My parents never made me mow the lawn, and I never volunteered until yesterday. My dad had already done most of the work, but there was one central patch still not ready for the big picnic. We went through the song and dance needed to start up the damp decades-old gas mower, and then I heaved the thing around the yard.

I have a new appreciation for the archetype of mowing as both chore and punishment for the adolescent boy. Sure, it’s easy going on smooth flat dirt, but every tree root seemed to grab the undersized wheels, determined to test my strength.

I may have been doing it wrong.


I got my first Scrabble today playing with my parents. It was “sealable”, (well, sea_able with a blank tile, and the second l already on the board).

The above statement is somewhat problematic and requires at least 3 qualifications.

  1. I’m not totally sure it’s my first 7-tile word ever. It’s not like I’ve been keeping records in a central place, and my memory is pretty shoddy for this stuff. Still, I can’t remember this ever happening before. Moreover, there’s no mention of it in the Digital Diary archive.
  2. Apparently everyone else doesn’t call it a “Scrabble” when this happens. The serious Scrabblers I know in Boston all seem to call it a bingo, and Wikipedia says that this is the standard term in the US and Canada. It also mentions that “Scrabble” is the standard term in Spain. I checked our Scrabble set from 1953, but the only word it uses to describe the occasion is a “premium”. My mother says she learned to call it a “Scrabble” from her mother, who was born in Germany, not Spain. Then again, my mother also calls blue jeans “dungarees”…
  3. “Sealable” isn’t actually a word according to the Scrabble dictionary, not that any of us bothered to check at the time. I convinced them by arguing that half the items in the supermarket are sold as “resealable”.


I whipped up a WAV recording of VoiceLab’s most recent concert, using gstreamer to decode it from a videocamera. I tried to load it into Python using the wave module, but I got an error, which I determined was because the wave module doesn’t support floating point wave files, and gstreamer writes floating point by default. So I googled for “python wave float”, and the first result was this ticket.

So I’m reading down the page and I see that there was a patch submitted six years ago:

Currently, gives an unknown format error when attempting to read IEEE Float .wav files. This patch causes to read those files properly.

“Great”, I said, “so why isn’t it working.” Then I notice

>Resolution: Rejected

Huh … why did it get rejected? Wait, who wrote the patch?

Created on 2005-02-19 20:02 by bensatmit_edu


Bug day

On Monday, I went to a barbeque of sorts near Porter Square, and there were no bugs. Today, biking just a few blocks further North, I felt like I was riding through a bug storm. I got bitten by gnats at stoplights, and when I built up some speed I could feel them bouncing off me like tiny hailstones. Goodness knows how many I must have inhaled.

Maybe they all hatch on the same day, or maybe it’s just something about Medford St.

Are all plants photosynthetic?

No! It turns out that there’s a family that contains at least 17 different non-photosynthetic plant genera (all parasites, which makes sense). Unsurprisingly, there’s even been some genetic analysis (for a long time now) to explain how and when this happened.

This seems like a good reminder that in phylogenetics, the children get to keep the family name even if they break long held tradition.


When I was a slightly younger man, my father once said* to me “Son, one day you will be one of those fellows who wears a baseball cap everywhere”, and I knew exactly what he meant. Last week, when I got sunburnt on top of my head in Canada, was the last straw. The trouble, of course, is that I don’t own any hats I’d be willing to wear in public, unless it’s a public costume party. I also have no desire to claim association with any sport or team.

Yesterday I was in Harvard Square, and it occurred to me that an overpriced Harvard cap would probably be just about right. I could duck in to the COOP where such things are sold, pick the basic hat off a rack, and pay whatever they charge.

Half an hour later, I was still wandering around the store dazed. I can hardly estimate how many different hats there were for sale. At least 5 different hat manufacturers appeared to be licensed to make Harvard hats, and each was selling a full line of hats on different walls of the store. There was a hat for every sport at Harvard, a hat for every school at Harvard (except mine), hats with every variation in style and color and construction that one can imagine in a baseball cap. There were sailor hats and straw hats, and maybe more if I’d kept looking. I almost bought the lone MIT cap just to escape the paralysis of choice.

In the end I bought the Dark Maroon cap with the smallest letters and least obtrusive embossing. The price tag said $20, but with student ID they only charged $17. As it turns out, branding yourself as Harvard or Red Sox costs about the same.

*: My father would never use the word “fellow” or refer to me as “son” in the vocative.

Wedding Invitation

I received the most amazing wedding invitation from one of my college friends a few weeks ago, and I haven’t responded yet because I wanted to put up some pictures of it.

The invitation came in a plain manila envelope. Inside that envelope was another envelope:
The inner envelope

Inside that envelope was a box:
The inner envelope and the box it contained

The box contained an artfully arranged set of items:
The box inside the inner envelope, open

The contents of the box inside the inner envelope

But of course, what really makes the invitation is the scroll!
The scroll inside the box inside the inner envelope.

I don’t think I’ve ever been sent an invitation scroll before, but I like it. Maybe my college friend is secretly a princess. I could sort of believe that.

All images anonymized by GIMP-Resynthesizer, which seems to work pretty well but only if you construct layer-selections so that there’s no structure other than what you’re trying to remove.


After hearing vaguely about strangelets for years, I finally looked them up today. It’s a wacky hypothesis, but it makes sense. Now I kind of hope that the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer detects one.

Most of the descriptions of strangelets are all about how they could trigger a chain reaction that destroys the earth/solar system/universe, and this is a very reasonable, extremely scary point. However, given that this hasn’t happened yet, it’s possible that the laws of physics conspire to produce only positively charged strangelets, which are more or less safe and self-limiting.

It’s a long shot, even for science fiction, but I think there might be an imaginable scenario in which strangelets allow the construction of high efficiency matter to energy conversion for power production, on a scale to drive civilizations and starships, using any substance as fuel. As the process is basically a form of fusion, reactors for the hobbyist market could be sold under the brand of Mr. Fusion

Matzoh Experiment 2: Tomato Matzoh Ball Stew

(no pictures this time)

After 25 years of matzoh ball soup in chicken broth, I began to wonder if there was another option.


  • Soup-ish stuff
    • 2 28 oz. cans of plum tomatoes with basil from Trader Joe’s
    • 2 onions
    • Fresh basil
  • Matzoh Balls
    • One 5 oz. box (two packets) of Manischewitz Matzoh Ball Mix, and all prerequisites
    • Red pepper flakes, chili powder, and any other spices as desired.


  1. Make matzoh ball dough as indicated on the box (both packets). Spice generously.
  2. Form dough into small (marble-size) balls, and refrigerate.
  3. Pour liquids from tomatoes into soup pot, and puree the solids with the onions and plenty of basil leaves.
  4. Mix all liquids back together and heat, adding water until you can boil it without creating tomato explosions.
  5. Drop in matzoh balls and simmer for about 30 minutes.
  6. Serve hot.


  • The result is odd, but I managed to sell most of it to a crowd of 9. The “soup” is halfway to tomato sauce, and full of solids that refuse to suspend. The matzoh balls come out a bit chewy, halfway to gnocchi, which is tasty in the context of the thickly textured stew.
  • Sadly, the matzoh balls do not turn pink.

Matzoh Experiment 1: Pesach Pyramids

I wanted to contribute something to a seder this year and the morning of I had a flash of insight. Here’s the recipe.


  • One box of Matzoh (~15 sheets)
  • 1/2 gallon of orange juice
  • 8 oz baking chocolate
  • Sugar (white or brown, maybe 1 cup)


  1. Preheat oven to 350F and oil a cookie sheet
  2. Pour the orange juice into a 9×9-inch casserole dish, and then place in a stack of matzoh. The matzoh floats, so you’ll have to hold or weigh it down in order to keep the stack immersed. You may want to occasionally flip or shuffle the stack to soften the matzoh evenly. Soak until the top sheet feels slightly flexible. Soak half the box (8 sheets) at a time.
  3. Use a knife to cut the sheets into triangles and squares as indicated in this template (or equivalently). Just press, don’t saw. Place the cut polygons onto an oiled cookie sheet.
  4. Bake until firm, about 30 minutes. (Pieces will harden as they cool, but then soften again as they sit around.)
  5. Transport pieces to seder site for final assembly
  6. Melt chocolate in a double boiler and add sugar to taste
  7. Fold a square of aluminum foil around each matzoh square to serve as a brace: We called 'em "boats"
  8. Place your message in the center of each square. I used quotations from the Talmud aggregated from lists like this one.
  9. Drizzle chocolate around the edge of each matzoh square inside the foil.
  10. Balance 4 triangles against each other on top of the square. Balancing the 4 upper faces of the pyramid together.
  11. Drizzle chocolate along the 4 seams to seal them. Allow to cool and harden (30 minutes).
    Completed Pesach Pyramids
    They could be prettier...
  12. Serve.


  • I came up with recipe as a joke of sorts. Suffice it to say that there is no reason, biblically or historically, to believe that the Israelites built the pyramids at Giza, and that we ate these pyramids to show our solidarity with the people of Egypt today, as they overthrew their own Pharaoh.
  • The chocolate sauce came out a bit granular/crystalline, and not very sweet. White sugar might work better than brown. I was in too much of a rush, so I only baked the polygons for 15-20 minutes, and they ended up being floppy enough that construction was very difficult. (Many thanks to a friend who helped out, and another who took these photos.)
  • This recipe is compliant with even the more ludicrous interpretations of passover kashrut. It contains no Kitniyot (like the soy lecithin in chocolate chips, which would otherwise probably make a fine glue), no animal products, and arguably not even any Gebrochts because it is soaked in fruit juice. The only stipulation we could think of that it doesn’t comply with: it’s not gluten-free.
  • The results are dessert-like, but not very sweet, and also somewhat filling. They seem to work well as a prelude to sweeter desserts. The leftover OJ-soaked matzoh bits make a good matzoh brie the next morning. The leftover OJ is still drinkable if you don’t mind drinking the distinct ashy flavor of matzoh.