Festival of Joe

20140226-214941.jpgEarly evening. Cocktail (made with Hendricks gin, muddled tangerine, and basil…). Roast pork on the way. Old haunt.

Where am I? At Roy’s, in Santa Barbara. I’m here for a two day celebration of the work of Joe Polchinski, one of the giants of my field. It all begins tomorrow, and I am taking the opportunity to have a quiet bit of time in an old haunt. I was a postdoc of Joe’s back in the mid 1990s, just when the world of theoretical physics was waking up to the awesome power of D-branes. D-branes are a special type of dynamical extended object in physics, and Joe had discovered their importance for string theory just around that time. Roy’s opened around that time too, if I recall, and a group of us became regulars, helping it along in those early days when it was smaller than it is now. (That small group included my friend and fellow postdoc Andrew Chamblin, who passed away some years ago.)

A D-braneSo I am here to help celebrate Joe’s work on the occasion of his 60th (hard to believe that number, frankly), and it will be good to see all the people who show up, and of course it’ll be excellent to see Joe. Part of my help in the celebrations is to organize and run a panel about D-branes, which will be on at 11:00 tomorrow. I’ll be reflecting a bit on the good old days when D-branes really broke, and turned out to be the key tool of the Revolution that took place in the field. In lectures and writings from that time and long after I used to refer to them as the Heroes of the Revolution, and in honor of that and of Joe I have named this session D-Branes, Tools of the Revolutionary, or something like that. Joe helped bring about the revolution, and his tools were D-branes, you see.

I was lucky to be here as a postdoc at that time, and happily I had the good sense to be quite sure that it was going to be important to quickly spread the [...] Click to continue reading this post

When Life Hands You Lemons…


Accidentally harvested a handful of my precious Meyer lemons from the tree earlier this morning while clearing a branch from a nearby tree. They are delicious and I only get a small number of them each year, so I tend to treat them like gold. Will have to make something special with them…

Yes, also, there’s a metaphor somewhere in there for other things going on, so…

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Automatic Beans

self_shelling_beansSo here’s a nifty thing. The beans on the left are a sort of speckled butter bean (or lime bean, if you prefer) that are pretty automatic. Each year, since I first planted them long ago, I get a lot of new bean plants appearing in the patch that the last ones grew in. Basically, the beans tend to [stay on] be left on the vine until they dry and then they pop open and replant themselves, ultimately, since I never find all of the ones that fall on to the ground. This is great, since it means that I never have to actually plant the things again… they just show up and start spreading. I need only put some stakes and climbing frames out, and each year they will just cover it with vines and new beans. This year I discovered another automatic feature. […] Click to continue reading this post

Date Tastiness

walnut_date_bread_6Time for a quick visit to the kitchen. I woke up one Sunday morning with the urge to make a cake. I’d thought about a simple sponge cake for some reason in the days leading up to it, and that must have planted the seed. I was busy and so did not immediately jump into it. But I woke up the Sunday in the mood. (I think it was last Sunday.) So I looked at what I had lying around and remembered that I had some old dates that were needing a purpose. They’d dried out a bit and so were not so great for eating directly, but certainly had a use in cooking. A short time later I had a date and walnut coffee cake sitting on the counter waiting to be eaten.

It was all gone within a short time, and so this morning I thought I’d make some more. The pictures you see are some of the steps.


It is pretty simple, being a fairly basic (baking soda risen) batter. The key novelty is to put together a cup of dates and a cup of walnuts, all chopped, […] Click to continue reading this post

Sunday Preparations…

This is the last day before the new semester starts here at USC. I’ve been wandering around the house a bit slowly. One reason is probably the excellent dinner party last night, which involved a lot of cooking for a lot of Saturday. That went well, and people seemed to enjoy themselves a lot. Good reason for a slow day the day after. The other reason is that it is simply nice to enjoy the calm before the storm of the new semester begins in earnest… So slow wandering around the house doing various simple tasks seems about right.

sunday_bread_1At some point I decided to start looking for my materials for tomorrow’s class. I teach graduate level electromagnetism again this semester (part two of a two part course) and so it is a good time to start looking into old folders and so forth, trying to see what I’ll re-use, what I’ll re-do, and so forth. It seems that last Fall was the first time I did a complete scan of all my hand-written notes into pdfs to allow me to deliver them from my iPad, and so that’s good news right there. I can annotate right on top of those and add new pages if I want to… but it is nice to start with a base of good material to hand right at the starting gate.

While I’ve been looking through materials I’ve also been making bread. I’ll need some for the week, what with sandwiches and all that, and it is a also a pleasantly slow and endlessly rewarding thing to do. I decided to make a more moist final dough than I have in recent times. I think that this will give both a nicer crust and crumb. That blob in the bowl in the picture above left is the result of a very successful first rise. Most of bread making is waiting, and so it is perfect for when you are doing slightly mundane but time-consuming tasks like looking at old files of course notes.

sunday_bread_2I rolled everything out into 12 rolls and a good slicing sandwich loaf and put them to rise again and went back to tinkering with files (analogue and digital). The picture to the right shows the result of that second rise. The oven is being preheated and they are nearly ready to go in. Already the smell is great, even though right now it is just a yeasty-doughy smell.

I’ve been wondering whether to jump ship and abandon Jackson as the main text for the class (shock! horror! – Jackson is a staple of so many graduate courses in physics) and go with something new. There have been two texts of note (that I know of) in the last couple of years that have risen to challenge Jackson’s supremacy, the one by Anupam Garg (“Classical Electromagnetism in a Nutshell”, Princeton), and the one by Andrew Zangwill (“Modern Electrodynamics”, Cambridge). My feeling is that both these books (I’ve looked at Garg more than Zangwill [update: see later remarks]) do a good job of making the subject seem alive and modern. Jackson has a great deal of useful material, presented in a firmly sensible way that is hard to argue with, and it will always remain a classic, but sometimes I think it suffers a bit from feeling somewhat old. I like that, for example, there’s a nice treatment of the beam of a laser in Garg as an [...] Click to continue reading this post

When Life Hands You Tomatoes…

… make chutney!


So the garden has been yielding a great deal in the tomato department, as you saw from earlier posts. There’s been quite the fig surplus too, but more on that later. Last night – late last night – I decided to work on another food item that allows me to use them up and save this glorious condensation of Summer for a later time. I decided to make a tomato chutney. Well, I’m making two. I wanted to take the yellower tomatoes to make one with a lighter colour and flavour, and I will (later tonight perhaps?) make another, darker one with red tomatoes (with a little pepper from the garden for warmth).

A chutney is simple. It’s a bit like a savoury jam but even easier. I halved the little yellow pear variety tomatoes, and chopped a yellow onion – about half as much in volume as I had tomato. (Some extra tomatoes showed up late – I found a few green [...] Click to continue reading this post


TwentyWonder is tonight! Come along if you’re in the area. Some quotes from the site:

A mindblowing cultural mashup. One night only. Only in LA.

Art. Science. Music. Comedy. Food ‘n Drink. Weird Geeky Stuff. …and Roller Derby!

Feel the Love. All proceeds go to the Downs Syndrome Association of Los Angeles.

See you there?

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Red, Gold, and Green

red_gold_green_july_2013_2Happy 4th of July, those of you who are celebrating it. I should have brought you Red, White, and Blue, but those are not the colours prevailing in the garden right now. Also, I don’t know of any blue tomato varieties. There’s a bit of a bonanza of tomatoes right now, I am pleased to report. All that time spent composting is paying off again, perhaps. A small part of the harvest is in the photograph above, showing six of the varieties in the garden this year. (Click for a larger view.) I don’t recall all [...] Click to continue reading this post

Lattice Experiments

... and out it came, just as I finished hand-whipping some cream for an accompaniment. Hurrah! Apologies in advance to people who clicked over here because from the title they were expecting a post on discrete approaches to quantum field theory such as lattice QCD. This is mostly about lattice cherry pie, which, you’ll perhaps admit, is at least as interesting. Best to use the ones that have a slight sour edge to the taste, in my opinion… not too overly sweet.

Yes, it is time for an Asymptotia visit to the kitchen. Sunday I had a little dinner gathering for five, which called for an afternoon of cooking. I took some pictures, but in the end the set is incomplete since I got distracted with the important business of helping serve everything nice and hot and on time. So the main focus will be the pie (shown at the top so you don’t have to wait – the photo makes it look at lot darker than it actually is. It is not burnt!), since that’s all I have a complete set for. The [...] Click to continue reading this post

Baby Harvest

The many squash plants in the garden this season all started a rather cluttered rush of fruiting. Some of them stalled in their growth, and overall it seemed a good idea to remove these small ones and some others, generally thinning the plants a bit to allow them to focus their energy resources into fewer squashes. A bonus of this procedure… an early Summer squash banquet!


Earlier this week I made a very tasty bean stew with some beans harvested from last [...] Click to continue reading this post


…of Mexico. It was an excellent evening again this year (November 30th, actually). This was the second one (the first was in 2010) and I think the idea is to try to make it an annual event. It is in that great space downtown, Vibiana, the former Cathedral of St. Vibiana (now de-frocked, I suppose).

Anyway, the fellow (photograph right) making something (whatever it was) using liquid nitrogen caught my scientist’s eye (I usually carry a couple with me when I go out). It reminded me of the ice-cream people used to make at various departmental parties in physics departments in my past. (Always seemed like a good idea for novelty, but I never ate any of the ice-cream. I think I’m a fan of making things like that the slow way, letting the flavours settle in…) I wondered what he was making, but did not wait to find out since I was not on my own and a crowd immediately formed around him.

What happened a short time later was a bit unexpected. I enjoyed listening [...] Click to continue reading this post

Sweet Preparations

It’s Thanksgiving! If you’re in the USA, I hope you’re having a good one so far. It is time for Asymptotia to take a trip to the kitchen, this time to make a dessert contribution to a meal at some friends’ Thanksgiving dinner party. I was going to make an apple pie, like I did some years back for a Thanksgiving, but apparently one of the other guests is bringing one. So I went with another simple and reliable preparation, an upside down cake with something seasonal on it. I went to the farmer’s market at Barnsdall Park yesterday (I missed my usual, the Hollywood one, since it is on Sunday and I was in New York that day) and saw that they had pluquats (crosses between plums and apricots), and they were the prime candidates for the cakes (plural since I decided to do two). I made them earlier today.

It started with chopping up the fruit into thick slices and making the topping. This is made from a stick of butter (half a cup – I am using US measurements), melted in a skillet and then cooked for a few minutes on a low flame with 3/4 cup of sugar and some spices (nutmeg and cinnamon, ground – my addition). I put that at the bottom of the ten inch pan I had ready. (I did two copies of everything, by the way) Then I [...] Click to continue reading this post

Late but Still Great

Here’s a rather pleasant surprise from just outside my front door.

This started out as a “volunteer” tomato plant. It just showed up in a patch of soil somewhere, and so I planted it in the front garden and left it, occasionally watering during a particularly dry spell…

Now it is very late in the Fall, and it is producing some tomatoes! It’s not a particularly interesting variety, but nice to see all the same, this late in the year. (And to taste…)

Because of the unusual warmth of the Fall, the main line of tomato plants in the vegetable garden (that were quite prolific during the Summer – see some [...] Click to continue reading this post

Lotta Bottle

In collaboration with a friend of mine, I’ve been bottling things. This time, lemon products. Her lemon tree is prone to produce far too many lemons to know what to do with, so you have to be creative. I make marmalade, as you know from previous posts, and she likes to make limoncello, both of which call for a good number of lemons (the latter also calls for several days involving various stages). Here are results of bottling both sets of products… The marmalade is remarkably dark [...] Click to continue reading this post

Edible Fractals, and the Snowflake

In celebration and anticipation of the unveiling of the Mosely Snowflake Sponge fractal on the USC campus later today, I’m reposting an old post about an edible fractal that I did back in February 2008. They say they will be serving fractal-themed food in the reception, and so I wonder if this is one of the foods that might feature? Don’t forget to come to the event! Recall that I (jokingly) speculated that when this fractal is completed the universe will end, as its purpose will have been served? Well, it seems that this has not come to pass, so… whew.

For other fractal-related posts, click here. You might also enjoy the lovely fractal-related film, Yaddda Yadda Yada, that won a prize in the competition last year.



romanesque cauliflower

A small Romanesque Cauliflower. (Click for larger view.)

Imagine my delight when I spotted this lovely piece of edible mathematics in the Hollywood Farmer’s Market this morning. The stall has several of them of many sizes (this was a very little one) and of several colours. Wonderful. If you don’t know what I mean when I talk about the mathematics, or use the term fractal, look it up. There are several things of note, among which are the wonderful spiral structures that you can see (Fibonacci spirals) all over, and which in various ways, encode the infinite sequence of numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233…. (you get the next one by adding the previous two) called the Fibonacci sequence. Ratios of successive members of the sequence, (e.g., 5/8, 8/13, 144/233, etc) approximate what I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post is definitely my favourite number (if I [...] Click to continue reading this post


Little cherry sized tomatoes always seem to be the ones that survive the extremes most readily. At least in my experience. The many varieties (see a previous post) that are out there in the garden have been suffering a lot in the extended heat wave of late, and although more or less healthy, don’t flower, and hence there’s no fruit. Not so for these red cherries. They just keep on giving. (I took this photo near the end of August, when I [...] Click to continue reading this post

Red, Gold, and Green

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, the garden continues to produce tasty things. (I had to sneak back from Aspen for a few days for some meetings, and a couple of business-social events…) There are still several varieties of tomatoes producing, and I got to spend some time building new stake supports for the various plants as they are much more extended and weighed down than just a couple of weeks ago…

There’s a runaway giant flying saucer squash, ready for turning into something [...] Click to continue reading this post

Tomato Bounty

I stopped off in LA after Amsterdam, to recharge and to just be home for a bit. The garden is now bursting with tomatoes of various types, I’m happy to report, and you only need to wait a day or two in order to pick a variety pack such as the lovely one above. (Click for larger view.) I brought a bunch of them to Aspen with me, and continue to work through them, in cooking, sandwiches like the ones I’m just about to eat for lunch, and so forth.

I’ve had none of the rodent problems with the tomatoes this year, since I [...] Click to continue reading this post


So one of the reasons I love this blog is the community of people who read, sometimes occasionally making comments or suggestions. On my original post saying I was visiting in Amsterdam a while, there was a suggestion from commenter Kramer to try a restaurant somewhat off the beaten path, but worth a visit. I cautiously did my research, decided that it looked good, and on the last night of the trip, went along with a friend to try it out.

My goodness what an excellent place! It was just wonderful, and one of the things that was great for me was that the restaurant – Marius – is a spiritual cousin of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant in Berkeley that I’m a fan of. (See also an article in the NY Times about it here. Since that article was written, the restaurant has moved to slightly larger premises down the road, and now takes cards.) The chef-owner of Marius, Kees Elfring, worked at Chez Panisse for some time a while back. The same philosophy of locally sourced fine ingredients fuels the place, and (as Kees Elfring told us – he came and sat at the table for a while to chat) Marius is one of the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Metropolis II

Chris Burden’s Metropolis II, on display at LACMA, is a lot of fun. I was at LACMA recently, catching up with an old friend, hanging out and chatting for a while on the lawn. It was a pleasant afternoon to spend a bit of time talking about life and work outside, wandering into the museum to look at at an exhibit for a bit, and then resting outside in the late afternoon sun again, before going to see something else.

Anyway, the Metropolis II installation was fun, and very interesting. I can’t help [...] Click to continue reading this post

Time for Superstring Beans

Yeah, I’ve made this joke before but I am always impressed when these begin to show up at the market, and they’e been showing up the last few weeks.

They’re very tasty, so I’m pleased to see and buy them… but I do suspect that a tiny part of the reason I get them is that I get to write a blog post with Superstring Beans in the title once again (see earlier posts on this here and here).

Click for a larger view, if you wish.

Anyway, there it is. Some are going into a pan tonight for my evening meal…

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

And Back…

Well, that turned out to be a very productive Walkabout. I set up an office there, taking some of the essentials of the things I was working on and disappearing for most of the week. No computers, just pens, pencils, and paper. My office? A chair and a shelter made of thin fabric, string, two poles, and some large stones to weigh down the pegs against the wind. The shelter was against the sun, since I was in Death Valley, camping. As I sometimes do.

My routine was simple: I’d wake up at about sunrise or shortly thereafter and after a visit to the restrooms across the way to freshen up a bit, I’d get my old whisperlite stove going to make some water boiling for tea. Once that’s done, I’d make a pot of oatmeal for breakfast and sitting eating it while flicking at the gnats that seem to begin to swarm during the morning’s first heat, I’d watch the morning move along for a while, with campers across the way getting ready for their day’s hikes or drives in the area. (My hiking boots and other gear were with me just in case I wanted to hike, but that was not my focus, and I didn’t in the end.) Next I’d make a large pot of coffee (sweetened with dark brown sugar), have a cup of it then and there, and pour the rest into a thermos flash for consumption during the day. Then I’d wash up everything, put them away, and take my work materials to my office, situated just behind my tent. By then, most people have left for good or for the day in the neighboring campsites, and it is quiet, except for the large ravens that tour the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Science and Food!

Yes, two of your favorite things, right?

I thought so. Well, consider signing up to my friend Amy Rowat’s special new course at UCLA on the subject. It will feature many fantastic chefs from some of the finest restaurants around the city and beyond, as well as some excellent food writers. The course will have a wealth of wonderful information (like at the answers to why carrots are sweeter in the Winter), and hands on practice to get involved in. I think the course is only open to UCLA students (who should be sure to register fast to get on the limited list), but there are four public events (I think you might have to register for those too, as space it limited). See the list of events here. I’ve mentioned Amy and her work here on the blog before, soho and have a look at the earlier post for more about her work at UCLA, and go here for more on the Rowat Lab. (See also a recent article featuring her lab’s work on food science in UCLA’s Prime magazine’s Winter 2012 edition.)

Now, even if you do not make it over to UCLA, you can check you the excellent [...] Click to continue reading this post

Sweet, Quick Treat

One of my favourite things to do when I have a bunch of left over sweet potato in the morning is turn it into sweet potato biscuits. A nice recipe can be found in one of my favorite standby cookbooks (was a favourite since it came out in 1995), The Welcome Table, by Jessica B. Harris. There are versions online that you can find I imagine, and in other recipe books. Without going over the recipe in the book verbatim, which sometimes seems a bit unfair to me, I’ll say that it involves just a bit of butter (with [...] Click to continue reading this post

Tart Grab

I hope the holiday period is (or has been) going well for you. As you may know from reading this blog, there’s often a lot of cooking going on in my kitchen, especially during the big Fall and Winter holidays. This weekend was no exception…and there were several elements of the meal, each the product of delightful collaboration among myself and my visitors. I did not document all the food that was prepared this time around, but I am happy to report that it was a great meal… I did grab a before and after shot of a lattice coconut tart that materialized.

You might have seen a lattice tart on here before… not sure. I did the lattice work [...] Click to continue reading this post

Fig Resurrection

Ah, the Bleak Midwinter is here. My mum has come to visit and so I’ve started bringing out some of the fruits of Summer that I wanted to share with her… the figs! My plan was/is to make a batch of fig jam (see here and here for some of the earlier posts on that), and I still might, since I’ve a fair amount left in the freezer (as I got a set off the trees I’d chop them up and bag them and freeze them). But one thing you can do with them (actually with any fruit – I experimented with apples the other day) is make a quick tasty fruit compote to go on fresh pancakes! (Or yoghurt, or other item.)

I make mine by simply chopping up the fruit into small pieces, putting into a small pan with a little water, a bit of brown sugar, and some cinnamon and nutmeg, and just cooking it down slowly for ten or fifteen minutes. Stir frequently in the later stages as it begins to thicken. Don’t overwhelm the taste of the fruit with too much sugar -it’ll add its own sugars too, which you don’t want to drown [...] Click to continue reading this post

Happy Thanksgiving!

For those celebrating it today, Happy Thanksgiving! I’ll be doing only a little cooking today, making one or two dishes to take over to some friends’ for a meal where ten people are bringing items together for what I expect will be a great meal. So I’ll be working for a chunk of the morning and then breaking to make Southern-style collard greens, and maybe also a sweet potato pie… Are you cooking? If so, good luck, and have fun!

Some people sit at thanksgiving dinner and in turn call out something they’re thankful for (or at least do so internally)… Well, if looking for some new things to be [...] Click to continue reading this post

A Humble Pie

For some reason yesterday morning, I got the urge to taste a good old-fashioned meat pie. Perhaps it is the Winter feeling that has come over everything with the switch to chillier weather, rain, and the delightful seasonal hint of vegetative decay in the air… I was in a strong maker-mood and so this urge built into the desire to make the thing for real with my own hands. I had leeks and beef in mind, but it is not time for leeks yet in the Hollywood Farmer’s market, so I picked up some red potatoes, two types of mushrooms (shitakes and white buttons), two red peppers, some yellow onions and some garlic (forgot to get some green onions), and returned home (after stopping at Trader Joe’s for some good tenderloin beef).

I made some flaky pastry (half butter half shortening this time… figure it would be [...] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Food

The new season of Categorically Not! gatherings started last Sunday night. It went very well. You may recall that it is held at the Santa Monica Art Studios. It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones.

This one was about food, and had musings on food and bringing people together at New York’s Cornelia Street Cafe, by the founder Robin Hirsch. He talked about the history of the place, read some extract from his writings about it, and also described the beginnings of the “Entertaining Science” series that got going when K C Cole, Roald Hoffman, and Oliver Sacks did a performance there many years ago. The Categorically Not! series, now five years or so in age, was a spiritual outgrowth of that series, and so it was great to see Robin speak at it. He was very pleasant and interesting to talk to before and after the event too. (I did a quick, rough, sketch during his 20 minute segment – with some tidying up later – and have included it for you to see. Click for slightly larger view.)

Robin was followed by Amy Rowat, of UCLA. Amy gave us a nice overview of what’s going on in her lab. She’s a physicist, and spends a lot of her time looking at food through that lens. The concerns she described were largely ones of structural, [...] Click to continue reading this post