Friday, December 14, 2012

Life was GOOD in the Third Reich

Seriously, it was. Obviously, it wasn't if you were Jewish, or Romani, or openly gay, a Jehovah's Witness or disabled. But how many people are we talking about here? The population of "greater" Germany, including Bohemia, Moravia, Prussia, etc., was 87.1 million people in 1939. The 1939 census of the Reich counted 318,000 Jews, including people deemed to have Jewish blood who would not be counted under Jewish law. Propaganda of the day estimated their numbers at closer to 1.5 million. There were something like 30,000 Romani living in Germany at the time. The number of homosexuals in Germany is difficult to determine, but it's estimated that up to 15,000 homosexuals were sent to the camps. Jehovah's Witnesses were banned, and some were sent to the camps; there were about 25,000 JW's in Germany. It's estimated that about 70,000 disabled were put to death by the Reich. So the persecuted population of Germany would be approximately 458,000 people. For good measure lets double that: 916,000 people. That's 1% of the population of Germany in 1939.

We never think about the 99%. We think about the 1% who died horribly, in a methodical program of extermination, and well we should. But if I asked you, "What was life actually like in Germany under the Third Reich?" you would probably talk about cattle cars, and gas chambers, and forced labor camps. If the experience of the 1% is what life was actually like, then life in America is all about flying private jets to Paris for a romantic breakfast of caviar and champagne. But no, I didn't ask about the 1%. I asked about the 99%. What was life like in Germany for the 99%?

You can get a glimpse of the answer in Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free. But the broad outlines are obvious: 99% of Germans never stepped onto a cattle car, never looked out through barbed wire, were never interrogated by the Gestapo or hauled off to Berlin, and certainly never died in a gas chamber. For 99% of Germans, life under Hitler in 1940 was no different than life under Friedrich Ebert in 1920. In fact it was immensely better! Under Ebert they experienced a hyperinflation so severe that the paper Mark in 1924 was worth one trillionth of its value in 1918. Under the Third Reich, the government resisted the urge to devalue the currency and so kept inflation in check. Hitler's nationalism inspired the ordinary German, not because the ordinary German was a homicidal maniac, but because he was sick and tired of being held completely to blame for WWI, of being forced to pay ruinous WWI reparations, of watching the plight of Sudeten Germans under Czech rule, etc.

In short, hyperinflation was a thing of the past. Reparations, an immense national debt, were repudiated. Guilt over WWI was repudiated, and Germans--the 99% of Germans we're talking about here--felt pride in their nation. Unemployment was down from 30% in 1932, to full employment in 1936, to a labor shortage in 1938. Economically, life in the Third Reich was the best it had been since before WWI.

And remember, these 99% never saw the inside of a concentration camp. They knew that Jews were being "resettled," but the "final solution" was not publicized, and certainly not any of the gory details. No German needed to think about where the trains were headed, once they left the station. The ordinary German was shielded from these horrors, and could easily live in denial that they were going on at all.

Similarly, we imagine Germans being challenged constantly with, "Ihre papiere, bitte!" But did they perceive this as the proof that they lived in a police state? Ask an American, who produces his driver's license on demand for police, who shows identification and removes his shoes and belt before boarding a plane, who shows his passport to return from Canada or Mexico, and who applauds the movement to demand proof of citizenship from hispanics, or the practice by New York City police of randomly stopping and searching people without probable cause. Ask this American whether he lives in a police state; it's obvious how he will answer. These measures are there to protect us from "terrorists," and "illegals," and "gang bangers"! Showing our papers doesn't make us any less free--in fact it's the price we pay for our great freedom. Just so, the Germans thought they were free.

Life was good, for Germans in the Third Reich. For 99% of them, anyway. If any chicken little should object that they were living in a police state, they could rightfully scoff. "Have you ever been taken to Berlin, or loaded on a train, or gassed?" No, of course not. "Has any relative or friend of yours experienced any of these things?" No, most likely not. "So how can you call this a police state?" Germans got up in the morning, went to work, went to the pub, came home, and went to bed. For most Germans, there was no visible sign of a police state, anywhere they looked.

I've been asked before whether I've ever been spirited away to Guantanamo, or tortured, or held without charges, or killed by a drone. I can honestly say I haven't. Nobody I know has experienced any of these things. I've been frisked, rather intimately, in airports; I've had my electronic communication monitored (as has everyone else, whether they realize it or not); I've had to get a passport so I can visit Canada or Mexico; every package I've ever ordered from China or Israel has arrived opened; all of these things are true. But that's just the price of freedom--those measures are all for my own good.

What I wonder is, if the United States were ever to become a police state, how would we know?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Salsa - My First Water-Bath Canning Experience

Finally, canning again

I started canning in 2008. For practice, I canned a couple dozen quarts each of pinto beans (which were delicious, I must say), turkey stock, and applesauce. I bought an All American Canner model 925, used, which I've been delighted with (and also used to pressure cook whole chickens and some other things).

Back then the problem was that our kitchen was a shambles. Our house was a duplex, and the downstairs kitchen had literally no counter space apart from the foot or so on either side of the sink. Julie and I did these canning projects on folding tables, and it was pretty tough going. Thus began a project to remodel the kitchen, which is a long story for another day. The conclusion of that story is that we had a contractor finish the kitchen remodel for us, this past April, and the kitchen is now gorgeous. Every available foot of wall has cabinets and countertops. Ironically we still wish for more space, but we're much better off now than we were in 2008. I wish we'd done this four years ago.

Since May I've been meaning to resume canning, which was after all the original motivation for finally doing something about that kitchen. Finally, this weekend, we did.


Yes, salsa. We actually go through a tremendous amount of it. We use it for chips, but also over rice (Spanish rice in minutes!), on baked potatoes, on scrambled eggs (or in our case, Egg Beaters™), etc. I'm vaguely dissatisfied with the stuff we buy, so making some might be the first step toward the perfect salsa, and it sounded easy enough to make. I was wrong about that.

So on Saturday we stopped at a nearby farm stand and bought a crate of tomatoes (I'm guessing it was about a half-bushel), some onions, jalapeños, garlic, and green peppers. Then I took a ten mile bike ride to Walmart for some lemon juice, tomato paste, and cilantro.

Sunday evening (after another 17-mile bike ride with my son), Julie and I optimistically set to work at almost 9:00 PM.

Prep Work 

Prepping the tomatoes wasn't hard work, but there was a lot of it. Before starting, I put 24 pint jars into the dishwasher for a quick wash and heated dry--the jars need to be hot. I also put a sauce pan full of jar lids into the oven at 200°f, to keep them hot; it seemed like less work than simmering them on the stove, since they need to be watched to prevent boiling. I put about 4 gallons of water in the All American™ canner, and set it to boil (which takes forever!). Then I put a 12-quart stock pot on the next burner with about a gallon of water. When the stock pot was boiling, I cut an X in the bottom of four tomatoes at a time and dropped them in the pot for 1 minute. When the timer expired, I switched them into a bowl of ice water, and Julie peeled and cored them. It took perhaps a half hour for this operation.

When the tomatoes were all peeled, Julie minced about 8 cloves of garlic and 12 jalapeños (without seeds!) in a little food processor, followed by 6 cups of onions and 2-3 green peppers. I removed the seeds and jelly from the tomatoes. At first I cut each one in half, and gently squeezed each half into a strainer; before long I tired of that, and found by experiment that it works nearly as well if you simply squeeze the whole tomato. The seeds and juice come out the hole where the core was. That took a solid half-hour as well.

When the tomatoes were seeded, I ran them in the big food processor until they looked like salsa to me. I like salsa on the less chunky side, and Julie likes it more, so I tried to split the difference there. The crate of tomatoes came to almost exactly 6 quarts. Then into the (washed out) 12-quart stock pot went:
  • 6 quarts of tomatoes (processed)
  • 6 cups of onions (minced)
  • 12 jalapeños (seeded and minced)
  • 2 green peppers (seeded and minced)
  • 8 cloves garlic (minced fine)
  • 24-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 24-oz can puréed tomatoes
  • 4 cups bottled lemon juice (natural strength)
  • 2 tbs salt
  • 2 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs ground cumin
  • 1 tbs black pepper
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, minced
It took a good while to bring that to a boil, and then we simmered it for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.


Once the salsa was cooked, we set up an assembly line. We put pot holders on one end of the countertop, about 4' from the stove, and set the pot of salsa on that. Next to that we set the pan full of lids and the lid lifter; next to that the bands (which came with the jars); then next to the stove the jar lifter.  The water in the canner was gently boiling.

The process was pretty easy from that point. Julie took a jar from the dishwasher, filled it with salsa, leaving 1/2" head space, and wiped the rim of the jar with a damp cloth. I fished out a lid with the magnet, put on a band, and lifted the jar into the canner.

As we worked, it became clear that a couple things weren't working out as I'd planned. The canner is supposed to hold 19 pint jars. However, (1) that depends on the size of the jar, and (2) that refers to pressure canning, not water-bath. The wide-mouth Ball™ jars we used only fit 8 to a layer, or 16 total. And the second layer of jars comes near the top of the canner: when pressure canning, you only need a few inches of water in the bottom, and the work is actually done by steam that fills the canner; when water-bath canning, you're supposed to cover the jars to a depth of a couple inches. So technically the canner is only supposed to process one layer of jars when water-bath canning. And we ended up filling not 16 jars, but 23 2/3.

We plowed ahead anyway: we put two layers in the canner, with less than 1/2" water above the top, and gently set the lid. We had to scoop out a little to prevent it boiling over. Then we got out the water-bath canner and used it for the last seven jars. Getting both to a boil took a while--pro tip: on a normal kitchen stove, a giant canner will never get to a rolling boil with the lid off. Once both were  boiling, we set a timer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes in the water bath, I set another timer (Julie having gone to bed at this pint, since it was nearly 1:00 AM) for 15 minutes and turned off the heat. When they'd cooled just a little, I pulled them out with the jar lifter and set them on towels to cool and seal.

The Results

All the jars sealed, so that's great. We haven't tasted the canned salsa yet. The extra 2/3 jar tasted awesome--I had some on my eggs this morning--but it didn't go through the water bath, so it had about 1/2 hour less cooking time. The processed jars will no doubt taste different. I'd expect the cilantro flavor to be less vibrant in the processed salsa. So the jury is still out, but it looks very promising.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Toodledo and If This Then That

Toodledo and If This Then That

Two great web apps that taste great together.

There are a handful of tools out that that bowl me over with their possibilities. They seem to have infinite potential, even if I can't think of just what to do with them right now. One of them is Don Libes's expect programming language. Another is the web app If This, Then That, or IFTTT. Here's how I just set up a "recipe" on IFTTT to create to-do items by taking a voice memo on my cellphone.

What is IFTTT? It does what the name says: it's a web service that arranges for "that" to happen whenever "this" happens. I have about a dozen and a half of these set up, so when I post this blog entry, an IFTTT action will tweet a link to it from my twitter account, and another will post a link to it on my Facebook page. When I upload a picture to Facebook, a copy will be saved to my Flickr account. When I mark something with a star in Google Reader, that article will be saved in Instapaper for me to read offline later. If you browse their recipes, you'll get the idea quickly. See what I mean about infinite possibilities?

So what do I want to do with all that infinite power? Well, one thing I want pretty badly is to do useful things with my iPhone 4, like create to-do items in Toodledo by voice. The iPhone 4 is a museum piece--which is why I linked Wikipedia instead of Apple--and it doesn't support voice commands. For that I'd need an iPhone 5 or at least a 4s. I used to have a cool voice-command app called Siri, but it was mysteriously pulled from the app store shortly before they announced that the iPhone 4s would talk to you in a feminine voice and go by the name of "Siri." Hmmm.

Since then I've looked at any app that promises voice command. Dragon is pretty good, but it's really nothing more than a notepad that takes dictation. Vlingo isn't too bad, but I've found it frustratingly hard to use. Enter Voice Assistant. It has pretty accurate voice recognition--but ironically, I found it the most useless of all. It's a "do one thing" app. If you tell it in the preferences that you want to send text messages, then that's all it can do. If you tell it you want to send emails, then that's all it can do. It can only do one thing. How incredibly, utterly useless!

But suddenly I find myself wanting to do only one thing. I just want to talk into my phone, and create a to-do item. How on earth is that so hard? (And if you're going to tell me to bite the bullet and buy an iPhone 5, I can only say to you, "Shut up.") I used to use Jott, until they wanted me to start paying monthly for it. I tried to use Google Voice, but I could never get its "straight to voicemail" feature to work--they're convinced that when I call from my cell, I want to listen to my voice mails rather than leave one. Which somehow makes the single-minded stupidity of Voice Assistant attractive. If I tell it to send a text message, then by golly that's exactly what it will do.

But where to send the text? Toodledo doesn't accept text messages. I subscribed to the Pro service because it lets me create to-dos by sending an email message, but email is all it can do. What I need is some way to set things up so that If I send a text message, Then an email is sent to Toodledo...

And lo and behold, I know of just such a service. Five minutes at IFTTT, and I have just what I need. Whenever I send a text message to Toodledo from my cell phone, they will use it as the subject line of an email from my Gmail account to my secret Toodledo email address, which Toodledo will funnel into my inbox. I've shared the recipe with the public under the name "Text messages -> Toodledo."

Using it has a few moving parts, of course:
  1. First, sign up with Toodledo and subscribe to "Pro Plus" for $30/year.
  2. If you don't already have one, get a gmail account.
  3. Get yourself an iPhone and install Voice Assistant.
  4. Then, register with IFTTT, activating the SMS and GMail channels.
  5. Find the Text Messages -> Toodledo recipe and click "Use Recipe."
  6. Enter your secret Toodledo email address as the email "To" address, and save.
  7. Note the phone number the recipe gives you for sending your text messages to.
  8. On your iPhone, create a contact for "Toodledo," using your secret email address and the SMS phone number from IFTTT.
  9. In Voice Assistant on your iPhone, enable "Fast Access - SMS & iMessage," and choose the Toodledo contact as your "Favorite Sms & iMessage" preference.
That's it. Now whenever you dictate something in Voice Assistant, it will automatically pop up as a voice message. Tap "send," and it will go to IFTTT, who will send an email to Toodledo, who will turn that into a to-do item. Somewhere in this chain of events, I'm sure a pin pops a balloon, which scares a cat, which jumps onto a sleeping man's head, who rolls down a flight of stairs, landing with his nose on the RETURN key.