Thursday, July 22, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 14

Day 14 - French Wine

The more astute of the readers may notice that some days have been summarily skipped. That's fine - that's the reward for being an astute reader. My hope is that the less than astute readers will not notice this at all and will say something to the effect of "but wait, the posts run seemlessly from Day 9 to Day 14." That is good - that means that my back-filling plan worked. How exactly I expect to catch up on a four-day gap is not entirely clear to me. Right now, my plan involves "off-shoring", "crowd-sourcing" and "building up traction." You might object and think, "Hey, that's nothing but buzz words." How I hate to burst your bubble. The internet is nothing but buzzwords. String enough of them together and you can create an entire industry. Don't believe me? Just watch. Start with text messaging. A completely useless phenomenon where teens and tweens devote over 40% of their brain cells to remembering that the "s" character is formed by pushing the "7" key 4 times. Then, that spawns all the time saving abbreviations which have actually made their way into the Merriam Webster dictionary, like lol and omg and ttyl and brb and then further onto kthxbye and zomg and rolflmao and whatever the crowd of Bieber-cut wearing youths have invented to make me feel old. But then that spawned Twitter. How much better to just send your text message to the entire world. How else is everyone going to know that that burrito is so good, lol! But, wait, we're only getting started. Why wouldn't we want to know where you are when you find that really good burrito? And that spawned Foursquare. Before you decide that this is all completely ridiculous, sit down and ask yourself what you said about Google six years ago. You probably said, "That company doesn't do anything - they just give me search results. They don't even have a web portal like Yahoo or Microsoft." Extra points if you ended that sentence with "LOLZ." And double extra points if you ended that sentence six years ago with "FTW." In fact, if you were saying "FTW" six years ago, please email me your stock picks. But the point is, Foursquare just raised $20 million dollars and is valued at almost $100 million dollars. All based on telling everyone that you just "checked in" to a TGIF (or heaven forbid you actually admitted to being at Applebee's). WTF? And Twitter hit the $1 billion mark LAST YEAR. WTF, indeed?

Now, the most astute of you will be thinking "wasn't he supposed to be talking about French wine? I am pretty sure he was supposed to talk about something French!" Well, as a ground rule, you shouldn't assume that labels mean anything. And you shouldn't think that focusing on form over content should mean anything either. Wait a second...maybe I am talking about French wine.

I am a big fan of California wines. And California wines would not be anything if not for the French. Indeed, almost all of the varietals in production in California are French and were stolen, snuck from, or otherwise removed from France and grown in California. I used to feel guilty about this, but not after learning how wine is treated in France and Italy - it is not the overly pretentious high-falluting (yes, I just said that...feel free to mark this down to torment me later) affair we often make it out to be in the U.S. It is more often a general appreciation of the artisanship and creativity of the local vintners. There is nothing any less (or any more) special to a bottle of wine than a good bottle of beer. Are there great bottles of wine? Undoubtedly so. But the point is that the French (and other European countries) can also enjoy the good bottles of wine as well, and do not feel it necessary to over-emphasize the great bottles at the expense of those good bottles. More recently, this has been changing in the U.S. and you can get a lot of good wines under (sometimes well under) the $20 price point, and that is good for everyone.

OK, so here's the tie-in for those of you whom I have lost. Don't feel like you have to understand or make sense of everything. Sometimes a good bottle of wine is just a good bottle of wine (and sometimes checking in on Foursquare or micro-blogging on Twitter is just that - good, not great). But, sometimes, just striking out to make something good that you love that is a riff on something that went before you can create a whole new niche that might be meaningful and world changing. I think that applies to both California wine and some of the new things that are just now emerging on the Internet. And I embrace both of them.

So, thank you France, for letting us borrow (steal) some of your grapes and continue in the grand tradition of wine-making and building on the tradition of those that went before us.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 9

Day 9 - Statue of Liberty

There are some gifts that I have to assume are given with a little bit of a twist behind them. Sometimes it is a hidden message, like getting a pair of running shoes from your wife or a new phone from your mom. But sometimes, I have to believe that the twist is a little perverse sense of glee when the gifter knows you are suddenly saddled with the maintenance. An Englishman might give a silver teapot knowing that he has doomed you to a lifelong battle with tarnish. A German might give you a cuckoo clock knowing that the noises might start to drive you crazy, but the battle to keep it running will likely commit you. An Italian might give you a Fiat Spider, but if he had any real interest in you getting anywhere, he would have just given you the aforementioned running shoes.

But the French gave us the Statue of Liberty. Sure, it is a beautiful depiction of Liberty Enlightening the World, and it represents a great friendship between two young groups of idealists that threw off the shackles of monarchy and strode free into the ideals of democracy. But it's also 62,000 pounds of copper. That's a lot of polishing.

Sure, it was
intended to develop a nice coating of verdigris, but I still have to wonder if the designers secretly hoped that we might spend a bit of time polishing it. Fortunately, Americans are lazy. Inventive, but lazy. The disposable razor? 50% inventiveness and 50% lazy. I remember as a kid watching a TV show with a scene from an old fashioned barber shop. I had no idea why the barber was so busy shaving a leather strap when there was obviously a man waiting patiently to get a shave. I only really knew of two reasons for straight razors - to scrape of of my radio station's stickers off the window of my mom's car ("But Mom, people will think you're cool if they're driving behind you and know you listen to cool music.") and hysterically believed to be hiding in one if not several of the candy bars obtained while trick-or-treating.

So, it is actually with a little bit of sadness that I realize that laziness is currently winning out in the American dynamic when it comes to the Statue of Liberty. We have put men on the moon. We created hamburgers where the cold side stayed cold and the hot side stayed hot. Heck, we put both hot and cold together and figured out how to deep fry ice cream. I am pretty sure we know of a coating that can be applied to copper to keep it bright and shiny forever without any actual need to polish it. Inventive and lazy.

So, thank you France! And I apologize on behalf of my country for taking such bad care of it.

Oh, and if you want to see something inventive, see the shot of what the Statue of Liberty looks like in the alternate universe on the TV show Fringe. Very inventive. If I wasn't so lazy, I'd provide a link for you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 8

Day 8 - ?

One of the great things that the French language has to offer is some very good phrases that can be used where other words don't quite fit, where you want to give a little extra oomph to what you are trying to say, or you are intentionally (or unintentionally) trying to sound learnéd (or pretentious). Some of these might be a la carte, au jus, bon apetit, carte blanche, creme de la creme, and the list goes on. (It is a touch surprising how many of them have to do with food.)

But there is one phrase that stands out from all the others. This phrase just has that extra something; it has an ineffable quality; it has that factor, some might call it an x-factor or the it-factor; it captures the uncapturable; it expresses that which is difficult or impossible to express; an elusive quality; an indefinable quality; a spark; a... well, frankly, I don't know quite what. It just has that je ne sais quoi.

Thank you, France, for making me sound cool when all I'm really saying is "I don't have a clue"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 7

Day 7 - Invading Britain

I know that Britain is our staunch ally now. But we all know that it was not always so. The American Revolution, of course, comes immediately to mind, and there is something just wrong about having foreign invaders on your home soil. America has had the luxury, due to Manifest Destiny, to not have to suffer that atrocity (while still getting to subject other countries to an American invasion). So, it is easy to have a fuzzy memory about our early history and think that the American Revolution was the last time we were invaded, but let's not forget the War of 1812, when the British forced President James Madison out of the White House. And then they did it again. Sure they weren't too much of a threat, but armed with mop haircuts and radical ideas and sounds, but The Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Herman's Hermits, and the Rolling Stones took America by storm. In the eyes of our grandparents, it was a full-on British Invasion threatening the very way of life in America.

So, the French have done something that Americans could only dream of - they actually invaded Britain - during the Norman Conquest. Sure, we have that event to thank for the screwed up spelling of restaurant, casserole, and résumé. But I'll gladly pay that price just knowing that someone stuffed it the stuffy British.

Thank you, France! You did what we have yet to dare to do. But watch out Wales! When we make our move, we're coming right through you.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 6 - Bastille Day

Day 6 - Bastille Day

Hey, everyone! Happy Bastille Day! The French definitely have something on the Americans with this holiday. This is a passionate event celebrated passionately. The event, the storming of the Bastille, a fortress-prison, was the flashpoint of the French Revolution and the uprising of the modern nation of France and the beginnings of the overthrow of a monarchy. Almost a hundred people died in this event that threw all of Paris into a chaos of barricades and armed demonstrators and ended with the beheading of the governor of the Bastille and led to an epidemic of beheadings over the next few years.

Contrast that with America's celebration of Independence. We celebrate on July 4th. This date commemorates, effectively, a bunch of rich old white dudes putting quill to parchment. Now, don't get me wrong. The document itself is a passionate document that has world-wide significance and repercussions that are still feeling felt today. But the event of sitting down to sign a piece of paper kind of pales in comparison to mobbing a garrison while cannon fire is blowing through the crowd around you. And the actual date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is not exactly clear - it could have been as early as July 2nd and as late as August 2nd.

In fact, most of America's holidays could learn a bit from Bastille Day. We celebrate passionate ideas and passionate people, but we don't really celebrate passionate events. Memorial Day originated with our Civil War, but the date was specifically chosen to avoid an anniversary of any battle. President Grover Cleveland picked a day for Labor Day to specifically avoid the more internationally accepted date for Labor Day of May 1st. May 1st? A good day to riot. 1st Monday in September? A good day to barbeque or get a last trip to the beach in before school starts. Even Veterans Day celebrates the signing of paperwork rather than a key battle.

It would be really hard to change the dates of American holidays at this point, but I suppose we could all learn something from the French and perhaps we could celebrate those dates a little more passionately.

Thank you, France.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 5

Day 5 - Avez-vous du beurre?

Those of us who have taken a foreign language class, particularly the first year class in high school have somewhat mixed emotions about some of the phrases we were made to learn. I suppose if you believe the theory that the most important part of learning is actually learning how to learn, then it is not so important what foreign vocabulary you learn so much that you practice memorizing it. And it is not so important which verb you are conjugating, so long as you are learning about gerunds, past participles, present indicatives, and imperfect subjunctives. Somehow we got through 8 years of English classes without hearing most (or any) of these terms, but yet we are expected to pick them all up in the first semester of a foreign language. And, yet, through all of this, there are a few phrases that can lodge firmly in our minds, much like corn on the cob sticks in our teeth. Such as:
  • Mi aerodeslizador está aparcado fuera. (My hovercraft is parked outside.)
  • Los cactus púrpura necesidades de agua. (The purple cacti need water.)
  • Welche Farbe hat der Bleistift (What color is the pencil?)
  • Der Bleistift ist blau, nicht war? (The pencil is blue, isn't it?)
  • Avez-vous du beurre? (Do you have butter?)
The last one stands out the most for me because of the story that went with it. Apparently, my brother didn't pronounce it quite right when he was asked to recite it in front of class. The original attempt to pronounce beurre as rhyming somewhere between 'sir' and 'fur' was dubbed as sub-par. By the time my brother was telling the story that night, the 'u' sound had been stretched out to about two seconds and the 'r' sound had been mostly swallowed and replaced with a weird sound that was somehow a combination of a gargle, a gulp, and a phlegmy throat clear. It was hysterical. So hysterical that about half the conversation that ensued between my brother and I in the next two days consisted of asking each other about the availability of butter. Every time it got annoying for our parents, we were able to say, "But we're learning French."

Flash forward twenty-odd years. We were at the beginning of a family vacation and my nephew was asking for butter for corn on the cob. Seemed like a great time to teach some French. Apparently what I think of as funny translates very well to the three-to-five year age group. We had my two daughters, my nephew and my niece all suddenly very interested in whether they might be any butter. Repeatedly. For the rest of the week. Hilarious for me. Not so much for the rest of the adults.

Thank you, France.

Monday, July 12, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 4 - Amuse-Bouche

Day 4 - Amuse-Bouche

The term "appetizer" has to be one of the more horribly named things. In the simplest definition of the word, it would mean "that which appetizes." Now think for a moment to the appetizer section of the menu of your favorite local American restaurant. (I hope for your sake you didn't just think about Applebee's) I won't even begin to argue whether the menu items you're thinking of are tasty - they usually are. But I definitely have to argue that they are not "that which appetizes." Bloomin' Onion? Delicious, but that's got to be 4 solid pounds of batter. Chicken Wings? Quesadilla? Fully loaded Nachos? Again - all delicious, but all heavy, filling plates that could serve as your actual dinner order. Sliders? That's not even trying - now they're just shrinking down actual menu items and serving them as appetizers! Maybe long ago appetizers used to be something different, but nowadays they are effectively meals in themselves. You have to wonder if the people who write up these menus even had mothers, because every time I order an over-sized appetizer off their menu, I swear I can hear my mother chiding me with "You'll spoil your appetite."

But if you are told there will be hors d'oeuvres, you instantly know it is something different. Hors d'oeuvres and cocktails implies something completely different than appetizers and beer (Did you want to get the large, 22 oz. beer for just $1 more?). Hors d'oeuvres implies a certain level of sophistication and might actually act to stimulate your appetite.

And the amuse-bouche is the cooler, hipper version of the hors d'oeuvres. The phrase translates into "mouth pleaser" which comes off as ridiculous in English. However, it works in French. I'm not sure quite why, but it has a certain, um, I don't know what. Somehow they've shrunk down an hors d'oeuvres, tossed a little exotic flair on it, saddled it with a name that would be hard to live up to, and yet pulled it off. Some razor thin slice of meat wrapped around a hunk of cheese burdened with an eight-syllable name, speared onto a vegetable you are pretty sure you have never seen before and drizzled with a chipotle southwest black bean pesto southeast peanut sauce puree? I have no idea what I just ate, but it was delicious. And the only way you could possibly ruin your appetite with those would be if you could somehow get the constantly circulating waitstaff to stand still long enough for you to pull more than one off their trays.

Thank you, France.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 3

Day 3 - Kronenbourg 1664

To say that the French are not known for their beers would be an incredible understatement. However, that probably has to do a whole lot more to do with how much emphasis the French put on their wine and less to do with how capable they are as brewers. Just sheerly based on geography, you would expect decent beer chops to somehow diffuse into France from the neighboring countries of Belgium, Germany, and England. Before you argue how easily beer brewing could diffuse across the English Channel, I would point out two things: the French invaded the British Isles often enough to have picked up a thing or two; and with the Chunnel, we no longer require prospective brewers to resort to swimming the channel.

Still, there aren't a whole ton of French beers to choose from. Indeed, the coffee table book, "Beers of the World," by David Kenning doesn't even give France a whole chapter; they have to share a chapter with Luxembourg instead. Luxembourg? Under 1000 square miles and smaller than Rhode Island? Sorry, not a country. And even the Italians, Swiss, and Czech each got their own chapter. The British Isles got three chapters. But I would argue that quantity isn't everything. I rather enjoy Fischer, and several of the other French offerings could be better classified as barley wines, with alcohol contents of up to 13%.

And I can very strongly recommend Kronenbourg 1664. I will forgive you if you thought this might be a German beer, based on the name. I made the same mistake. But it is most definitely French, and definitely delicious. It is a lager, relatively light in color but sufficiently strong in taste. A hint of fruit and a reasonable hop content round it out. It is not a complex or challenging beer by any stretch, but there is nothing wrong with having an enjoyable beer that you aren't required to pay a lot of attention to.

Thank you, France!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 2

Day 2 - French Fries

First of all, they are delicious. Do you think America would have the health problem it does, or if the documentary Supersize Me would ever have been made if they tasted like oiled turnips? No, it wouldn't.

And I don't care that everyone is trying to rename them, calling them country fries, or steak fries, or even "Freedom Fries." We all know what they are - you can dress them up all you want and put on airs, but they are French fries, plain and simple.

And before you get pedantic and point out that they are actually Belgian and that the French don't call them French fries, but rather pommes frites, I would argue that both of those points actually work to make the French more awesome for making French Fries as follows:

1. Stealing an idea from someone else and making it yours. This is what America is all about, so when another country does it, we have to give them props. We don't talk about the first company to come out with an MP3 player, but rather the company who did a better job marketing it.

2. Not sticking your country name on a product within your own country. Quick, start thinking about food products named after countries. OK, what's the worst product you just thought of. You might have thought of English muffins. Those things are awesome. How the heck do they get all those nooks and crannies in there? Swiss Cheese? Equally awesome. I have to assume they are using some 4th dimensional wizardry to place the holes in the middle of the block of cheese. Spanish rice? Way better than white rice. Which brings us to American cheese. WORST. CHEESE. EVER. In order to get worse, you have to drop down to "cheese food" labelled products. So, in France they are called pomme fritte, but outside of France, they are French fries.

International marketing and screwing over the Belgians at the same time? Double bonus points! Thank you, France.

Friday, July 9, 2010

French Appreciation Month - Day 1

I don't know quite when it started, but at some point I realized I was taking too many jabs at the expense of the French. Not that I think that anyone is above (or below) getting a jab, but it should take some work - it shouldn't just end up being an automatic reaction. I tried to switch it up into something more exotic and tried making fun of the Belgians for a while, but it was just a little too obscure. Plus, over beers it's hard to work in jokes for a government that makes Italy look stable.

I think it dawned on me that I had a problem when we were out to lunch, someone brought up the French, and the conversation silenced while all heads swiveled towards me, waiting for me to make an inane comment. To be clear, almost all my comments are inane. But they were specifically waiting for an inane comment about the French.

So, in an effort to break a bad habit, I'll be blogging daily for the next 30 days about "Things I like about the French." Your solicitations and input, as always, are welcomed and appreciated. I already have a backlog of a couple dozen things, but might need help rounding it out to 30.

(And, by the way, just because I am declaring French amnesty, please don't take this to mean that I am letting the French-Canadians off the hook. I'm not. I'm talking to you Québécois!)

Day 1 - Phoenix

Simply said, this band rocks. You can check them out here, but if you listen to alternative rock, they are probably already a familiar sound for you, with such songs as Lisztomania and 1901. Of additional note is their lack of an accent. Not that I think that all music should be sung in English, but since I can barely talk in a foreign language, their ability to sing in one is outstanding. And lest you think I am exaggerating, I was given detention for my horrible pronunciation of taxímetro. And then, eventually, a "D" in Spanish 4.

Just to prove that they really are pulling off something impressive by singing sans accent, here is a clip of them accepting a Grammy this year. (fast forward to 1:00)

Thank you, France!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

4 out of 5 Marriages End in Divorce, says Apple

Recent results from Apple scientists indicate that 4 out of 5 marriages end in divorce. Additional studies showed that 4 out of 5 Americans were Republicans, that 4 out of 5 Americans were watching the World Cup, and something to do with iPhones.

However, in a dramatic turnaround, yesterday Apple issued a retraction:

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many people were affected is totally wrong. Our graphs, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more things than it should for a given data set. For example, we sometimes display 4 people divorcing (out of 5) when we should be displaying as few as 2 people out of 5.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula. The real data remains the same, but the Apple scientists will now report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the data. We are also making people 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

Two issues here are troubling me here:

1. Apple is somehow making shorter people taller. As a tall person, I view this as a threat.

2. Apple is adopting something from AT&T? That seems like bad idea. 4 out of 5 fanboys absolutely hate AT&T. However, maybe Apple can adjust the fanboy signal strength as well.