August 30, 2008

Palin and Women, In Short

Hillary proved that a woman could work hard and fight her way to the top and make a credible case for being the most qualified presidential nominee. Sarah Palin proves that nearly any woman can be selected to be a desperate candidate's running mate.

McCain reportedly only met once with Palin before last Thursday; that meeting must have gone really well, because he's ready to put the country in her hands, should he die. I know that's unlikely for a man of his age who has had cancer a few times, but there is the possibility.

I leave you with what the Twitterverse has to offer for Little Known Facts about Sarah Palin. here are a few of my own (tongue in cheek, of course):

Little known fact: Sarah Palin keeps her youthful glow by bathing in polar bear blood.

Little known fact: Sarah Palin was for it before she was against it.

Little known fact: Sarah Palin was recently introduced to sushi, and that doubled her foreign policy experience.

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Posted by James at 11:54 AM | Comments (2)

August 28, 2008

Democrat Convention Fail

Karl Rove has been watching the Democratic convention, and has been listening to the speeches. I'm disappointed to hear that the heartfelt, eloquent and sometimes emotional speeches have as of yet not convinced Karl Rove to vote for Obama and Biden in November. It looks like he's going to go Republican this year. Again. Although he may be reserving judgment until after the debates.

Considering this, the convention has clearly been an utter failure.

Posted by James at 1:22 PM | Comments (2)

August 27, 2008

Palin, Hillary, Overstock, Etc.

I posted a brief entry over on Regime Turnover today, briefly about Hillary's speech, but also about some right wing blog goofiness. If you're bored, it might be worth a visit.

Posted by James at 9:20 AM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2008

Bacon Uber Alles

Bacon Salt

Should everything taste like bacon?

Bacon Salt. I'd heard about it on the intarwebs, but I assumed it was a novelty with a very small distribution. But yesterday as I crouched to grab a box of regular salt from the bottom shelf at Stop & Shop, I came face to face with the stuff.

I was about to cook up some salt potatoes, so I figured that this was the perfect time to try bacon salt. I chose some baby Yukon Gold and hurried home.

The potatoes were, of course, delicious, and made a decent platform for tasting Bacon Salt.

Bacon Salt doesn't contain any bacon, nor any animal products. It has that "K" kosher certification symbol on the packaging, and is gluten-free, so it's aiming for a large audience.

But does it taste like bacon? Kinda.

The good news is that it is tasty. I tried the "Original" which has a slightly smoky flavor. Despite the name, it claims to be low in sodium. That's not too hard to believe, since it actually is not overpoweringly salty. When I tasted some straight, I detected the salt, but also other savory, meaty flavors. Some of the tiny crumbs that make up the mixture are slightly chewy. I assume this is some sort of vegetable protein. It definitely adds to the mouth-feel; getting it a little closer to the bacon target.

I don't think anything but real bacon actually tastes like bacon. But this product is a superior flavor and delivery mechanism to synthetic bacon bits, (not to hate on Bac-Os, which are OK as long as you're not expecting actual bacon).

At around $4.50, it's slightly pricier than some other yummy brand name spice mixes, like Montreal Steak Seasoning, Montreal Chicken Seasoning and Mrs. Dash. And, of course, it's pricier than if you were to make your own spice mix (mental note - come up with recipes for spice mixes to post on blog). It might be worth the price if you're going on a diet and need something to wake up your taste buds as you face a long stretch of low fat and low calorie eating.

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Posted by James at 12:10 PM | Comments (23)

August 24, 2008

Sweatshop Gymnasts

I have to take the outrage over underage Chinese gymnasts with a grain of salt.

People can rail about it all they like, but they're still buying low priced items from Walmart and elsewhere, produced with child labor.

People still buy things like coffee for the lowest possible price, causing race-to-the-bottom situations in countries where the poor are driven to produce more crops for less wages, and are eventually unable to make a living wage. Their children (who don't happen to be high profile gymnasts) suffer, as they cannot afford basic things, like an education.

It may against the rules to send underage gymnasts to the Olympics, but we're faced with our own decisions which contribute to the plight of children who never get anywhere near an Olympic podium. Maybe some good can come of this (in my humble opinion, silly) scandal if it makes people think about the plight of children all over the world, and how our decisions contribute to those situations.

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Posted by James at 6:01 PM | Comments (10)

Carousel Adams

The weekend so far.

We drove over to Riverside to visit the Crescent Park Carousel, a not-unusual thing for us. We go once or twice a year.

This time. I took extremely short videos. The first is of a finger-wagging animatronic carousel character. The second is the view toy get going around the ride twice, focusing on the ring dispenser and the clown you try to hit with the rings.

Today was supposed to be relaxing reading time, but instead I spent it cleaning my desk and struggling with some leftover tax bullpoop. Still not resolved, but progress!

A high point of the last 2 days: the first two episodes of HBO's John Adams on DVD. We really got into them. If you watch it with the special features on, there are nifty little factoids about the struggle for independence. I think Maggie feels my admiring comments about Abigail Adams (Laura Linney) are somehow disrespectful. It may have been the "Abigail Adams is hot." comment. Too much?

Anyhow, the videos.

Posted by James at 12:55 AM | Comments (1)

August 22, 2008

McCain House Research

McCain campaign staffers continue to find more of McCain's forgotten houses. They just dug this one up:


If any of you have links to pictures of his other houses, as they are discovered, feel free to post them in the comments.

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Posted by James at 11:13 AM | Comments (10)

August 20, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Maggie and I saw the new comedy Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller's latest directorial endeavor.

The trailers didn't thrill me but when we were choosing movies I noticed that Rotten Tomatoes calculated a score in the 80's for this film, so it seemed safe to give it a shot. I was glad we did.

The film, while not the best comedy of the summer, was a clever skewering of Hollywood foibles and stereotypes. The premise of the film -- that a group of actors making a war film find themselves in real trouble -- is extremely thin and provides very little in the way of tension or interest. However, what it does provide is a backdrop for jokes about the fragile actor's psyche, the flashiness of action films, the tenuous relationship between docudramas and truth, studio greed, post-racial presumptuousness, Hollywood's penchant for using the misfortune of others, drug abuse and dependence, films that take themselves too seriously, Hollywood's use of of homosexuality... and the list goes on.

The film starts off with a number of comedic bangs at a pace impossible to sustain, presenting us with a few hilarious parody trailers featuring the stars of Tropic Thunder in their previous films. As the film progresses, it's peppered with comedic moments, mostly from Robert Downey Jr. as the black-faced method actor or Jack Black as the strung-out comedian. The pace does slow, and the film doesn't really hold together as a story. By the time it's completely fallen apart, however, it's delivering its final jokes and you're watching Tom Cruise do a funky-weird rap dance: an ode to excess studio dollars. The bling calls the tune.

If you've heard of this film, you've probably heard that it insensitively uses the word "retard" and that there were calls for a boycott. I believe that the people who called for the boycott missed the point of the film. The word is used by Downy Jr. giving advice to Ben Stiller's character, an action hero who is struggling in his efforts to become a serious actor. "Everybody knows you never go full retard" he warns, explaining the action hero's mistake. The phrase, which I found hilarious in context, was removed from movie posters because of complaints. Here are two actors, discussing just how to milk the audience's compassion for their benefit. The boycott not only misses the point, it illustrates the question. Is it more exploitive to use the word "retard" in a film, or is it more exploitive to make any sort of film about people with mental disabilities -- an actor using the equivalent of black-facing but for other groups of people? All the jokes must be viewed in the context of Hollywood's artificial world.

The New York Times review missed the point of the film in a different way. They complained that Stiller went over the top with the gore in the film, discussing the violent war scenes:

[...] the scene skews more yucky than yukky because Mr. Stiller has so little sense of modulation. He isn't content simply to decapitate a character, the way, say, Graham Chapman hacked limbs in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"; he also has to play with the stringy bits hanging from the bloodied neck. Mr. Stiller doesn't kill jokes: he stomps them to death.

If the violence was just supposed to be funny on its own, like an arm falling off the Black Knight in Holy Grail, that would have been sufficient. It would have come off as silly in the way a Mel Brooks movie is silly. But the film is obviously parodying Hollywood's penchant for over-the-top gore (seen in war films and even purportedly religious films, for chrissake!) and for trying too hard to look real, not just trying to hard to look violent.

It's that same sort of joke, in different forms, you get throughout the film. If you don't like that joke, you won't like the film. I did like it; I'd give it 3 out of 5 stars. It would be higher if it could sustain the times where the parody really "clicks."

Here's a promo Stiller, Black and Downey did for the MTV Movie Awards. Warning: violence. Also, has virtually nothing to do with the film. Instead, this is a parody of viral video ads.

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Posted by James at 9:34 AM | Comments (3)

August 19, 2008

And It's Just a Box of Wine

NYT published an op-ed emphasizing the virtues of boxed wine, and how wine in a box is gaining popularity in European countries where people (per capita) drink more wine. In it, we see some of the practical reasons for box wine:

Although some sommeliers may scoff at wine from a plastic spigot, boxes are perfect for table wines that don't need to age, which is to say, all but a relative handful of the top wines from around the world. What's more, boxed wine is superior to glass bottle storage in resolving that age-old problem of not being able to finish a bottle in one sitting. Once open, a box preserves wine for about four weeks compared with only a day or two for a bottle. Boxed wine may be short on charm, but it is long on practicality.

I like wine, and I like the advantages of boxed wine described above. But you'll never see boxed wine catch on unless vintners start putting some better wines in boxes.

But you'll read in that article, and in the comments to that article, that some people say they'll buy wine in a box when pigs fly. That's another obstacle to this greener and more convenient packaging. It's pig-headed, and it's something that's frustrated me about wine drinking and wine drinkers over the years.

Wine is a beverage, but some people treat it like a sort of religion, embracing a wine mystique.

People drink wine for different reasons. Even the same people drink wine for different reasons at different times. I understand the enjoyment of uncorking a bottle of wine. I understand the adventure of trying many different wines, exploring different styles and labels. That's all good. But I get a chuckle or shake my head at people who think they're somehow too good to drink the same wine if it comes in a box.

They need to get over themselves and their vehement reactions. Wine will always (in our lifetimes, anyway) be available in bottles. We're not looking at a ban on bottled wine. What we are looking at is encouraging the production, consumption and distribution of better wines to more people. And this is certainly a good thing for everyone who enjoys wine.

I once visited a vineyard for a tour and got to see the vintner's new corking machine which used synthetic corks rather than the traditional, natural kind. After an explanation about why they were moving to synthetic cork (and why we would likely see more and more synthetic cork in wines) a man who was in our group started arguing with our guide. He was appalled at the idea a winemaker would use fake cork. The man had already explained to us that the synthetic cork allowed them to deliver a better and more consistent product. I listened to the argument and just shook my head at the arrogance of someone arguing that the natural cork was preferable just because it was what this man was used to.

As if, in the whole history of making and bottling wine, nothing has changed.

I have no patience for people like that. If there are practical reasons not to put wine in boxes, those are the reasons which should be considered. I suspect some elitism at work when I hear vehement objections; that folks aren't afraid of the box, but rather what it represents: a loss of the mystique of their favorite beverage.

I just want to drink a decent wine, at a decent price, in a convenient package.

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Posted by James at 9:12 AM | Comments (14)

August 17, 2008

This Is Your Brain On Music

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Great book on the cognitive aspects of music.

There's a music theory section at the beginning which the author says will mostly be review for folks who are already musicians; I found that section to be one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Maybe I simply need to review music theory, but I thought he did a good job framing that section in an interesting way, adding some links to recent research and giving popular examples of certain musical structures.

Because he gives many examples in the book, you might want to read this book near your extensive CD collection, or simply near a computer where you can use Project Playlist to hear some of the songs he uses to supplement the text.

I started to build such a playlist on Project Playlist, but stopped somewhere along the way. In case it's helpful to you, here are 18 songs which are mentioned in the book.

I was less interested in the end of the book, which is concerned with justifying music as an endeavor, but the book was never boring.

View all my reviews.

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Posted by James at 7:52 PM | Comments (2)

Squirrel Attack

Squirrels (or perhaps it's only one squirrel) have decided to use our deck's fence as a hopping-off point to our roof. And from there, they jump to a nearby mulberry tree.

Today I was surprised by one of them as I was adjusting the gate to allow a breeze onto the deck. As I turned to my right, I came face to face with the furry little fellow and before I even realized what was happening, his little arms shot out and he seemed to jump at me as I must have gasped or screeched.

He leaped over my head onto the roof behind me, missing me by a good foot. As he scampered to the apex of the roof and jumped to the mulberry, I laughed. I think he was annoyed I had opened the gate, forcing him to leap instead of being able to just scramble onto the roof.

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Posted by James at 6:23 PM | Comments (0)

Dark Woods

Dark Woods: Cults, Crime, and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest Dark Woods: Cults, Crime, and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest by Christopher Balzano

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars

A volume of tales from the nearby Freetown forest. While one or two of the crimes was not familiar to me, this book will probably only interest someone who is completely unfamiliar with local stories or tales of ghosts.

It's full of weasel words (which makes some sense because many of the events described are impossible to believe) and elevates the dreams of some of its contributors to the same level as actual experiences they claim to have.

I gave this review an extra star because it promotes interest in the local area, and is written by a local author. Some people will be really bothered by the lack of editing (it contained many of the types of errors which are not found by spell checkers) but I have no trouble putting up with that if a story is marginally creepy.

But, really, when you're reading that some boys dreamed about a witch, is that really book-worthy? Who hasn't had strange dreams?

At least it was such an easy read I never felt the need to put it down. On the bright side, I'd never heard of Pukwudgies before, mystical troll-like creatures who are said to inhabit the forest from before the time the Native Americans thrived here. Also on the bright side, the book reads as though you're hearing these stories over a beer at the local tavern, with not much more investigative rigor.

I appreciated that, from time to time, the author admits you need to ignore all sorts of plausible explanations to believe some of the stories. I agree wholeheartedly. I would say this book might be good for budding local skeptics to cut their teeth on, examining just how vague a claim can be, and how wild writers can get with their suggestions that (to paraphrase) emotional energy can punch a hole from this universe into another.

I've heard so much of it before, if not specifically happening in Freetown and southeastern Massachusetts. Perhaps I should not expect much from a book on the paranormal. If that is the case, then neither should you; perhaps seek out a book from which you can expect more. I was mildly entertained, but you probably will not be unless you're quite gullible or easily spooked.

View all my reviews.

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Posted by James at 6:13 PM | Comments (4)

August 15, 2008

Fifth Shotgun

Posted by James at 10:36 AM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2008



It's not his fault. I think Michael Phelps is great. But the coverage of the Olympics has crossed a line into self-parody with all the Phelps-mania.

I got steamed when I was watching beach volleyball and the commentator described Misty May-Treanor and Kim Walsh as the "Michael Phelps" of beach volleyball. They're a dominating team (winning all of their last 104 matches) isn't that enough to understand their command of the sport?

Later, commentators interviewed Aaron Peirsol regarding his participation in the men's freestyle relay. They wanted to know how he felt contributing to Phelp's record-setting number of gold medals. Hey there. You're talking to a guy who is an Olympian in his own right and a world-record setter. He snagged gold and a new world record in the backstroke. I think he's probably most excited about that.

He was gracious in answering the question, but made it clear he was competing in the relay for the team and for himself. Not specifically for Phelps.

Still later, they noted one of the other swimmers leading Phelps during a qualifying race and someone blurted out "He's going to be able to tell people he led Michael Phelps!" I've got a surprise for you; these people are competing in the Olympics. That in itself might be enough for them to mention to people in the future without dragging Phelps' name into the conversation.

They've got reaction shots of swimmers who aren't in the pool watching Michael Phelps. We've got Michael Phelp's mom. We've got Michael Phelps watching the other swimmers.

Maggie joked we should have a shot of the restroom door when Michael Phelps is in there:

He's been in the restroom for over a minute, folks. His last visit to the can took 93 seconds, and FOLKS, HE'S DONE IT -- HE'S OUT IN 89 SECONDS, THAT'S A FULL 4 SECONDS QUICKER THAN HIS OWN RECORD!

I turned off the TV when they were preempting men's gymnastics all-around finals to show us Phelps swimming in a preliminary.

I get it, NBC. You're in love with Michael Phelps.

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Posted by James at 1:09 PM | Comments (22)

August 13, 2008

Academic Standards For The Win

A federal judge upheld the right for the University of California to reject course credits from schools that are not up to their academic standards.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that students should have their credits honored by UC even if the school's curriculum declared the Bible as infallible and rejected current understanding of evolutionary biology in favor of superstition.

The school (rightly, IMHO) argued that it should be allowed to apply the same academic standards across the board, no matter what the religion of the students, and no matter what religion the originating school may be affiliated with. But plaintiffs wanted to frame the situation as religious discrimination against purportedly Christian beliefs. It is nothing of the sort.

"It appears the UC is attempting to secularize private religious schools," attorney Jennifer Monk of Advocates for Faith and Freedom said Tuesday. Her clients include the Association of Christian Schools International, two Southern California high schools and several students.

UC does nothing of the sort. It's as though these self-described Christian schools wish to ignore the consequences of ignoring science, yet their students want to participate in science programs at schools like UC.

Let's be honest, some self-described Christians who are Bible literalists have long declared their struggle a culture war. So it's not surprising that they paint academia with that brush. But it's merely a projection of their own worldview. It is they who imagine that by flooding universities with creationists, they'll gain traction for their superstition. They've been brushed back here, on purely academic grounds, which is as it should be.

If there are problems with evolutionary biology, you cannot solve those problems by being ignorant of it. This is a central problem of all anti-science; it's embracing of ignorance. That ignorance is a result of the fear of what learning can do to faith in things like the Bible's literal truth -- fear of having choices about what to believe -- fear about distinguishing between justified and unjustified belief.

Imagine trying to force a law school to accept credits from a school that refused to teach about any law that was not based directly on something in the Bible. It would be ridiculous.

In any case, the next battle will likely occur as these self-described Christians set up and fund their own universities, and then complain when their graduates can't get jobs in research.

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Posted by James at 1:08 PM | Comments (3)

August 12, 2008

Antiscience Zoning

None of the materials found at 81 Fremont St. posed a radiological or biological risk, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. No mercury or poison was found. Some of the compounds are potentially explosive, but no more dangerous than typical household cleaning products.

Yet the state cleaned out retired chemist Victor Deeb's basement for him, removing all his experiments while he was told to go find an apartment. He's not charged with anything, and as far as I can tell he wasn't doing anything particularly dangerous. They were worried about the possibility of danger.

Pamela A. Wilderman, Marlboro's code enforcement officer, said Mr. Deeb was doing scientific research and development in a residential area, which is a violation of zoning laws.

I checked the Massachusetts General Laws regarding zoning and special permits for scientific research (see here). The MGL tells local municipalities what they're allowed to do with their zoning, so you'd need to refer to your own municipality for specific ordinances.

Nobody wants someone doing hazardous experiments with explosives, growing biological weapons, or dumping toxic waste into the street. I'll defer, for the moment, to the local authorities who were in Mr. Deeb's house and thought they were in the middle of a potentially hazardous situation. I think they overreacted, but I can see how that would happen since they were there responding to an unrelated fire. I am more concerned about "scientific research" zoning laws.

It seems to me that the zoning laws are written sufficiently vaguely that the authorities in Massachusetts can break up anyone's scientific hobby without having to show that there is any risk to anyone in the neighborhood. They allow for a special permit for scientific research, and that permit can be denied based on risk, but the assumption is that doing any sort of science-related exploration on your own (as a hobby, for home schooling, or for the hell of it) puts you afoul of the law unless you seek a permit.

Imagine if you needed to seek a permit to do art in your house, on the possibility that you might be using poisonous paints. Or practice music on the off-chance you might be using an instrument made from a banned material like ivory. How about a permit for sex, so we can get you on record that your sex is the legal kind? Or for photography, to get you to sign a document pledging that you aren't taking illegal photos. Any of these activities could wander into illegal territory.

Why have special treatment for science when it is not specifically harmful? Look at all the lawbreaking that goes on around the state on a daily basis in which people are harmed. How much of that is related to people practicing science? Plenty of lawbreaking involves sex, driving, drinking, guns... Where are the permits promising you won't break the law while intoxicated? Even an FID, the least level of required permit for gun ownership in the state, doesn't ask you what you're going to do with the gun so that the state can reject the FID on that basis alone (or catch you in a lie later when it turns out you are doing something either illegal, or just different than what you first intended to do).

Lying to officials is a crime, carrying with it additional penalties. A permit gets you on record. It makes you additionally punishable if you run afoul of any laws, including laws you might not be aware of. Do you sign a form promising not to break the law when you drive your car? If you did, you could be pulled over for speeding and then additionally prosecuted for lying.

Why should science be treated differently?

Hat tip to this somewhat overheated Make Blog entry.

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Posted by James at 12:55 PM | Comments (2)

RI College Republicans

College Republicans in RI are protesting in front of the offices of Democratic House members today. They are protesting the ending of the legislative session. They want the members to go back to Washington and solve the nation's energy problems. Now!

Their version of "solve the nation's energy problems," though, is to allow more offshore drilling. I think that describing increased offshore drilling as solving the nation's energy problems is disingenuous and inaccurate, if politically convenient. And, no, you didn't miss the college Republican protests on energy during Republican control of congress -- there weren't any. They were busy telling us why the Iraq War was wicked awesome.

My understanding of legislative sessions is that they end, in part, so that legislators can go back to their district and hear from their constituents. So, good on ya, college Republicans, for participating in that process. But it seems a little self-defeating when it's framed as "protesting to send them back to work" since sending the Reps home to you is part of the process and, in fact, makes your protest possible.

I looked for some confirmation of this protest on the web. At the time I am writing this, the College Republican Federation of Rhode Island site doesn't mention the protest. Their most recent media release is from March.

URI College Republicans seem a little more active. It's great to see their list of most important issues -- issues on the forefront of people's minds in 2008 -- like War in Iraq, Immigration Reform, Social Security and... The Vagina Monologues. That's right, The Vagina Monologues makes the short list. Srsly. It may be a crappy play, but it's Job 1 for College Republicans!

But the waving flag is cool. Before you go, please check the calendar of events for an August full of political activism!

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Posted by James at 9:45 AM | Comments (4)

August 10, 2008

Bubble Tea

Last week, Ryan and I visited a small restaurant in Lowell called the Eggroll Cafe where we both had Bubble Tea for the first time.

An invention of Taiwan, I'm gathering that "Bubble Tea" is a name that began when the drink was originally only tea, made by a process which included bubbling. Tapioca "pearls" (aka "boba") are added to the drink, and these pearls also have a bubbly appearance.

What we had was not tea at all. I ordered lychee juice, and when the waitress asked me whether I wanted the pearls, I sad yes. Ryan followed my lead. I wish I'd taken a picture. I didn't, so I'll have to describe it for you. (Although a Google Image Search might help, too)

Picture a clear plastic cup containing a slightly cloudy (but not like milk) juice and some small ice cubes. At the top of the cup there is a snappy cellophane-like plastic seal which is apparently glued or heat sealed on. In the bottom of the cup there are 20 or so black-colored spheres the size of chickpeas.

You're given a thick straw which is cut so it has a pointy end. The straw is thrust through the plastic cover so that you can drink the juice and also suck up the dark tapioca pearls. Lychee juice is sweet and the pearls are like soft gummy bears, with very little flavor of their own. They're there for the unique texture. Slightly slick on the outside, slightly chewy.

I really like lychee, and I hardly ever get it, so I was happy. Ryan seemed to enjoy his as well. The older workshop participants got their drinks without the boba and just looked at us funny. Don't knock it 'till you try it.

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Posted by James at 6:07 PM | Comments (9)

Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes, known for composing the Theme from Shaft and for being the voice of Chef on South Park is dead today at age 65.

I can't think of Hayes without thinking of the circumstances of his exit from South Park; how it was unclear whether the statement released in his name came from him or came from Scientology surrogates who had pressured him into leaving the show.

For years, South Park used irreverent humor to lampoon different faiths, and Hayes was a part of that. Something changed when they targeted Scientology. Hayes didn't take part in that episode, but it is said that his reaction in interviews immediately after it aired were measured, calm and reasonable, putting the episode into the context of South Park's long history of humor.

Later, he resigned via a statement which criticized South Park for its intolerance. There is an odd disconnect between these two reactions, and questions about whether Hayes even approved the statement, though he did leave the show.

My feeling is that Hayes was taken advantage of, and that people sought to direct him with their own benefit in mind rather than his own. It's tougher to see from the inside of such an organization, but when people want to do your thinking for you I recommend you run like hell. Whatever you're getting out of an organization, giving up thinking for yourself is the beginning of the end for an individual. While it's certainly possible for a person to need a short term intervention from friends, it's a big red flag when the cause of the "intervention" is not something immediately life threatening.

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Posted by James at 5:35 PM | Comments (5)

August 6, 2008

Thanks, Keri

As some of you have already heard, Keri's left WSAR to work for the Bristol County DA's office in child and elder abuse prevention.

She's always been passionate on the subject of children, a fact that comes through not only in personal conversations but was often reflected in the subject matter of her show.

WSAR has lost an asset. Whatever the details are, it's an unfortunate loss for area broadcasting. The county will be lucky to have her energy and enthusiasm behind the problem of child abuse. Our loss to an entertainment and information medium is, at least, the gain for a vulnerable segment of the population.

Keri had already proved on air that she's up to the challenge of juggling scads of information, doing the prep work that made her show an informed discussion rather than the sound of escaping hot air you find on many other broadcast choices. But she has also shown us she's a tireless investigator, not content just to read what's put before her but to get involved deeply with issues. I frankly don't know where she gets the energy.

We citizens of the county are going to be lucky to have that kind of energy working for us as she focuses her attention on this new role. I console myself with that, now that we won't be able to hear her voice so easily anymore.

I selfishly hope this means a return to blogging, if she has the time or inclination. But however that shakes out, best of luck, Keri. And thanks.

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Posted by James at 2:11 AM | Comments (1)

August 5, 2008

More Miles, Less Gallons

I had originally wanted to chart my gasoline usage and report back to you on differences in my driving which have made a in impact on fuel usage. But it's not as easy to do a controlled experiment in a car when you also have to use that car to get around.

It appears that driving around the highway speed limit (or just below) does improve your gas mileage, but all that progress can easily get blown away if you get stuck in traffic at all. It makes sense, because being in traffic burns gas without moving your car much or at all. Being stuck in traffic is like driving home without traffic and then just spilling some of your fuel tank on the ground.

I can't tell you how much the improvement is, but I can tell you it is an improvement.

More efficiency means more opportunity. Pouring out fuel on the ground forces you to buy more fuel, and some might think of that as more economic activity. This is sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Broken Window: the idea that waste, breakage or war is a net benefit to society. I believe this to be a fallacy (as Frédéric Bastiat put it, Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.) And so I believe that more efficient uses of energy lead to more opportunity and a stronger nation.

I'm surprised to see the McCain campaign making a joke out of suggestions that keeping your tires at the right pressure can make a difference to this nation's energy consumption. It's long been good automobile practice that keeping on top of car maintenance (oil changes, tire pressure, tune ups) mean better gas mileage. If people see the personal benefit of this, (in lower fuel costs) that's great. If they see it as an issue of national responsibility, that's even better.

What's wrong with asking people to take some responsibility? Instead of joking about it, our leaders should be telling people they can make a difference. And the evidence says that they can make a difference. I'm with Lindsay Beyerstein; I don't get the joke.

I believe Americans would make many lifestyle changes that could help reduce dependence on foreign oil. But an attitude the McCain campaign seems to be fostering is that the government and oil companies are the only ones who can make an actual difference. The strong father rears his head again; he'll take care of you. He won't ask you to be an agent of change, or to take any responsibility. He'll just ask for more power to act on your behalf.

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Posted by James at 2:17 PM | Comments (0)

August 4, 2008

Ten Thousand Hours

Does ten thousand hours refer to how long it feels like it's taking for me to get better from this sore throat (negative for strep, btw), or to how long I've been boring people with my plight via Twitter?

In any case, I've had a chance to take up some neglected reading (finished Sharpe's Rifles yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it). Maybe if I get back on a roll I'll attempt the next Aubrey-Maturin book. Fulfilling, but a commitment.

"Ten thousand hours" refers to something I'm reading in This Is Your Brain on Music. Maggie and I had a brief conversation the other day about talent and learning -- how much of an effect does innate talent have on learning and that sort of thing.

TIYBoM covers this in one of its sections, and mentions a hypothesis about the amount of time it takes for mastery in nearly any subject. By "mastery" I mean "becoming remarkably proficient" or "world class" in your chosen field.

Levitin, the author, says there is evidence in many fields that ten thousand hours of practice is required to reach this world class level. That's something like three hours a day of practice for ten years. (BTW, I am a world class websurfer)

How about people like Mozart who reached such proficiency at a young age? Isn't that talent? Maggie mentioned to me a local piano player who burned through the first piano book at blazing speed with his piano tutor when he was just starting out.

Levitin suggests that Mozart's father, a strict taskmaster and recognized as the best music teacher in Europe, likely kept him practicing long and hard at an early age. Mozart was accomplished early on, completing his first symphony at the age of eight, but his early symphonies not as highly regarded as his later ones. In other words, he still spent the ten thousand hours of practice before he became the Mozart we know and love.

I think this is where hard work can make up for a lack of raw talent. You may not be destined to be a Mozart, and you may not get the same sort of "kick" or feedback from your practice, but I believe that a lot more is in your grasp than you are born with, if you're willing and able to put in the time.

Some people just don't get the same reward from their practice; they either don't feel the same about their progress or do not notice the kind of progress that encourages them. Some of the benefit of talent is the gratification you get as a response to your efforts. I think that is the larger factor in "innate talent." Maybe I am predisposed to this opinion because I have always felt that the brain has a lot of flexibility, and that it is a tool really does shape itself to the tasks you put it to.

This also underscores the importance of the choices we make on how we spend our time, something that an inefficient planner like myself struggles with. It's easy to see the rewards of planning and focus in other areas. Maybe it helps to make better choices if you see those choices as leading toward your ten thousand hours at something.

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Posted by James at 11:07 AM | Comments (2)

August 1, 2008

Creepy Leaf Blower

I was going in to work on Monday and there were some fellows out around the building doing landscaping.

I noticed one of them as I was coming up the walkway. He was right near the doors to the building, and was wearing a big leaf blower on a harness. I noticed because the leaf blower was running, but he didn't seem to be actually blowing any leaves. Also, he looked like he was trying to hide behind the trash container.

This seemed strange, because he was quite a bit taller than the trash container. Yet he almost seemed to be trying to make himself smaller.

Also, he was watching me come up the walkway.

When I got up near the doors, he slid out from behind the trash container and said to me:

"Don't shoot me!" (He had to shout it, over the leaf blower.)

This was less odd than it sounds, since I was carrying my violin in its case so I would be able to go straight to my lesson after work. He was making the assassin-with-gun-in-violin-case joke. Now his scrutiny of me made sense (more or less).

I laughed and acknowledged that I got his joke.

So, if some guy is creeping you out, hiding with a leaf blower and watching you, remember he might be waiting to spring a humorous quip on you.

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Posted by James at 10:46 AM | Comments (4)

I don't want to know how the story ends

I don't want to know how the story ends.

I don't want to hear about the story.

I don't want to know there is a story.

But now, thanks to Activia yogurt commercials, I can't eat any sort of yogurt without thinking "you'll love how this story ends."

I didn't want a story. I didn't want a laxative. I just want to eat a flippin serving of yogurt.

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Posted by James at 10:27 AM | Comments (4)