Sunday, January 31, 2010


They canceled school for the next day on Thursday night, but the snow didn't start to fall until Friday afternoon. I left work a little early to get home before the crazy drivers made the roads more dangerous. I took a different route than before (so as to avoid the aforementioned crazy drivers) and made it home just fine -- the roads were wet but not icy.

It snowed through the evening and all night, and we woke up to about 2 or 3 inches of the white stuff on the ground. We made a snowman -- this one was taller than Vinny, unlike the tiny one we made in December -- and shoveled the walks and the driveway.

Today the snow is melting, but it will do doubt freeze overnight and make for an interesting morning. I've looked at the local TV station website to find out if the public schools are canceled for tomorrow -- the preschool follows the public school schedule -- but so far they are still open.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Musical Interlude

In November, in an effort to ruin my life, my sister Rachel disagreed with me about Bob Dylan (whose composition efforts I enjoy, but whose performance efforts I abhor). This of course occurred right when I was leaving for a big conference and was too busy to reply. But in the meantime, I've thought a lot about it and decided to formulate a better explanation of what I dislike and why.

Music serves different purposes for different people, but to me, music is kind of an aural riddle, constrained by certain rules, that challenges my mind and influences my emotions. When it's something I like, I listen, my brain is stimulated, and I enjoy it. For example, if I'm in a good mood and I listen to a "sad" song, I enjoy the wave of sadness that contrasts with my baseline emotional level. If I'm in a bad mood, I get pleasure out of commiserating with a collection of sounds that are feeling the same way I am.

When I say rules, I'm thinking of the rules of music theory and musical traditions and conventions. This is of course quite fluid over the course of history, and probably one of the reasons I loathe Baroque music quite as much as I do is that it's too constrained by theory rules. I enjoy Medieval and Renaissance music, however, because while it is constrained by the rules of its day, those rules are so different from modern music theory that it is interesting.

A clever composer/artist/whatever can get away with bending or even breaking certain rules, and I like it. But, there are certain things that to me are non-starters. Bad intonation is one of those things. It distracts from the riddle. All I can think about is how off it sounds. And this is what I dislike so much about Bob Dylan.

There is music from other cultures that contains notes that one could not play on a piano -- quarter tones, which fall between adjacent keys on the keyboard. In the context of that cultural musical tradition, these "off-key" notes do not bother me in the least -- it's part of the setting of the riddle. But when we have a Western artist who is clearly playing by Western rules and then singing notes that do not exist in the context of Western music theory,* this is a dealbreaker for me. I don't perceive it as Bob Dylan bending or breaking the rules of Western music theory -- if he were, I would expect to hear the accompanying instruments also coming out with quarter tones. No, Bob Dylan is just being sloppy, and I don't like it.

* There are cases when quarter tones are used in Western music for emotional effect, such as in Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack for Alien. He's using these "alien" notes to create a disturbing musical background for a disturbing movie foreground. This rule-breaking works in this context. Again, I don't think Dylan is deliberately using quarter tones to create a disconcerting aural environment -- that goes against the context of the words and the rest of the melody that he's singing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Our Preschooler

Vinny had a great time at preschool on Monday. They're kind of trying to gradually get him used to school, so he's just going on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week before plunging in to 5 days next week.

He was very enthusiastic on his first day, the teachers said, and he made a couple of friends. He also received an invitation to a birthday party this Saturday. I guess we might go to that -- I don't know. It seems a little weird since we have no idea who the birthday girl is, and probably Vinny doesn't yet either.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Food for Thought

There's a lot to think about when it comes to food. Here are some of the things on my mind:
  • My table is the centerpiece of my hospitality. When people are coming over, I spend the most time thinking about what I'm going to feed my guests, rather than what activities we're going to do.
  • I loved making homemade baby food and feeding it to Vinny. There was something very satisfying about watching him experience these foods for the first time. It was almost therapeutic enough to make up for my inability to breastfeed him.
  • It's important to be aware of what goes in your mouth. Jeff and I have been using the program Diet Power to track what goes in our mouths for several weeks now. I've lost about 4 pounds since the beginning of the year.
  • It is a privilege to need to track what goes in my mouth. We have such an excess of food here in this household and in most households in this country. There are far too many people who don't have enough.
  • Having more than a meager graduate student income has enabled us to quit buying the cheapest food and buy better quality food instead. For example, we get all our meat from a company that doesn't use growth hormones in their animals, resulting in a better tasting and healthier meat. It is wonderful to have room for that sort of expenditure in our food budget.
  • I think I'd like to join a CSA this year. I've said that every year, and forgotten about it until it's too late every year. My state has a pretty informative agriculture website where I've seen a list of CSA farms and I need to look at that again sooner rather than later.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Time for Dinner

Yesterday we had a glorious dinner: homemade chicken soup with bread bowls (okay, really large rolls that were attempting to be bread bowls). It made for a really good meal, but it took a lot of time getting there:
  • Jeff used the rotisserie attachment to the grill (a Father's Day present) to cook a whole chicken on Saturday, which we had for dinner that night, along with some mixed-grain rice and some veggies. I then took the leftover chicken carcass and boiled it in some water with bay leaves, rosemary, and thyme, for 3-4 hours last night.
  • I started the bread bowls on Saturday evening as well. I used one cup of my sourdough starter that I've been cultivating since the beginning of the month, two cups of water, one tablespoon of salt, and nearly five cups of bread flour to create the dough. I mixed it and kneaded it in my super-duper stand mixer (since sadly, my arm prevents me from doing this by hand), before turning it out into a greased bowl covered by a plate, to rise all night. I also fed the starter again (1 c milk, 1 c flour, 1/2 c sugar), and let it eat for a while at room temperature before putting it back in the fridge.
  • Then, on Sunday morning, I kneaded the dough and shaped it into four rolls, and let them rise for 6 hours (my sourdough starter is kinda wimpy, and there's no sugar in the dough, so this takes a while).
  • I removed the bones from the soup early Sunday afternoon, and let the soup boil for a while before adding other ingredients (mixed vegetables, noodles, etc.). Normally I make matzo balls for my soup, but since this soup was supposed to go into bread bowls I did not.
  • I actually decided to go wild and crazy and make homemade whole-wheat noodles for the soup, something I adored when my mom made them when I was a kid. I enlisted the help of my favorite cooking assistant when I made the dough -- he got a huge kick out of making a mound of flour, and a well in it to crack the eggs into. He called it a volcano, which was especially appropriate when I overfilled the well and egg started pouring down the sides. I did hand-knead the pasta dough, which just about wore me out. The rolling of the dough one hour later was pretty exhausting too. But the noodles turned out well.
  • After the rolls were done rising (or I gave up on them, depending on how you think about it), I put them in a 450 F oven along with a cup of ice cubes that I poured into a cast-iron skillet in the oven. The Joy of Cooking says you should have them in for 25 minutes; however, The Joy of Cooking does not know my oven, so I instead watched them like a hawk and took them out after less than 15. They were hot and crusty but not very bowl-like, unfortunately.
  • But still, hot soup and hot rolls made for a delicious combination. It took me only... 24 hours from start to finish to make this meal (not counting the rotisserie time)!
Zuska's post about the soup she made was the inspiration for this post. She made some fascinating points about food -- how costly, in terms of time, eating well really is; how many people, even in this country, do not have access to good, healthy food; how Michael Pollan's advice ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.") works well for those of us who have access to good food and time to prepare it, but not the folks who don't.

It's an interesting topic and I could say a whole lot more, but I'll leave it for another post.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Growing Up

My little boy is all grown up. He's starting pre-school tomorrow. I can hardly believe it!

It's a Montessori school that goes through Kindergarten. It's a morning program for the non-Kindergartners. The only problem is that it starts at about the same time he usually wakes up in the morning. So we're going to bed a little earlier than usual tonight.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Turning Over a New Leaf

Last weekend, we went to Nashville to see the sights and to see the Nissan Leaf:
It's an electric car with a range of 100 miles on one charge. One hundred miles may not sound like much, but your average commuter drives less than fifty miles a day. So, it would be a really good commuter car, but not particularly useful for long trips.

Here are some pictures of the car from different angles:

As you can see, it's a regular sized car -- it can hold up to five people. The trunk is pretty large.
This place in the front of the car is where you plug it in to recharge it. The recharge from completely empty to full takes 8-12 hours at 110 V (regular outlet) or 4-6 on a 220 V outlet (the kind your range or other large appliances are hooked up to).

You can get this 220 V recharger for extra, plus you have to get an electrician to put in a 220 V line out to your garage:
Here's what the charger looks like:

I'm on Nissan's mailing list for the Leaf. In the spring, they'll send me a message letting me know when I can sign up on the waiting list (and put down a deposit). I'm very interested in buying one of these cars, because it will eliminate all the carbon emissions from my commute to work. Of course, that will mean we'll have to continue making car payments when we could just be done paying for a car (the Beetle will be paid off next year). But I think it will be worth it to encourage the production of cars like these that eliminate our dependence on foreign oil and reduce carbon emissions. Oh and it's also going to be built right here in Tennessee -- another reason to buy one!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nightmares, Three-Year-Old Style

The other night, Vinny woke up screaming and in a panic, because Mama had left for work without telling him, while he was taking a bath. I don't know if that meant that I'd been giving him the bath and just left without taking him out of the tub, or if he just didn't realize I was gone. Either way, he was so panicked about me leaving that he was determined to stay up for the rest of the night. I convinced him to just snuggle in bed with me and he soon fell back to sleep.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Best Second-Rate Mathematician in the World

It has long been my goal to be the best second-rate mathematician in the world. Partially this is a joke; more importantly, it is an attainable goal.

You see, I know I am a smart person -- they don't just give away doctorates in computer science from one of the best Computer Science departments in the world. But, I am very much aware that I am not the smartest person in the world, and I am okay with that fact. I know that if I fell off the face of the earth, as much as my family, friends, and vast blogging audience would miss me, the world of science would keep on keeping on. I'm but a small cog in a very big system, and very much replaceable.

But, this really does not bother me. After all, if everyone were waiting on my brilliant insights to save the world, that would be an awful lot of pressure. Thank goodness I can live in obscurity and enjoy the precious time I have in life.

I do want to use my superior second-rate skills to make a difference in this world, however, and I do feel that I am able to do that in my job. I help application scientists to gain insight into the universe and the laws of physics -- thanks to my efforts, nuclear physicists will soon be able to use their codes to gain insights into even larger nuclei, and large logistics problems that were considered impossible are now in the realm of possibility.

I don't care whether students hundreds of years from now will ever know my name. All I want is for my anonymous efforts to have contributed to a better world for them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Too Busy and Very Late

Sorry for the dearth of posts. I've been extremely busy at work lately, and also at home.

At work, as of the beginning of last month I am no longer in charge of all the software on our machines. Instead, I was put in charge of a very high visibility, high-pressure project that reports to some Really Important People in the Gubmint. In some sense, this is a promotion, because I have a lot more responsibilities and I get to rub elbows with these Really Important People. On the other hand, my job title and pay grade have remained the same, so it's just piling more work onto the same old person.

At home, I've been trying to spend more time with my family, and also I've been baking a lot of bread lately. We've gone through a really cold spell over the past couple of weeks, so hot homemade bread has really been nice. I made a "sourdough starter" (which really wasn't sourdough, just a nice little colony of yeast I've been feeding once a week). I've been using it about once a week to make some round loaves of bread, which turn out really crusty and delicious, about 12 hours after I start making the bread. I've been using the mixer for the mixing and kneading but otherwise it's been made by hand, which is time consuming compared to using a bread machine. But it's been worth it.

I missed binary day (1/11/10 -- although there will be more binary days this year and next) and Elvis' birthday because I have been so busy. But one thing I will not be missing is the tour of the Nissan Leaf, Nissan's new electric car that's scheduled to be released at the end of this year. I RSVP'd to see it when it comes to a nearby city on Monday. So, my vast fan base, stay tuned for pictures (assuming they let me take them) and my impressions of the car!

Friday, January 08, 2010


So, we had some snow here yesterday afternoon. It's maybe 1/4 inch, tops, which wouldn't be that big of a deal to this former Illinoisian, except for two things: 1, the crazy Tennessee drivers, and 2, the ice. My normal 25-minute commute turned into a 90-minute commute last night. It took me 45 minutes just to get out of the gate at my workplace. I don't believe I've ever driven for so long in first gear. I had to take an alternate route as well, because when I saw the long line of cars backed up on the big hill where I turn left, I decided it would be prudent to keep going straight and take the long, roundabout way. Once I did that, I started to be able to drive faster than 5 mph -- up to 30 or 35 on the main road, which was wet but not icy. The most hair-raising part of my drive was actually driving down my driveway -- it is kind of steep and points down, so if it had been slippery I could have damaged my house in addition to my car. Luckily it was just fine.

My workplace is on a two-hour delay this morning, so I am not late (yet). I figured it would be smart to wait until the sun may have melted the stuff on my driveway before trying to back the car out.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Another Question for My Vast Readership

Lately, I've been getting a lot of calls, text messages, etc. for a fellow by the name of TJ on my cell phone. Now, I have had this number for nearly four years, so the problem must be that TJ couldn't remember his own digits properly.

When I answer a call for TJ, I always let the person know that they have the wrong number. But what should I do about the messages I get for him? Just ignore them, or call/text the person back to let them know they have the wrong number?

Another thing is, TJ must have a number pretty similar to mine, and it would be nice to know what his number is so I can direct the next caller to the correct number. I wish I knew what his number was. Would it be rude to ask the person calling the wrong number to tell TJ to get in touch with me?

TJ appears to be a teenager and the calls and messages have been basically inconsequential. But one time we got a pretty urgent message on our phone, and called the person back to let them know they'd called the wrong number. Instead of gratitude, Jeff got an earful impugning his parents' matrimonial state at the time of his birth, and more. So, what's a person to do?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year!

I hope my vast readership had a great New Year's Eve and is enjoying the new year. We rang in the new year with some dear friends.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to be more generous with donating money. I make more than enough for my family to live comfortably, and it is only right that I share my good fortune with those less fortunate than we are.

Many people criticize atheists for not giving money to charity, and it is in fact true that on average, individual religious people give more money to charity than individual atheists do. I think this is at least in part because religious people have a built-in method of giving: that collection plate gets passed around every Sunday. But also, it is hard for atheists to find charities that they agree with ethically and morally.

For example, I'm completely in favor of alleviating poverty in the developing world, but many charitable organizations also proselytize, and I am morally opposed to that. I'm also in favor of reducing homelessness in this country, but the Salvation Army actively discriminates against gays, so I cannot support their organization. It would be nice to be able to contribute to a charity that I can trust to spend my money wisely.

Fortunately, my wishes have come true, and there is now the Foundation Beyond Belief. It features ten charitable organizations per quarter, to which members can assign percentages of their monthly donations. These featured beneficiaries can be founded on any worldview as long as they don't proselytize, and members can nominate potential beneficiaries to the foundation. There's also an educational arm of the foundation, which provides resources for atheist and humanist parents to educate their children about many things, including ethics and religious literacy.

The Foundation Beyond Belief was the brainchild of Dale McGowan, who is the touchiest-feeliest atheist I know of (and Dale, if you're reading this, that is a compliment!). I've never met him, but from reading his books (Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers) and his blog The Meming of Life, he seems like an absolutely wonderful person with a strong moral and ethical backbone and a desire to do good in this world. Those are traits (I like to think that) I share with him, so this Foundation really is a dream come true for me too -- a simple way for me to be sure that my donation dollars are really going to what I want them to go for.

I plan to support the foundation this year, and I encourage anyone else looking for a good home for their charitable donation dollars to do so as well!