Thursday, March 31, 2022

Autocomplete Zeitgeist Revisited

Before we begin

In this post, which examines the American zeitgeist, I adopt a tone of playful criticism. Please don’t mistake me for one of those tedious killjoys who only finds fault. Believe me, I am very grateful for my country and its people.


As everybody knows, Google Autocomplete is a function of Google Search that starts providing feedback even before you’ve finished typing your query. The search engine predicts what you’re looking for based on what others have searched for. As such, it’s a good indicator of where people’s heads are. In a previous post I asked Google a range of questions designed to examine the national zeitgeist as of March 31, 2018. Today, exactly four years later, I googled the same questions to see how things have changed and what people seek answers for in 2022.

(Note: to improve the accuracy of this experiment—that is, to make it more about the people instead of about me—I turned off “Personal Results” so my own previous searches won’t influence the Autocomplete suggestions.)

Persecution mania

Four years ago, the query “is it illegal to…” prompted Autocomplete suggestions that included “to burn the US flag,” “to drive without shoes,” “to change lanes in an intersection,” “to burn money,” and “to run away.” Today, this same short phrase produces the following top Autocomplete suggestions:

  • Is it illegal to drive barefoot
  • Is it illegal to collect rainwater
  • Is it illegal to work weekends in France
  • Is it illegal to hit a girl
  • Is it illegal to burn money

Compared to four years ago, it looks like Americans still hate wearing shoes; are perhaps more patriotic, being a) no longer interested in flag-burning, and b) presumably indignant about the lazy French; are apparently clueless about the most basic rules of law and human decency as regards assault; and (the current stock market nosedive notwithstanding) still feel uncomfortable with their own wealth (or have become inured to losing their money). It’s bizarre that anybody might assume collecting rainwater could be illegal … I mean, we’re talking about something that literally falls from the sky! And how on earth would enforcing such a law be arranged? Cops peering over your backyard fence looking for buckets?

Tweaking the query to “Is it against the law” produces just a few changes. Driving barefoot is still the first suggestion, but then we get:

  • Is it against the law to dumpster dive
  • Is it against the law to record someone
  • Is it against the law to slap someone
  • Is it against the law to threaten someone
  • Is it against the law to hit a woman

How strange that violence against a female is something so commonly searched on. I mean, why would this be a different question than hitting, slapping, or threatening anyone? It’s hard to speculate what was different in 2018....

Moving on to “can you be arrested for,” this yields almost totally different results than “against the law” (the only common suggestion being “for slapping someone,” which perhaps stems from the recent Oscar dustup and the subsequent endless analysis of whether slapping can be assault). Here are the other top suggestions:

  • Can you be arrested for speeding
  • Can you be arrested for driving without a license
  • Can you be arrested for a misdemeanor
  • Can you be arrested for trespassing
  • Can you be arrested for not paying child support

It looks like the modern American profile is starting to take shape: these are people who possibly can’t afford shoes, are forsaking pricey bottled water for local rainwater, may engage in dumpster diving, can’t afford child support, have no interest in safe driving, and are quite ready to commit violence if they think they can get away with it. Not a pretty picture.

Now, given all the national attention on law enforcement after the George Floyd murder, I was eager to see what Autocomplete would suggest for the next category, “can a police officer…” vs. last time around. In both cases the top five included “take your car” and “lie to you.” This year we have a few new suggestions:

  • Can a police officer serve court papers
  • Can a police officer run your plates
  • Can a police officer transfer to another state
  • Can a police officer question a minor
  • Can a police officer dismiss a ticket

The “transfer to another state” would seem to be a question asked by an officer; maybe some of them don’t like the increasing accountability their communities have demanded. As for serving court papers, running plates, and dismissing tickets, these might just reflect the popularity of current police procedural TV shows. That leaves questioning a minor; I can’t see why this would be a problem, but the cop should expect to have the interview recorded by at least a few smartphones so he’d better behave.

Last time around, three out of the top five suggestions for “are you allowed to” involved smoking weed. This time, none of the suggestions involve that; I guess people have forgotten that weed was ever illegal, and now just assume that half the citizenry is stoned off their gourds at any given moment, and nobody cares. Here are the top five Autocomplete suggestions right now:

  • Are you allowed to retire at age 50
  • Are you allowed to curse at the Oscars
  • Are you allowed to carry a knife in California
  • Are you allowed to fight in hockey
  • Are you allowed to leave North Korea

Seems kind of remarkable that there are people who are presumably financially capable of retiring but who nonetheless have no idea how the world works. It could be they're just dreaming, or maybe they want another reason to be angry at wealthy people. As for the knife inquiry and the fighting in hockey, I guess that just reinforces the portrait of a populace ready to beat someone’s ass.

Actually, I’ve often wondered why it’s okay for hockey players to fight, without being subject to the normal confines of the law. Think about it: if two players get in an all-out brawl on the ice, they get five minutes or so in the penalty box, but if they have their fight in the locker room, or out in the parking lot, or at a bar later, that would be assault and they could be arrested. It’s like the rules of the game supersede the law, like the NHL is the higher authority. I discussed this with my daughter today and she wasn’t quite sure what I was getting at. “Let’s take it a step further,” I said, “and think of one player killing another, for which he’s merely ejected from the game.” My daughter put in that this would surely increase the popularity of hockey. I decided more research was necessary. This article quotes NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as saying fighting is “a thermostat for the game,” and that it “may prevent other injuries.” There wasn’t much detail provided on this, so I turned to YouTube for more insight. My daughter and I watched “Top 10 NHL fights of all time” and though we didn’t get a lot of answers, it was a pretty amazing spectacle … our hearts were racing by the end. Of particular note is that the announcers never passed judgment, like everyone saw with Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars. On the contrary, hockey commentators announce a fight as though it’s a boxing match (“  … and Smith comes in with a strong left!”). The cheering of the fans, and even the music playing in the stadium, continue unabated even with some of these fights lasting for several minutes. Anyway, I don’t know where I’m going with all this, but sometimes that’s just how blogging goes.

Who what where why how

Now on to the larger, more existential matters. Concerning the “what” questions, four years ago Americans sought information about Palm Sunday, Bitcoin, their IP addresses, rambler, and net neutrality. Today, the only one of these questions still puzzling people is “what is my IP,” which is pretty silly because these addresses are assigned dynamically via DHCP, so they’re practically the opposite of a fingerprint (i.e., they mean nothing). Here are the other top inquiries:

  • What is alopecia
  • What is an nft
  • What is wordle
  • What is a viscount
  • What is lynching

The alopecia inquiry pertains to the ailment, suffered by Jada Pinkett Smith, that caused her baldness, which led to the Chris Rock joke that in turn led to the legendary slap by Will Smith. I guess Oscar fans are trying to educate themselves so they know what side to take when they start in on their trolling. With that in mind, along with the cringe-inducing, long-overdue inquiry “what is lynching,” I have to wonder if there’s any point to the human race.

As for NFT (i.e., non-fungible tokens), that’s arguably a variation on the theme of cryptocurrency, so nothing new there except you’re possibly buying nothing for nothing as opposed to something for nothing. Wordle is apparently a word game that as an English major I guess I should love, except that working out the solution to a pointless quiz is no match for actual reading, which is something most Americans know about only from books and have never actually attempted themselves.

Moving on to viscount, I chalk it up to fans of the TV show “Bridgerton,” the insanely popular soap opera that rips off actual literature and gets away with it because, again, nobody reads. So it appears our broke, violence-addicted, bored Americans still don’t understand the royal hierarchy that well. (Which is fine ... I mean, who gives a shit?)

Shifting gears to the “why” question, the first one (“why is the sky blue”) is the same Autocomplete suggestion as four years ago, and “why is my poop green” moved from fourth place to third. Here are new suggestions for 2022:

  • Why is russia invading ukraine
  • Why is my eye twitching
  • Why is gas so expensive
  • Why is my poop black
  • Why is russia so big

Let’s consider the top answer to the first common question, “Why is the sky blue.” Four years ago, the first response was, “Because it’s a beautiful day.” Today, the top answer is, “The sky is blue due to a phenomenon called Raleigh scattering, which is the scattering of electromagnetic radiation (of which light is a form) by particles of a much smaller wavelength.” So we can conclude that in the last four years, the Internet authorities have lost their sense of humor.

As far as the other questions, since these are what’s on people’s minds, I’ll save you a Google search (and the pruning invariably required) and give you some quick resources so you don’t have to sound completely clueless should these come up in conversation.

Regarding the question of why Russia has invaded Ukraine, this article is pretty useful, and states, “The Russian leader's initial aim was to overrun Ukraine and depose its government, ending for good its desire to join the Western defensive alliance Nato… Beyond his military goals, President Putin's broader demand is to ensure Ukraine’s future neutrality.” I think my own explanation, “Because Russia is led by a blind idiot autocrat,” is probably a similarly useful response for most American audiences, with “commie” and “pinko” available as garnish depending on your bent.

A guide to poop color and what it could mean is here. And some eye-twitching causes are here. I’ve had some trouble with eyelid twitching myself, which I associated with stress. Fortunately, the Atlantic Ocean separates my home from Russia, so my eyelids are behaving at present. (Let’s not get into my poop color other than to say it’s boring.)

The high cost of gasoline is nicely summarized in this article, which states, “Oil and gas are global commodities, subject to the whims of notoriously volatile global markets. Their prices are particularly sensitive to geopolitical events and investor sentiment… In fact, in this case, sky-high gas prices came from a confluence of events. As COVID-19 restrictions eased and economies rebounded rapidly, demand for oil spiked. Pandemic-related supply chain disruptions exacerbated the situation... Then, more recently and perhaps most saliently, [oil markets were roiled by] Russia [and its invasion of Ukraine].”

And why is Russia so big? This short video sums it up pretty handily: Russia was able to conquer Siberia, which comprises 75% of its land, because there wasn’t much opposition, it being “a cold land with only one guy per square kilometer in that time.”

Moving on to “who is,” we get a sense of whom Americans are wondering about right now. Four years ago, the top Autofill suggestion was “Snoke” (some “Star Wars” character now forgotten entirely), with Jesus taking second and third place, followed by “the richest person in the world” and then Marshmello, some music producer. All have fallen of the suggestion list except for “richest person” which moved up to first place, solidifying our sense that Americans are broke and (possibly as a result) have lost their religion. Here are the next four suggestions:

  • Who is julia fox
  • Who is will smith’s wife
  • Who is moon knight
  • Who is in the super bowl  2022
  • Who is joe rogan

Julia Fox, not surprisingly, is an actress, and I guess she’s a popular search because of her weird Oscar after-party dress and its matching handbag, made out of human hair. Will Smith’s wife is of course another Oscar-themed question, and I’d like to point out that while she (famously) lacks hair, Julia didn’t steal it.

Moon Knight is some stupid comic book character, so our lawless, violent, broke, godless, and celebrity-obsessed modern Americans have officially regressed to childishness as well. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they’ve already forgotten about this year’s Super Bowl, which was last month.

Rounding out this search topic, we get Joe Rogan, who I gather is mainly famous, lately, for a Spotify controversy where Neil Young yanked all his music from the platform to protest their hosting of Rogan’s podcast. There’s a nice synopsis here. Rogan is a major self-taught pundit, who started out in stand-up comedy as opposed to actual journalism. He is also, as far as I can tell, an idiot. But you shouldn’t take my word for it … I’ve never heard his podcast. (If you decide to check it out, don’t report back because I don’t care.)

Now it’s time for the “where” question. For the second year running, top honors go to “where’s my refund,” which showcases the desperation of broke Americans … they actually hope Google has so thoroughly mined their personal data that they can even pinpoint what part of the IRS machinery is currently processing the searcher’s tax return. And, just as we saw four years ago, the second most popular search is “where am I.” So instead of looking around him, perhaps even out a window, the average American is outsourcing his knowledge of his own whereabouts to Google Location Services. Pretty sad.

But now we get a big surprise: the third most popular “where” search is Where the Crawdads Sing, a book. I’ve never seen a book in Autocomplete before, so I’m going to cry bullshit and declare this a paid result. Rounding out the top five we have “where is the super bowl this year” (see above—totally irrelevant question), and “where can I watch euphoria.” Evidently “Euphoria” is a TV show about sexy young drug addicts … just the thing to cheer up us broke, violence-obsessed, stunted, confused, green-pooping, and godless Americans as we (hopefully) come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s look at “how.” What are Americans trying to learn how to do in 2022? No longer are we seeking to delete Facebook (perhaps we’ve either given up trying, or succeeded long ago), or trying to buy Bitcoin (it’s far too expensive now that we’re broke), or learning how to tie a tie (since nobody dresses for success anymore, the COVID-driven shift to teleworking having dealt a fatal blow to dress codes nationwide). We’re still ignorant of weights and measures (the #1 suggestion being “how many ounces in a cup” and #5 being ounces in a gallon), clueless in general (#3 being “how many weeks in a year”—are you kidding me?!) but now we suddenly want to know “how to screenshot on mac” which seems incredibly basic (though, factually, I don’t know the answer, but that’s only because I haven’t used a Mac since 1985). Rounding out the top five, Americans suddenly want to know “how old is bruce willis.” This is because his daughter announced yesterday that he’s retired from acting due to a diagnosis of aphasia. I happen to know what that is, but am suddenly surprised that it didn’t come up in my survey of “what is” Autocomplete suggestions. So I tried again and guess what? “What is aphasia” is suddenly #1, Google being as nimble as ever … and alopecia has dropped from the first page of results. (Even though Bruce Willis is famously bald, it’s not because of alopecia. Dang … remember when he had hair? Back then, I had hair too!)

But let’s stop dwelling on the past.

The future

Where are we, as Americans, headed? And how are we feeling about that? To find out, I googled “am I going” and compared the suggestions to 2018 when we were concerned with “am I going crazy,” “am I going to die,” “am I going to hell,” “am I going bald,” and “am I going to die alone.” I see several of these repeated, but new for 2022 are “am I going blind” (probably a result of how glued to our screens we’ve been during the pandemic), “am I going to be okay” (perhaps a hint of optimism creeping through the doldrums?), and “am I going through menopause” (which … I don’t know, might suggest the changing demographics of Internet users?).

Switching to “will I ever,” six of the top eight results (will I ever find love again, find love, get married, be happy, find true love, get over my ex) are the same as four years ago, with only two new Autocomplete suggestions: “will I ever be able to buy a house” (reflects what we already knew—Americans are broke) and “will I ever get a ps5.” I guess PlayStation is seen as the last best hope for entertaining ourselves now that we’ve forgotten how to venture outside our homes.

And now, in keeping with my zeitgeist investigation from four years ago, we move the final query, which abandons Google in favor of the Magic 8-Ball. I posed the question “will I ever be happy again” to, and it responded, “It is decidedly so.” I think that’s pretty encouraging, given that I’m surrounded by a cohort of broke, clueless, violence-obsessed scofflaws who drive too fast without licenses, produce green or black feces, and are as worried about Hollywood celebrities as they are about world events.

(I’m just playin’, America. You know I love you.)

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Saturday, March 26, 2022

From the Archives - Tempura Debacle


Here’s a sad but true tale from my archives. I found it buried in a letter to my brother from almost thirty years ago, when my fiancée and I were recently engaged and living in San Francisco. Enjoy please enjoy.

The Tempura Debacle – January 5, 1994

[My fiancée] and I were invited to a couples-only dinner party. Her friend L— and her boyfriend were living in this dream house in Stinson Beach, near Marin County. This house had supposedly belonged to Robert Wagner, the star of “Hart to Hart.” This felt like a proper grown-up soirée so it was a pretty big deal for us.

Well, to get to this house was quite an endeavor, for two reasons: 1) it was at the bottom of this incredibly windy (twisty, not breezy—cursed heteronym!) mountain road, and 2) my fiancée and I are utterly incompetent in all matters of navigation. Thus, we drove up and down this road and a bunch of its evil twins for ages and ages, and became horribly late, which meant my fiancée was driving like a crazy woman. If I’d been behind the wheel, at the same speed, you could not have accused me of driving like a crazy woman, but could say I was driving like a man. “Man” in the sense of a (rightfully) put-out feminist saying, “Why you . . . you’re such a . . . such a . . . man!

Neither of us had eaten in many hours, partly because we’d been lost for so long. My fiancée, due to her empty stomach, and to all the pitching and turning and squealing of rubber, was becoming nauseated. It’s kind of like the nausea you get on a roller coaster after eating too much cotton candy, I imagine. In fact, the whole drive was much like a roller coaster, except that we didn’t have that deep-down conviction that we were on a track and everything was under control and nobody ever dies on roller coasters (except this one Elitch Gardens employee fifteen years ago, who couldn’t get the restraining bar past his gut and plunged to his death … but I digress).

Anyhow, we finally got to the party, and fortunately everybody else was just as late as we were. We knew only one of the other invited couples: my pal K— and his girlfriend S—, a friend of my fiancée’s. We got the pleasantries done as quickly as possible and then wolfed down some sushi, which was tasty but not altogether filling, and which (being as expensive as it is) wasn’t in copious supply. Then we sat down for the main course: do-it-yourself tempura. In the center of the dining table was a giant tray of chicken, shrimp, and vegetables, and our hostess set down a huge pan of very hot oil, about four inches deep. With chopsticks, we dunked tasty-looking morsels into batter, and then set them floating in the oil to be cooked. We learned the dos and don’ts of this type of cuisine:

  • DO get several morsels going at once so the dinner doesn’t take hours to complete
  • DON’T take the food out too early, especially the chicken and potatoes
  • DO remind yourself that salmonella is almost never fatal
  • DON’T expect to eat what you put in, since a very slow rotation of food, likely caused by the earth’s revolving about its axis, will always send your food wandering astray
  • DO try to achieve that patient, meditative state you developed as a kid when roasting marshmallows
  • DON’T pick up food you cannot identify, which tends to end up being lumps of batter, nothing more
  • DON’T, and this is the most important of all, don’t ever try to do this without the oil being hot enough—that is, don’t try to serve this without a flame of some kind under your oil to keep it bubbly hot

Alas, some of this wisdom arrived too late. You see, we ended up eating too much in general, and specifically too much raw batter, which tended to soak up oil. Our error was similar to a gambler’s habit, or perhaps the downfall of anybody who just can’t leave well-enough alone. In our efforts to cook something really tasty, we just kept generating more and more manufacturer’s defects, all of which we had to eat: big balls of batter, half-cooked vegetables, half-cooked chicken (which we put back in, to be cooked some more—or, more realistically, for somebody else to fish out). But we never really achieved the masterpiece we both knew we could. Meanwhile, the oil was cooling (there was, alas, no flame!), so our efforts because less and less successful, and by the end we were eating balls of batter that were barely crisp on the outside, runny and grainy on the inside, and devoid of anything that could be called “cooked” underneath.

But we were so hungry! Everybody else had put down their chopsticks well before we did, but they were so blasted patient about letting us continue, with the conversation continuing along merrily, that my fiancée and I just kept on eating and eating until finally we threw in the towel and sat back to reap the gastrointestinal harvest we had sown. The horror! I saw, at I believe the same time my fiancée did, that the level in the oil pan had dropped by at least an inch. I did a rough calculation and determined, silently, that we had each consumed more than a pint of pure oil. That explained a lot about the internal riot that seemed to be going on just above my beltline.

Well, the trip back in the car was even worse than the trip there. It was dark, and I was driving (how’s that for treacherous!), and as we made our way up the twisty mountain road, my fiancée began to rush me, for she feared she was going to be sick. I don’t mean unwell—she was already unwell—but sick in the sense of blowing chunks. I began driving even faster, which increased my poor fiancée’s nausea, and about halfway up the mountain she announced she wasn’t going to make it. I pulled over, and my fiancée opened her door, staggered a few steps toward the road shoulder, and began hurling spectacularly. Naturally, the other couple we knew from the party, K— and S—, appeared out of nowhere and stopped to see if everything was okay.

This had all the appearances of a common collegiate phenomenon: a young party-goer has consumed too much alcohol and the designated driver must pull over and barf him or her. Now, to be completely honest, I haven’t actually participated in this time-honored ritual, though I did once take a guy out of a club to barf him. I didn’t really even know the guy, but he needed to be barfed and I was tagged in to help. It was the guy’s birthday. He was a rich kid from Marin County, (supposedly) Australian, who I only knew through my girlfriend at the time. To be honest I didn’t much like him. As he got drunker and drunker that evening, two things happened: his Australian accent got stronger, and he started hitting more and more blatantly on my girlfriend. Thus, it was kind of a relief when he got so drunk it was inevitable that he puke, because that would naturally put an end to his hitting on anyone (or at least being successful at it). So another guy and I each took a side and hauled him out of the place, his feet practically dragging along the floor because his motor control was so shot, and he puked his guts out into the gutter, or maybe a planter or a hedge, I can’t remember.

A digression

I know that was a pointless digression, and I suspect you really want to get back to the puking-up-tempura story, but I’m reminded of another anecdote, also involving an Australian, and I’ve decided to tell it. This was M—, a work colleague of mine, who was a very large, stocky (but not yet fat) ex-rugby player with no neck. (That may be redundant—ex-rugby player with no neck—but it seems like a significant detail.) M— was a very boastful guy, always saying he attended such-and-such college which was “the Harvard of Australia.” At our company holiday party, when people were standing around the restaurant bar drinking, he started bragging about having competed in numerous fraternity boat races (i.e., speed-beer-drinking competitions) in Australia. In fact, he supposedly represented the team that ended up winning some prestigious tournament one year. I told him, breezily, that I thought I could take him. Naturally this caused all kinds of excitement in our ranks, given my weedy build, my youth, and my notable lack of reputation as a boozer.

M—probably had no idea I could be a legitimate competitor, but regardless (and presumably just to drag out his moment in the limelight) he went through all these special pre-chugging exercises, and got all psyched up, and really seemed to take the thing seriously. I just stood around patiently waiting for the fracas to begin. Naturally, the bosses were watching in amazement, like circus-goers seeing a frail man taunting a huge lion with nothing more than a chair and a whip. We were drinking some dark manly-man’s beer, I can’t remember which, but the important thing is that I wasn’t messing around: I really believed I could beat him. I wasn’t worried about his pedigree and track record, because the fact is I am an astonishingly fast drinker, kind of an idiot-savant in this tiny realm. I believe that in this life everybody has a gift, some special talent they never had to work for. Some people can fly fighter planes because they have nerves of steel, perfect eyesight, etc. Others are geniuses who can build interferometers. And then there’s me: a bizarre underweight distance athlete who for some reason can open his throat like a simple valve and dump a pint of beer down it in under three seconds. Kind of a useless capability for me since I was never in a frat or anything, but kind of fun to trot out occasionally, my little parlor trick.

Of the actual race there’s not that much to say: I kicked M—’s ass. It wasn’t even close, really. I pounded my beer, and put the glass upside down on my head to show I was done, and he was still—well, it’s tempting to say he was nursing his beer like a little old lady at a luncheon sipping tea that still too hot, but I guess he did manage to finish within a few seconds of me, but that means of course he was only half as fast. The jeering began instantly and was relentless. He was super bummed, needless to say. I almost wish I hadn’t done it, since this party skill clearly meant more to him than to me, plus he’d done all that bragging in advance, but I emphasize “almost” because he was a jerk, and a bore, and I did enjoy my five minutes of fame. He made all these excuses, said he was out of practice, tried to nullify the results on a technicality, etc., all to no avail.

Back to the tempura story…

Gosh, where was I? Oh, yeah, I was talking about my fiancée puking next to her car on the side of the road in front of our friends. K—had a good laugh at our expense when he realized what was happening and why. He and S—took off, and finally my fiancée seemed to be done barfing so we started out again. But by the time we got over the Golden Gate bridge, she was feeling sick all over again and now I was beginning to feel nauseated myself.

We found a nice quiet street in Pacific Heights, the wealthiest neighborhood in San Francisco, and parked the car, and she leapt out and puked into the street, and suddenly my stomach gave way as well and within seconds, we had created nothing short of a complete and total barf-O-rama! My fiancée stood at the head of the car, bracing herself on the hood and disgorging breathtaking amounts of lumpy white slop. I was down at the trunk end, retching man-sized portions. Two pools, a matched set, began to form, eerily white beneath the mercury-vapor streetlights, looking strangely like pancake batter being dropped on a griddle, but lumpy instead of smooth..

The sound was monstrous: two voices, a soprano and a bass, making the telltale sounds: BrrrruuuuuUUUUUGH, BrrrruuuuuUUUUUGH, bah-GA-GA-GA-GA! After several minutes of this, lights began coming on in the windows of the houses nearby, so (wiping our chins) we climbed back in the car and drove a few more blocks, parked again, and finished the job. By the time it was all over, every bit of sustenance had been ejected from our bodies, so we had to drive to a gas station and buy Gatorade.

I think it’s going to be a long, long time before either of us can eat tempura again.

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Friday, March 18, 2022

Ask a Sinead O’Connor Fan

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

Let’s get down to brass tacks: what is the best Sinead song of all time?

Bill P, Columbus, OH

Dear Bill,

In terms of popularity, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is her highest ranked song on Spotify (almost 218 million listens), which is way higher than #2, “All Apologies” (at 22.7 million). My personal favorite is “Troy” (#3 at 10.6 million), even though (and perhaps partly because) it gets kind of maudlin and overwrought at times. I also like that its lyrics allude to a William Butler Yeats poem.

Of course, it would be silly not to emphasize the brilliance of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sinead’s biggest hit. Even though she didn’t write it, it’s totally her song.

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

Sinead was in the news recently, around some kind of tragedy. Can you fill me in?

Jack H, Buffalo, NY

Dear Jack,

Well, albertnet is not a news site, and while there is tragic news—her son died—it seems like that should be a private family thing, and really has nothing to do with her fans. I like her music, and her voice, but I really don’t know her as a person whatsoever and her non-music life has nothing to do with me (nor, I suspect, with you). Perhaps we should all just enjoy her gift to us—that is, the music—and leave the rest of her life out of it. I hope that makes sense.

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

“Nothing Compares 2 U” is pretty obviously a breakup type song, as she laments her lover moving out. And yet toward the end, she sings, “All the flowers that you planted mama, in the backyard/ All died when you went away.” What’s with the “mama” bit? Someone said this song was really about her mother moving out … is that right?

Lisa F, Seattle, WA

Dear Lisa,

The “mama” thing is perplexing. It’s tempting to think Sinead added that to the original lyrics, because there is a connection to her mother: when recording the video for the song, she thought about her mother, who had died in a car crash, and this is what caused her to shed tears. But the instance of “mama” is in the original song as written by Prince five years earlier. (As you may know, he wrote the song for this weird offshoot band called The Family, and you can hear their version here, though I don’t recommend it … it’s appallingly bad.)

It does seem as though the song could be written to one’s mother, though. The line “I can see whomever I choose” could be to make a former lover jealous, sure—but it could also be to taunt her mom had she discouraged the singer from this or that poor choice of mate and now isn’t around to complain. Meanwhile, the line “I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant” really makes more sense when sung to one’s (presumably frugal) mother; after all, why would a former lover care?

On the other hand, the word “baby” appears twice; calling one’s mom “baby” wouldn’t make a lot of sense. And what seems particularly incompatible with the mother concept are the lines, “I could put my arms around every boy I see/ But they’d only remind me of you.” What boy would remind Sinead of her mother? Probably not the kind she’d want to put her arms around. Suffice to say, the lyrics are ambiguous. Of the song, Sinead said (as reported here), “I think I’m probably similar to millions of people who loved the song, and we’re all people who associated the song with a loss of some kind.” Pretty general, eh?

But wait, there’s more. Prince’s recording engineer is quoted here as saying the song might have been about Prince’s housekeeper, Sandy Scipioni, who “made sure he had his favorite beverage, which was Five Alive, and she made sure the house was clean and that there were fresh flowers on the piano and that the socks and underwear were washed. That might have been the inspiration.” I’m glad there weren’t any lines about the crummy new housekeeper stocking Bubble Up instead of Five Alive and rolling up his socks instead of folding them.

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

I’ve been reading your column for years, and you’ve never mentioned a single concert, obscure B-side, little known biographical detail, or forgotten track, and as far as I can tell you’ve never even met Sinead O’Connor. What makes you think you deserve to write this column at all?

Scott B, Jersey City, NJ

Dear Scott,

Sorry to disappoint you. I never said I was some kind of maven or aficionado … just a run-of-the-mill fan. To be honest, I don’t know why I have a column either. I just kind of fell into it. Maybe I should hand you the reins.

Oh, but wait … I did see Sinead in concert once, at the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) concert in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco in 1993, performing with Peter Gabriel (you can see a terrible bootleg video of it here). So there’s that.

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

Remember that whole flap about O’Connor ripping up a photo of the pope on “Saturday Night Live”? What do you make of that? Obviously you’re still a fan…

Sandra M, Tempe, AZ

Dear Sandra,

That caused quite the scandal, eh? Even in my (non-Catholic) community everyone was acting like she was some horrible, insensitive person. It’s interesting to point out that, per this article here, there was absolutely no flap over Frank Sinatra’s response, when he commented during a concert not long after, “This must be one stupid broad. I’d kick her ass if she were a guy.” And Joe Pesci said, on “SNL,” that if she’d done that on his show, “I would have gave her such a smack.” Somehow these statements didn’t appear to offend anybody.

As for my reaction at the time, I figured she was just trying to get attention. But this wasn’t a very nuanced position; after all, she was already getting plenty of attention. She was on “SNL,” after all, and had a number-one hit song and album. I didn’t grasp that she was simply using her moment in the limelight to advance a legit social cause, that of exposing sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church. Not that I was alone in being ignorant of this; as reported here, the “SNL” episode was nine years before Pope Jean Paul II acknowledged the abuse. Looking back, O’Connor seemed prescient. Who would excoriate her now?

Madonna, probably. (And you thought that was a rhetorical question!) Like Sinatra, Madonna got all hot and bothered about the “SNL” affair and was very public about it. As described by the New York Times, she complained in the press, “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” The New York Times concluded, “Madonna’s reaction may have been professional jealousy. After Madonna had herself gowned, harnessed, strapped down and fully stripped to promote her album ‘Erotica’ and her book ‘Sex,’ O’Connor stole the spotlight with one photograph of a fully-clothed man.”

(An interesting aside: twenty years later, in 2012, as reported here, Madonna lambasted another rising pop star, calling out M.I.A. for flipping the bird during a Super Bowl halftime show: “It’s such a teenager ... irrelevant thing to do … there was such a feeling of love and unity there what was the point? It was just out of place.” The columnist declared, “It’s no secret that Madonna hasn’t exactly been a great role model over the years. In fact, what M.I.A. did is precisely something Madonna would have done back when she was relevant.” I point all this out simply to highlight the contrast with how well Sinead O’Connor has held up over the years. Does anybody listen to old Madonna songs now? I hope not … they were lame all along.)

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

I bought my mother-in-law a glass storage container with a plastic lid. My sister-in-law set the lid down on a hot stove and it melted. I think my sister-in-law should replace the lid because she ruined it, but she says I should replace it because I’d bought it originally. What do you think?

Bette M, Boise, ID

Dear Bette,

I’m sorry, but this isn’t actually a general advice column. I’m really only here to weigh in on the musical artist Sinead O’Connor, so you should check in with Abby or something. 

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

 “Nothing Compares 2 U” is hands-down the best song I’ve ever heard about one’s lover moving out. That’s a very intense kind of abandonment, I think. So my question is, can you think of any other great songs on that topic I should be aware of? Bonus points if you can find one from the perspective of a man.

Kathleen Templeton, NYC, NY

Dear Kathleen,

I suppose I should mention “You Were Meant for Me” by Jewel, simply because it’s so popular, with 84.3 million listens on Spotify. And, okay, I confess, from time to time this song is a guilty pleasure for me as well. I especially like the bit about how she gets to make her breakfast exactly as she likes it: “I got my eggs, I got my pancakes too/ I got my maple syrup, everything but you.” (What pop singer uses the word “pancakes,” ever?) And when she gets to the part about “I break the yolks and make a smiley face,” I always think of a McDonald’s commercial for some reason. Suffice to say this song is not nearly as good “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The video, in fact, is totally lame … Jewel is wearing so much face lotion she’s practically dripping, and speaking of drips, the supposedly gone boyfriend keeps popping up, incongruously, like they’re still together, and he is extremely douche-y besides.

If you want a really satisfying my-baby-moved-out song from the male perspective, I highly recommend “2002” by Bob Schneider, from his first studio album, “Lonelyland.” Perhaps he even pays tribute to “Nothing Compares 2 U” because this song starts out in a very similar way: “The year’s 2002/ I do exactly what I wanna do.” He goes on to lament how badly he crashed and burned after his girl moved out. He’s not as specific about the duration (only saying, “It’s been a long, long time since you walked out my door”) but it must be years. All kinds of things have happened: he’s moved cross-country, he’s gotten hooked on heroin, he’s moved to Germany, he’s found a new girlfriend and gotten her pregnant, he’s been arrested … but he keeps coming back to how much he misses this original girlfriend, like he never got over her (which in a way is sadder than being heartbroken after only seven hours and fifteen days). “2002” is not as moving as “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but when Bob Schneider sang it live at the Independent in San Francisco in 2010, I was pretty blown away. (I’d never even heard the song, nor indeed this singer, before.)

Dear Sinead O’Connor fan,

It’s pretty obvious this isn’t a real column. Did you just contrive this to bring traffic to your blog, based on Sinead O’Connor being in the news?

Dana A, Albany, CA

Dear Dana,

In all honesty, I came up with this blog topic about a week before that news hit. I almost considered not writing it at all, since googling “Sinead O’Connor” and getting that sad news is not in my readers’ best interest, in my opinion. I have actually been thinking about “Nothing Compares 2 U” simply because, some months ago, I was casting about for a relatively mellow song to have in my head at bedtime (or more to the point, to replace the raucous one that was already there, because there always is one). For some reason, “Nothing Compares 2 U” really works for this … the rhyme scheme has a nice, calming logic to it, as does the structure, and the song can be slowed waaaaaaay down in your mind. Next time you can’t sleep, give it a try.

A Sinead O’Connor fan is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a Sinead O’Connor fan,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Adventures in Dining - Sichuan Peppercorns


If you’ve never heard of Sichuan peppercorns but are a curious person, read on. If you know a little bit about this obscure ingredient but would like to learn more (such as about them having been banned for import), read on. If you know all about them and would enjoy discovering the flaws in my brief exploration into the topic, read on. If none of this seems interesting, click here.

First encounter

Years ago, my family was in Fremont and we found a Chinese restaurant that looked promising despite being in a strip mall. (It’s Fremont … everything is in a strip mall.) We were starving (in the privileged American sense). The first dish arrived … some noodle thing. For about five seconds we were all like, “Pretty yum!” But then frowns rippled through our ranks. “There’s something wrong with this,” my wife said. One of my daughters pushed her plate away. I had to admit, something seemed off.

The noodles tasted fine. Great, in fact … different from anything I’d had before. But something complicated was going on, something that transcended flavor. It wasn’t as dramatic as when my wife got a mouthful of cockroach at a crappy dim sum place in San Francisco; it just seemed like something was happening in my mouth that shouldn’t. It brought to mind Pop Rocks action candy, but it wasn’t quite that … this was more of a buzz than a fizz. Have you ever had a bit of subtle mouth numbness from eggplant or walnuts? It was kind of like that, I guess, but not as astringent, if that makes any sense. More than anything I was reminded of a meal I had as a kid, at the salad bar at the Red Barn, where something in the fruit salad bubbled and buzzed on my tongue, in a bad way, and my dad (who’d sampled the same thing) announced it had fermented and was not safe to eat.

My wife and both daughters wouldn’t eat any more of the noodles, but nothing else had arrived yet and I was torn. I was really enjoying the noodles despite having decided some ingredient in them had turned, and I was weighing my hunger against the possibility of being poisoned. My mom is a microbiologist and raised my brothers and me to push the envelope on questionable food. Sour milk, for example, turns out to be perfectly drinkable and won’t make you sick—you just have to plug your nose as you drink it. So I finally decided, “Screw it—I’m eating this.” (Nobody tried to stop me. I’m kind of famous in my household for rescuing perfectly edible stuff from our compost bin.)

I got through most of the plate of noodles before the waiter arrived with our next dish, and my wife questioned him. I can’t remember exactly what she said but the gist was, “Is this dish rancid or something?” The waiter wasn’t very fluent in English but said something about peppercorns, and something about ash, and assured us the dish was perfectly fine. I asked if my mouth was supposed to tingle; he smiled and said yes. My family was still dubious—I mean, what waiter would admit to spoiled food?—but I was sold, and thus got all the noodles to myself. Score!

What are Sichuan peppercorns?

I didn’t get the full story on this strange ingredient until at least a year later when I was having coffee with some bike pals after a ride. (At least) two of these guys were total foodies. One of them, T—, whose wife emigrated here from China, spoke (and later emailed) at length about the Sichuan peppercorns, what they do, what they’re called in Chinese (“ma,” spelled ), and what local restaurant he recommends that features them. (As described here, the Sichuan peppercorn is also known as Chinese prickly ash, Chinese pepper, rattan pepper, and mala pepper.)

So why had I never heard of these before? Well, the other friend, D—, had the answer: they were illegal for import to the US for decades. The fear was they could bring a certain citrus canker into the US and endanger our crops. D— actually know a guy who kept a personal stash, purchased from lawless importers. (Now that’s a foodie … imagine, buying your ingredients on the black market, from smugglers!) Then the ban was softened: the peppercorns could be imported after being heated in a certain way; eventually, the ban was lifted entirely. (Alas, as I learned from this video report, nobody informed the Chinese exporters that the ban had ended, so these peppercorns are still somewhat rare in the U.S.)

How would you find these peppers?

If you live in a place with a Chinatown, like NYC or San Francisco, you could surely find an open-air market where these peppercorns are sold. The video I linked to above has some pointers. But really, who among you does enough Chinese cooking to even bother? For most of us, Chinese food means either dine-in or takeout. So I did a little online searching of local places and settled on a pretty good strategy for determining if a restaurant cooks with Sichuan peppercorns: just search the online reviews for “peppercorns,” “ma,” “mala,” or (best of all) . This not only ferrets out this ingredient, but helps establish the cred of the restaurant: if the reviewers know all about these peppercorns and their various names, they’re not just uncultured rubes who would praise a restaurant for its Coca-Cola.

As with taquerias (click here for details), I take it as a good sign when a restaurant serves things most native-born Americans would never eat. For me, another sign of authenticity in an ethnic restaurant is poor spelling and/or translation on their menu. Here are some website features that inspired me to try out Chendgu Style restaurant in Berkeley.

Check it out! They have both best food and good food! I get the sense that there’s some list in play here of English words that have positive associations, and thus are sprinkled around like garnish. Now check this out:

Yum, I love rice sick! Here again, there appears to be nobody on staff who is sufficiently fluent in English that this error wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb … so this is as far from Panda Express as you can get. Onward:

Can I have mine well done?

Just like Mom used to make!

Okay, I guess I should get us back on track. Here’s the first sign of the Sichuan peppercorns:

The description of that sauce strikes me as a heroic effort to communicate what this sauce is all about. It would appear that whoever came up with this didn’t grasp the subtleties of connotation here—that is, that this description is highly scientific as opposed to mouth-watering. Wikipedia more simply describes Zanthoxylum Schinifolium as mastic-leaf prickly ash, aka Sichuan pepper.

Now, you’d think somebody dining on “Dumpling In Zanthoxylum Schinifolium Etzucc Sauce” would appreciate the precise, if perhaps overly technical, description. Not necessarily. Consider this review: “Boy oh boy did we make a bad call here. We saw dumplings and wontons in some kind of sauce with 3 long and intense scientific words we couldn’t understand… We had no idea it was the mouth numbing stuff…  Neither of us were fans of the smell, flavor, or the feeling.”

That reviewer would do well to heed the advice of another patron: “For westerners: ask someone in back to suggest your order...if you’re going to a Chengdu specialty place, DAMMIT, ORDER CHENGDU FOOD… And for god’s sake, please don’t get the General Tso’s chicken: that’s not a real’s only on the menu to keep the gwai-low happy.”

Another Chendgu Style reviewer wrote, “Folks, the ‘numbing’ () effect is the hallmark of authentic Sichuan cuisine. I’ve visited the actual city of Chengdu in China a few times, and this Berkeley restaurant recreates the flavor very well. Your mouth is supposed to get numb. If anything, I wished the dishes had more numbing spice… Really enjoyed their Fu Qi Fei Pian. Also enjoyed their Tan-Tan Noodles made with a bonafide numbing/spicy sauce --- truth is, any other ‘Tan-Tan Noodles’ made with peanut-based sauce is like making pasta with marinara and calling it ‘pesto.’”

But does enhance the food?

Do Sichuan peppercorns actually improve Chinese food? This seems like a tricky question. After all, if a restaurant’s cooks don’t know what they’re doing, they can cause all kinds of problems by over-seasoning. Consider The Stinking Rose in San Francisco (slogan: “We season our garlic with food®” and yes, that’s actually a registered trademark there) which has really lousy food because—guess what?—putting way too much garlic in something is a great stunt for pulling in bonehead tourists but has nothing to do with good cooking. So we had to find a Chinese restaurant (and preferably more than one) that is really good and uses these peppercorns properly.

We headed over to Chengdu Style and though the ambience was strictly barebones, we did enjoy our meal. I was too busy eating to bother snapping a really good photo (as I hadn’t even contemplated blogging about this), but here’s a snapshot:

That dish in the foreground is their famous Toothpick Lamb, chock full of Sichuan peppercorns, which we all really liked. (One reviewer wrote, “I would suggest to the owners to drop the toothpicks from the ‘toothpick lamb,’ which is EXCELLENT. It’s literally a choking lawsuit waiting to happen.” I have to agree.) The Garlic Eggplant in the background didn’t have the peppercorns and was also great.

Again I (rhetorically) ask: do the peppercorns improve the food? I was surprised when I asked my family this question today. My younger daughter claims they “dominate the flavor.” My wife says “they distract.” My older daughter said (via text, since she’s off at college), “It’s a cute gimmick for a sec but it distracts from the taste. They taste like I’m being electrocuted LOL.”

Not long ago, my wife and I went to another recommended place, Wojia Hunan in Albany. To establish its cred, and because it’s fun, here are a couple of their menu items:

So … they throw the recipe right into the pot with the feet?

Luncheon meat? Like that weird rubbery Oscar Mayer stuff in the plastic package? Man, that is adventurous!

But this dish must be their real pièce de résistance:

I guess if you nibble the frog gently enough, he doesn’t realize he’s being eaten until it’s too late?

We didn’t try any of those things. But we had the Fried Glutinous Rice Balls (really tasty), the Sautéed Eggplant with String Beans (great), the Homestyle Noodles (solid), and a fish dish, I think the Boiled Fish with Rattan Pepper (delicious and numbing, but with a lot of little bones). The photo below  is from that meal; as you can see, this place is more upscale than Chengdu Style. Again, I dug the numbing business but my wife and younger daughter didn’t (though it didn’t ruin the meal for them either).

Now, it could be that we newbies are just not used to the numbing effect, right? Well, my older daughter asked one of her Chinese friends for his opinion of the peppercorns, and he replied, “My mom used to put them in soups and chickens and such when I was a kid, and I hated it. Always ruined my day when I accidentally chewed them. You can generally find them lined up on the side of a finished plate.” So it appears they’re just not for everyone.

Next up…

There’s one more Chinese restaurant I really want to try for its peppercorns: Sichuan Fusion in nearby Richmond. This is the place my friend T— originally recommended. I have just discovered that its website looks eerily similar to Wojia’s —and Chengdu Style’s too, for that matter:

Does this mean they’re all the same—basically a small chain? Naw. I’ll bet they just hired the same low-end company to build their barebones, humdrum websites. I think this is a plus: these restaurants are putting their effort into the food, not their brand and “online presence.”

If I discover anything really remarkable at Sichuan Fusion, I’ll be back to post an addendum. Watch these pages!


My wife found Sichuan peppercorns at a local supermarket:

I made Mapo Tofu at home a couple of times and it came out pretty well. The first time I toasted the peppercorns dry in a hot pan and they bounced around like popcorn, and then I removed half of them, ground them up with a mortar and pestle, and sprinkled those on the top. The other half I cooked in oil with the rest of the stuff. It came out pretty nice and tingly.

I made it again the other night and didn't put any peppercorns in the dish itself, because my daughter does not fancy them. But I ground some for the top and that gave a decent level of tingle. I will keep tweaking this and if I ever make a real breakthrough I will append again.

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