India: Day 1, Noms #2

I can see that I’m going to have to do a lot of walking to keep off the poundage here. My hosts are making really lovely meals, and Mr. Das has provided mass quantities of sweets. Just before bed, as I’m deeply jet-lagged, I’ll show my dinner and Mr. Das’s postprandial sweets (see two posts back).

Dinner: fish stew, two types of unusual vegetable, raita (yogurt and vegetables), mixed vegetables, and rice:


And a box of confectionary for after dinner: various kinds of barfi (milk and butter fudge), Mysore pak (the dark one, a speciality, and heavy on the ghee), and Turkish delight (not an Indian sweet, but one that is made by Das’s factory). The white barfi at lower right is made with cashews:


Many Westerners don’t like Indian sweets, saying that they are “too sweet.” But I love them, and Mr. Das’s are the finest I’ve had, as he has a very light hand with the sugar. It’s a pity you can’t taste them—I tried every one in the box!

Mr. Das seems to have a dream job: three cooks, a big house attached to his sweet factory, and 40 cats. I asked him if he had a favorite cat, and he said yes, a cat named “Ladoo,” from the Indian word for “shy”. Ladoo will not let any other human touch him—he swats them with unsheathed claws when they try. But for Mr. Das he will allow complete pettage, including the delicate belly. Some day I will visit his paradise in Bangalore, as I have an invitation!

Should I join Patheos?

The people who run Patheos and its atheist channel have asked me to join that channel. I haven’t made any decision, nor am I yet even leaning one way or another. I thought, then, that I’d ask the readers how they feel about this, both to see if people might abscond (I don’t want to lose the friendly community we’ve built up) or gauge what they think of moving to a new place. Readers might help point out advantages and disadvantages that I haven’t thought of. The ones I have are below:

The issues are several.  One is ads: I would have no choice about having them.  The upside, of course, is extra income, but I’ve no real need for that. The downside is, well, ads, but people have ways to get around them.

The main possible advantage for me is extra readership, as we all like to get as many readers as we can, and for me that means good readers: ones that will contribute to the conversation. I’m told that with membership in the network such an increase would almost certainly happen. But that, too, has a downside, for right now I read almost every comment that is made, and am able to engage with readers; but if readership grows much more I wouldn’t be able to handle it and might have to use other folks as moderators

But a counter-consideration is that I like being a lone, adless wolf, although at the network I am assured I’d be able to post anything I want (I asked specifically about that). Nothing about the content would change, including posts about noms, cats, and boots along with the usual biology and heathen stuff. I would also be free to comment on material written by other members of the network.

Patheos also has technical support: I would get a redesign and be able to add new features, and all my past posts would be added to my site, though I don’t know in what form.

So please tell me what you think. As I said, I’m truly on the fence about this one, and I know that readers will be honest with their thoughts.

Time for dinner!


First noms in India

It’s appropriate that my first post from India (and posting will be light after I leave Delhi on Wednesday morning) is on food: in particular, my first meal in Delhi. Here is a lovely lunch that my hosts prepared.

Here we have, clockwise from bottom left, potatoes and onions, eggplant and chilis, kebabs with shredded chicken, then the big dish of fish with vegetables, potatoes in tomato sauce, dal (lentils) and dahi vada (savory lentil pastries in a yogurt sauce).


Oy, was I full!

Below are special breads, like chappatis but filled with pureed peas. We ate with our hands, of course, using rice, these breads, and puris to help us grasp the food. (I always eat Indian food with my hands, as is the national custom—right hand only!—much to the chagrin of my friends in America.


The potatoes in tomato sauce and the breads were made by a special guest, Mr. Das from Bangalore. Das, besides being a great cook, happens to own the finest commercial sweet factory in India, K. C. Das, which was first opened by by his great-grandfather Nobin Chandra Das in 1866 in Calcutta. The business is now is expanding to other towns. Nobin Das invented a very famous sweet, rasgulla: Indian “cottage-cheese” balls in a sugar syrup. His son, K. C. Das, was the first person to produce any canned food in India, and that was canned rasgulla.

Mr. Das is visiting my hosts while attending a marriage ceremony in Delhi and buying a machine to fill cups with yogurt (his company was the first in India to make fruit yogurt; most yogurt here, called “curd,” is unflavored and unsweetened).

Here is Mr. Das serving one of his specialties, sonpapri, a very complicated and addictively delicious sweet made from chickpea flour, milk, and the best ghee (clarified butter) he can find. I had never tried this food before (it, like most great Indian sweets, comes from Bengal), and decided it was the second best of all Indian sweets, the best still being ramalai (soft, cheese balls soaked in chilled, thickened milk flavored with cardamom).

Mr. Das

The preparation of sonpapri is complicated and laborious: people have to repeatedly stretch and fold the dough to get the right texture, and must keep the milk and ghee mixture at the proper cold temperature. The result, when prepared properly is a delicious flaky sweet (like a mixture of fudge and shredded wheat) that is, as the Brits say, “moreish”. Das takes care not to make his sweets too sweet so as not to overwhelm the flavor of the ghee and other ingredients. Here’s a picture of sonpapri from his firm’s website:

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 4.44.11 PM

Mr. Das also brought his company’s sandesh, a milk-flavored sweet with the texture of firm fudge. His list of products is here (he was also the first person to manufacture non-sugar confections for diabetics; Indians do love their sweets).


Other sweets from K. C. Das are shown below, including barfi (milk fudge covered with slivered pistachios and silver foil (yes, real silver),as well as an unidentified sweet to the right)

Mr. Das, besides running a great business, also has forty cats! They live in his house, most have names, and, although he is a vegetarian, Das prepares their food (fish and chicken on alternate days) himself, as his cooks are South Indian and won’t handle fish or meat. He loves his cats, some of which remain stationary in various places (one lives atop the washing machine), and has special staff to clean up after them. The stationary cats must have their food brought to them!


On Wednesday morning early (a 6 a.m. flight!), we travel to Calcutta, the home of Indian culture and Bengali food, including, of course, sweets. This is one Indian city I’ve never visited.


Monday: Hili dialogue

Good morning, and happy Monday! Today there is a special Hili dialogue accompanied by this note from Malgorzata:

“In Poland, there is special cause for celebration today. The website “Listy” was born 15 December 2013, and on that day Hili became its official Editor-in-Chief. Today, then, is the first anniversary of the site, and she is very proud of her work.”

And from one rationalist website to another, WEIT congratulates Hili and her staff of Andrzej and Małgorzata (as always, the humans put in all the real effort) on their hard work creating and maintaining Poland’s #1 website for rationalism, secularism, and science appreciation.

A: This is the first birthday of “Listy”.
Hili: I have a feeling I’ve done a helluva job!


In Polish:

Ja: Listy mają pierwsze urodziny.
Hili: Mam wrażenie, że zrobiłam kawał dobrej roboty.


Come on down!

The latest Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weiner purports to show a deep flaw in creationism. But creationists already have an answer to this; I’ll leave it to you to give it in the comments (there’s also a wording problem in the first panel):

20141213h/t: jsp

I have landed

Every international flight I’ve ever taken to India lands between 1 and 5 a.m., and this was no different: 1:05.  I’m now ensconced at my friends’ house at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, and it’s 3:30 a.m.  All I can write tonight is something that every inveterate traveler knows: the second you step off the plane in India, you know from the odor alone (even in the airport) where you are. It varies from place to place, but tonight it’s the smoke of a million cooking fires with some coal smoke mixed in. If India were a perfume, what perfumers call its “bottom note”—the dominance fragrance—would be smoke. But the top notes include rosewater and sandalwood, as well as dung and the odor of frying chappatis. Nowhere in the US or Europe smells like it.

When I looked up the weather report in Delhi the day before yesterday, it didn’t say “rainy” or “clear” or “foggy” (which it often is). It said “smoke.”

I’m delighted to be here, as it’s been 12 years since my last visit.  And so to bed.

Grape plasma

Who would have thought that you could microwave a cut grape for just a few seconds, and produce a glowing plasma in your microwave. Have a look at this instructional video (NOTE: I am not telling you to try this at home, but if you do, report back.)

The explanation, from Now I Know:

The two sides of the grape act as focal points for the microwaves (the waves themselves, not the appliance).  The grape haves are connected only by the thin piece of skin left uncut by the knife.  As the microwaves move across the grape, from one hemisphere to the other, this tiny remainder of grape skin quickly dries out and burns up, causing a spark.

And one spark is all you need.  It ionizes the air around the grape, creating ion-rich gas also known as a plasma – with solids, liquids, and gases, the fourth form of matter.  The light show you’re seeing is the plasma, much like that as seen in a plasma lamp, albeit more violent and because it is in your microwave, dangerous.

Why is the plasma in the video above so large?  The team at The Naked Scientists explains further: “This plasma conducts electricity and can absorb microwaves. Sometimes the plasma gets big enough to absorb enough microwaves to keep growing[.]”  The Naked Scientists also warn that the experiment “can cause minor burns on the top of your microwave.”

The glass contains the air around the grape even more so than the microwave oven, thereby concentrating the plasma, and allowing for the light show seen in the video (as well as protecting the roof of the microwave).

h/t: Diane G.

Open thread

This is the ghost of Professor Ceiling Cat, summoned forth by his minions to create a forum for discussion.  In the thread below you can talk about whatever you want.

One suggestion, which is mine, is this: in my post on Friday, I asked readers to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?

That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles. Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.

One person I talked to said that New Atheist books like The End of Faith or God Is Not Great were meant not to show that religion in its net effects was harmful to humanity, but instead to emphasize that there were some bad effects of religion that had been overlooked. I disagree: I claim that those books were very clearly written to show that religion was a bad institution as a whole.  What do you think?

But of course you can talk about anything you want, or go off on any tangent you want.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

. . . and I use the term loosely. But, as Maru says, I do my best, and this is the best I can do when I’m jet-lagged.

Reader George sends a photo of urban wildlife:

Here’s a photo of my cats watching a squirrel eat a slice of apple.


Sunday: Hili dialogue

Greetings from Schiphol Airport, where it’s early morning and Professor Ceiling Cat has a 4 hour layover before the 7-hour flight to New Delhi. And I have just received the latest Hili dialogue, which is below.

As several readers commented, Schiphol is now a generic international airport, complete with Starbucks and McDonald’s.  Yes, you can buy stroopwaffels and Gouda cheese in the food shops, and there is one place selling tulip bulbs, but I would not rank this as the best big airport in Europe. (I still say Munich is better, as they have Weisswürst und Bier on offer. And Heathrow is the WORST.)

Herewith is the Furry Princess of Poland, still afflicted with chronic solipsism:

Cyrus: What are you looking for in this computer?
Hili: I’m checking whether I am in Wikipedia.
In Polish:
Cyrus: Czego szukasz w tym komputerze?
Hili: Sprawdzam, czy jestem w Wikipedii.
If some reader wants to start a Hili entry, be my guest!

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