Archive by Author

2016 Book Roundup

3 Jan

I keep track of the books I read (aside from baby books, which we read by the handful everyday), so I thought this year I’d try something new and share my thoughts on some of the books.  For a few years I’ve been trying to read more female authors, more non-American authors, and more nonfiction.  This year I read less than previous years (or did a worse job of keeping track), with 29 books over the year.  Of 19 unique authors, I had 14 women (best yet!) and 5 men; 11 Americans and 8 non-Americans.  I did a bad job of reading nonfiction this year- a paltry 3 books out of the 29.  I also got REALLY obsessed with a few scifi series, so let’s talk about those first.

SCIENCE FICTION

Books by Octavia Butler: Fledgling, Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster.  Inspired in part by the city of LA celebrating Octavia Butler during 2016, I went on a binge with this masterful fable-teller who works in race, gender, interesting power dynamics, commentary on social structures, and surprising action scenes into her imaginative worlds.  The latter four are part of a loose series; the first one is about racist vampires (Yes, you read that right).  Plus she wrote this awesome note to herself:

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From the magnificent Huntington Library in Pasadena, which I recommend visiting.

I still haven’t read her most famous books, Kindred and the Parable series.  There’s plenty of Octavia Butler to explore and she’s fantastic; can’t recommend her enough.

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes.  This series written by two dudes in New Mexico is now a TV show on ScyFy!  I have not watched it because the books are sort of gory, tense, and scary, and I don’t handle that well in TV (despite reading stuff like The Walking Dead, Preacher, Watchmen, etc. in graphic novel format).  These pleasantly popcorn-y books hide smart literary themes and a surprisingly deep study of their characters- Nemesis Games is my favorite one because each of our protagonists goes on their own adventure and you can appreciate how much they’ve affected each other.  The characters feel fully fleshed out and fun, with lots of flaws and learning about relationships and communication.  Also, they have to constantly save all of humanity from itself/evil aliens/evil people trying to use alien technology.  So that’s a blast.  Definitely recommend for sci-fi enthusiasts.

Unrelated science fiction/fantasy books: 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Leguin is great.  Perhaps the beginning of feminist science fiction?  This is a classic that took me too long to get around to reading. Also great for non-science fiction nerds.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was the first book I read in 2016.  Creepy classic Gaiman.  He did a reading/speaking event here in Austin near the beginning of the year and we saw him read a few of his short stories and poems; it was astonishing.

Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb: these are the first two pulpy fantasy books in a series.  The first book is super fun and includes puppies (not really a spoiler: main character can talk to dogs), but the second book drags.  My spouse read the third and said everything stops making sense.  The first one is super fun if you want a quick fantasy read with puppies in it!  I cried (in a good way).

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card: I had read Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow and never came around to this third book.  I really enjoyed it!  The big reveal is SUPER COOL (if no one spoils it for you/you don’t read the prologue) and the pedantic self-righteousness that can plague OSC books is at a minimum (still there but not horrible).

Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois: there are 32 of these; we have maybe 25 of them.  Fantastic huge collections of the best short stories from that year in science fiction; Dozois does a really good job of including a huge array of diverse voices.  Some of these stories haunt me for years, which means they’re really good.  If you run across one of these volumes it’s worth a buy; you can read and reread these for years.

THE BEST AND MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: AMERICANAH BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHE.  By this point I think I’m on my fourth copy of this book- I keep giving it away to people and telling them that it’s important and that they should read it and pass it on.  Plenty of people this year read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is an important non-fiction book but I hear is a bummer (I have not read it yet and will likely not until my very strong pregnancy hormones taper away).  This book is fiction, which I think is a little bit easier to swallow and still get similar messages across.  Race, immigrant experiences, gender, education, society, and mental health are all tied in to this love story.  If you read a single book from the books I have read in 2016, make it this one.

THE SECOND BEST BUT NOT THAT IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: OUTLINE BY RACHEL CUSK.  This is an experimental-feeling novel where not much happens but you feel a lot of feelings.  Beautiful and evocative prose; I read and reread this book and told several others to read it.  It feels like having a big glass of water while standing in a waterfall- you aren’t sure where the book (the waterfall) ends and you (glass of water) begin, but you’re enjoying a refreshing experience.

Mom books: 

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a great resource for humans; you could easily replace “kids” with “people” in the title and get the same result.  And it includes comic strips if you don’t want to read the whole thing (which is what my spouse did)!  Takeaways: feelings are legitimate and difficult to handle, and we need to validate each other and help each other instead of shutting each other down.  No one likes getting nagged all the time; people like having some autonomy/power/choice, and thrive off of responsibility/reasonable expectations.  The book is chock full of specific and concrete anecdotes and exercises.  It’s from 1980 but it doesn’t feel too dated (everyone in it is white though).

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is a South Korean novel (one of two I read this year) which is haunting and sad and about the sacrifices of motherhood.  I would definitely not read it when in a heightened emotional state.  It also makes you want to call your mom

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang is the other South Korean novel I read this year.  This is GREAT.  I gave my copy to my mother-in-law.  It’s a wonderful short fable about motherhood and would make a great mother’s day gift to tell someone how much you appreciate them.  Plot synopsis: a hen really wants a baby; she adopts a duck egg and spends her life helping her baby learn to fly/fit in where he belongs. It’s adorable and wonderful.  Would also be great for adopted parents.

All other books:

An Abundance of Catherines by John Green: I adored The Fault in Our Stars as a book and movie (and blog post) but hated this book.  I’m not sure why I finished it.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova- every few years I reread this hauntingly beautiful and soft first-person novel about a neuroscientist with early onset Alzheimer’s.  That should tell you how good I think this book is.

The Devil You Know by Claire Kilroy- a satire about the housing crisis and 2008 recession as it affected Ireland.  Generally I like reading non-American authors because it feels like a dip into another culture while still celebrating the universality of the human experience; this one was pretty heavy on the “other culture” part.  Always surprising (in a good way) with an Anglophone country.  I identified far more with the South Korean novels than this one; maybe because I’m Asian or maybe because this was super Irish.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel- a very popular science fiction post-apocalyptic book by a not-science-fiction author.  Unfortunately with my delving into sci-fi over the past few years it’s become harder for me to enjoy these sorts for books, because a small voice inside me (that sounds like my spouse) is screaming “how does this make sense?!?!?!”  I read this lightly and enjoyed a lot of it, but there are a few pages which sum up what I hated about the book: at some point, several of the characters chat about how they didn’t really pay attention in science class and don’t know how things work.  Despite, you know, BOOKS and LIBRARIES and LEARNING.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold- talk about weird other culture experiences!  This Icelandic book is extremely sad and absurd.  I’ve enjoyed absurdist Icelandic music and movies but literature might be a bit too much for me.

So What are You Going to Do With That? by Susan Elizabeth Basalla – I wrote about this in my ‘finding a job’ blog post.

Ashley Turner by Dean Koontz- absolutely the worst thing I’ve read since that Justin Bieber book.

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson- calming and funny and smart.

This blog post got really long!  Wow!  Happy New Year folks!  Goals for my year: survive this pregnancy, make sure my kid survives it, have a baby, get a job, keep up a every-other-week schedule on the blog (versus every week for the past two years).  Thanks to all who have contacted me about job leads- please keep them coming if you hear of anything in the Charlotte, NC area or remote work that you think I would be interested in/awesome at.

The employers’ argument for parental leave

22 Dec
As you may be aware, I’m having a baby in three months.  My spouse’s work offers one week of parental leave to non-primary caretakers of new babies, so I decided to put an hour in of internet research to see if I could make a little report that he could send on to HR or someone who might be interested.  And then since I did that, I figured I’d post it to here!  Happy holidays dear reader!  Maybe this will be helpful to someone.
The main sources are all freely available on the internet.
Overall takeaways:
  • Jobs that offer paid parental leave are increasingly important for Millennials and young workers and increase employee retention, as seen in the CWF study as well as the California experiment.
  • Paid parental leave has no negative economic impact on employers, as in California experiment.
  • Longer parental leave increases employee satisfaction with work-life balance, which increases worker happiness and thus productivity.
  • For employees who are partners with other employees, leave for the non-gestating employee increases work-life balance satisfaction for the gestating employee and retention for that employee.
Here’s the Department of Labor briefing on paternity leave: https://www.dol.gov/asp/policy-development/paternityBrief.pdf.  Selected quotes (sources mentioned are available at the end of this short briefing:)
  • “In one study of working fathers in the U.S., those who took leaves of two weeks or more were much more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth – including feeding, changing diapers, and getting up in the night.6 Studies from other countries have confirmed that fathers who take more paternity leave have higher satisfaction with parenting and increased engagement in caring for their children.7”
  •  “Fathers are increasingly concerned about work-life balance, and nearly half of men surveyed report that the demands of work interfere with family life.11”
  • “In a 2014 study of highly educated professional fathers in the U.S., nine of out ten reported that it would be important when looking for a new job that the employer offered paid parental leave, and six out of ten considered it very or extremely important. These numbers were even higher for millennial workers.23”
Here’s a 2010 California study on Paid Family Leave, which was implemented in 2004 and offered employees six weeks of leave at 55% of salary (followed by New Jersey and Washington): http://cepr.net/documents/publications/paid-family-leave-1-2011.pdf.  This offers concrete evidence of the effects of paid family leave in general.
  • Most employers report that PFL had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity (89 percent), profitability/performance (91 percent), turnover (96 percent), and employee morale (99 percent).
  • Relevant pages: 7-10
Here’s a Center for Work and Family (out of Boston College) report on paternity leave: http://www.thenewdad.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/BCCWF_The_New_Dad_2014_FINAL.157170735.pdf
  • Look at this chart, based on over 1000 worker fathers who were mostly (over 90%) well-educated professionals:
  • importance-of-paid-leave-the-new-dad-2014
  • “Only 20% of the study participants felt that all of the time off should be taken consecutively beginning with the birth of their children. More than 75% preferred the option to take the paid time off when it was most needed after the birth, within a specified period of time such as six months. For example, over a six month period after the birth of their child, they could take two weeks at the beginning and then additional days off as needed up to the maximum amount allowed.”
  • Pages 1-14 are about worker desires, pages 15-20 are about employers’ implementations, including spotlights on Ernst and Young, Deloitte, and American Express.  “• For policies that didn’t differentiate between primary and secondary caregivers, fathers were given an average of two weeks of paid leave • For policies that did have designated provisions for fathers who were primary or secondary caregivers, fathers as primary caregivers were given an average of about eight weeks, which was approximately three times as much as the leave offered to secondary caregivers”
  • Takeaways: “Nearly three quarters of the fathers believed that the most appropriate amount of time for fathers to have off for paternity leave is between two and four weeks… 76% of fathers would prefer the option of not taking all their time off immediately following the birth of their children”
  • Pages 27-28 are concrete recommendations for employers.
If no one wants to read this post , here’s a great and easy to read article from ThinkProgress that similarly cites a bunch of studies and includes anecdotal evidence titled “How Everyone Benefits When New Fathers Take Paid Leave.”  I highly recommend this article.

Coconut cream pie

13 Dec

It’s been a little while since I made a pie, and I love pie!  In an unusual fit of activity last week I bought a bag of coconut, a can of mandarin oranges, and a can of pineapple and made ambrosia (yum).  I had some leftover coconut, so decided to make a coconut cream pie.  Growing up I never had dried shredded sweetened/unsweetened coconut and I still find the texture a bit strange, but I have fallen in love with coconut macaroons [wow I can’t believe I haven’t blogged those!  That’s on the list now] and am coming around to having a twiggy texture in my sweets.

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This is vaguely tropical, so I bet it’s a PIErate’s favorite dessert.

Coconut cream pie is a basic custard pie: you bake a pie crust (I love the make-in-pan lazy one but I actually rolled and chilled one for this pie), slowly make a creamy set custard to fill it, and top the whole thing with whipped cream.  Next time I think I’ll make this a banana cream pie instead of coconut, just omitting the coconut and tossing in sliced bananas.  And by next time I mean tonight.  And by tonight I mean I paused writing this blog post, went and bought some whipping cream and milk, and then made this pie before continuing the post.

First you want to make the crust (or buy a store bought one as I often do).  I use a food processor to pulse together very cold butter with flour and salt.  Probably don’t use frozen butter because your food processor isn’t that strong, but fridge butter is great.  Do that (or use two knives or a pastry blender) until it’s pretty well mixed and your remaining bits of butter are maximum 2-3 pea sized.  Then drop in a tablespoon of ice water and press the dough together with your hands just until it holds together.  It’s gonna get real crumbly in there, and try not to knead it too much- we want flaky pie crust, not gluey pie crust.  Wrap it up in plastic wrap and stuff it in the fridge.

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If I saw one of the main characters of “Empire” throwing a piece of scrap paper in the trash, I’d just have to say “That’s the way the Cookie crumb-ples”

Fun “trick” for this- I add the ice water directly to the food processor, press a little bit, and then dump the whole thing onto a big piece of plastic wrap on my counter.  Minimize mess.  Then you can wrap it up in the plastic wrap (bonus- if the piece is big enough, you can use it later to roll out the dough!)

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Are you feeling sad?  No need to be so dough-lful, pie is on its way!

While the dough chills, you can measure you all your ingredients for the filling.  Also preheat your oven.  Usually I’m a lazybones and avoid recipes like this, where you have to stir a lot/mind something on the stove, but I cooked dinner while making this pie and it was perfect.  First, microwave your milk (I did two minutes) and while that’s going, measure and mix your dry ingredients in a pot on the stove.

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The best way to make your dreams come true as you reach for the stars… is the (coconut) milky way

We’re slowly incorporating sugar, milk, coconut milk, coconut, and flour together, adding a bit more at a time, until we have the texture we want.  Then at the end you stir in your egg yolks for richness and cook until everything is set.  This can actually take about as long as you want it to.  The first time I made this it was luscious and creamy and not a clump to be found in my custard, and it took about 35 minutes.  The second time (just now) it took maybe 15 and it’s a little lumpy but still delicious.

So mix your flour, coconut, sugar, and pinch of salt in the dry pot, then add 1/3 of the milk and stir over medium-low (35 minute method) or medium (15 minute method) until the flour has started cooking into the liquid and it’s a little bit thickened.  Then add 1/3 of the milk and stir stir stir again, until that’s thickened.  Finally add your third batch of milk and stir.  Each thickening takes 2-10 minutes depending on heat.

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I didn’t constantly stir, just every minute or so.  So once the pudding got started, I pulled out the chilled dough and rolled it out thinly between two sheets of plastic wrap (this is not necessary; it just makes it so you don’t have to wash the rolling pin and counter).  Lay it into your pie tin, poke a few fork holes in it so it doesn’t puff up, and toss it in your preheated oven.

Once the third thickening has happened, add a little of the hot pudding to some beaten egg yolks so that they don’t curdle when you put their eggy deliciousness into the custard, and cook for another couple minutes until you’re juuuuust about to bubble/boil (but don’t boil, ever!).  Turn off the heat, dump in half a stick of butter and some extracts (this is the key to flavor), and let cool.  Pull your pie crust and let it cool too.  Should take 20-30 minutes depending on how hot your kitchen is for both things to cool off enough to put one inside the other, and then stick it in the fridge.

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We can see the inside of this pie; it’s naked!  Oh the improPIEty!

After a few hours, make some whipped cream (I won’t tell if you use the ready made stuff, but the homemade stuff is GOOD) with a little sugar and vanilla in it, and put it on your chilled custard.  Chill again, overnight is best.  Toast some coconut in a dry pan on the stove for 30 seconds or so (til brown and fragrant), let cool, and decorate your pie with it.  Or don’t!

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I’m not so great with speeches but I would definitely call myself a toastmaster.

 

YUM.

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Here I am eating it out of the pan for breakfast.  Because I’m pregnant?  Or because it’s pie?

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Coconut cream pie, adapted from Rock Recipes:

Crust:

1/2 c (1 stick) butter

1 1/4 c flour

2-4 TB ice water

Using a pastry blender, two knives, or a food processor, cut butter into flour until pebbly and well mixed.  Add ice water 1 TB at a time just until the dough holds when you push it together with your hands.  Knead once or twice (just to hold together), wrap in plastic wrap, and chill.

Filling:

1 can coconut milk (1 3/4 c), light if you want

1 1/4 c whole milk

1/3 c flour

2/3 c sugar

1 c unsweetened dried shredded coconut

1/4 tsp salt

3 egg yolks

4 TB (1/2 stick) butter

2 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp ALMOND extract

  1. Preheat oven to 400 for the pie crust.  Microwave milks for 2 minutes.  Mix flour, sugar, coconut, and salt in a pot.
  2. Over medium or medium-low, add 1 c of milks to pot and stir until combined, then stir occasionally  until slightly thickened.
  3. Add next 1 c of milks and stir occasionally until thickened.
  4. Roll out chilled pie crust, put in a pie pan, and bake for 11-15 minutes until golden brown, and then let cool completely.
  5. Repeat step 3.  In between stirrings, lightly beat the egg yolks, measure out the butter and extracts.  Add 1/4-1/2 c of hot pudding to the egg yolks (whatever measuring cup is handy) and stir, then add the egg yolk mixture to the pudding and cook for another few minutes until pudding-like.
  6. Turn off heat, add butter and extracts and stir, and let sit until cool.
  7. Put cool custard into cool pie crust and put into fridge for several hours

Whipped cream and topping:

1 c heavy whipping cream

2 TB powdered sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 c shredded coconut

  1. Beat cream, sugar, and vanilla together for a few minutes until it turns into whipped cream (peaks hold).
  2. Meanwhile, toast coconut in dry pan over medium heat for 30-45 seconds until fragrant and light brown.
  3. Spread whipped cream over chilled pie.
  4. Sprinkle with cooled toasted coconut.

“Strange” escapism- media thoughts

23 Nov

This post is like two posts put into one.  A way for me to process my feelings about the election by not talking about current events at all.  Part 1 is about news media, Part 2 is about Dr. Strange.

Over the past few months I’ve been getting more and more exhausted with the “OUTRAGEOUS! OUTRAGE!” tone in my usual liberal news-thinkpiece sites (I read a lot of Slate and Jezebel); I think those sites have also started getting sick of being constantly outraged by the latest something that some conservative bigot/racist/misogynist/generally bad person has done.  Or maybe they’ve become more leery of the language of outrage since the death of Gawker (covered in Slate with a line that’s stuck with me: “The Internet masses had found a new vice, outrage, to replace our voyeurism.”)  Links on this topic: a super long, fairly defensive reflection in NY Magazine by the former editor in chief of Gawker, a surprisingly newsy story on what happened in the Daily Beast, and a slow-to-load but funnily Gawker-like list of responses to Gawker’s death, including this quote: “I think Gawker did for some what Trump does for some. Both let their friends and supporters be comfortable in being terrible people.” (Erick Erickson, noted conservative blogger/radio host).

Anyway, to help combat my liberal outrage-fatigue, I thought I’d try to read some conservative news sites (which I’ve blogged about before, maybe notably in my Yale reflection).  So I started with Breitbart and Drudge Report, but the angry rhetoric there mirrored exactly the outraged rhetoric on the liberal sites- those whiny, thin skinned snowflake liberals who don’t believe people can make their own decisions.  Then someone turned me on to National Review, which is now my go-to conservative news site.  They also make fun of lefties, but they’re less obsessed with it and more focused on how to continue to progress on the conservative agenda.  I like it when people think about actions and what to do in the future, even if I disagree with their premises.  I just opened the site and a random article, and here’s a line that popped out at me: “Here’s some free advice for all the liberals insisting that Trump was elected by racists: The more you say that, the more you help Trump.”  Also, if like me you are a dirty liberal, you’ll be soothed by the way the National Review covers Republican infighting.  If you are not like me, you might just like the National Review!  They’re thoughtful and logical and much less angry-outrageous-clickbaity than other sites I’ve seen [I am also open to more suggestions!  I read the libertarian site Reason Magazine sometimes, but they think we’re all idiots so I get tired of that rhetoric as well].

So my main goal of writing this post was to tell you about the escapism that we did last weekend- we went and saw Dr. Strange at the movie theatre (this is a big deal to us!  We very rarely go out to the movies now because of babysitter requirements).  I got distracted thinking about the liberal media, which touched on the whitewashing that happens in this movie a few months ago.  It first came to my attention on the blog Angry Asian Man, and has been covered in a bunch of other various sites (for instance: cinema blend, variety, fusion-this is my favorite one).  Basically, the Ancient One is a main character/jedi master for padawan Dr. Strange, and was created by Lee and Ditko as an ultra-stereotypical mystical Tibetan old dude.  Most of the lines that Tilda Swinton says in the movie would be ridiculous if an Asian person said them (they’re already ridiculous, but Tilda Swinton can pull them off just as well as she can pull of her slightly agender character).  Lots of stuff that sounds like someone read the Tao Te Ching and imagined Mr. Miyagi.

So, to avoid making a racist and offensive caricature of the character, Marvel decided to change the Ancient One into a Celtic woman.  But inexplicably keep the whole Himalayas/white guy travels to the Far East for mystical wisdom and returns to the civilized West to save the world trope.  Here are two different reactions to this situation by critics/writers:

Pro-Derrickson/whitewashing (I love that this article starts with the “yellow elephant in the room”)

While this desire to keep from reinforcing negative Asian stereotypes is commendable, it also created a Catch-22 situation for the director. Does he create a “dragon lady” that causes Asians to protest the perpetuation of a negative Asian stereotype? Or does he remove the Asian aspect of this character, but in doing so, cause Asians to protest the removal of what was supposed to be an iconic Asian character. There is no easy answer either way.  So Derrickson decided to take the path that he thought was best.

So before we bring out the pitchforks, it is important to consider intent. If Derrickson was pressured into recasting The Ancient One as a white woman to make the film more commercial, then I’ll be the first one to pick up a torch. But if he made this decision based solely on his own creative vision of the film, then I think it’s fair to withhold judgment on this subject and critique the movie solely on its cinematic merits. Because ultimately, as long as Swinton’s performance improves the film (and in this case, it most definitely does), it’s hard to fault the director for his artistic choice.

I actually think the next pull quote addresses this situation pretty well, but I’ll also make a nod to myself and a past blog post, and say your intentions don’t matter as much as the effects of your work.  So if you say you didn’t intend to be racist, that doesn’t alleviate that you hurt someone with a racist action.  Plus most people outside the KKK (and maybe also inside) won’t ever say “Oh, I meant to be racist” so saying “I didn’t mean to be racist” is about as deep as saying “the sky is up.”  Later in this post I will tell you that I LOVED Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and I have a solution.

Anti Derrickson/whitewashing: (but they loved the movie, as did I)

Why did Derrickson feel his only options to portray the Ancient One were to either make the character one racist stereotype or another? This wasn’t some Catch 22. You could still write the ancient mystic leader role with nuance.  And for the most part, Derrickson and his co-writers succeeded — but with a performer who isn’t Asian….

And they elevated the Wong character (played by Benedict Wong, the film’s only Asian in a speaking role). In the comics, Wong was merely Doctor Strange’s cabana boy (yet another stereotype, the Asian sidekick). But in the film, he is Strange’s philosophical superior. Wong has agency in the plot, answers to almost no one except his own work and also owns the funniest sequence in the film. The director and writers clearly have the talent and imagination to dodge or upend stereotypes.

Other things: I loved the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast on this topic, if you’re more of a listener than a reader.  I also like this tweet:

Okay, so you’re all caught up on your reading now (I really do like the Fusion article).  So here’s my take on what they should have thought about doing instead of what happened.  First, here’s a cover of a comic book showing Dr. Strange; image from Wikipedia:

strange

Note that Dr. Strange here is totally red, and has lots of facial hair.  So… just looking at this picture, I don’t see it tied to a particular ethnicity.  Let’s take a look at the original Ancient One (also from wikipedia):

ancientone

This dude is Tibetan, but they turned him into a Celtic lady.  So there’s no reason to not change the Dr. Strange of ambiguous ethnic background into …

johnchoTHIS GUY.

Hear me out (also, this headshot was taken from the inimitable starringjohncho.com).  Instead of going to the Himalayas for absolutely no reason, our hero Dr. Strange hears about this Celtic Ancient One and heads to Ireland.  This also makes more sense if the Ancient One is Celtic.  I’ve read a Wrinkle in Time and the Chronicles of Narnia; I’m pretty sure there’s as much magic in the British Isles as there is in Tibet.  Now we haven’t whitewashed out a character because OUR MOVIE HAS AN ASIAN LEADING MAN, and we get to keep Tilda Swinton who really is great in the movie.  I have nothing against Benedict Cumberbatch except he’s going the way Jude Law did in 2004, when he appeared in six big movies.  Too much Benedict Cumberbatch, not enough John Cho (or other Asian actor).

This is the obvious solution to me, anyway.  The reviews of Dr. Strange praise the visual effects, the side characters (POC Mordo and Wong), Tilda Swinton, but I haven’t seen a lot of praise for Benedict Cumberbatch.  They just needed a white guy to lead the movie.  So why not grab an Asian guy instead?  This should be a rule: if you ever whitewash a character of X ethnic background, you should change a white character into that X background.

I think I could just keep writing and thinking about this topic, so I’ll stop here instead.  Happy Thanksgiving, reader!  Good luck with politics and family.

The (2,3,7) Triangle Group

8 Nov

Hi!  Today we’re going to use some stuff we learned about a long time ago (non-Euclidean geometry, manifolds, and groups) and put it together to explore a particular group.  This is based on a talk given by my dear friend and co-organizer Michelle Chu.  “Co-organizer?  Of what?” you ask.  Well thanks for asking!  Last weekend we did held the first Texas Women in Mathematics Symposium – we had over 60 people come, lots of talks, lots of networking, and lots of food.  By the end of the day I got to add “annual” to that description, and it seems like a lot of schools were interested in hosting it in future years.  Maybe some time I’ll write a post about how to found an annual conference (this is my second!).

Anyways, let’s first talk about tilings by triangles.  We first choose some integers p, q, r and set the three angles of a base triangle equal to \frac{\pi}{p}, \frac{\pi}{q}, \frac{\pi}{r}.  Now reflect over each of the three sides to start tiling your space.  Turns out this tiling will lead to a group.  Here’s an example with p=q=4 and r=2 (so we have a right isosceles triangle):

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Start with the pink triangle, and reflect it over each of the three sides to make the colored triangles as shown.

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Now do the reflections again.  I kept the pink base triangle and grayed out the first images.  Note that I colored the bottom left image yellow, for reflecting over the vertical side of the bottom orange triangle, but I also could color it orange, for reflecting over the horizontal side of the left yellow triangle.  This means that yellow+orange = orange+yellow in the group.

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A third iteration of the same process; there are more relations here (that I didn’t color)

I picked a particularly good example, so that my triangles could tile the Euclidean plain.  We learned some time ago about non-Euclidean geometries: the space is spherical if the sum of triangle angles is more than \pi, and hyperbolic if triangles are thin and their sum of angles is less than \pi.  So based on how I choose my p, q, and r, I’ll find myself tiling different spaces.  Here’s an example of one iteration on a sphere for p=q=2 and r=5:

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It’s pretty easy to find the integer solutions for p, q, r to tile each space.  The only triangles that tile the flat plane are when (p,q,r) = (2,3,6), (2,4,4), and (3,3,3).  We already saw (2,4,4), and I’ll just tell you that (3,3,3) is when you use equilateral triangles (so there are 6 around each vertex), and (2,3,6) are those 30-60-90 triangles we learned about back in trigonometry class: here’s the picture from wikipedia:

Similarly there are only a few (relatively) that tile the sphere: (2,3,3), (2,3,4), (2,3,5), and (2,2, n), where is some number bigger than 1.  Of course this forms an infinite family of tilings, since you can choose n.  In the example above I chose n=5, and if is bigger the base pink triangle just gets skinnier.

But I say there’s only a few that tile the sphere because everything else tiles the hyperbolic plane.  That’s a lot of choices!  It might also make you think, “hm, maybe the hyperbolic plane is interesting.”

Let’s bring us back to groups.  How does a tiling of a space lead to a group?  Well, let the reflections over the (extended) sides of the base triangle be the generators of our group.  If I name these a, b, and c, I immediately get the relators a^2=b^2=c^2=1.  Next we have to figure out the rest of the relators.  I hinted at them in the pictures above.  They are (ab)^p=(bc)^r=(ca)^q.  Now we have a group presentation [link for definition] R\triangle(p,q,r)\cong \langle a, b, c \ | a^2=b^2=c^2=(ab)^p=(bc)^r=(ca)^q=1\rangle.

Also, fun coincidence: if you create the dual tree to the tiling by putting a vertex inside each triangle and connecting two vertices by a line if one triangle is the image of another under one of the reflections, you get something that looks a lot like the Cayley graph of the reflection triangle group.  The only difference is that each edge needs to be two edges (like a little loop) to reflect that each generator has order 2.

So what’s special about the (2,3,7) triangle group?  We know from above that it tiles the hyperbolic plane.  Check out this great picture from wikipedia of the tiling:

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Maybe we’ll take a second here to point out that you can see the p, q, r values in the tilings, both in this picture and the other wikipedia picture above for (2,3,6): pick your favorite triangle, and look at its three vertices.  Each vertex is adjacent to other triangles, and since there are 2\pi angle around any vertex, we can figure out that p,q,r are just \frac{n}{2}.

Also, of all the integers you can pick for p, q, r, it turns out that 2, 3, and 7 maximize the sum \frac{\pi}{p}+\frac{\pi}{q}+\frac{\pi}{r} while staying less than \pi.  [It ends up giving you \frac{41\pi}{42} for those of you keeping track at home.]

So we maximize something with the numbers 2, 3, 7.  Well it turns out we do more than that- we also minimize the volume of the resulting quotient-we touched on and defined those in this post about manifolds.  And this is unique (up to conjugation/fiddling), and makes the smallest possible quotient.  Huzzah!

On a personal note, I’ve had a demonic cold keeping me in bed for the past two weeks, so forgive me if I messed up (pretty sure I did on the reflections; I’ll try to fix those soon).  Also, hope you voted today!  I voted a week and a half ago.

The non-academic job search (Part 0)-Deciding to leave

26 Oct

Hi!  Pregnancy this time around has been kicking my butt, but I’m hoping as second trimester goes on that I’ll start feeling better and posting more/being more of an upright person.  Here’s the post, which is a mishmash of thoughts from the past year.

If you missed Part 1 of this, that doesn’t matter because it comes after!  But here’s the link just in case you wanted to see it.  I spend that post talking about the steps I took after deciding to leave, but realized that lots of people are in the position that I’m in and might want to know how I decided to leave mathademia, which has been my happy home for years (sometimes larger than I’d like to admit).

A mentor of mine from my undergraduate days wrote a fantastic piece about going from his tenure-track job to working for Google; I recommend the whole thing.  He talks about money, time, intellectual challenge, and committee work as his factors. Here’s an excerpt:

At the time, my assessment of the private sector  vs. academia was pretty bleak: Your salary is higher, but the price you pay for that is longer hours at a mind-numbing job with a micro-managing boss. But it turns out, things aren’t actually that extreme. In fact, there are a lot of nice things about the private sector, that make the comparison much more subtle, even if you take money completely out of the picture.

When I started seriously thinking about my future, I gave him a call and asked for advice on leaving academia and making the decision.  He strongly suggested picking up this book, which I also highly recommend:

This book made me turn from despairing and feeling like a failure to hopeful and inspired- it’s full of stories of people with Ph.D.s who went on to do other non-academic things, and concrete advice for turning a CV into a resume, etc.  I read this book before the other ones (parachute, in transition).  I also talked to as many non-academic math Ph.D.s as I could (or really, just the ones I ran into, which is a surprising number of people!  We’re everywhere!) about their transitions and how they chose their lives.

A lot of applied math or stat people are fine.  They do, in general, big data/data science and program and make lots of money (also, pure math people who know how to and enjoy programming also make lots of money and are fine).  I’ve heard of one particular data science fellowship specifically for master’s/Ph.D. students, and I’m sure there are others out there.  Also my friend Jeremy definitely does something with data now and is very nice and helpful and I’m just volunteering him now to talk to my blog readers (and point you toward his blog if this is something you are interested in).

That hopefulness really buoyed me forward, as did reading Jesse’s second blog post on this topic.  Here’s an excerpt again contrasting mathademia with non-academia:

In the end, the process of getting a non-academic job can be long and complex. At the beginning, it feels completely hopeless, but the more you learn and the more non-academics you talk to, the better it gets. And here’s the kicker: There are a lot of jobs out there where the supply and demand dynamics are completely the opposite of academia – where employers are desperately seeking qualified applicants. Once you find your way there, and see what it’s like applying for a job where you’re NOT one of 500 applicants for a single position, it’s completely worth it.

I ended up writing a big board of pros and cons of staying in academia- the biggest con for me is the moving/not having a choice of where to live and raise my family.  But plenty of academics successfully have families, so this con might not be as big to you.  The biggest pro is research/choosing what problems to work on, but that definitely did not outweigh the lack of control in where to live.  Of course my situation is a little different because I have a relatively immobile spouse (lots of professors seem to be married to other professors, doctors, or lawyers rather than high-power financial software developers), and if he wasn’t in the picture maybe my pro/con weights would be different.

Anyways, I agonized over this for a few months, reading that book, thinking about what people said.  One former post-doc, now software developer, told me he hates that he works “for someone else’s dream” vs. when he did his own research.  I guess that’s why they pay him the big bucks (or, y’know, at least some bucks).

When I did an ethnographic research project in Vietnam in 2009, one mathematician told me “what do I need money for?  I travel, I do what I love, I eat well, what would I spend more money on?”  My advisor told me about an exchange he had with a family member, where they asked him if he would do his job even without the money.  He said yes (though probably less of it).  It’s a theme I’ve run into a lot with mathematicians: mathematicians really, REALLY love math and/or teaching.

Back in 2012, I watched a video of an old friend of mine teaching a lesson about logarithms.  She LOVED teaching (and math).  Here’s a great minute-long clip.  You can tell just by watching how much she LOVED teaching.

Thinking about her, and the Vietnamese woman I’d spoken to those years ago, I just couldn’t compare my passion for these things to theirs.  Not to say that you have to be super passionate about your job (sometimes a job really is just a job), but if you have the luxury of making a choice, why not be a little picky?

I had to wrestle with feeling like a failure for not going into academia (this is a real thing) even though my advisor and others explicitly told me that I am not at all a failure for not following their path.  Eventually I had to listen to myself/the advice I’d been given a long time ago: “Swim in your own lane.”  I even say this at the beginning of this video.

Anyway, it’s a long and personal journey, and as a Ph.D. friend in industry once told me, “the hardest thing about leaving academia is deciding to leave academia.”  I can’t say I agree wholeheartedly with that yet (I still don’t have a job for next year), but I can definitely say that it was hard, and I’m around for you if you want to reach out and talk to me about it (contact info is all over this blog).

 

Peachberry pie, and news

11 Oct

Hello!  You may be wondering where I’ve been for three weeks.  Well, I’m still in Texas, and I have this old draft lying around that I never posted.  News at the end of the post!

I don’t know about where you are, but here in Texas it’s still summer and peach season.  I’ve made four peach pies in the last two weeks because they’re so cheap, so easy, and sooooo yummy.  I didn’t grow up eating a lot of peaches (I’m from Minnesota), but when I saw them for 88 cents a pound at the grocery store I remembered all the peach cobbler I’ve had in my travels since going to college.  Also I remembered that I still own the Moosewood cookbook, which definitely has an easy recipe for peach pie in it.

Of course, me being me I was unprepared with the number of peaches I had (I bought enough I promise but then we ate some oops), so I threw in some blackberries and strawberries I had lying around for one pie, and some blueberries in another, and the one in the oven right now is just peach.

For fruit pies, it’s nice to let the fruit macerate for a few minutes so that the sugar can suck the juices out.  So I make the filling first, then make the crust.  Peel and chop peaches, berries, etc. to make about six cups of filling.  Each medium-large peach gives a little less than a cup of peach slices, so with four peaches I had to add a dozen strawberries and a handful of blackberries.  Sprinkle the fruit with sugar and lemon juice and let sit while you make the crust.

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It’s not the secret to world peach but my news is berry exciting.

Generally with pies I buy premade frozen pie crusts because I am lazy, but sometimes I’ll do the slightly less lazy mix-and-pat in the pie pan which gives you a nice oil-based slightly salty crust that’s very flaky and tender, or I’ll do the much less lazy butter-based pie crust that I used in this pie.  Honestly I prefer pie crusts made with a mix of shortening for texture and butter for flavor, but shortening freaks me out so I don’t have it in my house.

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You’d butter scroll to the end of the post

This is the Moosewood pie crust recipe, where you cut together butter with flour and mix in cold liquid until it’s dough.  Pretty easy!  I used a knife to cut the butter into these small pieces, and a fork to break it into the dough until it looks like coarse crumbs and there’s no butter chunks bigger than a pea.

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You won’t fork-ive yourself if you don’t read the end

Then add your liquid and mix it with your fork, then with your hands, and roll it out on a floured surface.  I LOVE my French rolling pin the way I love my mortar and pestle- I’m a very tactile person and these things feel good! Roll out the dough to just a bit bigger than the pie tin, and then carefully drape it over the whole thing.  Trim the edges and make a pretty design on the crust if you want (I am not a prettyfying person so I just leave it plain).

Now you’re ready to finish the filling!  Preheat the oven now, and add the flour and spices to the filling (cinnamon goes with every fruit!)  Gently and thoroughly toss, so all the fruit pieces have some sticky flour on them.  We add flour so you don’t have soup inside a pie crust- I think adding a little cornstarch mixed with berry juices would also work.

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Glisten up, folks, cup your ears because I’ve got something to say

If I’m using a frozen pie crust/don’t have that much time, I just top the pie with the second pie crust, cut some slits in it to vent, and bake it.  But I waaaay prefer fruit pies with streusel topping.  Since I have a toddler, our house always has Ritz crackers in it.  Use a rolling pin to crush a sleeve of Ritz crackers- you can actually do this in the sleeve with little mess if you’re careful, or toss them in a plastic bag and whack away.

Then mix in melted butter, brown sugar, and that ever-present cinnamon.  Pour the fruit in the crust, pat on the streusel topping, and toss it in that preheated oven.  I like to put pie on a baking pan/cookie sheet in case of overflow (the bottom of my oven is a gross mess from previous drips).  Or put the baking sheet on the rack below.  Or forget it, like I did in this photo:

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All alone and pie-tiful in the oven.  What a pie-ty if it drips (this one did not drip though!)

Let sit for at least 15 minutes after baking so the inside cools a bit and glops up, then serve warm with vanilla ice cream (yummmm!)  We ate it too fast for me to take photos of the finished pie.

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Okay, time for NEWS/partial explanation for why I haven’t been posting.  I’m having another baby!!!  She’s due in March!  She’s also making my life a little complicated; I’d forgotten that I spent most of first trimester last time throwing up and lying down.  This time I laid down a lot, didn’t throw up a ton, but did have a lot of pain!  Now I’m into second trimester and ready to be a person again.  And by this time next year, my daughter will be becoming a person too!  Also, my son turned two last week, which is cool because those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time were there when I got engaged, married, and had my first baby.  Yay!!!

Peachberry pie (adapted from the Moosewood cookbook and allrecipes).

Crust: 1 c flour

4 TB (half a stick) very cold butter

2 TB cold water or milk

Filling: 6 c sliced fruit (6 peaches, or peaches and enough berries to fill in the rest)

1/4 c sugar

2 TB lemon juice (or squeeze half a lemon)

3 TB flour

1 tsp cinnamon

Topping: 1 c crushed Ritz crackers (about one sleeve)

1/2 c brown sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon

4 TB (other half of the stick) butter, melted

  1. Mix the fruit with the sugar and lemon juice, let sit.
  2. Cut the butter into tiny pieces and mix with the flour for crust, until very small pieces (smaller than a pea) remain.  Mix in liquid teaspoon by teaspoon until a dough forms.  Roll out to bigger than the pie pan, and carefully place into pie pan.  Trim crust.
  3. Mix the flour and cinnamon for filling, gently mix into the macerated fruit mixture.  Pour into prepared crust.
  4. Preheat oven to 375.
  5. Crush the Ritz crackers, mix with brown sugar and cinnamon.  Melt the butter, and mix with the topping mix.  Pat filling evenly onto pie.
  6. Bake for 40 minutes, until bubbly on the edges and golden brown on top and crust.  Serve warm with ice cream

Carnival of Mathematics 138

19 Sep

I am super pumped to be hosting the 138th Carnival of Mathematics, a monthly round-up of great stuff on the internet that has to do with math.  Last month it was hosted over on the AMS Blog on Math Blogs by Anna Haensch (who also has a lovely podcast called The Other Half ) and Evelyn Lamb (my fairy blogmother who also writes for Scientific American, Slate, etc.).  Curiously, the first thing that came up when I looked up “138” was a 1978 song by the horror punk band The Misfits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOqVs-K1eEo

A little bit catchy, but not quite my cup of tea.  What is my cup of tea?  An integer sequence that does not appear in the amazing OEIS!  138 is the smallest product of three primes such that the third is the concatenation of the first two: so 138 is 2\cdot 3\cdot 23, 777 is 3\cdot 7 \cdot 37, and 4642 and 10263 are the next in this sequence (I applied for an account to OEIS to submit this, so if you find a smaller one or the next several in the sequence let me know).  So off we go, to venture into the great unknown (aka the internet)!  This month we have a fun mix of grammar, history/sociology, math, and games!

  • First, grammar: Manun Shah over at Math Misery [which hosted CoM#136] posted Does 11=8 + 3? to chat about linguistics and mathematics.  If you love those memes about the Oxford comma, this post might be right up your alley.  My favorite sentence: “I bought orange juice and dishwasher detergent and drank it for breakfast.”  He argues we should think more about linguistics when teaching math, and the implicit biases that language might have on students as they learn mathematical reasoning.
  • Also in grammar, Thomas Oléron Evans of Mathistophiles posted Understanding an Abused Unit: The Kilometre-Hour, which delves deeper into a specific example of how common language can hurt mathematical understanding, and he uses a DELIGHTFUL example of turtles.  Favorite sentence here: “Unless they sidestep across the beach, of course, like some sort of synchronised reptilian dressage.”  Here’s an amazing graph from his example:
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A delightful graph from Mathistophiles

  • Keeping up with his fun theme, Thomas submitted a SUPER FUN game by David Peter called cube composer which is all about functions.  Do please do go play it!  It’s so fun!  It’s an intuitive individual puzzle game, and you can fly through the levels.  It also remembers your progress, but you can skip levels if you want too.  Here’s a screenshot of me picking random functions and not solving the puzzle:
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A screenshot of me poorly playing cube composer

  • A high school math teacher friend texted me about another game called Square It on a website for math educators supported by the University of Cambridge.  We proceeded to lose, lose, lose, and continue to lose against the computer.  I played against my spouse a few times, and he won his first time.  Those darn programmers and their algorithm-minds!  For the record I did eventually win.  This one is faster and lighter than cube composer, and it offers different mathematical questions to think about in different size grids.
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Here I am losing in Square It to a computer

Square It! is also great to play with kids.  Two more submissions are also kid-friendly.  

  • Brent Yorgey of Math Less Traveled submitted his post about Making Tesselations, which delves into the math behind the delightful new children’s book Tessalation! that I will definitely be reading to my toddler.  In his post he also talks about ants on a doughnut, and y’all know how we mathematicians love our analogies to lean toward the absurd.  Here’s a wonderful joke Brent nonchalantly sneaks into his post:  “The ant is so small that it can’t tell that the surface it lives on is curved. To the ant, it just looks flat. (You may know some tiny creatures in a similar situation who live on a sphere.)”  So fun.
  • Matthew Scroggs submitted a post dear to my heart, written by Belgin Seymenoglu over at Chalkdust Magazine: an ode to the delightful half hour film Donald in Mathemagic Land.  The post includes a link to the 1959 cartoon, which I’ve watched many times since I first saw it when I was 15.  I guess this is a fun month, because I really really recommend watching this cute and funny cartoon that includes actual math in it.

Now for a sort of random assortment of history/sociology/whatever posts that have to do with math:

  • Paul Plowman wrote a 2 minute 20 second guitar song using the number e, and posted about it over on his blog as Transcendental Music.  Sort of a silly but fun little exercise like memorizing digits of \pi, and the riff sounds nice.
  •  Poppy Brady submitted a story she wrote for The Voice about Nira Chamberlain, titled Teachers said I could be a boxer, but Never a Mathematician, one of those feel-good stories about mathematicians.  One fun quote by Chamberlain: “I also like what British mathematician Sir John Kingman once said that ‘mathematicians are better if they stay a bit childish and play the game as a game.’”  I think that keeps in line with our theme this month!
  • Over in Nature, Davide Castelvecchi wrote a news story about how the Majority of mathematicians hail from just 24 scientific ‘families’, a result by Floriana Gargiulo who analyzed the Mathematics Genealogy Project.  Every grad student has used the MGP to stalk their advisor/potential advisor to see their lineage, and you can print out a tree and give it to your advisor as a defense present!  So it was fun to read about someone actually analyzing this trove of data.
  • Finally, saving the best for last, the brilliant Evelyn Lamb, explainer extraordinaire, wrote a post on Roots of Unity at Scientific American about How Converting Between Addition and Multiplication makes Math Easier.  If you don’t follow/read everything that Evelyn writes, you really should.  So approachable and so lucid.  She also wrote a fun piece about using different bases for your birthday candles, so you should read these two articles, follow her on Twitter, and tell her happy birthday!

If you run into anything interesting on the math-internet from now until October 15th, submit them to the Carnival of Mathematics site; the Carnival will be hosted next month at the online magazine Gonit Sora.  Hope you had as much fun as I did with the submissions this month!

My mom’s Banh Xeo (Vietnamese turmeric crepes)

7 Sep

Over the past twenty years or so, bánh xèo has been a mainstay of family and friend gatherings if my mom is around.  Yen’s visiting home from college?  Better make bánh xèo!  You want to have some friends over for dinner?  Time for bánh xèo!  It’s a Saturday in October and the cousins are coming around?  Let’s do some bánh xèo, baby!

These are a super fun party food (where the party is the food): everyone gets a plate and a little saucer for dipping sauce, and the giant fresh pancakes go on platters in the middle.  You take a small amount with your chopsticks, trying to get the perfect mix of batter, onions, bean sprouts, and meat/seafood, and wrap it in a little taco of lettuce, mint, apple/cucumber, and whatever other herbs you have on hand.  Dip the whole taco in your sauce and eat it in two or three bites.  Then do it again.  And everyone does it at once!

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I don’t know about your storage capacity, but for me this is a mega-bite.

Note: these can definitely be made vegetarian or vegan.  The batter is vegan, and for filling we’ve had great luck with mushrooms, sprouts, and mung beans.  For the dipping sauce, substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce and add a little bit more lime and a little less sugar to balance out the saltiness.

I’m not usually a huge mise en place fan; I like chopping while things are cooking, but bánh xèo happen so fast that it’s worth it to put in extra prep.  For eating, you need to wash all your vegetables and put them out on a platter.  You’ll probably have time to make the dipping sauce while a pancake is cooking, but it takes a lot of time to pluck Vietnamese perilla (shiso would work in a pinch) and mint leaves off their stems, leaf lettuce, thinly slice cucumbers and apples, etc.  So lay those out.  Now the batter has to rest for ten minutes or so after mixing it, so do that before you start chopping your raw ingredients.

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I want to put a pun here but I can’t because the perspectives on this photo are too confusing.  The ingredients are on a counter; my feet are several feet below; the bowl on the right is inside a sink that the cutting board is hovering over.  

Growing up we always had squid in our bánh xèo, but we stopped doing that when we moved away from easily accessible Asian markets.  So now it’s mostly pork (a lean, unfatty cut like tenderloin is good here) and shrimp, mainstays of Vietnamese cooking.  My mom prefers buying the unpeeled shrimp because she says they’re sweeter and more flavorful (I agree), and we slice them in half down the spine so they cook super fast.  You want very thinly sliced pork; it helps if it’s chilled.  Also thinly sliced onions are key, as well as a ton of green onion (the more the better).  My mom puts in two bunches of sliced up green onion per packet of batter, which makes around 6-8 very large servings (depending on the size of your pan, that’s 10-20 pancakes).  Hence the party food-nature of this dish.

The batter is important- if you’re super hardcore I guess you could make your own, but we always buy from a bag.  Our favorite is the one with elephants on it, below–certain other brands are a little too gluey or not crispy enough, or include coconut flour and pretend that coconut flour+water=coconut milk.  If you can’t find Bon Con Voi Banh Xeo batter, just try to buy one that requires adding coconut milk.  Then follow the instructions on the bag: mix in the turmeric, a can of coconut milk, and a can or two of water (read the label).  Let sit while you chop the other stuff.

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Photo from this mysteriously empty website, Nguyen Eternal.  You don’t need to get on a boat to buy this bot, which is made here in the USA!  (Bot means flour in Vietnamese).

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In the shadow universe, the copy of me is so jealous of this batter.  She’s a green un-Yen. (Yes I have made this pun before no it does not get old.)

Now it’s time to cook!  Mix those prechopped green onions into the batter.  Heat up your nonstick skillet (or two if you’re ambitious).  Add in a bit of oil and a handful of thinly sliced onions, then after 30 seconds or so put in your thinly sliced pork and shrimp and cook them for a minute or two, until they’re done.

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Stop hogging all the space!  There’s MUCH ROOM in the pan; even the shrimps deserve some breathing room.

Now ladle on just enough of the batter to cover the pan if you swirl it.  Think the thinness of crepes.  I’d lean toward ladling on not enough, swirl, and then add in a bit more to fill the pan rather than having a thick gluey pancake.

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If the band Rudimental were making banh xeo, I bet they’d invite Ed Sheeran over for this step, so they could lay-it-all (LADLE) on him.

Now you’ll have a pale daffodil soft thing with some cooked meat inside it, and a clearly slightly liquid middle.  Fill it with a generous handful of bean sprouts (mung beans if you’re into that sort of thing too), and cover it with a lid to lightly steam the sprouts while cooking the pancake.  Give it about a minute (so this whole process is taking you about 5 minutes per pancake), until the pancake is no longer pale but a golden turmeric color, and its visibly cooked.

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I should invite my cousin Scott over and ask him to help me cook this, and then try to gently prod him into calling the middle uncooked portion liquid gold.  Take that, furniture polish!  

Gently fold it in half like an omelet, and slide it out of the pan onto a waiting plate.  Serve immediately with dipping sauce and that premade plate of veggies!

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My mom’s banh xeo.  Makes so much (serves 8 hungry people)

1 package of banh xeo flour

1 can coconut milk

2-3 bunches of green onion

2 lb pork tenderloin or butt or any non-fatty cut

2 lb shrimp

1 big onion (yellow or white is fine)

2 packages of bean sprouts

2 heads of lettuce (I prefer red leaf, my mom likes Romaine but she is wrong here)

2 cucumbers, 2 Fuji apples

2 bunches of Vietnamese perilla or shiso, 1-2 bunches of cilantro, 1-2 bunches of mint (the regular grocery store mint is fine)

2 limes

2 TB Fish sauce

2 TB Sugar

1 carrot and a carrot-sized piece of daikon if you’re feeling ambitious (we did not)

  1. Batter: Finely chop up all your green onion, then follow package instructions.
  2. Veggies: Wash everything.  Leaf the lettuce and herbs, cut the apples and cucumbers into thin slices (cut the cucumber in thirds lengthwise, then cut into slices).
  3. Dipping sauce: Mix two tablespoons of sugar with the juice of the limes and 2 TB of water until dissolved.  Add in two tablespoons of fish sauce.  Taste.  Adjust levels of everything until it’s not too sweet, not too salty, and not too sour.  If it’s overpowering, add more water.  If you’re ambitious, finely grate the carrot and daikon into the sauce; they’ll slightly pickle while it’s sitting and offer some textural contrast when you eat.
  4. Pancakes: Thinly slice pork (about 1/8 of an inch thick if you can, 1 inch by 2 inch rectangles), peel shrimp and slice in half, thinly slice onion. Heat large skillet over medium high.  Add about 1 TB of neutral oil and half a handful of onion, stir.  Then add 4-8 pieces each of pork and shrimp and gently saute until just cooked.  Ladle only a little bit of batter over the cooked ingredients, and swirl to cover pan.  Edges should cook very quickly.
  5. Cover pancake with a handful of bean sprouts, then cover with a lid.  Leave for 1-2 minutes, until bean sprouts are slightly steamed and center of pancake is cooked and edges are lightly browned.  Fold in half with a spatula, slide onto a plate, and serve immediately with veggies and dipping sauce.

Note: you’ll be in the kitchen for a while with this; we usually have two or three pans going at once to feed a big crowd.

What is a “trigger warning”? What is a “safe space”?

26 Aug

This week a professor friend of mine posted and lauded the letter that University of Chicago president sent out to all incoming freshmen which said a bunch of reasonable and universal/noncontroversial stuff, and also this paragraph:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

They, being a professor, then did some research into what exactly trigger warnings and safe spaces are, and then posted that this letter was “an embarrassment.”  So why did my friend have such a change of heart?  For that, let’s learn what these phrases mean.

trigger warning is a statement given before someone interacts with new material (e.g. a book, an article, a video, etc.) which alerts them of potentially disturbing content (e.g. graphic description of sexual violence, war scenes, etc.).  There’s a great op-ed piece in the NYT from last year that delves deeply into this:

Triggered reactions can be intense and unpleasant, and may even overtake our consciousness, as with a flashback experienced by a war veteran. But even more common conditions can have this effect. Think, for example, about the experience of intense nausea. It comes upon a person unbidden, without rational reflection. And you can no more reason your way out of it than you reasoned your way into it. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to engage productively with other matters while you are in the grip of it. You might say that such states temporarily eclipse our rational capacities.

The idea behind trigger warnings is that they give time for the reader/viewer/listener to prepare themselves or brace themselves for what’s coming, in hopes that they can rationally deal with the material.  In practice, they’re basically the same as the little box that says “this movie rated PG-13 for containing partial nudity” and most people can ignore them (idea from that op-ed).  There are many arguments out there against trigger warnings; one of the most cited is the “Coddling of the American Mind” article, where they analogize avoiding difficult subjects with phobias:

A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

There are great points in that article; namely, that turning disclaimers of difficult readings into optional readings does a disservice to students (they offer the example of professors not wanting to teach rape law).  I think the authors of this article and the professor of the first op-ed can agree that the point is for students to engage with difficult material.  However, the Atlantic piece authors believe that not including trigger warnings is the way to do so, while the NYT piece author believes the exact opposite.  So which is it?  Why the different views?

This is why mathematicians love definitions.  The Atlantic piece authors start with the same definition as I did, but then add another consequence:

Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

And therein lies the problem!  Trigger warnings exist so that students can engage with a work, but the authors say they exist so students can choose to not do so.  This jumbled definition is why there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between some news sources which laud “not supporting trigger warnings” (The Federalist (conservative/libetartarian), Reason magazine (libertarian), Intellectual Takeout (conservative/liberal)) and those that do not (Slate (liberal), Vox (this is a great piece), New Republic (this is not as good as the Vox piece)).

Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum (besides math?).  This whole controversy is part of a larger trend as demographics change, political landscapes change, and universities change.  There are many examples in practice of students actively refusing to engage with material that might question their assumptions (first example that comes to my mind was the Duke freshmen not wanting to read the non-required recommendation “Fun Home”), and this is something that all these public intellectuals of various political backgrounds want to avoid.

There’s a lot to say about this, but I want to move on to the next definition, so I’ll leave you with this article by NYMagazine, which happily acknowledges that the U of C letter totally messes up on ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ but also says that it has some important things to say.  Here’s a quote:

First, in addition to the absence of evidence that trigger warnings have any impact on the average college campuses, there’s also solid evidence that many of the tropes that have taken hold about “coddled” or“microaggressed” or “oversensitive” or anti-free-speech college students are seriously overblown. In many cases, these ideas have been bandied about so gleefully and frequently and uncritically by conservatives that the terms themselves have lost all meaning….But: There have absolutely been recent instances in which campus outrage has snowballed out of hand, in which protesters have actually impinged on the ability for real debate to take place, and these episodes matter.

Funnily enough the article refers to the controversy at Yale as also being disproportional, which I also wrote about in a similar vein as this post.

Next, a safe space is a physical location for marginalized people (historically LGBT folks) to exist with allies without fear of marginalization/hate speech.  Examples are church basements for Christian youth groups, gay bars, and the U Chicago LGBTQ Safe Space program.  The U of C letter refers to “intellectual safe spaces” as what it’s against, and includes a semi-definition as spaces where “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  This is not a normal use of the term, and there again seems to be some confusion about what the phrase “safe space” means.  There’s a fantastic article on Vox that goes into what a safe space is and why it matters in depth:

You don’t have to explain to other black women why your hair is the way it is, she said, or what a certain word means, or countless other little cultural signifiers. “Everybody has a need to just be able to be themselves somewhere, without having to do that translation and without having to always be on guard to justify yourself.”

I liked this Vox Explainer article so much because it really delves into the reasons that people are against the idea of safe spaces.  To close this SUPER LONG blog post, here are the last three paragraphs from it:

Some people get upset because they don’t understand why they can’t be included in a certain group, or why their input on certain issues might not be welcome. A man might ask in good faith whether catcalls are really just “compliments” when women are trying to discuss their own experiences with street harassment, and he might be taken aback when those women get immediately upset or exasperated with him. To him, perhaps he was just asking an innocent question and trying to have an intellectual debate. But to the women, it’s pretty insulting to suggest that their life experiences are up for “debate” — plus they’ve heard remarks like these a hundred times, and nine times out of 10 it just derails the conversation, so they’re just sick of dealing with it.

The question of who belongs and who doesn’t, who is excluded and who isn’t, is a constant worry for most of us. But on top of the personal rejections that everyone faces in life, people in marginalized groups also have to face the feeling that society wasn’t really designed for them; that it considers them an afterthought at best. People in dominant cultural groups are used to rejection, but they’re probably not used to that kind of rejection. And they’re probably not used to being forced to pay attention to all the little social cues and codes that others pick up when trying to navigate a society that isn’t inherently made to fit them.

It’s not easy to deal with shame, hurt feelings, or fear during these kinds of cultural clashes. But particular spaces or identities are rarely the most productive things to blame for the strife. Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.

 

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