Carl Banks' Blog

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Me complaining about people who complain about the ice bucket challenge

All right, all this complaining about the ice bucket challenge is starting to annoy me to the point where I'm actually making a post about it.

(For those of you reading this three or so days later, after the viral sensation sweeping the Internet today has been forgotten, the ice bucket challenge is a personal challenge to your Internet friends to either donate $100 to ALS foundation, or to donate $10 and post a video of you dumping a bucket of ice water on yourself, while challenging more of your friends. The ALS foundation reports that it is a highly successful charity drive, netting them over $7 million.)

  1. All you people who say how stupid it is to do something so as to avoid giving less of your own money to charity? Well guess what: that's how many charity drives work in practice.

    Someone might spend $1000 dollars to run in a charity 5K race, then spends several months getting sponsors so that they are on the hook for less of their own money. It turns out the promise of spending less of your own money is a big motivating factor to collect donations, which is why many charity drives are structured that way. Maybe you're taking advantage of base human nature, but it works.

    No matter how stupid you think ice bucket challenge is, it's pretty much the same thing on a smaller and less formal scale. People have the option to donate their own money, or to donate less of their own money but instead do something to collect dontations from other people. There is no enforcement of it, so many people can and probably do cheat, but based on reports of record dontations, it's obviously many people are taking it seriously.

    IOW, it's working, and it's working on the same principles that some other charity drives use (that no one complains about).

  2. The amount of water "wasted" is paltry. Here's the thing: it's a one time thing. Very few people are ever going to throw more than one bucket of ice water on themselves in their entire lives. The lifetime amount of fresh water lost to the ice bucket challenge is 5 gallons per participant.

    Yet most of you have no problem dumping 20 gallons of fresh water on yourself EVERY DAY just to keep clean. If you made a pie chart showing water use from showering versus water use from ice bucket challenge, the ice bucket challenge slice would be too thin to see.

    If you can justify using all that water to keep yourself clean, then you're being really unfair to condemn using a miniscule percetage of that water for what is clearly an effective way to collect charity dontations.

So, to summarize, the ice bucket challenge 1. works the same way other charity drives work, and 2. uses far less water than people use for showering in one day, and 3. is highly successful. So just shut up.

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How to chop an onion without crying

How to chop an onion without crying. It's one of the most famous questions that everyone has a dozen answers to, none of which work; it is a question rivaled perhaps only by how to stop hiccups [1].

But I have the answer.

But first, let's do a quick review on why onions cause us to cry [2]. Onion cells produce a lot of irritating sulfur compounds that give them a unpleasant flavor. This evolved as a defense mechanism to prevent animals from eating them. When chopping onions, we break through the cell walls and cause all those sulfur compounds to be released into the air as vapors, which then go on to wreak havoc with our eyes. And here is the crucial fact: those sulfur compounds don't just leech out into the air all at once. A little bit gets out right away, but most of these vapors aren't released until the newly exposed surfaces react with the air a little and internal fluids start to permeate out. Most of the sulfur compounds won't be released until a minute or two after chopping.

So much most people already know. So the answer is to work fast, right? No, not quite, we're still missing something.

I take about a minute to chop half an onion. I can usually get through the first half without any problem at all, but by the time I get to the second half my eyes start to hurt and I'll have to step away. So it would seem that the second half of the onion had already sat there too long; when I sliced into it, the sulfur compounds were sitting there waiting to leech out and attack my eyes. Right?

Wrong.

The sulfur compounds that attacked my eyes were not coming from the second half of the onion, they were coming from the first half... which is now fully chopped, still sitting on the same cutting board, and right at the point in time where the sulfur compounds really start to come at you. We as humans have a tendency to think that the problem is what we're focusing on at the moment (in this case, the second half of the onion which I was currently chopping), but oftentimes the problem is really something else (the first half that I'd already finished chopping).

Realizing this was an epiphany. It instantly became obvious how to chop an onion and not tear up:

When you're done chopping the first half of the onion, move the chopped onions to another part of the kitchen, away from your eyes. Then chop the second half of the onion.

If you follow this advice, and you can chop each half of the onion in about a minute, you should be able to finish both halves without tearing up.


Footnotes

[1]Which is easy, actually: you just will yourself to stop hiccupping. Works 99% of the time.
[2]Actually, onions don't make me cry at all; they just make my eyes hurt like hell. For whatever reason my body has no lachrymal response to my eyes being chemically burned by sulfur compounds, so I have to either induce tears, throw water in my eyes, or just deal with it. But for the purposes of this blog post, we'll just call it crying.
Tags: chopping_onions, crying, lifehacking
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/chopping
Last Edited: 4 July 2014, 5:24 PM
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My Pulled Pork Tacos

This is my pulled pork taco recipe, which has got me nearly universal praise (the only exception being some friends who eat kosher who couldn't praise it for obvious reasons).

Pulled Pork Tacos

Finely chop up one cup of carrots, one cup of celery, and one cup of onion. (And don't be a lazy ass about it; chop them down to the size of peas. Chop the carrots lengthwise so you don't end up with medallions. Chop the celery lengthwise at least once to get rid of the U shape. If I see any U-shaped celery pieces, I will find you and hurt you.)

Get about 2 pounds of pork shoulder. (And do use shoulder. Save your loins for grilling or pan searing; today we braise.) Cut the shoulder into 2- to 3-inch cubes.

Lightly grease an cast iron dutch oven. (Note: If you are taking proper care of it it should already be lightly greased. Don't worry, I don't always do it either.) Get the dutch oven holy hot, then sear the hell out of the pork shoulder, all six sides of the cubes. At least three minutes per side at high heat. Remove the pork, and turn down the heat to medium, add the mirepoix and simmer for about 5-10 minutes (using the residual heat of the pan to get a nice sizzle—just for sound effects really, I don't know it if makes it taste any better). Then add the pork back, cover the pork with chicken stock, some beer or white wine, and about cup of salsa. (Homemade would be great but there's good jarred stuff. No beans in the salsa please.)

Cover the dutch over and simmer for awhile, then put the dutch oven in your real oven set to 250 degrees: just enough to boil the water. Check every so often to make sure there's enough liquid left so it doesn't burn.

When pork is tender enough to pull apart with a fork and much of the fluid had been reduced, remove from the big oven and pull the pork apart. (You could strain the mirepoix out if you wanted to, but I like to keep it in.)

Serve with Mexican toppings and tortillas.

Variations

Obviously using beef instead of pork is a simple variation. Ordinary stewing beef like you buy packaged at a supermarket (usually shoulder or chuck) would work fine, but you can up it a little by going for a flavorful cut such as sirlion tip or tri-tip. (Again, save the tenderest guts for dry heat.)

I find that braised beef can use a little ''something''. The braising process leaves it a little off: ''slightly'' stringy and ''slightly'' more bland than it should be. So I sear the beef in butter: it help bind it a little and enhances the flavor.

Tags: pulled_pork_tacos, recipe
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/pulledporktacos
Last Edited: 22 June 2014, 12:41 PM
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My most hated fictional protagonists

The vast majority of time, whenever we read a book or watch a movie or TV show, we sympathize with, if we don't actually like, the protagonist. This is because the writer controls our exposure to the character and can present the character in a sympathetic way, even when the character has attributes we don't like.

Some other stories deliberately make the protagonist unlikable or unsympathizable. But again, the writer is controlling our perspective, only now they're presenting the character in an unsympathetic way.

But once in awhile, a storywriter will intend to write a sympathetic protagonist, but fail. That's what this post is about. This post is a list of fictional sympathetic protagonists I hated and actively rooted against.

Toru Okada, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

Toru Okada, from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, is my fourth most hated protoagonist. Actually hate might be a strong word, and I suppose my hatred mostly isn't actually personal against Toru. It's mostly that I didn't want Toru to ever come into contact with anyone. Toru was basically a bum who had a house thanks to family, and was as ineffective and useless a main character as I've ever seen. But somehow, in the rare times he ever did anything, everyone he came into contact with ended up with major psychological trouble, at least until some shady people recognized his "talent" and exploited it.

Toru, by virtue of being the one of the most ineffective and useless people ever written down, was the one who deserved the psychological trauma he was causing others. Not that the other characters were any good—in fact, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is probably the only book I've ever read where I didn't like a single major character—but they were at least doing something.

Jack Tripper, Three's Company

Jack Tripper and the Three's Company gang basically exhibit what I like to call sitcom-think. Basically it means that as soon as you suspect someone might disapprove of something you did, you go to ridiculous extremes to prevent that person from finding out, and oftentimes the scheme is obviously not something that can be sustained. To a certain extent this kind of thinking to drive half-hour sitcom plots so a lot of sitcom characters have it, but Jack Tripper takes it to an unbearable extreme, and he never learns anything, ever.

There are other sitcoms where people never learn anything (Seinfeld is a classic example) but in those, the character is at least somewhat high-functioning in their default state. Jack Tripper is the kind of character whose whole reason for existing is to learn a lesson. In other works, that's the sole reason this kind of character would be a protagonist, and you can never feel a catharsis until that character learns their lesson.

But we never have a catharsis in Three's Company because Jack never learns, in fact he never even faces any seriously negative consequences at all.

I realized how bad I hated Jack Tripper when I was watching Three's Company once, and realized that I was actively, from the bottom of my heart, rooting for the thug Jack was trying to avoid. I'm not just saying that to be edgy or to exaggerate: I really, from the bottom of my heart, wanted the thug to beat up Jack Tripper.

Aron Trask, East of Eden

I am not sure whether John Steinbeck actually wanted us to like Aron Trask, per se, but we definitely were supposed to symathize. I didn't. In fact, I think one of the most delightful things I ever read was the scene were Abra burned all his old love letters.

I hate to say it, but Aron represents (to an extreme extent) some of the faults I see in myself, so maybe I'm being unfair. (I should mention that I am talking about the Aron from the novel; in the movie a lot of the subtext on Aron came to the surface, giving him more of an edge which actually made him less nauseating.) Aron is the prototypical fragile pretty-boy. As a youth Aron was shielded from reality, by virtue of being te favorite by everyone on accont of being so pretty and sweet. As a result he became one of those people who believes anything can be overcome by the power of love—not just any love, his love specifically—and is genuinely wounded to his very core when reality happens and everyone doesn't share it. And—this is te nauseating part—his reaction to reality is to double down and get even more idealistic and then get even more wounded when his efforts still produced no results.

I can only imagine what his evenings with Abra were like, she being forced to listen as he got more and more crazy and earnest over how powerful their love was and that it could overcome anything.

Bleagh.

Nikolai Rostov, War and Peace

My most hated character of all is Nikolai Rostov from War and Peace. I read War and Peace the very boring summer before I headed off to college, and I may have misunderstood Tolstoy's intent. But Tolstoy seemed to intend Nikolai and his sister Natasha (also not one of my favorites) to represent normal average people who were swept up in the events of the Napoleonic Wars, but in fact they were pretty much just the redneck trash on the lower-end of Russian nobility. Honestly, the Rostovs in general could very well have been a reality TV family with all their drama.

You might have noticed a theme in characters I don't like: they tend to be ineffective people who react to difficult circumstances with even more ineffectiveness. Nikolai is no exception: he pretty much sucked at everything he tried. But what made Nikolai truly insufferable was that, not only did he think he was just a great guy in every eay, the other characters did too.

So. Nikolai Rostov, in his actions and thoughts, is probabaly the biggest pussy ever set upon paper, but the author, all the characters in the book, and Nikolai himself, thought that he was this great awesome guy. As a result, everything he did wrong (which was, in fact, everything he did) was forgiven... because he was such a great guy. And we are supposed to feel sorry for this great guy when all this bad stuff happens to him—a good portion of which was his own fault—and oh, by the way, when he backstabs his own cousin, breaking his promise to marry her so he could marry an heiress (who deserved better) so he could get weasel out of the gambling debt he got himself into, we're supposed to think, "Ah, there's a guy who got things done in the end."

I wanted to strangle him right through the page.

I highly suspect Tolstoy intended for the in-universe sympathy for Nikolai to be ironic. I hope so, because other than the Rostovs, War and Peace has a lot of good characters and was a great story. But if it was ironic he played it perfectly straight: maybe until the epilogue where Nikolai's nephew has no respect for him but does respect Pierre and his father Prince Andrei.

Tags: hate, literature, protagonists
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/protagonists
Last Edited: 3 June 2014, 6:47 PM
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Quantum thought of the day

I don't think I'd trust quantum randomness to generate cryptographically secure passwords or encryption keys. At least not for anything important.

Here's the problem. When you use quantum randomness, you are giving demons a perfect opportunity to sabotage you. Ok, let's step back, because you're probably saying "What the..." right now.

Of course, we don't know that demons exist. Let's face it, scientific investigations into supernatural beings have consistently shown no evidence of them. So, if demons do exist, their effects are going to be subject to the laws of physics; thus, the only chance they have to manipulate things in the real world is through non-deterministic processes. That means quantum effects.

Furthermore, whatever effect they have has to also obey quantum probabilities (otherwise it would be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics, which is a statistical law, yes, but if demons made a habit of breaking it, we'd notice). This severely limits what the hypothetical quantum demons could do. Because of the second law, quantum effects rarely come into play in the macroscopic world.

But it can become an issue when scientists start rigging the real world to react to quantum effects. The classic thought experiment is, of course, Schrödinger's cat. (Briefly, the scientist puts a cat in a box with a vial or poison gas. The vial is hooked up to a Geiger counter, and will release its gas if the Geiger counter detects an alpha particle. The counter is aimed at a sample that has a 50% chance of releasing a an alpha particle in one hour.) Now, suppose a scientist sets up a Schrödinger's cat experiment. And condsider that there is no scientific test that can distinguish between a natural random decay and a demon-manipulated decay. This means, if there is a demon who really, really hates that cat, then that cat is pretty much dead meat. (Well, it's not dead meat until the scientist opens the box and observes it, but you get the idea.)

The only limitation that a demon has is that, if the scientist decides to run 100 Schrödinger's cat experiments, the demon will have to keep the results to around 50 alive / 50 dead. If the demon hates all cats then there's not much it can do, it can only kill about half of them. However, if the demon hates just one cat, you can bet that cat will be among the dead.

Now, instead of this silly cat experiment, let's say we're using quantum randomness to generate encryption keys to secure important data. A demon wanting to sabotage your data security can potentially manipulate the random values to introduce a weakness into the key.

Now, I'm not saying demons exist. They probably don't. But still, if I had something really important hanging in the balance, I'm not so sure I'd trust demons not to exist.


Note: I'm only being half tongue-in-cheek about this.

I don't really think there are demons manipulating quantum interactions. But if push comes to shove, and something really, really important is on the line, this is something I would think about when choosing a strategy. If I needed an absolutely secure key to stop a nuclear missle launch, I'm not so sure I'd trust a quantum random key when a deterministic, pseudo-random key can be nearly as secure.

On the other hand, if the situation were dire, let's say maybe I was trying to brute force a password override to stop the nuclear launch, I'd maybe consider using quantum random values while praying that a benevolenet demon could help find the code faster.

Tags: demon, encryption, quantum_mechanics, schroedingers_cat
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/quantumbits
Last Edited: 28 March 2014, 12:15 PM
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List of Things I Refuse to Start

I, having been myself for more than 3 and a half decades, have learned a few things about myself. One thing being, I am very good at abstention but very bad at moderation. For this reason there are many things I refuse to do even once, for fear that I might become hooked and have to face the looming burden of abstaining since I don't trust myself to moderate.

Here's a short list of those things.

  • Alcohol
  • Any other drug prone to habit-forming
  • Multiplayer online games
  • Any sleeping pill at all
  • Golf
  • Sudoku
Tags: abstention, moderation
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/moderation
Last Edited: 25 January 2014, 12:44 AM
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Things Americans really are bad at

A lot of times, people on the Internet (and sometimes even in real life), when lamenting some defect in humanity will begin their sentence with the word "Americans", as if Americans are the only people in the world who have questionable societal weaknesses.

Normally I roll my eyes at this. People are people everywhere, and a lot of "America's weaknesses" are really humanity's.

However, culture is also culture, and different cultures are different, so there are bound to be some things America really is bad at. Here are a couple examples I could think of.

  • Schooling. The American educational system isn't bad, per se. We hear a lot of the stories we hear about Taiwanese and German kids learning differential equations in third grade when American kids struggle with adding fractions, but those stories are usually missing some vitally important context (like, for example, maybe the Taiwanese kids have no humanities, art, or history, and represent only the top 2%).

    However, one aspect where Amercian schooling just sucks is the emphasis on obedience, and absolute trust in the instructor. I believe this creates an attitude in Americans that authority is something that must be placated at all times. This carries over to real life. I've noticed that a lot of Americans completely overestimate the risk of confronting management.

    Other countries don't seem to have this issue. People seem to have enjoyed schooling more in other countries, and be more at ease at their work.

  • Geography. I don't really think this is the educational system's fault. We do a reasonable job teaching geography, but for cultural reasons Americans don't retain it, whereas they do much better in other countries. This, I believe, is mostly due to the fact that it doesn't really matter much what direction you are heading in in America, you will end up in a place that speaks the same language and has more or less the same culture, except near somet of the borders.

  • Freeway driving. European philosophy tends to favor not hard limits on speed, as we do in America, but on obeying respectful driving rules such as never cruising in the left lane and not tailgating.

    Street driving, however, is another matter entirely.

  • Another thing that Americans do on the road that is beyond retarded is to merge a mile ahead of a merge point. People who merge early will then get mad when someone who isn't retarded decides to drive down the lane everyone is getting out of.

    Studies have shown that staying in lane and zippering at the merge point will get more cars through the merge faster, and cause traffic to back up less. But that's beside the point. The point is, Americans get irrirated at "cheaters" that they are deliberately enabling. If everyone just stayed in their lane and zippered at the merge point, nobody could "cheat".

    In Europe, people zipper at merges.

Tags: america, driving, education, geography
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/america
Last Edited: 27 December 2013, 7:33 PM
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This post will be missed

File this one under the "Is this the kind of thing you spend your time thinking about?" files. I don't care. It bothers me.

If someone close to you dies, do you miss them? If someone you like can't make it to an event you're attending, do you miss them? Of course you do.

So why, if you miss them, do you say, "You will be missed", instead of "I will miss you"? What, are you afraid to commit to it or something? You miss this person, wish they were here, but you can't even muster the never to say it in the active voice.

And don't give be any bull like, "Well, I was just saying it's generally true and is not specific to me." Pshaw. You can say, "We'll all miss you", or, "Everyone will miss you", and not have to be a generalizing non-commital pussy.

So the next time you miss someone, say it, and own it, and don't just generalize.

Tags: passive_voice, rant
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/missed
Last Edited: 5 November 2013, 10:46 PM
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Books I'm Embarrassed not to Have Read Yet

The other day I was looking for a B read (I was in the middle of my A read) and pondering what I should start on next, began to think about what books I'd be embarrassed if it were revealed that I'd never read it.

Of course, the obvious thing to do in that situation is to make a list and post it publicly on the Internet, so everyone can see what I have never read.

  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. (In fact other than a couple short stories I've read almost nothing by Twain.)
  • The Odyssey, Homer
  • Something by Ayn Rand
  • Something by Nietzsche
  • Something by Lovecraft

It was almost painful to think about the situation of admitting I'd never read Dune. That one I'm taking care of right it now.

The Mark Twain was is pretty painful as well. I have to give America its props. America, you may have noticed, doesn't have too many classic writers compared to England. (I believe this is because America was nation-building for its first hundred or so years and had not a many resources to devote to more artistic endeavors. By the time America came into its own as a civilized country, the art form that was drawing all the talent was cinema.) So I really have to read one of the few American authors who can hold his own with the greats.

Ayn Rand and Nietzsche are authors I don't expect to agree with much (except for that irritating little "grain of truth" you know you can't argue with), but part of being well-rounded is exposure to ideas you might not agree with.

Tags: embarrassment, literature
Permalink: http://blog.aerojockey.com/post/embarrassment
Last Edited: 13 October 2013, 12:14 PM
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Reconstruction of Prehistory in the Kingkiller Chronicle

With all the talk about Game of Thrones lately, which is a series I haven't read and/or seen, I thought it wouldn't be too weird if I wrote a post about another fantasy series I got sucked into, namely the Kingkiller Chronicle, by Patrick Rothfuss.

However, the post is extraordinarily long so I've tagged it as not appearing in the main blog.

Click here for the full version.

Here is the tl;dr version:

  • There are three races: Ruach, Fairies, and Men. Fairies and Ruach are the same species; Fairies are Ruach that have been changed into a new race by Shaping magic.
  • The Shapers created the Faen Realm as a playbox. Iax stole the moon into the playbox and that started the Creation War.
  • The Stormwal mountains are the front of the Creation War. To the west is the Ergen Empire, the Shapers domain, populated entirely by Ruach. To the east is the Knowers Domain, which may be populated by Ruach, but the bulk of the armies is Men.
  • The Knowers' goal is to attack Fae, steal the moon back, and destroy the Fae, and the Ergen empire, but the war never actually made it to the Faen Realm, because it was necessary to conquer all of Ergen first.
  • The Knowers dominate the war until the appearance of Lanre, who turns the tide.
  • Some time after Drossen Tor, Lanre begins to conspire with seven others (inlucing Lyra) against the Empire.
  • Lyra changes her mind, and Lanre kills her in his rage.
  • Lanre speaks tries to get a panacea from the Ctheah and ends up with great power, but can't resurrect Lyra, and falls into despair.
  • Lanre and the Chandrian betray seven cities to the enemy. One city (the city Lyra would have betrayed, Antus, located in present-day Yll) does not fall and the empire is left with hope.
  • The Chandrian set themselves up as kings of the conquered lands. Yll is protected by the Amyr and Singers. The Creation War becomes a stalemate.
  • Yll becomes a civilized society, inventing writing (Yllish knots).
  • At some point, a revolutionary called Taborlin the Great arises in the eastern part of Chandrian lands, and is the first person who is able to defeat the Chandrian, using Shaping magic, and the amazing thing is that he is a human rather than a Ruach.
  • Taborlin frees Tinue, which is henceforth called the Free City, creates a Lockless box the holds the Chandrian's former power, and establishes the Lockless Line.
  • The Chandrian can no longer rule openly and must now strike like lightning from a clear blue sky.
  • Humans in the lands freed by Taborlin begin to make strides in civilization, invent more convenient writing, and quickly overtake Yll in power and knowledge.
  • At beginning of known written history, Ceald develops currency, the Aturan Empire is founded, and the map gels into the form we know today.
  • Wary of the threat posed by Atur, the Amyr use backhanded tactics to gain influence in Aturan empire (namely, they set themselves up as an organization connected to the Tehlin church that had autonomous power in the Aturan empire).
  • When the Aturan empire collapsed, the Amyr went back to being a secret organization.
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