Friday, February 27, 2009

Damn, that was a good speech

Obama's approval jumps back up to the high 60's.

What's fairly shocking is that 42% of Republicans approve of the job Obama's doing(vs. 27% last week).

It'll be interesting to see if these numbers prompt a change in GOP tactics as they confront a fairly awesome budget(from a liberal's perspective obvi). I'm not sure railing against Big Government and Volcano Monitoring is going to be that effective, but we shall see.

Best argument for a Kindle that I've ever seen


xkcd

UPDATE: The size is finicky (too big or too small seem my only options) so click through the xkcd lick for a more legible version

Should have cut capital gains

Thursday, February 26, 2009

IFA Food Porn Flickr Group

I mentioned it in passing in my cassoulet post, but the peeps at Internet Food Association (political bloggers blogging about food) set up a Flickr group dedicated to food pictures. Anybody can join (they let me in after all), but I don't think you need to join to look at the pictures... just to submit them. Some of the pictures are really fantastic... like the Two Helmets Cooking one over there. Not all of them are that amazing (like mine for instance) but most are good and often they link to the recipes used to make them in the photo description(really an excellent idea, and one that I try to do with my food pictures on flickr now). So anyway, if you like taking pictures of food, you should definitely join and submit them... and if you don't take pictures but like to look at them, check them out too.

In other IFA news, they got a nice write-up in the Post.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Blog Post Title of the Day

Bobby Jindal: Soft on Volcanoes

Obviously not gunning for the Ancient Greek vote.

Tapping the zeitgeist for once

I'm usually 5 years behind any trend (started blogging in 2008, joined Facebook 2 weeks ago), but I am totally out in front of the new cassoulet obsession... and while I've been extolling its virtues for years, Bittman and now Slate have all gotten aboard the cassoulet train. A pretty good article... though I don't know they had to make me feel like I'm crazy. That's not very nice. But cassoulet really is that good, that I find myself eying beans that cost $16.99 for 14 oz because it just might make it even better... and frankly, that's not normal... so fair enough... but at least I'm not alone, I guess?

SOTU* thoughts

It felt like a liberal pep rally... which, as a liberal, felt pretty cool... and seeing him walk in there like a conquering hero, I had one of those "I can't believe he's really President" moments. As someone who rarely watches a SOTU* from beginning to end, there were some aspects of it that were a little puzzling and/or annoying... like why does the Supreme Court and Cabinet enter through a tunnel like they're a sports team? Shaking hands, slapping backs... it's just odd. And while I'm familiar with the "half the chamber leaps to their feat and cheers every third sentence" dynamic of these things, it's really irritating when you want to hear what the man has to say. I found the speech to be pleasingly orthodox in it's liberal nature... but coated in a bipartisan candy shell to make the medicine go down... in a way only Obama can do. The keys to me were the commitment to healthcare this year and cutting the deficit in half by the end of his first term (yeah I said it... and so did he). Sullivan has the best round up of reactions as usual.

As far as the rebuttal... I think I'm the only person besides Bobby Jinal's mom who didn't think it was terrible... in fact, I thought it was pretty decent... but since even David Brooks and Fox News panned it, I'm clearly on the wrong side of conventional wisdom... but I'm going to stick to my guns. He did a decent job considering he had to work with talking points that are, essentially, 29 years old and most of America hates right now. Also, when I think of a "terrible speech", I think of this... which is a pretty high bar to pass... I guess I'm just so used to McCain's "speechifying" that even a pedestrian effort seems like an improvement for a GOP with a very short bench. Yeah he sounded like Kenneth and talked to us like we were third graders, but "meh" delivery is fairly typical of politicians who are not Obama... and I don't know who the GOP could have put up there to effectively counter him. I don't think that stylistically it was good by any means, but I also don't think that's why so many people are giving him such terrible marks. Most commentators, I think, are criticizing him mostly because his message was so... well... insane. Look at David Brooks here:


He says that there is a debate within the Republican party about its message, but I think that debate consists of basically David Brooks vs. every other conservative. The "Government is the problem" critique has been the standard GOP opposition to the stimulus... pork, earmarks, and tax cuts have been all they've been saying, so of course that's what Jindal's going to base his rebuttal around. Yeah, it comes off terribly because it makes no sense... but that's not Bobby Jindal's fault, that's the fault of an ideology that is intellectually bankrupt.

But anyway... maybe since 90% of these rebuttals are widely regarded as awful... and Sebelius basically ruined her chances at VP because of a bad one... maybe the opposition party should decline to give it? Or just have some career pol who has no ambition to move any higher?

* Yeah I know it wasn't really a State of the Union Address because... well... because.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

If I had a hammer...

It's not uncommon for mathematics to be misused in the medical research community. In fact, I might even go so far as to state that mathematics and/or statistics are commonly misused in research. From my experience, this usually comes from a desire to have a "black box", where you can just plug in a patient population and get out a published paper(look ma, no thinking!). You see a fancy Whiz! Bang! mathematical technique designed to measure something about people bouncing a ball, and you say "Hey neat! Can I use that on people bouncing a ball on the stairs?" "Well... sure... but you might run into problems if..." "Great! Thanks!" And after a couple iterations you end up having chimpanzees climbing stairs underwater in another solar system and its a big mess because all the underlying assumptions of the model have been violated... but hey, it'll still get published! And thus you get these cascading errors where people really have no concept of what's really going on with their analysis, and all that's important is that "other people are getting published doing it". Hell, people even make entire careers out of having a single hammer in their toolbox and hammering everything with it. I've always felt this sort of "math abuse" was a huge problem... millions of research dollars funneled down black holes and countless man hours chasing spurious conclusions derived from improper methodology... and it seemed to me to be something mainly an issue plaguing academic research.

But then I read an interesting article by Felix Salmon in Wired called "Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street" that put my concerns into perspective. It's about some model that some dude on Wall Street made up to price opaque securities:

For five years, Li's formula, known as a Gaussian copula function, looked like an unambiguously positive breakthrough, a piece of financial technology that allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before. With his brilliant spark of mathematical legerdemain, Li made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels.


I don't mean to post any spoilers, but let me just say up front that Wall Street dies at the end. Now, is that all Li and his formula's fault? Well no... as the article eventually makes clear. Any model has assumptions/parameters/initial conditions and what-have-you that have to be fully understood before they can be appropriately applied. Indeed, as an article from waaaay back in 2005 concluded the last time this formula's misbegotten reputation as a magic bullet was being called into question:
This wasn't really the fault of the model, which was designed mainly to help price the tranches, not to make predictions. True, the model had assumed the various credit curves would move in sync. But it also allowed for investors to adjust this assumption -- an option that some, wittingly or not, ignored.
As far as I can tell, nobody is calling into question Li's math... or saying he flubbed something or made it all up... they're upset that their misapplication and misunderstanding of his work only made them fabulous amounts of wealth for a few years... before destroying our entire economy.

Whoops? I'd have more Schadenfreude about chickens coming home to roost if we all didn't end up paying for their mistakes.

Barack Obama: Still popular

The Washington Post and New York Times both released polls today showing broad support of both the President and his economic policies. Now, none of this will matter in four years if the economy is still terrible and Obama is seen as being ineffective in aiding it... but if you're looking for evidence that GOP is resurgent and Obama is facing a "A nation of Santelli's", you won't find it here.

I'm wishing there was something more interesting to write about this morning, but frankly I'm not seeing it. Oh well.

UPDATE: I seem to have gotten myself so distracted by French comfort food that I forgot there was a big Obama speech tonight... a "rookie equivalent of a State of the Union Address" says Joe Klein. I'll be interested to see the speech and talking head reaction to it, given the support noted above.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cassoulet, fini

Unfortunately none of the pictures I took came out all that well, as I am even more of a n00b at photography than I am at cooking. I can probably place a smidgen of the blame on the subject matter... it is just pork and beans, after all... so even if it's the snooty French version, that doesn't make it super sexy just by association. I mean, if I didn't tell you that picture to the left was food you probably would assume it's something gross... but it is food, and it is really good. You can check the rest of the photos I took here; hopefully keeping that caveat in mind. I kind of like the confit picture... maybe I'll submit that to the IFA's Food Porn group on flickr.

I did end up making the dish this Saturday night, which probably wasn't the smartest thing to do in the world... I didn't fully comprehend when making my plans that it took about 2 hours(not including making the confit) just to get to the point that you were ready to put it in the oven for 3 hours. So yeah, I ate dinner at 10:30 at night. I could have waited until the next day after the confit to make the cassoulet... which is what I would probably recommend... but I had already reserved the kitchen for the day (I'm not good at sharing), and Anna had her own marathon cooking session planned for Sunday... so I soldiered on. Not to say that you couldn't make the confit and cassoulet on the same day and still have dinner on the table at a reasonable hour... it's just a pretty solid day of cooking(though with a fair amount of down time interspersed).

I executed the Accidental Hedonist recipe(though I realized typing this up that at it's actually a Saveur recipe at it's root - more on the impact of that in a minute) pretty much as written... with only a few exceptions. I substituted two leeks for the two onions, and my pancetta was sliced thin, and thus I chopped it up, as cubing was no longer an option. In addition I used actual French flageolet beans instead of great northern beans... interestingly, flageolet beans, while being uber French and hard to find here in the States, aren't even the "real" bean for cassoulet... apparently that honor belongs to the Tarbais bean... but since they cost like $15-20 a pound because they're presumably picked by one Frenchman on a 5 x 5 plot, it's probably best to substitute, eh? You really just want a bean that's going to stand up to the hours of cooking that cassoulet requires... any small white bean will probably be fine, but I do genuinely prefer the flageolet. In addition, I prefer my bread topping to be more substantial and of higher quality than what bread crumbs provide, so I did a rough dice of 4 slices of really snazzy sandwich bread.

So why did I specifically mention the Saveur version of the recipe? Because in looking at it, all the complaints or nits I had to pick with Accidental Hedonist's version were addressed to my liking in the original. For example, after I browned all my meat and veggies in olive oil I instantly thought: Why didn't I do this in duck fat!? I have a whole giant tub of it for doing the confit... why did I use olive oil? Well, because I was following the recipe like an automaton... a bad habit, that as I get more experience cooking, I need to start breaking more... but the Saveur version calls for duck fat. Now, I can certainly see why the Accidental Hedonist author substituted olive oil, because who in this day and age has duck fat sitting in their fridge or has any idea of where to obtain it if they want it? (Savenor's for Boston area peeps) There was also an issue of giving times but not giving what the objective is... "cook for about 10 minutes" is significantly different than "cook until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes".

But overall, I thought the recipe was excellent and the cassoulet came out essentially perfect... can't think of much I would change other than using duck fat instead of olive oil. It requires a fair number of pots going at once... and thus entails some serious post cassoulet dish washing... but it's coordinated fairly well and I never felt that overwhelmed (and since I can't always handle Anna even using the microwave while I'm cooking, that's a pretty strong endorsement). The key being that you can start the beans on their simmer, before moving to the pork shoulder and pancetta... and once you get that simmering in it's sauce you can start browning the confit etc. Worked well I thought.

If you want to look back at my earlier cassoulet posts, go here... and you can check out the pictures here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cassoulet Step 1 - Duck Confit

Last night I went out and picked up some groceries so I could begin the fairly involved process of making cassoulet. The only snag so far is that the recipe I'm using called for cubed pancetta and I asked for thinly sliced... oh well... I'll just chop it up and use it like bacon. Savenor's also didn't have any fresh oregano, so I might have to make due with dried if I don't find any today. I spent probably $40 on meat products for this stew, so it's not exactly a bargain hunter's dream... kind of strange for what is supposed to be a peasant's dish, but the fact that I did all my shopping at Savenor's probably contributed a lot to that. Regardless, the finished product is so good I think it's worth the cost.

Cassoulet is a two or three day affair, which while considerably shortened from the classical version, is still a pretty significant outlay of time. To do it in two days, you'll have to make the confit the morning before you make the stew since it needs two hours of cooking and two hours of cooling all on its own... otherwise you could make the confit completely separately and store it in the fridge until needed.  I haven't completely decided whether I'm going to make the stew tonight or tomorrow, but I set it up so I could make it tonight.

The first thing to do is start the salt cure of the duck legs...  which takes 8-24 hours...  it's not a "real" salt cure, but long enough to get the flavors.  4 duck legs (including thighs), a tablespoon of kosher salt(I used 1/2 a tablespoon of sea salt instead), a 1/4 teaspoon of pepper, 10 sprigs of thyme, and 4 bay leaves crumbled were all tossed into a large bowl...  covered in plastic wrap...  amd then thrown into the refrigerator.  

If you're planning on making the stew the following day, take your pound of flageolet beans(or other white beans) and put them in a dutch oven with 7.5 cups of water to soak overnight.

After 8-24 hours, it's time to actually make our confit. Set the oven to 300 degrees, and melt your 6-8 cups of duck fat in a saucepan over medium heat (5-10 minutes). While that's happening, arrange your duck legs in a small baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet (so you can maneuver the pan without getting splashed with duck fat), and then sprinkle with the thyme and bay leaves. Pour the melted duck fat over the legs until just covered... if you run a little short you can finish with vegetable oil. Your dish should look something like this. Two hours in the oven should be long enough to get the meat meltingly tender while rendering most of the fat from the skin. Carefully transfer the dish to a wire rack, and you should have something like this.... give it two hours to cool, and voilà, duck confit. If you're storing it for later use(up to a month), I'd place the legs into another container and pour the duck fat over top.

Next up, we start the cassoulet proper.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bittman on Cassoulet

Weird. First the polenta pizza, and now cassoulet... I'm like channeling him or something. I don't particularly like his recipe... which isn't a surprise since his aim is simple recipes to get people to cook, and for me, the more elaborate the recipe the more exciting I find it... but it's cool that such an awesome stew is apparently becoming more mainstream. I like the idea of using leeks instead of onions... that just feels more French... and I certainly see the wisdom of cutting back the meat, but I just can't do it... zucchini in cassoulet just sounds wrong.

Don't read this if you want to be cheered up

Krugman on the economy.

I certainly hope he's being overly pessimistic... five or six more years? Ugh.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Penny Arcade D&D Podcast

I haven't listened to this one yet, but the first ones were great, and this set includes one of the Ur-Nerds for Gen X, Wil Wheaton. I haven't done any D&D blogging lately simply because the books are doing what they have traditionally done... sit on my shelf gathering dust... but Anna and I are considering tactics to work ourselves into the Cambridge nerd community in a more forceful fashion, so that may change.

FES demo at 2009 Adaptive Indoor Rowing Challenge

My lab is going to be demonstrating our FES(functional electrical stimulation) rowing setup at the Adaptive Indoor Rowing Challenge. I'm not heavily involved in this project, so I can't supply a lot of information, but in short, it's using electrical current to contract the leg muscles in a spinal cord injury patient so they can row. The basic idea being that the exercise will promote beneficial cardiovascular changes and help stop... or even reverse... bone loss. The project is still in it's infancy... we are pilot testing on just two subjects currently... but an R01 is in submission and I think they're gearing up for expansion. Like I said, I'm not really involved with it much at this point, but I think it's pretty cool and the most "clinical" research my lab does... something where you can really see the impact in people's lives.

So anyway, my boss, Andy Taylor, and one of our FES athletes, Dave Estrada, will be at the Harry Parker Boathouse on Saturday from 9-10:30 AM during the races, so if you're headed over there definitely check out the demo and watch the videos. Here's a taste:
video
All the leg contraction there is via FES... pretty cool, eh? Now, we're still indoor on the Concept2, but the idea is to get people out on the water eventually.

Polenta Pizza?

Reminiscent of last weekends' polenta lasagna, Mark Bittman has up another interesting use of firmed up polenta... polenta pizza. A week ago, I didn't even know that there was way to use polenta other than hot and creamy as a side dish... and now I have two recipes... weird.

Weekend Cooking Project - Cassoulet

Cassoulet, while essentially just being French pork and beans, is one of my most favorite stews of all time... and I have some experience with meat and bean based dishes. Some of my fondness for it may stem from the fact that I had never heard of it before I started trying to learn to cook, and it was one of my first really successful attempts that made the whole venture seem possibly worthwhile. That first version I made was actually a simplified recipe from Cook's (big surprise,eh?) that substituted chicken thighs for the more exotic, but traditional, duck confit (not something you can find at Shaws). It's an excellent recipe, and I highly recommend giving it a shot... you can find it in either The New Best Recipe or on their website if you have a subscription. However, I'm more hardcore than freakin' chicken thighs so I won't be executing that version... I'm all about the duck confit these days. I've got two big tubs of duck fat in the fridge (that Anna is deeply suspicious of) and a pound of the hard to find flageolet bean (Christina's Spice & Specialty Foods) ready to go... so just need to make a trip to Savenor's for the duck legs and whatever other meat products I'm putting in the pot.

Last time I made cassoulet, I used the more traditional recipe from Cook's international cookbook... but it made waaaaaaaay too much for 1 person to eat, even over a week... so I was considering halving it or something until I found this recipe, which seems absolutely perfect. Things I like about it relative to the Cook's version? 4 duck legs instead of 6... pan frying the confit and taking the meat off the bone... that's so obvious I can't believe I didn't think of it. You obviously(well maybe it's not so obvious) don't need to sear the confit since it's certainly cooked, but it seems like a good idea for flavor... and let me tell you, dug legs are a rather large and unwieldy... getting the meat off the bone is a damn good idea. I'm also intrigued by the ham hocks... not sure whether I'll be able to find them since I've never looked before, but it's worth a shot. Despite the excellent first impression of the recipe, I'll still compare it to the two Cook's recipe to see if there are any things I want to do differently... but it probably won't change my Savenor's shopping list much.

Photo by flickr user avlxyz used under a Creative Commons license

Video game industry losing money? I know, make your product worse!

There's an interesting article over at Slate about the woes of the video game industry... arguing in the typical counterintuitive Slate fashion that despite what you might think, the massive losses being posted by Electronic Arts, Activision-Blizzard, and THQ are not due to the sucky economy. And indeed, the author's evidence is fairly compelling:
In reality, video games are selling better than ever. The retailer GameStop announced sales of nearly $3 billion worth of games, hardware, and accessories during the nine weeks around the 2008 holidays—22 percent more than during Christmas 2007.

According to the research firm Media Control GfK, game software accounted for more than half of global packaged entertainment sales in 2008, beating DVD sales for the first time. The firm pegs game sales at $32 billion worldwide. (The U.S. market accounts for around 45 percent of the world total.) The NPD Group, which tracks sales for the industry, also reports that game software sales were up 26 percent in 2008.

That doesn't really seem like an industry that should be hemorrhaging money... but they're spending something on the order of $40 million a title to develop them, and thus need to sell 2 million copies to break even... which is not all that common.

What's the solution? Make cheaper, crappier, disposable games, in much greater numbers a la the "2 week movie" model from the 30's. Um, yay? In truth he seems to think that farming out development to indie teams would lead to "1000 Portals"... but I just don't see it how that's supposed to work. I'm not sure I'm following how game development is supposed to be cheaper, simply due to the fact that it's not "in house". I can certainly see the wisdom of not being so technology focused, working with existing graphics engines (do we really need anything more powerful than the CryEngine2 engine right now?), and focusing more on the game itself rather than the polygons... but I don't know if I can really get on board with the smaller scope and shorter games ideas. Some of these games already take less than 10 hours to beat... how much shorter can we get? Is somebody going to pay $60 for a 2 hour game? God I hope not.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Welcome back from the reeducation camps Comrade Greenspan!

In a fairly stunning revelation, Greenspan backs nationalization:
”It may be necessary to temporarily nationalise some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring,” he said. “I understand that once in a hundred years this is what you do.”

Is this a sign of a change in conventional wisdom from conservative economic circles? Lindsey Graham is quoted in the piece as (somewhat tepidly) supporting nationalization... and there was this dude from AEI(!) who supported it as well:
“I think they know how big it is, but they don’t want to say how big it is. It’s so big they can’t acknowledge it,” said John H. Makin, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to administration officials. “The lesson from Japan in the 1990s was that they should have stepped up and nationalized the banks.”

Instead, the Japanese first tried many of the same remedies that the Bush administration tried and the Obama administration is trying — ultra-low interest rates, fiscal stimulus and ineffective cash infusions, among other things. The Japanese even tried to tap private capital to buy some of the bad assets from banks, as Mr. Geithner proposed.

I leave the analysis of these kind of things to people who actually know something about economics, but the shift is pretty interesting... previously it was only left of center economists who supported the "Swedish model", as they say. Now it seems to be picking up steam on the right as well... is this the cover Geither and Obama need?

Oh come on!

You remember Roland Burris don't you? He's the guy who was appointed by (former) Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to Obama's Senate seat while Blago was under investigation for trying to sell said Senate seat. There was some initial resistance to seating him by Senate leadership, but they backed down because there wasn't any evidence his appointment was corrupt... and I mean, who'd be stupid enough to take a corrupt appointment from a corrupt Governor when you know the Feds probably have it all on tape? Right? Right?!

Le sigh:
Burris said he contacted "some people" about holding a fundraiser at the request of Blagojevich's brother, Robert, only to learn that no one was willing to help the governor. He said he later changed his mind, raised no money and contributed none.

The account to reporters in Peoria, Ill., was Burris's fifth version of his contacts with close associates of Blagojevich and the first time he acknowledged trying to raise money for the former governor, who was arrested and forced from office on corruption charges.

Well ok... that's not corrupt, but it's still pretty stupid and slightly slimy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Chimpanzee Tea Parties gone horribly, horribly wrong

Pet Chimpanzee = Not a Good Idea:
For years, Travis had been a local celebrity in his hometown. He featured often on TV adverts, and would pose for photographs performing his favourite tricks: tucking into a filet mignon, dressing himself or using a computer.

But yesterday the pet chimpanzee went berserk, attacking a friend of his owner's and causing terrible facial injuries before turning on a police officer who shot him in self-defence.

...

Police reported that the animal had been behaving oddly at home, and Herold had tried to calm him with tea laced with a sedative. But he grabbed her keys and let himself out of the back door, then started banging on local cars as though signalling he wanted to go for a drive.
I have an alibi... and... and... this blog does not endorse tea drinking chimpanzees!!!!

In all seriousness, I should probably have something profound to say about what happens when you treat a chimpanzee like a pet and a punchline... but I don't... I mainly find it sad.

On the other hand, here is Karate Chimp:

10 Years of Dr. Manhattan

I'm still concerned Watchmen is going to be terrible(though I am likely to see it regardless), but this Web spin off via Matt Yglesias is kind of cool:

It's definitely captures the spirit of the "golden age" of costumed crime fighters portrayed in the comics... though it reinforces the idea that maybe Watchmen needs to be a miniseries or webisodes or whatever... can it really be done right in 2 hours?

UPDATE: "The Keane Act and YOU" is really good too.

No snowshoeing, but there was Polenta Lasagna

As the title indicates, while there was still some snow on the ground up in Maine, we didn't feel it was sufficient to snowshoe on... so we mainly kicked back, relaxed, and cooked a bit. We made a dynamite lentil soup, but that was pretty basic, so I thought it would be more interesting to focus on the much stranger(to me) polenta lasagna pictured to the left. The recipe of choice was from Ken Charney's The Bold Vegetarian Chef (this non-vegetarian's favorite veg cookbook btw), but I don't have that cookbook on hand at the moment, so I can't give a full blown recipe... but then I thought the recipe could be improved, so maybe that's for the best.

The basic outline is to, of course, make a giant pot of polenta... I believe it was 2 cups of polenta to 10 cups of liquid IIRC... which is fairly wet compared to many recipes, and thus we had to stir for almost an hour to get it firm enough... but damn if that wasn't some fantastic polenta. Then we just poured it into an oiled 9x13 baking pan and cooled it over night. The next day you just make a tomato sauce... however you normally make it, though I would make sure it wasn't too sweet( a problem with Ken's recipe I think), as the polenta brings some sweetness too. Then you pop your firm polenta(reminiscent of corn bread) out of the dish, and cut it once vertically and once horizontally so you have four pieces. Put two polenta pieces back in the pan, and spoon half your sauce over them... layer some cheese (mozzarella and Parmesan in our case)... and then place the other two polenta pieces on top before spooning the rest of the sauce (leaving a ladle full or two for a last covering) and the the rest of the cheese. Stick it into a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes... until it's heated through and the cheese is melted.

Very delicious, and something I'd never had before. As I mentioned, I thought the recipe we used was a little too sweet (though Anna said the leftovers had much more mellow and better melded flavors), but it was really quite good. I'm going to keep my eye out for interesting variations, and will pass along any successful future attempts that we make.

Late to the Party - Top Chef

We don't have cable at home... and no, I'm not trying to be that guy... but it means that unless a show is really popular and falls clearly within my areas of interest, it's unlikely I've seen it. Now Top Chef probably qualifies on both accounts there, but for whatever reason I'd never seen an episode. Anna spends significant chunks of the year with TV access, so she's more up on these things than I am... but when we travel somewhere is really the only time I get any television watching time and I mostly spend it with the Food network. This visit to Maine, however, Anna wanted to catch up on the last two episodes of Top Chef that she had missed... so I joined in to see what the fuss was about.

I won't post any spoilers for anybody working a season behind... but I didn't particularly like it, though it wasn't terrible or anything... and I'm sure I'd follow along if I had consistent TV access. It was way too much Reality TV and too little cooking for my taste. It also seemed that even down to five or six chefs, a lot of them weren't really that good... I mean, they're all way better than me, of course... but it seems fairly inconceivable that people competing for this can't make a proper hollandaise and overcook their salmon. That was really the biggest issue for me... I just wasn't wowed by any of them, and that's what I'm expecting when I watch professionals compete... and maybe that's an expectation that's born from watching too much Iron Chef, and thus not exactly fair... but it makes it less interesting for me, since I'm not particularly interested in the interpersonal dynamics that make Reality TV so compelling for most.

At the end of the day, would I be really excited to plop down 30 dollars a plate for any of the creations of the current final four? I can't say that I would. It may be that I saw two episodes that were particularly lacking in creativity (Anna claims this is the case), but I didn't see much evidence that the eventual winner is going to be some amazing chef. Though I suppose that since I've only seen two episodes from one season, I'm going to have to say that the jury is still out... but if I'm going to watch a cooking competition, I'd still prefer Iron Chef, even with it's myriad flaws.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Gone Snowshoeing

I'm busy at work today, and we're headed up to Maine for a long weekend... so no real blogging until probably Tuesday morning. I'm somewhat incredulous about this snowshoeing idea, but Anna is adamant, so assuming all the snow hasn't melted up there and we aren't too tired or whatever... we'll get me a pair of shoes and hit the trails. If we do I'll GPS it and take pictures as per usual. There will also be some cooking that may be blog worthy... but otherwise it'll be nice to be off the grid for a while.

Enjoy the weekend!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

BREAKING: Chekhov claims deflector shields failing

Seen over at HuffPo... in regards to Gregg withdrawing from consideration for Commerce. I understand that we liberals resent how Drudge drives the media narrative, but copying his shtick and executing it with nonsensical and crappy animated gifs is not the answer.

Happy Darwin Day fellow primates!

Huzzah for the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth! Perhaps a tea party is in order?

This is not an encouraging sign, however, for lovers of science and our chimpanzee brothers and sisters:
The only good news is that it's a little bit better in the 18-34 age bracket... and the more education you have, the more likely you are to believe in evolution... but it's practically criminal that so many people can get through high school without believing in evolution. I'd be curious to see a similar survey done in Europe.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I CAN HAZ STIMULUS!?

I don't want to jinx anything, but a stimulus agreement has been reached that seems less bad than the Senate bill and, of personnel interest:
A Senate-passed provision to give $10 billion to the National Institutes of Health for research — a favorite of both Harkin and Specter, appeared likely to survive.

(also a favorite of Jason Hamner and the NIH funded laboratory he works in)

/crosses fingers

We've got a lot of grants either under review or about to be resubmitted... a change in funding lines, even short term, would be quite stimulating, I must say.

Gumbo redemption?

I'm actually not sure I've fully redeemed myself, despite(because of?) yesterday's hubris. I was pretty much sure the whole time that I was screwing it up... I don't know why gumbo makes me so cooking insecure, but it does. The recipe called for 10 ounces of frozen okra thawed... well 10 ounces of frozen okra is going to be less than 10 ounces of thawed okra, right? I'm geeky enough to have a kitchen scale, so I can measure that kind of thing... but I'm not going to thaw out a whole package of okra to get it right and then have to refreeze the rest... why not give me a cup measure? So I probably had too little okra. I also worried that I had simmered off too much water from my shrimp stock(the shells from 1.5 lbs of small shrimp plus 4.5 cups of water simmered for 20 minutes)... and then I didn't know how many ice cubes to put in my 3.5 cups off ice water to cool it... did it mean 3.5 cups with the ice in it? Maybe it meant get 3.5 cups of water and then put the ice cubes in... at least it said I was supposed to end up with 8 cups, so I think I worked that out (somewhat messily) with a funnel, a measuring cup, and some eyeballin'. However, I'm not even sure you need the ice... since you're straining the stock into a cold pot, it would seem to me that cold tap water is fine as you've got 20 minutes or so of roux making ahead of you.

Now the roux... while heating the 1/2 cup oil over medium high you need to check the temp of it... you want it to be 200 degrees when you add the flour... checking with an instant read thermometer when you have as big a dutch oven as mine (thus a fairly thin layer of oil) was tricky, but I think I managed it... since after lowering the burner down to medium, I added the 1/2 cup of flour and got it dispersed with no clumps. In general, while the stirring(I prefer a wooden spatula too a wire whisk) got tiring after a while, the "blond roux" stages seemed fine... except for burning myself with hot oil when I got a little too "enthusiastic" with the spatula. It smelled really nice and no evil little black flecks indicating burnage... I don't think the oil was smoking at all, but maybe it was? Because as I got to the light brown stage it started to smell like burnt popcorn... which I'm pretty sure is a bad sign... but it looked fine. So, despite my commitment to start over if I F-ed up I soldiered on... but did I burn it? It looked and (later) tasted fine, but maybe I have no taste buds since I didn't really notice a problem the last time my roux was black as tar. But then, some people swear by really dark rouxs... so maybe I didn't screw that up? It would be nice if there was a Cajun and/or Creole cooking class at CCAE... I really need a demo where I can ask questions. However, I think those kind of cooks are a little thin on the grass up here. Anyway, at about 20 minutes I was satisfied with my roux's coloring, if still worried that I had secretly ruined it.

The next stages were fairly painless... I added in the finely diced onions(2 medium), celery(1 medium stalk), and red pepper(1 medium) with the okra, six diced cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of dried thyme, a teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne. I just kept stirring that around... a pretty gummy concoction... until the veggies were softened, which was about 8 minutes. Then I poured in 4 cups of cooled shrimp stock (i.e. half) while stirring constantly(arm pretty tired at this point) to make sure all that flour and stock made nice together. Add the rest of the stock, a couple bay leaves, and then it's time to bring it up to a boil... skim it a bit(I admit to being a little lazy here)... and then pull it back down to a simmer for 30 minutes. You're supposed to skim it periodically throughout, and while I tried, it felt wholly ineffective, and I mainly gave up on it.

One thing I noticed though... it wasn't thickening at all. Now, a brown roux isn't really supposed to thicken much... you sacrifice thickening power for flavor, and that's the yin-yang of rouxs... but that's why you put in the okra(or Filé powder if that's how you roll), and my limited experience with gumbos suggested they're significantly thicker than soup. Was it the okra? Did the issue with measuring it frozen result in pitiful thickening power? Fairly likely. Even if my "burnt popcorn" smelling roux didn't have an off taste that I could discern, did I ruin its meager thickening power? I couldn't find an answer in McGee to suggest so... but my search wasn't exhaustive. I ended up scouring flickr for some examples of gumbos that are on the thinner side to feel better about my effort... but I still think it was thinner than I really wanted. But wait... I'm jumping to the end before I've finished describing how the gumbo was made.

After the gumbo has been simmering for half an hour, you dump in a pound of Andouille that's been cut up into 1/4" rounds... then you bring it back up to a simmer for another 30 minutes to blend the flavors. I think you're still supposed to be skimming here... but whatever... the foam is unconquerable. Clarity and texture are for punks. The penultimate addition is that 1.5 pounds of shrimp, that need a mere 5 minutes or so of simmering to cook through... and then you finish it off the heat with 1/2 cup minced parsley and 4 scallions thinly sliced. Serve it in bowls topped with white rice.

So obviously, I've still got some issues here with my gumbo... and I feel pretty committed to getting it where I want it. Three things I'm considering for my next attemt: Cook the roux in the oven? That's Alton Brown's method, but even if it works I'm sort of leaning against it since it feels like cheating. Filé or just up the okra content? I've never tried Filé, so that's sort of intriguing, but I like okra so I'm inclined to improve it on that side first. Tomatoes? A controversial ingredient I gather, but I feel it would be an improvement, so that's probably in. This brings up that I also, despite the presence of 1.5 pounds of them, found the shrimp to be a little sparse relative to the sausage... do I want more shrimp? Less sausage? Or would tomatoes or perhaps another ingredient bring the balance where I want it?

Many questions... I think I'm actually interested enough to answering them that I've created a new topic heading for anyone interested in following along.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tonight I conquer gumbo

It's been about 6 months since my black roux fiasco... and thus the sting of said cooking humiliation has worn off a bit... so I reckon it's time to try again and be humiliated anew. I'm reasonably confident that I know what color roux I'm going for... see it over there to the left, with full size pics here... no confusion this time as to WTF "the color of an old copper penny" or "between milk chocolate and dark chocolate" means... at least I hope not. If I screw it up, I'm not going to be afraid to throw it away, even if it means making gumbo at 2 AM. Some things are important, damnit!

From the non-roux mistakes I made last time... buying peeled and deveined frozen shrimp(thus having too few shells for a good shrimp stock) and not getting Andouille sausage... I corrected both with a trip to Whole Foods. The shrimp were fresh from Maine(though have been sitting in my fridge since Sunday night) and are of the perfect small size for gumbo... I'll have to devein them myself, which isn't super exciting, but neither is it hard.

I'm really looking forward to the whole process actually... making a roux is something that feels like "real" cooking to me, and it's still a skill I need to learn. In addition, gumbo involves a lot of fine dicing... which I used to dread as a huge time investment with disappointing results... but now look forward to, even though I'm not much faster and only marginally more uniform in my cuts.. knowing the right techniques, even if I can't always execute them, makes practicing more fun. I'll report back with the results.

photo by flickr user Andrew Huff used under a Creative Commons license

Obama Presser

I was otherwise occupied, but I did catch this clip of the President's prime-time press conference hawking the stimulus when I got home:

A pretty stark contrast to the last guy in the Oval Office. I found it to be a pretty clear and intelligent, though not exactly concise, answer to criticism leveled by the GOP. It seems there might be some benefit to having an orator in charge of pushing policy.

Monday, February 9, 2009

#29

It was a closer game than the final 5-2 score would indicate... with BU scoring 2 shorthanded goals(out of 3 in the game!?) in a 20 second span with 5 or 6 minutes left in the game. It was a pretty hard fought, back and forth, game up until that point... though with far too many penalties for my taste... it seemed that 90% of the game somebody was on power play. I actually feel (a little) bad for Northeastern's goalie Brad Thiessen, who after giving up two savable(IMHO) short handed goals to sink his team... got the "best goalie award" (based entirely on save percentage for both games)... talk about stone faced.

UPDATE: Here's the USCHO write up.
“That game is won on three shorthanded goals,” said BU head coach Jack Parker. “I’ve never seen that in my life in the Beanpot. Special teams was big for us, just in a different way than I thought it would be.”

Beanpot Final

Off to my local drinking establishment to watch the game.

Kindle 2.0

Mmmm, that's super sexy. Nice to see they hired a designer so it doesn't look like a Speak and Spell anymore... if I could easily read journal articles for work on it, I'd probably order it in a heartbeat... but I'm not sure I trust "PDF conversion", especially since figures are so important when reading a paper. Otherwise, I just can't justify the cost... especially given the need to buy a bunch of new books for it.

Winning the news cycle; losing the debate

Gallup's latest poll on the stimulus:
Assuming it isn't an outlier, this poll seems to be illustrating the same story we've seen play out all last year with Barack Obama and his opponents. John McCain, and Hillary Clinton before him, both had campaign operations that were obsessed with winning the news cycle... they would sacrifice long term credibility by saying something outrageous and easily rebutted, just to be the lead story that night. The media would obsess about how Obama had been blindsided and knocked off his stride and how his calm and cool responses to attacks were insufficient... and then a couple of days later the polls would be unchanged... but, of course, by the time those polls came out the media had already moved on to its next phony controversy.

It appears that we may be seeing the same thing here with the stimulus... Republicans say clearly stupid things... offer obviously insane alternatives... and admit to playing cynical politics with the nation's economy at stake. The media spends the whole time marveling at the GOP's manly toughness at striking such a wicked slap in the face to the new President... is the Obama Presidency doomed!?!?!

Apparently not.

The GOP is obviously playing long ball here... assuming the economy is still going to be sucking in 2010 and 2012 so they can go "A-ha! See? If only they had eliminated the estate tax like I wanted, we wouldn't be in this mess." I just don't see it... they are so discredited and so brazen in their cynicism that mere obstructionism is not going to win them points. I just don't think people are that easily fooled. It would be a different story if they actually had some competing ideas to offer... but they don't; they're just saying the same stuff they've always said... and I don't see how it helps them to be the party of Herbert Hoover again.

Fish en Papillote

So that is the picture from last night... Fish en Papillote, which sounds fancy but is just fish wrapped in parchment paper/aluminum foil and baked until the bag puffs up. In a move that will surprise nobody who knows me... I picked a recipe out of the latest Cook's Illustrated to try this technique. This is one of those cases where they pretend like they had this brilliant inspiration to use aluminum foil instead of parchment when, really, everybody has been doing that since there was aluminum foil... but whatever. Since Anna, while a recovering vegan, still has no desire to eat animal flesh, I halved the recipe with plans to cook it on consecutive nights. They said either cod, halibut, red snapper, or sea bass would work... and I was planning on cod, but when I got to the fish counter I felt weird about ordering two 6 oz fillets. Can you even do that? It seems that people order fish in the same way they order meat, which is by the pound... but the serving size is 6 oz, so that doesn't work. Butchers and fishmongers make me nervous because I feel like I should know what I'm doing when I get up there. I should have asked... but there were Chilean Sea Bass fillets already cut up into portions and sitting right there, so instead of the affordable, yet delicious, cod I ended up with the $18 per pound environment destructing extravagance. A good lesson on being assertive and asking questions... otherwise you end up with the socially irresponsible fish and feel guilty about it later.

It was really good though.

First, all you do is julienne a (medium)carrot and a leek(white and light green parts)... which is fun, even though my cuts were far from uniform. Toss them with salt and pepper and portion them onto two 12 inch sheets of foil and pour a tablespoon of white wine (or vermouth) over each. Next you have to mix the flavored butter, which is: two tablespoons of softened butter, half a teaspoon of minced garlic, half a teaspoon of minced fresh thyme, 1/8 teaspoon of lemon zest, and a dash of salt and pepper all stirred together in a small bowl. Pat dry the two fillets with a paper towel, and then sprinkle them with salt and pepper, before placing each fillet on a separate mound of carrots and leeks. Coat each fillet with half the butter mixture, and place a second piece of foil on top of each "assembly". Then you just fold over each of the edges 1/2 an inch and repeat three times to get a nice tight packet. Stick it into a 450 degree oven for 15 minutes(or until it puffs up) and voilà... Fish en Papillote.

One thing I learned... don't use dried thyme. I had forgotten to pick some up, and stupidly threw away our last lonely sprig... which would have been just enough... and substituted the dried herb because... eh, why not? Well, because it burned. It didn't mar the flavor really, but it didn't look super awesome. Also the recipe only says that you can set the packets aside for a few hours... not 24... so we'll see how the second packet I saved for tonight does. I'm not worried about the fish or butter... but what will happen to the leeks and carrots? We shall see.

Friday, February 6, 2009

7.6%

598,000 jobs lost in January.

I'm sort of sympathetic to the complaints that Obama and the Dems have not made a good enough public case for why exactly the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" is the right way to go... there has been quite a bit of "OMFG we're headed off a cliff!!!"... but when your opponents propose alteratives that are insane, and clearly demonstrate their economic illiteracy... and when we've had about 600K job loss for 3 straight months... it's not surprising people get a little frantic. It's not fear mongering when there actually is a good reason to be very very afraid.

Here's the Prez being a little too partisan for some, but in more of a "it's about f-ing time" for me:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Inside the Sausage Factory

...aaaaannnnd the Senate is expected to vote on... and pass... the Stimulus package tomorrow with only minor changes. I guess maybe we'll have to give the guy another week before we can call his Presidency an abject failure of a flaming train wreck that's falling off a cliff right into a gasoline factory.

I'm probably as guilty of this as the next guy, but it's important to realize that our legislative process is inherently ridiculous and aggravating, and also involves unfathomable amounts of kabuki... which is why most sane people ignore it except in times of crisis... and it's kind of important not to lose sight of the forest in such times. People like Susan Collins and Ben Nelson were always going to vote for the Stimulus because while they're sort of conservative, they're not complete idiots... but at the same time they can't look like Obama stooges... so hence we get lots of hair pulling and gnashing of teeth about the horrors of spending while the cameras are on, but it was and will never fundamentally change anything.

photo by flickr user danpeters used under a Creative Commons license

The Obama Op-Ed

It's been a fairly depressing week for people who would like to see a decent stimulus enacted quickly... GOP politicians have been dominating the cable news spouting nonsense about how it's "Not a Stimulus bill. It's just a spending bill." (WTF!?)... then Senate Dems admitted they can't find their 60 to pass it... and there is evidence the bill is losing public support.

What's a popular President to do when the GOP becomes united under the idea that financial ruin and terrorist attacks are the only was to regain power?

Go directly to the people. I don't know how effective it will be... but it is at least evidence that the White House intends to win the PR war... something it hadn't been doing; primarily because its Cabinet picks didn't want to pay their taxes, but also a seeming lack of focus. I tend to think that tomorrow's jobs report for January... and the subsequent Wall Street turmoil... will be the bludgeon to get this bill passed, but at the same time it's good to see some aggressiveness. I'm hoping he decides to make a prime time speech about it, even though I don't share fears that the bill is in any real danger of not passing or of being gutted into ineffectiveness... I'd just like to see some rhetorical muscle flexing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

4x the blogging *POWER*


I ran across this $600 quad monitor stand (monitors not included!) while looking for something for the lab and just... marveled... at the idea of someone genuinely needing that kind of setup to do their job. I guess it's for if you launch rocket ships for a living, or just want to feel like you do. Honestly, I'm probably just jealous that there are apparently people out there who can convince their bosses to spring for that kind of thing... since I could easily stretch Matlab(the program I spend most of my day using) over 3 screens (say Workspace/History, Command Window, and the Editor) and I wouldn't think it "wasteful" exactly ("necessary" would be a harder argument to make). But here, with 4 monitors themselves, the stand, and then whatever ridiculous graphics card setup was needed to run them all... tough sell.

I do wonder what professions consider a multi-monitor setup to be standard... programmers? Graphic designers? Astronauts?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Insert Whirling Sirens Here

Seen at the NYT:
Breaking News 12:49 PM ET:Tom Daschle Withdraws Nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services

Well color me shocked if it turns out to be true.

UPDATE: Here's the mini-article. It says "[Daschle's] withdrawing because he's not a leader who has the full faith of Congress and will be a distraction." I guess Obama came around to agree with the Times that he couldn't afford to look like a hypocrite on this.

UPDATE II: Looks like it was Daschle's decision alone, and yes, based in large part on that NYT editorial asking him to withdraw.

Resident Evil 5 demo thoughts

I've never played RE4, and haven't played a Resident Evil game since old school Playstation days... well OK I do own Deadly Silence for the DS, but since that was a remake of the original, I don't think it counts... at least as far as what the cutting edge arguments between that fanbois and h8ters of the series are. So I really had no expectations as far as game play... wasn't expecting Gears of War with zombies or Rainbow 6... with zombies. I was, frankly, expecting zombies... and, believe it or not, they did deliver on that. Mainly they appeared to be the "classic" shambling zombie with occasional "fast shambles" to surprise you as you try to line up a head shot. So all that is a preamble as to why not being able to run and shoot wasn't a problem for me... I didn't really have any preconceived notions of what I should be able to do with the controls. To be honest with you, when ammo is so precious that you pretty much need to head shot every zombie you see, runnin' and gunnin' isn't your first instinct. However, it is obviously a fairly "gamey" mechanic, which always rubs the wrong way, and ends up making the controls feel pretty unresponsive when you are trying to escape a horde of zombies... which I guess is the point, but you'd think they could just make the consequences of shooting on the move so bad that effectively you never did it. But then again, maybe there's no way to do that without making it easy to blast your way out of a crowd of zombies. Dunno. In the end it didn't really bother me too much... like I said, I was mainly trying to line up head shots or running for my life, so it really didn't get in the way once I got used to it. Not a deal breaker for me.

What could be a deal breaker was the difficulty. I played online co-op for about an hour last night, and we got in about half a dozen attempts between the two demo levels and didn't beat the level boss in any of them. Both of us are new to the genre so practice could be an issue... or there could be tricks to the bosses(stun with a head shot and then melee seemed sort of effective but it was hard to tell)... or it could be that the two demo levels they picked had particularly hard bosses. Can't say for sure, but I can say that if you need to play through each level a dozen times I imagine I'm going to quickly lose patience. Also, if it does take several plays per level they better not kick you back to the start menu after a long death screen... resetting up a game after dying was fairly annoying, but presumably that's mainly an issue with the demo.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Wow that was close...

Harvard sent a puck past the goal line with the score 4-3 BU, but it was after the end of the game apparently(I was listening on the radio not watching on TV so don't have an independent opinion on it)... that was a really tight game.

UPDATE: Northeastern blew out BC, so that doesn't bode well for BU's chances in the final... but everybody needs a narrow win over a gutty underdog, right?

Tom Daschle - Change We Can Believe In

It doesn't look like it's going to hinder his nomination in the slightest, but Tom Daschle is starting to seem like the embodiment of sleazy D.C. culture that Obama explicitly campaigned against. It's not the taxes since I have trouble believing guys as rich as they are would risk ruining their political ambitions over a "mere" 100K... it's that he's made so much money from the exact industry he's supposed to be tasked to reform. And what's the deal with the story that Greenwald links... it really doesn't seem like having a lobbyist wife should be so common for a Senator. Even a hyper Obama partisan like me has to admit that the optics of this are terrible.

Beanpot

So that's tonight. I was considering trying to scalp some tickets and watching the BU/Harvard game... but I dunno. I do work right next to the Garden... and my train home leaves from it's basement, so it's not like I'd have to even make much of an effort... but I'm not sure I want to go by myself.

Anyway, for those not familiar with college hockey... which is the vast majority of people in the world... the Beanpot is a local college hockey tournament that always features Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, and Harvard. With 28 victories out 50 some championships, my alma mater, BU, does fairly well at this thing... even when they're not very good, which has been the case the last few years... however, assuming they don't lose to Harvard tonight they'll probably be the #1 team in the country tomorrow, so they've rebounded a bit. Northeastern(#3) is also shockingly good... better than I can ever remember them being... leading Hockey East. BC has had a bit of a tough stretch and is "only" ranked #11, but they did win the National Championship last year so I imagine they'll show up. Harvard is the worst team, but even they're not terrible or anything... so it should be a good tournament.