Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It is but a blog post

Epictetus, The Handbook  (aka The Encheiridion)
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I read these two books over the course of the summer.  (This by, the way, at long last finishes writing reviews of the books I read over the summer--sadly, the books I have read since the start of the semester but have not yet reviewed are already starting to accumulate).  I started the Epictetus book right at the outset of summer, and finished the Aurelius book right as summer was ending.  These are the two Stoic classics---both great, though if you only want to read one, I'd suggest Epictetus' book--it is both shorter and better.  (And it is really short--18 pages in my edition.)  I've read both before, but one of my students borrowed Epictetus from me, and when she returned it, it was on my desk, so I picked it up and read it (it is short, after all) and then I thought it would be fun to reread Marcus Aurelius, whom I last read over a decade ago--maybe even close to 20 years ago.

Becoming more of a Stoic is ever my goal.  As Epictetus notes:
"In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the least little things.  If you are fond of a jug, say 'I am fond of a jug!' For then when it is broken you will not be upset.  If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset.”

"When you are about to undertake some action, remind yourself what sort of action it is.  If you are going out for a bath, put before your mind what happens at baths--there are people who splash, people who jostle, people who are insulting, people who steal.  And you will undertake the action more securely if from the start you say of it, 'I want to take a bath and to keep my choices in accord with nature; ' and likewise for each action.  For that way if something happens to interfere with your bathing you will be ready to say, 'Oh, well, I wanted not only this but also to keep my choices in accord with nature, and I cannot do that if I am annoyed with things that happen."

Or this,:
"You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours.  You are stupid in the same way if you want your slave boy to be faultless, since you are wanting badness not to be badness but something else."

Epictetus is the single best guide to parenting I have ever read.  I am constantly telling myself, "They are but children; it is in the nature of children to fail at accomplishing seemingly simple tasks like doing the dishes quickly and without endless fighting."    I am much better at being a Stoic at work than at home, though.  And when it comes to the Raiders, I am not even remotely Stoic--I am trying to work out a theory on why a perfect Stoic should, in fact, care passionately about whether the Raiders win--so far, I am having a hard time working out this theory--surely one cannot say it is in the Nature of the Raiders to lose, and thus when they do lose, why should I be terribly upset?--you can see my problem.

Marcus Aurelius' book isn't as good as Epictetus'--partly because it is longer and when you get right down to it, Stoic philosophy isn't all that complicated.  The biggest thing I noticed this time, though, was how much the translation matters in reading Meditations.  This time, I bought a new translation the book, and it was vastly better than the translation I read a long time ago.  So, if you are going to read this, I would recommend the Gregory Hays translation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Tea Party Comes Back to Boston

Just to get it over with--the Raiders lost yesterday in a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching fashion.  I cried.  Literally.  All I can say is:  Job had it easy.  He didn't have to see the Raiders lose like that.

In other news--which is necessarily more pleasant news because it is impossible to think of anything which would be worse news than that relayed in the preceding paragraph:

In the last 24 hours, I received two, yes two, requests for specific blog posts.  To what is this world coming when Your Humble Narrator is receiving requests for topics to be covered in a blog which earnestly endeavors to cover nothing of particular importance at all?  But, in the interests of the Public Welfare--improving which is certainly necessary given the event recorded in the opening paragraph of this post--I shall henceforth make it a policy--a new policy since the event being covered by this policy is a new event in the history of Mankind--to cover topics which Readers, scarce though they may be, request be covered. 

The topic of the Day:  Sales Taxes in Massachusetts.

This November, there are three issues on the State Ballot. (Three issues seems remarkably small, by the way, compared to what is typically on the California ballot--California is obsessed with ballot initiatives.)  Two of the three ballot issues are measures to reduce the sales tax in MA.  Question 1 abolishes the recently enacted sales tax on alcohol; question 3 would lower the sales tax on all goods covered by the tax from 6.25% to 3%.  I was asked to offer my opinion on these two measures.

First, a little information on taxes. {Insert Loud cheers!} In the US, governments raise funds through three big taxes: income, sales and property taxes.  Given historical quirks, the Federal government relies primarily on income taxes, and Local governments use primarily property taxes.  The states use different mixes of taxes, but most use a combination of income and sales tax.  So, the first big question is: if the State of MA is going to raise funds to pay for the things paid for by the State, which type of tax should it use?  Economic theory does not have a universally accepted answer to that question--a serious argument can be made for income, sales or property taxes as the primary source of revenue for the State.  If we were starting from scratch, I would use the sales tax for state governments.  That isn't a strong preferences; I could be talked into other tax structures easily enough.  But, the sales tax is nice because a) with competition between states, it would force states to economize on the size of the government to keep the sales tax low--it is easier to buy things from another state than it is to earn your income in another state and b) since the federal government does not have a sales tax and local governments have a hard time using sales taxes to pay for local government services (not all localities have sufficient numbers of businesses to make a local sales tax feasible (this is why big cities are more likely to have a separate sales than than small rural towns)), the sales tax would be zero unless states levied one, so it is a nice natural way to raise funds.

As for levying the sales tax on alcohol, there is no particular reason in economic theory why alcohol should not be subject to a sales tax, but there are two interesting practical complications.  First, alcohol is subject to its own set of taxes already, independent of the sales tax, so sales of alcohol will be taxed no matter what happens with proposition 1.  Moreover, the reason food is exempted for the sales tax is because the sales tax is inherently regressive (poor people pay a higher percentage of their income in sales tax than rich people do--since poor people spend a higher percentage of their income on food than do rich people, food is exempted to reduce the regressivity of the tax).  I believe poor people also spend a higher perecatge of their income on alcohol than do rich people, so having a sales tax on alcohol is regressive.  All that being noted, you can get the same effect on alcohol prices by levying a higher specific tax on alcohol as you get by having a sales tax on alcohol.

So, on the straight question how should the state government should raise its funds, I tend to think that sales taxes are not a bad way to do it, and thus if I were picking taxes to lower in the state, I would not choose to lower the sales tax or the tax on alcohol.

However, as odd as it may seem, voters are not being asked to design the tax system from scratch.  So, the real question is: given the current structure of taxes in MA, is it desirable to lower the overall tax burden by lowering sales taxes or should we rather keep the total tax burden the same?  On these grounds, I like the idea of reducing the State's revenue stream; the MA government has not impressed me with its ability to use the funds it raises in a wise fashion, and thus at the margin, it would be better if they had a smaller sum of money with which to play.  (Note this is not the same thing as saying taxes should be reduced to zero--I happen to like the idea of State governments and State governments do need some money to do the sort of things we want State governments to do.)

In other words, I would much rather be voting on a reduction in the state income tax than a reduction in the state sales tax--I think that would be a better way to reduce the income of the state government.  But, given that I don't have that option, I will merrily vote yes on both propositions 1 and 3.  Given that this is MA, I also fully expect that I will be in the minority.  I don't often vote with the majority in this state.

By the way, while we citizens of the state are voting to reduce the taxes levied by the state government, my local town is putting an initiative on the ballot to raise property taxes by roughly 14%.  The Tea Party has come to Boston, but it seems to have bypassed the school building committee in Granby.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Shooting Horses

Last weekend, I read Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses Don't They?  It is one of the novels in the Library of America's Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.  I had heard of the movie (starring Hanoi Jane) and knew the movie was about a Dance Marathon, so I was a bit puzzled to find the story in this volume.  The movie was based on the book, and yes, indeed, it is about a dance marathon, but the book was much more interesting than it sounds.  The novel opens with our protagonist telling us that he did indeed shoot a girl in the head, but that she was happy that he did so.  Then the story begins in which there is no mystery about who killed whom, but rather, why in the world this seemingly pleasant guy would shoot this particular girl in the head.  The story is nicely done.  And that Dance Marathon--well, suffice it to say, it is a rather miserable experience--it's odd to think that such things happened in the 1930s.  We are not talking about just dancing for a night or two.  Imagine dancing with a 10 minute break every two hours for over a month.

But, as nice as the novel was, it certainly isn't High Literature and would only be enjoyed by people who like the Noir type of story.  So, why did I like it?  There is something about imagining the dark side of human nature which is terribly intriguing.  That is not the same thing as reading about disturbed individuals who commit horrible acts--that sort of thing doesn't really interest me all that much--some people are just seriously crazy.  But, thinking about why a normal well-adjusted person would do something which seems horrible and then imagining the thought process in which said horrible event looks perfectly normal and sensible is pretty intriguing.  This book does that--by the end, it really isn't hard to see how a nice, normal guy could shoot a girl in the head at point blank range and think he was doing a good and perfectly sensible thing.

In unrelated news, the Recession ended last year.  Incidentally, this is only news if your source of news is things like news programs and newspapers.  Now, maybe, just maybe, the conversation on the economy will change.  Oh, and in other news, the recent recession was not as bad as the Great Depression.  Shocking, to be sure. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

The semester seems to have ended its beginning of the school year rush--I haven't had anyone stop by my office for 2 hours!  (I think since last Tuesday my longest stretch of being visitorless was about 20 minutes.  This happens every Fall, but eventually, life returns to normal.)

And so, a series of seemingly unrelated (but, perhaps secretly related) observations:

1. Convocation last week was the usual bacchanalian revel.  That event should really be called a Pep Rally and then we faculty can stop going to witness our students exhibiting levels of modesty and sobriety somewhat less than those constituting Civilized Norms.

2. The highlight of Convocation--our new President led off her speech with a lengthy discussion of...baseball!  I am starting my 17th year here and this is the first sports reference I have heard in a college speech.  Lynn (said New President) really likes baseball--her devotion to the Red Sox seem comparable to my devotion to the Raiders.  She also indicated she would like to be Commissioner of Baseball (indeed, her internal college e-mail address is commish).  I ran into her the next night at a different event and figured it would be worth discovering if she was qualified to be commissioner of baseball, so I asked where she stood on the DH.  She is in favor if it.  I expressed my disapproval.  Let us hope that she exhibits better wisdom in the matter of running a college than on the matter of baseball.

3. Emma is off at another Beauty Contest for Horses (aka Dressage Show) this weekend.  Lily and Clara are both home sick today.  I am tempted to take Janet out to dinner tonight--I pity her being home all day with the two younger Offspring, but I suspect her maternal instincts will keep her from desiring to leave the house when said children are ill.

4. I am a bit behind in the book review department.  Toward the end of the summer, I read a few books from authors with whom you know exactly what you will get when you start a book:
Wodehouse, Bachelors Anonymous
Gaiman, Stardust
Christie, Endless Night
They are listed in declining order of Goodness.  The Wodehouse book is very late Wodehouse--his second to last novel if memory serves--he didn't lose a step at the end.  The Gaiman book was fun.  The Christie book was terribly problematic.  I read it over two nights--I think it needed to be read in one night.  The problem was a bit odd.  It's a 180 page book.  Nobody dies until page 130.  I stopped the first night before page 130, but well into the book.  Then my mind started roaming over the book.  Here we have an Agatha Christie book--over halfway through, nobody has died.  Obviously somebody will die at some point.  So, if somebody is going to die, who is it and who did it?  It wasn't hard to figure out when I thought about it.  I think if I had read the book right through without pausing to wonder about the strange nature of a murder mystery in which the murder doesn't happen until very late in the book, it would have been a much better mystery.  But, it is a little bit of a let down to read a murder mystery when you have solved the question of who will murder whom before said murder has even happened.

5. A new album review:  I got a copy of Robert Plant's latest, Band of Joy. (Amazon Deal of the Day, naturally--I can't remember the last time I bought an album for regular price.)  It's an album of covers.  The lead song, Angel Dance can be heard here.  That song is a cover of a Los Lobos tune.  (The title of this post is another song from the album--it's an old gospel song.)  The whole album is interesting--mellow--more like late Zeppelin than early Zeppelin.  Plant is one of the few old Rock Heroes who has aged gracefully--he seems to get that a 60+ year old pretending he is 24 is really quite silly (yeah, I'm looking at you Mick and Keith and Roger and Pete).  I think Janet will like this album too, but she hasn't heard it yet.  I have no idea if the young'ins will approve.

6.  Football Season started.  Life is good.

7. The Raiders lost in week 1.  Life isn't so good after all, I suppose.  See the title of this blog post.

8. I had three visitors between the time I started writing this and now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

More Help?

This would seem to be the Year of the Workshop to Help Faculty.  Today's help comes in the form of a workshop I can attend if I so desire with the wince-inducing title Staying Alive, which is not as the Unwary Reader might suspect, conducted by John Travolta.  No, instead we get a guy of whom nobody has ever heard whose biographical blurb tells us that he is, and I quote, "a literary coach and educational consultant, working with faculty on projects for university presses and with organizations interested in nature, culture, and the human journey."  This seminar promises to help me, the poor, deprived faculty member:

"This workshop focuses on living a healthy and creative life in academia, where much quiet desperation arises from confusion about what is really going on.  At every stage, three fundamental factors come into play: the person, the profession, and the institution.  We will explore how they operate across the arc of an academic career using Erik Ericksons model of adult development correlated with the traditional Indian stages of apprentice, warrior, householder, and elder."

Now this is a seminar not to be missed--we get to play Cowboys and Indians!  I wanna be the Warrior Professor--you have to be the Householder Professor [insert snickering].

Being an "educational consultant" is obviously an even bigger racket than being a professor.  American Professors have easily the most privileged job in the world--with tenure, we can't be fired no matter how lousy we do our job, most of my colleagues don't even bother to show up for work more than half-time (if you count the summers when on an average day there are only two members of my 10 member department actually in the office) (the school year is only a bit better, by the way (on Friday afternoon, for example there are the same two of us around)), and we have no actual boss to tell us what to do, so we can do whatever we want.  Ah, but we are of course quietly desperate from being confused about what is going on.  So, here we have theoretically relatively bright individuals (we all have Ph.D.s after all) who cannot figure out the easiest job on the planet to figure out.  So, we get an educational consultant to come in to tell us all about Indians and adult development, after which we can all feel better about ourselves.

Seriously, it is impossible to write a satire of the modern American Academy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Help is on the way?

The semester started last week.  Every year I forget how much time starting a new semester takes.  But, I did receive a very helpful e-mail.  It turns out that the Powers That Be at MHC have arranged a faculty seminar which I can attend to help me learn how to teach writing to my students.  That's nice of them to help me with that.  Here is the first paragraph explaining the seminar I can take:

"We aim to convene a cross-disciplinary, cross-division conversation
about effective ways to teach writing to diverse students at various
levels within the liberal arts curriculum. With an emphasis on praxis,
participants together will explore best practices through hands-on
workshops of their own teaching materials. Close readings of their own
assignments, lessons, feedback strategies, and pedagogical tactics will
be informed by a larger discussion of contemporary ideas in writing
pedagogy provided by facilitators and guest speakers."

Hmmm.  If some student turned in prose like that in a class of mine, I would mark it up and note, probably not very politely, that the whole paragraph is jargon masking a lack of substance.  In other words, students who write like that don't get good grades on papers I grade.  I can think of two explanations for this fact:

1) I am terrible at teaching writing because I cannot recognize good prose like that being sent out by the writers of this workshop;
2) The organizers of this workshop have no business teaching others how to teach writing but should themselves  learn something, anything, about how to write.

Determining which of those is the appropriate conclusion is left as an exercise for the Reader. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Movie Night at Folsom Prison

In the last week, I have watched a couple of movies from off the beaten track which were quite good--actually one was outstanding and the other was very good.  I am still of mixed mind about adding a record of the movies I have watched, but these two are certainly worth mentioning largely because neither one is as well known as would be proper in a World in which Good Movies were the only ones which were Well Known.

1. The Lives of Others
 If there was a word which meant "Movies which achieve the status of Great Literature," this movie would merit that accolade.  Incredible in every way.  It's the story of a member of the Secret Police in East Germany and a writer whom he is watching.  Every character in the movie is played perfectly, the story line is great--it has a Shakespearean air to it.  The movie is German, but has subtitles for the non-German speakers among us.  If you like Good Literature, you will like this movie.

2. Metropolitan
This was a very witty movie; not slapstick, but wit.  The tale of a bunch of the bored, young rich in Manhattan and thier lives of...well, they don't do much of anything.  And that is the point.  The whole movie is brief snippets--few scenes run long; yet it is cleverly done throughout--well, cleverly done until the last couple of minutes which are a bit painful--I think the director couldn't really figure out a way to end the movie, so he tacked on a standard Happy Ending to a movie which really should have had a pointless ending to make the whole thing cohere.  But that is a minor blemish on a movie which is otherwise well worth wathcing.

I suppose I can also throw in an album review.  The Amazon Download of the Day ($3.99) a week or so ago was Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison, a live album from the place suggested by the title of the album.  It's amazingly good.  (Though I am sorry to say that Lily now speaks of the album with the same tone of voice she speaks about Frank Sinatra ("Not this album again.).  Sigh.  At least Lily has grown to love my Flogging Molly album.  Actually, even Janet is now enjoying Flogging Molly.  Maybe there is some hope for my family yet.  (On the other hand, none of them like Led Zeppelin.  (But, then again, Lily is starting to like the Rolling Stones.)))  Anyway, there doesn't seem to be a YouTube clip from the At Folsom Prison album, but this one is close.

Friday, September 3, 2010

If you're happy and you know it...

What would happen if Plato wrote a book after he read Augustine?  You'd get Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy.  Written in the early 6th century AD, this book is an extended discussion between the author and the personification of Philosophy.  It's Great--as in a Great Book.

It covers a lot of ground, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to reflect upon the host of themes and ideas contained in this rather short volume.  But, one thing which really got me pondering:  the nature of happiness.

1. Aristotle noted that the end to which all our actions are directed is to increase our happiness.   
2. Evil seems to prosper in this world; people who engage in evil acts seem to attain the objects of their desire.  Good people do not always prosper.
3. 1 and 2 together seems to imply that evil people are happier, and thus to attain our ultimate end, it would be best to be evil.

Boethius' solution:
Evil ends do not make one happier.  Boethius makes a distinction between true happiness, which can only be attained through Good, and some sort of brutish sensation which people often mistake for happiness. 

This raises the interesting problem:  is it possible that I can feel happy, but not be happy?  Is there a difference between feeling happy and being happy?  If so, why is being happy more important or better than feeling happy?

Over the years in class discussions, I have raised the question:  why shouldn't we all simply go into some sort of permanent drug-induced state, being happy for the rest of our lives, instead of struggling through life sober and miserable?  (This is not an original question of course--both Homer (implicitly) and Augustine (explicitly) ask it.)  Students frequently say that the drug induced state is "fake happiness."  I always laugh and ask what is the difference between fake happiness and real happiness.  No student has ever had an answer.  I also don't have an answer.  My students' instincts are surely correct--surely there is some difference between the state of feeling happy and the state of being happy, but how can that difference be explained?

The problem reverses--if it is possible to Feel Happy but not Be Happy, then it could also be possible to Be Happy but not Feel Happy.  And if they are that different, which is better?  If given the choice between Feeling happy but not Being happy for the rest of your life or Being happy but not Feeling happy for the rest of your life, which is the better choice?

At this point, cue Bobby McFerrin.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Silly Old Bear

Frederick Crews, The Pooh Perplex, was a Christmas gift, and it is as worthy of note as anything else ever contained in these musing to relate that upon finishing this tome, I have completed reading all the books I was given last Yuletide.

The next thing worthy of note (with the caveat mentioned above) is that the title of the book was abbreviated in the last paragraph.  The Full Title is:
The Pooh Perplex: A Freshman Casebook.

But, that is not the title as it appears on the Cover.  On the cover we read:
The Pooh Perplex In Which It is Discovered that the True Meaning of the Pooh Stories is Not as Simple as is Usually Believed But for Proper Elucidation Requires the Combined Efforts of Several Academicians of Varying Critical Persuasions.

Pondering the differences between the assorted things which this book could be named is fully in the Spirit of the Book itself.

At a quick glance, the book appears to be the sort of book assigned in first-year English classes in which a dozen authors offer critical perspectives on a work.  Think about the Norton Critical Anthologies, for example.  (Or, if you prefer, you can think about the Ignatius Critical editions, instead.)  (Actually, you are probably now thinking about both of them.)  (Then again, you may not have heard of the Ignatius series; it's relatively new and aimed at more traditionally minded teachers, which is code for Roman Catholic Homeschooling parents.)  (But, non-Roman Catholic homeschooling parents will also enjoy the series, as will Roman Catholic non-homeschoolers and even some non-Roman Catholic, non-homeschoolers.)  (The set of asides is also fully in keeping with the spirit of this book.)

As mentioned, it looks like a Freshman Casebook.  There are the essays, brief biographies of the authors and "Questions and Study Topics" following each essay.

The book, however is a parody.  The whole thing was written by Crews.  It is quite funny if one likes to laugh at the silliness of that which passes for literary criticism.  As the immortal Homer Simpson once said, "It's funny cuz it's true."  Crews does a great job imitating not just the substance but also the style of the different types of critics.  The biographies of the authors are pitch-perfect, and the study questions at the end of each chapter are hysterical--they are exactly the sort of vacuous nonsense you see in poorly taught literature courses.

So, now I know all about the Marxist and Freudian and Religious undertones in Pooh; I learned how it isn't as good as anything DH Lawrence wrote. I learned that it was full of hidden meanings.  I learned about the exhaustively fascinating importance of the differences between the text and the pictures.  I learned that Milne's autobiography is really important to understanding the books.  I learned about the books which helped shaped Pooh.  I learned how the book fits into an Aristotelian framework.

One thing I didn't learn, though, was that it is very easy to take a children's book like Pooh and torture the text in all sorts of marvelous ways which does nothing to help anyone actually appreciate or enjoy the book.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Martini Time

The impetus for this post came from reading Lowell Edmunds' nice little book, Martini: Straight Up, an exploration of all things Martini-related, telling its history both as a beverage and and as social phenomenon.  It's full of fascinating anecdotes and literary passages demonstrating the place of this drink in American culture--and yes, the Martini is most definitely an American Drink.

But, as good as the book was, it is nothing compared to the Drink Itself.

The Martini is, without a doubt the finest alcoholic beverage.  (It is not, of course the finest beverage period--coffee holds that title.)  I have been seriously disturbed, and I mean seriously disturbed, over the years at the shocking ignorance regarding the proper making of this most perfect drink.  I recently dined with my wife at one of the finest restaurants in the area (the Blue Heron) and had a shockingly and perfectly horrid Martini.  This restaurant prides itself on its bar, and the bartender displayed a complete an utter ignorance of the Proper Means of making of this drink  (It was, I kid you not, warm.  I have never sent food or a drink back at a restaurant, but I came really close to doing so on this occasion.)  (So, I would recommend the restaurant to anyone (seriously, the food is outstanding), but whatever you do, do not order a Martini there.)

So, here, as a Public Service, is a Guide to Making a Perfect Martini.

First, Martinis are made with Gin, not Vodka.  The "Vodka Martini" is an Abomination and a Blight upon Civilization.  Vodka is a fine substance, perfect when you want alcohol with no flavor (which is the whole point of vodka), and thus much beloved by people who don't actually want to taste the alcohol in their fruit punch.  But a Martini is not fruit punch, and vodka has no business being associated with the drink.  This does mean that the term "Gin Martini" is redundant.  The phrase "Vodka Martini" is an oxymoron, but useful for benighted souls who do not know about what they speak.

Don't even get me started on the Candytini Craze.  Suffice it to say that pouring a bunch of colored sugar water into a Martini glass makes for neither a potable beverage nor a Martini.

A Martini is Gin and Dry Vermouth.  That's it.  Dry Vermouth is the clearish kind, not to be confused with Sweet Vermouth, which is red.

It is acceptable to have a Gin to Vermouth ratio of anywhere between 3:1 and 8:1.  The lower the amount of vermouth, the more "dry" the Martini is--so a dry Martini is 8:1.   3:1 is a bit outside the normal upper range for the amount of vermouth, but it has some historical merit, and makes for an acceptable drink.  I prefer something in between 4:1 and 5:1; getting a more finely tuned ratio requires a rather full set of measuring cups.  (And, yes, the amount of alcohol must be measured out--if you ever see anyone just eyeballing the proper amounts of liquid in making a Martini, just ask for a glass of water instead.)  As noted, 3:1 is pushing the limit, any ratio beyond that is a different drink.  8:1 is the lowest permissible amount of vermouth.  If anyone ever says they want their Martini "very dry" or "extra dry" or some such other phrase, tell them to just order straight Gin.  Truth be told, people uttering such a phrase probably have no idea what they mean, but they think such a statement makes them sound sophisticated.  [I once heard a gentleman in a restaurant loudly tell the waitress than he wanted a "Vodka martini, extra dry."  I almost laughed out loud.  Such a drink would, by definition, have as little flavor as possible.]

There are two acceptable methods for mixing the Martini--Shaking or Stirring.  Much ink has been spilt over which is the proper method, but the truth is that both are acceptable, they just make different versions of the Martini.  Stirring gently mixes the Gin and Vermouth, lulling the Gin to sleep in the drink--it is the proper method when one wants a soothing Martini, designed to calm the nerves and lull one into a lazy complacency in which the world looks like the Sunset over the Pacific Ocean.  Shaking, on the other hand, wakes up the Gin, making it lively--it is the proper method when one wants a Martini designed to shake off the cares of the day, preparing one for an evening with friends or family, giving a new start in which the world looks like a Sunrise over the Atlantic.  Most of the time, I prefer to Shake my Martini--I like the optimistic feel infused into the Drink.

To properly shake a Martini, one needs a proper Shaker.  I prefer the Standard Stainless Steel shaker--some prefer fancier Shakers, but I like the idea that the Shaker is Functional, and not a form of Art.  (Using an artistic Shaker is acceptable, however.)  Fill the Shaker 3/4 full of Ice.  Add the Gin, then the vermouth.  Shake vigorously until the shaker itself becomes too cold to hold.  (This is one of the virtues of the standard shaker--with some of the fancier variants, you will have to adjust the shaking time accordingly.)  When the shaker is too cold to handle, pour the liquid into a chilled Martini Glass.  The glass must be chilled.

To this, you can add either a lemon peel or an olive.  I have never understood the appeal of the lemon peel, so I use olives.  If olives are used, it must be an odd number of olives--it is acceptable to use either one olive or three olives.  An even number of olives--e.g., two olives--is an insult.  And, I cannot think of any excuse for ever using a Martini as a means of insulting someone.  The olives should rest in the drink until the very end--they may be eaten after the drink has been finished.  For this purpose, it is acceptable to experiment with different types of olives--just please don't used those canned black olives--that is simply repulsive.  Green olives are normal, but I have enjoyed excellent Martinis with other kinds of quality olives.

The choice of olive is one way that permissible individuality can be added to the drink.  The other, and far more important, decision to be made is the choice of Gin.  [I prefer Tanqueray; I suspect, however, that this Gin choice comes from the fact that my grandmother used to drink Gibsons (just like a Martini, but with a cocktail onion instead of an olive--though in later years, I don't know if she added vermouth--she may have just been drinking Gin with an onion--I was too young to know anything about alcoholic beverages, so I never really paid much attention) and this was her Gin of choice--so, usually at a subconscious level, the aroma of Tanqueray reminds me of her.]

An acceptable, and quite good variant on the Martini is a Dirty Martini--follow the above but add a small amount of the brine from the olives to the mixture.  FDR used to make his Martinis in this fashion.

Now, as you will note, it is not terribly difficult to make a proper Martini, which means that there is really no excuse for an improperly made Martini.  Yet, I am often shocked at most  restaurants because the bartender has no idea how to make such a simple, yet perfect, drink.  And I wince every time I see one of those little signs on a restaurant table with a list of "Martinis" served by the establishment, none of which is actually a "Martini."  The name of a perfect drink has been stolen and applied to liquids which no civilized person should ingest.  The decline of the Proper Martini is without a doubt the surest sign of the Decadence of Western Civilization and a sign of the coming Collapse of Civilization as we know it.