May 9, 2016

∴ A Gin-off: Locals and One From Far, Far Away

2016 05 08 17 13 41

This was perhaps the most difficult head-to-head taste-off I’ve enjoyed. Left to right: Strange Monkey Gin, Silverback Distillery, Afton, Virginia; The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland; Watershed Gin, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, Purcellville, Virginia.
 
The Botanist has been a go-to gin for the Vesper, a favorite warm-weather cocktail, for a while. Moderately floral with a juniper-forward flavor, it blends well with just about anything. Add a dash of bitters and it melds with anything else. The Botanist’s bright, clean flavor, devoid of aftertaste, sets it apart as a prime ingredient in any gin cocktail. Top of the top shelf.
 
Watershed Gin was the surprise local upstart a year or two back, earning a prime spot in my line-up with its clean flavor. More floral with slightly sweeter aftertaste than The Botanist, I’m hard-pressed to favor either. Watershed compares favorably with Bombay Sapphire. Tie-breaker goes to local origin - Watershed. Priced similarly to The Botanist, you won’t find better ingredients for your cocktails.
 
Enter our latest discovery, found on a mead-buying, cider-sampling run to Afton, Virginia last weekend. On a lark Neal and I stopped in at Silverback Distillery for a tasting, after hearing a positive mention from Kristin at Blue Toad cidery.

Silverback offered two liquors for sampling. Their Blackback White liquor was, as expected, a novelty not appealing for purchase by the bottle (same goes for Mosby’s Spirit from Catoctin Creek). White liquor is what you get right out of the still before re-distilling for vodka or dispensing into barrels for maturation into whiskey. It’s an interesting bit of distilling education, and maybe one could concoct a cocktail of it, but I wouldn’t. Too raw.
 
Blackback is for sale now, but a portion of the output goes into barrels, eventually becoming Silverback’s bourbon. There’ll be a multi-year wait for maturation, hence the sale of Blackback today. Whiskeys are an investment; white liquors are cash flow. Made of corn, winter wheat and barley, Blackback will produce a wheated bourbon. “Wheaters,” as they’re known, are softer and rounder in flavor than regular bourbons.

Silverback’s gin, though, was intriguing. Again made with winter wheat, Strange Monkey provided a juniper flavor that finished uniquely sweet. Not your usual gin experience. Seeing my interest piqued, Neal kindly gifted me with a bottle for experimentation, which led to this work. After an afternoon of yard work in Virginia’s warm, delayed spring wind, the sky full of sun for the first full day in nearly two weeks, and after a recovery loaf on the floor with my girls it was time for a taste-off.
 
Strange Monkey is also floral, though not as much as Watershed, and its juniper is less forward than that of The Botanist. On those counts you could call this a flavorful, pleasant gin similar to the other two.
 
After sipping among the three, comparing and contrasting, the only negative I found in Strange Monkey was its unique sweetness. Strange Monkey won two competition awards in 2015, so I’m compelled to add that this is obviously a matter of personal taste. Others find its sweetness endearing. It’s a minor quibble that left me puzzled - every sip began with enjoyment of the floral, juniper flavor and ended with a question mark over the aftertaste.
 
Watershed possesses a very minor degree of this sweetness, too, though The Botanist, clean as the wind-swept Hebrides from which it emerges, is devoid of it. The hint of Watershed’s sweetness is what makes it a treat for use in cocktails. So it comes down to how much of this sweetness you’ll enjoy before finding it off-putting.
 
I needed a more complex sampling to understand how Strange Money played with other flavors, so I incorporated it into both a Vesper, at 3-1-¼ with Tito’s vodka and Cocchi Americano, and a Martini at about 7:1 with dry vermouth. I’d normally use a potato vodka in the Vesper for its earthy flavor, but I wanted no interference with the gin flavor for this tasting. Both cocktails were stirred over ice in a mixing glass to simultaneously reach optimal temperature and dilution. A few sips of each and a conclusion was reached.
 
The Botanist stands alone in its stark sharpness. Go here for fine gin flavor, full stop.
 
Watershed Gin remains my sentimental and flavorful favorite by a hair, though. As with a favored warm bourbon, this gin will grace my Vespers and Martinis for a long while. (I should sneak it into my pals’ cocktails just to see their unknowing enjoyment.) Not as crisp as The Botanist, Watershed more than succeeds with its floral scent and flavor. A head-to-head against Bombay Sapphire would be fun with this one.
 
Either way you win with these two. Experiment. Maybe you’ll take one over the other. Write about it if you do - I’d like to learn why.
 
Strange Monkey remains an experimental ingredient. Though initially bright and flavorful, I’m undecided on its use due to the underlying and lasting sweetness. I wouldn’t use this gin in a Vesper any more than I would Hendrick’s, though I like the latter very much. And though I’ll always relish a Hendrick’s Martini, I don’t think I care for Strange Monkey in a Martini, either. I’d say this one will mix well into a sour such as a Gimlet, its sweetness offsetting some of the grapefruit sourness and making for a yummy cocktail. Another day’s entertainment.
 
So: Watershed, The Botanist, Strange Monkey, in that order. Add Bombay Safire between the first two just for the hell of it.
 
Yeah, I love Virginia. We have a surprising number of breweries, distilleries, meaderies and cideries, with more on the way. Another few open every month, it seems. And I like a good gin. Somewhere, an old friend is smiling. “Think of a pine forest.”

March 11, 2016

∴ A Contest of Wills

Or, a contest of flavors. Never underestimate your palate’s capability to discern more.

The Manhattan is a simple cocktail. Two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a couple dashes of bitters. A classic.

Turn up the volume. Let’s say the whiskey must be rye, with all of the bold spiciness it imparts. And let’s say the vermouth must be something that elbows its way onto your palate no matter what it’s mixed with, no matter the ratio: Carpano Antica Formula.

Now tweak the bitters. One dash Angostura aromatic tying the whiskey and vermouth together, one dash orange to play with the whiskey. Rye is sharp vs. the corn sweetness of bourbon, so add one dash cherry bark vanilla bitters to give back a mild sweetness.

Now stir. No shaker needed, only a mixing glass, a bar spoon and a fistful of ice. Keep the back of the spoon on the inside of the glass and circulate the liquids among the ice until the cubes soften. Say, twenty back-and-forth rotations. Sample with a cocktail straw - this is a “stirred and boozy” cocktail, it should taste just so. Expect a jungle of flavors, none overwhelming the others.

Serve up, with a Bing cherry garnish. Sublime.

February 23, 2016

∴ Pandora Finally Earns a Place

I played around with Pandora years ago, but I couldn’t create a channel that didn’t lose my interest within a few hours. Terrific resource for someone, someone not me.

Toying with the Pandora app on my Comcast DVR last weekend, I was about to listen to the Arcade Fire channel I’d created last year, when I stopped short. I had a thought to create a new channel based on a group whose music and vocals I’ve loved for a quarter-century. (I’m 50, I get to reference time spans in centuries. Perks of the game.)

Enter the Cocteau Twins channel. And a door opened to the music of my younger self:
New Order
Roxy Music
Tears For Fears
Mazzy Star
The Cure
Cocteau Twins (duh)
A Flock of Seagulls
OMD
Simple Minds
Psych Furs
Eurythmics (Annie Lennox is among the top three female vocalists of the late 20th)
Siouxsie and The Banshees (yeah, wow)
The Smiths
Cindy Lauper
Naked Eyes

This is the first time I’ve built a channel that’s consistently entertaining. Pandora is worth something to me now.

If you’ve not yet found a use for Pandora, try creating a channel based on some obscure musician or group whom you never told anyone about. You’ll know it when you’ve found it.

February 13, 2016

∴ Quick Take: Rittenhouse 100 Rye Whiskey vs. Bulleit Rye Whiskey

Bulleit and Rittenhouse rye whiskeys

We paid a quick visit to our local Virginia ABC shop this afternoon. A group of friends is gathering to plan our upcoming vacation tomorrow, and our hostess is making cocktails to go with lunch. We’re to bring one of the ingredients. I’ll say only that when the drinks are of the frozen type, it matters not what hue the Triple Sec imbues.

Anyhow, my bar is running low on rye whiskey, so I perused the whiskey aisle while Kelly went in search of tomorrow’s ingredient.

I’m partial to Rittenhouse 100 Rye for my Manhattans, but our state ABC appears to have lost interest in carrying it. That’s a shame, because its bottled-in-bond stamp ensures a sturdy, well-aged product, and Heaven Hill, distiller of Rittenhouse, steps squarely to the plate and knocks this whiskey out of the park. Rich, flavorful for its high ABV, and bargain priced in the high twenties, Rittenhouse is a smart buy. But not today. It’s a mail order item anymore.

I’ve enjoyed a Manhattan made with Bulleit Rye at one of our better local restaurants, though, and every liquor store seems to stock it. Hmm. With a third of a bottle of the Rittenhouse left, I could wait, or i could bring home the Bulleit and do a head-to-head tasting.

Cutting to the chase: both exhibit a rich, spicy rye flavor. There’s a bit of sweetness to both, almost a bourbon-like corn flavor, though there’s no corn in the Bulleit product. Rittenhouse’s new formula includes 37% corn in the mash bill, while Bulleit’s MGP pedigree includes 95% rye, 5% barley - no corn at all. I was hard-pressed to taste a difference, though, aside from the 10% ABV difference in alcohol content.

If you’re a Rittenhouse fan and have a hard time finding it, or want to branch out to something new without straying to far afield, Bulleit is a good choice. I’ll be using it in my Manhattans for a while, and for a new cocktail I’ll be playing with: the Black Manhattan. The Virginia ABC stocks Averna amaro, so this cocktail is next on my experimentation list.

Enjoy!

February 8, 2016

∴ The Forgotten Ingredient

One of the three classic cocktail styles, the sour, includes an ingredient added almost as an afterthought: sweetener. Acting as a balance to lemon, lime or other sour flavoring, this component is most often simple syrup, a 1:1 mix of water and granular table sugar, or sucrose.

But “simple” can be a wee too neutral. I used to employ simple in my Lemon Drop cocktails, but changed sweeteners to agave syrup because it imparts a strong richness amid its sweetness. That richness stands up well to the Lemon Drop’s Cointreau and lemon juice components, adding depth to the drink. No small task against pungent flavors.

This weekend, though, I began experimenting with a classic cocktail, the Daiquiri. The original version (which involves no ice outside of a shaker tin) was around long before Hemingway made it his drink of choice. Simply made of two parts white rum, one part fresh-squeezed lime juice, and three-quarters part sweetener (more on this to follow), this cocktail is said to demonstrate much about a bartender’s skills.

  • Measurement of all ingredients is the key to a well-made cocktail, and there are not only three to this drink, but one is measured from a fruit press. Whether you use a two-handled model or a tried-and-true countertop twist-style, you’re not pouring from a bottle for this one.
  • Fruit preparation is important here. Either style press will give you proper juice, but giving your limes a roll on the cutting block while pressing down with moderate force will begin breaking down the pulp structure, helping release more juice. One medium lime should provide an ounce of juice, maybe a little more. Measure it to be sure.
  • Too much leverage on a one- or two-handled press will release oil from the rind, resulting in an overly sour drink. Knowing when to stop squeezing is make-or-break.
  • Shaking technique is all about combining ingredients while chilling to the right temperature, and diluting the ingredients with just enough melt water. It’s said that 20% of a properly made cocktail is water from the shake or stir. The more practice made at getting that dilution, the easier it is to know when it’s reached. For this drink, shaken, the ice should just begin to sound soft. You’ll know it when you hear it.

These are the details that make for a fine cocktail. Attending to them, out pours one of the simplest cocktails in the book. But not so fast: I found ¾ part simple syrup left the drink a bit sharp on first sip. A guest might pull up short on such a sip - removing that hesitation is why I switched my Lemon Drops to agave syrup. But agave is far too rich for the delicate flavor of a fine white rum. Something else is needed.

The Daiquiri calls for cane sugar syrup. Made by stirring two parts evaporated cane juice sugar into one part water warming on the stove, this sweetener adds a depth of flavor absent in simple syrup, yet less imposing than that of agave syrup. It preserves the delicate flavors of white rum while taking the edge off fresh lime juice. It is the perfect correction to that sharp first sip.

I performed a direct comparison between two sweeteners today, shaking two Daiquiris identical in composition save for the syrups. Into one tin went ¾ part simple syrup, and into the other went ½ part cane sugar syrup. I tried the simple syrup-laced cocktail first, noting the sharpness of the lime juice first, which then gave way to the rum flavors. The sugar cane syrup-laced drink blended, where no one flavor overshadowed the others. The sweetener, so minor a player in this ensemble of ingredients, turned out to be a key player.

(Take a sip of the cane sugar syrup-laced version first if you try this for yourself. The initial tartness of the simple syrup-laced version threw off my palate, and it wasn’t until I walked away from the two for a few minutes and came back to a slightly warmer, and more flavorful-for-it drink that I noticed the difference.)

The beauty of cane sugar syrup is that it may be used anywhere simple syrup is called for, and will provide an additional dimension to your cocktail. Though its sweetness is the same as table sugar, in my view, go a little lighter when subbing in for simple syrup. Cane’s depth of flavor, though subtle, adds to its sweetness. Use ½ part cane sugar syrup for ¾ part simple in a Daiquiri, for example. Play with it to find your “sweet spot.”

So what’s the difference between common table sugar and cane sugar? Table sugar is fully refined from raw, brownish, milled sugarcane. I’ve never given it much thought; I’ve just grabbed the bag from my wife’s baking supply and mixed in an equal part to make simple syrup. Evaporated cane juice is made by removing moisture from milled, pressed sugar cane; it’s partially refined, and that leaves in enough molasses to enhance its flavor.

Finding evaporated cane juice sugar is not a straightforward task. Skip the baking aisle of your local grocery and go instead to the organics section. I found a number of sweeteners there, including two labeled “organic cane sugar.” Only one listed evaporated cane juice as its sole ingredient. Caveat emptor, and have a good look at the nutrition label before buying.

I titled this article The Forgotten Ingredient, because few think about the sweetener when building a cocktail. It’s usually last into the shaker, and one’s mind is on buttoning up and shaking - but don’t be hasty in your preparation: the right sweetener can make all the difference.

* I found this interesting passage in the Wikipedia entry for sugar:

Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways, influencing the formation of colonies, the perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the migration of peoples, wars between sugar-trade–controlling nations in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition and political structure of the New World.

All that for (by?) a simple, organic compound. Wow.

December 28, 2015

∴ The Lemon Drop

Here’s a cocktail that’s both lemony-refreshing for summer, and satisfyingly rich for colder months.

Absolut Citron vodka

There are four components in this Lemon Drop: vodka, orange liqueur, lemon juice, and sweetener. The quality of each ingredient affects the finished product, so I’ve recommended what I use as a starting point.

Before you begin, chill your cocktail glasses with a handful of cracked ice each, and water. They’ll be nice and cold by the time you mix up your ingredients.

First, we’ll reach slightly lower on the store shelf for flavored vodka. I use Absolut’s Citron. Readily available, and flavorful yet not cloyingly so, it’s a good all-around choice. A pricier pick is Hangar One’s Buddha’s Hand Citron. Other brands produce a lemon product, so pick your favorite.

Whichever product you choose, its lemon flavor shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a shot glass-full neat. It’s a good test of palatability.

No-one’s expecting this vodka to stand up on its own, but in keeping with the theme that good ingredients make for good drinks it shouldn’t leave you feeling under-served, either.

Keep in mind that there are three more ingredients in this drink, one very pungent, so an expensive pick isn’t going to stand out in proportion to its price. Save your money here, just don’t go cheap.

One measure of lemon vodka goes into the mixing glass.

Cointreau liqueur

The second ingredient in our Lemon Drop is crucial wherever it’s called for, but often overlooked by casual drinkers: Cointreau. This aperitif bears a pungent orange flavor similar to other Triple Secs and Curacaos. Its original name was “CuraƧao Blanco Triple Sec,” even. Made from bitter orange peels steeped in pure, sugar beet alcohol, the critical difference between it and other Triple Secs isn’t so much the method of production, but rather its flavor on your palate.

Try a head-to-head taste-off to divine the better product. You probably have a bottle of Triple Sec in your bar. Pick up a small bottle of Cointreau and pour a half-ounce into a shot glass, and another half-ounce of your usual Triple Sec into a second. Try the Cointreau first.

Use the money you save on top-priced vodka and spend it on Cointreau. It’s easily quadruple the price of garden-variety Triple Secs, but you can use it anywhere Triple Sec or Curacao is called for. It’s even tasty over ice on a hot day.

One measure of Cointreau, into the mixing glass.

Lemons

Our third ingredient lends the drink its name: lemon juice, freshly squeezed from fresh lemons.

I’ve used week-old lemons for this drink with mixed results. Those who favor a more tart version won’t mind; they might actually prefer it. Everyone else will make the face.

You know the face. It’s the eyes-averted, this-drink-is-harsh look. You’ll know you’ve goofed. Squeeze the lemons while your friends watch, and you’ll never see that look.

A sharp paring knife and a two-handled lemon press make quick work of it.

One measure of freshly squeezed lemon juice goes into the mixing glass.

Among vodka, Cointreau, and lemon juice, a sweetener is called for. It’s our last ingredient.

Avoid granular sugar. It won’t dissolve enough unless you stir it into hot water - and that’s choice number one: simple syrup. Equal parts very hot water and sugar allowed to cool, it’s a staple behind the bar. I recommend making a few Lemon Drops with simple syrup to get the recipe down pat.

Using simple syrup, one measure goes into the mixing glass.

Dark agave syrup

Or try something that will set your cocktail apart: pure agave nectar. Available from most grocery stores in light and dark versions, I go for the dark. They’re equally sweet, but the dark bears a richer, earthy flavor. Avoid anything containing corn syrup or other ingredients.

Agave is both a secret to keep in your bag of tricks and a pain to work with. A secret, because most home barkeeps don’t know of it. Agave will set your cocktail apart from others with its rich flavor.

It’s also a pain in the neck to work with, because there’s a very fine line between just right and too much. Shy on the mild side with agave syrup.

No special effort (see: dry shaking) is required to dissolve or emulsify agave nectar; it blends in like any other syrup. If you go too far in your measured addition, add a wee bit more lemon juice to adjust your drink before shaking.

Using dark agave nectar, one-third (just one-third) measure goes into the mixing glass.

Pile the mixing glass high with cracked ice, add the shaker tin with a tap and shake with an easy, Martini-like rhythm until your hand feels frost-bitten on the tin. Shaking introduces melt water into the drink, toning down any sharp flavors.

Three Lemon Drops

Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve with a twisted lemon peel garnish, or hold the fruit and sip away.

(The examples at right show how dark agave nectar makes a normally pale yellow cocktail into a more inviting, darker version.)

I’ve heard of an alternative to agave nectar that you might try. Look for demerara or turbinado sugar, and incorporate one into your Lemon Drop as a syrup. Mix 2:1 sugar to hot water, and let cool. Go easy on it in the mixing glass, working your way up from ½ measure until you find balance. Successful experimentation here leads to your own signature cocktail.

You can further experiment with how long you shake the mixture, or try stirring over a handful of cracked ice for thirty seconds, instead. Stirring introduces less melt water and therefore, a stronger cocktail. Find the balance between too-hot, alcohol-forward and nicely mellowed.

Lemon Drops can be bulk-assembled ahead of a party in the right proportion, 1-1-1-1 with simple syrup or 1-1-1-⅓ with agave nectar, and chilled down in a pitcher. Stir the pitcher before lightly shaking a couple of servings at a time and the result will put drinks in your friends’ hands quickly, without much effort.

You’ll empty a vodka bottle getting this one just the way you like it, but repetition is the pleasure of mixing well-made cocktails, right?

October 16, 2015

∴ Finding Empathy

There exists the notion of fostering empathy for dealing with intolerable people. Whom you find intolerable and why is subjective, so finding common ground can be a first step at ending enmity. It helps if you realize that you are also part of the problem, because you still have buttons that can be pushed.

While I talk a good game about disliking people in general, in truth I tend to like, or at least have no trouble maneuvering around, others. But there’s this one person …

Empathy is not just “putting yourself in someone’s shoes,” (that’s sympathy) it’s bringing to mind those circumstances in their life that you’ve experienced for yourself, and forming a more accepting attitude as a result. It’s “been there, done that, I know how they feel” rather than an intellectual exercise in imagining someone’s pain.

The trouble, and it pretty much precludes adopting an empathetic attitude here, is that I share so little in common with this person, and I’m effectively shut out from enjoying what few things we do have in common. I’ve never experienced the life events that have brought this person so much suffering. It’s not a visible suffering. You’d never guess what this person is going through, or has gone through.

So on the surface it appears empathy is out for me, which is a shame.

This person displays an over-exercised sense of self-promotion, an utter unwillingness toward long term planning, appearing devoid of contemplative behavior, lacking of self-awareness, and possesses an insatiable need to be in control. Combined with past personal history this person’s life is a figurative train wreck. Failure to think through decisions and their effect on other people is one of this person’s most infuriating traits. Yet all of these directly or indirectly increase this person’s suffering, and make this person more annoying to others at the same time.

Fostering sympathy hasn’t been effective, either. I can know a thing to be true, but not having lived it or seen it first hand makes it difficult to translate that knowledge to a more neutral attitude. There’s just too much ongoing chaos, disregard and self aggrandizement for me to make that leap. Call it a failing, or a lack of understanding, but the sympathy thing just isn’t happening. So I minimize my time and interaction with this person and hope change intervenes.

Therein lies the solution. The notion of impermanence, that nothing remains the same for even a few moments, or that karma happens within one lifetime and often within a small portion of one will likely resolve the near constant state of unease I have with this person.

I’m reminded of this by a series of Buddhist retreats I attended 15 years ago, where the subject was “lovingkindness,” or exchanging self for others. It was an exercise in finding empathy from within.

The moment of awakening came, for me, after several months of guided meditations. In each session we were to first bring to mind one’s self, seated for meditation, and note what feelings arose. After a few minutes we were guided to shift focus to those for whom we had positive feelings, again noting what feelings arose. Shifting focus again, we noted feelings that arose for those with whom we had no particular relationship, the “neutrals.” Finally, we shifted focus to those with whom we had difficult relations, and noted the response arising within our minds. The point was to recognize the commonalities between these groups, and focus more intently upon that.

Over the course of ten months some of the individuals in each list had “moved.” Some who had begun on my shit list had become neutral, even positive, while others had moved the other way. Those who had begun neutral, such as others in the retreat group, had in some cases moved to the positive group as I got to casually know them. Not that any of these people had done anything to cause movement; it was happening in my mind. My apprehension of reality and of the impermanence of that reality were the key realizations I came away with, as well as a means of finding empathy. The people I focused on were all sharing the same changing thinking-and-feeling about their experiences, even if they were unaware.

It’s a work in progress with this person. I keep that awakening moment fifteen years ago in mind, and minimize my exposure when I can’t take it anymore. I’ll get there, or some circumstance will intercede, and this period of my life will end. That’ll be a good thing. Swallowing bile is a pain in the throat, as well as the ass.

(Please forgive my repetitive use of the phrase “this person” and lack of personal pronouns. For very good reason this person remains nameless. If you’re reading this I can almost guarantee this person is not you. And if you see yourself in this writing, it’s still not you, you just have something to think about.)

It’s helpful to write about a problem when it towers like a wall to beat my head against. It reminds me that the wall is my self.

July 8, 2015

Film Projection, Explained

Check out this exceptionally well-written ten-minute documentary about how film projection works, by EngineerGuy:

Hammack reveals how pre-digital cameras were designed to deceive our brains, tricking the eyes into seeing a moving picture. High-speed photography and illustrations dive into a delightfully retro-colored Bell And Howell 1580 16mm projector from 1979 to see how the illusion of movement is paired with an optical soundtrack.

June 15, 2015

∴ Bitters, For Better Cocktails

I’m laid up recovering from surgery. What better time to think and write about bitters?

Angostura bitters

Many cocktail recipes include a dash or two of this enigmatic product. For most people that amounts to a couple drops of Angostura bitters, sold everywhere in a small bottle with an iconic, oversized label. Nearly everyone has a bottle of this otherwise undrinkable substance tucked away, gathering dust. And yet it remains one of the least explored parts of drink-making.

If we agree that a cocktail, if made at all, should be made well, it stands to reason that we should know why we’re including bitters, and why leaving the well-trod road of Angostura for less well-traveled paths is a good idea.

In a nutshell, bitters are a combination of organic matter and alcohol, usually aromatic or savory botanicals. Typically very concentrated in flavor, bitters are measured in dashes or drops. Some were originally marketed as digestifs for relief from upset stomach and other maladies.

Packing so much flavor into so small a volume gives bitters their name. Some are downright awful taken on their own.

A bitters-like product popular in the San Francisco area of late, Fernet Branca is occasionally sold by the shot, and had mainly on a dare. It’s nasty stuff. Yet despite its harshness, a drop or two added to a Manhattan recipe gives that cocktail a lovely mint aftertaste, which kicks in just as the whiskey flavor fades.

Not all bitters are terribly harsh on their own, however. Orange bitters, and particularly vanilla bitters are quite nicely sweet, though one would still be hard-pressed to drink even a mouthful neat.

So why use a cocktail ingredient that’s so powerfully flavored and, on it’s own, so often harsh? In a word, depth. Bitters adds depth to the flavor of just about any cocktail. Since we’re hand-crafting the flavor of our drink when mixing a cocktail, not simply slapping together booze, mixer and ice, the individual flavors matter. Enhancing a cocktail with bitters makes its flavor deeper, richer.

It’s important to note that I mix my cocktails by parts. My basic part, or measure, varies from ¾- to one-and-one-half-ounce, resulting in a cocktail of 3- to 4-ounces. I don’t keep large cocktail glasses at home, and I don’t mind sending one off the bar half-filled when using someone else’s glassware. Better to make two and enjoy each cold in turn than to make one big sloppy drink that finishes unpleasantly warm.

In my size drink, one or two drops of bitters suffice. If you’re mixing larger drinks you’ll use a larger base measure, so up your bitters component accordingly.

Bittercube bitters

I’ve had one of those “forever” bottles of Angostura bitters in my liquor cabinet for ages. It hasn’t gotten any lighter lately, because Kelly gifted me a collection of six bitters from Bittercube, a boutique bitters manufacturer in Milwaukee, this past Christmas. Bittercube produces their own unique formulations for orange, “cherry bark” vanilla, blackstrap molasses, two variety of Jamaican and one they call “Bolivar.” The last bears a lovely floral aroma, and enhances cocktails as much by its scent as its flavor, I’ve found.

This six-bottle variety pack includes one-ounce bottles each topped with a dropper cap, allowing for simple measurement experimentation. Bittercube also sells each bitters product in a full 5-ounce bottle with a “dash” top, as well as each 1-ounce sample bottle individually. They thoughtfully include suggested uses for each of these unique flavor enhancers packaged with the set, giving mixologists a starting point.

There’e really no wrong way to use these products. I’d add one guideline that’s always wisely applied: use them sparingly. A dash is a drop. Two drops is usually enough, and I’ve never found it useful combining more than three bitters in a single cocktail. I have, though, found the right three to be quite entertaining in cocktails otherwise largely devoid of flavor, say, a dry vodka Martini.

Therein lies the joy of mixology: experimentation. For example, orange bitters are often suggested as an accompaniment to whiskey-based cocktails. While I’ve found Bittercube’s suggestions useful, it’s when I’ve plunged headlong off that path that I’ve obtained the most interesting results.

My go-to Manhattan recipe includes two drops orange bitters, and one drop vanilla. The vanilla obtains a sweeter expression of the aromatized sweet vermouth I use, while the orange deepens the whiskey barrel flavor of my favorite rye. With just a few drops of otherwise unremarkable liquid this simple cocktail becomes a sublime expression of the classic drink, and a welcome end-of-the-week reward.

Another interesting result is obtained by adding Bolivar bitters to the classic Vesper recipe. The mild citrus and bitter tang of Lillet Blanc, or better, Kina L’Aero D’Or is enhanced with the fine floral essence imparted by just one drop of this bitters.

I’ve found a simple gin Martini, mixed to my taste at about a six-to-one gin/vermouth ratio, takes on a very satisfying depth and uniqueness of flavor with the addition of two drops black strap molasses bitters. It’s an odd combination, but I think the flavor interest springs from the contrast between gin’s botanicals and the black strap’s rich, almost burnt sugar flavor. It’s an enjoyable variation on one of my favorite cocktails when I’m looking for something different to sip.

Using a light hand with the bitters keeps their flavor contribution a pleasant accompaniment. They shine through the finished cocktail as but a third or fourth component. Sometimes the bitters flavor shines only as a remnant, an echo of the cocktail. The aforementioned Fernet Branca in a Manhattan is one example.

I know I’ve hit the right combination when I get a pleased smile and hear “oh!” a few seconds after the first mouthful of drink is consumed.

As you can see, the possibilities are many. Take your favorite cocktail preparation, add a few drops of well-crafted bitters and see where it takes you. Then change it up and try a different path. You might find that your “favorite” cocktail has multiple expressions!

June 9, 2015

∴ Thoughts on 2015 WWDC

I watched Apple’s live stream of their 2015 Worldwide Developer’s Conference keynote presentation at home yesterday, while recuperating from surgery. While my thoughts on what I heard and saw are my own, they’re intermediated by a significant dose of pain medication. Maybe they’re flat-out wrong, so take this with a grain of salt.

I wasn’t all that impressed. Not like in past years, when new features were debuted for iOS and OS X that extended those operating systems’ capabilities and ease of use. Worse, the debut this year of Apple Music was pretty much the fulfillment of what I dreaded about Apple’s acquisition of Beats: the introduction of schlock culture into Apple’s mainline product offerings. I half-expected to see “turntablist” extraordinaire Dr. Dre slide out on a platform for a live performance.

Several tech writers in the audience actively wondered whether the presentation was still going on. It had a distinct “after dark” feel to it, if you know that podcasting term.

And I still have no idea why I should pay for Apple Music.

Other sites, such as Federico Viticci’s MacStories, are recounting highlights of what was presented. Still others will dig deeper over the next few days. I’ll read through those with a known thoughtful track record. I have an idea about the event, though.

Perhaps what threw me was not so much a lack of content, but rather the implication that Apple will spend the next cycle of OS X and iOS production partly in a “Snow Leopard pause.” I hope this is the case.

Let me explain that phrase. At each step of my recent medical work the doctor, nurse or team that was about to lay hands on me paused and asked for my full name, date of birth and description of what we were doing. I had to give a positive, correct answer before work continued. That professional pause made sure the medical team was all on the same page, taking the same thoughtful, concerted action.

When Apple announced in 2009 that Snow Leopard, their 10.6 version of OS X, had no new customer-facing features, what they were really doing was taking a professional pause to repair, improve and update what they already had in place. There was a lot of under-the-hood change involved. The result was a tighter, less buggy and more functional operating system.

It doesn’t wow the crowds to do this. It doesn’t impress shareholders. It would, however, please and impress those of us who’ve been saddened to watch the quality of OS X and iOS slide as new features and UI design were brought to market over the past two years.

Again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I was simply drug-addled yesterday, and what Apple announced was amazeballs. I hope that’s not the case, though. I hope yesterday’s underwhelming roll-out was a simple return to modest updates rolled out alongside significantly more effort going to features and software consumers will never directly see. An under-the-hood code review, reboot, tweaking, call-it-what-you-will.

Apple product users have only to gain if that’s so.

May 31, 2015

∴ A Gin-off

The Botanist gin and Broker's gin

I’m always looking to improve my cocktails’ ingredients and their results. Today’s liquor taste-off follows an identical try from last evening, but with an important change. This time the tasting is blind.

I’m taste-testing two gins, weighing which will remain or become my go-to ingredient for the Vesper. Ian Fleming fans will recall the Vesper as three parts gin, one part vodka, and a half-part Kina Lillet, so the gin carries a lot of this cocktail’s flavor. And since there’s no mixer or fill in the Vesper recipe, there’s nothing to hide a bad choice.

Putting Hendrick’s, my favorite Martini gin, aside for the moment, today’s tasting is between Broker’s and The Botanist. Brokers enters as the gin I’ve come back to from each excursion into something new.

The Botanist was recommended in an article by Aaron Tubbs, wherein he discussed how to build a better Vesper.

Broker’s, a London dry gin distilled in England and bottled at 94-proof, has a distinct aroma of juniper and pine. No surprise there. It also goes down a little harsh neat, likely (I thought) due to its elevated alcohol content. Enjoyable in a mixed drink, even one composed only of liquors, this gin makes for an affordable house bottle at around $22 for the 750 ml size.

The Botanist, a not quite dry gin distilled in Scotland by the Bruichladdich whisky distillery, clocks in at 92-proof. Surprisingly, it lacked the strong aroma found in so many gins. On the nose it comes forward sweeter than Broker’s. Its flavor is similar to, but milder than Broker’s, and finishes cleanly. The Botanist rings up at about $37 for a 750 ml bottle.

In both the self-poured and blind tests, the differences between these two were apparent. I had forgotten which had the nose-full of scent from my self-poured test and began the blind test with what turned out to be The Botanist, on the assumption that the less aromatic sample would be less flavorful. This was a false assumption. Both gins gave a good accounting of themselves on the tongue, but the nod goes to The Botanist for its more refined, and yes, even a wee bit sweeter finish. A gin aficionado could enjoy The Botanist neat. I don’t believe the same true of Broker’s.

Two Vespers, one each made with The Botanist and Broker's gin

At nearly double the price of Broker’s, though, The Botanist presents a choice. I prefer my Martinis made with Hendrick’s and a good dry vermouth. But Hendrick’s renowned mild cucumber infusion makes it wrong for a Vesper. That leaves these two from among the several I’ve sampled. And, at three parts gin per cocktail, a bottle disappears quicker than any other in my bar. The Botanist makes for a pricey Vesper.

On solo taste alone, The Botanist finishes a head above Broker’s. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the inclusion of vodka in the Vesper recipe masks Broker’s harsher edge and brings them even in that cocktail. Add a bit of Kina and the difference should vanish altogether. Not so. Broker’s harsh finish shines through in the poured cocktail, though not as evident as when taken neat. The Botanist is the better gin, both neat and in a strong liquor mix such as the Vesper.

But let me be clear: Broker’s is not an unpleasant gin, having survived many a taste test. You’ll enjoy its strong gin flavor in any cocktail that calls for London’s renowned spirit. You may even prefer its boldness in the Vesper. Simply, there is no wrong answer between these two.

I’ve found liquors whose price belied their quality. Rittenhouse rye whiskey comes to mind. With a price in the twenties it sits head AND shoulders above bottles twice the price. These two gins don’t present such a choice. The Botanist is an easy favorite, but Broker’s, even with its harsher finish, is not unpleasant and provides more enjoyable drink per penny. Either is a good choice mixed. Go with The Botanist neat, however.

January 11, 2015

American Politics Then, Now

I’ve slowly been wading my way through Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative over the past year, with a break between the first and second volumes and another break coming up shortly, before the third. One thing that’s struck me, among many, is the similarity between the politics of the pre-Civil War era and today. We’re accustomed to acrimony and uncivil behavior between the “left” the “right” these days. It’s the water we swim in. It’s also the water Americans swam in back then.

A thought: what if the American Century, such as it was, was an aberration? What if the Archduke hadn’t been murdered, or the United States hadn’t entered what became World War I? What if the victorious allies hadn’t imposed overly severe reparations upon Weimar Germany, which inexorably lead to World War II, the attack upon American soil and the rise of the American war machine? What if what we are today, politically, is what we would have been all along in the absence of those post-American Civiil War influences, and where we’re going includes change to our government, our culture and how we see our republic similar to what was wrought by that earlier domestic conflict?

I plan to re-read the initial chapters of Foote’s work, wherein he describes the politics of 1860-61, after I’ve finished the second volume, and write about it here. It’s a departure from my usual Apple-centric technology interest, which is covered elsewhere far better than I have attention for. But what the hell, why not pick a niche and explore? Who knows what I’ll find.

October 29, 2014

How Apple Pay Really Works

Kirk Lennon:

“The first step to using Apple Pay is to add your credit card to Passbook. You can use the camera on your iPhone 6 to read the cardholder data directly from the card. This is the only step in the process where your PAN is ever used. The PAN is sent over an encrypted connection to the credit card companies and the payment token is received. The actual process of generating and storing tokens is done by either your issuing bank or, for example, Visa offers an ‘on behalf of’ service for banks where they handle the tokenization process. The token is not cryptographically generated, and while certain elements can be set, the number is essentially random, which means it is impossible for a malicious agent to figure out the PAN from the token. The issuers maintain a ‘token vault’ that maps back tokens to their respective PANs, and there can be multiple tokens for a single PAN. Once your iPhone receives the token, it then stores it in the Secure Element. When you go to pay in a store, your iPhone transmits the token to the merchant along with the token cryptogram, which is generated at transaction time by the Secure Element using the token and additional transaction-specific data. The token and this security code are sent through the normal payment networks where the token is finally mapped back to your PAN and your bank (hopefully) authorizes the transaction. The merchant never sees your actual account number, nor even your name. Your private information stays private and secure. Also, note who is not a part of the payment process: Apple. Once you add your card to your phone, the rest of the transaction is between you, the merchant, and your credit card company or bank. Apple never knows where, when, or how much you spend using it. Apple does, however, get a small percentage of the credit card transaction fee each time you use it, perhaps as compensation for reducing fraud. How to reconcile these two facts? It’s simple: The banks keep track of aggregate transactions that come from Apple Pay tokens and then combine Apple’s portion of the fees into periodic lump-sum payments.”

Safe and effective.

(Via DF.)

February 25, 2014

Bitcoin Exchange Mt. Gox Goes Dark

Ruairidh Villar, writing for Reuters:

“Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles told Reuters in an email: ‘We should have an official announcement ready soon-ish.”

“Soon-ish.” Doesn’t sound much like “full faith and credit,” now, does it? I’ll keep my greenbacks, thanks.

Inflation may eat away at the value of a dollar, but a dollar will always be accepted as currency. Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a “virtual currency,” which means ‘something we made up that might be worth something in a week, a month, a year. Or not.’ How dumb is that? And how dumb are people who exchange sovereign currency for it?

February 12, 2014

The Fanciulli Cocktail

Cocktails are like people. The more complex, the more interesting and memorable they are. In the spirit of fine wines, craft beer and well-rested liquors I present the Fanciulli cocktail: a precise blend of fine American rye whiskey, aromatic sweet vermouth and a touch of an otherwise undrinkable, bitter digestif, yielding an enjoyable revision to the classic Manhattan.

Think of the Fanciulli cocktail as the Manhattan James Bond would order if he were a whiskey man. Like the Vesper, Ian Fleming’s twist on the classic gin Martini, the Fanciulli is a more nuanced version of the basic Manhattan.

My first experience of the Fanciulli came at a roadside inn and fine dining restaurant called Buck’s T-4, in the mountains of Montana. Their version went by the monicker “Porter’s Manhattan.” It was the start of a delightful evening of dining and conversation with my wife and two dear friends, each making the other all the more memorable.

I wanted to recreate the cocktail at home. A little online digging, using the ingredients as keywords, yielded a proportioned recipe that served as my starting point. It took more digging to source two of the ingredients, and a little experimentation to refine the recipe to my liking.

Experimentation is at least half the fun here. As with any cocktail, your palate will dictate what’s good and how much drink is enough. Many Manhattan recipes call for a 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth. That produces what is for me a too-sweet cocktail, and given the other Fanciulli ingredients’ flavor contributions we might lose the whiskey altogether. Your mileage may vary in this regard.

As always, measure every ingredient precisely. Your local barman may pour by the count, but you aren’t he. Use a pair of measures, one sized ½-ounce on one side, 1-ounce on the other, the second ¾-ounce and 1½-ounce. These will allow variation in whatever recipe you’re mixing by using “parts,” or “measures.” If your base part is one-ounce, a 3:1 ratio will require three ounces of whiskey. A smaller drink can be had by using a ¾-ounce part, or even a ½-ounce part, which will yield a drink possessing the standard 1½-ounces of liquor. It’s all about proportion.

I have a friend who, when he gets the urge for a Martini, but lacks the time to enjoy a fuller serving, will mix the appropriate proportions in a shot glass topped with a single green olive. The yield is a single mouthful, just enough for appreciation without clouding the next hour with alcohol’s after-effect.

Rittenhouse 100-proof rye whiskey

Our cocktail begins with a good American rye whiskey. “Good” doesn’t necessarily imply expensive, and cheap never yields good. Cast your eyes upward when shopping.

Rye is as old as the hills, hills that stretch from Canada down through the American heartland. No slight to our northern friends, but for this spirit you want to buy American. By US law, to be called rye a whiskey must be distilled and aged in the US from a mash bill composed of no less than 51% rye grain, and rested in new, charred American oak barrels. No ex-sherry, ex-port, ex-brandy wood enters the mix. Aging of at least two years yields “straight” rye, and as with many of life’s pleasures, greater maturity produces better results.

No such requirement exists for “Canadian rye.” Your mileage will vary greatly based on the spirit selected, so choose wisely.

The remaining 49% of a rye mash bill may be any combination of barley, wheat, corn or even more rye. The more rye grain in the rye whiskey, the spicier the finished product and the better it will stand up to our remaining ingredients. You want a cocktail that speaks to you, not one that disappears off your tongue.

As with cooking with wine, the best mixology advice I’ve heard is to use what you’d drink “neat.” In this case I’ve chosen Rittenhouse 100-proof rye. This whiskey sits comfortably among the finer bourbons as an enjoyable evening sipper; a few fingers in a tumbler with a wee splash of still water bests most bourbons and Scotches, in my opinion, so if you’re of a mind to sip spirits, this one’s a gem. Today, though, it merely begins the recipe that will yield our Fanciulli. Three parts rye go into a shaker tin.

Carpano Antica sweeth vermouth

The next ingredient for any Manhattan-like cocktail is sweet, red vermouth. Like its dry, white cousin, sweet vermouth is a fortified wine product suitable for mixing, but not often taken alone. The pungency of lesser vermouths can be off-putting. Better vermouths may make for an enjoyable summer afternoon sip with soda water over ice, however.

My choice for the Fanciulli is Carpano Antica, a vermouth not only sweet, but pleasingly so, and original to the aperitif style. One part Carpano Antica vermouth adds the right degree of enjoyable sweetness, taking the edge off our whiskey.

Remember, well-made cocktails should never taste like their constituent liquor. Even a gin Martini, properly combined with dry vermouth and shaken for an appropriate duration will bear far less edge than gin alone. And, taken very cold in a comfortable chair on a hot, summer Friday’s shaded porch will definitely take the edge off an otherwise mediocre week.

Fernet-Branca digestif

Our third ingredient is the most difficult, both in its procurement and its use. Beware this one. Listed as a digestif, Fernet-Branca is a bitter concoction of botanicals infused into spirit. Unlike most digestifs I’ve enjoyed, this one is very hard on the palate, opening bitter and finishing with a menthol-like flavor. Just the smallest portion of it added to our shaker tin will give our Manhattan a solid floor on the palate and a pleasingly fresh aftertaste. One-quarter part Fernet-Branca, at most, goes into the tin. Better yet, use it as you would bitters: a couple of drops.

I mentioned a shaker tin, but we’re not going to use it in that capacity. For the Fanciulli we’ll instead employ a bar spoon. Typically long-handled with a decorative set of slots in the bill, and often bearing a twisted square handle shaft to aid rotating it through ice, the bar spoon has no other use beyond blending our ingredients among cubes, the larger the better.

No cracked ice! We want minimum dilution and no cloudiness. These ingredients don’t come cheap, and tasting each component’s contribution is among the pleasures of this cocktail. Twenty-seconds of rapid stirring, until the outside of the tin frosts over with whatever humidity is nearby, is enough.

Let the mixture rest while you prepare a glass to receive our evening’s refreshment.

Some drinks take a lemon twist, others take a bleu cheese-stuffed green olive as garnish. A straight Manhattan takes a Maraschino cherry with its attendant sweetness. As with the Martini’s green olive, it awaits at the bottom of a long-stemmed cocktail glass as a final palate pleaser. We’ll go with a cherry. Leave the stem on to make removing and eating it easier.

Whiskey, straight, best comports itself at room temperature. It’s a quicker trip from that to blood temperature on one’s tongue. In whiskey cocktail mixtures where ice is involved there’s no need to prolong the cold with a chilled glass.

Fruit in glass, we double-strain the tin’s contents to remove all traces of ice. A standard Hawthorne strainer goes on top of the tin, a powdered sugar sifter between that and the glass. Pour out the goodness.

Sit back, sip and enjoy. That’s the Fanciulli cocktail. It’s marginally complicated, mostly in acquiring the ingredients, and it takes a few minutes to put together. The result, though, brings all the spicy goodness of America’s other home-grown liquor, but with less edge, a firm floor for the palate and pleasing aftertaste. And there’s a fat cherry at the bottom as icing on this cake.

October 25, 2013

Israel and the Saudis, United in Jealousy

Always good to know what the other fellow is thinking. This piece espouses an idea I’ve seen elsewhere, and long agreed-with.

Five-minute read. Worth it, because it’ll make you think about the US-Middle East status quo.

Scott McConnell, writing for The American Conservative:

“I would wager nonetheless that the forces in favor of a rapprochement of Iran with the West will prevail. It is to some extent simply bizarre that the United States—which does, to a very considerable degree, believe in and support democracy and science and progress—finds itself permanently estranged from one of the Islamic countries which is most modern and most democratic. Not to fault Israel and Saudi Arabia, but Iran as well as Turkey should be on friendly terms with the United States.”

October 22, 2013

October 22, 2013 Apple Press Event

New and improved hardware and software from Apple:

  • Stats: Apple sold 9 million iPhone 5C and 5S phones over the first weekend of availability in September. Over 200 million devices were running iOS 7 after five days of availability. Over ⅔ of Apple’s mobile devices are now running that upgrade. The iOS App Store has seen over 60 billion downloads.
  • New Mac OS X version Mavericks, v10.9, has nearly twice the graphics processing speed of the previous version. It’s written fully 64-bit. OS X Mavericks price: FREE. Single-step upgrade from any previous version going back to Snow Leopard, for Macs going back to 2007 models. Available today.
  • iBooks (Kindle store competitor) and Maps come to the OS X desktop. Maps will seamlessly integrate with iOS devices such as iPhone and iPad. Map a route on the desktop, send it to your mobile devices.
  • Updated 13-inch MacBook Pro (with Retina display, but naming does not mention that): 3.46 pounds, 0.7 inches thick, runs on the latest Intel Haswell chip with integrated Iris graphics. Up to 9-hours battery life. Faster, PCIe-connected SSD performance (no more internal SATA connection), faster WiFi (802.11AC), faster Thunderbolt 2 connector for external peripherals. Pricing starts at $1299, (dual-core CPU, 4 GB memory, 128 GB SSD). Available today.
  • Updated 15-inch MacBook Pro: powered by Intel Crystalwell chip with Iris Pro graphics. Up to 8-hours battery life. Same SSD, WiFi and Thunderbolt 2 as 13-inch MacBook Pro. Pricing starts at $1999 (quad-core CPU, 8 GB memory, 256 GB SSD). Available today.
  • New Mac Pro: 4-, 6-, 8- or 12-core CPU, super-fast internal bus. Up to 64 GB memory, user-accessible. Dual-workstation GPUs. Up to 1 TB internal SSD storage. Expansion through Thunderbolt 2 connectors. GPUs will drive up to three 4K displays. Assembled in the US. Price starts at $2999 (12 GB memory, 256 GB SSD, dual high-end video cards). Available before 12/31/2013.
  • iLife: Updated versions of iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand for both Mac and iPad, iPhone. All 64-bit apps for the 64-bit Haswell, Crystalwell chips in Macs as well as the 64-bit A7 chip in iPhone 5S and new iPads. All FREE with the purchase of a new Mac or iOS device. Available today.
  • iWork: Pages (word processor), Numbers (spreadsheet), Keynote (presentations) all updated for 64-bit chips and OS platforms, both Mac and iOS. Adds collaboration through iWork for iCloud. All FREE with the purchase of a new Mac or iOS device. Available today.
  • Updated iPad: 170 million iPads sold to date. 475,000 iPad apps available. New, 5th-generation iPad is called iPad Air. 9.7-inches diagonal display (same as 4th-generation iPad), thinner bezel. Device is 7.5 mm thick (20% thinner), 1 pound (down from 1.4 pounds), uses the new 64-bit A7 chip with M7 motion coprocessor (same as iPhone 5S). CPU and GPU performance are double 4th-generation iPad. CPU is 8x faster than 1st-generation iPad, GPU performance is 72x 1st-generation iPad. Faster WiFi (MiMo 802.11N, not AC), 5 MP camera, 1080p display, dual microphones, 10-hour battery life. No fingerprint reader. Available in silver/white and space-grey/black. Pricing starts at $499 for 16 GB, WiFi-only model. LTE models are $129 more for same memory capacity. iPad2 remains for sale at reduced $399 starting price. iPad Air ships November 1.
  • iPad mini: New, 2nd-generation iPad mini gets a Retina display, A7 chip (4x faster CPU than previous generation, 8x faster GPU). Faster Wifi (MiMo 802.11N, not AC). No fingerprint reader. Comes in silver/white and space-grey/black. Price starts at $399 for 16 GB, WiFi only model. LTE models are $129 more for same memory capacity. Available later in November. First-generation iPad Mini remains at a $100-reduced starting price.
  • New covers and cases available for both new iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display.

Not mentioned: MacBook Pro without Retina display, Apple TV, iWatch, iTV.

October 6, 2013

The Road, Run

the road, run

Some runs are long, some are short. Some are fast, but most are slower for me these days. Today's 6.1-mile mother, long for my less-conditioned body, almost exacted a double calf strain, but not quite. No, not today. Today I win.

Runners always know what's at the end of the road. Satisfaction in success, disappointment in failure and soul-crushing defeat in having to quit. But always the right to look back up the road and silently say, "I *did* that."

September 20, 2013

iOS 7 Supports Multipath TCP, Allows Simultaneous Wi-Fi and Cell Network Connections

Mike Beasley, writing for 9To5Mac:

“With MCTCP your iOS 7 device will be able to stay connected over both LTE and Wi-Fi at once. If your Wi-Fi connection fails, the LTE connection would continue downloading the data uninterrupted. You would likely never even know the difference”

Great new technology; That's the end of fading Wi-Fi cutting my iPhone's connection to the rest of the world.

September 19, 2013

iOS 7 Adoption Rate From Mixpanel

Less than two days out of the gate, iOS 7 adoption among Apple device users is close to eclipsing iOS 6.

Mixpanel's graph is updated hourly. Just hit refresh.

All the Personal Finance Advice You'll Ever Need

Jason Kottke passes along a short, terrific post by Harold Pollack containing the best investing advice money can't buy. It fits on a 4x6 index card, and it's pure gold.

September 18, 2013

Lightning in a Bottle

John Gruber, on the forthcoming Apple iPhone 5S:

To put that in context, the iPhone 5S beats my 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro by a small measure in the Sunspider benchmark (with the MacBook Pro running the latest Safari 6.1 beta). The iPhone 5S is, in some measures, computationally superior to the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro from just five years ago. In your fucking pocket.

We are living in the future.

August 25, 2013

The Tesla Model S Now Has 12 Percent Of The California Luxury Market

Joe Weisenthal, writing for Business Insider:

Per California’s latest monthly auto sales report (via Slate’s Will Oremus), the Tesla Model S now commands 12% of the luxury market in the state.

Click through for a chart of luxury brand models and their California sales proportion.

I've had my eye on the muscular, yet shapely Audi A5, a close cousin to the entry-level A4, neither of which make the list here.

But look at that list. The beauties are all here: BMW 5-series, Merc-Benz E-class, Audi A6, Lexus GS and the spectacular Tesla S.

Shit. Can't afford a single one of them.

August 23, 2013

Affleck as the Batman

So Ben Affleck will be the next Batman, appearing in the June, 2015 sequel to this year’s Man of Steel. A few thoughts.

If I had my druthers, this next Batman-featuring film would not appear until the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman trilogy was either no longer available or we’re all dead and buried. Each of those films held its own, and yet the three together formed a beginning, middle and end to the Batman legend, sweeping a long, well-acted and tightly directed narrative. Compare and contrast to all previous Batman films and Nolan’s three immediately rise to be the definitive film story of the Batman.

Yet alas, here we are two years from the MoS sequel that will re-introduce the Dark Knight. We must accept this. All is not lost, though.

Affleck’s recent work bore a subtle quality that might make him interesting as the Batman. His characterization of Tony Mendez, CIA case officer and orchestrator of the successful rescue of US diplomatic personnel from revolutionary Iran in Argo was criticized by some as dry, but in fact depicts the methodical and sometimes unorthodox activity of Americans covertly working throughout the world. James Bond, it ain’t. (See, too, George Clooney’s character Bob Barnes in Syriana.) Quiet, persistent, correct.

The Man of Steel sequel should, in my opinion, feature Batman as he appeared in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic, a decidedly different depiction of the crime fighter than most TV- and movie-Batman fans have ever seen.

Miller’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, a grizzled, older man retired from his secret life, is dragged back into the fight after being confronted by young street thugs in a Gotham gone to hell. During the course of Miller’s four-book series he encounters Superman in a confrontation all its own, one perhaps shocking to generations of TV and movie superhero fans. Super men can and do super-disagree. The results are often catastrophic.

A new movie-Batman should take the character in a new direction. Miller’s character fits the bill; we should hope his books influence the screenplay. Miller is reportedly consulting on this new film, so that may come to pass.

August 20, 2013

Google Brings Waze Alerts To Google Maps For Android & iOS

Holy crap. The useful Waze app has reached ubiquity.

I wonder if Google will roll out Waze alerts to Google Maps for the web? Before Apple debuts Apple Maps as a default app in the upcoming OS X version, that is, giving Mac users less reason to use that new app.

CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran's 1953 Coup

Malcolm Byrne reports the news of a sixty-year open secret.

Why is this important? The Iranian people had, for the first time in the 2500 years of Persian history stretching back to the biblical Cyrus the Great, democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh prime minister in free and fair elections. One of his first acts was to nationalize Iran's oil fields.

The US CIA and the British MI6 (now SIS) conspired as agents provocateur to reverse the course of history, had Mossadegh deposed and, within a few days, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, already titular leader of modern Iran, restored foreign oil company control of Iran's oil reserves.

Iranians never forgot that, and in 1979 took their revenge by restoring the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini to prominence in their Islamic Revolution. What followed echoes still.

It's about the oil. It's always about the oil.

What Good Is It?

Joe Weisenthal, writing for Business Insider:

“Here’s another extraordinary accomplishment by Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk.

The electric car company announced yesterday evening that its famous ‘Model S’ sedan has achieved the best safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of any car that’s ever been tested in history.”

As my wise spouse points out, though, at an MSRP of $70,000 what good is NHTSA's safest and Consumer Reports' highest-reviewed car if most people can't afford it?

Is there sufficient value here, or are owners simply joining an elite club?

August 19, 2013

Sweet Release

I ran this weekend.

That’s not remarkable but for my giving it up over a year-and-a-half ago, after daytime muscle twitches turned into nighttime spasms. I’d wake from a dead sleep and my nerves were left jazzed enough to keep me up and miserable for hours.

I thought my muscle problems were inflammation related, coming on in earnest at the end of a run-day. So I knocked off running and moved to an elliptical machine, a device marginally less dread-inducing than a stationary bike. It worked well enough for me for a while, but eventually I gave that up, too. Just not the same as a good run. No pull, no want, just work. At least the spasms subsided.

There’s a long story from this point on involving the return of the spasms, x-rays, a chiropractor and then a physical therapist, and finally a neurologist. The end result was a sleep study, a diagnosis of restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement syndrome and maintenance medication. And they worked. Yard work, a day of room painting, no matter. No spasms. No squirming leg driving me to distraction.

I toyed with a few (very) short runs after the spasms were in check and found to my joy that I could still knock out a couple of miles without trouble. No pain, no sucking wind, no sore muscles the next day. Well, not much.

So this Saturday, with nothing on the schedule for me at our shop, I did what runners do. I awoke thinking, “enough.” I’m either going to do what I want to do for-real or I’m not, today. Right now.

I suited up, stretched, walked up our driveway and ran long and free down the road. 5.7 miles, the longest I’d run in years, on hills and flats, through sun and shade, to the end of a three-mile road alongside our home and back. I broke to a walk only for a steep hill when my calf stabbed pain for a couple of strides, warning me of an impending tear under the load of pushing my body uphill at a run. I walked the incline, enjoyed a bit of water and the view, and was off again.

I remember very little of the run itself. I spent the time without music in my ears, just thinking. Running is meditative for me, not in a single-pointed sort of way but rather in a contemplative manner. Aside from the brief warning issued by my calf I never felt the run. I suffered no ill effects later, or that night, or the next day.

I’ve just returned from a shorter run a couple of days later. It’s as if I never quit the habit that began over a decade ago on a lark, when I was bored with other cardio equipment at our local gym and stepped onto a treadmill. I don’t know why, but running clicked for me. I’ve so missed it these past many months.

I don’t know how long I’ll be able to continue running. A long time, I hope. I see older guys out there, knocking out the miles a little slower than in their youth, and I wonder if I’ll be fortunate enough to join them as I age. For now, though, I can knock out a few miles of my own, slow to a walk at the end and, looking back up the distance covered, think “I did that.”

You are what you do. I’m a runner.

August 15, 2013

Outstanding Reporting

PBS's Frontline documentary “The Retirement Gamble” is a lucid, informative and useful piece of investigative journalism. The 52 minute report provides a clear understanding of how retirement investing can go wrong and what to do about yours. Recommended.

And yes, that 10x - 15x multiplier is correct, if you don't want your funds to run dry.

August 8, 2013

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Why I Changed my Mind on Weed

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, writing on medical marijuana for CNN:

“We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.

I hope this article and upcoming documentary will help set the record straight.”

Seems a good time to shed our puritanical attitude toward what has emerged as a useful therapeutic medication, and move pot down the scale from Schedule I to Schedule IV or V.

July 12, 2013

Everything Wrong With Skyfall In 4 Minutes Or Less

What he said …

Good directing, good acting, beautiful cinematography, dumb script. This one has grown on me with a few viewings, particularly in its Shanghai and Macau scenes, but I’m hoping Bond 24 brings a return to simple, tight writing, a la Casino Royale.

(via DF.)

June 20, 2013

Unmasking

Jeff Blagdon, writing for The Verge:

“Canada’s controversial Concealment of Identity Act banning the wearing of masks during riots and ‘unlawful assemblies’ has just gone into law, carrying with it a 10-year maximum sentence, reports CBC News. The private member’s bill was introduced in 2011 by MP Blake Richards in response to the increasing prevalence of vandalism at political protests and sporting events.”

10 years?!

WE ARE GOING DOWN THE WRONG ROAD.

June 13, 2013

Simon, Revisited

David Simon defends his commentary from last week about Edward Snowden's revelation of the NSA’s telephone metadata program.

We’ve read and heard quite a bit of protest alleging violation of privacy and government overreach in the wake of Snowden’s breach of security. The commentary has been heavy on indignity yet light on alternatives or improvements to the programs in question.

Telephone metadata reveals a picture of personal behavior, and yes, that can be misused by government and law enforcement personnel. Much of what police and the intelligence community are empowered to do can be misused. That in itself is not an argument against them. These programs serve a useful and necessary purpose and exist not in a void, but in the light of Congressional debate and judicial oversight. More light would be better. Curtailing these programs because there exists the potential for misuse would not.

Continual oversight and public awareness of the government’s argument for exercise of these programs are essential to keeping the use of these programs lawful.

As Simon previously has written, those airplanes really did hit those buildings, and people really have been murdered by terrorists vowing to do exactly that and more. We have yet to see evidence that NSA programs have violated Federal laws that were debated, voted upon and enacted, adjudicated and, in 2011, re-debated and renewed.

June 10, 2013

Apple: Detailed Product Multimedia

… for iOS 7, the new Mac ProOS X Mavericks and iTunes Radio.

Apple: What's New for 2013

Apple kicked off their annual WWDC developer conference in San Francisco today. Here's what's new:

  • 50 billion apps downloaded from the App Store over five years. 900,000 apps in the store, 375,000 of them for iPad. 93% of these apps are downloaded monthly. 575,000,000 App Store accounts. $10 billion cumulatively paid to developers over five years. If you're smart and authoring mobile applications, you're doing it here.
  • OS X, the Mac operating system: the new version is the first without a release number, and is known as OS X Mavericks. Perhaps this solidifies OS X and the OS Apple sticks with the the very long haul. The Finder app will now be tab-based, allowing what used to require multiple windows to be handled within a single instance. Files and folders can be tagged, and tags appear in the left sidebar, allowing same-tagged files from across the file system and iCloud to be grouped together for display and access. Multiple video displays (including HDTVs) work independently, allowing full-screen app display, menu bar and Dock in each. Several under-the-hood technical tweaks improve battery, memory and performance. The Safari web browser sees several memory and performance tweaks. Applications from the App Store are automatically updated in the background. iBooks, an iOS app for book purchase and reading, comes to the Mac. Mavericks will be available this fall.
  • Mac hardware: MacBook Air gets "all-day battery life," using the new Intel Haswell CPU. This chip has been touted by Intel for over a year and is finally available now. The 11-inch MacBook Air will have a nine-hour battery life, the 13-inch 12-hours. Updated features include faster flash-based SSD storage and 802.11ac WiFi. The 13-inch model with 256 GB SSD sells for $1299, available today. Other models are less expensive. No mention of Retina display for MacBook Air; Retina will likely define the Pro line of laptops.
  • Airport base stations: new 802.11ac Airport Extreme and Airport Time Capsule.
  • Mac Pro: yes, an update! We saw just a quick view of the prototype, and plenty of specs. This machine is awesome. Available later this year. Built in the USA.
  • iCloud: web-based iWork apps. Create and store docs, spreadsheets and presentations in iCloud using a web browser. Fully functional. Even works on Windows 8 with the Chrome or IE browsers. Available to the public later this year.
  • iOS, the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch operating system: new version, iOS 7. Major update, new user interface. New features: control center, swipe up to control radios, brightness, music, etc.; multitasking is extended to all apps by intelligent update scheduling; updated Safari web browser with new tab interface, access to iCloud keychain, new full-screen mode, more; new Airdrop feature for peer-to-peer sharing from multiple apps; new filters for Camera app; new Photos app for organizing pictures.
  • New languages and voices for Siri, very smooth and natural sounding. More Siri-integrated services, such as Twitter, Bing and Wikipedia.
  • iOS In the Car: integration of iOS with auto manufacturer models in 2014.
  • Re-organization of the App Store including age-appropriate, location sensitive. Auto-updating of iOS apps in the background.
  • Re-organized Music app, including all purchased iCloud music. New user interface.
  • New Music app feature: iTunes Radio. Streaming music similar to Pandora. Create custom stations. Purchase music heard on iTunes Radio via iTunes Store. iTunes Radio is built into iOS, OS X, Apple TV and iTunes on Windows. Free.
  • Phone, Message and FaceTime blocking (finally!).
  • Activation lock makes stolen iPhones completely unusable, even if wiped and run from scratch.
  • A ton of new API calls for developers.
  • iOS 7 will be available later this year, for iPhone 4 and later, iPad 2 and later, iPad Mini and the 5th-gen iPod Touch.

No word on new iPhones, iPads, iMacs or MacBook Pros. Expect new mobile devices in the fall.

June 8, 2013

We are Shocked, Shocked …

David Simon:

“For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse. We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.”

Wake up, America. We asked for this way back in 2001.

The date on that law is but a month and a half after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Were we hasty getting behind that legislation then? Or are we Captain Renault today?

Brewery Chart - Beer Drinkers, Unite!

Click through for enlightening data. Looks like Reagan gave us a reason to drink.

So, two things. When our supermarkets are stocking more fine brew than macro crap, we're living in the golden age of craft beer.

Second, does anyone really believe the prohibition "dip?" I'd guess a true data plot would include a dotted line connecting pre-prohibition to post-. But what do I know?

June 6, 2013

Remarkable

David Bowie and Freddie Mercury's 1981 duet Under Pressure, sans instrumentals.

May 29, 2013

Nolan to Direct Next Bond Flick? Nope.

Sam Mendes, director of the fabulously successful Skyfall, previously said he wouldn’t return for another go at the Bond franchise. Speculation then turned to other well-regarded directors. Now Mendes’ intentions appear to have changed, according to Mike Fleming, Jr., writing for Deadline:

”While Mendes looked doubtful, a bunch of names have been floated in the press, from Ang Lee to Nicolas Winding Refn and Christopher Nolan. I’m not sure there is much validity to any of them, but now it is a moot point, because Mendes will be the director of the next Bond.”

(Via TheAVClub.)

I wasn’t a fan of Mendes’ Skyfall at its debut, but it  grew on me with a second viewing.

Much of what I came to like about Skyfall involves its artful cinematography and the patient direction of what is a not-very-thoughtful action story. The room-of-mirrors assassination scene in a Shanghai high-rise somewhat makes up for the less tasteful and thoroughly unnecessary plot turns (haven't we gotten beyond Bond-as-libidinous-spy?), and the early train scene ending in Bond's fall (in two senses) puts down a marker for the questionable villain-willingly-caught-only-to-escape device later in the film. Though not as tightly knit as Casino Royale, it’s as close to introspective as (movie character) Bond gets, and that makes it interesting. Hopefully Skyfall's craftiness will be carried on to the next film.

Perhaps just as interesting as Mendes’ return is the hiring of John Logan to write the next two Bond scripts. Logan previously co-wrote and wrote Gladiator and The Aviator, both detailed character portraits as much as straightforward storytelling. His rumored Bond twist: a two-film story arc.

While Quantum of Solace, the second Bond film to star Daniel Craig, continued the then-unnamed Quantum mythology from Casino Royale, the two films told different stories. A two-film arc sets up the possibility of a cliffhanger ending to the first, itself an unsatisfying plot turn, necessitating seeing both to enjoy a single story. I’d much prefer the former method that tied up the first narrative before a thread of it was pulled into the second.

Regardless, the next two Bond outings are shaping up nicely. There’s an interesting bit of trivia in the Bond 24 IMDB entry about them debuting back-to-back over two years, though. Looks like we’ll be waiting until 2016 for the first. Hard to believe it’ll be that long.

Big Ice Cubes

Dr. Drang uses a bit of science to explain why those huge ice cubes won't cool your drink any quicker. They will, however, make your drink look more cool!

May 28, 2013

[POLITICS] How to Save the GOP

Molly Ball, writing for The Atlantic:

“Of all the Democrats’ many problems in the late 1980s, the biggest was denial. Party activists professed that their nominees were losing not because they were too liberal but because they weren’t liberal enough. Or they said that the party simply had to do a better job of turning out its base of low-income and minority voters. Or that Democrats’ majorities in Congress and governors’ mansions proved the party was still doing fine.”

The US Republican Party is headed down the same road.

America is governed best when the tension between left and right is resolved into law by compromise. Compromise cannot be achieved when one party is consumed by extremist viewpoints. As Ball points out, what the GOP needs is a “third-way” group to bring the party back to reality.

Otherwise the GOP risks remaining, in the words of Republican Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, “the stupid party,” seen as anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-worker, anti-gay and beholden to monied interests.

Here’s a start: dump the social politics and stick with fiscal and foreign policies, both traditional GOP strengths.

May 26, 2013

Signs of a Vegas Past

Night tours at a graveyard for Vegas' neon past have opened to the public.

May 17, 2013

Next Up ...

Astronaut Karen Nyberg in Soyuz launch capsule

Karen Nyberg, who takes her ride as flight engineer aboard ISS Expedition 36 May 28. Looking forward to more Tweeted photos … follow her at @AstroKarenN.

Skyfall Follow-up?

This.

Let the games begin …

(via TheAVClub.)

May 16, 2013

Don't Believe the Hype

May 18 marks the one-year anniversary of the Facebook initial public stock offering. Coincidentally I re-watched The Social Network last week, so the company and its mythology have been on my mind the past few days. Facebook’s legend vs. reality form a good example of why investors shouldn’t buy into hyperventilating market analysis.

Facebook’s shares initially sold for $38 and closed the first day of trading at $38.23, a minimal gain. They’ve declined in price since.

Newly public companies and their underwriters try to price shares high enough to garner a tidy pile of money for themselves while leaving room for a modest price jump after the open. In Facebook’s case, the initial price was first set at around $28, but subsequently was adjusted up $10 per share. Greed informed that grab for more of the public's money.

There were significant technical glitches affecting that first morning’s trading, but a year later the effect of those bumps has washed out of the price. Yet today FB is trading at around $26. Nice haircut, huh?

The only people who made money on the IPO were insiders and company founders. The average Joe looking to get in on this century’s Netscape or this decade’s Google, and helped along by countless upbeat news stories, is down by around $12 (31%) per share a year later. The S&P 500, a broad slice of the overall US equity market, his gained over 25% over the same period.

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.