Category Archives: Blog

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The United States of Cheese

I try to push the boundaries with this simple internet blog. I don’t shy away from the hard stories, those ideas that are difficult to grapple, as I think is evident with my previous post, on grape juice. This time, in keeping with that spirit, touching the untouchable, taming the wild beast, climbing the looming peak of humanity, I’ll be talking about cheese.

According to researcher Bonnie Leibman at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans eat 23 pounds of cheese a year, which is up from eight pounds a year in 1970. There are other rather predictable aspects of the United States’ food report card, if you are wish to take a brief foray over to that wonderful PDF. (Namely, we do not receive a single “A”, and receive “C” or lower in Dairy, Grains, and Sweeteners.)

Because cheese is a very broad topic – a Google search for cheese elicits 392 million results – I feel the need to narrow the topic down, mostly so my fingers don’t fall off whilst I type. So, specifically, the thing I would like to discuss, is American cheese.

In my searching the internet for things to write about cheese, I stumbled upon the incredibly amazing website cheese.com. Their hope page is literally covered with cheese, and it simply makes me happy. One of the prominent picture links on their home page, as those of you who clicked the previous link are now discovering, is American cheese. Like most things in America, American cheese started out as a mixture of other cheeses. (In America, we’re not so good at being entirely original, but are excellent at making great things out of other original things.)

The website Mental_Floss starts out an article on American cheese with the line, “While the they had plenty of other culinary talents, the Native Americans were not a cheese-making people.” Cheese is a very Anglo-Saxon food. American cheeses were originally made in ones home, to be consumed in ones home. They were never fancy, or moldy, as many fine cheese are. Keep in mind: at this point to say, “American cheese” is simply to say, “cheese made in America.” America was still a pretty new thing back then. This type of cheese, colonial American cheese, was actually cheddar. Cheddar cheese is sturdy, and versatile, and could handle the climate of the colonies, which had much greater seasonal extremes than in Mother England. By the 1790s, the American’s were exporting their cheddar cheese back to the Queen’s Island, where it was known as “American cheese”.

In 1851, a man Jesse Williams created the first American cheese factory. This, my dear readers, was a game changer. Jesse Williams was to cheese as Steve Jobs was to computers. He did things differently. He had dreams. He didn’t take no for an answer. He was voted out of his own company by former Pepsi CEO John Scull…wait…no…nope, that was only Jobs. In its first season of operation, Williams’ factory produced 100,000 pounds of cheese. Williams’ turned American cheese into the unofficial official cheese of the American marketplace. It was known as simply yellow cheese, or store cheese. (It was still known as American Cheddar in England.) And, at this point, it was still edible.

Then came along that asshole Kraft. Now, the Swiss had actually been toying with processed cheese before Kraft ruined cheese for America. Like the good Swiss citizen that he was, Gerber was just trying to make cheese as technically magnificent as he possibly could. Processed cheese has a longer shelf-life than regular cheese, it melts better while staying in one piece, it is easy to mass produce, and costs much much less. On paper, all these things look good. If you’re business is making cheese, all of this stuff seems great. Regular cheddar has especially fun properties when melted. This has to do with the way that the proteins and fats behave when heated. Process cheese does not do this, probably because it is a terrible terrible food product. I guess sometimes the things that look good on paper just don’t cut it when put to a practical test, such as, can I eat this food thing.

In other cheese news, due to a twisted turn of events, the yellow color of cheese is probably fake. Cheese used to be made from whole milk. The fat in whole milk gave cheese a yellowy-orangish hue. When the people who made cheese figured out that the fat in milk could be used to make other things, like butter and heavy cream, the began scraping the fat off of milk before they made cheese with it. With the fat went the color. To maintain the original hue, and convince buyers that they were buying regular cheese, the makers added yellowish-orangy coloring. And we’ve been being duped ever since.

I originally started writing this for National Cheese Day, which I think is sometime in February, and then I lost steam. Or, perhaps, we can say that the occasion is the 100th anniversary of the patent which was filed for the process of making process cheese – the patent (US 1186524 A) was filed on March 25, 1916, and published on June 6th of the same year – but I really don’t want to give Mr. Kraft any more time in the spotlight.

I suppose we can just leave it at this: We’re in the middle of an election year. Everyone seems to be ready to rip out everyone elses’ throats, and it wouldn’t actually surprise me if that was tomorrow’s headline. We’ve forgotten how to compromise. We’ve forgotten how to argue with each other, as in civil debate. Arguing does not involve physical violence. Instead of a loyal opposition, we have cartoon characters running for president. Yet, despite all of that, we have cheese. We have our own cheese, born out of a Swiss cheese maker who set out to make something better, combined with methods that came with us across the Atlantic, and turned into a quintessential part of American cuisine.

We have a cheese, as old as America itself, still around after all these years. There are important differences that we have, we that make up the cheese, like the Colbies and the Cheddars that are usually used to make the actual cheese. We have to move forward, lest not we founder in the backwash of some guy eating a cheeseburger. We have to move forward and rid ourselves of some cheeses that really have no place here. Those cheeses that are really just mold, but call themselves cheese in an attempt to be eaten. Except blue cheese. You can stay, blue cheese. Our cheese-nation is being thrown into the frying pan. And not on two pieces of white bread with butter. We are being heated by our issues. But because of the process patented by Mr. Kraft 100 years ago, we do not break apart when melted. We stay together, the Colbies and the Cheddars, and we grow together, and it is progress. That is what I have to say about cheese.

The Hunter – Part I

He wakes up early. All the hunters do this. He knows from off handed references in news clippings about hunting accidents and from watching episodes in sitcoms from the ’70s. He hits the switch on his coffee machine, because he has a slight caffein addiction, and doesn’t want to be handling a shotgun with a migrane. As the scalding hot liquid hits his bare toes, he realizes the coffee pot is still in the dishwasher. He’ll be handling firearms later, but that will be after the coffee. This is good.

After successfully brewing a pot, he stumbles up the stairs and prepares himself for the hunt. He has been prepared for this. Nobody told him that hunters get up early, but everything else he has been taught. In a classroom. Hunting school was a huge ordeal. There were classes on firearm training, how to conceal yourself from a beast so as to lure it in to your sights, how to go after the really big ones, how to use the smaller ones for practice. There were classes on structures to make in the wilderness, what kinds of nuts and berries to eat if you were stuck out overnight, how to navigate by a compass. There were classes on the different types of beasts, where they lived, how to prepare yourself specifically for each beast, how do research the beast and what it liked and didn’t like in the hunter. It was a long, grueling affair. The hunter had thought about leaving, or switching his major to english studies, but something kept him there. Now, standing in front of his mirror pulling on his camouflage, he has no idea what that was.

He has all the camouflage. This was one of the first classes he ever had to take at hunting school, so he had to search how to camouflage yourself for hunting on the internet. He has camo boots, camo baseball caps, camo winter caps, camo fishing caps, camo gloves, camo pants, camo shirts, camo sweaters, camo jackets, camo rain coats, camo long johns, camo short johns, camo baklavas, camo socks, camo bags, camo scarfs, camo belts, camo water bottles, camo folding chairs, camo coffee cups, camo backpacks, camo binoculars, camo sunglasses, camo turkey calls, camo deer calls, camo bison calls, and even a camo hunting rifle. And a camo hunting rifle bag, camo bullets, and a camo rifle strap. And, for good measure, a camo crossbow, camo crossbow case, camo bow, and a camo bow quiver. I can’t not catch one, he thinks. He dons all of his camo. He steps in front of the mirror. He looks cool.

He steps into the forest. He looks stupid. For one thing, he bought all the camo (which, by the way, cost a fortune) in orange. The website he found on the internet said something about the beasts being colorblind, so all that mattered was the pattern of the camo. What the hunter failed to notice was that this was a websight for art history majors. The beasts that he is seeking are not colorblind, and could see him coming from about three miles away. Also, he has his coat on backwards, and somehow one of his boots ended up on his hand. He only realized this when he was having a hard time opening up his camo rifle case, which incidentally had blended in amongst his camo crossbow case, camo folding chairs and camo backpacks.

The hunter doesn’t realize that he has the wrong type of camo. He realized the thing about the boot, because he’s not incompetent. Laden with all his bags, his rifle, and his chairs, he sets off. Walking through the woods, he takes out the turkey call. He uses it, and the sound he hears is identical to a large, juicy bird ready to be impaled with an arrow shot from a crossbow. The sound that is emitted from the call in his mouth is actually the sound of a hoarse duck attempting to yodel. All the beasts flee.

The hunter gets tired. He stops using the camo bird call. The beasts start emerging. Most of them, however, require 3 to 5 years of experience. This is bad, because this is the hunter’s first hunt. They said he would be able to bag someting easily. They said, at hunting school, that he would be prepared for this. He’s not. He hasn’t brought a camouflage cooler with camouflage sandwiches and drinks. He is hungry. After walking over a couple of hills, he sees down into a valley. There, are some smaller jobs. They are grazing peacefully in some tall grass. He sneaks down the valley, and approaches one from behind. He was taught about the small ones. They can be good, his teachers had told him. If you catch one, and stick with it as it grows, you can have a nice career. Which, they said, was good.

The hunter goes through the motions. He sneaks up, shining like a supernova in his bright orange camo everything. The problem is, instead of thinking about what he’s doing, he’s thinking about how he doesn’t really want a “nice career”. So he doesn’t see the quicksand. One of his orange camo boots is engulfed and he falters. In the scuffle, his orange camo hunting rifle discharges an orange camo bullet into his other orange camo boot. The small jobs flee at the crack of the rifle. The hunter is stuck in the quicksand, red blood spurting out of his orange camo boot. He has been hunting all day, and now the sun is setting. The temperature begins to fall, and the hunter wonders if he will make it through the night.

…to be continued.

Ice Cream and Fruit: A Culinary Tale

Today I’ve decided to talk about something that is very important to me. It is something that I have devoted probably about 45 minutes a month to, but only in my free time. I don’t really know what that means. The something is this: ice cream. I love ice cream. If I could eat nothing but ice cream, and not die of ice cream poisoning, I would. Sometimes I still do that, but that’s just because I eat when I’m stressed. Don’t judge me. Today, I’m going to categorically and unequivocally prove that fruit deserves a place amongst ice and cream and sugar and those churns that you make ice cream with.

Since I’m such an ice cream fanatic, here are some ice cream facts, which I definitely knew off the top of my head. If you absolutely need some sort of “proof” (it’s the internet guys, I could have written that page and posted it under that URL and you’d never know)…(but you could know if you know how Unix works…so)…(also the author writes her name at the bottom of the page) you could go to this website. China was probably the inventor of ice cream, around 3000 BC. Marco Polo may or may not have brought ice cream to Italy, where it was refined into the delicious goodness we enjoy today. The first ice cream recipe to be published in America was a recipe for a fruit ice cream published in 1792. This recipe included apricots, 12 of them, which as we know, are fruit. In fact, according to a survey of 18th and 19th English and American century cook books, fruit ice creams were the most popular ice creams enjoyed by the people who bought those cook books and then made the recipes in them as well as, of course, the people to whom those people served the fruit ice cream. In 1928, a man named Howard Johnson built the original Baskin Robins – but not the actual Baskin Robins – with 28 flavors of ice cream. Among his 28 flavors, which were varied based on season and ingredient availability, were strawberry, banana, burgundy cherry, orange pineapple, lemon, grape nut, and apple. As my more astute readers will note, all of those flavors have fruits in them.

This volume published by the National Association of Retail Druggists (yes, druggists is the word) says that fresh strawberries should absolutely be served with ice cream in season, and advised the operators of soda fountains that the only reason they haven’t been selling well in the early spring, is that they haven’t been offering it to their patrons. Which, I’ll admit, is a little presumptuous.

A website hosted by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, explains some of the chemistry involved in ice cream making. Which, is interesting. The website informs it’s readers that the sugars in ice cream help bring out the sweetness and palpability, and it enhances the perception of various fruit flavors. Another website hail solids in ice cream, saying they are important to the ice cream’s boby, texture, and smoothness.

At this point, I had basically run out of steam. I was looking forward to writing this long, pedantic (but brilliant) post about fruit and ice cream, and I just couldn’t find any more material to draw from. I was befuddled. Then, something happened. I was reading something on the internet which referenced a part of the vanilla plant as a fruit. This then lead down a harrowing rabbit hole involving botany, culinary art, and vegetables. As it turns out, the resulting discussion is actually much more interesting than what I was originally going to talk about, and amazingly still kind of related.

I like definitions. I like the subtleties between different words. Whom versus who. That versus which. I also like science. I think that looking at the world through the lense of science is a very good way to see things as accurately as possible. These truths being self evident (to me anyway), the first thing I did after stumbling upon this starteling and potentially ground breaking bit of information was search for the definition of fruit.

I searched for the definition of fruit, and I googled whether vanilla was in fact a fruit. Which, it is, but we’ll get to that later. It turns out that fruit is a botanical, scientific definition. It is the seed-bearing structure in angiosperms (flowering plants) formed from the ovary of the plant after flowering. At this point a bunch of voices in my head screamed things about vegetables. If that was the definition of a fruit, what is the definition of a vegetable? Here’s where the juicy part starts. Scientifically speaking, vegetable is gibberish. In fact, the term vegetable has no meaning in botany. Most of what you think of as “vegetables” are actually fruits. Tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, chili peppers, string beans, snow peas, and nuts, are all fruits.

Most of the other things that we think of as vegetables are either classified as fruits and seeds, or they are classified by the part of the plant that is being eaten. There are four main classifications for this, including fruits. These classifications, as described in the linked article, are: leaves and stems, seeds, starchy roots and other subterranean structures, and fruits. With these four classifications we cover the “hard core vegetables” like kale and spinach (category one); peas, corn, wheat, oats, and barley (category two); carrots, sweet potatoes, beets (all true roots), and tubers like white potatoes (category three); and peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, squash, and green beans (category four).

So now that we’re all reeling from the news that we’ve been lied to all of our lives, and vegetables don’t actually exist, we can get back to defining what a vanilla really is. Vanilla plants are a group of species in the genus Vanilla, which is a member of the family Orchidaceae (Orchids). There are three main types of vanilla that make up the things you consume labeled “vanilla”. These are Vanilla planifolia, a flat-leaved Mexican species, as well as V. tahitensis found in the South Pacific, and V. pompona found in the West Indies. Most vanilla is produced in Mexico and Madagascar (V. planifolia), and is commonly known as Bourbon vanilla or Madagascar vanilla. A list of all the vanilla species can be found here.

The fruit that the vanilla plant produces, which is commonly referred to as the vanilla bean, is a simple dry fruit. It consists of pods, which are the bits that we would commonly refer to as the ‘bean’. It gets slightly confusing here, but only if you’re a huge nerd and actually are still interested. I was ready to proclaim the vanilla bean a legume fruit, because it is a simple dry fruit with a pod that dehisces (splits along two seams) to reveal the actual vanilla seeds. Which, is the botanical definition of a legume fruit. However, according to many threads on the internet, and a couple different websites, vanilla beans are not legumes. They are however (I’m pretty sure) a type of simple dry fruit, regardless of whether they are legumes or not. (Because at least a few of you are going to be wondering, while the cacao fruit from which we get chocolate is a fruit, a cocoa bean, which is the part that is actually used in making chocolate, is the seed of the fruit, not the fruit itself.)

Okay. You, an ordinary person, would think of this as the end of the discussion. You would be wrong. Because vanilla isn’t one of those fruits you just eat, like apples or blueberries. It is most commonly used to flavor other things, or simply for its aroma. This is done by making vanilla extract. This can be done one of two ways: either with real vanilla fruits, or by manufacturing the chemicals that create the vanilla flavor artificially. The main chemical in vanilla fruits that gives it the flavor that we all know and love, is vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde). Real vanilla extract also has acetaldehyde, acetic acid, furfural, hexanoic acid, methyl cinnamate, and hundreds of other chemicals that add to the flavor.

Vanillin2

The chemical structure of vanillin. (Source: Wikipedia)

 

Making real vanilla extract is a simple process of having some vanilla and getting hammered with vodka. Whoa. Nope. That’s just how I’d do it. Beanilla.com (it should be called fruitnilla.com) helpfully explains, the way to make vanilla extract is to immerse vanilla beans in vodka (or bourbon or brandy or rum) and just let it soak, shaking occasionally. While that article attempts to speak ill of artificial (chemical) vanilla extracts, it is important to remember that all foods are chemicals, and not all chemicals are bad. In fact, chemistry is everywhere, and most of it doesn’t give you cancer. The vanillin in artificial extracts is the same chemically as the vanillin in real vanilla extracts, otherwise it would be something else. Like an asparagus, or a lobster. Real vanilla extract tastes different (better) because of all the extra chemicals contained in real vanilla fruits. (If you actually read that whole article, here is another link about castoreum, which you will probably have questions about.)

Some vanilla ice cream has actual bits of vanilla fruit in it. (Those are the little black spots you’ve always wondered about.) Others are just flavored with vanilla extracts, either real or artificial. Vanilla ice cream is undoubtedly one of the most popular flavors of ice cream. Whether it’s in third, according to that meaningless statistics website, or first, according to that infogram (which is probably created from census data or something), vanilla ice cream is at or near the top of the most lists of favorite ice cream flavors. Since the vanilla bean is, scientifically speaking, a fruit, the notion that fruit has no place in ice cream is, scientifically speaking, simply incorrect.

However, scientifically speaking can be a lousy way of looking at things. Don’t get me wrong, it is a GREAT way of looking at a lot of things. Just remember though, botanically and scientifically speaking, the word vegetable is meaningless. Culinarily speaking, it’s not. This is why tomatoes are usually called vegetables, as are green beans, peas, carrots, beats, and the most things you put in a salad. In no way of speaking is pizza a vegetable, or a fruit. If you eat a lot of pizza, you’ll probably gain weight, no matter how you define your words. Why am I not going to keep writing about this apparent impasse? Why do I not feel a need to keep going with this until we have clearly defined everything?

Well, dear readers, even I can understand that a world full of science and logic but lacking art (which is what makes the difference between culinary art and chemistry), would be a pretty boring place to live. While scientifically speaking fruit absolutely does belong in ice cream, speaking as a normal person, put whatever you want in your ice cream. Just don’t tell me what belongs in mine.

QWERTY II

I like learning odd things. Many of these posts are inspired by odd things that I learn, and felt I should share over the Internet. Which is why I was so excited to find out that there was NEWS about everyone’s favorite keyboard layout. As in new stuff. About a keyboard layout that is almost 250 years old. Very exciting. A little while ago, I wrote a post on how we all ended up with the QWERTY keyboard layout. It came from typewriters, and a man who made typewriters, Christopher Latham Sholes. The story goes that the typists of the days of typewriters became very good at typing. This caused typewriters to jam. So Mr. Sholes created an intentionally cumbersome layout to slow these typists down, and fix this problem. As it turns out, you see, the story, might just be a story after all.

A recent paper published by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka from Japan details evidence of the QWERTY design that has nothing to do with slowing down the pace of typists. They posit that the layout actually stems from morse code and telegraphy. According to the article, the first keyboards that were used by Sholes’ company did resemble a piano. Where they were next developed from, however, begins to differ from the traditional story.

Typewriters and keyboards were used for transcribing morse code messages and telegraphs. This meant that the position of the keys had to be correlated with the morse code symbols. As explained in Smithsonian Magazine article, the paper from the Kyoto researchers suggests that the layout was developed over several years, with the help of telegraph operators. So that’s that. The story was picked up by a bunch of other news-ish type publications, such as The Atlantic and The Huffington Post. The thing is, they’re just going off of the Smithsonian piece, which is about two guys who wrote a paper.

Now, I used to like that the history of the QWERTY layout was simple, despite it’s design to slow me down. I am a decent typer, and so I don’t really hold it against Mr. Sholes. But I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon that is full of the Ysouka’s, and the people from Smithsonian Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post. The reason is this: they are basing all of their arguments on the opinion of two guys.

There are a couple of points to make here, the first of which is there are likely elements of truth to every side of this keyboard layout scrum. The jamming problem is so widely referenced and so widely known, and it likely did exist. As a make of typewriters, Mr. Sholes would have been invested in making typewriters that didn’t jam, because then more people would buy his typewriters, and he would make more money. This paper by Stan Leibowitz and Stephen Margolis suggests that the rearranged keyboard layout was designed solely so that keys commonly hit in rapid succession would swing up to hit the page from opposite sides of the mechanism. This also makes for a method of typing which alternates hands a lot, which makes touch typing easier. Another point they make is that what we think of as “touch-typing” now, with computer keyboards, is different from “touch-typing” when typewriters were abundant.

This entire episode has actually lead me to dig up some more information on the Dvorak keyboard layout. It seems that according to an article originally published in 1996 in Reason Magazine, a study performed by the Navy in the 1940s to figure out which keyboard layout was superior, QWERTY or Dvorak, was riddled with threats to validity, meaning that the research is essentially meaningless. Other tests of typing speed have shown that the pace at which one can type is actually more dependent on one’s experience and practice typing in a particular keyboard than the keyboard itself.

For me, to try and type on a Dvorak keyboard would be initially much more difficult, because I don’t have to think about the QWERTY layout when I type. That said, if I put in the hours typing like I have with the QWERTY layout, then I would be able to type on a Dvorak keyboard just as easily. This makes the point that regardless of the efficiency or inefficiency of the QWERTY layout, since we all learned on it, and industry has accepted it as something of a standard, that it is. We’re all used to it, and relatively good at it. The people who type a lot anyways.

The moral of the story is this: The origin story of the QWERTY keyboard is probably not as simple as anyone is making it out to be. The researchers at Kyoto University have found some evidence that further add to the mystery. These keyboards were used for telegraph operators, but typewriters also would jam. So, if anyone reading this happens upon a smallish lamp with a genie inside of it, rub the lamp, and wish to speak to Mr. Christopher Latham Sholes so we can put this issue to rest, once and for all.

SpaceX CRS-7 Launch Photos

This morning at 10:21 a.m. EST, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Space Station CRS-7 mission.  The rocket suffered a catastrophic anomaly at about 139 seconds into the flight.  According to a TechCrunch article Musk tweeted that there was “an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank.”  This is the first major failure of a Falcon 9 mission, following 18 successful launches.  The astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS will have enough supplies to last them until the next resupply mission later this summer, even with the recent Russian resupply failures.  While this is a disappointing occurrence, it is a part of flying in space, and SpaceX, NASA, and all the organizations, agencies, and companies involved understand that space does not come without risk.  The investigation to the mishap will be conducted by SpaceX with FAA oversight according to SpaceX’s President and COO Gwynne Shotwell during a post launch press briefing.

I was down at the cape for the launch, and took the photos you see below.  For those who might be interested in such matters, they were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel SL1 with a Canon 28-135mm Ultrasonic lens from route 402 near Playalinda beach.

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The giant crowd awaiting the launch.

The Blackhawk helicopter flying around.

The Blackhawk helicopter flying around.

Liftoff!  A couple of seconds into the flight.

Liftoff! A couple of seconds into the flight.

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More or less what it actually looked like in person.

More or less what it actually looked like in person.

About 2 minutes into flight.

Just prior to the anomaly.

Non-nominal event.

Non-nominal event.

 

So much to learn…

I realized the other day, for the 432930541th time out of the however many number of times I’ll realize this before I die, that there’s so much stuff to learn that it’s just crazy. I’ve done this a few times now (432930541 is something of an exaggeration, but pretty close) and each time I do, I think,’man I really need to do something about that’, and then I usually do. But it still leaves so much stuff left to learn. Frankly, it’s a little intimidating.

In class today the other day, I listened to a man lecture for an hour talking at a rate of about a billion miles an hour (Hey, that’s faster than the speed of light!) about all sorts of things, from biological computers, to improbability, to the Higgs Boson (whatever that is), ultimately ending with a bowl of petunias. This is all well and good, except, each one of these things is so rich in information that it leaves you spinning when you try and think about the things that there are to think about. Take a moment with that one…yes, we’re still talking about all the topics for speculation, and have not yet gotten to the actual speculations themselves. Quite invigorating.

Each of these topics could be explored for years by graduate students. And they’d still have lots of stuff left to learn after they’d finished. It can be a little depressing, to try and learn all of this stuff. The pursuit of knowledge is a noble one, but it’s quite impractical as a purpose of life. When you go about learning something, there’s always a thing that you discover that also needs to be learned. For instance, when you try and learn about math, you think you’ve got it made with addition and subtraction. But then, there’s multiplatacion and devision. And then, there’s integrals and derivitives. And then, there’s double integrals and derivatives. You see where this is going. And that’s just the math that I know off the top of my head, which is not much.

The last time I had this realization about all the stuff there is to know, it came in a slightly different form. I had just completed a diving class and had discovered, through learning all sorts of new things about diving, that I actually knew very little about diving. I had thought that I was a pretty good diver. But actually, I had a long way to go. It is discouraging to discover all the things that you don’t know. It may seem like the more you learn the less you know. This isn’t entirely accurate, you don’t know any less, you just are aware of the all the facts that you don’t know. Wow, that’s hard to follow. Basically, when you set out to learn something, you actually just ending up becoming aware of new things to learn. Yep, still hard to follow.

Anyway, this discussion inevitably ends up returning to the same point. That is; why? Why bother learning all of this stuff? If I don’t learn about stuff, then I don’t know how much I don’t know, and I’m able to sleep at night. Why learn at all? Why explore? Why question things? Why not just accept the way things are? What if, you might say, we learn things that make our exiesential situation worse than it is already?

Those are all good questions. The answer? 42. No but seriously, it might as well be. There’s no real answer to these questions. For some people, the quest for knowledge is made for the sake of knowledge itself. What good (or bad) comes of that knowledge is irrelevent. Other people need a reason to know something. Neither is wrong. Nobody really knows enough to say one way or the other. Regardless of why we are here to see the sun come up each morning, the sunrise is still beautiful. Is it really all that beneficial to know why we’re here? That’s a decision that eveyrone has to make for themselves.

As far as what I think? Well, I think it’s clear. There’s a Doctor Who episode that sums it up pretty well. The Doctor is trapped in a house with, I believe, the Queen of England, in like the 1800s or something, and they are being attacked by a werewolf. Naturally. Anyway, they are trapped in the library, because it’s the 1800s and all houses in the 1800s had one of those. The Doctor, being a genious, says something along the lines of, of course we can defeat this ceature, we’re in the greatest arsenal there is, a library.

When you write a book, or learn a thing, or answer some question that’s been on your mind, it doesn’t have to be for a specific reason. Sometimes it is, like when you’re being attacked by a werewolf, but, it doesn’t have to be. The thing is, sometimes, you can’t know what good will come of learning a thing. But sooner or later, for some reason or another, it will make a difference. That’s my answer. What’s yours? Thanks for reading.

Perspective

Let’s talk about the first amendment. I think it’s a fantastic thing. It let’s me fill up the internet with comlpete nonsense, and the occaisional good point. And it let’s the New York Times write things like this. The article you find, published online by The New York Times on June 13, 2014, reports the formal arrest of Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese lawyer who is a well-known rights defender. According to the article, Pu has been charged with creating a public disturbance, and illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information. These charges are being brought against Pu because he met privately with other individuals a month before the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government intervention, and discussed the oppression that the Tiananmen Square protesters faced in 1989. Pu was involved in the Tiananmen Square protests as a student. Other attendees of the meeting that Pu attended are also in Chinese custody. These proceedings have caused outcry among right’s advocates outside of China, as it probably should.

This story can be read from two very different perspectives. The first is from the western perspective. In this world, we are used to having the right to free speech. Additionally, we have had limited exposure to government overpowering civilians, albeit mostly in the form of overbearing police officers, and things of that nature. Specific examples of this are the Kent State University shooting in 1970, and occupy wall street protestors being pepper sprayed by police officers in 2011. (Both incidents were minuscule compared to the death toll of Tiananmen Square.) In the west, when we are faced with this, it is considered outrageous, even when there are no deaths involved. This is because of the 1st amendment to the U.S. constitution. Westerners have right to express themselves freely, and they react to this right being threatened. Because of this, this news report of a rights activist being arrested and accused for discussing the Chinese government ending a civilian protest. The Tiananmen Square incident by itself is enough to trigger western free speech protection reactions. Add to that the Chinese government covering up the matter by arresting folks who are discussing it privately in their own homes, and the reaction is understandable.

However, when this story is looked at through the eastern point of view of the Chinese, the story makes more sense. The Chinese have a very long history, and that history has its high points and its low points. Prior to WWII, western cultures had set up several spheres of influence in China, which were essentially small colonies. After this period in Chinese history, which was brought to an during the first half of the 20th century, there was turmoil. In this communist state, the government ran by Mao Zedong, lead to a politically unstable environment. This environment lead to government censorship of the media, and this in it’s very nature, limits free speech of the Chinese people. This censorship remains in China to date. It also explains the story that is surrounding the lawyer Pu.

Despite the ramifications in the American legal system, when this story is viewed through the lens of the Chinese, it can be explained. And with this, we enter the gray area that lies between moral beliefs and cultural imperialism. I believe that the right to free speech, as outlined in the 1st amendment is fundamentally right, so my views are skewed towards one side. While I can see and acknowledge the many diverse things that make the Chinese culture an important part of the world and it’s history, I also think that a government that oppresses their people and limits their speech is inherently wrong. This is how my worldview affects how I read this story, and what I feel because of it. That is my perspective.

You may read this and feel something different. That’s your perspective. And this, this is the point. Every story can be told from many sides. The number of sides depends on the story. Not only that, it also depends on the person giving the analysis of the story. There might be a side to Pu’s story here that I have failed to shed light on, becuase I couldn’t think to look for it. Everything with a grain of salt. There’s a really great quote by Marcus Aurelius that sums this up. “Everything we read is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” We all live in our own little worlds, and each of us has one unique view. We all view everything through a unique lens, that nobody else can see, but us. There are millions, actually, billions of perspectives out there. If you listen and look, keeping in mind that you’re hearing opinions and seeing perspectives, some things actually make more sense. Then again, some things make even less sense than they did before. Just try and imagine things from Mr. Pu’s perspective. Thanks for reading.

20 Seconds

In following with the previous post, I should mention that yesterday was one of those days for a good friend of mine, Kathryn Turley, who left on a year long adventure in Australia, because she’s always wanted to. So, shout out to you Kathryn, it’s going to be awesome, and don’t get bitten by anything poisonous. Also here’s a link to her blog, check it out.

Things that are on my mind here as I sit in Florida on this Tuesday the 3rd day of December, are bravery and courage. In fact, 20 seconds of it. Now, I’ve never seen the movie that that somewhat famous (thanks to the internet) quote came from, but my friend showed me a youtube link once, so I feel absolutely qualified to write a post on it. The thing about bravery and courage that I find, is that they can be very elusive. At least, I find them elusive.

All throughout schooling in the wonderful American public school system, we learn about people who made history. We learn much about people who make history. At least the history making people deemed worthy of inclusion into the textbooks. But that’s neither here nor there. The things we learn about these people, both men and women, are seemingly great and made history. It isn’t the whole story though. There’s another side of it that you can’t really find in the books. It’s very easy to walk through life without any empathy and never imagine what it was like to be the people in history…to feel what they felt and to do what they did. It’s very easy to slip into the warm fuzzy blanket of ‘oh that was something that happened that’s nice’, and just end it there. But it’s not the whole story.

I love the photos that are often found in museums or history books, of the ruff and ready men of the past, ready to go do manly things like be lumberjacks or go mining for coal or wrestle dinosaurs. Like this one. Obviously not liberal art majors, these men are completely unfamiliar with the concept of a “selfie” or actually any photography or just art in general. And the one guy with a camera (because it’s like 1834) has managed to corral all these guys into the aperture of the camera, and actually arrange them in somewhat of a pose, and snap a picture. And that’s all we get. There are no movies, no sound recordings. These black and white photos of grizzly men (and grizzly bears) that are scattered through the pages of texts that high school students lie to their teachers about reading, that’s how we remember the great men of history. There’s one thing though that these photos do not capture. Though the looks on the faces of the subjects of these still-lifes are pricelessly captured for eternity, the feelings and emotions that these guys felt go missing. This is problem that has been solved in recent years by all the silly “blogs” that have been popping up and polluting the internet. Seriously, it’s blasphemy.

In any event, the feelings and emotions that the guys felt has not really been documented, we just get to sit here and speculate. Thank goodness for this, because heaven forbid we Americans must do anything other than speculate on the actions of others, but I digress. The thing is, and this is the part that the pictures don’t really capture, is that the people in those photos, they were scared too. It was no less scary to live back then then it is now. The things that make it scary are different, but part of being a human and living, a part of being bold, is overcoming the fear that tries to stop you. The ones throughout history who have made bold statements, who have changed the course of history, they did overcome the fear. They found courage and bravery and even though they were scared, muddled through and made history. And now we get to learn about them in high school, and museums.

Now-a-days, we live in a world where people are more selfish than before, more unwilling to experience discomfort than before, and it seems that there are less people willing to be bold than before. The easy route, the selfish route, the comfortable route, is also the safe route. It’s also the one where you don’t have to be scared, because there’s nothing that scary waiting in the corner. But if everyone throughout history took that route, then there would not be as many pictures of manly men in mines, and we would not be enjoying all the comforts that we do today. And we would be forced to be uncomfortable and bold, as opposed to enjoying the luxurious choice that we do.

I guess the point of all this is that being scared is well, normal. We all experience that fear of being known, or that fear of jumping off the metaphorical cliff. Or the physical one, if you’re a BASE jumper. There are things like courage and bravery that help us to get through the fear and make a statement and be something. Because the thing about courage and bravery, is that for those two things to work, there must be fear to be overcome. Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid, and courage is doing something even though you’re terrified. And, while I have certainly become familiar with the fear, I have yet to have my ’20 seconds’ moment. The ray of hope in all of this is people are having them every day. Like Kathryn, who went to Australia. I don’t know when my 20 seconds moment will be, and I don’t know when yours will be either. But when ever it is, wherever, or whatever it is, seize it, take it, and don’t regret it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013. What a day huh? I mean today’s the day. Today is it. November 18, 2013, a Monday, only get’s one shot to happen. One shot to be a day. That’s it. Then it’s gone. You could say the lifespan of a day is…well a day. And how that day is remembered depends on a large number of things. It is remembered largely based on what events take place. The thing is that no matter what there is a certain amount of days that we all get to make events take place to be remembered by everyone who was there on that day. For people to remember where they were when…or for people to smile when they hear the date, or maybe to cry. Some days are meant to be days of mourning or tragedy, some days are meant to be days of joy and elation. You and I don’t know what today is supposed to be. Not yet. But maybe someone will get a sudden urge and realize out of nowhere that today is supposed to be their day, and they go and they seize the day, carpe diem! And maybe your day is tomorrow.

Today, Monday the 18th day of November in the year 2013, I watched an Atlas V missile launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, carrying the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Exploration, or MAVEN spacecraft into the sky, beyond our earth’s atmosphere, and on it’s way to our neighboring planet we call Mars. I watched it on my phone, sitting in my spacecraft attitude dynamics class. I wasn’t alone in viewing it. At least one other person I can assure you with %100 confidence also viewed the lift off. But while I was sitting there watching the phallic shaped rocket power through the atmosphere, it occurred to me that today, is a pretty important day for a few hundred people working for NASA and the United Launch Alliance, and all I’m going to remember of it is a little screen during a lecture I was supposed to be paying attention to. And something as technologically advanced as sending a machine to another planet, a different world than the one we are all living on, has become something that isn’t really important save for the minuscule number of human beings that have worked hard for months, even years to ensure that this day went smoothly, and according to plan. They have been waiting for this day for a long time. Their lives have all been counting down to this Monday. And this Monday, November 18th, has been in turn awaiting them, because surely it knew they were coming, and they had been planning for it. This day gave those men and women their best, and they returned the effort, with the very best of their own. When many extraordinary days are strung together, extraordinary things can happen.

There were two thousand nine hundred and eighty three days between when John F Kennedy said before congress we would go to the moon, and when his dreams and goals for this nation were fulfilled. For those who want to check my arithmetic please remember the president also said “and return him safely to the earth.” In the first human project of interplanetary scale, each one of those days was something extraordinary. There were days of mourning and tragedy, that is certain, however there were also days of elation and jubilee. Ultimately more of the latter than the former, at least for our nation, which resulted in one of the greatest feats that man has ever accomplished. It took many days. And nights. But a lot of those days would have otherwise been ordinary days save for that big day at the end, where it all came together.

It’s a little bit of a sad thing when you think about it. Because a day where we send something to another planet would have been something of an amazing day 60 years ago. But today, in a place where space geeks flock, spacecraft attitude and dynamics class, no one even blinked an eye. Except for the other guy also watching it on his iPhone. Across the nation this day was a day of mourning for some across the mid-west in the wake of several severe storms and tornadoes. In Florida it was a day of hard work, stress, and relaxation for some engineers on the space coast. I can’t even speculate what Monday, November 18th, 2013, means to each of the 7 billion people that call this planet, this speck in the universe their home. It could have meant any number of things to any number of people. Maybe it will be one of those days that’s a stepping stone to a bigger day to come in the future. The sad part is I feel that we are slipping into a lull where ordinary days are acceptable. There’s a notion of, well, there is always tomorrow. And we’ve gone from a nation that could go from the earth to the moon in 2,983 days, to a nation that can’t build a website in 1,289 days. I’ll concede you that going to the moon is harder than building a website but…America used to be better than this. But it’s not all doom and gloom, the power to make the days more incredible lies in the hands of whoever is reading this right now. Make today a great day in the history of your life. Better yet, make it a great day in the history of the lives of others. Because there’s only one today. Go get it. Thanks for reading, see you soon.

Love is…Chapter 1

Preface

Love is… This is one of the most challenging open ended confusing sentences to complete, probably in the history of the world. I have decided to start an open ended love themed blog post to be added to in the future when I have more revelations to this mythical beast of an emotion. It is also because I recently was thinking about love, and my hands just started typing, there was little I could do. The purposes of this monolog on love are twofold. First, this is so I and others can look back in the future and laugh about how silly my attempts to describe love actually were. Second, it is so I can get these thoughts out of my head. I also should say that once I experience more of you know, life, my opinions and view points and thoughts are likely to change drastically and may swing to the polar opposite of what they are now. I have no clue. Now, keeping in mind that I have absolutely no clue what I am talking about, and there’s a very real possibility that all this is rampant speculation, I’ll go ahead and dive right in.

Chapter 1

I am currently in a humanities class in school entitled ‘HU 143, Introduction to Rhetoric.’ The class is actually incredibly interesting, and I’m learning a lot about the subtle art of persuasion. The class involves the reading of articles that can be found in places like the Washington Post opinion section, or the New York Times op-ed section. As it turns out this thing rhetoric is actually surrounding us in virtually everything that we do. Advertisements, politics, relationships, family, school, church, work, walking down the street, at the post office, wherever you are right now, and many many other places. It deals with a lot of emotional appeals in arguments, and this is (I know you were wondering) exactly how love came in to the picture.

The other day in class this kid brought up that he thought love was a selfish emotion. Love as a selfish emotion. I almost see his point. This whole idea came in to view because of an article that we were reading in class. The article was “The Dying of the Light”, and it was written by a doctor who worked with patients who were commonly near the end of their lives. He sees every day the kind of nightmare that we all dread will be our last days. Medical technology has advanced so far that we mortal humans now have the ability to actually play God in a way. We can artificially prolong the lives of the ones that we hold dear to our hearts. Which defaults most people’s minds to a ‘this is good’ reaction. And to some extent I’m sure that it is. The advancement of medical technology is a good thing. Except when it results in the prolonged suffering. Which brings in to question what is the definition of being alive versus living. Which I am only qualified to answer for myself, and isn’t the thing that really stuck with me in the first place.

The thing that really stuck with me was this kids comment, that love is a selfish emotion. Love is the reason that our brain defaults to wanting to keep our relatives alive and around as long as possible. Which, is something that is easy to understand. Anything to the contrary at first seems ridiculous and hurtful. Why would you want someone to no longer be present in this world? The part of us that is convinced that we love the person who is suffering will want them to stay. While this evidence might logically make sense, I could not wrap my head around the idea. I was actually pretty mad about it. In my mind love is nothing but good, and the idea that love could cause pain was idiotic and stupid. The emotion that causes that pain isn’t really love, it’s actually something else. We just THINK it’s love. I kept telling myself the part of us that actually loves them will want them to go. The thing is that it IS love that does this. It IS love that is selfish and give us a need and want to hold on to the people that we hold dear. See what I didn’t realize until this afternoon was, the kid was right. Well, sort of.

My friend and I were arguing about this, and my friend who is way more qualified to be talking about love said that yes, love is selfish. When it is felt that way. When it is wanting people to be around even though doing so causes them pain. It is a selfish thing to do. But my original dissonance with the comment was that love is supposed to be selfless. Love is not supposed to be a selfish emotion. Love is supposed to be knowing that the loved one is in pain and letting them go to a place that is much less painful. But that’s just it, all these sentences are starting out with supposed to be. If you look back through history we, humans, are absolutely terrible at doing what we are supposed to do. I mean virtually right from the get go, Adam and Eve, we did not do what we were supposed to do. So what’s to say that we use love as we are supposed to use love. Love is not a selfish emotion. We are selfish people who feel love, and simply can not separate the two.

Ultimately I reached the conclusion after thinking about this for several hours and discussing it with my buddy, that the little dweeby kid in my class wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t right either, not entirely. While, yes, in the case that sparked this whole thing love is selfish, and causes selfish actions to be taken and selfish decisions to be made, there is also another aspect of love in the exact same scenario that is incredibly selfless. It is an incomplete diagnosis of the situation to address one without addressing the other. It’s only telling half the story, and after all a half finished story is a half finished love affair. This love that we feel, it’s a complicated thing. In all aspects, and it is in fact both the cause of the decisions to keep loved ones in pain and suffering but a live, and it is the very same emotion that allows us to finally let them go. And I don’t understand that one bit.

I don’t know why love is such a complicated animal. I don’t know a lot of things about love, as you can plainly see by reading this blog. Love seems to be all things. The Bible says it best (as often is the case) in I Corinthians chapter 13 verses 4-8. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” The best thing that I can come up with then to explain the affects that love has as described in this post is; love never fails.  We fail love, because we’re human. Love is not supposed to be selfish. We just make it that way. And it’s still one of the greatest emotions that there is.

Come back next week for part 1 of a 4 part short story about many things, including love, life, and trains. Thanks for reading, see you then!