can’t see the forest

Shipping off (but not very far)

Posted in Uncategorized by Curtis on 11/22/09

This blog will no longer be maintained. :( The good news is that another one is taking its place:

I can’t thank enough all of the beautiful people who’ve been so kind as to read and comment on my scribbles over the past several years. Cheers to you all.


Have you seen this cat?

Posted in Cats, humor, photos, Uncategorized by Curtis on 6/22/09

Have You Seen This Cat

(click image for better view)

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How do microwave ovens work?

Posted in Uncategorized by Curtis on 12/20/08

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Don’t make fun of me. It’s fascinating!!

It is!! See, she thinks so.


After the kingly refrigerator, I can think of no kitchen gadget which has more extensively transformed the way people buy, prepare, and eat food (and not necessarily for the better) than the illustrious microwave oven. The modern kitchen isn’t itself without one, and even people—like me—who tend to eschew convenience cooking for more traditional practices find the microwave a handy friend to have around for certain things.

The microwave is truly a child of the space age, as its development came about accidentally from work on radar equipment. Things got cooking in the 1940s when Percy Spencer, an engineer working on a magnetron for a Raytheon radar, noticed that a candy bar in his pocket was being melted by the device. Raytheon filed a patent for the microwave oven in 1945, and after extensive testing, the first production model was built two years later. Early microwaves were used almost exclusively in restaurants, as their cost ran into the thousands; it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that affordable home models hit the market, the first of which was Amana’s Radarange (pictured above). Microwave ovens became more commonplace as their prices fell through the 1970s, and by the late 1980s, with the addition of microprocessors to make the devices easier to use, about 25% of homes in the U.S. were nuke-equipped. Today, the figure is higher than 90%.

Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation lying in the spectrum between infrared (thermal heat) and radio frequencies. The powerful magnetron in a microwave oven produces an electromagnetic field whose waves oscillate typically at 2.45 GhZ (2.45 billion cycles per second); as the field oscillates between a positive and negative charge, the water molecules in food are heated dielectrically.

polarity-of-waterWater is a polar molecule, and this is one of the substance’s most valuable characteristics. One end of the water molecule is positively charged, and the other end is negatively charged. As the field inside the microwave oven very quickly oscillates, the polar water molecules in food rotate in tandem in a futile attempt to align with the charge of the field. Molecular motion means heat, of course, and the water molecules bump against the other molecules in the food to achieve a heating that is more or less even through a process very different from infrared radiation and thermal convection, as in a traditional oven.

Modern microwaves feature various power settings, but these do not typically change the intensity of the microwave field, which is static. Instead, they control the frequency with which the magnetron is turned on and off during heating; high power means the magnetron is in operation more of the time than at lower power. The average microwave oven operates with an electrical efficiency of about 64%, using around 1100 W to produce 700 W of microwave energy, for example.

Despite the common fear of radiation in the atomic age, microwave ovens pose very little, if any, health risks to humans. Microwave radiation is non-ionizing, and thus incapable of inducing radiation sickness or cancer. The body of the microwave essentially consists of a Faraday Cage, a self-contained box which safely holds in all the microwave radiation. You may have noticed that the doors of microwave ovens are covered with a fine mesh. This mesh is designed so that the spaces are smaller than the wavelength of the microwaves themselves, preventing their escape from the chamber in a way that just the glass would not.

However, in cases where a microwave oven might be unwisely rigged to operate with the door open, the escaping waves are capable of cooking human tissue and causing insidious damage to internal organs, even across a small distance.

microwave-consoleBecause microwave heating works by inducing molecular motion rather than conducting heat through air or directly applying infrared radiation (as does a traditional oven element), microwaves cannot cause flavor-enhancing reactions such as caramelization. For this reason, microwaved food has the reputation of tasting more bland than traditionally prepared fare. Also, the evenness and thoroughness of cooking achievable with a microwave oven can vary considerably depending on the substances being cooked. For example, ice does not respond as well to dielectric heating as liquid water, so frozen foods can cook more unevenly—this can be a problem, since heating frozen foods is a common application. And very dry foods, such as pasta or rice, may not cook at all because of the low presence of water. In fact, it is dangerous to operate a microwave for a substantial length of time without moisture in the cooking chamber, because, without water to vibrate in sympathy, the radiation can feedback and destroy the oven’s magnetron. The same effect is responsible for the phenomenon of scarring that occurs when a CD or DVD is heated in a microwave.

It is not technically true that microwaves cook “from the inside out.” Rather, microwave radiation penetrates the non-conductive surfaces of certain foods more deeply than infrared radiation from a regular oven, so the inside of foods can become cooked more quickly than one might expect, although the radiation is being applied more or less evenly throughout the food.

The reason users are cautioned not to place metal objects inside an operating microwave oven is because a metallic object in a microwave field will essentially act as an antenna, multiplying any radiation. In the case of metal objects with exposed points, such as the tines of a fork, the metal can resonate with the electromagnetic field and cause air at the tips to become superheated plasma, inducing arcs. This effect is potentially destructive to a microwave oven and may cause a fire inside the cooking chamber, although microwave ovens by their nature can contain fires rather well.

Is it safe to microwave plastics and styrofoam? There’s no simple answer, but, according to a Harvard Medical School publication, it’s generally safer than you might think. While certain chemicals in plastics can migrate into foods—especially fatty foods—in trace amounts, there is a lack of any direct evidence showing specific harmful effects on humans. Just to be safe, it’s a good idea to stay away from microwaving soft plastics such as water bottles and certain take-out containers. Styrofoam is actually safe, according to the article. The best course of action is to follow your common sense and carefully check labels on plastic containers, microwave dinners, etc.

Also, one should be careful handling liquids in a microwave. When in a smooth-surfaced container, certain liquids can be dielectrically heated beyond their boiling points without actually boiling. The boiling can start explosively once the liquid is physically disturbed, e.g., removed by the user from the cooking chamber. This is why it is a safe bet to allow heated liquids to stand for a moment or two before removing them.

Microwaves can’t be said to have encouraged meaningful mealtimes in our society—but used in moderation with a bit of common sense, they aren’t half-bad.

Wikipedia – microwave oven

Physics (Suite101) – How do microwave ovens work?


Un peu de l’impressionnisme: la peinture et la musique (painting and music)

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Impressionism began in Paris during the 1860s, among a small group of artists who departed from the approved style of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. These breakaways–including Manet and Renoir–preferred to paint landscapes and scenes from everyday life rather than historical and classical themes, with emphasis on atmosphere, texture, light, and mood rather than realistic perspective and detail. Slowly and steadily, their tribe expanded and began to garner public attention. The term ‘impressionist’ was coined in the 1870s by an unkind critic, but the name stuck, and eventually applied to a larger group of artists of rather disparate styles.

The term was applied even more loosely among composers, particularly some of the more adventurous French composers of the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, among whom Debussy and Ravel are the best known. Debussy is the composer whose mature style could be most closely identified with that of a painter such as Monet, although Debussy never agreed with being called an Impressionist. In general, it can at least be said that, while Impressionism now means too many things to mean a whole lot of anything at all, it does at least connote groups of post-Romantic artists and musicians, primarily identified with France, whose works represent a significant step away from the historically grounded norms of their predecessors toward a more sensuous, abstract, and yet more immediate mode of expression.

[click pictures to view full versions]

Bazille - Paysage à Chailly

Bazille – Countryside at Chailly

Jean Frédéric Bazille (1841-70) came from a well-to-do French family. In 1862 he came to Paris to study medicine and fell in with colleagues such as Renoir, Monet, Manet and Sisley to form the original core group of Impressionist painters. With these students he honed his landscaping skills at Fontainebleu and in Normandy, but Bazille became best known as a figure painter.  He was killed in battle in the Franco-Prussian War, while leading a charge against a German position.

DebussyPrélude a l’après-midi d’un faune

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was perhaps the most famous French composer of the fin de siècle, and certainly the most widely recognized of the so-called Impressionist composers. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11, and in 1884 won the prestigious Prix de Rome for composition from the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the same institution from which Manet and his crew had emerged. Debussy frequently disagreed with his elders, who disapproved of his headstrong, avant-garde style. Early Debussy shows the marked influence of Wagner and César Franck. His mature style began to emerge after approximately 1895 and is embodied by the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a tone poem for chamber orchestra that earned Debussy momentous notoreity. A brilliant pianist and conductor, mostly of his own works, he endured a turbulent romantic life until his death of cancer.

Sisley - Ferry to the Ile-de-la-Loge

SisleyFerry to the Ile-de-la-Loge
Alfred Sisley (1839-99) was a French painter of English parentage who began painting in Paris in the 1860s chiefly after the model of Courbet. He came to consider himself an Impressionist, although his style is some ways more realist and conservative than his contemporaries. While influential among his peers, Sisley failed to achieve fame and fortune until shortly before his death.

Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending

Ralph ({rafe}) Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an English composer, the son of a vicar and a great-nephew to Charles Darwin. He took up the violin at a young age, but did not begin seriously composing until after his 3oth year. He was a nationalist composer, inspired largely by English folksong, but his harmonizations and orchestrations are frequently Impressionist in character. Vaughan Williams was a favorite of the young Princess Elizabeth and enjoyed a good deal of popularity in his life; his 6th Symphony received more than 100 performances in its first year.

Renoir - Garden at Fontenay

RenoirGarden at Fontenay

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of the more famous French Impressionist painters. As a boy he worked in a china factory, where he was hired to draw designs on fine porcelain. Like so many of his peers, Renoir emerged from the studio of Charles Gleyre and achieved his first major success with the exhibitions of 1874. Predominately a figure painter, Renoir is known for his bright colors and candid scenes of daily life.

Delius – Irmelin Prelude

Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was an English composer of German parentage who spent most of his life in Florida and France. Delius’ music is preoccuped with natural and philosophical themes. Though little-known during his life and not faring much better today, he was a prolific composer whose music is full of color and drama, and he was a champion mood-setter, as the example above illustrates. Delius died following a struggle with syphilis which consumed much of his later life.

Cassatt - The Banjo Lesson

CassattThe Banjo Lesson

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American Impressionist painter and close associate of Edgar Degas who spent most of her career and France. Born into a wealthy family with a busy travel itinerary, Cassatt entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age fifteen and was exhibiting in Paris soon after. She is chiefly known for portraying intimate moments in the lives of women and children. Late in life Cassatt traveled to Egypt, where the beauty of the native and ancient art stunned her so that she frequently felt incapable of working afterwards.

RavelMiroirs: III. Alborada del gracioso

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer variously described as an Impressionist and a Neo-classicist. He grew up in extreme southern France, where he was influenced by Basque folk music. A brilliant young pianist, Ravel concentrated almost exclusively on composition after entering the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Fauré and befriended avant-garde composer Erik Satie. Ravel quickly became one of the very most popular French composers of his day, along with Debussy. Ravel could be Romantic, but his mature style combines the best of rich, vibrant Impressionist colorism with the formal elegance of the high Classical style. This is not to mention that he was to other orchestrators what Michael Phelps is to other swimmers—a complete master of almost supernatural stature.

Manet - Bar at the Folies-Bergères

ManetBar at the Folies-Bergère

Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883) was probably the most important early Impressionist in Paris. His earliest paintings, particularly Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon the Grass), were rallying points for the genesis of the movement. Manet’s parents were minor aristocrats, but Manet grew up to become anti-establishment to the core, especially in artistic matters. He was encouraged not only by fellow painters, but by literary figures such as Emile Zolá and Charles Baudelaire. Manet’s revolutionary brand of realism is sometimes credited with beginning not only the Impressionist movement, but modernism in painting more generally. Though renowned today, Manet was not viewed favorably by most critics in his time.

DebussyLa fille aux cheveux de lin

Monet - Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise

MonetHaystacks at Chailly, Sunrise

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is today almost certainly the most famous and widely printed of the Impressionists. Best known for his plein-air landscape painting, Monet was intensely occupied with the subjective effects of lighting and mood, and frequently painted multiple works based on the same natural setting or theme, but each seen in different light, different weather, et cetera (such as the Haystacks Series, from which the above example is taken). As a youth Monet preferred to paint scenes from life rather than copying the works of the masters, as did more traditional students. Later he studied in England, where the landscapes of Constable and Turner were influential to his development. His 1872 work Impressions: Sunrise helped give the name to the Impressionist movement. Monet enjoyed considerable success in his old age, living in a beautiful estate in the Paris suburb of Giverny which provided the subject matter for much of his later work.

Ravel – String Quartet No. 1 in F: II. Assez vif – Très rythmé

These are a few of my favorite cyberthings

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I submit to you five of my favorite things about the Internet, and encourage you to feel free to add your own in the comments:

  1. The Blogosphere
    Yeah, the term is cliché now, and then some. I know. It’s a mot d’habitude, much like that French term I basically just made up to mean “a word of convenience.” Not bad, eh? NOT BAD, EH?


    Printing Press 1568 To me, blogging represents the sociological nuts and bolts of the Internet, if you will. We’ve had enough of epoch after epoch of ‘centralized capital-intensive source projecting outwards to the masses’ communications models, and the Internet, if it is to be anything at all, ought to serve primarily as a means for user-generated content to flourish.

    This is why I rejoice that, if the Internet is going to be used as a vehicle for pornography, at least there are now sites where users can upload their homebrew. It’s a crass thing to say, I know, and therefore *incredibly* unlike me, but you get my drift.

    Blogs out there really run the gamut. Here’s another cliché for you: there as many different kinds of x out there as there are y who z them, where x = blogs, y = bloggers, and z = post. Some of them are great for entertainment purely by virtue of the excellent writing and/or the zany subject matter; some are incredibly informative and thought-provoking. And, sure, a lot of them are crappy, but who defines ‘crappy’ these days, anyway? The important thing is that blogging at its best promotes literacy, creativity, and communication, and is not a Barnes & Noble.

  2. StumpleUpon
    StumbleUpon is my favorite browser plug-in of all time, ever, amen. I can’t say it has done very much for my insomnia, but it has contributed smartly in some way to practically every other area of my life. StumbleUpon provides a randomized browsing experience that you can tailor to your interests, and which is regulated by a user ratings system to which you constantly contribute through your Stumbling. It also functions as a social networking/bookmarking platform where users can review websites and set up groups to share links, among other things.

    When you know exactly what you want and you want it right by-God now, use a search engine. When you’re ready to come down off your high horse and have some fun, try StumbleUpon. It will change your browsing forever, especially if alcohol is somehow involved. Either way.

  3. Wikipedia
    Wikipedia gets a lot of bad rap in academia, and that’s an understatement. It didn’t exist back when I was in high school and when I went through college the first time (I feel old now), but in the past few years I’ve sat in front of at least a couple dozen different professors and only one of them has made positive statements about Wikipedia to the class. “It’s so dangerous.” “It’s not reliable.” “It’s not peer-reviewed.” “Anyone can edit it.” To contrarian interpolations such as these, I find it most effective to reply:


    wikipedia-logo Fortunately, people have sensors called eyes that, in healthy specimens, are connected to computers known as brains. Working together, these tools can determine how well-cited a given Wikipedia article is, and whether or not it makes outlandish claims like “Columbus made landfall in the West Indies in 1942” or contains bizarre statements such as “SASSAFRASS420 IS AWESUM.” When these assessments are conscientiously carried out before citing Wikipedia as a source, good things occur.

    I remember how excited I was as a kid to get my first PC with a CD-ROM drive. Know why I was stoked about it? Because the first CD my dad brought home with it was Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. I could never have dreamed that there would one day be something called the Internet and that it would contain a much, much larger encyclopedia full of user-generated content to which I–little old me–could responsibly contribute through copyediting and content editing in my areas of expertise. It is a stunning resource of unprecedented breadth and depth which is accessible worldwide for free. ‘Nuff said.

    I’m also partial to Wikipedia because founder Jimmy Wales is from my hometown of Huntsville, AL.

    Did I mention most of those professors were really old and probably not a little pissed off that Wikipedia wasn’t around for their undergraduate research?

  4. IMSLP
    I have to throw this one in there for my fellow musicians. IMSLP stands for the International Music Score Library Project, an astounding compilation of scanned, PDF-ified public domain editions of classical (and other) music scores. In this sense, it is an analogue of the literary-minded Project Gutenberg. As a piano performance student, I can go online and, free of charge, obtain perfectly sound editions of works from the (roughly) pre-1920 literature, and the collection–which also includes orchestral scores, operas, you name it–is vociferously expanding as we speak. As should have been expected, IMSLP has had to deal with its share of flak from music publishers . . . like, say, Universal Edition. As a result, the project was offline from late October 2007 through June of 2008, but has been faring much better since.

    The amount of money I could have saved on sheet music in my younger years is . . . not something I’m going to think about right now. Suffice it to say, the folks who do document processing and general maintenance for IMSLP can redeem this empty promise for a free foot rub from me–any old time.

  5. eBay
    I know, I know . . . some of youse guys may be hatin’ on me for this one. I am about as far from a consumerist as one could get without being absolutely frickin’ ascetic, but there is something way cool about eBay. Going once . . . going twice . . . SOLD! A perfectly good pedicurist wall clock for US$17.99!

    eBay is not something I use a lot, but I have, in the past, conducted fairly major transactions through the service as both buyer and seller. My mom trades crystal dinnerware and other collectibles through eBay and actually manages to turn quite the profit through her dealings.

    In them fancy city places, they’s even got eBay stores!

    Like liquor, mascara, hot sauce, electric fences, and guaranteed blockbuster comic book-themed film sequels, eBay is subject to user-end error of the obsessive variety. Too much of a good thing is not always wonderful. But even if you haven’t a penny to spend, it can be mighty fun to see just who’s trying to rip the world off over what lamentable piece of junk under the auspices of the world’s largest virtual flea market.

We can only guess what the future holds for Al Gore’s brainchild. Given what I guessed twenty years ago that computers would be used for in the future–like doing my algebra homework for me–I feel sorely unqualified to speculate. I suppose we’ll just StumbleUpon it as it comes our way.


Al Gore - Internet

A Series of Unfortunate Events

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Here, for your perusal (and courtesy primarily of this page, among other resources), is a list of the UN Security Council vetoes by the U.S. from 1972 – 2002 which have involved Israeli/Palestinian/other Middle-Eastern issues. While the Soviet Union was the primary user of the veto before its collapse, the U.S. has since come to the fore as naysayer-in-chief, and a preponderance of its vetoes have been concerned with Middle Eastern issues.

Year Resolution Vetoed by US
1972 Condemnation of the killing of civilians by Israel in Syria and Lebanon
1973 Affirming Palestinian rights and calling for Israeli withdrawal
1976 Condemnation of Israel for attacks on Lebanese citizens
1976 Condemnation of Israel for building settlements in Palestinian lands
1976 Call for Palestinian self-determination
1976 Affirming Palestinian rights
1978 Criticism of Palestinian living conditions
1978 Condemnation of Israel’s human rights abuses in occupied territories
1979 Calls for the return of all inhabitants expelled by Israel
1979 Demand that Israel desist its human rights abuses
1979 Request for report on Palestinian living conditions in occupied lands
1979 Offer of aid to Palestinian people
1979 Discussion of sovereignty over natural resources in occupied lands
1979 Inclusion of Palestinian Women in the UN Conference on Women
1980 Request for Israel to return displaced persons
1980 Condemnation of Israeli policy regarding Palestinian living conditions
1980 (3x) Condemnation of Israeli human rights abuses in occupied lands
1980 Affirming Palestinian rights
1981 (18x) Condemnation of Israeli human rights abuses and Iraq raids
1982 (6x) Condemnation of Israeli invasion of Lebanon
1982 Condemnation of the Israeli massacre of 11 Muslims at a holy shrine
1982 Call for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights
1984 Condemnation of Israel for occupying/attacking southern Lebanon
1985 Condemnation of Israel for occupying/attacking southern Lebanon
1985 Condemnation of excessive Israeli force in occupied territories
1986 Call for all governments to observe international law ( ! )
1986 Condemnation of Israel for its actions against Lebanese civilians
1986 Call for Israel to respect Muslim holy places
1986 Condemnation of Israeli skyjacking of a Libyan airliner
1987 Call for Israel to abide by the Geneva Conventions
1987 Call for Israel to cease the deportation of Palestinians
1987 (2x) Condemnation of Israeli military operations in Lebanon
1987 Call for Israel to withdraw forces from Lebanon
1987 Cooperation between the United Nations and the Arab League
1987 Measures to investigate causes of international terrorism
1988 (5x) Condemnation of Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinians
1989 Opposing the acquisition of territory by force
1989 Call for a resolution to Arab-Israeli conflicts
1990 Request to allow three UN observers into the occupied territories
1995 Affirmation that East Jerusalem is occupied territory
1997 (2x) Call for Israel to cease settling in occupied territories
2001 Request to place unarmed monitors in Gaza, West Bank

Nowhere in the mainstream media will you find even the slightest suggestion that this track record might possibly correlate with a less-than-sterling opinion of U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

Bach Outside the Box

Posted in Bach, Classical Music, Music, music education, Piano, Uncategorized by Curtis on 3/19/07

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J. S. BachJohann Sebastian Bach (ca. 1685-1750) is one of the most revered composers in the Western tradition—ironic since, in his own time, his music was widely considered gothic and outmoded. Fifty-some years after Bach’s death, Beethoven called him the Urvater der Harmonie (roughly translated as “grandfather of harmony”); and the scientist Lewis Thomas once wrote of how we Earthlings should attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”

Any keyboardist with experience in Bach’s music knows that one of these “harder truths” is the transparent, exposed nature of his keyboard works. The lines are clear, delicate, and perfectly balanced. Even the tiniest instability or trepidation in execution tends to be amplified. And yet, in terms of performance practice, there is little, if anything, that is clear about Bach’s music—everything from such basic considerations as tempo to the finer details of melodic ornamentation is up for debate.

I have a good deal of experience in interpreting Bach’s keyboard music, and I’m decently versed in most of the classic recordings of his output. My relationship with Bach began in fear—when I thought of him, I pictured a marble bust possessed of the most somber and repugnant of visages. But now that I’ve gotten to know him better (in a process that happily continues to generate more challenges than it conquers) I’d like to take the opportunity to make a few good-natured observations about practicing and performing this demanding but warmly rewarding and three-dimensional body of work.

Practice Makes Perfect.

Yeah, yeah. But seriously—in the case of Bach’s music even moreso than that of the classical and romantic composers, it is supremely important to be methodical and deliberate with one’s practice routine. When approaching a piece for the first time, always take things very slowly in terms of rehearsal tempo and in terms of the pace of digestion. You will save time by learning things right early on, for Bach’s dense textures can be unforgiving and you may find deprogramming your mistakes to be discouraging.

Sublime independence of the fingers was Bach’s greatest asset as a performer because his music is almost exclusively contrapuntal in texture. A melody singing above a progression of block chords or a simple accompaniment figuration, while not unheard of in his work, is rather rare—you will be juggling multiple melodies juxtaposed against one another, and each voice must retain at all times its distinct identity and character. Carefully observe the values of notes and rests; hold the long tones for their full durations, regardless of what might be going on above or beneath them. Remember, each voice is independent; your hands are a choir in this music. If you cannot mentally keep track of each of these independent lines as you rehearse, chances are you’re going too fast. Slow down! You’ll thank yourself sooner than later.

Pay close attention to fingering. That point generalizes to practically all keyboard music, but, once again, the contrapuntal texture of Bach’s music will more severely punish illogical, jumbled fingerings than the works of, say, Mozart. If you practice slowly and cautiously enough, you’ll find that the most workable fingering patterns suggest themselves. It’s not necessary to have at your disposal an edition which enumerates fingerings for each and every figure—I tend to distrust textual fingering patterns simply because hands are unique. It is well worth remembering that Bach’s own fingering, from all indications in the historical record, would be considered in some respects unorthodox by the editors and pedagogues of today. In rapid passagework, Bach was not afraid to pass the third finger over the fourth, the fourth over the fifth, or the index finger over the thumb. All in all, Bach used his thumbs very little—but that doesn’t mean you must do the same. It’s just to demonstrate that there is wide latitude in choice. Find patterns of fingering that sound smooth and feel reliable. Those are the correct ones, whatever they might be. Don’t move on from a given passage until you settle the matter!

Ornamentation shouldn’t be a big deal.

Autograph manuscript of Two-Part Invention #8The ornamentation found in various editions of Bach’s keyboard works seems to be one of the most frustrating obstacles for performers everywhere, both novice and advanced.

A very great deal of what we know about how to interpret those pesky little squiggles comes from Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, writing in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing the Keyboard.) But much of this information is in turn open to interpretation, as there are of course no contemporary recordings—only texts.

The principles of notation were somewhat different and a great deal less standardized in Bach’s day than in Chopin’s, for instance. Compared to his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, Bach left relatively little to the imagination in terms of melodic decoration. His notation was more exact. Compare his ornamentation with that of Couperin, and you will see what I mean. He left more room for play in his slower works than in the more sprightly pieces, as was the custom, but generally Bach was mercifully clear in his intentions with regards to ornamentation.

I haven’t the space to go into great detail, so I’ll advise a couple of key principles: first, I recommend that you always begin by ignoring the ornamentation marks. As you become familiar with the melodic lines, you’ll likely find yourself experimenting with different types of figurations. If you’re unsure—or not feeling very creative—many editions make specific recommendations about how to execute specific ornaments. Secondly, remember that any interpretation, however authoritative, is merely that—an interpretation, a recommendation. By listening to various recordings of Bach’s music, one can “get the feel” of what baroque ornamentation is all about. As in most creative pursuits, first we imitate and then we begin to synthesize. But until you’re ready to tackle those squiggles, why not leave them be?

Tempo and dynamics are largely up to the performer.

Personally, I find it quite irksome to open an edition of Bach’s keyboard works and find the pages full of crescendi, diminuendi, accelerandi, and ritenuti. These are all editorial suggestions—please remember that! The fluctuations in volume to which the piano lends itself were not possible on Bach’s native instruments, the clavichord and harpsichord. He would have relied on registration changes and differences in timbre from one keyboard of the harpsichord to the other for tonal and dynamic variation, so any dynamic indications one comes across in an edition are, while perhaps grounded in good musicianship generally, merely editorial opinion.

Much the same is true of tempos. Becoming familiar with various recordings of a given work is especially helpful in judging tempos. For example, the picture above is of the composer’s manuscript of his Two-Part Invention Number 8, which is generally played at a very sprightly tempo—but there is no allegro or vivace written, correct? Traditions of performance carry a certain weight, but you shouldn’t be afraid to play any given piece at a different tempo from one you might have heard elsewhere, if it suits you. There are guidelines imposed in Bach’s suites of dance pieces, because they are dances in an established tradition—a sarabande is a very slow and stately dance, while a gigue is, well, a jig. Outside of these generalities, there is no real authority of substance on tempo in Bach’s music. Be creative! Be daring! Just be sensible.

Rubato—the elusive art of expressiveness in subtle changes of tempo over the course of a given phrase of music—is something that is widely regarded as out of place in Bach’s music. Particularly in his keyboard works and works for other solo instruments or small ensembles, I see no reason why this should definitively be the case. I don’t think you want to allow yourself the same liberty of rush-and-drag in a Bach fugue that you might in a Liszt rhapsody, to be sure; but retarding at the end of a phrase or giving the tempo a little push during the more harmonically tense passages of a piece should not be taboo. Again, use good judgment and refer to recordings from established masters of the repertoire. Wanda Landowska, one of the most famous interpreters of Bach in the 20th Century, once told a friend: “You continue to play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” While I wholeheartedly respect Madame Landowska’s musicianship, she was herself no stranger to theatric hysterics in performance. Let her play Bach his way. You play him your way. Actually, I consider that to be sound advice!

Special considerations for the piano.

Thomas Jefferson's HarpsichordAs we said, Bach’s native instruments were the harpsichord and the clavichord. He did try out an early pianoforte made by Gottfried Silbermann while visiting Dresden in 1736; according to secondhand reports, he found the action stiff and the treble too weak, and so he continued to use the instruments with which he’d grown up. He visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam in 1747, and played on several specimens in the king’s vast collection of the then-novel contraptions, remaining unimpressed. The keys would have offered much more resistance than Bach was accustomed to, and the wooden-framed instruments of the 18th Century lacked the sonority and clarity of tone that 19th Century developments brought to the piano.

Apart from their very different timbres, the most prominent differences between the harpsichord and the piano are that the harpsichord is not capable of dynamic shading according to the velocity of attack on the keys, and that the piano features a sustain pedal whereas the harpsichord does not. Many purists believe that, since Bach wrote for the harpsichord, when one must commit the cardinal sin of performing Bach on the piano, one should firmly cross one’s feet beneath the bench and one should never indulge in such follies as a pianissimo or a forte.

I find this idea absurd. Because Bach’s music is highly contrapuntal, and because its harmonies are based on transient melodic juxtapositions, I would say that one should be very careful about applying the sustain pedal—and especially cautious not to use it to “cover up” technical faults that can be resolved by the fingers! But, used sparingly and cleverly, I think the pedal can add a good deal of pleasant sonority and singing tone to the music. Just don’t use it to hide rough spots.

With respect to dynamic contrast, nothing can really be said that hasn’t been said already. The principles of sound musicianship and reference to quality recordings are all the guide you’ll need. I like to think that Bach, had he cared to familiarize himself with that upstart child of the harpsichord, would have taken judicious advantage of both the piano and the forte. Why shouldn’t we?

Why Bach? And where to begin?

Many fellow musicians fail to understand my enthusiasm for Bach. His music, particularly in the United States (for some reason), is often viewed as “mathematical” or “mechanical,” of the most value as technical fodder. I think that such a dour perspective is frequently an artifact of viewing Bach from this side of the Romantic era, and such prejudices are quickly cured, I’ve found, upon careful listening to great recordings of Bach’s music in various media. Those whose only experience with Bach consists of plodding through a four-voice fugue at the keyboard, those who’ve not heard Bach played masterfully by great artists, tend to be less inspired by Bach than those who are “in the know,” so to speak. Of course, then again, music is a subjective thing. No one composer or historical period of composition is going to appeal universally to everyone.

Aside from purely aesthetic considerations, Bach’s music has a great deal of historical value. No other composer has served as a primary inspiration to so many other musicians—Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Frank Zappa, and Yngwe Malmsteen were all devotees, among countless others of note. Bach is a composer’s composer because, through all of his work (and he was astoundingly prolific), he maintained the highest standards of craftsmanship while never degenerating into the realm of the unmusical. Even in his great Kunst der Fuge (“Art of the Fugue”), a dizzyingly technical exploration of musical theory if ever there was one, there is profound artistry and eloquence.

For the beginner just becoming acquainted with Bach’s keyboard music, I recommend starting with the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach; if this fare does not prove sufficiently challenging, I suggest moving on to the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and some of the less dense preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Once you’ve opened that venerable tome, there can be no turning back from Bach!

Bach sheet music online (public domain editions — keyboard music and much more)

Glenn Gould plays Bach (video from Youtube — wide selection. Glenn Gould played Bach in his own unique and often controversial style)

New American Century: Bush Plans to Expand Military Involvement in Iraq

Before the mid-term elections: “Absolutely, we’re winning.”

After the mid-term elections: “We’re not winning, we’re not losing.” We need more troops. Yeah, that’s it! More troops.


In another turnaround, Bush said he has ordered Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to develop a plan to increase the troop strength of the Army and Marine Corps, heeding warnings from the Pentagon and Capitol Hill that multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching the armed forces toward the breaking point. “We need to reset our military,” said Bush, whose administration had opposed increasing force levels as recently as this summer.

But in a wide-ranging session in the Oval Office, the president said he interpreted the Democratic election victories six weeks ago not as a mandate to bring the U.S. involvement in Iraq to an end but as a call to find new ways to make the mission there succeed. He confirmed that he is considering a short-term surge in troops in Iraq, an option that top generals have resisted out of concern that it would not help. [emphasis added.]

Let’s turn to the polls—certainly blunt instruments, but ostensibly democratic ones.

From a CNN poll, Dec. 15-17, 2006 (1,019 adults nationwide, +/- 3% margin):

“Do you favor or oppose the US war in Iraq?”
Favor: 31%; Oppose: 67%

From an L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll, December 8-11, 2006 (1,489 adults nationwide, +/- 3% margin):

“As you may know, some members of Congress are calling for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, while others are saying that our troops should remain in Iraq until the country is secure, and others are proposing that more troops should be sent to Iraq. Do you think the United States should withdraw troops from Iraq on a fixed timetable, or should keep the current level of troops in Iraq as long as it takes to secure the country, or should send more troops to Iraq?”
Withdraw on a fixed timetable: 52%; Stay as long as it takes: 26%; Send more troops: 12%

So, then, according to these up-to-date polls, two-thirds of Americans are in fundamental opposition to the war in Iraq, and only about one-eighth of Americans favor the kinds of changes Bush has Gates cookin’ up in his first week on the job. It’s not about Congressional stance, and it’s certainly not about public opinion, from all appearances—it’s about executive power trips and immunity from accountability. It’s about a virtual dictatorship.

Is this the kind of democracy we are trying to export? I believe that it is.

Angelic BushAmericans have constantly and consistently been told by this administration that it “listens to the generals on the ground” when considering policy and strategy in this great crusade for democracy profit. Yet, clearly, we now have a situation in which the Bush White House is acting directly against the opinions of those enlightened personnel, and directly against the opinions of the “great beast” of the American public.

But far more pertinent than the opinions of American taxpayers or of our militaristic overlords are the views of—gasp!—the Iraqis themselves. While many Americans are content to continue believing that the War in Iraq has something to do with 9/11 specifically or with combatting “terror” in general, it can be soundly inferred that the citizens of war-ravaged post-Saddam Iraq are possessed of less endemically skewed perspectives on the situation at hand. It is their country, after all. They live there; they don’t watch or read motel room journalism from the fortified Green Zone.

September 2006 polling of Iraqis by the academically chaired Program on International Policy Attitudes indicates that seven out of ten surveyed Iraqis want US forces out of Iraq within one year. Most strikingly, an “overwhelming majority” of Iraqis believes that the US military presence is engendering more violent opposition than it is suppressing, and that the most effective way for the US to help the Iraqi government strengthen its grasp of its own affairs is actually a simple one: Get the hell out of Iraq as soon as is practiceable.

“No, no,” the White House protests. “You just don’t understand, Iraqis. We have interests at stake. The mission must succeed.

How many times must Americans and Iraqis be subjected to this forceful drone that sounds like something out of a Hollywood action flick? What mission, exactly? First it was eradicating the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; then it was Bush’s “messianic mission” of exporting peace and democracy to the Middle East; now it’s a sort of amorphous quest for “security and stability in the region,” for pacifying a nation “on the brink of civil war,” a civil war that has, in fact, been positively raging virtually since day one of the US-led invasion. Do you notice a pattern? Each successive mission goal seems a little harder to define, a bit more perpetually elusive than the last.

That’s because the only mission to which the Bush regime is committed in Iraq—and in Afghanistan—is this: redrawing the map of the Middle East in a manner that is to the best advantage of U.S. business interests. Those are the “interests at stake.” It has very little to do with the will and the intention of the American taxpayer and absolutely nothing to do with the safety and stability of Iraqis or Afghanistanis.

The Iraq War is very much a war for oil, but the object is not simple possession of a resource. The object is more subtle and more geopolitically strategic. U.S. oil companies already have perpetual access to oil reserves in the Atlantic basin, in Canada, and elsewhere. But control over the immense and largely untapped oilfields of Iraq—not merely access to them—guarantees critical economic leverage over European and east-Asian competitors to US policymakers and corporations. Flooding the market with Iraqi oil would theoretically lower oil prices, to the immediate disadvantage of oil companies. Absolute, unchallenged American ownership of Iraqi oil, however, would mean that US business leaders could use Iraqi oil as a mechanism of blackmail on the long term. “What’s that, OPEC? A price spike in protest of US foreign policy? Watch this!” Because oil is also a strategic resource for increasingly independent-minded nations in South America, nations such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, control of Iraqi oil can also act as a mechanism to economically undercut the ability of these nations to establish a diverse international base of commerce independent of the U.S. sphere. Iraq Oil Map - U.S. DoE

The long-term objective of US planners in Iraq is given away by the name of the organization of neoconservative hoodlums behind the curtain: the Project for a New American Century. If the invasion of Iraq had ever been about benevolent concerns for the best interests of Iraqis, then Iraqi oil would already be nationalized and in the hands of Iraqis, and US troops would be on their way out even as I type. But if that country’s economic base is in the hands of its own people, then it cannot lie exclusively in the hands of US economic forces. It cannot be used as the Weapon of Mass Subservience of PNAC designs.

What does all of this mean? It is easy to be lulled by the never-ending sputter of corporatocratic propaganda into believing that the success of the US “mission” in Iraq is contingent upon the eradication of insurgent activity. On the Carollian chessboard of reality, the reverse is actually true: continued insurgent activity is the driving force behind even marginal support from US citizenry of a continuing or even an escalating military presence in Iraq (because, like, we can’t be defeated, of course. Defeat is unAmerican) and a continued and indeed perpetual military presence in Iraq is necessary to secure the country’s resources for long-term exploitation.

There is another factor in play in the ongoing travesties of Iraq and Afghanistan, and many an eighth-grader could espy its relevance simply by looking at a map of Middle East and taking note of just which nation sits sandwiched between these two newest, shiniest centers for projection of US military power. That would be the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Much like the US, but in sepia tones rather than technicolor, in Iran the political administration has an agenda which is often altogether different from that of its population at large. The Iranians are a peaceable people inclined to a high degree of cultural depth, to malleable and progressive attitudes on matters of significance, and to just getting along with the world in general. But the theocratic establishment in that nation, and Ahmadinejad’s government in particular, are oppressive hardliners. While I daresay the Iranians will not soon forget the events of 1953, the government has, perhaps beginning in 1979, I think, turned anti-Western sentiment into the same sort of oblique rallying cry that U.S. neoconservatives are attempting, successfully, to make of 9/11.

Ayatollah Ruhollah KhomeiniThe escalation of anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric from Teheran is reactionary and is not in and of itself wholly unjustified. The Iranian government is diametrically opposed to the US government on the matter of Palestinian sovereignty, and attempts to support pro-Palestinian “militants” in much the same manner (albeit far less grandiose) that the US supports Israeli hegemonists (who are somehow not militants or terrorists). Today Iran is clearly surrounded by US military power, and this is simply fuel on the fire. At least some Iranians must be wondering if their priests have not been right all along.

I do not doubt that military action against Iran may be in the cards for 2007. Nor do I doubt that such a maneuvre might be a major factor in Bush’s pending decision to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to the region. The United States cannot invade Iran in the same way that it has made a painful example of Iraq, but it does—or will—have the power to quickly and utterly incapacitate the government and to effect political changes which are more conducive to US interests. If the region is going to be redrawn to support a New American Century, then the face of Iran must be reconfigured along with it. Thus, we can expect in 2007 to hear ever-increasing rhetoric about the “enemies of freedom” in Teheran, along with diminishing concern for the sovereignty and welfare of the Iranian people apart from how they might be of better service to American capitalist enterprise.

To anyone with even the most basic understanding of the underpinnings of “Islamic terrorism” and of fundamental causality, it should be readily apparent that the downright Nazi-ish Israeli oppression of non-Jews is the pea upon which the princess sleeps. If US planners really wanted to win the “great ideological struggle of the 21st Century,” as Bush has called it, they could easily do so by withdrawing the mindbogglingly immense financial and logistical support which the US provides to Israel even as the White House pretentiously maintains its avatar as “peacemaker” in the region. But the President will not act decisively in this way because it does not benefit his friends’ business interests. A hostile Iran and a tumultuous Iraq are necessary to further their aims. Congress will not act on behalf of the Palestinians because of the immense strength of the Israeli lobby and its virtual stranglehold on the US news media. The United Nations is also rendered inert to take action because Israel can count on the United States to veto or otherwise obstruct any meaningful resolutions towards the ends of a peaceful Middle East.

If there is peace in the Middle East, then there is no impetus to drive the warmongering and profiteering schemes of the neoconservatives and their corporate allies. Thus Iranian policy and prerogative will continue to be attacked as if they have no logical causal basis; thus Iraqi insurgents will continue to be milked for all their worth; thus Israeli racism and genocide will continue to be treated as the bleatings of a woefully misunderstood lamb of God. This is how we build a New American Century.

So upon whom are the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Iranians, the Palestinians, and the Lebanese relying to bring peace to the region, to return sanity and sovereignty to peoples dispossessed of such luxuries since the early years of the 20th Century? They rely upon you and upon me, not upon elected officials. They have already had quite enough of our “democracy.” They would prefer, I think, a bit of activism from these quarters.

A Brief History of Coffee

Posted in beverages, coffee, culture, food, History, Uncategorized by Curtis on 11/24/06

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Coffee Tree - C. Arabica

There it is, bathed in glorious light, perhaps my favorite tree in the world: C. arabica.

The coffee tree is native to the Kaffa district of Ethiopia, in northern Africa. Other species of the genus have been found growing wild throughout Africa, but thanks to Middle Eastern traders, arabica is where it all began. And by it, I mean the process which resulted ultimately in that bubbling noise across the kitchen. Excuse me for one moment. ye-Razi, Persian father of medicine

It is thought that the great Persian philosopher-physician Razi (ca. 800 AD) might have been the first scholar to mention the plant, calling it bunchum. Razi is most famous for discovering that, if you get someone drunk enough, you can perform minor surgery on him with a minimum of fuss. Actually Razi was an immensely important scientist whose contributions to modern medicine cannot be overestimated, his work far outstripping that of his European contemporaries; he penned the first systematic works on allergies and immunology, on pharmaceutical equipment and tinctures, and on the menstrual cycle, among many other topics. In fact, after reviewing his achievements, I furiously wonder why it is that our modern doctors take a Hippocratic Oath and not a Razi Oath. Razi was also one of the earliest proponents of objective ethics in the practice of medicine.

In Ethiopia, coffee was not brewed as a beverage. Monks generally ate the beans whole to aid in wakefulness during prayers. But within a few centuries, al-qahwa was a drink widely available in the Arab and Persian world, coming through Yemen to greater Arabia and from there to Persia, Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul. Muslim trade with Venice had brought the custom into southern Europe by the early Renaissance, with the tradesmen of that city turning a readily available bean into an item of high luxury through exorbitant pricing.

The British and Dutch East India companies had brought coffee to England by the 16th Century. In 1538, the German physician Rauwolf wrote of the plant after a stint of travel in the Near East:

A beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach. Its consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is passed around and from which each one drinks a cupful. It is composed of water and the fruit from a bush called bunnu.

Note the European’s “frank” surprise that coffee was taken in the morning; Christian codes of pre-Enlightenment Europe normally discouraged breakfast of any kind.

England’s first coffeehouse, operated by a Turkish Jew named Jacob or Jacobs, opened in 1650; twenty-five years later there were several thousand coffeehouses open for business in the British Isles. Lloyd’s of London, the famous insurer, began its life as an early coffeehouse. In 1674, the anonymous “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” was published in London, reading, in part:

The Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying Up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled the more kind Gallants, that they are become Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought. a London Coffee House, 1660

The ultimate worry of the Englishwomen was, as further reading reveals, that the “continual sipping of this pitiful drink” would eventually render Englishmen more adept at “talkativeness” than their wives. The “fumes of TOBACCO” were also suspect under the watchful eyes of the petitionesses. But one must wonder whether or not the primary source of this feminine angst might have been that, in no uncertain terms, women were not allowed in the coffeehouses.

Through trade and diplomacy the consumption of coffee was also becoming widespread in continental Europe during these decades, first in the court of Louis XIV and later in Vienna, whose military simply stole a great quantity of beans from a defeated Turkish army and then set up shop. Incidentally, the custom of adding milk and sugar to one’s coffee appears to have originated with Franciszek Kulczycki, the Polish-born army officer who opened the first Viennese coffee establishment.

As with other tropical commodities, coffee did not become widely available outside of wealthier quarters until the establishment of slave-powered coffee plantations in the Americas. The French established farms in the West Indies during the late 1600s and early 1700s, and in 1727 Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta smuggled some beans from French Guiana into Brazil. Thus began Brazil’s nearly two hundred years-long monopoly on the crop. By the early 20th Century different strains of coffee grown in different lands were undercutting the Brazilian pricehold on the commodity—C. canephora (robusta) is the most common competitor to arabica, its beans containing a great deal more caffeine. Robusta coffee tends to thrive in a wider variety of wetter climates than the more desert-friendly arabica species.

Brazil today retains its position as the world’s largest exporter of coffee. Vietnam is currently the world’s number two bean-pusher, with Colombia and Indonesia also producing significantly. Australia is a minor coffee producer, though it exports very little. Development of the coffee industry ‘down under’ began with the establishment of a farm between northern NSW and Cooktown in 1880.

In fact, coffee is one of the world’s most important primary commodities among which it ranks not far behind crude oil. It is estimated that by 2010 the planet will produce about 7 million tons of coffee annually. In 1997, the price of arabica coffee had reached an average of $3.00/lb. in New York. But the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement of 1975 which resulted in this pricing pressured the “Big Four” coffee companies to seek cheaper robusta beans, and by 2001 the New York price had stabilized at around $0.43/lb. due to a huge influx of the cheaper variety of coffee from secondary growing nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia. This change in the market drove many South Asian, African, and Latin American producers of arabica out of business, not a few of whom turned to coca or other illicit crops for their livelihoods. As a compromise, many smaller roasters and later a few larger ones, such as Starbucks, began the “fair trade” practice of establishing pre-harvest pricing with smaller-scale coffee growers. The economic demand for fine-quality arabica beans is steadily recovering.

Espresso-roasted Coffee Beans Coffee beans must be roasted before they are sold for grinding and brewing. Through the 19th Century, coffee beans were generally purchased raw (“green”) and were cooked in a frying pan. This practice was eclipsed by the advent of vacuum-sealed packaging.

A number of chemical changes occur as the beans are roasted. Modern coffee roasters are usually large drums which rotate the beans through a current of hot gases. Roasting eliminates a number of the chemicals within the bean, including some of the caffeine, while transforming others into essential oils. Lighter roasts boast more of the original flavor of the bean, in which regional soil characteristics and other environmental peculiarities are evident, while darker roasts yield a more robust, homogenous, and less earthy flavor. After roasting, the beans are ‘quenched’ in sprays of cold water and any remaining impurities not eliminated through initial processing are removed. Local ‘artisan’ roasting has been increasingly popular in many of the world’s metropolitan areas, most predominately among the West Coast of the United States in cities such as Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Since roasting is the most flavor-centric aspect of the coffee production process, it is widely held that a craftsman’s approach to roasting can produce more interesting varieties of coffee than the large-scale automated processes of the industrial distributors.

There are a number of methods in common use through which ground beans are brewed. Most common today are the drip coffee maker, which largely supplanted the pressure-driven stovetop percolator, and the espresso machine. The drip maker causes a small stream of near-boiling water to pass through the coffee grounds and a filter and into the pot below. Espresso makers, which generally are used with very dark-roasted coffee, force hot (but not boiling) water under high pressure through the grounds and the result is a more strongly flavored beverage with a higher concentration of coffee matter in the suspension.

In North America, a common practice among rural peoples in bygone times (particularly Acadians and by extension the later Cajuns) was to substitute chickory for coffee due to the high price and limited availability of the latter. In New Orleans, a mixture of coffee and chickory is now commonplace, being served, for example, along with beignets in the Café du Monde in Jackson Square.

So how does your loyal blogsmith take his brew? Fresh-ground beans each morning; run them through the drip with at least twice the recommended amount of ground coffee; first and second cups black; third and fourth with half-and-half, cinnamon, sugar, and pure vanilla extract only. I’m not picky. I’m just an addict. Also, I decry foo-foo coffee specialty beverages such as ‘frapps’ and ‘mocha_____s’ and the like. But I will take a cappuccino now and again.

Modern Damascus Coffee House Ascertaining the beneficial and detrimental health effects of coffee consumption is a difficult matter, because certain observed effects cannot be attributed to any one substance within the complex organic mixture that is brewed coffee. Excessive caffeine consumption is known to affect the sleep cycle and may stimulate certain cancers and cardiovascular disorders. But some of the other chemicals in coffee have been shown to lower the risk for diabetes type 2 as well as cirrhosis of the liver. At any rate, it is understood that caffeine can be at least a psychologically addictive compound, particularly when it is regularly relied upon as one’s chief means of getting the day started or of ‘burning the midnight oil.’

Cuba boasts an oddly large percentage of octagenarians-and-up in its demographic, many of whom attribute their longevity, at least in passing, to wholesome rations of coffee and cigars.

Apart from its long and distinguished career as a neurological stimulant, coffee has also provided a great deal of social stimulus in communities around the world, from early Ethiopian and Muslim cultures forward. In Persian and Ottoman life the coffeehouses were gathering places where men would meet to drink, smoke, tell stories, listen to recitations of poetry, and play board games. Early European coffeehouses, particularly in England, were well-known as lively venues for literary and political discussion. The English King Charles II knew coffeehouses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”—truly my kind of place, let me tell you. We have mentioned that Lloyd’s of London was originally a coffeehouse, as was what would later become the London Stock Exchange!

In continental Europe of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and in much of the contemporary world, cafés and coffeehouses increasingly grew to represent arts culture, often featuring live or recorded music and/or visual artwork from independent, sometimes local, artists. Many feature a selection of pastries and light sandwiches along with espresso specialties, in a tradition originating with the Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and San Francisco North Beach establishments created by Italian-Americans. Performances of acoustic music, light theatre, and literary recitations are sometimes planned. Since bars and pubs in the US do not allow clintèle under the age of 21, American coffeehouses often serve as ad hoc meeting places for socially inclined youth.

Coffee has become a part of the modern corporate culture, with office employees freely partaking of the blaaaaack driiiiink in copious quantities to help them through mazes of spreadsheets, data processing chores, and TPS reports. Certainly caffeine appears to be the Fortune 500’s drug of choice.

That’s the history of coffee as we know it! And now, if you’ll be so kind, I must be off for my second pot of the morning.

For further information:

Wikipedia – Coffee
Wikipedia – History of coffee

Wikipedia – Coffee roasting
Wikipedia – Coffeehouse

Cup of Coffee - Ft. Lauderdale Coffee

e. e. cummings on nationalism and other topics

Posted in Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized by Curtis on 10/2/06

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Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) was an American poet, essayist, and painter. I can safely say that he is my favorite of all American poets, but I would be at a loss were I to try to explain exactly why.

e.e. cummings - self-portraitCummings was born in Massachusetts, the son of a prosperous, artistically minded, but rather disciplinarian Protestant minister. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard before travelling to France to serve in the ambulance corps in 1917, during the First World War. While in France he began a lifelong association with the city of Paris, and Cummings often incorporated the French language into his poetry. Much of the narrative of his early work seems to take place in, or at least to evoke, that city. Cummings and a friend were accused of pacifist sentiments during their wartime service and were sentenced to 3 1/2 months service in a concentration camp in France; this is the subject of Cummings’ novel, The Enormous Room.

In addition to his literary talents, Cummings was an astute visual artist. The image seen here is a self-portrait.

Much of Cummings’ work can be viewed as an argument for romantic individualism in the context of industrialized society. In his poetry, he tended to fiercely satirize what he viewed as the at least partially fallacious and tragic notion of individual sacrifice for the greater good, with his views on this subject doubtless much influenced by his “right proper” upbringing and his wartime experiences in France. Cummings wrote often of sex in a manner that is both frank and symbolic, and he extolled the glory and beauty of the natural world while harshly condemning the despoiling impact of humankind upon nature.

He is famous for using idiosyncratic spelling, punctuation, phrasing, and typesetting to increase the visual aspect of the experience of his poetry; it is commonly said that most of Cummings’ poems lose a great deal of effect when read aloud. Generally they are meant to be viewed in much the same way as paintings are meant to be viewed, although this is undoubtedly more essential to some of his works than others.

In some instances he made masterful use of traditional forms such as the sonnet. In others he liberally parodied them. Cummings was highly creative in his word choice, combining and juxtaposing elements of language in unusual ways to create mood or to convey hazy ideas not easily expressible through conventional means. This “playfulness” with language is regarded as the most defining characteristic of his poetry—to him, the rules and formalities of communication through language were always secondary to precise delivery of an intended message. If Cummings felt he could best impart a certain feeling or idea by bending the rules, then he did so, and the effects of this can take some getting used to but tend to produce unique, spectacular, and profound results. In this way he approached poetry much as Debussy approached music.

Cummings’ poems were very rarely given titles. They are conventionally referred to by their first lines. Here is a little jewel on the subject of nationalism and war, from 1926’s is 5.

George Bush - To Whom Be the Glory?“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions into the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

The effect of the last line is devastating. We aren’t told anything about the speaker (though he sounds suspiciously like a right-wing politician) but we are shown in the last line that he is every bit as human as the men who “did not stop to think” but “died instead.” The speaker can only go on with this crap for so long before he has to stop for a breath and a whole glass of water. The implication is that the speaker does not want his audience to stop and think any more than did the dead men he is glorifying, and Cummings means for us to draw inferences from this observation about the morality of sending others to die for a nation’s glory. The lack of a period at the end of the poem implies that the speech is going to continue in much the same vein. Is the glory really based on anything other than the speeches of politicians? To me, that is the question posed by this poem. Thus, in a very subtle and poetic way, Cummings shows the hypocrisy exemplified by any living soul who would dare to clamor for war and to extol the virtues of sacrifice “for god and country.”

Here is a very different poem from the same collection. Cummings allows us to eavesdrop on a conversation between the narrator and his girlfriend; possibly the narrator is making overtures which have just been rebuffed, and he means to win over the object of his desire with these words:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

It may be the oldest pickup line in the book, but Cummings says it like no other. Did you catch the two contiguous usages of the word ‘wholly?’ In the second instance, Cummings is creating a clever pun: ‘wholly’ works, but he means something much more like ‘holy.’ This kind of tiny hidden message or double entendre is very common throughout his work. Here the poet is also mocking his own art form, stating that “the best gesture” of his mind cannot compare to his love’s beauty, that “life is not a paragraph.”

Here’s a poem from a later collection, W [ViVa] (1931). The poet has grown more adventurous in his wordplay and his unconventional typography:

but mr can you maybe listen there’s
me &
some people
and others please

‘s future is toothsome like
(they got
pockets full and may take a littl
e nibble now And then

fly, their;puLLing:bright
against the deep sky in

May mine’s tou
ching this crump
led cap mumble some
thing to oh no
body will
(can you give
a)listen to
who may



This is the mostly—but not completely—incoherent babble of a beggar in the street. The beggar’s target has apparently already refused to donate, so the less fortunate soul is trying his damnedest to make a case for himself, even if it might be worth only a nickel in the end. He explains that some beggars are really not so unfortunate as they might let on, that others have no sense of purpose and will be beggars forever “pulling bright futures against the deep sky,” but that he himself—and that’s where his dialog kind of trails off into nothing. The narrator feels sure he is more deserving of alms than anyone else, yet he cannot logically explain why this is so. In this way, this seemingly nonsensical poem is actually an extremely intelligent and efficient description of the ethics of capitalism. It’s just focused on the end of the spectrum we’re supposed to ignore.

Though I have a hard time choosing favorites, I might cite the following as one of Cummings’ most appealing poems, to me:

this is the garden:colours come and go.
frail azures fluttering from night’s outer wing
strong silent greens serenely lingering.
absolute lights like baths of golden snow
This is the garden:pursèd lips do blow
upon cool flutes within wide glooms.and sing
(of harps celestial to the quivering string)
invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap
and on Death’s blade lie many a flower curled,
in other lands where other songs be sung;
yet stand They here enraptured,as among
the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep
some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

I can’t read that without getting chills and tearing up a little. And I’m a guy, for crying out loud. You will notice a marked difference in style from the previous poem; “this is the garden” is from a very early collection, 1923’s Tulips and Chimneys. The form of this poem is that of an Italian sonnet (as opposed to a Shakespearian sonnet) and the meter is perfectly observed in contrast to Cummings’ more mature style in which formal considerations were generally disregarded altogether. The message of this poem, as explained in the second stanza, is that as human beings our business keeps us from ever being acutely aware of the ephemeral and precious nature of life. Cummings compares human beings to flowers which are cut down by death, and he compares the natural world to looming trees that perpetually sleep through it all. The imagery could not be more beautiful. Cummings describes a world of such stark gorgeousness with such languid verbiage that it at first seems alien. It is only at the end of the poem that we are meant to realize that “the garden” is the very planet we call home.

I’ll conclude with an example from Cummings’ last published collection, 95 Poems (1958). This one I think is really genius—a tiny pond, but more than waist-deep to be sure. As Cummings approached the end of his life his satire grew more rabid and his romanticism more evangelical. A common criticism of his work is that he never seemed to waver from the philosophy and the aesthetic with which he began his career as a writer. As he developed and matured he did not change, apart from his superficial style. He only grew more intense, like the light of Millay’s candle burning at both ends. It could be argued that, for an artist true to himself and his sense of individuality, this rigidity of message and purpose was more a virtue than a fault.

a total stranger one black day
knocked living the hell out of me—

who found forgiveness hard because
my(as it happened)self he was

—but now that fiend and i are such
immortal friends the other’s each

Moreso than any other of Cummings’ works, 95 Poems concerns itself with themes of mortality and transcendence. Near the end of his life, Cummings is telling us in this poem that he has reconciled his own conscience to the best of his ability. There is enough philosophical fodder contained in these lines to fill a whole volume. Note the density of wordplay in this little marvel: ‘knocked living the hell;’ the juxtaposition of ‘fiend’ and ‘friends’; and his deconstruction and rearrangement of ‘each other’ to ‘the other’s each.’ Cummings seems to be hinting that, for him, facing and confronting the most unpleasant aspects of his psyche by embracing them even as they might have been working to undermine him was a defining moment in his life. Cummings didn’t want to forgive his own trespasses on principle, but he found in the end that the unifying principles of love and forgiveness were ultimately the keys to “getting over himself,” as we might say today. Also note his description of the friendship of his two halves as “immortal,” implying that this reconciliation has imbued him with a sense of transcendence he might have felt lacking before.

Well, I, for one, am glad that the poet didn’t come to this realization until near the end—because the internal tumult for which E. E. Cummings was so famous produced some of the most honest, most thoughtful, and most entrancing poetry in the history of mankind.

E. E. Cummings - with cigarette