Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is cooking hard?

I was talking yesterday with a friend who doesn't cook much, but he wants to start.  I wanted to offer an encouraging word about how "cooking isn't that hard", but then I remembered how much that phrase kinda irritates me.  You hear master chefs saying "oh yeah, making a souffle isn't that hard, you just do these four steps with these five ingredients."  What they're really saying is, "now that I know what I know, and have practiced all the techniques involved, it isn't hard for me."

It's like someone telling you chess is easy.  "It's easy to win if your opponent makes this move.  Just castle queenside, play the giocco piano, and counter his King's Gambit with the Nimzo-Indian defense."

Cooking well is hard!  The good news: you don't have to cook well.

It's not a contest.  You're not on Iron Chef.  You don't have to match a recipe.  You just have to make something that's good enough to eat.  And really, most things are pretty good.

Here's how to cook, and I'll call this Dan's Three-Step Plan to Cooking Well Enough.

1. Ingredients.  Go to a farmers' market.  (or the produce section of a grocery store, if you're not near a farmers' market or it's out of season.)  Buy some stuff.  Some stuff that you understand, some stuff that you don't.  If it's fruit, bread, cheese, yogurt, or something else immediately edible, eat it.  If it's a vegetable, and it's kind of soft or small (for example, peppers, greens, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, peas), cut it up and saute it.  (that means put some oil or butter in a pan, turn it on like medium or medium high, add the food, and take it out when it looks hot and a little softer than it was.)  If it's a vegetable that's kind of hard, try boiling it for a few minutes, until it's soft.  Tasting things while they're cooking is key.  When in doubt, ask the farmer how to cook it, or look it up on the internet.

Freely use butter, salt, pepper, and sugar.  (whatever you're cooking is still healthier than packaged junk.)  You're learning what these foods are, how they taste, and how to deal with them.  Be adventurous!  Enjoy the essence of each food; try to figure out how you'd describe how kohlrabi or beets taste.  Try to understand the difference between cooking kale and spinach.  And feel free to throw something out if it's really rubbish.  You're learning!  Each day you cook, you are a better cook than you were the previous day.

2. Friends.  Invite them over.  Cook with them.  Especially if you have friends who know how to cook: they'll love to teach you stuff.  (but if they're fancy-pants types, make sure you keep things simple; there's no point in learning their 25-step lasagna recipe, as you're never going to make that again yourself.)  You'll probably come up with something pretty good.  And worst case, you end up with something that's kind of soggy or whatever, and you throw it out and go out for dinner.

3. Nationalities.  Once you understand some ingredients, and some basic techniques, and you want to learn how to impress guests, then (and only then) can you pick up some recipes.  But rather than just picking cookbooks off the shelf (as most are terrible, and most that aren't terrible are encyclopedic), pick a country.  Even a sub-country, like Northern Italian or something.  I'm on a Thai kick right now, which I can tell you is really a pretty easy one.  Indian isn't bad either, Japanese is tougher and less rewarding, Indonesian is harder to find ingredients for.  But ultimately, it doesn't matter which you pick; pick something you like!

And then try recipes.  Keep learning ingredients.  Don't worry if something doesn't turn out.  Worst case, you find you can't make anything in your book, and you can go to step one: saute some stuff.  Try the recipes that you've had in restaurants.  Keep repeating recipes until you know exactly how the pad thai noodles feel in the pan, or how to make the spring rolls stick together, or how much coconut milk you should add.  These will eventually become second nature if you keep cooking.

Friday, July 30, 2010

I wish dreams would become the new zombies

Or cupcakes or something, the new thing that people talk about I guess.  I could certainly get on board with a dream craze.  Y'know, Inception is popular and stuff, right?

I've started writing down my dreams again, spurred on both by the movie and by a dream I had right after the movie, you could call it a half-lucid dream.  It didn't feel like other lucid dreams I've had, but I knew I was dreaming.  (dream story, probably only interesting to me, skippable to you:) We were at a party, the room was dark, I knew about half the people there.  Then I said, "Wait a minute, sorry, you'll have to excuse me, I'm dreaming.  Maybe this is in the future for me, but I'm not here yet."  But I realized, what a cool situation I'm in; I'm somewhere that I'm not supposed to be yet!  I'm in my own future!  Or at least a dream.  At any rate, it's cool.  So I went grabbing for details.  I turned to the girl to my right and said "What's your name?" She answered "Patrissa Yorag."  (I love my subconscious.)  "Spell it."  "Y-o-l-e-g."  (of course.)  "And where are we?" "Eugene, Oregon."  "Okay, great, thanks.  This is going to dissolve pretty fast."  And then it did, and I woke up.

But I remembered that!  What fun.  Hopefully writing down my dreams will give me more bizarre awesome things like this.

(incidentally, I loved Inception.  But then, they had me at "the Memento guy made a movie about dreams."  Also, Patrissa Yoleg doesn't exist, at least not on the internet.  It only occurred to me now, days later, that she might still exist in real life.  Not likely though.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I'm going to create a false dichotomy

Point: I'm not focused enough!

Counterpoint: I'm too focused!

Okay, so actually I'll just give a quick "right on, brother!" to Paul Graham, and then actually discuss the Zen Habits post.  Does anyone actually use goals a lot?  It's the Agile (/extreme/scrum/whatever) software dream: everything you do is like a 1-day goal, arranged from most to least important, and you just check stuff off the list in perfect order.  I can pretend to work like that.  But who actually works like that?  I feel like, more often, I have a vague idea of what I'm trying to do, and I'm sorta feeling my way through the woods as I go.  If I knew what I had to do in one-day chunks, I'd have done it!  (It's similar to my beef with test-driven development: if I understood my code well enough to have structured it into tidy little classes that are easy to test, the code would already be written and tested.  Chicken and egg.)

It feels rather validating when someone I read, even just some knucklehead with a blog (not that I'm implying Zen Habits is written by some knucklehead), goes ahead and says something that's been in the back of my mind for a while.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Trying things out: how long is long enough?

If you do something once, it's hard to say whether you actually like it or not. (It will probably be different from what you already do, so it'll either be immediately fun, or weird and different and therefore not fun. Either way, it's a bad indicator of whether you'll enjoy it if you keep doing it. Playing bocce ball once is fun, but I don't think I'd want to join a bocce league. Learning languages for 1/2 hour once is not fun, but sticking with it has been pretty fun.)

If you do it every day for a year, you definitely know whether you like it or not.

Where's the border? I feel like it's something along the lines of "once a week for 2 months", although maybe that's just because a lot of things tend to happen along that timeline.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I'm starting three new blogs.

Changes are afoot! It's a good day for blogs.

First, research. I'm just starting the journey back into academia right now. (y'know, probably.) It'll be a long process. But I'd like to make a blog where I can talk about new ideas and ways to, in the words of The Streets, push things forward.
Here's my research blog: Tales 'n' Ideas (RSS)

Second, programming. The same way an architect might care about drawing techniques or something (and I promise I will abuse the heck out of this analogy), I care about what I do, and the tools I use to do it. This may be the most helpful; it'll be where I post little tips I learn after hours of pain, to hopefully save fellow programmers the same.
Here's my programming blog: I Lessen Data (RSS)

Third, travel. Travel! Have I mentioned I like to do this? And will be doing so a lot?
The travel blog: I, Ten Seas Lad (RSS)

Fourth, this blog will continue. And who knows, maybe I'll merge everything back into The Snail Shell at some point in the future.

This came about because this blog is semi-private, meaning I don't particularly care about the whole internet reading it. I don't mind if they do, but they probably won't find it very interesting. And sometimes I'd like a more public channel to talk about a couple things.

If you don't use Google Reader or another RSS reader, I highly recommend it. Then you can just follow any of my four blogs that you'd like, forget about them, and only get reminded when I post. How it works: you get a Google account, go to Reader, then you subscribe to blogs by copying their RSS link into the "add a subscription" bit of Google Reader. After that, it'll be pretty intuitive: you can just check Google Reader and you'll get a feed of data from all your RSS sources. (you can also subscribe to twitters or some facebook stuff, if you're into that.) Ask me if you have any questions.

Other blog ideas I tried and rejected:
My haiku blog: A Jade Firefly Tenses
My experimental cooking blog: Salted Anise
My Google/heavy metal blog: Jeff Dean/Slayer Site
An entire Star Trek episode: Data flees Jersey. Fin!

Bonus points: what's my middle name?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blog crumbs

In between delicious morsels of bloggery, I have cooked up the following things to talk about, but none has made it to a full-time post:

- I got a lungi. It's totally the best clothes.

- I took the GREs. Surprisingly painless. Mostly because I didn't care, as long as I did okay enough. Also because the one part I was kinda worried about was the essay, but it turned out the topic let me spout off about how artificial intelligence is so great and attempts to say "but human brains are better" are nonsense. This essay was rivers of gold flowing from my fingertips. (or at least 5.0/6.0 gold, it turns out. well... good enough.)

- Here's Atul Gawande's graduation speech. Summary: medicine has become so complicated that you need to be superhuman to understand it all and always make the right call. So nobody can. I think he's calling for a huge shift in how we think of medicine, from individuals to systems. The most interesting thing, I think, is the point about humility, or equivalently (maybe?) forgiveness.

It should come as no surprise that I instantly draw the parallel to software. Following Gawande's call for humility, I've stopped saying "why doesn't this product have this feature?!" or "how could they have let this bug get through?!", because it's hard. It's so hard and so complicated.

It'll undoubtedly be harder to apply that logic when I get misdiagnosed someday and, as a result, die of the wrong disease. But the ability to take a medical error with equanimity would be a good skill to have.

- Okay, humility aside, who lets M Night keep making blockbuster movies?! And why do we all know his name? After he made exactly one great movie, a couple okay-to-good ones, and an increasingly embarrassing series of awful flops?

- Why do I get so bored watching a soccer match? Okay, because it's low scoring. But why is that boring? I guess it's because it feels like none of it matters, except a few seconds when a guy gets a fast break. It's not like chess, where it might seem like nothing matters for a long time but then all of a sudden you realize he's been building up to a checkmate! It's just a long series of things that don't matter. I do like how it's only 90 minutes, no stops, no commercials.

- Interesting thoughts today, thanks to Catie: let's jump into Christian-ish theology, or at least theist theology. Okay: why do bad things happen? The Catholic answer, as I understood it, was always "God's playing SimCity" (my wording), meaning, why would God create humans without the ability to sin? It'd be like making a world of robots. And people sin, so sometimes they cause each other pain.

But "God's playing SimCity" means God is a jerk, because he's watching his people suffer and not stopping it, just for... what? for his own fun? Also, what about earthquakes? Nobody caused those. So the next answer is: "there's a reason for everything, it's all in God's plan, it'll turn out better in the end." I don't buy that. As I've previously hinted at, I don't think the world is fair, and it's damaging to assume that there is.

I think I'll stop there, because I'm not really invested in this argument, as I don't believe in a personal God anyway. But the "bad things happen -> there's no God" argument seems a lot less silly to me now.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Apple apple apple apple apple google google apple microsoft apple apple

Can we please stop talking about Apple? Just for a week, what if the sci/tech news stopped reporting about the latest iphone thing? I have read so much about the whole "if you touch the phone corner with your finger it gets slightly less reception" issue. I would like no more of it. I don't care if it's a big flaw or it was actually a software flaw or whatever, or if they respond by handing out free cases, or if apple is a great company or a bad company or whatever!

This might sound like partisan sniping so I'll trade: no Apple news, no Google news. (and please please no Facebook news.) With all that out of the way, maybe newsmen would have to go look for actual innovation that's going on in the world beyond Mountain View and Cupertino. (I promise, it's really happening!)

Footnote: ironically, the same geeks who eat this stuff up all day probably mock people who read People. The iPhone is our Tiger Woods.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another thing about donations

This time I ask you for advice. Have you ever donated to something in a foreign country? I'm looking to donate to something, and it's important that it's overseas, because Google will match extra money if it is.

Some things I know about already and are not relevant for this request:
Kiva and other microlending things- that's cool. I'll probably do that too. But I'm looking for straight up donation opportunities right now.

Some things I know about and am looking for recommendations about:
Room to Read (I was reading this guy's book)
Central Asia Institute (I've read this guy's book too)
Charity: water (just came across this today)

Some things I've already donated to:

The reason I'm excited about this: it seems so simple. Giving here in the States seems very hard. All our issues are hella complicated: health care, violence in schools, drugs, immigration, etc. If you want to solve, say, racism, you have to untangle a lot of things, and give to something that really solves the root of an issue. Or, say, gay marriage: you have to hire lobbyists and register voters and stuff, and it takes a lot lot lot of time and money. It feels like going from an 80% solved/efficient/modern society to a 100% one.

But in (Nepal/Vietnam/Pakistan/etc): You donate $20k, they build a school. And everyone needs schools. Maybe their teachers don't have the exact optimal teaching strategy or whatever, but they used to have zero teachers, now they have one teacher. Or you donate $5k (or whatever), they build a well. It's the 0% to 80% solution.

So why donate here at all? Yes, there are problems here. And your school in Nepal might not solve the Nepalese students' problems. But if you donate to a leadership development program for disadvantaged youths in Seattle, you might not solve the Seattle students' problems either! And I'd wager that the Nepalese school has a higher chance of making more of a difference in the lives of those it affects.

Counterpoint: donating locally helps you as well as the donation recipients; it gets you involved in your community.
Counter-counterpoint: donating globally helps you too. Plus, you can give your time locally, but you can't really give your time globally. At least not effectively. I can teach people math here. In a poor Cambodian village where everyone speaks Cambodian and there's no clean water, I could maybe haul bricks to help build a well, but I'm not going to be very good at that, and I'll probably be more of a burden to the people I'm "helping."

So maybe there's my strategy: if I'm going to volunteer time, I'll do it locally, where I'm in my depth and can contribute meaningfully; if I'm going to donate money, I'll do it globally, where it goes farther.

Y'know. Unless I'm missing something. Feel free to call that out.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The best acronym you've come across since, check it out, ever:

The rights of not-straight-people have come a long way in my lifetime. But so has the name of the group! This is a post about the latter.

When I was a youngman, growing up in moderately conservative Ohio, all I knew was that there were gay people. Soon after, I learned that female gay people were called "lesbians". Awareness of bisexuals came later, and then y'know we sometimes heard of people getting sex changes. (my mom knew a transgendered girl-to-guy, my dad told jokes about a sex change being called a "Susan B. Anthony." You have to admit, that's kind of funny.) I became familiar with the term "GLBT" or "LGBT" even though it's a big mouthful of letters. Q came later, I heard it being either "questioning" or "queer", but either way, it just made the acronym worse.

Reading over a grant application for this project I'm working on, I came across the term LGBTQQIA for the first time. ("... queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual.") That is a bad acronym. And I've learned from one Prof. Smith at CMU to make acronyms first, ask questions later. So I did some futzing: let's change "asexual" to "unsexual." "asexual" sounds like a word you use to describe a single-celled organism; let's at least give unsexual people their own word. And we don't need two Q's; let's change the second one from "questioning" to "inquiring." So now we have LGBTQIIU, or (drum roll) the new acronym to encompass all people who are not conventionally heteronormatively white-bread straight:


Bisexual, inquiring, gay, queer, unsexual, intersex, lesbian, transgendered. Ehh? Ehh? Yeah, that's not bad! Furthermore, it totally symbolically fits: everyone's a slightly different patch in the BIG QUILT of human sexuality. And what does a BIG QUILT do? It protects and warms the people involved. Look, it's so perfect it'll make your head spin.

So get out there, celebrate pride, overturn Prop 8, smooch a person of your same gender (or not), drop your crummy acronyms, and join the BIG QUILT!

Daniel challenged me to name the best song of each decade

and it turns out it's not actually hard, going back to the 60's even, even though to be fair I don't actually know a damned thing about music before 2004:

the 1960's: A Day in the Life, the Beatles
the 1970's: Cars, Gary Numan
the 1980's: Once in a Lifetime, the Talking Heads
the 1990's: Birdhouse In Your Soul, They Might Be Giants
the 2000's: Hey Ya, Outkast


Thursday, July 08, 2010

Oh geez, Lebron frigging James

This ... urgh, I mean, I guess... I have to write about this! It's delightfully, terribly, depressingly, humorously, really bottomed-out middle class despairingly, no actually quite miserably, like Hamlet-gravediggerly bizarre.

I meant to post this before tonight so it wouldn't sound like sour grapes. In case you've been under a rock, or not following basketball, which is to say everyone in Seattle, here's the deal: Cleveland had this basketball player named Lebron James, who grew up in nearby Akron. He was really 95% of their talent, and they had a chance to win a championship for a few years, but they kept blowing it.

This is the same Cleveland that hasn't won any major league sports championship in over 50 years. The same Cleveland whose economy has been terrible since the 70's, except for a brief stint of success in the 90's. Whoops, that's their baseball team. I mean their economy has been terrible since the 70's, except for a few years when it got snatched away and sent to Baltimore. Whoops, that's their football team. Look, their economy has been terrible since the 70's. Population's down 50% since its peak. City planning has been abominable. The city itself is a burnt-out shell, nothing happening past 5pm, and there's a large part of it you kinda shouldn't go to. All the rich people moved to the suburbs... in the 70's.

So Lebron becomes a free agent. And of course everyone wants him. Cleveland wants him most of all. Different teams put together their offers of tens of millions of dollars, superstar supporting casts, and, y'know, groveling and stuff. (Chicago gets a little respect from me for this stunt, but still... it's an ad campaign to woo a basketball player.) Fine, it's sports, whatever.
So what does he do? Strings everyone along for weeks, and then holds an hourlong TV event in which he declares he's going to Miami.

How does this happen? It's a perfect mess of god-damn-awful. I can't really blame Lebron for leaving; after all, I did the same as a promising talented 20-something. But did it have to be another great misfortune heaped upon Cleveland sports, with media fanfare? This goes beyond kicking you while you're down. This is three guys kicking you while you're down, continuously, for 50 years, until the three guys all leave and you think "oh hey maybe things are going to be better", until they bring in a 6'8" guy with steel toed boots. And a brass band.

Does it matter? It's just sports. But as mentioned before, Cleveland doesn't have a lot going for it. This hits like a tennis-ball-sized hailstorm, except each hailstone is actually a snow globe containing a Clevelander's dream that shatters to bits as it dents that Clevelander's Toyota.

I don't know where to go with this. I was going to continue the loony analogies until I got tired, but I also don't want this to come across as Cleveland-bashing. Cleveland is full of a lot of great people. They deserve better. I wanted also to say yeah, it is just sports, and who really cares. I wanted to talk about how ugly it is when one person gets so much power that entire sports franchises are reduced to straight-up groveling. I wanted to say I hope maybe this galvanizes Cleveland, so maybe they won't seek relief in sports alone anymore, but that's insulting to everyone who currently IS working to make Cleveland a better place.

I guess mostly, I wanted to comment on how just remarkably terribly superbly vaingloriously comically hideous this whole spectacle has been, but I can't say it better than:

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

I stub my toe a lot on my vibram five fingers

but only the left one.

Unrelatedly, no matter when or where you are, you're better off with the attitude "_____ are people too", where ___ is any (any!) group that you don't like. (whether they're oppressing you or you're oppressing them, or nobody's oppressing anyone and you're just different.)

Even bike thieves. I think, if I were in charge of the universe, I would no longer create a second Worst Hell for bike thieves.

Someone should invent BikeLoJack or some other theft preventer that doesn't make the thief want to steal the next guy's bike instead (as locks do). Bike thievery should be punished as swiftly as any other kind of thievery, and as such we should get rid of this conception that it's somehow more okay than, say, shoplifting or burglary.

Which just leaves bike part thieves... who should be sentenced to sit down with a counselor and try to figure out why they hell they're stealing front wheels or grips off handlebars.

Incidentally, the world isn't fair, and it's destructive to cling to the belief that it is. Dealing with situations where bad stuff just happens (and not wasting time asking "why why oh why") seems like a useful skill.

Monday, July 05, 2010

I just have a lot of ideas

They don't really organize well. Or, they do, but it's into three camps: programming, travel, and research. I have to plan for all of these. And keep myself sane (read: live a balanced life where I follow some diverse interests) in the meantime.

Programming: I'm switching projects at work. I think it'll be good, something more like what I'm into. Servers running web apps (like the Chrome Web Store) are closer to what I like to work on than client software (like Chrome). Anyway, it's in Java, which will let me put my designing-stuff-optimally hat on, because I'm not convinced stuff can be as elegant in C++ as it can in Java. My current hypothesis is that, if you follow testability gurus and dependency injection guidelines (like this), you can unit test out a boatload of bugs. And your code will be pretty nicely modular. Maybe you can even test-driven develop someday! This remains a pipe dream for me, but it sounds like the promised land of coding, instead of the "hack a thing together, put in a few kludges to compensate for former kludges, and hope nothing breaks" style in which I usually program. Finally, speaking of programming.

Travel: I've got this big trip on my mind, and I still don't know where to start! The plan is southeast asia to eastern europe, but that's about all I know. Here are some options:
1. 9 cities, 1 month each, write an android app in each one.
2. 4 cities, 2 months each, same deal.
3. neither of the above; spend some time in India volunteering fixing computers or something, some time somewhere at a monastery retreat-style, some time touristing, some time traveling long distances overland (this will take a while).
4. pick some cities and spend some time, like option 1 or 2, but doing research instead of android apps.
Whoof! Any input is of course welcome. Oh, and speaking of traveling.

Research: I think I want to go into ubicomp, or ubiquitous computing, or (in my mind) "making cool things on a cell phone." But I've got so many thoughts about this too!
- I've got a little trepidation going into research, as it might be a weird world with less real feedback. People grumble about conferences a lot, because that's where success/failure is decided, by a few arbitrary people. In the real world, you can't argue too much, because success/failure is determined by people buying your stuff or not. I feel like research might be evolving toward a world where you don't just publish at conferences, you publish at conferences and make businesses and give talks at TED and who knows what else! That makes life more difficult. But it sounds fun.
- "cool things on a cell phone" sounds like the kinds of problems I want to solve. I like the creativity of "hey we've got this device, what can we do with it?" I've got no burning issues I really want to fix. But does it matter? So I make the next Wii-head-tracking or something... so what? (I think this is a thought I'll have to sorta let nag at me a little bit but not actively think about. It's important to do useful things. But I think it's also important not to obsess about doing useful things.)

Anyway, I might start three new blogs. Considering that programming, travel, and research will likely be important bits of my life for the next N years, might as well really focus on them. Plus, I'd like to make something that someone who doesn't know me might want to read. Like if I find out some real useful programming tips. There are a few on this blog, but very few, and very far between.