One of the few things I can cook competently is Tex-Mex chili. It’s basically a pot of meat cooked with red chile and onion. No beans, no tomato. Hearty and delicious with tortillas, sharp cheddar, fresh onion, and sour cream garnishes.

I’ve learned to make chili from scratch. But if you want to cheat, Wick Fowler’s 2 Alarm Chili Kit is a reasonable compromise. It’s not as good as making it the hard way but it’s still pretty good, particularly if you bump it up with some of your own chile powder.

To make it from scratch, I use this Homesick Texan recipe. I love her blog and cookbook. It’s a very fussy recipe but makes an excellent result. Over time I’ve modified it a bit.

  • Working with all those kinds of whole chile makes a well rounded flavor but is a lot of effort (and tricky shopping). I usually end up using some powdered New Mexican red chile instead of some or all of the varieties she calls for, you just dump it in like a spice (a lot of it; more than half a cup for 4 pounds of meat if that’s all the chile you use).
  • The chipotle in adobo is the most important extra flavor and is easy to add from a can. Beyond that you want dried chiles and the extra work that entails. Cayenne is for heat, not flavor.
  • The recipe calls for chuck roast. I use half ground beef for texture. You can also use 100% ground beef which saves a lot of preparation time.
  • Leave out the clove. Too much can ruin the dish and it’s not worth the risk.
  • The beer and coffee aren’t really necessary but are nice to add some bitterness. You just need enough liquid of some sort. I use boxed beef broth instead of water.

I grew up with this kind of food.

  2014-04-09 16:31 Z

There’s good fine dining in California’s Central Coast. Cayucos is one of those tiny California beach towns from the 50s. A few dumpy motels, a surf shop, restaurants with names like The Salty Seagull and The Rusty Pelican you’d only ever eat at because you’re on vacation in a beach town. But there’s something special and unique in Cayucos, the Cass House, and as the Michelin folks say it is vaut le voyage.

Chef Jensen Lorenzen and his crew are turning out phenomenal fine dining, as good as anything I’d expect to find at San Francisco’s top restaurants. They are serving only one option, a 14 course tasting menu of delicate little plates. With excellent (but laid back) service and a good wine list and a lovely room that only seats about 30 people.

The key thing here is the cooking works. The kitchen knows its business and is producing excellent creative food with technique but not silly gimmicks. My favorite dish was a dessert, a fennel-based gelée that was delicate, deeply flavored, with a bit of candied fennel as a crunch accent. So elegant and precise. The cauliflower “curds & whey” were also phenomenal, a rich risotto-like texture with a deep butter and cheese flavor. A heavy dish, it came after a very delicate dashi bouillon. The main course (I chose chicken) was a satisfying solid portion, keeping the whole meal from being a bit too precious and dainty. We were also very impressed at how they handled my friend’s near-vegan diet, deftly substituting coconut milk and the like for the dairy that would have been in half the dishes. (Elegant cooking without butter!) I admit I was concerned going in that the menu was too demanding, but Cass House executed incredibly well.

They’ve been doing fine dining for a couple of years but jumped full in to the tasting menu program this February. It’s ambitious and risky and one service a night at a reasonable $85 caps their business. My impression is they’re doing this because they love this kind of cooking, like being in control and preparing food with art in the way they want. I was glad to be along for the ride and hope to return.

  2014-04-03 23:41 Z

Ken is the family chef but I enjoy cooking in Grass Valley. Partly because it’s a huge kitchen with plenty of room to work. And also because we outfitted it from scratch with high quality kitchen tools. Here’s some of the stuff I particularly like using.

Wüstoff Classic Ikon knives
Solid European knives, holds an edge a long time when properly sharpened, and I love the synthetic handles. The 6” chef’s knife is what I use 90% of the time, along with a 9” for big jobs and a paring knife for detail work. Worth testing in person, you want to see if the balance feels right.
OXO Good Grips Cutting Board
I like plastic cutting boards because I can throw them in the dishwasher. This brand has the right design with rubber edges so the board doesn’t slide around.
All-Clad Stainless pots and pans
Excellent, durable, heavy cookware. The aluminum core construction is essential for heat distribution. The stainless surface is bulletproof, or at least steel-wool-proof. Expensive but they last forever and sometimes you can get a good deal on a set. The 12” fry pan, 1.5qt sauce pan, and 8 quart stock pot get the most use.
T-Fal nonstick pan
Nonstick pans are disposable, so might as well skip the All-Clad and buy a cheap one. (As careful as you try to be after a year you have a laminate of burnt grease that ruins the surface.) The good thing about T-Fal is they have a thick metal bottom that spreads heat.
OXO Good Grips stuff
For odds and ends like vegetable peelers, cooking spoons, etc. I look to Good Grips first. Most of it is nothing special (other than the cutting board I called out) but it’s well made and the grip is, indeed, good.

Neither the knives or pans are particularly cheap. But if you can afford the initial cost they’ll pay for themselves in longevity. Also most have generous warranties. In my salad days I threw out cheap pans about once every two years; we have All Clad that’s 20 years old and still in great shape.

Apologies for the spammy-sounding Amazon links; they’re for your convenience, but I do pocket a few bucks a year from affiliate fees

  2014-04-01 19:56 Z

The 1983 movie Brainstorm is worth seeing, or maybe revisiting if you last saw it decades ago. It fits in with Tron, WarGames, and Videodrome as early 80s imaginings of what the near-future of technology will look like. Great performances by Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher.

The reason to watch Brainstorm now is is the production design, the imagination of consumer products and user interfaces for the near future. It feels like totally relevant, modern commentary on product design for things like the iPhone, Google Glass, Tesla, or a Microsoft Kinect. Dialed up to 11 with a sci-fi flight of fancy, of course, but well done for that. I’ll be honest and say the plot is sort of silly, a combination of military-industrial complex paranoia and some fairly hokey spiritualism. That’s partly redeemed by Louise Fletcher’s role as the head of the research project, a totally badass lady scientist. But mostly watch it for the animation sequences and the industrial design.

  2014-03-18 22:59 Z
Together at last!
  2014-03-06 16:20 Z

The phrase information wants to be free is one of the most important observations of the information age. Dating to Stewart Brand in 1984, the statement is often misunderstood and sure to piss people off.

The phrase is a simple observation, like saying "a compass wants to point north". Information intrinsically has a tendency to spread. Controlling information, bottling it up and keeping it limited, is difficult. There's a bit of a poetic turn in saying "wants", since of course information has no agency. The underlying truth is really a statement about human nature; people tend to share information.

The phrase is not a statement that information should be free. It's not a statement that sharing information is an intrinsic good. It's also not saying it's impossible to keep information not-free. Just difficult.

The truth of "information wants to be free" is obvious to anyone who works in informatics. But it's ignored time and again. It's ignored by record companies trying to prevent music downloads, by startups trying to enforce embargoes on tech news, by the US government trying to share secrets with thousands of people and yet somehow not the world at large.

Digital networks have made sharing information enormously easy. But the underlying reality that information wants to be free is as old as society. Villages have always had gossips, but now the gossip is global, instant, and with perfect fidelity.

  2014-03-05 18:03 Z

I settled down a few days ago for an old classic film, Chinatown. Great Jack Nicholson performance, fantastic film noire homage, lovely 1940s period LA. And through the whole film I kept thinking two things. The game LA Noire owes a huge debt to Chinatown. And good lord, but is that film a serious product of rape culture.

The obvious: a central plot point is that the female lead (an excellent Faye Dunaway) was raped by her father. That fact is presented sympathetically enough and she’s a little more complex than just a victim. But how do we learn it? Our hero detective literally beats it out of her. It’s a horrifying scene, played to deliver the shocking reveal. But then it’s also this disgusting revictimization. And it passes on without notice, of course the hard-boiled detective had to beat the hysterical girl silly.

There’s another upsetting thing earlier, when our detective and the heroine first meet, where she seduces him. Two days after her husband’s violent death, a death the detective is implicated in. It’s not quite so stupid; we learn later she’s playing him, the seduction is strategically deliberate on her part. But of course the hard-boiled detective gets to bed the beautiful girl.

And then there’s the central unspoken problem, that the director is Roman Polanski. Not three years after Chinatown, Polanski drugged a 13 year old girl and raped her. And pled guilty, and fled the US before sentencing, and has been an active fugitive ever since. I’m normally OK with separating the art from the artists, but in his case it’s just too much. But of course the famous director gets away with raping a child.

Part of what’s so troubling about rape culture is how insidious it is. This kind of victimization of women was mainstream entertainment, without comment, for far too long. It’s an infection.

  2014-03-03 15:42 Z

I’m about to go to Bali, home to Gamelan, one of the most interesting musical traditions in the world. Equal parts rhythmic and melodic, amazing harmony and counterpoint, and an interesting participatory music culture playing one-of-a-kind musical instrument ensembles. I’m fortunate enough to have a friend who has studied gamelan in Bali. Here's what Chris wrote me as on what I may hear when I visit. (He also gave me a copy of A House in Bali, a 1947 book about a Canadian musician who went to Bali to study.)

Most all links to video or music files, give it a listen!

Style: Gamelan “Gong Kebyar”

This is the style that is most associated with Balinese gamelan today. It’s a style that came into its own in the early 1900s-1930s, evolving away from the slower Javanese-style court gamelan that preceded it. A hallmark characteristic of this virtuosic style is the “kotekan”, or interlocking wherein different players each play one half of the melody at high speed and it’s which are zippered together at high speed (example here). It is also quite often accompanied by dance.

Jagra Parwata: This is a virtuosic gong kebyar piece, one of my favorites. I believe it won the All-Bali competition about ten years ago. It’s also the first piece I ever learned to play on Gamelan – a true “trial by fire”. Note the loose interpretation of time; it changes tempos both languidly and abruptly. This is a classic aspect of gong kebyar.

Taruna Jaya: This is the most famous of the gong kebyar dance pieces, created around 1950. For a Balinese female dancer, this is the single most important piece and is used as a required dance to judge the All-Bali competition. Taruna Jaya stands for “victorious youth”, and is intended to convey the wide range of emotions of an impetuous youthful princess. It is danced by a young girl who (as it was described to me by my Balinese teachers) is pretending to be a young man pretending to be a young girl. There’s a good description here. Carefully controlled, intense eye and finger movement are the hallmarks of this piece, and much of Balinese dance. The dance requires so much energy that most Taruna Jaya dancers peak out at around 15 years of age.

Style: Gamelan “Gender Wayang”

This is a ceremonial form of gamelan, used for religious ceremonies (weddings, tooth filings, etc) and also puppet shows. As opposed to gong kebyar, this style is played with either two or four players who sit facing each other, each side playing one half of the melody in a fashion similar to the gong kebyar kotekans.

Here’s a video from someone playing at a local temple festival. Here’s another video of someone practicing his half of the ankat ankatan melody at about half speed; it gives you a good idea of how both hands work together and how half of the melody sounds. This song is the first one I learned on the gender wayang, because it’s pretty simple and repetitive. It translates to “walking music” and is used as filler during the parts of the puppet shows when the characters are supposed to be “walking around on a long journey”.

Gending Rebong: This is a song used during puppet shows when two characters are expressing their love for each other.

Style: Balaganjur

This is a marching form of gamelan. You will see this in parades and cremation ceremonies. It has all the elements of gong kebyar but is much simpler and more repetitive and is easy enough that every villager learns a couple belaganjur patterns so they can take part in ceremonies for members of their village. In that sense it’s the form of gamelan that most non-musician villagers take part in at least once or twice a year.

The Belaganjur of group Jaya Sakti: I don’t think this even has a formal name, but it’s the most awesome belaganjur I’ve ever heard. I love how it starts out incredibly simple and, simply through tempo change along, seems to transform from something calm and relaxing into something violent and exciting, and then back again. If this doesn’t make you want to march, nothing will.

  2014-02-20 17:52 Z
The Awl has threatened us with news of a Liquid Sky sequel. The original film is one of my favorites, just check out the fashion show scene. I can't imagine a sequel being a good idea but it is a good excuse for me to share these animated GIFs.
  2014-02-20 17:49 Z

Sports fans had a choice yesterday: watch the Super Bowl or watch League of Legends via Twitch. I figured the Super Bowl would easily win out and no one would watch the eSport, but boy was I wrong.

Above is a graph of League of Legends viewers of the 4 LCS tournament games on Super Bowl Sunday. (I made the graph from Twitch’s published data; there are viewers on other services, but Twitch is the majority.) About 230,000 people were watching on Twitch, a typical day for LCS. The surprise is viewership peaked at 286,000 for the last game at 4pm, half an hour after the Super Bowl started. No noticeable viewer falloff at the 3:30pm kickoff either; just the usual slump after the previous match ended.

Why didn’t the Super Bowl cut into the League of Legends audience? It helped that the final game was an anticipated matchup between two of the best teams with a strong fan base. The stereotypical gamer nerd is not a sport fan, so maybe there was no conflict. On Reddit people noted that a lot of LoL fans are Europeans not interested in the Super Bowl. (There’s an enormous Asian audience too.) Some folks said they’d just watch both at the same time.

I’ve come to really enjoy watching League of Legends tournaments. It’s an enormously popular game, 27 million people play daily and 32 million (8.5M peak) watched last season’s championship. Riot Games has invested heavily in making the game into a sports event. The broadcasts are a lot of fun to watch with smart announcers, good storytelling, and exciting gameplay. I’ve generally been a skeptic that eSports would become a phenomenon but League of Legends is winning me over.

If you’ve never watched LoL before, yesterday’s TSM v C9 game was pretty good. The whole 44 minute broadcast is worth watching but here’s a 5 minute highlight reel. The game is a bit complicated but basically it’s two teams of five players fighting to control the map. Here’s an overview of the game with a lot more detail. Lots more recorded games on /r/LoLeventVoDs.

  2014-02-03 20:11 Z