Saturday, July 26, 2008

Better Bread in a Gas Oven

There's a reason they say "Now we're cooking with gas!" I'd never go back to an electric cook top. But they don't say "Now we're baking with gas!" There's just too much air circulation to get real consistency. I should find the repair manual and fiddle with the burner, but I'm a little leery of messing with anything that has the words "natural gas" and "burn" in the same sentence.

There was a young woman from Wales
Said an odor of coal-gas prevails
She then lit a light
And later that night
Was collected in seventeen pails

A search through the cookbook shelf and th' Intrawebs gave some helpful advice.

Home ovens lose a lot of heat when you open the door. By the time the temperature creeps back up it's too late for the bread. The best bread ovens are have huge concrete slabs and thick masonry walls to create thermal mass. Dinky 10x14 Pizza Oven Stones make the home baker feel "artisanal" and cost fifty bucks but don't add that much. My professional baking stone was a broken chunk of granite countertop dumpster-dived from a marble and tile store. Approximate cost zero. Thermal mass? Very very high. To cut down on the heat loss I pre-heated to 500ᴼ, shoved the loaves in as quickly as possible and reset the temperature to 450ᴼ.

Commercial bakeries have special attachments to introduce steam in the first ten minutes of baking. Steam condenses on the relatively cool dough and delays crust formation. The loaves can expand longer, and the crust doesn't tear. Modifying the oven wasn't in the cards that night or any night until there's a spare to play with. I put a roasting pan on the bottom rack and dumped in a cup of water when the bread went in.

The results were very good. The bread rose better and more consistently. The crust wasn't burned, and it didn't tear on cutting.

No explosions. No gun fu. No chainsaw fu. No aardvarking.

Joe Bob Briggs says "Check it out."

Vampyroteuthis Infernalis

That really is its scientific name Vampire Squid From Hell. The blinking tail lights are especially cool.

And before I forget...

Bobbe, if Caren ever finds out about that thing with the dwarves, the ostrich feathers and the chandelier I think I've found your perfect dating site.

Sufis. Frogs. Cartoons. Tha Intrawebs Just Don't Get Any Better

This came to me in a roundabout way. Someone read Tiel's blog and mentioned a loose group called Sufis Without Borders. The website led her to this. And when she saw it she figured Someone meant her to show it to me. If there were some Silat it would be perfect.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Leopard meets Crocodile: Or How I Became Really Humble About My Prowess as a Fighting Mammal

Wildlife photographer Hall Brindley captured a really unusual event at a South African game park in his shoot The Best Day Ever. A leopard dragged a crocodile out of the water, wrestled with it for a while and finally killed the croc with a bite to the back of the head. What amazes me is how good Mr. Brindley is with the airbrush. You don't see a sign of the cat's forty pound solid brass testicles.

I guess the lesson here is that speed, strength and a good favorite technique count for a lot.

The entire sequence can be found here or as a video clip:

Sometimes it's just a matter of who brings more weight to the party
(A herd of buffalo, a pride of lions and a bunch of crocodiles)

Not everything that happens between species is that serious. Sometimes it's just in fun. (And what a very wicked ape it was, to be sure)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Five Minute Chocolate Cake

I just saw a Five Minute Chocolate Cake recipe on the Dizzy-Dee blog. Mix ingredients in a mug. Microwave on high for three minutes, plop out of the mug. It's perfect dorm food or midnight munchies fodder. Don't even think about the calories or fat. The taste is fine. The texture is a little rubbery. But hey, it's a chocolate cake serving in under ten minutes.

The only real downside is the appearance. Think "Two Girls, One Cupcake" :(

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

I Feel Safer Already

I. For Your Health and Comfort You Will Be Collared

One is never sure how seriously to take The Washington Times. Any publication which is owned by Sun Myung Moon is at least suspect in my book. But taking this blog entry at face value we may soon be flying the friendly skies secure in the knowledge that we are safe. Or at least that we will be unsafe in new and exciting ways with security failure modes we had never dreamed of before.

Lamperd Less Lethal has kindly provided a video of their latest product the Air Traffic Security Method, System and Device. Briefly stated travelers would no longer have boarding passes. Instead, each would be fitted with a bracelet before departure which would be removed upon arrival. The bracelet would serve as a boarding pass, contain unspecified personal and confidential information and function as remotely-activated stun gun.

The video begins with obligatory 9-11 footage, just in case people had forgotten about it. Security methods like biometric recognition, bomb detection, are pooh-poohed. "Technology," they correctly say, "is only as good as the people using it, and employees working at minimum wage seldom have the necessary police training and certification to be 100% effective." Pilots and crew, opines Lamprey Limberlost's earnest voiceover, are the last line of defense against Islamic militants. "Terrorists are well-trained, religiously motivated and committed to suicide." Armed Air Marshals (they don't even consider the possibility of armed pilots) are "extremely" likely to puncture the aircraft of shoot innocents. Reinforced cockpit doors, so they say, are vulnerable to plastic explosives.

The solution, of course, is to buy Lackwit Lugnuts' patented slave collar, err, pardon me, "ID Bracelet". It will contain "all pertinent information" and include GPS capability to track passengers and ensure that there are no checked luggage "tampering or diversions". The piece de resistance is "Electro-Muscular Disruption Technology". In other words, every bracelet is also a remotely activated stun gun.

About this time the video started waxing enthusiastic about how the tracking device would be a "small inconvenience to ensure their safe arrival". "We feel that given a choice...most passengers would happily opt for the safety and security of the EMD safety bracelets."

Well, that's the rosy picture they paint. According to this and this at least one high official in the Department of Homeland Security was taking the proposal seriously at least as recently as the middle of 2006.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

II. So What's Wrong With What We've Already Got?

"Religious motivation" doesn't mean the thin end of diddly squat whittled down to a point. That and the pictures are simply designed to make the sheep frightened of the Sinister Swarthy Oriental(tm) and more likely to run to Limprod Losers so that they can Feel Safe.

Adding lots of stupid people to a security system will not stop smart, motivated people. That's absolutely true. The correct thing is to add smaller numbers of smart well trained people. Even the TSA is starting to do this. The same techniques are available to the rest of us in books like the Terrorist Recognition Handbook. But even with "police certification" no method of prevention is 100% effective. We can do an excellent job of sniffing out explosives in carry on luggage. It won't catch all, but it will catch most.

The defensive capabilities of law enforcement and crew can not be overestimated. Airplanes are not 100% airtight and develop small leaks all the time. A decently trained Air Marshal with MagSafe, Glaser or some other brand of low-penetration ammunition doesn't represent much of a threat to innocents. The same goes for those few pilots who have run the gauntlet and can carry pistols in the cockpit. Failing that, the reinforced door and a co-pilot playing Horatio at the Bulkhead with the rescue axe presents a serious obstacle to someone with a box cutter or improvised knife.

That doesn't even begin to embrace the capacity for terrified violence of a plane full of passengers. Since September 2001 there has been a sea change in air travelers' sensibilities. Where the conventional wisdom used to be "Shut up. Sit tight. Do whatever the hijackers say" it is now "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit we're gonna die!" Standard Operating Procedure is now to swarm the bad people and beat them into submission or red goo.

III. And What About the Bright Shiny New Toy They Want to Sell Us?

Let's consider the ATSMSD.

Most people now approach air travel with barely concealed hostility. We may not be disgruntled, but we're certainly not as gruntled as we used to be. The TSA line doesn't help matters. We're starting to take buses and trains. AMTRAK can not keep up with ridership these days. All the airlines need is one more thing to make the passengers feel like cattle. If this scheme is ever adopted it will be the last day I fly. If I want to visit the Holy Land I'll book passage on a freighter. It takes longer, but it's cheap, and I can catch up on some reading and wood carving.

What sort of information will be on these bracelets. "All pertinent information" covers a huge variety of sins considering what's in store for driver's licenses under the RealID Act one can only speculate. The information doesn't do law enforcement any good. They already have the information and would detain anyone among the hundreds of thousands on the no fly lists including Air Marshals , three year olds and US Senators.

I'll tell you who will benefit. Phreakers, crackers, identity thieves and pranksters will go into orgasmic trance at the prospect. If the information is remotely accessible it's only a matter or weeks if not hours before someone makes a device that extracts it remotely. Depending on the hardware it may be possible to alter the information with all sorts of amusing results.

That's assuming that the bracelets stay on. It is easy to buy devices that remove security tokens from clothes at the boutique and CPU boxes at the electronics store. No doubt similar keys will become available for the bracelets.

The shock box capabilities are equally impressive. If they are triggered by a remote signal that signal can be jammed or counteracted. And the transmitter can be copied and used to tickle everyone except the bad guys. Or it could be a hilarious trick to while away those long flight hours. A few random shocks around the cabin could provide all sorts of amusement. I'd be sure to slip a really dense rubber or plastic insulating pad between my arm and the bracelet. No $10/hour stewardess gets to apply electric shocks to me unless she's wearing high heels and a spandex frog suit. I haven't been Tasered, but I have been on the receiving end of extra-special high voltage stun guns amped up beyond manufacturers' specifications. In one exercise getting zapped was the signal to empty my magazine at the range. I got all but one in the ten ring. In others it was the signal to drop and roll into a fighting posture. That one worked, too.

How will the remote control operate? It can't be something keyed to the passenger manifest. Imagine searching a 747's worth of names even with the possible new racial profiling guidelines. Nope. It's going to be point-and-shoot. That means innocents will get zapped. It also means it will be easier to come up with an unauthorized remote control.

Those are just my first impressions. I leave it to the real security geeks in the audience (Toby, are you listening?) to come up with other holes in the scheme. I expect the more imaginative could get ten or twenty in the first three minutes. The only things we can be sure of is that this won't be the last stupid plan that comes down the pike. And it will spill all sorts of taxpayer-subsidized black ink on certain balance sheets. Meanwhile, look forward to the Middle Passage Airline where we will be stripped naked, cavity searched, sedated and stacked like cordwood at the beginning of every flight.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Spelling Reform on the Fly and the Misuse of Text Filters

At least once a week Tiel tells me that English is wonderful for poets. But it's a hellish language for spellers. We may speak the only major language in the world where it makes sense for college-educated people to buy computer programs to correct their spelling. Mark Twain had a thought or two about spelling reform, but nobody least of all Mr. Clemens took him seriously.

Now we're seeing spelling and grammar reform on the fly. Let me tell you it's an ugly sight. We aren't quite the UK where you get points for correctly spelling "Fuck off" on a national examination. But if various online forums and the reports of high school and university teachers are any indication we are seeing the changes from the bottom up. A generation is doing much of its communication by SMS text message. I'm sure PhD theses will be written about the historical influence of l33t speak on text speak and how this decentralized democratic movement revolutionized the written (or typed) language. I'll nod sagely, comment insightfully and hang discreet black crêpe.

When you need to use Standard English it's easier to use spelling and grammar filters. But they have their dangers too. And here's where we get to the punchline of today's joke.

The American Family Association sends me email every once in a while. Who can say why? I'm not going to send them money. They think gay marriage is the downfall of America. I think of it as an effective if somewhat roundabout way of stopping gay sex. Their mailings are a little odd. Words are modified. "Gay" is always "Homosexual" or rather "H*m*se*ual". "Pornography" becomes "P*rnography". It seemed a little strange. So I asked. It turns out they automatically filter these words.

Sometimes the filtering goes a little too far. The AFA secretly owns the very Christian OneNewsNow. It seems they've applied their filtering technology to news stories. When Tyson Gay wins a race:

"Tyson Homosexual easily won his semifinal for the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials," the article read, "and seemed to save something for the final later Sunday." The headline read "Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic events."

"On Saturday," it went on, "Homosexual misjudged the finish in his opening heat and had to scramble to finish fourth, then in his quarterfinal a couple of hours later, ran 9.77 to break the American record that had stood since 1999."

"Asked how he felt, Homosexual said: 'A little fatigued.'"

Be careful about that automatic editing, folks.