Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Digital Vs. Original Materials

On its Facebook page, the Harry Ransom Center posits the following question:

"Increasingly, archives are digitizing materials to make them available on the web. This can provide access to a wider range of users, but is there any difference between working with a digital copy and the original document?"

My response:

Of course there is a difference. Though the profound merit of universal access is self-evident, viewing a text online is not equivalent to handling it in person. One cannot fully comprehend the rich luminosity of the Book of Kells from a computer screen, nor can one experience the musty tobacco and scotch smells of various writers’ manuscripts without handling them in person.

See this recent article in the New York Times regarding the handling of archives / manuscripts that identifies a new way of thinking: “Rare books should be a hands-on experience.” Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, says, “By examining a book’s physical attributes, you can enter a world we have lost and understand it as it was.” Surely this understanding is as vital to compelling literary criticism as the work itself.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I Heart Libraries

Says Borges: "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."

I couldn't agree more, especially if that paradise looks like any of these libraries. Update: or this library.

Of course, there would have to be cozy little corner nooks in windows holding a snow-flurried silence at bay, and there would have to be down comforters and thermoses of mulled wine handy, as well.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Overheard at the Office

Younger female colleague: "I LOVE the magic bullet!"

Older, overweight female colleague: "Oh, me too, you can just do so much with it!"

Younger female colleague: "Yeah, it's great, I use it all the time!"

NSFW, ladies, NSFW!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Death by Hot Sauce (The Source fans beware)

A British citizen died recently after creating and consuming a “super-hot chili sauce” when a friend challenged him to a “who’s balls are bigger” endurance contest. Though officials initially suspected Andrew Lee died of a heart attack, a post mortem uncovered no heart problems and an earlier medical examination had found him in perfect health.

Andrew Lee obtained the chilies used to up the sauce’s spice factor from his father’s garden. Considering the typically mind-numbing blandness of British food, one must wonder from what corner of the planet these chilies originate, and what the dickens they were doing in someone’s English garden in the first place.

Lee’s sister spoke of Andrew’s culinary ambitions, saying, “He always said he wanted to be a chef but didn’t want to start at the bottom.” Perhaps if he had started at the bottom of the spicy spectrum, or even within the intermediate to advanced Austin range, he wouldn’t be ending his start at the bottom of the grave.

What I want to know is, where can I get the recipe?

Reposted from Taco Town.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Legend of the Drunken Master (Chef)

I often concoct rather interesting late-night/early-morning snacks after returning home from the bars: canned tuna and rice remains my most notable failure. Last weekend, upon waking at 7:30 a.m. after a wedding to find all my usual breakfast taco haunts closed (who is open at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, anyway?), I once again took matters into my own hands, and ended up making the best damn gourmet breakfast taco I’ve ever had. Might this be a chance to turn my tendency toward the drunk munchies into a career?


Feta cheese
Cracked pepper
Portobello mushrooms
Marinated artichoke hearts
Roasted red bell peppers
Pine nuts
Olive oil tortilla wrap


Sauté portobello mushrooms in olive oil. Beat feta cheese and cracked pepper into eggs; scramble. Brown tortilla in pan. Wrap scrambled eggs, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, bell peppers, and pine nuts into tortilla.

While preparing food, bitch and moan about how no person in their right mind wakes up at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday (after a wedding, at that); continue mumbling and grumbling that no taco stands are open that early (of course they’re not), that sometimes you just have to do it yourself if you want it done right. Upon completion, shut up and forget about the world of hangover hurt you’re about to enter as you enjoy ridiculous, unadulterated deliciousness. And then go back to sleep.

from Taco Town.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Romantic Comedy #1 (5 stars)

Says MustLuvCats about the movie Two Weeks Notice:

"This is one of my favorites. It's a movie you can watch over & over again, and never gets old. I know I've seen this at least 15 times...literally! It's SO funny, but at the same time completely romantic."

Because hopelessly romantic people (ahem cat ladies) are not SO funny enough. Am I mean?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Steers and queers...

The culture meter blew out the mercury in Texas on Monday night: Kinky Friedman, dubbed the "Cowboy Philosopher," appeared with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News and declared that Palin would waltz McCain right into the White House; then almost immediately afterward, to add insult to injury, a weather newscaster suggested the nation would fare better if looming Hurricane Ike were to miss New Orleans by swinging into Texas instead, where, I quote, "there are more cows than people." Now, certainly the Texas coastline is currently more capable of weathering a hurricane than would be the Louisiana coastline. But give me a break: the cattle industry is prevalent in the Northern and Western regions of Texas, not in the coastal region, so such a statistic (flawed or no) is completely irrelevant and only serves to propagate the antiquated, romantically rustic perception of Texas. As if G.W. hasn't had resounding success achieving just that.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Kind of Vigilantes

I edit my friends' e-mails in my head as I read. Sometimes I correct mistakes in my response, discreetly or not so discreetly. That's why Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson are my heroes. Not to say that I sweepingly condone defacing public property, because I don't. I think that when a benefit is derived from an addition to a structure or surface, as in the case of artistic and/or meaningful graffiti, it's not defacement. On the converse, people who tag inanities like "I rock" onto an otherwise immaculate building should be drawn and quartered.

Grammarians, unite!

In Favor (for once) of Conglomeration

As our global economy radically evolves, a balance must be struck between conglomeration and differentiation of services within both technological and general market realms. Facebook serves as a prime example of the former approach. The proliferation of third-party applications on its social-networking platform has allowed user interaction to advance beyond the mere water cooler exchange of “friending” people, sending messages and sharing photos into a concentration of social operations managed on a dashboard of centralized, personal organization. However, services directed toward individual use have also seen wide success. Google News, an application within Facebook, integrates the RSS service provided by Google in its Reader and Homepage features; weRead on Facebook similarly internalizes the services provided by the juggernauts Goodreads and LibraryThing, again allowing the user to conduct all business in one place. In the same way that smartphones have assimilated voice exchange, Internet access, banking, audio, still and video photography, and GPS mapping into one device, so has Facebook begun to conglomerate myriad Internet-based services into a one-stop-shop on its site. Media-maven Tim O’Reilly asserts, “[T]he future opportunity is less in Facebook applications per se, and more in the development of applications that use the social graph embodied in Facebook for entirely new purposes.” As developers continue to generate breathtakingly diverse applications, an individual’s habitual-use Internet traffic will center itself increasingly within Facebook to accomplish rote tasks.

What society stands to gain from such conglomeration is obvious. So, if one views streamlining as ultimately good (ignoring, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, such threats as monopolization and quality decrease), companies that rebel against such conglomeration by taking a broad need and differentiating between categories within that need to focus on a specific category become a concept of note, if not quizzical interest. In this context, the success of a service like PenguinDating remains questionable. Though powered by Match.com, PenguinDating, “where book lovers meet,” appears redundant when examined independently of its partnering site and services. The long-tail approach, though often astronomically successful in niche markets, doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant in the case of PenguinDating, namely because its singular service is accessible already via previously established sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. Now, these sites do not provide dating services per se; however, as both social-networking sites aim to connect readers with similar interests and literary preferences, romantic connections arising from initial relationship development are imminent and likely quite common. Thus, though PenguinDating smartly customizes a service to a niche client base, the company misses the mark in that they differentiate between related activities – reading, socializing, relationship building, and dating – rather than conglomerate them, instead.

In other words, neither conglomeration nor differentiation supercedes the other in terms of overall superiority; but, differentiation does require that the customized services rendered be highly impenetrable to conglomerative forces. Because if people can combine as many functions as possible into one device or platform, they will.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Valuing Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky, NYU professor and author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, elucidates the idea of “cognitive surplus” and designates the efficient and responsible harnessing of this resource an undeniable necessity for the advancement of society. The implications of effectively applying cognitive surplus are enormous both within international and localized arenas. In the contemporary context of globalized labor markets, crowdsourcing, and the democratization of fields such as journalism and music distribution, cognitive surplus certainly emerges as the most desirable of resources. However, the quality of such a resource is called consistently into question – notably in the example of Wikipedia – and cognitive surplus, as a fairly recent phenomenon, still presents myriad dilemmas.

Some of the questions regarding cognitive surplus that must be answered are: How can individuals currently not contributing to the cognitive pool be encouraged to participate in a meaningful way? What defines meaningful? How can we assure the quality of the material produced by this surplus? How can we efficiently integrate this surplus? How will we regulate the application of this surplus, if at all, and who will be responsible for such regulation? How can we effectively study the output of this surplus and the corresponding qualitative and quantitative results? The solutions to these problems clearly are far beyond the scope of this essay; regardless, it is interesting to contemplate the shift in paradigm the very discussion of this issue necessitates and to examine entities already employing this cognitive surplus as demonstrative examples of successes and failures.

reCAPTCHA presents a particularly brilliant example of utilizing the quantitative power of cognitive surplus to complete a rote task that nevertheless requires human interaction. A CAPTCHA, or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, ensures that responses given to computing queries (e.g., completing a user registration form) are not generated by computers and thus are not SPAM. Depending on Internet usage, the average individual probably completes between one to ten CAPTCHAs a day. Carnegie Mellon University developed reCAPTCHA to net the energy of this mindless and cursory task in order to facilitate the process of digitizing books, combining the efforts of millions of users to produce approximately 3,000 man-hours per day of free labor. And in this instance, output quality is verified quite simply by cross-referencing the results generated.

The gain generated by such programs is unquestionable. The effectiveness of other applications of cognitive surplus, though, remains uncertain. Shirky, referencing seemingly inane Internet pastimes such as World of Warcraft and the lolcat phenomenon, maintains, “It's better to do something than to do nothing” in the context of remote social participation. While it does seem clear that engagement and the establishment of a social network, to whatever purpose, is in general a boon, the fact remains that it is better to do something worthwhile than to do just something. The question being, of course, what defines worthwhile. As more platforms reliant upon cognitive surplus emerge and are refined, this question surely will begin to answer itself to some degree. In the meantime, society should encourage any and all attempts to engage individuals to work collaboratively toward some end, allowing for the present “just somethings” to evolve into consequential and relevant “somethings.”

Reading Lolita in High Resolution

Field-Tested Books is a fascinating and relevant experiment designed to "identify how our perception of a book is affected by the place where we read it." Following is my account of one such personal experience (included on the Field-Tested Books site).
Even being the bibliophile that I am, even having majored in literatures of two languages, and even having taken a Russian Literature course in college, I had yet to read Nabokov’s Lolita upon graduating. So, when I moved to Telluride, Colorado after finishing school I was very much looking forward to reading it along with whatever else I wanted, on my schedule and according to my whims.

Telluride’s inestimable beauty would evolve the drab experience of reading even the most soulless work into one of wonder and transcendence, so great is the region’s effect on even the most rote tasks. Thus with great anticipation and elevated mindset, I finally began Lolita. Nabokov’s ability to generate empathy for the antihero despite the character’s immoral proclivities is remarkable in and of itself. As I read, though, I also found it uncannily easy to slip into the work’s setting. I particularly remember the scene in which Nabokov describes the sound of school children drifting up the mountain from the valley below to Humbert Humbert’s trained ears. As I had perceived the very same sensation myself on the mountain pass behind and above town, placing myself within the action and visualizing the scene required no stretch of the imagination. This congruence proved true again and again as I continued to follow Humbert and Lolita on their journey; with each turn of the page, it was as though I was living the novel in some parallel universe.

Reading Lolita was a sumptuous and evocative undertaking unlike any encounter with literature I have had, even more so than reading Ulysses on June 16th, 2004 in Dublin. I thought perhaps the novel’s success in vividness of setting could be attributed to Nabokov’s consummate way with words. Having finished the novel and remaining perplexed, I turned to the afterword and discovered the actual explanation for my intense sensory identification with the novel: Nabokov lived in Telluride while writing it. Dolores, nicknamed Lolita, was named after a town just an hour away, a town through which I had driven many times on my way into the Southwest. This discovery in no way diminished my high regard for Nabokov’s talent, though; rather, it generated a profound awe of how the coincidental conspiration of time, place, and circumstance engendered such a heightened literary experience, one I am unlikely to have the good fortune of knowing again.

Paradise Found

I became a NAUI SCUBA Divemaster at 18, the earliest age at which such certification is attainable. Fortunately, this certification gave me the knowledge and skills to dive safely in more challenging conditions. Unfortunately, all my training, from Open Water (the initial certification) to Divemaster, transpired in Lake Travis. And although Lake Travis is quite beautiful, and one of the clearest bodies of water in Texas, it is no diver’s mecca. Thus, I tend to jump on any and every chance to dive in more exotic locales. The two-and-a-half months I recently spent traveling in Southeast Asia with two close friends, Emily and Monika, offered just such a chance.

As with my trip to India, this Asiatic adventure evolved quite unexpectedly. I had mentioned offhandedly to Emily that I might come visit while she was living in Japan. One afternoon, she laid her ultimatum bluntly on the table and demanded, “Well, are you coming, or not?” Emily and I had been trying to travel together for years, and the publishing company for which I had been working had just been sold. My future employment was not at all certain, and so I quit and was on a plane to Bangkok about a month later, with Monika joining us just days later. Last things first: over the next four issues, I will be relating various adventures of our travels in reverse chronological order, starting with the four-day liveaboard dive trip Emily and I took departing from Khao Lak, Thailand. The name of this somewhat sleepy little hamlet just north of Phuket might strike a familiar chord, as it was the Thai locality worst hit during the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. You wouldn’t know it lately, though, wandering down the main tourist stretches and through the newly built luxury hotels. You have to drive to the outskirts of Khao Lak to see the navy ship that was beached a mile inland and now serves as the de facto tsunami memorial, or to see the once-stately inland trees that were snapped off like matchsticks at 30 feet where the colossal wave crested.

But I digress: this story is about paradise found, not paradise lost and regained. And I can think of few greater intimations of paradise than the four days I spent aboard the Sea Dragon Dive Center’s M/V Andaman, purposefully drifting from one turquoise inlet to the next, with nothing more to do than eat, dive and be merry. And dive we did. Of the 28 people on board, 14 of us were paying divers, and the rest were divemasters, crew, or Sea Dragon employees that were accompanying us for (their own) leisure. With four dives the first and second days; three dives the third day; just two the last day; a few group jaunts to pristine, private beaches in between dives; and three delectable Thai meals a day prepared for us, it was all Emily and I could do to relax properly. Do you feel sorry for us yet?

Well, you might be sympathetic to our plight if you knew that the Similan Islands, the Surin Islands, and Richelieu Rock (the locales at which we dove) comprise some of the best diving in the world, based both on underwater visibility and biological fecundity. Because our trip departed toward the end of the diving season, which generally concludes in late April just before the monsoon season starts, visibility was not at its best. However, we still had visibilities ranging from 40 feet at worst to over 100 feet at best, not bad by any standards. The abundant and diverse flora and fauna we encountered on each dive, day and night alike, easily compensated for whatever was lacking in water clarity.

Marco and Remo, young brothers from Switzerland, Emily, and Ching, our Thai divemaster, were the other members of my dive group. Of all the groups, ours seemed to have the most luck encountering beautiful, and sometimes rare, marine species. Each dive entry in my logbook is replete with various types of nudibranches, clownfish, barracuda, seahorses, napoleon fish, moray eels, mantis shrimp, angelfish, lobster, mating cuttlefish, and giant grouper, to name just a trifling few. Most spectacularly, we saw two enormous manta rays on two separate occasions, the second occurring on our last dive. A few minutes before we were to ascend for our safety stop, a manta ray appeared out of the deep and began to circle gracefully around us. As we hung suspended and breathless in awe, the manta ray made a swooping turn and headed directly toward me. Instead of panicking and swimming out of the way, I waited for it to climb instinctively up and over me. At the moment the manta ray passed overhead, I stuck my hand up, coming within a few inches of its underbelly (having no intention of actually touching it), and I rolled back into a flip to follow its movements and to keep the majestic animal in my field of vision. Not that it quite mattered: I was already a bit dizzy and barely able to breathe from the sheer beauty of the experience, and my goggles were foggy from excess condensation (read: tears).

Unfortunately, as the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end: Emily and I returned back to the United States—and to the harsh reality of finding jobs—just days after the liveaboard returned to harbor. But what a way to end such an extended series of adventures. Merely experiencing Southeast Asia, gawking from one architectural, cultural, and culinary marvel to the next would have been enough. Nevertheless, Emily, Monika and I still managed to pack in an absurd number of excursions on top of the general travel schedule. Par for the course for us, though.

In the next issue, look forward to tales of mostly deserted islands, just-caught crab, and all things lost (and learned) in translation.

Wide Awake and Dreaming in India

So, do you want to go to India?” Naturally, I was a bit taken aback when I first heard these words come out of my friend Karissa’s mouth, but the travelphile in me quickly recovered and managed to stammer out, “Um, yeah. Yeah, I do want to go to India.” You see, I had already known Karissa was planning an international adventure. She had informed me of this on a weeklong road trip we took through the southern U.S. a few months before. The kicker, though, is that the trip was to be a gift from her parents in celebration of her recent graduation from Skidmore College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York. They effectively said, “Pick a country, and pick a friend.” She picked India. And to my great surprise, she picked me. A rather nonchalant beginning to a particularly epic journey, I’d say.

The trip was to be a unique one for me. Although I have traveled extensively for my tender age, I have never taken a trip that was: 1) that far East; 2) entirely planned by someone else, without any input or expenditure on my part; and 3) such a seamless integration of cultural immersion and pure luxury, seemingly mutually exclusive approaches to a trip. When I travel of my own account, I always compose the itinerary myself, basing it both on extensive research into the region and the (substantial) limitations of my budget. But because the planning process was entirely in the hands of Karissa’s parents and the India-based travel agency they used, I decided it would be best to completely limit my interaction with anything involving the trip, allowing for every aspect to be a total surprise. In fact, I didn’t read up on the history of India or the places we were to visit, I didn’t mine friends who had been there for information and insight, I didn’t even permit myself to think about the trip. Preventing myself from conjecturing and fantasizing about the experience to come also prevented me from having any Wordsworthian expectations, and allowed my virgin senses to partake of India that much more profoundly and purely upon my actual arrival.

And partake my senses did. One ever-present element is consistent in all descriptions of India: sensory overload. The cacophony of life in all its manifestations was truly inimitable and wonderful. Brilliant shades of saffron, ivory, and every other color on the spectrum pleasantly assaulting the eyes as far as the eyes can see; every sound imaginable fighting to be heard above the rest, from honking car horns to scissors snipping away at a roadside barbershop; teases of cardamom and ginger wafting from open-air markets and mouthwateringly spicy street food at every corner to tempt even the most timid taste buds; urban smells that might offend the delicate nose and euphoric scents that would delight the most particular perfumier; and that electric tingle felt ever so lightly on the skin, generated by the vibrant charge of fast and furious life reacting all around.

The constant sensory frenzy was certainly one of the main highlights of the trip, but it was also the most exhausting aspect. This, however, is where the luxury part of our trip came into play. No sooner did we set foot inside our hotel each night than the tumult and tyranny melted away into an entirely different kind of sensory overload. Recreating paradise and rendering the outside world entirely irrelevant is what each of the hotels we stayed in does best. The magazine TRAVEL + LEISURE seems to agree, ranking each of our hotels in the top 500 hotels in the world. (Yes, Karissa and I made sure to jump on the beds. We also made liberal use of the spas, which match the hotel to which each belongs in splendor and luxury.) We stayed at The Imperial in Delhi, a time warp back to the days of British colonialism; the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, which had amazing views of the Taj Mahal; Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, at which Karissa and I stayed in the Maharani’s suite; and the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, which T + L ranked as the best hotel in India. We did actually stay at one place that was not a five star hotel, but was rather, by my count, a five star heritage estate and guesthouse that sits on 30 acres and is run by members of the (now defunct) royal family. At Shahpura Bagh, we ate each delectable meal with the family, and were taken through their village and to their plantation, city palace ruins, and fortress ruins to watch a gorgeous sunset over the landscape below.

Considering the luxury with which we were surrounded, one might think we would never have wanted to leave the hotel. Not the case. Though we did thoroughly enjoy the many pleasures of each hotel, we were also quite dedicated to seeing as much of India as possible in the week and a half we were there. Our driver, his co-pilot, and the extremely congenial and knowledgeable tour guides that accompanied us in each city greatly facilitated this ambition. Consider that at any given time you might see people walking, people on bicycles, an entire family on one motorbike, a rickshaw, a car, a truck, a bus, a cow, a camel (being ridden), and an elephant (being ridden) all sharing the same road. This ever-present chaos, accompanied by the fact that the only traffic law in effect is “survival of the fittest,” made us particularly happy to have a professional driver who delivered us safe and sound to each destination. Some of these destinations, many of which are World Heritage Sites, included Humayun’s Tomb, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Qutb Minar and its monuments, an 18th century astronomical observatory, Udaipur City Palace, and of course, the famed Taj Mahal. Having some expectations as to what my impression of the Taj Mahal would be was unavoidable, and I was slightly concerned that I might be let down. Ridiculous. Seeing the changing colors of the sunrise reflected upon the luminous white marble walls of the Taj could never be anything less than transcendent; nor could any appreciation of the infinite artistic elaboration upon every last millimeter of the structure ever fall short of overwhelming awe. To be honest, I was in a state of near-transcendence for the duration of the trip, stumbling wide-eyed and even a little teary-eyed from one glorious marvel to the next. Stumbling, and counting every last one of my lucky stars.

Live at the Lake: Bob Schneider

Bob Schneider. The man. The legend. Well, maybe not legendary like, say, Mick Jagger or Mozart. But an Austin legend, nonetheless. And considering that music is a large part of what Austin is about, one could say that Bob is doing pretty well for himself.

Although he perhaps first gained fame as the front man for The Scabs, Bob has played in numerous other bands in Austin, including Braniac, Joe Rockhead, and Ugly Americans. Now largely playing independently of The Scabs, Bob continues to garner eager support from Austinites, young and old alike. He has even generated a national (dare one say international?) fanbase, and frequently tours around the country. With Ugly Americans, he opened for Dave Matthews Band, certainly no small feat, and some of his songs have appeared in movies and in television shows. He has even appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Fortunately for Austin, though, Bob continues playing a regular gig at the Saxon Pub on Monday nights, and frequently performs at other venues and events around the city such as Antones and the Keep Austin Weird Festival.

On a warm Sunday night this past August, one of these “other venues” at which Bob performs happened to be the Lakeway Resort & Spa, for the KGSR Live at the Lake concert series. With all deference to Bob, it’s hard to say which part of the experience was better: hearing Bob play, as he does so well, or enjoying the superb sensory experience that the locale itself provided. Seeing Bob play is always great. But seeing Bob play while sitting in one of the five gorgeous pools (one of which has a swim-up bar), fraternizing with friends, enjoying a beverage of choice, and watching a glorious sunset unfold behind the stage over Lake Travis and the surrounding hill country, well. . . that’s pretty much unbeatable. Apparently a significant number of others thought such an ingenious combination was too good to miss as well, because the turnout was absolutely spectacular. Just enough people to get friendly with the neighbors, not so many people that all the water in the pools was displaced.

All in all, Bob’s performance out at the Lakeway Resort & Spa turned out to be one legendary concert in a series of many more legendary concerts to come next summer. Stay tuned.

Live at the Lake: Grupo Fantasma

Grupo Fantasma: |groopo| |fantazmə|. Translates directly from the Spanish to mean “Phantom Group.” Also refers to an Austin-native musical powerhouse that has succeeded in amassing a sizeable band of devotees including, but not limited to, The Artist Formerly (and once again) Known As Prince.

Returning to the name of the band, let’s delve a little further into the latter half of the group’s moniker. One interpretation defines fantasma as “supposed spirits or disembodied souls that manifest themselves among the living in a perceptible form (for example, taking on a visible appearance, producing sounds or scents, or moving objects). The belief in phantoms . . . can be found throughout the world.” An apt definition indeed. The souls of the members of Grupo Fantasma are certainly detached from their bodies mid performance, every available ounce of energy and spirit flowing into their music. And the manifestation of the group is nothing if not perceptible: the sounds emanating from the stage are always rump-shaking rhythms that move anyone with a pulse. Is the belief in these “phantoms” found throughout the world? Just ask the 20,000 fans in London who were fortunate enough to see the band open for Prince; or the Premios de Musica Latina (Latin Music Awards) committee that awarded Grupo Fantasma the “Best Latin Rock,” “Best Band,” and “Best Latin Rock” awards in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively; or the Austinites who have voted them “Best Latin Band” or “Best Horns” eight times over at the Austin Music Awards in the past six years or so.

But enough with the credentials. As anyone who came out to this past summer’s phantasmagoric final concert at the Lakeway Resort & Spa for the KGSR Live at the Lake concert series knows, these guys rock. Plain and simple. Unfortunately, even Grupo Fantasma’s stellar reputation wasn’t enough to prevent some people from foregoing the concert due to some very threatening rain clouds. And rain it did. But only a little, and it was pretty difficult to avoid getting wet when the concert seats were in a pool. Strangely enough, though, Grupo Fantasma took the stage, the clouds got a little less threatening, and the party got started. Chalk it up to their fantastical and phantasmical powers.

Peaches and Berries and Squash, Oh My!

Except for folks living under a rock for the past few years, it’s hard to ignore the buzz generated by the weekly farmers’ markets that sell local produce, handcrafted goods and mouthwatering meals. A trip to one of these markets offers a wonderful way to spend an afternoon: lots of happy people milling about, buckets and tables bursting with delicious fresh produce and prepared foods, and the light of a sunny summer day casting a golden glow on everything. Shopping locally has a profound social, economic, and environmental impact on the world as well. Here are some of the basic facts about this relatively new trend in Austin.

One: Local farmers staff farmers’ markets. By default, it’s realistic only for those that live in the surrounding area to travel into town to sell their goods, and Austin Farmers’ Market actually restricts participating farms to within a 150-mile radius of the city (the exception being citrus farms). Two: Most farmers use sustainable farming methods. Sustainable farming is the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, while maintaining ecosystem health. Major concerns are the long-term effects of various farming practices on soil properties and processes essential for crop productivity and the long-term ability of farmers to manage resources such as labor. Three: Sustainable implies organic, whether or not the farm is actually USDA Organic certified. Since the certification process can be long, arduous and expensive, many farmers rely upon a general understanding that they employ environmentally conscious farming methods to bring delicious produce to the table responsibly. Four: Sustainable farming practices help reduce the “carbon footprint” people have on the environment. Everyone knows about global warming, but most people associate the problem primarily with “all those SUVs.” However, the amount of energy required to transport large quantities of produce across great distances (quickly enough so that it is fresh when it arrives) is enormous. Buying locally dramatically reduces this energy cost. And a greater sense of community is fostered because people naturally have a deeper feeling of responsibility toward and attachment to those that live in the same place as they do. Love thy neighbor, after all.

Beyond all this, the food and the atmosphere provide the real reasons for shopping the farmers’ markets. Imagine the hustle and bustle of a crowded market in Marrakesh, one bursting with exotic smells and the passionate cries of vendors hawking their wares. Austin’s farmers’ markets may be replete with sumptuous scents, but there is no need for much hawking: the goods at these markets sell themselves. Compare the crowded, tiled aisles at the supermarket with grassy lanes of goods in an open-air market. On Wednesday afternoons at the Austin Farmers’ Market at the Triangle downtown, children frolic in the fountain, keeping cool and keeping busy! Or, if a family has a baseball or softball game on Saturday at the Field of Dreams, they can pop across Highway 71 to the Bee Cave Farmers’ Market and walk away with a veritable cornucopia of delights.

There are two specific markets to keep in mind; the first is the Austin Farmers’ Market. Austin Farmers’ Market sets up shop two days a week. The Saturday market runs from 9 am – 1 pm and is located downtown in Republic Square (4th and Guadalupe); the Wednesday market runs from 4 pm – 8 pm and is located inside the Triangle (the new development up north where Guadalupe and Lamar merge). The Austin Farmers’ Market, run by the Sustainable Food Center, has been around for five years now, the Wednesday market being added only a few months ago. And in those five years, the market has grown to accommodate approximately 50 vendors, with further expansion in the future projected as both community interest and awareness increase. Vendors at the Austin Farmers’ Market include farms, ranches, dairies, nurseries, restaurants, food booths and artisans and offer fresh fruits and veggies, handmade crafts, meat practically straight from the cow, and cheese from a goat that probably has a name and his own room in the vendor’s barn. And, to top it off, there is always live music at each market to make the shopping experience that much more pleasurable, providing yet another reason to visit the farmers’ market instead of the supermarket: local, live performances rather than elevator music!

Not convinced that our Hill Country offers the best produce available? Well, there are more than a few restaurants in Austin that disagree. Eastside Café serves as a prime example of how to reduce one’s carbon footprint when dining out and does so in style. A vendor at the Austin Farmers’ Market, Eastside Café uses as much local product as possible. In fact, the restaurant has its own garden in back of the restaurant from which much of the food on the menu is harvested. It doesn’t get fresher than that. At an Edible Austin meet-and-greet, showcasing Austin-area restaurants that use local products, a few powerhouses such as The Driskill, Aquarelle and Cibo were present and provided delicious samples. Their chefs seem to think local goods are the way to go, and they probably know what they’re talking about. Even some of the more casual food providers, like Chomp, Boomerangs, ChowBaby, and Deli Bento agree. Local is in.

The Bee Cave Farmers’ Market, open Saturdays 9 am–2 pm and located on Highway 71 about a mile west of the RR 620 intersection, is also an excellent option. Started just over a year ago with only ten vendors, this little “engine that could” has had up to 60 participating vendors and has 20 or so consistently in attendance. South Austin Jug Band played their Fourth of July market in 2006; there was an Oktoberfest market last year, and the market also hosts charity events. Keeping the kids entertained is a common theme between these two markets: at the Bee Cave Farmers’ Market, there is an inflatable moonwalk and face painting.

Not to be bested by the Austin Farmers’ Market, the Bee Cave Farmers’ Market plays with the big boys too. Restaurants such as Moonshine, Bee Cave Bistro, and the Clubhouse Grille at the Spanish Oaks Country Club have all bought items from this market and incorporated their purchases into exceptionally delectable dishes. Some are convinced that a personal rapport with the grower actually improves the flavor of dishes prepared. Imagine eating a tomato and shaking the hand that plucked it off the vine! And, most markets encourage sampling. Chef Vincent makes some mean salsa and has won numerous awards that prove it. The Vegan Kitchen sells some superb vegan food made with local produce. There’s a smoothie stand. If nothing else, it is a farmers’ market. Go ahead… bite into that amazingly juicy peach.

Here are some of the tasty treats to throw on a grocery list before the first trip: tomatoes and garlic from outside of Marfa; blackberries from Pittsburg (Texas, of course); peaches! squash and zucchini from Fredericksburg; blueberries, strawberries, and okra from somewhere nearby; carrots, radishes, and scallions from Cat Spring (outside of Houston); onions and garlic from Blackland Prairies; and spectacular Fig Balsamic Vinaigrette, made by Bistro Blends out of Spicewood.

Grab a basket and give it a try.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hotel Chelsea

Wired's Listening Post blogs about one of my favorite NYC haunts, the Hotel Chelsea.

I first stayed at the Chelsea on my virgin visit to the city, en route to Spain to study abroad for a year. My then boyfriend and I showed up with no hotel reservation, no list of affordable hotels and addresses, and not a single phone number. Naturally. So, we jumped in a cab at the airport and requested that the cab driver take us "somewhere affordable in Manhattan." After two attempts at some not-so-affordable hotels, he ended up dropping us at the Hotel Chelsea. We knew nothing about its history, we only knew that it looked like our kind of place. And it was. As we were staying for 5 days, we managed to work out a reasonable extended-stay rate, and were put in a large room overlooking the street. To this day, my favorite detail of the Chelsea is the crown moulding: although it was large and highly detailed in the antique style, you wouldn't have known it for the hundreds of layers of paint that had been lathered over the wood. If an ethnoarchaeologist were to conduct a study of the paint, surely the equally layered history of the Hotel's residents would emerge, providing an elaborate cross-section of beauty, blood dust, and betrayal.

After spending a few nights there, we came to learn of the Chelsea's famous residents and their histories, tragic or otherwise. More interesting than the ghosts of artists past, though, were the ghosts of artists present. Chimeric works of art were scattered haphazardly throughout the Hotel, and any amount of wandering and (slightly tremulous) corner-turning would always bring you upon some new and disconcerting discovery. Some of it was good. Some of it was not. But some of it still haunts me today, and I wonder what became of the artist whose works I passed every day along the wrought-iron staircase.

I recently revisited the Chelsea, bringing a friend and long-time resident of the city to the Hotel for her first time. And even though more than four years had passed since my initial encounter, I was still instantly transported into the time-warp that the place is, taken back into an undefinable era that was nevertheless unquestionably not this one. There is something about a building in which the light is always somewhat sinister and the ghosts are never quite silent that sends a chill up your spine on even the warmest summer day. But then again, that's exactly why you go there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Read how you want. Just as long as you read.

“Print is Dead” might well be the defining maxim of this day and information age: since the advent of electronic publishing, a vast number of articles, essays, and books have attempted the divine reading of hard copy’s viscera, and the final verdicts are about as telling as a fortune cookie. It’s true that printed books will never become obsolete, because as all book fetishists (as they’re deemed) will attest, there is no substitute for the sensual experience of a book. You can’t walk into a digital library and shed a tear at the beauty of the stacks, and you can’t get that antique bookstore smell in a bottle, at least not yet. However, the unquestionable importance and potential of digital media cannot be dismissed. Pioneering e-projects such as Project Gutenberg, Openlibrary.org, Internet Archive, and even Wikipedia have categorically proven that the future of educational information dissemination lies within the virtual realm. When one compares and contrasts, in principle, the viable effectiveness of Room to Read’s noble mission to build educational infrastructure in developing countries (initially by focusing on bringing physical books to negligible or non-existent libraries) with the potential efficacy of any online organization with similar goals, the result is clear: virtual is better. And considering that humanity’s existence, proliferation, and ability to improve quality of life is directly linked to our ability to educate ourselves, this is an important point. As Brewster Kahle notes in episode 144 of TwiT, “People are turning to their computer now to answer questions…If it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.” But, fortunately for book fetishists and bibliophiles, the two mediums are not mutually exclusive. The Observer's literary editor Robert McCrum best sums up the symbiotic relationship of print and e-publishing in a fascinating article recapping the last ten years in the literary world: “…the Kindle and its e-book competitors will not kill the book but happily co-exist with it in a bright new bi-literary environment.”

On both sides of the battle, though, it’s two steps forward and one step backward. In a positive advancement for print publishing, a new company called Read How You Want has jumped on the customizability bandwagon, providing a wide variety of printing methods for special-needs readers. Whether a reader simply requires large print or something as particular as textual assistance in word tracking and character distinguishment, the company offers research-backed, individualized custom printing solutions, as well as e-books and MP3 audio books. By recognizing the long-tail viability of printing marginalized content, Read How You Want is joining the ranks of related print-on-demand publishers. Joanne Hamilton-Selway, quoted in a Publishers Weekly article about the company, hits the nail right on the head: “People are more vocal about what they want and about their right to have it…They consider it both a privilege and a right.” And it is – if one can get customized toenail clippers, one should surely be able to customize something a tad more…important. But as the saying goes, “every party has a pooper,” and that’s where Indiana’s state law regarding sexually explicit materials (e.g., books, magazines, etc.) comes into play. This new law mandates that any person who “intends to offer for sale or sell sexually explicit materials shall register with the secretary of state the intent to offer for sale or sell sexually explicit materials and provide a statement detailing the types of materials that the person intends to offer for sale or sell.” Oh, and said person must also pay $250. Why, when print publishing and physical bookstores are already having such a hard time keeping up with the Joneses, would a government act in such a futile and counter-productive manner against print?

On the flip side of the coin, one sees similar advances and backtrackings in e-media. As renowned economist Robert Solow grumbled, "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." In the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report entitled “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,” it appears as though Solow’s proclamation rings true. Although internet access coupled with the quantity – and occasionally, quality – of content has exponentially increased over the past few years, people’s ability to synthesize this gluttonous wealth of information has simultaneously decreased; it is widely accepted that people’s attention spans have dramatically decreased, as well. Thus, this conundrum begs the question: if people are less and less able to meaningfully utilize the near-infinite amount of information at their fingertips, what benefit is there in having said information accessible? Before your head explodes, understand that I am no Luddite. I firmly believe that *all information should be accessible at all times, because ultimately even the most mundane “orphan book” might be useful to someone. And of course, the only viable way to achieve such a goal is via the Internet. However, before we as a world society get too bogged down in the debate between print versus electronic publication, we should focus upon how we can employ this “bi-literary environment” to regain what we are on the verge of losing, what we gained at the beginning of history when writing was first employed: the ability to meaningfully communicate.

*with considerations of appropriate context, maturity, etc., of course

Update: nowhere is the importance of reading more eloquently stated than here.

Sometimes I aspirate without realizing that I'm breathing

According to an article in The Chicago Tribune, Senator Phil Boots, in response to the controversial Indiana Law 1042 regarding sexually explicit materials, said that "some of us vote without realizing what we're voting for...I think there might have been more opposition if people had actually considered [the proposition] more."

Democratic Representative Matthew Pierce elaborated upon his colleagues' propensity to vote by closing their eyes, holding their arm out with their pointer finger extended, and spinning in a circle, saying "I think a lot of people figured, 'I'm not going to put myself in the position of having to explain why I voted against protecting kids from sexually explicit material. If it's unconstitutional, the courts will take care of it.' "

In other news, Ken Blackwell pokes an innocent bystander's eye out while playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sand. Turquoise Waters. Manta Rays.

Back in Thailand, we spent about 6 days on the beach of Koh Phi Phi Don, an island with no roads (its sister island is where Leonardo Dicaprio's movie The Beach was filmed, and was also one of the islands worst hit by the tsunami). We were quite excited to just lay still for a moment after having spent the past month and a half running around like maniacs. As Koh Phi Phi was nauseatingly touristy (see previous post re: Vang Vieng, Laos), we opted to escape to another nearby island that had no people staying there beyond us and the national park rangers. On that island (which shall remain unnamed) we camped in tents, and spent just around an hour walking around the entire island; on that walk around, we met some fisherman who let us taste the stingray they were barbecuing. We bought 2kg of crabs from them and took them back to camp. The park rangers barbecued 4 of them along with 5 other fish they just gave to us, and boiled the other 4. They also gave us a bottle of Mekong rice whiskey, a bottle of red wine (expensive in SE Asia), beer, and mango for dessert. A regular feast. We spent the evening using our broken Thai and their broken English plus a dictionary, sign language, and pictures to communicate and teach each other card games. They also gave us an enormous papaya two of the three mornings. Scrumdiddlyumptious.

After Koh Phi Phi and the secret island, we headed to Khao Lak, the place worst hit by the tsunami in Thailand. There, we saw a boat that had been washed 1 km inland (a boat as in a steel navy ship), trees that had been broken off by the wave at the top (around 10 m), and saw where the shore used to stretch out 1 km, but had been washed away by the wave. From Khao Lak we departed on a 4-day scuba diving liveaboard with Sea Dragon Dive Center to the Koh Similans and Koh Surins, some of the best diving in the world. We did a total of 13 dives there, and saw amazing underwater life, including two enormous manta rays, the last one circling around us for a good 10 minutes. It swam right over my head, and with my arm extended, my hand was about 2 ft. away from touching the beauty of a beast. On the liveaboard, we were served three amazing meals a day, and stopped at various secluded beaches for a swim and to climb up the rocks and watch the sunset. Quite a stellar way to end the trip - Emily and I tearfully headed back up to Bangkok to spend two more nights there before jumping on our respective planes back home.

Barely Scraping the Surface in Cambodia

Cambodia was fast and frenzied, as we unfortunately only had a week or so to see the main highlights. We spent two days in Phnom Penh, and while there visited the infamous S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields run by the Khmer Rouge, perpetrators of the mass genocide in Cambodia during the 1970s. Horrific and nausea-inducing. From Phnom Penh, we took an incredibly hot and miserable bus ride (past the worst traffic accident I've ever seen) to Siem Reap, site of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. Superlatives are the only available forms of speech when trying to describe the experience of exploring Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples - it was nearly impossible to process the fact that these stupendous temples were built almost 1000 years ago. Additionally, Monika, Emily and I celebrated our April birthdays on a big night out, accompanied by three guys we had previously traveled with for a few weeks, and a bunch of their (random) friends. I actually got to see the sun rise behind Angkor Wat on my actual birthday, which I figured was a pretty good way to offset my quarter-life crisis.

A (proper) return trip is definitely in order.

North Vietnam (yes, it was safe, and yes, people there are nice)

Here are the highlights from this entry, as I know most of you probably won't read the whole thing, esp. as this one is particularly long:

- I ate dog
- I ate the still-beating heart of a cobra, accompanied with snake wine (i.e., snake blood from a snake killed tableside, poured into a glass of rice wine, as well as snake gallbladder and bile poured into rice wine), accompanied by various different preparations of the snake and snakeskin.
- I ate "essence of giant waterbug" (read the post for a detailed description)

(yes, I'm still vegetarian: when in Rome...)

Vietnam, Hanoi specifically, has been the highlight of the trip so far. Definitely less touristy than everywhere else we've been...and so hectic. Every time you cross the street you have to just close your eyes and walk forward at a steady pace, blindly assuming that you're not going to get hit by a bus / car / moped + die...We were fortunate enough to attend a performance by the Hanoi Philharmonic of some Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky pieces at the Hanoi Opera House (performances only happening a few times a month) the second night after our arrival, have dinner at one of the best restaurants in Vietnam, and then have delicious drinks (and smoke a delicious Cuban cigar) at what Conde Nast says is one of the finest hotels in SE Asia: the Sofitel Metropole. We wandered around through markets the next day, and for dinner went to a restaurant that offered "essence of giant waterbug / ca cuaong" as a special flavor-addition to the menu. Apparently, waterbugs are harvested only during a short season, and it takes the glands of 3-4 waterbugs to make one drop. Unfortunately, the taste was largely underwhelming: my impression was of weak anise + mint. Still worth the effort to get there, though. Then, the next day, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and actually saw the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh himself (his body is sent to Russia for 3 months every year to be preserved using secret techniques), went to the Temple of Literature, the Fine Arts Museum, and had High Tea at the Sofitel Metropole, at which the main attraction was a chocolate buffet. Yeah, we definitely ate ourselves sick.
From Hanoi, we took a night train up to Sapa, which was beautiful but super touristy. The main attractions there are the terraced rice paddies, and also the "ethnic minority" hilltribes. Read: ethnotourism. We hiked for two days through villages and terraces, and stayed overnight in a village (homestay). Then, immediately upon our return to Hanoi, we departed again a few hours later for Cat Ba Island, which is situated right at the lip of the famous Halong Bay. From there, we spent two days / one night on our own private boat, traipsing around the bay, stopping to see some amazing caves / karst formations / lagoons, and kayaking around. Highlights from this: seeing the phosphorescence (bioluminescence) in the water at night (we dropped anchor in a glorious area surrounded by nothing but karsts and one or two other fisherman boats), and seeing Monika get attacked by monkeys. Literally: they bit her. Many times. But she's okay, so it's kind of funny now. Our last night in Hanoi, we went out to "Le Mat," which is a snake village on the outskirts of Hanoi. The proprietors of the restaurant in which we ate actually pulled a live cobra from a bag, split it open right down the middle with a knife, drained the blood into rice wine, cut out the gallbladder to mix with more rice wine, and then dropped the heart into the glass of blood and rice wine. Which we then drank. Like a shot. I swallowed a cobra heart. Whole. We then ate the rest of each of our own snakes, prepared in many different ways. It was interesting.

Laos: From Lost in the Wilderness to Buckets of Lao Lao

Our first jaunt after arriving in Laos was the Gibbons Experience: definitely one of the coolest and most intense things I've done in my life. Although ziplines were not the key part of the experience, we did one (more than once) that was 580 meters long and 200 meters high (do the math, you non-metric-system people), and ziplined in order to cross valleys around 8 times each day. I was especially pleased to do so much hiking, which involved at least a few hours a day up to 6+ in an area so remote that proper roads don't exist within a 2-hour walk of the beginning of the trail...Both nights we stayed in treehouses that were approx. 150 meters off the ground, accessible only via zipline and surrounded by nothing but trees and gibbons. The second treehouse even had running water and a shower (completely open to the forest: talk about a view).

From there we moved on to Luang Prabang, Laos, a World Heritage Site that was a beautiful little town full of markets and monks and meandering...Then we left for Vang Vieng. VV is a backpacker's ghetto, designed specifically for amateur tourists that want nothing more than to travel around the world and get wasted. The main highlight there is to tube (think tubing the Guadalupe), stopping every 20 meters or so at the next bar to drink buckets of cheap liquor (mostly Lao Lao, the equivalent of moonshine) and trapeze off rope swings. Emily ended up with a bruise covering her entire right thigh as a result of landing incorrectly. Mind you, we had a great time, and had our fair share of happy shakes, but also managed to do some legitimate sightseeing (involving biking to some remote, monstrous caves and swimming holes)...We were so elated to get out, either way. We also visited an organic mulberry farm there, and had fried mulberry leaves with honey, mulberry mojitos and mulberry wine, and starfruit wine, which were all elements of a truly delectable meal. One of the best things about Laos is that there are maybe a total of 20 ATMs in the entire country...We went from there to Vientiane, the capital of Laos: we kayaked most of the way down, and took a songthaew for the remaining hour of the distance. After a crazy dance party on the shore of the (currently empty at that latitude) Mekong River, we left immediately for Hanoi. Getting to Hanoi involved being on a disco-lit bus for 24 hours and passing through a customs that had: no formal lines; people inexplicably disappearing with your passport; you crawling through a gate to the other side; a fog rolling in that obscured all of this completely inefficient nonsense.

More on Hanoi and Vietnam next.

Thailand (The Land of Smiles)

Highlights so far: eating ridiculously amazing street food all the time (and not getting sick), especially grilled bananas; being blessed by a monk at one of the holiest wats (temple) in Thailand; hiking through the woods to sit beside a few waterfalls; taking a bamboo raft trip (just Emily, Monika and I, plus the two men paddling the boat - no engine: really, ALL bamboo, in every manifestation of the plant you can imagine) for 2.5 days from Chiang Mai to Chaing Rai, during which we ate amazing meals cooked by our crew (including a full fish per person each night, barbecued on bamboo spits over a campfire), visited a few tribal villages, bathed in hot springs, and rode elephants (I sat in the driver's seat, on the elephant's head! and got punched in the stomach by an elephant's trunk!); riding on a bus that was probably built in the late 50's that seated about 30 people, but actually transported about twice that; hour-long massages that cost $5; happening upon some people farming (pulling shallots) in the fields, and randomly helping them farm for an hour or so, during which hilarious bouts of laughter ensued; and the amazing warmth and friendliness of Thai people...

Next stop, Laos and the Gibbons Experience.

Running Amok in San Francisco

I had a wonderful first visit to the city. Highlights: saw Olafur Eliasson's installation at the SFMoMA; had a picnic in glorious weather in Dolores Park (on the aptly-named "Hipster Hill"); drove up to Carmel Village (smaller and less touristy than Carmel proper), stopped at a few vineyards on the way, and ate a full-on gourmet dinner at the Cachagua General Store (complements of the catering company A Movable Feast) in front of a trailer park up in the mountains beyond Carmel, complete with lots of free, scrumptious wine from the neighbor's vineyard; almost got arrested on the Golden Gate Bridge helping a friend with an art project, and got written up in the SF Weekly (print and online) because of it: story (and video) here.

Coming to Terms with Personal Hypocrisy

That's right. I'm a raging hypocrite. All that frustration and furor I shot toward one-post, year-old blogs occupying my desired blog name (This Must Be the Place, Qualia, etc.) must now be redirected and rain down upon hypocritical little me: it's officially been 8 months and 11 days since my first and only post. I could quibber and stammer and proffer excuses regarding travel, new jobs, and the like, but there's really no justification. So, in an attempt to revitalize a barely-breathing blog, I'm going to post a few stories from my last extended travel and some other writings. And then, I'm really, really going to buckle down and write on a regular basis, exploring themes I initially introduced and whatever else makes me pick up the figurative pen. At least my current track record won't be hard to break.