The Case for Doing Nothing

Concerning the economy, I agree with this article quite closely. I think it is worth reading.

The Case for Doing Nothing
by Dr Jeffrey A. Miron

The Making of Apricot Jam

My parents have a number of fruit trees. Right now one of the apricot trees is in season, so I ended up getting about 50 pounds of apricots last week. A few years ago I tried making apricot pie. It didn’t turn out very well, and I didn’t really feel like making another attempt right now. (I actually haven’t made a pie in almost 2 months—I think that might be a record.)

So yesterday my roommate Nelson and I made jam out of all the apricots. It took us about 6 hours including pitting all the fruit and cleaning up afterwards. I think we made 10 batches, giving us a total of 33 pint jars plus an extra quart of jam in a container and another 2 quarts of freezer jam. Here’re the finished jars:

I’ve never made jam before; it was a fun experience. Everything certainly does get sticky. And I really mean everything: you, the counters, all the utensils, the floor, the hot pads and gloves, the cabinets (even inside of them), and every other exposed surface. I think the top of our microwave was even sticky, and we didn’t even use the microwave. Nelson definitely came out the most scarred and damaged, primarily from stirring each batch as it boiled violently at scorching temperatures, spitting hot jam in all directions.

Almost every batch was different. We had 4 recipes that differed from each other significantly and we used different types of pectin and different procedures with each of the recipes. We also made a couple of unusual batches: apricot raspberry jam and strawberry rhubarb jam (which also came from my parents’ garden). When we got all done we sampled each of the major kinds to determine which was best.

Every one of the types of jam we sampled was really good. The difference in flavor and texture between them was really quite subtle. Every recipe emphasized the extreme importance of being perfectly precise with the ingredients and procedures, threatening that the jam wouldn’t set or the jars wouldn’t seal if you deviated. In contrast, the recipes together spanned quite an array of ratios, quantities, and methods. And the resulting jams were all very close to the same and every one of them set. It makes me wonder how important all the precision in jam really is.

We tried both liquid and powdered pectins. There was a difference in the procedure for the two, but the final products were not very different based only on the pectin. The liquid pectin recipes certainly yielded less per package, but they were slightly cheaper, so it might work out to be about the same costwise per jar of jam.

Between the subtly different jams, it was pretty unanimous among my roommates that the best apricot jam was the one with the (by far) least amount of lemon juice, and proportionately somewhat less sugar. It came from a SureJell Pectin package:

Combine the following in a large saucepan:
5 cups diced apricots
¼ cup lemon juice
1 package SureJell Pectin
Bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Quickly stir in:
7 cups sugar
Boil for 1 minute. Pour into jars and process.

This gives the following ratio of ingredients (expressed in three ways; unitless because it is simply a ratio):

1 apricots : 0.2 lemon juice : 1.4 sugar
20 apricots : 1 lemon juice : 28 sugar
0.71 apricots : 0.14 lemon juice : 1 sugar

The apricot raspberry jam was by far the best one. We mixed half a recipe of apricot jam and half a recipe of raspberry jam. Haven’t tried the strawberry rhubarb jam yet so I can’t report on how well that turned out.

We used the “turn the jars up-side-down to seal them” method instead of processing the jars in a canner, which worked really well and was really easy: all we did was fill the hot jars with the boiling jam, put the boiled lids on, and immediately turned the jars up-side-down for 5 minutes. Then we stood them upright and they sealed after a little while of cooling. Every one of our jars sealed—even the ones that were only half full.

Overall, it was quite fun and very worth it. I’m glad Nelson had the idea to do it.

Nerd versus Sports Jock

While I was at my parents’ house today one of my sister Samantha’s friends stopped by to pick her up. In the few minutes he was there he said something to me like:

Samantha says you are the biggest nerd in your family but I don’t think you look look like a nerd. I think you look more like a sports jock.

I’m not really sure how to take that. Compliment? Insult to my intelligence? Not sure. In any case, apparently I don’t look as much like a nerd as a think, at least.

After he left, his comment was a topic of conversation. My mom attributes the difference in my apparent nerdiness directly to my having had LASIK. She thinks I look a lot less nerdy now than I did before. Samantha has the same opinion. One more reason I’m glad to have had LASIK. My sister Robyn insists that it was a compliment.

So I’m certainly glad I don’t have the blatant appearance of a nerd anymore, but I do hope I still look kinda smart at least.

My New About Me Page

I have never been satisfied with Blogger’s profile functionality: it is pretty limited in what you can write about yourself and it is in the Blogger theme, which I think looks kind of tacky. So I’ve been thinking about coming up with a better solution for quite a while and have finally done it.

I created a new About Me page which you can get to from the link under my picture at the right. Blogger doesn’t allow you to upload any webpages other than a post, so I designed my own webpage patterned after my blog theme and hosted it on DropBox. I’ve worked pretty hard to make the theme and links work seamlessly with blogger: you wouldn’t even know you left blogger except for the URL.

I’ve found DropBox to be a really useful tool for this and with other complications when working with Blogger. Blogger does not let you upload a number of things: they don’t allow a place to upload a background image, additional webpages, or files (like PDFs) for downloading. I’ve gotten around all of these with Dropbox. Dropbox installs a client on your computer(s) that syncs a folder in your My Documents folder with their server. You can use it for syncing files between computers, keeping revisional backups of those files, and you can make any of these synchronized files available to the public very easily via a URL. The interface is very easy to use. Right now it is hosting my background picture as well as my new About Me page.

The contact form on that page took me an especially long time to make. It is powered by EmailMe Form. You can design a form on their site to send the data in the form to an email address. It works really well. The biggest problem I found with their forms were that they were not as customizable as I would have liked. If you know a little bit of HTML you can get around this, though. I spent a while customizing what their site generated for me and I think it turned out quite well.

I expect I’ll probably update the About Me page every so often. But at this point I think it is pretty good.

My Handwriting

After some brainstorming, some experimenting, and a whole lot of repetitive writing, picture taking, and photoshopping, I now have a finished product:

And just to be clear: yes, that is my handwriting.

Feel free to comment and let me know what you think of the new look (constructive negative comments are certainly welcome).

Coconut Bread

I’ve been asked for this recipe a number of times, so I’m going to post it here. It is certainly among the very best of all the quick breads that I have made. It is very sweet and has a very intense and absolutely delicious coconut flavor. It’s the kind of bread you can just eat and eat.

Coconut Bread

Beat in a large bowl:
4 eggs
Add and blend well:
1 cup oil
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons coconut flavoring
Separately, sift together:
3 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
Beating well after each addition, add sifted dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with:
1 cup buttermilk or soured milk
1 cup coconut
(1 cup nuts)
Pour into greased and floured 10” tube pan and bake at 325° F for 1¼ hours or until a toothpick comes out clean.

When the bread is nearly done, boil for 5 minutes:
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
2 tablespoons butter
Remove from heat and add:
1 teaspoon coconut flavoring
Pour the hot syrup over the warm bread and let stand 4 hours before removing from pan.

I don’t have a bundt pan, so I typically use 5 or 6 small (5¾” x 3″) loaf pans and decrease the cooking time accordingly (I haven’t timed it—I just use a toothpick). I think there might be just a little too much batter to fit in a large (10″) loaf pan, though I haven’t tried it.

I also have a PDF version available for download here.

As always with recipes, I’m always looking for the best ones and asking people to be really critical of my baking. So if you know of a comparable or better Coconut Bread recipe I’d like to hear about it. Also, after you use this recipe then let me know what you think.


Update: I discovered there was a typo in this recipe. I have corrected it now, but if you downloaded the PDF or copied off the above recipe before today (Monday 6 July at 1:00 PM) then you should redownload it. It used to call for 2 tablespoons of coconut flavoring instead of the correct amount of 2 teaspoons.

Burning Money

I think that the Fourth of July is one of my least favorite holidays. Now I typically do fun things and often spend time with family on the Fourth of July, but I usually do that for most holidays, so when comparing and ranking holidays, activities like that are really irrelevant (because they are the same across all holidays). And yes, I absolutely do like the United States and I am certainly in favor of celebrating our independence. I simply don’t like one particular aspect of how people typically celebrate the Fourth of July.

I recognize that most people will disagree with the opinion that I’m about to share and that I will probably hear about it from a number of people that read this. But I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t like fireworks. And that is one of the biggest things that sets the Fourth of July apart from other holidays. In fact, I don’t like them enough that the Fourth of July is one of my very least favorite holidays primarily because of them. This might seem weird, so let me explain why I don’t like them.

From a purely utility-maximizing-consumer perspective, I personally think fireworks are not worth purchasing. They are often very expensive, and as my grandpa pointed out yesterday, buying fireworks is a lot like burning money. I would say that the only difference between burning money and buying fireworks is that when you buy fireworks then the flames are different colors, they smells worse, and they make a lot of accompanying noise.

In addition to that, they are pretty inconvenient and annoying. Take last night, for instance. I arrived home at my apartment pretty late to find that a group of people were lighting fireworks in the entrance to my apartment complex’s parking lot. Now when you have an entire parking lot at your disposal with a couple of corners that are totally vacant, why would you pick the entrance to light fireworks? I don’t have any idea, but they did. And you couldn’t possibly argue that they were trying to stay away from parked cars, because they were close enough to some that I would have been pretty uncomfortable if the cars had been mine. Anyway, more generally speaking, navigating most streets on the Fourth of July can be a complicated task. Everywhere you turn there are fountains of sparks in your way or piles of burned out trash for you to drive over.

So then when I went to go to bed, it turned out that those same people where still lighting fireworks (at about 1:00 AM) in the entrance to the complex, which was coincidentally located right under my bedroom window. So I had to endure stupendously bright flashes of light and eruptions of sound for quite a while before going to sleep. I was a little annoyed.

Now let’s move from mere inconvenience to arguments of more substance. Each year there are a huge amount of injuries and damages caused by fireworks. Here’s a bit of data taken from The Department of Health and Human Services:

  • In 2006, eleven people died and an estimated 9,200 were treated in emergency rooms because of fireworks. Hospitalization was required for 5% of these people.
  • Most firework injuries happen around the Fourth of July. One third of injuries were children under age 15; almost half were under age 20.
  • Injuries from fireworks include severe burns, hearing damage, contusions, lacerations, and foreign bodies in the eye. Fireworks can cause blindness, third degree burns, and permanent scarring.
  • There were around 2,200 reported structure or vehicle fires started by fireworks in 2004. These fires resulted in $21 million in direct property damage.

Those are pretty serious side affects, resulting in a huge amount of expense caused by injury or damages, not to mention the drastic impact many of these injuries have on the individual that was injured and their family.

Above all else, though, the reason I dislike fireworks is for the foul stench they cause. Fireworks smell much worse than other kinds of fire. And if you are anywhere in the vicinity of fireworks being shot off, you end up smelling like them yourself. In fact, with the prevalence of fireworks on the Fourth of July, all you really have to do is walk outside in the evening and then I have to take a shower to get rid of the smell.

Closely associated with the horrible stench is the pollution. For days after the Fourth of July you can smell and see the firework smoke. It is often pretty thick and heavy. It’s funny that you regularly hear all about how we need to cut back on polluting the environment and cut back on carbon dioxide emissions, yet no one ever talks about the effects of fireworks. Many fireworks contain toxic amounts of heavy metals and chemicals that eventually pollute water systems and can cause serious health risks when inhaled.

I think that shooting off fireworks imposes a significant negative externality on other people. If you don’t know what a negative externality is, read this digression on the topic:

In economics, an externality is any affect, either positive or negative, from a transaction or activity that impacts people not directly engaged in that transaction or activity. Pollution is the classic negative example: if a factory pollutes while producing its good then a cost is imposed on those affected by the pollution. These costs are not typically taken into account during production—hence the usual solution to regulate or tax pollution to help account for this cost.

On the other hand, the affect can be quite positive. If a man keeps bees in order to harvest honey, then the surrounding area benefits substantially from the pollination that takes place. This benefit might even outweigh the benefit of the honey itself, but the beekeeper is typically not compensated for the full benefit of the bees to the community. It is often the case that things that generate a negative externality are overproduced and things that generate a positive externality are underproduced—hence the need for taxation/regulation or subsidization in some cases.

Now it does get much more complicated than that. Suppose someone is playing music really loud at their apartment. One neighbor might be really annoyed by the music and would say that he is imposing a negative externality on the complex and demand that it be regulated (by a noise ordinance, for instance). Another neighbor might really enjoy the choice of music and the quality of the sound system and would say that he is imposing a positive externality. So the net effect can be complicated to determine and the need for and method of government intervention in many cases is highly debated.

Now back to fireworks.

Many people would argue that fireworks impose a positive externality. If your neighbor or your city are shooting off fireworks they can’t stop you from watching even if you didn’t pay. So you get to freeride on them and benefit from their purchase. I personally disagree. I think that fireworks impose a negative externality on those of us that don’t care for them and their effects. We have no choice but to endure the inconvenience, the sound, the light, the costs from damages and injuries (through taxation), the stench, and the pollution caused by other people’s decisions.

This year it occured to me that a serious recession might (hopefully) significantly impact the purchase of fireworks. I’ve been really curious the past few days: what does the income elasticity of demand for fireworks look like? Here’s a digression on elasticity, if you’re not familiar with it:

An Elasticity is a ratio between the percent change of one variable and the percent change of another variable. One common elasticity is the price elasticity of demand for a good, which is the amount that demand for a good changes based on a change in its price. Gasoline is an example of a fairly inelastic good: as the price of gasoline goes up, demand drops pretty slowly, compared to the change in price.

Another common elasticity is the income elasticity of demand. This is a measure of how demand changes for a good based on a change of income of those purchasing the good. In other words, if you suddenly make less money, how much will this affect the quantity you purchase of a particular good? This is what I’m curious about with respect to fireworks.

The question is then, will people significantly cut back on purchasing fireworks because of having less spending money (i.e. demand is very elastic with respect to income) or will they spend roughly the same amount and cut back on other things (i.e demand is very inelastic)?

From what I’ve read about this so far in the news, it’s hard to say. Some people say sales are similar to previous years; others are saying they are down from previously years. But most seem to think that the affect is small if there is any affect at all. I wish that I had some firework demand data so I could estimate the income elasticity of demand for fireworks. Could it really be true, though, that demand for fireworks is that inelastic? I would find that hard to believe (yet somehow not that surprising). Hopefully the news reports will shed some light on the subject in the next few days. And hopefully fireworks are a really elastic good, so the smell and pollution will be a little less over the next few days.

Images courtesy of Scott Jarvie. They (and others) can be found on his blog.

Microsoft Excel for Poets

A few days ago Dave, Andrew, Janelle and I were discussing books that we would each be inclined and/or qualified to write. In light of my recent adventures with poetry, Andrew observed that I was uniquely poised to write the reference book Microsoft Excel for Poets. I’m sure such a book has not previously been written. I think it could be an invaluable reference for the poetically inclined, so today I commenced writing. Here’s what I’ve got so far:


‘Tis the purpose of this unusual book
The magnificence of Excel to teach,
So that things which for thee a long time took
Henceforth a little time instead might take.

The aud’ence for whom this book is intent
Shall be whosoever finds that prose be dull.
For to assuage the pain and dread of learning
The lessons be writ with words so soothing.

Excel is quite a powerful program,
With nuances and features quite a few.
Some time it will take to master it quite;
With patience born thou wilt betimes learn’t all.

I prithee go slow to master each verse:
Rush thee too quick and frustrated thou’lt be.
Each section read, then pause thee short betwixt
Forthwith to practice all that thou hast learnt.

But soft give heed: Excel can be quite fun.
Fain be not lachrymose in study then—
Instead forsooth enjoy the time thus spent.
Good fortune have thee on thy journey hence.

Chapter 1: Navigating Excel

Chapter 3: Functions

Fore now we’ve focused on navigation
To get a feel of moving ‘round Excel.
Then formatting of cells did take our focus
On these two topics did we perorate.

Thus in former twain chapters did we stay
Alee of complexity but also puissance.
Now don’t be affrighted for we did lay
Foundations upon which to build henceforth.

Now turn we to matters of import amain:
The structure and usage of functions galore.
Of true power and substance we’ll verily speak
For striving herein t’will bring thee great meed.

To commence most simply we’ll learn how to add,
So find thee a cell with nothing therein
And pick thee two numbers thou will to sum—
Then watch with great awe as Excel doth work.

An equals type thee, then one number meet,
A plus put thee in, then t’other number lief.
Press enter and view th’answer forthwith;
Display there it shall, whosoever wilt look.

For sooth ifsoever thy numbers be changed,
Adjust t’will the answer also straightway.
See computers read this language thou spake
So answers it when thou typest it in.

More functions we have henceforth to explore
For only the surface we’ve scratched hereon.
Now pause thee short, to practice here a mite
And then shalt thou try subtracting alike.

Still got a ways to go before publishing, but I think it’s off to a great start. This could be the start of a whole For Poets series:

  • Microsoft Word for Poets
  • Surfing the Internet for Poets
  • Pie Baking for Poets
  • Pre-Calculus for Poets
  • Blogging for Poets
  • Insurance Risk for Poets
  • Basic Computer Repair for Poets
  • Probability Theory for Poets
  • Introductory Quantum Physics for Poets
  • Basic Poker Theory for Poets
  • Database Design for Poets
  • Monopolistic Price Theory for Poets

If they sell well, I might never have to work again.

Catching Rain

According to the New York Times today, it’s now legal to catch and use rainwater in Colorado on land that you own. But you still need a permit or you risk being fined. Incidentally, that is still not the case in Utah. In Utah collecting rainwater is still illegal.

My First Attempt at Poetry

I just purchased Hamlet a couple of days ago and am inviting people over to watch it this week. I’ve seen excerpts from a number of film versions of Hamlet and seen a couple all the way through. From everything I’ve seen so far, the one I like the best is the Kenneth Branagh version released in 1996. That’s the one I bought and that we’ll be watching.

When I started making the Facebook event on Saturday to invite people over I decided it’d be really cool to write the description in Shakespearean style. So after hours of looking up words, thinking, and writing on Saturday and Sunday, I have my first attempt at blank verse:

Come, I beseech thee, and sequacious be,
And fain aside thy dreary labors lay.
For an evening hence we shall display
The tragic story of young Hamlet prince.

Methinks the show four hours shall run,
Howbeit pause we and some refreshment take.
I shall some dish of culinary art prepare
And twain shall we partake therein and thr’out.

If it thy desire be, an off’ring shalt thou bring—
For then from thence we haply shall indulge
And betwixt us all a feast we’ll make thereby;
Thus on the sweetness of much snackage dine.

Come hither to meet ere seven o’clock,
For straitly we shall start forthwith.
I prithee thus that prompt ye be,
Soas to end afore the witching hour strike.

Therefore straightway set thy mind to attend,
For I palter not, and again implore thee:
Decide anon and set thy mind to come
And repugn thee not then mine entreaty.

I have always considered poetry beyond my personal ability. Perhaps I need to revise my perspective and make more attempts. Ultimately I would like to write a poem about the clouds. But that’s probably pretty far down the road. First I’ve got to make something rhyme.

Special thanks to Andrew, whose poetic attempts have inspired me to make some of my own.