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Jan. 24th, 2016

devil duck

Snow day projects

We have a long list, far longer than the expected storm, but one is candying some citron.

The recipe said it should take about 45 minutes of simmering to get the syrup to "thread" stage.  After five hours, we decided it had actually reached that stage.  The kitchen has smelled heavenly all day (although some of that time it was lamb chili).  Citron pieces have become transparent and are now draining.  shalmestere tasted the syrup and said "it's almost like perfume."

After draining the syrup off, I spread the pieces of citron out to dry.  I may give up on open-air drying and resort to the desiccator, but let's try this first.

Jan. 23rd, 2016

devil duck

Snow day projects

We have a long list, far longer than the expected storm, but one is candying some citron.

The recipe said it should take about 45 minutes of simmering to get the syrup to "thread" stage.  After five hours, we decided it had actually reached that stage.  The kitchen has smelled heavenly all day (although some of that time it was lamb chili).  Citron pieces have become transparent and are now draining.  shalmestere tasted the syrup and said "it's almost like perfume."

devil duck

snowpocalypse 2016

We had an inch of snow last week, but this is the first snowfall of the winter that anyone would bother shoveling.  The blizzard warning says "accumulations of 15-20 inches" before the storm tapers off around midnight, but I think that may be an underestimate: as of 10:00 AM, I measured 10" on the front steps and 15" in the middle of the lawn.  It's still falling at a good clip.  I shoveled the steps and halfway to the sidewalk, just so there's a bit less shoveling to do later on and so the dogs can get out and relieve themselves.  It's lovely, fluffy snow, neither slush nor powder.

Being snowed in would be a lot more fun if the oven worked.  As nearly as I can tell, the bottom igniter gave up the ghost two or three days ago: the stove and broiler still work, but not the thermostat-controlled "oven" part.  The recommended procedure to confirm that the igniter needs replacing involves an electric multimeter, which I had for many years but which has disappeared in the past few months (I have a vague memory of throwing it away because I couldn't find all the parts).  An igniter costs about $65 and can apparently be installed by an ordinary person, but I don't know if anybody within (say) five miles would have igniters for this particular model of oven in stock, and I'm certainly not driving anywhere to get one today.  I guess we can mail-order an igniter and just not bake anything for the next few days.  We still have, as mentioned above, various other cooking devices: stove, broiler, microwave, crockpot, waffle iron, sandwich press, etc.  And if we REALLY need to bake something, we can use the broiler in combination with an oven thermometer.

If the storm takes out our electric power, of course, all we've got is the stove.

Edit, 7 PM: I did another round of shoveling after brunch, and another just now.  There are 27" in the middle of the front lawn.

Edit, 9 AM Sunday: The snow plows have come through, both in front and in back of the house.  Which means there's a sizable wall of snow between the curb and the roadway, in addition to the stuff between the garage and the curb.

Jan. 11th, 2016

devil duck

cooking

Some time in December, we picked up a beef tenderloin on sale and cut it into filets mignons for Xmas and New Year's eves. There were about a pound of scraps that didn't form a nice filet shape, so I put them in a Zip-loc bag in the freezer. So yesterday, as we were wondering what to do for dinner, I saw the bag and thought "Scraps of meat suggest stew, but tenderloin suggests a quick, high-heat cooking method. Stir-fry!" I've stir-fried beef with broccoli and carrots (and garlic and scallions and oyster sauce and...) any number of times in my life, but never before with tenderloin. It worked quite nicely, and the meat was tenderer than I've ever had in a stir-fry (although there was a piece or two that still had fibrous white connective tissue attached -- better trimming indicated).

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, shalmestere had seen something on her FB feeds about "bacon cinnamon rolls" and wanted to try them. So I bought a roll of Pillsbury pre-rolled cinnamon rolls (supposed to make five large rolls), unrolled them on a cookie sheet, zapped five strips of bacon in the microwave for about four minutes (to the point that it was still flexible, but some people would have been willing to eat it), laid a strip lengthwise in each roll, rolled them back up, and baked them for half an hour. It works. Not OMG-I-havent-lived-until-now, but it works. shalmestere thinks it needs more bacon: 1.5-2 strips per roll rather than 1.
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Jan. 10th, 2016

devil duck

Not quite a book review

shalmestere brought home an advance reader's copy of The Math Myth (to be published in March 2016), thinking I might be interested. The main point of the book is that American schools, from middle school through college, require students to take a lot of math courses that they will never use, that do not make them better thinkers, that do not increase their earning ability or their competence as citizens of a democracy, but that do serve to filter out and discourage a lot of kids from reaching their potential in non-mathematical fields.

Which is almost certainly true. I've actually had occasion to use a little bit of calculus on the job (in doing analysis of algorithms), and in answering idle-curiosity physics problems, and I've used trigonometry to design tents, and I've used both trigonometry and linear algebra to write graphics programs, but 99.99% of the U.S. population will never need to do any of those things, either on the job or in private life. Most people need to be able to do arithmetic (with the aid of a calculator, but they need enough of a feel for numbers that they can tell whether the answers are at all plausible), and read a graph, and it would be nice if they knew that correlation isn't causation, and what statistical significance means. As a logician, I'd like it if ordinary citizens knew that "not all cats are grey" is equivalent to "at least one cat is not grey", and that "if that's a duck, then I'm Henry Ford" is not equivalent to "if that's not a duck, then I'm not Henry Ford".

Anyway, the author documents vast numbers of students whose only academic problem is an inability to pass such irrelevant math classes (middle school, high school, or college), but who are denied the opportunity to study Shakespeare or Swahili or spot-welding. He points out that most of the doomsaying about an imminent shortage of STEM-qualified workers comes from employers who have a strong vested interest in creating an overabundance of such workers. And he likes to illustrate things with sample test questions.

Here's a question he likes:

A rectangular-shaped fuel tank measures 27-1/2 inches in length, 3/4 of a foot in width, and 8-1/4 inches in depth. How many gallons will the tank contain? (231 cubic inches = 1 gallon)

(a) 7.366 gallons
(b) 8.839 gallons
(c) 170,156 gallons

He likes this because it tests "did you read the question carefully?" -- specifically, did you convert 3/4 of a foot into 9 inches -- and do you know what needs to be multiplied and what divided? He says if you failed to notice the "feet", you would get the incorrect answer (a) (in fact, he's misplaced a decimal point: you would get .7366 gallons, which you should also be able to rule out through common sense because a tank that big has got to hold more than a gallon!)

Here's a question he doesn't like:

Two charges (+q and -q) each with mass 9.11 x 1031 kg, are place 0.5 m apart and the gravitational force (Fg) and electric force (Fe) are measured. If the ratio Fg/Fe is 1.12 x 10-77, what is the new ratio if the distance between the charges is halved?

(a) 2.24 x 10-77
(b) 1.12 x 10-77
(c) 5.6 x 10-78
(d) 2.8 x 10-78

I have to confess I do like this question, because it doesn't require doing any arithmetic at all, only remembering that both gravitational and electrical forces follow an inverse-square law. Although if you have two masses of almost 1032 kg half a meter apart from one another, they're both black holes and you have bigger things to worry about than measuring the forces between them.

However, I don't see a lot of benefit in asking this question on an MCAT (which is where it allegedly came from). Yes, identifying the relevant and irrelevant features of a problem is important to a doctor, but physics isn't.


For a certain board game, two dice are thrown to determine the number of spaces to move. One player throws the two dice and the same number comes up on each of the dice. What is the probability that the sum of the two numbers is 9?
(a) 0
(b) 1/6
(c) 2/9
(d) 1/2
(e) 1/3

Again, he doesn't like this question, and I do: it requires no arithmetic, no probability, no combinatorics, only the ability to see past the irrelevant stuff to what matters.

Is this what they call a "trick" question? One that requires common-sense reasoning, not just the application of a memorized procedure? If so, I'm all for them.

Anyway, I've only read a quarter of the book; we'll see what else he has to say.
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Jan. 3rd, 2016

devil duck

So this is January...

Roses, in more or less full bloom.  On January 3 in New York.

Dec. 25th, 2015

devil duck

in honor of the day

Dec. 24th, 2015

devil duck

Xmas traditions

One of ours since shortly after moving to NYC is the Store Window Crawl, visiting Macy's, Lord & Taylor, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Barney's, and whatever else we see along the way (e.g. Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, St Patrick's Cathedral).

But I've never before done it wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt as my outermost layer.  72 Fahrenheit on Christmas Eve... 'tain't right...

Dec. 14th, 2015

devil duck

Guns and terrorism

So there was a bill in Congress a week or two ago to say "if you're on the terrorist watch list, you can't buy guns or explosives." Naturally, it was roundly defeated on a nearly-perfect party-line vote: Democrats voted for it, on grounds that if we can't trust you to board a commercial airliner, how can we trust you to carry a military assault weapon into a shopping mall, and Republicans voted against it, on grounds that Guns R The American Way, and if we don't kill this thing, the NRA will support our primary challengers the next time we run for re-election.

Except that the Republicans actually have a legitimate point. If you consider gun ownership and possession a fundamental individual right (as they do, although the courts have supported this only since 2008), the government shouldn't take that right away from you without due process of law, just as it shouldn't prevent you from voting, or imprison you, or kill you, without due process of law. (Never mind that Republicans seem to be all in favor of preventing people from voting, and imprisoning people, and killing people, without due process of law as long as those people are Those People.) In a momentary fling with the truth, prominent Republican Presidential candidates have pointed out that the terrorist watch list includes lots of people who shouldn't be there -- they have similar names to suspected terrorists, or something like that -- and once you're on the terrorist watch list, it's remarkably difficult to get off it.

So why can this error-riddled, non-legal list be used to keep people off commercial airliners? Because the right to ride a commercial airliner isn't mentioned in the Bill of Rights. But in practice, for many Americans, it's more important and useful to be able to ride an airliner than to carry a gun, and more important to be able to drive a car than either. (Ideally, the list should be made a lot more accurate, perhaps raising it to the level of "legal due process", before it's used to deprive anybody of any rights. But that's not happening.)

So what are the differences between gun ownership/possession and car ownership/driving? Both devices kill many thousands of people a year, mostly either their owners or innocent bystanders, almost never "bad guys". Guns kill far more people per capita in the U.S. than in any other developed nation; I think the same is true of cars, but don't have actual numbers at hand. Both devices are frequently used by "bad guys" in the commission of a crime. In order to drive a car, you need a license, which requires passing both a written and a practical exam, and doing it again every few years to renew your license; much of that is true for guns (although see this article about how strict it is). You can lose your driver's license, either temporarily or permanently, by repeated misuse (driving drunk, reckless driving, etc.) and I think the same is true of guns (again, strictness presumably varies from state to state). I don't think car buyers are subject to routine checks against their driving records (although they probably should be -- why would you buy a car if you don't plan to drive it?).

The biggest difference is that car owners are required to carry liability insurance, whose cost is determined by the market based on your behavior and record; a similar requirement would be entirely appropriate for gun owners. A free-market conservative might even support that, as a minimally-intrusive way of encouraging gun-owners to at least keep their guns locked up and unloaded, to not carry them in public unnecessarily, etc. -- not because it's illegal, but because the insurance company will raise my rates. Republican lawmakers won't support it any time in the next ten years, because it might discourage somebody somewhere from buying a gun at all, and that would cut into gun-industry profits and NRA blah blah. And they can say in their defense "but the right to drive a car isn't in the Bill of Rights."
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Dec. 12th, 2015

rant

Courts and legislatures

A recent NY Times op-ed quotes Justice Antonin Scalia as saying (in a speech summarized here) that "the protection of minorities should be the responsibility of legislatures, not courts."

Excuse me? I'm no Constitutional scholar, but that's ridiculous. Legislatures are explicitly elected by majorities, and indeed tend to over-represent majorities. Most of them are elected district-by-district, with one plurality vote-winner in each district becoming the sole legislative voice of that district. As a result, it's mathematically impossible[*] for a 45% minority to elect more than 45% of the legislature, but quite possible for a 55% majority to elect 100% of the legislature. A legislature is the last institution you should expect to protect minorities.

Protecting minorities is very much the responsibility of courts, which are appointed to "do what's right and legal, not necessarily what's popular"; that's why many (though not all) judgeships, including Scalia's own position on the Supreme Court, are lifetime appointments rather than elected positions.

I've always thought of Scalia as a very intelligent guy with whom I almost never agree. This statement, if he actually made it, calls into question the first half of that.

[*] ETA Correction: it's not mathematically impossible, just difficult. I assume for simplicity that all winners are chosen by a majority vote, and we have no 40-30-30 splits or things like that. And I assume that all districts have an equal number of voters. If your bloc (with N% of the electorate) controls the drawing of district lines, it can theoretically elect up to (2N-epsilon)% of the legislature by placing a bare majority of its voters into as many districts as possible, and none of its voters in the rest.

But realistically, whoever currently has a majority in the legislature will probably control the district-drawing process too, so they can hang onto their legislative majority indefinitely as long as their representation in the electorate doesn't fall TOO far below 50%. As witness the current Republican House of Representatives.

But back to the original point. It may be theoretically possible for a "large" minority (say, 45%) to be overrepresented, and even a majority, in a legislature, but it's difficult. And the smaller the minority is, the more likely it is to be underrepresented in the legislature. Since Scalia's original remarks were about LGBT, who are probably under 25% of the adult population, we can reasonably expect them to be underrepresented in any legislature, and cannot assume that any legislature will protect them.
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