Thursday, January 9, 2014

Continuing the nerd tradition

It has now become a nice steady presence on my calendar, Nerd Nite London. Two and I plan to go to it whenever we can, and so far we've not missed a single one together. I enjoy this. We've invited other friends to come but in general their interest and allegiance to nerds must not be as strong as ours; they always end up being too tired or having other plans or simply forgetting...this does not a meeting make.

Since I had just come back from Vienna the day before Two allowed me the excuse to back out due to jetlag or simple traveler's exhaustion but I refused: no way to meet new people and learn new knowledge if you just stay at home and do laundry or watch Breaking Bad. Those are all good things and all, but surely, learning about new interesting topics and putting yourself out there should be more rewarding in the end. I guess we'll see if over the next year or whatever, this proves to be true.

So I stayed late after work, doing various other things until it was an appropriate time to leave and meet her for dinner. It is starting to get cold now, which is kind of nice while it sucks, since winter has actually come pretty late this year, holding off until late November. It doesn't bother me so much maybe because of this. On the flipside I have heard that we are in for an extremely cold and long winter because of it. As long as it doesn't affect my flights going home for the holidays, I care not at all. I can deal with the cold with more clothes. I know now what to expect. Thank you Finland.

We met up at Liverpool Street station and headed towards the customary vintage clothing shop venue. Scoping out restaurants along the way we eventually choose a Vietnamese place that is literally right next door. To be honest I'm not really sure it even had a name. It probably did but extensive Google Map searching (even to the detail of street view) has yielded nothing. In any case I guess I know where it is should I want to return.

We sat down and I looked over the menu. All the normal things were offered: egg rolls, spring rolls, vermicelli with fish sauce, pho, and broken rice dishes.

My problem with delicious Vietnamese food is I'm always drawn to the vermicelli with fish sauce and egg rolls, despite what the weather is like outside. But today was particularly cold and I was still suffering from some illness that resembled a mix between allergies and a cold. So I relented.

Instead I chose something I've never had before - spicy beef noodle soup (forgive me but the Vietnamese name eludes me). Two ordered the pho, striving to find the best pho in town that rivaled that which she could find back in Sydney.

But first, appetizers:

Beef wrapped in betel leaves with fish sauce. Two knew about this dish, being Vietnamese herself, and said it was unusual to see it on the menu (apparently betel leaves are hard to come by, and so most menus will not have this). I hadn't had it before, though I'd heard of betel leaves, so was more than happy to try it.

Delicious, of course, as all Viet food is. Sweet, juicy beef on the inside, slightly resistant chewy leaves on the outside. They did have a flavor, the betel leaves, but it was very faint. Fabulous, all around. This sort of cured my need for vermicelli because it gave me most of the things I looked for - noodles and veggies (which were on the bottom), in sweetened fish sauce. The meat in leaves even sort of acted like makeshift eggrolls, though I still missed their crispiness.

Next, the spicy beef noodles that I'd ordered:

You could see the fabulous chili oil resting on the surface. Fatty beef slices, onion, and cilantro all floating nearby with thin noodles (thinner than vermicelli; I think they called it capellini on the menu though I don't think that's correct).

I actually loved this dish. Maybe it was the cold weather or my sickness or a combination of just right circumstances, but I actually thought this was fantastic. Two was wary as she thought her pho was still substandard (I have a suspicion that her standards are quite high for pho, or Vietnamese food in general, though she admitted she had never really thought they were until she moved to London and tried several, only to dismiss them all as not quite good enough).

The broth was subtle and flavorful; spicy but not too much so. There were hints of anise, Chinese five spice, onion, garlic, and other things I couldn't even tell. It wasn't oily to eat, despite the chili oil droplets visible, and the fatty meat was heavenly. I ate the entire thing, which is quite a feat for me, because even in San Diego I would be hard pressed to eat everything - usually I'd leave a carnage of noodles at the bottom of any soup bowl (they being the least interesting part of the soup, to me).

Feeling revived and quite satiated, we moved to Nerd Nite next door. We were in for some interesting talks.

Here is what we heard about:

Drugs - the messy intersection of science and policy making

I think we can all see where this one is heading. Why are policy makers so against some drugs, not others? Science has shown that drugs are not as bad as we've made them out to be in policy and propaganda; given choices most drug addicts will make rational decisions about drugs when given a choice of other incentives like money, even when they need to delay their receiving of these rewards. People are people.

Though I find this subject interesting always, I found this talk not particularly scientific. The man speaking had many valid points, but unfortunately put a lot of emphasis into his talk by calling policy makers "stupid" instead of getting to the more infallible parts of the argument, which can be backed up with science or reason. I think there are many reasons why policy makers have waged the war on drugs; I think perhaps the way you should try to convince them to change their ways, is to do exactly what scientists have been doing for drug addicts - show the incentives.

For example, by legalizing drugs and eliminating the black market, governments would now be able to tax and take a piece of that rather large and lucrative pie. Medical costs would go down as people would spread diseases less through unclean drug methods and in general, there would be less incentive for people to be curious about drugs. Countries that have completely legalized all drugs have seen this happen; this is no theory.

Perhaps we should be looking at the reasons why policy makers went into this battle in the first place, and see if those reasons are still present. Science is great, but if the discussion is about something other than evidence, then you're speaking two different languages.

This is heavily simplified but hopefully you get my drift.

The Technology of Terminator

This talk was quite good and interesting and fabulously given by a woman, which is rare and so vigorously encouraged by those at Nerd Nite. This woman was also very knowledgeable about programming and various types of engineering and science, though I would say she was surprisingly unaware of other technologies that are happening now (such as Google Now or nanotechnology) and I thought fairly well-known concepts such as the Turing Test. But I digress.

All in all she talked about the inconsistencies in technology (e.g. a technology sent from the future that is left in the past gives the ability to be reverse engineered and therefore brings itself into creation...this is hilarious in theory and is sort of like shooting your own grandfather in the past therefore changing the course of history so you'll never be born, therefore never enabling you to shoot your grandfather in the first place) and made quite a few good jokes.

She even tried to reverse engineer the chip shown in the movie, to see if it could actually do some of the things it promised, as apparently many other people before her have tried. Apparently something similar to it exists in the world made by IBM but alas, it is larger, cube-shaped, and does something completely different.

A good talk and sorry I don't have more examples for you; I was sharing a fabulous pitcher of St. Germain's elderflower spritzer with Two and having a grand time listening, rather than mentally cataloging information.

Why Australia is called Australia

This was perhaps one of the most interesting talks I've heard, and certainly one of the best presented. The man speaking had studied ancient Greek and Roman mythology and was also a keen linguistic academic. Combining the two you get the roots of most words in English, as well as many other languages.

Through a series of pictures, examples, and words, he shows us how words were developed: things such as the names of our months - the first eight of which are named after famous Romans and the last of which (because their calendar only had ten months), simply mean seven, eight, nine, and ten (since they started from March).

Every word has a base in history, and through a fascinating process he went through all of them to eventually come to how Australia was named Australia. Similar to how the Aurora Borealis is named, which is a combination of Aurora, or dawn and Boreas, referring to a strong northern wind, so the southern equivalent is named Aurora Australis, referring to the lights and Australis, meaning south. So, Australia is named as such because it is the south land.

And there you have it.

I am starting to get very comfortable at these Nerd Nites - recognizing faces that have shown up every time just as Two and I have; the ones that aren't afraid to ask questions at the end of each talk or simply comment without politely raising their hands. I will have to say there is a good mix of people at these things, and many of them are not British.

I think I may have the potential for good friends at these meetups.

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