Monday, December 22, 2008


My niece and I were discussing the necessity for grades last night (along with the incentive they provide for cheating); at the time, I conceded that some kind of generally-accepted evaluation system was needed, and grades were one way to do it. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I really don't believe in grades. Grades are more about competition than education. Grades assume that everyone has to be pushed through material at the same rate and then rewarded or penalized depending on how quickly they were able to absorb it; the race (and the A) goes to the swift.

But that's not how education should work. An alternative is teaching to mastery, where students are given the time they need to master the material and not allowed to move on until they have. Grades aren't needed to rank students, because they don't move up to the next level until they have all the material mastered; they can't flunk as long as they show up and try to learn (although they might stay in one stage a long time). Bright students who would do well under grading can move ahead quickly, covering more material in a given time; slower thinkers (who may be equally intelligent) can master the material at their own pace.

This is how young children learn, moving on to a new task when a prior one is mastered. In school settings where the technique has been tried, it has been so successful that it tends to anger the school organization (especially when the "dumb kids" are getting As in a class). If the goal is to get kids to learn the material, grading is a failure; it is only successful as a way of ranking kids based on how fast they learn, not how well.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dark and Stormy

I found a promising drink recipe in the newspaper a while back, something called a Dark and Stormy that combined ginger beer and dark rum, and we tried it tonight. It is amazing that you can take two strong flavors like extra-strength ginger beer and dark rum and mix them together to get something that tastes like ginger ale, but that's what happened. When we added the lime and lots of extra ginger, it tasted like a weak rum punch - not bad, but not worth the effort. My theory is that Rachel Ray doesn't like either main ingredient and is delighted to have an inoffensive way to serve them. Regardless, I won't be rushing out to purchase her cookbooks.

Dark and Stormy (Source: Rachel Ray)
Ice cubes
1/2 lime
3 oz dark rum
Ginger beer
Fresh ginger sticks

Fill a pint glass three-quarters full of ice, squeeze in all the juice from the lime half, then drop the rind in the glass. Add the rum and fill with the ginger beer. Garnish with ginger sticks.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why the World has Taken to Chilies

Excerpts from an article in The Economist, 12/18/2008:

Tasteless, colourless, odourless and painful, pure capsaicin is a curious substance. It does no lasting damage, but the body’s natural response to even a modest dose (such as that found in a chili pepper) is self-defence: sweat pours, the pulse quickens, the tongue flinches, tears may roll. But then something else kicks in: pain relief. The bloodstream floods with endorphins—the closest thing to morphine that the body produces. The result is a high. And the more capsaicin you ingest, the bigger and better it gets.

Which is why the diet in the rich world is heating up. Hot chilies, once the preserve of aficionados with exotic tastes for cuisine from places such as India, Thailand or Mexico, are now a staple ingredient in everything from ready meals to cocktails.

One reason is that globalisation has raised the rich world’s tolerance to capsaicin. What may seem unbearably hot to those reared on the bland diets of Europe or the Anglosphere half a century ago is just a pleasantly spicy dish to their children and grandchildren, whose student years were spent scoffing cheap curries or nacho chips with salsa. Recipes in the past used to call for a cautious pinch of cayenne pepper. For today’s guzzlers, even standard-strength Tabasco sauce, the world’s best-selling chili-based condiment, may be too mild. The Louisiana-based firm now produces an extra-hot version, based on habanero peppers, the fieriest of the commonly-consumed chilies.
For connoisseurs though, the macho hullabaloo about ever-hotter chilies is distasteful, even vulgar: rather like rating wine only according to its alcohol content. Steve Waters, who runs the South Devon Chili Farm, says even the idea that the spectrum runs on a simple one-dimensional axis between “hot” and “mild” is misleading. He prefers the more complex Mexican matrix, which categorises chilies both by heat, and whether they are fresh, dried, pickled, or smoked. Any of these can produce big changes in flavour: he highlights the Aji (pronounced ah-hee), a Peruvian chili, which “ripens to bright yellow, with a strong lemony taste when fresh, very zesty. When dried it picks up a banana flavour.”

From this point of view, the most interesting trend is not in ever-higher doses of capsaicin for the maniac market, but in the presence of chili in a range of foodstuffs that previous generations would have regarded as preposterous candidates for hotting up. Chili-flavoured chocolate, for example, has gone from being a novelty item to a popular mainstream product. Mr Waters sells “hot apple chili jelly” as a condiment for meat, and chili-infused olive oil.
The reason may be that capsaicin excites the trigeminal nerve, increasing the body’s receptiveness to the flavour of other foods. That is not just good news for gourmets. It is a useful feature in poor countries where the diet might otherwise be unbearably bland and stodgy. In a study in 1992 by the CSIRO’s Sensory Research Centre, scientists looked at the effect of capsaicin on the response to solutions containing either sugar or salt. The sample was 35 people who all ate spicy food regularly but not exclusively. Even a small quantity of capsaicin increased the perceived intensity of the solutions ingested. Among other things, that may give a scientific explanation for the habit, not formally researched, of snorting the “pink fix” (a mixture of cocaine and chili powder).

Friday, December 12, 2008

Full Moon

From the NASA website:

The full Moon of Dec. 12th is the biggest and brightest full Moon of the year. It's no illusion. Some full Moons are genuinely larger than others and this Friday's is a whopper. Why? The Moon's orbit is an ellipse with one side 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other. In the language of astronomy, the two extremes are called "apogee" (far away) and "perigee" (nearby). On Dec. 12th, the Moon becomes full a scant 4 hours after reaching perigee, making it 14% bigger and 30% brighter than lesser full Moons we've seen earlier in 2008.

A perigee Moon brings with it extra-high "perigean tides," but this is nothing to worry about, according to NOAA. In most places, lunar gravity at perigee pulls tide waters only a few centimeters (an inch or so) higher than usual. Local geography can amplify the effect to about 15 centimeters (six inches)--not exactly a great flood.

Okay, the Moon is 14% bigger, but can you actually tell the difference? It's tricky. There are no rulers floating in the sky to measure lunar diameters. Hanging high overhead with no reference points to provide a sense of scale, one full Moon looks much like any other.

The best time to look is when the Moon is near the horizon. That is when illusion mixes with reality to produce a truly stunning view. For reasons not fully understood by astronomers or psychologists, low-hanging Moons look unnaturally large when they beam through trees, buildings and other foreground objects. On Friday, why not let the "Moon illusion" amplify a full Moon that's extra-big to begin with? The swollen orb rising in the east at sunset may seem so nearby, you can almost reach out and touch it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


An amphiboly (or amphibology) sounds like it should be some type of frog or other amphibian, but it is actually an ambiguity. (Which makes sense, since a frog is ambiguously terrestrial and aquatic.) In particular, it is a sentence which can be understood in more than one way.

The title of the book I am reading, Fools Crow, is a perfect example: Is it noun-verb (the fools are crowing) or verb-noun (he fools the Crow Indians)? In this case, it is the latter, but it took me a while to know. A friend pointed out that if you hear the title and can't see that there is no apostrophe, it could also be noun-noun (the crow belongs to the fool(s)).

More examples: I briefly stumped my kids recently when I said that I appreciated their presence. They weren't sure if I meant the fact that they were there, or the gifts that they had given me.

And from Wikipedia:
  • Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets. (Are the teenagers the threat or the threatened?)
  • I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know. (Groucho Marx)
  • At a used-car lot: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? Come here first!
    At our drugstore, we dispense with accuracy!
  • Eat our curry, you won't get better!
  • Professor to student, on receiving a fifty-page term paper: I shall waste no time reading it. (Often attributed to Disraeli)
  • No food is better than our food.
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

At least now I know a new way to describe what I do as an editor: I eliminate amphibolies.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lambic Gimlet

I had a new type of vodka gimlet last night, although I'm not sure it really deserves the name gimlet, since it wasn't really made with any kind of lime juice. It was vodka with raspberry Lambic, with a lime slice floated on top. It was lighter than most gimlets, maybe because they used a top-shelf vodka instead of Absolut, and very tasty!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Fondue Combinations

We had fondue last night, frying chunks of beef and salmon in hot oil. As usual, I picked up whatever vegetables looked promising at the Co-op yesterday to accompany the meat, and we found some new favorites. The salmon was new to us, and worked beautifully in the oil. Chantrelle mushrooms have a nutty flavor that even my anti-mushroom son likes. But my favorite was a thick slice of pickled ginger with a round of beet - lucky for me, I didn't have much competition for the beets!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Survey Questions

This is the kind of thing that makes you wonder about survey results: I just got a call for an "air quality survey" that asked, among other things, if I am full-time employed, retired, or a housewife. No other options. I am none of the above; I am a freelance writer (part-time employed) and a homeschooling mom. First he decided that I refused to answer the question because I said "none of the above". No, I answered the question. Then he threatened to put down retired. I finally gave up and chose the closest answer: full-time employed. That seemed to make him happy. But it makes me wonder about the validity of the final results for whatever his survey is really studying.

The refusal to include some kind of "other" category, to recognize that not everyone fits in the neat categories that fit the image of people working full-time for major companies until they retire, fits in with the push to tie health insurance to employment. That plan seriously penalizes all the people who don't work for companies - all the consultants and free-lancers and self-employed people who make up a large part of the workforce in smaller communities (and possibly larger communities, too). Policy- (and survey-) makers ignore the huge variety of working arrangements that exist in real life, possibly because they are used more often by women who are balancing work and family. Or maybe because it is simpler that way. Too bad real life is often messy!