voices

This weekend, I started hearing voices.

Tiny, tinny voices in barely audible bursts, piping up periodically over a long evening alone while I searched them out in vain, and then again the next night.

At first, I thought maybe we were picking up some interference on our landline cordless phone, but that wasn’t it. I put my ear to the wall, thinking maybe it was trickling in from the apartment next door. I double-checked the old digital answering machine in case the recorder had corrupted and was playing smothered bits of garbled old messages.

I checked the volume on my laptop, then on The Fella’s laptop; maybe one of us had left a YouTube tab open and it was, I don’t know, buffering and playing a few seconds at a time. I even bent down and listened to the cable box, wifi router, and TV speakers, wondering if somehow they were sending out tiny blasts of static that my brain was translating into words.

Was it coming from outside the apartment? Maybe someone was doing laundry in the basement under our living room and listening to a staticky radio down there. Maybe someone on the neighbors’ porch was wearing a walkie-talkie. Or maybe a cable-company worker was up a pole somewhere I couldn’t see, with his walkie squawking quietly down to me.

But here’s the part that made me so eager to find a rational source for these tiny little voices: I recognized them.

Yeeeeah. I would have shrugged it off, but I knew these tiny voices, and knew them well. I found them weirdly familiar, comfortable, sympathetic.

After two days interrupted by brief searches for the source of these voices, I shrugged and gave up, perplexed and a little unsettled.

And then on Monday morning, I grabbed my iPod and discovered it had been sitting on the living room table playing RadioLab podcasts at a low volume… since Saturday. Instead of turning it off, I’d turned it down. Every so often, Jad Abumrad or Robert Krulwich would get excited about something and RAISE THEIR VOICES — their oh-so-familiar and friendly voices — which I would juuuuuust barely hear through the earbuds.

Phew.

A Serious Man

The Coen brothers’ darkly comic A Serious Man uses the uncertainty of quantum mechanics — and especially the unresolvable uncertainty of Schrödinger’s paradox — as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, and the pains we nonetheless take in futile attempts to impose predictability on the inherently uncertain future.

Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is suddenly a man beleaguered — by fate, by coincidence, by a vengeful God? Who knows?

His marriage is in trouble, his job is in danger, his brother is ill, both mentally and physically (and sleeping, and seeping, on Larry’s couch), his children are sullen and misbehaved. Buffeted by uncertainty, Larry turns to his community, to his rabbis. He’s looking not for advice, but for something more concrete: for answers. [SPOILERS ahead.] Larry assures these studied, somber men that he can grapple with the greatness of God — that he too is a serious man capable of understanding, if only they will tell him why these hardships are befalling him.

If you believe in an omniscient, all-powerful god, surely it’s plain hubris for a layperson to think that he can, through a mere few days of application and inquiry, grasp the unknowable purpose of that deity’s actions. Job finally wailed his way into an audience with God and still didn’t get an answer, but Larry Gopnik thinks he can wrest one out of a few conversations with rabbis. The impossibility, the futility, of his task is emphasized by the very name the rabbis use to refer to the God whom Larry find so approachable: not Adonai, not Yahweh, not any of the names that can be spoken in worship, but HaShem, literally “the name.” Larry Gopnik cannot grasp the ineffable plans of the almighty; he must not even speak His name.

Larry’s field of study has perhaps emboldened him to such audacity. Physicists are able to fathom some of the great secrets of the universe and even represent them through equations, but Larry of all people should know that the ineffable doesn’t yield to cold hard logic and that not everything is knowable: his specialty is quantum mechanics, and the only physics we ever see Larry teach revolve around uncertainty.

In a dream, Larry presents his class with a breathlessly rapid and precise presentation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, concluding as he writes, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” The bell rings; class dismissed. As the students bustle out, Prof. Gopnik yells out “But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term!”

[Larry's dream; audio NSFW]

Compare this with Larry’s comically inept real-life lectures: he tap-taps at the blackboard with his chalk, writing a complex formula and narrating his progress with vague, uninstructive mutters: “You following this?… okay?.. so… this part is exciting…. so, okay. So. So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrödinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead? Okay!”

A failing student comes to Larry’s office to complain about his grade, and especially to complain that Prof. Gopnik’s standards are unjust. He can’t do the mathematics, the student explains, but “I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.” Larry gently but firmly informs him, “But you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give you in class are just illustrative. They’re like… fables, say, to help give you the picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat.”

And it’s true, he doesn’t understand the dead cat or the fables. And neither do we. The Coens have already reminded us of this in the opening scene: a period piece, a haunting little story about a dybbuk (or is it?) performed in Yiddish. The first 7 minutes of the film are spent with characters we never see again, speaking a language most of the audience doesn’t understand, grappling with a mystery that will never be solved.

Larry Gopnik is in search of a certainty that doesn’t exist. He wants some tangible proof, a measure by which to decipher the future. He’s a serious man who expects his intelligence and diligence to render the confusing, unpredictable world into something logical, legible, verifiable. Larry is not so different from his poor lost brother, the unstable wanderer with a dog-eared notebook scrawled through with an elaborate “probability map of the universe.” Though the larger secrets of the universe can be revealed by study and science, the smaller mysteries — the ones that matter most to us, our lives and our loves — are not susceptible to our tiny writings and equations, however hard we try. Our futures cannot be predicted with mathematical accuracy, and often they cannot even be understood as they unfold.

So, if the meaningful, fateful events of our little lives cannot be predicted or controlled or even fully understood, how are we to extract any meaning from this existence? I think A Serious Man answers that question in its 20th-century opening: from the 19th century shtetl, the camera hurtles us down a dark passage outlined in blushing light and thrumming with intense music… which turns out to be the ear canal of Danny, Larry’s adolescent son, who sits in class with a transistor earpiece illicitly jammed into his ear so he can listen to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” instead of his Hebrew lesson.

The song recurs as a chorus throughout the film. When Larry is at his most distraught — after his fruitless meetings with rabbis and lawyers, as he is crushed under the weight of accumulating troubles, when he despairs of ever finding the answer he sought — the song blasts out as the soundtrack to an erotic dream. And again, after Danny’s bar mitzvah (where he becomes, like his father, “a serious man”), the elusive Rabbi Marshak finally appears, intoning these heavily-accented words of wisdom to the stuporously stoned boy-become-man: “When the truth turns out to be lies and all the joy within you dies. Then what?”

As trite as it may sound, Jefferson Airplane delivers the answer: “You better find somebody to love.” This is the last message of A Serious Man: in the film’s very last moments, as the literal whirlwind (echoing the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job) bears down on a crowd of children milling around a parking lot, we hear it again through Danny’s earpiece: “You better find somebody to love.” And if that person leaves you or betrays you or dies or vanishes, you must find another, and another, and another: a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a neighbor, a student, a rival, a friend. No matter what befalls you in this unpredictable, sometimes cruel world, you better find somebody to love, because love — giving love, creating kindness and passion and selflessness where there was nothing — is a powerful act of affirmation against uncertainty, an act of creation in a void. Maybe even a divine act: to find somebody to love.

ginger beer: sweet and spicy!

Following up on my summer goals, I recently made another batch of home-brewed ginger beer. Sweet, spicy, with a wicked kick, ginger beer makes a refreshing drink on its own or mixed half-and-half with lemonade. For an evening highball, try a Dark & Stormy: ginger beer with a splash of black rum and a squeeze of lime. Mmm, you can feel that summer breeze drifting your way, can’t you?

This is an ersatz ginger beer; real ginger beer requires a ginger beer plant, a symbiotic colony of yeasts that carbonate the drink through fermentation. I decided not to buy or culture my own ginger beer plant. Instead, I followed Dr. Fankhauser’s instructions for fermented yeast carbonation, which gives a nice fizzy lift to a syrup-and-water base.

For my long-ago first batch of homemade ginger ale, I followed Dr. Fankhauser’s directions carefully. The resulting drink was tasty and fizzy and exactly what he promised, but not spicy and dark as ginger beer should be. For my recent batch, I brazenly modified the ingredients and the prep technique to produce a richer spicier drink, but the brewing directions remain the same.

A few improvements I made: cooking the ginger and spices with the sugar extracts more flavor and also eliminates the need to dissolve the sugar after it goes into the bottle. Adding the lemon zest, cinnamon, and clove results in a more complex flavor profile, and the peppers and peppercorns add bite and snap. Straining the syrup makes a cleaner, less cloudy ginger beer that’s far more pleasant on the tongue — no shreds or ginger to tickle your throat! I also added a bottle-sterilizing step for extra safety. Continue reading

satellite

Two astronomical Valentines today, for geek love.

First, Ann Druyan reflects on the message she contributed to the Voyager Golden Record. [update: the original Radiolab broadcast dates from May of 2006, but I see that Morning Edition and Radiolab have replayed it as a Valentine's Day broadcast. The rebroadcast is available here, but I recommend listening to the original broadcast in all its meditative, lyrical beauty.]

Second, Jonathan Coulter’s I’m Your Moon:

I’m your moon
You’re my moon
We go round and round
From out here, it’s the rest of the world that looks so small
Promise me
You will always remember who you are

bacon bandage

bacon bandageFrom the Historic American Cookbook Project at Michigan State University Libraries, here’s an excerpt from Aunt Babette’s Cook Book: Foreign and domestic receipts for the household (published c. 1889) instructing the reader how to fashion a bacon bandage as a treatment for sore throat:

Cut the bacon in strips one quarter of an inch in thickness and two or three inches in width and long enough to pass entirely around the throat. Remove the bacon rind and any lean meat there may be in it to prevent blistering of the throat or neck. Sew the bacon to a strip of flannel so as to hold it into position and prevent its slipping and then apply the bacon to the throat and neck. Pin it around the neck, so that it will not be uncomfortably tight. The throat and neck should be completely swathed with the bacon. If after an application of eight hours the patient is not better apply a new bandage in the same manner.

I particularly like “the throat and neck should be completely swathed with bacon.” This seems more like a sound brunch-time policy rather than a health concern, though.