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Fake it ’til you make it

Steward Observatory and Department of Astronomy tradition is to spend valuable[citation needed] grad student time concocting plans to amuse, vex, or embarrass the principal investigator.

Note to P.I.: This also means any embarrassing mistakes you’ve seen me make have been absolutely intentional.

We call these pranks, though I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. In any case, we cannot hope to rival the time someone used computer administrator access to bamboozle a CNN-addicted advisor with a fake homepage. I think of them more as artistic expressions of the self, mediated through the constraints of graduate school and the cult of personality inherent in any advising relationship.

There was that one time that priceless works of art appeared to decorate the office while its occupant was abroad in Chile, and, more recently, the Merry MagAO-Xmas display. Both of these relied on having a group of graduate students with Photoshop™ skills to render 2D images that reveal the essential nature of the subject.

For the next iteration, we had to step things up. Kick it up a notch. Take things into a whole new dimension. Could we photoshop our advisor into… a movie? Haha, just kidding! Even a short clip would be many hundreds of frames. Unless…

What if there were a tool that leveraged image processing, GPU programming, and machine learning to automate this for us? We’re high-contrast imagers; we know these things. I immediately set to work on a literature review.

It just so happened that a fellow graduate student had (unknowingly) answered our prayers in “Motion-supervised Co-Part Segmentation” by Aliaksandr Siarohin et al. from ICPR 2021. Or, more importantly, the associated open-source code. Armed with a bottom-shelf NVIDIA GPU and a refurbished Dell workstation, I dug in to the code. It seemed like I’d be able to get a good “face swap,” but there was one nagging problem.

What does my advisor’s face look like?

In pre-COVID times, one would have simply ambushed him with a camera sprinted off before he realized what happened. Confined to my home, I was forced to rely on the collective memory of the research group: in other words, this very blog.

I quickly discovered that the meek Dr. Males was camera-shy. How else does one explain his tendency to shrink into the backs of group photos? Or to grace us with only a partial mug? It’s almost as if he doesn’t even want a deep-fake model trained on his appearance! Nevertheless, I found a handful of suitable photos among the thousands, and I moved on to the next question:

Into which clip shall I face-swap my advisor?

After discounting Top Gun (for a lack of suitable pithy quote clips on YouTube), I eventually settled on this one:

The Godfather – I’m Gonna Make Him An Offer He Can’t Refuse

“You look terrible. I want you to eat. I want you to rest well.”

Don Corleone

Who wouldn’t want to hear that from their advisor? (Maybe we don’t want to hear the first part, but let’s not lie to ourselves.)

Source material in hand, I fired up the deepfake machine, and…

Yikes. Undaunted, I continued my analysis of the archival image data.

It turned out that Jaredification performed better when the Jared used was clean-shaven, limiting us to vintage blog photography. I found what I was looking for in this post from 2012 and gave it another go.

“You look terrible. I want you to eat. I want you to rest well, and a month from now this Hollywood big shot’s gonna give you what you want.”
“It’s too late; they start shooting in a week…”
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Ultimately, I wouldn’t say this was an unqualified success (except in that I’m “unqualified” to do deep learning on videos). There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to which photos segmented well and which did not, but I was unable to acquire additional data without tipping off the subject to what I was doing.

Further investigation is needed, promising directions have been identified, funding priorities elucidated, etc. Until then, it helps if you just kind of squint at it.

When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you’re gonna see some serious shit.

Song of the Day

“Reflections On The Screen” by Superorganism

Sunset Here But Not There

The sun has just set here in Tucson. But we were supposed to be watching the sunset at LCO tonight, taking our usual break from preparing our instrument for a night of observing. On the schedule, this was to be our first of eleven nights exploring the sky with MagAO-X.

An LCO sunset taken from the Clay catwalk, from what seems like forever ago:

Spoon – “Got Nuffin”

Noodle Adventures

Carbohydrates compose what are good in life: rice, noodles, bread. While Tucson has some very solid Asian noodle options (Noodleholics, Fatman Kitchen, Tuk Tuk Thai, Miss Saigon, Raijin Ramen…), I still reach out for the instant noodle packages that I buy from my local Asian markets. Come take a journey with me through some instant noodles I’ve been eating lately.

INSTANT RAMEN

Most Americans are familiar with Top Ramen or Maruchan when it comes to instant ramen and its affordability ($0.10/packet). Instead of Top Ramen, I grew up with my family eating Sapporo Ichiban, particularly Original flavor. You can find it at some major grocery stores, but they can be as expensive as $1/packet. My family usually buys Sapporo Ichiban packets in a 24-pack box from the local Asian market for $14ish. I grew up with my parents managing a big household, from as few as 5 to as many as 12 people, and they made sure to never skimp out on good instant noodles.

Instant ramen is only a vehicle, it is up to you to own up to the flavor you want through the toppings. I enhance the soup base with stuff in my pantry – garlic paste/powder, ginger paste/powder, chili bean paste. I squeeze in fresh lemon juice (but only for the Original flavor, doesn’t quite work well with the others). I top it off with fresh chopped green onions. The easiest protein to add in is egg. In my opinion, boiled egg is the best version. However, if not available, then I usually cook the egg in the pot while the noodles cook. I wait until the noodles soften up enough, usually about 1 minute in, then drop in the egg. I don’t like mixing the egg around, I like it practically poached. There are others who will disagree and say the mixed egg is superior, but we can all agree that ramen is not complete without egg.

Sapporo Ichiban. My childhood version was eating this with egg, fresh green onion, and fresh squeezed lemon. I’ve since enhance it with garlic paste, ginger paste, and chili bean paste. I eat instant ramen at home with a fork because I’ve been eating it like that for longer than some of XWCL’s members have been alive.

Other recommended toppings are pickled ginger, or whatever pickled vegetable is in your refrigerator. (I maintain a steady supply of pickled cucumber and yellow pickled daikon radish) Leftover meats are always great, like some beef Bulgogi or chopped pork belly. Aldo and I once went through the whole two-day process of making chashu pork. We overnight steeped soft boiled eggs in the leftover chashu pork sauce. Instead of us making our own ramen base and noodles, we served and ate it with Sapporo Ichiban. Still turned out fantastic.

The one thing I don’t like about instant ramen is how the broth thickens up after it has cooled down long enough. My best friend (hi Michelle!) recently recommended the Menraku brand to me. I found a packet locally and it costs $5 for 2 servings. I bought it while shopping at Sandyi Market, a local small Korean market near midtown Tucson. Highly recommend them for more specialty Korean items if Lee Lee’s isn’t good enough. They earned my loyalty when I found they sold my preferred brand of honey citron tea (Sura Wang).

Menraku restaurant syle ramen, enhanced with fresh green onion, boiled egg, ginger paste, sauteed mushrooms and garlic. Topped off with sparkling water.

I went a bit further for this one by adding in sauteed sliced shitake mushrooms in minced garlic. I wasn’t in the mood to drop cook the egg, so I boiled eggs separately for it. The noodles for this one is unusual in that it’s not the usual curly fried noodles but rather straight, dried noodles bundled like soba. The broth was super good and did not thicken up while eating. I highly recommend these noodles if you want to go a bit fancier at home.

INSTANT PANCIT CANTON

Pancit” in Tagalog translates to “noodles”, and usually the word after it is the style. (Technically it should be pansit because there’s no letter “c” in the Tagalog alphabet, but it’s commonly known as pancit.) Pancit Canton is basically Chow Mein. I tasted pancit canton for the first time when I was 10 years old and relocated to the Philippines. It quickly became one of my favorite things to eat. When I relocated back to the US at 13, the only version my family could find was the original flavor. But I like the kalamansi (Philippine lemon) version, my brother liked the spicy one. When my parents traveled to the Philippines for family-related business, they always brought back shoeboxes full of those noodle packets for us. Here in Tucson, I drive to Nick’s Sari Sari Store in the east side to buy instant pancit canton. It takes me 30 minutes one way, but it’s always worth it because I get to practice my Tagalog and it’s my small dose of Filipino community in Tucson especially when I am feeling homesick. Sometimes Lee Lee’s has it, but there were a few months where it wasn’t available.

I like these noodles as they are. But, the packages are a bit small and I find 1 package not filling enough. So, I mix it up with another flavor packet. In the Philippines, we enjoy eating pancit with some form of soda. I couldn’t find Sarsi at Nick’s Sari Sari Store, so instead I’m drinking some Thai iced tea I made.

Unlike instant ramen packets, instant pancit canton comes with an additional packet filled with oil and sauce. Depending on the weather, the oil may solidify. While the noodles are cooking, I liquefy the oil by hand using my body heat. I also use this time to mix together the powder with the liquids, so when the noodles go on top, it all blends in together. Instant pancit canton also tastes really good with Chinkiang vinegar, which blends in just right with the oil.

KOREAN INSTANT NOODLES

Sandyi has a whole aisle dedicated to instant noodles that are worth perusing. I’ve only sampled saucy noodles so far and have liked each one. A lot of the noodles tend to be spicy, but note that Korean spicy is its own game. It’s a quick, compounding build-up of spicy that stays in your mouth. It makes you eat more and more, just to keep the spicy at bay. However, once your meal is over, the spicy feeling lingers away from your mouth 5 minutes later. It’s a spicy where I need to take off my jacket and socks because my whole body is warming up and starting to sweat. It’s the best kind of suffering, existing only while you are eating and not a long haunting. I love eating Korean spicy noodles in the colder months.

The first Korean instant noodle I tried is from a brand called Paldo. I picked it because I thought the picture of the chicken on the bag was cute. This one was interesting for me, because I had to save some of my starch water before straining the noodles. I followed through the process, returned the strained noodles in the pot, added the sauce packet, then mixed it together with some starchy water. I would say it’s similar to making pancit canton, but with an added step.

It was spicy indeed! I had to wash it down with a lot of roasted barley tea. You can find roasted barley packages in the Korean aisle at your local international market.

The second Korean instant noodle I tried is Chapagetti. According to Wikipedia, it’s “the second highest-selling brand of instant noodles in South Korea”. It was also featured in the movie Parasite, to which the company Nongshim released an official video on how to cook the recipe with Chapagetti. Cooking this one was interesting, because the directions tell you to dump everything in the pot and you cook it to the end. I didn’t do it that way, instead I went through the same process as the video and the first noodle packet I tried. Still came out great.

Chapagetti is based on jajangmyeon noodles. I tried to spruce it up like Noodleholics’ Beijing Jajangmyeon, but I forgot to buy cucumber when I did my grocery run. I added in fresh green onion and a fried egg. I should have cooked the egg a bit less, so it would have just the right level of runny. This is not a spicy noodle, if my Korean spicy description scared you away.

MOROHEIYA NOODLES

I first found this noodle a few years ago as the Marukai’s free sample of the day. It’s made from moroheiya (mulukhiya), which is a leaf packed with lots of nutrition. I sampled the boiled noodle mixed with miso and mustard dressing. I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor that I bought some. Here in Tucson, you can find the noodles at LeeLee’s. The dressing is sometimes available at LeeLee’s, but I’ve definitely found it at Sandyi. The package comes with 2 noodle bricks and I find that 1 brick is a fairly hearty snack. This is one of my favorite things to eat on a hot day. They also have a yakisoba version which is pretty solid.

GreeNoodle with miso and mustard dressing. Also, boiled egg on the side. Tea is the cold brew Prickly Pear Lemon Drop from Scented Leaf.

CUP NOODLE (NOT CUP NOODLES)

I know I talked a lot about packet noodles, but what about the cup variety? I didn’t eat Cup Noodles until my high school years, and I found it lackluster as opposed to cooking over a stove. I did however learn that Cup Noodles is the American variation for Cup Noodle, which is the Japanese version (source: Serious Eats). I had planned to visit the Cup Noodle museum in Yokohama, Japan during the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Systems 2020 conference, but alas the conference and travel did not come to be. It’s surprisingly tricky to find Cup Noodle in Tucson. I eventually found some at Kimpo Oriental Market, a Korean market on the east side of town. They sell fresh rice cakes on Wednesdays, so I’ll be back one of these days so I can make tteokbokki.

The fruits of my labor. Which one would taste the best?
Surprise – I also made a model kit of Cup Noodle! I bought the model from USA Gundam Store. It took me more time to travel around Tucson searching for Cup Noodle than building this kit, and that was 3 hours!

The flavor base for the curry and seafood versions were very solid. There was a dried potato in the curry one, but I wasn’t a big fan of its texture. I also didn’t like the texture of the noodles too much. I’ve been spoiled for too long cooking instant noodles over a stovetop that it’s very hard to go switch over to a cup version. But, that still won’t stop me from sampling other flavors as I find them.

FINAL COMMENTS

This was only a small list of instant noodles I’ve tried and enjoyed. There’s a few others I like that didn’t get mentioned. I’ve also tried other yakisoba type noodles; Sapporo Ichiban is good, but I think GreeNoodle’s is better. I’ve tried some instant udon buckets, but they were only alright. To my memory, I don’t know if I’ve tried an instant rice noodle packet that I liked enough to eat again. I do have a packet of instant pad thai that has been sitting in my noodle stash for a while now though.

Also, there’s many ways to spruce up instant noodles. I’m interested in recommendations for other instant noodles and how you spruce it up. Instant noodles may not be a complete replacement for the real dish at a specialty restaurant, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying to make it better from home. As Chef Jon Kung said, “take what you like and do too much, otherwise what is the point of cooking at home?”

BONUS

I watched a cute Chinese romcom movie called “This is Not What I Expected” on Netflix a few months ago. I think it’s still up there. It revolves around a very particular hotel owner foodie and a walking disaster of a sous chef. It’s cute and there are a few great scenes revolving around instant noodles! Please give it a shot if you have the time.

Instant noodle scene from “This is Not What I Expected”

SONG OF THE DAY

My favorite song by BTS is a version without them singing. (Go figure.) But if I had to pick a lyrical version, I think the Korean version is better than the original Japanese version.

BTS – Airplane Pt 2 Instrumental

Purrride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune (lots of wet food), must be in want of a wife. An unprecidented whirlwind romance has budded between Katniss and my neighbor’s cat. His name is Bandit, and true to his name, he has stolen Katniss’s heart.

Monsieur Bandit from across the way.

Although it has been smooth sailing for them lately, they got off to a rocky start in true Elizabeth and Darcy style. When Bandit first started visiting he was only allowed to sit at the top of the stairs and admire Katniss from a distance.

Bandit pining after Katniss.

Failure to comply meant he recieved a rebuke in the form of angry hissing and meowing. He was persistent though, and after a couple of months he was allowed to approach the door.

Their romance caused quite the scandal as Bandit is known to be unpropitious, visiting at all hours of the day and night without regard for decorum expected of a proper suitor.

A midnight visiting from Bandit, how uncouth.

There is hope for him yet though, as of late his manners have been improving vastly as he has learned how to knock on my door to get Katniss’s attention.

In the beginning Katniss met Bandit with pride and prejudice. Now she spends a lot of her time in my living room, waiting for him to visit.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Rainbow Chocolate

It has come to my attention that it’s already February, which means CHOCOLATE. Every Valentine’s day, I prepare boxes of chocolate to give away to everyone in XWCL and my friends. It’s one of the Hallmark holidays I look forward to the most for chocolate making. Not that chocolate needs an excuse, of course.

Unfortunately, the pandemic discourages in-person meetings, including our weekly research meeting. With no avenue to give away chocolate I make, I’ve been in a bit of a chocolate confectionery slump. But, it’s February, the last time I made chocolate was a year ago, and I really want to make chocolate again. Instead, I’ve decided to share this unique chocolate making experience.

RAINBOW CHOCOLATE?

A few months ago, there was a phenomena where someone made rainbow chocolate without the use of food coloring painted on the surface. The secret is imprinting a diffraction grating on the surface. A diffraction grating produces a rainbow-like effect when light shines on it. At the correct lighting, the chocolate surface should produce a rainbow-shine effect. As an amateur chocolate confectioner, a few friends sent me video variations of this challenge. I forgot about this for a while, until I was reminded that this week is Prism Week at OpSci. I figured, why not celebrate Prism week with some diffraction rainbow chocolate?

MELTING TECHNIQUE: DOUBLE BOILER

The approach I take to melting chocolates is the double boiler (bain-marie) method. You can definitely use the microwave method; I have a friend who is the head pastry chef at a restaurant and her at-home chocolate melting technique is using the microwave. The double boiler method uses steam generated by the bottom pot to heat up the underside of the top pot, which transfers heat to whatever is in the top pot. The double boiler method technique requires a bit more setup, but I have found to enjoy it better than the microwave method.

MATERIALS

List of materials, from top right going clockwise: Diffraction grating film, 13,500 lines/inch (Amazon link); Kitchen scale; Mixing bowl for double boiler; Extra bowl for seeding chocolate chips; Pot for boiling water; Silicon molds to hold grating and shape chocolate; Chocolate chips (Ghiardelli dark chocolate, 284g); Rubber spatula. Missing food thermometer.

PROCESS

Chocolate tempering: Epicurious
Diffraction Chocolate tutorial: Ann Reardon
Note: Melting chocolate goes very fast. Be diligent with the whole process.

Cutting the diffraction gratings.

STEP 1: Cut the diffraction grating film. The gratings will be at the bottom of the cups, where they will be molded onto the melted chocolate as it solidifies. Make sure it is diffraction side up, so the pattern is in contact with the chocolate. I put these on a tray, so when it’s time to cool, I can transfer them around easily in my kitchen.

STEP 2: Measure the chocolate. I set aside 2/3 for the first melt, then 1/3 for the seeding portion. I do the tempering method, which is when you heat up chocolate to a certain temperature, then you use the seeding chocolate to cool it down, then finish the tempering to a certain temperature. This helps the chocolate stay in liquid form for working with and produces a nice shine.

Water boiling with chocolate ready to go

STEP 3: Boil water. Do not fill the pot with too much water. The water should not come in contact with the mixing bowl. This will otherwise burn the chocolate when we put it in for melting. When the steam is getting strong enough, lower the heat to a simmer and put the chocolate bowl over the pot.

CAUTION: Be VERY CAREFUL to not get water in contact with the chocolate. This will “seize” the chocolate, which makes it look grainy. The goal is to make the chocolate look smooth. This happened to me during my first chocolate making attempts when I used a wooden spatula not fully dry.

Get to temperature. For dark chocolate, don’t go past 120F.

STEP 4: Melt the chocolate. Mix the chocolate with a rubber spatula and monitor the temperature. For dark chocolate, do not let it exceed 120F. When the chocolate is at temperature, remove the bowl from the pot and wipe the underside of condensation. Do not turn off the burner, we’ll need it for the next step.

Seed the chocolate until necessary temperature. For dark chocolate, no lower than 82F.

STEP 5: Seed the chocolate. Add in the seeding chocolate, bit by bit, until the temperature reaches 82F. If you run out of chocolate for cooling, just keep mixing until it reaches temperature.

STEP 6: Temper the chocolate. I didn’t take a photo because things were moving very fast. Here, you would put the seeded chocolate back over the bottom pot and reheat the chocolate to between 88F – 91F. I went with 90F. It doesn’t take very long to do this. Remove the mixing bowl from the pot when temperature has been met.

STEP 7: Transfer the chocolate. Put the chocolate in the cup molds with the gratings. I use a spoon for quick application. A pastry bag is also really good to use, since the chocolate won’t be too hot to the touch.

STEP 8: Let the chocolate cool. You can put it in the refrigerator, which is why I had the tray for easy transfer. You can also let it cool in room temperature, if the weather is suitable. When the chocolate is hard to touch, then you can push them out of their molds.

Please do not eat the film.

STEP 9: Remove the film. The film is not edible. (If there is an edible film though, I’m interested!) The film acts like a mold, so the chocolate copies the grating pattern.

FIRST ATTEMPT RESULTS

Not bad!

I put the chocolate up against the sunlight, and you can see the diffraction rainbow patterns! It didn’t come out too well on the chocolate. The big circles are smudge marks from my fingers, since it’s very tricky to pry off the diffraction grating. But yay, I’m pretty excited this worked, even if only a little bit!

LET’S TRY IT ONE MORE TIME

The great thing about chocolate is that it can be melted again. I wanted to see if I can do better, so I did a remelt and tried again.

This round, I tried with a different mold pattern. I also tried to spread the chocolate over the grating itself, like what Ann Reardon did in her video. Back they went into the refrigerator to cool.

It looks like I did a little bit better the second attempt! It was already getting close to sunset, so the sunlight isn’t the same as the first attempt. The slab refraction came out very faint under the ring light. It was too difficult for me to take a photo with it in the sunset. But the block piece came out pleasantly well, despite the lighting! I’m very satisfied with these results.

SO WHAT ABOUT THE CHALLENGE?

I think it was a fun challenge. It was definitely a bit difficult. I’ve been very out of practice with chocolate making. I could have avoided all the finger smudges if I was a bit more patient. Choosing the correct side for the diffraction pattern was also a trial and error. I didn’t have a microscope available (rather, I didn’t want to drive to campus for this one thing), so I split my batch with one for the top side and the other for the bottom side. The results also did not yield much – for all the chocolate pieces I made, I only had maybe 3 or 4 successful attempts. Maybe with different setups, I could achieve a better yield.

I do recommend trying this out! Chocolate making is a very messy process though and it goes quick. It’s always satisfying to see fun results like this. It may be better to practice melting chocolate first before trying this challenge immediately.

SONG OF THE DAY

All this talk of dark chocolate made me think about black and white, like in chess. I binged watched all of The Queen’s Gambit over the winter holiday. It was the first show I managed to complete since The Mandelorian season 1 (I am very bad at watching shows). I originally came in expecting to drool over the fashion, but was rewarded with an excellent coming-of-age story.

On the topic of The Queen’s Gambit, I’d like to bring up Chess: The Musical. It also takes place during the Cold War, but in the late 1970’s as opposed to the 1960’s during The Queen’s Gambit. The musical was written by Tim Rice (famous for Evita, among other musical productions) and the music was by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA. The most famous song to come out from it was One Night in Bangkok, which was a chart topper in the mid-80’s. Wilfred and I sang parts of this song when we had an overnight layover in Bangkok with Olivier, on our way to Bhutan. Olivier was very confused, but we were also in hour 25 of our 34 hour travel and already had been on 3 different airplanes by that point.

Murray Head – One Night in Bangkok

The original version I listened to was the Chess in Concert performance from 2008, featuring Adam Pascal (famous for playing Roger in RENT), Idina Menzel (Maureen from RENT and Elsa from Frozen), and Josh Groban. I low-key became a Grobanite when I first listened through this musical.

Chess in Concert (2008) – One Night in Bangkok