How to Make Stuff Feed

Daily Log: What the Great British Baking Show Can Teach Us About Western Culture

Gingerbread house CU

I love the Great British Baking Show (The Great British Bake Off, in the UK) for many reasons. Here is one: It is an embodiment of some of what is best about Western culture.

Each season's group of contestants starts out with a very visible mix of ethnicities, and I'm sure this is deliberate. I'm also sure that there are many who dismiss this as "politically correct posturing." But that's a mistake.

You might notice something else about the people chosen to be contestants: While they are all very unique individuals, with different backgrounds, different ages, different styles, probably different political and religious affiliations, they share one thing in common: They all display a strong sense of sportsmanship, even coming to each others' aid (the aid of their competitors) when it is needed.

That's not something you'd necessarily see on most American reality/competition shows. But it is a trait that is common to Western cultures–even American culture to some extent, despite what media that celebrates what is most base about us would have us believe. There are cultures in the world in which this is not the case. There are cultures–and I've spent time in some–that view sportsmanship, and helping one's fellow man, not as virtues, but as signs of stupidity.

I can't help noticing that those who are most up in arms about the global assault on Western culture–and yes, there is one–often tend to be very vague about just what it is that's being assaulted, just what, precisely, this "Western culture" is that they are so intent on defending. When pressed, they will come up with things like: Private property rights, a system of due process, the rights of the individual, etc. And of course I agree with all of these, and I believe that their preservation is critical to maintaining civilization.

But at its core, and I would argue intimately tied to these things, is something else. It is what underlies the whole individual rights thing, and while it is too much of a stretch to say that it doesn't exist at all in any non-Western cultures, it is certainly true that there are cultures in which it has not taken root. And that is the idea that each individual is valuable in his or her own right; that every human being is sacred–not because of their utility, or because they belong to a certain family or group, but just because they are. At its heart, Western culture has a universalist view of humanity. At its core, it is at odds with tribalism.

And this is what the Great British Baking Show demonstrates so beautifully. All of the participants are British, and not only because they live in Britain and have the proper paperwork to show. They are British in their attitude and in their values. None of which have anything to do with skin color or birthplace or ancestry. The GBBS is a living embodiment of the fact that Western culture is a set of ideas and values and that anyone can adopt them and put them into action. They are not fundamentally tied to any particular piece of earth, set of genetic material, or even baking ingredients.

There is absolutely a culture war raging in the world right now. But it is a war of ideas and values, not of nationalities and tribes. And it is certainly not a war that is won by building walls or slamming doors on those who would partake of those ideas and values.






The Rules of Christmas


PD-Christmas tree'


There has been some confusion this year - in my own family that is - as to the proper way to celebrate Christmas. Fortunately, this is not the first time these questions have come up and so thanks to the visionary foresight of my husband, we have: The Rules of Christmas. I present them here for your edification and clarification and the avoidance of any unpleasantness on this Christmas Eve and morn.


The Rules of Christmas

December 24, 2005


The Rules shall be read aloud prior to the commencement of Christmas Eve festivities.

Christmas Eve

The gift opening ceremony on Christmas Eve shall commence at a reasonable time following the 7 p.m. Christmas Eve dinner.

Only one (1) gift per recipient shall be opened on Christmas Eve.

“Gift” shall for purposes of the Rules be defined as a single wrapped and/or boxed/bagged item with a gift tag identifying both giver and recipient by name/nickname or initials. “Gift” shall not include Stockings and/or other similarly “coordinated” gift bags, whether under or alongside the Tree.

The search for and retrieval of the One Gift shall be conducted by the recipient, unless said recipient shall nominate a proxy to conduct such search and retrieval in their stead.

Only one (1) recipient/proxy shall search under the Tree at any given time.

The order of recipients shall be decided by Those Gathered Around, with disputes resolved by a random draw of names placed in a hat.

There shall be no milling about, hovering or murmurs of impatience during the search/retrieval and opening of the gifts. Under no circumstances shall there be booing. Christmas revelers do not boo.

Those Gathered Around are also encouraged to switch all cell phones, pagers, and other electronic communication devices to the off position during this time, although the vibrate position is acceptable. Recipients are also encouraged to place telephone calls to gift-givers who are not present among Those Gathered Around for the purpose of timely expressions of gratitude. However, such calls shall be brief, and should not move onto other subjects or in any way unreasonably delay the proceedings.

In the event that either the search & retrieval phase or the gift-unwrapping phase drags on interminably, any of Those Gathered Around may call for the clock. At this point the recipient shall have thirty (30) seconds to complete their gift search/unraveling. When ten (10) seconds remain on the clock, a warning shall be sounded.

If the recipient is not done with their aforementioned unnecessarily prolonged phase before the clock ticks down, Those Gathered Around shall nominate a proxy to speed things along. The election of the proxy shall be resolved by acclamation.

In the unlikely event that the recipient or their proxy is unable to turn up any recipient-addressed gift under the Tree within a reasonable time, then that is too bad.

In the event that no amount of pulling, clawing, or ripping is effective in unwrapping a gift then The Scissors may be used and, in extreme circumstances, gift openers may call for The Knife, providing only that the gift opener be in all cases of age for the handling of such implements. Under no circumstances shall explosive devices be deployed to this task.

There shall be no complaining about the appropriateness or suitability of gifts, once opened, although it is permissible for gratitude to be muted.

The arrival of the Christmas Mouse shall be heralded by a knock at the front door, at which time all celebrants who have not yet reached the age of majority shall go to the door and retrieve their gift(s). Said gift(s) shall not constitute or in any way count against the One Gift, and shall be in addition to the One Gift.


Christmas Day

The gift opening ceremony on Christmas Day shall commence at a time to be decided by the first celebrant to arise and shine on Christmas Day, providing only that it shall be no earlier than 8 a.m. and no later than 10 a.m. Once the commencement time has been thus-appointed the declaration thereof shall be prominently displayed on The Fridge. Since it is each celebrant’s responsibility to be aware of any and all official notices posted on The Fridge, there shall be no late arrivals to the Ceremony.

The Ceremony on Christmas Day shall proceed in the same manner as the gift opening ceremony on Christmas Eve, with the following necessary amendments:

Two (2) duly appointed Christmas Elves shall search for, retrieve, and distribute One (1) gift to each celebrant per round. For the purposes of the Rules, a Round shall be defined as each recipient, in order determined in like manner to the Christmas Eve Ceremony, opening one gift and then retreating to their spot to await the same accomplishment by all other recipients present among Those Gathered Around.

When all recipients have opened One (1) gift in this way, the Christmas Elves shall proceed to search for, retrieve, and distribute a second gift (if such exists) in the same order proscribed earlier in the Ceremony.

The recipients shall continue in this way until all gifts under/alongside the Tree have been claimed and unwrapped.

**There shall be no abuse of the Rules, and all disputes regarding proper interpretation of the Rules shall be resolved within the purview of the Spirit of Christmas, providing only that observance of the Rules shall be considered central to said Spirit.



Anni's Stress-Busting Yoga (Sketch)


Stress-Busting Yoga p01


Several months ago, a little girl I know had an anxiety attack that sent her to the hospital. I told her mom that I would write up a simple yoga routine that could help to reduce her anxiety if she practiced it regularly. I mentioned it on one of my special-needs parents group and a few parents expressed interest in seeing it too. So... here it is, with the caveat  that this is just the sketch. I may, at some point in the future, clean this up, do some better drawings, add more detailed instructions, links to studies showing how yoga (and specific poses) can help to reduce anxiety, etc. But for now, here's a sketch that you can use to start your own practice.

I've included the standard disclaimer: I offer no guarantee that any of this WILL help you with your anxiety or anything else, nor do I guarantee that it won't hurt you. Yoga is very very very dangerous and scary! Do it at your own risk!

As for my credentials: I've been practicing yoga since 2002, taught yoga for a couple of years in New York City, still practice and learn new things, but do not claim to be any kind of expert. 

Please feel free to distribute this to others who may be interested, giving credit (written by Bretigne Shaffer). Also, any feedback is more than welcome. If you see anything that is confusing, unclear, or omitted, etc. please let me know!

You can download the full document here: Download Anni's Stress-Busting Yoga full sketch


UPDATE: The number written at the bottom of p. 11 (number of times to repeat Sun Salutation) is a 3, not 8.




My Big Accomplishment Last Week


I know this doesn't look like much, but it took me several days (complete with their usual interruptions - see Harrison Bergeron for details) to accomplish. I'll post the "after" pictures first:



Shelf 1

Low shelves

Shelf 2


So here's what it looked like before:


Long shelf

Low shelves


Of course there's other stuff you can't see in the photos, but these pretty much show the difference between my daughter's organized but overly full space and her new, uncluttered one. It may not seem like much of a difference but the effect is actually huge. The whole room feels different to me now and I'm sure it does to her too. There is a chance now that she will be able to see and understand where things go, but more importantly she is not going to be overwhelmed by the visual stimulus in her environment.




This App Will Change My Life




And no, as others who are writing about Evernote also assure their readers, I am not being paid to say this. I also haven't even started using it yet, really (except to take the pictures I'll post in a minute) and don't really know what all it does, but I am already slobbering all over it like a puppy with a peanut-butter-filled Kong. Here's why:

The picture above is the shelf where I keep my Moleskine notebooks that need to be "emptied." They have stuff in them that needs to come out: Notes for articles, notes for stories or books, important "to-dos" usually involving therapy or care for my daughter, and notes for other projects. If these are urgent I usually get them out quickly. But not always. And there's a lot of important stuff in there that's NOT urgent. And stuff that's not "important" but would be nice to get out and into the world - like the complete sketch of an article rebutting the insanity that is "The Tiger Mom" and her approach to parenting.

So there's that. But there's also this:




This is where I keep all of my Moleskine - I don't even know what they're called - the thin, paper-bound notebooks that I use for project notes. I have a couple for the special-needs project I'm developing, one for a steampunk children's book series, several for Urban Yogini. I shouldn't even say "all" because I've got three or four more of these scattered around the house at various locations. They each have their own purpose and I only write in each one what goes in each one. 

So here's what's insanely cool. It's what I've been waiting for... forever. Evernote has teamed up with Moleskine to create "camera-ready" Moleskine notebooks to use with Evernote. What that means is that you can scribble your unintelligible notes and drawings in your notebook, take pictures of the pages using the Evernote camera, and then file the pages IN THEIR CATEGORIES (you can tag each page with a magical little tag that can be assigned to whatever project or category you want), and can later search for them by... wait for it... wait for it... SEARCHING FOR THE WORDS YOU HAVE SCRIBBLED UNINTELLIGIBLY IN YOUR NOTEBOOK!!!


I am practically doing backflips over this. Younger people may not appreciate this fully, but I grew up writing on paper with pens and pencils. Personal computers didn't exist back then. In college I used a typewriter (there were PCs by then, but I couldn't afford one.) I think because of this, there are just some things that I cannot write well with a keyboard. There are some things for which I need to put pen or pencil down on paper. And so I've got gazillions and gazillions of sheets of paper, somewhat organized but not in a readily searchable way, with all my stuff in it. A few months ago, I was painstakingly typing in the notes for a short novel from the notebook where I keep the notes for it. It would have taken several more solid days of typing to input it all.

But now I can just slap on some stickers, take some pictures and file it all away. I am deleriously happy about this. 

Here's the rub: The "camera-ready" Moleskine notebooks are ridiculously expensive. Not so expensive that I won't buy some if I have to, but pretty expensive. So here's how you can be sure that I'm not in the pay of Evernote or Moleskine: I'm going to try a little experiment. I'm going to try taking pictures of some of the pages I already have (might as well - they're the ones I need to input right now anyway) and see if I can get them to work in the Evernote system. I'm not sure what I'll do about the magical stickers. Probably just order some of those separately if I can.

I will report back here with the results of my experiment. Specifically: Will evernote's handwriting recognition work with pages that are not the "camera-ready" kind? And will I be able to search among my uploaded scribblings without using the "camera-ready" pages?  Stay tuned...


UPDATE: Someone has hacked the Evernote Moleskine notebook... sort of:

Evernote user Mark Evans made his own dotted paper (PDF), and his own Smart Stickers. The stickers need the special paper to be recognized, but he says his own version works just fine.

I downloaded the PDF, turned it into a JPG and imported it as a custom paper into the Noteshelf handwriting app. I wrote a few words, added some thumbs of the stickers and exported the page to Evernote (Noteshelf is well integrated with Evernote).

It didn’t work. I suspect that you need to actually scan a piece of paper for the Smart Stickers to be recognized, and as there is no way to add a photo from the Camera Roll when scanning, there appears to be no way around it.

His hack wouldn't really help me anyway because what I need is not cheaper smart paper, but a way to import my existing reams of notes into Evernote in a searchable way.  This might be more helpful.




Doing Our Bit for the Monarch Butterflies




A little over a year ago - in December of 2012 - I found these little guys out in our back yard. They are monarch caterpillars and they were crawling around on what I later learned were milkweed plants - the only thing monarchs eat. I thought we'd watch them make their cocoons and later emerge as butterflies, but then I noticed that the next time I looked, there weren't so many of them. Somebody was snatching them up. So I grabbed all that I could find and stuck them inside my son's butterfly house. Sure enough, they made their cocoons and eventually emerged as beautiful butterflies which we released into our back yard. The challenge though was finding enough milkweed leaves for the caterpillars to eat. They quickly finished what we had in our backyard and I ran around to garden stores looking for more, finally ordering some online. I now have five well-established milkweed plants in our yard but as of mid-February 2014, I haven't seen any signs of caterpillars.

Apparently, monarch populations are in trouble. According to the New York Times:

Faltering under extreme weather and vanishing habitats, the yearly winter migration of monarch butterflies to a handful of forested Mexican mountains dwindled precipitously in December, continuing what scientists said was an increasingly alarming decline.

The migrating population has become so small — perhaps 35 million, experts guess — that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.


Mexico is the southern terminus of an age-old journey in which monarchs shuttle back and forth between far-flung summertime havens in Canada and the United States and a single winter home in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains.


The latest drop is best explained by a two-year stretch of bad weather, said Chip Taylor, a biologist at the University of Kansas who has studied the butterflies for decades. But while good weather may help the monarchs rebuild their numbers, their long-term problem — the steady shrinking of habitat along their migratory route — poses a far greater danger.


Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed, and patches of the plant have rapidly disappeared from the Great Plains over the last decade. As corn prices have risen — spurred in part by a government mandate to add ethanol to gasoline — farmers have planted tens of millions of acres of idle land along the monarchs’ path that once provided both milkweed and nectar.

At the same time, growers have switched en masse to crops that are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides. The increased use of herbicides has all but wiped out milkweed that once sprouted between rows of corn and soybean.

As a result, Dr. Taylor said, the monarchs must travel farther and use more energy to find places to lay their eggs. With their body fat depleted, the butterflies lay fewer eggs, or die before they have a chance to reproduce.


So... score another victory for the fiasco that is government-sponsored ethanol. But what about my caterpillars? Am I not seeing them this year because they have fallen victim to depleted habitats? I can't be sure. But rather than wait around to see if they show up, I'm going to take action. I've just ordered one of these, which will hold substantially more butterflies than our existing little butterfly garden. And I'm going to order some more milkweed plants too.

I've also learned that I can order monarch eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises! There are a few farms around the country that do this. For states on the eastern side of the continental divide (because apparently the two strains of butterfly do not mix), there is Shady Oak Farm, a butterfly farm in Florida that is "...dedicated to helping others experience the joy of raising and caring for butterflies." Shady oak sells butterflies at all life-cycle stages, including big accordion boxes of mature butterflies for release (a great, if somewhat expensive, idea for a party, wedding or fun event.) Shady Oak also sells milkweed plants, and butterfly kits.

On the western side of the country, there is Swallowtail Farms, in El Dorado Hills, California, and Chasen Butterflies in Mission Viejo, California. Swallowtail's website has a great FAQ that addresses many of the concerns about releasing captive-bred butterflies into wild populations. They have also helped to build the largest monarch butterfly farm on the west coast, and developed the first commercially used disease treatment for monarch butterflies. All of the butterflies they ship are certified disease-free. Unfortunately, Swallwtail does not sell monarch caterpillars or chrysalises. Chasen does sell monarch chrysalises, but are currently out of stock. So... my search continues.  I'll update here as I learn more.


UPDATE: One site to check is this one, listing local butterfly breeders around the world. You can search by country and by state (in the US). It looks like this might be the best place to find a butterfly farm that can ship to wherever you are. 

ANOTHER UPDATE: The Latin name for Milkweed  is "Asclepias."  The name comes from the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing, Asclepius (also Aesclepius or Aesculapius.)  He is one of my favorite characters from Greek mythology, because he was punished (killed actually) by Zeus because he was so successful as a healer that Hades became worried that he would receive no more dead and asked his brother Zeus to take care of him.  I think his story has many a parallel in the world of medicine today. It is from Asclepius that we get the serpent-entwined staff symbol of medicine, the caduceus.




Secrets of a Top Wall Street Recruiter


Jeanne 2013


A short and snappy piece from one of my best friends, Jeanne Omlor:


"...when I was working as a recruiter, I was surrounded by other recruiters who were often struggling. They would come in to work, slog away, and for the amount of work they were putting in, there were not a whole lot of results. Some recruiters hardly ever placed anyone.

And I wondered why I was successful and they weren’t. Why were they floundering to get the right people in the door? Why did what I was doing, work? What was I doing differently?

I thought a lot about it and analyzed the secrets to my success.


What she has to say about her success as a recruiter can be applied to pretty much any endeavor that involves interacting with other human beings, and #2 I think is critical.





Business Tips Just for Me


Good 4


This is absolutely brilliant, from Stephanie St. Claire. And could have been written just for me.

My favorite, #6 (of course):


Read Steven Pressfield’s Do the WorkThe biggest challenge you will deal with in running a business is your own resistance. Period, end of story. Before you study anything about marketing, social media, money, or time management, read this book. You’ll be treated to gems like this:

Our enemy is not lack of preparation; it’s not the difficulty of the project, or the state of the marketplace, or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why he can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do.

A professional distances herself from her instrument. The pro stands at one remove from her instrument — meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively.

Does Madonna walk around the house in cone bras and come-f*k-me bustiers? She’s too busy planning D-Day. Madonna does not identify with “Madonna.” Madonna employs “Madonna.”




Clearly I Have a Lot to Learn About Soil Amendment



This was my garden last year:


Good garden


...and here it is this year:


Crappy tomatoes


OK, that was after I pulled out all the carrots, etc. But still. Pretty crappy. Last year we had tons and tons of fabulous tomatoes all summer long. This year, hardly any. I thought I did all the right things, but I guess not. So lots of learning about soil amendment for me. Beginning with our winter garden, the bulk of which I got in the ground yesterday and today:


Winter garden 2



Wow! A Party Planning Site Just for Me!


Check it out!



I just discovered the blog Inn at the Crossroads - by the two women who wrote A Feast of Ice and Fire - the official Game of Thrones Cookbook.  Not only is it a food blog, but there's a whole section on planning your very own medieval themed party!  Which is what we're planning for around Christmas.  (As long as we don't come to our senses and realize we can't possibly have time for this.) Hooray!



Nutella Swirl Banana Muffins


This is another recipe from the Living Healthy With Chocolate site - a site I am now becoming frightened to visit. They are gluten free and paleo.

You start out by making your own homemade Nutella - a delicacy whose name translates roughly as "food of the gods." Here's mine:




...and here's what the finished muffins looked like. They were pretty yummy - I give them a B- - but not one of my favorites:





Terrible Picture, Delicious Paleo Breakfast


Delicious paleo breakfast


This is an awful picture. When I make this again I'll post a better one. But I wanted to get the recipe up here before I forget it:

Saute an onion until browned, then add some mushrooms and cook until they're soft. Add chopped garlic and chipotle powder (quantities to taste).

Set the above aside, and cook three eggs in a pan. When they're about halfway done, add the mixture and some jarlsberg cheese (quantity to taste). Cook until the eggs are done and the cheese is melted.

Add a bunch (I hate the word "dollop", so I'm not going to say "dollop". Use this word at your own discretion) of full-fat plain yogurt with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

This is amazing.