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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Recipes: Fourmilab Can't Fail Potato Salad
|New boiling potatoes ||1 kg
|Red onion ||1 medium
|Hard boiled eggs ||4 medium
|Mayonnaise ||to taste
|Salt ||to taste
|Coarse ground pepper ||to taste
The potatoes should be of the “waxy”, “firm”, or “boiling” variety, not starchy baking potatoes. If you use small, “new” potatoes, you can leave the skin on. Potatoes sold for
are ideal, and usually come in a one kilogram bag, just what you need.
As a passionate believer in division of labour, I buy “pique-nique” eggs already hard boiled. These often run to the small side, and if they're seriously dinky, you might want to use five instead of four. If you prefer to boil your own eggs, here are foolproof instructions
After washing the potatoes, if necessary, place them in a pan and cover with cold water, then bring to a boil. After the water is boiling, reduce the heat until it's just barely boiling, cover the pan, and allow to cook for between 15 and 30 minutes depending upon the size of the potatoes. To check whether the potatoes are done, poke one of the larger ones with a fork; if there's no hard centre, it's done.
Pour the cooked potatoes into a colander and allow to drain, dry, and come to room temperature. Slice the potatoes into chunks about half a centimetre thick. If you're using large potatoes, cut the slices into bite-sized pieces. Place the sliced potatoes into a salad bowl. Peel the eggs and wash and dry, if necessary, to get rid of any lingering bits of shell. Slice the eggs with an egg slicer like this one
. I slice each egg, then rotate the slices 90° and slice again to make little cubical bits. If you prefer larger slices, just use the original slices. Add the eggs to the potatoes in the bowl. Peel and chop the onion and add to the bowl. I will often add between five and seven red radishes (depending on their size), finely chopped, for zest and crunchiness, but they are not canonical.
Mix everything well with a large spoon, cover, and refrigerate. I prefer to store potato salad this way (it will keep for several days in the frigo) and add mayonnaise, salt, and pepper to taste when it is served. That way each person can decide for themselves how much lubrication and seasoning they desire.
Seasoning at the table allows individual experimentation with zesty options. Things you might want to try include a little dollop of Dijon mustard, paprika, cayenne pepper (don't overdo it!), chopped fresh chives, and bacon salt
. All are yummy additions, but not all at the same time!
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Reading List: To Save America
- Gingrich, Newt with Joe DeSantis et al..
To Save America.
Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2010.
In the epilogue of Glenn Beck's
The Overton Window (June 2010),
he introduces the concept of a “topical storm”,
defined as “a state in which so many conflicting thoughts
are doing battle in your brain that you lose your ability to
discern and act on any of them.” He goes on to observe that:
This state was regularly induced by PR experts to cloud and
control issues in the public discourse, to keep thinking people
depressed and apathetic on election days, and to discourage
those who might be tempted to actually take a stand on a complex
It is easy to imagine
responsible citizens in the United States, faced with a
topical storm of radical leftist “transformation”
unleashed by the Obama administration and its Congressional
minions, combined with a deep recession, high unemployment,
impending financial collapse, and empowered adversaries around
the world, falling into a lethargic state where each day's
dismaying news simply deepens the depression and sense of
powerlessness and hopelessness. Whether deliberately intended or
not, this is precisely what the statists want, and
it leads to a citizenry reduced to a despairing passivity as
the chains of dependency are fastened about them.
This book is a superb antidote for those in topical depression,
and provides common-sense and straightforward policy recommendations
which can gain the support of the majorities needed to put them into
place. Gingrich begins by surveying the present dire situation
in the U.S. and what is at stake in the elections of 2010 and
2012, which he deems the most consequential elections in living
memory. Unless stopped by voters at these opportunities, what
he describes as a “secular-socialist machine” will
be able to put policies in place which will restructure society
in such as way as to create a dependent class of voters who will
reliably return their statist masters to power for the foreseeable
future, or at least until the entire enterprise collapses (which
may be sooner, rather than later, but should not be wished for
by champions of individual liberty as it will entail human suffering
comparable to a military conquest and may result in replacement of
soft tyranny by that of the jackbooted variety).
After describing the hole the U.S. have dug themselves into, the
balance of the book contains prescriptions for getting out.
The situation is sufficiently far gone, it is argued, that reforming
the present corrupt bureaucratic system will not suffice—a
regime pernicious in its very essence cannot be fixed by changes
around the margin. What is needed, then, is not reform but
replacement: repealing or sunsetting the bad policies
of the present and replacing them with ones which make sense.
In certain domains, this may require steps which seem breathtaking
to present day sensibilities, but when something reaches its breaking
point, drastic things will happen, for better or for worse. For
example, what to do about activist left-wing Federal judges with
lifetime tenure, who negate the people's will expressed through
their elected legislators and executive branch? Abolish their
courts! Hey, it
for Thomas Jefferson, why not now?
Newt Gingrich seeks a “radical transformation” of U.S.
society no less than does Barack Obama. Unlike Obama, however,
his prescriptions, unlike his objectives, are mostly relatively
subtle changes on the margin which will shift incentives in
such a way that the ultimate goal will become inevitable in the
fullness of time. One of the key formative events in Gingrich's
life was the
fall of the
French Fourth Republic in 1958, which he experienced
first hand while his career military stepfather was stationed
in France. This both acquainted him with the possibility
of unanticipated discontinuous change when the unsustainable
can no longer be sustained, and the risk of a society with a
long tradition of republican government and recent experience
with fascist tyranny welcoming with popular acclaim what
amounted to a military dictator as an alternative to chaos.
Far better to reset the dials so that the society will
start heading in the right direction, even if it takes a
generation or two to set things aright (after all, depending on
how you count, it's taken between three and five generations
to dig the present hole) than to roll the dice and hope for
the best after the inevitable (should present policies continue)
collapse. That, after all, didn't work out too well for
Russia, Germany, and China in the last century.
I have cited the authors in the manner above because a number
of the chapters on specific policy areas are co-authored
with specialists in those topics from Gingrich's own
and other organisations.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Reading List: The Manchurian President
- Klein, Aaron with Brenda J. Elliott.
The Manchurian President.
New York: WND Books, 2010.
The provocative title of this book is a reference to Richard
Condon's classic 1959 Cold War thriller,
The Manchurian Candidate,
in which a Korean War veteran, brainwashed by the Chinese
while a prisoner of war in North Korea, returns as a
sleeper agent, programmed to perform political assassinations
on behalf of his Red controllers. The climax comes as a
plot unfolds to elect a presidential candidate who will
conduct a “palace coup”, turning the country
over to the conspirators. The present book, on the other
hand, notwithstanding its title, makes no claim that its
subject, Barack Obama, has been brainwashed in any way,
nor that there is any kind of covert plot to enact an agenda
damaging to the United States, nor is any evidence presented
which might support such assertions. Consequently, I believe
the title is sensationalistic and in the end counterproductive.
But what about the book?
Well, I'd argue that there is no reason to occupy oneself
with conspiracy theories or murky evidence of possible
radical connections in Obama's past, when you need only
read the man's own words in his 1995 autobiography,
Dreams from My Father,
describing his time at Occidental College:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully.
The more politically active black students. The foreign students.
The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and the structural feminists and
punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather
jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Frantz
Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.
The sentence fragments.
Now, certainly, many people have expressed radical
thoughts in their college days, but most, writing
an autobiography fifteen years later, having graduated from
Harvard Law School and practiced law, might be inclined to
note that they'd “got better”; to my knowledge,
Obama makes no such assertion. Further, describing his
first job in the private sector, also in Dreams,
Eventually, a consulting house to multinational
corporations agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like
a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan
office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters
machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the
Now bear in mind that this is Obama on Obama, in a book
published the same year he decided to enter Illinois
politics, running for a state senate seat. Why would a
politician feigning moderation in order to gain power, thence
to push a radical agenda, explicitly brag of his radical
credentials and background?
Well, he doesn't because he's been an overt hard left radical with
a multitude of connections to leftist, socialist,
communist, and militant figures all of his life, from the
first Sunday school he attended in Hawaii to the circle
of advisers he brought into government following his election
as president. The evidence of this has been in plain sight
ever since Obama came onto the public scene, and he has never
made an effort to cover it up or deny it. The only reason it
is not widely known is that the legacy media did not choose
to pursue it.
This book documents Obama's radical leftist history and
connections, but it does so in such a clumsy and tedious
manner that you may find it difficult to slog through. The
hard left in the decades of Obama's rise to prominence is
very much like that of the 1930s through 1950s: a multitude
of groups with platitudinous names concealing their agenda,
staffed by a cast of characters whose names pop up again and
again as you tease out the details, and with sources of funding
which disappear into a cloud of smoke as you try to pin them
down. In fact, the “new new left” (or “contemporary
progressive movement”, as they'd doubtless prefer) looks
and works almost precisely like what we used to call “communist
front organisations” back in the day. The only difference is
that they aren't funded by the KGB, seek Soviet domination, or
report to masters in Moscow—at least as far as we know….
Obama's entire career has been embedded in such a tangled
web of radical causes, individuals, and groups that following
any one of them is like pulling up a weed whose roots extend
in all directions, tangling with other weeds, which in turn
are connected every which way. What we have is not a list of
associations, but rather a network, and a network is a
difficult thing to describe in the linear narrative
of a book. In the present case, the authors get all tangled
up in the mess, and the result is a book which is repetitive,
tedious, and on occasions so infuriating that it was mostly a
desire not to clean up the mess and pay the repair cost
which kept me from hurling it through a window. If they'd
mentioned just one more time that Bill Ayers
was a former Weatherman terrorist, I think I might have
lost that window.
Each chapter starts out with a theme, but as the web of connections
spreads, we get into material and individuals covered elsewhere,
and there is little discipline in simply cross-referencing
them or trusting the reader to recall their earlier mention.
And when there are cross-references, they are heavy handed.
For example at the start of chapter 12, they write: “Two
of the architects of that campaign, and veterans of Obama's
U.S. senatorial campaign—David Axelrod and
Valerie Jarrett—were discussed by the authors in detail
in Chapter 10 of this book.” Hello, is there an editor
in the house? Who other than “the authors” would
have discussed them, and where else than in “this book”?
And shouldn't an attentive reader be likely to recall two
prominent public figures discussed “in detail”
just two chapters before?
The publisher's description promises much, including “Obama's
mysterious college years unearthed”, but very little new
information is delivered, and most of the book is based on
secondary sources, including blog postings the credibility of
which the reader is left to judge. Now, I did not find much to
quibble about, but neither did I encounter much material I did
not already know, and I've not obsessively followed Obama. I
suppose that people who exclusively get their information from the
legacy media might be shocked by what they read here, but most of
it has been widely mentioned since Obama came onto the radar
screen in 2007. The enigmatic lacunæ in Obama's paper
trail (SAT and LSAT scores, college and law school transcripts,
etc.) are mentioned here, but remain mysterious.
If you're interested in this topic, I'd recommend giving this book
a miss and instead starting with the
Obama page on
Discover the Networks
site, following the links outward from there. Horowitz literally
knows the radical left from inside and out: the son of two members of the
Communist Party of the United States, he was a founder of the New Left
and editor of Ramparts magazine. Later, repelled by the
murderous thuggery of the Black Panthers, he began to re-think his
convictions and has since become a vocal opponent of the Left. His
Radical Son (March 2007),
is an excellent introduction to the Old and New Left, and
provides insight into the structure and operation of the leftists
behind and within the Obama administration.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Reading List: The Overton Window
- Beck, Glenn.
The Overton Window.
New York: Threshold Editions, 2010.
I have no idea who is actually responsible for what in the authorship
of this novel.
is listed as the principal author, but the
title page says “with contributions from Kevin Balfe, Emily
Bestler, and Jack Henderson”. I have cited the book as it
appears on the cover and in most mentions of it, as a work by Glenn
Beck. Certainly, regardless of who originated, edited, and assembled
the words into the present work, it would not have been published nor
have instantaneously vaulted to the top of the bestseller lists had it
not been associated with the high profile radio and television
commentator to whom it is attributed. Heck, he may have written the
whole thing himself and generously given credit to his editors and
fact checkers—it does, indeed, read like a first attempt by an
aspiring thriller author.
It isn't at all bad. Beck (et al., or whatever)
tend to be a bit preachy and the first half of the novel goes
pretty slow. It's only after you cross the 50 yard line that
you discover there's more to the story than you thought, that
things and characters are not what they seemed to be, and that
the choices facing the protagonist, Noah Gardner, are more complicated
than you might have thought.
The novel has been given effusive cover blurbs by masters of the
Still, I'd expect those page-turner craftsmen to have better
modulated the tension in a story than we find here. A perfectly crafted
thriller is like a roller coaster, with fear-inducing rises and
terrifying plunges, but this is more like a lecture on constitutional
government whilst riding on a Disneyland ride where most of the
characters are animatronic robots there to illustrate the author's
message. The characters just don't feel right. How plausible
is it that a life-long advocate of liberty and conspiracy theorist would
become bestest buddy with an undercover FBI agent who blackmailed
him into co-operating in a sting operation less than 24 hours before?
Or that a son who was tortured almost to death at the behest (and
in the presence of) his father could plausibly be accepted as a minion
in the father's nefarious undertaking? For the rest, we're going to
have to go behind the spoiler curtain.
Apart from plausibility of the characters and quibbles, both of
which I'm more than willing to excuse in a gripping thriller, the
real disappointment here is that the novel ends about two hundred
chapters before anything is actually resolved. This is a chronicle
of the opening skirmish in a cataclysmic, protracted conflict between
partisans of individual liberty and forces seeking to impose global
governance by an élite. When you put the book down, you'll
have met the players and understand their motives and resources,
but it isn't even like the first volume of a trilogy where,
regardless of how much remains to happen, there is usually at least the
conclusion of a subplot. Now, you're not left with a cliffhanger,
but neither is there any form of closure to the story. I suppose
one has no option but to wait for the inevitable sequel, but I
doubt I'll be reading it.
This is not an awful book; it's enjoyable on its own terms
and its citations of real-world events may be enlightening to
readers inattentive to the shrinking perimeter of liberty
in this increasingly tyrannical world (the afterword provides
resources for those inclined to explore further). But despite
their praise for it, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor it's not.
In chapter 30, Noah is said to have been kept unconscious
for an entire weekend with a “fentanyl patch”.
patches are used as an analgesic, not an anæsthetic.
Although the drug was once used as a general anæsthetic,
it was administered intravenously in this application, not via
a transdermal patch.
The nuclear bomb “model” (which turns out to be the
real thing) is supposed to have been purloined from a cruise
missile which went missing during transport, and is said to
weigh “eighty or one hundred pounds”. But the
cruise missile warheads weighed 290 and 388
pounds respectively. There is no way the weight of the physics package
of these weapons could be reduced to such an extent while
atomic bomb which comes on the scene in chapter
43 makes no sense at all. Where did it come from? Why was a
bomb, of which only 40 were ever produced and removed from
service in 1957, carefully maintained in secret and off the
books for more than fifty years? Any why would the terrorists
bombs, when the second would simply be
vaporised when they set off the first? Perhaps I've missed
something, but it's kind of like you're reading a spy thriller
and in the middle of a gunfight a unicorn wanders through the
middle and everybody stops shooting until it passes, whereupon
they continue the battle as if nothing happened.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Reading List: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
- Okrent, Daniel.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
New York: Scribner, 2010.
The ratification of the
to the U.S. Constitution
in 1919, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation
of intoxicating liquors” marked the transition of the U.S.
Federal government into a nanny state, which occupied itself with
the individual behaviour of its citizens. Now, certainly, attempts
to legislate morality and regulate individual behaviour were
commonplace in North America long before the United States came
into being, but these were enacted at the state, county, or municipality
level. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, it exclusively
constrained the actions of government, not of
individual citizens, and with the sole exception of the
Amendment, which abridged the “freedom” to hold
people in slavery and involuntary servitude, this remained
the case into the twentieth century. While bans on liquor were
adopted in various jurisdictions as early as 1840, it simply never
occurred to many champions of prohibition that a nationwide ban,
written into the federal constitution, was either appropriate or
feasible, especially since taxes on alcoholic beverages accounted
for as much as forty percent of federal tax revenue in the years
prior to the introduction of the income tax, and imposition of total
prohibition would zero out the second largest source of federal
income after the tariff.
As the Progressive movement gained power, with its ambitions of
continental scale government and imposition of uniform standards
by a strong, centralised regime, it found itself allied with
an improbable coalition including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union;
the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches; advocates of
women's suffrage; the Anti-Saloon League; Henry Ford; and the Ku Klux Klan.
Encouraged by the apparent success of “war socialism”
during World War I and empowered by enactment of the Income Tax
Amendment, providing another source of revenue to replace
that of excise taxes on liquor, these players were motivated in
the latter years of the 1910s to impose their agenda upon the entire
country in as permanent a way as possible: by a constitutional
amendment. Although the supermajorities required were daunting
(two thirds in the House and Senate to submit, three quarters of state
legislatures to ratify), if a prohibition amendment could be
pushed over the bar (if you'll excuse the term), opponents would
face what was considered an insuperable task to reverse it, as
it would only take 13 dry states to block repeal.
Further motivating the push not just for a constitutional
amendment, but enacting one as soon as possible, were the
rapid demographic changes underway in the U.S. Support for
prohibition was primarily rural, in southern and central states,
Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon. During the 1910s, population was
shifting from farms to urban areas, from the midland toward the coasts,
and the immigrant population of Germans, Italians, and Irish
who were famously fond of drink was burgeoning. This meant
that the electoral landscape following reapportionment after
the 1920 census would be far less receptive to the foes of
One must never underestimate the power of an idea whose time
has come, regardless of how stupid and counterproductive it
might be. And so it came to pass that the Eighteenth Amendment
was ratified by the 36th state: Utah, appropriately, on
January 16th, 1919, with nationwide Prohibition to come into
effect a year hence. From the outset, it was pretty
obvious to many astute observers what was about happen. An
Army artillery captain serving in France wrote to his fiancée
in Missouri, “It looks to me like the moonshine business
is going to be pretty good in the land of the Liberty Loans
and Green Trading Stamps, and some of us want to get in on the
ground floor. At least we want to get there in time to lay
in a supply for future consumption.” Captain Harry S.
Truman ended up pursuing a different (and probably less lucrative
career), but was certainly prescient about the growth industry
of the coming decade.
From the very start, Prohibition was a theatre of the absurd.
Since it was enforced by a federal statute, the
enforcement, especially in states which did not have their
own state Prohibition laws, was the responsibility of federal
agents within the Treasury Department, whose head,
was a staunch opponent of Prohibition. Enforcement was always
absurdly underfunded compared to the magnitude of the bootlegging
industry and their customers (the word “scofflaw” entered
the English language to describe them). Federal Prohibition officers
were paid little, but were nonetheless highly prized patronage
jobs, as their holders could often pocket ten times their salary
in bribes to look the other way.
Prohibition unleashed the American talent for ingenuity,
entrepreneurship, and the do-it-yourself spirit. While it was illegal
to manufacture liquor for sale or to sell it, possession and
consumption were perfectly legal, and families were allowed to make up
to 200 gallons (which should suffice even for the larger, more thirsty
households of the epoch) for their own use. This led to a thriving
industry in California shipping grapes eastward for householders to
mash into “grape juice” for their own use, being careful,
of course, not to allow it to ferment or to sell some of their 200
gallon allowance to the neighbours. Later on, the “Vino Sano
Grape Brick” was marketed nationally. Containing dried crushed
grapes, complete with the natural yeast on the skins, you just added
water, waited a while, and hoisted a glass to American innovation.
Brewers, not to be outdone, introduced “malt syrup”, which
with the addition of yeast and water, turned into beer in the home
brewer's basement. Grocers stocked everything the thirsty householder
needed to brew up case after case of Old Frothingslosh, and brewers
remarked upon how profitable it was to outsource fermentation and
bottling to the customers.
For those more talented in manipulating the law than fermenting
fluids, there were a number of opportunities as well.
Sacramental wine was exempted from Prohibition, and
wineries which catered to Catholic and Jewish congregations
distributing such wines prospered. Indeed, Prohibition enforcers
noted they'd never seen so many rabbis before, including some named
Patrick Houlihan and James Maguire. Physicians and dentists were
entitled to prescribe liquor for medicinal purposes, and the
lucrative fees for writing such prescriptions and for pharmacists
to fill them rapidly caused hard liquor to enter the
materia medica for numerous
maladies, far beyond the traditional prescription as
snakebite medicine. While many pre-Prohibition bars re-opened
as speakeasies, others prospered by replacing “Bar”
with ”Drug Store” and filling medicinal whiskey
prescriptions for the same clientele.
Apart from these dodges, the vast majority of Americans
slaked their thirst with bootleg booze, either domestic
(and sometimes lethal), or smuggled from Canada or across
the ocean. The obscure island of
a French possession
off the coast of Canada, became a prosperous
reshipment of Canadian liquor legally exported to
“France”, then re-embarked on ships headed
for “Rum Row”, just outside the territorial limit
of the U.S. East Coast. Rail traffic into Windsor, Ontario, just
across the Detroit River from the eponymous city, exploded, as
boxcar after boxcar unloaded cases of clinking glass bottles
onto boats bound for…well, who knows? Naturally, with
billions and billions of dollars of tax-free income to be had,
it didn't take long for criminals to stake their claims
to it. What was different, and deeply appalling to the moralistic
champions of Prohibition, is that a substantial portion of the
population who opposed Prohibition did not despise them, but
rather respected them as making their “money by supplying a
public demand”, in the words of one
whose public relations machine kept him in the public eye.
As the absurdity of the almost universal scorn and disobedience of
Prohibition grew (at least among the urban chattering classes, which
increasingly dominated journalism and politics at the time),
opinion turned toward ways to undo its increasingly evident pernicious
consequences. Many focussed upon amending the Volstead Act to
exempt beer and light wines from the definition of “intoxicating
liquors”—this would open a safety valve, and at least allow
recovery of the devastated legal winemaking and brewing industries. The
difficulty of actually repealing the Eighteenth Amendment deterred many
of the most ardent supporters of that goal. As late as September
1930, Senator Morris Sheppard, who drafted the Eighteenth Amendment,
said “There is a much chance of repealing the Eighteenth
Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars
with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”
But when people have had enough (I mean, of intrusive government,
not illicit elixir), it's amazing what they can motivate a hummingbird
to do! Less than two years later, the
repealing Prohibition, was passed by the Congress, and on December 5th,
1933, it was ratified by the 36th state (appropriately, but
astonishingly, Utah), thus putting an end to what had not only become
generally seen as a farce, but also a direct cause of sanguinary lawlessness
and scorn for the rule of law. The cause of repeal was greatly aided not only
by the thirst of the populace, but also by the thirst of their
government for revenue, which had collapsed due to plunging income tax
receipts as the Great Depression deepened, along with falling tariff income
as international trade contracted. Reinstating liquor excise taxes and
collecting corporate income tax from brewers, winemakers, and distillers
could help ameliorate the deficits from New Deal spending programs.
In many ways, the adoption and repeal of Prohibition represented
a phase transition in the relationship between the federal government
and its citizens. In its adoption, they voted, by the most difficult of
constitutional standards, to enable direct enforcement of individual
behaviour by the national government, complete with its own police
force independent of state and local control. But at least they
acknowledged that this breathtaking change could only be accomplished
by a direct revision of the fundamental law of the republic, and that
reversing it would require the same—a constitutional
amendment, duly proposed and ratified. In the years that followed,
the federal government used its power to tax (many partisans of
Repeal expected the Sixteenth Amendment to also be repealed but,
alas, this was not to be) to promote and deter all kinds
of behaviour through tax incentives and charges, and before long
the federal government was simply enacting legislation which
directly criminalised individual behaviour without a moment's
thought about its constitutionality, and those who challenged
it were soon considered nutcases.
As the United States increasingly comes to resemble a continental
scale theatre of the absurd, there may be a lesson to be learnt
from the final days of Prohibition. When something is unsustainable,
it won't be sustained. It's almost impossible to predict
when the breaking point will come—recall the hummingbird with
the Washington Monument in tow—but when things snap, it doesn't
take long for the unimaginable new to supplant the supposedly
secure status quo. Think about this when you contemplate issues
such as immigration, the Euro, welfare state spending, bailouts
of failed financial institutions and governments, and the multitude
of big and little prohibitions and intrusions into personal
liberty of the pervasive nanny state—and root for the hummingbird.
In the Kindle edition, all of the photographic
illustrations are collected at the very end of the book, after the
index—don't overlook them.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Recipes: Fourmilab Can't Fail Meatloaf
|Lean ground beef ||700 g
|Ground pork ||350 g
|Chopped onion ||1 cup
|Bread crumbs ||1/2 cup
|Worcestershire sauce ||2 Tbsp
|Oregano (dried) ||2 tsp
|Salt || 1 1/2 tsp
Preheat the oven to 175°C in circulating air mode if available. Place the cracked eggs, oregano, salt, and Worcestershire sauce in a bowl and blend until well mixed. Put the ground beef, pork, chopped onion, bread crumbs, and mixed egg and spices glop into a large bowl and mix well—it should be a uniform goop when you're done. If you don't have stale bread for bread crumbs, crushed non-flavoured crackers work just as well.
Then mold into an aluminium baking pan and place in the preheated oven. If the pan is over-full, it may bubble over, so if you're worried, place a baking tin beneath the pan. Let it bake for 90 minutes; if you prefer going by core temperature, look for 72°C in the middle of the meatloaf.
Take it out and let it cool. If you indulge immediately, slices are prone to disintegrate as you remove them from the pan and presentation on the plate will be unaesthetic. If you let it cool a bit, you'll usually avoid this problem.
Fourmilab does not endorse glazing the top of meatloaf with catsup. This just carbonises that tasty condiment, which is best applied to the sliced delectation on the plate. Or, better still, mix the catsup with a bit of sriracha sauce
to give it a little more kick.
This recipe makes about four servings. It's great as leftovers either cold or reheated, either straight-up or in a sandwich.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Reading List: The History of Photography As Seen Through the Spira Collection
- Spira, S. F., Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr., and Jonathan B. Spira.
The History of Photography As Seen Through the Spira Collection.
Danville, NJ: Aperture, 2001.
If you perused the back pages of photographic magazines in the 1960s
and 1970s, you'll almost certainly recall the pages of advertising
from Spiratone, which offered a panoply of accessories and gadgets,
many tremendously clever and useful, and some distinctly eccentric
and bizarre, for popular cameras of the epoch. The creation of
Fred Spira, a
refugee from Nazi
Austria who arrived in New York almost
penniless, his ingenuity, work ethic, and sense for the needs of
the burgeoning market of amateur photographers built what started
as a one-man shop into a flourishing enterprise, creating standards
such as the “T mount” lenses which persist to the
present day. His company was a pioneer in importing high quality
photographic gear from Japan and instrumental in changing the reputation
of Japan from a purveyor of junk to a top end manufacturer.
Like so many businessmen who succeed to such an extent they redefine
the industries in which they participate, Spira was passionate about
the endeavour pursued by his customers: in his case photography. As
his fortune grew, he began to amass a collection of memorabilia from
the early days of photography, and this Spira Collection finally grew
to more than 20,000 items, covering the entire history of photography
from its precursors to the present day.
This magnificent coffee table book draws upon items from the Spira
collection to trace the history of photography from the
in the 16th century to the dawn of digital photography in the 21st.
While the pictures of items from the collection dominate the pages, there
is abundant well-researched text sketching the development of photography,
including the many blind alleys along the way to a consensus of how images
should be made. You can see the fascinating process by which a design,
which initially varies all over the map as individual inventors try
different approaches, converges upon a standard based on customer consensus
and market forces. There is probably a lesson for biological evolution
somewhere in this. With inventions which appear, in retrospect, as simple
as photography, it's intriguing to wonder how much earlier they might
have been discovered: could a Greek artificer have stumbled on the trick
and left us, in some undiscovered cache, an image of Pericles making
the declamation recorded by
Well, probably not—the
simplest photographic process, the
requires a plate of copper, silver, and mercury sensitised with
iodine. While the metals were all known in antiquity (along with glass
production sufficient to make a crude lens or, failing that, a pinhole),
elemental iodine was not isolated until 1811, just 28 years before Daguerre
applied it to photography. But still, you never know….
This book is out of print, but used copies are generally available
for less than the cover price at its publication in 2001.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Reading List: You Are Not a Gadget
- Lanier, Jaron.
You Are Not a Gadget.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
The Fatal Conceit (March 2005)
Friedrich A. Hayek observed that almost any noun in the English
language is devalued by preceding it with “social”.
In this book, virtual reality pioneer, musician, and visionary
Jaron Lanier argues that the digital revolution, which began
in the 1970s with the advent of the personal computer and
became a new foundation for human communication and interaction
with widespread access to the Internet and the Web in the 1990s,
took a disastrous wrong turn in the early years of the 21st
century with the advent of the so-called “Web 2.0”
“social networking”—hey, Hayek could've told
Like many technologists, the author was optimistic that
with the efflorescence of the ubiquitous Internet in the
1990s combined with readily-affordable computer power which
permitted photorealistic graphics and high fidelity sound
synthesis, a new burst of bottom-up creativity would be
unleashed; creative individuals would be empowered to
realise not just new art, but new forms of art,
along with new ways to collaborate and distribute their
work to a global audience. This
Army of Davids (March 2006)
world, however, seems to have been derailed or at least
delayed, and instead we've come to inhabit an Internet and
network culture which is darker and less innovative. Lanier
argues that the phenomenon of technological “lock in”
makes this particularly ominous, since regrettable design
decisions whose drawbacks were not even perceived when they
were made, tend to become entrenched and almost impossible
to remedy once they are widely adopted. (For example, just
look at the difficulties in migrating
the Internet to
application layer protocols, fundamentally changing them becomes
almost impossible once a multitude of independently maintained
applications rely upon them to intercommunicate.
which the author uses as an example of lock-in. Originally designed
to allow music synthesisers and keyboards to interoperate, it embodies
a keyboardist's view of the concept of a note, which is quite different
from that, say, of a violinist or trombone player. Even with
facilities such as pitch bend, there are musical articulations
played on physical instruments which cannot be represented in MIDI
sequences. But since MIDI has become locked in as the
lingua franca of electronic
music production, in effect the musical vocabulary has been
limited to those concepts which can be represented in MIDI,
resulting in a digital world which is impoverished in potential
compared to the analogue instruments it aimed to replace.
With the advent of “social networking”, we appear
to be locking in a representation of human beings as database
entries with fields chosen from a limited menu of choices,
and hence, as with MIDI, flattening down the unbounded diversity
and potential of human individuals to categories which, not
coincidentally, resemble the demographic bins used by marketers
to target groups of customers. Further, the Internet, through
its embrace of anonymity and throwaway identities and
consequent devaluing of reputation, encourages mob behaviour
and “drive by”
attacks on individuals which make many venues open to
the public more like a
than an affinity group of like-minded people. Lanier argues that
many of the pathologies we observe in behaviour on the Internet
are neither inherent nor inevitable, but rather the consequences
of bad user interface design. But with applications built on
social networking platforms proliferating as rapidly as me-too
venture capital hoses money in their direction, we may be stuck
with these regrettable decisions and their pernicious
consequences for a long time to come.
Next, the focus turns to the cult of free and open source
software, “cloud computing”, “crowd
sourcing”, and the assumption that a “hive
mind” assembled from a multitude of individuals
collaborating by means of the Internet can create novel
and valuable work and even assume some of the attributes of
personhood. Now, this may seem absurd, but there are many
people in the Silicon Valley culture to whom these are
articles of faith, and since these people are engaged
in designing the tools many of us will end up using, it's
worth looking at the assumptions which inform their designs.
Compared to what seemed the unbounded potential of the
personal computer and Internet revolutions in their
early days, what the open model of development has achieved
to date seems depressingly modest: re-implementations
of an operating system, text editor, and programming
language all rooted in the 1970s, and creation of a new
encyclopedia which is structured in the same manner as
paper encyclopedias dating from a century ago—oh wow.
Where are the immersive massively multi-user
or the innovative
presentation of science
and mathematics in an interactive exploratory learning
environment, or new ways to build computer tools without
writing code, or any one of the hundreds of breakthroughs
we assumed would come along when individual creativity
was unleashed by their hardware prerequisites becoming
available to a mass market at an affordable price?
Not only have the achievements of the free and open movement
been, shall we say, modest, the other side of the “information
wants to be free” creed has devastated traditional content
providers such as the music publishing, newspaper, and
magazine businesses. Now among many people there's no love lost
for the legacy players in these sectors, and a sentiment
of “good riddance” is common, if not outright
gloating over their demise. But what hasn't happened, at least
so far, is the expected replacement of these physical delivery
channels with electronic equivalents which generate sufficient
revenue to allow artists, journalists, and other primary
content creators to make a living as they did before. Now,
certainly, these occupations are a meritocracy where only a
few manage to support themselves, no less become wealthy, while
far more never make it. But with the mass Internet now approaching
its twentieth birthday, wouldn't you expect at least
a few people to have figured out how to make it work for
them and prospered as creators in this new environment? If so,
where are they?
For that matter, what new musical styles, forms of
artistic expression, or literary genres have emerged in the age of
the Internet? Has the lack of a viable business model for
such creations led to a situation the author describes as,
“It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally
open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers
picking over a garbage dump.” One need only visit
YouTube to see what he's talking about. Don't read the
comments there—that path leads to despair, which is a
Lanier's interests are eclectic, and a great many matters are
discussed here including artificial intelligence, machine
language translation, the financial crisis,
in humans and human cultures, and
envy. Much of
this is fascinating, and some is irritating, such as the
discussion of the recent financial meltdown where it becomes
clear the author simply doesn't know what he's talking about
and misdiagnoses the causes of the catastrophe, which are
explained so clearly in Thomas Sowell's
The Housing Boom and Bust
I believe this is the
cited in chapter 14. The author was dubious, upon viewing this, that
it wasn't a computer graphics trick. I have not, as he has, dived
the briny deep to meet cephalopods on their own turf, and I remain
sceptical that the video represents what it purports to. This is one
of the problems of the digital media age: when anything you can
imagine can be persuasively computer synthesised, how can you trust
any reportage of a remarkable phenomenon to be genuine if you haven't
observed it for yourself?
Occasional aggravations aside, this is a thoughtful exploration
of the state of the technologies which are redefining how
people work, play, create, and communicate. Readers
frustrated by the limitations and lack of imagination
which characterises present-day software and network
resources will discover, in reading this book, that
tremendously empowering phrase, “it doesn't have
to be that way”, and perhaps demand better of those
bringing products to the market or perhaps embark upon building
better tools themselves.