Saturday, December 31, 2005

Favorite Four (meme)

Before I head off to make spankopita for a dinner we're attending this evening, here's a meme via Music and Cats.


Four jobs I’ve had in my life:

  • breakfast waitress in a Greek restaurant on Cape Cod
  • researcher for a study of Project Head Start
  • investigative reporter
  • web content producer for an e-greetings website
Four movies I could watch over and over:
  • Moonstruck
  • Amacord
  • Duck Soup
  • The Big Lebowski
Four places I’ve lived:
  • Falls Church, VA
  • New Haven, CT
  • Genoa, Italy
  • Seattle, WA
Four TV shows I love to watch:
  • Tripping the Rift
  • Firefly
  • Nero Wolfe
  • Six Feet Under
Four websites I visit daily:
  • eBay
  • Amazon
  • VersionTracker
  • Craigslist
Four of my favorite foods:
  • chopped liver
  • lobster
  • lahmejun
  • farinata
Four places I’d rather be:
  • on a Holland-America cruise of the tropics
  • Roma
  • at a dance camp
  • at a game party
Four albums I love:
  • "We've Got a Live One Here" - Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen
  • "Swing '39" - Quintet of the Hot Club of France
  • "All Old Friends" - Stacy Phillips
  • "Old and in the Way" - Old and In the Way
If you post your version of this meme on your blog, please put the link in comments or send it to mysterioustraveler (at) gmail.com

What's the "consumerist"?

The Consumerist is part of the new and rapidly growing genre of semi-commerical blogs. It's run by a freelance technology writer in New York, and appears to have several contributors. This blog version of a consumer magazine is not to be confused with the non-profit owned Consumer Reports, which has testing labs, scientific underpinnings, and a lot of lawyers.

The Consumerist is taking a purely journalistic approach, gathering consumer-relevant stories from all over the web, and offering links to sites for irate consumers who want to strike back.

At the moment, it's an odd mixture of tips on the hot online sales of the day (Amazon's Friday specials, free shipping at Zappo's) with snarky gossip (about Overstock.com's CEO, and the Catholic Church vs. an artist who draped a statue of the virgin in latex).

Well, I've often bemoaned the hopelessly drab, finger-wagging style of Consumer Reports (which likes to save us money on canned soup and, in the last year or two, finally decided that iMac and iBooks were not necessarily a complete waste of money). The Consumerist, with it's "yo, dude" in-your-face style, is certainly the antidote to that! Though I don't think I'm going to be getting my car-buying advice from them any time soon.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Holiday gifts

A huge "thank you" for all the wonderful Christmas and Hanukkah gifts and holiday hospitality.

We went to some lovely little parties at friends' homes, were wined and dined, saw old friends, and met new ones. Got to see Sally flame not one, but two, homemade Christmas puddings on Boxing Day.

I worked this week, so am just now going through my basket of goodies, most of which have a tag attached so I can thank the giver. The only two mystery gifts are the bottle of ice wine and the box of truffles that arrived with visitors. Thank you, whoever you are!

Zorg said he had a gift for me that I really wanted, but had forgotten that I wanted. And he was right: He gave me a box full of videos, each one a version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Last year we'd watched the Muppet version, and I'd wondered about all the interpretations on film. My stash now includes the 1933 version with Sir Seymour Hicks as Scrooge; the venerated 1951 classic with Alasair Sim, the 1970 Scrooge (Albert Finney); the 1999 version with Patrick Stewart; Bill Murray in "Scrooged"; animations from Mr. Maggoo, the Muppets, and Dr. Suess (Boris Karloff narration), along with one very generic version; and Vanessa Williams' "Diva's Christmas Carol."

Excluding obscure silent film versions (there are many), all I am missing now is George C. Scott (1984 - TV), the 2004 TV version with Kelsey Grammer, the 1938 version with Reginald Owen, the 1971 animation (with Alastair Sim doing the Scrooge voice!); the 1997 animal with Tim Curry and Whoopi Goldberg; a 2000 British TV version that has gotten some good reviews; a 1977 British TV version; the 2004 Italian version (Natale a Casa Deejay); a 1982 TV version narrated by John Gielgud; a 1970 TV animation directed by Zoran Janjic; a 1994 ballet version shown on A&E (one "Christmas Carol completist" notes that the ghost of Christmas Past is "unavoidably slender"); the 1953 version shown on the Kraft Television Theatre; a 1950 British TV version starring Bransby Williams; a 1943 TV version with William Podmore as Scrooge; a 1947 TV version starring John Carradine and Eva Marie Saint (keep in mind that not many people owned TVs in the 1940s); a 1949 TV version with Vincent Price as the narrator (now we are talking the inevitable!); and an obscure 1981 TV version with William Paterson.

There are also adaptions such as the 1964 anti-war special "Carol for Another Christmas"; a 1971 animation with, yet again, Alastair Sim; the New England version, "An American Christmas Carol"; a 2000 TV version with Ross Kemp; the Walter Mattau-voiced animation "The Stingiest Man in Town" (1978 - TV); a (mostly) animation with voices by Simon Callow, Cate Winslet, Nicholas Cage, and Michael Gambon ("Christmas Carol: The Movie" 2001); a 1984 French TV version with Michel Bouquet; "Ms Scrooge" with Cicely Tyson (1997 TV); a 1979 Country music version with Hoyt Axton; a 1978 Canadian TV version with Warren Graves; the 1964 Canadian TV "Mr. Scrooge"; and Rich Little's one-man "A Christmas Carol" for the BBC (1982).

Not to mention the obligatory TV show episodes from Blackadder, the Jetsons, Futurama (with a Tinny Tim robot), the Simpsons (with Mr. Burns as Scrooge), and oh so many more.

God bless us.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Fortified cereal

My day started with a furry toy mouse atop my bowl of Cheerios, and now I find myself looking at everything very closely before I interact with it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Tea party

The Boston Tea Party commemorates a gathering at which people threw a lot of tea overboard; my annual tea party does much the same thing, though for completely different reasons. I compare all the black teas that have accumulated in the cupboard and throw the disappointing ones out.

The standard for the taste test is Yorkshire Gold, a blend of Assam, African, and Sri Lankan (Ceylon) teas made by Taylors of Harrogate. I buy Yorkshire Gold from the online vendor Blue Moon Tea. Blue Moon's prices are some of the best online, and shipping to Seattle is speedy. (However, the Blue Moon site requires Internet Explorer for full access to drop-down menus.) Another fabulous site for Yorkshire Gold and other Yorkshire teas, including Yorkshire Hard Water tea, is Sarah Woods.

It appears I'm not the only Yorkshire Gold fanatic around. Check out the site of Wallingford Bicycle Parts (named after its original home in Seattle, but now in New Orleans). In addition to saddles, pumps, tools and supplies, you can ordered their favorite Yorkshire Red or Yorkshire Gold!

Here are this year's tea party results:

Top marks: Stash English Breakfast and Tazo Awake

Honorable mention: Twinings Irish breakfast (complex with smokey overtones) and Walters Bay & Co. Pure Ceylon (bright and complex).

Failed in the testing (bitter, monotonous): Swee-touch-nee, Typhoo, Red Rose, and Murchie's Keemun.

I'll stand by my top choices. However, a low rating in the test may reflect old tea or a bad batch of tea. I'm always willing to give a brand a second chance!

If you like to rant and rave about tea, this site is for you!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Mugging as a political act

Blogger and writer Clark Humphrey, who tangled with muggers in Belltown last week (fighting them off with the help the local UPS driver), waxes astonishingly philosophical about it:
I also can't stop thinking of the thieves, not as the opposite-race subhumans the conservatives would claim to protect me from, but as right-wingers without resources. These dorks wanted to take my stuff for no good reason, offering nothing in return, just because they believed they had the power to do so.

Dilbert, the blog

As someone who makes a living writing and editing, I'm intrigued by individual writers' styles. Cartoonist, essayist, and now blogger Scott Adams ("Dilbert") is what I think of as a home run hitter. Like technology columnist Andy Ihnatko, he swings hard at everything and misses about two-thirds of the time. But when he connects, you stand there goggling for a few minutes, then jump up and cheer madly. "This guy is a genius," you think, immediately forgetting that his last two columns left you scratching your head.

Adams, who is absolutely fearless about offending people, did a terrific blog entry that begins as seemingly offhand musings about disliking contemporary Christmas rituals and winds up as a neat little indictment of religious terrorists.

My own style? Utility infield player.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Mysterious Christmas

Games with Mystical Forest, True Unicorness, and friends...Scandinavian Christmas Eve music party at Anita's...phone calls with my mom and with Nina and Mike...Chinese dinner with Zorg at Hakka Cuisine...lots of kitty cuddles...and listening to the brilliant "Scrooge" monologue from Lord Buckley (Old St. Hip). Another lovely Christmas at the Shady Rest!

Happy Hanukkah

Friday, December 23, 2005

Holiday season

Check that spud

Making scalloped potatoes and ham for your Yuletime Swedish buffet? Or latkes for Hanukkah?

Don't reach for the wrong potato.

Scalloped potatoes require waxy, low-starch, small round red or white potatoes, or Yellow Finns. All these will hold their shape after nearly two hours baking the casserole.

Quick-frying latkes, on the other hand, call for high-starch russet potatoes (with those dark thick skins, the classic baking potato) or the Yukon Gold. These will yield a light, fluffy latke (if you could call a latke "light").

Thanks to the Cook's Thesaurus for the useful, and photo-illustrated, guide.

I can hardly wait for 2006!

My mother once accused me of moving (house to house, job to job) for the fun of it. She was right: I love change.

Part of me likes planning for it, but another part of me just likes sweeping away existing structures, and strictures, and seeing what appears on the empty stage, or what I'm inspired to place on it.

It's my deepest hope that 2006 will be a year of bold and exciting new enterprises and new perspective on existing ones. For the past few years, my "big excitement" has been designing things like kitchens and patios and hiring someone else to build them. Now it's time to design bigger things, and build them myself.

Watch this space in 2006.

Friday catblogging, sports edition

Kaylee, the smaller of the two Stripe Sisters, often spends two or three hours in the morning playing her feline version of handball. She goes down to the bottom of the basement stairs, where two doors and a wall form three sides of her court and the open-riser staircase is the fourth. Then she smacks a rabbit-fur mouse around.


Her big sister, Zoe -- best described as "highly energy-conservative" -- sometimes flops at the top the stairs to observe this workout. She looks like a couch potato watching Venus Williams on TV.

Like a pro, Kaylee is very picky about her equipment. Forget synthetic mice: She insists on the authentic rabbit-fur wrapped rodent, with the hard cork core that makes a swatted mouse bounce so wonderfully and renders it light enough to be flung high into the air.

A few weeks ago, Kaylee started a warm-up routine in which she would bring a mouse into the bathroom while I was showering and place it on the bathmat. I noticed that if I tossed the mouse out the door, she'd bring it back and place it on the mat again. Hmmmm....

It took only a few days for me to train her to fetch -- and for her to train me to throw.

That's how the trouble started.

Kaylee's favorite part of her workout is the beginning, where she sends the mouse tumbling down the stairs into the court and races madly after it. Now she's decided this is much more fun if I throw the mouse for her to chase. When they both reach the bottom of the stairs, she retrieves the mouse and dashes back up with it so we can do it some more. I scratch her back and fuss over her, then toss the mouse, and she's off again. Cute. At least the first couple times.

Unfortunately, Kaylee now expects me to play this game with her for several hours at a stretch. If I wander off and get distracted by something like work, she comes and scratches on my office door to call me back to the playing field. "Coach! Coach!"

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Signs of the season (blog style)

As the holidays approach, the "recent keyword activity" -- hits on my blog from particular searches -- reflects the season. Today's hits include:

"brandied pears" "kugelhopf pan" "bundt cake mix" "mincemeat" and "lord buckley's Christmas carol"

Betcha Dec. 24 and 25 see plenty of hits on the entry about the bizarre codes that Kitchenaid electric stoves return when their ovens automatically shut off in the middle of cooking your holiday feast.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The gifts of blog

The Seattle Weblogger Meetup featured holiday gifts from organizer Anita and from Jake of 8BitJoystick -- not surprisingly, game, music, and movie DVDs predominated! I got some real goodies, one of which will make a hilarious stocking stuffer for Zorg.

As usual, many interesting topics, including the Ghost in the Shell movies based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. Clark Humphrey told me a little about the process for creating his latest book, the ebook Take Control of Digital TV.

Anita reminded me that Potlatch 15, this year's West Coast SF convention, is in Seattle Feb 24-26 at the Westin. See you there?

Say it with coffee

Pointed out by John Hedtke, this gallery of barista art.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Extreme Christmas

Terra-caching is out, parkour is in. Even for Santa.

Wired underwear

The Cult of Mac blog has discovered iPod underwear. But it turns out to be men's boxers, with a little hip pocket. Hey, what about an iPod bra? That would be a whole new meaning for "underwire."

(There is a concept for the iPod bra, but when you see the design, you'll know immediately that a man designed it and why no woman would ever wear it. Scroll wheel, indeed!)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Revels

No, "The Revels" is not the name of a new TV show or British pop group.

However, the Revels, which Zorg and I attended today in Tacoma's Rialto Theater, is not easy to explain. If any of what follows piques your interest, you might want to attend one of the performances Tuesday or Wednesday evening (tickets available online) and see for yourself.

The Revels is a Solstice celebration performance grounded in Celtic tradition. It was created in 1971 by a group in Cambridge, MA, and has since taken root in eight other urban areas in the US, including The Puget Sound Revels, based in Tacoma.

Each city's Revels does its own programming, but I gather that most of them follow the tradition of changing the era and the setting of the Revels each year. This year the Puget Sound Revels is set in Elizabethan England, with a humorous and charming plot involving Shakespearian actor Will Kemp and Queen Elizabeth.

What makes the Revels particularly difficult to describe is that each of the songs, dances, and sketches it comprises is of keen significance to aficionados of English folk traditions, but pretty much obscure to anyone outside those traditions.

I realized this when, as we were leaving the theater, Zorg said he'd enjoyed the show but could have done without the monotonous dance, performed in near darkness, by shadowy figures wielding antlers. For much of the dance, they'd simply plodded in a circle, breaking the formation twice to create opposing lines and solemnly clash antlers.

"Good grief, that was the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance!" I shrieked. "I've waited 20 years to see that done!" What was monotonous and dim to him had been mystical and enchanting to me, because I know quite a bit about English folk dancing and the 20th century folk dance revival that rescued the traditions from near extinction. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, first described in writings in 1226 (that is not a typo), is still performed by a particular family in Abbots Bromley using a set of horns that include antlers that have been carbon-dated to the 11th century. If you go to Abbots Bromley on Wakes Monday in September, you can see the six Deer-men, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, a Boy Hunter, and the Man-Woman (Maid Marion) dancing to this haunting tune.

The Revels program summarized Abbots Bromley in a sentence or two, providing little context for the outsider. Similarly, only one of the songs performed ("Lord of Dance") would be familiar to a general audience. With material this obscure, the Revels must depend on theatrical and musical talent to reach beyond the cognoscenti. While the Puget Sound troup offers superb musicians (both brass and strings) and some notable singers, the staging and lighting are undistinguished and the acting (though delightful in the "King George and the Dragon" vignette), uneven.

By involving the audience in the singing of rounds, bringing performers in along the aisles of the theater, and having several actors address the audience directly, the company makes it very clear that the Revels aims to create a sense of community. But, at least at the performance I attended, the audience, while willing, simply isn't equipped to play its part.

I'd be curious to see how the magic happens for the Revels in other cities. In the meantime, I'd recommend the Puget Sound Revels as very special holiday treat for those of you already drawn to Celtic traditions and solstice celebration.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Melting chocolate on a Wolf stove

Chocolate melts at 109 degrees Farenheit (43 degrees Centigrade). I know this because two years ago Zorg dabbled in truffle-making as a hobby and melting the chocolate turned out to be the most challenging part of the process (right up there with potential cacao overdose).

Chocolate is frustrating to melt and maintain at a melted consistency. The process, with the slightly ironic technical name of "tempering," usually requires a double-boiler and some vigilence. Microwave melting can result in a hideous grainy glob of ruined chocolate. Zorg, not the most patient of chocolatiers, looked into chocolate melters, which at the time were limited to professional models of prohibitive cost — hundreds of dollars. (There is now a home model for $30, but reviewers on Amazon rate it as better for simple melting of commerial dipping products than for tempering of chocolate for serious candy-making)

Fortunately, early in his truffle-making phase, Zorg located an electric "crock pot" cooker that had a temperature control and, at the very lowest setting, was able to melt chocolate without burning.

This weekend we've been doing a small truffle project as a Christmas gift for a friend. Last night I made a ganache truffle filling out of raspberry syrup (made from the friend's backyard raspberry crop), sugar, heavy cream, butter, and bittersweet chocolate. Today Zorg chopped dark chocolate to melt for the couverture (truffle exterior). He was headed off to the pantry to fetch the crock pot, but I was determined to try melting the chocolate on the Wolf stove. Would the Wolf reveal yet another amazing capability?

We put the chopped chocolate into a plain Revereware pot and I set the burner to "simmer." In 10 minutes, we had lovely, satiny tempered chocolate. I later dug around in some Google results and discovered that indeed, the "simmer" setting on a Wolf burner is perfect for melting chocolate. Causing me to observe that I now love my Wolf as much as I love my Mac.

I was scooping the ganache fillings with a melon ball tool, dipping it in hot water and drying it between each scoop. Apparently I didn't dry the tool well enough, and a small amount of water from the ganache balls got into the melted couverture as Zorg was doing the coating, causing the pot of melted chocolate to "seize." That looks nearly as scary as it sounds: grainy, uncooperative, dull chocolate. I dashed to Zorg's truffle notebook and found directions for reversing a seize: You add a small amount of butter or heavy cream and whisk, whisk, whisk over the heat. It worked, and we were able to get a yield of 43 really gorgeous truffles. Most of them go to our friend for Christmas, but we are saving just a few, including a pair for our friend John, the fellow who taught us how to make truffles.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Take control of something

What will they write next? The publishers of the Take Control ebook series on computers and the internet are expanding to non-technical topics. Vote for the book topics you'd like to see, or suggest a topic of your own.

Highly recommended: Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac

Monday, December 12, 2005

Adding ads

A couple months back I added Google AdSense ads to my blog. Apparently they haven't offended anyone yet, and I am enjoying watching how the AdSense program tailors the ads to my blog content. If I write about food, I get lots of ads for recipe sites; if I write about travel, travel sites; cats, pet sites, etc.

Today the ads are one big long banner for Shopzilla.com, the bargain-finding site. I'm impressed; AdSense has definitely got my number. This has got to be the most appropriate sponsor for The Mysterious Traveler Sets Out. Perhaps I should retitle it: The Mysterious Traveler Sets Out on a Shopping Trip.

I just noticed that the Shopzilla ad even has moving elements (the burning shopping cart racing around). Wonder of wonders.

Just checking in

I missed Sunday completely because I woke up exhausted, with a mild migraine, and stayed that way all day. It was extremely weird, being so tired I could hardly speak. The cats enjoyed lolling around on the bed with me all day; all I have is a vague memory of the sun being bright, the sun going down, and, then, it being dark.

Today it was as if I were emerging from a fog. I got progressively better, and by late afternoon I was my usual self. When I went to the chiropractor this evening, he commented that he wasn't surprised I'd had a migraine, based on something about my back. But I suspect that it was my annual winter migraine, something I associate with atmospheric pressure changes on the first really bright, cold day of winter. Let's hope so. I'd like to wait at least a year before I go through that again!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Fractal food

A little something for the Geeks: Fractal Food (thanks to Music and Cats for the tip).

A book for a heavily reinforced coffee table

When a book weighs twice what it looks like it should, and has a dust jacket that looks like a museum-quality photo, chances are you're dealing with top quality paper and photo reproduction.

That's part of why I lugged the coffee table cook Culinaria: The United States home from a thrift shop for $7. The other reason is that it's all about one of my favorite subjects, American regional cookery.

The photos are, indeed, gorgeous. And the writing's not bad, either. Plus, there are some unusual recipes. A check of the book on Amazon reveals that it's out of print, and selling for between $47 and $89 used. Yikes. I'll be headed over to the thrift shop this weekend to donate several brand new hardcover mystery novels. That was just too much of a bargain.

Sugar-coating the (cat) pill

Our elderly fussbudget cat, Betaille, has to take metronidazole for 10 days. I couldn't figure out why she was fighting me like a wildcat when I tried to pill her until I looked up metronidazole and discovered that it's Flagyl, one of the bitterest tasting medications around.

We give the cat only 1/4 pill once or twice a day, but the quarter pills are crumbly and thus even more noxious than whole pills. The taste is so unpleasant that there is no possibility of disguising it in cat food.

I did some research online and discovered a webpage about the metronidazole adminstration problem. It was written by a compounding pharmacy in the Midwest that will put the quarter pills into gel capsules for you.

That's when I decided to try to create my own gel capsules for Betaille.

First I tried rolling the quarter pill in margarine. That was pretty funny. It was impossible for me to keep the pill in her mouth long enough to get her to swallow it. It kept sticking to her tongue and then slipping sideways out of her gnashing jaws. I couldn't hold her mouth shut because her muzzle, and my hands, were covered in margarine. Betaille would have been traumatized by the ordeal, except she was distracted by licking off all the margarine afterward.

Then, while cleaning up some drops of honey that had dried on the counter after I'd been baking fruitcakes, I came up with an alternate solution: Roll the quarter pill in honey and let the little coated ball dry in a warm place overnight. This resulted in a coated pill with a sort of a jelly-belly texture. Concerned this might stick, I then rolled the tiny "gel pill" in regular sugar until it was completely coated and dry to the touch.

I grabbed Betaille in the middle of her lunch and popped the sugared pill into her mouth. She swallowed, and I plopped her back in front of her food dish. Even she seemed surprised at how easy it was.

BTW, it is safe to give honey to a full-grown cat, at least in this tiny amount and for a short period of time — unless the cat is diabetic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bourbon spice cakes

Inspired by John Hedtke's industrious program of holiday baking, I went into the kitchen tonight and whipped up a batch of miniature bourbon spice cakes. I realized once again that after three holiday seasons of increasingly disheartening experiences with our previous stove, it really is safe to bake again. I'll know for sure at 11 p.m. when the little cakes (they bake slowly, at 275 F) are done.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Anarchy. It isn't well organized.

Click on Dec. 10 at Exploit Seattle (an events site, less ominous than it sounds) and you'll see some sketchy information about the local manifestation of Santarchy, a gathering of lots of Santas. Apparently it's scheduled to begin at noon Saturday at the Ballard Smoke Shop, 5439 Ballard Ave., and end at the Burning Man planning office, 500 Boren Ave. N., sometime later on.

What will the Santas do? Will they progress from Ballard to downtown on foot, by bus, or by sleigh? I guess we'll just have to go there to find out. The event is part of the general bustle that will culminate in the monthly Ballard Art Walk Saturday evening.

Next year, sudoku

The New Oxford American dictionary has announced its word of the year for 2005: "Podcast." That's slightly less of an honor when you realize that the runners up included "bird flu," "persistent vegetative state," and "trans fat." Others in the running were emerging words such as "reggaeton," "squick," and "sudoku." Start now to sprinkle these phrases into your next conversation...or podcast.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Imagine that!

A gem of a thrift shop has appeared at 7739 24th Avenue NW in Ballard/Crown Hill. Imagine That! is on the west side of the street, just north of Soprano's Pizza (follow the garlic).

I don't want to give away too about the place, so I'll just provide some hints. It's a small shop, jam-packed with goodies. It has an unusal mix of clientele. The women in charge are delightful. Everything they have is of very good quality and in good condition, with styles that vary from vintage to square to Pottery Barn trendy. Even though Imagine That! is a tight fit, they seem to welcome moms with reasonably well-behaved tots. The shop is lovingly arranged, and new items are always appearing.

While only a small percentage of their stock appeals to me, the things that do are real finds, because the prices are so very reasonable. Very.

Check it out. You might come away with the spectacular stainless steel heated chafing dish (round) with the vertical stand for the glass lid -- just $35. Unless I dash up there at lunchtime tomorrow and snag it myself! (Hint: If you're a size 8, there's a black jacket with a faux leopard collar that's to die for.)

Help from Blogger Forum

Since the folks at Blogger never acknowledged the problem with their servers today, I was forced to hunt out information at Blogger Forum. It's a great site; it covers all types of blog hosting and blogging software. The folks who publish to Blogger were discussing the outage; some felt that Blogger had been remiss in failing to acknowledge a problem with servers at their end (in their defense, I noticed that at least one of their member info sites, buzz.blogger.com, seemed to be down as well). Others on the board said that since Blogger is a free hosting site, we were getting what we paid for. I don't think it's quite that simple, in part because before Blogger was acquired by Google, I had paid for BloggerPlus service. And now my blog hosts Google AdSense ads.

One participant in the forum mentioned that in the 15 months that he's been using Blogger, this is the first unplanned outage they've had. That's been my experience as well. At any rate, we're up and running...

Testing, testing

The blogger site went haywire today and "published" one of my posts...into the ozone. This is a test to see if publishing stability has resumed.

When Zorg's away

...the cats know it.

Zorg went out of town for a couple days, and the cats immediately shifted into one-owner formation. Betaille came inside for the night and slept on (rather than under) the bed. Zoe, who usually yowls annoyingly at 6 a.m to remind Zorg that it's time to get up and let her out, didn't say a word, and waited for me to get up at 8.

I love the way the cats learn to shift back and forth between different "modes." Sheba can tell the difference between weekends and weekdays. A few months back her calendar got off, and after I ate breakfast she waited, with obvious impatience, at the door of my office under the impression we were about to start our usual "workday" together — with her snoozing behind the computer and me typing away in front of it.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Volterra exceeds expectations

This evening Zorg and I dined at Volterra, a Northern Italian restaurant that opened in Ballard earlier this year and has received high praise from the local foodies. It's not for everybody; many of the diners who left comments about Volterra on CitySearch seemed put off by the lack of familiar Southern Italian dishes featured in the couple hundred other Italian-style restaurants in King County.

Zorg and I have quite different culinary backgrounds and interests, but we both found Volterra's take on Italian impressive and tasty.

We began with two of the house special cocktails. Mine featured a homemade limoncello (lemon peel liquor). It was quite smooth and well balanced. Zorg had an espresso martini; too sweet for my taste, but he liked it. Next time I want to try the grapefruit negroni.

The appetizers and salads were small, tasty and inexpensive (about $7 each). I had wild boar proscuitto on a bed of greens, followed by a little salad of greens, sliced roasted beets, and sliced grana parmesan. Perfect! Zorg had the special of the evening, veal-stuffed calamari in a light tomato sauce. The big calamari tubes were as tender as a rigatoni, and the stuffing was complex and interesting.

The main courses were substantial. Zorg chose one of the specials, wide noodles with ragu. It was one of the best ragu sauces I've ever tasted. I had lobster ravioli in a lobster sauce. The ravioli were stuffed with big chunks of succulent lobster. The lobster sauce, with cream and tomatoes, wasn't quite on target, however. Again, both dishes were reasonably priced at about $18 each, and we took quite a bit home with us in boxes. Desserts at Volterra are intense; I had a panna cotta with an extremely fragrant floral honey and fresh strawberries. Zorg went for a semi-freddo, two flavors, with a flavored whipped cream. The combination was decidedly heady, more to his taste than mine.

Volterra's unerring selection of top-flight ingredients, from the tender greens to the out-of-season strawberries, allows them to cook up dishes with vivid and complex flavors -- without covering dishes in overpowering garlic sauces or tsunamis of dark green olive oil that leave you feeling hung over the next day.

OK, so we completely overdid it. The next time I go back, I'll likely stick with a cocktail, appetizer and salad -- in part because those were the most interesting offerings. I wanted to taste every single one they had on the menu!

I mention the prices because the evening before I'd eaten at a similarly priced restaurant in Ballard and the food wasn't half as impressive.

My only caveats: The recorded music -- more industrial trance than jazz -- is just too LOUD. And, like many of Seattle's trendy new eateries, a table for two is practically on top of the table for two next to you. This is not the place for an intimate conversation. If you open your mouth, just put a forkful of pappardelle with duck sauce in it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Patio's done!

Big improvement. Here are the before and after shots:


$5 off your $20 purchase at Epilogue Books

Epilogue Books on Market Street in Ballard is having a Dec. 10 all-day open house with everything in the store 20 percent off. They have a nice mix of used and remaindered books, in very fine condition. They also have a holiday discount coupon that customers have been invited to forward to friends. So, download it here and enjoy Epilogue.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Help! I'm stuck in the San Jose airport

What, I thought, could have been worse than this morning's flight to San Jose from Seattle, packed to the gills with people who seemed to have been eating garlic-laced turkey for the past several days? Followed by an hour-long taxi line and a van driver who didn't seem to have any idea where she was going, it was one of the worst trips down here I've had in the past five years.

This evening, when I arrived at the airport for my return flight, I was thrilled to see just a few dozen folks in the waiting area for the Seattle flight. Unfortunately, the plane itself is missing in action.

I still have a Boingo internet account, which can be reactivated on a monthly basis. I'm logged in, and, I guess, will get to work on various projects after I've finished blogging. I'm hoping that there will be plenty of room on the plane and I can sleep on the way to Seattle. Unless, of course, it arrives with hordes of travelers who are staying on the flight...Arggggh!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Too cute

A graphic design friend of mine is involved in the launch of Cute Overload, a site featuring incredibly cute photos of fuzzy animals, plus a design analysis of what constitutes cute.

It has one definite advantage over other "cute animal" sites: All the photos are in focus and properly exposed.

Where do we go from here?

Here's an excellent interview with Mark Hallenbeck, the Director of the Washington State Transportation Center (TRAC) at the University of Washington about Seattle's transportation woes. And keep in mind, this was before the two monorail trains got stuck together this past weekend!

Video conferencing, family style

My late grandfather used to tell us that in our lifetimes we'd be able to talk on the phone and see the person we were talking with.

A few minutes ago, my computer announced that I had an audio iChat invitation from his daughter (my 87-year-old mother) in Florida. I answered, and she was just thrilled to have discovered what is essentially free long-distance phone service. (She'd "called" to tell me that her new Kensington mouse had arrived.)

If my mom gets an iSight camera (such as I have) we will have free video conferencing -- just the service her dad predicted.

For anyone wondering what on earth I'm talking about: iChat for Mac OS X is a free download from Apple. The text instant messaging and audio versions work with Mac OS X; to use the video version, you need the latest version of Mac OS X, v10.4 "Tiger" and a webcam like the iSight. To IM or conference with iChat, log in with an AIM account name or create a trial .Mac account and log in with your .Mac account name. You get to keep the name and use iChat even after the .Mac trial expires.

iChat instant messaging is also great for exchanging files. You can drag and drop graphics or text files right into the message field of your chat and the other person can open them immediately and discuss the contents with you. I use this technique quite a bit for reviewing layouts with graphic designers.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A banner week for letters to the editor

Collision detection reprints a short-but-sweet letter that appeared in Vanity Fair in rebuttal to some egocentric blathering from celebrity Paris Hilton's sister Nicky.

The Zorg called my attention to this even shorter gem in the Monday Seattle Times:
"Medicare: proof that complexity doesn't always imply intelligent
design..."

—Ray Hamlin, Burien

Kaylee using the "Go-Meow" Guide

Friday, November 25, 2005

Close cover before striking

About 20 years ago, while paging through a catalog, I came across a frame for displaying matchbook covers. Since my father had a big drawerfull of matchbooks from the 50s and 60s (my mom was always after him to toss them), I gave him the frame for Christmas. He put some beautiful matchbooks in the display. I'm not sure how he chose them, but it looks as though he picked ones from his travels for the Office of Naval Research and NASA — the majority of them from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and various desert test stations in the Southwest. There is also a nice group from posh restaurants in Washington, D.C.

I look at these covers and I'm taken back to the era of the Cold War, men wearing fedoras, cocktail lounges, cool jazz, and Raymond Chandler. The cover for the Blue Fox in San Francisco opens to give the address of "659 MERCHANT STREET, OPPOSITE THE MORGUE." Somehow, I don't think "THE MORGUE" was a proto-Goth club.

Here are a few of my favorites:


The California Hotel, San Bernardino.
There are similar covers showing Motel Freso (in Fresno) and Furnace Creek, a hotel in Death Valley.








The Porte-Avions Bearn (aircraft carrier). There were fewer European matchbooks than I'd expected; the other one was from the Grand Hotel National Luzerne. My father was so impressed by the Grand Hotel that he insisted that we all stay there in a suite in 1984, when I was living in Europe and he brought my mom over on her first trip overseas. It was a pretty spectacular place, with Oriental rugs in every room, and a waiter who brought me breakfast in bed.


The Balkan Room, Washington, D.C. I don't remember my dad mentioning the Balkan Room, though he did talk about the Roumanian Inn. These were the days of three-martini lunches!













Lulu Belle, Scottsdale, AZ.
The interior text on this matchbook describes it as "Show place of Scottsdale, the West's most Western town" and goes on to promise "Food and Fun." Hmm...













Water Gate Inn on the Potomac, Washington D.C.
This Water Gate preceded the Watergate business complex where all the Nixon-era skullduggery took place. My parents took me to this Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant a few times; it was famous for its popovers. The Water Gate Inn was demolished in 1966 to make way for the Kennedy Center, but the popovers live on at the sister restaurant, Normandie Farm.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

What to bring to the feast

Thanksgiving.

How can you not like a holiday that has a standard menu requiring minimal advance thought? At the worst, it's: Go to supermarket, pick up obvious, well-labeled ingredients, cook standard dishes on autopilot, follow familiar streets (over river, through woods) to relatives' house, nod agreeably at whatever people say, and eat.

If you feel creative, and are considering squash chiffon pie instead of pumpkin pie, you probably won't get extra points. Think about it: Haven't you heard more stories about Thanksgiving cooking disasters (read on) than stories about brilliant and original creations? There is a reason why we are still eating many of the same dishes served by the Pilgrims (with perhaps the addition of the marshmallows in the yams).

At Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for a relaxing, guilt-free holiday, for our good health, enjoyable jobs, fantastic friends, happy families, and last but not least, our wonderful neighborhood.

And I'm thankful for the memories of some truly distinctive Thanksgiving disasters. Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • 1964 (or thereabouts) - I wandered into my aunt and uncle's elegant dining room, minutes before we were going to be called to the beautifully appointed table. My aunt Arv was in the kitchen, whipping mashed potatoes in her KitchenAid mixer. My uncle Bob was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the diningroom, next to the buffet. Huh? It seems he'd placed the china tray with the 20-pound turkey on a swing-up wing of the buffet that had not been securely braced; it had promptly swung back down, dumping the turkey onto the floor and covering the rug with juice and stuffing. Bob was carefully spooning stuffing back into the turkey. I was not the sort of child given to yelling "Hey! Bob dropped the turkey." Instead, I went back into the family room where all the guests were enjoying appetizers and cocktails, and quietly told my father what had happened. He picked up his camera and we both tiptoed back into the diningroom, where he carefully focused, then yelled "Hey! Bob!" and got a memorable picture. (The turkey made it to the table, and tasted, we thought, particularly delicious. "It's the rug fibers in the stuffing," my cousin Buck assured us.)


  • 1987 (give or take a year) - I had set up a particularly nice table for a dozen friends at the Shady Rest, my Wallingford bungalow, with a blue plaid tablecloth, heavy wine goblets, colorful Stangl dinnerware, and, as I recall, a pretty decent turkey with stuffing for both the pro-oyster and anti-oyster contingents. All went well until we reached dessert. One of the gourmets among us had brought a new-fangled whipped cream canister with various downpointing levers and spouts. My friend Jim, fiddling with the controls, successfully sprayed gobs of whipped cream not in the direction of his pie but in the direction of Nina's suede skirt. Was Roger standing by with his camera? You bet he was.

    The moral of these stories: Have a great Thanksgiving, and don't forget to take along a camera.
  • Monday, November 21, 2005

    Frappr!

    I'm feeling so hip -- I was invited to a Frappr group! But what's so weird about the invite is that it came from one of the least techie, most touchy-feeling web groups I know, the Yahoo Deaf White Cats group. Yeah, Deaf White Cats!

    If you're exploring Frappr, you might look for me on there as Mysterious Traveler.

    In a fog

    Seattle is apparently experiencing some kind of annual weather event in which cold damp fog enshrouds the neighborhoods. It certainly helped cast a pall over the "before" pictures I took this weekend for our patio project. Our backyard, which looks rather sweet and whimsical in the summer, barely even qualifies as "shabby chic" in November. And after we moved all the glazed pots and white metal patio furniture out of the way, the result was plain, unadulterated "shabby." In fact, it's so grim I don't plan to post the "before" pictures until there are some "after" pictures to go with them. We're thinking that'll be around December 5.

    And, speaking of fog, Zorg and I went to our first round of holiday events Saturday night. I discovered two things:

  • I have the best holiday outfit I've had in a long, long time

  • We are both dangerously out of practice at swilling cocktails and grazing through the evening on salty little hors d'oeuvres and cholesterol laden mini-desserts while beaming at people we barely know and carrying on conversations in loud rooms.


  • There were moments the following day when we each thought we were going to expire (though the other one was usually able to offer reassurance that the end was not imminent). I was barely able to get my act together in time to meet my friend Sharon to shop the Best of the Northwest crafts extravaganza. But I'm glad I did. We had a delightful time, and I purchased the perfect evening bag to round out my holiday outfit. How perfect is this bag? When I'm not wearing it, it doubles as artwork you can hang on the wall.

    Sharon brought me the 1970s-era KitchenAid mixer I'd spotted on Craig's List at an estate sale near her neighborhood. She was able to purchase a few things at the estate sale as well, so everyone came out ahead. The mixer is in the kitchen, waiting for a test drive. It's one heavy, serious piece of equipment.

    Friday, November 18, 2005

    In San Jose, with shrimp

    Last night a group of us from work went to something called The Viking Store (kitchenware) for a cooking class. We made a Mediterranean salad (vegetables, pita, and dressing), steak with an herbed butter sauce, oven-baked seasoned potatoes, and ice cream with Jim Beam caramel sauce. We also made marinated grilled shrimp, which we'd like to forget, but can't, because the smell of incinerated marinated grilled shrimp still lingers in everything we brought to the session, including purses and jackets.

    It's 80 degrees here today, so I have my corduroy jacket airing out and am hoping it will be wearable before I need to get on the airplane back to Seattle this evening. It promises to be a jam-packed pre-Thanksgiving flight as the Silicon Valley tech workforce makes its weekend exodus back to the more affordable cities where we live.

    Monday, November 14, 2005

    Other blogs, other universes

    Occasionally I stumble upon well-written blogs by people who live in quite different universes. I find them fascinating! I subscribe, and reading the daily entries is better than following a soap-opera. For awhile, I kept up with the blog of a survivalist from West Virginia, but eventually his entries took a racist turn and I unsubscribed.

    Currently I follow a blog by an Orthodox Jewish school teacher who is looking for a husband and is being set up by matchmakers in a series of hilarious mis-matches. She is quite a handful (the blogger), and I imagine the matchmakers and potential husbands are as disconcerted by the disasterous dates as she is.

    I have recently come across a blog by a Seattle-based dominatrix, and am getting another view of the city. She and her boyfriend are in the process of buying a house, and she's been posting pictures of the houses she's checked out but rejected. In addition to the usual sorts of amenities we all look for in a new house, she needs a basement with high ceilings (for hanging equipment) and a house with a fairly private entrance -- thus a house on a cul-de-sac, with all the neighbors looking the front door, just wasn't for her.

    There's a nice brick house up for sale one street over from us...it has a basement, and is probably fairly sound-proof. Hmmm.

    Whose 70s were those, anyway?

    60s, 70s and 80s nostalgia pieces, like this website, always make me wonder if I'm on the wrong planet. I was into bluegrass when everyone else was doing disco, and I wouldn't know the Bay City Rollers if one rolled over me. Oh, well, if I didn't get it the first time, I guess I'll be spared the pain of missing it now.

    Saturday, November 12, 2005

    The cake

    Taking a picture of a chocolate cake presents many of the same problems as taking a picture of a black cat, except that on the cat at least the eyes stand out. Then, again, the cake didn't move. Here it is:

    Adventures in Bundt








    Last summer an old friend who has been trying to find himself for 50-odd years decided to move the search overseas. At his leaving-the-country yard sale I picked up a top-of-the-line, unused, Nordic Ware non-stick Bundt pan, which I've been promising myself I would use.

    This week's vacation, plus a potluck invitation for this evening, seemed like a good oppportunity.

    What is a "Bundt?"


    Bundt is what happened when a traditional Eastern European Kugelhopf pan (used to bake yeasted cakes) met a marketing department.

    A Kugelhopf pan is a circular metal mold, sometimes with peaks. The ladies of Minneapolis Hadassah approached Nordic Ware with a request for a Kugelhopf pan, Nordic Ware designers came up with one, and the cookware company went on to promote it as a "Bundt pan" for the baking of regular (non-yeasted) cakes. In the 1960s, Bundt cakes made it into the mainstream via cooking contests and ladies magazines and in 1972 Pillbury began to sell special Bundt cake mixes for the 12-cup batter pans. Nordic Ware now makes Bundt pans in dozens of shapes and sizes: Star, Cathedral, Chrysanthemum, Holiday Tree, Fleur-de-Lis, Bavaria, Rose -- even a Bundt brownie pan. But the ultimate, the absolute ultimate, is Williams-Sonoma's Bundt Sandcastle pan (apparently a W-S exclusive), which inspired this blog entry from High Maintenance Mom. According to the Nordic Ware site, there are now 45 million Bundt pans in American homes. Since moving to Ballard, I have met quite a few nice Bundt pans at yard sales.

    BTW, mine's a plain Bundt pan.

    The retro charm of the Bundt pan, especially a non-stick one like the high-end Nordic Ware, is that you can create an extremely fancy-looking cake without much work. These things don't even have frosting, just a sprinkling of powdered sugar that goes on after the cake has cooled. Theoretically, you could get away with just mixing up a cake mix (make sure it's for a 12-cup Bundt pan), dumping it in, and baking it.

    Tips and tricks

    But of course, there are some tricks. Such as getting such an elaborately crenellated cake out of the pan in one piece. Cook's Illustrated described one tip that involved lining the sink with towels, pouring on boiling water, and setting the "top" of the pan down on the towels for 10 seconds before turning it over to deposit the cake onto the parchment-covered cooling rack. Another Cook's Illustrated recipe has you prep the pan beforehand, thoroughly greasing all the interior ridges by brushing them with a mixture that's equal parts butter and cocoa powder, combined and heated (microwaved) to just-melting.

    After contemplating a shelf of sticky-looking cake mixes at the local grocery, I went home and put together a chocolate sour cream Bundt cake recipe from Cook's Illustrated, including the greasing of the interior of the pan. My one frustration was that cookbooks seem to assume that everyone has a deep-bowl, KitchenAid standing mixer. Using a hand mixer works, but increases the probability that you'll splatter batter all over the kitchen as you stop to use a splatula between each step of the mixing. (Note to self: Get the batter off the refrigerator door.)

    The cake is now out of the pan, cooling, and I'll post a picture after I apply the powdered sugar. Now, if only I had the Deluxe Bundt Cake Keeper. Ya, sure, you betcha!

    Friday, November 11, 2005

    So you want to write an SF novel?

    Professional editors are standing by, praying that it's not another one of these.

    Thursday, November 10, 2005

    The Cat and the Tree of Life


    When Oriental rug dealers die, they are often reincarnated as cats. How else to explain the talent of most cats for finding the most expensive woven item in the house and peforming The Dance of 20 Sabres upon it?

    We always have a runner in our front hallway, in the ultra-high traffic zone between the front door and anywhere else in the house. We've had a rust-colored dhurrie from Pottery Barn, a cheap Berber-style remnant from the local carpet warehouse, and special dirt-resistant looped rug from Land's End. Briefly, last spring, we had a green-gold-and-burgundy Tree of Life runner from Pottery Barn via eBay.

    The Tree of Life was made of thick, plush wool and, unlike any of the other carpets, it mesmerized the cats. Every few days one of them would leap onto it and shred, tear, and knead as if possessed. The following day I would vacuum up the loose threads and trim the dangling ones. After about a month of this, I decided the carpet was too dark for the livingroom, and too vulnerable to cats, and I took it to DA Burns to be cleaned and then put it into storage.

    This fall I cleaned and retired the white Berber runner, and, obviously having forgotten about the Tree of Life problems, brought the Tree of Life out of storage. It was, of course, still way too dark for the livingroom decor. Before I could take action, a cat set to work on it in ways I won't describe, but which were far worse than clawing. Zorg rushed the carpet to DA Burns the following morning. When I brought it home, I unrolled it for a quick photo, rolled it back up again, and then put it up for sale on Craig's List at a very reasonable price (we'd just about recoup the cleaning expense).

    This time, instead of attracting insane cats, The Tree of Life attracted insane people. The first person who expressed interest in it kept sending me questions, one at a time. She wanted several additional pictures taken. I unrolled the carpet on top of the washer and dryer, took detailed photos, and sent them to her. The final question from Madame Carpet Princess, in its entirety, was "Do you think I could get a better deal online?"

    I went on to the second buyer.

    After sorting through a number of flakes, I made phone arrangements with a very pleasant woman who was going to come by to view, and possibly buy, the Tree of Life runner at 2 p.m. today. A few minutes before she arrived I ran downstairs to tidy up the laundry room for the best possible viewing. I nearly had heart failure when I saw the carpet. I had left it unrolled on top of the washer and dryer overnight and a cat had attacked it! There were shredded carpet fibers everywhere. Grabbing vacuum and scissors, and feeling like a character in a bad sit-com, I quickly coiffed it back into shape -- and just in time.

    The Tree of Life has gone to a new home. I didn't ask if they have cats.

    Wednesday, November 09, 2005

    Guest blogger?

    Prednisone, one of the drugs I'm taking for my herniated disk, can have a profound effect on personality. My doctor reported that one of his patients who took the six-day course of medication become so energetic that he went home and painted his entire house. The doctor didn't say what color he painted it, and I was wondering.

    Anyway, you take six pills the first day, five the second, four the third, and, well, you get the idea. You've tapered off right about the time all the paint on the trim is dry.

    The last time I had this therapy for a herniated disk (nine years ago), I not only changed personality, I liked the new assertive personality so much that I dashed off to a psychologist to do role playing to see if I could learn how to make it permanent. That didn't work, but I am still able to access some of the more effective phrases (such as "That's your problem," "I'm busy," and "So -- fix it. Now.") and recall, if only faintly, how immensely pleasurable it was to speak these truths without fear that someone would get mad at me. (Thanks to the prednisone, I could have cared less.)

    By the middle of next week I'll be back to my usual "I'm so sorry!" and "Oh my, can I help you with that?"

    But in the interim, be prepared for a possible guest blogger. She could be a bitch.

    Monday, November 07, 2005

    Capote

    My friend Mattie and I caught the 1:30 showing of Capote at the Egyptian today. (A very pleasant place to see a film on a weekday afternoon, about two dozen people in the audience. Nice screen, decent audio. $6 for the film, $4 to park at the Seattle Central College parking garage right across the street. Funky old coffeehouse that pre-dates espresso bars on the premises, so you can enjoy a decent drink with your movie.)

    Capote is about a great writer and what it took for him to write a book, In Cold Blood, that changed the course of American writing by deliberately meshing fiction writing and journalism. You'll see Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) do some shocking things, and later see exactly how those shocking things made his book so powerful. Capote makes several bargains with the devil, and both cheat shamelessly.

    Great movie? If you're interested in writing, absolutely.

    When I retire, I'm going to go to matinees at the Egyptian once a week.

    Sunday, November 06, 2005

    eBay's new ads for "it" spoof Apple

    Logged on to eBay to look for a J Jill jacket and spotted the new eBay ad campaign for "it," with many subtle little send-ups of Apple ads. Check out the many clever videos that make up the campaign.

    Thursday, November 03, 2005

    Ouch!

    My back. Muscle spasms? That awful disc problem again? Who knows. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! (If my back feels this bad through the methocarbamol and hydrocodon, what would it feel like without them? My right leg is on fire all the way down to the ankle!)

    I'd been having some very mild back pain for about a week, but my whole lower back seized up this afternoon -- about 20 minutes after my office called and asked me to fly to California for a meeting next week, in the middle of my long-awaited vacation. When I declined to cancel my vacation plan on less than two days notice, the reception was definitely frosty.

    I didn't realize how furious I was, but apparently my back did! Now I can't even raise my right arm to open a cabinet.

    Yet more effective communication. Right.

    Ring. Ring.

    Hello, my name is (Susie Feathyrbrain/Joe Bob Glocktoter/Margaret Urbahn-Yuppei) and I'm (co-rotating chair of Citizens for More Committees/assistant treasurer of the Iron City Police Union/secretary of Parents Furious at the School Board) and I'm calling to urge you to vote (for the Monorail for the fifth or sixth time/for the guy who's running for sheriff against a woman/for anyone running against a current school board member).


    It makes sense to have a public official or activist with high name recognition (say, a Presidential candidate) do recorded phone calls to get out the vote, but who came up with the bizarre idea that we wanted to pick up our home phones and hear recordings of the political amateur hour?

    The gravitas play-off

    Don't touch that remote! TV anchor Stone Phillips whomps Steven Colbert at his own mischevious game. We'll be back after a brief message with two pros in top form.

    Wednesday, November 02, 2005

    Monday, October 31, 2005

    Another great Halloween

    Saul Steinberg, The New Yorker, 10/29/49

    And you thought you had a weird Halloween

    Things just...happen...to our friend Geoff. And on Halloween, weird things happen.

    Halloween in Ballard: Very Ghoul

    North Seattle is decorated to the hilt for Halloween, complete with wet, windy weather.

    There's an enormous (at least two-story high) Grim Reaper at the intersection of NW 3rd and 76th St. (west side of Phinney Ridge, heading into Ballard), and that whole neighborhood is full of tombstones commemorating the Viaduct and Leilani Lanes.

    Saturday, October 29, 2005

    Very serious

    Size doesn't matter

    My late father had little respect for television, a medium whose content had reached a particularly low ebb in the 1980s.

    While going through his papers today, I came across a tiny 1988 newspaper clipping of the (then) new Sony Color Watchman pocket television. It had a a 2.7-inch LCD screen, ran on batteries, and was capable of both UHF/VHF reception and display of recorded images from a camcorder.

    I hadn't realized there had even been such a forerunner of the iPod video. The reason my dad had saved the article was the off-beat headline, which echoed his opinion of miniaturized TV, Sony or iPod:

    "Trash Compactor."

    Nowadays, even the cat sends email...

    ...but does anyone read it? Probably not, if the subject line is "Hey!"

    Today's rant is about email subject lines. The scope of the rant is personal and business email (as opposed to commercial email and its creepy cousin, spam).

    A subject line can be the most important part of any email message you send or receive. Three reasons:

    1. It, along with the sender's name, determines whether the email gets opened and read, set aside for later, or deleted.
    2. It can (considerately) set expectations for what's in the email (good or bad news, critical information, an amusing joke, time-consuming demands on the recipient, etc.)
    3. It distinguishes the message from the dozens of others in the recipient's inbox by indicating that it's urgent, important, or interesting

    Yet, I get email with the following subject lines every day:
    Hey!
    (Response: huh?)

    A question
    (Response: About what? Is this going to take all day to deal with?)

    Computers
    (Response: What computers?)

    Are you there?
    (Response: No, a robot is reading my email.)

    You get the idea. A particularly infuriating variation on the clueless subject line involves an onging work project, let's call it "Starshine," in which hundreds, if not thousands, of emails have been flying back and forth -- about Starshine splash pages, Starshine product briefs, and Starshine icons. Then, three or four months into it, someone sends an email with the oh-so-informative subject line:

    Starshine

    (Response: You've got to be kidding.)

    If people want their emails read and responded to -- and want to increase the chance that the recipient will read them in a reasonably good humor -- they should put the message, or a good clue to it, right in the subject line:

    Capote Sunday night?

    I passed the bar exam!

    Question: email software programs

    FYI: New condo regs in Seattle

    URGENT: Mom's plane delayed

    Fun: Bush pursued by mongooses

    Attached: Pix from Tokyo

    Bottom line: It's flattering to an email recipient to see by the subject line that the sender has taken the time to tailor the message -- to (gasp) actually communicate instead of grunting "Hey!"

    Friday, October 28, 2005

    Decisions, decisions...

    The latest blogthings quiz might help you decide what to wear for Halloween.

    Despite blogthings' advice, I will not be appearing as a Playboy bunny. Not even as Gloria Steinem going undercover as a Playboy bunny.

    Thursday, October 27, 2005

    Sigh

    They say that women in their 20s today experience a completely different working world than the one I knew 25 years ago, one pretty much without sexism. I sure hope so. My generation is still hard-wired the wrong way.

    We sold our leather sofa on Craig's List this week, and the buyer came over to get it today. He's my age (50), works in the high-tech music industry, and is what I'd consider to be a professional. As we walked through the hallway to get to the den, he noticed the elaborate iTunes Music Store launch team plaque on the wall and said "Wow, iTunes! Does your husband work for Apple?"

    I guess I've encountered this type of remark so often through the years that I don't manifest any of the obvious reactions, such as rolling my eyes, letting steam escape from my ears, or muttering "oink oink." I don't even sigh any more.

    "No," I said. "I do."

    To his credit, the guy was immediately embarrassed. He seemed like the sort of person who just blurts out the first thing on his mind, and I suspect he'd made this sort of error before.

    I've been wondering: If we were both 25, would he have assumed my husband was the techie? And, if he had, would I have cared? Would have I have called him on it more aggressively?

    I'd like to hear from anyone under 30 about that.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2005

    I know I've seen that face before

    I want to tag my photos with Riya! (For just a moment, let's ignore the scary privacy implications.)

    Monday, October 24, 2005

    The contractors from hell

    It used to be that mid-way through a major home project, something about the contractor would get my goat.

    My, how things have changed. Now I want to throttle most of them right out of the gate. In the past month, I've been annoyed by eight contractors, only four of whom actually turned up in person.

    Contractor #1 was the stamped concrete guy who assured me that he did all his estimates on Sunday and would be by at 2:30 Sunday afternoon. I stayed home, waiting; he never showed up or called.

    Contractors #2 and #3 were paver installers. One had me fill out a request for an appointment, but apparently filed it in his trash can. The other, recommended by the local stone yard, never returned either of my phone calls.

    Contractor #4 was also a paver installer. He returned my call, showed up for an appointment, and spent most of his time trying to convince me to use a particular style of paver he "always uses." The fact that I wanted a different style (by the same supplier, whose catalog he brought along) just didn't even begin to sink in. Plus he didn't want to use a polymerized sand, and had no experience with it.

    Contractor #5 was our cleaning person, who shows up for about 2/3 of her scheduled cleaning dates, usually calling to cancel 15 minutes before start time.

    Contractor #6 was the fill-in cleaning person I tried out. She was slow, but thorough and very thoughtful. The disqualifying factor here was her insistance on using an"environmentally safe" cleaning solution that had a cloying smell that practically drove me out of the house (and it lingered for days). I asked about using use the cleansers I have (bon ami, vinegar Windex, Murphy's oil soap and a marmoleum cleaner sold by the Environmental Home Store) but she made it clear that wasn't going to happen. Phew!

    Contractor #7 was recommended by a salesperson at the plumbing fixtures store as someone who could install a Panasonic fan to replace the mind-numbing Nutone currently roaring away in our bathroom. He cancelled two or three appointments; when he eventually showed up, it was clear he knew a huge amount about fan installation. Unfortunately, he would be moonlighting from his regular job with a busy contractor, and had no idea when he could start. He suggested that I call him and nag him in three weeks! When he started muttering about having to remove part of the ceiling, coming back to do drywall, etc., I had an ugly premonition. It involved a gaping hole that would remain in the bathroom ceiling for the next two months while I chased him down to finish the job. He tried to convince me to hire his son-in-law to do the patio, but I managed to shoo him away.

    Contractor #8 does specialty gardening, and was recommended by the (very competent) gardener I hired for a consultation. He warned me that the specialist would try to sell me on a series of treatments, but said that I really needed only one. As predicted, when I called the specialist he launched into a real hard sell about how this garden treatment needed to be done four times a year, and how he'd come over to analyze my garden and show me why it was crucial that I sign up for the entire four-treatment annual series. Stifling my incredulity, I gave him my phone number, but he never called to make an appointment -- essentially leaving my money on the table since I was ready and eager to pay him for the first treatment.

    This is worse than dating.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2005

    Tuesday, October 18, 2005

    Hurricanes, followed by greedy developers

    News that New Orleans officials are considering suspending planning and zoning regs to allow quaint historic homes to be replaced with suburban tract boxes reminded me (by contrast) of Warsaw, Poland. Visiting the city center in 1984, I learned that what looked like 17th and 18th century buildings were less than 40 years old. Old Warsaw had been destroyed in World War II, but immediately afterwards the surviving residents rebuilt it, with many squares, palaces and culturally significant streets recreated exactly as they had been before the war.

    In sync

    A few months ago, when I upgraded to Mac OS X Tiger on my iMac, I chose to do the OS upgrade rather than the clean install. I mean, who wants to reinstall all their apps and try to remember all their settings and preferences?

    All went swimmingly, except for the Missing Sync. As its name implies, it's a patch that deals with conflicts between between .Mac Sync (new), Apple iSync (old) and Palm OS for Mac (an unspeakable pain in the rear). With Missing Sync, I can keep the data that I already sync between my PowerBook, my iMac, and my .Mac online account, in sync with my Treo PDA as well.

    It turns out that those of us who upgraded, rather than clean-installed, Mac OS X Tiger, locked deep into the system something that annoyed the heck out of the Missing Sync.

    In my attempt to get Treo syncing to work again, I spent several annoying evenings downloading, uninstalling, reinstalling, and encountering "you do not have access to this file"-type messages. I found discussions of the Tiger-upgrade-hoses-Missing-Sync problem online, but, ominiously, none of them mentioned any solutions. The result was that my Treo hadn't been synced since July.

    Trusting the people at the Missing Sync to address the problem (think about it, their whole product is based on addressing a problem Palm and Apple don't want to talk about) I kept checking back to their site. Sure enough, today I found a step-by-step solution. Of course, I'd already trashed, damaged, re-installed and generally mucked around with all the files and conduits involved, but I was able to follow their step-by-step about three-quarters of the way through, up to the point where it didn't make sense any longer. And at that point, being an experienced Mac user and trained to expect generally positive outcomes, I just pushed some buttons and leaped into the digital abysss.

    The result? Synced again. I have no idea why it worked, but, once again, thank you to MarkSpace (that's the Missing Sync people) for putting out some signposts.

    Monday, October 17, 2005

    Faded love, fluffy omelettes

    Salon columnist Cary Tennis had a lovely column this past week (sorry, subscriptions only). He was riffing on the implications of a letter from a Salon reader who was disquieted by ex-boyfriends who've taken plans the couple had developed together and subsequently implemented them with their new sweeties. She complained about the appropriation of everything from romantic date ideas to a complete wedding theme.

    "Do men build dating structures, then simply insert 'woman'?" she asked.

    Tennis points out, in his gentle way, that you can't help but absorb ideas during a relationship, and you can't be expected to erase the ideas when the romance ends.

    "It's one thing if he cooks an omelet on your stove with your eggs in your pan and then carries the omelet out of your house into his new girlfriend's house and feeds it to her. But every time he cooks an omelet for her, in his pan, or her pan, does he have to credit you for it?" he teases.

    This got me thinking of all the great ideas and attitudes I've gotten from past relationships. I don't mean old friends I still hang out with; I mean people who once meant quite a bit to me, but who I'll never see again!

    Every time I chop the bamboo shoots and turn on the gas under the wok, I hear Blair, my pony-tailed college sweetie, reminding me "hot wok, cold oil." He's an orthodox rabbi now.

    When I see my gray hair in the mirror I think of David, the New York civil rights attorney who showed me the city when I was at Columbia for grad school. One night at the City Limits one of my friends teased him about going gray. David said "I have a deal with God; he can turn my hair any color he wants as long as he lets me keep half of it." David died a few years ago; there's an ACLU scholarship in New York in his memory.

    I can't imaging Blair or David being annoyed at me for perpetuating their cooking techniques or their clever lines. When the Salon reader's annoyance about the failed romances is long gone, she should feel flattered that her ex-boyfriends have such positive memories of her that they have kept those reminders in their lives.

    Oh, BTW, Steve, wherever you are, I still remember how to make fluffy omelettes!

    Saturday, October 15, 2005

    Is nothing sacred?

    Friday's Wall Street Journal (sorry, print version or web subscription only, so no link) had an article about a new version of the classic writer's guide, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White.

    If you haven't come across it, The Elements of Style is a slim, supremely elegant book that embodies its own messages. It's short. It's clear. It never aggrandizes the writers or flim-flams the reader. But apparently someone felt that such an approach was behind the times, so they've gussied it up with bizarre illustrations and changed the wording to make the writing instruction more cheery and inclusive.

    Yech.

    The late sportswriter and Boston University journalism professor, Timothy Cohane, had a term for the contemporary approach to teaching writing. He called it NSTO, or "no shit too odiferous." According to Cohane, NSTO started with doting parents who insisted that every creative effort of their children was perfect, and that no revisions or editing should ever come between the beloved offspring's spoutings and the reader. This attitude crept gradually from the home to the schools, where teachers got tired of calls from irate parents complaining that little Johnny and Sally would be stifled if their compositions, no matter how incoherent or sloppy, received any grade below an A. And, in a 1999 revision upon which the 2005 illustrated version is based, a whiff of NSTO insinuated itself into The Elements of Style.

    Cohane, like Strunk and White, knew that writing is demanding and good writing is the result of thought, practice, and study. Just read 10 blogs and you'll have no trouble telling the difference between the ones written by talented, experienced, disciplined writers and the ones written by blathering nincompoops -- nincompoops making exactly the same mistakes that Strunk and White show you how to avoid or correct.

    The version of Elements of Style that you want is the final revision by White (1979), and the good news is that it's still widely available. I recommend picking it up at your local used bookstore. The versions you want to skip are the 1999 revision and the 2005 illustrated version of that revision. "The 1979 Elements will be studied long after the post-White versions have been filed under 'mortifying mistakes' and forgotten," reviewer David Gelernter predicts in the Journal.

    Thursday, October 13, 2005

    Looking for something different?

    I've started to follow local event blogs, including Metroblogging Seattle and Ballard Community, as well as inballard.com. That's how I've found out about some unusual community events, such as Ratapalooza, Nov. 12 in Ballard.

    Not yet on the blog sites, but certainly on my calendar, is the Nordic Heritage Museum's annual Yulefest. It's a bit early this year -- Nov. 19-20. The crafts for sale range from Scandinavian sweaters and jewelry to the work of mid-range and high-end local artisans. I do much of my holiday shopping there on Saturday, then go back on Sunday for the the food. They have a tea room, a beer hall, and an a la carte lunch in the first-floor dining room, all with musical entertainment, plus a hallway full of baked goods. I highly recommend the lunch. Nibble on a few open-face sandwiches, but save room for the Romme Grot, a warm pudding that will remind you of crepes and sour cream.

    If you miss Yulefest, you can get your holiday shopping done at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market, 11-3 p.m. in the winter (except for Dec. 26), or the Fremont Sunday Market, 10-4 p.m. in the winter (also closed Dec. 26). Unfortunately, there will not be a weekend Holiday Gift Fair in Ballard or Fremont this year because the old Safeway building that housed it in recent years has been torn down. Waaaaaah!

    Another excellent crafts fair option is the annual Phinney NeighborHood Association Winter Festival and Crafts Fair, Dec. 3-4. That's about the right time to buy seasonal greenery, and I recall their wreaths are usually a very good deal. By the way, those stunning fused-glass plates you see on the fair website (and at right) are the work of our friend Els Gangloff.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2005

    Garden reassurance

    A couple years ago our community club brought in three garden experts for an evening presentation. One of them, a fellow from Ohio, immediate caught my interest. He spoke clearly and plainly, with an obvious love and respect for plants and little or no interest in garden design trends. I held onto his business card, and last week made an appointment for him to come over for a garden consultation.

    I was a concerned about what he might think of my garden, since I never seem to have enough time to apply all the special sprays and organic additives. But he liked it, and reassured me that the fungus that affected the pear tree this year was probably a result of the unusual spring weather and would not permanently damage the tree or threaten any other plans. His advice was to put plenty of Cedar Grove compost on the beds, and to use compost tea at least once a year. I've since made arrangements with the local compost tea person to have the whole garden treated later this month.

    Calvin -- that's the gardener -- suggested two plants I might add to the garden: Sarcococca, also called "Christmas box," (a very small shrub with fragrant white flowers that bloom in the winter) and the hardy Geranium "Spinners," a particularly large and dramatic hardy Geranium with intense purple/blue flowers. I've had up to 40 varieties of hardy Geranium, but have never grown "Spinners."

    It was a pleasure to be around someone who knows plants and enjoys gardens. He made improving the garden seem very do-able. Calvin will be back in January to prune the pear tree and execute a major remodeling of the gigantic camellia. Stay tuned for my upcoming adventures with the compost tea guy.

    Monday, October 10, 2005

    Fruit ice cream recipe

    A reader who found the Waring Ice Cream Parlor directions here requested my strawberry ice cream recipe. I'll preface it with some general comments on fruit ice cream:

    You base fruit ice cream on either a plain vanilla (uncooked) or a French vanilla (with eggs, often cooked) recipe. (I use the plain vanilla). If the fruit has been reduced to a puree, it can be added to the mix at the beginning of the freezing process. But if you want the fruit in larger pieces, mix it in at the end of the freezing process. It prevents clogging the dasher, and it prevents the fruit from ending up as hard as rocks.

    Fresh fruit: Slice or chop 1-2 cups of fruit, and combine them with half of the sugar called for in the ice cream recipe. Let this mixture age in your refrigerator for 24 hours. (The extra sugar in the fruit will prevent it from freezing solid in the ice cream.) After the aging, puree some of the fruit and add it to the ice cream mixture, saving the rest of the fruit pieces to be added by hand at the end.

    Strawberry Ice Cream

    2 cups heavy cream (1 pint)
    2 cups light cream (1 pint)
    3/4 - 1 cup sugar
    1-1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
    1/8 tsp. salt

    Chop strawberries, mix with half of the sugar, and let fruit mixture age in the refrigerator 24 hours.

    Puree about half of the strawberry mixture.
    Pour cream directly into cream can of ice cream machine.
    Add the pureed strawberries.
    Add the rest of the sugar, along with the vanilla and salt.
    Stir with wooden spoon or plastic spatula until sugar dissolves.

    Place can into ice cream machine and follow Ice Cream Parlor directions to process and freeze ice cream. When you remove the ice cream from the freezing container, mix in the reserved strawberry pieces, then allow the ice cream to harden or "ripen" in the freezer of your refrigerator.

    Friday, October 07, 2005

    Fluff-in-mouth disease

    A colleague and I have been discussing ways to improve the readability of web sites. (All aspects of readability: word choice, sentence and graf length, voice, tone, fonts, colors, use of links and buttons, column widths, and use of bullets.)

    We've been collecting ideas, and that sent me back to one of the classic web readability writers, Jakob Nielsen. This page is worth visiting if you do any writing for the web. I love the way Nielson's research with users demonstrates the inherent unreadability of what he calls "marketese."

    Of course, marketese is also inherently unreadable on the printed page for exactly the same reason: It's padded with a lot of self-congratulatory fluff.

    Here's an example of classic marketese. Write this way, and your marketing team will dislocate their shoulders patting each other on the back.

    We've been hard at work developing more great features for our loyal readers! You'll find more than 50 scrumptious new recipes for holiday meals and treats that'll have your friends and family jumping for joy. Plus plenty of links to sites on holiday party planning. Be sure to check out the new pages on selecting a turkey, carving a pumpkin, making cranberry sauce, and using your kitchen mixer to prepare pie crust. Need more help? Head for our our video library on cooking techniques.


    Now here's the same information, rescued. But, sad to say, the only people who will congratulate you for writing this way are the readers who are trying to get information from your site.

    New on the site:

    • 12 recipes for seasonal meals
    • 38 recipes for cookies, cakes, and candies
    • Party planning links
    • Selecting a turkey
    • Carving a pumpkin

    Need more help? Check out:

    • How-to guides
    • The video library of cooking techniques

    Nielson concludes:

    Promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts "Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions," their first reaction is no, it's not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.

    I'd argue that, outside of his experimental environment, web users don't even get far enough on the page to argue with the fluff. I think they just scan it, move down the page looking for actual information, and (if they don't spot it), go to the next website on their Google results list.

    A group of ravens...

    ...is sometimes collectively referred to as "an unkindness" or "a conspiracy." This bit of info came up today during some research I was doing for work. Honestly! "A Conspiracy of Ravens" would be a great short story title.

    Sunday, October 02, 2005

    Dinner on the new patio?

    ...It could be yours! I am seeking recommendations for a top-rated, highly experienced patio contractor. (Not a contractor or garden design person who has done a couple attractive patios, but a stone or concrete company whose work has been proven to stand up to the damp Northwest weather.) If the contractor you recommend gets the job, I'll cook dinner for you (and a friend) next summer and serve it on the patio (weather permitting).

    Patio will be 18' x 20' and includes a short pathway.

    Please submit recommendations in either category:

    1. Concrete pavers
    The contractor should be committed to installing all the correct drainage and founation layers for the patio, and willing to guarantee the durability of any cement/mortar used.

    2. Stamped concrete
    I recently saw some beautiful stamped concrete patios in California and realized that, if done by the right contractor, this can be subtle rather than garish. The contractor should be able to show examples of previous work with subtle "aged brick" staining, plus needs to have access to a stamp with the octagon-and-tile pattern. (Not all contractors have all stamps.)

    Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!