Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Salsa Connoisseur: Trader Jose's "Salsa Autentica"

Think back to the most authentic Mexican restaurant you've ever been to. The one with the least English on the menu, or the loudest telenovela blaring from the TVs at lunch time, or the most actual Mexicans eating there with their families. Remember the salsa that the kindly old woman brought out from the kitchen? Was it some gloppy concoction of beans and corn? Probably not. More likely, it was a simple mixture of tomato, chile, onion, and not much else.

Trader Joe's (or, rather, Trader Jose's) has tried to replicate that, and they've done a pretty darn good job. One thing that you notice immediately about the salsa is its down-to-earth packaging: clear cylindrical jar; yellow top; white, black, and red label. And it tastes good too.

Texture: very good overall. Consistency is smooth and fluid; chunks of tomato and vegetables are small to nonexistent. Thickness is slightly thicker than water. Pours well.

Heat: starts off unassuming and builds to a reasonable heat in a few seconds. Trader Jose describes this as a 5 on an 8-point heat scale, which might be a little much--I'd be more inclined to put it at 4. No argument that it's a solidly "medium" heat salsa.

Flavor: unassuming, tangy, slightly generic tomato sauce flavor at first. Heat and chile flavor builds soon and is the highlight of the taste. Subtle earthy or "harvest" aftertaste. This salsa has only five ingredients: tomatoes, chiles, vinegar, salt, and spices, and that works in its favor.

Available at Trader Joe's; $1.69 buys you a 12-oz bottle (14.1 cents per ounce), which is really pretty cheap.

Definitely recommended, especially for a simple, basic, and cheap salsa that's really tasty. Also good if you don't like a garlicky salsa or an overly onion-y salsa.

Currently listening: "Summersong", the Decemberists

The Salsa Connoisseur: Introduction

If you've ever looked into wine appreciation, then you might agree with me that it's a hotbed of pretension. Terms like "bouquet" and "nose", flavors like "leather" and "tobacco", and phrases like "antithetical to the passion" abound. And recently, this sort of thing isn't even limited to wine--you can see it in other alcoholic beverages (whiskies and microbrew beers are popular), non-alcoholic beverages (coffee), and foodstuffs (often cheese and chocolate).

So if you can take a critical, almost artistic approach to describing everything else you can eat and drink, why not salsa? I'm a huge fan of the "sauce/condiment" category in general, and salsa is among my favorite ones of those. Over the last several years, I've sampled probably dozens of different kinds, and I've identified three qualities that make a salsa good.

First, the perfect salsa is uniform and has well-distributed ingredients. In general, that means I prefer fluid salsas to chunkier ones. I like my tomato to be blended into the salsa--the base for the salsa, if you will--and pieces of tomato should be small to negligible. The perfect salsa should be more viscous than water but never syrupy.

Second, the perfect salsa balances heat with flavor. A salsa should never sacrifice tasting good to get more tongue-scorching power. That said, it should always be spicy enough to convince me that I'm eating a salsa rather than a "dip" or "sauce". In general, this means I prefer salsas in the "medium" to "hot" range, but I'm okay with "ridiculous" as long as it still tastes like something.

Third, the perfect salsa uses sensible, quality ingredients. Salsas today have all sorts of bizarre, eye-catching ingredients, but they can cross over into "gimmicky" really easily. That means I prefer a salsa that has generic but high-quality ingredients to one that tries to throw in fruit but ends up muddling the salsa flavor. And never, ever add sugar.

In what I hope becomes a semi-regular feature in Isoceleria, the salsa connoisseur will review various salsas and treat them to pretentious wine-style reviews in a manner that's only halfway tongue-in-cheek. Look forward to the premiere installment, "Trader Joe's Salsa Autentica", coming soon.

Currently listening: "The Fisherman Song", Mae

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cell Phones on TV: Seinfeld and Harper's Island

There's no question that "The Bubble Boy" is one of the all-time great Seinfeld episodes. Of course, everyone remembers it for the titular Donald, his struggles with George, and George's insistence that the "Moops" actually invaded Spain in the 8th century.

Then there's the Ross family cabin, which every Seinfeld fan knows burns down at some point, but how many Seinfeld fans remember it happened in "The Bubble Boy"? And then there are subplots, minor character details that aren't easy to remember but are hilarious: Jerry's obsession with making his messages on his autographed pictures funny. George's obsession with "making good time". Kramer's obsession with pies.

But I couldn't help think of something as I watched this episode last week. The entire premise of this episode's humor just disappears if Seinfeld were being aired just a decade or two later. "The Bubble Boy" first aired in 1992. But pretend it's 2002, a mere 10 years later, instead. Now, when George speeds ahead of Jerry on the way to the Bubble Boy's house, Jerry can simply pick up his cell phone, call George, and ask him for the directions to the house.

To extrapolate further, what if the episode aired in 2007, fifteen years after it actually did? In that case, Jerry probably would have had a GPS that he could simply program the address into, eliminating the need to call George at all. And if it were 2012, twenty years later, presumably someone would have had a smartphone: type the address into the phone at the restaurant, click the address once you got into the car, and you only need one device instead of two. (By 2012, maybe smartphones will have the capacity for vocalized, real-time updating, turn-by-turn directions, like legit GPS does.)

Then it occurred to me: hasn't someone already covered this, making a list of all the Seinfeld episodes that just get about half as funny if all the central characters had cell phones? I can't find that list, so if anyone knows if/where it exists, please let me know. The closest thing I found is a compilation of why Seinfeld doesn't work with the iPhone. It's a good read, though it's far from comprehensive--"The Dinner Party" (aka the babka episode) immediately comes to mind as an omission, as does just about every episode involving an airport.

The point, though, is a solid one. It took only 10 years to develop a technology that completely changes the comedic landscape of the series. It's taken less than 20 to improve that technology so much that it offers not one, but two or three or more ways around most of its otherwise-funny stumbling blocks.

Another show that has a touchy relationship with cell phones is Harper's Island, a midsummer murder mystery that I've been sucked into lately thanks to one Alex Harkey. I'll talk more about the show in a few weeks, once it's run its course, but for now I'd like to talk about how cell phones change that show.

One of the necessary conceits for any murder mystery involves getting the victims alone for long enough for the murderer to do his dirty work. Of course this in turn involves having the characters "split up", whether it's to do a scavenger hunt, or to traipse off into the woods for whatever reason, or to look for a missing child. One way that characters have been isolated from each other in Harper's Island is through a number of old hunting traps--snares, pits, etc.

At some point, though, if you're caught in a snare and hanging upside down by your foot, aren't you going to pull out your cell phone? Call someone else on the island and say "hey, I was walking alone in the woods--stupid, I know--and I got caught in this trap. You want to come help me?" Harper's Island skirts this issue by explaining that "most of the island doesn't get good reception."

For now, in 2009, we're willing to buy that reasoning. If it were ten years ago, in 1999, it would be especially valid, and there might even be some characters that simply didn't have them. Twenty years ago, 1989, cell phones would have been entirely unknown. What about in 2019, or 2029? I'd bet that twenty years from now, phone technology will have advanced so much that service will be nearly ubiquitous, and that the "bad reception" argument won't carry any water at all.

Currently listening: "Strawberry Fields Forever", the Beatles

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mae: The (M)orning EP

Mae's current project is a completely different mode of song writing, production, and distribution than the traditional EP/full-length record/single we're used to. The gist is this: one song a month, which you can listen to for free on the website, then buy for a dollar. Three times this year--in the (m)orning, the (a)fternoon, and the (e)vening (ie, spring, summer, and fall)--the songs will be compiled onto an EP, along with a bit of extra material.

The other cool thing is that the proceeds from these music sales are donated to causes. And happily they're not political causes, which Mae must have identified as being far too divisive to drive sales. They're causes that actually do good things, like Habitat for Humanity and textbooks for children.

If all this sounds like it might have been an "apology tour" for Singularity, you're not the only one thinking that.

The place where Mae succeeds the most on (M)orning is in its evocation of a mood. The morning is related to hope, awakening, and--probably most importantly to the band--rebirth. We're reminded of those motifs constantly throughout the EP, not only lyrically but aurally, when birds start chirping at every turn.

Those birds are more pleasant than they might seem at first, but the album does teeter on the edge of "gimmicky" through gapless playback and weird sound effects that often end the tracks. But if that's the album's greatest flaw--and it is on (M)orning--then things could be a lot worse.

Mae combines music that sounds like it could have been at home on Singularity in the first two "monthly" tracks, "The House That Fire Built" and "Boomerang"--though they're both a lot better than just about anything from Singularity. "A Melody, The Memory" and "Night/Day" are classic Mae, combining Destination: Beautiful and Everglow cues. "Two Birds" is a curious flute-laden instrumental track that would have been out of place on any of the earlier albums, but inexplicably works in the middle of the morning.

But the track that I'm most excited about, especially if it represents a new direction for Mae, is "The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)". Right away, it recalls the Beatles ("All You Need is Love") in its title, and that's never a bad thing. It starts off innocently enough with acoustic guitars that provide background to a musician struggling at night to write a song. As the song progresses, the man meets a (possibly crazy) fisherman who gives him some jumpy punk rock inspiration. And finally, in the epic-electric guitar finale, he finishes his song, presumably right as the sun rises ("when the light came on").

I think this is a song that you can interpret however you need to, in the vein of the best of the songs from The Everglow. You can just listen to it as a story, or it can be a metaphor about reaching out and helping people, simply because it's the right thing to do. Or, if you're spiritually-minded, I think this works as a song about Jesus too. The choice of the mysterious inspirational figure as a fisherman I don't think is random. Neither is the fact that he extols the virtues of "faith" and "hope" before declaring "the greatest of these is love."

That's a message that echoes throughout the EP: "we all need love." It's an exultantly positive message, which we Mae fans all needed after Singularity. Is this new EP better than The Everglow? Even as "close to as good as" The Everglow? Probably not. But it's nearly as good as Destination: Beautiful, and more importantly, it's a positive direction for Mae's music, one that should leave fans optimistically awaiting the (A)fternoon.

Currently listening: "Here Comes the Sun", the Beatles

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Thoughts on the Plus/Minus Grading Scheme

Before last Wednesday's Decemberists concert, I talked with my friend Patrick and some of his friends about how their education was going at that mortal and ancient enemy of mine, the University of Georgia.

One topic that came up--and it's come up in conversations with people from other schools, too--is the "plus/minus" grading scale. It's my opinion that the plus/minus system is only moderately beneficial in some cases, but that benefit is far outweighed by prohibitive flaws at both extremes of the scale.

Let's take a student, Steven. He's a good student who does well most of the time, never outright excelling, but never failing either. In a recent semester, Steven took four classes, and he got a B in each one. In two of the classes, he was right in the meat of the "B" part of the curve. In the third, he never really understood one of the units of the class, and he was lucky to scrape by with a B. And in the fourth, he really got into the class and participated a lot, but based on his test scores, the professor couldn't in good conscience give him an A.

Assuming these four classes are equally weighted toward his GPA, he's got a 3.0. Now, what if the plus/minus system were introduced?

The first two classes, Steven would still have B's. In the third, the professor wouldn't want to give him a C, but seeing his poor performance on one third of the class, he feels completely justified in giving a B-. And in the last class, though the professor couldn't justify an A, Steven's enthusiasm might push him up to a B+. So, with the additional assumption that the "plus" is as "positive" as the "minus" is "negative", Steven's GPA is still 3.0.

A supporter of the system would argue that this is exactly why the system is good. There's no net movement up or down, and it gives an outside observer an understanding of Steven's accomplishments that's both more precise and more accurate than the standard A/B/C/D/F system.

But what about shifting all those grades up one letter? Take Leon, who really does excel in most all of his classes. He also took four classes last semester. Leon rode the top of the curve in two of them, getting a solid A in each. He fell a little behind in this third, and after a rough final performance, was lucky to keep his perfect semester intact. In the fourth class, though, Leon didn't merely ride the top of the curve--he was "that guy" that ruined it for the rest of the class.

Obviously, on the standard scale, Leon has himself a 4.0. What about with plus/minus? First two classes, Leon's secure with his A's. In the third class, though, the professor might punish the less-than-stellar finals performance with an A-. But what about the fourth? No matter how much the professor might want to give our man Leon an A+, the A+ does not exist in most conceptions of the plus/minus system.

Steven's grades were normally distributed about "B", so under either grading system, his GPA was 3.0. But even though Leon's grades are normally distributed about "A", when pluses and minuses are added, his GPA drops to 3.925. Therefore, for students at the top of the grade scale, the net effect on GPA is neutral at best and negative at worst.

Now let's take the grades in the other direction. Ronald hasn't been doing particularly well--he got C's in his four classes. We'll say those C's were in the same manner as Steven's B's and Leon's A's--that is, two "middle C's", one "high C", and one "low C/borderline D". His GPA is 2.0 under the standard system. And, because Ronald's grades are normally distributed about "C", and because C+ and C- both exist, his GPA is still 2.0 under plus/minus.

But the fact that C- represents a 1.7 might raise some issues. For instance, what if that C- were in a major class? Most majors require a certain GPA in their major in addition to a certain overall GPA. That 1.7 could have detrimental effects on the major GPA a lot more than a 2.0 could--particularly because 2.0 is a favorite cutoff mark for "passing" versus "not".

For most students, plus/minus doesn't hurt or help more than a tiny fraction of a point. However, it does have the potential to significantly harm GPA of students at the top of the scale (because of the lack of an A+) and students on the brink of passing (because the C- hurts significantly more than the C+ helps).

Is there another argument in favor of plus/minus that I'm missing? Does anyone think it's justified despite these weaknesses?

Currently listening: Handel on the Law (in handy podcast form)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Hazards of Love, Live

If you're a Decemberists fan, like the new album and have a chance to catch the Hazards of Love tour, by all means do. The format is this: Hazards of Love in its entirety, about twenty minutes' (well-deserved) break for the band, and then roughly an hour of old music too.

I've been a big, big supporter of Hazards of Love since I first heard it, but after hearing this concert, I don't know how you could dislike the album. Most of what I said in my review of the album still stands, with a few new observations.

The band does a wonderful job, as it always does in concert. Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond, who plays the role of Margaret) is excellent. But it's Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond, who plays the role of the Queen) who really steals the show with her stage antics. Excellently cast.

Colin Meloy and Shara Worden, my new favorite person. Who knew the brooding, villainous Forest Queen was so short and cute?

Listening to the album by itself, I've been finding it easier and easier to stop listening after "Annan Water", because the songs seem to get less exciting after that. But remembering the theatrical conceit, of course the songs should get less exciting after "The Crossing", which is the climax of the story. (Specifically, I think it's the cool rock organ/electric guitar bit that really seems like a sonic destination for the album.) Seeing the whole production live, those songs become not only necessary but narratively interesting.

Because the framework of the album is more theater than pop record, this is a collection of songs that really does improve when you see it live. We get scenery, costuming, lighting effects. To carry out the stage performance a few steps further, it might have been cool to do some scene changes--though the background pulled off both "forest" (with green lighting) and "river" (with blue lighting).

This probably strains the upper limit of feasibility, but how about recasting the entire staging to put the band in a pit, orchestra-style? Obviously, the point of the pit is to hide the orchestra, and the point of a live concert is to watch the band. I'm not advocating covering up the band, but maybe there's a spatial organization that creates visual distinction between the "actors" (Colin Meloy and/or Shara Worden and/or Becky Stark, depending on who's important at the time) and the "band" (John Moen, Chris Funk, Nate Query, Jenny Conlee).

And as long as we're going over the top anyway, how about live fireflies?

The rest of the show promised a "tidy selection" of old material, but we ended up with as much material is in Hazards of Love--not that that's a bad thing by any means! The general aim seemed to be to hit a highlight or two from each old album.

If I were momentarily in charge of picking the Decemberists' set list, and I knew that the goal was two songs from The Crane Wife, I certainly wouldn't have picked "O Valencia!" and "Shankhill Butchers". Personally, I'm partial to "The Island", but since that's stylistically very similar to The Hazards of Love, I can understand the not wanting to play it. That restriction probably rules out and of the "Crane Wife" cycle too.

With those constraints in mind, the obvious next choice is "Yankee Bayonet". It's not a song that's easy to perform on tour--you absolutely need a female vocalist to cover the duet part, or the song doesn't work at all. On this tour, though, we have not one but two talented female vocalists, so the Decemberists could have taken their pick--or used them both. I also like "Summersong" a lot, but that one never seemed to catch on with the general fan base as much as I think it should have. Failing "Summersong", I guess "O Valencia!" is an acceptable substitute. I never really got into "Shankhill Butchers", though. I think it's too much buildup, too much brooding tension, and no payoff.

On the other hand, if I had to pick two songs from Picaresque, "The Engine Driver" and "16 Military Wives" would have been up there on my list as well as the Decemberists'. I don't agree with putting politics into music in almost any case, but damned if the Decemberists don't make "16 Military Wives" fun to sing in person. They probably do the "pit halves of the audience against each other" during the "la di dah" bit of the chorus at every show... and it never gets less awesome. (Do they ever perform "The Infanta" on tour? It was the first Decemberists song I heard and still among my favorites.)

The crowd's tepid response to "Raincoat Song" showed how few people payed attention to Always the Bridesmaid. It was pleasant if not particularly memorable. I was surprised to hear "Shiny", which has been around for something like nine years now, and I get the idea it's not oft-performed on tour. Probably the Decemberists just seized the opportunity of "well, we have this steel guitar around, so let's do something with it." I sort of psyched myself into thinking we'd get "California One" too, as long as the steel guitar was just sitting there, but no such luck.

"July, July!" is still one of the most fun songs the Decemberists do, so I was glad to see it show up. "The Bachelor and the Bride" is still not my favorite song, but at least it sounded good. And I wonder if they end most shows with "A Cautionary Song", or if they just coincidentally did at both of the shows I've been to? Those two accordion chords are a darn fine way to end a show.

One thing that absolutely deserves mention is the Decemberists' improv theater. You've got Colin Meloy on stage, backed up by Jenny Conlee on accordion and Nate Query on bass. Chris Funk, John Moen, Shara Worden, and Becky Stark are standing in front of the stage, and Colin Meloy starts making up a story about trains and gypsies. In true "Whose Line" style, the actors and the music change in time with what Meloy calls out. The result is something profoundly entertaining and something that gives further proof--as if we needed it--as to the Decemberists' artistic mastery.

Currently listening: "Don't Bring Me Down", Electric Light Orchestra

Monday, June 01, 2009

Response to xkcd 588

I'm not really sure about all this discussion going about this comic on at the forum. Like almost everyone there, when I was in high school, I saw pep rallies as a colossal waste of time. But I never found them as particularly offensive either, which seems to be a minority viewpoint among the xkcd fans.

In the comic, Randall suggests that pep rallies are actually a vehicle of hatred, and at least a plurality of xkcd fans enthusiastically support this notion, with the argument culminating in one poster describing pep rallies as an "Orwellian channeling" of hatred. But I think anyone who thinks that the point of a pep rally is to encourage "hating the other school" is missing the point of the pep rally. Opposition to the "other" school is merely the most convenient commonality shared by all the students of the "one" school.

So if the pep rally isn't designed to foster hate of the other school, what is the point of the pep rally? I'd say it's much more about having pride in your own school. It's about community and finding common ground. That's something a sociologist might describe as a "solidarity ritual". What happens in the "ritual" (ie, the apparent hatred of another school) isn't nearly as important as what happens to the participants of the "ritual". In a pep rally, that effect is to achieve some sort of unity with their peers.

The comic itself raises the issue that school district assignment is not by choice, that it's essentially an arbitrary grouping based on where you live. An earlier poster expanded on that argument, saying that having pride in one's high school might make more sense if you'd chosen your high school based on some distinguishing characteristic. It's true that high schools, unlike colleges and corporations and nations, do not--and cannot--distinguish themselves from peer institutions through philosophical or operational differences. But that is not a reason that you shouldn't be able, and encouraged, to take pride in your school.

This comic, and the discussion it's spawned, touches on two important points about the American educational system. The first is that primary and secondary (and to a lesser extent, post-secondary) education is designed not only to educate, but also to socialize. It's an important mission of the school system that much of the fact-oriented, left-brainy xkcd community either doesn't recognize or has chosen to ignore. Once you do reach an organization that you want to have pride in--be that a college or corporation or anything else--these pep rallies have given you a social education that has enabled you to have that pride.

The second issue is the often-fractious nature of high school social grouping. Virtually everyone in our society has been in high school at some point, and yet there are wildly diverging opinions about whether the "Saved By The Bell" depiction of high school social structure is accurate or not. Many of the comments on this comic were not actually comments on pep rallies. Instead, they were used to dovetail into complaints about the high school social order, for example, "these cheerleaders would in real life never talk to me since I was a huge nerd, why should I listen to these people who treat me and the majority of the rest of the students poorly?" These complaints are worth hearing and probably valid, but here they only serve to confuse the issue.

What about those jocks, though? Aren't they the most likely people to develop a genuine hatred of another school through a pep rally? Maybe they are, and I'd argue that they're missing the point of the pep rally as well. But pep rallies are not--nor are they designed to be--"Orwellian". They're not "tribalism", nor a conspiracy to divert discontent away from your own school's administration. They're certainly neither "creepy" nor "fascist". They're a legitimate and necessary function of secondary education. And for students who actually try to get something out of them, they can be valuable ways to build some connections with peers and pride in the local community.

Besides, who didn't like getting out of class for an hour?

Currently listening: "The Next Episode", Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg