Monday, August 30, 2010

Back from the Big Island

Well I'm back from my last-minute long weekend trip to the Big Island (aka the island of Hawaii). It was amazing. The Housemate and I were staying on the Kona side of the island (where they grow the coffee). We did a lot of snorkeling, and it was the best snorkeling I've ever experienced. Maybe it was just different--Hanauma Bay has tons of fish in accessible locations, but the Big Island snorkeling spots have large reefs of live coral and some cool fish I'd never seen before. On Saturday we drove all the way around to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (it's a BIG island...particularly because you can't drive over the mountains). I saw some things there that I never thought I'd see. It will take me a while to sort through all my photos and video footage, because I took a LOT (let's just say I'm glad I sprang for the 16 GB memory card rather than the 8 GB). But there should be some good photos and videos to share--we saw some crazy cool (and some red hot...) stuff on the Big Island.

I also have a bunch of catching up to do. I just watched some highlights from the Emmy Awards last night. Congrats to Jane Lynch of Glee (supporting actress - comedy) and Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory (lead actor - comedy) for their wins. They're both absolutely hilarious, and I love their shows. Now I have to catch up on blogging stuff and see what everyone else has been up to since Wednesday. I will return soon with photos. I can't wait to show you what I saw...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hasty departure...

Last night I bought plane tickets for a flight that leaves tonight. I've never done something this substantial with such short notice. It's been a little crazy the past few days, with classes starting (or rather "class," as I only have one this semester) and my field work finally kicking into gear. But one piece of good news came out of my first class on Monday: while the class is scheduled for Monday-Wednesday-Friday, it only sometimes meets on Friday, to make up for the Mondays and Wednesdays that the professor misses due to travel. And there's no class this Friday.

So suddenly everything was perfect--I had a long weekend, the Housemate was free to take a long weekend, and our window of opportunity to use a friend's temporarily empty apartment was still open. We bought tickets and got a rental car in a hurry, and tonight we're off. I'm not sure what my internet access will be there, but I'll update with more info when I can. Now I have to get some lab work done before I go home to pack. Catch you later.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A bit of the future...

I recently came across this TED Talk:

OMG, we're on our way to a frakking Holoband! OK, so we're a ways away still from the Holoband, but controlling a computer through thought is an important step towards virtual world-creating technology like the Holoband, the "headspa" or whatever it was in Minority Report, and similar sci-fi gismos (I'm not so sure about the holodeck, since I think the person actually walks around in a holodeck, but you get the idea). This Emotiv EPOC seems like something out of science fiction, but here it is right now.


Some of you may remember how excited I got about the Kinect. This seems considerably harder to use (so much concentration), and it doesn't have as many current applications as the gaming system will have once it comes out, but IT READS YOUR BRAINWAVES! It's one thing to wave your arm and have an image on screen move in front of you. That's pretty cool, but it's pretend telekinesis, since it's your arm movement and not your mind directly controlling it. But to be able to make it move with just a thought? Real telekinesis. In a virtual world, sure--unless you then have another application on the computer that will move an actual physical object. And there's something appealing and satisfying about having to concentrate and train yourself to control the program. Using the Force takes focus and practice, after all.

I definitely see there being applications for handicapped people, particularly as the technology is further improved. But I am awfully tempted to buy one just because. Just because my old-fashioned brain is having trouble believing it exists. And just because I've always wanted telekinesis.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Go see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World!

You need to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. This weekend. Seriously.
(Provided that it's been released in your area.)

The three movies that opened wide last weekend were The Expendables, Eat Pray Love, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The Expendables and Eat Pray Love were panned by critics (their Rotten Tomatoes scores are 41% and 39%, respectively). Scott Pilgrim was very well-received by critics (its Rotten Tomatoes score stands at 81%). Unfortunately, most movie-goers apparently don't care a bit about quality and just go for the familiar: familiar movie stars, familiar love stories, familiar action scenes, familiar bad guy vs. good guy plots, etc. The Expendables won the weekend with $34.8 million, Eat Pray Love came in second with $23.1 million, and Scott Pilgrim came in fifth, behind the fifth weekend of Inception, with a measly $10.6 million.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a quirky movie. I can understand that the quirkiness might scare some viewers away, in particular old people. But those critics weren't kidding--it really is a delightful movie. It moves quickly, with a ton packed into every scene. It's a comedy, with the laughs frequent and hearty. But it has action, love, and personal growth. So really, if you think you're either an Expendables or Eat Pray Love person, you'll find that you're really a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World person, too!

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's fight scenes don't drip masculinity as I'm sure those in The Expendables do, but they are inventive, unexpected, and exciting. Turns out just about everybody in Scott Pilgrim's world is competent in hand-to-hand combat, sometimes with interesting weapons, and a lot of people have special powers. If you want action stars, combatants include Brandon Routh, recently Superman, and Chris Evans, previously the Human Torch in Fantastic 4 and soon to be Captain America (some of you may also have caught him in The Losers and Push). Evans even plays an action star in the movie--there's a hilarious clip of a movie his character starred in (which is probably as good as anything in The Expendables). So there's badass, there's dueling, and, when an opponent is defeated, he (or she) turns into coins!

But Scott Pilgrim is also about love. Why is there so much fighting in the movie? Because in order to be with Ramona, the girl of his dreams, Scott must defeat her seven evil exes. How romantic! For support along the way, he has his bandmates (the band is called Sex Bob-Omb) and his gay roommate (and, uh, bedmate...yes they share a bed) played by Kieran Culkin (I hadn't seen him since Igby Goes Down, and he was great). His relationship with Ramona is complicated not only because of all her exes, but also because Scott was already kind of dating high schooler Knives Chau. Drama! On this journey, Scott must gain not only Ramona's love, but also his own self-respect. It's about personal growth as well as love. And Ramona and Knives do some growing of their own. It may not have the world travel featured in Eat Pray Love, but there's plenty of love to find in snowy Toronto.

I was reading this article about the disappointing opening weekend for Scott Pilgrim, and it mentioned that only 36% of the ticket buyers were women. I was surprised and disappointed. Yes, this movie is based on comic books, but as I mentioned, it's about love and personal growth. It is not a "dick flick" (a term I read describing The Expendables). The main character is a guy, but some of the coolest supporting cast is butt-kicking females. And if you're looking for eye candy, there's Brandon Routh and Chris Evans. And isn't Michael Cera adorable? So go see it, girls.

Why am I writing about this? It all comes down to the stakes. The studios decide what projects they want to fund next based on what has been successful at the box office. When bad movies do well and good movies do poorly, the studios learn that people like to spend money on bad movies more than good movies, so they start just making bad movies. Now, I've seen bad movies in the theater before, even knowing that they'd be bad, because they looked like fun (Transformers 2 and such). But when there's a movie floundering at the box office that deserves to succeed? It needs our support. Cast a vote in favor of refreshingly original and good movies and head out to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World this weekend!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Spider-Man: The Musical is back, Joss rules, and ThinkGeek coupon!

I've been pretty stressed for the past couple weeks because yesterday I had to give a presentation to the department on the research I've done in my first year of grad school (summary: not much). We physical oceanography students have to do these presentations every year, unlike the other oceanography divisions (bio and geo/chem) who only do it once towards the end of their second year. Why is our division so mean? Anyway, I'm usually pretty good with presentations (I've been told I have a "good presentation voice"), but I was more nervous than usual with this one, mostly because the people who presented before me were asked hard questions, and I knew I didn't have many answers to give beyond what I was already saying in my talk. I felt like I did kind of make a fool of myself with the questions ("Did you try looking at X?" "No, but that's a good idea, thanks, I'll look into it." "What would you expect if you did Y?" "I don't know, I should try that." "Can you explain why Z?" "I'm not sure... I'll look into that."). But at least it's over now.

Two entertainment tidbits I felt like sharing...

It's been a while since I mentioned Spider-Man: The Musical (aka Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark). It was originally supposed to open on Broadway back in February, but budget issues put it on hold. It lost some of its stars (Evan Rachel Wood as Mary Jane, Alan Cummings as Green Goblin) who have busy schedules and moved onto other projects. But it's finally on again (Variety). Reeve Carney is still on to play Peter Parker, Jennifer Damiano will be playing Mary Jane, and Patrick Page is the new Green Goblin. The show is scheduled to open on December 21, with previews starting November 14.

I just watched this interview with Joss Whedon at Comic-Con, regarding The Avengers. It just made me so much more excited, about Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, the two Chrises, and the movie in general. Favorite bits: "Mrs. Joss Renner" and "[Chris Hemsworth is] bigger and handsomer than a person is." I'm so in love with all of them.

Last quick note:
If you're a geek, you've probably at one point or other drooled over some clever t-shirt, awesome gadget, or cool toy at If you haven't seen their stuff before, then go to their site and start drooling. Anyway, if you're interested in buying anything from them, there's a promotion going on today only. The site was down last night for routine maintenance, but the notice they put up saying the site was down gave us a promotional code to reward us for our patience. So if you order before 11:59 pm Eastern time tonight (August 19), you can get $10 off a purchase of $40 or more by using the code SILLYMONKEYS.

I've got my eye on that "Look at me still talking when there's science to do" t-shirt for the boyfriend (that was what brought me to the site last night to discover the promotion). Maybe I'd even get one for myself. The "Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock" t-shirt is pretty good, too. Still toying with the idea of the magic wand remote, but that one costs a bit more. Well anyway, enjoy!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Comose Fig, felled 2010

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Binsey Poplars, felled 1879"

They just chopped down my favorite tree on campus. The comose fig. Last year, as I experienced my first autumn without fall--no orange-red-yellow leaves to fall from the trees and cover the ground in a satisfyingly crunchy layer--the comose fig dropped all of its orange fruits, leaving a blanket of orange underneath its considerable canopy. I was thrilled, and somehow comforted. Even without the bright orange fruits, it was a grand old tree, almost a hundred years old, with a beautiful and distinctive trunk shape. It was the only one of its kind on campus, and it graciously shaded a portion of my mostly hot and sunny walk to school.

Last spring there was a petition going around to save it from the chopping block, but it seems building development won out. The campus is uglier for it. One might think that a college campus in Hawaii would be guaranteed to be gorgeous. But this one of the uglier campuses I've seen, mainly because most of the buildings are hideous; the campus's main redeeming features are the scattered tropical trees. The more they chop down trees in favor of their ugly buildings, the worse the campus gets.

I'm especially kicking myself because I had thought about taking a photo of the tree last week. It was finally at its peak fruiting season again, saturating its branches with orange figs. If only I'd known it would be gone this week. So this is someone else's picture of it. You can see the orange fruits on the ground. It would have been nice to have a photo of it looking up at the tons of little orange balls in the canopy. A sad opportunity missed. After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. And hopefully I won't forget.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Value of Reading

A couple weeks ago, when my mom was still here on her seemingly endless vacation, I had a conversation with her that kind of bothered me. It went something like this.
Mom: You know, I was talking to [your older brother], and I don't think he reads more than one book for pleasure in a year.
Me: (Not interested in continuing this conversation) Oh.
Mom: He watches all that TV and doesn't make time for reading. Isn't that sad? I just feel so sorry for him.
I hate it when my mom complains to me about either of my brothers. I've always gotten along with my brothers really well (something that I can't exactly say about my mother). I adore them both. Growing up alongside them, we experienced numerous "kids vs. parents" conflicts (regarding how much time we could spend playing games, how late we could stay up, how much candy we could eat, etc.), and it is ingrained in me to take my brothers' side against my parents. Come to think of it, I frequently feel the need to defend a lot of people from my mother--my dad, her siblings, her business partner, her best friends (seriously, why is she complaining to me about all these people?)--so maybe I just have a reflex to defend people from my mother's unwarranted attacks. In any case, I didn't really want to start an argument with my mother right there because I knew I had to put up with her for another week, and because we were in public (a shopping mall). Still, the fact that she was complaining to me about my brother really bothered me, and I had to say something.

But what defenses did I have for my brother? I knew it would be nigh impossible to argue about the importance of reading with a retired elementary school teacher (and now pre-school teacher) who has made it a significant part of her life's work to teach kids to read. Reading is a crucial skill, after all. I can't imagine how one could function in modern society without at least 8th-grade reading skills (though I hear that there is a surprising illiteracy rate in this country). Also, I'm sure there are tons of studies showing that kids who read for fun do better in school. Reading practice is a critical activity for kids' development, helping them to succeed in their studies, in their future vocations, and in life in general.

But there is a leveling off in reading skills that occurs after a certain point. It's like leveling up in a video game: Fighting monsters that are much stronger than you will level you up fast, but when all the monsters are your level or lower, you don't gain much experience for fighting them. You can win new shiny armor and swords for your inventory if you fight enough of them, but it doesn't make your skills that much better. See, my brother is already a high-level reader. He was always his English teachers' favorite student because everything came so easily to him. He reads fast and very well, is a talented writer, an excellent speller and grammarian, and has an impressive vocabulary that I'm sure is better than my mother's (he's one of those people who picks up words very easily). He used to read a lot, probably most in high school (lots of Star Wars), but also in college. He graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in philosophy. He can read thoroughly and critically and argue clearly and convincingly. I have no doubt that my brother's language skills rank in the top elite percentiles of English speakers. Such skills require some maintenance, but I would think that they are lost much more slowly than they are recovered. I don't think he'd be unable to read anything now that he once was able to read in college or high school. And I don't think reading X number of books a year would have improved his reading skills significantly.

Besides, my mother was not suggesting that my brother tackle one of the great works of literature to improve his reading skills. She wasn't criticizing his academic abilities. She felt sorry for him because he wasn't reading for pleasure. As if his life is somehow emptier because he doesn't read fun books. Forgive me, but this struck me as oddly old-fashioned. For the generations that were raised on books, whose youth would indeed have been narrow and devoid of adventure were it not for their beloved novels, it may seem like a world without these exciting novels is a depressing one. Reading a book broadens a person's horizons, takes a person where he cannot otherwise go, and thus enriches his life. There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away...

That's so 19th century. Now, I loved reading Harry Potter as much as anyone, and I think reading the books was a far superior experience to watching any of the movies. But Lord of the Rings? I'm not so sure. In fact, I think I had more fun watching the movies (please don't shoot me). Modern entertainments, not just books, can be enriching. My brother plays video games--games with rich storylines and interactive plots that force the player to make challenging decisions. He reads graphic novels. He watches movies. He watches a LOT of TV. Really, does reading yet another formulaic Janet Evanovich murder mystery improve my mother's life that much more than watching a season of Mad Men enriches my brother's?

I recognize the main advantage that reading has over these other forms of storytelling is that it leaves all the images and sounds up to the audience. It thus engages a greater part of the imagination, and each reader will have a different experience. I guess my brother is missing out on this. But let's return for a moment to the reason why he watches so much TV (and by that I mean he follows upwards of 25 weekly shows): His goal is to become a writer on a TV show. He watches not only the TV shows that would naturally grab him, but also the "hot" shows with a lot of buzz or a lot of Emmy nominations so he knows what styles are popular and can learn from the best. So he's not just being a couch potato. More more importantly, though, what else do you think he's doing in his attempt to become a TV writer? He is writing scripts, of course.

My brother spends most of his "work" day (he is currently unemployed) writing and honing his scripts. He has a large number of spec scripts for TV pilots that he is either circulating or refining in preparation for circulation. Essentially all of these have some element of sci-fi or fantasy. He dreams up these exciting worlds, interesting and unique characters to populate these worlds, and writes a tight, funny, hour-long script to tell the beginning of their stories. And he probably thinks a lot about what future adventures they might have. He also has some scripts for current TV shows (e.g. Chuck, Burn Notice) that he sends around in hopes of catching someone's eye. The characters and the world are already set, but he creates his own adventures for them, and he has to hear their voices and see their actions in the situations he has made for them. TV writing is an extremely tough field to get into, but it's his dream job, so he's giving it a go. And one of the main reasons he likes to write? It lets him exercise his imagination.

All these arguments buzzed around my head as I tried to figure out how to defend my brother from my mom's attacks. I didn't think any of the arguments that in any way seemed to devalue reading in the modern world* would work with her. So I went with the redirection.
Me: When was the last time you wrote for pleasure?
Mom: Huh? Well, what do you mean?
Me: He writes all the time. When was the last time you wrote for pleasure?
Mom: Like what? Like, emails? I think writing emails is fun. I write emails.
Ah, emails. Three-paragraph regurgitations of recent events to keep her family and friends in the loop.
Me: I feel sorry for you.
I'm not sure I really feel sorry for her; it's not like my blog posts stretch my imagination much. But it was a small victory against her condescension. Or it would have been, had she not been immediately distracted by the Jamba Juice menu. Count on my mom to change the subject as soon as she's not winning anymore.

* For the record, I love reading. I wish I had time for more of it. When I think about it, most of my favorite stories and characters are contained in books, and books alone. Don't worry about convincing me about the value of reading. I just think that if my brother is happy with what he's doing, he doesn't need my mother to feel sorry for him. And she could probably do with some new computer games to challenge her mind than yet another round of Spider.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Weirdest foods I've eaten

My post last week about eating spongy taro shoots and stinky durian ice cream made me reflect on the other strange foods I've eaten. Of course, the nature and location of one's upbringing will influence what one deems as a "strange" food. Pumpkin pie is a staple of the American Thanksgiving tradition, but I've eaten it with some Japanese friends who thought it was pretty bizarre. Taro pie is sold at McDonald's here in Hawaii (as mentioned in my previous post), but I bet a lot of people haven't heard of such a thing. And octopus pie is the signature dish of Sète, France (I bought a postcard there with a picture of it), but it's not something most people in the U.S. would know about.

In any case, I've compiled a list here of foods I've tried that I thought were strange. Most of them are sea animals; the ocean offers a spectacular smorgasbord of edible invertebrates, but because of their relative inaccessibility (not to mention oftentimes unappealing spininess or squishiness) they are often neglected as a food source, giving them "strange food" status. A couple odd "land meats" came to mind, though not too many. Strange vegetables were particularly hard to come up with; I guess that's because, while some vegetables may taste weird, most of them look fairly unremarkable, generally conforming to some familiar form (root, stem, leaf, fruit). I tried to think of some fruits and vegetables that were relatively uncommon, if not strikingly strange. Anyway, here's what I came up with.

Vegetables (and fruits):
Lychee is relatively well known in the U.S., but I've also had a couple of its lesser-known relatives, rambutan (hairier), and longan (smoother and more fragrant). They aren't that strange, though. I've also eaten jackfruit. I can't really count durian because I've only had it in ice cream (probably only its juice). Mountain apples (not related to other apples) may be the rarest fruit I've eaten; originally from Malaysia, they were brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians. They grow here but I've never seen them sold in stores; they may not be farmed much.

Mountain apples (not my photo)

Bitter melon is common in some Asian countries, but it's very bitter and understandably hasn't caught on in the U.S. Other than that, the only vegetables that come to mind are the pea eggplant and taro shoots I talked about last week.

Land meats:
Certain parts of commonly eaten animals may be considered strange if those parts are rarely eaten. Beef tripe (stomach lining) and tendon, then, may count for this list (they're not uncommon in Chinese restaurants). The less commonly eaten land animals I've had are buffalo (or was it bison?) and ostrich, both in burger form. I've also eaten frog legs, though that's...well...amphibious meat, rather than land meat, technically.

Sea meats:
In the vertebrate categories, I've had shark and skate (maybe uncommon in some places?), as well as eel. Eel is great on sushi.

I've had a lot more strange invertebrates. Some semi-strange foods I've had (maybe strange to the unadventurous) are soft-shell crab, raw oysters, and several orders of cephalopods, including squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. Funny tangent story about the squid:
When I was about three, my older brother (who would have been about five) and I were walking around a fish market with our mother. While standing near a display of squid, my brother pointed to it and asked our mom, "What's that?" She answered, simply, "It's squid." He asked, "Can we have some?" but Mom said, "Uh, you probably wouldn't like it." What possessed us, neither of us can remember, but suddenly my brother and I were jumping up and down chanting, "We want squid! We want squid! We want squid!" Well, my mom got some pretty odd looks from the other patrons in the market. She agreed to buy some squid to shut us up, but she planned to teach us both a lesson when she served it to us and we realized how gross it was. Her plan didn't work. We both loved it! It has been one of our favorites ever since (we frequently order spicy salty fried squid at Chinese restaurants, and squid sushi is another favored dish).

OK, end of tangent. Time to get to the more impressively strange foods I've eaten.

Snails. And I'm not talking about just a little escargot smothered in butter, or Chinese snails drowned in a strong black bean sauce (though I've had those too). In Sète, France, as part of an assorted seafood platter being shared around the table, there were steamed whelks. No sauce, no seasoning, just the white and black speckled snail that I had to pluck out of its shell. It was big (a full mouthful, maybe the size of a man's thumb) and really chewy--I had to chew it for maybe a minute before swallowing. It was strange eating the whole animal, with the different textures and flavors of the different parts of its body, but it tasted kind of like steamed clams, and was not disagreeable. I ate two, though, full disclosure, that may have been mainly to show off for the French guy sitting across from me.

A photo of a European whelk (not mine)

Also in Sète I got to try some raw sea urchin, served in half of its shell. I found it salty and strong but pretty good. What annoyed me was that it was a little too small, slippery, or mushy to get with a fork, so I tried to go the raw oyster route and slurp it out of its shell. Of course, the urchin shell is spiny. That was not so great. Maybe the best solution would have been to dump what was inside the shell onto a spoon or something. Oh well.

At my first college reunion, I went to a Chinese buffet restaurant in town that I'd never been to before, which is too bad because it was great. The selection was amazing--it's actually where I had the frog legs. But the strangest food I ate there was jellyfish. A translucent white, the jellyfish was cut into strips and served in a dish with a light brown sauce. People always ask me what it tasted like, and my answer is always, "A lot like sesame oil" (likely the main ingredient of the sauce, and a very nice flavor). What struck me most was the texture. I expected it to be gooey and gummy, and there was a little chewiness to it, but what I hadn't expected was a certain crispness that I can only compare to...bean sprouts? Very hard to describe.

And last but not least, the crowning jewel in my list of strange foods I've eaten. When people ask me what the strangest food is I've had, I never hesitate to tell them: tunicate. The response is usually, "A what?" Tunicate, sea squirt, sea peach--or "violet" as the type I ate was called on the menu in Sète--it is an animal that most people probably don't even know about. Hence its designation as the strangest food I've eaten.

Coincidentally, I was assigned to do a project on tunicates in 9th grade biology, but before that I had never heard of them myself. Probably their most remarkable feature is that they are one of the animals that is considered a chordate without being a vertebrate. You know how in high school biology you learned that Vertebrata was only a subphylum, and the actual phylum was Cordata, which seemed so unnecessary because what silly animal would have a spinal chord without having a spine? Well, one of the other subphyla in phylum Cordata is the tunicates' Urochordata. The larval form is vaguely tadpole-like and has a primitive "notochord". The adult really seems more like a strange anemone, settling and attaching itself to the ground, feeding by pumping water through its two openings (one for inflow, one for outflow). Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a photo of the type of tunicate I ate:


It gets its name "tunicate" from the thick skin (or tunic) on its body. It gets its name "sea squirt" from the fact that if you squeeze it, water will squirt out of its two openings. There are actually a ton of them in Chesapeake Bay, and I've squeezed them and found they have a pretty good squirt range (a far cry from a supersoaker, but it's better than some cheap squirt guns I've seen). Chesapeake Bay's tunicates are small (like grape tomatoes) and probably don't have anything worth eating inside.

Me playing with a sea squirt on a research vessel in Chesapeake Bay. I know it's really small, but it was clipped from a larger photo with unimpressive resolution.

Sète, on the other hand, had some pretty large tunicates; the one I ate was probably the size of my fist. So anyway, the story behind eating it:

The reason I was in Sète (a French city on the Mediterranean) in the first place was for an oceanography conference (or meeting, technically); the professor I was working for at the time was leading a workshop, and she got to take me along with her as her "assistant" (in actuality, a "freeloader"). Anyway, one night about seven or eight of us went to a little hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant down near the canal. They had a display of fresh, raw seafood on ice out in front which we walked by as we went into the restaurant. After we sat down, my professor asked, "What was that in the seafood display that looked like a dog turd? We should order one of those organisms." First, it did look a bit like dog doo in the display, and second, it somehow seemed very funny to us that she referred to the food item as an "organism", so that's what we called it for the rest of the night. We asked the waiter, and he pointed to the item "Violet" on the menu, but even the French oceanographer with us didn't know what it was (he was from northern France, so he was excused). But we ordered one. After examining the organism, we determined that it was some kind of tunicate--it had the thick tunic layer, and clearly had two openings. One of the oceanographers snapped a picture with his phone and sent it to his colleague who works with tunicates to identify it. The next day he reported back to us and told us it was Microcosmus sp. After noticing it on a poster on the ferry tour boat the next night, I figured out it was in fact Microcosmus sabatieri.

My photo of "organism". Sorry for the poor quality; this meal actually marks the beginning of my old camera troubles--it was the first time I turned on my camera and the screen didn't work.

So what did it taste like? Not much as I recall. It was raw and unseasoned, and I only had a little bit, since we ordered one for our table and split it between everyone who was willing to taste it (and only the yellow-orange inside was edible). It was chewy and smooth, mildly seafood-like in the way that squid in sushi is, and beyond that I can't really describe it. I had some kind of wonderful fish as an entree and a really, truly amazing chocolate cake with a white sauce of some sort for dessert--if I ever find myself in Sète again (unlikely), I would go back to this place, and I'd give violet another try.

Well that's my list of strange foods I've eaten. What I need to try are bugs. I've never eaten a bug on purpose (I know I've eaten at least ants by accident, and probably several other types of bugs). As long as I know it won't hurt me, and it's not still crawling, and I'm convinced that it's a legitimate food that people really do eat on purpose, I'm usually willing to try it. Here's hoping to many more food adventures in my future.

Anyone else have any stories to tell about weird foods they've eaten?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ahoy, mateys! Pirates in Hawaii!

You may be aware that Disney & Co. is working on a fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I remember my friend taking me to see the first movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, for my birthday. Considering the quality of the recent movies adapted from Disney World rides/shows (Haunted Mansion, Country Bears), it could have been pretty bad (though since we were both Orlando Bloom fans I guess we weren't very concerned about that). But it turned out being a delightful surprise, funny and entertaining, and Johnny Depp's performance as Captain Jack Sparrow was classic (and Oscar nominated). The two sequels were disappointments, but they still made a ton of money, and Disney wanted more. The fourth movie will not have Orlando Bloom or Keira Knightley, though Depp will be returning. Really, what is Pirates without Captain Jack Sparrow?

As it turns out, Pirates 4: On Stranger Tides is currently filming on O'ahu, where I live. Apparently they will be filming sections of the movie on both O'ahu and Kaua'i; Maui and Moloka'i were used for small parts of Pirates 3. The islands have been chosen for their range of beautiful land and seascapes, and of course for the tax incentives. The state estimates that the movie could bring in $85 million to Hawaii, which is sorely needed as the largely tourism-based economy has been hurting in the global economic crisis.

Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz arrived on the island for filming about a week ago. While they are pretty hard to spot, there are some players in the movie that are much more difficult to hide: the pirate ships. One of the pirate ships for the movie is currently docked in Kaneohe Bay, and the Housemate and I went out to see it on Saturday morning.

The end of the dock is blocked off, so the public can only get so close to the ship. If I had a boat I could get closer (harder for them to block off the water), but it wasn't a bad view. From what I can gather, this ship has been used as the Black Pearl, but in its current state it is "playing" Queen Anne's Revenge, Blackbeard's ship (Blackbeard will be played by Ian McShane). I guess ships as well as people can put on different outfits and play different characters.

Queen Anne's Revenge, from the dock. Click for a larger view.

The big white cube in the middle may be a light that they use when they shoot at night.

Blown up detail shots:

The flag

The skeleton figurehead

Total grainy zoom paparazzi shot.

The cage of skeletons hanging off the stern

View from the beach

Me and the ship!

Bonus geek points if you can identify the shirt.

The pirate ship wasn't the only thing to see on the trip. This is a different view from the dock.

The mountains were pretty cloudy and rainy. Here's a photo I snapped from the car on the way back.

And another photo taken out the car window

I don't know whether the fourth Pirates movie will restore the franchise to its former glory or send it down to Davy Jones' locker. Hopefully the new blood (new cast members and new director) will make it fresh again. Either way, I'll probably see it, and I'll be keeping an eye out for any familiar sights.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mass Effect Magnets!

Lately I've been chuckling mischievously (a little heh heh heh heh heh) every time I pass by my refrigerator. What could inspire such odd behavior? I just received my awesome Mass Effect magnets in the mail!

Simply searching "Mass Effect" on Etsy led me to these little gems from Stephanie B. The set includes all the Mass Effect 2 party members, plus Joker (he does get his playable moment, after all) and a bonus "Shepard. Wrex." magnet (a Mass Effect 1 thing, but I'm not complaining). Here they all are:

I was playing around with them on the fridge. This arrangement is a vague nod to my choices in the suicide mission.

When I saw these magnets on Etsy, I just had to get them because the faces are too adorable. These are scary and formidable characters...but they're so cute! Jack and Grunt in particular make me laugh--the little frowns. I never thought a set of magnets could make me so happy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Spongy veggies and foul fruits: Trying new foods at Spices

My mom is going home tonight. Phew! Wasn't sure I'd make it. She's been a little easier in the past couple days because she finally realized that I was tired of her sitting around my house the whole evening so I couldn't do my normal evening things. And we can finally start to clear out our fridge. At the moment, we have leftovers from at least six different meals waiting to be eaten; when one's mother takes one out to restaurants every night, the leftovers just pile up. Actually, I'm going out to dinner with her tonight right before she leaves, so tomorrow will be the day we start to feast on leftovers. Hopefully none have gone bad...

So I've eaten at a lot of restaurants since my mom got here four weeks ago, at least seven (off the top of my head) that I'd never been to before. There was Shokudo, where they serve modern Japanese food including mochi cheese gratin and sushi pizza (rice on seaweed/nori makes the "crust" and the toppings include crab and jalapeño). There was the Green Papaya restaurant on Keeaumoku, where we had some delicious tamarind shrimp (the shrimp were still in their shells which was annoying, but it was so darn tasty I didn't care). Still, in spite of so many other worthy candidates, the most surprisingly different restaurant I went to with my mom was Spices.

Spices is a restaurant that one of my friends from school had mentioned before, and I'd driven by it many times but never tried it. So when my mom said last night that she'd take the Housemate and me out for dinner as a final thank you for letting her use our car and asked where we'd like to go, I remembered Spices and looked up its menu on the website. The restaurant features southeast Asian cuisine including Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Laotian. There are plenty of Thai and Vietnamese places in town, but I'd never been anywhere that claimed Burmese or Laotian styles of cooking. I was intrigued, and the restaurant is actually quite close to my house, so we decided to try it. I am very glad we went, because aside from having some delicious dishes, I got to try a few foods that were completely new to me.

Even before we ordered, the meal started off well. The waiter gave us a tall clear glass bottle (like a wine bottle) of water with a large mint sprig floating inside. I've seen things like that before, but still it was pretty classy. And I like mint water. My favorite dish (not counting dessert) of the night was our appetizer, tod man, which was made of ground catfish formed into thick, round patties and deep fried, and seasoned with red curry and other yummy flavors. The texture was pleasantly crunchy and chewy, and the flavor was delicious. The other dish we ate as an appetizer was taro shoot salad. Taro root is a common food item here in Hawaii (McDonald's even sells taro pie, made with the purple root), but I'd never seen taro shoots listed on a menu. We had to order it to see what it was like. It was totally different from what I expected. You'll just have to have a look at it:

Taro shoot slice. It has holes like honeycomb or something! The green flake on it is a bit of mint leaf.

The thick shoots were sliced thin, so they were shaped a bit like an oval cut open at one end. Each slice was surprisingly porous. Munching on the taro shoot, it was both spongy and crisp at the same time. It was pretty fascinating. The taste was pleasant though very mild, no stronger than a bland lettuce, but there was a sauce to dip it in, and the holes in the taro shoot slices were very effective at holding the sauce. Unfortunately for me the sauce had a mustard flavor, which I don't care for, but my mom and Housemate enjoyed it a lot.

For our entrées, we had Laotian curry and lad na. The lad na was a good but not outstanding noodle dish; I didn't love it because I thought it was too salty. Personal taste there, I guess. But the Laotian curry was delicious. The most exciting thing about it was it had these little "pea eggplants" I'd never had before. They were slightly larger than a pea and reminded me of cherry tomatoes in that when I bit into them, they'd explode. Their skin was probably proportionally thicker than a cherry tomato, maybe just because they were smaller, so it was an even more dramatic explosion when the seeds came spurting out in my mouth. And their flavor was different and nice.

For dessert, the restaurant serves a rotating selection of maybe eight or ten very interesting flavors of homemade ice cream. We got a three-scoop sampler, so we tried Okinawan sweet potato (known for their purple color), pineapple basil, and durian. The Okinawan sweet potato was mild but tasty, though it had the slight graininess of sweet potatoes. The pineapple basil was absolutely delicious, I would order it again without a second thought. Not a combination that I would have thought of, but it was absolutely amazing. The durian... Well, it was very, very interesting. I'd never had durian before, though I've seen it in the store here in Hawaii, and I know of its reputation. Here's a picture of the bad boy, taken from the extensive Wikipedia page on durians, which you can check out if you're interested:

There are a number of varieties of durian, each with different flavors (I'm not sure how much the flavor varies), but I think they are all known for having a really bad odor. Some choice quotes off the Wikipedia page:
"British novelist Anthony Burgess writes that eating durian is 'like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.'... Richard Sterling says, 'Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.'... Other comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs."
The smell is so strong that it has been banned from many hotels and public transportation.

According to Wikipedia, this is from Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit. This looks like a joke, but the Housemate (who has lived in Indonesia) assures me that you really do see these signs in places where durians are popular.

Well, now that I have tasted it (and the Housemate assures me that the ice cream tasted just like durian, though with cream and sugar), I would have to agree with the "sewage" description. The ice cream, fortunately, was not fragrant from a distance. I had to hold it within an inch of my nose to smell it. But it smelled a lot like sewage. So why eat something that smells like sewage? Well, when you taste it, there is still a little of the bad odor flavor in the background, mainly as a temporary aftertaste, and it is not so strong that you think you're eating sewage. But mainly what you taste is a number of other flavors that I am at a loss to describe, other than that they are interesting, fruity, and pleasant. 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described durian thus: "A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes." I'm not sure I'd pick any of those out of my taste of durian, but this guy Wallace was a big fan. And there are many big fans of durians' unique, complex taste.

I don't think I'd order durian ice cream again. I found that ultimately whatever interesting and pleasant fruity tastes there were in the durian did not compensate for the unpleasantness. But I can conceive of acquiring the taste and understand why some people love it. I guess the durian is best compared to cilantro in that way, since the herb has both a pleasant herby taste as well as a flavor some compare to body odor; whether you like it or not depends on which you taste more strongly (I think there may even be a genetic trait which prevents people from tasting the nice flavor, so those people are usually not fans). Since I have still never tried the actual durian fruit, I would be willing to do that, so I have an idea of the texture as well. The fruit apparently smells much stronger, but at least now I know what to expect when I try it.

I had a really fun time at Spices. Even though I probably would not order the durian ice cream again, unless I was there with someone new who needed to be introduced to it, I enjoyed trying it. I can't imagine how boring it must be to be an unadventurous eater. So what if my burps tasted a bit like poop for the next hour or two? It didn't kill me, and it was an intriguing experience! I would definitely order the catfish patties, the Laotian curry, and the pineapple basil ice cream again. I'm dying to go back so I can try a Burmese dish and also their pandan ice cream (I'd never heard of pandan before, but apparently it's a long grassy leaf that tastes somewhat like vanilla). I'm definitely looking forward to a second night at Spices... especially because it will be mom free--just the Housemate and me.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Crabcat Industries

Some of you may already be acquainted with Holly Conrad, a lovely and talented blogger who comments here sometimes and who was one of my recipients of the Geek Girls Unite blog award a few months ago. If you haven't been following her in the past couple months, you should know that she has been up to some EPIC things.

As I mentioned in one of my posts this past May, Morgan Spurlock (Super-Size Me) is working with the likes of Stan Lee and Joss Whedon on a documentary about Comic-Con fans, to be called Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's Hope. At that time, they were taking applications from people going to Comic-Con to find a handful of fans to follow for the documentary.

Holly, BioWare gamer geek and costume-maker extraordinaire, applied for the documentary and got a call-back interview and a request to make a ten-minute audition video. The video was AMAZING, showcasing her progress on two Mass Effect costumes--including an animatronic Grunt--and telling of her plans to enter them in the annual Comic-Con Masquerade. Kotaku picked up her video, and suddenly it had thousands of views. We were all rooting for her. Here is the video:

Really, given that video, how could the documentary people not want to feature her? Well, just before Comic-Con, the news broke that she and her costuming team had been chosen for the documentary! How awesome is that?

Holly Conrad (Verner) & Co. went to Comic-Con and totally rocked it. Check out this photo I poached from their Etsy site:

Felicia Day + Mass Effect = too much awesomeness to handle.

Their costumes and skit in the Masquerade earned three awards including Judges' Choice. Check out the video here. It's best if you know the game, but you can still appreciate the amazing costumes.

For the full story of their experience at this year's Comic-Con, I guess we'll just wait for the movie to come out next year!

But back to the present. Though Comic-Con is over, Holly's Normandy crew isn't ready to dock for good. They want to go to PAX in Seattle for a panel they've been invited to to talk about costume-making, animatronics, Mass Effect, etc., but they spent all their money on Comic-Con (those costumes are super expensive). They need some help. So if you are so inclined, you can go to Holly's blog and donate there. If you don't want to part with money without material gain, check out their Etsy store, Crabcat Industries. At the moment they are only selling Tali Bands (headbands made out of the fabric used for Tali's distinctive outfit), but they may have new stuff coming, and they do take requests.

So if you want to see Shepard, Tali, and Grunt take on PAX, make like Cerberus's secret donors and throw them some credit chits.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mom, go home already

Warning: This is a more personal post than I usually do, and it's not that nice; it may not paint me in a particularly positive light. It's also pretty rambling and less edited than my usual. It's better suited for a personal diary than a blog, but I do these posts from time to time to sort of air my thoughts. Basically, you will probably not be interested in this post. But you're welcome to read on if you are.

As of the publication of this post, my mother has been in Honolulu for 24 days, 11 hours, and 5 minutes. And I feel like she really needs to pack her bags and go home right last week. Seriously. I was totally ready for her to go last weekend, but now after this weekend I am so sick of her I'm going nuts. Really, I've almost started crying a couple times thinking about it. Wednesday, when she finally will leave on a jet plane, cannot come fast enough.

Don't get me wrong, I love my mother dearly, and she's really quite a nice person. And things could be a lot worse in terms of how much she's disrupting my life here. She could be staying with me, sleeping on my floor. I could be the only person in town she's visiting; her main duty this trip may actually be to help out her parents, who are 90 and 88 and need some help around their retirement home apartment (sorting out junk from their closets, driving to various doctor appointments and such). She also has other relatives here to see, and even some old friends from high school to have a lunch with here and there. So it's not like she is with me all the time.

Still, out of the last eleven days (beyond that it all starts blending together), I have had ten dinners with my mother. In that many days I recall having four lunches with her; lunches are a little lighter because I have the excuse of work during the day. And the dinners aren't just quick meals. I have become her evening entertainment, so she will be with me from whenever she gets her hands on me until maybe 9:30 or 10 when she goes back to her aunt's house where she is staying. It was all I could do during the week to keep her from picking me up straight from work (No, Mom, I will walk home. I'll call you when I want you to come over). You may be thinking, Hey, it doesn't sound so bad to be treated to dinner so many times! and it isn't bad (except for my waistline). But five of those ten dinners I've had with her were actually at my home, with either my food or leftovers (craftily planted in my fridge so she'd have an excuse to come over for dinner). And only one of those five dinners were invited. The rest were bullied. In most cases, my mom lays out her options so as to make me feel even worse about not giving her dinner than I feel about giving her dinner: "Well I don't know what I'd eat because I left my lunch leftovers in your fridge..." (Right... And why did you do that, huh?). Or: "Let's see, either I can eat with you, or I can have my parents steal me scraps from their dining hall." And then there are the self-invitations. One evening after I'd already spent lunch and all afternoon with her, she dropped me off back at home, and just sat around in our house for long enough that the Housemate offered her dinner. Tonight she actually she came into my house and told the Housemate that I had invited her for dinner when that was definitely not the case. But he did happen to be cooking something at the time. Lucky her.

See, what I usually do for dinner is snuggle up on the couch with the Housemate and watch a TV show (lately we've been making our way through The Big Bang Theory). But thanks to my mom, this is something we haven't been able to do since...I guess two weeks ago Tuesday. This is my mom's vacation, not mine. I'm a person who needs a little "me time": some time alone (or with my boyfriend) where I can watch TV, surf the internet, etc. If I were on vacation, that would be one thing. But since I am working, I have to make the most of my free time. Basically, this is my real life, and it is being disrupted.

As much as I've been annoyed by the endless dinners with my mom, she told me tonight that she is actually doing it in order to pay me back for the big favor that I have done for her (so she claims; I think most of the dinners we've had together have been to spend time with me and/or because she had no better options). What favor? I have lent her my car. "How much do you use your car? It costs so much to rent one--I'll be in Honolulu for a whole month... And you know Dad's job isn't looking so stable at this point, and your brother is still in college..." It's all true, though I am a little ticked to learn that they are going to spend a week in Tortola later this month (their very well-off college friends have a house there that they've been invited to, so it's not quite as expensive as it sounds). But anyway, since I walk to work, I only regularly need the car to go the grocery store, and my mom assured me that she could give me the car when I needed groceries, or she could take me to the store (ooh, even better).

It wasn't so bad not having my car for the first week or so. For the first week and a half, both my parents were here, and I took off three days of work to vacation with them. The Housemate was away for a number of those days on a research cruise, and I was happy to have my dad here because he hadn't come out to Hawaii when I moved here last summer (unlike my mom, with whom I had a few bad spats that month that I still stew about from time to time). A week and a half is a good amount of time to have one's parents visit.

But as the weeks have gone on, I have really started to realize how much I need the car. My car is freedom. I am so past having to ask my mom for permission to go to the grocery store. There are a number of errands I've put off because I didn't want to have to ask my mom to borrow the car. Sometimes I want to lend my car to my boyfriend so he can go surfing. Sometimes I want to go to the movies with my boyfriend. Sometimes I want to go to a party. Sometimes I want to go to the beach. Sometimes I just don't want my mom to have an excuse to invite herself into my house for dinner.

At least my mom isn't staying at my house. My mom could not guilt me into letting my mom sleep on my floor. "I feel bad about staying a whole month at my aunt's house. I don't want to intrude too much on them. Do you think it would be possible for me to stay at your house for a little while?" I resisted, and luckily my dad took my side. My house is not all that roomy, and with the other housemates in the house it would have been awkward.

Furthermore, if she were sleeping over, that would mean that I couldn't sleep with my boyfriend Housemate, which would have been a sad missed opportunity because our other roommates moved out last week and have not yet been replaced, so we've got the place entirely to ourselves. And I wouldn't even have been able to sleep with him with her in the house if she did know that he's my boyfriend. Ah, there's the other complication that is driving me crazy. It seemed easier at the time not to tell my parents that I was sleeping with the Housemate. I didn't want the questions, the cautions, the judgments; and the Housemate, meeting my parents for the first time, did not want the scrutiny, either. But it means that every moment that I am with my mom--and this has been a lot of time--I have not been able to show affection for my boyfriend. It's a huge pain.

So there's my rambling explanation of why I'm so ready for my mom to go home: the dinners, the car, the boyfriend. What's more is that she actually wants to go home herself. Last summer she was here for a whole month as well, but so was my younger brother, so they could always do fun stuff together even when I started working. But this time she's alone. She has been complaining to me about the amount of time she's been spending with her parents, and I can definitely relate. She knows I'm annoyed about not having my car. I think she's finally realizing I'm annoyed about all the dinners. She's starting to feel bad about it all. Even she thinks her vacation should have been one week shorter. But she's stuck here until her plane leaves.

Mom, you're wonderful, I love you, it's nice to see you, please leave.

Oh, and I'll see you for dinner tonight. You'll drive by my place around 6:15, right?