Monthly Archives: January 2008

Gourmet Ghetto North

We spent a semester living in the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, inside the charmed circle bounded by Cheeseboard Pizza, Gregoire’s, and Chez Panisse. While we lived there, the foodie mini-mall Epicurious Garden opened for business, featuring Taste, a wine bar with the appealing gimmick that you could taste wines by the milliliter at reasonable per-sip prices. And just a short drive away was our nation’s greatest grocery store, Berkeley Bowl, where you can, and I did, buy four kinds of avocados, three kinds of mangoes, and an almost unimaginable variety of granola.

Madison’s not Berkeley, but people in the business of trading fancy food for yuppie dollars are setting up shop everywhere you look. When we moved here, the only good cheese counter in town was at Whole Foods. Now there’s Fromagination downtown (yes, they really called it that. It could be worse! It could be Fromajesty or Fromagnificence or What a Friend We Have in Cheeses. Count your blessings.) And Steve’s Wine Market, already beloved by me for selling all kinds of Unibroue and Ommegang, has just started selling imported olive oils and cheeses, including Brillat-Savarin.

The newest entry is Vom Fass, the first US outpost of a German chain, which sells olive oil, aged and flavored vinegars, seed oils, brightly colored liqueurs, and single-malt scotch out of casks with spigots. Does that sound like a strange store? It is; especially when you’re the only one there and a determinedly friendly salesman is following you around reiterating his insistence that you fill a spoon from the spigot of all the olive oils in turn. There are eight. I obeyed. Eight spoonfuls of olive oil is actually kind of a lot.

The shtick worked on me — I bought little bottles of avocado oil, stupidly expensive (but pretty delicious) balsamic vinegar, and a strangely nutty olive oil. But I’m not sure the appeal goes beyond novelty. To taste the oil that results from pressing cumin seeds is interesting, but I don’t need to taste it again, let alone bring it home.

The most dramatic gourmet-ghettoization is happening at Midvale and University, where an all-out grocery war is on in preparation for the new double-size Whole Foods opening at Hilldale. The present groceries, Sentry Metcalfe and the formerly unassuming Copps Food Market, have both gutted and renovated to prepare for the intruder. Both have olive bars. Copps has a sushi bar, but Sentry has a sit-down coffee shop while Copps only has an espresso stand. Sentry has a stir-fry steam-table. Sentry’s open all night, Copps closes at midnight.

Can there really be enough high-end grocery money on the West Side of Madison to support all three stores? Especially when they have to contend with the other 800-pound newcomer, Trader Joe’s? And when the condo units at Hilldale aren’t selling through?

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For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting lots of visitors from people searching for “math jobs wiki” — that is, people who want to see the math job market rumor clearinghouse and inadvertently wind up at my blog instead.

Fortunately, I do have a math job market rumor to share — actually, a fact– which is that my first Ph.D. student has just accepted a tenure-track job at SUNY-Geneseo. Congratulations to Patrick. How pleasant for me to get to feel proud, when he did all the work!

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So good to be back home again

It’s a great and simple pleasure to be back in our house, and our regular routine, after a period of extensive and hurriedly arranged travel — between Dec 26 and Jan 18 I slept away from home 14 out of 24 nights, split between London, Chicago, Columbus, and Stanford.

Even though it’s cold. Really cold. It was minus 10 yesterday when I took CJ to daycare — that’s the coldest weather I’ve been out in since I moved to Wisconsin. For my non-Wisconsin readers, minus 10 is a little like this. Your face starts to get stiff and you find yourself unconsciously rolling your jaw around in order to keep it limber. The knob on your car radio is hard to turn, and the tape player won’t run at constant speed. You don’t have to scrape your windshield, because what snow does fall is so dry it brushes right off. But all the moisture inside the car freezes hard onto the interior windows, so you get in, start the car running, turn the heater to full blast, and start chipping — I can now do the scrape/melt combo in about 10 minutes.

This weekend it’s getting up past 30, and I, for one, have some sunbathing planned.

And now, the Tourists, featuring Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart before they formed the Eurythmics, performing their 1980 single “So Good To Be Back Home Again.”

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I can help you

Working this morning at the new Pascual’s in Hilldale Mall. Yet another pleasant Near West spot to enjoy free wi-fi, free parking, and good coffee. The manager just answered the phone: “Thank you for calling Pascual’s at Hilldale, this is M___; I can help you.”

I like this new can-do spirit. Much better than the old, tentative, “Can I help you?” Though I will be sorry if the wonderfully compressed “Can I help who’s next?” gets retired.

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My God, it’s full of stars

A light snow fell all day in Madison. And it was sparkly. In the air, and on the ground, too, like flecks of mica in the pavement.

I’ve never seen snow do this. Is it because it gets so cold here? The high today was 16 degrees. I’ve heard people say it can be too cold to snow. That must be pretty cold.

Of course, I should have made checking the Straight Dope my first step. According to the all-knowing Cecil, what I saw was called diamond dust. Sources differ as to what precisely constitutes diamond dust, but it seems pretty clear it’s the stuff that sparkles when it’s well below freezing, and still snowing. Like today. Bring on April.

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Adventures in male bonding

I was pretty excited for CJ and me to watch the Packers play in the NFC Championship tonight. All day I’ve been telling him that we were going to watch the football game, and prompting him to say “Go Packers!” But when the time came, he wanted to watch his kiddie yoga DVD. We agreed as a compromise to watch a little of each. At first, he watched the game with some interest, pointing out “It’s cold!” and “He fell down!” several times each. But at the first commercial he asked for the yoga DVD again.

“Want to watch a little more football first?” I said

“Can you not find the yoga?” CJ asked.

“No, I have it, should I put the yoga on now?”

“Yes, Daddy turn baseball off.”

Thus ends the experiment in enforcing traditional gender roles.

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Did I give a kid a used book?

Here’s an ethical question — feel free to weigh in.

A couple of months ago I was staying the night with a friend of mine in Chicago, and I wanted to bring his 9-year old daughter a present. So I stopped at Borders and bought copies of two of my very favorite books from my own preteen years: Half Magic and The Pushcart War. Then I got on the bus to Chicago. I started out doing a little work, but I kept getting distracted by the question: would I still think as highly of these books as I did when I was a kid? So what could I do? I opened the bag and reread them both.

First of all, is there an ethical problem with reading a book en route to giving the book as a present? If you bought someone a coat, you wouldn’t wear it to their house. If you bought them a CD, you wouldn’t open the plastic and burn it to your hard drive. But somehow it seemed all right to me in this case.

Second, both books are still splendid, and I highly recommend buying them for any 9-year-old within arm’s reach. Especially The Pushcart War, which is that rare thing, a sophisticated political novel that makes sense to children. The book depicts a future New York City in which the pushcart vendors and the truckers go to war — it’s a wise and ambivalent look at capitalism, which appears in this book on the one hand as the health of the state, and on the other, as a big amoral differential equation, many of whose equilibria (e.g. domination of urban trade by ever-larger trucks to the exclusion of any other mode of commerce) are highly unfavorable, despite being successful solutions to some optimization problem having nothing to do with human life.

Also, it’s really funny.

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Two complaints about Juno

  • I like dense, fast, quirky dialogue as much as the next fellow, but what they put in the mouths of the teenage characters in this movie is too much to be believed. I kept thinking, “This is fine, but if Joss had written it, it would really work.” I’ve read a lot about about the power of Ellen Page’s performance. And she was good! But actually the movie relaxed a little and was better whenever she was offscreen.
  • The movie seems to care a lot about what records it likes; and that’s fine. But then why present a main character who allegedly worships the Stooges and Patti Smith, to the point of talking about how it makes all modern music (including the Melvins!) sound “precious,” and then have the soundtrack be the preciousest, tweest specimens of indie cuddlecore imaginable? What does it say about this movie that when Belle and Sebastian comes on the radio your reaction is “OK, now we’re rocking out?”
  • One non-complaint:  all credit to the movie for including a song by the great Barry Louis Polisar, whose anthem “Don’t Put Your Finger Up Your Nose” was #1 with a bullet on my childhood record player.
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Sweet dreams are made of seven nation army

I like the idea of mashups, but when I listen to one, I usually say “Wow, cool!” for the first thirty seconds, then turn it off after a minute. But this I like:

I think what’s making it work is that the proportion of Eurythmics to White Stripes varies enough throughout the song to create a little suspense, even though the two songs themselves are at this point very familiar to me. The latter, because CJ picked up Elephant from the top of a pile of CDs last week, loved it, and now wants to hear it every time we brush his teeth. So the mashup provides some much-needed variation in our daily listen to “Seven Nation Army.” (CJ’s title: “Going to Wichita.”)

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We could gather, throw a fist

It turns out that I write about rock music a lot on this blog, yet I’ve never written anything about my favorite band, R.E.M. Now’s a good occasion, since MetaFilter has just posted a version of “It’s The End of the World As We Know It” mixed together from tracks submitted by 16 different users scattered around the world: listen to the surprisingly coherent result here. Everybody’s got a song whose lyrics they transcribed again and again while bored in class in high school, and this was mine. In theory I’m in the mix, contributing occasional backup vocals and electric bass (the one that Craig was kind enough to lend me while he was abroad for the semester.) But I can’t hear it.

Other people writing about R.E.M: Joygantic offers reminiscence of a high-school kid meeting his idol, Michael Stipe in 1985. Matthew Perpetua is blogging every R.E.M. song on Pop Song 07. He’s done about 100 so far. Stereogum offers a 15th-anniversary tribute album to Automatic For The People (all tracks freely streamed.) I started reading the 33 1/3 book about R.E.M.’s great first album, but it was terrible. (Great first album not named here because I am troubled by thoughts of the author of this book googling for references to his book, and finding out I thought it was terrible.)

Some R.E.M. songs that don’t get their due: “Romance,” a great early track which only appears on the best-of comp Eponymous; unjustly dumped-on “Shiny Happy People,” which recalls the band’s early days as a big-time Athens party band. The only proper way to deal with Bill Berry leaving the band would have been replacing him with Kate Pierson.

I just learned that the first verse of “Let Her Cry,” by Hootie and the Blowfish, has the lyrics:

She says Dad’s the one I love the most

But Stipe’s not far behind

Does it say something about Hootie, or something about R.E.M., that the shorthand indicating the girlfriend is emotionally damaged, too complicated for a straight-ahead guy like Hootie, and just plain edgy, is that she likes R.E.M.? (If it helps, remember that this song comes out in 1994, when R.E.M. was coming off two platinum albums, and was temporarily about as alternative as Sheryl Crow.)

Here’s “Romance” (youtube link, but no actual video)

And more video-less youtube: someone has posted, in 8 parts, some of the legendary bootlegs of R.E.M. playing at Tyrone’s in Athens, about the time of the band’s first single. Here’s a typical chunk, featuring a Velvet Underground cover (“There She Goes Again”), a very different version of what would become a much later REM album track (“Pretty Persuasion”), and an early song, never released on a record (“Body Count,” one of the best of the abandoned tracks from this period.) Enjoy — there’s plenty more!

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