Sunday, January 29, 2006

expertise and cooking

There were two essays in Best Food Writing 2004 that got me thinking about expertise and how people become expert cooks.

The first essay, entitled Learning to Cook, Cooking to Learn, was by Matthew Amster-Burton on Follow the link to read the whole thing. He writes about recipes, and the difference between a recipe for beginners and recipe for experts.
There is a place for the highly specific recipe: beginner's cookbooks and recipes for things generally considered tricky (pie crust) come to mind. A helpful hint is never out of place (cook the pancakes on the first side until the bubbles on top start breaking)...

The problem with detailed recipes is that they reinforce a bad assumption: that everything you need to know about making a dish can be encapsulated into a recipe, and that learning to cook is just a matter of picking the right book and following the instructions carefully.
Being a good cook is not merely the skills needed to follow a recipe, it's also the skills needed to fill in the gaps in a recipe, to deal with surprises and to improvise. Although recipes can certainly inspire new ideas and are great ways to pass on knowledge quickly, they can be a bit of a crutch when trying to become a better cook.

Christopher Kimball, editor of Cooks Illustrated and host of America's Test Kitchen, writes an essay that continues on a similar vein.
Most cooks I know are constantly looking for new recipes the way some folks are constantly on the lookout for antiques, clothes, computer software, or specials down at Price Chopper. There is nothing wrong with living life vicariously through recipes -- we all do it to some extent -- but the problem with most home cooks is that they have too many recipes rather than too few.

Two hundred years ago, good cooks generally had a relatively limited repertoire, extending to perhaps 50 key recipes. They could make a roast, a cake, a loaf of bread, a few casseroles, etc. As a result, they became experts at what they cooked -- they could make buttermilk biscuits, a pot roast, wax beans, or chocolate cake from memory, even with their eyes closed. The point? Well, they soon relaized that details mattered, that small variations in pereparation yielded different results, and that baking a pie in July was quite different from doing so in February, because the dough was more likely to heat up and become unworkable.
Kimball suggests something that I think is radical, but also very intruiging. Instead of collecting cookbooks and trying everything under the sun, instead of trying to become good at eight cuisines all at once, pick 25 recipes, and cook them repeatedly until you become an expert. "You will soon learn what a bisuit, a roast chicken, or a chicken soup is really supposed to taste like."

Another thing to think about is how much time it takes to become an expert cook. Think about a chef. They spend two years in cooking school, spending, literally, 10 hours a day in the kitchen. Then they spend several more years apprenticing, working as a line cook, 40 hours a week. At that point, the budding chef will have spent something like 10,000 hours chopping vegetables and roasting meat. That length of time, 10,000 hours, is the general rule of thumb for how long it takes to become an expert at something. I probably spend 5 hours a week cooking these days. That means that if I keep it up, around the time I become too old and feeble to hold a knife, I'll have something like the expertise of a 25-year-old professional chef.

Psychologists have studied expertise for quite a while now. That 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert makes you perform qualitatively differently from a novice, whatever the task. Here are five differences between experts and novices, from a web page by Jan Armstrong at UNM, with my food-related comments:

  1. Novices rely on formal rules and procedures to guide them. Experts rely to a greater degree on their accumulated experience.
    This is why, and how, novices like myself use recipes. When I recently learned to make a beurre blanc, I looked at that recipe every 30 seconds to make sure I did it right. Everything was measured precisely. An expert would just dump the ingredients into the pan until it looked right.
  2. Novices are highly conscious of the task performance process. This is a distraction and creates additional "load" on cognitive processing. As expertise grows, performance of the task becomes automatic. This cognitive phenomenon is called "automaticity."
    An expert can cook 15 dishes at once. If I concentrate, I can do three simple dishes simultaneously, or one new and complicated dish.
  3. As expertise is acquired, the learner's cognitive processing system becomes more efficient at processing new information. As a result, experts can see the whole picture. They are also more aware of the specific circumstances in which they are working. They have good self-monitoring skills. Experts can make even very complex, difficult tasks look easy.
    Last year I spent 3 or 4 months making almost nothing but Indian cuisine. By the end of that time, new recipes and techniques were much easier to pick up than the first few, as I could relate those new processes to old ones I'd previously learned.
  4. The expert has a larger number of strategies, and more effective strategies, for performing the task. This may be the most critical difference between the expert and the novice. Experts know how to get out of trouble because they have multiple strategies for dealing with the unexpected.
    Two words: pie dough. (My nemesis.)
  5. Experts are more flexible than novices. They rely on intuition in ways that novices find difficult to comprehend.
    I, for one, have never seen a measuring cup used on Iron Chef.
Another Psychologist of experise, Anders Ericsson of Florida State, says this about his recent work:
[T]he difference between experts and less skilled subjects is not merely a matter of the amount and complexity of the accumulated knowledge; it also reflects qualitative differences in the organization of knowledge and its representation. Experts' knowledge is encoded around key domain-related concepts and solution procedures that allow rapid and reliable retrieval whenever stored information is relevant. Less skilled subjects' knowledge, in contrast, is encoded using everyday concepts that make the retrieval of even their limited relevant knowledge difficult and unreliable. Furthermore, experts have acquired domain-specific memory skills that allow them to rely on long-term memory to dramatically expand the amount of information that can be kept accessible during planning and during reasoning about alternative courses of action.

Unpacking this a little bit, the key bit of what Prof. Ericsson is saying is that experts can use their memories of their knowledge and experience much more efficiently. Rather than having to consciously recall a rule (how many minutes to hard-boil an egg again?), they are able to retrieve that sort of information from their long-term memory without running into the inherant limits of short-term (working) memory. It's not that an expert cook can think about more things at once than a novice cook, it's that they don't have to think in order to cook!

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Friday, January 27, 2006

wordy t-shirt

A web company called SnapShirts has this thing where you give them the address of a web site and they make a "word cloud" of all of the frequently used words on the site. You can have the resulting image put on a t-shirt. Here's the result if you give them this blog:

Pretty cool. I'm mildly tempted...


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

blog consolidation

I recently subscribed to two newish science magazines. One is Scientific American Mind, which is, well, what you'd expect from the title. Scientific American-style coverage of psychology and neuroscience. It's pretty good. Last issue had a good article on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys as a case study of executive function (and disfunction), and an interesting article on possible drugs to prevent consolidation of traumatic memories.

The other new magazine I subscribed to is Seed. Seed is interesting. Its tag is "Science is Culture", and it's sort of a pop Discover. A bit like Wired, but for science instead of technology.

In addition to their magazine, Seed just started a new umbrella for science blogs, called, uh, ScienceBlogs will have a couple of dozen major blogs about scientific topics, some new, and some former independent blogs. I'm subscribed to Cognitive Daily, about cognitive science, and Uncertain Principles, about physics, and I used to subscribe to Gene Expression (until their RSS feed got screwed up and I stopped seeing new articles).

This is an interesting new trend in the blogosphere. Blogs, which used to be fun little sites where people talked about their work or their pets or horribly dull stuff like that, have now become a real and significant business, and a way for new professional writers to be exposed to the world. Bloggers are getting book contracts. This sort of quasi-independent blog, published under the umbrella of a larger organization, but with independent editorial content, seems to be the way of the future for the larger blogs.

It's true in the other two topics of this blog as well. In food, last month saw the unveiling of an umbrella for several new food blogs by well-known bloggers. The Well Fed Network has blogs on desserts, spirits, the food media, and the food industry, and will be expanding. In New York City, there are conglomerates such as Curbed, a snarky NYC real-estate blog, that also runs Eater, a snarky high-end NYC restaurant blog, and The Gutter, a snarky NYC architecture blog. (Curbed, in particular, is highly recommended!)

I've seen a couple of instances of growth making blogs noticibly less good. DailyKos, a left-leaning political group blog has gotten noisier as the number of participants has grown exponentially. The quality is still there, but it's harder to find. One of the first blogs I read, The Amateur Gourmet, is noticibly less creative and fun to read than it was a year ago. It'll be interesting to see if consolidation makes blogs less good, or if they're perceived as being less authentic because they now have budgets and staff and revenue.

Fortunately, my loyal dozen or so readers need not fear losing me! I'm not about to get a book deal, but unlike in other media, I'm not going to be pressed out of the blogging universe because some people are turning pro. Because of the long tail phenomenon, there's room for people like me, who write as a creative/expressive outlet, who have no desire or hope of ever being paid. And really, that's probably a good thing. I enjoy a few high-end classy blogs, with budgets and staffs and revenue. But I also like low-end random blogs, written by friends and random people whose sites I've just run across. We're not going to get consolidated....


Adjectives in restaurant menus

A friend of mine once suggested the rule of thumb that the number of adjectives in a restaurant's menu is inversely proportional to the quality of the food. Calling something "savory" is presumably compensating for the fact that it came out of a can.

I was reminded of this today when I ran across (via Slashdot) this LA Times article about using statistical techniques to try to predict the future success of Sundance films based on their description in the Sundance film guide and on the IMDB record for the film. They get seemingly relatively good results, but one of the funny and interesting parts is their list of positive and negatively predicting words in the description. Read the original article to see the lists, but the interpretation was interesting:
"A lot of adjectives, like 'riveting' ... that's a bad indication," Prince said. "Whereas words that are tangible tend to be pretty good things."
So, is this true at New York City restaurants? Well, I don't have the time to write a web-crawler that tries to correlate the adjectives and ratings on, but here's the Meat selection at the extravagant Alain Ducasse:

Squab breast radish, turnip, daikon cooked/ raw, light jus
Medallions of Millbrook venison roasted fall vegetables, "poivrade"' sauce
Lamb rack "au sautoir" condiment of dried fruit and piquillos, creamy quinoa
Aged Ribeye of Black Angus shallots, Boston bibb lettuce, panisses, sabayon
Blue foot chicken crisp and tender endives, sabayon (for two people)

I estimate a roughly 2:1 ration of nouns to adjectives. Yep, I'll eat there... (As long as I don't have to foot the bill...)

I also did a Google search for "restaurant menu adjectives". No notes about this rule of thumb, but lots of references to middle-school lesson plans. Apparently, middle school teachers think that it's a good thing to teach middle schoolers about adjectives by letting them "improve" menus by adding adjectives. Great! That'll mean they'll be eating cafeteria lunches like "tantalizing Salisbury steak with vibrant mashed potatoes" and "crisp carrot slices with transparent orange jello"! Mm, lookin' forward to that...


Monday, January 23, 2006

A Trader Joe’s Primer for Manhattanites

Courtesy of LA blogger losanjealous, comes A Trader Joe’s Primer for Manhattanites. Just exactly what I needed...! He concludes: "[Y]ou cannot fully stock a working kitchen if you are a halfway serious amateur chef on the mostly-readimade TJ’s catalog. You will still have to suffer Whole Foods if you need, say, a stalk of lemongrass to make that green curry. You can however fill in the snacking gaps on your list–finger foods, chips, booze, novel frozen goods. Basically, you can set up one hell of a party spread with their gear." Good to know.

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cheap Salmon and Wal-Mart has a very interesting book excerpt today, from Charles Fishman's book entitled The Wal-Mart Effect. Living in NYC, where there are no Wal-Marts, $4.84/pound Atlantic salmon isn't something I have to deal with on a regular basis, but Fishman's discussion of how they can sell it for so cheap, and where it comes from (Chilean fish farms), is very much worth thinking about. I've long been interested in the conflict between two competing interests: getting environmentally sustainable, worker-friendly food, and getting food of that quality to the poor, who can't very well shop at Whole Foods. Here are some select quotes from the article/book:
Salmon for $4.84 a pound is a grocery-store showstopper. If prices contain information, if prices are not just a way of judging whether something is expensive or affordable but contain all kinds of other signals about supply, demand, prestige, and even the conditions under which products are made... then salmon for $4.84 a pound is a new, unintended Wal-Mart effect. It is a price so low that it inspires not happiness but wariness. If you were so inclined, you couldn't mail a pound of salmon back to Chile for $4.84. It's a price so low, it doesn't seem to make sense if you think about it for even a moment. [I]t's a deal too good to be true, if not for us as the customers, then for someone, somewhere. What exactly did Wal-Mart have to do to get salmon so cheaply?
About why Chile is now raising Atlantic salmon:
Salmon farming in Chile was spurred by a business incubator called Fundación Chile, according to Rodrigo Pizarro. "A lot of young businessmen, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, men who were the sons of families with historical business ties, found out about salmon and went to the south to find out what was happening," says Pizarro. "They went to a sort of frontier area -- and they stayed in those places and built this industry. It took five or ten years." ... "They had no history of aquaculture in Chile," [a researcher] says. "None at all. But there is a real entrepreneurial spirit in Chile. And they had cheap labor, and a cheap environment." Salmon farming flourished... Now, says Anderson, you can get salmon from farms in Chile up to the United States faster than you can get it down from Alaska. "In Chile," he says, "they harvest the fish early, early in the morning, when it's still dark. They get it to the processing plants near the farms right in the morning. Then it's on a truck or a plane to Santiago, and then on a plane to Miami. There's fish killed in southern Chile that is in Miami or New York in under forty-eight hours."
About why the fish is so cheap to buy:
Part of the reason Wal-Mart can sell a salmon fillet for $4.84 is that, as Leape puts it, "they don't internalize all the costs." Pollution ultimately costs money -- to clean up, to prevent, to recover from. But right now those costs aren't in the price of a pound of Chilean salmon. Salmon-processing facilities that are run with as much respect for the people as the hygiene of the fish also cost money -- for reasonable wages, for proper equipment, for enough workers to permit breaks and days off. Right now those costs aren't in the price of a pound of Chilean salmon either.
About Wal-Mart's role in changing standards for food production:
The environmental groups in conversations with Wal-Mart want to bring along the big company toward a view that it can, that it must, use its power to solve some of the environmental and labor problems that the industries it relies on create. They think Wal-Mart could ultimately do for corporate environmental stewardship what it has done for corporate productivity and efficiency. Wal-Mart wants to be seen as taking criticism seriously, and it wants to be seen as a responsible citizen. But the environmental groups don't want to be duped, or co-opted, by a Wal-Mart campaign that turns out to be more public relations than substance... Wal-Mart must surely be worried that once you open the door to considerations other than what's required by law, to considerations other than what's required to improve efficiency and decrease cost -- well, where will the demands end? What won't people ask of Wal-Mart?


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sauteed chicken with wilted spinach and kumquat sauce

Another particularly great recipe from the blogosphere! A few days ago I made a recipe from chef-blogger Mark Tafoya. Chicken breasts are sauteed, then a pan sauce is made with kumquats, shallots, and sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. Kumquats, of course, are the miniature citrus fruits that you can eat whole (squeeze them a bit first, to get some juice into the tart rind) -- they're just sliced thin for this recipe. My version of the recipe is here.

A few comments on the recipe and the techniques...

I've been getting these organic free-range chicken breasts from the neighborhood Greek butcher. They're good, but they're insanely huge. Like, the size of turkey breasts. Pan-sauteeing them is a problem, since they overcook on the outside before the middle is done. I asked Mark Tafoya about pounding them flatter, and he recommended doing that. I've never pounded chicken breasts before, since most of them (except these organic ones!) are thin enough already, but I'll try it next time I saute chicken breasts.

Speaking of sauteeing, I used a particularly good technique from Mark Bittman that I think works better than the usual "4-5 minutes per side" approach. The problem with just sauteeing chicken breasts is that they tend to dry out. Bittman suggests to first sear them and then steam them. So, with a heavy saute pan with a lid, heat a tablespoon oil to pretty high heat, almost to the smoking point. Put salt and pepper on the chicken breasts, then put them in the pan, skin-side down. Cook on high for two minutes, until they start to brown, then cover the pan tightly and lower the heat to medium-low. The meat stays juicy, but is nicely browned on top.

(I may try a "scientific" experiment some day, trying various combinations of oversized vs normal chicken breasts, pounding vs. not pounding, and sauteeing vs. searing + steaming... You'll be the first to know the results, dear readers.)

One little thing is the step where the sugar starts to carmelize. I didn't scatter the sugar evenly, and there were some clumps that didn't even really melt. Since sugar looses its sweetness as it carmelizes, my version stayed sweeter than it should have been. Oops. You can do better than I can! Spread that sugar thinly so it melts and carmelizes evenly!

And lastly, I served the chicken with brown rice cooked as Deborah Madison suggests -- steamed with a bit of dried thyme, a bit of minced shallot, and a bit of butter. Adds a little richness to brown rice. And if you pack the rice into a half-cup measuring cup with a spoon, then invert it onto a plate, and put the spinach, chicken, and sauce next to it, it even looks like you went to cooking school... (Sorry, no pictures... I really ought to get a decent digital camera one of these days...)


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Trader Joe's update

From Curbed via the New York Times:
(1) The store will be open in three months, and (2) they're getting around the whole "no wine in grocery stores" thing by hawking their precious Two-Buck Chuck in a separate wine store, in the dorm's other retail space (they're divided by the building's lobby). And while it may seem annoying to have to buy your groceries and then go next door for your wine, let us remind you: the staff wears Hawaiian shirts. Isn't that hilarious?!
(The dorm referred to is an NYU dorm with retail space at street level.)

Incidentally, America's Test Kitchen has reviewed a number of Trader Joe's products in their Tasting Lab. Of the reviews I've noted, their chicken stock is bad, their mayo is good, and their sun-dried tomatoes are good.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Why don't we choose what makes us happy?

A little social psychology for you today! Chrisopher Hsee and Reid Hastie of the University of Chicago wrote a great and very readable review article about why people often make decisions that make themselves unhappy. I'm going to quote some interesting examples from the paper.

On predicting how happy future experience will make you:
[C]ollege football fans overpredicted the joy they would experience in the days following the victory of their favored team, because they failed to consider that the victory was only one of a myriad of events that would affect their future hedonic state... [A]sking fans, at the time they made predictions, to list other factors that might affect their future lives produced more accurate predictions.
On being in different physical states when predicting future happiness:
[W]hen people predict immediately after dinner how much they will enjoy a delicious breakfast the next morning, they understate the pleasure. They appear to reason as though, if they are full now, they will also be full the next morning... Projection bias can lead to choices that one will regret. For example, hungry grocery shoppers purchase more foods than they need.
On the difference between comparing several options with just evaluating one option:
[W]hen you shop for a plasma TV in a store, you have multiple models to compare. When you eventually use the TV you buy, you experience that model alone. Decision-makers... might pay too much attention to subtle quantitative differences, such as differences in brightness between TVs, which seem obvious [when comparing multiple sets] but make little or no difference during consumption...
On whether more choices make you happier:
In reality, having more options can lead to worse experiences. For example, if employees are given a free trip to Paris, they are happy; if they are given a free trip to Hawaii, they are happy. But if they are given a choice between the two trips, they will be less happy, no matter which option they choose. Having the choice highlights the relative deficiencies in each option. People who choose Paris complain that ‘Paris does not have the ocean’, whereas people who choose Hawaii complain that ‘Hawaii does not have great museums’.
Even if you have accurate predictions of how your choices affect your future happiness, sometimes people choose the wrong choice anyway:
A major cause of sub-optimal decisions is impulsivity – the choice of an immediately gratifying option at the cost of long-term happiness. Overeating, avoiding medical exams, dropping out of college, taking drugs, and squandering savings produce immediate pleasure, but can lead to long-term misery.
And sometimes people resort to aphorisms instead of their own best judgements:
[I]n a study exploring the ‘don't waste’ rule, [several researchers] asked participants to imagine that they purchased both a $100 ticket for a weekend ski trip to Michigan and a $50 ticket for a weekend ski trip to Wisconsin. They later found out that the two trips were for the same weekend. They could not return either of the two tickets and had to pick one to use. Although the participants were told that the trip to Wisconsin was likely to be more enjoyable, the majority of them chose the more expensive trip to Michigan.
And money, or other sorts of money-like media, makes people greedy in ways that doesn't make them happier:
[I]n an experiment to test the effects of medium, respondents were assigned to one of two conditions. In the ‘no-medium’ condition, respondents could choose between a low-effort and a high-effort task, each leading to a reward – vanilla ice cream for the low-effort task and pistachio ice cream for the high-effort task. In the ‘medium’ condition, the immediate reward was points. Performance of the low-effort task earned 60 points, which could be exchanged for the vanilla ice cream; performance of the high-effort task earned 100 points, which could be exchanged for the pistachio ice cream. The points had no other use except to obtain the specified ice cream. In the no-medium condition, most respondents chose the low-effort task and received vanilla ice cream. In the medium condition, most chose the high-effort task and received pistachio ice cream. When asked about their ice-cream preference afterwards, most preferred vanilla ice cream. This result suggests that the presence of a medium could lead decision-makers to exert more effort, but without a better outcome.
They conclude by noting that many social policies, and I would note especially those preferred by free-market conservatives, assume that "people know their own preferences and that what people choose must be in their best interests... The behavioral-decision-research findings we have reviewed here cast doubt on these assumptions and, therefore, on the derived policies."


Sunday, January 15, 2006

studying live brains

I don't read a lot of neuroscience, so when I ran across an unfamiliar acronym in an article about neural development, I was intruiged and had to look it up. The acronym was DTI, Diffusion Tensor Imaging. There are now a bunch of different technologies and techniques for looking at how live human brains work. In the old days, you want to wait until people died before you could cut them open. The only way you could tell what part of the human brain did what was to wait until someone got a stroke or other brain damage, and see what they could no longer do. That was good enough for the first 2/3rd of the 20th century, but it's not good enough anymore for those crazy brain scientists. Here's a brief list of all of the techniques I know of for looking at living brains and seeing what they're doing, should you run across an unfamiliar neuroscience-related acronym in your own life...

Electroencephalograpy (EEG) - This is the old and familiar technique of putting electrodes on peoples' heads to see what parts of the brain are generating electrical currents. All you can usually see are "brain waves", which refer to synchronous firing of neurons. Most of the time, you only get widespread synchronous firing during sleep and epileptic seizures.

Event-Related Potentials (ERP) - This is a technique that uses EEG to identify particular electrical spikes that occur in response to particular stimuli. For example, 1/3rd of a second after a surprising event, you get a spike of activity called the P300. ERPs are very good at telling you when something happened in the brain, but they're terrible at telling you where.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) - This is a somewhat newer technology, somewhat similar to EEG, where horribly expensive and tempermental superconducting sensors are used to measure the magnetic field generated by neurons firing. MEG gives great temporal resolution (like the imaging techniques below), and great temporal resolution (like EEG/ERP), but it's very expensive and difficult to use.

Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) - CAT scans are very common in medicine. All they are is a bunch of x-rays taken from different directions, which a computer puts together into a 3-D x-ray. They measure density, and are very good at finding tumors and lesions and things, but they don't say much if anything about brain activity.

Positron-Emission Tomography (PET) - PET scans involve injecting radioactive sugars into people. Parts of the brain that are active need sugars (a brain's gotta eat), so the concentration of the radioactive chemical goes up in those areas. You can then triangulate where radioactive decay is coming from and build up a map of brain activity. The spacial resolution's fairly good, but the temporal resolution's not very good, and it's hard to get many people to volunteer to get radioactive chemicals put into their body in the name of science, unless it's going to cure their cancer.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) - This is the newish standard technique for imaging brains. It involves very very large magnets spinning around your head. MRIs can detect changes in density and in the amount of oxygen in your blood. In neuroscience, people typically talk about...

Function Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) - In fMRI, two MRI images are taken and compared with each other. One is a baseline and the other is taken a few seconds after some sort of stimulus or activity. Since active parts of the brain have to eat, blood flow increases after your brain does something, and that shows up in the second image. Subtract the two, and you can see what part of the brain is more (or less) active than normal when you're, say, looking at a face. fMRI research is unbelievably popular, widespread, and trendy, despite the fact that it measures a secondary effect (blood flow, not neural activity), has pretty bad temporal resolution, and requires that experimental subjects be stuck in a loud tube for a long time to get repeated measurements.

Optical Imaging - Optical imaging is kind of a cross between EEG and MRI. Like MRI, optical imaging measures changes in blood oxygenation with activity, but instead of using magnets, they shine lights through your skull. Really. The changes in blood chemistry change the way that the light reflects off neurons in your brain, when can then be measured and processed to determine, with very good spacial accuracy, what parts of the brain are most active. However, optical imaging only works for surface layers of the brain, and although measurements can be taken continuously, like EEG, the fact that blood flow is being measured and not actual neural firing restricts optical imaging's usefulness.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) - This is the new one to me. While MRI normally measures things related to density, DTI is a variant of MRI that measures how easily water moves at each point in the brain. The grey matter of the brain is where neuron bodies are, on the outside (mostly). The white matter is the wiring in between different areas of grey matter. White matter is made of lots of long, thin axons, which have the property that water can only move lengthwise along them. So if you have a way of measuring what direction the water is allowed to move, you can determine the orientation of the axonal wiring throughout the brain. You can then have your computer make pretty pictures that tell you exactly what part of the brain is connected to what other part!

There you are. Those are the major techniques for looking at the live human brain without cutting people's heads open.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

beef, beer, and gingerbread we're talkin'. Per another suggestion/recipe from Clotilde, I made Carbonades Flamandes the other day. The dish is a traditional Belgian (Flemish) stew, made with stewing beef, beer, and pain d'epice (French spice bread), and traditionally served with french fries (a Belgian dish) or other potatoes. Apparently the meat used to be grilled before stewing, which is where the "Carbon" in Carbonades comes from... If you've got a grill handy, I'll bet that works quite well...

I adapted the recipe and made it with shin of beef, Heinekin Dark, and fresh gingerbread. Shin of beef is an inexpensive and very flavorful cut of beef for stew. Heinekin Dark is vastly better than the Heinekin you normally get. Amusingly, it's hard to find Heinekin Dark in Amsterdam, as real Dutch people don't like beer darker than a light orange... Gingerbread was my replacement for pain d'epice, and it's just a quickbread with lots of molasses and some dried ginger and other spices. You only use 1/4 of the recipe, too, so you get lots of extra gingerbread, yum. (Real gingerbread is much better than the dry batter they use to make gingerbread cookies...) I also boosted up the onions a little bit, and omitted the additional sugar from the stew proper. I forgot to get potatoes, so I served the stew with egg noodles, which were just fine. When I reheated it for leftovers, though, I made Mark Bittman's pan-roasted potatoes, which were of course excellent.

I've written up the recipes for Carbonades Flamandes, gingerbread, and pan-browned potatoes, should you care to make this fantastic and very easy stew yourself...


Monday, January 09, 2006

2 Columbus Circle

I don't write enough about New York-y topics, so perhaps one of my New Years Resolutions should be to write more about the city. I'm particularly fond of architecture and urban development issues, so this posting is about a minor controversy that's been going on for awhile, the reconstruction (deconstruction?) of 2 Columbus Circle.

The building is a museum, built in the 60s to house a gallery of modern art. It was immediately controversial, what with its nearly windowless marble facade and weird arches near the top. An architecture critic called it a "die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops". I never really liked it. For me, it's somewhat irritating to look at, too monolithic, out of place, and badly dated.

Despite New York City's fairly recent decision to preserve historic buildings (started after the fantastic Penn Station was knocked down in 1964), this one didn't make the cut. Not without protest, however. Many of the preservationist groups in the city strongly argued for it to be preserved as-is, and various lawsuits went back and forth for several years.

But, as of last year, they lost, and the Museum of Arts and Design is in the process of completely remodeling it. I managed to walk past the building yesterday without noticing that it's now shrouded in construction scaffolding. When the scaffolding is removed, the building will be reborn, as... something at least as garish. Drat. Oh, well. I'll go to the museum when it opens next year, since I like some of the things they show, like art glass and industrial design, but I reserve the right to roll my eyes while entering the building...


Saturday, January 07, 2006

God-given Macaroni and Cheese

Several of the most-emailed articles on the New York Times' web site this week have been about macaroni and cheese. There's an article about the dish itself, a review of boxed macaroni and cheese products, and two recipes, one for creamy and one for crusty.

But they're wrong, all wrong. There's only one God-given macaroni-and-cheese recipe. To paraphrase Real Genius, it went from God, to Irma Rombauer, to my mom, and now to you. Unlike the recipes on the Times' cite, it's a custard, with eggs in addition to the milk. Here it is, scaled up a bit, the Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe from the 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking:

Boil in salted water:
   1 1/2 c macaroni
Drain it. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place layers of macaroni in a buttered 9" square baking dish, sprinkling the layers with:
   1 1/2 c shredded sharp cheddar cheese
Beat until blended:
   2 eggs
   1 c milk
   1/2 t salt
   scant 1/4 t paprika
   a few grains cayenne
   2 T chopped parsley (optional)
Pour this mixture over the macaroni, sprinkle the top with:
   bread crumbs
   grated parmesan cheese
Bake about 40 minutes. Serves 4.


Friday, January 06, 2006

the pop science of ordering food at a restaurant

Blogger Jason Kottke has a funny posting about ordering food at a restaurant, or at least it's funny if you've been paying attention to some recent pop-psychology and pop-economics books. Here's my favorite:
Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Order anything made with lots of butter, sugar, etc. Avoid salad or anything organic. A meal of all desserts may be appropriate. Or see if you can get the chef to make you a special dish like foie gras and bacon covered with butterscotch and hot fudge. Ideally, you will have brought a Super Sized McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal into the restaurant with you. Smoke and drink liberally.
His posting also makes one useful tip, which is that the second-cheapest bottle of wine on the menu usually has the highest mark-up. Restaurant owners are cleverer than you think...

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hipster Fails Retro Technology

Just a funny thing on the subway this morning. I'm listening to my pseudo-iPod when I notice the woman across from me having trouble with some sort of consumer electronics. She was wearing hip furry boots and uber-hip oversized sunglasses (ala Paris Hilton in the photo), carrying a big bag from some boutique I'm not hip enough to have ever heard of, and trying to figure out how to use her.... 1987-vintage Walkman tape-deck! She tried to put the tape in one way, then the other, then flipped it around, tried it again, tried another tape, first one way, then another, and just couldn't figure it out. After about two minutes of this, she gave up and got off the train...

Perhaps I witnessed the beginnings of the newest fad? Now that 1970s t-shirts are old news and trucker caps are so 2002, and 30 million people, mostly tragically un-hip geezers, have iPods, perhaps the real cutting edge people are dusting off their Walkmans. Hopefully they're not listening to Heaven is a Place on Earth, though. That wouldn't do at all.


Monday, January 02, 2006

on cuteness

That's from the painfully cute web site Cute Overload!, which features equally adorable pictures every day. Why is this little kitten so cute? Natalie Angiers has an article in the Times this week about the scientific reasons why people like cute things, and what makes something cute.
Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.

These, of course, are the characteristics of baby humans. Angiers goes on to explain that babies are the way they are because of their big brain, small body, and immature motor skills. And it's not that babies are cute to get attention, it's that what we think of as cute are simply those properties that babies have.

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.
Some animals, the ones that the World Wildlife Fund uses in their advertisements, lucked out, and trigger the same cues as human babies. Their logo is a panda for a reason -- pandas are chubby, have big heads, forward-facing eyes, and move slowly, just like (big) babies. There are lots of other endangered species that aren't so cute, like the Gulf sturgeon, but they're not the type of things that are going to bring in lots of tax-deductable contributions. And that's because our brains are wired in such a way that we think that strange six-fingered vegetarian bears are more worthy of our attention than a sucker-mouthed river fish. Which explains why the Cute Overload blog has thousands and thousands of regular readers...


Sunday, January 01, 2006

butternut soup, chard penne, balsamic vinegar

Happy New Year!

I made a couple of particularly good, straightforward recipes a week or so ago, and wanted to share those here. First was a butternut vanilla soup, and second was a pasta with red peppers Swiss chard, and balsamic vinegar.

The soup comes from esteemed food blogger Clotilde, who wrote about her recipe a few weeks back. In French it's Soupe de Courge a la Vanille, which sounds better than the English translation, naturally. Very simple recipe -- sweat a couple of onions in olive oil, then add chunked butternut squash and cook for 10 minutes. Add water or stock to cover (I used half water and half chicken stock) and simmer for 20 minutes, covered. Add a tablespoon of vanilla extract, cook 10 more minutes, puree, and season with salt and white pepper. Very easy, and the vanilla works very well with the sweetness of the squash.

The second is from The Classic Pasta Cookbook, by Giuliano Hazan, son of famous Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan. It's called Denti d'Elefante ai Peperoni e Biete. Despite what you may think, there are no elephants or pepperoni in the dish, as the title translates to somethink like Pasta Tubes with Bell Peppers and Swiss Chard. The kick in the recipe comes from some balsamic vinegar. I used just normal grocery store vinegar, and it was excellent, but I think it would have benefitted from better vinegar. I happened to pick up some white balsamic vinegar at the gourmet store the other day, which is excellent. It would do great in this dish, and wouldn't stain the pasta brown. Here's the recipe, with a couple minor changes:

3 T XV olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 red bell peppers, cored, peeled and seeded, in 3/4" squares
1/2 lb Swiss chard leaves (no stems), roughly chopped
salt and pepper
1-2 T butter
2 T balsamic vinegar, ideally white balsamic
1/3 c grated parmegiano-reggiano cheese
1 lb denti d'elefante, penne, or rigatoni

1. Start water for pasta. Cook garlic in oil until brown, making sure the oil doesn't smoke. Discard garlic.
2. Add bell peppers and saute until lightly browned.
3. Reduce heat and add chard and 2 T water. Season with salt and pepper and cook until peppers and chard are tender. Remove from heat.
4. Cook pasta.
5. When pasta is almost done, warm up the sauce, adding the butter. Add drained pasta, vinegar, and cheese.

Very good...

Speaking again of balsamic vinegar, America's Test Kitchen recently taste-tested several brands. They particularly liked Whole Foods' 365-brand, and two somewhat more expensive brands: Masserie di Sant’Eramo and Fiurucci Reserva. They hated the ubiquitous Regina brand, calling it "thin" and "mousy"...!