Friday, August 29, 2008

Good Fortune

My fortune cookie tonight said "You have a charming way with words. Write a letter this week." I love it! And I think I will write a letter to someone this week.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Begging the Question

The phrase "begging the question" is supposed to mean assuming what you are trying to prove (and it still means this in logic). An argument that begs the question has an assumption that hasn't been proven and therefore can't be assumed; this unproven assumption leads naturally to the conclusion, which is also unproven. More conversationally, it means to assume something not yet proven or done: "Shopping now for a wedding dress is really begging the question--she hasn't been proposed to yet."

Unfortunately, "begs the question" is now generally used to mean "raises the question"; it is used this way so often that a careful writer can no longer use it correctly. Which is too bad, because begging the question is still a useful concept that deserves a phrase - especially during the presidential elections. Luckily, it is very close to the concept of circular reasoning, in which two related assumptions are used to prove each other (simplistically: "The Bible says God exists. The Bible is the word of God, so it must be true. Therefore God exists."), so there is a useful term still available to unravel political arguments.

Come to think of it, it is really hard to find a good example of an argument that begs the question, so maybe it isn't too bad a phrase to lose. Now if journalists would just quit using it the wrong way.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rough-Legged Hawks Return

In the last few days, I've seen a few hawks that just don't seem quite right for red-tails and they definitely aren't harriers, so I've been watching for confirmation that the rough-legged hawks were starting their winter migration to or through the area. Today I saw a hawk with a white underside and black wing-tips that has to be a rough-legged hawk (probably a juvenile), so I know they are starting to come back. It won't be long before the red-tails start moving south, leaving the fields to the rough-leggeds.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How to Mislead with Statistics

"A study comparing ten-year-olds in a small, walkable Vermont town and youngsters in a new Orange County suburb showed a marked difference. The Vermont children had three times the mobility, i.e., the distance and places they could get to on their own, while those in Orange County watched four times as much television." (Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation)

On the surface, this looks like a pretty strong argument that, as the author would have us conclude, places designed for cars are hurting or kids, and anecdotally it is interesting. But, without more details, it is nearly worthless as evidence. The quote itself raises questions: Did the Vermont kids actually walk more, or did they just have more potential mobility? How does TV watching correlate to mobility? Could the Vermont TV times be low because those kids spent more time on the computer (rather than walking)?

Then there is the nebulous study itself. Even if it was well-designed, how could it really control for all the non-car differences between a small town in Vermont and a suburb in California? Controlling for population density, economic status, and weather is pretty obvious, but what about parental attitudes? People who raise families in a small town in Vermont tend to have different values than people who move to California to raise kids, and those values extend to modes of transportation. It is conceivable that the California kids lived in a very walkable neighborhood but that their parents don't encourage (or want) them to walk places for status or convenience reasons (it is easier to monitor your kids when they are at home in front of a TV rather than outside on their own). There are several other possible explanations for the differences cited, too; the author's conclusions may be valid, but there is no way to know from this snippet of relevant-sounding information.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Late Season for Vegetables

I made dill beans today, after finding some at the farmers' market yesterday. I couldn't figure out what to do with the little bits that get cut off to make the beans fit in the jars; what was it I did last year? I finally remembered that last year, I made the snippets into a salad that I took to a family dinner - at the beginning of August. But this year, I couldn't make dill beans until nearly the beginning of September. Green beans just didn't show up in the markets until last week, and not in sufficient quantities to justify pickling them until this week. The entire local growing season has been nearly a month late due to a cold, wet spring and June snow, which means that much of the produce will come to market just as the farmers' markets are closing down. That's tough on both the growers and the eaters.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Morning Birds

About 8:00 this morning, I opened the blinds and discovered that the yard was full of birds. A flicker flew away from the house to the ponderosa pine, followed by a family of robins (the young ones have been flying into our windows again). Three or four doves flew over the yard and chickadees perched in the aspens near the kitchen. A family of small birds, probably juvenile meadowlarks based on the tail stripes, skipped across the air like rocks across a lake. It is the last flurry of reproductive growth before the colder weather sets in and all but the chickadees head south.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Other Outlets

When I started this blog a year ago, I had a brain full of words and ideas that needed an outlet, and it was easy to stay on top of entries. Now that my technical editing work is taking off, I find that I have less need of this outlet to stay sane; my drive to play with words is being met in other ways. I would have thought that there would be a bigger difference between writing and editing, but I guess I just want words to play with, and it doesn't matter if I generate them or someone else does.

The other reason I started it was to follow a year around the seasons with food and the ebb and flow of plants and animals. I'm doing less cooking now, so there is less excitement to share on the food front. And now that I've gone a full year, it is harder to record the changes again - even though they are a little different each year. On the other hand, I will be doing natural history with one of my kids this fall, so maybe I will have more things to note again.

I'm not abandoning the blog, but it will be interesting to see how it evolves over the next few months.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Amythest Initiative

Nearly 100 college presidents have signed a document, the Amethyst Initiative, calling for a national debate on the drinking age. Predictably, it has stirred up a lot of MADD charges that the presidents are trying to make their own lives easier and that lowering the drinking age will only increase binge drinking on campus. MADD might have a point (the latter) if the drinking age were changed without any discussion or accompanying changes in how we approach alcohol; if kids continue to learn that drinking is a forbidden adult activity, to be done quickly before you get caught, binge drinking might very well increase.

But the presidents didn't call directly for lowering the drinking age, they called for discussion. And that has a lot of potential for changing college drinking habits. Unfortunately, MADD and DARE have so poisoned the public discussion that it is difficult for reasonable parents to even discuss teaching their kids how to drink. Any parent who would even consider teaching their minor child how to drink responsibly must be irresponsible at best. We teach them about driving and safe sex; why is it that we can't teach them how to drink properly? An open discussion about the drinking age is a good thing, especially if it gives us a chance to deal with alcohol responsibly - but it is threatening to groups like MADD that have made their name (and money) by repressing it.

Well-meaning groups like MADD and DARE teach young kids that alcohol is evil and no one should ever drink (which went over like a lead balloon at our dinner table). Unfortunately, kids get older and figure out that adults do drink, hypocritically, and therefore the adults must be keeping something special, something grown-up, from kids. Forbidden fruit is all the sweeter - then we wonder why they drink so eagerly.

If kids learn that alcohol is a normal, reasonable part of life, to be enjoyed with food or friends, for the taste rather than the drunkenness, and are allowed to do it, then why would they binge drink? Of course, this requires adults to teach their children these things, which is challenging in the current MADD/DARE environment. Parents who understand kids and their penchant for forbidden fruit, adults who have a rational approach to alcohol consumption, can teach their children that, used in moderation, alcohol is an enjoyable part of a full life. But at the moment, that education had better occur quietly or you will be a bad parent.

In part, kids binge drink because, if they want to drink, there aren't many options, and none legal. One reasonable compromise would be a "learner's license" for drinking. Kids 18 (or 19, to keep alcohol out of high schools) to 20 would be allowed to drink wine and beer; at 21, they could drink anything. It is harder to get drunk (especially dangerously drunk) on wine and beer, so it would be safer than simply lowering the drinking age for all alcohol. In addition, wine and beer are generally drunk with food, so kids could start to learn, even if their parents didn't teach them, how alcohol can be used properly. This would give young adults a chance to drink, in a safe manner, and would probably decrease binge drinking (usually of hard liquor) quite a bit. It might even lead to a more rational approach to alcohol than the current "all or nothing" attitudes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Competent Kids

One of my primary goals as a parent is nurture competent adults. So far, it seems to be working, which has me wondering what I have done right. I think the biggest thing is to assume that my kids are competent and set them tasks that stretch them a bit but are within their capabilities; then I give them the tools and support they need to accomplish the task more-or-less successfully. If I wait for them to demonstrate their competence before acting on it, they will never have a chance to develop it; if I give them tasks that are too hard or don't provide support, they will get discouraged. And if I just do things myself because it is easier (which it is), then they will never become competent, or even know that they should.

So I talk them through cleaning the bathroom or a shotgun, or encourage them to call their grandfather to find out how to wrap a pipe with insulation, or wait patiently while they figure out the best way to lay out a garden wall. I listen to them argue that they shouldn't have to do this chore, or that they can't do it. I make sure that my sons do household cleaning and my daughter helps with the cars. I let them make mistakes where it won't be catastrophic, and let them make the corrections or clean up the mess. Things take longer initially, but once they learn the task, they can repeat it in the future. They know they can learn how to do things, so they are willing to tackle another task. In short, they become competent (and make my life a little simpler in the process).

Once again, it is trust and verify: trust that they can do the job, then verify that they did it reasonably well.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Raymond Loewy, an industrial designer who worked on everything from dishes and the classic Coke bottle to Greyhound buses and Air Force One, subscribed to the MAYA design philosophy: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.
Our desire is naturally to give the buying public the most advanced product that research can develop and technology can produce. Unfortunately, it has been proved time and time again that such a product does not always sell well. There seems to be for each individual product (or service, or store, or package, etc.) a critical area at which the consumer's desire for novelty reaches what I might call the shock-zone. At that point the urge to buy reaches a plateau, and sometimes evolves into a resistance to buying. It is a sort of tug of war between attraction to the new and fear of the unfamiliar. The adult public's taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if this solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm. In other words, they will go only so far. Therefore, the smart industrial designer is the one who has a lucid understanding of where the shock-zone lies in each particular problem. At this point, a design has reached what I call the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) stage.
Raymond Loewy

Many designers seem to aim for Most Advanced, leading to objects that are simply baffling or ugly, or Acceptable, leading to boring objects; they seldom achieve the balance that makes an object both interesting and pleasant. The balance is so seldom in evidence that Target has created a nice niche for itself simply by designing thoroughly acceptable items that are somewhat advanced; these objects, although not perfect, are so clearly more interesting than most of what is on the market in household goods that I almost always start at Target when I want something for my kitchen or bathroom.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oversimplifying the West

From The Etiquette of Gravel Roads, by Bryce Andrews:

A quarter mile up the road, two vehicles were raising clouds of dust. Although the road was wide enough, I pulled to the side and waited.

As they drew near I could make out two brand-new SUV’s, one tailgating the other. Both had out-of-state license plates, but I waved to them as I would a friend because we had found each other in gorgeous light on an empty gravel road. Assuming the drivers were homeowners or investors, I hoped they might stop and tolerate a few questions about what was happening higher up on Rock Creek.

I got a dust cloud for my trouble. The drivers stared dead ahead as they whizzed by. I don’t think they even saw me. The dust settled and I kicked my bike into gear.

Maybe it is a little thing, an insignificant one, to notice a man waving at the side of the road or miss him altogether. Maybe it was a fluke, or the drivers were just in a hurry. Still I cannot shake the feeling that they inhabited a different world, a strange Montana bearing little resemblance to the place where I work and live.

Their Montana did not require attending closely to the hooves of cattle, or to clouds building above the Pintlers. It had not taught them to study the condition of grass plants, or learn the etiquette of gravel roads.

I continued uphill across cattle guards that rattled the bike. New gravel was spread on some of the corners, so I took them slowly. As I rode, I pictured the dead-ahead stares of the drivers, and it worried me that the new owners of this place might reduce a complex ecological and social landscape to a house, a mountain view, and the road to get there.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Virginia Fried Chicken

My daughter wanted to make fried chicken tonight, but we had neither the bone-in pieces commonly used nor the time to do it right. So we faked it - and it worked. We started with the three boneless, skinless chicken breasts I had defrosted and a recipe from Martha Stewart, and improvised from there. She did most of the work and was gratified when her brothers told her it was good - unusual, but good. It is also a good way to stretch chicken a bit.

Virginia Fried Chicken
Start with boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 2 for every three people. Slice them into 4 pieces crosswise, then halve any that are quite thick; for a large breast, you should have about 6 pieces. Put the pieces in a bowl and cover with buttermilk and a little hot sauce of some type; we used chili oil, but any variety would work; don't add enough to make it hot, just enough to add a little flavor, maybe a tablespoon or less. If you don't have buttermilk, plain yogurt, stirred in, would work. Let sit while you get everything else ready.

In a wide bowl or deep plate, mix half flour and half cornmeal; add salt and pepper to taste. Pour a half-inch of oil into a heavy skillet and heat over medium-high until it pops when you toss in a droplet of water. Lay out some newspapers near the skillet for draining the oil off the chicken. One at a time, take a piece of chicken out of the buttermilk, dredge it in the flour/cornmeal, and add it gently to the oil. Depending on the size of the skillet, you will be able to cook 3-6 at a time; don't over-crowd them or they won't cook properly. Fry for 3-4 minute, until the edges of the chicken/coating are turning golden brown. Turn over and cook for the same time on the other side, then remove from oil and place on the newspapers to drain. Cut one piece open to make sure it is cooked through. Repeat until chicken is all cooked.

Serve with your favorite accompaniments. We used hot wing sauce, dipping sauce, and blue cheese dressing for the chicken, plus biscuits and a salad. These would be good in buffalo-wing wraps, too. Recycle the newspapers after dinner.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Family Dinners

My daughter stayed with friends for a couple weeks this month, which is always an interesting and enlightening experience. I was impressed to hear that they ate at home every night, and that every dinner was homemade; she said that the mom was a great cook. But as tasty as it was, it was all "stuff on rice or pasta", and after a while, my daughter missed steak and salad.

I think that what she missed even more was conversation. Our dinners aren't always homemade - or even at home - but they are usually full of conversation (except nights when we are all too tired to be pleasant) and often laughter. Nothing is off limits except rudeness. When we all make it home for dinner, the meal tends to take half an hour to an hour; it is a chance to be together, to catch up on the day or the week, to enjoy each other, to make each other laugh. But dinner at the friends' house was a chance to eat a meal, to refuel before the evening's activities; meals generally lasted about 15 minutes and had little in the way of conversation beyond logistics. I suspect that the lack of dinner conversation was harder on my talkative daughter than the unfamiliar style of meals.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Trust and Verify

Trust and verify is a pretty good guideline for working with other people, and it seems to be working pretty well for parenting, too. The trick is to realize that it is TRUST and verify, not pretend to trust and try to catch them out. It almost seems like to separate parts of me are involved: my heart trusts my kids completely, while my brain keeps working on reality checks - not to trap anyone, just to make sure that my trust is still warranted. The good news is that the verifying occurs when I make the effort to stay in touch with my kids. "What did you do last night? Sounds like fun. Who was with you? Oh, good, they're back in town; for how long?" It is just casual conversation (or should be, anyway), because I care about my kids and am interested in what they are up to and who they are hanging out with. But it has the advantage of helping me keep tabs on who they are hanging out with and what they are doing; it gives me a chance to look for discrepancies that might alert me to things I should check on or to places they might need some help or support. And it allows me to trust them because I know that I am checking reality regularly.

Having said that, it works because I really do trust my kids to be honest enough with me that I could catch any discrepancies. The technique breaks down if you have a kid who is determined to keep a secret and willing to lie convincingly and consistently.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Back to School

Denise Malloy had a great column in the Balance feature this week about how eager she is for school to start again because she is tired of listening to her kids bicker and complain about being bored. She has undoubtedly exaggerated for effect, and the effect is very funny; I'm sure she has lots of company this month.

I am also eager for school to start again, but not so I can get my days back; it is so I can get my kids back. They have been busy with camps and work and sleeping late all summer, and I miss spending time with them. I miss the companionship and the routine that comes with school. I am used to having my kids around most of the day, and I really like them; they are growing into people I want to spend time around (ok, not all the time, but most days). They are what may be the perfect age: still young enough to be an integral part of the household but old enough that I can leave them for lunch with a friend, or get some work done on my own while they work on their projects. I am looking forward to seeing more (not less) of them next month!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Subway Maps

Subway maps are a distinctive subspecies of maps that sacrifice geographical accuracy for clarity. Here is a normal map of Washington DC:

And here is the Metro Map for the same area; note what happens to the river.

The Metro map is much more graphic, with all its bright colors and neat lines, but it only loosely reflects reality - just enough to be useful without being confusing. The challenge for the designers is to find the right balance between simplicity (so that riders can easily figure out routes) and context (so that they can figure out how to get somewhere once they get off the subway). An endemic problem with these maps is that it skews the apparent distance between stops, disguising trips that would be faster on foot.

The London Tube map was the first map to use stright lines instead of actual routes; it is generally considered a classic design, but one that doesn't always transfer well to other uses; some uses of the style are spectacularly unsuccessful. (For an interesting route map of the world, go nearly to the bottom of this page, to the Aug. 29, 2006 entry.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Chicken and Sausage

Chicken and sausage is one of my favorite meat combinations, so when I found two sausages and a chicken breast in my freezer, I knew I had to figure out some way to use them. Tonight, when I only had two kids to feed, I did - it was quick (about 20 minutes if you use left-over rice or starch), easy, and tasty.

Chicken and Sausage Quick Fry (for 2-3 people)
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 spicy sausages, such as andouille, hot Italian, or chorizo
1 to 1.5 cups of frozen stir-fry peppers mix (red and green peppers, onions)
1/2 C sour cream
salt to taste
Cooked rice or pasta

Slice the chicken and sausages into bite-size pieces. Heat a large skillet over med-high heat and add the meat. Cook it fast and keep stirring; the meat should carmelize a little bit and the sausage juices should infiltrate the chicken. Add some salt , less than a teaspoon or to taste. When the meat is cooked through, move it to the outside of the skillet and add the frozen veggies; keep cooking and stirring until the moisture has evaporated and the veggies are warm. Turn the heat down to med-low and add the sour cream. Stir well; the sour cream and the sausage juices should form a thick sauce. Serve over rice or pasta, spooning the sauce over the meat and veggies.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Worse Things Than Being Wrong

"There are surely worse things than being wrong, and being dull and pedantic are surely among them."

This quote is from Mark Kac, a Polish mathematician who was born today in 1914 in a Russian part of Poland; he came to the United States in 1938, just in time to avoid the start of WWII and the persecutions that came with being a Jew. He liked to play with words as well as numbers: he once asked "Can you hear the shape of a drum?" as a way to think about spectral theory (no, you can't). And he made a useful distinction between an "ordinary genius" like Hans Bethe and a "magician" like Richard Feynman.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How to Confuse a Cook

Order a garden burger with bacon. A friend of my son's does this regularly; he says it tastes good, but I think he mostly does it for the look on the server's face when they take the order for a vegetarian meal with meat.