October 14, 2016

Doctoring While Black

Apparently Tamika Cross got caught in the cross-hairs.

And here.

And here.

Systemic. Racism. In. America.

Don’t think so? Re-read this. Nothing, repeat *nothing* has changed.

THINK ABOUT IT.

The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump - Rolling Stone

Matt Taibbi writes the epitaph early:

The scene couldn’t have been more poignant. Duped for a generation by a party that kowtowed to the wealthy while offering scraps to voters, then egged on to a doomed rebellion by a third-rate con man who wilted under pressure and was finally incinerated in a fireball of his own stupidity, people like this found themselves, in the end, represented by literally no one.

An interesting read - there were nuggets in here that I’ve heard and seen from friends and family on both ends of the US political spectrum. It’s worth your time if you give but a wee damn about our governance and culture, not only for the rundown of Trump’s rise, but for the truths it speaks about contemporary American politics, the value of critical thinking and our current deficit thereof, and again to pose the question to his supporters: where, now, will you turn?

The Atlantic: Trump's Fans Have More To Lose Than Trump Himself

Michelle Cottle, in The Atlantic:

once the finger wagging is done, non-Trump America will return to their regular lives, leaving disappointed Trump devotees to stew in the resentments and anxieties he, among others, has nurtured.

Interesting and likely question posed in this short article: Where do Trump’s supporters go to regain their lost dignity after the campaign is over? All the ugliness on display today is going to have long-lasting effect.

September 19, 2016

∴ A Four-way Gin-off

Four gins lined up on the bar

Our tasting includes:

Organic Watershed Gin, Catoctin Creek Distillery, Purcellville, Virginia. 92-proof, $34.29/750ml (Virginia ABC). A clean, well-defined juniper-forward gin with a floral scent. Though additional herbal flavors are present in this spirit, they’re subdued and enhance the product’s allure without overpowering my palate. Its above-average proof conveys Watershed’s flavor all the better.

This is a versatile, tasty product that enhances any cocktail. Try it alongside The Botanist or Bombay Sapphire gins to see how it shines.

Watershed has become my go-to for gin Martinis and Vespers, the latter of which being my benchmark for tasting new gins and vodkas. Watershed also serves as a baseline for the other three gins here.

MurLarkey ImaGINation Gin, MurLarkey Distilled Spirits LLC, Bristow, Virginia. 80-proof, $29.99/750ml (distillery MSRP). A juniper-forward gin at first blush, but its flavor fades when hand-warmed. That’s a little trick I use when I can’t decide between two alcohol products, in this case Watershed and ImaGINation. Though they express very similar flavors on my palate at room temperature, hand-warming, which should bring out more nuance in the product, in fact diminishes this gin’s flavor. A faint, funky aroma lurks in the background, evident after a mouthful and another sniff or two have enveloped my taste/smell receptors in evaporating alcohol. Overall I’d call this the mildest of the four, and one of the mildest juniper-forward gins I’ve tried.

That’s not a knock. Some palates don’t enjoy a bold-flavored gin - if not yours, this is worth a try in your next gin Martini. Also mixes well into a Vesper, but is easily overwhelmed by potato vodkas. If mildness is on your mind, try this and Tito’s Vodka with a lemon garnish in your next Vesper. I think you’ll be pleased.

Also noted by the distiller, this gin is gluten-free. I have no idea whether gluten is a component of other gins, as it comes from rye, wheat and barley. Those are more typically precursor grains for whiskey, vodka and beer. If you’re gluten intolerant, but can enjoy liquor drinks without compromising your GI health, you sacrifice nothing by employing this gin.

Battle Standard 142 Standard Strength Gin, KO Distilling, Manassas, Virginia. 90-proof, $29.99/750ml (distillery MSRP). Intensely herbal, in fact, all of the other herbs appear at similar concentration to the juniper. Accordingly I can’t call this a juniper-forward gin; it’s an herb-forward gin with nothing held back. The above-average proof doesn’t add burn so much as amplify the intensity of the herbal flavor. I had trouble divining whether there’s mint or menthol at the bottom of the flavor profile. I’m still undecided - the confusion of herbs on my palate makes it impossible for me to know and, really, to care. There’s just too much here.

Battle Standard made for a surprisingly awful, cloyingly sweet Vesper in the right proportion with a good potato vodka and Cocchi Americano. Undrinkable. I didn’t go back for a second try with a grain vodka. My take is the herbs picked up Cocchi’s inherent mild sweetness and amplified it, making the drink the exact opposite of what it should be: dry and slightly bitter.

A gin Martini served up with olives

A gin Martini stirred with a proper dry vermouth, though, made for a sturdy, even bracing cocktail. This drink will WAKE. YOU. UP. A little bold for my palate, but interesting none-the-less.

Success with the Martini redeemed my utter failure with this gin in a Vesper. If you’re fond of over-hopped beers, big, bold wines, or hot-hot food this gin may be right up your alley.

Battle Standard 142 Navy Strength Gin, KO Distilling, Manassas, Virginia. 114-proof, $34.99 (distillery MSRP). “Navy strength” is to gin what “imperial” is to beer: a code word for higher alcohol. Similar to their 90-proof expression, but with a higher alcohol content that more readily carries the intense herbal flavor to my palate, this is an intense spirit. Cut this gin with spring water (as they do the 90-proof expression at the distillery) and the flavors come out the same. Navy strength gins are often used in cocktail recipes where competing flavors from fruit or savory ingredients might overwhelm a lower-proof expression.

UnderTheLabel lists the ingredients for this gin, and presumably KO’s Standard Strength expression, as juniper, angelica root, orange peel, coriander seed, orris root, cinnamon, and cardamom. Though I sampled this and Standard Strength repeatedly I was unable to divine which of these ingredients left a menthol aftertaste. My foodee wife tells me it was the cardamom.

The take-away: of these four, Watershed remains my gold standard. Of the newcomers I’d say MurLarkey more closely matches my palate, while KO’s products simply overwhelm it. If you’re making something quite pungent that calls for gin, Battle Standard might make for an interesting experiment. And as mentioned, if gin’s not your usual thing you might find enjoyment with MurLarkey in your glass.

September 2, 2016

∴ Cultures Devolve, too

I was staring straight ahead during my morning commute, paying little attention to the world beyond the back of the car ahead of me this morning when something caught my eye. On that car’s bumper was a rectangular white sticker bearing the word “douche” in blue letters, and the letter “o” was the logo from the second Obama campaign for president, seen here:

Obama campaign logo

I sat at a traffic light, at a loss for words or thought. After a few seconds, a thought occurred to me. “What is wrong with you?”

A bumper sticker like that is akin to those t-shirts you might’ve seen bearing the phrase “I hate the Dallas Cowboys.” Public expression of petty hatred. I’ve long wondered about the people who would wear something like that, too.

You can disagree with a politician’s policies and politics, you can dislike your favorite team’s arch-rivals, but does any of that need rise to the level of hatred? And if your thoughts or feelings do rise that high, shouldn’t you ask yourself why?

Why are you carrying such hatred in your mind? What’s gone wrong that you feel it not only acceptable, but pleasurable to stick a thumb in the eye of everyone whose politics or sports affinity differs with yours?

And finally, isn’t that what’s really at work in America today? Fear and hatred of other’s opinions and likes driving a vilification of them, of what they believe, and the willingness of some to debase themselves and their humanity by putting that hatred on public display.

Maybe these folks are so filled with self-loathing over their boorish opinions they just can’t help but let it spill over into the public forum. Sound familiar? Think about it. 

August 22, 2016

DROPOUTJEEP: Apple's Achilles Heels, Exploited

And just like that, all of us Apple fans see our pricey toys fall like so many tinker toy Windows boxes.

Like the hacking tools, the catalog used similar codenames. Among the tools targeting Apple was one codenamed DROPOUTJEEP, which gives NSA total control of iPhones. “A software implant for the Apple iPhone,” says the ANT catalog, “includes the ability to remotely push/pull files from the device. SMS retrieval, contact-list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell-tower location, etc.” 

(Reuters.)

Note, however, they don’t mention Messages traffic. Unlike standard SMS data, Messages traffic should be, by virtue of its end-to-end Public Key Infrastructure underpinnings, bullet-proof for now.

A remaining question for Messages users is, how long would it take the NSA to decrypt a Messages note if they threw an acre of supercomputing at it? They sure have the capability.

Is your traffic worth that investment of computing time?

August 21, 2016

∴ A Triple-header Tasting: Vodkas

Three vodkas

I usually skip the vodkas at our local ABC store. Mostly of grain-based origin and bearing only a hint of flavor diversity amid the overpriced top shelves, this liquor doesn’t so much go with everything as need something for cocktail flavor. The only bottles of interest I’ve found to date have all been potato vodkas, those descendants of the mythical, original vodkas of yore, drank by fur-clad Russians and hardy Poles.

Here, though, are three vodkas worthy of a taste. Not grain-based, nor potato-based, these are interesting on the palate and, in my opinion, worth their price. There’s not a stinker among them. I think you’ll find at least one worth experimentation in your favorite vodka cocktail.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Fifth Generation, Inc., Austin, Texas. 80-proof, $22/750ml (Virginia ABC). This is my control against which I’ve compared and contrasted the other two. Well-regarded and amply available, Tito’s has graduated from small batch obscurity to eponymous must-have. It smells slightly sweet, betraying its 100%-corn origins. After 6-time pot-distillation and carbon filtration it’s surprising any corn sweetness makes it through. The flavor is also sweet, though not so much as, say, a bourbon, and is very soft on the palate. Think the exact opposite of Jack Daniels’ cutting sharpness. This soft sweetness in combination with a good dry vermouth lends itself to a fine, if mild vodka Martini. Low quality or old vermouth shines through Titos’ softness, though, so be forewarned: don’t go cheap. Tito’s aftertaste remains pleasant as it fades.

If Martinis pique your curiosity, but the thought of near-straight liquor puts you off, a Tito’s Martini with a lemon twist may be your entrée.

(Worth the short read, Tito Beveridge’s story about how he got into the vodka business kinda makes you proud to enjoy his product.)

Kopper Kettle Vodka, Belmont Farms of Virginia, Culpeper, Virginia. 80-proof, $20/750ml (Virginia ABC). Distilling doesn’t get any more local for me. These folks are just down the road a stretch. Another 100%-corn vodka, I knew I had to put it up against Tito’s as soon as I saw it on the shelf. Its scent is sweeter yet than Tito’s, though not off-puttingly so. The flavor is more corn-forward on my palate, and slightly more harsh, though still sippable. This one would make a more interesting vodka Martini than Tito’s. (A blander affair than its sibling the gin Martini, a Martini using this vodka will give you something to savor without resorting to olive brine for interest.) There’s no mention of how many times the spirit is run through a pot still, and their filtration method is a “secret,” but my guess is one to three fewer rides through than Tito’s. The aftertaste is also slightly more harsh than Tito’s, not surprising for fewer distillations. It matches the initial flavor. Their filtration could also lend to this difference. Though less soft and mild than Tito’s, Kopper Kettle is pleasant and more memorable and, as mentioned, a worthwhile mixer.

I used Kopper Kettle’s vodka to mix a Vesper, my go-to Friday evening reward. My first reaction was, “oh, my.” In my opinion there’s no substitute for a good potato vodka in a Vesper. It stands up to a juniper-forward gin. Tito’s, like grain vodkas, falls down in this respect. And yet Kopper Kettle’s liquor ably stood up. What a pleasant surprise.

Also worthy of note, Kopper Kettle distills what they’ve trademarked as “Virginia Whiskey.” Resting first on charred Virginia oak and applewood, then on traditional charred American oak, this whiskey has a unique, pleasant flavor and can be enjoyed neat or with a few drops of water. I keep a bottle in my repeat collection of bourbons and ryes. Recommended.

Jens Vodka

Jen’s Vodka, Cassinelli Winery & Vineyards, Church Hill, Maryland. 80-proof, $30/750ml (distillery MSRP). Triple-distilled from 100%-grapes and carbon filtered, this vodka brings to mind its fruit origin. In a blind test we could pick this vodka from among the three by scent alone. Sweeter than either Tito’s or Kopper Kettle, it’s not quite as soft on the palate as Tito’s. I’d call it about the same in this way as Kopper Kettle, but its flavor and aftertaste keep those plump grapes in mind until well after it’s in my belly. If I had to put a word to this liquor, it’d be “juicy.”

I’ve already made a handful of Vespers with Jen’s and good local gin, MurLarkey ImaGination from MurLarkey Distillery in Manassas, Virginia, and its sweetness neatly balances that gin’s juniper-forward flavor. This vodka makes for a nice sipper as well as a good citizen in your favorite cocktail, as long as its sweetness is kept in mind and balanced. Also of note is its beautiful Art Deco bottle art. Unique. (Click the image for a larger view.)

Of these three I’d recommend Jen’s for straight sipping. Keep a bottle in the freezer and pour just a couple ounces at a time, and enjoy. It’s very smooth, with enough interest of flavor to make it memorable. Or mix it into a cocktail and see what happens. Ditto Kopper Kettle’s vodka.

Jen’s caught my palate by surprise, and I’ve had my eye and mind on it ever since. My pal David gifted me this bottle and I need to thank him again for the experience. It’s always a pleasure to try something new and find it to my liking.

August 13, 2016

Donald Trump Is Making America Meaner - The New York Times

Nick Kristof, NYT:

We need not be apocalyptic about it. This is not Kristallnacht. But Trump’s harsh rhetoric tears away the veneer of civility and betrays our national motto of ‘e pluribus unum.’ He has unleashed a beast and fed its hunger, and long after this campaign is over we will be struggling to corral it again.

How fine a point do we need put on it? Hatred spreads downward, from politician to voter, from pundit to viewer, from parent to child.

Read that whole article to see where the hatred is spreading. Is it a local thing? Is this only bringing out what was already there, waiting for its opportunity to arise? Or is this the death rattle of a dying breed?

I prefer to believe it’s the latter. Believe what you will. Another couple of generations and there will be far less of this callous hatred for our fellow human. What are you doing to derail it today?

July 29, 2016

∴ Progress, Culture, Pride

 

Last night’s speech by Hillary Clinton has resonated with me all day. Her passion flared when she spoke of her dearest issue: social justice. But she spoke eloquently on other issues dear to Americans: economic justice, jobs, inclusiveness, America’s place in the world and how we’re seen by others, leadership.

 

I’ve come to believe that electing a woman president in November will be more consequential to our culture than electing a man of color.


I write this as a supporter of most, though not all of what president Obama has attempted and accomplished. Although electing (and re-electing) him was a milestone in American progress, he joined a long line of men stretching back to George Washington.


November is our first chance to bring the worldview and problem solving skills of a woman into the Oval Office. Whether she were from the right or left of American politics, the mere fact is a hockey stick on a hockey stick. My geek friends will understand that; we’re seeing an exponential change upon an exponential change.


Consider how American cultural change has accelerated since the election of Barack Obama. Marriage equality was upheld by the Supreme Court. Health care was extended to another twenty million Americans, and more will surely follow. LGBT issues are on the front burner as one of the last remaining prejudices not precluded by law. Awareness of systemic racism has skyrocketed. And to borrow a line from the Hillary Clinton of 1995, “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” Or, put bluntly, keep your hands and your laws off women's bodies.


In November we have the opportunity to take one giant further step toward the equality we inherited from our Declaration of Independence.


Perhaps I put the cart before the horse. There are three months of annoying campaign ads and speeches and grandstanding ahead of us. But I believe Americans will reject the politics of fear and once again vote for hope, progress, and inclusion this fall.


More-so than in 2008 and 2012, I’m looking forward to it. Despite my cynicism, I’m downright excited by it.

 

July 25, 2016

DNC Apologizes To Sanders For 'Inexcusable Remarks' In Hacked Emails

TPM:

On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email,’ the statement read. ‘These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not — and will not — tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates.

Bluntly: party organizations exist as marketing vehicles for candidates. They pick and choose among candidates, favoring those most likely to win in order to extend their brand.

Bernie’s World is a place in which many would like to live, except for the inconvenient question of how to pay for it all. It would require nothing short of re-wiring the US economy WHILE IN MOTION.

In short, Bernie’s nomination was a non-starter from the word go. It exists to exert a leftward pull on Hillary Clinton, who had this nomination all but sewed-up when she declared. (Last year.) The only question was, who would she face? The answer is, an empty suit.

Translated, the DNC’s remarks: ‘we’re going to make ourselves look as neutral as possible given the revelatory emails that shine a light on our true purpose and method. And Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is our fall-guy. Kiss off.'

July 23, 2016

What Do You Stand For, and What Do You Want For Our Country and Our Culture?

Now that both party’s nominees (or presumptive nominee, in Hillary Clinton’s case) have selected running mates, and firmly established their platforms through months of campaigning (auditioning) for votes, we’re presented with a clear answer to that question.

From seventeen early candidates, the GOP has chosen to represent itself with Donald Trump. From six early candidates, the Democrats will all but certainly choose Hillary Clinton as their nominee next week.

Hillary Clinton will become our next president in November by a significant margin of the popular vote.

It’s not Clinton’s positions on the issues or her past experience, or Trump’s abject buffoonery or his voicing of “angry white” sentiment, or even my party affinity (I have none) that informs this opinion. It’s the vision each candidate has expressed for our future. One candidate tells us what she is for, the other tells us what he is against. One inspires, the other angers and provokes fear. In that sense the 2016 election will be a replay of the 2012 election.

A winning candidate tells us of their hopes, their aspirations for a better, more just and more inclusive America. Describes how they’re going to work to effect change. Lifts our spirit with positive ideas rather than feed distrust, anger, and resentment with self-serving fear mongering.

The GOP of 2012 put forward an otherwise likable, successful and well-intentioned Mitt Romney, who promptly told us what he and the small tent wing of the party feared: people who “take” from those who “make.” That’s a losing argument.

The candidate who raises voter’s hopes and bolsters national and cultural unity is the candidate who wins the presidency. Remember Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” v. Jimmy Carter’s “feeling of malaise?”

Romney veered off into the weeds, dividing us in order to appease the lunatic fringe and wealthy elites who wanted a boot kept on the neck of the poor, the needy, the brown, the undereducated. Barack Obama once and again told us what better he wanted for America. Voters responded as expected.

So will it be this November.

SpaceX, preparing for Falcon Heavy, asks for more landing pads

Ars Technica:

With a number of successful Falcon booster landings behind it, SpaceX is getting ready to try something likely to be a bit more challenging: three nearly simultaneous landings. This doesn’t mean SpaceX is upping its launch schedule; instead, the three boosters will all be part of the planned Falcon Heavy vehicle.

Essentially three standard Falcons strapped together, the big rocket will be capable of lifting 54 metric tons into orbit.

54 metric tons. Think of what a half-dozen launches per year atop these re-usable Falcon boosters could put into orbit. A shipyard for building and re-plenishing a Mars transfer vehicle, perhaps?

Consider that the simplest and most crew-friendly way to get to and from Mars is a large, well-provisioned craft that never need enter or leave an atmosphere or gravity well. Without the need of an aerodynamic shape or structural strength beyond what can hold together in a low-Earth and low-Mars orbit (think International Space Station), a craft could be arbitrarily large and capable of attaching multiple cargo and fuel modules. The only limiting factor is the point of diminishing returns, where you’re just hauling more fuel to transport the mass of more fuel.

Said vehicle would orbit Earth as it’s built, outfitted, tested and, eventually, fueled. A de-orbit burn puts into elliptical orbit from which it slingshots out to Mars, where an equivalent burn tucks it into orbit there. Cargo modules may be de-orbited to future human landing sites. Human-capable modules may be de-orbited to bring us to the surface for habitat construction and ascent back to the transfer vehicle. The transfer vehicle itself is never more than a large, modular and comfortable bus for the commute back and forth between planets.

Just spitballing here. An idea like this no doubt exists somewhere. Execution begins with heavy-lift rocketry, and that becomes affordable with re-usable launchers. We already have those.

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 “Curaçao 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.