Archive for August, 2009

Dish Herding

August 28, 2009

Border Collies are smart, skilled herders.  Our friend who breeds them believes that they were bred to be smart, because the people who became sheep-herders in the Scottish and British highlands where Border Collies were first bred probably weren’t the smartest people in their communities, so needed the help of smart dogs.

Less well known, perhaps, are their abilities to help out around the house.  Because all Border Collies must have jobs, they often quickly learn to do household chores such as dishwashing.
New Puppies (17 of 18)

Dishwashing is, however, hard work and, if you’re just a little puppy, you have to rest after finishing the job.



Proper Coffee

August 23, 2009

It’s not easy being a yuppie in an industrialized, developed country at the beginning of the 21st Century.  You have to have one dedicated faucet in your home from which runs only the finest quality, filtered water and from another must flow only the best white wine, chilled to the proper serving temperature.

And that is the easy part.

coffee-1The difficult part is the coffee.  In olden, pre-Enlightenment times your parents or grandparents went to a grocery store — imagine buying coffee in a grocery store — and bought Folgers coffee in a big metal coffee can, took it home, opened it with a can opener, dumped some of the already ground coffee into a drip coffee maker; or, even worse, into a percolator — the horror — and actually drank the results. Before that people drank cowboy coffee, which was made by dumping a bunch of ground coffee (and a egg shell) into a coffee pot with some water and boiling the stuff. It is a wonder our species survived.

But now, from the magazine Cook’s Illustrated — which is a really fine magazine, even if you are not a cook — comes the latest, most scientific word about the correct way to brew the best cup of coffee. (One doesn’t “make” coffee, one “brews” it.)

1.  Use only fresh ground coffee that you yourself ground just before making the coffee.  Exposed coffee cells begin to break down within an hour of grinding.  (So much for making the coffee the night before and having the coffee pot come on a few minutes before your alarm.)

And the coffee beans you grind must have been roasted not more than 12 days before, assuming you stored the beans in a bag that allows carbon dioxide to escape and prevents oxygen from entering.  Woe betide you if you have not stored your beans properly.

2.  Use only filtered water.  Ordinary tap water, you see, can mask the coffee’s “complexity.”  Which you already lost, if you failed step one.

bodum3.  The water must then be heated to exactly 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you lack the proper thermometer, you can approximate that temperature — if you live at sea level — by bringing the water to a boil and then letting it rest for 10 to 15 seconds.  At 5000 feet above sea level, water boils at 202 degrees, so let it rest for only 5 seconds before pouring it over the freshly ground coffee.  (The precise boiling temperature of the water depends also on the current barometric pressure at your locale. You’ll need a high quality barometer to do this properly.  The lower the air pressure, the lower the temperature of boiling water.)  If you live at 7000 feet above sea level, water boils at 199 degrees so you have to pour it without rest.  I don’t know what you are going to do if you live, or have a second yuppie home, in the mountains. At 10,000 feet water boils at only 192 degrees so you can’t possibly get it hot enough.  Like altitude sickness, the only sure remedy is to descend to a lower altitude.

4.  You must also insure that you use the right grind for the right amount of brewing time.  The longer the brewing time, the coarser the grounds ought to be.  In this way, you protect yourself from over or under “extraction.” (Brewing time should be 4 to 6 minutes, if you have the water temperature correct.)

5.  Use the correct amount of coffee with the correct amount of water.  That is 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every 6 ounces of water.  Unless you like your coffee stronger.  Slight variations at this step are permitted by the coffee police.

6.  Finally, you must accomplish the brewing by using the proper device. The best choice is a French press.  The recommended one cost $40.00. (Bodum Chambord, 8 cup size) You dump the medium – ground coffee in, pour the water steadily over it, and let it steep. (This is entirely different, of course, than cowboy coffee, but don’t embarrass me by asking how.)

If you choose not to use the French press method, you are allowed to do a “manual” drip, which consists of a stately pour of water over a medium grind (like coarse cornmeal) through a paper filter.  If you use one of those gold metal fillers, you must use a fine grind of coffee.  (Like fine cornmeal)

But the pour must be performed in two stages; one-half cup, followed by the remainder — in batches — beginning 30 seconds later.  Stir between batches.
If, after all this, you still want an automatic drip machine and do not want to be labeled a hopeless cretin, you must buy the Technivorm Moccamaster Coffee Maker.  It is the only one that heats the water to the correct temperature. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.  ($265.00)

Or you could deny human progress, return to the days of the British Empire, and drink tea.


Read more about coffee science here.

America the Stupid?

August 19, 2009

constitutionThe comedian Bill Maher has announced his belief that America is a “stupid nation.” He marshals some evidence in support.  If his data are correct, all the following statements are true:

1.  On the eve of the Iraq War, 69% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Four years later, 34% still did.

2.  A majority of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, or explain what the Bill of Rights is.

3. 24% could not name the country America fought in the Revolutionary War.

4. More than two-thirds of Americans don’t know what’s in Roe v. Wade.

5. Two-thirds don’t know what the Food and Drug Administration does.

6.  Nearly half of Americans don’t know that states have two senators each.

7. More than half can’t name their congressman.

8.  A Gallup poll found that 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth.

9.  A third of Republicans believe Obama is not a citizen.

10. A third of Democrats believe that George Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

11.  The average voter thinks foreign aid consumes 24% of our federal budget. It’s actually less than 1%.

12.  Only about half of Americans are aware that Judaism is an older religion than Christianity.

He concludes, “We should forget town halls, and replace them with study halls.”  If those statistics he cites are correct – and some are hard to believe – he’s right about the need for study halls. Hopefully, he’s just been getting his data from cable television.

Let’s hope his data are wrong.  Writing about Abraham Lincoln, the scholar William Lee Miller, notes that Lincoln used reason and eloquence to persuade his fellow citizens, because he believed that they were part of a, “universal community of human reason.”  For reason to operate successfully in political  discussions a base of shared assumptions and fundamental knowledge is a prerequisite.

Civic discourse requires a common core of civic knowledge.


Scientists have begun studying the immense impact that a particular culture has on its individual members.  This impact goes far, far beyond a common language or shared values:  It impacts how we experience reality and shapes our perceptions in deep, invisible ways.  A pioneer in that field of study, Edward T. Hall, died earlier this month.  Here is his New York Times obituary and here is a personal remembrance of a fine man.

Summer Reading

August 16, 2009

WarAndPeaceWe’re back from the dangerous vacation, but not quite back to regular blogging.  Since inquiring minds want to know, we thought you would be curious about whether we finished War and Peace.  Sadly, we didn’t.  We did, however, read a biography of Leo Tolstoy written by Warren Peace.

And because it was a vacation, we managed to finish, The Use of the Conjunction in Erotic Literature by Comma Suture. And, in preparation for our next airline trip, we began Airline Luggage for Musicians by Herbert von Karajan.

Surviving Dangerous Vacations

August 11, 2009


We’re back from our dangerous vacation in the Rocky Mountains.  While enduring the awful perils described in the last post we also renewed an old friendship, began new ones, fished and birded, ate well, read, slept, and hiked.

And were reminded, before moon rise each evening, that the night sky is gray.  It is the evergreens that are black.  William Rose Benet may have been remembering that when he wrote:

Ghost Lake’s a still lake, a cold lake and deep.
Faint in its shadows a far sound whirrs.
Black stand the ranks of its sentinel firs.

Or Robert Service when he wrote,

We sleep in the sleep of ages, the bleak, barbarian pines;
. . . .On the flanks of the storm-gored ridges are our black battalions massed;

After moon rise, it is the shadows of the evergreens that are blackest.  Not much can be better than listening to two Great Horned Owls calling to each other across a canyon full of black trees and blacker shadows. Unless the view includes a few white-barked Aspen gleaming in the moonlight.  That would be better and that was what we had.

Peaceful, serene moments like that are what makes returning from vacations complicated.  Of course, it is easier to come back if you have some Border Collies ecstatic to see you and some fresh green chile in the refrigerator, but ordinary life with its stresses and challenges awaits.

Some vacations can even trigger existential crises.  Our friend at Wild Resiliency is enduring one of those and writing eloquently about it.  It’s a good thing he is resilient.

Sooner or later, the serenity you achieved on the vacation retreats. Bills need to be paid, the phone rings with somebody on the other end wanting money, a traffic light takes forever to change, the neighbor fires up his lawn mower or — in our case — his hobby bulldozer, some politician somewhere does something disagreeable, the evening news reports on deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the price of gasoline goes up.  All that makes it hard to hold on to the marvelous tranquility that a successful vacation brings.

More on that later but now I have to read all the health care bills which I understand, from my friends on the right, contain provisions for death panels for humans and mandatory puppy euthanasia.

Puppies to be Euthanized under Obamacare

Puppies to be Euthanized under Obamacare

But  there is some good news: According to Gail Collins of The New York Times, the Large Hadron Collider isn’t working yet, so at least I don’t have to worry about being sucked into a black hole. Nor have I had any of those “latrine issues” that the guest ranch made me promise not to sue them for.

A Dangerous Summer Vacation

August 2, 2009

cabin (4 of 4)
We’re on vacation this week, at a guest ranch in the American west.  The ranch provides a myriad of activities, including horse riding, skeet shooting, hiking, and other recreational activities. We’re here for the fly fishing.  And to write The Great American Novel.  And make world-famous, expensive photographic art.  And read War and Peace.

But, we’re only here for a week, so there isn’t much time.

So you can imagine our distress when we arrived at the guest ranch to begin our week-long sabbatical and were confronted with a four-page, single-spaced, small-printed document entitled “Guest Ranch Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks and Indemnity Agreement.”  Seriously.  That is the thing’s name and it is almost 8000 words long! We were supposed to read it, initial every page, and sign it, before checking in.  And they already had our money.

I suppose the owners of the ranch hired a lawyer to write this document.  That is hardly ever a good idea.  We lawyers always use too many words to say too little.  It’s a way of life.  And the lawyer they hired appears to be one of the worst of the specimens.
cabin (1 of 4)
Although legally useless, the document is diverting and educational.  For instance, in it I learn that when I am fly fishing on the river that flows through the property, it is possible that I may “slip and fall” while fishing or “wading in the creeks or rivers.”  Since that hasn’t happened to me above 400 times in my life, I was glad to learn of that danger.  I’ll be more careful in the future.  (I never knew that I could sue a guest ranch if I fell in their river but I know now.  Woe betide the next ranch whose water I fall in.)

I learn lots of other stuff too.  For instance, I discover that, “firearms” are “guns” which have “inherent risks” including the danger of being injured or killed when they are “discharged.”  (I assume the lawyer meant “shot” instead of “discharged.”  That is what they teach you at law school.  Never use a four-letter word if you can think of a ten-letter one.)  Actually, according to the lawyer, it is not the gun that is dangerous, it is the ammunition that can “injure or kill” you.  Something else that can kill you is, “. . . another’s’ [sic] use of the firearms.”

That is something else they teach you in law school: If you are not sure where to put an apostrophe, put one in each place where it might belong.  That is an entire law school course: “Promiscuous Apostrophes.”

We are also to be on the outlook while at the ranch for, “reptiles that may run.”  Those, you see, might scare the horses.  They might scare me too.  I thought dinosaurs were extinct.  But perhaps I’ve stumbled into “The Valley that Time Forgot.”  Which, when you think about it, might be a good title for my book.

The ranch also wants me to know that it is not responsible for “acts, occurrences or elements of nature” which include thunder and the dreaded “lightening.” [sic] As Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” But they don’t teach you that in law school.

As for “lightening,” there is no danger I’ll suffer from that while here; the food is delicious and copious. And, since it is conspicuously omitted as something I am releasing them from, I conclude that the ranch agrees to be liable to me if I get struck by lightning while I am here.

Large, dangerous prey

Large, dangerous prey

But the real value in the document is not legal — as I said, it is useless for that — it’s real value lies in the realm of metaphysics, for in the document we learn the true nature of “humanity.”  But let the thing speak for itself:

I understand and acknowledge that horseback riding is the only sport where one much smaller, weaker predator animal (human) tries to impose its will on, and become a unit of movement with another much larger stronger prey animal with a mind of its own(horse) and each has a limited understanding of the other.


Never mind that the lawyer puts commas in where they don’t belong and omits them where they do, just feast on the wealth of natural philosophy in that sentence.  We’re small and weak but we’re predators and the ranch horses are our prey. When was the last time you dined on horse meat?  Think of what you are missing.

The ranch has a “complimentary” shooting on Thursday.  I think I’ll shoot a horse and ask the chef to prepare it for my dinner.

If I stay that long.  I had no idea how much there was to be frightened about here in this placid, serene, and untroubled mountain valley.  I may ask for my money back and go somewhere safe.  Like a mountain valley in Afghanistan.