31 July 2009

How to cook a meal for one-hundred people (and actually feed ninety-five).

Last week I was kitchen lead for the Hot Yam! and here is my experience report.

Short version:
Take a recipe which you like and which you think more people should taste. For me this was "Stewed Taro with Green Onions" which I had discovered after falling in love with taros in Taiwan.
For all other meal components, take some recipes which you liked from previous meals (they should be on the blog). Replace as many ingredients as you can by seasonal things.
Write a shopping list and be around all day so volunteers can ask you questions. They know by themselves how to do all the things needed to make a meal, likely even better than you do.

Long version:
Here are some of the troubles I ran into, some tips, and finally a list of ingredients which I think made up the final meal. (But I am not sure about the details of it.)

My zeroth mistake (before even starting, that is) was to not ask for directions to the Farmer's Market on time. I was saved because one of the volunteers who came shopping knew the location.

My first mistake was to take a recipe off the Hot Yam! blog without checking the numbers. In June, we only cooked for about 50 to 60 people and I was planning for a hundred. Fortunately the recipe was for our dessert and I had bought enough peaches for the crisp and could run and get more of the other stuff, too. So we didn't manage to bake the dessert on the evening before, but we had it all ready to bake in the fridge and it took us almost no extra time to deal with in the morning.

My second mistake was not to check with my lovely volunteers whether they had actually bought all the things on the shopping list. In the case of lentils we had wisely foreseen that the store might not have enough on display and told the shoppers to ask the clerks for refills from the back. But apparently the back of store also ran out and I noticed the lack of lentils only in the early morning when cooking them. In the end, it turned out that having 17 cups of lentils instead of 25 was not much of a problem, but it made me feel that our success was more due to luck than due to skill.

My third mistake was to have three people peel and mince garlic for two hours. Maybe it was less than six person-hours spent on this, but I think that it was a bit of a waste of time, given that there were lots of other things to do. When some of the people had to leave and the garlic was still not done, we just chopped it up coarsely which was good enough for the meal.

My fourth mistake was to give somebody a laborious job and tell him to grab more help once more people showed up. Half an eternity later, he was still doing it by himself and not much advanced, while other people were standing around looking for work.

My fifth mistake was to do things by myself instead of helping people do things. Sometimes I was too busy to know what's going on in the kitchen at large. Also, it's not fun to work by myself when others are working together and happily chat while they do it.

My only advice is what I think is the most important function of the leader: make sure that nothing that needs to be done is forgotten and make sure that new volunteers learn enough to be productive helpers.

Now here come the recipes: For the stew, I bought 27 lbs of taro of which we had to throw one or two away because it didn't meet our high quality standards. For garlic and green onions I don't know how much we actually had. The soy sauce was added to our taste; it was less than a bottle

The salad was planned for 100, we sold about 74 and I think with the volunteer meals, the recipe yielded about 90 to 95 servings. (At one point, we made the salad servings bigger, because it seemed we had more salad than soup, so there is no fixed measure of what a serving is. Feeds any number from 60 hungry people to 120 dieting ones.)

(Except for the onions, I bought all the herbs and veggies myself and the numbers are correct. For the onions, 10 is the number from the shopping list and I only saw them when they were chopped up. Also don't know if it was big or small ones. If recipes really mattered, we should go by weight for everything but liquids!)

7 cups of green lentils (cooked)
10 cups of red lentils (cooked, note: cooks faster than the green ones)
10 onions (marinated in salt overnight, which --as I once read-- makes the softer)

and all those things fresh from the Farmer's Market at Bloor and Borden streets:
5 bunches of coriander (cilantro)
5 bunches of arucula
4 or 5 bunches of basil
4 bunches of oregano
4 FMB green beans
3 FMB red tomatoes
3 FMB yellow tomatoes
4 bunches of baby carrots

freshly squeezed lemon juice (we had about net of lemons that did not give much juice)
less than a bottle of olive oil
other things which only the dressing-making volunteer knows and which might include some apple cider vinegar which I put on her counter.

Personally I was not much involved in making the salad. Maybe that's why I liked the salad most of all meal components.

As a bonus, I conclude my reflections with a list of most memorable moments:
  • my first taste of the salad when I got my full plate served by one of our lovely volunteers.
  • the scent of oregano and basil when I bought them and later every time I passed by the herbal volunteers just to take another fresh breath.
  • me in tears, handing back the unknowingly thrown away onion bottoms to Kira. I felt so sorry for my unqualified messing with her job. (But the tears were due to the frying of garlic.)
  • stewing the taro with Keith.
  • finding a job assignment that did not involve Giovanna washing anything.
  • Guru's smiling face and bright eyes when we went to the farmer's market. (Totally justifying the twisted reasoning I had to make up to justify her coming with me and the men going to Kensington market.)
  • full opportunity to engage with my most-loved job at the Yam: scraping the bottoms of the dessert-pans.
On my next meal there will be German food (but no sausages) and I will make different mistakes to make sure that I keep learning things.

Behind the curtain: Me and Giovanna in a heated debate. "Everything went wrong! We did not have enough lentils, the crisp recipe was not right, this is lacking organization."
- "No, I think you are doing great."
At this point one of our patrons walked up to us: "I just want to say that I am coming here often and this was one of the best meals that I had for a while. It was really delicious."
Giovanna: "There you go."
me: "Maybe you are right."

22 July 2009

new cycling route to the sailing club

I found my favorite cycling route down Beverly Street and along Front St. and Queen's Quay to the sailing club because I once wanted to take a friend and was looking for a calm route specifically for her. It happened to be that this route was also well-paved so I stuck with it and took it every time.
Now, last week I took another friend and found a new route which I like a lot and which is now my preferred alternative to avoid cycling boredom.

View Larger Map

The good think about this route is that all the uphill happens on quite, well-paved residential streets. As a side benefit, most of the isopleth is on Wellesley Street. Not that I care much about bike lanes but at least drivers will not be surprised about bicycles there. :-D

PS: Google's blue line ends at Harthouse Circle because Google doesn't know that you can bike through there to reach Hosking Ave / Harbord St.

20 July 2009

Why I love Quickscript. (One of several reasons.)

"Give me a lever which is long enough," Archimedes exclaimed, "and I will lift the earth."

To everybody who has seen and understand the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie trilogy it is abundantly clear that even the most insurmountable goals can be accomplished, once you have enough leverage. For me, even after studying English in school for eight years, regularly reading and writing English for nine years, and now living in an English-speaking city for two years, expressing myself clearly has been an insurmountable goal. When I am relaxed and speak without thinking of the language, I will regularly be interrupted by people's "what was that?" and even a repetition won't make me understood. I have to repeat again, or spell out the word that I can't pronounce or try to use another word, which I am hopefully pronouncing better. This is a distraction that throws my stream of thoughts off-track, makes me nervous when I continue, and slowly eats away my confidence in my ability of having a normal conversation.

Quikscript shall be the leverage that is needed to teach me the English language --as it is spoken-- once and for all.  For me, being a visual kind of person, Quikscript is the written face of spoken English, it is the key to see the language, and thereby memorize and master it.

Best of the Fringe

Just two plays which I might see because I missed them in the main Fringe.

As You Puppet
By William Shakespeare and adapted by Hank’s Toy Box Theatre
UPSTAIRS AT BERKELEY: Thursday July 23 – 7pm · Friday July 24 – 7pm · Saturday July 25 – 7pm
Stuffed animals spring to life! When a clever bear named Rosalind is banished by her evil uncle Frederick the crocodile, she and her best kitten friend Celia run away to the forest in search of adventure. Meet a giant orangutan, a prissy hippo, a brave teddy, and a comical bunny named Touchstone in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” for kids!

A Singularity of Being
By T. Berto
BERKELEY MAINSTAGE: Thursday July 23 – 7pm · Friday July 24 – 7pm · Saturday July 25 – 7pm
*Winner 2009 New Play Contest* Roland Mathers is a brilliant physicist consumed with unraveling Einstein’s Grand Unified Theory. A Singularity of Being explores the life of a genius who’s pursuit to uncover the secrets of the universe unravels the lives of everyone around him. When he develops a life threatening and debilitating disease, Roland sacrifices his happiness on the altar of science.

Tickets are $16.50 each and are available starting July 14, 2009
416.368.3110 or www.canstage.com.
The Berkeley Street Theatre - 26 Berkeley St.

11 July 2009

learn to drive before you build a car, learn to read before you write

Although Computer Science as an education is widely available since several decades, many software-development- and in particular programming-jobs are still done by people with a different educational background. Computer Science (CS) departments are struggling to attract as many students as there is demand for educated Computer Scientists, but it seems that the more students they attract (on top of those who would take CS anyways), the more students will fail during their studies. While recruiters say "we need more graduates with CS degrees", professors whine "we are accepting to many students that have no talent."
In programming in particular there seems to be a divide between programming nerds who just seem to understand programming to a point of completing their assignments, while some others always seem to be estrange to programming and struggle even with simple assignments as soon as some variation into problems is introduced. The question which I want to write about here is: how can we teach programming in a way that helps all students?

I have been helping out with teaching programming since I was an undergrad myself. Seeing how awful student programs looked in the first year I helped with the programming lab, I decided to publish some of the best assignment solutions so that the students would have an example to imitate and an idea of how elegant programming solutions can be. Assignment submissions got much better in the second year!

Since that time, Pascal as a beginner's language has been replaced by Java, and Java by Python, but the problems are still the same. I asked one student with a particularly awful program where she he learned the particular construct which she was abusing there. "Oh, that's from my high school teacher."

When after more than half the course was over, the instructor finally taught students about testing. At that point, I started realizing one of the things that went wrong from the beginning: in our course, students were mostly taught to program little functions, but they were never taught how to use those functions properly and how to test them. I could write an entire blog post on the "test first" paradigm of programming, especially it's important in languages like Python which have no static checking whatsoever. But here, let's concentrate on something more fundamental: the actual understanding of programs, what they do, and how they work.

Most students seem to learn by example and the only official good examples of programs that they see in a typical university course are code snippets small enough to fit on a single lecture slide! Given that material, they are supposed to write entire programs with interworking parts. If I contrast that approach with other disciplines of writing, it just seems ridiculous! In literature, students will read entire novels plus probably some secondary literature, before they write essays of their own. In science, students will read a couple of text books plus tens of journal articles before composing a paper of their own. Furthermore, the first writings of students are usually of secondary nature themselves: summarizing, interpreting, or commenting on some primary work (i.e. an essay about a novel, or a paper about some previously published scientific findings). In programming on the other hand, students will get no reading material, and they have to compose primary works starting from their first labs and assignments!

Here are some ideas how to improve this deplorable situation.
  • A large part of the exercises and assignments has to be devoted to reading and understanding programs that have been hand-selected by the instructor as examples of good programming.
  • Possible exercises which train this are: writing documentation for a given (substantial) piece of code, writing test cases for a given program, write an example use for a given program module, and finally, extend a given program by a small feature.
  • Writing of documentation has to be split into external (what does it do) and internal (how does it work).
  • Testing can first be done for a programm that works according to its documentation, and as soon as the students can do this well, let them test and debug an incorrect (but still well-designed!) program.
The important part about all this, is that students have to read and really understand a large corpus of existing code that has specifically been chosen for its good design. Students will then appreciate how easy it is to understand, extend, and debug really well-written code. They will also see how the different programming constructs they know from lectures are best fit together.

I don't know how many of our field's education problems this approach to teaching is going to solve. But I am sure this is the way to go!

10 July 2009

Sunday is going to be my Fringe Day

Here's a list of shows I might go see on Sunday. I will see at least two of them, let me know, if you want to come or have any praise or advise to drop of!

5 July 2009

Python 3000 migration

I think it's a good thing that Python as a language removes some of its deprecated features and old special cases which no longer make sense.
Few programming languages make such a bold move, although more should. A language that grows ever more complex with time becomes a huge liability. Much of this complexity is unavoidable, but the avoidable one should be avoided! Making the necessary non-backward-compatible changes to a language is an expensive investment because the migration of existing libraries and applications becomes a project of its own for each of those libraries and applications. On the other hand, this investment also has an immense payoff in maintainability and extensibility in the long term.

Now, it has been more than six months since Python 3.0 has been released, but a naive search on Google doesn't turn up any migration information yet! Some people seem to have plans for migration, but there's no experience-report yet. Also, there is no list of libraries that have already moved or are planning to move. Unfortunately it seems that no application or library can be migrated until all of it's dependent libraries have done so. Of course, a project could migrate to 2.6, import feature from future and use the -3 compatibility checking option. But it seems that most are still waiting for the "upstream" projects to move.

Here are some references:
After the 3.0 release it quickly turned out that GvR's original advice: "start all your new projects with Python 3000" is unrealistic: the libraries are just not there yet. But what's realistic (and what I will do) is to write all new code with Python 2.6 and make it as much future-compatible as possible. Then the port to 3.x will be completely automatic, once the new libraries have come out.