Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Around the Garden

Random observations from around the garden:

While I love growing esoteric and under appreciated plants (see: borage, below), there's just something to be said about home grown tomatoes. They may be easy to grow, and as mainstream as can be, but they taste awesome:

One of the biggest surprises of the season has been watching our corn grow. For months it did nothing and then it sort of flowered and started producing silk. Now you can actually see the ears of corn growing. Corn on the cob is so familiar, yet as a plant, it's downright alien:

Finally, our borage is flowering. Even though it's clearly planted in the wrong part of the yard (in the shade, versus sun), it's still managing to eek out an existence.

The purslane I planted in an old prune container has been growing nicely. I've taken a few cuttings like the ones below and nibbled on them--they taste great. Next year, I hope to grow a real crop of this stuff, as it's quite tasty.

I come out this morning and notice one of the baby's breath plants arranged at this odd angle. Looking closer, I realize that a spider has co-opted the plant as anchor for parts of its web. The web and spider were quite impressive, but when I returned a few hours later to grab a proper photo of it, it was gone. Still, the 56 inch or so length of thread that held up the web is still there. Think about that: if the spider was half an inch long, it managed to construct and position a length of thread 112 times its size. That's like me constructing and suspending a 672 foot piece of rope; solo no less. That's astounding, and yet, quite common.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Quickie Cordage - From T-shirt to Rope, Faster than you think

After the success I had making primitive rock tools, I've been on the lookout for other seemingly daunting outdoor skills I can take a quickie approach with. The idea is to use imperfect materials and techniques, yet still get usable results. After some research, I decided to apply this same philosophy to making cordage. Rope is one of those items that just about every outdoor project seems to call for, and knowing how to make it would be super handy. Like high quality rock tools, the ingredients seem hard to come by (we don't grow much yucca around here) and the skill looks quite advanced. Turns out, also like rock tools, these hurdles are easy to overcome.

First, for materials I used an old t-shirt. This is an idea I'd mentioned almost a year ago, yet never took any action on. An old t-shirt not only works because it's easy to find for practice, but in an outdoors situation you'd most likely have either a t-shirt or the equivalent to work with. I'd imagine that I could perform the exact same routine using a mylar space blanket or a lightload towel if it was cordage I was after.

Second, the technique really isn't that hard. It's tricky to describe in words, but actually doing it is pretty straightforward. Here's what I did:

Step 1. I grabbed an old t-shirt and a rock flake to do the cutting. The rock was broken off of a piece of quartz I found lying next to my house. Nothing exotic. I was curious if I could make cordage using nothing but the t-shirt and other natural materials. Oh, and YouTube. Using the rock, I perforated the shirt and pulled out some strips:

Using this quick technique, I ended up with 4 strips of t-shirt:

Step 2. I opened up this YouTube video on the topic of making cordage. You can watch the whole thing, or skip to 5 minutes in and watch just the relevant part. Or, you can search YouTube for other cordage videos, there are lots of options. I simply did what Mitch instructed in the video:

Step 3. After about 10 minutes I marveled at my creation:

To my amazement, the results looked an awful lot like cordage! This is definitely one of those no-thinking needed tasks, so once you get going, I could imagine cranking out foot after foot of cordage.

While I was impressed with how rope'y my results were, I was curious how functional it was. I attempted to dangle a 15lb kettle bell from the rope and sure enough, it broke at a splice. At a non-spliced point however, it held the weight without issue. While I wouldn't want to rock climb with this stuff, I could see how you could actually put this cordage to use.

While not quite as satisfying as bashing rocks together, making cordage really is pretty amazing. You start with random strands of a t-shirt and end up with all-purpose rope. So cool.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Yeah, Good luck with that

Posted on craigslist:

Thing is, this person will still get an inbox worth of responses. I'm fairly certain what they won't get is a successful project. Oh well, minor details.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

At least it's not an oncoming train.

Short Circuting the Zoom vs. Prime Lens Debate

There's a long running debate in photography circles: which is better, zoom lenses or prime lenses? Obviously the zoom, because, well it zooms. But many pros will tell you just how misguided your thinking is if you're in the zoom camp.

And then comes along this video which reshapes the discussion in my mind. I'll post the video below, but the very short version is that a photographer demonstrates shooting the same headshot with different lenses, ranging from a 10mm lens to a 500mm lens. It's a practical experiment that shows the impact of focal length on a photo.

But it struck a more obvious point in me. If you look at a typical zoom lens, it has focal length markings. Here I've set my lens to 100mm:

Which means, if I don't adjust the zoom, for all and intents and purposes, I'm holding a 100mm prime lens. As long as I'm disciplined about setting the focal length and then framing the shot around said focal length, I'm getting many of the key benefits of a prime lens. So obvious. So simple.

I've been trying this photography habit for a few weeks now, and I've found it really does change how I take photos. After all, by selecting a single focal length (say, 100mm) you're left with only one way to a frame a shot: move around. And in many respects, it's this moving around that prime lens lover so praise.

Here, what the video and see if you find it as insightful:

Via PictureCorrect.com

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Adventurous Eating: Lunching on Poke

In our area, we've got a hefty supply of pokeweed and lately, I've noticed a bunch of seedlings growing on the edges of our yard. While the plant is known to be poisonous, I vaguely remembered reading that parts of it were edible.

So I did a bit of research, and sure enough, young poke is edible. It's actually supposed to be more than edible, it's supposed to be quite tasty. What the heck, I figured, I might as well give this plant a try. Here's what I did.

Step 1. Figure out the most conservative way to prepare poke. Some books, suggest that merely sauteing poke is enough to neutralize its poisons, while the Wild Edibles App recommends boiling for a minute, then draining, then repeating for 15 minutes to make sure all the poison is gone. Yeah, I decided to go the 15+ minute route. I also confirmed this strategy with YouTube where people demonstrate cooking and eat this stuff (versus copying and pasting tales of people eating it).

Step 2. Collect the plants. Luckily, Poke isn't hard to identify as we've got quite a selection of plants from older (non-edible, but easily recognizable) plants to quite young ones. You want the young plants, but sources disagree as to how young. Some say anything over 7 inches tall is off limits, and that's essentially the rule I followed. In fact, I found ones that we even shorter. I collected them by trimming off the shoot and leaving the root alone. For this experiment I collected just a couple of plants, which resulted in about two bites worth of poke. If I was going to play with fire, it was going to be an especially small fire.

Step 3. Prepare. I followed the basic recipe in the Wild Edibles app: cut into bite size pieces, drop into boiling water, drain, smooshing water out of the stalks, repeat. After 20 minutes or so, my small collection looked like so:

Step 4. Eat. You're supposed to saute poke in olive oil or dress it up, but I was curious what the basic plant tasted like. After all, wouldn't any food taste pretty good sauteed in enough olive oil?

And the verdict, after my 3 bites, is: surprisingly good!.

The first food that came to mind when chewing on poke was pasta. It had that same neutral, but firm texture that makes it such a good base for so many dishes. I could totally see using this as a pasta substitute. There was no sharp or bitter flavor at all. It just tasted like food.

Some folks suggest that you can grow poke yourself, and because you only want the shoots, you can grow it in low light conditions indoors. That's an interesting suggestion: growing a tasty veggie in your basement. I may have to give that a try.

The next experiment is to collect up and cook an entire dish worth of poke. Anyone want to taste the first bite of said dish?

[Note: I tried this experiment and composed this e-mail 2 days ago, yet am intentionally publishing this now. So yeah, there are no side effects from my little adventure to report. You know, like poisoning myself and all.]

There's a Tag In There - Another Public NFC Tag Spotting

I randomly set my cell phone down on a Library Book, and to my surprise, the phone beeped back at me. It wanted to handle the current NFC tag. Huh? Peeking inside the back cover of the book, I see this sticker:

Of course, this makes total sense: an NFC sticker is dirt cheap and provides an error free way of tracking an object.

The tag doesn't appear to contain much data:

The fact that it's writeable makes me wonder if I could store my own data in the tag. Perhaps I could store the last page I was reading? Or, better yet, a secret message to be picked up by my handler. You know, a sort of NFC based dead drop.

Spycraft aside, I do wonder what the best use of this technology is. Certainly, the library could build an app that would allow you to trivially scan and renew a book. I suppose they could even allow you to check out the book without standing in line at a kiosk. That would be nice.

The obvious use without needing to get the library involved is to do a variation on my NFC object tracking. That is, scan the book, and leave notes associated with it for later review.

Yeah, I'm not how I'll put these tags to use. But it sure is cool finding NFC tags in the wild.

Oh, and before you go off and quit your day job to write a killer Arlington Library NFC app, note that of the 5 books I have checked out, only one of them has a tag. It's a 2001 edition of Roadside Geology of Virginia. Sort of a random book to get tagged (versus, say, a new book). So who knows where Arlington is going with this whole tagging effort.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Vodka Showdown: Mojito Mint vs. Basil

A little over 10 days ago we started an experiment: what if we took some of the herbs from our garden and created infused vodka? That'd be fun, right?

Here's the before photo:

And here, after 10 days of shaking a couple of times a day, is the after photo:

Using cheesecloth, I strained the liquid into a Pyrex measuring cup. Then washed out the jars and poured the liquid back. Here's the final product:

For starters, we had successfully turned clear vodka, green. Not sure if that's an accomplishment or not.

Shira and then sat down with three shot glasses full of vodka. We had Jar 1, Jar 2 and just a regular 'ol shot of the Skyy Vokda (every experiment needs a control, right?).

Now onto the million dollar question: taste!

Jar 1 was mainly mojito mint with a couple leaves of borrage tossed in. It tasted...feh. I was obviously hoping for a nice mint flavor, but: (a) I don't think that I fully appreciate what mojito mint actually tastes like, and (b) this is firggin vodka. Earlier this year I had made etrog liquor which involves flavoring vodka, but also adding a huge amount of sugar. The results were surprisingly drinkable. I guess I was hoping the mint the vodka would be more lie my etrog experience, though minty rather than citrusy. Compared to the control vodka, Jar 1 was definitely flavored. Though I can't really recommend it.

Jar 2 was flavored with sweet Thai basil. Yes, you read that right, basil flavored vodka. I'm not a huge fan of basil per se, but fresh off the plant it smelled delicious. So into the vodka it went. And for taste: surprisingly good. Again, we're talking straight vodka here, but the flavor was definitely basil'y and in a good way. I doubt I'd sit around and sip basil vodka on a regular basis, but there's definitely something to it. And I bet it would be interesting in a cocktail.

So the basil won out over the mojito mint.

The etrog liquor I made was far more drinkable than either of the jars above. So before I start my next infusion I'm going to have to consider a fancier recipe than just a plain infusion. Good times and a fun way to put the garden to use.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Patapsco Valley State Park, 8 Mile Hike

Yesterday, we tackled an 8 mile circuit around the Patapsco Valley State Park. The hike was a wonderful one offering woodsy trails, gurgling streams and easy access to the Patapsco river. Unfortunately, we were trying to beat the mid day sun (which would reach a feels like of 118° by the time our hike was over), so we didn't have a lot of time to dilly-dally. If we were to do this hike again, I'd want to plan some serious swimming and fishing time in the Patapsco river, as it offers lots of opportunities for both activities. Seriously, instead of hauling the family off to the beach, I could totally imagine taking them for a fun day on the river.

The hike's rating of "moderate" seems appropriate. There were a few, relatively short uphill sections, but nothing too dicey.

The main challenge, it turned out, was that it wasn't always clear we were following the instructions. To help the next hiker who takes this route, here's an annotated set of directions. These are things I wish we knew when we did this hike:

HIKE DESCRIPTION: Counterclockwise. Parking underneath the power lines,
> We had no problem finding this parking lot. Just pull into the park, note the tire playground in front and as you take road to the right, turn off near the nature center. Then pull under the powerlines and park.

follow them through the grassy field for about 1/2 mile before turning left into the woods on Santee Branch Trail.
> We didn't do this, nor do I think you're intended to do this. Instead, we walked down the main campground trail for a few minutes and found where Santee Branch Trail cuts across. We went right. The Santee Branch Trail is blazed white and we followed these white blazes. At some point, the trail comes to a kind of T. To the left are white blazes, to the right are trees where the blazes appear to be covered up. We intentionally went right and confirmed that used to be the Santee Branch Trail and does indeed come out under the powerlines. You can save yourself the trouble and just go left. Just follow the white blazes.

Turn right and cross under the powerlines again on Vineyard Spring Trail.
> There were a number of unmarked trails coming into the Santee Branch Trail. We (correctly) ignored them. Eventually we popped under the powerlines and and sure enough, there was a trail that led off to the right, crossing under the powerlines and going into the woods. This trail, to our surprise wasn't marked. However, it's the trail to follow. So yeah, leave the Santee Branch Trail when you hit the power lines again, but know there won't be a sign waiting for you.

Going under the train tracks,
> We followed the unmarked (but clear) trail until it hit a sort a junction. We followed straight for a short period of time, where it crested a hill and we could look down and see train tracks. We then backtracked to the junction and went left at it. Again, the trail is unmarked, but it looked to head down to the tracks. To our relief, this trail did indeed lead to a bridge that the train tracks ran over and we could walk under.

turn right and continue on the paved Grist Mill Trail. Turn left to cross the Swinging Bridge (restrooms here), then
> This is as advertised.

go uphill on the Cascade Falls Trail.
> This through me just a bit. You do go uphill, but only for a relatively short distance. I was expecting to climb back into the woods, but that's not what you do. Instead, you go uphill for a short distance and turn right. At this point, you're just trying to stay on a trail that parallels the river. If you see the river to your right, you're fine.

Continue to follow the blue markers and the trail will route to the right, then downhill to the left to reconnect to the trail along the river towards Bloedes Dam.
> We found a sandy path a few feet from the river. That worked. Though, above us appeared to be a road, which turned out to be the trail we were supposed to be on. Again, as long as you're following the river, you're fine. Don't overthink it.

Lunch at Bloedes Dam.
> There were kids swimming, men fishing and lots of people lunching along the river. Plan to do so yourself.

Following the river, circuit around when the trail ends at Ilchester Road (go over guardrail) and route back onto the Grist Mill Trail by crossing the second Swinging Bridge. Turn left at Bloedes Dam to get onto the Buzzard Rock Trail. At the top, to the left is the Ilchester Overlook. Continue on the Buzzard Rock Trail until it ends at a small parking lot. Cross under power lines again to continue on the trail. Continue left on the Saw Mill Branch Trail and meander along the stream. Cross in front of the train tunnel and go left up the hill on Forest Glen Trail
> All of the above is as advertised. Don't overthink any of it - find out what blaze you should be following and stick to it.

to return to the Hilton Parking Area.
> We popped up at a parking lot felt like we were nowhere near our car. Don't panic. Just follow the road around and you'll see the tire playground from where you pulled into the parking lot.

Tips: Bring hiking poles for stream crossings and rocky terrain. At least one liter of water per person for the hike.
> We didn't bother with hiking poles and we were fine. The stream crossings are pretty basic. The one liter of water, per person is solid advice. Especially went it's frigging hot out!

Here's the route we took.

And of course, I've got photos!

Friday, July 17, 2015

NFC Tags in the Garden

I had this hair brained scheme to NFC tag the plants in our garden. The thinking was, it would be easier to keep track of them if all I had to do was hover my phone over a tag and recite a status update. So I ordered some basic NFC tag stickers from eBay, stuck them to Popsicle sticks, labeled them with a permanent marker, and placed them next to the plants I wanted to track. Here's how the setup looked a little over a week ago:

Today, here are the same two tags:

Keep in mind, that over the last week we've had a number of major rain storms. It's pretty amazing, other than the stickers wanting to peel off a bit, they are in fine shape. They still scan just fine and the Sharpie writing is still visible. I'm actually quite impressed. The eBay seller promised they were water proof and they appear to be.

I've also stuck some of these stickers to jars to test out tracking some vodka infusions we're doing. The sticker that I didn't flub up (see below) is working well. It's inside a cabinet, so no big surprise there.

There have been, however a number of lessons learned:

  • Don't stick the stickers on anything metal. In hindsight, this is obvious, but my first move was to stick the NFC tag to a metal jar lid. Of course it doesn't work. Which leads me to my next gotcha...
  • Don't expect to peel these off and re-use them. I tried to salvage the NFC tag that I stuck to the top of the jar, and I was mostly able to peel it off. But it's nowhere near as reliable as the one that I just stuck to the glass side of the jar in the first place. Placing the stickers on popsicle sticks works fine.
  • Don't try to back the stickers with duct tape. I figured I could get the tags to stop peeling if I filled in the edges with duct tape. I can't explain the properties of duct tape (or perhaps the glue?) that makes the tags not work, but I can tell you, they don't work. Or they didn't work for me. I ran a few other tests and found that I could turn a strip of duct tape into a stylus for my touch screen, so something is definitely up with it.

All in all, the tags are surviving well and I'm finding the logging to be painless. Will they last for months? Time will tell, but so far, so good.


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