Monday, March 16, 2009

Social networks and email

The SXSW people have learned this week that social networks are the new email.

The linked article doesn't say a whole lot, but as far as I can tell, I agree with the thesis. My sense is that it relates to the much larger problem that lots of jobs now involve an unmanageable flow of email and unrealistic expectations for responding to all of it. This problem is already at the center of writing about efficiency: David Allen's Getting Things Done and its many spinoffs, for example. But the deeper issue involves adapting asynchronous communication, which offers chronological flexibility at the price of obligation, to keep the connectivity of the digital world while removing the guilt.

That is, the fantastic thing about Facebook status updates, when used well, is that they give the reader a real sense of connection to the writer, but the expectation of reply becomes a more clearly voluntary option. It is like the shift in land mail from having the recipient pay postage to having the sender pay--but with obvious increases in the dispersal of information. I suspect that social networking is one early answer to the problem of using email too much and too broadly.

Friday, January 30, 2009

I wonder whether it's a really bad idea

to let my students in on the fact that I read this blog

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The most interesting contest I've seen in a while

It speaks for itself:

Contest to Create Robert Burns Memorial on Second Life

The Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University is holding a contest to create a memorial to Scotland's Bard that is suitable for a twenty-first century globalized world and that can be reproduced on Second Life. Statues, busts and portraits often represent Burns as a nostalgic relic of the nineteenth century. We are looking for a more contemporary image to convey the fact that Burns's messages regarding respect for nature, universal brotherhood (and, by extension, sisterhood) and the uplifting power of the human spirit have never been more relevant. The deadline for entry is April 1, 2009. The winning design will be awarded $300 (Canadian) and will appear in Second Life on SFU's island during Tartan Week (April 6-10). For more details or to submit an entry (preferably in digital format), contact: Leith Davis (

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Roland Burris fair tent

When considering the question of why Roland Burris would let himself get caught up in multiple tawdrinesses with no apparent objective other than to become Former Senator Roland Burris, you might consider this sequence from David Foster Wallace's brilliant 1992 account of the Illinois State Fair.

Between two minor corporate tents is the serendipitous snout of the "Sertoma Mobile Hearing Test" trailer, inside which a woman with a receding hairline scores me overdecibeled but aurally hale. Fifteen whole minutes both in- and outside the huge STATE COMPTROLLER ROLAND BURRIS tent fails to uncover the tent's function. Next door, though, is a bus on display from the city of Peoria's All-Ethanol Bus Sustem; it is painted to resemble a huge ear of corn.

I think you see what I'm driving at.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Viridian Kitchen

I'm going to combine two things I've been thinking about lately: Bruce Sterling's Last Viridian Note (a twenty-first century version of William Morris's "The Beauty of Life") and a discussion among recent college grads of the best tools for setting up a new kitchen.

Update: I have in mind here setting up the post-school adult kitchen. See Sam's comment on this post for a great little take on the ultraminimal student version.

My goal here is to help myself and others reduce crapware. Since I moved out of my parents' house, I've bought a fair amount of stuff for my kitchen. Most of it has been thrown away, given away, or (worst of all) stored away. However, I've also come upon some items that I use all the time, that give me pleasure, and that offer great value--either because they are inexpensive or because they are so useful. If I got to start over, here are a few things I would get to set up a new kitchen.

Pots and Pans

I use a fair number of pots and pans, but I could manage almost everything I want to cook with three basic ones: a pot for pasta, soups, and such; a pan for sauces and small jobs; and a big pan for frying and sautéeing.

For the smaller pan, I would look to the Calphalon line. The key to shopping Calphalon is to know that they always have a few items available at huge discounts; they want to hook you into loving the brand so you buy the other stuff. For instance, you can get the Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick 10-Inch & 12-Inch Omelet Combo Pack for fifty dollars. This is the best Calphalon nonstick line--these would be great egg pans and small sauté pans. You won't be able to find a price much lower for one pan, so if you want only one, you can get this combo and give one away.

I have two big stovetop pans, one terrific one from Calphalon that's on the expensive side and an even bigger one that I'll recommend here as a great value: the Bialetti covered deep sauté pan. This holds a lot of food and never sticks. Its lid and handles are great.

For the big pot, I would choose the Lodge enameled cast-iron 6-Quart dutch oven. This pot looks great, is extremely sturdy, and holds enough liquid to make a good-sized batch of chili or soup. I have recently made two batches of the same soup, one in a cheaper aluminum pot and one in this: it was amazing how much the Lodge pot resisted burning and overcooking. The pot is a little heavy for simply boiling pasta water, but it's manageable, and you can always keep a cheap water-boiler pot around if you want one.

Cutting Boards and Knives

You don't need many knives, just great ones, and Cook's Illustrated uncovered the incredible value of the Victorinox Forschner line, with supersharp blades and comfortable (if slightly cheesy looking) synthetic handles. See the 8-inch chef's Knife and 10-1/4-inch curved blade bread knife. I have the bread knife and covet the chef's.

I admit to a special affection for the Epicurian Cutting Surfaces line of cutting boards because they used to have a pleasant ECS logo, which for me doubled as a personalized monogram. Even without that advantage, you won't believe how great these suckers are. I would not have thought any cutting board could be worth a premium price, but I got a small one as a gift, and now I want to get two bigger ones (or even bigger)--one for meat, one not--and throw away all my others.

Cooking Utensils

I got two high-quality silicon spoon-style spatulas as a gift, and I find that I use them all the time. They have become my main in-the-pan stirring utensils as well as the only spatulas I bother with. I don't know that the brand matters much here, as long as you get good, sturdy ones and not any old silicon spatula: these Rubbermaid ones look great. I know fifteen dollars seems insane for a spatula, but now that I've used these things, I think they're well worth it--really good ones make a lot of other utensils obsolete.

Contrarily, as long as you don't use metal utensils on nonstick surfaces, I think you can get away with pretty cheap nylon cooking spoons, ladles, and such. We have cheap ones and expensive ones: the expensive ones look nicer and match (they were a wedding present), but I don't notice any difference in functionality.

Electronic Gadgets

You know about food processors and coffeemakers and such, probably, but you may not have thought about getting a good immersion blender (a.k.a. stick blender or hand blender). This fellow is a lifesaver in soupmaking: instead of taking soup out of the pot, processing it, and putting it back in, you just blend it right on the stove. You can also use these for smoothies, milkshakes, and stuff; they are vastly easier to use and clean than regular blenders, and they take up almost no space.

Specialty Prep Tools

This Zyliss garlic press has transformed my garlic life: it makes using fresh garlic genuinely easy. And anything that encourages you to eat things that involve fresh garlic is worth cherishing.

Finally, though it's easily the lowest priority item on this list, I must mention this apple peeler, corer, and slicer. It claims to work for potatoes as well--I don't buy that--but if you're the type to make big-batch apple recipes, you gotta see this thing work. For me, it made apple-picking (and therefore apple cooking) worth the effort.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Joe Lieberman: Why does 60 in the caucus matter?

The question in this post's subject might sound dumb: 60 is the key number in the discussion of how Democrats are trying to keep Joe Lieberman in the Democratic caucus of the Senate while still spanking him for campaigning against Barack Obama and other Democrats. Virtually all the discussion I've seen takes the importance of reaching 60 members of the Democratic caucus for granted because 60 is the number of votes you need to achieve cloture and thereby break a filibuster.

But isn't there a serious logical break in that last sentence? To break a Republican filibuster, the Democrats don't need 60 members of their caucus. They need 60 votes.

The important numbers for membership in the caucus are 50 and 51. If you get fifty people in your treehouse, even if the other party controls the White House, you get enough leverage to share the power to organize committees and whatnot. If you get 51 people in your clubhouse, you get to control committees and office space and all that stuff--no matter how your caucus votes on any given bill.

But 60 isn't like that. At the cloture threshold, only votes matter. Lieberman has already shown that he'll vote with Republicans on important bills, so keeping him in the caucus hardly guarantees a 60-vote bloc. Therefore, the nature of Lieberman's leverage with the Democrats must lie in an implied threat to vote one way as a member of their caucus and another way if outside it. In other words, Lieberman's position must lie on a threat to change his votes for reasons other than conscience.

I realize that Senators sometimes vote for reasons other than the dictates of their most disinterested consciences. That said, we're giving Lieberman a free pass by describing his leverage as involving caucus numbers rather than voting.

Unless I'm wrong, and having 60 members of a caucus does confer procedural advantages to the lucky party that achieves it, regardless of votes on individual bills. If that's the case, I would love to hear the details from better-informed readers.