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Mostly Music

Nov. 6th, 2010 | 01:04 pm

I've opened up a new blog to post (mostly popular) music reviews. It's called Grace Note Bend. The first few entries probably won't be very good, but I hope my writing improves over time.

In other news, I'm routinely frightened by how much information I have to store in my head. It's happened in the past that I've put certain thoughts on hold, meaning to return to them some other time; only to discover their remnants years later on scraps of paper, and then trying to piece them together with little success. So much in my life, from remembering all my passwords to just knowing what things I own and where they are, reside entirely in my head, and walking away from it all for a few weeks would result in my present life collapsing completely. Scary thought.

In other other news, I've been thinking a bit about popular songs with good lyrics. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to my friend that I didn't like many modern rock bands' overly cryptic lyrics, and she asked me what lyrics I did like. At the time, I sheepishly answered Bob Dylan, even though he's definitely not one of my favorites. Having thought it over a little more, I have a couple of better answers:
  •  The Magnetic Fields (Stephin Merritt) — Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin: For a band with consisently amateur performances, these folks have some very clever poetry at times.
  • Don McLean — Vincent (Starry, Starry Night): One of my favorite songs, both in terms of the lyrics and music. Routinely brings tears to my eyes. "And when no hope was left in sight / On that starry, starry night / You took your life, as lovers often do"
  • Elbow — Powder Blue: Depicts two drug addicts in love without spelling it out explicitly. Gets across the feeling very well.
  • Sufjan Stevens — Casimir Pulaski Day: Sufjan Stevens isn't one of my favorite artists, but I can't deny his lyrical prowess. This song is at once incredibly sad (to the point where I often skip it) and beautifully written.
  • Sufjan Stevens — Decatur: I couldn't help but include two songs by Sufjan here. A joyous, stream-of-consciousness recollection of the history of Decateur, Illionois. "Steven A. Douglas was a great debater / But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator"
  • The Beatles — Rocky Raccoon: The Beatles occasionally have some great lyrics. This song is one of the few rock ballads I can stand, lyrically speaking. "Gideon checked out / And he left it no doubt / To help with good Rocky's revival"
  • Rush (Neil Peart) — Bastille Day: Neil writes some very good poetry. Even though I've heard only a few songs by Rush, I already respect his songwriting immensely. "The king will kneel / And let his kingdom rise"
  • Joni Mitchell — The Last Time I Saw Richard: Honestly, I'm not sure if it's the lyrics or the music that does it for me, but it's almost a poetry recitation more than it is a song, so whatever. I love how Joni sounds like she doesn't believe the last stanza when she sings it. Very touching.
I'll post about why the lyrics are good on Grace Note Bend at some point.

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Dear LiveJournal...

Oct. 8th, 2010 | 04:33 am
location: Mountain View, CA
mood: giddygiddy

Dear LiveJournal,

It's true that our relationship has been somewhat strained as of late. I know, I know, the blame lies entirely on me: I constantly make eager promises to stay in touch, but never actually put in the effort to write anything. I don't hate you, LiveJournal. I'm just a flake.

So without further ado, here is a picture of me getting mauled by a bear.


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Sep. 23rd, 2010 | 02:12 am
location: Mountain View, CA
music: Rob the Prez-o-Dent

It's been too long.

I sometimes feel like one of those old hand-cranked cars. Every few weeks, I snap out of my perpetual lethargic daze and tell myself that it's time to put some serious effort into my aspirations, only to have everything sputter and wind down after a bit of half-hearted effort. Well, no more: I'm off the rails that have been guiding my life for the past two decades, and the edge of the cliff is fast approaching. It's time to finally kick this scrapheap into action, for realz, before I go tumbling off.

Let's see if I can start by actually keeping a steady writing schedule. After all, there's no better way to parse new ideas than by writing about them!


i liek petit basque cheese

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Belgian Liège Waffles

Nov. 12th, 2009 | 04:12 pm
location: Ridge House, Berkeley, CA

I have created Belgian Liège waffles. They're made from leavened dough and studded with pearl sugar, which caramelizes on the outside.

Belgian Liège Waffles

Belgian Liège Waffles

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(no subject)

Nov. 7th, 2009 | 03:06 am

On August 20th, I moved into a Berkeley co-op, Ridge House. In case you're not familiar, a co-op residence (at least in Berkeley) is a giant house that a bunch of people purchase a share in, resulting in low rent and other benefits. Ours is an old Tudor-style mansion on a hill overlooking the campus. It's full of dark hallways and hidden nooks, with walls covered in long-forgotten posters and doodles. The DIY fixes and additions that have accumulated over the years form an endearing patchwork over the house's original design. There's a waist-sized window exit to the roof, nominally discouraged, but with an apologetically removed bug shield and a footstool placed in front of it. The feeling is that of a forest coming to life shortly after a fire, a house with a life and history beyond the knowledge its inhabitants. I think that's when you know a house is a good house.

We have to do 5 hours of work for the house each week, as well as miscellaneous stuff like 2 hours of house improvement.

The awesome pantry includes fresh organic produce, every spice you can imagine, dried fruits and nuts, canned goods, flours and sugars, dairy products, fresh herbs, and Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips. Just a day after I moved in, we got about 8 potato sacks full of artisan bread -- so much that we could only fit half of them in the freezer. (We now get Noah's bagels in addition.) This place is culinary heaven, and I've been having a lot of fun perfecting comfort food recipes like macaroni and cheese (with real, roux-based cheese sauce) and the grilled cheese sandwich. It goes without saying that bakers are prevalent in this house, and we often enjoy sampling each others' recipes. There are 2 assigned dinner cooks for each day of the week except Saturday.

Outisde, bits of the Bay peek out from behind trees and buildings, with the beautiful north- and east-side houses reclining on the softly forested hills. Especially at night, it simply feels cathartic to push myself through the small rooftop window and allow myself to dissapate in the magnificent, overwhelming panorama. Sitting there, I feel for the first time in my life as if the Bay Area, and Berkeley in particular, is an actual living place in the world, blooming with its own culture and history, permeated by the beauty of untamed Californian nature. I guess it takes a dose of the sublime to really learn to love a place.

Most importantly, after 2 years of doing my own thing, I finally got to meet some people. I've been a terrible introvert for most of my life. Every time I'm in a social situation, I half-heartedly try to mingle at first, but inevitably retreat into my thoughts and bitterly watch everyone else having fun. Then I spend the evening wondering what's wrong with me, since pretty much every other human on the planet has managed to get this stuff down.

This time, I tried to be more outgoing, and it's amazing just how different that mindset is. If you're introverted, you're always thinking about yourself. There is a constant, overwhelming fear that if you don't keep making up stuff to say, the situation will turn awkward, making conversation sort of like a frantic game of hot potato. If you're extroverted, you instead forget yourself, assuming that others will accept you just fine and that the conversation will go well. Any failure does not reflect poorly on you, and mistakes are quickly forgotten. I still find it difficult to do this, but it's gotten better.

To summarize, I love living here.

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(no subject)

Sep. 15th, 2009 | 06:58 pm

Sorry for the lack of updates -- the first four weeks of school have been SUPER-HECTIC.

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(no subject)

Aug. 17th, 2009 | 11:24 pm
location: Mountain View, CA

Shipping fail.

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(no subject)

Aug. 16th, 2009 | 02:16 am
location: Mountain View, CA

* There was a thread on MetaFilter a few days ago where almost everyone was just gushing over Bob Dylan: how wonderful and influential he is, how he's better than most "real" 20th century poets, how everyone should be expected to recognize him on the street, etc. But why? I've listened to a bit of his music, and I guess it's pretty good, but my reaction wasn't even close to this kind of adoration and reverence. Same thing with Radiohead. Am I not getting something? It makes me feel broken.

* Today I made tomato sauce using this recipe. The sauce never really thickened (I think because I let too much juice escape from the tomatoes while seeding them), but after mixing in the spaghetti with a bit of the starchy cooking water (as suggested by this video), it was OMG by far one of the best pasta dishes I've ever eaten. Orders of magnitude better than store-bought sauces.

* Check out this visual account of a dinner at El Bulli, one of the best restaurants in the world. The chef apparently uses the principles of "molecular gastronomy" - basically, science applied to cooking - in order to devise really strange dishes like parmesan glass and memetic peanuts.

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Cooking update!

Aug. 13th, 2009 | 03:54 am
location: Mountain View, CA


Today I made blueberry pie, my very first pie! I used this recipe for the filling and crust. The dough was a bit of a pain to make because I wasn't sure what consistency it needed to be (and also because I dropped my first batch after attempting to balance it on a carton of eggs, resulting in a string of profanities directed at the inconsiderate force of gravity), but other than that the recipe was surprisingly straightforward. Too bad blueberries are so expensive at the farmer's market. I wonder if they're inflating the price, or if it's simply not the right season yet?

Photos!Collapse )

About a week ago, I made these maple syrup scones. They were pretty much perfect, but I'm not sure I like the taste of whole wheat flour. (As the_neon_one succinctly puts it, "too healthy".)

Ever since I had a real chocolate malt at Rogers' in Victoria, BC (which reminds me -- I should really post about my West Coast trip before I forget the details!), I've been trying to make my own at home. All you need to do is take your everyday chocolate milkshake recipe and add a few tablespoons of malted milk powder, which is getting a lot harder to find nowadays. Most connoisseurs apparently order it online, but I managed to find Carnation brand at one of my local chain stores. With bittersweet chocolate ice cream (the Carnation powder is sweetened), it's almost perfect! Too bad old-fashioned soda fountains went out of fashion, because it seems like there's a wide variety of carbonated and blended drinks that have either been reduced to syrup or simply aren't around anymore.

Which reminds me, apparently you can get your own carbonator for pretty cheap. Nearly-free soda, any flavor, any time of the day! Now to find some high-quality syrups -- the popular Torani brand seems to contain a lot of "natural ingredients", which makes me suspicious.

Which further reminds me, I should make my own ginger ale and root beer. No, not the wimpy syrup kind, but the real, yeast-fermented variety. I've also been wanting to learn more about artisan teas, ever since visiting The Tao of Tea in Portland. Bevarages are so great for expanding your pallate!

Tried this mac and cheese recipe a few weeks ago. It was quite good, but as someone on MetaFilter pointed out, "eff this melted-cheese-mixed-into-pasta BS". Real mac and cheese is apparently made with a cheesy béchamel sauce.

Check out this excellent series from CHOW, "You're Doing It All Wrong". Hilarious and educational at the same time!

It's interesting how different many common recipes must have been before the arrival of modern culinary conveniences. For instance, many pie crust recipes specify ice-cold butter and water. I'm guessing this type of crust didn't exist before refrigeration was invented? Here's a question I asked about scone leavening on Ask MetaFilter, which resulted in some fascinating historical discussion. All this makes me want to collect antique recipes, which are a lot more nuanced than most modern recipes I've seen.

On Tuesday, the Berkeley farmer's market had a tomato sampling booth with 32 different flavors. My favorite was a tangy Early Girl. It's easy to forget that even the most basic fruits and vegetables come in tens or even hundreds of different varieties!

All the blogs mentioned above are worth checking out. I'm quite skeptical of social networking recipe sites like All Recipes -- they feel too generic and my results have been accordingly mixed.

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(no subject)

Aug. 8th, 2009 | 03:18 am

In recent years, classical music has taken over my creative thought, to the point where I've been seriously thinking of learning composition. Why not? Most of us would like to become experts in our chosen fields, and what field could be better than one as nebulous yet powerful, as antiquated yet immortal, as classical music? And to be placed in that refined lineage, dating back to the Renaissance masters, through Bach and Handel, to Mozart, Beethoven -- all the way to the present day? What an honor!

And yet, I'm none of those men. I can barely even play the piano. Why even bother?


At around the time Romanticism arrived in Europe (early 1800s), a musical canon started to emerge. Not merely a cannon of preferences, but a canon fueled by the Romantic veneration of the "genius" artist, who, imbued with creative powers beyond human understanding, single-handedly created the defining musical masterpieces of Western civilization. As superstitious as this may sound 200 years later, many Romantic beliefs are still held by classical musicians and audiences, however tempered by the soothing objectivity of the 20th century. Most significantly, we still believe that composition is a mystical affair, reserved only for those with music in their genes.*

For years, this was the only impression of classical music I got. I was constantly reminded how much art, depth, and brilliance was in this music, how incomprehensible it must be to the layman, how there's no accounting for taste -- in short, how much of it I was supposedly missing, for I had absolutely no idea what these people were talking about. So I turned my back to it, letting the "geniuses" and their pretentious groupies have their fun. I only started to enjoy it when I was locked in a room with it, one on one, against my will -- only to discover that it was not at all like they said it would be.

We are able to intuit most arts from an early age, whether we're doodling on notebook paper or writing cheesy poems in English class. Simple though they may be, these early experiments are really the first steps towards exploration and mastery of the given art, if we choose to take them. But classical music is based so much on abstract rules and structures that it's nearly impossible to figure out without an education. We don't even have a vocabulary to talk about it outside of academic circles! Nor can we do much if we're illiterate in music notation, or if we don't how to play an instrument, skills that can take years to develop.

Because of this, most of us never end up studying music to the point where we can freely experiment with it like with those other arts, and grow up without the knowledge that this kind of freedom is even possible. But it is! After two years of "real" musical education, music is finally starting to come together in my head -- which is to say that I've finally, finally learned how to doodle on my staff paper, something that I believed for almost two decades to be impossible. It's not an art for "geniuses", but for those willing to overcome the daunting and obfuscated learning curve, trudging forward even under the heckling gauntlet of naysayers.

Look at jazz. Look at digital art. Look at cinema. Look at any creative medium without this baggage, and you'll see people from all backgrounds, with all levels of natural ability, working hard to master and develop it further, creating worthwhile art in the process. Without the threat of guaranteed failure, creativity thrives.

At the moment, classical music is a field of eugenics. We can change this philosophy, but we must have the balls to stand up to the great composers of the past, to stop belittling ourselves, and to believe that composition is just as attainable as any other art. I agree with Miyazaki's philosophy: everyone who wants to compose should be composing.

* It's certainly the case that many of the great composers were musically gifted, but I suspect there are explanations for this other than the Romantic one. For instance, you really couldn't make money from music unless you were skilled in every aspect of musical craftsmanship, which favored child prodigies. A lack of public musical education is another possible reason, since it was very difficult to study music without an apprenticeship, and teachers often picked children to be their students. We also rarely look at non-canonic composers, even though most of us have never heard anything by them; it's unlikely that all of them were musically gifted, despite having written worthwhile music. Looking back, it's easy to infer that you have to be a "genius" to become a composer, when it may simply have been a historical artifact.

Parts of The Grapes of Wrath very eloquently summarize the sustainable food movement. Interesting that these same ideas were floating around back then!

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