Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stumbling on Freedom's Memorial

David and I did a relatively quick mid-day run yesterday. We started near the US Capital and the plan was to run North-East and swing by the Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II. Instead, we managed to run nearly due East and ended up at Lincoln Park in front of the remarkable Emancipation Memorial. It was all quiet by accident, but a happy accident at that.

The fact that it's Passover, the celebration of when Jews transitioned from slavery to freedom, was just another reason that the visit was so meaningful.

The Memorial itself is quite dramatic, with a stern looking Lincoln and an unshackled slave kneeling before him. The slave was apparently modeled after Archer Alexander, the last person captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. The inscription on the front of the memorial reads:

This monument was erected by the Western Sanitary Commission of Saint Louis Mo: With funds contributed solely by emancipated citizens of the United States declared free by his proclamation January 1st A.D. 1863. The first contribution of five dollars was made by Charlotte Scott. A freedwoman of Virginia being her first earnings in freedom and consecrated by her suggestion and request on the day she heard of President Lincoln's death to build a monument to his memory

You can read about Charlotte Scott here, and how she gave her entire savings of $5.00 to start the effort to build a memorial to Lincoln. The memorial was unveiled on April 14th, 1876 and the keynote address was given by Frederick Douglas. You can read his remarks here. He doesn't exactly pull punches when criticizing Lincoln:

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.

But ultimately, he gives Lincoln credit for his actions:

Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.

It's an amazing speech, and it shows how contradictions should be recognized and understood. African-Americans honored Lincoln with this moment knowing full well his flaws, but loving him none the less. It stands in contrast to the politics of today, where each side is quick to promote its talking points with little tolerance for logic and reason.

That was back in 1876. 140 years later, the Monument still stands, but not without controversy:

Though former slaves paid for the memorial, its design was overseen by an all-white committee. Its sculptor, Thomas Ball, also was white.

Some critics felt the statue was paternalistic, that it ignored the active role blacks played in ending slavery. An alternate proposal for the memorial depicted a statue of Lincoln as well as statues of black Union soldiers wearing uniforms and bearing rifles. That option was considered too expensive.

And so we have Lincoln and the kneeling slave, a nation’s narrative cast in bronze: Lincoln the freer of the black man, the savior of a race that couldn’t save itself.

Ouch, right? And a more than fair point. Fredrick Douglas' remarks may show the nuanced nature of the Memorial, but on the surface, that nuance is gone.

There are a lot of memorials in DC, but this one is absolutely worth taking your time to track down.

Here's a few more photos from our run:

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

You've Been Over the American Legion Bridge. But have you been under it?

Yesterday's hiking challenge was sort of the opposite of two days ago. Instead of having an unmarked trail on Google maps, I had a stretch of trail that was missing from Google Maps but thought might in fact be there. See, check this section of the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT) out:

As I've crudely circled in blue pen, the PHT stops at Turkey Run Park and picks up again under the American Legion Bridge. What's in between?

Well, after hiking that section of trail, I can confidently report: a wonderful stretch of the PHT. As is typical for the PHT, sometimes it closely hugs the river, other times it winds inward toward the forest. Most the trail is flat and there are only minor obstacles to work around, that's a pretty key difference from the section near Windy Run, which requires a bit of rock scrambling. Depending on your audience, this may be a good thing, or not so much. Unlike other sections of the PHT, there are no signs of houses or roads. That is, until you reach the American Legion Bridge, which to my surprise, you simply walk under. I guess I assumed that because this was a major piece of DC infrastructure (it's one of two bridges that allows the beltway to cross the Potomac) it might be off limits. But no, it's completely accessible.

After the bridge, the trail continues, with an an access point to Live Oak Drive. It does however continue as a trail, paralleling 495. That is, until the trail simply peters out. See:

Perhaps one day the trail will continue? My guess is that the goal would be to connect up the PHT to Scott's Run. Perhaps you can bushwhack your way there? That's another project, for another day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

From Trolly Line to Running Trail. Maybe.

Some people run for time, some for distance. Me, I run for discovery. That is, the simple joy of learning something new. Sometimes the discovery is external: trying a new route, identifying a new tree, taking in a monument I've passed dozens of times, or conducting an archeological tour. Sometimes the discovery is internal: sorting out a thorny problem, debugging a program or architecting some fantastic solution. Sometimes the discovery is running related: am I going to collapse before I finish? Sometimes the run has a mission, sometimes I just head out with an open mind. But the goal is nearly always the same: discover *something*.

Last night I was on a mission. Specifically, what's up with this unmarked trail on Google Maps?

What I found when I finally hit the trail entry point was a beautiful grassy trail, that was, as Google Maps suggested, unmarked. This is a posh section of town, so I expected to see no-trespassing signs and whatnot. I didn't. Instead, I saw lots of deer:

A little research after my run gave me the low down on this section of trail:

During DC's streetcar era, the Glen Echo line ran from Georgetown to Glen Echo Park along a path through the Palisades. But for 52 years, this land has lain dormant. It could turn into a trail to get people on foot and bike between these neighborhoods.
The right-of-way is 3.11 miles from Georgetown to Galena Road in the Palisades, which is one block north of the Palisades Recreation Center. The District government owns the part west of Foxhall Road, in the map below. Pepco currently uses the land to access utility poles. Some residents use it for jogging, walking, or pet exercise.

The trail's entire length is 3.11 miles, and I ran about a quarter of it. Even still, I did find the gaps the article above discusses. I just sort of bushwhacked my way through following the path that other's had no doubt carved out.

I'm definitely going to have to return to fully explore this stretch of trail, it's a beauty, that's for sure.

Passover Seders 2016 - After Action Report

We had two amazing Seders this year, both hosted by my courageous Brother and Sister-in-Law. Here's a few links to resources and insights that went into, and came out of the Seder:

  • I found this collection of videos, published by JTS, to be both insightful and inspiring. It's worth watching them all.
  • This video (found in the collection above) suggested a novel idea: have a maror (or bitter herb) tasting. The idea being that different flavors of the various herbs correspond to different features of the holiday. My Dad and I hit Whole Foods (where else does one by humble bitter herbs, but at the fancy grocery store?) and purchased: baby arugula, water cress, a random pepper, endives, kale, mustard greens, horseradish, rainbow chard and romaine lettuce. From my own lawn I collected dandelion and garlic mustard. The winner for best bitter herb? Mustard greens, followed by water cress. Man, those harmless looking leaves pack a punch. I was also partial to the garlic mustard, which is both bitter and has some unique symbolism, but most of the guests, for some reason, weren't excited about eating weeds from our lawn. I wonder why?
  • It was interesting to read the variations of the text for the four sons and wonder how these important changes came to be. That is, why was the Ignorant Son changed to the Simple Son and what's the implication of swapping the answers of Simple Son and Wise Son in the Yerushalmi Talmud.
  • This site has a PDF version of the first English Translated Haggadah, produced around 1770, which I printed out. It's remarkable how consistent this Haggadah is with the one we use today, and also the slight variations it offers. Perhaps one of the most elegant points it makes in its title. It reads: Ceremonies and Thanksgiving By all Families, in every house, of the Israelites, on the Two First Nights of Passover. I'd always considered them the "first two nights," but in fact, the phrase "two first nights" is far more accurate.
  • Taking a cue from this post: Passover Around the World, we sang Dayenu while thwapping each other with scallions, like our Afghani brethren do. While this was a new tradition for me, but my parents and other guests had played this game before.
  • I've always found this verse in the Haggadah to be quite a mystery: Midian was destroyed with a portion of the omer-barley on Pesach. How exactly does one destroy a city using a loaf of bread? Turns out, it's referring to the story of Gideon which is a remarkable tale and is a sort of mini-Exodus, containing much of the same themes as Passover. A summary of the story can be found here.
  • You did add a fish to your seder plate this year, right? I saw the original suggestion here. Rather than bring my hosts a whole fish from the market, I decided to bring this stuffed animal from Amazon, which did the job quite nicely and smelled a whole lot less.
  • You can see all the researched I did here.
  • My 4 year old cousin, completely unprompted, asked: why is there an egg on the table? at which point, all of us adults found ourselves completely baffled. Why is there an egg on the Seder late? The Talumud's answer isn't particularly satisfying:
    According to the Jerusalem Talmud it is customary to use both a Zero'a [literaly arm, or shoulder bone] and an egg - which in Aramaic is called beya [a word which also means "to pray"; "please" ] suggesting "May it please the Merciful God to redeem us with an uplifted arm."
    In other words, it's word-play. This opens the door for us to interpret the egg pretty much however we wish. Chabad suggests the egg represents the possibility where we can take our freedom and life. Other common explanations are that it represents spring time and rebirth, or simply that it's a stand in for the roasted lamb we used to eat. I like the explanation on this Passover cheat-sheet:
    On a deeper level, eggs represent the ideal way to endure suffering: Most foods soften when cooked, but eggs harden when boiled. Similarly, when we are faced with challenges, we strive to become harder and stronger. Our suffering in Egypt resulted in the formation of a strong unified Jewish nation; so too, when we overcome personal struggles, it awakens our latent talents and we become aware of strengths and skills we never knew we had.
    So what's the ideal answer for a 4 year old? I'll have to think on that. To my surprise, Chabad suggests that at the start of the meal, we *eat* the egg, something I'd never considered.
  • Another question asked during the seders: why do we lift up the cup of wine during the story a number of times, but don't drink? Something we'll have to tease out for next year.
  • Conservative Jews can officially eat kitniyot! We had many lengthy discussions on this, and I found this article to summarizes the issues behind kitniyot well. Shira's already made rice pudding for me, and she's planning to make General Tzo's chicken with brown rice for my birthday (in two days)! So yeah, we're totally down with kitniyot. Given how scrupulous you need to be about the kitniyot you buy, it's hardly any sort of free pass to eat whatever you want. For example, brown rice is in, but apparently there are forms of white rice that are enriched with wheat starch, so you've got to be careful to avoid them. So yes, it definitely opens the doors to some new foods, but it ultimately doesn't change Passover in a signficiant way (or hasn't, for us).

Thanks to my Brother and Sister-in-Law for hosting this year, for my parents being there and for all the guests who made our Seders quite amazing. L'chaim!

Update: Ooh, I forgot to mention. This year, I brought sugar cubes and marshmallows and toothpics for the kids to build "pyramids" at the table. I think I was more entertained than the children, but it was a fun little activity none the less. I think I'll try that again next year.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Crafting Aliens

When I finished reading Eating Aliens, a book about the advantages of eating invasive species, I felted compelled to look at my own local environment for aliens I could consume. The example I mentioned in my review was that of English Ivy. Basically, English Ivy wants to murder your trees, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it.

My thought at the time was that while you can't eat English Ivy, you can use it for medicinal purposes. But that's a pretty poor idea as the health benefits of English Ivy aren't very well understood (WebMD uses the phrase 'might' a bit too frequently, as in it might stimulate mucus glands and have expectorant properties), and the process of going from weed to medicine would require a precision that would be hard to scale. So yeah, I was on the wrong track.

But you know who wasn't? Michael Bauer of Don't ingest it, craft it! His solution was brilliantly simple: use English Ivy for basket weaving projects. And the results are pretty sweet, check out his English Ivy Bike Basket:

And the best part: the idea scales. Consider the English Ivy Basketry Classes offered in Portland, Oregon. Part of the class is spent collecting up English Ivy (and therefore helping your local environment), and then part of the class is spent actually making baskets. Sure this works as a community class, but it should also work at the entrepreneurial level. Who wouldn't want to run a business where people are desperate to give you your raw materials? And the completed projects should be something you can sell online or locally. Heck, put me down for one English Ivy Man Bag, please.

So naturally, I had to give this concept a try. I went outside and tried to collect up some English Ivy that's strangling one of our trees. No dice. The Ivy held fast to the trunk and while I could pull bits of it off, I didn't end up with anything resembling weavable material. I then went to our back property line and pulled some that was growing near our shed. Now we were talking! When I was done, I probably had a length of 8 feet or so of vine. Now what? To YouTube!

I watched this video and this video, which gave me the very basics. Stripping the leaves off of English Ivy was super easy: I just put on a pair of gardening gloves, wrapped my fingers around the vine and pulled. Within a just a couple of minutes I had materials I could weave with. Also, the vine was both pliable, yet durable. My big problem: I don't have enough of an ivy infestation. With only 8 feet or so of cordage to work with, I was hardly going to be able to make a basket. But I at least go started. Here's how far I got before I ran out of materials:

Pathetic, I know. But the thing is, it was working. Honestly, I expected the process to be intricate and take forever. Yet, in fact, it's relatively easy and fast to do. If I had all the materials and 30 - 45 minutes, I'm pretty sure I could have constructed something resembling a functional container. You wouldn't have wanted to display it (well, my Mom would, but that's because she's my Mom), but it would have held stuff.

I'm certainly convinced that the English Ivy basket idea is workable and now I just need to keep an eye out for some section of woods overrun with the stuff. I can then collect it knowing I'm helping the local eco system, and finally finish my masterpiece.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Tree fit for a Princess

Yesterday on my run, as I was crossing over GW Parkway while leaving Roosevelt Island Parking lot, something caught my eye. It was a collection of remarkable purple flowers:

A quick Google Image search leads me to believe that it's a Paulownia tomentosa, more commonly known as a Princess tree. Because of my vantage point on the bridge, I didn't really have a chance to photograph the leaves or other parts of the tree, so I plan return to confirm positive identity. But assuming it is a Princess tree, how cool is that?

And here's your fun fact about the Princess Tree:

In China, an old custom is to plant an Empress Tree when a baby girl is born. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry.

This page also mentions that tradition, and includes this tidbit

– With the Jewish culture:

“In ancient Israel, a tree was planted when a child was born—a cedar for a boy, a cypress for a girl. As the children grew up, they cared for their own trees” – Tree planting ritual

Here's more on that tradition.

For the record, flowers are edible.

What a find!

Update: Last night I explicitly ran by the tree above to grab some more photos. Here's a few I snapped:

Comparing these to other sites on the web confirm (at least to me), that this is Princess Tree. Having now found this sample, I've actually seen them all over the area. There's a number of them that I've passed dozens of times along GW Parkway. With the bright purple flowers, they're actually hard to miss, once you know what you're looking for.

So yeah, the DC area has Princess Trees. Plenty of them. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Never Underestimate the Value of a Simple Plastic Bag

I thoroughly enjoyed Lady on a Rock's 7 day Hayduke backpacking trip. While she was exhausted and frozen, I got to take in the views and narrative of her adventure. Not a bad deal. In her last post of the trip she recapped gear that worked well, and I especially appreciated these two items:

  • (2) – gallon sized ziplock bags worked perfectly to keep sand from packing into my socks. I slipped the bags over my socks before putting my shoes on.
  • Rain skirt made from a Costco trash compactor bag. I cut the bottom and added a mini-cord lock to the drawstring to cinch it around my waist. Loved walking in it and it doubled for a clothing piece when I did my laundry in Hanksville.

What can I say, I'm fan of improvisation. A few days later, I was on a run where I captured this rainbow:

I only captured that photo because I happened to have my cell phone on me. While I usually run with my cell phone, that particular day I nearly left it in the car. I was running in the middle of torrential rain storm and didn't want to chance water damage. My solution: wrap the phone in a simple, disposable, grocery store produce bag. We always keep a few of these bags in the glove box of car to deal with a potential upchuck incident while driving. The phone + bag solution was perfect: it totally sealed the phone during the wet stage of the run, and at kept it at the ready when things finally cleared.

The lesson: I'm all for high tech gear and specialized fabrics, but never underestimate the value of a simple plastic bag.

Here's a tip I picked up from MeZillch on YouTube: next time your at the supermarket, grab an extra produce bag (or two). Carefully wrap the bag around a credit card. Remove said credit card and gently slide the bag into your wallet. Bam! You've now got a multi-purpose item at the ready.

To get even fancier, pick up Oven Bags, which are not only more durable than regular plastic bags, but can also be used to boil water in.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


The American Goldfinch, Exotic, yet Common

One of my favorite birds in the DC area has to be the American Goldfinch. With his bright yellow feathers, he always strikes me as an exotic discovery. Of course, if you look at the range map, you'll see that they are found in nearly every part of the United States. I had one perch outside my bedroom window, and he hung out there long enough for me to grab the DSLR and take dozens of photos:

The quality if pretty blah, as I was shooting through a screen window. But you can definitely see that he's a Goldfinch.

Just a friendly reminder: you don't have to go to the ends of the Earth to find amazing discoveries, sometimes you only need to look out your bedroom window.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Garden 2016: Discoveries and Progress

It's a Jungle In There

Look at these two photos of seedlings:

In the first photo, it's especially obvious: one seedling is far outpacing the other. In the second photo, the group of seedlings seem a bit healthier than the one outlier. Could be random chance, or it could be the mini-greenhouse environment I setup by covering these seedlings with half a water bottle and a glass jar, respectively. See:

In someone's garden photo, I saw them employing water bottles as little greenhouses, and I decided to give it a try. Could it really be that simple and effective a technique? I'm absolutely amazed. I suppose it's just basic plant biology: plants are going to grow faster if it's hot and humid, versus the relatively cool weather we've had of late. But still, that's amazing.

I'm tempted to cover the whole X-Garden with plastic sheeting. Why not, right?

For now, I think I'll keep up with a few isolated experiments and see how things grow.

The Promise of one flower

This may not be the showiest flower, but it does hold quite a bit of promise. That would be the first flower from our strawberry plants. Last year, we harvested almost no strawberries. But, it looks like the plants wintered over and maybe they'll deliver this year. Whoo!

It's not pruning, it's harvesting

We got a little overzealous planting Heirloom Cabbage Danish Ballhead. The result: a section of the X-Garden teeming with little seedlings:

It breaks my heart to prune them, but I know in the long run, that's what needs to be done. Rather than kill a whole bunch of seedlings and toss them out, I decided I might as well jump on the Micro-Greens band wagon. Cabbage seedlings will grow into cabbage you'll eat, so surely their edible in their mico-green stage, too? Right? They certainly look good:

So later today, I'll give the greens a good wash and enjoy them on sandwich. It's not pruning, it's harvesting. Still, it's pretty heartbreaking.

Notes from Next Year's Home Depot Trip

This past weekend we hit Home Depot to pick up soil, mulch and plants. As usual, we pretty much guessed as to what we needed and for once didn't buy too much (annoying) or too little (Argh! Back to HomeDepot!). But for next year, here's what we need:

  • Need (2) 2 cu/ft bags of mulch to cover the front garden
  • Need (2) 2 cu/ft bag of mulch to cover the raised beds in back
  • Need (1) 1.5 cu/ft bag of garden soil to re-fresh the soil in front
  • Need (1) 1.5 cu/ft bag of raised bed soil to re-fresh the raised beds in back
  • Need 2 cups worth of veggie/plant food, which I've got plenty of in the shed
  • Planted a Carnations Ruby Tuesday (Dianthus caryophyllus) in the front garden, which should be perennial. Yeah, we'll see about that.

Oh the promise of a freshly mulched garden! Nothing beats it, right?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Point and Nod: The Universal Language Communicator That Won't Work

Last night I stumbled on this product: Traveller T-Shirt With 40 Icons Lets You Communicate In Any Country Even If You Don’t Speak Its Language. Here's what it looks like:

As cool an idea as this may seem, I can tell you, it absolutely will not work. I've done enough traveling to know that overseas one or two words, followed by gestures, will get you almost nowhere. Pointing to a cruise ship may mean: I've lost my cruise ship, I'd like to take a cruise, where can I buy a boat for my kid and about a zillion other things. You know exactly what you mean. The individual you're grunting towards has no context, little shared experience and no idea what you're talking about. Don't panic though; think of it as an opportunity to manufacture serendipity.

Consider this incident while we were traveling in Panama:

We were staying an an upscale hotel and for breakfast I wanted to order the pancakes minus any side orders of meat. Mind you, I wasn't even sure it came with meat. So I pointed to the pancakes, and clearly and repeatedly stated: No Carne. No meat. The waiter smiled and nodded. When he returned I found that he had mistaken my no meat for extra meat. Instead of getting pancakes and possibly a side of bacon, I got myself pancakes, and extra bacon *and* extra sausage. It was classic.

So these cheat sheets don't work. But they're a sweet idea, right? So I give you my digital version: Point & Nod. Calling this an app is vastly overselling it. All I did was spool out all the icons from Font Awesome and added a tiny bit of JavaScript so that you can highlight them with a click. It's actually pretty fun. Here's a few screenshots from my mobile phone. Here's how you might refer to a bicycle:

And here's a taxi one:

And how about asking if they take Visa? I've got you covered there, too:

And what about: Where did I leave my Space Shuttle? No problemo:

What I really need to do is allow you to select multiple icons to form a sort of visual sentence. Maybe I'll get there. For now though, it's oddly satisfying to play with, so give it a try. Maybe I should randomize the icons and use this as the start of a digital version of Story Cubes? So many possibilities.

Feel free to grab the source code for this bad boy here and make improvements upon it.

Happy Travels! Enjoy the extra bacon!