Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Notes on cooking

Four plantains yielded nine
mofongo patties. Here's one of 'em.
I've been cooking for myself for a couple of decades now. I'm no one's idea of a great chef, but I get by. With few exceptions, I stay comfortably inside my area of expertise (basically, Asian food, plus various kinds of vegetarian stew and goulash) and all is well.

One nice thing about sticking to what you know is that you learn how the recipes work, so you can improvise if need be. To wit, on Monday night, I finally got around to using the plantains in my refrigerator. I'd bought them to make mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish. It's straightforward: You boil them, mash them up with some garlic, salt and pepper, form them into balls and fry them. Very tasty. (And yes, I realize they're neither Asian nor goulash.) 

Unfortunately, I added too much stock during the mashing stage, so the plantains were too goopy to fry properly. What to do? Well, if you want to wring moisture out of something, baking works nicely. And if I pan-fried the goop beforehand and let it absorb some oil, I figured it would taste about the same in the end. 

So it did. Fried the goop, spooned it into some muffin pans I happened to have, baked for 10 minutes at 425 degrees, and voilà. I actually like this approach better, because deep-frying uses so much oil. It's messy, and the plantains suck it up like crazy. I think this will be the new SOP.

The plantains were four for $1, and it looks like I'll get three meals out of them. That's about as cheap as it gets. Which brings me to Good and Cheap, the free downloadable cookbook aimed at people in SNAP, aka food stamps. You should try it! Apparently it's reaching its target audience (NPR says it's been downloaded more than 200,000 times), and it should. It's a fine cookbook, and very practical.

I've liked the GandC recipes I've made, and I was delighted to find I'd already stumbled on my own onto many of author Leanne Brown's helpful hints for shopping and eating. (Though I have to say, I don't feel anywhere as nearly as strongly as she does about freshly ground pepper.) Fundamentally I agree with her basic attitude: If you do it right, you can eat within fairly tight time and money budgets and still eat very well. 

Don't know that I'd give my own cooking the honor of that "very," but I'm getting there. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bad compatibilism

(Note: Written in February, but I never hit "publish.")

Phil Plait, the author of the Bad Astronomy blog at Slate.com, is distressed that America has such a major hangup when it comes to evolution: 
Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country. 
“Provably wrong.” A bracing phrase, and an accurate one. But if that’s the case, then why do millions of Americans embrace said belief, why do conservative politicians constantly scheme to have it taught in classrooms? The problem for us rationalists, says Plait, is the messaging: 
The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs. But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. 
Pope John Paul II acknowledged evolution’s reality, Plait notes, so surely religion and evolution can be harmonized. Sadly, many Americans associate evolution with atheism, which they revile. So break that link! More religious people should speak up for evolution, Plait says, and show it’s not a threat:
[I]f we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.
Plait then attempts to show just that ... and falls flat on his face: 
Whether you think life originated out of ever-more complex chemical reactions occurring on an ancient Earth, or was breathed into existence by God, evolution would take over after that moment. It’s a bit like the Big Bang; we don’t know how the Universe came into existence at that moment, but starting a tiny fraction of a second after that event our science does a pretty fair job of explanation. 
That's what's known in the trade as the “god of the gaps” argument, and it automatically earns you an "F." Tucking God into a couple of early moments in the universe that we can't quite explain might look like an innocuous way of keeping the supposed Omniscient Author of the Universe in business. But consider: What happens if and when we find explanations for those moments, too? Does Plait really think the God's-breath theory of life's origins has a chance of beating out the complex-chemical-reaction theory? 

More to the point, Plait is basically conceding that we don't need God as an explanatory factor for roughly 99 percent of the history of the universe. That's quite a lot, and rather more than a believer is likely to be happy with.

Listen, for example, to the believers cited in this post about the HBO documentary "Questioning Darwin" (my italics in what follows):  
I think a lot of rationalists tend to fall into thinking creationists are just dumbasses. What I really liked about the documentary was that it didn’t hesitate to show how creationists can be articulate and actually quite persuasive, if you accept their premises. Indeed, a lot of them talked at length about how their belief in a loving god who specifically created the universe for them is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory (and other scientific theories based in astronomy, physics, and geology that demonstrate that the universe and our planet are very, very old—Ken Ham at one point tries to argue down the idea that light from stars is millions of years old when it gets to us), and you know what? I found that argument persuasive. Certainly more persuasive than the typical attempt to reconcile the obvious fact that evolution is true with the desire to believe in a loving god, which is usually some variation of, “Well, God created the universe through evolution.”
To believe that, the creationists point out, you have to believe their god is a complete and utter moron, that he spent billions of years spinning out galaxies and stars and let the Earth lay dormant for billions of years before sparking a single-celled life into being and then spending the next billion years carefully guiding evolution until finally he got what he wanted: A human civilization that is literally only a few thousand years old. If you’ve ever been to a museum where they put a piece of paper on top of a rock formation to show how insignificant we are in terms of time—or if you’ve ever pondered how tiny our planet is in the great expanse of space—then this is beyond idiotic. It’s like taking multiple generations of people tending an oven to make a cupcake.
Ex-ACT-ly. Nine times out of 10, if people say they've reconciled science and religion, it's either because they don't understand the former or they've rendered the latter into vague, formless mush. To take Christianity as an example, surely St. Peter, St. Paul and the rest of the church fathers thought their doctrine amounted to more than "be nice to each other and feel a sense of wonder about the world." But allow pretty much any substantive metaphysics into your Christianity — the personal God, the divinity of Jesus, the immortal soul, miracles, the resurrection of the dead — and you bump up against major contradictions with the scientific worldview. Conversely, if you pay attention to what the scientific method tells us about coherence, falsifiability, standards of evidence and so on, theology becomes very hard to take at all seriously. Just wishing these two intellectual disciplines could play nicely with each other, won't make it so. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The apotheosis of the kleptorporation

Not far off.
Comcast is the nation's largest cable provider and it is a notoriously horrible company. Its products are overpriced, and its customer service is barely distinguishable from extortion. It gets away with this because it has de facto monopoly power vis a vis customers and monopsony power vis a vis media companies. It maintains that power by lobbying all levels of government wth feral intensity. Internally, Comcast is a dysfunctional mess. For running this dog's breakfast of a company, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts was paid $31.4 million in 2013.

Comcast has honed its modus operandi to a fine point, but its basic strategy is hardly unique, notes Matt Stoller in "Lazy Corporate Monopolies Are Why America Can't Have Nice Things," reposted at Naked Capitalism earlier this month (my emphasis):
Without restraint on behavior, corporate executives will work to grab as much market and political power as possible, because only market power and political power allows them to have pricing leverage without investment, risk, or innovation. ... Since this dramatic shift in antitrust enforcement, corporate power in every industry from cable to railroads to rental cars to banking to health insurance to pipelines has skyrocketed. The result has been inefficiency and price gouging.
The other day, I was reading a New Yorker article about Vladimir Putin that made reference to Russia's reputation as a "kleptocracy." I think it's high time we had an analogous word for companies. I hereby propose "kleptorporation." It's as ugly and clunky as what it refers to, yet clear in meaning. Also, it has "torpor" in the middle, which nicely captures the "lazy" part of the package.

Down with kleptorporatism! Fight the kleptorporocracy! It's a word whose time has come.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Behavioral economics, the coffee edition

Back in January, I received a gift card for my birthday to Cross Keys, a coffee shop about half a block from where I work. They're valid for 15 coffees: You get the card stamped each time, filling up the little grid on the back. It's very good coffee, by the way.

I liked using the card instead of fiddling with cash (I've never gotten into the habit of using credit cards for purchases that small) so after I used it up, I bought another one. And here's the thing: Even though I know perfectly well that I paid for it, it feels like I'm getting a free coffee every time.

It really does. And what a psychological difference there is between giving money and getting a stamp. The latter feels almost like an accomplishment: a coffee merit badge.

I've noticed a similar thing with EZPass: The payment is invisible. When I zip through a tollbooth, I know I should think, "There goes $7.43," or whatever it is, but I don't. Contrast that with feeding quarters into a vending machine to get a $1.75 soda. "Crap, is this thing expensive. @#%& inflation!"

The subjective friction of transactions matters a lot. It's nuts that I get more pleasure out of a gift-card coffee than a cash coffee, but I do. It's nuts that spending $1.75 at a vending machine irks me more than spending $17.50 on a restaurant meal, but pulling out a $20 bill or a credit card is quick and easy, so it does.

This is why I will never set up automatic bill pay, and it is no doubt why the utility companies keep insisting I should.

Friday, July 25, 2014

We could fund Social Security with the output gap

Via the Economic Policy Institute
This was going to be part of a larger post, but I think it's so striking that it deserves a post of its own.

Very briefly, the estimated output gap in the U.S. economy in 2013 was $868 billion. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security outlays that year were $808 billion.

In other words, we could pay in full for our single largest federal program, and have billions of dollars left over, with all the wealth we're not generating because we can't get our economy running properly.

That's something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone going on about how extravagant and unsustainable our retirement programs are.

Last month, I wrote a post called "Every year, we waste Spain." I should probably title this one, "Last year, we failed to produce Turkey." (Its nominal GDP in 2013 was $821 billion.)

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