Monthly Archives: September 2009

A new dessert

I’ve been playing with creme anglaise a bit lately, and I had two willing victims^wdiners tonight to iterate on. I started them out with my Andalusian-ish green gazpacho (which still needs *something*) your basic feta and watermelon salad with pepper, and some garlic bread. For dessert I did a straightforward creme anglaise by the thirds- three egg yolks and a third of a cup of sugar for a cup of creme with vanilla. (I used extract. It wasn’t nice.)(I’m poor, ok? Grocery store beans are reamingly expensive. All hail eBay.)

Anyway I picked up this weird green south American fruit I can’t remember the name of, which we’ll call WGSAFICRTNO for short. The WGSAFICRTNO was definitely tropical, and had huge brown seeds, but also vaguely pear like. Raw it had a tang and a touch of bitterness that was, let’s face it, unpleasant. Victim #1, Tina, viewed it with some doubt. I also had a safety mango.

I recommend safety mangos.

I was pretty sure the creme wasn’t really going to cut the problems with the WGSAFICRTNO. I started by squirting some lemon on it, which Tina and I both agreed helped but didn’t fix the problem. Then I remembered one of the slogans I live my life by: Almost anything can be improved by being browned in brown butter. (So I quickly did brown it in butter, but lemony butter.) At the end it was almost apple like, but but more complex. Not every problem was solved, but what was left seemed fixable by the power of custard.

Boy was I right. The custard soothed the last of the WGSAFICRTNO’s hard edges and the WGSAFICRTNO imparted lots of flavor to the neutral richness of the custard. All three of us mango fans shunned my safety dessert in favor of the WGSAFICRTNO in Creme Anglaise, served in a martini glass and garnished with sliced almonds.1

I still like nailing desserts more than savory dishes, because while a good meal will get you strong and loving praise, it takes something decadent and rich and sweet to get your hosts furtively withdrawn, planning how they’ll tie you to the basement on a tether long enough to reach the kitchen. That’s right, for me a meal hasn’t really succeeded until someone plotting to turn me into a culinary gimp against my will.2

I decided afterward the almonds were kind of eh, and it would have been better with pine nuts. And caramel. And then I thought, pine nut caramel! Oh I think so.

1 By shunned the mango I don’t mean didn’t eat it, I mean expressed preference for the WGSAFICRTNO. We aren’t insane.
2 My latex gimp hood will require copious nose holes and either an always open mouth bit, or one I can easily open myself. FYI.

Notes on Gravity’s Rainbow

From pg 250ish:

Plasticity has its grand tradition and main stream, which happens to flow
by way of du Pont and their famous employee Carothers, known as The Great
Synthesist. His classic study of large molecules spanned the decade of the twenties
and brought us directly to nylon, which not only is a delight to the fetishist and
a convenience to the armed insurgent, but was also, at the time and well within
the System, an announcement of Plasticity’s central canon: that chemists were no
longer to be at the mercy of Nature. They could decide now what properties they
wanted a molecule to have, and then go ahead and build it. At du Pont, the next
step after nylon was to introduce aromatic rings into the polyamide chain. Pretty
soon a whole family of “aromatic polymers” had arisen: aromatic polyamides,
polycarbonates, polyethers, polysulfanes.

Puts me very much in the mind of synth bio today. (This story falls into the ‘too good to check’ category, and besides since I’m using it for allegory, I don’t care if it’s historical or rhetorical.) What, do you suppose, is the nylon of synthetic biology? The application that will not only escape from the lab, but if need be wrenched from its hold to satisfy so basic a desire as to make women somehow prettier to men?

1000 Ledes n + 14: When simply asking isn’t appropriate

Faces can be deceptive on this point. The eyes, specifically, can be all over the place. Clothing, mannerisms, wrinkles or their lack, colloquialisms, shape-size-haircolor-teeth, waddles on chin or upper arms. Location, length or amount of hair. All can be intensionally or unintentionally miscues.

If you want to know someone’s age, look at the back of their hands.

Text from 5mof: How to open a vein.

(Still planning to work on this talk, but here is the first iteration, as presented to Noisebridge earlier this evening. Video should be available in the coming months.)

Hi my name is Quinn, I’m a writer, I write everyday. Some days more than others.

I am not going to tell you how to be a good writer. That’s impossible in five minutes.

There’s one thing they say can’t be taught even if you take years, and that’s how to open a vein. I figured years might be the wrong approach, and I’d see if I could do that in five minutes.

First off- writing is a risky business. More than you realize. When I say I’m a writer I mean I’m a thrill seeker in emotional hellholes. I’m like Steve Irwin but for the inner demons of humanity instead of crocodiles. There’s a reasons so many of us drink ourselves to death and eat gun barrels.

But let’s say you still want to write. What does it mean to open a vein? To explain it without doing is kind of impractical, but let’s call it caring so hard that you use words to force other people to care, often against their will.

Meet the enemy: the blank page.

The page is an impenetrable barrier, and we writers spend our lives trying to tear it down to get to you and hide behind it all at once. This is why we’re kind of nuts.

Words are barriers and conduits. Horribly and wonderfully, they are for the most part all we really ever have of each other.

Seeing as I am a writer, I have all sorts of complex writing tricks. I can make text sing, I can make it dance, I can obfuscate and explicate in even parts. None of that matters if I don’t care about my topic. You will be able to tell.

Another warning: When you are doing it right, when you are writing from your heart, it will never be good enough. There’s not a point where it’s finished, there’s a point where you can’t go on.

So what is writing from the heart, writing in your own blood? It is saying what you mean because nothing less will do, and nothing less will help. It’s always expressing out of desperation. Because you need them to know.

Here’s a list of motivations for writing that don’t make very good writing. This makes you boring, so boring usually you know somewhere in your heart that you are boring. And we all do this. We all do this most of the time. <slide>

But lets turn that on it’s head and see the reasons that make you bleed.

…wanting to get the things out of you before they eat your head, wanting your mother to love you, wanting to know for sure that you really exist, wanting to not die of the shame of knowing your mediocrity wasted the precious and finite moments of the lives of those you love, or even that you hate, or only believing you lived when you look back and see your bootprints on the hearts of as many people as possible…

It’s telling the naked story of why you care.

You’d think it’s something that takes a long time to do, that you fret over every word. But consider how you’d tell someone you loved they were in danger. It’s precise, it’s tight, it’s not more than you need and sure as hell not less.

It’s running 26 miles to declare ‘We have won.’ and then falling dead. (That guy knew how to punctuate.)

Another warning: You can write about it or you can talk it out- talking out your feelings and verbally telling your stories is great for productive group therapy, not so good if you want to write about it. I need both, so I’m learning to write first.

If you think this doesn’t apply to your python documentation, you may be right. But it probably applies as soon as you’re explaining. We think tech writing has no blood in it, but when it’s good, it has a bit. It’s there whenever you care.

Consider this opening about plate tectonics:

The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude- a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

My editor for years at wired, Kevin Poulsen, helped me find how to convey what I cared about, and therefore make you care as well. It’s a lot about trust. When I don’t bleed on the paper It’s because I don’t trust you the audience to get it, won’t trust you with my pearls, my heart, or to understand the importance of my arcane knowledge. It’s arrogant as well, to think you cannot possibly get the stuff in my head.

Here’s the beginning of a piece on software defined radio, where you might not think you’d find my heart, but it’s there:

Matt Ettus has the sly smile of someone who sees the invisible. His hands fly over the boards of his Universal Software Radio Peripheral, or USRP, snapping them together with an antenna like Lego bricks. Then he plugs in the naked boards to a USB 2 cable snaking to his Linux laptop.

After few minutes of normal Linux messing around (“Takes forever to boot…. Haven’t got the sound driver working yet….”) he turns the laptop around to reveal a set of vibrating lines in humps and dips across the screen, like a wildly shaking wireframe mountain range. “Here,” he explains, “I’m grabbing FM.”

“All of it?” I ask.

“All of it,” he says. I’m suddenly glad the soundcard isn’t working.”

Radio is that bit of the electromagnetic spectrum that sits between brain waves and daylight. It’s made of the same stuff that composes light, color, electrical hums, gamma radiation from atom bombs, the microwaves that reheat your pizza.

So if you want to write, if you want to really write, ask yourself, why do I care? Why is this important enough to risk humiliation, ridicule, hope, life, love and madness? And when you answer that, you will know how to make us care.

Sita Sings the Blues: A Funded by You Production

I first came across Sita Sings the Blues because it’s the poster child for free expression in the copyfight crowd. Its creator is Nina Paley, an indie filmmaker, animator, and writer. She created a version of the Ramayana that reflected her own life and political environment. Aubrey Menen did that was well, and made a book I have loved since I was a child. (It’s also the source of one of my favorite quotes: “What we call History is merely Shiva’s procrastination.”)

Sita Sings the Blues, like Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana, is just damn good. The Ramayana turns out to make some good culture when ripped off, which is to my mind one of the marks of a quality holy book or myth. That it was a damn good movie which also happens to get screwed by copyright law is what made it such a popular and fine example of the harm over-zealous IP protection can do, not how screwed Paley was in particular.

Much of the media generated in opposition to current copyright regimes is nice politically and all, but it’s terrible artistically. “Honesty,” says Paley, “is where the soul of art comes from.” Not community belonging, or opposition to a legal principle, or even trying to get liked. Paley’s honesty took her to pick up the songs of the long dead Annette Hanshaw and make them the voice of Sita, the wife of the god figure Rama. Hanshaw sings sad and soulful songs of lover’s devotion while getting royally screwed. Sita also gets royally screwed in the tale, a distinctive feminine view of the original, and matching Paley’s own sense of betrayal from her runaway partner, Dave.

It’s obvious when you see the film that simply nothing else could have brought the same quality as Hanshaw. A different movie could have been made, but not Sita Sings the Blues. Hanshaw is just a couple years more recent than the magic 1923 number for public domain, and therefore locked away from use without a license for many years to come. Despite the fact that nobody but Paley seems to have known about her, being publicized in Sita can only generate more interest and sales, the rightholders are strict. It would cost somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000 to ever show Sita in a theatre legally.

Some people say it’s not good art unless it pisses someone off. By that score, Sita Sings the Blues is great art. Not only does Paley live with the threat of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in suits over using Hanshaw’s songs, Hindu fundies have threatened to hang her for turning the Ramayana into a feminist yarn in which Rama comes across as kind of a dick.

If you can’t tell, I love Sita Sings the Blues. So much that it’s been nearly impossible to write about it, because every time I try I end up watching it again and just losing my writing time. It survives rewatching easily. It chunks, each little bit works as a short that still adds up to a coherent whole. Don’t just take my unqualified word for it. None other than Roger Ebert himself gushes about it at least as much as I.

One of the most telling criticisms of Paley is that she knew what she was getting into by using Hanshaw’s work. Of course she did, kind of. She knew she had right to clear. She didn’t research it too hard though. She had a movie to make, and she wanted to make her movie, not the movie that would be easy to clear rights for. “If I kill my own art out of fear of them, then I’ve really lost,” she told That she walked down this road is a credit to her as an artist, even if it’s not a credit to her commercial sensibilities.

She acknowledges that her commercial problem is the common problem of remixers these days. “I am taking ideas that have been around for thousands of years, and 80 years, and only a few years… and I synthesize something.” And, like other remixers, this may mean that she can’t ever sell what she’s done. Paley went ahead and released her source files for Sita as well as posting it at Others have started to remix her scenes into new things, some of which she posts on her blog.

As of last count the archive alone had 113,259 downloads, plus god knows how many on the torrents and from other sites. Would she have gotten more or less from a commercial release? I have no idea. I don’t know how art house indie films like Sita normally do. I suspect in the long run she will do well out of it, from donations, and a fanbase that would have been totally unreachable from the film festivals Sita would have played in. The people who cared about the copyright aspect did well too, seeing something wonderful and mythic and feminist that doesn’t generally intrude on the IP geeking community. Without her troubles and openness I don’t know that I would have gotten a chance to see Sita, so for my own small selfish part, I’m glad she ran into her copyright troubles. I hope it turns out in the long run it works out well for her too.

1000 Ledes n + 13: Auto-Biography

She was about 11 when the voice started in her head. It never claimed to be God or the devil. It never issued instructions, neither criticized nor praised her. The voice didn’t talk to her directly, not even once. It didn’t react when she screamed back. It narrated. It never stopped.

As she would run to her room and stuff her head in her pillow, wetting it with tears and feeling it yield against the tensed muscles of her face, the voice would continue explaining. “She ran to her room, and threw herself on her bed, stuffing her face in her pillow.” When she finally audibly shouted “Shut up!” in the silence of her room, the voice would say “She shouted ‘Shut up!'” and wait for her next move.

What Gov 2.0 is making me think

I think we are getting enough examples of what the internet does to things back in the real world to start extracting some possibly slightly predictive behavioral patterns.

The one I think is really important for .gov is that the internet eventually destroys institutions whose main purpose was physical mediation of otherwise interested but unconnected parties. Over time, those middle layers will simply go away. They have to, because they are transformed (through no fault of their own) from conduit to barrier. The transformer is environmental- the internet is kind of ice-9 that way. But this is not a binary, smooth, fast, or simple transition, and the people in the middle of it are understandably confused and angry.

This is why record companies and newspapers are pissed off and pissing other people off that can’t figure out why they won’t just cease to exist. This is painful and hard. This is so painful and so hard that we have an aversion to seeing which institutions are next. Physical mediation is a good starting point to think about it: so what parts of governments exist to physically deliver something that can be described as information? Those parts will eventually go away. They can go away gracefully, or they can not go away gracefully. Government has a possibly unique ability to make that transition as non graceful as possible, but I doubt even it has the power to stop the process altogether.

When I first consulted with all sorts of companies in 1995 about their very first web pages, every one of them did a variation of the same thing: put their catalog or brochures on the web! How cool is that! Not actually that cool, I tried to humbly suggest. “The net,” I said repeatedly until my coworkers were ready to hurl, “is a conversation.” Many of these companies and organizations had never really conversed with anyone connected to them. It never had come up. Learning what that meant is each case has made the last 13 years completely fascinating.

I feel a little like the database fetishism I am seeing is a version of the catalog idea. There is nothing wrong with putting your catalog online, but it’s a serious misunderstanding of the net to think that the net is going to let you do the same thing as printing out all your data and sending it to everyone in the world, only without paying for postage. To explain how it’s different I’m going to dodge the question by hiding behind Tolstoy- pre-internet institutions are all alike, post-internet institutions are structurally disrupted in their own ways.

Like stages of grief, we need to figure out the stages of internet integration for institutions. I suspect grief is in there.

More as my head breaks.

Eliminated from Twitter

I stumbled out of bed this morning to find my Twitter account had been suspended for suspicious activity, and I couldn’t submit a ticket about it. The ticket just wouldn’t go through. So… I guess… don’t look for me there. For my new mostly Twitter lit friends: I hope to get back on, but if I don’t I’d still love to keep in touch.

Drop your notes of sympathy, contact info, etc in an email to quinn at quinnnorton.

Update: Ok, this was part of a general bug that hit everyone that used a certain hashtag. It’s fixxored now.

Tab Dump

Slate presents BuyOneAnyway: “For just pennies a day you can cloth, feed and shelter newspaper professionals.”

One of the things that makes our species great isn’t self awareness, it’s that we’re aware of other species. Sometimes we do something so cool with that awareness I am left gawping, but with delight this time. “Scientists draw ancient squid using its own 150 million-year-old ink

5 Myths About Health Care Around the World. One of the best and most lucid pieces about how healthcare really works, in the places where it does work.

1000 Ledes: n + 12: The Woman Looking After You

Wendy lost her insurance providing job because urgent surgery was going to require that she miss work. She was invited to quit, and thereby avoid being fired. Insurance paid only about 20% of her surgery costs, the rest was to come out of her suddenly non-existent income. Washington state won’t provide her with insurance- she’s not quite old enough and she isn’t disabled. Cobra was far too expensive.

Her new part time job doesn’t offer insurance. She hopes to not get sick again.

The kicker is that Wendy is a CNA- Certified Nursing Assistant. She provides hospice care, often in the homes of the terminally ill. There she looks after her patients, not just medically. She laughs with them, listens to their stories, helps them get out of the house, sometimes makes their favorite foods.

In short, she gives them the excellent care that our society has chosen to deny to her.