Monday, June 30, 2008

Why does this keep happening?

Another medical helicopter down. Two of them. And six (or seven, according to some reports) dead.

I actually feel fairly close to this issue -- a day doesn't go by that I don't hear one of the Augusta 109's of Seattle's Life Flight go buzzing by. I can even identify them by sound from the other helicopter traffic we get here in Edmonds: Snohomish County's UH-1 SAR bird, the huge Army MH-47's, the smaller Coast Guard HH-60's, and even a very occasional Blackhawk or variant. The Life Flite guys hug the shore, I think, staying just off over the water to keep their noise footprint low. Very courteous!

But not quite three years ago this rash of EMS crashes hit home as one of those daily visitors went down just a few miles from my home.

So every time I hear about another well intentioned EMS crew paying the price (I don't mean to sound too rhapsodic and lauditory here), I feel it more strongly than with most other crashes. I don't usually launch into the "Something Must Be Done!" sort of rant, demanding congressional investigations, senate hearings, increased regulation and stringent limitation. But it is only a matter of time before one of these things goes down really ugly. Into a busload of nuns and orphans, into the roof of a hospital's NICU, or something similarly ghastly. So now I've got to say it: Something Must Be Done!

And what is that?

Well, before you act, you think. And before you think, you learn.

Why are these crashes happening?

First, EMS aviation is up. Way up. I don't have the numbers handy, but Google does, I promise. And I'll lead you to check it out if you don't believe me. But the rate of accidents-per-flying-hour is also way up. So this isn't simply a product of statistics.

It could be a product of training -- just look at those wacky airport screeners. If you suddenly up the demand for qualified members of a highly skilled (and more than mildly heroic) profession, you run the risk of scraping the bottom of the barrel. Hell, we saw that at Amazon back-in-the-day when pretty much anyone with a heartbeat was qualified to interview as a customer service rep. And answering phones for Earth's Biggest Bookstore doesn't hold a candle to flying the sick and injured to lifesaving surgeries and treatments. So I could buy this idea -- all the good pilots got used up. But we're still not talking about a huge pool. We're talking about a few hundred more pilots. And I can only assume that the military is generating a pretty good pool of qualified pilots. Retention is a struggle right now for all of the land services -- so that means that qualified aviators are probably pushing through faster than ever. And sure, a particular subgroup like helicopter pilots may not be suffering from the same problem as the services at large, but I still can't imagine that the pool's been scraped that far down.

Could it be overuse? Fleet maintenance? Helicopters without adequate spare parts or maintenance? Maintenance personnel without adequate training?

Ultimately, I fear the problem is cultural. EMS crews are the lightweight (hold on, don't flame yet) versions of the military CSAR units and the Coast Guard SAR pilots and rescue swimmers. They do, after all, fly helicopters to pick up those in trouble and carry them to safety. They may not do so either under fire and deep in enemy territory or hundreds of miles out to sea in the middle of a hundred year storm. Hence the "lightweight" comment -- let's be honest and admit that picking up a few tourists strapped to a backboard from an LZ prepped by firefighters on the ground is different from winching a fisherman from the deck of a sinking crabber in the middle of the night.

It just IS. Do disrespect. No criticism. Yet.

But do we have the recipe for a Napoleon Complex here? Anyone with a heartbeat must get a little thrill at the thoughts of oceanic or combat SAR missions. There is the stuff of true, deep heroism. Flying helicopters to and from hospitals is still cool -- I'd do it. But is there a danger of setting up the crews of the EMS birds to try to mimic their slightly higher profile cousins? To take risks, in other words, that they are neither trained or equipped for? To venture forth in weather that should keep them grounded. To rush to fly missions without proper briefing and planning?

To try, in short, to rise to a perceived ideal of that which makes their brethren in the uniformed services such an elite.

And who could blame them? Lives are on the line! And if you didn't see value in saving lives, would you not be doing something else? Covering traffic, leading tours, shuttling oil rig workers, filming movies? I'd push the envelope, you'd push the envelope, anyone would. Imagine making the call, as the pilots of an EMS helicopter are tasked to.

You've got two people injured in a car accident 75 miles away. They'll probably die if transported by ambulance. But you can get out and back, with your highly qualified flight nurses, fast enough to save their lives. Now comes the agonizing part: weather is sitting just at (or just below) minimums. Do you go or do you stay? What if it clears on the way? What if you don't go and then get blamed and labeled a coward? So you tell the ground crew to prep the helicopter, the nurses to get loaded, and you start reviewing the mission and planning your flight. Five or ten minutes later, everyone is ready to go, but the weather hasn't gotten better. Do you go, or do you scrub? Of course you go!

And who could blame you.

But how do we, if this is the source of the problem, or part of it even, stop those well intentioned crews from taking undue risks, whether it be in the name of honest heroism or a desire to fly with the big boys?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

My favorite cipher

There is something gloriously manual about a hand cipher, a cipher using pencil, paper, and possibly a small collection of keytables or such. There is intimate connection with the message, and a comprehensible dynamic that is impossible for the oily "kerchunk" of a rotor machine or the silent algorithmic intensity of yet more modern techniques.

So, in my not-remotely-technical way, I propose a quick review of three interesting wartime hand ciphers. One from the First World War, two from the Second, all three German. I'll take a look at these three from the standpoint of a cipher clerk enciphering a message in the field and then, with a perspective as artistic as it is mathematical, at the inner workings that render reversible incomprehensibility. It'll take time, so bear with me. First one, then the rest later on. If I get into it, there might even be more than these three..

ADFGVX -- and the heroic efforts that lead to its breaking -- is at least conceptually familiar to students of 1918. In the final year of that static conflict, the French cryptographic victory helped the allies withstand the final German push to Paris (it should be noted that there are those who question this widely held view of the history).

The German designers of ADFGVX knew well that a successful cipher needed to be simple to use. This lesson, and the corollary that a complex cipher may, through laziness or simple haste, may prove self-compromising in the field, was one that would be lost between the wars, much to the relief of allied cryptanalysts who knew they could always count on sloppy German practice.

But ADFGVX itself embodied some very interesting ideas. For starters, it enciphered messages into six easily transmitted letters: A, D, F, G, V, and X. In Morse, these letters are simple to send and difficult to confuse on reception. Clear transmission (and therefore minimum repetition) improves security.

Let us suppose you have the message "It was the best of times" to encrypt. The first ingredient is a 6x6 substitution square (note that original versions of this used the letters ADFGX in a 5x5 grid and therefore could not directly encipher numbers). In the field, this would have been provided by headquarters and, probably, changed on a daily basis.

  A D F G V X
A Q 1 W E R 2
D 3 T Y U 4 I
F O P A 5 S 6
G D F 7 G 8 H
V J 9 K 0 L Z

(Note that I generated this square by typing on that irritating anachronism, the QWERTY keyboard. I don't pretend to cryptographic validity here.)

We look up each letter in the plain text in the grid and then write down the two ciphertext letters that define its coordinates (row first, column second, so "R" would be represented as AV).

Our message encrypts as:


Note that the length is now doubled -- but these are the six easiest letters to transmit (radio was effectively all Morse back then!).

We're not done, because this is just a simple monophonic substitution. That is, every letter in the plaintext corresponds to a single symbol in the ciphertext (even if that symbol consists of two letters). And a monophonic substitution is about as easy to solve as it gets.

Now we write our columns out according to a code word that we have been given. This might also change from day to day, or depending on recipient, in an effort to reduce the amount of traffic a given key setup would produce. Our code word is EDMONDS -- but we omit the second instance of any repeated letter for EDMONS. Write the intermediate encipherment out underneath this word, lining each letter up underneath the ones above it.


I got lucky and my message lined up directly underneath the key word, making things look tidy and in fact more cryptographically secure.  The Germans left any blank columns unfilled but, as the tale will show, would have been better off adding random nulls at the end to fill all columns fully and equally.

Now take the letters off vertically by columns, in order of the alphabetical position of the letters in the key word. In this case, take of the D column first, then the E column, the M column, the N, the O, and finally the S. Per traditionally proper technique, we will do so in five letter groups.


This message would then be transmitted.

Analytically, ADFGVX embodies degrees of both transposition (portions of the message are moved around -- think word scramble) and substitution (think, well, substitution). Interestingly, however, it relies on a third component for its security kicker: fractionation. This results from the step where each plaintext letter's two-part symbol is written down horizontally and then taken off vertically. Each plain text symbol is, therefor, divided (or fractionated) into two parts which are located in different portions of the ciphertext. Modern cryptography places quite a bit of emphasis on this idea -- confusion and diffusion being two sought after goals.

At first blush ADFGVX might seem extremely secure. But the reality is that there are cracks a cryptanalyst can pursue. Realize that after our first step -- the plaintext's initial transformation by substitution into the double-lenth intermediate message of digraphic symbols -- all we had was a simple monophonic substitution. Funny looking, yes, but ultimately almost entirely devoid of security. Given any message with a normal distribution of characters and statistics will quickly yield the digraph pairs that correspond to each plaintext letter. Our sample message is statistically skewed, but AG's representation of E would quickly stand out in any normal frequency count. From there, the rest follows and the message is wide open.

A cagy cryptanalyst can, then try to break back from the fractionation component of the second step. Trialing different lengths and sequences of the columnar transposition guided by the keyword in the cipher's second step is a brute force possibility. This would involve taking an intercepted message "backward" to the intermediate stage by various different keywords, then analyzing the resultant intermediate text for normal statistical distributions of digraph pairs.

Hold on, in case I lost you, think of it this way...and remember that once we reach the intermediate stage of the in-order double-lenght message, the break is effectively trivial.

Our wily cryptanalyst starts by assuming the message's keyword was four letters long. It really doesn't matter what those letters were because a four letter word can only yield 24 possible ways of taking off the columns to produce the final cipher:

1234, 1243, 1324, 1243, 1423, 1432, 2134, 2143, 2314, 2341, 2413, 2431, 3124, 3142, 3214, 3241, 3412, 3421, 4123, 4132, 4213, 4231, 4312, 4321.

The cryptanalyst now tests the intercept by transcribing the message backwards into each of these columnar orders. This, incidentally is exactly what the friendly cipherclerk on the receiving end would do, but he would know they keyword and therefore the order in which to fill in the received code. Each of these 24 possibilities is then take off (going sideways this time) to produce a candidate intermediate text. Do a statistical count on this intermediate text and see if it looks valid. If close, try to decrypt. If gibberish, try again.

Sounds easy but time consuming -- but when nations are on the line resources are usually available, and nothing so far can't be taught to any moderately apt college student. But now let's say your foe used a five letter keyword for the 2nd step. That would have 120 combinations you' have to examine. Six letters? 720. Eight letters? 5,760. Nine? 51,840. You get the idea, right? And we forgot to account for the paltry six possibilities offered by a three character keyword. The Germans, at least in the first intercepts to be broken, used 20 columns...

In the end, the French depended upon some even more clever analysis. Cryptographic genius George Painvin spent months (and lost 20 pounds) breaking this cipher just ahead of the threat of a German offensive aimed at Paris. He guessed the structure of the cipher and saw that the essential security lay in the columnar transposition. To avoid brute force, he used two messages with the identical beginnings so helpfully common to military communication to determine the number of transposition columns used (20). The identical openings resulted in the first twenty characters of the intercept being identical. After that first column, the diffusion element of the cipher intermingled the traces of the identical openings with the divergent bodies.

Knowing that there were 20 columns, he could reconstruct them. Some were longer and some shorter by one letter. Logically, the longer columns would be to the left because of the order in which they were filled in. This sorted the columns into two groups -- the long left and the short right, thinning the field a little but still leaving far too many options to try. Assuming that messages with identical beginnings might have identical endings, Painvin was able to apply his opening logic in reverse and create a few groups of pairs that he knew must be next to each other, but not which was to the left and which was to the right. But with two columns, he could afford to roll the dice and try to find statistical distributions that matched written German.

That worked, and allowed him to find the digraph pairs for a few common letters. Using this break, the rest of the columnar arrangement and the substitution square filled themselves in by turns. Statistical guesses at the substitution arrangement could guide the arrangement of the columns (arrangements that produced greater frequencies of digraphs corresponding to common letters were more likely to be correct). As more columns were arranged, more digraphs emerged, and so on, until the columnar arrangement and the substitution table were both fully filled out and all that day's traffic could be read.

It was laborious and depended on a sufficient volume of traffic. The French never read ADVGVX reliably -- only on days with sufficient traffic to generate the sort of kick start needed. The initial breaks took weeks to analyze -- rendering the effort useless from a tactical standpoint. But as experience (and traffic and poor communications practice) grew, solutions were achieved sometimes the same day the messages were sent.

All this said, I like the beauty of this cipher. It embodies both substitution and transposition, and yet is relatively wieldy. If you thought that trial example was tough, just wait until parts two and three...

There are also a few steps that could be taken to improve security. A classic step is to substitute codewords for frequently named people and places. Certain suspected patterns can help speed up the breaking of the final stage, and if an army is fighting in Verdun, for example, a cryptanalyst looking at a signal to or from that army might look for that word. Substitute FIBLA for that word (and then encrypt it) and you have an improvement. Even better, have FIBLA, GIZWA, NILMO, and QAGTL all as options for the cipher clerk to pick at random.

The second stage keyword should be long, to maximize the number of choices facing the cryptanalyst. Chose a phrase like "YOURE MY WONDER WALL" (I've had that song stuck in my head today) instead of just a few words. Take columns headed by duplicate letters off in order instead of ignoring repeats and you have a 17 letter keyword: 355,687,428,096,000 possible combinations, more than enough to prevent trial-and-error cryptanalysis as I suggested. Better yet, don't use a keyword at all (and I believe this might be how the Germans actually implemented the cipher) but a numeric sequence (11 4 7 8 3 8 6 10 1 5 2 9 12) that couldn't correspond to some word or phrase a codebreaker might recognize.

An implementation that somehow changed a portion of the key (say the keyphrase) at every message would increase security. A little recognized fact is that message length can have a lot to do with the ability of a foe to compromise a cipher system. ADFGVX is vulnerable, but only with a sufficient amount of identically keyed traffic. So embedding an encrypted version of an ever changing key phrase or selecting one from a daily sequence rather than using the same one all day long would help. One could easily see a book that contained the substitution square on the left side and a table of 50 different transposition keys on the right, each identified by an in indicator to be sent along with the message or else some sort of scheme for sequencing to govern their selection. This was a common feature of some of the better ciphers of the 2nd world war and shortly thereafter -- the amazing American SIGABA machine for one, the postwar Swiss NEMA for another -- an indicator group that specified an easily changed portion of the machine's settings was transmitted (enciphered in some manner) as part of the message header and footer. The great Soviet spy ciphers (Vic and its kin) used similarly variable portions for every message.

I think that the idea of saying "I transmit part of my cipher key IN my message?" is shocking to most. Understandably! But the countermeasure is that done properly, the indicator group is not easy to read, and the effect of reducing message traffic for any given setup more than outweighs the risks.

Naturally, all the standard weaknesses of classical error cryptography (and their potential countermeasures) are present as well. Sloppy work resulting in identical messages being sent with different keys. Sending the same message on a secure and a non-secure channel resulting in the compromise of all the message on the secure channel for that keying period. Stereotyped beginnings or entire messages -- this was the bane of actual German cryptography, with a national penchant for patriotic phrasing or "nothing to report" reports...

Interestingly, while it would considerably weaken the security of the thing, it is possible to do a ADFGVX variation with no prepared materials, using a keyphrase of sufficient length to form up the initial substitution table. Take the letters of "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" and use them to form the initial grid, alphabetically filling in the rest of the spaces.

  A D F G V X
V X Z 0 1 2 3
X 4 5 6 7 8 9

Of course, we'd need to come up with some scheme for the numbers -- or else use the 5x5 version. Its weaker, since an analyst could guess the arrangement once they started to get a break. But for a spy or someone forced to work with no materials and sending a very small amount of traffic, it has possibilities.

I find this cipher charming for some reason. Its balance of complexity and comprehensibility works for me. It has its vulnerabilities, but then again so does anything of this period or level of sophistication.

The accessibility of it means I can play with it in my mind, try to understand it the way I picture George Painvin did.

Once in a...

I know that I tend to run a serious mixed drink focus in this blog.  But as summer rolls 'round and cold, high-volume drinks start to regain their appeal, a good pint (of several) starts to sound better and better.  And I've been known to do a bit of homebrewing here and there.  But my 50% failure rate gets demoralizing and I've found that after bottling 60 bottles of beer I suddenly find myself wanting wine, whisky, vodka, gin, or pretty much anything but beer...

I discovered the folks over at Blue Moon Brewing have put together a glorious Belgian style Wit.  If you know my beer tastes, you know that I love the Belgians and their willingness to experiment and have fun with the craft.  That said, I think that some of the things they put in beer are abject failures (strawberries? I know some people like Framboise, but uh-uh from here...).  But the idea of having fun is great.  

And Wit's are among my favorites.  Some wheat and oats to round off the barley and some orange peel and coriander to season.  Great stuff on a hot summer day.  

Blue Moon's Wit is perfect with about a quarter orange squeezed into the glass, and the rind then tossed in afterwards to float around and add some pulpy texture.

And since today's been hot as hell (for Pacific NW standards - 85 now feels like the "burning the flesh of my bones" level to this one time Central Valley Californian...), I've got a glass chilling in the freezer and an orange ready for the slicing.

And did I mention that Costco has 24 bottle cases on sale?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

More Cowbell!

Or: Erica's First Triathlon

For starters, I still struggle to say tri-ATH-lon and not tri-ath-A-lon.  

But this morning, after a 4:15am alarm and only two cups of coffee (!), I was there to play my small supporting role as my lovely wife embarked on her first triathlon.  I was there as bike technician (which never extended beyond ensuring proper tire inflation - a good thing since my bike technician skills extend only a hair's breadth beyond this basic task), wetsuit tugger (they never showed that part in the old Jacues Cousteau specials on PBS), photographer, and 50% of her cheering section.  

I'll skip the race details.  For that, read Erica's blog.  She was the one doing it, after all.  I just got to watch.

But I'll tell you one thing: it was fun.  Way more fun than I expected.  Something was always going on - someone was hitting their T1 or T2 or else crossing the finishing line.  And everyone was there to support and cheer.  Triathlon, except for the very most elite levels, is a sport of the PB's: Personal Bests.  

Well, as an aside, this is my first triathlon as technician/tugger/photographer/fan so I have no idea how things will get at higher profile or co-ed events.  Something tells me that the guys will manage to make it a whole lot more, well, manly and competitive.  

But, back to the happy joy of Five Mile Lake.  Here it seemed that everyone knew that supporting another participant wasn't going to hurt their own performance.  Triathlon isn't zero-sum.  You don't do better by out-gaming your opponent, trash talking their equipment ("Titanium, huh?  You don't think that's kind of 90's do you?"), talking up your game ("So Lance and I were having some beers the other day..."), or any of the first-tee crap that seems to infest some other sports.  The net result was 300-some happy women all out to push their bodies and their hearts as far as they could.  Women with the easy physicality of those still in high-school.  Women who were in their 70's.  Women wearing oversized wetsuits and women with bodyfat levels hovering just above (or perhaps below) the danger line.  Women riding $6,000 Cervelo's and women riding comfort cruisers with platform pedals and sprung seats.

Just about the only drawback was a tedious DJ spinning an endless series of what I presume he thought were women-friendly triathlon songs.  You know, up-tempo big band stuff with a bit of 70's diva thrown in for fun.  Uh-huh.  Erica works out to Pink, Black Eyed Peas, and the like.  I prefer Guns'n'Roses, AC/DC, and that whole 1980's metal scene.  But at no point have either of us ever thought "Hey, let's put on the Charlie's Angels theme for that final push to the finish line!"  He overlaid this with an almost patronizingly hyper-empowering stream of patter that ranged from the repetitive ("You're all goddesses today!") to the frankly bizarre ("Nice purple there, number 829.  Did you know purple is a very high vibrating color associated with the 7th Chakra?").

Eh?  Perhaps its because my approach to workout motivation leans more to visualizing scenes from Band of Brothers than to thinking about the planar elevation of my inner being, but this just kept coming at me from some other place.  

But put that aside, don't mind my carping, and just remember this: never forget the value of giving some of your time to help a love one chase down a dream of a goal.

Now like I said - if you want the grueling details, read Erica's blog.  But I'll tell you this - she kicked ass.  Well inside her target time, even inside the time I thought she'd post.  And she came across the finish line glowing and delighted.

And I felt as proud of her as I ever have.  So this one's for you, my love. 

And the cowbell reference?  Its a cycling thing.  People lining the course at the great European races (by which I pretty much mean the Tour de France) ring cowbells as riders come by -- warning the next group of fans to be alert and showing support for the riders.  There were a couple of cowbell ringers on the course today, even at this small event, and besides creating a nice Continental atmosphere, it had that whole "More Cowbell" sketch from Saturday Night stuck in my head.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Can he really win this thing?

Alright, so I'm not usually that political.  I find the idea of nuclear powered hot air balloons exploring the moons of Saturn far too interesting to get distracted with terrestrial things like the president, the economy, global warming, and the petty wars of man.

FYI, that's sarcastic.  I actually find these things too disturbing and irritating and so hide my head in the sand by reading about things like nuclear powered hot air balloons exploring the moons of Saturn.

But...I read these articles this afternoon:

Good God (ha ha) could the monolithic and impenetrable religious right be collapsing into its own factious debate?  Is the idea that just because you believe in God (Christian variety) you automatically have a certain set of values growing old?  


And even more interesting (in a tactical election-in-six-months kind of way) is the fact that people unassociated with the Obama campaign (hell, people strongly associated with Bush!) seem to enjoy jumping in to his defense.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Gimlet

No better starting place.

Best suited to dark days with long nights. October, November, on through to March or even April.

Don't make it with Rose's Lime Juice like most of the books tell you to. That's fine if you want a drink that tastes like flat, boozy Sprite. But here's a better option: fresh squeezed lime juice (about half a lime, if you've got a nice juicy one), a squirt of simple syrup, and then enough gin or vodka to round out the drink. Shake, strain, and serve up with a lime wheel.

Citric and biting, with no real sweetness. The simple syrup is just there to add a little balance and stop the thing from turning into some sort of pucker-factor contest. It should be a drink that cuts through the winter muddle, after all.



Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A disappointing ending

So I picked up the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy with some trepidation. I was a little nervous -- from what I knew this book might stray into some areas that I was exploring for a novel. It was also a "young adult" book that had seen some significant popularity among the not-so-young adult set. And sometimes those work for me, sometimes they crash and burn. It was also a full cast recording (with my commute schedule, almost all of my "reading" is done via audiobooks) -- something I usually find irritating compared to a single talented narrator.

But when I put on The Golden Compass I was immediately thrilled. Here was a book with a richly developed world, one that was ingenious and fascinating and neither something I'd read before nor something I'd thought of myself. The main character was fairly interesting, some of the peripheral characters quite so. The pacing was great and the narration never condescended into undue exposition.

But above all, it was fun in a way that adult books aren't. With few exceptions, the bad guys were bad and the good guys were good and there was just enough tragedy to keep things poignant -- but never maudlin. I had fun, I finished it in a few days, and came home raving and quickly downloading the 2nd book in the trilogy.

The Subtle Knife wasn't quite as good. Unfulfilling, it clearly was a linking text between the warmup and the climax. And, as with any good three act play, the 2nd act ended in a hovering sense of gloom. One of the most likable secondary characters was dead, a few tertiary characters were dead, and pretty much everyone was either on the run or in the hands of the enemy.

Remember Empire Strikes Back? The on the run, Lando's betrayal, Han Solo frozen in Carbonite, Luke wounded from his battle with Darth Vader...and the whole "you are not my father!" thing? Same feeling.

So when my birthday rolled around and (thank you Elaine and Greg!) I got more credit on Audible, The Amber Spyglass was the first title I downloaded. And, sadly, it was not worth the wait. After the tension concluding The Subtle Knife, I was really looking for, and expecting, something good.

In reality, The Subtle Knife was overly long, unfocused, and suffered from an excess of not-so-hidden agenda, deus ex machina, and a failed sweep of epic storytelling that left the book feeling thin.

The word, so richly developed in the first book, was almost entirely abandoned in the favor of a sped up trip through a complex multiverse with settings, characters, and devices from probably a dozen different realities. That's fine, but it takes a talent to pull off that sort of sweep that wasn't present here. It was also disconcerting, too dramatic a change from what I was expecting.

Pullman was also widely accused of an anti-Christian (if not fully anti-religious) agenda. The sort of people you'd expect to say such things called for boycotts, posted flaming reviews on Amazon, created blogs, and all the rest. At the start, I struggled to see what all the fuss was about. These folks do tend to over-react, I thought, and while Compass was clearly agnostic and had a mildly anti-Christian sense in so far as it characterized the church of its world as an oppressive, secretive, controlling organization. Picture the Catholic Church back in the bad old days (by which I mean inquisition) and you'll have a pretty accurate picture.

Knife was a little more active, pushing the same themes somewhat more clearly. But suddenly Spyglass came along and wow, the whole thing took a sharp turn and headed off in a new direction. This wasn't an agnostic book. It pushed, they were right, an overtly anti-Christian and anti-religious agenda. Religion was bad. It kept people down. It punished people. It was negative, negative, negative. And I'm not just talking about the organization, I'm talking about God. The Big Man himself makes an appearance, as do a few not-so-polite lieutenants and some well intentioned (and kind of gay) rebel angels.

This wasn't agnostic ("I haven't decided if there is a god or not") or even atheist ("I have decided, and there is no god"). It knew there was a god -- and he was not on the side of the angels. It actually made me somewhat uncomfortable, the sheer aggression of this stance.

I once said that a lot of those "socially active" artists of the 1980's (Phil Collins, U2, all those aid concert guys) sometimes sacrificed the quality of their music in order to package up a message. And that's the final problem I had with Pullman's segue into hard core anti-religious stance. The quality of the story seemed to suffer in order to make sure that all the atrocities, injustices, and abuses of the religious entities and organizations got their due time.

It failed into all of the sorts of things that I lauded Compass for staying away from. Excessive exposition. Sudden moments of inspired and unsupported knowledge. Deus ex machina personality changes.

Too bad. I'd enjoyed the first book with its rich universe and carefree story. I'd appreciated the youthful perspective of the narrators' eyes. But book three seemed to try too hard to grow up, to achieve a breadth of action, a cosmic significance, and a intensity of agenda that it just couldn't support.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Sidecar

At least two of my house standards bear a striking relationship with the First World War. Interestingly, as I write this description, I'm listening to Tuchtman's iconic The Guns of August, the 2nd best book on that conflict I know -- and the single best on its origins.

This one isn't named after a gun, so if you have ethical concerns about drinks named after field artillery, relax. Personally, when it comes to drinking, ethical concerns are pretty hard to justify.

Grab a lemon, some Cognac (it doesn't need to be fancy -- I actually use a California-made pseudo-Cognac), and some Cointreau. You'll also need some sugar on a small plate -- no need for Demerara or superfine or anything fancy. That takes care of the consumables. For the service, one standard cocktail glass. This drink is pretty kicky, so you can use one of those fancy zig-zag glasses or anything else a little fancy. No need to stick to ascetic dry martini stemware. Standard shaken drink kit for the rest of it.

Load your shaker with cracked ice. Slice the lemon in half and rub one half over the edge of the glass to moisten it then press the moist top edge of the glass into the sugar so that a nice rim sticks. Squeeze the lemon half into the shaker. Add 3/4 of an ounce of Cointreau. Add 1 1/2 ounces of your Cognac or Cognac-substitute. Shake and strain into the glass.

My favorite garnish is an orange twist -- so I guess you'll need one of those as well. I go through a lot of citrus.

The result is sweet but acidic -- it is a cocktail that feels sprightly enough to drink on all but the hottest of summer days yet has enough body to warm the spirit after a month of solid rain. As with any sugar rimmed drink, you can customize the flavor as you drink. For more bite, drink from the same spot. For more smoothness (is that a real word?), work your way around catching new spots of sugar with every sip.