Black Rock, White City

While visiting Chicago recently, I borrowed the book The Devil and the White City, a book about the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and a serial murderer who stalked Chicago at the same time, H. H. Holmes.

Even growing up the better part of a century after the fair ended, as a Chicagoan it was always part of the collective unconsciousness, and fair factoids were part of my knowledge of the city’s history. But the book brought a lot of the small details and broader themes into clear relief for me. Some of those themes got me thinking that, at least in some ways, Burning Man carries on the principles the Columbian Exposition.

The World’s Fair of 1893 was conceived partly as a temporary utopian city, partly as a grand spectacle of the exotic, the titillating, and the audacious. All of these things, at least in the abstract, are true for Burning Man.

At the World’s Fair, the utopianism was material: it was called the White City partly because all the major architecture was that color, and partly because, unlike regular cities (Chicago at the time was described as “a gigantic peepshow of utter horror.”), it was very clean and manicured. It had pure drinking water and effective sewage. It was extensively wired for electricity, with hundreds of thousands of bulbs being lit—for some visitors, it was their first exposure to electric lighting. None of these things strike modern city-dwellers as miraculous, and indeed, it is perhaps partly the fair’s legacy that we can take them for granted. Accordingly, the utopianism that Burning Man represents is intangible: the gift economy, self-expression, volunteerism, and community-building. Indeed, at the material level, Burning Man is a harsh place demanding “radical self-reliance” that reminds participants not to take their everyday material comforts for granted.

Both Burning Man and the World’s Fair had their own urban infrastructure; at the Fair, the private police force was another aspect of the utopianism (Chicago’s regular police force at the time was apparently so bad that it never even occurred to anyone to contact them regarding the many women who went missing at the hands of Holmes); Burning Man doesn’t have its own police force per se, but it does have the Rangers, who are considered “community mediators.”

The World’s Fair had numerous spectacles. It would be hard to top the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Fair. That first one was a doozy—each carriage was the size of a train car accommodating 60 riders, and there were 36 cars. The whole thing reached a height of 250′, probably a higher altitude than any of the visitors had experienced without having a hill underneath them. The Midway of the fair (which has given its name to a part of every carnival since) introduced Americans to exotic foods and peoples from other countries. And for titillation, it was the occasion for the arrival of belly-dancing in this country. Burning Man has its share of the epic, the exotic, the marvelous, and the titillating as well.

The comparison between the fair and that thing in the desert was gradually forming in my mind as I read the book, but one passage really brought it home for me. The buildings of the fair were never designed or constructed to be permanent, and the question of how to dispose of them once the fair was over occupied many minds, who couldn’t bear the prospect of the White City fading out into disrepair. One of the architects involved in building the fair, Charles McKim, wrote “indeed it is the ambition of all concerned to have it swept away in the same magical manner in which it appeared, and with the utmost despatch. For economy, as well as for obvious reasons, it has been proposed that the most glorious way would be to blow up the buildings with dynamite. Another scheme is to destroy them with fire.”

Fame 2.0

I’ve been thinking about the changing nature of fame for a few days (and of course, because these ideas are strong currents in the collective concisousness we call the web, I’m just getting around to writing about this right after Sean did). I pointed a friend at a video on youtube that I thought she’d get a laugh out of. She found another video by the same guy that prompted the reaction from her I want to have his babies!

So she found this guy by randomly linking around on a site where everyone and his dog has a video posted, and instantly became a fan.

This was right around the time that Anna Nicole Smith—someone who was famous for being famous—died. The Daily Show ripped* into the mainstream news outlets, which put all news of substance on hold to obsess over her death.

Then on Metafilter, I ran across this article, with the line When I was in high school, you’d have to be a megalomaniac or the most popular kid around to think of yourself as having a fan base. But people 25 and under are just being realistic when they think of themselves that way. I would hardly imagine myself having a fan base, but even so, I have had the experience of people I don’t know meeting me in person and commenting on stuff I’d posted to my blog. On an intellectual level, I’m ready for that. I know the ramifications of posting online. Still, on a visceral level, it’s very weird.

Also on Metafilter, someone posted a song about notable Metafilter members. MeFi is a pretty big community—it recently passed the 50,000 registered users mark (and since you have to pay money to register, that is more meaningful). Admittedly, the song is all inside-baseball, but within this community, these people are well enough known not only for one guy to write a song about their quirks, but for a lot of other people to appreciate it.

And of course, there’s Ze Frank. You can’t think about Fame 2.0 without thinking about Ze Frank, someone who has achieved a devoted following in spite of zero conventional publicity, entirely on the basis of his being extremely smart and funny, thus inverting the usual formula.

Is it possible that this is the way things are headed? That people will become famous based on merit, not marketability? It’s clear that the Internet is a closer approximation to what economists would consider a perfect market. If celebrity is its own kind of market, the Internet is reducing the advantage that major players (movie studios, record labels) have in generating buzz, and makes it easier for “consumers” of celebrity to find the kinds of people they’re actually interested in following, as opposed to the celebrities that have been pushed at them by the buzz machines. The Internet also is the death of one-size-fits-all media, so it is only fitting that celebrities would appeal to specific groups, rather than be foisted on everyone.

Celebrities are created by mainstream media to give that media something to feed on. This focus on conventional celebrity may be just another way that media outlets reinforce their own irrelevance, and as they fail, they do what any conservative entity in trouble does: do the same thing, only harder. Thus TV news is put on hold to analyze in minute detail the contents of the fridge of a dead D-list starlet who had become a self-parody in her last years. Meanwhile, we’re watching Youtube.

Afterthought Jonathan Coulton. I don’t know how I managed to overlook him, but he’s right up there with Ze Frank as a talented Internet micro-celebrity of his own creation.

Coffee film

Every workday, I send Gwen off to her job with a small stainless thermos full of coffee. It’s basically impossible to clean this thing effectively, so instead, I just fill it with very hot water and shake it up.

Today, when I dumped out that water, these bits of film came out. They’re jet black, very smooth, very thin, very uniform, and very brittle—I was reminded of a cheap plastic bag that had been left in the sun for a long time.

Though I was initially incredulous, it turns out this was the husk of coffee residue in the thermos. Most of it got shucked off (some is still in there). I’ve never seen anything like it.

We have nothing to fear but the absence of something to fear

I don’t respond to other people’s blogs often, but a post by Matt Haughey got me thinking. He begins When I was a kid, the future was filled with optimism. The year 2000 was 10-20 years away and it was this magical goal we were working towards.

I have a very different recollection of the 80s. After a decade of an unwanted war, domestic malaise, and the hostage crisis, we had an apocalyptic president, with his finger on the button of a nuclear arsenal that could wipe out human civilization. I didn’t see any way out of Mutually Assured Destruction except through it. The Reagan era gave us punk rock and a depth of nihilism I don’t think American culture had seen before.

The implosion of the Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the hanging of Nicolae CeauÅŸescu marked the end of that era. It was the 90s that was the era of optimism, at least for me. The economy was going like gangbusters, we had an intelligent and competent Democrat in the White House, and most importantly, we were not on the verge of blowing ourselves up. The millennium was near, and I approached it optimistically (many, of course, did not).

That spirit ended on 9/11, of course. And as I’ve lived long enough to have a chance to watch some history happen, I wonder if this country doesn’t have a hunger for bogeymen. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, which had served in that role so reliably for so long, it was clear that the country was hunting for a new one. Oh, we had (and still have) the War on Drugs, and Clinton himself became the target for much of the country’s paranoia and loathing (remember Whitewater? Vince Foster? Travelgate?). But these were poor substitutes for the menace of International Communism, and I think everyone knew it and at some level was waiting around for something better to get worked up about. We have found a truly worthy successor in International Terrorism: the threat has been played up and used to justify government malfeasance to an extent not seen since the 50s, if ever. Not because of the gravity of the threat (which cannot seriously be held comparable to MAD, though whether MAD itself was a legitimate doctrine is another question), simply because of our own need for something to fear. Part of this may be genuinely wrapped up in the national mood. Part of this may be cynical business manipulation, after all, Rule of Acquisition #34 states War is good for business. I don’t know how much to attribute to which.

My mom’s turkey recipe

To set down for time immemorial and Google, I present herewith my mom’s method for making a turkey, with stuffing, with my own minor tweaks. In this recipe, the bird is cooked on a charcoal grill. This has the benefit of freeing up the oven for things like pie, and it tastes great. There’s also the element of risk, since the grill is a less-controlled environment, so you get a little thrill when everything turns out well.

For a 14-lb bird, this recipe will take about four and a half hours, so budget your time accordingly.

Stuffing ingredients:

  • Bread cubes: two bags unseasoned stuffing cubes, or dried cubes from one loaf of bread
  • Onions, three
  • Mushrooms, 1 lb
  • Rice pilaf mix, one box
  • Walnuts or pecans, two handfuls, chopped

All these quantities are negotiable, and you can make any additions you see fit (raisins, rosemary, celery, etc)

Begin by removing the neck and giblets from the turkey and simmer them for at least one hour. Coarsely cube the onions and mushrooms, and lightly sautée them. Start the rice pilaf mix.

Now would probably be a good time to get your charcoal going. Use one of those starter chimneys, not starter fluid. You don’t want your turkey tasting like fuel.

Once the giblets have simmered for one hour, put the bread cubes in a large mixing bowl and moisten them slightly with the giblet-water. Add the rest of the stuffing ingredients and mix them together well.

Rinse the turkey in cold water thoroughly and drain off. Thoroughly fill both the body and neck cavities with stuffing. Pin the skin down over the neck opening. There should be enough stuffing left to fill a small casserole dish. Put a light coating of olive oil on the bird.

The charcoal should be ready by now, so prep the grill. I have one of those grills made out of a 55-gallon drum turned on its side, which is ideal for this, as it gives you plenty of room and a side-opening. You are going to be using indirect heat, so you want to place your charcoal in a single heap off to one side, in a location where it will be easy to replenish.

Lay a sheet of tinfoil down on the grill away from the heat source, and place the bird on this. You’ll probably want an assistant for this part.

Allow 15 minutes of cooking time per pound, and allow an extra 15-30 minutes to take into account the added weight of the stuffing.

Every 30 minutes, add another 10 or so briquets—don’t let any more heat escape than necessary. Every hour, rotate the bird 180° to even out the cooking.

You might want to wrap some potatoes or sweet potatoes in tinfoil and throw them on when you’ve got 90 minutes to go.

At 60 minutes to go, and at 30-minute intervals thereafter, check the turkey’s internal temperature: it’s possible that it’s already done. Use a probe-type thermometer. Internal temperature measured from the top should be at least 165°F, juices should be running clear, and the skin should be the color of dark honey. If the turkey is done but you aren’t ready for it, set it as far from the heat as possible, cover it with a sheet of tinfoil, and stop adding charcoal.

Quote of the day

“Do you want to drive to farmer’s market or ride our bikes?”

“It’s hot enough out that I don’t mind contributing to global warming.”

(Yes, I actually did say that.)

Unexpected beauty

I was walking down a quiet street at night in my neighborhood, listening to Cat Power’s melancholy “Evolution.” I spotted an aluminum Christmas tree looking ghostly in a picture window, rotating with shifting colors, and in that moment, each was the perfect complement to the other, each elevating the other to a higher plane.

Aluminum Christmas tree

The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report started off with a bang last night–Gwen and I were laughing so hard our sides hurt. You don’t get that very often with TV. Most of the talking-head news shows are bad enough that they should defy parody. Colbert manages anyhow.

Colbert’s guest for the opening episode was Stone Phillips. This was especially apt: Some years ago, the Daily Show aired a special episode–that is, old clip retreads–all introduced by Colbert. He did the whole thing in an unmistakeable and dead-on Stone Phillips impersonation. Phillips, who I’ve always considered an empty shirt who only gets work because of his reassuring voice, was a good sport, and comported himself admirably throughout the gravitas face-off.

Kabbalah is the new Scientology

Davey was having a party to break the fast last night, so Gwen and I went. Not that either of us fasted, but if someone wants to have a party, we won’t get fussy about the reasons. I had some of Davey’s fancy homemade gefilte fish (three layers!), the first I’ve had in a long time and very tasty.

Some of us were chatting and we somehow got onto the subject of pop-Kabbalah (which should be distinguished from old-shul Kabbalah), and I asserted that pop-Kabbalah is the new Scientology: a pseudo-religion scam designed to suck money out of people, especially famous ones. Gwen argued that pop-Kabbalah wasn’t as bad because it was at least rooted in a legitimate religious tradition. “Oh yeah?” I countered, “then what about Jews for Jesus? That’s rooted in two legitimate religious traditions!”

I made that assertion mostly based on my gut feelings, knowing almost nothing about pop-Kabbalah. Having read the wikipedia entry on it, though, I feel all the more convinced of my point.

Still the same boy I used to be

This blurb appeared on my bank statement:

Are your finances keeping up with the changes in your life? Look to Women & Co, a financial program from Citigroup…

What kind of changes do they think are going on in my life?

Helpful Hint

Here’s a helpful hint: If you like making smoothies, and have an Osterizer blender (this may work with other brands too), get yourself a quart mason jar–some brands of pasta sauce use these for packaging. The threading on the jar fits the carafe-base perfectly. You can fill the jar with your smoothie fixings, screw on the base, smoothify, and drink from the same jar. Save yourself washing that big, awkward carafe. Life is good.

Life’s minor annoyances

Over the past weekend, Gwen and I attended to a couple of minor annoyances in our lives–little things that had been bugging us for a long time–just enough to create friction, but not enough to get us to actually fix them.

In Gwen’s case, the annoyance had been bugging her for something like six years. She uses a cigar box as her jewelry box, and she had been meaning to build little dividers and pegs into it to organize her earrings better. A trip to Breed’s, $5 worth of materials, and an hour or so of a fun little craft project later, and it was done.

In my case, it was even dumber–one of the tools I use in making wicks for fire poi is a big sheetmetal screw, and the one I had been using had grown dull with use. I was vaguely aware that this was making more work for me, but I only finally got around to replacing it. Less than half a buck to fix. The difference was immediately noticeable.

There was a prime example of this kind of annoyance with my previous house: the hose bib in back made a poor seal with the hose, so whenever you turned on the spigot, you sprayed water everywhere. The people who lived there before me clearly had been annoyed by the same thing, and rather than fixing it, they adopted the rather ridiculous workaround of putting a splitter on the front hose bib and running a long hose around to the back. In the course of getting my house ready to sell, I had a plumber over to look at something unrelated; I told him “as long as you’re here, why not fix this?” Funny how such a little thing can change the quality of your everyday life so much, but fixing that was huge.

I wonder how much time, energy, and mental health we sacrifice to these little problems when we adapt to them rather than fix them.

Miscellaneous tips


  • When packing to move, you obviously want to pack your fragile stuff appropriately, and mark your boxes as such. A few other tips:
  • Pack like things with like. Yes, you will inevitably have a few boxes of random stuff, but it pays off if you can minimize this.
  • Mark your boxes extensively. We actually marked 5 sides of every box (leaving the bottom blank) so that we could identify boxes pretty much no matter what. With the more miscellaneous boxes, we also put a pretty complete list of contents on the top.
  • Mark your boxes by priority. Some things need to get unpacked quickly; some don’t. We used some weird tape to mark all our high-priority boxes.
  • Have an “immediate deployment” box. This is the first box you’ll unpack. It should probably include a tape measure, flashlight, paper towels, cleaning fluid, disposable tableware, and basic toiletries.
  • Kinko’s is a great place to get free boxes. Big-box booksellers may also have a recycling dumpster with nothing but clean, flattened boxes. I think Gwen and I bought exactly two boxes for this last move (for framed art), although we did splurge on 20 pounds of clean newsprint. Note that the boxes you get from these sources are relatively small; if you’re hiring movers, that will increase your total box count, and they usually charge by the box. Still, it’s probably cheaper than paying money for bigger boxes.


I used to have the beloved Radio Shack six-in-one. Eventually it died, and I tried replacing it with its successor, the eight-in-one. For whatever reason, the newer model lacks the codes for my receiver. (I learned that I could fix this if I bought a special cable and had a Windows computer with which I could run a special app to re-program the remote. Oy.) After looking around, I broke down and bought a Harmony 659. This is an expensive remote–I got it on markdown from Amazon, but it’s still pretty expensive.

It was worth it. You actually set up how the remote works on a website by stepping through a little interview process; the site creates a setup file that you download and then transfer to the remote via USB. Apart from one minor hitch (the TV didn’t turn on when it should–the remote asked me if it was on, and when I responded No, it tried again, successfully, and asked me if that worked–brilliant), everything Just Worked. Now, with my old six-in-one, I was able to make things More Or Less Work the way I wanted, but only with considerable nerding around. When you add up the time investment involved in that, this remote was a good deal.

If you get one of these, though, don’t bother installing the software off the included CD, because it will quite possibly be out of date, and you’ll need to download a newer version anyhow. Jump straight to the download.

iPod shuffle = yuppie gimme-cap

Practically overnight, the iPod shuffle has established itself as the upscale promotional giveaway. I know of three recent events where the shuffle was given away as a door prize–Gwen being the lucky recipient of one of these.

This is interesting on many levels. An underlying assumption is that any possible recipient will be able to use it and will value it (which is based on other assumptions about access to computers, technical competence, interest in music, etc). In other ways, though, the Shuffle itself is almost perfect as a door-prize: it makes no assumptions about the user’s tastes. It is faceless and white. Unassuming. Neither girly nor masculine, liberal nor conservative. It is blank, and becomes a mirror of the user’s tastes by being used. It is cheap enough for a promoter to buy a few out of petty cash, but nice enough to make the winner feel lucky to get it. And it really is nice–after using hers for all of five minutes, Gwen commented “I’ll bet their are twelve-step programs for iPod users.”

The iPod does make one assumption: that your ears are big enough to accommodate Apple’s earbuds, and as it turns out, Gwen’s aren’t.

Tuna fajitas

Hey look, a recipe. Gwen decided to live dangerously the other night, so she put me in charge of dinner. I came up with the following, and it turned out pretty well.


  • 1 lb tuna filets or steaks
  • onion
  • bell pepper
  • other vegetables to suit
for marinade
  • soy sauce
  • juice of 2 limes
  • black pepper
  • other spices to suit
for topping
  • cilantro, chopped
  • red cabbage, chopped


  • Slice the tuna into strips about 0.25″ thick.
  • Juice limes and combine marinade ingredients in a non-reactive (pyrex) shallow pan.
  • Marinate sliced tuna in pan. Marinade should be deep enough to just cover the strips; if not, you will need to rotate the strips periodically. Leave 20–30 minutes to marinate: the tuna should be uniformly chemically cooked by the lime juice on the outside.
  • Slice onion and bell pepper and any other vegetables you want to include into long, narrow strips; also chop toppings.
  • Sautee onions in a cast-iron skillet. When onions start turning brown, add bell peppers and any other vegetables; shortly after, add the fish along with the marinade.
  • Stir for two minutes, then cover and allow to cook over medium/high heat for another 8 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Transfer contents of skillet to a serving piece and clean skillet immediately, as lime juice will corrode the surface of the skillet.

This recipe would go well with a chipotle cream sauce as a topping—I’ll try that next time.

Interesting things I have learned in the past two days

My DSL modem was bouncing up and down repeatedly yesterday. It’s not unusual for it to reboot once in a while, but this was clearly Wrong. Called SBC’s tech support in Bangalore and got a trouble-ticket number.

A little while later, a good ol’ boy called me back. My line had already started behaving, but he did some tests while I was on the line, and we discussed the problem. Now, the service I signed up for is nominally 128 up/384 down. Apparently, my bandwidth had been automatically upgraded to 128 up/1500 down (I had noticed that my downloads were much faster than 384), and this was the cause of the problem. As he told me, I’m 15,000 feet from the central office, and my line can’t sustain that kind of bandwidth reliably (approximately 17,000 from the CO is usually as far as they’ll go). He changed my service to 384 up/768 down and said he was seeing a cleaner signal.

It’s interesting that A) SBC is upgrading service for its customers without squeezing more money out of them, and B) is apparently doing so without human intervention.

Tonight, Gwen and I are attending a Zombie Formal at the Pink Pleasure Palace. We needed to get some makeup for wounds, so we headed to the Bazaar, where a very helpful clerk showed us our options and gave us some ideas. We were going to pick up some stage blood, and he pointed out that they usually have a better selection, but with Easter coming, they’ve sold out of one variety. Apparently they sell more blood for Easter than for Halloween, and this has been exacerbated by The Passion. I never realized Christians were so lurid.

Helpful hint

If you’re trying to fire up the grill, and your charcoal is unwilling to light because of a long humid spell, then a blowtorch is a good thing to have.