Sunday, December 23, 2007

Chocolate Adventures

update: so far the recipients of the chocolate bars made from the 2nd and 3rd batches have given rave reviews! They mentioned the strong chocolate flavor and actually appreciated the soft consistency, which was felt to bring out the flavor. Even if we take politeness into account it seems to have been a success. One recipient said that "one could not get anything like this from the shops". This could of course be positive or negative, but the same person also suggested I'd started a shop to sell this, so I take it as a compliment anyway.

This year I wanted to do only edible Christmas gifts and came to think about making fancy chocolate. Browsing on the net and in some cookbooks did not result in any practical recipe for chocolate, probably because it is difficult. There are countless recipes for things to make with chocolate, typically using blocks or pellets of plain (dark) chocolate as a starting point. I could, and maybe should, have done just that, but I didn't want to yield so easily.
Now I did read some bits on how chocolate is made industrially, i.e. from the cacao beans. So based upon that I thought I give it a try or two. It was clear to my that the critical components were sugar, cacao, and fairly hard fat.

So I started with 100 grams of coconut fat which is easy to get in the supermarkets here. It is clear, pretty much tasteless, and pretty hard, more than 90% saturated fatty acids. I melted it at a low temperature and then added 100 g sugar, and stirred. I could not dissolve all suger so I added approx. 20 ml of milk to it. I had to stir for quite a while to disperse the milk into the sludge, but it did help in dissolving all the sugar. Then I added 100 ml of fine cacao powder. This mixed well and acted as emulgator; now I had a very nice warm thick, but fluid, chocolate paste. I kept on stirring and lowered the temperature even more, down to "hand warm", so below 40 C. Then I casted it into some different forms. When I'd used about half of my batch I added two teaspoons of ground bitter orange peel, mixed and cast into some other forms. Into some of those I put some pieces of mandarin and in some others raisins. Once all was cooled down a bit it was time for some tasting.... And it actually tasted great! with a rich chocolate flavor and quite nice consistency. And the bitter orange flavor worked out very well too. However, this batch never really hardened. I placed some chunks in the refrigerator and that helped a bit but it still remained soft.

I decided that I should once more try to get real cacao fat, as I'd read that it actually crystallizes, which is an essential aspect for chocolate. I went to several shops in downtown Helsinki and eventually found a small chocolatery that knew that cacao fat can be obtained from drug stores (apothecaries). The second drug store I tired had it as pellets in a jar and knew that is used to make candy etc.

So time for the second batch! Now I melted and mixed 100 g coconut fat with 50 g cacao fat, added 150 g sugar, added 30 ml milk and 150 ml cacao powder. This resulted in very similar chocolate paste as before but with a remarkably smoother consistency. I casted this in rectangular molds that I'd made for the purpose. I made two bars filled with slices of pear, to one of which I added hazelnut chunks. And one bar with just hazelnut chunks. These hardened better than the first batch but still are somewhat flexible and "gummy". Like before the taste seems very good though. And in this batch the sugar doesn't seem to crystallize as rapidly.

Today then made a third and last batch, now reduced the fraction of coconut fat even further and also tried to use less milk. So 75 g coconut fat, 50 g cacao fat, 125 g sugar, 20 ml milk, and 125 ml cacao powder. To this batch I added ground bitter orange peel, and made two bars with mandarin pieces and one with raisins. This is still hardening now, but it looks again a bit better then before. Tomorrow I'll wrap the bars of the last two batches into my own "product package" and then in gift paper. More about the comments of the recipients after Christmas!....

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fashionable Engineering Agendas

Sometimes I wonder if we all are stuck within our own jargon. "Nanotechnology and Nanolabeling - Essays on the Emergence of new Technological Fields" is the title of a dissertation that Nina Granqvist defended at the Helsinki School of Economics. It is a courageous attempt to distill what happens when some novel ideas turn into full-blown, and publicly funded, technology fields. I must admit that I haven't read the full thesis yet, on a whim I went to the actual defense and read parts of it up front and bits during the event. I don't know any socio-economics and in fact never had been to HSE before, but I like to believe that I grasped the essence of the thesis and the discussion.
One of the central thesises that was defended is that in the initial stages a field emerges through the action of a very small number of empowered visionary individuals. In other words through active agents, and not just solely because the time and circumstances are "right". But it seemed that it remained a bit unclear what exactly happens at that early stage and why some ideas stick and others don't. Here I humbly suggest a few words that may shed some more light on this.
The first word is engineering. First of all many novel ideas are ideas to solve a particular problem. And if somebody just has an idea for some technology the first thing to do is to figure out what problems can be solved with it. As only then can the idea be "sold". Of course if the technology promises to solve issues of great public interest it is easier to organize (public) funding for developing the underlying ideas. On the other hand one rarely see the emergence, with large governmental funding programmes, of a new area of science. The great efforts in nuclear physics with those huge accelerators etc. are perhaps a counter example, but I wouldn't be surprised if these efforts are to quite some extent are justified by promises of problem solving. And besides most of the actual work in that area, and practically all the spending is, on engineering. Relatively new areas of science that come to my mind are evolution, ecology and genetics, all subjects in biology. (Molecular) Genetics is an interesting example as it certainly grew quite quickly, and there have been largish publicly funded research programmes around it. But most, if not all, of these programmes were again about, or at least justified by, solving problems. Problems such as finding genes related to diseases which might help in finding cures. So my guess is that the visionaries very early on propose an engineering agenda, a set of problems that might be solved by developing new technology. And the sales process is easier when the agenda is simple yet ambitious.
The second word that kept popping up in my mind was fashion. Fashions "emerge", and also are initiated by a small group of active individuals. I strongly suspect that the work on the socio-psychology of fashion can shed some light on the emergence of technology fields, especially the early stages. If you're a person with some novel ideas it certainly helps if others regard you as a "trendsetter". And when a fashion is about to become fashionable, many people tend to join in. I think the thesis mentions both these phenomena, but not within the context of fashion. What I'd find personally very interesting is to see what exactly happens when something gets out of fashion. Does a technology field looses its glamor before it makes good on those promises ? I.e. is unmasked as a hype? The fashion point of view may be even more helpful when analyzing the emergence of technologies, that are much less government programme fueled. Such as Linux or Java.
A second very interesting observation in the dissertation is about framing and labeling. The analysis of the emergence of nanotechnology very nicely showed how the "nanotechnology" label was quickly used to denote something quite different from the early vision. This because the label was fashionable, but the associated engineering agenda did not appeal to established entities. During the defense event opponent Prof. Michael Lounsbury wondered if such established entities sometimes would want, and even could, impose their own labels. I think that's called branding.
All in all not a bad way to spend a rainy November afternoon in Helsinki!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Agriculture Layout

Sometimes the layout of newspapers pages results in very interestingly juxtaposed articles. This gets usually lost in the internet versions of such papers.
Todays Helsinki Sanomat featured an short interview with the Finnish Minister for Agriculture, Sirkka-Liisa Anttila, about her struggle to get the EU to accept, yet again, the so-called 141 farmers income subsidy. This subsidy is paid by the Finnish state (i.e. taxpayers) to compensate for the fact that it is more difficult to farm in Finland then in the other EU member states, that have warmer climates. Never mind that much of this subsidy will go to pig farms, like the ones of Mrs. Antilla, that as far as I know have all pigs inside, just like pretty much everywhere else. Anyway the article stated that the proposal is to provide, together with income-subsidy for "environmental measures", 129 million euro per year to approx. 29 000 farms. That is well over 4000 euro per farm.
This was (un-intendedly?) contrasted by an article right below about the economy in rural China. It featured an interview with a Chinese country side farmer, Jiang Jianzongh, who made some 600 euros from his cotton field. And he does consider himself to be in a quite reasonable position, with a small, but good house. Of course everything is cheaper in China, so one shouldn't compare one of the Finnish farmer's subsidies to a Chinese farmer's yearly income. For example, Jiang's daughter tries to get accepted into vocational school, which costs 500 euros per year, i.e. some 80% of the farms income. Whereas all schools in Finland are free of charge.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

This Is Not About The Semantic Web

Today went to see Ora Lassila defend his Ph.D. thesis, which describes in detail some of his implementations of the specifications of the Semantic Web. Prof. Lynn Andrea Stein did a nice job as opponent and had very good questions about the pros and cons of the choices that Ora had made; choices that every implementer would have to deal with. As befit to the thesis and the Semantic Web they mainly discussed implications of the various possible and actually used knowledge representations. In a sense Ora has tried to augment RDF, but on purpose avoiding making it too rich or too complex.

All in all quite a number of though provoking issues were raised. One thought that came from don't know where was how this would all relate to art. I came to wonder:
  • if it would be possible to represent, in RDF or an extension of it, the famous Margritte painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe"
  • what size that graph (description) would be
  • and if the graph itself should be treated as an object of art

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Jobs and Titles

For several years I've been on LinkedIn, which for me was the first social network. It being the first such a network (for me) was the main reason to try it out. I haven't really used it for much, except that recently its critical mass has grown to the point where it is a nice way to get in touch with old university friends. So every now and then I get a request from somebody to join and that's how I visited my LinkedIn page last week. This time I noticed that it has a feature that informs about people having viewed one's profile. Naturally I am curious about the people that are curious about me, so I tried to follow a couple of the links that were provided. But viewers don't really leave traces of their identity, but typically their title and company, e.g. "Specialist at Nokia". Of course with some luck there is only one holder of that title in the company, but Nokia has 500 "Specialists" (that are known to LinkedIn). Which is not so strange for a technology company with over 50 000 employees. My profile was also viewed by "Director at France Telecom", and it turned out that FT has a staggering 177 directors (again as known to LinkedIn).

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

What's in a Dream?

Last weekend our national TV station here in Finland broadcasted Arizona Dream, a movie by Emir Kusturica. I'd seen it before but it remains a powerful movie and it made me thinking about the two totally different meanings of dream. The movie actually clearly plays on both meanings.
First, and foremost, we humans (but apparently quite many animals too), have, or rather "see", dreams, in our sleep. Those dreams can be difficult to describe, although many experience vivid details. There isn't always a clear "plot"; and the setting or situation may feel surreal; like that movie. It seems that most of our dreams are about more or less frightening situations; that's definitely true for myself. Antti Revonsuo proposed an interesting evolutionary psychology based theory for dreams: in our dreams our brains prepare themselves for dealing with dangerous situations.
The other meaning is to have a dream, as in having a vision or goal. An epitome of this meaning is the concept of the American Dream. In the movie several characters express their dreams of this kind. I realized that in Finnish there is actually a different verb for having-a-dream of this kind (wish, goal): unelmoida.
In the movie Elaine dreams of being able to fly. Interestingly Elaine not only talks about having the wish to fly but also about seeing dreams in which she simply steps of a roof and flies away. Revonsuo's theory now inspires me to engage into some speculation. In many dangerous situations , that our dreams simulate, a pretty effective tactic is to flee. And flying is, or would be, the ultimate way to flee. So perhaps dreams induce in us humans the strong wish to fly. Perhaps this also explains the great excitement and satisfaction that free-flyers (hang- and paragliding pilots) experience; they almost fly like birds, just stepping of a mountain or cliff.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Reasonably Happy

Friday, so this must be cultural!
Today biked into downtown Helsinki; the weather was nice and it was Friday, when several city musea are free. In the morning read that Sweden yesterday celebrated its annual Kanelbullens dag, i.e. "Cinnamon Bun Day". So a good excuse to step into one of my favorite cafes, Cafe Esplanad, famous for its buns. After reading some foreign papers headed out to the Helsinki City Museum for Modern Art but that was closed as they were building up new exhibits.
Next target was to see some art and design that I'd read about. I thought it would be outside at Kamppi, but it actually was an excellent full blown exhibit inside the old bus terminal (at Kamppi). The exhibit is titled Kohtuullisen Onnellinen, which is Finnish for "Reasonably Happy". The exhibit showed a great variety of art and design made from very creatively recycled objects. In addition there were exhibits that provoked thinking about our perceived reliance on materialism, with its associated environmental impact, in order to be happy.
My favorites were the artwork in the picture above; made from old capacitors, and the magazine rack made from old wooden skis shown below. But there was a lot more interesting stuff; such as the beautifully done "anti-advertisements": parodies on famous advertisements, but this time seducing the audience into not buying something. Several are for display on the web, but to fully appreciate them you need to know Finnish. This one bring us back to Sweden, but without cinnamon buns....