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Jane Austen's Greatness
I recently think I put my finger on what makes Jane Austen so great, and I did it by comparing her to John Steinbeck, in particular, his novel East of Eden.
East of Eden follows the lives two families in living in the Salinas Valley: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. The Hamiltons are based on Steinbeck's own family on his mother's side (in fact, Steinbeck himself appears in a few scenes as a child). The Trasks, however, are purely fictional.
Steinbeck is not quite at the level of the great classic writers, and East of Eden belies this fact, in my opinion, but in a fascinating way. Comparing the scenes that focus on the Trasks to those that focus on the Hamiltons, it's hard to imagine that they take place in the same universe. The events in the Hamiltons' lives, based on the lives of real people, seem highly familiar and realistic. A few scenes really hit home compared to my own life, such as the scene after Sam Hamilton fainted and his family realized he was getting too old for farm life, and they were all passing a bottle of liquor around deciding what to do.
The Trasks, however, live in a world of subtle fantasy. It's not that the events in their lives weren't real things that happen to people (although there were several events more sensational than most families ever have to deal with). No, the subtle fantasy comes from how the events were arranged to provide a cosmic meaning to the whole thing. Real lives have no comic meaning (that we can discern, anyway), they just happen. Real lives don't have foreshadowing, don't follow a three-act structure, and don't use arc words. The Trasks lives had all these things, and so they seemed fictional compared to the Hamiltons.
I want to point out that this something I felt first, then analysed later. It's the sort of thing that seems bit odd and uncanny while reading, but one doesn't identify the discrepancy until reflecting on the story afterward. I'm fairly certain Steinbeck wasn't doing this on purpose (if he had been I suspect he would have done things to make the contrast more apparent, but who knows?), and that's where he belies his not-quite-among-the-greatest writing ability.
Jane Austen, however, achieves this level of complete realism, but with characters that are completely fictional. I realized that I'd had the same reactions to scenes in Emma and Pride and Prejudice as I'd had to scenes of the Hamiltons in East of Eden, and that's when I realized just how life-like Austen's characters and situations are. For instance, I was awed by the familiarity of the scene when Lizzy and Jane had to correct their mother on aspects of English law. Scenes like this show Austen almost casually finding that familiarity of daily life in her fictional characters that Steinbeck could only find the ones he based on real life.
Oftentimes it's hard to see what makes a particular creator great. But then you reflect on the their works a bit, analyse them a bit, compare and constrast them to other works, and suddenly they rise up to reveal their greatness. It always amazes when that happens.
Alien Spaceship, Eh
I found proof of aliens visiting Earth! Here is a photograph capturing an Alien Spaceship on Google Steet View as it flies over the Mackenzie River in northern Canada.
Seriously, it was kind of exciting. I sometimes see cool images on Google street view and wonder how people found them. Now I've found one.
Firefox Pinned Tabs Annoyance
I wanted to write a note about one thing that annoys me in Firefox. I've found out that I like this feature called "Application Tabs" or "Pinned Tabs", where you choose a tab and to be permanently displayed, but with only an icon and no close button.
The tabs have a few deal-breaker problems, though.
This might be the thing that could push me over to Chrome, if if turns out its application tabs behave better than Firefox's.
My Coca-Cola Cookie recipe
Here is my recipe for Coca-Cola Cookies. They are kind of like molasses cookies, but without the spices and replacing the molasses with syrupized Coca-Cola. It might be interesting to try this reciple with root beer, ginger ale, or even Pepsi, but I tried it with Coke because A. Coke is a classic American beverage, and B. Coke has an herbal pungency that other drinks don't have.
If you're kinky (and alcoholic) you might even try this with a malty beer and more sugar.
This will make about 30 2-inch cookies.
Making the Coca-Cola Syrup
This it the trickiest part. If you are experienced at making candy you should have no problem, but those who've never made it are going to find this to be a trial-and-error experience.
Boil the cola until it reaches just below soft ball stage, a temperature of 232°F. The ¾ liters should by then be reduced to about ¼ cup.
Boil the ¾ liters of Coke in a saucepan, preferrably a non-stick one. You will need to reduce it to about ½ cup before it needs your attention again; this will take awhile. (This might be a good time to cream the sugar and butter together.)
You should have a temperature measuring device handy: a candy thermometer, or one of those infrared temperature scanners. If you have a candy thermometer, attach it to the saucepan and leave it there, making sure the ball isn't touching the bottom or sides. The nice thing about boiling water is that it holds a constant temperature of 212°F. Therefore, while the Coke is boiling off you can make some last-minute calibrations to your measuring device. For example, if your device reads 208°F while the Coke is boiling, it's probably reading about 4 degrees too low, so be sure to add 4 degrees to the reading to get the actual temperature . The nature of the syrup can change dramatically even if you're a few degrees off, so it's important to be as close as possible.
Anyway, after 20 or so minutes of boiling, much of the water will have evaporated, leaving a high-enough concentration of sugar to affect the boiling point. At this stage the temperature of the liquid will start to rise again, rather quickly, so it needs your full attention. Turn down the heat a bit to give yourself more time to react.
You need to wait until the temperature reaches 232°F, then immediately remove it from the heat. (If you have an infrared scanner the reading is going to jump around a bit. Don't just remove it from the heat the first time the number 232 appears on the display: wait until it's jumping around in the vicinity of 232, say between 231 and 233.)
Keep in mind that the liquid will not be syrupy when it's hot; you need to let it cool down before you can test its consistency. To expedite the cooling you can place the saucepan into a larger pan with a shallow layer of cool water. Once the liquid cools to below 110°F, try stirring it gently with a spoon. It should be a bit thicker than maple syrup but thinner than molasses. If it's too thin, boil it again until it reaches 232°F. If the liquid is too thick, or if it has a crusty surface, or especially if it forms into solid thin strings when you pull the spoon away, you need to add some water or some more Coke, stir it up until it's dissolved, and boil it again, stopping at a slightly lower temperature.
If everything has gone well, you will end up with about ¼ cup of Coca-Cola syrup.
Warning: Never stir the Coke while it's boiling, and never, ever, ever scrape down the insides of the pan. Avoid jossling the pan too much when you remove it from the heat.
Note: If you use Coke sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) instead of sugar, these instructions will not work exactly. HFCS reaches its candy stages at higher temperatures than sucrose. When I made this recipe with HFCS Coke I found that waiting till the bubbles just begin to pile up is the time to remove it from the heat, but your mileage may vary.
Mixing the ingredients
These cookies use standard mixing, so if you are familiar with baking cookies you can skip this section. My instructions here are for hand mixing.
Advice: Beat the egg before adding; this will help to break up the egg whites. The egg is for texture, not structure.
Advice: Don't overmix the dough after adding the flour. We're not making pancakes here, so it's not the end of the world if you overwork the flour a bit, but it's still a good idea to keep it to a minimum.
Advice: Don't substitute brown sugar. Don't use whole wheat flour. Don't add vanilla or any other spices. Any of these can overwhelm the Coke flavor, and make all the work you did reducing it into a syrup useless. I'd even suggest using a baking power without aluminum.
2012 California Propositions
I wrote last post that this year's batch of ballot propositions in California was a lot stupider than the last batch, which I actually voted 50% Yes.
This year, I voted Yes on 4/12. Even then, one of the Yes votes was a veto. (Usually, a Yes vote changes the law, whereas a No vote keeps the law the same, which is why in general a smart batch of propositions gets a lot of Yeses. However, one of the Propositions this year was a veto, so Yes kept the law as-is. Which means this year I voted to change the law 3/12 times.)
Because a Yes vote usually changes the law, and because it can't be undone by legislative action, I have quite high criteria for a Yes. If I feel ambivalent about it I vote No, and there were a couple propositions this year where I was.
Here's how I voted and why.
I'll also mention one of the city initiatives. The Santa Monica and Malibu Unified School District wants to raise $320 million by selling bonds. That a third of a billion dollars, one school district. I voted no.
My Voting Strategy
Politicians, no matter who they are or what party they belong to, are assholes.
This is a simple truth and there are almost no exceptions. That one candidate you like? Asshole, I guarantee it. If you "like" any politicians, or if you get "happy" when a candidate you like wins, you have the wrong idea. The best politician in the world doesn't warrant a reaction more positive than, "Ok, we've averted the slightly greater evil, meh."
The problem with these assholes is, some of them get very popular and start winning elections by large margins, and they start getting these ridiculous (and dangerous) ideas that they have a "mandate" "from the voters" to do all kinds of corrupt and retarded bullshit as they please. The only way to control these assholes is to make them continuously aware that their job is in danger. The closer the vote is to 51-49 , the more these assholes are going to behave themselves.
That is why I am voting for Romney and whatever Republican is running against Feinstein. Obama and Feinstein have absolutely no chance of losing California, and I want their margins to be as close as possible to 1%. I don't even know who the Republican candidate for Senate in California is, all I know is Feinstein is going to win and I want to use my vote to tell her to behave.
I'll be back in a few days to report my votes on the California ballot initiatives. I'm going to opine that the initiatives from two years ago were unusualy lacking in stupidity; I actually voted Yes on half. This year I'd be surprised to vote Yes on two.
In New Jersey, a common local idiom for asking someone where they are in the state is, "What exit?", meaning what exit of the New Jersey Turnpike would one have to use to get to where you are. Over time it's even come to be used more generally to mean simply, "Where?", regardless of one's position relative to the Turnpike.
There is actually a bit of underlying significance to this question beyond being a quirky idiom. To some extent, what exit you live on in New Jersey also determines what kind of lifestyle you have, since the character of the state of New Jersey changes as you travel along the Turnpike. (Obviously it's not a perfect system, but in general, low exit numbers refer to the more rural southern areas, middle exit numbers to the suburban central areas, and high exit numbers to the industrial urban areas near New York City.)
I know of no other places that have local idiom like that, but it seems like there are many places where lifestyle correlates to nearby roads. Many locations could have a question like that.
In Pittsburgh, my home city, the question would be, "What Belt?"
The Pittsburgh area, being on the western edge of the Appalachian Range, is a mess of hills and streams, which makes it more or less impossible to have any geographic sense over a large area. Various boroughs (which is the Pennsylvanian word for town) and small cities have their own street grids oriented parallel to the nearby stream, but as soon as you leave the borough the streets begin to twist and turn, following the landscape, so that nearby boroughs will have completely separate grids and no common sense of direction. For this reason the Pittsburgh area is notoriously difficult to navigate.
To help people navigating the suburbs, Allegheny County created the Belt System. These are a system of road routes that circle (partially or fully) the city's downtown. The Blue Belt is innermost Belt, it circles the city near the city limits. As you go away from the city, you hit other belts, in the order the colors appear in the rainbow. So the Green Belt is further out, followed but Yellow, Orange, and, in the northern suburbs, Red.
The Belts are the key to navigating Pittsburgh's suburban roads: if you are on a belt, you know you're generally moving around Downtown Pittsburgh, not toward or away from it. If you are lost and happen upon a Belt, you know roughtly how far from the city you are. If you are on a Belt, and turn off it, you'll know whether you're now moving toward or away from Downtown. The belts are quite well marked, so they are hard to miss. It's a great system.
But, because the Belts all circle at a relatively fixed distance from the city, the also tend to have relatively fixed characters (although, as with the New Jersey Turnpike, it isn't perfect). The Blue Belt circles through a lot of the blighted neighborhoods, for instance. The Green and Yellow Belts hit a lot of suburban areas and boroughs, while the Orange and Red belts hit some of the rural exurban areas and outlying boroughs. There's a Purple Belt, too (which is separate from the Belt system), which is is entirely Downtown, and there probably ought to be an Indigo Belt for some of the city's trendy neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill, Oakland, and Mount Washington.
Point is, what Belt a Pittsburgher lives on says a lot about their home and lifestyle.
So, the obvious question is, what belt did I live by?
I was born on the Green Belt, but earlier than I could remember, my family moved to the Yellow Belt and stayed there till I graduated from college, and the whole family moved away from the Pittsburgh area.
The Yellow Belt didn't really suit me, though. If I were living in Pittburgh today, my belt would probably be the fictional Indigo Belt I mentioned above, or even the downtown Purple Belt.
Anyone visiting from the Burgh who stumbles across this page for some reason, I have a question for you which you may answer in the comments below: What Belt?
I have been to every state in the Continental U.S.
Recently I took a rare trip back east to my native city of Pittsburgh, and while there I took the opportunity to take a road trip and visit the last two states I haven't been to: Rhode Island and Delaware. I have now been to every state in the Continental U.S.
Here's a map showing how often I've been to each state:
Idaho is the only state that I feel shaky grounds to my claim. I never actually alighted in Idaho. My time spent inside the state was an uninterrupted train ride through the panhandle, at night no less, so I couldn't see scenery. For obituary purposes I think this suffices; if I get hit by a bus tormorrow, it can say I visited the Continental 48. For bragging rights, however, I want to shore up my claim, so at some point I plan to visit Idaho (maybe next summer).
It's not my life's ambition, but I would like to get to Alaska and Hawaii as well to complete the 50.
For all the traveling I've done inside the US, I haven't been outside the country much at all. I was a few times to the Canadian province of Ontario (Niagara falls area, mostly to watch Shaw plays and watch my parents drink wine), and once to the Mexican state of Sonora (day trip to Nogales).
Blog Back Up
Well, the greatest nightmare the Internet has ever seen is finally over: my blog is back up.
Let that be a lesson to me never to trust programs that say they will still work when something is suddenly upgraded.
I generally don't buy books that aren't available in an ebook format; therefore, I didn't read Harry Potter (in English ) until a couple months ago, when it was finally released as an ebook. I immediately purchesed the whole series and it has been my B read  up until I finished in about a week ago. Here are my thoughts.
This does contain spoilers.
One thing most people agree about JK Rowling is that character is her best skill, and I agree wholeheartedly. Which is why I'm going to begin by discussing what I didn't like about her characters.
For the most part, the characters are tenaciously consistent in their behavior to the point that it comes off as almost juvenile, until something happens that reveals their underlying motives. Snape is shamelessly biased against Harry and for the Slytherins, doesn't make attempts to rationalize his bias, and at no point is seen going against this for appearance's sake. The Dursleys outright hate Harry, to the point of abuse, and don't even try to pretend otherwise. Draco is completely mean-spirited and doesn't show a hint of a greater aim (good or evil) beyond putting others down.
The insidious thing about this is the shameless consistency is completely superficial. Dig beneath a character's facade and a being with complex motivations appears. The problem with that is, you never know who is secretly evil or good: nothing about their behavior foreshadows it. So for instance, nothing Draco does until the very end of the fifth book suggests that he is anything more than a petty ostracizer, so it seems that Draco's character inexplicably changes in the final two books. And yet it's not so: then more complex Draco that emerges in the final two books is completely congruent with the Draco of the first five books. Petty ostracism is exactly what we'd expect an insecure, glory-seeker would do until pressed by circumstance to move beyond that. So, although the characters are drawn up well, every character development is a random surprise rather than something that was set up previously, and I didn't like that.
Other than that quibble, the character was very good, and I can't remember a book where I had more unexpected in-character moments. (For example, Luna's question, "Is that why you dyed your eyebrow, for the party? Should I do mine too?", came out of nowhere but was so totally Luna.)
I believe that Harry Potter will be studied as a classic for how it does character alone (and especially the way dialogue supports the character).
Now for other aspects of the books.
The style of Harry Potter was natural-sounding and easy to parse, rather pleasantly concise I would say, if not spectacular. You can tell she tried to reflect the pace of the action in the prose (for instance, using shorter sentences and omitting details in the Quidditch scenes to reflect the quickness of the game); this is successful but other writers have done it much better.
The style did have an odd quirk. I once read a review that pointed out that Rowling tends to avoid using the word "said" to mark quotations, replacing it with other words like "cried", "exclaimed", "quipped", etc., and rather formulaicly, as if it were an eighth grade writing assignment. I didn't notice it before I read that review, so the overuse of words other than "said" doesn't sound overly stilted, at least. However, now that it's been pointed out to me, I do notice it quite a bit, and it does seem a little silly in many places.
The story itself it had strong and weak points, but it passed two crucial tests for me. One, I was hooked. Whenever I got near the end of a book, I found I couldn't stop reading because I had to see how it turned out . Two, I regularly go back to reread sections.
The main weakness of the stories is that many plot turns are hard to swallow, even allowing for a reasonable suspension of disbelief. The fourth book, Goblet of Fire, was the one I found particularly dubious; I simply found it too contrived, and didn't find anyone's reaction to the odd circumstances believable. This, nevertheless, didn't stop me from reading through to the end once I got to the late chapters, so I suppose it wasn't a deal-breaking weakness .
The system of magic was surprisingly consistent, given how many seemingly random effects pop up. I wasn't expecting that.
My favorite character is Phineas Nigellus Black. My favorite living character was probably Luna Lovegood. There really weren't any significant characters I didn't like in the whole series; I would say the least interesting character was Cho Chang (and she gets a pass because she was understandably upset about her boyfriend dying).
One fascinating thing is the similarity of Harry Potter's home life with Jane Eyre's. In Jane Eyre, Jane was (like Harry) orphaned at a young age and adopted by her aunt. Like Harry, Jane had a fat, spoiled, abusive cousin. And like Harry, the reason Jane's relatives detested her so was because of her refusal to conform to their way of thinking. Jane was intelligent and creative (more of a Ravenclaw) while Harry was noble and open-minded; this was a stark constrast to their vehemently banal adoptive parents.
Speaking of Ravenclaw, that is definitely the house I'd belong to myself. However, on a lark I went to JK Rowling's Pottermore site and underwent the Sorting ceremony there; the site sorted me into Slytherin.
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