Thursday, December 29, 2005

dance skills reflect attractiveness

OK, this is a cool study. Some researchers at Rutgers and the U. of Washington wanted to look at whether dance skills are correlated with attractiveness. This is a pretty interesting question in biology. In recent years, researchers have started to figure out what makes individuals attractive to other individuals. You may remember some well-publicized work about 10 years ago that showed that when you average a bunch of faces together, the resulting average is more attractive than most of the underlying faces. This turns out to be due to something with the unfortunate name "fluctuating asymmetry." Oy. Basically what that turns out to mean is the extent to which an organism has variations from biateral symmetry. In this study, they measured the sizes of "the elbow, wrist, knee, ankle, foot, third digit, fourth digit, fifth digit and ears," then came up with a metric for how much differences there are between left and right. It's believed that genetic defects, malnutrition, etc. are reflected in asymmetry, so the more symmetrical you are, the healthier you seem. And it's been shown that animals and people pick up on asymmetry, and rate symmetrical animals/people more attractive.

This new study wonders whether dance skill (which birds, bees, and people all have in varying amounts) also correlates with symmetry and attractiveness. "In species where fathers invest less than do mothers in their offspring, females are expected to be more selective in mate choice, and males to invest more in courtship display. Thus, we predicted that degree of symmetry would more strongly correlate with male dance ability, and females would be better discriminators."

The researchers got a set of young Jamaicans to dance to some pop music with ping-pong balls attached all over their bodies. Using the same basic technique that Andy Serkis used in the Lord of the Rings movies to give motion to the computer-animated Gollum, the researchers captured the motion of the ping-pong balls and used that motion to make a stick figure dance. This was done to get rid of all the identifying characteristics of the dancers. In fact, when the subjects then evaluated the dancing stick figures, they were only a little better than chance (62%) at guessing the gender of the dancer.

Then they had the same group of people evaluate the quality of the dancing on a scale from 0 to 100. They were able to break down the answers by the gender of the evaluator and the dancer, and by the symmetry of the evaluator and the dancer. Here are their main results:

For male dancers, symmetry was strongly correlated with how well they were thought to dance. In fact, symmetry accounts for half of the male dancers' dance skill. For female dancers, the correlation was much weaker, with only a quarter of the dance skill correlated with symmetry. The fact that this is true at all is quite remarkable! Does this mean that symmetrical (and thus attractive) people are inherently better dancers? Or that, because of their attractiveness, they find dancing more rewarding (because they get more attention) and thus get more practice at it?

They also found that female evaluators reported a wider range of skills in the dances they evaluated, and in particular that the difference between their high ratings and low ratings of male dancers were particularly large. That is, women know good dancing when they see it.

For the record, I would be in the "two left feet subgroup", uniformly laughed at by female evaluators...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Snow day 2!

Well, the transit strike is now over, and I'll go to work tomorrow, but in the mean time there were minor adventures. Yesterday, after making some Chinese steamed scallops and stir-fried broccoli for dinner, we decided we'd go see Narnia. (If you haven't seen the SNL rap about Narnia, go see it. The chronic-What? cles of Narnia!) Normally to go to the neighborhood megaplex, we'd hop on the train and go three stops, but this time we had to walk. It's a couple of miles of hiking in the cold, which only took 30 minutes or so. Not bad at all. The movie was the same, not bad at all. The badgers and Mr. Tumnus were great. The kids were pretty good, but I could swear Edward was a bit chubby and blond, not skinny and dark-haired. It certainly pales next to the Lord of the Rings. I'm looking forward to the His Dark Materials movies as well...

On the way back, after dissecting the movie to pieces, we walked past some Christmas tree places. We'd checked out the trees around the corner from us, where we'd gotten a tree last year, but this year they had nothing. They tried to sell us a branch with the tip trimmed to look pointy, for $25! This other place had much better looking trees. We ended up getting a big tree and having it, well, chopped off at the knees in order to be a reasonable size for the tiny living room. After carrying it home like the carcass of a wild hog, we set it up last night and decorated it today. Here are before and after pictures, courtesy of the crappy cell phone cam:

If you squint you can see the impaled Santa finger puppet acting as the topper, and just below it, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Beaver (complete with little hat and Maple Leaf flag) pretending it's an ornament.

Vacation's done, back to your regular much-less-often blogging!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

more on the origins of Europeans

Just ran across this on the National Geographic news feed. Recall that I wrote a while back about DNA evidence supporting the idea that modern Europeans are the descendents of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers, not the descendents of the people who developed farming in the fertile crescent around 7500 years ago (which then spread into Europe). The latter idea had been the predominent theory, supported by (among other things) some linguistic evidence. Now there's new evidence from skeletons that agrees with the DNA analysis, and further weakens support for the idea that the proto-Indo-Europeans brought farming to Europe, replacing the people who were there before.

According to University of Michigan anthropologist Loring Brace and colleagues:
[M]odern Europeans are closely related and descended from prehistoric indigenous peoples. Later Neolithic settlers—notably immigrants who introduced farming from the Near East some 7,500 years ago—contributed little to how Europeans look today...

The findings are based on 24 face measurements of modern-day Europeans compared with those of their prehistoric predecessors.

The team focused on facial dimensions which are "neutral" and don't change as human populations adapt over time to different environments and lifestyles.

Because these features are passed down generation to generation, they are good markers of human ancestry...


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

a tale of two roulades

I made two roulades this weekend.

(Sorry about the crappy cell phone photo...)

I've only made a roulade once before, years ago, from an otherwise pretty bad vegetarian cookbook. But it was time to do so again. A roulade is just a souffle, baked flat on a baking sheet, allowed to cool, then covered with a filling, rolled up and sliced. (A souffle is a baked dish that's made fluffy with beaten egg whites.) As you can make both savory and sweet souffles, you can make both savory and sweet roulades.

The first roulade (right) was from a very good vegetarian cookbook, Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Here's the basic idea. Make a souffle batter with egg yolks, milk, and parmesan cheese, then fold in egg whites beaten to stiff peaks and bake 15 minutes in a hot oven. Let cool. Put some saffron in a bit of boiling water and let sit for 30 minutes, then add mayonaisse and stir. Roast and peel some red peppers. Put the saffron mayo and red peppers on the fallen souffle sheet and roll up tightly. Serve at room temperature with a simple tomato sauce. It wasn't bad, although it could have been better. There was too much mayo, not enough red peppers, and the tomato sauce was uninspiring. Ah, well, it looked good though...

The second roulade (left) was from the New Joy of Cooking. It was actually a bit simpler. Make a souffle batter with egg yolks, melted chocolate, and a bit of coffee. Fold in egg whites and bake, then let cool. Make whipped cream for the filling. Roll up, chill, and slice. I then made a clear syrup by boiling together sugar, a bit of corn starch, clear vanilla, and water, until it was getting thick. You can't see the syrup in the picture, but it adds a bit of extra sweetness and vanilla flavor. Again, pretty good, but it could have been better. The recipe called for 6 oz of bittersweet chocolate and 3/4 c sugar. I used 3 oz of unsweetened chocolate and 1 c sugar. The sugar amount was fine, but it probably could have used 4 oz of chocolate, as it wasn't as dark and rich as I'd hoped. It also looked good, though!

And I just ran across the reason why you're supposed to add cream of tartar to eggs when you beat them. Cream of tartar is acidic, and the acid helps the eggs stay whipped and not fall. You can also use a little bit of lemon juice or vinegar, but you'll taste them in the end, which might be a problem for some things. I didn't use any acid, and my eggs turned out fine, but I was using a stand mixer, which probably is better at mixing in air than a hand whisk or mixer would be. Who knows.

In any case, I liked making the roulades. They're relatively easy, they look impressive, and there's lots of things you can do with them.

Snow day!!!

Snow week? As you doubtless know, the New York City Transit Workers Union went on strike last night, shutting down all city trains and buses. I live about 7 miles from work, which is rather too far to walk, especially in this weather. And really, I don't care enough to try to get a ride or a cab... So, snow day! I think I'm gonna bake some bread, finally get a Christmas tree, maybe hike the mile or two down to the movie theater...

There's lots of talk all over the media about who you support, the MTA or the union. I agree with some commentator I heard on the radio. It's like asking who you supported during the Iran-Iraq war... The MTA is horribly run, inefficient, and corrupt. The union is greedy, addicted to inefficiencies, and corrupt. Lets get this to binding arbitration, and get the trains running! I just would like the strike to be ended by Friday, if you please, so I can go to Christmas parties...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

the simple science of rings around stars

I was intruiged by a recent astronomical discovery, not so much because of what was discovered, but how they discovered it. Some researchers used the Spitzer Space Telescope (like the Hubble, but for infrared instead of visible light) to look at the color of the heat being radiated from a young sun-like star 137 light-years away. What they ended up concluding is that the star has a band of rubble around it in an orbit that's similar to Jupiter's orbit around the sun. Like the asteroid belt, but a bit farther away. That's mildly interesting, since it's the first observation of an asteroid belt -- all the previous observed rings around stars have been much farther away, like Pluto's orbit or even farther. And so this discovery says something about how solar systems might form around stars like our own. Fine, that's great.

But what really interested me was how incredibly simple the science is. Figuring the distance out between a ring and a star turns out to be shockingly easy (well, the main idea is easy, but it's probably tricky in the details). The first thing you have to know is that hot things like stars and heated objects radiate heat in extremely predictible patterns. The top graph in the picture (click to see it bigger) shows the pattern, called the blackbody curve. The X axis is wavelength, which is inversely related to temperature. (Left is hotter, right is colder, confusingly.) So you get a hot peak, and then a smooth curve through colder and colder wavelengths. This curve is completely predictable, it seems. The other two graphs show the situation when you have a continuous disk of dust, and when you have a ring. With the continuous disk, all of the parts of the disk, both close and far way, absorb and re-radiate heat, so you get a flatter smooth curve, like the second graph. With the ring, though, all of the asteroids or dust or whatever are the same temperature, so it radiates in a pattern like a small, cold star. Subtract away the curve from the real star, and you have a curve that tells you how hot the ring is. In the case of the ring they just found, the debris was -262 degrees, which is much warmer than it would be if it were a Pluto-distance away. Given the amount of energy that star puts out, they can then calculate how far away from the star the ring must be to heat the ring that much, which turns out to be between 4 and 6 AU (astronomical units, distances from the Sun to the Earth).

That's pretty clever, and remarkably straightforward, all to figure out the details of something so far away...

Monday, December 12, 2005

Review: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Apartment Kitchen

My rating: *** out of 5 ( reviewers agree, incidentally)

I really, really wanted to enjoy this book more. Julie Powell was the first famous food blogger. In 2002, while working a 9-to-5 job in lower Manhattan, she started a blog called The Julie/Julia Project. In it, she detailed her life as she cooked every recipe from Julia Child's iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. This was made particularly interesting by the fact that (a) she is extravagantly vulgar, (b) she writes pretty well, and (c) it's really hard to find a lot of those ingredients, even in New York City. (I never read the blog, having started reading blogs just about the week after she finished.) By the time she finished the year, she'd been interviewed by dozens of media outlets, been on television, and offered a book deal. This is that book.

Unfortunately, it's extraordinarily uneven. She decided to rewrite a lot of stuff rather than just taking excerpts from the blog (and its comments). The parts that are still entertaining are the original blog entries, as she details various traumatic events in her life while discussing how to cook kidneys or open a marrow bone. But she added some completely uninteresting fictional stuff about Julia Child and her early life as she met her husband, and a lot of other stuff that just felt like uninspired filler. I think what I wanted, and what would have felt the most authentic, would have been for her to simply extract the best 50% of the blog, and the most poignant and interesting comments. I wanted more about the cooking itself, I wanted dates in front of every entry. I think I even wanted the hyperlinks to random stuff she was reading at the time. I wanted to feel like I was one of her growing ranks of readers as her skills (and fame) grew. But that's not what I got. I got a few laughs, along with the lingering feeling that I was still missing the important part of the story.

I think what I really want is blog reruns. I want to be able to subscribe to the Julie/Julia Project, and have it show up in my blog aggregator, day after day for a year. The book was too fast, and that, I think, was perhaps its biggest drawback.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

cooking techniques (herb salts, beurre blanc)

I made dinner tonight, just for me and Natasa, and used a couple of cooking techniques that were new to me. I thought I'd pass them on to you (assuming there's any you out there!), in case you are interested in trying them.

The first comes courtesy of Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It's herb salts, which are commonly sold commercially as "Mrs. Dash" or her competitors. Deborah doesn't suggest imitating the complicated ingredient list of Mrs. Dash, but instead gives some suggestions for simple herb salts that specifically complement particular dishes or types of dishes. So for example, she has a herb salt for Japanese cuisine with roasted sesame seeds and nori. I used another of her recipes, sea salt with fennel seeds and thyme, and used it to season some roasted root vegetables (potatoes, yams, turnips, shallots, garlic).

Here's the basic idea for a good supply of the stuff: Toast 1/4 c of fennel seeds in a small fry pan on low heat until aromatic and starting to lightly brown. Let cool. Grind in a spice grinder (aka, dedicated coffee grinder) with 1 1/2 T sea salt along with 1 t dried thyme and maybe 1 t dried marjoram. It was very good...

The second new technique for me was a classic French sauce, beurre blanc (that's "white butter" for any Francophobes...), from the New Joy of Cooking. I made a variation with lemon juice and black mustard seeds. It's a rich but mildly flavored sauce, which is apparently traditional on fish, chicken, and vegetables. Here's how that goes: Toast a teaspoon of black mustard seeds in a small fry pan on low heat until they start to pop. Remove. In the fry pan, reduce 3 T white wine, 1 T white wine vinegar, 1 T minced shallot, and some salt and white pepper, until only a tablespoon of liquid remains. Turn off heat and stir in a bit of cream (soy milk worked for me). Now, cut a half stick of unsalted butter into about 8 pieces. One or two pieces at a time, whisk the butter into the pan until the pieces melt. Avoid adding additional heat, or the butter will separate and your sauce will look funny. And then I added a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice and the black mustard seeds.

I served that over a seared and steamed chicken breast (technique from Mark Bittman), and it was quite good, despite using frozen/thawed chicken breasts, overcooking them a bit, and then making them sit for 10 minutes while I finished everything else...

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Trent Reznor prize for tricky embedding

The always funny and educational Language Log, a linguistics blog, recently proposed the Trent Reznor (lead singer of Nine Inch Nails) prize for tricky embedding. Embedding is just when you build long complicated sentences by sticking phrases inside other phrases. Like this: [[[][[]]]]. It's to be distinguished from simpler ways of building long complicated sentences that look like this: [][][][][].

Trent Reznor, in an interview, said the following, which is grammatically completely correct:

"When I look at people that I would like to feel have been a mentor or an inspiring kind of archetype of what I'd love to see my career eventually be mentioned as a footnote for in the same paragraph, it would be, like, Bowie."

Hm, let me see ifI can bracket that... Keeping in mind I'm not a card-carrying linguist...

[[When [I look at people [that I would like to feel [t have been a mentor or an inspiring kind of archetype [of what I'd love to see my career eventually be]] mentioned as [a footnote for (me) in the same paragraph]], it would be, like, Bowie.]

...with alternating red and black brackets to make parsing it a bit easier, with a blue trace of "people" in an embedded clause, and with an omitted object of the preposition "for" that I think should be "me" but am willing to hear counter-arguments. And a number of uninteresting phrase boundaries omitted. And it's probably not quite right... But it's definitely amusing, at least to me!

Monday, December 05, 2005

New York black and white cookies and the science thereof

Fantastic! I get to write a single article about all three topics of this blog!

The cooking club I belong to is doing, for its next meal, the theme of "black and white food". I'm doing dessert, and so I decided to make black and white cookies. Here's one:

I have lived in New York City for more than two years now, and have yet to manage to purchase one of these cookies from a deli, despite the fact that every deli in the city (of which there are thousands) carry them. They are apparently a New York City institution, along with pastrami on rye, thin-crust pizza, cheesecake, and take-out Chinese food. They're a slightly chewy oversized cookie, with a white frosting and a chocolate frosting. Google, however, knows nothing about their origin (or history, or inventor).

Google does, however, know recipes, and so last night I downloaded and baked a batch! They turned out very well. (My recipe is here: black and white cookies.) Sweet and chewy and a bit lemony.

They're very interesting cookies, however. They're often described as being more like cakes than cookies. This intruiged me, so I flipped open my copy of McGee and read about batters and doughs. Sayeth McGee: "In doughs, the water content is low enough that the water-protein complex, gluten, constitutes the continuous phase in which the other components (starch granules, gas pockets) are embedded. In batters, which contain several times as much water as do doughs, water is the continuous medium in which the proteins, like the starch and gas, are dispersed." He also has a table that describes the relative proportions (by weight) of the various components of different sorts of batters and doughs. I sat down with my recipe, with my copy of Joy (with conversion tables in the back), and with a calculator to figure out the numbers for black and whites. Here are the results, which are only approximate, along with McGee's numbers for cookie dough and layer cake batter:

Compositions of cakes, batters, and black-and-whites
Cookie dough100204036451
Cake batter100130407501303
Black and whites1004735350671

(Ook, sorry about the flakey HTML table! In any case, McGee's numbers for eggs in cookie doughs presumably refer to sugar cookies, not to chocolate chip cookies, which are quite eggy...)

As you can see, black and whites are like a slightly thin, not very sweet, eggy, but not very buttery cookie. Cakey, but definitely not a cake in any formal sense. And recommended. I'm going to have to try sampling these from local delis... If anyone local has recommendations, let me have 'em!

And if I may conclude by a quote from the Poet:
"The thing about eating the Black and White cookie, Elaine, is you want to get some black and some white in each bite. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie all our problems would be solved." - Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld (The Dinner Party)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

cold restaurants

Living in New York, one goes to a lot of smallish restaurants. In other parts of the country, maybe you go out to eat at places with a half-acre floor, and carrier pigeons are used to get orders from the front of the house to the kitchen. But here, many restaurants are the size of a suburban McMansion's bathroom, and the owners are spending all their money on fancy glass and metal decor, without thinking about the really important things. And I'm not talking about food, I'm talking about comfort. I'm talking about coming in from a cold, windy December day, and sitting in a warm, cozy restaurant. Fuel-oil prices be damned. If I'm warm, I'll eat more, and (memo to restaurant owners!) will doubtless tip more and want to come back! Three stories about this...

Last winter, we went to one of the better Mexican restaurants in our neighborhood, Tierras Mexicanas, on 36th Ave. and 31st St. New York is notorious for having no good Mexican restaurants, but this one does (did) relatively well, with good, well-spiced and well-prepared entrees, not just street food. We'd been there a few times before, and had good grilled fish, roasted chicken, and some other things. That time, we went on a cold, blustery day. Walked in, and the restaurant was (a) empty, and (b) freezing. We asked if the heat was going to come on, and they said no, it was as warm as it gets. We walked out, saying "see you in the Spring." I think we went back once over the summer. Yesterday we decided to go again, being in the mood for good Mexican food, and wanting to see a movie at the nearby theater. It was closed. Do I feel guilty? No, but I do miss decent Mexican food...

There's a new Thai place near us, which is quite a good thing. Called Wave Thai, it's on 31st, North of Ditmars. The other alternatives are a longer walk away, Thai Angel which is decent but not particularly notable, and Ubol's Kitchen, which is notable for its horrid mid-1970s karaoke videos that they always play as you eat your pad thai! Anyway, Wave Thai was clearly designed in the summer. Really nice decor, with red walls, interesting lighting fixtures with gold bulls eye patterns, and plate-glass for the entire front wall and door. With no airlock. Anyone walks in, and a gust of cold air pours into the room. For people along the wall, it's especially bad, as they have this really trendy poured-concrete bench, which is wicked cold to sit on. Their door is leaky too, with the kitchen exhaust fan sucking air through the restaurant and keeping the door open. The place seems conscientious, though, since in addition to having really good food, when we went there for lunch last week, the owner was in the middle of a conversation with an awning salesperson about building an awning to surround the front door and reduce the draft. I hope they figure it out, 'cause it would be shame to have to avoid such a pleasant addition to the neighborhood...

The third story is last night, again. After giving up on the closed Mexican place, we walked down the street to a workaday Thai place (Arnhem Thai, 36th Ave., 33rd St., a step up from Thai Angel, a step down from the new Wave Thai). We went in, it was cold. Very cold. Natasa put on her coat and hat. We asked (twice) for them to turn up the heat. The second time, they explained that there's work being done on on the heating system, and it was off. (!) We had to tell them to plug in the space heater that was sitting against the wall, which they did. After 10 minutes, however, the lights went out as the circuit-breaker flipped! One would think that on a Friday night, when they knew the heat would be out, they might have borrowed a few space heaters and made sure they would work and that the place would be comfortable? One would think, incorrectly, apparently. They have an airlock with their front door, but one of the doors was missing, entirely defeating the purpose. Yes, I know that you're walking around all the time, and walking back to the nice warm kitchen, but your poor guests are freezing their butts off and getting no exercise to warm up.

I, for one, will not be shy this winter about complaining about inadequate heat...