Monthly Archives: December 2012

End Of Year Happy #4

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Black rhinos by nightPhoto: BBC

Black rhinos by night
Photo: BBC

There’s much that could be said about the rhinoceros, from its fearsome strength, to its rapid and sad decline due to hunting, to the recent differentiation of northern and southern white rhinoceroses into two distinct species because they show such genetic disparity (making for six living species, the northern white being the rarest).

In an upcoming BBC One series, Africa, something was learned about the black rhino that surprised researchers and documentary filmmakers alike. The black rhino had always been considered a solitary species, with individuals seeking each other out purely for the purposes of propagation.

However, during the course of filming the documentary, a new, highly-sensitive starlight camera was employed to film the black rhino by night. And lo, it turns out that the black rhino, mostly reticent by day, is actually a sociable party animal by night. At a watering hole in the Kalahari, filmmakers were astonished to find large groups of rhinos, all ages and social standing, meeting up once the sun went down. Not only that, the animals were affectionate, playful and friendly with one another.

Why is this an End Of Year Happy?

Because I like the idea that there is always mystery awaiting to surprise and astonish, even among life at its most observed. Even when we know so much, there is so much more just beyond our sight. I like the implementation of something called a “starlight camera” to spy on secretly playful rhinos.

But most of all, I like the notion that creatures we consider grouchy, antisocial and generally uncooperative can prove us utterly wrong in our assumptions, that there can be communion and agreement in what looks like hostile territory if we just have the ability to see it – and sometimes this ability might require taking a completely new perspective.

And with that, I wish everyone a very happy 2013.

Read here and here about the BBC series and the work on rhinos.

Here is more information on the starlight camera.

End Of Year Happy #3

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Milk Vending Machine

Milk Vending Machine

Another interesting vending machine from our area. There are many dairies in the area, one right up the road from us, where customers still come with large tin milk cans to get raw milk fresh from the farm. I suppose the vending machine is for those who can’t be bothered to drive the extra ten minutes to a farm, or who don’t know about that option. This is not your old-fashioned, milk-carton vending machine, this is a machine with sterilized bottles and milk-filling station.

At any rate, the milk is locally produced, and as it says on the sign, the cows are not fed any genetically-modified grains. If the dairy is like most around here, the cows are free-range as well. Still have to try this out at some point, just for fun.

End Of Year Happy #2

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Image credit: jelenayo / 123RF Banque d'imagesI get asked now and again why champagne is one of my very favorite beverages. If I don’t suspect a trick question, I’ll answer truthfully, either with my short list or my long list as to why. Near the top of both lists is the superficial similarity in sound and foam between champagne being poured into a glass and the sound and foam of the ocean. As it turns out, this comparison isn’t just aesthetic. In research carried out in Reims, France, a 2009 study found that the flavor and aroma of a given champagne are carried and formed by the bubbles themselves. The beautifully written study states that,

“As champagne or sparkling wine is poured into a glass, the myriad of ascending bubbles collapse and radiate in a multitude of tiny droplets above the free surface into the form of very characteristic and refreshing aerosols. (…) By drawing a parallel between the fizz of the ocean and the fizz in Champagne wines, our results closely link bursting bubbles and flavor release; thus, supporting the idea that rising and collapsing bubbles act as a continuous paternoster lift for aromas in every glass of champagne.”

Aside from the stunning use of paternoster imagery to describe bubbles carrying aroma in a glass, this lovely report goes on to describe hundreds of chemical compounds that are only made discreet by virtue of being carried in aerosol form through the liquid bulk of the champagne and released at the surface. Within the liquid itself, the compounds remain a messy mass until a bubble comes along to lift them to greater heights.

Far from demystifying the wonder of champagne, I find this line of inquiry a fascinating intersection of scientific investigation, interesting methodology, tradition, culture, aesthetics and economics. Also, it provides third-party validation of my own oft-repeated simile between the ocean and champagne, and I like that.

And thus it qualifies as an End Of Year Happy for 2012.

 

 

End Of Year Happy #1

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Vending machine for fresh pizzaPhoto: PK Read

Vending machine for fresh pizza
Photo: PK Read

I came across this vending machine for fresh oven pizza today, right next door to my favorite local fromagerie, the Michelin cheese shop. I’ve heard about these machines, but never had the privilege of seeing one for myself.

The Italian restaurant that runs the machine is an excellent one, so I expect the pizzas will be at least decent. I don’t know how long the pizza vending machine has been installed – given its pristine state and complete lack of graffiti, it can’t have been there for long.

So, after the holiday eating frenzy has settled and I am ready for pizza again, I will be trying out piping hot vending machine pizza. An easy-to-keep resolution for the New Year.

Clear Paths

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Not two weeks ago, my running loop was a broad swathe of white and snow and the way forward was more of an idea than a path.

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I thought it would be like this for the rest of winter, and that the regular running path would be knee-deep and inaccessible for a few months.

Fast forward a few days – days of wind and rain and sleet and just a few slivers of sun – to yesterday, when the path looked like this:

Clear paths & skies Photo: PK Read

Clear paths & skies
Photo: PK Read

Sometimes, when the path forward is obstructed, a few added days of inclemency will reveal an unexpected and welcome solution.

And I mean that literally, not just metaphorically.

 

Advent at the End

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Bodleian Advent Calendar

Bodleian Advent Calendar

 

Well, the twenty-four doors of the Bodleian advent calendar have all been opened. Not only is it Christmas Eve, but the optimistic calendar makers must not have been adherents of the most recent non-Apocalypse, because there were 24 days on the calendar, and not 21 to coincide with the now-defunct End of Days on Dec. 21st. As it is, the candles are on the tree, the gifts are wrapped and we are ready for our ragtag expat X-mas traditions taken from our various families, countries of residence, and personal preferences.

The Advent whisky calendar is still a work in progress – my partner in tasting was out of town again for a few days, so while all the little bottles have been successfully extracted from their calendar cubbyholes (all but one, that’s for this evening!), we are rather tardy on our whisky trials and log. Certainly by the end of the year, we will have completed the tasty drams.

The turkey is in the oven, the pie has been made, and in keeping with my theme of champagne and whisky, I used up a bottle of sparkling wine to moisten the dressing and stuffing. I mistakenly opened it one night thinking it was Champagne and it turned out to be a Crémant we usually use for party punch. Not quite up to sipping snuff, and no party this week in need of a bubbly aperitif, but a pity to let it go to waste. So we will find out what oyster mushroom, sausage and sparkling wine stuffing tastes like later today. It fizzed nicely when I poured it into the bowl for mixing, and if having fun whilst cooking adds to the flavor, then I expect some very good stuffing indeed!

 

 

Cosmic Dawn, Winter Solstice, End of Days, etc.

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Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

At the long-heralded End of Days for the Mayan calendar, it’s a relief to see that the good old first day of winter dawned after all.

Not only that, it’s the earliest first day of winter since 1896. If one is permitted a favorite when it comes to milestones in our planetary spin around the sun, I’d have to say mine is the winter solstice. While the summer solstice is easy to love – those long sunny days! the short span of darkness! – it also portends the shortening of days, the inevitable roll down the hill into falling leaves, then rain, then snow, and the knowledge that no matter how warm the grass under your feet while you’re dancing, winter is on the march.

Winter solstice is, of course, the opposite. The leaves are off the trees, snow is on the ground (at least where we live), the garden is usually frozen and summer is already a fading memory. Winter is on the doorstep or maybe already peeking an icicled beard inside. And then the solstice – the worst may not be past but this is the shortest day, and spring awaits. the summer – like the dawn above – is on the horizon, however distant.

So, thank you, winter solstice, for showing up so splendidly over the Alps this morning!

Between Rhône River bridges

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Pont des Bergues, Geneva, Switzerland  Photo: PK Read

Pont des Bergues, Geneva, Switzerland Photo: PK Read

I may be wrong, but in past years I think Geneva has had far more holiday lights up than this year. Usually all the trees that line the lake and rivers are strung with white garlands of light and the various bridges are lines of light as well. Energy saving measures? Cost-cutting? At any rate, this is a rather grainy view taken at dusk last night from the Pont de la Machine at the mouth of the Rhône River, looking towards the bright walking bridge of the Pont des Bergues and the tiny Île Rousseeau, the more sober Pont de Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva beyond. The wooden platform was installed a few years ago in the middle of the river, and in summer or winter, it is a great place to sit and watch the rapid current of the Rhône flow past on its way westwards.

The Temporal Sweet Spot

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From a recent article on research (carried out at Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona by Stephen Macknik, PhD, and Susana Martinez-Conde, PhD) into how humans perceive light, and how a recent discovery into the details of human light perception could change the way light-emitting devices are designed:
“The discovery concerns the way humans perceive temporal modulations of light. For example, most light-emitting devices, such as light bulbs, video monitors and televisions, flicker. Faster flicker rates result in reduced perception of flicker, which is more comfortable to viewers. In studying this phenomenon in the brain, the researchers discovered that there is a range of flicker dynamics of light that optimizes the perceived brightness of the light without increasing power.
“We found a temporal sweet spot in visual perception that can be exploited to obtain significant savings by redesigning light emitting devices to flicker with optimal dynamics to activate visual system neurons in the human brain,” says Dr. Macknik.”
The article goes on to say that implementing design changes for optimal human visual perception could save billions of energy dollars per year in the United States alone.
What I find especially interesting about this study, besides the obvious potential environmental and economic benefits, is this: The researchers weren’t looking for the temporal sweet spot.
They found it because they were looking into discrepancies between two contradictory theories of human visual perception, Bloch’s Law and the Broca-Sulzer Effect. They designed their experiment to overcome bias among experiment subjects in previous studies, and in doing so, came up with a major advance in temporal vision research.

If there are answers as profound as ones like this, that can help designers optimize the specifications of daily products for human perception, then what other areas lie unexplored in the clufts and narrow canyons of existing theories and research results? What hidden depths aren’t we plumbing, and how can we find them?
Maybe what we need is a map of the dark canyons for some targeted spelunking.
The study is published Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper, titled “Optimizing the temporal dynamics of light to human perception,” is believed to be the first attempt to tune light-emitting devices to the optimal temporal dynamics of the human visual system.

Second chances

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16405291_sAfter two weeks of unrelenting cold and several snowfalls that were both deep and early, we are having a week of heavy and warmish rain to finish off the last official bit of autumn. As the rain melts the snow and exposes the gardening mistakes I made over the last few weeks, mistakes of neglect rather than overt action, I am thinking of my grandmother.

She would have been 102 this month – she passed away just shy of her 101st birthday last year. She was an avid gardener of the old-school variety. She grew up in the wheat-growing region of eastern Washington, on a large farm. It was her job as a child to tend to the family kitchen garden. She knew how to do everything from sowing to tending to harvesting to winterizing, from putting up seed for the following year to drying corn and grinding it for flour. She was pitiless when it came to failing plants, unrelenting when it came to salvaging what could be salvaged. She was still putting up preserves in case of a hard winter into her late eighties – even though she had moved to southern California to be near family.

She taught me a lot of what she knew when it came to certain tasks. “You come from pioneer stock, you have to know at least a little,” she told me. Knitting, crocheting, sewing, bread-baking, hand-written thank-you notes, hard-headedness and determination. Unfortunately, I missed out on the gardening lessons because we lived too far apart when I was young, and even farther apart when I got older. She visited me once here in France and saw my garden – back when it was the romantic, overgrown and tangled mess we had inherited from the previous owners. She was almost ninety at the time, and her main advice, dispensed with a scythe-like gesture towards everything but the fruit trees, was to ‘cut it all down and start over’.

Well, I didn’t quite do that, but I have cleaned it up quite a bit. Only this year, due to various travel obligations and the early snow, I didn’t quite get around to tying up and bedding down everything that needed it. And I know this week’s rains will expose my ill deeds. Oh, yes, I took care of the fruit-bearing trees and the useful perennials – the ghost of my grandmother would smite me if I hadn’t. It’s all the other stuff that’s suffering.

What I’m hoping is that I can get a chance to make things right, out there in the mud, so that by the official start of winter the garden will be in a condition of which my grandmother, who I miss every day, would not have completely disapproved.