strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

the impossible burger–a lukewarm review

The Impossible Burger is the most high-tech attempt to create a vegetarian meat substitute that might appeal to meat-eaters. The creators analyzed the various chemicals in beef that give it its distinctive flavor, and concluded that the most important one to duplicate was hemoglobin, a complex protein which you may already know of due to its role in oxygenating blood. Hemoglobin is why blood is red.

Instead of hemoglobin, the Impossible Burger contains a plant analogue with the painfully un-mellifluous name leghemoglobin, which is harvested from genetically modified yeast.

It pains me to say this, because I’m a weepy environmentalist, but the Impossible Burger isn’t quite there yet. The texture is really loose and the flavor sort of one-note. It’s intensely umami at first, as if it’s trying to overcompensate for the lack of whatever other billion proteins give beef its flavor. If you’d told me that it was a real meat burger, I would have believed you, but I also would have said, what kind of shitty burger is this, and the next time we hang out, can it not be here? You could trick me into thinking it was real meat, but only by taking advantage of our friendship.

Sadly, this is not yet an impossible burger. More like an improbable burger. But it’s definitely the best meat substitute I’ve tried so far.


the witches of eastwick–a bad review with style

China Mieville has a favorite quote that says, in essence, that writers ought not to be too proud of themselves. That the kind of self-conscious observation they engage in is in reality done by everyone, and that writers are alone in thinking that these mundane observations are of such importance that they ought to be committed to paper. This is, in my mind, uncharitable to good writers, who do not merely set their boring observations down on paper, but go on to synthesize something interesting out of them. They record the noise, and draw out the essence that is the signal. But John Updike demonstrated no writing talent in The Witches of Eastwick, and ought to take this stricture to heart.

The Witches of Eastwick is not a good novel because it sets down the observations, but does not go on to make anything out of them. Updike is clever and observant and has a way with words, but a failure to conceive of the characters in anything like a truly lifelike manner means that the book is just a string of scenes disrupted by interminably long purple passages. This is probably because John Updike, for all his celebrated imagination, can only conceive of women in terms of their sexual differences from men–that they give birth and that they like fucking men.

This, for example, is what John Updike thinks a liberated woman thinks about for a nearly page-long paragraph right before she enjoys a good hot tub orgy with her two best friends and the tall, dark, but not handsome, stranger who’s just moved into town:

“…she was reminded now of her four babies, how as they came one by one it was the female infants suckling that tugged at her insides more poignantly, the boys already a bit like men, that aggressive vacuum, the hurt of the sudden suction, the oblong blue skulls bulging and bullying above the clusters of frowning muscles where their masculine eyebrows would someday sprout. The girls were daintier, even those first days, such hopeful thirsty sweet clinging sugar-sacks destined to become beauties and slaves…”

This book is written the way a white guy dances–no beat, no rhythm. Too in love with his own cleverness to ask any bigger questions, to see that something logical links scene to scene. He had a few interesting thoughts about babies while writing this orgy scene, and he just jammed them in without considering the context. Who the fuck thinks about babies right before an orgy starts? Who would want to go back for seconds with that person? Updike characters, apparently.

It’s all even worse when you consider that the book is set during the Vietnam War. The two characters who care about the unjustness of the war are a man branded as effeminate, and a woman branded as a shrieking harpy, whose husband literally murders her in an effort to get some peace and quiet. That’s what passes for moral complexity in Updike’s world–sure, it might be bad that a great superpower invaded a weaker country and massacred its citizens for no good reason, but have you considered that the people who think this is bad are really annoying?

I suppose now I should finally say a word about the premise. The book is about a triumvirate of witches who are divorced or widowed, and, unbelievable as this is, this is Updike’s idea of a feminist book. The plot revolves around their inescapable magnetic attraction to a rich new guy who moves into town. And they have a lot of sex with him even though he is very annoying. As far as I can tell, Updike is the kind of guy who sees feminism, and thinks it means it’ll be easier for average-looking guys like him to get laid. An important observation, but one that misses the point, which explains why this book doesn’t have one.


The day I drank goat blood

So here’s the Tanzanian countryside.


Tanzanian friends reading this, please forgive me for what I’m about to say, but as an outsider, it looked depressing, sere, sterile. It was paralyzingly hot, so hot the air became thick against the skin. The soil was so dry it was sublimating into dust. In short, not nice.

One fine Sunday, most of our hostel piled into a van, and we drove through this for an hour and a half to arrive here.


A true oasis, this hot spring was the result of water seeping up from the ground. What a miracle. And certainly it was the most bountiful, clear, and gorgeous source of water for miles around, so when five Maasai led a string of goats by us, I didn’t take it seriously when my friends Katy and Crystal speculated that they were going to kill the goats. So convinced was I that the Maasai had only brought their goats for a drink that I got up and found our tour guide, Rufano.

“Yo, Rufano. They’re not going to kill the goats, are they?” (I don’t think Rufano even knew my name yet at this point. I’m a direct kind of person, especially when there’s something I really want to know.)

“They are, actually. They’re going to do it over there so they don’t upset you mzungus.” (“Mzungu” means “foreigner” in Swahili.)

Damn it, I was going to have to go back and tell Katy and Crystal that they were right.

“Do you want to go see them kill the goats?” Rufano asked.

I weighed the chances of being judged cruel to animals against the certainty of the pleasure of a new experience. Certainty won. It usually wins.

We walked through tall grass and low trees to a clearing. We’d missed the start of the killing. Both goats were on the ground, throats cut, but one had already stopped moving. The remaining goat’s legs were jerking, and its body thrashed out small arcs through the dirt. One man was kneeling at the dying goat’s throat, and catching the blood in the kind of cheap white bowl I would have expected to see at Ikea. He was drinking it. I knew that the Maasai, when they are thirsty, would cut the vein of a living goat and have a drink when they were thirsty, but it’s one thing to read about it on Wikipedia, and another to see it live. The first reaction I had was to wonder, how could drinking blood possibly make you less thirsty? Blood is salty, after all.

The second reaction was deep satisfaction that I had managed to see something that most tourists wouldn’t have seen.

The third was pride that I was not averting my eyes.

The man at the goat’s throat was refilling the bowl for another drink. Rufano said, “Would you like to drink it?” He had a teasing sort of look on his face.

Later, I would tell everyone that I had felt peer-pressured into it. The Maasai had looked so thrilled that a mzungu would join them in one of their customs. There were big, big grins all around, brilliant against their dark skin, and a happy, festive feeling in the air. The Maasai to my immediate right had even pulled his phone out and was filming the whole thing, and for some reason, keeping the flash on. In the glare of that tiny limelight, how could I not want to make them happy? But the truth was, if Rufano hadn’t offered, I would have asked.

The goat blood was bright red, the same color I’d seen any time I had cut myself. There was only a little in the bowl, perhaps a tablespoon. The goat had been mostly dead–mostly drained–by the time I’d arrived. I put the bowl to my lips, and drank it all. The taste was not salty. In fact, I would describe it as tasting like a goat soup made by an inexpert cook who had forgotten to put salt in. With the addition of some chopped chives, and salt, I believe that most people might enjoy the taste.

But I don’t really want to encourage you to drink the goat blood. Because the more mzungus do it, the less special I will feel. But fortunately, I have a feeling that even if I were to try to persuade you to drink it, you still wouldn’t.

Lisbon partnered dance report

I can’t recommend it. With the exception of one swing night, there’s nothing to do but kizomba. If you’re not a fan of close embrace right off the bat, like me, there’s little to do here. At Barrio Latino, at least, it’s too crowded to do anything but close embrace, which cuts off a lot of interesting vocabulary.

There have been only two times in my life where someone walked out of a dance with me halfway through, and I’m sorry to say that Barrio Latino, Lisbon, was the site of the second time. This is the rudest thing you can do to someone, short of insulting them outright.

I asked another guy there what the deal was, and he just said that the Portuguese were very arrogant. Considering he was French, that’s saying quite a bit.

I don’t know why the other dance reports I read online were so glowing, but my AirBnB host said that gentrification has proceeded at a mind-boggling pace. The price of rent in Lisbon doubled within a year, which makes San Francisco look sane in comparison. So maybe the Portuguese have gotten more unfriendly in the last couple years.

Why is modern art so damn boring?

I made the mistake of going to a modern art museum today. I stood before a big yellow triangle that invited me to contemplate its massiveness, its yellowness, and its angliness. And nothing else. I attempted to let my mind fill with yellow, to consider the purity of the three straight lines. And I just couldn’t do it. I got bored and left after ten seconds.

Why is modern art so damn boring? It’s too reductive. Deriving meaning from some colored shape relies on seeing its relationships with other colored shapes. Trying to appreciate a giant installation that’s nothing but a big vertical stripe feels wrongheaded for the same reasons that attempting to derive Newton’s laws from studying a single point mass would be. The most interesting truths lie in the studying of interactions. You would never learn about gravity from studying a closed system with a single point mass, and any experience of yellowness that you get from looking at a big yellow triangle will be similarly stunted. It’s too cerebral, too pure, too sterile.

You can tell all this abstract art is a failure to communicate when you have to, have to, read the informational placard that comes with it. This, even if you are already familiar with several centuries’ worth of art history, and have years of experience studying drawing. A piece of visual art should speak for itself. It shouldn’t need help from a completely different medium. I’ve become accustomed to seeing exhibits and considering the artwork and its accompanying placard together as a single piece of work. I rather doubt that this is what any of the original artists ever intended.

It’s not that abstract art is hard to get. It’s that there’s too little to get. You get it, you absorb it, and then you think, damn, is this all there was? Sadly, the answer is yes.

The Rainbow Fish: a searing review

this book if one can use the term is HORRIBLE in sum it is about a poor misunderstood gorgeous fish that must MUTILATE himself simply to attain acceptance from the swimming mediocrities thats right BODILY MUTILATION for the sake of SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE what kind of message does that send to kids i ask you no kind of message at all i say much better that the kiddos read some ayn rand

Moby Dick: a positive review, with qualifications

My comprehensive theory of art appreciation, accounting for the objectivity and subjectivity thereof, goes like this: past a surprisingly low bar of technical competence, whether you like something is a function of how much you happen to click with that particular artist as a person.

So. Herman Melville’s technical competence is beyond question. Mixed as my feelings are, if you want to insult his powers as a stylist, I’d have to fight you.

Now, the question is–would you like Melville as a person?

To answer this, you must ask yourself:

Have I madness within me?

Am I a man or woman of powerful great feeling?

When life holds me down to its grindstone, whether to sharpen me to a keen point or to wear me down into nothing, do I shower incandescent sparks of poetry in response?

And most importantly: Do I really, really like whales?

The very first time I ever heard of Moby Dick, I was reading the marginalia in The Princess Bride. Goldman said something along the lines of, “only the most masochistic, dedicated readers read all the whaling chapters in Moby Dick.” In which case, most readers must skip sixty percent of the book. Why does nobody mention this? I thought it was just going to be one or two chapters about whales. I thought I was just going to grit my teeth for half an hour, and then I’d get to be better than everyone else. Why do people only talk about the white whale and Ahab? Ahab barely shows up! Is there some kind of conspiracy amongst all the English literature scholars out there? Will a shaggy grad student knife me in the back now that I’ve spilled the beans? (Bring it, bitches, I’ve known too many academics to ever fear them. My Daisy Red Ryder and I await you with pleasure.)

I’m still reeling from the pages and pages of excruciating detail on how exactly to use a block and tackle to hoist a sperm whale. But sprinkled in amongst the classifications of whale species and the exact measurements of whale skeletons, are gorgeous meditations on life, with roughly the same density as one might expect fruit chunks to be distributed in a fruitcake. You vigorously masticate an agonizingly dense substance for a long time, and are then rewarded by a chewy burst of flavor.

I tell you this so you can come in with the properly calibrated expectations.

As for me, personally, yeah, I’d get along with Melville. Not enough to be roommates, but enough for a long plane ride.

I live in a valley with a culture of ruthless efficiency, where the prevailing aesthetic is commercial, minimalist, and sterile. Moby Dick is lush, ornate, and uninhibited. It’s everything–whaling manual, Shakespearean tragedy, a play, a series of prose-poems, a loose collection of essays. It is precisely because of its chaotic nature that it achieves the kind of authenticity, the kind of earnestness that seems so hard to find these days. Real life is always irregular. Moby Dick is overwhelmingly passionate, and somehow, despite all the jokes in it, gay* and otherwise, I don’t want to mock it. Someday, I’ll reread it.

*  Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

vertical versus horizontal sharding: a mnemonic

Okay, imagine you have a stalk of celery.  Each lengthwise fiber represents a column in a table in a relational database.

Now cut the celery vertically. You have vertically sharded it!

Okay, now imagine you have a carrot. Each ring-like bump on the carrot represents one row in a table in a relational database.

You cut the carrot into a bunch of little slices. You have horizontally sharded it.

Thank you, thank you. My consulting fees are $300/hour, plus catered lunch.

Train to Busan: a glowing review

Now that I’ve seen this movie, I don’t feel like I need any more zombie movies.

This is not actually true. I have a bottomless appetite for zombie stories. But Train to Busan is so perfectly executed that I do feel temporarily sated. It hits all the usual themes–the real enemies are not the zombies, but your fellow humans; the authorities suck; and it has the usual social commentary. This particular movie takes a few potshots at the 1%. They’re all on the nose, but it’s hard to be subtle in a zombie movie.

Train to Busan begins when the ruthless hedge-fund manager and unlikable protagonist Seok-woo accidentally buys his young daughter a Wii for her birthday the second time in a row. She uses this as leverage to coax him into taking her to Busan so she can visit her mother. Father and daughter must then survive an outbreak on the train. The result is kinetic, with never a wasted moment. At times it’s even quite touching, as Seok-woo learns what it takes to be a father. This is a zombie movie with good family values.

The train is a truly inspired setting. How did nobody think of this before? A train is perfect for survival horror. It’s close quarters, hard to escape, and has few useful tools. Not only that, but the train is a wonderful embodiment of the drive to escape that must be present in all zombie movies.

Back in its home country of South Korea, Train to Busan sold over ten million tickets. The population of South Korea is only about 50.7 million people. Twenty percent of an entire nation (plus me) can’t be wrong. Go see this movie!

loudly grunting while working out: a positive review

I like loudly grunting while working out* because it makes me feel powerful. Maybe if you do it, you will feel powerful too.

* Also known as, “warrior noises.”