Tuesday, 5 September 2023

Miquailangelo Eggs

I've been meaning to try making marbled eggs for a while now, and having found a good deal on quail eggs at my local wet market, I asked my friend if she wanted to attempt the experiment together. She was charmed by photos on this recipe site; they look, as she put it, "like they were chiselled out of marble by Michelangelo."

"You mean Miquailangelo," I said.

So now we call them Miquailangelo eggs.

We boiled the eggs, gently cracked them with a teaspoon, then steeped them in black tea for two hours to get the marbled pattern.


Here is one such egg, in a salad with roasted sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese.

Quail eggs – at least the ones I bought – require extreme delicacy in peeling, because the marbling is imprinted on the membrane, not on the albumen itself. And it's hard to peel the shell without damaging the membrane.

My friend could do it, but I couldn't – especially not when hangry. Don't peel eggs in hanger, she said.

I expanded on it (too hangry to peel eggs, but not too hangry to write parodies):

Slip inside
A finger in the shell—
No need to do it well,
Just crack the damn thing wide.

Sunday, 16 July 2023


While on the subject of Czech novelists, let's talk about Kafka. For much of his life, Kafka struggled with anxiety, depression, loneliness and self-doubt. This, after all, is a man whose friend asked him, "So, outside of this manifestation of the world as we know it, is there hope?" To which Kafka smiled, "Oh, hope enough, endless hope, – just not for us."

But in his diaries and letters, Kafka writes about his feelings – including his most hopeless, dismal feelings – so candidly that I for one find them paradoxically hopeful, at times even darkly humorous. These entries from his diary – written in 1915, when Kafka was 31 – remind me of the final stages of writing my PhD thesis.

January 20: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?

January 29: Again tried to write, virtually useless.

January 30: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

February 7: Complete standstill. Unending torments.

* * *

But to balance it out, there's the Twitter account dedicated to The Sunny Side of Franz Kafka. Kafka feeling hopeful; Kafka in love; Kafka content, perhaps even happy. Sunshine breaking through the clouds, more joyful in some ways than an unrelentingly sunny day.

* * *

I thought I had linked to Terrible real estate agent photos on this blog before, but apparently not; that omission is now rectified. The photos are incredible, and some of the captions border on genius. Anyway, I mention them now because one of their posts has a Kafka reference (it's also on Instagram if you prefer).

Saturday, 15 July 2023

Laughter and Forgetting

Czech novelist Milan Kundera died in Paris earlier this week.

I started this blog in 2008. My private journal, which is older, is named after a Kundera novel: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

When I was trying to decide what to call this blog, I considered The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but that name/URL was already taken on blogspot. I mentioned this to a friend, who then suggested Laugh and Forget. That name was available, but I didn't like it as much. I checked a few years later, just out of curiosity, and found that Laugh and Forget had also been claimed (trigger warning: suicide, depression, generally harrowing).

I really liked The Book of Laughter and Forgetting when I read it in college, and even gave it as a birthday gift to a girl I had a mild crush on (I don't know if she ever read it). But ironically given its title, I remember very little about the characters or plot. It's like what Anthony Lane says about one of Vladimir Nabokov's short stories:

One of my favorites, “Spring in Fialta” (1936), spins out a full-throated, halfhearted love story through so many offhand flashbacks that, if I were asked to justify my praise, I might not be able to say much more than that it is basically about spring in Fialta.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is basically about laughter and forgetting.

* * *

A few months ago, I was trying to remember a quote. All I could remember was, "The ____ of ____ against ____ is the ____ of ____ against ____." I also had an inkling that the first and fourth missing words were probably the same. But I couldn't remember where I had read it, nor who the author might be.

The words that I did remember were so generic that I didn't think a Google search would work, but I tried it anyway (the phrase in quotes, with asterisks for the missing words). Lo and behold, I found the answer. The quote is from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and it goes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

I had forgotten a quote about forgetting!

* * *

Around the same time, there was a tune stuck in my head, but I couldn't remember the name of the song, nor the artist, nor any of the lyrics. Finally, while waiting for a bus, one of the lines popped into my head: "They tell me I'd make more friends if I acted less fight or flight."

This, again, was enough to find the song: Stuck in Your Head by Calista Garcia.

Stuck in Your Head was stuck in my head!

Monday, 10 July 2023

A Subtle Upping of the Emotional Stakes

Among the many songs that I like, there is a niche category where the singer (or band) delivers a line/couplet in a way which infuses it with a sense of heightened emotion or significance. Not an obvious crescendo like the chorus in Europe's The Final Countdown; in fact, the examples I have in mind are not in the chorus at all. They are understated, but in their own way, equally or perhaps even more effective. A subtle upping of the emotional stakes.

Here's a short, off-the-cuff list:

• Taylor Swift, Champagne Problems
"She would've made such a lovely bride / What a shame she's fucked in the head," they said.

• Kimya Dawson, Hadlock Padlock
I wonder if this climbing that you city people do / Ever leads you to a place with such a pretty view
(I've written about this song before.)

• The Beatles, For No One
There will be times when all the things she said will fill your head / You won't forget her
(Is this the greatest breakup song ever written?)

If you can think of other such examples, let me know in the comments :)

On a related note, see Spine Tinglers on Futility Closet, which talks about Salimpoor et al's study, 'The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal'.

Monday, 26 June 2023

Ichi-go Ichi-e

Ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会) is a Japanese idiom which literally means "one time, one meeting." It's the idea that each encounter is unique and fleeting, "of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment" (Wikipedia).

It reminds me of a late-19th-century poem by AE Housman, From Far, from Eve. I especially love the second stanza:

Now—for a breath I tarry
     Nor yet disperse apart—
Take my hand quick and tell me,
     What have you in your heart.

Sunday, 11 June 2023

Satori (or the Lack Thereof)

This weekend I was re-reading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. The preface by Huston Smith, professor of philosophy at MIT, starts out by contrasting the "two Suzukis": Daisetz Suzuki (1870–1966), who "brought Zen to the West single-handed", and Shunryu Suzuki (1904–1971).

Whereas Daisetz Suzuki's Zen was dramatic, Shunryu Suzuki's is ordinary. Satori [awakening, or understanding] was focal for Daisetz, and it was in large part the fascination of this extraordinary state that made his writings so compelling. In Shunryu Suzuki's book the words satori and kensho, its near-equivalent, never appear.

When, four months before his death, I had the opportunity to ask him why satori didn't figure in his book, his wife leaned toward me and whispered impishly, "It's because he hasn’t had it"; whereupon the Roshi batted his fan at her in mock consternation and with finger to his lips hissed, "Shhhh! Don't tell him!"

Friday, 9 June 2023

The Better-than-Average Effect

A 1981 study by psychologist Ola Svenson (PDF link) asked two groups of participants, Swedish and American, to compare their driving skills to those of their peers. They found that 93% of the US drivers and 69% of the Swedish drivers believed themselves to be more skillful than the median driver in their group.

Now it's theoretically possible for more than 50% of a group to be better than average at something, if average is taken to be the arithmetic mean. But the Svenson study was about the median, so the participants' beliefs can't possibly be true. This phenomenon, known as the better-than-average effect (BATE), has been replicated in multiple studies, and in many areas of life.

But I think this particular form of irrationality isn't limited to believing one is better than average. In my (completely anecdotal) experience, it also extends to some value-neutral domains (where there is no obvious better or worse), and at least one domain where I suspect most people believe they are worse than average.

Procrastination, I think, is an example of the latter. My guess is that most people believe they are worse than the median (i.e. that they procrastinate more than average).

I suppose you could turn it around and argue that this is just another manifestation of BATE (people think they are better than average at procrastinating). But that's just a matter of framing, and if it comes to that, most questions could be similarly flipped. For example, instead of asking drivers if they are more skillful than the median, you could ask if they are more likely than the median to cause an accident. In the second case, my guess is that most drivers would say they are less likely than the median.

BATE typically skews towards positive self-evaluations – in fact the article I linked to earlier defines it as "the tendency for people to perceive their abilities, attributes, and personality traits as superior compared with their average peer" – and procrastination is generally considered a negative trait. So if my hunch is right, procrastination is an exception: an example of a worse-than-average effect.

Now for the two value-neutral examples.

Consider the question of how strongly you feel versus how much you show. We might call this trait emotional demonstrativeness. For example, Chris Evert, in the passage I quoted in this post, was suggesting she was less emotionally demonstrative than Goolagong. If you did a survey, I reckon you'd find that most people think they are less demonstrative than the median.

Of course, how strongly you feel is a subjective state, so it's impossible to empirically compare emotional demonstrativeness. As I wrote in that post, "Presumably Goolagong reacted more vehemently than Evert did when she missed a volley. But perhaps Goolagong really did feel the disappointment more keenly – who can say?"

My other value-neutral example, however, is empirically testable. Variability in human attractiveness to mosquitoes can and has been studied and compared. Nevertheless, if you did a survey, I think most people would say they are more attractive to mosquitoes than the median.

Kolkata, where I grew up, and Singapore, where I live now, both have lots of mosquitoes, and over the years, I've heard many people say they are unusually attractive to them. I recently went hiking with a friend, and she said (unprompted) that she is less attractive to mosquitoes than average. As far as I can remember, it's the first time in my life that I've heard anyone say that.

Saturday, 3 June 2023

Don't Call Me Kid

Sometimes people laugh when I say I like Taylor Swift; they assume I'm being ironic. Maybe it doesn't fit with (what they perceive as) my personality. And in fact, from her older catalogue, there are only a couple of songs that I like: Blank Space (2014) and Cornelia Street (2019). And not for want of trying. But I really like her three most recent albums: folklore (2020), Evermore (2020) and Midnights (2022).

As short, punchy refrains go, I think "It's me, hi / I'm the problem it's me" (Anti-Hero) is right up there with "Here we are now / Entertain us" (Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit).

Anyway, illicit affairs, from folklore, has this line: "Don't call me kid / Don't call me baby". It reminds me of a conversation with my friend. Or rather, a proxy conversation with my friend's niece.

Some background: the conversation was over text, but my friend (A) was with her niece, whom we call PoF. PoF – short for "Princess of Friendship" – is one of four sisters. For reasons outside the scope of this post, we use nicknames for the four kids: Camerat (8), PoF (5), Ladybug (3) and Y (1).

The conversation started with my friend telling me that she told PoF "I love you kid." And PoF replied, "I'm not a kid, I'm a child." The rest of the story is best told through the chat transcript itself.

Me: hahaha
so what does she think a kid is?
baby goat?

A: I think she thinks it's smaller than a child lol

Me: who made this hierarchy

A: The princess of friendship

Me: Who is older, kid or child? Baby or kid?

A: She said a baby is older than a kid, a child is older than a kid and a baby

Me: did you ask her just now?

A: Yes lol

Me: Aww it's almost like me and PoF having a conversation
But a baby is older than a kid hmm. Not sure I buy that

A: It's her world, we just live in it

Me: Yes we have to accept it.
I can see why she was insulted though. You basically made her even smaller than a baby
So what is Ladybug?
Kid baby or child
And what is Y?

A: Ladybug is a baby
Y is also a baby

Me: 😳😳
even Y?
Then who is a kid? Incredible

A: Scratch it all, she and Camerat are both kids and Y is a child

Me: Omg
It changes by the minute

A: There's no method to this madness

Me: What made her change her mind?

A: This is a mystery beyond my understanding