Sunday, December 9, 2007

Old Fashioned Popcorn

A roommate in his late thirties seems to have forgotten how "they used to make popcorn," because he was stunned to see it done on the stovetop, not in the microwave. (I have done it it fireplace and campfire, too, but that will not be covered this time.)

I know that it is real butter, and how much, because I put it there. Nor do I give control over the amount of salt to Orville or Paul or Jolly Rodger, so it really is to my taste.

If your store still stocks the popping kernels, likely well above or below the prime eye-level location, note that the 1lb. bag costs about half of the box of '8 servings.' It makes about 30 similar volume servings.

The technique outlined here will typically yield a waste of 5-12 unpopped kernels, which is far better performance than most of the microwave bags... if you try to get those last 30-50 unpopped ones by adding 15 seconds the next time, you run the risk of burning some of the popped corn and adding an unpleasant smoke flavor to the whole batch.
In a saucepan with heavy bottom and tight-fitting lid, pour just enough cooking oil to coat the bottom. (Olive oil will burn—do not use!) Pour in somewhat less than enough seed to cover the bottom; roll the pan around a bit to ensure all the loose seeds get coated with the oil. Go for high heat and stay close. As the seeds pop and build an insulating blanket above the bottom of the pan, you can cut your heat in half, then be ready, the moment you have gotten to less than a pop-per-second, to cut the gas or snatch it from the coil if using electric. Tip the popped corn into a serving bowl, then melt some butter in the bottom of the same pan and drizzle it over the corn in the bowl. I like to put salt in my palm to judge the amount, before dusting the surface of the fresh hot steamy stuff in the bowl. I use my table knife to stir popcorn up from the bottom and mix it with the dredged and salted stuff on the top.
You will come to judge how much of each item with time. I like a TBS of butter and 1/8 tsp. of salt for a batch scaled to my 6 qt. saucepan, which yields two very generous servings. In a smaller saucepan, one which is shorter than 5 inches, don't cover the entire bottom of the pan with seed unless you like the thrill of having the batch lift the cover off the top, and maybe a few escapees catching fire before you finish.

On a gas stove, you will be using substantially less energy than microwaving a batch, but with an electric stove you will use more.

I don't serve it with napkins, unless asked. Just as I regard popcorn as a vehicle for ingesting salt and butter, I would consider not licking it off the fingers to be an inexcusable waste! I am left with a pan, serving vessel and knife to clean, but if they are added to the next batch, the added energy consumption—carbon foot print and my own animal energy—is negligible.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Slippery slope of sensibilities

My overarching theme has been the increasing isolation, in our 'developed' (but devolving) society, of the average person from the resources, design, production, repair, and even disposal of the 'stuff' on which we all rely. This could be energy, steel or lumber, or more refined things like automobiles, computers, furniture.

I see a semantic creep abroad in the land (now through the lens of a library science student) that has me pensive, and offer it for your own reflection. Newfangled objects of current popular adulation are paired with quainter terms whose function and sensibility they seem to displace:

information:knowledge :: consumer:customer :: producer:creator

The informal title of this Blog, it occurs to me, may be lost on readers 'below a certain age.' In an era within the cultural memory when I was learning the language, the Saturday night family bath ritual entailed filling the big galvanized washtub with water heated on the woodstove in the kettle... and was reused for all family members! It could be pretty foul for the last member, and all were cautioned to not "throw out the baby with the bathwater."

Something precious may well be disguised in what we are in such a rush to discard. I fear that literal and fugurative dirt under our collective fingernails is a wonderful thing, as it speaks to our independence and power to dealing with our practical world on a common ground where we have lots of options, and are not 'victims' but real players. We interface directly with the real world rather than experience the making and maintaining of its bounty through machines, corporations, or countries that isolate us—at a cost—from all that messy, gritty stuff. We have lost the satisfaction of knowing how to do things for ourselves, and to knowingly evaluate the handiwork of others.

Crafts and hobbies used to be much more central to the typical person's leisure, and gave them a direct appreciation for the skill and quality that went into those things that they DID purchase from others.

Got ten minutes for a 'green rant' about rampant consumerism? Go to
I think that some of the old-fashioned involvement with all aspects of 'stuff,' will serve us well in getting our sorry world on a recovering track.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How to know when you are Really Learning

As an older student (starting a masters at a 'youngish' 54), I arrived with plenty of real-world knowledge and 'conceptions.' (If you have had them this long, and came by 'em honestly, they are no longer PREconceptions.) It might look like baggage to the pedagogue, even one who is my contemporary, because he or she is so used to looking at relatively blank slates.

You know you are learning when you personally experience paradigm shift.

This is the mental equivalent of going back to the gym after a lapse, and selecting a personal trainer who acknowledged, but just, that you are different from supple young things that seem made for overexertion and subsequent tissue repair.

I have not been asked to leave my past at the gate, but no one will carry it in for me here, either. I was admitted to the academy, now I have to admit the academy into me.

I am looking for intellectual dialogue, if not communion, which I could find on occasion 'before,' but in my school's mostly-commuter population, the chemistry is all wrong. Everyone is always rushing to or from campus, and now I understand why there is no suitable hangout—nothing remotely resembling one, anywhere within a mile of the campus, even—for the kind of intellectual sparring that I craved as an undergrad and in all the aeons since...

The present intellectual 'boot camp' has me in cold-turkey withdrawal from the very stimulation I anticipated. I could use that succor, and kvetching here in monologue only seems to worsen the itch.

It looks like I may make it to the point where I 'pass' boot camp. Guess I will know when the drill-sergeants start saluting back!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Drive By Wire

'Throttle Cable' was a very straightforward name of a car or truck part until recent years; it ran from your gas pedal directly to the throttle lever on your carburettor. Input from driver to engine is becoming ever more mediated by electronic processing. Many vehicles now take your right foot's input as 'demand' input (electromechanical) into a computer, where it is one of several values that are processed, then an electromechanical output (via rod or cable linkage) operates the throttle in a housing or body on the intake side of your engine. Similarly, timing of the ignition spark (and in some cases now, valve operation) is modulated by this processor; each used to be adjusted mechanically and in isolation from the other variables, maximized for at most a few different engine operation regimes.

Those who have driven relatively low powered vehicle might remember being able to 'feel' when additional throttle application gained no additional performance and wasted fuel, or even inhibited performance gains, or when they wanted to be at a certain speed with the throttle already 'packed' to that point of diminishing returns, in order to crest the coming hill without losing a gear. Today's driver, for two reasons, will not generally have such learning opportunities. The vehicles are almost all powered, for their weight, in what we used to call 'sports car' category (1 horsepower or more per 14 lbs of weight) so 'feel' for differences in grade and wind is very subtle. And the sensors and brains are mediating between what we want (demand, via our right foot or the speed control) and the engine components and functions which will deliver.

I will not rail against anti-lock brakes, but point out that the instruction one can get from learning how to feel for the modulation point, where you are at the limits of adhesion between your tires and the road, also instructs about when steering will get squirmy too. Directional control, braking and acceleration all depend on the instantaneous condition of adhesion between four points of contact between tires and earth surface... and 'progress' is taking from us some of the direct ways skilled drivers used to make that very sensible.

Back to our sophisticated throttles: the main downside here is that the connection many of us felt with the primary mover, which told us lots about its capabilities, limits and needs, was also telling us a lot about efficiencies (if we were paying attention). Lots of this is generalizable knowledge, and will prove very useful to us as we figure how to manage fewer resources for more people. The related secondary loss is that engineer/inventor types, and their appreciators, have been put at a remove from the lessons that driving a car could teach about power generation and use.

For now, I hope that lots of Prius drivers are digesting the interesting computer graphics and learning how to get even better mileage by letting up on the 'gas pedal.' Our lives abound in very relevant physics lessons, although we seem to be getting more protected from them all the time!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dreaming in Cyber

As an undergrad in the early 1970's when sleep-dream research was starting to take off, I lucked into having James B. Maas (Cornell) as my adviser. He, and William Dement (at one of the large Southern California campuses then) were the two big publishers of research that was interesting, fun, groundbreaking, and memorable. Maas's Psych 101 in Baily Hall (1100 seats) was always oversubscribed.

As a subject in one of the survey studies, I remember being asked if I was ever aware of having dreamed in color. Apparently, this was as strange question for many subjects as it was for me... and the interviewers had developed a script to coach us in answering. If you were not specifically aware of having awakened from dreaming with a vivid, specific color memory, they counted it as a 'no.' Over time, I forgot the question and the strangeness of the suggestion that I did NOT dream in color.

I was in my late 20s when I had the described, defining experience. While I cannot generally report whether a specific recent dream was in color or not, I felt certain on the morning of revelation that I had not ever before dreamt in color, or I would have known it.

For what it may be worth, I have been dreaming with increasing frequency over the last year in 'computer screens' (in color, by the way). I wonder if this is analogous to 'dreaming in German,' say, as a hallmark of advanced fluency in a second language. If it gets to dreaming of being on hold to a help desk, I am seeking professional help, or at least looking up Professor Maas.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A slight respite from assignment deadlines coincides with catching up on some reading, and these intersect with some thoughts I have been mulling. Reading Anthony Grafton's Future Reading (New Yorker Magazine, 11/5/2007) it clicked.

The half life of an information technology is the interval between successive media proliferations.

It sounds tautologous... but ponder a bit. I will throw out a few pearls now, and return with more in my next post.

What may be different in this regime change, with digital trying to replace paper records, is that print is still proliferating steadily. (Previously, paper rather deftly displaced parchment, which in turn was seen as better than a wax codex, which in pre-Christian days displaced clay tablets...)

Technology 'this time' allows for the production of either printed or digital records from virtually identical workflows, but once they are created, the stewardship, permanence, accessibility and findability of 'hard copy' records, and their 'born digital' siblings, are very different, in ways we are only starting to appreciate.

At the micro-level of digital storage media, we note, in a dizzying short span, the introduction, brief flourish, then complete obsolescence of: 5.25" diskettes, 3.5" floppies (including the uniquely formatted Apple version), ZIP discs (in 100, 250 and ultimately 750MB capacities), Jazz drives, and a host of tape cassette formats. The rewritable CD seems outright venerable, for having been available all of 12 years now, but one wonders how long 'til it is hard to find an optical media drive that won't have the requisite backward compatibility to read all of my carefully archived treasures...

At the macro level, the digital pile will only grow, if not ever fully take over. The incessant need to migrate digitalia to the next darling format on the next hegemonous medium is certain to effectively leave behind much of our societal record and output from this transition era. God knows my archived e-mails, on scores of lovingly labeled and stored media, are not going to be accessible and readable in ten years if I do not decide to commit to periodic conversions and rewritings, and if my original organizing and labeling schemes prove fugitive through it all.

Previous information tech revolutions were relatively swift, and once most of society heard the new tune, they shifted right to it. The important works, with some sad exceptions, made the migration to the next medium. The present revolution does not hold any promise of an early armistice. Think of protracted trench warfare, of waste, and squandered youth, truth and beauty.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

back to the manhole covers...

My short post that asked for replies has only garnered one, by a brave soul who admitted not having ever given the subject much thought. (Scroll down to see the Q and A under Saturday, September 29th.)

A round cover, if it has an adequate little lip on the rim, cannot fall through its own hole. One made with evenly faceted sides—say a square, pentagon, hexagon or octagon— could fall through. Even if it did not kill anyone or damage the works below, there would still be the problem of getting 200lbs of cast steel back up and out, before carefully retrying.

I remember well the train engineer outfit I got for my 5th birthday. In 1958, we did not yet know any astronaut by name, but all still had at least an observer's relation with the physical and mechanical furnishings of our infrastructure. What was encouraged and commonplace has become weird and foreign in a generation.

If you had posed the questions in 1970, most adults would have recognized them as interesting, and a good portion would have gotten it right, I believe. Asking the question today is more likely to elicit a 'whatever' reaction...

I am concerned that, in the main, today's average American adult is completely aloof to the most basic underpinnings of the systems they completely depend on to support their narrow and very specialized pursuits.