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Posts from — January 2008


I was 34 years old when my son was born; my father was only 29 when I was born. Yet despite the fact that more time will have elapsed between my childhood and my son’s than between my father’s and mine, my perception is that while the world in which I grew up was fundamentally different than that in which my father grew up, my son is growing up in a world that is a slow, gradual evolution of the world of my childhood. Perhaps it’s because it’s only relatively recently that I’ve self-identified more as an adult instead of as a young person, and have wanted to categorize more years of advancements as belonging to my youth than I would acknowledge belonging to my father’s youth. I don’t really know what the right comparison to make is–Matthew is several years away from an age against which I can compare any real memories. And when he’s old enough to think about it, I could imagine Matthew reasoning that the lack of digital photography, a ubiquitous internet, and the need to buy music on physical media all as evidence that my youth was stone-age by comparison. We don’t really know what the world will look like when Matthew is old enough to remember it, but we can make some comparisons about the years in which we were born.

First, transportation. Amtrak was formed in 1971: passenger rail when Matthew was born is roughly the same as when I was born, and completely different from when my father was born. At some point before I was born, the passenger-miles of the airlines overtook that of the railroads. The present Interstate Highway system, begun in 1956, is similar to when I was born.  

Figure 1943 1973 2007
Population (M) 137 212 303
Cars (M) 26 124 232
Cars per capita 0.19 0.59 0.76
Interstate Miles 0 35461 46837


So I think its fair to say that the transportation world in which I was born was fundamentally different than that in which my father was born, but Matthew’s transportation world is similar to mine.

For sports, my dad grew up in the era of the original 6 NHL teams, and before interleague play in Major League Baseball, but looking at the figures per 100 Million population is interesting:   

Figure 1943 1973 2007
NHL teams 6 16 30
NHL teams per 100M 4.4 7.6 9.9
NFL teams 10 26 32
NFL teams per 100M 7.3 12.3 10.6
MLB teams 16 24 30
MLB teams per 100M 11.7 11.3 9.9


So while the NHL has definitely grown in each era, there was more football per capita when I was born than either now or when my dad was born. Most significantly, there was more baseball per capita when my dad was born than either now or when I was born. Sort of makes me wonder about all the hand-wringing that goes on about how baseball expansion is supposed to have diluted the available pitching talent.

One other facet that I thought was different about my dad’s youth, but isn’t really, is candy. I remember my dad telling me about ads for Clark bars when he was a kid–even though they’re still available, they really aren’t heavily advertised, nor were they when I was young. But according to this timeline of American candy bars, it looks like the golden age of candy bar inventions were the 1920s and 1930s; pretty much the same selection had been available for my dad as for me, and Matthew benefits from the rather small handful of candies (Whatchamacallit, Twix, Skittles) that were introduced during my youth.

January 22, 2008   2 Comments

The political zodiac

Progressives in this country proudly refer to themselves as being a part of the “reality-based community,” a play on a quip that apparently came from the current White House. I think there’s a deep sense in which this notion resonates, about progressive ideas in general, but that’s not what this post is about. Progressives need to play the part of being members of the reality-based community, and that means rejecting all intellectually bankrupt notions, and not just the conservative ones.

It irks me, then, when I hear fellow progressives take astrology seriously. I don’t want to take the time here to explain in detail why it’s nonsense to think that the position of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, when one is born, such that the Sun appears to be amongst a group of stars which are not necessarily anywhere near one another in real space but whose projections onto the celestial sphere are reasonably close, to be in one of twelve approximations to the thirteen regions of this sphere through which the plane of the ecliptic passes, can have anything to do with one’s personality. But rather, let’s look at a consequence if this notion were true.

If you want to believe that horoscopes have any meaning, then you have to accept the notion that there are inherent characteristics shared by all who have any particular sign. If you are said to have certain personality traits because you’re, say, a Capricorn, then it’s a trait you should be said to share with all other Capricorns. What we have are twelve equivalence classes, canonically labeled by the names of 12 constellations. But there’s no reason that these are the only names we could use for these groups. Why not just pick one representative member of each equivalence class? Remember, everyone in each group is supposed to share certain personality traits, so what you’re really doing is picking someone whose personality, by definition, is representative of everyone with that sign. Including, of course, people that you don’t like.

So for progressives, I give you the Political Zodiac. When a fellow progressive asks you what your sign is, reply with the appropriate name on this list, instead of the name of the constellation. Remember, the whole idea of astrology is that you have something in common with others of your sign: 

Aries Tom DeLay
Taurus John Ashcroft
Gemini George H. W. Bush
Cancer George W. Bush
Leo Alberto Gonzales
Virgo Bob Packwood
Libra Jesse Helms
Scorpio Pat Buchanan
Sagittarius Strom Thurmond
Capricorn Karl Rove
Aquarius Dick Cheney
Pisces Jack Abramoff


January 16, 2008   2 Comments

Fondue thoughts

A few years ago, for Christmas, we got a fondue set from my brother and sister-in-law. With everyone here for Christmas this year, we decided to echo a tradition of the sister-in-law’s family and have fondue on Christmas day; as per our family’s tradition, we do the turkey Christmas eve so that we aren’t spending all of Christmas day roasting a turkey.

We did discover that a sterno-powered fondue pot, although fine with cheese and chocolate fondue, in which you coat a piece of bread or fruit or cake with a thick yummy liquid, isn’t up to the broth (or oil) fondue in which you actually cook a bit of meat or vegetable in a simmering liquid. We were thinking, though, that it would have been nice to have had an electric fondue pot as well, but unless you’re really into fondue, do you really want to have two (or more) fondue pots around all the time?

Wouldn’t it be nice, that is, if there was some sort of small appliance “library,” or community registry of small appliances that people could borrow for a day? Crock pots, chafing dishes, large coffeemakers: all things that are very useful on occasion, but I don’t know that I want to devote shelf space to all of them.

Grating the Gruyere and Emmentaler, I realized that the density of grated cheese can vary tremendously, and was sort of annoyed that the recipe in my Fondue cookbook gave only volumetric measures for cheese, not weight. I looked up two other cheese fondue recipes, and found, for the basic ratio of cheese to white wine:

  • Fondue cookbook: 4 cups cheese to 2/3 cup wine
  • Joy of Cooking: 1 pound cheese to 2 cups wine
  • Fannie Farmer: 1 pound cheese to 1 cup wine

Fannie Farmer further states that 1 pound of cheese is “about 2 1/2 cups.” In the back of the Joy of Cooking, you can find that 1 pound cheese is 4 cups grated, and this ratio, 4 ounces grated cheese per cup, is also given in several Cooks Illustrated recipes, although they don’t have a cheese fondue. Thus it looks like all the fondue recipes are talking about the same amount of cheese, but with a factor of 3 in the cheese:wine ratio. 

In a sense, it is this wild variation in recipes from trusted, standard sources that leads Cooks Illustrated to try 50 variations of a recipe before publishing the one they find to be the best. But there’s another lesson here, which I eventually took in: if you melt some swiss cheese with some wine, and throw in a bit of kirsch and a little nutmeg, salt, and paprika, you’ll get something very tasty, and if you’re still worrying about the ratio of cheese to wine, then you haven’t had enough wine yourself.

January 7, 2008   1 Comment


In Montgomery County, Maryland–one of the suburban jurisdictions bordering DC–a ban on trans fats in restaurants took effect this week, at the start of the new year. The most rational explanation I’ve read of what trans fats are, and why they should be avoided, is Michael Chu’s writeup, mostly about fats and heart disease, on his site Cooking for Engineers. The quote that stands out most–and I wish he had a citation for this; he has citations for many other points the article makes–is this:

 In addition, trans fats have been found to replace necessary saturated fats in fat cells resulting in an unusable substance taking the place where a fuel and nutrient source should have been. This leads to the body increasing capacity of fat cells in order to maintain fuel and nutrient storage levels.   


The Post has an article that details the preparations Montgomery County restaurants  have taken to prepare. I hadn’t given much thought to the ban itself, but what struck me reading the article is how pervasive industrial pre-prepared foods are in restaurants. Apparently, pancakes and pretty much any baked good comes from a trans-fat laden mix. And the Tastee Diner’s cheesecake was from Sara Lee. 

When buying food for home, I read labels and generally try to avoid processed foods, but in restaurants I generally gloss over all that. Partly, of course, because it’s really difficult to figure out what goes into restaurant food. I suppose I make a big mistake if I assume restaurants approach food in the same way that I do at home. I suppose it’s naive to have thought that restaurant corned beef hash could have come from anywhere but a can, but still, I find it a bit disheartening to learn that the cheesecake came from some factory far away.

January 3, 2008   3 Comments

Another holiday flies by

One of the biggest changes moving from academia to being an employee of the U.S. Government was that I now have to keep track of vacation days–I get 19.5 per year, in addition to the 10 federal holidays. So I don’t always take the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s off, but this year I did, using up four vacation days to get an 11-day stretch at home. (The President was gracious enough to give Federal employees Christmas Eve day off.)

As with most vacations, I had anticipated making progress on a whole list of projects, but, as is also usually the case, I hardly touched most of them.

Let me say right off that the first problem is that the ‘to-do list’ mentality is not really the appropriate way to describe spending time with my son. I played with him and photographed him and read to him, and the fact that I didn’t get to cross any of these things off a project list is really irrelevant.

But still, it does seem like a whole bunch of time went by without much productive being done. And I think it’s partly because even though I do have some to-do lists made up, I didn’t really plan my vacation.

Planning might seem line anathema for vacations, an unwelcome imposition of order onto what ought to be relaxing, but I’ve come to differ. You must, at some point, plan your time: one way or the other, you’re going to have to figure out what you want to do. At the most inefficient, you can use up your vacation time deciding what to do, and in the end I think I don’t think that ends up very satisfying.

I think our sense of elapsed time–whether a vacation has flown by, or seemed like a good break–is strongly correlated with the number of changes we experience throughout. A “leisurely” day–getting up late, eventually eating and getting dressed, thumbing through the newspaper, and then thinking about what to do, to be followed, perhaps, by actually doing something in the afternoon–does not put one through very many changes, and seems to go by quickly. (This does describe a large number of my eleven days off.)

By contrast, I think of two-day conferences I’ve been to, with separate events in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings–lots of changes–and recall that they usually end up feeling satisfying, or at least, I can’t recall feeling like time flew by with nothing being done.

Planning out vacation time in advance becomes more important if you’re traveling somewhere, because then, your time at your destination is very rare and very expensive. What a waste to spend your time sitting in a hotel room flipping through a guidebook!

When my wife and my mother-in-law and I went to Korea, we did a lot of planning: to know what the bus and train schedules were, and what days the museums we wanted to see were open, and how to get from a hotel to a site of interest. And the planning paid off: we still marvel at how much we saw in ten days. Quite a contrast to this year’s eleven days of holidays.

January 2, 2008   No Comments