Feb 25

Head to head

So who is tougher, Jango Fett or Alton Brown? To answer this question, I watched several episodes of Brown’s show, Good Eats, and I think I’m hooked on it. Me, addicted to a cooking show? It seems impossible, but Good Eats isn’t just about recipes; it’s also about science.
For example, the latest episode (“The Fungal Gourmet”) focuses on mushrooms. This would appear to be a pretty dull topic: explain what the different kinds of mushrooms are, demonstrate how to cook a couple of dishes with them, and you’re done. Boring. But that’s not how Alton Brown operates. I learned all kinds of cool things from this show. For example, did you know that mushrooms will last longer in the refrigerator if you keep them in a paper bag? (They need to breathe, but in an open container they tend to dry out.) Also, I’ve been washing my mushrooms as soon as I open the package, but Alton suggests waiting until you’re ready to use them (so they don’t get soggy). And whole mushrooms last longer than presliced ones. Previously, I would have dismissed that idea because slicing them by hand is such a hassle. But thanks to Alton Brown, I now know the secret of cutting a mushroom into perfectly uniform slices in one second: an egg slicer.
The really cool thing about this show, however, is what you learn that has little or nothing to do with the actual topic. After watching “The Fungal Gourmet,” I know how to sauté properly, which isn’t something you just do with mushrooms. I also know how to clarify butter, and why I would want to. (Clarified butter has a higher smoke point than regular butter.) Alton doesn’t just tell you the best way to prepare foods; he also explains why — the physical and chemical processes that are going on while you’re mixing and cooking. Demonstrating how to thicken sautéd mushrooms into a paste, he explains that parmesan cheese aids this process because as it melts, “the proteins uncoil and reach out for other things.” And bread crumbs make a good binding agent, because (in addition to absorbing excess moisture), they have “an abrasive shape; they’ve got . . . pitons that go off in every direction, and that kind of sticks into the food and holds it together.” Fascinating stuff.
The show is funny, too. Discussing why it’s dangerous for anyone but a trained mycologist to forage for mushrooms, Alton ends his explanation by tossing a basket of wild mushrooms over his shoulder and beaning the Grim Reaper, who is standing behind him. He livens up the procedure for clarifying butter by reciting the whole thing in one breath (with only a little hyperventilation beforehand, and just a momentary loss of consciousness afterward). Even if you’re not planning to do any actual cooking, Good Eats works as pure entertainment, in the same sense that Bill Nye the Science Guy or Junkyard Wars does.
So I would have to say that Alton Brown is tougher than Jango Fett. Alton can explain how to clarify butter without inhaling, slice mushrooms at super-speed, and knock Death unconscious without even realizing it. Whereas Jango just lies there, because he’s a headless corpse. Not very impressive, really.

Feb 24


I’m taking an XML class at Wake Technical Community College. At the first meeting, one of the exercises involved answering a survey distributed by the instructor and then coding the result in XML. Some of the questions were amusing, so here is an excerpt (minus the boring what’s-your-name stuff at the beginning):
Please specify your background (software developer, database administrator, test engineer, homemaker, electrical engineer, graphic artist, web designer, technical writer, technical team lead, manager, other).
Technical writer with sixteen years of experience in the computers/software/telecommunication field.
Do you know HTML like the back of your hand?
Yes and no. I know the basic tags by heart: headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, links, and so forth. I would rather use a text editor to code HTML by hand than use a WYSIWYG tool, because I’ve seen the sort of HTML generated by such tools, and it makes my skin crawl. But for more complex stuff like framesets, I have to look up the syntax, and I don’t know anything about CSS.
Is XML the next hot thing or is it already over and done with?
I hope it’s the next hot thing, but who knows?
In months or years, how long have you known about XML?
I’ve been vaguely aware of it for two or three years, I guess.
In a Supporting Warrior Smackdown, who would be most likely to win? (a) Teal’c of SG1. (b) Duncan MacLeod of Highlander. (c) Worf of ST:TNG. (d) Jedi Ki-Adi-Mundi of Star Wars Episodes 1 and 2. (d) Tyr Anasazi of Andromeda.
It would come down to a duel between Duncan McLeod and Ki-Adi-Mundi, because the others are just not in the same league as an immortal and a Jedi. And MacLeod would lose, because he’s vulnerable to decapitation, which is easy for a Jedi armed with a lightsaber. Even if you arm him with a lightsaber of his own, MacLeod isn’t going to be able to get through the defenses of a Jedi who can use the Force to anticipate his opponent’s moves.
Why are you interested in learning about XML (or aren’t you!?!?)?
To improve my marketability as a technical writer and, hopefully, get a job.
What computer languages do you already know?
I am at least slightly familiar with Java, C++, assembly language, Pascal, COBOL, PL/I, and BASIC.
If you have a specific interest in a particular topic related to XML, please specify.
Not really.
What is a Regular Expression? (a) A way to manage spreadsheets. (b) A method of specifying data types. (c) A Microsoft invention, contributed to the W3C, for interpreting XML. (d) A method of specifying a textual pattern. (e) The result of a healthy diet with plenty of fiber. (f) None of the above.
I don’t really know, but I’ll guess (d) because I know that the “re” in “grep” stands for “regular expression.”
Who is tougher? (a) Jango Fett. (b) Alton Brown. (c) Neither — both are fictional characters.
Who is Alton Brown? Wait, let me do a Google search. (Ten minutes pass.) Hmm. This guy is either a genius or a madman. Hang on, I’ll be right back. (Five more minutes pass.) Okay, I’ve programmed my TiVo to record his show. I’ll get back to you after I’ve seen him in action.
Do you want to know more about the local XML user group serving the Triangle area?
No, thanks. I already know about it.

Feb 20

Bleats and Backfences

If you only read James Lileks’s daily online column, The Bleat, you’re missing out on the equally good Backfence column he writes for the Minneapolis – St. Paul Star-Tribune. The Backfence has been particularly interesting in recent days. In Tuesday’s column, Lileks explained what all that duct tape was really for. (It’s at the end of the column, but don’t scroll down; read the whole thing!) Today’s Backfence has an even better punchline, but I won’t spoil it. Instead, here’s my favorite bit from Tuesday’s column: “War does bring people together. So do corn dogs. Ergo corn dogs = war. Ergo we will all need Security Council approval to attend the next State Fair. I’ve just proved it logically.”
If Dave Barry can win a Pulitzer for distinguished commentary, Lileks ought to have a mantelpiece full of them.

Feb 19


As you can see, this blog has a new look. There are two reasons for the change. First, I was tired of the old template (especially the three-column layout, which wasted space and didn’t really make the blog easier to read). Second, I wanted to expand and reorganize the list of links. Those links aren’t here just to encourage you to check out the sites they point to — they’re also there because I use the blog as my own home page, and these are the sites that I go to most often. The new template is much better suited for a long list that breaks down into many categories. I’ll continue to tinker with the list as time passes; the new template makes it easy to add or subtract boxes as needed.
Whenever I’m thinking of renovating a blog, I go directly to BlogSkins and browse through the hundreds of excellent blog templates there. Today’s makeover consisted mainly of replacing one BlogSkin (Block Head) with another (Floating boxes). My recent makeover of the Smooth Report was made possible by a BlogSkin called Par Avion. I don’t have the graphic design talent or the HTML/CSS coding skill to create blog templates like these, but thanks to BlogSkins, I don’t have to.

Feb 17

Useless junk

In a recent post to his blog, Bob wondered why it’s so much easier to acquire stuff than to get rid of it. This was obviously a rhetorical question, but I e-mailed Bob the following answer anyway. He insisted that I post it here.

Getting rid of things, even things we have no use for, is difficult because we, as a society, lack a single clearly understood definition of value. Instead, we have several mutually incompatible notions of value, most of which are bogus. First of all, the myth of “intrinsic value” persists, bolstered by such things as the appraised and/or tax value of real estate, the “manufacturer’s invoice” or “book value” of cars, and buzzphrases such as “fair market value.” Many people also confuse price with value, which leads them to believe that an item must be worth what they paid for it, even if that was decades ago. Then there is the idea, championed by Labor types, that the value of a thing is derived from the amount of work that went into its creation. In general, there is poor understanding among non-accountants of the concept of depreciation; many people find it hard to believe that an object’s value can decrease over time while it still works, to the point where it’s worth less than the raw materials that were used to make it.
I’m not saying that you don’t understand these things; I’m just saying that the whole notion of value is severely muddled in our culture, and that we all have to make an effort to dismiss these popular misconceptions about it. Even if you know, in an abstract sense, that a thing is worth only what someone will willingly pay for it, it’s very difficult to accept that a gadget you spent your hard-earned paycheck on, that still looks brand new, and that functions as perfectly as the day you bought it, can be worthless. It doesn’t seem fair. But it’s often true.
The only thing more worthless than an obsolete gadget is a gratuitous lecture on economics.

Let this be a lesson to those who tell me that I should post to this blog more often. Be careful what you wish for — you may get it.

Feb 17


I reported here on January 31 that Blogger was no longer able to publish any of my blogs that were hosted on Road Runner. Now I know why. The following was posted to the Blogger status page on February 3:

Unfortunately, it appears that RoadRunner is now blocking FTP from any non-RoadRunner IPs (including Blogger) to its home.nc.rr.com server where many RoadRunner users host their blogs. If this is affecting you, we encourage you to write to customercare@va.rr.com. We’ll keep up the pressure from our end and work on a solution.

So my ability to host my blogs on Road Runner was broken because Road Runner deliberately broke it. Wonderful. It’s a good thing that, thanks to Virgil, I had somewhere else that I could move those blogs. If Road Runner wanted to reduce my loyalty as a customer and make me more amenable to the idea of switching to another broadband ISP in the future, this was exactly the right way to do that.
At the very least, Road Runner should have warned its subscribers that it planned to start blocking FTP connections from external IPs, instead of just doing so and leaving subscribers to figure out why things like Blogger didn’t work any more. Some explanation of why it was doing this also be appreciated — assuming Road Runner cares at all about how its customers feel.

Feb 14

Code Level Gray

Now that this week’s Terror Alert has turned out to be a false alarm, what are you supposed to do with all the duct tape that you rushed out and bought because the government told you to? Well, you could just add it to your stockpile of Y2K supplies (snort). Or you could use it to make a costume for your local Duct Tape Ball.
What do you mean, your community doesn’t have a Duct Tape Ball? Organize one!

Feb 11

Six degrees

It was only a matter of time:

Sources inside the State Department have indicated that Colin Powell will reveal top secret evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Hollywood movie star Kevin Bacon. This evidence, in the form of satellite images and tapes of Iraq Cinemax, could be revealed as early as Wednesday.

There’s more, including evidence that Iraq is producing Movies of Mass Destruction.