Thursday, March 31, 2005

Back from the poppy reserve

Regular readers will recall that my SO and I had been planning a two-day trip to Death Valley, primarily so we could see the wildflowers there. However, we ran into one little snag: we couldn't find a place to stay. Every hotel we called in both Beatty (in Nevada, east of the park) and Lone Pine (in California, west of the park) was booked. The campground in the park that took reservations was also booked, and based on message board posts we read it seemed like the only campground that was likely to have any spots available was one with 1,000 campsites, and even that one was more than half full only a few days ago.

Since we didn't like the sound of camping next to 500+ other people, we decided to go see the flowers at the Antelope Valley California Wind Poppy Reserve. There were lots of wildflowers and animals about, so it was a fun day, even with the nearly constant gale-force winds. I took a bunch of pictures, but it's been a long day of driving and windblown hiking, so the pictures will be posted tomorrow at the earliest.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Bathroom update - two steps forward ...

Just this morning I was excited about posting a major update on our master bathroom floor tiling project. I had pictures of our work, and was just debating which milestone I should post about.

We spent much of Monday buying all the small odds and ends that we would need to complete the job, including self-leveling compound, mortar, trowels, and even a new heavy-duty drill to mix our mortars. Then, yesterday, we spent almost all day cleaning and preparing the floor for the tiling work. We scraped, ground, wire-brushed, blew with compressed air, swept, vacuumed, and damp-mopped the floor, and then in the evening primed the floor for the self-leveling compound. Self-leveling compound is cement-like material that is watery enough when poured that it seeks its own level, thus eliminating much of the work of manually leveling a floor.

Then, today, we poured the self-leveling compound, and all our progress evaporated. Cracks and bumps appeared in the self-leveling compound shortly after it started drying, and the surface is anything but level.

So much for tiling on Friday.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

British Airways: Errors "R" Us

This morning we called the support number the British Airways error message instructed us to call, hoping to find out whether our reservation had gone through. The first thing we got was a message instructing us to go to their website, since we could make reservations there (um, hello, we're calling you because your website FAILED), and then the recorded voice nicely told us that any booking made through their internet support service would be subject to an additional $10 fee per person.

At that point we hung up.

We checked our credit card company, who confirmed that no charge had been made, so we decided to try the British Airways website again, hoping the problem was transient. We got the same error message.

We called British Airways' support line again. We got the same message to go to their website. We got the same notice about $10 charges. And we got put on hold.

Finally an agent talked to us, and asked if we had checked the box indicating that one of the passengers is a US citizen. We had, and the gentleman said that it had probably brought up a screen asking for emergency contact information. The website had, and we had added all the contact information requested.

The service rep then said that what we needed to do was make the reservation again, but not check the US citizen box, which would then not bring up the contact information page, which would then let us make the reservation without an error message.

We went back to the site, didn't check the citizen box (meaning that we didn't put in any emergency contact information), but did everything else the same, and this time the reservation went through.

I asked the representative how long this problem had been occurring; he responded, "Since we put that feature onto the website. We get many calls about it every day." He didn't directly answer my followup question about how long the problem had been around, but implied it had been at least weeks.

So, British Airways has a known problem with their website that gives customers a useless error message leaving customers unsure whether their thousand- (or more) dollar purchase has gone through (and that does, in fact, prevent the purchase from going through), they don't have tech support online at night, and they've known about this issue for weeks, yet they haven't fixed it.

Monday, March 28, 2005

British Airways: useless error messages

My SO is trying to book a last-minute trip on British Airways this evening, and, after entering all the required credit card information and clicking the "purchase my ticket" button, received this lovely error message:

Oh, how nice.

We called the number, and got a message saying that their internet support desk is closed for the evening, and that we should call back during regular business hours. Even British Airways' primary reservation line is currently closed, and won't open for another 6 hours.

So, has the ticket been purchased? We're dealing with a flight a little more than a week away, so should we reserve the flight through another airline? Making things worse, this flight was to be the middle flight in a sequence of flights; should we make reservations for the other flights assuming this one goes through, or should we wait?

It would have been nice if the error message could have given us more information so we could have determined these things ourselves. We'll find out tomorrow morning, when the lazy bums decide to start answering their phones.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Improving the recipe archive

The chronological recipe-of-the-week archive has been getting cumbersome now that I have more than 20 recipes posted. So, I've now created a category-based recipe archive in which the recipes are organized by topic, such as salads, appetizers/side dishes, and entrees. Since the category archive is much more usable than the chronological archive, the link on the side bar will now link to the category archive, though the chronological archive will still be updated.

I've also labeled all the vegetarian and vegan recipes (with either a V or V* after their names); so far I've got 15 vegetarian recipes, including five vegan recipes.

Royal braised vegetables in cardamom nut sauce (shahi sabz korma)

Last week my SO and I made some paneer, and this weekend we're using that paneer to make a dish called royal braised vegetables in cardamom nut sauce. This luxurious dish is packed full of vegetables and paneer, all of which are coated in a creamy yogurt-based sauce studded with whole spices. This dish is vegetarian (though not vegan), and is this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

This is a fairly time-intensive recipe, as it requires the paneer to be made ahead of time, and then involves a lot of chopping and stirring, but it's time well-spent. However, having a cooking partner can speed up the preparation, the dish can be cooked using just one pot, and, once you start cooking, the time will fly by as you smell the intoxicating aromas coming out of the pot.

This recipe is slightly modified from Sahni's "Classic Indian Cooking;" our primary modifications were doubling the recipe, reducing the amount of oil used for frying, and replacing hot peppers with cayenne (since we don't usually have peppers on hand).

Paneer made from 8 cups of whole milk (see the recipe here)
Flour for dusting the paneer
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups chopped onions
2 tablespoons garlic, minced or pressed with a garlic press
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced or grated
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or 4 green chilis, seeded and minced)
24 green cardamom pods
2 sticks cinnamon (6" long total)
48 whole cloves
10 tablespoons (5/8 cup) ground almonds
2 cups plain yogurt (we use whole-milk yogurt)
1 pound potatoes, peeled and chopped into approximately 1/4 x 1/4 x 1.5" pieces
1 pound turnips, peeled and chopped into approximately 1/4 x 1/4 x 1.5" pieces
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and chopped into approximately 1/4 x 1/4 x 1.5" pieces
3 cups boiling water
1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt
1/2 cup frozen (or fresh) green peas
1/2 cup heavy cream
Rice or Indian bread to serve along with the dish

1. Chop the potatoes, turnips, and carrots, and put them in a bowl of cool water until needed.
2. Slice the paneer into pieces approximately the same size as your vegetables, and dust the paneer pieces with a little flour. Slicing paneer can be difficult because it can be crumbly, so take your time. When we make the cheese it usually forms a number of natural cracks; I try to slice the cheese following these veins. I typically end up with a wide variety of cheese cube sizes.
3. Heat 3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed, non-stick pot over medium-high heat, and then add the paneer and brown it lightly on all sides (~5 minutes), using tongs or a wooden spoon to turn the cheese pieces while cooking. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to brown the cheese in multiple batches. Remove the cheese to a plate once it has browned.
4. Add 1/2 cup vegetable oil to the pot, increase the heat to high, and add the onions, garlic, ginger, and cayenne pepper. Cook until the onions have turned light brown, ~10 minutes, stirring frequently. We typically press the garlic and grate our ginger (frozen ginger is very easy to grate), so we add the onions to the pot first, and cook them for a few minutes before adding the garlic, ginger, and cayenne pepper.
5. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves to the onion mixture, and fry for an additional 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
6. Add the almond powder to the pot, and continue cooking for another 2 minutes, stirring frequently. To make almond powder, we either grind whole almonds in a mortar and pestle (I knew graduate school would come in handy for something), or process them in a food processor, and then filter out the larger pieces using a strainer.
7. Stirring constantly, add the yogurt ~1/4 cup at a time, waiting until most of the water evaporates from the prior yogurt addition before adding more. Adding the yogurt should take about 5 to 10 minutes.
8. Drain the potatoes, turnips, and carrots and add them to the pot along with the boiling water and salt. If you are using fresh peas, add them here. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer (probably on low heat) until the vegetables are tender (~30 minutes).
9. Once the vegetables are tender, add the browned paneer, frozen peas, and cream, and simmer uncovered (probably on medium heat) until the sauce has thickened (~15-20 minutes).
10. Serve over rice or with Indian bread.

Sahni reports that the dish tastes better the day after it's prepared, and we've found that the flavors do improve after a day in the fridge, but we've never had the patience to wait that long before we try it; we usually just let it rest on the stove for an hour or so before diving in. This recipe makes more than enough for six people, and we usually enjoy the leftovers for several days after we make it.

You'll probably want to avoid eating any of the whole spices; we just pick them out as we eat, and then throw them away. Leave any whole spices remaining in the leftovers so they can continue to flavor the dish.

Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 269-271.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Spring break is here

This week of meetings and intradepartmental politics is thankfully over. The low point of the week was Thursday; a morning of meetings and an afternoon of multiple computer and copier failures contributed to my delivering the worst lecture I've ever given.

I'm ready for spring break.

My plans? 1) Sleep. 2) Put any and all work on my not-to-do list for all but one day of the break. 3) Relax. 4) Spend time with my much-neglected SO. 5) Possibly take a trip to Death Valley. 6) See 1, 3, & 4.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Did I say that?

"[We] have already managed to get approval from most of our faculty regarding decisions both on the overall building design and on specific lab sizes and layouts."
Silly me. I thought that when a group of faculty and staff all got together in a room, and after much discussion all chose one specific plan for the new biology building by saying some equivalent of "yes, I agree, that's the best option," that the faculty members actually meant that they agreed.

Yesterday I learned my lesson, as shortly after I made my previous post, my office was swarmed by three members of my department who made it very clear they were unhappy with the options chosen for a lab and stockroom they were interested in, and wanted the designs changed. Said lab is intended to be used by many different instructors, and thus the department had a group of at least six people all working on the layout of the room. The details of the discussion with these specific department members don't matter, but what became very clear after only a few minutes (of the hour-and-a-half-long discussion) was that these department members wanted me, as the committee chair, to quietly overrule the rest of the members of the committee and change the design option for this lab.

What irritated me about this whole interaction was the underhanded manner in which it was carried out; all these individuals agreed to the plans during the previous meeting. Then, these department members decided that they didn't like the plans and, instead of calling for a new meeting, wanted the plans changed immediately without consulting anyone else.

I'll have no part of that. In response to these concerns I've called for a meeting of the entire department, where we'll all be able to go over these issues in public, everyone can voice their concerns, and (hopefully) in the end we'll come to a group consensus.

Of course, from a personal perspective, this has meant that I've spent most of the past two days talking to everyone involved in this mess, finding a meeting time the entire department can make, informing everyone of the meeting, and having multiple exchanges with the architects to let them know we're having consensus problems and need more information.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Committee Work Blues

Much of my time in the past few weeks has been filled with committee meetings, including at least nine hours in the last two working days. Monday's are typically my day for prepping for the week ahead, but instead of that I got to be in a four hour meeting with our campus architects and another two hour meeting for the job search.

The architect meeting was actually quite interesting, as we're planning a new biology building and on Monday they brought in sample floor-plans for all of our labs. The architects have only been consulting with us for a few weeks, but have already managed to get approval from most of our faculty regarding decisions both on the overall building design and on specific lab sizes and layouts. There's still a lot more work to come, but so far things are looking good.
All this committee work has kept me constantly behind schedule. In trying to find ways to moderate this, I've been intrigued by Jill/txt's idea to have a not to do list, though unfortunately I haven't thought of much I could put on the list that would be of any help.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Paneer - fresh Indian cheese

One of our favorite ingredients in Indian cooking is paneer, a fresh unsalted cheese that's a bit like feta in texture, and a little like ricotta in flavor. Paneer goes excellently with many flavorful Indian sauces, and dishes containing it are some of my favorite items to order at Indian restaurants. Making paneer is relatively easy; all it takes is some whole milk, lemon juice, and a bit of time. We just made some today, so it seemed like a good end-of-the-week recipe blogging post; we got this recipe from Sahni's "Classic Indian Cooking."

Note: This recipe solely makes paneer, which is typically used as an ingredient in other Indian recipes; this is not a meal in itself (unless you like fresh, unsalted cheese with nothing on it). In the coming weeks I'll post a recipe or two that use this cheese.

8 cups whole milk (1/2 gallon)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed, strained lemon juice

0. Line a strainer with at least a double layer of cheesecloth, and place the strainer in either a very large bowl (enough to hold the 1/2 gallon of milk) or the sink.
1. Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pot (we use a non-stick stockpot), stirring frequently to prevent burning and sticking. Keep a close eye on the pot to ensure that it does not boil over.
2. Once the milk has boiled, reduce or turn off the heat, add the lemon juice, and gently stir until the curds start to form (~10 seconds). Once the curds have started forming, stir even more gently until the curds have completely separated from the whey. Once this occurs the pot should be filled with clumps of curds (precipitated protein and lipids) floating in the whey (the translucent yellowish liquid of the milk, including most of the carbohydrates and minerals).
3. Pour the curds and whey into the strainer you've lined with cheesecloth. Let the whey drain off from the curds.
4. Rinse the curds in the strainer with cold water for a few seconds to remove the lemon flavor.
5. Wrap the cheesecloth around the curds (bringing the corners together), and squeeze out as much water as you can. Be careful, as the water and curds will still be quite hot at this point, so alternating squeezing duty with a partner can help.
6. Once you've gotten most of the water out (don't worry if a bit still comes out when you squeeze the cheese hard), hang the cheese for an hour and a half to let it finish draining.
7. After the hanging period, press the cheese into a disk by putting it under a heavy item for half an hour. We typically put the cheese under a plate that has a few large cans stacked on it.
8. Remove the cheesecloth, cut the cheese into whatever size pieces are desired, and use in your recipe. The cheese will keep in the fridge just like other fresh cheeses.

While this recipe uses half a gallon of milk, it makes less than half a pound of cheese. However, this recipe is easy to scale up; we've regularly doubled the ingredients to make a gallon's worth of cheese, and it's just about the same amount of work as making half a gallon's worth.

Sahni says that instead of lemon juice you can use either "3 tablespoons cider vinegar mixed with 3 tablespoons water, or one cup plain yogurt," though we have not tried either of those methods.

Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 52-54.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Skeptics' Circle #4

Skeptics Circle blutton
I've been so busy for the past few days that I completely forgot about plugging the fourth Skeptics' Circle, which is now online over at Two Percent Company. Consider it plugged. Now I'm going to bed.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Apple reduces iTunes functionality

Apple used to brag that you could share the music you bought via iTunes with other computers on your local network, and the software was written so you could have up to five computers playing your music at any one time. Now, however, BoingBoing has posted that Apple appears to have changed the software so that iTunes only allows a total of five network users to play an individual song in a single day.

Thus, even if you bought your songs through iTunes before they made this change, expecting to be able to play your songs on an unlimited number of computers over a local net connection as long as no more than 5 computers were connecting at once, you're now prevented from doing so. This iTunes license change would be like a car manufacturer suddenly calling their customers and telling them that their cars will now only drive 100 miles a day, even though the customers bought their cars expecting to be able to drive them an unlimited number of miles in a day.

According to BoingBoing, this isn't the first time this has happened:
"Apple has done this downgrading several times before, taking away rights you paid for, like the right to burn a playlist 10 times (down to seven), the right to stream over the Internet (now just the right to stream over the LAN) -- and Apple's also used its ability to remotely disable features on your iPod and in iTunes to shut out competitors' products, like the Real music player and iPod Download, both of which offered legal functionality to Apple's customers."

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Ventura CCCD student protests

Yesterday hundreds of students walked out of classes at two of the Ventura County Community College District's campuses (Oxnard and Ventura) to protest the recent budget cuts in the district. Both the LA Times (article) and Ventura County Star (article; registration required) reported on the walkouts and subsequent protests.

Many of the students seem to be directing their anger towards the administration, but my guess is that the true culprit is the state of California's new budgetary policies. First of all, the governor has pulled out of his promise to fully fund Proposition 98, leading to significantly reduced funds for community colleges next year. The media has focused on this Proposition 98 issue, but there's more to the story than just that.

Ventura County Community College District's enrollment has declined recently, and since funding from the state is based on enrollment, state funding to the district has also probably declined. This has likely contributed to the district's financial problems. However, it's entirely possible that the enrollment decline is (or would have been) temporary, a result of factors such as increased tuition (it has more than doubled in the past few years) or cuts to classes made due to previous budget cuts.

Community colleges used to have three years to rebuild their enrollment before funding from the state dropped, meaning that colleges could maintain (and restructure) their course offerings while they attempted to regain enrollment. This policy allowed colleges to weather temporary drops in enrollment without making severe cuts to their programs, which was beneficial since the state regularly caps the funding available for growth (I've posted about this here). However, state law has now changed, and districts now have only one year to rebuild their enrollment and maintain funding. Unfortunately, this new policy has the potential to send colleges into downward spirals, since as enrollment drops, funding drops, and as funding drops class sections must be cut to balance the budget, and when class sections are cut, the enrollment drops even more.

Given this bugetary situation, what the college administrators are doing (unfortunately) makes perfect sense. The administrators are cutting programs that have low enrollment (e.g., journalism), so they can shield their high-enrollment programs (e.g., math, science, English) from cuts, all in a desperate attempt to maintain their enrollment and thus prevent their state funding from dropping even further, which would necessitate even deeper cuts.

The solution? Increase state funding.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The British Museum – part 2

I've finally had an opportunity to go through more of my London trip pictures, so it's time to finish talking about our favorite spot in London: The British Museum. In my first post I covered some of the larger exhibits that we saw, including the Parthenon marbles. The museum is much more than a few notorious exhibits, however, and we were impressed by a number of the smaller artifacts they had.

Cuneiform tablets
Cuneiform tablets from Ur (top) and "probably Shuruppak" (bottom), dating to 3,000 – 2,650 BC and ~2,500 BC respectively.

Here we have written works dating back well more than 4,000 years, a glimpse into the history of human culture. However, these aren't philosophical works, or records of kings and conquests. They're administrative documents detailing mundane tasks of everyday life, such as the delivery of barley to a temple (top) or the payments owed to and received by a governor (lower left).

There were, however, some grand stories included on some of their cuneiform tablets. Take, for instance, this one:

Flood story
The Babylonian story of the flood, written in 1,635 BC.

For those who have trouble seeing it, here's the full legend:
"This tablet is one of three which contained the Epic of Atrahasis, hero of the Babylonian flood story.

"It recounts how the gods, after several attempts to destroy mankind, which had been making too much noise for their comfort, eventually arranged for a flood to drown the world. The god of wisdom, Enki, surreptitiously warned his devotee Atrahasis of what was to happen, thereby enabling him to prepare a boat in which he, his household and his animals were saved.
Sound familiar?

They also had early biological models:

Babylonian model of a liver
Clay model of a sheep's liver

If this weren't made out of clay, and around 4,000 years old, I could easily see this as an old specimen from a zoology or A&P lab. However, instead of using this model to teach about the biology of the liver, the Babylonians were using the model to teach students to read omens. From what I can tell, each part of the liver has been labeled with the omen of what will happen when a blemish is found in that location. I'm glad biology has advanced past the omen stage.

There were also tablets detailing astronomical findings:

Haley's Comet observation
Babylonian record of the observation of Haley's Comet in 164BC.

This was virtually the last exhibit we saw at the British Museum; the guards had started shooing us out of the building, and as we were quickly walking through a section my SO spotted this tablet in the corner of a much larger display case. The museum has dated this clay tablet to September 22-28, 164BC; apparently Babylonian observatories kept detailed astronomical records dating back to the 7th century BC. This tablet recording Haley's Comet would have been my favorite find at the museum, if not for the one pictured below:

Wrong grade of copper
Clay tablet containing "a letter complaining about the delivery of the wrong grade of copper after a Gulf voyage." The tablet was written ~1,750 BC.

I can easily imagine the Babylonian who wrote this angrily stamping the clay, completely pissed off that he's received the wrong item.

It's amazing how little people have changed over the past 4,000 years.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Skeptics' Circle: Call for submissions

Skeptics Circle blutton
The fourth Skeptics' Circle will be posted this coming Thursday over at The Two Percent Company; their call for submissions is here. If you want to be included, submit your best skeptical writing to them by Wednesday, March 16 at 11pm EST.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

I posted too quickly ... even more CA school troubles

Only a short while after making my previous post on two Southern California school districts that are in financial trouble, I found two more articles (both in the San Jose Mercury News) discussing budget concerns in two more California school districts. The first article (registration required) discusses East Side Union High School District:
"East Side Union High School District trustees voted Thursday to send more than 400 layoff warnings to teachers next week, and focused on two other ways to stop the district's financial bleeding:

"Pursue an uncertain legal strategy to tap into land sale proceeds, or ask teachers to take a pay cut.

"The looming problem is a budget deficit for next school year that could be nearly $10 million, caused by ever-rising costs, declining state funds, and financial management practices from years past that auditors have flagged. Meanwhile the layoff notices could put pressure on the East Side Teachers Association, which represents about 1,200 district employees who are now seeking a new contract.

"The district does not plan to lay off 400 teachers, administrators said. But because they can't be sure which employees have the credentials to teach courses the district will need next year, it will send warnings to everyone who might be laid off. The president of the teachers union said it's overkill."
A second article covered a protest by teachers and parents in San Jose regarding the Proposition 98 funding issue (which I've discussed elsewhere):
"Portraying Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the villain who's placing California schools at risk with his latest budget proposal, hundreds of educators and parents protested further budget cuts Wednesday at a rally in San Jose.

"'The governor's budget proposals are the most significant threat to public education we have ever faced in California,' said Don Iglesias, superintendent of the San Jose Unified School District. 'We are in a fight for the future of the children of California.'

"At issue is Proposition 98, a voter-approved initiative guaranteeing public schools a minimum level of state funding. Last year, the governor and the Legislature suspended Proposition 98, and the governor has recommended the same again this year, sparking a huge outcry among educators across the state.

"About 1,000 Santa Clara County parents, educators and students chanted 'Save Prop. 98' and waved signs at the 4 p.m. rally at John Muir Middle School, accusing the governor of breaking his promise to restore the funding.

More California school troubles

Ventura County Community College District (which I've posted about here) isn't the only school district in the state to be facing severe budget problems right now; in the past few days both the Ojai Unified School District in Ventura County and the Huntington Beach City School District in Orange County have made budget cuts severe enough to spark parent protests.

Both protest participants and district officials have blamed the budget problems, at least partially, on Schwarzenegger's reneging on his promise to fund education to the levels mandated by Proposition 98 (which I've discussed previously here).

The LA Times reported on the Ojai situation:

"More than 500 parents, teachers and students rallied in Ventura on Thursday to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget, accusing him of breaking a promise to keep his hands off education dollars."


"'Even with Proposition 98's funding formula, California ranks among the bottom 10% of states in per-pupil spending', said Charles Weis, Ventura County schools superintendent.

"'We've seen 30 years of erosion in funding for public schools,' Weis said. 'We have now the largest class sizes, the fewest librarians and the fewest administrators. It's time we changed course.'"


"Though happy to see grass-roots opposition emerging, over the past two days he [Timothy Baird, the district's superintendent] had handed out layoff notices to 28 teachers in his district.

"In coming months, he expects to oversee the dismantling of elementary music programs that have been in place for years as well as making additional reductions to support staff.

"District leaders had hoped to stave off a $1.6-million cut to their $24-million budget by passing a parcel tax. But Ojai Valley voters soundly rejected that option at an election earlier in the week, leaving educators with little choice but to proceed with cuts, he said.
The Huntington Beach situation sounds reasonably similar, and was covered in the Orange County Register:

"Hundreds of parents took to the streets today to assail Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's education spending proposals.

"A crowd of protesters estimated by organizers at 300 lined the street in front of Sowers Middle School to oppose the governor's plan to suspend Proposition 98, which requires 40 percent of the state budget be spent on K-14 schools."


"Huntington Beach City School District officials say a current $2 million deficit and associated budget cuts are due in part to a lack of state funding.

"This week, trustees voted to close a school and relocate the district's offices to save $500,000. Layoffs and salary reductions for all district employees are set to be considered in coming weeks.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Honey mustard salad dressing

My SO combined a few honey mustard recipes found online (including a recipe on Alton Brown's Good Eats site) to create a delicious and easy-to-make honey mustard dressing. This dressing has the right mix of tanginess and sweetness for us, along with a hint of creaminess thanks to the mayonnaise. Even with the added mayonnaise this dressing is still lower in fat than many dressings available (e.g., oil and vinegar is traditionally 2:1 oil:vinegar). We mixed up a new batch this afternoon for a spinach, tomato, and onion salad, so it seemed like a good pick for this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup whole-grain mustard
1/4 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons jalapeno mustard

1. Whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl.
2. Let sit for a few minutes.
3. Serve.

The ingredients are fairly flexible, so modify as desired.

The jalapeno mustard we use is a yellow mustard that has little flecks of jalepenos in it; it's not terribly spicy, so just about any yellow seedless mustard should work.

We make our own whole-grain mustard from yellow and brown mustard seeds (see the recipe here), but if you don't have that available, you could substitute commercial whole-grain mustard or dijon mustard in place of both the whole-grain mustard and jalapeno mustard, adding a bit less than is called for. 1/3 cup total of dijon mustard would probably make a good substitute for both the whole-grain mustard and jalapeno mustard (though we haven't tried it).

[Updated December 2007 to add a link to our homemade mustard.]

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Ventura Community College District budget update

The Venture County Community College District Board met two nights ago (the night of my first post on the topic), and agreed to cuts they say are necessary to close a multi-million dollar budget shortfall. The LA Times summarizes both the response by students and the cuts themselves:
"Scores of Ventura County community college students staged a sit-in Wednesday at the president's office at Oxnard College to protest sweeping cuts to programs and personnel to close a $7.5-million budget gap this year and next.

"The demonstration came just hours after Ventura County Community College District trustees shuttered cafeteria services at all three campuses, eliminated or reduced nearly two dozen academic programs and laid off about 130 instructors, most of whom work part time. A few teachers will be out of work at week's end, while the rest will lose their jobs by June 30.

A lot of press has been given to the elimination of journalism departments at two of the campuses, possibly eliminating student newspapers there, but many other programs also got cut. The Ventura County Star has a list (registration required) of which programs and staff are being cut; college names are included in parentheses after each program:
"Discontinued programs
  • Companion animal pet studies (Moorpark).
  • Electronics technology (Moorpark and Oxnard).
  • Horticulture (Ventura).
  • Hotel management (Oxnard).
  • Interpretation (Oxnard).
  • Machine tool technology (Ventura).
  • Theater arts (Oxnard).

"Other staff reductions
  • Ceramics, college strategies, computer information systems, counseling services, disabled student programs, education, English as a second language, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, journalism*, matriculation services, cross- country instruction, reading.
  • [Journalism] program and student newspapers are discontinued at Oxnard and Ventura colleges.

"Other cuts include:
  • Cafeteria cuts (six food service jobs at Moorpark, four each at Ventura and Oxnard).
  • At least 134 faculty cuts; management and clerical cuts, including two custodians, the director of college budgets and the executive assistant to the deputy chancellor."

Tangled Bank #23

Tangled Bank Blutton
Tangled Bank #23 has been posted by GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life. This is one of the longest Tangled Banks yet, but GrrlScientist's organizational scheme makes it easy to read.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Community college budget problems

The LA Times reports that the Ventura County Community College District is having severe budget problems:
"Facing a $1.6-million budget gap this fiscal year and a $6-million shortfall next year, Ventura County Community College District officials are considering laying off instructors, eliminating or reducing nearly two dozen academic programs and shutting down cafeteria services at all three campuses."
Educational programs listed as facing cuts include the journalism program and student-run newspaper, as well as "electronics, theater arts and foreign language instruction."

For some history on state education funding, last year Gov. Schwarzenegger promised to fund education in 2005 to levels guaranteed by state proposition 98, as long as the community colleges and K-12 programs accepted a one-time funding cut in 2004. This year, the governor pulled out of that promise and proposed reducing funding from proposition 98 levels. The governor's office is trying to spin the story by saying that they're increasing the education budget, but there's no escaping the fact that they're decreasing funding from levels guaranteed by state law. For a fairly detailed treatment of the issue, see this San Diego Union-Tribune article.

So, if anyone thought that California community colleges weren't still having budget problems, this is just a little reminder that we still are.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Wikis in a research class - the first steps

Regular readers have probably noticed that posting has been a bit lighter than usual. The third Skeptics' Circle is responsible for a lot of this; however, I've also been spending a lot of time getting a wiki ready for a research class I'll be teaching over the summer.

The idea behind Wikis is simple: anyone who visits the site can edit any page on the site (usually excluding a few high-level administrative pages). Because wikis are completely open and modifiable, everyone can contribute information relevant to their area(s) of expertise, and the site can be maintained by every user, rather than by only one or a few administrators who can quickly get overwhelmed.

One of the primary advantages of wikis is their simple text editing and formatting. All a user has to do is click the "edit" link on a page to start editing the page; no special page authoring software (e.g. a HTML editing program) is required. Once the wiki is up and running, even the site administrator doesn't need special editing software or telnet/FTP access to edit the site; administrators can make almost all their changes through a web browser just like any other user.

The wiki markup language is easier to use than HTML. For example, bold text is created by surrounding text with * characters. Links are created by putting text in double square brackets (e.g. [[Link]]), or by creating WikiWords (two words run together, with the first letter of each word capitalized); WikiWords are automatically linked without any special characters. Creating new pages is similarly simple. This combination of easy page creation, simple markup, and web-browser editing makes wikis probably the easiest platform around with which to build a website, especially if there are multiple content authors.

The most apparent problem with wikis is that since anyone can edit any page, important content can be accidentally removed, or the site can be defaced or spammed. However, all wikis maintain a page history containing a detailed record of changes to every page, and thus deleted content can be recovered, and defacing removed, with just a few clicks. Also, since anyone can edit the site, the first user who stumbles upon a defaced page can fix it without any special editing privileges.

Probably the most well-known wiki is the Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia. The Wikipedia is one of the best examples of what can happen with a large community of users on a wiki - the English version currently has more than 490,000 articles. I've even had my students contribute to the Wikipedia as a class assignment, though with mixed success (most did report enjoying the assignment).

I've toyed with the idea of having a class wiki for quite a while, but since I had neither a hosting solution nor a great reason to have a class wiki in the first place, I never created one. However, this summer I'll be teaching a field research class which seems perfect for a wiki. I'll have a small group of students spending a lot of time doing preparation work (starting this semester), all of which will need to be shared, and group research plans will need to be created and changed based on everyone's input. We'll also need a place to store data during the project, and having the data publicly available after the summer course is finished will facilitate future projects.

Since my campus won't even allow the majority of faculty to have FTP access to a web server, and they require department pages to be approved by an administrator before they can be posted on the website, I know the tech folks would never even dream of allowing a wiki on their servers. Thankfully, however, I now have a Linux box at home, so for the time being I'm going to be hosting the wiki there.

After looking at a number of open-source software packages, I ended up choosing TWiki for my course wiki. The most common negative review of TWiki was that it was difficult to install, but most reviews seemed to agree that it was powerful and customizable. I thought about going with some simpler programs (e.g. usemod wiki), but decided that the additional power of TWiki (which has a number of plugins, and appears to be under active development) would be worth the install troubles. One feature I liked in TWiki was the ability to restrict page editing to specific groups of users; while I hope to keep the vast majority of the site completely open to being editable by all users, if we do store raw data on the site, the data will likely require at least some protection from defacement.

Installing TWiki was relatively easy; Debian has a package that takes care of a lot of the installation issues, though I did have to manually edit the Apache configuration files as described on the TWikiInstallationGuide page. Once the server was up and running, the real configuration process began, as I had to alter TWiki's defaults to meet my goals for the site. I was able to do all of this configuration (except installing a plugin and changing a template setting) through my web browser.

So, after about two weeks of editing and fiddling, the site is finally ready to go live with my students. I've shown test versions to a few students, and they seemed excited by the possibilities of the wiki. Now we'll see if that excitement turns into actual site participation.

Update: After 24 hours of being "live" to the students, the site has gotten exactly zero hits. Not exactly the resoundingly successful opening day I had hoped for, but I'm sure the students are busy.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Hiring committee

I am now officially on the hiring committee for a full-time, tenure-track faculty position at my campus. There was some debate in the department about who would be on the committee, including the usual intradepartmental politics, and my presence was questionable for a while: I was first asked to be on the committee, then asked if I would volunteer to step down, and finally asked to be on it again.

This will probably be the last post on this topic for a while, since much of the process is confidential. But, for those of you keeping track of what I'm doing, you can add one more committee to the ever-growing list.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Plum galette

Last weekend my SO and I cooked a plum galette, a treat we've made many times before. Galettes are rustic baked fruit desserts with a layer of fresh fruit wrapped in pie crust and sprinkled with sugar; they're easier to make than fruit pies, and excellent topped with a little whipped cream. If you like pie crust and fruit, you're guaranteed to like galettes.

The pie crust we use is a cornmeal flaky pastry crust; the recipe is very similar to the walnut flaky pastry crust I included with the pear pie recipe (in fact, a large portion is just copied and pasted). Virtually any flaky pie crust will work, but since it's such a critical part of the dish, the crust really should be homemade. I would never make this dish with a store-bought crust.

The pie crust recipe below makes enough for two galettes; if you're only making one galette, halve the recipe. Making the crust is the most time-consuming portion of the recipe, though, so you might as well make enough crust for two galettes.

This recipe is based on one from Joy of Cooking, and is (of course) this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Cornmeal flaky pastry crust
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, frozen, unsalted (reduce the salt added above if using salted butter)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice-cold water (plus a bit extra)

Assembly ingredients
2-3 ripe plums, skin on
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
some milk for brushing on the crust

To make the crust:
1) Put the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in a food processor, and process until mixed.
2) Cut the frozen butter into approximately tablespoon-sized pieces, add to the flour mixture, and process in short spurts until the largest pieces of butter are pea-sized.
3) Add the ice water and process in short spurts until the dough starts to come together (but it shouldn't form a ball). If the dough doesn't start coming together, add another tablespoon or two of extra water (I usually end up adding about an extra tablespoon).
4) Remove the dough from the food processor (it should still be in many small pieces) and compress it together with your hands.
5) Divide the dough in half and pat each half into a disk. If the dough is relatively warm and sticky, put it in the fridge for a short period (~15 minutes) until it is firmer, though I find the dough is usually cool enough to roll right away.
6) Use a floured rolling pin on a well-floured work surface to roll half the dough into a circle approximately 14 inches wide. Rolling the dough takes a bit of practice to do well, though I've found that even when I have apparently fatal flaws, they're rarely apparent in the final galette. If the dough develops holes or cracks, you can usually moisten (with water) another piece of dough and press it on top of the crack, then continue rolling the crust as normal. I'll slip a rimless baking sheet underneath the dough every now and then, adding some flour underneath the crust, to prevent it from sticking to the countertop. Joy of Cooking has a tremendously useful section on rolling pie crust if you've never done it before.
7) Transfer the rolled-out crust onto your pan (I use my rimless baking sheet); either assemble the galette immediately or cover the crust with plastic wrap and put it into the fridge until you're ready.
8) Either roll out the second half of your pie crust to make a second galette, or put it into the fridge or freezer (tightly wrapped in plastic wrap) until you're ready to make your second galette.

Assembling the galette:
0) Preheat the oven to 400F.
1) Thinly slice the plums (making them approximately 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick at the widest point).
2) Assemble the plum slices in a single layer (with edges overlapping slightly) in the center of the crust, leaving about 2-3 inches of dough bare around the edge of the crust.
3) Sprinkle the fruit with two tablespoons of the sugar.
4) Gently fold the bare portions of the crust over the fruit, leaving a circle of fruit exposed in the center of the galette. If some of the crust rips or forms awkward folds at this point, don't worry about it; it'll still taste great.
5) Brush the top of the crust with a little milk, and then sprinkle it with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.
5) Bake in the oven for 25-35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
6) Let cool for a short while out of the oven on the pan, but because the galette is so thin we've found that it's often cool enough to transfer to plates after only 5 minutes or so.
7) Top with a bit of whipped cream, if desired (it's recommended).

Galettes can be made with just about any type of fruit - Joy of Cooking recommends blueberries, raspberries, and peaches. Since galettes are so thin, they don't go as far as fruit pies; we find that one galette is typically enough for four hearty servings.

Tangled Bank call for submissions

Tangled Bank Blutton
The Tangled Bank has had an interesting few weeks. Two weeks ago the 22nd Tangled Bank was posted, but some articles were lost in the mail, and thus PZ Myers wrote Tangled Bank #22½: The Quest for the Lost Articles.

This Wednesday Living the Scientific Life will be hosting the twenty third Tangled Bank (call for articles); submit your posts to Grrlscientist or by Tuesday evening to be included.

Friday, March 04, 2005

By reading this you agree to ...

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a detailed article describing some of the more egregious terms found in certain end user license agreements (EULAs).

I've regularly joked that I was signing away my firstborn child when I was agreeing to these things; little did I know that some of them could conceivably change their wording to include those terms after I had agreed to the EULA, without even notifying me of the change (see point #5 in the EFF article).

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Third Skeptics' Circle

Skeptics Circle blutton
It is with great pleasure that I introduce the third Skeptics' Circle, a collection of skeptical writing from across the blogosphere. For those unfamiliar with the idea, read through St. Nate's first Skeptics' Circle, and Orac's most enjoyable second Skeptics' Circle.

Orac wove his version of the Skeptics' Circle into a compelling narrative; I pondered doing the same (trying to weave elements of Tolkien throughout the tale), but nothing really clicked, and what I did write seemed like a cheap ripoff of Orac. So, rather than having elves and Maiar wandering around, I've decided on a clean, crisp presentation that focuses all the attention right where it should be: on the 21 excellent articles that were submitted for this edition.

Biology and evolution
Reasoning in daily life
Ones that didn't fit anywhere else
That's it! The next Skeptics' Circle will be hosted on Thursday, March 17 by The Two Percent Company; their call for posts is here.

[updated March 3, 2005 based on an e-mail correction from Paul Lee (author of Confessions of a Quackbuster), and to include a link to The Two Percent Company's request for posts.]

Third Skeptics' Circle coming soon

Skeptics Circle blutton

The Skeptics' Circle will most likely be posted around 10am PST today. I will send an e-mail to all the contributors as soon as the post goes up.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

I must be an administrative mole

PZ Myers discusses a Bitch Ph.D. post about student evaluations; PZ's opinion of student evaluations can be summed up by his first few lines:
"I think a better question to ask is if anyone finds them [student evaluations] useful or informative -- everyone who said yes to that would be instantly outed as an administrative mole, so we could haul 'em off for a little tarring and feathering. But otherwise, I don't know anyone who likes them."
PZ: you now know your first person who likes student evaluations. And I don't just like them, I love them. I read each and every one of my personal evaluations, and I tweak my course based on them.

I view my student evaluations as one of the best measures of my teaching quality. My students are the reason why I'm in the classroom; by the end of the semester they've had to endure more than 140 hours with me, and they almost certainly know how I teach better than any of my peers. Each member of my tenure committee (the only other people on campus who observe my teaching) spends less than two hours each year in my classroom, and they always notify me when they're coming in to observe, so I know to be on my best behavior. I trust 140+ hours of observation over less than two hours of observation (of my best lessons) any day. My peers also already know the subject I'm teaching, so they're not even my intended audience.

Now certainly, as many have pointed out, student evaluations do have their flaws. Easy instructors will likely get higher numerical feedback, as grading hard will necessarily create some student enemies (though easy instructors may also be reviewed negatively for wasting students' time), and there will always be students who hate an instructor for personal or idiosyncratic reasons (assuming these are only an anomalous few, they can usually be safely discounted).

The largest flaw I see in most student evaluations is that the stock evaluation forms provided by campuses contain pointless questions. As PZ points out, the campus forms will often ask questions that are only cursorily related to teaching (e.g., about the physical environment), and even the questions they do ask are relatively meaningless (e.g., "How would you rate the exams in this course, on a scale of 1-5?"). Our campus has these stock evaluation forms, and I'll agree with PZ: I largely ignore them. They tell me very little.

The evaluations I really care about, and the ones I'm anxious to open at the end of every semester, are the evaluations that I write and give to the students myself. I change these evaluations every semester, and every semester I ask only a few targeted questions about specific course elements that I want feedback on. If I introduced a new item to the course, I'll often ask students how they liked it; see my evaluation data on knowledge checks and the in-class response system for examples of this type of data. If the students hated the new idea, I try something else; if they loved it, I probably keep it.

I always have a lot of space for written answers (complete with detailed short answer questions), and I introduce the evaluation by telling students I'll read every evaluation over the break, and will use it to redesign the course in the future. I receive no campus support for these additional evaluations (I enter and analyze all the data myself), though I do often share the results with my supervisors and peers.

One of my favorite things to ask students on my lab evaluations is which labs were, in their opinion, the best and worst labs of the semester (providing a list of the labs to help jog their memory). I enter all these rankings into a spreadsheet, and compute which labs were the most liked, and which were the least liked; I then use this feedback to redesign the lab the following semester. For instance, last semester a yeast fermentation lab received relatively poor ratings overall, so this semester that yeast fermentation lab is being replaced with a new lab (still on yeast fermentation, but addressing a separate issue in a different manner).

So, in short, if you're complaining that your student evaluations aren't providing you with the feedback you'd like, then the problem is likely with the evaluations, not the students.

Bitch Ph.D. goes further than PZ and implies that students have no right to criticize her teaching, since they don't understand her pedagogical approach. Here's a sampling:
"Is anyone else bothered that our primary feedback on our work comes from children? ... In academia, the people who observe and evaluate you on a day-to-day basis are distracted 18-year olds who don't understand what your job actually is."

"I swear to god a major part of the reason we all feel so alienated and anxious is because we don't get feedback or praise from people who count on any kind of regular basis."
I think most students have a very good grasp of what our job in the classroom is: we're there to help them learn the content our course is intended to cover. If we do a good job of helping students learn, they will recognize that ("Hey, now I know that worm is actually a nematode, and it's more closely related to arthropods than annelids, and ..."), and conversely, they can also tell if the class was largely a waste of time. Obviously every class will contain some students who think the class is a waste of time, but you know there's a problem when a large fraction of the class feels that way.

An analogy for student evaluations of professors is that I don't have to fully understand the stressful life of a chef, or the complicated planning that goes into creating a menu, to know whether I like the food that comes out of the kitchen. Students will not necessarily understand the pedagogy underlying every decision that an instructor makes, but they can judge whether they like the decisions their instructors make, and whether the decisions their instructors make facilitate their learning.

Just because I work hard and spend hours on my teaching doesn't mean that my teaching is necessarily of high quality; the only way I can determine whether I'm teaching well is to listen to the people who are in the best position to judge my work: my students.