Monday, March 30, 2015

How to deal with an overwhelming backlog of mail

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.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Blogging Experience

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.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ant Poison Gumdrops

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.

  • 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.


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.”

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New Art at the Albany Bulb

There is an old, retired landfill jutting into the bay at the City of Albany, California. Referred to as the "Albany Bulb", it is an odd place who's future is always uncertain. It is administered by multiple governmental organizations. Various outside groups are constantly trying to turn it into something that they believe will be better than what is there now.

Personally, I love the Albany Bulb as it is. It is a place where nothing is permitted, but everything is allowed. Among its many features, remarkable artworks appear at The Bulb. Some simple graffiti, others significant paintings, still others large and complex sculptures (some kinetic.)

I was there on Friday with Kero (no dogs allowed).  There was a fantastic new six-sided artwork that really blew me away. Photos below (plus three more paintings on concrete slabs.)

Enjoy (until it's gone.)

The sections rotated

Three additional works painted on concrete slabs

Monday, October 13, 2014

Whiskey Stones

A few weeks ago I bought a set of Teraforma Whisky Stones on I really don't know why I bought them. It was dumb. I knew it was dumb. But I did it anyway. Sigh.

It is a cute idea to have whiskey literally "on the rocks", but in practice, frozen rocks simply can’t cool a drink the way ice can. The reason has to do with "enthalpy of fusion." [There is a useful discussion on Wikipedia for those that are interested.] Basically, it takes far more energy for a substance to change state (e.g. melt from a solid to a liquid, freeze from a liquid into a solid, or boil from a liquid to a gas) than it takes to change the temperature of a substance without changing its state.

Using Wikipedia's example, to raise the temperature of one kilogram (about 1 liter) of liquid water by 20°C, from 10°C to 30°C (50°F to 86°F) requires 83.6 kJ (kilojoules) of energy. However, to melt ice and raise the resulting water temperature by 20°C requires extra energy. To heat ice from 0°C to 20°C (32°F to 68°F) requires 333.55 kJ for 1kg of ice to melt, plus 83.6 kJ to bring the 1kg of water to go up 20°C. This is a total of 417.15 kJ of energy. [Thanks to the Wikipedia authors for this example.] So, since ice melts in a drink, it removes much more energy (heat) from the liquid than a comparable amount of a substance that does not melt (in this case, rock.)

These Whiskey Stones are made from soapstone, which does have an advantage for the application. It turns out that soapstone has a fairly high “thermal conductivity (k).” The thermal conductivity of soapstone is about 6 or 7, while that of ice is 2.18 (the higher the value the better the material is at conducting heat.) Soapstone’s thermal conductivity value of about 7 is nothing in comparison to a material like copper, which has a thermal conductivity of 398 and is renowned for its ability to transfer heat. Still, soapstone is significantly better than ice at transferring heat, so soapstone should take heat from the beverage more rapidly than ice does.

However, this ignores an important factor in your glass; as ice warms, it melts, so fresh ice is continually exposed to the beverage. The soapstone does not melt, so once the outside of the cube has warmed, heat must travel through more and more material to reach the remaining cold at the core. As a result, the stones rapidly cool the drink by a few degrees, but then the cooling effect slows. This mitigates the slight advantage soapstone has in thermal conductivity. Even if this weren't the case, the lack of state change from solid to liquid would make the stones less effective than plain old ice.

Soapstone also fails vs. ice in regard to thermal capacity (the energy required to raise or lower the temperature of a material.) Ice has a thermal capacity of about 2.11J/g, where the thermal capacity of soapstone is only about 0.8J/g (depending on the exact makeup of the stone.) Thus, it takes less energy to warm (or cool) a quantity of soapstone than a unit of ice, so soapstone has less capacity for cooling a beverage than ice does.

In a real world case, I put the stones in the freezer for 24 hours. I then placed three of them (weighing 77 grams) in a heavy crystal glass with a shot of whisky at 72 degrees. The drink quickly decreased in temperature to 60°F. There the temperature decrease stopped. To my taste 60°F is still too warm. By contrast, 77 grams of ice (rather a lot – ice is much lighter than soapstone) brought a fresh 72 degree shot of whisky down to 40°F in the same time period.

Granted, some times you don't want melting ice diluting your drink. In that case, there are dozens of solutions that have been in use since alcohol was invented: pour the drink over ice in a mixing container, then into your glass; put the bottle in the fridge or freezer; put your glass in the fridge or freezer; and on, and on.

So, why did I buy them? I was taken in by the con. I wasn't thinking. I thought it was a "cute" idea. Doh!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cartoon - Fishbowl

cartoon by Andrew Sigal

Fishbowl - Cartoon by Andrew Sigal, (c) 2013

Isn't it cruel keeping them in there like that?
I wouldn't worry about it son. I don't think
they have enough brain cells to even
understand their surroundings.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Peeling paint on my Lexus RX400h

In May, 2005, I purchased a brand-new 2006 Lexus RX400h - the world's first hybrid SUV. It was a car that was in high demand. At the time I was living in Boulder, Colorado. My local Lexus dealer had a multi-month waiting list. After a search, I found the car at Lexus of Lincoln, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Lexus RX400h has been a terrific car for going on nine years. It offers a great combination of comfort, carrying capacity, four-wheel-drive traction, and fine performance, in a package that provides impressive fuel economy for vehicle of its size and weight.

In addition to the price of the car, I also paid $495 for a Chip Guard treatment. Sometimes referred to as a “clear bra”, this is the application of a 3M plastic film to forward facing portions of the car. The film protects the paint from rock chips and other dings.

Recently, I discovered a line of peeling paint directly behind the Chip Guard on the hood. This was especially odd, since the finish on the rest of the car has held up extremely well. Clearly the problem had something to do with the Chip Guard treatment. The only place where the paint was showing damage was in a precise line exactly at the upper edge of the Chip Guard on the hood. Though I now live in California, far from Nebraska, I called Lexus of Lincoln to find out if they were aware of any problems occurring with the Chip Guard on their cars, and if there was anything they could do for me. The service agent that I spoke to directed me to email photos of the problem to the service director, Jim McCauley. I took a number of pictures from different angles and emailed them as requested.

Left side of hood Right side of hood
(click photos for larger view)

Since email can be notorious fallible, I sent one photo per message, and I also sent a separate email noting that the photos were being attached to subsequent messages. After three days I had not received any reply, so I emailed him again, merely asking for confirmation of receipt of the pictures. Finally, four days later, McCauley replied that he had the photos and would get me a response by the end of the week. All good… maybe.

Fifteen days later I hadn't heard a word. I sent a reminder message asking if there was anything he could tell me about the status of my issue. I also decided that it was time for me to go online and see what problems other people might be having with Chip Guard on their cars. I didn't find anything specifically related to Lexus vehicles, but I did see postings on a variety of auto forums (mostly BMW) about Chip Guard problems.

Of particular interest, some people complained that Chip Guard installers had used razor blades to cut the plastic film while it was on the car, cutting into the paint in the process. This was the“ah ha!” moment for me. Clearly the installer had cut the film to shape on the hood of the car, cutting through the paint. It took time, but eventually the cut line had allowed water to get underneath the paint, causing it to pucker and flake. I had assumed that the film was delivered to the installer pre-cut and ready to be applied. That assumption made me wonder how the line of damage could have occurred. Now, knowing that the material was cut by the installer, the source of the damage was obvious.

A few days later I happened to be at a Porsche dealer. There, I asked the service manager if they did Chip Guard installation. He said yes, and proudly informed me that the guy that did their Chip Guard had been installing it as long as anyone in the business and was “a true artist.” The installer had a few spare minutes and was happy to chat with me about my Lexus problem. He told me that at the Porsche dealership they have a machine that precisely cuts the material to shape prior to application, so no cutting is ever done on the car. Then I told him my Lexus was nine years old. “Oh”, he said, “yes, nine years ago it was a common practice to trim pieces on the vehicle, especially if the installer didn't get the film on perfectly straight.” He added, “You had to be very careful not to cut the paint.” He went on to opine that if the installer had cut through the paint, then one would expect to see exactly the problem I described.

Eventually I received my reply from Lexus of Lincoln, a mere 24 days after my initial inquiry:

Hi Andrew,

After reviewing the pictures it appears that there is paint chipping on several areas of the hood not just around the chip guard, this is caused by rocks or debris and there is no warranty coverage for that. The warranty on the chip guard is for 5 years and has expired, and it doesn't appear to be any damage to the chip guard so it would not apply to the chip guard warranty at this time.

Thank you,
Jim McCauley
Lexus of Lincoln
Service/Parts Director

So, it appears that the service director at Lexus of Lincoln took over three weeks to look at my photos, and then ignored obvious evidence of a straight line of chipping paint, focusing instead on one small blemish above the Chip Guard cut line. He also seemed to think that I was concerned about the Chip Guard itself, whose warranty had indeed expired. If Lexus of Lincoln had replied quickly and efficiently with a baseless “no” reply, resting on the Chip Guard warranty, I might have just dropped it. But, asking me to put in the effort of supplying photos, making me wait weeks and requiring multiple reminders, then coming up with such a bogus reply, certainly does not speak well for their service department. I replied to this email immediately, expressing my disappointment at the poor quality and tardiness of the response. I also cc'ed the general manager of Lexus of Lincoln. To date I have heard nothing more.

It has been almost nine years since the purchase of the car. At the time, I was quite pleased with the sales process. Since I didn't live in Nebraska, I never had any service done at Lexus of Lincoln, so this paint problem was my first and only interaction with their service department. I can only speculate about how other Lexus of Lincoln customers feel about this dealership. However, the failure of their service department to stand behind their installation of an aftermarket Chip Guard product certainly does not speak well for them. Something to consider when shopping for a Lexus vehicle in Nebraska.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Online Bake Sale for the Philippines

FoodPool proudly supported the Online Bake Sale for the Philippines (#bakesale4pinas) with a matching grant. People from around the world bid on delicious goodies provided by generous food bloggers. The proceeds go to help the victims of typhoon Yolanda. Thank you!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mea Culpa - The true history of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

Image from

Yesterday, posted an article about a petition being put forth by Vegans, complaining that Starbucks needlessly puts condensed milk in their pumpkin spice latte mix. Because of the condensed milk in the mix, it is impossible to make a Vegan pumpkin spiced latte. Other lattes offered by Starbucks use mixes that dont contain dairy products and can therefore be made with milk substitutes to produce a Vegan version of the beverage. See

I reacted to this story in a way born of ignorance. I wanted to publicly present my "mea culpa." I blew this one on so many levels. Let me hereby apologize for any aspersions I may have cast on Vegans or their traditional fall consumption of pumpkin spice lattes.

I did more research on the matter and learned a number of things that I had not known. First and foremost, it turns out that the Pilgrims were Vegans! Wow. That explains a lot! Furthermore, the tradition of consuming “pumpkin spice lattes” was introduced to the Pilgrims during the famous First Thanksgiving. It was, in fact, Chief Starbuck himself, leader of the Massachusett Indians, who brewed the first pumpkin spice latte ever tasted by a European. It occurred on that fateful day of sharing and celebration in 1621.

Furthermore, it turns out that the word “laghtee” is a Wampanoag word (adopted by the Massachusett) meaning “any type of frothy liquid, especially a beverage.” It was over two hundred years later that Italian Americans brought the Anglicized word “latte” back to Italy (along with the use of tomatoes in pizza.) Later, during WWII, riding the wave of Italian wartime nationalism, the similarity between this corruption of “laghtee” and the Latin “lactis” resulted in the creation of the myth that the “latte” was an Italian creation. This myth has spread far and wide despite numerous failed attempts by descendants of the Massachusett and Wampanoag to reclaim their rightful beverage history.

Needless to say, the “spice” in the original pumpkin spice latte was not the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves that we think of today. The pumpkin spice latte was originally brewed with a powder made from the bark of the Gesundheit pine (Pinus gesundheit), known as “ahchoobangbang” in Wampanoag. Because of this, the pumpkin spice latte was a seasonal brew, since the pine only developed its distinctive flavor in the fall as the tree began preparing for the cold northern winter. The Gesundheit pine, named after famed 18th C. German botanist, Dr. Freidrich Gesundheit, went extinct in the early 1930s, not long after the discovery of penicillin. As a result, we now make our pumpkin spice latte with a mixture of “spice island” spices.

Apparently, drinking pumpkin spice lattes in fall has been a dearly held tradition among American Vegans, linking them to their Pilgrim ancestors. Furthermore, by surreptitiously adulterating their pumpkin spice latte mix with condensed milk, the Starbucks Corporation is guilty not only of depriving Vegans of this important fall beverage, but also of co-opting and perverting yet another Native American tradition. Not only has the Starbucks Corporation stolen and sullied the name of one of the greatest chiefs in Massachusett history (for which they have never provided ample compensation.) Not only are they earning huge revenues from the very brew that Chief Starbuck gave as a gift of peace to the Pilgrims. But, as if that weren’t enough, they are needlessly corrupting this traditional drink in a way that makes it unfit for the very people to whom it is most meaningful, further commodifying and distorting early American foodways.

My apologies for suggesting that Vegans should not work to protect this significant beverage. My comments in reacting to the original story were the result of an inexcusable ignorance of the true facts in this matter. I hope that this will serve as ample compensation for my earlier unfeeling words.

Note: for more important information on American culinary history you can learn about the Pie of July celebration here.