RSS feed for entries


Only fools and Democrats

So here we are. The Democrats have a once-in-a-hundred years candidate, a genius at issues and policies and details, good at running things, proven ability to negotiate with anybody and often get the outcome she wants, a decades-long history of public service in the face of nearly no thanks.

The Republicans have handed them a gift of testerical, fatuous, fanatical candidates who even Karl Rove couldn’t spin into something electable.

Hillary Clinton in 2008
(photog. unknown)

The Democrats can’t believe their luck, loudly and gleefully gloat about their candidate, and coast to victory waving red white and blue bunting.


They start tearing Clinton down. She outclasses any candidate they’ve had since just about FDR, but she takes money! From big business! Oh my God. Whoever heard of such a thing?

Has it affected her votes or her policies particularly? Is there any evidence she’s behaving like some bought and paid for politician? No. There isn’t. On the contrary. She’s been consistently on the side of the small folk through her whole career. If you look you can find a list even longer than this: CHIP health insurance for children, national immunization programs, cancer screening and making it covered under Medicare, investigation of Gulf War syndrome, pushed for attention to violence against women at the Department of Justice, worked to make adoption a less hit or miss thing, worked to help teenagers in foster care transition out of it. She hasn’t been as selfless as Bishop Tutu or Mother Teresa, but well up in the top ten percent of US polititicans. Above 90% is usually a grade of “A.” Is an A good enough for the Dems? Absolutely not. She’s not Bishop Tutu so she’s a corporate shill.

They ignore and tear down her international accomplishments. She helped end the Irish troubles. (But she didn’t do it singlehandedly! She shouldn’t get any credit for her work.) She laid the groundwork for the end of sanctions against Iran. (At the time, it was said she’d share in the blame if it all went wrong. Now the shout is she didn’t do it totally alone! She deserves no credit!). She worked hard to make visible and to halt current slavery. (But those are mostly women. Or even stupid girls! Didn’t she have any real problems to worry about?) She argued for intervention in Libya to prevent a longer war that would have cost more lives. That worked, but without resources for nation-building, they descended into a long war anyway. Obviously that’s her fault. She should be all-powerful and provide world peace. She’s failed. She’s a warmonger.

The amount of vile lies and slander slung at her is unthinkable. For me, at least. Every time I start reading about examples of it (toward the end), my whole mind shrinks away and I find something else to look at. It’s so revolting I can’t even hear about it. She lives it. She’s lived it for decades. And in the face of that she keeps carrying on, caring about people, and participating in public service work. Pretty amazing, right? No, of course not. She’s subjecting herself to it because it’s a plot to … to what? Own the world? It hasn’t gone anywhere near that goal in 25 years, but this supernaturally intelligent conniving witch keeps at it, cracking her knuckles perhaps, because it’ll pay off any minute now.

Or, maybe, she actually gets some satisfaction from helping people. She has actually done that. Maybe she notices even when the screaming meemies can’t.

Now we’ve reached the point where the Democrats and the leftists and the Very Progressive Men have poisoned the thought of her so much that even if her party is forced to nominate her as their candidate, more than half her voters will be feeling put upon at having to elect such a warmongering shill.

We’re reduced to depending on the most fatuous, the most testerical of the self-serving goons on the other side to ragequit when things don’t go his way. We have to hope he splits the I’m-even-dumber-than-the-Democrats vote by running in his own I Blow My Own Trump(et) Party.

Because unlike the election that swept in FDR to rescue us from the equivalent decades of greed, there’s a big difference in the current situation. Hillary Clinton is a woman.

What if everything is not bleak?

This post was triggered by a title I saw on Ars Technica. The 100 is the bleak sci-fi dystopia you should be watching.

You’ve probably noticed. All the entertainment worth reviewing is “bleak,” “edgy,” “gritty,” or some such nobody’s-foolin-me-I-know-the-score adjective. At least it is here in the USA. It’s a flag for not being some wishful thinking pansy who can’t face facts.

But, let’s face it, facts are a many-splendored thing. It’s impossible to face all of them, and the ones someone chooses to focus on reflect the person as well as the importance of the facts themselves.

So what does the insistence on bleakness by some of the world’s most comfortable people mean?

Approaching Port Charles, NZ

I’m thinking it’s the easy answer. If stories told us that people could treat each other right and because of that triumph in the end, well, we’d step away from the screen feeling like we sort of had to try to do that, maybe a bit.

But if stories say that our current lives are as good as it gets, and imagined realities are all worse, then, what the hell, no need to try to be generous or kind and run the risk of disappointment. You can just go ahead and be gritty yourself. It’s not selfish. It’s “realistic.”

I’m also thinking we ought to be way more careful of the stories we tell ourselves. They’re what the road to wherever is paved with.


One hospital for a huge area.

Bombed by the USA for half an hour despite clear information that they were hitting a hospital.

Ten patients killed, including three children. Twelve Doctors Without Borders staff members killed. Thirty seven injured. Much of hospital turned to burned rubble.

Obama: “Too bad. So sad.”

[Update two days later.] General John Campbell, commanding the “NATO” forces: “The Afghans made us do it.”

The migrant crisis and standing in line

[Updated post-Koln, January 10th, 2016, below.]

I get a kick out of seeing editorials in the United States (the NYTimes had one recently) lecturing the Europeans on being more humane and welcoming to migrants.

Irony is dead.

However, that’s a side issue. What I wanted to write about is the problem created by unbalanced idealism.

When it comes to the immediate crisis, the humane side insists help is the only possible response, which is right, and ignores the downstream consequences, which is wrong. It’s also stupid, and it provides no counterweight to the seal-the-borders xenophobes.

Just as a matter of numbers, imagine all of subsaharan Africa (about 800,000,000) and the Middle East (approx. 350,000,000) coming to Europe. And that means Germany, Scandinavia, UK, Benelux, and France, (around 250,000,000). Most migrants are not hoping to stop in, say, Slovakia. With that level of migration, those countries in Europe would indeed be swamped.

That is the future the anti-migrant people fear. You’re not going to change their minds by one neuron if your only response is to say, “How dare you be such an inhuman monster!” Inhumanity is not what they’re worried about.

It would be far more productive to say that nowhere near everyone is fleeing. And don’t try to argue that not everybody wants to, even though it’s true. The fearful people can’t believe that. Point out that even if everyone did want to, they couldn’t because they don’t have the money. Of the few millions who can or will, Europe is getting the cream of the crop: the most enterprising, the well-off, the better-educated. Europe, it could be pointed out, could use more workers than it has to support the aging pensioners. This could all be a win-win.

I realize none of those arguments would matter to racists. I realize that some of the loudest anti-migrants are racists. I’m not talking to them or for them. They’re not worth engaging on any level. The people who could be convinced of a better response than “Screw ’em!” are the non-racists, or are only minor part-time racists. They’re just afraid for what they hold dear, and they’re a majority of the anti-migrants. Those are the people who could be convinced of better solutions than what the racists want, but only if their fears are addressed. Telling them to shut up and help won’t do that.

There’s also an obvious disconnect when talking about mitigating the refugee crisis rather than sealing the borders. The extreme anti-migrants are consistent. They’re saying “shut them out, too bad if they suffer,” and that’s the same wherever the migrants are. If they’re suffering at home or traveling or at the border, the answer is the same.

But if you’re on the side of helping the migrants, then where do you stop? Helping those at the border does nothing against the devastation of the hundreds of millions who can’t flee. If letting migrants die at the border is bad, why is it suddenly okay if they suffer at home?

I don’t see how the answer could be anything rooted in principle. The only real difference is whether people suffer a continent away or right on Europe’s doorstep. The “migrant crisis” consists of those in and near Europe. But actual consistency in humanitarian help means understanding that nothing less than global peace, prosperity, and good government is the real solution. Toxic levels of inequality in safety and well-being are driving this thing. All I can think when I try to envision a true solution is “Good luck with that.”

As far away as that real solution is, though, I think we’d do better to acknowledge it. Be forthright that we can’t do more than apply a few band-aids. That’s not only better than doing nothing, it’s also part of the path to the real solution. Whereas the wonderfully consistent seal-the-borders attitude makes any solution, even their preferred one, impossible. Borders can’t be sealed. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.

But as far as the immediate problem goes, all that is another side issue. The point I want to make is that not addressing plausible fears just makes them more plausible. It does nothing to help the situation. It convinces the fearful that there’s no good way to address their fears. It tells them the only leaders with plausible solutions are the Tony Abbotts, the stop-the-boats-even-if-they-all-die crowd.

Let me try to explain what I mean by plausible fears.

I’m a third generation migrant. My family has been fleeing dictators, wars, misogyny, poverty, and more wars for decades. It changes people.

For instance, when I’m in a busy supermarket, I figure my partner and I should each wait in a different line, and then one of us can hop over to whichever line turns out to move faster. Sure, it’s not entirely fair to the folks further back who suddenly have a brimming cart added to their line. Part of me, the decisionmaking part, just can’t care enough about that. His idea is that you patiently wait your turn and he’s always upset at my tactics.

My mother was one of the kindest people on the planet. She was a teacher most of her professional life and her students couldn’t say enough for her fairness and how much she cared about them. But when she wanted to bring back some extra bottles of champagne as gifts from a trip, she gave them to eleven year-old me to smuggle through so we wouldn’t have to pay duty on them. I loved it. And I did it rather well, if I do say so myself. I know plenty of US’ers who’d be horrified at contributing to the delinquency of a minor like that.

Okay. I know. Those examples are such small things they’d work as comedy. But my point is that when your survival depends on taking shortcuts, you learn to take them. Then, when you’re in a more benign situation, you have to unlearn that again. Otherwise the place you fled to for its peace and prosperity turns into the same kind of free-for-all you fled from.

Because, really, the social contract, civilization, is nothing but a promise we make to each other. It can be broken overnight. Look at ISIS and how few years it took for the 9th century to lay waste to millions of people. Civilization depends on everyone keeping their word, it depends on trust. Something as basic as cooking food requires trust. It doesn’t take very many people cutting corners to destroy that trust. And refugees do cut corners. It’s one of the things the fearful people resent about them. (Well, that and the fact that they’re usually a lot better at it than the locals.) That reduction of trust really does need to be addressed. Maybe something like a mentoring system for new refugees could help (re)teach those who could use it how to navigate the system in a rule-based, stodgy way. Yes, that would take even more money.

And then there’s a big one. Misogyny. That can’t even be mentioned, for some reason. Somehow, it’s racist or xenophobic to point out the glaring fact: way too many male migrants to Europe are used to treating women like dirt. That is not acceptable. It’s a valid objection no matter what the politics or gender of the person making it. Pretending the issue doesn’t exist or that it’s racist to insist on the human rights of half the population is not a solution. All that will do is drive people toward those politicians who don’t ignore it, who, at this point, are all of the seal-the-borders variety.

What to do about it is the really hard part. I don’t know, of course. I could see preferentially admitting female migrants and their children. Male migrants would turn out to be quick learners if, say, three complaints of harassment were automatic grounds for deportation. There could also be another mentoring program people could sign up for to learn local cultural norms. People with more experience helping migrants understand the local culture would have much better ideas.

The immediate objection from the left to any suggestions of acculturation is that it’s disrespectful, imperialistic, patronizing, and takes immigrants’ culture away from them. I don’t know about disrespectful and patronizing, but as to taking that aspect of their culture away from them, why, yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I think must happen. Kindness to migrants does not mean one has to destroy the good aspects of one’s own society or suffer the loss of rights for half the population, local and immigrant alike.

Humanitarian leftists, by refusing to acknowledge what validity there is in these fears and by failing to have solutions that would mitigate them, open the door to the other “solution.” People get more and more frantic. They vote for bloodyminded governments. (Just one more example from today to add to all the others accumulating.) Before you know it, you have Tony Abbott, stopping the boats at all costs, including the slow and horrible deaths of migrants. That doesn’t lead to revulsion among his voters, by and large. Don’t kid yourself. It increases his popularity. The refugees aren’t the only ones who can lose everything that matters in this process.

That’s the choice. Addressing fears rationally and usefully, or letting them take over.

Update, 2016-01-10. Four months after I wrote that, and the New Year’s Eve crimes happen in Köln. Der Spiegel has a summary of what happened as well as background and some analysis. There’s talk of the need to teach male immigrants about the local culture, on the Norwegian model. There’s talk of “it can’t go on like this.”

All that directly relates to and agrees with this post. But the most important comment on the Köln mess comes from Musa Okwonga.

So here’s what I propose we do. Why don’t we just start with the premise that it is a woman’s fundamental right, wherever she is in the world, to walk the streets and not be groped? And why don’t we see this as a perfect moment for men, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces: to reject with fury the suggestion that we are somehow conditioned by society forever to treat women as objects, condemned by our uncontrollable sexual desires to lunge at them as they walk past?

Let’s do our best to challenge the rampant misogyny that has gone on worldwide for far too long, and reject whatever lessons of sexist repression we may have been taught. Because women are tired of telling us about this, and exhausted of fighting a battle that for too long has gone overlooked.

The sound of freedom

Fighter jets roared by above our yoga studio. Breaks the ambience, right?

One woman put it in context by murmuring,

“The sound of freedom.”

And I thought Dear God, where do you even start?

I spent the rest of the class absentmindedly bent into various shapes and thinking non-serene thoughts.

If weapons were the sound of freedom, there’d be no such thing as dictators.

The sound of freedom is the woman yelling about underpaid janitors at Speakers’ Corner.

The sound of freedom is the boy pushing his little sister in her stroller, walking through the quiet park filled with bird song, and no parents shouting at him to come home because it’s not safe.

The sound of freedom is nobody wondering where their next meal is coming from.

Is there any hope we can hold on to freedom, when so many don’t even know what it is they want to hold?

Terrorist Hunting Permit

That’s the bumpersticker I drove behind for miles. I didn’t see it at first. It was just small and black-and-white and down on the actual bumper. Higher up was an “Impeach Obama” sticker. Fair enough. You feel the current Preznit has not upheld the Constitution, you have the right to say so. Another had a picture of the Democratic Donkey and the words “Warning. Nuts Inside.” Also fair enough. Hard to argue with, even. Next to that (the guy is into bumperstickers and I had plenty of time to read them all) was one saying “Freedom isn’t free. Thank a vet.” As well as many other kinds of people. Then quite a long one: “I believe in the Constitution which says we still have freedom of speech.”

I’m getting the impression the guy is into America! Number One! Freedom!

Fine. Whatever. And then I get to the Terrorist Hunting Permit.

So, suddenly might makes right? After all that stuff about freedom and constitutions? How exactly are you going to impeach Obama if you dump the rule of law and just hunt down anyone you want? You do realize the size of the guns he controls, right?

The viciousness is heartsickening. But somehow — I can’t even explain it to myself — the stupidity is even worse.

Congressmen should have at least room temperature IQ

Now I’ve heard everything. I know. This is an Idaho state rep. But it doesn’t matter. He’s not fit to empty bedpans, let alone make decisions that will wind up killing women.

This nincompoopery happened during hearings about an anti-abortion bill.

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.

I mean, ‘s obvious, right? Unlike men, who are known to have stomachs and lungs and hearts somewhere in their bodies, women are just bags for incubating fetuses. No doubt he’s also convinced they can get pregnant from oral sex.

Could we please have qualification exams for Congressmen? You know, they have to be able to spell their own names, know which end is their ass, stuff like that.

Offensive offendedness

I haven’t commented on the murders of freethinkers at Charlie Hebdo or in Copenhagen because I’m too angry. Goons want to send us all back to the Dark Ages. We mustn’t let them. That’s beyond self-evident. Human rights, basic freedoms, secular governments, obliviousness to blasphemy rules, these are all essential to peaceful societies where everyone’s rights are equally respected.

(Yes, it includes blasphemy. Otherwise, if you can’t say anything I don’t like and I can’t say anything you don’t like, and nobody can say anything Joe doesn’t like, it won’t take long before everyone can say nothing and there is no freedom of speech.)

I do realize that free speech which gives offense is a complicated subject. It is said to justify harassing women into silence, soaking a crucifix in urine and calling it art, or drawing Mohammed to comment on the methods of violent loonies who call themselves Muslims.

Do I think it justifies these things? In the order given, no, yes, and yes. I’ll do a second interminable post on it some day explaining exactly why simply because I feel compelled.

But, really, there’s no need. It’s all been laid out by Evolving Perspectives in one cartoon. (I took the liberty of translating the French back to English. Click on the image or the link to the source for a full size version.)

What to do about offense: a flowchart. (Note the first fork: Is anyone harmed?)

Just sayin

In an article about a scientific study of effective screen names for online dating sites, this minor point:

And would-be daters should take gender into consideration: men are more drawn to names that indicate physical attractiveness, such as ‘Blondie’ or ‘Cutie’ while women go for names that signal intelligence, such as ‘Cultured.’

Now, humans obviously think humans are very beautiful, but honestly in competition with something like this:

Spatule-tailed hummingbird
Dubi Shapiro

we’re nowhere.

On the other hand, the thing we’re most impressed with about ourselves is this:

brains of different primates from humans to squirrel monkeys and one rodent, a capybara


The inescapable conclusion is that the big decisions must be left to women if humans want to continue evolving intelligently. (That, or sexism hasn’t done men’s brains any good.)

Just sayin.

Vaccination (like everything else) is about rights

There is no controversy about vaccines. They work. The diseases they prevent are horrible. The vaccines themselves are about as harmless as it’s possible to be and still exist in the real world. For instance, Diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, DTaP: fewer than one person in one million has serious complications. “Serious” means any reaction that requires medical attention, even if it’s temporary, such as high fever or a bad allergic reaction. Measles-mumps-rubella, MMR: fewer than one in one million with serious complications; inactivated polio, IPV: even fewer than the previous; shingles: none reported yet so “being monitored.” (Source: CDC)

As for the generated “controversy” about vaccines, it deserves as much attention as people who plan to fly by flapping their arms. It is nonsense. Yes, science and medicine have both been wrong about some very important things in the past, and they will be again. Vaccination is not one of them. The evidence in favor of it is beyond overwhelming. End of story. That is, it’s the end of the scientific and medical story.

Politically, it’s not the end of the story because there’s no law saying we always have to be rational. If I want to jump off a roof while flapping my arms and kill myself, I can do that.

But not vaccinating differs from the personal choice to be an idiot in one very important respect: it’s not just personal. It can take other people down with it. And there are laws against that.

So which law counts? The one that says I get to decide about my own medical treatments, or the one that says I can’t damage people?

Before the current measles outbreak, the comments on news sites would have fit comfortably into this Onion article. Now that there is an outbreak because so many people avoided vaccination, or had it avoided for them if they’re children, people feel vulnerable. Suddenly the comments are calling for these horrible parents to be jailed. Suddenly a lot of people are clear on the fact that vaccination is not a purely individual thing. Now they’re going nuts in the opposite direction, from loony libertarian straight to jackbooted totalitarian.

Both are wrong, obviously, because neither works, obviously. The only solution is a balancing act between the different rights.

I know that’s the last thing most people want to hear. It’s much easier to be simple and wrong than go to all the trouble of thinking things through. But the sad fact is that there’s no other way to get to what works. Luckily, in this case it’s not even difficult.

The right to make your own medical decisions is rather worthless if anybody can kill you at any time. The right not to be harmed by others takes precedence over all other rights because they are all meaningless if that one is not respected.

So the balancing act is quite easy: the public health issue of not infecting others with contagious diseases takes precedence over anyone’s personal medical choices.

This is yet one more example of the fact that rights are not equal, that there’s a hierarchy of rights, and that some are more essential than others. Some rights have to take precedence over others or else they all become meaningless.

Therefore the medical and public health requirements for vaccination take precedence over any non-medical objections. There can’t be allowances for religious or philosophical objections. It means the whole US has to follow the lead of Mississippi and West Virginia and have only medically necessary exemptions from vaccination.

A plague doctor. 1819

That said, though, the idea is to have as high a vaccination rate as possible. It’s not to beat people up for ignorance. So resources need to be directed toward the actual goal, vaccination, and not squandered on useless, resentment-building exercises like jailing recalcitrant parents. Yes, it’s important to stop the Onion mindset of “I Don’t Vaccinate My Child Because It’s My Right To Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back.” Even more important is to see that they get vaccinated, no matter what the voices in their heads are telling them.

Sometimes it takes very little to achieve that goal. For instance, in one health district [update-2015-02-04: near Duchesne, Utah], registering a philosophical objection to vaccination required nothing more than a tick mark in a box. Receiving the vaccination on the other hand cost $25. When the public health officials were trying to figure out how to get more people vaccinated, one bright worker noted that they should invert the incentives. So the vaccination was given free, but expressing a philosophical objection required payment of $25 for “administrative costs.” Which isn’t even a lie.

You know how that story ends. The number of objectors plummeted. The vaccination rates climbed above the medically essential 95% of the population, and the problem was solved, at least from the standpoint of public health. And that’s the first priority.

Lazy sourdough

[Updated 2015-04-13, esp. regarding quantities, in boxed summary below.]

Have you looked at instructions for making sourdough bread and said to yourself “They have got to be kidding”? You know the stuff I mean. Add increasing amounts of flour at precisely 18-hour intervals while maintaining temperature at exactly 87°F and humidity at 73%. Plus, the increasing amounts of flour involved requires throwing out astonishing quantities of dough unless you plan to move to a hotel to make room for the bread.

Admittedly, they do have a reason for all this. The idea is to prevent nasty-tasting yeasts and bacteria from taking over your dough. But for me the complexity is overwhelming and I don’t bother to start. Well, then the bad yeasts have won anyway, haven’t they?

So here’s what I did which has been working rather well. The Lazy Blighter’s No-fuss, No-muss, No-waste Sourdough Breadworks:



Summary of breadmaking.
(Starter and other details discussed below)
(1 cup = 236ml, i.e. think in terms of 250ml)

♦ 3 quart / 3 liter container for starter.
♦ 1 large and 2 somewhat smaller mixing bowls to hold dough while rising.
♦ Bread machine or plenty of perseverance for kneading.
For baking: Pizza stones or ♦unglazed ceramic floor tiles, ♦metal pan on the bottom onto which you can throw ice water, ♦surface for sliding loaf into the oven.

Day 1
About 2 liters or quarts total starter, pour off most of it into a bread machine. Use 3 cups starter for dough. Reserve remainder for continuing starter, and add about 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 water to this starter.
  (Reserve about a cupful and add some flour and water. It’s your new starter.)
♦Add about 2 cups flour. Add about 2 (maybe 3) teaspooons of salt (10 ml or a bit less). During kneading, if necessary, carefully add in small amounts of water so that the dough ball ends up just barely sticking to the sides. This means it sticks more early on, because the flour absorbs water throughout the kneading and resting. Knead for about 20 minutes. Let rest for about 30 min. (The resting lets the flour to hydrate better.) Knead again for about 20 min.
♦ Turn over into large floured bowl, cover lightly, rise overnight in fridge.
Day 2
♦ Turn over onto floured board, gently divide into two or more loaves and shape. Put bottom side up into floured bowls, cover lightly, and let rise for 6-8 hours at warm room temp or overnight in fridge.
(Possibly Day 3)
♦ Heat oven to 500°F (260°C). Pizza stones or ceramic floor tiles are in there waiting for the dough. Once at temperature, wait another 20-30 min to make sure tiles are equally hot.
♦ Invert dough-loaf onto something smooth, flat and floured (e.g. rimless cookie sheet), and slide loaf onto tile. Try not to burn yourself.
♦ Throw a cup of ice cubes + water into the pan at the bottom of the oven. Repeat five minutes later.
♦ Bake for 35-40, or even 50 minutes, but take out before the crust burns. Turn heat down to 450°F after first 15 min, if desired.
♦ Cool before slicing.

Getting the starter started is the iffiest part of the whole process, as far as I can tell. The wild yeasts you want are on the surfaces of grains and in the air around you. A very small grain with lots of surface area is Ethiopian teff. I got teff flour at a health food store (it’s even on Amazon), and mixed about half a cup with a cup of white all-purpose flour and another cup of wholewheat all-purpose flour. (Freshly ground wholewheat flour would also have lots of yeasts. Or just use plain old whole wheat. Yeasts are everywhere. If you use only white flour, the surface of the grain has been removed and you’re starting with the least possible “good” yeast.) I kept it in a warm place and added a bunch (maybe half a cup to a cup) of white or wholewheat flour to it once a day or when I remembered. Add enough water each time to keep the whole thing at a sort of pancake-batter-like consistency.

It was horrible.

I threw that out and started over. I kept the mixture warmer this time by putting it inside the oven with just the oven light on. After a week or two, it smelled nice and yeasty-bready and seemed worth trying to make bread out of. I don’t know whether the higher temperature made a difference or it was just the luck of the draw. I suspect the latter.

Keep starter in a large covered container in fridge. It starts small — a cup or two in volume — but you stir in a bit (about 60 ml or 4 tbsp) 1/4 cup of flour every day, plus enough water to keep it batter-like, about 1/4 cup each time. This means it acquires volume. As the volume increases, add somewhat larger quantities of flour and water, as the spirit moves you. Don’t add salt to starter! Salt depresses yeast. Add salt only to bread dough after your continuing starter has been separated from the batch. You can always add more flour to the starter. If, for instance, you plan to make loaves soon and don’t have enough volume of starter, just add a whole cup or two of flour for a couple of days, plus as much water as needed. You can bulk it up quite quickly.

Once I had the starter, I followed some pro tips from The Bread Board, an Oregon bakery that makes divine bread. They do really long fermentations and keep everything cold, never warm. Everything is held in the refrigerator. That runs counter to just about all the other instructions I saw on the web and in books, but, dammit, it works. That really improved the flavor and the activity of the yeast. It also means you can be very cavalier about time. Don’t have time to use that bread dough today? No worries. It’ll be fine in the fridge tomorrow.

The actual breadmaking is where I really deviate from accepted practice. You’re supposed to reserve some of the starter for the next batch, use two cups for the loaves you’re making, and throw the rest out. The concept of throwing out masses of dough in a world full of people living on a dollar a day just strikes me as Wrong. Yes, I know there’s no way to ship my messy bread batter to anyone who needs it. But it feels wrong anyway. So I don’t do that. I reserve a bunch of starter (about 1 to 2 cups’ worth) and pour the rest into a bread machine pan.

About the bread machine. I know I’m being impure. But my earlier attempts all wound up being dwarf bread. (“Rock-hard, never goes stale, and is terribly sustaining. A traveller can go for miles, just knowing there’s dwarf bread in their pack. … Various forms of dwarf bread can be used as weapons, e.g. battle muffins and drop scones.”) Some noodling around on the web indicated this might be due to insufficient kneading. So I tried a lot more kneading in a bread machine on the “dough” setting. Worked like magic.

There’s a nice video showing the whole process done right (i.e. manually) here. He doesn’t show the shaping process that much, so there’s another link below specifically for that. The only misleading part is that he makes the kneading look easy.

The starter, remember, is like pancake batter. So once it’s poured into the bread machine pan (or large mixing bowl if you’re kneading manually), I added only flour. No water. Better to err on the side of too little flour, say about 2 cups(?) to the approximately 6 cups (1.5 qts) 3 cups poured in, because you can always sprinkle in more later if the dough is still too sticky. The salt is sprinkled on top. As I say, check on it as the machine trundles and add pinches of flour as needed. Total kneading time by machine is about 1/2 an hour. If kneading manually, it’s a slow process and the flour probably hydrates sufficiently as you work. With a machine, it’s a good idea to stop it after 15-20 minutes and let the dough rest for a while, say half an hour, so the flour can absorb more of the water. That reduces the stickiness quite a bit without adding more flour.

You’ll notice the recurring theme of avoiding too much flour. Too much results in dwarf bread.

After kneading, turn the dough ball over into a large floured bowl and put in the fridge. It should approximately double in size before making loaves out of it. That takes 12-24 hours.

Turn over onto floured board or surface, cut into pieces of the right size for the size loaves you want, and shape. (Most relevant bit at about 1:30 mark.) Shaping is tricky and critical. The gluten (=proteins) in the wheat is what forms ribbons that trap the gases formed by the yeast. The idea is to stretch them so they wrap around the bread and do a good trapping job. You flatten the ball a bit, pull and fold the edges inward, and repeat a few times. You do *not* knead the bread at this point. You want to retain as much fluffiness as you can.

Put into floured bowls for the last rise with the messy bottom bit facing up. When they’re turned over and slid into the oven, that’ll be the bottom. Cover and put in fridge to rise for 12-24 hours. If you need to hurry the process, you can put them in a warm place and they’ll rise in a few hours. The bread’ll still taste good, but maybe not quite as good. The long rise times is what develops the flavor.

Then comes the exciting part, the baking. Hellishly hot temperatures are essential and you could wind up with burns that land you in the emergency room. Don’t do that. Wear long oven mitts. Be careful.

Some kind of stoneware for the bread to bake on is essential. It needs to be something so heat-retentive that when you plop down a blob of cold dough, it stays super-hot regardless. What that does is rapidly heat the gases trapped inside the bread and force them to expand. It’s called “oven spring” and it’s the main factor in creating bread with good chewy texture. You can buy official pizza stones for this purpose. They cost on the order of $20 – $40 or even more. Or you can go to a building supply store (in the US, Lowe’s or Home Depot) and buy unglazed ceramic floor tiles. Mine cost $1.43 for the square foot size. I use two. (Update: just like the official kind, these sometimes crack. Replace as needed.)

Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C), and then wait another 20-30 minutes to be sure the stones are equally hot.

Turn the raised loaves out of the bowls onto a floured smooth surface. I have rimless aluminum cookie sheets that work very well for this purpose. A cutting board would work too, I expect. Cut approximately half-inch (centimeter) deep lines into the top of the loaf in any pattern that suits you. This breaks the drier skin on the surface of the loaf and allows it to rise fast during oven spring. Without the cuts the bread usually bursts along the sides, which is not good.

As soon as you’ve made the cuts, open the oven, shove the doughy loaf onto a stone, and close the oven. Do the same with the next loaf. Then throw in a cup of water full of ice cubes. (The result is rather spectacular. Don’t be shocked.) Do that again in five minutes. These shots of ice water are essential to keep the crust from getting too tough.

After 35-40 min, bread is baked. My rule of thumb is take it out before the crust starts scorching. I don’t know how to tell when it’s actually done (that is, without an official baking thermometer in the bread, which I don’t have).

While all this is going on, your place fills with baking smells. I always wind up taking slices off the end of the loaf as soon as it’s not fiery hot. That’s too soon. But worth it. Don’t wrap it until it’s cooled for several hours.

Loaves with a view

There oughta be a law

I just saw this:

The backstory is that 23andMe pioneered direct-to-consumer genetic tests starting in 2006. It asked consumers to spit in a tube and send it in, and sent back a detailed summary of their risks for common diseases like macular degeneration. But then in 2013 the U.S. Food & Drug Administration banned the test out of concern that the information wasn’t accurate.

That put a big crimp in 23andMe’s business, but it didn’t end it. As Forbes points out, the real business here is mining this data.

Since it was founded in 2006, 23andMe has collected data from 800,000 customers and it sells its tests for $99 each.

…23andMe’s real business isn’t selling $99 tests, but selling access to data that it has managed to crowdsource as cleverly as Facebook has gathered other personal details. To some observers, that’s pretty worrisome. In 2013, journalist Charles Seife, writing in Scientific American, called 23andMe intentions “terrifying.”

As the FDA frets about the accuracy of 23andMe’s tests, it is missing their true function, and consequently the agency has no clue about the real dangers they pose. The Personal Genome Service isn’t primarily intended to be a medical device. It is a mechanism meant to be a front end for a massive information-gathering operation against an unwitting public.

Seife’s worry is that the consents customers agree to when they donate their DNA could turn out to be meaningless. Once you are hooked, companies like Google and Facebook often change their privacy policies to expose more and more of your data. Why should DNA be any different?…

According to the Fox Foundation, 23andMe actually gave its testing service away to Parkinson’s patients. That helped it assemble enough of them to create a useful resource it could sell to Genentech to start mining.

What’s the saying? If you’re not being paid, you’re the product. That’s bad enough when they’re high frequency trading thin slices of your mind. When they’re selling someone’s sorrow, pain, and suffering, when they’re selling people’s own DNA, it’s downright disgusting.

If we had a government, there’d be a law against selling people this way.

As things are, I’m betting the high and mighty in DC are fine with it so long as they get their cut of the data. As things are, we’re going to find out one day our own souls got sold to the company store, and the sign for refunds leads to nothing but a phone tree.

The USA officially supports torture

I started this blog because I was sick at what the US was doing. The first post was on this horrible topic. I’d like to repeat one point.

There are two hallmarks shared by dictatorships: detention without trial and torture.

At that point, it no longer looked like the US might step back from the brink, but even then I assumed they would at least pretend to respect human rights.

Apparently not.

The US has just gone over that line. The head of state is supporting torture, out loud. Obama. Won’t be prosecuting anyone because, because, because.

[The Geneva Convention and US law] specifically bars any exception in the case of national emergency. Not to prosecute because of such an emergency is therefore to end the Geneva Conventions – which is what Obama has effectively done.

Rest in peace, Lady Liberty

Taking hostages is not okay

Maybe the worst thing about dealing with toxic waste like ISIS is that it infects people trying to stop it.

Now, apparently, we’re taking hostages.

The Lebanese army detained a wife and daughter of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as they crossed from Syria nine days ago, security officials said on Tuesday, in a move seen as likely to put pressure on the Islamist chief. …

The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported she had been detained in coordination with “foreign intelligence”.

It would be one thing if she were providing some kind of essential function — smuggling the secret code to the Mad Scientist’s Doomsday Weapon or something. But considering the standing of women in ISIS, which is somewhere below eggplants, there’s no indication that she was actually doing anything. The most I saw somewhere was that somebody thought maybe she’d know something about locations of some kind.

The kid, of course, has even less to do with anything.

So this is hostage-taking pure and simple.

Which means even when ISIS is driven back into the rubble it’s made, we’re becoming them. They’ll lose. And so have we.

(source unknown)

The multiverse seems to be an excuse

I’m reading Soylent News and come across the following.

If modern physics is to be believed, we shouldn’t be here. The meager dose of energy infusing empty space, which at higher levels would rip the cosmos apart, is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times tinier than theory predicts. And the minuscule mass of the Higgs boson, whose relative smallness allows big structures such as galaxies and humans to form, falls roughly 100 quadrillion times short of expectations. Dialing up either of these constants even a little would render the universe unlivable.

To account for our incredible luck, leading cosmologists like Alan Guth and Stephen Hawking envision our universe as one of countless bubbles in an eternally frothing sea. This infinite “multiverse” would contain universes with constants tuned to any and all possible values, including some outliers, like ours, that have just the right properties to support life. In this scenario, our good luck is inevitable

Is that why they’ve postulated mutliple universes?

I realize Soylent News is not a physics textbook and that the poster could have got it wrong, but I can’t go look it up in source material. I wouldn’t understand a word of it.

But if that really is the thinking behind assuming multiverses, wouldn’t a much simpler explanation be that the current theories are missing vast aspects of the universe? Maybe we just don’t know everything yet. Human ignorance seems a much likelier explanation than multiverses. Or not?

Ebola First World Problems

This is not to minimize the real suffering of the real people who have contended with the real disease in the First World. It is a horrifying disease wherever it occurs.

No, this post is about what I’ve been seeing in the news here. When the disease was limited to Africa, it wasn’t seeing much at all in the US. Thousands died, and there was hardly a blip. What I did see seemed mostly to question whether there was any point in sending medical aid.

Now that there have been about seven cases here (the two Samaritan’s Purse health workers, Thomas Duncan, his two nurses, a freelance journalist in Nebraska, and the Doctors Without Borders physician there’s currently a flap about)– now that there have been cases here, the country is hysterical.

NASA artist's conception of asteroid destroying Earth
(artist unknown. NASA)

A school in Maine put a teacher on administrative leave after parents “expressed concern” — meaning panicked — that she could have been exposed because she visited Dallas with one Ebola patient in quarantine in a hospital that she never visited.

I’ve heard of a caller to emergency services complaining about a pilot running around loose who’d been to West Africa, which later turned out to be the same place in the caller’s small mind as Western Europe. And, yes, that’s funny, but it’s also bad. While that drivel is going on, the dispatcher and the ambulance (they sent out an ambulance?!) can’t respond to actual emergencies.

People of West African extraction are being shunned because, because what? They’re catching it by quantum juju from people 5000 miles away whom they’ve never met? White Africans, interestingly enough don’t seem to be seen as quite as susceptible to magical infection.

Most recently, a bunch of governors saw a great opportunity to get out in front of the hysteria and Doooo Something. Let’s quarantine everybody, sick or not, who’s ever been near West Africa. So when a selfless altruist like Kaci Hickox returns, a woman who’s a nurse for Doctors Without Borders and has treated Ebola patients and actually knows something about the disease, when she returns she becomes a political plaything for Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo (bipartisanship!) to score points with ignorant voters by dumping her into a senseless quarantine.

Quarantine is for CONTAGIOUS people. It’s a useless waste of money and resources applied to any traveller some bozo happens to have fantasies about. Quarantine can be a medical necessity. It needs to be done on medical grounds. When it’s nothing but jerks lashing out in panic, it’s not only insane, it’s actually counterproductive and increases the spread of disease. (So much for Christie’s and Cuomo’s “leadership.”)

So, that’s the “Keep Calm” part. What about the “Carry On” part?
Are there things that could sensibly be done to help the situation? Why, yes. Yes, there are.

Number One. (This should be in bold all-caps, but I’ve done that already. Must ration myself.) The US needs to get itself an actual healthcare system. Using disease as a profit center for Big Medicine and Big Insurance just isn’t working.

When Thomas Duncan fell ill in Dallas everybody knows what happened next. After his first emergency room visit, he was sent home. Now, note this: Ebola is not contagious until after the patient has run a fever for some time, a day or so, when the virus starts being secreted in body fluids. (The main research paper so far on contagiousness: Bausch et al., 2007. Discussion in Science.)

So if the emergency room had actually worked, he went early enough that there would have been just about no chance he’d been contagious. But the emergency room didn’t work. What hasn’t been mentioned loudly enough is that he had no insurance. Stories about grievously ill uninsured people turned away from emergency rooms in the USA go on forever. There’s even a name for it: “patient dumping.” Some of them die, just like Thomas Duncan. But, this being the First World, most of them aren’t contagious. That was the only part Texas Presbyterian Hospital forgot. They needed a big sign in the physicians’ break room: “CAUTION. Do not kick out patients with incurable contagious diseases! Could have lethal Bad Publicity consequences!”

There’s the first culprit: a profit-oriented “health” system. If we really want to reduce the chances of catching Ebola from random strangers, then we need a health care system that encourages people to get help whenever they feel ill. Nor can it expect them to self-diagnose first so that hospitals see only “real emergencies.” And then the system has to actually treat them for whatever ails them.

Number Two in the list of useful things to do is to help deal with the problem at its source. (In fact, this is Number One, but this post is about first world problems.) They need many things to stem the disease in West Africa: Information distributed everywhere by trusted health workers on how not to transmit the disease. How best to treat ill family members. (There’s a surprising amount that could be done with that, as demonstrated by the knowhow and astonishing strength of the Liberian nurse who took care of her whole family and managed to save most of them.) How to reduce chance of infection. Contact tracing. Enough transport for sick people so they’re not crammed eight to an ambulance. Enough field hospitals and enough beds so contagious patients can be properly cared for.

Would that take money? Yes. But it’s peanuts compared to what it’ll cost if the disease continues to spread. And it’s not as if panic is cheap. (Panic is a total waste, but it’s not cheap.) Would the money have to be spent in Africa? Yes. Get over it.

Notice something about useful actions against Ebola: They involve admitting that fear is not useful. They involve restraining automatic reactions. They involve huge amounts of tedious work. They offer no excuse to lash out at anybody. They’re no fun.