Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Weeknight Cooking: Beets

We had some fresh beets last week. We both really like beets, but we don't do them often as they just take too long for weeknight cooking. But then I hit on the bright idea of prepping them the night before. The beets need to be boiled for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how young or how large they are. (You boil them until a fork pierces them easily.) Then you plunge them into cold water, and the skins should slip off easily. We then chopped them into large chunks, and put them in a bowl with a little rice vinegar, salt, and pepper. Pop them in the fridge, and then the next night all you need to do is heat them up. This is easy enough to do while watching TV after dinner.

I'm also a fan of greens, and fresh beets have nice greens on them. It's like getting two vegetables in one. So while the beets were boiling, I washed off the beet leaves. (What seems to work best is to fill a sink or large container with water, submerge the leaves and swish them around, and repeat the process a few times.) Then I just put them on a paper towel and put them in the fridge, so I'd have a head start for the next night. The next night, I just separated the leaves from the stalks, chopped up the stalks, rolled up the leaves (like a cigar) and sliced them into half-inch to an inch wide strips. I also chopped up a couple of tomatoes in small pieces. In a skillet with a little garlic olive oil, I sauteed the stalks, then added the greens, and then added the tomato. (Beet greens take more time than spinach, more like collard greens. But you'll see when they start to wilt.) This little mixture was delicious over polenta. (On weeknights, I just use the ready-made polenta that you slice and heat in the toaster oven. Polenta cooked from scratch is always preferred, but totally impractical on a weeknight.)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Duly Elected Terrorists

We've been wanting to see democracy spread in the Middle East, and now that we've seen it, some people are pretty queasy about the results in Palestine. Me, I'm cautiously optimistic that the election of Hamas will be a step in the right direction. The Israelis are understandably worried about a known terrorist group with stated non-recognition of Israel's right to exist becoming the duly elected Palestinian Authority. But everyone (including Hamas) should keep in mind that the election of Hamas was not a mandate for wiping out Israel, nor an endorsement of terrorism. It was a mandate for ending the corruption, cronyism, and overall ineffectiveness of the incumbent Fatah. As with voters in most elections anywhere in the world, their concerns were pretty close to home: their jobs, their streets, their schools. From that viewpoint, it's not hard to see the attraction of Hamas, who does not share Fatah's corruption and ineptitude, and who has, even before the election, been doing a better job than the government of providing social services like schools and hospitals. And even from Israel's viewpoint, it's worth noting that Hamas has done a better job of keeping cease-fire agreements than Fatah. The Israelis won't like what Hamas has to say, but isn't it better to be talking to people who might actually be capable of delivering a cease-fire, rather than those with a more likeable message but insufficient competence to carry it out? I'm thinking that Hamas taking on the full responsibility of government can only pragmatize them, as they become fully engaged with keeping the streets safe, the power on, and the sewers from backing up. Sure, there will continue to be ideological zealots in Hamas, but the movement will have to find pragmatists among the zealots if it is going to govern. We'll see a political wing of Hamas emerge, as Sinn Fein did from the IRA. The zealots may even splinter off, as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade did with Fatah. But Hamas may turn out to be the effective leadership Palestine needs, and once given the reins, they may yet find a pragmatic direction to lead. It's worth cautiously giving them a chance to see what they will do.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Genealogy: Finding Fact From Fiction

Most families have stories that are handed down the generations. Sometimes this family folklore is true, but often stories get embellished down the line, and the genealogist needs to sort out the kernel of truth from the accretions of fancy. In my family, there was a story that an ancestor of ours, one Robert Sherratt, was a groundskeeper on the estate of a Scottish laird named Farquharson, and that Robert married one of the ladies of this family (the old romantic tale of a lady marrying "beneath her" station). This was the explanation for why my grandfather's middle name was Farquharson (which had also been his grandfather's middle name).

While the story wasn't entirely true, I have discovered that it was close. There was an old Scottish laird named Archibald Farquharson, the 7th laird of Finzean (an estate in Aberdeenshire, pronounced "fingan"). He was an old unmarried successful merchant in Campbeltown (on the opposite side of Scotland) when he inherited the estate unexpectedly after a cousin died with no heirs. He came to Finzean, and he married a much younger girl named Christian Spring, whom he met in Aberdeen. They had a young baby boy (also named Archibald), and the old laird died just a couple years later. Just after the old laird died, Christian's sister Isobel married a gardener named Robert Sherrat (my 4x-great-grandfather), and they moved to the Finzean estate where Robert was an overseer until the young laird came of age. They continued to be associated with the Finzean estates for the rest of their lives. So, not exactly the romantic family tale, but still pretty good.

The Spring and Sherrat families were so honored by their connection with this eminent Farquharson family that Farquharson appeared as a middle name (or sometimes a first name) for many subsequent generations, even after some of them emigrated to Canada. There were also many children named Archibald and Christian. I've mapped much (though not all) of the descendants of Robert Spring of Aberdeen (1700s), and put together this web page, which has kept me busy from blogging lately.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Beyond The Pale

I've written recently about how I don't believe that the death penalty is appropriate, not that the worst criminals don't deserve death, but that we as a society damage ourselves in the process. The controversy has stayed in the news recently, with DNA evidence posthumously confirming that an executed man in Virginia was indeed guilty. Now in a couple of hours, California will execute a 76-year-old blind diabetic man (who is also a multiple murderer). It's unfortunate that the most appropriate penalty for these criminals is no longer practically available. Exile. It is perfect in its justice. These people have violated society and for a fitting punishment they should forfeit all the benefits of civil society. Some crimes are beyond the pale, and that is literally where such criminals should be sent. If only we still had someplace like Devil's Island or even Australia a few centuries ago. Perhaps the best we could do today would be to negotiate a deal with Kim Jong-Il: we'll give him some food and some energy, but he has to take some of our prisoners as well. (He wouldn't even have to keep them imprisoned. Just let them live in North Korea the rest of their lives. That would be justice enough.) But if we can't do any of those things, we should at least lock these people away for the rest of their lives in complete forfeit of all the benefits of society. I'm not talking imprisonment as we currently do it. I mean no telephone, no television, no books, no letters. No visitors (especially no visitors brokering book or movie deals). No protection from their fellow exiles. In short, no society. Put them where they have put themselves: beyond the pale.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Live Controversy

Yesterday's Judiciary Committee Kabuki Theatre was more of the same: Senators trying to get Judge Alito to take a position on something controversial, and Alito adroitly appearing to make an answer without actually doing so. There's something ironic about a job candidate not being able to express any opinions during the job interview, when a primary function of the job is to issue opinions. While the Supreme Court is limited to hearing "live controversies" (i.e., they can't make rulings on hypotheticals without an actual case before them), it seems that judicial nominees are effectively limited to speaking about dead controversies. Alito was willing to condemn the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision ("separate but equal"), and was willing to affirm agreement with Brown v. Board of Education (overturning Plessy in 1954), since these are cases no reasonable person still entertains any controversy over (except perhaps for a few of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton). However, concerning anything that might conceivably come before the Court (i.e., still a live controversy), Alito would express no opinion. He would not express an opinion as to whether he agreed with more recent and/or controversial Court decisions. He would not express an opinion as to whether he agreed or disagreed with his own past opinions expressed in speeches and letters in his record. His ability to seem to actually answer while actually being evasive was quite impressive. When asked, for example, whether he agreed with last year's Supreme Court decision in Kelo (a stunning decision in which the Court allowed a city to condemn perfectly good homes just to allow private interests to commercially redevelop the property), Alito expressed his sympathy with how hard it must be to lose your home, while saying nothing about the merits of the case nor discussing any theories about the "takings clause". We heard a lot about "stare decisis", but did we gain any practical insight into what it really means? Apparently, it means that precedent should be respected most of the time but not always.

To be fair, I can't really fault Alito for any of this performance. The man is doing what needs done in order to get confirmed. It's doubtful that even Solomon could get confirmed by this process if he gave full, open, and honest answers to the panel. The fault for the charade lies in the process itself, and all its attendant politics. While the confirmation hearings have become something of a bizarre ritual, I have to say that of the three branches of government, the selection process for federal judges is better than the others. While there are certainly exceptions, I think in general that smart and decent people are selected as judges, and the "cream rises to the top". Now, Congress and the President, on the other hand, well, that's a different story.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Concerned Alumni of Princeton

For the most part, I'm pretty comfortable with the track record of Samuel Alito, and with his performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I think he's pretty sincere about his claims to want to judge each matter with an open mind and according to the law, and (despite what partisans will claim) I find scant evidence of ideology in his opinions.

The only thing that makes me a bit queasy is this business about the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), an organization that Alito claimed on a 1985 job application to be a member of. My reaction to that was visceral. CAP and its magazine Prospect were well-known to Princeton students of the early 1980s (of which I was one) as a group of ultra-reactionary aging alumni who wished nothing more than to roll the University back to its days of being an exclusive homogenous bastion of white, Protestant, upper-class, prep-school-educated men. You could sense a University-wide groan and eye-roll every time CAP founder Asa Bushnell '21 had one of his curmudgeonly missives published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly bemoaning the presence of women and minorities on campus. You could excuse an old codger like Bushnell on account of advanced age, but others like Alito's classmate, T. Harding Jones '72, who edited Prospect through the 1970s, are harder to fathom. Not that there weren't Princeton grads in the 1970s who were conservative, but CAP was reactionary -- think John Birch Society or even Flat Earth Society reactionary -- and certainly by the 1980s was well-known at least in Princeton circles for being so. There were those like former Senator Bill Bradley '65, who joined CAP when it first formed, but later disassociated themselves when its reactionary nature became clear. I've heard that Senator Frist '74 also repudiated the group. And after Jones stepped down as editor, the Concerned Alumni were never able to find another Princeton grad willing to edit their journal.

It does seem plausible to me that Alito put CAP on that job application for specific networking purposes. And it also seems plausible that he wasn't particularly involved or even familiar with the group. (He certainly wasn't enough of a "concerned alumnus" to have written a cranky letter to the alumni magazine, as many of the others did, for if he had, it surely would have surfaced by now.) While I can imagine him having reasons to join what seemed to be a conservative alumni organization, it would be surprising if he really knew what they were about. After all, CAP's ideal vision of Princeton would not have admitted Alito, the son of a working-class Catholic family. It's probably true, as Senator Kennedy charged, that he received Prospect and Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), and it's true that readers of those publications in the 1980s could not have been ignorant of CAP's nature. The false jump in Kennedy's logic, as most alumni must concede, is that receiving the PAW doesn't always mean that you read it.

Alito's selective-amnesiac testimony on the matter is also a bit disappointing. Everyone knows that "to the best of my recollection" and "I cannot remember" are testimony protocols which really mean "I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may embarrass me." This is the Senate Judiciary Committee at its most kabuki-theatrical. I'm disappointed that the man is willing to stretch the truth (and/or withhold the whole truth) on the stand, but on the other hand we all know that not to do so would be self-scuttling. Even if the truth is relatively innocuous (and I suspect it is), it could tarnish his dignity, against which the expectations are practically unrealistic. At least everyone on the panel understands the game. Even Republican Senator Lindsay Graham quipped something like, "oh, we believe you, sir. I just hope if I'm sitting before you on some future panel, you'll believe me when I say I don't remember Abramoff."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Happy Blogday To Me!

When I was writing about my experience with New Years resolutions, how could I have forgotten the resolution I made last year? I had resolved to start a blog and try to write something every day. I began my blog on January 5, 2005. While I didn't write absolutely every day, I am quite satisfied with my first year of blogging. I wrote 238 articles, so that's about 2 days out of 3. My traffic counter (which goes back not to the very beginning, but pretty early on) shows that I've had 5,330 visitors to my blog, with 7,614 page views (that's averaging 9 visitors/day, and 14 page views/day). My highest traffic was actually in my first week, when I had an early article linked by Andrew Sullivan. Since then, I've got a handful of people who come to the blog on some regular basis, and I get over two-thirds of my visitors from search engines. I'm also honored to be "blog-rolled" on a half-dozen other blogs. It's been a fun adventure, and I look forward to continuing to lift the world just a little bit "upword", one blog at a time.

Monday, January 02, 2006

BOOKS: The Boys in the Brownstone

One of my Christmas gifts was the Kevin Scott novel "The Boys in the Brownstone", and I was given the perfect opportunity to curl up with it on New Years Eve, when my husband was out working, and I was home alone during a rainstorm-induced power outage. Nothing to do but pour a glass of eggnog, light some candles, and read this entertaining story. The Brownstone is a gay bar on the Upper East Side, and the novel is really a series of tangential vignettes. Think "Desperate Housewives: Gay New York Edition". Each chapter introduces a new set of characters, and explores a different flawed relationship, but all of the characters end up at the Brownstone sooner or later, and featured characters in one vignette often appear on the sidelines of other vignettes. Sometimes in the bar, we revisit the same conversations from another character's perspective (like the film "Go"). The characters and stories were all engaging enough to keep me turning the pages with interest. The fact that it was set during Christmastime made it more fun to read it at this time of year, but that's certainly not essential. Reading it all in one weekend is useful, as the number of characters starts to accumulate, and there were a few times where I had to stop and think "now who was that one again?". Doubtful you'll glean any profound insights here, as it's all a bit melodramatic (all of the characters have issues). But it's very entertaining, a great read for a weekend at the beach or a long flight. Or a New Years Eve power outage.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Years Resolutions

I haven't made many New Years Resolutions, especially ones that I've actually remembered and kept, but I did make one a few years ago that I've stuck with. That was to have more home-cooked meals. Three years later, and we're still sticking to it. I think the key to that success was three-fold. First, there was a strongly motivated resolution: eating take-out all the time is neither very healthy nor very economical. Second, the resolution allowed incremental success. By stating the goal as "more home-cooked meals" rather than "no more take-out" meant that we could make progress and feel good about it, rather than setting an all-or-nothing target that we were unlikely to hit. Third, I had a specific plan (which included when to shop, when to cook, and how to make it actually happen). A goal without a plan is simply a fantasy.

I'm feeling ambitious this year, and am making several resolutions. We'll see how well I do. Three resolutions may be overreaching, but no goals at all means no hope of improvement. So here goes…
  1. Exercise more. I need more of it regularly. My job is a sedentary one, I'm not as young as I once was, and my blood pressure isn't what it ought to be. I think one of the best ways I can address that is more exercise. The key will be figuring out how to incorporate it into a daily regimen. One good plan: we live in a very hilly area with lots of public staircases and sloping walkways. The last few months I've been hitting the stairs for a bit in the mornings. I just need to be resolute about that.

  2. Entertain more. This is actually a continuation of a mildly successful resolution from last year. As my husband and I have become more of an "old married couple", we don't go out like we used to, and as a result, there are friends we don't see as often as we used to. But we also recognize it's hard to find the time and energy to throw parties often. The successful strategy we hit on last year is to have one or two friends over for dinner during the week. As long as I'm cooking for two (and I often cook for leftovers anyway), I realized it's not that big a deal to cook for one or two more. Four seems to be a magic number beyond which the production of dinner has to be done differently. But three or four is also a great number for really spending some "quality time" with friends, rather than bits of divided time with a lot of people in a bigger group. We did this on several occasions last year, and it worked out great. This year, I'd like to do it just a bit more often.

  3. Floss. As my dentist has persistently chided me, I don't floss enough. I'm very sporadic about it. A recent crown and related toothaches have reminded me I need to be more mindful of that for my dental health sake. I've long known that. But recently I've learned that flossing is one of the most highly correlated factors to longevity, and that it bears a significant relationship to heart disease and stroke. Okay, now I'm extra motivated. Let's see if I can be resolute.
Happy New Year, and good luck with your resolutions for 2006!

Shakespeare on Hanukkah

My analogy the other day of enduring spirit as Hanukkah lights called to mind this beautiful quote from the opening scene in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure:
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch’d
But to fine issues, nor Nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence,
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use.