May 2014

Scooped by Gloria

Oh, the shame.  I’ve been scooped.  Worse yet, by my friend Gloria who’s come down from Santa Rosa for a visit and led me to a wonderful little restaurant on the edge of my stomping grounds whose existence had not shown up on my radar.  So i’ve been scooped by a foreigner!  Aieeeeee.

The restaurant is Old Jerusalem, located on Mission Street just north of 26th Street.  We had lunch there yesterday:  superb Arabian coffee, fine baba ghannoush, tender and flavorful lamb shish kababs, pillowy pita, and the best hummus i ever ate.  Period.  I’m going back to work my way through their menu, especially since they’re also open for lunch.

What a find!

And since i’m not taking food pics now, here’s a shot of an interesting palm treatment on a building by China Basin.

Palm treatment near China Basin

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No Place to Hide

I”m reading Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide now and keep recoiling in horror.  I’ve been tracking NSA surveillance for years and thought i knew pretty much the whole story.  Hardly.  Greenwald’s book covers everything i knew about and adds much more.  Read this book.

Yes, not only are all our phone calls and texts being recorded and saved, but also our our cell phones can be used to listen to our conversations when they are turned off, etc. etc.  So the world is safe from unmonitored communication.

Oh, but wait.  There’s one area left uncovered, the proliferation of American Sign Language use.  Thousands of people who are not deaf! are learning and using ASL and are thus able to sign about anything they want in privacy, leaving a huge gap in our national security.

To close this loophole, we might have legislation to make it illegal to learn ASL if you or a member of your immediate family is not deaf, but that would be difficult to enforce.  A  much better approach would be to take a tip from George Orwell and require the installation of telescreens in every room of every building.

After all, there are now increasing numbers of video cameras watching our streets and public places, not to mention inside our stores and public buildings, thus keeping us safe from public misbehavior, so let’s take the next step and extend this safety everywhere.

A fringe benefit is that installation of ubiquitous telescreens would also address the problem of people writing each other notes, and i look forward to Senator Feinstein introducing this legislation in the near future, excepting, of course, the homes of the wealthy like herself.

A recent photo of Big Sister:

The above image has appeared in many places on the Internet and, not being the NSA, i’m unable to finger the originator.

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Interesting Times

Oh, my goodness, what interesting times we’re living in.  Where to start?  One thing for sure, we are certainly living in a different America than the one i grew up in back when i was a kid in West Texas in the forties and fifties and was being taught to love my country for its resolute defense of the citizenry.  From sea to shining sea and all that.

What’s different?  Well, how ’bout day-before-yesterday’s revelation that the Defense Department has refused to tell the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations who we are now at war with.  Wait a minute.  I was taught that the Constitution reserved the power to declare war to Congress, and it still says that.  However, on numerous occasions presidents have sidestepped this clause and declared war unilaterally, but the War Powers Resolution passed over Nixon’s veto in 1973 defined much more precisely presidential and congressional powers with regard to war.  What this resolution does not do, however, is give the Defense Department the power to wage war while refusing to tell Congress who we’re waging war against, which frankly sounds much more like our military has staged a quiet coup and taken over the government.

On the other hand, a coup isn’t really necessary since Congress has itself been responsible for many of the most egregious attacks on our liberties, witness the Patriot Act.  Since Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance of American citizens, there has been some talk about putting some limitations on its powers and the scope of its surveillance.  So the House last Thursday passed, with no sense of irony, the “USA Freedom Act” that would ostensibly put limits on the NSA but in fact is so watered down that it actually gives the NSA even more power to monitor us all.  A military coup isn’t necessary if Congress is willing to voluntarily turn over all power to our military and our intelligence agencies.

And speaking of the NSA, the revelations of the extent to which Americans are spied on continue almost daily, and they get worse and worse.  The most recent bombshell is the publication four days ago of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, in which he tells the story of his relationship with Edward Snowden and how he first broke the news about the NSA.  I picked it up yesterday at Folio Books on 24th Street and will start devouring it tonight.

But finally, the tastiest news about the NSA is that a group of six bright young folks at CERN got together, did a little brainstorming, and came up with ProtonMail,  which is described in glowing terms in a recent Forbes article as an entirely new approach to email encryption that “the NSA can’t access”.  Oh please.  If i were not so trusting, i’d suspect that the NSA paid Forbes to publish that article to give folks the impression that they could just sign up for ProtonMail, and all their secrets would be forever safe from the NSA.

But now, a disclaimer:  I am neither a cryptographer nor an Internet expert, so what i’m about to say is just the opinion of an amateur with an interest in cryptography and the NSA.

That said, from what i’ve read, ProtonMail is hardly a new approach since end-to-end encryption (EE2E) has been around for decades in products like Pretty Good Privacy.  The problem with PGP is that you have to be both slightly more patient and slightly smarter than average to use it, and many people have expressed shock at discovering that only half of us are dumber than average….or less patient.  As an illustration of this, remember that when Snowden first contacted Greenwald and wanted him to install PGP so they could email privately about an explosive story, Greenwald wasn’t willing to go to the trouble.  Perhaps ProtonMail will be easier to use.

A second problem with the Forbes story is that the NSA is already accessing all your email correspondence, and your using ProtonMail or any other encryption system is not going to change this.  What EE2E does do is make it very tedious for NSA to decrypt your email that they’ve collected.  That’s all.  They will still be able to decrypt it, but they just hate being inconvenienced by having to expend the time and effort.

A third problem with the article is that all the encryption in the world is not going to improve your privacy if your computer has been compromised by the installation of an NSA “back door” program.  At this point, we know that some computers are compromised, but we have no idea what percentage of our computers have back doors.  My friend and first reader CK (and i am not turning him in to the NSA because we’re so brazen that we don’t encrypt our email and ain’t tryin’ to hide nuthin’) suggested that i add an explanatory note to this point.  He wrote:  “once the NSA (or anyone else) gets access to your computer (okay, ever since they got access…) the encryption is immaterial because the (NSA etc) can read your mail keystroke by keystroke as you write it.  And if you are using encryption, they will.”  

Still, if millions of us installed ProtonMail and used it properly, life would become much more difficult for the NSA, so i would not be a bit surprised to see a willing Congress pass legislation declaring possession of it illegal.  In fact, i rather suspect that America’s foremost apologist for the NSA, Senator Diane Feinstein, AKA Big Sister, is drafting such legislation even as i write.

And that said, as CK pointed out, until millions of us who have nothing to hide suddenly start encrypting our email out of principal, those who do it are waving a fuscia flag at the NSA signaling that they think they have something to hide and thus become Persons of Suspicion.

Meanwhile, here’s a recent candid photo of the NSA on a morning run down Polk Street:

The NSA taking a stroll on Polk Street





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Farewell, Friendly Visitor

Went down to the Friendly Visitor volunteers meeting last Wednesday afternoon and discovered that the wonderful program manager was no longer there. When i asked where she was, her replacement went into this riff about departmental reorganization that left the program with no further use for the former manager’s services, which was preposterous on the face of it since as best i could tell the former manager was the primary worker on the program, indefatigable, highly competent, genuinely kind, very knowledgeable about both her volunteers and her clients, and beloved of all the clients and volunteers. So i asked the new manager about the firing and got more blather.

When i pressed, she clammed up and refused to give me the reason.  My hackles rose, and the conversation became less and less productive until she became offended at my pressing for answers. The big boss was even more skilled at corporate doublespeak, and we ultimately agreed that neither of us wanted me in the Friendly Visitor program any longer.

Not of course that this will prevent me from continuing to see my former “client” in the role of a helpful friend rather than an official “visitor”, nor will it prevent the Friendly Visitor program from matching him up with another visitor. And that’s a good thing because my former client/new friend has only one friend besides myself who visits him, so another one would be a great benefit.

Me, i never was much of a company man since my loyalties have always been to persons rather than to organizations.  I started volunteering in the program only because i was grateful to the manager for helping me get on a waiting list for senior housing, so waving goodbye to the organization when it no longer includes her is easy.  Actually, in this case, it’s not so much waving goodbye as flipping the bird.

Here’s a little street art to brighten up the gloom.

street art off Polk

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As Cooks Go

One of Saki’s most memorable lines was, “She was a good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went.”

Jason, the chef at Company, went.  His replacement is Karen, and she’s taken over from Jason seamlessly.  Well, beyond seamless, as last night’s dinner was better than ever.  I loved Jason’s cooking, and it’s too early to be sure since this was my first time to eat Karen’s food, but she may have eclipsed him.  I went with That Pig Jeff, who is also on a diet, also successfully, so we both held ourselves back.  But still…

I started with a Chilled White Corn Soup with Avocado relish and Paprika Oil.  The oil was a beautiful touch but also was so good that i made sure to get a bit of it in every spoonful.  Next was Grilled Asparagus with Pickled Vegetables and Herbed Ricotta, a preparation i’d never had, unfortunately.  Wow.  I didn’t know you could cook asparagus so that it was crisp and tender at the same time, and the ricotta snuggled up to it to create a memorable dish.  Jeff had the PEI Mussels, a classic moules marinière, but Karen punched it up by adding a little red pepper to the broth and drizzling the bowl with lemon ailoi.  Yow!  Jeff said he’d never had better, and the stingy little taste i got made me want to try this dish for myself.

We split an order of the Garlic Parmesan Kennebec Fries, which are right up close to the Truffle Parmesan Fries at Mission Beach Cafe – in other words, dangerously good for folks who are supposed to be limiting their carbohydrates.

Jeff had the Line-Caught Swordfish with Artichoke, Slow-roasted Tomato, and Meyer Lemon Butter.  He called it very good.  I called my bite great.  I had my old favorite, the Confit Chicken Wings, which Karen has changed a bit from Jason’s preparation.  She doesn’t add the pomegranate glaze Jason used, but she serves them with a Salsa Verde and Fresno Chiles, which changes the exterior flavor, but the wings themselves remain deliciously creamy and tender.  I love both preparations.

For dessert, Jeff had the strawberry-rhubarb dish, which i sampled to confirm my disinterest in rhubarb but was kinda shocked to find it very tasty.  Still, it wasn’t chocolate, so i just had a couple of small spoons.

The bottom line here is that the restaurant is at least as good under Karen as Jason, but i’ll hold off until i’ve had more of her dishes before i call her better.

Eat here, folks.  The manager, Thuy, is a delight and the waiters, Callum and Rory (who doubles as bartender) are both pleasant and skillful.  What’s not to like?

No food pic this time, so here’s a yellow Leucospermum on Castro Street that’s good enough to eat.

yellow Leucospermum on Castro Street




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The Great Ume Plum Festival

In the interest of the full disclosure that has made me the darling of the San Francisco food set, or well, the Noe Valley food set or at least the northern Noe Valley food set, i’ll admit that until last summer i didn’t know what an ume plum was.  Here’s everything you wanted to know about Prunus mume.

My Canadian foodie friend Andrew brought these to my attention last summer when i’d taken him to the Alemaney Farmers’ Market and he asked Glenn Tanimoto if he grew them.  Alas, Glenn didn’t but he knew what they were and had a neighbor who had a couple of trees.  Not retail marketed, alas.

But Andrew had seen umes at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market last May, and wonder of wonders last Saturday i was out shopping with Sybil and we passed the Happy Quail Farm booth.  There they were, both green and ripe.  Yow!  I grabbed a small bag of both kinds, and David told me that i was lucky to get them since the “season” for them is only two Saturdays.

When i got them home i emailed Andrew, who’s in Paris now, to tell him about my good luck and mention that David had said that the green ones should be pickled and the ripe yellow ones should be macerated in alcohol….or maybe it was the other way around.  Bless Andrew, he shot back immediately with instructions…and more instructions, so i didn’t even need to do detailed searching on the Internet.  So it’s now a joint project, with Andrew operating remotely.

1. Wash the plums thoroughly and discard any bruised ones.

2. Carefully pick out the tiny black remainder of the stem deep in the bellybutton of each plum because the stem has a strong tannin flavor.

3. Jar the plums in a vessel with a tight lid (I used 1 liter French canning jars) and pour in enough vodka to cover them completely, leaving an inch or so of vodka above the top of the plums.

4. Pour half a cup of white cane sugar into the green jar, swirl it around to dissolve the sugar, and put a piece of Saran Wrap over the jar before refastening the lid.

Here’s what they look like at this point.

macerating ume plums

5. For now, close the containers and put them in a cool dark place while you gather the rest of the ingredients.

Ah yes, the rest of the ingredients.  Well, see, Andrew is Chinese, so i knew in advance that i wouldn’t be able to just run down to Safeway and get everything.  Oh no.  For the ripe plums i’ll need Chinese yellow rock sugar and dried black lychee tea leaves.  For the green plums, i’ll need shiso leaves.  No problem.  That’s why God created Chinatown.

Except that nowadays everybody goes to the New Chinatown on Clement Street, where there are rows of Chinese restaurants, bakeries, herbal stores, and grocery stores, my favorite being May Wah, at 707 Clement Street, which is cavernous and has everything.  So i jumped on the Segway and headed out.  We’re having an unseasonable heat wave today, so all i needed was a tee shirt  with an unbuttoned dress shirt on top.  Beautiful ride over, since i took the Wiggle into Golden Gate Park, cut across west of the Conservatory of Flowers onto Arguello Street and thence to the butt of Clement.

The clerks in May Wah are gentle with Caucasians who are looking for ingredients they don’t even know what look like, and they had all three of the exotic items.  Of course since i was in there i went ahead and filled my shopping basket with delicacies i like such as ten different cans of Chinese fish, a bag of fried green peas with chile lime coating, a couple of packages of miso soup mix, a shrink wrap bag of dried oysters, a bar of that divine Lindt chocolate filled with bubbles of liquid raspberry, and of course a couple of bags of shrimp chips, which i discovered in Amsterdam as kroepoek and just love.

And after you shop at May Wah, the obligatory next stop is across the street at dingy little Good Luck dim sum, which has a couple of sticky tables in back but is overwhelmingly for takeout and which is famous for being the best dim sum buy in the city as well as for its cranky counter girls who give about as much quarter as the checkout counter girls at Albert Heijn in Amsterdam, whose favorite sport is reducing tourists to tears.

Alas, the Good Luck counter girls didn’t get a crack at me today because they’re closed on Tuesdays.  Which is a mixed blessing since my mouth was watering for some of their dim sum, and i thought about it all the way home as i took a route through the park so scenic that i got a little turned around so that when i finally reached the edge of the park i thought i was on the south edge when i was really on the east, and it took me a couple of blocks to figure out why everything looked all wrong and make an abrupt right turn to be headed home instead of downtown.

All in all, a very enjoyable shopping expedition.  The only problem is that the temperatures rose during the trip, and by the time i got home it was nearly unbearable.  I was almost sweating!

Now i’m waiting for the sun to rise in Paris so Andrew can give me some instructions about what to do with the exotic ingredients for the yellow plums.

While we wait, here’s a shot of the top of the Conservatory of Flowers taken from just a few yards into the park on Arguello.

Conservatory of Flowers from Arguello


6.   Andrew got back to me.  All you have to do is throw a half dozen shiso leaves into each jar of green plums and a lump of yellow rock sugar about an inch in diameter into the yellow plums.

7.  Put the jars back into the cool,  dark place and wait.  [more instructions will be added later]




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May Food Notes

Since some of my readers  have an interest level in the San Francisco food scene that is marginal at best, i am instituting with this post a new policy.  All food posts will henceforth be clearly identified as such so that they can be easily avoided by those incapable of appreciating them. 

First, an overdue note on Pläj, located at 333 Fulton and inside the Inn at the Opera.  The owner is Swedish and bills the place as “San Francico’s only Scandinavian restaurant,” which i assume is true now, but i can remember that when i moved here in the seventies there were two Scandinavian restaurants in the Castro, both run by Scandinavian immigrants.  The Norse Cove on Castro (now The Cove) and the Scandinavian Deli on Market. Both restaurants marched steadfastly to their own owner/drummer. Ernie at the Scandinavian Deli cooked and served large portions of good plain food at lunch only to a mixed clientele of working men and hungry young gays. The Norse Cove was operated by a Norse lady on an honor system. You placed your order with her, grabbed your drinks and chips, and sat down at the long communal tables. They brought your order to your table when it was ready, and after the meal you went back to the lady, told her what you’d eaten, and she tallied your bill. It was such a thrill to be trusted that it was utterly unthinkable to cheat her, and in retrospect it was also probably impossible since she was monitoring the entire operation and could doubtless remember what you’d ordered and see what drinks you’d taken from the cooler. What a wonderful atmosphere that place had.

But yes, i was writing about Pläj.  My friends Ruth and Pam took me there, and i was just blown away.  This restaurant is one of the finest restaurants i’ve patronized in the past decade, right up there with One Market and the Zuni.  Appearance is not high in my restaurant priorities, but the place is just lovely.  The staff are all relaxed, charming, and informed.  And the food?  Well, the sample menu online includes the line, “Our plates are sized purposefully for you to enjoy several dishes,” which is a very polite way of saying that the portions are tiny, but oh, are they ever delicious.  Every bite is a treasure.  You can’t leave a Swedish place without having the Swedish meatballs, and they were excellent.  We also had the charcuterie plate, paper thin slices of superb Swedish salumi, the mouth-melting gravlox, and a couple of dishes not on the online sample menu.  A superb dining experience.  Go.  But not when it’s your turn to pay.

The only other place i’ve discovered recently is the new gyros place at the corner of 18th and Castro that replaced a new Korean place that failed to gain traction.  I stopped at the gyros place for lunch the other day and for my first visit had the traditional gyros stuffed into pita.  Although it wasn’t  as exciting as i’d hoped, it was definitely good enough to have again, and the menu has a number of other middle-eastern dishes that i want to try.

The big food news is that it’s stone fruit season in California, and i’ve been preserving like mad.  So far a cherry chutney and jams of both apricot and nectarine, both of which i brightened up with a dab of New Mexico chile powder.  See the 2014 Production Report.

Looked around for a food pic and found this one of the whole wheat spinach bolani from East West Afghan foods surmounted with some Waag Gouda and mixed sesame seeds and popped into the toaster oven until perfect.

spinach bolani topped with Gouda and sesame seeds and toasted


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Do No What?

As one who’s been tracking the NSA for the decades since my brief career in the ASA in the sixties, these sure have been interesting times after Snowden’s disclosure last year that in addition to the NSA’s mandate to gather and analyze communications intelligence on opposition foreign governments, it has maintained surveillance on friendly governments as well as on every private citizen on the planet, most particularly on American citizens right here at home.

This was hardly news for those of us who’d had our eyes open during the past decade while various pieces of the puzzle were disclosed, one of the most egregious being the outing in 2006 by whistleblower Mark Klein of AT&T’s Room 641a in their Folsom Street building in downtown San Francisco where a splitter was installed giving the NSA access to all telephone and Internet communications that went through the building, a major chunk of all communications in the western United States.

And yet – even though this revelation was covered by the major news media, written up in detail in Wired magazine, and even the subject of a PBS documentary – it was stoutly denied by the government and basically ignored by the American public.  Snowden changed that, and his revelations continue to rebound since they can no longer be denied.

One aspect that would be amusing if it were not so dreadful is that immediately after Snowden’s bombshell, the CEO’s of all our major communications companies fell all over themselves declaring they were shocked, shocked at Snowden’s revelations and spouting their own stout denial that they’d had any idea at all that the NSA was scooping up all their data.  These denials were shortly shown to be lies by additional revelations detailing the eager and complete cooperation extended to the NSA by most of these companies, including the fact that Google had been paid for its cooperation.  This should have been no surprise to those who remembered AT&T’s voluntarily setting up Room 641a, and the latest piece in this mountain of deceit is a series of emails between Google brass and Keith Alexander revealed in this morning’s news.

Anyone who thinks the major communications providers are on his side is hopelessly naive.  In fact, only a handful of small providers have put up any resistance to the NSA at all, the most spectacular of which being Lavabit, whose founder, Ladar Levison, after a valiant struggle against having to reveal the cryptographic keys protecting his email service, shut down the whole company and pulled the plug immediately before the feds could get a court order forcing him to remain open after his keys had been compromised, leaving his clients under the false impression that they were still being protected since he would have been forbidden by the court order to tell anyone.  How unusual in modern American business, to protect your clients at the expense of your revenue stream.

Just remember that the NSA is perfectly capable of cracking any encryption, but that the better forms do take a good deal of time and effort to crack.  That’s why the NSA much prefers to have companies like Google and AT&T simply give (or sell) them the keys, just as RSA built in a “back door” for the NSA in the encryption systems it then happily sold as secure to millions of us.  But hey, like Google and Apple and Facebook and Yahoo and AT&T, they made lots of money by throwing us under the bus.

The bottom line here is that you need to consider that every character you type, every syllable you utter is  99.9999% certain to be monitored….even though a tiny handful escape scrutiny.

On the other hand, spring flowers bloom freely.

tree yucca flowers



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Maggie Gallagher

In case you don’t know who Maggie Gallagher is, she’s a hard line Roman Catholic, founder and former president of the NOM (National Organization for Marriage), a national organization created in 2007 to support California’s notorious Proposition 8 and focused on attacking gays in general and gay marriage in particular.

She’s been in the news since her post titled “Cooper, Mozilla, Firefox” yesterday on her blog.  Most of the commentary on her post that i’ve seen seems to feel that Gallagher is giving up in her fight against the gays, the Daily Kos actually titled their entry “Maggie Gallagher Throws in the Towel?”  Others have taken out of context one sentence in her post that makes it sound as if she’s reformed and will no longer be persecuting gays.

Oh please.

I cannot imagine how anyone who actually reads that entire horrifying post (here’s the link again) can imagine that she’s given up or has any desire to halt her campaign against gays.  On the contrary, the post argues that since they have lost their recent battles against gays and that their existing tactics are clearly no longer working, what they must do is develop new tactics (and get supporters to contribute more money to them) so they can redouble their efforts against the gays.

Perhaps the most hideous aspect of her post is what she calls “the Love problem”, which is that since we love our gay children anyway, even though they are gay, we must delicately tiptoe around this love and find a way to continue our persecution of them, a concept at the heart of Roman Catholic theology – the ability to love someone while burning him at the stake.

I call that a major problem, but it makes her an implacable enemy.  She’s not throwing in the towel but, rather, intent on becoming a wilier adversary.

Here’s a pipe draining something into Islais Creek.  Alas, the Smellorama function on my camera is disabled.

pipe into Islais Creek


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