christmas cheer from my brother john

Q: what nationality is santa claus?
A: north polish


return of the elves

despite heroic digital/analog efforts during the 20 minutes that tickets for the LotR marathon were on sale in madison and high intrigue and intensive string pulling afterwards, we were unable to get tickets. thanks to liz, we did get the consolation prize of free passes to the midnight showing and had a fine time of it, ears, cloaks, and all.


(not) my mother's chocolate chip cookies

I decided to make a double batch of chocolate chip cookies when it was our turn to cook dinner the other night. I used my mother's recipe, you know, the one on the back of the chocolate chip bag.

armed with my mother's recipe and my mother's genetics I headed into to the kitchen confident that platefuls of cookies just like my mother used to make would materialize in the rivendell kitchen in a hour or so. an hour or so later I realized I was going to have to add "baking chocolate chip cookies" to the list of things that my mother will always do better than me, right after "making slipcovers," "folding laundry," and "wrapping sandwiches in wax paper."

now I admit that when it comes to cookies, my mother sets the bar pretty high. this time of year I receive multiple shipments of tins full of fancy homebaked cookies stacked neatly in little fluted paper cups, tiny tarts filled with nuts and brown sugar, buttery cookies layered with jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar, raspberry thumbprints, lover's knots, even the occasional layer of biscotti at the bottom. my mother also makes terrific chocolate chip cookies, but they've always occupied the lowest rung of the cookie hierarchy, too humble for fluted paper cups and interstate delivery.

in truth, it's been years since I've had one of my mother's chocolate chip cookies. but I remember the chocolate chip cookies of my childhood --- each one spread out perfectly on the cookie sheet, evenly colored like a toasted marshmallow, pliable but not mushy, not too brittle or too crisp or too cakey, each one a tribute to the platonic ideal of chocolate chip cookie. my mother would take each fresh-out-of-the-oven cookie off the sheet with a spatula and put it on the small stainless steel section of the countertop next to the stove. my brothers and I would stand there waiting for them to cool, trying to figure out which cookie had the most chocolate chips in it. eventually my mother started turning them over to put an end to our obsessive chip counting and to the cries of 'it's not fair' that would follow when the prize cookie was awarded to one of three siblings. (in retrospect this strikes me as a sneaky mom trick, on average as many chips would be visible from the bottom of the cookies as from the top, so why didn't we just count those instead?)

my mother's chocolate chip cookies don't have nuts in them. they stick to the point and the point of chocolate chip cookies is chocolate chips. but my mother would always reserve some batter to make a few cookies for herself with only nuts and no chocolate chips, because she didn't (and doesn't) like chocolate. to my childhood eyes, my mother's antipathy to chocolate chips was another one of the inexplicable features of the grown-up world, like the way grown-ups would have parties and then just spend the entire time sitting there talking, or how they sometimes went unhh! when they sat down in a chair.

I must have baked my own chocolate chip cookies in high school, stamped with an invisible seal of mom-approval. and in grad school I won rivendell's chocolate chip cookie contest with a batch of chocolate chocolate chip cookies. they had both white and regular chocolate chips, and a hefty amount of cocoa powder in the batter. what they lacked in structural integrity but they made up for in taste. (I got the recipe off the back of the hershey's cocoa tin.)

so where did I go wrong in the intervening decade(s)? I remembered to take the butter out of the refrigerator to soften it, I creamed the butter and added the sugar and the eggs gradually. I didn't sift together the baking soda and flour, but I don't think my mother does that anymore either. the oven on our big restaurant heats a bit unevenly but still...

I looked in on the first sheet of cookies after they'd been in the oven for about five minutes. the spoonfuls of dough were still lumpy and melting visibly but the edges that had spread onto the sheet had already turned an ominous dark brown. I had to pull them out off the oven a few minutes later --- the edges were in danger of burning but the centers were still a gooey puddle of dough. yuk.

and there was still a heck of a lot of dough in the bowl waiting to be transformed into cookies. maybe I could turn the uncooked dough into dessert in its own right? how about neat little cookie dough balls formed with an ice cream scoop and served in ramekins drizzled with hershey's syrup? instead I did what I always do when faced with a culinary crisis. I called my mother.

your dough is too loose, she said. you need to add some flour. a double batch? trying adding 1/2 a cup.

come to think of it, maybe I hadn't actually filled the the measuring cups to the top when I was adding the flour. the remaining sheets of cookies were much improved, but still a little too crispy brown around the edges by the time the center was done. even with the eleventh hour consultation, these were not my mother's chocolate chip cookies.

then again, chocolate chip cookies are made out of butter and sugar and chocolate chips, with a little flour and baking soda and a few eggs to hold the whole thing together. so long as you don't burn them to charcoal (my mother's number one chocolate chip cookie tip: be careful not to bake them too long --- watch them like a hawk! take the cookies out just a bit before they are completely done because they'll still be hot and continue to firm up even after they're out of the oven) how far wrong can you go? mangy and misshapen chocolate chip cookies are still chocolate chip cookies. even the weird crunchy-squishy ones from the first sheet disappeared pretty quickly.

except for one. because whoever eats the last cookie has to wash the plate.


not quite on the road

bill & I went to chicago for the weekend, foreshadowing our semi-annual east coast trek that starts this friday. we listened to some lectures on the history of the english language in the car. anglo-saxon was a highly inflected language with many "strong verbs," or verbs that indicate the tense by "a meaningful change of the root vowel," for example, sing, sang, have sung. english has become less inflected over time, and newly coined verbs are invariably "weak verbs" that indicate tense with endings, for example, walk, walked, have walked. I think it's time we embraced our anglo-saxon linguistic heritage by introducing new strong verbs. take the verb "google." instead of the weak and wimpy construction google, googled, have googled we could have the strong and anglo-saxon google, gogle, have guggle. (note gogle rhymes with ogle.) nouns can also change their root vowels to form the plural, for example, mouse, mice, so multiple google searches could be called a gaggle. and if heinlein was as linguistically savvy as tolkien the verb "grok" would be conjugated grok, gruk, have grought. at least that's what I thunk.

the proximate cause of the trip to chicago was a teaching and empowerment on dorje drolö practice being given by khenpo tsewang dongyal rinpoche. dorje drolö is one of the eight manifestations of guru padmasambhava; the announcement for the teachings mentions that the "practice of Dorje Drolö subdues negative forces and pacifies mental illness." hey, I'm all about subduing negative forces and pacifying mental illness. and I don't get many opportunities to attend teachings at padma samye ling, the khenpo's main center in the US, so it was definitely worth the trip.

while I was at the teachings bill hung out at the hotel and worked, the rest of the time we wandered around up and down clark st., checking out the coffeeshops and used cd and book stores. chicago still has thriving used cd stores, the few that there were in madison have gone out of business. just to prove that we really are willing to pay for cds that are reasonably priced, here's a run down of what we bought, ranging in price from $4.99 - $9.99:

  • yes: yes
    music that was popular when bill was in high school, their first album featuring a beatles cover and a cover photo of the pre-wakemen pre-howe band wearing some really groovy threads
  • the amazing new electronic pop sound of jean jacques perry
    "amazing" doesn't begin to describe it or its effect on bill's 11 year old brain
  • the exotic sounds of arthur lyman
    exotica for that ironic retro experience
  • ephat mujuru: journey of the spirit
    an album by the mbira player that bill took lessons with in harare, zimbabwe, a real find
  • the sisters of mercy: floodland
    used to have it on cassette, the third track "lucretia my reflection" featured prominently in my failed attempt to learn to play the bass
  • the silver mt. zion orchestra & tral-la-la band: "born into trouble as the sparks fly upward"
    'more accessible' music from members of godspeed you black emperor!
  • a cage in search of a bird: music inspired by franz kafka
    a random pick from the miscellaneous goth section
  • nusrat fateh ali kahn and michael brook: remixed, star rise
    evolution in action: first an east-west crossover, then mutations
  • sheila chandra with the ganges orchestra:
    "this sentence is true" (the previous sentence is false.)
  • a mystery cd for bill's mother....

chicago has many many places to eat, but relatively few markets and it doesn't seem to have any of the fruit/produce stands you see on every other block in new york at all. I got my veggie fix at szechuan garden at 2901 n. broadway (773-525-6677) which has an excellent healthy vegetarian menu and 20 kinds of tea. the "sesame golden nugget" came with a big pile of perfectly steamed broccoli, yum. after lunch on the way back to the retreat center we walked past a home depot. at least the big orange signs said "the home depot." but I could clearly see an espresso cart at the front of the store through the window. I just don't think that a place that sells biscotti really counts as a hardware store. at night we explored the streets in lightly falling snow with twinkling holiday lights, and then read inside a warmly lit coffeeshop with the snow blizzarding down the streets outside, ah.

crazy wisdom

on friday night khenpo tsewang gave an introductory talk that included the life of budhha shakyamuni and the three turnings of the wheel of dharma, or the three main aspects or sections of the buddha's teachings. as always, he emphasized how all the buddha's teachings focus on developing positive qualities like love, compassion, joy and equanimity and eliminating afflictive emotions and mental states like anger, jealousy, attachment, and ignorance. on saturday morning before the empowerment khenpo tsewang explained some of the basics of tibetan buddhist practice, like how to set up a shrine, how to do prostrations and the correct posture for meditation. I found it extremely helpful, but I always feel a little bad about having such a highly accomplished lama explaining the most basic things, like a college professor teaching kindergarten.

the practice of dorje drolö, like many tibetan buddhist practices, includes chanting and visualization. dorje drolö embodies crazy wisdom or wrathful energy, very potent forcers for overcoming negativity. he's surrounded by flames and sparking energy from his whole body as he dances on the back of a fierce tigress, accompanied by the sound of roaring fires and the syllable hung (pronounced more like hoong) resonating through the universe. it would truly awesome to create or experience a clear mental image of dorje drolö. for now I have a drawing to help me out, and of course the empowerment and transmission are critical to understanding and doing the practice.

on sunday morning khenpo tsewang talked about the nature of dharma, how all good qualities like honesty, truth, love, kindness, compassion, tolerance, patience, appreciation and joy reside within us. unfortunately, our fundamental goodness is obscured by habitual patterns and negative emotions. khenpo gave advice on how we can make ourselves strong, how we can resist negativity and practice the dharma, by developing 5 powers or 5 actualizers as taught by the buddha: devotion, joyful effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. guru padmasambhava added 2 more in his teachings: confidence and courage. we finished with the dorje drolö practice: hung! hung! hung!



has been piling up in my virtual blog inbox again. my goal for today is to cross off as many items as possible off the to-write list in my brain. I've been adding content to my nerds, geeks & dorks page --- it used to just be my links page, but the new tracking statistics from sitemeter.com show that I get a surprisingly large number of hits from people searching on "nerds geeks dorks" (I'm currently the 4th item at google). for now I've just moved the links to a sidebar and added a list of (relatively) obscure books for geeks. I'm still working on the design so suggestions are welcome. in the future I'll weigh in on that popular cocktail party topic: "what exactly is the difference between a nerd, a geek and a dork?"

1 year of oh ess ex
last year on thanksgiving I installed OSX jaguar and 27 applications; this year on thanksgiving I cooked and baked rolls and cleaned the house and ate way too much. the day after thanksgiving I installed OSX panther and a new version of alpha tk. I've been very happy with OSX -- it's funny how quaint the OS9 interface looks already. the best features of OSX are its ability to force quit from individual programs, including the finder!, without having to restart, its improved memory management, which means I don't have to specify the amount of memory allocated to each program or wonder if it's really available again after I quit the program, and the ability to navigate horizontally down a file hierarchy in the finder window (column view).

my issues with OSX are it's a little much for my 400mhz G3 to handle, I see lot of the spinning beach ball, and I can't back the whole system up to disk and copy it back, when the system is corrupted the whole thing has to be installed again (this happened to me last new year's day). also, I deeply regret my decision to use the native OSX mail program instead of getting a new version of eudora --- moving messages into mailboxes is awkward and it's constantly re-indexing the mailboxes, which means more spinning beach ball. however, the spam filter is great.

panther is supposed to be snappier than jaguar, especially on older systems like mine. it's a little hard to tell --- the mail program is as slow as ever, and that's where I noticed the delays the most.

my mother still loves me more than your mother loves you
the 2003 advent presents arrived on schedule just before thanksgiving and I started opening them the day after thanksgiving. (the advent season in annland starts 24 days before ann leaves to visit her family at christmas.) so far I've gotten some festive holiday socks, a pair of cow earrings, funky colored gel pens, a cd of chinese folk songs, a pair of cool but hard to describe non-cow earrings, lavender bath gel and underwear, not necessarily in that order, and a tin of homemade cookies that made my housemates swoon. the official "we love ann's mom" fan club is now located at rivendell.

'tis the season to go shopping
the day after thanksgiving is buy nothing day but bill & I blew it --- we bought a spindle of 100 blank cds because bill needed a few more to pass out the data for his final exam. (you can still check out last year's suggestions for buy nothing day.)

when I was in arkansas I bought a couple of new cds at a local record store. the true source of the recording industry's "massive piracy problem" became apparent: cds are hugely overpriced. $18 for a new release, with a few on "sale" for $16 or $15. (yeah, I know, maybe a bit cheaper online, but they were gifts so I needed them right away.)

by way of contrast, consider the extended edition of the two towers that we just bought: $26 for 4, count 'em, 4 dvds in a beautiful package, 2 dvds of completely new material and 2 dvds of a new edition of a movie that hundreds of people worked on. ah, you say, but a big blockbuster movie like that has economies of scale going for it, they can count on earning hundreds of millions in theaters and on merchandising. dvd sales are just one source of income for a movie, but a music company needs to make everything back on record sales alone. over at amazon the beatles white album (2 cds) is selling for $27.99 (and they claim that's a 20% discount!) near as I can tell, the initial production and advertising costs for that album have long since been recovered, yet it still costs a dollar more than a brand new movie.

newsflash for the music industry: lower prices -> higher sales. I believe economists call that "the law of supply and demand." if revenues are not what you think they should be maybe you need to reconsider your pricing strategy. is $18 really the revenue maximizing price for a new cd? is $28 the right price for music that is 3 decades old?

if they cost around $7-$8 I'd be spending 100's of dollars on cds. is that just trash talk? nope. bill & I own over a 1000 cds, most of which we bought used between 1997-2000 when we had just discovered world beat and used cds stores would let you listen before you bought. whenever we travelled to a different city we'd track down a couple of used cd stores and go on binge. I came home with over 30 cds after one trip to nyc. I can name a dozen albums/tapes that I've lost track of over the years and that I'd replace in a flash for $7. but $27.99 for the white album? not a chance. I don't care how badly michael jackson needs the money.

I also despise the r iaa's bully tactics, which I see as a last ditch attempt to maintain the recording industries oligopolistic pricing policies in the face of increased competition. I don't doubt that theatening to sue 12 year olds will decrease the amount of file sharing, but unless those 12 year olds have very generous allowances it's not going to increase record sales.

which brings me back to that spindle of 100 blank cds we bought on buy nothing day. I've used up about half of them already. most of them will be presented to various family members at christmas, a few of them have already been distributed to housemates. if someone walks into my room and likes the music I'm playing my response is "I can get it for you wholesale."

those blank cds cost 33 cents each.


3:47 PM

reinforcements = chocolate

10:37 AM

I can feel my hormones gathering forces, readying for an attack.

help! send reinforcements.

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