30 March 2015

Succulent cupcakes

This is just one of an abundance of culinary creations from the website of Alana Jones-Mann.  Details about how to craft these cupcakes in this tutorial. (embedded image cropped for size).

Scroll down her website for info on this citrus cake -

And this Lucky Charms cake -

"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a 2011 animated short film... Described as an "allegory about the curative powers of story," the film centers around bibliophile Lessmore and his custodianship of a magical library of flying books. It was created using computer animation, miniatures and traditional hand-drawn techniques. After winning over a dozen film festivals, the film was awarded the Best Animated Short Film at the 84th Academy Awards.

Morris Lessmore was visually modeled after the silent film actor Buster Keaton

The looting of Romania's Dacian gold

Sarmizegetusa, high in the central mountains, was once the capital and sacred center of the Dacians, a civilization crushed by the Roman Emperor Trajan in two bloody wars more than 1,900 years ago. The victory, Roman chroniclers boasted, yielded one of the largest treasures the ancient world had ever known: half a million pounds of gold and a million pounds of silver...

Sarmizegetusa was leveled and forgotten for centuries. But stories of Dacia's gold lived on, inspiring generations of peasants who lived nearby to dig in the steep valleys...

The full extent of the looting became clear years later, when some of the illegal excavators were arrested and confessed to police. The Lot 26 bracelet, they told police, was found in 1998, on top of a hoard of a thousand gold coins. To celebrate, the looters carved "Eureka" in the bark of a nearby tree—and kept digging. They showed no concern that they'd be caught: Another tree trunk bore an arrow and helpful directions: "Pits, 40 meters."

A small team of treasure hunters hit the mother lode in May 2000, according to Romanian police. Their metal detector pinged over a stone slab about two feet wide, embedded in a steep hillside. Underneath, in a small chamber made of flat stones propped against each other, they found ten spiraling, elaborately decorated Dacian bracelets—all solid gold. One weighed a hefty two and a half pounds (1.2 kilograms).
You can read more of this interesting story at National Geographic.

Child punished for being late to school

Photo taken by his mother, who was called to pick him up from school because he wouldn't stop crying.
Garloff and Cmelo spoke exclusively Wednesday night to NewsWatch 12’s Erin Maxson to explain why their son is tardy so often. According to the couple, riding the bus is not an option because the family lives within a mile of Lincoln Elementary. Hunter’s dad Mark says walking is not an option because the roads are too busy for someone his age. Hours after Mark leaves for work Nicole says she gets her son, three year old daughter and herself in the car. This, she says, can be delayed for a number of reasons. Sometimes Hunter isn’t ready, but most often the tardiness is not his fault. Nicole suffers from osteoporosis which makes it painful and difficult for her to function, especially in the morning. She said that is usually why they are late, but added that in January the tardiness increased because the family was also having trouble Nicole’s car starting regularly.
Via Reddit.  Several weeks ago New Republic posted an article about truancy laws:
More than 1,600 parents—most of them mothers—have been jailed in Berks County since 2000 for failure to pay truancy fines. In Pennsylvania, truancy is defined as more than three days of unexcused absence from school. After that, kids and parents can be referred to court and fined $300 per additional unexcused absence, in addition to court costs...

Absence from school is an undeniable problem. We know it is correlated with lower grades, with dropping out of high school, and with trouble with the law. What is less certain is if treating truancy as a crime addresses these underlying issues in an effective and reasonable way. Such interventions have not been proven to increase school attendance or decrease long-term criminal behavior. In fact, the criminalization of truancy often pushes students further away from school, and their families deeper into poverty. Lots more at the link.

Before the Golden Gate Bridge

A photo from 1935, found at Shorpy (click to embiggen).

An encounter with "birch water" (birch sap) - updated

One of my first garden chores this spring was to tidy up a flower bed near the front door.  Last year a birch tree cluster had begun to shadow the bed, so on Monday I pruned a few branches, then sat down to clear some of the detritus of dead material from the flowerbed.  Several minutes later, I noticed that a liquid was dripping down onto the area where I was working.  I looked up to see sap dripping from several of the pruned birch branches.

Several years ago I would have thought no more about it except to view the oozing as a fortuitous feast for any early-emerging Mourning Cloak butterflies.  But two years ago I wrote a post about the drinking of birch tree juice in Russia, and just last month posted a photo of a "sugar-sickle" (frozen dripping tree sap).

I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I used rubber bands to secure sandwich-sized Ziploc bags on the two clipped branches.  By the time I had finished gardening that afternoon, the bag (shown above) had accumulated quite a bit of liquid, and to my surprise it was beautifully clear:

I suppose I had expected some coloration or cloudiness.  When I came out Tuesday morning, I was startled to find both bags substantially distended with birch sap.  It was now impossible to unwind the rubber band, so I brought out a scissors, intending to snip it, then decided it would make more sense to snip a small hole in the Ziploc bag to drain the fluid.  Placing a hole at the top of the bag allowed me

to tip the bag's contents into a container and then leave the bag on the branch to accumulate more fluid.

The next step, of course, was to search the internet for more information.  At Naturespeak I found directions for concentrating maple sap into syrup and into maple candy (a nice article, worth a visit by those interested).  The best source of information I found was at BirchBoy.com, with articles written by people in Alaska, where apparently birch juice processing is an honored pasttime:
Birch syrup is one of the few taste treats unique to Alaska and the circumpolar region. Although many people have never heard of it, birch syrup is not new. Birch trees, like many northern hardwoods, have long been tapped for their sugary, invigorating sap; but because of maple's high sugar content, generous sap flow, mellow flavor, and compliant nature, maple became the premier sugar tree in North America - except for Alaska, where birch trees are plentiful and maples are small and scarce. Birch syrup would have been the only springtime sugar source for Alaska sourdoughs in remote areas. For every gallon of birch syrup he made, the sourdough would have tapped no fewer than a hundred trees, collected more than one hundred gallons of sap, and burned nearly a cord of wood. Folklore relates that the syrup boiled down in open pans was tart, robust, and very dark, but the sourdough must have guarded and savored every drop. Neither did he have to worry much about spoilage, since pure, thick birch syrup seems incorruptible...
There is an outstanding amount of information at that link on the science of birch sap and the techniques for its harvest and for protecting the trees, and the subtleties of rendering it down to a syrupy consistency.

I haven't decided yet whether to undertake that aspect of the adventure.  Everything I've read suggests the process is time-consuming and needs to be undertaken with some degree of care to avoid scorching the concentrate.  I have about a half-liter of fluid now, because the trees are still dripping into this third day (memo to self: in the future don't prune when the sap is running).  That half-liter would be worth about 25 Euros in the Japanese market, so rather than waste it I decided to have some last night with my dinner.

I had a small glass of birch sap with my takeout Chinese food dinner last night.  It tastes pretty much like very fresh water, with maybe just a subtle hint of earthy overtones.  It goes well with General Tso's Chicken.

Reposted from 2011 because Modern Farmer has a report on how entrepreneurs are trying to commercialize "tree water" rather than rendering it into syrup:
A new wave of maple entrepreneurs are skipping the laborious syrup boiling process—where sap is reduced to 1/40th of its original volume to create the beloved pancake dressing—and marketing the pure watery sap as a health drink instead. The first maple water companies emerged over the last few years in Canada, but the idea has now infiltrated the American market. The drink is primarily found in health food stores in New England, but distribution is ramping up and this year’s maple water harvest should hit stores across the country in the coming months...

It’s always been common knowledge among maple syrup producers that taking a sip of sap was a good way to quench their thirst while working in the sugarbush, but apparently the notion that it could be a marketable substance is a new one. The first impression after downing a glass of maple water is that it tastes like water, but with a slightly sweet aftertaste and a tiny hint of earthy, maple syrup-like flavor.

With coco water (and other flavored waters) selling for $4 a pop, it’s a wonder that no one thought of bottling maple water sooner. It’s all-natural, sustainably-produced, vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, paleo and local...

Between the U.S. and Canada, at least 11 different companies are marketing the drink so far. All of them are recent startups, sporting catchy names like Vertical Water, Wahta, Happy Tree and Sap on Tap.

28 March 2015

And now for something completely different...

"The Lost Thing" won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

A Monsanto apologist defends herbicides - LOL

When asked about the toxicity of Roundup (glyphosate), Patrick Moore asserts that it's "safe enough to drink."  Then...

(The verbal exchange reminds me of a classic John Clarke / Bryan Dawe sketch.)

Syrian child

Thinking the photographer's camera was a gun, the four-year-old child "surrendered."

Details here, discussed at Reddit.

Dementia and identity

Excerpts from an essay at Aeon:
Memory becomes like a flickering signal from a faraway shortwave radio station: people can do and say things, then promptly forget them, and then do and say them again. They can no longer read obvious social cues. They become easily distressed as a thickening fog descends upon them, causing them to lose track of everything. As the disease progresses, only fleeting glimpses of the once capable person can be seen; for the rest of the time, everyone is stuck with an uninvited guest. Eventually, the sufferer fails to recognise even loved ones.

Dementia raises deeply troubling issues about our obligations to care for people whose identity might have changed in the most disturbing ways...

It’s no wonder that carers feel everything from mild annoyance to profound grief as they take on ever more onerous responsibilities of shoring up someone’s fading sense of self. ... ‘The person I’m dealing with, the person I’m yelling at, the person who’s making me weep with frustration, is like a stranger. He looks like my husband, but Howard’s gone.’

...highlights the significance of physical routines, which, like recalling the steps in a dance, become more important as the ability to follow written instructions dwindles. Even the simple act of walking can restore a dementia sufferer to feeling fit, healthy and capable...

If the environment is cognitively overloaded, with bewildering signs, forms and instructions, not to mention smart devices, then it will make someone with dementia feel less capable and more distressed...

People with dementia need environments that are constant and reliable, and so require little new learning. Living with such people entails embracing the pleasures of patient repetition rather than constant novelty.

The difference between red oak and white oak

Explained (in a little too much detail) by a shipwright in terms relevant to boat building, but the principles illustrated would be of interest to anyone who works with wood.

"Let's meet on the corner at 60th and 60th"

If you are in Queens, NY, you have a multitude of choices - 9 intersections and 28 corners by my count.

Image cropped for size from the original at The Land of Maps.

26 March 2015

Paramilitary defender of African wildlife

The photo is of Kinessa Johnson, an "anti-poaching" advisor.  Here are the links to her Instagram posts and her Facebook page.

Kinessa works for VETPAW - "Veterans Employed To Protect African Wildlife."
VETPAW provides meaningful employment to post-9/11 veterans, utilizing their expertise to train and support Africa’s anti-poaching rangers to prevent the extermination of keystone African wildlife, and the disastrous economic and environmental impact it would have.
In a Reddit thread Ryan Tate, the co-founder of VETPAW responds to the somewhat misleading term "Poacher hunter" to explain that the goal is not simply manhunting:
I think you're slightly missing the point of paramilitary operations to save wildlife. Paramilitary operators do not go out with the intent to kill anyone that breaks laws, they go out with the intent of securing a location by use of a military structure and strategy, which means they cover more ground and are more effective in covering large areas of operation.

I run into this issue all the time because many think my organization (VETPAW) is just a bunch of American war mongering gunslingers coming to throw lead down range and shoot poachers in the face. In fact that's the complete opposite of what we provide- my team has spent so much time in war zones that they are the last to crack under pressure and pull the trigger. ..

What you'll find is that when poachers hear that any type of ex military or paramilitary operators are in the region, the poaching will cease in that area...
Kinessa has done an AMA on Reddit.  The weapon in the photo, btw is a SI Defense 300WM PETRA Rifle.

Factors influencing the size and shape of f-holes

The f-holes in the body of a violin have evolved to their current shape as the result of generations of trial and error by violin-makers, as reported in a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society:
Owing to its long-standing prominence in world culture, we find enough archaeological data exist for the violin and its ancestors to quantitatively trace design traits affecting radiated acoustic power at air cavity resonance across many centuries of previously unexplained change. By combining archaeological data with physical analysis, it is found that as sound hole geometry of the violin's ancestors slowly evolved over a period of centuries from simple circular openings of tenth century medieval fitheles to complex f-holes that characterize classical seventeenth–eighteenth century Cremonese violins of the Baroque period, the ratio of inefficient, acoustically inactive to total sound hole area was decimated, making air resonance power efficiency roughly double.

The corresponding evolution rates are found to be consistent with (a) instrument-to-instrument mutations arising within the range of accidental replication fluctuations from craftsmanship limitations and subsequent selection favouring instruments with higher air-resonance power, rather than (b) drastic preconceived design changes from instrument-to-instrument that went beyond errors expected from craftsmanship limitations.
Or, to put it another way...


Lots more at the primary link, and in an article in The Economist, via BoingBoing.

Fennec fox plays with two girls

Those who found the image of the captive fennec fox disturbing should enjoy this video of a fennec fox interacting with two little girls on his home turf, so to speak.  A hat tip to reader Ellen S. for locating the video.
Its name comes from the Arabic word فنك (fanak), which means fox, and the species name zerda comes from the Greek word xeros which means dry, referring to the fox's habitat.
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