Interesting Articles: August 2007

* Weighting for Friends: Obesity spreads in social networks (Science News). In short, if your friend becomes obese, you become more likely to gain weight as well. While not surprising, it's cool that they actually gathered enough data to prove it. What I found more surprising is that (i) the effect is equally strong regardless of distance and that (ii) the effect doesn't appear for people you're around a lot but don't consider a friend (e.g., a neighbor). It's also neat that obesity mainly spreads via same-sex friendships. Although the Science News article is freely available online, if you desire you can also refer to the source article, The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years (New England Journal of Medicine).
* Oldest siblings show slight IQ advantage (Science News). Note that the effect, though small, comes from social birth order, not physical birth order. (I.e., children who become the oldest after the death in infancy of an older sibling also display the advantage.) The source article, Explaining the relation between birth order and intelligence (Science), has the full details.

Maintaining Health:
* Lobes of Steel (New York Times). Exercise: it'll make you smarter.
* Easing Jet Lag By Resetting The Body Clock (New York Times). A handy, though old, article that describes how to carefully control exposure to light in order to reset one's circadian rhythm quickly and thereby avoid jet lag.

* Sour Genes, Yes—Salty Genes, No (Science News's Food for Thought). Liking of sour foods is mostly genetic, yet liking salty foods is more environmental. This partially explains similarities in taste within families. Incidentally, I'm surprised to read sensitivities to these flavors can differ up to two orders of magnitude between individuals. I know (and am jealous of) people who are substantially more sensitive to tastes than I am, but wasn't aware the differences could be that large.

* Bad News for Cats: Cat allergen hits all allergic people (Science News). In short, even if you're not specifically allergic to cats (but are allergic to other things), something about cats will aggravate your other allergies and impair your lung function. Hmph. The abstract of the source article, Bronchial responsiveness in atopic adults increases with exposure to cat allergen (American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine), is available online.
* High Volume, Low Fidelity: Birds are less faithful as sounds blare (Science News). Noise pollution has some subtle, unexpected effects. The abstract of the source article, High levels of environmental noise erode pair preferences in zebra finches: Implications for noise pollution (Animal Behaviour), is available online.

* Summer Reading: The Heat Is On (Science News). A concise summary/review of the book Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate by William Ruddiman. Ruddiman's theory is thought provoking: that humans have been affecting climate for millennia through activities like rice farming, deforestation, and, well, mass human deaths through plagues.

* Dropping the Ball: Air pressure helps objects sink into sand (Science News). About what happens when one drops a ball into sand at various air pressures (e.g., on other planets). I find the results pretty surprising. I can't explain the results concisely. If you want a copy of the Science News article, do as you would with any other Science News article and simply ask me. Or you can read the dense and technical source article, Gas-mediated impact dynamics in fine-grained granular materials (Physical Review Letters).

* More math helps young scientists (Science News). If only the study were causal. The one sentence abstract of the source article, The two high-school pillars supporting college science (Science), is available online.

Belmont Greek Festival 2007

I'd planned to eat fruit and a piroshki for dinner. However, as dinnertime approached, I realized I felt sick thinking about eating more fruit. Yes, it's possible to get sick of eating fruit.

Not wanting to make dinner, I decided to go out. I recalled the Belmont Greek Festival was happening this weekend. I'd gone in previous years (2005, 2006). I could get food there. And, as an added bonus, I saw there was a cooking demonstration on the evening's schedule.

This year was just like it's always been. I wandered around, listened to a mandolin orchestra, and watched a dance performance in which the dancer lifts a stack of tables with his teeth. Sadly, the cooking demonstration was misprinted on the schedule and thus didn't occur. I took my past advice and had a gyro (still pretty good; the most appealing part is the bread) and a Greek salad (good; still, oddly, lacking feta). Despite fond memories, I skipped the desserts in favor of a mooncake at home.

Mountain View Farmers Market

Although there are many festivals on this labor day weekend, I wasn't that excited about any of them. To prevent myself from hanging out and reading in my apartment or the park for the whole weekend, I decided I ought to go to something to get myself out of town. Hence, on Sunday morning, September 2, 2007, after having woken up unusually early (perhaps due to the heat), I found myself on the 8:34am train to the Mountain View farmers market.

I enjoyed it as much as my previous visit. It's a great market. I left my camera at home. Only one time did I miss it. That was at a booth that sold heirloom tomatoes: they had an impressive array of fifteen varieties--I counted--, each distinct in color, shape, texture, pattern, and size.

While at the market, I bought:

  • A melon with white flesh. (I think it's a casaba but it may be a crenshaw.)
  • August glo yellow peaches.
  • Flavor king pluots.
  • Strawberries.
  • Raspberries. (Did you know there are tan raspberries? Funky, though I didn't buy any.)
  • Pumpkin bolani.
  • Two piroshkis: one mushroom and onion, and one broccoli and cheese. I bought them from a different vendor than the last time I bought piroshki at the market. (Those were disappointing.)
  • Two mini mooncakes: one black bean, and one lotus. (For these, I had to venture away from the market to a Chinese bakery I like in downtown Mountain View.) I intended to order something different, but I became flustered when asked what I wanted and that's what came out of my mouth. Since these were fine with me, I didn't bother correcting my mistake.
I also used the market for breakfast. In addition to countless free samples, I had a rich slice of peach coffeecake from Devon's Delectables. Furthermore, from the Chinese bakery, I had some tasty shrimp and pork dumplings ("Yi-Chi-Gau").

SF Shakespeare Festival 2007

I headed quickly back to San Mateo from the Arab Cultural Festival in order to arrive in time for the SF Shakespeare Festival's free performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in San Mateo's Central Park. While in the city, as I walked to my car, I spotted Arizmendi bakery. Despite the name, it's the sister bakery of the Cheeseboard in Berkeley, a bakery I loved stopping by en route to early morning classes. I grabbed some items--no pizza, however--and headed home. Once home, I packed some supplies (blanket, jacket, utensils, etc.) and trotted over to the park, arriving five or ten minutes before the show was to begin. My arrival roughly coincided with the arrival of the friend I was meeting.

The performance was pretty good, though the costumes were, at times, odd. It felt like Shakespeare padded this play to make it long enough; the sub-plot with the actors performing for the duke seemed superfluous. I don't believe I've ever seen this play performed before. I may have read it in high school. Watching it made it more obvious what the slow and mostly irrelevant parts are.

While watching, we ate the Arizendi goodies. The focaccia with tomato and melted cheese was fairly good. The focaccia bread itself, however, wasn't very noticeable in this form. The raspberry scone was very good, in fact better than most scones I've had at the Cheeseboard. (I know scones are supposed to be dry but the Cheeseboard's scones tend to be drier than I like/think is appropriate.) The brioche was okay. I bought it because the Cheeseboard's brioches, when hot, tend to be a delightful combination of lightness, sweetness, and a bit of stickiness. This brioche wasn't hot and had become merely a medium density, slightly sweet bread product.

I'd grabbed a bottle of wine but forgot a corkscrew. Furthermore, I didn't see many other people drinking wine so I didn't put much energy into tracking down/borrowing one. Hence, we left it untouched.

Arab Cultural Festival

[Sorry this is sloppily written. I'm behind schedule.]

On Sunday, August 26, 2007, I drove to an edge of Golden Gate Park for the Arab Cultural Festival. With one food booth, one dessert booth, one stage, and a kids' zone, it was a cozy festival in a small community center. Perhaps its most interesting aspect was the contents of the various tables.

Organizations represented:

  • the Egyptian consulate
  • the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • community groups:
    • a social group
    • a group for legal help
    • a group that organizes a film festival
    • an association of technical professionals
Some groups tried educate the public:
  • learn Arabic
  • learn about Islam and Muslims
  • fight Islamophobia
People also sold items, all appropriately themed:
  • photos
  • shawls and pillows
  • Arabic books
  • candles with farsi on them
  • jewelry
  • tiny magnificent metal models of mosques
  • shoes
  • music
  • shirts: "Got rights?" (in similar font to the "Got milk?" shirts)
  • another shirt and bumper sticker booth. Some of the messages seemed okay to me; others seemed crassly undiplomatic. You be the judge.
    • U.S. out of Iraq
    • Stop Israel's War Crimes
    • Stop U.S. Aid To Israel
    • Hezbollah 2, Israel 0
    • Free Palestine
    • Buck Fush
    • I am democratic. I voted for Hamas.
Other commercial interests were represented:
  • satellite Arabic television stations
  • Qatar airlines
Most of the Arabs at the festival were light-skinned. I'm not sure if I find this surprising.

While at the festival, I took a few photos of the hall and the food and a few movies of performances. The performances were good. I'm sad I missed the comedian. (Because I was eating, I only caught the very end of his act.) The performance hall was nicely decorated with flags of many Arabic nations hanging on the wall. I recognized very few of them.

As for lunch, the hummus was terrific. I can't imagine more perfect hummus (that is, once I pushed aside the oil drizzled on top of it). My chicken skewer ("tauouk") was decently grilled, though it could've done with a squeeze of lemon. The accompanying rice was moist and slightly creamy. The tabbouleh was fine: mostly parsley. The lavash was generally reasonable. I made sandwiches with the lavash; these were no more than the sum of whatever ingredients I decided to include.

Unusual for a festival, there was a coffee stand with an extensive menu. Too bad I don't drink coffee.

The dessert stand had some items I'd never heard of (kinafeh with cheese, hareeseh, halkoom), but, due to prior plans for the late afternoon, I decided not to partake.

Interesting Articles: June and July 2007

* Pulling Back the Curtain (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). A lively, entertaining story about why radio sounds so polished and how much editing radio interviews undergo. (Listen to it; don't read the transcript!) I always knew at some level how interviews were edited but hearing it explicitly made it much more concrete. I'm generally not bothered by these practices, but I do find the different standards for print and for radio disconcerting. For instance, I appreciate the appearance of ellipses in quotes. Yet radio isn't required to disclose where cuts are made. Another segment, Just Email Me, on the same program discussed why many prominent figures are only doing written interviews. By making a record, it gives the sources a recourse if they feel like they've been misquoted. It's a good follow-up to the first story. It's not surprising On The Media received many letters from listeners about these stories.
* Worst...P.R....Ever (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). I'm only linking to this piece, an interview with the man who wrote a major book on public relations, because a minute from the end he clearly distinguishes advertising and public relations. Previously these two concepts were nearly interchangeable in my mind.

* Food That Travels Well (New York Times). A column that argues, with evidence, that buying food locally to save oil/gas by reducing transportation miles often doesn't make sense. Sometimes it's more energy efficient to import rather than grow locally.

Biology, Psychology, and Neurology
* Broadband Vision (Science News). I was taught in high school biological and college psychology of perception that the inverted structure of the eye (with the rods and cones hidden behind other cells) was a fluke of evolution and that we are lucky some light gets through those other cells. I was taught wrong. It turns out the eye has cells that act like optical fibers, routing light past the frontal cells to the sensing ones. It's a much better structure than scientists previously imagined. The abstract of the source article, Müller cells are living optical fibers in the vertebrate retina (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), is freely available online.
* Face Talk: Babies see their way to language insights (Science News). Babies can distinguish which language someone is speaking by watching the speaker. No sound is necessary. It's too bad we lose this visual perceptual ability as we age. The abstract of the source article, Visual language discrimination in infancy (Science), summarizes the study well and is freely available online.
* Visualizing Cancer: Images of tumors can detect gene expression (Science News). I always like it when scientists discover how to use old data in novel ways. In this case, the data is the result of a CT scan. The abstract of the source article, Decoding global gene expression programs in cancer by non-invasive imaging (Nature Biotechnology), is freely available online.
* Named medical trials garner extra attention (Science News). If, as the research claim, they correctly factored in the quality and funding of the medical trials, that means many studies aren't getting the attention they deserve. An excerpt from the source article, Acronym-named randomized trials in medicine—the ART in medicine study (New England Journal of Medicine), is available online. With a little searching, one can find a copy of the whole article.

* Spinning into Control: High-tech reincarnations of an ancient way of storing energy (Science News). Who need fuel cells? Use a flywheel! This alternative needs more attention from the media. You need to e-mail me if you want a copy of the article.
* Carbon Sequestration & Producing Hydrogen (Science Friday). The latter two segments of the program are amazing. The first of this pair describes a new device that'll extract carbon from the atmosphere in an energy efficient manner. Technology for this is much further along than I'd previously thought. Likewise, the second of the pair describes another technological advance: a chemical catalyst that converts water to hydrogen, thus allowing hydrogen fuel cell cars to run without the need for hydrogen filling stations. While it's not a panacea, it's good that there are vaguely plausible ideas like this floating around.
* Tapping out a TAI-CHI tune (Science News). I've seen demonstrations of a system in which a camera is pointed at a surface and that surface can then be used a input device as such a keyboard. This device, however, is new. Rather than using a camera, it uses audio triangulation. The abstract of the talk, Tangible acoustic interfaces for computer-human interaction (Euroscience Open Forum), is available online. The project has a web site.
* Are Computer Keyboards Dishwasher Safe? (NPR's Morning Edition). Wash your keyboard!

Bay Area Barbeque Cook Off

On Saturday, August 18, 2007, after a long day of shopping, I drove to Pleasanton for the Bay Area Barbeque Cook-Off. I arrived at 7:00pm, later than I'd hoped. As soon as I entered the grounds, my nose caught the aromas that told me I made the right decision in coming here.

There wasn't much to the festival besides the eight or so huge barbeque stands. There were about a dozen booths: some selling clothing, others selling jewelry, a few offering services like psychics/palm readers/tarot readers (I wonder why there's a much higher proportion of these here than at most festivals), a booth selling shiny wooden lawn chairs (surprising, as one doesn't often see furniture for sale at these events), and one artist selling paintings. These pictures and one movie capture the sights (but not the scents ;>) of the bbq stands and the feel of the fairground as well.

Held in the nicely green Alameda County Fairgrounds, although there was a musical stage, not many people were sitting in the grass to listen to the band. When I was there, I think it was too windy and a little chilly. Indeed, by the time I got my food, the sun had set and I decided I'd be much happier eating it somewhere without a chill breeze. So, I ate in my car.

My dinner was fairly good stuff. The meats (pork ribs and beef brisket) were not exceptional, though the sauce, dark with chilies, added quite a bit. I enjoyed the sides more: smoky beans (perhaps cooked with bacon fat), and potato salad (with potatoes of a variety of sizes, thus giving it more texture than most potato salads).

San Mateo Country Fair

On Tuesday, August 14, 2007, after spending much of the day at an off-site for work at Menlo College, I headed to the San Mateo County Fair in the evening. I went to watch a performance by a band that a college roommate introduced me to, The Charlie Daniels Band.

It was a typical county fair: a combination of amusement park, carnival (games and such), hokey oddities (pay $1 to see a thousand-pound pig), festival (booths and all), local contests (kids baking cookies and cakes), and food concessions (more places selling hot dogs on a stick than I can count on one hand, plus the usual deep-fried foods and sugary treats such as funnel cakes and cotton candy). There's probably more--I didn't stay too longer before or after the show. I simply wasn't in the mood.

The concert was pretty good, though short (about 75 minutes). But, it was free, so I really can't complain. Because I own the band's best of CD, I recognized a number of the songs they played And even the songs I didn't recognize, I enjoyed. The story-telling aspect of this genre, folk rock, make songs interesting.

Charlie Daniels has been performing since the 50s and has had national fame since the 70s. Yet, many of the current band members (guitarists, keyboardist, drummer) are in their 30s and 40s. These musicians likely grew up listening to Charlie Daniels's music. It must be weird for them to perform with someone they listened to on the radio. They're probably playing songs they used to practice while learning their instruments.

The crowd at the concert was unusual for the bay area: some people wore cowboy hats, and the way the crowd cheered and reacted to Charlie Daniels's comments about Iraq, the troops, and gun control, made it clear the crowd was more conservative than the traditional bay area resident.

I had a pretty respectable gyro at the county fair for dinner: sliced lamb, tomato chunks, a little sliced white onion, tzatziki sauce, and a decent, chewy flat bread. After finishing it at the concert, as I crumpled up the remains, I spilled some sauce on my neighbor's jeans. Embarrassingly, she put her hand in it before I got a chance to point it out and offer her a napkin. She seemed to take it in stride though.