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Best wishes for the solstitial holidays, and for the new year! And happy 372nd birthday to Isaac Newton.

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night.
God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.

(Alexander Pope)

well, that didn't work

For this year's Christmas Eve dinner, chorale made roast lamb and boiled fresh green beans, which were both excellent—but I volunteered to prepare the red rice. She asked me to try doing it as pilaf. I followed the basic formula in her cookbook, sautéing the rice lightly in olive oil and then cooking it with saffron. But we use a steamer, rather than boiling it in a saucepan. That didn't work so well; we gave it the usual 50 minutes, but it came out underdone. Our best guess is that the steam didn't have enough force to penetrate the layer of oil coating the rice. It was edible, marginally, but fell badly short of the rest of the meal.

If I experiment with pilaf again I'm going to boil the rice and see if the results are better.

statistical analysis

I'm currently reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, which I've been hearing about for several years; it's a popularization of his work in human cognitive biases, but an intelligent one, well worth reading.

At one point he cites a figure that elegantly illustrates a point about human thinking: A study a few years ago, in a population inclined to favor environmental causes, found that the average participant was willing to donate $65 to save an endangered species. That may sound like a moderate amount, but there are 6,534 endangered species on earth, according to a site I Googled—the number is probably the right order of magnitude. If you multiply it out you get $424,710. I doubt that many of his respondents had $400k+ to spend on environmental causes!

I take it that when his respondents heard "an endangered species" they envisioned one endangered animal or plant—probably a striking one line a tiger or rhinoceros. They probably didn't think in terms of "I'm making a rule for how much to donate to every species that's endangered." Kahneman doesn't mention asking them about a second endangered species, but I imagine the amount would have fallen off if he'd made it explicit. But by not thinking in terms of the abstract category, they're implicitly planning to donate to the one species they find most striking, or the first one that's called to their attention, rather than either treating them all equally or setting a scale of importance.

Or maybe he was saying "an endangered species" and they were hearing "endangered species" and giving the amount they'd donate in total?

When I saw the question posed, my first thought was, "All right, how many endangered species are there? Got to be thousands. I'm going to say tentatively 'one cent'; I could probably donate one cent for each endangered species and not be out more than my budget allows." I have to admit I don't mind the shocking effect of saying "I'd give one penny to save an endangered species." But if you think about it, that comes out to $65.34, almost exactly what Kahneman's subjects said, and an amount I could realistically afford to donate once or twice a year (though my recent donations have been to an individual person with medical needs).

I think all this actually illustrates something Aristotle said: That where demonstration and dialectic rely on induction, rhetoric substitutes striking examples.

we're seeing that

chorale and I have been talking about films we wanted to see, so I decided to make plans systematically. Googling on "movies 2015" brought up a handy bar of film icons with linked information. I put together a short list to keep in mind, and then tonight I decided to look at the available trailers.

One of them, Predestination, was described as based on a story by Robert A. Heinlein.

Back in the 1940s, Heinlein more or less invented the time loop story, with a story, "By His Bootstraps," that involved a man traveling repeatedly to the far future and back to the present; much of it was three iterations of him in a small room arguing and eventually getting into a semi-drunken fistfight. A decade or two later, Heinlein outdid himself with "All You Zombies—," which incorporated a sex change into the story and linked the whole thing to Heinlein's recurrent theme of solipsism.

The trailer for Predestination makes it totally clear that this is "All You Zombies—." More impressively, the dialogue includes lines straight from the story and the plot looks to be very close to it. I also thought the props and special effects had a very neat retrotech feel. It all looks very promising.

It opens January 9. We can probably see it the first day if schedule allows; I don't think the theaters will have impossible lines. I certainly want to see it the first week. It's about time someone made a film from a Heinlein story and not just a Heinlein title. Maybe this will be it.


As part of adapting to the impending closure of Kensington Video, which has been our mainstay for many years, chorale and I decided to check out iTunes as a means of seeing movies. A few days ago we acquired our first film from them: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I had been thinking about buying on Blu-Ray. We went ahead and bought it, as I was confident that I'd want to see it repeatedly.

The process proved straightforward, though we have to be restrained about it, unless we get a much larger external drive; a feature movie is multiple gigabytes. I had to search around a bit, but I was able to find the commands for downloading a second copy to my hard drive. We watched it today on chorale's monitor, which has a 24" screen that doubles as our home video system—we've been watching Agents of Shield on it via Hulu (Hulu Plus is another likely source). This time we sat fairly close and got the benefit of the screen size and resolution—it's really a little small for sitting across the room, though we used to watch a low-def screen well under 20" that way! I think that this is a workable enough mode for video for our purposes.

I had thought The Winter Soldier was the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. Now that I've seen it again, I think I was underrating it.

In the first place, it actually has a theme: the tension between two different political philosophies, freedom vs. oppression and order/security vs. chaos. In fact, it explores the dangerous border between order as a safeguard for freedom and order as a safeguard against freedom. It helps bring out the less explicit occurrences of that theme in earlier MCU films: Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers all have it, and there are suggestions that it will show up in Age of Ultron. It's good to see a superhero film that has its characters fighting over an actual conflict of ideas.

In the second place, there are a lot of really good emotional payoffs, not only in the action scenes, but in the character interaction: Steve and Sam's growing trust in each other; Steve's visit with Peggy and the revelation of what has happened to her; the unnamed SHIELD technician nerving himself up to refuse an order when it's dangerous to do so; Natasha's confrontation with Pearce. Of course the title alludes to one of the big emotionally significant stories in the film, Steve's encounter with the Winter Soldier. But it struck me that there's an equally strong one about Natasha: her setting aside her reliance on secrecy, deception, and irony, which by the end of the film take on almost the aspect of an addiction.

Fortunately their next appearance is going to be in another Whedon film. I'm fairly confident that Whedon will make use of the emotional content rather than just shoving it aside.

And, of course, this film has some really classic superhero action scenes too.

one for the Black Chamber

A look at today's episode of Questionable Content suggests that Emily is likely to face involuntary recruitment by the Laundry's U.S. opposite number. . . .


John C. Wright mentions a forthcoming anthology with the title Riding the Red Horse. Wow, is that an unfortunate turn of phrase! I wonder if they'll reprint Connie Willis's "Even the Queen". . . ?

Las Anclas

sartorias recently mentioned her new book, Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, and it sounded interesting, so I tracked it down. It falls within the broad range of science fiction, but it's also a kind of Western: Set in a postapocalyptic southern California, many generations after solar activity shut down electronic devices worldwide and caused human, animal, and plant mutations.

That might sound like a premise for a Gamma World campaign, and the more so because the treatment of mutation isn't scientifically rigorous; Changed people often have low-end powers, not at superheroic level, but not trivial. Early on in the book the town sheriff picks up a skinny teenager boy across her shoulders and runs back to town with him, at 50 mph, which establishes the scale of things. However, this isn't anything like gaming fiction; it's actually quite a good piece of storytelling with complex and often ambivalent characters.

However—I can't help doing arithmetic, if I'm presented with numbers, and as I read this book, the few numbers I was given started worrying at my brain.

° We are told, fairly early on, that Las Anclas has a population of 1016.

° There's a school, and we're told that the teacher has to keep control over sixty or seventy students. Apparently there's compulsory education, as it's mentioned that students have to keep attending till they're eighteen. Dividing 70 by 12 gives 5.83 students per year. But if we assume, say, a mean life expectancy of 60 (very good for a society with limited technological resources), there ought to be 16.9 births per year to maintain steady state; and assuming relatively low infant mortality, most of them ought to live to go through school. So it seems as if the school ought to be nearly three times as large—or there ought to be several schools, not just one.

° A figure is given for the town's perimeter: completely surrounding it with a hedge of roses would require irrigating and fertilizing 320,612 square feet. If they occupy a one-foot strip, that's just over 60 miles of perimeter, which implies an area of 293 square miles, giving a population density of about 3.5 per square mile—comparable to a hunter/gatherer tries. And it requires each inhabitant to defend 316 feet of wall, if every single person, including the infants and the very old, is called to fight! Getting to a moderately built-up density of 20 people per acre implies an area of 0.08 square miles and a circumference of just about a mile—but then the defensive strip has to extend out 59 feet from the walls. That gives the walls a circumference of a mile, which probably has the adult and adolescent inhabitants defending 15 feet of wall. But it doesn't sound like the actual thickness of the hedge is anything like 59 feet! (By the way, the hedge is vampiric roses, which is at once cool and scary.) I don't think it actually sounds like more than a tenth of that.

None of this actually spoils the novel for me; it has some good ideas and really interesting characterizations. But as a bit of worldbuilding, it's a distraction, because the numbers just don't work. I have to set them aside to enjoy the novel—and they're put into the thoughts and speech of a character who is stated to be really good at engineering and applied mathematics, who could not possibly be getting such things wrong, especially the very exact figure for the town's defenses. So it's a bit of a distraction. I really just can't make the setting work numerically.


We spent a fair part of today going out and doing things, so when it was dinnertime we were newly arrived home, and we decided to raid the freezer for all our leftovers. This gave us a curiously mixed dinner:

my rice pasta with Italian turkey sausage and a tomato-based sauce
chorale's chicken stir-fry with Crimini mushrooms, bok choy, broccoli, carrots, celery, onion, green beans, and two kinds of bell peppers
my yellow chicken curry with carrots and bell peppers

It was kind of like what one might find on one's plate at a buffet-style restaurant, but with a wider range of flavor principles.

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December 2014


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