23 June 2009

Bye, Bye Dopplr

Sometimes social media seems cool, but is pretty pointless. Example: Dopplr.com, a "social atlas." Travelers post their upcoming trips and make their journeys visible to other travelers they choose. The site also contains a crowd-sourced travel guide for user destinations.

Someone sent me a link for this recently, and it sounded cool, so I joined. I even passed the link on to a couple of other people. But after an email reminder led me to populate my account with some travel data today, I realized I anticipated no benefit from the investment of time and effort. I know where I'm going, and the people I know who care about where I'm going also know where I'm going (or else I don't want them to know).

A key function of Dopplr is to point out "coincidences"; e.g., "1250 people are going to NYC at the same time as you." Perhaps I'm unusual, or maybe it's a generational thing, but I'm just not that interested in such coincidences. No doubt, many thousands of people are going to NYC at the same time as me--I'll see some of them at the airport when I arrive. Why should I be curious about the travel habits of Dopplr members I don't know?

It might be sort of cool if everyone I ever met was on Dopplr and let me see their schedules--wow, that girl who sat across from me in French class (and nearly failed) is going to Paris! Or, OMG, my ex-boyfriend is vacationing in Orlando at the same time as I am! That sort of critical mass is probably the inherent attraction of something like Facebook.

But then, I don't have a Facebook account, either.

I do have a TripAdvisor account. Occasionally I write reviews of hotels I've stayed in; more often I read the reviews. And I minimally keep track of my travel there, because the site provides a truly cool bonus for populating my travel data--a Travel Map, with pushpins indicating the places I've been.

And this is perhaps a critical difference between Dopplr.com and social media that I do (at least occasionally) use: without its social component, Dopplr serves no purpose at all. I don't need a website to keep track of my upcoming trips: I already do that using my calendar. I don't need Dopplr for travel advice: there are plenty of crowd-sourced travel guides.

I visit my account at LibraryThing not because I'm dying to know what thousands of strangers have on their shelves, but because it provides a useful tool to catalog my books.

Maybe I'm not hip enough. Regardless, this afternoon I closed my Dopplr account. Life's too short.

22 June 2009

Diversifying Our Diet

Each week I try to get one "different" item of produce--something we've never eaten before or don't usually eat or cook with. Some of these start getting added to the regular repertoire--like beets, which I now buy a couple of most weeks when Victor isn't traveling, because he likes them so much. Some of them won't ever get added to the regular repertoire--like sweet potatoes, because I just don't like them that much, and jicama, because Victor just doesn't like it that much.

Why not more than one? At least for us, one has experimentally proven to be a manageable number. When I pick one, I can start thinking right away how I might use it--when I pick several, it's just too complicated and food tends to get wasted.

Last week we tried chayote for the first time. It has a very mild taste, sort of like a cross between a pear (texture) and cucumber (flavor). Most sources say it doesn't need to be peeled, and I have no doubt that the peel is edible, but I found the peel unpalatable--it smelled (and therefore tasted) just like grass, which is not something I care to eat.

We cut the (peeled) chayote into pieces and included it in a tomato-beet-cucumber salad, with a basil-herb vinagrette and walnuts. I hardly noticed it was there, but Victor said he particularly liked it.

Like most whole foods, chayote is associated with particular health benefits; some cultures use the fruit medicinally. And this is part of the point of trying to diversify the mix of things we eat: periodically one food or another becomes a kind of fad--oats are good for your heart, or broccoli fights cancer--as if the fact that food is good for you is news. I imagine some people do add huge quantities of broccoli, or oats, or whatever to their diet as a result of such studies, but that seems misguided.

We just figure that if you vary what you eat, you end up getting the benefits of a lot of different foods. It's easy to fall into dietary ruts. Consciously trying to add something new to the mix each week helps make those ruts shallower, and potentially promotes good health by introducing diverse nutrients and other beneficial properties.

19 June 2009

Arabian Nights

To celebrate our anniversary a couple of weeks ago, Victor took me to see this show at Lookingglass. It was a great surprise, which I might not have selected on my own due to past disappointments at that theater (I was not a huge fan of their Alice or Coast of Chicago). The production of Arabian Nights is exhilarating: creative, energetic, full of splendid moments. Just heard that it is being extended through to the start of August.

Don't miss it.

18 June 2009

Jarvis Sanctuary

There's a fenced bird refuge about half a mile from our apartment, and I've been trying to visit almost daily. Of course, migration season is pretty much past, so year-round residents are mainly what's visible, but it's terrifically peaceful and pleasant to just stand quietly, listen, and watch.

Sometimes, there seems to be nothing at all, besides the low squawking of newly fledged starlings and the chittering of swallows. Other times, the trees seem busy with songs and calls, even if I can't spot much with my binoculars.

I'm easily satisfied. Yesterday, I was pretty delighted to catch the acrobatics of a black-capped chickadee in a nearby tree, and a turtle sunning itself on a log. I have been anxiously hoping to see raccoons (I have spotted at least one family of them in previous years), but not a hint of them so far. Chipmunks have been some consolation--we've missed these charming creatures since we left Columbus (where our generous bird feeding activities supported the propagation of multiple and vast generations of chipmunks in our back yard)--they skitter across the mulched paths around the sanctuary and sometimes favor us with their loud chip...chip calls.

17 June 2009

Bob le Flambeur/The Good Thief

We enjoyed The Good Thief, starring Nick Nolte and directed by Neil Jordan, when we saw it on DVD a week or so ago, so I advanced Bob le Flambeur, written and directed by Jean-Paul Melville, in our Netflix queue, thinking it had to be even better.

Wrong. Strange to say, but we liked the remake a lot more. Maybe we're just not cut out for French noir; we've seen Meville's Le Doulos and (more recently) Le Samurai, and both left us feeling a bit less than satisfied. On the other hand, we loved Classe Tous Risques, directed by Claude Sautet, and starring Lino Ventura. Can you not love anything with Lino Ventura?

What was wrong with Bob Le Flambeur? Come to think of it, what's wrong with Le Doulos and Le Samurai? Quite frankly, nobody to like. Or like enough. In Le Doulos, I remember having trouble feeling sympathetic to anyone. In Le Samurai, I thought Alain Delon was a knockout, but didn't much care what happened to him. In Bob Le Flambeur, I get that everybody in the movie likes Bob--he has a kind of honor, a history, a code. But he does enough unlikable things--hitting a girl, for one--that he loses any emotional hook in me. And none of the other characters come close.

In The Good Thief, many of the characters are likable, even when they're jerks. This helps pull you through the slow parts of the movie. Sometimes you're not sure what's going on, but your liking for the characters makes you give the movie some slack.

Bob Le Flambeur doesn't have much slack--it's very tightly assembled. Perhaps too tightly--it's a bit hermetic. There's no space for the viewer.

Still, plenty of gorgeous shots of Paris. Someday I'll go back...

05 June 2009

The Benefits of Advance Work

Who wants to cut up carrot sticks when you're feeling peckish? Or trim radishes? These are not difficult things to do, but when I'm hungry, I want something to eat immediately. So I've taken to making sure there's always a small supply of cut carrots (peeling the carrots when I'm not hungry) in the refrigerator drawer, and I wash, trim, and store the radishes as soon as I buy them.

We enjoy cut-up beets in salad, but baking a beet takes up to two hours. So I've added beet-baking to my post-grocery run routine. The peeled baked beet goes into the fridge, ready to be cut up and eaten.

One of my favorite nibbles is a simple marinated cucumber-dill salad from the Second Avenue Deli Cookbook. Overnight marination is recommended before consumption, which is a deterrent if you want your cucumber salad right away. But I am starting to just make it routinely--again, shortly after I get back with the groceries--so it's always waiting in the fridge.

These simple prep tasks make for healthier snacking and foster a little more variety in the diet.

04 June 2009

Soup Secrets

The economic downturn has us eating home a lot more. Just about every week, I make soup. Victor takes it to the office , and I eat it at home. If Victor takes his lunch to work every day and I stay home at lunchtime, three quarts of soup are gone in three days--time to make more soup.

I used to think making soup was hard--felt like I couldn't get it to taste quite right, or there was some secret I couldn't master. Once in a while, I'd produce a soup I deemed good, but I couldn't reliably repeat myself.

Mostly, I think I lacked confidence, which is probably normal when you don't cook that often.

In 2003, when I left my job in Columbus, I got a lot more cooking practice because I had a lot more time at home. At the same time, we subscribed to a local CSA farm, so I was always getting surprising things in the grocery box, in quantities that forced creativity. My cookbooks got a tremendous amount of use.

And I learned a few soups that are reliably delicious--vegetarian borscht from my Russian cookbook, Potage St. Germain (split pea soup) from my Belgian cookbook, gazpacho from one of my vegetarian cookbooks.

These soups were occasional, though; the stuff of holidays and dinner parties. Making at least one soup a week teaches you what soups have in common, and what makes for a promising experiment. Now I mostly improvise. Sometimes I use soup to compensate for deficiencies I perceive elsewhere in our diet. For example, if I think we're not getting enough green vegetables, I put greens in the soup; if we haven't eaten beans lately, I throw some chickpeas in. Here are some things I have learned:
  • When you have onions, celery, carrots, and butter or olive oil, you have enough to start a soup. You can almost always find something in the pantry or refrigerator to help fill it out and finish it.
  • Using canned stock or bouillon cubes is nothing to be ashamed of. When using canned, I prefer a proportion of 1 can stock to 2 cans water, unless I am making a very brothy soup without much other flavoring (then it's 1 to 1). I use the same proportion when I am using homemade stock. As for bouillon, I sometimes saute it first with the aromatics.
  • Potatoes, beans, and grains (rice, barley) give a soup body.
  • Puree, puree, puree. I have a stick blender (you can immerse it right in the soup pot)--one of my favorite things. But a pureed soup seems to need quite a bit more salt than a brothy one. (There's probably a scientific reason for this...)
  • Canned tomatoes can do wonders for flavor. Also, a small amount of sugar (like a half-teaspoon).
  • Not everything belongs in every soup. That old Napa cabbage might not be such a good complement to the mushroom barley soup you're concocting; broccoli can be overpowering; bitter greens should probably be blanched before being added to your soup.
Nothing terribly secret about these secrets, really. Happy souping!

03 June 2009

Olafur Eliasson: Take Your Time

We had an opportunity to take a docent-led tour of this exhibit by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. A conceptual artist, he explores how art audiences participate in the aesthetic experience, and the installations he designs target all the senses. There's a wall of reindeer moss (very fragrant--even pungent); a whirring fan that seems to track its observers; a wall of volcanic tile shingles that begs to be touched. Eliasson seems to have a strong interest in kaleidoscopes--a couple of installations give you the impression of being inside one.

I most appreciated, though, installations that appealed to the visual sense; especially a round room suffused with color (the colors change every 40 seconds). Another striking exhibit is a wall of mist installed in a dark room; the light shining on the mist creates a gorgeous rainbow. And if you go around to the back of the installation, there's no rainbow, but you feel exactly as if you were standing behind a waterfall.

Which you are.

It's really quite a wonderful exhibit, worth multiple visits. I am not sure when I last enjoyed an MCA Chicago exhibit so much--probably it was Massive Change, a few years ago.

02 June 2009

Star Trek

A couple of weeks ago, Victor and I went to see Star Trek with some trepidation. A couple of months back we caught a preview for it, which we found incomprehensible. And one of our favorite reviewers, Anthony Lane, panned it in the New Yorker. But, in the event, we were enthralled by the new movie.

Maybe it's best to always go to the movies with diminished expectations. For example, we had terrifically high expectations for Duplicity--a few months ago--and it let us down enormously. Who would guess that a movie directed and scripted by Tony Gilroy (who did the same for Michael Clayton, which we loved) could be predictable? Who would expect that a movie with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen could drag?

Anyhow, Star Trek does not drag. It utilizes an ingenious mechanism to relaunch an old franchise and its familiar characters with a new cast; due to this mechanism, complaints about departures from patterns set up in the original series seem like fussy quibbles--very large things have changed, it is established quite early; small changes are only to be expected, and savored.

As many reviews have pointed out, the movie is chock-full of action, but the creative reconception of the characters I grew up with is what I enjoyed most. We look forward to the inevitable sequels. The universe has changed, and a whole new set of adventures is possible.

In Defense of Food

This is one of those books that potentially changes your life, by eloquently pointing out what's wrong with the status quo. Michael Pollan writes clearly and persuasively about the pitfalls--not just of how America eats, but of how we think about eating. He debunks nutritionism as a science by pointing out how the whole nutritionist paradigm (focusing on the consumption of individual nutrients rather than whole foods) benefits food processors.

While traditional nutritionists and other scientists have traced our high incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases to high-fat diets, or high-carb diets, Pollan looks at the big picture and points out that the most striking difference between the modern American diet and traditional diets is the modern prevalence of processed foods--foods that have been engineered to ship and store well, be palatable, and contain the nutrients we need. Pollan suggests that we just don't know enough about how whole foods work in our bodies to reproduce their full benefits in processed foods. He characterizes whole foods as systems--nutrients in whole foods may work together to provide important benefits that are otherwise unavailable.

Pollan's arguments are convincing, and are leading me to reevaluate my consumption of white bread and white rice. I still love these foods, but I'm thinking I should consider them treats--like cake--rather than as staples. I should keep brown rice in the pantry, and make sandwiches with whole-grain bread.

But then I think about the beautiful bread we had in Paris, which was white, and Pollan often points to the French as healthier than we are, so I think maybe a little (or more than a little) white bread really isn't so bad. I'm much pickier about whole-grain bread than white--I guess it's a matter of what I'm used to.

The book made me feel a little proud and self-satisfied that Victor and I have already been eating at home and cooking for ourselves so much more in the past few months. And I have already been trying to vary the vegetables and fruits in our diet; going to ethnic grocery stores in different neighborhoods exposes us to an impressive range of foods. But eating well is an ongoing process. Sometimes we get stuck in ruts and it is tempting fall back on what's easy. We're very good at making excuses for not doing what we should (see my rationale for continuing to eat white bread, above).

I like Pollan's notion that food preparation and consumption should take more time and even cost more--it's that important.