Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, January 15, 2017


I have become obsessed with Norwegian farmhouse brewing, as documented by Lars "not remotely an arsehole" Garshol on his blog.  I'll write about it another time, but for now I just want to observe an overlap with another obsession of mine, World War II.  The Germans invaded Norway during WWII for strategic reasons.  The Norwegians had built a hidden torpedo station at an old naval base on the Oslofjord, allowing them to sink a large German battleship and delay the invasion.  The Norwegian government was therefore able to escape with its gold to England.  During the war, the Norwegian resistance was courageous and effective.

Anyway WWII comes up a couple of times on Lars's blog.  Here's a remarkable passage, in which Lars is talking to a Norwegian man who brews traditional farmhouse beer, and who is describing his experiences during WWII:

"We brewed from the light grain [lettekonnjet]," Rasmus says. I guess this needs some explanation. In the old days, before the time of purebred genetically identical seed grain, people sorted the grain, setting aside the heaviest grain for seed grain, and for brewing. The lighter grain would be used for bread, and, if there was enough, for animal fodder. But Rasmus is saying they used the light grain for beer.
"Why," I ask. He shrugs and says, "we couldn't afford anything else." Which figures. 1941 was not exactly a year of plenty in wartime Norway. I remember my grandmother saying my father as a baby, in 1945, ate ashes in the fireplace because he was so hungry, and the ashes contained fat. So brewing from the heavy grain would have been too extravagant, I guess. But people still brewed.
It's amazing to me that Europe managed to move on after the war.  Of course, eating ashes from a fireplace is relatively benign, as far as memories of the Nazis goes.  But it still seems like something that would stay with you.  And so many people had vastly worse memories—Londoners could remember the blitz, and of course pretty much all of continental Europe could remember the Third Reich's atrocities.  Meanwhile if my father had been so hungry he had to eat ashes, I think I would harbor resentment for my whole life.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Good Officer

Another passage from A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova.  At this point the Red Army is on German soil and the rape and pillage are terrible.  Again the book quotes Grossman's notes:

Women's screams are heard from open windows. A Jewish [Soviet] officer, whose family was killed by the Germans, is billeted in the apartment of a Gestapo man who has escaped. The women and girls [left behind] are safe while he is there. When he leaves, they all cry and plead with him to stay.
This might sound too good to be true, but in fact Grossman recorded (but did not publish, I think it goes without saying) a lot of stuff that reflects extremely poorly on the Soviet troops.  That lends credibility to examples like this one, even though they seem contrived.  (Also, this passage doesn't reflect that well on the Soviet troops in general, obviously, just on this one officer in particular.)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Hey, Khren!

I want to share a passage from A Writer At War:  Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova.  The book contains passages from Vasily Grossman's wartime writings, with copious explanatory text.  I'll share some other passages that are horrifying, but this one is fun.

By way of background, the Germans at this point have pushed the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad to a narrow strip of land along the Volga River.  The other bank of the river is under control of the Soviets, and they resupply the defenders with barges, but the crossing is very dangerous.  To supplement the supplies, and to harass the Germans, Soviet pilots using training planes (apparently called U-2s), which are unsuitable for combat, fly over the city at night, cutting their engines so that they fly silently.  For the Soviet soldiers, they bring food and ammunition.  For the Germans, bombs tumbling out of the sky with no warning (remember the planes were running silent), haunting their sleep.  By the way, most of these pilots are women, and I like to imagine the pilot in the following anecdote is a woman.

Here's Grossman:

During the night, U-2s drop food for our troops. We mark the front line with oil lamps (flat dishes), which the soldiers light on the bottom of trenches. Company Commander Khrennikov once forgot to do this, and suddenly he heard a hoarse voice coming from the dark sky above: 'Hey, Khren! Are you going to light those lamps or not?' That was the pilot. The engine had been switched off. Khrennikov says this made a terrifying impression on him: a voice from the sky calling his name.
Fun story, right?  It gets better.  Here is the editors' note on the passage:

'Khren' in Russian means horseradish, but it is also a euphemism for an insult similar to 'motherfucker'. So when the pilot shouted, 'Hey, motherfucker!' Khrennikov was astonished at hearing what he thought was his own name.
There are a million stories like this in the book.  However dire things got for the Soviets, they don't seem to have lost their sense of humor.

Friday, December 16, 2016

It's Basic Physics

This weekend it is forecast to reach -17°F in Duluth, Minnesota, and 4°F in Detroit.  Meanwhile the surface water temperatures on the Great Lakes are quite high right now.  So to those of you saying that Great Lakes water temperatures aren't going to drop this weekend, all I can say is:  I think you're fucking insane.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Recipe: Squash Seeds

I just cooked up some squash seeds and they were delicious.  Here is my recommendation.  This is loosely based on Mark Bittman's advice in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

I started with a smallish buttercup squash.  I think this recipe would apply equally well to butternut squash or pumpkin seeds.  I sliced the squash in half along its hemisphere(?) (its prime meridian?  whatever man) and scooped out the seeds and the surrounding goop.  (Basically, inside a squash there are two kinds of flesh, the firm flesh that adheres to the skin, and the goopy flesh that occupies the hollow chamber and contains the seeds.  I scooped out the goopy stuff, scraping it from the firm flesh.)

I then separated the seeds from the goop.  This is the messy, laborious part of the job.  I wish I had measured the amount of seeds I got, but it was maybe...  I don't know, half a cup?  Maybe a little less?  This is painstaking work, I basically had to remove the seeds one by one (the goopy, stringy flesh tends to cling to them).  A little bit of squash stuck to the seeds is tolerable, though, so don't drive yourself crazy with this step.

I put the seeds in a bowl and covered them with warm water.  The point was just to dissolve some of the goop that still clung to them.  After maybe 10-15 minutes, I poured the seeds through a colander and then put them back in the bowl (which now had no water in it).  Then I added 1/2 cup of water and 1 tablespoon salt, stirring it around a bit to dissolve the salt and form a very salty brine.  (The seeds ended up very salty, which I found delicious.  You could reduce the salt quite a bit if you don't care for really salty results.  I will probably use more like 1.5 or 2 teaspoons next time, which I still expect to be quite salty.  But note that the ratio of salt to water is probably the relevant factor.  If you have to use more water to cover the seeds, adjust the salt accordingly.)

I let the seeds soak in the brine for maybe half an hour.  Then I poured them through a colander again but did not rinse them.  I heated a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat.  Then I added the (still wet with brine) seeds and stirred them—they hissed in the hot oil.  After a few minutes of stirring, I spread them out over the bottom of the frying pan and left them over low heat.  I stirred them a few more times, every few minutes, and after a total of about 12-15 minutes of cooking they were starting to brown up.  I removed them from the heat, let them cool down a few minutes, and ate with no further seasoning.

They were delicious.  They had a nice popcorn-like character.  I devoured all of them in like two minutes.  Oh man, they were so good.  It's my new favorite snack.  (One thing is, they were pretty oily.  I ate them with a spoon, so my hands wouldn't get all oily.  You could probably use a bit less oil, but I bet they would still be somewhat messy to eat by hand.)

One variation would be to skip the brine and salt the seeds directly in the frying pan.  That would probably use less salt, which I guess would be economical (though salt is pretty damn cheap).  I'll try that sometime and see how it works.  My concern would be that the saltiness would be less evenly distributed.  But I mean, it would probably still be delicious, maybe even more so.

One problem is that the ratio of seeds to squash is such that you'll have to eat a fair amount of squash if you want to enjoy the seeds very often.  But I mean...  squash is great too.  I will experiment with how well the seeds keep once they've been removed from the flesh, and once they've been fried.  But I doubt I will very often be able to resist eating them all at once.

You could easily season them however you want.  Pepper, garlic, whatever.  They were fantastic on their own, though, with nothing but the salt and the olive oil to flavor them.  You could also probably put them on top of various savory foods as a garnish type thing.  But again...  they were amazing on their own.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Woe Unto Them

The Scripture I am thinking about today is from Isaiah 5:20:  "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil."  In "The Wire," Prop Joe uses this passage to express his feelings on the passing of Butchie.  This is on my mind because of the way Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee have been understood.  Anyone who claims the Confederacy was "honorable" and "courtly" should confront the realities of the POW camp at Andersonville (do not click that link if you are squeamish).  There are those who call Grant a "butcher" and Lee a gentleman.  And then, today, there is any amount of bullshit flowing freely and with no apparent consequence for those who peddle it.  But woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Many Agents

I know jack-shit about neuroscience, artificial intelligence, or whatever.  So take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

But anyway it's commonplace to say that it's misleading to use a computer analogy for the brain.  Memories don't work like "storage" except in a superficial sense, and so forth.  I have little to contribute to this discussion, but I want to make an observation about the way my mind works, which I think probably applies to a lot of people.

One problem with thinking of the mind as a kind of computer is that my mind does not function in the hierarchical, centralized, unitary manner that this would imply.  Instead I think you would need a "multi-agent model" or something like that to capture what goes on.

So just by way of example, obviously the mind needs to regulate things like food intake, water intake, and basic management of the body.  But information doesn't get processed directly to optimize along these dimensions.  Instead, the data flows to some place in my mind, where a little guy pulls levers that control pleasure and pain.  I am at his mercy.  Last night, after going through security at the airport, I tied my shoe too tight.  Presumably this was doing (very minor) damage to the skin on my foot, or anyway it was the kind of thing that would not be good for my foot over time.  Or maybe not!  Either way, my foot started hurting and during the flight I found it necessary to untie my shoe.  Being in a very tight space, I couldn't re-tie my shoe, so it remained untied for the duration of the flight.  This triggered the little guy in my mind who modulates anxiety, but it appeased the pain dispenser.

You can think of it as being akin to a bureaucracy, maybe.  Or you can think of it along the lines of Coasean "size of the firm" analysis.  Either way, the point is that my conscious mind does not have direct access to, say, information about how much damage my tight shoe was doing to my foot.  The question is simply whether the pain agent decides to make a fuss.  Banish the thought that he does so in a rational way:  sometimes harmless things are painful, sometimes harmful things bring us pleasure.

Anyway this all seems qualitatively different from a system in which information is centralized and decisions are made hierarchically.  My little agents filter the information in the same way that cabinet secretaries presumably shade the truth or at least filter the information making its way to the President.  In some cases, as in the pain agent, they don't even pass along information in any direct way.  They simply weigh in, exercising a kind of realpolitik.  It's as if the Secretary of State actually bullied the President instead of merely providing advice.  (This is not, like, totally unimaginable in the U.S. political system, but that's not our present topic.)

We don't entirely lack the ability to resist, of course.  But I think it's easy to exaggerate the extent to which we are masters of the ship.


Along the lines of my previous post, consider the many dimensions along which we are trying to make the world a better place.  I had occasion over the holidays to read about infectious diseases.  The thing about disease control is that it is dependent on many other factors that doctors and public health officials have little or no control over.  So they are trying to optimize along one dimension in n-dimensional space, while we are are veering from place to place along the other n-1 dimensions, often without logic or purpose.

So for instance, anthrax control fell apart during Zimbabwe's civil war, and Zimbabwe remains one of the most anthrax-infested places in the world.  Polio eradication efforts were going reasonably well until wars in Africa and South Asia disrupted vaccination efforts.  (I am also given to understand that in the U.S. effort to capture/kill Osama bin Laden, the use of a vaccination program as a cover for U.S. intelligence may have compromised vaccination efforts going forward.)

There's really very little that infectious disease doctors can do about these things.  Like other citizens in democratic societies, they can vote against war and politicians who support it, but realistically they do not wield sufficient political power to keep things on track.  (For what it's worth, ID doctors in the United States are among the most Democratic-leaning of all physicians.)

Of course this works in the other direction too.  You can imagine how destabilizing HIV/AIDS has been to development efforts and to progress generally.  So while failures in non-medical policymaking have hampered anti-disease efforts, failures in disease control have hampered non-medical policymaking.  (Of course you have to judge these things in light of the circumstances.  HIV is pretty much the worst infectious disease you can imagine, and arguably the ID community acquitted itself fairly well after a few early blunders.)  And of course HIV also had huge detrimental impacts on other public health efforts.

Bear in mind that ID doctors generally don't have much control over resource allocation.  They have some influence with public health officials, but beyond that they have very little discretion to direct our efforts in one way or another.  When mad cow disease became a public concern, funding magically appeared to research kuru.  When mad cow disease receded from public attention, the funding for kuru dried up.  Vastly, vastly more is spent to help affluent white men grow hair and get erections than is spent on many devastating tropical diseases.

Anyway what I am trying to say is that the struggle to build a good world is truly an endless/hopeless one, and "for us, there is only the trying."  The consolation, I suppose, is that there are victories along the way, diseases that have been eradicated or banished to the margin.  (For instance, after all these decades, syphilis still has no resistance to penicillin, and so what was once a terrible affliction is now a mere annoyance for anyone who can obtain proper medical treatment.)  But it sometimes feels as though the destructive forces are bound to win in the end.