Saturday, December 20, 2014

Rocket Scientists

Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as a rocket scientist; scientists study nature whereas rockets are man-made. We don't say cars are designed by automobile scientists. A lot of science goes into rockets, mainly chemistry and physics, but when it comes to the rocket itself, it's all engineering.

I used to have a couple of t-shirts like this one, but I stopped wearing them because it gets annoying to just have women throwing themselves at you all the time.

People do go around calling themselves materials scientists even though 99% of the materials they work with are man-made. Even plain old pig-iron is not found in nature. It's true that materials scientists have taken an interest in natural materials like skin and wood, but that's a very recent thing. Most people who study natural materials are geologists.

I wondered when the term "rocket scientist" came into use, so I ran a Google Ngram. The results are really clean and interesting. The first occurrence is in 1942, which seems about right. People did build rockets before 1942, but almost none of them would be mistaken for scientists. It took a really fringe, flaky scientist to get involved with rockets back then. It was seen as career suicide.

However, I found an even earlier occurrence by doing a direct search on Google Books, sorted by date. In the Science News Letter of 1936 published by Science Service, Robert Goddard (who else?) is referred to as a "rocket scientist". Science Service is the former name of the Society for Science & the Public, the nice folks who run the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which I would never have won, yet was a judge for once. Hey, they have to get judges from somewhere. The winners become such big shots that they don't have time to judge science fairs.

This is a good time to mention the Cleveland Rocket Society, founded in 1933. Yes, 1933! It was a project of Ernst Loebell, a German-born engineer. Every rocket scientist needs a rich patron, and his was apparently a descendant of Mark Hanna, industrialist and mastermind behind the election of McKinley as President. Loebell did his experiments at the Hanna estate in Kirtland Hills, Ohio, which is intact and for sale (warning: link has annoying music.)

Usage of the "rocket scientist" slowly ramped up until 1960 when it leveled off for 25 years. "Rocket scientist" really took off from 1985. I suspect the big jump in usage was due it taking on an ironic sense. You know, "What rocket scientist invented this piece-of-crap blender?"

From "Modern Mechanix" magazine, 1934

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Don't You Hate Blog Posts That Are Just a Bunch of Random Thoughts?

1. Science is to engineering as statistics and rulebooks are to baseball. I always follow the stats, but they're meaningless in and of themselves.

2. I bought a jar of pickles today and the label had the Twentieth Century typeface on it, one of my favorites. Even though it was designed in 1937, to me it always conjures up the nineteen seventies. It was in the school readers they used in my grade school -- the very early ones where there are only a few big words on each page.

3. I'm reading the memoir of my favorite sportswriter, Frank Deford, and boy did he not like Rodney Dangerfield.

4. Had to buy a bottle of prune juice today because my digestive system is nearly 46 years old. I forgot how bad it tastes; haven't had any since I was a little kid reading books set in Twentieth Century typeface. But if you add a little prune juice to Coke, it'll taste like Dr. Pepper, even though the Dr. Pepper people insist it doesn't have any prune juice in it. Too bad they don't make a caffeine-free version of Dr. Pepper. I can't take caffeine and I love genealogy, so can it be long before I turn Mormon?

5. My dad should have been a sportswriter -- he wrote, and wrote well, for his high-school newspaper -- but for some reason it just never happened. I started thinking about my dad this morning when I had to go into an auto-parts store and I saw all the clamps and little lengths of pipe they sell for DIY exhaust system repairs. Dad and I spent many a Saturday afternoon under his cars, patching together the awful, rusted-out exhaust systems of the 1970s. Later on, I designed exhaust systems and was there when Honda made the momentous switch to stainless steel. They were the last ones to make the switch. This is why exhaust pipes now last more than two years.

6. Carrying on the tradition of father and son auto maintenance, I had my boy pump gas and fill the tires today at the gas station. He whined through the whole thing because it was cold and he wasn't wearing gloves, but afterward, he said with as much pride as a thirteen-year-old will admit to, "Well, I guess I know how to pump gas now." Mission accomplished.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Some things are younger than you think. It really surprised me to learn that the snowmobile has only been around since 1960. I guess kids today would be surprised that the ATV was only brought to market in the 80s. I remember when the first ones came out -  they only had three wheels and would roll over on top of you if you weren't careful.

Which brings me to peanut butter and jelly. Jelly has probably been around for centuries, and peanut butter was patented in 1884. But it took many decades before the two were put together with commercial white bread into that most American of sandwiches.

When I was about six years old, I was babysat by a lady whose kids were about ten years older than me. I know they would have been little in the early 1960s, because she once told me she was potty training her middle son when Kennedy was assassinated.  She also once told me that she hadn't learned about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until after her kids had already been born. She said that when she was little, she ate peanut butter sandwiches but never with jelly. The first time someone suggested she add jelly, she thought it didn't sound very appetizing.

So when was peanut butter and jelly invented? I ran a Google Ngram on the phrase "peanut butter and jelly" and here are the results. For those who don't know, Ngram counts the frequency of a word or phrase in all the books Google has scanned, which is a huge sample of books. For instance, if you run Ngram on Atari, there is basically nothing until the late 1970s, when it explodes. (There's an interesting little bump around 1890 which probably has to do with the word atari originally being something you say while playing Go.)

Going by the Ngram results, peanut butter and jelly was invented some time between 1920 and 1940, but didn't go mainstream until the early 1960s, which would be right around the time my old babysitter learned about it. So it took 80 years from the time peanut butter was invented until the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was well known. It makes you wonder what two currently available foods will suddenly be discovered to go well together 80 years from now.

An unrelated story is that when this babysitter wasn't able to come and watch me, she would send her friend who was an older lady from Ireland. Once I went over the handlebars on my bike and hit my head, and this Irish lady rubbed butter on the bump. Go figure.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

It's Official: We Are Saps

I'm reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier. A friend once said my blog was too heady. Well, compared to Lanier's work, my blog is about as heady as the instruction manual to a garage door opener. The part I understood best was his criticism of the "hive mind" concept; that is, the idea that averaging the opinions of a large number of people is a good way to ascertain the truth.

One thing that bothers me about the hive mind is that it's so easily manipulated and so vulnerable to the human desire to fit in. Haven't large groups of people converged on beliefs that turned out to be false and destructive, not a few times but over and over? 

A few years ago I read about how the personality cult developed around Kim Il-Sung. I had thought these things happened only because a person became so powerful he was able to compel everyone else to fawn over him. But at least in the case of Kim Il-Sung, it had just as much to do with the psychology of the people surrounding him. At some point it became clear that he had acquired a great deal of authority. The way everyone else reacted was to try to appropriate a little bit of that authority by sucking up to him. This sort of snowballed until you had formerly intelligent human beings going around saying Kim Il-Sung invented the airplane. It became sort of a contest to see who would abase himself more completely.  

The hive mind can enable a cult. The hive mind theory says that if millions of North Koreans insist that Kim Jong-Il got 11 holes-in-one on his first round of golf, then it's likely to be true. It's just stupidity magnified.

Advertisers and entertainers know more about human psychology than any psychologist. They know we are all susceptible to groupthink. Appeals to conformity have always been a part of advertising, but lately they've become more obvious and naked than ever. One red flag is the use of the "we" to mean "you, me and everyone". I found these in a couple minutes on Huffington Post and the like.

We Are the Most Unequal Society in the Developed World... And We Don't Know It

Dakota Fanning, We Know You Can Do Better Than This

These May Be Some Of The Tackiest Advent Calendars We've Seen

Then there's the phrase "It's Official" to try to put an objective gloss on something that is obviously a matter of opinion.

It's Official: The Best and Worst New Shows of the Season Revealed 

It’s Official—iOS 8 Is Apple’s Buggiest Release to Date

It's official: The religious right is calling it quits

It’s Official: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Moral

It’s official: Marijuana has gone mainstream

It's official? My, I wouldn't want to hold a non-official opinion. Here's one more for you, courtesy of your blogger: It's Official: The Internet is Full of Crap.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Twelve Days of Google

When you start typing into the Google search bar it autocompletes what it thinks you might be looking for. So you can use it to make your own version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The autocomplete list depends on your location, phase of the moon, or whatever else, so everyone's list is unique. Here's what I got (after logging out of Google so as not to bias the results with my own search history):

12 Years a Slave
11 Weeks Pregnant
10 Commandments
9 Movie
8 Tracks
6 p.m.
5 Seconds of Summer
3 Bean Salad
2 On Lyrics
1 Corinthians 13

Some of these don't make a whole lot of sense, but I do quite enjoy three bean salad. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Overheard at a Major International Airport

"Welcome to the department. As you know, you'll be responsible for implementing our passenger security policies."

"Glad to be here."

"We're worried that some of the people trying to board the airplanes may not be legitimate passengers at all, but rather terrorists who plan to wreak havoc on innocent travelers. So we have rigorous screening procedures that must be followed in every detail."

"I heard about the terrorism thing. Glad to know you all take it so seriously."

"Yes. First, all passengers must pass through a device that detects weapons and explosives. To even approach this area, the passenger must display a boarding pass and a photo ID. The slightest discrepancy between the ID and the boarding pass is grounds for denial of boarding. Passengers must remove their shoes and jackets, empty their pockets and pass their hand-carried items through an x-ray machine. They can't carry drinks or hand lotion unless it's a tiny amount in a bag we can see through. We also reserve the right to require them to be scanned by a machine that lets us see through their clothes."

"Even old ladies and little kids?"

"Yep. Even a one-in-a-trillion chance of terrorism is too high for us to tolerate."

"Awesome. But what if someone puts a time bomb in their luggage?"

"Got it covered. The luggage goes through a separate scanner that cost millions of dollars to develop, and once in a while, we'll pop the lock on a suitcase and rifle through it to find any contraband."

"Sounds like fun. But what if the guy is real sneaky and has some kind of advanced weapon we can't detect or recognize by sight?"

"We have a special, secret list of people who we think might do that, and if the passenger is on it, he goes nowhere. Nobody but us knows who's on the list or why, and once you're on it, you're not getting off it."

"Sweet. But what about concealment of weapons inside the body? You know, up the rear end? Am I allowed to take some kind of scope or something and cram it up there, looking for whatever?"

"We've proposed that several times, but our lawyers inform us that it might expose us to an assault and battery prosecution."


"Yes. it's been very disappointing. As you know, public safety is our absolute top priority. People need to be persuaded that inconvenience is a small price to pay for security."

"Speaking of public safety, what about Ebola? Do you check to see if a passenger is coming from an area where there is a known Ebola epidemic?"

"How would we know that?"

"Well, we make them show us a driver's license, so their address is right on it. We could just maintain a list of towns that have Ebola, and make sure anybody from there can't travel by air until the outbreak has passed."

"You mean, prevent someone from traveling just because he might be a little under the weather?"

"My understanding is that it's a fatal disease more often than not, and the scientific understanding of how it's transmitted is frighteningly uncertain. If even one Ebola victim got through, it could mean an agonizing death for thousands."

"Tell you what. If you see someone who looks a little peaked, ask him if he's been around any Ebola victims. If he says no, let him on through."

"So I should just take his word for it, then?"

"Yep. Now, please stand next to that conveyor belt and if any passengers forget to take their shoes off, remind them loudly, with a real annoyed look on your face."

"Got it. Check shoes. Forget about Ebola. See you at lunchtime."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Columbus Day Musings

Christopher Columbus always takes a beating around this time of year, In the last week I've heard that he was not only a rapist, but personally invented the concept of chattel slavery. It's hard to vouch for Columbus's character, yet I remain glad that he had the guns and ships and not, say, Tlacaelel of the Aztecs. Now that was a bad dude. He makes Columbus look like Michael Dukakis.

As 25% of an Italian-American, it is disappointing that our holiday has been hijacked into a forum not only for fair criticism, but also for people who sincerely believe Western civilization has on the whole been a bad thing --- a remarkably stupid position to take, yet millions do. Again, I'm no Columbus fan, but we should either get a "clean" holiday (may I suggest Fiorello LaGuardia Day?) or no holiday at all. Just give everyone a day off in the middle of October and don't get into the reasons. But we have to stand and watch our guy used as a punching bag.

It is ever thus for Italians. We have to put up with insulting caricatures like Vito Corleone, Father Guido Sarducci and Silvio Berlusconi. The National Italian-American Council tries to stop it, but they're the Washington Generals of advocacy groups. If a TV show has a black lawyer, he has to win every case or else the NAACP organizes an advertiser boycott. NIAC can't even stop Super Mario.

One Italian stereotype is especially hurtful. I refer, of course, to the Roman Moronie character from Johnny Dangerously. Not only is he a murderous gangster, he also mangles the English language. They never flat out say he's Italian, but come on, look at the mustache. He calls Johnny a "fargin sneaky bastige" and a "somanabatch" and accuses a Congressional panel on organized crime of   "violating [his] fargin civil rights."

The night I watched Johnny Dangerously, in which Moronie's conviction is followed by a newsboy handing out papers with the headline, "Moronie Deported to Sweden: Claims He's Not From There", I gently bedewed my pillow with tears and dedicated myself to a life of activism against 20th Century Fox and the Great Lakes Mall Cinema. The next morning, I came to my senses and laughed myself silly, and later watched Johnny Dangerously several times on video. It's a hilarious movie and Roman Moronie is the most memorable character. There are kids going around calling each other "fargin' iceholes" and they don't even realize where it's from.

Roman Moronie threatens to crush Johnny Dangerously's bells in a meat grinder 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

My Toilet Looks Like Butt-Head

Left: My toilet. Right: Butt-head

There really isn't anything more to say.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Brush With Greatness

I was at the grocery store today and the guy in front of me in line looked just like Brother Theodore. You don't remember Brother Theodore? I don't know how to describe the guy, so you'll have to read his Wikipedia article. He was a frequent guest of Letterman back when Letterman was funny and on NBC.

Anyway, it reminded me of the Letterman bit called "Brush With Greatness". You always hear about Stupid Pet Tricks, the Top Ten List, and Larry "Bud" Melman, but nobody ever remembers "Brush With Greatness".  In this bit, audience members would relate stories of chance encounters with celebrities, like someone was working as a parking valet and parked Don Rickles's car once. Then they'd add "writers' embellishments," like the person found a membership card for a Satanic cult in Rickles's glove compartment.

(By the way in the 1987 video I linked to, someone who looks very much like the actor Mike Myers can be seen at 4:06 in the audience. He was already a professional comic actor but not by any means famous yet.)

Isn't that Mike Myers in the lower right?
I didn't have a brush with greatness today, because Brother Theodore has been dead for over a decade. However, I have seen a number of celebrities. Here is a partial list. I don't include anyone I had to pay to see. Yes, I saw Reggie Jackson, but I had to pay $3.50 to watch him hit home runs off Wayne Garland at the old Cleveland Stadium. I also don't count aerospace big shots (unless they're really big). I did meet some people high up in the Shuttle program who you might recognize, but I'm more thinking of chance encounters here.

Sidney Poitier - saw him getting off a plane in the LA Airport. He had a baseball cap on.

Bill Nye the Science Guy - saw him talking on a pay phone in the San Jose airport. Yes, he was wearing a bowtie.

Joe Montana - saw him walking into the Stanford Shopping Center, talking on a cell phone

Blythe Danner - saw her eating lunch in Rosine's Restaurant in Monterey, California. I think her much more famous daughter may have been with her, but she wasn't facing me and I didn't want to snoop.

Chuck Yeager - saw him sitting on the wing of a P-51 at the Edwards AFB Air Show. (I don't remember having to pay to get in.)

Scott Carpenter - giving a speech at NASA Glenn Research Center

John Glenn - giving a speech at Cleveland State University. AND, I saw the actor who played him in The Right Stuff, Ed Harris, getting a drink from a drinking fountain at the LA Airport.

Tony Curtis - saw him at the Concours D'Elegance in Monterey. He was a celebrity judge. But when we saw him, he was just walking back to his hotel room or wherever. He walked right past us, not an arm's length away, but I didn't yell out or anything. He spent some time chained to Sidney Poitier (see above) in a movie I've never been interested in watching.

Dennis Kucinich, the Boy Mayor of Cleveland and the member of Congress least influenced by outside money - walked right past him on a Cleveland street.

Jeff Immelt - Chairman of GE and occasional guest star on 30 Rock. I don't know whether to count this, because it was work-related.

Al Gore and Bill Clinton - giving a campaign speech at Ohio State in 1996. I didn't have to pay, but I did have to walk through a metal detector.

George H.W. Bush - giving a campaign speech at Ohio State in 1988. No metal detector.

David Schwimmer - saw him walking up the steps at 30 Rockefeller Center, carrying a backpack. This was not more than a few weeks after he became a star for being on Friends.

Greg Lashutka (former mayor of Columbus). Saw him buying meat at the North Market.

Celebrities. Is there anything they can't do?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Special Talent

I have a very special talent. Perhaps a few examples will explain.

I was watching the movie The Breaks this weekend with my wife, who said the guy playing the character "Chris" was "somebody from another show, but I don't know who." After but a few minutes' thought, I said, "That's the guy who played Cockroach in The Cosby Show." His name is Carl Anthony Payne II. Google it if ye doubt the claim.

OK, maybe that isn't such a big deal. But bear with me. Later in the same movie, the main characters get thrown in jail where they share a holding cell with various gangbangers and eccentrics. One of the prisoners is a dreadlocked guy in a wheelchair who can't talk. In no time flat, I ID'd the actor as the guy who played Lamar Latrell in Revenge of the Nerds. Mind you this was a non-speaking part, and the two movies were made 15 years apart. But it was him. The gentleman's name is Larry B. Scott, and contrary to a rumor of the late 1980s, he did not die of AIDS.

Larry B. Scott as Lamar Latrell in Revenge of the Nerds, about to throw the special aerodynamic javelin designed specially for his limp-wristed throwing motion. By the way, I noticed immediately that Kevin Costner's brother in Field of Dreams was "Poindexter" (Timothy Busfield)  from this very same movie. 

But even that pales next to my greatest feat. Last week we were watching The Rockford Files and a railway porter briefly spoke to Jim Rockford. The actor portraying the porter? I don't know his name, but it's the guy who played the crazy uncle who put A-1 steak sauce on his hamburger in the old commercials. May God strike me dead if it isn't the same guy. I don't think he appeared in the credits on the Rockford Files episode, and he isn't listed on the IMDB page for the episode, but it is him. If you have Netflix you can see for yourself. It's Season 1, Episode 5, "Tall Woman in Red Wagon."

"What's hamburger, chopped ham? No, it's chopped steak!"

I'd enjoy it if I could somehow profit from this ability. Funny thing is, I'm terrible with faces in real life. Unless a person has a really distinctive appearance, I need to see him/her four or five times before it sinks in. Also, within a single movie, I often confuse two of the main characters because I can't tell them apart by appearance. I'm the person who's always saying, "Why is he trying to kill them? I thought he was on their side."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Invention of Cheese

The sun has just gone down and a cave man is gnawing on a bone. Another cave man enters.

CAVE MAN #1: Geez, I'm starving. I thought I was gonna run down that wildebeest, but lost him when I tripped over that tree we felled last year to appease the rain god. So all I've got is this leftover from yesterday. It's still got a little gristle on it.

CAVE MAN #2: Dude, you want to try something new? (Takes out cheese.)

CAVE MAN #1: What kind of meat is that?

CAVE MAN #2: It's not meat. It's something I've been working on for the past few months.

CAVE MAN #1: Is it a fruit? You know fruit tears me up. Ever since I ate those green fruits, I avoid the stuff like poison.

CAVE MAN #2: It's not a fruit. In fact, I don't really know what it is. But I'll tell you how I made it. You know those furry animals with horns that live up on the mountain?

CAVE MAN #1: You mean the ones that smell bad and butt you in the stomach if you get too close?

CAVE MAN #2: The same. I noticed these sort of nozzle thingies hanging down under them. Only about half of them have the nozzles. Not sure what's up with that. Anyhow, I snuck up to this one animal and started yanking on those nozzle things.

CAVE MAN #1: Why?

CAVE MAN #2: No reason, just wanted to see what would happen. Get this: some white fluid started squirting out.

CAVE MAN #1: White fluid? You mean, like milk that comes out of women?

CAVE MAN #2: I don't know whether it's milk, or some kind of sap, or what. But anyway, I collected some of this white stuff in the skin I use to carry water from the stream. I was real thirsty, so I tried drinking some of it, and it's not too bad.

CAVE MAN #1: Your soul has surely been possessed by the demon god of fermented grains.

CAVE MAN #2: I know it sounds crazy, but bear with me. I stored some of this white liquid in a hollow rock in the back cave; you know, the one that's too damp to sleep in. I forgot about it for three new moons, but then ran across it when I was looking for the red war paint last week before we went into battle against the desert tribe. So as I was sayin', I found this stuff and it had literally solidified. There was some kind of blue fuzz growing on it, which I brushed off. Here, try some!

CAVE MAN #1: Christ, it stinks! It smells like the droppings of the wild boar. Get it out of here!

I don't know how to end this story other than to say that I really like cheese. But the more I think about it, the less I like it.    

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Crime and Punishment

I'm enough of a grownup to realize that almost everyone in prison is guilty as charged, and that the guilty go unpunished many times more often than the innocent are convicted. It's the natural result of a system set up to protect the rights of the accused from the arbitrary judgments of authorities.

Yet, when I see someone in trouble with the law saying, innocently, "Who, me?" I admit some sympathy. It's because of an experience I had when I was about 13.

I used to stay the night at a friend's house about once a month. We would eat pizza, build model airplanes and ride around his neighborhood on his minibike and snowmobile. Once, a scruffy older kid I hadn't seen before was hanging around his house: his older sister Janice's new "boyfriend," Ken. Ken was 16 and had just gotten his driver's license. He went to a rival school in the next town.

Ken had the great idea that we should go for a ride in his little 1970s wood-paneled station wagon. (It must have been his parents' car.) So me, my friend, and a friend of Janice's squeezed into the back seat, and with Ken and Janice in front, away we went. Later I found out that both Janice and her friend, a sturdy brunette who played French horn in the marching band, had a big crush on me, but that has nothing to do with this story.

Ken drove us into the downtown area of our little town. It was about 10 pm and all was dark. Ken spotted a couple of kids walking up the road. He turned his headlights off, coasted quietly up behind them, and when we were within about 10 feet he put the car in neutral, hit the lights and gunned the engine. They yelled in fright and ran off. Ha!

We then tooled around a little until we came upon our high school. Ken said, "Your school sucks," and drove across the parking lot and onto the front lawn of the school. He proceeded to "turf" the entire front lawn of the school, with us bouncing around in the back seat. I don't know whether turfing is a well-known term, but it means to vandalize a lawn using the tires of a car. He even did a couple of donuts, right in the lawn. After he was through, he drove us back to my friend's house.

A turfed lawn

The next Monday morning when my bus drove past the high school, I could see tire tracks and skids all over the lawn. They were there until the janitor rolled them down and seeded them the next spring.

Since that night, the following alternate history has often played out in my mind:

Cop car arrives at the high school just as Ken completes his last donut, jumps out of the car and runs off into the night.

OFFICER: You in the back. Yes, you, the chubby kid with the bad haircut. What the hell do you think you were doing just then?

ME: I don't know! Some other kid was driving! I never saw him before in my life! I didn't know he was going to do this!

OFFICER: Right. Get in the cruiser.

And then my juvenile criminal record prevents me from getting accepted to the college of my choice.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The West Virginia Meal

I don't think this dish has a name, but we call it the "West Virginia Meal" because it came to us with my West Virginia dad. You just fry a couple strips of bacon or some ham hocks in the bottom of a stockpot, add some sliced white potatoes and fry them up a little on the outside, then dump in about a pound of fresh green beans and add salt and pepper to taste. Cook on low heat, covered, for at least half an hour until the beans are just shy of mushy. You do not want California-style crispness - the beans need to be soft. You'll have to add maybe a cup of water to keep things from burning. You may need to pour off bacon grease and/or excess liquid; use your judgment. The quality of this dish is a direct function of the quality of the ingredients. Grocery-store beans are probably not going to cut it - I made this batch with a local wide bean from the Colonie Farmers' Market.

The West Virginia Meal

Tonight this went down with cornbread, corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions, and peach cobbler for dessert. That is a West Virginia meal all the way. Use good vegetables, and trust me, you won't miss the meat; the two ounces of bacon will be plenty. Fried chicken goes with it, but you really don't need it.  

This dish might be even better if made with "leather britches" - beans that you thread on a string and dry in the pods. Then you have to soak them before use. When I was really young, Dad put up leather britches in our porch one summer, but we couldn't keep the bugs off them and they never got eaten. That was as close as I've gotten to leather britches. Maybe this fall...

You Can Vote, But You Can't Run

You hear a lot of complaints that voter ID laws, inconvenient voting hours and locations, and the need to register ahead of time are unfair. Some extremists think requiring a person to show a photo ID at the time of voting is a civil rights violation.

I find it interesting that many who advocate extremely open and lax regulation of who can vote take a very different view of who should be allowed to run for office. For example, the website of the Democratic Party says voter ID laws are unnecessary and suppressive. But then I read

Democrats have turned to a lawyer who helped craft some of the state’s complex election laws to try to keep a challenger to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from getting onto the September Democratic gubernatorial primary ballot. 

and a case where a Democratic incumbent is trying to get a Green Party challenger thrown off the ballot because of some fairly ridiculous technicalities having to do with the petitions the law requires in order to run for office.

Maybe in the days of manual voting it made sense to have primaries, runoffs and petition requirements in order to limit the number of candidates on any one ballot. But now votes are recorded electronically, and the government conducts all sorts of business online, so what's the problem with letting anyone who wants to put his name on an electronic ballot? If it turns out there are 500 candidates, so what? People manage to choose from 500 different kinds of cereal, so they can probably manage the same number of options in the voting booth.

Are the major parties afraid that the false consensus will evaporate? I know the Democrats and Republicans like us to believe that some large percentage of the electorate thinks their guy is the very best one for the office, but that is of course ridiculous. All it takes to win an election is to be better than the other idiot who managed to get onto the ballot. It doesn't mean you're any good in an absolute sense.

It's hard to look at election laws and not conclude that voting is a charade. Did you know that in Virginia, the order in which candidates are listed on the ballot is not random, but rather reserves the top two lines of the ballot to candidates of a party that polled at least 10% in a recent statewide election? In practice it means that the Democrats and Republicans always get the top two lines. This law was passed in 1996 with many Democratic votes. That's about as fair as prohibiting someone from voting in a state election until he's voted in a previous local election.

If you think it should be as easy as possible for people to participate in the political process, more power to you. But if you favor very liberal voting regulations, and also silly and obstructive laws about who can appear on the ballot, then you're acting out of self-interest, not principle. You want as many people as possible to come out and vote, but you only want them to be able to pick from the very few people who had the time and money to jump through all the ridiculous hoops you set up.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't Listen to Economists

I have said before that I think economists are sloppy thinkers. Here's an example.

This famous Nobel Prize-winner claims that "printing money isn’t inflationary" under certain conditions. His evidence is that lots of money was printed after the financial crisis, but inflation never shot up.

The fact that inflation didn't go up after the money-printing tells us nothing whatsoever about whether the money-printing policy in itself caused inflation. There were a lot of other things going on at the time, and from everything else we know about how money works in the economy, they must have been powerfully deflationary, so that the inflationary effects of printing money were counteracted.

The right question to ask is, what would the inflation rate have been if the money-printing policy had not been implemented? But of course we'll never know, because you can't repeat the years 2008-2012 with a different policy.

I can hear Krugman countering, "What I meant by not inflationary is that even though the inflation rate was higher than it would have been absent the money-printing, it still wouldn't have reached harmful levels, because of all those other deflationary things happening in the economy. It was important to print money to avoid harmful deflation." (He says deflation is harmful later in the same column.)

But is deflation bad or good? If it's good, then preventing it, by printing money for example, is bad. Like inflation, deflation harms some people and helps others. If someone owes you $1000, and suddenly the value of the dollar rises sharply (that's deflation), you'd be pretty happy to see deflation. On the other hand, if you're the person who owes the $1000, you might not be so happy. Economists like to say that deflation is bad for the economy as a whole, and they point to Japan as an example, but in fact the Japanese standard of living is as high as it's ever been.

Personally, I really like deflation. The fact that I can buy a computer today for $1000 that would have cost $1 million a couple of decades ago is just fine. It might make me hesitate to buy a computer today if I think I can get the same performance in a year for a lower price, but so what? If people stop buying computers, then the computer companies have less money to invest in new deflation-causing technology, so the rate of deflation is self-limiting.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Perrywood Allotment Baseball League

When I was a kid, my neighborhood friends and I set up a backyard baseball league. We called it the PWABL or PABL for Perrywood Allotment Baseball League - Perrywood was the name of our "allotment" (i.e. housing development).

Unlike in the movies, we did not have dozens of kids that we could divide up into several teams. There were only four of us, not even enough for one team. But we really did run an entire league with just four kids. Each of us picked a major league team to represent. I picked the Reds, my friend Dave picked the Indians, and the two other guys picked the Red Sox and the Brewers. I remember the other two guys well, but will omit their names because I've lost track of them. Hey, if either of you guys read this, shoot me an email.

We managed to set up a schedule where each team played each opponent a set number of times - about 50 total matchups for a season that lasted many weeks. The games went like this. You turned to the sports page and from the previous day's box scores, you read off the batting order for your team. That was the batting order you had to use. We would announce each batter: "Now up for the Red Sox, Carl Yastrzemski..." (This was during the 1978 season.) The hook was that if your guy was a righty, you batted righty, but if your guy was a lefty, you had to hit lefty. If your guy was a switch hitter (I had Pete Rose on my team), then you had to bat righty the first at-bat, lefty the second, and so on. I have no idea how we kept track of all this, but by the end of the season we had the batting orders memorized. I can still remember that Rick Burleson was hitting leadoff for the Red Sox most of that season.

With only four players, we had to use everyone for every game. The two players actually matched up batted and pitched against each other, but one extra guy was an all-time fielder and the other one was an all-time catcher/umpire.

Because there was only one person per team to bat, we had to set up an elaborate set of "ghost-man" rules. If you hit a single, you would have to say "Ghost-man on first" before you stepped off the bag to go back and bat again, or else you could be tagged out. If you then hit another single, you would say "Ghost-men on first and second". The ghost-men always advanced only one base for each base the batter made. There was no scoring from second on a single. Your ghost-men ran at exactly the same pace as the actual runner. If you had a ghost-man running to second, he could be put out if the fielder stepped on second before the actual runner reached first.

We had three fields - my back yard, the Brewers' back yard, and a strip of land next to the Indians' house that was bordered by a real home run fence - a chain-link fence enclosing a friendly dog. I must say we did not have a lot of parity. The Red Sox was about a head taller than all the other teams and he hit many home runs. Except for him, nobody else hit one, except for one I hit late in the season. The player up at the time was Dave Concepcion. Sure, I remember it. It was only 36 years ago.

This is the Indians' home field. The angled house at the bottom (you can only see the corner of it) was the Indians' house. Home base was about where the big tree in the lower center stands now, and you hit towards the top of the picture. The home run fence ran horizontally, from the end of the driveway with the two cars in it. You had to pull a ball to get it over the fence. If you hit it straight away, it would just roll across the driveway.

The fields varied wildly in dimensions and we had no bases, so you had to grab a certain tree branch or stand on a certain bare spot to get to base. It worked out OK because with only one fielder, there were very few close plays. Each field had its own weird grounds rules, like if a ball was hit under the big Christmas tree-like evergreen in my backyard and was unreachable, it was a ground rule single. Hedgerows provided the home run fences for the backyard fields. If you fouled one backwards and it cleared the hedgerow behind home plate, we called it a "Polish home run." The only statistic we kept was the total number of Polish home runs. I think the Brewers won that one. At one point, the Brewers asked the Red Sox for a nickname, and the name "K-King" was bestowed: K meaning strikeout.

We only had a few balls, so these had to be taken good care of. One of the balls was not a real baseball, but was made of some sort of rubber that if you really whacked it, it would take on an oval shape that would persist until you whacked it back into roundness.

We actually played the whole schedule as it was originally set up. I don't remember a lot of arguments about umpire calls or the very complicated set of rules. The only game I really remember ending prematurely was when the Brewers fouled off a bunt into their own teeth and had to go home for an ice-pack.

It sounds like I'm making up all these complications, but we really did play a whole season with these crazy rules. We tried to do it again the next summer, but it didn't really work out for reasons I don't remember. I think the Brewers had moved to Pennsylvania by then.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Static South

I just returned from a week's vacation to Charleston, South Carolina. One thing I really wanted to see, but was not able to because of its limited opening hours, was the recovered Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.  The best I could do was to visit the grave of its builder, Horace L. Hunley, who drowned in trying to make the damned thing work.

Grave of Horace L. Hunley, Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C.. His crew is buried around him, and every stone has a brand new Confederate flag next to it. It's like being in a foreign country.
The Hunley is one of a very few examples of technological innovation that came out of the Old South. In fact, I can't think of another one; can you? I asked my wife and kids for examples and the ones they offered were the Winchester rifle and the cotton gin. Actually, those were both invented in Connecticut!

I also visited the Manigault House of 1803 as part of my admission to the very interesting Charleston Museum. I mentioned to the lady who gave us the guided tour that what struck me was the obvious effort and expense the builders of the house went to in making it aesthetically pleasing, instead of investing in "conveniences". They had bedsteads, sideboards and chairs that would look great in any house today, but of course no indoor plumbing or kitchen.

A few minutes after we left, I realized what a dopey observation that was. They didn't have those kinds of conveniences because they never had to cook, clean or wash their own clothes. They had slaves and servants to do that. I'm sure it occurred to them that it cost money to pay servants or support slaves to do these tasks, but what didn't occur to them is the various ways the tasks could be made more efficient. You have to do the job yourself in order to come up with labor-saving ideas. But if the person paying the bills isn't doing the work, and the person doing the work isn't paying the bills, that connection never happens.

I think this explains a lot about why there was little innovation in the South. At least, it's a better explanation than the common observation that the South was conservative and suspicious of improvements. Everyone likes to save money. Those rich plantation owners didn't get that way by throwing money out the window. They just weren't in a position to see, for example, that by fireproofing the kitchen, they could bring it into the house and save hours of time lost by walking stuff to and from the outdoor oven.

It would seem that the existence of a middle class, in which people mow their own lawns, do their own laundry and change their own oil is a necessity for innovation to happen. If you were paid to mow lawns by the hour, would you be interested in a way to do it in half the time? Not likely. But if you had to mow your own lawn, you would be very interested. The rise of the middle class in Britain probably had a lot to do with why the Industrial Revolution started there. Even then, the big shots in Britain were still the idle rich. That's why being a "boffin" was (and still is) looked down on in a way we have difficulty understanding in America.

Don't leave with the impression that I dislike the South. On the contrary, it's full of fine people, and these days, the South is the only restraint on the Whiggish excesses that will ruin the country if unchecked.

Note added later: What I said above refers to the "old South." A lot has changed in the last 50 years or so. A great deal of the work that got Neil Armstrong to the moon was done in Alabama, Virginia, Texas, Mississippi and of course Florida.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Goose of Science

Flush with the success of the Manhattan Project, the federal government in 1945 produced the famous report Science: The Endless Frontier, which laid the groundwork for the National Science Foundation and the huge complex of federally sponsored research that sprang up during the Cold War.

The frontier metaphor may be apt, but it is not the best metaphor for how government and industry actually view scientific research.

If someone is paying you to do research, you quickly figure out that you are just another part of the supply chain, much like the steelworkers, buyers, tire makers and truck drivers. Into the factory go sheet metal, seats, paint, tires, windows, and out the other end come cars. But there's something else that goes into the factory: the CAD files that tell them how to build the car. That's where you, the researcher come in.

To make the sheet metal, someone has to dig rocks out of the ground, grind them up, put them in a furnace that separates the iron from the slag, then pour off the iron, add carbon and other stuff, and roll it out into steel. To make CAD files, someone has to think up ideas, screen out the bad ideas by testing and analysis, and then put the ideas on paper, or on pixels.

You, the researcher, are the person who thinks up the products, finds the good ones, and tells the factory how to build them. As far as the business is concerned, you are almost the same as the guy who skims the slag off at the steel mill. You skim off the bad ideas; he skims off the dirt.

Note that I said "almost the same." The business sees you as different in one interesting respect. It has been the case a few times in history that someone invented a blockbuster product seemingly out of of nowhere, and, of the greatest interest to businesspeople, with almost no money. Examples are the Wright Brothers' invention of the airplane and the Google guys' invention of the PageRank algorithm. There's no equivalent of this elsewhere in the supply chain. It's as if someone waved a magic wand in an empty warehouse and suddenly it was filled with thousands of brand new V-6 engines waiting to be dropped into cars.

The process by which blockbuster products are invented is understood about as well as magic wands. About all we can say is that such inventions require an energetic genius to be in exactly the right place and time. Then the "magic" happens. This lack of understanding, and a near-total lack of success in reproducing equally valuable results, does not stop businesspeople from trying. They say things like, "innovate or die" and "invent the future". Just wave the magic wand; that's all they're asking. They know they can pour money and manpower into a research lab and get a steady trickle of incremental improvements, but they've heard about the magic wand and they can't stop thinking about it. They want the next big thing.

This is why I think the frontier metaphor doesn't quite tell the story. The real metaphor for sponsored research is a goose that could lay perfectly good eggs but can't because the farmer is feeding her all kinds of weird seeds, constantly fussing with her nest and feathers, sprinkling pixie dust on her, and subjecting her to the whims of traveling charlatans (aka consultants), trying to get her to lay that one golden egg that would make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Seven Generations of Dads

It's time for some Father's Day genealogy.

First comes my dad (1928-2007), I covered his life in this obit.

Then there's his father, Grant Henson (1897-1954), who I was named after. Where did the "Grant" come from? Well, he was born to a family of Republicans (read: pro-Union Eastern Kentuckians) in 1897, two months after Grant's Tomb was dedicated, so it's not too hard to figure out. We forget what a huge celebrity President Grant was. A million people attended the tomb dedication, including heads of state from around the world, and it was front-page news for a week or more.

Grant Henson was a coal miner. Here's the "Application for Coal Miner's Certificate" that proves it. Until I found this, I never knew miners had to be certified. Thanks to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History for this one.

He always thought he was born in 1898 even though it was actually 1897, so he thought he was 43 at the time of this application. 28 years of experience means he started at 15, but by then he was already keeping books for his father, who was a mine foreman but couldn't read or write.

Grandpa Henson. He always wore a hat - said it would prevent baldness.
Going back another generation isn't so easy. Grant's "real" father was a guy named Bill Conley (1865-1934), who was a county sheriff and small-time politician in Grayson, Kentucky. It's not clear what happened, but I think Conley was run off by Grant's step-grandfather, Charley Perry, for being a gambler and general rake-hell. Conley's nickname was "Ace", so you get the picture. 

Grant's mother married Noah Henson (1877-1929) in 1900, around which time "Ace" Conley tried unsuccessfully to kidnap Grant.

Noah Henson makes his mark on his marriage license

Noah was born in Lawrence County, Kentucky in 1877, to his mother Mary Henson (1853-1916) and some other guy I don't know. I speculate that his "real" father was named York, because Noah's middle name was York and that name is not seen anywhere else in our family. There were some York boys in Lawrence County at the time, but this is pure speculation. Noah was raised by Mr. William McDaniel (1860-1929), from the Ironton, Ohio area, who married Mary in 1880.

Noah Henson in about 1918. That thing he's riding is a pedal-powered draisine.

Since I don't know who Noah's father was, I'll skip over to his mother for one generation because that's where our name came through anyway. His mother, Mary Henson, was born in 1853 in Kentucky to David Henson (1830?-1885). He had come to Kentucky from Virginia just a couple of years before Mary was born. Apparently about half the people in Virginia moved to Kentucky around that time. Old David Henson was in the Army in 1864...for one month. (He was in his mid-thirties and had a bunch of kids, so give him a break.)

Six feet tall! The Hensons were indeed tall, but I didn't get any of those genes.
Before David Henson, it really gets speculative. He was from Russell County, Virginia. The only family there with a name anywhere close was the Hanson family of Hansonville. (David spelled his name Hanson and Hinson before settling on Henson.) In the generation that would have been David Henson's father, the eldest brother was a slaveholder but some of the younger brothers couldn't stomach slavery and went West. Three of them, George (1799-1878), Tristram (1805-1834) and David (1803-1834), ended up in Illinois by the early 1830s, and for various complicated reasons I think my ancestor David was the son of either Tristram or David, who both died young in 1834. Some of the children went back to Virginia but at least one stayed out west with Uncle George. If David was descended from these Hansons, then his grandfather was David Mark Hanson (1773-1828)  from Macosquin, Co. Derry, Ireland.

The kid who stayed with Uncle George is fascinating. She was Tristram's daughter, Sidney, and when George went west as a California '49er, Sidney went with him. Uncle George, who worked for the federal government and later started five newspapers, sent her to Santa Clara University and she ended up the wife of an employee of the US Mint in San Francisco. She lived to a ripe old age and gave an extremely interesting interview to the California State Library in the 1920s, describing her overland trip west in 1849. Anyway, I'm getting off track. Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Trooly Grate Skool in the Sitty of Cleaveland

Here's a picture of me standing in front of Artemus Ward Elementary School on the west side of Cleveland.

This is the only school I've ever heard of named after a fictional character. Artemus Ward was a sort of 19th-century version of Larry the Cable Guy. He was the creation of Charles Farrar Browne, a humorist who wrote for the Plain Dealer in the 1850s and later became a very popular lecturer. Browne's Wikipedia page says Artemus Ward was simply Browne's pen name, but I disagree. A pen name is simply a substitute name, like Mark Twain, that a writer takes on no matter what he is writing. In contrast, Artemus Ward was a full-blown character who had a vivid fictitious life and generally starred in his own anecdotes.

Browne's writings  are so far out of copyright you can read them in their entirety for free online. Here is a favorite of mine (and a favorite of Abraham Lincoln's):

High-Handed Outrage at Utica
In the Faul of 1856, I showed my show in Uticky, a trooly grate sitty in the State of New York.

The people gave me a cordyal recepshun. The press was loud in her prases.

1 day as I was givin a descripshun of my Beests and Snaiks in my usual flowry stile what was my skorn disgust to see a big burly feller walk up to the cage containin my wax figgers of the Lord’s Last Supper, and cease Judas Iscarrot by the feet and drag him out on the ground. He then commenced fur to pound him as hard as he cood.

“What under the son are you abowt?” cried I.

Sez he, “What did you bring this pussylanermus cuss here fur?” and he hit the wax figger another tremenjis blow on the hed.

Sez I, “You egrejus ass, that air’s a wax figger–a representashun of the false ‘Postle.”

Sez he, “That’s all very well fur you to say, but I tell you, old man, that Judas Iscarrot can’t show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!” with which observashun he kaved in Judassis hed. The young man belonged to 1 of the first famerlies in Utiky. I sood him, and the Joory brawt in a verdick of Arson in the 3d degree.

This guy says he doesn't think Outrage at Utica is funny and suspects it's because he doesn't understand the social context it was written in. Well, neither do I, but I think it's hilarious. I also don't understand the social context of the Philosophers' Soccer Match in Monty Python (for a long time I thought Franz Beckenbauer was a philosopher) but it's still funny. De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess.

By the way, this photo was taken on a trip from my home in upstate New York to Cleveland. That trip always reminds me of Artemus Ward because I pass Utica, and Browne wrote his Artemus Ward stories from Cleveland.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Scientist

So my friend Phil posted to Facebook how he tried all kinds of technical fixes to get the speed sensor on his bike to work, and in the end all he had to do was move the base unit a little closer to the sensor. The story hit home for reasons that will become apparent.

When I was a kid, wanting to be a scientist, I read stories about Einstein and Newton and how they wielded elegant, airtight logic to move their incredible hypotheses straight toward undeniable fact. Now that I'm a scientist (sort of ), my experience has been closer to Edison's comment about it being 99% perspiration. No doubt Edison wasn't as smart as Einstein and Newton, but I think his take is a lot closer to typical than what you read in the biographies.

So here is a day in the life of a real scientist, showing you how the sausage is really made. The details have been altered but the story is all too true.

1. Arrive at desk at 8 am. Where did I leave off yesterday? Oh yeah, I was trying to fix up a simulation so that it predicts Effect Y when Cause X is active. It had better, because our experiment said X causes Y.

2. Was I really unable to show X causes Y? I have results here from right before I went home last night, but didn't record the inputs because I was in a hurry not to miss dinner and was sure I'd remember them. So I don't really know what these results mean. Reconstruct the inputs and re-run.

3. During this run, I started to think about causes. What about the interpolation order? Is it high enough? Too high? What about the modulus? I can't even remember where I got this value. I'm going to look it up on Wikipedia. If the Wikipedia value is different, then my value is probably bad. Or maybe Wikipedia is wrong. So I'll check another source. Here's a student project from the Technical University of München. It uses a value within 5% of mine. They are pretty smart over in München and I can imagine them speaking in a foreign accent, so it's probably a good value.

4. Lunchtime, then I have to go on a phone call with the people funding this work. They want to know all about the schedule and budget, so it takes an extra half hour to regain my train of thought once the call is over.    

5. The run is done and it shows Result B, which is different from anything I've seen so far. What if I didn't put on the boundary conditions correctly? To be sure, I'll remove all the boundary conditions and re-apply carefully.

6. Ran again and I'm still not getting the expected results. Maybe I had the boundary conditions right before, and messed them up with this latest re-do. Double check and run again. I think maybe the displacement is going nonlinear. I might need to change to a hyperelastic constitutive theory.  It is a good thing I'm so smart and know about these things. Others would have been defeated by this problem.

7. I am 99% sure there is a bug in this code. There must be. I've checked every conceivable input and they all look good. All this money for software and it's full of bugs. Spend an hour drafting a bug report. In the process of writing the bug report I discover that I was looking at the wrong column of results. Trash the bug report. I am really stumped for new ideas, so I spend several minutes drawing the Greek letter sigma in both its capital and lower-case forms.

8. Maybe the temperature was recorded incorrectly during the experiment. Did they even say where they placed the thermocouple? Did they make sure everything was soaked out before doing the test? Experimenters never document things well enough. If the temperature was this way, then the result would be that way. I think.

9. Run again with a different temperature and the trend is opposite what I expected. Something is interfering with my concentration - a vague feeling of pressure. Then I remember - back during Step 3, I never did get to the bathroom. It can't be put off any longer.

10. It's getting late and my kid has a ball game tonight. I am not sure what the original problem was. Oh yeah, X should cause Y but it's causing Z, or A or B depending on the inputs. Go for a walk outside to clear my head.

11. While sitting on a bench outside, I realize that in converting minutes to hours, I might have multiplied by 60 instead of dividing by 60. I don't think I did that. I have a Ph.D., and nobody would get a Ph.D. who doesn't know when to divide instead of multiplying. But I'd better check it anyway.

12. Back in the office and sure enough, I've entered 60 minutes as 3600 hours instead of 1 hour. Got to change that, but I need to find my original set of inputs. By looking at the timestamps on my files, I deduce that the original inputs are in the file Inputs(13).xlsx,

13. I really need to go, so I'm in a hurry and run the simulation with the corrected inputs, but forget to turn on output so it takes 18 minutes to get nothing. But I'm so close. I can run it once more and if I really need to hurry, I'll skip filling in my timesheet until tomorrow. Run again and get result Y. Victory!! Leave so quickly that I forget to take my container of lunch leftovers out of the refrigerator. I'll discover them in a few weeks when they have grown a green beard.


I am not sure where this all fits into the scientific method, Kuhn's paradigm shifts or Popper's falsifiability criterion.  You can find numerous fallacies and biases here. But this process actually works, at least for me. The best I can guess is that during all the fooling around with inputs and going down dead ends, even though the results are no good, I'm building intuition that I can use later to speed up my reasoning by a large factor, so that after going through ten or so of these cycles, I can answer questions without even having to run a simulation. Without intuition you may as well pack it in.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ramps for Breakfast

Ramps are Allium tricoccum, a member of the onion/garlic/chive genus. They grow in springtime and were considered by old-time Appalachian folk as "tonic herbs", along with poke, cress, dandelions and such. Tonic herbs are leafy plants with a bite or bitterness that were eaten in the spring to counteract the lack of fresh vegetables over the winter, according to folk medicine.

It's easier to get the old-timey Appalachian produce like ramps and pawpaws here in upstate NY than when I lived in Cleveland, because they only grow well in hilly and dampish areas and they don't ship well. However, I did read that the city of Chicago got its name from the native word for a patch of ramps growing along Lake Michigan.

Every description of ramps makes a big deal about how smelly and garlicky they are. They do smell garlicky when you get them cooking, but not as much as garlic itself. They might have seemed pungent compared to the very bland traditional cooking of Appalachia, which was mainly Scottish in origin, but would hardly raise an eyebrow today.

I got some ramps yesterday at my fantastic grocery store, the Niskayuna Co-Op.  They're trendy now, so these ramps, labeled as "foraged from the Hudson Valley", cost $15 a pound. But you gotta jump on them because they're only available for a few weeks each year.

I fried up the ramps this morning in a tiny bit of bacon grease and ate them with eggs. Fried, they have a deep but not sharp garlic flavor that stays on your breath. They are slightly sweet and not as bitter as some other greens. They'd probably also go very well with fried potatoes.

There is another kind of ramp that grew in Appalachia - people! In Southwestern Virginia in the 1800s, there was a class of darkish-skinned people who were thought to have some Indian or black ancestry and therefore were near the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy, along with free blacks. One thing that is clear is that they had a large German component. They were called ramps - some people think it's because they ate ramps, but my own theory is they may have migrated from the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey where there is a similar class of people even today.

Apparently "ramp" was what other people called you, not what you would call yourself, so if you are descended from ramps you won't really know it. But my grandmother's mother came from Southwest Virginia, lived in a group of about four family names (Thomas, Hand, Van Huss, Widener and a couple others) that almost exclusively intermarried with each other for generations, were sometimes listed as "mulatto" in the census, and included at least one guy with six toes (a sign of inbreeding.) So you can put two and two together. They had an old aunt living with them who was born before 1800 in New Jersey. These were the people my great-grandfather, no prize himself, said were "not good people." Well, we turned out OK for the most part, so they couldn't have been all bad.

As-foraged. You have to rinse the dirt off and cut off the roots.

They take about 5 minutes to fry up 


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Diversity in Science

One lesson of the past week is that a controversial post gets about triple the views as a regular old boring post. If I were doing this for money, I'd certainly feel pressure to create controversy where none exists, which of course explains a lot of what you see on the Internet.

In that spirit, I've attached a clickbaity title to this post that has nothing to do with diversity as usually understood.

I recently heard of the untimely death of a guy named Seth Roberts who was a leading light of the "self-experimentation" movement. In short, self-experimentation is doing medical experiments on yourself in order to solve problems that you yourself have, such as insomnia or overweight. We all do it informally - maybe your pillowcase goes in the laundry for a couple nights and you notice that you sleep better without a pillow  - but self-experimenters consciously collect and analyze quantitative data.

The self-experimentation movement stems in large part from criticism of established medical science as corrupt and harmful. A couple of posts ago I touched on one way this can happen. Unfortunately, many questions can only be answered by large-scale, expensive studies that, like any big operation, are vulnerable to exploitation by the selfish and short-sighted.

But even if big-time science were ethically pure, there would still be a reason to like self-experimentation. It has to do with the observed fact that people can follow widely varying lifestyles but have the same health level; in other words, wide diversity in people's responses to what they eat and which medicines they take. A good doctor will grasp this and it's why medical training is mostly just concentrated experience with patients rather than textbook learning. When there are five different cholesterol medicines, a good doctor will run you through all five to figure out which one works best for you.

Part of the diversity in human biology is only apparent diversity because we are still ignorant of the causes of many diseases. Lung cancer patients are more likely to be smokers than people without lung cancer, but there are nonsmokers who get lung cancer. We know about some but not all other causes of lung cancer. For instance, maybe new car smell causes cancer, but we just haven't made the connection yet, so people who got cancer from new car smell just show up as "statistical anomalies".

But I think part of the diversity is actual diversity in the biochemical processes of human life. There is obviously large diversity in human appearance and behavior. There's also anatomical diversity - things like horseshoe kidneys, extra toes or supernumerary nipples. So there's most likely wide diversity in less visible things like hormone production, enzyme balances, gut bacteria and a bunch of stuff we can't even guess about.

Why can't big-time science deal with the diversity? If it takes a billion dollars and ten years to cure a disease, the only diseases that will be cured are those that work pretty much the same in everyone. It doesn't make sense to spend a billion dollars to cure a disease that only a few people get. That money would do more good buying antibiotics or vitamins for people who can't afford them.

I used to have a lot of stomach problems. I'd get a bad upset stomach three or four times a week and it was stopping me from doing things I wanted to do. I went to several docs, but despite various probes stuck in various places nobody could figure it out. They tended to think it was "nervous stomach" and did things like putting me on a low dose of Xanax, which I was never comfortable with.

After years of paying attention to this, it dawned on me that my stomach empties much slower than normal. You know that "sloshy" sensation you get after you drink a big glass of water? I sometimes get that sensation four hours after I've eaten anything. The slow emptying causes problems because mealtimes are spaced according to the average person's digestion and by following normal eating patterns, sometimes I'd just get too much food in there.

So I went to yet another doctor but this time made a point of complaining about the lasting sensation of fullness. He put me through one of those studies where you eat oatmeal with radioactive particles in it and then they use a fluoroscope to watch the particles move through your gut. Hours passed and the technician wanted to go to lunch, but the particles were still sitting in my stomach. The doc wanted me to take Reglan but that has some side effects, so I just changed the timing and amounts of food I eat, and have had few stomach problems since.

I guess the lesson is that we all have to be our own doctors first, and find a good real doctor who doesn't assume that you'll always respond to treatments like the average patient in a study.  Devices you can wear to collect large amounts of real-time data on what's going on inside you, along with automated crunching of the data, could help doctors tailor treatments to your particular system. We can only hope that such devices are allowed to be invented and sold.  


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wahoo Part Deux

So, a friend of mine who has a very acute sense of justice didn't like my post approving of Chief Wahoo AT ALL. I said Super Mario doesn't bother me as an Italian-American, so why should I care about Chief Wahoo, but I guess she thinks Super Mario should bother me.

It all hinges on whether people think of real Indians when they see Chief Wahoo, or real Italians when they see Mario. I don't think they do, or at least they didn't until other people started raising a fuss about it. It's conceivable someone might think of a real Indian on seeing Wahoo, but about as likely as people thinking of a real mouse when they see Mickey Mouse.

To be clear, I accept that there is such a thing as a harmful caricature. I just don't think Wahoo is one. It's not like he's carrying a scalp or a whiskey bottle. It's important to distinguish between harmless caricatures and harmful ones, otherwise you have to be against all caricatures, and that is getting dangerously close to the kind of thinking that led to the Mohammed cartoon riots.

Super Mario doesn't bug me, but I admit I've never liked the kind of Mafia movie that implies crime is an integral part of Sicilian culture. It of course is not, except in certain small towns near Palermo, heh heh. Once I complained to Danny Boy's Restaurant in Sandusky about them having a poster of John Gotti in their Mafia-themed restaurant. The guy was a straight-up murderer, for God's sake. But one cannot deny there is a certain style of crime that is peculiarly Sicilian. When I watch The Godfather sometimes I catch myself thinking, yeah, we're badasses, so don't mess with us. This usually happens during the scene where Vito Corleone puts the horse head in the movie director's bed. But that is just wrong and I should be ashamed of myself.

Aside: My great-grandpa, who came to the US from Sicily as a young man, was a baker. He used to deliver bread to a bin at a restaurant. He got into a dispute over bin space with another baker, X, and eventually there was a confrontation where Great-Grandpa threw some of X's bread out of the bin. His friends said, you shouldn't have done that because X is in the Murray Hill Mob. (Murray Hill is Cleveland's Little Italy.) I don't know whether he really was, but later X and Great-Grandpa became friends. X is dead but I don't give his family name because it's fairly well known in Cleveland. I used to see X hanging around his bakery but never met him. That's as close to a brush with the Mafia as I can give you. This story is even less interesting than it sounds.

Perhaps I wouldn't be so cavalier about the Chief Wahoo thing if I was of some recognizable minority ethnicity myself. A quarter Sicilian doesn't qualify as a minority (except at the City University of New York, chuckle), especially considering there is nobody under the age of 75 in my family who speaks more than a few words of Italian. Plus I'm not even Catholic and I don't have a Sicilian name because it's on my mom's side.

On the other hand, every couple of years someone asks me if I'm Middle Eastern. Once when I was in Japan, a couple of Iranian guys came up to me because they thought I was Iranian. So did some annoying kids on my bus in the 5th grade. I don't have a foreign-sounding name or an accent, but maybe they thought I had a Steve Jobs thing going where I was adopted and my real dad was Iranian. Sorry, but no. Dad's ancestors were all European and already holed up in the Blue Ridge Mountains when George III was still running the place. These incidents, while puzzling, have not made me as sensitive to the plight of the stereotyped minority as some would like.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chief Wahoo: An Apologia

I know I'm supposed to be upset about Chief Wahoo, but it just ain't happening. Here's why:

1. The only people who think Chief Wahoo has anything to do with real Indians are the protesters. In other news, the Dallas Cowboys do not ride horses and the Green Bay Packers don't work in a meat-packing plant.

2. It's my understanding that most real Indians don't give a frog's fat behind about Wahoo. If there were some kind of mass sentiment against him, I would respect that, but Native Americans apparently do not consider Chief Wahoo to be among their most pressing problems.

For a while there, I was almost on the side of the protesters. If Chief Wahoo were supposed to be a caricature of a real Indian, he'd be a pretty gross one. But that's not what he is. As an Italian-American, if I'm not worked up over Super Mario Bros (and I'm not) then I'm not going to get worked up over Wahoo.

The obnoxiousness and sanctimony of some of the protesters probably had a part in moving me into the pro-Wahoo camp. At one time I thought it would be better to sort of quietly retire him in the off-season, but now I'd rather see the old guy stick around because I don't want to hand yet another victory to the Thought Police.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fake Science

When studies are conducted to determine whether Drug X cures Disease Y, success is declared if the link is proven "at the 0.05 significance level." In layman's terms this means there is less than a 1 in 20 chance that the result was caused by insufficient data. Think of it this way: if you see a bunch of nurses one day and they are all female, you might conclude that all nurses are female. But in reality, there are male nurses; you just didn't happen to see one that day. You were fooled by the smallness of your sample size.

An amateur faker makes up data to support a hypothesis. We have a cute name for this: "dry-labbing." An amateur also may think up bogus reasons for throwing out data that don't support the hypothesis.

A real professional faker with a big research budget does lots of studies and publishes the one that by chance showed a positive result at the 0.05 significance level. 20 is the average number of studies needed, assuming there is no correlation between administering the drug and curing the disease. It might take 10 or it might take 40 depending on how lucky you are. Even 40 studies are a small price to pay when billions of dollars are at stake.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sicilian Easter Cookie

Here's a recipe for a Sicilian Easter cookie. Well, I hesitate to call it a cookie - it's more like a sweet biscuit. I don't know the name for this thing - anyone who does, feel free to comment.

This version is from my Great Aunt Mary who passed away last year but would be 96 this year. Aunt Mary made her living as a baker and was accustomed to baking by the ton, so the quantities are huge. Feel free to proportion them down.

3 lb all-purpose flour (4 cups to the pound)
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 T vanilla extract
3 3/4 T baking powder
1 1/4 c. milk (or more if needed to fully moisten the dough)
1 1/4 c. shortening (Editor's comment: the secret to good cookies of any kind is to use shortening instead of butter.)
1/2 cup anise seed. (I like to bruise up the anise seed a little in a mortar and pestle to really bring out the flavor. If you are in Cleveland, get your anise seed from Gust Galucci's. It'll cost you about a quarter of what you'll pay at the grocery store.)

Cream shortening, eggs and sugar with an electric mixer, whisk dry ingredients together, then combine everything in a big bowl and work with your hands until smooth. Don't knead it, just get everything together.

Shape as discussed below and bake in preheated 375 degree F oven until lightly browned on top.

Traditionally these are baked around a colored, hard-boiled Easter egg in the shape shown below. The cross over the egg is interesting. Everyone knows the egg is a symbol of fertility and goes back to the pre-Christian spring holiday of the Romans and earlier. Then the Christian cross goes over top of it. It's syncretism, straight from your oven.

Now...Aunt Mary's recipe makes the old-school version of the Easter cookie, which is very dry and not very sweet. They are hard to eat without coffee or milk. To make a modernized version, increase the sugar to 2 cups and the eggs from 5 to 6.  You shouldn't need to increase the milk. Then, glaze them with any kind of simple sugar glaze. Vanilla and lemon are good flavors for the glaze. Colored sprinkles are optional. I usually don't make more than 3 or 4 of the "egg-basket" versions because they're so huge. I make lozenge-shaped cookies out of the rest of the dough - you can see these at the upper right corner of the picture below. If you do the eggs, shave 3-4 minutes off the boiling time or else by the time they get out of the oven they'll be rubbery.

Here they are. The cookie sticks to the egg, and I have many Easter memories of trying to gnaw the old-fashioned, hard cookie from around the egg without cracking the shell. If you can get into the Easter spirit without anise, well then you're not really Sicilian!