Friday, September 21, 2012

The Office: Starting the Final Season

Only one episode in, The Office's swan-song season already feels more like an epilogue than a finale, and its aura of denouement started as early as Pam and Jim's "what I did over summer vacation" interview in the cold open. Perhaps these characters, and the office itself, have told all the story they need to tell. Pam herself admits it: sure, she and Jim had some entertaining drama in the first few years, but that's all over by now. Look at how far they've come, she emphasizes. They're settled down now. Pam's life is boring, and as she'll defend to Dwight later, that's how she likes it. It's a maturity that acknowledges things were more interesting in the past than they are now. And it's the first indication that finally, this adventure is about to be over.

Pam's next comment is even more striking: "How much more do you need? It's just a paper company." In addition to being a meta-nod to the consensus that the show should have ended by now--perhaps a long time ago--it's a deeply reflective rhetorical question, as if Pam and everyone but the documentary's filmmakers know that the yarn is spun out and the story told. It's followed by a comment from one of the filmmakers himself, a rare acknowledgement of their existence as characters, and a reminder that what we know as "real" in The Office is merely an impression of reality. That impression will soon come to an end.

If Pam was the first person to point out that the story has run its course, Jim is the first to emphasize that there will be life outside of Dunder-Mifflin. Even though his new business proposal sounds more like a Ryan Howard pipe dream than a solid career bet, it's the first time in years that he's actually made concrete plans for a job outside paper sales. Nobody (save perhaps Dwight K. Schrute) actually likes being a middle manager or paper salesman at Dunder-Mifflin; it's a stepping stone to an executive position or a sales job at a more prestigious company. Jim has liked it least of all. But his passive-aggression has finally turned to action.

And in what will certainly become a recurring theme over the course of the season, two of the office's employees have already decided to take their talents elsewhere. Though Ryan and Kelly haven't exactly been cornerstones of the story since season 2, their exit underscores how much the times are changing at Dunder-Mifflin. So does the hiring of new guys Clark and Pete. Promptly nicknamed Dwight Junior and Young Jim, meeting them took us back nine years when we met real Dwight and Jim.

If we're having to face the characters finally moving on from Dunder-Mifflin, the other side of the coin is that Dunder-Mifflin is moving on from its old cast of characters. After a few years of relative stability, followed by mergers and layoffs, executive scandal, and a buyout and company-wide restructuring, it looks like order might be restored in the office once more. David Wallace, long the lone voice of reason in the insanity of the corporate hierarchy, has stepped in to impose some structure. The company is obviously doing well enough to bring in new talent. And Dwight's client list is so long that he has leads he doesn't even have time to pursue. Even though we won't be witness to it for much longer, all signs indicate that Dunder-Mifflin is going to survive just fine without us, an oddly comforting notion.

Michael Scott's departure a year and a half ago hit hard, a more sincerely emotional moment than it even tried to be. Our final moments in the office are likely to be even more poignant. Until then, we can simply watch the season play out, a year-long catharsis, a retrospective as much as a commencement, a group of characters suddenly left without they reality that they--and we--have taken for granted for nearly a decade. But at least we'll depart knowing their stories have been told.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Announcing two new exciting blog options!

Hello readers and followers of Isoceleria! It's been a fun six years blogging here, but it's time for a change of focus in my blogging enterprises. In an effort to blog more concretely about cohesive topics, I've decided to start two new blogs.

The first, Ludi Berkeley, is dedicated to gaming in pretty much any form--video, roleplaying, and especially board. It will feature reviews, commentary, anecdotes, and analysis of mechanics, and it's a collaboration between me and a few other gamer friends.

The other blog, Burdell Cellars, is a log of my winemaking exploits with a couple of friends. We're completely new to home winemaking, but we're scientists and novice wine snobs, so we're enthusiastically documenting the process.

If either of those topics are your scene, check out the new blogs! I'm not entirely shutting down Isoceleria, either, but don't be surprised if I post less frequently so I can focus more on the new blogs.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yogurt Chronicle: A Submitted Protocol for Frozen Yogurt

I've been making yogurt, and I live in the Bay area. The next logical step, of course, is to freeze it. I bought a personal-size ice cream maker, and it came with its own suggestion for how to make froyo. Here are my comments and revisions.


1/3 cup berry yogurt (I used plain yogurt)
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons sugar (this is a lot of sugar to add to what will become under 1 cup of frozen yogurt, and it will produce a very sweet yogurt. I think this is as much to lower the freezing point as to sweeten. You can probably get away with 1 tablespoon as long as you watch the yogurt carefully and make sure it doesn't freeze too quickly.)
2 tablespoons chopped berries (it's tough to judge how many berries will become 2 tablespoons after they're chopped, so just grab a handful and estimate.)


1. A few hours before you want to eat the yogurt, put the freezy bowl inside the freezer. This is surprisingly critical--if you chill it too long, the bowl will become very cold, and the yogurt might freeze on the sides rather than get mixed; if you don't chill it long enough, the yogurt won't actually freeze. I've found it works well if I start chilling when I get home from work at 4 pm 5:30 pm with the intent of making and eating froyo later in the evening.

2. Gather your berries...

...and chop them.

3. Mix the yogurt, milk, sugar, and berries in a separate container. If you try to mix in the freezy bowl, it will stick to the side and never mix properly. If you want to, add other ingredients--I added a squirt of chocolate syrup to my raspberry froyo, and it was fantastic.

4. Dump the mix in the freezy bowl and immediately start mixing. Mix for about ten minutes; I like to leave it in the freezer as it's mixing both to keep it cold and to keep some of the noise out.

5. Eat some delicious frozen yogurt.


Once I'd nailed down the timing--and the fact that it's absolutely necessary to mix the ingredients outside of the freezy bowl--every batch has turned out fantastic. The blackberry batch tasted a little more of sugar than blackberries, so I toned down the sugar in the next batches, but it was still fine.

Cherry had probably the best flavor of the three, but it was sort of a pain to chop up those cherries without the aid of a cherry pitter.

Raspberry chocolate ended up looking less bright and fresh than the others because of the added chocolate syrup, but I (accidentally) nailed the chocolate:raspberry ratio so it tasted great.

Next up on the froyo agenda: blueberries, plus all manner of stone fruits, especially peaches.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Whither "imply"/"infer"?

Many of us grad-school or academic types have another academic field we're into in our spare time, something that tends to be the polar opposite of what we actually study. My girlfriend's is medieval history, while other friends of mine take up astronomy or music theory or statistics. Call them our academic mistresses, maybe.  Mine is language, specifically usage and the fascinating, constant struggle of proscriptivism against descriptivism.

A popular pursuit in these circles is drawing attention to typical usage "mistakes" that people make and then debating whether it's truly a mistake (a typical proscriptivist position) or simply a reflection of changing language (usually argued by descriptivists). I usually come down on the proscriptive side of things; a good example is the use of "less" and "fewer". Standard English usage holds that "less" applies to continuous quantities, while "fewer" applies to discrete ones. We have less water but fewer buckets, less money but fewer coins. That's a meaningful and necessary distinction that ought to be preserved.

I'm not strictly proscriptivist all the time, most notably in the usage of "whom". Sometimes it's preferable to use "whom" just because it would sound incorrect not to: "to who it may concern" is clearly wrong. Most of the time, though, we don't lose any clarity of information or syntax by using "who" where "whom" really should go, and the language has evolved to figure that out. "Whom are you visiting?" is grammatically "correct" but sounds pedantic and non-conversational; "Who are you visiting?" is "incorrect" but easily understood to mean exactly the same thing. But that's the exception to my rule of grammatical proscriptivism.

The usage issue where I'm most proscriptivist of all, though, is one I didn't even realize was an issue until recently: the confusion of "imply" and "infer". It was odd to me, when I first arrived on the usage "scene," that these words would be confused at all. "Lay" and "lie" are probably the champion pair of incorrect usage, which makes sense because their conjugations overlap so extensively. "Affect" and "effect" present another source of confusion, and that one makes sense too because those words are pronounced nearly identically.

But "imply" and "infer"? Do people actually mess these up? They're clearly not pronounced the same way. Sure, they're spelled a little similarly in that they're the same length and start with the same letter, but by that logic, the English-speaking world should be confusing "brain" and "bloat" too. And they don't mean close to the same thing. To imply is to suggest; to infer is to guess or deduce. Sure, they interact, in that if Adam implies an unspoken opinion, Brian can infer what Adam meant. Again, though, if we're prone to confusing interacting verbs, how come we never mix up "throw" and "catch"?

It seems trivially easy to use these words correctly--much easier than, say, "lay" and "lie"--and until I started paying attention to usage experts, I never knew there was any difficulty at all in using them. Apparently there is: Lexicon Valley, in a podcast about a controversial dictionary, refers to the "imply"/"infer" confusion as if it's a common grammatical mistake. Garner's Modern American Usage, my favorite style guide, has multiple paragraphs on it. A quick Google search of "imply and infer" returns more than seven million hits.

Here's a quote from the second one: "These two words, which originally had quite distinct meanings, have become so blended together that most people no longer distinguish between them." Is that true? Do people really "no longer distinguish" between a pair of words that don't at all mean the same thing? And are there any theories about how they got so "blended"?

Many common usage errors came from somewhere, and it's apparent that, while incorrect, it's conceivable that someone would make them. Some, I'll even condone, if the descrptivist argument is convincing enough. But I can't condone mixing up "imply" and "infer". It doesn't even make sense how it would become so widely done in the first place.

Currently listening: Everything Under the Sun, Jukebox the Ghost

Monday, June 11, 2012

Yogurt Chronicle: Special Report on Filtration

One of the pieces of advice that Cultures for Health includes in their yogurt-making instructions is that if a thicker yogurt is desired, the yogurt could be strained through cheesecloth.  Thicker yogurt sounded pretty good, but really the whole thing sounded too engineer-y to pass up.  I set out to thicken some yogurt.

The first step was to spread the cheesecloth over a small bowl.  This to be a relatively strict filtration with a small fraction of permeate (i.e., the whey).  To make it even more restrictive, double-layer the cheesecloth.  Also, get a larger bowl you can pour you yogurt retentate into afterwards.
Next, pour some yogurt onto the cheesecloth.  It should be a small enough amount that you're still able to close the cheesecloth around it but a big enough amount that you have a volume big enough to filter.

This is the fun part!  Pick up the cheesecloth and let the whey drip out.  If you're doing it right (i.e., the filter is tight enough), you should get a hedgehog-like pattern of whey droplets on the outside, which will then fall into the bowl.  You might need to squeeze it to help it filter, but don't squeeze too hard because it tends to open the pores of the cheesecloth and let too much yogurt through.
Here's what some whey looks like once you've filtered it out.  There's not much of it, but you can improve the separation with a multi-stage filtration.

Now, pour your yogurt into the larger bowl.  It's thick and ready to eat!  If you choose to pursue the "filter it again" method, be sure to get a fresh piece of cheesecloth because it's likely your cloth's pores have opened during the filtration.  With larger holes in the filter, more yogurt gets through, and you don't end up actually thickening it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Yogurt Chronicle: Fridge Clean-Out Edition

I've found a bunch of stuff in my fridge (and my pantry) over the last month that was sort of sitting around, forgotten or about to go bad or just without enough of it left to do much of anything with... except make yogurt.  Here, the last three or four chocolate coins, stubbornly hanging out since Christmas, made their way into mocha latte yogurt.  I Microplaned the coins and stirred them in along with a spoonful of ground coffee and 2 spoonfuls of sugar.  The taste was among the best of anything I've made so far, though the coffee was a little coarse and I still wasn't happy with the distribution and quality of mixing.  This was, however, the first yogurt I've ever had that woke me up.

 Several months ago, my roommate went on a fruit-preserves making binge, and our apartment ended up with at least five Tupperware containers full of blackberry jam.  It's delicious stuff, though our apartment's demand for preserves never quite caught up with its supply, and now we're stuck in surplus-land.  I attacked the problem by mixing up some blackberry preserve yogurt, with about two heaping tablespoons of preserves, and I was really pleased.  The preserves are already both sweet (so no need to add more sugar) and smooth (so I didn't have any mixing or consistency issues to complain about).  It's not the most exotic thing I've ever made, and I'm sure you can find commercial blackberry yogurt plenty of places, but this is the first one I've made that had the taste and feel of something you'd actually pay money on.

Every trip I take to Berkeley Bowl results in at least fifteen dollars' worth of things I never intended to buy making their way into my shopping cart anyway because they look so delicious.  One late April's result was a bag of cinnamon sugar almonds; once the bag was nearly depleted, the rest got ground up in the mortar and pestle to produce about a quarter cup of ground nuts, which then became candied almond yogurt.  These nuts were delicious, and sweet, anyway, so the resulting yogurt tasted pretty good, but my old enemy texture reared its ugly head again.

A bag of herbs just a few days out from turning brown was the inspiration for southeast Asian herb yogurt.  I chopped up about a tablespoon each of fresh cilantro and fresh basil.  Then, because the "packaged on" date for my tub of honey ended in "2010," I decided to add the rest of it (around 2 tablespoons) to this yogurt, even though that hasn't proven to be the best idea in the past.  It was a better fate for my herbs than throwing them away, though I probably wouldn't try this again--the "herbs and honey" phase of my yogurt never actually became part of the "yogurt" phase, and it had both an odd flavor and texture as a result.

The lovely pink color in this batch comes from fresh strawberries, which I chopped up and mixed into the yogurt without adding anything else.  I thought the natural sugars from the strawberries would sweeten the yogurt enough, but if I try this again, I'll definitely need to supplement it.  The strawberries weren't so finely chopped, but I didn't mind that texture so much because they were already mushy, and it didn't turn crunchy.  Aesthetically, this might have been among my more successful yogurts--it looks nice and smells pleasant too.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Leaving Through the Window: Celebrating Ten Years

Everyone has one, and if you're lucky, you might have more: an album that instantly transports you to a time and place; one that you forget about for months at a time, and every time you remember it, you smile in a wave of nostalgia.  Somehow, it hasn't grown stale through the years.  Even though nobody--no, not even you--would call it truly great music, it's brilliant to you, and that's all that matters.

Leaving Through the Window, Something Corporate's first and probably best-known commercial release, was (astoundingly) released a decade ago today.  It's an album that probably only could have come from the year 2002: some fusion of pop-punk and emo and piano-rock with its roots in every artistic movement popular during my high school years.  Something Corporate neither invented nor reinvented nor dominated the genre; Leaving Through the Window is not what most would turn to when remembering an album that typifies the culture.

But they're the ones who dominated the genre to me, and it's the album that I turn to immediately.  And no wonder--I listened to Leaving Through the Window hundreds of times in high school, in basements with friends playing Nintendo 64, in cars with girls I had crushes on, in living rooms with guys who started new bands every few weeks (where I could always say "you guys should play something by Something Corporate" and look like I knew what I was talking about).

There's a theory that the music you hear at age 14 or 15 is the music you most strongly associate with the rest of your life.  If that's true, it looks like I'm stuck with Leaving Through the Window for a very long time.  I can't imagine a better fate.