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.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

John Kelly and Compromise

A few posts ago I argued that the crises that occur in America about every 80 years may be due to the arrival of a generation that scorns compromise. In other words, the crises happen less because of external events than because of how the generation in power reacts to them. I discussed how the Transcendental Generation which rose to power shortly before the Civil War was marked by moral intuitionism, and how that intuitionism was expressed as harmless, hippie-like eccentricity when the generation was young and powerless, but as warmongering when the generation was older and in charge.

I then talked about how the Baby Boomers have followed a similar path as the Transcendentals and how if the path continues, a crisis could arise because of the refusal or inability of the Boomers (and their proteges, the Millennials) to compromise on some - you pick it - issue. The Boomers and Transcendentals are/were very concerned with taking strong and public moral stands, and not at all concerned with developing rational arguments that could be the basis for compromise. At their worst, they portray rational arguments as weakness. They often make a show of putting certain topics off limits, aggressively punishing those who even raise issues for discussion with hate speech regulations and taboos around certain words. Remember the push to "Ban Bossy"? (That one was actually cooked up by a Gen-Xer, but it could only exist in a world created by the Boomers.)

Last week there was a stark demonstration of my point. Gen. John Kelly went on the radio and said that the Civil War was caused by the inability to compromise, and the respectable media went apeshit.  They seemed to take the position that the Civil War was a war of African-American liberation waged on the South by the North, and to even speak of compromise was like condoning slavery. Compromise is a dirty word to them. It is not enough for them to reject compromise themselves; they must also humiliate anyone who talks about it.

Compromise had staved off war for decades and there is no reason it couldn't have continued. This may seem like making a deal with the devil, but one forgets that the Civil War cost nearly a million lives, proportionate to ten million dead today. But it's not my point to argue for or against any particular compromise. I merely observe that asking, "How many war dead was it worth for each year slavery was shortened?" is enough to set many people off. It's like asking them how much they'd be willing to sell a child for.

Of course, most people who blew up at Kelly really have no interest in the Civil War per se. The reason for their freedom-fries-style spectacle was to demonstrate that they will never compromise with Trump, who Kelly represents. As a bonus, they got to denigrate the very idea of compromise. Is it any wonder why Congress can't get anything done these days?

Refusal to compromise eventually snowballs into a death-or-dishonor situation. Maybe the Boomers will be willing to die for whatever cause they latch onto. Or maybe they'll decide, in extremity, to compromise, but when they grab for the tools needed to do it, they'll be far out of reach.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Clean-Keys: An Opinion Management System

Nobody should have to put up with opinions that are offensive, hurtful or just plain annoying. These days, when someone states an opinion you don't like, you don't waste time trying to persuade others that he's wrong. That's old-fashioned and possibly won't work. Now, you just cut him off economically. This can be done at the personal level (firing, blacklisting, boycotting a store), at the national level (moving an event from a state whose government you do not wholly agree with) and even at the international level (embargoes).

But the new way is costly. If Jim's Restaurant serves great food at low prices, but Jim writes a blog post stating he is not altogether convinced that Black Lives Matter has a good point, then obviously you have to stop eating at Jim's. That means you have to switch to a restaurant that is a worse value. When you're eating at the worse restaurant, you can console yourself by imagining Jim going bankrupt and having to tell his kids that he won't be able to send them to college. But there has to be a better way.

What if it were literally impossible for people to post problematic opinions? Then you'd never have to read them. And, even if someone did have bad opinions, it wouldn't matter because he'd never be able to spread them. No bad opinions means you can eat at Jim's again. It means you don't have to fire the genius coder who writes a libertarian blog. It means you don't have to move your convention to pricy Toronto just because Nashville issued a press release that uses the word "chief".

But, you ask, how can this work? The natural place to cut off the hurtful opinions is at the keyboard itself. Yes, I have a prototype. I call it "Clean-KeysTM". Clean-Keys is a device driver for any keyboard that scans the input for fraught ideas. It is based on the same technology that says, "Showing results for artisanal cheese" when you mash-type "aet8sitnl cheee" into the Google search bar.

But Clean-Keys is much better than just a spellchecker. It's an idea-checker. It fixes ideas on the fly, to ensure correctness. For instance, I fired up Clean-Keys and started typing...

YOU TYPE: There are too many illegal immigrants. They use resources but don't pay taxes.

Here's what showed up on the screen:

CLEAN-KEYS: Undocumented workers help our economy. Without them, crops would rot in the fields.

Clean-Keys is technically deep:

YOU TYPE: Globalized capital has been on a crusade to destroy the American middle class for the last forty years, and has damn near succeeded

CLEAN-KEYS: Every reputable economist accepts the doctrine of Ricardian comparative advantage.

Sometimes the output has a bank-shot quality to it:

YOU TYPE: Elton John seems like a nice guy, but when he adopted that boy, it kind of creeped me out.

CLEAN-KEYS: Michael Jackson was never convicted of any crime.

Clean-Keys gets a little flustered if you provoke it:

YOU TYPE: Trump rules!!! Suck it, demonrats!

CLEAN-KEYS: Tru$%^$$%microaggression  not who we are huddled masses na+ion of immmmigrants cultural appro<Ctrl-C received on console>

YOU TYPE: Republicans would prostitute their own grandmothers in exchange for tax cuts.

CLEAN-KEYS: Fair share capppppital gainsfdfe #&^TRG death tax.

I'm still working the bugs out.

I don't want to give away the secret, but roughly speaking, Clean-Keys uses a neural network trained on old church sermons, scripts from John Wayne movies, the writings of biologists other than Stephen Jay Gould, and such filth. You can add other items depending on your politics; Noam Chomsky might be a choice if your politics skew to the right. Clean-Keys reads them all, so you don't have to. When it detects similarities, it replaces the offending material using a text generator designed by the sociology department at a leading community college.

I have to admit that this is not a totally original idea. I read a great book called 1984 where a country invented a language in which it was impossible to express bad thoughts. The words and grammar just didn't exist. It was such a great idea I dropped the book and immediately set to work on Clean-Keys. I never finished the book but I'm sure the protagonist ended up living a happy life free of annoying disagreements.

Now to the business model. The problem we had to get around is that the people who would benefit from Clean-Keys (readers) are not the people who own the keyboards (writers.) It's hard to induce people to install Clean-Keys on their own keyboards. I tried an advertising model, but people found it intrusive:

YOU TYPE: Councilman Smith is playing the race card.

CLEAN-KEYS: Councilman Smith is an outstanding voice for the rights of all citizens and noncitizens THIS MESSAGE BROUGHT TO YOU BY RADICAL BEANS COFFEE HOUSE.

The strategy I settled on is to underwrite a 1% cash back campaign in cooperation with the leading online retailers. If you place an order using a Clean-Keys enhanced keyboard, you get 1% cash back. A business guru told me this was a recipe for insolvency. Well, look at this sequence:

YOU TYPE: Clean-Keys is a menace to free expression and threatens the very foundations of our culture.

CLEAN-KEYS: Clean-Keys (TM) is a great way to earn cash back on every purchase! All real Americans use Clean-Keys (TM). My cousin Tina uninstalled Clean-Keys (TM) and she started gaining weight.

Who's the guru now?

Clean-Keys contains its own marketing and will create a bootstrapping effect once it reaches a certain market penetration. People will want to rant about Clean-Keys, but the only ones who'll be able to will be the real fanatics who can afford to pass up the 1% cash back. After hearing an overwhelmingly one-sided argument for Clean-Keys for a few months, people will demand a constitutional amendment requiring every keyboard to have Clean-Keys, and then the investment begins to turn, shall we say, profitable. I have the IP locked up tight.

So how about it?  I'm currently entertaining offers from venture capitalists...but NOT PETER THIEL! (Thanks, Clean-Keys!)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Genealogy of Richard Feynman

I get the feeling that Feynman was slightly hostile to the idea that family history could play a role in a person's development. In his fascinating but seemingly little-known American Institute of Physics interview from 1966, he shrugs off the interviewer's questions about his ancestry. He professes not to remember things like which cousins were in his household during his childhood forty years earlier. And he pretends not to recall which year his father died (it was 1946.) But he did often speak fondly of his father's efforts to introduce him to science.

There are some entries for Feynman on paywalled genealogy sites, but they may or may not be complete, I don't know. Here is what I was able to scrape from free sources:

FEYNMAN, Richard Phillips. 5/11/1918 (New York, NY) - 2/15/1988 (Los Angeles, CA)

FEYNMAN, Henry Phillips 1/24/1924 - 2/25/1924 (Queens, New York, NY)

FEYNMAN, Melville A. 3/15/1890 (Minsk, Russia) - 10/8/1946 (Queens, New York, NY)
Birthdate from his WWI draft card, dated 6/5/17. The card also states he lived at 302 Convent Avenue, which is in Manhattan near Columbia University, and was responsible for a shirt manufacturing business, "M. Feynman", with 75 employees at 19-27 W. 21st near the Flatiron Building. Arrived in US 1893. His WW2 draft card is inconsistent as to the birthdate.
[Edit --- The 1900 census, which looks very careful, states "Mella" was born 2/1890 and came to the US in 1893, the same year as his mother and sister, while his father had been here since 1890. The birth years of the children: 1888 in Russia, 1890 in Russia, then a gap to 1894, 1896, 1898 in New York - are consistent with the parents having been separated between 1890 and 1893.]

PHILLIPS, Lucille 3/22/1895 (New York, NY) - 11/11/1981 (Pasadena, CA)
Married 3/26/1916 in Manhattan; they went to Bermuda on their honeymoon.

PHILLIPS, Isidore (1878), Ida, Pearl, Murray. Pearl was Richard Feynman's aunt who lived with them for a time.
FEYNMAN, Laura, Addie, Arthur, Bessie

FEYNMAN, Lewis 8/1862 (Minsk) - 10/13/1947 (Los Angeles). Arrived in US 1890.
---, Anna 9/1862 (Russia) - 10/19/1938 (Brooklyn, New York). Arrived in US 1893. Anna and Lewis were divorced at the time of her death.

I couldn't find a definite arrival record for the Feynmans, but did find a Yankel and Basche Feinmann, husband and wife, 26 and 22 years old, arrived at Ellis Island from Minsk on the Suevia, 3/28/1892. These were likely relatives.

[Edit: I found a passport application in 1906 for a Lewis J. Feynman, born 9/25/1863 in "[unreadable] Minsk, Russia-Poland," naturalized at Riverhead, NY in 1900, living in Patchogue, NY. This is undoubtedly RPF's grandfather. It states he arrived in the US on 5/15/1890 aboard the Bohemia, sailing from Stettin, the present-day port of Szczecin, in far western Poland.

Then there's another very interesting passport application from 1921 from Lewis Jacob Feynman, naturalized at Riverhead, NY in 1900. Here, he says he was born 5/15/1865 in "Minsk, Russia", emigrated from the port of Hamburg in 1890, and wants a passport to visit Poland to see his mother, and Palestine to "study". He says he had a passport issued in 1906 but never used it.

Assuming his mother was back in Minsk, why would he go to Poland to visit her? Minsk was in Russia in 1921; it's in Belarus today. It turns out there's another, smaller Minsk that was in Poland in 1921 and indeed still is today. Was RPF's father born in the Polish Minsk, not the more famous Belarusian one as has always been assumed?

In Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path, RPF says his grandparents divorced and that his grandfather, who he refers to as Jacob instead of Lewis, ended up in Long Beach, California, where he remarried. But it looks like Grandpa spent some time overseas in between. A marriage record for his daughter states that his second wife was Eva Soltanowsky of Russia, and that their daughter was born in 1925 in Palestine.

Lewis Feynman died 10/13/1947 in Los Angeles.

RPF also stated that Lewis's last name was originally not Feynman, but possibly Pollock, and that he changed his surname to Anna's surname, Feynman, on arrival in the US. The death record of Anna seems to bear this out as it lists her father as Jacob Feynman. I ran across at least one other example of this happening: in the fascinating book Al Jaffee's Mad Life, it states that a son-in-law took the father-in-law's name because he was intended to inherit the estate. ]

PHILLIPS, Henry 4/1840 (Germany) Arrived in US 1855.
LEVENSKI, Johanna 6/1844 (Austria or Germany) Arrived in US 1850. Her parents were born in Poland.

FEYNMAN, Jacob (Russia)
WENDROFF, Sarah (Russia)
LEVENSKI, Mary 10/1826 (Austria) - Arrived in US 1845.

A comment: The census entries for the Henry Phillips household are strangely inconsistent in terms of birthdates, birthplaces and children's names. If they were any less consistent I would question whether I was looking at the same family. Henry and Johanna are on the old side to be Lucille's parents - I wonder if they are possibly an aunt and uncle. Henry was in New York by 1880.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Zombie Institutions

I've talked about the generational theory of history in some recent posts. The generational theorists divide history into rough 20-year phases or "turnings" that correspond to a human generation, and many will tell you we're about ten years into a "fourth turning," a period of crisis and upheaval during which failed institutions are destroyed and rebuilt. The last fourth turning was the Great Depression, Second World War and its aftermath, about 1929-1949, which featured the birth of the "liberal international order" exemplified by a mixed, trade-oriented economy in the US, the UN, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the national security state, and so on.

A big tell that the generational theory is correct is what happened when the Soviet Bloc collapsed. That was a fourth turning or crisis event for Eastern Europe, but it came during a third turning in the West, which is not a time for rethinking institutions. All those institutions set up to fight the Soviets: the CIA, the DOD, the Peace Corps, VOA, etc. hardly even slowed down. They just kept on rolling down the highway, doing what they were set up to do, even though the guy they were racing was now broken down by the side of the highway and going no further.

But now we're getting close to a housecleaning. Halfway into this fourth turning, it should be increasingly obvious that all these institutions that were set up to solve the problems of 80 years ago are exhausted and failing, and will never be able to solve the problems of today. I call them zombie institutions. Their life blood is gone; they're dead but they don't know it yet.

I argue that we do have many zombie institutions. A major sign of a zombie institution is a sort of desperate casting about for purpose that results in trying to do a bunch of different, new things that have little to do with its original purpose. An example is local newspapers. They used to exist to disseminate local advertising, but the internet pretty much killed that 20 years ago. Some local papers died a dignified death, but a lot of others insist on carrying on, like the last drunk at 2 am on New Year's. They curtailed their printed editions and tried to reinvent themselves as "local media" but it isn't helping them regain lost ad revenue. They can't afford to do much real reporting, so now you go to their websites and see listicles of photographs from their historical files, instead of news.

Given more time, they could have regrouped and become real local media hubs with a different business model, covering local politics and sports, but most of them didn't. Why not isn't the topic of this post; my point is that they didn't, but they refuse to go away. Zombie institutions.

Another zombie institution is NASA. Here, I'm talking about the "operational" part of NASA, the part that sent men to the moon. There's a research part of NASA that is just a bunch of people trying to advance the state of the art in their little corner of science. That part was mature before the moon program was ever conceived and it'll go on long after the rest of NASA is gone. But the operational part of NASA was set up for a very specific Cold War purpose: to demonstrate space technologies with potential military spinoffs, like the ability to sit in low earth orbit for weeks or months and watch the Russkies, fiddle with their satellites or drop bombs on them "like rocks from a highway overpass," in the immortal words of House Speaker John McCormack. The moon program was the climax and culmination of that purpose.

Yet the operational part of NASA soldiers on, because "that is how we do things in space." NASA is a really discouraging example of this zombie-institution mission drift. At one point NASA had a one-sentence mission statement: Land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth, by 12/31/69. There were other things going on in NASA in the 60s, but they were all pretty closely related to the Apollo program, and when a priority call had to be made, Apollo always won.

Now, NASA has many competing priorities. They're trying to build a new spacecraft and launch vehicle, but there is no consensus on what to do with it. They have an aeronautics program that is really important to the nation, but it gets just enough funding to be a distraction. They are supposed to support industry and small businesses. They're supposed to do outreach to groups around the world. They're supposed to promote STEM education. In the 60s, NASA did all those things too, but they were a side effect of the main purpose. Now the side programs are the whole show.

I do not argue that any of those things are unworthy of effort, only that NASA isn't set up to do them. And they get in the way of NASA's original charter. Pulling off spectacular feats in space requires total institutional focus, and NASA doesn't have it any more.

I also do not argue that this situation is the fault of any person or group. If you accept the generational hypothesis, these turnings are beyond the power of anyone to resist. In the case of NASA, there have been at least three major studies in the last 20 years that have concluded NASA lacks a clear vision, but there still isn't a clear vision. When institutions like NASA disintegrate, the new institutions will be built from mostly the same people who were in the old ones. But the people will be reshuffled. The NASA folks who are big on STEM education will be incorporated into some new institution that rethinks public education with STEM as an integral part. The NASA space folks will go to the new space agency.

Another sign of a zombie institution is that it tries to do everything but actually does nothing. You might think of Silicon Valley startups as the exact opposite of a zombie institution, but they're all a product of a certain financing setup that is pretty much out of ideas. So they have these grandiose mission statements that are some form of "we're changing the world." This was specifically mocked on the Mike Judge series Silicon Valley. They seem to think that an extremely ambitious mission statement will somehow substitute for real vision. But it doesn't work that way. When Intel started, it was about one thing: making integrated circuits. There was little of this changing the world talk. They made the integrated circuits and along the way, maybe they really did change the world.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Erdos-Bacon Number

The Erdos number measures how closely associated you are with the late number theorist Paul Erdos, who collaborated with hundreds or thousands of other people and thereby sort of sits at the center of the mathematical universe. If you wrote a paper with Erdos, your Erdos number is 1; if you wrote a paper with someone with an Erdos number of 1, your number is 2, and so on.

The show business equivalent of Erdos is Kevin Bacon. Supposedly every actor can connect to Kevin Bacon in a small number of steps. For example, Paul Newman has a Bacon number of 2 because he was in Fort Apache, The Bronx with Clifford David, who was in Pyrates with Kevin Bacon.

A person's Erdos-Bacon number is the sum of his Erdos number and Bacon number. Not many people have an Erdos-Bacon number. You have to have done something in both math and show business.

I have a shaky claim to an Erdos-Bacon number of just 7. That is not bad; even the legendary Carl Sagan could only manage a 6.  How did I get a 7?

My Erdos number is an indisputable 4, because I wrote a paper with Greg Forest of UNC who has the link Forest>Richard Montgomery>Persi Diaconis>Erdos.

But I can conceivably claim a Bacon number of 3. I have to stretch it a little here. When I was in the 7th grade, I was in a school production of Macbeth with Tammy Pescatelli. (She was Lady Macbeth; I was Banquo.) It does too count as a movie, because the AV club taped it. Tammy has a Bacon number of 2 (Pescatelli>Dan Cortese>Bacon.) So that gives me 3, and my EB number is 3 + 4 = 7. That ties me with radical motormouth Noam Chomsky!

Now, if by chance I were to appear in a real production with Tammy and not just a school play, I could really cement my claim to an epically low E-B number. I just need a little more luck. God knows I was lucky to get an Erdos number at all, let alone a low one. I don't want to game it just to get the number. As my son said, "Anybody who games their Erdos-Bacon number, there's something wrong with."

I can't remember if I ever collaborated on a math or science project with Tammy, but I probably did at some point, because we were in school together for 12 years. Tammy, if you can dig one up, I will back your claim to an EB number of 8. [Correction: 7]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Letdowns After Streaks

I've been telling people for a few days now that the Indians need to lose a game and break their streak, so that they have time to get through the letdown and get back to normal before the playoffs.

But is there really a letdown after a streak? It feels like there is, but maybe that's just an effect of elevated expectations.

I checked the won-lost records of teams in the 11 games after the 10 longest streaks after 1900. Ignoring the game that ended the streak, which by definition has to be a loss, what was the overall record? (Two of the streaks ended very late in the season and there weren't 11 games left.)

It turns out to be .471 (41-46), which is not great baseball, especially for a team strong enough to pull off a long streak. But it's not quite as dire as I imagined.

For the record, the streaks I looked at were

1916 Giants (both the famous 26-game record streak and an earlier 17-game streak that same season)
1935 Cubs
2002 A's
1906 White Sox
1947 Yankees
1904 Giants
1953 Yankees
1907 Giants
1912 Senators

This is a small sample, so take it for what it is.

As I write this the Indians are down 2-1 to KC. We can only hope...