Monday, December 25, 2006

The Bay Circuit Trail.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts embarked on a wonderful green space preservation experiment at the behest of "Charlie Eliot" .

Now, in the decades that have rolled by this trail system involving cooperation from 50 plus bickering cities and towns is more or less done. 

One of the marvels of it is simply the surprising diversity of landscape and habitat in the comparatively small land mass from the Merrimac River to the cedar swamp lands north of Cape Cod.

The Wisconsin Glacier sculpted what is now Massachusetts in a number of fascinating ways.

North of Boston its slower movement left a strew of large boulder erratics, some nearly the size of a house, long sinuous eskers that are actually raised stream beds, odd pound cake shaped hills called drumlins and beautiful kettle hole ponds, of which Walden is the most famous.

South of Boston the glacier moved faster and created sand barrens with larger particle size and faster drainage to make a plant community more suited to dryer conditions, such as scrub oaks and pitch pine. The region was also renewed by fire so many plant species selected for fire based seed release.

There are a number of vast Atlantic White Cedar Swamps such as the Hockomock, south of Stoughton, that have become de facto wilderness areas housing bobcat and deer.

There are subtle differences in coasts. The North arc that includes Newbury and Ipswich is a transition zone to rock coasts and cobble beaches of Maine. 

The South arc shares sandy similarities with the great beaches that follow the Atlantic Coast to the mangrove swamp regions along the Florida/Georgia boundary.

Neil Jorgenson's Sierra Club Guide to Southern New England is extremely useful for enhanced appreciation of this diversity in such a compact area as greater Boston and Al French has created a very useful website for anyone in the area seeking to explore this trail system.

There are significant web resources among the town jurisdictions, fed entities responsible for the National Wildlife Refuges and private non profits , most notably the Trustees of Reservations and the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Bateson Learning Theory and Metalogs.

Gregory Bateson was one of the 20th centuries' great thinkers and his specialty was learning theory. He was married for a time to another great thinker, Margaret Mead, and they had a daughter who may well still teach at Harvard.

A basic explanation of learning theory turns on levels of learning. The most basic level of learning might be the way a planeria 'learns' to sense levels of heat and light and moves to the zones most useful to survival.

The next level is one we are familiar with whereby one begins to make conclusions about basic information. There are new elements such as play or pretend versions of contingent real circumstances. Squirrels do this as do we.

Level three is where we begin to derive conclusions about level two like those great 'everything I know is wrong' epiphanies that sometimes visit a life in some great break through that leads to a more dynamic participation in ones life, a shedding of baggage.

This, of course, can also be hazardous and lead to madness.

Those of you who wonder about all this are encouraged to find a copy of his "Steps Toward an Ecology of the Mind", a classic.

Now, in the winter of 2002, I ended up having a lively e mail correspondence with a brilliant Englishwoman I met through here semi scabrous naughty erotic literature web site. She is a math teacher somewhere in the midlands, an old radical who loved Gang of Four shows when she went to college in Leeds.

We became great pen pals for a time but never discussed dirty stuff. I'd explain my weird Seattle existence and share ideas so one time I told her about Bateson's meta dialogs and here is here wonderful reply. Best to you"Emily" wherever you are, (spellings are in her Brit English).

"So I was reading the Metadialogue about meta messages, and then I got it, the progression from baby to adult understanding of messaging,(and the annoying way many knuckleheaded blokes are still stuck at a child level of development)."

"1. You start off, as a child, having to be sent explicit messages - metamessages - about what your messages are going to be about:

- this is play; this is serious; this is instruction."

"2.But soon you get so reading the metamessages, that you start to play with them.

- you use teasing, irony, sarcasm, taking things literally, exaggeration, to pretend you mistook one metamessage for another."

"3. Then you get better, and you blend the message and the metamessage together,

-weaving sense and nonsense, blurring reality and fiction - is a documentary recreation documentary, or fiction?"

"4. You end up withdrawing from metamessages altogether,

-leaving just the message and letting you decide what metamessage you'd like to impose on it."

"5. Till one day you realise you don't have to impose,

- you can just let the message be and admire it from all metamessage angles."

"Soooo, what annoys me about the people who email me with that aged question, is this all real, is they haven't moved off the childish level one and I'm at level five."

"Thanks Chris, that helped a lot to answer that bug-bear."

Damn, I miss her.

Causeway Daze Part 3. Ginmill Tide Pool.

Like a Pacific tide it flows, one nightly cycle through a salt marsh of Scene. Waves of moment wash vari-colored plankton of Audience past the many gin mill pools where sedentary bands extend siphons and flagella to sweep hapless scenesters into digestion tracts with enzymes of illusory significance.

As the tide ebbs, beyond last call, the scribbler crabs scuttle a sideways rummage through memory's detritus seeking fragments of decayed meaning to masticate into copy columns in which eggs of exhortation hype may hatch into the next big thing and six figure advances.

And then... the moment of stillness beyond exertions of anonymous night crews sorting spent beer bottles and emptying ash trays.

Beyond this insular petri dish of teeming nocturnes who dream away daylight lies the swirl of terrestrial cycles with traffic on the threes and news summaries on the hour and half hour.

Although the terrestrial and the marine interact at the strand line of day job, laundromat and supermarket, they are largely discrete from one another.

And, as the ripples of amplitude carry ever further from the point where the trend dropped, still other cycles, older, more familiar to denizens of a distant past, express periodicity that increasingly converge with actual daily adjustments of the revolving global axis before solar radiance.

And, believe it or not, near the point where the sine wave flattens, vestiges of village and stone age still cling, still cling.

The Advent of Eco Tech.

Some years back, I read a piece in the Economist, a mixed bag rag, about the impact and time frame of technology innovations.

It began with the invention of the Steam Engine by James Watt and provided a time line for the duration of steam tech as a creator of wealth. It ran with this summary all the way up to the present with the World Wide Web introduction as the latest engine of wealth creation.

One striking feature of the piece was observation of time frame shrinkage such that the combined impact of all manner of transforming tech introductions.

For example, the impact time frame of WWW is comparatively shorter than the decades of influence the steam engine had. The essence of the time frame definition is keyed to the duration of active innovation churning before the tech becomes mundane.

I look around for the next big thing as an odd hobby, an aspect of 'reading sign' that I'll describe in another post.

I'm increasingly convinced that the next phase of transformation will be a twist on the model, a comprehensive integration of all past innovations to fix the collateral messes left by them.

I call this 'Eco Tech'. It will be marked by a drive toward a vast sustainability retrofit and adjustment of the old sprawl.

There is great excitement over its potential in the pacific coast. The city of Seattle even produced a very useful web page on its value to home builders and owners.

With a tightening market for home sales, 'green' homes are likely to buck the slow sales trend and sell more quickly than the inefficient and toxic conventional versions.

Alas, builders and contractors are a hide bound lot, particularly here in Metro Boston where there is little evidence of a scene for this. There is one out in the Connecticut River Valley.

And yet the greater Boston area is uniquely poised to be a critical Eco Tech center and recover the initiative it lost to Silicon valley in the info tech phase.

For example, a number of exciting products are coming on line often from small start ups. The advent of white LED light allows a whole new role for low energy home lighting where walls literally emit a much higher quality than conventional incandescent bulbs.

There are 'smart' thermostatic controls coming, low toxin paints, demand based water heating systems, methane capture systems to convert sewer system byproducts into usable energy, improved windmill systems, photovoltaic systems and so on.

If you project this retrofit potential across the vast, tired national infrastructure it suggests a staggering amount of work that simultaneously increases value by yielding far higher system efficiencies than the current sloppy fossil fuel model.

The blog link section now includes several important glimpses of this future. Of these, the most interesting is probably a B2B board called 'The Green Pages.

Give it a click when you tire of my drivel and look at what may well be without any help or hindrance from the reign of the Imbecile in Chief.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Elevated Meatloaf.

Meatloaf is a seemingly humble thing, a relic of 50's kitchens.

But if you take it as a food concept departure point for elevation it goes from the droll to the sublime.

All meatloaves need 2 or 3 eggs and some bread crumbish thing from crushed Wheaties to mashed triscuits to ensure binding and if hamburger is used, it should be the 75% grade as the leaner stuff resists binding.

350 degrees F. is a good temperature and an hour or internal temp of 165 degrees is a good cooking guideline.

Those are the essentials. Beyond that any combination of ground beef, pork, turkey or veal for the truly heartless, will work well.

Chicken and lamb are probably out. Ground lamb is its own world, Shawarma, and chicken has a lame texture.

Beyond that, the possibilities are wonderful. Among the additions to make a fun flavor and texture mix would be shallots, leeks, garlic or scallions for the stink lily family.

Walnuts rule and almonds may as well or chopped pecans, maybe even hazelnuts.

Celery is welcome or chopped bell peppers of whatever color, hot peppers maybe if you gotta have a scoville factor and mushrooms are all great plant kingdom things. I've used dried black fungus 'shrooms from Asian markets and fresh baby portobellos.

And then, another oddly fun thing are tinned smoked oysters. Oyster flavor and beefish flavor get along swimmingly. The chinese oyster ketchup is another variant on the oyster flavor element. You can also go wild with worcestershire or A-1 Steak sauce.

For the spice element, the triumvirate of herbs, sage, rosemary and thyme clearly lead, paprika is another option or its sexy Spanish cousin, pimenton la vera, a bit of white ground pepper or coarse crushed black tellicherry peppercorns as your whim suggests, and also some coarse sea or kosher salt.

Meatloaf is a creation that embraces an informed whimsy.

Once you've dumped all this stuff in a big bowl, knead it with your washed hands and blend it all around. Meatloaf is primal. Then fashion it into a long flatish loaf maybe a few inches high and the length of the standard broiler pan, width will depend on batch size but 6 to 8 inches seems to work well.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pimenton La Vera.

It has to be my favorite form of paprika. The spanish invented it and it is "like fine carinthian leather". I usually buy the dulce or sweet form but a hot form is available too.

The Basques make a wonderful meat marinade of it using just pimenton, olive oil, garlic and sea salt.

Precarious Vicariousness. Part 1.

“Shakespearean fish swim the sea far away from land. Romantic fish swim in nets coming to the hand. What are all these fish that lie gasping on the strand?” W.B. Yeats.

Two thirds of America’s GDP is tied to convincing consumers to buy some good or service. All other output shrinks by comparison. Astonishing effort is directed to corral these creatures into a purchase pen. Since very little beyond food and shelter is actually needed, much of the effort goes toward manipulating wants and whims.

In the critical ‘holiday’ quarter, desperately earnest cheerleading begins in tandem with Halloween and continues right up to Christmas Eve. This is the height of the great upstream spawning rush as predators leap to reap rewards.

The main focus of want manipulation is to create dissatisfaction with status to be solved by the possession of something. The implied premise is that target’s life is only valid when avid purchasing is steady and prodigious.

It is essential to instill a drive to emulate. In emulation there is salvation.

What is exhibited for emulation? Our time has seen a ceaseless refinement and expansion of projected postures with an attached gamut of purchase options for posture embellishment in the quest for ‘lifestyle’.

“Lord of the Manner” is a popular patrician affluence beloved by the country club neocon crowd and their imitators. This one is a classic dating back here to southern plantation owners and northern merchant princes. It had a spectacular run in the robber baron era among resource hogs of every description and showed up again in the 1920’s, 1950’s and ever since the 1980’s.

It is wildly popular and expresses widespread distaste for an actual republic and yearning for some return to feudalism.

“Rugged Pioneer” dates back to Davey Crockett myths and hit its stride when Andrew Jackson was president. It works like a charm with rurals or anti-social malcontents who imagine themselves as ‘mavericks’.

“Gold Digger/Technocrat” goes back to the forty-niners and 19th century Mechanics Societies. It is a callow thing beloved by yuppies and the cohort of feminists who strive to be as awful as men at their worst.

“Youth and Beauty” is a classic and is applied to prey on the narcissism of the young or most women up to menopause.

“Playboy” is the fun seeking toy loving hedonist peacock counterpart to the court fops of feudal times and now has an entertaining version in the ‘Metro-Sexual’.

Pitches are often combined to make odd hybrids like Rugged Pioneer and Playboy or Technocrat with Youth and Beauty, geek chic.

I just dreamed these stereotypes with help from a few glasses of wine but later saw a PBS special on marketing manipulations that actually provided some of the real terms in circulation.

“Urban Achievers” is the euphemism for Technocrats, “Shotgun and Pickup Truck” is applied to the Rugged Individualists. The predators find cages for the prey.

The stalking really revs up when it’s time to snare the hapless and financially inept young.

First they break the kids down by gender so guys become ‘Mooks” while the women become “Midriffs”. Then this base group gets sliced and diced into “Young Influentials”, the trend setters, and “Early Adopters”, or the kids most likely to jump on these trendwagons.

This is just a short summary of how affiliation with vicarious impulses can be used to cheat people of their uniqueness by making a Haven’t-A-Heart chump trap to transform the prey into a jacklit profit center.

I wonder what Carl Jung would make of this vile co-optation of his great gift of archetype theory?

It is essentially an engineered alchemy of transform a human into a cipher part of a crowd.

Elias Cannetti describes crowd symbols in his magnificent work, “Crowds and Power”.

For example, he cited the waves of the ocean for England to reflect it’s maritime heritage or Oak forests for the Teutonic mystique embraced by Germany.

He neglected to suggest one for the USA but two good candidates might be the Treasure Trove to emphasize the hegemony of money grubbing in the collective overmind or maybe a Hall of Mirrors to cover the amplified narcissism that grips the nation.

Most anxieties attending American life have long issued from greed wrestles or the false compensations of excessive self love. Consider John Smith’s early tales of abundance in his boosterish reports back to England or the rise of Hollywood to drive droves toward dreams of being the next movie star.

The Revolution here was a Greed Argument over dry goods tariffs and the Civil war was a variant over the allowable rules regarding labor compensation. Those crazy southerners figured labor should be free as long as you could find a way to utterly dehumanize the laborers.

Most of America’s manic mass settlement waves rolled from reports of easy money from gold strikes, land grabs or stock manias in a churning cycle of boom and bust.

According to Baudrillard, a notable difference between the new world and the old is our relation to the land. Their world is rooted in an ancient given they struggle to fathom. Ours is a recent take.

We superimpose the contents of our imaginations on its obstinate surface and reshape it weirdly in our own ever changing image in a haphazard heedless rush without much thought beyond an eye to the ledger or whether it’ll make us look good.

Thus, much of our human landscape is a jumbled hodge podge of imported simulacra cast away from context. It started out as quaint folk art features and has increasingly become a corporate contraption bent on erasing distinctness of place to favor brand expedience to a point where an auto mile strip mall zone in Seattle is identical to one in Boston. Yes, the ‘there’ has lost its there with a diminishing sense of an outside.

And the contrivance is near lethal in its stupefying, numbing banality.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Janet's Hens.

My neighbor Janet is sort of role model for the other young hausfrau's on the block here in the heart of august Bedford Massachusetts. She heats with wood, has an amazing old wood stove, converted to natural gas, diligently home schools her daughters and keeps two hens that range around the neighborhood.

The hens are a hoot. There is something soothing about their clucking and scratching as they browse the yards. I toss 'em various kitchen scraps and they now rush over when I appear to see what I have.

I imagine the proto-hens from long ago Asian meadows like their cousin, the jungle fowl. And I think of their local wild relatives, the native Ruffed Grouse and the introduced Golden Pheasant.

They all belong to the Galliforme family and share that odd waddle, odd wattles and the clucking thing. When I lived in Seattle, someone near the bus stop kept hens and a rooster and it was always comforting to hear the rooster crow in a blend with cawing crows and the 'shaq shaq' sound of the Stellers Jay flashing its striking metallic blue around as if pleased to out blue the twilight sky.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Larder Legwork.

As 1999 wound down, I heard an interview with a food historian on NPR. He brought tidings of a shift away from the field ration, shelf life model so beloved by the industry since World War Two. In its place is a return to the values of the late 19th century when American gastronomy was lively, inventive and avid for flavor.
I see the signs of this vivacity on my own larder stocking excursions and hasten to embrace it. While many browsers still linger in the land of TV dinner simulacra with its budget biting markup, the cohort of slow food base ingredient fans is steadily growing.
The droll shelf life fixation era was a cold war spin off. The whole nation became a garrison on eternal war footing and the civilians got to share in this by chow offerings that were a dressed up counterpart to trench food.
MFK Fisher has a wonderful segment in one of her essays from the period where she describes the essences of various cuisines, olive oil in Italian food, butter in French food or sour cream in Russian food.
For American food the best essence she could find was the flavor of the can.
Real cuisines lingered through this trench food era in backwaters, urban and rural. Urban ethnic garrisons held together well in the cities and clung to flavorful food ways with an understandable reluctance to trade the wealth for the poverty of mass market pottage.
Vivacious food folkways remained in all regions of the nations sparsely settled farm and forest lands. Country folk were often too poor or too remote from the supply chain to abandon their beloved cobblers, chowders, squirrel pies and stews.
The Supermarkets of my Cold War youth were monuments in every detail to drab industry notions of ways to belie our palate instincts for manufacturers’ expedience. The bleak cellophane pack tomatoes are a common example. Suburban supers were particularly devoid of any choices beyond the pale of imagined wasp blandness. Matzo dough or kosher salt were fairly exotic and rare, let alone endive.
Chef Boyardee and La Choy stood in as withered booby prize parodies of actual Italian and Chinese food and there were insipid red sauces from Prince.
The Supermarkets of my dotage veer wildly toward bewildering choice overload edging toward preposterous with wasabi Doritos and ‘interactive’ breakfast cereals featuring sugar crap edible jello toys that burst into the matrix when the milk is added.
At least our modern diversity based versions c an induce a sense of wonder or a touch of delight if we but allow it.
My Seattle larder management routines varied depending on whether my venue was a supermarket or a bevy of ethnic shops.
If a supermarket was involved, usually the upscale and misnamed “Thriftway” or sometimes the downscale and sloppy “Albertsons”, I’d mainly browse the outer perimeter where the real food is and steer clear of most aisles where the packaged stuff is. I avoid ‘brands’ for the most part and save on the marketing department tariff by favoring generic.
I start with the produce zones to grab Portobello or smaller version Crimini ‘shrooms, maybe some mustard or collard greens for red bean stews, broccoli heads, and the various Alea family members, garlic, shallots, leeks, scallions or onions. I’d keep an eye out for seasonal things like garlic flowers.
Then it’s a short jaunt to coffee where I’d pass on the pretentious Millstone stuff and favor that old classic, 8 O’Clock, ground to espresso fineness. Sometimes I’ll snag a chunk of Stilton en route.
The dairy zone follows where I’d get whatever butter is cheapest, sour cream, parmesan shreds and some kind of cooking cheddar or jack. Washington dairy prices are high and local practice favors coloring all cheddar with annatto to give it that unreal orange color. The Tillamook brand is terrible and acts like latex caulking compound when heated so I’d get the better, cheaper “Western Family” versions.
The meat zone beckons and I generally rummage among the economy pork and beef cuts because they have more flavor in addition to lower cost. Then I’ll check chicken quarters and see what sort of deli ends or bacon rinds are about. The west favors thicker bacon cuts and a bag of ends can be wonderfully cheap.
Steaks are now cut to reduce fat and end up tasting like beefy cardboard. The stuff now called ‘Chuck’ is actually the fat marbled form that pleased the old timers. For pork I like country ribs for the broiler, butts for the bean and rice projects and the occasional shoulder for a long roast.
This covers the periphery and then a run through a few aisles gets me pasta, usually linguini and egg noodles or whatever is on sale. The canned beans are nearby and I range through pintos, pinquito’s, cannelloni’s or turtle beans in cans
I seek out canned hash, smoked mussels and whim bits and a condiment mix that includes balsamic or cider vinegar, cheap barbecue sauces and mustard. Canned and packaged items are treated as base ingredients for ‘elevating’. The addition of fresh ingredients in many variations provides the distinctness and quality that’s missing in the off-the-shelf form.
Some gaudy pastry is added for sweet tooth appeasement and seafood selection is haphazard, usually the farmed oysters as the broader fin fish industry is an increasing eco-blight with collapsed stocks, damage from fish farming and so forth.
I also rarely bought Washington labeled products as they tend to involve a price hike without any corresponding quality.
There are a few interesting variations in selection when I visit Asian and Mexican markets. For one thing, they have a 30% price reduction on comparable items such as chicken quarters so they increasingly get the main share of my larder budget.
They also have many useful and fascinating processed goods such as unusual mushrooms or deep fried tofu and lack the aggressive brand hype of American stuff. The best Asian markets are run by Vietnamese and another part of the fun is knowing that I’m helping immigrants get ahead in their adopted home instead of contributing to the disturbing volatility and dislocation rising from shareholder value. I’m no fan of the equity markets or cost adds for marketing and advertising departments.
The Asian markets also offer unusual things like fresh turmeric roots and the ingredients for Southeast Asian pad Thai style wet curries. And they are a jolly lot who like to give me amazing calendars when Tet New Year is at hand.
They mainly lack cheese so that still brings me to supermarkets. Mexican markets have interesting indigenous cheeses like Casa Fresca and a complementary array of herbs, chilies and spices as well as unusual onions. They also have interesting ways of cutting beef, accordion style, that’s perfect for texas style barbecues.
The past decade has also seen an exponential increase in small cottage industry foodmakers of every description including heirloom food revivals. All are more appealing and probably more profitable at ttheir scale of operations than the giant ugly conglomerates.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Slob Chic.

With steamrolling consumption bearing down, avid anti consumers will do well to live like Henry Thoreau. From Walden we get this gem, “I’d rather sit on a pumpkin and have it to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion”.
Of course, a bit more grace and vivacity than the priggish Concord Curmudgeon makes the run more fun but his basic premises are sound and increasingly essential to ward off encroaching affluenza.
We aren’t likely to be crowded on velvet cushions but the search for pumpkin options well rewards the effort.
.Henry is Slob Chic’s grandpa but it was a common feature of life as recently as the material starved home lives during World War Two when people just made more of their household stuff because they couldn’t buy it due to strict rationing of nearly anything needed for the war effort.
The aesthetic is grounded in enhanced utilitarianism. A free object from the nations bloated avalanche of castoff stuff is MORE valuable than a store bought object sold to serve the same purpose.
Why give Ikea a dime for shelving when the land provides milk crates, produce boxes, wine cases, boards and such in overwhelming abundance?
A wary look at curbside trash will often reward the searcher with all kinds of usable furniture up to and including a couch. Upgrades are always possible and the rejects can finally resume their trek to the landfill Valhalla or recycle rebirth.
The castaway stuff of our complex and demented material is, by itself, unimaginable wealth to impoverished peoples of the Sahel who make most of their usable stuff from sticks and baling wire.
Consider the plastic milk jug. This thing can be by turns a plant pot, a funnel, lamp shade or furnish good stock for guitar picks or any other purpose suggested by need for the plastic.
With a little imagination and appreciation for a materials intrinsic utility potential as it careens through the trash stream, one can eliminate entire categories of costly consumer clutter and its bite on the wallet.
And, when you move, you can always send it back on its journey to the landfill knowing you gave it a temporary reprieve.
And the best part is the reserve snob gloating one can apply to guests. “Hey, check it out, we just tricked this whole dump out and it did'nt cost a dime, have a glass of the great Syrah we bought with the money while we wait for the steak to come out of the broiler.”
There’s the rub. The best way to rein the heartless corporate world is to stop giving them so much money. Here’s a fun hierarchy.
When you need some consumer thing run this string. 1. Can I scrounge it? 2. Is it in a thrift shop, yard sale or second hand source? 3. Can I get it from a small family owned business or wholesaler?
A thorough Thoreau run down this chain may be the only real power of direct choice we can bring to bear on laissez faire run amok.
You may well discover that the number of things you need to feed the mega hogs maw are few and comfortably far between. That, in turn, lets you save more or work less and reduce your exposure to the other side of the merciless laissez faire coin, that shabby travesty called ‘the workplace’.
And if it catches on we may one day see the pests shrink back from their drive to make little profit centers of us all.