Archive for July, 2007

Home made sourdough bread

One of my favorite things is really good bread. Back when I was in school, I bought a book on making bread. It started from a home made sourdough starter that had no commercial yeast. It was basically water and flour with a few grapes tied in a bag to give it some extra yeast. The bread itself also called for no commercial yeast. So the whole loaf was made using whatever yeasts happened to be in the air. A friend of mine, a German woman named Margrid Krueger, made similar bread a gave me a few of her tips on how to solve bread problems, etc.

The problem with this type of sourdough bread is that it takes about two days to make a loaf. You make up the bread dough, let it rise for about four hours, shape it, let it rise for another and then put it in the fridge overnight to develop. The next day, you pull it out and let it sit for another three hours before baking. Okay, so you’re sitting around waiting for most of the time, but that’s a heck of a long time to wait for bread.

So, I found a different bread book. I started using quick rise yeast and the microwave to help raise the dough’s temperature for a faster rise. I could make bread in about an hour or two – start to finish. But you lost out on the flavor. Last weekend I decided that it was time to get back to the sourdough. I got my starter going, fed it a few times and was ready to bake this weekend. After much kneeding, rising and waiting, I put the bread in the oven this morning. It turned out great. A nice crust, good flavor, a pretty interior, etc. Just the thing to serve with a pot of gumbo.

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Too much to do, not enough time or motivation

I’ve got about three weeks to go. Unfortunately, my list of projects or things to get done seems to be growing longer, not shorter and I’m losing my motivation :-/

I think the hardest thing about leaving is resisting the urge to tell people the truth about what I think of their ideas, or their meetings, or the organization in general. Resisting that urge gets harder every day, even though I know that it would be entirely pointless. It might make me feel better to vent for a bit, but what would it accomplish? I would aggravate some people off, burn some bridges and no one would actually listen to what I was saying – no matter how well reasoned or explained.

I guess I’ve always wanted to do the whole “speak truth to power” thing. But in the end, speaking truth to power is vanity. Power is seldom interested in hearing truth. It is only interested in hearing statements supporting its ideas and positions. So, you wind up irritating a lot of people and nothing changes. Not exactly a win for anyone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I think it will be different or better elsewhere – this feels like a universal condition. I’m just justifying to myself why I haven’t called anyone out for idiocy.

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Wildlife from the front porch

When I was taking the dogs out last night, I noticed that we had a visitor.  A bat had decided to hang out on the front porch.  I’m guessing he was resting before going to work eating the insects in the area.  I called K, let the dogs do their thing and came back in for the camera.  Fortunately, he stayed put while I took a few pictures.  From our field guide to mammals, I would guess that he’s the Little Brown Myotis, but it’s not clear that they live in this area.  I guess we’ll look a bit more.

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Inspired by the bat siting, I spent some time staking out our humming bird feeder (note to self, this is easier with a blind).  I took a few shots, only two of which were any good.  I particularly like the one where she’s perching on the branch.

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New job

Well, it’s official now.  I’m leaving the university to go work for a private company – my last day will be August 10th which gives me all of a 4 day weekend before starting full time for the new place.  FWIW, I’m definitely looking forward to the change.  I’ve been in my current job for about 6.5 years and in the tradition of my family, that means that I’ve been doing the same thing a year and a half too long.

The work at the new place is completely different than the job I have now, but in a sense it’s a return to something familiar.  The company does R&D work, well really more R than D on a number of grants, contracts, etc.  It feels a lot like a big (and more productive) graduate office.  It’s a good chance to put my PhD back to work.  The new company is also pretty light on meetings (they are mostly impromptu and short) and as an engineer, not a director, I don’t have to manage people.  🙂

I suppose that I should also say that this was a very hard decision for me.  I’ve been here for almost 14 years, 6.5 in my current role – my entire adult life.   The university feels like home.  But more than anything else, I’ll miss working with the people I know there.  A lot of folks are more like friends than colleagues.

I’m going to cut this short before I get too sentimental – I still have over 4 weeks to go 🙂

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More possum cuteness

So K’s possums got a big brother recently:

dsc_1900.JPG The whole family.  Note the little sores on the small one?  That’s where their whiskers are coming in.

dsc_1906.JPG Here’s the biggest one by himself.  He needs a bit more enrichment, so he gets to hang out with us on occassion.

dsc_1904.JPG I didn’t quite capture the possum tongue, but he was licking me.  Very cute 🙂

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Deconstructionists, atheism and religion

Browsing the New York Times website, I ran across the blog of Stanley Fish. Fish, if you’ve never heard of him (lucky you), is an academic star. He is an English professor specializing in deconstruction. In other words, he is not interested in truth; he is only interested in being right by proving that nothing is true.

The blog posts which caught my eye were a series describing Fish’s analysis of three recent books on atheism. Those of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen. Sparing you the arguments, Fish concludes in his first post, The Three Atheists, that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchen are not contributing anything new. Unfortunately, he does not come to this conclusion by examining the what the books say, but only by applying some of the key principles of the books to religious arguments that he knows have already been made within the context of religion and then assuming he knows how the authors would respond. This is a neat trick that allows him to suggest that there is nothing new in the books without actually engaging in the arguments the books make.

In his second piece, Atheism and Evidence, Fish attempts to demonstrate that science has no grounds for examining religion, nor does religion have grounds for examining science. He performs this trick by blurring the lines between faith and reason; suggesting that both science and religion are based in faith and noting that religion also strives to sustain itself through reason.

In drawing that conclusion, Fish touches on a subject that has been of long standing interest to me: the phenomenon of morality. Harris and Dawkins both believe that morality is derived from natural selection – there is a genetic basis for our moral codes of conduct. To ridicule this idea that science can stand alone and that morality does not require religion, Fish notes that Harris and Dawkins believe:

It’s just a matter of time before so-called moral phenomena will be brought within the scientific ambit: “There will probably come a time,” Harris declares, “when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain.” And a bit later, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

What gives Harris his confidence? Why does he have “every reason to believe” (a nice turn of phrase)? What are his reasons? What is his evidence?…

Note that Fish pulls a cute rhetorical trick here. He ignores the arguments about morality and genetics. Ignores the fact that there are detailed theories allowing one to predict the extent to which we extend our morality to others in our community. He ignores that these theories also predict non-human altruistic behaviors, which religious theories of morality can not. No, he turns away from behavioral discussions of morality and instead focuses on the area where there are still unknowns: how are these high-level genetic imperatives implemented in the structure of the brain. Where religion says to do good because God says to, and Dawkins says that we do good because our genes (though not necessarily ourselves) are likely to prosper, Fish demands that we tell him how doing good excites certain neurons in the brain to encourage doing good.

Finally, Fish discusses objections raised in his first piece: that scientific theories are falsifiable whereas religions faith is constructed so as not to be.  Fish states that systems can only be falsified within the context of the belief system in which they operate.  So long as any object under discussion is internally self-consistent, it can not be falsified.  Fish goes on to flesh out this argument in his third post.

In Is Religion Man-Made?,  Fish describes how God is defined in the context of religion.  Noting that God exceeds human understanding and is therefore not a subject for examination.  Moreover, says Fish, within the context of religion, God is all-encompassing of creation and how can we examine something of which we are part?  It seems to be a hobby of humanity to construct such internally consistent theories which can not be tested.  Bishop Berkely constructed one regarding the non-existence of matter which no one believed to be true, but could not dispute the internal logic.  Samuel Johnson, kicking a large stone, noted, “I refute it thus.”

Johnson is essentially asserting that while such theories are impossible to disprove, the ultimate judge of their reality is their tangible existence.  It is all well and good to assert a pretty piece of logic as indisputable and therefore true, but that does not make it real.  Reality is the physical universe in which we inhabit.  God may exist as a philosophical construct because the logic of its existence is internally consistent, but that does not mean that there is such a being in reality.  Of course, religions do assert that there is such a being in reality.  Most that assert a God, with the exception of the Deists, believe that it plays an active role in the universe, i.e., God can alter the physical.  Now Fish may think (or assert – I actually doubt that Fish believes any of this) that the existence of God cannot be tested because he is not tangible or because we exist within God, but that’s just silly.  Anything which can affect reality can be tested.  For example, there have been numerous studies that demonstrate that double-blind studies of prayer show no improvement in sick patients.  Cases of healing occur with roughly the same frequency of spontaneous remission.  In short, if miracles reflected in a change in reality are the proof of God, then they fall short.  That is not to say that a belief in God may not change people.  That is not to say that praying will not help you to come to grips with tragedy; only that you would be hard pressed to attribute these to a real, tangible God as opposed to an abstract, conceptual God.

Coming back around to the start of this post, I suppose that I should really just learn not to read deconstructionists.  On the other hand, I did comply with the burden placed on me from the title of Fish’s blog, I did “Think Again”  – I just happened to think that Fish is full of it.  🙂

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reason #27 for staying off the computer after GB…

you think LOL Possums is a good idea:

lol-possum.jpg lol-possum2.jpg

I’ll take some more pictures tomorrow, including a few of their new-ish, big brother. All of these guys are going back to their regular care taker Monday. They’ve been cute to have around, but I don’t think K is looking for more.

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Happy July 4th

I hope everyone had a good 4th of July and if you had the day off, you enjoyed it.

I spent my day doing a little of this and a little of that. I picked up a low water use irrigation system that I’ve run to the flowers and the blueberry bushes. I’ll need a few hundred more feet of pipe to run it out to all of the trees, but this is a good start.

Inspired by hsarik, I made some beer and cheese bread. We used that to make veggie-sausage poboys. That, some onion rings and some fruit made for a great holiday dinner.

Finally, I may have a new favorite song: “Future Soon” by Jonathan Coulton. How can you not like a song featuring love, lasers and robot wars whose chorus contains the lines:

And I won’t always be this way
When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away

Okay, I’m a bit of a nerd

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