Bits and Pieces

  • Blogging 101 wasn’t for me. I sortof knew that it was for new bloggers, but I thought that I could make it work. I couldn’t or didn’t. The assignments didn’t appeal to me. Besides, November (and the first half of December) is a busy time in academia. So, it didn’t really happen. So it goes.

  • But, I’ve given up social media for Advent. So, maybe while I’m absent from Twitter I’ll blog more. Maybe. Do people give things up for Advent? Not that I know of. But I have to take periodic breaks from social media or it starts to make me crazy. Advent and Lent seemed like one way to do it; both are seasons of waiting and preparation.

  • If you miss me that much, though, I’ve decided that Instagram doesn’t count. (Mostly because I follow only a few people on Instagram and the volume of posts is light.) Will I blog more often or Instagram more often? Yes. Maybe.

  • Every December for the last several years I’ve hit Instapaper zero. It happened by accident the first time or two—Winter Break is conducive to reading all the things—but for the last couple of years it has been intentional. And as I started making my way through my queue this year, I finally read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece on reparations from last June. Wow. There is so much about the history of racism in the United States that I was never taught. The piece was widely lauded, so I’m late to the party, but it’s probably the best thing I’ve read this year.

  • On a lighter note, I’m a long time fan of Merlin Mann, and hence a long time listener to his podcast with Dan Benjamin, Back to Work. If I may be so bold, it is a lot of nonsense punctuated by moments of brilliance. And in the most recent episode, a little after 1:27, Merlin says, “The problem is you still have hope about email. That is hell. Hell is believing that there is hope in email. The only thing that can actually help you is to realize that it is completely hopeless.” My name is Allen, and I have an email problem.

  • And today, after finishing up that episode, I was listening to this fantastic interview of Ira Glass by Alec Baldwin. So, so good. I don’t listen to Alec Baldwin’s show very often, but maybe I should. (I wrote a whole post about his interview of Billy Joel back in 2012.)

Here We Blog Again

Lots of people are talking about blogging again, from well-known folks that don’t need a link from me to my friend Steve. And a Twitter conversation yesterday about the subject with local bloggers Alice and John led to this post. So, I signed up for Blogging 101 this month. Not because I need the training, but because I surely need the encouragement.

The first assignment is to post about “who I am and why I’m here”. I’m Allen. I started blogging in October 2001—you can see the archives down the right side there. I haven’t always blogged consistently, to say the least—you can see that down the right hand side, too.

A lot has changed for me since October 2001: I finished my Ph.D., got a tenure track job, and got tenured and promoted. Along with that tenure track job, I moved to Southwest Virginia and bought my first house with my lovely wife, Becky; this summer, we sold that house and bought a different one across town. We did that in part because it isn’t just the two of us like it was back then; now, there are three more: Charlie (8), Megan (6), and Noah (4). We lived in Ireland for a year, too, all five of us, and it was fantastic. So, I guess I’ve been busy.

But I’m back to blogging because I need a place online to call my own. This blog has always been about precisely whatever I feel like writing about. It’s not a professional blog; it’s a personal one. It will be about my hobbies, my fascinations, my family, and my free-floating opinions. I admire bloggers who cross professional lines and write amazing blogs about their professional expertise, but so far, I don’t seem to be one of them. If that changes, you’ll be the first to know.

I tweeted on Friday that “I work with some fantastically generous, brilliant people.” The same could be said for my friends, online and off. I hope this blog keeps me in touch with those friends, reconnects me with old ones, and helps me make some new ones. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.

A Paean to a New Favorite: Bell X1

I’ll be the first to confess that I have eclectic musical tastes. (A common feature is that I almost exclusively like singer-songwriters, though.) So, standard disclaimers apply. Lately, though, I’ve been listening to Bell X1 a lot, though, and I wanted to share.

Bell X1 is a band from Dublin, Ireland. They popped up on my radar last Fall, a few months after we returned to the states. I don’t even remember how I first came across them. But I liked the bit that I heard, and their Wikipedia page claimed they were the second most popular Irish band in Ireland after U2, which seemed like an interesting (if impossible to measure or verify) factoid. So, I bought their double live album, Field Recordings, released in 2012.

I played it often and continued to like it. Months later, I found myself on the band’s website just after they’d announced their 2014 US Tour. One of the tour dates was to bring them to Maryland, where my in-laws live. So, I hatched the scheme of making a weekend of the concert, leaving the kids with their grandparents, and I bought a pair of tickets.

Shortly after buying the tickets, I bought their latest studio album, Chop Chop. I listened to it several times, but it didn’t really click for me. I mentioned to a friend in Ireland that we were going to see them, and he shrugged (virtually) but said they were probably good live.

“Good live” was a dramatic understatement, though. They were fantastic live, particularly in an intimate venue. The musicianship, as the band members moved effortlessly from instrument to instrument was astounding, and, though they have a clear lead singer, they were all great vocalists, too. The lyrics were a bit easier to understand live, too, and I was moved by them. Not only that, but they played several songs from Chop Chop, and it really made those songs come alive for me.

My new favorite from Chop Chop is probably “Feint Praise”. I like the overall message of the song, about the bankruptcy of conflict avoidance, and I love the description that faint praise has a “bitter aftertaste, like rust.” But I also just love the almost-non-sequiter in the bridge, because it’s just dripping with Irishness: “You must never squeeze the teabag // Leave it alone // What did it ever do to you?”

But the last song on Chop Chop has also really grown on me since the concert. It’s an apocalyptic song called “The End is Nigh”, but it’s less about the end itself than about the people we’d choose to be with in the darkest of times. We saw Bell X1 on September 12, and the band had played in New York City the night before. They mentioned that they didn’t play “The End is Nigh” though, because it seemed too “close to the bone” for that day. Some lyrical goodness from that one: “And flailing like a landed fish // Trying to get back to before his day went awry.” I find that image both funny and deeply resonant.

But this post was actually prompted by the video below, which the band tweeted today. It’s from that September 11 show in New York City. They played the same song in Annapolis the next night as their first encore. I don’t think it gives you a great feel for the band’s music, because they’re really a “Pop/Rock Combo” (their description, in another song) that mostly plays original music, and this is an acoustic cover. But it gives you a feel for their incredible musical talent, even if the live audio recording leaves a bit to be desired. It’s a song called “She’s a Mystery to Me” written by Bono and The Edge for Roy Orbison, who popularized it.

Bell X1 “She’s a Mystery To Me” from Patrick Glennon on Vimeo.

This afternoon, I also learned that the lead singer of Bell X1, Paul Noonan (on the right in the video), has a computer engineering degree from Trinity College Dublin. So, I guess that by itself explains just about everything about my newfound love for a random band from Dublin.

Coffee Heresy

You can make great coffee at home or work. Lots of people have written about how to do it. Maybe later, I’ll tell you how I do it. But for now, here’s a great article. If you want, you can skip the geeky back story in that article and jump straight to the six principles. They are simple. They are solid. You are welcome.

Let me make an observation, though: The equipment required to make a great cup of coffee is relatively inexpensive. You’re going to need a conical burr grinder, but you can get a Hario Mini Mill for \$29 (and I’ve seen them for less). You have several choices for brewing equipment, but the main options are less than \$25. You’ll also need a way to heat water, but you probably have one of those already.

But once you get into it, there’s a world of stuff to learn about growing regions and farms, about roasting, and about your personal preferences. I haven’t scratched the surface of most of this stuff on my own coffee journey. I just know when it tastes good, and I appreciate that it is an agricultural product handled with love and care by my favorite local roaster.

You cannot make great espresso at home or work. At least, you can’t without a lot more time, effort, and money than you are probably willing to invest. In terms of money, they used to say that a good espresso machine would set you back at least \$2000. I’ve been watching these guys since their Kickstarter went live, and from everything I hear they make an amazing machine, breaking new ground in “inexpensive” home espresso, for \$800.1

Once you get a decent machine, you’re going to need some training. Seriously, if you want to do this right, you need barista training, and you need to get it from someone good. And then you’re going to have to practice, a lot. But even then, you’re probably not going to pull a perfect shot first thing every morning. How do I know? Because I regularly see great baristas who have pulled thousands of shots throw them away when they don’t come out right. And I’ve been served lousy espresso by baristas that ought to know better. You have to get the grind dialed in, the portafilter tamped just so, and then you have to get the temperature, pressure, and timing right. And then, for many espresso drinks you have to learn to properly steam milk, and keep things clean in the process.

I like espresso drinks. My favorite drink is the latte, but a good espresso shot can also be divine. But take my advice: Learn to make good coffee at home, and find a great local coffee shop to make your espresso drinks. Treat yourself, and think of all the time and money you are saving. You can buy me a latte to thank me.

Here comes the heresy: If, even after reading my advice, you absolutely must have espresso at home or work, Nespresso is probably the way to go. You can get a Nespresso machine for under \$200. The capsules aren’t cheap, but neither are they particularly dear (about \$0.65 each). They’ll give you a consistent, espresso-like experience, no skill or training required. I used them at work in Ireland, because there was a machine at the office.2 Nespresso is served in Michelin-starred restaurants and sometimes beats espresso in taste tests. I think those taste tests are flawed (and there are others that contradict them), but I think they make my point, nevertheless. The likelihood that you are going to make better home espresso than a Nespresso machine without a substantial investment of time, effort, and money is nil. I will add, though, that I have never used their milk frothing contraption; you’re on your own, there.


Anyway, that’s my advice: Learn to make great coffee at home and work. Buy your espresso drinks from your friendly neighborhood barista and leave a tip. If you won’t take that advice, though, then Nespresso might be your ticket.

  1. One of the guys who started the company was a VT engineering graduate student, so I have followed the project from the start. Despite everything I say here, I sortof wish I had gotten one of their machines for \$200 or \$300 during the Kickstarter. Back in those halcyon days they thought their machine would retail for \$400. 

  2. I did, in fact, bring a grinder and an Aeropress to Ireland with us to make the great coffee described at the beginning of this post. But I kept and used those at home. 

A Stroll Through Irish Literature

I want to blog again, but I can’t seem to find the hook, or the time. Nevertheless, here is a post.

Starting in the Spring, while we were still in Ireland, I read some Irish literature. I started with Strumpet City because it was Dublin’s One City One Book selection for 2013. Then I proceeded to read some Yeats (a couple of collections of poetry) and to reread some Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, which I totally loved when I encountered in high school, and something else which now escapes me). And then I read Dubliners, by James Joyce, which is quite accessible and quite enjoyable, before being cajoled into reading Ulysses.1 And I may have read some other things that I have now forgotten.

But the last thing that I read in this recent stroll through Irish literature was TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. It was long listed (but not short listed) for the Booker Prize this year, and it was wonderful. I’ve already added Let the Great World Spin to my short list.2

In any case, I have said remarkably little, to almost anyone, about the situation with Northern Ireland.3 Which is probably appropriate, given how little I really know about this centuries-old struggle. Nevertheless, I thought this passage from TransAtlantic was full of insight. I’m quoting Colum McCann here, but these are thoughts that he puts in the head of former US Senator George J. Mitchell (a character in the novel, parts of which are historical), around the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. McCann interviewed Mitchell extensively in writing the novel, I understand, but obviously we can’t hold Mitchell responsible for McCann’s depictions of his thoughts.

[The British] are a tough, intransigent lot, though they have softened a good deal in the past year or so. Embarrassed by what they have done for centuries in Ireland. Ready to leave. To hightail it out of there. They would wipe their hands clean in an instant, if only they didn’t have to do it in front of the world. They seem stunned that Northern Ireland somehow exists. How did they possibly ever believe that the country could have been good for them? What it all came down to was pride. Pride in the rise, and pride in the fall. They want to be able to leave with a measure of dignity. Tally-ho. Ta-ra. Voyeurs to their own experience. Living at an angle to the moment. And the Irish, down south, with almost the exact opposite dilemma. Embarrassed by the fact that it was taken away. Centuries of desire. Like the longing for a married woman. And now suddenly she is there, within your grasp, and you’re not quite sure whether you want her at all. Second thoughts. Other dowries. The mildew in the room where the past is stored. The Unionists, the Nationalists, the Loyalists, the Republicans, the Planters, the Gaels. Their endless gallery of themselves. Room after room. Painting after painting. Men on tall horses. Flags into battle. Sieges and riverbanks. The alphabet soup of the terrorists.

  1. Yes. I read Ulysses. I’m glad that I did, but it was hard, and I wouldn’t exactly recommend it. It contains moments of absolute brilliance. But it requires either the patience for careful study, which I do not possess, or the willingness to plow on even when one feels completely adrift having completely lost sight of the plot, which I, apparently, do possess. 

  2. I have two lists. A long list of things that I would like to read but may never get around to. And a short list, resembling a plan, of things that I reasonably expect to read in the next few months. 

  3. I can’t believe that I’m about to explain this, but a bafflingly large proportion of otherwise educated Americans seem unaware of even these basic facts. The island of Ireland, to the West of the island of Great Britain, has been divided into 32 counties for some centuries (apparently since shortly after the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1100s). Of those 32 counties, 26 form the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation which has existed since 1922. (The Republic of Ireland was preceded by the Irish Republic, a revolutionary state that declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1919.) Northern Ireland consists of 6 counties (in the North, naturally) that remain part of the United Kingdom and was created when Ireland was partitioned by an act of the British parliament in 1921. This partitioning of Ireland remains contentious to this day, but disputes have largely remained peaceful since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, granting Northern Ireland some measure of self-governance and self-determination. 

The Burrito Project

When I came to Dublin, I had the curious idea that I was going to review all the burrito places in the city, posting my reviews here.1 I kept some notes for a while, but I finally gave up. I gave up mostly because, while I write this blog primarily for me, I decided that posting Dublin burrito reviews would have an other-than-me audience of zero. And even I wouldn’t be that interested, besides the conclusion of where I found the best burritos, which certainly didn’t require a whole series of blog posts.

It has been interesting, though. The number of burrito vendors in Dublin is exploding, with at least three places opening in City Centre since I arrived. And the quality is going up, too: Of the three places I’ll mention below as the best, only one was open last summer.

A few tasting notes and then I’ll tell you what I like best:

  • At most places, I tried (on different days) both the chicken and the pork. Chicken is easy to cook, but unless you get the seasonings right turns out bland. Pork, on the other hand, is hard to cook right, and a lot of places wind up with a sloppy wet mess that would be more at home in an elementary school cafeteria line.

  • I had a lot of trouble finding salsas that I like. I like the medium corn salsa at Chipotle, but I’ll also settle for a medium tomato-based salsa. At a surprising number of places here, the medium salsa is a salsa verde. I’m not a fan of the style. But, it turns out, the Irish seem to like their food fairly mildly spiced, so I can usually get by with the hot salsa here.

  • Lots of places here (even some of the good places) overstuff their burritos. To me, the beauty of the burrito is partly in being a self-contained food item. If it falls apart, then it fails that test.

So, here it is. The best burritos in Dublin, by my reckoning:

  • Tuzo. Opened a few months ago on Dawson Street and has since become my most frequent burrito. The ingredients here always taste super fresh, bursting with flavor. My only complaint is that sometimes the burritos are overfilled and fall apart.

  • Pablo Picante. I’ve only ever been to the Baggot Street location. Not sure how long they’ve been around, but they certainly predate me. Good burritos, and the best, most interesting (in my opinion) salsa in Dublin in their “Smokie.”

  • Tolteca. Just opened on Suffolk Street, where I discovered them, but apparently they had a location on Upper Baggot Street already. The closest thing I’ve found to a Chipotle clone in Ireland, down to free refills on fountain drinks (unheard of in Europe, though the cups here are tiny by American standards) and white and brown rice choices (only recently rolled out at Chipotle). They have good chips and a kids’ menu, too.

Honorable mention goes to:

  • Burritos and Blues. I was unimpressed the first couple of times that I went here, but I wound up having a couple excellent pork burritos. (I still can’t really recommend the chicken, though.) Also, their black beans are refried, which is … odd.

  • Boojum. Went here about three times, and the burritos weren’t bad. In fact, I had a chicken burrito that was outstanding, though overstuffed. But it’s a long trek from my office, and twice I’ve made the walk only to have to wait for them because they were late opening.

  1. I guess I wanted to be the Full Custom Gospel BBQ of Dublin Burritos. Maybe if I had done it and stuck with it, I could have become the only full-time burrito editor in Europe