experience (see: 2003 in Iraq). The scariest thing to me is the rising fascism in American political rhetoric. The increasing appeals to violence. The demonizing of journalism. The frighteningly aggressive rhetoric of Trump’s rallies. The gun and bomb attacks by brownshirts. I was genuinely afraid the 2018 elections would be marred by some violent event, a mass shooting at a polling place or something. I’m glad I was wrong. I’m not going to be any less worried about that after two more years of Trump.

The country is breaking.

politics
  2018-11-08 18:51 Z