Food Processor Potato Pancakes

Potato PancakesI have family visiting this week, so obviously my mind turns to food — or more toward food than it normally does. This morning, I am making potato pancakes. I’ve taken of late to making huge numbers of the buggers and freezing them. They reheat in the toaster oven surprisingly well. But today they will be eaten the way they were meant to be eaten: hot off the grill. There really are few things in life that are better.

There is something that I’ve been doing to make my life easier. Instead of grating the potatoes, I use the food processor. This works okay. Or rather: it works okay. But there is a problem. The food processor changes the consistency of potatoes in two ways. First, the strings are not as long. Second, the strings are thicker. There is nothing to be done on the first point. But there is something that can be done on the second.

By processing the potatoes, compressing them into the bottom and processing again, you can get them to roughly the correct thickness. (Don’t use your fingers, for God’s sake!) I find this to be rather a pain to do. But freeing myself of potentially grating my fingers is worth it. And it is necessary. The pancakes just don’t taste right when the potato pieces are too thick.

As for the length of the potato pieces, this doesn’t much affect the taste. But it does affect the visual aesthetic. The pancakes end up looking more like mashed potato pancakes. There is none of the thin edging with the weedy texture. That’s a shame, because I really like that. But there is much to be said for convenience and the lack of pain.

I’m probably out for the rest of the day. We are going sightseeing. (It is morning as I write this.) And wine tasting — hopefully. Have a great evening!

See Also

Potato Pancakes
A Good Idea for Better Latkes
Perfect “Potato Pancakes”

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The “TARP Paid for Itself” Distraction

Dean BakerIt seems that Timothy Geithner is going around patting himself on the back because TARP ended up bring in more money than it put out. Thankfully, Dean Baker is out beating down this ridiculous notion, The Profit on the TARP and Bernie Madoff. He provided a great example of how the federal government could have done the same thing for Bernie Madoff that would have saved his business and “made” the government money. He considers the issue, “The question is whether an important public purpose was served by rescuing the Wall Street banks from their own greed.” He doesn’t see one.

There is an even more basic consideration. Geithner is just looking at how much money it cost the government to borrow the money and comparing it to the amount of interest that the banks paid. That’s a ridiculous way to look at it. To begin with, the government could borrow for so little money because interest rates were really low. And interest rates were really low because the economy was terrible. And the economy was terrible because the banks destroyed it. Something is very wrong with that kind of logic.

The other issue is that the government doesn’t work for free. Timothy Geithner and a bunch of other people and institutions had to be paid. There is government overhead for all of this stuff. Why isn’t all of this taken into account of the costs to the government? Because the government would have to pay it anyway? That’s not how a private business would look at it in its accounting. So why should the banks get off in this way. Clearly, this is just a way for Geithner to argue (as if it were necessary) that it is always a great idea to shovel cash to the rich because it is always a good investment.

But there is a far easier, if less quantitative way of thinking about this. The government can only do so many things: it has limited resources. So there is an opportunity cost of doing any given thing. The question is never whether bailing out the banks paid for itself in the long run. The question is whether that was a better use for the money than other things. Personally, I have no doubt that spending that money on improving schools and infrastructure would have been better. But for obvious reasons, people never bring this up. Because helping out the rich is always the most important thing to do because the one thing we really believe here in America is that the rich can never, ever be allowed to fail.

Baker did mention in passing the “Second Great Depression scare story.” That’s the one where we are all supposed to deliver gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the feet of Timothy Geithner for saving us from the calamity that would have befallen us if the big banks hadn’t been save. In other places, Baker has mentioned a number of things that could have been done. But in this article, he just mentioned the most obvious: the government could have spent money. That is, after all, what the government did do. But if it had been regular spending, it could have been used on good things instead of the bonuses of top management at banks.

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We Don’t Know if North Korea is the Sony Hacker

HackerI find hacking fascinating. Because I know a great deal about computers at the very lowest level, people often think that I know a lot about hacking. I really don’t. Over my life, I’ve found this or that bit of information. Of course, it was always because someone had made a change to a major piece of software because it had previously had some security hole. But the ways people find to circumvent security are often amazingly clever. If I had many lives to lead, I would dedicate one of them to understanding all this stuff. Unfortunately, I don’t and there are too many other things to do with my time.

Recently, I’ve been very interested in this Sony hack. The hack itself doesn’t seem all that interesting. Over three years ago, Sony was the victim of a major hack — the so called PlayStation Network outage. At that time, Sony decided that it really had to get serious security. But it would seem that they never did. I think it is rather typical of film companies (games are just an extension of film) where nothing really matters but what they do. “We don’t need no stinkin’ security experts!”

What bothers me is why everyone is so convinced this is an attack from North Korea. When I first saw the note the perpetrators sent, I was skeptical, “We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places ‘The Interview’ be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.” Really?! I suppose it is possible. But it reads more like a really racist SNL skit than what hackers would write.

I’m not alone in wondering about this. Michael Hiltzik has written a couple of articles highlighting some of the dissent. It isn’t that anyone is saying that North Korea didn’t do it. It is just that the information we have thus far doesn’t indicate that they did. Instead, it looks like the US government just wants it to be North Korea and the perpetrators want it to appear as though it is North Korea, and so everyone assumes it is North Korea. But other than that, there really is nothing.

Hacker Grugq makes an excellent point that laying this on North Korea is incredibly convenient, Lets Blame Our Perennial Adversary! He points out that we know how North Korea does this kind of stuff, and this is very different. “This is a media blitz campaign by a group that is steeped in Internet culture and knows how to play to it. They can manipulate it to maximum effect. This is definitely far more sophisticated than the usual rhetoric from North Korea.” And Jericho lays out a detailed case that nothing anyone has said comes anywhere near to convincing us that this was North Korea, Anatomy of a NYT Piece on the Sony Hack and Attribution. (Leave it to a hacker to do a better job capitalizing headlines than The Washington Post.)

In Hiltzik’s newest article yesterday, he talked to security expert Marc Rogers, who noted that the key element of the indictment is that the same tools used in this attack were used in two previous attacks. But no one has ever shown that those attacks were by North Korea. He wrote, “Lastly, it’s pretty weak in my books to claim that the newest piece of malware is the act of a nation state because other possible related pieces of malware were rumored to be the work of a nation state.”

Further, the FBI claimed that IP addresses of the hackers used were known to be used by North Korea. But that’s just silly. To start, hackers almost never attack from their own machines. Or rather, there is a Darwinian aspect here: hackers who attack from their own machines get arrested. Dr Krypt3ia took on the whole issue in some depth, FAUXTRIBUTION?

There are a couple of things to keep in mind. One is that the hacker community hates the government and so they will be skeptical of anything the FBI says. The other is that no one is saying that the attack was not from North Korea. It is just that the information that the FBI has made available does not make the case. And given that we know the FBI and the CIA are more than willing to tell the government whatever it wants to hear, we need to question this. Of course we won’t. The United States has never found the truth necessary when a falsehood was so nice to believe.

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Americans Wants the Cruelest Punishment

Jamelle BouieIt’s not just that Americans want a system that metes out punishment, it’s that — despite our Eighth Amendment — we are accepting of the cruelest punishment. And while it’s not legal, it exists and it’s pervasive. In theory, our prisons are holding cells for the worst offenders and centers for rehabilitation for the others. Inmates can work, learn, and prepare themselves for a more productive life in society. In reality, they are hellscapes of rape, abuse, and violence from gangs and guards.

At the for-profit East Mississippi Correctional Facility, for example, prisoners lacked functioning toilets and were forced to “defecate into Styrofoam trays or plastic trash bags” without any way of “ridding their cells of the waste other than tossing it onto the housing unit through the slots in their doors.” Mentally ill prisoners were left to their own devices, with terrible consequences. “Prisoners engage in gross acts of self-mutilation, including electrocution, swallowing shards of glass and razors, and tearing into their flesh with sharp objects.”

These kinds of stories aren’t hard to find. Nor is evidence of our epidemic of prison sexual assault. “Roughly 200,000 men, women, and children reported being sexually abused in detention facilities in 2011, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has anonymously self-reported data from inmates,” writes Carla Murphy for Colorlines. Because of shame from the assault and fear of their assailants, the actual number is almost certainly higher, as many victims don’t report their abuse to the authorities, in part because guards are often as responsible for rape as other inmates.

Americans know this. They know that prisons are horrible. They know that going to jail vastly increases your odds of being raped, attacked, or worse. And yet, this does nothing to shift the overwhelming punitiveness of American public opinion. Indeed, prison rape is a punch line, summed up in don’t drop the soap or watch out, you might become a punk. Americans don’t recoil from assaults in our jails and prisons; they welcome them as deserts for people who commit crimes.

Our prisons, then, are sites for retribution. As Robert A. Ferguson, professor of law and literature at Columbia University, notes in his book Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, Americans routinely transition from a rational view of criminals (“because your act and your mental state at the time were blameworthy, you deserve punishment”) to a moralized one (“you have a hardened, abandoned and malignant heart” and “you are evil and rotten to the core”), to a scornful one, where the criminal is “scum” and deserves “whatever cruel indignity I choose to inflict on you.” You see this most vividly in the reactions to police shootings of black Americans. It’s not enough for the shooting to be justified, as a grand jury decided in the case of Ferguson’s Officer Darren Wilson. No, the victim must be demonized, hence the chorus of critics against Michael Brown: He was a thug who deserved his fate.

—Jamelle Bouie
Dick Cheney’s America

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James Burke

James BurkeToday, the great journalist and sort of historian of science James Burke is 78. When I was young, I was mad for his two series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. The latter series was on when I was a physics undergraduate and it really fed my excitement for science and all that jazz. The Connection series does get to the heart of what he does. He combines disparate elements and connects them — often in ways that would make a real historian cringe. Add to this a lot of humor and you end up with an enjoyable and educational bit of television.

Since that time, he’s continued to do much the same thing. In between those two series, he did The Real Thing. In six half-hour episodes, he discussed the nature of perception. You can currently see the whole thing on YouTube, although the copy is just terrible. And in the 1990s, he produces the 20-part Connections 2 and the 10-part Connections 3. He seems to be largely retired at this point.

I can’t find any of the two series he’s known for online. This is probably because they are still big moneymakers for the BBC. But it looks like all of Connections 3 is online. So here is episode 5: “Life Is No Picnic.” I haven’t watched the whole thing, but it is classic Burke. It’s an interesting journey, but it isn’t clear that it means anything. However, it is interesting to know that American soldiers using instant coffee in World War II was the start of it taking off in general use.

Happy birthday James Burke!

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The Trans-Five Senses

ProprioceptionAs you probably know, there are more than five senses. And I’m not at all certain why anyone ever claimed that there were only five senses. When I discuss this with people, I always start with the sense of acceleration. You don’t need to have one of the “five senses” to experience a roller coaster ride. Certainly there are elements of the Big Five from the feeling of the wind through your hair to the taste of acid reflux. But it is the acceleration that most defines the experience.

The easiest trans-five sense to demonstrate is balance, or “equilibrioception” for those who like seven syllable words. I suspect that the reason that people do not want to call this a sense is that it isn’t due to any single thing. Balance depends most upon the visual system and vestibular system, in the ear. But the truth is that none of Big Five are quite so distinct either. The simplest example is the way that taste and smell work together. But the truth is that even our vision is very messy; it is so much more than simply the recording the light rays focused on our retinas.

When people asked him later on in life why he pushed Gregg Toland to create deep focus in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles would reply that he just wanted the film to look the way the real world looked to the human eye. But that isn’t really the way the vision system works. The human eye is just as constrained as a camera lens. At any given time, most things are out of focus. It is our brain that “fixes” all of that. What I mean is that our brain lies to us about what we are actually seeing. It also acts as a kind of steadicam.

Thus it isn’t surprising that when people hear a car crash, they often mistakenly believe that they saw it — even though they simply moved their focus to it as a result of the sound. They aren’t lying when they claim they saw the accident; their brain was just lying to them about what they saw. The entire human body is a system for creating meaning out of far too little knowledge.

There are other trans-five senses such as the sense of pain and the sense of heat. But the sense that I find most fascinating is proprioception. It is the sense of knowing where your body is. The most gruesome aspect of this is phantom limb syndrome, where people continue to feel the existence of a limb that is physically gone. But more generally, we all sense how our bodies are oriented. As I write this, my left knee is bent upward because my foot is resting on top of one of my computers while my right leg is sprawled out in front of me and my torso leans far back in my chair. I don’t need to look at my body to know this. I just know it because of proprioceptors in the skeletal muscles. But don’t ask what they are because you get into a kind of tautology. Of course the same thing is true of seeing and hearing, but we’ve all gotten way past caring about that.

Of course, there are lots of senses that other animals have that we lack like echolocation. And there are a whole lot of things we can’t see like anything in the ultraviolet. We also can’t see infrared, but we can feel it. It’s curious. Biology is a most amazing thing. In the end, should humans ever crack the riddle of consciousness, I feel certain we will learn that it is all a trick: a bunch of cells so complex they delude themself into thinking they are a single thing. But you still have to marvel at all living things in the same way you do a Caravaggio painting or a black hole.

My left leg is now bent behind me.

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Democrats Win Big in 113th Senate

Give 'em hell, Harry Reid!This last week, there was big news. The Democrats got to confirm a whole bunch of executive and judicial nominees that they weren’t expecting to. It turned out that they managed to confirm 23 nominees. This is surprising because of the slow way that the Senate works. Normally, votes on the nominees must be brought to the floor where they stay for a couple of days before they can get a vote. The way it was looking, there might have been a hand-full of nominees confirmed before the end of the session. As it was, the Senate was supposed to go home for the weekend on Friday and so Reid was going to have to wait until the following Monday to bring the nominations to the floor.

Lucky for the Democrats, they have great allies in the Republican Party: Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. These two clowns decided to make a bold stand against President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. When the Senate tried to adjourn for the weekend, it needed unanimous consent. Lee and Cruz balked. They wanted a purely symbolic vote to say that the president was a doody pants for this action. And they wanted it Saturday! This allowed Harry Reid to bring all those nominees to the floor a full two days ahead of schedule. And that meant they would all have time to get votes.

Ted CruzNot surprisingly, the Senate Republicans were furious. But it is hard to feel bad for them. Lee and Cruz are what the Republicans have assiduously sowed over the last several decades. Any political party is going to have a spread of opinions. There is no way for the Republicans to have moved so far to the right without having people who are even more extreme. And remember: starting in January, there will be even more extreme Republicans in the Senate. This is what the Republican Party is. It’s ridiculous for them to think that they could get all the advantages of their pro-corporate extremism without it causing them to lose some tactical advantages because many of their members are simply crazy.

Just the same, the Democrats were thrilled. As Steve Benen pointed out, they got a whole bunch out of this and they gave absolutely nothing. To start with, the Lee-Cruz stunt ended in the symbolic vote going down in flames: 74 to 22. But the vote was scheduled for the next week anyway. It isn’t clear what the dynamic duo thought they were getting. It is also likely true that fewer Republicans voted for the bill because they were so angry at these idiots.

Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post provided a great overview of the outcome of this whole thing, Democrats Employ Strategy to Get the Most Bang for Obama Nominations. Reid has been very clear that they have focused on judicial appointments because those are the ones that have the longest effect. I’m so glad to hear him say that. Too often, Democrats do not act strategically. And, in fact, Obama was rather bad during his first term — he just wasn’t that interested in the judicial branch. But that’s changed. This Senate has confirmed more judges than any Senate since 1980.

There is some concern that the Senate has focused too much on the judiciary. There are scores of executive branch nominees that have gone unconfirmed. I think Reid’s approach was the best, however. It isn’t just that the judiciary has long-term effects. In the next two years under the Republicans, I’m sure that not a single judge will get a vote. But some executive branch nominees might, given that they will have less than two years to serve.

The truth of the matter is that there should be no reason that executive branch nominees should be simply passed through in the vast majority of cases. That’s especially true when the president is a Democrat and so the nominee isn’t being put in charge to destroy the institution he’s leading. But the situation is that the minority party will always block these nominations if for no other reason than to slow down any other work from getting done. When they get in power next year, I’m not sure how motivating this is going to be.

The next two years ought to be fairly uneventful in the Senate. I think we are going to see just how facile and rhetorical were all the claims that if Obama acted alone Congress wouldn’t work with him. There will be no working together. There never would have been any working together. And the Democrats should take any victory they can. The Republicans were never going to play nice and they won’t in the future.

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Poor Will Be Screwed as Cuba Liberalizes

CancunI’m not sure how to take Josh Barro’s article over at The Upshot this last week, Cuba the Next Cancún? It Should Be So Lucky. It is a response to a tweet by Jeremy Scahill, “I’m glad I got to visit several times before US tourists try to turn it into Cancún.” Barro’s response it, “Gotcha! Cancún was a government created Caribbean resort!” If that were it, it would be just vaguely sad and pathetic. I mean: it was a tweet and Barro never actually proves that Scahill was wrong.

The one thing that we have seen time and again as communist countries “liberalized” is that they they don’t move to open governments with free markets. They move to corrupt governments with crony capitalism. In the United States, the first thing that set the media against Putin was what he did to the oil oligarchs in Russia. This was presented as some terrible authoritarian move. But the Russian people saw it the opposite way. Putin was just reversing a great injustice that occurred under the early Russian “democracy.” The people’s wealth was basically stolen from them. The billionaires who were losing most of their money were not great capitalists. They were just people who had the ability to work the levers of government.

I doubt that Scahill has thought through the situation in Cuba. It was, after all, a tweet. But the generous reading of his words is that he fears that the “capitalists” are going to descend on Cuba, find a whole lot of government officials keen to trade their power in the government for piles of cash. And just like in Russia before it, Cuba will see its people screwed of their share of the wealth generated. It will be the Batista government all over again. Five decades of the Cuban people suffering under their own government and the United States’ government. And it all comes right back to where it started.

The problem with Scahill’s tweet is that he he misspoke. It wouldn’t be the tourists who try to turn Cuba into Cancún. The idea of more and more tourists going to Cuba and spreading some money around in the local economies sounds like an absolutely great idea to me. The fact that individual Cubans would build hotels sounds great. In this regard, I suspect that Barro and I are much in agreement. But he probably thinks foreign capital flooding in is the best way to do this. On that issue, I’m sure I’m with Scahill. It would be sad if Cuba ended up looking the same as every other corporate resort in the world.

But I can’t get too upset about that. The issue is how this would all play out for the Cubans themselves. Most likely, they will be screwed the way most people are today: with a public-private partnership that allows powerful people in the government to cash out of the country, foreign money to cash in, and leaves the people with new minimum wage jobs cleaning toilets. Maybe that will be an improvement for them. But it certainly isn’t anything like justice.


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The Secret Burden of Poor Conservatives

Edwin LyngarI have a close friend on permanent disability. He votes reliably for the most extreme conservative in every election. Although he’s a Nevadan, he lives just across the border in California, because that progressive state provides better social safety nets for its disabled. He always votes for the person most likely to slash the program he depends on daily for his own survival. It’s like clinging to the end of a thin rope and voting for the rope-cutting razor party.

The people who most support the Republicans and the Tea Party carry a secret burden. Many know that they are one medical emergency or broken down car away from ruin, and they blame the government. They vote against their own interests, often hurting themselves in concrete ways, in a vain attempt to deal with their own, misguided shame about being poor. They believe “freedom” is the answer, even though they live a form of wage indenture in a rigged system.

—Edwin Lyngar
I Was Poor, but a GOP Die-Hard: How I Finally Left the Politics of Shame

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Frank Zappa

Frank ZappaI remember reading an article by a fairly serious music writer — most likely in New Musical Express — discussing Frank Zappa, who was born on this day in 1940. This was in the late 1960s and the writer said something to the effect that Zappa could be the best rock guitarist of all time if he would just take it seriously. I don’t think anyone ever so perfectly encapsulated Zappa. It wasn’t just his guitar playing. Zappa did not think much of popular music. I recall the early albums being filled with little comments. Like on Absolutely Free at one point, he says, “This is like The Supremes… See the way it builds up?” Most of his career was him saying, “I’m only playing this crap because you idiots like it.”

Zappa was always fundamentally a blues guitar player. But his mixing of various modes makes it often sound more like jazz. It’s actually more of a classical approach, but with his use of subtle string bends and other aspects of electric guitar technique, it all sounds highly idiosyncratic. Of course, now you can hear his influence in some of the more interesting “independent” bands over the last couple of decades. As you can probably tell, I admire Zappa at the same time that I think he was kind of a douche who didn’t do as much with his talent as he should have.

He was at his best when he was creating instrumentals like “Peaches en Regalia.” But since I’ve heard that song entirely enough for a far longer life than I will have, here is “Black Napkins” performed live:

Happy birthday Frank Zappa!

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