Sunday, November 25, 2007

500 Mile Chai

This Thanksgiving we had family visiting from the East coast, so we hosted a small Thanksgiving party. I volunteered to make dessert---a delicious mango pie. I started putting the pie together on Wednesday night and proceeded to mess it up...:(. Suffice it to say that it had something to do with gelatin not dissolving properly and becoming lumpy, to the point where Mala absolutely refused to serve the resulting "pies" at Thanksgiving!

So it was that I was prowling the aisles of Andronico's on Thursday morning looking for an appropriate Thanksgiving dessert. And this is where I encountered 500 Mile Chai from The Tao of Tea.

It is a masala chai---a blend of organic black tea with ginger, cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon. As to the origins of the name, it:

... originates from the many late night truck drivers stopping at small Chai stands 'Dhabas' on the highway and asking for really strong, sweet Chai to help them drive long distances (... another 500 miles).

But what really clinched it for me was the description of the choice of leaf:

The grade of tea commonly used for Chai is known as 'Cut, Tear and Curl (CTC)', representing a heavily rolled leaf pellet with very low moisture content. It is ideal for boiling...

Growing up I remember buying CTC tea for my mother, without any real understanding of what CTC was! So I had to buy this tea. We served it after dinner, and it was delicious!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lessig on Obama

Larry Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School and an authority on copyright law in the digital age, has a great blog post on why he's supporting Obama. There's much that Lessig likes about Obama:
First ... I know him, which means I know something of his character. "He is the real deal" has become my favorite new phrase." Everything about him ... is what you would dream a candidate should be.
Then there are Obama's policies that Lessig likes a lot:

Clearly on the big issues -- the war and corruption. Obama has made his career fighting both. But also on the issues closest to me [technology] Obama has committed himself to important and importantly balanced positions.
In stark contrast, Lessig sees serious problems with Clinton's candidacy:

The parts I can't get over all relate to the issues around corruption.
That's very interesting, coming from Lessig. Lessig made a name for himself in the area of digital copyright, going on to found Creative Commons (a tool that lets authors mark their creative works with the freedoms they want it to carry). But recently, Lessig decided to focus his research on a completely new topic: corruption.

But that's not the half of it:

...the part that gets me the most about Senator Clinton is the eager embrace of spinelessness. ... Our party seems constitutionally wedded to the idea that you wage a campaign with tiny speech. Say as little as possible. Be as uncontroversial as you can. Embrace the chameleon as the mascot. Fear only that someone would clearly understand what you believe.
And what of the "fact" that Clinton appears to have a stranglehold on the Democratic nomination?

"Don't be ridiculous. This isn't about misplaced courage. Barack is going to win this one easily."
All very interesting. I missed seeing Obama live last week. But I'm looking forward to watch his appearance on video.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Best American Science Writing 2007

As most of you know, I enjoy reading articles and books on scientific topics (you can read some of my related posts here). So, at the start of a trip last week, I was excited to pick up The Best American Science Writing 2007 at an airport bookstore. And what a treat it was!

The book is the eighth in the series (the first was in 2000). This version was edited by Gina Kolata, science writer for the New York Times. It's a collection of first-class science essays appearing in a variety of different publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, Discover, and so forth. Here's a brief summary of some of the most compelling stories.

Tyler Cabot writes about the quest for The Theory of Everything, including theories like string theory, M-theory, loop quantum gravity, the holographic universe. He touches upon a schism in physics today between string theorists and non-string theorists aired publicly by Lee Smolin, a string theorist turned non-string theorist, in the book The Trouble with Physics. The schism revolves around the fear that string theory is much too theoretical and will never be backed by experiment. Which makes the upcoming experiments with the Large Hadron Collider so important: could help prove that the laws that govern the universe at every scale ... are one and the same. Or else, of course, it could prove that Arkani-Hamed is full of shit.

Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, and David Gruber write Manifold Destiny, the saga of the recent award of the Fields Medal to Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman. Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal for solving the Poincare conjecture. The story of the hunt for the solution is exciting enough. But the human story of the major characters is even more compelling. There's Perelman himself, who refused to accept the Fields Medal saying:

"It was completely irrelevent for me, ... Everybody understood that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed."

And then there's Shing-Tung Yau, himself a past Fields Medal winner, who turns out to be a master politician working hard to get credit for Perelman's work. As one mathematician put it:

He won every prize to be won. I find it a little mean of him to seem to be trying to get a share of this as well.

It is a reminder that even among these incredibly talented and brilliant people, basic human foibles run strong.

Patricia Gadsby writes a great essay on Cooking for Eggheads. It's an essay on molecular gastronomy---the science of food. Not recipes---which are the technology of food---but the science of food. It is:

... a discipline that would meld physics and chemistry of food and cookery with the physiology of eating and especially the glorious sensual world of taste.

There's a great discussion of cooking eggs. Rather than the standard 10-minute boiled egg cooked at 100 celsius, there's a discussion of what happens if it's cooked at 65 celsius, 67 celsius, 70 celsius, and so forth. The differences stem from the different temperatures at which different egg proteins uncoil and form strands that bind together into a mesh that traps water. As to whether any of these eggs taste better than the standard 10-minute egg, the answer is:

...if your grandmother cooked eggs that way for you, and you adored her and her cooking, there'll be no persuading you of a better way. ... The most important ingredient in cooking is love.

Matthew Chapman, Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson, covers Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in God or Gorilla. In this case, eleven parents from the Dover School District sued to remove the teaching of intelligent design from the school curriculum. Chapman starts by saying:

That's the basic story, but if you think you knkow everything there is to know about this you are wrong. Only I know the truth.

He then describes the proceedings in a most hilarious and entertaining manner!

There are lots more great articles, touching on topics ranging from global warming (Butterfly Lessons, In Ancient Fossils, Seeds of a New Debate on Warming) to medicine (The Man on the Table Devised the Surgery, Being There) to many more topics. It's a wonderful collection of articles. I highly recommend the book.

Friday, November 2, 2007

John Doerr's Call to Arms on Climate Change

Yesterday I attended a talk by John Doerr in which he issued a call to arms on climate change. This was essentially the same talk he gave at the TED and available here. Here's a summary of the talk, but I highly recommend you spend the 20 minutes it takes to watch him deliver the TED talk.

Doerr starts by recounting a dinner conversation on climate change in which his daughter tells him that his generation was the one that created the problem, so it was his generation's responsibility to fix it. So Doerr and his partners at Kleiner went about learning about the problem and what could be done about it. Doerr highlighted four major lessons they learned:
  • Companies matter: Doerr described the story of how how Walmart decided to go green and cut its energy consumption by something like 20% using a series of simple strategies (painting their roof white, installing skylights, keeping refrigerated food in a separate room). When much admired companies like Walmart take the green route, other companies are bound to follow.
  • People matter: People need to make green choices. Doerr described Walmart's big push in selling CFLs: 65 million sold last year with a goal of selling 100 million this year. But consumers won't go green until they understand the full cost of their choices. In particular, consumers need to understand that the CO2 they generate with their choices is not free.
  • Policy matters: Doerr talked about the impact that California's AB 32 and Brazil's national policy on ethanol are having. In the talk I heard (but not in the TED version), Doerr talked about how having the Energy Star standard has made household appliances much more efficient, but that the lack of energy standards for flat screen TVs makes those devices quite inefficient.
  • Potential of radical innovation: Doerr talked about the promise of synthetic biology. He described how synthetic biology was used to get bugs to synthesize the crucial ingredient of an anti-malaria drug, thereby decreasing the drug cost ten-fold and saving a million lives. Amyris is now using this technique to have bugs synthesize much more efficient biofuels.
But through all of this, Doerr had this refrain: "It's not enough". The magnitude of the problem is enormous, and seemingly large efforts at tackling it (by giant companies like Walmart, by millions of individuals making green choices, and by giant states and countries like California and Brazil) are just not going to be enough.

Part of the problem is China whose green house gas production is now comparable to the US and growing much faster. When asked about his CO2 policy, the mayor of a major Chinese city responded by saying that the West produces seven times more green house gases per capita than China. Why then should China stop its growth while the West continues to lead its profligate lifestyle? Why indeed?

Doerr ended with some things one can do. The most important of these seems to be to lobby Congress to pass some carbon cap and trade legislation (see my previous post on this).

All in all a very fine talk.
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