Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Apple III Gets a Fan

I was flipping through some back issues of Byte magazine from the 1980s and noticed an interesting ad. This is from May 1981:

That's an Apple III on the left, next to its older brother the Apple II. Or, as the aficionados used to type it, an Apple /// and an Apple ][. The Apple III had been out for about a year when this ad was run.

The Apple III was not a successful computer. It was expensive for an 8-bit machine, and there was not much software available that took advantage of its improvements over the Apple II. But its real problem was reliability. There were some design flaws that caused loose chips and shorted solder traces. Also, it ran hot to the touch, and people thought the excessive heat was causing the failures. Supposedly, Steve Jobs did not permit the designers to include a fan (because of the noise) or even air vents (because they looked bad).

Look closely at the ad...there's an old-time fan lying on top of the Apple III.

My first thought was that some disgruntled Apple engineer snuck the fan into this ad as a dig at Jobs. But Jobs was well-known to control every detail of Apple's advertising. No, I think the fan was put there by Jobs himself. I can see him hanging the ad in Apple's lobby and yelling to passing employees, "You wanted a fan for the Apple III? Here's your *@#!@ fan!"

Monday, October 21, 2013

Apple stack cake with innovative syrup

I saw an absolutely nauseating commercial for DirecTV during the Ohio State game on Saturday, featuring some guy stuck in a shack with an extreme caricature of a "hillbilly" family. As long as that kind of crap is acceptable, don't expect me to shed tears over the Washington Redskins.

With that out of the way, I'd like to show off some real hillbilly culture. When my dad was in his final illness (really, it was his only illness; the guy had the constitution of a battleship), we asked him if there was anything we could get him, and he only had one request. He said, "My mother used to make a spice cake with apples between the layers..." Unfortunately, I had no idea what he was talking about, and couldn't make it for him. But some years later I ran across a great book, Appalachian Home Cooking by Mark Sohn, which has a recipe for the apple stack cake. Apparently it is considered one of the most authentic Appalachian foods, right up there with sausage gravy, cornbread and soup beans.

The stack cake is made of layers of dense, gingerbread-like cake with an apple filling in between. Some versions call for more than 10 layers, but it's a very heavy and rich cake, so 4-6 layers are enough. You can glaze it if you want, but the cake is plenty sweet and moist without it.

I conjecture that this recipe is descended from the German dish Apfelpfannkuchen or "German apple pancake". Like a lot of Appalachian recipes, it was modified by the addition of a whole lot of sugar. Dad's mother probably learned how to make it from her mother, who was from a cluster of German families on the Virginia-Tennessee border. People usually think of mountaineers as Scots-Irish, but there were quite a few Germans, too.

You can get the recipe from Sohn's book or in many other versions on many other sites. In the most traditional version, the filling starts with dried apples, and the cake is sweetened with sorghum syrup rather than sugar or molasses. You end up reconstituting the apples anyway, so I don't feel too bad about using fresh apples. (Don't take the applesauce shortcut; it's too bland and runny.) The sorghum syrup is a tougher problem. I've only ever found it once, at a fruit stand, and the jar I found looked like it had been on the shelf for years.

I looked for a creative but authentic substitute for sorghum. I've made the stack cake with molasses, and it is very good. But this time I tried something new. I reasoned that maple syrup is just boiled-down sugary water, so why can't I make syrup from apple juice? If I used apple syrup instead of sorghum, the cake should be extra appley.

But I needed a full cup of syrup, and it would have taken a couple of gallons of expensive cider to make that. Plus, it's hard to find cider that isn't preserved with benzoate. Benzoate ruins the taste of cider, so if I boiled it down, the concentrated benzoate would probably be disgusting. The solution? Frozen apple juice concentrate. The only preservatives it has are a couple of weak acids, and it already has 75% of the water taken out!

Boiling down the apple syrup

So I emptied six cans of apple juice concentrate into a stockpot and boiled it down. After an hour, I had about three cups of deep red syrup thick enough to coat a spoon, so I turned off the heat and let the stuff cool overnight, which thickened it to a molasses-like consistency. Like molasses, you wouldn't want to eat this stuff straight. It's very strongly flavored and sour (which I guess explains why fruit has never been a viable source of cooking sugar.) Into the cake batter went one cup of this concentrated apple syrup.

The apple syrup. Don't drink it!

It turns out that I rediscovered something called boiled cider, which apparently is a traditional way of preserving cider in New England. Anyway, back to the stack cake.

I peeled, cored and sliced a bunch of smallish McIntosh apples for the filling.

Should have used bigger apples - less peeling!

Then I put some nutmeg and ginger on them and dried them in the oven for about half an hour. In hindsight I think this was a waste of time, because the next step is to boil them in cider. But starting with really dry apples might give you a more intense flavor. I had to cheat a little and put some cornstarch in to get the filling to thicken up.

Drying the apples. Could have skipped this.

The cake layers I made by pressing about a quarter-inch-thick layer of batter (really, it's more like cookie dough) into the bottom of a greased, no-stick round cake pan. 10 minutes in the oven and it's done, plus I did two at a time, so I had the four layers done in less than half an hour.

Two of the four cake layers

Then you just lay down the layers one at a time, and spread the filling between them. Keeping the layers in one piece is easy as long as you grease the pan ahead of time and let the cakes cool a little and harden up before flipping them out. I forgot to re-grease the pans for my second round of cake, so of course the fourth layer, which is the only one that shows, got a rip in the middle when I flipped it out. But I just stuck it back together.

Two layers stacked and filled

At this point in every cooking blog, it is obligatory to say how well it turned out. So...it turned out very well! The cake had a really intense, almost tart apple flavor from the syrup - it probably tasted more appley than the filling, which is mostly actual apples! Next time, I'll probably use half apple syrup and half molasses. You can only take a small slice at a time - it's like eating a very rich cookie instead of a cake. A little slice of this with a glass of milk and you're back in the holler in 1892 - although I am not sure where they would have gotten vanilla extract and ground spices back then.    


It should probably be eaten off a tin plate for increased authenticity

Friday, October 11, 2013

New Kinds of Money

This is not a post about the new $100 bill - it's a little more theoretical.

Let me preface this by saying that I have no training in economics except for two basic undergraduate courses. But I am pretty decent with numbers, so I allow myself to think I have some understanding of the economy. Given the reputation of economists these days, my ideas might even be worth more than theirs!

Economies have bubbles. Just in the last 15 years, we've gone through the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble. We may well be in a stock market bubble right now. But what is a bubble?

Let's back up and think about what money is. Money is something that has a lot more exchange value than consumption value. US currency is just pieces of paper. Maybe a big pile of it could keep you warm if you lit it on fire, but its real value is that it can be exchanged for things you can consume.  

Somebody will say the distinction between consumption value and exchange value is an illusion. What I mean is that the value of things you need to live, like food, has a floor. A mass panic could cause the value of gold to fall to zero tomorrow. The value of food can rise due to fads and rumors, just like gold, but it will never fall to zero, because people must eat. The value of farm equipment is partly tied to the value of food, and so on up the chain. By the time you get to the end of the chain, you have stuff like Beanie Babies, whose value has nothing to do with consumption. They are a pure exchange good subject to panic-driven bubbles and busts.
If you're still with me, it's time for the bombshell: money is the perfect bubble. Its value is solely determined by human psychology (except, to a very limited extent, when it's on a gold standard.) But, you say, if money is a bubble, why doesn't its value fluctuate in wild and unpredictable ways? Well, sometimes it does - ask anyone who lived in Argentina in 1990. And second, natural fluctuations in its value can be counteracted by a central bank with the legal ability to print money or "destroy" it by selling securities. I don't know about you, but knowing that government policy may be the only thing keeping the value of money stable doesn't provide much comfort.

But if money is a bubble, then bubbles are money. Bubbles in things like Beanie Babies or dot-com stocks boil down to the economy spontaneously creating new kinds of money --- goods that solely have exchange value. It's against the law to print your own money, but if you could somehow orchestrate a bubble in, say, tulip bulbs, it would be just like printing your own money. So it shouldn't be surprising that people are always trying to do it.    

The thing people don't like about bubbles is their instability. Values get far above the floor provided by essential human needs, so they can fluctuate wildly. All it takes is a fast-spreading rumor and suddenly your Beanie Babies are worthless, even though they're just as cute and cuddly as when you bought them. Given that, I think we can all agree that it would be a very good thing if my claim that money is a bubble were to be totally wrong.