Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

24 June, 2013

Briten the Porters

I guess the Berliner Weisse is having its 15 minutes of fame. I had been enjoying Pipeworks' takes on the style and then learned that New Glarus was dusting off theirs as well. Now there's even more coming and of course there's an imperial version of the style coming out. It's already sour so there's one less bandwagon to jump on but we can no doubt look forward to a Cascadian dry-hopped barrel aged black Berliner Weisse in the near future.

Lakefront has some new stuff coming out. Apricot seems to be gaining favor in the craft beer community. I really like their My Turn series. I should probably stock up on Luther as I still see it around and the stuff is great. Rauchbier is greatly under-appreciated.

Point seems to be joining the barrel aging brigade.

Some other random notes:

The next New Glarus unplugged looks to be a Sour Wild Ale while a strawberry-rhubarb brew will apparently replace Raspberry Tart.

Berghoff has started the relaunch of its brand. There was an event in Chicago last week followed by Milwaukee. Madison is rumored to be next with something in early July.

St. Francis Brewing can now be found in bottles. I saw a couple varieties at Jenifer Street Market over the weekend. There was a hefeweizen and, I believe, an amber ale.

Chicago's Off Color Brewing is now armed and full operational with barrels of their two annuals making their way to draft accounts – a gose and a kottbusser. Good on them for not coming out of the gates with an IPA and instead going with more obscure German styles.

Berghoff too is going to introduce a kottbusser as the first installment in their Überbier Series. A new trend? How long before the first imperial kottbusser?

Scott over at Vintage has some good brews on tap. His Grätzer Ale (really it's Grodziskie) is back. And he has a schwarzbier too. Plus there's the Pavement pun laden Crooked Grain, Crooked Grain, a rye India brown ale.

Lastly, the next test beer from Kirby and the Wisconsin Brewing Company is a porter.


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Blair Street Brew & BBQ (And a Question About Kids Menus)

The Dulcinea and I went to Blair Street Brew & BBQ yesterday. I was keen on trying it out after discussing BBQ with some friends of mine who are aficionados of smoked meat, i.e. – they will drive hundreds of miles to investigate a city's BBQ scene. One friend said of Blair Street:

I gave his ribs and sides a try I liked them better than Brickhouse BBQ. The potato salad was ok, the coleslaw was bland and the beans were mediocre.

Perhaps "better than Brickhouse" will become Madison's new BBQ slogan. Despite the less than ringing endorsement, we went anyway.

I had the pork shoulder sandwich and The D went with the beef brisket. She had cole slaw and I kartoffelsalat. It's true. The slaw was bland and the kartoffelsalat was OK. Actually, I think there's a good kartoffelsalat in there but it's too salty. Also, the kartoffeln are drowning in the mayo-based dressing but this isn't a problem to my taste. Just cut down the salt.

The pork shoulder was tender and flavorful, though not particularly smoky. The sauce there was also good. I appreciated that the sweetness was restrained and it had a good tanginess. It had that Heinz 57 approach which I think of as being a mix of celery, onion, and garlic powders along with mustard and tomato paste. To my palate, it accentuated the meat instead of overpowering it. I also appreciated that the sandwich did not come with any sauce on it and that I was allowed to tweak it myself.

For her part, The D found there to be too much salt in her meal and wished that there were more onion strings on her sandwich. Unlike mine, hers was open-faced.

A few other notes: the chocolate malt was tasty but the whipped cream turned out to be fake. We're in Wisconsin – no simulacra of dairy products. Portion sizes, however, were just right. The owner, Nick Sierzant, was there. He was affable and came across as a down-to-earth, honest fellow. At some point Sierzant will start brewing on premises. The menu promised a pale ale, a pilsner, and a bock. Lastly, the beer menu contained a lame sexist joke. Domestics like Bud, Coors, and Miller were under the WNBA category while craft brews were in NBA. I can understand making fun of crappy beer but why the need to demean women?

A question occurred to me as I was scanning the menu. The kids menu contained "Chicken Fingaires", which I take to be chicken fingers/strips, a pizza of one sort or another, and a couple other items. This is very common but I don't recall this being the case when I was a kid. At what point did a menu for children move from being smaller portions of other items on the menu to being almost exclusively generic garbage? Or is my memory just faulty? It's sad that, at a BBQ joint, children are presented with options that have absolutely nothing to do with BBQ. Smoky Jon's is the same way. Look at the Essen Haus' kids menu. It's McDonald's, essentially. No smaller portions of schnitzel or any such thing. It's like the restaurant is saying, "We have all this fine food for you. Your kids, however, can eat crap."

So when will Madison get Detroit-style pizza?

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18 June, 2013

Hey Dave Cieslewicz - Lay Off the Middle Ages

Today's column from Dave Cieslewicz at The Daily Page was disappointing. In it he accuses the Republicans that run this state of endeavoring to return Wisconsin to The Dark Ages.
Minnesota is levitating. The state is lifting away from Wisconsin and heading off into the 21st century while Wisconsin is working hard to reestablish the economy and social mores of the Dark Ages.


Soon enough our Dark Ages politics will result in a Dark Ages standard of living.

While the Republicans may not have the best interests of Wisconsin at heart, the Middle Ages don't deserve to be dragged into this squabble.

Sure, the criminalization of abortion began in the Middle Ages and many rivers were polluted as was the air of various cities but you'd think Cieslewicz would like The Middle Ages. He's a New Urbanist or at least is a big proponent of cities and cities were special places back in the day. "City air makes you free," was a saying that encompassed a bit of medieval law. If a serf could start a new life in a city and stay there for a year and a day, then he became free. Cities also had charters from the crown which gave them special privileges not enjoyed in rural areas where the feudal system reigned. Medieval cities gained some rights of self-government, got some tax exemptions, and, generally speaking, operated under rules to promote trade.

Economically speaking, cities were where the action was. A bit of global warming starting around the beginning of the second millennium C.E. boosted agriculture and, hence, trade. Cities had the equivalents of the Dane County Farmer's Market in the form of fairs. Because they were centers of trade modern accountancy originated in the Middle Ages in the great cities of Italy.

Medieval Europeans were also into renewable energy, something else close to Cieslewicz's heart. They used water mills and windmills starting in the late 13th century. As Cieslewicz gets older he might thank folks from 700+ years ago for inventing eyeglasses. What would the Fox River Valley be without paper mills which are a medieval invention? Guess when the university came into being? Indeed, it too is an invention of the Middle Ages. Look at Notre Dame Cathedral. People in the Middle Ages built it without power tools.

So, while certainly not a utopia, the Middle Ages had a lot going for them and don't deserve to be associated with today's Wisconsin Republicans.

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14 June, 2013

Dear John (Kokkines)

Dear John,

I'll have an Italian beef - hot and wet. Thanks.


What a nice way to start my Friday. I read that a gentleman by the name of John Kokkines has opened a sandwich shop called Crostini Sandwiches over on North Street. Not particularly exciting in and of itself but the kicker is that he's from the Chicago area and he will be serving Italian beef. His family owns Billy's Hot Dogs & Beef in Palatine so the guy has got Italian beef in his blood. (At least I am hoping so.) And his establishment is not too far from my home.

I am getting hungry right now.

Just called. They open at 10:30...

ADDENDUM: Of course I stopped there for lunch. I ordered a beef and the guy behind the counter slyly tried to get me to order the beef-sausage combo. Whoa there tiger. The beef's the thing wherein lies the something something.

It was tasty. Very tasty indeed. A bit heavy on the oregano, to my taste, but not to the point of overkill. Otherwise, it was great. I had to use four napkins. The giardiniera was good and, for those you weary of spicy food, it didn't have that many chili slices so it wasn't overly hot. I should also mention that the kartoffelsalat was good but needed a bit of salt. Good marks for the minced hard boiled egg and diced red pepper in it. John was very friendly as was the guy he had working the register. We ended up discussing the merits of Vienna dogs vs. other brands. Eat your heart out Mayor Soglin.

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12 June, 2013

In Defense of the Shandy/Radler

Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing posted a short tirade on his Facebook page in reaction to a news article which noted the increasing number of shandies on store shelves. He wrote:

Not satisfied by their declines, the major brand beer companies look to Europe for ways to drive a bigger stake into the heart of beer, faster. http://www.nbcnews.com/business/its-beer-its-lemonade-its-shandy-its-coming-us-6C10095813

Heck, mixing their beer with lemonade, soda pop and other sugary drinks helped the German industrial brewers lose credibility, why shouldn’t the USofA pile into that sinking boat too!

There’s nothing like sending a message to consumers that says “Hey, fed up with beer and or just not in the mood for a ‘regular’ fizzy yellow beer? Let us add HFCS / sugar and flavorings into it for you.” Bam! Instant respect from everyone (if “everyone” means “that MBA guy in the marketing dept charged with analyzing new trends”).

I'm sympathetic – to a point. The "shandies" I see on shelves are lemon flavored beers, not drinks comprised of a 50-50 mix of beer and lemonade/soda. Your shandy should not be 4.5% ABV; it should be 2.8%. So, yeah, MBA types in marketing divisions deserve a ration of shit.

On the other hand, I don't feel that a proper shandy or radler is deserving of scorn. These drinks have been around for a long time and are quite refreshing. Greg Koch should step outside California and/or talk with people other than those who spend an inordinate amount of time on the Beer Advocate forums because not everyone wants to drink a fucking pale ale or one of its cousins, i.e. – APA, IPA, black IPA, Belgian IPA, &c. Considering that Stone seems to be, outside of a handful of porters and stouts, a one trick pony – pale/amber ales and variations thereof – the MBA types at least deserve credit for seeking out something different. Furthermore, not everyone wants to spend a hot summer day drinking a fucking double, imperial, mega-boozy brew. Look at Stone's site and you'll find one session beer. (And for session beers I go with Lew Bryson – 4.5% ABV or less.) One.

On this last point, I notice new trend in craft brewing - India Session Ales. Koch is happy to rip on MBA guys looking for trends but I'll bet a dollar to a doughnut that the existence of these ISAs is all about trends. It has "India" in the name! It's related to the IPA! "Hey, fed up with imperial IPAs or just not in the mood for a 'regular' IPA? Let us remove some of the alcohol for you." Bam! Instant new trend and respect from the Beer Advocate crowd.

I had an ISA over the weekend – Central Waters' Hop Rise. It was pretty tasty but I have to say that I'm not sure if very hoppy beers are sessionable for me. A lower ABV is certainly a big part of the equation but I just can't take that many IBUs in a session.

In Herr Koch's honor, I made a radler last week on a hot day. I used Capital's Lake House and the lemon variety of Grown-Up Soda. GUS' sodas are much less sweet than your run-of-the-mill Coke and Pepsi products and have a nice dry flavor. From what I've read, radlers in Germany are made with soda akin to this stuff as opposed to the Teutonic equivalent of 7-Up.

The result was a very refreshing drink on a hot spring day of 85 degrees or so. I enjoyed every sip which had the dry tartness of the soda sitting next to the balanced malt & hops flavors in perfect harmony. Not too sweet, my tongue wasn't attacked by hops, and it was low in alcohol.

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The Newest Member of the Family

Here's the newest member of the family, Piper.

We picked her up on Saturday. She is 10ish weeks old and is the tiniest thing. Her small head sports big ears and her pushers (rear legs) look like those of a rabbit. She'll grow into them eventually.

Our other cat, Grabby, has been perpetually interested since we first let her have a sniff of the cat carrier with Piper inside. The first day was a lot of hissing and growling along with a few swipes. Grabby would find a spot to just sit and watch the kitten run around for a while before letting her know that she was an intruder. Piper was really scared at first but eventually started to ignore the big bully and simply continued to play with her toys and run around.

Things have mellowed out considerably. No more hissing and growling. Grabby still likes to keep Piper in her sights, though. Mainly they chase each other around. The scratching post is a popular spot for their showdowns. Grabby likes to lick Piper and they've even reached détente to the point where they'll share the couch.

Sadly, having Piper around means the morning routine Grabby and I had is over. She no longer plops down on the floor for a belly rub after breakfast. No more sitting on the corner of the dining room table so she can jump on my shoulders to perch. I feel like an empty nester.


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11 June, 2013

R.I.P. Iain Banks

Scottish author Iain Banks died a couple of days ago. I read his first novel The Wasp Factory and thought it was flawed but decent enough to warrant me reading something else by Banks.

John Mullan published an obituary for Banks in The Guardian that is lengthy and quite detailed. The more I read about Banks and his work, the more keen I am to read something else by him. Luckily I have Feersum Endjinn on my bookshelf.

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1984 Selling Like Gangbusters

Now that more revelations of our government spying on us have been revealed, George Orwell's classic, 1984, is selling like hotcakes. It was up 126% on Amazon's sales list as of last night. 6 June was the 60th anniversary of its publication.


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If You Tilt, You Will Be Exterminated

Since I am in the middle of watching the Seventh Doctor's run on Doctor Who, I can appreciate this pinball machine:

I love the Dalek turret. It's over at Rossi's Vintage Arcade & Pizzeria in Monona. I believe that it was out of order the last time I was there but looks to be fully armed and operational now. If you win, do you get unlimited rice pudding?

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Europa Report Trailer

This looks pretty hoopy. It sounds like a more cerebral Apollo 18 from what I've read but we'll just have to wait and see. Arthur C. Clarke is no doubt smiling from beyond the grave.

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Sci-Fi Theme Bars

io9 has a look at some science fiction-themed bars. Pretty hoopy.



Doctor Who.

Does Madison have any theme bars whether they be sci-fi or not? Sports bars not included.

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04 June, 2013

I Ate More Than a Bite at JB's Eat-A-Bite

Over the weekend The Dulcinea and I had lunch at JB's Eat-A-Bite BBQ. We were both so hungry that we were overwhelmed by the menu as everything sounded tasty. In the end, we decided to go with BBQ. She had the rib tips while I had the straight-up ribs.

Fries and coleslaw came with each. The former were done well – light and crispy. The slaw was good too. While it could have used some celery powder or seed, it wasn't sweet, which I greatly appreciated. The ribs were served lukewarm but I didn't mind too much. The meat was cooked perfectly. It came off the bone easily but didn't fall off. The sauce was excellent. If most BBQ sauces are tomato-based and sweet like catsup, this stuff was more akin to Heinz 57. I think it was mustard based. There was a hint of sweetness but it was mostly savory. The smoke flavor was also great. It tasted heartier and woodier than the other BBQ joints in town. I wonder if he uses a different kind of wood.

We, and by this I mean The Dulcinea, ordered okra and greens too.

The okra was fantastic. No deep frying here and also no mucilage. Instead you got tasty bites of that earthy goodness that somehow retained a bit of firmness. The greens were quite serviceable but I like mine with more fatback or bacon. A corn bread muffin came with the dinners as well. Again, not overly sweet, which gets high marks in my book, but it was dry.

The eponymous JB is James Brown, the friendly proprietor of the place. He was on hand and chatted us up. He also gave us free samples of the okra and the red beans & rice. He introduced the latter by noting that it was his mother's recipe and that she served it to Louis Armstrong. True or not, I can't say but I can say that it was excellent. In fact, I'd never had red beans & rice quite like it. It was more soupy – like gumbo – than the versions I've had which are thicker and more gravy-like. It had small chunks of chicken and slices of very small diameter sausage. Thyme was prominent. It left a very slight burn; a bit of tingling on the tongue really. Very, very good stuff. As I overheard JB tell another customer, the food is not spicy hot as Creole doesn't mean hot.

While we were too full for dessert, there were four kinds of cake, one of which was "Better Than Sex". It looked to be a dark chocolate cake with white frosting.

Next time The D is keen on trying the chicken livers while I want to give the Italian beef sandwich a go. Mr. Brown is apparently from Louisiana originally but lived in Chicago as well. This accounts for the presence of the Italian beef, Maxwell Street Polish, and whatnot on the menu.

Speaking of Italian beef, I noticed last week at Falbo Bros. now offers one and I just had to try it. It was actually pretty tasty. Unfortunately, they toasted the bun, melted cheese on it, and put the gravy on the side instead of dipping the sandwich in it.

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Goodbye Sixie: Spiral Scratch by Gary Russell

Being a big fan of the Sixth Doctor I approached Spiral Scratch with some anxiety. Yes, Sixie deserved to have a proper regeneration story but this was the end of the road for the Sixth Doctor PDAs. How would this farewell story hold up?

As with Instruments of Darkness Gary Russell devotes the opening chapters of the book to introducing a bevy of characters. First there are two alien children who find themselves in the medieval village of Wulpit. Then in Cold War Bucharest Prof. Joseph Tungard and his wife find themselves exiled to England after Joseph dares to go against the Romanian government. Over in England Sir Bertrand Lamprey loses his home and wife to a fire while in a different England two parents visit their daughter's grave.

For his part The Doctor gets it in his head to go visit his old friend Prof. Rummus who runs the Library of Carsus. But he and Mel both have surreal moments. Mel is in the console room when it plays host to various alternate Doctors and Mels including one incarnation of our hero clad in all black with a scar across one eye. This coterie of Time Lords act a bit like The Doctors in "The Five Doctors" as they try to put their heads together to puzzle things out but the new ones disappear before any answers are arrived at. The "real" Mel is left wondering who or what the Lamprey the other Doctors mentioned is. The "real" Doctor also had a strange encounter and is convinced that they must go to Carsus.

There they meet Rummus and experience more timey-wimey events including, disturbingly, the dead bodies of Rummus and The Doctor. With people's timelines running amok, Rummus and The Doctor postulate that the Vortex Spiral has been scratched and that something needs to be done pronto.

At this point I was completely enthralled with Spiral Scratch. Several characters have been introduced and time has gone all non-linear with alternate versions of the characters wandering into scenes, offering tantalizing clues, and then disappearing. Unfortunately, Russell can't keep the momentum going.

It turns out that Rummus stole an ancient Gallifreyan device called the Spiral Chamber and has used it to study the Lamprey, an inhabitant of the Vortex endowed with a voracious appetite for time. Rummus unknowingly allowed the Lamprey to cross from the Vortex into our reality and it is now running roughshod over everything and everyone, merrily eating timelines as it goes. This in itself is a fine story idea but the Lamprey – this eldritch creature from the Vortex which threatens the whole of reality – actually looks like a lamprey. Furthermore, while it's genuinely fun to read about The Doctor, Mel, and their various alternate incarnations running around in different time streams, the subsidiary characters just never quite gel for me. There's too much going on for the story to give them their due and they're just not that interesting.

It's not that they're horrible characters, but rather that Rummus and his relationship to The Doctor would have been more interesting to explore. He's not just some scientist meddling in areas which he shouldn't, he's a friend of The Doctor's who sets in motions events which could destroy everything. I'd much rather have had a more intimate story exploring the dynamic between these two as well as the Library on Carsus. It is billed as the largest repository of knowledge in the universe – what an interesting place! - and certainly could have been a wonderful jumping off point for investigation but instead is used sparingly.

I wish that Russell had narrowed the scope of the story a bit to include less characters and less worlds. There are some amusing moments but a bit here and a bit there in alternate timelines and other worlds just feels unsatisfying. It's like Russell dragged these places into the story more to broaden it and give it an epic feel than anything else. The alternate versions of The Doctor and Mel are a clever device here and I think it would have been more interesting to have them appearing leaving behind a tantalizing clue before disappearing throughout the story rather than being more fully-realized as they are here.

The setup in Spiral Scratch was great but the execution gets bogged down with too many people that aren't particularly interesting. To give Russell his due, the regeneration scene at the end was done well and leads directly into "Time and the Rani" with the Rani saying, “Leave the girl, it’s the man I want...”

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Revenge of the Smythe: Instruments of Darkness by Gary Russell

Instruments of Darkness is the final book of a trilogy that began with The Scales of Injustice, which I haven't read, and continued with Business Unusual, the story which introduced Mel. I found the latter to be fun but it was a pretty standard DW story. Thusly I was rather surprised by this one which veered into territory that the New Series treads.

Russell opens his tale with a series of vignettes introducing us to various characters. We begin with a rather mysteriously with an albino and a blue light appearing at various points in the past with women being abducted each time. Finally in 1972 a "shadow man" steals away with a woman named Lori who, he proclaims, is his Ini-Ma. We also meet the aging Vice-Marshal Dickinson whose son disappeared while working for UNIT. Plus there's Captain Therese Gavalle whose mind is taken over by an alien.

The story moves into the present. Over in the village of Halcham the reclusive Sebastian Malvern provides shelter for the infamous Irish twins, Cellian and Ciara as well as a trio of teens who survived the nightmare of SenéNet in Business Unusual. Meanwhile in Park Gavalle responds to an anonymous invitation and finds herself in the employ of the Network, a secret organization that is a front for another secret organization bent on perpetrating evil and harnesses the power of psychics to do so. Trey Korte also returns here. He's been using his psychic abilities on behalf of UNIT and its doppelgänger C19. DI Bob Lines also makes an appearance here. He uses a beacon to signal The Doctor after Trey is abducted from a hospital.

Whew! That's a lot of characters and plot strands.

Luckily Russell is up to the task of bringing them all together. But what surprised me was that he brought Evelyn Smythe into the fold. She was a companion from the Doctor Who audio dramas from Big Finish. The Doctor and Mel meet up with her and it is revealed that The Doctor dropped Evelyn off on Earth to keep an eye out for the Irish Twins but that he did so without giving her any material support and left her there several earlier than he intended to. Unsurprisingly, Evelyn is angry. This leads to some wonderful prose delving into the relationship between The Doctor and his companions. Of her The Doctor says:

"But Evelyn... Evelyn was different. For the first time in some years, I met someone who was, well, an equal. Evelyn didn’t need rescuing too often – I can remember one or two ferocious creatures that needed rescuing from her. She used her brains, her wit and experience to get out of any real trouble and we faced things together. She’d had a lot of life experience you see – she was divorced, she had spent most of her life dealing with younger people, her students. Nothing fazed her.’ He laughed. ‘She even held her own against an entire Dalek army once. We read the same books, laughed at the same jokes. There was an unspoken respect and equality between us, I suppose."

Upon hearing this Mel begins to see The Doctor in a new light, one in which his bluster covers over "a very basic sadness". Perhaps The Doctor not only cared for Evelyn but cared about her as well.

The new series episode "School Reunion" comes to mind and I suppose that basic sadness is really a general theme of the New Series – last of the Time Lords and all that. Russell worked on the New Series although I'm not sure how much of this was his doing. What I like here is that this look into The Doctor's psyche comes courtesy of Sixie with all his outrage instead of the younger, hipper David Tennant. Moral indignation was such a defining characteristic of Colin Baker's Doctor that a look underneath the bluster and the chance that he had done wrong by Evelyn has more impact for me than what the New Series did. (Of course, I say this despite Sixie admitting to having misjudged Lytton in "Attack of the Cybermen".) That the Irish Twins are seeking redemption here adds another layer to the emotional core of the story and perhaps parallels The Doctor's movitivations.

All in all Instruments of Darkness was a fine PDA. The highlight is surely The Doctor and Evelyn's relationship laid bare but it's a fine adventure tale as well.

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