Sunday, April 21, 2013

Guns are just like pressure cookers

Sorry for all the scrolling. I thought it was important to do it to scale.

I just want to add, I am not at all anti-gun. My sister owns a gun, my dear departed friend Nicole owned multiple guns, I have several other friends who own guns. I have fired guns myself, and I would love to go hunting sometime if I ever get around to it. What gets my goat is the people who deny that there is a tremendous gun violence problem in the United States, or who use absolutely absurd arguments to oppose even the most modest gun law reforms. We have several times as many per capita gun deaths (including suicides, homicides, and accidents) as the next closest first-world country. No matter how you slice it, that's a problem. I don't view this as a moral/ideological issue, I view it as an epidemiological issue. We've got way more gun violence than we ought; how do we craft public policy to reduce that?

Unfortunately, a lot of the anti-gun control arguments (including people smugly joking about "backgrounds checks for pressure cookers!!1!!!1!") completely miss the fucking point. Honestly, pro-gun advocates have done more to shift my opinion in favor of gun control than anti-gun advocates. We need an adult conversation here, and unfortunately a lot of the pro-gun folks are behaving like paranoid idiot children.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Best (and Easiest) Sandwich Bread Recipe

This is essentially the sandwich bread recipe from the excellent book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, but since that is more a book of techniques rather than recipes, the various important steps are scattered over the course of the chapter on bread dough. I have also tweaked just a couple of things to make the recipe as easy as possible, with the idea that for a staple like bread, the more of a chore the recipe is the more likely you are to give in and get it from the supermarket. This makes the most freakin' awesome sandwich bread, perfect for toast with eggs or grilled cheese or a nice kid-friendly sandwich. For more crusty bread, I do a few things differently, and use a Dutch oven, but this makes a loaf that is nice and tender, and also very rectangular and uniform -- perfect for sandwiches.

You need a stand mixer with a hook attachment, a digital scale, a 9-inch loaf pan, and a cast-iron skillet. I must confess I've never kneaded bread by hand, so while I'm sure that would work fine, you're on your own with that. I strongly recommend the scale, not just because you'll get more accurate measurements, but because it also means you can measure everything out in the mixing bowl without getting your measuring cups dirty. This process is fast and easy and reliable.

Step 1: Put your mixing bowl on the digital scale, reset it, and add 15 ounces of bread flour. I use King Arthur bread flour.

Step 2: Reset the scale and add 9 ounces of water. Seriously, measuring ingredients by weight directly into the mixing bowl is the best thing ever. Once I started doing this, I started baking about ten times as often, because it's so incredibly easy. I sometimes use warm water with the idea that it will be better for the yeast, but I've also used ice cold tap water and had no issues (see step 5 below).

Step 3: Reset the scale again and add ~0.75 ounces of honey. This is one place where I deviate from the Ruhlman recipe; he says 2 Tbsp, but honey and measuring spoons make an awful mess together. I don't actually know how this compares volume-wise -- I assume honey is denser than water, but I don't know how much. Anyway, this amount works for me.

Step 4: Add 2 tsp of salt. Okay, so you do get one measuring spoon dirty, but it will only ever touch salt or yeast, so you can just rinse it under tap water and it will be perfectly clean.

Step 5: Add 1 tsp of active dry yeast. DO NOT PROOF THE YEAST. DO NOT STRESS ABOUT THE WATER TEMPERATURE. Okay, yeah, it won't hurt anything if you proof the yeast, but it's totally unnecessary. It does not require proofing to be "activated" or anything, and in retrospect I found that one thing that kept me from baking bread very often was that getting the water in the 100-110F temperature range and waiting for the yeast to bloom all just seemed like a big hassle. I promise that if you just dump the yeast in, your bread will come out fine, and you will probably bake more bread because you've just eliminated like three really finicky steps. The only reason to maybe proof the yeast is if you have a really old jar of yeast and you aren't sure if it is good anymore. But if you don't screw around with this unnecessary step, you will bake more, which means you will go through yeast more quickly, which means this won't be a problem. So just dump the yeast in and move on! (Huge kudos to Ruhlman for taking this bold stance on not blooming yeast -- this "lazy" step was his idea, not mine)

Step 6: Mix on the lowest setting until the ingredients combine, then mix on medium speed for about 15 minutes. The standard test to see if the kneading is done is the "window test", where you stretch a piece and see if you can make it translucent before it breaks. I dunno, I'm not very confident in this step. Just do it for 15 minutes or so, until it doesn't feel sticky any more and seems reasonably stretchy.

Step 7: Lift the mixing attachment of the stand mixer, and while the dough is still stuck to the hook, spray the mixing bowl with non-stick cooking spray. This is my own innovation. Ruhlman recommends to just let the yeast rise in the mixing bowl, which is an awesome time-saver, but the dough tends to stick. But check it out: While the dough is stuck to the hook, it's now temporarily out of the way and you can grease the bowl. Works like a charm!

Step 8: Pull the dough off the hook and into the mixing bowl. Spray non-stick cooking spray on a piece of plastic wrap, and cover the dough for about 1-2 hours. They say the dough is done rising when it offers some resistance when you poke it, but doesn't bounce back. Meh, I dunno. I've found my breads pretty tolerant to this step. If you have to leave the house or something, throw the mixing bowl in the fridge to slow the rising process.

Step 9: Once the dough is risen, spray your 9-inch loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray, put a cast iron skillet in the oven, and set it for 350F. Pick up the dough with clean hands, and squeeze it for a minute or two to get most of the air out. A lazy innovation from me: Any decent baker would tell you at this point to put it on a lightly floured surface and knead it for a bit before the second rise. I, however, am not a decent baker, and while I don't mind kneading on a floured surface when necessary, it certainly makes an awful mess to clean up. Since most of the point of kneading before the second rise is to purge any large air bubbles from the first rise, I find just squeezing it and feeling for air pockets seems to do a good job. Will your bread be better if you do this step "right"? Quite possibly. But it will still be totally kick-ass if you do it this way, and if cheating on the second knead makes you more likely to bake, do it!

The point of preheating the oven now (we won't be baking for another hour) is to make sure the oven temperature is really stable before you put the bread in. It is probably less important for this recipe, which bakes at a lower temperature than crustier breads, and if you are trying to conserve electricity you could probably cut the preheat time down to 30 minutes. But seriously, make sure the oven is well-preheated (as well as the skillet) before you put the dough in.

Step 10: Stretch the squished dough into a rectangle that almost fills the loaf pan, and put it in the pan. Cover with a clean dish towel for 60 minutes. Ruhlman said plastic wrap for the first rise, dish towel for the second rise. I'm not sure if this is important or not.

Step 11: With a sharp paring knife, make a deep lengthwise slice in the dough all the way from one end to the other. This is what gives it the characteristic "sandwich bread" shape, and it also means that slices of the finished loaf will be more like squares than semi-circles.

Step 12: Place the loaf in the oven, and simultaneously add 1 cup of water to the cast-iron skillet. This is a well-known but neglected technique that makes home ovens more like the steam injection ovens that bakers use. It is less necessary if you have a gas oven, but definitely worth it if you have an electric like I do.

Step 13: Bake for about an hour, just until the bottom is firm and makes a nice hollow sound when tapped. If you over-bake it, your bread will be delicious, but it will go stale faster. Caveat: If you intend to skip step 14, because you are impatient or really need bread right away or something, bake it a little longer. Also, you can optionally add an egg wash at around 20 minutes into the baking to get a nice attractive golden-brown crust on top. I like doing this, but have also skipped it with great results -- and it does dirty another bowl, so skip it if there is any chance it will make you bake less often!

Step 14: Don't eat it yet! Take it out of the loaf pan, place on a cutting board and cover with a clean dish towel (or put in a breadbox or something) overnight until completely cool. One problem with Ruhlman's otherwise excellent book is he doesn't have a lot to say about what to do when you are done with your recipe. He just gives the baking/cooking times and leaves you to figure out if the finished product needs to rest or anything. A little googling tells me that your bread will keep longer without going stale if you bake it a little less and then let it sit until completely cool to finish cooking.

Step 15: Keep it in a breadbox or a gallon freezer bag after slicing into it for the first time. Delicious!

Seriously, this recipe is absurdly easy, the only things to clean are your mixing bowl, the hook attachment, and the loaf pan (the cast iron skillet only ever had water in it, so you can just wipe it out with a paper towel), and if you are using a stand mixer there is like 10 minutes of active time in the whole thing. I make this while working from home. Totally worth it!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Faith is Nihilism

Bryan Fischer says that not exploiting fossil fuels to the absolute maximum is like rejecting a birthday present from Jesus, and that if we don't maximally rape the environment then God's feelings will be vewy vewy hurt.

You know, once upon a time, religious activists in the US were actually pro-environment, because they felt it represented responsible stewardship over the Earth that God had given them. I suppose some would say that this represents a very dark turn in American religion over the past several decades, and they'd be right, but I also think it's symbolic of something greater: Faith is essentially nihilistic, and when faith inspires goodness, it is no more reliable than the "goodness" of an avowed nihilist doing an incidentally good deed because it gives her momentary pleasure.

Revealed truth is an invalid epistemology. It can lead to any possible conclusion. And that makes it just as good as no epistemology at all; it makes it pure nihilism. It gives the believer the right to adhere to any philosophy she chooses, without the need for even a pretense of meaningful justification. "God said so" is as valid as "I feel like it."

Ironic that us atheists are always being painted with the broad brush of nihilism. There are nihilistic atheists to be sure, but ultimately it is only an epistemology based in science and reason which can transcend nihilism. Faith is not an escape from nihilism, it is an unrestrained embrace of it.

Faith is nihilism.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

FtB has a problem

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but FtB has a problem now. It's not on every blog, but it seems like it's spreading to more and more of them. The problem is very similar to what a lot of the FtB haters have been complaining about, except that their complaints predated the problem, so I'm not exactly sure what happened here. In any case, the problem is this:

In the comments on some of the blogs, if you deviate even slightly from certain unwritten assumptions of the commentariat, people will be a total asshole to you. You might even be wrong, and in that case it's good that there are folks there to set you on the right track... but they will be downright fuckin' mean to you, and that's just not necessary. There are certain blogs where the commentariat has stopped differentiating between full-blown MRAs vs. men who are trying very hard to be feminists but maybe have a couple of unexamined assumptions that are clouding how they see things. Get one thing wrong, and not only will they tell you, but they will tell you just what a worthless fuckup you are too.

My guess as to how this happened is that a lot of people there are fed up with trolls, fed up with people JAQing off, fed up with the online hate. And I don't want to draw a false equivalence here: What I am complaining about in the FtB comment section is light years away from some of the horrible vitriol that has been hurled at some of the bloggers there.

Nevertheless, it's a problem, and there are more and more blogs there where I just simply avoid the comment section altogether. It's too bad. FtB is still a really cool place, but it could be even better if certain folks just took a deep breath and thought for a second about positive intentions before ruthlessly excoriating people for falling somewhat short of perfect.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Nate Silver may be overrated, but poll aggregation isn't

tl;dr version: It's not exactly clear whether or not Nate Silver is the wunderkind he is made out to be (his true gift may be more in the explaining than in the predicting), but poll aggregation is an idea whose time has come -- and pundits and pols ignore it at their peril.

Let's get one thing out of the way up front: I really like Nate Silver. His writing style is pitch perfect, and people like me really get off on his blend of scientific humility and technical swagger. Independent of anything else, his mini-celebrity status is well-deserved, in my opinion.

Still, there are many who have questioned whether his "special sauce" is really contributing anything of value. There are even people whom I really respect that are quite down on Silver. I think this all raises some fair questions. Despite Silver's legendary performance in 2008 and 2010, and even despite the fact that he continued the streak by making (by some measures) the most accurate predictions in 2012, there is still room to argue that some of this is just statistical flukiness.

To be sure, while Silver was arguably the most accurate quant on this most recent election, his advantage over other poll aggregators was razor-thin. I consider it an open question whether the "special sauce" really does yield a consistently more accurate answer than other simpler approaches, or if Silver has just gotten a little lucky. But the thing is, it doesn't matter all that much.

Whether Silver is really doing something special, or if one can make do with a more streamlined approach that simply seeks to aggregate polling data in a sensible way, without all of the meticulous adjustments performed by the 538 model, one thing is perfectly clear: In the last several election cycles, poll aggregators have yielded consistently accurate results, even while blowhard pundits have floundered.

I think Silver's predictive success (as opposed to his professional success, which as I have mentioned I think is largely due to his excellent writing style and explanatory abilities) is in large part an inevitable result of the vast increase in the amount of independent state-level polling being done these days. While Darren Sherkat is correct when he says, "on average, if you heap together shit, it doesn’t equal filet mignon. The Central Limit Theorem is not something to be fucked with...", it now appears (if you'll allow me to extend the metaphor) that there is enough meat in modern state-level polling to at least make a decent hamburger, if not filet mignon.

There's a bit of an epistemological Catch-22 here, in that the low sample size will always give the doubters enough wiggle room to argue that it's all a fluke. But it really seems to me at this point that the most parsimonious explanation for Silver's continued streak, as well as the excellent performance of his quant counterparts, is that there is a core of legitimacy to poll aggregation, and that models like the one employed by Silver (if not his specific model) should now be recognized as far and away the most reliable method for predicting the results of an election.

There's still plenty of room to doubt some of Silver's more exotic "voodoo", but it is increasingly hard to deny that the basic idea is sound: Take all of the data that you have available, calibrate it to take into account each polling outfit's historical performance, and average it all together. Apply error bars of appropriate size (e.g. Silver should not get credit for calling 50 out of 50, since his 50.3% "prediction" on Florida hardly counts as "calling it"), and you now have a stable and reliable and sufficiently hedged prediction. How many more elections will it take before we can agree on this?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Scrabble and Intellectual Property

My post on the differences between Scrabble and Words with Friends continues to garner huge numbers of hits, as well as a lot of comments. A number of comments have expressed anger or bewilderment over Words' transparent rip-off of Scrabble. While some related legal issues can be murky -- and the ethical issues are murkier still -- there is one thing that is not in doubt: Zyngo, the makers of Words with Friends, are in no danger of being successfully sued by Hasbro. The reasons why are alluded to in the comments of the other post, but there seems to be enough interest/emotion regarding this that I figure it warrants its own post.

Different types of intellectual property

First things first, a little bit of intellectual property 101. There are three ways of protecting intellectual property in the United States, and indeed in most of the world. I am not a lawyer by any means, so I will not pretend to give a comprehensive explanation of what each of these are. But in short: A patent is something you use to protect an invention or an idea; a copyright is something you use to protect a specific work, like a book or a song or what-have-you; and a trademark is something you use to protect a name.

All three of these can apply to certain aspects of Scrabble, and Zyngo could have -- but clearly did not -- infringe on any of them. I will take each type of protection one at a time.

Scrabulous Trademarks

The easy one first: Trademarks. As mentioned before, trademarks are used to protect a name. It sounds simple in principle, but it can actually get very complicated. For an example, look up the long-running dispute between Apple Computers and the Apple Records, the label founded by The Beatles.

Again, I am not a lawyer, and there are better resources to learn about the vagaries of trademark law. But for our purposes, it's really simple: Zyngo didn't use any words that sound anything like "Scrabble" or "Hasbro" or anything else that could have gotten them into trademark hot water. Not an issue.

It bears mentioning that an early Scrabble clone on Facebook went by the name "Scrabulous" -- and unsurprisingly, there was a lawsuit. Frankly, the name was a really dumb move and they probably didn't think it through that much. They changed their name to Lexulous and still exist to this day. Other changes were made as well to get Hasbro to drop the lawsuit, which we'll discuss when we get to copyright. But first, another easy one...

Patents, Deadlines, and Expiration Dates

So it turns out you actually can patent a game. This could get really sticky, as patent law is tremendously murky, and I say this as someone who has multiple patents to his name (Google me!).

Luckily, patents expire after a relatively short amount of time (typically 20 years in the United States), so even if there were a patent on Scrabble, it would have expired long ago. Furthermore, it seems that the only Scrabble-related patent dealt with tile design rather than gameplay, which would be a non-issue for an online game even if it hadn't expired before I was even born.

And don't entertain any notions that Hasbro could file a patent today. While the law in the US recently changed (to be even more restrictive), it's never been the case that you could file a patent any later than one year to the day after your invention became public. The deadline for protecting Scrabble passed sometime around when Hitler invaded Poland.

Napster's Bane

Which leaves only one form of intellectual property protection: Copyright. You know, the reason 95% of your music collection is technically illegal.

Copyright is used to protect an "original work", like a story or a song or a picture whatever. I'm actually a little shaky on what defines an "original work", but typically if you can write it down or record it, that would count.

So what in Scrabble counts as an "original work"? The board for sure -- and this is why Words with Friends uses a different board layout. The instructions would also count, but you can always just paraphrase them (similar to the way you can copyright a cookbook, but you can't really protect an individual recipe). An argument could be made that the tile frequency and scoring might count, since that is something you could write out in a tabular form (just as I have done in my other post).

It is notable that Lexulous nee Scrabulous changed exactly these things when they got Hasbro to drop the lawsuit, and it's notable that Zyngo has altered all of these from the original Scrabble as well.

Final thoughts, and a word about ethics

Have no doubt: I'm sure Hasbro would like to have their official Scrabble app be the only game in town. If there were a reasonable chance of them winning a lawsuit, they would take it.

Again remembering that I am not a lawyer, I think that if for some reason Zyngo decided they wanted to keep the tile frequencies and scoring the same, that could get really dicey. I don't think it's a slam dunk, but it would be murky enough that I'm pretty sure Hasbro would sue, just to try their luck. Of course, it's totally not worth it (for any of the parties involved, really) so Zyngo is playing it safe and making sure they change enough that any attempt at a lawsuit would get laughed out of court.

So -- we know Words with Friends is legal. Is it ethical? Well, I'm not going to make a strong pronouncement here, but I will say this: Hasbro could easily have the #1 word game app on Facebook due to the distinct advantage imparted by their trademark, if they also had the best app. Furthermore, I can't imagine that Words with Friends significantly cuts into sales of physical Scrabble games (even if this travesty were actually popular, note that Hasbro got the rights to sell it -- hah!). If anything, a popular and playable Scrabble clone probably stimulates sales, as people get hooked online and then want to play it in person.

Lastly, it's worth noting that Scrabble was a similarly close tweak of an earlier game by the name of Lexiko. So don't cry for Hasbro, please.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What is the job of a journalist, anyway?

I've noticed this really annoying pattern in a lot of media reaction to the debates over the last couple of weeks: A knowledgeable (relatively speaking, that is) pundit refusing to analyze the debate from her own informed perspective, and instead anticipating how the typical undecided, i.e. low-information1, voter is going to perceive it. Paradoxically, the typical low-information voter's opinion is going to be greatly shaped, whether directly or indirectly, by the verdict of the chattering class. So you wind up with this weird (and very stupid) manufactured reality, where the pundits think they are dumbing it down in order to make more accurate predictions, and in the very process manage to dumb down the entire election.

Imagine if other professions did this! "I went to my doctor because of a horrible pain in my knee, and she said it's probably a serious joint injury that requires surgery... but then she said most laypeople would just walk it off, so that's probably what I should do." "The pilot said that, counter-intuitively, you need to nose down in a stall situation in order to recover. But most people's instinct is to pull the stick back, so that's his plan in the event of an emergency."

It's fine to note, e.g. that some of the numbers flying back and forth in the first prez debate are likely to go over a lot of voters' heads. But a pundit has a responsibility to then go on and report on her own informed reactions to those numbers, not treat the candidates with disdain for daring to discuss actual policy!

It's moments like these when I have to remember something: People in publicly visible professions aren't any less likely to suck at their jobs than people in ordinary work-a-day careers. How many people in your office are clueless slackers who coast on doing an okay job, but not really bringing any special expertise to bear? Well, there's just as many people like that in the news room, I guess.

1I choose my words carefully here... That the "typical undecided voter" happens to be particularly uninformed is a statistical fact, regardless of what some may like to believe about independence, open-mindedness, non-partisanship, etc. To avoid giving offense, I make no judgment here about any individual undecided voter. I expect there are undecided voters out there who are very well-informed and take the issues very seriously, but they are highly atypical.