Monday, March 31, 2008

Chinese Restaurants

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by Jennifer 8. Lee, start with the statement that "There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States - more than the number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined." That seemed a little odd to me, so I pulled out the Bozeman phone book and started looking up resturants. Bozeman has two McDonald's, 1 Burger King, and 1 KFC, for a total of 4; it has five Chinese restaurants, including the one in the mall food court, plus a Mongolian Barbecue that doesn't really count as traditional Chinese-American food. So that leaves Chinese restaurants slightly ahead, just as Lee said.

On the other hand, Bozeman has at least 8 Mexican restaurants.

In checking out the Fortune Cookie Chronicles blog, I found a neat site on how to order Chinese food. Of course, it is designed for people traveling in China, but it is interesting to see which dishes are acutally made in China - as Lee points out, Chinese-American food is its very own style and has only passing similarities to the food eaten in China. This appears to be characteristic of Chinese food overseas, since Lee also mentions several other distinctive varieties such as Chinese-Indian and Chinese-Korean.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Vanilla Substitutions

My kids always decide to bake cookies or cupcakes when I am out of vanilla. So they have learned to make substitutions; their favorite, one that seems to work for any sweet baked item, is Kahlua. It gives the same body to the cookies as vanilla does, and it is cheaper than good vanilla. Plus, since it comes in a huge bottle and we seldom use it for anything else, we almost never run out of it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fried Pig Skins

For years, I couldn't figure out what use fried pig skins are, how they fit into any food category. But now I know what they are good for: scooping guacamole. They are sturdy enough to carry a mouthful without breaking, and the vaguely meaty undertone adds some depth to the smooth avocado. They work so well that when my kids see fried pig skins, they know guacamole isn't far behind.

Quick Guacamole
Cut open two avocadoes and mash the meat. Stir in 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice and a teaspoon of salt (more or less, depending on how much flavor is in the avocadoes). Dice finely a quarter of an onion and two roma tomatoes or one regular tomato and stir into the avocado mash. (You can add salsa here for spice, but I don't like what it does to the color of the guacamole. Salsa verde would work well, or minced jalapenos.) Taste for seasoning and serve with fried pig skins.

I know this sounds weird, but it works.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Washing Machines

I am perfectly happy using a clothes line to dry clothes (although it would be a bit tricky during a Montana winter), but I can't imagine life without the washing machine - or more accurately, I can't imagine life the same as it is now. Before the washing machine, laundry day was a huge physical ordeal for women: "One wash, one boiling and one rinse used about fifty gallons of water—or four hundred pounds—which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as forty or fifty pounds. Rubbing, wringing, and lifting water-laden clothes and linens, including large articles like sheets, tablecloths, and men’s heavy work clothes, wearied women’s arms and wrists and exposed them to caustic substances." After the washing machine, the number of clothes a family owned multiplied exponentially, standards of cleanliness increased, and laundry went on all week instead of Mondays - but the machine took over the hard work. Even hanging clothes out on a line is simple compared to washing them by hand. The best part is that even ten-year-old kids can learn to do their own wash, making my job even easier.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Flexibility of Homeschooling

One of the nice things about homeschooling is its flexibility when Life happens. When one of my kids is sick, I don't have to make an all-or-nothing decision about whether to send them to school, I can just tell them to do what they can; and I find that their brains can work very well when they have a cough that keeps them out of public. When a major crisis hits - new baby, major illness, divorce - we can take a week off and pick it up at the end of the year. I appreciate that my kids don't have to go to school and pretend that nothing is wrong; they are too distracted to learn anyway, and this way they don't miss any school or have to make it up immediately. They can focus on the life skills that the crisis is prepared to teach them, then return to school when things settle down and they are ready for book-learning again.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Corned Beef Hash

The recipe for corned beef hash worked well; it would have worked better if I had followed it more closely and not added extra liquid, which then had to be simmered off. But it was tasty and disappeared quickly. To round out the meal, I rang changes on the corned-beef-and-cabbage tradition and served a cabbage salad.

Cabbage salad
Cut the core out of a head of green cabbage, then slice thinly across the head, making narrow ribbons; you may want to cut once or twice the other way so the ribbons aren't too long to eat neatly. Place ribbons in large bowl. Make a dressing with 1 part olive or sesame oil, 2 parts rice wine vinegar (or a little less white vinegar), 1/4 tsp hot oil (sesame oil with chili flavor in it) or several dashes of your favorite hot sauce, and a dash of salt. Shake or mix well and pour over cabbage; toss thoroughly. (For red cabbage, use apple cider vinegar in the dressing.)

If you have leftovers (a medium head of cabbage makes enough salad for 6-8 people), cover it tightly and use with thinly-sliced leftover steak the next night for a steak salad. This is good enough and simple enough that it is worth arranging the leftovers for. Serve with chewy bread or plain potato chips.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Happy New Year, Again

Yet another calendar starts - or started, in this case. During the Middle Ages, many countries used the old Roman calendar, which started the year on January 1, but they numbered their years starting with different dates. One popular date for starting the year was March 25, nine months before Christmas and so the date of the Annunciation, when Mary's pregnancy began (only men would be so sure that a pregnancy is exactly nine months long!); in England, this was called the Old Style year, in contrast to New Style years that started in January. (England didn't switch completely to the new style until 1752, when it also adopted the Gregorian calendar.) England is as far north as Montana is, so I can see why they started their "real" year at the end of March: it is when it is finally obvious that spring is really coming and the agricultural year can start anew. It is the season of new lambs and baby chicks and fresh grass and new beginnings - a much more logical time for farmers to begin a new year than in the middle of the cold, dark winter.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sandhill Cranes

I heard the first sandhill cranes flying overhead this morning at dawn, back for the summer; their cry always reminds me of those wooden tubes with corrugations that grade-school kids rub with sticks to make a hollow rattling noise. This afternoon, I saw several of them in a swampy pasture near the East Gallatin River, feeding; later in the summer, we will see them in the harvested grain fields, but for now, they stick to the wet areas where they will build their nest. Although the guide books say sandhill cranes are grey, the ones I see around here are almost always a rusty brown; they may be mostly immature birds, which are supposed to have browner feathers. It is relatively easy to tell the cranes from the great blue herons that migrate through the valley because the crane carries its head straight out in front when it flies, while the heron kinks its neck back in an S; both trail their legs behind them.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Unique among western holidays, Easter's date is determined by the sun and moon as well as the calendar: it is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. This year, the full moon comes the day after the spring equinox, so Easter is early; if the equinox falls just after a full moon, Easter can be as late as April 25. The Orthodox Church uses a different method of calculating the date of the full moon than western churches, so the Orthodox Easter is often on a later Sunday than the western Easter.

That's not the only confusion surrounding Easter: the origins of the holiday get confused too. Easter was originally called Pasch and was celebrated immediately after Passover, since Christ was crucified on the eve of Passover and resurrected after it; early Jewish converts to Christianity saw the new feast as an extension of Passover. When the official Christian calculation of the date was set in 325, it was set on the Sunday following the full moon, to avoid having Easter celebrated during Passover.

As Christianity spread, it co-opted many pagan rituals; in particular, the Christian celebration of resurrection fit neatly with pagan fertility rituals that tended to be celebrated around the spring equinox. The name "Easter" appears to come from the Germanic moon goddess, Eostre, whose sacred day was the first full moon after the equinox; she was accompanied by a sacred rabbit and carried a basket of eggs. The Church neatly absorbed the accouterments and name when it overlaid the fertility rituals with Christian rituals, giving us our Easter bunny and Easter eggs.

So we have a Christian holiday tied to a Jewish feast and named for a pagan goddess, celebrated on a different date each year... I think I'll just go hide Easter eggs.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Zorro, the Gay Blade

If you haven't seen the early Zorro movies, which are very different from the later grimmer movies, Zorro the Gay Blade is simply entertaining; it becomes a lot more interesting if you have seen the 1920 The Mark of Zorro, with Douglas Fairbanks, or the 1940 remake with Tyrone Power. In both of these, Don Diego de la Vega returns from Madrid to discover rampant injustice in his native California and promptly starts acting the overly-cultured fop while he figures out how to deal with the situation. He discusses fabric and fashions with the alcalde's wife, disdains fighting as barbaric, and entertains friends with silly magic tricks - while riding out as Zorro when needed. The fop covers effectively for the hero.

Right from the beginning, The Gay Blade announces its intentions of playing on these conventions by using footage from the 1940 movie to set the stage for the action. And play it does. "Zorro" is actually a pair of twin brothers; the heroic one hurts his foot early on and can't be Zorro any more, so his flamingly gay brother takes over for him. The gay Zorro is hysterical with his insistence on a more colorful wardrobe in mauve, peach, and cordovan, all carefully co-ordinated, and he pulls off the required exploits with panache while his brother entertains the alcalde at home. In a nice reversal, the hero ends up covering for the fop.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Equinox

OK, the calendars all say that the spring equinox was yesterday, but I always peg the equinoxes and solstices to the 21st of the appropriate month, mostly for convenience (but I have good company - the Gregorian calendar set the date at March 21, too). So as far as I am concerned, this is the first day of spring. The equinox is the time of "equal nights", when the night is the same length as the day, when the length of the day is changing fastest; for the next six months, our days will be longer than California's rather than shorter. Now we head into a month and a half of pure spring, before the early summer days start sneaking into the mix. Of course, around here that means that we have 6 weeks of mud season before it starts to dry out, not that the flowers are ready to bloom. But the snow is no longer accumulating, the light is changing, the days are getting longer, the catkins on the aspen are opening, birds are returning, the gophers are out, and spring is here.

It's interesting that summer and winter are primarily nouns (in spite of being used in sentences like "They summer in California" or "Where are you wintering your horses?"), while spring and fall are primarily verbs that have been applied to seasons; this goes all the way back to Old English, reflecting the reality of the year at the edges of the temperate zones. It is certainly true in Montana: winter and summer are relatively stable seasons with well-defined characteristics, but spring and fall are seasons of change between one extreme and the other, between long and short days, between ice and sun, between dormancy and explosive growth. In Chinese philosophy, spring is when the yin of winter is giving way to the yang of summer, and they are matched at the equinox; for one moment, life is perfectly balanced.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


The gophers are back, a reliable sign of spring and a good source of protein for the bald eagles that are just starting to return. An old name for gophers is "picket pins". Gophers sit straight up when they are keeping watch, looking a lot like the wooden pegs that used to be used to picket (or stake out) horses while the riders were in camp (easier than building a rope corral, especially on the plains). This time of year, we start seeing the picket pins on brown patches in the receding snow; in a month or two, the babies will be out and playing. By August, they will be heading into hibernation for the fall and winter, to wait out the season of plant dormancy.

Gophers are more accurately Richardson ground squirrels, which I thought was a piece of mildly interesting trivia until I discovered last year that it makes a difference when you are trying to poison the little critters that dig holes in the fields. Gophers can be safely (to the rest of the ecosystem) be poisoned with strychnine and other long-lasting poisons, because they stay underground when they die; ground squirrels come to the surface to die, where coyotes, dogs, and other predators eat them - and the poison. Since we have a lot more ground squirrels around here than gophers, knowing which one you are trying to get rid of can make a real difference to dogs in the neighborhood. While I would prefer to skip the poisoning, a lot of the farmers and ranchers around here still use it to rid their fields of the holes and mounds the ground squirrels make, and newcomers make mistakes every year when they try to follow the local practice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Favorite Kids' Books

My favorite kids' books for younger readers:
  • The Poppleton books by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Mark Teague. Anything Teague illustrates in worth reading, but the Poppletons are the most fun.
  • Good Dog Carl books, for pre-readers. The stories are told almost exclusively in pictures, and they are wonderful.
  • The Rainbow Goblins – gorgeous pictures and a great story.
  • The Napping House, by Don and Audrey Wood. They have other good books, too, especially Piggies.
  • The Boynton board books for toddlers. I have lost track of how many of these I have given as gifts over the years.
For older kids:
  • Swiss Family Robinson, unmodernized – great read-aloud for (especially) boys who are just about done being read to. Lots of ingenuity in figuring out how to live on the island. Some of the language is a little challenging, which is why it is a good read-aloud.
  • Homer Price – older book, set in the 1930s, great for boys as a read-aloud or for reading.
  • The Redwall series, by Brian Jaques. Great action, but be careful about reading the feast scenes before a meal.
  • Royal Diaries – a series of novels (for girls, primarily) set in different cultures and ages.
  • A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears – very funny, gently skewers all kinds of “quest story” conventions.
  • The fairy-tale retellings of Robin McKinley and Gail Carson Levine.
And my favorite kids’ books, personally:
  • The Elephant’s Child, by Rudyard Kipling, of course.
  • The Dark Materials trilogy – definitely 15+, I think, due to the complexity (and darkness) of the story.
  • The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, by Selma Lagerlof – a Scandenavian boy shrinks small enough to ride on a wild goose; this is the tale of the adventures they have together.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Corned Beef

Although corned beef has been around since the Middle Ages, its name was aquired in the 17th century, from the corns of salt used to preserve it; in Europe, "corn" means grain, so this is meat preserved with grains of salt (a similar use is found in the word peppercorns). Corned beef originated in Ireland in the Middle Ages; the Irish didn't eat it, instead shipping it to England and Europe, where it was valued because it didn't spoil. The Irish ate bacon instead of corned beef because pigs were easy to raise (they mostly ran wild until butchering time) and therefore cheap, while cattle were expensive and highly valued for their milk products.

Over the centuries, corned beef became the travel food of choice for European governments. The French shipped it to their sugar colonies in the Caribbean for use as as cheap, durable food for slaves. The British Navy used it for sailors, who introduced it to Pacific Islands (this sounds similar to Spam's position in Hawaii). The islanders had salt readily and cheaply available, so they promptly learned how to make corned beef and other salted foods themselves and sold it to ships stopping in port to resupply.

Corned beef continued its international travels in South America in the 19th century, which had a glut of poor-quality beef. South Americans solved this problem by canning corned beef for export; by the end of the century, their canneries supplied vast amounts to US and European militaries. The British army used large amounts of canned corned beef in WWI and WWII because soldiers could eat it cold straight from the can; there it came be be known as "bully beef", from French bouilli (boiled).

Corned beef doesn't appear to be eaten much by the Irish still in Ireland; they prefer their bacon. When they do eat beef, they prefer spiced beef, which starts out like corned beef but then undergoes another spicing and steeping period before being eaten cold. Irish-Americans picked up the habit of eating corned beef in New York after the potato famine, when beef was cheaper than pork; they may have acquired the taste from their Jewish neighbors.

Although my daughter insists that I make corned beef today, I prefer to avoid the cabbage part of the traditional American dish, probably as a result of too many corned beef and cabbage hot lunches when I was in school. I get freshly corned beef from my local Meat Shop (no spice packet) and braise it all afternoon, then serve it with baby red potatoes topped with goat cheese, and a green salad - my compromise between tradition and taste. Tomorrow or the next day, I will look forward to making corned beef hash for the first time (if I have any left-overs). Maybe next year I will try "corning" my own...

Simple recipe for corned beef hash:

4 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1 pound corned beef, diced
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup broth from cooking corned beef

In a large deep skillet, over medium heat, combine the potatoes, corned beef, onion, and broth. Cover and simmer until potatoes are of mashing consistency, and the liquid is almost gone. Mix well, check seasonings, and serve.

Sources: Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky
Pickled, Potted, and Canned, by Sue Shephard

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bottle Colors

I made a stop at the liquor store Friday and picked up cheap tequila (for margaritas), pastis (a licorice-flavored French drink that is good before dinner), and pomegranate liqueur (which I'd never tried but sounded good and comes in a really pretty bottle). I didn't get around to putting the bottles away Friday evening, and this is the still-life I discovered in my kitchen the next day:
I tried the pomegranate liqueur last night and it is very tasty (if you like sweet after-dinner drinks, which I do).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Recipe Annoyances

I hate it when recipes hide tasks in the ingredient list! The shrimp scampi recipe I tried tonight claims to take 10 minutes of "prep" time and 10 minutes cooking time, so I left 25 minutes. Much to my annoyance, the first item on the ingredient list was "2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails left on". I had two pounds of shrimp, all right, but the shells were still on, and it took nearly 20 minutes to peel and devein them. So much for 10 minutes of prep time; I was just lucky that the rice and artichokes could sit while I finished the shrimp. I suppose that if you are a famous chef and have a kitchen full of highly-experienced people to do the real prep work of cleaning shrimp, slicing onions, and mincing garlic, this recipe only takes 20 minutes to put together, but in the real world it takes closer to 40 minutes.

And then there was the "1/2 cup shrimp stock" further down the recipe. That doesn't come in stores near me, but Emeril very kindly provided a recipe for it - which takes another hour and a half and needs to be done after you peel the shrimp but before you make the dish. So to make this 20-minute scampi, you need to start at lunch time, peeling shrimp and making stock. The recipe was pretty good, even without the shrimp stock (I doubled the wine and added about a quarter teaspoon of beef base), but the time required was definitely false advertising.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Buddy Greco Chicken

When my daughter and I were in California, we had dinner (and a great music show) at Buddy Greco's dinner club. The problem was that the menu had three things on it that all sounded great: shrimp scampi, steak Diane (which I hadn't had in two decades), and "chicken stuffed spinach and feta". I was pretty sure that I could make shrimp scampi and the chicken sounded manageable; that left just the steak to try.

The chicken idea stayed in my head, so I tried making something based on that short description tonight, using just chicken, spinach, feta, and pancetta. I served it with buttered pasta and a green salad, and the only thing the kids complained about was the challenge of cutting bites off the roll - but they kept eating eagerly. So now Buddy Greco chicken (which probably is nothing like the one Greco's chef made) will be a regular player at our table.

Buddy Greco chicken
Per person:
1 boneless skinless chicken breast
Handful of washed spinach, preferably baby leaves
1 oz feta cheese, salty (fresh if possible, not one the gourmet types)
1 piece pancetta (or prosciutto, or even thin slices of bacon, I suspect; if you use bacon, sprinkle a little pepper on the chicken first)

Pound chicken breasts until they are about 1/2 inch thick. Place a layer of spinach on the chicken, then crumble feta across the middle (the short way); the feta provides the salt the chicken needs. Roll the chicken tightly from one short end and place in a baking dish. Place pancetta on top of the roll. Bake for about an hour at 350 degrees, then let sit for five minutes.

Pi Day

Today is Pi Day because if you write the date in decimal format, you get 3.14 - which is the first three digits of the number pi: 3.1415926.... Pi is an irrational number, which means that (as far as we know) the digits will never repeat or terminate - the decimal expansion will just keep going on and on and on forever. That's why we have the handy-dandy Greek letter π to represent it, so that we can actually calculate with it; 3.14 is the most commonly-used approximation of pi now, but scientists use more decimals and many cultures have used 3 as an acceptable approximation.

There are mulitple ways to calculate pi, including a method using Fibonacci numbers. Calculating pi is a common test of raw computing skill, which may be why over 1 billion digits have been calculated so far. But there also seems to be something more to it, some "because it is there" challenge that keeps people interested in it; maybe it is the quest to see if there really is no pattern to the digits. Seems like mindless entertainment to me, but I suppose someone has to find it fun.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Not Your Father's Potato Soup

I decided to make some potato-leek soup for dinner tonight to use up some of my bag of potatoes before I couldn't. I like potato-leek soup, but it tends to be bland, so I picked up some tomatillos to go with it - only to discover that my version tonight was anything but bland! I started with a recipe, then kept making substitutions to match what I had on hand; I ended up with something I like much better.

Potato Soup with Tomatillo Chips
In the morning, husk a dozen small to medium tomatillos and slice into disks as thin as possible (sharpen your knife first). Place in a food dehydrator and dry for a couple hours, until they are just barely a little chewy, like fruit leather. Put aside. [This step can be skipped if you don't have a dehydrator, or you can dry the tomatillos in a very slow oven, as low as you can set it - watch carefully so they don't get too dry. If you do make them and have left-overs, you will undoubtedly find other uses for them! They are tart and very good.]

About an hour and a quarter before dinner, melt half a stick of butter in a large soup pot or dutch oven. Clean and slice 3-4 leeks, then add to the butter and sautee until limp. While they are cooking, add 1/2 tsp of dried red pepper flakes (or crush three tiny dried peppers left over from your son's experiment with growing hot peppers a year or so ago). If you have some nice garlic on hand, mince a little and add it here.

While the leeks are cooking, scrub and cube 6 russet potatoes, 1 celeriac (ok, this needs to be "peeled" with a knife first), and 2 turnips (it is ok if they are a little soft from sitting in the crisper too long, since the simmering will rehydrate them). Add to the leeks and cook for a few minutes; the recipe said 5 minutes, but I forgot to look at the clock so I had to guess.

Add 6 cups of ham broth, saved from your Christmas ham; if for some reason you don't have that, chicken broth will do nicely. Add 3 Tbs lemon juice, 1-2 tsp celery salt (or 1 tsp normal salt; the recipe called for celery seeds, which I didn't have, and salt, so I used celery salt), and pepper to taste (but not too much because of the red pepper flakes). Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for half an hour or so, until the root vegetables are soft.

Let the soup cool a bit, then blend with an immersion blender or a regular one (be very careful with the latter and only fill the jar half way or you will end up with very hot mush spraying out of the blender - not fun). Add 1 cup heavy cream; if it is still too thick, thin with a little milk of whatever kind you normally drink. Stir in and check seasonings; it should be a little spicy but not burningly so.

Serve with a thin, plain yogurt (preferably homemade so it is runny) to pour on top and the tomatillo chips on the side. Sourdough bread, heated in the oven during the last 15 minutes, is all you need to round out the meal. A pinot noir would be tasty with it, or beer.

Notes: This makes a huge batch, enough to feed a dozen people. It will freeze well, so go ahead and make the entire batch; then you will have another dinner in the freezer and some to share with someone who lives alone. Or for left-overs, if you are so inclined.
All measurements are approximate and can be adjusted to suit your tastes or supplies.

Books Are Alive in San Francisco

Scrolling down Blogger's Blogs of Note, I found People Reading, a blog about what people are reading in San Francisco. I know the blogger screens who she interviews and probably avoids the bodice rippers and thrillers, but I'm still impressed at just how many "serious" books she finds people reading.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Worship of Tools Day

"Give a small boy a hammer, and suddenly everything looks like a nail."

Worship of Tools Day sounds like one my youngest son would dream up. He is a tool fanatic. Whenever he gets a new tool, he sleeps with it for a few nights before it is allowed to move out to a safe bed in the toolbox; or at least that is the theory - a surprising number of them seem to collect permanently in his room. At 11, he already has a two-piece tool chest like mechanics have, traditional red just like his Dad's, and he is hard at work filling it up. He tried to talk me into a "tool of the month" program, where each month he could get one new tool at our favorite hardware store (and his favorite store, period), Owenhouse; I was smart enough to turn that one down immediately. Any task around the house that needs tool use elicits a willing volunteer, whether or not he knows how to do it; he is always willing to try.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Woodpeckers Return

More progress in the winter-spring transition season: the birds are getting more active. This morning, a big woodpecker sat on our furnace flue and started pecking at the metal cap, which reverberated throughout the house; he was so embarassed to be caught at something so futile that he promptly flew off once he had an audience. A bit later, a magpie flew across the yard carrying a long twig in his mouth, probably headed for a nest in need of refurbishment somewhere; magpies make big, messy spheres of nests that take lots of twigs. Soon it will be time for our summer migrants to start moving in.

The winter robin is definitely gone; it hasn't been in the crabapple tree since I saw the hawk.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Daylight Savings Time

Ah, Daylight Savings Time starts today. Time to wander around and hope I find all the clocks that need to be reset, then try to remember how to reset the clocks in the cars. Forget about resetting the clocks on the VRC player - I don't even try. And all so that we can have the sun set at 10 pm in June and July, which makes it impossible to get kids to bed at any reasonable hour and delays Fourth of July fireworks until 10:30 pm. Maybe DST makes sense further south, where the summer day is shorter, but this far north, our days are already long enough to accomodate any reasonable evening activities. It is just a twice-yearly headache that further disconnects us from the natural world.

But then, standard time in general is an artifact of the industrial world anyway, not the natural world. It used to be that different towns had different times, all based on setting noon when the sun was highest in the sky. But once the railroads became big enough to cross long distances, it became a nightmare to set and publish timetables that took into account all the different "zones", especially since each railroad used its own time. In response to the chaos, the railroads created a series of standard time zones on November 18, 1883, to be used as "railroad time"; most cities adjusted their local time to match the railroads and so, without any government intervention, US time was standardized. Like all averages, standard time zones work best for the middle; in this case the middle of each zone has noon approximately when the sun is highest, but the further east or west you go, the more disconnect there is. People in the east edges of the zones tend to be the most discontented and often petition to be added to the zone to the east so that they can gain one extra hour before sunset.

That extra evening hour is pretty compelling to a lot of people and it is the most common argument given for Daylight Savings Time (DST). Back when lighting was the biggest user of electricity, adding an hour of daylight at the end of the day, when people tend to be active (at least in urban areas), saved an hour of lighting and therefore saved energy. This is why DST was adopted during WWI, but it was so unpopular among a population that tended to go to bed and get up early that it was repealed as soon as the war was over. In WWII, War Time, year-round daylight savings time, was adopted from February 9, 1942, to September 30, 1945, to save energy. After WWII, DST was optional for states and cities, resulting in exactly the chaos that the railroads were hoping to eliminate in 1883, but this time more industries were affected. Finally, in 1966, uniform clock times and DST were instituted, setting up our current clock systems.

The only problem with the theory that an extra hour of evening daylight saves energy is that all the original studies were done before air conditioning became common. With air conditioning, that extra hour of daylight in the day means an extra hour of air conditioning - more than negating the energy savings in an hour less of lighting. One recent study shows that in Indiana, switching to DST costs families an extra $8.6 million in energy costs annually. While it is hard to quantify benefits to DST, people have had fun quantifying the costs. For instance, IT expenses have been calculated to be at least $300 million each time the clocks shift. Farmers still hate the switches, since the animals don't have clocks to be reset so easily; dairy cattle in particular don't like to change their schedules. All so that people in the south can have an extra hour of sunlight for their barbecues and politicians can look like they are accomplishing something.

Friday, March 7, 2008

International Year of the Potato

The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato. What an honor for the lowly tuber! Apparently, the idea is that the potato could, if grown more widely in developing countries, help alleviate hunger and decrease poverty; it is a very land-efficient way of producing calories quickly. It has a long history of doing just that, from its start in the Andes to the Irish peasants who subsisted on it in the 19th century (until a disease attacked the one kind of potato they grew and ruined all their crops, leading to the Potato Famine and massive immigration to the United States). The abundant calories potatoes provided underwrote the Industrial Revolution in England by requiring fewer farm workers than other crops; the displaced farm hands moved to the cities to find jobs - and then ate roasted potatoes sold on the streets (since they didn't have kitchens). In a modern twist, Peru is hoping that increased interest in unusual varieties of potatoes will help the poorest Peruvians who live in the Andean highlands where these varieties grow.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Kestrels have been my favorite raptor ever since I was introduced to one at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center years ago. They are summer visitors in Montana, seen perched on the fence posts or hovering in the air above a field. They are the only raptor that can hover, which gives them a great vantage point for the grasshoppers and other small critters they eat. They are easy to tell from the other raptors because they are about the size of a large, rapacious robin; the females are nearly the color of a robin, while the males have blue-grey wings. You can tell them from the robins because they sit upright like a raptor, not slanting like a song bird. Kestrels are one raptor that has profited from human development, since they do better in open grasslands than in forests.

Throughout the ages, kestrels have accumulated other names: sparrow hawk is a common one, although they eat many things other than sparrows. Windhover is an older name that shows up in one of my favorite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Windhover:

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Stapler Birthday

"Stapler invented on this day in 1868". That's what my event calendar says, and it looks so simple. But what does it mean for something to be invented on one day? Does that mean that the inventor thought up the idea and created a prototype in 24 hours? Even if someone did, it wasn't in 1868; apparently Louis XV of France had a stapler in the 18th century. Patents are often used as a proxie for invention, and it turns out that on this date in 1868, a patent was issued in England to Charles H. Gould for a wire-stitching machine for binding magazines that cut a piece of wire, bent it, stabbed it through paper, and folded the ends over; this machine is generally considered to be the forerunner of the modern stapler. But the "birthdate" of the familiar stapler might be better considered to be February 18 (or 12th, depending on the source), 1879, when a patent was issued for the McGill Single Stroke Staple Press, a two-and-a-half-pounder which could load a single staple and drive the staple through several pieces of paper. Inventing machines like this tends to be a messy business, with lots of incremental improvements (and patents for same) over a series of years before the machine takes on a stable form, so it seems a little artificial to pick one patent out of the progression and call it the "official" invention date.

For more on how things like the stapler are invented, see The Evolution of Useful Things, by Henry Petroski, a neat geeky book on "how everyday artifacts - from forks and pins to paper clips and zippers - came to be as they are."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fan Palms

While my daughter and I were in California to see my parents, we went out to see a fan palm oasis north of Palm Springs. These oases form along the San Andreas Fault, where the slipping fault blocks push water to the surface. The largest and coolest of the plants that colonize the oases is the California Fan Palm, the only palm that retains its leaves after they die; the result is that they end up looking like giant yetis with green hats.

Sitting among the palms was an amazing experience; the closest comparisons I know are to the Muir redwoods or Ste Chapelle. The sense of height, of reaching to the skies, is more pronounced in these enclosed spaces than on the wide-open Montana plains; it is a peaceful and inspiring sense of security and mystery.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Read Across America Day

The first Monday in March is the NEA's Read Across America Day; the day is chosen to be the Monday closest to Dr. Seuss's birthday on March 2. The day is sponsored (created) by the NEA as a way to encourage kids to read more (and therefore do better in school). All this is very nice, but some of the ideas floating around out there for teachers to use in celebrating the day are a little dubious. One site has this lesson: "Contact your local McDonalds about the possibility of your students designing tray mats for them based on the Read Across America theme. McDonalds already has mats they place in the trays so ask for these and have your students create their masterpieces on the flip side!" This is bad enough if McDonalds suggested it; if not, it is even worse. Let's use Dr. Seuss, who speaks for the trees, to encourage kids to go to McDonalds more. Right. Why can't kids just use a blank piece of paper to make a place mat to use during dinner at home that night?

The NEA site has a nice list of kids' books that pertain to the 50 states, so you could have a lot of fun reading your way across America - just not in one day. My favorite "across America" book is Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, which is more fun to read than most of his books.

Icelandic Poppies

The Icelandic poppies are in full bloom in southern California; they are one of my favorite flowers, so I couldn't resist taking a few pictures. OK, I took a bunch of pictures, but here are the best ones.

I had never seen double poppies before - they hardly look like poppies at all, but the leaves and stems are the same. (It was the color that really got me here.)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Fresh Citrus

OK, I can see advantages to living in southern California. At a time when we are happy if the fruits and vegetables look like they really came off a plant recently, my parents have orange and grapefruit still on the trees right outside their door. Since my daughter craves grapefruit, she was delighted with this situation and insisted on bringing some home "to share with her brothers".

My mother's morning routine includes picking a few oranges so she can squeeze some juice for her breakfast; my daughter was more than happy to help her out with the task.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park was established on this day in 1872, 17 years before Montana became a state. Not that much of Yellowstone is in Montana, but we tend to claim it anyway since it is has such a large presence in our vision of the place. "Vision", not experience, since many locals keep thinking they will visit "next year" - which generally only happens if out-of-town visitors are interested or a school field trip needs a chaperone. But it is there and its existence makes a difference somehow. It keeps us aware of the conflicts between wilderness areas and development, between wolves and ranchers, between bears and campers, between bison and cattle, between fire ecology and buildings. It keeps us grounded in the real world even if we only visit the park once every decade.