Saturday, December 30, 2006

Airport security wait times

Jill pointed out that the TSA has a website ( that lists the average (and maximum) security checkpoint wait times for major US airports. The wait times are broken down by airport, day of the week, and hour of the day, so it's actually fairly useful for planning airport travel.

They've also got all the data downloadable as a (very large) XML file.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Men think about sex every 12,300 seconds?

My SO found this somewhat old [more than two months old? That's ancient in blog-land] post over at Language Log on the frequency of sexual thoughts by men and women. The post analyzes the (lack of) scientific evidence behind the (oft repeated) claim made by Louann Brizendine in The Female Brain that
85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds and women think about it once a day -- or up to three or four times on their most fertile days.
Go read Mark's post for a wonderful scientific takedown of bogus psychological claims. And when you're done with that post, go look at the rest of his posts on Brizendine's book.

One more thing to think about when you swallow seawater at the beach

The ocean is home to a tremendous diversity of organisms. Many animal phyla are found exclusively in marine environments (e.g., Ctenophora, Echinodermata), and even those phyla that contain species that can live elsewhere are often more diverse in the oceans (e.g., Cnidaria, Mollusca, Porifera, Annelida). But, of course, animals aren't alone in the ocean: protists abound (diatoms, dinoflagellates, red algae, green algae, brown algae, etc.), and there are more bacteria than you can shake a stick at: at least one species of bacteria can be found at concentrations of up to 200,000 cells per milliliter of seawater (data for Prochlorococcus; Freeman 2005). Introducing all of this to my classes is always fun, and it usually makes at least a few students squeamish as they think back to all that seawater they've accidentally swallowed.

Now I have something new to add to my list of marine diversity highlights: viruses. Angly et al. (2006) took dozens of samples of seawater from four different ocean regions (see their figure 1) and analyzed them for viral genetic material (double- and single-stranded DNA)1. Their results are astounding:
Taken together, these data indicate that the global marine viral richness could be as high as a few hundred thousand species, with a regional richness sometimes almost as high, likely because of migration processes.
In other words, there are probably more than 100,000 different species (genotypes) of viruses in the ocean right now. That's more than double the number of known species of chordates (the phylum humans are in), and is approaching the number of extant plant species2.

The researchers found 129,000 different genotypes of viruses present in just one of the regions they sampled (coastal British Columbia; see their table 3). While other regions had less diversity (containing hundreds to thousands of genotypes), Angly et al. (2006) found that, overall, there was a lot of overlap in the species present in each area. Even though the dominant species in each region were different, the same viruses were generally present in all four regions (see their figure 4). It sounds like there's some interesting population ecology waiting to be uncovered here.

While Angly et al.'s (2006) diversity data is stunning, their methodology limited them to identifying viruses that use DNA as their genetic material. While many viruses do use DNA as their genetic material, a number of viruses use RNA as their genetic material, and thus Angly et al. are necessarily underestimating the actual number of viral species present in the marine environment.

Angly FE, B Felts, M Breitbart, P Salamon, RA Edwards, C Carlson, AM Chan, M Haynes, S Kelley, H Liu, JM Mahaffy, JE Mueller, J Nulton, R Olson, R Parsons, S Rayhawk, CA Suttle, and F Rohwer. 2006. The Marine Viromes of Four Oceanic Regions. PLoS Biology 4:11 e368. Full-text article; synopsis.

Freeman, S. 2005. Biological Science, 2nd edition. Prentice Hall: NJ. pp. 583.

1 Finding more than 100,000 species of viruses by sequencing DNA isolated from viruses in seawater was no small task; Angly et al. ended up generating 1,768,297 different DNA sequences, which they then had to compare both to known sequences in databases and to each other. Yikes.
2 See the data at the end of this post.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas 2006 menu

To continue my tradition of posting our holiday menus, here's what we had to eat this Christmas.

On Christmas eve we had our traditional dinner of cold cuts and cheese with good bread. This year we had two kinds of salami, ham, two kinds of liverwurst, and many cheeses (Basque shepherd's cheese, Havarti, chevre, and pepperjack).

On Christmas day we had a brunch of two kinds of fondue: raclette and English coastal cheddar. Christmas dinner was our usual spread:
We also made crab dip, but won't be eating it until tomorrow.

Our house smells so good right now.

1 We skipped Alton's brining step (since our turkey came pre-injected with saline solution); to make the apple-cinnamon gravy we used the leftover water from heating the turkey filling (onion, garlic, carrots, apple, and cinnamon) to make stock from the neck and giblets, and then used that stock to make our gravy.

Radagast's SO's creamed snow peas with onions and garlic

My SO and I were pleasantly surprised to walk into our yard today and find a crop of snow peas hanging on the vine. We decided to add them to our Christmas dinner, but unfortunately the only snow pea recipes we could find were stir-fries (with some combination of ginger, soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil), salads, or pasta dishes. We didn't like any of those choices, so my SO (ever the amazing improvisational cook) decided to whip them up in a cream sauce with garlic and onions. The savoriness of the creamy onions and garlic was the perfect compliment to the sweet, crunchy peas; the dish was delicious, and thus it's this week's end-of-the-holiday recipe blogging post.

1/2 pound snow peas, washed, trimmed, and halved
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 large onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt (or more, to taste)

1. Melt the butter in a wok over medium-high heat.
2. Add the onion and fry, stirring constantly, until it starts to brown around the edges, ~5 minutes.
3. Add the garlic and continue frying, stirring constantly, until both the garlic and onion are browned on the surface, ~3 minutes.
4. Add the snow peas and cook, stirring frequently, until they're almost cooked to your desired crispness (taste them periodically to check). If the pan is dry and the onions or garlic seem as though they're going to burn, add the 1/4 cup water (this should mostly simmer off before the cream is added).
5. Add the cream and salt, and continue cooking until the sauce thickens and begins to coat the peas, ~2 minutes.
6. Taste to check the salt level, and serve.


Our pea plants produced only 1/2 pound of snow peas for us to use, which made enough to serve 2-3 for Christmas dinner, and probably would have barely served 2 for a normal dinner. This recipe should scale easily to create larger amounts.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Ruby Christmas tree

For those of you who program in Ruby, Ruby Inside has posted this cute Christmas code snippet (as a part of their 2006 Ruby advent calendar):
print "#{def r(x);rand(x);end; C = "\033["}2J#{C}0;0f#{C}32m"; w=r(20).to_i+13
h=w-r(10).to_i; h.times { |line| puts " " * ((w / 2) - (line / 2)) +
(1..line+1).collect { r(rand(12)) == 0 ? "#{C+'5m' if % 2 == 0}#{C}#{r(7) +
31}m*#{C}0m#{C}32m":'='}.join}; print "#{C}33m"; 3.times{ puts (("x" * (w / 6)
).center(w)) }; puts "#{C}0m\n", "Merry Christmas From Ruby Inside!"
Run that in a terminal a few times to enjoy.

Oh, and if you don't already have Ruby installed, this code snippet is most certainly not worth installing Ruby to run.

New e-mail address

I now have a sparkling new e-mail address: Please use that for all bloggy communication from now on1.

Strangely, it appears that I haven't been getting e-mail at my old account (the one at Comcast) for at least the past week. Thus, if you've sent e-mail to that address recently, please resend it to the new address.

1 If you're an offline friend or family member of Radagast and SO, this change doesn't affect you at all -- keep using the same non-Rhosgobel e-mail addresses that you've been using all along.

Happy holidays!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah1, Cheerful Cephalopodmas1, Super Solstice1, or whatever floats your boat. Enjoy!

1 A bit late ... sorry.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Denver Airport

BoingBoing linked to a before-and-after picture of the Denver Airport. Brr!

Compiled by mo.murrey; original post-blizzard image by ashleyniblock here (cc licensed).

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Libyan justice is blind to science

A Libyan court has upheld the death sentences of the Tripoli six. This has gotten a ton of press around the blogosphere, so I won't say much more here other than to point you towards Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, Effect Measure, and a Nature article (PDF) that demonstrates that the nurses and doctor are innocent.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Never fear ...

I wanted to briefly explain my recent silence. In addition to getting sick (lovely way to start a break) and doing the usual frantic pre-Christmas shopping, my SO and I are spending much of our time working on a "project". Given our past track record on "projects," I'd rather wait for it be complete (or have failed horribly) before posting about it. Look for more news (hopefully) next week!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

War on Terror: The Boardgame

An independent group of game developers has just released a new German-style board game called War On Terror. It looks like an absolutely hilarious (and horribly cynical) "simulation" of the modern war on terror, complete with oil dominating world politics, countries funding terrorism illicitly, random accusations of who's the axis of evil today, and an evil balaclava. Go read their short summary of how to play the game for more, and then go look at their Empire Cards and Terrorist Cards. For even more information (including reviews and pictures), check out the Board Game Geek War on Terror page.

I normally don't like wargame-style board games, but I think I might just make an exception for this one. Now if only I didn't have to pay for shipping from England ...

(via BoingBoing)

Friday, December 15, 2006

It is over!

The semester that started on an extremely bad note, and continued on to even more bad notes, is now finally over. Granted, the end of the semester did have some positive elements to it, but this wasn't quite the semester I'd hoped it would be. In any case, my grades are now all turned in, the letters of recommendation are all written, and I'm done for the year. Yippee!

I don't want my negativity about this semester to make it sound as though I'm frustrated with my job overall. While the events surrounding our field program have been disheartening, I'm excited about the coming semesters, at least partially because I'm finally going to be able to start working on my long-planned online course in the spring, and should be able to actually teach it in the fall. In fact, I'm going to get started on it over break (as well as restarting our remodeling).

But all that is for another day. Right now it's time to go have some fun.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

2006 Weblog awards

It's finals week around these parts, so yours truly will be rather distracted for a few days (in fact, I only finished writing tomorrow's final about an hour ago). Sorry ...

However, to amuse yourself, go check out Pharyngula's and Bad Astronomy's tussle over who should win the best science blog award. Many apologies to Bad Astronomy, but I must side with my invertebrate-defending colleague, especially when he creates banners that feature such cute critters as this:

To facilitate your amusement, here are all of Pharyngula's posts so far:
And here are all of Bad Astronomy's posts:
Oh, and don't forget that Orac has been nominated for an award as well. Orac, however, doesn't have a cool banner ... just a link to the voting page.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sweet saffron pilaf (Zarda)

We've previously posted Patiala pilaf and Banaras-style pilaf recipes; this pilaf is just as easy to make as those two, but is slightly sweet, and thus adds a different note to the dishes it's served with (it's also tasty just eaten by itself). Since this pilaf is made with saffron, the rice has a nice yellow hue when complete. We just made this dish tonight to go along with our Moghul braised chicken, and thus it's this week's second end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

And, as I've said in our prior two pilaf recipes, if all you've ever eaten are American-style pilafs ("I cooked my rice with chicken stock; now it's a pilaf"), you're in for a pleasantly flavorful surprise.

2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water, plus more to rinse the rice
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon saffron, mixed into 2 tablespoons of water (see step 4)
10 whole cloves
8 green cardamom pods
1 3" cinnamon stick
1/2 cup raisins (we use jumbo golden raisins)
1 1/4 teaspoons Kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar

1. Rinse the basmati rice repeatedly with water in a large bowl until the water draining off is mostly clear.
2. Drain as much of the rinsing water from the rice as you can, and then add 4 cups of fresh water. Let soak for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the rice, reserving the soaking water (it will be used to cook the rice later).
4. Put the saffron into a small bowl or cup, and crush it with your fingers or the back of a spoon1. Add 2 tablespoons of water, and stir to mix, again crushing the threads with the back of a spoon as you do so.
5. Heat the oil in a nonstick pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add all the whole spices (cloves, cardamom pods, and the cinnamon stick) and cook, stirring constantly, until they start to brown (~1-2 minutes)
6. Add the rice, and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice turns translucent (~5 minutes; Sahni states the rice should begin to brown, but it never does for us).
7. Add the reserved soaking water, saffron water, raisins, salt, and sugar; stir to mix. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes. At the end of this time the water should be mostly absorbed.
8. Turn the heat to the lowest setting possible, raise the pot above the burner (we set it on a wire roasting rack placed over the burner), and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.
9. Turn off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes.
10. Fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.


You can leave the whole spices in the dish when you serve it, but should probably avoid eating them. This recipe is from Sahni (1980); we've reduced the amount of saffron added by about half, due to its expense.

Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 369-370.

1 Sahni (1980) reports that you should grind the saffron into a powder before adding the water; we've never been able to do this (our saffron just sticks to the side of the bowl and stays whole).

Moghul braised chicken (Mughalai korma)

This Indian dish features tender bits of chicken slathered in a rich creamy, yogurt-based sauce that's filled with onions, garlic, ginger, and a wide array of spices (cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, coriander, and cayenne pepper). This is packed with flavor, and is delicious when paired with an Indian pilaf (e.g., Patiala pilaf, Banaras-style pilaf, or sweet saffron pilaf). This is reasonably similar to yogurt braised chicken; Moghul braised chicken is probably a bit more spiced, but if you like one, I guarantee that you'll like the other. Since we just cooked this tonight (along with some sweet saffron pilaf), it's this week's first end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1 cup vegetable oil
6 cups finely chopped onions
2 tablespoons minced (or pressed) garlic
3 tablespoons minced ginger
24 whole green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
48 whole cloves
8 bay leaves
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (increase if desired)
2 cups whole-milk yogurt
2 1/2 pounds chicken (we used boneless, skinless thighs), chopped into ~1/4" x 2" strips
1 cup boiling water
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream

0a. Plan to have a pilaf (or plain steamed rice) ready by the time this dish is complete.
0b. As this dish requires near-constant stirring once it begins cooking, it can be helpful to measure (and otherwise prepare) most of the ingredients first. Specifically, chop the onions, ginger, and garlic; put the cardamom pods, cloves, and bay leaves into a small cup; put the coriander and cayenne pepper into another cup; measure the yogurt into a container that is easy to pour from; cut the chicken and get it ready; and get a pot of water ready to bring to a boil on the stove.
1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed nonstick pot over high or medium-high heat (use the lower heat if you're concerned items might burn). Once the oil is hot, add the onions and fry for 5 minutes, stirring nearly constantly.
2. Add the ginger and garlic to the onions, and continue cooking, stirring nearly constantly, until the onions just begin to brown (about another 5 minutes).
3. Add the cardamom pods, cloves, and bay leaves, and continue cooking, stirring nearly constantly, until the onions are golden brown (~5 minutes more).
4. Add the ground coriander and cayenne, and cook, stirring constantly, for 15 seconds.
5. Add ~1/4 cup of the yogurt to the pot, and cook, stirring constantly, until most of the water in the yogurt has evaporated. Continue adding the yogurt ~1/4 cup at a time until you've added all of it (this should take 5-10 minutes).
6. Add the chopped chicken to the pot, and cook, stirring nearly constantly, until the chicken has turned opaque, ~5 minutes.
7. Stir in the boiling water and salt. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked, ~25 minutes.
8. Stir in the cream and remove from the heat.
9. Let the dish rest, covered, for at least an hour.
10. Bring back to a simmer (or close to it) before serving.


Don't let the length of time (and amount of stirring) it takes to cook this recipe dissuade you from cooking it; this dish will make your house smell absolutely delicious as it cooks, and the end result is well worth the effort. We've doubled this recipe from the original source (Sahni 1980), primarily because most of the work involved in making this dish is the constant stirring required during cooking; by doubling it we get twice the tasty food with far less than twice the effort. Leftovers store and reheat excellently; the dish is even tastier the second time around.

This recipe is based on one by Sahni (1980); we've reduced the oil from the original recipe.

Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 206-208.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

New York Times special section on Pearl Harbor

The New York Times has a special section on Pearl Harbor today, wherein they are republishing a six-part series on how the Pacific Fleet was rebuilt after the attack in 1941. The series was written in December of 1942, but never published due to wartime censorship; the articles are now available as PDFs (via the link above).

In the same spirit, Orac has a good post about remembering the survivors of Pearl Harbor, complete with links to more historical information.

There can always be plagiarism

This semester has not been one of my better semesters, and thus I'm ecstatic that there is only one week left. However, up until today there was one event (or, rather, lack of an event) that was making me very happy: I hadn't found a single case of plagiarism. I was, in fact, getting excited that I might break my streak of finding a case of plagiarism every semester that I've taught.

But today, while grading some lab reports, I found my first case of plagiarism. The lab reports were written in the style of a journal article (the usual abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and literature cited sections), and were based on a multi-week experiment that the students had designed and conducted themselves. The students had come up with their own questions, designed their own protocols, collected their own data, and done all the data analysis (including statistical analyses) themselves. This has to be one of the least plagiarism-prone assignments possible, as the paper consists of the students discussing, presenting, and analyzing their unique data.

But, this student managed to find a way to plagiarize. Specifically, a portion of the introduction had been copied verbatim from a published journal article, and a large fraction of the discussion was taken from another journal article's discussion (with the treatment names and organism names changed to match the student's experiment)1. While I identified the portion of the introduction that was plagiarized while reading the paper, I didn't catch the plagiarism in the discussion until I'd scanned it with (a competitor of

So, let this be an example that students can, and will, plagiarize just about any assignment, even if that assignment is intended to be based solely on their own work2.

Constant vigilance!

1 For those who remember my variability in plagiarism post, I'd say this student's plagiarism falls into category 2D.
2 And if you think that students aren't plagiarizing in your class, go take a peek at the data I cite at the beginning of this post.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fastest pen in the west!

Today I just achieved what I once thought was impossible: I graded a full set of lab reports, checked them all for plagiarism, and got them back to the students, all in less than 48 hours. The students were shocked.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Guitar Hero II rocks!

This weekend I got a chance to play Guitar Hero II at a friend's house. Guitar Hero II is a game for the Playstation II that allows users to play the guitar portion(s) of rock songs with the aid of a guitar-shaped controller. The game is, I'm sure, nothing like playing an actual guitar, as the controller lacks strings entirely (it has five buttons on the neck, a strumming button, and a whammy bar). I was skeptical of the game at first (I was not at all certain I could even hold the guitar properly, much less actually hit the buttons at the right time), but after I "played" my first song, I was hooked.

The game is much like DDR in that the screen consists primarily of a continuously scrolling sequence of buttons you must push at the proper time. Hitting buttons at the right time results in cool-sounding rock music emanating from the speakers. Hitting buttons at the wrong time results in screeching, out-of-tune guitar noises, which is absolutely hilarious in the middle of a long solo.

We played exclusively in cooperative mode, wherein two players play different portions (lead and rhythm or lead and bass) of the same song. One excellent feature is that the different players can choose different difficulty levels; while I barely managed to keep up on "easy" (hitting ~90% of the notes in my last few songs), my co-player was often strumming away furiously on "hard." It was amazingly fun, and the inner rockstar in me wanted to keep playing and playing all day long (but my wrist disagreed, especially after playing the entirety of Free Bird).

Regular readers have probably figured out by now that I'm not a console gamer1 (the most recent console we own is PSI), but this game could convince me to buy a whole new console and two guitar controllers just so I can play it more2. It really is that much fun.

In summary, if you've always wanted to play the guitar, but have been too lazy to actually learn how to do it, then this game is for you.

1 I prefer PC games (Civ IV!) and, more recently, German-style board games.
2 And I probably would have already bought it if it came loaded with Pink Floyd or Roger Waters songs.

Stracciatella (Italian egg and cheese soup)

Now that it's winter (the highs are down to the 60's or 70's!), my SO and I have started craving soups. While we're often happy to make soups that take hours to simmer, we sometimes just want a soup on the spur of the moment; that's where soups like this come in. This soup tastes exactly like what it's made of: chicken stock, eggs, garlic, and cheese; it's delicious. Since this was so good, and so quick to make (less than 10 minutes, including grinding breadcrumbs and grating cheese), it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

3 cups chicken stock
1 large egg
1 small clove garlic, finely minced or pressed with a garlic press
2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino romano cheese (or parmesan)
1/2 teaspoon dry parsley (or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley)
1 tablespoon dry breadcrumbs
ground nutmeg, to taste

1. Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a smallish pot.
2. Meanwhile, mix the egg, garlic, cheese, parsley, and breadcrumbs together in a small bowl or cup.
3. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the stock while stirring quickly.
4. Continue simmering for ~1 minute, or until the egg is set.
5. Ladle into bowls, and sprinkle with a bit of nutmeg, if desired.


This recipe makes enough for about 2 bowls of soup; scale the recipe accordingly. Use good quality chicken stock, as this soup relies on the stock for much of its flavor. The original recipe calls for fresh parsley; we used dried parsley because our parsley plant died recently.

Radagast despises nutmeg, and thus didn't add any to his soup; it was just fine without it. Radagast's SO, however, enjoyed it with the nutmeg.

This recipe is based on one from Rombauer et al. (1997).

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

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Jeffrey Hamelman: god of bakers

OK, I don't believe in gods. But if I did, Jeffrey Hamelman would be one. Why? For the simple reason that his book (Hamelman 2004) taught me how to make this:


That is a loaf of homemade ciabatta, a type of bread I've been wanting to make for many years now. I've tried making artisan-style bread before, but it just never turned out. Then a friend loaned me Hamelman's book, and everything changed.

Hamelman's book is a reference tome full of information and recipes related to baking bread. While it's aimed at the professional baker (all the recipes have instructors for making dozens of loaves, and Hamelman is the bakery director of King Arthur Flour), he includes sufficient notes (and scaled-down recipes) for the home baker.

The first three chapters are actually completely devoid of recipes. The first chapter (nearly 30 pages) provides detailed instructions for performing every step of making bread, including discussions of the chemistry and biology that's going on during each step of the process. For instance, this is the first book I've seen that discusses what happens chemically as the bread is baking in the oven. Immediately after the bread is put into the oven, the yeast continue fermenting until they die (at ~140F), and the CO2 that's been stored as bicarbonate in the aqueous portion of the bread is also released into the air spaces inside the bread. Both of these processes result in gas production, which means that the bread can rise a lot in the first few minutes after it is put into the oven. However, if the bread forms a crust quickly, it won't be able to rise. Steaming the oven just after the bread has been put in helps prevent the crust from forming, and thus helps allow the bread to rise fully. Steaming also helps keep the crust cool and moist so that amylases in the flour can produce sugars, which will later caramelize and contribute to the flavor and color of the crust.

While Hamelman gets most of his science right (at least as far as I can tell), I'm obligated to point out at least one blunder: he calls yeast a plant. In fact, he says that fungi are a family of plants. While that may have been true in the 1970's, fungi are now their very own kingdom, and they're quite different from plants. In fact, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. But Hamelman helped me make a great loaf of bread, and he gets most of his chemistry spot on, so I can forgive a mistake or two.

The second chapter (another 30 pages) discusses all the various ingredients used in bread, and the third chapter (another 30 pages) goes over all the hand techniques used in baking bread. Each technique is illustrated by pen-and-ink drawings that excellently illustrate every step; thanks to this chapter I finally know how to make an oval loaf. While all this introductory material may seem like a lot to read, it's essential, and I'm certain that without this detailed introduction to the science of bread making I couldn't have made the loaf you see pictured above.

The recipes themselves (there are more than 100 of them) are clearly written and easy to follow. The ingredients are listed in a table at the front of the recipe that includes proportions for making either dozens of loaves or only two or three. The instructions are some of the clearest I've seen in a cookbook, though they do assume that you've read the first three chapters. The recipes include everything from baguettes and ciabatta to Irish soda bread, pretzels, and bagels.

So, in short, if you want to make good, artisan-style bread, but haven't been able to, this book may be the very thing you need.

The loaf pictured above is based on Hamelman's ciabatta recipe (page 107-108); it involved a 16 hour poolish fermentation, followed by nearly 4 and a half hours of rising. This was the very first loaf I made from Hamelman's book.


Hamelman, Jeffrey. 2004. Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes. Wiley, NJ. 415 pages.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Dead Sea scrolls

While flipping around the TV channels today I stopped briefly on one of our local religious stations. The person preaching was rambling on about the glory of god and how the bible was the word of god (or something like that); to help make his point that the bible was the word of god, he introduced the Dead Sea scrolls. He said that they were 3,000 years old and that scholars had found that they were identical to the modern day bible. In fact, he said, "Every dot over every 'i', every cross of the 't', every comma, and every period is in the exact same place as in the bible in your hand" (quote paraphrased).

There are a few problems with this preacher's statements. The easiest mistake to point out is that he got the date wrong (the scrolls are about 2,000 years old, not 3,000). However, the Dead Sea scrolls are written mostly in Biblical Hebrew (some are in Aramaic). The writing of the Dead Sea scrolls has no vowels. The writing of the Dead Sea scrolls also lacks commas and periods.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The NSTA has some explaining to do

Think Progress recently reported that the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) rejected 50,000 free copies of An Inconvenient Truth. An op-ed by one of the producers of An Inconvenient Truth includes the NSTA's response:
In their [the NSTA's] e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other "special interests" might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn't want to offer "political" endorsement of the film; and they saw "little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members" in accepting the free DVDs.
That seems like pretty dubious reasoning (it's a movie about climate change for goodness sake), but the NSTA didn't stop there:
Still, maybe the NSTA just being extra cautious. But there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.
The NSTA has some great resources for educators available on their website, and has been very involved in moving science education forward in the US. However, I don't like the sounds of this one bit; professional science organizations should be independent of their corporate sponsors, not beholden to them.

The NSTA has an official response on their website, wherein they include this statement:
"Before we accept any funds from outside groups (corporate or otherwise), and as a condition of any support, we make it clear that NSTA is solely responsible for developing, directing, and implementing the programs we offer to teachers."
While that sounds good, it doesn't address the accusation that they rejected the videos because they were afraid they'd lose corporate sponsorship. In fact, nothing in their official response attempts to explain why they rejected the videos.

If the NSTA is censoring (or otherwise regulating the content of) the materials they distribute to members in order to protect corporate sponsorship, I have absolutely no interest in being a member of their society in the future.

They've got some explaining to do.

(via PZ Myers)

Update 12/1/06:

The NSTA has updated their press release to include more justification for why they didn't distribute the DVDs to their members. Apparently the NSTA's board in 2001 adopted a policy "prohibiting product endorsement":
NSTA established its non-endorsement policy to formalize our position that the association would not send third-party materials to our members without their consent or request. NSTA looks forward to working with Ms. David to ensure that there are many options for publicizing the availability of the DVD to the national science education community, and to broaden the conversation on the important topic of global warming.
They've also published a letter wherein they discuss how they could facilitate distribution of the DVDs to their members while still holding to their policy of not endorsing products:
1. Providing a link on NSTA’s website (two million page views per month) that will enable middle level and high school teachers to obtain a free copy of the DVD from your distribution center.
2. The opportunity to purchase our mailing list for your distribution.
3. Announcing the availability of your DVD through a number of our channels to science teachers, which include the NSTA Express, our weekly email blast (circulation 250,000); NSTA publications (circulation 55,000 plus pass-along rate of an additional 50,000); and the NSTA Building a Presence for Science network online newsletter (circulation 40,000).
4. Providing your representatives the opportunity to exhibit at the National Conference on Science Science Education in St. Louis, MO. This would be an additional opportunity for you to interact with the attendees, distribute the DVD, and share the educational material supporting it.
5. Creating an online message board that would focus on the issue of global warming. The message board would be open to both NSTA members and nonmembers worldwide.
I only have one question: does the NSTA sell their mailing list to anyone who comes along and wants it? I sure hope not (I don't want to be getting "The Benefits of Oil," "Global Warming: Liberal Myth," and "Creationism: It's Pure Science" videos if I'm an NSTA member), but if they don't sell their mailing list to everyone, aren't they tacitly endorsing the companies to which they do sell their mailing list?

Thanks to Sean, who pointed out the update in the comments.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Creating and posting videos with xvidcap in Ubuntu

One of the reasons I'm excited about teaching online is that there are so many tools I can use to help me share information with students. Animations, videos, audio recordings (e.g., podcasts), blogs, discussion boards, PDFs of readings, textbooks, and plain ol' HTML pages can all be combined to make a course that is (hopefully) more interesting and accessible than just a textbook and HTML pages. So, in the coming months I'm going to be trying out various programs to see which ones I can use while creating content.

For the past few weeks I've been exploring different methods of creating videos. There are two specific things I want to do with videos in my course:
  • Create videos of tasks being performed on the desktop (screencap videos), primarily to create tutorials to help students use Excel, browse my course website, and other such things.
  • Create animated mini-lectures on key topics, probably based on PowerPoint (or OpenOffice Impress) slides. These will ideally be less than 5 minutes each and contain a combination of text, images, and animations.
There are many non-free, non-open-source products available to help with this, such as Camtasia and Articulate Presenter. While I'm sure they're good programs (they are widely used), they're hideously expensive: Camtasia Studio runs around $300 and Articulate Presenter costs at least $500. I've seen some Articulate Presenter videos - they've got an excellent navigation system built it, and are seamlessly cross-platform, but before I go spending $500 on a glorified screencapture program I want to explore the free solutions first.


The predominant free open source video capture solution for Linux seems to be xvidcap. The program is completely free; it can be downloaded from xvidcap's Sourceforge page. They even have a .deb file that installs in seconds on Ubuntu; to install it all you have to do is download the .deb file and then double-click on it in the file browser (Nautilus), which will bring up a dialog that installs the program.

Using xvidcap is fairly straightforward; it has a small control panel and a little red box. Once you hit record on the control panel, xvidcap records everything that occurs in that little red box. The box can be resized to fit whatever you want to record using the eyedropper tool, which allows you to either click and drag to move the box or click into a program window to have the box sized to fit that program's window. The box is attached to the bottom of the control panel by default, but can be undocked from the control panel by hitting the lock button.

xvidcap screen shot
Screenshot of xvidcap; the program records everything that occurs in the red box.

The preferences are accessed by right-clicking on the filename (to bring up the main menu) and then clicking "preferences." Xvidcap can either save a series of screencaps to a directory (what xvidcap calls single-frame recording, which lacks audio) or can record a full-motion video with audio (multi-frame recording). The preferences window allows you to set all sorts of preferences - you can choose your output file format, video and audio codecs, video and audio quality, and frame-rate. Choosing wisely here is key, as too high a quality or framerate will result in videos with skipped frames (which will look and sound bad) or files that are unplayable on most computers (e.g., Microsoft Windows doesn't have DIVX codecs installed by default). As a minor note, some codec and framerate combinations are not possible, which unfortunately is often reported to you solely in the form of a program crash (but it's easy to reopen).

xvidcap preferences screen shot
Screenshot of xvidcap's multi-frame capture preferences.

My computer is old enough that I needed to lower the video quality and reduce the framerate as low as possible (7.5fps for the Microsoft DIVX 2 or MPEG DIVX codecs) to enable 700x700 video recordings without frame skippage. Reducing the size of the recording window does enable me to make higher-quality recordings, but there's only so small you can resize something before you lose important details.

Once you've got the options set, recording a video is about as easy as hitting the record button. When you're done recording, xvidcap will pop up a little screen summarizing the video that you just captured; pay attention to the framerate - if it's significantly lower than what you were hoping for, you will probably have to re-record the video (lowering the quality or recording area size). Practice recording with various settings to see what works best on your machine.

As a final note, if you're recording directly to flash video you may want to make note of the movie dimensions, as you may need that information to properly embed the video in a webpage.

Microphones and audio

Xvidcap will record audio along with your video; all you need is a working microphone and xvidcap takes care of the rest. This allows for easy narration of videos, something I plan to do regularly.

I'm using a Sennheiser PC 150 stereo headset with noise canceling microphone; it's probably not the best microphone out there, but it seems to work well. Setting up the microphone in Ubuntu was easy, if non-intuitive. I had to open the volume control (by right-clicking on the speaker in the task bar), go to the preferences in that control (edit/preferences), put a checkmark by all the microphone options ("microphone", "Mic boost", and "mic select"), unmute the microphone on the capture tab, and then turn on the "Mic boost +20db" option in the switches tab. As I said: easy, but not intuitive.

Choosing video codecs and creating Flash video files

Xvidcap has a number of codec options, and I'm still trying to figure out which codecs work best; here's what I've found so far (with very limited testing only only a couple of computers):
  • The MPEG 4 DIVX and general AVI file (DIVX, mpeg) work well for me on Linux, but don't seem to play well on Windows or Mac computers by default (they need DIVX codecs)
  • The Microsoft DIVX 2 and Microsfot avi file format seems to works well on Linux, Windows, and Macs.
  • The mp2 audio codec seems to work well on Linux and Windows, but not Mac. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get the mp3 codec to work with the Microsoft DIVX 2 codec.
  • Flash videos (.flv, what YouTube uses) work very well cross platform, but require a flash player to play.
Flash video seems like it's probably the most cross-platform and browser-independent format currently, so that's what I'm looking at using for now. There are two choices for making flash movie files in xvidcap:
  1. Create the flash files directly from xvidcap
  2. Create the movies using another codec and then convert them to flash files
The first option is probably the easiest, but since I might also want to distribute the videos in a number of other formats (and don't know how lossy the flv codecs are), I wanted to at least explore how to convert other formats to flash videos (.flv files).

Converting from the DIVX MPEG4 codec to flash files was relatively easy using mencoder (a component of mplayer). The command line to convert the files I eventually settled on (thanks to the mplayer manual) was:
mencoder inputfile.mpeg -o outputfile.flv -of lavf -oac mp3lame -lameopts abr:br=56 -ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=flv:vbitrate=500:mbd=2:mv0:trell:v4mv:cbp:last_pred=3 -srate 22050 -lavfopts i_certify_that_my_video_stream_does_not_use_b_frames
This conversion step also allows you to scale the size of the video to whatever you want; simply add the flag -vf scale=YYY:-2 to the command line and the movie will be scaled to YYY pixels wide (proportionally scaling the vertical dimension).

Flash movie files have timing information in them that helps flash players play them; mencoder apparently does not include this information. However, the program flvtool2 can add this information (I found this thanks to DRM's excellent post). There is no flvtool2 package for Ubuntu, but downloading and installing it was relatively easy1. Once you've got flvtool2 installed, all you need to do to add the timing information is:
flvtool2 -U inputfile.flv
Flvtool2 can also be used to do a number of other things, including adding timestamps to the video for thumbnails (so users can skip through the video to specific timepoints).

Putting a flash video on the web

To actually play a flv file in a webpage you need a flash file on the webpage that will play the movie. While Adobe Flash can create these for you (for the low low price of $699 for Flash Pro 8), the entire point of this exercise has been to create videos using free open source tools. That's where FlowPlayer comes in.

FlowPlayer is a free open-source flash video player that can be easily added to a website; all you have to do is upload a few files to the server (as a user; no need to be root or actually install anything), insert FlowPlayer's quickstart HTML code into the HTML page of your choice, and you've got flash videos embedded into your webpage.


For a sample of how this looks, I've created three short videos and posted them here. Sorry, but you won't be hearing my voice in any of those videos, you'll just hear some music recorded by putting my microphone in front of a speaker (translation: badly recorded music)2.

And, here's an example of one of those sample videos embedded into this page:


Exciting, isn't it?


It seems like xvidcap will be able to produce satisfactory video tutorials that focus on how to use programs and websites, and the videos produced will be easy to distribute in a variety of formats, including flash videos on the web. However, I have no idea if xvidcap will be able to easily create videos of slide-based presentations (using OpenOffice Impress); figuring out how to create videos of slide-based content will have to be the subject of another post.

1: To install flvtool2 just unzip into a directory and follow the instructions in the readme.txt (which basically say to run "ruby setup.rb config", "ruby setup.rb setup", and "sudo ruby setup.rb install"). You may have to install ruby first; Ruby can be installed via Ubuntu's standard interface.

2: I can't very well be a pseudonymous blogger and have my voice plastered all over the internets, now can I?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why I love living in California, take 23

This afternoon I wandered out into my backyard and harvested this (well, ok, I didn't harvest the bowl; I got that from the kitchen):

Bowl of washed basil

And those are only the leaves I got by trimming the flowers off of two of my three basil plants. I've got cups more basil out there waiting to be harvested and turned into pesto.

Ah, how I love California.

Political links of the week take 31

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Top Marine: Troops under too much strain:
The new Marine Corps commandant said Wednesday that the longer than anticipated pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is putting an unacceptable strain on his troops.

Gen. James Conway said the service is unable to meet its goal of giving Marines twice as much time at home as in a war zone.

He said unless the demand on the corps eases, he may have to propose increasing the size of the force.

Currently there are 180,000 Marines on active duty and about 40,000 in the active reserves. Marine units serve seven-month deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Conway, who led Marine units into Iraq in 2003 and served on the Pentagon's joint staff, said his troops should get 14 months of relief before they are sent back.

Typically, however, they get only seven or eight months home before being returned to combat, he said.

Assuming the Marines' top job little more than a week ago, Conway told reporters at a Pentagon roundtable discussion that he sees two ways to alleviate stress on troops.

"One is reducing the requirement [of a set deployment time]. The other is potentially growing the force for what we call the long war," Conway said.

Some units are serving their fourth tour in Iraq, and the strain on their families has raised concern that Marines will start leaving the service when their enlistments are up.

"There is stress on the individual Marines that is increasing, and there is stress on the institution to do what we are required to do, pretty much by law, for the nation," he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.

The current rotation of troops to Iraq is also limiting training, he said.

"We're not sending battalions like we used to for the mountain warfare training, the jungle training," he told reporters. "We're not doing combined arms exercises that we used to do for the far maneuver-type activities we have to be prepared to do."

U.S. Finds Iraq Insurgency Has Funds to Sustain Itself:
The insurgency in Iraq is now self-sustaining financially, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, connivance by corrupt Islamic charities and other crimes that the Iraqi government and its American patrons have been largely unable to prevent, a classified United States government report has concluded.

The report, obtained by The New York Times, estimates that groups responsible for many insurgent and terrorist attacks are raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities. It says $25 million to $100 million of that comes from oil smuggling and other criminal activity involving the state-owned oil industry, aided by “corrupt and complicit” Iraqi officials.

As much as $36 million a year comes from ransoms paid for hundreds of kidnap victims, the report says. It estimates that unnamed foreign governments — previously identified by American officials as including France and Italy — paid $30 million in ransom last year.

A copy of the seven-page report was made available to The Times by American officials who said the findings could improve understanding of the challenges the United States faces in Iraq.

The report offers little hope that much can be done, at least soon, to choke off insurgent revenues. For one thing, it acknowledges how little the American authorities in Iraq know — three and a half years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein — about crucial aspects of insurgent operations. For another, it paints an almost despairing picture of the Iraqi government’s ability, or willingness, to take steps to tamp down the insurgency’s financing.


The document says the pattern of insurgent financing changed after the first 18 months of the war, from the Hussein loyalists who financed it in 2003 to “foreign fighters and couriers” smuggling cash in bulk across Iraq’s porous borders in 2004, to the present reliance on a complex array of indigenous sources. “Currently, we assess that these groups garner most of their funding from petroleum-related criminal activity, kidnapping and other criminal pursuits within Iraq,” the report concludes.


The document tracing the money flows acknowledges that investigators have had limited success in penetrating or choking off terrorist financing networks. The report says American efforts to follow the financing trails have been hamstrung by several factors. They include a weak Iraqi government and its nascent intelligence agencies; a lack of communication between American agencies, and between the Americans and the Iraqis; and the nature of the insurgent economy itself, primarily sustained by couriers carrying cash rather than more easily traceable means involving banks and the hawala money transfer networks traditional in the Middle East.

Experts Concerned as Ballot Problems Persist:
After six years of technological research, more than $4 billion spent by Washington on new machinery and a widespread overhaul of the nation’s voting system, this month’s midterm election revealed that the country is still far from able to ensure that every vote counts.

Tens of thousands of voters, scattered across more than 25 states, encountered serious problems at the polls, including failures in sophisticated new voting machines and confusion over new identification rules, according to interviews with election experts and officials.

In many places, the difficulties led to shortages of substitute paper ballots and long lines that caused many voters to leave without casting ballots. Still, an association of top state election officials concluded that for the most part, voting went as smoothly as expected.

Over the last three weeks, attention has been focused on a few close races affected by voting problems, including those in Florida and Ohio where counting dragged on for days. But because most of this year’s races were not close, election experts say voting problems may actually have been wider than initially estimated, with many malfunctions simply overlooked.

That oversight may not be possible in the presidential election of 2008, when turnout will be higher and every vote will matter in what experts say will probably be a close race.

Voting experts say it is impossible to say how many votes were not counted that should have been. But in Florida alone, the discrepancies reported across Sarasota County and three others amount to more than 60,000 votes. In Colorado, as many as 20,000 people gave up trying to vote, election officials say, as new online systems for verifying voter registrations crashed repeatedly. And in Arkansas, election officials tallied votes three times in one county, and each time the number of ballots cast changed by more than 30,000.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Green bean casserole with fried shallot topping

Green bean casserole is a Thanksgiving classic made from canned or frozen green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, and canned fried onions; it's good, but rather lacking in fresh ingredients. This Thanksgiving, we made a much fresher and more homemade-tasting version (based on Wilson 2006) that used fresh green beans, a sauce made from cream and chicken stock, and a topping of breadcrumbs mixed with sliced fried shallots. The green beans were toothy and flavorful, the sauce was richer than the standard soup-based sauce, and the topping was less processed-tasting. It was the hit of our Thanksgiving dinner, and we'll definitely be making it for future years' Thanksgivings.

If you're looking for an improved version of the standard Thanksgiving green bean casserole, this is the recipe for you. Thus, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Green beans
2 pounds fresh green beans, washed, trimmed, and cut into 1-2" pieces1
2 tablespoons salt

4 slices of dry artisan white bread (e.g., ciabatta), ground into breadcrumbs (~1 cup; food processors do this well)
2 tablespoons butter, softened or cut into small pieces
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups sliced fried shallots (the commercially prepared kind)

2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed with a garlic press
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

This recipe entails three separate preparations (the beans, the sauce, and the topping) which must be combined at the end. This is easier than it sounds, as none of these preparations is difficult, and they can be worked on in parallel.

Cooking the green beans:
1. Bring a large pot of water (~4 quarts) to a boil and add the 2 tablespoons of salt.
2. Add the green beans and cook for 6 minutes, or until they're tender-crisp.
3. Remove the green beans from the boiling water and add to a bowl full of cold water (to stop the beans from cooking). Once the beans are cool (which may require replacing the water once) return them to a strainer.

Making the topping:
1. Process the breadcrumbs, butter, salt, and pepper in a food processor until well combined (~15 seconds).
2. Empty into a bowl and mix in the shallots.

Making the sauce:
1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
2. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic is golden and fragrant.
3. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until the flour turns slightly golden as well.
4. Add the chicken stock and cook, stirring, until it starts to bubble.
5. Add the cream and simmer, stirring, until the sauce has thickened, about 10 minutes; reduce the heat if necessary.
6. Mix in the salt and pepper and then hold over very low heat until ready to use.

Combining and baking:
0. Preheat your oven to 425F.
1. Mix the green beans and sauce together, and spread out in a 9x13" baking dish (we just mixed the green beans and sauce in the dish). Sprinkle the topping evenly over the beans and sauce.
2. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the top is a deep golden brown.


The original version of this recipe calls for fried onions instead of shallots; we had fried shallots on hand (thanks to our local Asian market) and decided to give them a try. The shallots were delicious, but the recipe should be just as good with fried onions (the original recipe calls for 3 cups of fried onions instead of 1 1/2 cups of shallots).

This casserole reheats well in the oven - we reheated it (in the original pan) for 15-20 minutes at 300F, and were surprised to find the topping still crispy and crunchy.


Wilson, S. 2006. Upgrading Green Bean Casserole. Cooks Illustrated 83: November/December. pp8-9.

1 If possible, enlist a friend to help you wash, trim, and cut the green beans - it takes a while.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving recipe searches

Thanksgiving is a fun time for my blog, as it gets lots of hits from people looking for recipes [if you're doing that, see my recipe archive]. I just looked at my referral logs, and 55 of the last 100 visitors here found my blog as a result of searches for cooking-related items. Here are all 55 of those searches (sorted by food type); it's a good (if not entirely accurate) look at what people are making this holiday season.

Searches for yams and sweet potatoes took the day:
  • yam recipe skin marshmallow
  • sweet potatoes baked + marshmallows
  • baked sweet potatoes + marshmallows
  • baked sweet potatoes marshmallow
  • sweet potatoes marshmallow bake
  • baked sweet potatoes with brown sugar
  • baked sweet potatoes with brown sugar
  • thanksgiving sweet potatoes marshmallows
  • bake sweet potatoes brown sugar
  • yams ooze [Yes. Yes they do.]
  • mashed yam recipe
  • "mashed yams"
  • "yams with orange juice"
  • mashed yams recipe
Though macaroni and cheese was close behind:
  • baking macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni and cheese
  • BAKED MACARONI AND CHEESE [yes, yelling at Google will make it find better recipes]
  • how to make bake macaroni and cheese
  • baked macaroni cheese from package [whimper]
And lots of people apparently want a Greek salad:
  • home recipe for greek salad dressing
  • greek salad dressing recipe
  • greek salad dressing
  • greek salad dressing
  • greek salad dressing
  • greek salad
  • "Joy of Cooking" "Greek Salad" Dressing
  • easy to make salad dressing
And creamed spinach took the award for most identical searches (well, OK, it tied with baked macaroni and cheese):
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • creamed spinach
  • Creamed spinach
Desserts were also popular, though no one recipe stood out:
  • low fat caramel ice cream
  • key lime pie joy of cooking
  • pear pie [someone has good taste]
  • How do you make sure pie crust is done underneath? [try eating it?]
  • cranberry upside down cake
  • galette crust
Some people wanted general food suggestions:
  • thanksgiving dinner for two
  • thanksgiving dinner for two
  • thanksgiving feast pictures [somehow I suspect this post dissappointed them]
There were, of course, many miscellaneous searches:
  • brussel sprout gratin
  • creamy brussel sprout
  • mashed turnips
  • mashed potatoes turnips
  • soup recipe: kielbasa, turnip greens, potatoes
  • german potatoe salad
  • "japanese soup"
  • Dotch Cooking Show
  • reheating fondue [It's a pointless endeavor; just ship it to me and I'll take care of it for you.]
And, wrapping it up, was a search that makes me think someone is going to have a very disappointing Thanksgiving dinner:
  • macaroni and cheese reheat

Happy Thanksgiving!

The holiday is finally here, and I couldn't be more excited. Given how stressful the last few weeks have been, it's great to finally have a few days where I can focus on two of my favorite things: cooking and eating. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Thanksgiving is almost certainly my favorite holiday - my SO and I get to spend the entire day cooking (and then eating) delicious food, and, as a bonus, the religious roots of the holiday are extremely easy to ignore.

Today's feast will be much like our prior years', but to continue the tradition of posting our food plans for the day, here's what we're going to be cooking:
We currently have no plans for dessert - we plan to be stuffed by the time dinner is over. However, I suspect we'll make something tasty before the weekend is over.

Monday, November 20, 2006


It can't really be Monday already, can it?

This last week has been crazy. Almost all of my time was focused around trying to prevent our field program from being shut down, the "highlight" of which was giving a very stressful presentation to people who had the power to shut down our field program right then and there. Surprisingly (at least based on what we thought a few weeks ago), our program was granted a stay of execution; we now have more time to justify its existence.

Then, instead of having a relaxing weekend, I led field trips both days. While running labs in the field is extremely fun (the students love seeing "real" biology, and really get into the work), they take a tremendous amount of time, and left me with functionally no weekend.

Thank goodness this is going to be a short week.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Keeping students safe by ... tasing them?

PZ Myers has linked to a shocking video of a UCLA student getting repeatedly shot with a taser by campus police. The reason? He didn't leave the campus library fast enough, and then didn't get up quickly enough after being tased the first time. Oh, and did I mention that he was apparently handcuffed at the time?

The UCLA campus paper has an article on the incident here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Test administration in online courses

Profgrrrl recently posted about a new device that helps proctor online exams. The device is apparently a combination fingerprint reader, microphone, and webcam - it can verify the student's identity and then record what the student does (both audio and video) during the entire exam.

It's the first good solution I've seen to the two biggest problem of online courses - how do you know the person taking the tests is the person enrolled in the course, and how do you know that they're not using outside resources to help on the exam? That there was no good solution to these problems is why my newly designed online course requires students to take all their exams on campus. I only mildly care if students get help writing discussion board posts or have someone else do their homework (since that will likely come back to haunt them on exams), but I definitely care if they get help while taking their exams (as then someone could pass the course without ever learning the material). In short, this camera is a pretty cool thing (excluding the cost, which is about $150).

Profgrrrl hates the thing. Why?
So how would you feel about taking a test with a camera hanging over your head? Would it give you a bit of anxiety? Would you feel self-conscious if you had to scratch your nose? If a question was so hard that you start to cry, would you feel twice as bad knowing it was being caught on camera? Would you spend time wondering if someone really was at the other end, watching your every move? If they were recording you? And who could access those recordings?

Now, I'm not a paranoid. Really, I'm not. But I this device looks like a disaster for anyone with test anxiety and just sends a message of "you'll cheat unless we go to great lengths to control you" to everyone else.
The question of how these videos will be used is a valid concern, but online courses already send the message of "you can cheat as much as you want and we don't care," so by doing something to actually stop that cheating we're hardly accusing everyone of cheating. This is the same "guilty until proven innocent" claim made by people against plagiarism-hunting software, and it doesn't hold up here any better. And, how is being observed through this camera any different from having a professor (and dozens of other students) in the room watching you when you take a test on campus?

So, given that profgrrrl has taught online classes, how has she dealt with exams?
I recognize that students could their books in front of them -- so I take a cue from my stats prof who gave us timed open book tests with questions that required critical thinking skills. You could use the book as a resource, but if you didn't already know this stuff there was no way you could look it all up and figure it out in the given time. And if someone else takes the test for the student? Well, I sometimes would ask test questions that related to discussions we had had in class (sneaky, eh?). I also can triangulate test performance with discussion board performance readily enough.
Asking a couple of test questions related to discussions is not going to prevent cheating. What's to prevent a student from being on their cellphone with another student (or with someone who's taken the course before) while they take the exam? What if a student does well on tests but hates writing discussion board posts (or vice versa); should we accuse a student of cheating when they've been posting mediocre discussion board posts but then do well on an exam? What if the student finally studied? That's hardly the way to catch a cheater. And none of this even addresses the problem of how to know whether the person who posted the discussion board posts (or the exam taker) is even the student enrolled in the course.

Administering exams online in an unproctored environment is tantamount to giving free points. If those exams are the major basis of the grade in a course, then I would seriously question whether those grades accurately reflect student learning in the course.

Unless more things like these cameras come on the market, I see no good way to evaluate student learning in online courses other than to require them to come onto campus and be evaluated in a proctored environment.