Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.

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Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind

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From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing

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All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.

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Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/P75i6RIaVTHwCzbt1 if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!

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On Manipulation: a skeptical stance is appropriate in a world formed by evolution

April 13, 2013

If I am climbing a remote snow-filled couloir deep in the mountains, and a rock breaks loose from the cliff above me, it is reasonable for me to believe that the flying piece of stone is indifferent to my presence as it bounces down the slope – it might brain me by pure chance, but it gains nothing by doing so.  I can look at the distribution of similar rocks arrayed on the gentler slope below and verify this randomness.  But the case is potentially very different for the teeming horde of microorganisms, invertebrates, and buzzards that would take great pleasure in eating my remains.  And if I drink straight from the stream below and ingest Giardia lamblia organisms, it is probably not a coincidence that the resulting frequent bathroom breaks will increase the probability that I make a deposit near open water.

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There is a fungus in South America that reproduces by infecting an ant and commandeering it’s nervous system, causing it to perform odd behaviors that are not in the normal ant repertoire, but happen to be especially conducive to the propagation of fungal spores.  This sort of relationship has been discovered all over the place – I remember reading about another critter (maybe a fluke) that causes a different species of ant to depart from its customary routine and hang out on the tips of blades of grass, where the ant is likely to be eaten by the sheep whose gut is needed to complete the life cycle of the fluke. These phenomena illustrate the incredible power of evolution – that the chance appearance by mutation of an incidental cause in one species with a marginal effect on another species can be amplified and honed over thousands of generations into the appearance of an ingenious stunt. 

In the time since Darwin laid the keel of biology, we have come to understand that the living world is full of replicators that have survived from ancient times to the present by possessing heritable traits that made them slightly better than anyone else around at levering themselves into the next generation.   There are a lot of strategies for doing the levering, and one particularly effective one is manipulation – why do the hard work of slithering up a blade of grass, when it might be easier to grab the controls of the body of an ant and make it do the work for you?  And this is at least as true of our fellow humans as it is of viruses, fungi, and ants.  One theory of why humans are so darn smart is that we evolved high levels of intelligence not to outsmart other species, but to out-manipulate one another – a sort of evolutionary arms race in the direction of cleverness.

An understanding of the evolutionary benefits of manipulation should lead us to a healthy skepticism, especially about the motives of unfamiliar agents.  I was thinking about this after a recent discussion of belief, skepticism, and the scientific method, and I realized that the relationship between skepticism and evolution is stronger than I had previously understood.  Skepticism is associated with evolution because the discovery of evolution by natural selection is one of the great achievements of the scientific project, and evolution is a major flashpoint in the ongoing turf battle between reason and received tradition.  But more fundamentally, a worldview informed by skepticism is a logical conclusion that flows from an understanding of humans as an evolved species.

As much as the nature-documentary view of evolution involves carnivores running down and chomping herbivores, a lot of the evolutionary action has got to be intra-species, and in social animals there’s a tension between manipulation, aggression, and dominance on one side and cooperation for mutual benefit on the other.  If manipulation were the whole story, we never would have managed to work together enough to build this amazing computer I’m typing on. Theory shows how  pro-social behavior can emerge under suitable conditions, and how it can out-compete ruthlessness.  Altruism towards family members is easy to understand, but under the right conditions it can extend further – particularly where living arrangements allow for repeated interaction, and the critters in question (e.g. us) have sufficient intelligence and memory to sort out and recognize the reliable characters from the shifty ones. But these conditions are fragile and limited in scope, and powerful motivations for betrayal are never far beneath the surface.   Accordingly, manipulation, loyalty, and betrayal are constant preoccupations among people everywhere, and a perennial staple of fiction.

The principles of evolution offer some guidance about when to suspect manipulation most – especially single-shot interactions (for instance buying a used car far from home) and anonymous settings (e.g. emails from ‘friends’ in Nigeria).  But far beyond outright fraud, on average a random person who is trying to make you believe something is far more likely to be doing it for their benefit than for yours. The most obvious example is advertising: the product might be good and it might be shoddy, but the person producing the ad copy probably may not even know – their bonus (and their continued employment) hangs on their ability to get you to open your wallet.

Understanding the incentives that are motivating the people (and other organisms) we interact with is a powerful tool.  If your doctor receives 30% of his income in the form of clandestine ‘gifts’ from drug manufacturers, it is reasonable to expect that this will have an impact on his prescribing behavior – whether he admits it to himself or not, you are unlikely to be the beneficiary of that influence.  But a flight to ‘alternative’ or ‘holistic’ practice is no refuge – indeed the skeptical worldview is frequently under attack by people who would love to convince potential customers that the scientific establishment are fascist storm troopers, so they can sell more herbs or crystals or whatever type of dubious product they have on offer.

Others are skeptical of skepticism for reasons of iconoclasm – ‘it comports with my self-image as an edgy person to claim that all ways of knowing are equally valid’ – or simply aesthetics and wish-fulfillment: ‘true or not, I am happier believing that powerful forces want me to be beautiful and successful.’ (There may even be a strange evolutionary logic to illogic – if I truly believe that warpaint protects me from arrows, I will surely act with more courage, and in a world of less deadly weapons, the added benefit of banishing fear could conceivably more than compensate for the cost of miscalculations about the effects of pigment on projectiles.) Still others condemn the skeptical stance as heartless and austere; that – even if  true – it is too thin and hard a pillow for the average mortal to rest their head on at night, and that ordinary people would be better off believing in comforting fictions.  But this is condescending. People can handle unvarnished reality, and they make better decisions when they understand it.

Evolutionary insight brings the realization that the world is jam-packed with finely-tuned organisms that in no way have your best interests in mind – ranging all the way from viruses to used car salesmen.  This understanding is very different (and potentially a lot less attractive) than conceptions of a stern but loving God – or a fluffy New Age optimism that the universe cares about you and everything happens for a reason – but it has the virtue of being true.The skeptical view is consistent with our best understanding of how the universe works, and it is of a piece with hard-won, durable, practical knowledge of how matter, energy, and living organisms interact. This same body of knowledge amplified our power (and our environmental impact, alas) a hundredfold by harnessing thermodynamics, cured deadly diseases through detailed knowledge and intricate manipulations of  invisible biological machinery, built us microscopes and telescopes that allow us to visualize the stuff of the universe across 20 orders of magnitude, and landed a few lucky dudes temporarily on the moon. And it says that the universe doesn’t care about you, no matter how much you wish it did, and furthermore that many of its living pieces would much rather use you for their own purposes than do you a favor.

Borrelia burgdorferi!

August 18, 2011

Aka Lyme Disease – that’s what was plaguing me this weekend. Alexis suspected as much, with her keen diagnostic sense, but I figured it was just some virus, until this popped up on my side:

So it’s not a virus at all, it’s a tick-transmitted spirochete. That rash is ‘erythema migrans’, and it sealed the diagnosis (it looks even more like a bull’s eye now, since it’s clearing out between the edge and the center), so now I’ve got some doxycycline (100mg, 2x per day, 14 days) and I’m feeling fine except for the big red itchy thing on my side. I was actually already feeling a lot better before the rash even showed up, and apparently that’s the insidious thing about Lyme – if you don’t get the initial symptoms that bad, tough it out, and don’t get or don’t notice the rash, it can go undercover, mess with your joints, and even get across the blood-brain barrier. So, if you have weird virus-like symptoms – for me it was mild headache, dizziness, and fever to start with, then severe sweats and chills, then on about day 3 when I seemed to be coming out of it otherwise, headache much more severe than the usual virus – also weird was no runny nose or cough or any type of respiratory symptoms. But, apparently the presentation can vary widely – beware, and get it treated!