Monday, March 28, 2005

The Zorg on the move

Zorg has moved his blog from Blogspot to Typepad, where he has chosen a very attractive template. Check it out.

NOTE: This is only a test move. Continue to follow Zorg's musings here.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Peep! Peep! Peep!

Spring traditions at the Shady Rest West:

1. The neon-red tulips I try every year to eradicate from the bed of pale-pink tulips reappear.

2. Sunny weekdays inspire thoughts of weekend gardening projects; weekends are relentlessly wet and miserable.

3. A Bartell's bag filled with boxes of original (yellow chicks) Peeps turns up mysteriously on the front porch the week before Easter.

Friday, March 25, 2005

New York, New York

Zorg's back from New York; my turn in mid-April. Hoping to contribute to Overheard in New York while I'm there.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

While the cat's away

All the cats are here, but Zorg's on a business trip. That means it's time for me to invoke the family tradition of eating things the absent spouse dislikes.

At least, that's my family tradition. My father was an ergonomics engineer for the early manned space flights, and was often out of town for research meetings. When he traveled, my mother served cheese omelettes or grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner (these did not qualify as "dinner" in my dad's view). Or she took me out for dinner at the S&W cafeteria at Seven Corners (cafeterias were also "not dinner" for my dad, who thus missed out on the S&W's delicious spoonbread--sort of a grits souffle). On the very infrequent occasions when my mother was out of town, my dad took me to Chicken in a Basket or Shakey's pizza in Annandale. (Spoonbread? Chicken in a Basket? Yeah, in the 1960s Northern Virginia was still The South.)

So what's on the menu at the Shady Rest West in Zorg's absence? Tonight it was pork chops (I keep a stash of them in the freezer) pan broiled in white wine with flame raisins, apples, and minced shallots. The apples were less than exciting, but the reduced sauce was good.

Tomorrow night I'm going out to Dragonfish downtown. (Weeknight dinners downtown are not Zorg's thing.) I ate there a few weeks ago with friends before a silent movie at the Paramount, and am going back to try it again. It's contemporary Pan Asian cuisine, but it's the only Seattle restaurant I know that manages that old-fashioned atmosphere of a downtown neighborhood nightspot: friendly, elegant and intimate. Lots of people dining alone but in a relaxed way, with a cocktail and a book, and a few boths with small parties getting together after work. Utterly unhurried, with engaging waitstaff. Food's good, sake is great.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Rain, rain, rain

Pouring rain in Cupertino all day. I got up at 4:30 a.m. to fly down for a day of this?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

On deadline

One of the aspects of blogging I enjoy is the lack of deadlines. I write when the inspiration strikes, and to the length I choose.

This is particularly delightful for me because for 25 years I've made my living as a writer-for-hire, cranking out what one of my former employers called "wordage" on deadline and often to strict word counts.

Next month is the 25th reunion of my graduate journalism program. It'll be the first college or grad school reunion I've ever attended. Wouldn't you know they sent out a biography form, complete with deadline? Your professional life, in 325 words or less.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The lighter side of...

Contemplating your list of home improvement projects with dread? Now there's help:

Check out this page of Seattle-area home services ads. It may not improve your home, but it will improve your attitude.
The page is part of a parody of a tired Seattle alternative paper, The Seattle Weekly. And it's all part of a website satirizing the flaccid Seattle "alternative" journalism scene and the post-grunge, community, in general.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Eureka! experiences

Some of my local and digital friends are on a roll! You might get a hit of energy and inspiration from one of these:

tech innovator J LeRoy on Recent Communication

photographer Doug Plummer on Brutal Reality, 2


Google pays tribute to Mac OS X with a new Google search landing page that looks like the Mac OS X Dock. Under it: "Roses are red. Violets are blue. OS X rocks. Homage to you."

[NOTE 2:49 p.m. PST: Hmmm. That glimpse into Google Labs was short lived. They took it down!]

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I hate (name of company).com

...check out this great Forbes article about the best websites devoted to reviling particular major corporations ("the creme de la creme of online rage") and what the corporations they target think about them. Not surprisingly, anti-Walmart and anti-Microsoft sites made Forbes' top nine. But so did sites devoted to a couple of my favorite companies, UPS and PayPal (I luv PayPal). Also surprising: only one airline (United) appears on the hit list. I'd be happy to nominate at least three more denizens of the unfriendly skies.

Of course, Forbes chose its top hate sites based on things like ease of use, updates, number of posts, hostility level, relevance and entertainment value--not based on the actual odiousness of the target company.

I've never joined the squawking at one of these sites, preferring to leave any scathing comments at Epinions. How about you?

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Grim day in the garden

No, I didn't drop a rock on my foot, throw my back out planting a shrub, or come in contact with an itchy ground cover. It's not the usual.

It's the garden itself. It's thirsty.

Here it is, mid March, and plants are blooming a month early. And they are shriveling up just a few days later, as if it were mid-July. The sky is bright blue, the sun is hot, and for some reason the wind is powerful enough that a gust can blow a cup of tea right off the patio table. The garden beds are as dry as dust--not just on the surface, but six inches down. The tulips that bloomed Monday are already wilting. The governor has announced a drought emergency.

Fortunately, our garden is a fairly mature one, and there are no plans for any major plantings this year, just some weeding and re-arranging. Two out of the past three years I've used rubber soaker hoses on most of the garden beds, and this year I'm going to deploy them on all of the beds with snap-on hose connectors so I can easily bring the main hose to each soaker section. I'm vowing to stick to a schedule of once-a-week deep watering, and get plenty of chicken grit and compost to correct the two beds that currently have poor drainage. One of my neighbors suggested getting a rainbarrel, so I'll likely go up to my favorite nursery, Sky in Shoreline, and pick up a good one.

That, of course, assumes that at some point we'll actually get rain.

Today I watered--watered in March!--using the new 75' coiled garden hose purchased at the garden show last month. Though slim, it moves plenty of water for the "shower" setting that works well on garden beds. It's lightweight, so I don't feel as though I'm dragging a dead python around the garden. But the coils cause it to tangle something fierce on anything uneven it its path (a gatepost, a plant, or the hose guides I use to prevent hoses from squashing plants). And when the hose crosses itself, and the coils get tangled in the coils--it's downright miserable. Finally, you can't loop it up on a hose holder to store it. I'm not sure how you store it--perhaps on a pole? At the moment, it's on our garden pathway where I dumped it after I finished watering. I'll figure out a storage solution tomorrow. I hope I don't have to buy the coiled hose hammock I just Googled.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

This site will give you pause

See where you stand on the Global Rich List. (Thanks to Crawford Kilian for pointing out this site.)

Search me...

The Blogger software provided for Blogspot-hosted blogs is basic and serviceable. I chose it because I liked the wide range of subtle templates they offer.

Blogger allows you to dress up your blog with all the trendy extras. You can alter templates, code completely original templates, and add RSS feeds, Atom feeds, Blogrolling lists, HaloScan commenting and trackback, favicons, and Technorati tags and searches. When I say Blogger "allows" these additions, I mean just that. You won't get any built-in code, or any handholding, but installation of these features from other sites turns out to be pretty much intuitive and the Blogger templates are very forgiving.

I don't pretend to understand all this stuff, but if a feature sounds like it might be useful, I get the code from one of the third party sites listed above, paste it into my blog template, and preview the results. If it doesn't look too hideous, I republish the blog with the new feature and try it out for a while. Features I'm testing (such as blogrolling) often appear at the bottom of the sidebar.

This week I cleaned up the sidebar a bit (fixing formatting, and condensing the archives from a long list of weekly archives to a shorter list of monthly archives) and added a search feature provided by Technorati that lets you search the Mysterious Traveler archives by keyword.

Recently a friend sent email to ask about a car repair service I'd mentioned in my blog--he couldn't find the entry. With the new search feature, a search on the word "car" will take you to the entry about the car repair place--or at least to the entry about how I trashed their loaner car in an accident. Turns out in this case the best keyword to search on is "Honda."

Friday, March 11, 2005

Here, kitty, kitty--oops!

Late last night, on my way up to bed, I decided to try to lure our elderly cat, Betaille, inside for the night. She prefers to sleep in a heated fleece-lined box in a sheltered alcove outside the basement, but I worry about her outside, particularly because of the recent raccoon visits. It's sometimes possible to lure her in with the promise of a midnight snack.

I turned on the back porch light, and she appeared at the foot of the back stairs. I opened the door, she ran halfway up the stairs and then I realized it was the raccoon, and he was headed right for the kitchen.

I hurriedly closed the door and he halted, looking slightly offended, midway up the stairs, and stood upright. This is one big, well-fed raccoon. He didn't seem to mind the bright light, either.

The back door is all glass, so we just stood there in full view of each other for a couple minutes. I opened the door a crack. He didn't move.

"Go away!" I hissed. He swiveled around slowly, dropped to all fours, and tiptoed down the stairs and off into the night.

The new guaranteed-against-raccoons cat door arrived in the mail this week, and we will be installing it this weekend.

Feed me!

And you thought your cats were pushy about food.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Yak Shaving

A useful new term for an annoying and familiar scenario. Explanation by blogger Seth Godin.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Nightmares and train wrecks

I spent Saturday with an old friend whose life has turned into one long, slow-motion train wreck. Nothing tragic has befallen him—no life-threatening illness, no loss of a loved one, no great artistic failure—but he suffers from a cognitive handicap that isn't commonly recognized as a disability: He has absolutely no common sense.

Unless a person like this lives with a family that protects him, he has no way to survive in modern society. Money vanishes (he's squandered two modest inheritances). Friends get tired of bailing him out of the same problems, over and over, and drift away. He falls victim to every "success" scheme on the planet. And he sets his goals so unrealistically that, even if he achieves them, he either decides he doesn't like what he's got or he panics--and throws it all away.

My friend is in his 50s, in poor health, unemployed, and in danger of becoming homeless. The modest talents that sustained him through his 20s and 30s were never disciplined into any actual professional skills, so he's pretty much unemployable. The lack of common sense means that he can't follow even the simplest directions from an employer--whatever they tell him to do, he wastes hours inventing a new, wholly original, approach to the task. Reactions to this range from amusement to puzzlement to rage, but, eventually, they fire him. His resume has long since gone from suspicious to unthinkable. The menial jobs he could get are, of course, the ones he's most likely to be fired from because his behavior--that of a very eccentric professor of some arcane, left-wing social science--is so inappropriate.

It's trying to be around this guy in any circumstances, but on Saturday it was particularly soul shriveling. He was having a garage sale preparatory to moving far away for a job he has not yet gotten but believes he will shortly get.

He'd asked me to come by the night before to help him price large items of furniture. Once I get in the vicinity of the train wreck, I can't help it: I start pleading with him to put on the brakes and I trying moving everything of value to the back of the train.

The furniture was ghastly, for the most part, ranging from shiny 60's suburban hutchs to massive 70's blond oak coffee tables. Shelves were missing, and everything was covered in dust. The two or three bookcases that were desirable looked much less so in the company of all the squalid junk. An expensive mixer and Cusinart looked like they'd never been cleaned. It soon became apparent that he didn't have any tags to put on the items we were supposed to be pricing, so I went back home to get some.

Much of the garage sale merchandise was still packed in boxes, mixed in with old financial records and other personal papers. While taking a ladle out of a box for the sale, he'd begin shuffling through the papers and sorting them. We'd have been there all night if I hadn't moved everything that didn't belong in the sale into an adjoining room. I then priced the large items, chose a bundt pan to buy, and would have fled--except that it turned out I didn't have $10 to pay for the pan, just a $20, and it turned out he had no change. Actually, he had no money at all.

My friend insisted on coming with me to the drugstore, where I made some purchases--including an energy bar for him--got change, and gave him 10 ones.

In the morning, I was back with $50 from the bank in change, figuring he'd need it. The sale was starting, people were coming in, and there he was, standing in the middle of the room, complaining about his most recent job interview. The boombox he was selling was blasting shrill folk music so loudly that he couldn't hear any of the questions buyers were asking. A box of personal files on one of the sale tables had a photo album, circa 1990, with pictures of two of his friends smoking dope. (I hurried it out of the room, thinking with some amusement of how irate those two would have been if they'd known that album had been on public display.)

The garage sale scene was so depressing (a couple of his customers were as crazy as he) that I could take only a hour of it, and fled for a latte. When I returned in the early afternoon, bringing a sandwich for him, he was dragging yet more large pieces of furniture down from the attic for the sale, which was by now more than half over.

At the end of the day I came back to help put a few things away but I didn't stay long. It was just too overwhelming. He'd made about $400, but was still surrounded by a Stonehenge of big, ugly furniture that he would have to dispose of, somehow. Miraculously, the rust-red velvet couch missing one wheel had vanished.

"Take all the $1 stuff to the dump," I urged him, waving at the table full of warped, greasy plastic cutting boards and 10-year-old giant containers of spices. "Don't keep carting it around!"

I suppose I could have packed the dreck up myself and carted it away for him, but I didn't. I came home, took a bath, and went right to bed. Not surprisingly, I had long, complicated nightmares. In one of them, someone was trying to kill me. If one day with my friend is this depressing, I can only imagine what a whole life of being him must be like.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Of mice and cats

My contribution to the tradition of Friday catblogging:

Local news: Two weeks ago, our neighbor Carol presented us with a package of a dozen cat toys: tiny stuffed mice made of rabbit fur and amazingly realistic. I gave one to each of our cats, who were outside assisting me in the garden, and one to Smokey, the cat we share with another neighbor, Steve. A half hour later there was a blood-curdling scream from across the street. Another neighor, Theresa, was pointing at her driveway where Smokey had deposited a little gray mouse. "It's just a stuffed toy," I shouted. She peered at it and waited until I ran over, got the mouse, and returned it to Smokey (who had taken refuge under her car when the screaming started). In a few days, all the mice had vanished, and I distributed a new batch, giving Smokey is nice white mouse that he promptly began tossing around on the lawn.

Today I got a phone call from Steve, Smokey's elderly co-owner. He reported that his daughter and her husband had arrived for a visit and discovered that Smokey had left a dead mouse on his front porch. They had taken it away with a shovel and flung it into the trash.

"Was this mouse white?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "How did you know?"

I explained it was a stuffed mouse. He said his daughter will certainly be surprised.

It was, apparently, a week to be surprised by your cat. Check it out.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

San Marzano tomatoes

Our friend Chris came over to dinner tonight. I was going to make spankopita but didn't get my act together to dash over to the Ballard Market for filo dough. So I decided to make pasta, with a tomato sauce from my favorite cookbook, The Romagnoli's Table (original 1974 version, not the revised one). Because we had fresh basil (from the pizza experiments) I decide to make the extremely simple sauce of melted unsalted butter, good plum tomatoes, fresh basil and salt. Without the onions, salt pork, garlic, and olive oil many people believe are essential for tomato sauces, this is nevertheless an astonishingly flavorful sauce. The key is excellent tomatoes, and I was planning to use a couple cans of peeled plum tomatoes (pomidori pelati), da Napoli brand.

When a peek into the cupboard revealed only one can of tomatoes, I hiked up to the neighborhood grocery, Sunset Hill Greenmarket, and picked up a second can, called San Marzano.

When I got home and opened the two brands of tomatoes side by side I nearly went into shock. The da Napolis, which I've always liked, appeared coarse, fibrous, and sort of limp. The San Marzanos, smaller, rounder, and redder, were delicate and the juice much richer. The taste of the San Marzano's was absolutely to die for--flavorful and complex without being sweet. The da Napoli's didn't taste bad...they just didn't taste much.

As it turned out, the recipe called for only one and a half cans of tomatoes, so I used the all San Marzanos and filled in with a few of the smallest da Napolis. When I crushed the tomatoes, I noted that the San Marzanos have hardly any seeds! (Recipe: melt butter, put in the tomatoes, crush them a little, add salt and basil, let cook 20-30 minutes until the sauce suddenly darkens and thickens. Serve.)

The sauce was great, and I give those San Marzanos full credit.

Some web research reveals that I have barely begun to experience San Marzano tomatoes. The domestic San Marzanos I cooked with (sold by Simpson and Vail, who also sell some killer imported olive oils) are the relatives of Italian tomatoes grown in the San Marzano valley in the Campania region of Italy--"in the shadow of Vesuvius."

The Italian-grown San Marzanos are available from these brands: Sclafani, Strianese, Rosa, AnnalisA, Miracolo di San Gennaro, and La Valle (though not all tomatoes sold with these labels are San Marzanos--you have to check the label). Prices range from $2 a can to $9.50 a can (before shipping). The Miracolo di San Gennaro brand, sold on the Gustiamo website is the most expensive. But based on my previous experience buying cheese and olive oils from Gustiamo, these are likely the tomatoes to end all tomatoes. [NOTE: A heated San Marzano discussion on eGullet includes the information that real Italian San Marzanos will have the letters D.O.P. (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) on the label. But many folks in the discussion noted that there are some good Italian canned tomatoes with out the D.O.P. accreditation.]

I'm going to look into buying a case of San Marzanos through the Sunset Hill Greenmarket or Larry's Market (where I've seen them in the past). Please let me know if you see any San Marzanos (whole, peeled) anywhere else in Seattle. First good tip leaded to the local purchase of San Marzanos by the case will be rewarded with a pasta dinner, or homemade pizza, with a San Marzano-based sauce. [NOTE: Contest closed. Domestic and imported San Marzanos have been located at the Ballard Market for $2.99 a can. Stand by for an upcoming taste comparison.] [NEW CONTEST: Reward as specified above for information on where to buy Miracolo di San Gennaro brand tomatoes in Seattle.]

Bon apetito!

Parody of the 1984 Apple commercial

Nicely done "2004" update and parody of Apple's "1984" SuperBowl commercial. Brought to my attention by John Paczkowski's Good Morning Silicon Valley column.