The Uncarved Block


From knowledge to naivete and back again

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California Bay (left) and True Bay (right)

Living here in the San Francisco Bay area, I find that there is a lot of confusion about the difference between the leaves of our native “California Bay” (which many locals call “Bay Laurel”) and the leaves of true "Bay Laurel”. This isn’t an esoteric distinction, as each of these plants' leaves are used as culinary herbs. I was misinformed about them when I first moved here. Someone told me that the trees growing in the hills were “Bay trees” and that the leaves were great for cooking. Another friend said that they were the same plant from which we get “Bay leaves”, though they were more pungent than the ones grown around the Mediterranean - because of location, not species. Though I understood that gourmets prefer the more refined taste of Mediterranean bay leaves, it only made sense to use the abundantly available leaves of “bay” trees growing right here in the “Bay Area.”

It turns out that “Bay Laurel”, or “True Bay” - the Mediterranean tree from which we get the bay leaves that most people use for cooking - is actually Laurus nobilus. “California Bay” is Umbellularia californica. Both plants are in the same family, Lauraceae, but, as the Latin names show, they are not just different species, they come from different genuses. Being in the same family, it is not surprising that they share a number of physical features and their leaves include similar flavonoids that make them comparable in cooking - but they are not the same.

For the food chemists out there, the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry (J. Agric. Food Chem. 2013, 61, 12283−12291) tells us that 1,8-cineol is the primary essential oil in Laurus nobilusLaurus nobilis contains 57% of this compound, but it makes up only 20% of the essential oil in U. californica. Conversely, Umbellulone is 37% of the essential oil in U. californica, but it isn’t found in L. nobilis at all. Methyleugenol, thymol, and α-terpineol make up 8.4%, 7.8%, and 6.5% of U. californica but are mostly or entirely missing from oil of L. nobilis. There are many other differences in the composition of oil extracted from leaves of these two plants. I have reformatted the table from the JAFC article and provided it for your enjoyment at the bottom of this post.

What’s really important for Californian cooks is the awareness that these are different plants with different flavors. Both leaves are equally edible and both can be used in cooking, but substituting one for the other could produce different results. You can think of it like using Italian basil in place of Thai basil, or, possibly, like replacing lime juice with lemon. If the ingredient is a minor element in a recipe, the results might be indistinguishable. But, if it is a key component of a dish, substitution could create a very different taste.

Though L. nobilus is not native to the area, it grows very well in our Mediterranean climate, so one might run into both of these trees. So, if you're not up to the task of nibbling on a leaf and saying "ahhh, yes, I definitely sense 8.4% methyleugenol", how do you tell them apart? Here are some of the major physical differences between their leaves.

The photo on the left shows the tops of the leaves, the image on the right is of the undersides. In each picture, a leaf of Umbellularia californica is on left and Laurus nobilus is on right

The leaves of Laurus nobilus:
  • Wider than Umbellularia californica
  • Pointier
  • Deeper green
  • Have a slightly wavy edge
  • Thicker and more brittle than those of U. californica
Umbellularia californica leaves:
  • Narrower than those of Laurus nobilus
  • Have rounded tips
  • Are lighter green
  • Have a smooth edge
  • Are thinner, softer, more supple, and more readily bent than those of L. nobilus.
[Note: These differences apply to mature leaves. The young leaves of both trees are light green and soft, making them much harder to distinguish.]

Umbellularia californica in bloom

Umbellularia californica bearing fruit

Umbellularia californica fruit and nut



The following table lists the compounds found in L. nobilus and U. californica. It is from from The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. It has been edited for format, not content.

Compound  RRI-a  RRI-b  U. cal %  L. nobilius %  ID method
α-pinene 1032 939 0.1 3.8 tR,MS
α-thujene 1035 0.4 tR,MS
β-pinene 1118 979 0.1 3.6 tR,MS
sabinene 1132 975 0.1 5.7 tR,MS
myrcene 1174 991 0.2 tR,MS
α-terpinene 1188 1017 0.2 0.2 tR,MS
dehydro-1,8-cineole 1195 0.9 MS
limonene 1203 1029 0.1 1 tR,MS
1,8-cineole 1213 1031 19.5 57.4 tR,NMR,MS
γ-terpinene 1255 1060 0.3 0.3 tR,MS
p-cymene 1280 1025 2.1 2.2 tR,MS
terpinolene 1290 1089 0.1 0.1 tR,MS
α,p-dimethylstyrene 1452 0.1 MS
trans-sabinene hydrate 1474 1098 0.1 0.6 MS
camphor 1532 0.2 tR,MS
linalool 1553 1097 0.4 0.3 tR,MS
cis-sabinene hydrate 1556 1070 0.1 0.6 MS
trans-p-menth-2-en-1-ol 1571 0.1 0.2 MS
pinocarvone 1586 0.3 tR,MS
bornyl acetate 1591 0.2 tR,MS
terpinen-4-ol 1611 1177 6.6 4 tR,MS
cis-p-menth-2-en-1-ol 1638 0.1 MS
trans-p-mentha-2,8-dien-1-ol 1639 0.5 MS
thuj-3-en-10-al 1642 0.5 MS
myrtenal 1648 0.8 MS
umbellulone 1657 1171 36.7 tR,NMR,MS
trans-pinocarveol 1670 0.5 tR,MS
δ-terpineol 1682 0.6 0.9 MS
α-terpineol 1706 1189 6.5 3.8 tR,MS
α-terpinyl acetate 1709 7 tR,MS
borneol 1719 0.1 tR,MS
β-bisabolene 1741 1506 2.2 MS
phellandral 1744 0.1 0.4 MS
(E)-α-bisabolene 1784 0.5 MS
ar-curcumene 1786 0.1 MS
myrtenol 1804 0.3 tR,MS
nerol 1808 0.1 tR,MS
trans-p-mentha-1(7),8-dien-2-ol 1811 0.3 MS
p-mentha-1,5-dien-7-ol 1814 0.2 MS
2-tridecanone 1815 0.1 MS
trans-carveol 1845 0.1 tR,MS
p-cymen-8-ol 1864 0.2 0.2 tR,MS
cis-p-mentha-1(7),8-diene-2-ol 1896 0.3 MS
cuminyl acetate 1981 0.1 tR,MS
caryophyllene oxide 2008 1583 < 0.1% 0.1 tR,MS
methyleugenol 2030 1404 8.4 0.9 tR,MS
(E)-nerolidol 2050 1563 0.3 tR,MS
p-mentha-1,4-dien-7-ol 2073 0.3 MS
elemol 2096 1550 0.4 MS
cumin alcohol 2113 0.5 0.1 tR,MS
cis-p-menth-3-en-1,2-diol 2184 < 0.1% MS
eugenol 2186 1359 0.4 0.1 tR,MS
γ-eudesmol 2185 0.2 MS
thymol 2198 1290 7.8 tR,MS
carvacrol 2239 1299 < 0.1% tR,MS
elemicine 2245 1557 0.1 MS
α-eudesmol 2250 1654 0.1 MS
β-eudesmol 2257 1651 0.2 0.3 MS
chavicol 2353 0.2 MS
dodecanoic acid 2503 0.3 tR,MS
hexadecanoic acid 2931 0.1 tR,MS

RRI-a: relative retention indices calculated against n-alkanes on polar column.
RRI-b: relative retention indices calculated against n-alkanes on apolar column (Adams, 2001).

U Cal %: % of compound found in Umbellularia californica.
L. Nobilius %, % of compound found in Laurus nobilius
[each of these % calculated from FID data for polar column]

Identification method: tR, identification based on the retention times (tR) of genuine compounds on the HP Innowax column; MS, identified on the basis of computer matching of the mass spectra with those of the Wiley and MassFinder libraries and comparison with literature data.  NMR spectra were recorded on American Varian Mercury plus 400 NMR spectrometers.



Five or six years ago my neighbor Bill suffered a very unusual stroke. The stroke destroyed his ability to form new memories. I am told that this is extremely rare. I don’t know how long he is able to remember anything, but it appears to be no more than a couple of minutes. Interacting with Bill is very strange.

A while back Bill visited with me for a couple of hours. At the time I did not know about his condition. It was a very disconcerting afternoon as Bill told me the same stories from his life over and over again. He told me about the salon where he works (or, as I later learned, "worked") as a hairdresser. As soon as he finished describing the salon, he started over again telling me about the salon and his job. He told me about his kids, then about the salon, then about his kids, then about his first wife, then his kids, then the salon, then the salon again, then his first wife again… and on and on. On the first couple of repetitions I was completely confused. I wasn’t sure if he was repeating himself for emphasis, or if it was some sort of a peculiar joke, or the world’s worst case of egotism. Eventually I realized that there was some pathology there. It was later that I learned from another neighbor about Bill’s stroke.

On another occasion I was in my garden when Bill came up and asked if he could use my phone. He told me that his car was at the local gas station being repaired. He wanted to call them to ask when his car would be ready, but his phone wasn't working. Of course I invited him in to use the phone. He called a number that he had written down on a piece of paper, but the number was wrong – God knows how old the piece of paper may have been or what that phone number really was. I helped him look up the correct number for the nearby gas station. When we reached them, they told him that his car had been done and delivered the day before. They said he would find his car in his garage. Fortunately they must have been aware of Bill's condition, so they took it in stride. I wondered how Bill remembered having his car serviced at all, or if he brought his car to them years earlier and now calls them every day to check on its status. After hanging up the phone, Bill thanked me and went home. I watched him walk back towards his house desperately hoping that he would forget about his car completely. I would hate to think of him trying to drive.

I see Bill walking around my neighborhood several times a day with a caretaker. Sometimes they are walking side-by-side chatting, sometimes the caretaker is trailing behind. Every time I see Bill I have the peculiar experience of deciding whether or not I feel like bothering to interact with him. After all, we’ll just have the same conversations over again, and he won’t remember that we’ve ever met. I could be nice to him, or I could call him insulting names, or I could just walk right past as though he was a total stranger. As far as Bill is concerned, a minute later it would make no difference.

The other day I was walking my dog when I ran into Bill. I said, “Hi Bill, how are you doing?” Of course he didn’t recognize me, so I introduced myself and pointed out that I lived in the house around the corner. We talked a bit.

I said to him, “Wow, Bill. You really do walk a lot. I see you walking around the block all the time.”

“No, you must be mistaken,” he replied, “I only walk once in the morning and once in the evening.”

Of course it was he who was mistaken. He just didn’t remember that he does his morning walk three or four times, and his evening walk three or four times.

As strange as it is to experience Bill from the outside, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be Bill. What must it be like to wake up each morning and look in the mirror to discover that you are much older than you thought? How shocking it must be to brush your teeth, shower, shave, and dress to get ready for work, then learn that you haven’t worked for years. I can’t imagine the conversation that must ensue each day as a total stranger enters Bill’s home and explains that he is the caretaker, that he has been taking care of Bill for years, and that the last half decade of his life is effectively gone.

What are we if not our memories? Bill has all of his memories from before the stroke. He seems quite happy and he is in excellent health (no doubt from all the walking.) He joyfully recalls his memories from the first 60-some years of his life. But, from a purely philosophical standpoint, I find myself wondering what it means to be alive if you cannot create new memories? In some abstract sense, is Bill alive?

This is the strange imponderable that I am pondering this morning. I have no idea what it means. If I should happen to come up with an answer, I can only hope that I remember it.
Sambucus canadensis 'Wyldewood 1'

When I was planning my garden a few years ago, I decided that I wanted to have elderberries. I found a study done by the University of Missouri which concluded that the most fruitful variety of elderberry was a tree named 'Wyldewood 1'. It turns out that the only place to get them is from Wyldewood Cellars in Kansas. At the time, they were not prepared to ship plants to California. After some work learning about the requirements of the California Dept. of Agriculture and several hours on the phone, I was able to convince them to go through the process of having one of their trees inspected and sent to me. Thus, I became the first owner of a Sambucus Canadensis 'Wyldewood 1' in California. Over the years it has grown to become a fine specimen.

Last year when the tree was in full bloom I invited my friend Sean to join me in making elderflower liqueur. I picked a bucket of the most fragrant flowers, then Sean and I each spent an hour snipping the tiny flowers from the flower heads for our batches of liqueur.


We were working from a recipe that we found online at honest-food.net. It indicated that we should infuse Everclear or vodka with the elderflowers for “…at least a few days…” but, the author noted “I typically hold mine for two weeks, although I used to do a month.” After infusion, one strains the liquid and adds simple syrup. Sean took his jar of vodka and flowers home, and I put mine in my root cellar to rest. After two weeks I opened my mason jar and strained it. Not sure how sweet I wanted it, I experimented with small samples, varying the amount of simple syrup. The results were mediocre at best. No amount of variation in sweetness made a product that I particularly wanted to drink. It had more of a vegetable taste than a flowery one. I tried experimenting with various ways of improving the flavor: adding lemon juice, lemon zest, limoncello, water, additional vodka, and so on. I tried everything I could think of with no success. I checked on the St. Germaine web site to see if they had any suggestions, but, unsurprisingly their recipe is a closely held secret. I emailed Sean asking him how his liqueur had turned out. He said that it was revolting, so he had thrown it away.

I didn’t tell Sean, but I was embarrassed about the time and effort we had put in for such poor results. I was also anxious about the possibility that my elderflower tree produced flowers that were unsuitable for culinary use. Perhaps, I worried, all of my effort to get this particular elderberry tree had been not just a waste of time, but actively counterproductive.

This year, with the tree grown even larger, the supply of elderflowers was enormous. I was reluctant to drag anyone else into further folly without having a better idea of how to use the bounty of my tree, so, I proceeded on my own. I decided to start by trying to making elderflower syrup for soft drinks.

As before I gathered a bucket of fresh, beautiful, fragrant flowers. I spent considerable time snipping the flowers from their clusters, trying to get as little of the stems as possible – both to avoid the vegetable quality of my failed liqueur and because the greens are slightly toxic. Part way through I discovered that it was actually much easier to pull the flowers off by hand that to cut them off with scissors. Every recipe I have seen refers to cutting, snipping, etc., but for me, bare fingers were really the way to go. If you are working with elderflowers, I recommend giving the hands-on approach a try.



There are many more recipes for elderflower syrup than there are for liqueur. Most of them are quite similar. I chose to base my syrup on one from The Huffington Post.

Here is my (heavily edited) version of their recipe:

Ingredients:
  • 1 Kg (2.2lbs) sugar
  • 5 Cups water
  • 2 Cups elderflower blossoms
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • Optional:
    • 1 tsp citric acid
    • and/or replace part of the sugar with dextrose and/or fructose (corn syrup)
Method:
Mix the sugar and water, adding either citric acid or dextrose and/or fructose. Bring to a boil over medium heat. If using citric acid, boil for 5 minutes after the sugar has dissolved to invert part of the sugar.

Put the flowers and lemon slices in a non-reactive bowl. Pour the hot syrup over them, stirring gently. Cover with foil or a tea towel and let sit in a dark place for 3-4 days, stirring daily.

Strain the syrup and then filter it through a pre-wetted coffee filter. Note that even with filtering a lot of pollen will remain in the syrup. Though it has no impact on the taste, it settles out and looks unattractive. To make a clear product, put the syrup in bottles and decant repeatedly over several days until it is clear enough for presentation.

If it isn’t going to be used immediately, the syrup should be refrigerated, or it can be frozen or stored using standard canning techniques.

[Side note: the author of the blog on Huffington Post provides a recipe that works well, but I believe she is slightly mistaken about the purpose of the citric acid. In her posting she says “It acts as a natural preservative, and helps the syrup stay fresh longer.” However that isn’t really an issue here as the sugar and lemon are preservatives. A whole lemon on average contains about 3 grams of citric acid which is almost as much as the 4.5 grams found in a teaspoon of citric acid powder. Also, if you want to store this syrup you must still take further actions to preserve it, such as refrigeration or canning.

What is really happening with the citric acid in this recipe is that it is being used as a catalyst for inverting the sugar. Sucrose, a polysaccharide, is said to “invert” when it is split into its two components: glucose (dextrose) and fructose. You can invert sugar by boiling it with water. The longer it is boiled, the more of the sucrose will invert. Adding acid causes the inversion reaction to happen more rapidly. A sucrose solution will tend to crystallize over time. The presence of other sugars interferes with crystal formation, so, boiling the solution for 5 minutes with citric acid results in a syrup that is less likely to form sugar crystals (“sugaring off.”) If you don’t have citric acid, or choose not to use it, you can add fructose or dextrose, or boil the sugar solution for more than 5 minutes to achieve the same result. Or you can forget about it and just use the syrup before it crystallizes.]


The elderflower syrup thus created is great with soda water for a cooling summer beverage, and is also excellent over crushed ice.

Having succeeded in making a delicious syrup, I got to thinking about elderflower liqueur again. First I tried simply putting some of my syrup into vodka. The result was 10 times better than last years’ liqueur, but I think it tasted more like elderflower syrup in vodka than real liqueur. [More on this later, but I assume that the difference between an alcohol infusion to which sugar-water is added and a sugar-water infusion to which alcohol is added, is a function of which flavinoids dissolve in water vs. alcohol. If you have further insight into this, please let us know in the comments below.]

Next I put a batch of carefully picked elderflowers in vodka. This time I tasted it after 24 hours. It already had a lot of the flowery flavor I was looking for, but there were also already some vegetable notes. I removed half and let the other half go for another 24 hours. The portion that infused for 48 hours had (to my palate) only slightly more flower flavor, but considerably more vegetable elements. After adding simple syrup I judged the 24 hour infusion to be good, and the 48 hour infusion to be just OK. It was clear to me that 48 hours was a bit much and the 2 to 4 weeks suggested by the honest-food.net author was vastly too long. Though the short-infusion liqueur was good, no one would ever mistake it for St. Germaine, and I doubt anyone would choose my infusion experiments over the bottled product.

I can’t help wondering why I succeeded in making a delicious elderflower syrup, but continued to fail to make elderflower liqueur that is worth drinking. I suspect that the core of the issue is that alcohol is too strong a solvent for my elderflowers, but there are a number of possibilities:

  • To infuse elderflowers into alcohol, maybe I need to do something special to avoid extraction of flavors from the stems. Possibly this involves a technique for removing 100% of the green material, or maybe the flowers must be dried or otherwise processed first. Perhaps there is a temperature, pressure, additive, or steam/cooking process that allows the flower flavor to come out without the green taste.
  • Alcohol and water are both strong solvents. Perhaps pure alcohol extracts only the desired flower flavors, while using vodka allows the flavonoids in the stems to be released as well.
  • In making the non-alcoholic syrup, simple syrup is poured over the flowers while hot from the stove, thus partially cooking them. The vodka infusion is a cold process. The hot syrup might influence the way the flavors are extracted.
  • Perhaps the flowers of Sambucus Canadensis ‘Wyldewood 1’ are too delicate for alcohol infusion. Or perhaps the stems of this plant contain more or stronger flavors than other varieties of Sambucus. Maybe my plant’s stems include elements that more readily dissolve in alcohol. Or perhaps this variety of elderberry, grown in my terroir, expresses these undesirable flavors in alcohol.
Next year I may try other experiments with different techniques, or flowers from different trees, to see if I can solve the mystery. But, at least I know my tree can produce delicious syrup, the fruits are excellent, and it is wildly productive.




I have been looking forward to the release of Windows 10 for some time. Friends of mine inside Microsoft have told me that Windows 10 is what Windows 8 should have been. However, with just a couple of weeks to go before its public release, there are starting to be rumors that Windows 10 is going to be a “subscription” product. That is, you will subscribe to Windows and pay an annual fee. Then, Microsoft will roll out new updates and new versions to your machine, as long as you have a valid subscription. It’s not clear in this scenario if Windows will stop working when your subscription expires, or if an expired subscription would simply mean no new versions and fixes.

I’m really surprised by this. My sense is that for Microsoft to put the Windows 8 debacle behind them, Windows 10 has to be an out-of-the-park homerun. Windows 10 has to contain absolutely nothing that would cause anyone to pause for a moment before choosing to upgrade. I imagined Windows 10 as the heir apparent to Windows 7. That it would behave like a new and improved Windows 7; smaller, faster, and more secure, but with the familiar old Windows user interface. Sure, there would be an option to turn on the Win8 “Metro” UI for the three customers that actually liked Windows 8, but for the rest of us, Metro would just be a distant nightmare. I also imagine that Windows 10 will contain support for new hardware, such as M.2 SSD’s. Also, I hope that the new Windows might contain some killer app (not necessarily new to computing, but new to Windows), for example, built-in voice recognition that would knock Dragon Naturally Speaking off the block, or perhaps consumer-level photo editing software that would completely replace Google’s Picasa or Adobe’s consumer-level Photoshop SE.

That Microsoft is considering changing the Windows sales model ala Google’s Android OS, takes me by surprise. A subscription model for Windows is something that might give me, and other consumers, a reason not to buy. On the other hand, I have never been concerned by the fact that Google rolls out new versions of Android from time to time. Not only hasn’t this bothered me, I have usually been upset when my wireless carrier (Verizon) has been slow in providing the latest Android update. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, if a new version of Android were rolled out, and it was terrible, it would only impact my phone. Yes, that would be inconvenient, but nowhere nearly as disastrous as if my computer were forcibly upgraded to an operating system that I hated. Also, it’s worth noting that Android is actually open source. There are many variants of Android freely available that you can download and install on your phone, should you choose to do so. Were Google to create a new version of Android that is as hateful as Windows 8, one can be sure that in no time third parties would provide Android versions that fixed the problems. Such is not the case with Windows. Most important of all, I have never heard of a release of Android that people didn’t like. I do recall an update a couple of years ago that everyone agreed took some getting used to, but I never heard anyone say that it wasn’t a welcome improvement over the prior Android.

Microsoft, by contrast, has at least two recent OS duds under its belt: Vista and Windows 8 (to say nothing of prior missteps in both operating systems and applications.) Windows Vista was roundly despised by consumers and pundits. Personally I liked Vista and have no idea why people disparaged it. But, that said, it is clear that many people didn’t like it and if they had been forced to install it there would have been considerable gnashing of teeth. More recently, Windows 8 was absolutely catastrophic. I tried it on a virtual machine. After 15 minutes I shook my head in disbelief and deleted it. Subsequently I tried Win8.1 on a tablet for a couple of frustrating days before returning it to the vendor for a refund. Everyone I know that uses Windows 8 (outside of Microsoft) says that they find it utterly confusing. So, if Windows 10 ushers in a new era of Windows as a subscription service, potential buyers will have to ask themselves if they trust that Windows 11, 12, 13, and onward, will all be good upgrades. No matter how good Windows 10 might be, will I want to commit to letting Microsoft force new OS versions onto my machine? Honestly, the answer is “no”.

In just a couple of weeks we will learn what Windows 10 is actually going to be. Perhaps the rumors of Windows 10 as a subscription-only service are incorrect. Perhaps it will be good, old fashioned, installed software. Or, perhaps, like the most recent version of Office, you’ll have a choice of two flavors: a subscription version (e.g. Office 365) and a standalone version (e.g. Office 2013.) Regardless, I will be holding onto my Windows 7 discs in case I ever need to revert back to the last known good version of Windows.

If you use squeeze bottles for arts & crafts or in the kitchen, you are no doubt aware of the sad fact that they always leak. Well, okay, maybe not always, but most of the time. This can be anything from frustrating to disastrous. I use squeeze bottles in my kitchen and am endlessly annoyed by this. Most often I use these bottles for dispensing simple syrup. I love lemonade, so I always keep lemon juice in the fridge along with a squeeze bottle of simple syrup. A few tablespoons of lemon juice, a squirt of syrup, cold water and ice, and I’m good to go. Except that the squeeze bottle is always sticky - because it leaks.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with this phenomenon, the bottles leak at the point where the top screws on. It doesn’t matter how much you tighten it, it will leak.


I’ve tried a couple different brands, but they are all pretty much the same. I have some Tablecraft bottles that I got at a local kitchen supply store, and other bottles made by Tar Hong Plastic Manufacturing (sold under a variety of names), which I got on Amazon.com. They all leak.

The other day I was so tired of leaky squeeze bottles that I decided to throw mine away and buy new ones. I went to Amazon.com to see what others were saying about different brands of bottles. Some had more negative comments than others. Some were clearly worthless. None were without critics.

While searching for the squeeze bottle of my dreams, I ran across an astonishing posting by a reviewer. I was looking at the comments on a set of New Star 26146 Plastic Squeeze Bottles when I found a review by someone calling themselves “djd in Woodbridge”. He or she describes a simple and apparently 100% effective way of stopping these leaks. It sounded too good to be true, but I had to give it a try. To my amazement and pleasure, the technique worked perfectly. I present it here for your enjoyment, but I take no credit for figuring it out. I am entirely indebted to “djd in Woodbridge” for this brilliant solution.

Quite simply, you sand down the top of the bottle until it is flat and smooth. Djd Woodbridge recommends 100 or 120 grit sandpaper. I used P400 Emery cloth (slightly finer than 320 grit sandpaper), which worked great.


Place the sandpaper or emery cloth on a flat surface. Hold the bottle upside down with the top against the sandpaper. Using circles or figure eights, lightly sand the bottle top until it is flat and smooth. Try and keep the bottle’s opening as flat and level as possible while sanding. Note that you will want to rinse the bottle before use.


After the bottle’s rim is sanded, you should find that the cap seals perfectly.


You can test the seal by putting your finger over the spout and squeezing the bottle. There should be no leakage around the bottle cap. Yay!




You know how sometimes you need some slightly unusual ingredient for a recipe - let’s say almond flour. So you go out and buy some. But it turns out that you buy too much, or for some reason you end up not making the recipe, so you have left over almond flour. You don’t want to throw it away, so you vacuum seal it and put it in the freezer where it will last for a while.

From time to time you stumble across the almond flour in the freezer and think, "Wow, almond flour, I should do something with that." But eventually you see the almond flour sitting there and think "Wow, that's been in there for a long time. It can’t be good anymore." So, you throw it away (almond flour in the green waste bin, vacuum bag in the trash, natch.)

Some time later you read an interesting recipe and guess what - it calls for almond flour. You think, "Hey! I can finally use that almond flour in the freezer." So, you spend the whole morning searching for the almond flour. You know you have it because you saw it sooooo many times.

Finally you remember. Oh yeah. I threw it away.

Don’t you just hate that?

So you get dressed and go to the market and buy some almond flour. When you get home you begin making the dish, but it calls for more butter than you have in the fridge. No problem, you have another pound of butter in the freezer. You go to the freezer to get more butter, and, right there in front of you is... the almond flour.

Don’t you just hate that?


I was watching the Frontline program "Obama's War" on PBS last night. I've come to the conclusion that it is time for us to fundamentally change our policy towards the Middle East. I say it is time for some good, old-fashioned colonialism.

Enough with removing a despotic leader then hoping that the people choose democracy *and* elect a good government. Enough with trying to figure out which set of insurgents to arm to fight against some other force, then hope they don’t turn those weapons on us. Enough with training and arming troops of a nascent country only to watch them drop their weapons and run at the first sign of trouble. Enough with trying to achieve some kind of balance of power by either stabilizing everyone, or destabilizing everyone in the region. Enough with nation building. It’s time for colony building.

It’s time to send in the army and establish American Arabia. We take over Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and part of Pakistan. The other countries can stay as they are - as long as they mind their own business. Then we redraw the borders any way we feel like. For example, Lebanon is too small to bother with, so we glue that onto Syria. Iran is too big, so let’s cut it in two. We will want to join the part of Pakistan that we take onto Afghanistan. After all, that border has always been a pain in the ass.

We'll need some old white guys to be colonial governors. The whiter the better. Guys who know how to crack the whip while appearing genteel. We're also gonna need some really good names for our new colonies. Since we’re splitting Iran in two, we’ll call one part "Persia" for old time’s sake. The other part will be dubbed “Siam.” It’s a cool name and the Thais aren’t using it anymore. It will confuse some Siamese cat owners, but hey, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. Let’s call the Lebanon-Syria region "New Virginia." Meanwhile everyone knows that "Iraq" is just a terrible name. We'll call it "Anwar.” That way we can drill for oil in Anwar without messing up the Arctic. It’s also a nod to Anwar Sadat - that'll be nice. Lastly there’s the combined Afghanistan/Pakistan. That colony will be known simply as “Stan.” They really don’t deserve any more letters than that.

Then we get the population working again - drilling for oil in our newly acquired oil fields. We sell the oil and use the money to rebuild the infrastructure of the colonies (and, of course, lavish estates for ourselves.) The locals will be too busy working to have any time for insurgency or killing each other over trivial religious differences.

I really don’t understand why I didn’t think of this years ago. I guess I am bit slow.



Step 1: Take the huge pile of mail from the bin where it has been accumulating. Put it on the dining room table.

Two days later, Step 2: Separate out all the magazines and catalogs. Slice open all the envelopes.Organize by size. Make 4 or 5 neat piles on the dining table.

The following week, Step 3: Put the pile of magazines in the bottom of the mail bin, followed by the pile of catalogs, so that you have room to deal with the letters. Go through the letters. Set aside the envelopes, any mail that is junk, and any unneeded inserts that came along with important stuff. Recycle/discard/shred the detritus as appropriate.

The next day, Step 4: sort the mail into 4 piles: Very important actionable material; stuff that should be filed but doesn't require any action; things that require action but aren't time critical (like bank statements to be reconciled in Quicken); and everything else.

At some point in the future, but before the next time you have guests coming, Step 5: Put the mail into the bin on top of the magazines and catalogs. First the "everything else" mail, then, rotating 90 degrees so they wont get mixed up, the non-critical action material, then (again 90 degree turn) the filing, and finally (another 90 degrees) the important action mail. Put something like a place mat on top of the neatly sorted mail, then put all the mail that has arrived since you started the project on top of the mat (you don't want to mix up the old mail with the new mail.)

Congratulations. A job well done in only 5 steps.

I find blogging very unsatisfying. It is the lack of feedback that bothers me. That, and the fact that several of my favorite past posts are rarely read. Blogger does give me feedback in the form of statistics – I can see how many hits a post has had over various time frames. I can see what parts of the world the hits came from. I can see if the hits came from a web search, or Facebook, and so on. But I can’t tell what the reader thought of the posting. Heck, I don’t know if they read it – perhaps they were searching for something, found my post which matched their keywords but wasn’t what they needed, and moved on after barely a glance. I don’t even know if the hits on the posts came from real people; they might be web crawlers indexing or scraping my pages.

When I write a new post, I tweet it and post it to my Facebook page. Sometimes friends will re-tweet or share about my post. For the next day or two readership of my blog goes way up – but only for that posting. If it contains keywords that are relatively rare online, but which people do search for (e.g. “Sparklets Soda Syphon”, or “Salmon Poisoning Disease”), then after a few days or weeks the post will begin getting hits from web searches. My postings about repairing an antique soda syphon and Kero getting salmon poisoning disease each receive fairly consistent views over time. Others, such as my thoughts on the death of Rodney King, are ignored; possibly because no one cares about Rodney King, or, more likely, because other more authoritative web pages are shown in search engines before mine.

But again, the data I get from Blogger has no meat to it. Did the people who read the pages like them? I get about one comment for every 1000 page views. The number of “likes” is closer to one in 5000 views. And it is fairly clear that when someone reads one of my posts, they rarely go on to read others. People read something that they found on Facebook or via a search, then leave. When I post about a new blog on Facebook, my friends will click “like” or comment – on Facebook! Not on the blog. I complain at them – “Hey! Comment on the blog itself, will ya?” I find it disheartening.

There is endless advice online (and from friends) about how to develop a following for a blog. Write on a narrow topic; blog frequently and consistently; and so forth. The problem is that I am caught in a Catch-22. I don’t get feedback on my blog, so I find it unsatisfying, so I don’t post consistently, so I don’t develop a readership, so I don’t get feedback.

This morning I had the experience of being a blog reader doing exactly what I don’t want my friends to do. A friend shared a link on Facebook. I read it and thought it was great. I “liked” my friend’s post on Facebook (he wasn’t the author of the blog.) I re-shared the link on Facebook. I even emailed it to a number of people. Then I went on with my day. Let me repeat that – then I went on with my day. I didn’t give the original author any feedback. She doesn’t know if I liked it or not. I didn’t look at any of her other postings to see if there was anything I might like as much (or more.) I behaved in exactly the way that I don’t want people to behave when they read my blog.

A half an hour later I realized what I had done. I went back to her blog and posted my comments there, and I’ve added this blog to my to-be-read list. Maybe I just need to have more faith that people are reading my postings and finding them useful or entertaining. We shall see.

A couple years ago I posted some thoughts on dealing with invasive ants in the garden and provided a recipe for homemade liquid ant poison (see The Uncarved Block - Ants!). My DIY ant poison has been successful, but, I have found liquid poison to be somewhat inconvenient – it is clumsy to distribute and goes bad quickly. Thinking back to my youth, I recalled how accidentally dropping a piece of candy would attract ants like crazy. So, I decided to try and make ant poison “gumdrops.” I have been experimenting with various formulations. This posting is a work in progress. I am having good results, but I’m still fine-tuning the proportions. Friends of mine have asked me for the recipe, so I decided to post it here. If you find it valuable, I would love to hear feedback which could help with improving these “gumdrops”.

I started with a recipe that I found online for gumdrops intended for human enjoyment. I removed all the niceties of a gumdrop that people might like to eat - flavorings, colorings, and attractive shapes. I also skipped any steps required to produce a pleasant texture in the mouth. All I cared about was creating a glob of stuff that is convenient to distribute, that ants will want to eat, and which contains a substance that will subsequently kill them.

The first batch I made was very soft and melted in the sun. In fact, while working in the garden, my original tray of “gumdrops” all melted together into a pool of liquid. They re-solidified when I brought them back inside, but still, I wasn't looking for a “melts-in-your-mouth” texture. I turned to my trusty copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, to learn about candies and jellies. From that reading I decided to add pectin and corn syrup. The next batch with these modifications was firmer and much more heat resistant.

When making gumdrops, the outside will be sticky and gooey, so the final step is to roll them in sugar. When I made my first batch I was concerned that a child or animal might find them and eat them. Borax is supposed to be basically harmless to mammals*, but, I wasn't 100% confident about that, and anyway, I wanted the gumdrops to stay where I put them so they would be eaten by ants, not by wayward kids. I figured that a sand coating would dissuade even the most intrepid sugar-fiend. Unfortunately, sand isn't as effective for this purpose as sugar, since sugar absorbs water while sand doesn’t. Coating the “gumdrops” in sugar draws out some of the water, making them firmer and making the coating stick better. Also, I didn't like dealing with the sand; somehow I ended up with sand everywhere. Like going to the beach, sand find its way into everything.

* According to Wikipedia, "...boric acid is poisonous if taken internally or inhaled in large quantities...5 to 20 g/kg has produced death in adult humans." The 3 tablespoons of boric acid in the recipe below weighs about 30g, so, eating the entire batch (yuck) shouldn't harm an adult. The Wikipedia article goes on to say that according to the ADTSR, "...the minimal lethal dose of ingested boron (as boric acid) was reported to be 2–3 g in infants, 5–6 g in children, and 15–20 g in adults."  However, in reading the ADTSR report, I was unable to find those numbers. I suspect they may refer to long-term exposure. I would be eager to hear if anyone has any additional information on boric acid toxicology.

For the next batch I decided to have faith that the average child has better sense than to eat random gobs of goo lying on the ground. I also trusted in the claims of borax safety. This time I dredged the “gumdrops” in sugar. Ultimately I have chosen to store them in a plastic container filled with sugar to keep them dry and separated. This is working well. So far the “gumdrops” are staying solid and dry and none of the pieces that I have distributed have disappeared (other than through the slow chewing of ants.) Note however that if you have children or pets, you may want to use sand or dirt regardless of the benefits of a sugar coating.



Lastly, I have been playing around with the amount of borax in the mix. Ant poison is tricky - one wants to have the ants bring the poison back to the nest before dying, but, the poison must ultimately achieve a lethal dose. Too poisonous and the ants just eat and die. A few hundred dead ants is nothing to an Argentine ant colony. Too little poison and you are just giving the colony a sugary treat. The original liquid recipe called for approximately 16 parts water to 8 parts sugar to 1 part boric acid. I assumed that for a non-liquid approach the water was effectively irrelevant; what was important was the sugar to borax ratio of 8:1, or 2 tablespoons borax to 1 cup sugar. With this ratio it seemed like it was taking weeks for the ants disappear. I guessed that it takes ants much longer to eat a gumdrop and carry the pieces back to the nest than to simply suck up liquid poison. Since then I have kicked up the ratio to 8:1.5, or 3 tablespoons borax to 1 cup sugar. The ants are disappearing much faster now – hopefully the colonies are dying as well. If you try this recipe, please let me know how it works for you.

Please note: I am not a doctor, chemist, nor entomologist. The recipe I’m providing here is based upon my reading and experiences in my own yard, not on formal training. If you choose to make and use either of my ant poison recipes, you do so at your own risk. I provide no warranties either for safety or efficacy.


Ingredients
  • Gelatin Mixture
    • 1 envelope plain gelatin
    • About 3.5 Tbs cold water (Just under 1/4 cup)

  • Sugar Mixture
    • 1/2 cup boiling water
    • 7/8 cups sugar
    • 1 Tbs corn syrup (light Karo)
    • ½ Tbs pectin
    • 3 Tbs borax*

  • About 1/8 cup ice cubes
  • Sugar (or Sand) for finishing gumdrops
* For borax, almost any roach powder should do. They are usually 99% boric acid in some formulation or other. I am using a product called "Hot Shot MaxAttrax Roach Killing Powder" which I get at Home Depot for about $5 a pound. One pound of boric acid lasts years when diluted to ant-poison levels. Note too that companies label their boric acid under a variety of names: borax, orthoboric acid, Trihydroxidoboron, etc.

Method

Pour the cold water into a bowl. Sprinkle evenly with the gelatin and allow it to “bloom” while you prepare the sugar mixture.

In another bowl, mix the ingredients for the sugar mixture. Make sure the sugar and pectin are fully dissolved. If not, microwave for a minute and stir until dissolved. [Note: this is simplified from making confections for humans where proper boiling of the sugar mixture matters.]

Add the hot sugar mixture into the gelatin mixture. Stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

Add the ice cubes to aid in cooling. For a delicious gumdrop you wouldn’t want to do this – you would let the jelly solidify slowly. But, for ant poison there is no point wasting time. Allow to cool completely and become firm.

Carve out blobs of gelatin with a spoon and dredge in sugar (or sand if you are concerned about the gumdrops looking too tempting.) Store in a container until ready to use. For the first few days I leave the container open so some water can evaporate, then I seal it to keep them “fresh.” Note: may melt if place in hot location. If so, allow it to re-cool and reform “gumdrops.”