Thursday, January 14, 2010

Boy, Crazy Boy

An eye-catching headline from Yahoo! News:
NJ boy, 8, on terrorism watch list
If he's the one who sat behind me on one flight from London and kept kicking the seat for six hours, I concur completely.

One More Minute

Well, looks like Doomsday was postponed. I guess I'll have to go grocery shopping after all.
The Doomsday Clock has been set back 1 minute for the first time in its 63-year history. In moving the clock from 5 minutes before midnight to 6 minutes before midnight, scientists expressed optimism for humanity's future.

This end-of-the-world clock, set up in 1947, is meant to convey how close we are to the end of the world via catastrophe caused by nuclear weapons or climate change, among other factors.

And Justice Fur All

Here's a story that gave me paws. No one escapes jury duty (would he need an escape claws?). This would make a good Law and Order episode.
Duty calls for an East Boston resident.

Someone is getting called for jury duty...but it's no human.

A family is trying to figure out how their pet cat was summonsed for jury duty.

“I said, Sal, what’s this? You know, I don’t believe it I was shocked,” said Guy Esposito, Sal’s owner.

Sal’s owners, Guy and Anna Esposito, think they may know the source of the mix up: Sal really is a member of the family, so on the last Census form, Anna Esposito listed him under “pets”.

“I just wrote ‘Sal Esposito’, scratched out the ‘dog,’ and wrote, ‘cat,’” said Anna.

Anna filed for Sal’s disqualification of service. However, the jury commissioner was unmoved and denied the request.

Sal’s service date at Suffolk Superior Court is set for March 23. Anna said that if the issue isn’t cleared up by then, she will simply have to bring the cat to court.
A jury of one's purrs? It'll make voire dire an interesting process, at any rate. Although, I bet Michael Vick's lawyers wouldn't have minded having Sal on his jury!

(h/t Dr. Joe)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bless the Beasts and the BlackBerrys

Okay, I think I know why the hands of the Doomsday Clock are set to change, as this is yet another sign of the impending apocalypse:
The Rev. Canon David Parrott blessed a symbolic heap of laptops and smart phones on the altar of London's 17th-century St. Lawrence Jewry church Monday. An effort, he said, to remind the capital's busy office workers that God's grace can reach them in many ways.

"It's the technology that is our daily working tool, and it's a technology we should bless," Parrott said.

The short blessing capped Monday's services at the Christopher Wren-designed building — the official church of the Corporation of the City of London, which runs the capital's bustling financial district.

Parishioners took out cell phones as Parrott recited a blessing over them and their electronic devices. A few held their phones up in the air as he ran through the prayer.
Still, I bet Rev. Parrott was only repeating what someone else said.

Doom and Doomer

If you're into this sort of thing, tune in Thursday:
The minute hand of the famous Doomsday Clock is set to move this Thursday, and for the first time, anyone with Internet access can watch. Which way the hand will move and by how much have not been made public.

The event will take place at 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) on Jan. 14 at the New York Academy of Sciences Building in New York City. While the actual clock is housed at the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences offices in Chicago, Ill., a representation of the clock will be changed at Thursday's news conference. (You can watch the live Web feed at

The last time the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved was in January 2007, when it was pushed forward by two minutes, from seven to five minutes before midnight. The change was meant to reflect two major sources of potential catastrophe that could bring us closer to "doomsday," according to the board of "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists," a magazine focused on warning the world of the dangers that the invention of the atomic bomb helped to unleash.
In December 1945, University of Chicago scientists who had helped to develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project created "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists." The Bulletin's board of directors then in 1947 came up with the idea of a Doomsday Clock to symbolize these threats. The message is that humans are "a few minutes to midnight," where midnight represents destruction by nuclear weapons, climate change and emerging technologies in the life sciences.
When the Doomsday Clock debuted in 1947, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was occurring, with the time showing seven minutes to midnight. The time has since changed 18 times.

The closest approach to Doomsday occurred in 1953, when the clock was changed to two minutes to midnight after the United States and the Soviet Union each tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of one another.
No word on whether Iron Maiden will be rewriting and rerecording their 1984 song "Two Minutes to Midnight."

Give Them a Hand

Headline from the New York Times:
Now, Electronics That Obey Hand Gestures
Insert own joke here.

The Golden Age of Wireless

Great jumping snails!* It's hard to imagine, but radio as we know it is only 100 years old--and its anniversary is today, January 12.

American inventor Lee De Forest was born in 1873 in Council Bluffs, IA, where his parents often said that they couldn't see De Forest for the trees, although it was unknown if young Lee was skilled at hide-and-seek. He went to Yale and, as an inveterate tinkerer, tapped into the school's electrical system and blacked out the campus. He was, needless to say, suspended. So they would have to wait for many more years before getting a college radio station. They eventually relented and let him back in, and De Forest earned his Ph.D. in 1899 with a dissertation on radio waves.

De Forest invented the audion, an electronic amplifier, followed by an improved wireless telegraph receiver. De Forest's subsequent triode was three-electrode vacuum tube that could be used as an amplifier of electrical signals, such as radio reception. It would much later be used in computers, as well.

Wikipedia takes up the story:
On July 18, 1907, De Forest broadcast the first ship-to-shore message from the steam yacht Thelma. The communication provided quick, accurate race results of the Annual Inter-Lakes Yachting Association (I-LYA) Regatta. The message was received by his assistant, Frank E. Butler of Monroeville, Ohio, in the Pavilion at Fox's Dock located on South Bass Island on Lake Erie.
DeForest apparently hated the term "wireless" and preferred instead "radio." It might catch on.

Anyway, what is claimed to be the first "true" public radio broadcast was made on January 12 (and 13), 1910, when De Forest broadcast part of a live performance of Puccini's opera Tosca --featuring Italian tenor Enrico Caruso--from New York's Metropolitan Opera House. (Odd; there is no record of any intellectual property disputes or disclaimers that the broadcast was owned by the Metropolitan Opera Company.) De Forest used two mono microphones and a 500-watt transmitter. Of course, not too many people had radio sets at the time and the quality of the sound left much to be desired. Still, you have to imagine that to suddenly hear voices coming out of a box in your home had to be akin to receiving messages from space. (Which they kind of were...)

By the way, the first actual wireless transmissions dated from four years earlier. Reginald Fessenden had invented a continuous-wave voice transmitter 1905 and made a voice broadcast over the North Atlantic on Christmas Eve 1906. It was only heard by the wireless operators on banana boats owned by the United Fruit Company. There's a demographic that broadcasters lost over the years...

So when everyone told Lee De Forest that he was bananas for trying to create radio, they could very well have been right.

And then video killed the radio star, The Buggles joined Yes, and it was all downhill from there.

So let's turn on the radio, get appalled at how it has devolved since its heyday, turn it off again almost immediately, then go find an old radio drama on MP3.

*An actual exclamation from a character on an episode of Dimension X, a great radio science-fiction series from the 1950s.

A Naught-y Decade

Over at PrintCEO Blog, via a 6th-century monk and a 20th-century biologist, reasons why we should declare the "2000s" over—especially if you're in the printing industry.Link

Monday, January 04, 2010

Chicken General

Many of us who do crossword puzzles or eat Chinese food (or both, sometimes simultaneously) have long been curious about a certain General Tso. Was he a real person, much less a real general, or was he fictional, like Uncle Ben or Betty Crocker? Or was he more like a Chinese Colonel Sanders, not a real military Colonel? And why name a chicken dish after him? Was it sort of a damning with faint praise sort of thing?

Whilst I could very easily have looked him up of my own accord, hunan nature being what it is (ahem) I would rather--like the dish--have it delivered to me rather than go and pick it up.

Ergo, the answer finally did indeed present itself in, of all places, yesterday's New York Times Crossword Puzzle blog.

It probably doesn't surprise anyone that General Tso's chicken (like much of American Chinese cuisine, or much ethnic cuisine we get in this country) doesn't really exist in China itself. But:
General Tso’s chicken is named for Tso Tsung-t’ang (now usually transliterated as Zuo Zongtang), a formidable 19th-century general who is said to have enjoyed eating it. The Hunanese have a strong military tradition, and Tso is one of their best-known historical figures. But although many Chinese dishes are named after famous personages, there is no record of any dish named after Tso.

The real roots of the recipe lie in the chaotic aftermath of the Chinese civil war, when the leadership of the defeated Nationalist Party fled to the island of Taiwan. They took with them many talented people, including a number of notable chefs, and foremost among them was Peng Chang-kuei. Born in 1919 into a poverty-stricken household in the Hunanese capital, Changsha, Peng was the apprentice to Cao Jingchen, one of the most outstanding cooks of his generation. By the end of World War II, Peng was in charge of Nationalist government banquets, and when the party met its humiliating defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, he fled with them to Taiwan. There, he continued to cater for official functions, inventing many new dishes.
The article goes on to say that Peng invented the dish known as General Tso's chicken some time in the 1950s. In 1973, Peng moved to New York City and opened a restaurant near the United Nations. Hunan cuisine was virtually unknown in the States in the early 1970s, and Peng's restaurant became a favorite with U.N. officials--and with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
“Kissinger visited us every time he was in New York,” Peng said, “and we became great friends. It was he who brought Hunanese food to public notice.”
The Chinese don't have much of a sweet tooth, and if you've ever had traditional Chinese desserts, they are not particularly sweet at all (but still very tasty). So needless to say, a main course would scarcely be sweet. As a result,
“The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar,” he said. “But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe.” (Though others have since laid claim to it.)
Peng eventaully moved back to Taiwan and General Tso's chicken became one of the staples of American Chinese food. One final irony, though:
General Tso’s chicken is now being adopted as a “traditional” dish by some influential chefs and food writers in Hunan.
Hmm...kind of like how Scotty "invented" transparent aluminum in Star Trek IV. (Yeah, like this post wasn't geeky enough to begin with!) There is also another irony in that the "traditional" Hunan dish is actually a product of exiled Nationalist Taiwan, which has to sting on some level.

Having further questions about Tso (is he a poultry excuse for a general?) I thought I would turn to our old friend Wikipedia. Tso (or, latterly, Zuo) lived from November 10, 1812 to September 5, 1885 (I shall have to mark November 10 on my calendar and celebrate each year with a delivery from the nearby Peking Chinese Restaurant, whose delivery menu describes the dish as "Finely chunks of chicken quickly fried until crispy, sauteed with exotic target, Hunan sauce." Not sure what "target Hunan sauce" is, but it is rather good.) But I digress...

Early in his career, Zuo "decided to abandon his plans to become a civil servant and returned to his home by the Xiang River in Hunan to farm silkworms, read and drink tea." Now there's an idea. I rather like that as a career move... There is no truth to the rumor that the original General Tso's chicken was made with silkworms.

When Zuo was 38 (in 1850), the Taiping Rebellion broke out, and he was hired as an advisor by the staff of the governor of Hunan. "In 1856, he was formally offered a position in the provincial government of Hunan."
In 1860, Zuo was given command of a force of 5,000 volunteers (later known as "Chu Army"), and by September of that year he drove the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces, into coastal Zhejiang.

Zuo captured the city of Shaoxing, and from there pushed south into Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where the revolt had first begun. In 1863, Zuo was appointed Governor of Zhejiang and an Undersecretary of War.

In August 1864, Zuo, together with Zeng Guofan, dethroned the Taiping teenage king, Hong Tianguifu, and brought an end to the rebellion. He was created Earl Kejing of the 1st Class for his part in suppressing the rebellion. He, Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang were called Zeng, Zuo, Li, the leaders in suppressing the rebellion.
In 1865, Zuo was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General of Fujian and Zhejiang. As Commissioner of Naval Industries, Zuo founded China's first modern shipyard and naval academy in Fuzhou the following year.
There is no truth to the rumor that he later won an important military campaign by firing chunks of crispy fried chicken at the enemy, although that Hunan sauce made a good target.
[I]n his seventies, Zuo was appointed to the Grand Council, the cabinet of the Qing Empire at the time, in 1880. Uneasy with bureaucratic politics, Zuo asked to be relieved of his duties and was appointed Viceroy of Liangjiang in 1881. In 1884, upon the outbreak of the Sino-French War, Zuo received his fourth and last commission as commander-in-chief and Imperial Commissioner of the Army and Inspector General overseeing coastal defense in Fujian. He died shortly after a truce was signed between the two nations, in Fuzhou (Foo-chow), 1885.
He was buried on a bed of rice....

A distinguished military figure to be sure, and yet, as we now know, was unlikely to have ever eaten the dish named for him. His loss, really.