Tuesday, January 30, 2007

An open question on artichokes

My SO and I just had boiled artichokes with garlic mayonnaise for dinner. The odd thing about artichokes (other than wondering who in the world first thought to try eating them) is that after you've started eating them, other foods taste, well, different. Most foods seem to obtain a sweet aftertaste; milk tastes normal for the first few seconds, but then becomes oddly sweet, and then just becomes odd (my SO swears it tastes burned). Apple juice also tastes sweeter, but of course since apple juice is supposed to be sweet, it's actually an improvement1.

But here's my question: what's the biology underpinning this sensory change? The phenomenon of artichokes making food taste sweet is well documented, but there's precious little information on what actually causes the change. I've been able to find this old Science article (Bartoshuk et al., 1972), which refers to chlorogenic acid and cynarin causing a sweet taste by "temporarily modifying the tongue, rather than by adding a substance sweet in itself," but I can't access the full article, and searches for the two compounds just turn up lots of altie websites and ads for herbal junk. Temussi (2006) reviews the history of sweet proteins, which sounds potentially promising, but unfortunately I also don't have access to that paper. So, right now I'm left with the unsatisfactory answer that it's due to some magical property of chlorogenic acid and cynarin.



Bartoshuk, LM., C Lee, and R Scarpellino. 1972. Sweet Taste of Water Induced by Artichoke (Cynara scolymus). Science 178: 988 - 990.

Temussi, PA. 2006. Natural sweet macromolecules: how sweet proteins work. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences 63: 1876-1888. (pubmed)

1 Note to self: always drink apple juice with artichokes.

Quick links

Got them IP Blues, a post by a Marine stationed in Baghdad that looks at the interaction of the US military and Iraqi police. The post is on The Sandbox, a great source for blogging by military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the same day that Microsoft Vista is released, BoingBoing reports that Vista's DRM has been cracked.

Jill linked to a post with some great tips on how to run class blogs (clogs!); it seems like many of the tips could also apply to running discussion boards.

Jill also has a post wherein she (and a lot of commenters) discuss the pros and cons of distributing worksheets that contain detailed (and I do mean detailed) breakdowns of exactly what students are supposed to do with their time outside of class. I can't help but think that worksheets like that would help students in my future online course (if I could get organized enough to make them).

Monday, January 29, 2007

A new semester!

A new semester is upon me; as always, I could use a few more weeks to get ready for it.

This semester is going to be busier than most (don't I say that every semester?), as I'm teaching the exact same classes I had last semester, but in addition I have two new preps, including one entirely new course (though the new course is only one unit). All said, I'll be in the classroom seven hours a week more this semester than last (if anyone's counting that's about 23 hours a week total)1.

Add to these extra classes that the fight for our field program will likely come to a head in March, that a committee I chair will likely restart major work this semester, that I'll be serving on a hiring committee, that I'll be trying to get work done on my new online class for fall 2007, and that I'll be doing lots of other miscellaneous tasks, and you've got one busy Radagast on your hands. Probably the saddest effect of all this (besides not seeing my SO until the end of May) is that even if we do miraculously manage to save our field program, I won't be teaching a course for it this summer; I just don't have the time to prep for it.

1 Regular readers may recall my low enrollment and cancelled class from last fall; my heavy load this semester is a direct result of those two occurrences. Thankfully it doesn't look like I'll have to worry about low enrollment in most of my courses this semester, though the course that got cancelled last semester is at risk of being cancelled again, sadly.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

2004 Ohio recount was rigged

Two election workers in Ohio have been convicted of rigging the recount of the 2004 presidential tally in one county.

Elections coordinator Jacqueline Maiden and ballot manager Kathleen Dreamer of Cuyahoga (ky-uh-HOH'-guh) County were each found guilty of negligent misconduct of an elections employee. That's a felony that could mean up to 18 months in prison.

The two were also convicted of a misdemeanor count of failure of elections employees to perform their duty. Each was acquitted of five other charges.

Maiden and Dreamer were accused of secretly reviewing pre-selected ballots before the recount in Cuyahoga County to avoid a more costly, time-consuming hand count of all votes.
(story here)
This article, written when the trial was in progress a few weeks ago, has more background on the trial and details of the recount.

Now we know that at least some of the (widely ignored) reporting about miscounting of ballots and misbehavior by elections officials back in 2004 was accurate.

I'm back

[Note: I actually returned earlier this week, and wrote this post shortly after getting back. However, the emotional nature of the post led me to hold it until I could edit it under calmer conditions; I've decided to leave it unedited.]

The trip went well. However, much of it was spent visiting relatives (my grandparents) who are very ill, so one can hardly call the trip cheerful. In fact, it's likely that on Monday evening I said goodbye to my grandfather for the last time.

One gets the impression from books and movies that last discussions with people are supposed to be cathartic and moving. Instead I found it heartbreaking, which is I guess moving, but not quite the positive feeling I felt that one was supposed to get from such an encounter. I sat there for hours on Monday listening to stories of the past; stories of my grandfather and grandmother meeting before WWII, stories of my grandfather's adventures when he was in the Navy (WWII), stories of my grandmother following my grandfather while he was in the Navy, stories of their travels after the war, and stories of his time as an aerospace engineer. They were stories of when he could walk, stories of when he had both legs, and stories of when he could sit up without help. I also listened to stories of the future: when he'd get his (prosthetic) leg, when he would be strong enough to walk again, and when he'd be strong enough for them to operate on his melanoma. I don't know which were sadder; those of the happy past that is forever gone, or those of the future that will not come.

It's odd, but one of the things I thought of while watching my grandfather was some of our old mice when they were days away from death. At that point they've often started losing their hair, have stopped being able to clean themselves, and they have a hard time even moving to the food dish. They're jittery and shaky; it seems as though it takes them much thought to decide what they want to do, and even then they seem indecisive and easily distracted.

My grandfather was one of the inspirations of my young life, an engineer who worked on super-secret projects and knew everything about how planes worked. He was one of the reasons I went to college. He was the reason my major upon entering college was engineering. Now he's dying, and it takes him half a minute to gather his strength and his thoughts so he can talk.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

On the road

I'll be taking a quick trip this weekend to visit some family; regular blogging will resume next week.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Death by water intake - a look at osmosis and water balance

Many of you have probably already heard about Jennifer Strange, the woman who recently died while attempting to win a free Wii in a water-drinking contest. If you haven't, Orac has two posts that provide lots of background. Death from excessive water intake is not unheard of; for example, long-distance runners can die if they drink too much water in an attempt to stay hydrated (see here). Given water's relatively innocuous reputation, I thought it would be useful to look at a bit of the physiology behind what happens when a person drinks too much water.

Since much of the physiology of water balance depends on osmosis, I'm going to start by reviewing osmosis before getting into the physiology. If you're familiar with osmosis, feel free to skip the osmosis section (quiz to see if you can skip the osmosis section: which direction will water flow if a cell containing a 300 mOsm solution is placed in a beaker with a 150 mOsm solution?1)

An introduction to osmosis

A key concept to understand when looking at water intake (and water balance) in organisms is osmosis. Osmosis is the tendency of water to move so that it ends up in equal concentrations on both sides of a semipermeable membrane. As an example, if you have a cell full of saltwater that's surrounded with pure water on the outside, the concentration of water inside the cell will be lower than that of the water outside (the salt inside the cell can be thought of as diluting the water), and thus water will move by osmosis from outside the cell to inside the cell. If you were to flip the concentrations (put pure water inside a cell that's surrounded with salty water), water would move the opposite direction (water would leave the cell). While osmosis may sound complicated, it's nothing more than the diffusion of water across a semipermeable membrane.

We can measure the likelihood that water will move into a solution via osmosis; we call this a solution's osmolarity (or osmotic pressure; units are mOsm). The osmolarity of a pure water solution is defined as having an osmolarity of 0 mOsm; the osmolarity of a solution is increased by adding solutes (salt, amino acids, glucose, or whatever else you want) to it. The higher the osmolarity of a solution, the more likely water is to osmose into it. So, to return to the salt and pure water example above, the pure water solution outside the cell has an osmolarity of 0 mOsm, while the salt solution inside the cell has a higher osmolarity (let's call it 100 mOsm, but at the least we know it's greater than 0), and thus water will move from the lower to the higher osmolarity solution (water will move into the cell).

We use osmosis in our bodies for many things. Osmotic gradients lead to water flowing into our bodies through tiny gaps between the cells of our small intestines (our guts are regulated so that the osmolarity of the gut contents is lower than that of the surrounding cells and interstitial spaces); this bulk flow of water brings along with it digested nutrients, and this is one of the mechanisms of nutrient absorption in our gut. Our kidneys use osmotic gradients to concentrate (or dilute) urine as it's being produced; to make concentrated urine the kidneys pass "pre urine" through an area of high osmotic pressure (high salt and urea concentration), thus causing water to osmose out of the urine (making the urine more concentrated).

Most regions of our body have the same osmolarity (~290 mOsm), and thus osmosis doesn't normally cause a net movement of water into or out of them. However, if we change the osmolarity of one component of the body (say, the blood plasma), then water will start moving from one region of the body to another. So, for instance, if you drank a lot of water, that water will be absorbed into your blood, and your blood plasma's osmolarity will be lowered (as the extra water dilutes the solutes). Once your blood osmolarity drops (say from 290 mOsm to 280 mOsm), water would start moving by osmosis from your blood into the other tissues of your body (as water would move from the lower osmolarity region in the blood plasma to the higher osmolarity region in your body tissues).

The physiology of drinking too much water

Now that we've gotten the general idea of osmosis and water movement, let's take a look at what happens when a person drinks too much water. Before I get into too much detail, however, I want to mention that my chemistry and physiology here will be filled with simplifying assumptions2, and that I'm not a doctor and thus nothing I say should be taken as medical advice.

Jennifer Strange is reported to have consumed approximately 2 gallons (~7.5 liters) of water during the contest (data from Orac's post and this article). To put that volume into context, we need to look at how much water is in the human body.

Rough physiological formulas indicate that about 60% of our body mass is water (Berne et al. 1998). About 2/3 of that water is contained inside our cells, and is called intracellular fluid (Berne et al. 1998). The remaining 1/3 is contained outside our cells, and is called extracellular fluid (Berne et al. 1998). About 1/4 of the water contained outside of our cells is blood plasma; the rest is contained in the interstitial spaces around our cells (Berne et al. 1998). So, if we assume that Jennifer Strange was 165 pounds (the average weight of adult females in the US3; I have no idea what her weight was), we get the following amounts of water:
  • Body mass: 165 lb (~75 kg)
  • Total body water content: 45 L (75 kg * 0.6 * 1 L/kg)
  • Total intracellular fluid: 30 L (45 L * 2/3)
  • Total extracellular fluid (including blood plasma): 15 L (45 L * 1/3)
  • Total blood plasma: 3.75 L (15 L * 1/4)
While those numbers are clearly just approximations, we can now see how large a volume of water 2 gallons (7.5 L) is: it's double the volume of water in the average female's blood plasma, and half the total water content of the average female's extracellular fluid. Adding that much water to a solution can clearly alter its osmolarity (by diluting the ions in solution), and thus will have a strong effect on osmotic movement of water in the body.

Of course we have kidneys, and one of their functions is to excrete excess water. So, a person could safely drink 2 gallons of water, as long as they could excrete those 2 gallons as quickly as they absorbed them. Unfortunately, the kidneys are limited in how fast they can excrete water; Orac cites data that the kidneys of a healthy adult can excrete a maximum of about 1 L of water per hour.

So, to fully understand what happens when a person drinks a large volume of water, we must look at this as a dynamic process. Water is being ingested at a specific rate, is then absorbed into the body (first stop: the blood plasma), is circulated around the body (where it is exposed to the various tissues of the body), and is then excreted from the body by the kidneys.

Based on the newspaper reports, contestants were given 0.25 L of water every 12 minutes, which is about 1.25 L per hour4. However, at some point in the contest the ingestion rate was increased, as contestants are reported as being given a "larger bottle." I don't have specific information on the duration of the contest, but to simplify things lets assume that contestants drank 1.25 L of water each hour for the first two hours, and then drank the remainder of the water in the next 2 hours (4 hours total seems like a good estimate for the duration of a radio show contest). Here's the net balance:
  • Intake:
    • First 2 hours: 2.5 L
    • Last 2 hours: 5 L
    • Total intake: 7.5 L
  • Kidney filtration:
    • First 2 hours: 2 L
    • Last 2 hours: 2 L
    • Total excretion: 4 L
  • Net balance:
    • Gain of 3.5 L of water
Note that this assumes both that all the water ingested was absorbed immediately (an incorrect assumption, as osmosis of water from the gut into the body will take time), and that all of the kidney filtration occurred immediately (again an incorrect assumption, especially as the contestants were prevented from urinating during the contest). However, lets hope that the delayed absorption of water in the gut is canceled out by the delayed (and possibly inhibited) filtration of water by the kidneys, and keep things simple by ignoring both.

The osmolarity of blood plasma is determined largely by the concentration of sodium in the plasma (typically 145 mmEq/L, which leads to a net blood plasma osmolarity of ~290mOsm; Berne et al. 1998). Given a starting blood plasma volume of 3.75 L (with 145 mmEq/L Na), and a final volume of 7.25 L (3.75 L starting + 3.5 L gain), the sodium concentration of the blood at the end of the contest (assuming no input of sodium from other body stores) would drop to 75 mmEq/L (3.75 L * 145 mmEq/L Na * 1/(7.25 L)). Orac specifies that a sudden drop in blood plasma sodium concentration from normal levels to below 120 mmEq is often fatal, so this drop in sodium concentration would be fatal.

As the sodium concentration of the blood plasma drops, the blood plasma's osmolarity will also drop (75 mmEq/L Na would lead to a blood plasma osmolarity of ~150 mOsm). This drop in plasma osmolarity would create an osmotic gradient between the blood plasma and extracellular fluid (the extracellular fluid would be 290 mOsm initially, as it is generally isotonic to the blood plasma under normal conditions). Thus, once some water is absorbed into the plasma, it will osmose from the blood plasma to the extracellular fluid.

So, let's assume that the extra 3.5 L of water isn't all stored in the blood plasma, but is also moved to the extracellular fluid that's in the interstitial spaces. In this case we start with 15L of extracellular fluid with a sodium concentration of 145 mmEq/L (extracellular fluid has about the same sodium concentration as blood plasma), and end with 18.5 L of extracellular fluid (15 L + 3.5 L gain). This scenario leads to a final extracellular fluid sodium concentration of 118 mmEq/L (~236 mOsm), again low enough to lead to death.

But what is actually causing death? While I'm not an expert here (and haven't been able to find a good reference for this quickly), one of the problems that the body runs into in this situation is that those 3.5 liters of water have to go somewhere. As we've seen above, that somewhere will initially be the blood plasma and extracellular fluid, which will be followed by movement of water into the intracellular fluid pool (i.e., inside cells, which are ~290 mOsm to begin with, and will thus begin absorbing water as soon as the osmolarity of the extracellular fluid drops). All of this water movement means that tissues throughout the body are going to be gaining water, and when tissues gain water they swell. This swelling can be tolerated to some extent in many tissues (e.g., your leg muscles), but can lead to extremely negative effects when it occurs in tissues that have only a limited ability to expand, such as your brain (which is mostly surrounded by bone). Swelling in the brain increases pressure on the tissues of the brain, which can lead to many problems, including reduced transport of nutrients from the capillaries in the brain to the cells of the brain5. Many of the symptoms of hyperhydration/hyponatremia are neurologic (fatigue, headache, loss of alertness, cognitive impairment; see here and here), and thus it seems likely that swelling in the brain is at least a contributing factor to why people die after drinking too much water6.

To end with a little taxonomic diversity, plants can actually tolerate this type of osmotic situation very easily (you water your plants with tapwater, right?) The difference is that plant cells are surrounded by a rigid cell wall, whereas animal cells have just a wimpy little plasma membrane (plant cells have a plasma membrane too). This cell wall restricts the ability of plant cells to expand (it's like a little suit of armor), and thus once the plant cell is full of water (turgid), the cell wall exerts a force (a pressure) that counteracts osmosis and prevents water from entering the cell. Thus, plant cells can have a higher osmolarity than their environment (e.g., be immersed in gallons of pure water), but not risk death due to excessive water intake7.


Berne, R. M., M. N. Levy, B. M. Koeppen, and B. A. Stanton. 1998. Physiology: 4th edition. Mosby, St. Louis.

1 Water will flow into the cell.
2 In addition to the assumptions stated in the rest of the article, I'm assuming (among other things) that all consumed water was absorbed into the body (it could have been vomited out, remained in the gut, or excreted with fecal material), that the water ingested was pure water (it wasn't; fresh water typically has an osmolarity around 70 mOsm), and that non-excretory sources of water loss (breathing, sweating, crying, etc.) were minimal. I'm also entirely ignoring the lymph system, which transports excess interstitial fluid back to the blood.
3 Data from the Wikipedia and this article.
4 Based on this quote "participants were given two minutes to drink an 8-ounce [~0.25 L] bottle of water and then given another bottle to drink after a 10-minute break," and then this quote "Sherrod said she managed to drink eight, eight-ounce bottles but became nauseated after drinking half of a larger bottle." (both quotes from here)
5 Nutrient delivery from capillaries to the surrounding tissues requires a pressure difference between the inside of the capillaries and the interstitial fluid surrounding them (the fluid in the capillaries is under higher pressure thanks to the heart; this higher pressure forces nutrient-filled fluid out of the capillaries). Increased pressure in the brain would negate this pressure difference, and could thus reduce (or eliminate) nutrient delivery.
6 Note, however, that I am not certain of this. Other factors could also play a role; for example, it seems at least feasible that the changes in ion concentrations might alter nerve and muscle resting membrane potentials enough to cause problems.
7 So why do terrestrial plants die from overwatering, you ask? It's actually because plant roots need oxygen to survive (they're an oxidatively metabolizing tissue; they can't do photosynthesis to generate oxygen or carbohydrates because it's rather dark in the soil), and when soil is saturated with water the roots can't obtain enough oxygen. Thus, overwatered plants functionally die by drowning.

[Updated to correct the name to Jennifer Strange.]
[Update 2, July 2007: The Georgetown Medical Center has a detailed article on water requirements during exercise here.]

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More Ubuntu screencast resources

Back in November I posted about learning how to use Xvidcap to create videos for my online class. I should have waited a few weeks, as now both The Fridge and Ubuntu Blog have linked to a new Ubuntu project: the Ubuntu screencasts team. What's neat about this project is that the screencast team has put together an excellent reference on how to create and edit screencasts in Ubuntu.

Looks like I've got some new tools to install and play with ...

Learning Ruby

I've started playing around in Ruby, a programming language that's gaining in popularity and has an elegantly simple syntax. Over the course of my explorations I've come across a few useful links, which I'll share here:

Ruby - Official website for the Ruby programming language.

Ruby on Rails - Official pages (including much documentation) for Ruby on Rails, a framework that simplifies web database application development.

Programming Ruby - The Pragmatic Programmer's Guide: First edition of the book, full-text free online.

Programming Ruby - The Pragmatic Programmer's Guide: Second edition of the book, available for purchase.

Mr. Neighborly's Humble Little Ruby Book - the PDF version of this book has just been released for free, and it's a very easy read.

Linux Journal review of The Ruby Way - review of a book on Ruby.

Rolling with Ruby on Rails - A short tutorial to help users install Ruby and Rails, and then create a short, web-enabled database-using program via Ruby on Rails. I was able to follow this with only minimal changes in Ubuntu, and learned a bunch in the process.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Science Blogging 2006: the book

Coturnix has now published the first science blogging anthology. It's called The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006 and is available for purchase on Lulu.com. It looks like it should be a great read.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Microsoft Windows Vista - the operating system that breaks itself (and your hardware)

BoingBoing linked to an article (Gutmann 2007) in which a security analyst looks at new "features" of Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows Vista. The article is long, but an excellent read; it provides a detailed analysis of how Microsoft is crippling computers, breaking hardware, and creating security risks, all in the name of protecting content (translate: making sure you can't rip HD-DVDs or CDs).

I'll outline just a few of the article's revelations here:

1) Under Windows Vista you may not be able to play "protected content" if your hardware isn't "secure":
Vista's content protection mechanism only allows protected content to be sent over interfaces that also have content-protection facilities built in. Currently the most common high-end audio output interface is S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format). Most newer audio cards, for example, feature TOSlink digital optical output for high-quality sound reproduction, and even the latest crop of motherboards with integrated audio provide at least coax (and often optical) digital output. Since S/PDIF doesn't provide any content protection, Vista requires that it be disabled when playing protected content [Note E]. In other words if you've sunk a pile of money into a high-end audio setup fed from an S/PDIF digital output, you won't be able to use it with protected content.

2) Even if you can play your protected content, Windows Vista forces hardware to degrade audio and video signal quality when "protected content" is being played:
Alongside the all-or-nothing approach of disabling output, Vista requires that any interface that provides high-quality output degrade the signal quality that passes through it if premium content is present. This is done through a "constrictor" that downgrades the signal to a much lower-quality one, then up- scales it again back to the original spec, but with a significant loss in quality. So if you're using an expensive new LCD display fed from a high- quality DVI signal on your video card and there's protected content present, the picture you're going to see will be, as the spec puts it, "slightly fuzzy", a bit like a 10-year-old CRT monitor that you picked up for $2 at a yard sale [Note F].


The same deliberate degrading of playback quality applies to audio, with the audio being downgraded to sound (from the spec) "fuzzy with less detail"

3) This downgrading of signals and inactivation of hardware is dynamic: it starts as soon as you start playing protected content, and stops when the protected content stops playing. This can lead to some very odd behavior:
The requirement to disable audio and video output plays havoc with standard system operations, because the security policy used is a so-called "system high" policy: The overall sensitivity level is that of the most sensitive data present in the system. So the instant any audio derived from premium content appears on your system, signal degradation and disabling of outputs will occur. What makes this particularly entertaining is the fact that the downgrading/disabling is dynamic, so if the premium-content signal is intermittent or varies (for example music that fades out), various outputs and output quality will fade in and out, or turn on and off, in sync. Normally this behaviour would be a trigger for reinstalling device drivers or even a warranty return of the affected hardware, but in this case it's just a signal that everything is functioning as intended.

4) The hardware in your computer can be remotely disabled by Microsoft at any time:
Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will cease to function. Details on exactly what happens are a bit vague here, the specs contain sentences like "the related driver would have to be revoked and a new driver would have to be deployed", however presumably some minimum functionality like generic 640x480 VGA support will still be available in order for the system to boot.

What this means is that a report of a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all support for that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found [Note J]. Again, details are sketchy, but if it's a device problem then presumably the device turns into a paperweight once it's revoked. If it's an older device for which the vendor isn't interested in rewriting their drivers (and in the fast-moving hardware market most devices enter "legacy" status within a year or two of their replacement models becoming available), all devices of that type worldwide become permanently unusable.

5) Windows Vista includes anti-piracy protections that limit the extent to which you can alter the hardware in your computer. Combine this with the device-revocation ability described above, and you get some ugly situations possible:
This revocation can have unforeseen carry-on costs. Windows' anti-piracy component, WGA, is tied to system hardware components. Windows allows you to make a small number of system hardware changes after which you need to renew your Windows license (the exact details of what you can and can't get away with changing has been the subject of much debate). If a particular piece of hardware is deactivated (even just temporarily while waiting for an updated driver to work around a content leak) and you swap in a different video card or sound card to avoid the problem, you risk triggering Windows' anti-piracy measures, landing you in even more hot water. If you're forced to swap out a major system component like a motherboard, you've instantly failed WGA validation. Revocation of any kind of motherboard-integrated device (practically every motherboard has some form of onboard audio, and all of the cheaper ones have integrated video) would appear to have a serious negative interaction with Windows' anti-piracy measures.

6) Hardware will become more unstable under Windows Vista, as the hardware must report voltage-fluctuations and odd behavior as "tilt bits," which can lead Window's graphics-systems to reset:
Vista's content protection requires that devices (hardware and software drivers) set so-called "tilt bits" if they detect anything unusual. For example if there are unusual voltage fluctuations, maybe some jitter on bus signals, a slightly funny return code from a function call, a device register that doesn't contain quite the value that was expected, or anything similar, a tilt bit gets set. Such occurrences aren't too uncommon in a typical computer. For example starting up or plugging in a bus-powered device may cause a small glitch in power supply voltages, or drivers may not quite manage device state as precisely as they think. Previously this was no problem - the system was designed with a bit of resilience, and things will function as normal.


With the introduction of tilt bits, all of this designed-in resilience is gone. Every little (normally unnoticeable) glitch is suddenly surfaced because it could be a sign of a hack attack, with the required reaction being that "Windows Vista will initiate a full reset of the graphics subsystem, so everything will restart". The effect that these tilt bits will have on system reliability should require no further explanation.

7) All of this content protection leads to some novel security threats, including the ability to shut down computers with simple bits of code that interact with this DRM:
Content-protection "features" like tilt bits also have worrying denial-of- service (DoS) implications. ... With the number of easily-accessible grenade pins that Vista's content protection provides, any piece of malware that decides to pull a few of them will cause considerable damage. The homeland security implications of this seem quite serious, since a tiny, easily-hidden piece of malware would be enough to render a machine unusable, while the very nature of Vista's content protection would make it almost impossible to determine why the denial-of-service is occurring. Furthermore, the malware authors, who are taking advantage of "content-protection" features, would be protected by the DMCA against any attempts to reverse-engineer or disable the content-protection "features" that they're abusing.

8) All of this added security will cause a massive waste of resources; not just in wasted CPU time to encrypt and decrypt all the secure video and audio signals, but also in CPU time spent checking that no hacking is occurring:
In order to prevent active attacks, device drivers are required to poll the underlying hardware every 30ms to ensure that everything appears kosher. This means that even with nothing else happening in the system, a mass of assorted drivers has to wake up thirty times a second just to ensure that... nothing continues to happen. In addition to this polling, further device-specific polling is also done, for example Vista polls video devices on each video frame displayed in order to check that all of the grenade pins (tilt bits) are still as they should be.

So, if we look at this logically, Windows Vista will:
  • discourage people from buying high-end hardware (why buy good audio or video hardware when your operating system reduces the quality of its output?)
  • discourage people from buying premium content (why buy premium content when you can get better video and audio quality from a downloaded version?)
  • encourage people to hack their hardware (and Vista itself), as that may be the only way to get high quality audio and video output from items they've legally acquired
  • discourage people from upgrading to (or using) Windows Vista (why do I want to buy an operating system that can, at any point in time, decide to stop working because my brand of hardware got hacked by someone in another continent?)
Is Microsoft trying to get users to switch to Macs and Linux?


Gutmann, Peter. 2007. A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection. Distributed under the Creative Commons license. Podcast with the author. Last updated January 8, 2007.

Peanut butter frosting

Last week my SO and I baked a chocolate cake; we wanted to try out a new frosting, and eventually decided on a peanut butter one. I was a bit hesitant at first, but I'm now thoroughly won over to the wonders of peanut butter frosting: the savoriness of the peanut butter was a great contrast to the creamy sweetness of the cream-cheese base, and the peanut chunks added a satisfying bit of texture. The frosting was a perfect addition to the chocolate cake, and is this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1 1/2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup crunchy peanut butter (we used a commercial, sugar-added variety)
3 ounces cream cheese, cold
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk (with 1-2 tablespoons extra to thin the frosting, if needed)
1 tablespoon rum

We made this frosting in a food processor; if you want to make it by hand, I'd suggest letting the cream cheese warm to room temperature before mixing.

1. Add all the ingredients to a food processor and process until well mixed (everything should be smooth except for the peanut bits).
2. Check the consistency of the frosting; if it's too thick to frost the cake with, add 1-2 tablespoons more milk and process again.
3. Frost the cake.


This recipe makes enough to frost and fill a 9"-round double-layer cake or a 9x13" layer cake. As the frosting is based on cream cheese, leftover frosted cake should be stored in the refrigerator; let the cake warm to room temperature before serving. As with most frostings, the cake should be thoroughly cooled before you attempt to frost it.

This recipe is modified from one in Rombauer et al. (1997); we use crunchy instead of smooth peanut butter, and increased the amount of peanut butter.

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

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Political news of the week take 32

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 31, 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.]

It's been a while since I've done a politics post, but as I've been saving up interesting links for the past week or two, I thought it was time for antoher.

U.S. Bars Lab From Testing Electronic Voting (Jan 4, 2007):
A laboratory that has tested most of the nation’s electronic voting systems has been temporarily barred from approving new machines after federal officials found that it was not following its quality-control procedures and could not document that it was conducting all the required tests.
Skip to next paragraph

The company, Ciber Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., has also come under fire from analysts hired by New York State over its plans to test new voting machines for the state. New York could eventually spend $200 million to replace its aging lever devices.

Experts on voting systems say the Ciber problems underscore longstanding worries about lax inspections in the secretive world of voting-machine testing. The action by the federal Election Assistance Commission seems certain to fan growing concerns about the reliability and security of the devices.

The commission acted last summer, but the problem was not disclosed then. Officials at the commission and Ciber confirmed the action in recent interviews.


Commission officials said that they were evaluating the overall diligence of the laboratory and that they did not try to determine whether its weaknesses had contributed to problems with specific machines.

Computer scientists have shown that some electronic machines now in use are vulnerable to hacking. Some scientists caution that even a simple software error could affect thousands of votes.

In various places, elections have been complicated by machines that did not start, flipped votes from one candidate to another or had trouble tallying the votes.

Until recently, the laboratories that test voting software and hardware have operated without federal scrutiny. Even though Washington and the states have spent billions to install the new technologies, the machine manufacturers have always paid for the tests that assess how well they work, and little has been disclosed about any flaws that were discovered.

As soon as federal officials began a new oversight program in July, they detected the problems with Ciber. The commission held up its application for interim accreditation, thus barring Ciber from approving new voting systems in most states.

FBI: Workers saw prisoner abuse at Guantanamo (Jan 2, 2007):
The FBI on Tuesday released documents showing at least 26 of the agency's employees witnessed aggressive mistreatment and harsh interrogation techniques of prisoners by other government agencies or outside contractors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"On several occasions witnesses saw detainees in interrogation rooms chained hand and foot in fetal position to floor with no chair/food/water; most urinated or defecated on selves and were left there 18, 24 hours or more," according to one FBI account made public.

One FBI witness saw a detainee "shaking with cold," while another noted a detainee in a sweltering unventilated room was "almost unconscious on a floor with a pile of hair next to him (he had apparently been pulling it out through the night)."

Another witness saw a detainee "with a full beard whose head was wrapped in duct tape."

One FBI statement said that an interrogator squatted over the Quran and that a German shepherd dog was ordered to "growl, bark and show his teeth to the prisoner."

Another detainee was draped in an Israeli flag.

The FBI surveyed all 493 FBI personnel who had been assigned to the military prison facility in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and determined no FBI agent or support personnel had participated in any of the controversial practices.


Other actions FBI personnel reported either witnessing or being told about included:

# Placing a detainee in a darkened cell with the intent of interrogating him for 24 hours straight; the witness reported being told that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had approved this technique.

# Keeping detainees awake for days on end with strobe lights and loud music.

# Dressing as a priest and "baptizing" a detainee.

# Subjecting a detainee to a lap dance by a topless female guard.

# Interrupting detainees' attempts to pray by putting fluid on their faces and telling them it was menstrual blood.

# Beating a detainee who said he had recently undergone abdominal surgery.

U.S. military deaths in Iraq reach 3,000 (Dec. 31, 2006):
As 2006 came to an end, the toll of U.S. troops in Iraq hit another grim milestone, 3,000 dead.


Overall, the rate of military fatalities has remained relentlessly steady since the 1,000th death was announced in September 2004. But roadside bombs -- what the military calls improvised explosive devices -- have become much more deadly, accounting for about half of the last thousand U.S. troop deaths, compared to 38% of the second thousand deaths.

The most dangerous part of Iraq for U.S. troops remains Anbar province in the western deserts, but deaths in Baghdad have increased sharply since this summer, when the military increased patrols there in hopes of dampening the sectarian civil war that has gripped the capital and surrounding areas.

At least 111 American troops have been killed in December, making it the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the battle for Fallouja in November 2004. Overall, at least 820 U.S. military personnel were killed in 2006.

Bush commits 21,500 more troops: The president says past policies have not worked in Iraq and that changes are needed. (Jan 11, 2007):
A subdued President Bush, presenting his long-awaited new blueprint for Iraq, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that his previous strategy had failed and said that averting defeat required more than 20,000 additional American troops and a different relationship with the government in Baghdad.

In a striking concession, Bush said that the last year in Iraq had turned out to be the opposite of what he had expected — an explosion of sectarian violence instead of growing national unity among the Iraqi people and a winding-down of American military involvement.

He said the reversal occurred in part because there had not been enough troops to provide security in Iraqi neighborhoods — a strong criticism of his policy since the earliest days of the invasion.


Bush did not say how long the increase would last. Military strategists have said that anything less than 18 months would probably be ineffective, but Democrats and some Republicans are eager to see troop levels begin to drop before the 2008 campaign season heats up. And administration officials noted that one benchmark the Iraqi government had set for itself was to take charge of security in Baghdad by the end of this year.

Poll: Two-thirds of Americans oppose more troops in Iraq (Jan 12):
Two out of three Americans oppose President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Friday indicates.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled also say Bush has no clear plan for Iraq.

While his numbers have inched up slightly on that question since the previous poll last week, Bush's address to the nation Wednesday night seems to have made little difference.

Nearly half of those who saw the speech say their minds were not changed, while the rest are evenly split over whether they'd be more or less likely to support his policies.

This is the first poll gauging Americans' positions on the strategy following Bush's address. The telephone survey of 1,093 adult Americans was conducted Thursday. The sampling error on all the questions in the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

2nd tours are ahead for Guard, Reserve (Jan 12):
Confronted with the increasing demands of the Iraq war, the Pentagon announced plans Thursday to recall Army National Guard units that have already fought in Iraq to serve second tours, reversing a long-standing policy that allowed Guard members to return home for five years before being redeployed.

No new Guard units have been included in the first wave of forces going to Iraq as part of President Bush's 21,500-troop increase announced Wednesday night, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the change in policy was made independently of the Iraq buildup.

Other Pentagon officials have acknowledged that additional Guard and Army Reserve units are essential to sustaining Bush's increase in combat forces in Iraq over the course of the year. The military will probably need to tap previously deployed Guard units this fall to keep 20 combat brigades in Iraq, the level of the buildup.

Army Reserve units also are affected by the policy change.

"The reserve components are going to have to help bear the burden," said a senior military official, who discussed internal Pentagon decision-making on condition of anonymity. "I would presume by this time next year, we would be calling on our reserve-component brigades to contribute in Iraq."

Mystery billionaire pays $200m in back tax - and keeps a state afloat (Dec. 30, 2006):
Feeling nervous about your end-of-year tax bill? Already suffering from bouts of loathing towards Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then consolation can be found in California, where a mysterious “Taxpayer X” has just come clean about his income and handed over $200 million in unpaid taxes — almost single-handedly eliminating the revenue shortfall of the state.

The tax payment is so large that it would pay the annual budget of California’s National Guard three times over. And it will close the gap between the state’s projected and actual revenues from $250 million to $47 million. This will put the finances of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the State Governor, back on track — a New Year gift to compensate perhaps for the leg that he broke while skiing during the holidays.

Congressman to Be Sworn in Using Quran (Jan 3, 2007):
The first Muslim elected to Congress says he will take his oath of office using a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson to make the point that "religious differences are nothing to be afraid of."

Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, D-Minn., decided to use the centuries-old Quran during his ceremonial swearing-in on Thursday after he learned that it is kept at the Library of Congress. Jefferson, the nation's third president and a collector of books in all topics and languages, sold the book to Congress in 1815 as part of a collection.

"It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleamed from any number of sources, including the Quran," Ellison said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"A visionary like Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a different belief system," Ellison said. "This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of."

Some critics have argued that only a Bible should be used for the swearing-in. Last month, Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., warned that unless immigration is tightened, "many more Muslims" will be elected and follow Ellison's lead. Ellison was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college.

Internet Explorer Unsafe for 284 Days in 2006:
Security Fix spent the past several weeks compiling statistics on how long it took some of the major software vendors to issue patches for security flaws in their products. Since Windows is the most-used operating system in the world, it makes sense to lead off with data on Microsoft's security updates in 2006.


For all its touted security improvements, the release of Microsoft's new Internet Explorer 7 browser in November came too late in the year to improve the lot of IE users, who make up roughly 80 percent of the world's online community. For a total 284 days in 2006 (or more than nine months out of the year), exploit code for known, unpatched critical flaws in pre-IE7 versions of the browser was publicly available on the Internet. Likewise, there were at least 98 days last year in which no software fixes from Microsoft were available to fix IE flaws that criminals were actively using to steal personal and financial data from users.

In a total of ten cases last year, instructions detailing how to leverage "critical" vulnerabilities in IE were published online before Microsoft had a patch to fix them.

Microsoft labels software vulnerabilities "critical" -- its most severe rating -- if the flaws could be exploited to criminal advantage without any action on the part of the user, or by merely convincing an IE user to click on a link, visit a malicious Web site, or open a specially crafted e-mail or e-mail attachment.


In contrast, Internet Explorer's closest competitor in terms of market share -- Mozilla's Firefox browser -- experienced a single period lasting just nine days last year in which exploit code for a serious security hole was posted online before Mozilla shipped a patch to remedy the problem.

Lawsuit stirs up guacamole labeling controversy (Nov. 30, 2006):
Peanut butter is made from peanuts, tomato paste is made from tomatoes, and guacamole is made from avocados, right?

Wrong. The guacamole sold by Kraft Foods Inc., one of the bestselling avocado dips in the nation, includes modified food starch, hefty amounts of coconut and soybean oils, and a dose of food coloring. The dip contains precious little avocado, but many customers mistake it for wholly guacamole.

On Wednesday, a Los Angeles woman sued the Northfield, Ill.-based food company, alleging that it committed fraud by calling its dip "guacamole." Her lawyer says suits against other purveyors of "fake guacamole" could be filed soon.


If consumers read the fine print, they would discover that Kraft Dips Guacamole contains less than 2% avocado. But few of them do. California avocado growers, who account for 95% of the nation's avocado crop, said they didn't know that store-bought guacamole contained little of their produce.


"We think customers understand that it isn't made from avocado," said Claire Regan, Kraft Foods' vice president of corporate affairs. "All of the ingredients are listed on the label for consumers to reference."

Saturday, January 13, 2007

White and Nerdy

While I've heard the song Weird Als' White and Nerdy is based on (Ridin' by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone), I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't hear White and Nerdy (or even know it existed) until I spent New Year's Eve with SC and friends. SC didn't have the video, but I have since found it (thanks to Weird Al's official site), and it makes the song even better:

Video of Weird Al's "White and Nerdy" (lyrics).

Oh, the hilarity. Oh, the accuracy. And, if you want to get all the jokes in the video (or just read nitpicky comments about it), go read the song's Wikipedia page (which somehow seems appropriate).

For those of you who don't know the song White and Nerdy is based on, there's a video here and lyrics here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Some good reading

I've been saving up a number of links in the hopes of posting about them, but given that I'm still sick1 (and probably won't get around to writing about these if I don't do it now), here they are:

Andrew Wakefield series - Surprise, surprise! Andrew Wakefield was paid by lawyers to undermine the MMR vaccine (by Orac), Unethical is too mild a word (by PZ), and Remind me never to get on Brian Deer's bad side (by Orac). All three look at evidence showing that the author of a paper purportedly showing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was actually being paid huge sums of money by lawyers involved in autism cases.

What if abortion opponents weren't sexist? - a look at the some of the logical consequences of banning abortion.

The Jefferson Bible - I didn't know he had edited a version of the bible; it looks more interesting than the average version.

Obviously a male conspiracy is at work here - Orac looks at the science behind the recent pop-media claim that housework protects women from breast cancer. Hint: the paper doesn't exactly state that there's a correlation between number of hours spent washing dishes and the likelihood of getting breast cancer.

Don't Fall for Anti-Vax Shills - a post at I Speak of Dreams that links to a number of good resources for information about the benefits of vaccinations.

Orcinus's multi-part series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) on eliminationism in America. All the posts are great, but what really got me into the series was Part V: 'Nits Make Lice', a post about atrocities committed against native Americans.

Science Blogging Anthology: the 50 best science blogging posts - a soon-to-be-published book, organized by Coturnix.

Don't make the Demo look Done - a post about why you shouldn't make your drafts look more finished than they are.

1 It's been more than a week now. Time for these viruses to go away.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A new window to the world

On the same day that bsag is swooning over the new iPhone, I'm drooling all over my new monitor1. Up until today I've been using an ancient 17" CRT (I might as well have been using a stone slab with an automated chisel). But now I have a brand-new 19" LCD (a Viewsonic VP930b, if anyone cares). It's so crisp. The colors are so bright. And it's so ... big.

I'm already a fan of the 90-degree rotation feature; I love how much vertical space it gives me for reading documents and scanning through posts in Google Reader. To get the desktop to rotate in Ubuntu (6.06) I followed the easy instructions in this thread2, and it works like a charm.

And, as a final bonus, I can finally get rid of my textbook monitor stand (seen in this post).

1 Many thanks to my SO, who got me this as a Christmas present.
2 To summarize, I installed xrandr and gnome-randr-applet, added "display geometry switcher" to my Gnome panel, and then added the line "Option "RandRRotation"" to the Device (video card) portion of my xorg.conf file. After rebooting, the display geometry switcher applet gave me the option to rotate my screen as I wished.

Five things you didn't know about me

I've been tagged by Aviatrix. Specifically, I've been tagged with the "Five Things You Don't Know About Me" meme. The point of the meme is fairly obvious - I'm supposed to list five things that you (my dear readers) don't know about me. Of course, the problem is this: what haven't I written about that y'all would be interested in knowing?

After much hard thinking (read: five minutes), my SO and I have come up with these five bits of Radagast trivia:
  1. I cried at the second Pokemon movie.1
  2. I only have three bottom incisors, but not because one was pulled. Two of my bottom incisors were fused as baby teeth, and they were replaced with only one adult tooth. Not quite the mutant superpower I was hoping for as a kid.
  3. I know how to cross-stitch and sew with a sewing machine, and have completed multiple projects of both types. My favorite project to date is a large cross-stitched rose.
  4. I spent all of the fall and winter of my high school freshman year training to be on the baseball team. I worked out four days a week after school in the weightroom, and my parents even paid for batting lessons. I wanted to play catcher. I didn't even make the first cut. I did, however, still manage to get a varsity letter. For golf2.
  5. I imagine I'll lose some readership due to this last one, but I'm somewhat of a closet pop-country fan. One of the first CDs I ever bought was Little Texas's "Kick a Little." Alan Jackson's "The Greatest Hits Collection" is probably my favorite album in this genre (though, as my SO and all my friends hate this music, I almost never listen to it and haven't purchased a new country album in more than 5 years). Yes, it's vapid and cliched ... but hey, I can't have good taste in everything, can I?

And, as with any good virus meme, I'm supposed to infect tag five other people. Well, I by no means want to force anyone to write anything, but I might suggest that the following kind folks participate in this meme:
This introduces the sixth thing you didn't know about me: I can't count3.

1 And no, I was not under the influence of any controlled (or not controlled) substances at the time. Nor was I crying at how bad it was. I was genuinely touched. Yes, I'm an utter sap.
2 And the only reason I got a varsity letter in golf was that the varsity team absolutely needed one more person so they would have enough people to compete in tournaments. I utterly sucked, and my typical score was more than double that of the other players. After playing on the team for two years in high school, I acquired an intense hatred for the sport, and have never picked up a club since.
3 Actually, I'm just indecisive and couldn't figure out who to cut to make the list five long.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Three years of Radagast at Rhosgobel

[Warning: excessive navel gazing below. Read with caution.]

I've now been blogging for three years.


While there's a lot to like about blogging, one of the benefits I've been noticing more and more is that it gives me a reason to practice writing. I still don't write as well as I should, but thanks to three years of nearly daily posting, I'm a lot more comfortable in front of the keyboard (and make fewer mistakes when I'm there). Now my students no longer have to suffer through (quite as) horridly worded handouts.

I still find it hard to believe the amount of traffic I get: over the last three years I've gotten more than 176,000 visits and 244,000 page views. Sure, I'm no BoingBoing, PZ, or Orac (they all probably get more hits in a week than I get in a year), but I rather like where I am (as, for example, my blog is completely lacking in pesky trolls). In keeping with the tradition of posting the last year's worth of traffic, here are the data on unique visits for the past year:

Rhosgobel's stats for 2006

The peak in June is thanks to my Ubuntu vs. Windows installation post getting dugg (which generated more than 13,000 hits in a single day).

Given that I've now been pseudonymous for three years, this seems as good a point as any to mention that I'm currently pondering whether I should maintain my strict pseudonymity. While I do like that I'm pseudonymous (I've written about my reasons for this earlier), it is starting to hinder what I'm able to do both here on the blog and professionally. For example, I've built up a decent number of posts on teaching techniques, and it's frustrating not to be able to share that material with my colleagues (especially when I'm asked to lead workshops on topics I've written about here).

Additionally, in the coming year I'll be working on creating content for my online biology class. This will entail writing short summaries of a wide range of biological topics, and I'd love to share those here. The problem, of course, is that I can't do that if I'm pseudonymous. So, for the first time in a long time, I'm actually seriously pondering the utility of my pseudonymous state.

But that's enough navel gazing for now. It's time to break out some cake (we actually did just bake a cake, but not for the blog) and celebrate. As with prior years, many thanks to everyone who reads, comments, and otherwise interacts with me thanks to this blog. It's been a great three years, and I'm looking forward to more.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Radagast and SO's Turkey Casserole

In an attempt to eat all of our Christmas turkey, my SO and I whipped up a turkey casserole shortly after Christmas. I know that the world really doesn't need another turkey casserole recipe (how many variants of turkey tetrazzini are there?), but since part of the reason I'm writing my end-of-the-week recipe blogging posts is to share (and document) the food that my SO and I eat on a regular basis, the world is going to get another turkey casserole recipe. Sorry.

This casserole is straight down-home American cooking: bits of turkey and vegetables are slathered in a white sauce, mixed with pasta, and then baked with a crunchy breadcrumb topping. It's creamy and savory, with just a hint of spice, and it's a great use for that extra pound of Thanksgiving turkey. Note, however, that if you like our more heavily spiced dishes (e.g., Moghul braised chicken, Jambalaya, Thai curry, and many of the rest of our recipes), you may find this a bit bland. Both my SO and I enjoyed this casserole so much that we made a second one this past week, and thus it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Casserole base:
8 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup flour
4 cups milk, warmed
1/4 pound grated English Coastal Cheddar cheese (~1 1/2 cups)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
~4 good sprinkles cayenne pepper (~a pinch to 1/4 teaspoon)
1 sprinkle nutmeg (a small pinch)
~1 1/2 cup frozen peas (defrosted and drained)
~2 cups frozen corn (defrosted and drained)
1 pound cooked turkey, chopped (we used a mix of dark and light meat)
1/2 pound dry fusilli, cooked and drained (but not rinsed)

~2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (a few slices of fresh bread)
~3 tablespoons butter, melted, for the breadcrumbs

To make this casserole you'll need to make the casserole base, add it to a buttered 9x13" baking dish, and then sprinkle the topping on top.

Making the casserole base:
0a. Before making the casserole ensure that you will have cooked turkey and pasta ready by the time they're needed in the recipe (step 9). Cook the pasta in salted water until it's al dente; drain it, but do not rinse it.
1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan (or wok) over medium-high heat.
2. Add the onions and cook, stirring constantly, until they turn clear and begin to brown at the edges (~5 minutes).
3. Add the garlic, and cook until the onions and garlic are both golden (~5 minutes).
4. Add the flour, and cook until golden and nutty-smelling (~3-5 minutes).
5. Remove the pan from the heat, and let rest (stirring occasionally) until the roux stops bubbling (~ a minute or two).
6. Add the warmed milk, whisk to mix, and return to the heat. Continue whisking (nearly constantly) until the sauce thickens (~5 minutes).
7. Reduce the heat to low, add the cheese, and stir until it is completely melted and mixed in.
8. Add the salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg, and stir to mix.
9. Add, stirring after each addition, peas and corn, turkey, and pasta.

Making the topping:
1. If your bread is not yet breadcrumbs, tear it into pieces and process it in a food processor until it is coarse breadcrumbs. Variation in the size of the breadcrumbs is fine.
2. Drizzle the melted butter on top of the breadcrumbs, and mix with a fork until the breadcrumbs are evenly moistened.

Assembling the casserole:
0. Preheat the oven to 375F.
1. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 9x13" baking dish (or similarly sized casserole dish).
2. Pour the casserole contents into the dish, spreading them evenly.
3. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the casserole.
4. Bake at 375F for 30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.
5. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.


This is an extremely flexible recipe; use whatever ingredients you like, in whatever amounts you like. Feel free to use whatever vegetables, meat, spices, and cheese(s) sound good to you. If you don't have English coastal cheddar, any cheddar or other good melting cheese should do just fine (we've made the dish with store-brand medium cheddar cheese, and it was very good).

If you change the amount of sauce, but want to keep the same consistency of sauce, change the butter, flour, and milk proportionally to each other (keeping the ratio of 2 tablespoons butter : 2 tablespoons flour : 1 cup milk). If you want a thicker sauce, use more butter and flour (keeping the 1:1 ratio of butter:flour) in proportion to the milk; if you want a thinner sauce, use more milk (but again keep the 1:1 ratio of butter:flour).

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Conference envy

I'm so envious - all of my blogging brethren are going to conferences. Semantic Compositions is at a linguistics conference, and PZ and GrrlScientist are over at SICB. I'm darn envious of PZ and GrrlScientist; since I'm a physiological ecologist at heart, SICB is right up my alley. I was almost going to attend this year (Phoenix is close to Southern California), and would have been extremely tempted had I known about the blogging panel earlier, but I decided not to because my SO ended up getting the week off.

So, this was supposed to be a week of working on projects1 and having fun. Instead, it's been a week of fighting off viruses (no, not those viruses). So, as it turns out, it's good that I didn't go to SICB, but I still want to hear everything about it from those who are there!

1 No, we're still not done with the super-secret project. Believe me, you'll hear about it when we are.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

90 percent of Iraqis think it was better before the US invasion

The Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies conducted an in-person survey of 2,000 Iraqis from Baghdad, Anbar, and Najaf in November 2006. Here are the responses to one of their questions (data from GlobalResearch.ca):
Do you feel the situation in the country is better today or better before the U.S.-led invasion?
  • Better today: 5%
  • Better before: 90%
  • Not sure: 5%
While I haven't been able to find the original study, multiple articles (UPI, Guardian, Al Jazeera) have been written on it, each one including a different portion of the survey's findings:
  • "79 percent saw a decline in the economic situation; 12 percent felt things had improved and 9 percent said there was no change." (UPI)
  • "95 percent felt the security situation was worse than before." (UPI)
  • "Nearly 66 per cent of respondents to the Iraqi survey thought violence would decrease if US forces were to leave." (Al Jazeera)
  • "[N]early 90 per cent described the [Iraq] government's implementation of its commitments and promises as very poor." (Al Jazeera)
Oddly, Al Jazeera's report on this survey is dated December 14, but the earliest non-Al Jazeera report I've found on is dated December 29 (UPI).

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

My SO and I did something new this New Year's holiday: we spent New Year's Eve at a friend's party (where we got to play German-style board games), and then stayed overnight with another friend (with whom we got to have dim sum for breakfast and then play more German-style board games on New Year's Day). All in all, it was a great way to start the new year.

Here's wishing you a happy and fulfilling new year!