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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Recipes: Fourmilab Can't Fail Potato Salad

Ingredient Quantity
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 raclette 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!

Posted at 00:39 Permalink

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reading List: To Save America

Gingrich, Newt with Joe DeSantis et al.. To Save America. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59698-596-4.
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 issue.

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 worked 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 American Solutions and other organisations.

Posted at 21:19 Permalink

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reading List: The Manchurian President

Klein, Aaron with Brenda J. Elliott. The Manchurian President. New York: WND Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-935071-87-7.
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, he writes:

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 globe.

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 Barack Obama page on David Horowitz's 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 book, 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.

Posted at 22:42 Permalink

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Reading List: The Overton Window

Beck, Glenn. The Overton Window. New York: Threshold Editions, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-8430-1.
I have no idea who is actually responsible for what in the authorship of this novel. Glenn Beck 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 genre Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. 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.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
In chapter 30, Noah is said to have been kept unconscious for an entire weekend with a “fentanyl patch”. But fentanyl 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 W-80 and W-84 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 remaining functional.

The Mark 8 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 want two 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.

Spoilers end here.  

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.

Posted at 20:58 Permalink

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. ISBN 978-0-7432-7702-0.
The ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment 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 Thirteenth 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 via the Sixteenth 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 Demon Rum.

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 Volstead Act, 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, Andrew Mellon, 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 St. Pierre, a French possession off the coast of Canada, became a prosperous entrepôt for 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 Alphonse Capone, 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 Twenty-first Amendment, 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.

Posted at 00:58 Permalink

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Recipes: Fourmilab Can't Fail Meatloaf

Ingredient Quantity
Lean ground beef 700 g
Ground pork 350 g
Chopped onion 1 cup
Eggs 2
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.

Posted at 17:39 Permalink

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. ISBN 978-0-89381-953-8.
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 anschluss 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 camera obscura 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 Thucydides? Well, probably not—the simplest photographic process, the daguerreotype, 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.

Posted at 00:38 Permalink

Friday, June 4, 2010

Reading List: You Are Not a Gadget

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-26964-5.
In 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” technologies and “social networking”—hey, Hayek could've told you!

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 IPv6.) With application layer protocols, fundamentally changing them becomes almost impossible once a multitude of independently maintained applications rely upon them to intercommunicate.

Consider MIDI, 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 slum 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 virtual reality worlds, 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 low state.

Lanier's interests are eclectic, and a great many matters are discussed here including artificial intelligence, machine language translation, the financial crisis, zombies, neoteny in humans and human cultures, and cephalopod 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 (March 2010).

I believe this is the octopus video 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.

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