Sinead's Most Excellent Hot Chocolate

I made an adaptation of Sinead's amazing hot chocolate recipe for my family this christmas. It was a big hit. I'll put the recipe I used below. Please bear in mind that everywhere where my recipe is different from Sinead's is because I didn't have the ingredients or equipment available to me.* I make no claim that my modifications are improvements.

I don't have a soy milk maker so I just boiled 2 cups of ground almond in 8 cups of water while I mortar and pestled the spices, which were: 8 cloves, 2-3 tsp anisseed, 1/3 of a cinnamon stick. The almonds and water got extremely foamy and never really got to a rolling boil. I dumped the ground spices in and added one chopped vanilla bean and one dried chili pepper. I cooked this, stirring, for about five minutes and then let it sit about 12 hours in the cold garage. The next day I strained the liquid with cheesecloth and returned it to the pot. I heated it up on the stove while I broke up two bars of Green & Black's 70% and one bar of Terra Nostra's 73%. Then I dissolved about 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder and the chocolate in the liquid. Serve to suspicious relatives, some of whom will turn it down because it's "not healthy" (and never mind the Cinnamon Toast Crunch they have for breakfast).

*Except the cocoa, which I increased because I was doubling the recipe in my head as I went along and got mixed up.


Do Good and Get Your Money Back

Dave and I have started lending through Kiva, a California-based charity that arranges microloans from private individuals who have money to private individuals who don't.

At the moment they don't charge any interest, so it's not a great place to invest a lot of your money or anything, but it's a great way to be able to keep doing good without going broke.

I heard about it on a fairly recent comments thread on Slacktivist.


What She Said

This whole gleeful hate-on that so many people have for Sarah Palin has really been rubbing me the wrong way lately. Now Flea has explained why.


Thank you

To MSNBC, for calling it this early, so I can get some sleep. And to all you voting Americans out there, for not being *quite* as stupid as you look.

Okay, I'm going to close my computer on MSNBC's 5th straight minute of shots of screaming crowds and get some shut eye before my 8am class tomorrow.


No One Actually Buys this Shit, Right?

I wasn't going to blog about it, because it isn't even my country, but some of the things McCain said last night were insane. I mean I know a certain amount of insanity is needed to retain the RTC vote, but for the sake of my sanity I refuse to believe that *anyone* could be won over by these gems:

  • The idea that nuclear power should be safe is a radical environmentalist position

  • The use of airquotes when talking about how late-term abortion bans* shouldn't include exceptions for women's "health"

  • The idea that military personal, upon leaving the army, should be fast-tracked into teaching positions in public schools without needing to do any training or pass any certification exams or otherwise show that they, you know, can teach

He also completely cracked me up when claimed that his campaign couldn't be held responsible for Palin's "palling around with terrorists" smear because every rally has its fringe elements.

*As an aside, I am very angry at Obama right now for coming out in support of banning late-term abortions, and I don't care if he does think there should be exceptions for the life and health of the mother. These late term abortion arguments are a *huge* red herring in the abortion discussion and he should have called McCain out on that. Women don't up and decide, at 8 months gestation, that they'd rather not be pregnant after all, TYVM, bikini season is coming up so let's go have an abortion.** By including exceptions for life/health of the mother (and one assumes that this includes allowing the termination of fetuses that are dying and/or wouldn't survive out of the womb), the only abortions such a ban would prevent are those of women who have been trying to abort since their first trimester but couldn't because they lacked access, or those being considered by women whose social/economic/whatever situation has just changed dramatically, to the point where they no longer feel they can continue with the pregnancy. In addition, supporting late-term abortion bans while allowing earlier abortions pretty much always requires making what Amp calls the "woman, what woman?" argument. That is unfuckingacceptable and Obama should be ashamed of himself. Here's hoping that his enforced-childbirth support is really just pandering to that seeming majority that believe they support such positions only because they don't actually know much about it.

**Although I personally believe that if they did they should still be allowed to have one, because it's still their damn body.


Rachel Maddow: Full of Win

Amanda Marcotte has up a YouTube video up wherein Rachel Maddow explains what happened to the US banks.

She's so awesome. *sigh*



It's just not fair. All last week I felt like I was fighting off a cold. I got plenty of rest, drank tea, skipped some classes, and just generally took it easy. Last night I finally felt completely better. I even made dinner and did a bunch of dishes and only stayed up a little later than I probably should have. I was all like, yay! No more beginning-of-semester cold!

Then this morning, BAM! DEATH! Well, okay, not death, but big fucking head cold. It's just not fair. And because I skipped all those classes last week trying *not* to get sick, now that I am sick I have to just suck it up and go to class anyway. Goddammit!



For those who are interested:

- Moving into the new apartment went much smoother than I expected it to (and many thanks to those who helped!)
- We're about 90% unpacked, which is good (although that last 10% is always a bitch).
- The new apartment is smaller than the old one, but pretty much everything else about it is much, much better. It's in a complex with a multi-person custodial/managerial staff, all of whom seem to be sober when they're on duty. The attitude towards broken things seems to be to fix them rather than paint over them. The building itself is small enough that it probably isn't supporting a large population of cockroaches. We're in a real neighbourhood, with shops and people who walk and restaurants and *gasp* a subway stop. I could almost cry. The only thing I really don't like is that I'm now much too far from school to bike there. On the other hand, I'm biking distance from other things in the city, which is awesome. And because we're on the subway line, the commute to school by TTC is only about 10-15 minutes longer than it used to be.
- New address will go out to those whose business it is fairly soon. Phone number has not changed.
- Classes start on Monday. There is a >0 chance we'll have finished unpacking by then. Eek.
- After making us wait for the better part of a week, Primus has finally seen fit to provide us with phone and internet service, hence this post.


So It Turns Out...

Greg Laden? Awesome on race. Awesome on science education. Kind of a sexist asshat.

It's really a shame. Come on people, there are so many good reasons why this woman shouldn't be VP. Having been a beauty queen isn't one of them.

I'm actually quite disappointed, because I'm usually a fan of Laden's. But I know that he was called out on the beauty queen thing in his first post on Palin, and he hasn't either stopped doing it, or explained why he thinks it's okay.



So, I'm in the middle of packing to move apartments and yesterday I was going through the cabinet in the bathroom, packing stuff up or throwing it out, and I encountered a lipstick that I bought, probably in 2003. Now, most of my makeup has disappeared over the years, since every time I move it's been that much longer since I've worn any of it, so I throw more of it out, but I remembered really liking the colour of this lipstick, so I decided to put it on to see if I still liked it enough to hang on to it. And you know what? I totally suck at putting on lipstick.

I have no idea when that happened. I mean, I've never worn makeup regularly, but it used to be that the once or twice a year that I'd wear it for ballet performances, halloween, or Meow Mix was enough to keep me competent at applying it, and I actually kind of prided myself on staying decent at this skill I almost never used. Unfortunately, over the last few years I've stopped doing all those things and I think 2004 may have been the last time I put on any makeup at all. And now I totally suck at it. And it wasn't just that the final result was lopsided and funny-looking (although it was). I felt super awkward trying to put it on, like I just couldn't find the right angle for my wrist and forearm. I remember I used to feel that way when I first was learning to apply makeup, when I was 10 or 11. It was weird.

Despite the hatchet job I did on my lips, I decided the colour was nice enough that the lipstick was worth keeping. Maybe there will be a party in the next year or two worth wearing it for. And maybe I'll even relearn how to put it on.

I did, however, throw out a nail polish that had separated and a blush that was at least seven years old, which brings the makeup I own down to, um... one lipstick. I feel like this is an occasion that should be marked somehow. The official passing of the era of me pretending I'm someone who might wear makeup. If I didn't think my labmates would die of shock (and if I knew how to put it on) I'd wear the lipstick to work tomorrow.



Food Meme

Food meme, from Mark Chu-Carroll. Because it's really the most interesting thing I have time to say right now. Too tired, bored, cranky, and half-packed to actually think.

1. Venison: No, haven't had any game meats
2. Nettle tea: No. Nettles hurt. For all that I understand the tea doesn't sting you, I'm prejudiced against nettles
3. Huevos rancheros: Don't think so
4. Steak tartare: Nope
5. Crocodile: Nope
6. Black pudding: No
7. Cheese fondue: Yes
8. Carp: Don't know. Probably not. I didn't really keep track of which fish I ate as a kid, it was sort of all the same to me.
9. Borscht: For all that I, like MarkCC, am an Ashkenazi Jew, I don't think I've ever had borscht
10. Baba ghanoush: Yep. I like it best when it's really just hummus with eggplant.
11. Calamari: Yeah, couple times. Not as good as Chinese barbequed squid, but edible.
12. Pho: Nope.
13. PB&J sandwich: Yes, of course, and repeatedly. But I'm not a big fan.
14. Aloo gobi: Potatoes and cauliflower. What's not to love?
15. Hot dog from a street cart: I think I've only ever had the vegetarian kind. I don't think I ever ate streetmeat before I became vegetarian.
16. Epoisses: Nope, never even heard of it. I gather it's cheese.
17. Black truffle: No, for all that truffles come highly recommended, I'm always suspicious of non-button mushrooms because I tend not to like them. Their texture icks me out.
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes: Nope
19. Steamed pork buns: Nope
20. Pistachio ice cream: Yeah. It's okay I guess, I've never been a big ice cream fan.
21. Heirloom tomatoes: Don't think so, but I'd love to.
22. Fresh wild berries: Yup.
23. Foie gras: No, ew.
24. Rice and beans: Of course
25. Brawn, or head cheese: No
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper: Not yet!
27. Dulce de leche: Yeah
28. Oysters: again, ew.
29. Baklava: Uh huh.
30. Bagna cauda: I don't know it by name, but looking at Wiki's description of the dish, I think I've had it or something very like it. It's certainly familiar.
31. Wasabi peas: Yes, unimpressed.
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl: Well, I've had clam chowder and I've certainly had sourdough, but not in that combination.
33. Salted lassi: Yes. Seriously overrated, at least by my dad.
34. Sauerkraut: Yum!
35. Root beer float: Yeah. Waaaayyy too much sugar.
36. Cognac with a fat cigar: No. Cigars are gross. And I don't think I've actually had cognac
37. Clotted cream tea: Once, in England, with the Bear. It was very rich, but also nummy.
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O: Once, I think. I avoid jello shots. I prefer my booze in liquid form.
39. Gumbo: As in the vegetable, okra, unfortunately yes. As in the specific kind of stew made from okra, no.
40. Oxtail: No
41. Curried goat: No. My meat-eating days and my curry-eating days didn't really overlap.
42. Whole insects: Ugh, no. Arthropods are gross and not meant to be eaten.
43. Phaal: Not under that name. Probably not.
44. Goat's milk: I don't think so. I've certainly had goat's cheese and possibly yogurt, but I don't think I've ever just drunk the milk.
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$130 or more: No.
46. Fugu: No. Like with curry, my willingness to be adventurous with food didn't develop until long after I stopped eating meat.
47. Chicken tikka masala: No. See above re: goat curry
48. Eel: No. See above re: fugu.
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut: Meh. Very mushy, sugary donut. Seriously don't see what the big deal is.
50. Sea urchin: No. See above re: fugu, eel.
51. Prickly pear: If this is the same as a cactus pear then yes. And yum!
52. Umeboshi: No, I'd never heard of them
53. Abalone: No. I haven't eaten a lot of shellfish.
54. Paneer: Yeah. It's bland.
55. McDonald's Big Mac Meal: Ugh, no. McDonald's hamburgers are so disgusting.
56. Spaetzle: I'm not 100% sure but, again, the Wiki description looks very familiar, so probably.
57. Dirty gin martini: No, but I'd be willing to try.
58. Beer above 8% ABV: Yeah. These are popular in Montreal. One of the Unibroue ones like Maudite or Fin du Monde. Tasted like olives. Blech.
59. Poutine: If it's 3 am and you've got the drunken munchies it's awesome. Otherwise, ugh.
60. Carob chips: bleh. also meh. Something that's meant to take the place of chocolate shouldn't invoke those responses.
61. S'mores: Surprisingly, only the microwave kind. I haven't done a lot of campfires in my life.
62. Sweetbreads: No.
63. Kaolin:The only meaning I know for this is a kind of clay so, um, no.
64. Currywurst: Huh. Pork sausage with curry sauce. Nope.
65. Durian: Not yet, but I will...
66. Frogs' legs: Um... I think I may have tasted them off someone else's plate at some point. But maybe not.
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake: aka queue de castor? Yes. I spent two weeks making them, which was enough time for the oil on the floor to cause my rubber soles to dissolve. I still get nauseous at the smell of frying batter.
68. Haggis: I've been in the same room as it....
69. Fried plantain: Yum!
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette: That's fucking gross.
71. Gazpacho: Yeah, a few times. Kind of meh.
72. Caviar and blini: Um.. I've had each element, but not together.
73. Louche absinthe: No, but I probably wouldn't turn it down.
74. Gjetost, or brunost: No. Apparently it's a variety of cheese
75. Roadkill: No, but Dave has.
76. Baijiu: No.
77. Hostess Fruit Pie: Never heard of it. This must be an American thing.
78. Snail: Once, when I was little. I remember loving it.
79. Lapsang souchong: Some kind of tea, right? I don't think so.
80. Bellini: No, but again, wouldn't turn it down.
81. Tom yum: This can be hard to find vegetarian. I don't think so.
82. Eggs Benedict: Once, maybe. Or something like it. Eggs with a heavy, creamy sauce. No meat.
83. Pocky: Yeah. I'm a fan of chocolate-covered pretzel objects, so I liked it.
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant: No.
85. Kobe beef: Don't think so.
86. Hare: Nope.
87. Goulash: Since the person who did all the cooking when I was growing up was Hungarian, I'm inclined to say probably, but I don't remember it.
88. Flowers: A few times.
89. Horse: No.
90. Criollo chocolate: Don't know. I don't really pay attention to if/how fancy my chocolate is. I'm not as excited about chocolate as some people.
91. Spam: Ew, no. Fuckin gross, man.
92. Soft shell crab: No. See above re: insects.
93. Rose harissa: don't think so.
94. Catfish: Nope.
95. Mole poblano: Surprisingly, no. But I will.
96. Bagel and lox: I grew up half Jewish in Toronto. I don't think it would have been avoidable.
97. Lobster Thermidor: See above re: insects.
98. Polenta: Yes, repeatedly, but only willingly once.
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee: No. I stopped drinking coffee in my teens, when it started making me sick.
100. Snake: Nope.

The Rev also added a few extras.

1. Elk: No.
2. Ostrich: No.
3. Moose: No.
4. Whole hog BBQ: I've been at one, but I was already vegetarian, so I didn't partake.
5. Wine @ >$400/bottle.: God no. I have better things to do with 400$
6. Home made bacon/sausage: I'm assuming that buying strips of bacon at the grocery store and then cooking them at home doesn't count. I'll say no. Update: I've been reminded that the woman who took care of me when I was between 1 and 2 years old used to make home made sausage, and that I loved it. So I revise my answer to yes.
7. Chocolate and chilis: No, but I plan to try it soon,
8. Chittlins: Didn't we already do this one? No and ew.
9. Moonshine: No.
10. Quail eggs: Once. It was raw. I slurped and swallowed without really tasting, and was very proud of myself that I managed even that much.

And Mark added some more:

1. Monkfish liver: No
2. Live scallop: No.
3. Fried chicken giblets: No.
4. Duck cracklings: No.
5. Grappa: Um... I've spent enough time drinking booze on the Italy/Austria border that I'm inclined to think so, but I don't remember specifically.

And in the spirit of adding things, I've had:

  1. kolrabi
  2. cream off the top of non-homogenized milk
  3. dosa


Codes are Cool

Mark Chu-Carroll of Good Math, Bad Math is doing an interesting and accessible (so far) series of posts about encryption. He started out explaining why encryption is relevant even to little folks like you and me, then he went on to explain how simple encryption like substitution ciphers work, and his latest is an explanation of rotating ciphers. It's fun stuff, go read it.


Latest Breakfast: Homemade Musli

I have a few requirements for breakfast. Breakfast must be reasonably low in sugar. If I have a high sugar breakfast I crash by 10 am. Breakfast must also contain at least some protein, for the same reason. Breakfast must not require any brain power, time, or effort to prepare.

For a while I was very into eggs for breakfast, often just having the whites to avoid excessive cholesterol, but cooking before I've had my tea is never a good idea, I wasn't too into having fried stuff every morning, and I wanted a change. So then we had smoothies for a while, but the ingredients were pretty pricey and it was keeping our weekly grocery cost just a little too high. So now we're trying something new. I'm making musli. It goes like this:

1 big bag (~1.5kg) quick oats
1 big bag raisins
1 container dried apricots, cut in eighths
1 medium bag currants
1 smallish bag slivered almonds
1 smallish bag chopped pecans
1 large amount shelled, unsalted sunflower seeds
1/2 cup oat bran
a medium amount of flax meal

Mix in a big bowl and store in a closeable hard plastic or glass container. Serve with vanilla soy milk or, you know, whatever makes you happy. The above recipe made enough to keep the two of us in breakfasts for two weeks.


Cuz He's Just That Kind of Guy

Focus on the Patriarchy asks their daddy to pee on Obama's birthday cake.

Not that they're petty or anything.


Hold Nothing Sacred

and lift your glass to P.Z. Myers. He stood up with grace, wit, and courage, to say "I am Spartacus," in the face of overwhelming insanity. I salute him.


You have 12 hours

Before Joss Whedon's Supervillian musical in three acts disappears from the freeform internets and you have to download it from iTunes or wait for the DVD. So go. Watch it now.


LINEs, SINEs, and the Design Inference

Transposons are wacky little genes, and really kind of cool. You can see Wikipedia's explanation of transposons here, but I'll give you the short version. What I'm describing here are what Wikipedia calls Class II transposons.

A transposon is a sequence of DNA that can move around in your genome. It comes in long and short versions, and copies of it are found interspersed throughout the genome. The long ones (Long INterspersed Elements, or LINEs) encode one protein, a transposase. What the transposase does is it cleaves the transposon from its current location and inserts it elsewhere in the genome. And that's ALL it does. SINEs (Short INterspersed Elements) do even less. What they do is be sequences that the LINEs' transposases recognize, and therefore transpose. And that's fucking IT.

Transposons are quite possibly the wackiest things I've encountered all week. They don't DO anything. By which I mean, they have no influence on an organism's life cycle. They just hang out in your genome, moving around and taking up space.

I like things like transposons because they really drive the point home that we're just something that happened. When you're studying stuff in the natural world, especially biology, it can be really easy to start anthropomorphizing and attributing purpose without even realizing you're doing it. So much of biology is so fucking complex and often really quite good at what it does, and it's in all the language that we use, talking about what a given enzyme is "for," or "why" a given trait evolved, sometimes you can slip into thinking that we actually mean those things. And then you see something like a transposon, and it's obvious that it's not "for" anything. It has no purpose, no raison d'être. It does nothing but be there. And once you realize that it becomes obvious once again that that's equally true of us.

And for all that the design inference died 150 years ago with Darwin's work, it's crap like this that really makes it implausible to me. I mean, this is exactly the kind of random, pointless genomic drivel that one might expect to show up in a system of random changes that can get passed along, but a god designer would have to be some fucked up kind of surrealist to create something like this. I mean seriously. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!? Why? It's strange and off-putting.

Well, okay. There is one thing that transposons do. Transposons can cause non-silent mutations. There are two main ways that they can do this, both at the insertion stage. The first way is, when they cut the DNA to insert themselves, they cut the different strands at different points, creating an overhang and a gap on each side. Then, while they're inserting, the gaps are filled in with sequences complementary to the overhangs (and therefore identical to the opposite overhangs), so when the process is complete you have two copies of the sequence, one on either side of the transposon. If this sequence was something your cell was using, well, now it has two of them.

The other way a transposon can have an effect is by inserting itself right into a gene (or promoter region of a gene, or whatever) that you were using, thereby breaking it. This is apparently the sort of mutation that caused hemophilia in the European royal families. A transposon inserted itself into the gene for a protein involved in blood clotting and bam! No more blood clots; sucks to be them.

But for all that that's an effect of transposons, it's only a real effect in the context of evolution. What would be the point of that in something that was designed?

Transposons are cool.


Don't Worry, He's Got it Covered.

Aren't we all glad that God is on the job? Ray Comfort, that banana-lovin' fiend, reassures us that, despite appearances to the contrary, God is properly punishing California for legalising same-sex marriage. In fact, God is so damn good, he preemptively punished California last year, to whit:

We are having the worst drought in our recorded history. Last year 1,155 homes were destroyed.


George Carlin is Not in Heaven

But only because there's no such thing, and you know he wouldn't thank us for pretending. His passing marks a sad day for intelligent people everywhere. He may not have been a Mary Ann or a Molly Ivins, but his voice added a refreshing and needed dose of sanity and perspective to the prevaling North American discourse and he will certainly be missed.




The pigeon situation has been dealt with. In case you were wondering.



A pigeon has laid two eggs in the flowerpot I was going to put my strawberry plant in, and is sitting on them. It stared at me the whole time I took down the drying racks, which I have brought inside pending our decision about what to do about the family growing on our balcony.

On the one hand, it does seem unfair to kick a pigeon out of its home and kill its children-to-be when, as my sister said, I didn't have a sign up or anything. But on the other hand, pigeons are creepy and poo on your laundry and the balcony isn't really big enough for the both of us.

Grumble grumble.


Thoughts on Commuting by Bike in the Suburbs

1.  Distances in the suburbs are longer.
No matter how you slice it, 12.5 km (not including the vertical components, which are considerable) is a long way to go twice a day. When you expect everyone to get everywhere by car, or even bus, such distances are unremarkable, but on a bike it's a serious commitment

2.  Overall vertical vector matters.
However hilly the road may be, if there's an overall downhill trend going one way, and a corresponding overall uphill trend the other way, you'll notice. If you live in the Ferrel cell and your downhill-trending leg is eastward, so you have the wind at your back going downhill, and in your face coming uphill, you notice that too.

From this, I have developed what I think should be every cyclist's motto: Always live uphill from where you spend your days. The reason for this is that if your trip out in the morning is going to be downhill, it's fairly easy to choose to ride your bike. And then in the evening, when both you and your bike have to get home, you just have to suck it up and ride uphill. I have had the excellent sense to live uphill from my various school/work for the past seven years and it has served me well.

3.  Desolation is not a cyclist's friend.
Seriously. If your bike breaks down on the side of a major suburban road, ain't no one there to help you. Not that I needed help, or would have accepted had it been offered, a mis-shifted chain is a fairly easy fix, but if it had been something more major I would have been royally screwed.

4.  Other suburban cyclists are completely fucking insane.
In downtown Toronto you rarely see a car doing more than about 50 km/h; there's just too much traffic. I'd estimate roughly 30% of the downtown cyclists wear helmets. On the major street I ride along out here, although the speed limit is 60, people regularly do 70 - 90 km/h. On the way out in the morning I didn't see a lot of other cyclists, but coming home this evening I saw several, only one looked over 25 and he was also the only one other than me wearing a helmet. And a lot of these helmetless kids rode on the street.*

5.  Bikes are asshole magnets.
Apparently there's nothing like a sweaty woman on a bicycle, red-faced and grimacing, wearing incredibly unflattering gym clothes and an enormous backpack complete with waist strap to really bring out the catcalling urge in jackasses.

Okay, I don't honestly think that what I look like has anything to do with it. I think the driver/cyclist and pedestrian/cyclist dynamic just lends itself really well to that kind of jackassery. One of you is whizzing by the other at high relative speed, which adds to the anonymity, and a person on a bicycle is less maneuverable and less able to respond verbally or manually, and therefore less able to meaningfully object than a person on foot. I think a lot of this is also true of the driver/pedestrian dynamic but since we don't do a lot of walking out here in the Grey Wasteland, I haven't been catcalled in a long time. It's been nice.

6.  People in the suburbs drive while unconscious.
It's the only explanation I can think of for how someone turning right, or stopping at an intersection, or pulling out of a gas station, can completely fail to notice the bicycle that is about to be RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM. Seriously. Downtown drivers have this problem to, but not nearly to the same extent. If you ride in the suburbs, invest in the loudest bell you can find; you'll need it.

And those are my observations on suburban cycling. I biked 25 km today and I'm tired. I also think I could use a shower.

*I ride on the sidewalk. Not only because, as mentioned, people drive way too fast, but also because, this being the suburbs, nobody actually walks anywhere.


Why I Love My Job

Conversation between me and one of the grad students in the lab today:

Me: Why are there fish from the grocery store in the freezer?
Grad Student: This is a fish lab.
m: uh huh...
gs: They're silversides.
m: and...
gs: But they're selling them as smelt, which is not even the same family! And they claim to have caught them in an area where you don't find silversides. So I figured I'd bring them back here, sequence their DNA, and find out what they really are.
m: you know you're the world's biggest geek, right?
gs: No, this is sweet. It's forensic ichthyology!


While We're At It

Continuing in the vein of posting links while not providing any of my own content (slated to continue until I have something interesting to say and school lets up enough for me to say it), I received a link today to a new buddy blog. Sinead, my old friend from Montreal, evolutionary biologist extraordinaire, and all-around good potato, has a food-focused blog called Kitchen Dancing.

I had forgotten what an amazing writer Sinead is, and how exquisitely quirky she can be. I hadn't forgotten what an amazing cook she is though, and I have spent much of the afternoon and evening salivating over the blog's archives. If she and I don't end up in the same city some time soon I may find myself trying to swim across the Atlantic.

Olbermann Tells Bush to "Shut the Hell Up"

But only because you can't say fuck on television.

Seriously, if Olbermann has a stroke I think he'll be able to sue Dubya over it; he's getting into some serious neck vein territory here and not without cause.

If you want to see Olbermann's angriest Special Comment yet, go click that link.



Amanda at Pandagon does an excellent job explaining why virginity makes a lousy asset.

Also, via Crooks and Liars, I learned about Hasan Elahi, a man who, having had his civil rights violated by the FBI, decides to just give them all up. While I can understand the practical appeal of having a constant alibi, the fact that sources like Wired and C&L are treating this as a cool and innovative way of dealing with civil rights violations, instead of an understandable but tragic capitulation to an oppressive regime is seriously problematic.


On Alternatives and Language

I'd like to riff off Andrea for a minute, if you don't mind. She's written a couple of posts lately that have gotten me thinking about language and subcultures.

As you can see in the comments of that first post, we got into a conversation about the accuracy of the word power in reference to a consensual relationship. In my lexicon, power and consent are to at least some extent mutually exclusive, so, while I can see using it in a scene context, where it's understood that it's make-believe, the word just doesn't work for me in the context of a 24/7-type relationship.

In the second above-linked post, Andrea talks about not wanting to use the word slave to describe her bois, while blithely referring to them as her property. I find this especially jarring to my lexicon because the conceptual distance between my (white, female, affluent, Western) life and the reality of slavery is much farther than the distance between my life and the reality of people-as-property. If one of those two words is going to be available for me to redefine away the cultural baggage, it ain't gonna be property. But Andrea's lexicon is different, and that's fine.

These two posts, though, got me to thinking. What's going on is that we have a set of phenomena (inflicting pain, subservience, the control of one person's life by another) that are for all but a vanishingly small proportion of the population thought of exclusively as non-consensual.1 What this is going to mean is that, for the majority of people, even people who experience these phenomena consensually on a regular basis, the words themselves are going to carry a lot of connotative baggage of non consensuality.

So what are you going to do about it?
It seems to me that there are three options available. First, you can always describe your relationships in multi-sentence terms, referring to your partner as "the person over whom I have been given authority in the matters of X, Y, and Z (and B to a lesser extent), always contingent, of course, on his consent and subject to renegotiation when desired by either of us." Some people will try this option, but it never lasts. Languages evolve not just over generations, but fairly quickly and repeatedly within one speaker's lifetime, and one of the selective forces on language is efficiency. People don't like using multiple sentences to express what they can say with one word. So people will look for a word. Which brings me to option two: neologism. You can just make up a word to describe the kind of power/authority that is contingent on consent. You can call it glogan, and have one partner be the gloganee, and the other the gloganer, or whatever. This eliminates the problem of efficiency found in solution 1, and the problem of connotation found in solution 3 (we'll get to that), but it brings with it its own host of problems. While it's true that languages evolve, they kind of resist deliberate change. People feel uncomfortable and awkward deliberately using invented words.

This leaves solution 3: reclaim, reinvent, and redefine. And this is what people are doing. It is easier for a speaker to take an existing word and alter its connotations slightly than to invent a new one, and the words people choose to apply in these new contexts will depend hugely on the individual's experiences with them, and the connotations they've acquired, and that's fine.

What this doesn't mean, however, is that people get to throw words around willy-nilly, uncritically redefining and re-redefining on a whim, without ever making their meanings explicit or acknowledging that the cultural consensus about what that word means is being violated. That sort of behaviour only leads to the post-modern bullshit known as philosophy, and makes intelligent conversation impossible. It's important, first of all, to have a sufficiently large vocabulary that, if a word already exists to describe whatever it is you're doing, you know about it and, second, if you do have to redefine, to do it explicitly and transparently so that people can still converse meaningfully with you.

What I guess I'm trying to say with this is that, contra Andrea, I think redefinition is a necessary and inevitable aspect of trying to talk about things like BDSM and, in fact, I think she's doing it.

1. Yes, I'm aware that pain and power play make it into the sex lives of many, if not most, people who would call themselves vanilla, but since they don't tend to think of their sex lives that way, my point stands. back

Another Book Meme

Via Pharyngula, I came across this list of supposedly pretentious books. That is, the 106 books most often marked unread on LibraryThing. I've started reading 17 of them (italics), and completed 10 (bold):

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Anna Karenina
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Catch-22
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Silmarillion
  • Life of Pi : a novel
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Don Quixote
  • Moby Dick
  • Ulysses
  • Madame Bovary* (this I started and failed to finish both in the original French and in the English translation)
  • The Odyssey
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre*
  • The Tale of Two Cities
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
  • War and Peace
  • Vanity Fair
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • The Iliad
  • Emma
  • The Blind Assassin
  • The Kite Runner
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • Great Expectations*
  • American Gods
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Atlas Shrugged
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Middlesex
  • Quicksilver
  • Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
  • The Canterbury tales
  • The Historian : a novel
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Brave New world
  • The Fountainhead
  • Foucault’s Pendulum
  • Middlemarch
  • Frankenstein
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Dracula
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Anansi Boys
  • The Once and Future King
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
  • 1984
  • Angels & Demons
  • The Inferno
  • The Satanic Verses
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Mansfield Park
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  • Oliver Twist
  • Gulliver’s Travels (I read an abridged children's version of this when I was little, but I hardly think that counts)
  • Les Misérables
  • The Corrections
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

  • Dune
  • The Prince
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
  • The God of Small Things
  • A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
  • Cryptonomicon
  • Neverwhere
  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • Dubliners

  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being*
  • Beloved
  • Slaughterhouse-five
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves
  • The Mists of Avalon
  • Oryx and Crake : a novel
  • Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed^
  • Cloud Atlas
  • The Confusion
  • Lolita
  • Persuasion
  • Northanger Abbey
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • On the Road
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything (seriously overrated. If you didn't already know that correlation != causation then you might give it a look, but otherwise it gets a resounding "meh".)
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
  • The Aeneid
  • Watership Down
  • Gravity’s Rainbow
  • The Hobbit
  • In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
  • White Teeth
  • Treasure Island
  • David Copperfield
  • The Three Musketeers

*books that I was required to read for school. It's amazing how few I managed to get through!
^this one isn't in the abandoned pile yet. I had to put it down because I don't really have time to read nonfiction during the school year, but I fully intend to pick it up again over the summer.


Rachel Maddow is My Fucking Hero

I've mentioned Maddow on the blog before; I like her a lot. She doesn't giggle or pull punches or defer, like so many women on news-like TV. She always makes her point eloquently and accessibly, and she's always right. So I've liked her.

But today she became my hero.

Seriously. Check her out in this clip from Crooks and Liars. On TV, in the middle of a heated discussion, being condescended to by an asshole older man who obviously doesn't respect her, and she manages to:
1) keep her cool, stay cogent and articulate, and make her point,
2) shut him the fuck up long enough to do that, and
3) in the heat of the discussion, without missing a beat, eloquently call him out on his condescending bullshit, to whit: "Let me make my point and then you can dismiss me."

What I wouldn't give to have her superpowers. Where do we sign up for the Rachel Maddow lessons?


You Have Got To Be Fucking Kidding Me

Seriously. I can't even bring myself to wonder what the justification is. I'm sure all manner of mirth and hilarity will ensue once it goes to trial.

It's been pointed out to me that not everybody has the same wacky obsessions that I do, and some context might be useful. Here it is:

Premise Media is the production company behind the ID creationism movie Expelled. XVIVO is an animation company that created a rendition of some intracellular processes for Harvard University. ERV has the whole nasty story, but basically Expelled uses a copy (as in forgery, not as in Xerox) of the XVIVO/Harvard animation. XVIVO's lawyers sent Premise a don't-do-that letter and have filed a lawsuit. Now, according to the first link up there, Premise is suing them back, on what twisted pretext I can't even imagine. Hence the hilarity. (I'm fresh out of outrage. These guys aren't competent enough to warrant it.)


New Discovery -- Curry in a Can

Did you know that curry comes in a can? It's quite possibly the most exciting discovery I've made all year. Before now my sources of curry have been Indian restaurants and making it myself. I knew that you could get those carboard boxes of stuff that you add water to and heat, but they made me nervous because dry stuff you add water to is never any good.

But Dave and I discovered an Indian grocery store in our neighbourhood last week, and today when we were there, trying to decide what would be the most efficient, non-budget-breaking way to get meals during exams, we discovered that curry comes in cans! And it's yummy! And enough food (if you make rice) to feed two people for 1.99$. 1$/person is seriously not bad as meals go. I almost never average better than that even when cooking stuff from scratch.


This is Me

I don't know why, but I feel a strong sense of identification with this cat.


I See You!

Sitemeter tells me all about you. The two most interesting things it tells me are how you find me and whence you read me. Let's do the latter of those:

Of the last 100 visits to this site there were:

  • 38 from Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 5 from
    • Montreal, Quebec, Canada
    • Somervill, Massachusetts, USA
  • 4 from
    • Georgetown, Ontario, Canada
    • Avon, Indiana, USA
  • 3 from Jamaica, New York, USA
  • 2 from
    • Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
    • Edison, New Jersey, USA
    • Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA
    • 60 N, 95 W (where the Nunavut/Manitoba border touches Hudson Bay)
    • 38 N, 97 W (middle of nowhere, Kansas)
  • and 1 each from:
    • Baltimore, Maryland, USA
    • Detroit, Michigan, USA
    • Mcallen, Texas, USA
    • Avon, Indiana, USA
    • Rainford, Lancashire, UK
    • Richmond, Texas, UK
    • Calgary, Alberta, Canada
    • High Point, North Carolina, USA
    • Brampton, Ontario, Canada
    • Los Angeles, California, USA
    • Village of Nagog Woods, Massachusetts, USA
    • Tempe, Arizona, USA
    • Providence, Rhode Islande, USA
    • Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
    • Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
    • Louth, Louth, Ireland
    • Delft, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands
    • San Jose, Costa Rica
    • Seattle, Washington, USA
    • Berwick, Pennsylvania, USA
    • Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persukutuan, Malaysia
    • Chatham, Ontario, Canada
    • Dublin, Ireland
    • Kiev, Kyyivs'ka Oblast', Ukraine
    • New York, New York, USA
    • Mountain View, California, USA
    • London, UK
    • Joensuu, Eastern Finland, Finland
    • Hillard, Ohio, USA
    • Lafayette, Indiana, USA
    • Helsinki, Southern Finland, Finland
Of course this all depends on none of you spoofing your IPs, and your ISPs telling the truth.


Breakfast Smoothies

A recipe of my own invention. All amounts approximate. Vary proportions and ingredients with wild abandon.

  • 400mL orange juice

  • 75g (that's 1/4 of a 300g container) silken tofu

  • 3 large spoonfuls plain yogurt

  • 1 3/4 cup frozen fruit (last week we used strawberries and mango, this week it's mixed berries)

  • a generous half cup quick oats

  • 2-3 tsp flax meal

  • 1 banana

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. This can be done the night before if you prefer, and left in the fridge over night. In the morning, take a handblender and whrrrrrrrrrrrrr until the texture is quite liquid.

Makes a filling breakfast for 2.

I find this recipe to be a bit acidic. If you agree (and you're rich) feel free to substitute some or all of the oj with soy milk (or real milk if you have a high tolerance for dairy). I use orange juice only because it is the most cheaply available real juice.


The Word Dumb Has Long Ceased to Cover It

IDiots do something massively stupid and hypocritical.

Sciencey bloggosphere acts surprised

Well, no, not really. But now that I've interspersed all those letters with links, I'm not exactly inclined to go back and change my phrasing, so you're stuck with it.



Everyone needs to go watch this speech by Barack Obama.

I can't help it. I ought to know that every step in an election campaign is choreographed. That I should make no assumptions that a politician's words in any way reflect their beliefs. I know that, but I just can't help it. This speech gives me hope. Maybe it's just that I've never heard Obama speak before. I have heard that he's an excellent orator and it could be that that's all this is, but I don't think so.

I can't endorse the speech unqualifiedly -- there were three things in it that I found objectionable -- but three things in a 37 minute speech is not bad, and for the bulk of it I was amazed. Obama was saying things that are necessary, things that I think every American (and Canadian) needs to hear, but as important as the content of the speech is, more important is the fact that Obama delivered it, and delivered it now. He could have left it a desk drawer (or more likely a file on his computer), waiting for the day when he was retired and had nothing to lose.

I honestly didn't think I would live to see the day that a serious politician who has a real chance of winning the American presidential election would stand up and speak an uncomfortable truth to people who might not want to hear it, people who he hopes will nonetheless vote for him. It sets a heartening precedent. Obama's courage (and, one hopes, success) in delivering this speech opens the door to something resembling honest discussion about oppression. It makes room for women politicians to speak up about back-alley abortions and the necessity of reproductive rights. It makes room for gay and lesbian politicians to talk about the days before Stonewall and the ongoing oppressions they face.

I'm not so naive as to think that this is going to start happening regularly, or right away. But it's happened once, and that means it can happen again.

Update: Pam Spaulding at Pandagon has written a post saying much of what I was trying to say, and more, much more eloquently than I did. Just go read that.


It Just Seems to Me

Without saying a word against the gentleman who was actually doing the job -- as far as I could tell his behaviour was completely professional and above reproach -- it just seems unlikely to me that the Athletics Department couldn't find a single woman with the skills to install an automatic opener on the door to the women's changeroom. I'm not sayin', just sayin'.


(Non) Naming NPs

Looking back through Q. Pheevr's archives, I rediscovered his post about the naming of He Who Must Not Be Named. I think Q might not be entirely right about this.

While I'm not disputing the assertion that He Who Must Not Be Named is, in the Harry Potter books, actually a name, I don't think the invariant case is the reason.

When I check my own judgements, I find that I'm perfectly happy with, for example,

You'll have to get those numbers from she who approves the budget
even if "she who approves the budget" is a one-time innovation and not a common nickname for the accountant. On the other hand, I can't think of any context where I could use
*her who approves the budget
as a constituent NP.

In fact, it seems to me that nominative is the only acceptable case in definite descriptions that start with pronouns. Maybe this is required for the pronoun to govern1 the rest of the NP?
Further, if the invariant case were simply a result of the description being a name then we would expect it to be possible to have a name/description with a different invariant case, for example
*Him who was thrown down a well came home today
but I don't think you can. There might be some sem/prag issues interfering here though. When you have Someone Who Cannot Be Named, usually it's because they hold some sort of power over the people who Cannot Name them, and such people tend to find themselves (or at least the NPs that refer to them) in agent positions in sentences.

So what do y'all think? Do people's judgements differ from mine?

1. Apologies if this is not the word I'm looking for. It's been four years since I've done any syntax, so I'm counting on the linguists in my readership to just kind of know what I mean. (back)


Evolution: Really Damn Cool

Go check out this post by Abbie about what plasmids can do. You know what a plasmid is? Just DNA. C'est tout. I'm serious, go read Abbie's post and marvel.


Note to Self

When you're manipulating objects in space, you actually have three dimensions to work in. Use them all.

Lack of Blogging

Apologies to those who care that I'm not blogging. I've got four midterms and one assignment in a two-week period and I'm a little swamped. Other than a lovely dinner with Sex Geek and fam, my reading week consisted of, well, reading.

Have I mentioned that I hate psychology? With a fiery passion, I do. But five more weeks of classes, one final exam, and then I will never have to think about it again. This gives me a little bit of pleasure.

Well, time to do a major cleaning in the bedroom, since the new bed just arrived. And then back to the books.


On Peer Review

Recently somebody goofed. Bad. The journal Proteomics (which I had never heard of but I understand was heretofore reputable) published (Epub, ahead of print) an article that, if Myers' excerpts are representative, has conclusions that not only don't follow from any data, but are in fact unfalsifiable. This is bad. It's not only bad for the journal and the authors, it's bad for science. It is the “one peer reviewed article” that we've been smugly demanding from IDiots all this time. Bad.

It is also being held up as a failure of the peer review process, and I can see why. But there's something important that's getting lost in the (justifiedly) panicked shuffle, and I want to talk about it. My intention is that this post be a reference that people can point to in the fight I know is coming. So here it is.

There are two things that peer review can mean. I'll call them peer review(S) and peer review(G). Peer review(S) is what people normally think of when we talk about peer review. It's the process whereby a journal sends articles to just a few experts in the field, and those experts read and evaluate the article to recommend whether it should be published and, if so, what changes should be made first. When a reviewer is reviewing an article, she is looking for two things. One, she is looking for good science: Is the methodology sound? Is the measure valid? Do the conclusions actually follow from the data? and so on. And two, she is looking for integrity: Is the methodology well enough described to be reproduced? Are potential sources of error disclosed? Do citations accurately represent their sources?

This is an incredibly important process. Whatever I may say later in this post, I want it understood that one cannot overstate the importance of this process. It serves several functions. Firstly, it keeps out the rifraff. Writings from the likes of John A. Davison don't generally make it as far as a reviewer, but some less gibbering nonscience will, and the reviewers can keep it from getting published. This is good, not only because it keeps the rest of the community from having to slog through mountains of nonsense, it also means that nonexperts reading the journals (such as science reporters) are less likely to come away from them believing the nonsense, which is good for everyone.

Secondly, it helps the editor to keep her biases from dictating what gets published. As important as it is to keep gibbering idiocy out of a journal, it's equally important to let legitimate disagreement in, and that's a big part of what peer review(S) is for.

But here's the thing. Not everything that has ever passed peer review(S) is still believed today, and the reason for that is what I'm calling peer review(G). The review process doesn't stop once the article is sent to a typesetter.

Once an article gets published, it doesn't just sit there in some sciencey archive, revealed truth to be believed from here on out. It gets tested. This is where the real strength of the scientific institution lies. Many more people will read the article than reviewed it. Most will read it with a critical eye, asking themselves if the conclusions follow from the given data. Some will check the sources to see if they say what they're claimed to say. And a few will check the results. They'll re-run the numbers, redo the experiments, do different experiments to check for convergence.

Peer review(G) is what allows someone (but not everyone) who publishes books rather than articles to still be taken seriously as a scientist. It's what decides how reliable a journal is.

As important as peer review(S) is (and dammit, it is) peer review(G) is more important. Peer review(G) is how hoaxes get identified. It's how knowledge moves forward. The real test of the strength of a conclusion is whether it stands the test of time and rigorous retesting, not whether it can make it past a couple reviewers.

So while I agree that what happened with Proteomics is an obscene failure of peer review(S), at best a truly embarrassing mistake and at worst an apalling miscarriage of the process, ultimately this is a success story for the peer review process. A process which "Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul: Proteomic prospective evidence" is failing, by the way.


I Am So Old

Life is not fair. Wikipedia just told me that the xkcd guy is almost two years younger than me. Why don't I have a talent?


This Week is Christ Awareness Week

No, seriously. I anticipate next week will be Straight White Men Awareness Week.

When the fresh-faced girl first got up in front of my Chemistry class to announce it, and I later saw the people tabling with big posters and everything, I couldn't decide if they were just incredibly stupid and couldn't grasp the principle behind the culturally dominant group not getting its own week, or if they were intentionally antagonizing my school's large and vocal non-Christian (largely Muslim) population. Now that Google has informed me that this is an international phenomenon, I'm completely at a loss. Why did it start? What's the point? And does the Campus Crusade for Christ (I assume it's them since they're the only noisy Christian group on campus) really think that anyone at UofT doesn't know about Jesus?


In Case Anyone was Wondering

Olive oil works quite well for removing bubblegum from glasses.

That is all.