27 February 2006

Baked Penne

After reading 2GD's recipe for baked ziti I was so tantalized that I decided to give it a try myself. I had some time Saturday afternoon before I was scheduled to go see Into the Woods, so I decided to fire some up. I had to make several alternations due to the lack of standard groceries in (a) this country and (b) my local B-Side Mart.

The Sauza

I couldn't acquire the raw tomato goods (diced, pureed or pasted) so I used a basic bottled sauce as a base (b-side, I know). I did, however, add the ground beef (or "lean steak mince" as we call it), the sautéed veggies, the garlic and a splash of some wine I had hanging around. I also added some sugar (per MRhé) to take a little of the bitterness out of the sauce. All told, I think it came out money.

The Ziti Penne

I also couldn't find any ziti, so I used penne instead. I doubt it makes any difference. I don't like things as cheesy as MRhé, so I also decided to excise the call for ricotta. I basically just rigged up the pasta and the sauce, then coated with a nice topping of mozzarella (unsurprisingly my only choice was pre-shredded, but better that than my crazy flatmate who makes lasagne with cheddar cheese). I baked it up until the cheese was nice and crispy.

Of course, now I run into the problem that usually keeps me from cooking: I have enough of the stuff to last me until the second coming. I guess I should freeze some up so that I can pull it out next week when I'm craving some easy grub.

Bon Appétit!

Hong Kong, finis

After the first day of the actual conference I had thought I might blow off some of the other talks and do more exploring of HK. As it turned out I really enjoyed the other lectures so I ended up attending almost all of them. I did blow off the "How to use excel" practical session in favour of a nap, though. We settled into a nice pattern of getting up early to avail ourselves of the breakfast buffet, spending 8 hours at the university and generally going to bed early (despite how it may sound, it is pretty exhausting to have your brain turned on all day long).

Wednesday afternoon was the practical session I was supposedly jointly leading with Lon. His contribution consisted of introducing me and then sitting at the back of the room. I think it went pretty well; most people seemed to follow along and appreciate the wonders of Haploview. It's amazing, however, how easy it is to discover every single bug in a program if you have 40 people all simultaneously using it.  By the time it was over, though, I was done with all the official work for the week.

Shaun, Ben and I celebrated that night by checking out a couple of bars, including a pretty sweet hookah joint. We had a few cocktails and some apple-flavoured tobacco while basically chilling out. Thursday consisted of a couple of sessions that Shaun led, which were really impressive. He's definitely honed his presentation skills over the last few years and does a consistently awesome job. His slides are gorgeous, too — nary a one with just text. Thursday night turned out to be the ragiest of the week (and it still wasn't that crazy). We checked out a few different places in SoHo (the expat area) and theDeb came out to hang out with us.

Friday was the final day of the conference, followed by a closing banquet, which was, as usual, excellent. Most of the crew left on late flights that evening, but I had one more day since my flight out was at 11:30 PM on Saturday. I availed myself of the awesome city check-in for the Hong Kong airport on Saturday morning. Basically you can check into your flight and check your bags from a counter at the train station and then spend the day hanging out without lugging a lot of crap around. Yet another way that Hong Kong is vaguely futuristic.

After that I met up with theDeb who had to work on Saturday morning (evidently most Hong Kongers work 5.5 days a week). We putzed around the Central district for a while before deciding to make a very brief trip to Portugal's former colony nearby: Macau. The ferry takes about an hour and is a pretty bland trip (especially if it's foggy). The announcements for boarding times etc are made in: Cantonese, English, Mandarin and Portuguese, which is a bit overwhelming.

We walked from the hideous dockyard area up the hill to the old fort and remnants of an old Portuguese church. It felt a lot like Hong Kong, but occasionally sprinkled with bizarrely out of place Old European touches (like the tiled plazas and mediterranean looking houses). Macau has long had casinos, but has recently experienced a big boom in Vegas style monstrosities (along with replicas of ancient Rome and the like). The new Sands dominates the skyline when viewed from the water at night. We didn't manage to actually get into any of the casinos in our brief visit, because there were big queues outside waiting to get through metal detectors. Evidently a lot more security than the American versions (I'm thinking of the dozing 70 year olds who guard F-woods).

Macau has the same pseudo independent arrangement as HK (a Special Administrative Region of the PRC) but requires going through immigration coming and going from HK. So I have quite a few stamps from the trip there and back. In fact, when I went through emigration at the HK airport the officer looked quizzically at my passport because it had been stamped with an entry visa (returning from Macau) only an hour earlier. The airport express train whisked me to the airport (which is incredibly efficient) so that I got to the gate with loads of time to spare. All that was left was my trip home in seat 55G, which is the very last row of a 747-400, immediately adjacent to the toilet. Grrrreat. Even the stewardess commented that I had bad luck in seat choice.

Despite the distance to travel though, (next to the toilet or not) I'd definitely recommend checking out this bizarre mix of the Far East and the East End.

26 February 2006


This evening I was unanimously elected vice president of the Brasenose graduate council. And by that I mean I ran unopposed. cmo,is.

Spring is in the air

FleursToday was a very nice day. Sunshine, temperatures warming up (still not warm per se, but in that range that feels nice after a week of dreary, cold, grey rain) and flowers blooming in the back yard. There are lots of these little purple ones all over (not sure where they arrived from) and also smaller clumps of the hanging white ones. Both a nice little decoration. Plus, the pond was clear enough to peer into and look for the fishies, and lo and behold all six survived the winter! Even through days when there was a layer of ice across the top of the pond and without much feeding over the last few months. Makes you appreciate how hardy nature is.

<i>Into the Woods</i>

I saw  Into the Woods for the first time at the Oxford Playhouse last night. In general the show was quite good, but I have to admit I'm a little disappointed by the script. In general I'm a pretty big fan of Sondheim (especially Assassins) but this time I thought the story wandered into the weeds.

Part of that sense might have been that this particular production got a little sloppy in the second act. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt less polished than the first half, especially for the witch, who was terrific early on, but seemed to just screech in the second part. Maybe it was because she had a tough time pulling off her "return to beauty", since the actress was better suited for playing the hideous old witch than the pretty young witch. Or maybe it was because she kept going flat (even I could tell).

A few members of the cast really shone; the princes were excellent (I think Agony is the best song in the show) and the baker's wife was awesome. In fact, she almost managed to pull the whole thing together when she sings to her husband at the very end (helped by a spine-tingling bit of lighting magic — isn't the theatre wonderful?).

The rest of the cast was largely hit-and-miss. Milky white was pretty awesome (a two-man tap dancing affair) but the wolf was pretty mediocre. Cinderella didn't have much substance and Red Riding Hood was only so-so. Finally, the big cast numbers had a little too much running around, making everybody sound kind of out-of-breath.

All in all a fun night at the theatre, but not quite as impressive as I expected.

23 February 2006

Hong Kong Part Deux

My first lecture was scheduled for Monday morning, so I spent some time on the finishing touches for the slides on Sunday night after the banquet. Jetlag did its part in helping me prepare by awakening me at 4:00 AM on Monday. I had enough time to do a full practice run of the slated 90 minute talk (of which I only had enough material to fill 70 minutes). I jacked myself up on coffee and decided that I didn't care when I crashed that day, as long as it was after my talk at 11.

Lon (my advisor) was scheduled to give the opening lecture at 9AM. We all met to catch a hired minibus to the "Hong Kong Jockey Club Faculty of Medicine". Betting the ponies is such a big deal in HK that the Jockey Club (the company that organises the betting) has lots of charity rigs in the city, including the entire medical faculty at the University. I grabbed another coffee when we arrived, but all they serve there is instant coffee with a huge splash of condensed milk. It is seriously the grimmest thing I've been served under the name "coffee" in my life. And since I live in the land of tea-drinkers that's saying a great deal.

As the Pro-Vice-Chancellor introduced Lon he noted that the lectures were intended to be 70 minutes with 20 minutes for Q&A, which suited me just fine, since I now magically had the exact correct length for my talk. Lon covered quite a bit in the background section of his talk that I had in the background section of my talk. This wasn't unexpected since our topics were closely related, but I felt simultaneously pleased with myself and freaked out. Pleased because I had chosen (independently) almost exactly the same approach to the introductory material that he had, and he's very good at presenting this sort of thing. Freaked because I now had to repeat a good chunk of what he said.

During the intermission he assured me that some amount of repetition would be great, especially because most of the audience spoke English as a second language. I unwisely had another cup of "coffee" and we headed back to the fairly small lecture hall where Lon had given his talk and I had loaded the slides for mine. Then we were informed that due to the popularity of the lectures (which were open to the public) we were moving upstairs to the ginormo lecture hall. While this allowed for some good natured jibing about how nobody wanted to see Lon, but they needed a special exhibition room for me, it also added to my caffeine-addled nerves.

The talk itself went pretty smoothly and I got a reasonable amount of informed questions (always a good sign). We went to lunch afterwards and I promptly crashed from my adrenaline/coffee high. Like I said, though, it didn't matter at this point.

We had a group excursion to Lamma Island in the afternoon and I considered skipping it to take a nap, but decided to push through. The Lamma Island walk was fairly nice, but unspectacular. Among the trees and small villages on the island is a humungous coal power plant visible from nearly every point on the island. The ferry ride over gave us a good view of some of the vast quantity of tankers constantly moving in and out of the harbour. At one point we went by a beat up collection of motor parts and other sundries that looked like jrandall's Chinese stash. The walk concluded with another banquet style dinner (this one all seafood) which was really amazing. I think it probably took the cake for best all around food of the week (which is high praise given the overall quality of edibles). Featured dishes included scallops, lobster tails, unbelievably tender steamed grouper (Ben ate the head again), oysters, abalone and much more.

At 7PM we boarded the ferry back to HK and I was ready for bed. We cast off from the pier and after about 15 minutes we all noticed that we'd been drifting pretty much aimlessly near shore. I went down stairs in the boat to use the toilet and noticed they'd removed a panel in the floor giving access to the engine room below. I glanced in and saw some dudes yelling at each other (or the machinery — tough to tell which) and banging on things with heavy wrenches (or "spanners" as we call them here in England). Uh-oh. The excitement increased as we were boarded by some other guys from a crappy boat alongside of ours. They brought bigger wrenches, which evidently did the job.

We chugged off toward HK, but we never got up to the breakneck speed at which the ferries tend to race around the harbour. After about an hour (the trip over had only been 35 minutes) the skipper told us we were being transferred to another boat. A second ferry pulled alongside us (this time in the high chop of the open harbour) and the dudes tried to hold the two boats steadily together (but they basically still kept yawning apart and bashing together regardless). We all clambered gingerly from one to the other until the new boat roared its engines and brought us back to the mainland. By this point I was ready for a quick return to the hotel and a good night's sleep.

21 February 2006

Hong Kong 1

My flight left Heathrow on Friday night a week and a half ago. I watched some mediocre film and ate my mediocre airplane dinner and managed to get some mediocre sleep for several hours. I landed in Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon with no real clue (either biologically or mentally) what time it was. I took a coach from the airport (30 miles outside of the city) to my hotel. My first problem when I arrived was that none of the lights in the room seemed to work. I wandered around flipping switches in the dark for a while, then managed to get the TV on (which at least confirmed the electricity as working) and swore at the lamps in the dim light of the static from the TV. I was just about to embarrass myself by calling the front desk when I saw a little slot just inside the door with a glowing LED.

Evidently you need to put your hotel keycard in the slot while you're in the room to activate the lights. That way, when you take your key and leave it automatically shuts them all off for you. Pretty high tech, really, although I found it incredibly confusing for the first 5 minutes. Shaun called up to my room within 10 minutes of my checking in and asked if I wanted to go out for drinks and dinner (evidently it was dinner time). I took him up on the offer, of course, and met him and a couple other people on the course in the hotel lobby.

This course was a series of statistical genetics lectures and tutorials given by experts (or some approximation in my case) to local molecular biologists, doctors and the like at Hong Kong University. Luckily for me, two of the faculty members (Ben and Jo) had spent a fair amount of time in HK, since their advisor (the workshop organiser, Pak Sham) is there. This meant that Shaun and I had two compatriots with at least some local knowledge. We set off into the city and found a fairly decent bar in one of the swankier parts of town. We had a few beers then had a pretty good jam at a cheap, open air restaurant.

I slept pretty soundly that first night, but not for very long. I was awake by about 5AM on Sunday. I watched The Man Who Wasn't There on my laptop (I had brought the DVD with me) and then opened the curtains, whence I saw what looked to be thousands of people fleeing a tsunami, on foot on the major highway. Thankfully it wasn't too long before I learned that the Hong Kong Marathon was that day. I took advantage of free breakfast at the hotel (something I did every day, actually). It was pretty much the only meal each day where I ate anything remotely Western. They had a decent variety of food (eggs, croissants, bacon etc) but it wasn't exactly fabulous. The coffee was good, though.

I hung around my room for a bit that day (and watched my other DVD, Blood Simple) before Deb met me at my hotel. We walked around the city for a while, including a visit to an unbelievably incense-filled and noisy temple. We met up with one of her friends and took the ferry across the harbour to Kowloon, but we really only had a few minutes to check out the scene over there. That evening our host, Pak, took the faculty crew out to the first of several banquet style dinners. Basically everyboyd sits at a round table with one of those oversized lazy-susan rigs in the middle. They bring out 10 or 12 courses of which everyone has a little bit. The food all week was pretty awesome. This particular night featured a whole roast duck, of which Ben decided to eat the head.

More on the rest of the week later. In the meantime, you can see the meagre selection of photos that passed my strict quality controls in the new album on the right.

19 February 2006

Return to the bl&oslash;gosphere

I'm back in Oxford after a pretty awesome week in Hong Kong. More to come (including photos) on that later. Just wanted to let everyone know that my long awaited return to the bløgosphere is nigh. Also, peep the new entry on my bløgroll: benoc.

08 February 2006

Dinner Party

I owed Jordana and Tom dinner and I saw a whole chicken on sale at the store yesterday so I decided to roast it up for dinner tonight. I also made some pseudo-scratch stuffing (used a box, but with added snosage, cranberries, onions, celery etc). It made a damn tasty jam if I do say so myself. I never bother to cook anything good for myself, so I need to find an excuse to have dinner parties more often.

The carcass is currently simmering away to make me some a-side chicken stock.

07 February 2006


I'm constantly amazed at how poor the general quality of copyediting on signs and other public displays is. When somebody bothers to pay a signmaker to make several copies of the same sign to be posted in public, don't they copyedit? Or at least ask somebody to take a glance at it?

All of the lifts in the Oxford Centre for Gene Function have the following sign (my emphasis):

In the event of an emergency, press the yellow 'bell' button. You will be connected with Oxford security services who will immediately instigate a rescue operation.

Then there's the whole loose/lose thing, as Anand pointed out.


A few weeks ago a small group of us went to dinner at Linacre, Valdar's college. Linacre is one of the newer colleges and thus lacks the imposing gravitas of Brasenose or Balliol, but it's a nice place nonetheless. The food is definitely a notch above some of the older colleges. After dinner we had a couple of cocktails at Cafe Merton, down the street. A pretty nice evening, all told.

A couple of snapshots of the evening below the fold.


Valdar tries to get up close and personal with Blanca, but she's having none of it.


Birgit and I chilling out at a more polite distance on the opposite couch.


It's 16:44 GMT and the sun is still in the process of setting. The days are getting noticably longer—it appears that I've survived the worst of my first English winter.


The BBC news had a headline which read:

Japan's Princess Kiko 'pregnant'

My question is, why the hell is pregnant in quotes?!

06 February 2006


Although the Sox will forever be my hometown team, I'd really like to live somewhere some day where you can just go down to the park and buy a $5 bleacher seat on any random summer day. The amount of effort and money required to catch a game at Fenway these days is ridiculous.

Just so you know.


I spent the weekend in bed with a cold. Still feeling Grim.

My iPod cuts off the title of Everybody's Got the Right to Be Happy as "Everybody's Got the Rig".

Hong Kong in four days. Maybe I should work on my talk.

Meet the Fockers is so-so. The Last Waltz is awesome.

Big Ben suggs.

02 February 2006

<i>Sin City</i>

Sin City is a weird movie. It's essentially three separate short stories which occasionally brush up against each other. That being said, it's a pretty cool flick. I think somebody finally managed to do justice to the comic book (or graphic novel) genre on film. Cheesier adaptations like X-Men and Spiderman were good in their own way, but were definitely flashy, big budget action flicks using storylines and characters from comics.

Sin City, on the other hand, is a (in the words of director Robert Rodriguez) translation of comics to the medium of film. The over-the-top fisticuffs and screeching car chases had the feel of living comic book frames. I've never seen the original Sin City comics, but the film beautifully captures (what I assume is) the ambience of Frank Miller's world, such as the bright white blood, the overt physicality of the characters and, most obviously, filming in black and white.

Definitely worth checking out, but avoid it if you can't handle some pretty gruesome stylised violence.