Give the gift of blue drinks

It’s December 1, which means Christmas is coming up and Sinterklaas and Repeal Day are right around the corner. If you need a gift for the cocktail lover in your life, my recipe guide from 2010 is selling for about six bucks with shipping on Amazon right now and is perfectly sized for stuffing into stockings.

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“A bartender would be hard-pressed to use this as his reference at a bar where the average age of the clientèle was under 40. Missing are the Sex on the Beach, the Red-Headed Slut, the Orgasm and the Washington Apple, just to name the first few that come to mind.” — A satisfied Amazon reviewer.

The Cocktail Collective includes more than 200 recipes grouped into chapters by spirit: brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey, and assorted spirits like aquavit, genever, and amari. There are also introductory notes to each chapter, along with advice for mixing drinks and stocking a home bar. The emphasis is on spirits that are widely available and fresh ingredients that are easy to buy or make, and the spiral binding allows the book to lay flat while in use. (Oh, and there aren’t any actual blue drinks in the book. Sorry.)

Most of the recipes are classics, but there are also a few from me and a bunch from a stellar list of guest contributors:

Anu Apte, Stephen Beaumont, David Buehrer, Frank Cisneros, Ryan Csanky, John Deragon, Michael Dietsch, Ron Dollete, Jabriel Donohue, Meagan Dorman, Camper English, Andrew Finkelman, Ricky Gomez, Peter Gugni, Jenn Hegstrom, Neil Kopplin, Mindy Kucan, Tom Lindstedt, Kevin Ludwig, Elizabeth Markham, Lance Mayhew, Jim Meehan, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Blair Reynolds, Adam Robinson, Matt Robold, Jim Romdall, Stephen Shellenberger, David Shenaut, Chris Stave, Kelley Swenson, Jeremy James Thompson, Keith Waldbauer, Stephen Warner, Allison Webber, Neyah White, Rocky Yeh

Pick it up here to ensure your friends and loved ones don’t have a blue Christmas.

Recent reading

Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill), David Cay Johnston — A good book from 2007 about how government and wealthy elites collude to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense, even more relevant now than when it was written. Johnston writes from a somewhat progressive perspective but it reads just as well through a Public Choice lens. This paragraph for example:

Regulation by detailed rules has not worked. A century ago the reformers of the Gilded Age believed that if we just got the rules right, a just society would follow. Instead, the rules became ever more finely diced, creating unintended opportunities for mischief and often creating loopholes and favors for those whose conduct the rules were supposed to constrain.

The book stretches on a bit too long in my opinion, but it’s a good reminder that advocacy for free markets is often the complete opposite of advocacy for big business.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde — Two neuroscientists explain how the brain works in the context of magicians’ sneaky methods. As the authors say, magicians having been doing amateur neuroscience for centuries, making this a surprisingly useful approach. It’s a good primer and engagingly written.

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Grant Morrison — Everything you’d want from a Grant Morrison history of superheroes, up to and including his own recent work and his inspirational spiritual journey in Kathmandu. Morrison manages to bring out the best in every era of superheroes.

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, Brad Thomas Parsons — I like that we’re seeing more cocktail books that are focused on specific topics rather than being generic compilations of recipes. In this one bitters get their due. When I started tending bar a few years ago it was a struggle just to find orange bitters; now artisan bitters have flooded the market and craft cocktail bars make unheard of varieties their own. Parsons’ book provides a brief history of bitters and then provides fifteen recipes for making them at home, concluding with a well-selected mix of cocktail recipes. I haven’t tried making any of the bitters yet but I have enjoyed making some of the drinks. Highly recommended.

Portland’s 100 Best Places to Stuff Your Faces, Jen Stevenson — This is a very fun self-published guide to Portland restaurants from local food writer Jen Stevenson. The production values are high and the recommendations are spot-on. I eat out a lot and I’ve only been to sixty of the spots she suggests, so I have some new places to visit. I’d give this to anyone looking to explore the local food scene.

Recent reading, drinks edition

Drinking Japan, Chris Bunting — Is Japan the best drinking country in the world? Chris Bunting makes a good case for it. The culture benefits from long traditions of native spirits along with a willingness to import the best from around the world. The book includes chapters dedicated to sake, schochu, awamori, beer, whisky, and wine, with extensive guides to the best bars in which to enjoy them. A miscellaneous chapter covers assorted bars such as those specializing in cocktails, an Iranian-owned tequila bar with more than 500 agave spirits, and a bar with more than 40 bottlings of calvados. A final chapter includes advice on buying alcohol in Japan and an appendix provides the basic language needed for communicating in a Japanese bar. I haven’t visited Japan yet, but I’ll absolutely bring this book along when I go.

The Punch Bowl, Dan Searing — Dan Searing is a DC-based bartender who in 2009 hosted a series of punch events called Punch Club. Why were there no events like this when I lived there? This attractive book collects 75 punch recipes made with rum, whiskey, gin, wine, champagne, milk, and tea, along with photos of vintage punch bowls. There’s even a punch made with India Pale Ale that I’ll be trying out this week. David Wondrich’s book on punch is a tough act to follow, but this is a great resource.

Left Coast Libations, Ted Munat — I’ve been remiss in not recommending this sooner. Ted Munat and Michael Lazar collected 100 recipes from 50 of their favorite bartenders from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Canada. (Sorry, Vancouver, Washington. Maybe in the sequel). Some of the recipes are a bit obscure to try at home, calling for ingredients like lime-whey mixture and smoked cider air, but they capture this wonderfully creative moment in West Coast craft bartending. The real joy in this book is in the hilarious and off the wall profiles of the bartenders themselves, and the drink photographs by Jenn Farrington are also gorgeous.

Bourbon: The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey, Sam K. Cecil — Written by a veteran of the American whiskey industry, this book covers the history of bourbon. The introductory chapters cover some familiar ground, but the heart of this book is the 200 page guide to individual distilleries that operated throughout Kentucky. This is an extensive resource and a wealth of information for anyone looking for an in-depth history of distilling in Kentucky.

Cocktails 2011, Food & Wine — As always, this is a beautifully photographed guide to the year in cocktails. Lots of drinks to try out here.

My favorite copy of The Road to Serfdom

I found this at a used book store in Nashville when I was in college there. It’s the eighth American printing, from July 1945.

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In his biography of Friedrich Hayek, Alan Ebenstein writes that paper rationing in World War II made it impossible for UK publishers to keep up with reader demand for The Road to Serfdom:

The initial print run of 2,000 copies sold out within days. According to British intellectual historian Richard Cockett, Hayek’s publisher, Routledge, ordered an immediate reprint of 1,000 copies, and in the “following two years they were to be engaged in a losing race to satisfy the huge public demand for the book.” Because of wartime paper rationing, Routledge could not print as many copies as it wished. The summer following the work’s release, Hayek complainingly referred to it as “that unobtainable book.”

I don’t know if it was ever quite so rare here in the US, but wartime scarcity affected American publishers too. The book is very small, practically a pocket edition. The dedication page explains in tiny print:

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“This printing has been redesigned to conform to the government’s request to conserve paper.” On the classic book against central economic planning. Gotta love it.

Entertaining with cocktails in the O

I have an article in the Oregonian today and amazingly it’s not about smoking bans. It’s about how to entertain guests at home without spending the entire night behind the bar. Of the three drinks included, only one is a individually mixed cocktail. The other two are a liqueur-spiked hot chocolate and a punch excerpted from David Wondrich’s forthcoming book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.

I can’t recommend Wondrich’s book highly enough. He’s done a tremendous amount of work tracking down punch recipes, obtaining obscure ingredients, and translating incomplete instructions into methods readers can reproduce at home. This is a fascinating part of drinking history that’s been largely forgotten, and Wondrich’s research into the culture surrounding punch is of even greater interest than the drinks themselves. The book is a game changer. If you want to serve punches at home, be sure to pick it up a copy. It comes out November 2.

I should also mention that I’m joining the amazing staff at Metrovino. This is one of my favorite restaurants in Portland, with fantastic food and an amazing wine list. Their cocktails and spirit selection have also been very good, but up until now they haven’t had a full-time bar manager. I’m happy to say that my friend Kyle Webster, formerly of Noble Rot, has come on board to take over that role and put even more focus on spirits and cocktails. I’m coming in to join him once or week or so. Kyle’s first menu is already live, so stop in soon to check it out.

Recent reading

I must remember to do these posts more often. Amazon referrals are my drinkin’ money. (Not really. If they were I’d still be saving up for my first case of PBR. But every little bit helps!). On to the books…

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, Paul Davies — My interest in aliens goes way back, but Davies’ arguments are fascinating regardless of that. In answer to the question of why we haven’t found signs of extraterrestrial life, Davies encourages us to question our deep biases about what other lifeforms might be like, suggesting that we might even renew our search for a second genesis right here on Earth.

The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives, Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey — I don’t have either the mathematics or economics background to take all of this in, but it has changed for the better the way I read uncritical reports of new studies finding some correlation between X and Y. “Does an effect exist?” ask many social scientists and reporters. “How big is the effect?” ask Ziliak and McCloskey. Responsible science reporting requires answers to both questions.

The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, David E. Gumpert — If you read only one book about the battles over raw milk, this should be it — though it doesn’t exactly have a lot of competition. Gumpert comes down clearly on the side of raw milk activists, but he does turn a skeptical eye when their claims strain credulity. And if there are a few too many quotes from emails and blog posts, the book at least gets points for being thorough. If you’re interested in the topic it really is a must read. (Side note: This is a niche book, but while reading it in a restaurant my server enthusiastically told me that she was reading it too. Such a Portland moment!)

Food and Wine Cocktails 2010 — As it does every year, this book provides a wide-ranging look at what top bartenders are doing around the country. This year vodka has been kicked aside to share a chapter with genever and aquavit, making what’s usually the most boring spirit chapter of the book more interesting. The drink recipes keep getting more complex, making a lot of them impractical for trying out on the spur of the moment. If you’re looking for inspiration, however, this guide is always a good place to turn.

The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys, Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan — This is a reprint of the Regans’ 1995 book. Some parts of it seem a little dated now, but the 60+ page chapter on the history of American whiskey and the whiskey primer are great resources. The Regans’ writing is enjoyable as always, as are the many photographs and illustrations throughout.

A simple sparkling cocktail

Over at About.com Lance Mayhew has posted a simple brunch or aperitif cocktail we recently came up with featuring Quady Essensia, an Orange Muscat dessert wine. The wine is delicious on its own but we wanted to play with it in mixed drinks too. This one adds in mild Canadian whiskey, Prosecco, and orange bitters; head over to About for the recipe for the Viscusi cocktail.

Incidentally the drink is named after Vanderbilt economist Kip Viscusi, whose book Smoke-Filled Rooms happened to be out on my counter while Lance and I were experimenting with drinks. I don’t know if Viscusi is into cocktails, but I hope he’ll be glad to find his name on one if he ever comes across it.

The influential book meme

Tyler Cowen has started a meme among bloggers by encouraging us to list the ten books that have most influenced our view of the world. I’m happy to play along.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek — As close as any book gets to defining my own political views: Classically liberal, non-dogmatic, skeptical of government power, somewhat deferent to evolved institutions, nurturing of spontaneous order, and always cognizant of the limits of knowledge.

The Economic Way of Thinking, Paul Heyne — The title explains it all. Heyne explained economic principles by grounding them in human action, making the subject enlightening and approachable. I’m grateful that my high school economics teacher chose this particular textbook for our class. In contrast, my college peers were expected to start their study with macroeconomics and no background in micro; they were understandably perplexed. I wish that more students were introduced to economics via this book.

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill — “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand — I count these as one because I read them in quick succession, in fact for a few months in high school nearly every book I read was penned by Rand. Thankfully I avoided the ideological lure of becoming a pure Objectivist but it was these books that transformed me from a moderately conservative teenager into the kind of college student who plans spring break around a visit to the Cato Institute. As I wrote in an earlier book meme post, “It’s safe to say that without Atlas… no Torch, no IHS seminars, no Cato internship. And no eventual burn out that led to becoming a barista? Perhaps. The alternate life in which I didn’t read this book while young is hard to picture.” Conor Friedersdorf includes Atlas in his list as well, in part for its depiction of the rewards of work. For that inspiration I’d cite instead…

A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean — “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” Previous blogging about this here.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins — A stand-in for any number of books about evolution, selected for the starkness with which it depicts evolution as a process not directed to any particular end. What survives is what replicates.

The Gay Science/Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche — “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

The Art of the Bar, Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz — It’s odd to put a bartending book in the same list with Nietzsche and Hayek, but mixology has become my primary non-writing creative outlet. It’s not from this book that I learned to tend bar but it was the one that inspired me to start inventing my own drinks.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov — My introduction to science fiction, a genre that paints the universe as vastly wonderful and inspired my optimistic views of science and technology. Ironically, the premise of Foundation — that a social scientist could predict humanity’s future for centuries and guide the government needed to shape it — is as anti-Hayekian as it gets.

A decade-plus of Superman and Batman comics — A boy could have worse influences than these iconic heroes.

Recent reading: A trio of tobacco books

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading related to tobacco policy in preparation for some upcoming writing projects…

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, Christopher Snowdon — I link to Chris’ blog of the same name frequently here. He’s one of the best critics of paternalist excesses writing today and one of the few journalists exposing the shoddy science put out by many anti-tobacco researchers. His book-length review of the anti-smoking movement goes back all the way to Columbus and is essential for putting the current movement in historical context. His coverage of secondhand smoke and bibliography of ETS papers is also very valuable. Highly recommended and lively written.

Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, Richard Kluger — A 700+ page doorstop of a book chronicling the history of the American cigarette business. Though a little dated by its publication prior to the Master Settlement Agreement, the book presents a remarkably balanced view of the players involved. Though by no means a tobacco apologist, Kluger manages to portray Big Tobacco executives with enough sympathy to make them human and sometimes admirable businessmen working in an embattled industry. Reformers, too, are shown in a balanced light. (Only John Banzhaf appears completely without redeeming qualities; he manages to come off as an ass no matter who is profiling him.)

Kluger fairly describes the progress of science, from when tobacco companies could legitimately claim skepticism of cigarettes’ health effects to when their denials became absurd. Similar scrutiny is given to the overblown claims of secondhand smoke by their opposition. In the final pages he even comes close to predicting the MSA, though in the details he fails to guess how the tobacco companies would use it to raise prices and create a legally protected cartel.

Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, Gene M. Heyman — The title is a bit off-putting, suggesting that the book accuses addicts of choosing to have their disorder. That’s inaccurate. Heyman, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School, is actually offering an economic model of addiction, explaining substance abuse in terms of individual decisions and the way they can be distorted by addictive substances. Specifically, addictive substances tend to offer immediate benefits and long-term costs (exacerbated by withdrawal symptoms), to induce intoxication, and to undermine the value of more productive activities, all making habitual use hard to break.

Heyman is primarily concerned with illegal drugs but cigarettes do get a mention as a partial exception to the pattern. They don’t intoxicate the user and don’t interfere too much with other valuable activities, making the choice to smoke in any given situation very easy. This suggests that a useful approach to treating cigarette addiction would be to develop safer products that fill the same niche. This perspective is of special interest now given the development of e-cigarettes and research suggesting that nicotine alone can only partially explain cigarette addiction.

On “careers”

Jason Zengerle’s New Republic profile of Tucker Carlson is worth reading in full, but it’s this paragraph that stood out for me:

More than three years later, Carlson is still defending his “Dancing With the Stars” turn, if not his dancing ability. “Oh, I loved it,” he insists, professing that his recent trajectory has not bothered him in the slightest. “I never take the long view on my own career. I don’t even know that I have a career or have ever had one–and I’m not sure I would ever want one.”

This reminds me of an anecdote from Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin, whose interests had meandered from learning magic to playing the banjo to performing stand-up comedy, was finally earning his first appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson as host:

I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next thirty years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy. On one of my appearances, after he had done a solid impression of Goofy the cartoon dog, he leaned over to me during a commercial and whispered prophetically, “You’ll use everything you ever knew.” He was right; twenty years later I did my teenage rope tricks in the movie ¡Three Amigos!.

Perhaps this is just rationalization — my income this week: a few bucks in Google ads — but I think there’s something to be said for doing whatever one finds most interesting at the time and accumulating a diverse set of skills. At least twice I’ve thought about settling into more stable careers and looking back I think I’d be missing out terribly if I had. As for whether I can make this erratic approach work long-term, well, that remains to be seen.

[Carlson link via TMN.]

A sinner’s governor

I don’t know much about Virginia Governor-elect Robert McDonnell, but I already like him far more than his paternalist predecessor Tim Kaine. One of the first items on his agenda is privatizing the state’s horrendous liquor stores:

[...] the commonwealth currently only has about 300 ABC stores to serve nearly 8 million people, or about one per 27,000 people. The District, in contrast, has more than 500 stores. D.C. consumers are much better served with broader selection, greater convenience and lower prices. Many Virginians, particularly the half-million or so who live inside the Beltway, travel into the District to buy spirits, costing Virginia revenue.

Virginia’s ABC stores are a tower of mediocrity. They are centrally managed retail outlets that would have been palaces in the Soviet Union, but today they are anachronistic. They offer highly limited choices, often lacking exciting new brands or those with a cult following. Staff members generally aren’t knowledgeable about how to mix drinks or make cocktails. And the prices are artificially high because there is no competition: The state decides what to charge.

That’s from Garrett Peck, whose book The Prohibition Hangover arrived at my apartment last week. It’s now at the top of my to-read pile.

McDonnell was also an opponent of the Virginia smoking ban, believing that smoking policies were another issue best left to the free market. If he can weaken the ban and eliminate the ABC liquor monopoly I’ll gladly light a stogie and sip a rare bourbon in his honor next time I’m in the Old Dominion.

Update 11/9/09: It’s been pointed out that McDonnell has a paternalist streak too, at least when it comes to the bedroom. See this Washing Post editorial about his early conservative views, which though they may have cooled still have him opposing same-sex marriage.

[Via Ivan Osorio and @StogieGuys.]

Recent reading, food and drink edition

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. I spent the last few days at the very nice Sunriver Resort outside of Bend, OR for the Oregon Restaurant Association’s annual convention. Lance Mayhew and I were there to give a presentation on contemporary mixology, offering tips to attendees about how to manage their bars, demonstrating cocktails, and introducing them to a few spirits they may not have tried before. Our talk was well received, helped in no small part by the alcohol that went along with it!

With all of the events going on I had no time to write, so I’m going to consider just getting the morning links up without repeating the “outocoems similar to War” incident victory enough. In the meantime here are a few food and drink related book recommendations:

Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh — I’ve been looking forward to the new edition of this book for a long time. Ted Haigh, aka Doctor Cocktail, is an avid promoter of forgotten cocktail recipes and a driving force in the revival of the bartending craft. In this book he presents 100 drinks along with his characteristically good-humored writing, thirst-inducing photos, and plenty of vintage artwork. The emphasis is on spirits that are readily available or will be soon, so readers with access to good liquor markets shouldn’t have too much trouble assembling ingredients. A nice touch is the book’s spiral binding, which makes it easy to leave open on the bar while mixing a drink. This has become my favorite resource lately for finding new cocktails and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, Fuschia Dunlop — The first book covers Sichuan cuisine, the second Hunan. Together they’ve vastly improved the way I cook at home, spoiling me against restaurant versions of some favorite dishes. That’s a good thing. Searching out ingredients sometimes requires diligent shopping, but the resulting dinners have been consistently worth the effort.

Cocktails ’09, Food and WineFood and Wine’s annual cocktail guide changes format this year, shifting from chapters organized by spirit to chapters dedicated to individual bartenders (with one chapter of “mixologist’s drinks” featuring cocktails from a variety of people). Many of the drinks require an extensive liquor cabinet or time prepping ingredients, but as always it’s a great place to look for inspiration from some of the country’s top talent.

Recent reading

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. And since I took the “currently reading” list off the sidebar I should really do them more often. One complication: I’ve had less time for reading since leaving DC, where I could do my online news reading as part of my job and enjoy books each way on my Metro commute. It’s been harder to work reading into my Portland lifestyle. The ideal solution would be to spend more time reading on planes while flying to exotic destinations, but unfortunately I can’t afford this. In any case, here are a few recommendations:

The Prestige, Christopher Priest — The best novel about magicians I’ve read recently. Also the only one, but still a very good book. If you’ve seen the movie then you already know the two major plot revelations, but this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment at all; in fact, it lets one appreciate writing in the early parts of the book that would otherwise be mysterious or confusing. The dueling magicians are less violent and much more sympathetic here than in Christopher Nolan’s take.

This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer — The best novel about the Dutch colonization of Indonesia I’ve read recently. And it’s not the only one, because I read the entire series of four, known as the Buru Quartet. This and its sequel are the most character-driven and accessible. The third is dense with history, while the fourth changes perspective to that of a native collaborator. All highly recommended. (Incidentally, the name for my Ontosoroh cocktail, which uses the Dutch-Indonesian spirit Batavia-Arrack, comes from this book.)

Pets in America, Katherine Grier — As with most people named Grier, no relation. A fascinating exploration of how American attitudes toward pets evolved, with numerous historical accounts and illuminating photos and illustrations.

The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross — My lack of familiarity with the music discussed didn’t prevent from enjoying and learning a great deal from this history of twentieth century composition.

Born Standing Up, Steve Martin — I’ll read just about anything from Steve Martin. This, his self-account of developing as a comedian, was particularly fascinating to me for the ways his early training in magic helped him pull off his ecstatic physicality. A bonus treat for Vanderbilt alumni is his description of how a performance at the university accidentally birthed an ending to his act that he used for years. (Though interestingly, my father was there for it and remembers the details differently. Highlight from his recollection: Martin telling security officers that his name was Carmichael Towers!)

Words cannot describe…

Cooking with Fernet-Branca

… my disappointment that this is a work of fiction, not a cookbook. This is exactly what we’re doing at Carlyle right now though. Stay tuned.

Selling bricks

Angus has a hard time believing that this scam really worked:

German police said on Monday that they have arrested one of two British men suspected of selling bags that they said held laptops and mobile phones but which in reality contained potatoes.

Authorities believe the pair tricked around 40 people in two German states driving around in a car with British number plates, convincing them to hand over cash for the electronic hardware but giving them spuds instead.

It does seem implausible, doesn’t it? My guess is that the reporter is leaving out a few details and that there were at least some phones or phone-like objects at the top of the bags to make them look real. This is a variation on the classic “selling bricks” scam. Magician and self-described former con man Simon Lovell explains the method and psychology that make it work:

Have you ever been stuck in traffic and seen a guy, carrying a box, walking through the cars? Have you ever seen him offer the contents to somebody and walk away with cash? If you have then you’ve seen somebody buy a brick.

The box is one for a top of the line video camera. A cursory look inside the box lets you see the camera. Well, you see the plastic and polystyrene around a camera shape, but you can see the lens and a few controls visible through the holes the manufacturer strategically places in the packaging to entice you to buy it in its more normal habitat of a store.

The price the guy is offering it for is less than a third of the retail price. Obviously it’s stolen but, what the hell, a bargain is a bargain isn’t it?

If you buy it, you larcenous little devil, you deserve the punishment. You bought a lens and a few cheap controls positioned around a brick to give the package weight. This scam is also done with video machines, CD players, televisions, and, in fact, just about anything that comes in a box.

When he offers it to you, you have only a few moments to make up your mind. The traffic will be moving in just a second and you don’t have time to examine the product. It’s a take it now or lose it forever deal. Enough people take it to make this quite a profitable little trade when the con man has nothing else to do for fun.

That’s from Simon’s informative and entertaining book How to Cheat at Everything. Originally published in the small-run, expensive magicians’ press, it’s made the leap to mass market paperback and covers in detail everything from bar bets and carny games to high-stakes card cheating. Highly recommended if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

If you’re in New York City you can also catch Simon’s live show at the Huron Club, where he demonstrates his cheating skills and off the wall sense of humor.

The soft bigotry of high expectations

OC Latte

If you haven’t read the New York Times Magazine excerpt of Shop Class as Soulcraft, I’d urge you to do so. The original essay from The New Atlantis is one of my favorites and I’m thrilled to see that author Matthew Crawford has expanded it into a book. Crawford left an office job, academia, and public policy to open a motorcycle repair shop, finding the most satisfaction in the last endeavor. Few seem to understand his decision:

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

This is because they miss the intellectual challenges of the job:

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

My own experience mirrors Crawford’s, right up to the failed experiment in working for think tanks (though unlike him, I have great respect for the work done by my previous employers — I simply didn’t want to remain a daily part of the institution). When I would tell people in DC that I was a barista, their response was almost always something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s nice, but what do you really want to do?” The idea that making coffee was what I really wanted to do was incomprehensible to them.

Yet the job had more intellectual challenge to it than outsiders realize. Coaxing a good shot of espresso out of whole coffee beans is a puzzle requiring knowledge of the product and the science of brewing, and also a sensory understanding and mastery of the equipment that only develops with experience. A change in grind, in dosage, in water temperature, or any of a dozen other factors could be the difference between a mediocre shot and a true expression of the coffee. Maintaining quality required constant thought and attention.

There is also the greater feeling of reality that comes with doing manual work. Crawford describes his dawning disillusionment with his first cubicle job:

Those who work on the lower rungs of the information-age office hierarchy face their own kinds of unreality, as I learned some time ago. After earning a master’s degree in the early 1990s, I had a hard time finding work but eventually landed a job in the Bay Area writing brief summaries of academic journal articles, which were then sold on CD-ROMs to subscribing libraries. When I got the phone call offering me the job, I was excited. I felt I had grabbed hold of the passing world — miraculously, through the mere filament of a classified ad — and reeled myself into its current. My new bosses immediately took up residence in my imagination, where I often surprised them with my hidden depths. As I was shown to my cubicle, I felt a real sense of being honored. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was my desk, where I would think my thoughts — my unique contribution to a common enterprise, in a real company with hundreds of employees. The regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the order of things. I was to be a knowledge worker.

But the feel of the job changed on my first day. The company had gotten its start by providing libraries with a subject index of popular magazines like Sports Illustrated. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, it now found itself offering not just indexes but also abstracts (that is, summaries), and of a very different kind of material: scholarly works in the physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences and law. Some of this stuff was simply incomprehensible to anyone but an expert in the particular field covered by the journal. I was reading articles in Classical Philology where practically every other word was in Greek. Some of the scientific journals were no less mysterious. Yet the categorical difference between, say, Sports Illustrated and Nature Genetics seemed not to have impressed itself on the company’s decision makers. In some of the titles I was assigned, articles began with an abstract written by the author. But even in such cases I was to write my own. The reason offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value added” by our product. It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material. But then, I hadn’t yet been trained.

There’s no denying that having a manual job like working in a coffee shop requires doing many tasks that aren’t at all intellectually stimulating: mopping floors, cleaning grinders, manning the cash register, etc. But there’s also no denying that this stuff has to get done and serves a clear purpose. This knowledge made these tasks much more satisfying than many pointless office routines I have performed, even if the latter required more intellectual effort.

Crawford writes, “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.” I would go a bit further and add that a good job offers opportunities for beauty. Though no Christian myself, I think there’s much truth in the fly-fishing theology of A River Runs Through It:

As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.” [...]

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Working an espresso machine offers many moments of beauty. My time condensing 30 page policy studies into 5 paragraph press releases was often challenging, but it was never beautiful. (There are occasionally beautiful moments at Cato, such as the awarding of the 2008 Friedman Prize to Venezuelan student activist Yon Goicoechea, but these never involved my work in media relations.)

I can’t imagine ever going back to office life and its rush hour commutes, enterprise software, and pointless dress codes. And yet I woudn’t be happy focusing entirely on craft, either. I still want to engage in public intellectual life and am painfully aware of how my hours behind the bar detract from my time to write and research. I feel very lucky to be living in a time in which the internet has made it so unnecessary to choose between the two paths, however difficult it can be to strike the right balance. Crawford does a great service dispelling the notion that mastery of a trade is something to be looked down upon or seen as a course suitable only for those unequipped for more esteemed professions.

Reassessing Atlas

Like many libertarians, I have a love/hate relationship with Ayn Rand’s books. There’s no doubt that reading them in high school was a transformational experience that, along with studying economics, put me on the path toward liberal ideas and political advocacy. But the books can be a little too transformational, luring inquisitive minds into the trap of ideology; I’d suggest that young people reading them do so with a healthy dose of criticism. Reading news like this, however, tilts the balance strongly in Rand’s favor:

The House voted this week to reauthorize and reform national service laws, which could open the door for compulsory national service. The plan will explore whether to establish a “volunteer corps” to see if “a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people” should be developed.

Translation: Think military draft, only you don’t get a gun and you still have to do it if you have flat feet.

At a time when the government is seriously considering coercing all Americans to toil in its service, I’ll take my doses of radical individualism wherever I can find them. Leo Grin captures what’s great about her books in an otherwise critical roundup of perspectives at NRO:

At base, Rand’s fiction is the stuff of fantasy and myth, in the best sense. Howard Roark and John Galt fill outsized roles once occupied by the likes of Achilles and Odysseus, Arthur and Lancelot. Impossibly brave and resourceful, towering in their loves and hates, they stand as sterling exemplars of treasured traits. The need for such larger-than-life heroes is evergreen.

How quickly we have forgotten the unutterable darkness of the shadows cast by various strains of collectivism throughout the 20th century! More than a hundred million dead, entire populations subjected to inhuman servitude: Against that monstrous, encroaching gloom, Rand crafted tales that sanctified freedom and individualism, burning away the saccharine happy-face of liberalism and exposing the fangs and poison sacs beneath. True, outside of Rand’s fevered imagination, Atlas is unlikely ever to shrug with such thunder and panache. But for more than 50 years, countless readers have been quietly transformed by the strength and resonance of her capitalist clarion call.

Still relevant in the Age of Obama? With all due respect to Whittaker Chambers, if we didn’t already have her, we’d have to invent her, double-quick.