Monday, July 31, 2006

Proposed terror law induces terror

Yesterday my SO found an AP article ("Bush submits new terror detainee bill") about a draft law proposed by our civil-liberties-respecting administration.
U.S. citizens suspected of terror ties might be detained indefinitely and barred from access to civilian courts under legislation proposed by the Bush administration, say legal experts reviewing an early version of the bill.
The bill is still a draft, but what it contains is absolutely insane.
According to the draft, the military would be allowed to detain all "enemy combatants" until hostilities cease. The bill defines enemy combatants as anyone "engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners who has committed an act that violates the law of war and this statute."


Scott L. Silliman, a retired Air Force Judge Advocate, said the broad definition of enemy combatants is alarming because a U.S. citizen loosely suspected of terror ties would lose access to a civilian court — and all the rights that come with it. Administration officials have said they want to establish a secret court to try enemy combatants that factor in realities of the battlefield and would protect classified information.

The administration's proposal, as considered at one point during discussions, would toss out several legal rights common in civilian and military courts, including barring hearsay evidence, guaranteeing "speedy trials" and granting a defendant access to evidence. The proposal also would allow defendants to be barred from their own trial and likely allow the submission of coerced testimony.
Martin Lederman has posted a detailed discussion of the most recent draft, including a link to the full text of the proposed bill; here's his analysis of who can be charged under the law:
On first glance, the proposal does not appear to be limited to aliens (the word "alien" was repeatedly deleted), nor even to Al Qaeda and other groups and individuals covered by the September 18, 2001 AUMF -- it covers any and all "enemy combatants" against the U.S. and its allies in any conflict, anywhere and at any time. And "unlawful enemy combatant" is defined to include -- but not be limited to -- an individual or is or was "part of or supporting" Taliban or Al Qaeda forces, or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or its coalition partners. If I'm reading this right, if you're a citizen alleged to have "supported" a hostile group "associated" with Al Qaeda, you can be (i) detained until the "cessation of hostilities" (with whom? doesn't say); and (ii) tried before a military commission.
And, as much as I'd like it to be, this doesn't appear to be a joke; the AP article ends with:
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Friday he expects to take up the detainee legislation in September.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Slow simmered chicken chili

A few months ago I posted our baked macaroni and cheese recipe, reporting that "I learned to love macaroni and cheese thanks to my mom, as it was one of two dishes we would cook together whenever my stepfather was out of town." Chili is the second dish, and my mom's chili is still what I think of whenever I think of chili.

Chili is the quintessential hearty tex-mex dish, and is great for a food pickmeup. It smells delicious while simmering on the stove.

I was heartbroken when, early in our relationship, my SO reported disliking chili. Images of a life without chili flashed before my eyes, and I wasn't sure it was a life I wanted to live. But then I discovered that my SO had only eaten canned chili, and so one day I whipped up a batch of homemade chili, much like this one. Love flourished thereafter. (story exaggerated for dramatic effect)

If all you've ever had is canned chili, I encourage you to make this recipe; you might find a new love in your life. We made a batch of this last weekend, and thus it's this weekend's second end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken (we use thigh meat)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and finely chopped
2-4 ripe chili peppers, seeded, deveined, and finely chopped (use whatever variety you like; see notes)
6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3-4 tablespoons chili powder (use 3 if your chili powder is new and strongly flavored, 4 otherwise)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ancho chili pepper (optional)
1 teaspoon epazote (optional)
1/4 teaspoon cloves (optional)
2 28-oz cans whole, salted tomatoes
4 cups cooked, drained kidney beans (about 3/4 pound dry with 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt added during cooking, or about 2 16-oz cans)
2 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Sour cream, chopped raw onion, and/or cheddar cheese for topping (optional)

0a. If you're using dry kidney beans, cook them first: rinse the beans, cover them with water by a couple of inches in a large pot, and then simmer for approximately 2 hours (or until they're completely soft throughout; we add about 1/2 tablespoon of kosher salt halfway through the cooking). You can cook the beans ahead of time and keep them in the fridge until you're ready to cook the rest of the chili.
0b. Sometime before step 7, you'll need to prepare the tomatoes. We puree one can in our food processor and then squeeze the other can's tomatoes by hand (to create chunks of varying sizes); prepare yours as you wish.
1. Chop the chicken into small cubes (about 1 cm3); this is easier if the chicken is somewhat frozen (we use frozen boneless, skinless chicken thighs and only partially defrost them in the microwave before chopping).
2. Heat the oil in a large nonstick pot over high heat.
3. Add the chicken to the pot when the oil is hot, and sautee, stirring constantly, until the chicken is well-browned, about 5-10 minutes. If the chicken releases a lot of juice, you'll need to boil it off before the chicken will start to brown. There should be lots of little browned chicken bits in the pot at the end of this step.
4. Add the onions and continue cooking over high heat, stirring constantly, until they're soft and have started to brown at the tips, about 5 minutes.
5. Add the chopped peppers and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes.
6. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for another 1-2 minutes.
7. Add the spices (chili powder, cumin, chipotle pepper, black pepper, smoked paprika, ancho chili pepper, epazote, and cloves) and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds.
8. Add the tomatoes, cooked kidney beans, water, and salt. Stir to mix.
9. Simmer, covered and stirring occasionally, for 3 hours. We stir the pot every 15 minutes or so.
10. Serve topped with sour cream, additional chopped raw onion, and grated cheddar cheese, if desired.


The above recipe makes enough chili for a small army, which is great because leftovers store and reheat exceptionally well. We often make a batch of chili and then have many meals from it during the subsequent week; coworkers are often envious.

The chicken and onions can release liquid that produces lots of steam during frying, which can cause your stirring hand to get extremely hot. We remedy this by either trading off stirring duty or by covering our stirring hands with a hot pad.

We use ripe peppers because they tend to be sweeter and more fully flavored than unripe ones. Unripe peppers are almost always green, while ripe peppers can be red, orange, yellow, or purple (and probably other colors as well). We grow our own peppers, and thus when we make chili during the summer we use whatever we can pick from our garden. During the winter, we use dried peppers that we saved from summers past. If you can't find ripe chili peppers, using unripe ones should be fine.

As we've written elsewhere, we prefer to use canned whole tomatoes because we like being able to customize how chunky our tomato sauces are (and we find it convenient to be able to stock up on one kind of tomatoes). Feel free to use a 28-oz can of tomato sauce and a 28-oz can of chopped tomatoes in place of the two cans of whole tomatoes, or use all chopped or all pureed tomatoes. It's up to you.

As you have probably gathered by now, chili is an extremely flexible dish. Customize this recipe to your liking: if you want it spicier, add more peppers or crushed red pepper; if you want it soupier, add more liquid; if you want it tomatoier, add more tomatoes; if you want it meatier, add more meat; if you want beef chili, use beef instead of chicken; if you want vegetarian chili, leave out the chicken.

This recipe is based on one from Penzey's Spices, though it's similar in style to the one my mom and I made way back when (except that my mom used ground beef and a chili spice packet).

Penzey's Spices, 2005. Good Basic Chili.

[Updated October 2007 to add the cloves, epazote, ancho chili pepper, and smoked paprika, which we added to our last batch of chili. More spices can't hurt, right?]

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fettuccine alfredo

Fettuccine alfredo is a luxuriously creamy and delicious pasta dish, yet it has only five ingredients, and is ready in the time it takes the fettuccine to cook. When you're salivating for something rich, creamy, and tasty, this is what you're salivating for.

The perfect fettuccine alfredo is harder to create than one might think. A few weeks ago my SO and I made a batch of fettuccine alfredo, and while we loved it, it wasn't quite perfect (the cheese clumped up when we added it). Thus, being scientists, we set about researching modifications to make our fettuccine alfredo ideal: this was the ultimate in scientific self-sacrifice. Long story short, our second batch1 (made last weekend) was darn near perfection, and thus fettuccine alfredo is this week's first end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Before I get to the recipe, I want to add a note on the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of this dish. Fettuccine alfredo is indeed calorie-dense and high in fat, but neither calories nor fat is toxic, and neither directly causes heart attacks. When eaten in large quantities, calorie-dense dishes do tend to lead to weight gain and eventually obesity; obesity is a risk factor for a number of health problems. However, as long as you eat sanely (say, stop eating when you're full, and don't eat another meal until you feel hungry), this dish is perfectly fine to eat occasionally. So please, ignore the "heart attack on a plate" nonsense, and enjoy some luxurious food every now and then.

1 pound dry fettuccine
~1 tablespoon salt (for the pasta water)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter (we use salted butter)
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated pecorino Romano (or Parmesan) cheese, plus a bit extra for sprinkling on top

1. Cook the pasta in salted water until it's al dente; see below for more details.
2. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter over medium heat in a saucepan large enough to hold the entire pound of pasta.
3. When the butter is melted, reduce the heat to low and add the cream; heat, but do not boil or simmer.
4. Just before the pasta is finished draining, stir the cheese into the cream and butter until melted.
5. Add the drained (but not rinsed) pasta and toss (or mix) until everything is combined.
6. Serve immediately, with a light grating of pecorino Romano (or Parmesan) cheese on top.


You can make a garlic alfredo sauce by adding 4 medium cloves of garlic (peeled and finely minced or pressed with a garlic press) to the butter while it's melting (in step 2), and then cooking that for about 2-4 minutes before adding the cream. To make a pepper alfredo sauce, add 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper with the cheese (in step 4). Or you can make a garlic pepper alfredo sauce by adding both.

This makes enough to serve four as a main course. Unfortunately, leftovers do not reheat well, so it's probably best to make only as much as you want on the day you cook it (we find a half-pound of pasta is good for the two of us). That said, if you do have leftovers, you don't have to throw them away. Store them in the fridge and then reheat in a 350F oven until they're warm (5-10 minutes, stirring at least once). Some of the fat will separate from the sauce on reheating (making the dish look less appetizing and even more unhealthful) but sprinkling it with more grated cheese makes it taste fairly good. At the least it will remind you of the deliciousness that was.

This recipe is slightly modified from Rombauer et al. (1997). Rombauer et al. suggest adding the cheese along with the pasta; we find that the cheese can form large clumps when we do this, and thus we think adding it earlier helps. However, if you were to sprinkle the cheese evenly over the pasta as you mixed the pasta into the sauce, you could probably add it along with the pasta and not form clumps. Rombauer et al. also suggest that you can substitute 1 1/4 pounds fresh fettuccine for the dry fettuccine. We've found that a half-recipe of our homemade fettuccine goes perfectly with a half-recipe of this sauce (making just enough for a full meal for the two of us).

Cooking pasta:

1. Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the pasta (at least 6 quarts), and bring to a boil.
2. Once the water is boiling, add the salt and pasta.
3. Cook for approximately the recommended time on the package, testing the pasta regularly (by tasting it). Do not remove the pasta until it is al dente (just slightly chewy inside); depending on the brand, your pasta may be al dente before, at, or after the recommended cooking time on the package. Don't cook the pasta solely by the time printed on the package.
4. Drain the pasta when it is al dente; do not rinse with water, but add to the sauce as quickly as possible.


Rombauer, I. S., M. R. Becker, and E. Becker. 1997. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, NY.

1 - I was really hoping it'd take us five or six tries to get it right.

[Update July 2007: Added information on pepper and garlic additions.  Update January 2011 to add a link to our fresh pasta recipe.]

Political news of the week take 17

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Wary Iraqis Are Recruited as Policemen:
“For us to have any kind of exit strategy we need a police force, and for them to take control of the city,” said Capt. Avery Jeffers, a Marine officer in charge of the police training team here. “We need their brothers and sons to become policemen. That is how they will see less and less of us.”

The Bush administration in March announced a new strategy for victory in Iraq: “clear, hold and build.” Contested towns would be swept of insurgents and held by new Iraqi security forces, while the United States worked to solidify the gains by helping to fix the infrastructure and build civic institutions.

The military history in this region, however, is complex. American forces have been stretched thin across the vast province. To mass enough troops to storm Falluja in 2004, American commanders were forced to make do with fewer troops elsewhere.

As a result, the insurgents took advantage of the Americans’ limited numbers, in the long stretch along the Euphrates River that runs from Rawa to Hit, to attack the police. Police stations were overrun and destroyed. In Haditha, I.P.’s, as American soldiers call Iraqi policemen, were lined up and shot at the town’s soccer field.

Relentless Sectarian Violence in Baghdad Stalks Its Victims Even at the Morgues
As violence in the Iraqi capital continue to rise, the task of tracking down missing people here has become a grim ordeal. Iraq’s anemic investigative agencies have been ill-equipped to keep up with soaring crime, so for families seeking information, the morgues have often provided the only certainty.

Now, even the morgues have become a source of danger, at least for Sunni Arabs. In recent months, Shiite militias have been staking out Baghdad’s central morgue in particular, and the authorities have received dozens of reports of kidnappings and killings of Sunni Arabs there.

Many Sunnis now refuse to go there to look for missing family members and are forced to take extraordinary measures to recover a relative’s body, including sending Shiite friends in their stead.

Sectarian break-up of Iraq is now inevitable, admit officials
"Iraq as a political project is finished," a senior government official was quoted as saying, adding: "The parties have moved to plan B." He said that the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties were now looking at ways to divide Iraq between them and to decide the future of Baghdad, where there is a mixed population. "There is serious talk of Baghdad being divided into (Shia) east and (Sunni) west," he said.

Partisan Divide on Iraq Exceeds Split on Vietnam:
No military conflict in modern times has divided Americans on partisan lines more than the war in Iraq, scholars and pollsters say — not even Vietnam. And those divisions are likely to intensify in what is expected to be a contentious fall election campaign.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows what one expert describes as a continuing “chasm” between the way Republicans and Democrats see the war. Three-fourths of the Republicans, for example, said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while just 24 percent of the Democrats did. Independents split down the m

Audit Finds U.S. Hid Actual Cost of Iraq Projects:
The State Department agency in charge of $1.4 billion in reconstruction money in Iraq [the United States Agency for International Development] used an accounting shell game to hide ballooning cost overruns on its projects there and knowingly withheld information on schedule delays from Congress, a federal audit released late Friday has found.

The agency hid construction overruns by listing them as overhead or administrative costs, according to the audit, written by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent office that reports to Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department.


The hospital’s construction budget was $50 million. By April of this year, Bechtel had told the aid agency that because of escalating costs for security and other problems, the project would actually cost $98 million to complete. But in an official report to Congress that month, the agency “was reporting the hospital project cost as $50 million,” the inspector general wrote in his report.

The rest was reclassified as overhead, or “indirect costs.” According to a contracting officer at the agency who was cited in the report, the agency “did not report these costs so it could stay within the $50 million authorization.”


The report said it suspected that other unreported costs on the hospital could drive the tab even higher. In another case cited in the report, a power station project in Musayyib, the direct construction cost cited by the development agency was $6.6 million, while the overhead cost was $27.6 million. The result is that the project’s overhead, a figure that normally runs to a maximum of 30 percent, was a stunning 418 percent.

U.S. Hopes of Cutting Iraq Troop Levels Dim
President Bush's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in violence-racked Baghdad has forced commanders to extend the tours of 3,500 soldiers and appears to eliminate prospects for significant withdrawals of American forces this year.

Just a month ago, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., came to Washington and presented Bush with a scenario in which the number of combat brigades in Iraq could be reduced from 14 to 12 by September, with two more brigades scheduled for removal by year's end. A brigade typically comprises 3,500 soldiers.

Now, even defense officials who talked of reductions are discounting the prospects of near-term cuts.

ABA: Bush violating Constitution:
President Bush's penchant for writing exceptions to laws he has just signed violates the Constitution, an American Bar Association task force says in a report highly critical of the practice.

The ABA group, which includes a one-time FBI director and former federal appeals court judge, said the president has overstepped his authority in attaching challenges to hundreds of new laws.

The attachments, known as bill-signing statements, say Bush reserves a right to revise, interpret or disregard measures on national security and constitutional grounds.

"This report raises serious concerns crucial to the survival of our democracy," said the ABA's president, Michael Greco. "If left unchecked, the president's practice does grave harm to the separation of powers doctrine, and the system of checks and balances that have sustained our democracy for more than two centuries."

Israel takes aim at Hezbollah stronghold (published July 24):
As the crisis entered its 13th day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced stop Monday in Beirut to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.


Israel has barred the United Nations from sending relief supplies into southern Lebanon, where most of the country's estimated 500,000 internally displaced people are located, according to U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland.

The United Nations is able to take its convoys of humanitarian relief to Beirut, where some 150,000 people are displaced, Egeland said.


An Israeli missile also hit two Red Cross ambulances late Sunday in the southern Lebanese town of Qana, killing one person and seriously wounding two others, a Red Cross official said.

The official said the ambulances were clearly marked as Red Cross vehicles and were part of an effort to transport the wounded to hospitals in Tyre.

To Flee or to Stay? Family Chooses Too Late and Pays Dearly
Muntaha Shaito’s eyes rolled back as the paramedics screamed at her to stay awake and implored her son Ali to keep her engaged, as she teetered near death from shrapnel wounds inflicted by an Israeli rocket.

“Pray to God!,” one paramedic shouted at her as she writhed in Ali’s arms.

“Don’t go to sleep Mama, look at me!,” Ali shouted, tears streaking his bloodied face. “Don’t die, please don’t die!”

It was the scene that members of the extended Shaito family said they had feared most, the real reason they had held out for days in their village of Tireh in southern Lebanon, terrified of the Israeli bombardment, but more terrified of what might happen if they risked leaving. On Sunday they gave up their stand, and all 18 members crammed into the family’s white Mazda minivan. They planned to head north toward the relative safety of Beirut.

Within minutes they became casualties of Israel’s 12-day-old bombardment of southern Lebanon, which the Israelis say they will continue indefinitely to destroy the military abilities of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group. By the Lebanese official count, Israel’s attacks have killed more than 380 Lebanese.

An Israeli rocket, which Lebanese officials said was likely fired from a helicopter, slammed into the center of the Shaitos’ van as it sped round a bend a few miles west of their village, and the van crashed into a hillside. Three occupants were killed: an uncle, Mohammad; the grandmother, Nazira; and a Syrian man who had guarded their home. The missile also critically wounded Mrs. Shaito and her sister. Eleven others suffered less severe wounds.

U.S. Says It Knew of Pakistani Reactor Plan
The Bush administration acknowledged yesterday that it had long known about Pakistan's plans to build a large plutonium-production reactor, but it said the White House was working to dissuade Pakistan from using the plant to expand its nuclear arsenal.

"We discourage military use of the facility," White House spokesman Tony Snow said of a powerful heavy-water reactor under construction at Pakistan's Khushab nuclear site in Punjab state.

The reactor, which reportedly will be capable of producing enough plutonium for as many as 50 bombs each year, was brought to light on Sunday by independent analysts who spotted the partially completed plant in commercial-satellite photos. Snow said the administration had "known of these plans for some time."

The acknowledgment came as arms-control experts and some in Congress expressed alarm about a possible escalation of South Asia's arms race.

Judiciary Republicans Vote Against Minimum Wage
Today House Judiciary Republicans voted resoundingly against giving working families an increase in the minimum wage.

In a bill to shield equipment manufacturers from workplace injury lawsuits (H.R. 3509), Republicans defeated an amendment by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee which would have limited liability relief to only those companies that pay their employees a minimum wage of $7.25. The amendment was defeated on a party line vote, with all Democrats voting yes, and all Republicans voting no.

This amendment is a common sense attempt to counter a bill that strips hard working Americans of their ability to obtain justice. There is no reason that we should be enabling workplace injury while neglecting to provide a living wage to employees.


The minimum wage has stagnated at $5.15 an hour for nine years. A person working full-time at the minimum wage would only earn $10,700 annually

Minimum wage increase tied to tax cuts: House leadership couples bill to estate tax measure
Republican leaders are willing to allow the first minimum wage increase in a decade but only if it's coupled with a cut in future inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates, congressional aides said Friday.

A package GOP leaders planned to bring to a vote Friday or Saturday in the House also would renew several popular tax breaks, including a research and development credit for businesses, and deductions for college tuition and state sales taxes, said a spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner.

The wage would increase from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour, phased in over the next three years, said Kevin Madden, the aide to Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

The maneuver is aimed at defusing the wage hike as a campaign issue for Democrats while using its popularity to spur enactment of the Republican Party's long-sought goal of permanently cutting taxes on millionaires' estates.

Minimum Wage Fight Heads to the Senate
Under the minimum wage proposal, the rate would increase from the current $5.15 per hour in three increments, reaching $7.25 in June 2009. It would also allow tips to be counted toward minimum wage increases in some states where that is now prohibited, a provision Democrats said would cut wages for thousands of workers in those states.

House Republican leaders said their Senate counterparts had argued that the only way the wage increase would survive in the Senate was if it was coupled with the estate tax reductions. To sweeten the pot even more, Republicans moved $38 billion in a wide array of tax breaks to the estate tax bill from a pension overhaul that was approved Friday.

“What we have done is try to package this to succeed in getting the minimum wage through the other body,” said Representative Bill Thomas, Republican of California and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.


The minimum wage vote came after House Republican leaders scrambled to respond to appeals from Republicans in the Northeast and the Midwest who said they needed to dilute escalating Democratic attacks and were worried they would be pounded in the August recess by labor groups. Some Republicans said they would have preferred that the wage increase be tied to legislation other than the estate tax cut, with a health initiative for small businesses one popular alternative.

But Republican leaders seized on the opportunity to advance the estate tax plan, and advocates of a wage increase went along. “It could have been done differently,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, “but it is done.”


Why is PBS running infomercials?

There's precious little on late at night other than infomercials1. Sadly, one of the last refuges against infomercials has fallen prey to them: PBS is now hawking mediocre products in half-hour long segments. Of course PBS doesn't call them infomercials; instead what they're doing is running "lectures" by "invited speakers" who blab on and on about whatever topic they're supposedly knowledgeable in. Actually, these invited speakers are all just there to sell whatever product they've recently started marketing, and said products get featured prominently every time there's a break to pledge-drive central.

Last night PBS was hawking some eBay success books ("buy my book and you'll earn millions on eBay"), tonight they're hawking skin care products (the message of which seems to be that you need to buy dozens of this person's specific products and watch her DVDs or your skin will wrinkle into elephant hide), and a few weeks ago they had some doctor (selling a book, of course) who claimed to have discovered the secrets of nutrition, but who actually just repeated dietary advice that's been known for decades (eat lots of fruits and vegetables, eat a mixed diet, don't overeat, etc. etc.) disguised by lots of pseudoscientific babble.

Don't get me wrong: infomercials can be hilarious to watch (in an "I can't believe anyone would buy that" way), but if PBS thinks that running infomercials (especially ones containing bad/mediocre science) is going to get me to send them any money, they're wrong.

1 Where are the stations showing all the old movies people on TV seem to be able to find late at night?

A weekend of cooking!

There are many reasons why I like the summer; one of the largest is that my SO and I have time to cook. In fact, we've been trying so many recipes that my poor end-of-the-week cooking feature has become overwhelmed; last weekend I posted three recipes instead of my usual one, and this weekend I've got four queued up. So, hold on tight and look forward to a weekend full of recipes!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Pregnancy resource centers: misinformation central

This is nothing new, but a recent investigation requested by Representative Waxman has provided more evidence that government-funded pregnancy resource centers (translate: counseling centers that try to discourage women from getting abortions) are misinforming to the women they counsel. The methodology of the investigators was simple:
In response to Rep. Waxman's request, the Special Investigation Division identified the 25 pregnancy resource centers that have received grants through the Compassion Capital Fund. For this report, female investigators telephoned the 25 pregnancy resource centers that have received grants from the Compassion Capital Fund, posing as a 17-year-old trying to decide whether to have an abortion, and requesting information and advice. The caller stated that she was pregnant and thought she wanted an abortion.
The investigators compared the centers' statements with accepted medical knowledge, and the findings were clear:
In total, 87% of the centers reached (20 of 23 centers) provided false or misleading information to the callers. The three major areas of misinformation involved (1) the purported relationship between abortion and breast cancer; (2) the purported relationship between abortion and infertility; and (3) the purported relationship between abortion and mental illness.
Suffice to say that getting an abortion does not increase a woman's risk of breast cancer, does not increase her risk of infertility (especially if it is her first pregnancy and abortion, as the investigators in this report told every center they called), and does not cause mental illness.

While I may not agree with the goals of these centers, the least they could do is tell women the truth.

A summary of the report is here, and the full report is here (PDF).

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Deep sea news

The authors of Deep-Sea News have a two-post series of reports from the most recent Deep-Sea Biology Symposium; go take a look to see some of the most recent findings about the deep sea.

Deep-Sea News also has an article about a mining company (Nautilus) that is planning on destroying hydrothermal vents to mine them for gold and copper. Eh, all those undiscovered hydrothermal vent species would have been too much work to identify anyway ...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Breaking news: threatening dishwashers doesn't fix them after all

Last month I reported that I had discovered the secret to repairing household items (and dishwashers in particular): threaten them with replacement.

Sadly, the motor in our dishwasher once again froze up two weeks ago. My SO did the honors of preparing to order a replacement motor, but even after waiting a few minutes (and loudly announcing the impending order), the dishwasher did not start working. So, we went ahead and ordered the motor, which, combined with a healthy dose of WD-40, was successful in making the dishwasher function (albeit very noisily). At the time we concluded that our theory was still correct, but that we needed to escalate the threat.

On the same day that our new motor arrived, the dishwasher once again stopped working. Since we had the new motor, we placed the motor right next to the dishwasher, figuring that it would be the ultimate threat and shock it into functioning again. Unfortunately, the technique did not work.

So, tonight I got to replace our dishwasher's motor. It is now (apparently) working well, and, as a bonus, is extremely quiet once again. However, I'd be happy if I never saw the underside of a dishwasher again.

And, based on the above data, I have formulated a new hypothesis about the motivations of the dishwasher motor: the motor knew it was dying all along, but was bravely hanging on until it knew that we could replace it. I never knew a machine could have such honor and nobility.


Homeopathic malaria remedies?

Orac has pointed out that there are a number of stores selling homeopathic "medicines" that are supposedly equivalent to anti-malarial drugs. They are, needless to say, not equivalent. As Orac says, this is "one more reason homeopathy is not 'harmless'".

And, while you're over at Orac's place, go take a look at his thoughtful discussion of the recent Starchild Abraham Cherrix court decision that is ordering a 16 year old to forego alternative medical treatments and report for chemotherapy to treat his cancer .

Monday, July 24, 2006

Lemon-lime sorbet

A few summers ago my mom gave us her electric ice cream maker; since it's been hot recently, we've brought it out from the cabinet and are using it again. It's hard to beat freshly made frozen treats on a hot afternoon.

Most home ice cream makers work by mixing liquid in a pre-frozen bowl with an attachment designed to aerate the liquid as it freezes. The same machine can be used to make ice cream (based on cream), sherbet (based on milk), frozen yogurt (based on yogurt; did you really need me to tell you that?), and sorbet (based on water), as they're all based on the same principle - aerate and freeze the liquid with sugar and flavorings mixed in. The one downside of these machines is that it's hard to make large amounts of frozen confections with them; the bowl must be re-frozen after each use (usually overnight or longer), and the bowls tend to be small (ours holds only a pint or so of liquid pre-freezing). That said, they're great for making frozen treats for a couple of people.

This lemon-lime sorbet is our newest creation; it's just tart enough to be bracing, but not overwhelming. It is also this week's third end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Zest of one lemon and one lime
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup freshly squeezed mixed lemon and lime juice (the total volume of citrus juice should be 1/2 cup, not 1 cup; you'll probably need 1 or 2 lemons and 1 or 2 limes)
3/4 cup ice water

1. Bring the zest, sugar, and water to a boil in a small pot. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes.
2. Remove from the heat and let cool.
3. Add the lemon/lime juice and 3/4 cup ice water, and stir to mix.
4. Put the pot into the fridge, covered, and chill until it's cold enough for your ice cream maker to freeze it; we leave it in the fridge for at least an hour.
5. Pour the contents of the pot through a fine-mesh strainer (to remove the zest and any stray seeds) and then add to a running ice cream maker.
6. Serve in chilled bowls once it's frozen; freeze any leftovers immediately.


This recipe is written to use the type of ice cream maker that freezes ice cream by putting it in a mixing bowl that has been pre-frozen. If you have a professional ice cream maker that uses a compressor to cool the liquid, you probably don't need to do the cooling step.

This is also good when made with only lemon juice and zest (thus making lemon sorbet).

Zest is made by shaving off the very outer layer of citrus rind (which is typically filled with lots of the aromatic oils that give citrus fruits their characteristic smell). Thus, to zest the lemon use a fine grater to remove the outer surface of the citrus fruit, but don't include the white layer (pith) underneath, as that is often very bitter. We use a fine microplane grater for all of our zesting.

This recipe is based on one from All Recipes (Flashdance16 2006).

Flashdance16. Lemon Sorbet. Accessed July 2006 on All Recipes.

[Updated May 2007 to clarify the juice amount.]

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Political news of the week take 16

[After a short hiatus, this week's news from the middle east has motivated me to post another political news post. See also: political news of the week takes 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Thousands flee as Iraq violence deepens:
Tens of thousands more Iraqis have fled their homes as sectarian violence looks ever more like civil war two months after a U.S.-backed national unity government was formed, official data showed on Thursday.

Iraq's most powerful religious authority, Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, joined the United Nations and U.S. officials in raising the alarm that a spike in bloodshed and "campaigns of displacement" threaten Iraq's very future.

The U.S. military admitted violence in Baghdad was little changed by a month-long clampdown and the city morgue said it had seen 1,000 bodies so far in July, a slight increase on June.

A day after the United States issued a stern warning to both Shi'ite and minority Sunni leaders to match talk with action on reining in and reconciling "death squads" and "terrorists" from their respective communities, the Migration Ministry said more than 30,000 people had registered as refugees this month alone.

"We consider this to be a dangerous sign," ministry spokesman Sattar Nowruz told Reuters, acknowledging that many more people fled abroad or quietly sought refuge with relatives rather than sign up for official aid or move into state camps.

The increase took to 27,000 families -- some 162,000 people -- the number who have registered for help with the ministry in the five months since the February 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine at Samarra sparked a new phase of communal bloodshed.


They [new refugees at a tent camp in Diwaniya] include Abd Hammad al-Saeidi: "Gunmen told us to leave or they would kill us," said the farmer from the violent lands just south of Baghdad. His family of 11 now live in a tent.


Four of the bloodiest incidents this year have taken place this month -- two al Qaeda car bombings of Shi'ite markets in Baghdad and Kufa and two gun attacks blamed on Shi'ite militias.

Those four alone, two of them just this week, claimed some 220 lives. But as the United Nations said this week, that is a fraction of some 100 civilians a day who are dying in violence.

U.S. Speeds Up Bomb Delivery for the Israelis:
The Bush administration is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after beginning its air campaign against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, American officials said Friday.

The decision to quickly ship the weapons to Israel was made with relatively little debate within the Bush administration, the officials said. Its disclosure threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that could be compared to Iran’s efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah.

Israel set war plan more than a year ago: Strategy was put in motion as Hezbollah began increasing its military strength:
Israel's military response by air, land and sea to what it considered a provocation last week by Hezbollah militants is unfolding according to a plan finalized more than a year ago.

In the years since Israel ended its military occupation of southern Lebanon, it watched warily as Hezbollah built up its military presence in the region. When Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli soldiers last week, the Israeli military was ready to react almost instantly.

"Of all of Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared," said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. "In a sense, the preparation began in May 2000, immediately after the Israeli withdrawal, when it became clear the international community was not going to prevent Hezbollah from stockpiling missiles and attacking Israel. By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we're seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it's been simulated and rehearsed across the board."

More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail. Under the ground rules of the briefings, the officer could not be identified.

Israeli Troops Forge Farther into Lebanon
To a steady clap of artillery fire, columns of Israeli tanks and troops roared deeper into southern Lebanon on Saturday, battling to control a strategic hilltop village that the Israelis said was a Hezbollah stronghold.

As tens of thousands of Lebanese fled the southern tier of their country over precarious, bombed-out roads, Israeli warplanes blasted communications towers in central and northern Lebanon, and struck the southern port city of Sidon for the first time. By late afternoon, Hezbollah had unleashed 90 rockets into Israel, striking Kiryat Shmona in the northern Galilee and Nahariya and the Haifa area along Israel's northern coast.

In its most extensive incursion to date, the Israeli army punched through the border near this northern Israeli community and pushed at least 2 1/2 miles into Lebanon, commanders at the scene said, carving out a swath six miles wide that encompassed a dozen or more frontier Lebanese villages.

"We are going there to kill them, to find them in bunkers and tunnels," Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, the commander of the army's Galilee division, told reporters. "This takes time and required patience. This is war."

Gupta: Nursery cut-out figures tear at emotions, Beirut doctor's guts, guile keep hospital running
What they have in common, though, is Dr. Nazih Gharios, one of the heroes of this war. A stately physician, Gharios kept Mount Lebanon Hospital open when every business around him shut down, worried about airstrikes in a neighborhood where Hezbollah dominates.

"It is my duty," he told me, acknowledging that every day was a game of "Russian roulette."

On the first day of attacks, he came up with a plan. With a bunker-like mentality, Gharios evacuated his patients to the subterranean floors of the hospital.

In places that are normally used to store equipment and perform radiology studies, Gharios created a maternity ward, an intensive care unit and even a neonatal ICU, which is caring for a 600-gram (1.3-pound) newborn girl and two 1.2 kilogram (2.6-pound) twin boys.

Patients here are blissfully ignorant of the whining of missiles above, some landing as close as 100 meters from the hospital.

New Orleans, Getting Less Power, May Pay More:
Ten months after Hurricane Katrina, the city still does not have a reliable electrical system. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of repairs are still needed on a system devastated by flooding, the local utility is in bankruptcy and less than half the system’s prestorm customers have returned. Of those who have, many have endured hot and sleepless nights with no air-conditioning.


So much for the injury; now comes the insult. Entergy New Orleans, the power company here, wants to increase its rates 25 percent to help pay for part of what it says is $718 million in storm losses and revenue shortfalls. That would increase the average household bill by $45 a month.


Last year, the Bush administration rejected a taxpayer bailout of Entergy, and now the utility is hoping the state will give it a sprinkling of the $10 billion in federal housing aid planned for New Orleans. The state has not agreed to that request, however, and if assistance does not come, customers may be forced to foot the bill.

For several months after Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans was dark; by the end of 2005 most of the city was lit again. But a tiny section of the Lower Ninth Ward, near the levee breach, remains unserved — an indication of the system’s continuing fragility.

NASA’s Goals Delete Mention of Home Planet
From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Judge Rules Against Government in Spying Lawsuit (EFF site on the suit):
A federal judge Thursday rejected a government request that he dismiss a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's domestic spying program.


The government had argued that the lawsuit should be thrown out because it threatens to reveal state secrets and jeopardize the war on terror.

Man Believed to Be Last 9-11 Detainee Freed
An Algerian man believed to be the last domestic detainee still in custody from a national dragnet after Sept. 11 - and who was cleared of links to terrorism in November 2001 - was set free this week, his lawyer said Friday.


Benatta was among 1,200 mostly Arab and Muslim men detained nationwide as potential suspects or witnesses in the investigation following the terrorist attacks. The government has refused to discuss their fate, but human rights groups have said they believed the former Algerian air force lieutenant was the only one still in custody.


The last detainee's odyssey began Sept. 5, 2001, when, after overstaying a six-month visa, he crossed the border near Buffalo to seek asylum in Canada. After the Sept. 11 attacks, his background as a Muslim man with flight experience prompted Canadian officials to turn him over to U.S. authorities.

He spent the next six months in solitary confinement in a federal jail in Brooklyn. Though the FBI concluded he had no links to terrorism, he was eventually charged with carrying false identification - a case that was dropped after a federal magistrate found his right to due process had been violated.

The magistrate wrote in a 2003 decision that Benatta had been ``undeniably deprived of his liberty,'' and ``held in custody under harsh conditions which can be said to be oppressive.''

Experts tell Congress U.S. e-voting security is flawed:
Security experts told Congress on Wednesday (July 19) that the federal qualification process for electronic voting machines is flawed.

"We have grave reservations about the safeguards in place with many of the computerized voting technologies being used," Eugene Spafford, chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery's Committee on Public Policy.

"New federal standards and a certification process hold promise for addressing some of these problems, but more must be done to ensure the integrity of our elections in the face of software and hardware errors as well as the possibility of undetectable tampering," Spafford told a joint House hearing.

David Wagner, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a specialist in information security and electronic voting, went further. "We've seen security defects that allow a single person with insider access and some technical knowledge could switch votes, perhaps undetected, and potentially swing an election," he testified. "These problems should be weeded out by the independent testing process, but it is clear that this system isn't working."
See also a few of my own posts from this week:

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pan-fried somen noodles

As I've mentioned before, my SO and I regularly watch Dotch, a Japanese cooking show. A few months ago, Dotch featured a dish served on fried noodles; my SO was intrigued, and the next time we made Japanese curry, we tried serving it over pan-fried somen noodles. The pancake of noodles was crispy and chewy on the outside, moist and soft on the inside, and delicious covered in curry. Pan-fried somen noodles are now our standard accompaniment to Japanese curry (recipe here), and thus they're this week's second end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Package of somen noodles
A package of somen noodles.

1 bundle somen noodles (our brand's bundles are 90g)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (for frying)

This recipe involves two major steps: cooking the dried noodles in boiling water, and then frying the cooked noodles in oil.

0. Add the oil to a frying pan (we use a 9" nonstick pan; anything in the 8-10" range should work fine), and prepare to heat the oil over medium-high heat so it is hot just as the noodles finish draining.
1. Bring at least 4 cups of water to a boil in a small pot. Add the somen noodles once the water boils and stir briefly.
2. Cook the somen noodles for the recommended time on the package, or until the noodles are cooked through (2 minutes for our brand). Now would probably be a good time to start heating the frying pan over medium-high heat.
3. Drain the noodles thoroughly, but do not rinse them.
4. Once the oil in the pan is hot, add the drained noodles and use a spatula to quickly spread them around the pan into an even layer. Caution: be prepared for splattering, as water left on the noodles will cause the oil to splatter (have an apron on and be careful with your hands and arms); adding the noodles all at once (rather than dribbling them in) helps reduce the splattering.
5. Cook until the noodles are nicely browned, but not burned, on the bottom (approximately 5 minutes, though the time varies; see the picture below). Check the noodles' browning by lifting up some of the noodles with a spatula. Raise or lower the heat to speed or slow the cooking, as appropriate.
6. Flip the noodles and continue cooking until they're browned on the second side, usually about 3 minutes. They're never as nicely browned on the second side as the first.
7. Slide the noodles onto a plate, and top them immediately with whatever you're serving them with. We top them with our Japanese curry.

Somen noodles frying
Frying somen noodles, just after being flipped


Somen noodles are thin, lightly salted wheat noodles, and should be available at most Asian or Japanese markets; see the pictures above to get an idea of what to look for. Somen noodles typically come in individual-serving bundles; we find that one 90g bundle of the brand we use (Shirakiku Tomoshiraga somen Japanese style noodles) is just enough for a generous plate of curry for one person. We have no idea how Shirakiku's somen noodles compare to other brands of somen noodles; they're just what our local market carries. Also, you could probably use this same technique for other thicknesses of Japanese wheat noodles (e.g., udon).

This can be a difficult dish to serve to many people at once, as the noodles have to be fried in single-serving batches. To speed up the process, heat an extra pot's worth of water in a teapot (or second pot) while the noodles are boiling. Once the first batch of noodles has been drained, transfer the heated water from the teapot into the somen boiling pot, and then start a second batch of noodles cooking once the first batch of noodles has started frying. Using multiple frying pans at once should enable even greater cooking efficiency.

If you can't find somen noodles locally, try ordering them online; AsianWok appears to sell them (though I've never ordered from that company, and thus can't endorse it).

Japanese curry

Many Asian cuisines include curries, and they're all different. In fact, the term curry is used for so many different dishes that it's hard to define; probably the best general definition is that it's a thick, spicy stew typically served with rice, noodles, or bread. Thai curries tend to be hot-spicy and include coconut milk, fish sauce, garlic, and ginger (see these two recipes). Indian curries are hard to generalize, but they can include yogurt and/or nuts, and are often heavily spiced with turmeric and/or the "C" spices (cardamom, coriander, cloves, cumin, and/or cinnamon; see these two recipes).

Japanese curries tend to be relatively mild, are roux-based (i.e., they're thickened with a mixture of flour and fat), and have a smoother flavor than most other curries we've tasted. We're a bit chagrined to admit it, but since we don't have a recipe for making the spice mix used in Japanese curries, we don't make our Japanese curry paste from scratch. Instead, we use a manufactured curry mix (much like the Thai curry pastes we buy) and add our own ingredients. It tastes marvelous, but we'd really like to learn how to make Japanese curry paste some day. Since we made this curry a few weeks ago, and have been wanting to post a Japanese curry recipe for months, this is this week's first end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Japanese curry over fried somen noodles
Japanese curry over pan-fried somen noodles.

1 4.2 oz packet of Japanese curry mix (see below for more information)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
2 medium turnips, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup peas
1 tub (~16 oz) firm tofu, drained and cut into bite-sized pieces
3 cups water

0. Chop all the vegetables and get them ready to cook. Plan to have either rice or noodles ready by the time the curry is done.
1. Heat the oil in a large nonstick pot over medium-high heat.
2. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to turn brown at the tips (about 5 minutes).
3. Add the carrots and turnips, and continue cooking for another 3-5 minutes.
4. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Add the peas, return to a simmer, and cook, covered, for another 5 minutes. Then test to make sure everything is cooked to your liking (e.g., make sure the carrots are soft by tasting one or poking it with a fork); otherwise continue simmering.
6. Break the curry paste into smaller pieces and add to the pot, stirring constantly until they're dissolved.
7. Add the tofu and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Stir constantly but gently.
8. Serve over rice or noodles (we love this curry over pan-fried somen noodles; our recipe for those is here).


This recipe is extremely flexible, so use whatever vegetables or meat you desire. This version of the curry is relatively ingredient-heavy; if you wanted more sauce and less stuff (e.g., if you were using the curry as a sauce for fried meat), just add less stuff. Here are a few ideas for variations:
  • Meat: Include 1 pound of chopped chicken, pork, or beef. Fry this in oil along with the onions.
  • Vegetables: Green beans, bell peppers, corn, sweet potatoes, jalapeño peppers, or waxy potatoes (baking potatoes tend to fall apart). Add frozen green beans and corn 10 minutes into the simmering; add fresh green beans, sweet potatoes, and potatoes about 5 minutes into the simmering; add bell peppers and jalapeños along with the onions.
  • Flavorings: Add a few cloves of minced garlic after the onions (e.g., along with the carrots and turnips), or use butter instead of the oil.
We use S&B's medium-hot Golden Curry sauce mix, and the recipe above is based on this brand of curry. We buy this curry mix in 8.4 oz packages, which contain two trays that each hold a little brick of thickened curry paste (each tray holds 4.2 oz of the curry paste). If you use another type of curry mix, modify the recipe above to fit the amounts and cooking time recommended by your curry mix.

Box of curry mix
Our curry mix

We make no claims as to the authenticity of this curry or its ingredients; this is just what we like to make.

[Updated Sept. 2007 to add sweet potatoes and jalapeños to the list of possible vegetables, thanks to a delicious turnip, sweet potato, carrot, green bean, jalapeño, garlic, and tofu curry we just made.]

Thursday, July 20, 2006


We've been busy for the past week or so ramping up for our return to remodeling. Our master bathroom is still not complete, and that is our highest priority for getting done this summer. The new window is in, the walls are up and painted, but our current roadblock is the floor, which we plan to tile.

We've had a few problems tiling the floor. We had troubles finding the materials we needed, then had to figure out how to deal with an unlevel floor, and then discovered the self-leveling compound we used didn't self level (twice). Back in January we finally hired a concrete contractor to come in and level the floor for us, and had been waiting for the summer to do the tiling. Of course all of this would have been much easier if our original contractor hadn't walked off the job on us, but we'll ignore that.

This afternoon it was to begin. We were going to embed our crack-isolation membrane in thinset, and then tomorrow it was time to lay the tile. We had all the materials purchased, had read all the instructions we could find, had our layout ready, and had a tile saw rental arranged. The floor was swept as clean as it possibly could be. The adjoining room was ready to handle tiling mess. Our plumber was scheduled to come in next Wednesday to install the toilet. We were nervous, but excited. Within a week we would, if all went well, have a functioning bathroom.

Then, as we were testing our tile placement, we discovered that sections of the concrete our contractor had used to level the floor were no longer attached to the concrete underneath. They sounded hollow when tapped, and we could easily push on certain areas of the floor to widen or narrow cracks.

Our current opinions on this matter are not fit to publish.

[Update July 22: Our concrete contractor stopped by today and reported that he could likely fix the problem, but he wouldn't have time to do it for at least a week.]

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Flickr is currently down, but to make up for it they've got a hilarious error message posted. Go take a look before it goes away.

[Update: The hilarious error message reported that their tubes were clogged, and provided an image of two circles for users to fill in as they wished. Flickr is back up, and they have pages upon pages of user responses.]

Apparently we are that bloodthirsty

A few days ago the US was the only country to oppose "any [UN Security] council action at all" regarding the Israel / Lebanon conflict.
More than 300 Lebanese have been killed and more than 1,000 injured after a week of Israeli airstrikes, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Wednesday. Israel's military said 29 Israelis have died in the conflict, including 15 civilians. (from CNN)
You'd think we'd have gotten our dose of bloodshed and pictures of exploding bombs by now, but no, the US is once again refusing to call for a cease-fire:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not go on a peace mission to the Mideast before next week, giving Israel time to "defang" Hezbollah, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Rice, who's set to travel to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday, has said the U.S. would support a cease-fire in the seven-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah "when conditions are conducive to do so."

[Update July 20: Kofi Annan has called for a cease fire:
"While Hezbollah's actions are deplorable and, as I've said, Israel has a right to defend itself, the excessive use of force is to be condemned," Annan told the U.N. Security Council.

Annan said that the continued bombardments and the destruction of roads and airports have made it impossible for U.N. and other humanitarian groups to provide services.

He said that arranging a cease-fire would be difficult, but he called for the council to take strong action.

"Both the deliberate targeting by Hezbollah of Israeli population centers with hundreds of indiscriminate weapons and Israel's disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop," Annan said.
(via CNN).]

In which Bush hinders scientific research yet again

It's now being reported that Bush has vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funding of research on new embryonic cell lines. His reasoning?
“This bill would support the taking of innocent human life,” Mr. Bush said at the White House, surrounded by scores of children born as a result of an embryo-adoption program and their parents.

“Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value,” Mr. Bush said.
Um, no. These embryos are little balls of cells that are completely unlike a human adult or child. Take a look at this illustrated post by PZ Myers if you need a demonstration. That something has potential to become a human does not mean that it is a human or should be treated as though it were a human. An acorn is not an oak tree.

In fact, the vast majority of these little balls of cells will just sit in a freezer or be destroyed; using them to further our understanding of basic biology makes a lot more sense to me. We have enough trouble finding parents for children who already exist.

This little snippet from the New York Times is also interesting:
The White House ceremony was accompanied by happy children and their smiling parents. But one element was missing: a flourish of the pen that Mr. Bush typically uses to sign a measure that he likes. The president had already signed his name on the veto before appearing in public. The actual signing was not photographed because, Mr. Snow said beforehand, Mr. Bush did not think it would be appropriate.
So Bush is willing to drastically slow US research in biology and actively hinder the search for treatments that could reduce the suffering (or save the lives) of many, but he's not willing to be pictured vetoing the bill that he's so morally outraged at.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An illustrated tour of Ubuntu

Ubuntu desktop with application menu open
My Ubuntu desktop (with the application menu open);
larger versions here and here.

I installed Ubuntu 6.06 on my primary home machine about three weeks ago (more background here and here), and in that time I've discovered a lot of little things that I like about Ubuntu. Since I suspect that few of my readers use Ubuntu or Linux, I thought I'd post a short illustrated tour of some of my favorite Ubuntu features:
  • The clock. It shows the time, of course, but it also shows the day of the week and date. Even more useful, single-clicking on the clock brings up a little calendar of the current month that highlights today's date and politely stays on top of other applications until I click it again. It's insanely useful for working with dates.

    Ubuntu's clock's calendar
    The calendar popup of Ubuntu's clock.

  • The top panel. Ubuntu comes default with two panels; they function much like Windows' task bar (they contain buttons for each of the currently running programs, links to start programs, a clock, etc.), but having two panels means that they can hold much more. And there's much more for them to hold, as Ubuntu has a number of useful little applets (e.g., search bars, timers, weather forecasts, stock tickers, sticky notes) that can be docked onto the panels.

    Ubuntu's top panel, labeled
    Labeled screencap of my top panel (with the applications menu open); larger version is here.

    I've got my bottom panel set up to hold buttons for currently running programs, the recycle bin, and a button to minimize all programs (see the screenshot at the top of this post). That leaves the top panel to hold things like quick-start icons for programs (e.g., Firefox, gEdit, the calculator); my choice of other applets (I've got a timer and one showing the current weather conditions); and menus that contain links to my programs, important locations on my computer, and my system preferences (the menus "Applications," "Places," and "System," respectively).

    Applets that can be added to Ubuntu's panels
    Some of the applets that can be added to Ubuntu's panels; larger version is here.

  • Multiple workspaces. X-windows (the graphical interface behind Ubuntu) allows users to have multiple virtual workspaces. Each workspace is somewhat akin to having a different monitor; programs open on one workspace don't show up on other workspaces (unless you want them to). All I have to do to switch between workspaces is click on a little image of the workspace in the upper-right portion of the screen (the workspace switcher labeled in the image above). This means I can have my web browser (and related programs) open on one workspace, my photos open on another, and my course syllabi open on yet another. It's insanely useful.

  • The application menu. This menu (equivalent to Windows' Start Menu) immediately brings up a list of program categories; I don't have to click on Start, then select another menu to see the list of categories. The menu also comes with far fewer categories than a default Windows install, and new programs almost never create new categories (they just fit within existing ones). Thus, to use a Windows example, I don't have to remember that Photoshop is made by Adobe to find it in my Start menu; the Ubuntu equivalent of Photoshop is just placed in the "Graphics" category. You can see the application menu's default categories by looking at the screenshot above.

  • The add/remove applications menu. To install new programs all I have to do is go to the "Applications" menu and select "Add/Remove ..." (see the screenshot above). This brings up a friendly graphical interface that allows me to browse through hundreds of free-to-install programs.

    Ubuntu's program installation program
    Ubuntu's add/remove applications menu.

    The program is extremely simple to use; you can either browse through the categories or search for what you want (by package name or program description, e.g., searching for "photo" brings up many image manipulation programs). To install a program all you have to do is put a check mark next to what you want and then click "OK." Ubuntu will ask for your password, automatically download and install the program, and then show you a dialog saying the program was installed. Just to emphasize the point, everything listed within this menu is absolutely free to install, free of wacky EULAs, and has absolutely no ads.

    A new program has been installed
    Program installed!

  • The ability to add scripts. It is relatively easy to write scripts for Unix-based operating systems, and Ubuntu is no exception. Scripts are extremely powerful tools (they can do just about anything that can be done from a command line), and thus being able to add them to Ubuntu's GUI is very useful. A few days ago I modified a pre-existing script so that I could bulk resize and rename images from within Ubuntu's file browser (without opening any graphics programs; see this post for more details); it has already saved me a bunch of time. Here's a screenshot showing how easy it is to activate the script:

    Resize_photos script in Ubuntu
    Choosing the Resize_images script from within Nautilus (Ubuntu's file browser) by right-clicking on the image.

Even though I've used Windows almost exclusively for at least 15 years, so far I've found that Ubuntu is actually more enjoyable to use than than Windows. I'll admit that I have run into a few issues where Windows has tools I still want to use (see this post for more details), but that's why I have a dual-boot (and am giving myself time to learn Ubuntu).


Sunday, July 16, 2006


I wasn't planning on doing any blogging today, but then my SO found this Reuters story:
The U.N. Security Council on Saturday again rejected pleas that it call for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon after the United States objected, diplomats said.

Washington argued in closed-door talks that the focus for Middle East diplomacy for now should be on the weekend summit in St Petersburg of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, council diplomats said.

It [the United States] was the sole member of the 15-nation U.N. body to oppose any council action at all at this time, they said.

What possible reason could we have to oppose calling for a ceasefire? Are we really that bloodthirsty?

Reference: Arieff, Irwin. Jul 15, 2006. UN council keeps silent on Israel-Lebanon conflict. Reuters.

It's going to be hot today

predicted high temperatures for the US for Sunday July 16
NOAA forecast high temperatures (in F) for Sunday July 16, 2006.

So, if you're feeling hot and thirsty, my SO and I respectfully suggest that you go and make yourself some lassi, a refreshing drink made of blended yogurt, sugar, and ice. It's extremely easy to make, and I've even got a recipe posted here.

[Note: this post does not apply to those living in the Pacific northwest; everyone there should go enjoy their coffee, as usual.]

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Bad baby names

My SO found this site a couple of days ago, and since then has spent many hours wincing at the atrocious baby names while laughing at the witty commentary poking fun at them. The intro to the site sums up its content:
The following is a catalog of naming questions and suggestions posted on several different baby naming bulletin boards going back as far as early 2001. All entries are left unedited except for length.

As you will see, some parents-to-be have gone so far into the realm of baby-obsession they have lost track of the real, adult world. Their view is so skewed their only concerns are a) making their child "unique" and b) trying to keep the kid from being teased, often with terrible results.

Steel yourself, take a few deep breaths, and read.
Link: Baby's Named a Bad, Bad Thing

The first three weeks of using Ubuntu - a few quick notes

I've been using my newly installed dual-boot Windows XP and Ubuntu 6.06 machine for just about three weeks now. I'm very pleased with Ubuntu so far; in fact, last weekend I checked my logs and discovered that I'd been booted into Ubuntu for 13 days straight. I'm now using Ubuntu for virtually all of my computing tasks.

However, last weekend I ran into my first application that made me to boot into Windows: eBay's Turbo Lister. Turbo Lister allows me to create multiple eBay listings and save them locally until I want to upload them. I edited all the pictures and text for my auctions in Ubuntu (on my shared partition), and then rebooted into Windows and created the auctions with Turbo Lister. [OK, if I had really wanted to use Ubuntu exclusively I could have used eBay's website to enter my auctions one by one, but Turbo Lister seemed easier since I have the dual-boot.]

The only other application class that I haven't found a good Ubuntu equivalent for is financial management software. I've used Microsoft Money for the past four years, and am looking for something similar (that can easily track my checking account and download information from my investment accounts). KMyMoney and Moneydance (a commercial program) seem to be the best options, but so far I've had trouble importing my Microsoft Money account data into them.

Since I've ended up using Ubuntu nearly exclusively, I've been keeping all of my files on an ext3 formatted partition (as it has, among other things, better protection against file loss in the case of power failure; see this post for more background). Since Windows doesn't have native support for ext3 partitions, I tried out fs-driver, a program that allows Windows to access ext3 partitions. It took less than a minute to install, and it appears to be working perfectly; I'm able to browse my ext3 partition (with my shared data on it) and work with files there without issue.

I haven't, however, attempted to do many work-related tasks on the computer, and thus can't say much about how well OpenOffice will work as a replacement for Microsoft Office. If I were working in isolation, I'm relatively certain that OpenOffice would be fine; however, I often send documents to other people, none of whom (to my knowledge) currently use OpenOffice. Additionally, one of my summer tasks will be revising my 200+ page lab manual, which I currently have (very tediously and precisely) formatted in Microsoft Word. An open question is whether I want to convert the manual to OpenOffice Writer or keep using Word; I'm just not sure I want to re-do all of that formatting.