Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lokesh Dhakar

While I was perusing various science social networking sites today, I came across an engaging blog by Lokesh Dhakar. The site itself is well designed, but the content contains some great examples of well-displayed information (not to mention detailed "scholarship"). Edward Tufte would be proud.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Thank You For Smoking

I watched "Thank You For Smoking" last night and was quite impressed. It's basically the story of a divorced father of a 12-ish yr old boy who happens to be a very successful spokesperson for Big Tobacco. You want to hate the guy, but you end up loving him because he's so damn good at it, and you are able to believe (just barely) that he's a decent guy and a good father under all that smooth talking. The movie has at least 3 things going for it:

  1. Great writing. The dialogue was crisp, funny, and kept the film moving at a good pace.
  2. Great cast. Every character is superbly played, with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek. Aaron Eckhart is a genius. I can't see Katie Holmes these days without thinking "crazy woman" (mostly because of Tom Cruise) but she was also pretty good.
  3. Great cinematography. I don't even know if that's the right word for it, but the editing, the little flourishes and stylizations, the asides and willingness to play around made the movie a lot of fun to watch. It just had this great, quirky personality, kind of like Scrubs mixed with The Daily Show with a splash of Will Ferrell.

In short, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kaimana bigger and better

The last few weeks have been rather hectic. I worked on a conference proposal for Open Science and attended my department's annual retreat, in addition to the regular research mumbo jumbo. Planted a bunch of herbs (rather haphazardly, so we'll see how that works out), rototilled the crap out of my backyard, and started planning my edible circus (70 lb cabbage! tiny eggplants that look like orange watermelons! actual watermelons that look like a starry night sky! purple tomatoes! you get the picture). Had the first planning meeting for Mischief. It's been busy, so when it came time to pack up and head to Hawaii for Kaimana, I decided it was in my best interest not to bring my laptop, and just focus on chilling and playing intense Ultimate.

This was my 3rd time at Kaimana in the last 4 years - the first time was with the Stanford team, the second time was with mostly California-based team Dirty Dozen Dames, and this time was as a reincarnation of DDD with an infusion of eclectic players from all over the country, called Hot Lava. Brynne and Alice did a great job bringing together a team of really cool people who just happen to be awesome players as well. I think I knew the most people on the team, but for the most part, no one knew everyone else, so it was very exciting to see how well we could work and learn throughout the tournament.

The first day, our inexperience playing together showed when we played the Stanford alum, who threw a tough zone on us that we couldn't effectively break; however, the next day was markedly different, with a definitive upset against the #1 seed and defending champs Howling Coyotes and double game point win over tri-state area team Phine to take the 1 seed going into quarters. We faced the Santa Barbara alum in the quarters and played a solid game on them, and then rematched against Phine (who defeated 2 seed Ponies with Uzis on double game point) in the semis. This game was similar in intensity to the previous Phine game, except that instead of clawing our way out of a 5-9 hole to win 11-10, we started out with a 2 or 3 point lead which widened at one point to 4 or 5 points, and then closed to the final score of 11-10. I think Phine played a tremendous tournament, having only 11 people, beating the 2 seed, and playing all of their games that I saw to within 1 point differential.

Beating Phine in semis catapulted us into finals against... Howling Coyotes, who beat 3 seed SmokeFireHireLower in the other semi. I'm not really sure what happened here, but we lost to them something like 15-9. They were able to use their roster a little more effectively (big players like Chelsea Dengler, Jody Dozono, and Arly ?) and it could be argued that they played sleepy and underestimated us in our earlier match. Yet when it comes down to it, they didn't play all that well in the finals, with a lot of throwaways you wouldn't expect from seasoned club players. We also generated plenty of Ds on them. I think what it came down to was offense. While we had several points with really nice offensive flow, we struggled a bit against the wind and couldn't convert enough of our Ds into goals, answering with throwaways of our own.

In the end, though, it was a great run for a team that really had never played together before. We had a signature Hot Lava shot, sizzling jerseys and shorts designed by Lori (I'm now a fan of Five Ultimate gear), and everyone on the team played like a rockstar. I can't even count the number of times Alice, Minh, and Jen Smith laid out. Finding your niche defensively is also really gratifying - discovering that you can match up against really good players, read them, shut them down, and capitalize when they're tired. There are some players I have yet to figure out, but when you do figure someone out, it's a revelation. It's things like these that help rekindle your love for the sport.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Gong xi fa cai

I celebrated Chinese New Year yesterday with a bunch of friends from school, hosted at David's apartment. I volunteered to make dumplings, so I prepped the filling and brought over some equipment since I figured (accurately) that David's place would be too small to handle that many cooks in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I forgot my packs of dumpling wrappers that were thawing in the fridge, so we only had the 60 or so wrappers that I had him buy for me; fortunately, that turned out to be just the right number, and now I have wrappers at home to make fresh dumplings with the leftover filling whenever I want.

This led me to my first revelation: pre-made dumpling wrappers rock. I tried to make my own dough before, and there were some problems - hint: always add flour to the liquid ingredients, never the other way around!, and a fat rolling pin does not for a skinny rolling pin substitute. It turned out ok that time, but I've concluded it's not worth the effort for most dumpling occasions. Plus, the wrappers you can buy are just the right ratio of dough to filling and cook in about 3 minutes. The only problem I can think of is that you need to pay more attention to how much filling you wrap, because if it's not enough, the dumpling can get all floppy when cooked with too much empty space inside.

At any rate, the dumplings were a big hit, and a lot of fun for people to make as well. We had about 4 or 5 different styles going on - my simple but 2 fold style, the more elaborate 6 fold style you see in dim sum a lot, a russian style, and even a bao zi (steamed bun) style, which actually looked really cool. Maybe one of these days I'll get really ambitious and attempt xiao long bao (soup dumplings).

Aside from dumplings, we had two big pots of huo guo (fire pot) going, and tons of stuff to throw in them - beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, cuttlefish sticks and fish balls; fried and soft tofu, mushrooms, rice noodles, and about 5 different kinds of vegetables, 3 of which I didn't recognize. In traditional Chinese fashion, there was a ton of food, perfect for the new year.

My second revelation was that people can have full Chinese ancestry and not like soy sauce or spicy food, not be able to pronounce Chinese words, and not own a rice cooker. Well, let's just say I'm still a little skeptical that he is truly Chinese.

Here is the recipe I use for dumpling filling, passed down from my mom (who is the best Chinese cook I know):

2-2.5 lbs ground pork
bottom 1/2 of a napa cabbage, chopped fine
~ 3 inch diameter bunch of green/garlic chives (long and flat, not the small wispy ones), chopped fine
3 large cloves garlic, minced
~ 1 cubic inch of ginger, peeled and minced
1/4 C soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1-2 T vinegar

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl with a sturdy utensil.

To wrap dumplings, prepare a bowl of cornstarch mixed with water (about 1/2 T to 1/2 C water). Place a wrapper flat on the palm of your hand. Place a small ball of filling in the center, about the size of 1 tablespoon. Dip a finger into the cornstarch solution and wet the top edge of the wrapper. Bring up the bottom half of the wrapper and pinch shut at the top in the middle. Wet the front sides of the wrapper, then start folding up the front part of the wrapper up towards the middle, pinching the top closed as you go. You should have 1-3 folds (depending on your style) on each side on the front of the dumpling, with a slightly curved shape that helps it sit upright.

To cook dumplings, bring a large pot of water to boil. Place about a dozen dumplings in the water. When they pop up to the surface, pour in a cup of cold water. Wait 1 minute, then remove from the pot. They're done!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The "cool" candidate?

I posted earlier today endorsing Obama, but I have to admit that I am easily swayed by powerful messages, such as the Yes We Can music video. I also have a history of political apathy, which translates to a severe lack of comprehension regarding pretty much all campaign issues and the political process in general. So here's another confession: I like Obama because it makes me feel good.

Why does it make me feel good? Mostly because I'm on a very welcoming and empowering bandwagon. Obama is by far the most popular candidate in the demographic circles of which I consider myself a part (young 'uns, liberals, students, Ultimate Frisbee players). When you support Obama, you find yourself a part of surging crowd of energized people all inspired by his message of hope and change. But how many are simply there, swept along by peer pressure and exhilarated by being a "part of something"? How many see him as the only candidate it could be considered "cool" to endorse?

Alex Joseph wrote a very engaging essay for Slate reflecting on his support for Hillary Clinton. It was quite entertaining to read, and made me think about my reasons for supporting this or that candidate. In truth, I only really care about science, the environment, and our global image, so that rules out most of the Republicans - I don't like them because they don't believe in evolution or don't think the environment is a big enough issue. But figuring out what I like about certain candidates? Frighteningly enough, I hadn't really thought about it until now.

Yes We Can

I was actually a little undecided who to vote for today. Very superficial things nagged at me: Hillary you either love or you hate, which doesn't bode well for a would-be president. She does have more experience, but what is that experience worth? Obama on the other hand, is more popular with my generation, but will he be able to back up his big words in office? Here is a confession. Before today, I had not heard Obama speak, I'd only seen pictures and read articles in Newsweek. I admit his boyish demeanor made me pause. But then I saw a music video created by a group of diverse artists, and it completely changed my outlook on this election.

One - the music and the video are beautifully done. Two - Obama's message really comes through. But Three - Obama clearly provides the inspiration and hope that has been missing from our country for almost a decade. A slight edge in experience on paper pales in comparison to the ability to galvanize a struggling nation to optimism and action. I want a leader who makes us believe that Yes, We Can.

And I wish I hadn't waited this long to listen to Obama speak, because that is a voice you can believe in.

Vote Obama!

Monday, February 4, 2008

SalesGenie, what were you thinking?

So I watched the Superbowl yesterday - and actually got into it. That's kind of big, because I don't follow football at all, and can probably count the number of Superbowls I've really sat down and watched on one hand, even if I was missing 3 fingers. But apparently boys like football, and this boy I'm with now really likes football (he love love loves the 49ers, which makes for some sad Sunday afternoons, but at least they won the game I got him tickets to (their last game, against the Bengals)!), so I've watched way more football the past 6 months than I have in all my life previously. At any rate, I think I'm actually starting to appreciate football a little more now, though I still wonder why they always run straight into the pack.

While the football connoisseurs out there chuckle at my naivete, let me turn to the other reason many people watch the Superbowl - the ads. If you watched any of them, I'm sure we'd agree that they were supremely disappointing this year. Budweiser, come on. Maybe instead of making 3 terrible ads you could've made 1 halfway decent ad. Careerbuilder.com - I could've done without the bloody heart bursting out of the woman's chest. Probably more than half of the ads had nothing to do with the product and were simply attempts at memorable skits that mostly succeeded in being dumb or boring. But the ones that really made my eyes widen were the cartoon ads for SalesGenie.com.

Ad #1: Caucasian supervisor dude tells "Ramesh" his numbers aren't looking so hot. Ramesh contemplates his options in a "Kwik-E-mart" accent. Oh look, SalesGenie.com helps him do a better job so he can feed his fobby immigrant wife and 7 kids!

Ad #2: A couple of pandas are having trouble with their bamboo sales or something ridiculous. Guess what! Their names are Ching Ching and Ling Ling! They proceed to chatter using heavy Asian accents. Oh look, SalesGenie.com helps them sell more bamboo so they don't have to go back to the zoo!

The fact that I never see commercials this racist on regular TV makes it all the more astonishing that they were allowed to air during the Superbowl. Did no one screen the ads first? Do they just assume that if a company is willing to spend $50 million for 30 seconds of airtime, they must be good commercials? (Well, we already know the answer to that one.)

Thank goodness the game itself was exciting this year. I mean, the Pats vs. the Giants? Arguably my two home teams (assuming I cared about that growing up) - who would I root for? I spent 4 years in the Boston/Providence area, but grew up in New Jersey, plus it's cooler to root for the underdog, so Giants it was. Who would've thought they'd actually end up winning??

I know a guy who flew to Vegas to bet $25,000 on the spread. Let's ignore the fact that that's my yearly income (woot, grad student stipends...). He must've had the night of his life!

Friday, February 1, 2008

How do you trump "The Atlas of Creation"?

Apparently more than half of Americans don't "believe" in evolution. I put in quotes because I'm one of those who considers evolution a fact, and not something you can believe in or not believe in (though that doesn't stop a lot of people). What many so-called "anti-evolutionists" have latched onto lately is the unfortunate label of "theory" attached to evolution; because it is often called the "theory of evolution", they claim it means evolution is unproven. As I understand it, however, evolution as a mechanism - mutations in DNA leading to changes in phenotype that can in turn influence which organisms survive and pass their DNA on to the next generation - is not a theory, it is a fundamental fact of nature. Maybe the idea that evolution is the sole means by which humans and all modern organisms came to be the way they are today could be considered a theory, though it is difficult for me to think of this as a separate, refutable concept.

So many things lately have me believing that the world (or maybe just America) is going to shit, and they mostly have to do with religion. About a year ago, my PI received the "Atlas of Creation", a truly incredible piece of work - and by "incredible", I mean utterly ridiculous, flabbergasting, and truly frightening. For those unfamiliar with it, the author attempts to invalidate evolution by showing page after page of fossils with their modern day "counterparts" which have not changed over millions of years. Never mind that many of his examples of modern day insects are actually pictures of very realistic fishing lures (hooks still attached).

In the last few months, the situation has only gotten more ridiculous, with Creationism jostling for equal status with evolution as a scientific theory. Look, I have no real problem with there being a God, or with him saying "let there be evolution". But literal translation of the Bible? Why? At any rate, I watched the videos of Mike Huckabee espousing his views on evolution with a kind of morbid fascination, sort of like watching the impending doom of the United States. Then, of course, the Creation Museums, complete with robotic dinosaurs. The latest jaw-dropping "tell me I'm dreaming" development is the arrival of a "professional, peer-reviewed, scientific journal" for Creation "science" called the Answers Research Journal. Words cannot begin to describe my reactions to this mockery of science. Something between disgust, shock, and anger.

Wired has a lively thread on the subject. Really, you just need to see for yourself.

Maybe later I'll post about why Creationism is not science, instead of just expressing my outrage. But right now I'm just a little too worked up to do it justice. The scary thing is, the idiocy is not limited to America.