June 2007
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Month June 2007

My iPhone is Coming. Time to Get Ready.

No, I didn’t stand in line at a store.  Iphoneorder
But I did order one, and even though it means switching to AT&T (although that should improve my coverage here on the island over Verizon given where I live), Steve Jobs is the king of consumer technology design, and I just couldn’t resist. 

A gourmet weekend on San Juan…

Last weekend, a long-time group of friends came up to the island and we spent all of Saturday cooking. I’ve been cooking with this group at least since 1997, but this was one of the first times we’ve all made dinner together in the same kitchen — normally each person or couple makes something and we come together at someone’s house for dinner. But since the logistics of everyone coming north gave us a whole day together, we were able to do something a bit special.

Before everyone arrived last Saturday, I’d put together a tentative menu, including five dishes that were either straight from, or derivations of, dishes from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. I’d pre-made and reduced duck stock to a demi-glace, made chive, shallot, and basil oil purees which could be strained and used for service, and reduced balsamic vinegar and PX sherry into a thick glaze. So after everyone got to the island and we went to the Farmer’s Market for last-minute items, we were ready to cook.

For appetizers, we began with a traditional pissaladiere, the Provencal onion tart, served with my fresh tapenade, crostini, and Oregon Country prime beef tenderloin pounded out into carpaccio with shaved parmesan and drizzles of bright emerald green basil oil. This was served with a non-vintage Paul Bara Rose champagne for toasts, and then the new vintage of Tempier Bandol Rose 2006, which is a superb wine. James Peterson’s pissaladiere recipe is a bit odd, and I’d recommend not following him on the pizza dough crust but going for traditional pastry instead.

The first course was grilled red snapper filets, served on a bed of sauteed rainbow chard greens tossed with garlic and shredded sorrel (the latter was from a mention in Olney’s Tempier cookbook), and topped with one of three relishes: piquillo peppers and nicoise olives, straight piquillo peppers with smoked paprika and sherry vinegar, and chopped shallots and lemons marinated in sherry vinegar. All went well with the grilled fish. I served this dish with the 2005 William Fevre AOC Chablis, decanted for 4 hours and nicely open.

Between courses, a quick palate cleanser of vine-ripe tomato sorbet with chive oil drizzle, in little espresso saucers.

The main course was Keller’s duck roulades: thin breasts of duck, skin and fat removed but otherwise raw, rolled up in blanched chard leaves and rolled in plastic wrap for poaching. A disk of the poached breast, still wrapped in the chard, is placed on top of a smooth sweet white corn puree with white corn kernels, and drizzled with the duck reduction, and topped with root vegetable and morel mushroom “brunoise” tossed in the reduction. The dish was frankly amazing. I’m definitely doing this one again. Other than the duck reduction and a bit of obsessive straining on my part of the various items, it wasn’t much work. I served this with the Tempier Bandol Miguoa 1994, decanted for 3 hours and very sweet and open. A terrific bottle of wine.

Before the salads and cheeses, I served a single chilled shot of tomato “consomme” with a smoked paprika and sun-dried tomato salt rim. The consomme is made by allowing chopped tomatoes and a chipotle pepper to drain through cheesecloth for 24 hours, catching only the free-drip liquid. It’s the essence of tomato flavor, and very tasty chilled.

Thomas Keller’s deconstructed Caesar salad was next — Parmesan custards on a crouton and balsamic caesar dressing, topped with a parmesan crisp and a twist of chiffonaded romaine lettuce tossed in dressing. A terrific dish. I served this and finished the main wines with the Verset Cornas from 1985: fully mature but immensely complex and deep. I love this wine, and thank goodness I have a bit more in the cellar. Wow.

The final “cheese” course was the deconstructed carrot/raisin salad: shredded carrots, seasoned in a reduced carrot juice and spice mixture, on a bed of golden raisin puree, with slices of Roncal cheese on top, and carrot powder on the rim of the plate. The carrot powder is made by microwaving shredded carrot for 45 minutes until dessicated and then grinding. This was particularly cool since almost everyone over a certain age has had carrot raisin salad, and this is that childhood experience taken to a new level.

For dessert, fresh island strawberries with the balsamic drizzle, and a trial run on my friends’ wedding cake. This was served with the Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon 1996 Rochefort “Les Rayelles” which I thought was a bit tired, but still had good fruit and OK acidity. Nothing like it was a bit younger, I’m hoping it’s a phase.

Pics of some of the food on my Flickr site…

Required reading: Fein on Cheney

Bruce Fein, former associate deputy Attorney General under Ronald Reagan and a conservative constitutional litigator, believes the case is strong to impeach and remove Vice President Cheney. Perhaps stronger than the case against President Bush (but that could change with additional information on warrantless wiretapping). His recent article in Slate is today’s required reading.

Political Milestones

Two milestones in the current administration became clear to me today, and it’s worth thinking long and hard about them. And taking appropriate action.

First, today is three years to the day since the United States declared the new Iraqi government sovereign within its borders. The White House issued this statement:

As you have witnessed, and as the world has witnessed, the new Iraqi government has moved at warp-speed in taking control of its own government. The ministries were being handed over on a very robust pace, based upon their capabilities. Thursday of last week, they assumed control of the last ministry, so all the ministries, as of last Thursday, were under the operational control and day-to-day affairs of the new Iraqi government.

Prime Minister Allawi, himself, has demonstrated his capabilities as the new Iraqi leader in charge of this government, his determination to fight the terrorist enemy within his country, and his eagerness to assume control of his control in order to improve the lives of the Iraqi people, as well as to continue to fight the terrorist threat within his country.

The administration has been in communication with Baghdad for several days — I would say over a week — about the concept or the idea of handing sovereignty over ahead of schedule. This was based upon two factors, one, were they ready, and, B, taking into consideration the security environment in the country. Prime Minister Allawi strongly advised us that today would be the right day to do it. He made a final decision last night, based on my understanding, and which was communicated, obviously, to Ambassador Bremer, which was then communicated to the administration. The President was informed during the day that these conversations were going on. Obviously, he knew about the possibility of this happening for several days, but he received confirmation that Prime Minister Allawi was making the recommendation to do so ahead of schedule.

And the main reason that Prime Minister Allawi gave is that he believes it would strengthen his hand in dealing with the terrorist threat in his country and that it would demonstrate to the Iraqi people that the — and to the world, that this new government is capable, willing, and ready to run their country, to improve the daily lives of the Iraqi people, and to improve the security environment in their country.

The consequences of our miscalculation three years ago are far too grave for partisan “I told you so’s” or humor at the expense of the administration. The vast majority of the American people now agree: we have no plan to fix the problem. Running away won’t work, staying didn’t work, re-escalating yet again may not be working. We must do two things in the next year and a half: (1) Get some adults in the room to help figure out a plan, independent of partisanship, independent of controlling damage to reputations, and (2) Hold those responsible for this debacle accountable. These items probably cannot happen at the same time, but both need to happen.

The second milestone relates to the second item just mentioned — accountability. I’ve been skeptical of the left wing of the Democratic party, which expected blood and impeachment after last November’s elections. The country did not vote for a day of reckoning, it seemed to me: we voted for balance and accountability, and that doesn’t automatically translate into hearings and impeachments.

Knowing what we knew in November, that was probably right. But events have caught up with us, as they say. Clearly the firing of 8 US Attorneys for political reasons is bad, and indicates the extent to which the machinery of justice and democratic government has been subverted for political purposes. Say what you will about the Clinton years, or any Democratic administration in living memory, or heck, any Republican administration in living memory (with notable exceptions of Watergate and certain “episodes” during the Reagan years — arms to the folks we’re now battling, cough cough….). Nothing touches the constitutional “rot” that has now set in within the Federal government.

The House of Representatives — the pre-eminent branch of government in James Madison’s time — has issued subpoenas to the White House, which it is ignoring. Subpoenas from the Senate on warrantless wiretapping are being ignored as well. The White House is stonewalling, much as the Nixon White House stonewalled in the aftermath of Watergate, asserting “executive privilege” for its records.

The official responsible for enforcing the subpoenas, the Solicitor General of the United States, Paul Clement, is unlikely to enforce them, at least in the US Attorney case. Clement is also responsible for the internal investigation at Justice, and along with the Attorney General himself, is the only person capable of appointing a Special Prosecutor to handle these delicate cases. Congress can issue contempt citations, but the Administration itself must enforce them….upon the Administration. Any guesses what will happen in a week or ten days when such citations are issued?

The real milestone is the constitutional crisis we face. The Administration is ignoring separation of powers. It is ignoring the Constitutional split of responsibilities and powers. It will take political pressure by Congress to enforce the rule of law and the Constitution on this Administration. The actions of the President (and likely Vice-President) in the warrantless wire-tapping program are likely in violation of existing Federal law, regardless of signing statements and executive orders. Such violations of Federal law are impeachable offenses. Seriously. And Congress needs our help and support to further these investigations. Now is the time to indicate to your Senator and Representative that you expect them to enforce these subpoenas, or any contempt citations, to the fullest extent possible. That you expect to get to the bottom of the warrantless wiretapping case, no matter what it turns up. Failure to do so will result in you withholding your vote for their re-election. Regardless of whom they face in the next election.

This is the leverage we hold over our elected officials. Use it or lose it.

In Memoriam: Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Returning from Saltspring, I had an email from a good friend, with the news that American philosopher Richard Rorty died last Friday, of pancreatic cancer. In the days and weeks ahead, Rorty’s life and work will be dissected and retrospectively evaluated from many angles (this process has already begun, of course…see conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton’s largely negative review in OpenDemocracy). My purpose here is less to evaluate Rorty’s work from a grand, “disciplinary” perspective, but to remember him by discussing a few of the ways his work has significance for me.

My first exposure to Rorty was only a couple of years ago, in the form of his short book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (hereafter, AoC). AoC remains the best expression of how Rorty’s philosophical work translates into the pragmatics of everyday politics. In AoC, Rorty describes an “old left,” characterized by the kind of utopian hopefulness one sees in Walt Whitman’s writings, the philosophy of John Dewey, the pragmatism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the useful reformism of the pre-war Progressives. The old left is contrasted with a “new left,” while sharing the old’s concerns with social justice, lack any utopian hopefulness and condemn the American “project” as failed and morally bankrupt, and thus reject incrementalism and reformism. Rorty’s contention — and this is hardly unique to Rorty — is that the new Left condemns itself to irrelevance by lacking faith in our ability to reform, and to change.

This early exposure to Rorty quickly led to a deeper engagement: his roots in post-Darwinian pragmatism and connection to anti-representationalist, anti-realist philosophers like Quine and Sellars intrigued me. In graduate school, my then-advisor R.C. Dunnell had assigned Sellars’s classic essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” which contrasted the “manifest” image we have of ourselves in the world, culturally constructed and concerned with reason-giving, from the scientific image, which while constructed by culturally situated beings, is intended to converge upon testable, causal accounts of human behavior, rather than reason-giving. The role of language, classification, and categorization in such an enterprise was of critical importance then: as anthropologists studying “other cultures” or the remains of long-dead societies, it is all too easy to describe people and their behavior in terms of our own common-sense, or within our “manifest image” to use Sellars’s term.

On a philosophical (rather than political) level, Rorty appealed to me precisely because his work simultaneously (a) draws upon the naturalistic outlook, that humans are evolved creatures whose perceptions of the world reflect the peculiarities of that evolutionary history, and (b) acknowledges that despite the necessity of the naturalistic stance, science is not a privileged activity in terms of offering access to “truth;” instead, science represents an incremental and pragmatic search for descriptions of the world that allow us to manipulate, predict, and control aspects of it. In this way, Rorty represents a merging of several perspectives: a naturalistic, scientific (but not scientistic) perspective on humanity, with a skeptical, therapeutic approach to knowledge and epistemology. This merging seems to me to be the best current account of how we can think of a broad array of issues without resorting to Platonic essentialism or Cartesian dualism.

That was pretty dense, and I’m sorry. Virtually everything Rorty wrote, at least after the mid 1980’s, was a model of clarity and crispness, in contrast to the almost obfuscatory tendencies of many Continental philosophers. But clarity doesn’t necessarily mean Rorty was easy to read. His writing, although clear and stylistically sharp (especially in later work), is dense with discussion of philosophers, writers, scientists, and other thinkers, and thus requires some serious background (or serious side-reading, in my case). I have to admit I struggled several times to finish his most famous work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. And several of my favorite essays on the relationship between science and other types of inquiry, in The Consequences of Pragmatism, are no picnic. But “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” is an amazing essay, despite its density. In it, Rorty describes two types of “vocabularies” for the social sciences: (a) those which allow situations to be described in ways that facilitate prediction and control, and (b) those which facilitate understanding, empathy, and moral deliberation. Stripping away mountains of jargon and argument between “science-oriented” social scientists and “humanities-oriented” social scientists (though each uses less neutral terms to describe the other, typically), Rorty not only identifies the root of the split in the social sciences, but does so in a way that identifies a positive and valuable mission for each type of inquiry. This essay, more than any other work, changed my thinking on “post-modernism” and critical theory in the social sciences. Prior to Rorty, I had the scientist’s typical disdain for “po-mo” verbal fireworks: much ado about nothing.

After reading this and other works by Rorty, I find that I simply have no interest in such arguments. The social sciences would be simply be poorer if either side ceased their efforts. We need both prediction and empathy, both explanation and democratic deliberation. Prediction and control without democratic moral debate has repeatedly shown itself to be salable to the highest bidder; empathy and moral understanding without practical options makes us feel better about ourselves, but unable to translate understanding into real action.

Rorty’s own evaluation of his work was characteristically — and perhaps overly — modest. He tended to write about himself as a second-tier thinker — that his role was simply to follow behind the truly original thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Dewey, and Heidegger, and clean up after them, tidying the details left by the sweeping changes they wrought. Rorty tended to see his own work as largely therapeutic: curing philosophy and the Western intellectual tradition of its obsession with structuring our inquiries about the world using only those concepts and distinctions that Plato and Descartes might recognize and approve. He tended to refer to this project as “syncretic” — which is accurate — but he underrated how significantly such syncretism might lead incrementally to a revolution in our thinking. I suspect that despite the vehemence with which realists and politically conservative philosophers denounce his work, Rorty will continue to increase in importance as the Western intellectual tradition increasingly incorporates the post-Darwinian view of life and behavior. Whether original or not, Rorty is the best current example of the ways we’ll think about language, politics, and inquiry when we fully accept ourselves as natural and evolved beings.

Graduation and Art on Saltspring

I’m on the MV Chelan, headed back to San Juan from Saltspring Island, up in British Columbia. I went up for the weekend for a graduation and an art show. Kris’s son Julian graduated from Gulf Islands Secondary School this week, before heading off to Emily Carr in Vancouver next fall. I’ve known Julian all his life, virtually, so it was terrific to see him graduate and move onward. In a school which seems to cultivate individuality, Julian still stood out at graduation: tall, dressed in green sport coat and combat boots, and with a foot-high green mohawk, plastered into a rigid fin. He won four scholarships or bursaries — a strong performance even for a community which gave away dozens of awards totalling $80,000. At any rate, his parents and friends are very proud of him and can’t wait to see how he does at Emily Carr next year.

Yesterday, my friend Kim participated in the annual group photography opening at Artspring in Ganges. Four of her works, including a series of terrific close-scale landscape shots from Saltspring, were featured along with other island artists. Several folks had intriguing work as well, but the most interesting from my perspective was Janet Dwyer’s “scanography”: a technique where solid objects are arranged, sculpture-like, directly on the bed of a flatbed scanner, covered with black cloth to block extraneous light, and scanned at very high resolution. The resulting images are utterly stunning in detail and richness of color. Dwyer’s website isn’t up to date with many of these remarkable images, but if you’re curious her website includes contact information.

(I wrote this a couple of days ago and forgot to post it — when the WSF wi-fi installation finally includes us poor northerners sometime in 2008, it’ll actually be true that I’ll be posting from the ferry. But until then…)