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Aug. 25th, 2010

Real Life, History, Fiction, Drama

Ran into this article today, from an unremembered source.

Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943 [Update: Dead link. Try this one]

These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. The photographs are the property of the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color.

When a I see things like this, pictures of people going about their daily lives in "historical" settings, I am always struck by how little the basic nature of people have changed from generation to generation. Presumably, all the way back to the dawn of time. People still join together to work and to celebrate, kids still run around like madmen till they drop, food is a central part of our lives, etc. In general, life goes on.

I guess that's why "dramatizations" of history (or science fiction, or sword and sorcery) that doesn't pay attention to how people really live their lives never quite rings true to me. I'm not suggesting every bit of history/fiction needs to enumerate every bit of minutiae. We don't need to be told, "Hitler decided to attack Poland then ate a ham sandwich." But so many times these stories seem to leap from one incredibly dramatic, suspense filled, critical decision-making moment to another it removes the story so far from daily experience the "dramatization" becomes surreal.

Switching gears only slightly, the gentleman that writes 9 Chickweed Lane, Brooke McEldowney, is in the throes of an amazing exercise. The main thrust of the strip is the experiences of a young dancer and her mother. One of the supporting characters is "Gran," the dancer's grandmother. She's a crotchety old woman with particular notions about how people should behave and happy to share her opinion and unhappiness. I'm sure you know the archetype, already have a vague picture in your head and an idea of what her dialog must be like, right?

Well, recently Gran had "an episode" which put her in the hospital for a bit. The author used this as a segue to her experiences during WWII. How many times have we looked at a character in a story or "dramatization" and simply accepted them as the archetype presented, pure and unsullied by anything resembling depth? (The Hero! Yay! The Villian! Boo!) Well, apparently, "Gran" was young once too, and Mr. McEldowney is in the middle of writing a lovely story that isn't quite finished yet.

(For the truly dedicated, the comics.com archive begins on 2000-Nov-06. This isn't the whole thing, but if you want the full impact, and a bunch of really well done stuff, start there. You know, if you want to. You don't have to, but, you know, I'm just saying...)

Like the photographs, well written stories like this help remind me that every "historical figure" or "dramatic character" has daily triumphs and failures, happy moments and sad ones, even if we don't explicitly see them. And that my life, and the lives of 99.9% of everyone else, is composed of pretty much the same kind of thing. I only hope I can keep that in mind when I'm writing.

Mar. 16th, 2010

Not enough air...

Have you ever been driving around and got the vague feeling one of the tires on the car was a bit low? Maybe you pulled into a gas station to get some air, only to discover they didn't have it, or wanted to charge you a $1?

Apparently, the law requires they provide air and water to paying customers. I just bumped into this over on the SJMercury news site, in the 2010-Mar-16 Roadshow column.

All stations are required to have air and water available and must provide it free to anyone who buys gas, although many stations provide free air and water to anyone who asks. Said Tom-the-Gas-Man: "I know the public believes air should be free, because heck, it's just air. But providing air can be expensive due to maintenance costs and vandalism." If customers buying gas are charged, or if air and water are not available, call the state's California Division of Measurement Standards complaint line at 800-356-7057.

I did not know that...

Aug. 14th, 2009

Twitter, URL-shorteners, Stumble, etc.

Sent to the NPR Ombudsman

I've been following NPR Politics on Twitter for some time now.

Because each post on Twitter is limited to 140 characters, almost everyone uses an "URL shortening" service like tinyurl.com or bit.ly when they want to post a link to a web site. These services turn an URL like http://www.example.com/2009/08/14/oh/my/god/this/is/a/long/url/especailly/if/we're/using/some/horrible/content/managment/system/01020201102022,22433,0020202,9995626 into something more manageable like http://tinyurl.com/abc123z0

Unfortunately, this also obscures the ultimate target of the shortened URL. When I see http://tinyurl.com/abc123z0, I can't know if that URL goes to some useful web site, to some NSFW porn, some malware site, or whatever.

Clicking on links shortened like this becomes an act of trust.

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Aug. 10th, 2009

Baking Bread: Replies to questions

Several folks had some questions about my last bread post both here on LJ and from the various venues that I update. (Huh. Who'd a thunk it.) I was going to add a comment to the previous post but the software complained it was too long. I'll just collect all the responses here...

We aren't making bread from scratch. To me, "from scratch" would mean a table full of flour and significant "dough abuse," which requires a lot of punching, pushing, and kneading. If anyone is getting a massage in this house it's my sweetie, not our dinner.

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No, our housemate has a bread machine we use. The recipes and prep are trivial. The loaf of whole wheat we usually make is:

  1. Put all the wet ingredients in (1 cup milk, 3 tablespoons water, 4 teaspoons honey, and 1 tablespoon butter),
  2. put all the dry ingredients in (1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 1/2 cup bread flour, 3/4 teaspoon salt),
  3. poke your finger down into the flour to form a little divot for the dry yeast (1 teaspoon),
  4. push the button,
  5. and wait three hours.

The hardest thing to get right is the consistency of the dough ball. About five minutes into the cycle you need to look in and make sure it's "right" -- a solid ball with no cracks and just barely sticking to the sides as it gets whacked around.

If it's got cracks, add a drop of water. If it's sticking to the sides or there is some stuck to the bottom add a pinch of flour.

It is amazingly simple.

I usually use a spatula to push any loose flour to the middle early on, 'cause I'm impatient. Since I've got a spatula to hand, if I want to add water I just wet it from the tap. If I need flour, I just reach into the bag and get a pinch. It really doesn't take much to change the consistency and if you use too much you wind up going back and forth. Better to add a tiny amount and give it a minute to see if that's enough.

The bread comes out somewhat dense and is fine for sandwiches or dinner. I've never been a fan of the "fluffy" breads. They seem too much like candy and don't really stand up to use with a meal. Give me something I can toast and butter or dip in soup or gravy and I'm happy.

The instructions for our machine assume you want a very crusty bread but I'd suggest you start with the lightest crust setting and bump it up the next time until you get what you want.

The rye is a bit more challenging. We were expecting (well, hoping for) loaves more "dense and chewy" like the rye you get at a deli but we're not there yet. Apparently rye flour has less gluten than wheat flour and the gluten/sugar/yeast mix is critical for controlling the height and density of the loaves. That's the main difference between "regular" or "all-purpose" flour and "bread flour," too. If you get a bread machine, pick up some bread flour. The extra gluten in bread flour really makes a difference.

Also, the recipe we used called for a 1/2 teaspoon of caraway seed. We've already doubled that to get a more rye-y flavor. We added a pinch of fennel last time and I think we've got the flour mix and spicing about right.

The last loaf came out fine so next we'll try adding some high-gluten flour in place of the bread flour and see if we can get a denser, chewier loaf.

We haven't tried any of the dark rye recipes yet. They all call for one or more odd ingredients; molasses, stout, instant coffee, etc. We're assuming those ingredients are for color. We'll try molasses and stout, but I think we'll skip the instant coffee.

We've been making smaller (1 1/2 pound) loaves for three of us and, while we have to make bread more often than we might buy it from the store, we've rarely had any of it go bad and the smaller loaves don't last long enough to go stale. This was a problem we were having with store-bought bread; either we bought highly-processed bread-like substances that didn't go bad ever (which was somewhat disturbing) but got quite stale or we bought tasty, chewy, all-natural, organic, "extra sticks and twigs," free range, heritage wheat loaves that went bad pretty much as soon as you broke the crust.

Baking bread in a bread machine has been quite simple. The results have been superior in texture, flavor, and aroma. The quantities are much more suitable for our household. Our experiments so far have been delicious. What's not to like? :)


Things I will suggest that might be useful:

  • Measure your ingredients. You're doing chemistry, so get the amounts correct. Lots of folks will say, "Oh, blah blah is so easy, just get close enough." They're wrong... :) Also, they've probably been doing this for years and have a better feel for what's "right" by eyeballing it. Your Grandmother could, and maybe your Mom could, but I can't and you can't. Measure it.
  • Buy some bread flour. Seriously. It makes a difference.
  • If you have yeast and you don't know if it's any good either throw it out or find out how to "proof" yeast. Dead yeast can not add the required carbon-dioxide or flavor to the mix and you will get what is known as a "hockey puck."
  • The measures of salt in some of these recipes may seem either like 1) a lot or 2) very little but the right amount is required to control the rate at which yeast does it's thing. Too much, and the bread is flat. Not enough, and you get "over rising" and the bread lacks flavor. Stick to the recipe for the first couple of times, then fiddle.
  • When measuring the honey (or anything else sticky) I'll put my thumb on the opening of the bottle of olive oil, give a shake, and run that tiny amount of oil over the inside of the spoon before measuring the honey. The honey slides right out.
  • To reduce clutter and clean-up you can put all the wet ingredients into one large measuring cup or just add them directly to the bread machine.
  • I keep the flour in the original bags and do the measuring over a great big salad bowl. Any spills can go right back into the bag.
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Aug. 5th, 2009

Baking Bread: Still working on rye

Improved but not there yet. :)

The loaves are coming out a bit shorter than regular, so I'm thinking it's the yeast/gluten/salt mix. I'm going to try reducing the salt first, to retard the yeast less. I have measuring spoons labeled 1/8 tsp (Dash), 1/16 (Pinch), and 1/32 (Smidge), so I can be consistent with each try. Don't make me break out my gram scale... :)

If I can't get them to rise more with a touch less salt, I'll probably substitute some gluten flour for the regular flour, so the yeast has more to work with. Go, my fungal minions! Consume, and fill these loaves with your yeasty exudations! Yeah, those bubbles are basically yeast farts. Deal with it. (Let's not even talk about how beer works.)

"Regular" bread has a more "open, bubbled" texture than the rye I'm used to. These loaves are coming out more "dense, and crumb-y," but are still flavorful and have a good mouth-feel. I'm not getting the tight, dense loaf I'm expecting, so once I get the loaves to rise a bit more, I'll work on that.

Adding more Caraway seed (which is to say any, now that I have some fresh) made this loaf give less of that "this isn't regular bread" feeling and more of a "this is rye bread" gestalt. I may trying adding a Pinch (1/16 tsp) of fennel, too.

I've been looking at other rye bread recipes. Some have the oddest things: orange peel, molasses, instant coffee, stout beer (Guinness), etc. Not going there yet, but I can see how some of those would give a "dark" rye its color.

Trying again, probably tomorrow.

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Jul. 22nd, 2009

Silverblight

In late 2008, Microsoft decided they should create a tool to create "rich" web applications that run multiple platforms to bring us all "a new level of engaging, rich, safe, secure, and scalable cross-platform experiences."

Basically, a replacement for Macromedia, er Adobe Flash controlled by Microsoft.

Big announcements, big splash and ... nobody cared.

I know I didn't rush right out and install it. "Just what I need," I says to my self, "another 3rd party plug-in to lock up my browser with advertising and cheesy animation! Yay!" Bleh. Foo.

To the best of my knowledge, the only sites using Silverlight are all run by Microsoft. (Can't blame them, but not going there.)

I have been assiduously avoiding this ... tool. I've turned off the "optional" updates and when I've bumped the odd (Microsoft) site that insistes I use Silverlight, I've avoided them too.

Well, today I happened to be installing Microsoft Office 12 (Office 2007) and guess what? It installed Silverlight for me!

...and I uninstalled it. Jerks.
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Jul. 9th, 2009

Plaxo to Facebook to Twitter, etc.

It would seem that someone I know signed up for Plaxo some time ago and invited me to "connect" with them because I have an account there in addition to accounts at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, LiveJournal, etc.

I've figured out how to get my "tweets" posted to Facebook, and apparently Plaxo can do that, too, and update Facebook ... or vice versa, or both. I'm not sure yet.

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Jul. 2nd, 2009

Social Media: Threat or Menace?

I've been trying to be more active in on some of the "social media" sites. I love new tech, but I've always been more of a taster and enabler. If you need someone to go find out all the ins-and-outs and report back, just let me know. I love finding out how new things work and then helping folks make good decisions about their tech.

This means I know a lot about how stuff works, but unless the tech is really compelling (like the Pilot was) I'll personally just ignore it for a bit, let it ferment and stew, and check back later.

For your amusement, here are a few of the things I've been puttering with...

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Apr. 7th, 2009

Excuses, Excuses

Posting every day is harder than it looks. I need to get in the habit of having something prepared the day before.

My excuses are many an varied... I had two clients call with "can you drop what you're doing and deal with my crisis" type problems. Both were legitimate issues, too. One was solved easily, but the other took more work and a trip back. Both were quite happy with the results.

However, on my rounds to various people's homes and offices, I picked up one of the "summer bugs" going around. I have spent the last couple of days mostly unconscious. My sweetie, collie13, has been keeping me afloat with a veritable tidal wave of hot tea (with honey and lemon), soup, and other "shut up and eat this, you're sick" type foods.

And so, back to bed, I think.

Apr. 1st, 2009

Let's just cancel April Fool's Day. (Kidding!) ...no, seriously... (psych!) [not]

I think many of the April Fool's joke posts and articles are funny. Some of the more creative items remain funny after the first glance, too.

However, as time has passed and this Internet thing has crept into every corner of our lives the plethora of "fake post" or "fake article" jokes has really gotten out of hand.

I get it that Google has a funny thing going on, with a fake journal, some video over on YouTube, etc. It's kind of cute and is actually funny... but it doesn't take long to figure out it's a joke and it isn't getting in the way of actually, you know, using the Google brand search engine.

There are a couple of other sites I've already seen this morning that purport to post "news-like product" of various sorts and I can not tell which of the items are fake and which are real news.

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