Archive for the ‘Reading list’ Category

Recommended reading: May 7, 2017.

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

I’ve stumbled across two articles in the past couple of days that I commend to your attention. At least, if you’re as fascinated with this kind of thing as I am.

1) If you own a Patek Philippe Caliber 89 watch (I know many of my readers do: if you happen to be one of the unfortunate ones who does not, Sotheby’s is auctioning one soon), you’re going to have to get it serviced.

Why? The Caliber 89 has a unique feature (or, as high-end watch folks call it, “complication”): it will tell you what day Easter falls on each year.

It turns out that computing the date Easter falls on is simultaneously two things:

a) Relatively hard to do.

Easter is one of the “moveable feasts” of the Christian calendar; it falls on a different date every year. The reason is this: the basic rule for Easter is that it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring (that is, the first full moon after the Spring Equinox) and because both astronomical events are variable, the Easter date changes every year. (As with any calendrical irregularity, there have been various proposals over the centuries to just pick a single date, but so far nothing has stuck). For this reason, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

b) Relatively easy to do for a digital computer. I think you could probably fit a program to do this in 4K of BASIC, or even run it on a good programmable calculator.

But the Caliber 89 is a totally mechanical watch. How does it calculate the date of Easter? There’s the problem:

A method for calculating the Easter date is called a computus; is it possible to make a true mechanical computus, rather than relying on a program disk? The answer is, “sort of.” The first true mechanical computus appears to have been made not long after Gauss came up with his algorithm, and it currently resides in a place more horological enthusiasts should know about: the great astronomical clock in the cathedral at Strasbourg, in Alsace, France. There have actually been three successive astronomical clocks there since about 1354, but the most recent was completed in 1843. Designed by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué, it has a true mechanical computus – probably the first ever constructed. It’s not the only mechanical computus, but I haven’t been able to find anything in English on other computus devices (although a reprint of a review of a book on the Strasbourg computus mentions at least two other “similar” mechanisms).

Even if you are not a high-end watch person, there’s still a lot in this article that I think is interesting: mostly the discussion of how Easter calculations work, and of the Strasbourg clock (which I’d really like to see one of these days).

(Hattip: The YCombinator Twitter.)

2) I’m a fan of Stephen Hunter’s work, and one who wishes he had time to write more non-fiction. I enjoy his novels, but I also think he’s an outstanding non-fiction essayist and writer. (Mr. Hunter, if you’re out there: I’d buy a hardback collection of your shorter works.)

The most recent American Rifleman has a Hunter article that pushes several of my buttons at once: “A Battle At Barrington: The Men & The Guns”.

You may have heard of the “Battle of Barrington”, though not under that name. It is also covered in Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies, a book both Hunter and I like a lot. This was the famous shootout between agents of what became the FBI and Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face” Nelson. Gillis, his wife, and his partner John Chase were being pursued by (and shooting it out with) FBI agents when their vehicle was disabled: they were cornered by agents Samuel Cowley and Herman Hollis. In the ensuing shootout, Gillis killed Cowley and Hollis, and fled in their car: however, Gillis himself was mortally wounded by the agent’s gunfire and bled to death. (Chase and Mrs. Gillis were captured later: Chase spent 33 years in prison, and Mrs. Gillis served one year.)

The nice thing about Hunter’s article is that he addresses the firearms and tactics used by both sides. This sort of analysis is not a strong point of Burrough’s book: Hunter and his researcher actually went back to the old FBI files and turned up some new information.

The FBI’s records are full of fascinating facts about the event. For one thing: these guys weren’t just loaded for bear, they were loaded for bears, a lot of them. Found in the abandoned Model A: three bulletproof vests, five empty magazines for .38 Super automatics; two filled machine gun magazines (presumably Thompson 20 rounders); 200 rounds of loose .45 ammunition, three empty .351 magazines, three boxes of .30-’06 Sprg. soft-nose ammunition; one box of Springfield boattailed ammunition, five boxes, .45 Colt automatic ammunition, two boxes of Springfield bronze-pointed ammunition. One tan briefcase containing one loaded 100-round drum for the Thompson submachine gun; 10 boxes .22 Long Rifle; one Colt Ace .22 Long Rifle pistol and magazine. The last is a revelation: Chase had bought the M1911 variant with a lightweight .22 slide and barrel. Perhaps he and Les used it for low-cost practice on their various travels.

And, as you know, Bob, I love me some Thompsons. My one complaint about Hunter’s article, though, is that he consistently places the Miami Dade FBI shootout in 1987: it actually took place April 11, 1986.

This quote is for Karl (wink wink nudge nudge):

[Hollis] should have used his Super .38, firing prone, two handed, as that round’s velocity and straight-line trajectory could have gotten the job done, ending up center mass in Les. But he hadn’t been trained to two-handed prone shooting. In fact he hadn’t been trained to anything! The soon-to-be Bureau’s firearm training program didn’t begin until 1935!

New year, new list.

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

I wasn’t all that wild about what the NYT did with this year’s “The Lives They Led” obituary roundup.

But this, this is a swell article:

But the diesel engine was too loud, and the Anna Mary, on autopilot, moving due south at six and a half knots, was already out of reach, its navigation lights receding into the night. Aldridge shouted once more, panic rising in his throat, and then silence descended. He was alone in the darkness. A single thought gripped his mind: This is how I’m going to die.

One aspect of this that fascinates me: the Coast Guard’s use of computers in search and rescue.

The Coast Guard has used computer simulations in search and rescue since the mid-1970s, but Sarops has been in use since only 2007. At its heart is a Monte Carlo-style simulator that can generate, in just a few minutes, as many as 10,000 points to represent how far and in what direction a “search object” might have drifted. Operators input a variety of data, from the last known location of a lost mariner to the ocean currents and wind direction. Sarops then creates a map of a search area — in this case, of the ocean south of Montauk — with colored squares representing each potential location for the search object. Red and orange squares represent the most likely locations; gray squares represent the least likely.

This is probably going to shake a few people up.

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

“Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University”.

When I think of Jerry Falwell, I don’t think about him the way Bill Maher does. I think about the man who would wear a huge Blue Afro wig to our school games, or the man who slid down a waterslide in his suit, or the man who would allow himself to be mocked during our coffeehouse shows. I think about the man who reminded us every time he addressed our student body that God loved us, that he loved us, and that he was always available if ever we needed him.

I never told Dr. Falwell that I was gay; but I wouldn’t have been afraid of his response. Would he have thought homosexuality was an abomination? Yes. Would he have thought it was God’s intention for me to be straight? Yes. But would he have wanted to stone me? No. And if there were some that would’ve wanted to stone me, I can imagine Jerry Falwell, with his fat smile, telling all of my accusers to go home and pray because they were wicked people.

Let my people eat bread.

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

My mother sent along an article from the WP that I had missed, “Better bread starts with a sponge“, which discusses some sourdough techniques for home bakers.

I appreciate her sending that along, and have already sent her some comments. But since they’re easy blog fodder, I’ll repeat them here. I don’t really have any problems with Marcy Goldman, or her article; I want to try her “Favorite French Bread“. But there are some questions I have and comments to make.

  1. Goldman quotes Cook’s Illustrated as saying home bakers should “forgo a starter to save time and simply add vinegar for that characteristic acidic taste”. This is, so far, the dumbest thing I’ve read in 2013. To her credit, Goldman does not endorse this, but I expect better from CI and that tweedy little bow-tied jackass.
  2. Why is this dumb? Because anyone can make a starter. It is not the nuclear rocket brain surgery. It isn’t hard. I have made starters and baked with them, and I’m not Thomas Freaking Keller in the kitchen. All you need is flour, water, and time; that’s how the original Alaskan sourdoughs were made. Yeast is a possible addition, but isn’t strictly needed. (I’ll touch on that in a minute.) As far as time goes, you can get a starter going in 72 hours, and it will keep indefinitely with reasonable care.
  3. Goldman’s stater recipe calls for a cup of spring water, 1 1/4 cups of unbleached bread flour, 2 tablespoons each of whole-wheat and rye flour, and 1/2 teaspoon of instant yeast. The starter recipe I’ve been using calls for 3/4 cup of milk, “heated to a simmer and cooled to 100°F”, 1 cup flour (white, whole-wheat, or rye) and 1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast. Both make enough starter for one loaf in their respective recipes; I’ve doubled the recipe amount for my starter, and am feeding it with 1 cup heated milk and 1 cup rye or whole-wheat flour whenever I pull some starter out. That way, I always have enough starter. (I keep it in a crock on the back of my stove.)
  4. Here’s the thing, though: if you’re starting your starter with yeast, aren’t you just…growing more of the same yeast? I mean, if I want Fleischman’s, I can go buy that stuff all day long at the HEB. Or do the natural yeasts in the air eventually overwhelm your starter yeast? I have heard it said that’s what happens with packaged sourdough starter, like you might get as a souvenir in San Francisco or Alaska; you may get it home and bake some bread, but eventually the original strain will get overwhelmed by your wild local yeasts. (That doesn’t mean I don’t want to try baking with one of those starters; I do.)
  5. The one starter I’ve found that doesn’t call for added yeast is Nancy Silverton’s in Breads from the La Brea Bakery. I’d like to try that, but it takes 14 days to get to the point where you’re ready to bake with it, and it seems very fussy. While I was looking up Silverton’s starter, I found this starter recipe from Michael Ruhlman, which doesn’t take 14 days, doesn’t call for added yeast, and also looks like something worth trying.
  6. Speaking of Ruhlman, he’s probably worth a post of his own at some point. (I’ve been reading Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, the latter of which I paid $1 for at the Austin Public Library bookstore. At one point in Making, Ruhlman mentions a CIA chef who has a starter he’s kept going since 1985; the book came out in 1997, so that was at least a ten-year-old starter.)

Another bookmark.

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Even though it has one strike against it (being written by A.G. “a vegetarian at Arthur Bryant’s” Sulzberger), and even though FARK linked it, I still wanted to tag this article:

Two Men, One Sky: A Flight to the Finish.

Or, the true story of two guys who took off from Zapata, Texas one morning last July in an attempt to set the world record for flying the longest distance…in a hang glider. One of them flew 472 miles in 11 hours (the previous longest flight was 438 miles). And the other one? I’m not going to spoil it for you.


Saturday, January 12th, 2013

A couple of things I want to bookmark here, even though they’ve been all over the web, for two reasons:

  1. I want to get more serious about doing a “best articles” of the year for 2013, assuming we’re all still here at the end of 2013.
  2. I want to bookmark these for future reference.

These are mostly bookmarks for myself, so the rest of you can ignore this post if you’d like.


Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie“, the absolutely crazy account of what happens when Paul Schrader, Lindsay Lohan, Bret Easton Ellis, and a porn star try to make a low-budget, funded on Kickstarter, movie. Hilarity ensues.

Also: “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek“. This is supposed to be an amazing use of interactive media to tell a story, and it is the kind of story that’s right up my alley; I just have not gotten around to going through it yet.

This isn’t really an “article of the year” candidate, but I wanted to point it out and bookmark it for future reference: “The Minimum Viable Kitchen“, or how to cook great food for an investment of under $1,000 in tools. I wouldn’t take this as gospel: while my two favorite kitchen knives are both Victorinox (and I should probably add that paring knife to the battery), I’ve heard some pretty negative things about the accessories for the Kitchenaid mixers. So take this with a grain of salt and do some hands-on work before making a major purchase (or even a minor one: Blood Bath and Beyond should let you fondle that Oxo whisk for a while before you buy it).

The steer, the stall, the shade, the duke man, and the dip.

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Picked this up from Insta, but I don’t care that he already linked it; this is one of those stories.

People who have been reading this blog regularly know that I’m fascinated by magic and the history of magic. You know that my admiration for Penn and Teller is like the universe itself; finite but unbounded.

Penn and Teller are only in this story as sort of peripheral figures, but I commend it to your attention: New Yorker profile of Apollo Robins, the world’s greatest pickpocket.

…Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.
“Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.
Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.

Part of what makes this story so interesting to me, other than the magic angle, is that Robbins’ work, and the techniques he’s developed, reveal really interesting things about the mind and human perception.

The intersection of magic and neuroscience has become a topic of some interest in the scientific community, and Robbins is now a regular on the lecture circuit. Recently, at a forum in Baltimore, he shared a stage with the psychologist Daniel Kahneman—who won a Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics—and the two had a long discussion about so-called “inattentional blindness,” the phenomenon of focussing so intently on a single task that one fails to notice things in plain sight.

This is the best thing I’ve read so far in 2013. It may be the best magazine article of the year; I expect it to be in contention if we’re all still here in December.