More lemony goodness: lemon sherbet

My experiment with making limoncello (part 1, 2) left me with quite a few skinless lemons on my hands. I’d planned on just making lemonade with them, but co-blogger Natasha had a better idea: lemon sherbet.

I was unfamiliar with the drink, but it was easy to make. Following her recommendations, I poured a pot of water with twice as much liquid as the amount of juice I was able to extract from the fruit. I set this to boil and dropped in cinnamon sticks, cloves, and cardamom pods. After letting this boil down for a while, I scooped out the spices and added sugar. Then I mixed in the lemon juice and let it all refrigerate.

This leaves you with a concentrate to mix with cold water or club soda. I slightly prefer the zip of the club soda version, but both are tasty and refreshing. Lemon is the dominant flavor, but the spices provide depth and complexity while the sugar cuts the tartness. All in all, a good combination. Plus, the mulling part of the process makes your kitchen smell great.

Natasha also recommends this article on the history of sherbet. I have no idea how my own batch compares to the real thing, but it’s an intriguing look at an old drink without much presence in the West.

[This entry was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 8/31/06.]


Experimenting with homemade limoncello, pt. 2

Earlier this month I posted about my attempt at making homemade limoncello. When we left off, the lemon zest had begun its two week vodka bath. (I wish I could take a two week vodka bath.) I completed the last steps of the process a few days ago, leaving the limoncello just about ready to drink.

The first step in part two of the recipe is to create some simple syrup. To do this, heat two cups of water and two cups of sugar together to just below boiling. Once all the sugar has dissolved, take it off the heat and let it cool down to room temperature. Imbibe says that warm syrup will result in cloudy limoncello. Nothing wrong with that, but I’d rather maximize clarity.

The next thing to do is filter the lemon zest out of the vodka. This is done by pouring the infusion through moistened cheese cloth suspended over a bowl. Use a rubber band to keep the cloth in place as in the photo at right. At the top of the post is a picture of the cloth with all the zest left behind. Be sure to squeeze all the juice out of it before throwing it all away.

From here on out it’s smooth sailing. If you managed to keep the bottle of vodka leftover from last time away from yourself and thirsty roommates, pour it into the bowl with the filtered infusion. Otherwise, admit you have a problem, run out to the liquor store, and buy a new one. Try not to drink it on the way home.

Finally, pour the simple syrup into the bowl and stir it all up. Congratulations, you’ve got limoncello! Bottle it in the vessel of your choice and stick it in the freezer. A week of ageing will help the flavors marry, but it’s drinkable now. Pour the cold liquid into a chilled shot glass and sip slowly. Ahhhh….

Thanks to a couple friends, I was able to sample a couple of authentic Italian limoncellos recently to refresh my memory of what they taste like. My homemade batch compares surprisingly well. It’s a little sweeter, but the flavors are very similar. It’s noticeably less filtered, too, but I don’t think that matters. The backlighting int he photo of the bottles makes it look misleadingly pale. Verdict: Success!

The good results of this experiment have inspired to me keep trying infusions. For next time I’m thinking lime and ginger. And then, oh, weeniecello? Probably not.

Coming up, what to do with all those zestless lemons.

[Update 8/30/06: Make some lemon sherbet with those leftover fruits.]

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 8/30/06.]


Look into my eyes listen to the radio

When I was a big dork in junior high, one of the things I did was read the school’s morning announcements on the PA system. Ten years later I’m stil a big dork, but at least now I’m working against the man.

I was invited to be one of the guests on this month’s America’s Future Foundation podcast. I kick off the show with a report on the situation regarding the eminent domain takeover of Barry’s Magic Shop. Then Sean Higgins of Investor’s Business Daily talks about the minimum wage debate followed by J. P. Freire discussing identity politics on the right. We wrap it up with the “outrage of the month” feature, in which I manage to work in statements about coffee and fractal analysis of Jackson Pollock paintings (I warned AFF I was going to be esoteric…).

I listened to the show yesterday. That was the first time I’ve heard my own voice in several years, the inevitable consequence of which is that it sounds weird and I don’t like it. I trust that no one else hears it that way, but it’s still off-putting. I’m happy with my performance overall; I could have been a bit punchier, but I managed to stay on topic and avoid saying anything dumb. The spontaneous dialogue among the panelists made for a fun change from blogging.

Listen to the show here. And just to prove I wasn’t completely making things up about Pollock, here’s a paper on fractal expressionism.


A bounty of beans from San Francisco

A few days ago I got to enjoy some great espresso blends courtesy of co-blogger David. He was coming back from San Francisco and asked if I wanted him to bring anything back for me. Beans from two shops came immediately to mind: Ritual and Blue Bottle.

Ritual is a hip new coffee shop in Valencia. It’s been profiled in Wired as a hangout for techies, but it’s also known in the coffee world for having talented baristas, delicious coffee from the Stumptown Roaster in Portland, and style to spare. Blue Bottle is a roaster in Oakland with a charming walk-up shop in Hayes Valley. The espresso and Gibraltar I had there last fall count as some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, period. (I previously wrote up my visit to Blue Bottle on my own blog.)

David brought back three bags of espresso to try: Stumptown’s Hairbender and Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Blend and Roman espresso.

David brought the coffee by the shop where I work, Open City in Woodley Park. While I got the equipment ready to go, I started him off with a shot of our house espresso, Counter Culture’s newly reformulated Toscana. The summer batches of the blend had been a bit rough, with a consistent sweet spot hard to locate. The new blend, composed of two Sumatrans and a Brazilian, dials in very nicely with caramely sweetness. The crema-rich photo on the right is the shot I pulled for David. Pretend I airbrushed out the sugar packet; he didn’t actually use it and would be offended if I suggested he did!

Hairbender was the first blend we tried out. As I feared, it became quickly apparent that the beans had aged a bit too much on the journey from SF. They were just over two weeks old by the time I got to them. Nonetheless, the Hairbender’s crema held up well and the flavor came out like dark chocolate. Of the three blends, this one aged the best. It’s the one flowing from the portafilter at the top of the post and in the demitasse at left. It also performed well in the small cappuccino pictured at the bottom of the post.

Next on the lineup was the Hayes Valley Blend. Both of the Blue Bottle blends suffered more from ageing, coming out a bit thin. This is no fault of the roaster. Coffee isn’t meant to age well! A fun aspect of the Blue Bottle beans is the precise brewing instructions they come with. Working on a Synesso espresso machine, I was able to set the group head to the exact temperature recommended for each blend. For Hayes Valley this is 195 degrees. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to pull a good shot of this one, certainly nothing to compare to the sweetness they produce at their shop.

The last blend was the Roman Espresso. They suggest brewing this at a ridiculously low 184 degrees. I bumped it up two degrees to try to coax a little more crema out of the older beans, with mixed results. It still poured thinly, but the character of the coffee came through — lots of brightness and a little bit sweet. People who tasted it liked it. I’m anxious to try this one again with some fresher beans. When I order more from Blue Bottle, I’ll post again to give them a better review at the peak of freshness.

The last two photos are of the Hairbender capp and of the cafe from behind the espresso bar.

Thanks to David for bringing me the beans and taking the photos. We’ll do this again sometime!

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee. This post was originally published on EatFoo(d) on 8/29/06.]

Share roundup

With the plug-in not working, we’ll have to do this manually. Here’s what I’ve been bookmarking this week…

Perhaps my limoncello didn’t appeal to you. How about weeniecello? Personally, I’d rather consume the vodka infused hot dogs than the hot dog infused vodka.

Speaking of alcohol, government continues to make it harder to drink. In Chicago, bottle service — groups of customers buying a bottle of liquor for the table instead of ordering one drink at a time — is now considered illegal. And the TSA’s liquid ban is bad news for wine tourism.

Some good news for people like me: a new study finds that while moderate and light coffee consumption could increase one’s risk for heart attack, heavy coffee drinkers seem to face no additional risk. So drink more coffee! Heck, put an espresso machine in your car if you have to!

While on the subject of coffee, what’s up with this Craigslist ad seeking a “male barista?” Is it a dumb joke about how a barista can be a man despite sounding like a feminine noun (it isn’t), or are they really seeking only men for the job?

For the economists in the audience, Tyler Cowen talks about comparative advantage. And do tall people earn more because they’re smarter?

Movie buffs, enjoy this compilation of instances of the Wilhelm Scream. And for music, here’s a collection of Beatles covers.

Lighting a park with heliostats looks like a cool idea.

These six horrifying parasites are interesting, but the faint of heart probably won’t want to click.

Finally, something erotic and safe for work… stone porn!

[Update 8/27/06: Hooray! The plug-in is working again. Apparently changed its API and I needed an updated version to make things compatible. If any WordPress users want to add the plug-in to their site, find the newest version here.]


Stress relief

A new feature in GMail allows you to select all emails matching a search parameter. Before this, if you wanted to delete all the emails matching a certain phrase or from a certain mailing list, you’d have to do so page by page of search results. Now you can do it all at once.

As of today, the number of unread emails in my inbox stood at 1,127. I had no intention of reading all of those, but still, the number taunted me daily. No longer. After searching for unread mail, selecting all of it, and marking it all as read, my inbox is down to zero for the first time in two years. What a good feeling for so little effort! I feel so good I might have to send a few GMail invites out to these guys.

The vast majority of these emails were from mailing lists. I promise I read the personal emails, even if I’m not so good at responding right away.


Recent bloggage

At Smelling the Coffee, I rant about Taiwan’s new caffeine warning labels. And at EatFoo, I’m experimenting with homebrewed limoncello.

I’ve noticed that the plugin that should be automatically fetching my newest links has mysteriously stopped working. I don’t know how to fix it, so that feature may disappear until I get a chance to upgrade to the newest version of WordPress or find another plugin that works with version 1.5.


Who is Bob Smither?

Over the weekend I received a phone call from a friend in Texas suggesting I look into Libertarian Congressional candidate Bob Smither. Smither is running for District 22 in the southern Houston area. Thanks to Tom DeLay’s fortuitous resignation, there is no Republican on the ballot. Democrat Nick Lampson, Smither, and a GOP write-in campaign are the only choices that voters will be faced with on election day. Is this the big break the Libertarian Party needs to win a seat in Congress?

Smither for Congress

The LP’s prospects for winning a major political race are usually dimmed by two factors:

1. Races are either heavily dominated by one of the major parties or the races are competitive. In either case, getting enough voters to defect to a third party is extremely unlikely.

2. LP candidates are often dogmatists and crackpots who, even if a realistic opportunity presented itself, lack leadership potential.

There is no Republican on the ballot and the write-in campaign will likely be divided among several candidates and garner little support. I don’t know what Lampson’s chances are in District 22, but the area is traditionally Republican. This leaves the door open for Smither if he can run a credible campaign.

Fortunately, everything I’ve heard about Smither puts him firmly in the reasonable Libertarian camp. He has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Houston and taught there as an adjunct professor for fourteen years. He incorporated his own business and now works as an independent consultant. He also has considerable name recognition in the area because his young daughter Laura was tragically abducted and murdered there in 1997. In response, his family set up the Laura Recovery Center, a non-profit organization that fosters cooperation between law enforcement and the community in preventing abductions and finding lost children. My friend, a Republican who leans strongly libertarian, spoke with Smither and was left with a very favorable impression of the man. He has a WordPress weblog.

Smither has promised to vote for a Republican leadership in the House, but his libertarian credentials are solid. This is his take on the War on Drugs:

We don’t need to “fix” the insane and inhumane federal war on drugs, we need to admit defeat and kill it. The drug war causes our neighborhoods and our borders to be overrun with thugs that profit from the artificially high costs of illicit drugs, encourages us to meddle in the affairs of other countries, corrupts our police and courts, imprisons honest Americans that simply want relief from pain, and costs the country some $50,000,000,000 (50 Billion dollars) a year.

The federal war on drugs crowds our jails with citizens who have harmed no one but themselves, causing us to release violent offenders to prey again on us and on our children.

We need to let the citizens of each state decide what to do about this problem without the interference of out-of-control federal prosecuters. Leaving it to the states has some advantages. First, this is a Constitutional approach to the problem, and second, we will all benefit from the 50 experiments that citizens in our 50 states will develop. I know that the American people can find a solution to this problem, and I will bet that when we do, it will look nothing like the current federal war on drugs.

On foreign policy:

Our government now routinely interferes in the affairs of other countries, from bribing them to do our bidding in the federal drug war to invading those countries that have governments we disagree with, or whose resources we covet. I am ashamed of these actions of my government, taken in my name.

On taxation:

I believe it is time to replace all federal taxation with a single, broad based, retail sales tax on all new goods and services.

Such a tax, known as the Fair Tax, would reduce the costs of our goods, making them more competitive in the world market. The Fair Tax would bring jobs back to our country, abolish the IRS, and proposes to repeal the 16th amendment so that income taxes cannot be collected.

With the Fair Tax, for the first time in our history the less fortunate among us, living at or below the poverty level, would not be taxed.

Perhaps the best effect of the Fair Tax will be to make April 15th just another spring day! Just imagine.

On school choice:

Each family has clear ideas about what it thinks is important in the education of their children, but the one size fits all structure of government schools simply cannot accommodate every family’s choices… Rich as we are as a nation, we all operate with limited resources. When the government schools take a huge bite out of our family budgets, we are no longer able to support a free market in education. We are all poorer for the choices that we are missing.

On Katrina:

FEMA spearheaded what amounted to a full frontal attack on American volunteerism and community spirit. Government agents, acting under FEMA’s direction, systematically hampered, slowed, and outright blocked private efforts to help those hurt by the storm.

On the Constitution:

I have seen my country fundamentally change over my lifetime. The problems that we face today include out of control federal spending, loss of our rights in the name of national security, a shameful, wasteful federal tax system that no one can comprehend, and others. Many of our problems as a nation are caused by the central government ignoring the wisdom and the bounds of our Constitution.

The Constitution delegates few powers to the central government. The Founders wisely restricted the central government from many areas of our lives, knowing that needed services would be provided by the free market, or by local and state governments. They realized that the essence of government is force, and that by keeping the exercise of that force closer to the people that it affected that it could be better controlled.

If you are tired of voting for smaller government, only to see the size and scope of the central government continue to grow outside of its Constitutional limits, vote for someone with Constitutional Integrity. Vote Smither for Congress!

On the proper role of government:

The proper role of government in a civil society is limited to protecting the rights of citizens, such as the right to own private property, the right to keep what you work for, the right to express your opinion, and the right to raise your family as you wish.

Prosperity and human dignity can only develop in a society where individuals and groups are free to work together voluntarily. This is the society that libertarians are working to create.

This sounds like a rare and exciting opportunity for libertarians to get a reasonable spokesman on the floor of the House, someone to keep Ron Paul company on his solitary nay votes. Smither hasn’t received much publicity yet so it’s too early to tell what his prospects are, but chances like this don’t come around often. His campaign is worth checking out and publicizing, especially in the Houston area. His campaign site is here, his weblog here. Donate here. For additional campaign analysis, consider this post by a Houston GOP consultant arguing that Smither is the most viable choice for Republicans to get behind in District 22.

Anyone have further information on the race or Bob Smither? Let me know.

[Update 5/17/06: Former Republican Congressman Bob Barr has endorsed [.pdf] Smither:

“With the departure of Tom DeLay, it is important to do everything we can to ensure the 22d District continues to be represented by a conservative. Bob Smither is that conservative. Bob is a genuine fiscal conservative with a firm desire to see a return to constitutionally-limited government as intended by our Founding Fathers. Write-in campaigns rarely succeed, and that is also why I ask that you join me in supporting Bob Smither as the only candidate who can defeat the liberal Nick Lampson.”]


Experimenting with homemade limoncello, pt 1

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Yeah, right. Maybe until you turn 21. Then it’s time to drown your sorrows in something a little more potent. For instance, a batch of homemade limoncello…

Limoncello is an after dinner lemon liqueur produced around the Gulf of Naples in Southern Italy. I was turned on to the drink by my friend Chad Wilcox, who had enjoyed it on a trip there several years ago. Tracking the stuff down was one of my goals on my own vacation there last summer, second only to gulping down as much espresso as humanly possible.

I didn’t have to look hard to find it; bottles of it were positively unavoidable by the time my travels took me to Amalfi. The region’s uniquely huge and flavorful lemons abound along the terraced coast, finding their way into countless fruit stands and limoncello stores. The drink is served chilled in small glasses. It’s tart, sweet, and strong, a delicious refreshment on a summer night.

I didn’t expect to have limoncello again anytime soon once I was back in the US. But inspired by a recipe published in the current issue of Imbibe magazine, I decided this weekend to try my hand at making a homebrewed version.

If you want to try this at home, here’s what you’ll need for the first part of the process:

  • A big glass jar (mine’s a little too big) with a tightly fitting lid
  • A bowl
  • A citrus zester (bottom left) or Microplane (bottom right)
  • 1 750 ml bottle of 100 proof vodka. I used Stolichnaya, Imbibe also recommends Absolut.
  • A dozen lemons

Later on you’ll also need two cups of sugar, water, cheesecloth, a second bottle of vodka, and some bottles to store the finished product.

Notes on ingredients: There’s no need for high end vodkas here because their subtle nuances will be swamped by the other flavors. Some limoncello recipes call for grain alcohol instead of vodka. Feel free to search online for those if you prefer or still have some Everclear left over from that party you threw in high school when your parents were out of town.

As for the lemons, I went with the conventional ones available at the grocery store and cleaned them well. According to the LA Times, authentic Sorrento lemons are now being grown in very limited quantities in California. They’re only available for restaurants at the moment, but someday we may all have access to them.

Once you’ve cleaned the lemons, the next step is to zest them. The goal is to remove zest, the bright yellow part of the skin that holds all the flavorful and aromatic oils. Avoid the white bitter pith beneath it as much as possible.

I’d planned on using a lemon zester for this part of the process. That’s the item on the left in the picture below. It has several small, bladed holes that remove thin strips of lemon zest. It’s great for creating attractive cocktail garnishes, but not so efficient for heavy zesting. As you can see in the next photograph, it creates valleys of zest that would be difficult to remove without taking pith along for the ride.

Fortunately, at the last minute I also bought a Microplane. This thing is much easier to use. The irregular pattern of holes ensures that all the zest is removed and it requires much less pressure to remove the skin. Considering that I had to zest a dozen lemons for this experiment, I’m very glad I invested in this handy tool.

Each lemon produces enough zest to nearly fill the Microplane. By the time the work ends, the bowl is filled with an aromatic pile of skin.

For the final step in part one, drop the zest into the glass jar and pour the bottle of vodka over it so that it’s all covered. The liquor turns yellow right away, but it still needs at least two weeks to fully infuse. Store it in a dark place and give it a gentle shake each day until the pigment of the zests has been fully leached out.

At this point there are a dozen lemons left over with which to make lemonade. If that doesn’t lift your spirits, there will be plenty of spirits to lift when the limoncello is ready.

For now, we wait. I’ll post again in two weeks when it’s time to add the remaining ingredients and bottle the product. Then there’ll be a wait of one more week while the flavors marry in the bottle and the limoncello finally becomes ready to drink.

Will the limoncello be delicious? Did I just waste two perfectly good bottles of vodka? Can I retire from work and barter limoncello for all my material needs? Will I ever use my microplane again? Come back soon to find out!

[Update 8/30/06: Part 2 is now up.]

[This post was originally published on EatFoo(d) on 8/08/06.]


The economics of credit card roulette

A few months ago, I went out to dinner with two friends and a few other people I’d never met. When the bill arrived, one of the new guys piped up with a question. “Anyone want to play credit card roulette?”

The game was new to us, but he was quite a fan. The idea is that when the bill comes, instead of dividing it up everyone drops their credit card into a folded up napkin. The cards are mixed and someone pulls one out at random. The unlucky person whose card is drawn pays for the entire meal; everyone else gets off scot free.

The guy was eager to play because he’d lost the last time and wanted to start making up for his bad luck. Some of us were a little wary, but soon everyone gave in to peer pressure and dropped their cards into the napkin. With six or seven of us there, the odds of losing were pretty low. But the loser would suddenly see his inexpensive dinner transformed into a pricey night out.

The napkin was rolled up, the cards mixed, and one selected. And the loser was… the same guy who suggested the game! Ouch. That was two losses in a row for him. And my friends and I never saw him again, so we scored free dinners without ever having to risk payback.

Recounting this story to another friend, we got into a debate about the wisdom of playing credit card roulette to pay our restaurant checks. He was in favor, I against.

His argument was that playing roulette is efficient because it avoids the hassle of dividing the check. Assuming that the same group eats out together often and that everyone buys meals of roughly the same price each time, the long-run costs of dining out would be the same as if they always paid individually.

I countered that our individual behaviors would change if we knew in advance that we were going to play credit card roulette. When I’m paying my own way I often decide to forego a $2 Coke in favor of a free water, or a $6 beer in favor of a $2 Coke. But if the risk of paying for the drink is spread among a group of people, I might as well order it. Over repeated games, if everyone thinks the same way I do, I’ll end up paying for the drink just as surely as if I were covering my own check each time. But at the individual decision point, my expected cost is just a fraction of the full price of the beverage.

Decent social sense would prevent anyone in the group from outright abusing the system by ordering an expensive steak when everyone else is getting a burger. But prices would likely creep up in other ways, as everyone’s appetizers and drinks become “normal” parts of the meal instead of occasional indulgences. Optimally, I might want to spend an average of $10 per meal and skip additions to the main course. But trapped in the incentive structure of credit card roulette, the optimum won’t be an option and I’ll end up paying $15 per meal to cover various extras.

So my friend was incorrect. Yes, in the long run, we will all pay the same amount on average. But we’ll be paying more than we would if we were paying individually. We won’t maximize our economic efficiency.

The best time to play credit card roulette is when you can spring it on unsuspecting companions you’ve never met before and may never meet again. Then you can bring it up at the end of the meal, too late for them to adapt their orders to the new incentives. You, however, can order up if you think you have a good shot at enticing them into the game. If you win, you’ll get a free dinner. And if you lose, you’ll be fondly remembered on a lucky winner’s weblog.

Those who like to gamble can avoid the escalated costs that come with repeated games by playing credit card roulette roulette. In this version, whether or not the group draws credit cards depends on some low probability event occuring. For example, your group could roll a die at the end of every meal and only play credit card roulette if a six comes up. You’ll still get the thrill of risking the big check one in six times out, but the probability of playing the game will be low enough as to not effect what individuals will order since they’ll be paying for their own meals 5/6ths of the time. You’ll also be a big dork who carries dice to dinner.

Related: As in dining, as in politics. Passing costs on to friends encourages some restraint. But passing costs on to millons of strangers is a whole different story. To see why the Tax and Spend Cafe is such an expensive place to eat, read Russel Roberts’ classic essay, “If You’re Paying, I’ll Have Top Sirloin.”

[Cross-posted on EatFoo.]


Vacation reading review

Over the course of a week in the Michigan Upper Peninsula I was able to knock four books off my “to read” shelf:

Cheese PrimerWhen most people think of beach reading, they think of escapist fiction. This has never made sense to me. I can read escapist stuff anytime. It’s the tedious, self-edifying books I have a hard time picking up. That’s why they’re perfect for the beach. The opportunity costs are low, because what else are you gonna do while you bask in the sun? The same thinking applies to plane rides, of which I had five. So I find vacations the perfect time to read something big and dense. (I should also note that UP beaches are populated more by retirees than by babes in bikinis, so the distractions are fewer than in, say, Daytona.)

This summer my big self-edifying book was Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer. As much as I love food, I didn’t know jack about cheese. I knew just enough to recognize the pun in previous sentence, but not enough to resist using it. Trips to the cheese counter were an exercise in complete ignorance. Thanks to this book, I now know enough to get by. At 500 pages, the percentage of information I actually retained is pretty low, but it’s still a lot more than I knew before. Despite the repetition in some chapters, notes on the culture and history of the regions represented kept the reading interesting.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is the difference in labeling of American and European cheeses. American cheeses tend to be represented by individual brands, whereas regional descriptors and certifications often take the place of branding in Europe where traditions are more firmly in place. This could partly be due to the fact that the author is an American and therefore more likely to be familiar with individual American producers than European ones, but the difference is real. Europe has been more successful at maintaining quality traditions, but what will happen in the future? Will American cheesemakers, armed with the advantage of branding, innovate and equal their European counterparts, as they often have with wine? Perhaps the next decade will see an explosion of fantastic American cheeses.

Libertarian nota bene: many of the best cheeses come from unpasteurized milk. But if they’re not aged more than 60 days, they can’t be imported to the US and one has to travel abroad to taste them. Thank you, FDA.

Shadow of the Giant Of course, a little escapism is a good thing for the summer. This year it was provided by the latest novel in the Ender’s Game series, Shadow of the Giant.

These sci-fi books are organized unusually, with two series branching off from the initial Ender’s Game. That book was fabulous, as was the second book in the Ender Quartet, Speaker for the Dead. After that, author Orson Scott Card seemed to lose control of the metaphysics, and the rest of the series following Ender went downhill.

Fortunately, the series following the bit character Bean has remained solid. Though less philosophical than the other series, the novels offer consistently good characters and stories rooted in world politics. Shadow of the Giant resolves much from the previous books and nicely lays the groundwork for a finale. Ender fans will be pleased.

Pirates in an Adventure with ScientistsThe Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists provided a few more brief moments of escapism. This is a very short book, but extremely funny. Fans of Monty Python and Douglas Adams will enjoy this immensely.

The story follows the adventures of the glossy-bearded Pirate Captain, his loyal crew, and Charles Darwin, as they attempt to rescue Darwin’s brother from the scheming Bishop of Oxford. Absurd humor, anachronisms, and evolutionary in jokes abound.

British author Gideon Defoe has already published the sequel The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists is forthcoming. Defoe has also written a book called How Animals Have Sex. I bet they’re all hilarious.

Stumbling on HappinessTyler Cowen called Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness “so far the best book this year.” I have to agree, and not just because this might be the only book published in 2006 that I’ve read yet. It’s a fascinating look at human psychology.

The subject is happiness, or more particularly, how we consistently mispredict what will make us happy and what will depress us. There’s far more to the book than I could summarize here, but most of it concerns what Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. Thanks to illusions of memory and imagination and the powers of rationalization, we wrongly believe that good events will make us happier than they do, and bad events sadder. In reality, we adapt and acclimate to both.

We are, in fact, doubly mistaken. We are mistaken first in our expectations, and mistaken a second time as we remain blind to the defense mechanisms we should know that we possess. We tell ourselves that moving to California and getting the perfect job will make our lives complete, or that losing a romantic partner will devastate us. And they do, but not for long. If we are smart, we know that we can be happy in a lot of places, in a lot of jobs, with a lot of people, yet we persist in investing our decisions today with a significance far beyond their actual capacity to effect our happiness.

Should this lesson change the way we live our lives, the way I live my life? I have found it liberating as I downgrade my apartment significantly from a nice, spacious, one bedroom apartment near the Metro to an older, three bedroom with flatmates further from the train. Sharing the space won’t be so bad, I don’t really need the stuff I’m getting rid of to fit into it, and I was paying too much before anyway. See, the psychological immune system is working already. Knowing that it’s going to kick in makes doing what I need to do easier from the beginning.

On the other hand, there is the risk that such a zen attitude could deaden ambition. Why make sacrifices today to work toward a vision of the future? If you believe that achieving that vision will make you happy, you are probably mistaken. So why not enjoy today and be confident that you’ll be happy ten years from now, too, regardless of what you’re doing? Why don’t we all just work in coffee shops?

Perhaps the answer lies in eternal recurrence. No, not my blog. If you think you’ll find the meaning of life here, move on. Or try John Coleman’s site. I’m talking about Nietzsche’s challenge to live a worthy life. Imagine your life recurring again and again, endlessly. Do you curse yourself for squandering it on petty matters? Or do you rejoice in its aesthetic achievement? And if you take the question seriously, does the possibility of regret for wasted opportunities partially invalidate Gilbert’s thesis?

In a New York Times article devoted partially to his research, Gilbert seems to share this worry:

‘Hope and fear are enduring features of the human experience,” he says, ”and it is unlikely that people are going to abandon them anytime soon just because some psychologist told them they should.” In fact, in his recent writings, he has wondered whether forecasting errors might somehow serve a larger functional purpose he doesn’t yet understand. If he could wave a wand tomorrow and eliminate all affective-forecasting errors, I ask, would he? ”The benefits of not making this error would seem to be that you get a little more happiness,” he says. ”When choosing between two jobs, you wouldn’t sweat as much because you’d say: ‘You know, I’ll be happy in both. I’ll adapt to either circumstance pretty well, so there’s no use in killing myself for the next week.’ But maybe our caricatures of the future — these overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be — maybe it’s these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don’t want a society of people who shrug and say, ‘It won’t really make a difference.’

So the question remains, what role should happiness play in the planning of our lives? Gilbert doesn’t claim to know, but he does offer insights into why our predictions fail and what we should expect from our psychology. He also posits many other interesting ideas and even explains a Paul Simon lyric whose meaning had long eluded me. For the questions the book answers and especially for the ones it doesn’t, I recommend it highly.