Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My First Rails Application

Last week Articulated Man launched my first solo Rail's application, a voter's guide for New England federal races. The site was sponsored by the New England Alliance for Children's Health, whose site we did earlier in the year as just a standard site. The voter's guide required a bit more functionality, thus the decision was made to develop in Rails and use it as my first stab at Rails development.

The site turned out great, mostly because we have outstanding designers who can make anything look good. I also learned quite a bit about the nuts and bolts of a Rails site, which is something you don't really get from just reading the book.

While it's still too soon to make any firm declarations about Rails, I will say it was very nice to have some provided structure when building the application. With LegSim, and pretty much any other project I've done, I had to build everything out of whole cloth... thus, LegSim is rather amorphous, having changed throughout the years and never following a clearly defined structure. With Rails you get that out of the box... perhaps more structure than I would prefer, but I think I'd prefer too much structure over too little, at least at my current stage as a developer.

Speaking of LegSim, the UW Congress course has started up again this quarter, giving me a boost of excitement to get developing again. Already some good stuff happening there as I integrate what I've learned since doing web development full time. Sadly, Archon and LegSim v5 have been put on hold until later, as I need to have a finished product well before either of those technologies will be ready for prime time. But some day--some day soon--LegSim will be rewritten and be better than ever!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Dutch Experiment

While visiting The Netherlands earlier this year, Sarah introduced me to Bitterballen, a dutch snack food traditionally eaten with beer. They were so good that all of us visiting Americans insisted on ordering them at every meal where it made sense. After leaving the country, I figured I wouldn't get to eat them again until I returned. But this weekend I decided nuts to that and went about researching how to make them myself.

After checking out several different recipes on the internet, I settled on the following:
  • 4 tbl. butter or margarine
  • 1/2 lb ground beef or veal
  • 1/4 cup carrot, finely diced
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • A grating of fresh nutmeg
  • 1 tbl. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tbl. parsley, finely chopped
  • 5 tbl. flour
  • 1 cup beef broth or milk
  • 1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 tsp. water
  • Oil for deep frying
Heat one tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over moderate heat and cook the meat, carrots, and onions until the meat is browned and the carrots are tender. Drain the meat in a colander, then place in a mixing bowl. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, lemon juice, and parsley and stir to combine. Set the meat mixture aside. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over moderate heat and stir in the flour to make a roux. Cook this for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the beef broth or milk. Continue heating, stirring constantly, until the sauce boils and becomes quite thick. Combine the sauce with the meat mixture, stirring to combine them thoroughly, and chill this mixture for at least two hours in the refrigerator, until it has become solid. When the mixture has solidified, roll it into balls about 1 inches in diameter, using your hands. Roll the balls in the bread crumbs, then in the egg and water mixture, then in the bread crumbs again. Fry a few at a time in a deep fryer with at least 2 inches of oil at 375 degrees until golden (about 2 to 3 minutes). Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
I chose my friend's final debate watching party as the testing grounds, hoping that a wide group of people could give feedback. Sadly attendance was far less than the previous debate parties, but overall the reviews were positive.

Preparing for construction

I made the constituent elements the day before. The green bowl there is a three times the recipe above and took several hours to prepare.

Ready for frying

Each of these balls has a double coating of breadcrumbs. In retrospect, I wish I had made them a bit smaller.

The deep fry!

It was not easy to keep the temperature constant. Poor Mike was constantly checking the temperature and adjusting the heat.

The first batch

I feel this was the best batch in terms of color. I didn't have a proper timer to count the frying time, leading to uneven cooking.

Ready for muching

This is the first 16, but I would end up making 13 more, for a total of 29 delicious little balls. I also have easily half of the filling left over. Looks like I'm going to have to make more this weekend.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

These Voters

During the end of the Democratic Primary, as Obama was narrowly loosing states to Hillary Clinton after a series of victories that put him so far in the lead it was virtually impossible for Clinton to catch up, the talking heads had a lot of fun declaring Obama was having difficulties with these voters. These voters were generally poor working white voters in West Virgina, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, but sometimes these voters referred to women, seemingly, in general. The "proof" behind these assertions was that Clinton had done better in those demographics, often by as much as 10 whole points! And so the conventional wisdom went that someone who supported Clinton must not like Obama... and thus electoral doom awaited him come the general election.

Here we are, less than a month away from November 4th, and Obama is leading nearly every contested state and in every demographic--except racists and the deeply conservative--and is on his way to an electoral landslide of 340+. Obviously all these voters didn't end up having as many reservations about Obama as original prognosticated. Could it have been these voters just generally liked Clinton more, but in a race between Obama and McCain there really is no contest? Did anyone actually expect those traditional democratic voters to switch party? Honestly?

What strikes me is that for all the punditry's willingness to advise the Obama campaign about these voters, you don't ever hear similar advice directed at the McCain campaign? Where are the commentators mentioning that Obama has a mortal lock on voters with a college education and that McCain just isn't connecting with smart people? Or that Obama has a huge lead among those worried about the economy, implying McCain doesn't resonate with working people? How about his inability to persuade those who live by major bodies of water? (McCain's message just isn't hitting home with people who understand what it means to be really wet!) Why isn't anyone being so blatantly condescending to McCain as was so in vogue with Obama just three months ago?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Truer Words Never Spoken

I read a lot of Washington Post stories, in particular their editorials, which is really the only way to get analysis these days since reporters are so afraid of being called biased they can't just come out and say "so and so is telling a lie". Today I read the first editorial I've seen of one Anne Applebaum, who is a native Washingtonian (not of the state variety) talking about the supposed "Washington" that we hear politicians claiming to represent middle America are always railing against. She's got an all-star list of politicians who (a) run Washington and (b) are from middle American... and yet, Washington still seems to be this thing that middle America hates. She brings her editorial to a finish with the following paragraph that every one should read.
Washington, however stuffy it may once have been, is no longer in need of "a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street." Washington is in need of expertise, management experience, long-term thinking and more political courage -- from wherever in the country it happens to come. More to the point, Washington needs people who think like national politicians and not like spokesmen for the local business executives who fill their reelection coffers and the local party hacks who plan their campaigns. Let's be frank: The "bailout" bill was passed last week not because members of Congress decided it would work but because it was stuffed with the pork, perks and tax breaks without which no piece of legislation, however important to the nation as a whole, can now pass. Maybe it's unfair to call that "small-town" thinking, but it sure is small-minded. And small-mindedness, not snobbery, is the dominant mind-set of 21st-century Washington.
I wish I could write like that.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


While I wait for the Vice Presidential Debacle--I mean, Debate--to start, I figured I'd drop a quick post about Marked-to-Market, for those trying to make heads or tails of the bailout business up on the Hill this week. Let me start by saying I have not made up my mind about the bailout, and one of the big advantages about not being being a member of Congress is that I'm not required to. I once heard a Congressional Chief of Staff observe that Congress people are paid to have incredibly well informed opinions. And it's true, with a staff of at least six people and all the time in the world to think about issues, I should expect their opinions to be infinitely more informed than my own... not that this makes them right.

Anyway, as everyone knows, the House Republicans killed the bailout bill on Monday saying that government intervention into the market is (a) always bad and (b) unneeded. I don't buy (a), and that certainly makes me wonder about (b), but they seemed so darn certain... and seeing as how these are the people that Wall Street Fat Cats got elected for their "pro-growth" policies and thus should be first in line to give money to their corporate overlords, I wanted to know more about (b) before I dismissed it out of hand.

Members of the Republican Study Committee argue there are a set of non-interventionist options available to unfreeze the currently frozen credit markets. Besides ever popular policies like more tax cuts, their chief proposal is to abolish the Securities Exchange Commission's Marked-to-Market rule. Here's the rule in jist form:
When reporting assets, as all publicly traded companies do, assets must be valued at what they would fetch on the open market
Which is to say, if I have 10 head of cattle which I could sell today for $1000, then I report $1000 worth of cattle as my assets. It also means that even if I believe the cattle will be worth $10,000 in two months time, I cannot state that today... because it's not the current fair market value.

The RSC argues that the Marked-to-Market policy is what has frozen the credit markets because there are no buyers, of any kind, for the toxic securities backed by foreclosed mortgages that started this mess. As a result, financial institutions holding these assets must report them as being worth ZERO dollars. Which, if you think about it, is absurd. Even if the mortgages are in foreclosure, there is a house underneath all that paperwork that is worth something. It may not be worth what it was originally sold for, but it's sure worth more than zero. However, because the SEC requires assets be marked to the current market value, and no one is buying the securities, that's exactly how it is valued.

So, the RSC has a point... maybe if we eliminated the Marked-to-Market rule, the banks could post healthier looking balance sheets, with higher capitalization, and things could start getting better. It just might work... but lest we forget, there was a reason the Marked-to-Market rule exists at all. If estimating the value of something based on some potential future sounds familiar, that's good--means you are paying attention--because that is what Enron did. They valued their various energy trading deals based on a projected value of assets that didn't exist. As a result, Enron looked great on paper, but in reality, it had nothing.

The question then for our well informed Congress people is this... how do you allow holders of these toxic securities to estimate their true value while avoiding Enron type behavior?