Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flippin’ flapjacks

PancakesI was asked to make some American-style pancakes as part of a midday luncheon today.  This is basic breakfast cooking in the US: I think it fits between learning how to stir hot water into mix-‘n-eat oatmeal and how to scramble an egg.

Unfortunately, our usual procedure was to get the Krusteaz mix, add egg and milk, and fire up the griddle.  Minus the mix and the griddle, I was really thrown back to Boy Scout days when we made do with what we had (scrambled pancakes was one memorable result).

I poked around on the recipe sites and found a basic pancake batter recipe:

Ingredients (dozen pancakes)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted

Minus measuring cups, I poured an approximate cup of flour into a bowl, added 2/3 measures of all the dry ingredients, cracked in a medium egg, then beat it with a fork, adding random splashes of milk until it had the right consistency.  A teflon fry pan, butter to grease the pan (bubbling but not brown), and spoon in a dollop of batter.  It flattened nicely and darkened encouragingly around the edges, but bubbles were slow to raise across the center.  I peeked, I flipped: it had more of a french toast look than a pancake nut-brown, but the batter was cooking all the way through.  I stirred in some blueberries and finished the batch.

Since nobody had tried American-style pancakes  before (and I had a bottle of maple syrup on hand), they passed inspection at the table.  But I know that they didn’t have the correct ‘light and fluffy’ texture and didn’t brown like I expected.

So: Has anyone got a good ‘from scratch’ recipe?  I suspect that I might need more baking powder and a different cooking surface; maybe my batter was a touch too thick.  Suggestions (and grandmotherly recipes or tips) welcomed.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reflecting on Palin’s Alaska

Palins alaska 3During the holiday break, I spent a couple of hours with Sarah Palin.  More exactly, I spent a couple of hours with her television documentary, Sarah Palin’s Alaska.  I came away with really mixed feelings about the underlying message in the show, and have been trying to figure out how to write about it, separate from my visceral disagreement with her politics.

So let me give this a try.

The underlying premise of the show is that folks in Alaska are living in closer to everyday contact with the natural world and with traditional ways of living in that world.  Physically, they are tested and hardened by it, sometimes come into violent conflict with it, but ultimately taught and sustained by it.  Intellectually, they see simple and obvious ways that the world works, based on eternal rules and relationships.  Morally, they believe in their own exceptionalism, free the blindness caused by civilization and by sophistry.

Palins alaska 1Kate Gosselin and her family are invited onto a camping trip with the Palins, learning about this world.  She learns to have courage (and a gun), to be prepared (and to bring raingear), to open her mind (and learn from her kids) about the reality of life.  Ultimately, Kate just gets cold and wet, collects up her brood, and quits, boarding the plane home to warm, dry civilization.  Sarah laments that people just can’t see the beauty or understand the meaning of a simple life away on a riverbank.

I do agree that we lose something when we cut ourselves off from the natural world.  When we immerse into a wilderness experience it is invigorating and cleansing.  There are, without question, false complexities that we fill our minds with every day that keep us from doing our best and appreciating the things around us.  That is why I go on vacation and why contact with river runners and bush pilots is so refreshing.

Palins alaska 2But, it’s wrong to go all the way to saying that this is the way life should be for everyone.

The folks in Sarah’s Alaska are comfortable in the wilderness because they stand on the shoulders of centuries of hard civilizing work to get them there: the plane, the bus, the gun, the tents, the gore-tex, the prepared foods.

The settlement and preservation of these lands are a result of political will, compromise among competing interests, courage and vision among the people who’s beliefs they rudely dismiss.

Many of us do share their reverence for the natural world and a belief in human exceptionalism, but also see our responsibility for stewardship of the natural spaces and wildlife and believe in creating a heritage for future generations.

I find myself feeling ambivalent as a result: both agreeing and disagreeing with the premise.  There are things we have forgotten because we stopped living simply and close to the land.  But in returning to the land, we shouldn’t forget how and why we became civilized.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Are there really little unseen bits?

Atomic StructureWhen scientists talk about how forces act on objects, all of us can envision what happens when we push tables around a room.  No doubt that we are talking about real motions and objects, and we can all agree on their form.

Not so true of the unseen objects and forces that science hypothesizes on very small scales.  Are there, in fact, atoms and nuclear forces?  Or are they imaginary objects that simply embody the ideas of current theories?

I would have said, as a scientist, that unseen objects described by scientists are, in fact, real, a doctrine known as scientific realism.  The case for and against realism is nicely laid out in a recent podcast of Philosophy Bites, interviewing David Papineau.  The arguments also apply to the interplay between data (observation and intelligence) and the hypotheses and theories that try to explain and extrapolate from them, for example in controversial areas of ecology and economics.

NewtonI didn’t realize that Newton understood science only to be descriptive, not explanatory.  He realized that his Law of Gravitation captured the form of gravitational attraction, but did not relate to what gravity was or why it existed.  It wasn’t until the birth of atomic theory, when so much evidence pointed to the existence of discrete atoms, that science again had confidence to state that their unseen objects were, in fact, real things.

Papineau describes two way in which we can be skeptical about the existence of unseen things that science asserts to be real.  One is that the data is usually sparse enough that multiple explanations can fit the observations.  We can think of some as being more unlikely than the others (God has arranged the universe so as to produce this misleading result, contrary to the real objects involved), paradigm shifts toppling accepted models still happen with some regularity.  Atoms are now envisioned as wave packets rather than billiard balls.

This leads to the second source of skepticism: scientists have been wrong in the past, so they are probably wrong now.  But look at the process: when  two theories compete to explain the same data, someone performs a decisive experiment and one theory fails.  Predictions are made from the surviving theory, data is collected, some is not explained, and, again, the hypotheses arguments are challenged and some are discarded.  Science makes progress, one theory ultimately survives, and many are discarded.  This doesn’t make science more often wrong than right: it says that is approaches truth iteratively.

I really liked this program: it goes to the nub of what beliefs I can trust, and which I should question.  It reminds me that it’s easy to confuse reality and appearance, and that I should scratch the surface now and again before asserting that something is true.  And it’s endless fun to think up alternatives that explain my data.

Philosophy Bites features 150 short conversations with leading philosophers on a wide variety of contemporary topics.  It also hosts a daily blog and a short series on Ethics.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tossing salt over your shoulder

In medieval times, people would throw salt over their shoulder for luck.  The left shoulder is the correct one, in part because people are generally right handed, but in main because the devil always sneaks up on you from the sinistral side of the body.  Best to simply hit him with a handful in the eye to ward off evil.

A few old nemesis similarly need exorcism, so a friend and I opened a window and a bottle of prosecco, airing our 2010 demons out of our lives.

  • ANWB:  This is a travel and road service agency, similar to AAA in the US.  For two years, I have been trying to end my membership with them, first because I didn’t have a car, and then because insurance was included with the lease.  Each Christmas, they send a notice saying that I was pre-renewed and asking 100 euro payment.  I refused, thinking they would drop the subscription: instead they referred it to a collection agency.  I have now pre-pre-quit for 2012.
  • Residence Housing:  This makelaar completely messed up my move last spring, so I withheld 1/3 of their payment until we could meet and they could complete what they were supposed to do.  Instead, they deducted the rest of the fee from my rent payment as they processed it, brightly thanking me and saying it was now a problem between my landlord and I. All brokers are sharks, but these are the worst.
  • ING:  I have my business bank accounts with ING, one of the larger banks sprawled across the Low Countries.  They went through a transformation from Old-ING to new-ING during the enforced Dutch bank reorganizations last fall.  In November, this resulted in my being cut off from Internet Banking for four weeks while we navigated the proper procedure to get new passwords sent and activation from the local office.  Now we are unable to make electronic payments for a month because the bank cannot send TAN-Codes, required for transfer approvals.  ING argues that procedures must be followed; I’ve been unable to make payments for two months.  One more week, then I close the accounts and start over elsewhere.

Other bogeymen, KPN, T-Mobile, and VGZ, have been very well behaved the past months, processing payments and delivering services with little fuss.  So, it’s a good start to the new year to let go of the old battles and start the new year fresh.

Along with exercise, diet, more sleep, less stress, and a clean agenda.  And a pinch of salt, tossed against the clear Dutch sky for luck.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Back across the Channel


‘Packed things up last night for the trip back to Britain.  This is the week that all of the deals start to close, setting the path for the future: there are meetings with investors and huddles over legal documents in London and Cambridge for the rest of the week.

It remains a slow, adversarial process, maybe it has to be whenever money is involved. The Socratic tension of questions, answers, more questions improves the business plan and product, without question.  But it also saps resources, time, energy, money, that could better be spent doing the work.   I wonder how many ideas simply fail because their proponents don’t have the stamina for the process?

Anyway, it was a nice drive across Belgium and France for the 6 pm ferry.  At a gas stop outside of Dunkirk, the card reader, in French, asked me to choose my language: 1) Francais.  There were no other choices.  The attendant shrugged and reached across to push “”1”.  Sometimes I think gatekeepers just want acknowledgement more than obedience, whether in languages or border crossings.  Hey, you, head’s up and pay attention.  The bizarre actress in the Delta pre-flight safety video is similar: peculiar enough that you can’t help watching.

No snow, no floods in evidence; the news says that the crest of the river has moved north towards Venlo.  The captain characterized our crossing as ‘smooth seas and fair winds”, although the ferry pitched and rolled most of the way to Britain.  A spatter of rain along the highway, curving around London and north to Cambridge.  Nice to take the thoughtful time in the car; the next few days won’t offer much break.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dutch light on a winter morning

DSC02120I had to get up early this morning, headed across town to an 8 am appointment ahead of the workday.  A cold front blew in overnight, spreading a heavy frost across the city, leaving the air clear and the ground white.  Bicycles were skidding on the roads, so I elected to walk to my meeting, along the river and over the High Bridge.  The sun rose low and yellow, infusing the river and the city with some of that famous Dutch Light.

It’s hard to capture in photos, but I walk a little slower and take it all in, even on a frosty morning.

DSC02123 DSC02114DSC02116 DSC02119

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dances with (Expat) Wolves

D-w 1Major Fambrough: You wish to see the frontier?
John Dunbar: Yes sir, before it's gone.

Dances With Wolves is a Best Picture movie starring Kevin Costner as a soldier who goes to live among the Lakota Sioux in the mid-1800’s.  He adopts the ways of the horse culture of the Great Plains, only to find that he has lost his place with his native people.

I’ve always liked this movie: the expansive cinematography of the western prairies, the glimpse into the Lakota Sioux, the narrative of journey and discovery.  But last night,  breaking it out to enjoy again, I saw quite a different film.

This time I saw the expat journey, so many parallels to my life over the past five years.  It seems like I could almost conduct a seminar based on what John Dunbar did right as an expat:

  • He took the initiative to meet the natives.
  • He learned the language.
  • He kept a journal of his experiences and thoughts.
  • He suspended judgment while learning and adapting.
  • He shared his customs and his traditions (and coffee).
  • He kept his own integrity and center.

DancesWithWolves102Yet, by the end, he found himself isolated and alienated; what mistakes did he make?

  • He lost contact with his own culture.
  • He adopted local fights that weren’t his own.
  • He failed to communicate with the folks back home.
  • He identified too strongly with local artifacts.

“It seems everyday ends with a miracle here,” he comments.  It’s so true of the best days meeting new people in magical settings. 

“Many times I'd felt alone, but until this afternoon I'd never felt completely lonely,” he laments.  It’s so true of the worst days, cut off from familiar people and separated from my surroundings.

“Of all the trails in this life there is one that matters most: the trail of a true human being.”  I rarely find truth in movies, but I did find a resonance in John Dunbar’s expat journey.

Hopefully I avoid his dénouement.

Are there other works that speak strongly to the expat experience that you would recommend?