We’re All Going On A Summer Holiday

We finally picked up our new car yesterday. A Fiat 500, naturally. so today we’re grabbing a ferry and heading across to Sardinia (a place that is actually closer to Africa than it is to Italy, trivia fans).

We have absolutely nothing planned except to chill on beaches and maybe do a little snorkeling. And since we’ve got a car and I won’t be breaking my back carrying luggage, I’m bringing all those huge doorstep books that have been clogging up my “to read” list, like Anathem and Infinite Jest. If I don’t manage to finish at least one of those, it’s God’s way of telling me I was never meant to read them.

Back in a week. Peace out, suckers.


Cooking Italian Food

In The Pedant in the Kitchen, Julian Barnes asks

How many cookbooks do you have?
(a) Not enough
(b) Just the right number
(c) Too Many?
If you answered (b) you are disqualified for lying or complacency or not being interested in food or (scariest of all) having worked out everything perfectly. You score points for (a) and also for (c), but to score maximum points, you need to have answered (a) and (c) in equal measure. (a) because there is always something new to be learned, someone coming along to make it all clearer, easier, more foolproof, more authentic; (c) because of the regular mistakes made when applying (a).

He then goes on to give a list of ten things to consider when buying any cookbook – avoid books with too wide or too narrow a compass, never buy a book because of the pictures – and I would say that most of my cookbook collection falls prey to those things he says to avoid. If only I’d discovered him earlier, because I fall squarely into (c) and I would say that most of the cookbooks I own are complete bullshit. Nowhere is this more clearly highlighted than when they start talking about Italian food.

Now, for those of you that haven’t been to Italy, let me explain something about Italian cuisine: it’s simple. This sounds stupid, but the sheer simplicity of the food here came as a huge shock to someone raised on Nigella, Delia and Jamie’s ideas of Italian food. Nigella (my favourite scapegoat when it comes to over-complication of cooking) seems to think that to achieve an ‘authentic’ Italian flavour, you have to raid your spice rack. In fact, you’re going to need a whole new spice rack. Preferably, like hers, hand-made by a merchant in Morocco and stocked by naked eunuchs who softly whisper and coax the herbs and spices to voluntarily leap into the jars. But I suppose, in a pinch, regular Schwartz will do. Her ‘basic’ tomato sauce will invariably contain some combination of nutmeg, star anise and turmeric. Tomatoes play second fiddle.


In Italy, a tomato sauce will contain tomatoes. Maybe some garlic, if you’re lucky.

So, based on the things I’ve learned while cooking in Rome, here’s a few tips if you want to cook better Italian food.

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid
    Like I was saying, in Italy, cooking is really about ‘less is more’. Why complicate things with 15 ingredients when 4 will do? At a certain point, you’re actually not making a difference to the flavour. Most of my favourite pasta dishes are shockingly basic. For example, Cacio e pepe is really just pasta, oil, cheese and pepper. That’s it.
  2. Break Up Your Dishes
    This is tied into the previous one. Italians love to divide things, compartmentalize them so that they’re all doing their own job and have clear, distinct boundaries. If you’re Irish, chances are you think that pasta sauces must, by definition, have some meat in them. Fuhgeddaboudit. In Italy, pasta is usually one course (primo) and you get your protein in another course (secondo). Rarely will you get a meaty pasta sauce. And it’s just as well – it means that the pasta is less heavy, and also extends your meal by another 45 minutes, which means you can talk more and drink more wine, too. It’s a win-win situation.
  3. Choose The Best Ingredients
    This is the first real secret to great Italian food. Rather than overloading with ingredients, just make sure that the ingredients you do choose are of the best quality you can afford. Spend just that little bit more on things like olive oil, cheese and vegetables. The lower-cost ones won’t kill you and might not taste bad, but when you use the expensive stuff, you can really tell the difference.
  4. It’s All In The Cooking
    If you take nothing else from this post, please listen to this: good ingredients are one thing, but when they’re cooked badly, you may as well have used the cheap stuff. Italian food is all about cooking things just right. It’s all about timing. For example, when you’re making a tomato sauce, first chop your garlic and cook it slowly. Actually, so slowly you’re barely straddling the line between “cooking” and “warming”. Take the lowest heat you can, and then only put half the pan on the heat, if that’s possible. The garlic will give up all of its flavour this way and it completely changes the taste of a tomato sauce then. Likewise, when cooking pasta, it’s about timing, except this time, it’s all about getting the pasta out right before you think it’s ready, so it’s still al dente. Admittedly, this one is a lot harder to pull off, but when you get it right, the difference is phenomenal.
  5. Buy ‘The Silver Spoon’
    Remember when I said that most cookbooks I own are complete bullshit? Not The Silver Spoon. It’s a gigantic book and may well cause your bookshelf to bend under the weight, but what it doesn’t know about Italian food isn’t worth writing down. Seriously, with this one book, you can ditch all of the other ‘Italian’ cookbooks in your collection. It’s also one of the few cookbooks I have absolutely no problem in giving to foodie friends as presents. I can’t think of any better recommendation for a book than wanting to give it to other people too.

Of course, there are other things too, like understanding the difference between the different types of spaghetti and knowing which one is appropriate for a particular dish, but that’s just nitpicking. If you can manage to follow the four guidelines I just mentioned, you’ll be well on your way to cooking better Italian food.


Golden Age of TV

A while ago, Ira Glass said that we are living in a “golden age of television”, citing a bunch of ‘actually great shows’ that were current at the time: House,The Wire, The West Wing etc. These were (and I guess they still are) all great shows, no argument there.

In Everything Bad is Good For You, Stephen Johnson argued that modern TV is more sophisticated than TV of twenty or thirty years ago. He compared the plotlines of things like Starsky & Hutch to modern police dramas, and showed that the new shows are more dynamic and challenging to the viewer. Again, no argument there.

But having spent the past few weeks picking the scant meat from the bones of Summer broadcasting, I seriously believe that we may be actually returning to the ‘old’ ways of doing things. Popular TV is pushing the limits of Johnson’s argument. In some cases, it feels as if the wave of these ‘actually great shows’ has broken and rolled back and we are regressing back to the 70s and 80s.

Castle, for example, is just one giant throwback to older, high-concept shows. It’s about a crime writer – Richard Castle who helps the police solve crimes. A Murder She Wrote for the noughties. Except it’s got complex plot-lines, fast-talking characters. It would be easy to see how Stephen Johnson would defend this show. He would argue that it is demonstrably more sophisticated, clever and knowing than Murder She Wrote. The first episode features Castle playing poker with James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell, two real-life crime writers, giving a knowing wink to the audience, acknowledging a world that exists outside of the show’s universe. Plus, it stars Nathan Fillion, my #1 man-crush, so it could be just an hour of him staring at the camera and I’d probably still watch it.

Similarly, The Unusuals is heavily indebted to older shows. Unlike other modern police procedurals, such as any of the Law & Order shows, which feel very much rooted in modern sensibilities, The Unusuals feels like a giant anachronism. It comes across more like an updated version of Hill Street Blues than some contemporary cop drama. But at the same time, it does have some kind of modern feel to it. It actually feels like some unholy Frankenstein’s monster of the procedural stuff in The Wire whose genes have been spliced with the comic nostalgia of Life on Mars. However, even Stephen Johnson points out the narrative complexity of Hill Street Blues compared to earlier shows. As he says, Hill Street Blues is generally regarded as the start of “serious drama” on television. It may be a bit of a step backward, but if The Unusuals is going to imitate something, then it may as well choose something that’s so highly regarded.

But Burn Notice is where it really starts to go downhill. There’s an overarching story taking place across the entire series – Michael Weston is a spy who gets ‘burned’ and tries to figure out what happened and why – but this is only taken care of at the beginning and end of each episode. The actual action that takes place is more basic and formulaic: people who are in trouble come to this spy and he helps them using his ‘specialized’ skillset and his little spy-friends. In other words

> a crack commando unit spy was sent to prison ‘burned’ by a military court shadowy extra-governmental group for a crime he didn’t commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade deadly situation to the Los Angeles Miami underground. Today, still wanted by the government shadowy extra-governmental group, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire the A-Team Michael Weston.

I suppose I wouldn’t mind if the whole thing was handled with a little more grace, but it bothers me that each episode is bookended by the ‘wider’ story. It’s as if the makers are contractually obliged to put in these pieces in somewhere, but couldn’t be bothered to find a way to work them into the “villain of the week” story. It means that if one was to use Johnson’s methodology and chart the narrative of Burn Notice, it would look remarkably like the one he generated for Starsky & Hutch.

So what now? Does this mean the ‘golden age’ of television has passed, and now we’re going to look back on the the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, as Ira Glass points out, like we look back on the 1920s as being the ‘golden age’ of Jazz? Maybe. Or maybe this is just part of the normal ebb and flow of television programming. Summer being filled with the weakest of the lineup, and everything will get better when shows start returning in September. Because frankly, if I look back in 20 years time and realise this is as good as it’s ever going to get, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.


Fan Service

I finally (finally!) got around to checking out Watchmen this week. Now, let’s get something straight from the start. This film was always going to disappoint. It was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Except in this case, the ‘rock’ is a seething mass of rabid fans, and the ‘hard place’ is another seething mass of rabid fans. There was almost no way that the filmmakers could pull this off without angering someone. If they stuck too closely to the book, they’d make a dull, unsurprising film. If they changed it too much, the fans would accuse them of blasphemy and the filmmakers would be stoned to death.

So, they went with the lesser of two evils and stuck very close to the book. If you’ve read Watchmen, then you’ve essentially seen the film, and there’s very little to draw you in. Which isn’t the worst thing you could say about a film, but when it’s something you’ve been looking forward to, it’s just a little disappointing.

This got me talking about some of the other things that have disappointed me recently. Like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That wasn’t necessarily a bad film. It definitely had some really terrible moments. Like the infamous ‘nuking the fridge’ sequence. Even as a massive Indiana Jones/George Lucas/Steven Spielberg apologist, I can’t defend this. It was stupid and unnecessary. But they followed this scene with a shot of Indiana Jones standing on a ridge, silhouetted by a mushroom cloud. This was a beautiful, iconic image – Indiana Jones had entered the atomic age. Just ignore the fact that he got there in a fridge.

Part of what I didn’t like about the new Indiana Jones movie is that it spent so much time trying to pander to its fans. Yes, it was giving them something new, but it was like it was so insecure about its independence that it grounded almost everything in references to the past movies. For example, they couldn’t just have any old warehouse, they had to have the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, for that matter, they couldn’t leave the warehouse without a quick glimpse of the Ark, in its broken crate which, in no way, benefited the story. They even dug up Karen Allen again (the film’s actual maguffin, not the skull). There were dozens of these references scattered throughout the movie and none of them helped push the story along at all. They were just there to remind us that, yes, we were watching an Indiana Jones film. Like the filmmakers were saying “it’s been so long that we’re afraid we’ve forgotten how to make an Indiana Jones film, so we’ll toss in all these throwbacks, just in case.”

You know what the end result reminded me of? Fan fiction. Actually, worse than that: badly-written fan fiction.

On a slightly related note, Telltale Games launched their episodic reboot of the Monkey Island franchise yesterday, called Tales of Monkey Island. Check out the gameplay trailer. Fans of the series will probably recognise most of the jokes in the trailer because they’re almost all references to jokes in previous games. Piranha poodles, “You fight like a…”, the root beer. There’s very little in the trailer that’s actually new, and that’s why I’m not particularly keen to check out the new game. If I wanted to hear those same old jokes, I’d just play the old games (and that’s why I’m currently playing Curse of Monkey Island.)

It understand that it’s daunting when you’re dealing with an established story or franchise. You want to develop it while remaining true to the original ideas, and that can be a difficult thing to pull off. It’s a lot easier if you have a crutch to lean on, like established jokes and tropes. At the same time, though, anyone who comes along and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table shouldn’t really be surprised when they get such mediocre reviews.


Enough is Enough

Checking my multiplayer stats in Call of Duty 4 has become a terrifying reflection on my addiction. Two hundred and twenty-eight hours. On a single game. This isn’t even close to the top of the CoD4 leaderboard though. That guy has something like eighty-three days logged. That’s one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-two hours. And that’s not even the highest! The person ranked number 14 in the world has three thousand, one hundred and ninety-two hours. If you played this game for eight hours every day, it would still take you over a year to get that kind of play-time. Can you imagine?

The worst part is that I’m not even enjoying it any more. I’ve gotten to the stage now where most people who would be at my ‘comfort’ level of skill have all moved onto something else. Gears of War 2 or Call of Duty: World at War, maybe? And so what I’m left with is people that are beyond my skill-level, and just don’t make the game any fun. (I often accuse them of playing unfairly, but I think this is just my way of not having to admit that I’m not good enough to play with them.)

My achievement score has suffered too. I used to love my gamer score, and took great care to nurture it. Now it’s getting neglected. While I could be finishing other games that I started playing (like Dead Space, or Rainbow Six Vegas 2), I’m more likely to ignore them and fire up CoD4. To make matters worse, my Call of Duty achievement score is rather pathetic too, not at all reflecting the hours I’ve sunk into it.

And so, from tonight, I’m giving up. No more Call of Duty 4. Instead, I’m going to focus on other games. I’ve got a stack of games as long as my arm that I’ve been itching to play. Including (but not limited to)

  • Beautiful Katamari – barely touched
  • Stranglehold – played for an hour and stopped
  • Persona 4 – ironically, haven’t started because I’ve heard about the amount of time people sink into this game
  • Punch Out! – I play this now and then, but haven’t given it a decent run-through
  • No More Heroes – played about an hour
  • Deadly Creatures – really want to play it, but haven’t touched at all
  • Condemned 1 & 2 – played them both for about an hour, really enjoyed, and stopped
  • And, of course,

  • Battlefield 1943 – isn’t actually out yet, but I can feel my fingers twitching at the thought of playing it

So if you see me on Xbox Live (gamertag: swishypants) and you catch me playing Call of Duty 4, please, send me a digital kick in the pants. I’ll thank you for it.


iPhone on Flickr

According to the site’s public data, the iPhone (green line) is the most popular camera on Flickr, having just passed the Canon Digital Rebel XTi/EOS 400D (pink line). It’s also interesting to see how the iPhone ranks in the percentage usage among camera phones (read: it’s virtually the only game in town).

I had really not been a fan of convergence, since I thought that any device that tries to be all things to all people will end up doing a piss-poor job of everything. But the iPhone is definitely making me rethink this.


Greed is Good?

I know I’m opening a can of worms here, but the more I read about the Bernard Madoff case, the weirder I find it.

The guy was a crook, and I think it’s good that a white-collar criminal is being made an example of. It’s refreshing to see someone actually having to deal with the consequences of their actions instead of being given a slap on the wrist.

But at the same time, I’m having trouble working up any sort of sympathy for Madoff’s victims. These are people who thought they had found some sort of infallible get-rich-quick scheme. Most of them jumped onto Madoff’s offer because it seemed “too good to be true”. Well, it was. One of the basic tenets of investing is to understand what you’re investing in. If they went through with the investment regardless of their ignorance, then it’s their own fault and sucks to be them. If they understood Madoff’s scheme and went through with it anyway, then they were just being greedy and, again, sucks to be them.

The worst part, though, is that these people actually make it difficult to work up any sympathy for them. Madoff’s victims were mostly wealthy businesspeople who were enticed by his unusually high returns. They got burned. They want compensation, which only seems fair, right? Sure, except it’s the Securities and Exchange Commission that would be paying out. Or rather, it would be the tax payer, via the S.E.C. that would be paying out. Is this fair? As Joe Nocera of the New York Times says, (somewhat invoking a modern-day Godwin), “Why should my tax dollars go to helping Madoff victims? This is not 9/11.” We’re in a murky, grey area of fairness now. Thankfully, we have the victims, like a fucking foghorn, warning us “here be dragons”. They don’t just want compensation of their initial investment. No, no. They want compensation based on the last statement they received.

Just let that sink in for a second.

They don’t just want the money they lost. They want the money they had been promised by a crook. The entire point of the Ponzi Scheme is precisely that the money does not exist in the first place, but that doesn’t matter to these people whose greed apparently ignores common sense. This is entirely like falling for one of those Nigerian 419 Scams, and then demanding that the government compensate you to the tune of the five trillion dollars you were promised.

Who said greed is good?


Losing Focus

If you’re taking part in Infinite Summer and, like me, find yourself falling behind or losing focus, Kevin Guilfoile has some fantastic, inspirational words:

The first ten pages of this book are remarkable. The first 100 pages are very good (if sometimes frustrating) but the first ten are amazing, and [David Foster Wallace] deliberately put them there, right at the front, in order to make you a promise.

He could have just said this: Listen up. I have a freaking great story to tell you.

If you feel yourself getting frustrated in parts, or lost. If you feel Wallace has lost your trust, stop, go back and read the first ten pages. You’ll find a promise.


I Will Hate You Until The Day I Die

A lesson in how not to react to criticism, courtesy of Alain de Botton.

Last week in the New York Times, Caleb Crain gave Alain de Botton’s new book a not particularly favourable review, in which he accuses de Botton of self-indulgence and snobbery. De Botton promptly heads off to Cain’s personal blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything (incidentally, one of the greatest blog titles I’ve ever seen) to vent and unleashed a tidal wave of invectives including the incredible lines “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

Let me just say this: wow.

I know this sounds ridiculous and cliched, but I was a huge fan of Alain de Botton’s early books. Essays in Love is an amazing piece of work, showing remarkable insight into the natural cycle of (failed) romantic relationships. How Proust Can Change Your Life was also stunning, and made me look at Proust in a whole different way. After that, though, came The Consolations of Philosophy, and the beginning of his decline. Since then, I feel his books have settled into a predictable, comfortable rhythm, usually because they are written merely as companions to increasingly generic, increasingly audience-friendly TV show. I don’t think I’ve actually finished any of his books since The Art of Travel.

Ignoring the specifics of Crain’s complaints, I feel like they could as easily be applied to any of de Botton’s recent books. There is a certain amount of snobbery. They frequently do veer off-topic in favour of (slightly smug) “amusing” asides. So I’m surprised that de Botton is finding Crain’s review so shocking.

Even more surprising, though, is de Botton’s reaction to his reaction. He points out, rightly, that what he was trying to do is to give authors a right to reply to critics, but worryingly seems to think that the only problem here is that he wrote his comments in a public forum, thinking it had been private (although the three previous comments didn’t tip him off?) In other words, he’s saying that, yes, he acted like an impetulant child, but the only thing he’s sorry about is that he got caught.

Again, wow.


Vatican Taking Notes from Berlusconi?

As some of you probably know, there’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII, the Pope who reigned during World War II. While many catholics, including Pope Benedict XVI, wish to make him a saint, critics accuse Pius of not doing enough to help the Jews during the holocaust.

Today, the head of the Vatican Archives, Monsignor Sergio Pagano, has said that there are things in the archive that will completely vindicate Pius, and show that he did a lot to help the Jews. But he can’t go into specifics.

“There will be some nice surprises, even as far as the Jews are concerned … Pope Pius took great risks, even very great personal risks, to save Jews. I can’t say more now but whoever wants to open their eyes in five or six years will be able to open them.”

On the one hand, this is understandable. There are currently 20 Vatican archivists working full-time on examining millions of pages of documents regarding Pius’s papacy, and it would be disrespectful, if not completely reckless, to start announcing details prematurely.

On the other hand, the first thing that popped into my head when I read this was Silvio Berlusconi who, almost two months ago, promised to release a statement explaining his relationship with 18-year old Noemi Letizia, which has not yet arrived. In fact, Berlusconi recently added his voice to President Giorgio Napolitano’s invitation to the media and opposition politicians to suspend discussion of “controversial issues” (read: Berlusconi’s numerous recent transgressions) until after the G8 summit.

That said, the long finger only goes so far with minor issues and, regardless of what the media from other countries believe, Berlusconi’s affairs are relatively minor issues within Italy. When we’re talking about the deaths of 6 million people? I doubt it.