, Religion in Culture and Politics.

Monday, February 8, 2010

New Blog

Please see the new blog at

I'll convert this URL to my homepage with information about my active projects.


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Monday, February 1, 2010

First Thoughts on iPod Touch

Yesterday I bought an iPod Touch. I got the 32 gig version from Costco, which actually has a better warrantee deal than the Apple store and sells the product for a little less. These are my initial thoughts on the purchase.

Overall, I'm quite pleased. Apple makes a remarkable product. (I've been sold on Apple since converting from the Amiga to the Mac in college.)

Mostly I got the Touch as an ereader. I've been contemplating ereaders for some time, and I realized I really want an additional feature to the ones recently described: portability. I can slip the Touch in my pocket and take it with me wherever I go.

The announcement of the iPad indicates that Amazon really screwed up, I think. Who would pay Kindle prices when the Touch and iPad are about the same price with phenomenally greater functionality? Plus I can read Kindle ebooks -- and every other sort of file -- on my Touch.

Instead of making an even bigger, even clunkier, even costlier Kindle, I think Amazon should have made a smaller, simpler, cheaper one. A Kindle the size of a Touch, sans the ridiculous touch pad and wireless, could have been sold in (I'm guessing) the hundred dollar range. It could have offered the simple, eye-friendly black-and-white screen with USB transfers.

But when I can pay the same price for a portable, elegant, multi-function Touch as what the lower-end Kindle costs, it's simply no contest. Plus, all the other ereaders I've read about coming out this year follow the high-priced Kindle model. I don't know what they're thinking, but I predict massive failure for those products.

The iPad, on the other hand, is both two large and too expensive for my needs. I will be very interested to see how Apple handles ebooks. (This is particularly interesting in light of the spat between Amazon and Macmillan.) Will Apple's ebooks read on standard epub readers, including Adobe's Digital Solutions? Or will Apple ebooks read only on Apple software? Will the ebooks be available for desktops and iPhones, too, as I assume will be the case?

I was surprised that the Touch doesn't come loaded with the ability to transfer and read all the files. Instead, I had to buy an app for that. I first tried using Stanza, but its pdf to epub conversion completely sucks. I ended up with formatting problems and words run together. I checked out FileMagnet and, after reading a positive review, purchased it. It allows the transfer of all sorts of files via my desktop's Airport feature. I don't why it doesn't just use the USB cable, but at least it works, even if it uses a ten-dollar solution for a nickel-sized problem. I have already started a library of pdf and html books, and now I'll be able to read them on my Touch, no problem. (I don't even want to download DRM-free books directly to the Touch, as I want everything mirrored on my main hard drive.)

I also downloaded the Kindle app, so now there's a good chance I'll start buying ebooks through Amazon, which, at least so far, offers the best selection and prices of any service I've looked at.

The Touch will also make a great music and video player, calendar, and hot-spot internet browser. While I would have gladly paid (significantly) less for a portable, dedicated ereader, for the money I'm glad to have the extra functionality. Plus, I think I can get the Skype app and use the Touch as a phone in hot spots, so that may be very cool. (One of the reasons I got the larger-sized Touch is that it comes standard with a microphone, which is built in to the headphone assembly.) So, sweet! I love Apple.

I do have a couple of complaints. Why Apple didn't make it easy to transfer text files (txt, html, pdf) via the USB baffles me. I mean, come on -- that's just ridiculous.

Also, while the Touch is set up for Bluetooth, from what I can tell that only works with headphones. Maybe there's some technological complication I'm missing here, but why can't I use a Bluetooth keyboard with the Touch? That single feature would make it phenomenally more useful. (I've read about adding a Bluetooth keyboard only to jailbroken Touches.) The cynic in me suspects that Apple is intentionally limiting the functionality of the Touch in order to bolster sales of the iPad. Assuming the touch is capable of using a Bluetooth keyboard hardware-wise, I sincerely hope that Apple provides the software to make that happen. (While the touch-screen keypad is surprisingly functional given its small size, it's still not nearly as good as a real keyboard.)

Overall, so far I'm extremely pleased, and I look forward to getting my Touch lined out and integrated into my life.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

The Perfect Ereader

I've been trying to keep tabs on the epublishing revolution. While I continue to believe that 2010 will be a breakthrough year for the industry, I also continue to be dismayed by the sorts of crappy ereaders I've been reading about. Following are the features I'd like to purchase (and refrain from purchasing) in an ereader, all nicely summarized (just in case an ereader manufacturer ever sees this). I imagine there are lots of consumers out there with similar preferences. Will 2010 be the year when the perfect ereader (for me) will become available on the market?

* I want a USB jack, and nothing more. I don't want wi-fi or wireless. Just the cable, please. And the low price that goes with it.

* I want a small screen. I want portability, not the ability to view a large-scale map of Colorado all at once. (Obviously I'm talking about the eye-friendly, low-power screen such as the one on the Kindle.)

* Don't give me an expensive and power-hungry touch screen. Just give me three or four simple buttons with an intuitive interface. I don't want to touch the words, just read them.

* For God's sake don't give me a mouse-scale keypad. All a keypad does is cause the device to be larger and more expensive, and irritate me whenever I have to look at it due to the fact that it's so completely worthless.

* The battery must be removable! Without specialized tools! When the battery dies -- as it inevitably will -- I just want to pop it out and replace it. Why anybody makes a device with locked-in batteries is utterly beyond me. Stupid, stupid design. (My criticism excludes very-small and inexpensive devices that aren't big enough for good battery-release mechanisms.)

* Don't give it locked-in internal memory. Just give it a slot for a standard flash card. That's it.

* Don't give it speakers! If I want to listen to something, I'll put it on my iPod. I'm not looking for the Swiss Army Knife of ereaders.

* The device should be able to easily read at least the following formats: plain text, pdf, html, and epub. Ideally, Amazon would license its format for use on other ereaders, too, but that would be far too easy, and it would make Amazon far too much money, to actually take place. That does, of course, create a dilemma for me. Amazon has the most ebooks at the most reasonable prices. Many epub formatted books are insanely expensive. I sincerely hope that somebody like Apple steps into the epublishing business to make widely-recognized formats competitively priced. Book publishers are mostly hurting themselves by not making epub or pdf ebooks available at reasonable prices.

* A selling price of $150 or less would be great. If Amazon can sell its hopped-up Kindle for $259, surely a usefully stripped-down device such as I describe could profitably sell for considerably less than that. (Indeed, I wish Amazon would come out with a stripped-down version of the Kindle.)

I don't know why ereader producers think that consumers want the fanciest, most expensive reader possible. Keep it simple and affordable. Build it, and I will read.


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Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar: Cinematic History, 'Matrix for Hippies'

Avatar just set a new standard for blockbuster movies. Before, 3D was a fun frill. Some movies happened to be filmed in 3D. An animated film might throw a ball in your face. But Avatar is a 3D movie, fundamentally. From the numerous flight scenes to the battles to the crowd shots, 3D is built into the way the movie is made. Immersive" is a term I've heard, and it holds.

Moreover, the computer imagery is integrated with the live-action filming in a nearly seamless way. There might have been a couple brief scenes where I noticed the line between the "real" world and computer graphics. And this film creates a new race of humanoids in addition to putting people into all sorts of cool gadgets. Gone is the clunky, awkward, somewhat spooky imagery of movies like Polar Express. Robert Zemeckis looks like he belongs to the previous millennium. Avatar creates a beautiful, stunning world.

If you're going to see Avatar, then, there's no use waiting for the DVD. See it in all its glory, in 3D, preferably on an IMAX screen. Unlike most films, it's actually worth the extra money.

Avatar also brings good news to theaters. With the expansion of large, high-definition televisions and blu-ray movie releases, the big screen needs something extra to keep up. Avatar offers that. (Will movie-disc releases start selling in 3D, and will families start collecting 3D glasses for all?)

Only days ago I swore I would never watch Avatar, after reading a summary of its story. But I started getting mostly-positive feedback from people I trust. Once I decided to see it, I saw it twice in a day.

The great irony of the movie, as others have noted, is that its cinematic technique, which epitomizes the union of humanity and technology, carries an anti-technology theme in its story.

What follows below reveals significant elements of the movie's plot.

The basic story is that a human corporation sends a mission to Pandora to mine the substance unobtanium (or "unobtainiam"). (Corporate bad guy: there's a new one for Hollywood.) The corporation funds a scientific venture to send human-controlled avatars -- alien bodies linked to the minds of humans -- to make-nice with the locals. When the miners, backed by hired military guns, want to relocate the locals, the scientists rebel and join the aliens to send the miners packing.

The movie actually offers three stories: a voyage of personal adventure and discovery, the struggle of the locals to protect their homes, and the environmentalist theme.

To me, the most compelling part of the movie is the personal adventure of the hero, Jake Sully, who had lost the use of his legs while on a military expedition earthside. His twin brother, a scientist for whom an avatar was created, dies, so the corporation funding the venture hires Sully to fill the role. (The avatars are keyed to the biology of a particular person, which is why the twin can step in.) Sully spends several years in a cryogenic state during travel, then wheels out onto an alien world, where he gets a new life (and new legs) in his avatar.

Sully explores this new world, naturally, with the beautiful daughter of the tribe's first couple, and the love story is nicely done. (Zoe Saldana scored huge with the role following her stint aboard the Enterprise.)

James Cameron cleverly created a lower-gravity world inhabited by very-resilient aliens, making possible the amazing aerial scenes. It is a world in which the tall, fit aliens ride dragons and bound around treetops in a way that would make Tarzan envious. Apparently unobtanium keeps a range of gigantic islands floating; they look spectacular on screen.

Also a joy is Sully's budding relationship with the hard-ass leader of the avatar program, Dr. Grace Augustine. The two actors, Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, create a sparkling relationship that's great fun to watch. (Indeed, the entire cast is great.) The "adventure" story, then, is beautifully done.

The "home defense" story has aptly been compared to the Kelo case. Mean guys come to destroy your home; you kick their ass. Good, basic story, and it offers Sully a chance to play the hero and win back his girl (not to mention ride the baddest dragon in the skies).

I'll need to shift into sarcasm mode to explain the environmentalist aspects of the story, which descend to the frankly ridiculous. It often feels like Cameron hired a starry-eyed, catch-phrasing eighth-grader to help him write the script.

Just by coincidence, this highly valuable substance, unobtanium -- the uses for which are never mentioned in the film but which apparently is a superconductor -- is located only on the only other world in the entire universe known to be inhabited. (Pandora is a moon.) I didn't count the number of other moons and nearby celestial bodies, but apparently unobtanium is not located on any of those, either, just the single moon of Pandora. According to one script treatment, unobtanium is "unique to Pandora." How the evil corporation discovered unobtanium and its uses in the first place, then, escapes me.

By another astounding coincidence, on the entire moon of Pandora, home of some fifteen clans, each of which apparently contains a few thousand members at most -- so we're talking about a miniscule total population -- the highest concentration of unobtanium on the entire moon is found -- you guessed it -- right under the treehouse of our favorite clan.

Nevermind the fact that this clashes with the apparently large quantities of unobtanium found in the floating islands. According to the script treatment, the miners are supposed to be after the floating islands, which are sacred to the locals. Apparently Cameron didn't think it would be dramatic enough to just make off with a floating island; the corporation had to destroy the giant treehouse instead.

So let's recap. According to the movie:
* Unobtanium is found (in mineable quantities) only on Pandora, a single moon in the entire known universe.
* It is cheaper to send hundreds of people across space in cryogenic storage, complete with gigantic space ships and lots of military equipment, and to finance technology for the complete transference of human minds into test-tube-grown aliens, than it is to synthesize the substance.
* Even though we currently know of no moon in the entire universe that hosts life of any kind, this particular moon does.
* Not only does Pandora host life, but it hosts intelligent humanoids (who happen to look fantastic in jungle-wear).
* Even though there is an entire range of gigantic floating islands of unobtanium, in addition to the surface of a large and sparsely-populated moon, far and away the best place to mine the substance is directly under the village of the local clan.

So, in other words, the premise for the entire movie is completely unbelievable. Perhaps "unobtanium" more aptly describes the otherwise-unobtainable plot elements pulled from Cameron's behind.

Let us move on to the the Noble Savage motif. Amazingly, the locals have managed to find a gigantic tree just perfect for housing an entire village. Moreover, despite no evidence of agricultural activity, the tribe has managed to settle in just one place. Unlike settled but primitive tribes of our planet, they have not exhausted the local firewood supply or the game animals. It is a veritable Garden of Eden, Pandora.

Another amazing thing about the tribe is that its youth grow up to be great warriors, even though, apparently, they never actually fight anybody (except the evil humans!), for the Pandorans are a peaceful lot. If there has been warfare among the fifteen (or so) tribes, there is no mention of it in the movie.

Another amazing fact: while initiation rites of tribes on our planet have often involved human sacrifice and bloody beatings, on Pandora when you get all grown up you get to climb up into the floating islands and pick out your very own pet dragon to ride. Granted, this process can be a little tricky, but, hey, pet dragon!

As Sully suggests, the evil humans have absolutely nothing, no form of technology whatsoever, that the locals might have any interest in. Anything beyond the simple life of eating wild fruit, hunting wild game with bows and arrows, and (don't forget!) riding dragons would only detract from the idyllic Pandoran lifestyle. The Pandorans don't want computers, telecommunications, surgical instruments, metal needles or cooking pots or arrowheads, energy production (for the Pandoran climate is always perfectly temperate), and so on.

It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the total amount of gasoline burned, coal burned, and materials mined in the production and distribution of Avatar. Include all the facilities, all the gear, all the trips, all the maintenance of stars and personnel, all the theaters and their heating, all the car trips taken to watch the movie, and so on. Compare that to the similarly-figured costs of an average American lifespan, and that will tell you about how seriously James Cameron takes his own environmentalist dogma.

The Gaia theme is actually more interesting as science-fiction. On our planet, the notion that the earth itself is a living or conscious entity is fanciful, pseudo-religious environmentalism. Avatar asks, what if the earth really were alive? Pandora is alive, or at least its network of interconnected tree roots form a vast organism that functions something like a brain.

Even more interesting: the local people can "jack in" to this super-tree-computer through specialized fibers coming out of their hair. It's like the Matrix for hippies (as I've heard others note). In a real sense this network offers something like immortality, because part of one's essence joins with the trees. (Not explained is how the plains clan taps into treenet.)

At one point Sully notes that Evil Humans have "killed their mother [earth]," and "nothing" on earth is green anymore. Of course that prediction is nonsense. Unlike the science-fiction moon of Pandora, on earth there is no conscious super-organism consisting of tree roots. Moreover, the rise of industry and technology is quite consistent with maintaining lots of greenery and a healthy environment. A space-faring civilization would also be able to bring in resources (including energy) from off-planet and set up production facilities elsewhere in the solar system.

Still, the science-fiction idea of a conscious tree network is interesting, and it poses a special dilemma in terms of developing resources. I imagine the biological barriers to the development of such a life form are insurmountable. If it were possible, such a unique biological entity would require new philosophical thinking. Presumably a mining operation could at least operate on parts of the moon without trees, such as the plains and oceans (or the conveniently floating islands).

The upshot is that Avatar offers some really interesting science-fiction mingled with some pretty silly fantasy-fiction. It's core story is a compelling one, and it is told artfully and with innovative technology. Ultimately, what saves the film is that its method of production rebels against its affectations.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Microwaved Eggs

It occurred to me that often only the complicated dishes make it into published recipes. But I usually eat very simple meals that require no recipe. A standard dish for me is vegetables, meat, and spices sauteed in coconut, olive, or stock fat. I don't mind cooking, but it is by no means a passion of mine, and usually I focus on quick and easy dishes.

Like fried or scrambled eggs.

Only now I usually make them in the microwave rather than in a skillet. This is faster and it generates fewer dishes. There are two basic ways to microwave eggs. You can microwave a single egg in a bowl for around 40 seconds. If you don't break the yoke, the egg hardly sticks to the bowl.


Or you can microwave more than one egg, with or without additions. For example, yesterday I microwaved two eggs, sausage, and two cubes of cauliflower puree. First I microwaved the puree for around a minute to dethaw it. Then I stirred in the eggs and sausage. The edges tend to cook faster, so you have to stir it about every half a minute for a few minutes. This sticks more than does a single egg with an unbroken yoke. But it's still easy, fast, and good.


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Monday, January 4, 2010

Skiff Promises "Multiple Formats" for Ebooks

In my quest to keep tabs on the eublishing industry, today I glanced at articles about Apple's forthcoming Tablet (which will be much more than an ereader) and Skiff, a company that promises to produce an innovative ereader and sell digital content.

As cool as the Tablet looks, it also promises to be fairly expensive -- more costly than low-end notebooks -- and I'm not convinced that sort of screen can function well as an ereader, which should allow for hours of comfortable reading without undue eye strain.

Judging from the pictures and descriptions, the Skiff screen looks like it will be a good reader -- and apparently you can even bend the device without ill effect. I'm a bit put off by the large size of the machine: 9 by 11 inches. I want an ereader that I can carry around more easily.

I sent Skiff some questions, and a representative sent me some answers, though they weren't very specific. I asked:

Will Skiff sell works with multiple publishing options, including HTML, pdf, and Digital Editions, or will Skiff, like Amazon, sell only works converted to a proprietary format?

In other words, will purchasers of Skiff content need to download a Skiff reader (for non-Skiff devices), or will that content read on existing and popular software?

Also, will Skiff release a smaller version of its reader for those of us who would prefer something easier to carry around?

This should be an exciting year in the epublishing industry, and I look forward to seeing how Skiff competes.

Here's the email I got back:


Thanks for your interest in Skiff. I'll answer as much as I can at this point in time.

The Skiff service will support multiple formats. More details to come.

One of the unique benefits of Skiff's platform is the ability for content publishers to submit their curated content (i.e., branded newspapers, magazines, etc.) into the Skiff Platform, where it is then tailored to match the unique characteristics of different devices that utilize a variety of different screen technologies - from smartphones to eReaders.

The Skiff digital storefront will allow consumers to easily access and download a wide assortment of newspapers, magazines, books, blogs and other content from multiple publishers for use on dedicated Skiff e-reading devices, other e-readers and innovative devices, as well as multi-purpose devices such as smartphones, netbooks, tablets, notebooks and PCs - as well as via the Web. Items purchased from the Skiff storefront will be delivered to these devices via 3G, WiFi and other forms of connectivity.

We look forward to your following Skiff as we make additional announcements during 2010 in the lead up to our formal launch.


Chaim Haas
Senior Vice President, Technology & Emerging Media

Of course, whether Skiff lives up to the company's own hype remains to be seen.

January 6 Update: Popular Mechanics has an update. One detail is that "while the screen is flexible, the device itself is not."

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Reading Anne Heller on Ayn Rand

That Ayn Rand was a great woman is disputed only by those who wish to destroy her legacy and discard her ideas without the bother of having to refute them. That Rand made some mistakes in her personal life is disputed by no one. Yet Rand led the sort of life that, had she novelized it rather than lived it, her critics would have blasted as unrealistically heroic. She lived through the Russian Revolution, escaped to America, became a world-renowned author in a foreign language, and dramatically impacted the political discourse of the nation. Hers is a life whose facts read as the stuff of legend.

Obviously Rand's greatest personal error was to get into a sexual relationship with the brilliant charlatan Nathaniel Branden, who, with his wife (of the time) Barbara, viciously deceived Rand over a number of years, as recounted by Rand herself in journal entries published in The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. What is particularly perplexing to me is why Rand agreed to this affair, given that in fiction she endorsed monogamy. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart has a romantic relationship with three men over the course of her life, and never do these overlap. While Hank Rearden has an affair with Dagny while he is married, he cuts off sexual relations with his wife when the affair begins, and he acknowledges he should have divorced his wife long before that. In The Fountainhead, Dominique Francon breaks monogamy only so long as she remains a flawed character. Notably, the great heroes of the novels, John Galt and Howard Roark, wait for their women over a span of years. I do not understand Rand's affair, I wish her husband had stood up against it, and obviously it turned out horribly for Rand.

Notably, the first two major biographical works on Rand were by the Brandens, and the popular understanding of her remains colored by their smears.

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I witness the publication of the two new biographies on Rand. On one hand, from what I can tell both biographers are largely fair in their treatment of Rand, and both reveal important historical information about her life. Yet it is clear even given my still-limited familiarity with the books that they manifest significant problems. I have already made some limited criticisms of the introduction of Jennifer Burns's book, Goddess of the Market. Robert Mayhew has written a much more thorough critique.

While I am interested in Rand's biography, I am quite busy with other projects. Yet, though I had put Anne Heller's book Ayn Rand and the World She Made back on the shelf, today I took it down and read a few pages, and I remembered my idea of jotting down some notes as I read along. Now, given that I have the book out and want to read it, I'll proceed with that plan, though slowly.

I'll read the book in fits and starts and record my reactions accordingly. This post, then, will grow over time as I write down notes in the order of the book's presentation. My early questions and criticisms may be answered as I read further along. I may update previous entries as I discover new information or consider additional points. Readers with pertinent information are encouraged to send it to me via email. Perhaps my approach, though disorganized, may at least reveal some important revelations and problems in the book.


xi. I find it interesting that Heller was introduced to Rand by Suze Orman, who handed Heller a copy of Fransico d'Anconia's "money speech" from Atlas.

xii. Heller writes that Rand "had often presented this long passage [the money speech] to potential new disciples, including Alan Greenspan." Why does she use the term "disciples," which has an obvious religious connotation, rather than "supporter," "student," or "follower?" Already on the second page of the text Heller seems to be planting the dubious notion that Rand was somehow a cult-like figure, a claim cultivated by the Brandens. I'll be interested to see how Heller returns to this theme.

xii. Heller writes that Rand "became the guiding spirit of libertarianism and of White House economic policy in the 1970s and 1980s." I will be interested to see how Heller will treat Rand's frequent and pointed protestations that she was no libertarian, though obviously many libertarians loved her works and continue to value them.

Heller's claim about the "1970s and 1980s" is, at best, imprecise. Nixon served as president until August of 1974, and his policies were the opposite of what Rand endorsed. Gerald Ford was more on board with Rand's agenda. Carter served from 1977 through 1981. What about Reagan, who defined the politics of the 1980s? Rand wrote, "I urge you, as emphatically as I can, not to support the candidacy of Ronald Reagan." Of course Reagan did nominate Greenspan, Rand's "disciple," to the Fed, an institution which Rand opposed. George H. W. Bush, who rounded out the '80s, was an even worse disaster by Rand's standards.

xii. Heller incorrectly refers to "...Libertarian Party founder John Hospers..." The LP was founded by a group of Colorado political activists that included David Nolan, whom I've interviewed on the matter. I notice that Heller correctly notes on page 330 that "Hospers... became the first Libertarian Party candidate for president of the United States in 1972..."

xiii. Heller writes, "'No one helped me, nor did I think it was anyone's duty to help me,' [Rand] wrote in an afterword to Atlas Shrugged. In fact, many people helped her." Yet Heller is taking this quote out of context. In the same afterword, Rand acknowledges Aristotle and her husband. Elsewhere she lavishes praise on those who helped get her books published. The sentence immediately preceding the one that Heller quotes is this: "I had a difficult struggle, earning my living at odd jobs, until I could make a financial success of my writing. No one helped me..." Obviously, then, Rand's claim is that she earned her own living.

xiii. Heller writes, "Rand wanted to be the architect of an American utopia that looked backward to the gilded age of American industrial titans." It is true that Rand legitimately saw late 1800s America as the freest period in history. But she recognized that the area remained tainted by bad philosophical premises as well as various political controls of the economy. She looked forward to a future of liberty and unfettered prosperity. Rand, who lived through the Russian Revolution, obviously knew the meaning of utopia (literally "no place"), and the political ideas she advocated, rooted in the facts of human nature, show little similarity to utopian theories. Certainly she wanted a better world, a freer world. But she saw clearly that no political system can wipe out human error, and she wrote at length about the long and continuous political struggle necessary to achieve an incrementally freer society.

xiii. Helller writes that Rand "was a far shrewder social critic than she was a visionary." Granting that Rand was a superb social critic, I will simply state my disagreement with Heller's unfounded remark about Rand's alleged paucity of vision.

xiii. I find Heller's comparison of Rand to Charles Dickens, in terms them being social critics (though with dramatically different ideologies), interesting.

xiv. Heller writes, "Because I am not an advocate for Rand's ideas, I was denied access to the Ayn Rand Papers at the Ayn Rand Institute [ARi] in Irvine, California, where copies of her unpublished letters and diaries, calendars, photographs, and other documents reside."

Heller's comment here is, at best, incomplete. Burns was granted access to the archives, despite the fact that Burns is "not an advocate for Rand's ideas."

My understanding is that Heller was denied access to select papers, not because of Heller's views of Rand, but because the owners of those papers have decided to give another biographer first crack at them, after which they will become generally available.

I have asked Jeff Britting of ARI to clarify the Institute's handling of Heller's requests, but Britting has not responded to my inquiries. I have just asked Heller to provide details about the matter, and I'll be happy to publish her response. [January 6 Update: Today I received an e-mail from Britting, who explained a bit more about the situation with the archives but said his e-mail is not intended for publication. He pointed me to the archives page and said he'd be publishing more on the matter in the future. I have not heard from Heller at this time.]

xiv. Heller lists the following sources of information for her book:
* Russian government archives, accessed "by a Russian research team"
* "Unpublished tape recordings" presented by ARI
* Taped interviews of Rand by Barbara Branden
* Freedom of Information Act documents
* "Interviews with Rand's friends" recorded by Jeff Walker and Marc Schwalb [January 6 Update: William Scott Scherk claims in the comments that Schwalb did not personally record interviews, but instead purchased recorded interviews from Barbara Branden. Heller writes, "Journalist Jeff Walker and collector Marc Schwalb let me listen to privately recorded interviews with Rand's friends..."]
* "More than fifty interviews" conducted by Heller with people who knew Rand, including Nathaniel Branden
* "Letters to and about Rand" in libraries and archives around the country

More will be posted sporadically.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

No-Sugar Cheesecake

For New Year's, Jennifer made a great cheese cake without sugar or any added sweetener. We topped it with blueberries or apples sauteed in butter and cinnamon, so of course that added the fruits' sugar. The texture of the cake was fantastic.

We used a low-carb cheesecake recipe, except we didn't put in the "artificial sweetener" (because, yuck). While I like it fine without any sweetener, we discussed putting somewhere between a quarter cup and a half cup of sugar in future attempts if we want a sweeter dessert.

One thing we got out of this recipe that will be useful for other things is the almond meal crust. We'll probably make this for quiche and mousse pies.

To make the crust, mix a cup of almond meal and two tablespoons of melted butter (Jennifer just used a fork for the mixing). We thought we'd increase the quantities by half next time. Press the mixture into the bottom of a pie plate, then bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until slightly browned.


To make the filling, mix in the following ingredients, one at a time in order, with a hand mixer, scraping the bowl with a spatula between each ingredient:

* 3 packages (1.5 pounds) cream cheese (room temperature)
* 4 eggs (preferably room temperature)
* 1.5 teaspoons vanilla
* 1.5 teaspoons lemon juice
* sweetener (if desired)
* 0.25 cup sour cream

After you add the last ingredient, beat the mixture for an additional minute.

We used a water bath to bake the cake. Ours worked great for an hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It puffed up a bit and then settled back down as it cooled.

Here's the finished cake in the water bath:


Cooled, sliced, and topped:



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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Paleo Pumpkin Pie

Over Christmas Jennifer made two pumpkin pies, one regular and one paleo. Here's a photo of the paleo pie, which is the regular pie minus the sugar and the crust:


The key to a good pumpkin pie is to start with real pie pumpkins. Cut the pumpkin in half, scrape out the seeds, and bake it, cut-side down in a bit of water, for around 45 minutes.

Jennifer bakes a great crust from a recipe in Baking With Julia.

Then, follow this recipe that we got from Jennifer's mom:

* 1.5 cups pumpkin
* 3 eggs
* 0.5 cup sugar
* 1.25 teaspoon cinnamon
* 0.5 teaspoon salt
* 0.5 teaspoon ginger
* 0.5 teaspoon nutmeg
* 0.25 teaspoon ground cloves
* 1.66 cups heavy cream

(Note: The original recipe calls for a full cup of sugar, but the pie is plenty sweet with only half of a cup. Obviously for the paleo pie skip the sugar entirely.)

Pour into a 9 inch, unbaked pie shell, or, for the paleo pie, into a pie dish.

Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for ten minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 30 to 35 minutes, until a poker (toothpick or cake tester) comes out clean. (Note: The pie usually puffs up during baking and then settles back down during cooling.)

Cool. Top with whipped cream. (We use pure cream whipped with vanilla, no sugar.) The original recipe calls for pecan topping, but we've never eaten it that way.

We really like both versions of this pie. We thought that, in the future, we'll try increasing the spice load for the paleo pie, but that's not necessary for a tasty pie.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Amazon Licenses Non-Transferable Ebooks

I wanted to find the answer to a very simple question: if I spend, say, $10,000 on an ebook library over a span of years, can I will that library to another party upon my death, as I can will my collection of printed books? For Amazon, the answer is no.

Here's what the Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use has to say:

Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

In other words, Amazon does not sell ebooks. It licenses them. That means if you spend $10,000 on a library of printed books, that collection becomes an asset that can be resold or willed. If you spend $10,000 on a Kindle library, the value of that expenditure is utterly destroyed upon your death, and the library cannot be transferred to any other party.

And that completely sucks.

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Monday, December 28, 2009 Offers Online Book Viewing

I've been looking into the ebook industry, and generally I don't like what I see at present. The essential problem is that the major ebook sellers, notably Amazon and Barnes and Noble, sell ebooks that read only with proprietary readers. This raises two problems. First, I want to be able to integrate all my ebooks into a single library, much as I can integrate all my music into iTunes now (made possible with the standardized mp3 format). Second, I don't want to invest money in a platform that's going to end up failing in the market place. I don't want a library's worth of the ebook equivalent of Beta or HD DVD.

At the same time, I don't want to buy ink-and-paper books anymore, because my shelf space is limited and I want the flexibility and portability that comes with ebooks. So, for right now, my solution is to simply stop buying books, except for used copies that save a bit of money, books unavailable in digital format, and books that I absolutely want to read right away. The book industry is a mess. When publishers and retailers decide to straighten it out, I will resume doing business with them.

Previously I've made a couple of interrelated suggestions: HTML seems like the natural standard for ebook publishing, and ebook sellers should make the ebooks readable online, via a standard web browser. Now I've found a bit more information about this.

As Jedi Saber points out,"The .epub is a standard for eBooks created by the International Digital Publishing Forum. It consists of basic XHTML for the book content, XML for descriptions, and a re-named zip file to hold it all in. Anyone can make these eBooks, and since they're essentially just XHTML, anyone can read them." (Adobe says basically the same thing.)

Indeed, Jedi Saber proceeds to explain how to generate the epub format. While Jedi complains about the high cost of Adobe's InDesign, which apparently can generate the epub format, I am fortunate to be married to a graphic designer, so this may well be a viable option for me. (I am working on an upgraded ebook version of Values of Harry Potter; an earlier version had been straight HTML.)

I noticed another tidbit from some of the company's ebooks "can also read books online, from any computer, anywhere, without downloading or installing anything." Now THAT is sweet.

For instance, offers the Twilight books "online in eb20.)" An explanatory note explains: has just released eb20, a web-based ebook reader application. This means that, in addition to downloading an ebook to your computer or device, you can now read the book online from any computer with a supported web browser that's connected to the internet. eb20 requires no software installation and enables you to just start reading a work, seconds after buying it.

In the coming months you'll see more and more of our books available through this simple online reading interface. As books are converted to eb20 format, you'll see a little Read Online link next to the book in your account. Just click on that link and start reading. When buying a book, if you see Available to read online in eb20, it means that, once you've paid for it, you'll be able to download the ebook and read it online anywhere, anytime.

There's just one teensie problem with (aside from its limited selection): many of its ebooks are insanely expensive. Let's take the example of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God, which I recently downloaded as a trial run from Barnes and Noble for $9.99. The Amazon Kindle price is also $9.99. The Amazon hardcover price is $18.45. Random House will sell you the ebook directly for $27.95, the price for which also sells the book.

Memo to publishers: if you're going to whine about Amazon's ebook selling prices, you might think about not trying to jack customers with your own ebook prices. Publishers try to sell overpriced goods that are a hassle to use and then wonder why their industry is flailing.

Perhaps one of these years book publishers will catch up to the 21st Century.


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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Interview with Face's Mark Megibow

Mark Megibow, the percussionist for Face -- the all-vocal group featured this week on NBC's Sing Off -- made some time in his busy schedule for an exclusive interview. My questions are in bold.

Have you noticed any increased interest in your group since the December 14 show? For instance, are your web page views or iTunes sales up?

We have received an enormous response nationwide, not just since the show aired on the 14th, but actually while the show aired. According to the ratings, there were 6-7 million viewers during our segment. Apparently people liked what they saw because we immediately saw a surge in web hits and CD sales. We are getting as many web visits in a day as we used to get in a whole month.

Was the December 14 show live, or was it pre-recorded? (At what point did you guys know you'd been cut?)

The first three episodes were all pre-recorded, so we were actually cut from the show about a week before it aired. Knowing that this was going to be our one shot, we spent the week making sure people were going to watch the first episode so they didn't miss us. We were proud of our performance and wanted people to enjoy it, in spite of knowing the outcome.

Did the show restrict what songs you could sing, or was the decision totally up to you?

There were a lot of factors that went into song selection for the show. The network's ability to get proper licensing for the song was a very objective restriction, and there were many subjective ones as well. We were brought on the show to be the "rock band," so the producers wanted our first song to be pretty straight-ahead rock. Playing to a wide viewing audience, they also required that the song be "immediately recognizable to the general public." There were so many criteria on song selection, we didn't have a single song in our existing repertoire that matched them all, so we had to start from scratch and choose a song we'd never done prior. I would call the process a "collaborative effort," with the final decision resting in the hands of the producers. We chose the Bon Jovi song because we felt it would be one that would show off our full range of voices -- it has soaring vocals, a signature bass line, and a fun, driving beat, so we thought it was the best pick of the options presented to us.

Similarly, the producers had complete control over our image, wardrobe, and even choreography. We had the right to our own opinions, but ultimately it was their show, so they got to make the call. The producers gave us the nickname of "mountain men" and decided that was going to be their theme for our wardrobe. People who have been to our shows know that this is not how we style ourselves, but that's what we were given for the TV show, so we decided to just do our best with what we were given.

Do you have any personal reflections you'd like to share regarding the show, its host and judges, and the other participants?

We had a blast with the other groups and staff while we were out there. All of the groups were made up of great people. We spent a lot of time together being shuttled around, as well as in group rehearsals for the opening number, so we got to know them all. We were tremendously impressed with the staff -- both with everyone's professionalism, as well as friendliness. It was a first-class production from top to bottom.

Is there any chance that you'll collaborate with the other groups in the future, such as in a joint concert in the area?

We would love to see any of the groups again, and we told them all that as we were leaving. Obviously we have to wait for the TV show to come to a close before we can put anything together, but I wouldn't be surprised if we wind up on stage with some of these groups again in the future.

What impact do you think the show will have on all-vocal music? Where do you see the genre headed?

I'm glad the general public is getting a main-stream introduction to how far all-vocal music has come. I think the producers picked eight great groups that will represent the genre very, very well, and that it will attract more people both as performers as well as audience members. The human voice is the most versatile instrument in existence (or more accurately, the most versatile analog instrument). Most vocal groups are still learning that the music doesn't have to be limited to choral sounds. Face has been playing with those sounds for years, and I think even we're still just scratching the surface. Then there are vocal groups that are starting to push the envelope using technology to assist or enhance the human voice, which is opening up a whole new world of sounds and ideas. Purists prefer to hear the unadulterated human voice, but the technology movement has had an effect on all instruments, and it's only natural that the voice be explored in that realm as well.

It seems like most all-vocal groups concentrate on arranging and performing existing songs. Do you think all-vocal groups (perhaps including Face) will turn more to original compositions, or will the strength of the genre continue to be offering interesting interpretations of music first performed elsewhere?

Although the genre of a cappella has become extremely broad, its roots can be traced back to vocal jazz, doo-wop, and barbershop, all of which rely heavily on "the standards" or "classics." As a cappella has grown and expanded into the realm of contemporary and popular music, it's no surprise that most groups continue to cover existing material. In the a cappella world, this is the norm. Song-writing is a completely different skill and you will find far fewer people who are good at song-writing, versus just singing other peoples' work. There are a number of contemporary vocal groups in the country that are singing original material and are presenting themselves as true bands, trying to make it with their own music. Face has talked for years about introducing original material into our set, and we've begun that process. In contrast, we have also found that the audience loves hearing songs they immediately recognize and like, but with our unique instrumentation, so our future will always include a mix of both original material and well-known classics.

Thanks, Mark! Congratulations again, and I look forward to seeing Face's continued rise.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How Stupid DRM Is Killing E-Books

I will defend the political rights of publishers and resellers to use digital rights management (DRM) for electronic books if they wish. I'm not convinced the practice makes for good business. As it stands, DRM is preventing me from buying an e-reader and e-books.

Meanwhile, with my shelves mostly full and without much room to expand my collection of printed books, I'm planning to be selective in buying paper-and-ink books. We live in a mobile society. People frequently change jobs and move. In some parts of the country lots of people spend considerable time on busses, subways, or trains. The market is ripe for e-books, yet the production and distribution of e-books sucks.

This is not a problem of technology. With modern software it is trivially easy to convert a book to an electronic format. (Indeed, practically all books are printed from a digital file.) While I have not used one of the e-readers, I am convinced that the technology makes the text look quite nice and readable. The good Doctors Hsieh have debated various aspects of the Kindle, but they agree the text looks nice. I imagine that new generations of e-readers will be easier to use and more versatile. (By the way, feel free to peruse my Disclosures Unjustly Compelled by the FTC.)

But compatibility issues are hell on consumers. If I buy a Kindle, I cannot even read Amazon's e-books on my Mac, though Amazon has released a PC reader and claims a Mac version is on the way. More importantly, if I buy Amazon e-books, I cannot read them on any competing e-reader (except the iPhone or iTouch, which uses the standard backlit screen rather than the cool text-friendly, low-power screen).

I love Amazon, but forbidding customers from reading Amazon e-books on other readers strikes me as pathetically stupid and short-sighted.

Contrast the situation with e-books to digital music. True, iTunes uses unique encoding, and its songs do not work with other players. But it is trivially easy to convert iTunes music to the standard mp3 format. Amazon might consider the fact that I've purchased mp3 files from Amazon to play on my iShuffle, but I have purchased exactly zero e-books from Amazon because of the compatibility problem.

Meanwhile, Barnes&Noble's e-books will only read with that company's exclusive software. Nook, with an "expected ship date" of February 1, is priced at $259, which is, surprise surprise, exactly what the Kindle is selling for. They are both ridiculously overpriced. The Sony Pocket e-reader costs only $199. It doesn't have wireless, but I don't want wireless! [December 19 Update: I changed "wi-fi" to "wireless" for accuracy. The Kindle is wireless but not wi-fi, while the Nook is both.] I would be perfectly content with a USB cable. The problem is that Sony doesn't sell the e-books I want to buy. So I can get a more-economical reader that won't read the books I want, or I can get a clunky, overpriced Kindle. My solution is to buy neither.

While Amazon is great at selling books, it sucks at producing e-book readers. So why not sell me e-books that I can read on an inexpensive reader made by somebody else? With a standardized format, I suspect that a number of producers would make a good, inexpensive reader.

I understand that some publishers are whining about e-books. Get over it. Publishers have two options: they can adapt their products to the digital revolution, or they can die. Publishers should insist on a standardized format, or at least sell reasonably priced, DRM-free e-books themselves.

Let's take an example. I'm interested in buying Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Both Amazon and Barnes&Noble sell the e-book for $9.99. But both of those versions have sucky DRM that makes them far less valuable to me. What is the solution of Random House, the publisher (via Knopf)? They will sell you an e-book! The hardback costs $27.95. And the e-book, which does not have to be printed, bound, stored, or shipped, costs... $27.95. Gee, thanks, Random House.

And publishers wonder why people aren't buying as many books? Do you seriously think I'm going to pay $27.95 for an e-book that has a marginal production cost approaching zero and that I can buy hard-copy elsewhere for $16.34? If Random House sold DRM-free e-books at a reasonable price, I'd be happy to buy them, and the publisher would get a much higher profit margin relative to selling through Amazon or Barnes&Noble.

Some readers may have noticed that my own book, Values of Harry Potter, currently sells only in soft cover. But it will become available in DRM-free digital format soon. (Whether it will sell through Amazon's Kindle system or other e-systems remains to be seen.)

Standard text formats already exist. They're called HTML and pdf; you may have heard of them. But God forbid that publishers sell books in a format that consumers can easily read.

Update: After reading several comments, I thought I'd further contrast Apple and Amazon.

Apple started life as a computer company that excelled at making great hardware that works seamlessly with good software. On this platform Apple built iTunes, a retail store.

Amazon started life as a book retailer and tried to build an integrated digital book program on top of this. The problem is that the iShuffle and other Apple players work great, while the Kindle is an overpriced technological piece of gossa. I mean, it's relatively cool, but it's nothing like the e-reader I'd like to buy. (I certainly don't want wireless or a tiny keyboard built in.) If Amazon produced the e-reader equivalent of an iShuffle, that would be one thing, but it doesn't.

Another difference is that, when I buy a song from iTunes, I own that file. I can copy it to disk, back it up, and control the way I use it. If I were to buy a digital book from one of the major sellers, my "library" would be established by the selling company. The seller can alter my library. Thus, it feels a lot more like renting books than buying them, and I don't like that. If I buy a book, I want to buy it and be in control of the file. Screw online "libraries." Just send me the file that I pay for. I neither need nor want Amazon or Barnes&Noble to "manage" my library.

The standardized mp3 format works great for music. Practically any modern digital device will play an mp3. I will buy e-books when they are similarly portable and convenient.

December 16 Update: Another obvious difference between iTunes and e-book "libraries" is that I can import all of my music into iTunes. It will import standard CDs as well as mp3s. Try importing a Barnes&Noble e-book into your Amazon library or vice versa. This is forbidden, which again creates a major barrier to buying e-books in the first place.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Face Featured on NBC's Sing Off

Congratulations to Face, Boulder's all-vocal rock group, for their appearance tonight on NBC's competition Sing Off.

I was disappointed that Face was one of the two bands voted out of the show tonight, out of eight contestants. But those who know Face know that vote is not any indication of their talent or musical force. Guys, your fans are thrilled to vote you back onto our island.

I just noticed that Face's new album, Momentum, now sells at iTunes. If you want to get a better feel for Face's tremendous talent, check out this album or the group's previous two albums. (Forward also sells through iTunes.)

I thought that Face was an obviously better singing group than several of the groups that made it through the first round, though I really enjoyed all of the groups. (My other two personal favorites of the night were the SoCals and Noteworthy.)

I was scratching my head by Face's song selection; they picked "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi. I thought the song is too popular, Face didn't give it any particularly unique reinterpretation, and the song doesn't let the group's vocal strengths shine through. I wondered, though, if the show's producers restricted what songs the bands could sing. If I had made a list of ten songs I'd have liked to see Face sing as their opener, "Living on a Prayer" wouldn't have made the list. Face's fans know the band has some extremely strong "signature" songs that would have been much better for the show (if allowed).

Several of Face's covers I like much better than the original recordings, including "Home" by Marc Broussard, "Calling All Angels" by Train, and "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey. I also really like Face's version of "O Fortuna" and "On the Turning Away."

As an aside, my wife Jennifer made a brief appearance on the show, because NBC filmed Face performing at Nissis, the Lafayette restaurant owned by the same person who owns the design firm where Jennifer works.

I've been a fan of Face since I heard them perform at Nissis four years ago. I was frankly nervous to hear them sing, as I believe they were following the amazing Dave Beegle, and I thought there was no way an all-vocal group could compete with that. Face proved me wrong in a hurry (though I don't know anybody who can match Beegle on an acoustic guitar.) I even began a first and second opinion column for Boulder Weekly with a discussion of Face.

I think I reflect the sentiments of all your fans, guys, by saying that we're extremely proud of you. I hope the NBC show allows a lot more people to discover your talented and inspiring voices. And don't stop believing.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Baked Pancakes, Cauliflower Puree

Recently I talked about making almond meal and using it in primal pancakes.

I've since tried the almond meal in baked pancakes (a misnomer, I know, but I don't know what else to call them), and it's fantastic.

The recipe is very simple. Put two tablespoons of butter in a pie pan. Melt the butter in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. In a bowl, mix three eggs, half a cup of flour, and half a cup of milk. I've tried wheat flour, oat flour, and almond meal, and all work great. I haven't tried replacing the cow milk with coconut milk. Pour the batter into the pie plate, and bake for 20 minutes. (Shave off a couple of minutes if you use straight almond meal.)

One nice thing about these is you can put two or three cakes in the oven while you get the rest of breakfast ready; they aren't as labor intensive as regular pancakes.


Next (and unrelated), recently I purchased five nice heads of cauliflower from Target for a buck each. I steamed, pureed, and froze them. I used my new Tovolo silicone ice cube trays, which I really like.

The plain puree was also a great side-dish with butter and a little salt and pepper. I plan to add the dethawed puree to scrambled eggs and such, a la Jessica Seinfeld.



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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Face Gets Momentum

Last night Face performed at the Boulder Theater. I've said it three or four times before, and I'll say it again: last night was their best performance I've seen.

You can listen to clips from their latest album, Momentum, which they released at the concert.

Interestingly, Face has cancelled all of its December holiday shows. Their web page currently claims, "Face will be out of town in December: More details coming soon!" It'll be interesting to see what the band has cooking.

I've been enjoying Face's performances now for several years, and I'm pleased to see the band continue to meet success. Their sound gets better and better.

Back in 2005 I wrote, "Saying that Face is an 'a cappella group' is sort of like saying Jimi Hendrix is a 'guitar player.' It's true, but it doesn't really get the point across. Face rocks." Seriously, give them a try.

Their performances are heartfelt and personable. Last night the band brought up two former members to sing signature songs. They recounted a bit of their history together in between songs. The new album reveals the group's talent as arrangers and singers, but a big reason they have been so successful with word-of-mouth promotion is that audiences really enjoy sharing time with them.

The band also announced the successful birth of a member's new baby just days ago. As Pamela White wrote for Boulder Weekly, the wife of one of the band members carried to term another couple's baby. So congratulations on all counts.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Amazing Primal Pancakes

Somebody recommended Rick's Primal Pancakes, and they are absolutely amazing. These are honestly the best pancakes I've ever eaten. I think it's something about the flavors of the coconut with the almond.


I used the recipe as listed, except I doubled it. The given recipe consists of 1 egg, 1/4 cup Almond Meal, 1/4 cup of coconut milk, 1/8 t cinnamon, and 1/8 t vanilla extract. They were a bit runny, so I think you could increase the ratio of meal to milk. (I imagine you could also use cow milk.)

I wend shopping this morning at Sunflower before I made breakfast. I was going to purchase almond meal, but it can cost over $10 per pound. Before I left, I read Yvette Marie's suggestions for making almond meal. So I paid something like four dollars a pound for bulk raw almonds at Sunflower, then made my own meal. (I didn't sift the meal, as Marie suggests, but I don't mind it a little crunchy.) It turned out great.




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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dreaming of a White... Halloween?

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, yet it's still two days before Halloween! I don't know what the official snow total is for my area, but we got well over a foot.





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Friday, October 23, 2009

Ben Carson, A Hero of Medicine

We just rented and watched Gifted Hands, the story of neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Johns Hopkins. It's a fantastic film. In today's cinematic world of mindless action, dumb comedy, and grotesque horror, here is a different sort of movie, a movie about a true hero, someone who made medical history with his innovative brain surgeries.

Dr. Carson says in a documentary accompanying the film, "It will show the incredible power of education and what it can do for a person. How it can take a person from a life of virtually nothing to the pinnacle of one of the toughest professions in the world."

Carson grew up in poverty. Though illiterate, his mother drove her sons to educational excellence, requiring them to report on books from the library. Carson overcame struggles in school and racial prejudice to achieve an outstanding education and take the path to medicine.

The film has an obvious religious theme and emphasizes Carson's religious faith. What drives the heroic story, though, is Carson's dedication to learning and to his career goals. Well worth viewing.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fall Harvest

It has been snowing and raining today, so it feels like winter is upon us. Hidden on my camera, however, were some nice photos of the fall's harvest.

This year's garden was thrown together. We were in the middle of working on the house (which we're still doing), and we planted late in mediocre soil. Still, we had a garden, and we did pretty well given our limitations. We got good produce from our 48 tomato plants, and we also had some summer and winter squash. Next year I plan to do considerably better.

By the way, the basil is from our wonderful indoor plant. Also by the way, today I turned a couple of butternut squash (one purchased, one from the garden) into a fabulous soup.





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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Vampire Haiku

The Denver Post is running a weekly contest for writing haikus. This week the topic is vampires. The only rule is that the verse must follow the 5-7-5 syllable structure. Here's my entry (which my wife, at least, thought was funny):

Vampires suck my blood?
No, they suck my wallet dry
at cheesy movies.

Here's the rest of the entries, for those interested.


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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Getting Things Done Faster

What's amazing to me is that people spend so much time learning about "time management." My attitude has always been that people should quit screwing around learning about "time management" and just spend their time doing stuff.

Nevertheless, I am currently reading David Allen's Getting Things Done, as it comes highly recommended by various friends. My basic evaluation so far is positive, but I think most readers could save a lot of time by skipping much of the book.

Basically, the entire first part -- the first 81 pages -- boils down to two points.

1. To reach your goals, you need to define your goals and figure out effective ways to reach them.

2. You need a good way to process information related to your projects. You're getting all sorts of ideas and information coming at you, all the time, from many directions. Moreover, you do a lot of good thinking at odd times. You need a good way to capture and organize all this information and all those ideas, so that you can effectively use them, and so that you can work in a more relaxed, enjoyable way.

Part 2, which I've just started, explains specifically how to accomplish the second point. I really don't think I would have missed much if I had simply skipped the first part. It seems to me that much of effective time management is about figuring out what not to do.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Tomatoes Yum


Jennifer and I planted 48 tomato plants in the spring. I dried several batches of the produce in our handy Excalibur.

These dried tomatoes will be great in a variety of cooked dishes.

And we should do better next year, once we get the back yard in better shape.


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Muscle Versus Concrete

So I called the local machine rental shop and got a quote for $48 for four hours on the electric jackhammer.

But I drove down to the shop and found that $48 rents only the puny 35-pound machine. The big boy costs $60. Plus, I was annoyed that I had to rent the machine for a full four hours, when I only needed it for half an hour (plus commute, so still under two hours).

I figured, hell, for $48 I can do it myself with a sledge hammer. So I did.



Was it worth it? Well, per swing I didn't save too much money. (It took a lot of swings.) The middle was a lot thicker than I thought judging from the edges. But it's not like running a jackhammer is easy work. Plus, I saved an extra forty minute commute back to the rental shop, plus gas.

And, of course, I can say I broke up a concrete pad with nothing but a sledge hammer.


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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Garden Meals

I was so impressed with our recent meals that I thought I'd photograph and post them. Shown are tomatoes and squash from our garden, fresh basil from our herb pot, and purchased meats, cheese, olives, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.


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Friday, September 4, 2009

Ordering a Blood Test

For reasons that probably won't interest the reader, I want to order a blood test that measures the basic cholesterol readings. My difficulties in ordering a test illustrate a major problem with our third-party health payment system: it largely shuts the patient out of the process.

First I called a lab that does not offer the blood test but that helpfully told me that the two main testing facilities in the state are Qwest (of which I was already aware) and Lab Corp.

So I started with Lab Corp. The first fellow I talked to was helpful, but he couldn't answer questions about specific facilities, so he sent me on to a general customer service number. There I got the number to the Broomfield facility.

The Broomfield office was basically helpful, except on two counts. First, for reasons that nobody could explain, Lab Corp requires a doctor's order to conduct any test. You can't just go in, as though you were an adult in charge of your own health, and order up the test of your choice. No, no, no. You've got to ask for permission to get tested. (I imagine this has a lot to do with liability nonsense.)

Second, the woman on the phone said she didn't know how much the blood test costs, nor would she figure it out for me. Moreover, she didn't have time for me to give her any "problems" over the matter. She was unfazed when I pointed out that every other business in the state can tell me what their services cost. (True, auto mechanics sometimes don't know the final tally until they discover the nature of the damage, but a blood test is the same every time, so you'd think they'd have a clear idea of the cost.)

So then I tried Qwest, which also requires a doctor's order. At least Qwest could tell me the price: $58 plus a $15 draw fee. The woman at Qwest did helpfully point out that "Any Lab Test" might be able to fill in for the physician on the ordering end.

It turns out that neither Lab Corp nor Qwest actually requires a doctor's order, as they claim on the phone, if you use a run-around method of ordering the test. (The first fellow I talked with at Lab Corp did mention this.)

Any Lab Test has two Colorado offices. You can go in, pay $49, and the office will draw your blood and ship it to a Qwest center in Kansas.

Or you can go to, which contracts with the local Lab Corp. You can order a "Lipid Panel" for $16.05 (plus a processing fee of $9.50) or a "Lipid Panel With LDL:HDL Ratio" for $43.65 (plus the fee).

King Soopers will also conduct an instant, "finger prick" blood test for $20; however, my wife's doctor lacked confidence in the "finger prick" test. I called Lab Corp back, and a representative confirmed that both of their lipid tests involve a full blood draw. The rep. said that both tests are equally accurate, though one provides more information.

Imagine how much better life would be if politicians hadn't pushed us into a third-party payment system for health care. (Obviously, I favor third-party payments when they involve real insurance, but not when they involve routine care.) Health providers would actually tell us what they plan to charge us for their services. Doctors and clinics would be more responsive to patients.

While politicians have seriously damaged the market in health care, enough freedom is left that proactive consumers can still shop around and find services that largely fit their needs. We should expand that freedom, not further diminish it.

[September 8 Update: My wife used Lab Corp through, and she got good, fast service. September 9 Update: Lab Corp had the results back the next day! That beats the pants off of Qwest, in our experience.]


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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What is a Christian Libertarian?

On August 28 the Centennial Institute of Colorado Christian University sponsored a talk by former business professor Kevin Miller titled "Christians and Libertarianism." So what is a Christian libertarian?

Miller presented two basic, conflicting views without revealing which view he personally endorses. One view is that Christians should seek to enforce religious morals by force of law, as by banning gay marriage. The second view, which Miller articulated at greater length and with more passion, is that Christians should advocate political liberty for all and take advantage of liberty to evangelize.

Notable is Miller's reason for endorsing liberty. I believe an individual needs liberty in order to pursue his happiness, act on his own best judgment, and apply his reason to the task of living successfully. Such analysis was absent in Miller's presentation. Instead, the value of liberty for a "Christian libertarian" is that the state will not seek to control or inhibit religion, leaving the faithful free to advance religion.

Miller got himself into a number of problems, as by denying natural law and advocating abortion bans on the grounds that a fertilized egg is a person. But what most interested me was his view of "prudential" Christianity. (Unfortunately, I was not able to ask a question on this matter before the event formally ended.)

Miller argued that what was prudent in the age of Daniel is not prudent today. In Daniel's age, it was appropriate to serve a king. Now, the prudent Christian endorses liberty so as to further the Christian goal of converting others to the faith. Miller also pointed out that American culture is currently "unregenerated," meaning largely not under Christian influence.

But what does that entail for the future of liberty if Christians manage to "regenerate" the nation? Many of Miller's concerns focussed on possible ways the government might impede Christianity. But what if Christians solidly control the government? Those concerns disappear. Would it not then be "prudent" for Christians to advocate government enforcement of strictly religious convictions? Miller offered no answer to this.

Nor did Miller answer the most powerful rebuttal to "Christian libertarianism," which is that, by appealing to faith for ultimate truths, Christians place those truths beyond human reason and into the hands of some authority. When an authority decides ultimate matters of truth and morality, the logical conclusion is an authoritarian political system.

Liberty ultimately depends on the independent reasoning mind and on independently pursued values. We can discover objective truths about our world and about right and wrong, we can apply our knowledge in the pursuit of our values, and we can seek to persuade others through rational argument. The proper role of government, in this view, is to protect our liberty to think and to act, protect us from the initiation of force, and otherwise leave us free to go about our own lives.


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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hard to Escape Third-Party Health Payment

How entrenched is third-party payment for health care?

Consider a personal example. Recently my wife went to her doctor. She paid for the care at the time of service using funds from our Health Savings Account. She had to explain that, no, we did not want to submit the bill to insurance. She had to explain that, yes, she in fact wanted to pay for the service, at the time of service, all by herself.

So she paid the bill, and that's that, right?

Of course not. We just got a notice from our insurance company informing us that the doctor's office also billed insurance for the doctor's visit, despite the fact that my wife paid the bill at the time of service. So now we have to spend more time resolving the double-billing.

Apparently, the doctor's staff literally cannot mentally grasp the notion of paying for health care at the time of service.


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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Voyage to the Planets

I happened to learn of a new ABC show, Defying Gravity, over at Hulu. My wife and I watched, and mostly enjoyed, the first episode. The premise is that a group of astronauts is headed on a trip around the solar system.

But why can't somebody just do good, hard, exciting sci-fi? Defying Gravity is seriously marred by some mysterious force (alien?) on the ship that is driving events. Way to ruin a perfectly great premise.

Fortunately, the BBC show that inspired the dumbed-down, soaped-out American version, Voyage to the Planets and Beyond (originally Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets) suffers no such silliness. We Netflixed the two-hour show and really enjoyed it.

The only thing I didn't like about the BBC show (aside from its asinine PC environmentalist segment) is that it portrays a future global (meaning political) effort to explore the solar system, rather than a truly useful future of free-market space exploration. Typical of a political program, the voyage is a rushed, astronomically expensive venture with little payback for the investment. It would be absolute lunacy to send five astronauts on a three-year trip to Pluto, for example. What they should have done is spend the entire time on Mars, as Bob Zubrin suggests.

Still, part of the point of the show is simply to show the solar system, using top computer imaging based on the latest discoveries. In this goal, the show is a spectacular success. Wow, wow, and more wow. Don't miss the documentary about robotic exploration of space.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dear YouTube: Please Charge Me!

Dear YouTube,

You have a great service. The problem is that it's "free." (I understand your owner, Google, continues to lose money on you.)

Because uploading videos to YouTube is "free," I have wasted several hours over the last three days trying to upload videos to your server. I am currently trying to upload a 9 minute, 40 second video, at medium resolution, featuring an interview with a Colorado Congressional candidate. My wait time is 16 hours. This is the third time I've tried -- and apparently failed -- to upload the video. (I have a good cable line, so I don't think that's the problem.)

Call me crazy, but I think publishing videos like this in a timely manner is healthy for our republic.

With a previous video, my wait time was up to 48 hours. (I cancelled the upload, obviously.)

YouTube is a sweet service. Just about everybody loves it. I love it. But I'd love it a whole lot more if I could pay you for improved service.

Here's just one possibility for pricing. Users could purchase credits, say one credit per dollar, perhaps with a bulk discount. You could price based on file size. Then users could make the tradeoffs between length and resolution. Charge, say, a dollar for files up to 100 megs, two dollars up to 200 megs, etc. Obviously you could adjust the actual rates based on costs, demand, advertising revenues, etc. You could even charge a premium for peak-time access.

If you already offer people the option of paying you for better upload service, I've missed it. Perhaps you or a reader will correct me. But, assuming the option is not already available, I beg you, please don't make me continue to use your service for "free!"

Ari Armstong

August 10 Update: After several failed attempts to upload the video in question through iMovie, I tried uploading the file directly to YouTube and had much better success. So it's unclear to me why the iMovie upload doesn't work well, but the direct upload works better. At any rate, I'm still interested to learn how YouTube hopes to make money from its operation -- and provide users with good service in the process.


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Planter's Progress

If posting has been a little slow this summer, a big part of the reason is that we've been working hard on the property.

We finally finished up the front yard. Here's the progress in pictures:




We purchased the red concrete pavers at Home Depot for 79 cents each. We bought around 250 blocks. We also got laying sand there.

We ordered a truckload of Washington Cedar Mulch from Pioneer.

The sod and flowers came from O'Tooles.

We discovered that large planters cost a fortune at garden centers. Therefore, we purchased two $30 plastic "pond" liners at Home Depot, drilled holes in the bottom, and painted them brown.


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