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.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Talking Pineapple Nonsense: Why Reading Comprehension Tests Suck

From eighth-grade classrooms in New York comes the incredible story of a talking pineapple, the protagonist of an utterly incomprehensible reading-comprehension question on a standardized test.  Teachers, students, parents, and administrators alike admitted they had no idea what the question was supposed to be asking.  Even Ken Jennings was brought in to discern whether the question was possible, and his answer was a resounding "no."  Soon after people from all across the country started mocking it, the pineapple question was stricken from the test.  That was a good move, but the controversy has brought to light a systemic weakness of reading-comprehension questions on standardized tests: many of them are wholly subjective, yet they demand test-takers to shoehorn in objective answers.

Math and science questions have right answers.  You can't argue that if 2x + 3 = 7 then x does not equal 2.  There's no debate that the Earth's mantle lies between its crust and its core.  Most English questions have right answers, too.  Regardless of context, "stingy" is a pretty good antonym for "generous".  But in reading comprehension--and in the larger field of literary criticism--things are not so black and white.  Good literary critique is all about formulating an idea then finding evidence from the work to support it.  It's why people today can read Crime and Punishment or Moby-Dick and have new discussions about them, interpret them in different ways, find personal meaning in them.  If subjective personal meaning and novel interpretation make language education a valid discipline in the first place, then why are we testing proficiency in that discipline with ostensibly objective multiple-choice questions?

I noticed it as an eighth-grader taking these tests.  I was fine with questions like "what did this character mean?" or "in what order do these events take place?".  Questions that asked me to interpret how a character was feeling or his motivation for doing something always felt a little hazy.  But by far the worst were the questions that asked me to straight-up speculate.  Talking Pineapple has one of the worst I've ever seen: "What would have happened if the animals had decided to cheer for the hare?"  We don't know for sure, because that's not what happened.  The author, the test-writer, and the test-taker might all have very different answers to that question, none of which would necessarily be "wrong" as long as their answer made sense based on the rest of the story.

But the "what would have happened" question asks the test-taker to give an objective answer based on a hypothetical situation.  There is no way that any answer to this question should ever be scored as "correct" as x = 2, or as "incorrect" as x = 5.  Yet that's exactly what multiple-choice questions on reading-comprehension tests do.  And although Talking Pineapple gave one of the most public, and egregious, examples of this forced objectivity, it's been a mainstay of standardized tests for decades.

It seems obvious that in a field where reasoned argument is a critical skill, we should be testing students' abilities to make reasoned arguments.  A binary, "either you're entirely correct, or you're entirely incorrect" bubble on a Scantron sheet doesn't test that ability at all.  (In the worst case, it tests the ability to guess an answer at random out of four or five.)  So why not allow test-takers to make their arguments?  What would be wrong with asking "What would have happened if the animals had decided to cheer for the hare?  Pick an answer A-D and explain your answer."  Then, don't score the answer at all, but score how well that answer was supported from textual evidence.

Of course, the reason that's not done is expedience: it takes a lot more effort to score thousands of short-answer essays than thousands of multiple-choice bubbles.  But these are high-stakes tests.  If they're going to be used to determine whether a student is allowed to go to high school, or whether a teacher is performing adequately, then both the students and the teachers deserve a little extra effort from the scorers.  Regardless of the stakes of the test, though, putting questions like these in any sort of exam shows a complete lack of understanding of the very discipline it's claiming to test.  Reducing literary comprehension and critique to a series of multiple-choice questions isn't just a simplification; it's antithetical to the skills that classes about language education should be teaching.

Currently listening: "Blue," First Aid Kit

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Yogurt Chronicle: Herbs and Spices Edition

I started my latest round of yogurt flavoring with nutmeg, a suggestion from Steph.  It's her new favorite spice, and I realized that outside of October, November, and my mom's ricotta-cheese pasta filling, I don't encounter nutmeg much at all.  For a cup of yogurt, I went with about a teaspoon of sugar and a dusting of nutmeg, just enough for a slight brown swirl to show up when I stirred it.  It's tough to see in the picture, but nutmeg isn't one of those spices where you have to see it to know it's there.  This one turned out really well, possibly my favorite batch so far.  The nutmeg was subtle, present but not overpowering, and it's given me about half a dozen other spice-yogurt ideas.

Next up was another Steph suggestion: chai yogurt.  As anyone familiar with the authentic stuff will adamantly tell you, real chai contains five ingredients: water, milk, tea, cardamom, and sugar.  Yogurt starts from milk anyway, so it seemed a natural fit.  I think I've found my sweetener:yogurt ratio, so I added 2 teaspoons of sugar to two cups of yogurt, then I ground up four cardamom pods in my mortar and pestle and threw those in too.  The toughest ingredient to add turned out to be the tea.  I put in a teaspoon of loose-leaf tea, and it just sort of sat there, not mixing into the yogurt well at all (those are the large brown flecks throughout).  So I ground up another teaspoon worth and added it too, and it mixed a little better that time.  Chai yogurt didn't turn out quite as successful as I'd hoped: the crunch from the whole tea leaves provided a weird texture without imparting much flavor, and the cardamom was a little overpowering.  I'd try this again but cut the cardamom in half, and maybe brew the tea leaves first and mix them into the yogurt when they were still warm to try to "brew" the yogurt a bit.

The leg of lamb I'd cooked on Easter was the unlikely source of inspiration for this one.  The combination of fresh rosemary and mint was so delicious on the lamb, why wouldn't it work in yogurt?  I added two teaspoons of sugar like usual.  Then, I chopped up some fresh rosemary (maybe a teaspoon) from my balcony garden and some fresh mint (maybe two teaspoons) from my refrigerator garden and stirred it all together.  About the only thing that didn't work was a bit of unwanted texture from the rosemary: while all the flavors transitioned from lamb to yogurt surprisingly well, every spoonful had just a little crunch, which is still something I don't know that I need in my yogurt.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

3-Sentence Reviews: Music from Spring 2012

Big surprise here: the US release of Of Monsters and Men's album My Head is an Animal is still good.  It features a couple extra songs added to its Icelandic release, with "Mountain Sound" in particular making this already amazing album even better than it was before.  What scores the band the most points, though, is that they're awesome people, taking time to mingle with their fans after a concert and having a blast playing through their first US tour.

For a band whose first album had hints of breaking through into something truly great, it's a little disappointing to hear The Vespers' sophomore album The Fourth Wall be merely different rather than brilliant.  It's not necessarily an improvement on Tell Your Mama, more of a stylistic shift to encompass more overtly Christian themes and embrace its Deep-South spiritual roots, with the few infectiously sunny up-tempo pieces seeming further out of place the more you listen to the album.  Sooner or later, The Vespers will need to pick a stylistic direction and stay with it--or, better yet, release multiple albums in multiple styles--but it's tough not to like the quartet's ambition in drawing from so many genres, and their mastery of vocal harmony is among the best there is.

Every Shins album so far, including Port of Morrow, has seen increasing levels of production: Oh, Inverted World suffered for its low production and lo-fi-ness in general; Chutes Too Narrow had more production and was a better album because of it; Wincing the Night Away really hit a sweet spot and was easily the greatest thing the Shins have done so far.  The term "overproduced" is enough overused that it's basically meaningless, but the fresh, indie-pop hooks of Wincing have largely been replaced by a smooth gloss that doesn't offend but doesn't easily excite either.  "For A Fool" and "It's Only Life" are entirely forgettable, medicore-at-best attempts at something mid-tempo; fortunately "The Rifle's Spiral" and "No Way Down" keep some of the old pop brilliance, and "September" is among the most heartfelt and lovely things James Mercer has come up with.

Making Mirrors, by an artist who calls himself Gotye and pronounces it "go-tee-ay," is one of those odd albums that somehow decided to choose its very worst song for its breakout radio single.  Like probably a majority of listeners familiar with him, I was first introduced to Gotye by having "Somebody That I Used to Know" forced on me by FM radio (Live 105.3, I'm looking at you), and from it, I erroneously concluded that Gotye was mumbly and boring.  It's not as standout an album as some would proclaim, filled with bizarre auditory non sequiturs and containing an unfortunate miscue in the form of an autotuned reggae track called "State of the Art," but "I Feel Better" and "In Your Light" take all the best elements of 60s-70s Motown, funk, and even Southern rock to turn out music I actually want to listen to.

This month's "late to the party" entry comes from Mr. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, which given my general enthusiasm for all things indie folk is about as egregious an omission as Fleet Foxes were a few months ago.  It's actually not as folky as it could have been given its standout single "Home" (they got this one right; except for the irritating spoken-word passage, it's by far the best track on the album).  A liberal application of horn section and the occasional harmonica works really well; some unfortunate vocal quirks (spoken passages, changes in register, deliberate not-quite-on-the-beat singing) are nowhere near as clever as they think they are; and the constant genre experiments might either be refreshing or exhausting depending on your mood.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Yogurt Chronicle, Part III

After making yogurt and experimenting with some basic flavorings, I've decided to take more of the advice of my yogurt-making instructions to flavor it in new and exciting ways.

My first try was with raspberry jam; the suggestion was 1 tablespoon per cup of yogurt, and 2 tablespoons for my 2 cups ended up being about right.  This is the best one I've tried so far--the jam was both sweet enough to overcome the tartness of the yogurt and had a tasty flavor.  It mixed into the yogurt more easily than the honey did, and you can see from the picture that the whole thing took on a pinkish (if not exactly homogeneous) shade.

One odd thing I noticed was that the instructions suggested sugar-free jam.  That didn't make sense to me, because ahead of any flavoring, the first thing this yogurt needs is sweetness.  Maybe it has something to do with the fermentation process, but in the fridge, that should be slow enough not to matter.  I ignored the suggestion and used sugar-full jam, and it turned out great.

Next up was apricot jam.  I'd never had apricot yogurt, but because yogurt works with pretty much any fruit, I figured it couldn't be too bad.  Again, I had some consistency issues--the apricot jam was much more of a solid gel texture than the much runnier raspberry jam, but where I got sufficient apricot flavor, it was really good too.  There weren't any over-apricotty bites, so I think if I try a flavoring with this texture again, I'll just add more of it.

My most recent effort was vanilla extract.  It's a little tough to make out, but there's a subtle brownish swirl in the picture.  This was nowhere as sweet as I wanted it to be--which makes perfect sense, considering vanilla extract is basically an aromatic bitter.  To its credit, the instructions sheet did list vanilla as a "flavor" instead of a "sweetener," so I think the better way to go is to add vanilla along with some sort of sweetener.

What have I learned so far?  Combination sweetener-flavors are more effective than either alone; the more liquid an additive is, the better texture the yogurt ends up with; and if anything, lean toward more flavoring/sweetening than is suggested.

What's on board next?  Smaller batches of more "out-there" flavors (any suggestions?).  And, eventually, frozen yogurt!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Yogurt Chronicle, Part II

I have made yogurt, and now I'm ready to eat it.

Wednesday, February 22

My "production-scale" culture has indeed "set," and it looks ready to eat!  But I'm fasting today, so the sampling will have to wait until tomorrow.

Thursday, February 23

I finally get around to tasting my yogurt.  It's a little thicker than the "starter" batch, which is good--it has a better yogurty consistency.  The taste is decidedly sour, a bit tarter than I would have imagined.  It's not at all bad, definitely edible, but at this stage, it's missing something to make it truly tasty.

Monday, February 27

Time flies when you're making yogurt, and I'm already a day away from needing to propagate the culture.  I go ahead and do it today: the same one tablespoon of yogurt to one cup of milk ratio, and I should have production-scale batch number 2 ready to go tomorrow.

Now that I've propagated the culture, I think it's time to experiment with adding flavor.  First on the list of suggested added flavors is honey.  The recommendation is 1-2 teaspoons per cup of yogurt; my yogurt needs all the sweetness it can get, and I figure there's around a cup and a half left, so I add a tablespoon of honey.

It's tough to dissolve honey in cold, viscous milk.

The chemical engineer in me completely should have seen that coming, and I find myself wishing for some lab equipment.  (Who does microbiology work without a good shaker?)  But a few minutes with a spoon later, and the well-mixed assumption is no longer so invalid.

The yogurt has improved a lot with the added sweetness, though it's still not as homogeneous as I might have liked.  Next time I try adding a sweetener--and adding a sweetener is definitely the way to go--I'll let the yogurt warm up a little first.

Once Batch 2 is ready to go, in a day or two, I'll give the next sweetener a shot: fruit jam.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Yogurt Chronicle, Part I

My girlfriend Stephanie got me a yogurt starter culture for my birthday.  You know you're in a good relationship when your girlfriend gives you bacteria for your birthday and you're excited about it!  (She also got me a kombucha starter; I fully anticipate a Kombucha Chronicle, but that one takes longer to grow.)

Sunday, February 19

I start the culture.  The first instruction is to dump 1/8 teaspoon of dehydrated bacteria (presumably some Lactobacillus species) into a cup of milk and let it sit for 12-48 hours.  Eventually, this will be my "starter batch," and I'll be able to add it to milk to make more yogurt faster.  But for now, I'm stuck waiting through however many room-temperature doubling times it will take to turn my milk into yogurt.  The rubber-banded coffee filter it to allow oxygen exchange without leaving the culture open to all sorts of other nasty contamination.

At some point, the culture is supposed to "set," and the milk will show coagulation and more solid-like behavior.  For now, it just seems liquidy.

Monday, February 20

My starter batch isn't close to "setting".  It's maybe slightly more viscous but still definitely a liquid and definitely no coagulation.  But I'm still in the early range of that culturing time, so I'll let my bacteria have at it and wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 21

Amazingly, the culture set overnight!  I put it in the fridge in the morning to make the bacteria quit multiplying so fast...

...and six hours later, I'm ready to start my first "production-scale" batch.

Two tablespoons of starter batch to two cups of milk should, in theory, become (very slightly more than) two cups of yogurt in less than a day.  Check back tomorrow to see if that actually happens.

Monday, February 13, 2012

3-Sentence Reviews: Scandinavian Indie Folk Special Edition

Every once in a while, perhaps as rarely as a few times per indie-music-listening career, you may encounter the chance to like something really big before it was popular, and I believe Of Monsters and Men might be the best chance I've ever gotten at that.  They're the sort of ensemble you couldn't make up if you tried: six Icelandic dudes (actually five dudes, one of whom is actually named Kristj√°n Kristj√°nsson, and a woman) on a stage playing guitars and horns and whatever percussion they can drum up.  Called Iceland's Mumford and Sons and the new Arcade Fire, Of Monsters and Men are probably better than either band, featuring a bright, energetic indie folk and probably the coolest music video I've ever seen; they're so indie that you can't actually buy their full-length My Head is an Animal in the US yet, but expect big things once you can.

I'm a little incredibly late to the party with Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, but I was entirely apathetic to the isolated monotone of their first album and expected more of the same with their second.  It's a much better--and much more interesting--album, featuring their trademark harmonized "ooh"s over acoustic folk ("Sim Sala Bim"), 60s-style pop ("Bedouin Dress"), and even Appalachian-flavored pentatonics ("The Shrine").  Like on the first album, all these songs are the same in tempo and instrumentation, but unlike on the first, they differentiate themselves into an entire album of things worth listening to.

I first heard of First Aid Kit via Ben Gibbard's Twitter, and if you can't take indie music advice from the guy behind the most successful indie band ever, who can you take it from?  Like so many bands with promise, the (surprisingly country-sounding) Swedish folk-singing sisters aren't as good as their best song ("The Lion's Roar"), offering impressive and impeccable harmonies on all their music but enough hooks to make it compelling on only about half.  Their 2010 debut The Big Black and the Blue is a tiny bit better than its follow-up, 2012's The Lion's Roar, but both contain enough to promise that First Aid Kit can eventually release a truly brilliant album.

On the advice of my girlfriend Stephanie, and on the strength of a standout eventual first single "1957", I went to see Milo Greene in concert last weekend.  It's potentially the indiest show I will ever see: Milo Greene hasn't even released an album yet, and their own website lists only four songs.  Thanks to a fall 2011 tour opening for the Civil Wars, they'll be forever linked with and compared to that band; the Civil Wars' Barton Hollow had flashes of brilliance amidst a field of decent songs that didn't really go anywhere, so hopefully Milo Greene's eventual debut album takes after "20 Years" or the title track instead of the rest of Barton Hollow.

Opening for Milo Greene was the slightly more established band Family of the Year, who apparently already has three EP's and a full-length album in its three-year musical career, with another full-length coming this year.  Like Milo Greene, their sound is vaguely indie-folk with guy singer/girl singer harmonies; FotY is a little less down-to-earth, including more experimentation with 70s post-psychedelic and rock influences, a few passages of borderline spoken-word, and song titles that might be steeped in a little too much irony for their own good ("Putting Money and Stuff", "I Played Drums on This").  Their willingness to draw off so much inspiration might leave the band without a unique sound if they're biting off more than they can chew, but songs like "Summer Girl" prove these guys are still worth watching to see if this family can grow up a little bit.

Currently listening: "Toccata," from Orfeo, Monteverdi

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Probably the best spam comment I've ever gotten

I use comment moderation on this blog because every once in a while, I got a lot of spam in the comments.  Usually, these comments are the boring type or the gibberish type, but sometimes I come across a true gem.  Not wanting to post it as a comment, I've decided to legitimize the spammer on my own terms:

The Discount Cigarettes With Virginia Stamp is, if you exactly after "evening banquet" thought that the time is "the unforgettable time", you are the choice pull out Double Coronas or Giant Double Coronas? Or is both pulls out together? If business is arduous, meets the company share circuit breaker or Kenneth lai such faces likely goes out of business safely lets the human is badly battered, is sure not to light the cigar, because smokes the cigar is enjoys the leisure time whiling away the time. The cool evening, is burning the prill on the lawn, on the frame calmly is lying down the fresh and tender pink beefsteak, is assisting the very good red Newport Cigarettes.
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Now I know what's been missing all those cool evenings when I was burning the prill on the lawn.

Currently listening: "Annie Waits," Ben Folds

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My take on SOPA

If you so much as used the internet today, you might have gotten the distinct impression that the internet is literally going to end because of SOPA.  Its opponents would say that's only a mild exaggeration.  It's easy to read the anti-SOPA offerings on Wikipedia and Google and be swayed into opposing SOPA.  They are persuasive arguments.  And at first pass, it's easy to conclude that SOPA represents a grave threat to the internet as we know it.

But there's an intellectual problem with supporting or opposing any measure before hearing every argument for or against it.  There are two sides--often many more--to any story.  As its critics accuse SOPA of being distinctly anti-internet, it's easy to go on the internet and find the ways in which SOPA is or might be bad.  What the internet has done a less good job of doing is exploring the ways in which SOPA is or might be good.  "That's because it's not," an opponent might argue; "everything about SOPA is bad."  But somebody thinks it's good.  It has sponsorship in both houses of US Congress (under the name PIPA, and with slightly differently wording, in the Senate), enjoys bipartisan support, and has extensive lobbyist funding.

As the internet becomes more riled up about what the bill might be, or might become, it's more important for supporters of SOPA to deliver their arguments clearly and rationally.  Often, SOPA is accused of being pushed by "old-media people" who "don't understand how the internet works."  It would be enlightening--and, by this point, essential--for a "new-media person" who does understand how the internet works but nevertheless supports SOPA to offer a rebuttal.  Such a person may or may not exist.  At the very least, authors and supporters of the bill need to respond quickly and specifically to the concerns raised in various parts of the internet.

Here's a paraphrase of a common example used to illustrate the perils of SOPA.  Say a Google search turned up a site that hosted pirated copyrighted content.  Under SOPA, its opponents claim, the holder of that copyright would be able to sue and get an injunction against Google.  In turn, the attorney general would be able to enact that injunction to temporarily shut Google down.  Google would then be faced with the prospects of frequent outages--clearly denying its customers the chance to use its services--or actively policing all its indexed search content, a time- and money-intensive process.

This seems bad, if it is true.  Without hearing any arguments to the contrary, I'm forced to conclude that it's both true and bad.  What this debate needs desperately is for SOPA supporters to explain whether or not that's a fair characterization of SOPA and if it is, why it is not bad.  The longer they fail to do so, the more ground their position will lose.

In the vacuum of counter-evidence that is the internet, SOPA does indeed appear threatening and dangerous.  It's possible--even likely--that all the pro-SOPA argument in the world wouldn't change that appearance.  But to snap to conclusions about what the bill might become without even having heard the argument is irresponsible.

Currently listening: "1957," Milo Greene

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

3-Sentence Reviews: Movies I Saw Over Christmas

I'm surprised I liked The Help as much as I did. It's the closest thing I've seen to a chick flick in a long, long time (there are approximately two male characters with lines), but it won points for not being too relationship-y or sappy, instead focusing on a solid script and a well-told story.  It also won points for starring Emma Stone, whom I may have a bit of a celebrity crush on.

Following in the welcome trend of Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech was a Best Picture winner that was entertaining, well-made, and wholly deserving.  It's a World War II movie that's about so much more than the war; it reminds us that for all their royal trappings, the Kings and Queens of England are people too.  Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are brilliant, and Helena Bonham Carter delivers the best performance of her career.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may have pulled off the rarest feat in book-to-film adaptation: being more entertaining than its novel counterpart.  Minutiae of 1970s Swedish politics are part of what gives the Millennium trilogy its unique "charm," but they make for a much better reading than viewing experience.  Instead, we get all the action and intrigue (and yes, disturbing graphicness) of the book, distilled into about two and a half hours of movie that don't seem nearly that long.

Considering all the possible stakes for losing a particular bet, forcibly watching Ghostbusters is far from the worst thing that could have happened.  It suffers a bit from Lethal Weapon syndrome, in that it's a product of the '80s, and boy, can you tell.  But the comedic talents of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd (not to forget perennial third-man Harold Ramis!) keep it afloat, and if the the aesthetic trappings seem egregiously dated, the "just this side of absurd" humor is oddly timeless.

I often describe myself as more of an Atlanta Braves fan than a baseball fan, but I think you have to have at least a little baseball fan in you to appreciate Moneyball. The human element to the story is fine--and if Jonah Hill doesn't win a Supporting Actor Oscar based on this movie, then the system is totally invalidated--but in the end it takes a back seat to a fascinating look at a transformation of America's pastime. For anyone who's ever wondered why we suddenly care about OPS and WAR in baseball, Moneyball explains it and tells a compelling story at the same time.  

The James Bond franchise was "rebooted" after Die Another Day, and it's easy to see why. By the mid 2000s, Pierce Brosnan's 007 had become so smug and over-the-top that the franchise was in danger of becoming a vehicle for one-liners and CGI explosions. To its credit, Die Another Day has some downright spectacular CGI explosions, and there are far worse Bond films out there (I'm looking at you, anything starring Timothy Dalton), but there are far better ones too.

Currently listening: "Simple Song," the Shins

Friday, January 06, 2012

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: Season Recap

The most hilarious thing about a four-team fantasy football league is that every team makes the playoffs.  The regular season matters for about nothing.  Sure, there's an attempt at seeding, such that the nominally best team in the league plays the nominally worst.  But any team can pull a 2008 Detroit Lions, losing literally every game, then get hot at the right time and win it all.

Nothing quite so dramatic happened in the Pikas' fantasy league, but Zach's Beat Tom was close.  Long occupying the number four spot on the ladder, Beat Tom had a late-season surge to make things interesting.  BT beat the Pikas in Week 13, the last game of the regular season, to drop the Pikas to a losing record overall.  But--in another amusing side effect of a four-man league--their 6-7 mark was enough to earn the #2 seed for the playoffs.  (In retrospect, looking the the records going into the playoffs, it should have been immediately obvious what would happen.  Only Tom's 2MuchJohnson4U had a winning record, an impressive 9-3-1.)

That was a double-edged sword for Pyongyang, though, as the surging Beat Tom claimed the #3 seed.  In a couple of mid-December games that the Pikas would just as soon forget, Beat Tom blew out the Pikas 235-182.  But the Pikas' season wasn't over yet: Christmas and New Years' weekends held the third-place consolation match against Josh's North Dakota Narwhals.  On Christmas Eve, Aaron Rodgers (as usual) and Brandon Marshall had huge games, putting up 32 and 21 points.  Cam Newton had 30 of his own, but the Pikas eked out an 8-point lead.

But playoff games last two weeks in fantasy-land, and third place wouldn't come so easily.  The Pikas made their last stand on the first day of 2012.  Their early games were marked by inconsistency, with 49ers running back Frank Gore scoring exactly zero points (a mere 9 yards on 7 carries) but Michael Turner having his best game of the season, putting together 172 yards and 2 touchdowns for a fantastic 29 points.  It all came down to the last game of the season, a Giants-Cowboys contest that, in true fantasy fashion, I wouldn't have cared about at all but for fantasy.

The game started with the Pikas down 99-79, with one Pika (backup quarterback Eli Manning) and one Narwhal (tight end Jason Witten) to play.  Eli, playing because the Packers were resting Aaron Rodgers, needed to outscore Witten by more than 12.

He scored 26 in a veritable Aaron Rodgers-esque clinic.  Witten scored 6, and the Pikas claimed the third-place "honors" in the league.

Pikas final record: 6-7, 3rd place in playoffs

Pikas MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers QB.  No question here.  Rodgers was the league's highest-scoring player despite sitting out the last week.  The one week he scored under 20, it was shocking, and his best game was a mind-blowing 45 points.

It's been sometimes fun, sometimes stressful, and always enlightening running a fantasy team.  It's also an excuse to drink bad beer and trash-talk your friends, which I've grown to appreciate is the real point of fantasy.

Currently listening: "Calamity Song," the Decemberists