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Christmas in July. July 31, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Sweltering through another 90-degree-plus, humid July day, our friend Ben found myself wondering about the origin of the expression “Christmas in July.” Around here, it typically applies to deep discounts on retail merchandise at July’s end, implying both that you can afford to treat yourself to these great deals as if it were Christmas and that, if you have the foresight to do your Christmas shopping early, you can not just get it out of the way but get presents everyone will love for a lot less than you’d pay during the actual runup to Christmas.

But I say, forget sales. I don’t know about you, but the best Christmas present our friend Ben could possibly receive in July is a spate of cool, humidity-free days and the resulting reduction in our electric bill. Some regular rainfall on our veggie beds wouldn’t hurt, either. Santa, are you listening?!!! Oh, and I forgot about winning the lottery…

I was still curious about the origin of that phrase “Christmas in July.” Did some canny ad man coin it for some long-ago summer sale at Macy’s? Did a Depression-era writer, desperate for cash and drawing inspiration from O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi,” turn a neighbor’s little July windfall into one of his own? Did anybody really know for sure? I decided to enjoy a little visit with my good friend Google and his all-knowing ally, Wikipedia.

It turns out that the tale behind the origin of Christmas in July would make a great short story of its own. It begins in the 1800s, and the plot involves a girls’ summer camp, a fraternity, a French opera, a missionary church, and a war-relief effort. In the beginning, sales had nothing to do with it.

According to the Wikipedia entry:

* The first “Christmas in July” party was celebrated by an Ohio fraternity in July 1884. 

* The first actual use of the phrase “Christmas in July” was in an 1894 English translation of the French opera Werther: “When you sing Christmas in July, you rush the season.”

* In 1933, a girls’ camp in North Carolina began celebrating an annual Christmas in July, complete with a tree, gifts, and even a visit from Santa Claus. 

* In 1940, Preston Sturges directed a Hollywood comedy film called “Christmas in July.”

* In 1942, a pastor at a church in Washington, D.C. instituted the annual celebration of “Christmas Presents in July,” which he had brought from his earlier post in Philadelphia, complete with a gift-covered Christmas tree. His goal was to collect presents in plenty of time to distribute them to the church’s worldwide missions. By 1946, the Christmas in July service began to be broadcast on the radio, that era’s equivalent to television.

* During World War II, the U.S. Post Office, in conjunction with the U.S. Army and Navy, launched a Christmas in July campaign to make sure servicemen and -women overseas got their Christmas cards, correspondence and gifts in time for Christmas.

* The advertising industry picked up on the trend and turned it into a sales opportunity for their clients as early as 1950, when “Christmas in July” sales were first advertised in print.

Yowee zowie! This was a much richer and deeper tale than our friend Ben had bargained for, and just goes to show that pursuing your curiosity can reward you in ways you never imagined, as long as you’re not a cat.

Hey, Santa! Want to send a little cold air down our way from your home base at the North Pole? Surely you’ve got plenty to spare. And Silence Dogood and I have been very good this year…

What will become of Mma Ramotswe? July 30, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Long-time readers will know how much I adore Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and anticipate each yearly addition to the series with enormous pleasure.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the series involves the fictional adventures of Precious Ramotswe, the first lady detective in Botswana, and her associates, including the formidable Mma Potokwane, matron of the Orphan Farm and creator of the famous fruitcake, my favorite character; the hapless but lovable Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop in Gabarone and suitor to Mma Ramotswe’s assistant, Grace Makutsi; and the evil Violet Sephotho, arch-rival to Mma Makutsi. Mma Ramotswe’s beloved tiny white van is as much a character as anyone in the series. Red bush tea, cattle, shoes, and Precious’s beloved Daddy, the late Obed Ramotswe, also figure prominently.

One of the really endearing things about the novels is that Mr. McCall Smith recognizes the importance of continuity, that he has created enduring icons that people come to love because he loves them and has delightfully brought them to life. So he carries them on into each succeeding novel. I, and I’m sure many devoted readers, would be horrified if the famous fruitcake, Mma Ramotswe’s “traditional” build, the tiny white van, Mma Makutsi’s talking shoes or her 97% certificate from the Botswana Secretarial College (the highest mark ever received from that institution), or Mr. McCall Smith’s beautiful closing tribute to Africa failed to make an appearance in any No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel. And Mr. McCall Smith does not disappoint.

Admittedly, if I could ask the author a few questions, I certainly would: Why did you slap Mma Ramotswe’s suitor and eventual husband, Mr. JLB Matekoni, with chronic depression? Why did he abruptly adopt two orphans? Why did Mr. Polopetsi suddenly appear, then unaccountably turn into a fairly major player, only, as unaccountably, to pretty much vanish? Why did you dispose of Kremlin, one of the strongest, most priceless characters in the series, rather than bring him back with subsequent misdeeds and general bad behavior? And, most important, what possessed you to maim poor Phuti Radiphuti, one of the most likeable characters, even though you’d already loaded him with handicaps like stuttering and terminal awkwardness? What had he possibly done to deserve that? 

I’m sure Mr. McCall Smith had his reasons, even if I can’t fathom them. However, now I have more serious things to worry about than what on earth he was thinking or what the differences are between Botswana, Batswana and Motswana or whether Phuti and Grace will be happy or Mma Potokwane and her very persuasive fruitcake will appear in the next volume. Now I’m wondering if there will even be a next volume.

I’ve been worrying about this ever since I read the most recent novel in the series, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (Pantheon, 2011).  As an editor and author, I’d have said that in this novel, every loose end in the series is tied up: Grace Makutsi definitively triumphs over her old rival, the much sexier, unscrupulous Violet Sephotho, once and for all. Mma Ramotswe at last retrieves her tiny white van, better than ever, from its junkyard grave. Mma Makutsi and the apprentice mechanic Charlie bury the hatchet after he finally admits she’s not a warthog and she finally admits he’s not totally worthless. And, at the end, Mma Makutsi and her awkward but lovable suitor, Phuti Radiphuti, are married at long last. Every beloved element, from Mma Makutsi’s shoes to Mma Potokwane and a special wedding fruitcake, are brought into play. There really is nothing left to say after this entirely lovable wrap-up.

So what now? Was The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle way of ending his series? And if not, where can he go from here?

             ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

Yummy pizza droppings. July 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Yes, it’s already time for another compendium of wacky blog searches (aka “search engine terms”) here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. So many classics have been pouring in over our virtual transom that we just had to share the best of the best with all of you. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did! As always, query in bold, our response following:

poor elmer’s almanac: We’re sure his readers are glued to every post.

yummy pizza droppings: Those damned pigeons are everywhere.

trying to save old somewhat dried corn of cob: The pigeons would probably enjoy it more than you. Or, wait, maybe you could boil it down to make glue!

do i have bad manners quiz: We love this one, and we’ll be getting back to you with a quiz of our own very soon. But meanwhile, if you can answer these two questions in the affirmative, you’re probably okay: Do I treat everyone with patience, kindness, and consideration? Do I make a special effort to be polite to and brighten the day of people less fortunate than myself?

old richard’s almanac: Please refer to the previous query. Harrumph!!!

coke bottle wartering: We don’t know about you, but we’re never touching a Coke bottle again.

little richards almanac on weening horses: We don’t think Little Richard ever tackled this one.

how can i keep the purple color on the string bean: Easy! Set guards around it so the color doesn’t try to run off.

That’s it for this batch! But we’re sure there’ll be more any moment now…

Don’t you like salad? July 28, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were appalled to read a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal called “Crunch Time for the Salad.” (Check it out at www.wsj.com.) It was basically about how the producers of pre-bagged, ready-to-use salad mixes were working on new combinations to entice buyers.

This in itself was hardly surprising: Everybody in the packaged food industry is constantly trying to come up with new products to entice buyers into choosing their stuff over the 45,000 other items available at a typical supermarket.

And OFB and I would have said that, on the whole, prebagged salads are a thriving category, based on the fact that we and everyone we know use them all the time. As organic gardeners, we and most of our friends try to grow our own greens, at least in spring, and buy as much as we can from farmers’ markets locally or get salad greens from our local CSA (subscription-supported organic growers). But local greens stop being available as soon as the weather heats up. And if you’re like us and simply must have a big, satisfying salad at least once a day, you need some outside assistance.

You might think it would be cheaper in that case to simply buy an assortment of whole head lettuces and other ingredients rather than paying a premium price for pre-washed, pre-blended, pre-packaged greens, but you’d be wrong. At least in our area. One of our local groceries regularly offers “buy one, get one free” discounts on bagged greens, making their cost comparable to bulk greens. And another regularly offers reduced bags of salad greens for 99 cents to keep their produce moving, and that’s a third of what you’d pay for a head of iceberg lettuce, much less Romaine or a “gourmet” type.

Just think, less than a dollar for a whole bag of premium mixed salad greens! It’s true that I’ll usually add some punch or oomph to our salads, in the form of shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped scallions or red onion, diced bell pepper, olives, pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds), and maybe some broccoli slaw and/or arugula or kale or, if I can find them, mustard greens. But for less than a dollar, I could buy OFB his dream salad, a Caesar with Romaine, croutons, Parmesan, and dressing all in the same easy-open package, with plenty for me to have my own greens and toppings. Never has there been such a great, delicious deal.

Mind you, I actually love to graze on naked salad fixings, as friends have pointed out many times. And they’re so right: Given a choice, I’d eat undressed lettuce and all the other ingredients and never put any dressing on them. But I’ve read many times that both oil and vinegar help you extract and digest the nutrients from salad, so I try to be dutiful and top my salads with extra-virgin olive oil and yummy aged balsamic vinegar. And yes, I do enjoy oil and vinegar dressing very much. But I’d still rather eat the salad plain, maybe with a bit of salt and some fresh basil and mint and thyme leaves tossed in!

Anyway, however you make it, as long as the major ingredient is crunchy lettuce or a combination of lettuces, our friend Ben and I love our salads and feel like we’ve been deprived if we don’t eat at least one salad a day. If we could, we’d eat three salads a day, at least in hot weather. Which is why the article in the Wall Street Journal came as such a shock: It claimed that “the average American eats a salad at mealtime only about 36 times a year.”

Say what? What?!! What on earth, what the bleep?! That’s, what, three times a month?!! How could that possibly be? How could people willingly sacrifice the opportunity to enjoy that delicious crunch, the blending of flavors and textures and colors? I’ve long ago had to admit to myself that my favorite part about going out to eat is the salad bar, and if I never had a single entree, it wouldn’t bother me at all. A bowl of salad and a baked potato is my idea of nirvana. OFB certainly wouldn’t agree, but I wouldn’t want to have to deal with him if his nightly salad were withheld for some reason.  

What are people eating instead on the 316 days when they don’t eat salad? I can’t imagine. But it makes me so sad, thinking what they’re missing. Don’t you like salad? 

                ‘Til next time,

                                Silence

Vinyl in chewing gum?!! July 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Mercy on us. Silence Dogood here. Chewing gum is not something that makes an appearance here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We both have too many fillings to risk pulling one out with gum, and besides, we don’t really want to go around looking like a couple of cows chewing their cuds. We’re not tempted even when we read health reports suggesting that gum containing xylitol chewed after meals or snacks can help prevent tooth decay. We’re especially not tempted when we see someone snapping her gum at a funeral or popping his brilliant blue gum while waiting on customers. Eeeewwww!!! What are they thinking?!

However, even our general gum aversion didn’t prepare us for an article in the Wall Street Journal that had nothing to do with gum but mentioned in passing that an ingredient in some cooling jacket, vinyl acetate, was regularly used in chewing gum. 

Say what?!! Unfortunately, it’s true. “A substance used to make chewing gum could soon be declared toxic by the federal government after an international agency found that it might cause cancer in lab rats,” a Canadian news release noted way back in May 2008. The substance? Vinyl acetate, “also used in the production of perfumes, deodorizers and paints and sealants, among other things,” according to the report. Furious lobbying by the chewing gum industry caused the Canadian government to drop the proposed ban on vinyl acetate in gum in 2009. 

Even if you love the thought of chomping on the equivalent of vinyl siding, you might think about the effect it has on the environment: Like the siding itself, “The modern chew[ing gum] is non-biodegradable,” an article in The Ecologist noted in 2010. And it can contribute to everything from diarrhea to cancer, ADD, epileptic seizures, and even brain damage, thanks to its “alphabet soup of potentially toxic ingredients.” Gum manufacturers who’ve tried to eliminate the effect of its permanence in our environment have unfortunately replaced the vinyl with phthalates, which have been shown to cause birth defects. God have pity.

The article in The Economist pointed out that chewing gum isn’t a 20th-century phenomenon, as I’d always assumed, but a human habit going back thousands of years, in which humans chewed on the naturally produced gums of various trees, presumably to curb the ever-present hunger that dogged most of humanity and to keep the saliva flowing and thus ward off dehydration during long, hot, dry travels, typically on foot over hostile terrain. Another classic example of humans using their inherent ingenuity to solve a problem that threatened their survival.

Today, though, chewing gum may have outlived its usefulness. Gulping a sports drink, or just regularly drinking some water, will keep us hydrated as we go about our day. And we’re far less likely to imbibe bizarre toxins or look like morons while we’re doing it. Certainly, we won’t be threatening our dental work. And maybe, just maybe, instead of using our mouths as a mindless receptacle for trash, we could redirect them to a better use: communicating, reaching out, expressing our ideas and thoughts, our hopes and dreams. Using our mouths to express what ultimately makes us human, and what makes being human such a wonderful thing.

              ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

Hey, that’s MY blog post!!! July 26, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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A reader came on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with what we thought was an eminently sensible question. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an answer.

The reader noted that we publish a whole heck of a lot of original content, and wondered what we did to protect ourselves from being plagiarized. Plagiarism is just a fancy word for somebody stealing your original content and using it, without permission, generally as if it were their own, whether reposting it to their blog or dropping it into a term paper or what-have-you. He added that he too posted lots of original content and was concerned about protecting it from folks who have no scruples about helping themselves to other people’s research, hard work, style, and ideas.

We certainly couldn’t blame him. No writer, photographer, artist, or other creator of original content wants their work usurped and used without proper credit (and, as we’ll see, some don’t even want it used with credit). Publishers have long been vigilant about this, going after people who attempt to plagiarize their authors’ works, knowingly for profit or innocently passing information along, with a battery of lawyers. As far as blogs go, though, you’re on your own.

We’ve seen lots of attempts by bloggers to protect their content. Most put a copyright disclaimer over every photograph so it’s harder to copy. As for the writing, we’ve seen various versions of “this content protected by…” We’ve seen each post copyrighted with all rights reserved. We’ve seen hilarious threats of retribution from various gods, superpowers, sci-fi entities, even H.P. Lovecraft horror figures (thanks, Jodi, yours is the best!). We’ve seen very sober and lengthy warnings inviting violators to meet the original authors in court for copyright infringement if proper credit was not given and prior permission was not sought, in one case adding that such permission was never granted even when sought. (Hmmm.)

But does any of this really work? At a guess, no. Someone who’s immoral enough to steal your content is, in our opinion, unlikely to be deterred by a bunch of threats, however creative, dire, or legal they sound. After all, how would you ever know that someone had stolen your content, unless it suddenly appeared on a hugely popular blog or on the news? We certainly wouldn’t.

Mind you, the stolen-for-term-paper thing is under much better regulation now that most teachers and professors have recognized the potential. They regularly search the internet for phrases from term papers that seem a bit suspect, not exactly what they’d expect a particular student or any student to say, and they’ve become quite good at tracking them down to their original sources.

But the ‘stolen from your blog for my blog’ thing isn’t so easy or straightforward. We try to protect ourselves here at Poor Richard’s Almanac by being eccentric and writing about issues of interest to us in a very idiosyncratic way. It’s hard for any of us to believe that somebody would really want to try to steal our content. But if they did, we don’t know how we’d ever find out, much less do anything about it.

So we’re asking every blogger to tell us, and the reader who asked us, what you do to keep the unscrupulous and lazy good-for-nothing scavengers and scalawags lurking out there from appropriating your blog’s content for their own evil ends. Have you found something that works? How do those “protected by” thingies work? Enlightenment, please!

Are you up to this? July 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Becca sent us the most wonderful quote the other day. It’s from the revered sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, and it says:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. 

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood agree with the general thrust of this comment, though we have no clue how to conn a ship or program a computer, and Silence thinks the part about cooking a tasty meal comes rather late in the list. We feel passionately that what made humanity great was our aptitude for generalization—look at our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, or, say Leonardo da Vinci—and that our downfall as a species has been our increasing pigeonholing into extremely specialized functions.

We might add a facility with writing and communicating and a knowledge of the world, both natural and historical, and world affairs to Mr. Heinlein’s list, for how can you understand alien cultures if you don’t understand the diversity of cultures here on Earth? We would also add the ability to grow a ripe tomato, or any produce, to Mr. Heinlein’s list, and to harvest, preserve, and enjoy it in every season.

What’s your ultimate short list?

National Tequila Day July 24, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Yes, folks, today, July 24, is National Tequila Day. We hope you realize that margaritas are the original Gatorade, containing copious amounts of both salt and sugar, just the thing for combating a heatwave like the one we’re all going through now.* And did we mention, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere?

Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we wanted to look into the history of the margarita and see when it first arrived North of the Border. So we turned to our venerable copy of Gordon’s Cocktail & Food Recipes, ca. 1934. There were no margarita recipes in the index, but there were three variations on a “marguerite cocktail,” so we quickly turned to page 91 in the hope that this was a Frenchified name for the venerable beverage. Alas, all three versions turned out to be gin-based, and one contained absinthe, which at the time was considered addictive and hallucinogenic and was, despite the popularity of absinthe cocktails in the book, illegal in the U.S. at the time (though legal in Britain). There wasn’t a mention of tequila in any form in the entire volume.

Based on these clues and the fact that Gordon’s Gin is produced in London, we concluded that, despite the fact that the book claimed to have been published in Boston and didn’t list any other places of publication (such as, say, London), it must have been British, and thus the absence of tequila in the book didn’t necessarily mean a corresponding absence of tequila at the time in the U.S. More research was clearly called for.

Turns out, tequila wasn’t introduced into the U.S. until the late 1800s, by Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila and Municipal President of the Village of Tequila from 1884-1885, according to Wikipedia. Since tequila had been made there since the 16th century, it surprised us that it took so long to get here; we’d have thought it would have arrived in the Southwest with the Spanish.

Here are five fun facts about tequila that we also learned from Wikipedia. Use them to astound your friends over margaritas tonight!

* The most expensive bottle of alcohol ever sold was not a vintage champagne, as we’d have assumed, but a bottle of tequila, which sold for $225,000 in 2006.

* In 2009, Mexican scientists discovered how to make tiny synthetic diamonds from tequila.

* Used Jack Daniels barrels are especially popular for making aged, or anejo, tequila.

* Despite the mythology, tequilas do not contain worms (actually caterpillars, moth larvae that feed on agave) in the bottle to prove that they were really made from agave. Apparently some mezcals from Oaxaca began including these worms in bottles as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s, and that’s how the legend started.

* In Germany, gold tequila is drunk with a dash of cinnamon taken before the shot and orange slices afterwards. White or silver tequila is taken with salt and lime as it is here.   

And by the way, all tequila is made from the blue agave plant, Agave tequilana Weber Blue variety, and exclusively produced in the State of Jalisco, where the village of Tequila is located. The best tequilas are 100% agave, while even the cheapest brands must contain 51% agave.  

Yikes, the sun is over the islands (to quote Jimmy Buffett, whose song “Margaritaville” did more to popularize tequila in the U.S. than anything before or since), so it’s time to share a couple of tequila cocktails.

First is the Tequila Sunrise, an International Bartender Association Official Cocktail (please don’t ask us the significance of that designation, we don’t know either). The version we all know and love originated in the early 1970s, and because the red, orange and gold layers settle out, it apparently reminded its creators of a sunrise. It’s made with tequila, orange juice, and grenadine, and served in a highball glass over ice with an orange slice and maraschino cherry. Bring ‘em on!!!

Next, of course, is the margarita. We make the Hawk’s Haven version with gold tequila, Triple Sec, splashes of Key lime and Key lemon juice, and Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix, served over ice with margarita salt. We like to serve them in huge goblets hand-painted with festive chile peppers that we found at Goodwill, preferably accompanied by white tortilla chips, homemade salsa and pepper Jack cheese. Lime wedges optional but always appreciated.

Silence Dogood is as fond of a good margarita or Tequila Sunrise as anybody, but her favorite tequila drink is the Pink Paloma, made with gold tequila, pink (“ruby red”) grapefruit juice, and Mandarin orange sparkling water. She says it’s not too sweet, not too thick, and perfectly refreshing on a hot, humid day.

What’s your favorite tequila drink?

* Disclaimer: While the salt, sugar, citrus, and water (ice cube or crushed ice) content of a margarita may help protect you from the effects of extremely hot weather, it’s well known that alcohol contributes to heat exhaustion. You’d be better off drinking iced tea.

Using summer’s bounty: Ratatouille. July 23, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. The heat and drought may want to make you laugh at the concept of garden bounty, but at the grocery stores and farmers’ markets, local produce is pouring in in the form of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, onions, and basil with other fresh herbs. Yum! So how do you make the most of this windfall while minimizing premium real estate in the form of refrigerator space? Let’s make ratatouille!

Ratatouille is a sort of vegetable stew, sauce, or salsa that uses all these ingredients in a very savory, delicious way. It’s yummy hot, as a topping for pasta (add a little grated or shredded Parmesan in this case) or an accompaniment for rice. It’s delicious served at room temperature as a sort of tapenade with slices of crusty baguette. And it’s good cold as a salsa with tortilla chips.

The ratatouille I made (while it was still cool enough to cook anything, yow) was perhaps less chunky than a typical version. But I wasn’t looking for chunks, just a yummy topping for rice. Here’s what I did:

3 small or 1 standard eggplant, roughly chopped (I prefer an assortment of long, thin oriental types)

2 small zucchini, sliced, then diced

3 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia, Walla Walla, Candy, or 1015 type), diced

6 cloves of garlic, roasted and minced

1 large bunch fresh basil, chopped 

extra-virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

thyme, oregano, crushed red pepper, and rosemary to taste

Saute the minced roasted garlic, onion, tomatoes, and eggplant in the olive oil with the basil, herbs and spices. Add the zucchini. When everything has completely cooked down, add the balsamic vinegar. Serve and enjoy!

Seeing red about going green. July 22, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was startled to see not one but two articles pointing out the negative aspects of sustainable (so-called “green”) energy in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, this past Wednesday. In the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, the BP oil spill, crippling gas prices at the pump, and the raging debate about groundwater contamination from undermining great swaths of Marcellus shale to extract natural gas, you—or at least our friend Ben—would expect people to be regarding sustainable sources of renewable energy benignly.

Not so. And the reasons it’s not so point up the high and sometimes unforseeable consequences of every form of energy consumption. Because, unfortunately, each form of energy does carry a very real cost and somebody’s ultimately going to pay it.

The first article, “Wind turbines turn against bats,” was sparked by the release of a Pennsylvania Game Commission report that tallied more than 10,000 bat deaths caused by wind turbines last year in Pennsylvania alone. There are now 420 wind turbines (aka modern windmills) in Pennsylvania; according to the Nature Conservancy, there could be 2,900 by 2030, bringing annual bat deaths in the state to 69,000.

If bats bring Dracula, aerial attacks on beehive hairdos, or rabies to mind, you may wonder what the big deal is, even with such a high toll. But bats contribute to our health and prosperity, as organic gardeners have long known (thus the phenomenon of bat houses). Why? To quote the article:

“Bats are nature’s pesticide, consuming as many as 500 insects [each] in one hour, or nearly 3,000 insects in one night… If one turbine kills 25 bats in a year, that means one turbine accounted for about 17 million uneaten bugs in 2010… In all of Pennsylvania, bats saved farmers $277.9 million in estmated avoided costs [of purchased pesticides and insect damage to crops].”

Mosquitoes are one of bats’ favorite foods, so having these “creatures of the night” around and thriving reduces our risk of mosquito-borne diseases, not to mention the sheer itchy aggravation of their bites. And if their appetites reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed on crops, it also reduces the amount of toxins we’re exposed to in our food and environment. Crops cost less to produce, harvests are bigger, and as a result, consumers pay less for their food. Everybody wins.

But now the bats are losing, and so are the songbirds, majestic birds of prey, and even butterflies that regularly crash into the spinning blades. Wind turbines have also long come under attack from nature lovers for aesthetic reasons: wind farms (groups of turbines) are loud, and prime spots for them—open areas with high winds—tend to be on mountains, ocean cliffs, and other scenic spots. The aesthetic issues may never be resolved, but the wind companies are looking into ways to reduce wildlife deaths, from slowing down the blade speed to installing devices on the turbines that would produce high-pitched sounds that would warn the bats away (and would only be detectable to them).

Meanwhile, in another piece in the same paper, “Solar farm math does not add up,” gadfly columnist Paul Carpenter takes on a much-lauded project by local industry giant Air Products, a pioneering 15-acre installation of 11,239 solar panels. (In case you’re wondering, as our friend Ben did upon first moving here, what on earth Air Products sells, it’s industrial gases, including oxygen for hospitals.)

Mr. Carpenter’s basic point is that it cost $9 million to establish the “solar farm” for Air Products, which estimates that the installation will save them $250,000 in energy costs a year. A calculator will show you that the solar farm would thus pay for itself in 36 years, assuming the cost of replacing and maintaining panels doesn’t exceed the rising cost of conventional energy. And assuming that the project is paid off upfront in cash.

Here’s where things get bad. For any company to assume that it would still be in business, in the same location, in 36 years displays impressive optimism. But a correspondent of Mr. Carpenter’s, Bob McInerney, did a little research into the cost of borrowing that $9 million. He found that payment on a 30-year loan for that amount at 4% interest would add up to $515,608.56 a year. It doesn’t take a math genius to observe that a savings of $250,000 a year offset by a cost of $515,608 a year results in a $265,608 net loss per year, or $8 million over the life of the loan. On top of the original $9 million.

Mr. Carpenter’s column ranges over quite a bit more ground, including his own objections to wind turbines. (You can read it and the bat article at www.themorningcall.com.) He notes that Mr. McInerney recommends geothermal energy, having installed a ground-source heat pump at his home which provides both heating and cooling for a net cost of $14,000. (For purposes of comparison, just last night, friends were telling our friend Ben that it costs about $6,000 to put in a central air-conditioning system, not, of course, including the subsequent electric bills for using the system or, presumably, including a heating system and its operating costs.)

Clearly, nothing we do is going to be perfect. We can research cheaper, simpler-to-operate, more efficient solar energy systems. We can work on ways to minimize damage from wind energy. We can put our best minds worldwide to creating and perfecting other effective and affordable renewable energy systems. As individuals, we can do everything in our power to reduce our own energy use: reduce, reuse, recycle.

But ultimately, it seems to me that there is really only one way to stop the energy-consumption madness, and that’s to reduce our population. The more of us there are, the more energy we will inevitably use. The goal of every nation and every person on earth should first be zero population growth, and then, quickly, population decline.

Many cultures already raise children in large, communal families, where every child is cherished by an extended group of adults. By expanding these circles to include adults who have chosen the good of all life over their own “need” to procreate, by facilitating adoptions rather than making them nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive, by encouraging new kinds of families, be they groups of friends sharing a dwelling or multigenerational groups, from “adopted” grandparents and great-grandparents down to newborns, we could provide the social context humans need to thrive without the destructive consequences of mindless self-perpetuation at a cost it’s clear that we and our world can no longer bear.

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