Saturday, September 30, 2006

There's no such thing as a free cake, part II?

So now we've established that gifts, even innocent looking birthday cakes, may represent antagonistic obligation. Is this true in every circumstance? Are all birthday cakes, as a friend of mine once put it, potential power struggles? I submit that in some circumstances they are and in some they aren't. I propose to quantify and analyze my own cake baking to test the degree to which birthday cakes I've baked fit into more into the antagonistic obligation or whether they were more characterized as free.

Whether they are free versus debt depends on several things including: the relationship of the baker to the bakee, the circumstances of the gift (often they are asked for by third parties, in which case the "obligation" goes elsewhere) such as whether it was bartered, traded or even debt payment itself, the conditions in which the gift is presented (public versus private venue), and finally, intention on my part.

Oh yeah, and the relative rank of the requestor in relation to me matters as well. If they are a peer as opposed to a boss or superior then they are more likely to be “marked”. My superiors can simply take cake as their just due.

So I thought long and hard about all of the birthday cakes I’ve made over the past two years (or so) and came to an immediate conclusion. The first observation is that I make a huge amount of cake for people and two that I have a disturbingly good memory for what type of cake I made, down to the filling and the icing. I am, in fact, completely cake obsessed.

But I digress. First, let’s look at the data.

Here’s the basic tabulation of columns I came up with so you get the idea of the kind of data I’m collecting from the cake memory hard-wired into some part of my brain.

Bakee, Requestor, Requested?, Type of Cake/Icing, Complicated Level, Decorated, Relationship, Rank, Years Known, Venue, Trade/Barter/Debt Payment?, Intent, Results, Labor Cost (combo of complicated level, decorated labor weighted).

Some basic data trends and an excel spreadsheet later:
Number of Birthday Cakes made = 16
Requested (by someone other than me) = 5 out of 16
Cake Types = 8 vanilla variants (buttercream, golden genoise, white, yellow), 6 chocolate variants (devils food, sour cream fudge, german chocolate), 2 fruit (lemon, strawberry) As an aside, I notice that I have made more vanilla than chocolate cakes. As a little kid I ALWAYS picked vanilla shakes and ice cream over chocolate. At some level, I’m still doing that.
Complicated Level = 9 Low, 5 Medium, 2 High
Decorated = 7

For basic analysis, I began by looking for trends that might seem likely to point towards obligation. Let’s start with the requested cakes, which have the most possibility for obvious reciprocation right off the bat. Of the 5 cakes that were requested, 4 were Medium to High complicated level and were decorated. This is unsurprising and leads into a few basic points.

In general we can say that the higher the labor cost combined with the nature of the venue will be important variables in incurring debt. This is because higher labor (on my part) and a public venue would create more “debt” pressure.

Of the five requested birthday cakes, 4 were in the "high cost" bracket and of those, 3 were in public parties. Those three appear to be the ones with the highest potential debt value. One can be eliminated because the requestor and cakee were a superior and it was a going away/birthday party. A second can also be eliminated because it was "paid" for, actually MORE than paid for by a really cool fifties metal cake keeper given to me on the part of the requestor who asked me to make a birthday cake for a friend of hers. I think I still owe the person on that one; I made out like a bandit. As an added bonus the person I made the cake for, who was only an acquaintance at the time, is now a friend (was it the cake?). The third requestor was originally going to help me make and decorate the cake but backed out at the last minute (on the helping part anyways). That may have helped create indebtedness if the wily requestor hadn’t then told me she didn't like it anyway (it was for her guy) so it really was a total bust as far as actually working antagonistically.* (More on this point will be dealt with later, about whether someone can feel indebtedness. This matters if I am foolishly trying to create debt on their part.)

So I wasn't all that successful at antagonistic cake giving in the requested cake factor (the other two were for and by family). What about the cakes offered and not asked for? Surely I did some marked gift giving there? Well, here again it depends. Those we hold closest to us like good friends and immediate family are not typically obligated by cake giving for birthdays. Actually I cannot say this for all cultures, but I can suggest it was the case for my own family history.

Let’s take a look.

Here’s Pretzel on the left and Mrs. Roth on the right at about age two holding giant decorated birthday cakes and wearing huge grins. At age 2 or so, we are being inculcated in the joys of birthday cake giving and especially receiving.

Here’s another one of Pretzel and Mrs. Roth helping our grandmother bake her 62nd birthday cake (Pretzel’s holding the cake pan).

Here’s another one of Pretzel eyeing the decorations. According to my mother I was very particular about that sort of thing. My mouth is open because I am talking. I believe the words "crazed parrot" were used often to describe it.

And a further evidence of my Grandparents singing happy birthday and waiting for cake. My grandmother does not appear to be unduly obligated here. In fact, she seems quite pleased and affectionate. Her birthday was August 23rd, 1918. I'm sorry I couldn't make her cake this year.

Here’s my favorite part. Eating the cake.

And it’s not just the grandparents that got in on the birthday cake action.

Here’s one of Mrs. Roth, me, and my Mother, with her 29th birthday cake. We didn’t do the writing (I believe my grandmother helped with that) but from the messy icing, you can see that we did the rest. Actually, I learned fractions at a very young age due to baking, another bonus.

And here’s one of me, Mrs. Roth and my father with his rather squashed looking birthday cake, another twin baking special. We also insisted on trying to put all 34 candles or so on his cake. I'm the one smiling at him.

These are just the early and few samples of birthday cake baking that was a tradition in my family. I recall them more as tribute for the birthday person. Actually, one early memory I have is of always waking up on my birthday to find paper streamers decorating me and my sis’s room on our birthday. My mom always made birthdays for everyone around us seem very special. I recall making many cakes for parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins (when they were around) and friends. Maybe it was an American Southern tradition, I don’t know.

I recall many homely coconut cakes with our attempts at seven minute frosting for my mother (who was fond of coconut) where we never seemed to beat the frosting enough. She was sanguine anyway, even when we decided to ruin it one year by putting a lot of maraschino cherries on it (it looked like someone had killed a polar bear on a plate) because we knew that she liked cherries (bing cherries as it turned out).

Ah cake memories. I still remember how most of ‘em tasted too.

Back to the analysis. Clearly, when I make cakes for those I hold dear, it’s not all for ritual obligation, but part of a family tradition. It turns out that of the 16 cakes made, 10 were for people I've known more than 5 years and for those other 6 in the less than five years bracket, I can say that 4 were for people I really like, two for friends (good ones!) and two for a brother in law (aka Mr. Roth).

Well, I suppose the obvious critique is that I am too close to this analysis to really be objective about my own intentions in the matter. Fair enough. And I also inserted cute kiddie pics to make my rhetorical point! But that brings us back to the point I suggested earlier as to whether I can operate on the assumption that someone will actually feel the indebtedness that I wish to put there if I wanted to do it.

I think birthday cake baking, at least in this part of the world, is not one that fits into a ritual system that all recognize. The majority of cakes I made for people were low labor cost and not decorated. The few in public venues were still not within a recognizable system of obligation, like wedding gifts or graduation gifts. So clearly the lack of a commonly recognized birthday cake ritual of reciprocation makes it a little harder to use it as an antagonistic competitive device. It’s not to say that it couldn’t be done. In fact, I've clearly gotten a lot out of it in terms of reinforcing friend and family ties and also eating lots of cake (which is always a positive experience). I just don’t seem to be very good at gaining a clear upper hand in my social network by baking cakes. In fact, I can safely say that in a few cases (and I’m thinking of the guy who brought me back the Xanath vanilla liqueur from Mexico AND the Hokkaido cream stew sauce from Japan) I owe the cakee way more cake than I could possibly bake soon!

Generally, I do recognize that one has to be secure in one's relationships to accept gifts without feeling obligation debts where none are intended. And let's be fair, I did get a lot of vocal "yums" out of it, which of course I treasure along with the smiles. So, yeah, I suppose you could say that I got quite a bit out of all the cake baking. I got to engage in a hobby I enjoy, make people I (mostly) know well and like happy, and I scored a few compliments along the way.

Is it a hardship to get birthday cake from me? Well, only if the strawberry icing melts off of your cake onto the table (sorry Mrs. Roth).

So yes, there is such a thing as free cake in this world. Free and obligation free Birthday cake can be yours if I really like you, have known you for a while, owe you something, you are related to me closely, and if it's a relatively private venue (like an office or at home). Oh yeah, and your chances are almost 2/3rds greater if you're a girl. 10 of the 16 birthday cakes were for women.
Actually those numbers are even greater because of the 6 ostensibly for men, 2 of them were requested by women. This is even less surprising when you consider that most of my close friends are women.

Here are a few that I made for birthdays that also happen to be decorated. The first one's my favorite.

Chinese porcelain? Sort of...

Art Deco, 42 is the age of the gal for whom the cake was made.

I was going for the Blue Delft ceramic tradition but the blue is more baby blue than the proper cobalt blue.

Incidentally, I didn't include cakes I've made for Mr. Pretzel Bender in this blog for a reason.

He's out outlier because I've made him too many.

Wedding cakes are another story. But I think I'll have to save that for another blog.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

There's no such thing as a free cake, pt I ?

Cake making is a hobby of mine that began when I was very young. And it began with making birthday cakes. An early picture of me and my sister shows us helpfully stirring cake batter for a birthday cake for my grandmother. Her birthday was in August and every year we made her a cake. Her favorite was yellow cake with chocolate icing.

The original cake we used to make was simply titled, "yellow layer cake" and it was from a very old and dog-eared book. This cake was very dry although it has a certain buttery and rich taste that I haven't really found replicated anywhere combined with a tender crumb. My mom always said it was expected that you would put a simple syrup (sugar and water combo) onto layer cakes to aid in preservation of moistness.

Of course, that's not really the practice now. Now we have super cake mixes that are so resilient to error that one can make them without the oil or egg, just water and some baking powder and they turn out just fine. Supposedly the first cake mixes were made without anyone having to add anything but water, but they tested poorly in markets because people wanted to feel like they were really making something and that meant they had to add real ingredients. This is because part of the cake making was the act of mixing itself, not merely the appearance of a baked cake.

I happily theorize that the rise of home done cake decorating (of course, the elites have been competing in sugar decorations since forever) is possibly the result of adding the competitive and labor intensive aspect back into what was, due to oven reliability, baking powder, and then cake mixes, an increasingly trivial process. It's just a theory. Of course, if you doubt me, consider this...a high powered middle class wage earner makes, say, 50 bucks an hour, and a cake including decorating, takes 2 or 3 hours. If the person spent what amounts to 2 -3 hours of salary or 150 bucks on a cake, they would get a pretty darn fancy decorated one. However, because it was only labored over indirectly (via their work hours) it is not considered with the same sort of appreciation of the taste or the artistry!

Clearly, we value the act, the labor of making it DIRECTLY in some that the cakes I could MAKE my grandmother for her birthday outweighed, in value, any cake I could buy for her. It's what makes making birthday cakes so special and fun to do. There is value in the act of doing it yourself that isn't just because it "saves money". Our proximity to the cake making process itself makes it "better" in some way. It is somehow more of a "gift" the more it is out of the crass commercial wage earning and speciality production MARKET.

Interesting way to assess value of gifts isn't it? It doesn't work for everything though does it? There are different gifting traditions attached to different items. I mean, you wouldn't expect your fiance to create your engagement ring him or herself would you? But somehow, when it comes to food, "homemade" carries more currency in most situations then "store-bought".

This leads nicely into a tangent about the "gift economy". A famous french sociologist, Marcel Mauss (and nephew to Emile Durkheim) wrote extensively about the social obligations of gift giving in his essay, The Gift. I had to read the 1990 Halls translation of this book for an undergraduate anthropology seminar. The cliff notes version of the book is that Mauss describes systems of gift-giving within different cultural examples as creating networks of obligation and competition. Gift-giving is often antagonistic or intended to control the giftee by creating that sense of public obligation.

There is also a sense of being "marked" that has been explored in more ethnographic details in other works, for example in a class on Hindu culture, a book The Poison in the Gift, describes a complex situation in which gift giving is used to contruct and restate one's place within the castes. At least, that's my cliff notes version! There's something that all of us in the class (Americans all, though from different "ethnicities" and regions) really couldn't completely grasp about the gift giving as marking and property collecting as negative thing.

The instructor, McKim Marriott attempted to teach us by having us play a game (called Samsara, naturally enough) on Saturdays in order to get us more into the "framework". In the game, which was kind of like a Hindu D & D game complete with a DM (Marriott himself) we were supposed to grow crops, exchange gifts and everything else with the goal of getting rid of all our material possessions to achieve "moksha" or release from the cycle. Well...we just kept trying to collect stuff like it was monopoly.
Poor guy was probably very frustrated.

It reminds me of another Anthropology class I had on the NW coast potlatch in which the class simply couldn't see the downside of being gifted with speedboats (some of the modern ones had that) or why you would want to compete in that way. I think I had my first proper demonstration at a large wedding of a friend in which the parents (from an Asian country) kept careful track of all the gifts of their peers (other asian couple doctors) so that they could return the gifts with interest when their kids got married. Fascinating stuff and certainly an interesting way to move capital and prestige around an ethnic community in greater Chicago. They kept up ties through these networks of ritual obligation.

I was reminded of the "poison" in gift exchange recently in regards to birthday cake baking!

Up next in part II, birthday cake as power struggle?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Light and Death

This is about death in the form of light. Or more specifically, it's about different forms of electromagnetic radiation and weapons technology.

I first got started thinking about this lasers and death rays from Jim, a friend I work with for my day job. Jim has basically worked for a lot of really cool thinktank type places, like Bell Labs, NASA, get the idea. Now he's slumming it in quasi-retirement with academics. Jim and I like chewing the fat over any number of esoteric topics du jour. So...since Jim has worked on a lot of interesting projects over the years, including, as it turns out, intercontinental missile defense (or something pretty darn near it).

When you're a big government/research lab with lots of dough and lots of brain power, I guess it's pretty obvious that you're going to start thinking about REALLY big weapons before long. Maybe it's a guy thing. In one of our little chats, I had a recollection of Reagan's infamous Star Wars speech and the determined follow-up in the press of the unfeasibility of the whole thing. At the time I was quite young and more impressionable so I didn't really question the status quo. Now I had a chance, what did Jim think of this? He was succinct. The solution to missile defense shields were well known in the 1960s...laser cannons. Presumably the movability, the ability to refire, and the range, would really help. So...did such things exist? Well, he remarked that the technology for dealing with smaller more efficient lasers certainly existed right now. Back then, they'd even discussed issues like cloud cover (solution? infrared).

Jim was right. Sure enough I noticed an article by the associated press a few months later that mentioned that laser cannon technology had improved to the point where they were "exponentially smaller than a refrigerator" with applications for planes. Yeah, who thought that up that phrase? I can't find the original article, but this seems close: DARPA's "Star Wars" style laser cannon .

Now, they don't mention space applications, but they are obvious, aren't they? If you could solve the fuel problem for SVs or at least a method of collected fuel (like through solar panels) and passing them between them, you'd probably get close. Nice. But lasers aren't the only way. How about messy, non-coherent light like the sun's rays?

Turns out Archimedes, *may* have thought of that one as well.

A group of MIT students played around with the idea of using mirrors to focus the sun's rays onto mock ships. Here's their page on the matter:

MIT Archimedes Death Ray Experiment

Fun eh? Doesn't it make you want to set one up somewhere to annoy/scorch the neighbors?

So, now it's established that it's possible that one could exist, the question is does it? Dunno. But aside from all the good geek paranoid fun, what are the political implications of such a system?

A system that would be affordable to only a very few and make all the intercontinental missile arsenal defunct and ... well, it's obvious isn't it?

But that's not the only application out there.

I read this little article in the Guardian about lasers that can be used to see through solid objects. Yes, superman x-ray vision could be yours! And who says those guys were paranoid for thinking that G.I. sunglasses could be used to see through clothing! Now, of course, they have been vindicated in this article, which claims that the first steps have been taken in using lasers to see through solid objects. Cool.

Here's a final tangent on more government research on laser weapons. I've been reading about dazzlers for a while (though they aren't as cool as laser cannons or death rays) and finally we have some actual press.
Check it out - blinding your enemy or just annoying them with a REALLY BIG LASER POINTER.
Our government dollars at work! Well, not that hard at work. What's a million dollars here and there?
And on the laser weapon blinding you theme, why do we have a ban on weapons in warfare that maim or disfigure? Does this really make sense in that we don't ban weapons that KILL people? Although I guess we do have bans on weapons that really efficiently kill people (missile treaties and so forth). So...there's some middle ground here? It's okay to kill people in battle if you use the right weapons that don't work too efficiently and don't maim them intentionally to avoid killing them. I guess that shows that most of our wars, even the so-called "total wars" have some kind of political goals in which utterly annilating and/or maiming the enemy is counter productive.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

In Memory of New Orleans, part I, Absinthe

Since it's the year anniversary (give or take a week or two) of the most recent hurricane to damage the Gulf Coast, I thought I would write about a recent obsession of mine that coincides with the city of New Orleans.

Let's start with absinthe. I was born in New Orleans and lived in the area till I was 15.5, roughly half my life so far so I was at least tangentially aware of this green stuff called absinthe due to its production in belle epoque New Orleans. I took no direct interest in the stuff at the time because I was not really all that interested in alcohol. I was raised Southern Baptist and although I am officially now an apostate it still marks me in some ways. I first got interested in the green fairy this past summer when I was visiting the Delaware art museum and saw this poster:

The woman's demure black dress, the man's aristocratic leer complete with monocle and mustache...there's just so much to appreciate. Naturally I had to find out more about the substance that was advertised as so debauched. So, I checked out a few books from the library, like Phil Baker's The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History and Barnaby Conrad's Absinthe: History in a Bottle to get started.

There was a lot of repetition but still, some interesting reading for sure. For starters, I can see that nihilistic determined self-destruction was really practiced as a high art form by much of the literati and bohemian art crowd in Paris and London. Absinthe, for all it's debauched reputation was really the least of it...absinthe got the bad rap for being, well, kinda cool. For one thing, it's taste was kind of antiseptic and there was also the way it was served with ice water slowly added to achieve the right louche (cloudy) color. Here's a great webpage with some more details: What is absinthe?

What I found more interesting was the intersection of ideas that people had about absinthe as a source of depravity and excess and the onset of world-wide prohibitions, not just of absinthe, but of alcohol. I had always assumed (through ignorance, obviously) that the prohibition of the USA was somewhat unique. Not so. Alcoholism and abuse was seen as a major problem in turn of the century Europe as well and they banned many distilled liquors in France and Switzerland. It could well be that the technology of distillation, which had gotten so refined, had created serious hard to handle stuff for consumption by a population used to drinking much milder stuff (like wine). After a few bad grape harvests, absinthe (and other liquors) actually became cheaper than wine and so became the mind-altering substance of choice for working class poor. I guess governments can overlook a few rich arty types over-doing it and dying in "circumstances of unrelieved horror" but not the working stiffs. At least, that's the theory. Of course, we all know what a bonus the prohibition was for organized crime. And it didn't stop usage (though it certainly brought absinthe production to a halt in some parts of the world)...oh well, seemed like a good idea at the time.

It certainly makes for an interesting aside into current drug abuse theories and practice. These little prohibitions seem to carry more ill side-effects than the abuse of the technology itself though of course with ever stronger distillations (of alcohol and drugs in general) it seems that governments will always try to control their availibility and use. They seem to go through fads as well. Apparently a certain Vin Mariani (wine with cocaine) was quite popular with Queen Victoria and the Pope (at the time) and complex societies always seem to use and abuse stimulants. I think they need 'em. Well, I have my own soft drug addictions like caffeine, chocolate, tea (wars have been fought over them!) that have their physical effects as well.

Even now, absinthe is banned in the USA. I am curious about it, but I think I couldn't bring myself to drink it...after all the hype, what could a taste do other than disappoint me?

Although in memory of New Orleans, I am very tempted to buy this historical recreation, Nouvelle Orleans, by Ted Breaux. Of course, I wouldn't drink it, but I do believe that I would clutch it quite happily.