Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tandoor-Barbeque Redux

It turns out that tandoori-barbeque chicken makes a fantastic panini with a little cheese and a few asparagus spears.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tandoori + Barbeque = Wonderful

We recently bought a bunch of plain yogurt to make mulligatawny with leftover turkey. It never materialized, so we had a bunch of plain yogurt in the fridge. Chicken breasts were on sale so I figure I'd try a tandoori inspired BBQ concoction called "Chicken Exotica."

You start by marinating chicken breasts in yogurt mixed with lime juice, minced garlic, honey, and a mixture of a bunch of spices (paprika, coriander, cumin, ginger, allspice, salt, and pepper). You marinate the chicken for at least 12 hours and up to 48.

Then you slice up a red bell pepper and an onion into quarter-inch strips and toss them in a skillet with olive oil over medium-high heat until the onions carmelize. Then throw in about a half cup of mutha sauce (from the Dinosaur BBQ Cookbook) and cook a few more minutes until the sauce thickens.

Then you grill the chicken about 5-6 minutes per side. When they're done, you brush them with mutha sauce and bring them in. You put a scoop of the onion-pepper-sauce combo on each breast. I served them over a bed of long-grain basmati rice with asparagus steamed and sauteed in garlic butter on the side.

It was different grilling last night. At one point yesterday, the temperature was around 40 degrees. This morning it was lower than -10 degrees, with 50 mph winds (that translates to -30 degree windchills). So last night around 5:30 when I started the grill it was somewhere between: probably around 15 or 20 degrees with 40 mph winds. I have grilled before in cool weather, but never freezing weather. I was worried that the cold would put out the fire, but the wind acted as a bellows and really got the coals going hot. In just the few short minutes that I steood on the porch brushing the chicken with sauce my ears went numb and I could barely feel my fingers as I pulled the chicken off the grill.

But it was worth it. The yogurt tenderizes the chicken to the point that you can really almost overcook it without losing succulence. That allows you to get a nice carmelized (not quite charred) oustide that really soaks up the natural wood and smoke flavor, but without drying out the inside of the breast. The lime flavor really comes through, and is a fantastic complement to the Indian-inspired spice mixture. The mutha sauce adds some compexity and tang to the whole thing, but without being overpowering. And the carmelized onion really sits well with the honey-lime sweetness. The recipe actually calls for fresh cilantro snipped over the dish at the end, but I forgot.

It was still good.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mice update

Well, I think we got them all. Nothing in the trap this morning, and the peanut butter was not disturbed. Five was the magic number.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

On how to kill a mouse.

A few weeks ago, C and I were snuggled on the couch, watching a movie. It was late. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something skitter across the kitchen floor. I dismissed it as a shadow and forgot about it.

A day or two later, I saw it again. This time, it stopped just under the sink, and I saw the characteristic tail curl up and back over a small body. Moments later, C saw it too. We called the apartment manager. We told them that we had seen a mouse and that they should do something about it. They did nothing. We waited a week. We told them again. They did nothing. Finally, last weekend, we decided to take care of it ourselves. I thought about poison, but with a baby in the house---one that has just learned to walk and likes to play in the kitchen---that was a bad idea. I settled on trap that was based on the conventional spring trap design, but that was covered to avoid mess. And we decided that I would set it at night and put it away in the morning to avoid the baby problem.

The first night we caught the mouse. The trap worked smoothly. Just a little peanut butter for bait. In the morning I found his tail sticking out of the trap. I opened the trap and released the spring, dropping the dead rodent into the garbage. I took out the garbage and threw it in the dumpster. I figured that was that.

But then we saw another one. So I set the trap again. This time, it ate the peanut butter without tripping the trap. That puzzled me, so I decided to test the trap with my finger. Bad idea.

So on Monday, after we put the baby to bed, I set the trap again. Not 30 minutes went by before I heard it snap. I went to check it and found that the mouse had gotten just his tail and one back foot caught in it. He was still very much alive. So I took him outside and released the trap. He dropped to the grounds and scampered off, unhurt as far as I could tell. That was two.

On Tuesday, our apartment manager responded. They dropped off two of the sticky glue-style traps. Unlike the spring traps, that trap and usually kill a mouse by pinning it against a hard surface with a metal bar, the sticky traps trap a mouse in glue. It runs across the trap only to find that it cannot keep running. These traps do not kill the mouse instantly or even quickly. However, it is impossible to try to free a mouse from one of the these traps without killing it.

I placed one of the sticky traps Tuesday night. I woke up around 2:00am and heard a lot of squeaking. I figured the (hopefully) last mouse was out and about and would soon be trapped. When I got up around 5:30 I went to check the trap. I was unsurprised to find a mouse trapped in the glue. That was three But when I got close, I could see the small body still breathing---a fast, tiny rising and falling. I flipped on the light and it blinked at me and tried once again to run. But of course, all its legs and the entire left side of its body had adhered immovably to the trap. Instead of running, it produced nothing but a small, pathetic, quivering struggle. Seemingly resigned to the trap, the mouse quit struggling and lay its head down on the glue. I wondered then whether the squeaking I heard was really crying and struggling. It made me sad to think of a scared creature trapped in glue for hours. The mouse directed its eyes at me. I watched a tiny heart beat under the suddenly beautiful two-tone fur.

I thought I might free it from the trap as I did the night before. I went outside in my slippers, sweatpants, and T-shirt and crouched in the new snow under a streetlight. I gingerly peeled up his tail. He swished it side to side. Then I went for back left leg. I was able to pull it up, but when I did, it was bent at an unnatural-looking angle. Unlike the tail, the leg did not move. At this point, the mouse urinated and began to squeak. I knew that there was no chance of freeing him from the trap, but to just throw it away with a broken leg would be too cruel. Better a quick death than a slow, starving, freezing death tossed into a cold Minneapolis dumpster. So I folded the trap over the mouse, put my thumb where his head would have been, and pressed down until I felt a small snap.

I felt bad. But I had done nothing wrong. I reminded myself that rodents can carry disease, that we have a child in the house, that mice are pests, that they're just little creatures anyway. That we humans are, after all, supposed to be in charge here we have dominion over these lesser creations. And I believe all that. Killing the mouse was justified---in the circumstances, even humane. I believe that that's true. I believe that it is justified. But that doesn't answer for me the deeper question: why do I feel compelled to justify it in the first place?

Throughout the day on Wednesday, fragments of scripture flitted across my mind. I thought of Eden and creation. I heard my own voice speaking the words: "the blood of every beast will I require at your hands." See Genesis 9:11 (Joseph Smith Translation). I think of Jesus saying that God the Father notices even when a sparrow dies. See Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6. I see an aging prophet asking his church to "don't shoot the little birds." See Ensign, (May 1978) 47. I wonder, does God just "see" the sparrow fall? Is he just coldly, scientifically observing? That seems at odds with the power and passion of a God that weeps. See Moses 7:28. I think there's something more to it: He doesn't just see the sparrow fall, he feels it. He laments it, he mourns it.

That phrase "the blood of every beast will I require at your hands"---I kept repeating it in my mind; where does it come from? This morning looked it up. Turns out that this is what God said to Noah after he, his family, and the animals all emerged from the ark into the light of a new world. But that's not all---the passage is not in the King James Version. It comes from the Joseph Smith Translation. The original passage reads almost exactly opposite: "surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man." Genesis 9:5 (KJV). The focus in the King James Version is not on animal life, but on human life. The passage seems to say that God will hold animals accountable for killing human beings.

But Joseph Smith turns this reading on its head. Instead, he says, God will hold human beings accountable for killing animals needlessly. And he sets a pretty high standard for what is needful: "surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives." Genesis 9:11 (JST). Of course, we can say, that was a different time, a different place. That injunction does not apply to us. But I see a harmony between the principle expressed here and other teachings of Joseph Smith.

In the official history of the Church, he recounts this story:

We crossed the Embarras river and encamped on a small branch of the same about one mile west. In pitching my tent we found three massasaugas or prairie rattlesnakes, which the brethren were about to kill, but I said, ‘Let them alone—don’t hurt them!

How will the serpent ever
lose his venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless, before the brute creation; and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety.’

The brethren took the serpents carefully on sticks and carried them across the creek. I exhorted the brethren not to kill a serpent, bird, or an animal of any kind during our journey unless it became necessary in order to preserve ourselves from hunger.” 2 History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 71-72; see also
Ensign, (Aug. 2001) 13.

Millennial yearning is not unique to Latter-day Saints. It has been the hope of prophets and poets and preachers throughout the centuries. The prophets of the Old Testament wrote rhapsodically of that day when every valley will be exalted---when every mountain will be made low---when the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked made straight---when the glory of the Lord will be revealed---when all flesh will see it together. And during the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King quoted those passages often for inspiration and hope. But what is unique about Joseph Smith's millenial vision is the explicit way it connects the millennium to the way we human beings use nature. In Joseph's Smith's vision, creation, flood, and millennium are are connected by the silver thread of stewardship.

In the King James version, God tells Noah that animals will be accountable for human life because human beings are made in God's image. In Joseph Smith's translation, God tells Noah that human beings will be accountable for animal life because human beings are created in God's image---and if created in his image, then created to follow his example and be like him.

My compulsion to justify killing the mouse, I think, is a reflection of a deeper truth that life---all life---is precious. I think of what Jacob said: "the one being is as precious in his sight as the other." Jacob 2:21. A loss of life---even a completely justified loss, and even a very small life---is to be mourned.

So this is the question that I ask myself: What does it mean to believe in a God who observes the sparrow's fall, and who will require the blood of every beast at my hands? It can't really mean, literally, that its a sad thing to kill a pest.

But then again, it's easy to forget how radical the religion of Jesus really is.

This morning I found two more dead mice in caught together in the spring trap. That's five.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Eats Sheet, Extreme Leftover Edition: Grilled Turkey Sandwiches with Sweet Potato Steak Fries

Well, if I were to be all Italian, I guess I would call them panini. But I prefer the American Grilled Sandwich. Yesterday this became a new day-after-Thanksgiving tradition for our family. It's wonderfully simple, but so much better than simply nuking a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes. I picked up the idea for the sandwiches from Williams-Sonoma the other day, but added a few of my own embellishments.

The Fries:

The thing about sweet potatoes, sometimes called yams, is that they are a pretty darn good vegetable; it makes little sense to turn them into a mediocre-at-best dessert. That awful marshmallow concoction you sometimes see at the table tries to parade a vegetable around as if it were a fruit. Marshmallows should never come near sweet potatoes, in my opinion. If you want to make sweet potatoes into a dessert, just go all the way and make a freakin' sweet potato pie.

Otherwise, allow sweet potatoes the dignity of being what they are: a good root vegetable. This is what I did: Take one or two sweet potatoes and slice them in half, the long way, and then slice them up into 1/4 inch thick steak fries. Put them in a bowl with about 1/3 cup of olive oil. Season them well with salt and pepper, and then sprinkle in some rosemary and thyme. Spread them out on a large cookie sheet (it helps to spray the cookie sheet) and stick them in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Then take them out, stir them, and stick them back in for another 10 minutes or so until they are nice and crispy. The great thing about these fries is that the sugar in the sweet potatoes caramelizes really nicely, but without being overhwlemingly sweet. They'll be crispy and caramelized on the outside, but soft and mellow on the inside. When you take them out, taste one and salt them again if they need it.

The Gravy:

While the fries are cooking away, get some gravy heated up, because you're going to serve it with the sandwiches---french dip style. I don't know about you, but my gravy is always a little more like meat-flavored jell-o the day after Thanksgiving. Not very appetizing. But what I've found out is that if I heat the meat jell-o in a saucepan with a little turkey stock and maybe a splash of milk, the old gravy is really more like a gravy base and it produces a nice new gravy. Get the gravy good and hot, but reduce the heat when it boils and everything is well combined. Taste it, because you might need to add some more salt. Keep it hot, but not boiling, until the sandwiches are ready.

The turkey stock is something that we usually have a lot of the day after Thanksgiving. It's pretty simple, and a great way to not waste all those bones and bits of meat. You can either divide the turkey bones into two even piles or do it all together if you have a big enough soup pot. Either way, you throw some bones into a stock pot with a quartered onion (don't even bother peeling it, but wash it), two or three crushed garlic cloves, one or two split carrots, and few broken stalks of celery. Season it well with salt, oregano, a little thyme or rosemary, and parsley. Throw in a small handfull of peppercorns and cover it all with water. Get it boiling, redice the heat, and let it simmer for about 2 hours. Then pour it through a fine strainer and skim the fat. You can use it right away for soup or freeze it and save it for making soups, braising meat and veggies, or to spice up a sauce. It handy to have around and its a lot better and less salty than chicken boullion.

The Sandwiches:

Like any Thanksgiving leftover dish, the turkey is the foundation. This is where it becomes important to carve your bird the right way, removing the meat in big chunks and carving the chunks across the grain in thin slices. That way you get tender, juicy meat that works great in sandwiches. For my sandwich I used a combination of breast and thigh meat. But what sets this apart from any old Turkey sandwich is the condiments. First, you spread a piece of thick crusty bread with mayonnaise, and another one with cranberry sauce. Then you stack some turkey on both pieces, and place a slice of cheese on the turkey. I used Colby Jack. Then you put a scoop of stuffing on and put the two slices together. Brush each side with olive oil and grill in a panini press until the bread is golden and it's all heated through. Cut it in half and then serve it up with a nice helping of fries and a cup of gravy to dip it in.

The idea of stuffing in a sandwich seemed odd and a little redundant, but since I used corn bread stuffing, it was a nice variety. And the celery and apple we put in the stuffing was a good compliment for the sandwich. For a spicier variation you could use chipotle mayo, replace the cranberry sauce with a hot creole mustard, and maybe throw a few banana peppers or jalapenos on. If you have folk who don't like sweet potatoes (probably because they've been led by the marhsmallow heresy to believe that they are a gross fruit instead of a decent veggie), you can throw a few regular potatoes into the mix. They take a little longer to cook, but they work as well. Another interesting variation for the fries would be to reduce the salt and throw a splash of soy sauce into the olive oil.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Easts Sheet: Maple-Glazed Turkey

This is my third year roasting a turkey, and this was the best so far.

First, I made up a rub of salt and black pepper with some ground sage and marjoram. I rubbed this all over the inside of the cavity, then quartered an onion and and apple and stuffed these into the cavity with a few broken stalks of celery. This gets a good infusion into the meat, and since you don't eat it, you don't have to worry about it getting cooked, like you do with stuffing.

But the real difference was the sweetness. There were two things I did to get some sweetness going: first, I poured about a half cup of apple cider into the bottom of the roasting pan to keep things moist in there; second, I made up a maple butter glaze to baste the bird while it roasted. There glaze is deceptively simple; there are exactly two ingredients: one cup butter, and 1/2 cup maple syrup. I used a dark amber syrup, which is the most common commercially available maple syrup. A lighter syrup would be sweeter, but since turkey is a savory dish to begin with, I liked the earthier flavor of the dark amber.

I melted the butter and the syrup together and poured about half of it over the bird before sticking it in the oven at 325. I then basted with the remaining glaze every 45 minutes or so. I roasted the bird covered, worried that the sugars and the milk solids in the butter might burn. My plan was to take the cover off for the last hour, but I underestimated how quickly it would cook with the cover on. When I took the cover off, the thighs were already registering at 160. So I kept it in for another just 45 minutes. It didn't quite get the browning I wanted, but it still looked very nice. The meat was more done than I prefer, but with a baby in the house, that's probably a good thing.

But even with the meat being a little overdone, even the breast stayed nice and juicy, not like some dried-out Thanksgiving birds. The reason: resting. When the bird comes out of the oven, it can be really tempting to cut into it right then because everybody's hungry. It's better to let it rest. When the meat is hot, all the tasty fat and juices are hot, so when you cut into it, the juices pour out and instantly turn into steam when they hit the air. The result is that they all evaporate the meat is left dry. When you let the bird rest, those juices have time to cool and to absorb back into the meat. Most recipes suggest a 20-25 minute resting time. I think this is way too short. I like to let it sit for at least 30-35 minutes, and I prefer up to an hour if people can wait that long. If the meat is too hot to touch with my fingers, I don't think it's ready to carve.

But everyone prefers a hot meal, not a room temperature one. You might be wondering if it can be appetizing to eat meat that has cooled that much. There are a few ways to tackle this dilemma: First, you can just cover the meat and stick it in a warm oven to gently reheat it. Second, you can cover the meat and just let the residual heat work. But the best option, and one that you can combine with either of the first two, is to get your heat from the gravy, not the meat. Serve up the turkey on a platter, and then just keep your gravy piping hot on the stove until the moment that everyone has sat down and is ready to eat. With some near-boiling gravy, that meat could be room temperature and nobody would care.

Speaking of gravy, that was really the highlight of this recipe. While the meat was good prepared this way, the real kicker was the gravy that came from the drippings this bird produced. I threw some of the apples and onions into the bottom of the roasting pan to infuse the drippings. There were a good 4-6 cups of drippings. I skimmed off the most obvious fat and then reduced the rest of it down to about 2 1/3 to 3 cups. I salted it, peppered it, threw in some tyme. With it still boiling, I added a cup of milk with 3 tablespoons of cornstarch mixed in, and then let it boil until it thickened. The sage, the onion, and the natural saltiness of the turkey fat mingled with the cider and the maple butter for a mellow gravy with just a hint of sweetness. Very good.

Carving technique is another issue. A lot of people like to carve the breast from the bones. That's the traditional way. But the problem is that you end up slicing along the grain of the meat rather than across the grain, leading to more chewy/stringy, and less tender slices. I like to carve the bird like a butcher would: removing the meat in large pieces, keeping muscles as intact as possible, and then slicing those large chunks on a carving board across the grain into small slices. This, I've found, also preserves the juices better. Here's a handy guide to carving.

First, I take off the drumsticks and thighs together, then the wings, and then I go back and get the breast by slicing down as close as possible to the breast bone, and pulling more than slicing to remove the breast. I then slice the drumsticks off the thigh and serve them up without further carving. The thighs I like to debone before carving. You slice along the bone, and then rotate the bone, continuing to slice along it until you can lift it out. Then you have a whole boneless thigh, which slices up much more nicely than a mangles mess of muscle tissue. The wings are usually pretty fatty and with not all that much meat, so I usually just shred the wing meat and mix it up later with some barbeque sauce for sandwiches, nachos, tostados, or whatever.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Judge of the Day: Richard J. Leon

Beside having some oddly upswept eyebrows, Judge Richard J. Leon, of the federal district court for the District of Columbia, is also the second federal judge so far to order the release of Guantanamo detainees. Those two combined distinctions earn him the title of WMBW Judge of the day.

The Judge
Unlike Judge Urbina's opinion in the Uyghers' case, which included some lofty language about the historic role of the habeas right and the fundamental freedom of personal liberty, Judge Leon's opinion in this case is much more workmanlike. For Judge Leon, it isn't so much a question of fundamental rights, it's simply a question of evidence: did the Government meet it's burden? No.

Consistent with his brick-and-mortar approach to judicial opinion writing, Judge Leon is not what you would call a liberal: He was appointed by President Bush, and it was Judge Leon that decided back in 2005 that Gitmo detainees didn't have habeas rights. The Supreme Court later reversed that decision.

While he lacks some of the inspiring personal drama of Judge Urbina's life story, Judge Leon's legal credentials are impressive. Judge Leon earned his J.D. from Suffolk University Law in 1974 and then clerked for justices of two state supreme courts. He then earned an L.L.M. from Harvard in 1981 and then taught as a professor at St. John's Law School and worked for the Justice Department where he was chief minority council for the investigation of the Iran-Contra affair. He then went into private practice in D.C. until President Bush appointed him to the bench in 2002.

Judge Leon already has some history with Gitmo and habeas proceedings. In fact, it was Judge Leon's 2005 decision in Kalid v. Bush, 355 F.Supp.2d 311 (D.D.C. 2005) that prompted the landmark Supreme Court decision Boumediene v. Bush, 128 S. Ct. 2229 (2008), earlier this year.

You see, back in 2004 the Supreme Court made it clear that federal courts had jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay. Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466 (2004). Shortly thereafter, six detainees filed habeas petitions challenging their detention. Judge Leon heard the case and decided that even though the court had jurisdiction to hear habeas petitions from Guantanamo, that did not mean that the Gitmo detainees actually had any habeas rights that the court was bound to recognize. Kalid, 355 F.Supp.2d at 314. Judge Leon concluded that they did not, and dismissed the petitions. Id. The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal earlier this year, holding that Gitmo detainees "are entitled to the privilege of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of their detention." Boumediene, 128 S. Ct. at 2262. The Court sent the case back to the district court to let the habeas hearings proceed. In the meantime, Judge Urbina, another Judge on the D.C. District Court relied on Boumediene to grant a habeas petition and order the release of a group of Uyghers who had been held in Gitmo.

The Decision.
Then yesterday, Judge Leon issued his decision in Boumediene v. Bush, Slip Op., No. 04-1116 (RJL) (D.D.C. Nov. 20, 2008). It turns out that the six detainees, who were native Algerians living legally in Bosnia, were arrested in Bosnia on suspicion of having plans to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. Id. at 3. But when that suspicion proved to be false, the Government continued to hold them at Guantanamo.

Judge Leon decided that in order to justify the detention, the Government had to prove, not beyond a reasonable doubt, but only by a preponderance of the evidence (a legalese term meaning "more likely than not") that the detainees were enemy combatants---that is, that they were part of or supported Taliban or Al Qaeda forces or associated forces, that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. Id. at 8.

The Government argued that five of the six detainees were enemy combatants because they had planned to go to Afghanistan and take up arms against U.S. forces there. The detainees disagreed, but argued that even if they did have a plan, a mere plan to be an enemy combatant is not the same thing as actually being one. Id. at 9. Judge Leon never resolved the issue of whether a plan was sufficient because he found that the evidence did not support the Government's allegation that the detainees even had the plan to begin with. He observed that the Government had provided only one classified source as evidence, and that it had failed to provide the Judge with enough evidence to evaluate the reliability and credibility of that one source. Id. at 10. Because most of the hearing was classified and not made public, Judge Leon did not go into any specifics about the deficiencies in the evidence. He concluded, however, that "to allow enemy combatancy to rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this Court's obligation . . . to protect petitioners from the risk of erroneous detention." Id. at 11.

As for the sixth detainee, Judge Leon found that the government had provided sufficient evidence to prove that he was an "al-Qaida facilitator" and allowed his continued detention. Id. at 11-13. Again, because of the classified nature of the evidence, there was no specific discussion of what the Government had proved.

That's two judges now, one liberal and one conservative, who have officially reached the same conclusion. Is it because they are dutifully applying the law? Or are the D.C. district court judges gunning for President-elect Barack "shut-down-Gitmo" Obama to give them a spot on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals---the most likely feeder court for the Supreme Court?

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Eats Sheet: Lentil & Spinach Soup

Autumn is a time for soups. When the temperature begins to dip, it's nice to have some pot of tastiness bubbling away on the stove filling the home with good smells. With the farmer's market abounding in all manner of squashes, I'm looking forward to trying my hand at Cabeza's latest offering.

Over the weekend, though, I discovered a new arrow to add to my quiver of soups: Lentil and Spinach. Lentils, the bean's less imposing cousin, are a perennial favorite of birkenstock-wearing whole foods shoppers. But they can also please a more refined palette. Less gassy and quicker-cooking than beans, lentils are sometimes translated in the King James Old Testament as "pulse," and were famously eaten by Belteshazzar (aka Daniel) and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego when they eschewed the Babylonian King's meat and wine. Since lentils are high in complex carbohydrates and a good source of iron, they're an important staple to a vegetarian diet; it seems the Hebrew expatriates were right to use them rather than meat.

If prepared wrong, lentils are utterly flavorless. Simply boiling them in plain water will not do. You get a bland, gag-inducing mess that's pretty hard to choke down. It's also a mistake to overcomplicate lentils by overwhelming them with with other flavors. They'll taste good, but they won't taste like lentils. But with a few simple accents, you can bring out their natural nuttiness and make lentils good---good enough to trade a birthright for.

This recipe begins with three or four slabs of bacon chopped up into slightly-smaller-than-bite-sized pieces. Throw them in a soup pot over just under medium heat. You want the bacon fat to melt out without burning or browning too much because you're going to use it to sautee some veggies. After about 6-7 minutes, throw in a half a yellow onion, and half a carrott, both finely chopped. Tip the heat up just past medium and let the onion get translucent, while the bacon fat browns just a little on the bottom of the pot. Then throw in two garlic cloves, finely chopped.

After a minute or two, toss in a tablespoon of tyme, a scant teaspoon of salt, a sprinkling of cracked pepper, and a cup of lentils. I used brown, but I suppose any color lentils would do. Scrape up any browned bacon fat from the bottom and dump in four cups chicken broth, a cup of water, and two tablespoons of tomato paste. Crank the heat up to high and get it boiling. Then knock it down to low, cover the pot, crack the lid, and let it simmer.

When the lentils are nice and tender (25-40 minutes), turn off the heat and dump in three packed cups of chopped baby spinach. Let the spinach soak up the flavor and wilt for about 3 minutes. It's done.

I served it with sliced apple and sliced cheese. I also topped off the bowls with some parmesan. To make a more substantial lunch today, I supplemented the leftovers with some leftover rice. It was a good addition. I also think barley or some small pasta could work well instead of rice. I'm also toying with the idea of using quinoa, which I think might be a nice complement to the earthiness of lentils.

The idea of Daniel and his three fire-proof friends sitting down to a bowl of this stuff makes me smile.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Our system of checks and balances is designed to preserve the fundamental right of liberty": An Update on the Gitmo Habeas Petitioners

I previously noted D. C. district court judge Ricardo Urbina's decision ordering the government to release 17 Guantanamo detainees. As of yesterday, only the order was available. This morning, though, the full text (though redacted some) of the memorandum opinion was posted on the D.C. district court's website.

It's a pretty interesting read. Because the government admits that these 17 men were not terrorists or "enemy combatants," the only issue was whether the government has the authority to indefinitely detain someone because releasing them into the United States might interfere with the government's authority to decide who gets to come into the U.S. and who doesn't.

It looks like the government's argument was based separation of powers---essentially an assertion that admitting somebody into the U.S. is only a policy decision, not a legal decision, and that it therefore is entirely the decision of Congress and the President, and that the courts have nothing to do with it. This is a bold assertion, but there is some support for it. Courts generally do defer to the other branches of government on matters of immigration and foreign policy.

Judge Urbina recognizes this, and he discusses the cases that give such wide deference. Nevertheless, from the opening line, you know where stands:

"There comes a time when delayed action prompted by judicial deference to the executive branch's function yields inaction not consistent with the constitutional imperative."

And by the end of the introduction, you know where he's going with this:

"because separation-of-powers concerns do not trump the very principal upon which this nation was founded---the unalienable right to liberty---the court orders the government to release the petitioners into the United States."

The big deal in this case is not the Judge Urbina found the continued detention unlawful---that follows pretty logically from the Supreme Court's Boumediene decision, and is even more obvious when the government admits that the 17 Uyghurs are not enemy combatants. What is bold about Judge Urbina's order is that it finds that the court has the authority to order immediate release. Although in Boumediene the court found that Gitmo detainees have the right to file a habeas corpus petition, it basically only treated it as a procedural right. The fact that the district court ordered immediate release into the U.S. goes beyond procedure straight to the remedy that should be given to a successful habeas petitioner. As a matter of common sense, it seems like it ought to be a no-brainer that the remedy for illegal detention is release; but the Boumediene didn't explicitly go that far.

Instead, Judge Urbina turned to the history of the writ of habeas corpus, which makes for the interesting read. It isn't every day that you see a district court opinion quoting the Magna Carta. He then turned to the government's authority to deny people entrance into the U.S. and concluded that naturalization power is not unlimited, but that it must comply with due process, including the mandate that nobody can be deprived of liberty without due process. Finally, quoting John Marshall, he turned the separation-of-powers argument on its head, noting that if the courts fail to review such decisions, such failure would allow Congress and the President, not the courts, to "say what the law is." Accordingly, he concludes that

"Because the petitioners' detention has already crossed the constitutional threshhold into infinitum and because our system of checks and balances is designed to preserve the fundamental right of liberty, the court grants the petitioners' motion for release into the United States."


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Judge of the Day: Ricardo M. Urbina

Today Judge Ricardo Urbina, ordered the release of 17 Chinese Muslims who have been held in Guatanamo Bay as enemy combatants since their capture in Afghanistan in 2002. This is the first time that a federal judge has ordered the government to release someone held in Guantanamo Bay. That takes balls.

Born in Manhattan to a Honduran father and Perto Rican mother, Judge Urbina was President Reagan's first judicial appointee. Reagan appointed him to serve on the D.C. Superior Court in 1981. In 1994, when President Clinton nomiated him to serve on the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Urbina was the first Latino appointed to the Federal Bench in D.C. Now, fourteen years later, Judge Urbina gets to add being the first federal judge to order the release of a Gitmo detainee to his list of other firsts.

In June 2008, the Supreme Court decided that the constitutional right of habeas corpus (the right to force the government to explain its reasons for detaining a person) is not limited to people held on United States soil, but rather that it extends also to people that the U.S. government holds in Guantanamo Bay. Nevertheless, all that decision really said was that the government had to explain its reasons for holding prisoners---not that they necessarily had to be particularly persuasive reasons.

The seventeen men are members of an ethnic group known as Uyghurs. Uyghurs are ethnically Turkic, and practice Islam, but live in China. In 2002, seventeen the Uyghurs were captured in Afghanistan. They admitted to seeking training from the Taliban in order to defend fellow Uyghurs from the oppressive communist Chinese government. They denied being terrorists, and denied any intent to harm the United States, saying that it was China that they considered the enemy.

A military court called the Combatant Status Review Tribunal determined in 2004 and 2005 that fifteen of the seventeen Uyghurs were not enemy combatants. Earlier this year, the two others were also cleared of suspicion. Nevertheless, they were not released because of concerns about where to send them. They do not want to be sent back to China (for obvious reasons), and other nations are scared of offending China by granting them asylum.

Judge Urbina, however, didn't think that not wanting to offend China was a good enough reason hold people without trial when the government had already admitted that they were innocent. He ordered the government to bring them to his courtroom by next Friday. The DOJ asked for a stay of the order, which Judge Urbina denied. The DOJ stonewalled, saying that it would immediately appeal, and that immigration might have to detain them. Reminding the DOJ that they have already been held for seven years, Judge Urbina impatiently warned the DOJ not to create unnecesary delay.

Like I said, that takes balls.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Seinfeld Revue

Recently I saw Jerry Seinfeld live for the third time (and in my third state). Some of the material this time was the same as the second time I saw him last year in Richmond VA. After the show we wrote down some quotes that we could remember. I don't think any of these are direct quotes, but they are close.

No matter what restaurant you go to they won't serve you anything as good as a pop-tart.

People think that sucks and great are far apart, but they are actually right next to each other. You're eating an ice cream cone and the ice cream falls off and it sucks. What do you say? Great!

I used to not understand why people had kids. Why would you want someone in your house that poops their pants while they are looking at you? And my daughter will lie about it. "It's all circumstantial evidence. The leaning on the coffee table with both hands groaning; I was just thinking about rearranging the furniture. I want to move this table over by the window, because frankly, it stinks in here."

My favorite suicide bomber is the guy who blows himself up and no one else. He's like jihad-e-coyote. Do you think they are blowing themselves up over there because it's all sand and no beach? Why do they have the monkey bars on the terrorist training videos? Has any war ever been decided on a playground? I think we'd win this one. We could just put some of our fat kids on the see-saw. That'll scare them.

Single guys are meaningless and trivial. Oh you have a girlfriend? That's whiffle ball my friend. I'm out in a real war.

Being married is like constantly being in the lightning round of a game show. I'll take movies we might have seen together for $200. Give me details from a ten minute conversation we had eight years ago at three in the morning for $800 Alex.

What is with the violence towards donkeys at kids' birthday parties? We tell the kids to beat this donkey and eat whatever comes out of his carcass. Then we pin a picture of his brother on the wall and pin a tail on him.

Dad is like a day old helium balloon. You're not sure what to do with it. Play with it? Pop it? Throw it out? Father's Day is a day to show how little we know about him.

Ebay is a great idea. Let's email our trash to each other. Why talk to your family when you can bid $8 to $10 on a doily from Thailand?

I'm a thrower outer. "The wedding album? I thought you were done with that." But now I know that was a mistake.

What's with the Cialis commercials of the couples in two separate bathtubs at the top of a hill? Shouldn't they be in a hot tub? And who owns two bathtubs not hooked up to anything anyways and hulls them up to the top of the hill? That's why they are in two tubs, they're too tired.

Why are bathrooms made out of porcelain? Who decided to cover bathrooms with the most reflective surfaces there are? Why doesn't the bathroom stall come all the way down? It's not like it's an expensive door. I don't want to look down and see your lifeless pants and shoes under there. Maybe that's why we call it a stall. We could cut off the top of the door so we can stick our heads out and talk to people as they walk by. "Hey Tom, this is why I left the meeting early. But that was a good PowerPoint presentation from what I saw."

After the show we were giving him a standing ovation, then we all sat down but one guy on the second row. He didn’t sit down till way after everyone else. Then he stood back up. Jerry looked at him and asked him what he wanted. He started to talk “I brought this homeless guy with me to the show tonight…” Seinfeld cut him off and said that the point of the show is to forget all depressing things and have fun. The guy didn’t still didn’t sit down and was trying to say something, so Seinfeld called for security and then the guy sat down so Jerry waved off the guard.

The question and answer session seemed shorter then the other times I saw him. When asked about making more shows he said “I'm old. I'm rich. I'm tired. You're not seeing a motivated person here.” He seemed content to sit at home with his kids and do periodic standup tours. Whenever he comes close to you, go. It's I think the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life, all three times I've gone.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Eats Sheet: Butternut squash soup

In the name of keeping we might be windmills from stinkething again, I offer the following:

My oldest sister introduced me to the wonders of squash-based soups after I first moved to the Washington, DC area. She made a butternut squash concoction with tart green apple blended in to offset the natural sweetness of the gourd, seasoned with nutmeg. I've been making it every autumn since then, adapting the recipe and trying to find its complements. Here's what I've got so far--


1 yellow onion, chopped
1 rib of celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 Tbsp butter
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, chopped
1 tart green apple, peeled, cored, chopped
(squash and apple should be at a 3 to 1 ratio)
3-4 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth if vegetarian)
1-2 red hot chili peppers
nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and pepper
coriander (if desired)
Gruyère cheese

Butternut squash, like most of its winter squash cousins, is pretty hard when it's ripe, so it helps to cook it a little before trying to chop it up. Cut it in half with a large knife or cleaver and place it in a lightly greased pan in a 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes.

When the squash is softened, cooled, peeled, and chopped, combine the butter, onion, celery, and carrot in a large saucepan or small stockpot and sauté them over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the onions begin to be translucent and the celery and carrot start to soften. Add the squash and apple and pour enough broth in to just cover the top of the ingredients in the pot. Bring the whole thing to a boil, then let it simmer for 10 minutes or until the squash is soft.

While the mixture in the pot is simmering, halve and seed the peppers and rub a little olive oil on them. Place them in a dish directly under a low broiler and roast them until the skins just begin to blacken. This is something I innovated into the recipe at the suggestion of a friend. The roasted red pepper adds a very, very small bit of spiciness to the soup, and really complements the squash flavor.

When the simmering pot is ready, toss in the peppers and puree the whole thing (I highly recommend a stick (or immersion) blender for this--I used one for my first time last night and it greatly expedited the process (much better than transferring the soup in small portions over to the blender)).

Add spices to taste, paying particular attention to the salt. The pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon (and coriander) are all important to the spice combination, but the salt will really make the whole mixture arrive in a pleasant way.

Grate up some nice Gruyère cheese (or some generic Swiss if you're on a budget) and put a generous pinch on top of a bowl of soup when you serve it. The cheese is another of my innovations added to this recipe, inspired by a heavenly soup served at a local restaurant called Fireflies. It really makes all the difference. Last night I ate one bowl with the cheese and one bowl without; the soup I ate with the cheese was twice as good.

As a side, serve a light green salad and make some simple crostinis by slicing thin pieces of baguette, covering them with a little Gruyère, and placing them under a low broiler until the cheese melts and the bread browns around the edges. Add a little crushed red pepper before broiling if you want to add a little extra kick.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lazarus, come forth!

This is my first attempt at resurrecting a blog. This blog is dead and it stinketh. Even to me it doth stink. Nevertheless, here we go. Round two.

A word of explanation: I quite posting because I got busy. I thought, when the school year ends I'll have more time. Then I started work, and realized that the reality is that school is the best time to blog because you can do it all day. Blogging at work doesn't really fly.

But I'll try to get up and running now that I'm back in school, and now that I'm in the third law school year (i.e. class is even less relevant than the first two years). There may be all kinds of good stuff on the way: inane musings, pithy witticisms, sage proverbs, aphorism, and maxims, perhaps a platitude or two, tales of my adventures at the RNC, and war stories from the fronts of the law school/getting a job battle.

Wish me luck.

Then again, maybe Frankenstein is a better parallel than Lazarus.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cinematographicus: "The Incredible Hulk" (2008)

It's only fitting that "The Incredible Hulk" has been met with so much misunderstanding. Much of the inspiration behind the green monster derives from Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Beauty and the Beast, and... Frankenstein's monster. As I've heard more and more people bash on the Hulk's character or express dislike of a movie they've yet to see, frequent images of rural townsfolk marching with pitchforks and torches pop into my head, attacking a beast whose harmless desire is to be left alone -- who attacks only when egged on, purely out of self defense. "The Incredible Hulk," much like its title character and Frankenstein's monster, is largely misunderstood without second thought. Are we the ignorant pitchfork wielders, or are we the blind fiddler who looks past the mindless rage to behold the layered story and persona beneath?

Inevitably this movie will be compared to two other films: Ang Lee's 2003 "Hulk," and this summer's other Marvel blockbuster, "Iron Man." "Hulk" '03 was met with large distaste by the public. I personally found the film to be a really interesting psychological character piece, and though it was flawed in its pacing and the boring climax, other elements made up for it. The cinematography and editing was fascinating as it attempted to bring to the viewer something that only comics can do: the ability to see everything that's happening on one page, split into multiple panels. No other medium brings you this sort of visual omniscience, where time and location are less linear and more globbed together as a singular composition. The acting was spectacular -- Eric Bana was a great Bruce Banner, Jennifer Connelly was a beautiful and complex Betty Ross, and even Nick Nolte seemed at home as the psycho dead-beat dad. But the rest of the world has condemned this film for straying from its roots and being more experimental than entertaining, hence "The Incredible Hulk" is a complete reboot of the Hulk franchise -- in no way in continuity with the 2003 interpretation -- after only a five year absence from the big screen.

The bad taste that "Hulk" '03 created still lingers in the American mouth, and "The Incredible Hulk" is suffering because of it, which, frankly, isn't fair -- obviously the studios are trying to correct an "error," so why not see how it goes a second time around? Most people I have spoken to who use "Hulk" '03 as an excuse for not seeing the '08 reboot haven't even WATCHED Ang Lee's creation. I submit that it's more important to realize that "Hulk" '03's failure is due to creative options made by the filmmakers, NOT the nature of the character. If the Hulk himself makes for lackluster material in a medium other than comics, how would you explain the hot success of the television series that ran for four solid seasons and spawned countless made for TV movies (to which this film makes several well-played references, and from which it takes much inspiration)?

"Iron Man" kicked off the summer blockbuster scene with a hugely positive response. In an occurrence as frequent as a roundhouse kick-less episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger," critics AND fans alike have fallen in love with the Robert Downey Jr.-helmed comic story of a hero who is largely unknown to non-comics fans. Taking the cinema-goers by surprise, it seems that most who have viewed it are skeptical that any other comic movie this summer could possibly reach the bar of quality set by Tony Stark and friends (with the possible exception of "The Dark Knight" -- whose anticipation is based on its highly-popular predecessor). A lot of popular media fans tend to have very polarized mentalities: if they love one film, they must compare it with others of its genre and pick a side, rather than embrace the two as twin brothers who are potential equals, yet with different personalities.

It is with this mindset that I approach "The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man." In a metaphor that perhaps isn't entirely appropriate (for more reasons than one), they are like my little babies who I've been waiting to birth for so long. "Iron Man" was the first to see the light of day, followed shortly after by his angrier brother. In all honesty, I do love the armored, charismatic billionaire child slightly more, if only because he's more upbeat and fun-spirited. But the green-skinned lad is no less satisfying in the sense of solid character and thrill-ride entertainment. And the two are very much born to BE TOGETHER. They function as separate beings yet as a unit they're part of something much bigger. They know they have other brothers who will follow them shortly. If you've seen both of these films, you will understand what I'm referring to.

If you liked "Iron Man," you will most likely enjoy "The Incredible Hulk" as well. Probably not as much as "Iron Man," but it will be fun and it will give you that kick in the face you look for when expecting a solid action film.

Edward Norton brings a level of complexity to the Bruce Banner persona that, as good as Erica Bana was, went missing in the '03 telling of the tale. Looking into Norton's eyes shows us the painful journey he walks as he strives to contain the beast within and eliminate it. He presents us with the classic virtue vs. vice setup that we all experience as natural men. How do we contain our lusts and knee-jerk reactions to life? We ARE the Hulk, and we hopefully all strive to eliminate the desire to give in to temptations. Yet Norton presents us with another insight to the Beast and how we view our own inner turmoils as, later in the film, he gains a better understanding of who the "monster" is and how his rage might be focused for more effective service to humanity.

Liv Tyler is a little more loving and empathetic as Betty Ross, Bruce Banner's love interest, than perhaps Jennifer Connelly was, though I'm not sure I prefer her performance over Connelly's. Connelly seemed to be a more realistic product of paternal neglect and a military upbringing.

While being presented with the psychological and emotional struggles of our protagonist, we are presented with a well-paced, thrilling succession of events for a solid two hours as the military seeks to control the beast, ignoring that Hulk only unleashes his rage when provoked -- he is not a proactive destroyer. The battle scenes trump "Iron Man"'s action scenes hands-down. Using a divided car as boxing gloves, our protagonist delivers staggering blows that will bring you to the edge of your seat and have you actually cheering out loud in the theater. Any film that can move a story along and keep a nice pace without sacrificing the complexity of characters is a success in my book -- and "The Incredible Hulk" does this.

Go see "The Incredible Hulk," and if you're anything like me you'll find yourself losing sleep because you just can't avoid smiling when your mind wanders to specific moments of grandiose Hulk smashings!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why is she still in?

It is essentially impossible for Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for president.

She is losing in every measure of success: pledged delegates, superdelegates, states won, and the overall popular vote. Her victory last night in West Virgina was considerable (something like 67% to 26%), but doesn't change any of those measures.

Moreover, the victory is also tainted racism and religious bigotry. Exit polls reflect that one in four Clinton voters reported that race was an important factor in the vote. Stories coming out of West Virginia just before the election told stories of voters who planned to vote for Clinton because they "heard that Obama is a Muslim and his wife’s an atheist," or because they "want someone who is a full-blooded American." It's interesting that these voters didn't say they were voting for Clinton because of something they like about her, but because of the things they didn't like about Obama. But nonetheless, Clinton has been all to willing to ride that wave of prejudice, sending Bill to tell white audiences in West Virginia that she represents "people like you."

But not only does the West Virgina win not erase Obama's lead in every measure of success, it has also failed to even slow Obama's increasing lead in superdelegates---he picked up two more this morning.

There are only two ways it might happen: 1) The old angry white people of West Virginia somehow possess the voters in all the remaining primaries and give Clinton similar margins of victory, while simultaneously, there is a mass exodus of superdelegates from Obama to Clinton. 2) Clinton and a mass army of political lackeys somehow succeed in pressuring the delegates at the convention to ignore who they are pledged to vote for while simultaneously, Obama either disappears completely or has a massive breakdown and spends the rest of the campaign rocking in a fetal position. Basically, it's not going to happen.

And yet she keeps going, like a demented energizer bunny in a pantsuit. Like the little engine that (thought she) could she keeps chugging through coal country. And why? With Obama's increasing leads, it isn't bettering her chances; and it's also working evil on her family's image and reputation. Whereas Bill was once a celebrity among African-American Democrats, Clinton's race-baiting tactics in West Virginia has Chris Matthews calling her "the Al Sharpton of white people." And with apologies to the good Reverend, that isn't an honor.

So, again, why?

I can think of four possible reasons:

1) She wants to lock in the spot as VP. While Obama is usually cordial with Clinton in public, some have speculated that the rancor between their campaigns on the trail has foreclosed any possibility of a Clinton-Obama ticket. Others cite Michelle Obama's personal dislike for the pantsuited former first lady and argue that Michelle would veto Clinton as a running mate. Knowing that the odds are against her being VP, Clinton may be trying to force Obama's hand by trying proving that without her on the ticket, Obama can't win with old white Democrats.

2) She wants to massage her ego with a big win in West Virginia before she gets out for good. Maybe Clinton does realize that she won't win, but since she was so highly favored in West Virginia, she knew that it would give her the chance to go out in a blaze of glory rather than in the calumny of a streak of losses followed by a close Pennsylvania win and a marginal victory in Indiana.

3) She wants to keep fundraising. Clinton's campaign is running at least a 20 million dollar debt right now and she has had to led almost 12 million out of her own pocket just to keep it afloat. With a win in coal country, maybe she give some hope to old angry white people who want to see her win. That way she could convince more retirees to send in donations and make up some of the cash rather than eat the deficit herself. Getting on the ticket as VP would also solve this problem.

4) She wants McCain to win. If Obama wins, he'll be the presumptive nominee again the next time around and Clinton would have to wait eight years to try again. If McCain wins, Clinton will be able to turn around, thumb her nose at the rest of the party and say "I told you Obama wasn't electable! Next time you better listen to me!" Also, McCain is old. See, e.g., here. In four years, he'll be even older. If he wins, there is a decent chance that he might not run again. Even if he does run again, he'll be easier to pick off than a younger incumbent Obama. At 61, Clinton's no spring chicken herself, and a 69 or 70 year old Hillary Clinton would have a harder row to hoe than a 65 year old Hillary Clinton.

So what do you think? Which explanation is more plausible? What other explanations have I overlooked?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Race in the Race

In case you don't know, here's an oversimplified wrap-up of the recent goings on in the democratic primary.

Last week, Clinton joined John McCain in calling for a summer gas tax holiday, only she put a twist on it by proposing that oil companies pay the tax rather than just getting rid of it. Obama's counter was that it's a gimmick, not a solution. Then earlier this week, Obama won North Carolina by about 14 percent, and lost Indiana by about two. North Carolina was a bigger win, not only because of the margin of victory, but also because there were more delegates.

In the aftermath, the talking heads on cable declared Obama the nominee. Their reasoning: at this point, Clinton would have to win every remaining race 65% to 35% in order for the math to add up for her. She hasn't won a single race by that margin so far. In protest, Clinton flew in a huff to West Virginia to campaign. In an effort to stem the growing chorus of commentators who say she can't win and should concede, she has begun trying to make the argument that Obama's support is defective because it is too black.

The argument goes like this: you have to have white people to win the election, and white people like me more than they like Obama. A less charitable reading is that she is simply playing off of the racial prejudice of older white voters and concealing it with some nonsense about electability. But whatever her intentions, she sure is being explicit about the racial lines she's drawing. After boasting of her white support in several states, she comes right out and says "there's a pattern emerging here." Paul Begala, a one-time advisor to Bill Clinton and current Clinton supporter put it more bluntly, saying that the democracts can't win with just "eggheads and African-Americans."

Ironic that this comes from the woman whose husband once had almost rock-star status among African Americans, and who was once dubbed the nation's first black President by Toni Morrison. And conveniently, Ms. Morrison has recently explained what she really meant when she called Bill the first black President: not that he was culturally black, but that the nation was treating him as the cops treat a black man on the street: guilty from the start. And, by the way, she supports Obama.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Rock-a-bye Baby

So it turns out that I don't know very many lullabyes.

Really the only one I know is the one about the baby in the tree-top, which, by the way, if you pay attention to the words, is a little disturbing and kind of Steven King-esque. "When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby. . ." I have to wonder, is that supposed to be a threat? Are you telling the kid that she better shut up and hold still or else she might rock the cradle to much? Or is it just a comment on the inevitability of death? After all, it's not the baby that makes the cradle rock, it's just something that happens "when the wind blows." That's so ominous and kind of creepy. And this is how we put our kids to bed? And what's the kid doing in the top of a tree in the first place?

Anyway, the unsatisfying philosophy of the song about the baby in the treetop combines with sheer boredom and makes me want to seek out new ones. Since I don't really know many, I've had to improvise and use other songs I know, which has been interesting.

It turns out the Beatles wrote some good lullabyes. The one that seems to work the best is "Mother Nature's Son." "Here comes the Sun" is pretty good too, but it seems weird too sing it at night. "Rocky Racoon" isn't too bad, but it's easy to get into it and sing it too loud. Even more surprising is that Weezer's "My name is Jonas" gets the baby to quite down pretty really well. I once tried "Only in Dreams" but there's too many guitar parts that don't translate to well into a vocal solo.

There are a few They Might be Giants tunes that work well, also (you knew it was coming). She really seems to like "Mink Car." "Another First Kiss" isn't too bad either. Of course, TMBG has also written a few songs intended as lullabyes on their children's album, "No!". "Sleepwalkers" and "Lazyhead and Sleepybones" are good ones, but "Bed Bed Bed" doesn't work so well. Again, too many instrumentals, and too raucous.

When it comes to church music, "I am a child of God" is of course an old standby. But my favorite is "Adam-ondi-Ahman." "O Savior, thou who wearest a crown" is another really good one.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pet names

I'm intrigued by what people call their pets.

My brother named his cat "Skookums" after the Chinook word for the creature otherwise known as Sasquatch. Mark Twain is said to have dubbed his housecats "Famine," "Pestilence," "Satan," and "Sin." One of my law professors has a little dog she styles "William the Conqueror." My dad had a law school classmate who kept in his carrel a goldfish named after the eminent American jurist Learned Hand.

I like the idea of naming animals after historical or literary figures. We'll probably end up getting a cat after I graduate and we move into a house rather than an apartment. We've decided that his name will be "Count Leo." If I had a golden retriever I would call him "Lord Byron." If we ever got a husky or malamute, his name would be "Pushkin."

I also like the idea of giving the pets a title as part for their name. It exalts the animal kingdom tongue-in-cheek and points out the utter silliness of our human pretense. It seems to me that it uses humor to advance the great mandate that "ye shall not esteem one flesh above another."

One of my favorite names ever is the alliterative moniker of the the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. The great thing about this name is that if takes two words, one Latin and one German, that both begin with F, but that, by some hilarious miracle of history, both begin with H when translated into their American English cognates. Felix Frankfurter becomes Happy Hot-dog. It's a wonderful name. And Felix is of course, a archetypal cat name. So naturally, I also would like to name a cat "Mr. Justice Frankfurter."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Calling all ska fans!

I'm writing a paper on ska and its fans, and I created a little survey to help me collect some data. If you are a fan of ska (and only if you consider yourself such a fan), please click on the link and take the survey. It's pretty short--should really only take you five minutes or so. Thanks!

Click Here to take survey

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An experiment.

I find many passages of scripture to be poetic, but I find the numbered verse format to be rigid and stifling, and not conductive of the lyrical beauty that I'm convinced is often there. After amanda's recent post soliciting thoughts on light, I've been thinking about one passage in particular. Here's an experiment with line breaks---an attempt to bring out the rhythmic beauty I hear in these words.

Doctrine and Covenants 88:6-13.

This is the light of Christ.

As also he is in the sun,
and the light of the sun,
and the power thereof by which it was made.
As also he is in the moon,
and is the light of the moon,
and the power thereof by which it was made;
As also the light of the stars,
and the power thereof by which they were made;
And the earth also---
and the power thereof,
even the earth upon which you stand.

And the light
which shineth,
which giveth you light,
is through him
who enlighteneth your eyes,
which is the same light
that quickeneth your understandings;

Which light proceedeth forth
from the presence of God
to fill the immensity of space—

The light
which is in all things,
which giveth life to all things,
which is the law by which all things are governed,
even the power of God
who sitteth upon his throne,
who is in the bosom of eternity,
who is in the midst of all things.

What say ye?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A dumb euphemism

So my new calling is to teach Sunday school to the 12-18 year olds. Yes, that's right, all the youth are in one class. One of the many joys (I'm saying this seriously, not ironically) of a small ward. It can be a challenge to teach in a way that is both interesting to the older kids and not boring to the younger ones, but sometimes I do it.

Anyway, this past week went really well. We studied Jacob 1-4 in the Book of Mormon. We talked about how Nephi got old and decided that separation of church and state seemed like a good idea, anointed some nameless dude to be king, and consecrated Jacob (and Joseph, as a footnote) to be preachers. We talked about how Jacob took his calling as a preacher very seriously and we talked about the three main sins he preached against: (1) love of riches/pride, (2) sexual sin, and (3) racism.

As I prepared the lesson, though, I noticed how the manual only once uses the word "sexual" and only once uses the word "unchastity". Instead, it refers repeatedly to "immorality." First, I just thought this was strange. It seemed like some kind of weird, harmless, victorian squeamishness. Then I started to think about the (probably unintended) implications of this particular euphemism. The manual says

"After warning the people about pride and the love of riches, Jacob called them to repentance for their immoral behavior. How were the Nephites rationalizing their immoral behavior?"

It then asks

"Why is it important to be morally clean?"

And then this:

"What must a person do to be forgiven of immorality?"

My problem with this particular wording is that it implies that "pride and the love of riches" are not "immoral behavior," that avoiding sexual sin is equivalent to being "morally clean" and that there is some kind of different, harder kind of repentance to be forgiven for sexual sin than for other kinds of sin.

The danger of this euphemism, I think, is that using "immorality" as code for sexual sin allows us to let ourselves off the hook too easily. And it reflects, I think, a larger problem. We are so obsessed with sex in our culture, that at times (especially for the youth) it begins to eclipse every other sin. The danger is that we may begin to think that if we're not fornicating, we're doing just fine. I'm all for being more optimistic and I believe strongly that discouragement and guilt are almost always diabolically inspired. One of Satan's most effective lies is that forgiveness is too hard. But his other lie is that it is too easy.

If a prophet says "don't do anything immoral" and I think, "well, I may be a hypocrite and grind on the faces of the poor, but at least I'm not a fornicator, so I'm alright," then I'm not in a good position. Of course if I listen to everything the prophets say, then I'll probably get the message that there's more to it. But in our sound-byte world, that may be asking a lot. For example: how many times did we hear the phrase "tender mercies" in 2005? Now we even have a song about it. Now, how many times did we actually read or discuss the talk Elder Bednar gave where he quoted Nephi talking about the tender mercies of the Lord? I even heard people talk as though Elder Bednar had authored the phrase rather than Nephi. I don't fault Elder Bednar for the fact that people listened to only one phrase of his talk, I just think it reflects the fact that our society does not do well remembering anything longer than a sound-byte.

Now I'm sure that the CES committee that wrote the manual didn't use the "immorality" euphemism with some ill-intent to make it easy to justify ourselves. I'm sure they really were only motivated by an odd, perhaps subconscious, victorian aversion to speaking of sex. But the point is that words matter. See, e.g., Elder Holland. We can't afford to be careless with our words. We should be precise and accurate, we should speak in a way that we cannot easily be taken out of context and twisted, confused, or misremembered. All sexual sin==immorality, but all immorality=/=sexual sin. I bristle at this euphemism. Let's just call it what it is. As Nephi said, I glory in plainness.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When did the NYT hire Speilberg as a photographer?

If it weren't for the fact that what's happening in Pakistan really is a tragedy, this would be hilarious. As it is, it's just funny. The other day I went to the NYT website to keep abreast of of world events, and as the page loaded, I beheld this.

Now, is it just me, or does this picture not look like a poster for a bad action movie? I can hear the trailer voice-over: "In a world where no lawyer is safe, how can one man in a black suit survive? How can he find the woman he loves when barbed wire and tear gas are stacked against him? Will they escape? Will he shoes be unscuffed? Coming this spring, an fast-paced, high-stakes action adventure, 'Justice without Mercy,' starring a low-budget Bollywood Burt Reynolds look-a-like."

Read the story here. Turns out it has nothing to do with Burt Reynolds.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why is this not on the headline of every paper?

My perusal of the drudge report last week yielded this: "Automated Killer Robots are a Threat to Humanity."

I have three reactions. First, it's redundant. Aren't all robots automated? Isn't "automated" a derivative of "automaton," which is just another word for robot anyway? Second, that kind of seems like a no-brainer. I mean, if there really are automated killer robots out there, isn't it pretty obvious that they would be a threat to humanity? Third, if automated killer robots actually are threatening humanity, why is this not being trumpeted from the rooftops? Must be the liberal media with it's pro-robot agenda.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cinematographicus: Across the Universe (2007)

We picked this one up at Target last week. I remember being intrigued by it when it came out, hearing classmates review it positively, thinking I might see it, and then forgetting about it. The main idea is that it is a love story / hippie drama musical pieced together out of Beatles songs. The first comparison that comes to mind is Mama Mia!. Except that Across the Universe was not on Broadway, and of course, that it is an insult to all coolness to compare the finest rock songs of the 20th century to the disco drivel of Abba.

Watching this movie is kind of like watching two hours of MTV---old school MTV, when there were actually music videos instead of a mind-numbing, horizonless expanse of "reality" TV programming. Like any decent music video, there's a heavy emphasis on creative camerawork, and making the visual aesthetic reflect the music. The difference is that there is some plot continuity, less overt hero-worship of musicians, and no straight band-playing scenes.

No, it's actually closer to Moulin Rouge, both stylistically and thematically. Both films depart from the standard stage-inspired musical template by weaving the music into the plot, and keeping the story going through the songs. This makes for a more pleasant viewing experience than the stage-based template where the plot is continuously put on hold to show off the singing or dancing abilities of the actors. It's better adapted to the screen, where long singing and dancing scenes can invoke more yawns than smiles. See the 1965 film version of Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella as an example of the worst offenders.

And both films deal heavily in the ideal of the restricting and destructive nature of society pitted against the liberating ideals of love, sex, music, art, and of course, drugs. The absinthe-happy bohemians of Moulin Rouge are a pretty straight parallel to the psychadelic hippies living in New York in Across the Universe.

But the hippie narrative departs from substance-induced reveries and love fest of Moulin Rouge, when Across the Universe portrays the social upheaval of the 60s---the Detroit riots, the assassination of MLK, and the specter of Vietnam brooding over the whole film throughout. This adds a bit more weight and substance to the film (but not that much---it's still a musical). The Vietnam sequences also create some of the more interesting visual imagery---a spectral, almost skeletal Uncle Sam singing out of a recruiting poster and an Iwo Jima-esque group of young men in underwear and combat boots, struggling to carry an enormous statue of liberty over rice paddies and jungles in "I want you (she's so heavy)," and flaming strawberries dropping out of an airplane's bomb bay over the jungle in "Strawberry fields."

Like with the Beatles' own music, there's also a thematic progression. The opening scene is a sad, seaside rendition of the opening lines of "Girl" basically lifted from Moulin Rouge's rendition of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy." The next scene opens to "It won't be long" with a picturesque sock-hop scene and continues with stereotypical high-school scenes of football players and cheerleaders. But by the end, the darker and more more psychedelic tunes dominate as it all takes a downward spiral. The low point is "Happiness is a warm gun" when we see one of the main characters, shell-shocked in a military hospital, sung to and tranquilized by a nurse played by Selma Hayek. But it all ends predictably with "All you need is love."

I had two favorite scenes. The first, "Let it be," is sung to the backdrop of the Detroit riots cross edited with scenes of a family learning of a soldier's death. It eventually turns into a gospel song at a funeral, and is actually kind of moving.

The second, "Revolution" shows off the integration of music, and especially of lyrics, into the plot. It's also just a great song.

There are things I could have done without. There was a scene, for example, where the main character, who is clichédly an artist, draws his sleeping naked girlfriend. We see a nipple. But it's not just the nudity that bugged me about the scene, it was the uncanny parallel to the naked drawing scene in Titanic. Anything that reminds me of Titanic gets minus 10 points at the outset. But this was doubly wrong because the chain of connections leads incestuously back onto itself: Titanic starred Leonardo DiCaprio, who also starred in Romeo and Juliet which was directed by Baz Luhrmann (who names their kid Baz, anyway?), who also directed Moulin Rouge, which serves in many ways as a template for Across the Universe. That's only four connections. That's like marrying your cousin and is totally unacceptable. Unless of course your cousin is Kevin Bacon. Then it's inevitable.

And the psychadelic descent, while interesting (and while maybe an accurate portrayal of the spirit of the 1960s), got a bit too weird for me. On the up side, it did include Bono making a cameo appearance to sing "I am the walrus."

Overall, my reaction is positive, but don't set your expectations too high.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jobs Americans Won't Do: Win Oscars

All acting Oscars went to foreigners this year, and foreigners also won various other Oscars as well. I'm waiting for some nonsensical rant from an anti-immigrant zealot to declare the end of the American film industry since non-Americans are doing so well.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cinematographicus: "Serenity" (2005)

In a move that would once more prove that Fox is a network of complete morons, Firefly died in 2002, shortly after seeing the light of day. Its questionable numbers in viewership were certainly not helped by the fact that Fox aired the episodes out of order (the very pilot wasn't aired for two or three weeks after the SECOND installment was shown!), juggled its time slot like a hopped-up circus clown, and unreasonably would go weeks on end without airing a new one. The last four episodes of the season had been produced but never saw the light of day until the DVD release a couple years later.

The show's premise was creatively original and fresh, something that hadn't been done in some time. Classified as a "Sci-Fi Western" (side note: did you know that "Star Wars" was originally labeled a western?), the show followed a retired Confederate rebel who'd earned his veteran status in an intragalactic battle with the Alliance, the future's Man and governing body that performs unspeakable acts of horror and downright intrusion in the name of justice and peace. Mal, now captain of a small crew aboard a ship they use to run their business as smugglers, spends his time running jobs and quietly avoiding run-ins with the Alliance by keeping his work as far into the outskirts of society as possible.

What's more to add to the very Western feel of the premise is that, despite advancements in technology, shotguns and revolvers are still common weapons. Mal carries a sidearm in a holster around his waist on a regular basis. There's also an episode that involves the transportation and herding of a large number of cattle. Certainly an unorthodox setting for an attempt at pop culture success, but nonetheless delightful. Mal's the type of character you love to watch. He doesn't put up with the silly, cliche-type setups that most pop culture icons find themselves in (he's more likely to blow a bad guy's head off than listen to his attempt at a monologue), and thus provides a critique of formulaic storytelling and melodrama. Each and every member of the crew is also a treat in his or her own respect.

Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others), managed to draw a cult following after the show's cancellation. It was strong enough to get the studios to back a feature film that took us back to this universe, and it was the preview of this film that sparked my interest in these characters (I didn't watch any television, aside from bits and pieces of Carita de Angel, from 2001-2003 and therefore missed the series' original airing). An old roommate of mine owned the DVD set of Firefly and let me watch the pilot before hitting up the theater for the film.

Hands down, "Serenity" is one of the most well-constructed movies I've ever seen. In addition to all the excellent elements carried over from the TV show, the visuals are greatly enhanced by the budget of a major motion picture, the story's intensity is kicked up about ten notches, and the action sequences are all the more stunning. You know how, in most films, you can somewhat predict the overall outcome of the story, depending on their genre and inciting incidents? Well, the genius of Joss Whedon's tale here was that it somehow managed to keep me guessing the entire length of the film! In fact, there was a long stretch of the story where I felt an utter sense of hopelessness for Mal and his crew -- there was NO way they were going to walk away from this situation, even if they were to succeed in their ultimate objective (and, in fact, some of them don't). The sense of doom was thicker than Christina Ricci's forehead!

The other major element of "Serenity" that makes this movie so interesting to me is its message that teaches the viewer to never be a fence-sitter, but to rather take a stance on issues (of any magnitude) and proactively stand by them. This theme is illustrated as Mal finds himself having to wrestle with the fact that merely "staying out of the Alliance's way" is detrimental and imprisoning, not to mention unjust to the people who have less power than he to oppose their iron fist. The point is not to always come out on top, the point is to do what you feel is right and embrace that part of you. The theme is a very important message, and a very unique one at that, given the large number of films that seem to teach us no more than "don't get carried away with science" or "BFF's are more important then selling out for romance."

Finally, if NOTHING else convinces you to rent this movie right away, know that it's jam-packed with awesome action sequences. Not only are there some complex, explosive space battles (side note: Whedon opts to go with a slightly more scientific approach to the outer space battle sequence in that, when an explosion occurs in the vacuum, there is no accompanying "kaboom!" sound), but one of the major characters (who is an inciting incident for the entire series) surprisingly breaks out of her mellow shell and delivers some fan-freakin'-tastic hand-to-hand combat scenes that WILL blow you away.

I give this film a definite 10/10 rating and sincerely hope a sequel is made one day.