As a white American I feel a strong sense of guilt and responsibility for the injustices African Americans still suffer today. Not abstract collective responsibility: concrete, personal. But first the abstract. America was built on slave labor. The legacy of that slavery is deprivation for many black families even now, seven generations after emancipation. Moral white Americans have an obligation to help undo the harm America’s original sin has done to our fellow countrymen and our country.

But that’s abstract, and I keep thinking of the personal. Of my white Texas family’s history. I know they were racist, but just how bad were they? Were they slave owners? Lynchers?

The particular cruelty in my family’s history I’d like to understand better is the murder by lynching of Ted Smith in Greenville Texas on July 28, 1908. I know the date because there’s a souvenir postcard (warning; image of burned dead man). White people in the early 1900s were so proud of lynching black men there were frequently postcards.

My great-grandparents lived in Greenville in 1908. White people, town folks, he was an educated professional. Was he at the lynching? Did he approve? Are they in the crowd in that postcard? I got thinking about these questions after reading an article about the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia. They made souvenir postcards too. One thing the article notes is that in 2000, someone made a list of some of the lynching participants. I wonder if such a list could be made for Greenville? Would my great grandparents be on it?

The motto of Greenville, TX was The Blackest Land, the Whitest People. They displayed that proudly on a banner over the center of town through the 1960s. These are my people.

culture
  2016-01-23 16:10 Z

The Louvre is one of the world’s great museums. It is enormous and full of riches and totally worth several repeated visits. I particularly like the sculpture, but I discover something new every time. The Louvre is also a poorly designed tourist experience. Some notes below on making it better.

My discovery this last visit was the Marie de Medici cycle. Phenomenal series of 24 enormous Rubens paintings of the life of Marie de Medici, commissioned by Marie herself in 1622 for the Palais du Luxembourg. It’s painting on a scale that can only exist in a place like the Louvre. The story they tell is fascinating, you could spend a whole day looking at these paintings with Wikipedia’s competent explanation. Long story short she married the King of France and took over as regent when he died. When her son wrested power from her she was exiled. Part of her securing her legacy was having Rubens make these elegiac paintings telling her side of the story. They’re particularly unusual in that it’s a woman being lionized. They are fascinating. And being Rubens, they are amazingly well executed.

My other discovery at the Louvre was how difficult it is to get inside the door because of the security theater. This article describes your options. The tacky Carousel de Louvre mall seems best. While it only has a single security line, it has fewer visitors. The fancy main entrance is an hour+ disaster, the Porte des Lions is often unstaffed, and the Rue Richelieu entrance requires a hard-to-buy advance ticket. Past security, the fastest way to get a ticket is from an automated machine. Don’t follow the sheep; look for the machines without a line.

Once inside the Louvre not everything is available; rooms are regularly closed. Why? Hard to say, but much of it appears to be staffing. Also be sure to check the Louvre is open at all; sometimes some part of the staff goes on strike and the whole museum is closed.

One should approach the Louvre with a plan but I never manage. “Avoid the crowds” is a good heuristic; the Mona Lisa is lovely but the experience of shoving in to see it is not. This time I amused myself taking bad snapshots of painting details: one and two. Next time I should finally get to their ancient Egypt collection.

One last thing: a plan for lunch. You need a break. Unfortunately there is no longer a good proper restaurant in the museum, just some mediocre cafeteria options. We did well heading outside to the Brasserie du Louvre, surprisingly well really. Best salade niçoise I've had in awhile.

culturetravel
  2015-10-11 18:48 Z

There’s two kinds of cucumber pickle in the world: fermented and vinegar. Vinegar pickles are what you generally see in the grocery store, the Claussens and Vlasics. They’re not bad but they are awfully salty and the industrial vinegar is not a very good flavor. Fermented pickles are made without vinegar. Instead the vegetable is salted and then fermented to encourage lactic acid bacteria, which makes the pickles sour.

Sonoma Brinery makes an exceptionally good fermented pickle. They’re available in grocery stores in the US west, sold refrigerated. And while they’re not cheap at about $1 a large pickle they are delicious. Great flavor and good snap. They call them “half-sour”. They have a pleasant sour taste but it’s subdued, also the salt level is quite low. The result is a mild, fresh tasting pickle, something I much prefer to Bubbie’s intensely sour and salty fermented pickles. Sonoma Brinery’s fresh sauerkraut is also delicious.

Fermented foods are newly trendy thanks to the probiotic food fad (move over, gluten free). I could care less about the fake food science but I am glad that fermented flavors are more widely available in grocery stores. I’m not a fan of kombucha, too expensive and too sweet. But sauerkraut, kimchi, etc are delicious. I’ve started trying to ferment my own things now with Sandor Katz’s excellent book.

culturefood
  2015-08-19 17:38 Z

Ken and I went to India in February, a three week wealthy tourist’s trip. Absolutely loved it, would like to go back, enthusiastically recommended it. I documented most of the trip on Twitter as I went. I collected all the tweets in a Storify page; quite readable with lots of photos.

Our trip started in Delhi. From there we took a luxury tourist train through Rajastan for seven days to Mumbai. Then flew to Kolkata, then to Varanasi, then back through Delhi to home. So many amazing experiences. Some tourist sites that stuck with me most are the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, the Marble Palace in Kolkata, and offerings to Shiva in Varanasi.

But what really struck with me is newfound respect for the sophistication of India. I had no idea what to expect. India is an enormous place. With a very rich and complex cultural history and a colonial period that was not entirely rapacious. Modern India is a dynamic, exciting, upwardly mobile place. With nearly 1.3 billion people. We all know China is the up-and-coming economic story but India is close behind it. I met a lot of Indians with pride, pride in their cultural history, in their intellectual history, in their new prime minister.

On a more mundane level I also came away with excitement for the diversity of Indian cuisine. The Indian food we get in the US is one specific type of cuisine: Mughlai, butter and cream and earthy rich flavors. But there’s a huge variety of other foods. Coconut milk in South Indian cuisine, sour fruits and shellfish in Kerala cuisine, strong mustard sauces in Bengali food. A particularly great day was cooking lessons in Delhi with the author of a Chettinad cookbook. There’s a lifetime of technique to learn just in the art of tadka, the way spices are precisely roasted or fried at various moments in preparation.

culturetravel
  2015-07-04 15:49 Z

Johnny Reb was my school’s mascot. A big goofy fiberglass Confederate soldier. The school nickname was “The Rebels” and my hazy memory is the Confederate battle flag was occasionally used as decorative color. This seemed perfectly normal in Houston, Texas in the 1980s. Part of our Southern Heritage.

Young kids are blameless in this kind of thing, victims of indoctrination. By the time we got old enough for high school a lot of us found the racist association embarassing. A year after I graduated the upper class voted to change the mascot and banish any symbols of the Confederacy. (Which may or may not have had anything to do with the school also hiring its first African American teacher.) It took another 14 years before they changed the name from “Rebels” entirely.

I went to a great prep school and am thankful for the excellent education I got there. But only recently have I understood how white privilege helped gain me access to that education. SJS was not overtly racist or discriminatory. It just perpetuated (and still perpetuates) the advantages of whites. It is part of the legacy of one of the two Original Sins of America, the societal damage still extant six generations after the end of slavery.

South Carolina’s use of the Confederate battle flag is controversial again this week. The defense that the flag symbolizes Southern Heritage is sincere, which is what makes endemic racism so dangerous. The Confederate flag represents the South’s pride in slavery, treason, and victimhood. That flag is a hateful thing, deliberately hateful.

culture
  2015-06-23 17:05 Z

Here is a record of my visit to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. There were 22 objects I liked enough to collect and I made 3 things myself. (Favorites: poster, staircase model.) I will be able to remember these things forever because of The Pen.

The Pen is a new thing at the Cooper Hewitt. My buddy Aaron Straup Cope was one of its creators. It’s pretty simple to use. When you visit the museum they loan you a fancy digital pin, on a lanyard. You point it at the labels for objects you like. You can also use it to design things on big computer screen tables. When you’re done you can visit the website on your ticket any time to see your collection. Unlike 90% of fancy museum technologies, this one actually works. It's used a lot. It’s designed to keep working for many years.

Aaron and his colaborator Seb Chan wrote a very long essay on the design of The Pen. It’s totally worth reading if you are interested in this kind of technology. But for the tl;dr crowd, a few key points.

  • The pen is the smart component with the powered computer. The wall tags are passive NFC beacons. That is backwards from what I would have guessed and it’s that way for good reasons.

  • Every object in the Cooper Hewitt has a unique identifier and an entry in a database. The museum has an API for accessing that database. Aaron's mystical belief in the power of integer IDs is justified. The ID is the bolt that connects the museum’s curation expertise to the rest of the world.

  • Building complex tech that will work reliably in a real museum for many years is difficult.

The impressive thing to me is how simply all the tech worked without requiring you to understand or learn it. I wasn’t too excited about the design-your-own-objects part, but the tool for remembering the stuff I liked was excellent. I do wonder if there’s a simpler way to just build the collection product, something between this fancy three year project and simply adding some ugly QR-code stickers. Any new system designed for a museum will be well informed by The Pen.

culture
  2015-06-19 22:28 Z
culture
  2014-12-03 18:57 Z

I’ve gotten competent at making pizza at home. It’s an easy versatile meal, 15 minutes prep time once you have the dough. I tend to make a sort of puttanesca pizza: capers, olives, anchovies, sauce from a jar (the shame) and some salami. Today was turkey leftover pizza with white sauce, I regret being too timid to try cranberry sauce after baking.

My go-to cookbook is American Pie, specifically the “neo-Neapolitan” dough variant. I’ll make a batch of 5 servings of dough and freeze 4. A stand mixer is a huge help, the dough is very glutenous. I recently learned slicing the mozzerella works better than grating, and so much easier. The dough takes time to ferment, thaw, etc but not much active work.

The challenge of home pizza is our ovens don’t go over 550°F. I get decent results in a home oven on a pizza stone, but Ken just got a Baking Steel from Sur la Table so I gave that a shot. It definitely cooks faster and chars the crust more; too much so, the bottom was about to burn before the edge was fully baked. The steel is heavy, rusts, and needs seasoning like a cast iron skillet. I’m not sure it’s a huge improvement over a clay tile.

Neapolitan-style pizza dough is pretty tempermental. For something different and foolproof this pan pizza recipe works pretty well. A no-knead dough sort of fried up in a cast iron skillet in the oven. It’s not elegant, more of a fast-food style pizza, but it’s delicious and fresh and that is its own reward.

culturefood
  2014-11-29 21:48 Z

Uber’s sure in a shitstorm now. On top of the long standing questions about their treatment of drivers, insurance, regulatory issues, etc they’ve shot themselves in the foot twice this week with ethical lapses. Once with an executive proposing doing “opposition research” on a journalist to discredit her, and again with troubling concerns about the privacy of rider records. I love the Uber product, but it’s clear the company has a serious problem.

Google’s “Don’t be Evil” policy was a valuable guiding principle for us. It was a shorthand for not doing things that were obviously unethical. Uber needs that. “Should we offer our drivers shady subprime loans?” Of course not, that’d be evil. “Should we poach Lyft drivers without worrying how it screws up their ride dispatch?” No, don’t be evil. There’s reasonable debate about exactly what is ethical or acceptable. For instance I’m 100% fine with Uber throwing elbows at corrupt cab companies. But the overriding principle needs to be acting ethically or else you end up with the shitstorm Uber has.

Uber’s problem appears to be at the top with Travis Kalanick, the founder and CEO. He’s set the company on an aggressive libertarian path and it’s ugly. (I’m also struck by Kalanick’s early founder role with Scour, a late-90's product for pirating music from unwitting people’s unsecured Windows computers.) It may be that a lack of ethics is in the company’s DNA.

I love Uber, but a transportation product like theirs is a natural monopoly and Uber is showing themselves untrustworthy. I’m beginning to share the pessimistic view of Metafilter user rhizome that “the taxi industry is so corrupt that any organization that would unseat them has to be just as bad”. It shouldn’t be that way, Uber could do better.

culture
  2014-11-20 22:12 Z

I’ve spent more time than was fun at various German museums and monuments remembering the Holocaust, the hideous state sponsored wholesale slaughter of Jews, Roma, and other “undesireables”. I’m always impressed with how direct and without bullshit the presentation is. “We did these things. These are the things we did.” Little explanation of why, certainly no attempt to justify or explain away. Not even a facile apology. Just a documentation of the evil that Germans did. It is enough.

I want a museum about the American Indian genocide. A couple of rooms documenting pre-Columbian life, to convey the Native American’s culture, their society, their technology. Purely to humanize them and set the context for what comes next. Then room after room documenting the systemic program of murder, and burning, and sabotage. A room dedicated to the science of disease, the amount of destruction wrought by smallpox whether accidental or deliberate. A room or two of war weapons. Letters from the Indian killers explaining their techniques and goals. A room about the Indians who fought back and the disproportionate response to that rebellion. A whole diorama about Andrew Jackson (themed to the twenty dollar bill). One stark room depicting the mathematical scale of the genocide, perhaps with abstract sculpture. A temporary exhibit on the Trail of Tears not as an anomaly, but as a systemization of the violence done more haphazardly before.

It’s not a museum about Native Americans really. It’s a museum about Europeans, the things we did to conquer this continent. And should never forget.

culture
  2014-11-16 21:30 Z