Tuesday, February 28, 2006

GMO low-carb wheat

I'm amused, but maybe not so much intruiged, by this story. Some scientists in Australian wanted to make a wheat variant that would have different proportions of starches. One kind of starch, amylopectin, is quickly converted into sugar in the body, and is digested. (This is particularly true with white bread, and less true with whole-wheat bread, which is why diabetics try to avoid white bread -- to prevent a spike in blood-sugar levels.) The other kind of starch, amylose, isn't digested very well. Usually, wheat starch is about 85% amylopectin and 15% amylose. The researchers tracked down the genes that are responsible for these starches, and modified them in such a way that the proportions of the two types of starch are nearly reversed. The proteins themselves are the same, just the amounts are different. The result was a wheat flour that they fed to lab mice. The mice ate it up, and had healthier GI tracts after a week of the stuff than those eating normal wheat flour. The researchers said they also made some bread out of it, and it tasted pretty good.

I'm not completely against GMO foods -- if they can reduce the levels of herbicides and pesticides that farmers apply to their fields, I'm for it -- but this is perhaps a little pointless, no? They do say that they're going to try to replicate the high-amylose wheat through traditional breeding techniques, to avoid "stigma", which I suppose is a positive development...

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 26, 2006


I managed to last 2 and a half years in New York City before going to see a Broadway musical, but the time arrived. A very kind friend had an extra ticket to Chicago, due to some relatives from out of town not being able to attend, and so I went. I've been to off-Broadway theater and dance performances, but not to any musicals, and not to this sort of well-hyped tourist-infested production. It's interesting, all the crazy lights of Times Square. Not a part of NYC I go to often. A nice place to visit, maybe, but I certainly wouldn't want to live there...

I'd seen the movie version of Chicago, twice I think, and rather liked it. In some senses I liked the stage production less. The singing was fine, the musicians were very good, the production (lighting especially) was excellent, and some of the performances were quite good. But for some reason it felt more... manipulative? cheap? something like that, when it was in person rather than on a screen. I haven't seen many musicals, and wonder if I'd have the same reaction in all cases... I did like the two Sondheim musicals I've seen live (Into the Woods at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Donna Shalala, future HHS Secretary, playing a cameo (!), and Sundays at the Park with George at Parkwood College in Champaign, IL). Maybe there's something about the style of musical that Chicago is that doesn't work for me live? Hard to say...

Incidentally, we had a conversation about the original of "Broadway"-style musical theater, wondering the origin, and whether it was on Broadway or somewhere else. It turns out that musicals have a long history, primarily in the US but with European influences. It seems that American musical theater is a combination of the European operetta (drama and singing, but no "show") and burlesque-extravaganza (singing and "show", but no drama) with the American minstrel show and American sensibilities. Musical comedies became very popular in the second half of the19th century. The idea of a musical that is drama rather than comedy is also apparently an American invention, starting with Show Boat in 1927. Interesting...


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

birds are toothless dinosaurs, unless they mutate

An interesting story on ScienceNOW is reporting on some cool new genetics research with birds. Researchers in Germany and Wisconsin looked at a mutation in chickens that affects the process of embryonic development. The mutation in the gene called talpid2 usually kills the chickens after a couple of weeks of development, but right at the end of those couple of weeks the researchers found some interesting protrusions on the tip of the jaw. Teeth, specifically conical teeth shaped like those of an alligator. Or a dinosaur.

Some further work figured out that the mutation was affecting where a gene with the amusing name sonic hedgehog (yes, after the video game) is expressed. Normally that gene is active along the sides of the jaws of chickens, but these mutated chicks had the gene active at the tip of the jaw, where the teeth were.

Birds are, of course, closely related to dinosaurs. The fossil record is becoming clearer every year as to the process by which small feathered chicken-like dinosaurs developed wings and the other properties of birds, thanks to some great discoveries in China. A very recent Chinese discovery, of a small tyrannosaur-like dinosaur with a crest on its head, has helped paleontologists piece together a pretty decent family tree of tyrannosaurs, birds, and a number of more obscure relatives. Carl Zimmer at the blog The Loom has a good writeup. Here's that family tree, as constructed by Tom Holtz of the University of Maryland:

Birds are the remaining descendents of the fourth branch from the left. Along the way, those quasi-dinosaur quasi-birds lost their teeth. Or rather, as shown by the mutation research, turned off the switch that would cause them to grow teeth.

I find the complexity of the sort of gene expression and embryonic development that leads to chicken embryos with teeth quite remarkable. Mutations in one gene, talpid2, cause the activity of another gene, sonic hedgehog, to change in such a way that a genetic capability that birds used to have, dormant for many millions of years, the capability to grow teeth, is at least partially restored. Who knows what weird stuff is hidden dorment in our DNA?


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cheese Sandwich Day!

In some sort of spat between a professional food writer and the world of food bloggers, in which the pro said food blogs are as interesting as cheese sandwiches, the food blog community is apparently celebrating Cheese Sandwiches today! So, support your favorite food bloggers, and have a cheese sandwich! I prefer a grilled cheese on 100% whole wheat bread, with a mix of sharp cheddar and plastic American cheese. Mmm, cheese sandwiches...


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Scientific Architecture and Calatrava's Plans

Seed, that new science-and-culture magazine I mentioned a while back, has an article (not available on-line, as far as I can tell) about how architects are eschewing boxes and basing their work on organic shapes and objects. They mention a worm-like pavilion in Holland, a science center in Germany, some spa buildings based on the airflow around termite mounds (!) in Botswana, and a museum in Lyon that reminds me of the EMP in Seattle. None of those particularly interest me. The fifth project they profile is the Malmo Tower in Sweden, an apartment building designed by brilliant bridge and train-station designer Santiago Calatrava.

The Malmo Tower looks very much like a twisted spine. It's a really striking building. And if you live in New York, you can (and should!) go to the Met to check out their exhibit of Calatrava's sculptures and models. Calatrava built small sculptures of this idea, the twisted spine, to explore shapes and proportions, and the Met has that (and a number of other things) on display. The exhibit runs until March 5th, so go soon! It was my favorite thing I saw in my visit a couple of months ago!

Catatrava is no stranger to New York, of course. He's designed a radical shell-like train station to go next to the WTC site. It's the only bit of construction down there that's actually (a) critically acclaimed and (b) likely to be built soon. He also has a design for a residental tower made of offset cubes that will be built on the other side of downtown just as soon as they get down payments on enough of the $29 million condos to start construction...

And in the news today, courtesy of everyone's snarky friends at Curbed, comes word that "Calatrava has lost his mind". He's designed, pro bono, a Giant suspended gondola which could connect Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Governor's island! The city has plans to develop Governor's island sometime soon, and has asked for brainstorming ideas. This one's pretty radical, but appealing in some sort of weird way.

Labels: ,

global warming, plant sweat, and fresh water

OK, five blog articles on food in a row is too many for a blog that's supposed to be about science (and sometimes New York) too...

From ScienceNOW, an interesting article about a surprising consequence of increased CO2 levels. Some new research has shown (through simulations) that decreases observed in the amount of fresh water may be due to increased CO2, through the amusing mechanism of sweating plants! When atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, plants change their metabolism in various ways. One way is that they grow faster, which will probably be good for at least some food crops in coming years. Another way is that they sweat less. Plants suck water up from the ground through their roots, then release water vapor through their leaves, basically sweating. This can be a pretty dramatic effect. (I remember, when I lived in the prairie, hearing that scientists had calculated that the huge amounts of corn grown in Illinois significantly increases the humidity in the summer, as corn transpires a lot more water than do native prairie plants.)

The fact that transpiration is reduced at high CO2 levels has been known for a long time, and it had recently been observed that the amount of fresh water entering the world's oceans is increasing. The new computational simulations connected these two facts. It turns out that if you simulate the decreased transpiration due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, then you get more rain water being retained as groundwater and being dumped into streams, and less rain water getting put back into the atmosphere.

Although some of us might appreciate a drier atmosphere as the temperature rises (another well-publicized consequence of increased carbon dioxide, of course), farmers certainly won't. Less water in the atmosphere means less rainfall and more drought.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I totally nailed a roasted rack of lamb this weekend. It was unbelievably fantastic. I'd wanted to make a rack of lamb for the cooking club, and ended up finding a recipe for a Moroccan lamb with Shiraz-honey sauce. In the process, I learned a few things that I thought I'd post here.

First of all, the lamb itself. A rack of lamb is just half of the rib cage of a lamb, with the attached meat and (plenty of) fat. It's about 7 ribs, which serves about 3 people. American lamb is considered better than New Zealand lamb, but it's also more expensive. I made rack of lamb twice, once with some fresh lamb from a neighborhood butcher's shop, and once from a shrink-wrapped package from Australia. The rack from the butcher's shop was quite a bit more expensive, mostly by being quite large, presumably from an older lamb (sheep?). There were several layers of meat and fat against the ribs which were not present with the packaged lamb. In both cases I got the ribs Frenched, which means that the ends of the ribs had the surrounding fat removed so that the bones are exposed. Among other things, with Frenched ribs the bones make good handles once you've sliced the meat into chops!

The easiest thing to do with a rack of lamb is to roast it with a cast-iron pan. Basically, you salt and pepper the lamb, then sear the meat on all sides to brown it, then toss it in a hot oven and roast until it's 130 degrees or so (medium-rare). Let it sit on a plate for 10 minutes under a sheet of tin foil, then slice the ribs into chops and you're done! Fantastic.

The recipe I used added two steps to this process that made it even better. First, in addition to salt, you can rub a spice mixture into the meat before searing it. I used ras el hanout which is a Moroccan mixture of many different spices (the word means something like "top of the shop"). You can buy it at gourmet groceries or Middle-Eastern markets, or if you have a spice grinder (electric coffee grinder, $15) at home and a good supply of whole spices, you can make your own. Google is full of recipes -- here's the one I used.

Second, after the meat comes out of the oven, I made a trivial pan sauce. Add a cup of hearty red wine (Shiraz/Syrah) and a third of a cup of honey to the roasting pan, bring to a boil and reduce while you're waiting for the lamb to be ready to serve.

Serve with herbed mashed potatoes and maybe a sprig of mint or rosemary for garnish, and you've got a plate you'd pay good money for at a restaurant...

Here's what mine looked like, with mashed rutabega and a rose petal. Photo courtesy of Jen!


Monday, February 13, 2006

hanging meats now allowed in restaurant windows

In places like Chinatown, it's common to see cured cooked meats, like chicken and duck, hanging in the window of a restaurant. These aren't just decoration -- they're sold to customers -- and they're not refrigerated. Here in New York City, restaurant owners who allowed this would regularly be fined for violating health codes, despite the fact that fully cooked chicken is relatively sterile and inhospitable to airborne bacteria, and the meat is also cured in salt or soy sauce. However, now comes word that the city health commissioner has agreed to change the rules for Chinese restaurants so that they can keep their traditional displays without fines.

Once the rules are changed, restaurants will be able to display certain cured and cooked meats for up to four hours without the book being thrown at them... I'm glad to see a little bit of common sense when it comes to food in this country. Maybe with a little luck we'll be able to get unpasteurized raw-milk cheeses from Europe at some point...

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Second breakfast: blueberry pancakes

Ah, insomnia. One of the great things about waking up in 5am on a Saturday is that you can have a bowl of cereal, and then a few hours later enjoy that great Hobbit meal, second breakfast!

Today I made one of my two favorite pancake recipes, my recipe for blueberry pancakes. It's a slightly complicated version, with beaten egg whites, but I think the texture and flavor are worth the bit of extra effort. The annoying thing is that the original recipe (origin unknown) called for 1 1/2 cups of sifted flour. But what kind of crazy person is going to sift flour before breakfast? Or even second breakfast? So I usually remove a bit of flour from that 1 1/2 cups, or add a bit of water to thin the batter before cooking. According to a conversion table, 1 1/2 cups sifted flour should be six ounces or 168 grams. The Europeans and professional bakers all use weights instead of volumes for compactable ingredients like flours, for exactly this reason. Next time I make this recipe I'll try that. I think I can work an electronic scale early in the morning...

Oh, and the other pancake recipe I like, but don't make often, is for strawberry cornmeal pancakes. Made with buttermilk and topped with whipped cream, and with egg whites only, they're even fluffier and lighter than the blueberry pancakes. But they're also a bit more work than I usually want to undertake before noon, and I have to remember to get buttermilk and cream and good fresh strawberries the day before...

Ah, I'm looking forward to elevenses now!


Friday, February 10, 2006

food poisoning

Oy, vey. 36 hours later, I'm now recovered from a case of food poisoning. It's been years and years since that's happened to me... A certain Chinese take-out place is gonna get a call to 311 (the city's information line) on their behalf...

I very likely got hit by the most common cause of food poisoning, staphlococcus aureus. The staph bacteria typically comes from food preparers with some sort of mild skin infection who work with room-temperature food. In this case, I'm guessing that the chicken in my General Tso's sat out at room temperature for too long while being prepared. Interestingly, it's not the bacteria itself that causes the really annoying symptoms, it's a toxin produced by the bacteria as it replicates. Although you can kill the bacteria with heat (over 140 degrees), or prevent their replication with cold (under 40 degrees), you can't get rid of the toxin after it's been produced. So that chicken probably was correctly refrigerated after preparation, then deep fried to order, but it didn't matter because the damage was already done... Interesting, but I'm not inclined to do further 1st-person research on this one...


Sunday, February 05, 2006

cookies vs. scones

Perhaps I'm too much a fan of the blog Cooking for Engineers, but I'm going to subject you, my faithful readers, to more analysis of bakery recipes. Last time it was New York City Black and White Cookies, and this time it's oatmeal raisin scones and cookies.

In a spur-of-the-moment desire for scones yesterday, I made New Joy's recipe for oatmeal raisin scones. They're not exactly a classic recipe, since they use melted butter instead of solid butter, but they were very good. Had another one for breakfast this morning, with tea and the Times. But I got to thinking, how is an oatmeal-raisin scone like, or not like, an oatmeal-raisin cookie? The ingredient lists are almost the same: flour, eggs, butter, oatmeal, etc., but the proportions are quite different. So today, I whipped up a spreadsheet to compare the two recipes. I converted the volume measurements (cups, teaspoons) that American cooks like to use to weights, and rescaled the scone recipe so that the total weight of all the ingredients was the same. Here are the summary results, in ounces (for a 3-pound recipe):

Compositions (in ounces) of
oatmeal-raisin cookies and scones
Sugar 12.74.0
Raisins4.9 4.9
Eggs 3.83.8

The first thing to notice are the things that are about the same. The amount of eggs, raisins, and salt were basically identical. There's a bit more fat in the scones (!), and a little more flour and a little less oats. I imagine you could trade off the flour and oats in the cookie recipe to get breadier cookies, but replacing the flour in the scones with more oats might cause them not to stick together as well.

And then there are the big differences. Cookies have three times as much sugar as the scones. Scones have milk in them; the only real liquid (aside from that in the eggs and butter) in the cookies is a bit of vanilla. Scones have a lot more leavening; 2 T of baking powder, compared with 1 1/2 t of baking powder and soda for a cookies. As a result of the additional liquid and rising power, scones rise like bisuits, with a fluffy interior, while cookies melt into flat discs.

There you have it. Recipes and spreadsheets available upon request!

Labels: ,

Friday, February 03, 2006

Book Review and little tiny dimensions

Every once in a while in some science article in a newspaper or magazine in recent years, they'll talk about physicists who believe that there are more than three spacial dimensions. I'd squint and say "okaaay" and then the physicist will say something like "but you don't see the extra dimension because it's curled up really tiny!" and then my brain melts. In an effort to learn more about extra dimensions, string theory, and other brain melting aspects of modern high-energy particle physics, I recently decided to read a pop-science book about this kind of stuff. The book I chose, which had gotten some good recent reviews, was:

Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, by Dr. Lisa Randall, available in hardcover at fine booksellers everywhere.

I'm not going to lie to you and pretend I understood everything. I most certainly didn't. There's a lot of details in terms of all these subatomic particles, how they interact, and why people think they are what they are, that I just simply couldn't follow. I'm not sure whether this is more the fault of the author, the reader, or God, for making the universe require more brains than I got in order to understand it. This said, I did enjoy reading the book, and would recommend it to anyone looking to brush up on 20th and 21st-century particle physics. A big new particle accelerator is expected to start up in Europe next year, and some of the results may directly shed light on whether string theory, or extra dimensions, are real or not. There will doubtless be more articles on this stuff in newspapers over the next several years, and I know that I will be in a much better position to understand it having read the book.

The one thing that I really was able to understand a lot better is that thing about tiny little dimensions rolled up too small to see. This is a key prerequisite to understanding a lot of the theoretical arguments about the particles and strings and branes, so I'm going to take a few minutes here and see if I can't distill some of Dr. Randall's explanation of tiny rolled-up dimensions into a brief blog posting.

In the 3-D space we know and love, it takes three numbers to specify a location in space. Say, (14, 8, 3) might specify where the tip of my nose is in some 3-D coordinate space. If there are extra dimensions, the tip of my nose has to have a coordinate in that dimension too, so maybe my nose is really at (14, 8, 3, 5). Since we perceive the world as 3-D, it's pretty clear that objects can't really move in the extra dimension. We would notice it.

There are two ways that people have proposed that extra dimensions could exist such that we could never see them. One way, which is slightly more intuitive to me, says that all of the particles of our world, the protons and neutrons and photons and things, are restricted to have a particular value in the extra dimension. That is, the entire universe of things that we can see all has value 5 on the fourth dimension. We can move in the three spacial dimensions, but there's no way to change the value of the coordinate in the fourth dimension. What would be particularly interesting is if the force of gravity can spread out into this extra dimension somehow (but the other forces couldn't), since that would make the numbers that physicists crunch turn out really nice. (Gravity is vastly weaker than it ought to be in any elegant theory of forces, and so extra dimensions turn out to be one way to explain the discrepancy.)

The other way we could never see an extra dimension is if it's rolled up really tiny. Our normal spacial dimensions are infinite. I can, in theory, move in the same direction forever. But what if instead of being infinite, the extra dimension makes a loop? If I go too far in that dimension, I end up where I started. If the extra dimension was incredibly small, say, 10^-33rd centimeters, then in some sense it wouldn't matter where you were on that dimension. Imagine a tiny little loop at every location in space. If you're far enough from the loop, it just looks like a point, with no dimension at all. A particle could move all it liked in that tiny rolled up dimension, and you'd never be able to tell. The reason why physicists like this idea is again related to gravity. As I understand it, the amount of volume (space) in the universe could be much larger if there were a couple of tiny rolled-up dimensions, and gravity would get essentially diluted.

If that's not clear enough for you, a Google search for "tiny rolled-up dimensions" will get you a bunch of other attempts to try to explain it. Little bugs on garden hoses feature prominently, you'll be pleased to know.