Monday, December 29, 2014

The Imitation Game and a Lack of Respect for Audiences

Deadline has an interview with the maker of The Imitation Game.  The following quote made me sad:

we wanted to open up the process of code-breaking to the audience. There is a tendency sometimes in pieces like this to (let) the characters jabber technical gibberish that no one in the audience will understand. We wanted you to be able to follow it. 
Maybe one day the people of Hollywood will learn to respect their audiences, or at least learn how to render technical 'gibberish' into more understandable gibberish.  I believe it was Feynman who was of the opinion that if a subject could not be taught in a manner appropriate to first year college students, then that subject was not really understood at all.  Code breaking can be taught in a manner appropriate to first year college students (indeed, cryptography is usually at least mentioned to first year computer science students), and I personally wanted more technical 'gibberish' from the film and less emotional fluff. Personally, I think the problem is not so much the audience as that the writers themselves do not understand technical things, and so of course they can not render it as anything other than the gibberish they understand it as.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies of +2 Deliciousness (Raisins Optional)

The first batch of oatmeal raisin cookies I made turned out as very respectable bricks.  Since then I have prayed and meditated upon receiving the mystery of the oatmeal cookie, and lo!  The Invisible Pink Pony (may Her holy hooves never be shod) appeared until me and said, "Empiricism for the win!"  So I did some research (reading Serious Eats blog) and experimentation until I got an oatmeal cookie that made me happy.

I love oat-based things, because oats are naturally sweeter than wheat, and the texture will be more fluffy and less bread-y, how much so depending on how you prepare the oats.  Fresh-ground oat flour is sweet enough to lick off your fingers raw, whereas raw white wheat flour tastes like dust.  I'm not yet sold on whole-wheat flour for cookies, but if you want to convince me, bake me your tastiest attempt and I'll see what I think.     

Today I made a batch of my favorite oatmeal-raisin cookies, and I got to thinking about cooking and order.  Most foods will survive if you just throw everything together, stir, and expose to high heat.  But for truly tasty results, method does matter, often as much as the recipe.  I first discovered this when I took the trouble to sift flour properly for a cake, instead of just dumping the flour straight into the batter.  The cake then turned out extra fluffy-and-delicious. 

For most modern cookies, you start with some sort of fat (some people swear by butter, but shortening or lard may work better for texture) and some sort of sugar, and you cream them.  I wonder, what did people do before electric mixers?  Seriously, how was this handled?  Pie dough is pain enough.*  Using a cutter on shortening (or solid butter) and sugar until you get a roughly uniform consistency would not be fun.  Did everyone melt the fat and add it as a liquid?  Because that makes the difference for oatmeal cookies: if you want soft cookies, mix all dry ingredients first, then melt all fats to liquid form and add.  (Elisheba does this anyway, because she cooks with flair and tastyness, but I am sometimes too stuck on a set of rules.)

That gets you as far as +1 deliciousness (notice I'm biased toward soft cookies.  In my world, pickles should crunch, cookies most definitely should not.)  For +2 deliciousness, you need spices.  Lots of them.  Do not scrimp!  This lesson I also learned from Elisheba: whenever a sweets recipe calls for spices, you should add a heaping amount, not a level amount, of whatever called for.  Desserts should not be subtle.  When you eat a dessert, you should know that you have eaten dessert, by jingo!  If your taste buds are not happy, what's the point?   

The spice combination I currently use came from a recipe on Serious Eats blog: (this one, but I use the water my raisins have plumped in for any extra liquid, not chai tea.)  I go extra heavy on the cardamom and cloves, because those are my favorite spices.  Then bake until just set, and wait for 10 minutes or so before scarfing, so you don't burn your mouth. 

High Altitude adjustments: Currently I'm living at about 2,000 m (~6,000 ft) above sea level.  My first cookies here melted into crispy little puddles with all the sugar caramelizing.  I'm starting to get a better feel for the needed adjustments: cut the fat and sugar content by 1-2 tablespoons each (sugar by more if needed), add 1-4 tablespoons flour, make up any needed liquid with water, chill dough thoroughly before baking, and lower oven temperature by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  Key is to keep the dough cold enough, and the sugar content low enough, that cookies bake through before the sugar can liquify and they melt.  Cold cookie sheets help: stick them in the freezer for a minute or two if the house temperature is warm.

*And if you use pre-made pie dough, you should just admit your inferiority and make cobbler instead.  And if you use a premixed biscuit dough for your cobbler, you need to re-think your life. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

In Which an End is Put to my Whining

When I dance, I have a good side, and I have a stupid side.  I do not like doing things on my stupid side.  Recently,  I was told by a dance teacher that I should just be glad I am not an octopus.

I have no rejoinder to this.  None.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Imitation Game: The Betterment of the World Because of Alan Turing

Alan Turing is my hero.  He is the intellectual progenitor of my science, a war hero who never held a gun, a rallying cry for the injustices perpetrated against LGBT* folk, and an all-around amazingly smart yet tragic person. Some time back, someone asked me what I thought of Benedict Cumberbatch starring in a movie about him.  I hadn't heard of either Benedict Cumberbatch or a movie about Alan Turing, but I promptly started watching Sherlock specifically to judge how I felt about Cumberbatch as Turing in the then only forthcoming Imitation Game.  Now that The Imitation Game has been released, albeit in a limited way, I have been talking about how much I wanted to see it and I finally managed that at an advance screening an hour's drive away.  

Despite all that, I wasn't really sure what exactly I wanted from this film.  I knew two things I didn't want, those being a lurid focus on either homosexual romance or suicide.  Concerning the former, I wouldn't mind a torrid steamy romance story here, but if we have learned nothing else from Brokeback Mountain, it is that Hollywood will use even gay cowboys as an excuse to have women taking up most of the topless screen time.  Concerning the latter,  Turing's death was slightly foreshadowed, but I doubt I would have picked up on it had I not just happened to have known how he died, and because of that, I could be reading in a foreshadowing that isn't actually there.  Either way, his death is dealt with respectfully, and his sexuality is addressed as a non-issue that people make a fuss about.  

Furthermore, I was deeply concerned that Mr. Cumberbatch would play Turing the same way he plays Sherlock Holmes, by which I mean an I-am-smarter-and-better-than-thou with weird twitchy habits and the camera wanting us to believe that his prominent cheekbones are just irresistibly attractive.  Fortunately, he mostly did not, though when he did it was particularly bad, since most of the film portrayed Turing as being almost completely unable to understand human interactions.  In fact, one scene had Turing explicitly stating that he didn't know how people could say something other than what they meant yet still be understood.  Then toward the end of his life Turing was shown as sarcastic and superior and rather Sherlock-esque, and I have no idea when the transition happened. 

I was pleasantly surprised in some things.  I have very low expectations of American movies, but that this is a war message the unapologetic message of which is that force is bad and will be defeated by intellect was delightful, unambiguous, and accompanied by masterful cuts between war scenes and a mathematician hard at work.  The other thing I really liked was the subplot of Miss Clarke's (played by Keira Knightly) struggles to have her very serious intellectual work taken seriously because she was a woman.  We need more movies that push the narrative that sexism is bad and intellectualism is good.

What I didn't like was that the movie wasn't particularly intellectual, despite its obvious moral.  The writers had only sorta kinda done their research.  They conflated Turing machines with the code-breaking work he did on Enigma, which were two separate endeavors.  The writers seemed to almost realize how big a flaming deal it was for mathematicians rather than linguists to be doing cryptographic work (it marked a major shift in thought about codes) but didn't quite get there.  Likewise, the writers seemed to almost get to putting in Turing's Polite Convention (which states that we cannot actually tell if anyone besides ourselves is actually thinking, but we politely assume that we do) but stopped at having him say that we all think in different ways, so why can't machines think?  Finally, and this angered me a little, they subverted Turing's best known (though not the most important) work, that is the Turing test, in order to make a statement about not judging people.  Turing's arresting police office in the film states that if asked to judge whether Turing was machine or human, he could not possibly judge.  Not being able to tell is a result,not, in this context, a statement of being non-judgmental about homosexuality.  Can we please make points about tolerance without sacrificing our grasp of science?  I realize I'm a computer science nerd who basically worships Turing, and I'm probably not the film's target audience, but still.  There are multiple ways to say everything, what is wrong with the factually correct ways?  At least there was a good and mathematical explanation of why brute force methods in science are untenable because large numbers.  

I also didn't like the way the story was handled.  A (by the accounts I've read) quiet and reserved mathematician published a seminal, but not really at the time recognized as such, paper on constructing imaginary machines that demonstrate important things about determinism, then goes on to crack the most mathematically advanced code at the time, then is tortured into suicide by the British government, that is a story in itself.  Yet the film pads it with lots of conflicts between Turing and colleagues and introduces an element that I really hate by having Turing anthropomorphize the machine he built into the image of his dead childhood love Christopher.  No.  Just no. I cannot sufficiently express the amount of no that I have in response to a Hollywood Turing having a creepy and weird romance with a machine named Christopher.  But besides that, the whole film felt a little short on substance, and even short on manufactured interpersonal drama.   

So, it had some of the things I wanted.  Hollywood is actually making a war movie the message of which is that it is better to use intellect than force.  It was even a nuanced movie, that did not pretend that one intellectual victory would magically make all problems go away or that war comes without horrific and loathsome moral dilemmas in which there is really no way to actually win, there are only ways to lose less badly.  Where less badly still means fields full of graves.  The film had two women characters who talked to one another (but about a man.  So close to a pass of the Bechdel test). The film takes an unambiguous "discrimination and sexism are bad" stance. It may have felt a little short on substance, and uninformed on science, but it exists and makes statements that should be more prevalent.  Ultimately, The Imitation Game is not the story I would like to see told about my hero, but it does contain a moment in which Joan Clarke says to Alan Turing "the world is a better place because you were in it."  Yes.  It is.  This world was not only changed irrevocably because of the scientific achievements of Alan Turing, it became a better place because of his efforts.  We need more people like him.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Quick, Funimation: We Have a Hetalia Emergency!

So back in the glorious 1920s (votes for women in America, 1919; diaphragms as a first excellent step toward birth control; Lise Meitner; Rosalind Franklin's birth year), the glorious U.S.A. had a plan to invade Canada!

I desperately need to see this mocked by Hetalia, the anime show that takes every nation's stereotypes and anthropomorphizes them.  Hetalia makes me laugh.  Hetalia also makes me cry, because it illustrates (funnily) why I am ashamed to be an American.  Because, Dude!  America is the hero!  America is awesome!  And he'll stop eating that ridiculous pile of hamburgers so you lesser intellects can understand what he's saying!   

(Yeah...we're not awesome.  As a nation, we're abysmally rotten.) 

But having Eric Vale, as the awesome voice actor for both America and Canada, planning to invade himself, should be at least two episodes of Hetalia goodness.

Caturday Post: Ain't No Bookshelf High Enough

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Poetry Tuesday: From Guantanamo

Inscribe your letters in laurel trees,
From the cave all the way to the city of the chosen.

It was here that Destiny stood wondering.
Oh Night, are these lights that I see real?

~Emad Abdullah Hassan, taken into custody while studying at university, and held at Guantanamo even though the U.S. has never alleged he did anything whatsoever. 

 The university of Iowa published a book called Poems from Guantanamo (Marc Falkoff, editor), a collection of poems received by the university via correspondence with the people being held with neither charge nor trial by the U.S.  It's important to remember these things and be ashamed of what we have done in the name of, well, I'm not even exactly sure what.  Nor do I know what we can do to make restitution.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In Which I Learn Things about Splits

One of the many wonderful things I got to do recently was take a class with Cirque du Soleil's Yuliya Mihailovna, the incredibly talented handbalancer who lights up Amaluna with her smile.  The class itself was unbelievably painful, but it helped a lot.  Particularly technique-wise.  Turns out, I've been doing splits wrong for years, and the silks have been reinforcing my bad habits. I need to keep my shoulders and hips square and pointed forward rather than letting them turn sideways.  Turning feels natural, particularly in silks, when I typically have one hand reaching back anyway for balance and style.

You can see me, as the black princess, turned out of square with my upper body,
and my back leg is bending so that I can still look like I have a straight line.  Chihaya,as the
princess in pink and white, has spent a lot of time as a classical ballerina,and is a lot more square.
You may also notice she doesn't have a problem keeping her back leg straight.

Having Yuliya grab my shoulders, pull them square, and force my hip down onto the floor was a lightbulb moment, cheesy as that sounds.  Technique is important for flexibility, who knew?

Yuliya signed my program!  Fan girl squee!