Shiny Metal Tiger

Experiences in Baltimore, MD

Archive for June 2010

Baltimore crab

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Last weekend my mom came to visit me in Baltimore, and among other pleasant pastimes we partook in a Baltimore style crustacean feast.

Maryland has long been known for its crabs, and although I’m told that most of the crabs served nowadays are from the Gulf, the tradition is still strong.

Aside from the Chesapeake blue crab, the main characteristic of Maryland crab houses is the way food is served. If you can manage to ignore the telltale state of the other diners’ tables, you might be surprised to sit down at a rather austere table:

Two hammers, two knives and a brown paper tablecloth

No keeping up appearances here, but then a lack of attention to decor often means that the quality of food is enough to keep people coming back. Then, more expectedly, comes the ordering. This particularly place (Bill’s Terrace Inn, supposed to be one of the better ones) had some standard items on the menu: fries, salads, few different kinds of seafood, but none of it was particularly appealing. We were here for crabs, after all, and crabs we would have. In this regard, the waitress will give you a choice of normal, large or jumbo crabs, all at daily rates. We ordered half a dozen large crabs, which came to a very modest $31. After a reasonable wait someone will be around to launch an avalanche of crabs and Old Bay spice right onto your paper tablecloth, and then, as they say, it’s on!

At that point, the purpose of the hammer was rather obvious, though I was rather puzzled as to a use for the knife. So I went with the crude but effective method of ripping things apart and pulling out the meat with my fingers, applying the hammer where necessary.

Honestly, I thought there was rather too much salt in the spice mix, or perhaps too much spice mix on the crabs. You really had to try and eat around it to maximize your enjoyment of the meal. The crabs were very good, though, as they are wont to be if not mishandled. And half a dozen was just right. When the dust settled, our table looked thus:

Total Annihilation

Sometimes when enjoying local cuisine, you wonder whether you look like a complete tourist. In this case I wasn’t very much in doubt, given that 90% of the patrons were black, and none of them had to ask whether one could order less than a whole dozen crabs. Even ignoring these giveaways, we noticed one party in particular who obviously had way more know-how in the field of crab houses:

Don't want no stinky crabs on our fingers...


Written by Martin

2010/06/29 at 21:03

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Lazy Sunday

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Sometimes you wake up in the morning, and without regard for your plans, the planets will have aligned themselves to make it a lazy day. Once this happens, the only thing to do is to embrace it and spend the time recharging; trying to fight it will only result in wasted time, as we shall see later in this post.

Since this is an eating day, I started off with a healthy breakfast, consisting of:

  1. A bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and some juice.
  2. Another bowl, this time vanilla yoghurt with strawberry honey bunches of oats and sliced banana.
  3. A final bowl of plain oats and milk, with some honey, dried berries and nuts sprinkled on.

This may sound a bit extreme (and probably 1800 kcals or so), but we must remember that I hadn’t eaten anything for 32 hours; eating day breakfasts are straight up feasts. Nonetheless, experience has at least attempted to teach me that you should never pick oats for a third (or probably even second) bowl of cereal, even if you feel like something less sweet. They’re too heavy, making you distinctly bloated for several hours afterwards.

After enjoying my breakfast and watching Stephen Fry in America for a couple of hours, I was off to work. But not before heading down the street for a garage sale I’d noticed yesterday. What initially caught my eye was Moby Dick, which I’d unfortunately bought just the day before, at five times the price. Fortunately they had a very nice selection of books, so armed with cash I went back today, and returned with the following cache of loot:

I’d planned to spend only a couple of hours at work, but once I got there I quickly found more experiments I could do, and before long I had a plan to stay until five, go home to cook the dinner I’d planned while my samples incubated, and then return at ten for another couple of hours to get everything done for tomorrow. But then fate intervened; it had already told me that today would be a lazy day, so why was I trying to pack in more experiments? Of course, fixing the mistake was a simple matter. As I opened the centrifuge to get out my samples, I discover that the bottom of the tubes had cracked, depositing hours of work in the tube holder. There goes that plan.

It was an eight hour sample preparation (though I was only midway), so I didn’t have time to start over. I’d lost the battle against destiny (though I still intend to win the war), and instead went home (after another failed attempt to procure pure kerosene).

So, now I’m home, watching Stephen Fry make his way from Montana to Texas and enjoying my quite delicious pizza bianca, with potatoes, mozarella and parmesan, spiced with fresh basil and rosemary from Morten’s herb pots on the roof.

Oh, I almost forgot. While I was preparing the pizzas, I had some steamed mixed vegetables, to which I had the random impulse to add black eyed peas, sour cream and hot chunky salsa. Unexpectedly, the result was highly delicious! Best gastronomically positive surprise I’ve had since duck fat french fries. So give it a shot if you’re feeling lazy and have the ingredients.

Written by Martin

2010/06/27 at 19:59

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Street shots

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Here are a couple of photos from the neighborhood, while I pine away at another post that is proving more troublesome than expected. Enjoy!

Written by Martin

2010/06/26 at 22:43

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In nomine patris

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I must admit that I had never considered making a blog post for Father’s Day. I’ve never been very interested in these official pseudo-Holidays, and never much of a sentimental either. But as of yesterday (what opportune timing), my new stance on Father’s (and Mother’s) Day is: why not?

I’m sure not every single father or mother in the world is worth celebrating. But many certainly are, mine included. And then who cares if it seems tacky to have a day dedicated to the fact?

Dad: Teaching manhood by example

Some of my fondest memories from childhood are from when my mom would be out of town on business. On such occasions, dad and I would have a feast, inevitably consisting of: Steak, hash browns, freshly baked bread and a bowl of iceberg, cucumber, tomatoes and red pepper. Having sampled the cuisines of the world, this is still pretty much the best meal I can imagine.

Bellies full, we’d usually head to Blockbuster. I can only imagine how many awful movies he had to suffer through for my sake, though he did manage to sneak in a few classics. Later on we’d play chess (at which I managed to best him in San Sebastian around age 14) or go (which he’s still better at), which I’m sure must have been rather more stimulating for him.

So many other memories. Him carefully tending his roses in the garden, and eventually inducing them to grow all over my impenetrable fortress of interwoven branches in the garden (which he’d helped build). Barbecue ribs on the terrace, with his special hoisin-honey sauce (and the seagulls that would swoop down on the meat and occasionally smash  a bowl). Him telling “mouth stories” instead of reading from a book when I was wee (I’ve later discovered that most of these were stolen from Kurosawa movies). The series of rather improper gifts (bank robber style ski mask, leather jacket, nunchucks, knife, all before age 10) that I somehow never regarded as toys.

More than anything, though, I’m thankful for the expert way in which he (they, but this is his day) managed to raise me. Whether by accident or design, he managed to do things just right to make sure I never ended up smoking, slacking off, looking down on people, getting in fights, or even having much of a teenage rebellion. Instead of getting tattoos, I listened to the Stones; instead of doing drugs, I read Philip K. Dick. He didn’t tell me what to do, just silently approved or disapproved, which was a far stronger motivator. He didn’t tell me how to do well in life, he just did right and let me watch. The best thing about this way of instruction is that it’s still working. I’m still growing into a better man all the time, and it’s all because I was pointed in the right direction.

I love you dad.

Written by Martin

2010/06/20 at 22:46

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Gross toroids of sugar-lard

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It’s official, I no longer like doughnuts. The last four times I’ve had one, I have not enjoyed it. I used to love them, happily eating half a dozen Krispy Kreme original glazed in one go; but now, whenever I chomp down on one, my palate is assaulted not by pure deliciousness, but rather by the unique texture of partially hydrogenated oils.

It might be because I’m eating a lot healthier these days, so the contrast to my regular food is greater. Which is of course hard to separate from the fact that I want to eat healthier, which might well foster an aversion to doughnuts. Or perhaps doughnuts in America are simply nastier than in Europe, due to laxer laws, consumer preferences or whatever else.

All in all, it’s not too bad. Better for my health, and if I don’t like them you can’t say that I’m missing something. It should be noted that I still very much like chocolate chip cookies (as well as oatmeal raisin cookies), and will happily eat half a dozen in one go.

Written by Martin

2010/06/11 at 11:42

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Vive l’Empereur!

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I have just reached the end of a podcast that have been my regular auditory stimulation while driving, as well as during tedious jobs in the lab. The podcast is Napoleon 101 from The Podcast Network, and as the title suggests, is about Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, etcetera etcetera.

I didn’t know very much at all about Napoleon when I started listening to the show, and must say that I’ve been duly educated, and impressed. As is perhaps common, I had a vague image of a rather short man who spent the majority of his time waging war across Europe. Among other things, I now know that at 1.7 m, Napoleon was really of average height, and that while he did wage war almost continuously during his rule of France, more or less every one of those wars were initiated by the various (other) monarchs of Europe, for various reasons.

The podcast was very well done. Professional and academic, based on fact rather than opinion, and the historian involved (J. David Markham) was clearly an expert on Napoleon. They went through Napoleon’s life chronologically, over 45 episodes of typically a bit over an hour. This meant that you could get a much more faceted impression of the man, rather than just the ruler, or soldier. Both the hosts are “pro Napoleon”, and I must say that the show was a tad biased towards his good sides (after doing some additional research). That being said, they didn’t nearly leave out all the bad stuff. It might be described as a 60/40 thing, if not for the fact that honestly there was a lot more good stuff than bad, by any account. If I had any criticism, it would be that they sometimes repeated themselves from episode to episode (though to be fair, it was a month between making them, and I’m listening back to back).

Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, by Jacques-Louis David (1801)

Honestly, Napoleon Bonaparte was an amazing character. Commanded the French army at age 26, a military mind that continuously astounded the rest of Europe, going more or less undefeated on the field for decades. And not only did he win, but after beating e.g. the Astrians, he wouldn’t crush them, but rather agree to rather fair peace treaties. Even though his enemies broke such treaties time and time again.

But aside from that, a masterful politician and ruler, who reorganized the civic systems of several countries in which he had military success (both as Emperor and when he was only a general): He established a true meritocracy in France, where government and military positions were gained by merit rather than birthright; part of this was the institution of the Legion d’Honneur, which is still the highest decoration in France. He also established freedom of religion in France, improved infrastructure, the school system, and established the national bank. Further, his civil laws, now known as the “Napoleonic Code”, were perhaps the most significant factor in establishing the Rule of Law in the Western world.

All in all, a great man. And I can very much recommend the podcast to anyone interested in great men, or simply in history.

Written by Martin

2010/06/10 at 17:01

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Eat less, live more

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My fire breathing progress is on hold until I can find 100% pure kerosene, but meanwhile I’ll keep on truckin’ through my list of 2010 goals.

One of the other items on the list was to start caloric restriction (CR). I will probably make a more detailed post about this later, but in essence, CR refers to the now fairly well established fact that for practically all animals, limiting the their caloric intake compared to eating as much as they want leads to increases in average and maximal lifespan and numerous beneficial effects on overall health, even when this CR is quite severe (e.g. eating 50% less). It has been tested for yeast, worms, flies,mice, rats, dogs, monkeys and more, and for everything but the common house fly, you see healthier animals living longer when their caloric intake is restricted, as long as they aren’t deficient in any nutrients (vitamins and minerals, amino acids). Consider the two monkeys in this picture:

Two rhesus monkeys, both 28 years old (Colman et al. 2009)

These monkeys are both 28 years old, which is the normal life expectancy of a rhesus monkey. However, the monkey on the right has been on CR since young adulthood, consuming 30% fewer calories than the monkey on the left. I know which monkey I’d rather be… which is of course the reason I wanted to start CR in the first place. Research in humans in underway, but since humans live so long in the first place we really don’t know whether CR will extend our lifespan; nonetheless, the people who are doing it are showing the general health benefits that are seen in animals, such as lower cholesterol and higher insulin sensitivity (the opposite of type-2 diabetes). So, it seems like it’ll be good for you, whether it extends maximal lifespan or just healthy lifespan. In fact, I’ve been meaning to start CR for 3 years now, but it has proved rather difficult.

The main trouble for me is that it takes a good deal of planning and consistency. Since I’ve never really dieted, I find it very troublesome to keep accurate track of calories, and then you add keeping track of all your micronutrients as well. Plus, since I’m generally healthy and love eating, it’s hard to keep up the motivation even though I know that it’s something I want to do in the long term. Fortunately for me, recent studies seem to suggest an alternative to regular CR, namely alternate day fasting (ADF); it appears that alternating 24 hour eating and fasting periods provides benefits very similar to CR, even if the average caloric intake is normal. For me, this should be significantly easier to accomplish, for several reasons:

  1. I do well with sharply defined rules that I don’t bend or break, even a little.
  2. When I eat something, I feel like eating more. Conversely, when I haven’t eaten in a while I tend not to think about it too much.
  3. Caloric restriction pretty much rules out ice cream, chocolate and the like. With ADF you kind of eat what you want, just every other day.
  4. CR is a permanent state of denial, whereas ADF alternates ordeals and rewards.

Last Sunday I didn’t feel too hungry, and spontaneously decided to give alternate day fasting a try. I’d had a grapefruit for breakfast, but otherwise stuck to water the whole day; this was surprisingly easy, compared to my expectations. I thought of food a couple of times, but dismissing the thought was easy. Monday morning I woke early and was darn hungry, but the marvel of ADF was that I could eat as much as I wanted. So I gorged myself all Monday, but once again Tuesday wasn’t too bad. By now I’ve been doing it for a little over a week, and thought I’d give a slightly more thorough summary of my experiences and plans.

First off, what am I doing? On fasting days I get up and have a piece of fruit and a multivitamin for breakfast, then consume nothing but water (or tea) for the rest of the day. The breakfast makes it a light entry, and keeps it to more or less a 24 hour fast, as well as helping the multivitamin go down. Then on eating days, I eat whatever I want, as much as I want. The idea is to eat only when I’m hungry, but I find that I’ve been “stocking up” from subconsciously aiming for double my normal intake. I’m going to try and stop that, since it just makes me feel bloated. I’ve also been taking “you CAN eat chocolate” to mean “stuff yourself with cakes and sweets”, which  I’ll also try to stop. Again, it makes me feel worse than eating healthy, so what’s the point? Plus, eating healthy means I can worry less about getting enough nutrients, which will make it easier not to overeat.

So, in a nutshell: eat generally healthy but as much as your hunger dictates on one day, nothing but water the next. Pretty simple.

So what is it like?

  • As I mentioned, it’s surprisingly easy to get through the fasting days. The first few times I became rather unfocused and a little dizzy late in the evening, but as of 21:24 I’m feeling just fine. I actually feel better on fasting days than on eating days, though that might again change once I improve my eating habits.
  • Until now I cut my workout on fasting days, but today I started introducing some light conditioning. Just a 3.2 km run in 14 minutes. It was a little more taxing than normally, but I felt better afterwards than when I hadn’t been working out. So I’ll stick to conditioning on all days, but resistance training only on eating days.
  • I save time and trouble by not having to cook every day. Always nice.
  • Sometimes it’s a little limiting for social interactions, since I can’t go out to eat or drink on fasting days. But with a little planning it’s no big deal, and worst case I’ll just cheat and reset to eating that day.
  • So far I’ve lost about 1.5 kg, even with the lower workout frequency. I’ll have to see whether that continues, stops or even reverts as my body adapts.
  • My workout performance on eating days hasn’t dropped. In fact it’s increased a little, but I put that down to longer recovery periods.
  • Mornings on eating days are wonderful. Wake up really hungry, then realize that you can go down and eat whatever you want. 3 bowls of cereal, couple pieces of fruit, a few nuts, maybe some bread, nomnomnom!

People normally report a two-week adaptation period, so I’ll report again later on how it’s going. This week I started sampling my (subjective) tiredness and focus levels at noon and 18:00, as well as whether I felt hungry or not. Just to keep track of how it’s going. At some point I’ll probably also want to get some biomarkers tested, to see if it’s actually doing me any good, but that’s not too big a deal. As long as I feel good, I see no reason to stop; if I keep losing weight, it’ll be pretty simple to just ramp up my eating to compensate.

Meanwhile, I’m awaiting more studies showing whether the lifespan improvements of CR also occur with ADF, or just the health benefits. If it’s the former, I still want to do full CR, since the lifespan is what I’m most interested in. But the bright side is that it should be a lot easier to manage CR from the basis of ADF. Just cut down calories a bit on eating days, and eat lots of nutrient-dense food, and it should be pretty close to what I’m doing now.

Written by Martin

2010/06/02 at 20:39

Posted in Uncategorized