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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?

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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

 
wikimedia

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.

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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:

Overview

 

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

Equipment:
♦ 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

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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)

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I’m a writer. Not a spy.

I’ll come out with it: I’ve written a bunch of books. Most are just straightforward feel-good stories. (I like feeling good.) One is about how to govern so it interferes with feeling good as little as possible.

Besides not being a spy, I’m also allergic to salesmanship. So all I do with my stuff is post it on my website, and throw it on Amazon and the Nook where they make me charge a dollar. A little independent isn’t allowed to post free books. (Yes, I know about Smashwords. I have conscientious objections to the Terms of Service. And, yes, I have COs to Amazon’s TOS too, but I’m only pure mostly. Being really pure is too much work.) In case you’re wondering why the Nook, it’s because when I started doing this, that was a thing. That gives you some idea how much time has gone by. So I’m thinking of putting my books on a few more sites — Kobobooks sounds like a good one — and today I heard about Oyster.

Oyster seems like an interesting idea. You pay a subscription of $10/month and can read as many books as you have time for. A visit to the web site gives you about five ways to reach the “Join” page and no links to any actual information. Did I mention that I hate pushy selling? So I didn’t like being pushed to join and went searching for more information. Wikipedia pointed to an article in the NYTimes. There, as with every new thing in recent times on the web, it turns out that yes, this is just one more business looking to turn users into gold.

(I find myself agreeing more and more with Maciej Cegłowski and wishing that I still saw new technology with wonder instead of an automatic feeling of dread.)

But what astonished me was this:

[A writer] interacts extensively with her fans on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Flickr and her own website. … But having actual data about how her books are being read would take her market research to the ultimate level.

“What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?”

Well, I would. I’d feel revolted. Just as I would if I caught an author peering over my shoulder, saying,

“Aha. You liked that bit, did you?”

No, not anymore.

Sometimes I feel like the only one left who feels put off at the thought of going around and sniffing people’s underwear.

Stop the world. I want to get off.

And, no, I won’t even try to publish anything on Oyster.

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Useless loud cheap (mis)targeted ads

There’s a multi-bazillion industry devoted to making me buy things. They have followed me through all of my days and tracked my every thought.

Searching for plum blossoms in the snow
(Xu Daoning, c. 1000 AD, Freer Gallery)

So you’d think they’d know I’m in the market for a vacuum cleaner, right?

Noooo.

I haven’t bought one in dog’s years. I don’t read articles about vacuums for fun. All they know about is the last thing I searched for, not what I need.

Well, I’m not a total newbie. I’ve been around computers since the days of punch cards. I’ve heard of Google. All I have to do is search, right? I want a machine in the neighborhood of $200, outrageously good at picking up pet hair, good at corners, and that doesn’t spew the dust right back out.

The search understands I want a vacuum cleaner, but that’s as far as it goes. To get what I want, I can spend hours — nay, days — of my life plowing through useless store websites full of obnoxiously happy beautiful people who find everything with one push of a button. Or I can dig through pages of search results, trying to find reviews that aren’t ads in disguise.

I am not a patient person. The first time, I put off the purchase after an hour or so. The second time it might have been two hours. Then I gave up for a couple of years. That’s what happens when there’s a massive selling industry in my face with everything I don’t want. You’d think they’d have an easier time hitting a great big bullseye like a customer looking to buy a product. By the time I finally bought a vacuum cleaner, they could have sold me a second one if the hucksters who’ve taken over the web instead made it easy for me to find what I want.

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You don’t believe facts. You understand them.

Update May 25th. This post has been utterly superseded. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Climate Change Debate. That’s the way to explain it. A sample:

You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well have a poll on “Which number is bigger, 5 or 15?” [Spoken as if he really wants to know.] Or: “Do owls exist?” Or “Are there hats?”


[Original post, Feb 18:]
I keep seeing this stuff. So-and-so many people “believe” in evolution. Polls in the media ask whether “You believe in global warming.” Headlines mention people don’t believe in GMO food.

Fergawdsake.

Do you “believe” in carpentry? No. If someone builds a house that leans at a 45° angle, you stay out of it and the building inspector orders it torn down. You weigh the evidence and decide whether it works or not. You don’t believe in it.

Likewise with anything else based on tangible, measurable evidence, like all of science. Evolution is supported by a mountain of data with no, none, zero, conflicting evidence against it. There are people who may not understand that, but belief is irrelevant (as I’ve pointed out before).

Global warming is also, unfortunately, supported by a mountain of data. It’s not as solid a mountain as evolution’s; there are a few bits and pieces scientists don’t yet fully understand. But when over 99% of climate scientists agree the evidence supports that humans are changing the climate, you can bet your clocked socks that’s what the evidence shows. Ninety nine percent of scientists never agree on anything unless there’s no alternative.

As an example of that, I, for instance, don’t think the evidence on the safety of GMO foods is sufficient yet. Oh, sure, you won’t become a mutant green two-headed corporate executive if you eat it. But there isn’t enough evidence that it is environmentally and agriculturally beneficial or even that its long term effect on human health is acceptable. That’s not disbelieving GMO food. That’s arguing that the evidence is deficient. For instance, there are nowhere near enough independent, long term studies with large enough sample sizes to justify the soothing noises the industry makes about GMO effect on health.

So let’s get this straight. The right headlines would be: “Many Americans don’t understand evolution” “Politicians funded by Big Oil refuse to see global warming” “Lone biologist wants huge, expensive study of GMO foods.”

See? It’s not hard. Let’s do it.


Update May 14, 2014: Warning signs keep trickling in. Here, a BBC report about the “collateral damage” from higher glyphosate and pesticide use. There are all the obligatory sentences about tested and safe and that the evidence (so far) to the contrary has poor methodology. The dearth of independent studies of glyphosate toxicity that last longer than six months and include all humans, also the pregnant, old, or frail, is a bit of a methodological deficiency itself.

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Talk is cheap

Talk against racism has blown right through worthless and come out the other side into worse-than-useless. I’ve been trying to articulate what puts me off about the waves of self-congratulatory anti-racism that blow through the US at every excuse. Lately it’s been Cliven “Freeloader” Bundy and Donald “Past It” Sterling. Their crimes are not what they’ve done, although that’s plenty. No, it’s what they said.

What is wrong with that picture? Leonard Pitts says it best.

On race, meet dumb and dumberer:

[P]redictably, dutifully, media figures, pundits and pols have come together to blow raspberries in their direction, to say all the right things in condemnation of them and their diarrhetic mouths. And yes, they deserve that. Still, there is something facile and dishonest in it, something that reeks of unearned righteousness and even moral cowardice.The truth is, the idiocy of these men doesn’t mean a whole lot, doesn’t impact much beyond their immediate lives. We hyperventilate about it, yet somehow manage not to be overly concerned as black boys are funneled into prison, brown ones are required to show their papers, voting rights are interdicted….

I would only add that there’s no need to limit it to “boys.” What matters is that human beings, female ones all too included, are impoverished, humiliated, deprived, attacked, and killed.

That’s what we need to work on. We can have the luxury of a national flap about the blithering of twisted jerks when the real problems are gone, not as a substitute for dealing with them.

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About that lack of little green aliens

Artist’s conception of most earth-like planet so far
(Illustration: NASA, SETI, JPL, via APOD)

The Drake Equation (written out at the end of the post) was invented as a way to think about the probability of meeting aliens as we go about our business. One big factor is of course how many habitable planets there are to begin with. If we refuse to assume we’re special, hundreds of civilizations per galaxy looks like a rather conservative guess, given how many billions of stars there are to work with. But that dumps us straight into the next question.

If there are so many, why haven’t we seen any evidence of aliens? No antimatter-powered spaceship engines like strobes among the stars, no SETI signals, no weird laser bursts, nothing. (UFO sightings seem a bit too private to count as interstellar events.) The assumption is that there’s a Great Filter: something reduces the number of communicative aliens.

In the good old days, people assumed the “something” was that good planets are hard to find. But this is where the recent data on planets is disturbing. Possibly even deeply disturbing.

We’ve had the necessary equipment to look for exoplanets only for a couple of decades and yet we’ve already found hundreds of them, including a few rocky ones orbiting in the habitable zone of their stars. That’s just in our little neighborhood. Data from biochemistry indicates that life arises spontaneously under the right chemical conditions, which are probably fairly common since carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, iron, and some trace elements are quite common. Data from biology indicates that cells arise spontaneously, and so does multicellularity. So the only step for which we have a sample size of one, is how often do those multicellular organisms develop technological civilizations? The answer for that step, like the others, could well be “all the time.”

If so, the Great Filter is not at the front end. It’s at this end. Our end. The technological civilizations must have short lifespans.

And it’s not really that hard to see why, if they’re anything like us. But it may go beyond merely killing each other with pollution or wars. It may go to the relationship between technological capabilities and fundamental concepts of social organization. That’s something I’ve wondered about in my work on government.

Technology hugely increases the available physical power in a society, and that also increases social power. Holding all that at our fingertips, as it were, means that every action is also hugely magnified. … Enough of it, used badly, can destroy the society that couldn’t figure out how to control the power of the people using it.

That is not hyperbole. It might seem like it because modern technological societies are only at the very earliest stages of being able to destroy the planet. … A big nuclear war could have done it. Global warming could do it. In a far future when everyone has personal spaceships, an evil mastermind could orbit a light-bending device between us and the Sun which would shade the whole Earth to death before the machine could be found and destroyed. There isn’t just one way to destroy a highly technological society, and the more advanced it is, the more ways there are. Bad governments can do it. All the people together can do it with tiny actions that add up. Mad individuals can do it with sabotage. There are so many ways that it is literally only a matter of time. The more technologically advanced the society, the more essential limits to power are for its very survival.

The growing desire to limit power and decrease inequality could be more than the resentment of the have-nots, more than cute idealism from those who don’t yet need to get a job, more than some pie-in-the-sky luxury we can’t do right now. The grassroots Occupy movement and the great big oaks like Piketty may be feeling the same reality. We must have an equitable society to survive. It is not optional.

That immense silence between the stars may be a communication after all. It may be the universe telling us to shape up or die.

Drake Equation:     N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L     where,

  • N = The number of communicative civilizations
  • R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars (stars such as our Sun)
  • fp = The fraction of those stars with planets. (Current evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.)
  • ne = The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system
  • fl = The fraction of those Earth-like planets where life actually develops
  • fi = The fraction of life sites where intelligence develops
  • fc = The fraction of communicative planets (those on which electromagnetic communications technology develops)
  • L = The “lifetime” of communicating civilizations
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This is how our world ends

Not with a bang, but with brain-shattering neurotics who vote.

Via Suburban Guerrilla:

Conspiracy theorists think government planted ‘fake snow’

[W]eather across the south of the U.S. has raised a controversial question online: was it just a light snow, or a nefarious government conspiracy? … [T]he last few days have seen scores of videos like this from skeptics [Ed. note: “skeptics”] who claim the snowflakes aren’t the real deal.

“I have a sample of ‘snow’ … leaving the snow unmelted.” Via YouTube / sugar magnolia

The conspiracy reasoning goes like this: the snow is unusual in Georgia and other southeast areas and doesn’t melt when burned. Therefore, it must be fake snow, distributed by the government, as a diversion from big government tyranny. Via YouTube / Div9neImages

And no, much as I believe in citing sources, I’m not making live links to those youtube clips. I’m worried about teh stoopid cooties.

Basic chemistry/physics: a solid exposed to high enough heat does not become liquid. It goes straight to gas. So, duh, when you put a butane flame to snow you don’t get liquid water. And the butane is a hydrocarbon. If the flame cools fast enough — by the proximity of snow, for instance — the carbon will precipitate out as nice black soot instead of floating into the atmosphere. (Congratulations. You’ve reduced the amount you contributed to climate change by many molecules of carbon. Just like a liberal!)

I laugh so as not to cry.



Update, next morning. It’s worse than I thought. We’re not just talking about voters. The actual legislators in what passes for the actual government have less comprehension than your average sea cucumber. (Example of average sea cucumber below.) Sea cucumber at Sydney Aquarium. Photo: Erin Silversmith. From Wikimedia. Via Slashdot: “The bill, dubbed the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 (HR 4012), would prohibit the EPA’s administrator from proposing or finalizing any rules unless he or she also discloses “all scientific and technical information” relied on by the agency in the regulations’ development.” Um, hello? It is all published. That’s part of what makes it science. Once the Honorable Congresscritter learns how to read, he’ll be able to discover all that wonderful data! Except the bits corporations want to keep confidential. Oh, and are we going to make sure science is equally respected at the DOD? The CIA? The NSA? I think that would be a good idea.

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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela voting in 1994
(Paul Weinberg : Wikimedia)

Usually, when some world leader dies, I don’t care. More often than not I even think, “Well, that’s one less lying mug I’m tired of seeing.”

But with Nelson Mandela I felt a stab of sadness, as if he was my friend.

One of our greats is gone. I wish he’d lived forever. Maybe if we live in ways that honor his work, he will in a way.

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The roots of war

I was reading an article about Syria’s civil war, and sentences kept jumping out at me.

The white Horseman of war
(GFreihalter)

For three men in northern Syria, the second civil war started shortly after the first staggered into a quagmire of sectarian violence. …

Like many others, the three men are bewildered at what has become of their war. Their alliances – and their goals – are shifting. …

They are a businessman, a smuggler and an army defector who became respectively the political officer, treasurer and military commander of a once-formidable battalion in northern Syria. …

“Maybe in 10 years we will all be bored with fighting and learn how to coexist.” He paused, then added: “In 10 years maybe, not now.” …

He opened Google Earth on his phone, zooming in closer and closer until the screen showed a small grey square: the house where his family used to live. “Before, all my family was in Syria, and I worried about them. Now, they’ve got out but I have lost my land. I have reached a point of despair,” he said. …

“I was in the revolution at the beginning, and I used to think that was going to be progress – but now we have lost everything. We don’t talk about military plans and hitting the regime – now the plotting is against each other.”

“I can’t defeat them [the jihadis] and the army. I am about to collapse. I can hold out for a month or two at most. Isis [jihadis] are expanding in a fearful way.” …

When they reached the base, the lieutenant sank down in a corner. He seemed weary. “I have been fighting for two years and a half. Tell me: what have I achieved? All I think about is attacking this checkpoint, getting that tank – maybe using the tank to attack another checkpoint.

“In all this time did I ever think of establishing governance? Did I consider working with the civilians in the areas under my control to get electricity or provide anything? …

He sighed. “… I want to get away from here and forget the absurdity of war. The liberated areas are in chaos: there is more purity on the frontlines.” …

“For three days I’ve been attacking this checkpoint,” said the lieutenant “I ask myself why, but I don’t know. Maybe because I can. Maybe because I need to keep my men busy. But honestly, I don’t know the purpose of all this. In Syria, everyone has lost. No one is winning.” …

The next day, the lieutenant decided he needed a break from war. A few days later, the smuggler, the lieutenant and another rebel officer were walking in an Istanbul shopping centre packed with Arab tourists. After two and a half years, the two men said they had finally decided to leave Syria and the war for good. …

Later, in the food court upstairs, the smuggler and the lieutenant ate lunch with another man, a people-smuggler, who told them how they could be spirited across the border into Greece and from there into Italy, where they could start a new life with their families. …

By now, the excitement of being in Istanbul had waned: the three men walked the streets aimlessly and sat for hours in cafes. … One evening, he admitted that he had tried to leave once before: he had stayed away for 25 days, but found he could not live in the world of peace: he missed the excitement, the combat, the camaraderie. …

The lieutenant left the cafe, and there was no news of him for weeks. Nobody knew if he was still in Turkey, or if he had gone with the people-smuggler and made his way to Italy.

When he finally called, he sounded relieved and almost cheerful. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t leave, I went back to Syria, to fight.”

People who go to war always say they do it to serve — their country, an ideal, their way of life, always something outside themselves. But then when the fighting is destroying what they care about they would stop, wouldn’t they?

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Those unnecessary Golgafrinchans? They settled here.

It’s obvious, after reading this article giving a platform to Tyler Cowen. (If you want a bit of background on the Golgafrinchans, the quotation is below.)

I make vague flailing motions to defend against Teh Stoopid out there, so I don’t actually know who Tyler Cowen is. But nothing lasts forever. So now I know which are the jobs of the future.

[M]achines are [getting] smarter than you, … [so] The good jobs will be about branding. They’re all about figuring out how to get other people’s attention[.] …

[Expanding on the smartness of machines:] [R]oads will change so driverless cars can use them, and we’re not ready for this mostly. I think it’s a big, big plus, but in some ways, the world will look uglier and feel stupider. It’s a bit like those help menus. You can do everything right by pressing all the buttons.[Ed. note: Yes, I’ve noticed that. The help menus always have all the options you need. There’s never any missing information. You never wind up going in circles around the phone tree.] It pisses people off. [Really?] It still gives you overall better service and a cheaper product than the old system of hiring operators. [Hahahahaha. Come on. Now you’re just being silly.] …

[Interviewer notes] In the book you also discuss a future artificial intelligence app that might recommend things in the social or romantic realm, like the optimal time to kiss someone on a date.

[Mr. TC responds]: My guess is that will be half the people. The people who listen to the machines, they’re going to do better. They’ll have a better chance of being happily married. They’ll choose better dates. They’ll kiss at the right time or whatever it is the machine tells you. They’ll have better portfolios. They’ll have better diets. … So you don’t have to necessarily be great at reading the tea leaves once you’re attuned to the machine.

And yet, a few paragraphs earlier, he said psychology was the only talent where people still excelled. Now, barely minutes further into the future by the end of the article, people are too stupid to know when to kiss without an app to tell them.

They pay him for this sort of flapdoodle, apparently. At the top of the article it says “Foreign Policy Magazine named Tyler Cowen #72 in their list of the ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers.'”

Imagine if FP Mag is right. May God have mercy on our globe.


Golgafrinchan history, from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
The two space travellers show up on a ship, and the Captain explains what it’s all for.

“I mean, I couldn’t help noticing,” said Ford, also taking a sip, “the bodies. In the hold.”

“Bodies?” said the Captain in surprise. …

Ford licked his lips.

“Yes,” he said, “all those dead telephone sanitizers and account executives, you know, down in the hold.”

The Captain stared at him. Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed.

“Oh, they’re not dead,” he said. “Good Lord, no, no they’re frozen. They’re going to be revived.”

Ford did something he very rarely did. He blinked.

Arthur seemed to come out of a trance.

“You mean you’ve got a hold full of frozen hairdressers?” he said.

“Oh yes,” said the Captain. “Millions of them. Hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants, you name it. We’re going to colonize another planet.”

The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about the planet of Gol­gafrin­cham: it is a planet with an an­cient and mys­te­ri­ous his­tory, rich in leg­end….

[A] de­scen­dant of one of these ec­cen­tric poets … in­vented the spu­ri­ous tales of im­pend­ing doom which en­abled the peo­ple of Gol­gafrin­cham to rid them­selves of an en­tire use­less third of their pop­u­la­tion. The other two-thirds stayed firmly at home and lived full, rich and happy lives until they were all sud­denly wiped out by a vir­u­lent dis­ease con­tracted from a dirty tele­phone.

 

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Today in Racist News

First the Russian fans shouting garbage at the black captain for Manchester City. (Once his team was winning, I gather. Bad losers, too.) Yes, Russians can be dreadful racists. That’s not the surprise. For me, the surprise is that even in this day and age the authorities, in this case the people who run the football club whose fans were so horrible, are fine with it. And they’re so tone deaf they say, out loud, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad. Oh, you’re exaggerating.” In other words, shut up and go away. (After a couple of days of pressure, they changed their tune.)

Racism backed by authorities, even authorities who think better of it after the damage is done, needs the strongest possible response. Boycott ’em. Close the stadium. Stop it now. Go Yaya Touré.

Then there’s the blonde Roma child found in a Greek gypsy camp among the more average darker inhabitants. The immediate reaction was that she must have been kidnapped. Then some DNA evidence showed that the mother is another impoverished Roma from Bulgaria. The talk of kidnapping stopped. The talk about trafficking started. The girl must have been sold.

Yes. Poor people sometimes do appalling things to survive. But poor people also sometimes commit acts of astronomical generosity, inconceivable to those more comfortably situated. One image branded on my mind from history books is starving peasants around the time of the Russian Revolution giving their swaddled infants to strangers on passing trains in the desperate hope the babies might then survive. I don’t know if they lived or not. I don’t know the statistics on how that worked out. But in the moments when it happened, on both sides, there had to be a stunning ability to give everything away.

If it had turned out that some equally blonde people from, say, Iceland were the parents, how quickly would the police assume they’d sold the child?

Never, I expect.

But since she has a Roma mother, well, it’s obvious isn’t it, there’s been a criminally sordid transaction. It’s the first conclusion they come to, not the last. Evidence not needed.

Whatever the evidence does finally show, it doesn’t change the willingness of the (white?) world to jump to racist conclusions without any.

The big difference between them and the Russian fans is that football hooligans yell crap out loud in a stadium.

A nice redskin potato

And then, of course, close to home, the flap in the USA about the Washington Redskins. The name is insulting to American Indians. So change it. It’s a name, fergawdsake. Or, as a commenter pointed out, don’t change it but change the logo to a potato. What an idiotic thing to have to expend energy on. We could be putting all that money and effort and emotion toward mitigating the real damage of racism. Instead it’s going toward arguing over labels with a bunch of neanderthals running one of our autumnal concussion teams.

Then again, maybe that’s easier than dealing with racism.

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Thatcher is in the past


I’ve figured out what bothers me about leftists gloating over Thatcher’s death.

There’s the unseemliness of expressing it much too fast. Everybody, even your bitterest enemy, has the right to bury their dead in peace. But I knew I had a problem with that and it didn’t feel like the whole problem.

The rest of it is that she’s gone. Over and done with. It’s useless to dance on her grave. If you want to support a humane world, do it here and now. Jeer at the so-called progressives who can’t say they’ll stand against Obama’s Republican budget. (Via the essential fatster.) Jeer at Obama for producing a budget that would have done the Iron Lady herself proud.

Feel-good jeering to get an ego boost is repulsive.

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Now is the time for your tears


Women have no voice. Their songs aren’t famous, so the only words I can think of adequate to Steubenville belong to Bob Dylan. And he, of course, is talking about murder, not that stuff which, when it happens to women, is something to joke about.

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ringed finger …
And the cops were called in …
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

William Zanzinger who had twenty-four years …
[And] rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him …
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering …
And in a matter of minutes on bail was out walking

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

Hattie Carroll … Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane …
And she never done nothin’ to William Zanzinger

And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level …
And that even the nobles get properly handled …
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month one-year sentence.

Ah, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.

One year. One. For the premeditated, prolonged, published, endless soul-destroying torture of a human being.

One damn year.

(The complete lyrics are here.)

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