Wednesday, August 29, 2007

At Labrang Monastery.

Outside, feathers of snow were still falling. In the whitened sky the mountains left only the tracery of their stone, like stencils hung in nothing. I followed a curved track -- slushy with mud now -- between the walls of the monks' fraternities. There was no sound but the dripping of snowmelt from the eaves, and lisp of water in the open drains. Suddenly up ahead of me a cluster of pilgrims fell to their knees. Up the long avenue between the monks' cells, misted in falling snow, I saw far away -- like the backdrop to some sacred drama -- the crests of gilded temples glinting against the mountains. They rose in facades of oxblood red, then mounted to green and mustard-yellow tiles, while beyond them again the farthest shrines banked upward in a surge of golden roofs. Beneath this unreal city, the magenta and purple robes of the monks were drifting back and forth.

But as I approached them, the buildings separated into rough-built halls and fort-like gates. Their height was an illusion. The distinctive facades -- a deep oxide red -- were built of compacted twig bundles, long dry. The rooftops teemed with golden griffins, the deer of Benares, the Wheel of the Law. Dragon gargoyles leered from their eaves. All was earthy, vivid, strange.

Under the arcades of the philosophy hall -- the largest of the temples -- three hundred monks waited in casual conclave, wrapped in magenta and crested in yellow cockscomb hats. The young were innocently boisterous, thumping and tussling together. They greeted me in rough Chinese, and foraged for news of the Dalai Lama. Outside, they were snowballing one another. But a senior monk beckoned them by groups into the shrine, and from there the guttural prayers stirred like the drone of bees, or a mantra muttered in sleep.

I slipped into the sanctuary beside them, enclosed among avenues of pillars. . . . [I]t was lit only a glimmer of butter lamps and the wintry light dying through its porticoes. The monks had dwindled in its gloom, squatting round their teachers in broken semicircles. I walked here alone. The pillars were draped in cloth, as if they were alive, and faded to darkness down glades of synthetic colour. A thousand tiny, identical Buddhas covered the side walls, and across the deepest recess, perched on clouds and lotus thrones, a double rank of reincarnate saints filled the dark with their dreamy power. Their fingers held up flowers and bells, or cradled thunderbolts. Yak-butter lamps and hundreds of candles stranded each in a zone of orange fire. Here sat the multiform Bodhisattvas, blessed beings who had delayed their entry to nirvana in order to save others. Monastic founders perched gold-faced in pointed wizard's hats, and demon guardians -- the countervailing faces of death -- danced with necklaces of skulls or severed heads. Everywhere divinity branched and proliferated -- many-headed, multi-armed -- loving, death-dealing, indifferent. I stared at them in alienated bafflement, as a lama might wander a church. The air reeked of rancid butter.
Colin Thubron, Shadow Of The Silk Road 60-61 (HarperCollins, 2007).

Traces of the ancient Silk Road.

In Tang times, nobody spoke of the Silk Road. It was a nineteenth-century term, coined by the German geographer Freidrich von Richtofen, and it was not a single road at all, but a shifting fretwork of arteries and veins, laid to the Mediterranean. Historians claim its inception for the second century BC, but the traffic started long before accounts of it were written. Chinese silk from 1500 BC has turned up in tombs in north Afghanistan, and strands were discovered twisted into the hair of a tenth-century BC Egyptian mummy. Four centuries later, silk found its way into a princely grave of Iron Age Germany, and appears enframed -- a panel of sudden radiance -- in the horse-blanket of a Scythian chief, exacted as tribute or traded for furs twenty-four centuries ago.
Colin Thubron, Shadow Of The Silk Road 24 (HarperCollins, 2007).

No one cares.

In Washington, D.C., where I've spent the past two decades, everyone lives and breathes politics. In Idaho, people are so used to fresh air, they choke on political news, even in small doses. Yesterday D.F. Oliveria, a journalist and popular blogger in my hometown, ran an online poll asking whether Craig could survive the scandal. In the first 24 hours, a grand total of 6 Idahoans responded.
Bruce Reed.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A sharp pen.

Christopher Shea writes about literary critic James Wood, who is moving from to The New Republic to The New Yorker.

I don't want a pickle.

Someone give this guy a hand.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Shipwrecked off Australia.

A new book post up about Simon Leys's book about the wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia in 1629 off the west coast of Australia, and the depravity that ensued. The book is called, coincidentally enough, The Wreck Of The Batavia.

Like an effective conspiracy.

The Republicans' strength as a coalition is that the movers and shakers behind it in the business community have a much more coherent agenda than does the interest-group coalition behind the Democrats. The formula isn't fool proof, and it can hit stumbling blocks every once in a while like a recession (1992) or a badly misfiring war (2006), but over the long run if you think of the modern Republican Party as an organized conspiracy for the purposes of concentrating America's wealth and income in the hands of the smallest possible number of people, it's been wildly successful for the past 30 years and we've yet to see any really clear evidence that the basic formula has stopped succeeding.
Matthew Yglesias.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


A new post up at Words, Words, Words on four books about Greece (well, three books about Greece and one inspired by Herodotus): Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani, Lawrence Durrell's Prospero's Cell and Reflections On A Marine Venus, and Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus. Links to excerpts, too.

Posting will be light for at least a few days....

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Capital I.

Apparently it's a YouTube morning. Sesame Street has had some strange stuff going on. This clip helps explains how the Keebler elves got started in show business.

How to make Swedish donuts.

"It's a quagmire."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Words, words, words.

I fell far behind on the book blog, but now there's a new post up on fifteen of the books I've read lately. I'm not caught up -- more soon.

There'll always be an England.

Alex Massie notes that Phil Drabble has passed away.

Phil Drabble, who died on Sunday aged 93, came to fame presenting BBC2's sheepdog trials programme One Man and His Dog, a series based upon the guaranteed stupidity of sheep.

If ever a voice were built for sheepdog trials it was Drabble's, once described as "soft as country rain, as right for the world of five-bar gates and grass-chewing as John Arlott's was for cricket". The programme, which Drabble presented for 17 years from 1975, became a surprise hit, attracting peak-time audiences of six million and making Drabble, with his tweeds and flat cap, a cult hero.

The sound of him exclaiming during a particularly slow sheep drive, "Oh noo, they're startin' ter graze. That'll be points off fer sure" was balm for the stressed-out urban soul.

Drabble had opinions to match the Rustic Character image. He freely admitted that he would be happy to conduct his own cull of ramblers ("the woolly-hat brigade"); of feminists who complained about One Man; shooting syndicates ("the Rolls-Royce and runny nose brigade"); town hall "minicrats"; and the Ministry of Agriculture ("monumental incompetents").

He naturally deplored "unnatural practices" in sexual behaviour, explaining nostalgically that: "I was raised in a generation when sodomy was a crime and homosexuals were socially ostracised."

But those who imagined that Drabble was a countryman born and bred were mistaken. For his origins were more dark and satanic than green and pleasant.

The son of a doctor, Philip Percy Cooper Drabble was born on May 13 1914 at Bloxwich in the Black Country of Staffordshire. His forebears owned a stone quarry at Darley Dale in Derbyshire and were therefore responsible, as he admitted, for "tearing the heart out of what is now the Peak National Park".

He recalled, as a toddler, being carried out to watch a Zeppelin raid on Walsall which killed the mayoress. It was said that as the unfortunate victim was a "Hun" by birth, "justice was seen to be done".

Phil's childhood was spent among derelict sites left over by the industrial revolution, catching newts, butterflies and beetles in the "swags" (mining subsidence pools) and "pitbonks" (spoil heaps) of the Black Country. After his mother died, when he was nine, he suffered badly from nervousness and found solace by sneaking out of his Edgbaston prep school at night and wandering in the school grounds.

He hated Bromsgrove School, where he distinguished himself by being the first boy to receive a flogging of more than six strokes from a headmaster famed for his ability to draw blood with four. He had to report to the school matron for two weeks to have his wounds dressed, although he took his revenge in his last term by putting itching powder on the seat of the headmaster's lavatory.

His only happy memories were of trips into the countryside with the school's natural history society and his own freelance ratting expeditions with the school dog. In school holidays he spentmuch of his time out with a local ratcatcher or rabbiting with the keeper on a local estate.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Warriors and soldiers.

West Point, New York, 1999: Summer at West Point is a curious time. It is when the academic side of the United States Military (call that Athens) comes the closest to becoming Sparta. The rising sophomores, known as "Yucks" in West Point slang, return to the Academy after just a few short weeks away from its granite walls. While their peers are back at home, unwinding from their first year of college, the Yucks shoulder their packs and move out to the training areas which stretch out for miles behind the main campus.

Over the course of the next several weeks they learn the rudimentary basics of the tactics of professional soldiers. Their erstwhile professors of English and mathematics and yes, history, will be their instructors in the Art of War, because at this place, those academic professors with their MAs and Ph.D.s are also often Airborne Rangers as well. The whole shebang is coordinated by the Tactics Department. In 1999 the officer most directly responsible for this training was a man I will call "Colonel Hank."

"Warriors! Come over here!" Colonel Hank shouted to get the attention of a passing squad of cadets before he passed on his next nugget. "Warriors! I want you to understand ..." This was normal for Colonel Hank. He believed in the word, in the idea, that we were training these young men and women to be "warriors" for the nation. Hank, I should note, comes from my own sub-sub-culture.

One can generally accept the idea that the military, as a whole, can be seen a something slightly apart from the greater population of the nation. This is particularly true since the end of the draft in 1973, which means that it is an entirely self-selecting group. From there it is not a long leap to see that the culture of each of the services is distinct as a subculture of America as well. If these things are true, then we in the Infantry are generally acknowledged to be in an entirely different class altogether, a sub-subculture. There are a few other groups within the "Combat Arms," such as the tankers of the Armor branch, and the pilots of our helicopters, but generally speaking the Infantry generates the most ardent types. Hank and I were products of competing influences within that subculture, and his use of the word "Warrior" grated on my ears. At the time, however, he outranked me by a wide margin.

The problem is that, to my ears, "Warrior" means an individual combatant, one who is motivated by visions of personal honor, group honor, and national honor. I come at the issue from the opposite extreme, believing that the highest appellation one may bestow is that of "Soldier." A soldier is a part of a collective body, fighting with professional discipline, towards an objective which is greater than himself. His motivation, in combat, stems from the team. ("Enlistment motivation" is an entirely different issue, and comes from the larger society, not the military.) In short, he fights not for himself, but for his buddies.

Lt. Col. Bob Bateman.

Don't cook with the good stuff -- drink it.

. . . Raymond Blanc has strong views on what wines work in the kitchen. "It's actually a myth that the most expensive wine is the best ingredient for a particular dish because almost always a cheaper wine will be the better option," says Blanc. "I have done a lot of blind tastings on this, including using some very expensive red and white burgundies such as a Montrachet and a Gevrey-Chambertin. And what I have generally found is that the higher you go in wine quality, the less you recognise the wine in the food. In my view, it is completely counterproductive to use great wines in a jus, sauce or marinade.

"For instance, I have cooked coq au vin with the Gevrey-Chambertin and also with a fruity, deep-coloured Cabernet Syrah vin de Pays d'Oc retailing for just £6," Blanc continues. "The coq au vin with the burgundy was OK but the marinade didn't particularly work and the flavour was merely mild and a bit one-dimensional. In contrast, the dish made with the Cabernet Syrah was fantastically rich and layered with real intensity of flavour."

[Chef John] Campbell also argues against the mantra that fine wines necessarily make the best ingredients. "It's actually about choosing the right varietal wine, with the right amount of fruit and tannin for the dish you are cooking. I could cook the same dish with a £20 wine and a £2,000 wine and I'd defy anyone to taste the difference.

"Generally, though, I wouldn't use a wine that costs more than £15-£20. That's my personal price limit when it comes to cooking -- though I have to admit that last Christmas I cooked a lovely braised shin with a third of a bottle of Château Lascombes that I had left over, which was absolutely stunning. But I think that it was the way I cooked it that made it beautiful."

Others, though, have had much less happy experiences when cooking with cru classe claret. Last year, the food and wine matching specialist Fiona Beckett conducted a similar experiment for Decanter magazine using the "super second" Léoville-Las Cases 2001 (retail price £71 a bottle from Berry Bros & Rudd). Beckett, who is the author of Cooking with Wine (£8.99, Ryland, Peters & Small), decided to make a simple entrecôte marchand de vin (with a reduced red wine sauce) for her experiment. "I cooked the steak and set it aside to rest. I sweated off a couple of shallots, poured in a small glass of Las Cases and reduced it by roughly two thirds. I whisked in a bit of soft butter, seasoned it with salt and pepper and poured the steak juices back into the pan. Then I taste it . . .

"It was one of the worst sauces I've ever made," she observed. "The reduction process completely de-natured the wine, accentuating the tannins and completely stripping the fruit." Beckett's conclusion was that this was in every way the wrong kind of wine to cook this dish with. "The wine was too young, too tannic, too concentrated." Her view was that she would have been much better off (financially and gastronomically) had she used a much less complex but nonetheless robust and fruity southern French red.

"My advice is that it's worth using a good wine in your cooking, but not a great one. I would go up to £20 a bottle, depending on the dish, but not much further," she says.
John Stimpfig, "Reduced To Tears," How To Spend It 11, 12 (August 2007).

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A rough arrival in New Holland.

[M]ystery long surrounded the fate of the Zuytdorp. She had left the Cape of Good Hope in 1712, bound for Batavia, and then vanished until, two centuries later, in 1927, an Australian stockman found on a clifftop various objects worn by age and eaten up by rust, but still clearly identifiable: they had belonged to the crew of the lost ship. Some time afterwards, divers discovered what remained of the wreck in the reefs below. It was clear that a group of castaways had managed to climb the cliff and survived for quite a while in this barren spot. Were they perhaps adopted by local Aborigines? One of these tribes shows genetic features that can only be explained, it is said, by contact with Dutch blood.
Simon Leys, The Wreck Of The Batavia: A True Story 5-6 (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

I-35 II.

Michael O'Hare, here, has the most interesting discussion of the engineering issues implicated by the bridge collapse that I've seen yet (although it's not like I've spent hours looking -- if there are other good ones, I'd appreciate a tip in the comments). Among many other things, he says:
I will make the conjecture that the bridge deck was calculated as a composite top chord of the trusses and failed in tension over the supports. If this is true, the deck repair may well have been a contributing cause of the failure.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Long way from the pond.

Long way from the pond
Robert Jackson [36" by 24" oil on canvas]

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


We know enough about capitalism to know that there is no separating ownership and control.
The Wall St. Journal's editors.
[T]he "two-class" shareholding structure that undergirds America's three best newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal) was explicitly designed to permit decisions to be made for non-economic reasons. If you want management to concentrate strictly on raising the share price, you don't need any special ownership structure. Financial markets will insist on that anyway. The only justification for "Class B" shares giving special voting power to the Sulzberger family at the Times, the Graham family at the Post, and the Bancroft family at the Journal is the assumption that the families will weigh other factors in deciding how the news operation should be run.
James Fallows. Fallows' post is excellent, if now moot -- read it all anyway.


The Star-Tribune has a photo gallery here.

eta: Here's a blog's-eye view.

Sun Dirt Water.

The Waifs have a new single out, which you can listen to on their MySpace page.

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