Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

February 25, 2009

free association Wednesday

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 8:59 pm

I guess it’s a good thing that the Treasury department is releasing more details on the banking “stress tests.”  That said, the engineer (or the circuits lab TA) in me can’t help but hear “smoke test” any time someone says stress test.  In engineering, you wire up your design and power it up for the smoke test.  If it doesn’t start smoking, there’s no guarantee that the design (or wiring) is right, but if you do release the magic smoke, then you’ve definitely done something wrong.  Because, of course, the magic smoke is what makes all electronic components from resistors to microprocessors run.  Maxwell with his electro-magnetic equations was full of it.  Every thing runs on magic smoke.  If you let the magic smoke out of a device, it’ll never run again.  I do wonder what is the magic smoke analog that gets validated in a banking stress test.  Do you wire up the bank and see how much money it leaks?  Can you put the magic green stuff back in a bank which fails a stress test?  Well, presumably some banks will survive, which is probably a good thing.  If for no other reason than banking is a more diverse field than engineering.  After spending a day with 200+ engineers I can tell you that, too a first approximation, we’ve only got one gender.  The workshop was a giant sausagefest in all of three ethnicities: caucasian, asian and indian.  As a profession we’ve got to do something about this.

notes from a workshop

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 10:56 am

I’m over at the Compressive Sensing Workshop today.  I wasn’t too sure about compressive sensing as a topic, but after reading the abstracts, it seems to have a lot of application to basic image processing.  Or at least the same concepts are applicable.

One logistics note.  Attention conference centers everywhere: speaking as a tea drinker, it would be very nice if you would reserve a carafe for hot water only.  Never put coffee in this carafe – ever.  No matter how well it is washed, coffee will leave an aftertaste that will sneak into the hot water and ruin even the best tea.

February 23, 2009

Adventures in vegetarian cooking

Filed under: Cooking,Personal — cec @ 6:56 pm

K and I don’t eat much meat – no red meat, no poultry, etc.  Theoretically, we still eat fish, but since I won’t cook it…

This weekend, we experimented with a couple of new recipes that, in hindsight, were even vegan:

  • Vegetarian Mac and Cheese.  Like a lot of people (I suppose), I love macaroni and cheese.  Not the Kraft, out of the box, kind, but one made with onion, garlic, mustard powder in a homemade cheese sauce.  Unfortunately, K (okay, me too) isn’t supposed to eat that much high-fat cheese.  I’ve been making it with low-fat cheese, but well, that’s a little lame.  Last week, a guy at my office gave me a recipe that eliminated the cheese sauce and turned out to be (possibly) tastier than the original.  Start by sautéing an onion in a little olive oil.  Add a drained, rinsed can of cannellini (other beans work, but cannellini are wonderfully creamy), 1.75 cups of water (or vege broth), 1 tbsp of miso paste (I used soy sauce), a little dry mustard and a half cup of raw cashews.  Puree, then add a package of cooked spinach and use as the cheese sauce.  It’s wonderful.
  • We also made seitan which, as near as I can figure, is pronounced satan.  It’s wheat meat – wheat gluten (which means it’s also pronounced “death to etselec and hlf”) and water (or broth) which is cooked and then used as if it was regular meat.  We made ours with water, soy sauce and some Italian seasonings.  Once it was cooked, we sliced it up, braised it and served it with a wine/mushroom sauce.  It was great and a *lot* easier than I thought it would be.

February 4, 2009

small town values

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 8:50 am

One of the phrases that bothered me the most during last year’s election (indeed, during all elections), is “small town values.”  That elevation of the mores of small communities that make them better than the rest of us who, by virtue of living in larger metro areas, apparently don’t have any values.

I’ve never lived in a small town.  Currently, we live in a rural-ish area on the outskirts of a medium sized metropolitan area.  Prior to that, I’ve lived in medium sized cities (maybe 150-300,000 people).  That said, I’ve known people who lived in small towns and overall, I wasn’t too impressed by the values of those small towns.  On an individual level, the people in small towns don’t really seem all that different from anyone else, they certainly aren’t bastions of moral virtue.  That said, there is one thing that is different about small towns, and which is that they are small [tautology for the win!].

Being small, most everyone in the town knows one another.  As such, there is a pressure to conform to a set of norms.  Those people that don’t find a way to fit within the norms are often looked down on, find few friends within the town, etc.  After all, if you are a non-conformist, then you are going to have a hard time finding someone with your interests in a community with few people roughly your age.

The other concern that I have about small towns is the increased tendency to apply special rules to certain people, rather than a uniform rule of law.  Certain pillars of the community can be considered above the law.  “I can’t arrest Jack, he’s a deacon in my church.”  In larger communities, there are fewer special cases and a greater tendency [yes, I’m generalizing like mad here] to apply the rule of law across the board.

What got me thinking about all of this was a story I heard on NPR about sexual abuse scandals in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn.  Several rabbis in that insular community (and yes, small communities in larger cities share tendencies with small towns), have recently been accused of molesting children.  In that story, you can identify all of the problems that I have with small towns:

  1. The children, and then their families, didn’t feel like they could say anything to anyone because they would be ostracized.
  2. When they said something, they weren’t believed
  3. After they were believed, at least one of the rabbis in question got away with a slap on the wrist.  The school he taught at told the family he would be fired if they would agree not to press charges.  Then just a few days after the statute of limitations ran out, the school reneged on that agreement and said that on a scale of 1-10, the molestation wasn’t that bad, so they would keep the rabbi on staff.

You see this thing over and over in small communities.  There was a story on 60 Minutes (iirc) about a similar issue in an Amish community, and the polygamous sects of fundamentalist Mormonism, etc.

Speaking of polygamy, one of the silliest arguments in the debate over gay marriage goes something like this: “if you let gay people marry, then you’ll have to allow polygamy or people to marry children.”  On hearing this, my first thought is always, along the lines of, no – the marriage of two consenting adults says nothing about the marriage of three or more adults or an adult and a (by definition) unconsenting child (children can’t give consent).  My second thought is often, wait, what’s wrong with polygamy per se.  If three or more consenting adults want to live together as married, why does that hurt me – or them? Of course, on a practical level, every polygamy case we’ve heard of recently has horrified me.  In large part because it’s not multiple consenting adults.  It’s often young(ish) children, people who have never heard or known of alternatives, people that may (or may not) have given consent, but you couldn’t argue that it was informed consent.

So, as I was listening to the NPR story, it occurred to me that the biggest problem that I have with the stories of polygamy aren’t necessarily connected to the polygamy itself, but rather the “values” of the small communities which practice polygamy.  The parochial views, the lack of a rule of law, the lack of consent, the forcing of people into the community norms and the ostracising of non-conformists.  [Not that any of this should be taken to mean that I’m in the market for another wife – I think that K would refuse to consent to that 😉 ].

Don’t get me wrong, big cities are hardly a panacea.  They have their own sets of problems, but to suggest that small towns (communities) have cornered the market on values is just wrong.  But perhaps the problems I see with small towns are exactly the virtues that others see in them.  Perhaps small town values is really just code for “pressuring people to conform to a set of norms that I like.”   Unfortunately, that seems far too likely.  Either way, I think I’ll try to avoid small towns.

February 2, 2009

such a dork

Filed under: Personal — cec @ 9:02 pm

So K just asks me if it’s raining.  My response was to go online instead of going outside.

I’m such a

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