Wednesday, November 30, 2011


A festive Chinese dish

Zucchini with garlic sauce, Chinese styleOn a recent trip to Shenzhen, China, two colleagues and I went to a restaurant for dinner and happened onto a dish that was splendid to look at and delicious to eat. As we looked at the menu, the picture caught my eye: stripes of red, green, yellow, and brown. What is this?, I asked my Chinese-speaking colleague. He asked the waitress, and then told me it was eggplant underneath, and the stripes were red pepper, garlic, and such. We ordered it, and we all loved it. I decided I’d try making something like it at home.

I did that the other day. I wanted to make it vegetarian, so I replaced the ground pork (the brown strip) in the original with chopped brown mushrooms. I had a bunch of zucchini in the ’fridge, so I used that instead of eggplant for the base. And I made up a Chinese sauce on the fly — any tasty brown sauce will do, so try something based on hoisin, or oyster sauce, or black bean sauce....

Here’s the result (click the image above to see how it looked):

Vegetable with garlic sauce, festively presented


About four zucchini or Chinese eggplant, sliced (see instruction 5)
Chopped fresh garlic, about 3 tablespoons
Hot red chilis, sliced or coarsely chopped, about 1/4 cup
Chopped brown mushrooms, about 1/2 cup
Chopped fresh cilantro, 1/4 cup or so
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 cup water


  1. Get some rice started, if you want to serve rice with this. No, that’s not in the ingredient list.
  2. Using a little mild cooking oil, sauté the garlic on low heat for a few minutes to soften. You want the colour, so don’t brown it. Set the lightly cooked garlic aside in a small bowl.
  3. Do the same for the chilis, setting them aside in a separate bowl.
  4. Sauté the mushrooms, and cook them until they get a nice, dark colour and lose much of their water. Set them aside in a third bowl.
  5. Mix the hoisin, soy, sesame oil, and water, and set that aside. Alternatively, make up whatever sort of Chinese brown sauce you like.
  6. I like to slice the zucchini or Chinese eggplant (the long, thin ones; don’t use the big fat ones we usually find in American stores) by cutting them in half lengthwise, then slicing each half crosswise on a diagonal, about 1/4 inch thick. That makes slices that are a good size and shape, and that look nice. However you do it, slice your vegetable.
  7. Get a large pan nice and hot, with a couple of tablespoons of mild cooking oil in it. Make sure the pan is hot before you add the vegetable.
  8. Sauté your sliced vegetable until it’s almost cooked — it should be tender, but not falling apart.
  9. Add the sauce and finish cooking, letting the sauce reduce.


  1. Transfer the vegetable to a nice serving plate, and spread it evenly over the plate.
  2. Using the chilis, garlic, cilantro, and mushrooms, cover the vegetable with stripes (see the photo).
  3. Take a picture.
  4. When everyone’s ready to tuck into it, use chopsticks or a spoon to mix it all around. You’ve destroyed the lovely look, but now it’s all about the taste.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Stan and George

Today gave us one great musician, and took away another, both of whom I’ve written about in these pages before. Canadian singer/songwriter Stan Rogers was born on this day in 1949. English singer/songwriter George Harrison died ten years ago today. Go back to my earlier posts for my comments about them. Here, just a quotation or two from their songs.

Watch the field behind the plow
Turn to straight, dark rows
Feel the trickle in your toes
Blow the dust-cake from your nose
Hear the tractor’s steady roar
Oh, you can’t stop now
There’s a quarter section, more or less, to go

And it figures that the rain
Keeps its own sweet time
You can watch it come for miles
But you guess you’ve got a while
So east the throttle out a hair
Every rod’s a gain
And there’s victory in every quarter mile

— Stan Rogers, The Field Behind the Plow, 1981

Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive
        [The end of the line]
I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive
        [The end of the line]
It don’t matter if you’re by my side
        [The end of the line]
I’m satisfied

Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey
Well it’s all right, you still got something to say
Well it’s all right, remember to live and let live
Well it’s all right, the best you can do is forgive

Well it’s all right, riding around in the breeze
Well it’s all right, if you live the life you please
Well it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine
Well it’s all right, were going to the end of the line

— George Harrison, et al, The End of the Line, 1988

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Happy birthday, Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was born on this day in 1942, in Washington — the state, not the city. He died far too young, at 27.

And so castles made of sand
Fall in the sea

— Jimi Hendrix, 1967

Thursday, November 24, 2011



The navigation system in my car has an anti-theft feature that’s interesting, in that it relies entirely on a sort of herd immunity. The system is installed in the car’s dashboard, so it’s somewhat involved to pull it out. Easy for a pro, to be sure, but I mean that it’s not like one of those that sits on top, and one can just grab it and run.

When it’s first powered on after installation, the owner has the option of setting a password. If a password is set and the unit is ever disconnected from the battery, as it would be if it were stolen (or, of course, when the car battery is replaced, or when servicing the car requires disconnecting the battery), the password has to be entered in order for the device to be used again. The only way to recover from a forgotten password is to have the manufacturer reset the system — and they will, one presumes, take some measures to ensure that you hadn’t simply boosted it.

The interesting thing about this mechanism is that there’s no way for a thief to know whether or not a password is set. This anti-theft feature does nothing to actually prevent theft, but only to prevent the use of the system after it’s stolen. That’s only a deterrent if the thief knows two things: that this model has this feature and that almost all owners set a password (so that the likelihood of stealing a usable unit is too low to be worth the trouble).

Setting a password does absolutely nothing for your own device’s security — once it’s stolen, no thief will come put it back when he finds that he can’t use it nor sell it. Rather, we all depend on the widespread knowledge, at least among thieves, that everyone sets one. If I opt out, I’m covered by the rest of you. But if too many people opt out, then no one’s unit is safe.

And there is a big down side to setting a password: when your battery’s disconnected for service, if you’ve forgotten the password (which you only used once, maybe several years ago) your nav system becomes a brick.

Perhaps all in-dash navigation systems use this mechanism, and thieves are well aware of that (and new thieves soon will be). I wonder, though, how many owners choose not to set a password.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Degrees of separation

New Scientist tells us about Facebook’s analysis of the friend relationships in their social network. Only four degrees of separation, says Facebook, goes the New Scientist headline. Here’s their summary:

A few months ago, we reported that a Yahoo team planned to test the six degrees of separation theory on Facebook. Now, Facebook’s own data team has beat them to the punch, proving that most Facebook users are only separated by four degrees.

Facebook researchers pored through the records of all 721 million active users, who collectively have designated 69 billion "friendships" among them. The number of friends differs widely. Some users have designated only a single friend, probably the person who persuaded them to join Facebook. Others have accumulated thousands. The median is about 100.

To test the six degrees theory, the Facebook researchers systematically tested how many friend connections they needed to link any two users. Globally, they found a sharp peak at five hops, meaning that most pairs of Facebook users could be connected through four intermediate people also on Facebook (92 per cent). Paths were even shorter within a single country, typically involving only three other people, even in large countries such as the US.

The world, they conclude, just became a little smaller.

Well, maybe. There are a lot of things at play here, and it’s not simple. It is interesting, and it’s worth continuing to play with the data, but it’s not simple.

They’re studying a specific collection of people, who are already connected in a particular way: they use Facebook. That gives us a situation where part of the conclusion is built right into the study. To use the Kevin Bacon comparison, if we just look at movie actors, we’ll find closer connections to Mr Bacon than in the world at large. Perhaps within the community of movie actors, everyone’s within, say, four degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I don’t know any people in the movie industry directly, but I know people who do, so there’s two additional degrees to get to me. We can’t look at a particular community of people and generalize it to those outside that community.

There’s also a different model of friends on Facebook, compared with how acquaintance works in the real world. For some people, they’re similar, of course, but many Facebook users have lots of friends whom they don’t actually know. Sometimes they know them through Facebook or other online systems, and sometimes they don’t know them at all. Promiscuous friending might or might not be a bad thing, depending upon what one wants to use one’s Facebook identity for, but it skews studies like this, in any case.

People would play with similar things in the real-life six degrees game. Reading a book by my favourite author doesn’t count, but if I passed him on the street in New York City, does that qualify? What about if we went into the same building? If he held the door for me? If I went to his book signing, and he shook my hand and signed my copy of his book? Facebook puts a big e-wrinkle on that discussion.

But then, too, it’s clear that with blogs and tweets and social networking, we have changed the way we interconnect and interact, and we have changed how we look at being acquainted with people. I know people from the comments in these pages, and from my reading and commenting on other blogs. Yes, I definitely know them, and some to the point where I call them friends in the older, pre-social-network sense. But some I’ve never met face to face, nor talked with by voice.

So, yes, the world probably is a little smaller than it used to be. It didn’t just get that way suddenly, of course; it’s been moving in that direction for a while. Everything from telephones and airplanes to computers and the Internet have been taking us there.