Tuesday, November 29, 2005

fantastic web map of NYC property ages

The snarky NYC real-estate blog Curbed pointed me at this brilliant AJAX map of NYC, with each lot color-coded by any number of things, including the year the building on that lot was built. Completely fantastic...

Here's our neighborhood, with our building labelled with an arrow. It was built between 1900 and 1925, it seems. No buildings in our neighborhood were built before 1900, except for a new near Steinway St (off the edge of this image). The big red blog North of us is the shopping plaza with a great Greek grocery, bakery, and butcher, not to mention a bunch of medical offices...

Sunday, November 27, 2005

the origins of Europeans

There's been debate for many years about where modern Europeans came from. There have been anatomically modern people in Europe for 40,000 years or so, but it's not at all clear whether the current Caucasian peoples are primarily descendents of those folks, or instead are primarily descendents of a more recent wave of migrants, sometime 6000 to 10,000 years ago. I'm not an archaeologist, of course, but I've been interested in this question since college, where it comes up in historical linguistics.

Almost all of the languages of Europe, plus languages like Persian, Armenian, and the Sanskrit-derived languages spoken on the Indian peninsula, are members of the Indo-European family of languages. This suggests that there was once a single language, dubbed Proto-Indo-European, spoken somewhere by some people, dubbed Proto-Indo-Europeans. We know that that language spread and diverged over a number of millennia, replacing the other languages spoken in Europe (except Hungarian, Finnish and Basque). Based on linguistic evidence alone, however, there's no way to determine if the Indo-European-speaking people moved, or just the language, or some combination thereof.

There's been lots of speculation, combining the linguistic evidence with the archaeological evidence, but it's not been totally convincing. One of the more prominent arguments (which I wrote a term paper on, if I recall!) is from a British researcher named (Lord) Colin Renfrew (pictured!), who observed that the development of agriculture seemed to coincide with a migration around 9000 years ago, from what is now Turkey into Europe, and suggested that these people were the Indo-Europeans, and that they by-and-large peacefully replaced the hunter-gatherers who were there before. Another, older theory suggests that the Indo-Europeans were a group from the steppes of southern Russian and Ukraine who had domesticated the horse (it's known that Proto-Indo-European, the language, had words for domesticated horses), and who basically invaded Europe about 5000 years ago.

There's some new evidence that seems to support this latter view of events, although it's somewhat hard to draw firm conclusions. The new evidence is based on analyzing DNA. Some earlier work had shown that more than 80% of the mitochondrial DNA in modern Europeans is unique and old, suggesting that modern Europeans are in fact primarily the descendents of the pre-agricultural peoples who lived there before the advent of farming. The new work looks at DNA extracted from the bones of ancient Europeans, those who lived about 7000 years ago or so (and were farmers, based on artifacts found where they were buried). Of 24 individuals studied, they found that 6 had a DNA variation that is now extremely rare. This evidence, combined with the earlier DNA research, seems to suggest that the spread of agriculture did not involve the replacement of the people who were originally there, but that those people were eventually replaced anyway by a fairly coherent group.

Perhaps these people were invaders on horseback, or perhaps they were someone else. So far, there's no real way to tell. No doubt further DNA analysis will help clear up the archeological story. With a little luck, it'll inform the highly speculative linguistic story as well, although I'm waiting for our friends over in Physics to develop a time machine so we can get the real answers...

Friday, November 25, 2005

On thanksgiving cooking

Well, that wasn't so bad. I made a full-fledged Thanksgiving dinner for six of us yesterday, and nothing failed, to my great surprise! I got a fresh semi-organic semi-free range turkey from one of the yuppie groceries, and roasted it without stuffing. It was fine (if not finished until an hour later than I expected), and my guests agreed. I even made the gravy without screwing it up this time. The only other time I've made a turkey (a Butterball), I made one of my most dramatic cooking mistakes ever. The gravy wasn't really thickening, so I said to myself, "self, why don't you thicken it with a cornstarch mixture, like a Chinese sauce?" So I grabbed the yellow box off the shelf, made a paste with some water, and whisked it into the gravy. Well, started to whisk, 'cause as soon as that paste hit the gravy, it erupted just like a science fair volcano!

Yep, wrong box. Instead of the cornstarch, I grabbed the baking soda. Turns out that gravy's a bit acidic. Well, it is until you stir a couple tablespoons of baking soda into it. It didn't impact the flavor noticibly, and when I added the contents of the right yellow box, it thickened right up...

In my opinion, the best dish this year was Bourbon Baked Sweet Potatoes, courtesy of a blog called 101cookbooks. I made it without the spicy pecans the recipe called for, since I was too lazy to chase down decent pecans. I think if I had used the pecans, it would sorta compete with the pecan pie, which is sorta unfair. I'm not sure to who -- the pecan pie (brought by an esteemed guest) was mighty good! In any case, the sweet potatoes were an interesting two-step process. First they were peeled, sliced, and oven-roasted with olive oil. Then you add a bunch of flavorful ingredients over the top: bourbon, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, lemon zest, maple syrup, and parmesan, and bake again. I definitely recommend doubling the recipe...

For the record, I also made a cornbread dressing (cooked separately) and caesar salad, and we had bread, wine, and the three traditional pies, the aforementioned pecan, plus an apple and a pumpkin. And very wonderful guests who washed most of the dishes last night! Thank you!

(And no, the picture isn't me, it's just one off of Google. I never made a volcano for a science fair. I think my science project in the 4th grade was to see if talking to plants made them grow faster. In fact, if I remember right, the only difference was that the one I insulted (for weeks!) grew a bit taller!)

Monday, November 21, 2005

huge telescopes

OK, this is geeky. Sorry.

Wired News has a story up about plans underway to build a 30-meter optical telescope. That's 30 meters, almost 100 feet wide. By comparison, the Keck telescopes in Hawaii are 10-meters across, and the Hubble space telescope's mirror is a mere 2.4 meters across. Light gathering ability goes up by the square of the mirror diameter, so a 30 meter telescope can gather about 10 times as much light and resolve objects 1/3rd the size of the Keck. The new telescope, to be called the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) will also use adaptive optics to avoid the distortion of the atmosphere. That's pretty cool, and it'll probably be able to see planets around other stars, but it's got a big problem. The name isn't cool enough.

Another telescope on the drawing board, that the Europeans might build, has got it right. It'll be called the OverWhelmingly Large (OWL) telescope. That's the way to name your gadget! Who cares if it can read alien license plates from 30 light years away, it's got a fantastic name!

Reminds me of the BFG9000, or ludicrous speed...

Sunday, November 20, 2005


On Friday I went to a fairly interesting couple of talks. This year is the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "miracle year", wherein he published four hugely important papers. One explained Brownian motion, which is the effect of heated atoms vibrating and randomly hitting particles in a fluid, another won him the Nobel prize for the photoelectric effect, which has to do with the quantum nature of light, and the last two proposed the theory of special relativity, and as a tangent, introduced the formula E=mc^2. There have been any number of conferences and seminars and celebrations around the world about the miracle year, and on Friday was a symposium at NYU's Physics department (which happens to be in the same building as the Psych department).

There were four talks, but I only went to the first two. The audience was interesting. Most academic talks are dominated by grad students. This one was dominated by eminent retired faculty, including at least one Nobel winner! The median age of the audience was probably 70. Einstein died about 50 years ago, so it's unlikely very many of them actually met him, but ya never know.

I'm only going to talk about the first talk, since the other was a bit technical. The speaker was emeritus Prof. Gerald Holton of Harvard, who talked about the reaction against relativity, both in the realm of physics and in the wider society. Einstein was reportedly quite surprised about the amount of fame his accomplishments brought him, even before the development of the atomic bomb showed just how important his work was.

Special relativity was a fairly shocking hypothesis. As Holton said, there wasn't much in physics prior to 1905 that seemed to require a radical re-definition of the nature of time. In particular, unifying electromagnetism with the physics of motion seemed quite absurd, even if Einstein's thought experiments made sense. As a result of his theory's originality, Einstein was heavily criticized by the physics establishment for several decades. The first actual empirical evidence that (general) relativity was valid wasn't until 1919, and in the mean-time, it was easy to attack. In 1906 a (flawed) experiment in fact purported to disprove relativity! In 1910, a keynote address at a major physics conference supported the notion of a universal aether, which relativity had basically shown to be unnecessary, and which never had any empirical evidence for it anyway.

In addition, Einstein was, of course, a pacifist and a Jew, which offended a good portion of the country he was living in, Germany. During the early 1920s, while the movement that would become Nazism grew in influence (recall that the Beerhall Putsch was in 1923), Einstein's theories were seen as Not German. In 1920 there was a meeting of physicists that attacked relativity as contrary to what was apparently called Deutchphysick (misspelled, no doubt). Relativity was seen as some sort of kabbalistic, Jewish science, not in tune with people's understandings of the world, and a threat to society, which needed a science that could be understood by ordinary people. Einstein stayed in Germany until 1933, when he emmigrated to teach at Princeton.

Relativity become more widely supported in the teens and 20s, as people like Max Planck started to support it on aesthetic grounds. Other competing theories were apparently seen as clumsy. It's interesting how physics seems to appreciate elegance so much, from Newton's universal theory of gravitation, which showed that the gravity of the apple and the path of the planets around the sun are due to the same force, all the way up to string theory (which is supposedly quite elegant if you're smart enough to understand it).

Of course, relativity had effects in philosophy as well as in physics and politics. Relativity was seen as support for relativism, the notion that ethics and truth were relative and in fact socially constructed. As with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Darwinism, the scientific theories were used to support nihilistic views of the world, views that were of course opposed by the religious establishments. Einstein was a deist, believing in a divine creation and the divinity of existance, but not in miracles. He certainly was not a post-modernist or a nihilist, however.

Holton closed his lecture by refering back to Plato, who talked about the constancy of the immortal soul, and Pythagoras, who talked about man being the measure of all things. It was a fairly interesting talk, and had interesting things to think about. At dinner with Natasa and a friend of ours last night we ended up talking a bit about how artists have been influenced by these sorts of scientific ideas.

At some point, I'd very much like to see John Adams' new opera, Doctor Atomic, about the making of the atomic bomb, which was a direct result of the breakthroughs initiated by Einstein a hundred years ago.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

language, usage & grammar

"Language, Usage & Grammar" was the name of an elective English class I took in high school. It was basically a survey of Pre-Chomskian Linguistics, taught by an olive-shaped lady named Mrs. Travis. (She was rather ageless, but I think it's safe to guess that she learned about linguistics around the time Chomsky was speaking his first words...) That class taught prescriptivist grammar ("thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition!"), which has ruined me to this day. I often embarass myself by using "who" and "whom" correctly, in informal speech! "Yo, with whom are youse guys goin' to the rave?"

In college, then, I took a lot of Linguistics classes, where I was then brainwashed into descriptivist linguistics. ("Ah, I see that African-Americans use aspectual be, unlike all other speakers of English! That's great! I can write a paper on that!")

Apparently, descriptivist linguistics didn't stick very well, 'cause I'm amused by usage errors. Or maybe it did, since I'm only amused, and not offended. In any case, I was amused this morning by an AP story about a dinosaur discovered in Dallas (Dallasaurus). It's title was: "Prehistoric Lizard Called Historic Link". Which is kindof a contradiction in terms, no? "Prehistoric" meaning, technically, "stuff that happened before the advent of writing", while "historic" means "stuff that happened and then was written down." Of course, "historic" is used here metaphorically, but it's amusingly distracting from what the headline-writer was trying to say!

Also on language, I just got myself a cool language t-shirt, and am now reading an interesting (non-technical) linguistics blog, Language Log, which deserves a plug.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

macular degeneration -- personal connections

My paternal grandfather had macular degeneration for years before he died. Macular degeneration is, of course, the most common cause of blindness in the elderly, and it's caused by a progressive degeneration of the retina, especially the cones that give you detail and color vision. (The rods that give you peripheral vision are relatively spared.) It was a really unpleasant experience for him, particularly as he was losing his hearing at the same time, and he became quite depressed as a result of being socially isolated.

One quasi-funny story about this is when the degeneration was just starting. My grandfather was an avid target shooter, who reloaded his own bullets and owned a number of guns. He would go out into the desert of New Mexico, put paper targets against a hill-side, and make holes in them. He took us out shooting once, when my sister and I were kids, which was interesting... Anyway, 7 or 8 years ago I got a call from my grandfolks, who knew I was studying some sort of science that might have something to do with vision. They said that my grandfather couldn't really see the black-and-white target rings very well any more, and wondered if some other colors might be better. So, I did a bit of research on macular degeneration and the color response curves of rods and cones, and suggested that it might be easier to see flourescent green and black bullseyes. A couple weeks later, and yep, he said it helped! So, my blind grandpa is going out to the desert to shoot... good thing there's nothing out there but cacti and lizards... Then, a year or so after that, I get an email message. Green and black isn't cutting it anymore -- any suggestions for rigging up a light? A little more thinking about brightness, and I decided the only thing that would make any difference whatsoever would be to prop up a mirror and double the amount of sunlight landing on the target. The eye responds to changes in light intensity logarithmically, and sunlight is several orders of magnitude stronger than anything you could run off the battery of a Ford Bronco II. I don't recall whether they said that helped or not...

Anyway, on a topical note, there was an article in today's New York Times health section about some new research on macular degeneration. Some scientists at Harvard tested the eyes of people with and without macular degeneration for a very common bacteria called chlamydia pneumoniae, which usually causes lung diseases (not STDs). They found the bacteria in 6 of 9 patients with degeneration, and no bacteria in 22 control subjects. They suggest that macular degeneration may be caused by inflamation caused by that bacteria. If this holds up, treatment of macular degeneration may just involve a course of anti-biotics at the proper time (which has not been established at all). Very cool.

And amusingly, I've got another personal connection to this research. Murat Kalayoglu, the lead author on the paper, was in my middle and high school classes, and was a friend of mine for a time. Nice guy, and very sharp... not too bad at the trombone, either. His father, incidentally, is a rather famous liver transplant surgeon at UW-Madison...

Monday, November 07, 2005

potatoes, peppers, and slacking

I wish I could tell you that I got brilliant-looking potatoes and red peppers from the Union Square farmer's market, and that I took fantastic food-porn photos of the raw ingredients and the final result, but it's not so. I got as far as the subway this morning, but my train wasn't running due to some sort of signal problem, so I gave up. Instead, I went to the cheap neighborhood grocery and got the aforementioned potatoes, which were probably shipped from California, and red peppers, which were about a week past their prime and starting to wilt a bit. And I didn't take pictures. (If I had, you can imagine they would have looked like some of these...)

What I did do was make a really fantastic saute of pan-roasted peppers and potatoes, based partially on ingredients from a pizza (!) recipe in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The technique is to cook the peppers in olive oil on high heat for a while, which gives them that great roasted flavor, then add the potatoes, lower the heat, and cover the pan, which lets the potatoes cook through. Then add other great stuff like thyme and capers and garlic at the end. For details, see the recipe. And imagine how much better it would have been if I'd gotten the ingredients at the market...

Oh, and I never did make it down to work today, so I worked at home. Really. Made quite a bit of progress, even...

Sunday, November 06, 2005

cake is complicated

Natasa and I had a birthday party last night, which was a great success. I made two cakes for the event, a chocolate-mocha cake and a vegan chocolate cake. Although they turned out well in the end, the process of baking them was full of angst and woe!
  1. Wrong chocolate. I picked up a pound of Callebaut baking chocolate from a gourmet grocery near work last week. This is a good deal if you're using a lot of chocolate (which I was), as it's better than the packaged Ghiradhelli baking chocolate, and is usually about 2/3s the price. The label said "dark bitter chocolate", and when I asked someone at the store, they assured me that it was unsweetened. No worries. So, of course, when I chipped off a chunk on Saturday morning, it was bittersweet, which was not going to work at all. Very very annoying! After walking around my neighborhood for a while trying to find anywhere with baking chocolate better than Bakers, I gave up and took the subway downtown to return the erroneous chocolate. Reading Julie & Julia (which I'll review in a later posting) on the train helped my mood a bit, as did the farmer's market at Union Square where I got a really good apple and a really good sourdough baguette. There are beautiful baby potatoes available now, perfect for roasting in butter and olive oil! Must get some next week! Anyway, the store was perfectly happy to take the chocolate back, and I got some expensive but convenient Ghiradhelli instead. (I really gotta find a good baking-supply place in the city, where I can get decent flour and chocolate and stuff like that...) So, that was the first catastrophe, averted at the cost of a couple of hours of time...
  2. Bad evaporated milk. I had a can of evaporated milk in the cupboard for one of the frostings. When I opened it, however, it was turned. I had no idea that canned milk could turn, but it was definitely Not Right. Isn't the whole point of canning to make stuff that lasts unto perpetuity? Replacing this did not require a trip to the city, fortunately...
  3. Flakey oven. We've got this great stove, with 5 burners and an extra-wide oven. However, the thermostat is, uh, eccentric. As in, 350 degrees could be anywhere from 340 to 380, and it'll change whenever it feels like it, thank you very much. So, the vegan cake was a little dry, as it spend most of its baking time at 375 before I caught it... Ah well.
  4. Cake flour substitution mistake. Baking is, of course, an exact science, where proportions are critically important. I, of course, fucked up the main cake by making an ill-advised substitution. The recipe says "all-purpose flour", so I, of course, said "Hey! All-purpose flour? That's for lightweights! I'm gonna get me some cake flour and use that instead!" So, cake flour instead of all-purpose flour, and when I finish the batter, it's more like batter soup. Cake batter's normally thin, but this was like the prison-camp gruel of cake batters. I baked it, and it rose and solidified, but was exceedingly moist. This caused the layers to crumble when I tried to cut and transport them. As a result, the cake was held together with frosting a little more than it should have been. The problem, as it turned out, and as would have known had I paid attention, is that cake flour can't be substituted one-for-one in cake recipes, but you need about 15% more by sifted volume. Perhaps next year I'll remember...
A couple of Natasa's friends did a completely brilliant job decorating the cakes for us, as you can see (with crappy color courtesy of my cell phone...):

The Sour-Cream Chocolate Layers, Fudge Frosting, and Mocha Buttercream from Rosie's.

The Vegan Chocolate Cake from New Joy with a vegan buttercream frosting off the net.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Queens restaurants I *can* afford

OK, the entire list of Michelin-listed restaurants is now available on-line! Here are the entries for Queens:

Water's Edge 44th Drive Long Island City
Malagueta 25-35 36th Avenue Astoria
Brick Café 30-95 33rd Street Astoria
Piccola Venezia 42-01 28th Avenue Astoria
Tournesol 50-12 Vernon Blvd Long Island City
Sripraphai 64-13 39th Avenue Woodside
Sapori D'Ischia 55-15 37th Avenue Woodside
Jackson Diner 37-47 74th Street Jackson Heights
Trattoria L'Incontro 21-76 31st Street Astoria
718 Restaurant 35-01 Ditmars Blvd. New York
Taverna Kyclades 33-07 Ditmars Blvd Astoria
KumGanSan 138-28 Northern Blvd. Flushing
Bann Thai 69-12 Austin St. Forest Hills

Excellent. Of these, I've been to Brick (OK), Tournesol (very good), Sripraphai (very good, if you like incredibly spicy), Jackson Diner (very good), and 718 (very good, but Lil Bistro 33 on 36th Ave. has better food for the money).


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

NYC election endorsements

OK, I know I promised not to talk politics here, but if I limit it to NYC politics, will you forgive me, dear reader(s)? I'd happily talk about a food or science and NYC politics, but as far as I know, no chefs or scientists are running for office, alas. (But see below, for an almost-scientist!) I would certainly vote for either one over, say, another lawyer, wouldn't you?

The election is next Tuesday. Here's how I'm voting, and why:

Mayor: Bloomberg (R)
Yes, he's (kinda) a Republican, and yes, Ferrer has been endorsed by the Clintons, Dean, and any number of high-profile Democrats I respect, and yes, he donated $7 million to the GOP National Convention last year, but dammit. He's a really really good mayor, and Ferrer is a political hack who's worked his way up the Democratic machine. Mike's the kind of mayor I'd be if I were a politician -- he's ridiculously honest and clean, he's a bit headstrong, he's terrible at baby-kissing politics, and he really likes numbers. There are plenty of reasons he's going to get 65% of the vote in a city that's 80% Democrat.

Public Advocate: Gotbaum (D)
She seems fine, and has no real opposition.

Comptroller: Thompson (D)
I like the fact that there's an elected comptroller, who oversees the integrity of the budget process. Thompson seems progressive and smart, and again, he has no credible opposition.

Queens Borough President: Marshall (D)
My understanding is the the Borough Presidents used to have some actual responsibility for budgeting, but that got taken away from them at some point, and now they're mostly just paid cheerleaders for their borough. This doesn't seem like a very good thing, but what can you do? Anyway, I'll vote for the Democrat, I guess.

City Council: Kann (G)
Our city council rep is the fairly prominent Peter Vallone, Jr., son of former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr., and grandson of Judge Charles Vallone, whose name graces the school a block away from where I live. He's on the ballot under the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative parties. But I don't find him very compelling. And there's an alternative, Jerry Kahn, a Green party activist whose day job is as an editor for a scientific publishing house! He seems like a really bright, progressive guy, and even though he doesn't have a chance in a million, I'll still vote for him.

Ballot measure #1 - NY State Budget Reform: NO
This is tricky. The New York State budgeting process is, by all accounts, the most screwed-up in the entire nation. It's been late almost every year since the Eisenhower administration. It's a total disaster, as is the State legislature generally. This ballot measure would reduce the Governor's influence over the budget, and would create a default budget, continuing the previous year's allocations, if a new budget isn't passed. Although budget reform seems like a really good idea, it's not clear to me that this reform would be very effective. Interestingly, there are progressive organizations both supporting and opposing this ballot measure. Another note is that we're almost certainly getting a great Governor a year from now, when Spitzer should win election, and I'd rather have him have budgetary control than the disfunctional legislature...

Ballot measure #2 - Transportation Bonds: YES
This has literally been endorsed by every public official and advocacy group East of the Mississippi. (That's a river a ways West of the Hudson, for any native New Yorkers reading this blog.) It would let the state sell $2.9 billion in bonds to be split evenly between road construction (desperately needed) and public transportation in and around NYC (even more desperately needed). With a little luck, and this thing passes, and they may actually start building the 2nd Ave. subway and LIRR access to Grand Central! Fantastic, to this rail fan! This is arguably the most significant vote on the ballot!

Ballot measure #3 - Ethics Codes for City Judges: YES
This is apparently overkill, and didn't need to be a ballot measure, but everybody's endorsing it. And really, with a name like "Ethics Code for City Administrative Judges", who could oppose it?

Ballot measure #4 - Balanced Budget for NYC: YES
Back when NYC almost went bankrupt in the 1970s, they passed some really really strict budgeting laws that are expiring soon. Everyone thinks that the laws were a very good thing, and this ballot measure would extend some of the aspects of the law. In general, I think balanced budgets are a good thing (as long as rainy-day funds can be built up when there are surpluses), so continuing these budget measures seems like a good idea too.

Whew! Usually the people I vote for lose, so I'm hoping for better this time around! Oh, and kudos to the NYC votor guide, sent to all registered voters, which had really good summaries of all of the races and measures. That's a great thing. Oh, and groans that this election will once again be held using voting machines older than my parents. Last I heard, NY state is going to be the only state in the Union to fail to meet the requirements of the Help America Vote Act, and is going to lose a bunch of matching funds that should help it buy new voting machines. How inept can you get...

restaurants I can't afford

Well, the first-even Michelin guide to New York restaurants was released today. I recall some speculation somewhere that no restaurants would get 3 stars, since American service at top-level restaurants is not considered at quite the same level as in France. However, four restaurants got 3 stars, three French and one American: Le Bernadin, Jean George, and Alain Ducasse, and Per Se. There were also four restaurants that got 2 stars, and 31 that got 1 star. For the record, being decidedly not rich, I have been to exactly none of these fine eating establisments. 468 restaurants got listings in the guide, however, which is a bit of an honor itself (there being something like 10,000 licensed eating establishments in NYC). I'm curious to know what the 13 listed restaurants in Queens are...