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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recipes: Jamaican Jerk Leftover Turkey with Pasta

As Thanksgiving approaches, it's time for this year's recipe. Having previous discussed cranberries and a quick and easy way to cook turkey, now let's move on to what is, for me, one of the best things about Thanksgiving: leftover turkey in the days that follow. Now, I like turkey sandwiches as much as anybody (try one sometime with the spiced cranberries mentioned above spread on the bread), but after a while you may find yourself yearning for some variety. Here's a spicy alternative which is simple to fix, quick, and sublimely tasty.

This recipe is adapted from the Jerk Chicken and Pasta recipe posted by Terry Coonan, but modified in a variety of ways to make it simpler, better tasting (in my opinion), lower in calories, and suited to cold leftover turkey instead of freshly grilled chicken breasts.

Ingredient Quantity
Leftover turkey meat 350 g
Tagliatelle or fettuccini pasta 250 g
Olive oil 2 Tbsp
Garlic purée 1 Tbsp
Onion 1/2 medium
Jerk paste 1 Tbsp
Ground coriander 1 Tbsp
Yoghurt 180 g
Lime juice 4 Tbsp (1 lime, juiced)
White wine 1/4 cup
Chicken bouillon cube 1 cube (10 g)
Corn starch or
instant sauce thickener
3 Tbsp
Sea salt 1 tsp
Black pepper, fresh ground 1 tsp
Water 1/2 cup

Slice the turkey meat into slabs about 1 cm thick, then cross-cut the slabs to yield cubes around 1 cm on a side. Set aside. Fill a medium-sized saucepan (taller is better) with two litres of water and 1/4 tsp of salt and place on high heat. We'll proceeed with the following while it's coming to a boil.

Place the olive oil in a small saucepan. Slice the half-onion into thin slices (2–3 mm thick), then stack the slices and cut into quarters and add to the olive oil along with the garlic purée. If you don't have the purée (“garlic in a tube”), dice or press two cloves of garlic and add them instead. Cover the pan and place on high heat. When the garlic and onion begin to sizzle, reduce heat to medium-high, stir to separate the onion into individual pieces and mix with the garlic, re-cover and allow to sauté for about two minutes; stopping immediately if the onion and garlic begin to turn brown.

Add the white wine and turn the heat back to high. If the cooking garlic has “spit” onto the lid of the pan, pour the wine on the lid and then into the pan to chase the garlic back where it belongs. Leave the lid off and bring to a boil. Add the bouillon cube, ground coriander, jerk paste (I prefer this—no relation), salt, pepper, 1/2 cup of water, and lime juice. Allow to come to a boil, stir well until you're sure the bouillon cube has dissolved and reduce heat to low.

If you have instant light sauce mix (I use this), add it to the liquid while stirring constantly to avoid lumpiness. Allow to cook for one to two minutes until the sauce becomes thick. If you're using straight corn starch, about the only way to avoid lumps is to mix it with water, adding water and stirring (don't forget to scrape the powder from the edges of the bowl) until you have a somewhat runny paste. Add this to the liquid, again stirring constantly.

Once the mixture thickens, add the yoghurt and stir well until the colour is uniform. Because the sauce is so thick, you may have to chase it out from the edge of the bottom of the pan to mix it completely. Turn the heat back up to medium and add the cubed turkey meat (you remember the turkey meat—this is a recipe about the turkey meat) and stir until the meat is well covered by the sauce. Cover the pan.

By now the saucepan of water should be boiling vigourously. Add the pasta and boil for the time specified on the package (usually around two minutes for fresh, six for dry). Particularly with fresh pasta, you may have to reduce the heat to keep it from boiling over. Stir well when you first add the pasta and occasionally thereafter. When the pasta is cooked, drain in a colander. While the pasta is cooking, check the sauce and stir from time to time; if it begins to boil (because of its thickness, this will be more like the “blop blop” of a mudpot than boiling water), reduce heat to a simmer and stir well.

Pour the cooked pasta in an oven-safe mixing bowl, pour the sauce and turkey cubes over it, and mix well (I find that tossing the mixture with two serving spoons like a salad does the job) and serve immediately. The ingredients above make two to three portions.

If you find it too hot, add additional yoghurt to cool it down this time, and use less jerk paste the next. You should be able to easily pick out the tang of the lime juice: if you can't, or you find it too dominant, adjust the quantity accordingly. If you have chicken or turkey stock left over, use it instead of the bouillon cube and water.

Bon appetit—vive les restes de dinde!

Posted at 00:47 Permalink

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reading List: Signature in the Cell

Meyer, Stephen C. Signature in the Cell. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-147278-7.
At last we have a book which squarely takes on the central puzzle of the supposedly blind, purposeless universe to which so many scientists presently ascribe the origin of life on Earth. There's hardly any point debating evolution: it can be demonstrated in the laboratory. (Some may argue that Spiegelman's monster is an example of devolution, but recall that evolutionists must obligately eschew teleology, so selection in the direction of simplicity and rapid replication is perfectly valid, and evidenced by any number of examples in bacteria.)

No, the puzzle—indeed, the enigma— is the origin of the first replicator. Once you have a self-replicating organism and a means of variation (of which many are known to exist), natural selection can kick in and, driven by the environment and eventually competition with other organisms, select for more complexity when it confers an adaptive advantage. But how did the first replicator come to be?

In the time of Darwin, the great puzzle of biology was the origin of the apparently designed structures in organisms and the diversity of life, not the origin of the first cell. For much of Darwin's life, spontaneous generation was a respectable scientific theory, and the cell was thought to be an amorphous globule of a substance dubbed “protoplasm”, which one could imagine as originating at random through chemical reactions among naturally occurring precursor molecules.

The molecular biology revolution in the latter half of the twentieth century put the focus squarely upon the origin of life. In particular, the discovery of the extraordinarily complex digital code of the genome in DNA, the supremely complex nanomachinery of gene expression (more than a hundred proteins are involved in the translation of DNA to proteins, even in the simplest of bacteria), and the seemingly intractable chicken and egg problem posed by the fact that DNA cannot replicate its information without the proteins of the transcription mechanism, while those proteins cannot be assembled without the precise sequence information provided in the DNA, definitively excluded all scenarios for the origin of life through random chemical reactions in a “warm pond”.

As early as the 1960s, those who approached the problem of the origin of life from the standpoint of information theory and combinatorics observed that something was terribly amiss. Even if you grant the most generous assumptions: that every elementary particle in the observable universe is a chemical laboratory randomly splicing amino acids into proteins every Planck time for the entire history of the universe, there is a vanishingly small probability that even a single functionally folded protein of 150 amino acids would have been created. Now of course, elementary particles aren't chemical laboratories, nor does peptide synthesis take place where most of the baryonic mass of the universe resides: in stars or interstellar and intergalactic clouds. If you look at the chemistry, it gets even worse—almost indescribably so: the precursor molecules of many of these macromolecular structures cannot form under the same prebiotic conditions—they must be catalysed by enzymes created only by preexisting living cells, and the reactions required to assemble them into the molecules of biology will only go when mediated by other enzymes, assembled in the cell by precisely specified information in the genome.

So, it comes down to this: Where did that information come from? The simplest known free living organisms (although you may quibble about this, given that it's a parasite) has a genome of 582,970 base pairs, or about one megabit (assuming two bits of information for each nucleotide, of which there are four possibilities). Now, if you go back to the universe of elementary particle Planck time chemical labs and work the numbers, you find that in the finite time our universe has existed, you could have produced about 500 bits of structured, functional information by random search. Yet here we have a minimal information string which is (if you understand combinatorics) so indescribably improbable to have originated by chance that adjectives fail.

What do I mean by “functional information”? Just information which has a meaning expressed in a separate domain than its raw components. For example, the information theoretic entropy of a typical mountainside is as great (and, in fact, probably greater) than that of Mount Rushmore, but the latter encodes functional (or specified) information from a separate domain: that of representations of U.S. presidents known from other sources. Similarly, a DNA sequence which encodes a protein which folds into a form which performs a specific enzymatic function is vanishingly improbable to have originated by chance, and this has been demonstrated by experiment. Without the enzymes in the cell, in fact, even if you had a primordial soup containing all of the ingredients of functional proteins, they would just cross-link into non-functional goo, as nothing would prevent their side chains from bonding to one another. Biochemists know this, which is why they're so sceptical of the glib theories of physicists and computer scientists who expound upon the origin of life.

Ever since Lyell, most scientists have accepted the principle of uniformitarianism, which holds that any phenomenon we observe in nature today must have been produced by causes we observe in action at the present time. Well, at the present time, we observe many instances of complex, structured, functional encoded data with information content in excess of 500 bits: books, music, sculpture, paintings, integrated circuits, machines, and even this book review. And to what cause would the doctrinaire uniformitarian attribute all of this complex, structured information? Well, obviously, the action of an intelligent agent: intelligent design.

Once you learn to recognise it, the signatures are relatively easy to distinguish. When you have a large amount of Shannon information, but no function (for example, the contour of a natural mountainside, or a random bit string generated by radioactive decay), then chance is the probable cause. When you have great regularity (the orbits of planets, or the behaviour of elementary particles), then natural law is likely to govern. As Jacques Monod observed, most processes in nature can be attributed to Chance and Necessity, but there remain those which do not, with which archæologists, anthropologists, and forensic scientists, among others, deal with every day.

Beyond the dichotomy of chance and necessity (or a linear combination of the two), there's the trichotomy which admits intelligent design as a cause. An Egyptologist who argued that plate tectonics was responsible for the Great Sphinx of Giza would be laughed out of the profession. And yet, when those who observe information content in the minimal self-replicating organism hundreds of orders of magnitude less likely than the Sphinx having been extruded from a volcanic vent infer evidence of intelligent design of that first replicator, they are derided and excluded from scientific discourse.

What is going on here? I would suggest there is a dogma being enforced with the same kind of rigour as the Darwinists impute to their fundamentalist opponents. In every single instance in the known universe, with the sole exception of the genome of the minimal self-replicating cell and the protein machinery which allows it to replicate, when we see 500 bits or more of functional complexity, we attribute it to the action of an intelligent agent. You aren't likely to see a CSI episode where one of the taxpayer-funded sleuths attributes the murder to a gun spontaneously assembling due to quantum fluctuations and shooting “the vic” through the heart. And yet such a Boltzmann gun is thousands of orders of magnitude more probable than a minimal genetic code and transcription apparatus assembling by chance in proximity to one another in order to reproduce.

Opponents of intelligent design hearts' go all pitty-pat because they consider it (gasp) religion. Nothing could be more absurd. Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) concluded that the origin of life on Earth was sufficiently improbable that the best hypothesis was that it had been seeded here deliberately by intelligent alien lifeforms. These creatures, whatever their own origins, would have engineered their life spores to best take root in promising environments, and hence we shouldn't be surprised to discover our ancestors to have been optimised for our own environment. One possibility (of which I am fond) is that our form of life is the present one in a “chain of life” which began much closer to the Big Bang. One can imagine life, originating at the quark-gluon plasma phase or in the radiation dominated universe, and seeing the end of their dominion approaching, planting the seeds of the next form of life among their embers. Dyson, Tipler, and others have envisioned the distant descendants of humanity passing on the baton of life to other lifeforms adapted to the universe of the far future. Apply the Copernican principle: what about our predecessors?

Or consider my own favourite hypothesis of origin, that we're living in a simulation. I like to think of our Creator as a 13 year old superbeing who designed our universe as a science fair project. I have written before about the clear signs accessible to experiment which might falsify this hypothesis but which, so far, are entirely consistent with it. In addition, I've written about how the multiverse model is less parsimonious than the design hypothesis.

In addition to the arguments in that paper, I would suggest that evidence we're living in a simulation is that we find, living within it, complex structured information which we cannot explain as having originated by the physical processes we discover within the simulation. In other words, we find there has been input of information by the intelligent designer of the simulation, either explicitly as genetic information, or implicitly in terms of fine-tuning of free parameters of the simulated universe so as to favour the evolution of complexity. If you were creating such a simulation (or designing a video game), wouldn't you fine tune such parameters and pre-specify such information in order to make it “interesting”?

Look at it this way. Imagine you were a sentient character in a video game. You would observe that the “game physics” of your universe was finely tuned both in the interest of computability but also to maximise the complexity of the interactions of the simulated objects. You would discover that your own complexity and that of the agents with which you interact could not be explained by the regularities of the simulation and the laws you'd deduced from them, and hence appeared to have been put in from the outside by an intelligent designer bent on winning the science fair by making the most interesting simulation. Being intensely rationalistic, you'd dismiss the anecdotal evidence for the occasional miracle as the pimple-faced Creator tweaked this or that detail to make things more interesting and thus justify an A in Miss O'Neill's Creative Cosmology class. And you'd be wrong.

Once we have discovered we're living in a simulation and inferred, from design arguments, that we're far from the top level, all of this will be obvious, but hey, if you're reading it here for the first time, welcome to the revelation of what's going on. Opponents of intelligent design claim it's “not science” or “not testable”. Poppycock—here's a science fiction story about how conclusive evidence for design might be discovered. Heck, you can go looking for it yourself!

This is an essential book for anybody interested in the origin of life on Earth. The author is a supporter of the hypothesis of intelligent design (as am I, although I doubt we would agree on any of the details). Regardless of what you think about the issue of origins, if you're interested in the question, you really need to know the biochemical details discussed here, and the combinatorial impossibility of chance assembly of even a single functionally folded protein in our universe in the time since the Big Bang.

I challenge you to read this and reject the hypothesis of intelligent design. If you reject it, then show how your alternative is more probable. I fully accept the hypothesis of intelligent design and have since I concluded more than a decade ago it's more probable than not that we're living in a simulation. We owe our existence to the Intelligent Designer who made us to be amusing. Let's hope she wins the Science Fair and doesn't turn it off!

Posted at 17:56 Permalink

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gizmos: Battery Discharger


It's been a while since I've built a gizmo; here's the latest. Ever since I got a 30 minute NiMH battery charger, I've noticed that certain batteries are rejected by it as “not chargeable”, but that if I drain them, they'll charge just fine and deliver the full capacity. I know that NiMHs are not supposed to behave this way—that was one of the bad habits of NiCds, but there you are. When I ran into this (which is frequently, because the AA cells I use in the GPS I carry on my walks need to be recharged about every four days), I'd run them down in a flashlight before recharging. But that took about six hours and worse, flashlight bulbs (or at least the one I was using) are designed for brightness, not long life, and after three or four discharge cycles the bulb would burn out. Replacing the bulb was almost as costly as throwaway batteries.

Hence, Fourmilab's Battery Discharger. What we have here are four AA and four AAA battery holders, two 2.7 Ohm 5 W resistors, and two 1.5 V bulbs (rated for in excess of 3000 hours life), all wired in parallel. You just put in the batteries and let it go until the lights go out and then you're ready to recharge (NiMHs have a voltage curve which is very flat until it falls off the cliff at the end). Since the batteries are in parallel, you can't get the dreaded “polarity reversal” which occurs with series connections such as a 3 V flashlight. Why two bulbs? It increases the current draw and, more importantly, lets you distinguish a burned out bulb from the discharge condition.

It's built on a prototype board which has linear traces running the long direction, so with the exception of two jumper wires, all of the parallel connections are made by the traces on the board.

I just used it on some troublemaker batteries and it took about half an hour to discharge them, after which they recharged just fine. The power resistors barely rise above room temperature when it's running; they needn't be anything like 5 W but that's what I had in the junk box.

There are stick-on elastomeric feet on the bottom.

Posted at 20:18 Permalink

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading List: Term Limits

Flynn, Vince. Term Limits. New York: Pocket Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-671-02318-8.
This was the author's first novel, which he initially self-published and marketed through bookshops in his native Minnesota after failing to place it with any of the major New York publishers. There have to be a lot of editors (What's the collective noun for a bunch of editors? A rejection slip of editors? A red pencil of editors?) who wrote the dozens of rejection letters he received, as Flynn's books now routinely make the New York Times bestseller list and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Unlike many writers who take a number of books, published or unpublished, to master their craft (Jerry Pournelle counsels aspiring writers to expect to throw away their first million words), Flynn showed himself to be a grandmaster at the art of the thriller in his very first outing. In fact, I found this book to be even more of a compulsive page-turner than the subsequent Mitch Rapp novels (but that's to be expected, since as the series progresses there's more character development and scene-setting)—the trade paperback edition is 612 pages long and I finished it in four days.

The story takes place in the same world as the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series, and introduces many of the characters of those books such as Thomas Stansfield, Irene Kennedy, Jack Warch, Scott Coleman, and Congressman Michael O'Rourke, but Rapp makes no appearance in it. The premise is simple: a group of retired Special Forces operatives who have spent their careers making foreign enemies of their country pay for their misdeeds concludes that the most pernicious enemies of the republic are the venal politicians spending the country into bankruptcy and ignoring the threats to its existence and decides to take, shall we say, direct action, much along the lines of Unintended Consequences (December 2003), but as a pure thriller without the political baggage of that novel.

Flynn's attention to detail is evident in this first novel, although there are a few lapses. This is to be expected, as his “brain trust” of fan/insiders had yet to discover his work and lend their expertise to vetting the gnarly details. For example, on p. 552, a KH-11 satellite is said to be “on station” and remains so for an extended period. KH-11s are in low Earth orbit, and cannot be on station anywhere. And they're operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, not the National Security Administration. Flynn seems to be very fond of the word “transponder”, and uses it in contexts where it's clear a receiver is intended. These and other minor goofs detract in no way from the story, which grips you and doesn't let go until the last page. Although this book is not at all a prerequisite to enjoying the Mitch Rapp series, in retrospect I wish I'd read it before Transfer of Power (April 2009) to better appreciate the history which formed the relationships among the secondary characters.

Posted at 23:35 Permalink

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reading List: Culture of Corruption

Malkin, Michelle. Culture of Corruption. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59698-109-6.
This excellent book is essential to understanding what is presently going on in the United States. The author digs into the backgrounds and interconnections of the Obamas, the Clintons, their associates, the members of the Obama administration, and the web of shady organisations which surround them such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and ACORN, and demonstrates, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the United States is now ruled by a New Class of political operatives entirely distinct from the productive class which supports them and the ordinary citizens they purport to serve. Let me expand a bit on that term of art. In 1957, Milovan Đilas, Yugoslavian Communist revolutionary turned dissident, published a book titled The New Class, in which he described how, far from the egalitarian ideals of Marx and Engels, modern Communism had become captive to an entrenched political and bureaucratic class which used the power of the state to exploit its citizens. The New Class moved in different social and economic circles than the citizenry, and was moving in the direction of a hereditary aristocracy, grooming their children to take over from them.

In this book, we see a portrait of America's New Class, as exemplified by the Obama administration. (Although the focus is on Obama's people and the constituencies of the Democratic party, a similar investigation of a McCain administration wouldn't probably look much different: the special interests would differ, but not the character of the players. It's the political class as a whole and the system in which they operate which is corrupt, which is how mighty empires fall.) Reading through the biographies of the players, what is striking is that very few of them have ever worked a single day in the productive sector of the economy. They went from law school to government agency or taxpayer funded organisation to political office or to well-paid positions in a political organisation. They are members of a distinct political class which is parasitic upon the society, and whose interests do not align with the well-being of its citizens, who are coerced to support them.

And this, it seems to me, completes the picture of the most probable future trajectory of the United States. To some people Obama is the Messiah, and to others he is an American Lenin, but I think both of those views miss the essential point. He is, I concluded while reading this book, an American Juan Perón, a charismatic figure (with a powerful and ambitious wife) who champions the cause of the “little people” while amassing power and wealth to reward the cronies who keep the game going, looting the country (Argentina was the 10th wealthiest nation per capita in 1913) for the benefit of the ruling class, and setting the stage for economic devastation, political instability, and hyperinflation. It's pretty much the same game as Chicago under mayors Daley père and fils, but played out on a national scale. Adam Smith wrote, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation”, but as demonstrated here, there is a great deal of ruination in the New Class Obama has installed in the Executive branch in Washington.

As the experience of Argentina during the Perón era and afterward demonstrates, it is possible to inflict structural damage on a society which cannot be reversed by an election, or even a coup or revolution. Once the productive class is pauperised or driven into exile and the citizenry made dependent upon the state, a new equilibrium is reached which, while stable, drastically reduces national prosperity and the standard of living of the populace. But, if the game is played correctly, as despots around the world have figured out over millennia, it can enrich the ruling class, the New Class, beyond their dreams of avarice (well, not really, because those folks are really good when it comes to dreaming of avarice), all the time they're deploring the “greed” of those who oppose them and champion the cause of the “downtrodden” ground beneath their own boots.

To quote a politician who figures prominently in this book, “let me be clear”: the present book is a straightforward investigation of individuals staffing the Obama administration and the organisations associated with them, documented in extensive end notes, many of which cite sources accessible online. All of the interpretation of this in terms of a New Class is entirely my own and should not be attributed to this book or its author.

Posted at 21:53 Permalink