Monday, March 28, 2011

Bok choi

I made a sculpture out of dinner.
I call it "Bok Choi: A Study of Cultural Influences on the Shape of Freestanding Vegetable Bits."

This post's theme word is allometry, "the study of the relative growth of a part of an organism in relation to the growth of the whole." The allometry of the vegetable's core proved fascinating.

Stupidity in scientific research

I just read Martin Schwartz's note "The importance of stupidity in scientific research." In simple language, it explains how graduate school is different from all the preceding schooling. Anyone in graduate school would do well to go read it right now. Highlights:
Doing significant research is intrinsically hard... We can't be sure whether we're asking the right question... if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying. ... Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity'. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.
At the end, he notes that "reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help" which I think is a vast understatement. What else will keep you eagerly stupid, if not confidence and emotional resilience? -- especially since there is a whole world out there where the ex-graduate student can feel quite intelligent on a daily basis.

Part of what I've puzzled out in my graduate studies so far has been this: how do the professors do it? They seem to know which questions to ask in order to achieve meaningful answers and progress in research. Some of it is the buckshot approach: they have had the time to ask a hundred little questions, and the odds are in their favor: some of them hit a research target and became published papers. But also, they have an ineffable sense of which sorts of problems are good for research: this is summarized in the adjective "interesting," as in "that is an interesting research question" or "that is an interesting approach to this problem." I've learned that "interesting" is a key word, in bright flashing red letters, that indicates I'm doing Something Right with my research and should Keep It Up.

So while I curate my sense of academic stupidity, I'll continue to rely on my advisors' subtle (subconscious?) nudges and explicit advice.

This post's theme word is nescient, "lacking knowledge or awareness." The experts in the field are those most aware of their own nescience.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I'm tracking a herd of engineering students and some delivery vans. Have you seen them come this way?
I love snow.

This post's theme word is peloton, "the large main group in a road bicycle race." The peloton passed by ten minutes ago, their tracks are yet fresh.

Thickly coated in snow

There was a thick snowfall and it accumulated in a pleasing way.
This bicycle offered an interesting collection of snow-gathering surfaces.

This post's theme word is irenic, "conducive to peace." The snowfall had an irenic effect on her moods.

Corporate cooking class (or, chicken diapers)

Yesterday evening, I had a chance to go to a corporate cooking class. R.'s company had arranged it for their employees, and I got to tag along as a guest. My impression (and theirs!) was that the class would consist of making a meal under the supervision of a chef, a hands- and tastebuds-on learning experience. Fun, community-building, tasty.

Reality diverged. There were too many of us for the kitchen (although it was a large kitchen), so we sat, very quietly and politely, and listened to the chef extemporize while he prepared our dinner. We occasionally interjected questions, but his monologue rambled without pause.

Among other topics, he mentioned chicken diapers for the rich and famous; being blindfolded while driven to the wine-barrel woods; how the salt content of your food can incomprehensibly increase without any additions; hunting wild boar with a team of chefs; the difficulty of insinuating into a saffron-picking family; how to properly make chicken stock (6-8hrs); cheese cave security guards; the historical, political, and social migration of curry recipes over the past 800 years; how to properly make beef stock (12-20hrs); the refined and curry-acclimated palate of his dog; the three canonical ways to mix flour and water; how to get that perfect emerald green patina on beef; the textural and procedural differences between mashed and smashed potatoes; how to properly make vegetable stock (n+1 hrs); monkeys escaping Disney to terrorize chefs; and how proteins suddenly harden at both high and low temperatures. I attempted to remain respectful through all this, but he was so outlandish that I lost it when he said:
Oh! My fromagier would be so angry with me right now!
He was hyperbolically thus. (As he built up steam, more and more French entered his vocabulary; he started making French puns with no explanation in English. Or maybe they were serious phrases that I only interpreted as puns.) I began to giggle, but I tried to only giggle when he had made a joke. It was difficult.

If I had transcribed his speeches, you would think that I had invented an incredibly one-dimensional character. But there are witnesses: he was real, and he really lectured us on those topics. Overall, he cast cooking in such a mystical light, governed by innumerable specific rules which must be rote memorized and conform to no consistent set of principles, that I think it might be easier to learn alchemy. It's basically a miracle that I feed myself at all, given the flagrancy with which I violate his dictates. Nothing I cook for myself even qualifies as food according to his professional standards.

The dinner was okay. The desert (pears poached in raspberry puree) was really good, and I think I'll try to make it. You'll see photos when I do.

This post's theme word is pharisaical, "characterized by hypocritical self-righteousness; putting emphasis on strict observance of rituals unrelated to the spirit or meaning of the ceremony." The chef's instructions were arcane, pharisaical, and punitive; it does not require 10 steps and 3 specialized devices in order to boil an egg.
This post written, yet again, like H. P. Lovecraft. I wonder which indicators keep picking Lovecraft? Long sentences? Word choice? Sexism? (This last is a joke, of course.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz is famous, Hugo-award-winning, and recently read by me. It takes place in three acts (separated by hundreds of years), all in our future, set after the worldwide failure of a nuclear standoff to stand off: countries bomb other countries to the destruction of all. Postapocalyptic riots of survivors blame the destruction on the educated inventors of the weapons, and so a massive movement attempts to burn all books and knowledge-holders: even literacy is shunned. The titular Leibowitz, a literate survivor, founds a monastic order dedicated to rescuing, hiding, protecting, and copying books in order to preserve knowledge for future generations.

The first act is a few hundred years later, and focuses on the canonization of Leibowitz; the second act features the re-discovery of electricity and nation-sized warfare; the third act completes the cycle by describing the planet's impending mutually assured nuclear destruction (and conflicting press/propaganda reports thereon), even as the monks of Leibowitz's order board a secretly-prepared spaceship to preserve their knowledge and religion in extraterrestrial colonies.

This three-act structure fragmented my enjoyment likewise. As soon as I got really interested in the story, it was abruptly cut short, and then fast-forwarded to a point when everyone misremembered it. This prevented me from ever really caring about the characters, or the society, or the planet, despite the fact that it is supposed to be this planet, the one we all live on, Earth.

The book was decent, but I am not crazy about it. Perhaps it was written for a different genre of people: those who brooded on global nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, or those outside of academia to whom the mysterious workings of science resemble the mysterious workings of God. Simply put, I never believed that the book was our future. It seemed like a thought experiment about humanity's warlike nature, and the structural (and perhaps philosophical) similarities of scholarship and monasticism. Several conversations in the book directly highlight these issues; if I were writing a high school essay, I would focus on those explicit, moralizing, judgemental authorial moments.

One last note: the Wandering Jew appeared variously through this book. He has appeared in other works I enjoy (Cryptonomicon especially), and is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters.

This post's theme word is guidon, "military pennant."
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I decided to give Kim Stanley Robinson another chance, and picked up Antarctica. The title summarizes the novel's setting, focus, and starring character: the cold, icy, hostile continent at the south end of the planet. Like Red Mars, the story is told from the many viewpoints of assorted characters attempting to survive in a difficult environment. But the chapters alternate viewpoints, and the environment is not as foreign as Mars.

I enjoyed Antarctica. Much of the book is dedicated to describing and thinking about how to survive in the extreme cold -- and in this it reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. An entire side plot is devoted to scientists debating how to know things, how to turn hypotheses into facts, and how academe distorts this process into something political and personal -- a topic close to my heart and often on my mind. Some of this included academic jokes! On page 41, in a discussion between X and a "beaker" (scientist):
He looked to the side as he told X about this, almost as if embarrassed, although otherwise he showed no sign of any emotion at all; on the contrary he exhibited what X had come to think of as the pure beaker style, consisting of a Spocklike objectivity and deadened affect so severe that it was an open question whether he would have been able to pass a Turing test.
I have observed this in myself: spending all my time thinking about logic, or facts, or how to properly construct a complicated proof, the other parts of my brain hibernate and the "Spocklike" part takes over. I spent this weekend out in the world, interacting with non-university-affiliated people, and acting normal... or so I thought, until a stranger asked, "What do you do?" On hearing my reply, he said, "Oh, that makes sense -- because you have some pretty strong opinions about the rectangle method." So I guess I was emitting overly-strong math vibes, even in "normal" mode.

Like me, many of the characters of Antarctica spend a lot of time in their heads, thinking alone while [unlike me] trekking over miles and miles of glacier. Their thoughts are reflected in their actions, opinions, and entire worldview. One of them even reflects on this (p 129):
It is eerie sometimes to contemplate how much we create our own reality. The life of the mind is an imaginary relationship to a real situation; but then the real situation keeps happening, event after event, and many of those events are out of our control, but many others are the direct result of the imagination's take on things.
And thus is the "beaker" perspective explained: spend all your time thinking about science, and science becomes your reality. I wonder if the computer scientists who build programs that can pass the Turing test are good at passing the Turing test themselves.

As a last note on Antarctica, I was impressed at how many domain-specific words appeared. Is there somewhere that authors look up words by subject? (China MiƩville has the same superpower, as I'll mention whenever I get to blogging about his books.)

This post's theme words are
  • flense (trans.), "to flay, skin, or strip off" most often the skin of a seal or whale.
    "the paint had withstood the flensing of the wind so much better than the bare wood" (p 76)
  • bolide, "an especially luminous meteor; an exploding fireball."
    "Ross Island... is a singularity, a bolide of dense ch'i." (p 131)
  • katabatic, "of a wind: blowing down a slope or from an elevated region to a lower one, especially when caused by the effect of gravity on air cooled by the underlying ground."
    "Wind was the hard part of the cold. 'Yes, well, you know, the katabatic. Air is always falling off the polar cap just from its own weight, and we are right on the edge of the cap.'"
    (p 135)
The katabatic language describing glacier flow flensed the plot off the novel, revealing its innermost bolide of love for nature.

This post written like Arthur Clarke.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Rain-textured slush

It is very lovely to see, and pleasingly regular.Just look at that detail!
For walking, of course, it is terrible -- wet, heavy, dirty and unpleasant. But luckily those aspects cannot be experienced via blog.

This post's theme word is ligneous, "having the texture or appearance of wood." The snow was in no way ligneous.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day, a "major day of global celebration of women." Today, if you are so inclined, you can "inspire women and celebrate achievements," "make a difference , think globally and act locally !!", and "ensure that the future for girls is bright, equal, safe and rewarding." See the official site for more enthusiastic words.

I will spend today acting very locally, marking midterms in the endless effort to educate people (of both genders). I may take some time to work on ensuring my own future: research.

I hope you do something today that could be described in inspirational phrases.

This post's theme word is prosopography, "a study of the individuals in a group of people." I wish we focused on prosopography rather than generalizations. (Note: the OED agrees with my definition, above, but Wikipedia offers both this definition and its apparent opposite -- the word's meaning is subtle.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chicken on a raft on a Monday morning

Chicken? on a raft? on a Monday morning? Oh! what a terrible sight to see!

Why, you wonder, would a chicken on a raft be a terrible sight? I think this video (via The Scuttlefish) explains everything quite sufficiently:

I think a chicken on a raft would be cute. Especially on this Monday morning: I'm back to work and just as busy as before the weekend. However, now I have "chicken on a raft" stuck in my head. It's catchy! Hey-ho, chicken on a raft!

(Side note: my favorite site for ripping youtube videos to low-quality mp3s is gone. Do you have a recommendation to replace it?)

This post's theme word is tarn, "a small mountain lake, having no significant tributaries." I set my chicken free on her own custom-built raft; she wanted to be the first chicken across the tarn! (I tried to think of a barn/tarn joke, but failed.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Time shrinks all sizes

Last week I went shopping for jeans to supplement my ever-dwindling supply. I dislike shopping and trying on clothing. In order to expedite the process I wore a pair of jeans I own and like, that fit, to the Elderly Marine store where I bought them, hoping to find identical (but newer) jeans and purchase them forthwith.

This hope was in vain.

I have (apparently) shrunk two sizes. (Women's sizes go by evens, so I actually went from size x to x-4.) This is wrong. What sort of time-dilation factor is at play here? Probably the same weirdness that causes men's sizes to distort. Companies cater to vanity. I'd rather have consistency, but (as usual) I seem to be an outlier.

I wonder: I am approaching 0, which I thought was the smallest size. What happened to the people who used to wear size zero? Do they now wear negative four? Or do the sizes go 0, 00, 000, 0000, etc., until they run out of space on the tag, in the style of DDDDD bras (since H sounds shamefully big to admit)?

[Update: I notice that the Wikipedia article on "vanity sizing" offers a few explanations and a scientific study of the drift of sizes over time.]

This post's theme word is buskin, " a thick-soled laced boot, reaching to the knee or calf, worn by actors of ancient Greek tragedies"
This post's alternate titles are: "Time shrinks all waists" and "The time-dilation factor (in my pants!)"
This post written like William Gibson.