Friday, January 29, 2010

caduceus watch

Here we have a correct caduceus, with a slightly incorrect tie to hospitals in the article:


Saturday, January 23, 2010

mille feuilles

I've been wanting to make this cake since we got one from a Russian bakery near Coolidge Corner last year for Bill's birthday. They sell them by the pound. I was interested in what went into a cake like this. I suspected that there was a reason people generally buy them instead of making them, and I was right. This cake took probably five hours to make, and a whole lot of arm strength.

It turns out that the pastry layers are really just puff pastry, which you could just buy, or make with one of the shortcut methods that use sour cream. I'm sure the cake would be quite tasty no matter what, but I don't like doing things by halves. I wanted a challenge, so I made my own puff pastry.

It turns out that making puff pastry is basically the same as making croissants, except that croissants are made with a yeast dough. Puff pastry is really just flour and water and salt (and maybe a little sugar), with lots and lots of butter. By weight, it works out to just about equal parts flour and butter. That's a lot of butter:

As I mentioned, making puff pastry is essentially the same as making croissants, except that the dough is a bit different. In order to get the "thousand leaves" of the cake's name, we have to create many, many very fine layers of butter and dough, just like we would for croissants. This requires a big, rolled-out chunk of dough . . .

. . . and a ton of butter, which you really have to smash down with a rolling pin. I reflected, while loudly smashing a pound and a half of butter with a big piece of wood, what my downstairs neighbor must think was going on up here.

This forms our butter square:

In order to create the butter layer, the dough has to go through what pastry chefs call "turns". For the puff pastry, the dough got six turns. One of the reasons this takes so long to make is because the dough needs to go back into the fridge after each set of two turns and rest until it's chilled enough that the butter hardens again. This is because we want discrete layers of dough and butter - when the dough goes in the oven, the steam from the butter in each layer is what creates the "puff". The gluten from the flour should be just enough to hold each layer together as it puffs up, creating that wonderful flaky texture.

So the first step is to roll out the butter square so that there is (hopefully) an even layer of butter inside the dough. You can kind of see the outline of the butter inside the rolled-out dough, which probably means I didn't do the best job:

Then the dough gets its first turn, which is a fold lengthwise, into thirds:

And then its second turn, folding into thirds again, so that the dough makes a little, tall square:

This seems like a good moment to mention that I did not use pastry flour for this, and although the finished product came out fine, this was not the best choice. All-purpose flour makes a really glutinous, elastic dough, and you can see from the photo above that the folds in this pastry are not as clean as they should be. It also makes the dough difficult to work with; at one point I was afraid the process wouldn't work at all. The dough should be somewhat elastic, but not so elastic that you have difficulty getting it to hold its shape.

At any rate, the square went back into the fridge, and this whole process was repeated twice more - roll it out, give it two turns, stick it back in the fridge. I also ought to mention a couple of other things before we get to actually baking the dough:
  • You need short fingernails to make this recipe. You don't want to puncture the dough while you're rolling it out or folding it over.
  • You need a large, flat surface (larger than your average countertop - I used my table), and a LOT of flour. You can't have the dough stick to the surface, because the layers will tear.
  • Apparently something that bakers do is to put fingerprints into the square indicating the number of turns the dough has had. I didn't do this, because I was not making industrial quantities of puff pastry and it was reasonably easy (even for me) to keep track of two, four, and six turns. If you do decide to do this, though, remember the same thing I just said twice - it's really easy to puncture the dough, so be careful.
A little puncture isn't the end of the world, of course, so don't freak out. I did it a couple of times (even though, fortuitously, I had just cut my fingernails due to issues with prying something out of a computer case). We're just trying to minimize damage, here.

Now, I really should have taken a picture of this part, but I didn't. After the dough's final turn (and a brief fridge nap), I rolled it out into a medium-sized square and cut it into eight equal pieces. I don't know if there's a better method for this, but for me, the easiest way to create even pieces of something is to use branching - cut in halves, then half the halves, etc. This helps me, because I'm not great at making things even.

So I wound up with eight squares, which I took out of the fridge one at a time and rolled out until they were extremely thin (and I mean EXTREMELY thin - thin enough that you would think there couldn't possibly even be layers left), and then baked them, one at a time, in a 400 degree oven. I'm not sure how long they each took; I just watched them very carefully until they were done. I think they're supposed to take 10-12 minutes apiece.

This resulted in a lovely stack of baked puff pastry sheets:

I failed to take a picture of the pastry cream, which I made while the pastry sheets were baking. But you all know what pastry cream looks like. Hot cream & milk get whisked into egg yolks and sugar and corn starch (10 egg yolks - I'll be eating egg white omelets for a week), then the whole thing cooks for a minute, then we add a bunch of butter and some vanilla and leave it in the fridge to set. The first time I made pastry cream, I screwed it up pretty badly, and it wouldn't thicken. I've since gotten much better at it.

Once all the puff pastry was done and the pastry cream had set, it was time to assemble the cake. This is just alternating layers of baked puff pastry and pastry cream:

Then the cake went into the fridge over night to soak up the delicious custard. In the morning, I took it out and cut off the edges to make everything even. Here's the finished product:

We haven't tried it yet, although we did eat the edges, which were delicious - buttery, custardy, and amazing. Happy Birthday, Bill!


Monday, September 14, 2009

the incorrect caduceus

I recently learned from Steve that the caduceus, which I thought of as the symbol of medicine, is in fact completely misused. The real symbol of medicine, the rod of Asclepius (or the asklepian, as it's apparently called), doesn't really register with most of us as being a separate thing, or if it does, it looks like a caduceus that's a little weird.

The caduceus is not a symbol of medicine, but rather the herald of the god Hermes, meaning that it stands for Hermes/Mercury-related things. Things like commerce, thievery, death, and deception. Which, as I've been reading, leads people to wonder whether it's really that inappropriate.

Here's a little cheat sheet. This one is the caduceus. Note the wings and the two snakes.

This one is the asklepian. Well, actually it's the EMS Star of Life, which prominently features the asklepian. Notice the single snake and total lack of wings. I also think the EMS Star of Life symbol is interesting, because we all know exactly what it stands for, but I never thought about whether it had a name.

The rod of Asclepius was the staff borne by the mythical physician/god Asclepius. Due to a long, boring story, Asclepius adopted the staff with a single snake wrapped around it as his symbol.

The caduceus, on the other hand, was a symbol of Hermes, but it was apparently also used as a printer's mark by John Churchill, a guy who published a whole lot of scientific and medical texts quite a long time ago. It's thought that this is where the confusion arose, although the printer himself clearly wasn't confused, since the asklepian appears many times as an illustration in his medical texts. It also didn't help that the U.S. Army Medical Corps erroneously adopted the caduceus around the turn of the century.

The result is a lot of incorrectly (and some might say wildly inappropriately) used caduceus symbols. Someone looked into this, and it turns out that professional associations tend to correctly use the asklepian, while private medical-related companies tend to use the caduceus.

If your library has a subscription, you can take a look at the article I read: The Symbol of Modern Medicine: Why One Snake is More Than Two, which was written by Robert A. Wilcox and Emma M. Whitman, and appears in the April 2003 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine (vol. 138, issue 8, p. 673). Also, there's apparently a whole book about this gripping controversy called The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus symbol in medicine, by Walter J. Friedlander.

Now, like me, you'll notice the caduceus being misused everywhere - I have successfully spread the curse. Here are a couple of correct and incorrect examples. Enjoy:

Correct asklepian:
American Medical Association

Incorrect caduceus:
Snakes on a Cane (there's a video around here somewhere where they toss in a few asklepians, too, apparently to hedge their bets)
Google search for "medical symbol"


Sunday, August 23, 2009


So I finally got Joseph's computer fixed. Here is a rundown of the process. You'll notice that this could have been streamlined by omitting the parts where I made large mistakes or where I failed to pay attention to something and had to do it over.

The goal was to consolidate two computers into one. The first was a pre-fab Dell with a copy of XP installed. The second was a lovely DIY machine with Ubuntu installed.

Before these computers were actually in my possession, Joe originally thought that he just wanted the extra DVD drive from the Ubuntu machine put into the Windows machine, which only had a CD drive. Bill did this at Joe's house. The case had nice clips for everything, but there didn't seem to be any extras, so we duct taped the DVD drive into the case, where it was a little unstable, but workable.

Later Joe decided that he wanted the Windows machine to be a dual-boot with Ubuntu, and he wanted his files from the Ubuntu machine moved over to the new install. He also wanted the nicer video card from the Ubuntu machine moved into the Windows box, which had a nicer processor. So he brought both computers to the house, where I proceeded to spend many hours making life difficult for myself.

I opened up both machines and swapped out the video card. Bill also took a look with me to see if there was anything else interesting that we should move over, and we ended up moving the sound card as well. So I set up the Ubuntu machine, booted it, and immediately realized that it is a bad idea to pull hardware out of a computer without checking configuration files first, because X Server was not happy, and I couldn't get a GUI.

So I took the Windows computer, repartitioned the drive, and installed Ubuntu, then began the painstaking process of moving files over the network to the new installation using scp. It was at this point that I realized two things which, again, I should have noticed before this whole process started: (1) there were proprietary games on the Ubuntu system that couldn't be easily moved (although to be fair, why would I expect that this would be the case?), and (2) the hard drive on the Windows machine was less than half the size of the Ubuntu machine's drive, and because I dual-booted it, it was now a quarter of the size, so I was basically going from 80 GB to around 15 GB. The main user's home directory alone had 20 GB of stuff in it.

It was time to come up with another plan, which I reluctantly did - the easiest solution seemed to be to put both hard drives in the new machine and set up the machine to boot from either Windows on one drive or Ubuntu on the other. This meant fixing the broken windowing system on the Ubuntu machine, which I had very little interest in doing.

So I opened up the case on the Windows machine again, and when I went to add the second hard drive, I realized that there were a bunch of extra clips for drives in there. One would think that after opening the case a bunch of times, with both Bill and I looking at it, we would have noticed the clips, but no. Maybe we just subconsciouly love duct tape; I'm not sure. So I took out the DVD drive and put some clips on that, and added the Ubuntu drive to the machine.

Now I was dealing with one machine with two drives: one Ubuntu install with a broken GUI, and one Windows install that couldn't yet be booted because its disk was installed as primary slave. So I booted into Ubuntu, sshed in from my computer, pulled up a vi cheat sheet, and got to work.

Of course this drive was going into a box that now had its original video card, which would have solved all my display problems very neatly had I not already tried to reconfigure the display settings. I took a few minutes to kick myself over this, just to make sure I got the message. Pretty much nothing I did made the GUI work until I finally found a backup of xorg.conf. Between the backup and some scrutiny of the error messages I was getting, I finally managed to get a working GUI. I was very proud of myself. Once I had this working, it was much easier to iron out the kinks, get the colors to look nice, etc. Then I had to move on to making sure that the Windows disk could boot.

This was really just a simple addition to the menu.lst file, but of course, I made life difficult for myself. I looked to see which partition on the Windows disk was the bootable one, added an entry, rebooted, and promptly got an error when trying to boot into Windows. I kept thinking that I must have had the wrong partition and kept changing it and trying again, but nothing worked. As I was looking up what to do, I noticed a note someone had made on a tutorial reminding people to check that the primary slave was enabled in the BIOS.

Of course it wasn't.

This was followed by more fevered and unsuccessful attempts to boot into Windows before I realized that I had not changed menu.lst back from the last random partition I had tried to boot from.

Thankfully, that was it - Joseph now has a nice dual-boot XP/Ubuntu machine with Ubuntu on an 80 GB disk and XP on a 30 GB disk (I deleted the new Ubuntu install from that disk). With GUIs and everything. And I got a little more experience tinkering with hardware, using vi, and configuring grub.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

developer day

Yesterday I spent the day at Developer Day, which took place at the Microsoft NERD Center. This was an extremely intimidating experience for me, since I'm not really a developer, and I only went because I figured I could learn something. And it was cheap, for a conference.

I did learn many things, but the intimidation factor never really lessened, even when I ran into my cousin, who possibly (and probably rightly) thinks I'm a madwoman for attempting to cobble together a career in IT from an undergraduate history degree, a library science degree, and a lot of tinkering. I was very glad to see him, because I definitely didn't know anyone there, and he was kind enough to invite me to sit with him and his son, so I had some company for the rest of the day.

The first two presentations went well over my head. The first was really about a level of OOP practice that I am not yet familiar with, although I sort of got the idea (I think). The second was also kind of over my head, but I think that this was mostly because I know so little of the world of Ruby on Rails (everyone there seemed to be some flavor of Rails developer). I was also hampered by not having worked as a programmer and thus not knowing about the merits of various revision control systems, what one would use for software testing, or any of the stuff that you wouldn't really see as much in school as you would at work.

The next talk, though, was the highlight of the day for me. Ben Scofield, who I thought was an awesome speaker, talked about alternative database models. This was fascinating to me not just because I'm a little bit of a database geek, but also from the LIS perspective. It fascinated me so much that I would consider reading a lot more about it and giving a talk to some LIS folks about this, because I think it's something the industry as a whole should strongly consider, and I have not heard a word of discussion about anything like this.

The talk was basically about recalcitrant data that doesn't work with relational databases. Having encountered this problem myself, and knowing a bit about information organization, I was riveted. The two examples he gave were biological taxonomy and comics. The comics particularly grabbed me, because it made me wonder how the LIS world could ever hope to deal with a collection like this without using some of the database methods he described.

I had not really thought much about non-relational database models before, and I had definitely never thought about mixing different types of databases to get a model that works. Graph databases and document databases were totally new to me. The idea of mixing a traditional relational database with a document database is pretty much brilliant. And any applications aside, graph databases are just sersiously cool. Also, I have to say that the choices of examples were totally awesome (biological taxonomy and comic books? come on!). And he gets extra points for mentioning the Great Vowel Shift in his blog.

Next was a presentation that was more about good development/business practices, which I was less interested in, and then lunch, which I was very interested in. It was pizza. I had one slice of olive and artichoke and one slice which seemed to be barbeque chicken.

Next we had a switcharoo in the order of presentations due to some technical difficulties, so Marc Amos gave his presenation on CSS 2.1 & CSS 3. I felt better after listening to him give his introduction, because he said that he basically only knows HTML & CSS, doesn't know a lot of JavaScript, and seemed to feel almost as intimidated as I did by being around all these "real" developers. I was very glad to see that someone else was feeling the way I did, because there seemed to be a little bit of "my coding stick is bigger" going around that day (although, if I'm being fair, NOWHERE NEAR as bad as it could have been).

The presentation was really cool, and was also kind of a giant tease. Most of the awesome CSS tricks we saw (and they were definitely awesome) only work in Safari (and probably Chrome) at the moment, so it was a little depressing, because none of the sites I've built have a predominantly Safari-using audience. However, he did point out something I was already considering - if your site degrades gracefully, which it certainly should, you can use these tricks to create some treats and surprises for users on certain browsers without breaking the site for the rest of the world.

Some of the awesome things CSS can do include, but are not limited to: creating rounded corners, creating small animations on divs, creating transparency, and doing some XSLT-like selections - things like "starting from the first one of these, select every nth and do something to it", which is super for table striping, something that I've used first classes (HORRIBLE), and later jQuery, to accomplish.

Next we heard from Sara Chipps. I had really been looking forward to hearing her speak, because I really like her blog, Girl Developer. A small point of interest - apart from me, she was the only other female at the conference. She talked mostly about project management for your own personal projects, which was nice, but the highlight was her actual project, which I want to say is (should be going live this week from what she said), which allows you to create a TinyURL-style shortened URL that actually bundles a number of URLs together. The reason she was interested in making such a thing was Twitter, and it's something all you Twitter users out there will appreciate: she wanted to link to a bunch of things, and ran out of characters. So check it out - it's really pretty cool.

After the afternoon break, we heard about the Git vcs, which as I mentioned earlier, mostly went over my head, because I haven't yet been in a position where I really used a vcs. It was still cool to hear about, though, and if nothing else, I understood the concepts even if I couldn't relate to the practice. I'll go ahead and give myself points for that, because IT-wise, I don't get points for much.

Finally, we heard from John Resig, the esteemed developer of the jQuery library. This was a very cool talk on JavaScript testing, which included some discussion of the Selenium plugin for Firefox. I had no idea this existed, and it's completely awesome. Also, there was some discussion of JavaScript testing in general, and some of the tools that can be used to do this, which I also knew nothing about, knowing as little about JavaScript as I do.

Anyway, this is a tiny, nonsensical overview of everything that happened yesterday, and I encourage you to take a look at some of these folks' websites to learn more. I think the most valuable part of the day for me was the database talk, and I intend to look into this in a lot more depth, and hopefully get the word out there in the LIS world, where I think new DB models are sorely needed.


Monday, August 3, 2009

bad spy novels

Inspired by this article and its many respondents, I whipped up this little guy, which blogger won't let me add to my post.


I feel like this could easily be adapted to create names for episodes of Star Trek.


Sunday, August 2, 2009


Yesterday was the first of August, which as I understand the situation, is around the time when wheat is generally harvested. Apparently this is has been a holiday of sorts for quite some time, and since I ran out of regular holidays to blog about a while ago, I figured I'd go with an obscure one for a change.

Lammas, also popularly called Lughnasadh by neo-pagans, is a celebration for the ripening and harvest of grain, particularly wheat. Apparently, it has a whole bunch of other names as well. According to A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, its names include:

"Lughnasa (unreformed ModIr.), Lugnasad (OIr.), Lughnasadh, Lúnasa (reformed ModIr.), Lùnasdain, Lùnasdal, Lunasduinn (ScG), Laa Luanistyn, Laa Luanys (Manx); also Lammas Day, Garland Sunday, Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Crom Dubh Sunday, Bilberry Sunday, Fraughan Sunday."
The holiday itself seems historically to have involved a bunch of horse-related sports, including horse racing and horse swimming, as well as other fun activities like hurling. As a "Christian" holiday, it seems to have involved bringing a loaf of bread made from the first grain harvest to church, where it would be blessed. Also according to A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, its origins seem to revolve around some sort of hero/god guy who also has a wide variety of unpronounceable names:
Long a harvest festival celebrating the ripening of grain and, after they became plentiful, the maturing of potatoes, Lughnasa commemorates Lug Lámfhota, one of the most prominent heroes of early Irish literature. Lug seems most certainly derived from Lugos/Lugus or Gaulish Mercury, the god described by Julius Caesar (1st cent. BC) as the most prominent in the Gaulish pantheon. At Lug(o)dunum (Lyon), a city named for Lugos/ Lugus, a celebration was held each 1 August in honour of the Emperor Augustus. According to early Irish tradition, however, Lug himself established the festival to honour his foster-mother Tailtiu in Brega, modern Co.; Lug also led the horse-racing and martial arts contests.
Interestingly, the same book has this to say about the god Lugos and his name:
The name survives in inscriptions found in Avenches, Switzerland, and is implicit in the Roman town name Lug[u]dunum, the basis of the modern Lyon, Laon, Leiden, Loudon, Liegnitz, Léon, Dinlleu, and Luguvalium, antecedent of Carlisle.
Around these parts (I can't speak for folks across the pond), this holiday seems to be almost exclusively a neo-pagan thing, although of course, generally speaking, we humans all like similar things.

At any rate, the history of wheat and bread could be (and is) the subject of many books in and of itself. As it pertains to this holiday, though, I wasn't able to find anything really specific in my brief perusals of the usual resources. Surely I would find more information if someone would just go ahead and buy me The Cambridge World History of Food. Come on, it's only two hundred dollars. What are you, cheap?

At any rate, surely if you've spent even five minutes with me, you know that I will happily celebrate any holiday as long as it focuses on food of some kind, so I decided I would make a messload of bread. Clearly the non-existent gods were smiling upon me, because just as I put two bowls of flour and water down for their autolyse nap, my mother arrived with some food-related gifts from her friend Roberta, including - I kid you not - more yeast, a bag of whole wheat flour (and I had just run out!), some barley, and three large mixing bowls.

So today I'm going with several loaves of multi-grain bread with whole wheat flour, a couple loaves of rye in honor of our ergot-riddled ancestors, and a loaf of regular no-knead bread, just to hedge my bets. Because really, bread is one of those things where if you're making one loaf, you may as well make two dozen, because it's just as much mess and trouble. The one thing I'm missing is sourdough, which I'm very sad about. I will take another crack at rectifying this later in the season.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009


behold my procrastinatory abilities, in all their glory:

yes, i made all the images. i made the gears, and the steel plate with the nice drop shadow, and the screws on the steel plate, and the texture of the background. yes, i should be working on my project. but still, i'm kind of proud of myself.

the brushed steel texture on the plate came from somewhere that i already forgot but will find again to give credit. the brushes for the background texture came from here. the tutorial on how to make gears (which was amazing and helpful in many ways) came from here. I think that's about it.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

the "boy crisis"

No Crisis For Boys In Schools, Study Says - Washington Post

Why Are School-Age Boys Struggling? - Newsweek

Single-gender Education Gains Ground As Boys Lag - San Francisco Chronicle

The Truth About Boys and Girls - Education Sector

ok, let's take a moment here and really think about this.

to suggest that boys are suddenly doing worse because school is more regimented now is to ignore how education occurred for hundreds of years (seriously, think about the latin school tradition and then tell me with a straight face that making education too regimented is forcing these wild-n-crazy boys to suffer academically). i happen to believe that a system that is too regimented probably isn't good for boys or girls; kids are kids and they probably need some time to run around and yell a lot, or whatever it is they do.

to suggest that rewarding girls for their academic success necessarily makes boys less likely to succeed because they don't feel valued is simply to expose one's own insecurity and show how it's being passed on to the next generation. every human being has some desire to be successful and self-sufficient; suggesting that one person's sense of purpose comes necessarily at the expense of another's, or that a man's self-identity is threatened by women who can be successful on their own, is simply offensive. it seems to me to show a great lack of a sense of self that one's own identity should be so tied up in someone else's dependence. there is probably something in this that leads some men to grow up thinking that they couldn't be with a woman who makes more money than they do.

the truth of the matter is that boys aren't doing any worse academically; girls are just catching up. apparently, this is a problem.

i could go on and on about this, but i have to go to work and class, so that i can learn and make money and, you know, be successful and self-sufficient.


Friday, July 3, 2009

some things

I haven't posted anything in forever, so I thought I'd just give a quick overview of some of the things I've been doing:

1) Fun with DD-WRT

I installed new, open-source firmware on my router, which lets me do all kinds of fun things, like actually log what my firewall is doing. I set it up to use DNSMasq, which is a cool little bit of software that allows DNS forwarding for networks using NAT, so that I can assign pretend DNS names to stuff on my network. DD-WRT has many more options than my previous firmware; you can boost the transmit power of the wireless access point, create all kinds of priority settings for different protocols, machines, and ports on the router itself, and (possibly the funnest thing about it), you can set it up to use SNMP, which means that I can finally log traffic on my network.

I do this using the second thing I've been working on:

2) Cacti

Cacti lives on a web server and makes pretty graphs using data it collects via SNMP. Here's what it looks like:
Obviously there is not a ton of traffic on my network, but I still think it's fun.

The new DNSMasq setup also made it easier to make my web server available to the network,
which I am very excited about. I made a nice home page for it that allows me to easily access all the crap that is running on my server:

3) Web projects

I've also been doing two web projects lately. The first is the Proper Bostonian Quilter's Guild site, which Caitlin and I have been working on for some time. It's almost done and looks a little something like this:

That's the gallery page, currently in its development stages, but you get the idea.

I've also been doing the new Infolink website for GSLIS, which has been fun. This is by far the fastest I've ever put together a website of this size, although it's not exactly from scratch: to do it, I had to sort of reverse engineer the new GSLIS website. This was pretty entertaining, and after doing it, I have to say that Firebug is awesome.

I think that's all for the moment. Maybe more later . . .