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Distillations: Green Fairy Tales at Absinthe 

Wednesday, Jul 23 2014

I haven't seen Eric for months — maybe half a year. He looks just the same, making me wonder if I've changed at all. He's found the last free table at Absinthe, in Hayes Valley.

Absinthe harkens back to a time that inspired steampunk, not cyberpunk, and it looks the part. Its walls, floors, even ceilings are lovely, full of murals of the belle epoch, the beautiful era of civilization and culture that came crashing down during World War I. This year, the 100th anniversary of the Great War's inauguration, we ask ourselves: How could they not see it coming? As if we aren't equally blind. As if our contemporary geniuses are any less susceptible to missing what is right in front of them.

The drink menu is a heavily bound tome, well worn, entirely looking the part ... but despite its healthy range of absinthes and pastises, it only lists three absinthe cocktails. Most of the rest is taken up by a wine list.

"Is it fair for me to be a little disappointed by the fact that Absinthe only has one page of its menu devoted to absinthe?" I ask. Eric says yes, but only a little. We both order the Sacred Heart (pomegranate-infused tequila, absinthe, limoncello), and agree it is excellent. Although ... hmmm ... there's very little absinthe in this absinthe cocktail.

Eric works in tech, I work in the humanities (sort of), and we spend much of our time bemoaning the kind of ignorance that could easily be cured if people paid more attention in class.

He tells me a story about a company he knows that was approached by one of its clients that wanted its data to stream faster. After examining the request, it became apparent that the client in fact wanted its data to transmit at rates faster than the speed of light. When this was pointed out to the client's people, they didn't understand why it was a problem. "Aren't we using fiber-optics?"

They couldn't be convinced; finally they were told the project couldn't be executed due to a lack of manpower.

"The speed of light as a limit isn't even really science anymore," Eric says.

"No," I agree. "It's become a cultural cliché. It's physics for poets."

Over a Spine Stiffener (absinthe, soda water, vermouth), we discussed the way some companies claim to prize innovation above all else — they swear they live or die by it. But they also use analytics to determine who is currently successful at their company, and then set policies to only hire people like that.

The problem is blindingly obvious to anyone with common sense, let alone anyone who's studied the social sciences. Yet extraordinary amounts of time and money are spent keeping people with different perspectives out of organizations dedicated to innovation.

This is how no one saw World War I coming. The idea that the brilliant are any less inclined to confirm their own prejudices is one of the great lies of our time. Indeed, a study out of Yale last year found that people with advanced mathematical knowledge were more likely to misuse mathematics to defend their own strongly held political positions.

The Greek and Roman poets knew all this. But we don't read them anymore. We believe we can learn from history without actually studying it.

Everything at Absinthe is excellent; the food is as delicious as the drinks, which are as noteworthy as the décor. Yet ... something about it always felt rushed to me, a little off. This can't have been literally true: We sat there four hours, and no one ever looked over our shoulders or suggested they had a better use for the table. Yet for all the ways in which it is a successful bistro and brasserie, it seemed to me to be something else entirely; a bar called Absinthe with only one page devoted to absinthe is maybe the right metaphor.

Perhaps Absinthe, the cocktail establishment, has become as much of an institution as it is a bar, much in the way that absinthe, the spirit, has become as much of a symbol as it is a drink. That kind of success always changes the soul of a place — or a person. I'd come back if I was bringing someone to impress, but I can't see myself sitting there on my own, hoping to get a new perspective on the world.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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