Archive for March, 2012

Nothing Like Life

For some readers his journey will be proof positive of Rick Santorum’s assertion last month that college is too often godless and corrupting. For others, it will be a resounding affirmation of education’s purpose.

Frank Bruni recounts the story of a Catholic classmate’s evolving worldview. Well worth a read.

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Under Their Thumb


Imagine you are young and impressionable, and in love with a rock and roll band. Not just any old band either, but the Greatest Rock And Roll Band In The World™. Imagine that you create a fanzine in your bedroom in your parents house, and actually manage to get a copy to the band. Then imagine they think you seem like a good enough guy and invite you into their inner circle. They make your zine the band’s official newsletter, sent to thousands of fans around the world. You get to follow them around the world. It’s the days before blogging, so in between adventures you have to lay out and publish and distribute these stories, photos, and interviews. And all the while, the band is falling apart at the scenes.

Bill German lived that. I saw him speak last night, promoting his memoir Under Their Thumb. If you’re a Stones fan at all, do yourself a favor and try make it to one of his appearances. If you’re not, go out and buy Exile On Main Street and a bottle of bourbon and listen for a week.

The time period covered by this book is the late 70’s to the early 90’s Stones bios that touch on this period at all tend to focus on the Mick vs. Keef war that went on for most of the 80’s. But there’s a whole story to tell beyond the sniping in the press. It really is an overlooked time period, and Bill comes at it from a very unique perspective.

He was an engaging speaker overflowing with stories. I’m greatly looking forward to reading this book.

How To Make Scrapple

It’s a bit past breakfast, but this will give you time to prepare this for tomorrow.

For those of you not from the greater Philadelphia area (defined as anywhere you can catch a Phillies game on TV on a random night), scrapple is pork parts (don’t ask which) cooked down and mixed with cornmeal and spices, then pan fried. Think of it as ham and grits all mixed together. If you’re a Philly expat, don’t bother having your mom ship some to you. The recipe looks easy enough.

Categories: Uncategorized


People like reading about sex. The earliest stories put down on papyrus had their naughty bits. We still read works by Sappho and other writers from thousands of years ago. Every generation has a scandalous book they can call their own.

What modern media, including the New York Times, has figured is that people especially like reading about people reading about sex.

So this morning they write about the newest bodice ripper to cause a bit of a stir, Fifty Shades Of Grey. Within hours of this story’s publication, the small library my girlfriend works at was overflowing with grandmothers, soccer moms, and sketchy old guys trying to find a copy. This book, which neither had been on a slow burn, had over 200 holds throughout the county system by mid day.

This is pretty run of the mill stuff. Middle America has always loved a bit of titillation. In fact, I think they buried the lede with this paragraph.

“I think it can only get bigger in terms of its success,” Ms. Hoskins said. “One of the things about this is that in the 21st century, women have the ability to read this kind of material without anybody knowing what they’re reading, because they can read them on their iPads and Kindles.”

Books have always been props as much as they were means of entertainment or enlightenment. Many people’s book buying habits had been at least partially formed by being wary of spending too much time in certain sections of the book store. You might want to avoid the looks you would get by reading The Story Of O on the subway. In a society where women are taught that they shouldn’t have a sexuality, especially once they settle down, I imagine it takes a sort of courage to walk up to a checkout counter with a book known primarily for being soft core pornography.

But the world full of e-books changes this. The sordid tome of the week is only a click away. You can read it in the cafeteria next to your schoolmates or coworkers and no one will be the wiser. For some folks, it probably ruins the thrill, but for others it might be freeing. It’ll be interesting to see how anonymous reading changes the best seller lists over the next couple years.

Categories: Pop Culture

Umberto’s Grandma Pie

In more delicious news, Tom Boyles goes to Long Island in search of a Grandma Pie.

“Tom,” he said in his thick New York-Italian accent, “I am going to let you in on a pizza secret that isn’t known outside of New York and Long Island. We’re gonna go to Umberto’s and you are going to try Grandma’s Pizza.”

It’s not exactly true that the Grandma pie is unknown outside of New York and Long Island. I’ve actually been seeing a number of neighborhood slice joints here on the Jersey Shore embracing this style. A small local chain, Gianni’s, has been heavily pushing their version. In Long Branch alone, I can think of 3 places that make a quality Grandma pie, two of which sell it by the slice. I plan on getting some reviews posted in the near future.

As the name implies, this isn’t a new invention. I remember my great Aunt used to make one of these every time she knew the kids were coming up from New Jersey. She would take the squares of pizza out of her refrigerator and put them back together on her baking sheet like a puzzle. Because her eyes weren’t so good, she’d have to lean in very close to the oven to set the temperature. Any one of us could have set it for her, but she insisted on being the generous host.

Even with all the Grandma slices I’ve eaten over the last couple years, I still miss the smell of my Aunt’s kitchen. I miss the very thin layer of cheese she would use, that seemed to fuse with the dough. I miss the garlicky tomato sauce, and the heavy helping of Kraft parmesan she had sprinkled over the whole thing. Food has a strong ability to take you to different moments of your life. I think that, for me, this type of pizza will always bring me back to that formica table on the outskirts of Boston.

This article is a great look a some others who take this style of pizza seriously. There’s even a quick walk through for those who want to try their hand at baking one of these.

It’s interesting that the author states that Umberto’s uses a Sicilian dough, when I’ve always found the crust of a Grandma pie to be closer to a classic NY style that hasn’t been stretched out so much. Proofing the dough in the pan also seems like it’s a key step.

This is a great primer if you plan on experimenting with a few recipes, are curious about a type of pizza you hadn’t tried before, or just want a trip down memory lane.

Why Would Anyone Want To Own Apple Stock?

Apple Inc has roughly more money than most countries. I don’t imagine they have a Scrooge McDuck style Money Bin. It’s probably all numbers on a ledger somewhere. But suffice it to say that the company is really, really valuable.

There’s been talk about what Apple should do with all that money. Personally, I think they should do something unexpected. Like free tacos for everyone a month. I’m pretty sure they could literally buy everyone on earth a taco or two, once a month. It’d just be a nice gesture.

Not knowing anything about corporate finances, I (naively) thought that Apple investors would get a share of that. After all, paid (invested) cash for a share of the company. The whole reason, I assumed, was to reap a portion of it’s eventual profits.

It turns out that some companies operate this way. It’s called offering a dividend. Apple has never done this, and from what I can tell it’s uncommon amongst tech companies.  With all this cash in the bank, the idea of offering dividends has come up.

John Gruber’s response is that the folks running Apple seem to know what they’re doing. He says

If I were an Apple investor (I’m not), I’d want Apple to keep doing what it’s been doing the last decade or so.

I read that this morning, and realized that I have no clue why people are paying $500 or more for a share of Apple stock.

Let me up front. We could be talking about just about any publicly traded company here. I am 30 years old and I have no idea why people buy stocks. I always assumed it had something to do with that movie Boiler Room. Or Reagan. Or cocaine. I’ve always been fuzzy on the details. I tried to listen to that Planet Money podcast where they explained the debt crisis, but it just made the whole scenario more mysterious.

Let’s imagine that I have $500. I could “invest” that by buying one share of AAPL. I imagine I’ll get some certificate of some sort saying “redeemable for one (1) share of Apple Inc”. Then I put that in a safe and wait a while. While I’m waiting, people keep buying iPhones. People buy apps and MacBook Pros and $50 Thunderbolt cables (seriously?) and Apple keeps raking it in. Their stock price goes up and up. In the mean time, I don’t get any benefit from this stock. I don’t get taken to the front of the line at the Genius Bar. I don’t get sneak peaks at new hardware. My life goes on as before.

Then, when AAPL reaches $1000 a share, I decide to sell. So I find some guy who has $1000 and wants to buy some stock. I sell him mine, cash his check and we go on our merry way. But what I don’t understand is, why does THAT guy want this share? He’s not going to get any benefit from this stock. All he can do is hope that some where down the line someone else will want to buy it from him for some amount greater than what he paid.

So in what sense is this scheme not a pyramid scam?

I am legitimately asking. And again, don’t think I’m picking on Apple here. I don’t understand why I would want to own stock in any company, except in the hopes that someone else is dumber than I am.

The only value I can think of is that one share equals one vote in the direction of the company. Presumably if you get enough votes, you could demand dividends. Still, with millions of shares out in the wild, wrangling up that many shares would be practically impossible.

I was always taught that an object is only as valuable as what someone is willing to pay for it. With that in mind, let’s imagine again that I have $500. I use that money to buy a lawnmower. Lets pretend that is one of those riding mowers, with a comfy seat, a nice drink holder, four wheel drive. This thing is the Cadillac of lawn mowers. Presumably, it has value, because it can do a bunch of things, and it can do them well.

As nice as this lawnmower is, it might not have been a smart purchase for me, because I don’t have a lawn. So I look for someone who can benefit from it. I find a guy on Craigslist that has an overgrown lawn, and would value my lawnmower more than his $500. So I sell it and he buys it because it is more useful for him than it is for me. Isn’t that what Capitalism is supposed to facilitate? Goods ending up with the people who value them the most? I get that when it comes to lawn equipment, or even more esoteric objects like art or rare stamps.

Is that the answer? Are stocks valuable because people have a collector instinct? Have we built our society on a high stakes game of Pokémon? I hope someone out there has a better explanation than that.

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Momofuku You

More than you ever thought you wanted to know about Ramen.

Categories: Nom Tags:

How Writings Is Like Pizza

I’ve just finished watching cult favorite sci-fi show Firefly. Yes, for the first time. Yes, I realize this means I need to turn in my nerd badge.

Forgive me for blogging about this about a decade after the fact. That’s the Internet equivalent of the dawn of mammals. Just think of it like a trip back in time.

There’s a lot wrong with the show, but there’s also a lot that was really well done. It got me thinking about how long form writing is a lot like pizza. Like a good pizza, a good TV show, or novel, comic book or whatever is built out of three layers. Each layer is important, and each has it’s own function. You can even remove one of the parts of the stack and still have a tasty experiment with whatever’s left, but it won’t really be pizza.

IMG 1992

The crust is the foundation upon which your pizza is built. It props up the other ingredients and gives your pie it’s own unique character. It’s made from simple ingredients, usually just flour, water, salt, and yeast. But even slightly altering those proportions will make for an entirely different experience.

Similarly, a story is built on it’s grand themes. Every Oscar™-bait movie and every cheap romance novel rests on a foundation of ideas. It’s the bottom strata. That’s why the call it subtext. These are usually broad, over arching motifs. Even terrible stories have some kernel of idea at it’s center, whether the author realizes it or not. This reveals the work’s view of issues such as love, family, gender relations, trust, or even north Atlantic cod fisheries. These ideas are baked into the very language (visual or written) of the text.

Resting on the subtext is the plot. This is the general flow of action. Like the sauce on a pizza, it’s meant to lubricate the story. It keeps the characters and dialog from sticking on one spot. Also, like the acidity in a good fresh tomato sauce, the plot provides tension. It keeps us on our toes. A story without plot is like a white pizza. There’s nothing to cut through the fattiness of a bunch of people sitting around talking about nothing.

IMG 1995

Finally, you have the dialog. If you’re someone like David Mamet, the dialog and plot end up melting into each other, like the cheese and sauce of a good NY pie. In the end you just have a molten, goey mass. Each element plays it’s own part, and each is essential.

But that’s only one style. The dialog and plot could each float in a sea of motion. Little islands of characterization in the midst of adventure or intrigue.

There are, of course, more than three possible layers. When writing, you can have offbeat side trips, subplots, red herrings, or deus ex machina. There’s no end to the ways you can personalize your story. As soon as an archetypal story in any given genre is created, writers start finding ways to play around with the formula. They twist expectations. They maybe rearrange ingredients. The basic elements but the proportions can always be tweaked, and you can always throw something weird in there just to say you did. It’s a part of our creative impulse.

I think many of us would be okay with eating pizza every day, provided it was made with care, using quality ingredients. But I know I wouldn’t want to eat the same pizza every day. It’s important to keep it exciting.

Ultimately, like great pizza, a great work of fiction is about balance. All the elements must be applied judiciously to create a whole that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. You may have some dialog that you can’t bear to part with, but if it doesn’t work within your larger plot structure and overall theme, don’t think twice about it. Junk it. A writer’s cutting room floor is often full of his best lines, and the finished product is usually better for it.

What does this have to do with Firefly, you might ask? He wrote passionately about trust and family. He made the stakes seem high for the characters, if not necessarily plausible. The plot was hit or miss. Sometimes it was a tightly wound thriller, while other episodes seemed contrived. And the dialog? More often than not, it was just plain cheesy.

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