Saturday, August 30, 2008

Speed and Likelihood

So I'm reading Carl Sagan's posthumous The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and overall it's pretty good. But Sagan does say something about the likelihood of the origin of life that I found nonsensical. He's talking about the origin of life on Earth and how it happened within a span of 500 million years, from the time conditions were probably suitable for the origin of life to the first actual evidence we have for life appearing. And then he says:

It must have happened very quickly. A process that happens quickly is a process that in some sense is likely. The faster it happens, the more likely it is.


He then gives lip service to the problem of extrapolating from a single instance of an event, but that's entirely the point. We have very poor understanding of how life originated, so we can't say how likely it was. And the speed with which a process happens does not correlate with the likelihood of that event happening. If somebody does have evidence or an argument to the contrary, I'd like to hear it.

Think of it this way: Let's say you roll 100 dice, and you want to know how likely it is that all of them turn up as sixes. Now, you're not measuring the likelihood of it recurring, just happening once. This could happen on the very first roll, or it could happen after 40 million rolls. Do either of those situations (it happening quickly vs. after a very long time) convey any particular information about the likelihood of the event?

Waiting for Gustav

According to projected paths, Hurricane Gustav is supposedly headed on a direct course for Lafayette, where I happen to live. Of course, there are a million variables. It could hit anywhere from Houston to Florida instead. It could lose steam (although at this point they're saying it's more likely to pick up power).

I'm not planning on leaving yet. I'll make a decision tomorrow morning. Hopefully by that time we'll know a lot more, and hopefully it won't be bad.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Photorealistic Human Modeling is Here

The way the rendering of humans in movies and video games was going, you wouldn't think it would be long until they were pretty much indistinguishable from real people. Well, it looks like we're there.

Check out this story and the accompanying video.

Why The Drinking Age Should Be 18

Slate has a new article denouncing the current efforts by a coalition of university Presidents to curb binge drinking by lobbying for the national legal age for consuming alcohol to 18.

The article argues that lowering the drinking age won't be effective, and will actually do more harm and cost more lives, pointing to evidence from other countries who lowered their drinking ages. I wouldn't expect anything other than a spike in drinking once a given demographic gets new legal access. Long-term statistics are more meaningful, but we don't get those.

But even if the higher drinking age saved more lives and led to more binging and not less, there's a very simple, powerful reason why it's stupid and should be changed: It's not consistent and it's not just.

In every other facet of life, our country designates 18 as the age when a citizen becomes an adult. When you reach 18 you can buy porn and cigarettes. You can marry. You can vote. And if you are male, you are required by law to register with the Selective Service, which means you're put into the draft pool for war. There is a fundamental absurdity with saying that someone is old enough to operate a multi-million dollar piece of military hardware, kill others for their country, and die for their country, but is not mature enough to buy and drink a can of beer.

So the drinking age needs to be lowered to 18. Either that, or we need to unilaterally recognize a higher age (like 21) as the threshold for adulthood. The mismatch just doesn't make any sense.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What is Hiearchy?

In my primate cognition class last semester, we were having a discussion about baboon social structure, I think, and we were talking about it being hierarchical. The professor asked me what "hierarchical" meant. I was taken aback for a few moments, and couldn't come up with a response. It's good to question the meaning of words you tend to take for granted.

After reading On Intelligence in 2005, Hawkins convinced me that time and hierarchy are crucial to understanding cognition. Whether his company's particular implementation is the right technological path is an open question, but I think in terms of identifying the important theoretical concepts, he's dead on.

So what is a hierarchy?

In The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon says:

By a hierarchical system, or hierarchy, I mean a system that is composed of interrelated subsystems, each of the latter being, in turn, hierarchic in structure until we reach some lowest level of elementary subsystem. (emphasis mine)

I didn't find this definition very satisfying, though it's all right.

Wikipedia does a nice job, I think:

A hierarchy is an arrangement of objects, people, elements, values, grades, orders, classes, etc., in a ranked or graduated series.


Items in a hierarchy are typically thought of as being "above," "below," or "at the same level as" one another.

Not bad, though I'd truncate it down to simply:

A system of ranked elements.

Rank, it seems to me, is the most important aspect of hierarchy, and this simple working definition seems to capture nicely the essentials of hierarchy.

So why is hierarchy important to understanding cognition?

Well for starters, because the world is hierarchical. The universe is composed of galaxies, which are composed of subsystems, including solar systems. All matter is composed of atoms and molecules, which are composed of subatomic particles. And multicellular organisms, including ourselves, are composed of subsystems (nervous, circulatory, etc.) that are composed of organs composed of cells composed of molecules and so on.

And that's just spatially. Temporally, our lives are composed of stages (early childhood, adolescence, the college years, etc.), which are hierarchically divided down to individual moments.

Our neocortex is hierarchically-arranged, and I believe its architecture has evolved specifically to exploit and encode the hierarchical nature of the world around us. In The Quest for Consciousness, Christof Koch refers to the neocortex as "quasi-hierarchical," by which he means that it is not a strict hierarchy. Some cortical areas don't report directly to the area just above them. Many connections skip levels, like a private reporting not only to his sargeant, but to the general as well.

I don't really like the term "quasi-hierarchy" much, though. The neocortex is no less hierarchical because of this arrangement. If a system is composed of elements which are all the same rank, it's not a hierarchy. If there is any difference in the ranking of elements in a system, then it's a hierarchy. I'd prefer qualifiers like "strict" and "flexible" to describe the extent to which the relationship between elements in a hierarchy is between adjacent levels.

And I'll leave you to ponder this adapted diagram of the organization of the macaque monkey's visual from Felleman and Van Essen (1991). The information flows from bottom to top. The bottom part is information coming from the eyes, and the hippocampus sits on top. Our visual processing system is very probably arranged in the same way.

The Lockhart Post-Register Has a Website?

I grew up in Lockhart, Texas. We had a newspaper, which I imagine is a lot like most small-town newspapers. It was delivered once a week, consisted of about 10 small news sheet pages, and thrilled readers with stories about intersection lights in Lockhart going out and the goings on of the local Chamber of Commerce.

I was Googling around today and came across the Post-Register's website, and holy shit, the thing looks professional! That top banner is a monstrosity, but even it is well-designed, graphically-speaking. This site looks about 100 times better than the newspaper ever did. I'm impressed.

And the copyright notice at the bottom says 1999-2008, so they've been up and running for 9 years and nobody told me.

So now you can read thrilling small-town news in vivid color on a well-designed website. As I write this, the lead story is about the "controversial" decision to rename Lockhart High School.

Go check it out!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Obama on Faith

When I wrote my review of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope, I hadn't yet gotten to the chapter on faith. Well, now I have read it, and I'm not particularly impressed.

Obama apparently grew up in a secular household, but converted to Christianity in his mid-20s. His reasons for adopting Christianity are patently utilitarian. He talks about the effectiveness of black churches in organizing blacks, improving neighborhoods, effecting social change, and instilling morals in the community. He talks about how his mother died after a long fight with cancer and how he saw fear in her eyes, and wished that she had religion to comfort her. And he talks about when his own young daughter asked him about death for the first time, and he told her something like "You don't have to worry about that for a long time." This skirted the question, but he says in his book that he hopes that his mother has gone to a better place where she can be with people she can talk to and love for all eternity.

Okay. But your desire to believe something that makes you happy certainly doesn't make it true. Obama also talks about how religious people shouldn't leave reason at the door, but as far as I can tell, he doesn't give a single justification for his beliefs based on reason.

I've talked here many times about the fallacy of utilitarianism. You could believe all sorts of things that are false that could make you happier and more productive. In the end what matters is your values. If you really do value truth more than happiness, then you'd never accept a pleasant fantasy over cold, hard reality. But if you value happiness more than truth, you'd certainly be willing to buy whatever someone's selling as long as it made you that much happier.

Obama at least speaks inclusively about non-believers, and he talks about the dangers of using the state to inflict religious beliefs on others. This is better than most candidates, I suppose, but I just wish he would apply the same level of scrutiny to what he says he believes about religion that he does to Republican policies.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Magpie Mirror Self-Recognition

We talked quite a bit about mirror self-recognition in my primate cognition class last semester. From what I understand from the readings and discussions, mirror self-recognition (the ability to recognize that the thing in the mirror is you, and not another member of your own species or something completely different) has only reliably been demonstrated in chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans. For reasons not very well understood, other apes such as gorillas, don't pass the mark test, where a colorless, odorless mark is placed on a location on the subject's body which can only be seen in a reflective surface, and the subject makes self-referential movements in reaction to such a reflection. No other primates, such as monkeys, are known to pass such a test either.

There have been claims of animals such as dolphins and elephants passing the mark test, though we read some of this research, and the evidence seems relatively weak. Which is one reason why it's interesting that a new study has indicated that magpies pass the mark test.

Here's a pic of a magpie with one of the test marks, a yellow pip placed under the beak:

And here's a video of a magpie trying to get the mark off with its claws and by rubbing itself against the bottom of the enclosure, and then checking itself in the mirror to make sure the mark is gone:

One of the necessary controls for an experiment like this is to do a set of experiments with marks that don't change the appearance of the bird. In this research, they used a black mark placed in the same location, which is not visible in the mirror because it blends in with the bird's feather color. They didn't get the same reactions with the black mark as they did with the colored marks. The reason you'd do a control like this is to make sure that the bird is reacting to something like the smell of the mark or how it feels on their body, but purely to the visual information they're getting from the mirror.

From what I've seen, this research looks pretty solid. If so, what does it say about the similarities between great ape and magpie cognition? One idea that was talked about in my primate cognition class about why humans, chimps, and orangs pass the test had to do with conscious knowledge about their body movements, since they all spend a significant amount of their present or recent evolutionary history in the tree canopies, while other large primates don't. The idea is that they have to be much more aware of where their limbs and torso are positioned at all times, or they will fall and suffer terrible injury or death (while other large apes live mostly on the ground, and smaller primates don't suffer as much from such mistakes). I wasn't really buying this argument, but if it's true, how would it gel with the magpie results, assuming they're solid?

I don't know. I'm not sure anybody does at this point. My guess is that mirror self-recognition may be a very specialized cognitive skill that may arise as a by-product of other cognitive skills, but may really say little to nothing about more abstract reasoning or higher cognition. I'd also guess that we'll see a lot more animals pass such tests in the coming years, but time will tell.

Prior et al. Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition. PLoS Biology, 2008; 6 (8): e202 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202

Hating on Crosswords

Here's an article in Slate that's destined to get a ton of hate mail: Crossword, Sudoku Plague Threatens America! by Ron Rosenbaum.

Here's a taste:

What always gets to me is the self-congratulatory assumption on the part of puzzle people that their addiction to the useless habit somehow proves they are smarter or more literate than the rest of us. Need I suggest that those who spend time doing crossword puzzles (or sudoku)—uselessly filling empty boxes (a metaphor for some emptiness in their lives?)—could be doing something else that involves words and letters? It's called reading.

My guess is that the people who do crosswords also tend to read a lot more than the average person, though this would be interesting to know for sure. You can't do the tougher crosswords without having a pretty broad knowledge base, which you get...from reading. I don't think most crossword puzzlers glorify themselves the way Rosenbaum is suggesting they do. I don't think any of them would compare getting a clue about Madame Bovary to actually reading the book. But I don't think they'd say it's a horrible waste of time and energy.

The better crosswords involve interesting wordplay and a fair amount of induction. You test your abilities to recall knowledge based on (hopefully) clever clues and what knowledge you have about the word from the space it fits in and any other letters you might know. If the clue is a past-tense verb, like "ate a whole sandwich," you can probably assume that the answer ends in -ed, but it might not if it is also irregular. But part of the fun is provisionally filling in something like the end of a word or a reasonably guess and seeing how well it fits with the rest of the neighboring answers.

I'm generally not a big fan of trivia, but I do appreciate the better clues on shows like Jeopardy where the knowledge is not just regurgitated, but filtered through a puzzle or pun. Does this put puzzling on par with reading? No. It's different. But in some cases, yeah, puzzling is superior to reading. Working out the Friday NYT crossword is a lot more challenging than reading a lot of the stuff on the bestseller list.

I would also guess that crossword puzzlers are less susceptible to the effects of aging on the brain from conditions such as Alzhiemer's and Parkinsons, though again, I don't think such data exists. My guess is that any mental activity that is relatively stimulating and engages long-term memory processes is generally beneficial.

But Rosenbaum, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, goes on for three pages with stuff like this:

But, again, let's try to take seriously the self-image of puzzle people as brainiacs. (Come on, try!) Isn't it a tragedy, then, a criminal shame, that all their amazing brainpower gets wasted on word games? If they're as smart as they think they are and there were some way to channel their alleged brainpower to something other than word games, we could cure cancer in a month!

Ah, the old "why don't they do something really important?" What about jogging? Isn't that a huge waste of time? Or watching TV or browsing the internet? There's a lot of other lower-hanging fruit than crosswords to criticize.

He also distinguishes crosswords from games like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, which he argues at least foster social interaction. I guess he's never had the fun of working on a crossword with somebody else...poor goober. And even if most crosswords are done in private, is he going to criticize people for doing yoga or meditating or...reading in private?

This guy's a douche, but I think it's kind of deliberate. What's a 4-letter word for "intentionally provoke"? If that was his intent, I fell into his trap. But I couldn't help myself.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I saw Wanted last night.

It was absurd, but watchable, mostly because of the sheer audacity and silliness of the action sequences.

The story involves a nerdy accountant who finds out that his father, who abandoned him and his mother, was actually a member of a secret group of super-assassins. This guy takes medication for anxiety attacks, but it turns out that this is actually a mental skill that allows him to enter slow-motion world and do things like shoot the wings off flies.

He gets trained by getting beat up and stabbed and then soaking in a bath of secret formula that "stimulates white blood cells" and lets the assassins heal up quickly.

All pretty silly, but fun to watch. Until we learn that targets for assassination are dictated to the guild by The Loom of Fate, an actual loom that for 1,000 years has been spelling out the name of targets in binary code, which is apparently only decoded by one guy, Morgan Freeman (gee, how could a system like that go wrong?). Which just compounds silliness upon more silliness, so that you either decide you can't handle it and you stop watching or you entirely switch off your prefrontal cortex. I tried, and mostly succeeded, though I think the first half (the hero learning who he is, going through training montages, etc.) was much better than the second.

Anyway, it's worth watching just for some of the goofier, over-the-top action sequences, or if you your women emaciated and tattooed, for Angelina Jolie.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Any Mathematicians Out There?

Does anyone know if there's a name for a series of sums made of the maximum integer values of pairs of addends? Or to put it another way, the difference between the addends is always 0 or 1. For example:

1 = 1 + 0
2 = 1 + 1
3 = 2 + 1
4 = 2 + 2
5 = 3 + 2
6 = 3 + 3
7 = 4 + 3
8 = 4 + 4
9 = 5 + 4

As opposed to a series like:

1 = 0 + 1
2 = 1 + 1
3 = 2 + 1
4 = 3 + 1
5 = 4 + 1
6 = 5 + 1
7 = 6 + 1
8 = 7 + 1
9 = 8 + 1


The Audacity of Hope

Sorry for the delinquency in posting lately...a lot of things have been going on.

Anyway, I'm currently reading Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope on audiobook right now (read by Obama). I avoided it for a while because I thought the title was schmalzty, and I thought it would be a preachy, mushy-headed plea for change and optimism in American politics.

Turns out it's actually pretty good, and the content surprised me. It's one part interesting civics lesson, one part a biography of Obama's political history, and one part policy proposals for improving America. And it's good. Sometimes I get the sense that he's telling me what I want to hear, and sometimes I wonder the extent to which the words are his own, but more often I find that he seems honest, articulate, and engaging.

Obama is unapologetic as he describes his liberal views, but talks about how the political climate has become more polarized and less substantive, and about how this is harmful to the political process and ultimately to the American citizen. I did wonder about this thesis, though. Obama taught law, and seems to know a lot about American history. But he never really convinces me that politics haven't always been extremely polarized, and that there's anything really different about the current climate. Any student of history could probably make a convincing case that politics in Washington were just as full of fluff and rancor 100 years ago as they are today, if not more so.

His actual policy proposals are a mixed bag. He remains in a maddening valley between vague and specific. Some proposals I like, such as increasing salaries for teachers and funding for basic science, but such things cost money and he never talks about cutting any other programs (at least that I've seen, and I'm about 3/4 of the way through the book). Other specifics seem silly, such as his energy policy. He wants "real funding" for alternative energy sources, proposing that 1% of oil company revenue be used to research alternative fuels. Why exactly should a particular industry be forced by the government to fund research that would replace the core of their business model?

Obama is best when he's talking about his personal history in politics, from his various state and national Senate races to his swearing in and personal interactions with other politicians, such as President Bush. He talks about how he disagrees strongly with Bush's policies, but still finds him a likable man who honestly thinks he's doing what he thinks is best for the country.

Throughout the book, Obama reiterates the message that both liberals and conservatives have become increasingly polarized by their dogmatism, and he repeatedly urges politicians and citizens to focus on substance and look at both political candidates and policy decisions in their totality, rather than vilifying them in a reactionary way. And on that point, his message certainly does resonate.

Even though it is a mixed bag and I'm still cautious about how authentic Obama is, I'd recommend the book, and based on reading it, I'd be more likely to vote for him in the Fall.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Worst Movie Line Ever

I found the actual quotation from the end of The Dark Knight. It's at IMDB, on their memorable quotes page for the movie.

Batman: Sometimes, truth isn't good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.

In other words, people are too stupid to handle the truth. They need to be lied to to make them feel good. Honestly I can't think of a worse sentiment, or a worse line in a movie.

Why Haven't Wheels Evolved (or Have They?)

In a mailing list discussion, the topic of the evolution of wheels came up. Basically, if wheels are relatively simple and extremely useful devices, why haven't biological organisms evolved them?

The Straight Dope pretty succinctly covered the various responses to this question in 1998.

Response #1: It's impossible to gradually evolve a wheel

Biological features generally evolve gradually, and a quarter or half of a wheel would not only be useless, it would probably actively hurt the fitness of an organism. Cecil says the problem with this argument is that some organisms already have evolved wheels (which we'll get to in a minute), which doesn't really address the actual issue. The gradualist argument has been famously used for all sorts of complicated structures, such as the vertebrate eye. What good is a quarter or half an eye? Well, Richard Dawkins does a great job of demolishing this objection (see The Blind Watchmaker). Half an eye is extremely useful. Even if all it does is let you distinguish light from dark patches, it gives you a selective advantage over members of your own species who can't see a damn thing at all.

Another famous example is the wing. What good is a proto-wing? Ask the organisms that have one (e.g. a flying squirrel). Even if you can't fly, gliding can be really useful, especially if you live in the upper tree canopies. And often in evolution, a feature that was used for an entirely different purpose gets co-opted to serve a different function. My favorite example of this is the hammer, anvil, and stirrup, the little bones in your ear that let you hear. Those were once jawbones in a primitive ancestor, and they got recruited for hearing.

So I don't buy the argument that the impediment to evolving wheels is the impossibility of the evolutionary trajectory. Many organisms have much more complex, labyrinthine structures that were evolved gradually.

Response #2: They've already evolved!

Cecil points out the mother-of-pearl moth, Pleurotya ruralis, which will curl into a ring structure, head-to-tail, if attacked, and roll backwards at about 40 cm/s, much faster than its crawling speed. Wikipedia has a nice entry on other examples, including organisms that use gravity to locomote via rolling, such as the web-toed salamander and the golden wheel spider, and those that are self-propelled, such as the mother-of-pearl moth, the mantis shrimp, and the scaly anteater (shown here).

But the objection is that these aren't true wheels, in the sense of the artifacts, with axles. Cecil points to the bacterial flagellum, which is a rotary mechanism that bacteria use to whip a tail-like structure and move through liquid environments. While the structure is more like a wheel than the multi-cellular organisms above, the function is less like a wheel, which we normally associate with locomotion on a hard substrate.

While I think these examples are interesting, I don't think any of them demonstrate the existing evolution of a biological wheel.

Response #3: It's impossible to evolve an organic wheel because of biological constraints

Cecil's response is a nice explanation:

A more complex creature couldn't evolve the wheel. Every time the thing turned, the nerves and blood vessels serving it would get hopelessly twisted." Science writer Stephen Jay Gould makes essentially this argument in his book Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes.

But this may not be an insurmountable obstacle. A flesh-and-blood wheel might use the umbilical hookup found on some merry-go-rounds. Tape one end of a piece of ribbon to a tabletop and the other to the bottom of a compact disc. Turn the CD over so that the ribbon drapes over the side. Now move the CD so that it "orbits" the ribbon clockwise, at the same time rotating the disc clockwise, two rotations per orbit. (Not the easiest thing to explain without diagrams, but think of it as an IQ test.) The wheel turns, but the ribbon doesn't twist. Would it be easy for a living wheel to evolve something along these lines? Maybe not, but who's to say it's impossible?

Right. I don't buy this argument either. Nature has found all sorts of ingenious workarounds for seemingly insurmountable engineering problems. I don't think the problem is the inability for the system to supply nutrients to a wheel-like structure.

Which leaves us with...

Response #4: Wheels are great for roads, but they suck for natural terrain

This seems like the most likely explanation. Natural terrains are chock full of divots, rocks, crevices, and so forth. When it rains, wheels get stuck in the mud. And for those terrains that are nice and flat (e.g. ice), wheels wouldn't work all that well.

An ancillary argument that I haven't seen expressed is that limbs typically serve more than one function, besides locomotion. Whether animals are on the top or bottom of the food chain, they tend to use their limbs as weapons, either to claw or kick. Wheels probably wouldn't work quite as well for these secondary functions.

Also, the ability to fold limbs inward gives most vertebrates the ability to tuck in their limbs to protect them from attack, and also the ability to assume different postures. Wheels likely wouldn't tuck or fold as easily as limbs.

So I think the best answer is the simplest: Selection pressure in natural environments on earth does not favor wheels, and it's that reason, and not constraints on physiology or the evolutionary process, that they have not evolved.

Of course, all of the constrains, the environment, and all selection pressures can be manipulated in a virtual environment. I think it would be very cool to set up an artificial environment and test an encoding system in a situation that allowed for wheeled structures to evolve and study how it happens.

Monday, August 4, 2008


In addition to beignets, another wonderful Louisiana treat is boudin (pronounced "boo-da", with an almost silent "n" on the end). Usually it's pork sausage mixed with rice, green onions, cayenne pepper and other seasoning, all stuffed into a sausage skin.

You normally buy it cooked, wrapped in butcher paper. You don't eat the skin. You cut it into 4-inch or so segments and squeeze the filling 1) either directly into your mouth, or 2) onto a cracker, which you then add a dash of tabasco to before eating (recommended).

There's actually a pretty awesome boudin review site called The Boudin Link. We usually go to a place called Best Stop, though we tried Don's Specialty Meats last week and it was very nice as well. Also, there are different variations on traditional pork boudin. Last month I tried seafood boudin, which was stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat instead of pork. It wasn't quite as good as regular boudin, but it was still pretty tasty.

If you make you're way down to Louisiana, be sure to check this stuff out.

Spore Creature Creator

I recently downloaded the Spore Creature Creator, available here. It's a free preview of the creature editor that will come with the game Spore, which I last heard was due to be released in early September.

The creature editor is free, though it's a bit buggy, and you have to have pretty high machine specs to run it. Here's one of my early creations:

The game itself sounds pretty cool. It's from the guy who designed the Sims games (e.g. SimCity, SimEarth, etc.). I never really got into those games, but they're apparently very well done and popular.

Spore is supposed to be a massively single-player game, in which you follow the trajectory of an ecosystem from microbes to advanced, space-faring life forms. I'm not sure how the creature creator fits into the gameplay, but they did an awesome job with just this piece, so I'm interested in seeing how the game plays.

It's also interesting because I've been thinking a lot more about how to compactly represent arbitrary 3D morphologies in such a way that allows for useful designs to easily emerge via mechanisms like mutation and crossover. I wonder if the creatures in Spore will be evolvable...I originally heard about the game as an a-life game, but I don't know.

Anyway, if you're machine has pretty good horsepower and a decent graphics card, have a go.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


One of my favorite dishes, that I've now started preparing at home, is pho (pronounced "fuh"), a hearty Vietnamese soup chock full of meat, noodles, and fresh veggies.

I like both the chicken and beef. I probably prefer beef, but when you've got a cold, nothing beats chicken pho...even old fashioned chicken noodle soup.

Here's how I make it:

I use the soup bases produced by Quoc Viet foods, sold at an Asian market here in Lafayette. If I'm doing chicken, I first boil some chicken (a pack of drumsticks works well) in a big pot of water with scallions and a nice hunk of ginger. You add the soup base and spice packet that comes with it and boil about 20 minutes. It's best if you actually let it simmer at least an hour, though. About 15 minutes prior to serving, you take out the spice packet and add noodles (flat Vietnamese noodles). Meanwhile, you cut up some lime halves, cilantro, mung bean sprouts, and jalapeno for garnish. When the soup is done, you serve it in a big-ass bowl, squeeze in the lime, and add the other garnishes to taste (I usually like a slice or two of jalapeno for spice. Eat with chopsticks and a big soup spoon. You might want to cut the meat off the bone after its cooked to ease eating.

If you've never had it before, seek out a Vietnamese restaurant in your area, or if you're a bit braver, cook up a batch yourself. You'll never go back to canned chicken soup again.