deep thoughts

The history of gluten?

This year’s Christmas breakfast:


1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup whole barley flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 to 2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Combine dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in another. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in wet ingredients all at once, mixing just until the batter comes together. Ladle batter onto a hot skillet 1/4 cup at a time, and cook until pancakes are golden brown on both sides.

The above recipe is from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. The text claims that these pancakes “are so light you won’t believe they’re 100 percent grain!” which led to the following exchange at the breakfast table:

ME: Wow, these really are light pancakes. I’ve had white-flour pancakes that were heavier than these.
LISA: Part of that’s the mixing. If you overmix the batter, it starts to form gluten, and then the pancakes are tough.
ME: Hmm, I wonder who figured that out.

There are at least two whos being referred to here: the prehistoric chef who first worked out the whole “knead” vs. “don’t knead” dichotomy of baked goods preparation, and the more recent individual who nailed down the underlying chemistry and gave gluten its name. But who was that second person? Is there a History of Noteable Food Scientists I can look this up in?

And while we’re on the subject: what kind of sausage would you pair with triple ginger pancakes? I’m thinking something light and mildly sweet, like chicken-apple or chicken-blueberry.

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Monkey news

Over the weekend, I received the preliminary cover art for the Bad Monkeys dustjacket. Ain’t he pretty?

Also, about a week ago I finished vetting the copyedited edition of the manuscript. For those of you not familiar with the publishing process, copyediting is the step where very meticulous people go over the text looking for grammar, usage, and spelling errors. A lot of writers hate this, but I always find it interesting. Among the highlights:

Rules changes. Since the last time I did this, the University of Chicago Press released a new edition of the copyeditor’s Bible, The Chicago Manual of Style. Among the more puzzling style changes: the abbreviations “a.m.” and “p.m.”, which used to be set in small capital letters (“A.M.” and “P.M.”), are now to be set in lowercase letters (although the C.M.o.S. does acknowledge that a lot of folks will continue to do it the old way). Who decides this stuff?

Fun with alternative spellings. Because I’m an obsessive spellchecker, I don’t have a lot of misspelled words in my manuscripts, but I do use a number of alternative spellings—spellings that, while not technically wrong, are regarded as nonstandard. For example, I used to spell “gray” with an “e,” until I got tired of copyeditors asking me if I really meant to do it that way. The big one this time was “ax,” which I’d also been spelling with an “e” — e.g., “axe-wielding clown.” I think this particular spelling is a side effect of playing lots of word games, since “axe” is a great way to get rid of a difficult consonant and/or dispose of extra vowels.

Style, meet IP law. Brand names that are registered trademarks are generally supposed to be capitalized—so it’s “a Xerox copy,” not “a xerox copy.” This particular style rule is a big deal to trademark owners, who can lose their trademark if a word falls into generic, lowercase usage. That’s how Bayer lost the exclusive rights to “aspirin” and how B.F. Goodrich lost “zipper.”

From a writer’s perspective, the rule can be somewhat annoying. I’m cool with capitalizing “Xerox,” because there’s a reasonable generic alternative, “photocopy.” This is not always the case. In Bad Monkeys, there are a number of references to “dumpsters.” It turns out “Dumpster” is a registered trademark as well, and thus in theory should be capitalized, but in this case, the trademark term is also the generic term—everyone I know uses the word “dumpster” to refer to any big wheeled metal trash bin, regardless of who manufactured it.

The French language continues to vex me. I was twenty years old before I figured out that hors d’oeuvres—a term I’d seen written many times but had never heard anyone say—and “orderbs” —a word I’d heard spoken many times but had never seen spelled out on a page—were in fact two halves of the same whole. Mind you, I’d known all along that they meant the same thing, but somehow it just never clicked that, duh, hors d’oeuvres is pronounced “orderbs” (feeling my way phonetically, I’d always thought it was “whore’s devours”).

Going over the Bad Monkeys manuscript, there was an exclamation, “Walla!”, that bothered me. The automated spellchecker passed it, but when I doublechecked the dictionary, it was listed as an alternate spelling of “wallah,” an Anglo-Indian word for “a person who performs a particular service,” which is not what I meant at all. So I thought about a while, until—voila!—the lightbulb went on.

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An inconvenient lack of footnotes

During Seattle’s recent mini-heat wave, my wife Lisa and I decided to hide out in an air-conditioned movie theater. One of the films we saw was the Al Gore global-warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth. We both agreed it was one of the most slicky produced campaign ads we’d ever seen.

I was less impressed by the environmental message. Although Gore makes a superficially compelling case, his presentation raised a number of red flags as well.

An example of the kind of thing that bugged me: one of the nastier potential consequences of global warming is that it could melt the Greenland ice cap, which would raise sea level by around 20 feet. Gore uses computer-generated maps to show how this would put large portions of Florida, the Netherlands, the San Francisco Bay area, the Yangtze River Valley, and Manhattan underwater. Then he asks the audience to imagine the hundreds of millions of people currently living in those regions being turned into “refugees.”

Scary, if true: it’s the Hurricane Katrina disaster, multiplied a thousandfold. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that Gore didn’t provide a timetable for when the flood waters were likely to arrive. Gore does give dates for some other global-warming related disasters—like the complete disappearance of the Arctic ice cap in summer, slated to happen as early as 2050—and the clear implication is that the drowning of Manhattan will happen Very Soon, too. But he doesn’t actually say that.

So when we got home from the theater, I went on Google and found this report, which suggests that the complete melting of Greenland’s ice sheet would take between 500 and 1000 years. In the nearer term, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that over the next century, sea level will rise, not 20 feet, but somewhere between 4 and 30 inches, with runoff from the Greenland ice sheet contributing, at most, 3½ inches.

Of course even a 30-inch rise in sea level would cause big problems. But it’s nowhere near as bad as 20 feet—it wouldn’t create all those refugees, and it wouldn’t allow Gore to evoke, as he does, the image of the World Trade Center Memorial being underwater. Likewise, telling people that the worst effects of global warming won’t be felt for centuries would undermine the sense of urgency he’s trying to instill.

I had some other questions, so I decided to visit Gore’s website to take a closer look at his evidence. But when I went to the section of the site marked The Science, all I found was a brief recap of the claims made in the film, with no links or citations to the supporting data. Next I checked Gore’s book. It was only a little better: although most of the charts and graphs do have captions listing sources, the text is unfootnoted, and the references often so vague—”Scientists now believe…,” “Two recent studies confirm…”–that it would be difficult if not impossible to verify the cites.

This combination of exaggeration and poor documentation seems like a really bad strategy to me. It creates a ready weapon for skeptics, who will rightly ask why you are shading the truth you claim to love, and it also sets you up for a backlash when the promised apocalypse doesn’t materialize (a thousand Tuesdays have come and gone since I first saw Soylent Green, and I haven’t had to resort to cannibalism even once yet).

P.S. We also saw The Da Vinci Code. I agree with the critics who found it mediocre, but still enjoyed it more than X-Men 3 (not that that’s a hard film to top). It also reminded me of a really good story in the same genre that didn’t enjoy a fraction of D. V. Code‘s success: Wilton Barnhardt’s 1993 novel Gospel (currently out of print, but findable in Amazon’s used book section). No albino monk in that one, but it’s a great read, definitely worth the trouble of tracking down.

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The “Arcana” controversy

My posting of the Tiptree long list has set off a minor stir in blogland. I assumed that some of the picks would be controversial (wouldn’t be much fun, otherwise), but I was surprised to see that the title drawing most of the attention was Emily Brunson’s “Arcana.” Given that “Arcana” is a work of fanfic in which Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape impregnates CSI‘s Nick Stokes, some of you may be wondering, “How could you not expect that to draw attention?” All I can say is, after you’ve read the child rape, female circumcision, and dragon cunnilingus scenes in Janine Cross’s Touched by Venom, mpreg just seems quaint.

Some of the blog discussions of “Arcana” have generated hundreds of comments, so rather than answer specific objections there, where my remarks might get lost in the noise, I’ve decided to do it here:

OBJECTION #1: It’s a terrible story!

While there’s some excellent fiction on the long list, if your principal interest is top-notch storytelling, you’re starting in the wrong place. Go read Geoff Ryman’s Air. When you’re done with that, check out the short list (I highly recommend Wesley Stace’s Misfortune as reading selection #2).

Fictionwise, the long list is much more of a mixed bag. Not everything on it was picked for its prose, and even where one judge thought a particular LL item was a great read, another judge often disagreed.

OBJECTION #2: It’s fanfic!

This is apparently a huge deal to people, so I wish I could say that the judges at least discussed it, but as far as I can recall, the issue never came up. Nothing in the Tiptree by-laws forbids recognizing fanfic, and even if there were such a rule, in the case of the long list we’d have felt free to ignore it.

OBJECTION #3: It’s terrible fanfic! By putting it on the long list, you create the impression that most fanfic is badly written!

[sound of crickets]

OBJECTION #3, continued: …OK, OK, maybe 90% of everything is crap, but still, if you wanted to give a nod to fanfic, couldn’t you have gone out and found a better example?

One of the reasons I agreed to be a Tiptree judge is because I thought it would be neat to get tons of free books. After slogging my way through the first few tons, my attitude changed.

A downside to the Tiptree Award’s open nomination policy is that it encourages publishing houses to spam the judges’ panel: instead of picking just one or two titles to submit, they’ll grab half a dozen—including some that have nothing to do with gender—and submit them all. Why be selective when the price of entry is a handful of review copies? It’s not as if the judges will ever be in a position to waste the publishers’ time.

So the answer to the question is, much as we might have liked to go searching for more nominees, we were far too busy dealing with the flood of stuff already being sent to us. Please keep this in mind when making recommendations to future Tiptree panels.

OBJECTION #4: Fanfic violates copyright, and copyright violators shouldn’t be recognized by award committees.

There are three separate issues here: a legal issue, a moral issue, and an issue of relevance.

I’m not up on the current legal status of fanfic, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that “Arcana” constitutes copyright infringement, and perhaps trademark infringement as well. Although J.K. Rowling has reportedly given her blessing to Harry Potter fanfic, one of her stipulations is that the fanfic in question not be obscene, and even if Snape impregnating Stokes didn’t cross that line, Ms. Rowling isn’t empowered to speak for the CSI copyright holders. A court of law might find that “Arcana” qualifies as parody or fair use, but realistically, it would never get that far—if Rowling or the CBS network wanted to, they could make “Arcana” disappear with a single cease-and-desist letter. (I hope this doesn’t happen.)

Morally, I judge instances of copyright infringement according to the spirit rather than the letter of the law. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about guaranteeing authors absolute control over their creations; the stated purpose of copyright is “to promote the useful arts” in general. Derivative art is still art, and unless it somehow undercuts the productivity of the original artist (not likely in this case, unless Rowling and the CSI screenwriters decide to read “Arcana” for themselves and suffer crippling aneurysms as a result), I have a hard time regarding it as wicked.

Finally, and most importantly, even a work of art that was clearly illegal and clearly immoral might still be worthy of public notice and discussion—and generating discussion is a big part of what the Tiptree is about.

OBJECTION #5: By drawing attention to “Arcana,” you risk triggering a legal crackdown on fanfic in general.

If putting “Arcana” on the Tiptree long list leads to a general crackdown on fanfic, then a crackdown was inevitable. My guess, given the way copyright law is going these days, is that such a crackdown probably is inevitable in the long run. If this bothers you, don’t complain to the Tiptree judges, complain to Congress.

OBJECTION #6: Emily Brunson didn’t ask to be made the poster child for fanfic.

I don’t know who nominated “Arcana” for the Tiptree Award, but if you’re suggesting that the judges should have asked the author’s permission before putting her work on the long list, please click here.

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