Month: September 2004

The 80 lb stench from Ohio

My old fraternity brother and Ohio-resident Rob Calhoun over at Splefty.com has chimed in with his own frustration at Ohio’s (Republican) Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell‘s decision to require Ohio Boards of Election to reject voter registration forms that aren’t printed on 80 lb card stock:

The 80 lb card stock requirement is from the days when the cards themselves were the archival record. Given how registration is processed today, it is hard to view Mr. Blackwell’s sudden enforcement of this rule in a charitable light. I’m also perturbed by the fact that our Board of Election’s voter registration web page no longer seems to have a .pdf file of the voter registration form available; I’m really pretty sure that’s where I downloaded the pdf I have.

It’s difficult not to view this as a back-handed effort to roll back some of the gains that Democrats have made in registering new voters in Ohio this year as described in this New York Times story.

Looking at the Wayback machine, it looks like they provided a PDF of their voter registration form from the page’s first capture in 2001 until sometime after August of last year — it had been unlinked by December, but apparently the PDF was still available when the Wayback last indexed the page in February of this year (it has since been removed from the main site).

Butler County, OH, on the other hand, still has their Online Voter Registration Form on the Web with the instructions:

In order to use this form as a registration for the purpose of voting you MUST:

  1. click “next” and print the form
  2. sign the form in the appropriate area
  3. mail it to the Butler County Board of Elections

Their Web form creates a nice little registration page for you to print out and mail in, with the instructions Please adjust the margins to .25 inches under Page Setup to avoid misprinting the form below. No mention of card stock. I find it hard to imagine a non-underhanded reason for newly enforcing this rule, except perhaps a suddden onset of dimentia on the part of Blackwell — Rob’s right, this stinks to high heaven.

UPDATE: Blackwell has since “clarified” his position, and says he’ll accept all voter registrations submitted by the deadline. Good for him — I wish I could believe this was just a simple misunderstanding though.

PODcasting, academia and XM Radio

There’s a recent buzz around what’s being called PODcasting, wrapping web audio with whatever wrappers are necessary to make them convinient to link in a blog and download to your MP3 player of choice for later listening. (See Doc Searls’ explanation for a nice intro.)

It’s a nice meme, and having gotten a lot out of my own browsing through audio links I hope it catches on. I find it interesting and not that surprising that the PODcasting meme seems seems to mostly involve pointing to educational and intellectual audio rather than the music that drove the P2P music-sharing revolution. Music briefly had its day on the Web, but was rapidly driven off by commercial interests worried overtly about piracy and covertly about both piracy and competition. Education has both a different culture and economic structure, and while educators and lecturers like to make money somehow there’s a much deeper understanding that giving away our best ideas is often in our own best interests.

Unfortunately, even in the academic and public-radio world it looks like we’re in a meta-stable state, with many sites offering only streaming audio due to either legacy licensing issues or presumably to maintain some control on distribution. Once the technology to record off a stream becomes ubiquitous (as it surely will), will the remaining barriers to recording and rebroadcasting the audio be enough to placate people who want to distribute their content for free but not let it run wild?

Regardless, this whole thing just reconfirms my original skepticism at the long-term viability of XM Radio as a basic technology. Here we are in the age of personalized, on-demand, time-shifted and place-shifted content… and XM Radio is offering a capital-intensive satellite-based broadcast solution. Maybe I’m underestimating the value of live, up-to-the-minute news and information, and maybe I’m underestimating the long-term value of a big company that can afford to make deals with the RIAA, but I just don’t get it…

Aebleskiver

Years ago I was introduced to aebleskiver, a Danish holiday breakfast food that’s best described as a spherical pancake. (Aebleskiver is Danish for Apple…uh… Skiver.) The little balls are made using a special cast-iron pan with half-spherical hollows, called an Aebleskiver pan or sometimes called a monk’s pan. Dough is put into a hot hollow, and soon forms a crusty half-ball with still uncooked dough in the middle. Then the ball is flipped over using a knitting needle (traditional) or wooden skewer (my style) and the remaining dough flows into the hollow and forms the other half of the ball.

Last year I picked up an aebleskiver pan and tried making some aebleskiver for Thanksgiving breakfast, following the recipe that came with the pan. They were awful — the outsides were charred and the insides were rubbery. I take it as a sign that my family truly loves me that they ate any at all. So I went to the Net and downloaded some different recipes, and tried again at Christmas. (One advantage of having to split your holidays among parts of the family is you can repeat experiments like this on an unsuspecting audience.) This one was better, but the rubbery after-texture remained.

So then I got serious. Being a scientist at heart, I solicited aebleskiver recipes from anyone who knew someone with a Danish grandmother, downloaded more off the Net, and picked a set of five that fairly well spanned the space. Like most folk recipes, they varied widely — some called for low heat and some for high, some for lightly mixing the ingredients and some for thoroughly mixed, some for baking powder, some for buttermilk, some for yeast, and one called for beer. Then I invited a friend over and we set out to make micro-batches of aebleskiver, taking careful notes along the way.

They were all bad. Every last one. Only two of them weren’t rubbery in the middle, and those had a bitter after taste. Experimentation had failed; it was time to resort to theory.

We pulled out The Cook’s Bible, a great cookbook done by the editor of Cook’s Illustrated, and started browsing the index. This led to a discussion on the science of waffles, full of tidbits like the fact that a waffle is fried on the outside and steamed on the inside, that browned waffles are more flavorful than just tanned ones because of the Maillard reaction, that buttermilk and baking soda is the key to a good thick batter and baking powder leaves the batter thin and bitter, and that you want to mix liquid and dry ingredients with a very light touch so you don’t burst the CO2 bubbles formed by the buttermilk’s lactic acid reacting with the baking soda. Best of all, it had a master recipe for waffles that took all these principles into account. We tried it, and the aebleskiver came out perfect!

Here’s a synopsis of the master waffle recipe described in The Cook’s Bible, modified only slightly for aebleskiver. I find I still have to sacrifice a batch or two to the skiver gods when I’m using a new oven to get the right pan temperature, but this recipe has yet to let me down. (Note to Danish grandmothers out there: if this recipe goes against all that is holy about a proper aebleskiver batter, just chalk this up as yet another example of American ignorant hubris and ignore it.)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • Between 1.75 and 1.875 cups buttermilk
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • diced apple, applesauce, applebutter or jam (optional)
  • cardamom or cinnamon to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Put the aebleskiver pan on a medium-to-high heat. The goal here is to have the pan good and hot (around 390°) by the time the batter is ready.
  2. Whisk the dry ingredients together. Whisk the egg yolks with the buttermilk and melted butter in a separate bowl.
  3. Beat the egg whites until they just hold a 2-inch peak. (The Bible specifically admonishes that you not overbeat the whites.)
  4. Add the liquid buttermilk-butter-yolk mixture to the dry ingredients in a slow, steady stream while gently mixing with a rubber spatula. This is where the gentle hand comes in — you want as many of those invisible bubbles intact as possible. I find it easiest to do this step with one person slowly pouring while another mixes. You should still have large patches of dry ingredients by the time you finish, this is more wetting of the batter than mixing.
  5. Fold in the egg whites, again with a light touch. Again, the Bible emphasizes that it’s better to undermix than to overmix.
  6. Place a little butter in one of the pan’s hollows. It’s not really necessary to grease the sides of the hollow as well, but I do anyway. Then take a small ladle or big spoon and fill the hollow not-quite-to-the-top with batter. Depending on how hot your pan is, you may need to add batter quickly so the butter doesn’t hit its smoke point. Fill the other hollows the same way.
  7. Add a little diced apple or jam to top of each dough-ball, and cap it off with a little more dough (optional).
  8. By the time you’ve finished filling the last hollow, the first one should be just about ready for turning. Take your specially-designed Danish knitting needle (or wooden skewer, or whatever) and poke the batter right at the edge of your first hollow. A semi-spherical shell should pop up out of the hollow. Push it so it caps off the hollow, allowing the uncooked dough from the center of the shell to fall into the hollow. Repeat for the other hollows.
  9. Now it’s just about turning the balls every now and then to give them an even heat, though honestly they don’t really need turning (I just can’t help fidgeting with them). Remove from pan when a toothpick comes out clean, usually about 5 or 6 minutes. The aebleskiver should be brown (not just tan).
  10. Serve immediately. If you added jam or applesauce to the centers, be sure to warn your guests that while the bread may merely be hot the fruit may be molten.

Enjoy!

Update 6/20/06: I was recently at The Little Mermaid, a Dutch restaurant in the tourist-town Solvang, California, and asked how they made their (very tasty) Aebleskiver. The woman serving us leaned in conspiratorally and whispered “Bisquick Pancake Mix — it works every time.” She also mentioned you should turn the balls just a quarter turn at a time (which takes up to 15 minutes to fully cook), and this clever trick: instead of buttermilk, use 7-Up! This still provides the acid to react with the baking soda, but also provides Carbon Dioxide for extra froth. Oh yes, and don’t spare the cardamom (they used quite a bit). I haven’t tried any of these tips yet, but I plan to give it a whirl the next batch I make.

A brief brag…

  • Miles from Yosemite to Palo Alto: 210
  • Gallons of gas consumed by Honda Insight for trip: 2.8

Mostly Harmless

BBC Radio 4 has started an all-new Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series, reuniting most of the original cast. Shows can be listened to live or streaming from their web site for a week following the broadcast — the first episode is online now!

An Anthropologist on the Farm

Aaron Swartz has been blogging his experiences going through Stanford’s freshman orientation. His observations so far are both painful and comfortingly familiar to me — I have to wonder if I would have had the same right-brained analytical discomfort had I gotten into Stanford as a freshman instead of going all of 10 minutes from home to Georgia Tech for two years. (The only mention of school spirit in Stanford’s grad-student orientation, by the way, is along the lines of “those are called undergrads — they’ll occasionally talk about this place called Cal, so don’t look bewildered if it comes up when you’re TAing them…”)

All this trip down memory lane makes me glad I was able to re-do orientation as an almost-20-year-old transfer student. Two years perspective can make a hell of a difference.

More free-will paradox

Yesterday’s post on counting votes is related to a paradox I’ve been thinking about for a couple weeks. This is a from-memory paraphrase of the description in Martin Gardner’s Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight:

Dr. Omega, brain specialist extraordinaire, is conducting a study. First, he scans your brain, has you fill out lots of personality tests, measures the bumps on your head, and looks deeply into your soul. Then he brings out two boxes, one opaque (A) and the other transparent (B). In the transparent box is a $100 bill. He then gives you two choices:

  • Choice 1: Take the contents of only the opaque box (box A).
  • Choice 2: Take the contents of BOTH box A and box B.

Dr. Omega explains that you that if, based on his tests, he expects that you will take Choice 1, he has placed $1000 in box A. If he expects you will take Choice 2, he has placed nothing in box A.

With that, he leaves for a vacation in Vegas.

Which choice do you take?

Assuming you believe Dr. Omega is good at what he does, I’m pretty sure this is equivalent to the Prisoner’s Dilemma with you playing against your future self.

Here’s the payoff matrix:

Your Choice
A A & B
Omega’s Prediction A $1000 $1100
A & B $0 $100

Regardless of what prediction Dr. Omega has made, your payoff is always one hundred dollars higher if you take choice #2 (A & B). The only way that can’t be true is if your choice now in some way affects the prediction that Dr. Omega has already made. And yet, if Dr. Omega’s prediction is correct then by choosing A & B you only make $100 rather than $1000 or $1100.

The paradox is even more clear if instead of a brain specialist, Dr. Omega is a time traveler. He jumps a few moments into the future, watches which choice you make, then pops back to the present and sets the boxes as before. If you believe in a single-timeline worldview (it’s already happened, so that’s how it’ll happen, ala The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) then you’re better off choosing A (insomuch as you can “choose” at all in this worldview). If you believe in splitting timelines (you can change the future, ala Terminator) then you’re better off choosing A & B.

Upcoming Bay Area events

A few events around the SF Bay Area that I found interesting:

Vote Counting

I’ve been having an email discussion about the electoral college and whether it makes your vote “count for less” in non-swing states. I think there’s a fallacy in the whole “my vote doesn’t count” argument — it’s like saying “Nadar voters lost the election for Gore” and ignoring the possibility that the millions of people who voted for Bush might have played some small part as well.

To see where you stand on this issue, try this thought experiment:

It’s the day before the election, and 100 people are going to vote in a city council race between Smith and Jones. How much will my vote count?

  • A) 1/100th of the deciding power.
  • B) Not knowable until the outcome of the election is known.
  • C) Depends on whether Diebold machines are used.

It’s the day before the same election, and a fortune teller tells me Smith will win. How much will my vote count if I vote for Smith? If I vote for Jones?

  • A) 1/100th of the deciding power.
  • B) Depends on whether the fortune teller can also tell me where I lost my car keys.
  • C) Depends on whether the fortune teller works for Diebold.

It’s the day after the same election, and 55 people voted for Smith and 45 for Jones. If I voted for Smith, how much did my vote count? If I voted for Jones?

  • A) 1/100th of the deciding power regardless of your vote.
  • B) Any of the following:
    • B-1) 0% if I voted for Jones, 1/55th if I voted for Smith.
    • B-2) 0% unless I were the 51st person to vote for Smith on election day.
    • B-3) 0% unless my vote was the 51st one to be counted for Smith after the polls close.
  • C) Depends on whether Smith knows someone who works for Diebold.

Score:

If you answered mostly A, you’re an empowered, well-balanced citizen who believes in free will.

If you answered mostly B, in your heart you believe in determinism. Stories about time travel and drug-induced insanity upset you, but you’ll attribute it to an over-active basil ganglia.

If you answered mostly C, you’re a well-balanced citizen who believes in free will but realizes that his vote not only doesn’t count, but isn’t even counted.

The next question?

I was on a panel on wearable computing a couple days ago, and an interesting question came up:

Ten years ago, when you picked up the phone you asked Who is it?

Today, with cell phones and Caller ID, you pick up the phone and ask Where are you?

What question will be asked ten years from now?

My guess is that even when you meet someone face-to-face you’ll ask Who are you with?, with the assumption that your friend might have invisible cyberspace tagalongs with her and that it might not be polite to butt in on the middle of their conversation.

Other condenders?