27 February 2009


First, a word of explanation and apology. Almost all my reading right now falls into three categories: I read for work/school, I read in service of my hobbies and interests, and unless I'm on a media fast, I read a bit most days from the New York Times online. Some of all that turns up here, but if it seems like most of my general interest posts come from the NYTimes, well, that's about all the general reading I do.

Now, if that wasn't enough of a turn-off, I'll warn you that this post is really nothing special. Just an "I need a break so I'll blog something" post. And it's a little depressing. But this article from (you guessed it) the NYTimes gave me pause. I am, compared to most people, food obsessed, and on two levels. First, as I've blogged before, I love really great food. And when it comes to great food, nutrition is not a consideration. I'm very happy to eat 1500 calories of fat and sugar in one meal, if it's a truly great meal. Otherwise, as a National Weight Control Registry candidate, I am usually quite careful about what I eat the rest of the time. I have a definite personal list of "good" foods and "bad" foods.

But in spite of that, I believe strongly that moral categories like "good" and "evil" should not be applied to food. It's a good thing to eat "bad" food sometimes, if truly pleasurable and celebratory. (I speak nutritionally, of course. Lousy cooking and spoiled food are rightly called "bad" and should not be eaten).

Speaking of good or bad eating makes more sense. But as this article illustrates, obsessing about healthy eating can itself become a destructive eating disorder. We have to be especially careful around our kids, who are less able than adults to moderate or interpret hyperbolic comments we may make about "evil" foods.

    Lisa Dorfman, a registered dietitian and the director of sports nutrition and performance at the University of Miami, says that she often sees children who are terrified of foods that are deemed “bad” by parents. “It’s almost a fear of dying, a fear of illness, like a delusional view of foods in general,” she said. “I see kids whose parents have hypnotized them. I have 5-year-olds that speak like 40-year-olds. They can’t eat an Oreo cookie without being concerned about trans fats.”

26 February 2009

Phantom Limb

I have some interest in both architecture and design and livability/sustainability issues, so I occasionally read Allison Arieff's blog on the NYTimes website. Her latest post was more of a meditation on books, looking at William Stout and his eponymous architecture and design bookstore in San Francisco, occasioned by a recent lecture he gave. Visiting Stout's incredible bookstore just went on my bucket list.

But given the number of books I use and own, constantly surrounded by them in my home and university offices, I am in fact pretty unsentimental about them. I buy some books for the pure love of them, for their typographic tactility, but mostly they are just a source of information and entertainment. So bibliophile sentimentality, as information moves ever more rapidly from ink to bytes, is not something I keenly feel. But I admit that Arieff's closing remarks moved even me just a bit.

    Stout’s presentation [on his life with books] was so inspiring yet so bittersweet because his vocation seems entirely of an era that is passing us by. For centuries we’ve looked to libraries as historic evidence of cultured civilizations: will electronic texts fill that bill for future generations? While I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by the Kindle, it will never replace the rows and stacks of books that crowd my house. And when I first settle into my comfy chair ready to read with that new device, I’ll probably feel as if I had a phantom limb — I’ll mourn the absence of my fingers slowly turning the pages.
(Sorry for putting you through yet another "death of books" post. Maybe I'm more sentimental about it than I think . . .)

25 February 2009

The Aphorist

Someone (an otherwise insane poster, in fact) sent this out to a philosophy listserv I subscribe to under the title "Political Philosophy - Pithy Version." Most of it may be more humorous than true, but there are a few choice bons mots. Apologies for length.

In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.  -- John Adams

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But then I repeat myself.  -- Mark Twain

There is no distinctly native American criminal class . . . save Congress.  -- Mark Twain

No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.  -- Mark Twain (1866)

Talk is cheap . . . except when Congress does it.  -- Anonymous

What this country needs are more unemployed politicians. -- Edward Langley, Artist (1928-1995)

A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.  -- Thomas Jefferson

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.  -- P.J. O'Rourke, Civil Libertarian

I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.  -- Winston Churchill

A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.  -- George Bernard Shaw

Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.  -- Frederic Bastiat, French Economist (1801-1850)

In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one party of the citizens to give to the other.  -- Voltaire (1764)

Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.  -- James Bovard, Civil Libertarian (1994)

Foreign aid might be defined as a transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.  -- Douglas Casey, Classmate of Bill Clinton at Georgetown University

Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.  -- Ronald Reagan (1986)

I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.  -- Will Rogers

If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free!  -- P.J. O'Rourke

Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you!  -- Pericles (430 B.C.)

The government is like a baby's alimentary canal, with a happy appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other.  -- Ronald Reagan

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.  -- Winston Churchill

The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.  -- Mark Twain

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.  -- Herbert Spencer, English Philosopher (1820-1903)

If you don't read the newspaper you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper you are misinformed. -- Mark Twain

24 February 2009

Why I Am Not a Liberal

I used to think I was a conservative, then I thought I was a liberal, then a progressive, then a pragmatist. Now I regard myself as post-ideological. That's another way of saying, everyone gets it right and wrong in turns, whatever their ideology. No -ism will infallibly guide. If I had to chose a political label, it would simply be critic. Or maybe aphorist (see tomorrow's post). Or crooked timberist (see below).

Per liberalism, David Brooks really nailed it in his column today. I discovered Brooks as an author (Bobos in Paradise, brilliant) before I discovered him as a columnist. But in him I find a post-ideological soulmate. It's "clear that we’re on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes," and his article frames the trepidation most of feel about that, whether Obama fans (as he and I are) or not. But I loved a particular biographical aside he offers up:

    The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.

    These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

    Before long, I was no longer a liberal. Liberals are more optimistic about the capacity of individual reason and the government’s ability to execute transformational change. They have more faith in the power of social science, macroeconomic models and 10-point programs.
I have little faith in any of that. Odds are much of this will help some, but none of this will rescue the economy. It looks like Wall St. is agreeing with me, but hey, we all know what geniuses those guys are.

21 February 2009

Battery Addendum

My earlier post on the newer (low self-discharge) battery cell technology could have benefited from a bit more homework. But hey, I don't do this for a living. It's just a lunchtime diversion. So, some corrections and expansions.

First, the Wiki article on the low self-discharge NiMH battery is useful. The article lists about 30 brands, all apparently produced by just five makers. So consumers have lots of choices.

I contrasted alkaline single-use batteries with NiMH rechargeables in terms of energy density, and said they were much lower. That is not true. Now, not all (non-lithium) single-use batteries are alkalines. There are several technologies used, some better than others. Most dollar-store batteries are probably non-alkalines and therefore have very little juice, much less than rechargeables. But the name-brand alkalines are in fact more energy dense than rechargeables, approaching 3000 mAh for the very best.

That being so, why do rechargeables last longer and/or perform better in some devices like digital cameras? I had thought it was related to energy density (mAh), but that is incorrect. The reasons are more complex, but one forum poster explained it nicely:

    It's true that alkaline cells have an impressive energy capacity, usually greater then 2500mAh. But this is only one of several factors that affects the performance of a cell. At certain points in their operation digicams have extremely high power demands. The power a cell or battery can deliver depends on both the voltage it can provide, and the electrical current it can deliver (the power supplied is actually the voltage multiplied by the current). The voltage is limited, it is fixed by the chemistry of the cell, so the only way to deliver that power is with a large current. The essential problem with alkaline batteries is that they have great difficulty providing these large electric currents. Alkaline cells are brilliant, however, in the right application. For low power devices, or devices that are used infrequently e.g. doorbells, radios, remote controls, etc., they are superb. They have a huge energy capacity, and a shelf-life of several years. But if you need bursts of high power, as required in a digicam, they are unsuitable - except in emergencies. (Many pro photographers keep some high quality alkalines in their bag so that they can always take a few shots if their rechargeables run out, etc.)
So, for low-power, long-term use, alkalines work great. But for electronics with higher power demands (cameras, music players, flashlights, portable gaming devices), lithiums and NiMH rechargeables perform much better. But the new low self-discharge NiMH batteries work about equally as well as any of them in most applications. As well as being cheaper and greener. For now, they retain their superbattery crown.

Addendum: See further update here.

20 February 2009

A Better Breakfast

I've long been disappointed with the traditional breakfast foods, except for eggs, which I eat by the dozen (we buy five dozen at a time). I have a friend who used to challenge tradition and cook himself a full spaghetti breakfast. For good health and weight maintenance, breakfast should by all rights be our largest, richest, and most indulgent meal of the day. It's the Cary Grant Diet: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.

It's the lack of breakfast variety that most disappoints, and this week Mark Bittman of the NY Times took that on. His article was less interesting to me for the recipes it offers than for its challenge to American breakfast culture. I am inspired. We'll see what happens. An excerpt:

    [I]t could be that I’ve traveled enough to learn the joys of jook, the Chinese rice porridge also known as congee, which is among my favorite ways to start the day even when seasoned with nothing more than scallions, soy and chopped peanuts; of the kipper, baked beans, broiled mushrooms, tomatoes and other staples of the traditional English breakfast; of cucumbers, feta and olives, which I ate daily in Turkey; of ful medames, the lemon-kissed fava concoction of Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East; and, one glorious day about 10 years ago, of kao tom, the Thai version of jook, loaded with sausage, eggs and nam pla. Everything is fair game at breakfast — and long has been, of course — but to most Americans it doesn’t seem appropriate to start making what amounts to dinner at seven in the morning. It’s one thing to eat leftover pizza, pasta, roast chicken, soup, whatever; it’s entirely another to start cooking them while your tea or coffee is still brewing.

19 February 2009

A Dash of Dilbert

A colleague sent me this, to reassure me of my indispensability in my job. I'm not at all reassured (I'm in fact disturbed that he felt the need to reassure me), but I did laugh. As I do at most Dilberts. Oh how I wish they made no sense to me.


18 February 2009

Battery Revolution

I've realized recently that a number of my "guy stuff" interests (watches, DAPs, pocket knives) fit under the general umbrella of everyday carry items (EDC, in guy stuff lingo). A surprising number of guys give a surprising amount of thought to what they put in their pockets, on their key chains, and in their backpacks, briefcases, etc. It may be partly some hardwired Boy Scout impulse, but it makes sense that we should think hard about the stuff we pack everywhere with us.

So I ordered a mini flashlight. Any number of times I've wished I had one (again just last night), and with the incredible new LED emitters out now, a single AA flashlight just a little larger than the battery powering it can throw out an amazing amount of light for more than an hour. When I get it, I'll review it.

But another interesting discovery was that there has been a big leap in rechargeable battery technology in the last couple of years. I think it started in 2006, when Sanyo introduced their Eneloop batteries. You can read their website for details, but these are a fantastic improvement over older NiMH rechargeables. The biggest advance is this: Traditional NiMH cells discharge even when not in use (self-discharge). That means, if you charge them up and toss them in your camera, when you pull it out next month to use it, the batteries will be partly or even entirely dead. You basically have to charge them right before use.

But Eneloops retain 85% of their charge after a full year of storage. This is not as good as quality alkaline or (especially) lithium single-use cells, but it is still a phenomenal advance. And these cells still retain the two big advantages of traditional rechargeables: very high capacities (2000 mAh vs 400-1000 mAh for standard alkalines) and high reusability. Eneloops are said to be good for 1000 charge cycles. That means if you use a full charge and recharge every week, a set will last you 19 years.

How expensive are they? A four-pack of AAs is about $12. You can buy an excellent Duracell charger with two AAs from Amazon for $17. Given the cost savings, greater performance, and environmental benefits, there is now no reason to buy conventional alkalines. However, lithium cells are still the best choice for long-term emergency storage and extreme temperature usage. They self-discharge just 0.5% per year at room temperature, meaning they are still pretty fresh after 10 years, and work well even in very cold weather. They are also very energy dense (typically 2900 mAh for lithium AAs).

Since Eneloops came on the market, other manufacturers have introduced similar cells under the name "hybrid" or "pre-charged rechargeable." (Older rechargeables necessarily came uncharged.) The main contenders are Duracell Pre-charged Rechargeables, Rayovac Hybrids, and Kodak Pre-charged. Some Duracells (made in Japan) are thought to be rebranded Sanyo Eneloops, while other Duracells (made in China) are thought to be rebranded Rayovac Hybrids.They all perform similarly, but the Sanyos have a bit more energy than the Rayovacs.

Addendum: See updates here and here.

05 February 2009

Touched: Solebon Solitaire

I mentioned in my review of Mondo Solitaire a competing game, Solebon Solitaire. I did in fact get it and have been testing them in a head-to-head smackdown. The winner? Undecided. Mondo has many more games, an insane number, but Solebon is adding more with every update. Mondo is a little more automated (it moves cards where they should go for you), which may be a pro or con, depending on preference. The big difference is graphics. Solebon uses a vertical screen orientation rather than horizontal, as Mondo does. The cards are also larger and the graphics a bit nicer. I find the instructions a bit better, too. And for $2.00, I can't imagine anyone feeling they did not get their money's worth. Disappointingly, neither of these solitaires just has my favorite variant, Australian Patience.

04 February 2009


An epiphany is a rare event, by which I mean, a moment of fundamental insight that instantly and permanently changes your perception of life and the world. But I had one such in Nov. 2006 when I visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., as I was in town for a conference. I've been to the National Gallery a number of times, and each visit seems more rich and meaningful than the last. But this time I was struck by two paintings in particular, not so much for their artistic merit, but for an insight into the human experience that they communicated to me.

I will not say too much about them. You can click on the images below and get a fuller description. The first is a Dutch still life by Willem Claesz Heda of a table laden with food, a common painting subject at the time and his specialty. I was first drawn to the realism. Then I thought, "You know, that kind of looks tasty." Then I began to think more deeply about food as an object of art, its inherent aestheticism, its timeless and universal desirability, and its centrality in our hierarchy of pleasures.

Willem Claesz Heda, Banquet Piece with Mince Pie (1635)

The second painting is another Dutch work, this time by Jan Steen. It shows a "scene of daily life," perhaps a wedding feast, and while the dancing couple may be at physical center, food obviously plays a central role in this celebration. With this painting I reflected on how timelessly central food is to most all of our festive occasions, and how communal eating (feasting!) is the quintessential festive act.

Jan Steen, The Dancing Couple (1663)

These two paintings worked together with a really great meal there (at Ten Pehn, fantastic) to convince me that, while food is a quotidian necessity, great food should be a bigger part of my life. And thus was a passion born.

03 February 2009

Gastronomic Racism

There is arising in Italy a movement to ban ethnic food restaurants, anything that is not Italian. This would be nothing too concerning, a nationalistic lark, except it is actually getting some substantive political support (read here). While I like to see enthusiasm for traditional, regional and ethnic cuisine, like the French passion for raw milk cheese, I find the legal suppression of competing food cultures pretty shocking. Though I'll admit, the legal suppression of McDonalds I might be open to.

02 February 2009

A Good Offense

No, this is not a post about the Steelers. In a strange departure, this post is actually a shout-out to a truly offensive artist for a cause, Oleg Volk.

Now, I am a registered Dem and a true liberal among Mormons. That last fact, of course, does not necessarily make me very liberal at all. And I confess, I am ultra-conservative in one cardinal respect. I am a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment, or RKBA in proper rightwing nut job lingo (the right to keep and bear arms). Many Mormon friends, who fear for my liberal soul, take great solace in the fact that I believe everyone has the right to pack heat.

To use a phrase like "everyone has the right to pack heat" is of course flippant. It would be seen as offensive and inflammatory to RKBA opponents. Most RKBA advocates take both the right and responsibility of gun ownership very seriously, and certainly I do. But at the same time, advocates love to use zingers like that, not privately (firearms are no joking matter), but rather publicly. At least in the right company. Mostly because they love to offend RKBA opponents. It's tail twisting.

But of course offense and humor have long been used to advance rights and causes. Since it is usually liberals who are activists, pretty much by definition, one does not encounter it so much in connection with conservatives. But done well, I think it is a rich role reversal.

So, Oleg Volk. Next to whack-em-n-stack-em Ted Nugent (even I detest him), he would surely be at the top of any anti-RKBA hate list. Volk is the founder/owner of The High Road, a massively popular gun and RKBA forum, and an emigrant from the USSR who knows something personally about oppression and defenselessness. He also produces pro-RKBA advocacy ads that are widely seen on the Interweb, especially on forums. At first I thought that most were in just shockingly bad taste, and more likely to retard than advance public opinion. But I think I've come to better appreciate the hyperbolic genre he is working in. Of course he wants to provoke, and even offend, and that he does. He even makes me uncomfortable. But I guess the best defense is . . .

Many examples of Volk's art and ads can be found on A Human Right. Here are a few mild ones: