Monday, January 30, 2017

Orange Juice Pie Recipe

You probably thought this was a fake title to get you to read another crackpot political screed, but no, this post is really a pie recipe.

I've always liked lemon pie and key lime pie, and wondered if other citrus fruits would work too. Well, oranges do! But orange juice is a lot sweeter and less tart than lemon or lime juice, so you can't just go swapping out lemon juice for orange juice on a one-to-one basis. You would end up with essentially a very watery sugar pie.

Here's how I made an orange juice pie that has good consistency and lots of orange flavor.

1 completely baked and cooled 9-inch pie shell. My wife makes an excellent pie crust from the basic Cook's Illustrated recipe and that's what we used here. If you really want to go hardcore, make a lard-based crust.


2 c. orange juice. Plain old from-concentrate juice will work fine; the juice is going to get cooked anyway, so don't mess around with fresh-squeezed or premium.

3/4 c. white granulated sugar

1/4 c. cornstarch

1/8 tsp. salt

6 large egg yolks (Save the whites if you want to make meringue)

Zest of a medium orange. A microplane is the best tool for zesting. Only scrape off the outer orange stuff, not the inner white stuff.

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

In a heavy saucepan, bring 1 1/2 c. of the juice, plus the sugar, cornstarch and salt to a simmer (very slowly bubbling) over medium heat, whisking constantly. The mixture will eventually thicken and expand. When this happens, whisk in the egg yolks, two at a time. Then whisk in the orange zest, the butter and the remaining 1/2 c. of juice. Whisk as much as you think you need to, then whisk some more, or else you'll get lumps. As soon as the butter is melted and the mixture slightly bubbles again, remove from heat and pour into the pie shell. Cover with plastic wrap and let cool to room temperature on the counter, then chill in the refrigerator for about an hour and a half.

If you like meringue, top with meringue and finish with a torch or under the broiler. If you use the broiler to singe the meringue, you'll probably have to put the pie back in the refrigerator for a little while to chill it back down.

If it's for a party or a contest or something, use a sharp knife to peel off some skinny strips of orange peel and garnish the top of the pie with it.

I took a picture of my pie, but it's the day after it was made and it's mostly eaten and kind of beat up, so I'm not posting it. The pie looks pretty much exactly like you would expect. Any kind of citrus pie really needs to be eaten within 24 hours or else the meringue starts to weep and the filling gets syrupy.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

2017 Predictions

Starting off with a belated New Year's resolution: this will be my last post about politics in 2017.

Trump is off with a bang as he continually picks fights with the press over easily verifiable trivia like how many people attended the inaugural. He does this to (i) establish that the (very unpopular) press is against him, which of course it is, and (ii) drive the "reality-based community" crazy, which worships every pronouncement of the prestige press regardless of its importance or credibility. 

This, I predict, will continue throughout 2017. But what about more substantive topics?

People protesting the inaugural had various loudly but vaguely expressed complaints. Protests usually center around policies like a declaration of war or a piece of legislation. But these seem to be directed at Trump, The Personality. People think they've come to know his personality based on what they read in the prestige press, and they're afraid of what it says about what he might do. He seems like kind of a jerk, but I've never met the man. Going on the totality of his words and actions over the last 30 years, especially the time before he did anything political, the likelihood of him doing something radical seems remote. 

Here are my predictions for 2017:

1. At least 100,000 immigrants will legally enter the United States, including many Mexicans and Muslims.
2. No federal law will be passed that will restrict any kind of sexual behavior.
3. No federal law will stop businesses from having transgender restrooms if they want. (This one might happen because of the Republican Congress, but it will be over Trump's indifference or objections.)
4. Roe v. Wade will not be overturned.
5. Gay marriage will still be legal.
7. There will be no purge of climate scientists from federal agencies
8. There will be no federal school voucher program other than the one that already exists in DC.
9. The federal government will take no action intended to favor the KKK. (This one seems ridiculous, but the popular chant at these protests is "No Trump, no KKK..." So someone is saying he likes the KKK.)

I was going to add one about the number of minorities killed by police not increasing over some baseline year, but it's surprisingly hard to find the numbers on this. 

The most likely place for radical action is in trade policy, but it appears to me that we are already under a radical regime there, so what Trump is promising seems to be more of a radical tack back the the center, if that makes any sense.

I care a lot less about the substance of what the president is doing than most people who follow politics. I don't claim to be able to predict the outcome of various trade policies and technical stuff like that. Moreover, the president has a lot less power than people think. 90% of what the government does is from unelected bureaucrats who can't be fired. So I'll be happy to revisit this in 365 days, even if I turn out to have been wrong. It's all just a sideshow. The modern world was made by Newton, Edison, Ford, the Wrights, Hewlett, Wozniak and people like that. Politicians want so very badly to play a role, and they want you to believe they play a role, but they're just a bunch of gasbag lawyers whose only use is to haul water up the sidelines for the real players.   

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Disruption Cult

These days, all the cool businesspeople like to talk about disruption. For example, they say Amazon is an economically disruptive force because it undermines the entire business model of brick-and-mortar stores.  It's not just another kind of store, it solves the problem of distributing goods in a completely different way than stores. Or, Uber is disruptive because it undermines the business model of taxis. Or, AirBnB is disruptive because it undermines the hotel industry. You get the idea.

Disruption is always assumed to be good now. Investors want to invest in the next disruptive technology. But until about 10 years ago, people considered disruption to be a neutral or even slightly negative term. A disruption could be positive if it solved a problem. Often, however, it had a connotation of upsetting an existing order that was assumed to have good reasons for being the way it was. A disruptive student was a kid who intentionally dropped his book on the floor when the teacher turned around to write something on the board. Not good. The teacher was assumed to know better than the student how to run a classroom.

A related word is impact. Everyone says they want to have impact, and now we assume that means a positive impact. We've chosen to ignore the fact that impact can be negative. Johnny Manziel definitely had an impact on the Cleveland Browns, but it was negative.  There was an older term, creative destruction, coined by the economist Schumpeter, but destruction is too strongly negative, so you don't hear that one much any more. (It did not help that Schumpeter derived the concept from a close reading of Marx and that he contended it would result in the very demise of capitalism.)

So these two words, disruption and impact, have lost their "values-neutral" meanings and now are always taken as a positive. I contend that some recent socioeconomic changes have contributed to this.

If you take the Uber example, whether its impact has been positive or negative impact depends on who you talk to. It's had a positive impact on people who have cars and free time, and like to make money by giving people rides. It's had a positive impact on people who need rides and used to have to pay taxi fares, which cost more than an Uber ride because of legal limits on how many taxis are allowed in a given city.  From a naive free-market perspective, those positives added up over the whole of an economy are a big positive impact. But if all the taxi drivers get laid off and have to make a living by welfare or stealing, then the positive impact is considerably muted.

But these impacts are not at all what gets people excited about disruption. What gets them excited is that, even though Uber loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year, its founder has become a multibillionaire. In other words, it is not so much the rationalization of the ride industry that they like, it's the consolidation of it under a small group of people who became very, very rich. A group of people who don't seem all that different from you and me, in terms of ability or energy.

From one perspective, Uber and companies like it look like a long-overdue rationalization of the taxi business. That's something almost everyone should get behind. Marx was against this sort of thing, which means it's probably good. (My feeling about Marx is that he asked all the right questions but came up with a horrible answer.)

But big ideas attract shady operators in a way that hasn't happened in this country in over 100 years.  I do not mean to pick on Uber. I think it's a great idea, as long as people are fairly compensated for taxi medallions that were bought in good faith under the old system. But you have to ask why Uber's backers are willing to absorb huge losses for years. If a taxi company lost money several years in a row, it'd probably lose the ability to borrow money and go out of business. But the deep pockets behind Uber allow it to operate at a loss until...I guess until the taxis are all gone. It may be of interest that Uber employs David Plouffe, someone who has no experience in the taxi business - or any business, for that matter - but lots of experience running political campaigns for the likes of President Obama. From this perspective, Uber looks less like progress and more like an elite-backed gambit to corner a market, that could have come straight out of Jay Gould's Gilded Age playbook.

So we have a clique of people at the highest reaches of finance and government who apparently can profit from any economic disruption. If the disruption helps more people than it hurts, great, but if not, too bad. In this environment it is not hard to see how disruption took on a very positive connotation among the prestige press, which is now really just a mouthpiece for the elites. Today, it's gauche to assume that the existing order is good. It's fashionable to assume that every existing institution is arbitrary and ripe for disruption. Disruption is good! A real cynic might say that the ultimate disruption is to create a state of low-level war somewhere, so that no institutions can survive except the ones that are allowed to survive by the architects of said low-level war.