Archive for July, 2012

Stuffy

It’s my last Monday, at least for this job. If you’re read my blog at all you know that sometimes Mondays and I didn’t get along very well. However, we’ve managed to make it through the last seven years here, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty more Mondays at another job or jobs, God willing.

Of course, while today hasn’t been all that bad in principle, it is a typical Monday in that there is a bit of an unexpected, annoying hiccup at work today. Evidently, the air conditioning in our wing went out early Sunday morning. When I walked in the building this morning, I didn’t notice anything amiss until I went into our lab, which was a balmy 33 degrees Celsius (around 91 degrees F) according to our lab temp monitoring equipment. With the doors closed for 24 hours, all that electronics equipment made a nice little oven in there. Somebody had opened the doors, and we began turning off as much unnecessary equipment as possible to keep from heating it up any more. Also, since most of our optics and lasers are quite sensitive to temperature, it goes without saying that nobody will be getting much done in the lab today. That’s a little bit unfortunate, since I need to complete one final measurement before I leave (there’s always one more measurement to get done, right?).

According to the latest email from facilities, they might have things working again late afternoon or evening. If that really is the case, it might be cool enough to do measurements by tomorrow, but we’ll just have to see. These last few data might just fall to my colleagues to finish up on their own, but I’m sure they can do it just fine. Meanwhile, it’s starting to get stuffy in our office as the day warms. At least it’s not going to be a 100-degree day, but even in the dry heat of Colorado, any interior is going inevitably warm up. That means by afternoon I don’t know if even I, who generally likes being warm instead of cold at all, might not be able to stand it. I may have to escape to our lab space in the new building for a few hours.

Well, at least I get to go out with a bang. There’s nothing like a significant building malfunction to leave me with fond memories of working at this old place. Power outages, lab floods, fire alarms, radioactive spills…just another day in an old government research lab.

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A successful finale

Given the mixed results for my first three attempts, for my final July Challenge recipe I decided to try something yummy that I knew would be a hit, assuming the preparation went well. Of course, I did choose a recipe notorious for a very technical preparation. However, while risotto is usually labor intensive and tempermental, requiring constant stirring, I found a recipe for “almost-hands-free” risotto a few weeks ago and decided it would be a delicious way to cap off the month.

It was definitely a success, with both DH and I going back for seconds. It did require a fair amount of prep but came together simply, so the recipe lives up to its claim of being “almost hands free” as far as risotto goes. I have enough arborio rice left for another half batch, so I’ll probably do that in the not-too-distant future. But since it did take some time to cook up, it’s probably not going to be a weekly staple or anything.

I will make a confession–and I might get reamed by a foodie for it–but I substituted more broth for the dry white wine. I assume some would consider that a sacrilege, but quite honestly I just do not have the palate to enjoy wine. Sorry. I just don’t. We’ve had risotto with wine before and it was not a joy for us to eat. Therefore, I had no qualms making my own substitution and did not regret it one bit!

So that’s a wrap on July. I’ll have to come up with a good August challenge, which might be interesting since I will be officially unemployed. Maybe my challenge will be getting a job? :p

Book Review: “Proofiness” by Charles Seife

I used to devour books when I was younger. I literally read all the time–in the car, under the covers, in restaurants (to my parents’ chagrin). However, as I’ve gotten older and found other pursuits (or they have found me), I find it increasingly difficult to stop and physically sit down and hold a book. As the consummate multitasker, having both my body and mind engaged with just one activity seems so inefficient! However, I’m slowly starting to re-appreciate taking the time to be still and engage my brain, especially now that I’m on the other side of my thesis. I’ve been reading a bit more lately and thought it might be fun to share some reviews of books I find particularly interesting.

The first book I wanted to share is called Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife. You might also find the same text under the alternative, slightly less maniacal paperback subtitle Proofiness: How you’re being fooled by the numbers. This was recommended to me by a friend and fellow fan of books about math, so I had DH check it out for me from the library.

The book is about how we generally trust numbers as being fundamentally pure and truthful; however, malevolent people with agendas can purposefully twist–or even just flat make up–numbers in order to manipulate our beliefs to their own ends. This is “proofiness.” This might be done in order to promote a social or political agenda, to scare people, or to make oneself rich. Only if we educate ourselves on how numbers might be misused can we learn to be smart and cautious before swallowing a phony statistic or number given to us.

There are a few basic forms of proofiness. One basic technique is using Potemkin numbers. Grigory Potemkin, a Russian politician in the late 1700s, allegedly built fake towns on the banks of the Dnieper River in Crimea to fool Empress Catharine II into thinking the area was thriving as she toured the area by boat when in fact it was desolate and depressed. Whether this story is true or not, a Potemkin now stands to represent some complete falsehood that is constructed to fool the observer; therefore, a Potemkin number is one that it totally made up to mislead someone. Another approach is presenting numbers in that of presenting not-so appealing numbers in such a way that they become much more palatable. This is called fruit polishing. A couple of examples of this are cherry-picking, where you only pick the one or two numbers that suit you and ignore the more inconvenient and less appealing results, or comparing apples to oranges, where two things not at all alike are compared.

Of the numerous situations in which various forms of proofiness have significant implications, Seife devotes quite a bit of time to the consequences of proofines in polling, elections, and vote counting. He details the fiascos in 2000 presidential election in Florida and the 2008 senate race in Minnesota and explains how proofiness was used to make these much more difficult situations than really needed. While his assessment of “one person, one vote” is somewhat depressing, I still don’t feel dissuaded from my civic duty. 🙂

Also, as a scientist I can definitely relate to the presentation of numbers. My job is to carefully measure something and present it to be as close to the actual truth as can be measured. Seife talks in detail about the numbers that we can trust, actual measurements that are as close true as uncertainty in measurement allows. As a metrologist whose job is to measure things to seventeen digits, I definitely appreciated this section of the book!  However, every scientist understands that when presenting data, whether or not you mean to, it’s almost impossible to present it in the most unbiased, open-handed way possible. Even your best intentions for how to plot something, how to scale axes, what to include and what not to include injects some inherent bias. While my measurements don’t always come out the way I want, I ultimately feel obligated to present the reality of my results. However, I do admit that “fruit polishing” does happen, whether intended or not. Some scientists or researchers may do this with full knowledge and purposefully, but I have to say that at least my personal experience says it is largely not so malevolent as made out in the worst cases in the book. Plus, having faced these issues myself, I am able to spot and identify these forms of proofiness a little more readily.

Both sides of the aisle are guilty of using proofiness for their own devices, and while he chastises both parties, I feel that I can kind of tell which side he feels is the most egregious culprit of the deed. Nevertheless, Seif presents this unappreciated topic in an interesting manner. Much of what he explains is stuff you probably have sensed from time to time but haven’t ever quite articulated before. Once you are informed and paying attention, you’ll be able to spot proofiness everywhere!

My rating: 3.5/5 stars. While it is technically about math, I can recommend this book as an interesting read for a general audience, particularly those who keep up with and are interested in current affairs. 🙂

One week and an update

One week from today…that’s all I have left at my current job. It’s amazing how fast and yet how slow the last couple of months have gone. I finally have gotten most of my measurements done; I plan on going over my results with my colleagues tomorrow, and I really, really hope they don’t have any other major things I need to measure to wrap things up. Though, even if they do I guess it’s okay since everything is up and running at the moment. I want to be done, but I also want it to be complete before I move on.

I’m still waiting to hear back from the two jobs I’ve been interviewing for, though at this point dragging out the process and delaying actually having to make life-changing decisions is just fine with me! I also just submitted another job application today. The job announcement was forwarded to me as a group email yesterday, and I thought about it overnight. When I came to work today, I found that my boss had independently printed it out and put it on my desk for my consideration. I took that as a sign to just go ahead, so I filled out all that stuff today. We’ll see how that goes, especially as those other two opportunities simmer on the back burner until time to deal with them.

I’ve also been working on the July challenge of trying four new recipes this month to spice up my inspiration in the kitchen. Challenge aside, I’ve been more motivated about cooking in general, which is a relief, though I am still struggling to stay as organized as I used to be. I imagine that once next week rolls around and I’m unemployed, I’ll actually have more time to be creative, too.

The challenge so far has been interesting in that, of the three recipes I have tried so far, all three of them I have approached with a significant amount of skepticism. For all of them, I have experienced the exact same sensation when sitting down to eat it–an odd expression comes over my face as I wonder how on earth this is gong to turn out, and I do not look forward to trying it at all. It’s very strange how I have managed to pick recipes that all elicit this sort of response.

If you recall, I recounted my experience with Recipe #1, chicken tikka masala, in the original post. It was okay at first and I wasn’t really sure how I would rate the dish, but I have to say it was one of those dishes that did improve as leftovers; I guess the spices really had time to mingle and incorporate. So it ultimately turned out to be a success and there was no hesitant facial expression when eating it again!

I also said that I intended to try sweet potato and black bean tacos for Recipe #2. Same facial expression, similar response upon first taste. It’s okay…nothing wrong with it, but I was just inherently skeptical about sweet potato and black beans together inside of a tortilla. DH said it was good, and it certainly was fine, but for leftovers I just ate the potatoes and beans alone instead of done up taco style. I can’t say the combination was one I will repeat in the future.

I decided that for Recipe #3 I would take advantage of the abundance of Swiss chard I have in my garden. I’ve heard so many people say they love sauteed greens, so I thought I should give it a try. Now, despite the irony that I have a green smoothie and a salad for breakfast and lunch every single day, I really don’t like greens that much, especially not on their own. But since sauteed chard comes so highly recommended, I decided I needed to give it a try. Same facial expression when I sat down yesterday, and this time I seriously for real didn’t like it. For one, I had used too much garlic and onion to season it and it was overwhelming to me. Moreover, I just didn’t care for the flavor of the greens (what little I could taste through the seasoning!). DH said it was fine, but in the end I was glad I didn’t make more than two servings of it.

I’ve decided that for my final recipe, I need to try something that I’m actually looking forward to trying. This might require being slightly less healthy than these other three dishes. Maybe more carbs and fat and less veggies? 😉 I did see a risotto recipe a few weeks ago that looked so creamy and delectable…

It was a dark and stormy night…

DH and I took a tour of Wind Cave while we were in South Dakota a couple of weeks ago. While on the tour, our guide performed a very standard cave tour ritual–our whole group sat on a row of benches, and she turned all the built-in lighting off. There you sit, hundreds of feet underground in total darkness and silence; no stray beam of natural light could make its way to you there. Our guide then pointed out that the first cave explorers did so by the mere glow of lantern light. She demonstrated with an actual candle in a lantern…it was not very bright at all but gave off an eerie glow across the rock formations on the walls and ceiling of the cave.

Last night I cam home from an exercise class around 9 p.m. It had been raining on and off all afternoon and evening with the occasional burst of lightening around the sky. I pulled into the driveway, mashing on the garage door opener to no avail. I supposed the battery must have died, so I hopped out of my car to try the remote keypad mounted to the side of the garage door. Nada. I wasn’t sure what the deal was, so I just parked in the driveway and went inside.

I quickly figured out what what going on…the electricity was out. The appliances were off and, the light switches did nothing. I scrounged around for some flashlights and dug out a pile of candles to light in the kitchen. After determining it wasn’t just a breaker on our house, I called the power company to report the outage. I assumed it was related to the storms going on, but I wasn’t sure. An automated message said they estimated the power to return just after midnight. There was no real point it waiting up just to see the lights come back on, so I got ready for bed by candlelight, then snuggled on the couch with the dog and a book for a bit of reading before heading to bed.

Having no electricity for the evening reminded me of being in the cave. No light to be had other than some small, flickering tongues of flame, the harsh white light of an LED flashlight, or the glow of my telephone screen. And with all the appliances and electronics off, it was eerily quiet. It’s amazing how accustomed we are to the electric hum that’s constantly around us 24/7.

Unfortunately, this also meant the dog could now hear every molecule banging together in the air, and he felt the need to bark at every little whisper of something he heard. I’m sure this was exacerbated by the fact that he knew DH was gone and that it was just a little eerie with the lights off. Well, at least he’s, presumably, a good guard dog, right?

It was dark and quiet when I went to bed, but it was bright and humming when I woke up this morning. I’m thankful that if the electricity had to go off, it at least picked a cool summer night when nothing really was going on instead of a cold day when I was dependent on heat (we don’t have a fireplace, gas or wood, in the house) or an evening when we had a lot of people over. Either way, it’s kind of nice to know you can get by unplugged if needed, at least for a little while. I felt slightly helpless for a few moments, then I realized I could manage just fine. The biggest inconvenience was not being able to see, though I mostly remedied that by candlelight. Long term, though, we depend on it for keeping and cooking food, for washing clothes, heating water, and other basic tasks required for modern convenience. A lot more planning and preparedness would be required to do without electricity for a longer period of time. I mean, people did this for millenia and managed just fine; you just have to get used to it.

Either way, an evening of books by candlelight wasn’t so bad, actually.

 

I am proud to report

I am proud to report a quite successful week regarding the accomplishment of last Monday’s goal. I had been letting my exercise routine slack a bit lately, so I resolved to get back into it last week (and continue to keep it up, of course). So last Monday I did a solid three-mile run, and I went back to my usual fitness classes at the rec center last week. I’ve also been doing a little core work at home, and DH and I went on a bike ride on Saturday. I’ve already got a plan for this week, too, and I feel good about getting ramped up again. I do admit that I don’t always feel motivated to do something, but usually I can manage something at least. I certainly feel like I have to answer to you, dear readers, if I slack off on a goal I told you I’d do. 🙂

This week, DH is out of town for work, so it’s just the dog and me. Part of this week’s goal is just to keep up with the fitness routine. I think the other one will be trying to do some memorization that I keep putting off. DH teaches our Sunday School class, and he challenged our class to memorize a handful of short verses a few weeks ago. I keep thinking about it but haven’t done it yet, so this seems like a perfect thing to tackle in a week. Like just about everything, if I am not intentional about doing it, it’ll never get done!

For the record, while I was a bit tired from staying up too late with a book last night, this Monday was vastly, vastly better than the “three” that I had already had in July. Maybe I’ve had enough Monday to last me through the rest of the month…and, likewise, the last of my days at my job. And by the way, t’s halfway through July now…can you believe it?

Head for the hills!

DH and I took advantage of a free weekend to do something we’ve been meaning to do for a while–take a trip up to the Black Hills area of South Dakota. This isn’t one of our 101-in-1001 travel items, but it should have been (we might have to substitute it for another one, though). Since I haven’t been anywhere since Christmas (and then we just went home to visit) and it might be a little while yet till our proper celebratory vacation, it was much needed and surprisingly effective, even if it was just a two day trip.

The trip to the scenic location unfortunately required a six hour drive across the absolute bleakness of eastern Wyoming. However, DH and I kept ourselves entertained by listening to the Grand Ole Opry live and some old Hank Williams, Sr. recordings–huzzah for satellite radio. Finally we made it to our hotel and began exploring the area the next morning.

The Black Hills region, located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, is characterized by dramatic granite hills and spires, rugged and inhospitable buttes, and rolling plains.

These granite hills are home to one of the most iconic monuments in America, Mount Rushmore.

DH and I visited Mt. Rushmore in the evening. We were tired and hungry after a long day and really debated whether to stay for the nightly lighting ceremony. While standing right there, we decided to look up and watch a video of the lighting ceremony on YouTube. So we got to see it while not actually having to stay to see the real thing.

Okay, okay. I’m kidding. Well, about the leaving part that is; I’m quite serious about watching the video. 😉 We poked around the gift shop long until it time for the show, so we stayed. It was quite patriotic and dramatic, and while it was late when it ended, we were glad we stayed. And at the end of the ceremony all the veterans were invited to the front to state their name and service, and a few helped take down the flag for the evening. It was quite a meaningful experience.

Earlier that day, we did some scenic driving in the hills. We walked through historic Deadwood, the iconic wild west town, and drove through Sturgis, motorcycle mecca. I personally didn’t find it very exciting, but that’s just me. We also drove east towards the Badlands, first stopping at Wall Drug in the city of Wall. This is quite possibly the most awesome tourist trap ever. Featuring five cent cups of coffee, free ice water, a tyrannosaurus rex, and home-made donuts, it’s just about as close to Disneyland as you can come in the middle of nowhere. And of course, any day you get to sit on a large jackelope is a good day.

Moving on from the drug store took us to the Badlands themselves. This is an interesting geologic feature, a cross between the Grand Canyon and desert buttes. It really is quite desolate.

The next morning we spent driving around Custer State Park, which features both the granite hills and the rolling plains. The plains are home to lots of interesting animals like deer and pronghorns. We even saw a turkey and a roadrunner while there, two birds you don’t just come across every day. However, there are two more notable creatures in the park. First is a very large herd of bison, which we were excited to see during our drive.

The other interesting herd is a pack of burros, the descents of a herd used by pioneers. Evidently, they are also called the “begging burros,” for very obvious reasons. Say cheese, guys.

Our last stop on our way out of town was Wind Cave, a national park just south of Custer State Park. This is one of the longest caves in the world, with 138 miles currently explored but over 2,000 miles suspected to be lurking under just a few square miles above. DH and I took a cave tour (a mere two miles) before heading back home.

All in all, it was a great trip, short but full of interesting sights. We might have enjoyed another day to spread out our excursions, but we did everything we wanted to do and didn’t feel horribly pressed for time. We also picked a great weekend to go; it had been very hot, but it was cloudy and cool all weekend. I think it rained at home the entire time we were gone, too, so I’m glad we got rain but didn’t have to wade out in in.

It might be a little out of the way, but if you’re ever in the area or can make the trip, I highly recommend it!