NPR's On Point: Terrorism in Iraq

This morning's episode of the NPR show On Point was good enough that my morning pretty much stopped for this hour, except for washing up a few dishes. To cite their opening blurb:

Back when defenders of the war in Iraq were still sure of themselves, some of them tossed off terms like "roach motel" and "the flypaper strategy." The idea was that terrorists from around the world would be lured into Iraq and would fight their last. They'd check in, and not check out.

Well, that theory turned out to be colossally wrong. Iraq has turned out to be as good a finishing school for terrorists as Osama Bin Laden could have prayed for.

This topic has been something that has always annoyed me--the simpletons who say, "Well, it's better that we're fighting them over there instead of over here." It's inconceivable to me that they think of it as an 'either-or' situation. Compare the resources required: to do some damage in the U.S., you need airline tickets, forged passports, money to support them in the States, a decent enough command of English to pass as a cab driver, etc. To do damage in Iraq, you need to hitch a ride across the Middle East, and be willing to pick up an AK, or strap on a ball bearing & explosives vest and go 'Allahu akbar.' Granted, the targets are harder in Iraq--armed and armored U.S. servicemen, compared to soft civilian targets in the U.S. But it's not like we're depleting their pool of jihadis by giving them targets in Iraq. Also, see various attacks in Europe for further evidence. Grr.

The episode dealt with a variety of factors that I've heard in bits and pieces before, but hearing them all in one place was pretty telling. For instance, that nations hostile to the U.S. around the world are heartened by seeing the most technologically advanced and powerful military being tied down by an insurgency of this nature. There's a reason why Hugo Chavez is making a show of preparing resistance of this nature in his country. Another topic--even moderate Iraqis are becoming more and more radicalized, because, well, we broke their country.

One anecdote that struck me was in regards to the technological advancement of IEDs. I'm not re-listening to the whole show to cite it exactly, but it was something like, "in Northern Ireland or Chechnya, they needed time X to develop their IEDs to a certain level; in Iraq, it is a fraction of that time." The spread of information on the net between jihadis, plus whatever technology they're gaining from sponsor nations [machining explosively-formed projectile IEDs, gettting RPG-29s] means that their effectiveness can be multiplied quickly. Check out that EFP link if you get a chance--that's a pretty friggin' scary armor-defeating method that doesn't require much advanced technology. The New York Times and other sources have talked about the effectiveness of snipers against U.S. troops--a classic insurgency harassment tactic. I actually downloaded and watched one of those videos of U.S. troops being shot by snipers--it made me angered, sickened, but mostly just resigned and sad.

Anyway, one thing to take small comfort in:

To put this in historical perspective, according to this source, similar end-of-office approval ratings were held by Carter, at 34%; and Nixon, at 24%. [Side note--damn, 1/4 of the U.S. population still thought Nixon was doing a good job as he was leaving? How stupid are you people?] It is said that cultural trends start at the coasts and work their way to the heartland... it appears they might be catching on there or something. Yes, a simplistic interpretation, but every day of the news wants to make me say to my countrymen, "WHY DID YOU WEAK-MINDED FOOLS RE-ELECT HIM?!?!"

Okay, enough politics. Back to your normal, irreverently humorous BatBlog.


Word of the Day: Asafoetida

I have been cooking a couple of Indian recipes recently (such as red lentils with cumin seed) that have called for asafoetida; I thought, ho ho, isn't it funny that it incoporates both "ass" and "fetid" into its name. I figured the etymology was unrelated, and it was merely coincidence. Hmmm... only half right there: according to Wikipedia, the name is derived from the Persian word for resin (asa) and Latin foetida, which refers to its strong sulfurous odour. A sentence in the article actually made me laugh out loud:

Its pungent odour has resulted in its being called by many unpleasant names; thus in French it is known (among other names) as Merde du Diable (Devil's faeces [ed: actually, more correctly, Devil's shit]); in some dialects of English too it was known as Devil's Dung, and equivalent names can be found in most Germanic languages (e.g. German Teufelsdreck)

"Honey, when you're at the store, can you also pick up some tonic water, limes, and Devil's shit?"

Also, according to Wikipedia, its odour is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma, which is nauseating in quantities, will contaminate other spices stored nearby.

Aw, faeces. I've been storing my bottle, sealed inside another plastic bag, in a container with my other spices; the inside of the larger container seems contaminated. Seems like a use for biohazard containers in the kitchen.

Anyway, while I'm on this subject, does anyone know why spices are so much cheaper at Indian food stores? These ~7 oz packages below cost $1-2 CAD each; I'm guessing that retail at the supermarket, they would be $5 or more each. At these prices, I would have minimal guilt about tossing out my spices after a year, as recommended by gourmand-types.

Perhaps it is that they are such an often-used component of Indian cuisine that it would not stand to make them so overpriced? Or that these bagged spices have a higher ppm of bug parts, dioxin, or something? Or maybe its those swell little glass jars... yeah, that must be it...


The 'I Give Up' Forms

I put my 'I give up' forms on my advisor's desk over the weekend--i.e., "I won't be finishing by the December 15th deadline". I'd rather get the paperwork out of the way sooner rather than later, so that side of things feels good. And it's a bit of a relief to admit it to the world. But it's not a great feeling to know that I'm not going to make the cutoff date, despite having pretty much accepted it a while ago. And at this point, I have 2-1/2 weeks to write three chapters--not gonna happen.

I will admit that I could have worked harder this semester, seen fewer movies, bailed on the outside consulting jobs, explored less of Toronto, and socialized with friends less often. Then again, I could have been considerably more miserable than I have been this semester. And/or climbed a clock tower with an AK-47.

Anyway, I met with my advisor for a few hours on Saturday; it was definitely useful and productive. I showed him what I have developed so far on my computer modeling, and he had good recommendations for tweaks and directions to explore. He also gave me edits on two thesis chapters (out of the four I have submitted to date). It wasn't clear to me that he has accepted that I AM NOT FINISHING ON TIME, but I think he will be ok with signing the forms.

I'm having a bout of computer modeling block (instead of writer's block) today; I have the unfortunate feeling that inspiration will strike around 11 PM or so.

Officially Yuppified

The downtown area (called "uptown") that is a few blocks away has now officially hit the big time: the Starbucks just opened up. I am close enough that it is six minutes from my front door to sitting down with a cup of coffee (brewed, not a fancy drink). Just in time for me to move out.

Say what you want about the rapacious corporatism and saturation-bombing store placement of the chain, but they do make consistently decent coffee. Also, they create an atmospheric experience that people enjoy, and want to hang out and linger in. I often end up at Starbucks during my travels, when spending downtime writing postcards.

But for what it's worth, I'll be heading to 1369 when I'm back in town, since I'll actually have options at that point. Aw crud, looks like the Someday Cafe closed sometime over this summer. Hey Somerville locals--is it sadly missed, or is it a case of, "Enh, Diesel Cafe is better anyway"?


Movie Reviews

Just writing a blog entry to let the weather warm up a bit, so that biking down to farmer's market will be a little less painful. Currently 41 F out; high today will be 50 F. Yay!

Martin Scorsese's latest movie, which is a remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, in a modern-day Boston setting. The plot involves a cop recruited to go deep undercover in an organized crime gang (Leonardo DiCaprio), and a guy who grew up under the organized crime kingpin, and joined the police to inform for him (Matt Damon). The crime boss is a Whitey Bulger-esque figure, played in classic menacing villain form by Jack Nicholson. The whole movie was tension-filled, cat-and-mouse, and violent--classic Scorsese. I agree with the critics who say it will be up there with Goodfellas and Taxi Driver; incidentally, I've also seen The Aviator and The Gangs of New York and thought they were both worthwhile. And yeah, I have a few choice Joe Pesci quotes from Casino memorized.

One thing I loved about this film is that it was filled with Boston atmosphere--from the townie accents, triple deckers, the real touches of the Whitey character (cops in his pocket; informing for the FBI on the side), the Irish fighting the Italian mob from Providence, hopping on the Red Line. The government building used in exterior establishing shots is a downtown courthouse that my former company did work on. Much of the movie was filmed in New York City, but there were definitely some Boston-flimed scenes. For instance, in Chinatown, you get to see the sign for China Pearl (my favorite Dim Sum place) and Hing Shing (my favorite place to get pork buns). I thought it was up there with Mystic River and Monument Ave. in evoking Boston and its underworld. Man... makes me really miss the place.

A complete change of pace--on Friday, I went to out to a Vietnamese place with Dan (mmmm.. tasty noodles), and he rented this French Canadian film. Four men and four women, all of them university professors and their friends/spouses, talk about sex, love, and the fall of civilization. The men and women are first introduced and their characters established in separate groups, with the women at the gym, and the men cooking and drinking at the lake house where they will be having dinner. Also complicating things is that many of the characters have slept with each other. It is a very talky film, and the wit of the conversation is wonderful; some critics have compared it to The Big Chill and My Dinner with Andre. Dan's review of the movie captures my reaction pretty well.

I have actually seen the sequel to this movie, The Barbarian Invasions--it has the same characters at the same lake house, except one of them is dying of cancer, and the folks from the first movie fly in from all over the globe to say their goodbyes. It is also about the conflict between the dying character (a hedonistic socialist university professor) and his son (a more straitlaced, rich and successful commodities trader). Both of these films were thoroughly worthwhile.

As a side note, one thing I liked about these films was the atmosphere of the lake house scenes--friends who have known each other for ages, preparing dinner, drinking, and talking and laughing together. Folks bundled up against the chill in chairs on the deck, drinking into the night. Like I've mentioned before, I'd love to split a summer/vacation house with folks someday in Western MA, NH, or upstate NY. Of course, we can leave out the melodrama of who-slept-with-who... oh wait... we have those in our group too. Never mind... (actually, in our group's case, I'd say that it's not melodrama, it's just history).

Anyway, it's up to 49 F--time to get going. Cooking dinner for a fellow grad student tonight.


Holiday Season Itinerary

Another way to avoid thesis--buying my airline tickets for travel over this holiday.

I bought my tickets this morning; the itineraries are up on my Google Calendar. It's very nice that my former company is paying my travel expenses for this season. They were flying me back to Boston for the Christmas party (along with chief grad student and my advisor), and then flying me to Minneapolis to be logistical backup for a seminar that they are running. That would have been two round trips, which is equal to four legs of travel, like this:

YYZ -> BOS -> MSP -> LGA -> YYZ

December 13: UAL 8534 YYZ -> BOS 4:40 PM-6:12 PM

Hang out for a little while with Boston folks. Dinner on the 13th (Wednesday) in Boston, anyone?

December 15-16 (at least) will be taken up by my company's party and meetings

December 18: NWA 717 BOS -> MSP 1:29 PM-3:44 PM

Seminar work, and then seeing psycho security guard and his family

December 21: NWA 512 MSP -> LGA 10:58 AM-2:33 PM

Visiting my family at home, and hanging out with air force guy, Perlick, and Probe and Becca (they will be visiting town!)

January 2: UAL 8573 LGA -> YYZ 10:30 AM-12:05 PM

And then back to work, dammit. And packing.

The Continuing Slog

Just finished another thesis chapter this afternoon (results write-up for one of my two research sites); it's nice to see progress, even if it is slow. My remaining chapters are the other research site, computer modelling (potentially very large chapter), and conclusions. I guess I can kinda see the end point, but it's a lot like being on I-90 in Minnesota, and seeing signs saying "Seattle 1,657 mi."

Current page count is up to about 175--admittedly, there are a lot of graphs and graphics that take up space. But I have beating myself up a bit about this page creep--am I really incompetent at getting to the important core material, and insufferably self-important and long-winded? Then I thought about it some more, and realized that I just have a whole lot of data--much more than those ~150 page theses. Those guys were lab experiments, involving about a year's worth of test runs in one or two test walls. In contrast, I have one site with eight walls and three years of data; another with four walls and 1.5 years of data. It just takes a while to explain what was installed and demonstrated in the data for a project of that scope. In addition, my tests were in real houses, not lab conditions, so I had to spend a fair amount of time just talking about the boundary conditions, and whether or not these are representative of real houses.

Okay, time to change gears and start to run computer models--why yes, we actually use a computer model that lets us simulate watching walls dry. Yeah, I know, my life is really exciting.

Order up!

Another fun evening with Dan and Daniel--they came over for dinner tonight, and we celebrated some of Dan's recent good news. I realized I had not gotten to put together a nice dinner for company for a while; it was really enjoyable to cook for more than one person for a change.

I made several Madhur Jaffrey recipes: two old standards (red split lentils with cumin seed, and Gujerati-style green beans--black mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, and garlic), and a new one (Malai wali murghi, chicken with cream). I was very happy with the chicken recipe--definitely a keeper, even if it takes multiple steps and a chunk of time. I bought a mini-food processor, because I have gotten tired of "make 4 cloves of garlic and a one-inch piece of ginger into a paste" using my mad knife skillz.

Whenever I make apple pie using Chris Kimball's recipe, I end up with extra pie crust. Usual side effect: time to make my favorite single-crust pie--pecan!

I often make bourbon pecan pie, but all of my nice bourbon is packed up in New York at my parents' place: Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, and Jack Daniels' Single Barrel. I didn't want to buy a full 750 ml of the fancy stuff for use in the next two months, and the store only had small bottles of regular Jack. I figured that using JD as a flavorant was like with making tiramisu with Sanka, so this pie was straight up.


Cell Phone Geekery

My latest way of avoiding thesis writing: planning my cell phone purchase when I return to the states, so I can ditch my @#^% bell.ca plan and international roaming.

I am planning on buying a BlackBerry Pearl--not due to any careful study of the hardware, but because Chief Grad Student and my advisor both have BlackBerry 7130s and love them. In addition, I have a feeling of loyalty to the home town boyz: for those of you who don't know, RIM is headquartered in Waterloo and was founded by UW grads; their offices are just across a parking lot from our research hut. Receiving email instantly, and Google Maps on your hip are pretty friggin useful. And god knows, Mike Lazaridis needs more money. [grin]

Note that I am well aware of the horrible social effects of BlackBerry use, after experiencing them among my colleagues. For instance, only reading the first two lines of an email message, and sending a reply asking for clarification when the answer can be found if you scroll one goddamn screen down, you fuck. Or that checking your email under the table at a restaurant is really fucking subtle, and fools everyone. Yeah.

Anyway, it looks like I'm limited to T-Mobile in MA if I want the Pearl (other providers have the 7130); their plans look pretty reasonable. I found a New York Times article ("Basics; A Cellphone And a Plan For Just About Any Situation") that compares a few providers. However, it is from December 2005, which is dated enough that it might be as useful as ratings on cuneiform techniques ("Stylus review: Which kind of reed do you want for the softer clay tablets we're using today??"):

Consumer Reports magazine found that Cingular was 'one of the lower ones' for customer service, according to Mark Kotkin, who directed the project. Cingular also rated low for reception quality. In general, Verizon was highest in customer satisfaction, followed closely by T-Mobile.

Then again, it might show general patterns of competence and/or "how much are we willing to spend on customer service?" T-Mobile's coverage map looks decent--good signal both in Arlington and my company's office in Somerville.

So does anybody have an opinion either on T-Mobile, or on the Pearl? I don't know anyone who has used one yet, but David Pogue's review was very positive. Sweet... it has GSM too... not that I've taken the opportunity to travel overseas recently. P--your Sidekick runs on T-Mobile, right? How has coverage for you been while travelling?

I'm planning on doing this whole transaction the new economy way: over the web, without ever talking to another human being, and having it show up at JMD's house while I'm still in Canada, so that I can just start using it when I hit the ground in Boston. I'll put up my number (encoded somehow) when I get it.


When it Rains...

After my recent post about being socially isolated while working on my thesis, I've had a surprising burst of social activity, due to a combination of my efforts and random circumstances.

Last Thursday, I had dinner at Chief Grad Student's place; I suggested that I come over sometime so that they could share my first apple pie of the season. A lovely dinner, another successful pie, and another opportunity to use my apple lathe (thanks A!).

On Friday afternoon, I went into lab to work with one of recent grad students (mentioned earlier) on some experimental setup. Good to get the hell out of the house; we also made plans for dinner and a movie.

On Saturday evening, I went over to dinner at her place, and we went to see Fast Food Nation at the local art-house theater. A fun time: she was great dinner company, and makes a kick-ass bread pudding.

A strong recommend on the movie--the ensemble cast was great--the Mexican immigrant couple was played by the woman from Maria Full of Grace, and the guy who plays Fez in That '70s Show. For those of you who don't eat beef, the meat processing plant "kill floor" scene will probably make you quite comfortable, if not smug, in your decision. I was amazed that they got that footage though--I can't imagine any meat processor would want those scenes filmed (including using the stunner, lower limb removal, and skinning).

Tonight, I went to another film at the local art house, with Dan and Daniel--49 Up, which is part of a continuing series that tracks and interviews several British children (every seven years) from 1964 through today (when they are 49 years old). It was really fascinating and engaging; it made me take a moment to reflect on where the path of my life is taking me--big picture things like that.

And tomorrow night, Dan and Daniel are coming over for dinner. Indian food! Yay!

As you might guess, thesis progress has been slowed by all this social activity. I am gradually emotionally accepting that I won't be done in December--I have figured (intellectually) that this was the case, but we're close enough now that it's a pretty foregone conclusion. Ah well... back to writing.


Ride of the Dorkmobile

Swell... now I have Wagner played on the kazoo going through my head...

I took advantage of the nice weather (high of 49 F/9 C) to give my homemade bike trailer (described here) a final shakedown cruise. I took a similar trip a few weeks ago, and discovered two critical problems: the mounting hitch rotates on the axle, causing the trailer to bump against the rear tire, and one of the wheels started to loosen. Fixed both of these problems--a few lock washers and counter-tightened nuts should keep the wheels from coming off (oh, if only this was true in life in general).

I'm a bit worried that biking around with a homemade trailer puts me near the dude who pedals the adult-size tricycle down the Mass Ave going, "Oh! oh! oh! oh! oh!" in terms of the likelihood-of-getting-laid-on-a-regular-basis metric. Guess that's a risk I'm just gonna have to take [smirk].

Then again, as I was riding down the bike path, I passed a bunch of little kids (2-3, I'd guess) with their mom. One of them looked at the trailer passing by, and said, "Wow! What a cool bike!" Well, at least I play to the preschool crowd.

Incidentally, I am planning on putting this up as an Instructable. Someday. When I don't feel super-guilty about taking that much time away from thesis.

Anyway, I used this ride to stop by my favorite bakery and the local Indian food store. While browsing vegetables, I came across these guys:

Do any of the foodier-than-me folks know what this is? Google is singularly unhelpful for trying to identify things like this ("strange vegetables"? "Indian vegetables"? "strange Indian vegetable"? "chia gourd"?) They are cucumber-sized things with an almost broccoli-like surface texture; I wonder if they're some type of an external seeded-pod or something.

A Few Funnies

I know it's a bit lame to post forwarded humor on a blog, but this made me laugh, and it saves me from forwarding it to people via email. Yeah, it's a blonde joke. Hi Jen!

Attached is problem 3 on a geometry examination. It is the solution submitted by a beautiful blonde student. It is our understanding that after careful scrutiny, the student was given credit for the answer by the teacher. When hearing of this the Board of Education warned math teachers to be more explicit in the wording of examination problems but was hesitant to suggest how.

On a slightly more highbrow note, did other people catch the All Things Considered interview with the guys who do voiceovers for attack ads? (also mentioned on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me). They did a hilarious bit where the voice actors read takeoffs on nursery rhyme using their best negative ad voices:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. He said he could put himself together again... but after wasting thousands of our tax dollars, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men ... he failed us. Humpty Dumpty ... WRONG for wall-sitting.

This and others; definitely worth a listen if you have a spare 5 minutes.

A Random Evening Visit

As I was settling into another evening of thesis grinding last night, I heard a knock at the door. Completely baffled as to who it would be, I wandered down to check--turns out it was Dan, taking Rover for a walk, stopping by randomly to see if I'd like to come over for a beer and some company.

This was welcome break, and a very nice social evening out--sipping a Fin du Monde and chatting by the fireplace with Dan, Daniel, and Rover. It was very much appreciated... man, my friends rock. There's a short list of what I'll miss about KW, but they're near the top of it.

[Edit]: And as an added bonus, Dan loaned me a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook that has saag paneer in it. I'll have to try that out.


Thesis Update; Page Creep

Just another thesis progress update... I'm wondering if I should make November NaTheWriMo, but my lack of progress would make it too depressing...

To explore another side of thesis writing, I have found that spending days working at home ends up being pretty isolating. I make a conscious effort to get in a walk around the neighborhood, but there are some days when the sum total of my real-life interactions are:

I'll bag it myself, thanks.

Debit please.

No cash back.

Thank you--have a good day!

Admittedly, I have a lot more interactions (that are far more interesting and fulfilling) via blogs/LJ, email, and IM.

I met with my advisor yesterday morning, on the one day that he's in town this week. Given that we're five weeks away from the deadline, and this is the first time he has gotten a chance to see my thesis draft, it looks like I'll be going with my plan of finishing writing in Boston.

He echoed some of the comments others have made on my blog--that my thesis scope isn't too far from a PhD thesis. "Too bad it doesn't work that way," he commented. Well, if nothing else, if I ever decide I should go for a PhD, I already know the scale of the project involved.

As for page creep:

I have recently gone over the 150 page mark (i.e., what other recent MASc theses have rung up to, total). I'm still working on the results from one of my two research sites; I still need to write up the second site results, computer modelling, and conclusions.

I don't think I'm trying to add filler; I just figure that if there will be any source that should be the complete, unabbreviated record of this research, this should be it. Also, I'm afraid that I'm trying to make my thesis useful, or have useful conclusions. I have seen (and have been guilty of) far too many research reports that state their findings, avoid any conclusive interpretation, and wrap up with a handwavey, "further research is needed..." Considering how many man-hours and data points went into this research, if I can't turn this work into some useful and practical recommendations, it would be a real embarassment.


You Know You're a NYC Geek...

...when you look at this ad, and say, "Hey, that's Lincoln Center. But something's really weird." First of all, I think the perspective of the apartment relative to the backdrop is screwed up (photoshopped in?). But I know Lincoln Center... that's the part of town I'm in a lot, given that my sister and my friend Air Force Guy live right around there... and those streets don't look right. I'm familiar with this view--this is from my sister's condo balcony:

Aha. Google Maps aerial view to the rescue: they mirrored the photo for this ad--check out which building has the curved wall 'doghouse' on top.

Anyway, I was feeling a bit nostalgic recently, and I looked up my birth certificate to check exactly where I was born. Like I've mentioned before, I was born in Brooklyn. Turns out it was: Park Slope (New York Methodist Hospital). Man... that just about ruins any street cred that I had going on, doesn't it? ("Straight outta Park Slope, Crazy motherfucker named Batman...") (with many thanks to BirdJen for introducing me to Nina Gordon's acoustic cover of 'Straight Outta Compton')

Despite that location providing the image of an overprotective Jewish yuppie mom, Park Slope in the early 1970's was pre-gentrification--it was probably on its way downhill at the time. One of my few memories from growing up in Brooklyn was our trash getting set on fire on Halloween, and my dad running in and out of the house refilling a bucket of water to put the fire out before it spread. That and the hexagonal paving stones in Prospect Park--to a two or three year old, it was pretty amazing to see these non-square shapes that fit together in a repeated pattern... probably made too much of an impression on me.

Hey, I was born 3.5 miles from the World Trade Center site.

Man, I miss New York.


Recipe Advice?

Okay, I could use some advice from my friends who cook. I made this Indian dinner a few nights ago--the chicken was leftovers, and the red lentils were quite tasty. But this was my first attempt at saag paneer, and I was disappointed with the results--not disastrous--it was still good eating. But it made me sad because saag paneer is one of my favorite Indian dishes--I'd like to be able to make it at home. I bought a block of paneer at the local Indian grocery store (thanks Dan!), and have wanted to try it out. Also, many thanks to AJ for the garam masala that I'm using.

I used this recipe that I found online. First, the flavor seemed a little bit one-note; the tartness/tanginess of the yogurt and buttermilk seemed really dominant. Second, the texture was disappointing--I'm used to saag paneer having this smooth, creamy, puree-like texture; this dish was, well, cooked spinach that had some chew to it. I'm assuming that Indian restaurants achieve this without the use of a stick blender.

Some potential problems with my preparation technique. When I first created the mix of buttermilk and yogurt, I heated it enough that it "broke" (i.e., turned into the curd-like portion and liquid), instead of remaining creamy. Second, I was using a relatively flat pan, instead of a pot/saucepan--I'm guessing that as a result, the liquid was only simmering the bottom portion of the spinach. Third, the 20-30 minute stage doesn't say if it should be covered or not--I'm guessing it maybe should have been covered.

So: does anyone have a saag paneer recipe that they have cooked and like? I'm disappointed that the Madhur Jaffrey cookbook that I own doesn't include it. In the meanwhile, I'll be working my way through other recipes I find online.


Fun with Cartograms!

Grr.. WYSIWYG HTML editor in this new blogger is really broken.

For those of you not familiar with cartograms, they are maps with the size of areas (states, countries, counties) rescaled to provide an indication of a metric (typically population). I figure that most of you saw the 2004 election results (red state/blue state) as cartograms. But anyway, the same researcher did a bunch of world maps using various social and economic metrics, and I thought they were pretty cool. The one above is the world normalized by population. Yeah, check out India. Yeah, there's a reason why we're outsourcing all this work to there--that large of a population, with a decent education system. Yikes. Another neat map on that page is countries by gross domestic product Check out the relative proportions of Africa and Japan.

Technical Difficulties

Apologies if any of you are subscribed to the syndication feed of my blog and got your LJ spammed with several months' worth of entries.  I migrated my blog to the new-merged-with-Gmail-account version, and it apparently republishes everything.

Thesis Progress and Hot Lunches

I realize that I have been sparing you updates on my thesis progress lately. Well, I haven't just been going in to Toronto and reading fortune cookies--but those topics are far more interesting to write about.

Last week was a pretty productive week, thesis-wise. I slammed out the Experimental Procedure/Setup chapter. Admittedly, I have written at least of parts of it for several papers and reports, but that's pretty true for most of my thesis. But this week, I feel like I'm somewhat hitting a wall--writing up results and data analysis. Like I said, I've done this before, but it's really not progressing very quickly. I have organized the chapter and have laid out the structure that I'll be fitting everything into. But I find myself spending interminable amounts of time rechecking data, tweaking graphs, or other lower-priority items, instead of bucking down and cranking out pages.

However, I don't really have much right to complain. In any objective sense, my life is pretty idyllic right now--I don't have too many research obligations outside of thesis, I work from home, and I can make myself a nice hot lunch, such as katsudon (Japanese pork chop leftovers cooked up over rice--a really nice comfort food that reminds me of mom's cooking).

Actually, it makes me worry that unlike most thesing students, who feed themselves exceptionally poorly, I take every opportunity to cook nice dinners as a creative outlet (tomorrow night's plan is red lentils with cumin seed, saag paneer, and probably a frozen chapati). It makes me think I'm burning too much time cooking and then cleaning up.

Argh. Sleep now, maybe productivity will strike tomorrow.


Fortune Cookie

Here's a particularly unfortunate fortune cookie to append "in bed" to:

Yeah, well, thanks for the comment on my social life, Mr. Fortune Cookie.

That cookie came from the Chinese dinner that Dan, Daniel, and I had before going to see the journalist Seymour Hersh give a talk at the University (U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib to Today). I looked up his Wikipedia bio before going to the talk--I didn't realize that he was the one who broke the My Lai Massacre story (winning him a Pulitzer at age 33). He has been one of the people instrumental in covering the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. His talk was fascinating and engaging... I don't have the energy right now to give it a full description, but it was definitely worth seeing.


A Politics Break

I normally don't talk much about politics on my blog, but I listen to WBUR over the web for many of my waking hours, so all the election talk must be seeping into my brain.

In honor of election day tomorrow, I wanted to write about a recent Atlantic article: The Fight to Lose Congress (might be behind a members-only link; let me know if you're interested, and I can email it to you). It begins:

The folkways of Washington often seem strange to outsiders, but it’s hard to imagine anything stranger than the question that’s currently getting serious (but very quiet) consideration from political insiders this fall: Would it be better to lose November’s elections than to win them?

“The best scenario for us is to pick up anywhere from ten to fourteen House seats and three to four in the Senate,” just short of a majority in each case, says a top adviser to one of the leading 2008 Democratic presidential candidates. A loss this year “would focus Republicans’ minds and missions in tremendously helpful ways for 2008,” suggests a GOP strategist with ties to the Bush administration.

Basically, both parties are thinking it might be best to have the other one in power, because the majorities will be so slim in either case that it will be difficult to push any legislative agenda (as one staffer put it, "We can’t really get anything done, but will get blamed for all the problems.") Also, the GOP sounds like it would be glad to see Pelosi get a lot of exposure as Speaker, given her "unlikeability" factor (referred to as "Newt Gingrich without the ideas" in the article).

Other people I know are predicting that the Republicans will stay in power, due to the elective power of Diebold. I wouldn't quite put that in the tinfoil helmet category, but it's moving in that direction--we'll see tomorrow night.

Incidentally, the NPR show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me had a great little zinger this week. They talked about the domestic backlash against Prime Minister al-Malaki telling the U.S. to take down their checkpoints--"Yeah, what part of 'puppet regime' is unclear here?!"

On a partially unrelated topic, I wonder if history will look at this period and point out the Iraq war as a watershed moment in signalling the end of the "American Empire" (i.e., the United States as the dominant power in the world). Remember, I'm not talking about a fall of an empire in terms of the Visigoths sacking the cities: it's more that the world realizes the limits of this "dominant empire's" power--I suppose a similar moment for the UK would be Suez 1956. It seems to be showing the world that when we intervene with force, we don't have the competence and/or political will to be effective in these messy global situations that will become the rule, not the exception. I know, it's not as if anytime soon, the US will lose its dominance economically (okay, besides the massive trade deficit, the big three automakers being in the crapper, and domestic manufacturing disappearing), or technologically (hmm... except for the ascendancy of India and China, and the horrible state of the US's science education, trying to turn us into a knowledge backwater by teaching 'intelligent design'), or militarily (well, this one mostly stands--US power projection with aircraft carrier groups is unsurpassed... but the question is how costly the fighting could get--i.e., how many Silkworm missiles would the Chinese have to lob to successfully take out the Nimitz?--moving into the world of assymetric warfare).

Crap. Maybe I should have spent the past two years working on getting Canadian citizenship, just in case...


Another Evening in Town

Got to spend another afternoon in Toronto on Saturday; I had tickets to see a concert in town: the Afro-Cuban All Stars. They are a group of Cuban musicians which was founded by one of the people who was instrumental in getting Buena Vista Social Club off the ground.

I took an afternoon bus in, and walked east from Union Station/Royal York Hotel (photo above is at the station), wandered through St. Lawrence Market (big warehouse-sized farmer's market), and ended up in the part of town called Corktown (named after Irish immigrants--i.e., county Cork). Weather was pretty nice for meandering around town--fall chilliness, but didn't need to get completely bundled up. Hooked back to the Distillery District (I blogged about my visit there with the Lantzes and JMD here), and had a cappuccino at Balzac's Coffee--quite a nice place.

Had a couple of interesting local beers and dinner at C'est What (a recommendation from inkandpen--thanks!)

Oh yeah... the concert... what I actually came into town to see: the Afro-Cuban All Stars:

It was a fun, energetic show. And it was vastly amusing to watch white folks try to clap along to complex rhythms, at the prompting of the band.

Also, watching the band makes me realize I should find more opportunites to wear a suit--they were all looking pretty classy (see this flickr page)--from zoot suits to Carribean-looking cream colored suits to a double-breasted pinstriped Louis Armstrong type job. This show, and Buena Vista Social Club almost makes me want to visit Cuba on the sly someday. However, the legal ramifications sound too scary to deal with.

The evening wrapped up with an annoying bus ride back to KW--lots of time and waiting; got home around 1:30 AM. I find it depressing that I have to do this amount of travel (bus ride or driving over an hour) to get to a city I really enjoy hanging out in. Well, that won't be an issue in a few months, I hope.


Death of a President

Just saw Death of a President at the local art house cinema--I was interested enough in seeing it that I had emailed the folks who run the place about a week ago:


Long time Princess Cinema member; I just had a question about choices for upcoming films. Is the Princess planning on getting Death of a President? If so, when do you think it might be showing? I was guessing that it would have a pretty small distribution, even with the media publicity it got recently.

[the cinema owner quickly responded:]

I thought the same, but I was wrong. It open a local multiplex chain cinema this coming weekend for a small one or two week run. I may end up laying sometime in new year or not at all. Go figure... I don't get it why they would do it...

I was pleasantly surprised that it was showing there already. For those who have not heard much about the film, it is a piece of "speculative fiction" in the form of a documentary around 2008, after the assassination of President Bush. It is a series of talking-head interviews, video news clips, and investigative reporting on the day of the shooting, the shooting itself, and the investigation.

I thought the film was incredibly well done, and quite gripping throughout. I did not find it exploitative or worthy of the furor that has erupted about it in some media. Yes, there are characters who hate Bush in the film--the crowds of protestors--but they were all pretty realistic characterizations. The anarchist-ringleader type with a bar code tattoo on his neck--that was a perfect touch to nail that character.

The clever weaving of archive footage to create this story was very well done--some reviewers pointed out technical gaffes, but I didn't find them distracting ("Um, duh, I know that the president didn't actually get shot, so I know they have to stitch together some archives.") The thing that sealed it for me was the characters in the interviews--the head Secret Service agent, the president's speechwriter (and both characters' obvious loyalty and grief), the Chicago police chief, the ex-FBI forensics technician, and others. I thought they were spot-on--they had the same type of hesitation, emotion, self-aggrandizement, or self-doubt that you see in these kinds of interviews in reality.

Some reviewers though that this film fell short because it did not explore more of the way the world would change due to this event. A fair criticism, but you could say that was not the filmmaker's goal. Others criticized it for being, well, boring. For instance, "... the amount of time he spends on faux forensics is enough to put even die-hard CSI fans to sleep." I'd tend to disagree with that, but then again, I've read chunks of Tedeschi's Forensic Medicine out of random curiosity (it's in the MIT Medial library). I guess that given I'm addicted to documentaries (e.g., Frontline), so this film was pretty much right up my alley.

Oh yeah--there's a really clever twist, which you would not expect from a mock-documentary. Well done, that.