October 14th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

For many years now, I’ve had this idea that maybe we were overdue for a major overhaul of our country’s constitution.  While I believe the current version is easily the best of its kind, there are a variety of issues it simply doesn’t deal with very well, or at all.  The recent shutdown of the US government is a great example of a situation that our founding fathers don’t seem to have considered.

I’ve put together a list of my own ideas for updates to the US Constitution. I don’t pretend to be qualified to present an actual rewrite, so these are just general descriptions of the idea.

As a practical matter, I don’t think it’s really likely the country’s politicians would ever come together and agree on a constitutional update of this scale, but it’s interesting to speculate about it.

A Corporation Is Not A Person

The modern concept of a corporation is much broader and much more powerful than what they had in mind 240 years ago.  However, there’s always been a certain tendency to treat a corporation as an individual in some respects. One of my first updates would be to ensure that there are limits on that idea.

And of course, the main reason to care about this is to keep corporate money out of politics.  I would take it a step further and say maybe we should ban any contribution from any sort of business entity.  There are companies that have spent several times as much money lobbying Congress to overturn the Affordable Care Act than what they would have spent simply giving their workers health care benefits in the first place.

Congressional Recall

Something the constitution doesn’t explicitly address is the idea of the people being able to vote a senator or house representative out of office before their term is expired.  By interpretation of the 10th Amendment, this is left to the individual states, and most do not have any mechanism for doing this.  Only 18 states allow for a recall election for US Senators, and as far as I can tell, none allow for a recall election for seats in the House of Representatives.

I think there should be a recall mechanism to allow the people to remove members of Congress before the end of their term.  Right now, it’s far too easy for congressmen to ignore the will of their constituency.  Unless it’s immediately before a regular election, they can often get away with it without significant consequences.  That needs to change.  They need to know that if the people don’t like how they’re being represented, they can do something about it TODAY, not a year or more later.

Congressional District Boundaries That Make Sense

The borders for Congressional districts are controlled at the state level, and typically they get redone whenever control of the state legislature shifts from one party to another, or when the population shifts around enough to influence election results.  This is because the party in charge wants the borders to favor their candidates in the next election.  This is called gerrymandering.

Illinois District 4 in Chicago is an extreme example of gerrymandering.

The idea behind gerrymandering is to set the borders of congressional districts in such a way as to concentrate voters into a single district where they might otherwise have been spread out across multiple districts.  This means that they influence the results in just one district instead of all of them. Alternately, the borders might be drawn up to distribute certain voters across multiple districts, where they’ll not have enough numbers to influence any of them.  This practice results in some truly bizarrely shaped districts, but more importantly it also results in the wrong guy being elected.

This abuse is not really limited to one party or the other, but in recent years it’s gotten especially bad in some areas. We need to install a system where the rules for creating district boundaries are the same everywhere, and those rules need to require district boundaries to be as simple as possible.

Line-Item Veto

This idea has been bouncing around for a long time.  The usual argument against it is that it shifts power from Congress to the President, and there’s certainly some truth in that. The problem is, it wouldn’t be an issue if Congress could manage to keep from creating bills with an odd melange of wildly unrelated things.

For example, let’s say that a bill is created that allocates funding for highway construction projects.  Everybody pretty much agrees about the highway projects, but while the bill is in committee someone manages to attach another item for a controversial school vouchers program. What does that have to do with highway construction?  Nothing at all, but there’s no rule that says items on a bill have to be related to each other.

In practice, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s not uncommon for a bill to have an “anchor” item like the highway projects that everybody is likely to vote for, but then also have a laundry list of items that would never in a million years be passed if voted on individually. However, what happens is that one congressman makes a deal with another… and another…

For example, maybe Congressman Joe is on the committee that is working on the highway projects bill, and he’s got a project being debated in another committee where Congressman Bob serves.  Bob tells Joe that if he adds the school vouchers item to the highway projects bill, then Joe’s project will make it through Bob’s committee.

The deal is made, and maybe another dozen such deals along the way, and eventually the final bill comes up for a vote.  The original highway projects item may have been universally popular, but every item that’s been added along the way is likely to have shifted votes one way or another. Now what was once a no-brainer is a tight vote. If the bill fails to pass, it might die altogether, or it might go back to committee where it’s subjected to more changes and more deal-making.

If the bill is eventually passed by Congress it is sent to the President. He agrees that the highway projects are a good idea, but doesn’t like the school vouchers idea and maybe one or more of the other various items that have been added along the way.  The problem is, he can’t approve one without the other, so he vetoes the whole thing.

A line-item veto would give the President the ability to say “yes” to the highway projects but “no” to the school vouchers or any other unrelated items attached to the bill.  This would arguably shift power to the president, but only in the sense that it would cancel out all the deal-making in Congress that leads to such “Frankenstein” bills being business as usual.

I think it would be a good thing.  I think it would require Congress to focus more on the individual merits of each thing being added to a bill, and less on how they can leverage one item to help or hinder something else.

A Way To Force Congress To Act

One of the most bizarre things to come out in the news about the recent government shutdown is that on October 1st, House Resolution 368 was passed in the House of Representatives. It changes the operating rules so that only the Speaker of the House or the House Majority Leader can call for a vote on the Senate bill to reopen everything.  Previously, any representative would have been able to call for such a vote.

Republican leaders have been telling us that they haven’t called for a vote because there aren’t enough votes to pass a “clean” version of the bill to reopen the government.  “Clean” meaning, minus the attempts at repealing or delaying parts of the Affordable Care Act.  However, this is contradicted by reports that a couple of dozen Republican representatives have supposedly changed their vote.  So it seems the real reason that Speaker John Boehner hasn’t called for a vote is that he knows it will pass.

The bottom line is, it shouldn’t be possible for either branch of Congress to stall things like this. There needs to be some means for either the President or the minority leader to force a vote on something.   If there aren’t enough votes to pass the bill, then let it fail!

What I Haven’t Mentioned

There are probably a few other ideas I could add here, but my thoughts have not coalesced as yet.  So far, I’ve tried to restrict my ideas to things that have to do with the government working efficiently.  I didn’t want to get into things like changing the amendments that have to do with guns or free speech or privacy.  It’s not that I don’t think there is room for improvement in such areas, rather I just don’t think there’d be too much agreement on the specifics.

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October 8th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

When I first visited Fry’s Electronics in Sunnyvale back in the late 80s, it was a relatively modestly sized store. However as they added more and more locations over the years, the trend has been for the stores to be larger and larger. and yet, they managed to fill that space with all sorts of different electronics items, computers & software, appliances, and more.

The last few years, however has seen a trend for them to fill up more and more shelf space with what can only be affectionately be called crap. Crap of the sort that you see in late-night infomercials. Crap with a sticker that says “as seen on TV ” on the corner of the box.

When I’m at the store, I notice that nobody seems to be looking at these items. Frankly they seem like a waste of shelf space. It’s hard to imagine that Fry’s is making any money off of these items.

Today I happen to stop into the store, and I noticed that they had rearranged a few aisles. The crap piles have increased, and the books section has gone from taking out three rows to taking up half of one row.

The PC and Mac software section seems to have been greatly reduced as well, going down to about one and a half rows. Approximately 1/3 of which is antivirus software.

While understanding that many people are buying their software online these days, I couldn’t understand why the store would be devoting so much shelf space to a goofy french fry maker, Regardless of how easy it may be to use and clean, or why they would reduce software shelf space to do it.

Then it occurred to me. While the size of the store may have made sense 10 or 15 years ago, it’s just too darn big these days. It simply doesn’t make sense for them to stock five or six rows of software like they once did, and the same is true for many other types of product. But they have to use that floorspace for something. You just can’t get away with having a large section of your store sitting empty. Thus the shelf-filling items of the crap variety.

Perhaps eventually they’ll start transitioning to somewhat smaller stores, or perhaps they will subdivide and lease out part of the building to another business.

The problem is, it’s hard not to think of that sort of activity as an indication of failure, even though it’s really just a reflection of the changes in the space requirements of the products being sold.

Let’s hope that Fry’s, and other stores in a similar situation, find the courage to somehow reduce their floorspace before the urge to fill the shelves with anything they can turns them into a brand known primarily as being sellers of crap that you wouldn’t buy if you saw them at the dollar store.

May 26th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

You’re doing your grocery shopping, and you’re in the aisle with all the frozen foods when you notice that there are like a billion different choices for frozen pizza.  Different varieties, different brands, different sizes, they all have one thing in common.  They’re not as good as fresh pizza.

But, sometimes, they’re good enough.  Sometimes, you don’t want to wait 30 minutes to an hour for delivery.  Or you don’t want to get dressed and leave the house.  Or maybe you just don’t want to pay Dominos $15.00 or more for a medium pizza.  Sometimes, that $4.00 frozen pizza you picked up at the supermarket frozen foods aisle is going to do the trick.  Even if it’s not quite as good as fresh pizza, it can still be fairly decent.

How I Learned To Cook Pizza

Way back in my school days, I worked at three different pizza places within a few years of each other.  The first one was “Big Daddy’s Pizza”, which was within a few hundred yards of my house. My mother, my sister, and I were on our way home from the DMV when I got my driver’s license, and we stopped there to celebrate.  The window had a “help wanted” sign so I asked the owner about the job, which turned out to be for delivery driver.  About 90 minutes later I was taking out my first delivery.

While I started as a delivery boy, it wasn’t long before I started learning how to make pizza. One of the perks of the job was getting a meal at some point in the shift, and one day the boss told me to go ahead and make my own pizza ‘cos he didn’t want to get up from his comfortable position in the back booth with his girlfriend. He was about 60 and she was maybe 3-4 years older than my own 16. I would have wanted to stay in the booth too, I guess.

Anyway, I had been watching him make pizzas for a few weeks at that point and I figured I could handle it, so I went to it.  Making a pizza isn’t brain surgery, but it’s not easy if you’ve never done it before.  The dough was already made, of course, and had already been given time to rise, so the first step was to roll it out into the proper size and shape.  We had a machine that was sort of an automated rolling pin.  You’d put the dough in one side and it would flatten it out and push it out the other side.  Then you’d stretch it into a more or less circular shape and push it through again.  This process would repeat until the dough was reasonably close to the desired size.  Then you’d stretch it out again.

For experienced pizza cooks, this last part is where you’d throw it spinning into the air, although that’s not all really necessary.  It’s really just showing off.  The ultimate goal is to get the dough into a circle and have it be reasonably uniform thickness.  If you’ve got thick dough in one place, it won’t cook through, and if it’s too thin somewhere else, it might not support the weight of the toppings.

Once you’ve got the dough shaped and on a sheet of cooking paper, the next step is adding the sauce.  You might like a lot of sauce on your pizza, but what looks like just the right amount of sauce at first can turn out to be entirely too much later.  The amount of sauce can affect how the dough cooks, so it’s best to take it easy until you have a little experience in what works.

Certain toppings like ground beef or Italian sausage can go on the pizza before the cheese, if you prefer.  You might like the way they cook when they’re under the cheese instead of on top.  It’s a matter of personal preference.

Next comes the cheese.  Mostly you use grated Mozzarella, or maybe a blend with Cheddar, and another variety or two like Provolone or Monterey Jack.  One thing to consider is that cheese made from skim milk will release less grease during the cooking process. This is the main source of grease on a pizza so if you don’t like it, definitely use cheese made from skim milk. But on the other hand, the flavor isn’t quite as rich. I don’t personally find it to be a very noticeable difference but you may be different.

Now you put your toppings like pepperoni, ham, onions, etc. on top of the cheese.  Again, be careful about loading too many toppings on the pizza until you have a little experience.  Note also that the more different toppings you use, the less you use of each.  If you like a “supreme” style pizza with a lot of different toppings put together, it may take a bit of practice to get the mix down right.

Just before placing the pizza in the oven, you might want to put a last sprinkle of cheese over the toppings.  Another thing that comes down to personal preference.

I worked at Big Daddy Pizza for about a year, and over that time I gradually shifted from making deliveries to cooking and running the counter.  By the end I was essentially filling an “assistant manager” role, which I always had mixed feelings about because delivery drivers can make some pretty good money with tips and all.  I usually made at least $50 and sometimes as much as $100 a night, and for a 16-year old in 1980 that was awfully good!

Over the next few years I would work at two other places as a pizza cook, learning a somewhat different style of pizza cooking each time.

Making Pizza At Home

I’ve occasionally made pizza from scratch at home. Cheese and toppings are pretty easy, but the challenge has often been scaling down the recipes for dough and sauce from restaurant scale. I learned to make dough in a big restaurant mixer where one batch would be enough for 50 pizzas. When making sauce, we’d use three gallon-sized cans of tomato sauce and three of tomato paste. Spices were measured by the cup, not tablespoons. At that scale, it’s relatively easy to tweak the mix. Sauce needs more salt? Add half a cup and you might barely taste the difference. When making smaller amounts, adding half a tablespoon can be too much.

If you want to simply use a pre-made pasta sauce on your home-baked pizza, that can work out fairly well. Just be aware that what works OK with pasta might be a bit different when you taste it on a pizza. Some experimenting may be helpful.

Figuring out how to make the crust was a bit easier. Pizza dough is basically a kind of bread dough, and even before the web was around, you could easily find all sorts of recipes for bread or pizza crust that are pretty easy to make at whatever scale is needed.  I made dough from scratch ingredients at home a few times, and while the results were good, it can be a lot of work if you’re only making one or two pizzas.

Back in the early 80’s there was another option. I don’t think it’s still available, but back then someone made a pizza dough mix that was basically a powder where you’d add water and stir. I think it was from Chef Boyardee but it’s been 25 years at least since I last saw it. Right out of the can, the results were close, but not quite right. After I’d tried it a couple of times following the instructions on the can, I experimented a bit and discovered that by adding an egg and just a touch of baking powder to the mix, and by letting it rise for an hour or so, it came out pretty decent.

These days, probably the most popular option for homemade pizza is using a pre-cooked crust. While there are other brands out there, Boboli is perhaps the best known, and they have several different varieties available.  They also have a lot of recipes for different kinds of pizza on their website.

Pre-Made Uncooked Pizza

In recent years, many supermarkets have started selling pizzas which are freshly made, not frozen, and uncooked.  My experience is that these are often pretty good.  They are usually made from fresher, higher-quality ingredients and the ones I see are attractively priced.

These can be a great option. The store usually sells basic varieties like cheese, pepperoni, and italian sausage but they’ll also occasionally have a BBQ-Chicken pizza too.  The cheese variety is popular because if you like if you like other toppings like onions, olives, peppers, etc., it’s really easy to simply add your own.

The one problem seems to be that they are available in limited quantity. It’s not unusual for the store to be out of stock if you do your shopping later in the day.  Also, be aware that for best results, you will want to cook the pizza within a day or two of buying it.

While these pizzas can be pretty good right out of the box, you can also apply some of the tips in the next section.

Improving Frozen Pizza

A few easy extra steps can make a big difference in the quality of frozen pizza.

I think the most important part of selecting a brand of frozen pizza is the crust. Find a brand that has a crust you like, or at least which you dislike the least, and the battle is halfway won. That’s not to say the sauce, cheese, and toppings aren’t important too, but they’re usually not as far off the mark as the crust can be.

I find that most frozen pizza is a bit light on sauce. With some brands, I think they paint it on with a brush and then wipe it down with a paper towel so that the dough is just kind of stained.  So one of the things I like to do is add a little extra sauce before the pizza goes into the oven. I usually keep a jar of basic red pasta sauce in the fridge, so I take a spoon and dab a little across the top. Not a lot but maybe like 3-4 tablespoons’ worth. Then I take the spoon and spread it around more or less evenly.

Some frozen pizza brands put a decent amount of toppings on, but not all. I usually go for pepperoni or a combo with pepperoni, so I keep a small bag of sliced pepperoni on hand and when I cook a frozen pizza, I’ll sometimes add a few extra slices.  You can do the same with other toppings, if you like.  Note that some fresh, unfrozen toppings may want to be added partway through the cooking process, rather than at the beginning.

Lastly, I always try keep a bag of grated mozzarella cheese in the fridge.  I use it for making garlic bread and it also comes in handy to give frozen pizza a little boost. I’ll sprinkle a little bit on after adding extra sauce, and again after any extra toppings. Again, not a lot. It doesn’t take a whole lot to make a decent improvement.

Other than some varieties having a sucky crust, the biggest problem with frozen pizza is that they sometimes tend to be kind of greasy, and if you’ve added extra cheese that’s even more likely. You may want to pull the pizza out of the oven once or twice while cooking and use a paper towel to blot some of the grease off the top.  Be careful not to squish the toppings around too much… just dab at it gently.

Put It In The Oven!

If you’re cooking a frozen pizza in the microwave using one of those little goofy cardboard cooking sheets that they come with, you’re best off just following the instructions on the box. If you’re cooking using a regular, non-microwave oven, those instructions are a good starting point but may need some tweaking.

The cooking temperature and time for pizza varies quite a bit. Most frozen pizza boxes say you should set your oven to 400 degrees or so, but a typical pizza oven at a restaurant is usually set to 600 or even 700 degrees! Why the difference? Can you cook your frozen pizza at home for 12 minutes at 600 degrees instead of 18 minutes at 400?

Maybe. It depends on your oven. A home oven’s 600 degrees may not be the same as a restaurant oven’s 600 degrees. When you’ve cooked a lot of pizzas in a variety of different ovens, you come to realize that there are several factors of oven design that affect pizza cooking.

When you cook something like a roast, selecting the proper cooking temperature is important.  Too high, and the outside of the roast may sear and burn before the inside is cooked. Too low, and there’s too much time for the juice to leak out and and it turns out dry.  The trick is finding the right balance.

With pizza, all other things being equal, boosting the temperature will simply reduce cooking time. Because of the flat topology, there really isn’t any issue with “inside” cooking at a different rate from “outside”.  But in a typical home oven, all other things aren’t always equal when you boost the temperature.

A home oven typically has two or three large wireframe shelves raised up at intervals between the main burners at the bottom and the broiler burners at the top. When the oven is set to 400 degrees, the heat may be obtained solely through the bottom burners, but if you crank things up to 600 degrees, if it even goes that high, it may require that the broiler burners at the top be used, at least part of the time.

At higher temperatures when the top burners are used, the top of the pizza is receiving more direct heat than it does at lower temperatures with just the bottom burners. So maybe the bottom cooks 135% faster at the higher temperature, but the top cooks 175% faster. This means the top could burn before the bottom is completely cooked.

In comparison, a big restaurant pizza oven usually has either a large fixed metal shelf with the burners underneath, and vents around the perimeter, or else there’s a large circular rotating shelf.  The position of the heat source relative to the food doesn’t change when the temperature changes, so when you crank things up to 600 degrees, the food cooks faster, but the top and bottom still cook at the same rate relative to each other.

You can mitigate this problem with a home oven by placing a cookie sheet or some aluminum foil on another shelf above the pizza.  This will block some of the direct heat from the top burners and hopefully even things out a bit.  If your oven has a convection feature, that can also help. This is the process of circulating hot air throughout the oven.  It makes the heat more even, less directional.

Almost Ready To Eat

Regardless of what kind of oven you’re using, other than microwave, you have to pay attention while cooking your pizza! This is especially true if you’ve cranked up the cooking temperature to get shorter cooking times. At least the first time or two, you should babysit the entire process. Once you have a good idea of how long it takes, then you can slack off for all but the last few minutes.

One exception to that “slack off” idea is if you’re using fresh dough, because you need to be on the lookout for bubbles forming while cooking. You don’t need to watch the oven like it was a TV set, but every few minutes you may need to open the oven door and pop a bubble with a fork.

It depends on the thickness and type of dough, but as a general rule, the bottom of the pizza is done when the perimeter has become bread-like and has browned just a bit. Use a knife or fork to lift up the edge so you can peek at the bottom. If it’s still uniformly the same color as the dough started out, it’s not quite done yet. Start looking at how the top of the pizza is doing. You want the cheese to have browned at least a little bit. Check any exposed toppings. You may not be able to tell much with something like black olives, but onions or peppers should be browning a bit.

Hopefully, the top and bottom will cook at the same rate, but you have to be ready to take action towards the end if that’s not the case. If it seems like the bottom is done but the top still has a bit to go, take out that cookie sheet or foil, move the pizza to the top shelf, and crank up those top burners for a minute or two.

If it seems like the bottom still needs more time but the top is pretty much done or getting close, move the pizza down a shelf if you can, and change the temperature to make sure the top burners remain off.  You might also put a sheet of aluminum foil directly over the top of the pizza.

Ultimately, after you’ve moved things around, added foil, etc., if the top and bottom aren’t quite in sync, you just need to eyeball it and pull the pizza out when it seems like there’s a reasonable compromise.

Once the pizza is ready, take it out of the oven and let it sit on the counter or other safe, flat surface for a minute or two before cutting it. If you’re using a pizza slicer, I recommend cutting firmly and slowly, making sure that the toppings don’t get pulled out of place during the process.  Make sure you cut all the way through and that the pieces separate properly.

If you’re using a knife, then carefully put it down, find your car keys, drive to the store, and buy yourself a real pizza cutter. Seriously. They are not that expensive.

Sigh. OK, if you must use a knife, make it the biggest one you can, and try to cut the pizza by pressing the knife into it, rather than using a sawing action or trying to slice across the top.

Once you’ve sliced the pizza, you probably want to let it cool off for at least another few minutes before eating.

To eat the pizza… aw, never mind.  You got it from here!