January 30, 2009

Friday in the wild: January 30, 2009

Today is a good day to celebrate the unlamented passing of two of Ottawa's most unsavoury characters.

First, the 52-day-old OC Transpo strike died yesterday when the city and the Amalgamated Transit Union came to a tentative agreement to go to binding arbitration without preconditions. The buses will start running again in a week and a half, though full service will not be restored for over two months. Both the union and Mayor Cueball seem to be declaring victory. A pox on both their houses, I say. I figured out how to get downtown in 45 minutes on foot, and it's good exercise.

The second death is the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition in Parliament. The Liberals will support this week's budget upon certain conditions, which the Tories have agreed to. Once again, Prime Minister Harper played his hand brilliantly: now instead of plotting to take down the government, Jack Layton is complaining about his erstwhile Grit allies. Angry in the Great White North is, as usual, on the case, and provides this analysis:

On January 26, parliament reconvened and the Conservatives brought down the budget the next day. Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe immediately promised to vote it down and announced that they remained committed to installing the coalition as a government without an election.

But Michael Ignatieff abandoned the coalition, and decided to support the Tory budget with one mild amendment (the Conservatives have already announced that they will accept the amendment proposed), leaving Jack Layton sputtering. His coalition was now officially dead. . . .

Realistically, the coalition represented the only chance Jack Layton would ever have to sit on the government benches as a member of the NDP. Indeed, it might turn out that, looking back, we'll recognize that this was the closest the NDP, as a party, ever got to being in government.

And Michael Ignatieff took that away - not just Jack Layton's chance at power, but his place in history as well.

[Read Betrayal and Consequences: Jack Layton Versus Michael Ignatieff]

Looking for a name for your heavy-metal band, and want to know where you fit in the ecosystem? Via Comic vs. Audience, here's a handy chart. (H/T: Boing Boing.)

I have always been fascinated with "cop talk" - the unnecessarily wordy way that police officers speak when they get on television (or in the stand). Turns out I'm not the only one: again via Boing Boing, I found this article from last March, about how "cop talk" can harm a cop's credibility in court:

When you talk like that, you sound like somebody who's full of himself or who's trying to hide the truth in a mountain of syllables - both are stereotypes we do NOT need to be reinforcing with jurors. You don't sound like a regular person the jury can relate to and identify with. So, when the defense attorney starts beating up on you the jury just sees two courtroom professionals - neither of which they can identify with (which means they can't empathize with) - going at each other in some highfalutin' word game that has little to do with them - or justice.

When asked what behaviors increase a witness' credibility in court, jurors responded that "uses understandable language" is one of the most important. . . . That's why we call it "straight talk." This is the critical reason to quit talking funny in court - it hurts your credibility. Credibility is the degree to which the jury believes you - and that's the one confrontation you must win in court.

[Read Cops Talk Funny]

Consternated that the ECT people have taken a year and a half to talk about the place of Mary in the church, David at Biblical Christianity offers up his succinct statement:

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a pivotal yet relatively minor figure in the New Testament, of no more ongoing direct personal impact on the lives of Christians than any other exemplary (yet flawed) redeemed sinner depicted in the Bible.

[Read Biblical Christianity Statement on Mary]

'Nuff said.

John Updike, possibly one of the finest literary authors of the 20th century that I've never bothered to read, died this week. Ben at Faith and Theology wrote about Updike's theological influences:

I was very sad to hear that one of my favourite contemporary novelists, John Updike, has died. Updike was deeply influenced by Kierkegaard and Karl Barth; he is the most theological novelist you'll ever come across. In an early essay, he remarks that, at one time, Barth's theology was the only thing supporting his life; he used to keep Barth's Romans commentary beside his bed, to read a few pages at a time. Much of his fiction could be read as an extended reflection on Barth’s dictum: "here is no way from us to God . . . The god who stood at the end of some human way would not be God."

[Read John Updike, 1932-2009: a glance at his theology]

Russell Moore, on the other hand, wasn't quite as impressed:

I've read all Updike's novels but the last one (a sequel to his Witches of Eastwick) and I always finish them with something of the same kind of sick fascination that the boy David would have seen the pigeons torn apart by gunfire. There's something beautiful there, a spark of divine creativity, but something sad and pitiable as well. Updike, it seems to me, had a love/hate relationship with Jesus Christ.

Few novelists could illustrate the suffocation of upwardly mobile but spiritually rootless middle class America with more vivid imagery than Updike, especially in his series of four books on the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Those books also lay out the problem of sin, guilt, and judgment better than many gospel tracts, except without the solution at the end.

[Read John Updike is Dead]

Justin Taylor linked to Updike's rules for reviewing books. Good stuff - pity the commentds devolve into an argument about gender-neutral pronouns. Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

Finally, the Daily Bulletin announced a public lecture by free software guru Richard Stallman on campus yesterday, under the auspices of the Computer Science Club. In the Bulletin blurb is this sentence:

The free software movement developed the GNU operating system, a free Unix-like system often erroneously referred to as Linux.

Heh. Looks like RMS writes his own PR copy. Unlike the Free Software Foundation whose GNU/Hurd has been in development for nearly 20 years and still isn't ready for prime time, Linus Torvalds actually succeeded in creating a free UNIX-like operating system that people actually use. Stallman wants to take credit for Torvald's Linux kernel (produced independently of the FSF) because although it's the one thing he never managed to release, it's also the heart and soul of the whole system. I love Emacs and have been using it for years, Richard, but geez . . . someone beat you to it, you bitter old hippie, so quit whining.

Until next time, adieu.

January 24, 2009

Happy birthday, Mac

Today is the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Macintosh computer.

In the late 1970s, Apple was already a successful manufacturer of personal computers, thanks to the popularity of the venerable old Apple II. Co-founder Steve Jobs saw a prototype Xerox Alto computer, which used a mouse and graphical user interface (GUI) for its principal user input, instead of the typical keyboard and command line. during a 1979 tour of their PARC labs. Jobs decided that the GUI concept was the future of personal computing. In 1983, Apple released its own GUI-based computer, the Lisa. With a price tag of nearly $10,000 and stiff competition from the IBM PC, it was a commercial failure and the line was soon discontinued. But the Lisa was proof of concept for a GUI computer, and its successor, the Macintosh, revolutionized personal computing in 1984.

The first Macintosh had a whopping 128K of RAM, an 8 MHz Motorola 68000 microprocessor, a 9-inch, 512x342 black-and-white display, and a single 3½-inch floppy disk drive in an integrated case, along with a keyboard. Such luxuries as a hard disk drive or memory expansion slots came later. The original Mac's specifications naturally seem tiny by today's standards1, and in fact they were somewhat inferior to the IBM PCs already on the market at the time, which gave the Mac a bit of a reputation as a "toy."

I used a Mac for the first time only a few months later, at a science fair in the spring of 1984. At the tender age of 13, my only computer experience had been with the command-line interface of the Commodore PET and 64. Not having to type commands to make things work was an alien experience. Nonetheless, mousing out some simple pictures in MacPaint was a completely intuitive activity; I thought the desktop, icons, and pointer of the GUI were completely self-explanatory.2 So it came as no surprise that other computer and software manufacturers soon wanted to get in on the GUI game, and it was only a few years before Microsoft Windows-based PCs began to dominate the personal computer market. Even the look and feel of Linux- or UNIX-based GUIs, such as GNOME or KDE, are evolved from the Mac's look and feel, although the underlying X Window System developed separately.

My primary computer is a desktop PC running either Linux or Windows, but I do also own a Mac: a G3 iBook purchased in 2003. Here it is:

[Scott's lamented iBook]

As you can see, though, it needs a little maintenance.3 Anyone for tossed salad?


1 When I was your age footnote: By comparison, I am writing this post on a PC with a 2 GHz AMD Athlon microprocessor, 1.25 GB of RAM, a combined total of 200 GB of hard drive space, and a 22" 1680x1050 widescreen display. Put another way: roughly 250 times the processor speed, 10,000 times the memory, half a million times the storage capacity, and 10 times the screen real estate (to say nothing of full 36-bit colour). And this computer is already 6 years old.

2 We don't need no education footnote: Meanwhile, some smart-aleck teacher, watching over my shoulder, wisecracked that at last, a $3000 computer made it possible to draw like a 2-year-old.

3 If I had a hammer footnote: Believe it or not, that isn't damage. Unfortunately, my beloved Mac recently fell victim to the infamous video card defect, and removing the hard drive to rescue needed data required nearly a complete dismantling of the laptop. Someday, hopefully, I'll muster up the courage to reassemble it, then find out if I can still obtain replacement parts to get it working again.


This is the 1000th post published to the Crusty Curmudgeon. Fittingly, when I originally set this blog up in 2003, it was done on a Macintosh computer.

Pray for the Johnson family

Phil just let me know that [Phil's mother] Donna Johnson now rejoices and beholds the face of her Savior, never again to know sorrow, or pain, or tears. Pray for her husband, and all those touched by her joyous heart, and now deprived of her for a time. We miss her, and we do grieve; but we do "not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Rest of the post here.

January 23, 2009

National what?

Kim from Hiraeth

Friday in the wild: January 23, 2009

Some months ago, I switched my primary operating system from Windows XP to Ubuntu Linux. I had been wanting to do this for a while, but support for wireless networking in Linux has been somewhat limited. My ancient SMC USB adaptor is not supported, which was a show-stopper for the better part of a year. Finally, I broke down and bought a Zyxel USB dongle, which by contrast is so well supported by Linux that it was downloading pr0n and illegal MP3s while I still had my nose in the "Getting Started" booklet. Ironically, while the Internet works like a dream under Linux, it stopped working under Windows. I finally managed to troubleshoot the issue, but that meant spending the better part of last weekend performing some much-needed software downloads and maintenance. So this week's Friday in the Wild covers the past two weeks of bloggy goodness.

Two weekends ago, a number of cities in Canada, most notably Montreal and Toronto, were home to some rather disgusting displays of anti-Semitism, in the form of pro-Hamas supporters waving swastikas around and the like. Ezra Levant applied the "broken-window theory" to explain why these public displays of bigotry are becoming more common in Canada:

Look at the faces of the young men (and some of the young women). They're acting up. They're in Canada, and they know it's a tolerant, easy-going, multi-ethnic country. Most of them probably work or study in environments where there is some peer pressure to behave - to be polite; to be moderate; certainly to limit one's expressions of bigotry, whether in the form of flying a terrorist flag, or in the form of calling for the death of a Jewish child.

But, together, in the face (literally, in the face!) of police, all of these socially transgressive behaviours are being tried out.

And there's no push-back.

There's no negative reaction.

[Read Applying the "broken windows" theory to anti-Semitic rallies]

Steve Camp has always been known for his vocal opposition to trite "Jesus is my boyfriend" praise songs. In a recent post he took on the trend of covering secular tunes as though they were addressed to Jesus:

Past secular hits are currently being sung to represent our Lord Jesus Christ; and they are nothing more than “God as my girlfriend songs.” Some examples are: “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”; “Free Ride”; “Love is the Answer”; “You Raise Me Up”; “Love Lifted Us Up Where We Belong”; “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”; “Maybe I’m Amazed”; “Because You Loved Me”; “Everlasting Love”; “In The Air Tonight”; “I Want to Know What Love Is”; “I Believe I Can Fly”; etc. Parroting what one Christian radio network likes to say, "Boring, for the whole family." Taking past secular hits and changing the original meaning of the song to now make it seem as if they're about Jesus because a Christian happens to be singing it is ludicrous. It not only violates the "original intent" of the meaning of the song by its author; but it is just as foolish as if some CCM artist recorded a remake of the great Beatles classic, "Hey Jude", and then tried to spiritually justify it by saying it is about the little epistle before the book of Revelation. Could you imagine if some secular artist took "Amazing Grace" and said it was about a female seductress? The Christian community would be up in arms... and rightly so. But why is Christian radio and the CBA (Christian Booksellers Assoc.) so accepting of these poorly done "covers" of classic pop hits passed off as legitimate representations of Christianity?

[Read Let the Redeemed People of God Say So - But Let It Be a New Song We Sing]

So I guess Steve wouldn't be so fond of "You Spin Me Round Jesus." As Hank Hill once said, this doesn't make Christianity better, it makes rock and roll worse. (Rick Pino gets the awards for silliest hairstyle and the worst overuse of the phrase "in this place.")

Jeremy Pierce at Parableman has an interesting analysis of the diversity of Barack Obama's cabinet as compared to previous administrations'.

And speaking of the apotheosis inauguration of Barack Obama, David Heddle has a brief and interesting take on the new President's do-over of the inaugural oath:

Should I ever become President, I would announce this: Because I am a Christian, I will not take the oath of office with one hand on the bible. The doctrine of my faith informs me that to do so is a meaningless gesture. Let my yes mean yes.

[Read Obama Does it Right]

Thanks to Good Brownie, I was directed to an article in the New York Times about Charles Schulz' use of Beethoven in Peanuts:

When Schroeder pounded on his piano, his eyes clenched in a trance, the notes floating above his head were no random ink spots dropped into the key of G. Schulz carefully chose each snatch of music he drew and transcribed the notes from the score. More than an illustration, the music was a soundtrack to the strip, introducing the characters’ state of emotion, prompting one of them to ask a question or punctuating an interaction.

[Read Listening to Schroeder: "Peanuts" Scholars Find Messages in Cartoon's Scores]

Beethoven is my favourite composer, too. If it weren't for Schroeder and Peanuts (and to a lesser extent that "dunh-dunh-dunh-DUUNNHH" bit), that probably wouldn't be the case.

Finally, Fred Sanders of The Scriptorium Daily reminds us that today is poet John Donne's birthday (his 437th, to be precise). As Beethoven is my favourite composer, so Donne is my favourite poet - and, having once been told by one of my professors that I had no business being in an English degree program because of my antipathy toward poetry, that's saying something. Fred notes that Donne was as gifted a preacher as he was a poet, and that the doctrine of the Trinity was central to his preaching. So, until next week, Faithful Reader, I'll close this post with one of Donne's best-known verses, Holy Sonnet XIV, which is a fusion of verse and Trinitarian theology:

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

January 15, 2009

A threesome of thickheadedness

Three recent stories in the news have reminded me that I haven't dished out the DIM BULB du jour in a dog's age. So without further ado, here is today's smorgasbord of stupidity.

Our first worthy recipient is chronic atheist agitator, Michael Newdow, who has once again attempted to banish God from the public square. His holy war against Publid Displays of Religion began in 2000, when he filed suit, supposedly on behalf of his daughter, to have the words "one nation under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. The suit was dismissed by the district court, but upon appeal the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase was, indeed, unconstitutional. However, in 2004, the suit was again dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court: not only did Newdow lack standing because he did not have custody of his daughter, but the phrase "one nation under God" was constitutional on the basis that it was a secular slogan acknowledging national heritage. A second lawsuit arguing the same thing is currently in the court system.

In 2005, Newdow tried again, suing to have the motto "In God We Trust" removed from currency. He was, again, unsuccessful.

Following George W. Bush's first inauguration in 2001, Newdow unsuccessfully filed suit in federal court because Franklin Graham's invocation supposedly violated the separation of church and state. Now, he is trying that same stunt again:

President-elect Barack Obama wants to conclude his inaugural oath with the words "so help me God," but a group of atheists is asking a federal judge to stop him.

California atheist Michael Newdow sued Chief Justice John Roberts in federal court for an injunction barring the use of those words in the inaugural oath. . . .

Named in Newdow's lawsuit are Roberts; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and the two pastors invited to the event, the Rev. Rick Warren and the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

[Full Story]

He will, of course, fail yet again. One wonders how many times he has to sue and lose before a binding legal precedent gets set. For his grandstanding lawsuits attempting to impose his minority religious beliefs upon all Americans, Michael Newdow is awarded our first DIM BULB du jour.

Exhibit B in our parade of poppycock is Heath Campbell. You may remember his name from a few weeks ago because he raised a stink when the local ShopRite store refused to decorate a birthday cake for his son. After all, his son's name is Adolf Hitler Campbell. His little sisters, incidentally, are named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation and HonzLynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell, respectively. Seriously. Nonetheless, Heath Campbell insists that he gave his son the name "Adolf Hitler" simply because "no one else in the world would have that name." Suuure. (I think I'll name my firstborn Michael Ignatieff Eats Babies For Satan McClare, just to make sure he's never confused with anyone else.)

Now, the New Jersey division of Youth and Family Services has removed little Adolf, Aryan, and Hinler from the home; the parents are expected in court today. These cases are confidential and YFS is not forthcoming with the reason the kids have been taken away from their parents; however, YFS insists it isn't because of their names. I would certainly hope that the government would have more justification than that to take children from their parents. However, I can't help thinking that Heath Campbell's acts of public stupidity got him some unwanted attention.

Our third and final distinguised award goes to André Cornellier, the seemingly mentally challenged president of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 279, representing bus drivers, dispatchers, and mechanics employed by OC Transpo. The union has been on strike since December 10. They originally voted overwhelmingly in favour of striking, and last week voted 75% in favour of rejecting the latest contract offer by the city of Ottawa. At that time, despite the inconvenience of no public transit, it seemed as though public opinion was also largely sympathetic to the union.

However, it appears that Cornellier and the other Powers That Be in ATU 279 are working to erode what public support they have. The local colleges and universities have set up shuttle services, thus far at their own expense, to enable students to get to and from school. This service being quite expensive, the city has offered some emergency financial assistance to the schools. In response, the union has informed the schools that if they accept city money, it would be tantamount to accepting "scab labour." Apparently, school bus drivers not employed by OC Transpo, driving students along routes not serviced by Transpo buses, now count as "replacement workers." Ditto the Para Transpo service, used by the disabled: the service is to be expanded by the city for the duration of the strike, and because they might have used non-union drivers, the union has threatened to picket this service as well. In the meantime, an agreement has been reached between the city and the union that additional Para Transpo drivers will be members of the Para Transpo bargaining unit. This doesn't change the fact that the threat was originally made.

Cornellier is a one-man PR nightmare for the ATU. He seems hell-bent on squandering whatever goodwill the union has gained. He certainly isn't making any friends by threatening the daily lives of people who are already severely inconvenienced. I still think both sides are being idiots. But at least the city of Ottawa isn't actively working to spread around the misery.

Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009)

Ricardo Montalban, the Mexican actor best known as Mr. Roarke on the TV show Fantasy Island, has died at the ripe old age of 88.

Although his most famous role was the genteel, white-suited overseer of Fantasy Island, Montalban had more than 160 roles in television and film, as well as being a memorable spokesman for Chrysler automobiles.

Of course, I was never into Fantasy Island, nor was I particularly interested in "soft Corinthian leather" at the tender age of four. For me, Montalban's defining role was Khan Noonien Singh, Kirk's wonderfully relentless, Moby Dick-citing nemesis in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Also in my library is a set of Planet of the Apes movies; he played circus owner Armando in the third and fourth.

Montalban was predeceased by his wife of 63 years (!), Georgiana Young de Montalban, in 2007. How many Hollywood figures can be said to be married to one woman, let alone for the equivalent of an entire lifetime? Rest in peace, Mr. Montalban.

January 09, 2009

This time, it really is Dr. Smith

Following David Tennant's recent announcement that he will be stepping down from the starring role of the venerable Doctor Who after the 2009 season, the BBC recently announced his that his replacement will be Matt Smith.

Three years ago, I noted how each new Doctor is a sign of advancing age: Christopher Eccleston was the first who was younger than the program itself, and Tennant the first to be younger than me. Now, the 26-year-old Smith will be the yuongest actor to pilot the TARDIS, breaking the record previously set by Peter Davison, who was 29 when he assumed the role in 1981. This seems to me to be a departure from the original formula, in which older and more established actors took the starring role. However, today's Who is definitely not the program of my childhood, in many respects. Besides, in a way it makes sense: if the purpose of regeneration is to prolong a Time Lord's life, does it make sense for the Doctor to assume the form of a 50-year old man, or a 26-year-old one.

Ironically, "John Smith" is the Doctor's frequent alias. It's taken eleven incarnations of the character before someone actually named Smith has played him. (Coming soon: a guest appearance by Freddie Jones?)

Publicity photos show Smith wearing a grey sweater, black jeans, and a black sports jacket. Realizing filming for the sixth season of Doctor Who probably doesn't begin until later this year, I assume that his official costume has yet to be announced. But if this is it, it seems far too close to Eccleston's outfit: just switch the jacket for a leather one.

Smith's age means he doesn't have much of a resume to judge him by. However, in 2006 I had seen nothing of Tennant either (except for his very minor role in Jude, and that didn't stop me from growing to like his Doctor. A whole lot. I originally described his style as "manic, talky, [and] somewhat physical" - which he certainly was, but before seeing the second season, I couldn't have anticipated the depth of character that he brought to the role: an unprecedented amount of humanity and compassion. Matt Smith has some big expectations to live up, and I certainly wish him the best.

Friday in the wild: January 9, 2009

Some time ago, I regularly posted interesting links from other blogs on Fridays. That trailed off, but I thought it might be nice to start again. Here are a few posts from around that I thought were worthy of a second read.

First Things responds to a recent article by Stanley Fish, intellecually vacuous, king of pomo law professor:

A recent article, "Professor, Do Your Job," provides a good example. As a former academic administrator, Fish know how goofy undergraduate education can get. He denounces glib "opinion-sharing sessions" that masquerade as "values education." He censures professors who imagine themselves "agent of change" and who turn lecterns into political pulpits. All good punches thrown against the intellectual vacuity and ideological smugness that blemish American universities today.

Yet, as he always seems to do, Fish quickly overreaches. He adduces Yale College’s mission statement, which includes the goal of developing students' "moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest." Anodyne, yes, but Fish throws up his hands. "I'm all for moral, civic, and creative capacities," he writes, "but I'm not sure that there is much I or anyone else can do as a teacher to develop them." Apparently Aristotle had it all wrong. Virtue is not taught; it just happens.

[Read Stanley Fish Goes to College]

Al Mohler takes on the recent atheist bus-ad campaign in Britain:

I must admit that I find the British campaign nearly humorous. In any event, it is certainly not threatening to the Christian message. No one is really likely to be converted to atheism by seeing a sign on a bus -- and almost certainly not by a sign that declares that "there's probably no God." Probably?

In some sense, this campaign almost looks like a joke on atheists planned and performed by believers in God. The use of the word "probably" does more to demonstrate the weakness of the atheistic argument than could ever be done by outright condemnations of atheism.

Atheism supposedly declares its central conviction that there is no God. But this central conviction doesn't appear to be held very strongly - not if you look at the advertising message the atheists in Britain have chosen for their own campaign.

[Read Atheists Play Their Hand - Probability]

Yep. "There's probably no God" means "there's possibly a God" - and so maybe it's something I need to think hard about.

Finally for this week, Jivin J fisks a pro-abortion article published to the HuffPo, about whehter a fetus is a human being:

Instead of looking to an embryology textbook to figure out if the developing unborn child is a human being, Sedaei claims they are not because scientists use a term to describe unborn organisms at a certain stage of development. This is like someone saying teenagers aren’t human beings because science clearly calls some vertebrates who aren’t yet adults "adolescents."

Plus, while Sedaei used the Merriam-Webster dictionary to find the definition of viable, he curiously didn’t use that same dictionary to find the definition of fetus, which reads, in part, "a developing human from usually two months after conception to birth."

[Read Pro-Choice is the "Compromise" Position"?]

That's it for this week. Later!

January 08, 2009

And now . . . this - Jan. 8/09

Well, you do have to give People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) credit. They're trying. PETA wants to discourage you from eating fish. How? By calling for the renaming of an entire class of the animal kingdom to - get this - "sea kittens." The rationale, if you can call it that, is that if we associate fish with cute and fuzzy house pets, we won't want to eat them:

People don't seem to like fish. They're slithery and slimy, and they have eyes on either side of their pointy little heads—which is weird, to say the least. Plus, the small ones nibble at your feet when you're swimming, and the big ones—well, the big ones will bite your face off if Jaws is anything to go by.

Of course, if you look at it another way, what all this really means is that fish need to fire their PR guy—stat. Whoever was in charge of creating a positive image for fish needs to go right back to working on the Britney Spears account and leave our scaly little friends alone. You've done enough damage, buddy. We've got it from here. And we're going to start by retiring the old name for good. When your name can also be used as a verb that means driving a hook through your head, it's time for a serious image makeover. And who could possibly want to put a hook through a sea kitten?

The remainder of the Web site includes pleas to notify the U.S. Fish Sea Kitten and Wildlife Service to stop promoting fishing "sea kitten hunting," as well as wonderful, uplifting Sea Kitten Stories such as "Snuggle Buddies":

Tara the Tuna is frisky and playful, and she loves to squeeze herself into tight spaces and snuggle up close to her Sea Kitten pals.

But the conditions on the Sea Kitten factory farm where she loves are too cramped even for Tara. With no room to swim and no chance for escape, Tara looks forward to the end.

Liberal flakiness ought to be included in the DSM-V when it comes out.

I have a better idea. Instead of naming fish "sea kittens," why not expand your culinary horizons and call the other kind "land fish"?

Gazpacho Soup Day (sorry Rimmer)

Part of the "haul" this Christmas was a gift from my parents that had been close to the top of my wish list: a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook. The French Laundry in Yountville, California is one of the best restaurants in the U.S. Its executive chef/owner is Thomas Keller. If you've seen the Pixar movie Ratatouille, you've seen some of Keller's work: he was a creative consultant on the film, and the ratatouille recipe at the climax is based on the "confit byaldi" variant that appears in the book.

This is a high-end cookbook for a high-end restaurant, and I never expect to be able to try all the recipes myself - I lack many of the tools and an abundant supply of truffles, for example. I wanted to read the text and drool over the pretty pictures, and perhaps pick up some ideas that might inspire my own cooking. However, a number of the recipes (and parts of others) are actually fairly accessible and can be made with readily available ingredients. So my first stab at haute French cuisine was Keller's gazpacho soup (ironically, a Spanish dish).

I had wanted to try gazpacho soup ever since I first heard of it in the early '90s, on the cult British sci-fi comedy program Red Dwarf. The very idea of a cold soup intrigued me. Unfortunately I found myself turned off: first, it is a tomato soup, and I despised tomato soup. Second, it uses bread as a binder, and if there's anything I hated worse than tomato soup, it's wet bread.

Then, one night after church, I joined some friends at Pancho Villa Mexican Restaurant. I wasn't especially hungry and didn't want to spend a lot of money on food I didn't need. But I also didn't want to spend the night nursing a glass of ice water, either. So I compromised and ordered one of the smallest, least expensive things on the menu: a bowl of gazpacho soup. It was, surprisingly, delicious: cool, fresh, a little spicy, and garnished with a little fan of avocado slices whose buttery texture complemented the soup perfectly. The experience was not unlike eating a bowl of fresh salsa. I was a convert.

Being somewhat of the do-it-yourself persuasion when it comes to food, I've been trying to find one go-to recipe for gazpacho that I really enjoy. My default is from The Joy of Cooking, but, although it is good, it doesn't have the consistency I was looking for: by the book, the vegetable pieces are quite large. It's like a salad immersed in beef broth. But then I discovered the recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook, and I knew that this would be the first thing that I tried to make for myself.

There is nothing particularly challenging about this recipe: no exotic ingredients, no extreme preparation times, no need for any special tools you can't obtain without giving the Culinary Institute of America secret handshake. Out of respect for Chef Keller's copyrights, I won't publish the recipe here, but I recommend you find the book at your local library or bookstore. Basically, it consists of equal parts chopped tomatoes, red pepper, red onion, and English cucumber in a tomato juice base, along with some olive oil and seasonings.

The most challenging procedure in this recipe is peeling the tomatoes. There's a trick that makes this very simple: just score the bottom of the tomato with a shallow X, then dunk it into a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds. The tomato practically peels itself. I have also recently learned (though this recipe doesn't specifcially call for it) that blanching garlic cloves can improve their flavour immensely. Just put the garlic in a pot with just enough cold water to cover it, and put the heat on. When the water boils, take the garlic out. Toss out the hot water, replace it with cold water, put the garlic back in, and repeat these steps about three more times. The result is a far mellower garlic flavour that doesn't have the harsh, bitter edge that it would otherwise.

So after assembling all the ingredients, I put the soup into a sealed container and left it overnight in the fridge, to let the flavours get to know each other. The next day, I ran it through the blender to get as smooth a purée as I could. After that, I strained it through my china cap strainer (another gift from my parents that was high on my wish list) to remove whatever solid particles still remained. The result was a homogeneous, bright red mixing bowl full of soup. It's made with raw vegetables, so the purée isn't the perfectly smooth, velvety texture you could get from a cooked soup. I doubt I could make it so without a very fine strainer, like a chinois. But just the china cap alone strained out about a quarter cup of assorted seeds and vegetable skin particles. A roommate asked to have this, as she thought it might be full of fibre. I won't argue with that, but it was pretty flavourless gunk, all the tasty goodness having stayed in the soup.

At the French Laundry, gazpacho is served as a canapé in a demitasse cup. I prefer something a little more meal-sized for lunch, along with a sandwich. Also, their usual garnish is a drizzle of balsamic glaze. Out of respect for my housemates and my own patience, I decided to forego boiling down vinegar in the kitchen for half a day, instead topping the bowl with a dollop of sour cream and some avocado slices. After all that work, how does it taste? Fantastic. It's cool and fresh and smooth, and has just a little bit of bite from the garlic and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The store was out of regular tomato juice, so I had to buy the low-sodium variety. Normally I wouldn't allow that stuff to pass my lips without putting the missing salt back in, but for Thomas Keller's gazpacho soup, it was perfect.

Was it worth all the effort? Yes. Will I do it again? Oh heck yes. This is going into my regular repertoire. I can't wait to try it again when fresh vegetables are in season and available at the farmer's market, and by then I'll probably have the recipe memorized. I might even attempt the balsamic glaze. Meanwhile, I'll be sure to try something a little more ambitious. While I doubt I'll ever find a pig's head for "Head to Toe," the Sauce Gribiche that accompanies it looks perfectly doable and would probably go well with some braised pork chops.

As an aside, you should go read Carol Blymire's blog French Laundry at Home. Like me, she received The French Laundry Cookbook as a gift. Unlike me, she was bound and determined to try every single recipe, and blogged the whole experience. I was gratified to see that she started with the same recipe I did, probably for roughly the same reasons. I've read about a third of her articles so far, and laughed out loud more than once at some of her less successful efforts. Plus, Carol apparently started a trend in food blogging. Well worth the read.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)

Father Richard John Neuhaus, social commentator and editor of the journal First Things, has died of complications due to cancer. He was 72.

Neuhaus, I learned, was actually born just up the road in Pembroke, Ontario. He became a Lutheran pastor, albeit a liberal one, but "converted" to social conservatism thanks to Roe v. Wade in 1973. Subsequently he converted to Roman Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Neuhaus founded First Things about 1990 to advocate for religion playing a more prominent role in the public square. I have read First Things semi-regularly for years and almost always found its articles insightful.

On the other hand, First Things was also the original vehicle for the publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which Neuhaus spearheaded along with Charles Colson. This document was intended to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, in light of growing cooperation between them in issues such as the pro-life cause. It has become widely seen as an expression of squishy ecumenicalism - a perception hardly diminished by the number of clarifying statements its Protestant signatories subsequently found necessary to release.

Nonetheless. differences with Fr. Neuhaus' theology aside, his contribution to public life has been notable and valuable, and his presence will be missed.

[H/T: First Things and Between Two Worlds.]

January 05, 2009

Out with the old, in with the new

It has been my practice from year to year to post a "state of the blog" on New Year's Eve or Day - a year-end reflection of how the year has gone, as well as a few thoughts on my plans for the coming year. Not because I get paid to blog or have any other particular goals I need to reach. But for me this is as much an exercise as a hobby. I blog because I write, and the blog is an outlet that helps me keep the writing skills up.

(I suspect this is why I just can't seem to get into any other social media such as Facebook or Twitter. They are antithetical to the lengthier discourse you find in the blogosphere, and are intrinsically superficial. Does the world really need to know every time I take a leak, in 140 characters or less?)

Well, 2008, like 2007, should go down in history as one of my more pathetic years for blogging. Entire months went by without even a single post; major events and milestones went unnoticed; I skipped the annual facelift yet again. Hell, my annual Remembrance Day post is still sitting on my PalmPilot in draft form. (At least I started to write one this year, which is more than I can say for '07.)

Actually, the fact that I do have a handful of ideas kicking around in draft form is encouraging. It means I at least had ideas, and most of them (including the aforementioned Remembrance Day post) can be salvaged, if they aren't time-sensitive. Fortunately, in the past month or so, I feel I've gotten my second wind.

So unlike the last couple of years, for 2009 I am going to set some goals.

  • Finish the facelift; it's long overdue.
  • Post something theological. Biblical topics used to be a significant part of this blog's content. But since they also require some of the hardest work, naturally they fell by the wayside.
  • Judging by my search engine hits, the topic that still brings the most people to the Crusty Curmudgeon from Google is some variation on knowing the will of God. I hope people are finding those posts useful, but it's a constant reminder that the series is unfinished - which I will attempt to remedy. (See "hard work," above.)
  • Anything I present in a public setting, such as Sunday school classes, will be adapted for the blog soon thereafter.
  • I plan to resume participation in the Christian Carnival, on at least a monthly basis. (See "biblical topics," above.)
  • I've been threatening for years (almost since Nemesis came out, in fact) to post my thoughts on the entire Star Trek feature franchise. Wouldn't it be nice to have those posts in the can by the time the new prequel reaches the big screen in May?
  • Ditto my abortive series on the Coen brothers' films. Not that I'm working toward a new release in their case, but since I started, there have been two - and for both of them I have partly finished reviews (see "kicking around in draft form," above), which I may as well complete and post in order.
  • I've wanted for a long time to blog through a significant work of Western literature, especially philosophy, chapter by chapter, and it so happens that I recently acquired my preferred translation of Augustine's Confessions. Look for that around June - and if time permits, maybe I'll start work on Plato's Republic as well.

Ambitious? Yep. I may not reach these goals, but there they are. In this case, to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.

All the best to you, Faithful Reader, for 2009.