30 January 2010

Freaky Fermentation Saturday

Who needs pets when I have several cultures to feed? After brunch at Walnut Street Cafe with Val and Shirley (Shirley is an Astrophysics post doctoral fellow at Berkeley who was a PhD candidate at Princeton when Val and I were undergrads), Carolina called me and we decided to meet at the West-side farmer's market. Inspired by the Farmhouse Culture sauerkraut booth, we bought two heads of cabbage, two onions and a few tablespoons of carroway seeds and headed back to my apartment to start fermenting some "Liberty Cabbage" of our own. It turns out sauerkraut, although we associate it with the "Krauts" (sauerkraut means sour cabbage in German) was originally of Chinese origin, and probably brought to Europe in the last millennium or so. The Ashkenazim (my people!) quickly adopted it as a staple and probably helped disseminate the deliciousness (and nutrition-ness!) through the rest of Europe. The stuff was especially popular among sailors because it prevents scurvy and keeps forever. What's not to love?

25 January 2010

Formica on the Formica: A Reflection on My Week of "Myrmecocinalogical" Exploits

Formica is the Latin word for ant. That's where formic acid gets its name, the main ingredient in bee and ant stings. In fact formic acid was originally isolated by grinding up ants. Formica is also the name of the heat resistant plastic laminate made famous on kitchen counters across the country. How fitting then, that my lovely red Formica counter-top, which so endeared me to my apartment in the first place, should now be streaming with its own homonym.

23 January 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson (my hero) responds to a 2012 question

Meteorite flies through the roof of Virginia doctor's office

I love these kinds of stories, and I can't believe me it took me almost a week to hear about this! On Monday of last week, a meteorite no bigger than a tennis ball struck the office of family physician Doctor Marc Gullani in Lorton, VA. That's the culprit herself on the right, courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Online news source The Post Chronicle reported the story as follows: Flaming Meteor Hits Doctor's Office. (Sigh). Doubtless the meteor was burning up as it passed through the atmosphere over New Jersey (several fireball sightings were reported, most likely corresponding to the VA meteorite hit), but when it hit Dr. Gullani's office not only was it not flaming (at that point it was moving considerably too slow, more like highway speeds) but it was no longer a meteor--it was a meteorite. Honestly it's just a question of linguistics and doesn't mean an enormous amount, but meteorite experts tend to get all up in a huff about these distinctions: in space it's a meteoroid; in the atmosphere it's a meteor; in a Virginia doctor's office it's a meteorite.

This kind of stuff happens more often than one would assume. There is a lot of stuff out there in space, and we carve out a good volume of space every year (back of the napkin calculation just for fun, please let me know if I'm wrong here I haven't multiplied in years: radius of the earth about 6400 km, distance from sun is about 150 million km. so the surface area of the circle formed by the earth is about (6400)^2*pi=~130 million km. and the circumference of the earth's orbit is 2*150 million*pi=~900 million km. So if I multiply those two I get about 1E17, or one hundred million billion cubic kilometers of space). In 1992 a meteorite hit a Chevy Malibu parked in Westchester County, NY, and just last summer a German teenager was struck on the hand by a small meteorite just before it made a foot wide crater on the sidewalk next to him.

The following list of meteorite near-misses in the last century and a half is borrowed from the story about the German kid on WIRED.

Couple of things: Ant update, My father the novelist...

The ants came back full force last night. Many of them tried to avoid the cinnamon, but other quickly got over their timidity and marched right over it. Some of these brave souls ended up suffocating in the cinnamon coating their antennae and legs, but other made it through, and the highway was unstopped. I try to avoid poison, but I cannot anymore. CVS, give me the most poisonous thing you've got. I learned a new word: Myrmecophobia. It's the fear of ants. I don't have it, I just don't like ants in my kitchen. Myrmecocinaphobia maybe?

My father was quoted in the LA Times today. They claim he's making a living from writing novels. Maybe they can see the future? (Fingers crossed).

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

22 January 2010

How to Freak Out Ants with Cinnamon

It's raining here in Santa Cruz, has been for a couple of days. When I woke up yesterday morning a colony of ants had decided to seek shelter from the storm in my kitchen, and I was not cool with that. I killed them, and stuffed up the hole with bleach soaked paper towels. I also contacted my landlord and asked him to fill the hole they were coming in through. He hasn't responded yet (grrr grr).

Well this morning they were back, so I decided to try using cinnamon, an organic remedy that a woman from my PhD cohort recommended to me on the bus yesterday. And they freaked out! A sprinkling of cinnamon could completely trap an ant who was undeterred by bleach and vinegar. I ended up going a little overboard and covering my entire kitchen in cinnamon (see the picture). We'll see if they come back now BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

21 January 2010

Curing novel-phobia through systematic desensitization--The Help

I just finished reading (well, listening to) The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I highly recommend it. A few of the characters are cardboard cutouts (especially the big bad Southern belle racist biatch who serves as the story's super villain) but other than that, I had a good time. I even cried.

I was hesitant to shell out the 20 bucks for the audiobook because the last novel people were recommending to me so highly was The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. And I really did not enjoy that book, or think it was worth the buzz (no pun intended on the the buzzing bees thing). They made it into a movie last year apparently. So lame. The book said absolutely nothing to me...about women, about relationships, about race, about love, it said nothing.

I don't buy novels very often. In fact I think the only novel I read in 2009 was the rough draft of my dad's noir mystery thriller (coming soon, don't miss it!). It's just difficult for me to get past the fact that everything is made up. I'm afraid I'm wasting my time. In college I became addicted to the not-so-new "new journalism" and the wonderful world of long-form non-fiction. If I want pure pointless entertainment I'll read David Sedaris. But every time I read a book like The Help, which is both thoughtful and entertaining, I am reminded that a novel can be good and rich and valuable. It's no Dorian Gray or Ulysses or The Invisible Man (when pressed for my top ten those three would be up there) but it's worth 20 bucks.

Maybe if I keep reading good modern novels I can get over this odd fiction phobia of mine. A regimen of systematic literary desensitization. I'm looking for treatment recommendations...

P.S. I may have listed three novels above and claimed they are some of my favorites, but don't ask me to elaborate. I can't stand when I am asked to list my favorite books music and movies. Ugh. Pet peeve.

P.P.S. I put science fiction in a different category, by the way. Not sure why. I have the same misgivings about the being all made up part but somehow sci-fi feels like a valuable warning about human nature, if done right. In 2009 re-read Player Piano (Kurt Vonnegut) and I also read a Thomas Disch book that my eighth grade social studies teacher Glenn recommended to me--Camp Concentration. Both brilliant. Through the lens of educational theory (the lens I seem to be wearing all the time nowadays), Player Piano was a book about the culture of testing gone to far (NCLB!), and Camp Concentration was a reflection on the true meaning of "genius," and the lengths to which we will go to cultivate it.

20 January 2010

Back from DC!

I spent an excellent five days in Washington, DC. While there I got a chance to explore Hyattsville, see the new Newseum, and watch the Wizards beat Portland.  The Wizards game was especially fun because we got to hang out in the family lounge (very upscale with free food and soft drinks) and check out some of the things going on behind the scenes. We even got to play some basketball in the Wizards practice court (that's me dribbling in the light blue shirt). Chris knew the guy throwing out the little gold basketballs (the other picture) but we ended up giving it away to the much more deserving baby in the row in front of us.

The Newseum was very cool. The exhibit technology is cutting edge, from Minority Report style drag-and-drop no-touch screens to interactive Pulitzer photo displays. There was even a "4-d" movie, although that was somewhat of a let down after Avatar. Chris couldn't see the 3-d anyway, so he didn't care.

The weather was perfect the whole time (mid fifties in the day, only a few hours of drizzle one day), and I was sad to leave the sunshine and return to cold, rainy California (sigh). But I'm back in Santa Cruz, and now it's back to work.

12 January 2010

Pool, Billiards and Mathmagicland

Justin and I have been playing some pool lately at places like the Rush Inn and the Catalyst (free if you go the right nights). Neither of us are spectacular but it's fun to play a game that I don't totally suck at (i.e. darts, or bowling). There are a lot of angles involved, and it got me thinking about Donald in Mathmagicland, a 1959 Disney movie that I hadn't watched since middle school. In it, Donald goes on all sorts of mathematical adventures, including a visit to a billiard table. The man playing billiards is apparently very good, although I don't know how to play billiards so I wouldn't know. According to Donald's narrator-friend, the formula for hitting the balls is very simple, and involves subtraction of the diamond where the cue is from the diamond where the cue ball is. That number tells you what diamond to aim at on the other side of the table in order to hit the two other balls (which I guess is the point...)

Here's the video. Compared to, let's say 3 is a Magic Number by Schoolhouse Rock (really not the way to learn what 3 means), it presents mathematics in a very endearing way, not as numbers and equations but as thought experiments, embedded in every day life. Well done Disney. Modern math curricula that focus on memorization could take some cues from Donald's adventures.


I was given the task of providing snacks for class this week, and was told by my prof that he would prefer them to be "healthy" snacks. I decided to make some hummus and bring carrot sticks to dip in it (healthy as it gets) but today I decided I would take a step further by making some yummy crackers to go with the hummus. I've always wanted to make crackers but never really found the occasion. Kind of takes away from "healthiness" requested by Jerome but everything is homemade so doesn't that make up for the fat and carbs?

I followed a super simple recipe but made everything smaller because my class is comprised of four students. The crackers have about 3/4 cups of flour, 3/4 cups of semolina flour, 1/2 cup of water, 1/6 cup olive oil, and are sprinkles liberally with salt and pepper. I rolled them out and baked them on a floured baking pan until they were golden. The result reminds me a little of Spanish tortas de aceite, but thinner. Look how good they look! And they taste good too. My new-to-me rolling pin (thanks to my parents!) worked out very well, and the dough rolled out easily super-thin. Next time I might put some shredded cheese in the dough for some extra decadence.

11 January 2010

Welcome to ZBlog 2.0!

This is the new home of my blog because its old home (sites.google.com/site/zbuckster/zblog) is a Google site, and Google sites do not have an intuitive way for people to leave comments. I know my following is like four people at the most, but still, I want those people to be able to tell me stuff when they get excited about something on my blog without having to remember to email me about it later. Because obviously everyone who reads this knows my email because they are all either members of my nuclear family or have known me so long they might as well be. But anyhow, I really want comments to be a part of the blog, because that's kind of like what makes a blog a blog. SO I am proud to unveil....the new, improved ZBLOG 2.0 WOHOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

A few of the older posts from the other blog have already been moved over (I've tried to keep the dates they were posted somewhat accurate). The old blog is still here. And of course my website, with clippings, writing samples, research updates etc will still be at sites.google.com/site/zbuckster. Google still refuses to index it (Google I have been so good to you. I have sung your praises. Why do you hurt me so?), so if you have a place to post things do me a favor and post a link so that some day I will be searchable.

How to Prepare for the Cloud Revolution

So I made a very intricate chart on my last blog (on Google sites, which DOESN'T ALLOW COMMENTS) about how specifically I will let go of all the hardware and software I depend on now. But I can't seem to paste it easily and I haven't got the time to figure it out. If you're interested the link is here.

Teaching Math to Preschoolers

My grandmother sent me a New York Times clipping this week about preschool math education based on cognitive neuroscience. I know, sending cut out pieces of newsprint through the mail, how quaint. Yet somehow comforting. Maybe I'm biased, but I just love the smell and feel of newsprint. Unfortunately my selfish sensory desires won't save the trees. Or the newspaper industry. Or journalistic integrity. Sigh.

Anyhow, as I was saying before I got distracted. The article, entitled "Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them," profiles a math curriculum at the Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center in Buffalo. Above the headline, three adorable four-year-olds in matching green sweatshirts organize the numbers 1-5 printed on sets of green cards. Reporter Benedict Carey (per the byline) describes a program called Building Blocks, which makes no assumptions about at what age children are "wired" to learn certain concepts. This whole idea flies in the face of the traditional Piagetian stages of development. It also seems to lean toward what has traditionally been associated with behaviorism: in particular drills, drills drills. But the drills are not designed to help children memorize multiplication tables. Instead they are designed to encourage certain connections in the brain. Very cognitive science. For example, the teacher shows the children a paper plate with three dots on it, and then covers it quickly. She wants the students to be able to recognize the number three without counting. In my opinion this reeks of associationism (which fits neatly into behaviorism). But it's definitely not traditional associationism. Instead of training children to produce the correct responses to a very narrow set of questions, Building Blocks is training children to think about numbers and patterns in a certain way, which will allow them to think about questions in a better way, and formulate mathematically accurate responses. Very constructivist in this light. Building Blocks is also said to incorporate games, play and artwork into the math curriculum. Very Vygotsky. The curriculum, although clearly based on the vocabulary of cognitive neuroscience, appears to incorporate smart methodologies from the whole gamut of learning theories.

According to the article, the method has been extremely successful, as measured by tests of simple arithmetic skills (addition, subtraction, and number recognition). After participation in Building Blocks, children scored on average 26 percentile points higher than their non-Building Blocks peers (the test was graded on a curve, so do the math).

If nothing else, stories like this one make me happy that people are rethinking teaching math. Math is a lovely thing, and should not be reserved for graduate students. Of course, these preschoolers are not creating proofs, but it sounds like some of what they do without ever touching a pencil to paper is a lot closer to real math than what can go on in the classrooms of children twice their age. Despite highly public complaints that we are falling behind in math and science education, we are getting better, and programs like this one prove that it is possible to bring untraditional programs into the classroom. Hope for the future! Woohoo!
Here's the link, in case your grandmother doesn't send you clippings.

I don't want to do this...

but Google has forced my hand. I have a site, with a blog, but it's on Google sites and Google will not let people who aren't collaborators post comments! So frustrating. They blatantly have the technology...as obvious from THIS HERE RIGHT NOW. Sheesh.