You are currently viewing archive for January 2010

31 Jan 2010: Elvie Thomas

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Am I the only person who has noticed just how much Wikipedia sucks? (See: I won't even provide a link.) Wikipedia has no listing on Elvie Thomas and when mentioned on Geeshie Wiley's page it refers to Thomas as a man! Yes, for things that don't much matter, like Sirius Black's family background, Wikipedia is the go-to source. And it is good for a lot of hard science (but not all; there are errors; and you are usually better off going elsewhere—like a book). It is terrible for history and politics; for example, it seems there is no consensus that George Hearst was a villainous bastard (which he most clearly was). For little known artists and thinkers: forget about it.

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
It is surprising that the death of J. D. Salinger should get so much press this week when he died over 45 years ago—on the publication of his last short story in The New Yorker.

Okay; so maybe his heart was still beating and maybe he was continuing to be an asshole to his wife, but as far as I'm concerned, he died that day, and I don't give a fuck if it took another 44 years, 7 months, and 8 days for his heart to stop beating. I don't get it, and for that matter, I don't get the reverence that people show towards him and The Catcher in the Rye. It just isn't that good a book. I think of it like Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Neither are good, but both are held in high regard.

I suppose it has something to do with the fact that both books speak to young people who don't know much about literature. It is like kids who heard Pat Boone singing Ain't That a Shame who thought that it was rock-n-roll until they heard the Fats Domino's original. They just don't know no better. I will grant you that Salinger was an extremely gifted writer and I would much rather read him than I would Kerouac; but Kerouac was the real deal; Salinger was the poser and I think that is why he didn't publish anything after his literary death: he knew if he kept writing, people would realize that his early work was more style than substance and that he would suffer the same fate that later befell Susan Eloise Hinton.

But why not just admit that you are a Truman Capote? Why not admit that you are a fine writer, not a prophet. As it is, Tolstoy left us only two great books (with almost 25 more years and many fewer distractions) because he was too wrapped up in being a Great Man. Both Salinger and Tolstoy will go down in history as great men, while Capote will go down in history as an asshole. But what does that matter? Capote provided me with more pleasure than those other two combined.

So I'm not sad that J. D. stopped breathing yesterday. I am sad that he stopped publishing 45 years ago. I'm sad that I didn't think Catcher in the Rye was a good book when I read it as a young man. And most of all, I'm sad that I'll have to go out tomorrow and buy it (because my copy has inexplicitly disappeared) and read the damned thing again to see if maybe I was wrong about it.

The Onion

The Onion has written more eloquently about J. D. Salinger than I ever could. Understanding that there has been a lot of Salinger fan fiction written will make the following article particularly funny:

New Terminator Movie Brings J.D. Salinger Out Of Hiding

Understanding that Holden Caulfield (the main character of The Catcher in the Rye) calls people "phony" will make the following article particularly funny:

Bunch Of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

24 Jan 2010: Cream of Potato Soup

Category: Socializing
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Cut up potato(es) and a half a stick of butter and add it to a medium-sized sauce pan on a lowish temperature. Stir occasionally as you cut up onion(s), carrot(s) and celery stalks. Saute until the whole mixture is kind of mushy. If it gets too dry, add some olive oil—it adds a subtle taste that is very apealing, but not necessary. I was listening to Bruce Cockburn's The Charity of Night (with Pacing the Cage!)—that clocks in at just over an hour, so that's how long I would cock this. Now you can set this concoction aside and get out your big aluminum stock pot. At this point, take a moment to feel superior to those fools who think that Aluminum cookware is going to cause Alzheimer's Disease.

Boil a bunch of water in your Aluminum stock pot. How much? I don't know: more than a quart. Cut up potato(es) and boil them until they are cooked, but don't let them get mushy; you already have enough mushy potatoes. When you get "there", add all of your cocked vegetables and mix it all together. Now add a fair amount of salt and about half of the pepper that you will eventually want in the soup. And add a bay leaf. Let it cook on low for about the length of Janis Ian's Between the Lines (it is okay to skip At Seventeen or to repeat Watercolors).

During this time, go through your cupboards and refridgerator looking for things that might make this soup more delightful. Pasta is a must. If you use something like angel hair pasta (as I did), make sure you break it into small pieces; this is not some weird Vietnamese soup. Elbow macaroni works well, but requires more cooking. The truth is that everyone has old pasta lying around for years; this is the way to get rid of it. Remove the bay leaf.

The other thing you need to look for is stuff to turn what should be, at this point, a perfectly fine soup into an exquisite cream soup. I had left over sour cream, some box milk, and (because I am who I am) a cup of heavy cream. Cream cheese would work well too. Add whatever cream you can until you feel the need to consult a cardiologist.

Finally, add the rest of your pepper. Enjoy it, but don't eat it all now because it will be even better tomorrow.

24 Jan 2010: Mom's Recipes

Category: Socializing
Posted by: Frank Moraes
My mother was an excellent cook; she had her own restaurant for about a decade. There were several dishes that I wanted her recipes for: Chicken Cacciatore, her chili, and especially her Potato Soup. My attempts to get these recipes always went something like this:

"Can I get your Potato Soup recipe?"

"Oh sure," she would say. "It's really easy."

"Great! Do you have it written down?"

"No," she would say with a small frown. "But's it's really easy."

"Okay," I'd say. Then I'd get my notebook out and wait for the recipe she had memorized.

She would get a far-away look, like she was remembering cooking the soup. "Well, you just boil some water and add chopped up potatoes."

"How much water? How many potatoes?" I would ask.

"Oh, I don't know. Until it looks about right," she answered unhelpfully.

"Okay. I can boil potatoes."

"Then you add the pasta," she said, continuing with the recipe.

"When?" I asked stupidly.

"Oh, I don't know. When the potatoes look about right," she answered unhelpfully.

"Okay," I said. "So I add the pasta. When does the cream go in?"

"Oh! Not until you add the spices," she answered somewhat helpfully.

"What spices?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know. Salt and pepper, of course. And a bay leaf. Maybe some Worcestershire sauce. Or paprika."

"How much?" I would ask, almost giving up.

"Oh, I don't know. Until it tastes about right."

"Do you have approximate amounts?" I asked hopefully.

"Not really. But when that's done, you add the cream," she said.

I knew not to ask how much cream. Why? Oh, I don't know.

20 Jan 2010: Wow!

"Wow! 'Wow' is the word you're looking for!" is a quote from the greatly under-rated film The Brothers Bloom.

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I have read a couple of sources that indicated that Thompson's Real has two extra songs, not one. However, from what I can tell, the original album contained 13 songs and the reissue contains 14 songs. I'm good at math: 14 - 13 = 1. It could be that I am wrong about the original album containing 13 songs; maybe it included only 12. Or maybe they took one song away from the original collection and replaced it with two new songs. I don't know and it doesn't really matter. It is still a fine disc.

20 Jan 2010: Skinny Leg Blues

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
My take on Skinny Leg Blues is that it is a revenge story. The singer has been raped by the man she is singing to and now she is coming to kill him. All the stuff about skinny legs and slowness put forward the idea that her revenge is inevitable: I am coming for you. The second verse lines "I've got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs" seems to indicate virginity—"between a woman's thighs" is a common euphemism for coitus. The rest of the song is self-explanatory. In the end the song means one thing: Don't mess with Geeshie.

Geeshie Wiley was not Dinah Washington: it is not always easy to understand what she is singing. For example, I'm not sure she's saying "keep up these noble thighs". Nevertheless, here is my best effort at transcribing Skinny Leg Blues:

And I'm a little bitty Mama, baby and I ain't built for speed
Crying I'm a little bitty Mama, baby and I ain't built for speed
Oh, and I ain't built for speed
I've got everything that a little bitty Mama needs.

I've got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs [?]
I've got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs
Oh, keep up these noble thighs
I've got something I don't need, just like a bullhorn cry [?!]

And when you see me coming, pull down your window blind
And when you see me coming, pull down your window blind
You see me coming, pull down your window blind
So your next door neighbor, sure can hear you whine

I'm gonna cut your throat baby, gone look down in your face
I'm gonna cut your throat babe, gone look down in your face
Oh, I'll look down in your face
I'm gonna let some lonesome graveyard, be your resting place.

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
After Cher's 1998 hit Believe, I honestly thought I would never again have to hear digital pitch-correction used as an effect. The first time I heard it, I hated it. Every digital engineer had played around with it, but it wasn't something you allowed in public except maybe to scare kids on Halloween. Mark Taylor is responsible—not just for the monstrosity that is this song, but for starting a deeply scarring trend. My brother-in-law (and Emmy Award winning sound engineer for Fox) Lee Walker promises me that the trend is almost dead. I hope he is right, but I have noticed that it still lingers—though more subtly—on singers such as Taylor Swift; this makes me think that Swift can't sing. So now we just have to find "cute" little things, correct their woefully out of tune singing, and claim we are just "producing" their music.

All of this explains, in part, why more and more I gravitate to older music. When a guy stands in front of a mic with just his voice and guitar, you get as close as possible to a real human interaction—a human connection. Recently, I've been listening to a lot of music from the 1920s and 1930s. One artist—Geeshie Wiley (there are MP3 files of three of her songs)—I was introduced to at a free concert that I attended by Eric & Suzy Thompson back on 25 September 2009 at the Sonoma County Library.

In general Suzy sings and plays the fiddle and Eric plays guitar. But they mix it up; they are both multi-instrumentalists. What is more important is that they perform an eclectic mix of music, and I don't mean Death Metal as well as Glam Metal; they do everything from Country (like the Delmore Brothers, not modern Country that seems to be nothing more than pop with a slide guitar and optional affected southern accent); and diverse Blues (Memphis Minnie and Peg Leg Howell who are almost from different planets, much less the same musical genre—Minnie is the one from earth in case you were wondering); and Cajun music (the Thompsons were part of the California Cajun Orchestra with the late Danny Poullard and are now Aux Cajunals).

They were engaging, fun, and musical throughout their 12 song, hour and ten minute set before an audience of a little less than 100. In addition, there were two high points for me. First, Eric Thompson's guitar playing on Memphis Minnie's Nothing In Rambling was magical; if I hadn't been watching him, I would have thought he was playing slide guitar; I'm still trying to figure out just what he was doing. Second, Suzy sang Geeshie Wiley's Skinny Leg Blues—having reworked the lyrics to suit her style. The song is about a wronged woman who is coming to have her revenge. The original is sexual and violent. Wiley sings:

  I'm gonna cut your throat baby, gone look down in your face ...
  I'm gonna let some lonesome graveyard, be your resting place.

Thompson removes the violence and makes it all about sex and maybe domination:

  I'm gonna squeeze you tight baby, until you scream and shout
  Cause this little bitty mama knows what it's all about.

The bottom line is that she killed the song; I loved it.

If you get a chance to see either or both of these fine musicians, don't pass it up. You won't be bothered with electronic effects or stage histrionics—just good music well performed. There are not many better ways to spend an hour or two.

Postscript One: Bluegrass Guitar

In 2000, Eric Thompson reissued his first album Bluegrass Guitar (1979) under the title Thompson's Real. The reissue includes one extra song with David Grisman. It is all instrumental and doesn't include anything that blows me away. However, it is a very enjoyable album; I like to listen to it when I'm cooking dinner.

What is most remarkable about the album is the musicianship—especially of Thompson. As a fairly capable guitarist myself, listening to Thompson reminds me how much I get away with playing Rock. Rock is sloppy and I love it. Bluegrass, on the other hand, is as demanding as classical music. Listening to this album, I often just marvel at the technique. "Wow! 'Wow' is the word you're looking for!" I couldn't say it better myself (so I didn't).

Postscript Two: Dream Shadows

I just got a copy of the Thompson's 2008 album Dream Shadows.


What a wonderful album this is! It is somewhat like the concert I attended. There are a number of the same songs such as Beaver Slide Rag and Lloyd Bateman. And, of course (because Suzy Thompson seems to be as aware as I that she kills the song), Skinny Leg Blues—which she calls Little Bitty Mama. I wish I could provide it for you here, but that would be illegal and unethical and really unfair to these fine performers; but the good news is that you can download the MP3 for just 99 cents—like most songs. The album also includes a beautiful tune by Geshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas: Motherless Child. Suzy's voice really takes to this kind of song. The same goes for Wiley's Last Kind Words.

I have to agree to some extent with Ralph in the comments that their Cajun music was not particularly good live. On this album, it is different. There are two stellar Cajun tunes: Gasport Two-Step and Valse de Vieux Temps. It helps to have a few more musicians; Cajun music is a little hard to do as a duo—not that they don't; live their Cajun music was enjoyable, just not as great as the rest of their stuff.

I'm not going to go into the background of the original artists and songs or even list them any more than I already have. The Thompson's have already done this. Buy this album; it is just $8.99 for the MP3 download of the whole album from Amazon. Now. Really.

Category: Fun
Posted by: Frank Moraes
When I was eighteen years old, I wrote my first song: a "gift" for a friend who was graduating from high school. The chorus of the song was: ďGood-bye graduate / Itís the start of the end.Ē At the time, I thought this was very funny. It had other gems like: ďYouíll get a job and work for Dodge / Then youíll lie to your children.Ē I no longer think the song is funny (well, maybe a little); now I think it is a good sober warning. So, on this, your eighteenth birthday, let me put it plainly: the fun is over.

Yes, it is true: you will go on to do many things that you now think of as fun and which would be fun if you were to have done them before midnight tonight. But these ďfunĒ things are in fact psychological crutches that allow you to continue to exist. The future is bleaker than you can now imagine, but do not worry, it will come into focus very quickly.

Up to this point the world has been nothing but possibilities; you could walk through any door you wanted to an exciting future. This is true, if by "exciting future" you mean a future in which you struggle your whole life to get by and not despair so much that you finally just give up either via long drop and sudden stop or just by refusing to get out of bed. But the moment you walk through that door, you will hear all those other doors slam shut. And you will be looking at... Itís kind of like Letís Make a Deal except there are more doors and a llama is behind every one of them.

Still, there is a lot of room behind that door you chose, and the llama may be sweet and housebroken. But you wonít be able to see what good is in your life, so you will decide (probably unconsciously, like you live the rest of your life) that youíve totally fucked up your life. And so you will have (another subconscious) idea designed to make yourself feel better. You will create a mini-you and put all of your failed hopes and dreams into it. The problem is that this mini-you is just like you. I donít want to spoil the whole trip for you; just leave it at this: you sell the llama to buy Pampers; the llama buys its freedom, and settles down with a much better job, house, wife, and kids than you.

If you are like most people, you will not notice until you are very old that you are merely perpetuating an existence that makes you and everyone else miserable. At that point, you will be too weak to do anything about it. And anyway, on Sundays the old-folks home serves chicken and you kind of look forward to that. Plus, there is that one sexy nurse—and you like looking at her even though you couldnít do anything even if she didnít consider you a pathetic old man and even if you werenít a pathetic old man. So you keep on keeping on, or more correctly, you limp on limping on (in more ways than one). Until you gladly die—though you may not notice this joy because it is so unfamiliar to you.

Or I could be wrong. Actually, other than the fact that I canít get a hot girlfriend and even if I did she would talk too much, Iím pretty happy with my life. The thing about all those doors that slammed shut: the locks can be picked or you can just take a sledgehammer to them. The truth is the doors slamming? The kids destroying you? The displeasure at what the world has and does offer? Itís all you. And that sucks, because there is no one else to blame. Donít say I didnít warn you.

[9:56 pm, 12 January 2010]

13 Jan 2010: Let's Make a Deal

Category: Science
Posted by: Frank Moraes
This evening, I wrote a letter to my nephew on his 18th birthday. I like to torture him, so I wrote:

Up to this point the world has been nothing but possibilities; you could walk through any door you want to an exciting future. This is true, if by ďexciting futureĒ you mean a future in which you struggle your whole life to get by and not despair so much that you finally just give up either via long drop and sudden stop or just by refusing to get out of bed. But the moment you walk through that door, you will hear all those other doors slam shut. And you will be looking at... Itís kind of like Letís Make a Deal except there are more doors and a llama is behind every one of them.

This brought to mind Monty Hall (who is still alive) and the Monty Hall Problem and, unfortunately, Marilyn vos Savant. I say "unfortunately" because I find her annoying. She is exactly the kind of snarky intellectual that I hate. Here is my biggest complaint: she advertises herself as having the highest IQ in the world, but when anyone questions that claim, she responds that the IQ doesn't really mean that much. That's quite true: the IQ is a measure of a certain type of mental functioning; to say it is limited is to be charitable. But vos Savant's whole career is based upon this claim. If it doesn't mean much, why is it listed in everything she writes? All of this should not be taken to mean that I think she is stupid—just a PITA self-promoter.

I am grateful to vos Savant for introducing me to the Monty Hall Problem. Here it is: suppose you are on Let's Make a Deal and there is a new car behind one of the doors and a llama behind each of the other two. You pick door number one. Monty says, "Are you sure you want to pick that door?" And to entice you to change your door, he opens door number three and shows that behind it is a llama. So now you have two doors: one has a car and one has a llama. Should you change to door number two?

This puzzle is counter-intuitive. My first guess (and yours too I bet) is that you shouldn't change doors, or rather that it doesn't matter: there is an equal chance of the car being behind each one of the doors. But this is utterly false. Think about it this way: at the beginning, there is 1/3 chance the car is behind door number one; there is a 2/3 chance that it is behind door number two or door number three. So after door number three is taken out of the equation, there is a 2/3 chance that the car will be behind door number two.

You don't believe me though, do you? That's okay; I wouldn't either. But before you embarrass yourself, you should do what slow thinking Frank did: get out a deck of cards. Take three cards and define one of them as the car. Then run through the process. If you are smart (like vos Savant or even me) you will quickly (like after one or two deals) see it (in the religious sense). If you are not so smart, just do it ten or twenty times and you will see that by switching, you will win the car about 70% of the time. Q-E-fucking-D!

You might wonder why switching has this effect. I'm not as smart as Ms. vos Savant (although I'm more fun at parties), but I think I can help. By showing you one of the llama doors, Monty is adding information to the system. When you stick with your original choice, you are not taking advantage of the new information. There is always a 1/3 chance that the car is behind door number one; but there is a 1/3 chance it is behind door number two at the beginning and a 2/3 chance it is behind door number two at the end.

It is not considered ethical to torture people. This is why they invented probability theory. Luckily, I have my nephew to abuse.

Check out the excellent New York Times article/interview with Monty Hall that will explain it all, including some aspects that I have not talked about.

Andrea sent me a second link, as if I have nothing better to do than sit around watching TV. This one is to the pilot episode of the long-dead BBC sitcom Black Books. As usual, Andrea has rather good taste; the show is very interesting and funny. It tells the story of a group of people who live and work around a small used bookstore in London. Think "Hot l Baltimore" and you get the basic idea. It has some distinctly surreal elements, however; it reminds me of Stella only far more accessible. It is worth looking at. (Plus it is a chance to see Rupert Vansittart in a small role playing a part that is slightly less awful than usual.)

12 Jan 2010: On Watching SNL

I haven't watched Saturday Night Live for at least a decade. But when Andrea told me that last week's episode with Carls Barkley (Season 35, Episode 11) was very funny, I figured that I would waste an hour watching it.

  1. I thought the opening about Yemen was a bit racist, but still very funny.

  2. The insurance company commercial was fun.

  3. Reel Quotes was very funny, but I thought it could have been smarter (which would have made it less funny).

  4. MacGruber I was delicious—a simple idea well executed.

  5. The bimbo skit? What was with that? I get it, and I assume that the character is recurring; but it just doesn't work very well. But then, the joke with such characters is that they are people we laugh at—people we are better than. It rarely works; the only exception I can think of is Julia Sweeney's Pat, which transcended this limitation because the more we saw her, the smarter he got.

  6. MacGruber II was pushing it, but pulled it out in the end.

  7. The NBA game broadcast with the kid? I don't know: sort of funny, I guess.

  8. MacGruber III was good. They took a clever idea and pushed it much too far. The fact that they ended up with silly instead of annoying is an indication of their talent.

  9. Weekend Update was weak, I thought. The James Carvell bit was good; the Nicholas Cage bit seemed more like Keanu Reeves and was pretty stupid; the David Paterson bit was kind of funny and the guy does him well, but it struck me as kind of cruel.

  10. The Haney Project was fun, mostly just because Barkley was so good natured about his reputation.

  11. The Alicia Keys bit really didn't work for me. It is a funny idea, but I'm not sure how it could be made to work. It did one thing that few SNL skits ever do: it had a good ending. I tend to think that the problem is not with the writing; it is either the acting or me.

  12. The Scared Straight skit was amusing. I guess the actors were a bit punchy by that time, because most of them lost it at one time or another. It bugs me a little bit that both the guys were black; if Will Ferrell were in the cast, I'm sure he would have been part of it--it's his style; and that would have made it a little less offensive.

  13. Barkley's Bank was very weak. Again, it is nice that Barkley is okay with his rep, but the skit didn't do much; and given the potential, that's a shame. They will usually throw weak stuff to the end on the assumption that fewer people will be watching and that they may not have time for it anyway. I had hoped for a MacGruber IV, but I was disappointed.

Overall, the show was much better than I would have thought. But I will probably go another decade before I tune in again.

11 Jan 2010: Living the Anti-Life

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I get great pleasure from accumulating information. This is just because I want to become a better person. I see myself as a great work of anti-art: I will try to become my ideal until I die, and then it will be for nothing more than the joy I had while doing it. Senseless beauty and random acts of kindness, my ass!

11 Jan 2010: Not the Bible

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
It was not the Bible that I was reading: it was Gary Taylor's exquisitely fun Reinventing Shakespeare. I will be writing about it soon; I had to re-supply my stock of book darts because of this book. (I don't get any money for that link; I just think that book darts are one of the greatest inventions ever.)

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
When I was in Mexico recently a few people asked me if I was a padre—"a priest" one helpful questioner translated for me. I like the idea of people thinking that I'm a man of the Word. Yes, it is true that my spiritual beliefs are what people charitably called atheistic. Yes, I am a hopeless moral relativist. Yes indeed, when my friends speak kindly of me, they say, "But he's our nihilist." All these things are true, but I have one thing that qualifies me to be a prophet: I am a man of the word—and most people don't pay enough attention to notice issues of capitalization.

I believe people thought that I was a priest for three reasons. First, I am a gringo and I saw no other in my time down in the southern part of Mexico. Why would a sober white man be slumming it as I was? Second, I wear almost exclusively black. They seemed to associate that more with the clergy than with the Beat Generation. And third, I was studying a big, hard-cover book. They thought it might be a bible.

In these post-modern times, it does seem to be the case that adults do not read books. Those who do usually read relatively thin, paperback books. Large, hardback books are not read; they are studied. And in general, that is the case. There is usually a reason I am reading any given book—it isn't just for pleasure.

For example, let's look at today's loot:

The Chicago Manual of Style 15th Edition This is definitely not light reading, but it is highly pleasurable—because I'm weird that way. I plan to wax poetic about it in my next blog entry.

The Works of Rabelais I am working on an article about anal cleansing, so of course I have to read Gargantua and Pantagruel. You do see that, don't you?

Don Quixote (translated by Edith Grossman) and Don Quixote (translated by Charles Jarvis [sic]) In addition to these two translations, I have ordered four more. This all has something to do with something that ends in my reading Don Quixote in Spanish. That is to say that there will be more than one article involving this reading.

There is (more than?) an element of religious zealotry about all of this. I do want to bring the Word of Cervantes (indirectly via his translators) to the masses—or some subset. People ought to be warned, and if they mistake me for a man of the Word rather than a man of the word, that's probably good enough.

More Don Quixote

Want to know more about Don Quixote and other 16th and 17th century literature? Check out my Don Quixote Page!

06 Jan 2010: Cream of Tomato Soup

Category: Socializing
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I have been looking for the perfect cream of tomato recipe for about ten years. I think I may be close with this one. Originally, the recipe was from Cooks Dot Com, but I have made some major improvements to it. Here is the base recipe:


Two (2) tbs butter
One and a half (1.5) c chopped onion
One (1) tsp minced garlic
One-half (0.5) tsp salt
One (1) tsp minced fresh rosemary
Two (2) tsp minced fresh basil
One (1) tsp freshly ground black pepper
Two (2) 15 oz cans of peeled, diced tomatoes
Three (3) tbsp dry sherry
One-quarter (0.25) tsp agave (or honey)
Four (4) oz cream cheese
Heavy cream
Fresh parsley


Pour the tomatoes in a large sauce pan and simmer on low. Stir occasionally. They are usually done by the time you prepare the onions, but I am a slow cook. It is better to over-cook the tomatoes, so start them early if you are an efficient cook.

Mince the rosemary. Or better: get out of the mortar and pestle. You do not want big chunks of rosemary in your soup; and the blending will not chop up these fine particles. Mince the basil; or not; it doesn't so much matter with the basil.

Saute the onions and garlic in butter—at a lower temperature than you would normally cook when using (say) olive oil; the temperature should be low enough that you don't have to worry about the butter turning brown or the garlic becoming the consistancy of bac-o-bits; I use medium-low to medium. When the onions start to get wilted, add the salt, mix, and continue cooking until the onions are transparent.

Add the rosemary, basil, and pepper to the onions and saute for five more minutes; or until the tomatoes are done.

Pour the contents of the onion pan into the tomato sauce pan. Mix the contents. Turn up the heat to medium-low. Cover the pan and simmer for about ten (10) minutes. Uncover and add the sherry and agave. Mix and test the soup. If it seems way off, add more agave, but don't push it. Simmer another half-hour.

Cut the cream cheese into small pieces and add them to the soup, one by one. Make sure that the cheese is fully melted before moving on to the next one.

Transfer the soup into a blender in parts. Never fill the blender more than half-way, because the soup is hot and will likely expand when blended. Blend to a fairly fine consistancy, but don't destroy it. Empty into a serving bowl.

Serve with heavy cream (to taste—a lot in my case) and top with parsley.

This may sound more complex than it is. I have put more instructions than most cooks would need. Basically, you just cook the stuff, throw it in a blender, and there you are: soup. And it is very good.

Rather than canned tomatoes, it can be made with over-ripe tomatoes you probably have around at the end of the summer. I wouldn't recommend the kind of fresh tomatoes you find in the store most of the year. And it really isn't worth paying for hothouse tomatoes.

Let me know if you try it.

04 Jan 2010: Making Money from Art

Category: Art
Posted by: Frank Moraes
The top Classical Realist painters seem to sell large canvas oils for upwards of a couple hundred thousand dollars. So the money isn't bad, if you are very good—which you must be to create even workman-like paintings in this sub-field.

Category: Art
Posted by: Frank Moraes
The Twilight of Painting is a reactionary book about how everything is going to hell these days. It was first published in 1945. And it was written by the great artist R. H. Ives Gammell. In fact, the book is not about how everything is going to hell—just painting. You see, Gammell started painting during the pre-WWII era and he found that his work was totally outside the Modernist main-stream of the time. He was firmly rooted in the Academic Art of people like William Bouguereau—another artist I admire.

I first discovered Gammell and the art movement he started—American Classical Realism—at the Maryhill Museum of Art. They have a small room with perhaps twelve paintings. I spent over an hour in that room. It was amazing. The exhibit did not just include him; it included his disciples—in particular, Richard Lack.

More recent artists in this movement are pursuing some interesting paths. Take, for example, Jacob Collins:


Or Michael Grimaldi:


Or Graydon Parrish:


This is amazing, beautiful work.

Gammell always thought that Realism in painting would come back. And it has. But not at the expense of abstract work. The worldwide environment for art has changed in the post-modern era. Since any notion of absolute reality becomes more and more distant, and frankly, intellectually childish, so does the dominance of any one school of art. This means fewer artists become rich, but many more can make a living. That alone is welcome progress. However, even more welcome is the wondrous diversity of the art world; we are all enriched.

03 Jan 2010: Illusory Superiority

Category: Science
Posted by: Frank Moraes
This is actually a field within Social Psychology. In general, I am trying to avoid it these days, but the Wikipedia article on Illusory Superiority is really good. The most interesting thing I learned from the article is that people find any member of a group to be above the median of the group itself. Also: people rate themselves less better compared to specific individuals than to the abstract "average". I think this has something to do with how we find it easier to empathize with a single individual than with a group—even a group of two. (Sorry that I don't have a reference for this; I heard it on On The Media last week.)

Worse Than Average Effect

There is another effect—the opposite of Illusory Superiority: The Worse Than Average Effect. This is the tendency for people to under-estimate their chances of doing something that they think they have a very low chance of doing. For example, people tend to underestimate how likely they are to find a $20 bill on the ground during the next two weeks.

After writing this article (when I had read about the WTA effect, but did not write about it), I thought, "Yeah, right; that's not going to happen to me." It had happened: four years earlier, but I expected it to never happen again. While writing, I estimated my chances of finding a twenty in the next two weeks at about one-half of one percent. That meant that I should find a $20 bill on the ground every four years, so if my estimate was right, I was due.

It turned out that nine days later, I found a $20 bill on the ground. Freaky cool.

Category: Science
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Actually, 93% of a sample of American drivers rated their skill in the top 50%. This is from a 1981 paper "Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?" by O. Svenson in Acta Psychologica.

03 Jan 2010: 80% of All Statistics

Category: Science
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Many years ago, I was introduced to the snarky statistic that 80% of drivers believe they are above average. This annoyed me from the start. Initially, I thought it was just another useless statistic; its snarky meaning had to be explained to me, "You see—idiot—only 50% of drivers can be above average; so at least 30% of the people are fooling themselves!"

The statistic has the feel of an urban legend. It seems reasonable—but then such stories always do. In fact, it appeals to my prejudice (very common among the kind of people who would pass on such information) that people over-estimate their own skills and under-value those of others. Just like an urban legend. And, of course, there is no real reference, and one has to wonder who would pay to find out how many people think their driving is better than it really is. (It turns out that a number of people would; see the caveat at the end.)

The biggest problem is that the snarky aspect of this "fact" is incorrect. It is quite possible for 80% of a population to be above the average (mean). Just imagine if driver quality were rated on a scale of 0 to 100. Further, imagine that there were ten drivers with the following ratings: 0, 100, 100, 100, 100, 100, 100, 100, 100, 100. Clearly, the average would be less than 100 and so 90% of the population would be "above average". (I'm slow, not stupid.) This is hardly a normal distribution, however. And you would think that driver ability would be a normal distribution, or something like it. (But maybe not; my father thinks that the road is filled with "idiots" and him.)

At this point, the worst case scenario is that someone comes forward with an actual study that shows, more precisely: 80% of drivers believe they drive better than the median. On its face, this cannot be factually true: 50% of a population must be above the median and 50% must be below; this is the definition of "median". However, this too is a ridiculous claim and leads me to the whole point of this article.

What does it mean to be a good driver? We must know this before we can know if one driver is better than another. For one person, a good driver might be one who can control his car at high speeds. For another, it may be one who always drives the speed limit. Given that most people are rather good at the kind of driving they value—and thus practice regularly—it is surprising to me that only 80% consider themselves "above average". [caveat]

People are foolish. And at least in political matters, people tend to under-estimate others. For example, Americans consistantly over-estimate how racist their neighbors are: almost always rating them as more racist than they rate themselves. But this is exactly the appeal of this little statistic: "I am not one of those silly people who think that their driving is better than it really is." My driving, however, definitely is above average.

[Caveat: Illusory Superiority]

03 Jan 2010: Asphalt as Metaphor

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Yes, I know. But I like the asphalt metaphor; what can I say?

03 Jan 2010: Justice as Commerce

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
One could say that the justice system in the USA where prosecutors have most of the power and a career/financial interest in convicting the guilty and innocent is nothing but commerce. I will need to think another couple of decades on this issue.

03 Jan 2010: Non-Reversible Errors

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I have long felt that Scott Turow taught me how to write a novel. In particular, I experienced an epiphany while reading his third novel Pleading Guity. It was probably just that it was the third novel of his that I had read, and that I had figured out his tricks. Although I have previously thought that Turow is a character-oriented writer, he is in fact a plot-oriented writer—clever and capable in his way. Regardless, he did not teach me everything I needed to know about writing a novel—it took me seven years and many aborted attempts to complete my first, deeply flawed and largely lost novel Camping on Asphalt. But I can say this for sure: Turow showed me how to trick the reader. And I am strip-mining that territory in my current work on Treading Asphalt. [Note]

I just read Turow's sixth novel Reversible Errors. Here's my review: it's a Scott Turow novel. Other than that, I don't want to go into all the reasons that this is an entirely workman-like effort, fiction by the numbers—the same numbers we have seen in his previous five novels. If you like his books, you will probably like this one. It annoyed me for a couple of reasons, but the main reason was its treatment of the romantic subplot. (Don't worry, there are no real spoilers here, even though I talk about events at the beginning and end of the novel.)

The main character, Arthur, becomes involved with a woman who used to be a judge, but is no longer because she was convicted of taking bribes. This is pretty bad, because judges are supposed to come to just decisions and when justice becomes a bidding war, it becomes simple commerce. [Note] Arthur does not seem to have a problem with this, perhaps just because he has the hots for her. Fine. One nice thing about Turow is that he has always been willing to show that people over thirty have sex drives (often more explicitly than I would prefer in such a novel).

We know from the beginning, however, that the judge was really being bribed because some people in power knew that she was a heroin addict. When Arthur finds this out he does what pretty much all Americans do when they hear the word heroin: freak out. Thomas Metzger has written wonderfully on the history of perceptions of heroin from its invention to the present in The Birth of Heroin. As Metzger points out, the modern perception of heroin is as a dirty, evil "other". And this is precisely why people like Turow approach it as though it were the worst thing in the world.

Arthur can deal with the judge committing felonies that have a direct effect on her job. But he can't deal with her drug choices. A corrupt, drunk judge: yes. A junkie judge: no. The novel ends with the judge begging for Arthur's forgiveness. Arthur gives it. But what Arthur really needs is a clue. As does Turow.

02 Jan 2010: Snarky

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I am of two thoughts about the word "snarky", and apparently everyone else is too. First, it seems like it used to mean testy. Second, it seems like it is now mostly used to mean sarcastically pithy. states that it is, "Testy or irritable; short." And the Urban Dictionary says that it is, "A witty mannerism, personality, or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism. Usually accepted as a complimentary term."

Personally, I would not use the word "snarky" to describe something I approved of—at least publicly. I might use it to indicate a bit of hidden delight, however.

To be continued...

Are you lucky you tuned in today! Probably not, but as usual: you should be. I have found a great short lecture (Okay! It's 58 minutes, but the time flies.) by David Timson:

David Timson Speak the Speech

If you know who Timson is you are doing better than I am. He is certainly a guy who reads books on tape (or CD now). He has done a lot of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holms. He also seems to have done some film acting; and lots of radio broadcasts. As you will see—if you take the time to listen to the lecture, and you should—he has a great voice.

In this lecture, Timson discusses the changing style of Shakespearean performance since the invention of audio recording. Unfortunately, he is not terribly insightful, but this may be because he feels his wonderful examples speak for themselves. And largely they do. He plays very early recordings of Edwin "Am I My Brother's Keeper" Booth (the unfortunate brother of John "Et tu, Brute?" Wilkes)—check out this great John Singer Sargent painting on him, Sir Henry "Big Hank" Irving (just kidding about the "Big Hank" moniker), and Lewis "Sugar Ray" Waller (not kidding about the "Sugar Ray"; no, just kidding; I was).

I have been fascinated with Edwin Booth for a long time, because I wonder what it would be like to be the brother of a famous murderer (I used to live with Melvin Simpson). But I have never heard his voice. In fact, since he died in 1893, I didn't even think there was a recording. Not surprising, he has an excellent voice (so does Melvin). He actually sounds a bit like Orson Welles (so does Melvin; no, just kidding). If that doesn't get you to listen, little will.

The lecture moves up to the present from Sir John Gielgud to Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh (who really is amazing).

The point of the lecture is that Shakespearean acting has moved from a highly musical or operatic style to a more conversational and (to our ears) natural one. We could extrapolate backwards and conclude that acting during the Elizabethan period would be unintelligible to us. This is not unreasonable (but I don't know how reasonable it is, and that's why I put it that way). According to the iconoclastic Shakespearean scholar Gary Taylor, the sounds of the words themselves have changed so much that we would likely get little meaning from them. In effect, Shakespeare—written in (more or less) modern English—has to be translated for modern readers every bit as much as Aristophanes—written in (more or less) ancient Greek.