Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Red, White and Blue

In America we have two teams: the Blue Team (Democrats, the left) and the Red Team (Republicans, the right.) I used to be on the Blue Team. I gave them my moral and electoral support. In America, people can accumulate lot of money and they can use it to influence society more strongly, whether for good or ill, than one person should be able to. To counterbalance that, I supported the Blue Team because it was all about constraining the very rich using the one-man, one-vote principle of democracy.

But then the Blue Team said that they didn't want me, or people like me, on the team any more. They said that as a white male, I was part of the problem and could never be part of the solution.  It didn't matter that I agreed with their stated goals. Maybe they had hidden, more radical goals they knew I would never back, and they figured I needed to be out of the room while they talked about those goals. They began explicitly mapping out a future in which people like me would be taken down a few notches.

I can tolerate a little of that, but only so much. Worse, the Blue Team stopped talking about trying to moderate the influence of money. They seemed to want to outdo the Red Team in catering to the rich, using women and minorities as human shields. I'm a straight white male and have no value as a human shield. So, I've been off the Blue Team for many years.

Free of the influence of people like me, the Blue Team has been rolling out its agenda in places like New York and California. As you might expect, those places are now an interesting mix of an extremely rich upper crust that is practically above the law, and struggling, multiracial, literally disenfranchised (talking about noncitizens here) workers that Team Blue says are their patrons but who they treat more like pets. The old Confederacy would be envious.

The Red Team is the same as it always has been, so I'm not about to join them. And the Blue Team is really screwing up, at least if you take their stated goals at face value. They want America to be something like the social democracies of northern Europe, but with white men on the sidelines. They are badly mistaken that this can happen. Let's face it, most of what the Blue Team loves about its coastal enclaves was created by white men: the buildings, the technology, the governments, the hospitals, the colleges. And I don't just mean it was white guys digging the subway tunnels, I mean it was white guys who invented the idea of a subway, marshaled the capital needed to build it, and then got the job done. You're going to argue that the Democratic National Committee, or the faculty of Wellesley, could build a subway, or the internet, too. If they did, it would be a total departure from their inclinations now. And I will only mention concepts like tolerance and free expression, because they have to be mentioned. It takes a confident majority to welcome dissent, and there is nothing like a confident majority anywhere on the Blue Team.

So I'm a free agent now, watching the Blue Team occasionally grabbing the ball from the Red Team, but running toward the wrong goal line, and trading all their best players. I want to believe that the score doesn't matter, but we all know it does.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

49-Year Food Streak

I don't like to brag so openly, but this is an accomplishment I am truly proud of: I have been able to obtain food sufficient to meet the nutritional demands of my body for not 10 or 20 consecutive days, but nearly 49 straight years!

This is the "Food Triangle" or in Spanish, el tri├íngulo de alimentos. It includes many foods that I've found useful in maintaining my streak. If you arrange your meals in the shape of a triangle, the nutritional value is increased by the natural log of e.

Scientists have discovered that our bodies need over 1,500 calories per day just to stay alive and healthy. That means finding and eating food every single day, my friends. Every. Single. Day. There is no holiday when it comes to nutrition. It's my understanding that some people have maintained the required intake for over one hundred years. That's right, a century. The all-time record is 122 years. Almost unbelievable.

Forty-nine straight years is a noteworthy achievement. But just between me and my readers, I have actually been able to considerably exceed the required calories for extended periods. Nutritionists have referred to this condition as "being a lard-ass."

But it has not all been peaches and cream. One day back in '08, I overslept and had to skip breakfast. I'd planned to make up for it at lunch, but a meeting ran long and I didn't make it to the cafeteria in time. Running on nothing but a cup of coffee all afternoon, I stumbled home, wan and nearly delirious, barely able to hoist my shaking frame onto the couch. There was no way I was going to be able to get to the kitchen and make a sandwich. Things looked truly grim, but then my wife came in with a box of donuts. All was saved.

That has not been my only close call, but I have cheated death again and again by doggedly pursuing sources of food each and every day for these 49 years. Finding food in places where normal people would never think to look is one of the characteristics of us food-marathoners. I've eaten hot dogs at ballparks, bowls of rancid peanuts in roadhouses, and once ate the butt end off a loaf of whole-grain bread. These are extreme measures, but once you get a long streak built up, you're willing to take more and more risks to keep it going.

I don't want to jinx it, but making it an even 50 years is looking more possible every day. I will definitely blog about it, but you'll probably see it in the news. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Hypnagogic Hallucination

Last night I experienced an interesting hypnagogic hallucination - one that occurs while falling asleep or waking up. Mine occurred as I was waking up in the middle of the night from a period of REM sleep.

REM is a normal sleep phase in which your eyeballs twitch rapidly from side to side under your eyelids, for reasons unknown to science. It is usually considered undesirable to wake up during a REM phase - the reason it happened to me is that I took a nap from 7 to 8 p.m., then remained awake until around midnight. That screwed up my sleep phases. Then I went to bed and woke up with the hallucination around 4 a.m.

This used to happen in college when I would have to get up for an early class and would then return to bed and nap for an hour or so. During the nap, I would often have extremely vivid and even lucid dreams. In a lucid dream, you know you're dreaming but you don't wake up.

Anyway, this hypnagogic hallucination last night involved a fixed scene that could have been an apartment or dorm room. There was a shelf unit against a wall with some books and other things in it. On top of the shelf unit was some kind of appliance, like a coffee maker or a toaster. The hallucination rapidly cycled through a large number of still images, like flipping through the pages of a picture book. The images changed at the rate of four or five a second. With each image, the appliance changed slightly. It would sprout little knobs and handles that would later disappear. At one point it took on sort of a retro, chromed-up appearance, with the colored parts a light turquoise, like a mutant toaster from Miami in 1955.

Other things changed slightly as well but the only thing I specifically remember were a couple of people in horizontal striped shirts appearing briefly at the left side of the scene. There was no sound. The hallucination went on for maybe a minute at which point I woke up fully.

I wonder whether the image rate was the same rate as the eye movements in REM sleep. They seemed to be about the same. And, the images of the appliance reminded me of eigenfaces. An eigenface is a "typical" face derived from many images of real faces. The idea is that by combining a small number of eigenfaces you can generate any real face. If you know linear algebra, this will make perfect sense, but if not, I don't know of a good way to explain it. No single image of the appliance looked like a real appliance, but maybe if you combined them in different proportions, you could generate images of real appliances.

Is REM sleep a time when the brain reviews its collection of eigenimages, maybe to "refresh the database" for use the next day? Or am I just crazier than a shithouse rat?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Raw Water

I read about this new fad for "raw" water. By raw, they mean untreated in any way - no chlorination, fluoridation, filtering or anything. It's supposed to be healthier; the claims center around avoiding treatments like fluoridation and preserving the natural microbes, some of which are at least harmless.  But as with most natural food fads, there is a large amount of woo masquerading as knowledge. One guy said his raw water is best within "a lunar cycle" of being what? Harvested? He said it turns green after that, because of overgrowth of its natural microbes. If you just circulate the water in the presence of air, like a running stream does, it'll prevent it from going stagnant and green. Did I just give him an idea for another expensive product? "Raw Water Circulator - Just $499.99." [Edit - there in fact is such a device but I will not dignify it with a link.]

They get the water from unpolluted springs, and one company even makes a giant solar-powered dehumidifier for condensing humidity straight out of the air and into a tank where you can draw it off to drink with your organic raw kale salad (works great in San Francisco; your experience may vary in Albuquerque.) The Juicero guy is involved. Juicero initially looked like it was just an expensive, premium juicer, but turned out to be completely useless for anything other than transferring money from Juicero customers to the Juicero company. The raw water movement is not being helped by its association with the Juicero guy.

It seems to have started on the West Coast among the computer crowd, or as they like to call themselves, the technology crowd.  This is surprising, because these are the kinds of people who like to say ironically "our precious bodily fluids" to mock people with fringe scientific beliefs. (Long aside: I refuse to call computers "technology." There was technology way before there were computers. Also, in LA, they have many mom-and-pop stores that sell bottled water, but I think those are for immigrants who come from places where you can't drink the tap water and are accustomed to buying it at a store. I don't know how many Angelenos realize that these stores do not exist in most parts of the country.)

I'm not going to conceal my belief that about 10% of the US population is in the grip of a religious hysteria based on anti-racism, anti-sexism and environmentalism. Mystical beliefs about foods seem to go hand-in-hand with strong religious convictions - kosher and halal laws, the Holy Communion, use of marijuana by Rastafarians, use of peyote by Mexican Indians and so on. The raw water thing strikes me as being, for the most part, a food mysticism tied up with the progressive religious hysteria.

But I'm not ready to completely dismiss raw water, at least, if you can get it for free. I drank it myself for the first 18 years of my life - we had a groundwater well at our house, not city water. Our water was really raw; it would get smelly in the hot part of the summer and was very high in both iron and minerals, not to mention completely free of fluoride. It would leave orange iron stains on our laundry and bathtub. Far as I know, it didn't hurt me - I've made it to age 48 without any serious illnesses. And I didn't have a cavity for the first ten years of my life, despite drinking gallons of Coke and eating sugared cereals. Scandalously, we never paid a dime for our raw water except for the electricity to run the well pump. One place now sells raw water for $7 a gallon. I'm not paying $7 a gallon for anything non-alcoholic.

So I'm living proof that you can drink raw water and, at least, not suffer. Obviously, you don't want to mess with contaminated water. In my dad's generation, the only water was from a filthy creek running through a mining camp and it killed more than one kid. But water doesn't have to be pristine. In fact, unless your water is distilled or from reverse osmosis, what you're really drinking is a very dilute solution of various mysterious substances. Science has trouble understanding the effects of low concentrations of things. They don't know whether radiation hurts you at any level or whether there's some cutoff below which it's harmless.

There is some evidence that your gut bacteria affects your general health. Whether bacteria in water has any effect on your gut bacteria is unknown; it seems to me that bacteria in food are much more important, because many bacteria will be killed dead by stomach acid, but if bacteria lives in meat then it probably survived the stomach of whatever animal ate it. But it's not unthinkable that certain bacteria in water might help you.

Fluoridated water doesn't seem to be a problem; if it was, we would know it by now. But there is other stuff in water that may not be so benign. Groundwater (including raw water of course) has estrogenic compounds that come from fertilizers, birth control pills and other stuff. Scientists seem to be reluctant to probe whether the well-documented decreases in sperm counts and changes in the age at puberty are related to this. And antidepressants like fluoxetine can be detected in groundwater. Detectable does not equal harmful, but again, science is not good at understanding the effects of very dilute solutions. These contaminants might be bad, or, less likely, they could be good. And pure H2O seems like it would be the least harmful, but again, we just don't know.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Things That Will Not Survive the Crisis

Regular fans will know that I like a generational theory of history that predicts we will soon experience a climactic Crisis which will involve the destruction and rebuilding of key institutions.

I've started a mental list of things that won't survive the Crisis, and when you start carrying around a mental list, it's time to write a blog post. I've tried not to focus too much on my personal pet peeves, but as with anyone, I can only give my own perspective. The general theme is institutional structures that protect the older "haves" at the expense of the younger "have-nots".

1. College in its present form/role
      a. $65,000/year, government-subsidized tuition
      b. College degree needed to manage a small office or shop
      c. Private colleges with tax-exempt, eleven-digit endowments
2. The health care system
      a. MDs treating minor illnesses and injuries and writing routine prescriptions
      b. Anti-competitive practices of the American Medical Association
      c. Medical insurance will probably be obsoleted by some form of universal, socialized medicine
3. Internet, social media, web search
      a. If private companies are allowed to continue to have a role, they will be regulated utilities like          the old AT&T
 4. Software
     a. End user agreements that are plainly illegal but so long that nobody reads them
     b. Strong intellectual property protections, i.e. software patents
5. Zoning and land-use restrictions
6. Licensing laws for occupations like barbers and hair braiders

Then there's the big one: government debts and other obligations. The federal government will lose the ability to perpetually turn over a huge debt, and governments at all levels, as well as some big corporations, will be unable to pay promised pensions to retirees. This will probably be the big trigger that sets off all the other changes, but exactly how it'll start and pan out are beyond my ken.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Crashes: A Failure of Prediction

When overall economic production decreases (technically two quarters in a row), we call it a recession, a crash, or a crisis. This is accompanied by a sharp increase in unemployment, and sometimes a fall in the dollar value of goods and services.

The world's economists do not understand recessions well enough to prevent them. So we're talking about a complicated phenomenon that can be approached from many different perspectives. Here I explore one perspective that might provide a simpler understanding of the causes of recessions.

Money looks like a fixed quantity of green pieces of paper that get passed from person to person. In a recession, suddenly everyone has less money, which means money "disappeared". But how can that happen? It's not like people are burning it in bonfires.

Of course, what I just described is currency, and most money counted by the economy is not currency; it's numbers in a computer. Here is where intuitive concepts of money start to fail. What do those numbers mean? Can I buy a hamburger with them? It seems that I can. I can pay for the burger with a credit card, and then make an electronic payment to pay the card balance at the end of the month. There is no currency involved; it's just numbers in computers changing.

If the law required your bank to have a dollar bill in its vault for every dollar on your bank balance, and all the electronic payment systems were perfect, then the electronic numbers would be just like currency. But that's not how banks work. If everyone went to the bank tomorrow and tried to withdraw their balance in dollar bills, the bank would have to shut down. They don't have that many dollars. They predict that people will only ask for some small fraction of their balances on any given day, and that's how many dollar bills they keep on hand.

So the numbers on your bank balance aren't quite the same as dollar bills, but they're close. Most stuff you own isn't close to the same as dollars. Think about how you might go about calculating your net worth. You have some actual dollar bills, plus a bunch of stuff like numbers on your bank statement, a house, some stocks, and so on, that you could give someone in exchange for dollar bills. You also might have some things that give others the right to take dollars from you, like a mortgage.

Normally, you would look at something like your house, and try to predict (there's that word again) how many dollars you could get for it. That number of dollars would be the house's contribution to your net worth. But this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. If there were a house absolutely identical to yours and it sold today for $200,000, then $200,000 is maybe not a bad prediction for the value of your house. But no two houses are exactly alike. And unless you live in a densely populated area, probably no houses that are even vaguely similar to yours sold recently. So it'll be hard to estimate your house's selling price. Also, there are expenses associated with the sale such as realtor fees, and you'll have to move, which will also cost you dollars.

Maybe a house is too tough a prediction. Let's look at the stocks you have in your IRA. Now, unlike houses, a share of IBM common stock is exactly the same as any other share of IBM common stock. You can look at the closing price from yesterday - is that a good prediction of how many dollars you could get for your share? Not at all, because you can't get dollars for the stocks in your IRA until you turn 59 1/2. Now you have to predict what a share of IBM will trade for years from now, when you turn 59 1/2. That's hard to do with any kind of accuracy, yet you have to do it because your net worth is an important number. If your net worth is high, it means you can afford a vacation this year. If your net worth is low, maybe you have to take a second job.

There is much more. Even if you could precisely estimate the dollars you could get for your stuff, you would then have to estimate how much stuff you could get for your dollars (i.e. the inflation rate).

Now picture thousands of companies trying to figure out their market value, and the market value of their competitors or clients, and they're running into even more prediction difficulties you had in trying to figure your net worth. They have to predict the value of things like inventories of unsold goods, intellectual "property" and so on. Being human beings, the accountants in these companies can easily fool themselves into thinking they could get more dollars for their assets than they really could. And they can all overestimate their position at the same time, because they all read the same websites and magazines. Then when the time comes for them to actually convert some of those assets into dollars, they get a bucket of cold water in the face and they suddenly don't want to spend any money on anything, not new equipment or new workers or anything.

There is your recession: solely a failure of prediction. Better predictions should lead to fewer recessions. Maybe with big data and all that, we are on our way to smoothing out the business cycle. But I kind of doubt it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Stack Cake Recipe

It's that time of year when a house isn't a home without some kind of freshly baked pie or cake in the air. Bonus if it involves spice. Here is a very traditional Appalachian cake that I've blogged about before  but never given a full recipe. Without further ado: the Appalachian apple stack cake.

It looks like a stack of pancakes, but it's way better than pancakes.

The filling: 
Peeled, cored, quartered apples to yield 3 cups of thin slices
2/3 cup white sugar
2/3 tsp ground ginger
2/3 tsp ground nutmeg

Mix together in a big bowl and set aside while you make the cakes. Traditionally, this filling is made with dried apples, but nobody makes dried apples at home any more and if you buy them, they're ridiculously expensive. The bigger the apples, the less work in this step. I discourage using applesauce for the filling. It's just too runny. My grandmother used it decades ago, but applesauce was less watery back then.

The cake layers:
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white sugar
1 1/3 tsp baking powder
1 1/3 tsp ground ginger
2/3 tsp ground cinnamon
2/3 tsp salt
2/3 cup melted shortening
2/3 cup sweetener (details later)
2 medium eggs
1 1/3 tsp vanilla

Preheat your oven to 350 F.

Whisk together dry ingredients in large bowl. Beat the eggs and add eggs and sweetener to bowl, stirring to combine thoroughly. For the sweetener, sorghum syrup is traditional, but hard to find. This summer I found some at an Amish supply store in Mesopotamia, Ohio and have been holding on to it until now. If you can't find sorghum syrup, molasses will also work but is more strongly flavored. Once I got crazy and used apple syrup that I made from frozen apple juice concentrate - it was too appley.

Finish by stirring in the melted shortening and vanilla. You will end up with a dough, not a batter, and you'll have to finish it by kneading with your hands.

Divide the dough into four equal parts. Grease and flour a 9-inch cake layer pan. Press the dough down into the pan and bake at 350 F until the top surface is dry. It won't take long - less than 10 minutes. When it's done, run a knife around the edge to loosen it, then flip it onto a cooling rack. If you have more than one pan, you can do it in batches. The cakes will cool quickly because they're so thin. Be careful handling the layers - they'll be a little crumbly.

Now put a layer on your cake plate and spread one third of the filling evenly on it. Put another cake layer down, being careful to align it with the first one, and spread another third of the filling on top. Repeat, then top it with the fourth cake layer. You want cake on top, not filling.

Now you need to set aside the assembled cake and let things sort of meld together, maybe overnight. The filling will put off a decent amount of liquid which will soak into the cake layers and keep them from being too dry. In fact, that liquid may end up making things too moist, in which case you can pop the whole cake into the oven again for a little while to tighten things up. To make it extra fun and traditional, you can pour a quarter cup of applejack or whiskey on the top layer.

The icing:
5/6 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract

Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat to the boil and then to 235 F, a soft ball stage. Remove from heat, stir in butter, cinnamon and vanilla, and set aside to cool. But don't cool it all the way down, or it'll be hard to get onto the cake.

Spread the icing over the top of the cake. You can get fancy and let it artfully drip down the sides as well. Now you've got a real Appalachian fall treat. Slice it thin, because you can only take so much at a time.