Wednesday, March 31, 2010

3/31 Moment of Zen: Yemeni Architecture

The Bouldering Buildings of Yemen

As a counterpoint to the press Yemen (a republic at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula which, among other things, is the birthplace of comedian Eddie Izzard) has been getting in regards to a small group of Islamic extremists, this picture-rich article (click the photo) from the travel blog Trifter focuses on the country's rich cultural history, especially the unique architecture like that seen above, developed around the rocky desert landscape.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

3/30 Moment of Zen: Copenhagen Bikeshare

How They Ride Bikes in Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark's new bikeshare system's futuristic look isn't just for style. Other cities, notably Paris, France, have public bikeshare systems, but despite being well-used resources, many of the bikes have been stolen or damaged (see this article from last October which details many of the problems that have plagued the Paris bikeshare). Copenhagen is trying to combat these problems using futuristic-looking technology, which makes bikes harder to steal, sometimes by creatively putting them out of easy reach and tracks each bike via GPS and Wi-Fi. Click the picture above to see and read more about the plan.

Monday, March 29, 2010

3/29 Moment of Zen: Winged Migration

The more I say about this one, the less cool this seems. Click the picture for more information about what you're seeing.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

3/27 Moment of Zen: Miso Soup on the Go

It started as a last minute search for something to bring for lunch when there were no leftovers to be found. It was pretty cold out, and I was about wishing for a bowl of spicy instant ramen to bring along. Then the miso grabbed me and I wondered why I hadn't thought of it before. The students sniff at it, wondering if I'll make them some (no, but I'll put some extra water in the kettle for them if they bring their own soup base). It's easy (all it requires is access to very hot water & about 3 minutes prep time), nutritious, hot and satisfying. And it avoids the leaky soup problem I've had before bringing soup for lunch.

Here's how it comes together:

  • 2½-3 cup lidded plastic container which is sturdy enough to handle near-boiling water
  • OR
  • Any small (~8 oz, like a yogurt cup) plastic container and a big heatsafe bowl to empty it into
  • 1-2 Tblsp white (shiro) miso
  • 1-2 tsp shiitake mushroom powder (see note below)
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp sesame oil (a little drizzle)
  • ~1 oz tofu (~1/10 of a block), cut into 1/2" cubes (I like super firm tofu)
  • 1 6" piece wakame, coarsely crumbled (the seaweed is also to taste - I've gotten really excited about the seaweed I've been getting so sometimes there's a lot)
  • 1-2 2" pieces dulse, coarsely crumbled
  • 1/4-1/3 boullion cube (any flavor), crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon chili paste (or spicy of your choice to taste)
When you're ready to eat: Pour about 2-2½ cups scalding hot water over soup base in your heatsafe container, and mix until miso is dissolved. Mashing it against the side with a spoon helps. It's ready to eat as soon as it has reached a temperature that won't burn your mouth. If you blow on it in the spoon, this is probably right away.

About shiitake mushroom powder: No, I don't know where to buy it either. I throw coarsely broken up dried shiitakes in my spice grinder and buzz until it's a powder, then keep it on my spice rack. If you don't have a spice grinder (great use for a secondhand coffee grinder), you could also keep some finely chopped or broken mushrooms on hand for this purpose. If you're using shiitakes in this form, you might want to give your soup an extra minute to let these soak. This stuff makes almost anything taste better - and there's physiological evidence to back it up. Dried shiitakes are one of the best sources of natural glutamates - which do the flavor enhancing that MSG does but without the worrying extras present in the synthetic version. These "savory" flavors are often described using the Japanese loanword "umami," and are, broadly speaking, what make things like cheese and meat taste appealing. This also accounts for the "meatiness" of mushroom flavors.
Seaweed and soy are also big sources of this kind of flavor, incidentally.

Anyhow, science aside, since I started keeping shiitake powder, it's gone in close to every soup I've made, polenta, all over the place.

About the seaweed: I've been rediscovering seaweed since finally picking up some from my uke buddy and coworker Kacie, who spends her summers harvesting seaweed in Maine and sells them at She Sells Seaweed. I got through a number of finals weeks in college gnawing on wakame, though. There are far worse things to pensively chew than this.

About my Chili Sauce: I've been using my homemade chili sauce, which is a kicker made thick by the density of whole cayenne peppers, lightly flavored with salt, sugar, cumin and caraway.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

3/25 Moment of Zen: HSBC's Semantics Department?

This Is a Bank Ad?

Click the picture for more images from and sociological analysis of this current ad campaign by HSBC, which, in a daringly and surprisingly insightful but largely unrelated to banking way, examines different interpretations of visual cues like this image of a shaved head.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

3/24 Moment of Zen: Real-Life Pacman

Sorry no MoZ yesterday, state standardized testing had all of us in an upended tizzy, and there was no Zen for the weary. Testing resumes tomorrow and Friday, but hopefully I'll be back on track by then.

Street artist Kate Sokoler plays life-size Pacman.

For the record, I was a Pacman tableau months before this. So she's copying me. Whatever.

Monday, March 22, 2010

3/22 Moment of Zen: Cheburashka & the Russian Birthday Song

Every Friday morning, the school where I teach has an all-school assembly. Part of this includes honoring those who have had a birthday during the week by drawing out of a basket one of several birthday songs other than the highly recognizable but still under copyright "Happy Birthday." Last Friday, I taught a common Russian birthday song, "Пусть бегут неуклюже" (Pust' begut neukljuzhe), which has its origins in a 1970s era Russian animation called "Чебурашка"(Cheburashka). I showed them this clip before teaching the song.

Russian band Гродень (Groden') does a loving skacore cover of the song, too.

Cheburashka himself, the cute little protagonist of the show with the singing, accordion-playing crocodile, isn't in the clip with the song though, so here he is. Click the picture above to read more about Cheburashka's ongoing influence, including a renaissance in Japan, where cute things live forever.
Here's a few more pictures (click for full-size):

There's quite a number of stylings of Cheburashka as Che Guevara and vice versa, which makes far more sense than it seems at first.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

3/19 Moment of Zen: Words from Arabic

A little while ago, I talked with one class or another about some of the math words which come to English from Arabic, namely algebra (from Ar. al-jabr, which refers to putting together broken parts or bonesetting) and algorithm (from the name of Central Asian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, named for his hometown of Khwarezm, in modern Uzbekistan). I went to one of my favorite websites, Etymonline, an online etymology dictionary to look up a little more on words that have migrated into English from Arabic, and was surprised by some of the words that had their roots in Arabic but also at the number which had come to Arabic from Greek before that the same way a lot of words came to English from Greek through Latin. This shouldn't be too surprising, as much of what we know about Ancient Greece was preserved through records kept by Early Islamic scholars. Fibonacci, of the famous sequence, is actually just as notable as a translator of math and science texts from Arabic as a mathematician in his own right.
Here's some of the surprising words with Arabic roots (all descriptions borrowed from Etymonline):
  • chemical/chemistry- originally a variant of alchemical which comes from Arabic al-kimiya, from Gk. khemeioa (found c.300 C.E. in a decree of Diocletian against "the old writings of the Egyptians"), all meaning "alchemy." Perhaps from an old name for Egypt (Khemia, lit. "land of black earth," found in Plutarch), or from Gk. khymatos "that which is poured out," from khein "to pour," related to khymos "juice, sap." The word seems to have elements of both origins.

  • orange - from O.Fr. orenge (12c.), from M.L. pomum de orenge, from It. arancia, originally narancia (Venetian naranza), alt. of Arabic naranj, from Pers. narang, from Skt. naranga-s "orange tree," of uncertain origin. Loss of initial n- probably due to confusion with definite article (e.g. une narange, una narancia), but perhaps infl. by Fr. or "gold." The tree's original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11c., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15c. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Mod.Gk. still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali "Portuguese") orange. Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Sp. explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Introduced to Hawaii 1792. Not used as the name of a color until 1542.

  • alcohol - "fine powder produced by sublimation," from M.L. alcohol "powdered ore of antimony," from Arabic al-kuhul "kohl," the fine metallic powder used to darken the eyelids, from kahala "to stain, paint." The al- is the Arabic definite article, "the." "Powdered cosmetic" was the earliest sense in English; definition broadened 1670s to "any sublimated substance, the pure spirit of anything." Modern sense of "intoxicating ingredient in strong liquor" is first recorded 1753, short for alcohol of wine, which was extended to "the intoxicating element in fermented liquors." In organic chemistry, the word was extended 1850 to the class of compounds of the same type as this.

  • alcove - "vaulted recess," from Fr. alcôve, from Sp. alcoba, from Arabic al-qobbah "the vaulted chamber," from Sem. base q-b-b "to be bent, crooked, vaulted."

  • ghoul - from Arabic ghul, an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses, from ghala "he seized."

  • alfalfa - from Sp. alfalfa, earlier alfalfez, from Arabic al-fisfisa "fresh fodder."

  • alkaline - "soda ash," from M.L. alkali, from Arabic al-qili "the ashes" (of saltwort, a plant growing in alkaline soils), from qala "to roast in a pan." The modern chemistry sense is from 1813.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

3/19 Moment of Zen: Advanced Theoretical Paper-Folding

My calculus teacher in high school, a fascinating character unto himself, once had us calculate how many times you would theoretically have to fold a piece of newspaper to get it to reach to the moon, based on the following information:
  1. The moon is an average distance of about 384 403 km from the Earth.
  2. The average sheet of newsprint is about 0.1 mm thick.

You can amuse yourself by trying to riddle this one through, or you can click the picture above and read more geekery at Toothpaste for Dinner comics. Then again, why choose?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

3/17 Moment of Zen: Irish Soda Bread Recipe

Fancy Irish Soda Bread

Our Family Recipe Secret is that we don't keep secrets about recipes. This is the way I make it, this is the way my mama makes it, and this is how her mama made it. Happy St. Patty's, folks.

Preheat oven to 375°F

Dry Mix:
4 cups flour (I used half all-purpose flour and half whole-wheat pastry flour today)
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 Tblsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

Cut in 1⁄4 cup (1⁄2 stick) cold butter to tiny pea size or smaller (I usually do this in the food processor, but you can use a pastry cutter or butterknives, too),
then add:
1 Tblsp caraway seeds
1 cup currants or raisins

Wet Mix:
1 3⁄4 – 2 cups buttermilk (if you split the recipe in half, use 1⁄2 - 3⁄4 cups buttermilk and 1 egg)
1 egg

For optional egg wash, beat together:
1 egg
2-3 Tblsp water

Mix dry and wet ingredients separately (they can actually be stored in the fridge separately for up to two weeks – longer in the case of the dry mix), then add the wet to the dry and mix just until it forms a ball.

You can bake it as one large loaf or split it into two smaller loaves. Form the dough into roundish lumps and place on baking sheet lined with parchment or greased.

Brushing with egg wash provides a pretty, glossy crust, but isn't essential. I didn't use one today.

Bake at 375°F: 45-50 min for 1 large loaf or 30-40 min for two smaller loaves.

Monday, March 15, 2010

3/15 Moment of Zen: Compost Cookies

Compost Cookies?

Would you put potato chips in a cookie? Christina Tosi, the ringleader at Momofuku Milk Bar in New York City, adds potato chips and more to what she calls "Compost Cookies." Tosi recently revealed her recipe and varying food writers have been posting about their attempts and what combinations of crunch and melt they add to the base. Some conservatively keep to known combinations like pretzels and chocolate, while others like David Lebovitz, who calls his "Amnesty Cookies," see it as an opportunity to rifle through the cabinets and get rid of leftovers (Lebovitz's cookies included everything from chocolate-covered marshmallow bears to corn chips). Other ingredients have ranged from bacon to Goldfish to coffee grounds. Continually, people have been surprised with the alchemy that takes place in the cookie and turns it into whatever the baking equivalent of gold is.

Click the photos above to visit the recipe if you want to try it yourself. I also have it on high authority that different versions of these have been turning up for sale at Outlook Farm pretty regularly (this would be the same authority that shared the recipe with me and makes all the cookies at Outlook).

Speaking of round baked goods, if you missed out on π day yesterday, since we weren't in school to do anything, you have another chance to celebrate π this summer on European π day on July 22nd.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

3/11 Moment of Zen: DJ Mamy Rock

What Was That You Said About Old Dogs?

Like many contemporary dance DJs, British DJ Mamy Rock (aka Ruth Flowers) sprinkles sets of contemporary electrodance tunes with a little vintage flavor, layering in tunes from sources like ABBA and the Rolling Stones. Unlike most of her DJ peers, she was already an adult when those songs came out. Flowers first became interested in DJing when already in her 60s after a birthday party for her grandson. Now nearly 70, she has become quite in demand on the European club scene, with trademark rhinestone-studded headphones and big sunglasses. She says that although she initally puzzles many people, she's been largely very well supported by her younger peers, several of whom she credits with helping her build her skills.

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!

3/10 Moment of Zen: Urban Golf in India

Third-World Golf

Golf is a pastime that is traditionally associated with the wealthy and powerful, sometimes used as a metaphor for that. This association is not abstract: shelling out money for equipment and greens fees adds up. It's an interesting upset of that to find a golf subculture in the middle of some of the poorer cities in the world, hitting golf balls off of rooftops at abandoned buildings with precisely placed holes along an improvised course. It works a little like frisbee golf borrowed back to golf equipment.

While urban golf is not limited to poor areas, golfers elsewhere have had more difficulty finding suitable courses. Click the picture above to see more pictures from a series by Polish photojournalist Tomasz Gudzowaty.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

3/9 Moment of Zen: Darwin Meets Dogdson in the Parlour

In the Victorian Era, cartes de visite (lit. "visiting cards" - think of them like baseball cards for tea drinking) were quite the thing. Ladies would display them, showing off all the guests they'd had at their house. Then, they started cutting up their friends' pictures and pasting them into strange contexts, onto the bodies of animals or into the middle of some kind of geometric maze, decades before surrealism and photomontage had been officially discovered. It's not entirely clear what started this fashion. Likely, it was a combination of things. One speculation is that as cartes de visite became more widely available to people outside the upper class, rich ladies felt the need to distinguish theirs further. Another deals with two books that came out within a few years of each other and which have both had a profound influence on the intellectual landscape. One was Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the other was Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Both caused quite a stir, in very different ways, but both changed the image of what creatures could look like.

Follow the link above to see a gallery of more odd and interesting visiting card collages, along with more history and interpretation to go with it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Moment of Zen 3/8: Alice on Film, 1903

Although last night's Academy Awards ceremony probably accounts for this weekend's Big Deal in Movies, I know many of you went to see the most recent cinematic take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, as imagined by Tim Burton, which opened on Friday. However, many others have tried to bring Alice and her adventures in Wonderland to film since the very beginnings of the medium. A cursory search turns up more than a dozen attempts, the first of which was made in 1903 - 37 years after the book's release and just 5 years after Lewis Carroll's death in 1898.

This 1903 silent film, directed in England by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, was the longest film ever made at the time, running almost 12 minutes (only 8 of which have survived). Hepworth was insistent about staying as faithful as possible to the book's original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. The cast included his wife as the White Rabbit and Red Queen, his secretary as Alice, and the family dog, Blair. The dog went on to star in 1905's Rescued by Rover.

The British Film Institute has made the surviving 8 minutes of the movie available online.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Moment of Zen 3/5: World's Largest Burrito

By Request: World's Largest Burrito

The World's Largest Burrito was constructed on May 8, 1999 in Pasco, Washington. It took just under 2 hours to put together, measured 4,298 feet long (more than 3/4 of a mile) and weighed in at 3.7 tons (over 7,000 lbs!). You can see a breakdown of weight by ingredient here.

(one of my 8th graders has been requesting this as the MoZ for a while now)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Moment of Zen 3/4: Happy Pun Day!

Happy National Pun Day!

"The goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability."

~Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia, 1849

Why today? Because only on March Fourth can pundits really March Forth to the beet of their own humor and see how it's taken root.

I leave the rest up to you: please comment with your best (I use the term loosely) puns, so we can all share in the punishment.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

3/2 Moment of Zen: Power vs Effect of Earthquakes: Chile and Haiti

Saturday's earthquake near the coast of Chile, which registered a magnitude of 8.8, was actually significantly stronger than the January 12 earthquake which devastated Haiti with a magnitude of 7.0. While damage, casualties and civil unrest are at catastrophic levels in Chile now, the degree to which the destruction affected Haiti more could be measured on the same kind of exponential scale used to measure the magnitude of the earthquakes themselves. It's worth asking why lesser tremors caused so much more damage. Two immediate answers present themselves: poverty and preparedness.

Chile's location on the Pacific Rim puts it in a very high risk area for seismic activity like earthquakes. In fact, the strongest earthquake on record, with a magnitude of 9.5, had its epicenter in Valdivia, Chile on May 22, 1960. Additionally, nine out of the ten largest earthquakes on record are along the Pacific Rim (Saturday's quake will take the #5 slot on this list). Because of this historical precedent for large scale seismic events in this region, engineers have focused on planning for events such as these in the way that cities are laid out and in the way buildings are constructed. The Caribbean is not the same hotbed of seismic activity, though there are several significant Caribbean earthquakes noted over the last 500 years, and so earthquake safety isn't as high on the list of building specifications as it is on the Pacific Rim.

Even if it was, however, Haiti's history of poverty and political unrest make it difficult to put together and put in action any kind of coherent plan for this. Haiti has a GDP per person (a commonly used measure of a country's financial health) of $1,300, compared with $14,300 in Chile and $46,900 in the US, making it one of the poorest countries in the world (compare it even with the GDP per person of the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and which was relatively unaffected by the January quake) of $8,300). While Chile has had its own share of political unrest, violent turnover has been a recurring feature in Haiti's history, compounding the economic hardship with a lack of consistent government support. When the majority of the population lives in unofficial, improvised shanty towns, even the strictest building code isn't going to protect that largest part of the people. When essential needs like food, water and medical attention are hard to come by even when things are running normally, any upset will make them near impossible.

Right now, the death toll from Saturday's earthquake in Chile stands at 723, and is not expected to rise much higher, though the region is still feeling aftershocks of 5+ magnitude. The record-setting 1960 quake claimed about 1,600 lives. Those numbers are tragic, regardless of larger context. However, it's still boggling to think that January's quake in Haiti, which released about 1/500 of the energy of Chile's quake, claimed more than 200,000 lives. Chile's death toll would have to nearly triple to represent 1% of that in Haiti. This mismatch between destructive power and destructive effect further highlights the tragedy of the situation in Haiti, because it suggests that it was the pre-existing desperation of the country's situation more than the event itself that caused the most damage and that the same event elsewhere might have done relatively little damage. In the wake of it all, it provides us with an opportunity to think of the broader reaching effects of poverty around the world, and how many of these places are a quick shake away from being Haiti all over again.

Monday, March 1, 2010

3/1 Moment of Zen: The Idiotarod

The Idiotarod

It was deep in the winter when the sickness took them: The snow piled high and no sign of a melt. The only antidote could be found by hitching a team to a sled and heading out into the icy wasteland of...New York City? It draws inspiration - or at least a horrible pun of a name - from the Iditarod, the grueling, thousand mile dogsled race held every year along the route that brought essential medicine to cure a 1925 diptheria outbreak in a snowbound Alaskan town, but instead cures the annual epidemics of winter blues and cabin fever by hitching teams of four costumed people (plus one equally decked out "musher") to a glorified shopping cart and running around the city. Idiotarods have taken place in Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Austin, and Washington, D.C., though the original race was founded in San Francisco in 1994 as the "Urban Iditarod."

Prizes are awarded not only for the first team to cross the finish line, but also for the team with the best costumes, best sabotage, best bribery and "Best in Show." Beyond that, the awards change every year at the judges discretion and have included honors for: Best Dance, Best Recruitment of New Members Along the Course, Most Surprising Completion of the Race Despite An Unwieldy Course, and Best Name Change When Pirates Became Against the Rules.

Norwegian Curling Pants Update: Norway took the silver medal in Men's Curling Saturday night, losing the medal match to Canada. See story