April 11, 2009

Really Good Website

My friend, Tom Corwin, found an excellent website: www.ted.com

 It has lectures on a variety of subjects, and the ones that I have watched so far have been quite informative, entertaining and interesting. I especially was impressed with one by Bonnie Bassier on how bacteria communicate. This interested me for several reasons. The topic itself doesn’t sound very exciting, but it turns out when she explains her research, it is. The biggest reason I was impressed, though, was that I thought her lecture was one of the best examples of what makes good teaching that I have ever seen. She took a fairly complicated topic in molecular biology and made it totally fascinating. She did this by painting a big picture, giving clever and well-illustrated examples, and connecting the research to questions that the audience already knew were important. I think any new teacher at any level would benefit from her example. I also liked the way she credited the students and post-docs in her lab and tied their work to her lecture. All-in-all, it was a great lecture. Take a look at http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/509

I looked a few other lectures that I thought were worth watching, including one by Nathanial Kahn which had footage from his film, “My Architect,” about his father Louis Kahn. I missed seeing the film and now am going to see if I can find it. I also enjoyed a conversation with John Wooden about what constitutes success.

These and the Bassier lecture were a very small (non-random) sample of what is available on the TED website. Take a look if you have time to spare. I can see that one could spend a lot of time there.


March 28, 2009

Another typical Michigan Spring: bright sunshine, temperatures in the low 30s, most of the snow gone only to be replaced by a predicted 6-8 inches overnight and tomorrow. I had to back the car into the garage again just in case. That is, just in case I decide to go into town tomorrow morning for a short (2 mile) swim.


Lots of new swimming news to report. One of my friends sent me a link to a story from the Wall Street Journal (3/24/2009) about the swimsuit controversy. For all you non-swimmers, this involves whether the Speedo LZR should be allowed at NCAA swim races. (It will be) If you watched the Olympics, you saw that most of the swimmers were wearing this suit, and that almost all the new record times were by swimmers who wore it. Now, you also may remember that some Aussie coach responded to a question about the suit by saying that he threw the suit into the water and it didn’t swim a stroke. Be that as it may, the suit supposedly does two things: reduce drag and increase buoyancy. The buoyancy increase comes from the compression of body fat, and the drag is reduced by the material itself. According to the WSJ, coaches opposed to the suit say that the compression of body fat helps the “flabby, lazier swimmers” the most, which on the surface seems unfair to those svelte “fit” and fast swimmers whom the fatties beat. Oh well, no one has to worry that I’ll be helped any by these suits, for a number of reasons. One is that I gave up wearing girdles sometime back in my teens, and have never looked back. Another is that the idea of wearing an ankle to shoulder swim suit definitely doesn’t appeal. But the real reasons are that the suit only is good for up to 30 hours of swimming (less than 2 weeks for me), and the cost is $550 for each one. Also, Speedo cannot make them fast enough to satisfy demand. Now, there are other ones than the Speedo, but they cost $320 (TYR Tracer Light) or $395 (BlueSeventy’s Nero). So, they are out for me. I guess I won’t be setting any records anytime soon. Well, I probably couldn’t have done that anyhow.


In other swimming news, the same friend who sent me the WSJ article also gave me a brochure from a British company, SwimTrek . They have about 10 “Swimming adventure holidays” ranging from a swim down the Thames (2 days) to a tour of the Greek Cyclades (1 week). Each day includes 3-5 km swimming with some walking thrown in and escort boats for the weary. I haven’t figured out the exchange rate yet, but estimating the pounds to dollar conversion, the holidays don’t seem too outrageous. That is, of course without figuring out how to get there and home again, if I were to choose to return. My favorite swim in the brochure is the Finnish Midnight Sun tour: 5 days, 5 km per day, lake hopping in Finland, staying at cabins on Lake Sakara, wherever that is. The water temperature is reported to be 23 C (73.4 F), not bad at all for that far north in late June. In fact, that really is warm for open water. For comparison, it almost never gets above 70 F in Lake Michigan (or GT Bay) even in the warmest month and mostly is quite a bit cooler. Closer to home, there is an Island hopping 6 day swim through the British Virgin Islands, which might be less expensive to get to. Oh yes, and Alcatraz to San Francisco, only 1.5 miles, but cold and current probably would make it feel like 5 or 6 miles. All of this is good for dreaming. I sure wish I could afford more than that.


In other swimming news, I passed the 300 mile sub-goal today on my way to 1111.11 miles for 2009. Since I still have a few days left in March, I am at a pace to exceed my goal. However, I usually swim less in the summer though more open water, so I need to build up a cushion now. Also, travel interferes with swimming, though I swim regularly but usually cannot do the same distance due to pool availability and other peoples’ schedules.


Finally, in the swimming news, I ate lunch in the parking lot at West End Beach on Thursday, and looked out at mostly open water in the bay. I imagined the water full of swimmers, happily covering the distance from there to wherever, and lots of sun bathers on the beach. At least the ice was mostly gone along the beach and about a mile or so north, a good sign.  


March 16, 2009

Spring Thaw


Ah, that great feeling of dirt under the fingernails, mucking around in the mud! Okay, so it wasn’t really dirt, just seed starting mix, but still it felt great. In honor of our first day this year above 50, I filled the seed starting trays, just with the peat/vermiculite mix, and went outside without a coat. I’ll put the seeds in on the weekend when we get back from a brief trip downstate.


The cat kept meowing at the door, so I figured she could go out on the deck since access beyond there was blocked by snow, or so I thought. She figured out a way to get under the deck and onto a fairly thawed area. Then she climbed a tree but couldn’t figure out how to come down, so Vance had to traipse across some snow banks and coach her down.


Things are really thawing fast now with most south facing slopes and field snow free. Still, the big banks where the plows have been piling up snow since November probably will be around for a while longer, maybe into mid or late April, depending on whether we get more snow. After all, last week was one of our biggest snow storms of the season.


I went out to the greenhouse to get my seed trays and was surprised to find positively tropical temperatures in there. Unfortunately, to keep it that way on cloudy days and during the night means using a heater, so I’m not quite ready for that yet. I’ll start the seeds inside the house under lights, the way I usually do. Mostly, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and a few herbs like basil. Last year, I had so many baby plants that I had to give a lot away since I had no room for them in my small garden area. There was a lot of interest in basil- I grow the bush basil that doesn’t need to be chopped up, which turns it black (icky) in salads.


I haven’t totally committed to Spring yet. I plan to keep my snowshoes and some boots in the car just in case. But it sure feels like a seasonal shift. To give you an idea of how un-Spring like it can be around here, no one sane puts vegetables in the ground before Memorial Day. Except for quick growers, most veggies have to be started inside.


The lakes and the bay probably won’t thaw for a while, and there is no way that I would swim outside, wetsuit or not, before late June. It really isn’t comfortable until July, and sometimes not even then. However, when we do get into open water, we really appreciate it, short season and all.

March 8, 2009

Spring is trying to come to northern Michigan. However, before we get any real spring, what we’ll have is a prolonged mud season interspersed with more snow and some ice. On the way into the pool yesterday, I hit an icy patch and started sliding all over the road. Not much to do, but take my foot off the gas and hope for the best. Fortunately, the road was empty (6:45 a.m. on a Saturday), and I got through that area. Then I stopped and called 911 to report the problem before someone else had an accident…also I have to go home that way. We’ve had two days of temperature above 40 and nights above or hovering around 32. However, rain and probably snow (up to 8 inches) is predicted for tonight. But it is too late for the igloo, which partially collapsed on Friday, alas. We’ll build another next year or maybe next week if we have winter back.


At the pool besides doing my usual (4 mile) swim, I got to watch a guy using a monofin. This is a huge single fin which has pockets for both feet. He told me he uses it for free diving, which is like scuba but without the tanks. While I watched, he swam 50s with one breath doing a fly type kick and no arm stroke. It looked like a giant fish or a bird gliding through the water. It also looked like a lot of fun. I have trouble doing a single 25 (1 length of the pool) without a breath, so I really was impressed at how long he could go. He said once he gets going, he even can do 75s. So what’s the trick? Lots of training, great lungs, or what? He said that it has a lot to do with relaxing. Hummm. Probably the answer to a lot of questions.


Speaking of the pool, the post new years crowds are starting to disappear. Exercise resolutions are almost as bad as diet ones. Big crowds of strangers right at the beginning of January, everyday for about a week. Then they start showing up on Monday after a weekend bout of guilt. Over doing the workout keeps them home for few days as the guilt builds up again, and back they are on Friday morning. After a month or so, they just show on Monday or Friday, then once a month, then not much at all. Meanwhile, I have been overhearing diet conversations mostly about regaining all the lost weight. It doesn’t matter where I am, it always is the same story. I won’t comment on the dieting stuff since my friend Charlie has already said it all (www.charlesgoldman.wordpress.com), but I do have a few observations and suggestions about exercise. I’ll save it for another day, though.


February 27, 2009

Igloo Update 1


It would be great to report that we built an igloo on February 14, as planned. However, the thaw that we had last week, followed by some warm rain, pretty much destroyed all the building material, so we had to cancel. Since the temperatures have cooled back down below freezing, we’ve had minimal snow, and lots of sun. I tried snow dances, snow chants, snow songs to no avail. However, the weather forecast includes a possible storm for later in the week. If the storm occurs, we may have enough snow to build. We’ll know later in the week.


Igloo Update 2


After a wonderful 8-10 inch snowfall, we started on the igloo on Saturday, February 21, with a crew of 2-7 workers, depending on the time. We got to the 3rd (of 7 layers), when we had a bit of a mishap. Vance forgot that he was wearing his snowshoes when he stepped over the wall to help the person who was packing the snow into the mold. He dislodged part of the wall and also fell on the radius pole and the packer. It took a while to make repairs and probably the wall repair was a bit off the proper angle. However, we finished a bit more work that day and then went inside to eat and drink, and warm up. On Sunday, Vance and I worked for about two hours with help from Mary late in the day. We made progress but we were freezing since a very cold wind came up. I had on my downhill ski pants and parka and still needed my turtle fur. On Monday, Vance and I worked alone for a few hours after he talked to the ICEbox inventor and got some feedback on how to correct our errors. By now, we were a bit discouraged, but we still made progress, especially getting the entryway done so he didn’t have to climb over the wall anymore, but could crawl under the wall. On Tuesday, we both had other things to do, so no work then. Mary was off work on Wednesday. With three working it went about 4 times faster than with two, probably because the packer (me) didn’t also have to gather and shovel in the snow. Also, the snow set up really fast and was quite sticky. We finished in less than two hours and all crawled inside. While we were in there a wet sleety snow came down but it was so silent and beautiful, with a bluish light that we didn’t notice anything until we came out. Then we went inside and opened a bottle of bubbly that Mary had brought and a few other goodies.


The igloo really is beautiful and can be seen from every window in the front of the house. I’m looking at it right now as I write this. New wet snow has formed a hard shell on the outside. I think it probably will last until late spring when all the snow and piled up snow banks finally melt. What a thrill!


We are ready to build another one soon given certain necessary conditions: snow of course, a day to prepare the site BEFORE starting the igloo, at least 4 people who will commit to working a full day so we finish in one day, and a volunteer to provide the site.  Realistically, our next igloo probably will go up next year.


  Try this link to see the igloo photos.





Garden Time

February 6, 2009

Garden Time


All it takes is a few sunny days in a row, and my thoughts turn to my 2009 garden. Of course, we still have a few feet of snow on the ground and even the large vegetable pots on the back deck are not yet visible, but the big seed catalogs with all the yummy pictures have been piling up and demanding my attention. Finally, this morning “order seeds” made my to-do list. I just finished sending my first order of 2009 to BURPEE seeds, and will probably send another order or two by the end of the month.


My perennial garden has done remarkably well in northern Michigan. I started out by getting good advice and lots of help from a local nursery, and then took it from there. Each year, with lots of help from Vance (more about that later), I expand the gardens away from the house, split old plants to get new ones, and spend a lot of time and $$ on new varieties. I go to the many good independent nurseries around town, garden shows, and look through national catalogs to get ideas. One great idea I got from a friend was to label my plants so I wouldn’t feel so dumb when someone asked me, “what’s that?” Interestingly, most people who get chosen for the garden shows do not label their plants and have no idea what they have when asked. Very annoying, or is this just the gardeners version of not giving out a favorite recipe? If so, it’s a bad idea since most plant varieties can be found in gardening magazines and catalogs. I haven’t given a lot of thought to what changes I’m going to make this summer, except that I am going to attend to the big hill by the road and expand in front of the house. I’ve already put some shrub structure in from great sale plants at the end of last summer.


Today, I mostly worked on looking at all the vegetable seeds that were available, and trying to show some restraint in my ordering. Very hard to do this since every tomato, pepper, lettuce, herb looks so inviting. Just the tomatoes alone have great names and wonderful pictures. Here are some I ordered: black truffle, red lightening, 4th of July (early producer), sweet tangerine, black krim, Cherokee, big rainbow, giant pink. If you wonder why there are so many, its because I believe in diversification for tomatoes and peppers since I never seem to know from year to year what will be most productive. This year, I plan to plant almost everything in pots or raised beds. I’ve had rather little success with plants in the ground after five years of much effort. I think this is because our very sandy soil still is not very nurturing in spite of lots of amendments. Also, there are some critters around who attack vegetables, eating both roots and produce. Anyhow, my pots have done very well, so I’m sticking with them. The big thing with pots is to be sure to fertilize and water enough.


Watering is a big need around here since our amended soil only goes down so far and below that is a few hundred feet of sand and gravel. It rains, then drains, fast. Vance has put in a multi-zone drip watering system, which allows us to control the time and watering rate for all our plants. It even has lines to each pot, so we don’t have to get out the hose except for when we put in something new. There are a few problems with this system: squirrels and maybe rabbits, chew on the lines over the winter and so they have to be replaces, and emitters sometimes clog up from our hard water. But it still is very efficient. We can even put fertilizer through the system, though I prefer to do the fertilizing by hand.


Before we moved to northern Michigan, we had the most wonderful vegetable growing soil in Flint; rich, loamy, and deep (probably about 18 inches), with clay underneath to hold in the water. After an initial spring watering, I mostly didn’t have to water again all summer. And I was able to grow all the vegetables I needed for the summer, plus plenty to give away and to store after the harvest. That may be the only thing I miss from Flint. We belong to a CSA here and get an every other week share, and also shop at the farmers market, but I still like to walk out into the yard the pick something for dinner. It always is fresher that way and makes me feel good.


I think gardening is inherently optimistic, but maybe that is a topic for another post. My seeds should arrive next week, but I won’t start my plants until April.


Comfort Food

January 31, 2009

Comfort food


Tonight we’re going to a cooperative party where everyone is supposed to bring “comfort” food. I thought I would look around for some good quotations on comfort food in one of the many food literature books I have. I found such categories as home cooking, winter food, gluttony, and also, self-denial, and starvation, but no comfort food. So I started thinking about what we mean by comfort food, since in some ways all food provides some comfort if one is hungry. Ruth Reichl, in the February Gourmet, doesn’t directly use the term comfort food, but she does refer to the season of one where she craves homely winter food, made from humble cuts of meat and “scrubby” vegetables. Food that takes time, is uncomplicated and aromatic. She gives as an example, “fine beef stew slowly braising with onions and beer.” I read this after I decided what my contribution to the dinner would be, beef goulash and noodles. I considered meatloaf and mashed potatoes at first since that is what most restaurants have on their menus if they claim to provide “comfort food.” But, it just didn’t seem quite right to me, though I do like the meatloaf that I make now and then. I think I would add some emotional/memory component to Reichl’s (sort of) definition of comfort food. Such food evokes memories of previous happy, comfortable, warm meals with good company. That certainly is how I see this goulash. It is quite easy to make, keeps well, smells wonderful cooking, and is pretty much error free. Here is how I make it: Use fairly tough cuts of meat, and remove as much fat as possible, and cut the meat into strip or cubes. Slice about an equal volume of onions. Dry the meat before sautéing in olive oil along with the onions. Don’t crowd the pan too much, so do several batches, if necessary. Turn all the meat and onions into an ovenproof casserole and sprinkle about 1T of flour per pound (more or less depending on how thick you want the sauce to be), and equal amounts of good Hungarian paprika, and stir around to coat meat. Then pour in enough decent red wine to cover. Add enough sour cream to turn the color of the wine down a shade or two. Cover and put in a 375 degree oven for at least 90 minutes. Check once in a while and stir a bit. Add some more wine if it gets too dry. You can add some more sour cream later if you want it to be more creamy. I like to serve this with noodles, homemade if possible, but good kluski noodles work fine, too. Alternately, fresh crusty bread or mashed potatoes are okay. This freezes really well, so make twice what you need and freeze some.


I am looking forward to finding out what other people think are comfort foods, especially some of my friends who are vegetarians. I have a hard time thinking of a vegetable that seems comforting to me, though I like a lot of vegetables. Maybe that creamed spinach that we used to get at the Berghoff in Chicago would qualify. I’m not counting plenty of vegetarian main courses here, since certainly some of those are comfort foods, excepting the ones made with tofu. Maybe vegetable soup, or tomato soup with rice.


We’re going to go out snowshoeing before eating, so everyone should have a good appetite.

Building an igloo

January 30, 2009

About a year ago, I read an article in Outside magazine about an igloo building tool, the Icebox (check out: www.grandshelters.com).

It seems that some engineering types in Colorado wanted to find a better way than a winter tent to do winter camping. It took them a few years, but they came up with a portable/backpackable tool, the “icebox” that is filled with snow and then rotated around a central axis so that each block in the structure takes on the appropriate angles to create a structurally sound catenary curve.


I though this was really neat, though I have no interest whatsoever in winter camping. However, I am interested in Inuit art and culture, and since the Inuit invented the igloo, I was interested in building one myself. From a film that was made in the 1980s by the Film Board of Canada, I knew that choosing the right snow and getting the curves correct for a sound igloo are not simple tasks, perhaps they even can be called dying arts. Also, the blocks of snow need to be cut and lifted into place, which seems like a lot of bending and lifting for my taste. The Icebox required some shoveling and packing but not any calculating of angles since the tool provides the template needed. I REALLY wanted one!


My first attempt to get an Icebox was to try to convince the education curator at the museum where I volunteer to buy one for the museum. Then we could build igloos on the museum grounds to supplement our Inuit culture tours. The museum has a large permanent collection of Inuit art. Check it out at www.dennosmuseum.org

For whatever reason, probably budget, the museum did not jump at the chance to spend money on this project.


This winter has been very snowy in northern Michigan. The snow started before Thanksgiving, and continued almost everyday. Some days, we’ve gotten just a dusting, but we’ve also had some nice 8-10 inch storms. There has been very little melting, though some evaporation and compacting has taken place. All this snow, and the beginning of our Inuit tours, reminded me of the Icebox, so I went on-line and rediscovered the website for ordering one. Of course, just like everyone else I am trying not to spend money for much besides necessities. However, I decided that the Icebox was a kind of necessity since we were in a “real” winter and needed something new to do. I ordered one two days ago and am eagerly awaiting its arrival by UPS.


I have recruited some of my fellow swimmers to an igloo building party on February 14. By then, we should have had plenty of time to pass around the instructional dvd and to have chosen a place on my property to build. The response has been very enthusiastic, probably because we all want something new and novel to do. We’re planning to take lots of pictures and I’ll post them later and let you know what happened. I also am hoping that, if this igloo goes well, we can build another one at the museum before the winter is over. Since northern Michigan winter go on and on, often until April, there should be plenty of time left.

cheese tariff

January 30, 2009

So, the Bush administration in one of its last acts imposed a 300% tariff on Roquefort cheese. Not on gorgonzola and/or stilton cheeses, though. The argument was that this is retaliation for the EU ban on U.S. beef that has been raised with hormones. Tariffs were raised on French truffles, Irish oatmeal, Italian water, and “fatty livers,” i.e., foie gras. However, no tariff was increased as much as Roquefort. I just learned of this, too late to snap up all the remaining Roquefort that is available locally. Too bad, since I really like Roquefort and Wisconsin or Amish blue just won’t substitute. The question is why did they single out Roquefort for this punitive tariff, which is predicted to pretty much cut off the U.S. supply? There has got to be more to this story. BTW, I got my information from an article in the Washington Post. Roquefort producers are hoping that the Obama administration will reverse this tariff, but most figure that it might not be the first item on his agenda. Good thinking there. So, if like me you are a Roquefort lover, head on out to the store and put in a supply before the remaining cheese runs out.

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January 29, 2009

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