The Samovar

Newsflash: meatsacks already being made
May 27, 2007, 2:44 pm
Filed under: Ethics, Food, Frivolity, Morality, Philosophy

In a previous entry I posed an ethical question for vegetarians – would it be OK to eat meat if you could grow it without an animal? Well it turns out that people are already doing this. In fact, this man is already doing it:


At the moment, it’s not that appetising, here is a frog steak they made:


It is also, rather expensive:

The only problem was that no one was interested in eating his fish nuggets, perhaps because his tiny goldfish filets matured in something called fetal calf serum.

Matheny estimates that a kilogram of laboratory meat would cost about half a million dollars if it were grown in calf serum.

In order to make faux meat a reality, then, one of the first tasks is to develop an inexpensive ersatz nutrient solution from plants or mushrooms. Maitake mushrooms, for example, have already proved to be a possible alternative.

It also turns out that vegetarians have already been discussing the issue (both in favour of the idea, and against it).

Some other interesting links:

  • From Innovation Watch
  • The Guardian got in on the act (incidentally, it’s a nice case of nominative determinism that the Guardian’s science correspondent is called Ian Sample)

More searches
May 25, 2007, 1:41 pm
Filed under: Search Terms

These just get madder and madder…

  • green asparagus extreme cooking  -oh my god! Extreme cooking! That is do damn cool.
  • bananas and nervous system – apparently if you eat too many bananas the build-up of potassium can be lethal (note: may be an urban myth), and potassium is an important chemical in the nervous system. No idea if these have anything to do with each other.
  • “eating alone” in “the fat duck” – don’t do it! Take a friend.
  • samovar brainwave decrappification – erm?
  • what are some shortcomings of capitalism – I could say a lot about this. Instead, I’ll just direct you to Znet.
  • human meat substitute – OK I wrote that entry as a joke people!

A week in searching
May 16, 2007, 2:30 am
Filed under: Frivolity, Search Terms

It’s been a good week, people have got to my blog by searching for:

  • “drinking gravy” – lots of advice here about that, highly recommended
  • What does our cake is dough mean? – something about a plan going wrong?
  • how does one spell 12th in Mathematics – twelfth, same as everywhere else. Odd though, I agree
  • pigeon war – it’s more of a cold war at the moment, but we’ve got the pelicans on our side
  • photo knife stomach – disturbing, I hope they didn’t find what they were looking for
  • bonobo nervous system – Ed? This one seems to be about you
  • how to improve the nervous system – optimistic, but I’m working on it
  • poems on discrimination based on religion – I have no idea

But best of all was:

  • is it ok to eat rat meat – I think probably yes if you feel like it, but please see the comments on the meat sack entry
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John McDonnell
May 15, 2007, 3:55 am
Filed under: Business, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

A while ago I wrote an entry on this blog about whether or not the Labour party could get my vote, including some suggestions and ideas about how you might make them electable. Anyway, Labour MP John McDonnell is contesting the Labour party leadership against Gordon Brown, and it turns out that many of his policies (summarised in the list below, and see also this document, which I’ve not yet had time to read fully) are the same as mine.

  • The withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The end to privatisation of public services.
  • A Real Living Minimum Wage of at least £7 an hour.
  • A green energy policy based on renewable power sources.
  • An increase in the Basic State Pension from £84.25 to £114 a week.
  • Defence of comprehensive education and the abolition of student tuition fees.
  • The restoration of trade union rights and civil liberties.

I haven’t yet had time to read up fully on the guy, so this is mostly just speculation on my part. It seems to me though that the only reason not to support a campaign like this is that it is a return to the bad old days when Labour couldn’t get elected (indeed, Gordon Brown made exactly this point in a debate with McDonnell). But if this is so, why is it so? I think the answer is that it’s not ‘business friendly’ which I take to mean ideologically committed to corporate interests. Is it possible to have a party that proposes some of the items on this list without being considered unfriendly to business, or is a commitment to social justice considered too strong a signal of business unfriendliness (probably not inaccurately)?

A recommendation
May 14, 2007, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Economics, Politics, Risk, Security, Security Theater

For those of you who haven’t already found it, Bruce Schneier’s blog is a must-read for anyone who has an interest in privacy and security. He presents rigorously analysed, rational views in an extremely easy to read manner. As an example, one of his most useful concepts is “security theater” defined by wikipedia as “security countermeasures that provide the feeling of security while doing little or nothing actually to improve security”. It’s a description that perfectly encapsulates a lot of policy since the WTC attacks.

His latest article – Does secrecy help protect personal information? – is a good illustration:

Personal information protection is an economic problem, not a security problem. And the problem can be easily explained: The organizations we trust to protect our personal information do not suffer when information gets exposed. On the other hand, individuals who suffer when personal information is exposed don’t have the capability to protect that information.

Credit card companies make more money extending easy credit and making it trivial for customers to use their cards than they lose from fraud. They won’t improve their security as long as you (and not they) are the one who suffers from identity theft. It’s the same for banks and brokerages: As long as you’re the one who suffers when your account is hacked, they don’t have any incentive to fix the problem.

Image decrappification
May 13, 2007, 2:28 am
Filed under: WordPress

Some time ago I wrote about how custom image headers on WordPress were being saved at a very low quality. Well, it seems that at some point between then and now it’s been fixed. Now if you upload an image of exactly the correct number of pixels it won’t crappify it. For this theme, that’s 750×140 pixels. As you can see, I’m now seasonal…

Meat without the nervous system
May 10, 2007, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Ethics, Food, Morality, Philosophy

A thought strikes me – would it be OK to eat meat if it came from an ‘animal’ without a nervous system (central or otherwise)? This may seem a silly question to ask because all the animals whose meat we eat actually does have a nervous system, but what if our understanding of biochemistry were to improve to the point where we could – say – grow a steak without growing a cow? Or if we could knock out a combination of genes in an animal which produce its nervous system and get an animal to give birth to what is essentially just a meat sack? My feeling is that even a vegetarian would have to agree that the former is acceptable, although possibly not the latter.

The second question that follows on from this is: would it be OK to eat meat from an actual animal if it was possible to grow its meat without killing a whole animal? My feeling on this is that in this circumstance nobody could justify killing and eating animals.

So are we destined for a future of ethical meat eating?

Postscript: The other question this raises is: what about animals with a minimal nervous system like a snail say? How do vegetarians feel about eating these? A snail has about 20k neurons compared to about 100k for a fruit fly, 1m for a cockroach, 21m for a rat and 300bn for a human – according to this unsourced wikipedia entry. It seems to me that if you’re willing to swat a fly you should be willing to eat a snail.

Post-postscript: One other question raised is would it be ethical to eat human meat that had been grown in this way? Anyone for ethical cannibalism?

You do knot see that very often
May 9, 2007, 2:43 pm
Filed under: Mathematics

As I was clearing away some computer cables, I saw a rather unusual knot.


It’s unusual because you don’t normally see such a topologically complicated knot. The most common knot seen in tangled wires is the trefoil knot, the simplest possible knot:


A word on this picture: mathematical knots are always loops, imagine cutting the knot in the picture above and pulling apart the two cut ends to see what it would look like in wires. Click on the picture for more information than you probably want to know about this knot.

So anyway, returning to my cable knot. I wondered to myself: just how unusual is this knot, and which knot is it? This is actually a more difficult question than you might think. In general, the problem of working out if any two knots are the same is very difficult. Mathematically, two knots are the same if you can go from one to the other by pulling and rearranging but without cutting. In fact, determining this in general leads to some of the most abstruse and difficult of modern mathematics, including the subject of my PhD thesis, hyperbolic geometry.

Fortunately, this is a fairly simple knot and I thought it was likely I’d be able to identify it. First thing to do was to make the knot as simple as possible. I used KnotPlot software to input my knot, and it rearranged it to make it a bit prettier:


It also computed the knot’s HOMFLY polynomial for me, which is a good way of identifying knots. For every knot, you can calculate an algebraic expression called the HOMFLY polynomial – this expression is the same however you rearrange it. One way of identifying knots is to compute this polynomial, look up in a table which knots have the same polynomial, and see if you can by hand rearrange your knot to show that it’s the same knot. This worked for my knot.

In the picture above, there are 8 ‘crossings’ (that is, points where one thread crosses another). But, you can rearrange the knot fairly easily so that it only has 7 crossings (the loop at the bottom right that goes through the loop at the top right can be jiggled around a bit so that there are 2 crossings in this area rather than the 3 you can see in that picture. Every knot has a ‘crossing number’ which is the smallest number of crossings you can rearrange the knot to have. The trefoil knot has a crossing number of 3, and it’s the only knot with only 3 crossings. Having rearranged my knot, I knew that it had a crossing number of 7 or less. So I loaded up the tables of all knots whose crossing number is 7 or less using KnotInfo. It turns out there are only 14 of them. Looking up the HOMFLY polynomial I found mine, it’s called ‘7-2‘, which means it’s the second knot in the table with a crossing number of 7. Here is the nicest way of drawing it:


In answer to my original question: there are seven knots in the table which are simpler than this knot, and seven which are equally complex (measured in terms of the crossing number). So in some sense it’s the 8th (equally) likely knot to come across.

If you’re interested in the mathematical theory of knots, try this Wikipedia page.

Oh, and in case you wanted to know, the HOMFLY polynomial for this knot is:

a2 + a2z2 + a4z2 + a6 + a6z2 – a8

Now back to work…

Fact of the day
May 3, 2007, 11:51 pm
Filed under: Politics, Risk, Terrorism

In the three months following the WTC attacks, over 1000 people died because they travelled by car instead of by plane.

(From this interesting article.)

Comments Off on Fact of the day

May 3, 2007, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I just had a brainwave on cooking asparagus.

Most people boil asparagus for varying lengths of time. There’s a trade-off between how flavoursome the end result is, and the texture. If you boil for 2 or 3 minutes, you keep much of the flavour but you end up with a texture which is too crunchy for many people. If you boil for longer, you lose a lot of flavour into the water. There is also a change in the quality of the flavour, boiling it for a short period of times gives it a much ‘grassier’ flavour.

Steaming asparagus is a great improvement as much less flavour is lost into the water. About 4 or 5 minutes works reasonably well.

One way to keep more of the flavour is to cook the asparagus in a small amount of oil or butter instead of a large amount of water. Sauteing, baking and roasting all produce lovely strongly flavoured asparagus. But there’s another problem here, which is that when you use these methods, it tends to colour the asparagus. At the extreme (cooking them in a frying pan with oil) you tend to get almost burnt bits by the time the asparagus is cooked through. This is worst at the tips, a problem you can alleviate by cutting off the very fine hairy bit at the very tip. This method of cooking them also tends to accentuate the dark, earthy qualities of the flavour, which is sometimes just what you want but not always.

The biggest breakthrough for me was seeing how Heston Blumenthal (one of the top chefs in the world) cooks asparagus. His method is to peel the stalks but leaves the tips as they are (see below), and then to cook them gently in a frying pan in butter. He also recommends serving them with very thin slices of button mushrooms, shavings of white truffle and finely chopped chervil – very luxurious but not very practical. Whenever I can be bothered I now use the peeling method which seems to bring out all the unique qualities of the asparagus flavour without the grassy or earthy flavours (which are presumably denser in the skin of the stalk than elsewhere). But, it’s a lot of work to individually peel asparagus stalks, especially if they are thin ones.


Before I get to the brainwave, here is how my godfather Mikey cooks them. He half boils them, but reserves some of the cooking liquid. Having done so, he puts butter, garlic, the boiled asparagus and the reserved liquid into a pan and finishes cooking them, whilst also reducing the liquid and making a delicious sauce to go with them. It’s a great method, but I thought that it might be possible to do better. First of all – you’re still losing lots of flavour into the water. Not as much because you’re not completely cooking them in the water, and you reserve some of the liquid (but only a small amount). Second – this method commits you to having a sauce to go with them. Usually that’s fine, but what if you wanted to use them as part of another recipe rather than serving on their own?

So at last, the brainwave…

I wanted a method for cooking asparagus which didn’t involve peeling, but retained as much flavour as possible, inspired by Mikey’s method. I tried my new method tonight (along with a Dorade stuffed with thyme and baked with tomatoes, olives, white wine, olive oil, bay leaves and slices of lemon), and it worked very well indeed.

In a frying pan large enough to hold all the asparagus you intend to cook in roughly one layer (a bit of overlap is fine, but not as much as two layers), melt a decent amount of butter. Maybe 20g of butter for a bunch of 15-20 spears. Enough to generously coat the base of the pan anyway. Throw in the asparagus, stir and cook for a short while. Now pour in a small amount of boiling water from a kettle, enough to come half way up the asparagus spears. Bring this to the boil and cook at a fast simmer or slow boil. You want to time it so that the water has all boiled off at the exact moment that the asparagus is cooked through. You should end up with a fairly dry pan and juicy, perfectly cooked asparagus.

It’s still not quite as good as the peeling method, but it’s the best I’ve managed so far without peeling. You still lose some flavour to the boiled off water, but not as much as simply boiling or steaming.