Friday, December 25, 2009

Left Behind

Those of us who are enamored of Wunderkammern often seem to find ourselves drifting--either physically or virtually--into ghost towns and other abandoned spaces. I think my own interest must stem from the archaeologist in me, because I'm equally drawn to unearthed remains from past civilizations--particularly three-dimensional sites like Chaco Canyon, the Labyrinth at Knossos, and the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

I began musing on this topic late last year,* when I picked up a book on sale at the Dallas Museum of Art. It was in Japanese, with very little information in English, so I ended up doing an internet search on Gunkanjima Island, an artificial construction on a small reef off the coast of Japan. Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island (because that's what it looks like from a distance) had arisen in the coal-mining heydey of the nineteenth century, was built up over the next century and a half, and then finally abandoned in 1974.

The book first attracted me because it's about a place in Japan I'd never seen--nor had I (at least consciously) ever heard about it--but it had the mysterious aura of a ghost town, or a place devastated by some Chernobyl-like event (something that's haunted me since talk of a neutron bomb). The photographs are stark and beautiful, in black and white, and seem almost like museum reconstructions of an apocalypse. Here is visual proof of what goes on after we're gone--as recently portrayed in Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.

The web search led me to BLDGBLOG, and the post I found turns out to have been Geoff Manaugh's first on his more-or-less-focused-on-architecture pages. He's since gone on to myriad other fascinating places, and it'll take me a good while to plumb them all. That is, if I don't get lost looking at all the interesting stuff he sends one off to, including BLDGBLOG's sister site, Edible Geography, now linked on the Cabinet's "Wunderkammern: Food" section.

The General Web Directory Journal's pages on Abandoned Places In the World list articles on Gunkanjima and other spots, including one in Taiwan that was built and abandoned after I left. It's not a proper blog, and its home site is more of a clearing house for web information, but I was happy to find it nonetheless.

Of the many web places that deal with San Zhi, the "UFO pod village" originally designed to serve as a tourist trap in a relatively neglected area of Taiwan, Carrie Kellenberger's post on her My Several Worlds blog has the best pictures. She's a Canadian ex-pat living in Taiwan (much like my mother did for most of her life), and manages to transport us to the site through her photos. The place was built while my mother was living in Taipei, so I guess I could expect to find pictures of it among the thousands she left behind for me to sort through. One of these days. At any rate, mystery endures because construction was abandoned due to fatal accidents (or not) and rumors have hinted at nefarious deeds, resulting in another Asian take on the ghost town idea.

In my more recent travels I discovered a plan to tear it down, which seems to have come to fruition according to this story in the Taipei Times and more recent photos. Demolition apparently began shortly after I started writing about it. (Hear the Twilight Zone theme now, please.)

My fascination with places like these actually began in Taiwan, even though I left a decade before the San Zhi pods were built. Above one of the many houses we occupied in the five or so years I lived there sat a small abandoned house that my brother and I managed to sneak into a couple of times. The place was tiny--only three rooms that I can remember--and may have been a remnant of the Japanese occupation, like many of the homes we rented (all five had at least some Japanese features). My curiosity wasn't confined to Taiwan, however. Whenever I visited my grandparents in the Owens Valley, I would peek into the windows of the empty Department of Water and Power bungalows, since they were seldom occupied when I was there. Empty spaces leave room for growing imaginations.

The latest issue of Orion Magazine plays into all this with an article on Deyrolle, a Parisian taxidermy store that caught fire in 2008. Martin D'Orgeval's story ("Touched By Fire") and photos evoke the same, almost mythic quality that inhabits old, stuffy museums and ghost towns. It's not online yet, but may be later (Orion tends to parcel out its web access between issues). Two of the pictures are, however, available on Jessica Palmer's Bioephemera blog post, Beautiful Decay: Three Collections. The store, which has since reopened, has its own website (in French). The New York Times ran an article, Rescuing Deyrolle, a beloved Parisian Shop, not long after the fire. This is another of those places I most certainly would have visited, had I known about it--even in the diminished state of youth some forty years ago, the last time I saw Paris.

The web is chockablock with blog entries and photo collections of lost places and fascinating collections of odd things. Not at all a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

*While this post was begun last Christmas, it was abandoned, then taken up again and completed on 23 January, 2010. I think there's a metaphor here.

Image credits: The opening photo was taken by a Japanese user and posted to Wikimedia Commons. He/she also has a page of photos of the island. Unfortunately, I don't read Japanese, so I can't name the photographer. The shots of San Zhi (Sanjhih) are from Cypherone's Flickr photostream.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Grandma Clarice's Recipes: Dinner Rolls

I made these, as I usually do, for Thanksgiving, which was otherwise catered by daughter at her loft in downtown Dallas. She did herself proud, with traditional fare like stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed red spuds, and Dead Baby Chickens (well, traditional for us). Beloved Spouse and I joined three of her friends, and her moose/dog Homer, for a lovely meal and great company.

Which is what Grandma Clarice's Dinner Rolls are all about. They were a staple in our lives while I was growing up, and a perennial request from the children and grandchildren on all sides of the family. If there ever were a holiday celebration without them, I don't remember it.

The exact equivalent is probably not attainable, even with her hand-written recipe in front of me, because she made them without reference to anything written down. I did ask her to record the recipe for all our sakes, but until Thursday I hadn't even come close. I think I've finally nailed it down, needing only to try this version with cake yeast and bread flour to see if that gets me even closer.

If any of my cousins want to try it, resist the temptation to skip any steps. For the sake of authenticity and nostalgia, stick with the white flour and all the beating. Especially the beating.

The verbatim recipe (transcribed from the little notebook in which Gram collected recipes from family and friends):

My Rolls
1 c scalded milk with 1/2 c sugar & 1 tsp salt
Dissolve 1 cake yeast in [1/2 c] hot water--add to cooled milk mixtures

Add 1 beaten egg--beat

Add 1/3 cup oil--beat

Then add short 5 c flour & knead well.

Let rise then make into rolls & let rise again

Gram and I often discussed the changing character of flour. She used plain-old all-purpose, but the gluten content seemed to change over the years. Now flour made especially for bread-baking is commonplace, so I'd suggest using that.

Over time I've tended to mess with the recipe, feeling guilty as I do whenever I don't use whole grains. So it's possible to make them with about 1/3 whole wheat flour, and even honey in place of sugar. Gram insisted on using cake yeast, but when I can't get that I use organic packaged dry yeast.

This year I stayed as close as I could to the original, and took out my whole wheat angst on the pistachio rolls I also made for the meal. These were adapted from a James Beard recipe (from Beard on Bread) and turned out nicely--but everybody ate Grandma Clarice's rolls instead.

Since Gram didn't write out instructions about how hot the oven should be, or how long the rolls should bake, I've had to improvise. In my electric oven set to 375F, I bake them from 15-18 minutes, but 16 is probably exactly right. For oil I used a canola/light olive oil blend, but plain canola is probably better (she undoubtedly used Crisco or corn oil--or whatever was on sale that week at Joseph's Buy-Rite market).

Butter muffin tins and put three one-inch balls of dough in each space for clover-leaf shaped rolls. I brushed them with melted butter before and after baking, but that's not necessary if you're keeping fat content down. We also used to make these as crescent rolls (triangles rolled up from large end to small) and occasionally cut rounds out of rolled-out dough. I like the clover-leaf shape because it's easy and they pull apart like monkey bread. The recipe makes exactly two dozen in this shape.

These rolls are rather sweet, but go really well with holiday foods. I love them the next day, warmed over with unsalted butter and good home-made jam. Their aroma while baking is a sure-fire way to nip back into my childhood for a few, sweet minutes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Origin of Species

This has been a banner year for Charles Darwin: the 200th anniversary of his birth, and today the 150th anniversary of the book that changed the world.

I've been posting about Darwin and his work all year, but couldn't let the day go by without saluting (and later raising a glass to) the best literary/scientific book I've ever read.

Thanks, Mr. Darwin. And may the fruits of your labor continue to inspire scientists and lay folk alike.

Photo credit: HMS Beagle in the seaways of Tierra del Fuego, painted by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), via Wikimedia Commons. I've already posted pictures of the book itself, and I love this painting, so thought it would be a fitting image for a birthday greeting.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Art and Evolution: More Darwiniana

Beloved Spouse was on his way to work today, listening to XM radio (my gift to him when he bought his "Galapagos Green" Element a few years back), when he heard Margaret Wertheim's TED lecture on hyperbolic geometry and her Crocheted Coral Reef project. He sent me the link, and I spent the next few minutes getting inspired to pick up my crochet hooks again.

The project itself is fantastic, and since she mentioned Darwin's bicentennial, I decided that the Cabinet needed a post on some of the art Darwin has inspired over the years, either directly or indirectly. The opening illustration is from Wertheim's photostream on Flickr, and I hope it's okay to use it. I posted here on Darwin back in February, in honor of his birthday, but I keep happening on things related to him and thought it time for another visit with Darwin in Cyberspace--so Wertheim's amazing project offered an excuse to return to the topic.

Another notable, if not nearly so ambitious, project is Jessica Polka's wonderful Voyage of the Beagle finger puppets. She also crochets natural objects, and when I saw the TED video on the Coral Reef effort, I immediately thought of her blog, and her recent contribution to the world of Darwiniana.

Last spring I started reading Robert Charles Wilson's 1998 novel, Darwinia, but had to stop because it was a bit too intense for someone on the threshold of heart surgery. I finally finished it this summer (and went on to read The Harvest and Mysterium) and recommend it enthusiastically. It combines some of my favorite elements of speculative fiction: true alienness and good science. His stories frequently involve dei ex machina that spark the fictional equivalent of punctuated equilibrium, forcing characters to adapt precipitously to new situations.

While I was looking for a link to Wilson's book, I came across a game by the same name, which might be interesting if you're a video gamer. This one looks mildly entertaining (at least as much fun as shooting down snaking lines of scarabs, which is what I do in my off moments), although only marginally involved with Darwinian processes; it does, however, seem to resemble Wilson's scenarios in the sense of requiring a kind of evolve-on-a-dime-or-die situation.

Yet another contribution to the cabinet of Darwinian curiosities, combining media arts, science, and literature, is the amazing new addition to English Heritage's website devoted to Down House, Darwin's home: "Explore the manuscripts" includes entire virtual copies of four of Darwin's field notebooks, plus highlights from the Beagle voyage notes. I posted about the software that makes this possible yesterday on the Owl of Athena, but wanted to mention the site here, because the ability to view these notebooks in as much detail as the "Turning the Pages" application allows is just priceless for Darwin devotees.

If I haven't already mentioned this, I'm remiss--but the Darwin Online site provides the texts of everything he published, plus a list of supplementary works that include Emma Darwin's Recipe Book (with the recipe for boiling rice in her husband's hand). The technology isn't as sexy as Turning the Pages, but it still makes it possible to read exactly what Darwin wrote.

Finally, I'd like to mention a treat I bought myself when I had a 40% off one item coupon at Borders: The Beagle Letters, edited by Frederick Burkhardt--a marvellous volume illustrated with watercolor sketches and pencil drawings by Conrad Martens, who was for a time Darwin's fellow passenger. The book's publication is a product of the Darwin Correspondence Project, another noteworthy effort to get Darwin's works online--this one focusing on the full texts of more than 5000 letters.

Although I'm not a great fan of biographies, I love to read other people's mail, at least when the correspondence is as lively and as interesting as Darwin's. One gets a better sense of the person in a letter, and since nobody much writes them anymore, epistolary insights into the characters of great writers and scientists may be fewer in the future.

Before the year is out I expect I'll come across more to add to this list, but I do have to get back to work. As the rain drips off of every surface outside my window, though, sifting through the web for things Darwinian provides a nice respite from gloom and chill.

Image credit: Hyperbolic crochet corals and anemones with sea slug by Marianne Midelburg. Photo © The Institute For Figuring (by Alyssa Gorelick). Downloaded from Margaret Wertheim's Photostream on Flickr.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grandma Clarice's Applesauce Cake Revisited

I didn't realize, when I split The Farm into three pieces, that it would be so hard to post regularly on all of them. The Cabinet, thus, suffers from chronic neglect. I'm hoping to rectify the situation as I get myself more organized, and this is my initial attempt.

Last weekend, when it was cold and damp and I was cranky and homesick, I did what I usually do in such situations: I baked Gram's applesauce cake. But because the applesauce I had on hand was Santa Cruz Organic Apple Cherry Sauce, I used that instead of the usual plain, unsweetened, natural variety. I also decided to make some flax meal (by grinding flax seed in a coffee grinder) because I'm trying to increase my Omega 3 fatty acid intake, and part whole wheat flour to lower the impact on my glucose levels. And I used butter (organic sweet cream, unsalted), mainly because I didn't have any canola oil, but also because Gram sometimes did and it always tasted a bit richer than usual (her fat of choice was margarine). For grins (and because of the apple cherry sauce) I used dried, unsweetened sour cherries instead of raisins.

The original recipe's on my Grandma Clarice's Recipes, Part 1 post from June 2008. The modified one goes like this:

1 cup organic cane sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup unsweetened applesauce (or apple cherry sauce)
1 3/4 cup flour (1/4 c. flax meal; 1/2 cup whole wheat flour; the rest unbleached all-purpose)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
dried sour cherries
1 tablespoon (or so) cocoa powder
1 teaspon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon boiling water

Cream butter and sugar, add applesauce, spices, cherries, and dissolved soda. Then add flour. Bake in moderate oven (300F) until top springs back.

I frequently double the recipe, as Gram did. If you do so, bake it at 350F for about 45 minutes. It can be baked in a loaf or shallow rectangular pan--or an 8x8 inch glass pyrex dish-- if you're making a single batch. The doubled recipe needs a 13x9 inch pan or pyrex dish.

The cake came out a little denser than usual because of the flax meal. It would be moister and more nutritionally valuable if canola oil were substituted for the butter; or, I might try the new 50/50 blend of Smart Balance and butter next time. It's salted, though, and this is normally a good cake for folks on a low-sodium diet. I'm not sure that the tiny bit of salt in the butter would be bad for the cake itself, however.

When it was warm from the oven, I had a slice with a bit of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream for extra mood enhancement, and it was luscious. Just what I needed to make it through one more rainy day.

Image note: Beloved Spouse has the camera in Alabama for a tennis tournament this weekend, so the fuzzy shot is the fault of my iPhone.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Looking Back at the Moon

For old astronomy buffs, there's been a lot to celebrate this week. Most of us can remember where we were on July 20,1969--and I'm no exception: baseball game, watching the Angels at what was then called Anaheim Stadium. The Angels were playing the Oakland Athletics, who won 9-6. The old stadium didn't have much in the way of cool graphics capabilities, but they did show a rough version of the lunar module slowly descending to the "surface" of the moon. When it stopped, the crowd erupted and the poor guy at bat, who was behind in the count, couldn't figure out what the hell was going on. Then he looked up at the scoreboard, threw down his hat, and started jumping up and down. I can't remember who it was, but I think it was one of the guys who pitched--and since this was in the days before designated hitters, I could actually be right. Anyway, when something great happens, like a moon landing, it's rather fun to be with a big crowd.

Then, yesterday, if you were living in the right place (mainly China and India), you got to see the longest solar eclipse of the century. In honor of all this I though it would be a good idea to revisit my favorite repositories of web-available images for an historical look at moon pictures.

My first stop was, as usual, Wikimedia Commons, which produced a page of Galileo drawings of moon phases, a Japanese print of a wolf in front of a full moon, and a detailed map of the moon.

Galileo, Phases of the Moon (1616)

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi Full moon in Mushasi, 1890

I can't do the Map of the Moon justice here; you'll have to go to the link and enlarge the image, but it's rather wonderful. It was created for the Andrees Allgemeiner Handatlas, 1st Edition, published in Leipzig in 1881 and scanned by "Grombo" for the Commons.

I then found a composite photo of the earth and the moon, which originally came from GRIN (Great Images in NASA):

The Earth and Moon, created from two separate images taken by the Galileo spacecraft in 1992. See the GRIN page on the image for the full description. And here's another great shot from the same website, taken from the Apollo 16 Command and Service Module on April 23, 1972. The Lunar Module carrying John Young and Charles Duke were on their way up to "Casper" after three days of exploration.

I also revisted the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery for another drawing by E. L. Trouvelot (who was featured in an earlier Cabinet post on astronomy), this time one showing a partial lunar eclipse.

The event was observed on October 24, 1874 and published c. 1881-1882.

Back at Wikimedia Commons I found the image that says it all for me, and which opens the post: "Earthrise." This may well be the most evocative photograph to come out of the space program, and was taken On Christmas Eve, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in orbit around the moon. The information on the link notes that

this phenomenon is only visible to an observer in motion relative to the lunar surface. Because of the Moon's synchronous rotation relative to the Earth (i.e., the same side of the Moon is always facing Earth), the Earth appears to be stationary (measured in anything less than a geological timescale) in the lunar 'sky'. In order to observe the effect of Earth rising or setting over the Moon's horizon, an observer must travel towards or away from the point on the lunar surface where the Earth is most directly overhead (centred in the sky).

I was, alas, too busy to properly mark the 40th anniversary of the first actual landing, but I did want to wax sentimental about it as soon as I could. At my age, celebrating things that happened that long ago is part of what's good about getting old. We were there, we saw it happen, and it was amazing. That Walter Cronkite died almost on the anniversary itself is almost poetic; after all, he was part of the experience.

As I type, I'm watching and listening to astronauts Dave Wolf and Chris Cassidy doing some battery work and preparing for a payload transfer to the Japanese module, Kibo, on the International Space Station. I never get tired of listening to these guys as they work, and will be forever grateful for the NASA TV gadget that shares space with the moon phase gadget on my desktop.

My hope for the future is that today's young folk have a chance to experience the wonder and the sense of human accomplishment generated by spectacular achievements in the various space programs currently in progress. And I hope I live long enough to see somebody (I don't really care who) go to Mars and come back. Maybe they could retrieve Spirit and Opportunity so we can put 'em in the Smithsonian for subsequent generations to enjoy, like my kids enjoyed seeing artifacts from the Apollo missions, moon rocks, and Neil Armstrong's space suit.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Garden Oddities

It's been eons since I've posted here, but I'm hoping to make up for it by aiming for a couple of posts a month at least. I'm not sure why I ever thought it was a good idea to break the original Farm into three bits, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My so-called holiday is almost over, and I've spent the entire morning updating the slide list for my first lecture on Monday. But before I head out to the garden for some R&R (despite the fact that workers are tearing down the back of one neighbor's garage immediately adjacent to the potager, and major repairs are being inflicted on the house across the alley), I thought I'd post the pictures I took last week. Later I'm going to saw off the legs of an old wooden dining table to make a perch for feet and food (not necessarily together) and place my grandmother's old metal lawn chairs around it--so this is part one of a two-part effort on the cranky things we're doing in our garden these days.

I had got the idea for the bottle fence pictured above from the traditional bottle trees that show up all over goofy back yards in the south. But it's also connected to a Sherri S. Tepper novel called The Visitor, in which bits of DNA were "bottled" and put into a wall for reasons I won't go into here. When I was looking for ways to keep the Terrifying Space Monkeys out of the kitchen garden, I put the following equation together: saved blue glass bottles + all the rebar we inherited from the previous owners = bottle fence. At last my packrattishness bears fruit.

Beloved Spouse kindly nipped bars of iron into more-or-less random lengths (some are a bit too uniform and will have to be modified later), and impaled them in the ground at intervals too small to let largish dogs in. We then upended the bottles on the bars, and voila!

We also dumped about five big bags of cedar mulch in amongst the herbs in an effort to cut down water loss and maybe keep the mozzie population down. Then we moved the copper/tree-trunk bird bath off the sidewalk and onto the dirt to help close up where the dogs get in. It's not 100% yet, but I've figured out a way to put a gate in that we can lift up easily, so now I just have to tie together some twigs (as artfully as possible, I suppose) to make that and we should have a dog free garden.
But not toad-free, I hope. There are now two places for toads to hide, although one is probably a bit too open for them. The one above is an up-ended broken clay pot that got smashed up a bit during the big storm I wrote about on the Farm. The ceramic pipe shown below doesn't work as well, but it has the advantage of being next to a shallow dish of water. So far the robins love the water dish and occasionally perch on top of the pipe. But no toads in either place yet.

The final shot is of the newly moved bird bath. There was just enough space between the concrete and the Salvia, and room next to it for a pot of basil (the grille behind it is from the Smith & Hawken copper firepit that got smashed when our neighbor's tree fell on it; we replaced the firepit, but then had an extra grille, which last year supported a pot of Stevia).

The weather has been so lovely the last couple of days that I've gotten spoiled. No air conditioning, a spot of rain, Sunday morning on the front porch with coffee, newspaper, and no bugs. Most of the baby birds are fully fledged (although there was a baby blue jay tragedy yesterday when the little Manx that occasionally hangs out under my car caught herself a nice little morsel, much to the very loud consternation of its parents), so the mums and dads are getting a rest and occasionally lounging in the bird baths. By tomorrow the temp will be back up in the high 90s and all this cool peacefulness will evaporate. Still, it's reasonably nice most mornings, so the summer isn't a complete bother yet.

Hope everyone hasn't given up on me--I really will try to post more frequently and get back to looking at all the blogs I get such a kick out of, including a couple of new additions.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The World Digital Library

Just when I'm the most irritated with our local rag because of its skimpy, highly-localized news reportage, they do me proud by including an article (albeit from the Washington Post) on the newly-available educational marvel, the World Digital Library, which aims to make "available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world."

The site is beautifully designed, highly accessible, and a true marvel of modern digital technology. The opening page consists of a world map divided into nine regions: North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania and the Pacific, Europe, Middle East and North Africa, and Africa. Linked to each section (illustrated by a thumbnail of a representative work) is a list of the number of items currently available.

Even at this early stage, the offerings are marvellous: maps, journals, books, photographs, etc. Click on the link and a further list of offerings by country, by period, by topic, by medium, and by institution appears, with further thumbnails of the available works. Click on these and enter a world of enough zoomable images to keep any would-scholar or lover of curiosities busy for years. And the collection will keep growing.

Altogether I've offered six images that I think will provide a peek into what's available, and will not strain international copyright law (this post, after all, amounts to news coverage, and a review of a new online presence). If anyone finds me in error, please let me know. Quoted material is from the description accompanying each image.

"Sketch Map of Africa with a Comparative Overview of the Journeys of Dr. Barth and Dr. Livingstone." This thumbnail does very little to indicate the intriguing nature of this map, which "compares the voyages of the British explorer David Livingstone (1813-73), who traveled down the Zambezi River in 1851-56, and the German Heinrich Barth (1821-65) who, between 1850 and 1855, explored much of western Africa and the Sahara." It was created by August Petermann, and printed by C. Hellfarth in 1857.

A photograph of Victoral Falls, from around 1890-1925. From the Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection at the Library of Congress.

A map of Peking, from 1914. "This detailed map of Beijing by the Cartographic Division of the Royal Prussian Ordnance Society is based on surveys carried out by the Expeditionary Corps in 1900-01," and was a product of the German East-Asian Expedtionary Corps 1900 attempt to put down the Boxer Rebellion.

A page from Dharma Wonder Boy, author unknown, "an early 18th-century example of Nara-ehon, the illustrated manuscripts or hand-printed scrolls and books produced in Japan from the Muromachi (1333-1573) through the mid-Edo (1615-1868) periods. The Hōmyō dōji is originally an East Indian story with roots in Buddhism. Like many such stories, it begins with the characteristic phrase, 'Once upon a time in the land of the Buddha...'"

Map of the Three Arabias by French royal geographer Nicolas Sanson d'Abbeville, 17th century. Engraved by Jan Somer, 1654. " . . . based on the medieaval work of the 12th-century Arab cartographer Al Idrisi (1099-1164), whose work Geographia Nubiensis was first translated into French only in 1619.

The pièce de résistance (the image that opens the post), is from the Description of Egypt: Antiquities, Volume One (Plates): Or, Collection of Observations and Research Conducted in Egypt During the Expedition of the French Army. Second Edition (1920). When Napoleon was still planning to conquer the world, he sent his artists and engineers forth in Egypt to observe and record everything they saw. The result was one of the most remarkable works ever assembled, and the edition featured here is from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The educational possibilities of this single website are enough to reassure me that not everything about the internet is going to the birds. My students in art and design history, in myth, and in visual anthropology can all find myriad uses for the materials contained herein. It warms the cockles of my little Borg heart to know that this incredibly powerful technology is being used, at least in this case, for the enrichment and betterment of human kind. Now, if you don't mind, I'll get back to fooling around in it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

'Possum Saga

I've been neglecting the Cabinet in favor of the Farm lately, but thought that I'd get one last post in before I take a forced hiatus (see the Farm for that particular saga). The topic is actually related, tangentially, to my reasons for taking time off, but I digress.

Last week my dogs uncovered a nest of baby opossums in our woodpile. I always know there's something naughty afoot (and some't nasty in the woodpile) when Woody doesn't come running the minute I step out the back door. He was lounging out back in the Accidental Garden, intrigued by something, so I went back to investigate.

There he sat, pleased as punch, licking what turned out to be a joey, as they're called, according to my source on the 'possum kingdom (that's sort of a pun; there's a lake by that name south of here). I thought the poor little guy was dead, so confiscated him and got ready to bury him when I noticed that he was still moving. I took him into the house and cleaned him up, and he got a lot more active. Then I noticed that Woody was still back at the woodpile, so I looked again, and there was another one snuggled down into a nest, of sorts, so I replaced the cleaned-up baby back with his/her brother/sister and took the dogs in. Later, I went back and tried to dog-proof the nest enough to give mom a chance to come back and get her kids, and when I let the dogs out again, Woody found another one, making its way through the tall grass that's now filling the open space in that part of the yard.

I picked that one up and put him/her back in the nest, and kept the dogs in for the rest of the day. By bedtime, though, it was clear that the nest had been abandoned, so I went out to get the nestlings and keep them warm for the night. The day had been chilly, though, and one was now cold and stiff--not playing 'possum at all. So I buried him and put the other two in a basket of old tennis socks and put that in the bathtub to keep the house critters away. I gave them some fluids through an eyedropper, but didn't feed them anything, and everybody hit the sack.

The next morning I began to search for 'possum rehab folks on the internet and was directed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife department, where a nice man gave me the number of a woman here in town, but the number was out of service, so I called back--and bingo: The Living Materials Center run by Jim Dunlap for the Plano schools. Why didn't I think of that? Years ago, I lived practically across the street from the facility, and used to lead little kids through the Outdoor Learning Center portion of the property. They were happy to take them, so I made a detour on my way down to work and deposited the little critters and their tennis socks with people who will take care of them.

On the way back to the highway, however, I had a bit of an angina attack (related to the cardiac procedure I'm having done tomorrow) and briefly stopped paying attention to the speedometer. Of course, that one lapse had some consequences: my first ever, in forty years of driving, speeding ticket. The officer was apparently not at all impressed with my 'possum sob story, and because I'm undoubtedly going to be in the hospital when my court date arrives, I won't even be able to plead my case before a judge. So, little miss animal-rescue person who drives below the speed limit on highways and still does everything the nuns told her to do will now have a blot on her otherwise stainless record.

Still, little brother and sister opossum will have a better life, and I'll get over my self pity. They're really interesting animals, and one of the few marsupials native to this area--so they make a nice subject for a Cabinet entry. I founds some lovely photos through Wikimedia Commons, and have a shot of my little pair, so if you've ever wanted to know something about a creature most folks in this part of the world associate with stew, now you have it.

Here are some resources in case you run into a nest: The National Opossum Association (with their very helpful page on orphans), the NatureWorks page on Virginia Opossums (the brand we have around here), and the very complete page from Wikipedia.

Image credits: The post-opener is a lovely winter photo of a 'possum by Wikimedia user Cody.Pope. The closing image is a drawing of Virginia oposums, Didelphis virginiana, from the "small" edition (1927) of Brehms Tierleben (Life of Animals) by by Alfred Edmund Brehm. It was uploaded by a fan of the book, "Petwoe," to Wikimedia Commons. The other photo is mine of the babies in their little basket hotel.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tipsy Braised Pork Loin

The ineffable Geoff Isaac on It Came From the Kitchen has been ranting about cilantro (and who can blame him?), but like me he does enjoy the lovely little seeds of the coriander plant.

I was first introduced to coriander as a spice (rather than an herb) when I was working at Penn and a graduate student from Nepal periodically brought me a gift of rice pudding, called Khir. It was rich and creamy and redolent of both cardamom and coriander. I thought I'd post a recipe here to help Geoff out, even though it's far too rich for the current condition of my own arteries. Alas, however, the closest recipe I could find online (from Zen in Practise; it originally came from doesn't mention coriander seeds, but I suppose one could add them. My hunt also located a luscious variation that does include coriander, Chilled Vanilla Rice Pudding with Figs--even better because there's a red wine sauce to go with it and it'll give me something to do with my figs when they come in. The recipe comes from Big Oven, from whence I've derived several inspirational meals.

None of this has anything at all to do with the topic of the post. But I thought Geoff would be interested in tonight's main course, and so might other folk, because it requires beer. I've made it before, but not recently, and as I was searching for Himalayan rice pudding recipes I remembered that I had a pork roast in need of attending, and it was coming up on 3 pm, thanks to the arrival of Central Daylight Time on Sunday. So first I typed "pork loin roast" into Google, but didn't really want to deal with the oven. I was on my way to the cookbook shelves to leaf through my slow cooking bibles when it hit me: Tipsy Braised Pork Loin, as I used to call it when I made it for friends during my halcyon days in Philadelphia, before I got religion.

It just so happens that I have on hand some pink lady apples, onions, and plenty of garlic. There's always beer, so any time I want to souse a chunk of meat I'm well prepared. I'm less eager to give up a bottle of wine, but Beloved Spouse will forgive my pinching a bottle of his Sam Adams for a good cause. And I no longer have religion, so that's not a problem, either.

So here goes:

1 two-pound loin of some poor dead pig (preferably one that lived well before it became dead)
An onion, sliced
An apple, also sliced (not peeled; don't ever peel anything unless you have to)
A bottle of beer (real beer, like Sam Adams Boston Lager or, even better, Guinness Stout or Samuel Smith's Oatmeal stout; use 12 oz. of that one and drink the rest)
about 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
freshly ground peppercorns
freshly ground sea salt
two sprigs of rosemary, from the kitchen garden
a bit of good Greek or other tasty olive oil

Pour the olive oil (probably about two tablespoons) into a heavy Dutch oven big enough to fit the roast and heat; place the pork roast in the hot oil, turning it periodically to brown it. Then remove it to a plate, while you saute the onion and apple briefly in the oil. Add the garlic and stir it up, being careful not to burn the garlic.

Add the roast back in, and pour the bottle of beer over meat and veg. Do this slowly so as not to foam the beer over the top of the pot. Bring to a boil, add the rosemary sprigs, grind pepper and salt on top, cover, and lower the heat. Let it cook on low, peeking about every twenty minutes or so and giving it a stir, for about two and a half hours. When done, it should practically fall off the fork you test it with.

Serve it with basmati or some other aromatic rice, either steamed or cooked as a pilaf (with some pignolis and raisins if you like). I'm going to add a fig and onion chutney I made a while back, and maybe some naan.

And, of course, don't forget your favorite tipple.

PS: The image at top is what it looks like when it gets going. Here's a shot of what it looks like plated up for eating. I did serve it with brown basmati rice pilaf, but since I didn't have any raisins, I used dried cherries, and they were terrific. Good thing, however, that I'm a better cook than a food stylist. It needs some green, so I'm thinking of picking up some slender French green beans for the second round. The whole things goes well with a good stout beer or a glass of something dry and rich with berry flavors, like Bogle's "Phantom."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Celebration of Darwiniana

Charles Darwin was a kind of human glacier, moving slowly through human scientific life, raising lateral moraines alongside the flow, scooping up ideas along the way and pushing them ahead, leaving the occasional drumlin. I could go on with this silly metaphor (if you don't know what I'm talking about, see this page on glacial terminology), but I'm a fan of Pleistocene geology and once had to memorize all this stuff. It is kind of apt, though, even though it's not biological.

In the accumulation zone, the cirque, lies Darwin's birth in Shropshire, England, on 12 February 1809. It includes the Beagle and Edinburgh University and Cambridge and Down House, where Darwin did most of his work. The glacier itself, flowing forth over the intellectual landscape, incorporating some ideas, grinding others down, consists of everything that's happened since. It includes all the controversies, the affirmations, and the ancillary work by more-or-less contemporaries like Gregor Mendel and Ernst Haeckel, and modern biologists like E. O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, and Stephen Jay Gould. He influenced more theologically oriented thinkers like the philosopher Henri Bergson and priest-paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, and has remained a controversial figure among other religious folks less capable of reconciling doctrine with scientific evidence.

What's really astonishing about Darwin is how well his original ideas hold up, despite the fact that there was, at the time, no inkling of biology to come: RNA, DNA, the double helix, gene transfer, punctuated equilibrium. Everything that gets done in modern biology starts in Darwin's cirque and flows outward. The beauty of science is that it changes, builds--evolves--and grows as people explore ideas. Theory is about good answers based on good evidence: the best picture we can draw from what we know at the moment. But the power of Darwin's model, even though challenged over and over again, has stood its ground and provided us with a basis on which to enlarge our picture of the world. Even recent news about the shape of Darwin's tree isn't a negation; it's an affirmation that the guy had it fundamentally right, two hundred years ago.

This post, to celebrate this momentous birthday, is a wunderkammer of cool stuff related to Darwin and available on the web. I only have a couple of hours to work on this today, so I can't pore through the vast amount of information that exists. But here are some good links to blogs and websites to begin your celebration, followed by my choices of favorite images of Darwiniana:

Scientific American's Darwin Day Special podcast

David Leff's all-encompassing Darwin information page

Larry Moran's blog, Sandwalk: Strolling with a Skeptical Biochemist. Moran is a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto.

The Biologista's tribute to Darwin

Pharyngula's Happy Darwin Day post. P.Z. Myers is a biologist and an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris

Darwin's Canopy: Art Inspired by Evolution, from the New Scientist online. The site also has a feature on Darwin's impact: Darwin 200. The site's blog, Short Sharp Science, even includes a post by Australasian Editor, Rachel Nowak, called Eating my way through four billion years of evolution.

And now for some pictures:

Darwin's Thinking Path, also known as the Sand Walk--where he would walk and muse; would that we all had such a place to do our thinking.

Darwin's first "tree of life." It's a testament to scientific uncertainty (and its lack of belief in religious terms) that he writes "I think" at the top. That's just it: scientists think.

Ernst Haeckel's "Pedigree of Man" based on Darwin's description in The Origin of Species. The Opening pages of the 1859 first edition of Origin appear below (the link above is to the 6th edition, which corrects mistakes from earlier ones):

Darwin's finches, discovered on various of the Galapagos Islands, each with beaks and other anatomical features adapted to its peculiar circumstances, helped his ideas coalesce into coherent theory:

Here's a plan and cross-section of the ship, HMS Beagle, on which Darwin sailed into history:

There are more pictures where these came from, and myriad editions of the book. Read it if you haven't already; there's even an illustrated version with nice pictures--and the readability of the text still amazes me. The good thing about not having a huge pre-existing vocabulary from which to draw is that Darwin had to write in language everyone could understand. We no longer commonly have as many words in our everyday vocabulary--but at least you won't need a scientific dictionary.

Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin. And thanks for all the fish.

Image credits: all images on the page are from the Wikipedia article on Darwin, the Beagle, on Darwin's Tree of Life, or from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Celebratin' Rabbie Burns

Everyone with a wee dram of Scots blood in 'em should be throwing a party today--a Burns Supper--to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the most celebrated figure in Scottish history. I mean celebrated in the more literal sense--rather than simply in the "celebrity" sense. Probably Mary, Queen of Scots, or even Gordon Brown (or for that matter Sean Connery) are more written about and discussed these days. But every year, all over the world, proud fans of the poet celebrate his birth with single malt and toddy and haggis* and a great deal of pompous recitation of his works, ending with a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

Well, mostly. I, for one, leave out the haggis*--although I have been known to make oatmeal (thanks to the Slow Cook blog for the article) for breakfast to mark the day. And to be honest, I've only actually ever attended a few Burns Suppers in my life (primarily in my years at Penn, where such traditions were held dear amongst my friends). But this year's special, so I thought I'd mark it, in honor of the attachment of one man to one place, and the enjoyment anyone with a connection to that place feels on such an occasion.

Although many folk of Scottish descent claim relation to Burns, probably the only way I could would be if he'd had children with his great love, Highland Mary (Campbell), since I've got both Campbell and MacDonald blood flowin' in my very veins. I have mentioned, have I not, that my great grandfather's name was Angus Campbell McDonald? But, alas, there was apparently no issue from this union--however consecrated, or not, it might have been. And my relation to Burns is thus merely that of a devotee.

One of the best sources of cool stuff related to Burns (or Burruns, as my Glaswegian friend Victor pronounces it) is the online Future Museum that provides access to collections from south-west Scotland museums. Their Burns artifacts are all absolutely fascinating, from the ordinary to the sublime. I urge a visit to peruse everything from pipes to manuscripts to whiskey bottles, like the one at left, which was produced in 1896 to commemorate the centenary of Burns's death.

Seldom have I had as much fun noodling around a virtual space. Thanks to the staff for providing such a valuable and entertaining resource.

And so, in parting, a bit of my favorite poem of all, untranslated and with its wit intact, "To A Mouse" (the link is to a study guide):

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.

I think of this poem every time a member of my menagerie goes after a cotton rat.

Should one feel the need for further celebration, here are some Burnsian links:

The Robert Burns World Federation

Scottish Gemini's Worldwide Toast To Robert Burns site, where you can donate a pound to help preserve the Burns birthplace in Alloway. The page has a history of Burns Night, complete with a picture (which is as close as I want to get) of a haggis.*

The self-proclaimed official Robert Burns website, Burns Country, with a page of instructions on how to throw your own Burns Supper (there's still time!). I'd do one my own self sometime, if I could just get past the haggis.*

*Haggis: Traditional Scottish dish consisting of a sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal and all manner of other ingredients. It's actually admirable in that it represents the consummate example of not wasting anything, and may account for the reputation of Scots as "thrifty."

Google video results for "haggis" (some videos not for the squeamish) including one of a recitation of Burns's poem, "To A Haggis."

Haggis Recipes from (of all places) the Gumbo Pages (stands to reason, though; Gumbo's an example of food frugality as well--and Lord knows New Orlean's has been through some tough times of late).

Here's hoping that folk will still be raising glasses and eating haggis in Burns's honor 250 years from now.

Image source: the portrait (by whom they don't say) is from the Wikipedia article on Burns.