Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Mind" -> The Beauty Of The Courts

One of the first things that come to mind when we think about the law, is the famous scene in Henry the VI by Shakespeare


The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.


Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

Now, many legal firms have tried to explain that these two guys were actually bad guys, and thus they wanted to kill the lawyers to allow lawlessness to reign. This is only an explanation that a lawyer could come up with. The context of the famous line is found in the follow on by Cade.

To understand Cade's follow-on, we need to understand the culture. Legal contracts were done on parchment or lamb's skin. And when the contract was done, it was sealed with bee's wax. Cade basically says, "Yes, we need to put these lawyer guys out of commission. After all, what do they do? They kill innocent sheep to take their skin for a contract to undo a man and they seal it with their wax. If you think that a bee does its damage with a bee sting, you are mistaken. The bee does its damage when it's wax is used to sign a contract."

Now, we might think that this is funny, in reality, the problem of the legal system is that we don't teach our children the law. We don't teach legal concepts, and therefore, the common thought is that all law is considered black magic and voodoo. However, the idea of hearing disputes by leaders has a long history in the Bible starting with Moses. Disputes and judgment is as old as the Bible.

Exodus 18

15 Moses answered him, "Because the people come to me to seek God's will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God's decrees and laws."

Moses' father-in-law replied, "What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people's representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied."

The needs for courts and law go back to the earliest books in the Bible. As long as we are human beings, we are going to have disputes about what is fair.

It is unfortunate that we as Christians need to deal with the courts and legality. It is clear in the New Testament that Paul says that we should not be taking a Christian brother or sister to court. It becomes much questionable when you are dealing with non-Christians. Our family tradition has always believed that if you are in dispute with somebody, you have the right to defend yourself to the full extent of the law.

While I'm not a lawyer, and while I would hate to think that anything that I would say should or could be construed as legal advice, I have worked contracts and I have worked a lot of items with lawyers in the business that I have been in. In a recent dispute with a limousine company, I was amazed at the lack of understanding of common law principles that the owner of this small business was showing. He was making claims that simply would not or could not stand up in court, as I understand the law. In this light, I thought it would be help to understand the basics of contracts.

This blog post is meant to layout some of these issues. Every day you are entering into contracts through the items that you buy and what you say to people.

In this case, the law is actually beautiful. While there are incredibly bad laws on the books, there are many instances where the law is simply brilliant. Lack of understanding of this brilliance will lead to confusion. It will also allow you to be ripped off.

This first thing to understand is "what is a contract?"

A contract is any agreement by two people to a set of terms and conditions. Normally, but not always, these terms and conditions are an exchange of services or property for money. So, the question is "what constitutes a valid contract?"

Basically, it is any time that you have an agreement between two parties. This agreement can be for a second, a day, or an year. Once an agreement is reached, this is considered a contract.

"Well, I wasn't in my right mind," you may say.

This doesn't matter. Unless you can prove by the weight of evidence that there were clearly mitigating circumstances (ie, you were under the influence of drugs or duress), you created a contract. This is why you must be very, very careful when agreeing to anything, and why the current consumer movement is so misleading. When you buy a product from a company, you may think "Oh, I can always take this back." You may have been spoiled by Costcos or Nordstrom. However, these companies are doing something which is not required by law at all.

"Well, I didn't sign my name," you might say. Unfortunately, you do not need to sign your name. All you need to do is to agree. If you are moral, you will not lie, and if you are fighting with an individual that does lie, you may be in a very difficult situation.

The courts recognize that there are two types of contracts: Oral and Written. Oral contracts are very binding. You cannot get out of an oral contract simply because it wasn't written down. If it is written down, the courts immediately start to focus on "what do the words in the contract actually mean?" Thus if you get into a dispute on a written contract, this is where all the focus will go. What did the contract say. It is very, very important as the bulk of the conflict resolution will flow around the verbiage. Beware signing the fine print!

Oral contracts are a much more interesting thing. How do you enforce an oral contract.

Let create an example where you call up a limousine service, and you ask to be picked up at the airport and delivered. You have signed no contracts, and all you have done is said, "I want to get you to agree to pick me up, and you can charge my credit card."

The issue is based around if you have actually come to a resolution on the closure of the oral contract. Most people have heard that "we do business on a shake." This is basically recognizing that there is clearly always two parts to getting a contract done, even if it is oral.

1. Negotiate the terms
2. Agree that the negotiation is done

In the case of the limousine service above, even though you may have said "I want you to pick me up, and you can charge my credit card," you have not had agreement from the other side. It is only once the other side has formally agreed to this, then do we have a formal contract.

Let me give you an example:

Buyer: I will pay you $100 for that car

Seller: I will only take $105

Buyer: Okay, I don't want the car

Seller: Wait, I accept the $100 offer.

In the above case, there was no oral contract made. This is the number one thing that must be considered by the courts (or in small claims court). The only thing that they will ask is "was an oral contract ever in existence?"

I cannot over emphasize how important this is. If you think that you can go into court and say, "well the contract wasn't fair," you will not have a leg to stand on. However, if you go into court and say, "I had no oral contract, as we had never closed on the negotiations and agreed to the deal," as long as you can show that you never had a contract, you obviously cannot be held to this contract. Remember, you have no contract until both parties had reached a moment in time where they agreed.

In oral contracts, making sure that both parties have agreed is really hard. Courts base their laws generally on the body of court cases before the current cases. This idea is called "common law," or it is the idea that the courts judge the current case in light of other common cases of the past. To help prove if somebody really had an agreement, the idea of Estoppel is used.

The estoppel theory says that you can tell that a contract existed by virtual of how the parties acted. There may have been no witnesses to the contract, but if both parties were acting as if the negotiations had been finished, then the courts will assume that an oral contract was done.

For an example, let's say that my neighbor tells me to go to the store an buy a pool filter for his pool and he'll pay me $5 bucks for my effort and reimburse me for the filter. I spend $50 on a filter, and when I shows up at his house, he says, "Hey, man I just found out that I have 6 in a box that I forgot about. I don't need the filter at all."

"You owe me $55," I say.

"Sorry, dude," he says. "It's your word against mine."

So, you go down to the local court house and file a small claims case. When the day arrives, you claim that the neighbor owes you $55. The neighbor claims that he doesn't know what you are talking about.

"Judge dude," he says. "We had some type of a conversation, but I had no idea that he was going to act on this. We never had a formal contract. The contract never existed."

The judge now must decide if you have a claim or not. He asks you if you have any evidence.

"Yes, judge," I state. "Here is the receipts from the pool store showing that I purchased the filter. Here is a picture of his pool that shows that he uses this type of pool filter. Here is a picture of my backyard, showing that I don't have a pool, and I have no use for a pool filter."

Judge will look at this, and he'll say, "Well by estoppel, we are going to assume that a contract existed because the plaintiff acted as if there was a contract."

I remember when I was taking my first business law course many years ago. I remember how surprised I was at this idea. Basically, if one party starts acting as if the oral contract is valid, it makes the contract valid. Generally, this is not well understood by the average person. Acting on a contract makes it valid.

If you think that there is any question that the other party believes that a contract has happened, the first thing that you need to do is make sure that they understand that you believe that no contract has happened. You want to tell this so that they cannot act as if the contract did exist. Registered mail is best, but an email saying "I never agreed to this arrangement." Basically, this should show an attempt to stop the clock. Stopping the clock is incredibly important if an oral contract is determined to exist in the future because it will determine the damages that you owe. Again, this is so important, I will repeat it. You want to stop the clock to mitigate the damages that you may have to pay.

So, let's dig into this a bit deeper. So, in the limousine example above, let's say that you get pulled into small claims court. The problem with oral communications is that it is exceptionally non-clear. The judge has the extremely difficult task of figuring out if a contract existed or not. Before you panic, you need to realize that there are three separate phases of judgment.

1. Determining if there was a contract
2. Determining if the contract was breached
3. Determining the damages if the contract was breached

You may be surprised to find out that many judges will immediately allow to say that there is an oral contract without any good proof. They may use the doctrine of estoppel to grant a contract, and your heart might sink to think that they will immediately say that you breached the contract (or broke it). However, it you have a wise judge, he is going to immediately going to follow it up with the damages.

Let's look at both the limousine case and the pool filter case. In the pool filter case, the judge will turn to me.

"When your neighbor didn't take the pool filter, what did you do?" he asks.

"Well, I took the pool filter back to the store and I got a refund," I answer.

"Well, it looks like you are out of pocket no money for the pool filter, however, you never got your $5 profit, so I rule that the defendant should pay you the $5 that you were promised."

The beauty of a good judge is that he normally is just trying to make things right. He isn't trying to teach a lesson, or make somebody sorry. All he wants to do is put the playing field back into shape. Now, small claims court is a slightly different kettle of fish, and judgments out of small claims court generally don't allow you to claim "specific performance." Specific performance is when a court says "Okay, you must give Tom the shelf that you promised him." Generally, most small courts will only grant monetary damages.

Let's go back to the pool filter. Let's say I didn't take the pool filter back to the store.

"When your neighbor didn't take the pool filter, what did you do?" he asks.

"Well, I took the pool filter back to the store but since it was a unique part, they wouldn't take it back," I answer. In this case, the judge may or may not be able to cut a perfect judgment. Since he can only award monetary damages, he may need to award damages somewhere between $55 to $5. In reality, the judge may award $55 to me, but then tell me, "Now, you have been awarded the $55, but if you do not give the filter to your neighbor, he can come in a counter sue you for damages because you never fulfill the contract."

As another example, let's go back to the oral contract on the limousine. Let's say that that the limousine company says, "alright, my policy is that if somebody cancels their limousine, I get to keep all their money so he owes me $300."

"Wait a minute," says the judge. "Did the defendant agree to these damages?"

"Well, no, but I sent him an email after the fact saying that this was the fee," answers the company spokesperson.

"Well, unless both parties agree to damages in case of breach of contract, there is no preset determination of the damages," the judge will smile.

This is yet one more incredibly important point in oral contracts or in written contracts. If you do not have in the contract the specific remedies, then it is up to the court to decide what the damages will be. When ever I negotiate contracts with other companies, I always look to place in what the damages will be. With almost all of the legal staff that I have, they generally want to leave out the specific damages. Why do they do this? They do this because know that in most cases the judge will grant far less damages than what is the expectation by the company that we are negotiating with.

This is where the law is truly beautiful if applied by a just justice. After all, we will always win some and lose some. The question is what is the damage of losing. This is why earlier, I state that if you believe that the other person believes that there is a contract, you need to quickly tell them that there is no contract, and you plan to dispute the contract.

So, let's go back to the limousine service.

"In my mind," says the judge, "There was no specific damages identified. Tell me mister limousine representative, what is the average profit that you make from one of these calls?"

"I make $50 profit," the spokesperson says.

"Okay, then the amount that you are out of pocket if a contract existed is $50, therefore, the defendant owes you $50 to make you true," says the judge.

This is pretty much the worse case, as long as you are very honest in the court case and act in good faith. Generally, a judge is not looking to hurt anybody but simply make them whole. In the best of all cases, the most that a service provide can hope to recoup is what the profit would have been.

Another example, is if you neighbor decides to have a contractor build a shed on his property for $1000 verbally, and they do this in front of witnesses with a handshake, there is a contract. Before anything is done by the contractor, if the neighbor changes his mind, the contractor can take your neighbor to court. However, he will never be able to get the $1000. Since he has spent nothing, the most that he can hope to get is the profit that would have been generated by the building of the shed. If labor and materials would be $900, the most he could hope to get, without specific damages in the verbal contract, is $100.

Now, mind you. When they shook hands on the shed, if your neighbor stated "and by the way, I'm going to pay you $1000 if I cancel this tomorrow," he would have no recourse. He would have to pay the entire $1000. However, without specific damages, all the courts try to do it make the plaintiff whole.

In reality, when the contract is messy and unclear, the judge may well rule that a contract was breached, but the penalty for breaching the contract is one cent. This has happen many times.

In the case of the limousine, the judge may think to himself, "Well there is something fishy about this. This company claims an oral contract exists, but clearly they were out no money on the deal. The person had canceled clearly in advanced of the pick-up date, and there was no damage done to the limousine company. Therefore, I'm going to have damages of 1 penny."

What is a shame is that we don't teach our children the basics of law. I hope that I can make sure that this error does not happen with my own children.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Spirit" -> Son Of The Devil

"Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"

Ah, there is nothing like Matthew 23:33 in the original King James. If you are unfamiliar with the passage quoted above, the scriptures has a particular potency for those of the Christian Faith, because this extremely strongly worded phrase was said by our Lord Jesus Christ.

The classical Christian belief system portrays that Jesus Christ was none less than an incarnation of God in the flesh. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of what God is like. We often forget this in our modern culture that has never read the Bible, and doesn't have an understanding of the man.

The problem with our society is that they are often guided by mavens of textural criticism that believe they can see an evolution in God's character throughout the Bible. They sift through the text and try to call out that there are two different Gods in the Bible. As they go through the Bible, they will say that the writers of the Bible were inconstant in their views of God.

This is trite and self-serving hypothesis, and is not born out by the reading of the Scriptures. I have read through the Bible completely six to seven times, and I simply don't see this changing viewpoint of God. There is no evolution of God. There is only separate views of the same item (God) by different men. The Bible clearly has an expanding revelation of God, but it is much as counterpoint. A simple melody is introduced, and this melody goes on to build on the initial theme. So is the word of God.

So, in the entire canon of scripture, we see the melody of anger. God in the Old Testament got mad. God (as per Jesus Christ) got mad in the New Testament. They are the same God. Face it, if you are a Christian, you need to realize that God, in our common vernacular, "pops a cork." He gets fed up, and he lets people have it. However, we need to be clear about who he gets mad at.

In this quote that started this post, the God/Human was angry at those that teach or proclaim God's word in a manner unworthy of God. Idea that man can misrepresent God is something that is one of the key touch points in all of scripture.

"And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck," we are told in Mark 9:42.

You would think with such strong words, we would be hard pressed to find teachers of children willing to teach. To be a teacher and teach young people about the word of God has all the attraction of becoming a profession bomb defuser. The scripture tells us that the job of teaching can be harmful to you unless you are on your toes all the time. As a child that grew up in the Christian school system, I have found many teachers who taught despite the fear of the previous verse. They understood full well the risk of teaching, but felt called to be a teacher. To these teachers, I am indebted. And if the Krells, Joanie, Joel Ulrich, Fanny Gates, or a host of other teachers ever stumble across my blog, I can only hold out the deepest love and respect for what they did.

What amazes me is when the opposite happens, and the teachers that have read the warnings and disregard the consequences. I shudder to think what judgment day will look like for them.

An example of this was when I was in college for my first degree. I was at Seattle Pacific University, and many of the teachers were there out of a conviction to do what was right. Yet, I have never seen a more corrupt group of religion professors in my life. They were self satisfied in their intellectual hubris, and they ended up doing great amount of harm to the Christian body. Now Seattle Pacific University was built on the foundations of John Wesley and his philosophy. After reading the works of Wesley, and meeting these professors, I am convinced that if Wesley would have been alive, he would have camped outside of the offices of the religion department, and prayed until God rained fire and brimstone down on the building. If God did not answer his prayer, I'm sure he would have shaken the dust off his feet, and moved on.

One egregious professor, who later in life I simply called son-of-the-devil took great joy in breaking down the historic faith during his freshman introduction to the old testament course. At the end of the course, he would leave the students with nothing but questions. His main attack to undercut the faith was by canonical criticism. Rather than pointing out inconsistencies in the biblical text, he would attack the canon of scripture.

"The Catholics have their Bible, really, who is to say that we have the right canon," would be his stereotypical way of introducing his class. He also forbade tape recorders because evidently previous students had tried to capture his heresy on tape.

"Really, what is truth? Does the Bible need to be factually accurate to be true? Even in the myth of the Bible, Truth can exist," he would go on. He believed that the Bible was not truth, but it contained stories that pointed to truth. Since he studied Hebrew, he would remind us of that.

A rather brutal trick of his was his Hebrew authority. As I've state before, I believe the evidence is clear that the universe is very old. Without repeating my posts, the idea that the university is billions of years old is very obvious. As long as you can accept that the days talked about in Genesis aren't literal 24 hour days, science and the scriptures are easy to reconcile.

Son-of-the-devil would have none of this, and he emphatically informed every class that the Hebrew for "day" could only be translated as "24 hours." He knew that he was immediately creating an uncrossable divide between the scriptures and science when he said this. He enjoyed making everybody doubt their faith.

At the time, a lot of what he said got into my head. Even though my head was filled with some pretty good stuff.

In high school, I got the bug on apologetics. I had read Geisler, Sproul, and other fundamental scholars of conservative Christian thought. Unfortunately, since I assume that I was at a Christian University, and being young and inexperienced, I was not using the data that I had learned. However, one day spoke up I in class. It is etched indelibly in my memory.

"Well, the contemporary writers of the New Testament had no idea that they were writing scripture, they just were communicating," son-of-the-devil said.

I held up my hand, remembering a bit from an apologetics book that I had read. He nodded to me.

"What about when Peter called out in his books that Paul's writing was equivalent to the Old Testament Scriptures?" I asked.

Now, this was supposed to be a Biblical Scholar. This was supposed to be a man that knew what the Bible was about. Certainly, with all of this learnedness and knowledge, he would know the famous 2 Peter 3:16 Scripture, where Peter places the writings of Paul on the same level as the Old Testament. Looking straight at me, he had an air of confidence.

"I don't know about that," immediately dismissing me.

It was years later that I realized that the son-of-the-devil didn't read the New Testament. He was looking at the Old Testament as a piece of literature and not as the word of God.

Unfortunately, some of my nephews and nieces have gone to this university, and the power of tenure has kept the son-of-the-devil in business and dragging generation down. We've had some debate about whether or not the son-of-the-devil is really demonic or simply grossly misled.

I lean toward misled, but I am sure if CS Lewis was around, he would believe he was demonic, and he would insist that "the son of the devil" could be a dead ringer for an extra character out of "That Hideous Strength."

The point in this story, and why it is on my serious blog, is to discuss what to do when you are faced with somebody that claims to be a Christian and yet displays completely non-Christian behavior. I could have argued with this professor, but I didn't. His criticism of the Bible nearly led me to abandon my Christian Faith, and I can truly say that the journey back to a non-blind Faith has allowed me to become much stronger.

However, I would wish this "faith strengthening" road on no one, and if I am saved today it is because of the providence of God in directing my intellectual curiosity to some well placed books in Seattle book stores and libraries. However, have a snare inside of any Christian organization is a problem.

So now that you've heard my tale, what of the ramifications? The first is to make sure that you carefully consider any teaching job. To teach is to play with dynamite. If you are called, it will be the grace of God that saves you. Secondly, and similar to this, if we know somebody that is teaching scripture, we need to watch and make sure that they are saying the right things. The potential blessings are great. The potential downfalls are the same.

Lastly, we will all have our children fall into circumstances where they are being damaged. The Bible is clear on how the good is corrupted by the bad. If you end up in a circumstance where your child is being influenced negatively, sell the house, sell the car, and do whatever you need to do to pull your child out of that bad circumstance.

We would not allow our children to play with a brood of vipers. We cannot let them hang out with those that would take them down the wrong path.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

"Body" -> More Yogurt

Well I'l take back some of my comments in the following post. Through the miracle of the internet, and Google book search, I found some more information on why you heat milk before making yogurt.

The above table is from "Manufacturing Yogurt andFermented Milks" by Ramesh C. Chandan via Google book search. Chandan tells of the different manufacturing techniques for milk products. The reason for heating yogurt above killing the bad bacteria is the denaturization of the Whey Milk Proteins. You want to get around 85-90% denatured for the best holding of the water. You don't want to totally denature the protein, therefore, it is a bit tricky nature.

The table isn't perfect from my application since I heat up the milk in a double boiler, and the milk will be denatured as it raises through the various temp bands, but from what I can see, I should be allow the milk to sit around 15 minutes at 90C. I normally don't hold it at this temp that long (or at least I don't think I do, so I'll need to try and estimate next time I make yogurt).

You may want to try different hold times and see if you get better or worse yogurt.

Another interesting thing about the book is that the optimum range of temperature for growing the bacteria is 42-43 centigrade (109 degrees Fahrenheit) at 4-6 hours.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Body" -> The Bacteria In You, Yogurt

On most Sunday mornings, before we go to Church as a family, you will find me up in the morning eating my breakfast and, at the same time, making yogurt.

Normally, when I tell most people that I make my own yogurt, they look amazed. They think that making yogurt is exceptionally hard. However, yogurt has been made for almost 5000 years. So, if it was that hard to make, the heritage wouldn't be so old.

And making your own home made yogurt can be strangely addictive. This week I went up to visit my family and my Dad in Seattle, Washington. Every summer, I try to send the kids up to spend time at my Father's rather enormous spread outside of Seattle. While this is a great family experience that the kids will remember forever, it is rather lonely for my wife and myself, who are basically two peas in a pod, and we hate to be separated for this length of time.

This year, after my wife had been in Seattle for about week and half, I snuck out of
work, and came up to see them. There was a lot of hugs and smooches, we talked about about what the kids had been doing, and the how we missed each other.

After about 15 minutes, my wife looked deeply in my eyes, and she said, "And man, I really miss your yogurt."

Love finds it form in many ways, and evidently one of the way it finds my wife is in my bacteria growing art of yogurt making.

To make yogurt, you need the right tools.

With the right tools yogurt making is exceptionally fun and easy to do. You need to follow a simple set of steps. In this blog post we are going to look at making yogurt with me in my kitchen on Sunday morning.

Probably the most important thing to making your yogurt is simply having a good double boiler.

As a matter of fact, I have a variety of tools that I am going to show you. However, there are really only two critical tools: A thermometer and a double boiler.

So, what do you want in a double boiler? Well the question is how much yogurt are you going to eat in a week? If you are used to having a small little cup of yogurt every day, then you can get by with a small Faberware double boiler from Walmart.

"Well, I don't eat that much yogurt, so this sounds fine," you might say.

Before, you decide to replicate your yogurt habits, you need to ask yourself "why do I eat this much yogurt?" Chances are that the cost of the yogurt is pretty expensive. If you eat a lot of yogurt, the cost would simply be a lot of money. However, once you understand how to make yogurt, your cost is going to be just a little more than the raw cost of the milk.

For my wife and I, it might not be uncommon to fill up a 30 ounce glass with yogurt and eat it as a meal replacement. If you do this once per day, you need a much bigger batch of yogurt.

So, if you look at the picture up above, you will see how we make yogurt. It is one gallon of milk per week. So, in this case, you want a double boiler that can handle this amount of yogurt with some room to spare. For my weekly dose of 1 gallon of yogurt, I bought a 7 quarter double boiler. If you use my tools for making yogurt, having a bigger container is key.

If you decide to get a bigger double boiler, it is important to understand that double boilers basically coming in two flavors. The smaller double boiler is generally two sauce pans that nestle together. This is good for making things like melted chocolate and small doses of yogurt.

For the gallon size batches you need the big double boilers are made for soup stock. I recommend a nice stainless steel one, and you can buy them from either or My seven quarter double boiler was bought from Overstock for $47. (My only complaint is that the bottom has a ridge, which makes it harder to clean. However, $47 is hard to beat.)

Now, we need to look at the other tools of the trade. The picture shows a nice hand held food processor. This is actually an unbelievable helpful tool. The important thing about this food processor is the attachment at the end of the mixer bar. You might be able to see that it is basically a Milkshake attachment. This attachment mixes yogurt brilliantly and quickly, and is a snap to clean up.

I wish I knew where to tell you to buy it. The maker of my mixer is Hamilton-Beach, and I bought it at Walmart. I was so impressed with it, that I was going to buy a backup and I went back to Walmart. Why they still have the same hand held food processor, they removed the milkshake mixer in the kit of accessories with the mixer. I was very disappointed.

However, you can just mix with normal mixer, or even a spoon (which I think is suboptimal, but will work in a pinch.)

The last thing to get to make sure that you can make yogurt is a thermometer. This is another place to be a bit picky. Now, if you are in a pinch, you can go to Walmart and get a candy thermometer for a little over a buck. However, it is all the nicer to get a yogurt specific thermometer.

While you can Google "Yogurt Thermometer," I use the Yogourmet version that has made it through hundreds of batches of yogurt. It is nice that the clip stands makes the dial stand out nicely on top of the double boiler. It also has key temperature markings on it. While it got a lower rating at Amazon, the people that complained where obviously misusing it (they put it into a high temp oven or dropped it).

Okay, so now you should have your milk, your double boiler, and your thermometer. What you do is fill the bottom of the double boiler with about an inch or two of water. If you never used a double boiler, the idea of a double boiler is ingenious. By having a lower container with water, the water will keep the temperature in the upper container to less than the boiling point. This is because the upper container is only heated by the steam of the the lower container, and the steam temperature is about 212 degrees.

By heating the milk in a double boiler, the temperature of the milk is raised to around 190-200 degrees and no higher. This is exactly what you want to do with the milk for you yogurt. You want to bring it to around 190-200 degrees.

(Post edit: See next entry in my blog. After 20 years of making yogurt, I got interested in the denature process. For a good rule of thumb, you want to bring the temperature up to 90C or roughly 195 degree Fahrenheit and let it sit at this high temperature for around 5 minutes to get the milk denatured. You'll need to experiment with this, since the milk sees some denaturization as you raise the temperature.)

So the process is simple enough. Put in water into the base of the double boiler, put on the second pan of the double boiler, then pour in your milk, and wait for the temperature to rise.

So, why are raising the temperature of the milk so high?

There are two reasons that are often mentioned, and only one that really makes sense to me. The first reason that does make sense to me is that you need to raise the temperature of the milk up to the place that the molecules relax, which will produce a better texture of milk. In my mind, this does make sense as most milk is already pasteurized, which should have caused the desired effect to happen (if this really does happen.)

(Again, after reading "Manufacturing Yogurt and Fermented Milks" by Ramesh C. Chandan, the research is clear that you need to leave the temperature up higher to denature the protein. Pasteurization only increases the milk temperature up to 161F for 15-20 seconds (Wikipedia), but this clearly doesn't cause the range of denaturization necessary to get good yogurt.)

The second reason makes a lot more sense: You raise the temperature up to really kill any bacteria in the milk. Why do we kill all the bacteria? So we can introduce new bacteria. Our bacteria that makes yogurt.

So back to our yogurt. We have taken out double boiler, our milk, and a stove and we are raising our temperature up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. However, once the milk gets up to around 140 degrees, I suggest you add something special. That something special is non-fat dried milk.

In our family, we make the non-fat version of yogurt. When you buy store bought non-fat yogurt, it is very firm. The firmness of the yogurt is easy to get used to. However, the reason that the yogurt is so firm is because the manufacturer of the yogurt has added thickeners. Now, we could add thickeners, but we are going to use the non-fat milk to both thicken and increase the nutritional value of the yogurt we are making.

Now mind you, yogurt made without thickener is perfectly eatable. As a matter of fact, when I travel to Asia-Pacific for business, they normally put me up in pretty nice hotels. In these hotels, they almost always have yogurt in a great big bowl. And this yogurt is almost always more of a running type. A lot of people like this thinner yogurt, so this is maybe something that you'll want to try.

However, let us go back to putting in non-fat dried milk. As I said, you want to let the milk warm up just a bit so that the milk melts easier. I add roughly 25-28 ounces of non-fat instant dried milk to my one gallon of yogurt. This adds calcium, a bit of calories, and ups the protein. It also makes the yogurt much thicker, and more like US commercial yogurt.

Once you've added your non-fat dried milk, you can take your hand held food processor (or spoon) and mix it in until it is nice and smooth. Continue to watch the temperature of your milk, and once it hits 190-195 degrees, you can pull it off the stove. (Since I do this on a weekly basis, I have this timed just right. Once I start the double boiler and pour in the milk, I can put in the dried milk around 20 minutes into the heating cycle, and in 35 minutes the temperature is up to the point where I pull it off the stove.)

By the way, the secret of a double boiler is making sure that the bottom pan never runs out of water.

It might not be obvious, but when the milk is very cold, the steam actually rises, hits the bottom of the milk pan, and cools back into water and drops back into the bottom pan. This means that in the earlier stages of the heating, you lose very little water in the bottom pan. However, as the milk heats up, less and less steam goes back into water since the milk doesn't cool it much. You need to watch out for this, because you can actually boil all the bottom water away. Since you are looking at the milk, you might forget that without water, the bottom pan is going to get red hot. So, make sure you have enough water in the bottom pan and that it doesn't go dry.)

Now that the milk is up to 190-195 degrees, you simply pull the milk off of the burner. The goal now is to have the milk cooler to 115 degrees. When it hits 115 degrees, you simply take a store bought container of yogurt and mix it in with the milk. This is probably the trick to making yogurt. You need to make sure that the milk gets to the right temperature. You heated the milk to kill at the bacteria that might be in it. You need to get the milk to the point where it won't kill the yogurt bacteria.

If you wait for the milk to cool naturally, you will be waiting a very long time. It may take 1-1.5 hours for the milk to get to the right temperature. This is a very, very long time. If I waited for the milk to cool gradually, I would never make it to church.

Some people simply throw ice into the milk to cool it off, but this is going to make the yogurt much more thin and closer to water. If you've taken my advise, the double boiler is going to help you again.

The secret is to fill the bottom container for the double boiler with ice. I fill it almost 1/2 to 3/4 full. Once you have the ice in the bottom, you place the top contain onto the bottom. Since there is only a thin layer of metal between the ice and the milk, the milk will cool very quickly if you stir the milk at all. I will us the hand held mixer to stir the milk, and you will actually be able to see the temperature needle move. After 5-10 minutes, you will start to reach the right temperature.

At this point, you need a commercial container of yogurt as a starter. You can also buy packages of dry starter, but the store bought stuff works great. For the most part, almost any yogurt will work. I've used all types, since most yogurts claim they have live cultures (bacteria). As a matter of fact, if it doesn't work, it says that your store bought yogurt was somehow damaged. You might want to never buy the same brand of yogurt, or change stores. Yogurt without the live cultures isn't yogurt.

However, there is a down side to this. If the temperature gets too cold, the yogurt bacteria don't like replicating. So if the temperature gets under 100 degrees, you probably won't have very good yogurt. You need to grow the yogurt cultures in the perfect range of temperatures, which means that you need to have it around 105-115 degrees.

There are different ways of introducing the cultures. Some people like to take out a bit of milk and mix it with the culture. However, I just take 3-4 big dollups of yogurt (some times an entire small container of Yoplait) and just dump it into the yogurt. Again, if you dump in the yogurt when the milk is too hot, it will kill the bacteria. If, on the other hand, the milk is pretty cool, and you dump in a bunch of cold yogurt, you will lower the temperature too much.

For my gallon of milk, if I dump in a whole container, I know that the milk will lower from 115 degrees down to about 110. This is the perfect temperature for the yogurt bacteria to grow.

Once I've dumped in the yogurt, I take the mixer and give the whole milk container a good mix. You want to thoroughly mix the two together and get the bacteria spread into every part of the milk.

If you remember, you have been mixing the milk a lot. You mixed in the non-fat dried milk, you mixed the milk to cool it down in the double boiler, and you mixed the milk to get the yogurt culture spread. After all this mixing, you will normally find a very thick layer of bubbles on top of the yogurt. This layer of bubbles does not impact the yogurt at all from a creation standpoint. The bubble normally stay around during the next stage, and it makes the top of the yogurt look a little funny.

So, I normally get a very large strainer and skim off the worse of the offending bubbles. The bubbles get throw down the sink, and it does waste a little bit of milk. However, the top of the yogurt, when it is down, does look nicer. Just think of this routine as a bit of art work on your good.

After you are done with this, we need to now grow the yogurt. You can do this in the top of the double boiler, but this is not the best of all containers. I suggest that you find plastic containers or glass jars to transfer the yogurt into. Depending on the the method you will "culture" the yogurt (or allow the bacteria to grow), you want to make sure that the you don't get the yogurt and milk mixture to get too cold. So, generally your transfer your new mixture and quickly pick a method to culture the yogurt.

So now you have everything set up and ready to grow to make your yogurt. Here is where the next decision comes in. How should you keep the temperature at just the right level. There are several ways of doing this.

1. You can use the natural temperature of your just finished product to complete the process.

2. You can pop it into a warm environment

3. You can get a specialize yogurt warmer

If we look at the first of these three options, I have used yogurts own heat to be very successful in making yogurt. To do this correctly, you need to remember that we start to introduce the yogurt into the milk at 115 degrees. If you push that up just a bit (to maybe a 120) you won't kill the yogurt, and after you've introduce the yogurt into the milk, the temperature is still going to be 115 degrees. If you then wrap up the yogurt in a blanket and put it into an insulated container, the yogurt own internal heat will stay in the range of the temperature needed for the bacteria to grow for the next 3-4 hours, and the yogurt will come out just fine.

The rule of thumb when you use this method is that you want to make sure that the yogurt starts a little on the high side for temperature. If you introduce the yogurt into the milk at 100 degrees,it will cool to such and extent that the yogurt bacteria won't grow and make the yogurt that you want.

Another variate on this idea is to pour the new mixture into a wide mouth thermos and put the top on. Since the thermos holds the heat, the temperature will stay in the right range to make yogurt. When I was first making yogurt 25 years ago, I used this method with an old wide mouth container for my very first batch. I had read about yogurt making, and I'll never forget opening the container and being floored that the milk had turned from a liquid into a solid. It was amazing to me that first time.

The second way is very popular if you have the right type of oven. Some gas ovens have a pilot light running all the time. In this case, you can check what the temperature of your oven is. Chances are that the temperature of the oven is around 100-120 degrees, thus making this the perfect place to put your yogurt. Millions of batches of yogurt have been made this way.

Some people will take an insulated chest (like in method one) and then put the yogurt in the chest with a low wattage light bulb inside. The heat from the light bulb makes the chest the perfect temperature. Now, you need to be very careful to pick a low wattage bulb, but this method has been used a lot.

The last method is the one that is clearly the best to me. I show pictures of the specialized yogurt warmer. The one that I use is the Yogourmet Yogurt Maker, which is actually made in Canada. This is just a great piece of equipment, and nothing to go wrong on it. If you have followed the post this far, you know that the milk and yogurt mixture is in the top of your double boiler. If you think about it, you may not want to store your yogurt in this container. So, you have the option to transfer it out of the double boiler into a glass or plastic container for the growth phase as I mentioned before.

The Yogourmet maker is made of two pieces, a container that holds two quarts of your mix, and a bottom heating container. For my yogurt, I transfer the milk and yogurt mixture into the yogurt container. I then put a little warm water into the bottom heating element. This is also like another double boiler. The water in the bottom unit completely surrounds the yogurt container. Since I make a gallon of yogurt every week, I have two Yogourmet makers.

After putting in the mixture, I put the Yogourmet off to the side. When the yogurt is culturing, it does not like to be disturbed.

After 4 hours, I pop off the top. If you tilt the container side to side, you can see the miraculous event that just took place. The liquid milk has turned to nice solid, a little bit like jello.

Now don't panic if the yogurt looks a little runny, because it will firm up once you put it into the refrigerator and it cools down. If the mixture doesn't look solid at all, then something went wrong. Here are the normal culprits:

1. You put in the starter culture or yogurt when the milk was too hot. You killed the bacteria and they couldn't grow.

2. You never got the mixture warm enough. You allowed the mixture to cool so much that the bacteria could never grow.

3. You haven't waited long enough. Give it 2-3 more hours.

4. The original yogurt had dead cultures.

By the way, you can allow the yogurt to grow too long. The bacteria basically chew up the milk sugar, and create a structure that is solid. If you allow these bacteria to continue to grow, they will eat all of the milk sugar. You can normally tell that you left it in a bit too long because when you pop off the top, you will see a lot of yellow liquid on top. This liquid is simply whey protein, and is good for you. (Don't throw it away.) Over growing the bacteria doesn't hurt anything other than the yogurt being a bit more sour. Some people may even like this version. This is the fun of making your own yogurt.

Finally, I normally make a smoothy with my homemade yougurt. Normally a bunch of yogurt mixed up with a 20% of Pomegranate or Blueberry juice. You can put sugar in it, but I love it with just yogurt and juice. It has a bit of a twang and it is good stuff.

Yogurt has been around for thousands of years. There are thought to be numerous health benefits to yogurt, which are still a bit debated, but I'll list them here.

*Yogurt may help with weight loss.

*Yogurt may reduce the rate of infection with colds and bacteria.

*Yogurt may help women lower their rates of vaginal infections

Less debated is the fact that milk is a pretty cheap way of getting calcium and protein into your diet. So, yogurt has the benefits of being based on milk.

However, yogurt is definitely the preferred source of milk products for those that are partially lacking lactase in their system. Generally, if you are from European genetic stock, you can digest milk sugar or lactose because you have lactase in your system. However, many people from other parts of the world (southern Europe, African, and Asia) have a large portion of their population unable to digest this milk sugar.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Mind" -> Hurt

Hurt. Is it a post grunge band? Is it emo tending? Is it over the top? Is it alternative metal?

What ever it is, I like it.

When you do music every once in a while, you listen to a lot of stuff and you think to yourself, "Man, that is a highly overprocessed sound. I bet that I could do something like that with enough money and enough producers behind me." However, Hurt is slightly different. Now, it is highly produced. However, I like this. Face it, I think the idea that you go once into the studio and record a album is bunk. If you don't put work into it, why do it at all. Good music should be hard.

However, when you hear a album that is self written and at a constantly good level,
you think to yourself, "Well I guess that I'll never make that cut."

Hurt is a lot like that. Once you start listening, you see a very high level of craftsmanship placed into every song. Okay, they sound a little bit like an amped up Nickleback, but there is a lot worse things to be compared to.

Hurt has never cracked the Billboard top 100, but they've come very close. Their discography consists of three basic albums. Vol I and Vol II are clearly the best place to start. Both of these albums hang closely together, and they could have been released as a double set. The last album is done after a split with Capitol Records. "Goodbye to the Machine" is a good effort, but they are at the cusp of a transition. They can do the same material as the first two albums forever, and never grow, or they can branch out a bit. They try the later on Goodbye, and I'm not sure if I like it yet. A few more listens to see if they are on the road to a new sound, or if this is the swan song.

Regardless, it's a good band to explore.

"Mind & Spirit" -> Eureka 7

Okay, I'll admit it. I fell for Eureka 7, and it has become my favorite anime. Now, it is ended for me, which makes it all the better.

To understand why I like Eureka 7, and the fact that it ended, is to understand why anime stands up so well as an artistic medium.

A good anime does something that no American television can do. It is designed to have a birth and a death. Consider American television. In American TV, We start a story, but we have no idea if the series will be a hit or not. Therefore, the series starts off tentatively, only hoping to get the right ratings so that it can continue. If a show looks to be solid, the show may develop multistory arcs. Maybe these arcs will have a couple of twists, but the real conflicts will never be resolved.

In American television, the major couple will never get together (because it breaks the tension), or the major issue will never be resolved (for example the characters on "Lost" are rescued), or the major mystery is never fully solve (where is Battlestar Galactica's place to settle). You might say, "Yes, they do get resolved, on the very last show."

And that is the point of American television. We only end something when there is no other option.

And what drives this last show? Slipping ratings. The term "jumpinq the shark" is well known, as it describes a series desire to regain slipping ratings. Although it is well known, I'll relate the etymology of the phrase. In September of 1977, the television show "Happy Days" was starting to see it's ratings slips. Therefore, to get better ratings, the show started to create more and more outrageous situations. The pinnacle of this work is when the ubercool character Fonze wore a leather jacket and swim trunks to waterski jump an open pen holding a man eating shark. The best thing about this was that it was a cliffhanger.

The show had deteriorated to a shadow of itself.

Not only is the lack of knowing where the end lies before beginning a problem but the very medium of real actors makes yet another challenge.

The second problem is the power of the actor to hold the show captive. I really liked the show CSI because of the main character Grisham played by William Peterson. However, Peterson felt stiffled in his roll. So exited the main character. CSI lost a major part of itself due to an actor's desire, and not the writer's intent.

But in anime, the writer runs supreme. The characters are nothing more than drawings. Drawings cannot quit. They cannot strike for higher wages. And the beauty of Japanese anime is in the drawings. As I've scattered a few through this post, you should be able to see the creative flowing lines of a good anime.

Anime, for the most part, never has to jump the shark. When a main character is dropped, it is because story development needs it, not because the actor wanted something different.

Anime tells a story with a beginning and and end.

Often movies can do this also. They look to be self contained. However, movies are 2-3 hours at most at average. Maybe, if they know a movie will be driving a sequel, they will extend this to 2 movies, or at most, 8 with the Harry Potter movies. But even with the Harry Potter movies, they are spaced so far apart that we grow old with the wait.

Contrast this with Eureka 7, which has 50 episodes that are roughly 22 minutes long. So we get 20 hours of story telling. Yet this length show only goes 1 year in production. Having 20 hours, knowing that you must end the anime in 20 hours, gives you enough time to do character development. In 20 hours, you can make a real emotional impact.

So, why do I like E7, as it is often called by it's fans?

Superficially, it is just a dumb giant robot story. A little bit like the movie Transformers, only in a cartoon fashion. But this is just skin deep version of what we have. Of course, it does have the future version of surfing called "reffing." Reffing is a lot like surfing, only you do it on light.

Eureka 7 has the themes that we love. A 14 year boy, Renton Thurston, who is just turning into a man. Anime often picks on the 14-16 year old. Why? Because this is the age of change and discovery. This is the time when you make the decisions that will impact the rest of your life.

Into this life, he has his heroes landing literary in his front yard one day. The adventures that come from here are wild and varying. Some of the adventures pan out, some don't. However, all build toward an eventual climax.

You will see Renton struggle with a group of people know as the Gekko State. He begins to unstand that it is unclear if they are his friends or simply a bad influence. You will see him on both sides of a battle. Unclear about who is the right people to side with. For those of us with a Christian faith, it beckons to choices that we make in our own life. "Choose this day who you will serve," is a famous phrase from the Bible.

Into this frame work, we also find our young man captivated with a young girl called Eureka. For me, on a personal level, this is a touching issue. In the anime, we believe that young Renton has never been kissed, and to see him struggle with an admiration of a young woman reminds me of my own relationship with my wife. Is Renton only have a young infatuation, or is there something more than can grow here?

For me, while I had a couple of girl friends before my wife, my wife had basically none. From my perspective, not having anybody else in your life before your mate brings a clarity and deepness to your relationship. For all practical purposes, I have only loved one woman in my life. My wife has clearly only loved one man. And I love her more today than when I first met her. The question for me, in the entire series, is if this young man and young woman would find each other.

But if the story merely stopped there it would be pleasant. However, the story goes well beyond that and talks about family, war, sacrifice, and the acceptance of others. It has the wild villains and the courageous heroes, that often have problems of their own. While the large messages are strongly there, it is often the littlest things that grab me. In the course of the story, the young girl is involved in something that gives her scars on her face. When it comes to later section of the story, she is offered a miraculous chance of having those scars removed. Without a hesitation, she smiles and declines. See the scars are there to remind her of what she went through. To others, they are a deformation of a beautiful face. To her, they are a diary of past events.

We find through this anime that family can be blood, and blood can be family. However, we also find out that family can be friends and it can be adoption. Just because you are an orphan, does not mean that there is no place for you.

One of the interesting twists in the story is uncovered very early in the series, when young Renton gets to see Eureka with her crew mates. It is a shock to him to see three very young children run up to meet Eureka, and they call her "Mother." It is told quickly in the series that these are not her real children. However, how she came to adopt them is a twist that you'll remember for your life time, and I won't spoil it here.

The artwork is wonderful, with a smooth flowing anime style that is such a strong mark of the Bones studio. The drawings seem both new and old at the same time. It carries much of the traditional anime drawing style but with a coloring that seem new.

Top this off with an absolutely superb OST (Original Sound Track) by Sato Naoki, along with a single from Supercar, you have a emotional impact that will live with your long after the anime is done. If you cannot be touched by "Sorrow" by Sato Naoki, you cannot be touched.

As I finished the series, I read other people's interpretation of the events. One common theme was "it over, and I'm bummed." People got so involved in the journey that they didn't want it to end. But that is the point. The reason that we look back on the anime so fondly is that it did end.

And the ending made the journey all the sweeter.

For those of us that understand that our journey will end in not the distant future, we also look fondly at this journey we are on. Our ending will make our journey all the sweeter, also.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Spirit" -> The Analogous Road

I had recently run into a spate of cartoons that mocked the belief in a personal God. Most of these cartoons mock the Christians strong attachment to the Bible. And, there is no doubt why doubters would go for the Bible angle.

The backbone of the classic Protestant Christian faith is one of Sola Scriptura. It is also here that most people that were "raised in a Christian home" falls away from their faith. They don't first stop believing in Jesus. They first stop believing in the Scriptures.

I have heard and read countless number of accounts that once a person reads the scriptures with an open mind, all the contradictions in the scripture come to a head, and it causes them to abandon their faith.

"After all, the Bible is the Word Of God, and if it is the Word of God, it has to be perfect. Yet the Bible is full of errors, therefore, the Christian faith cannot be right."

We Christian often pull this problem right onto ourselves. I have gone to many a sermon where the pastor holds up his Bible and says, "I am preaching the Word of God."

However, the Bible is not the Word of God. The Bible points to the word of God. The Bible is the scriptures. The Scriptures (or the Holy Writ) explains the nature of God and points us to God.

The Bible is a sign. The Bible is not a destination. I wish that we Christians would redouble our efforts to make sure that the two things are separated: The Word Of God and The Scriptures. The scriptures is what we classically call the Bible. The Scriptures tell us enough about the Word of God so that we can get to the Word of God. There is only one Word of God, the Logos, or better known to the English speaking tribe as Jesus.

We we are supposed to worship the Logos. Yet, we often worship the Bible, and woe to us for doing such an action. Now, when you are reading this, you probably think that I'm being a bit harsh. Am I just thinly dividing a thin line? How can we study the Scriptures and not know Jesus.

Let's see what the Lord says:

John 5:38-40 (New International Version)

38...nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Tough to make it any more clear. The only reason to study the scripture is to get a better feeling of what the Christ is like. Scripture does not save. It only points to salvation.

The scripture translated, copied and handed down through the ages does not glow. It will have questions about a sentence there and a count of people there. However, if you read the book and look for a high degree of integrity, you will find it. It is like no other book. It is more than sufficient to do what is supposed to do: Lead you to salvation.

The scriptures were laid down like a highway from long ago. If we were exploring together, and we found this highway that had been built and abandoned, but was in very good shape, we could quickly identify it as something that had been done by a grand engineer. As we might take our jeep on this highway, it would allow us to drive quickly efficiently to where we wanted to go. We would recognize that somebody, somewhere had spent many hours designing and constructing this road. By studying the road, we would get to know the designer. More than this, once we got onto the road, we would be able to go places quickly.

However, the non-Christian sees our highway that we use so often, and they call the designer into doubt. "Look at mile market 23," they will say. "At mile marker 23, it is missing bumper turtles. If this road was truly made by the grand engineer, then it wouldn't be missing any bumper turtles." They could spend all day showing you the little things that were wrong with the road. They could show you all the "conflicting errors" in the traffic flow.

Well who did make the highway (or Bible). They would explain to you that it popped out trails that were made by the local towns people. That these roads just sort of grew over time. For the Old Road, they would say that there were four main designers: JEPD. They look at the highway very carefully, and they believe that they can find different color stones in the concrete.

However, a view of comparative literature just makes this laughable. To make the Bible contradict science, the atheist has to strain at the smallest knit. Mind you, there are miracles, but miracles are not logical inconsistency or obvious errors.

"Well the Bible says the Earth was made in 7 days," they'll say.

No, this is clearly a reference to seven eras.

"Well the Bible talks about the four corners of the earth," they'll say.

No, this is clearly poetic license.

Other than the story of the world being flooded, which is highly problematic (and obviously sent to test our faith) the path to reconcile science and scriptures is trivial. If I ever leave the Christian faith, it'll be of the lack of evidence of a global flood. However, the rest of the scriptures are so friendly to science that I overlook one area to have access to the others.

I hope someday I am surprised with clear geographical evidence for the flood.

Yet, this is not where the non-believer attacks. Instead, they try and say that all of the scriptures have deep issues. A matter of fact, they might even say that they can see the individuals that fabricated the Bible. "Everywhere a stone changes colors, we believe that we have a new writer," they announce. There are four major types of stones, thus four major creators of the highway.

In this analogy, the Bible is like that Highway. Most of us never got to see the structure laid down. We are viewing the Bible or the highway after many years of use. Certain parts of the scriptural highway may have been patched by man. However, if you stand back and look at the Highway, there is no doubt that whole of the Bible hangs together. Sure, are there small gaps? Are there some difficult scriptures. Sure, but there is no doubt that those that use the Highway get directly to where they want to go.

The belief of inerrancy applies to this. To be an inerrantist, like myself, you believe that the highway was laided down by many different authors over many years. Each section of highway is complete in itself. Now, each section may be of its own flavor and texture, but each small section of road is laid end to end perfectly. Even though many people did different parts of the road, each of them laid down a perfect section.

Now, from the day that the road was constructed, perhaps a couple of flaws or inconsistancies have appeared. However, there is no doubt to what the road does or where it is going. The roads were perfect as laid down, and they vary little to none from the original.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

"Mind" -> Visual Basic For Excel

The age old fantasy for everybody is to have a personal butler to help oneself around the house.

In the very popular movie "Batman Begin," Alfred is the rock solid helper that assists the Batman in the times of greatness need. Not only that, but he is also taking care of the menial duties of the house so that Bruce Wayne can spend his time on better things, like saving the city from the clutches of the evil villains that beset it.

So, what does this have to do with Excel?

Chances are if you are in business and you do any work, you will be using Excel for something. It may be doing the very simple to the very complex, but you will be using it for something. Now, if you are using it on a regular basis, chance are that there is something that you do with it on either a weekly or a daily basis. Here is where the butler idea comes in. It is exceptionally easy to set up the ability for that spreadsheet to do your repetitious tasks automatically, like a personal butler for your spreadsheet.

However, you will need to use some called "Visual Basic For Applications" or VBA. I was reading an excellent blog by Jorge Camoes, who is a quant head at a company and spends a lot of time blogging on charts, and very much enjoyed his casual observation:

In an informal survey among friends and colleagues (all of them Excel users), I’ve discovered that 55% doesn’t know what VBA is, 40% knows but doesn’t want to use it, 4% uses recorded macros from time to time and 1% actually edits the recorded macros to add some sort of functionality (well, this happens to be me…).

"Oh, no," you might say. "This sounds complicated. You just told me that 40% of people don't even know what this thing is. Why should I be interested?"

Well, the first step is just you out of the class that has never heard of have heard of Visual Basic For Applications (VBA). VBA is the backend (or the device) that allows you to record macros in Excel. So, congratulations, you are now more informed than 55% of the population.

Let's talk a bit about macros. Macros used to be very, very difficult. Now, they are very, very easy.

Macros are the short way of saying macroinstruction. Since I'm an aging computer geek, I want to take you back to the early days of computing to the old "Terminate and Stay Resident" (or TSR) programs. Borland International stole this idea from a start-up and created "Superkey."

If you think about it, there were no mice on the early computers. (I know that this boggles the mind.) The way that you interacted with computer was the "Command Line Interface" or CLI. The amout of clicks that you can do from the keyboard if you are a very fast typist is 480 per minute. (think 80 words per minute at an average length of 5 letters per word and one space.) While this is extremely fast for a typist, this is very slow for a computer.

If you had a series of keystrokes that happened over and over again, you could simply capture them and replay them. The computer doesn't know if it is a human being or a program replaying the key.

The application providers realized that this really wasn't worth a stand alone program, and they started to integrate these key recorders into the applications that they made. This is when I was introduced to macros, through the DOS environment. However, the macro environment goes back earlier than this.

When I got my second degree is when I discovered Unix. Unix has two very popular editors vi and Emacs. What is an editor? Think of it as a limited word processor made specifically to write scripts or computer language type instructions. Of these two programs, Emacs is of special interest. First off, I prefered it to vi, but even more important for our story: it stands for Editing MACros. See the real computer geeks were on the Unix side, and they were working on things far before it ever came to the DOS (and later Windows) world.

I sold computer in the early days of the personal computer revolution, and when Lotus 1-2-3 2.0 came in, it had the ability to use macros. People went crazy building all types of unique additions to Lotus using the ability to replicate end user keystrokes.

The successor to the general purpose keyboard macros programs can still be found today. The most widely used free software is Autohotkey. The program is not what I call as directly friendly, as you need some ability to program. However, I recently decided that I needed to trim the first 30 seconds of of 100 podcasts. I had a program that would trim one, but it had no ability to do multiple files. So, I set up an autohotkey script to act as if it was me. It opens the files in my trimming program. It trims the file. I copies the file into a "done" folder, and then it opens the next file. You can watch it operated as it does things on my screen. It is almost spooky.

Back on subject, applications started the ability to bring in keystrokes into the programs. In a flash of brilliance (and it revolutionize the app industry) Microsoft determined that it could capture those keystrokes and convert them into a series of programming steps.

Let's use an example. Let's say that you want to save a spreadsheet. You know that the keyboard short cut is "Alt-S" and typing in "temp" and hitting enter.

The old keyboard macro would have captured:

1. Alt key down (Make code in keyboard talk)
2. s key down (Make)
3. Alt Up (Break code in keyboard talk)
4. s Up (Break)
5. t (Up and Down)
6. e (etc)
7. m
8. p
9. Enter

What Microsoft does is change this automatically to a programming language call Visual Basic. Once it records your keystrokes, it say that you did the following command:

ActiveWorkbook.SaveAs Filename:="c:\temp.xls"

Now, programming is always a bit hard to learn, but if you can learn a few rules (about 30-40 hours worth of study), but once you learn the syntax, you can open up a window and say, "I want to take the data from sheet 5 in my spread sheet. Then I'll make a Pivot table out of it. Then I'll make a button to come up to the various parts that I want to see. Then I'll save the document."

The trick part of working with VBA the first time is understanding how to refer to things and all the command to do something. Like most modern programming languages, the language has a lot object orientation in it. This make is simple to program once you understand how it thinks.

We can understand some of this by simply looking at the line of code above. What did we want to do? We wanted to save a worksheet (file), which is obvious and object. In VBA, the currently opened spreadsheet is called ActiveWorkbook. This is always an object. This object can do various actions (think verbs). The object can open. The object can close. In our case, the object will "save as". These actions are called "methods" rather than actions. If you want a object to do a method, you list the object, then you tack on the method with a period. Thus this is why we have

Activeworkbook.SaveAs (or object.method)

We are obvious lacking a file name, and if you put in a space and a "filename:=", it knows to assign the file name whatever you put behind the := in the syntax.

The other tricky thing is that most objects have properties. For example, a Pivottable has pull down menus for setting data that you want to see. In this case, you need to tell the program to find the workbook, then find a particular sheet in the workbook, then find a particular pivottable, then find the attribute or property of one of the items on the pivottable. While this sound very complicated, you basically just type down what we said.

ActiveWorkbook for the workbook
Sheets("MainPage") for the sheets inside of the workbook, and you named the sheet

This is listed out as


In this case, this pull down menu (PivotItems) has several things like "Sales in Feb" and "Sales In March". You can then say "please set this item to always come up "Sales in March".

However, in most cases, you don't type this in. You record yourself doing the action in Excel, then after you are done recording, you look at the commands. Simply selecting the pull down menu with record a line like the above one. While a bit complicated at first, with some training you can quickly see what it is doing. Then you can make changes to the code to modify the actions.

I know that this has been a short glimpse into VBA, but I want to give you a bit of the history and what it is doing as an overview. As stated before, it'll take 30-40 hours to learn enough to start writing a bit of code to automatically do stuff, but once you have this tool, you'll be many more times productive.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Mind" -> Pivot Charts

Our guest for today is Hans Moravec. Now if you are familir with robots, you have probably heard of Moravec. We are not going to talk about robots, but we are going to use an idea of Moravec. We are going to use his paradox.

What is Moravec's paradox? The paradox, as Hans Moravec coined it, is the basic idea that conscious thought in doing things like playing checkers requires very little computing power.

Yet, what we consider as simple (walking for instance) has not been adequately followed by even the most sophisticated supercomputer.

Let's look at this a bit more. For instance, if you've ever played chess with a computer, you know exactly what I am talking about. Very early in computers, PCs were able to play a decent game of chess. Even my Palm Pilot, which is a very early PDA, plays chess pretty well. On the other hand, if you try and get a computer to drive a car, it is massive challenge that we have yet to master. We simply don't know how to get a computer to visually take in information and turn it into decision making. There is something in the human brain that is more powerful than any supercomputer, and allows us to deal with visual information and turn it into actionable items.

A couple of posts ago I wrote about pivot tables. Pivot tables as I've already talked about are truly magical instruments to help you analyze data. But as we've just talked about, but you can easy out do a super computer, and this is based around utilizing your visual center.

The truth is the vast majority of our brain is set up to be able to process and use of visual information. If you took all the data input that you can get through your skin, your hearing, your olfactory glands and every other part of your system, you would find out that the data flowing into your brain in any one instance is roughly somewhere between 500 Mb per second to 1 Gb.

Almost 50% of that input is based on visual input.

So let's talk about this just a bit more, if 50% of the input coming into your brain is visual information, that means that your brain needs to process visual information somewhere between 250 Mb per second to 500 Mb per sec. This is no menial task. If you want to catch a ball, you brain sees it, processes it, and then it can do things like fine motor skill so that you can catch the ball.

Processing data at this rate is really amazing. As a matter of fact, for many many years inside of the high tech industry we survive on 10 Mb ethernet or something 50 times slower than the visual bandwidth going into your brain. Even today, you may know that 100 Mb per second takes a relatively sophisticated router systems. It is only with the advent of GigE that we are starting to get data rates that allow us to stream internet information at the same rate that your great, great, great grandfather could process visual information about a farm animal.

So we want to use this supercomputer to solve problems, find anomalous data, or figure out overreaching trends. This is as easy as graphing out information. You may not be able to take the integral of a sloping line, but you can say "hey that curve looks wacky!"

The thing that you need to remember, a good chart will allow you to find something in 30 seconds that would take you an hour's worth of analyzing a number table. If you want to find something out, make sure to chart out.

This is the fastest easiest way of tapping into your hidden talent. You need to tap into your visual supercomputer.

The question then becomes is "Why don't we use more charts in our data analysis?"

The answer is because they are really hard to make. Even if you use a tool like a spreadsheet which is exceptionally useful in making charts easier to get to, it still takes a considerable amount of effort to quickly get out a series of charts using data.

Therefore we turn our attention to one of the most underutilized parts of spreadsheets today, this is called the pivot chart. A pivot chart allows to make different charts almost instantaneously once you have set it up correctly.

The big problem is the initial set up. Unfortunately, if you think that Pivot Tables are a bit hard "to get" then you will find out that Pivot Charts are even more hard "to get."

But when you get a hang of using them, they will literally become the best instrument at your disposal to be able to make convincing arguments and find trends. They will help you be successful. The good thing is that once you "get" a Pivot table or a Pivot chart, they will become second nature. Once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget. Once you get a pivot chart and table, it'll stay will you for life.

So let us go back to the post that we did on pivot tables. If you remember we were comparing three salespeople the way that they were selling hard disk drives over a series of months and a series of different hard disk drives. If somebody handed you this pivot table and you had spent a little time figuring out how to use a pivot table, it would become one of the most useful items in your arsenal. However now we are going to take the next step.

To create a pivot chart the first thing you need to have is a pivot table. I am going to be a little unfair because I have not told you yet how to create a pivot table. We'll get to that in a later post. What I want to show you now is the power of the pivot table.

So how do you create a pivot chart?

If you look at the second picture in this post above, you will see that I have placed my mouse cursor over the current pivot chart. You can then right click on the pivot chart, and an option to create a pivot chart will come up on the context menu. Alternatively, you can go to the Insert -> Chart menu. Excel knows that you can only create a pivot chart from a pivot table. Bingo. You have just created a Pivot chart.

(By the way, these charts were made with Excel 2003. Now, I have Excel 2007. Unfortunately, Excel 2007 is probably the worst upgrade made by man in the pivot table section. They took what was a beautiful analytical tool and removed a couple very important buttons off of the interface. If you are stuck with Excel 2007, don't worry you can still do everything they used to be able to do in the old version, it just does a little bit more complicated. However, it is things like this that makes me wonder how Microsoft stays in business.)

Now what do we get once we hit that magical pivot chart button? The answer? We initially get a chart that looks like an absolute mess. This is shown directly above.

This is where I noticed most people stop trying to work with a pivot chart.

See the funny thing is that hitting the button to make a pivot chart doesn't do the same things as when you make a normal chart. Most people have made a normal Excel chart. Every time that they've push the button to turn a table into a chart, Excel auto magically makes a very nice looking chart. However here for the first time, they hit the charts button and suddenly they simply get a mess.

I am now going to give you the secret of the pivot chart. By and large I've never seen this described very well, and yet it is incredibly simple. To turn this chart into something that makes sense, you simply drag what ever you are using for the x-axis down underneath the x-axis.

In our case we want to grab the little gray box that says months, and we want to drag this little gray box down to the bottom of the screen until a little blue box pops up which is the landing area for the months. We then want to take the other boxes on the chart and drag them up to the top of the chart and again that you will see a little blue box appears that will serve as the landing area for these gray boxes that you drank up to the top. In our case, we are going to drag the salesman box up to the top and we are going to drag the RPM box up to the top.

You now have a chart that looks like any normal bar chart that you could make from any normal source of information. However the secret is that you can instantaneously create new charts I simply using the pulldown menus.

Unfortunately I don't have enough time in the short blog post to take you through all of the different options. Ignoring that we don't have enough time, the good thing is now you have a chart that looks like a normal chart. The rest becomes very very simple. As I described if you want to see a chart of any individual salesperson, all you need to do is hit the little arrow on the pulldown. This will allow you to see an individual chart of any one of the three different salespeople. If you want to see a chart of the various RPM sales or you need to do is use the pull-down menu.

So suddenly you can start making all types of charts with one or two different mouse clicks. Once you start creating new charts, you will start to notice if data looks like bad data. You will also notice trends that would otherwise be unnoticeable.

We use our eyes to keep ourselves from walking into walls and hurting ourselves. A good pivot chart uses your eyes to keep you from making mistakes.

Use a chart to discover the truth.

And the best way to make a chart is through the pivot process.