Bread Tales, Continued

Artisan BreadThis week I started a small batch of dough to bake later in the week, or on the weekend while I figure out a few details on my baking odyssey (and do some online research on a number of related issues). Probably just a small loaf  this time, and I’ll likely do it in a pan. I plan to start a larger batch of dough, Sunday with the goal of a longer-term cold fermentation. And possibly a sourdough starter.

The last loaf I made, a mere three days ago, is almost gone.  Funny how homemade bread gets eaten so quickly.

I baked it in the inside ceramic bowl from a crock pot (result pictured below). The loaf was big and tasty, good consistency for sandwiches and toast, with a great crust. But not perfect.

The bottom 1/4 inch was not as fully cooked as the rest – not doughy or raw, just a trifle under-cooked compared to the top. After a day in the fridge, it was barely noticeable.

I had also mixed a little margarine into the dough before the rising. Not really sure what difference that makes, so I left it out for the subsequent batch.

I think I should have divided the dough into two parts rather than try for one big loaf. I’ll know better next time.

In the interim, I’ve been busy reading Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, trying to figure out what I’m doing to bread that isn’t what they do. The pictures in the book make my mouth water, but the results confound my abilities.

Basically I want simple, chewy, tasty loaves. I have the style exactly in mind – our friend Bill brings us “rustic” loaves from a Guelph baker that match my ideal bread. I’ve not found anything locally – even at the farmers’ market – that matches them.

I just haven’t managed to replicate it myself. Not that my efforts have been bad, just not what I have in my mind as my ideal loaf.

I have the crust and the taste working for me (although the crust is chewy, it’s not quite as crunchy – perhaps I need more steam during the baking), but the inside – the “crumb”  – isn’t what I want. It’s good bread, very edible, but has a texture more like commercial sourdough bread than the artisan breads I’m aiming for. Still, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve managed after two decades or more of not baking. Besides, I’m having fun and learning a lot.

Back to the book. One reviewer wrote:

The basic idea behind these books is to be able to have wonderful, bakery quality bread in your own home and on demand. You whip up a “master batch” of dough that has enough water in it so the molecules in the bread can do their thing and you don’t have to knead the bread. This master batch stays in your refrigerator, covered loosely, for up to two weeks. When you want a fresh loaf, you just cut a piece of the dough from the master batch, form the loaf, let it rise on the counter and bake. Easy peasy. I can tell you, I was skeptical.

Well, turns out, these books are everything they claim to be. Sort of little bread miracle guide books.

If you don’t know this book, it’s the most-talked-about bread book on all the baking/cooking sites and blogs. Mine arrived two days ago, so I’m not too far into it and still working on recipe numero uno and the basics they discuss up front. It starts with simple recipes, and progresses. With some luck, I’ll be able to bake in parallel with their recipes.

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Random Acts of Kindness

Random Acts of KindnessIt goes by almost unrecognized, but for some, it is a special day that reflects the way we should all behave, to everyone, every day. It’s called Random Acts of Kindness Day, and it will be celebrated in Collingwood, on Friday, November 1. Council has contributed by making downtown parking free all day, as we have the previous two years.

You’re welcome. I wish we could do more. I hope the community participates enthusiastically. Even small gestures can mean a lot.

It’s an odd day, that, while celebrated in many countries, isn’t always observed on the same day everywhere or with the same level of organization. Wikipedia tell us RAK day began in New Zealand, in 2005:

RAK day began in New Zealand, at a national level, in 2005, organized by by Josh de Jong, Marshall Gray, Megan Singleton and Reuben Gwyn. It is still celebrated nationally in New Zealand, on September 1:

Sunday September 1st is New Zealand’s Random Acts of Kindness Day. And to celebrate our 9 years (yes, 9 whole years where NZ has been the only country in the world to celebrate a national RAK Day!) we are launching this fancy new website.

On here you’ll find tons of ideas to get you started, a bit about why on earth we started this day in NZ, and some downloadable resources to print out little ‘You’ve been RAK’d’ cards and give them out with your own random act.

Some communities get very involved with the day and promote it widely. In Kitchener Waterloo, for example, it’s a big event that began with a volunteer effort back in 2008:

Step back to early 2008. At a strategic planning meeting for board and staff, a board member suggested that The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation (KWCF) help create empathy in our community. This suggestion contributed to the overall vision and strategy for The KWCF in its planning for upcoming years.

A few short months later, a volunteer of The KWCF brought the idea of Random Act of Kindness Day® forward to Rosemary Smith, CEO. The volunteer experienced an epiphany when, out of the blue one day, she had rushed to a meeting in downtown Kitchener. As she got out of her car to pay for parking, she was approached by a stranger. This stranger offered her a full day parking pass. Apparently his meeting had been cancelled and he didn’t think the parking pass should go to waste. The KWCF volunteer took the parking pass thankfully. Later, when her meeting was over, the volunteer vowed that she would return the ‘random act of kindness’ to someone else.

Reflecting on the incident, the volunteer felt good about what she had done. However, it wasn’t until a week or two later when she watched the movie ‘Pay it Forward’ that the volunteer had her ‘aha’ moment. She thought about how she had ‘paid it forward’ with the parking pass and how good she felt afterwards. She wondered if she could help others feel the same way by creating a celebration of kindness in her community.

In England, a group calling itself “The Kindness Offensive” organizes,

…large scale random acts of kindness for unsuspecting members of the public. The stated purpose of The Kindness Offensive is to ‘Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty’

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Burning Books, Burning Bibles

Pastor Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC is back in the news this week, but I’m not really sure if it’s because of something he did or something that was dredged up online from a few years back and has just been regurgitated.

This week, a story in The Telegraph about Grizzard resurfaced on Facebook. But it’s from 2009, not dated 2013. I’m unable to find a contemporary reference that doesn’t refer back to the 2009 story. Mayhap it’s a hoax. But it’s fun and informative to revisit, anyway.

Back then, the Telegraph reported that Grizzard intended to burn books in his North Carolina church. Religious books in particular, especially those of a Christian nature, albeit just not his particular – and peculiar – Christian nature. Bibles, too:

Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”.
Pastor Grizzard and 14 other members of the church plan to burn copies of the other “perversions” of Scripture on Halloween, 31 October.
The New Revised Version Bible, the American Standard Version Bible, and even the New King James Version are all pronounced to be works of the Devil by Pastor Grizzard and his followers.
Pastor Grizzard said: “I believe the King James version is God’s preserved, inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God… for English-speaking people.

Grizzard also wanted to throw in books by Christian authors onto the flames as well:

…the pastor and his associates will be burning books by various Christian authors, as well as music of every genre.
“[We will be burning] books by a lot of different authors who we consider heretics, such as Billy Graham, Rick Warren… the list goes on and on,” Pastor Grizzard told reporters.
Mother Teresa is also on the list of Satanic authors.

Mother Teresa? Yeah – she was Catholic. Fundamentalists believe all Catholics are going to Hell. One fundie write says its because “Catholicism is a manmade religion.” Well, I thought they all were. I mean, do we have polar-bear-made religions? Spider-monkey-made religions? Dolphin-made religions? Jack-Russell-terrier-made religions? I don’t want to digress too much from the smoldering books, but this stuff is pretty wacky.

So you can’t be just any sort of Christian writer; Grizzard wants you to be one of his sort of Christian, which is apparently a pretty narrow field. Otherwise, anything you wrote is tossed into the flames (assuming the law lets them…). Which is, of course, merely a thin metaphor for burning someone at the stake, a favourite hobby of fundamentalists past.

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The Circuitous Path from Bulge to Budget

If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin budget,
Then my account I well may, give,
And in the stocks avouch it.
Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale,  Act IV, Sc. III, Shakespeare

These lines got me thinking about the town’s finances. Sow-skin budget? What does that mean? And how does that relate to the financial plan for the coming year staff is preparing for council’s review? I did some reading (of course…).

In Shakespeare’s time, the online etymological dictionary tells us the word budget meant something quite different:*

“leather pouch,” from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “leather bag, wallet, pouch,” from Latin bulga “leather bag,” of Gaulish origin (cf. Old Irish bolg “bag,” Breton bolc’h “flax pod”), from PIE *bhelgh- (see belly (n.)). Modern financial meaning (1733) is from notion of treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet. Another 18c. transferred sense was “bundle of news,” hence the use of the word as the title of some newspapers.

The use of budget as a verb comes from much later – 1884. But for the Bard, a budget was a leather purse (or pouch or wallet). The annual budget is also a fairly new invention, as the Telegraph tells us:

It was not until the early 18th century that a version of the annual Budget emerged. The origins of the word Budget lie in the term “bougette” – a wallet in which documents or money could be kept. While at first referring only to the Chancellor’s annual speech on the country’s finances, the word quickly became used for any financial statement or plan…
Budget Day has historically been held during Spring because the collection of the Land Tax took place in April, and much of the country’s wealth derived from agriculture.

There’s a great description on World Wide Words of the convoluted path the word took to get to today’s usage:

Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather…
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget…
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole… It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times…

Marina Orlova, the entertaining and pulchritudinous word lady at Hot for Words.com, gives us a more amusing etymology in the Youtube video at the top of this post. Who says learning has to be dull?

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Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism

Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

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The New Art of the Old: Baking Artisan Bread

bread rising Oct 14So far, my re-entry into the world of baking bread has gone fairly well. I started rather hesitantly, unsure of the results, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the flavour, texture and quality so far. Yesterday I baked my latest loaf, as well as started a larger batch for baking in a few days.

I have not ventured into any of the challenging or regional breads, but will do so once I am confident in making this simple artisan-style bread.

I began with a simple recipe and technique from the Bread Experience blog.  I had scoured the web for recipes and found way too many to absorb. As a novice, I wanted something quick and easy, but also small. I anticipated tossing my first efforts into the compost, so I didn’t want to waste ingredients. The recipe here came with illustrations and a well-written description that made it look like a good place to start.

Bread baked Oct 14The recipe is adapted from the book that seems to have revolutionized home baking: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I haven’t read it, but almost every bread baking site and blog I visit refers to it in glowing terms. I have in my basket on Amazon. I didn’t want to invest into books yet until I had some feel for the basics.

The blog lists four simple, natural ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1/2 tablespoon Kosher salt
  • 1 – 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water

You should also have either cornmeal or parchment paper to keep the bread from sticking to whatever surface you bake on. I chose the Robin Hood all-purpose flour marked “best for bread” on the package. I used the basic dry Fleishmann yeast, poured into the mix right from the package, as the recipe suggests. And also parchment paper.

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How to Break Your Election Promises


Taxman: I was thinking of this Beatles’ song, recently, after council received the pre-budget report from the treasurer at last Monday’s council meeting. It’s dated, the song that is, but still eerily appropriate (I will have to learn to play it on my ukulele).

Last election, all of us who got elected ran on a platform of keeping costs and taxes low. Okay, that’s a fairly blithe promise; few candidates run on a platform of raising taxes and expenses, and fewer actually ever win a seat in any level of government.

It doesn’t matter if everyone knows taxes will go up after the election, or if there are seriously pressing needs to raise taxes. You don’t run on that platform.  Unless, of course, it’s to tax the rich – that seems a rather popular theme these days. Except, of course, among the rich. The 99% of us kind of like the idea… but I digress

This council has consistently attempted to cut costs, rein in spending and keep taxes low. That’s never easy, and often it’s very challenging, but we’ve managed to do so fairly well. In fact, the most recent auditor’s report (an independent audit) showed we have done it very well, in the past three budgets. The deputy mayor has cracked the whip and staff have pulled the oars. So far, the local ship of state has rowed in unison, avoiding the shoals of debt and taxation.

But it’s difficult to maintain a flat tax line. The world doesn’t work that way. Economies are always on the move.

Prices go up, costs go up, fee go up, old things need maintenance or replacement, new things need to be bought, collective agreements have built-in increases. Keeping a zero-percent increase is like the Red Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place:

Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

We don’t have the money or the tax base to run twice as fast. But at some point, we have to have some increases if nothing more than to play catch-up with out expenses.

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Words, words, words

Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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Survival of the Fittest

Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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Infestations, Microbes & Parasites

Micrococcus (Actinobacteria)Staphylococci, Corynebacteria, Actinobacteria, Clostridiales, and Bacilli. They’re the most common, but they’re not the only ones. Bacteria. Microbes. Yes, even parasites.  Living in your belly button. And on your skin. Your hair. But the belly button flora and fauna fascinate me the most.*

We’ve known ever since the microscope was invented that we had a population of hitchhikers living on our skin, scalp – and even inside us. The great Antony van Leeuwenhoek is known as the “father of microbiology” for his explorations through his fledgling, primitive microscope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But we are still learning about the biodiversity we all have.**

There was a recent story in the Atlantic that researchers had found, of 2,368 species of bacteria living in our navels recorded so far, 1,458 new species.

New as in previously unknown until some scientist stuck a Q-tip into his or her belly button and examined the results. Which is what they are still doing, exploring this brave new frontier in microbiology. It must have been one of those eureka moments.

Gawd, dontcha love science? To bold go where no Q-tip has gone before…

The Atlantic story opens:

Instead of taking your fingerprint, maybe police should swab our belly buttons with Q-tips. No, that’s ridiculous, actually. But the idea illustrates a point made by a group of North Carolina-based researchers in their new Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB) project. Last month, the group published results of their first of many experiments, in which they swabbed 60 belly buttons and identified a total of 2,368 species of bacteria. People’s individual profiles were snowflake-ily, bacterially unique.

Most of the microbes that live on our skin are harmless, and many are actually beneficial: they protect us from more virulent invaders. What’s remarkable is the sheer number and variety of them.***

The scientists at Your Wildlife wrote that among all those species, there are some common forms found in most navels:

Turns out, belly buttons are a jungle of microbial biodiversity: we detected over 2300 species! And get this, only eight of those 2300 species– we call them oligarchs – were quite frequent and abundant, present in more than 70% of the individuals we sampled.

Oligarchs. Make me think of the Politburo. Or Putin’s new Russian clique. What role do these bacterial oligarchs play in their micro-environment?

We’re an entire ecosystem, Scientific American tells us:

Over the past 10 years or so, however, researchers have demonstrated that the human body is not such a neatly self-sufficient island after all. It is more like a complex ecosystem—a social network—containing trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with basic physiological processes—from digestion to growth to self-defense.

By the way, you can contribute to this ongoing research; check the notes at yourwildlife.org about how to help. The belly button experiment is over, as researchers assess their samples, but they are moving on to armpits, a whole new territory.

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From 7 to 29. Should I be worried? Or just keep monitoring?

Peaksaver PlusSeven cents per hour. That’s what the energy monitor was showing me a moment before I plugged in the kettle. Then it jumped to 29 cents. Wow! And this is mid-peak time, too, my new energy monitor warns. Should I be worried?

Better cut back on the tea if I want to conserve energy.

It did the same last night when we turned on the microwave at dinner time, but that was off-peak. Still, that’s pretty high, compared to seven cents. Those two devices seem to be the biggest energy hogs we have.

I need to do some calculating, however, to figure out real costs. What does five minutes’ worth of microwave heating translate to in terms of KWH used, and costs? I need a new app…

Energy monitorI’m reading the real-time display on my new energy monitoring toy tool and it’s telling me a lot about how I use electricity. It gives me that geeky satisfaction of watching data flow, just having it in front of me.

I got it when I signed up for the Peaksaver Plus program through Collus/Powerstream. Collingwood residents would have received a notice about the program in their last utility bill. If not, you can read about it here.*

The program (for homes with central air only, it seems), offers a free digital, touch-screen thermostat (Peaksaver Plus) and the wireless In-Home Energy Display. Free. For both. As in no charge, no additional billing, no hidden costs.

The stick behind this magnanimous carrot is simple: to reduce energy usage. The thermostat is connected wirelessly to the utility’s computers. If the power demand on the grid looks like it’s going to exceed capacity and cause a brownout, the utility can raise the temperature of your air conditioning by two degrees for 15 minutes to lighten the load. Does it all by itself.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me. After all, we don’t use the A/C a lot, and even when we do, the effect is a small change for a short time.

It won’t affect the winter heat (which is gas), so why not? Everyone has to do their part for our environment.

We’ve been using programmable digital thermostats for a couple of decades now. They really make a difference to your gas bill. Not least of all because, since it’s programmed, you never forget to turn the thermostat down when you leave the house. Or when you go to bed at night. Plus they are more accurate than the old manual, analog system. You get 68 degrees when you ask for it, not 70 or 72.Besides, the digital thermosat is cool, very programmable, and touch-screen. Not quite an iPad, but nonetheless, it’s pretty neat. And it runs off power from the furnace – not on batteries like the previous one (which always seemed to go dead on the coldest nights of the year…).

Our gas bill dropped significantly when we installed one.

Continue reading “From 7 to 29. Should I be worried? Or just keep monitoring?”

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We are Stardust… and Viral Genes

SupernovaIn her classic song, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell ended with the chorus:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Which most people assume is merely poetic licence. Well, Joni wasn’t wrong: we – and every living thing on our planet – are made of stardust. As we learn at Physics Central:

If we know how many hydrogen atoms are in our body, then we can say that the rest is stardust. Our body is composed of roughly 7×1027 atoms. That is a lot of atoms! Try writing that number out on a piece of paper: 7 with 27 zeros behind it. We say roughly because if you pluck a hair or pick your nose there might be slightly less. Now it turns out that of those billion billion billion atoms, 4.2×1027 of them are hydrogen. Remember that hydrogen is bigbang dust and not stardust. This leaves 2.8×1027 atoms of stardust. Thus the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

Mitchell’s theme was picked up by the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan, in his hit TV show, Cosmos. Live Science tells us:

In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Sagan famously stated in one episode.

His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

“All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars,” Impey told Life’s Little Mysteries. “The universe was originally hydrogen and helium, the carbon was made subsequently, over billions of years.”

So how did all this stardust get into out bodies? Supernovae, spewing heavy material into the vastness of space, scattering atoms and molecules at near lightspeed. Our “Garden of Eden” was the nuclear furnace of an exploding star.

We are made of the material created 13-plus billion years ago, We are, as Mitchell sang, stardust. Recycled and reused, but the stuff of the cosmos nonetheless. *

And we’re also built of viral genes, a product of the evolution of life, of the co-evolution of life and that strange creature, the virus. Viruses have helped shape us, and our adaptations to the environment. That’s the premise of Frank Ryan’s latest book, Virolution.**

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1927: Ads, Layout and Typography

As promised, here are the first 20 scans of the ads from the 1927 North American Almanac I recently mentioned. If there is interest, I’ll do another set later this week. There are probably another 40 or 50 pages of ads in the book.

I think these ads give us a wonderful window into the daily, household life of the time, into cultural views and medical thinking. As well, they show the state of advertising, layout and typography. It’s fascinating to look at the mix of typefaces and their placement.

Click on the image to load a larger version and see the ads in greater detail.

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page
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Bread the Old-Fashioned Way

Bread step 1...For all the reading, the reviewing and the researching for the best bread maker these past few days, it’s somewhat ironic that instead I turned back to the old-fashioned method and made a couple of loaves by hand, this morning.

Not perfect – I haven’t made bread these past twenty-odd years, and have forgotten the techniques and the tricks I knew back then. More time was needed for the rising, but I grew impatient, and unsure about the timing. Into the oven too soon.

But they are tasty nonetheless. Chewy, rich and delicious, especially warm. And reasonably light, but with a wonderfully leathery crust.

The smell of baking bread wafting up the stairs was enough to get Susan out of bed to come and enjoy a buttered slice with her morning tea. Dogs gathered around, sniffing for crumbs. It seemed like a moment out of some other, homier, domestic world. We talked about her aunt, who baked bread every day, in her small rural English village.

We have a different culture here in Canada (and the USA): convenience. Bakeries have for decades been almost a curiosity, an affectation, or an ethnic thing. They weren’t common in the suburbs, with its population of supermarkets and strip malls.

That may be changing – even big supermarket chains now offer in-store baked bread, buns, muffins, etc. But for the most part, they aren’t as good, at least in my experience, as those small bakery products.

Better, of course, that the majority of pre-packaged, sliced breads we casually buy: the loaves of replicated perfection and uniformity we put in the grocery cart week after week. Not always the healthiest choice, of course, but even these have getting better:

As recently as 15 years ago, 80 percent of bread sold in the U.S. was white bread.(1) Today, it’s a much different story. We’re buying more whole grain bread and less white, and in 2010, for the first time, sales of whole wheat bread surpassed that of white bread—$2.6 billion compared with $2.5 billion.(2) Thanks to education, availability, and improved labeling (like stamps and logos indicating healthier products), whole grains have become a top priority with consumers.

Bread step 2...Don’t be fooled: many in-store breads aren’t really artisan. They come frozen, pre-mixed and read to shove into the oven. Like a fast food oputlet, where the “fresh” food arrives frozen and pre-cooked, merely heated in store.

Well, the bread dough still needs to be cooked, but the recipes are fixed, immutable and almost as perfect as the packaged stuff. The employees don’t do much more than feed the oven, then stuff the results into the appropriate bags.

However, I like it better than 95% of all packaged breads (Rudolph’s and Dimpflmeier’s breads are an exception…), but I don’t have the same attachment to these pseudo-artisan breads as I do those from a real bakery. They seem less authentic, but so do most big-store items.*

To be fair, some of the breads offered in stores are brought in from real bakeries (usually outside the region), places like Ace Bakeries. And some of these are great products, worth the $3-$4-$5-and-up a loaf. Some are pale imitations, overpriced and mediocre. It’s hit-and-miss (and I’ve tried many).

I’m of an age when I can remember the breadman and the milkman delivering door-to-door. That’s long gone. I don’t remember the breads, but I remember the milk bottles, with their funny necks that held the cream when it rose, so it could be poured off. The Fifties. So long ago. Back then, spongy, tasteless white bread was the pinnacle of modernity. Crusts were tossed into the trash. The miracles of science translated into the domestic life.

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Why Creationists Don’t Win the Nobel Prize

Looking at the list of Nobel prizes awarded in 2013 for science, we see three prestigious entries:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013
François Englert and Peter W. Higgs

“For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel

“For the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013
James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof

“For their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”

Impressive stuff. If you want more detail on why these three were chosen, read this National Geographic article.

Dinosaur flood jokeHmm. No ‘creation science”  in that list. In fact, not a single “creation scientist” was even nominated.

Not that the Nobel Prize hasn’t been without its controversies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list that showed a single creationist nominated for the award. Something along the line of “For proving dinosaurs and humans shared the planet before an angry, vengeful deity wiped out everything living including humans which it created only a few years earlier, except a pair each of  those creatures that could comfortably fit in a large boat, but on which dinosaurs and all but a single family of humans were not invited to board.”*

Probably because creationism isn’t science, not even when you try to gussy it up by labelling it “creation science.” It’s a political viewpoint based on a literalist take on Biblical mythology.”Creation science” is an oxymoron.**

You’d think if they had God (their particular god, not everyone’s god, mind you, and not every Christian’s god…) on their side, that God would belly up to the award committee bar and make sure at least one creationist won the damn prize. Not some folks doing experiments with particles no one can even see and that 99.9% of us don’t really understand.

But nope, creationists get shut out again.

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