Are we going to have 6" of snow in Norman tomorrow?

Roger Edwards gives you the definitive answer:
Anyone who tries to nail any spot down to a specific amount, or a narrow range (like, say, 5-6 inches) this soon is full of BS ... uncertainty is part of the deal. It is unavoidable, if a forecaster is being honest with himself and with you
As they say, read the whole thing.

Keeping the bathwater and throwing out the baby

Remember the Sichuan cookbook I was talking about a year ago?  I was talking about trying to make a fried tofu soup, except that the recipe asked for ingredients that we didn't stock. So, I ended up replacing pretty much everything: the fried tofu with "bear's paw tofu", the ya cai with onions and vinegar, etc.

As I've been working my way through the Sichuan cookbook, I've also been building our pantry, so that we now stock most everything that the recipes call for.  But it's a process.

When I tried to make Dan Dan noodles, for example, the recipe called for several things I didn't have on hand: ground pork, ya cai, chili oil and sichuan pepper.  So, I substituted soft tofu for the ground pork; marinated lemon peel for the ya cai, sambal oelek and sesame oil for the chili oil, black pepper for the sichuan pepper.  I also noted down all the stuff that I wished I'd had and bought them the next time we went to the Asian store in the city. Pickled mustard greens (the true ya cai) in the fried tofu soup was a revelation.  There really is no substitute, so  we now always stock it. In general, that has been the case for most ingredients that Fuchsia Dunlop calls for.

And so, I picked up dried sichuan peppers with anticipation. It ought to be much better than using black peppers, no?  It wasn't. It was hard and had an unpleasant, crunchy texture.  Perhaps one ought to grind the pepper corns before using it? The next time I made Dan Dan noodles (i..e yesterday), I ground the peppercorns in a spice grinder before making the sauce. Now, the dish had a nice aroma, and the taste was good -- better than black peppers -- but unfortunately, the gritty texture remained.

Finally, I decided to look up how to use sichuan peppers and Wikipedia helpfully notes:
Recipes often suggest lightly toasting the tiny seedpods, then crushing them before adding them to food. Only the husks are used; the shiny black seeds are discarded or ignored as they have a very gritty sand-like texture.
Only the husks! Aha! Maybe I ought to read up on unfamiliar ingredients before I start cooking ... you think?

p.s. In case you don't cook, the title of this post may make no sense. Using just the husk is very unusual. There are spices (such as cardamom) where you discard the husk and use the seed, but this is the first spice I know of where you discard the seed and use the husk.  It's as if one were to keep the bathwater and throw out the baby.

A bleg: I need your suggestions!

Most of what I do is rather technical and dry but I recently accepted an invitation to talk about the environmental implications of machine intelligence and automation.  This is a little out of the main stream for me, but the good thing about an open-ended talk like this is that one can ask a lot of questions and simply suggest possible answers!  But still, I need help posing the right questions and what's a blog for if I can't use it to beg for help?

The way I see it, I can approach this from two angles:

Effect of machine intelligence and automation on the environment, i.e. things such as:

  • the use of robots to enable easier and more routine clean up of environmental disasters
  • the ability to clean up areas that are unsafe for humans
  • reduction in the need for physical infrastructure if travel, commutes, etc. are replaced by virtual meetings
The effect of the use of machine intelligence and automation in environmental decision making i.e. things such as:

  • Do the errors common to machine intelligence (the inability to extrapolate, for example) make it harder to predict extreme events when such statistical methods become very common?
  • As forecasts improve in accuracy, do the customers of such forecasts make "hard" decisions more often, i.e. instead of hedging their bets?
What do you think? Is there material I should reference? Incidents that I should mention? Angles I should consider?

Send me suggestions: comment here, on Facebook, or send me an email.

The threat to innovation on the internet

The most incredible anecdote in Tim Wu's "Master Switch" is about how a Bell Labs researcher discovered tape storage (and answering machines) in the 1930s.  The telephone company buried the invention because it feared that people would use telephones less.

The anecdote comes as Tim Wu describes "The Cycle", how information industries go through a cycle of consolidation and decentralization. Decentralized information industries (telegraph, telephone, movies, radio, television) are eventually brought into a low-innovation state by monopolizers. The monopolist quashes all potential threats (internal and external) until some upstart outsider-innovator manages to sneak past, usually with the aid of government regulation that reestablishes a competitive market place.

In the final part of the book, he fingers Apple and AT&T as the would-be monopolists, pointing out that the success of the iPod, for example, owed more to deal-making  than to technical sophistication. He fears for the future of the internet if power gets centralized again in the hands of a cartel  such as Apple + AT&T or Verizon + Comcast.  He is also leery of what would happen if the people whose wires Internet traffic travels over (broadband cable, telephone long distance lines) decide to start imposing tariffs based on the deals they cut with their partners, so that the free flow of information is jeopardized.

The government, he points out, can not muzzle free speech, but private industry sure can. Information cartels, therefore, are dangerous.

The solution? He advocates what he calls a "constitutional solution", where the separation of content-creators, infrastructure providers and device-creators becomes an organizing principle. You've probably heard this referred to as "net neutrality", but Wu brings the concept to life and points out how important it is, to future innovation and innovators, that the open nature of the Internet be maintained.

This is one of those rare books that made me look at a topic that I thought I understood in a new and novel way.  This book is a must-read it if you are interested in technology and in regulatory policy.

The way to be wacky in Oklahoma: be a Buckeye

S2, the six-year-old, is explaining to me that tomorrow is "Wacky Penguin Day" in her class. They are learning about birds, and tomorrow, they are all supposed to come to school dressed as wacky as they can be.

I'm interested because S2 is the polar opposite of whatever wacky means. She likes to gussy things up, to look pretty.  She's the type of person who comes home with a flyer about a "Daddy-Daughter dance" and insists that we sign up, so that she can wear a dress with a bow on it.

"So how are you going to dress for Wacky Penguin Day?"

"You know that Ohio State shirt you got me? I'm going to wear that. That would look wacky, right Appa?"


Culture vs nature

Did you know that color is a cultural concept?

Of course, the color spectrum is quite continuous, and so where you mark off color transitions could be arbitrary. But it isn't because the human eye sees saturation at specific frequencies and it is those colors that receive names and in any case, that's not what I am talking about.

Instead, what I'm talking about is something that British Prime Minister Gladstone first pointed out -- that Homer's epics describe the world purely in black and white. Greek culture at the time did not have words for green or blue -- thus Homer's skies and oceans are dark, not blue or sea-green. Many cultures start out with names of just dark and light, and may add in red.

Colors beyond black, white and red are very much a product of the ability to make artificial dyes.  Until a culture can make any arbitrary color, it doesn't come up with names for any more colors.

In "Through the Language Glass", Guy Deutscher explains it in terms of our language of taste.  The words that we have to describe taste are incredibly crude: sweet, sour, spicy.  A refined palate would probably point out hints of cardamom or mesquite. And that too is the point -- our words for taste are totally circumscribed by their natural sources.  And in a culture that does not make artificial dyes (as opposed to creating reds from cochineal insects, for example), their words for colors are similarly crude.

I picked up the book expecting a quick read of obvious arguments about how German is formal because Germans are formal, but he makes mincemeat of that in the first 20 pages and then delves into truly jaw-dropping stuff.  The book is a must read, not only for the simply amazing anecdotes, but for its sophisticated take on the culture-vs-nature question.