Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Clothing will never be the same

after the...

Shitake Necklace

and the 

Sprouted cowboy hat

Get ready. Real-life versions coming soon.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What I learned this week

  • "Oysters wrapped in bacon are easier to prepare in your conventional oven." - Owner's Manual MW1337SB

  • According to Freakonomics radio, there are only two ways that parents can affect the long-term happiness or success of their children: being nice and not smoking. Everything else, like private lessons, organized sports, or tutoring are unimportant. 

  • The richest man in the world says, "When you live for others' opinions, you are dead. I don't want to live thinking about how I'll be remembered."

  • The man who developed human-powered flight did so to collect prize-money so that he could repay a loan. 

  • The all-time record high of Alert, Canada, the world's northernmost permanently occupied settlement, is 68 degrees fahrenheit. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Alphabetical Concept

After the rain, there was a mist, billowing through the trees.
"Better than the rain," thought Charles, walking out of the building, into the mist.
"Charles!", someone shouted after him, though he didn't hear.
Didn't hear and didn't care, leaving the voice behind him.
Entering the woods was like a dream, branches floating out of a soupy fog.
Faster he walked, the path somewhere beneath his dripping shoes.
Gave his all to the effort of walking.
His mind wandered, reviewing the past.
"I am Charles", he thought, "and I know where I am going."
"Just out for a walk in the woods," he reassured himself.
"Kill for a drink of water though," cursing himself for not bringing anything.
Left his water bottle behind.
Marks decorated the trees, red boxes, and blue circles.
"No," he thought, "no, no no."
On a rock, a frog's chin filled, and then deflated.
Perhaps... he should turn around, the fog swirling in a sudden sea-breeze.
Quivering, a pine needle fell, brushing his left hand.
"Read about this in a book," he thought, looking into his memory.
Save the best for last.
"Ta-da!", he shouted suddenly, jumping onto a stump and balancing on his leg.
Unworldly flamingo.
Vanquishing his fear, he jumped off of the stump.
"We only live once," he thought.
X-rays of his imagination produced a troll's home in the stump.
"Yes!" he thought, "yes there is a troll's home in this stump!"
"Zero chance of that"; reconsidered, but still apologized for stepping on the troll's home.

Monday, October 24, 2011

OWS, the soul, and Melville

This past weekend I finished reading Billy Budd, Sailor and went to hear a speaker in Zuccotti Park. In conjunction, I have the following thoughts:

The speakers, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, discussed the incompatibility of environmentalism with capitalism. They had a lot of interesting points and, as the framing of the topic suggests, fixated upon politics and economics. I think this mode of thought, that our current economic inequality, or environmental crisis, necessitates a political or economic remedy, is a main-stay of many OWS discussions.

While I agree that certain policy reforms are necessary (inclusion of external costs in accounting, better taxes, etc...), I believe there is a more pressing arena that needs attention. It is not something we can fix by shouting and demanding that our politicians write better laws, but something that requires personal effort and introspection.

When I listen to my inner voice, I often hear it saying, "I want, I want, I want!" What does it want? It wants food and girls and clothes. It wants to be praised. The more things I give to this voice, the more it wants. This is greed, and I think greed is the fundamental problem.

Can you fix greed with better laws? Different economic systems? Does greed disappear under socialism? Under a progressive tax code? These conditions clearly affect the prevalence of greed, but I think they're secondary compared to every individual's personal state.

Check out Melville:

Though the man's even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound. These men are madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous, but occasional, evoked by some special object; 

Melville could easily be describing the behavior of the bankers who initiated the mortgage crisis, the corporations that are responsible for the impending global environmental crisis. Irrational greed doesn't play by the rules of what Melville calls the "law of reason". Why? Because "in heart" they "would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law." The heart is exempt from the rules of law, and the condition of the heart is immune to legislative panaceas.

My point is not that protesters should stop shouting at corrupt politicians and destructive corporations, but that we're fooling ourselves if we think blaming others is the only answer.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Near Minot (Part II)

A tanker truck rumbled by, and a blast of wind punched me in the side. Its red tail-lights slid ahead on the straight-line of highway two, streaking across the flat grass-land.

One should really never ride at night, but the cool, and calm air was too much to resist after a hot and windy day. I slipped my bottle out of its cage and drank down my last few drops of water. I was still riding with zeal at 10 pm on this mid-July night, the stars starting to twinkle on over-head.

Somewhere ahead–it was hard to say how far–an outpost glittered against the black back-drop of North Dakota night. I decided to make those lights, whatever they were, my destination for the night. I hugged the diminishing shoulder, shuddering each time a vehicle raced by. It was impossible to see the occupants, I imagined they were all single drivers, and each vehicle simply became a hurtling mass of metal, projecting a blinding light in its direction of travel.

Perhaps an hour later, I arrived at a gas station. It had closed for the day, and I wondered how I would refill my water bottles. As one always does when he wishes a business were open, I peered inside and read the hours of operation. Neither was of any help.

Rolling around the side of the building, I discovered a parking lot of idling oil tankers, and humming RVs. I was witnessing my first expression of North Dakota's oil boom. The Bakken formation, buried beneath the states of Montana and North Dakota, contains billions of barrels of oil, perhaps hundreds of billions according to some estimates. With recent developments in fracturing technology, and a state-wide tax break for oil drilling, the pace of oil extraction has sky-rocketed in recent years. North Dakota now has 3.2% unemployment, the lowest in the nation. The infrastructure of North dakota is buckling under the stress of job-seeking immigrants, most notably in the housing sector. So people live in hotels, if they can find them, and, more often than not, they simply live in their cars, filling up the parking lots of gas stations and Wal-Marts. Oil rig drivers frequently sleep behind the wheel, at work 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. Many such workers were dozing in this parking lot.

My housing prospects for the night were equally dismal, and I decided to set up my tent in a field behind the gas station. Before doing so, I found a 24-hour water filling station, contained within a small wooden structure. I thankfully filled up my bottles, and gulped down the water before bedding down.

Sometime during the night I was awoken by the percussive slap of rain-drops against my tarp-tent's rip-stop nylon. I was surprised, given the calm night I had fallen asleep to hours before. Nevertheless, I was still dry and I covered my head in my blanket, waiting for the rain to end.

Then thunder exploded over-head, and a wind began to ripple the side of my tent, blowing its dampening folds into my face. I heard engines in the parking lot rumble to life. The wind became deafeningly loud, and I understood that I was in a bad situation. I felt the rain beginning to blow inside the tent, which was straining to remain rooted in the ground. Then, the strengthening wind began to rip my tent's stakes out of the moist ground. Once the first stake was gone, I was no longer in a tent, but caught up inside a wet ball of nylon.

Amidst this chaos, the scene blazing with flashes of lightning, I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and emerged, bleary-eyed and confused, into the roar of the storm, horizontal rain stinging my face. An oil-tanker shined its headlights meanly onto the side of the gas station, and then pulled out of the parking lot and onto the freeway. My tent flapped, wild in the wind, with only one stake remaining in the ground. In the next ten seconds, my brain now pumping with adrenaline and fear, I disassembled my defeated shelter. Clutching my sleeping bag and my tent, I sprinted, barefoot, towards the water filling station, swerving across the warm and wet asphalt.

The door was difficult to open, locked into place by the steady and powerful push of rushing air. Straining to pull it open, I struggled into the wooden shelter, now groaning and creaking. Inside, the air was suddenly calm, and I stood, dripping in a flickering, white fluorescent light.

I felt sick with fear and with the surprise of awakening. Looking down, I noticed a red pool around my left foot and the smell of blood filled the room. In the preceding minutes, something had sliced open my heel, and I watched the resulting blood intermingle with the water on the floor. The door rattled back and forth as sheets of water swept over the ground.

I crouched down and held my knees, feeling the intensity of the storm surge against the shaking walls. The water dispenser buzzed and vibrated, a strange and vocal machine.

Feeling wasted from my longest day of cycling yet, and the sudden stress of the storm, I collapsed to the floor. I wrapped my quilt around me, making sure that it didn't come in contact with the water or the blood. Outside the storm raged, and overhead, white light bore down upon me. In spite of it all, I fell asleep for some time.

Then I woke up to find that the weather was calmer. So I went out, and walked over to the field to set my tent up again.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Near Minot (Part 1)

Minot, North Dakota, population 40,000, was the biggest city I would see until Spokane, Washington, still 900 miles away. As such, I decided it was worth it to take a detour into the city center. I veered off of the highway onto "Business 2", a main road that promises to take one through the heart of a city, and then reconnect on the other end with highway 2. 

I knew that Minot had been severely flooded this year, and that the highway around it had only just re-opened, sparing me a lengthy detour. In fact, earlier in the day, I had pedaled through flooded farm-lands, trees and telephone poles poking their heads out of the unwanted water which lapped the side of the cross-country highway. 

As I approached Minot's downtown, something seemed amiss. There were few cars on the road, stores were shuttered, pools of standing water lurking ominously in their parking lots. Finally I reached an army check-point, camouflaged soldiers chain-smoking around humvees which solidly blocked the road. Further along, the road dipped into murky water, disappearing below the flooded river. 

"Is there anywhere to get dinner around here?", I asked a soldier. 
"No, everything is closed," he responded tersely. 
"So, army, wow," I said, "how long have ya'all been here?" 
"Just a few days, we're only now letting residents back into their homes," he said, puffing vigorously on his cigarette. "There's a Wal-mart back on highway 2," he said, implying that the conversation was over. He turned his back and walked away. 

So much for seeing Minot. I turned around, my heart actually soaring with the thought of a Wal-Mart dinner. The night before I'd had stale donuts, coffee, and a micro-waved sandwich from a dusty gas station on the highway. Wal-mart, once known to me as Decimator-of-Local-Business and Dealer-of-Disposable-Plastics, had now provided $1.25 Odwalla smoothies, fresh-baked bread, bike parts, tent-repair materials, and comfortable benches upon which to enjoy these marvelous consumer goods. Unfortunately, as I climbed out of Minot and into the strip-mall plateau above town, legions of big-box stores passed by with no sign of Wal-Mart, and as the last Target-Starbucks-Blockbuster-BestBuy slipped into the distance, I was confronted, yet again, with a gas station dinner at the last commercial outpost before another great stretch of North Dakota emptiness. 

West of Minot, the road meandered through river-hewn hills, turning golden in the day's last light. Yet, it didn't take long for my golden mood to be smothered by the dunk-ga-dunk-ga-dunk of, yet another, flat tire. At a bike shop in Bemidji, Minnesota, a mechanic had fixed my flat tire with such degree of confidence that he offered to pick me up in his car if I should get another one. I had travelled too far for a ride, but I nevertheless left a frustrated message on his cell-phone. Having removed the now-shredded puncture strip which he had installed, I tried to fit the tire back onto the rim of the wheel, but my fingers, exhausted from a week of fixing flats and a day of gripping handle-bars, didn't have the strength to finish the job. 

I sat on the side of the road, sweat pouring off my forehead, but simply couldn't muster the thumb-strength necessary. As desperation was beginning to take hold, a kindred spirit on two-wheels pulled his motorcycle to the side of the road. 

"Need any help?" he asked. 
Understanding my situation, he pulled out a screw-driver, and tried to pry the tire onto the rim. 
"C'mon," I said, "you're just scratching the wheel. Why don't you just help me push?" 
So we both pushed with our thumbs and the tire inched its way onto the wheel. A success. 

Flush with this small victory, and heartened by the kindness of the motorcyclist, I began riding with renewed enthusiasm. Soon it was dusk, scrubland lining the side of the road. As usual, I had no planned stopping point, and simply wanted to go as many miles as possible. 

It soon became apparent that there would be nothing but barren steppe for many miles. The cool night was a sensuous relief from the mind-numbing heat of the day, and there was little wind, riding conditions that I rarely enjoyed. So I kept going as dark fell, and a few lights twinkled on along the horizon, somewhere ahead. I decided to keep pedaling until I reached them. This would later prove to be the right decision, though I had no clue of its importance as night fell over North Dakota...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Forest Forms

 Cauliflower Fungus - Sparassis Crispa (edible)

 Cauliflower Fungus - Sparassis Crispa (edible)

Gomphus Kauffmanii

Coral Fungus - Clavaria Formosa (edible)

Boletus - Yellow-pored, blue-staining, showing desiccation cracks in the cap

Boletus - Alpine


Cortinarius Violaceus (edible)

Clavaria Formosa - Coral Fungus (edible)

Clavaria Formosa - Coral Fungus (edible)

Sparissis Crispa - Cauliflower Fungus

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Gandhi on Sustainable Development

In a recent NY times Op-Ed entitled Going Green but Getting Nowhere , Gerrot Wagner tries to make the point that individual acts are inconsequential in solving global environmental problems. He suggests that the only route to a sustainable economy is through top-down policy. That's a nice thought, but while we keep waiting, and waiting...... and waiting for policy-makers to do anything regarding the greenhouse gas crisis, maybe a voice from a different era has some insights.

Gandhi helped lead India to independence, but I think if he were alive today he would be trying to save modern civilization from itself. As he presciently argued in chapter six of his 1919 work, the Hind Swaraj, "this [Western] civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed." As we heedlessly pollute our own water supplies and destabilize our fragile climate system, his 100-year old words began to take on a prophetic character.

Gandhi saw a lot of flaws in Western civilization. He wrote of men "enslaved by temptation of money and the luxuries that money can buy" who "keep up their energy by intoxication", "can hardly be happy in solitude", and who "require something to eat every two hours." What better description of 21st century America with its chaos of purple energy drinks("energy by intoxication"), maxed out credit cards("enslaved by luxuries"), and furiously buzzing social networks ("hardly happy in solitude")?

We live in a consumer-driven economy. Consumer spending dictates the growth of our economy, and economic policy-makers are desperately trying to get consumers buying again. For example, this article:  "The chief of the U.S. central bank says American consumers have been “exceptionally cautious” in their spending habits in recent months, one reason that the country’s economy is growing at a tepid pace."

One of Gandhi's great fears was that India would become a consumer society, dependent on machine-made imports for its basic goods, and the functioning of its economy (in other words, present-day America). In 1922, he wrote that "[it would be] an economic blunder of the first magnitude... to supply cheap bread through huge bakeries established in the chief centres in India and to destroy the family stove." He argued that "instead of half a dozen cities of India and Great Britain living on the exploitation and the ruin of 700,000 villages of India, the latter will be largely self-contained."

In the quotes above, Gandhi is arguing against centralized production. For Gandhi, localized production is preferable because it grants individuals "economic freedom and equality of all"; it makes one "feel aglow with the possession of power that has lain hidden within himself, and makes him proud of his identity."

Gandhi would look at the proliferation of big-box stores, multi-national corporations, and global commerce and say, Where is the individual's economic freedom? Where is individual self-respect? Where is identity? He would say, bake your own bread, grow your own vegetables, make your own clothes. Gandhi would buy local food, shop at farmer's markets, eschew Target and Wal-Mart.

Returning to Wagner and his claim that the individual has no power to "Go Green", I would say, yes, you are right, the individual has little power. But, what about the community? Gandhi saw an India of 700,000 self-contained, sustainable, villages, a nation thriving with local economies. Why not an America of 700,000 local economies? What better way to subvert the environmental carelessness of profit-minded, global corporations than by spending dollars in one's own community? Jobs shouldn't be created by driving up consumer spending so that Wal-Mart will build more stores. People should create their own jobs by, well, by creating.

A proliferation of local economies does not mean a return to village life. A local economy is a neighborhood of a city that has urban farms, bakeries, breweries, tailors...

More to follow.....

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yeeeeeast (With Two Time-Lapse Videos!!)

Yeast are
  • single-celled fungi
  • 50% protein
  • asexual; they split into two to reproduce
  • everywhere 

They can 
  • breath oxygen (respire)
  • or, in the absence of oxygen, they can ferment sugars and carbohydrates into ethanol and carbon dioxide. 

Most amazingly, yeast are good at surviving in space.  Why is that? 

To get a better idea of what yeast are all about, I filmed some dry active yeast in warm water over the span of about 5 minutes. Here's the video at 500% speed:

While we're at it, mushrooms like to grow in cool ways too. This video, of pearl oyster mushrooms, occurs over the course of a few days in April 2011: 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cooking With Chicken Mushrooms (Laetiporus sp.)

Following up on my "Reishi Mushrooms Are Awesome" post, here's some Chicken of the Woods!

As soon as I spotted these mushrooms growing out of a tree on the banks of the mighty Queets River in the Quinault Rainforest, I knew a few good meals were forthcoming.

Chicken of the Woods tastes...
  • Meaty
  • Lemony
  • Like chicken
  • Like nothing you've ever tasted before...

L. Sulphureus is also good for you!
  • L. sulphureus showed narrow antibacterial activity against Gram-negative bacteria and strongly inhibited the growth of the Gram-positive bacteria tested. (Turkoglu, 2007)
  • LSL (L. sulphureus lectin) is a novel pore-forming lectin homologous to bacterial toxins. (Tateno, 2003)

Cooking tips:

  • Chicken Mushroom With Peanut Sauce - Saute with oil, garlic, and ginger. You really can't overcook these bad boys. Once cooked well, combine with a vinegary peanut sauce. I mixed up some Bragg's liquid aminos, natural peanut butter, rice vinegar, honey, and sesame oil to make a strong sauce.

  • Mushroom Soup - Simmer in a beer broth with carrots and sweet potatoes to create a hearty soup.

Happy Hunting!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Copying is Cool

There are a lot of double standards when it comes to plagiarism. Take two topics that are taught in schools: jazz music and writing. Jazz instructors often assign transcriptions, asking their students to learn a particular solo note for note. My saxophone teacher told me that his first conservatory assignment was to learn Louis Armstrong's solo on Potato Head Blues, including the nuanced inflections, the bends, articulations, and vibrato. In other words, his teacher had said, copy it as precisely as you can.

In writing education, there's a different story. A student who borrows even one sentence risks expulsion. What school doesn't have a strict, and oft-repeated, anti-plagiarism policy? Instead, writing instructors encourage pure originality. Write what you feel. Describe what you see. Recall an experience you had. Or, if the writing is more scholarly, a rigid structure is imposed. Write a five-paragraph essay. Clearly state your thesis. Which of the great writers, I wonder, learned to compose in this fashion?

When a music student can perfectly duplicate a solo, say the Armstrong solo on Potato Head Blues, (and I mean really duplicate it perfectly, matching the notes so a listener would hear only one instrument) he sounds as good as Louis Armstrong. But, when a poor high school kid goes through the motions of a "five-paragraph essay" it's as good as a five-paragraph essay. That is to say, it has no precedent in the real world of writing -- it's nothing more than a drab exercise.

It is doubtful that there is a pure analog to the jazz transcription assignment in writing education. If a teacher asked a class to go home and copy, word for word, a passage of Faulkner, any half-brained student would simply locate an online text, and copy and paste. Nonetheless, I think the musical exercise of transcription can offer an important lesson to writing educators.

Before moving forward, I want to make a foundational point: culture, be it musical, visual, or verbal, is passed down from generation to generation by example. We learn to speak by copying. We learn to sing by copying. How often do you see a class of art students sketching famous works in a museum? A painter endlessly glancing back and forth between his canvas and the one he is emulating?

Pure duplication is too easy to be an effective tool in writing education. But here are some ideas:

  • Take your five favorite books, all by different authors. Then write a story by arranging sentences that you copy, verbatim, from each book. Cite your sources.
  • Find an obscure short story. Continue writing where the author finished, trying to emulate the author's style as much as possible. Then, give the extended story to a classmate and see if she can identify the point at which you started writing.
  • Locate an online version of a 19th century novel, say Crime and Punishment. Choose a gripping passage, and copy and paste it into your word processor. Then, revise the text to include 21st century technology, culture, and language.
My point is, it's impossible to learn how to write like real authors without emulating them and getting a feel for the words. Would a school ever assign any of my ideas? Probably not. In the world of standardized testing and grading rubrics, there's little room for anything other than grid-like structures. Perhaps the reason that schools don't teach emulation of great authors is that such writers might not pass a modern-day test.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Wild Reishi

I found this beautiful mushroom growing on a nurse log in a dry creek bed in the Quinault Rainforest, a region of the Olympic Mountains. It is Ganoderma Lucidum, aka Reishi. It's not exactly a tasty mushroom, but I was still excited to find it. Why? Other than being a hand-held post-apocalyptic sunset, this mushroom is one of the most healthful substances known to man-kind.

According to Rebecca Wood's New Whole Foods Encyclopedia (as quoted from Reishi is "An immunostimulant, it is helpful for people with AIDS, leaky-gut syndrome, Epstein-Barr, chronic bronchitis and other infectious diseases. It is used as an aid to sleep, as a diuretic, as a laxative and to lower cholesterol." I briefly searched Google scholar for medical studies on the fungus and found that Reishi:
  • "suppressed cell adhesion and cell migration of highly invasive breast and prostate cancer cells, suggesting its potency to reduce tumor invasiveness" (Sliva, 2003)
  • an extract of Reishi "enhanced the immune responses in patients with advanced‐stage cancer" (Gao, 2003)
  • "intake of G. lucidum caused an acute increase in plasma antioxidant power" (Galer, 2010)
  • "The polysaccharides from G. lucidum enhance the repair process [of radiation damaged cells]" (Pillai, 2010)
These are just a sampling of the many studies showing powerful benefits of Reishi. Commercial extracts are available for upwards of 40 dollars, but, if you can find a wild specimen, stove-top preparation is quite simple. Just chop up the mushroom and boil the pieces in water for at least an hour. The resulting tea is bitter, but well worth it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thoughts On Vegetarianism

"Do you want a burger, or steak for dinner?", Betty asked.

"Well", I said, "I don't normally eat red meat..."

I knew this would happen. Someone had graciously offered me hospitality, and now I was confronted with the difficult decision of rejecting it for a long-held dietary principle. Betty's husband had found me sitting in a shelter outside a school in Caledonia, Ontario, eating lunch next to my bike. It was still early, but a cold and windy day. I was feeling less than enthusiastic about riding, so when he invited back to his house, it didn't take long to accept.

Now I was sitting on the couch, learning the life-story of a Scottish couple who had moved to Canada for opportunity and started a life. In their 20's, they got on a boat and left their native villages for a country with better job prospects. Despite having lived in Canada for over 50 years, I could only barely understand Betty's words through her thick accent. Nonetheless, we talked all afternoon, about her kids, her friend (also named Betty) who came over without asking and had a track-record of uninvited entrances, her work, and the new preacher at church who had strange habits and always showed up late.

At dinner, she served me left-over pizza, instead of a hamburger or steak. Initially relived, I was surprised to discover the pizza was dotted with bacon and sausage. As they dug in, I thought, this will be the first time I've eaten meat in two years. And it's factory-farm meat on a slice of microwaved pizza! But what could I do? Say no to this offering of kindness? Offend my hosts?

They already thought I was being picky for declining the beef. "Strange meal you're eating," Betty remarked, looking at a plate of pizza and potato.

Hesitantly, I cut into the slice. The first bite was good, delicious even. I felt the tension dissipate as we ate together. Here we were: myself a 22-year old cyclist, and two 75-year olds sharing dinner. Though I had just met the couple, I felt like we were already friends.

When it was time for bed, I went upstairs to a quiet room and crawled into bed. The night before I had slept outside in a picnic shelter on the wind-swept shores of Lake Erie. Periods of rain tapped on the roof and contributed to the already flooded lawn. Even though it was late June, the night was cold and blustery. Around 3 AM, two members of the RCMP woke me up with flashlights and demanded to see my identification. Bleary-eyed, I rummaged through my saddlebags for my passport which they then used to see if I was wanted on warrants. After a phone call to a police station somewhere, they found out I wasn't.
"You can't sleep in a shelter in a provincial park," one of them said. "But, we'll let you stay here for the rest of the night." That night I slept uneasily.

Needless to say, I was happy to be in a warm bed tonight. And, I was happy to have a full meal in my belly. Two strangers, blindly trusting, had taken me into their house, shared their table with me, and given me a place to sleep.

Two days later, I was sitting in a picnic table that was slowly sinking into a muddy field on the side of the road, strumming a few chords on my ukulele. A driver who had stopped came over to see what I was up to, and minutes later I was on my way back to his beach cabin. When we arrived, his wife asked if I was hungry. I can't tell a lie, and she presented us each with a plate of pork chops and potatoes. What could I do? Eating a meal that I would have found revolting weeks before, I was shocked to find myself enjoying the food. The next day, back on the road, my body felt stronger than it had in weeks.

At this point, my thoughts on diet and vegetarianism were in turmoil. The narrative that I had been developing for years was getting more complicated. Before my trip, I understood diet in terms of ethics and spirituality. I viewed animals as conscious beings, with the ability to feel pain and experience suffering. I saw the meat industry as vigorously capitalistic, ignoring all moral questions in the pursuit of the highest profits. And I saw animal consumption as unnecessary in the modern world, a dietary luxury. A carnivorous diet had no purpose, other than visceral enjoyment, but it had many effects: meat-eating caused needless pain and suffering, and it degraded the environment, polluting water-ways and contributing carbon to a warming atmosphere.

But then, somewhere in Ontario, I added another piece to this story. Food and diet are not only about ethics. Food is social. We use food to connect with each other. Eating is a bond, a shared experience. In the two cases I just described, complete strangers offered me food as an expression of hospitality, a gesture of kindness. From their perspective, these meals needed to include meat. A vegetarian meal might seem inconsequential, too frugal for a weary and fatigued traveller.

I see a fundamental conflict in dietary choices between ethics and human relationships. Humans are moral creatures, or at least have come to think of ourselves as such. But, at the same time, and perhaps in a more primal and ancient way, we are also social creatures. We thrive in communities. We need friendships to make us happy. And almost all of these inter-personal bonds orbit around a nucleus of shared meals. We cook dinner for our friends. We eat at restaurants together. We barbeque with our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods. And, almost anywhere you go in this country, meat is the centerpiece of these shared meals. Rejecting it makes it hard to share in the essence of the experience. At many of these occasions a vegetarian is an outcast, alienated from the group.

When I think about diet in terms of ethics, I always conclude that eating meat is wrong. It is an unnecessary action that increases suffering. I simply can't justify that.

But, this ethical judgment has to be considered in the context of American culture. Whether I think it is ethical or not, most people eat meat in this country. These people are my friends, and eating together is one of the most simple and satisfying expressions of friendship. If meat is on the table, I'm going to join in and eat.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What I was doing for the last two months

On June 2, I left New York City on a 10-speed Schwinn, heading for Seattle. I met my two friends, Trevis and Joanna, on the Upper West Side and we crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, leaving behind the city, and college. Two months later, on August 2, I rode the same bike into my parents' driveway, 3,000 miles of roads, adventures, and people now behind me.

Here are the basics:

Why did I do it? To see the country. To be surprised. To have a goal.

Reading List:
Zhuangzi - Basic Writings
James Baldwin - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Leo Tolstoy - The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Monique Truong - The Book of Salt
Michael Connelly - Nine Dragons
John Updike - Rabbit Is Rich
Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale
Amy Tan - Joy Luck Club

I always traded books, finding a new one at a gas station or a thrift store in a small town I was passing through.

What was the hardest part?
The wind. After reaching Montana, I faced days of unrelenting head-winds. A day of head-winds is like biking up a mountain, without ever having the opportunity to go down the other side. The wind is loud, and it can make you madder than hell. I cursed at the wind, and called it dirty names. I tried singing to the wind, hoping to appease it. Sometimes I would just lie down and let it blow over me, waiting for it to change its direction.

I spent whole days riding and ended 50 miles from where I began, in a place that was just as flat, windy and empty as the one from which I had left in the morning. Those were the hardest days.

The easiest part?
Riding with friends. I wish you guys had come farther! In Montana and North Dakota I encountered other west-bound cyclists, Rich in North Dakota and Michael in Montana. When we started riding together, the mile-post signs just seemed to effortlessly float past. Check out Michael's blog:

Number of flat tires: ~10, almost all of which occurred during a particularly frustrating week in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Diet: I started as a vegetarian. My last dinner was a Big Mac value meal. The switch to a carnivorous diet wasn't easy, but I don't think I could have finished the trip without eating meat. I have a lot of thoughts about this and I'll explain more later.

My bike: My bicycle doesn't have a name, but I still love it. A Schwinn "World Sport", it's a steel-frame, 10-speed. I can't believe how sturdy and reliable this bike was. I never had to fix anything other than a flat tire.

The route: To begin with, it was never planned. In general, I intended on staying north to avoid the heat. That worked well until Montana, when the temperature topped out above 100 degrees for a few consecutive days.

I went through New York, Ontario, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. I biked along the Erie Canal, took a 2-hour ferry across Lake Huron, followed numerous bike paths to their sudden and unannounced terminations, and hugged the shoulders of divided four-lane highways.

Coming soon: North Dakota's Oil Boom: The New Wild West;
Flooding in the West: Natural or Man-made Disaster?;
How a Thunderstorm Made Me Bleed;
Why Canada Didn't Let Me In;

and much more.... stay tuned

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What would Mizushima say about corporatocracy?

"We Japanese have not cared to make strenuous spiritual efforts. We have not even recognized their value. What we stressed was merely a man's abilities, the things he could do--not what kind of a man he was, how he lived, or the depth of his understanding. Of perfection as a human being, or humility, stoicism, holiness, the capacity to gain salvation and help others toward it--of all these virtues we were left ignorant."

"... we were greedy, because we were so arrogant that we forgot human values, because we had only a superficial idea of a civilization."

Take these words, replace Japanese with American, or any number of nationalities for that matter, and I think you have an accurate assessment of the status quo. We define our heroes, our role models, by what they can do, not by who they are. In that way, we are a society of abilities and accomplishments. We hand out resumes listing our achievements and quantify our successes materially, counting dollars and possessions. We neglect, however, to measure humility or stoicism, to quantify our virtues.

The text which I quoted is from a book called the Harp of Burma written by Michio Takeyama in 1966. [If you want to read this book, which I highly recommend, I'm about to spoil the plot in the next few sentences.] The novel is set in Burma, at the end of World War II, and follows a Japanese troop who have surrendered as prisoners of war. One member of this troop, a soldier named Mizushima who is an especially talented harp player, never returns from a dangerous mission, instead disguising himself as a Burmese monk so that he can roam the mountains for the purpose of properly burying abandoned Japanese corpses. This soldier, the focal point of the novel, speaks the words with which I began this post.

Returning to the present, I think that Mizushima's disillusionment is more applicable than ever. Here in America, we hear about Donald Trump's designs on the presidency of the nation. What would it mean for a man defined by his wealth to represent this country? In other news, the city of Quincy, Mass. has elected to corporatize its downtown. Is this the future that Stephenson predicted in Snow Crash? A country divided into corporate city-states?

This bubbling crescendo of materiality threatens to crush Mizushima's human qualities of stoicism, humility, and holiness. Such qualities have no place in a corporatocracy, thrown under the bus of greed and ambition.

If what I'm using words to say doesn't make sense, try looking at it this way:


Monday, April 4, 2011

Mushrooms and Health

We're living in the midst of a global obesity epidemic. As of 2000, there were 300 million obese adults worldwide (WHO). With the expansion of multinational food corporations, America is exporting its nutritional ethos to the rest of the globe. The American diet is a health nightmare, deep-fried and over-sweetened. The results of this diet are diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart-disease, hypertension, and stroke, leading to pre-mature death and lowered quality of life.

A component of solving this crisis is medicinal mushrooms. While most store-brought mushrooms, such as the white button mushroom, have no medicinal properties, there are a host of less readily available fungi that have medicinal properties. Enokitake, Shitake, Oyster, and Maitake have variously been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, inhibit tumor growth, and modulate the immune system.

To summarize Chang's 1996 article, we have known that Shitake mushrooms have anti-tumor properties since 1969 (Ikekawa). Chihara (1987) isolated a compound in Shitake mushrooms called lentinan which, through immunopotentiation, is effective at reducing tumor growth. This compound has been proven effective in human trials. Taguchi (1987) showed a significant survival improvement in gastric cancer patients treated with letinan and chemotherapy as compared with those treated with only chemotherapy. Other chemicals from Shitake mushrooms have been shown to improve liver function in Hepatitis B patients, inhibit HIV in vitro, and lower serum cholestoral in high cholesterol mice.

These effects are only a sampling of the medicinal benefits from one particular mushroom species. Given the enormous health gains available the question is: why don't we eat more mushrooms? As I see it there are two answers: The first is simply a question of availability. The average supermarket only stocks the white button mushroom, a non-medicinal species. "Gourmet" varieties, like the medicinal shitake, enokitake, maitake, and oyster, are typically sold at gourmet prices, outside the budget of the average consumer. This issue could be remedied by increased production, which would lower prices and increase availability.

The second factor limiting mushroom consumption is mycophobia, the irrational fear of mushrooms. It is well-known that certain species of mushrooms are poisonous, and some cultures have extrapolated the fear of poisonous mushrooms to the fear of all mushrooms. The English and Irish cultures are well-known mycophobic cultures that traditionally have avoided mushrooms at all cost. Overcoming mycophobia is really a question of education and awareness.

That said, here are some of the other angles from which I've been thinking about mushrooms:


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Personal Statement


I'm fascinated
by words that are misunderstood
and sounds of the universe that are still unheard

by scales of justice and scales of time
and sales on limes that are 3 for .99

by limestones and tritones
and what triglycerides might do to your genome

i owe everything i know to slow-walking in the snow
and i know that i don't know that i don't know

i believe in neural networks buried underground
and in the power of sound to change your life around


Monday, March 21, 2011

The rocks of Spring Break '11

Spring break. While getting drunk in a sunny place would have been fun, I spent the week looking at rocks, sometimes in the sun and sometimes in the snow. A group of us went out west, using Mammoth Lakes, CA as a base for trips to Mono Lake, the Sierras, the Long Valley Caldera, and the mountains of the Basin and Range.

Unable to help myself, I came home with at least 20 different rocks, each one chosen for some reason, either aesthetic or scientific. So that's what this post is about: the rocks.

(1) The first one is a volcanic bomb from Panum Crater, the northernmost of the Mono Craters, a chain of volcanoes that have erupted within the last 40,000 years. Panum is young, only about 600 years old, and is full of interesting textures, colors, and formations. There is jet black obsidian, sharp enough to kill, and frothy, red pumice stones. The rock shown here, a volcanic bomb, is a piece of magma that shot out of the volcano as a liquid, and, by the time it had hit the ground, had solidified into a coherent mass. You can see that it's elongated in one direction, along the axis of it's fall from the sky. I picked this one because it looks like a small man.


(2) Petrified wood from Miocene sediments near Coaldale Junction, NV. Coaldale Junction is not an actual place, consisting of a few abandoned buildings in the middle of the big, empty Nevada desert. The rocks here are amazing, including a unit that contains beautifully preserved petrified wood from about 12 million years ago. There are knotted pieces, branches, bark, many covered with sparkling quartz crystals. I picked the two fragments shown here because one contains a knot, a clearly recognizable tree structure preserved for eternity in solid rock and the other is a dead ringer for a real piece of bark.



Thursday, March 10, 2011

Happy Bead Day

Here's some art that I made to celebrate:


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kombucha in the Building

Kombucha (or KT) is fermented sweet tea. Anyone can quite easily make it at home, though national distributors sell it for upwards of three dollars a bottle. I've been brewing my own for several months now. Why? Because it's fun, it tastes good, and, based on a cursory review of the medical literature, it is healthy.

This last point is a contentious one. Is Kombucha healthy? Type "Kombucha health benefits" into Google, and one of the top results is a Mayo clinic article advising that it "is prudent to avoid it." However, read the label of any commercially available KT bottle and you'll find an astonishingly long list of health claims including cancer cure, health skin elixir, mood elevator, energy booster.

The history of Kombucha scholarship in peer-reviewed research journals begins in 1928, with the publication of "About the so-called Kombucha" in BIOCHEMISCHE ZEITSCHRIFT (An article for which there is not a readily available online text). After that, there is dearth of publications on the fermented tea until the mid and late 1990's, when a series of scholars publish articles about the potential dangers of Kombucha. For example:

-"Unexplained severe illness possibly associated with consumption of Kombucha tea - Iowa, 1995"
-"Probable gastrointestinal toxicity of Kombucha tea - Is this beverage healthy or harmful?"
-"Cutaneous anthrax associated with the Kombucha "mushuoom" in Iran"
-"Lead poisoning from drinking Kombucha tea brewed in a ceramic pot"
-"Kombucha tea may not be so benign after all."

Ernst, in a 2003 Kombucha review paper, summed up the medical research to date:

"No clinical studies were found relating to the efficacy of this remedy. Several case reports and case series raise doubts about the safety of kombucha. They include suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections. One fatality is on record. Conclusions: On the basis of these data it was concluded that the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha. It can therefore not be recommended for therapeutic use."

However, in the last two years, published articles on Kombucha's health effects have adopted a drastically different stance.

In 2009 alone, the following articles were published:

-"Hepatoprotective and Curative Properties of Kombucha Tea Against Carbon Tetrachloride-Induced Toxicity"

-"The effect of Kombucha on post-operative intra-abdominal adhesion formation in rats" which showed that "intra-peritoneal administration of Kombucha might be useful for preventing peritoneal adhesions."

-"Hypocholesterolaemic and antioxidant effects of kombucha tea in high-cholesterol fed mice" which concluded that "KT had the hypocholesterolaemic and antioxiclant effects."

2010 was another good year for kombucha in the peer-reviewed medical literature...

-"Protective effect of kombucha mushroom (KM) tea on chromosomal aberrations induced by gamma radiation in human peripheral lymphocytes in-vitro"

-"Protective effect of kombucha mushroom (KM) tea on phenol-induced cytotoxicity in albino mice"

-"Effect of Kombucha Tea on Aflatoxin B-1 Induced Acute Hepatotoxicity in Albino Rats-prophylactic and Curative Studies"

The highly critical Kombucha research from the 1990's is diametrically opposed to the glowing studies published in the last few years. Why this sudden reversal? It's the same Kombucha. Is it possible that the increasing commercial value of Kombucha altered the results of scientific studies? Was the 1990's an era of vast conspiracies directed against the fledgling Kombucha industry?

The answer is much simpler: anecdotal human patient studies in the 90's and early 00's were replaced with controlled laboratory rat experiments in the late 00's.

Take the study "Probable gastrointestinal toxicity of Kombucha tea - Is this beverage healthy or harmful?" published in 2003 by Radhika Srinivasan in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. The evidence that Kombucha causes "probable gastrointestinal toxicity" presented in this paper is a handful of patients who reported drinking KT and experienced certain stomach problems. One patient was taking thyroid hormone, estrogen replacement, and drinking a form of Kombucha. Age 51, she came into the hospital with vomiting, nausea, and headaches. The other three cases reported are similar in nature: patient with health problems, who also drinks KT, reports health problems.

What's going on with this study anyways? Take a look at the "Kombucha Mushroom" that the authors analyzed using gas chromatography. For anyone who has brewed Kombucha, this is not what a SCOBY typically looks like. A fake SCOBY?

Here's what's going on: Kombucha got a bad rap because researchers were publishing studies like Srinivasan's 2003 paper outlined above. These anecdotal methods don't prove anything one way or the other. As the science improves, and real controlled laboratory studies like "Protective effect of kombucha mushroom (KM) tea on chromosomal aberrations induced by gamma radiation in human peripheral lymphocytes in-vitro" are carried out, the jury shifts back towards KT.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The First of Many

As some of you well know, I've been experimenting with growing Pearl Oyster mushrooms on old newspapers and spent coffee grounds. A month after receiving a syringe of liquid culture, I have successes to report. In other words, I grew mushrooms! Admittedly, the mushrooms I've grown thus far are small. But, the exciting part is that I have grown some using 100% newspaper and coffee.

The first picture is of a small bouquet of mushrooms I picked earlier this afternoon. These were grown on a mixture of Coconut Coir and spent coffee grounds. Minutes later these were in the frying pan, and I'm happy to report they tasted delicious - a rich and meaty flavor.


The following picture shows a larger mushroom growing on newspaper. (It's the New York Times if you must ask.)


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The thinker and the thought

I was thinking last night about a book, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It's a book about how a few plants, Tulips, Potatoes, Marijuana, and Apples, have exploited certain characteristics of humanity to spread themselves around the world. It's run-of-the-mill Darwinian evolution mixed with the complexities of consciousness. It's an interesting thesis, but it's not the point that I want to talk about in this post.

In the chapter on Marijuana, Pollan suggests that drugs work by relaxing our brain's filter of reality. Every day we are faced with an overwhelming wealth of sensory information. If we were truly open to all of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world we wouldn't be able to do anything. We couldn't recognize faces, we couldn't talk, and we certainly couldn't walk down the streets of New York City. So, in response to this problem, our brains have developed coping mechanisms, ways to ignore the information overload, a reality filter. In Pollan's mind, certain psychoactive drugs impair this reality filter, allowing us to see what's really there.

I was thinking about this idea last night, and realized that I don't really agree with it. If a drug like LSD turns an ordinary wall into a colorful fractal, does that mean that the fractal was there to begin with, and our mind had previously been filtering it out? It's a possibility that I can't really accept.

Once I started questioning this particular idea that Pollan has about drugs, I started questioning his entire book. I thought, if he's wrong about one thing, he's probably wrong about something else. There was nothing specifically wrong with his other ideas, just the fact that he had also generated them. In other words, my mind couldn't separate the idea from the author. This phenomenon is everywhere, and I think it's a serious problem.

If we look at the world from the viewpoint of memetics, the close association between human individuals and ideas is severely limiting to the evolution of knowledge and ideas. (In my understanding, memetics is the application of Darwinian theory to the world of ideas. It states that memes, individual ideas or beliefs, are floating around in a world-wide meme-pool, interacting and evolving in a population of minds. The analogy is to genes in a gene-pool.) With this world-view, it's hard to justify ignoring an entire group of memes because they came from the same person. Maybe Pollan's memes have a certain flavor or character to them, but they are still distinct ideas.

At the root of the problem is our culture's individualism. We are obsessed with citing authors, giving credit where credit is due. (Think of the Social Network and the $65 million settlement to the originators of a simple idea.) As ideas and knowledge proliferate, this model may become archaic. Maybe the thinker is much less important than the thought itself.

The point I want to make is that ideas and the people who generated them are not inexorably interwoven. They can be pulled apart, one from the other, and doing so is important, lest we discount a good idea from a bad thinker, or accept a bad idea just because a smart person came up with it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Food and Justice

Writing this post from the campus of Northeastern University in Boston. I'm at a conference of food activists, attending workshops and the like.

This post is going to be a bit diffuse and broad-brush, a summary of all the cool things I learned this morning. A lot of these issues require much more in-depth research and discussion. So I'll come back to many of them in future postings. For now the smorgasbord:

State-Owned Banks
This is an issue I had not thought or heard about before today. North Dakota is an example of a place with a state-owned bank. The advantage is that the bank can respond to regional issues in a way that multinational corporations like Bank of America or Chase simply cannot do. For example: a hail-storm wipes out all the crops in North Dakota. BoA has no sympathy. A state=owned bank, with closer ties to the farmers, can forgive that year's payments because it understands the local issues. In other words, local economies require local financing and a fundamental overhaul of the American monetary/banking system. Oregon and Maryland have state-owned banks in the works.

/Nutritional mythology and misleading terminology
Is sugar really just an empty calorie? A more accurate term might be anti-nutrient, since sugar impairs the body's ability to absorb b vitamins and minerals.
Is childhood obesity an epidemic? Or is it just a symptom of declining childhood health, which actually contributes to a host of diseases such as asthma, eczema, diabetes, and cancer.

More later...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Welcome to the art show.

This post is a series of drawings I made based on this painting. Matisse's image infected my mind, and this is what came out the other side. The first four images are sharpie, and the final one, the combination between Dali and Matisse, is sharpie and pastel.






Friday, February 4, 2011

"El Story Numero Dos": The Pogo Stick Complex

This is a story that was written exquisite corpse style with some of my friends. Without further ado, here it is:

Every now and again, she just needed to hang upside down. It made her think of how things used to be, before people started walking around on their hands, or with pogo sticks attached to their heads in some unusual cases. Very unusual cases, indeed. There is no sadder sight than a newborn child with a teeny-tiny pogo stick already developing. The disease had, at that time, become highly contagious. Every young boy quickly realizes the importance of comparing the size of his pogo stick with those of his friends. His mother wept for days, anticipating the torment and and eventual pogo stick complex the boy would one day develop. Which is why a very skilled hypnotist quickly entered into his life. Every thursday at 3:00 PM he would be lead through hypnotic exercises with the purpose of elongation. Until, one day, he became Stretch Armstrong and could do anything he wished.