Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 April, 2006

Friday Skin

|| Palmer, 10:30 PM || link || (0) comments |


Somebody stop me before I make beeramisu!
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Freethought Radio

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is introducing Freethought Radio to debut tomorrow, 29 April, at 8AM on 92.1 the Mic. So check out the godless goodness. If you miss it, a podcast of the show will be available on Monday at the FFRF site.
|| Palmer, 9:51 PM || link || (0) comments |


I nearly cried when I read these words: "Bitter Woman From Hell Going Down The Drain!". Brewmaster Rob Larson of Tyranena had a wee problem with a batch of his Brewers Gone Wild! Bitter Woman From Hell Extra IPA:

Couldn't get enough beer over to the brite tank to reach the cooling jackets... and if you have ever tried to bottle a beer in the 40 degree plus range (we typically bottle with the beer at 34 degrees), you know just how difficult it can be. I did rescue 6 1/2 barrels from the drain... which will start to go on tap Friday.

He reports that he's starting a new batch today, probably as I type. I could use a nice brew right now after having saved the state a few hundred bucks. Here I am making Jimmy Doyle look good and what thanks do I get? Notta. Stupid printer fusers! A bad paper guide caused one helluva jam. I had to scrounge through the boneyard for an old fuser to hork the guide. Then I had to spend a half hour scrapping one of the rollers clean as it had about a pound of toner stuck to the surface. I used isopropyl alcohol which tried up my tender, baby-like hands. And people wonder why I keep some of Burt's Bees Milk & Honey Body Lotion at my desk.

So how has y'all's day been?

The new Isthmus has a little review of some new baseball game for game consoles called Major League Baseball 2K6. Man, sports games have some funky graphics nowadays. The faces of the players onscreen are the actual faces of real MLB players, the umpires actually move, and the like. I have never been able to get into these new-fangled sports games. I'm old school. Gimme Hardball for my old Commodore 64 anytime. When I lived in Chicago, my friend Pete and I would head down to Rolling Stone Records at the HIP (that's Harlem Irving Plaza), buy some progressive rock records and then go back to his place and fire up the C64. Ah, those were the days.

If you have any interest in global warming/the human impact on the climate, you can download a lecture by Tim Flannery on the topic. Dr. Flannery is the Director of the South Australian Museum currently and he gave a speech recently out at CalTech called "The Weather Makers: How Humans are Changing the Climate & What It Means for Life on Earth". It can be downloaded here for a "limited time" - a week, methinks.

The event listing for GenCon was finally published this week and event registration starts on Monday. I really need to go through it more thoroughly but, since it has over 5.200 events, it'll take some time. I hope to get in on some Call of Cthulhu action this year. And while my grandmother can paint miniatures better than me, you can bet your sweet ass I'll be attending a workshop where I can let my inner weaponsmith loose - Build a Foam Weapon. I'm gonna make me a foam claymore so I can go after those pesky skateboarding teens in my neighborhood. Plus there's some cool seminars to be had such as Women Warriors: Ancient Times-Middle Ages and Bridging the Firepower Gap. Next year I wanna run a seminar on bridging the mine shaft gap. There are just too many games for any one civilization to be had. Collectible card games, RPGs, computer gaming, board games, miniatures, and on and on. How about some Monty Python Illuminati?

One thing I'm pleased about this year is the discovery of India Garden, an Indian restaurant. While I think Indy has a pretty nice downtown, I couldn't find any restaurants last year that weren't basically American. The brewpubs were nice, the chili joint was cool, and the BW3 had over 40 beers from which to choose. But it got to the point where I would have killed for Chinese food or Indian or bascially anything not burger/chili/chop orientated. Well, Charles used the Interwebs and found an Indian joint where he and I can drown ourselves in vindaloo gluttony. Less than 4 months to go...

The Midwest Story Festival kicks off tonight. Go and hear some stories the way they were meant to be experienced - told in-person at a pricey hotel ballroom with expensive cocktails.

Earlier this week I had the misfortune of being recruited to watch the pilot episode of a new TV show. I dutifully tuned into channel 18 on Wednesday to experience Untitled Patricia Heaton Project. Heaton plays a physical therapist who was recently widowed and is in the midst of getting her life back together by joining the local PTA. Justine Bateman plays her sister, Cindy. Bateman was looking quite well. Heaton goes to the school and meets up with Hilary, played by Jenny McCarthy. They form an alliance and vow to reform the PTA by wresting it from the hands of Heike Gaert, a woman with a Russian accent who looks like she stepped out of an old Macintosh commerical from 1984, and another woman who is rich and snobby. Honestly, the show sucked donkey dick. Heaton's character had a couple almost-funny comebacks but that was all the humor for this sitcom. McCarthy plays the dumb blonde. At the PTA meeting, Heaton refers to a character named Mary Grey-White and McCarthy replies, "Who's that mocha-colored woman over there?" Realy Emmy quality stuff, as you can tell. The principal of the school, a black woman, is just another sterotype. Every character was just a cardboard cut-out. And it was just not funny. I have nothing against a story featuring women constantly remarking how nice Mr. Delgado's butt is, but the characters didn't interest me. Here's another example of the writing during the scene with Heaton meeting the principal for the first time. The banter was well-paced and could have come out of His Girl Friday had it actually been funny or interesting. Instead we get lines from Heaton like "I'm wearing a thong for the first time and it just found its home" or something akin to that. Heaton's character is very coarse all-around.

About 15 minutes after it ended, I got the super-survey phone call. The guy mispronouced "Heike" as "haiku" but I didn't say anything.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, please rate the music on the show." 0.

"Would you like to see more, about the same amount, or less of Heaton and Hilary together?" Less. Less, less, less. The only thing that I wanted to see more of was Jenny McCarthy's tits as the generous cleavage she gave us was just not enough for me.

At the end of the episode, Heaton, McCarthy, and the principal are sitting around cocktailing and pledging their friendship to one another. I was asked if I thought that "Margarita Club" was a good name for the show so I presume that every episode will feature them drinking.

Towards the end of my interrogation, I was asked a few questions about my TV watching habits. The guy asked me how many times a month I watched various TV shows. Aside from LOST, I watched none of the shows. In fact, I'd never heard of some of them. In fact, I had no idea who Patricia Heaton was and was surprised they built a show around her. I am most decidedly not part of their desired demographic. When I was asked to do the survey, I was told that it was my chance to help determine prime-time TV programming. So please believe me, everyone, I tried my darnedest to make sure this show doesn't go beyond pilot and pollute our airwaves.

All you adult learners like myself can spend some time this summer at the UW in a non-credit course so you can become all enriched and stuff. The summer catalog is now online.

Considering my recent foray into sausage importing, the new Onion piece, "Grease Fire Rages Through Midwest", was quite humorous, especially the picture of crews trying to contain a blaze "in a kielbasa field outside Chicago."
|| Palmer, 4:25 PM || link || (0) comments |

26 April, 2006

Spring Brew News

I'm a bit late on this but 23 April marked the 490th anniversary of the Rheinheitsgebot purity law. Thusly now is as good a time as any to take a vernal look at beer.

According to a post at the Isthmus forum, Madison's newest brewpub, Ale Asylum, is to open on 12 May.

Close to home at Capital Brewery, I see that their Bier Garten is set to open on 3 May. A trip to the brewery in the near future could be very worthwhile as Great Lakes Brewing News reports that Capital "recently made a limited release of Eis Phyre, which is Autumnal Fire given the Eisbock treatment and barrel aged." The Capital webpage says nothing about this so it seems that heading to Middleton is now imperative. Finally, next month sees the release of their seasonal Fest beer.

While Lake Louie's Milk Stout is still to be found, their spring seasonal, Dino's Dark is now available. It's described as the "springtime version of our ‘Tommy’s Porter’ brewed with less dark malt and more hops".

The Gray's website remains perpetually unupdated but I'm going to assume their Wisconsin Weiss will become available next week as it's usually out on Beltane.

Also to the south of Madison is the Huber Brewery. Their Solstice Wit has been available for a while now and will be so until July.

To the east, Lakefront's Cherry Lager is their Beer of the Month for May. I've never had it despite my allegiance to New Glarus' Belgian Cherry Ale.

As I wrote previously, Leinenkugel's recently released their Sunset Wheat, a Belgian Wit beer. I haven't tried it yet so I'll have to make it a point to do so.

Apparently it will replace their Amber Light and Northwoods Lager so get any last cases of these beers while they last. This month Leine's also brought out their Berry Weiss for the season. It's a bit on the sweet side for me so I can only take one per sitting but it's a refreshing brew.

Point's Spring Bock will still be around through May so get it while you can.

Sand Creek Brewing Company's spring seasonal is Oderbolz Bock.

They are also advertising Woody's Wheat which is to be released soon. A new wheat beer to try out this summer.

Over at Tyranena, the current seasonal is Fighting Finches Bock.

However, in late May, they'll release their summer seasonal, Fargo Brothers Hefeweizen.

Also available next month will be the second installment of brewer Rob Larson's Brewers Gone Wild! series, Bitter Woman From Hell, an Extra India Pale Ale. Prepare for some super-mega bitter hoppy goodness!

The venerable Sprecher Brewing Company has their Maibock out now.

You may have seen bottles like these at your local liquor store:

These are 1-liter bottles of their Brewmasters Premium Reserve. They seem to be their limited edition brews (sans Generation Porter) in a bottle more suitable for aging. There's supposed to also be a similar line of Bourbon Barrel Aged brews but I can't find any info on them at their webpage. If you're keen on aging their beers, they published a handy chart in their January newsletter which I reproduce below. And here's the legend for the Aging Recommended column: + = limited aging, 1-2 years; ++ = 2-4 years; +++ = long term aging, 3-5 years.

Further up north in Dallas, the Viking Brewing Company is pushing their Honey Pale Ale and will be until June.

Last from Clear Lake comes 'Sconnie ales from William Kuether Brewing. Like some others, their webpage hasn't been updated in ages. Their Tamarack Timber Spring Ale was listed as coming soon last year so perhaps it's out now. If anyone around town sees their stuff, please let me know as I'm keen on sampling the stuff.

Potosi is a small town in the southwest corner of Wisconsin – it's due north of Dubuque, Iowa and near Dickeyville which, as all Wisconsonians should know is home to absolutely no Norwegians. The Potosi Brewery closed its doors in 1972 after 120 years of operation. There's now an effort to restore the building as a historical landmark. The charge is being lead by The Potosi Brewery Foundation. To raise money, City Brewery in La Crosse was contracted to brew Potosi Light and it was sold in the area. The latest word is:

The site, when completed, will house both the National Brewery and Potosi Brewery museums, the Great River Road Interpretive Center, a restaurant and microbrewery and gift shop. The complex is projected to open in 2008.

Lastly, I want to add that I had CopperHead Ruby Lager from Viking Brewing Company this evening. It was a great beer! It poured a nice copper color with a medium head. The aroma was malty and fruity/wine-like. The fruitiness carried over to the taste and it was very smooth. A highly recommend brew.
|| Palmer, 8:57 PM || link || (1) comments |

A Look at the Weekend Ahead

While I'll be spending this coming weekend in suburban Chicago gaming with friends, there's some good stuff happening here in town.

As a prelude to the weekend, there will be a panel called "Connect or Compete—How do bloggers fit with traditional media?" at 2195 Vilas Hall starting at 5:30. It's sponsored by the UW-Madison Society of Professional Journalists and will feature Wispolitics' Jeff Mayers, Capital Times Web Editor Shauna Rhone, WORT's News Director Nathan Moore, UW-Madison Law School associate professor David Schwartz and Channel 3 reporter Colin Benedict.

The Spring 2006 Ring Game will be taking place on Saturday out at Governor Dodge State Park. The Ring Game is a LARP - Live Action Role Playing - game in which participants dress up like characters from Lord of the Rings and re-enact battles from the books. A friend of mine plays and I can assure you that even spectators will enjoy the geeky goodness. And, weather permitting, you can enjoy a good hike in the beautiful countryside.

On Friday night, prog stalwarts Kansas will be at the Orpheum Theater. If you're a Kansas fan but can't make the show, they are featured in my podcast this week.

A short drive to Wauwatosa on Saturday can get you to the Spielmannszug Bock Bier Fest at Charles Hart Park.

Speaking of beer, don't forget that tickets for the 2006 Great Taste of the Midwest go on sale on Monday at 6PM.

If you're in a theatrical frame of mind, Cows Gone Wild opens at the Broom Street Theater on Friday and runs until 28 May. It's described thusly: "Belle, looses her job as a Gateway Computer supermodel when the company decides to outsource its marketing to a company in India. Unable to find work in a corporate culture that panders to slim attractive people, Belle scrambles to the Atkins diet and then clinical testing before finally descending into a world where only the bad cows go..."
|| Palmer, 12:02 PM || link || (0) comments |

Spend Your Summer Vacation LOST

With this season of Lost winding down, we fans can expect a cliff-hanger season finale followed by a summer of anticipation of the new season in the fall. But now the creators of the show have hit on a way to satisfy our thirst for Lost lore. They are Lost Experience as way to satiate fans over the summer.

Lost Experience is an Alternate Reality Game or ARG. An ARG is a game in which a fictional reality is explored in the real one via a variety of media. The game begins on 3 May here in the States during the episode called "Two for the Road", which is centered around Ana-Lucia. An 800 numbers will be shown sometime during the broadcast and calling it will begin the game.

The game's premise will be rooted in Lost history, but ABC said that you don't need to have watched the show to get in on the game, which will feature new characters and delve deeper into the manipulative Hanso Foundation that was introduced in season two as the benefactor of the button-pushing Dharma Initiative.

There is no grand prize for those who manage to piece the puzzle together, but ABC promises that those who play will end up learning some of the island's better-kept secrets.

Should be fun. One week to go...
|| Palmer, 10:32 AM || link || (0) comments |

Word of the Week

In light of my critique of Karen Armstrong...

petitio principii (peh-tish'-ee-oh prin-sip'-ee-eye) n. a logical fallacy in which a premise is assumed to be true without warrant, or in which what is to be proved is implicitly taken for granted
|| Palmer, 9:05 AM || link || (0) comments |

Why HAL Sings "Daisy, Daisy"

2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favorite films of all-time. I've seen it countless times and have read quite a bit about it. However, I learned something new about the film yesterday.

In the scene where Dave Bowman removes data or memory modules to shut HAL down, HAL begins singing "Daisy Bell". Like a lot of things in the film, I just accepted this choice of song without knowing exactly why it was selected. But now the "Daisy Bell" mystery has been solved for me.

In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke was touring Bell Labs when he heard a demonstration of a song sung by an IBM 704 computer programmed by physicist John L. Kelly. The song, the first ever performed by a computer, was called "Daisy Bell", more commonly known as "Bicycle Built for Two" or "Daisy, Daisy". When Clarke collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, they had HAL sing it while Dave powered him down.

Here's a sample that's probably similar to what Clarke heard. It comes from the album, First Philadelphia Computer Music Festival, released in 1979.

To compare & contrast, check out HAL's version.

|| Palmer, 8:51 AM || link || (2) comments |

25 April, 2006

A New Jerusalem Amongst the Satanic Mills

Karen Armstrong was in town this past weekend at the First United Methodist Church as part of her tour in promotion of her newest book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. I won't go into depth about her life, but in a nutshell, she was a nun from age 18 until 25 when she left the Church. She left religion for about 15 years before returning. In 2000, she described her beliefs thusly:

I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist. I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can't see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles' heels.

Never having read any of her books, but having read interviews with her, Ms. Armstrong's presentation on Saturday seemed to rehash general ideas that she's espoused before in the context of her new book.

She began her speech by echoing various blurbs I've read about The Great Transformation, namely that the period of roughly 900 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E. is the period when mankind collectively thought its way to an apogee of religion, spirituality, and general world outlook. She borrows the term "Axial Age" from German philosopher Karl Jespers because the period "proved to be the axis or the pivot of the spiritual history of humanity". The ideas from this age, which come from 4 corners of the globe, continue to inform us today: Confucianism/Taoism in China, Hinduism/Buddhism/Janism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism from Greece. After listing the names of various people from this period, she claimed, "…we've never gone beyond these great insights." Rabbinic Judaism and Islam are "secondary flowerings" of the Axial Age's spirit. Ms. Armstrong noted that the insights from this period completely changed humanities outlook at the time of their initial propagation. She also mentioned the tremendous impact of the Enlightenment or the Great Western Transformation, as she called it. Her claim was that it was a scientific and technological transformation which has changed how we view the world, but that no great spiritual advances have come about because of this Second Axial Age.

It became clear shortly after this introductory part, that Ms. Armstrong clearly idealizes this period and the insights from the traditions mentioned above. She explained that compassion is perhaps the greatest insight of the Axial Age and spent quite a bit of time noting that we seem to ignore this much of the time. While I don't think that her proselytizing shrouded in a history lesson was wrong or bad, it did come off as a bit pedantic. What I mean is that she seemed to be saying that the Axial Age provided us with a Truth that religion equals compassion and we've lost our way. I got the distinct impression that she felt that many things which pass for religions today are really shell of religion because they don't give primacy to compassion.

Ms. Armstrong continued by noting that today faith is equated with belief in certain creeds and then she tried to distinguish the two. Until the 18th century, she claimed, faith meant trust, not belief, and equating them was a byproduct of the rise of science. And by trust she meant a trust that "against all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary, life had some ultimate meaning and value." This part of her speech confused me a bit because she intimated that, not only were belief and trust separate, but also that one needn't have belief in order to have trust. She illuminated this idea by saying that St. Paul was referring to this kind of trust when he described Abraham as having it when God promised him that he would become the father of a mighty nation even as this same god was asking him to kill his own son. As I sat there listening to her, I was a bit perplexed because, how can you separate the trust from the belief in God? In a semantic sense, I understand the distinction but I still don't grasp how one can place the kind of trust in a deity without having a belief in the deity. How can one trust a deity that one does not believe exists? If you're going to posit the notion that life has ultimate meaning and purpose which is given by a deity, then belief in this deity is strictly necessary and must be prior to the trust.

At this point she rather strangely dismissed theology. It's not the dismissal I find strange but rather how she did so. Before saying that the great sages of the Axial Age had no use for theology, she remarks that the same went for Jesus and Martin Luther, two figures quite apart from the Axial Age. Though she did mention the Qu'ran. This line of thought seemed like another attempt to distance her argument from belief. Her point was that orthodoxy was irrelevant and that the transcendent is beyond theology and beyond thought, i.e. – that transcendent reality was unknowable.

During her speech, she illustrated her points by telling short stories or pointing out attitudes of the past. For instance, when talking about the transcendent, she mentioned that the Greek Orthodox Church used to have a principle that all statements about God had to have two characteristics: 1) that it was paradoxical, "that you couldn't fit God into a neat human system" and 2) that it lead one to silence. By the latter, she explained that contemplating God should be so beautiful that it leaves you speechless. I appreciated these examples as they showed how the principles were put into action and made them clearer. But there were times when, just as I thought I had grasped a concept, she threw me for a loop. For instance, she said that Brahman is present when "you discovered that you were at the end of what words and thoughts could do." Now, I readily admit that I would make a horrible Hindu. If an unknowable transcendent reality begins where human thought ends, then, well, to me that's bullshit. And it's premised on the belief in a transcendent reality. I'll stake out the phenomenological territory, thank you. Perhaps this is just confusion on my part because of my ignorance and too little Socratic defining of terms. But to me, it's one thing to make an epistemological argument about the limits of human knowledge and another to make claims about the nature of what lies beyond it. Let's say you're wandering around a land and you come to a wall. It stretches on to infinity and there's no way of getting around it. You are reasonably certain that there's land on the opposite side of the wall so you call it "transcendent reality". Fine. But where do you get off making claims about it? How do you know it's the ultimate anything? Why can't it just be another vast parcel of land? And perhaps, if you wander it long enough, you'll find another wall. This whole business comes across to me as an instance of having the conclusion first and then inducing the clues second.

I was flummoxed even further when she said that it was an axiom of the Axial Age thinkers to question everything - Buddha and Socrates didn't want us to take anything on faith. Truth and knowledge were to be found within oneself and thusly religion ought not to be an orthodoxy passed on from one generation to another. Instead it must be questioned and modified; it must be tailored to the individual. This is something Ms. Armstrong really pushed. Religion, in its highest form, isn't about towing the line, it's a set of guidelines for self-improvement. "It was about doing things that changed you at a profound level," she said. And these guidelines were for getting rid of one's ego. She then talked about the "spiritual technology" that is yoga. Humorous, she distances the original, the "pure" yoga from what many people practice today a couple hours a week after work. Yoga was not an aerobic exercise but was "a disciplined assault on the ego". It was a way to overcome our egoistic human natures. Her main point here, beyond the concept of removing the ego, was that yoga was a practice; it was something one did and not a series of thoughts. Doing instead of thinking. "Behave as though your self does not exist" and you'll find happiness. A corollary of this is to value others above oneself.

She took the opportunity here to recount her days in a convent when she was instructed to meditate on her sins and her failings. This was the opposite of letting go of ones ego and she remarked that this really hindered her own spiritual development. And this led to one of the cruxes of her thought. She said that the Buddha found that the best way to let go of ones ego was to constantly practice compassion. "Compassion – the ability to feel with the other – is the essence of Axial Age spirituality." The discussion of compassion led to the Golden Rule, which, I found out, was first articulated by Confucius. At least his is the oldest one that survived. Another important point Ms. Armstrong made was that one cannot practice compassion on members of one's own group but rather that it must be extended to everyone and everything. Many anecdotes about this were told and perhaps the one that I found the most interesting concerned ancient Greece. The Greeks' insights on compassion came via their dramas. During the 5th century B.C.E. during the Festival of Dionysus, all citizens, at least all men, had to watch a trilogy of plays. Yes, attendance was mandatory. The dramas illustrated human pain and agony and also forced the audience to contemplate them. The chorus asked the audience to have compassion for the tragic figures. The lesson that Ms. Armstrong wanted us to understand was that compassion was equivalent to seeing the divine in others. From this it follows to renounce violence.

Ms. Armstrong noted how the Indians were the first to remove violence from their liturgies and the rise of the notion that spiritual enlightenment could only be found through non-violent means – compassion and contemplation. Before her time expired, she noted how the book of Genesis presented a peaceful creation story. Instead of the world arising from a battle amongst gods, Yahweh created the universe peacefully and pronounced it good. She did admit, however, that there are passages in the Bible which mention Yahweh battling a monster in a primordial sea but it is Genesis that is the accepted Christian creation myth.

Ms. Armstrong spent her final minutes discussing "what went wrong" and why religious people are often not compassionate. As she stated it, "What's the fun of being religious if you can't disapprove of other people from time to time?" One of her best descriptions was that people worship one day a week for a brief respite from everyday life but remain "unscathed by the demands of the tradition". The thinkers of the Axial Age, she said, wanted religion to be a more consuming task and one that really changed a person for the better. They tried to construct religion so that it would help people to transcend the drudgery and the nastiness of life and to bring about peace. Ms. Armstrong argued that we shouldn't endeavor to change religion to conform to our scientific views, but rather we should try to fulfill the promise of religion to bring about peace.

It was certainly a positive and uplifting message. And there were many nods of agreement from the First United Methodist congregation as it is a liberal one, accepting as they seem to me of everyone regardless of color, race, sexual orientation, etc. But I was left wondering, if compassion is the proximate goal and it underlies the world's major religions, do we really need religion? I mean, if you remove all the violence of the Old Testament and the completely ridiculous notions about Jesus Christ, tridentine transubstantiation, and his resurrection, then you don't really have Christianity, do you? If you leave out all the preposterous irrational beliefs, you don't have much of a religion. Positing that people should be compassionate and observe the Golden Rule isn't a religious mandate, it's a moral proposition. I think that Ms. Armstrong's failing here (and this weakness may be explained more fully in her books) is that she argues for a certain moral view and links it to religion without ever really justifying this. The moral proposition becomes tainted by religion when the ultimate goal becomes a glimpse of a transcendental reality. But one doesn't need to believe in a mysterious, ineffable transcendental reality to justify being nice to another person. I interpreted her as saying that we should be compassionate to rid ourselves of our pesky egos and getting rid of ego moves one towards The Great Mystery. And why is this Great Mystery the ultimate goal? She never really said why. I guess it was something we had to take on faith, i.e. – the trusting variety. If, as she admits, many religious people don't practice compassion, then we should really think about whether or not religion is a prerequisite for being compassionate.

Ms. Armstrong mentioned more than once that the Axial Age was a very violent time and that the ideological and spiritual movement towards peace and compassion was a reaction to this. I thought these comments bespoke to a contingent nature of religion but she seemed to think that the Axial Age thinkers hit up a Truth – with a capital T. You know, something that isn't a contingency. While I enjoyed the parts of her speech which were historical expositions immensely, I found her overall argument to be wishy-washy. She eagerly reduced religion to compassion and loftily pronounced everything else we associate with religion to be unnecessary or to not be “true” religion. No matter how she wanted to disassociate belief from this whole morass, she couldn’t. If you accept that compassion is the path to transcendental reality, then you must believe in the TR and she often equated TR to Yahweh, Brahman, and the rest.

Another bit of her argument that I can’t agree with is her notion that all the great religions preach the same thing – compassion. She thinks that they’re basically interchangeable because what she views as their core messages are the same. That just doesn’t wash with me. She said that the Axial Age was a violent time and, as a reaction, the sages of the period all turned to compassion. Then she turns around and says things such as that Islam is a restatement of the Axial Age’s mantra to practice compassion. OK, so you’re telling me that a brigand turned warlord was actually telling his followers to adhere to the Golden Rule when he urged them to kill all the infidels? My perception is that Ms. Armstrong likes to selectively declare certain elements of religion to be “baggage”, if you will. She likes to redefine things to suit her needs. This allows her maintain the notion of religion which she seems intent on doing at all costs. My interpretation of this is that she is intellectually unable to ground morality in anything other than religion.

While I have a copy of her speech, I do not have a recording of the Q&A session that followed. I do recall her admission that she’s a pessimist and, if memory serves, some of the other questions allowed to her denounce the venture in Iraq. I don’t mean the latter to say that she got all political, but rather that it was a prominent example of not practicing compassion and the Golden Rule. A gentleman asked about the role of atheism in her scheme and she did this avoid the question/setup a straw man dance. First she remarked that the word “atheism” didn’t originally mean the denial of the supernatural. Instead, it was a for someone to describe another person who believed in different gods. E.g. - Christians are atheists with respect to Zeus or Odin. It’s not that Christians deny the existence of a deity, they just believe in a different deity. She then proceeded to disparage what she called “lazy atheists”. From my recollection, the only definition she gave for this term was something along the lines of people who want to “get rid of religion.” Again her perfervid desire to maintain the concept of religion comes to the fore. She labels 99% of the elements of what we consider to be religion today to be superfluous, if not counterproductive, but she has to keep that 1%. And she idealizes it and says that it's "true" religion. But this suits her, what I consider to be essentially dishonest, endeavor. She labors to remove belief via semantics when belief is the foundation. And then takes secular ideas & activities of the Greeks and labels them religious. She initially set the Greek philosophical rationalism apart from the other traditions and then later calls their activities religious. That both Socrates and the Buddha urged people to question everything doesn't mean the Socrates was promoting religion. That both traditions have elements in common with one another doesn't make them two peas in a pod. Ms. Armstrong has chosen her carrot – experiencing the divine/transcendental reality – and cannot conceive of morality outside of religion and its bait. For her, practical compassion can only be achieved via religion. Religions can be good or bad depending on how well they compel followers to act upon the Golden Rule but atheism for her is a dead end because she cannot conceive of it as offering a carrot. To me, this is a very limited and incorrect view of morality.

Despite all this, I'd like to read her books as the speech I heard could only touch on her ideas and not explore them fully.

Next year's lecture will be on 28 April and will be given by The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr., Senior Minister of The Riverside Church. For more on him, read this interview from NOW with Bill Moyers.
|| Palmer, 10:24 AM || link || (1) comments |

24 April, 2006

It's a Mighty Good Food

Over the weekend, I spent some time at the 2006 Convention of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors. It was held out at the Marriott West in Middleton and I don't think there was a vegetarian/vegan within a mile of the joint. Although it was a four-day affair, I only had a brief amount of time on Saturday morning to check out all things fleshy. In addition to the meat tasting competition, there were to be seminars on food safety and promotion of products. AND a sausage sculpture competition for kids!

I parked my car around 9:30 and walked into the Convention Center. Other than a trio of men standing in the hall chatting, there was no one else around; no people milling about nor any concierges attending to the needs of the conventioneers. But the pungent smell of meat hung heavy in the air. Not of any one variety mind you, but rather a metaaroma of pork, poultry, and beef that was raw, cooked, cured, and smoked. It was the smell of all meats. And none. I was to meet my buddy Ed, who was judging, out in the lobby. He'd get me into the judging area which was closed to the general public. I didn't immediately find Ed but, as I was enjoying a smokey treat outside, he found me. He was clutching a nice, clean white lab coat which I promptly threw on. We went into the Mendota Room where some judging was going on and I realized that I didn't register and thusly had no ID card. So we moseyed to the registration desk. I filled out a form and Ed remarked that I was a judge helper type from DHFS. Voila! An ID badge for free! With all the hoo-had squared away, we went back to the judging room.

The smell was absolutely mouth-watering! There were a couple dozen folks clad in similar lab coats to mine scattered throughout the room. Most hovered over tables whose tops were covered with packages of meat of one kind or another. Other folks were scurrying from a microwave with plate in hand to their table. Ed was judging whole muscle jerky with a gentleman named Franky from Green Bay.

The outside edge of their table was strewn with packages of the stuff. In the center was a pile of sheets of paper that they used to record their findings. They judged flavor, texture, color, uniformity of shape, blemishes, et al.

They began judging each sample by looking and smelling. Ed had the clipboard so he'd record their takes on each. Then they'd rip off a bit to sample. As they chewed, they would talk to each other describing the flavor and texture before settling on a numerical score for each quality. When done, they spit out the meat, cleansed their palates with something to drink, and moved on to the next contestant.

Since I didn't want to disturb them too much, I wandered around with my camera in-hand. The first table I hit was the large diameter jellied loaves.

There were tons of categories and I was only in one of the tasting rooms. Here's a sampling:

Smoked bratwurst

Smoked/Cured Beef

Smoked Poultry

Hams: bone-in, semi-bone-in, and processed

Traditional Sanck Sausages


My buddy Pete was also a judge on Saturday. He got paired up with another guy to determine the best natural casing wiener. That's him on the right. Just after I snapped this picture, he said, "That was awful!"

This is the Summer Sausage table:

These are the judges for pre-cooked Brats, if I recall correctly.

Now these two pictures are from a miscellaneous category. From L to R it looks like a slab of bacon, a pastrami, and a rack of ribs that had been smoked. I'm not sure it the middle hoolie is pastrami or not. It was covered it what appeared to be mustard seeds.

Here's a close-up of a smoked pork loin:

I stopped back to see how Ed and Franky were coming along. They showed me this sheet of jerky that was like a roofing shingle. Ed explained that it was cut with the grain of the meat instead of against it as it's supposed to be. This thing was rock hard. They were none too impressed with this year's contenders. One tasted like a really sweet teriyaki roll-up - couldn't taste the meat. Another variety was like biting into a slab of smoke. Ed remarked that the best ones weren't really super-great but at least they could taste the meat.

While my mouth watered the whole time I was there, my salivating became a flood of Biblical proportions when I got to the bacon table.

Oh...my...fuck! It was like being in heaven. Just looking at the tasty slabs sent curious thoughts through my head - wrapping doughnuts in bacon, slathering bacon in butter - you know, all the Homer Simpsonesque artery-clogging measures. I am sorry to report that I did not have the opportunity to sample any of the bacon. It pains me still. For a brief time, I cogitated upon stealing one of the slabs. How would it have looked to have had one of them underneath my lab coat? Would anyone have noticed? Presumably, the moment I stepped out the door of the convention center, I would be beset upon by dogs from miles around and chewed to death as they tried to get their maws upon my bacon.

I have even shot a wee video of the action on the floor. It is here. (QT)

I returned to see how Ed and Franky were doing and they actually put me to work. So I grabbed a pencil and a calculator and set out to tally the totals for their jerky scores. With this complete, we headed to the product show to check out some wares.

Now here's something I'd like to have:

I'm not sure what it's called officially so I just call it a super-vacuum marinator. You slap your meat inside with a marinade and the air gets sucked out causing the liquid to get sucked into the flesh. Ed boasted that it could cut an 8-hour marinade job down to 20 minutes. Better life through technology, I tells ya. I also ran into a purveyor of knives and this guy had a sweet 12" chef's knife that I coveted. It may be a birthday present to myself. There was a meat tenderizer that Ed warned me about. He remarked that they're quite good at tenderizing hands. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association had a big display up:

I managed to snag some interesting literature from their table. In addition to illustrating which cuts of meat come from which part of the cow, the pamphlet described the latest in beef research:

Researchers discovered that several tender and flavorful muscles in primals and subprimals could be extracted and turned into new cuts of beef that offer greater consistency and tenderness. More options for steaks and roasts - which can be prepared in a variety of ways - equals less product going to the grinder.

Inventing new cuts of beef - now that must be quite a job.

I also spent some time checking out the booths of various companies that sell spices, sauces, and marinades. Basically any and every type of seasoning mix was there. I ended up leaving with a few pounds of seasoning. If anyone needs a glaze for hams, drop me a line and I can set you up with a pound or two of the stuff.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to stick around and check out the children's sausage sculpting competition as I had to head downtown for a lecture.

|| Palmer, 2:56 PM || link || (0) comments |

21 April, 2006

Another Weekend Beckons

Ah, another weekend hath arrived. What to do?

Meat. The 2006 Convention of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors started today and continues through Sunday. A couple friends of mine, Ed and Pete, will be judges. Ed turns his palate towards whole muscle jerky while Pete gets to stick a lot of wieners in his mouth, natural casing wieners, that is. I plan to be there tomorrow morning and have Ed sneak me into the judging area so I can witness the carnage first-hand. At 10:30 is an activity for kids – sausage sculpting. Now, if you read that and thought that it just sounded preternaturally wrong, well, I'm with ya. And that's why I plan to investigate this rather odd-sounding activity and document it.

After gobbling up as many samples as I can, I head back downtown to catch Karen Armstrong's lecture at First United Methodist Church. We'll see what she has to say about Mr. G. Oddie & Son. Saturday night I hope to see the sparkling new print of Bertolucci's The Conformist courtesy of Cinematheque.

Although I'll prolly be grilling out on Sunday, you may want to check out the grand opening bash for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Looking over their webpage I see that Friday nights in June will be ROOFTOP CINEMA: Avant-Garde Films Under the Stars where you can sit on the roof and watch short films by independent filmmakers.

If you'll be near Milwaukee this weekend, note that Wim Wenders' new film, Don't Come Knocking is now playing at the Downer Theater.
|| Palmer, 4:59 PM || link || (1) comments |

I'm A Kielbasa Importer

I spent last weekend in ChiTown to spend time with family. Although I'm an atheist, my family is fairly religious and we get together on holidays. It also afforded me the chance to spend time with me mum and cruise around town. And by "cruise around town" I mean buy sausage. My friend Jason lent me his copy of Culinaria, a massive coffeetable book detailing European cuisine with mongo color photographs. There was a section on Polish sausages and we agreed that, as long as I was going to be in Chicago, that I should stockpile sausage. It helps that my mother lives in a Polish neighborhood.

I rolled into town on Saturday afternoon only to find that my mother had a hunger. We decided on Polish food, unsurprisingly, and I was given two choices. Either A) a joint down the street that featured the talents of old Polish grandmothers cooking and serving or B) a place a bit further away featuring the babkas cooking with Polish hotties out front. I chose the latter.

I can't recall the name of the joint but I'm almost positive it was on Central Avenue. I don't recall the name and I'm not sure that there was any Engilsh on the storefront because I can only recall the Polish. Walking in, there was a small deli case by the entrance with seating in back. The joint closed at 2:30 and we got there just after 1:30 so things were winding down. A couple gorgeous young waitresses were scurrying back and forth while a couple stragglers finished their meals. The blonde waitress spoke English and directed us to a table. We perused the menu and were approached by the darker-haired waitress. She, however, spoke only Polish. Through a combination of hand gestures and an intervention on the part of the other waitstaff, we placed our orders. In addition to salt & pepper, the tables had shakers of paprika as well as soy sauce on them. At least it smelled just like soy sauce. It is beyond me why it was there but it was. We chatted and I ogled until the food arrived. My mother got Golabki (cabbage rolls) while I went with a very schnitzel-like dish whose name I cannot recall but it was on the daily specials board. It was pork flattened, breaded, and fried with ham & cheese set atop. In addition, we got generous portions of (real) mashed potatoes garnished with a few sprigs of dill weed. As we ate the woman who owned and/or ran the restaurant walked by and she said hello to my mother as my mom and grandmother are regulars there. I caught a glimpse of her when the door to the kitchen swung open and she was sealing pierogi.

The food was quite impressive. Nothing fancy - just basic meat'n'potatoes kinda stuff - but it was very tasty and hot. No lukewarm hoo-ha that's been sitting around. The breading was crisp and the mashed taters were chunky as they should be. Needless to say, I cleaned my plate. I did so because I was hungry, out of courtesy to the chef, and because we were to go shopping next and I figured that, if I went with a full belly, I wouldn't attempt to buy the whole store. Alas and alack, my plan failed miserably.

The first store we hit was Krakus Homemade Sausage. The place was cleaned out. The deli case was virtually empty with only a stray ham here and there. Poles are generally very Catholic and with Easter being the next day, everyone had stocked up for Easter Sunday. I gave the store a quick once-over and we left empty-handed. Since Ideal Pastry was right across the street, we headed over there. In addition to more nubile Polish lasses, there was a plethora of sweets! Oh, and bread too. I grabbed a couple loaves of their multigrain bread, a carrot cake, and a whole mess of cookies. They were butter cookies with chocolate chips on top and they were extremely good. European sweets are generally better than their American counterparts because you can actually taste something beyond the sugar. Things are less sweet. The chips on the cookies were made of dark chocolate and not milk chocolate.

Next we headed back up Milwaukee to Andy's Deli & Mikolajczyk Sausage Shop. Business was brisk as people did some last-minute shopping for Easter. I grabbed a basket and my mom and I wandered around the aisles of plenty to see what was to be had. The first thing I ran into was the ubquitous pickle. Shelves and shelves of pickles, cucumbers in brine, pureed pickles, and on and on. However, these pickles and various pickled vegetables such as peppers & mushrooms are easy enough to find here. Woodman's and Brennan's both have a fair selection of Polish pickled veggies. There was also a selection of canned green beans and the like but I'm thinking that beans canned in Warsaw are pretty much the same as those done by the Jolly Green Giant. When I came to the noodle aisle, chicken soup popped into my mind so I decided to buy some egg noodles. But which ones? I have preferences when it comes to dried Italian pasta but not Polish. So I just went with the brand that hand the cartoon picture of the grandma on the label. I mean, who does like grandmas? Here's a sample of the canned goods I bought:

Bacon and pork loaf? How could I not buy it? Beer? Well, it's a foregone conclusion that I'd have to sample a Polish brew. And then there's the jelly with rose hips. I've got a gallon of rose water leftover and it needs to be used up. Perhaps some jelly would be a good way to acclimate my palate. Then on the far right is cherry jam with chocolate. If it's got chocolate, I'm there!

Andy's is a fairly large store and has a meat counter which is about the size of a football field. Pork is a highly versatile meat and folks at Mikolajczyk Sausage Shop don't mess around. The acres of deli cases are filled with countless cheeses, hams, lunch meats, and fresh sausages. Behind the counter and hanging on the wall are over a dozen smoked sausages. Since I was able to get the fresh Polish sausage here in Madison at Alex Polish American Deli and I had my photocopied pages of smoked sausage from Culinaria, I directed my gaze at the wall in back. The first woman to try and help me spoke no English so she called over a woman who could. At this piont, my restraint was about gone and I went into a frenzy of sausage buying.

Here's what Culinaria has to say about Polish sausages:

Polish sausages are preferably made of pork with a lesser or greater amount of beef added. Particularly well known outside of Poland are sausages from Cracow. According to the Polish recipe they are made from eighty percent pork, ten percent bacon and ten percent beef. Pepper, fresh garlic, and caraway seeds are added as seasoning.

The sausages are smoked in a hot smokeroom until they are golden brown, then they are steamed or cooked. Once they have cooled, they are returned to a warm smokeroom until they develop a dark brown color. About forty types of sausage are for sale across the country officially with countless further regional varieties. Furthermore many Poles made their own quite individual varieties that are usually distinguished by a large amount of garlic. A very tasty sausage made from game is also available. A distinction is made between sausages that are smoked to be kept, uncooked sausages, cooked sausages which have to be heated before eating, and sausages which are heated in boiling water.

This is Kielbasa Wiejska:

This stuff is smoked Polish sausage and is essentially the same stuff you find in grocery stores here as Polska Kielbasa but this variety has a twist. I haven't sampled this yet but Jason has and he reports that it's fantastic. The cut of the meat is a lot coarser than the generic stuff plus it has herbs added as you can see bits of green leafy goodness.

This is starowiejska:

The English on the label read "Old Country Style Sausage". Now this stuff I have tried. Again, a very coarse grind of meat. The sausage has a very pronounced smokey flavor plus there's caraway seed. I also bought a jar of Letcho or Sweet Pepper Stew there and put some of this stuff in it when I heated it up earlier this week. Very, very tasty.

Now, here we have Kabanosy:

The label read only "Stick Sausage" which makes sense since this variety is much thinner than the other two above. Culinaria describes it as "Made from chopped pork; smoked and fried". Haven't tried it yet so that's all I can tell you for now.

Lastly, I bought Kielbasa-Jalowcowa:

This is Juniper Sausage. Hey, I love gin so this stuff has got to be good. Haven’t tried it yet, though.

Needless to say, I bought many pounds of sausage. At the checkout, the cutie gave me my change and a chocolate bar! 100 grams of bitter chocolate ecstasy from E. Wedel in Poland. (Methinks this company is owned by Pepsi.) After putting my many bags of groceries into my mom’s van, we headed north to New York Bagel & Bialy. It’s always been difficult to find a decent bagel in this town and I don’t recall ever having seen a bialy here in Madison that I didn’t personally bring with me from Chicago. But maybe that’s just me. Still, I had to stock up. Onion bialys are a thing of tastiness to behold. Soft and chewy, they’re like a Tootsie Roll Pop because, after you eat the outer bit, you are rewarded with a center of oniony goodness. I also found out that the place is open 24/7 so I can drop by anytime when I’m in Chicago and grab bagels, bialys, or some of the sweet treats they have. Speaking of which, I also bought a couple apricot hoolies. I’ve forgotten what they’re called but you take some really buttery, flakey dough, slap some apricot filling in the middle and fold over. Once baked, put powdered sugar on top and away you go.

The last stop on Saturday was at Ambala’s, the purveyor of Indian sweets that are as addictive as crack. The owner walked by saying hi as he recognized me as the guy from Wisconsin. What does it say about a person when a confectioner 140 miles away from home recognizes him as a “regular” customer? I assembled a medley of halwa, barfi, and pera which I greedily tucked under my arm as we walked out. Of course I had to sample the stuff. Personally, I’m addicted to the pista barfi and I thought that this batch had more chunks of pistachio nuts in it than previous ones. This, as Martha would say, is a good thing.

For logistical reasons, I threw the perishables into my mom’s frig before heading over to my brother’s place. It was as I was pulling away from my mom’s place that I noticed that my car engine was having fits. It sputtered and had no power in low gears. I made it over my bro’s apartment fine, though. His roomie, Andrew had requested that I bring a bunch of New Glarus Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart with me so I had a cooler full of the stuff for him. The plan was to head over to Glenn’s place and play some Arkham Horror. And this we did. Glenn’s frau, Helena, is a wine kinda gal so, after drinking liquid manna from New Glarus, we tried out some fine Spanish wine. A couple pots of coffee later, we started getting peckish and ended up ordering Chinese/Japanese. By Japanese here, I mean that they delivered sushi which, I think, would be a good idea for Madtown. I just can’t get my sushi-wasabi fix during those late-night gaming sessions here in Madison. It took us 8 hours to save Arkham but we did so.

We got back to my brother’s around 4 and I went to sleep shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, I could only sleep until about 8:30. After showering and preparing to head to my mom’s place, I realized that my car was in none-too-good shape. I did manage to make it back to her place and called my brother to have him pick me up to take me to our aunt’s for Easter dinner. Dinner consisted of Polish sausage, ham, and other Polish delectables. While watching family play pinochle, I spied something which explains a lot. First of all, pinochle runs deep in my family and I suspect that I’m the only member that doesn’t know how to play. My grandfather and great uncles took it seriously – very seriously indeed. But I never learned how to play it. Anyway, I was sitting there attempting to suss out how it works when I spied my grandmother walking towards the bathroom off of the kitchen. My grandma is 90 years old and has the usual health problems of folks her age. Thusly she is on a fairly restrictive diet along with a regimen of about a million pills. Now, in front of the bathroom door there’s a counter and on this counter sat the remnants of a chocolate cake and a cherry pie. I caught a brief glimpse of her looking around furtively before she began sampling the pie. It soon went beyond sampling to hoarding. Now, we all know she’s diabetic but who am I to tell a 90 year-old woman that she’s not allowed to eat cherry pie? I certainly wouldn’t chastise my own grandmother. My aunt, however, noticed this and threatened to slap her hand if she didn’t get it out of the pie. Later, my mom and aunt were having a confab about my grandmother’s pie poaching and sort of resigned themselves to helplessness with, “She’s got a sweet tooth…” And therefore I conclude that I got my sweet tooth from my grandmother. Since my mom doesn’t really have one, I can only conclude that the sweet tooth gene skips a generation.

Having fixed my aunt’s faucet and computer, eaten too much, caroused with family, and discovered the genetic foundations of my love of sweets, we headed back to Chicago. I dropped my mom off, then my grandmother, and finally my brother. I chilled at his place for a while and he, Andrew, and I watched some Doctor Who. When I couldn’t take the threats from my brother of being exterminated, I headed back to my mom’s and crashed. Monday morning we got my car into a nearby auto shop. This left time for us to wander about. We went and had breakfast to start things off. On the way into the restaurant, I picked up the Red Eye, a free paper from the Chicago Tribune aimed at young, hip folk. What a piece of shite. It’s like an expanded and quotidian version of Madison’s Core Weekly, which is no longer published. A bunch of entertainment and lifestyle hoo-ha with hard news reduced to McNugget sized articles. With breakfast done, we went out and about. My mom needed to do some grocery shopping, specifically for fruit, and so we hit yet another Polish grocery store but one that had a wonderful produce section. The last time I was there, they had raw olives for sale. While they didn’t have them this time around, they did have quinces and you can bet your ass I bought some. Quince marmalade here we come! This joint also had a trio of 30-gallon barrels at the end of one of the produce aisles – kraut, cucumbers in brine, and pickles. The smell of dill was just so enticing and I bought a few of the pickles which were about the size of beer bottles – huge! My mother also needed a loaf of bread so we headed a couple storefronts down the street to Signature Bakery. A woman walked out the door as we approached with a parcel underneath her arm so it was a bit of a surprise to walk into the joint and find only a couple lights on. Mom, having picked up some Polish, yelled something which I found out was “Good morning!” A kindly gentleman came out and informed us that they were closed on Mondays. Apparently the woman who had walked out was his sister. We apologized and turned to walk out. “Wait,” he said. He walked into the back and we heard some shuffling. He returned bearing a few loaves of bread. It was all from the day before and he was eager to not let it go to waste. I think he gave us six loaves for $5. We turned to leave again and were called back again. He had one more loaf to dispense with and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. However, instead of nice round loaves of rye and multigrain goodness, he presented us with a leviathan. This thing was almost 2 feet long and weighed about 5 pounds. This behemoth defied bagging. We finally walked out of there with our arms full.

My car was done mid-afternoon and I was home in the evening. Our freezers were already pretty full but I managed to squeeze a lot more into them. However, Mr. Megaloaf would just not fit. And so I gave him away at work the next day. I also brought in some of the bialys only to get many a blank stare. How could these people have never had a bialy? I’ve never considered them to be all exotic – they’re just bagels with depressions instead of holes. Sheesh.
|| Palmer, 3:58 PM || link || (0) comments |