Sunday, April 12, 2009

Feel the Burn

On this Easter Sunday I joined a band of Google folk on a trip to Orochon Ramen. Orochon is famed for the fire in their "Special #2" ramen. If you can finish a bowl in under thirty minutes they immortalize your pain with a photo on their wall. Naturally, that meant we were shaping up for a spicy evening.

At 6:15 PM the crowds began to sort out carpools at the Shea house and then set out for our adventure. I had the pleasure of tagging along with Mike, who graduated from UCLA back when I was in the first half of my graduate journey, and Jackie, I fellow climber whom I never have climbed with but rather met during my 2009 summer internship at Google. After a few adventures navigating the freeways of downtown Los Angeles we arrived ready for battle just as the other cars pulled in.

Our timing was well fated, with an opportune four consecutive unoccupied tables on the patio ready for seating. The ramen house has a common wait time of about thirty minutes and won't typically seat large parties. We had planned to split into two groups upon arrival but were pleased to find that we could all set together without at wait!

And then came the moment of truth. Who dared try the "Special #2" thirty minute challenge. I knew that I was in the company of some heavy weights. The composure with which KiYun can consume crazy amounts and intensities of food and drink has never ceased to amaze me. Dan does not flinch away from popping peppers that make me grimace. My other peers I was not so sure of. In light of the competition I decided to play it smart by ordering in the middle of the spice scale so as to enjoy my dinner and the show. But after a few comments questioning my masculinity I folded. Johny Cash, here I come.

Only Jackie had the sense to order regular ramen while the six boys ordered the "Special #2" with instructions for management to start the clock when all the bowls were served. We chatted it the cool night as we waited for ramen on the patio.

"Is it really that spicy?"

"Probably not. I order as hot as they'll go at the curry house next to us and its not that bad."

"Did you see that YouTube video of the guy who eats the hottest pepper in the world and has an allergic reaction? Brutal! That would put damper on the evening."

While waiting we decided to add a bit more excitement to the evening. We decided to pick up the tab for whoever finishes their spicy ramen first, independent of the time limit. In the case that no one could finish we would pay for Jackie's dinner. Now we had to race both the clock and each other. Shaping up to be fun times!

We waited. It grew cold and we nervously joked about how nice the super spicy ramen would feel warming us up. The line for ramen grew and just started to pass our table when the six bowls of "Special #2" were placed before us at precisely 7:30 PM. And the show began.

The spicy ramen came in a normal ramen bowl, but was filled to the top resulting in a good 1.5 or even 2 liters of broth with a vivid red color. Crazy. Ample numbers of chopped spicy peppers rings floated in the ramen along with the standard pork, noodles, and green peppers. We smirked, if jalapeño rings were the best they could do this would be a wash, or worse yet a waste of time and money. Grinning at each other we tried the broth.

Ample sweat, a few tears, and a sudden out brake of coughing and nose blowing revealed that this was not simply ramen with red coloring and jalapeño rings. We were facing some serious and complex burn from the broth. Strategies quickly emerged.

Clint and Leon readily admitted defeat and sat back to slowly enjoy what they could eat of their ramen while watching the show. Dan decided to tackle the broth first since the noodles and other solids would then be a cinch to finish. KiYun and I flipped that logic, arguing that eating the solids first would be easy and facilitate a quick minute of burning gulping to finish off the broth. Mike took a balanced approach that set a steady pace spooning broth along with with one or two noodles at a time.

Sweaters and jackets came off. Piles of napkins, used to wipe freely running noses and sweaty faces, mounded higher onto the table. We were only five minutes in.

Mike had turned red and looked like he may approaching a medical emergency. Sweat poured down KiYun. I was keeping my cool but falling behind. Dan spooned away at his soup.

The tables turned ten minutes into the session. Mike, having lost some of the pallor that had initially overtaken him, settled into his zone and steadily ate a large spoonful of broth with just one or two noodles at a time, time and time again. KiYun and I found ourselves with no solids left and a truly intimidating bowl of broth before us. I tried drinking directly from the bowl a few times. The first gulp was good, but then fire would follow during the second gulp without mercy. This sudden onset of flame once sent a mouthful of burning spice down the wrong tube and leading to a rather violent bout of coughing and hacking as my lungs rejected the intruder. Dan, who so far had made great headway through his ramen, began to slow.

Fifteen minutes in I realized I was out. The broth was too much for me. I had made a great showing and decided to resign honorably rather than muddle through to defeat and more lost taste buds. With pressure off I spent the rest of dinner enjoying, very slowly, my ramen broth. Many offer spicy food that has replaced good flavors with simple burn. I find this to be a senseless exchange. But spice that brings ample flavor can be a true treat. I give Orochon credit for creating a soup that, while burning with spice, is full of flavor when consumed in moderation. Dan soon followed my lead, leaving KiYun and Mike battling against the clock.

Twenty minutes brought Mike contemplating a pile of solids sitting in a very shallow pool of broth in the bottom of his bowl. If he maintained his composure he would succeed. KiYun faced a formidable half bowl of broth menacingly looking glaring back at him.

Five minutes later the official restaurant time keeper found Mike sitting (relatively) comfortably before an empty bowl. Mike had beaten the Orochon challenge. Photos were taken, congratulations from fellow patrons were given, and then we noticed KiYun.

A grim look of determination had overtaken his sweaty face looking down at the last third of his broth. Only one minute left. With a half shrug and half grimace he grabbed the bowl and began to drink. A truly amazing feat. With but seconds left on the clock he finished the broth muddy with the settled spice, popped the last few peppers into his mouth, and relaxed into his seat a winner. A second round of congratulations erupted, more photos, and a second round of hand shaking ensued. Having shown this incredible endgame we quickly conferred and decided to cover the tab of both Mike and KiYun.

With burning esophagi, heart burn, and stomachaches we happily wandered away from our dinner at Orochon. A Pink Berry on the way to the cars demanded our attention for a quick half hour of reminiscing over tart frozen yogurt, creating a civil and soothing end to a delightful Easter.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Basic Tomato Lentils

Too often I find myself having forgotten or lost a good recipe. And I often play around with the recipes that I do have on hand, but soon forget just what it was that helped my dish transcend from ordinary to extraordinary. So sad.

An easy remedy to that is to keep track of what I'm doing in the kitchen. Since I have an amazing capacity for losing recipes written on note cards, I thought I'd go digital and throw some of my notes up on the blog where I know they are always (assuming the Internet does not disappear anytime soon!) be at hand.

Lentils are great. They (have the potential to) taste good, are apparently very healthy, and are dirt cheap. Over the last few months I've played around with a number of lentil recipes that have varied from wonderful to dreadful. This evening I wanted something simple and fast and found this basic recipe for one good serving:

  • Small onion (chopped)
  • 2 cloves of garlic (chopped)
  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil (not chopped)
  • 1/3 cup lentils (used brown because they're easy to find in US markets)
  • 4/3 cup water (liquid)
  • 1 can tomato sauce (sans the can)
  • 1 bay leaf (lightly crumpled)

Boil water. Add everything but the tomato sauce. Reduce to simmer, partially cover, and cook for 20 min. Add tomato sauce. Cook for another 10 minutes. Serve nice and hot.

First problem I ran into is how is a "can" of tomato sauce. If my memory serves me that is neither in the queen's measure nor metric. There seems to be some unwritten rule about using the "small" (8 oz) can in these situations.

Second problem came when I added the tomato sauce. Everything smelled great before, and then it smelled like tomato sauce after. I've nothing against tomato sauce and love pasta as much as the next fellow married into a Italian family. But I had my heart set on lentils. The only remedy I could think of was to Indian-ify the dish with an additional:

  • 1 shake whole cumin seed (always a good addition)
  • 1 small shake masala (I wonder what Sarah is up to these days)
  • Enough ground red pepper (gotta have some burn)

That seemed to fix things up. The final dish was a bit salty for my taste on account of the tomato sauce. Next time I may try simply adding fresh tomatoes. And I may try removing the bay leaf. But generally pretty good. I served this up with my fried spinach (rinse, lightly shake dry a bit, throw in pan with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fry on medium high flame until just limp), apple and cheese.

Not too bad for a slow night.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

E-Books, Feedbooks, and Doyle

This evening I neglected my studies and finished reading my first e-book. The novel of choice was "A Study in Scarlet" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and is the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories. A delightful read and, amazingly enough, my first Sherlock Holmes story.

When first looking at the Kindle I was concerned by the small text space. I worried that reading from an area this small, only a tad larger than an index card, would prove bothersome. But not so! The width is great (at least for the font size I enjoy) for reading, not too wide and not too narrow. The shorter page length left ample room to hold onto the e-book while reading and flipping a page couldn't be easier. As someone who often reads while eating, it is a blessing not having to keep the book open by constantly shifting weights around the pages or by contorting the thumb and pinky of one hand around a paper back.

I was fortunate to discover Feedbooks the night that my Kindle arrived. Feedbooks has done a wonderful job typesetting many out of copyright and public commons books. They provide these in an easy to access manner directly from the Kindle. Simply navigate the Kindle web browser to to download the guide to books they have available. You can then use this guide on Kindle to download books of interest. The Feedbooks Kindle help page provides a more complete description of this processes. My one recommendation is to use the table of contents for the Feedbook guide as this provides easy access to some nice lists of books, genera listings, and an author index.

I've now about 60 more classics lined up to read with highlights including more Doyle, all of Burroughs's mars books, and epic poetry by Milton.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

UCLA's Road Race at Devil's Punchbowl

Yesterday I ended my ten year hiatus away from USCF racing at the UCLA hosted road race near Devil's Punchbowl. The day began at 3:30 AM with light breakfast, packing the car, and heading up to meet with the rest of UCLA's cycling team to caravan up to the race. We ended up with a surplus of cars and I was able to jump into another car as a passenger. After a quick detour to drop the Camry off at home and transfer my gear to Rachel's car, we headed out of Los Angeles and up to the race.

From UCLA Devil's Punch Bowl Road Race

We pulled into the race site around 6 AM and gaped and the "balmy" 26 degree weather and snow covered terrain. Fortunately, the course was clear of snow so the race could go. I spent the next 60 minutes running around to get ready for the race, including digging my new UCLA kit out of Alex's car, layering jerseys in an attempt to not freeze to death, and (thank goodness!) letting myself get talked into using Brian's knee warmers.

At 7:10 AM the men's Ds were called to the line. Shaking in the cold we listened to the rules (don't cross the center line) and course updates (watch for the big ice patch after the first turn). Then the whistle and we were off.

From UCLA Devil's Punch Bowl Road Race

The course is a beast:

  • Mile 0 - 1: Very slight uphill grade
  • Mile 1 - 3: Climb over 900 feet of elevation
  • Mile 3 - 4: Very small rollers
  • Mile 4 - 9: Big, broad, banked turns as you drop over 1500 feet of elevation
  • Mile 9 - 11: Start climbing back up 250 feet
  • Mile 11 - 12: Climb an additional 350 feet to what will be the finish line on your last loop
  • Mile 12 - 12.4: Flat stretch back to the start of the loop
Rinse, lather, and repeat. Those of us in the Ds were lucky with only two laps in our race. More advanced riders got to make this loop up to 6 times. Here's a more detailed course map.

About two miles into the race I dropped off the end of the main pack. At this same time a friendly voice from the sidelines briefly explained what would happen if I didn't catch the pack before the descent. I stepped it up a few notches and managed to get within about 3 meters before the descent started. But three meters is not close enough to catch a good draft and I had to watch the pack pull away and out of site on the descent.

Despite losing the pack, I had a great time descending miles 4 - 9. I'm still a bit twitchy after my crash from the fall so I enjoyed having the road mostly to myself. Other than the cold, it really is a great trip down with enough turns to keep you thinking but nothing sharp enough to cause too much trouble.

I spent the next 12 miles with just two other riders. As newbs not thinking strait we spent most of the time attacking each other rather than working together in pace line. While not efficient, it was kind of fun to joky around for position in our on little mini-race.

From UCLA Devil's Punch Bowl Road Race

Around mile 20 as I was finishing my second time on the descent I heard a familiar voice behind shouting for me to jump on the "Pain Train". Seconds later I saw Andrew pulling a group of a few other stragglers down the descent. Andrew should have been up at the front of the Ds, but a technical problem off the starting line forced him off his bike for a quick on course repair and then spending the rest of the race battling to catch up. But his misfortune was my fortune and I jumped onto the back of the pace line.

Miles 21 - 24 were a blast as the motley collection of riders in the pain train (Stanford, CalPolySlo, UCLA, UCLA, Berkley, and USC) worked together in a pace line to pick up, or at least pick off, other stragglers.

With a bit over 1.5 miles to go we finally broke apart for the finish of the race at mile 24. I managed to fight for and hold a finish behind Andrew in the middle of our small pack of stragglers. I ended the race in position 29 out of 49 starters (47 finishers).

From UCLA Devil's Punch Bowl Road Race

I would have liked to perform a little better, especially looking back on the strength when I peaked this past fall. Despite that, I had a great time racing. I also learned a few important lessons to take to my next race. I'd bet that if I'd been more focused before the race I'd have held the pack into the descent. As it was the only food I had before racing was half a bowl of cereal at 3:30 AM with a cup of OJ meaning I started the race without to much sugar ready to go in my system. That doubled up with a poor warm up of only about 5 minutes of broken riding, rather than a good 20 minutes or more of spinning to get blood flowing and my legs ready for the adventure ahead.

I spent the rest of the day helping with the race including a couple hours at registration, taking care of lunch for the officials, and making my first appearance at UCLA's feed station. I managed to see some great finishes from the Men's Pro race and the Masters race. Amazing to watch the power of some of those riders! We finished the day around 5 PM with races done and the course cleaned up. Those of us left headed out for a relaxed pasta and pizza dinner before driving back to LA.

I'm stoked to see what happens at our next road race when I'll have a few more weeks of solid training under my belt, am more concious about my diet the morning of the race, and make the time for a solid warm up. The other Ds better be training hard because I'm coming after them.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Martin Luther King

Life as a graduate student can be surreal at times. Monday morning as I cycled to the lab I noted a distinct reduction in morning traffic. Only as I got onto campus and saw the telltale lack of undergraduates, but normal number of graduate students, did I realize that it must be a national holiday. I began working through a mental checklist: - I new the New Year was behind me. - Figured I must currently be in January or February... - School does not close down for St. Patrick's day. - Labor Day? No, I always get that one wrong... - Oh yeah, what about Martin Luther King day? Bingo. I had the mystery solved before I was in the lab. As I began making tea I realized I hadn't celebrated the spirit of Martin Luther King day since, well, probably since High School. I decided to look up and listen to the famous "I Have a Dream" speech delivered in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. I stumbled onto an audio recording at the Internet Archive and fired it up. Only a few seconds into the speech I realized that, to the best of my memory, I've never heard the speech all the way through! The public school videos always start a little over two thirds of the way through with the dream imagery:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
With perked interest I listened to the first two thirds for the first time. Wow. This speech doesn't simple end strong, it starts strong. And funny. I love the "bad check" analogy. I'm glad that I finally realized that there was more to this great speech. If like me you've not heard the entire speech, or if it has simply been too long, look it up. You can use the link above for audio, see original footage on YouTube, or simply duck over to American Rhetoric to read the transcript. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Walking into the New Year

The Shea / Sheffield families spent a delightful time in Sandpoint this past Christmas holiday.
From Snow Shoeing
Cora and I spent the days leading up to Christmas enjoying the seemingly endless snow coming down on Schweitzer mountain and lounging around the house. Garry traded off between skiing on the mountain a work. Mary Jane kept all of us well, perhaps even delightfully excessively, fed with cookies and wonderful dinners.
From 2009 A Winter Walk
A few days after Christmas the Sheffield clan joined us for a second round of festivities. What a delight it was to see Gabby and Jake running, playing, and running a bit more around the house. All of us finished up the holiday with a walk in the snow to welcome in the New Year.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Only 365 Days To Go

Welcome to my countdown! This is a blog with but a single year to live. In 365 days it gets put on ice as I move on with life. Until then it'll be a cozy place to swing through and track my daily life as I try to graduate and, after some hard work this Spring and Summer, my transition up into Calgary. So what is this about a countdown? That's a mystery for you to figure out! The question that I'm pondering is if I'll be down to 364 when I awake in the morning. The question ties back to the proposition made by many CS students that it is not the next day until after you head to bed. One hint before I hit the sack. The countdown is NOT tied to a graduation date.