I’m back to playing World of Warcraft. I picked it up back in March starting with the Covid lockdown. (I’m far from the only one!) Partly for something to do, partly to play with a family member. It’s been great!

I quit playing WoW in 2009. Coming back the main feeling is it’s very much the same game. Compelling mix of basic MMO RPG power growth, lots of fun side activities, social raiding, PvP. It’s all there and all just about the same. It’s a credit to Blizzard that they’ve kept the game more or less on an even keel all along and it’s comforting and familiar.

The big improvement is the game is way more casual-friendly. In the old days you’d level up to max level and then all that was really available to you was raiding, big serious events with 25 or 40 people. You really had to be in a raiding guild. Over time they added more activities; PvP seasons, reputation grinds, etc. But the real game (and real gear) required raiding.

2020 WoW has all sorts of progression paths. Raiding is still there, but a heavy emphasis on social tools means PUGs (pick up groups) are more viable. There’s even an automated "Looking for Raid" tool that will let you see a simplified version of the raid content very easily. There’s a path for 5 person dungeons in the Mythic dungeons, with ever-increasing difficulty levels. There’s even a solo progression in the Visions of N’Zoth. PvP also has significant progression and gear attached to it. All of which means they’ve made the high end content way more accessible to everyone. It’s a great change. (And lest you miss the old hard stuff, Mythic Raids still basically require a guild and serious dedication.)

Some things haven’t improved. Crafting is still dumb and mostly pointless. A lot of the top end gameplay is grindy, do the same thing every day for 3 weeks to increment a progress bar. The graphics are incredibly dated; partly to keep system requirements low, but also because they don’t want to re-do all the old graphics for modern systems and it’d look weird to have a mix. Which is a shame; the dress-up doll game in WoW suffers significantly compared to FFXIV.

The hidden strength of WoW in 2020 is all the depth of content. They’ve got 16 years of content in the theme park now and it’s almost all accessible. You can still go back and do Molten Core if you want. It won’t be a gameplay challenge, but it’s still fun to see and there’s rewards like rare mounts to encourage you. I’ve really enjoyed exploring all the content I missed in the intervening years, including some really great systems like the Garrison. (Why did they abandon that?!) There’s no other MMO that can boast this much content and it’s great fun to discover some old neat toy to surprise your friends with.

And that’s the other reason WoW is still compelling; friends and guildies. The cooperative social aspect of MMOs is nearly unique in online gaming and Blizzard has done a good job reinforcing it. My new guild isn’t the most hardcore or accomplished but we have some strong players, it’s mostly nice people, and we have a code of conduct that keeps the jerks out. I continue to be concerned about the shallowness of online game friendships just like when I quit in the first place, but it’s a fun way to wile away a few hours.

culturegames
  2020-08-31 17:02 Z

I’ve been greatly enjoying gay country & western musician Orville Peck’s new cover of the song Fancy. No video yet, but give it a listen, maybe before or while you read this post.

Fancy was written and first performed by Bobbie Gentry in 1969. But the song is best known as the Reba McEntire 1991 cover. Both performances are pretty similar, upbeat and with doowop backup singers. It’s a great song, but it feels a bit dated and strange.

Peck’s album version is quite different. He plays it spare and tragic. The song comes off a lot more dark and sad this way and to me, more meaningful. Worth noting this variant is unique to the EP; Peck’s live versions from last year I can find online (1, 2, 3) are more upbeat and read a lot like the Reba version.

But the real change Peck makes is in a single lyric.

Staring back from the looking glass
There stood a woman where a half grown boy had stood

The original lyric is "half grown kid"; it’s remarkable Peck chose to bend it to gender-specific. It instantly recasts the whole song as a transgender tragedy. Which then gives so many of the other lyrics more powerful meaning. "To thine own self be true", "Said I was gonna be a lady someday though I don’t know when or how". "I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life with my head hung down in shame." It even gives the unlikely name "Fancy" a new entrendre as a chosen name, maybe a drag name.

A gay man singing a woman’s song in a baritone is always going to queer it up a little bit. But as the Esquire article notes Sam Hunt covered the song last year and it just sounded like a man singing a woman’s song, nothing too unusual. I give Peck’s LGBT stage persona plus his smart choice of changing that single word to infuse the song with something new. I sure hope he does a video for it; both Gentry and McEntire have elaborate story-telling videos for the song and I'd like to see him take a swing at that.

Peck’s still out on the fringes of country and western but happily C&W is pretty broad and welcoming. His big breakthrough might yet be Legends Never Die, his new duet with Shania Twain. The song’s not particularly queer but it’s great and must sound terrific on the radio. The video is fantastic and pretty gay.

Here's your one chance Fancy, don't let me down
Here's your one chance Fancy, don't let me down
culturemusic
  2020-08-21 16:48 Z

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.

culturemusic
  2020-08-04 17:25 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
unremarked

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.

culturemovies
  2020-08-02 15:24 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)
Sauté
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.

culturefood
  2020-06-22 01:23 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.
culturefood
  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.

culturefood
  2019-12-20 22:51 Z

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’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