Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Please to buy for me.

I want a robot that touches my soul. If not WALL-E, then this one.

Hmmm... on second thought, it looks too much like the Interpol evil puppet.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Flying Car Sighting

Ever since that awesome, bad ass reporter broke the story last October, I've been following the progress of Terrafugia. It looks like they've got their prototype made and they're showing it off at AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI, this week. Last summer, they only had a wing. ("But will it radically decentralize air travel?" someone asked. No, it's just cool, damn it.) Oh yeah, and hey, the Times has a jet pack story from the same air show today. Pretty cool, too.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nether Netherland & Hysterical Cosmopolitanism

If there were such a thing--and undoubtedly there should be--the novel Netherland would have scored the equivalent of a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for Books. In the New Yorker, James Wood said it was a "fictional achievement," one of the most remarkable "post-colonial books" he has ever read. Comparing it to the Great Gatsby, Michiko Kakutani called it a "resonant meditation on the American Dream." And in yet a second a review, the Times raised the stakes, calling it ""the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had" about post-9/11 life. Mark Sarvas at the Elegant Variation also praises it as "a Gatsby-like meditation on exclusion and otherness." And that's only a cursory summary of what's out there...

Unfortunately, whatever its merits, the book is none of these things. (Which raises my suspicions about why these critics fell so hard...) To be sure, the author, Joseph O'Neill, is extremely talented at the art of vivid description. He has a painterly eye. Perhaps cinemaphotographic is better. Individual sentences describing city scenes or sunsets or cricket fields or the Hudson River recur in your mind long after you've put the book down. He excels at creating a pastoral lyricism amidst the throng of New York. Conde Naste Traveller ought to employ him. And the curious cast of exotic characters--immigrants from just about every corner of the globe--set the stage for a remarkable New York story.

But O'Neill is no dramatist. There's no story to speak of other than a listless, but thoughtful protagonist learning not to bowl alone (on a cricket pitch). The inciting incident: Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker working in London, receives a phone call from a New York Times reporter asking him about Khamraj "Chuck" Ramkissoon, a wily Trinidadian Hans befriended in New York when his wife, Rachel, estranged him a few years back. The reporter tells Hans that Chuck was recently found dead in the Gowanus Canal. Since he hasn't thought about Chuck in a long time and since he's now back together with his wife, the phone call returns Hans to his lonely post 9/11 years in New York. This whole framing sets up the story's end: the tale will take us from separation to reunion, friendship to loss. The game of cricket in an unlikely place becomes a crucible for Hans's transformation. But as I said, O'Neill doesn't execute the story well. It's a rite of passage about a mid-life sag...but there no rising tension whatsoever. Instead, the story arcs weakly, meandering from flashbacks to flash forwards at a constant rate. It's easy to get lost, especially if you put book the down (the book has three chapters, but it's not clear why those breaks are meaningful). And the climax--Hans' reunion with Rachel--comes so softly and inexplicably, you're left wondering why Hans would ever want her back other than out of self-pity. A story about how cosmopolitan New York is would have been desirable. A still life painting, however well done, just isn't worth your attention for 256 pages.

If this were my own Rotten Tomatoes for Books: 60%.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Biologist 4 Obama Buttons

My friend Tina came up with clever customized buttons for biology-loving Obama supporters to show their pride.

If you're interested in your own Obama RNA and protein buttons, you can reach Tina at

Here's what she wrote about how the buttons came to be, what it all means, and how to eat like a true Obama supporter:

After hearing [a biologist friend and Obama supporter] recite YESWECAN YESWECAN YESWECAN about a thousand times, I realized that all the letters in the slogan are single letter abbreviations for amino acids. A few hours later and with the help of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Biodesigner, the YESWECAN biomolecular buttons were born! Now you can sport a button with Obama wielding his very own YESWECAN protein or shouting out his YESWECAN slogan in RNA code. For those of you who are a bit rusty on your college molecular biology, here’s how it works:
The genetics and proteomics of “YES WE CAN”

Single letter amino acid abbreviation:

Triple letter amino acid abbreviation:
Tyr, Glu, Ser, Trp, Glu, Cys, Ala, Asn,

Amino Acid:
Tyrosine, Glutamic acid, Serine, Tryptophan, Glutamic acid, Cystein, Alanine, Aspartic acid

RNA code:

If you’d like to know how you can eat a healthy dose of all of the YESWECAN amino acids in your diet, you should try beans, which contain moderate to high levels of all the amino acids above. As a side note, beans are truly an all-American food and more American than apple pie. Unlike apples, which were brought over by Europeans in the 16th century, the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, was domesticated in the Americas around 2000 B.C., and has since been cultivated into dozens of tasty varieties. So, the next time you’re at a barbecue, help yourself to an extra spoonful of baked beans, sit back as you digest the proteins into YESWECAN amino acids, and sport your YESWECAN button proudly!

About the creator:
Tina Warinner is an anthropology Ph.D. student at Harvard University where she researches ancient Mesoamerican diet and disease. Her dissertation is on the isotopic and genetic diversity of an early colonial town in Oaxaca, Mexico and its relationship to evangelization and the slave trade.

And there are more buttons where these came from. Tina also has an infectious disease line (bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, etc), a mythical animal genetics line (yeti, big foot, etc.), and a hodgepodge of gay buttons ("Judith Butler made me queer," etc.).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell's Mismatch Problem

Malcom Gladwell has a thought-provoking video up, this time on something he calls the mismatch problem. In a nutshell, we think we know how to measure talent. The problem is that we have no idea what we're doing. Our measurements appear to bear no relation to future performance. In Gladwell's words, it's a misjudgment that occurs when the criteria we use to assess someone's ability to do a job is radically out of step with the demands of the job itself.

Since S. recently heard about a consulting firm that gives a battery of tests to help you find a career that matches your strengths and weaknesses, and since I've taken an interest in something called the Signaling Theory of Education, it's worth rehearsing some of Gladwell's points.

Every year, for a week or weekend, before professional sports teams draft the incoming rookie class, they hold what are called combines, a sort of mini-camp where prospective draftees go through a dog and pony show for all the scouts. The combine's purpose is let scouts collect objective data about who these kids are and what they can do. Millions and millions of dollars are at stake after all, so naturally teams want some reliable way to predict how good of an investment they're making in whomever they draft. Will this guy help us win? Is he worth it? In the NBA combine, these kids jump, they run, they lift weights, they take IQ tests, run drills--anything and everything to predict how well these kids will play.

But do you know who D.J Strawberry is? I certainly don't. But last year his scores at the NBA combine were the highest of any incoming rookie. And yet he was awful. Strawberry averaged just two points a game during the entire year for the Phoenix Suns. All the top scorers at the combine turned out to be awful. Some didn't even play in the NBA. But what about Kevin Durant, who won the rookie of the year award? He ranked 78th at the combine. In fact, the top five draft picks all performed poorly at the combine. It's a remarkable waste of time--the combine and all of its tests are poor predictors for how well anyone plays basketball.

Or consider the Wonderlic test, an intelligence test given to NFL rookies in their combine. Being a quarterback in the NFL requires great cognitive demands and sophisticated decision making. Thousands of plays have to be memorized. Quarterbacks watch 100 hours of video every week to study the offense they plan to run and how the defense of the opposing team will react. So again, you might think that measuring intelligence with the Wonderlic might be important. But it turns out that among the 7 worst Wonderlic scorers in history are two of the best to ever play the game--Terry Bradshaw and Dan Marino. On the other hand, none of the seven best come close--Drew Henson, Eli Manning, Tony Romo...the list is laughable. So if in an industry where millions of dollars are at stake, where scouts are paid hundreds of thousands to measure talent in any quantifiable way, if in these multi-billion dollar industries our methods to predict productivity fail, then how about in other areas of work where measurements of productivity are even more vague and elusive?

When everything we use to assess talent has no correlation, or worse, a negative correlation with our actual performance on the job, it's time we start rethinking some of these institutions. Consider more from Gladwell:

How do we ensure which teachers we hire are the best? Currenlty teachers are required to have a BA, teaching training, license from the state, academic work associated with your specialty. Does this ensure a high quality teacher? Not at all. Do any of these requirements correlate with increasing student performance? Not at all. So it's the Combine all over again.

What about lawyers? Surely lawyers would know what correlates with what makes a good lawyer. But of course they don't. The University of Michigan has an extremely generous affirmative action program, meaning minority applicants with lower GPAs, test scores and so on are accepted more frequently than white candidates with those same scores. This then set up a natural experiment: measure the success across time of all UM Law graduates--30 years worth--and compare the success of those graduates who tested well with those minority graduates who did not. As it happens, on any measure of success, Gladwell claims there was no correlation (according to UM's research). So, yet again, we have a mismatch problem. The criteria, which we think are associated with being a good lawyer--high LSATs, high GPA--have no bearing on how good of a lawyer you end up becoming.

So why do mismatch problems occur? Gladwell says it's a madness for imposing certainty. A deep-seated need for clear and reliable statics, a hard-wired impulse for rational plan making. Also, he says, the complexity of jobs has increased. The cognitive demands required to succeed have multiplied and we can't track them. So the world has changed, but the way we hire people hasn't.

But there's only one reliable way to measure productivity: to wait until someone's on the job.

Monday, July 21, 2008


I want to introduce the Internet to mai meme: "nomg." NOMG = OMG + NOM. It's for when you are really, really hungry, or for when something is really, really delicious. Today I experienced both.

more cat pictures
This picture describes pretty well how I feel about the dinner I just ate, and seeing it earlier in the day when kspace sent it along (and talking about beans and greens on the T with kspace and Angela) inspired my dinner. Since we are turning into a food blog in the absence of posts by other Wind-Up Bloggaz, here is the recipe(ish).

NOMG Greens 'n' Beans
1) Slice up four pieces of bacon. Render them until browned in a cast iron skillet, then fish out and put on a plate with a paper towel to drain.

2) If you have an indecent amount of bacon fat in the skillet, take a bit out, or revel in it. Sautee three cloves of chopped garlic and a small sliced onion. You can add more veggies here if you want--some chunky sliced zucchini or half any color bell pepper and/or some diced hot pepper. Add some red pepper flakes if you're feeling it. Add probably a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds and get them a bit brown. Add half teaspoonish pimenton de la vera (smoked paprika). If you want to eliminate the bacon and just start off with olive oil, the smoked paprika is strongly, strongly urged upon you.

3) Deglaze with a good splash of white wine (beer is probably good too, or broth, or water). Before it all boils off add a slew of greens. Red amaranth from the farmer's market is pretty awesome. Chard. Tuscan kale. Whatever's your pleasure. Let those braise a bit and add more liquid if you want.

4) Stir in a can of drained canellini beans or black beans or probably any can of beans you've got. Add the bacon back in.

5) Nom. OMG. NOMG!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Put on Your Red Shoes

Put on your red shoes and dance the poodle blues
Thanks to my bro for this photo, taken at a farmer's market in Tucscon, AZ.

Lifetime Achievement

This morning I got an email from my sister. She is in Italy for six weeks doing a study-abroad program. It goes without saying that I am insanely jealous of her, but I'm also so happy that she's able to experience this. She had just gotten back from a weekend of hiking in the Alps and sent some pictures of her trip. The image below is one she sent.

There is something so enchanting about the teal water against the rocky mountains. It's because of this photo that I have added hiking in the Italian Alps to my life to-do list. It's a pretty short list, but it's stuff I know I truly want to achieve in my life. It includes qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon, living in NYC, and living in another country for more than 6 months. Maybe if I move to Italy, it won't be so difficult to do a little weekend hike...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dairy Dreams

A couple weeks ago the New York Times assured us that making homemade ricotta is super easy. The wind-up is here to tell you it's even easier than they let on. (The wind-up apologizes for lack of Blogger photo formatting skillz but simply cannot spend any more time trying to make this look better.)

Step 1: Pour two quarts whole milk and two cups buttermilk into a pot over high heat. Stir so it doesn't scorch.

Step 2: Stop stirring when curd-like things begin forming at the top. It's done when the curds stop forming and the whey gets greyish. NYT says curds form at 175-180 degrees. We didn't have a candy thermometer and didn't need one, but it would be interesting to use one next time just to watch what happens. It seems like it's hard to overdo it, so don't be afraid.

Step 3: Ladle curds into a collander lined with cheesecloth. Let it drip for 15 minutes. Now you have cheese.
And you can do things like this. Top something really rich and full-flavored, like orrechiette with bacon and tomato broth and fresh peas, with a dollop of the mild cheese and some fresh basil. Mix ricotta with a bit of sugar, spice, and toasted walnuts, and stuff peaches.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Taste the Explosion

According to The Wiki, the manufacture of Pop Rocks is similar to what happens inside a volcano. The ingredients are heated until molten and then exposed to pressurized carbon dioxide at 600 ppsi. The gas is trapped in the viscous mixture of sugars, to be released at a pressure of 40 atm when these sugars encounter saliva. (Did someone really measure the pressure inside a Pop Rock? How do you do that without puncturing it?)

Are Pop Rocks dangerous? There's the story of Mikey (the kid who liked it, may he rest in peace), who ate them with cola. Reports vary but either his stomach or mouth exploded, and he died. In 1989 I watched "Ghost Busters II" in the theater and when the painting of Vigo started talking, I started, spilling my pop rocks into my shorts (possibly culottes)--painful, but not deadly.

As practitioners of the scientific method, the Wind-Up Bloggers knew we had to move beyond this kind of anecdotal evidence. Hypothesis: mixing Pop Rocks with a carbonated beverage should cause no harm. Method: subject placed ~.5 gram pellet of green (watermelon flavor) pop rock into mouth containing a small sip of vinho verde, a cheap, lightly carbonated summer wine. Results: subject reported a tingling sensation. Popping sounds of increasing volume. Conclusion: Pop Rocks are not dangerous and mixing them with alcohol is a good idea. They are even better with some cheap sweetish red wine (more intense pops). Mixing pop rocks and a sip of beer is not too thrilling, probably because the beer's own, more aggressive carbonation masks the popping rocks.

Thanks to flickr user Jason Michael for image of Pop Rocks on a tanning bed (?!).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Brookings, Oregon...Let's Revisit History

Up past the Redwoods, some 10 hours from San Francisco along the coast on the 101, you come to the Oregon state line, one of the most beautiful places on the earth. (It's amazing how many of these beautiful places we've seen on this trip and how varied they are.) The topography dramatically changes across the border: the coasts turn into giant crescents, harbors for giant rock islands known as "sea stacks." The trees are verdant, the plains lush. And the wind! It's constantly driving, whipping waves shore-ward.

The first town across from the California border is Brookings, Oregon. And here I've come across another piece of strange history. On September 9, 1942, Nobuo Fujita, a japanese pilot, catapulted his plane off the deck of a submarine near the coast of Oregon. He then flew down the coast, from Cape Blanco to Brookings, and dropped two 168-pound fire bombs over the forests with the aim of setting the forests ablaze.

The bombs fizzled. They started small fires, which the forest rangers handled without incident. The Japanese didn't realize how wet the forests were at that time...

Meanwhile, Fujita turns out to have been a peculiar man. He survived the war, and afterwards, he felt ashamed for having bombed Brookings. So he arranged a visit in 1962, taking with him a samurai sword. In the New York Times's obituary, Fujita's daughter tells the story:
She recalled that her father had been very anxious before that visit, fretting about whether Oregonians would be angry at him for the bombing, and so he had decided to carry the sword so that if necessary he could appease their fury by committing ritual suicide, disemboweling himself with the sword in the traditional Japanese method known as seppuku.

''He thought perhaps people would still be angry and would throw eggs at him,'' Mrs. Asakura recalled, adding that ''if that happened, as a Japanese, he wanted to take responsibility for what he had done'' by committing seppuku.

In the end, the citizens welcomed him warmly, making him an honorary citizen. He offered them his sword and it now hangs in the Brookings Library.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Seattle: Portal to the Pacific

Seattle has been 70 degrees and sunny for the past three weeks. Here is a gorgeous day that sponsored a 12 mile bike ride (up hill both ways, like everything in this city) to see "the mountain". In person, the mountain was out; on film, not so much. But tilt your screen enough and you can just see the gigantic volcano looming in the clouds.
Looking the other way, a nice westbound welcome to the city on I-90, just down the street from my old Mass Pike.All that talk about dreary, rainy Seattle must just be a ploy to keep the Californians away...except for you, Katie.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Too early for earplugs

Overheard in Watertown* last evening, from a house across the driveway:

Young woman to her boyfriend/father of her child: You say you're 95% sure that you want to stay and marry me. So, am I supposed to just sit around waiting until you're at 100%?

Muffled male response.

Woman: If I told my parents this, that you're 95% sure, they'd tell me to dump you right now.

Muffled male response.

*Phrase borrowed from this.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Kevin Sez

Well, at least he's from Booklyn...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The International Language

Bronte, Australia. June 2008.
(But what's so funny?)

the original is too long to carry on the subway.

I had a very un-Cambridge experience this morning on the subway. I was sitting betweeen someone reading this book (Philosophy for Beginniners, which had a lot of ugly drawings including Hegel smashing a wooden box etc. and gives you about six thinkers per spread) and a woman studying a tiny pamphlet of Bible quotes. Then again, maybe this is a very Cambridge experience. Has anyone read this philosophy book? I'm e-looking at you, Mike.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Long black, mate. And a side of poo.

I just spent a week in Sydney, Australia, which is not the capital of the country (that's Canberra) but is world famous for its fjord-like harbour, iconic opera house, majestic bridge, immense zoo, and yummy but oddly named coffee.

(Also it's expensive as hell. This tube of lip balm--crappy, waxy, ineffectual lip balm--cost me $7.95.)

Sydneysiders don't drink Dunky-Doe-style brewed coffee when they go to cafes. It's all about variations on espresso, but with funked out names like "flat white," "skinny flat white," and "long black." The latter (which I mistakenly called "long dark" several times in cafes but was usually understood) was my drink, which is basically an Americano, or espresso with water. Scott drank flat white, which is an espresso with steamed milk. It sounds like a latte, but it apparently doesn't taste like one. (Not being a latte drinker, I can't elaborate.) The skinny flat white is with skim (or fat-free) milk rather than whole.

I didn't think they sold lattes (they weren't on the cafe menus I saw), but apparently Aussies make good ones: Con Haralambopoulos just won the World Latte Art Championship in Copenhagen, the third Australian in a row to do so. (An Aussie also placed second in the World Barista Championship, held at the same time.)

The coffee we had in Sydney cafes was delicious, dark, and dear, running $3 for a cup. Given the care that baristas take to make their coffee, I was surprised to find little wee packets of instant coffee in our hotel room. (Still no drip coffee maker.) They were from a Foreign Land (I forget which), and the package was dark, which made me think of dark roast, and because we were both often suffering from caffeine headaches at strange times of day (it is 14 hours ahead there), we tried it. The granules were small, almost like powder, and dark, and very unlike my Nana's Maxwell House instant coffee with its pebble-sized milk-chocolate brown granules that, mixed with boiling water, tasted like day-old diluted Tim Horton's.

The instant wasn't amazing, but it was better than ok, and it got rid of our headaches. I just read this startling fact from the Australasian Specialty Coffee Association: Australians consume more instant coffee at home than most others; about 85% of cups drunk in Aussie homes are instant. How very interesting!

A couple of other notes on food: The toast there is really thick. That's one of their "things," and it rocked my breakfast world. For dinners, we ate Chinese and Spanish and Italian, which all were much like their counterparts in North America--though in Chinatown our waitress tried to sell us a several hundred dollar "rock" lobster, which looked just like a B-movie alien and rather different from the red New England lobsters we're used to seeing. (We didn't buy it. )

And there were foods that are exactly the same as those in the US but are called something else, namely "Rice Bubbles" instead of "Rice Crispies." I tried to find out why this is (on the webby of course), but to no avail. Does "crispy" mean something dirty in Aussieland? Please do tell if you know.

Finally, the most disturbing food-related experience in our travels came at the Taronga Zoo, which sits on a big wooded hill across the harbour in North Sydney and provides extraordinary views. We saw giraffes and elephants and all manner of marsupials and birds and a killer leopard seal. We spent a big chunk of time watching the chimpanzees, who were (of course) so human-like. We saw one youngster pat the back of another as he passed, in a very "hey buddy, wassup" way, and we watched two females groom each other as a wee baby sat patiently between them, staring at the crowd. That baby was about the cutest thing I've ever seen.

And then we watch a grown-up dude (he looked like a guy) sit happily with his friends while munching on poo. Yeah, poo. His own poo? His mama's poo? What? It covered his mouth, but he didn't care. He had a stick of poo.