Musk decides not to murder tourists

Surprise, surprise, there will be no slaughtering of tourists around the moon in Q4 2018 as originally stated early last year. That’s a sensible thing. Besides, nobody but the worst of humanity would want to see the millions of laugh-cry emojis that would inevitably be pasted willy-nilly by the worst of humanity.

“If I’ve told you media people once, I’ve told you a hundred million times that I never engage in hyperbole! Ever, do you hear me? Now get out or I call in the bulldozers!”

See also: NASA decides not to murder astronauts

No such thing as a mistake

I’m losing a bit of faith in the QI podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish” lately. In nearly every episode in recent months, I’ve noted at least one mistake, sometimes as many as three when subjects on which I know a fair amount come up. They’re mostly small mistakes, but they’re bothersome since Quite Interesting is noted for its high accuracy, with only a handful of mistakes that I can recall in the fifteen years of the television series. I have much enthusiasm for high quality – see my site name – so I have a lot of respect for QI.

As an example, the most recent podcast claimed that the falcon feather/hammer Galileo demonstration Commander Dave Scott gave during Apollo 15 was done during Apollo 12. A small mistake, but that’s pretty sloppy by QI standards. Such mistakes make me wonder about the accuracy of the things they discuss that I’m not familiar with, and if the television show is also going to be somewhat untrustworthy next series since the podcast crew work there.

I think the problems may have started when the podcast co-presenters started going on tour, publishing books, &c a year or so ago. It’s likely they rely on each other to be careful with their research, but with their busy schedule, they’re slipping substantially and don’t yet know it. Some cross fact-checking would be prudent if they’re going to continue travelling a lot. Don’t make me come over there.

Now just four

Alan Bean, the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 12 who actually got to fly the LM in lunar orbit thanks to his friend, Commander Pete Conrad, has died at 86.

Here’s how they landed on the Ocean of Storms on 19 November 1969. 16mm film of the final approach from Bean’s LM window begins at 8:39, but the first part of the video does a nice job in explaining all the steps from Powered Descent Initiation through landing.

One of the many interesting things that happened during their flight is discussed in this somewhat not-safe-for-work clip from the excellent documentary”In the Shadow of the Moon”:

I highly recommend the seventh episode of the excellent “From the Earth to the Moon” series. In that episode, Apollo 12, arguably the best Apollo mission in terms of fun, is presented in accurate detail from Al Bean’s perspective. You can view it or download it at archive.org here.

After he left NASA, Bean pursued painting as a new career, and well:

A few hours after I read the news, the wallpaper on my desktop – one of 3,700 rotated randomly – happened to change to this high-res photo of Bean taken by Conrad on the surface of the moon during one of the best days of both of their lives.

Click for 4095×4095

Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean

“What you see before you is the result of a lifetime of chocolate”

Katharine Hepburn’s brownies; click for 1920×1080

The full quotation is from Katharine Hepburn when she was 70:

“I don’t have to watch my figure as I never had much of one to watch. What you see before you is the result of a lifetime of chocolate.”

These are my fortified version of her one-pot, one-pan brownie recipe. Hepburn’s brownies were well-known by her friends and her recipe accompanied an interview in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1975. In 1987, it was included in this book that’s in my collection:

My variation on her recipe has toasted pecans swapped in for the walnuts and is enriched with espresso powder and extra chocolate and vanilla. These are quick to make and disappear even faster in a murmur of Mmmms, so you may want to consider a double batch. They’re ideal when you’re perhaps a little pressed for time but want a great dessert – whip these up in under an hour, including the time to preheat the oven and toast the pecans, and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

For that still-warm-from-the-oven effect, I recommend microwaving one brownie for 9 seconds. And a napkin. Maybe a Wet-Nap.

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies – My Variation

  • 2½ oz/70g unsweetened chocolate – I use Ghirardelli (in New England, Market Basket has the best prices on Ghirardelli by far)
  • 1 stick/4 oz/115g unsalted butter, or salted butter if you have no unsalted
  • 1 cup/200g sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (usually found near instant coffee in the supermarket)
  • ¾ teaspoon table salt, or ½ teaspoon if you’re using salted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup/30g flour
  • 1 cup pecan halves toasted at 325F/160C for 9 minutes and broken, processed, or roughly chopped into large pieces
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips such as Ghirardelli 60% Cacao chips

Preheat oven to 325F/160C. Toast the pecans on a baking sheet for 9 minutes, then remove from the pan and allow to cool a bit. Break each half into four quarters or process/chop them into large pieces. Line an 8×8″/20x20cm pan with parchment paper – see the method below. You can instead butter the bottom and sides of the pan, but these are gooey brownies that really want to stick, even to a well-greased non-stick pan.

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the stick of butter and the unsweetened chocolate. When melted, remove from heat – there’s no more cooktop heat from this point – and beat in the sugar. When the sugar is incorporated, beat in the eggs, then the espresso powder, salt, and vanilla. Fold in the flour, then stir in the toasted pecans and chocolate chips.

Pour into the parchment-lined pan and bake at 325F/160C for 40 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees at 20 minutes. Check them at 35 minutes – if you see the edges are darkening, get them out of the oven because they’re done. Cool for at least half an hour, then lift the brownies out using the sides of the parchment, peel the paper off, and cut into nine, twelve, or sixteen pieces (3×3, 4×3, or 4×4). A long, thin-bladed knife, cleaned and run under piping hot water between cuts, will help you produce squares instead of a pile of broken brownie pieces.

Lining a Pan with Parchment

  • Cut a piece of parchment paper the same shape but roughly 50% bigger than the pan. I start with these pre-cut half-sheet pan (12×16”) parchment sheets: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00KY5KLZK
  • Cut diagonally in from the corners of the parchment to the corners of the pan
  • Spray pan with cooking spray (or use a dot of butter at each corner) just to help the parchment stay put
  • Place the parchment in the pan, overlapping the diagonal flaps. You don’t need to spray the top of the parchment. So long as it’s silicone-treated, it will peel off just fine.

Notes on Pecans

Costco often sells 2-pound bags of pecans for US$13, which is probably close to what you’d pay for two pounds at a roadside pecan farm stand in the South. However, note that most nuts will go rancid after 6-12 months – walnuts and pecans the quickest by far – but they won’t go off if you freeze them and thaw only what you need for a recipe. Thawing takes just half an hour at room temperature.

In her Connecticut kitchen

My research suggests they might be baiting you

or

Wishes were horses, proverb suggests

Something I’ve noticed on the increase in headlines is the formulation “[Thing] was/is/will be true, research/study/analysis suggests.” More often than not, that weakest yet most important word, ‘suggests’, is dead last. That’s not a mistake – they need you to click through and read the thing so they can get their advert microcredits.

As is demonstrated every few days on More or Less, too frequently the story behind the clickbait is a wilful exaggeration or misinterpretation of the results of a study for the sake of a sexier headline, or, worse, it reports on a flimsy study that no one should be giving credence to in the first place, one with, say, only a handful of test subjects or sloppy methodology or a questionable premise – or all of those. These days, if such an item gets mentioned by one news agency, that almost automatically means dozens if not hundreds of other agencies will reword and republish the same sloppy, questionable story with a similarly misleading or completely mistaken headline. Sheer numbers add up to credence, or at least quasi-credence, because they’re going to appear that much higher in news feeds and search results regardless of their basic veracity.

This formulation reminds me of high-bogosity archaeological programmes that expound things like “This ragged hole in the wall over here where the sun shines through on the vernal equinox suggests this building was almost certainly a highly-advanced astronomical observatory!” Later the structure might be mentioned more simply as ‘the astronomical observatory’, not a suggestion of one. Uh-huh.

Director: “Cut! Look, don’t just say ‘uh-huh’ or ‘yes’ when the presenter says something to you. We prefer you say ‘absolutely’ to make it sound extra true, but you could also say ‘precisely’, ‘exactly’, ‘definitely’, or ‘of course’ in a pinch. Generally speaking, the more syllables for ‘yes’ the better.”

In any case, the tentative ‘suggests’ just doesn’t match with the concrete ‘is’/’was’/’will be’. The proper usage is “Research/study/analysis suggests X might have been/could be/might in future be true”, but I suppose few would click through on my headlines.

Beautiful Spring

“The people of New England are by nature patient and forbearing; but there are some things which they will not stand. Every year they kill a lot of poets for writing about ‘Beautiful Spring.’ These are generally casual visitors, who bring their notions of spring from somewhere else, and cannot, of course, know how the natives feel about spring. And so, the first thing they know, the opportunity to inquire how they feel has permanently gone by.”

– Mark Twain, in his perpetually quotable speech on New England weather given Friday, 22 December 1876 – the year The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published

Circa 1874, age 39

US edumacation going grate, just grate

Here are the results of the first question of a February 2018 YouGov poll of 8,215 adults in the US. They probably ought to have asked if antisocial media was involved in any recent formation of doubts, because of course it was, because it’s fundamentally and irretrievably antisocial.

An interesting Venn diagram would show the intersection of 18-24 year-old oblate spheroid-doubters with those of that age who would like to work at a cool place like SpaceX. I would bet a crisp new one dollar bill that it’s not a null set.

“Gee, I’m not sure. Could be a dodecahedron for all I know. Well…if I knew that word.”

And the bran muffin answer is…Nancy Silverton

Feels like I’m in Anaheim – except that Mimi’s would have an orange slice and maybe some melon on there, too

The answer to the long-lived question of how to come close to Mimi’s Cafe honey bran muffins is this: Stop searching for Mimi’s Cafe bran muffin recipe altogether and just use Nancy Silverton’s terrific recipe. It addresses all the problems I noted previously here and in this way to office mates I shared these with two weeks ago:

I had tried several copycat recipes that gushed they were “just like Mimi’s honey bran muffins!”, but all of them were so far away – mostly way-too-sweet, dense brown muffins with a small handful of bran added as if in afterthought, and many with a sickly-sweet brown sugar/butter/honey glaze deposited in the tin before the batter that incorrectly hardens on the bottom of the muffins.

The results of Silverton’s recipe really are very close to if not even better than Mimi’s Cafe bran muffins: full of earthy bran flavor, soft and light in texture, and not oversweet. To complete the Mimi’s experience, drizzle a little diluted honey onto the bottoms of the still-warm muffins after you invert them out of the tin.

The ingredients are pretty easy to commit to memory, and most of it is in half-cups. Note that there’s almost three times as much bran as flour in the recipe. This is key.

Clockwise from upper left: raisins simmered in water, still to be puréed; vegetable oil; water; unprocessed bran, toasted; egg plus egg white; all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; buttermilk; lightly diluted honey; light brown sugar; raisins left whole. The orange zest was in a tiny prep bowl that I forgot to put in frame.

Drizzling the diluted honey on the still-warm muffins

I can confirm that these do not last long at all

My notes and then the recipe:

  • You can easily find unprocessed bran in US supermarkets that have a small Bob’s Red Mill and/or Hodgson Mill section, usually in the baking aisle. Bob’s is in 10 ounce bags – about five cups – while Hodgson Mill comes in 14 ounce boxes with about seven cups:
  • Make sure you butter the bottom and sides of the muffin wells or these will stick, even in a non-stick tin (I forgot once). I also smear a little butter all around the top as well so the muffin tops don’t stick.
  • Resist any temptation to use golden raisins – they’re not right for this recipe (I tried them once).
  • Once you mix the dry ingredients into the wet, get the batter in the pre-buttered tin and into the oven without delay (I use a #20 ice cream disher for quick portioning). The baking powder and baking soda react quickly with the buttermilk and you want them to start baking while the batter is nicely puffed up.
  • My only addition to Silverton’s recipe is that I let the muffins cool in the tin for about five minutes, then loosen the muffin top edges with something that won’t scratch the non-stick surface, then invert the muffins onto a sheet of parchment paper on the counter (catches dripping honey), where I immediately drizzle a microwave-warmed 2-to-1 honey-water mixture onto the bottoms of the muffins for the full Mimi’s Cafe effect. I use a condiment squirt bottle to drizzle a teaspoon or so on each small muffin, or a couple teaspoons each for large size muffins.
  • Mimi’s correctly serves their large-size bran muffins warm and upside-down with a pat of butter on the side. If you don’t warm these before serving, both texture and taste will suffer. From room temperature, microwave one small muffin for 20 seconds; 35 seconds for one large muffin.

Bran Muffins – Nancy Silverton

Her introduction from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery:

Every baker has her version of a bran muffin, and I have mine. Most recipes call for sweetened bran cereals and lots of sugar, defeating the purpose of this healthier style of muffin. I make mine the way they should be, with lots of toasted unprocessed bran and pureed raisins. When toasted, bran adds a distinctive, nutty flavor. The cooked and pureed raisins saturate the muffins, giving them their unusually dark color and moist, fruity quality.

Special Items: ½-cup-capacity muffin tin, lightly coated with melted butter; (optional) pastry bag fitted with a wide tip

  • 2 cups unprocessed bran
  • 1½ cups raisins
  • 1½ cups water
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest, finely chopped (about one-third of an orange)
  • ½ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 extra-large egg
  • 1 extra-large egg white
  • ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup stone-ground whole-wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350F/175C.

Spread the bran on a baking sheet and toast for 6 to 8 minutes, until toasted, stirring halfway through to ensure that it doesn’t burn.

In a small saucepan, stir together 1 cup of the raisins and 1 cup of the water and simmer on low heat until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Place in a blender or in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and process until pureed.

Pour the bran into a large bowl, add the buttermilk and remaining ½ cup of water, and stir to combine. Stir in the raisin puree, orange zest, and brown sugar.

Add the oil, whole egg, and egg white, mixing well to incorporate.

Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into the raisin mixture. Add the remaining whole raisins and stir to combine.

Fill the pastry bag half full and pipe or spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins, filling the cups to just over the rim and mounding the batter slightly.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until the muffins are well browned and firm to the touch.

Yield: 12 regular size or 6 large muffins

Menu from the very first Mimi’s Cafe in Anaheim, California; click for a larger size

I borrowed it from the restaurant around 1980 and have no intention of returning it

My slow-cooked bacon method is here.

Real dinerware like the 13″ oval platter at the top of this article – which weighs more than two pounds – is over here.

“Here, put this in your bag”

17,545 scanned, searchable menus from 1850-present at the New York Public Library, including lots of airline, train, ship, and hotel menus.

Here’s the à la carte and suppers back page of the Parker House Boston menu for Thursday, 28 September 1865. Those were the days, eh? Tenderloin with truffles, a buck-thirty. Gimme one of those widgeons, too, wouldya? By the way, what is a widgeon?

At the end of this post is a menu I borrowed around 1980 from the original Mimi’s Cafe, in Anaheim, California – the first of just two or maybe three branches at the time. Consistently the best breakfast restaurant I’ve ever visited, with sticky honey bran muffins to die for – still true in this century. I would most often order the Oeufs et Pain Perdu that featured a sourdough French toast stuffed with cream cheese and orange marmalade, which I believe dreams are made of.

There are 145 Mimi’s these days, but their expansion has been limited to the southern half of the US, so I have to make do with my own not-quite-so-great version of those muffins. I can tell you that all the people on the web who claim “I finally made honey bran muffins just like Mimi’s!” are optimists at heart, sure, but I’ve tried their recipes – most of which feature a too-small proportion of bran and a pre-bake brown sugar-honey glaze deposited in the tin before the batter that incorrectly hardens on the bottom of the muffin – and have decided that they either have exceedingly poor memory or can’t help fibbing because they so want it to be true. None of them are even close to Mimi’s, which is rich in earthy bran taste and whose bottom glaze may simply be diluted honey drizzled on after baking when the muffins are inverted hot from the tin. I’ll publish my recipe when I further refine it to the point where it really is close. It’s not there yet. Edited to add: Shortly after I wrote this post, I tried Nancy Silverton’s bran muffin recipe and immediately abandoned mine.

Founder Arthur Simms, an Army Air Force bombardier and navigator in WWII who later directed the MGM Studios commissary in the late 1940s and 1950s and opened other restaurants before Mimi’s, is said to have named the restaurant after a French woman he met at a party celebrating the liberation of Paris in August 1944. That was probably in England since there were no Army Air Force bomber crews in France in 1944. This conflicts slightly with the PR-embellished version, which one restaurant reviewer passed along like this: “A WWII veteran ace flyer, Simms dedicated Mimi’s to a fetching French woman whose town he liberated from Nazi occupation.” Ahem.

This menu has been tacked up in my kitchen in its folded form ever since those first visits during a week-long trip to work with a customer in Cerritos, a prominent electrical contractor that had done the electrical work for, among other large projects, Anaheim Stadium and the iconic Bonaventure Hotel in L.A. – that one with five circular glass towers seen in the opening montage of a lot of TV shows. I went to Mimi’s every morning after my first breakfast there and returned each time I visited Kirkwood Electric in the following years. I recall one visit when the women on the Kirkwood staff took me out to a nice dinner, but precious few details past the – ten, was it? – kamikazes they bought me over several hours. The other place I frequented was Polly’s Pies near the Kirkwood office because they had a rather glorious tuna melt on thick-sliced whole wheat bread that they baked on the premises. They haven’t expanded much and are still in Southern California only.

Click either image for 1920-wide.

No bread, no milk – for real

Visible light satellite photo taken on day two of the Northeast Blizzard of 1978

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the worst snowstorm I’ve ever experienced, the Great Northeast Blizzard of 1978, which is the likely origin of those odd runs on bread and milk that now occur in so many places – most prominently east of the Mississippi – before snowstorms. After this storm, many people in the worst affected areas couldn’t go out for days and genuinely did run out of such things. Where I lived, not far north of Boston, we got 30″ of snow, with eight- and nine-foot drifts due to the near-hurricane force winds that raged during the thirty-two hour storm. Those winds were hurricane force twenty miles away at the coast. My chief memory of the storm as it was happening is those fiercely howling winds driving the heavy snow mostly sideways for hours and hours on end. There was no thought of going outside – it was just too dangerous.

The storm happened on Monday and Tuesday of that week, and it was Friday before we could get to a grocery store. Quite different from the similar snow depth storm here in 2015.

February 1978: Southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, abandoned vehicles litter Route 128, the Boston inner ring highway, near Dedham. It was a week before all 3,500 vehicles there were cleared by the National Guard and U.S. Army.

February 1978: Abandoned vehicles on Route 9 west of Boston – just a mile or so from my current office

To guarantee unimpeded rescues and cleanup, then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared a travel ban in Massachusetts after the storm that extended to three days, so there was no point struggling to get to the nearest grocery a mile away because they’d have nothing in stock – nothing of use, anyway. Once the ban was lifted, our relatively minor street was still largely impassable, so I walked to the store to get some staples – with my sled as carry-all as I recall – and I think we had indeed run out of bread and milk, but still had some eggs.

I think it’s memories of this storm or stories from older relatives that still fuel the “must get French toast ingredients” urge that hits a lot of people before any middling to major snowstorm ’round these parts – and, strangely I think, many other places that have never experienced a regional shutdown lasting several days and almost certainly never will.

Here’s the best overview of the storm and its aftermath I found online, from WGBH Boston:

WBZ-TV aired a special last week, shown below. It was all right, but they buried the lede entirely – suffocated it, really. As the WGBH report mentions quite early on, most forecasts the morning the blizzard started called for about 6″ of snow total. While that sort of forecast would preemptively shut down a place like Washington DC, most people in New England would still go to work, and so they did. No one was prepared for what happened. By the time the monstrosity started showing its true self, snowplows couldn’t keep up with the stupendous rate of snowfall and it was too late for many to try to get home. A lot of those who attempted it were stranded and had to await rescue or abandon their cars and seek shelter.

At the time, there was basically one computer model available, but most meteorologists viewed it askance because it was new and its prediction seemed over the top. Not all of them thought it was dubious, though:

“Back in 1978, we did not have the accuracy of the computer models that we have today. And in 1978 there was a brand new computer model that came out and it was predicting the storm to be pretty much the magnitude it turned out to be. But because the computer model was brand new, people did not have confidence in it. And so there was some question whether or not people wanted to buy into the kind of product that it was delivering. To me it looked very reasonable. I took my little bag of clothes and I moved into Western Connecticut State College weather lab and I said, ‘I’m going to be here for a few days and there’s no question about that. It’s in the logbook on that day: ‘a granddaddy of a snowstorm is coming our way.’”
– Dr. Mel Goldstein

Houses tossed onto the beach like shoe boxes in Scituate, Massachusetts

The National Weather Service office at Taunton, Massachusetts prepared a slideshow some years ago with lots of good photos and graphics explaining how the storm evolved. Click on the image to view the PDF:

NOAA’s report on the blizzard (click to download or open the PDF):

This edition of The Boston Globe never reached its readers – they literally stopped the presses and abandoned the print run. There was no way to distribute it.

I had been scheduled to fly out to Kansas City, Missouri on 7 February to begin my first full-time job, but the snow was still coming down hard at that point and my move was delayed by two weeks. A few months after I moved into the Walnut Tower apartments in downtown Kansas City, wild weather of a different kind: Late afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday, I heard loud sirens that sounded like air raid sirens, but, being 18 years old and a Midwest newcomer, I didn’t know until the next day that what I heard was a tornado warning for the downtown area. I had an inkling, though, because I watched out my 11th floor window for about 90 minutes as, in ones and twos, ten or twelve funnels serpentined off the bottom of the filthy yellow mammatus cloud deck and twisted back up, never getting closer than about 1,500 feet off the ground.

“It was kind of nice to rule by decree because the legislature couldn’t get into the State House. So it was just me, you know.”
– Massachusetts Governor Dukakis