How does the future make you feel?

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Lots of little gems in John Seabrook’s 1994 New Yorker profile of Bill Gates, but this note stuck with me particularly.

For years after the telephone was invented, in 1876, people thought it was a device that would transmit news, drama, and music: the idea that the telephone was a way to talk to other people took about twenty years to sink in here, and about thirty years in Europe. Similarly, today one hears about shopping, banking, and renting movies on the information highway. These are all possible ways of making money, of course, but the point of the information highway, it seems to me, is that it offers a new way of talking to other people.

The story itself is an interesting case in how you write about something new. The article still stands up, more or less, but so many of the ideas that are revelatory to Seabrook at this specific moment in history—email, the internet, even computers and software—became so normal so soon after. How can you capture that sense of novelty and not look foolish when tomorrow comes to call?

Things I found this week (53)

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Brocken spectres are the terrifying ghosts that appear when you cast a shadow on a cloud that has a light source behind it. 

• Marcin Wichary is getting ready to launch his manyyears-in-the-making book about keyboards, Shift Happens. The effort and dedication to making this thing is visible in every element of how he has put it together, including the book’s delightful website.

Did you know the CIA has a museum?

How to disappear completely

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There are many ways to become invisible. If you’re a person you can try to go underground, take yourself off the grid. If you are a new US military bomber, you can use the laws of physics and materials science to stay off the radar. And if you are a glass frog, you can simply turn your blood transparent.

We’re transfixed by invisibility, the art of disappearance. It’s magical.

Sometimes that absence is a problem: a lost job, a family member who is suddenly gone. 

But other times, invisibility is success, like the panic about the hole in the ozone layer. That particular anxiety only disappeared because we stepped in and stopped the worst from happening.

“Had the world not banned CFCs, we would now find ourselves nearing massive ozone depletion. ‘By 2050, it's pretty well-established we would have had ozone hole-like conditions over the whole planet, and the planet would have become uninhabitable,’ says Solomon.”

But counterfactuals fuel conspiracy theories. It’s easy for deniers to argue that this disappearance wasn’t the successful avoidance of danger, but evidence that the threat was never a real problem in the first place.

Progress is often about disappearance, and the conflict around it. Does progress mean something is really gone? Or has it merely made the problem invisible?

That vanishing act, I think, is part of what causes worry around technologies. Sometimes work is genuinely gone, or transformed completely: think of an engine doing the work of a human.

But sometimes it’s just under a veil, the mundanity masked to look like magic. Take Laura Preston in N+1 on being a fake smart chatbot.

And often it’s in an awkward spot between the two. Military drones, for example, simply make the job of killing remote. And the driverless cars that are starting to appear, for real, are exhilarating and terrifying too.

And look at Eileen Guo’s latest investigation, exposing how the Roomba vacuum cleaner often takes intimate photos as it makes its way around the house—and that those images sometimes end up leaked into the world. In this case, training an AI to do its work inevitably requires human intervention, which in turn leads to exposure and invasions of privacy.

Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. Whenever I’m faced with “progress” I’m just left wondering if this is magic, or a mask.

World Cup of Food #5: Korean BBQ

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World Cup of Food

A few years on a visit to Seoul, I found myself stuck. It was my first trip to east Asia, and I was riding around on public transport to meet with a friend when I hit the trifecta of travel panic: I tried to use my bank cards and they got blocked; my European phone didn’t work on Korea’s networks; and I couldn’t read hangul. My resources were zero and there was little way to get my bearings. It was entirely confusing… and also a thrill.

There are those moments in life when you are so completely out of water that you just have to immerse yourself in it. There are no options but to give in, let it take over. I had a safety net: I knew where my hotel was, and I had enough city geography to know roughly where I was. But I was stuck, gasping for air. So I just let the universe wash over me. I found my way. I asked for help. I got to where I needed.

I’m not sure if that trip was the first time I ate Korean food, but it was still a revelation to eat my way through the grilled meats, the banchan, the bibimbap. I love pickled and fermented vegetables; if I ate nothing but rice I would be pretty happy. So what I’m saying: Korean food is all the good stuff. 

I got pretty sick over Thanksgiving (did you spot the medicinal drink when I was noshing on Polish food?), so we took the easy option for this one and ate from Purple Rice, one of our neighborhood go-tos. It used to be called Stone Bowl, also Korean, and I don’t actually know if it’s the same owners and a new lick of paint, or a different place entirely. There’s plenty of good Korean food around the city, and this one is a little expensive for what you get, but it’s solid and simple. I wish their wings were nicer. I had barbecued short ribs, rice, banchan, kimchi pancakes. I let it wash over me. Delicious.

World Cup of Food #4: American feasting

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World Cup of Food

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday.

It’s not pure, exactly—name me a celebration that doesn’t carry some baggage—but it is simple. Get together with people you care about, take a moment to reflect on what you’re thankful for, eat until your eyes roll around in your head. It’s very direct.

No country is as in love with itself as the US is, and nothing reflects that love as much as the Thanksgiving plate. It swoons over a glossy veneer, is driven by an ahistorical narrative, and demonstrates an addiction to traditions that only go back a generation.

Usually it’s centered on a meat that nobody really likes, since the only time you really see turkey outside is either when it’s pretending to be ham or when the eater is pretending to be Henry VIII devouring a massive leg at a Renaissance Faire. Meanwhile, there’s a motley cast of minor players that hang around at the edge of the stage, unholy concoctions across the board. Say hello to the green bean casserole, courtesy of Campbell’s soup company; or the sweet potatoes that may be accompanied by marshmallow.

Still, it’s the act of getting together more than the specific contents of the meal that matter. So in our Thanksgiving dinner, eaten with friends, the turkey was substituted out for a gigantic lump of rare beef, buttressed by some frilly yams, green beans, sweet glazed carrots, and a bready stuffing.

We got together with people we cared about, appreciated what we are thankful for, and ate until we were defeated. I’d call that success.

[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

World Cup of Food #3: Polish pierogi

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World Cup of Food

I spotted Seakor for the first time when we were shopping for furniture a few weeks ago; it’s an unassuming Polish deli on a corner of the Richmond opposite a gas station, graced by a sign that says “& SAUSAGE FACTORY.” Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

It was always easy to get Polish food in the UK, one flat we had in Brighton was slapped next to a Polish corner shop (or perhaps the shop was slapped next to the flat) but although the shelves were stuffed with vowelless delicacies, I’d never really noticed.

At Seakor, I explained my World Cup odyssey to the chap behind the counter and asked him what a quick Polish lunch might look like. He wasn’t much interested in the football, but he did offer us some smoked sausage to taste. It was good, and they say it’s the best Polish deli in the city, so we got a lot of pierogi and a trio of the sausageman’s recommendations, along with some ginger cookies (the wrapper said OUTSTANDING SMACK, which was enough for me).

Meanwhile an older couple navigated their way through the food behind the glass, and a Polish woman chatted with me about the scorelines earlier in the day and Lewandoski’s missed penalty. Her boyfriend, she told me, was English—a couple of minutes later he arrived and revealed himself, disappointingly, to be an Arsenal fan.

We got home and threw the food together; a quick boil, then a fry to brown them off. They were sauerkraut and mushroom; doughy and heavy. Coming so soon after the German dinner, I had to take it slowly and simply—no extras, just a few nibbles. It was a hefty plate that gave me a lot of time to think.I thought about the missed penalty. I thought about the OUTSTANDING SMACK. And I thought, this food probably isn’t for me.

[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

World Cup of Food #2: German essen

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World Cup of Food

German food gets a surprisingly easy ride. We all know the jokes about English cuisine, or the wincing references to Scandinavia’s pickled herrings, or the apparently endless parade of cabbage-based dishes that represent an Eastern European dinner table. And yet somehow German grub—which essentially combines all of those into a single menu—doesn’t come in for the same skepticism.

At least, that’s what I figure given the number of German food spots around the Bay. Sausage and beer are easy to come by at a range of places, even if covid did not give the area’s Deutschy places a particularly easy ride. Walzwerk, a cosy East German place in the Mission that I particularly liked, closed down in 2020; Lehr’s, a German import store in Noe Valley that I refuse to visit because of its longstanding front window typo, shut down but is apparently re-opening.

Schnitzel became a go-to comfort food for us during the pandemic, partly because the act of making it was enjoyable—hammering, breading and frying the meat gives you a feeling of accomplishment, plus I learned a kind of ad-hoc spaetzle recipe from Kenji Lopez-Alt that is both incredibly easy and fun to put together.

But I was interested in what the local restaurants could offer up—so we caught the beerhall vibe at Suppenküche, which occupies a little corner in Hayes Valley. It was a busy night, and it’s a noisy share-the-table kind of place, so we made our way through pretzel, reibekuchen, eggs, beets, and sausage before heading into schnitzel territory. Washed it all down with a dark beer. I think my family enjoy German food more than I do, and it sits heavy—I am still full 12 hours later—but it was a solid choice.

[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

World Cup of Food #1: Qatari kabsa

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World Cup of Food

It was a weird day to start this project. Qatar kicked off the World Cup—Qatar, where being gay is illegal and potentially punishable by death. Here in the US, today is the trans day of remembrance; the night before, some mouthbreather in Colorado shot up and killed a bunch of people at a gay bar. These abhorrences are not unconnected.

So yeah, weird day.

But the World Cup is so compromised that I knew it wouldn’t be anything else (John Amaechi says it best, perhaps.)

Despite everything, it seemed appropriate to start my food odyssey with Qatar, but my research suggested there’s not a lot of local food in the Bay Area. There’s a lot of Arabic cuisine, much more than a few years ago and—at least to my tastes—better, too. I live near Beit Rima, a lovely Lebanese spot that opened before the pandemic and made it through; a new mezze place opened just a few blocks away. But not a lot of Qatari food.

So I asked a friend who is in the know, and she recommended Yemen Kitchen, a little hole in the wall in the Tenderloin: they serve kabsa, also known as machboos, a traditional peninsula dish that blends spices, vegetables, rice and meat. This place’s kabsa was very close to the Qatari version, she said, although can be on the dry side. So we ordered lamb kabsa, a little chicken, some falafel, some hummus, some bread. (Sunday night, we ordered takeout rather than eating in.)

And it was, broadly, great: Lamb on the bone that fell apart, fragrantly spiced but not overpowering rice, with enough texture to keep it interesting and a dusty set of flavors that I loved. The portions were huge; a single bowl of kabsa pretty much fed three of us, although I think traditionally it’s eaten as a sharing platter so I suppose that’s the point. The falafel was good, maybe the best I’ve had here—crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The main downside was the disappointing bread, basically just a bag of pita straight from the wholesaler (I’ve noticed this happening at a few places recently.) But we’ll be eating there again.

In the meantime, I matched the amount we spent on food from Yemen Kitchen with a donation to Trans Lifeline, a volunteer-led hotline for trans people in trouble.


[Read more about the World Cup of Food.]

Things I liked this week (46)

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• Laura Hazard Owen’s Nieman Lab piece on what journalism will lose if Twitter goes away brought many of the costs of the current drama together in one place. I’ve downloaded my data and mothballed my account.

• Sorrow compounded when I finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo. I’d picked it up after hearing George Saunders interviewed by Alexis Madrigal on KQED radio, having enjoyed A Swim in the Pond in the Rain last year and dipping into his Substack from time to time. What a sad, beautiful, funny book. I’m annoyed with myself for not reading it sooner.

• Perhaps relatedly, I happened on this VQR piece on funeral traditions in Black America struck me. The piece feels a little cursory; I could read something much more substantial. But still.

Introducing my World Cup of Food (Bay Area edition)

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World Cup of Food

I love the World Cup. Football all day for weeks on end, players from all over the planet—the greats, the unknowns—thrown in together, each one hoping to get their moment in the spotlight. Amazing victories, drama, tragedy, high stakes games, athletic prowess on full display? It’s amazing.

At the same time… I hate the World Cup. Or, more specifically, I hate this World Cup. I wasn’t too keen on the last one in Russia, either, but this year’s is troublesome for a range of reasons, not least because Fifa’s corrupt decision to award it to Qatar back in 2010 was one of the early salvoes in the current era of sportwashing by problematic regimes. (Believe me, as a Chelsea fan, I’m very well aware that we basically fired the starting pistol on all of that.) And as well as the human rights and labor issues, there’s so much that’s weird about this year’s competition—taking place in the winter, mid-season, many big names missing because of small injuries, teams lacking preparation, and all held essentially in a single city.

But still, for all its problems, I love the World Cup.

I also love food. Eating it, making it, thinking about it. I don’t mean that I love fancy restaurants or celebrity chefs—honestly, that’s all a bit much. I just love grub. We’re lucky that San Francisco has a vibrant food culture, reflecting the wide array of immigrant cultures here in the Bay Area.

So I thought: why not bring these two together?

So here it is, my World Cup of Food (Bay Area edition.)

The challenge is this: Between the opening game of the World Cup on November 20 and the final on December 18, I plan on eating a dish or meal from every country taking part in the competition. That’s 32 teams across 29 days.

Many countries are easy. USA! Mexico! I live in California, come on. Some cuisines are very common, like Japanese and French. And I’m English, so that one’s easy to cover.

But there are a few tough options. Who serves genuine Qatari and Saudi Arabian cuisine? What places can dish up Croatian and Serbian food? Where are the good Ghanaian meals, as opposed to generic West African? If you have any ideas, please leave a comment.

While I’m prepared to do some cooking at home, hopefully this will give me a chance to explore some new foods, go to some new locations, and maybe meet some interesting people along the way.

I’ll keep this page updated with new additions as we go along.

Let’s go.

Bobbie’s World Cup of Food (Bay Area edition)

Group A: Ecuador, Netherlands, Qatar, Senegal
Group B: England, Iran, United States, Wales
Group C: Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Group D: Australia, Denmark, France, Tunisia
Group E: Costa Rica, Germany, Japan, Spain
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Morocco
Group G: Brazil, Cameroon, Serbia, Switzerland
Group H: Ghana, Portugal, South Korea, Uruguay