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I have found a source of caffeine that I can actually drink and I am suuuuperhappyaboutthat!

Ahem.

I gave up coffee voluntarily in grad school (because school was stressful enough and also when you need a giant pot to get through the day that’s your body telling you something) and then had to give up tea a few years later for digestive reasons. So I’ve been living a mostly caffeine free life for too long.

Recently, through a confluence of conversational touch points, I found myself telling my mother about yaupon, the only (known) caffeinated plant native to North America. 

LuteusCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

Yaupon (pronounced yō-pon) is a branch of the holly family. The scientific name is terrible (Ilex vomitoria, um, no thanks?) but the plant and tea have nothing to do with regurgitation (ok, that’s fine then!). 

Native to the southeastern US, it was used by natives for thousands of years, and traded across North America and the Atlantic.

Yaupon: The rebirth of America’s forgotten tea – BBC Travel

When picked, roasted and boiled, the leaves yield a yellow to dark-orange elixir with a fruity and earthy aroma and a smooth flavour with malty tones. As if orchestrated specifically for the mind and body, yaupon leaves’ perfect ratio of stimulating xanthines such as caffeine, theobromine and theophylline release slowly into the body, providing a jitter-free mental clarity and an ease to the stomach.

* * *

Why am I going on about this tea? Because it’s native, sustainable, and it deserves to be thought of as more than a “pesky weed.” It’s tannin free, so unlike traditional tea from Camellia sinensis, you can steep it multiple times without that unfun bitter, astringent aftertaste.

Also, because I happen to have a bag from one of the more prominent yaupon companies, CatSpring in Texas, and I’m drinking a delicious cup with maple syrup right now. 

This caffeine stuff works, y’all;)

* * *

Speaking of, let’s just take a brief moment to appreciate the role of caffeine, “the most widely used psychoactive drug on Earth,” in human history.

Beer built the pyramids, but caffeine powered the Enlightenment. 

Whatever your beverage of choice, may your eyes remain bright and your synapses active!

* * *

Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

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So long as you go about it ethically, I don’t see any shame in shortcuts. On a general note, most of what has given us as a species an edge could reasonably be categorized as such. And personally, I am particularly in favor of techniques, tools and strategies that help me fill in gaps of time or talent.

I’ve mentioned drawing, and how I can’t. Oh sure, I used to be able to draw an almost perfect circle freehand and once drew the world’s most beautiful eye while I was supposed to be studying verb conjugations in high school French class, but that’s about the extent of my talents in that department.

That doesn’t stop me from wanting to do more. If only my fellow monkeys had developed some tools that could help me make up for such deficiencies!

Cue computer drawing programs, yes, but then what? There’s still the difference between what I see in my mind and what comes out on the page or screen.

I came across this tool the other day: the Da Vinci Sketch Addon for Photoshop. 

* * *

Ooh, I said to the cat (who paid as much attention as usual, which is to say none), that is exactly the sort of art I like, part beauty, part craft, part epistolary exploration. Too bad I had to move away from Photoshop. Now what?

First, despair! Cue gnashing of teeth and rending of garments (just kidding, that’s wasteful and I really hate to shop).

Then it was time to get to work.

I decided to see if I could replicate some version of this technique in Affinity Photo. After forum diving, video watching, and a visit to The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, I produced this:

The Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch, sculpted c. 150BC. Original photo by tabitha turner on Unsplash, text and doodles by Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t read Italian, much less Renaissance mirror writing, but I would love it if this was Leo’s to do or shopping list. “Note: buy looser robes with draping like this, because I like a healthy breeze around my private parts.”

* * *

Not bad, aside from the fact that it took forever and could use some real hatching and more dramatic outlines and the shading crashed the program about a dozen times. Still, it was progress I felt ok about.

Working through that puzzle also gave me time to think, and in that time I realized a couple of important things:

  • my computer is not the only computer in this house, and while the desktop upstairs has had the tech equivalent of a stroke and can’t be trusted with anything not backed up, I did manage to rebuild it into a functional system and it is now running a deprecated OS,
  • six bucks is not a lot of money, and
  • don’t I still have the disks for CS5, which includes Photoshop, kicking around somewhere?

True, true, and yes, yes I do.

Cue exciting graphic adventures!

* * *

I may have also sprung for a couple more tools from the same developer. Still affordable, and still worth it. This is what the Da Vinci Photoshop action produced, plus several other versions:

Da Vinci action
vintage sketch action
architecture sketch action

* * *

Have I been having fun? Yes, and here’s my absolute favorite so far:

When Leo met 3PO. Original Image by Gerhard Janson from Pixabay 

Shortcuts can be terrific so long as they don’t impede learning. In this case, I got the mental workout of deconstructing and rebuilding an effect, plus the practicality of pre-built actions.

Also C-3PO:)

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In my roles as a writer and as a person, I read a lot. Some books I purchase, but many I access through my local library. How great is that?*

So I just spent a non-zero amount of time writing a little AppleScript to automagically run a search in any of the four area library systems that share e-book resources. 

Was it necessary? No. I could click through my library portal and into each separate library system for every book I want to check, one stodgy button at a time. Ho hum.

Does this script save time and my wrists and open up new worlds of possibilities?

Yes.

Was it fun to make?

Also yes:)

* * *

I know, it’s a store, not a library. But she’s having so much fun! Photo by Ying Ge on Unsplash

* I love books, and I’m lucky enough to live in a society that supports public libraries. In fact, I made a modest donation to my local library the other day, and hope it helps bring just a little more literacy and knowledge and enjoyment to my city.

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The Joe Pye Weed is in full bloom and buzzing with big bees, small bees and not-bees, and look who stopped by!

I only wish we had the space and sun for a dozen more of these plants, plus scads of milkweed for this monarch and all of its friends. Until then, I’ll do what I can with what I have.

Cliché? Yes, but still a pretty good motto!

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The Verdict Is In

Lemon cinnamon cardamom ice cream is amazing.

* * *

Photos by Cristina Anne Costello
Tetiana Bykovets & Jaspreet Kalsi on Unsplash

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Today is sourdough Friday, tonight is pizza night, and at some point this weekend I’ll make and freeze chocolate chip cookie dough.

I’m also prepping lemon cinnamon cardamom ice cream. I wanted to try a custard-free version, so yesterday I started with this Bittman recipe:

Homemade Ice Cream, Many Ways

Notes:

— I had a little over a cup of cream so the rest was milk. 

— For flavor, I used a touch of vanilla, about a dozen green cardamom pods, with a stick of cinnamon and some ground when the stick wasn’t steeping fast enough.

— I started with a handful of the most beautiful lemon balm from the garden, but the flavor wasn’t strong enough for this so I strained it out and opted for lemon curd, which I’ll add to the base mix as it whips and freezes.

* * *

Today is lemon curd day. 

Here’s my recipe. I don’t remember where I found it, but it’s been very reliable for me, plus no tedious double-boiler. And the pre-mixing means that I’ve never had to strain it to remove clumps. 

Lemon Curd

— makes ~500g / 2C

Ingredients:

  • 85g / 6T butter, softened
  • 200g / 1C sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 163g / 2/3C lemon juice
  • 1t. lemon zest (optional, I find it’s too chewy/waxy and skip it)

Instructions:

  • beat the butter and sugar together
  • add eggs and yolks, mix
  • add juice, mix
  • cook over low to medium heat, stirring frequently until smooth and thick, coating the back of a spoon without dripping (~10-15 minutes or 170*F). Do not boil.

Notes: I toasted the sugar briefly in the pan and then accidentally melted the butter, but it worked out fine. I also ran out of regular lemon juice and had to use Meyer lemons, but adding a little citric acid boosted the flavor to “Tang Factor: Ideal.” Which is not a thing. But should be.

* * *

Tomorrow, we’re testing out a borrowed KitchenAid ice cream attachment. The owners of said attachment made some delicious vanilla ice cream with it, so any failures will be on us. 

I’m ok with that.

* * *

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I love good writing. And humor. And science fiction. And epistolary fiction, because telling stories through letters is fun. Imagine how happy I was when I found this short story* combining all of the above:

There Will Be No Alien Invasion

by Sam F. Weiss, in Fireside

To be clear: I am busy. For at least the next two years. Because getting to do research in the super-techy lab requires a doctorate these days, an obscene pile of peer-reviewed publications, and the networking abilities of a ninja. I am busy with those things. Namely finishing the doctorate. Thwarting an alien invasion? Not on my to-do list.

So that thing where I came to the lab this morning to find your phosphorescent eggs floating in alien amniotic fluid in the vacuum chamber? Not cool.

— Sam F. Weiss

* For the young or those with delicate sensibilities, this piece contains swearing. Like, a lot. To be fair, I’d say it’s warranted. Grad school, you know. And oh yes, also aliens.

* * *

Random selection of other epistolary novels that I’ve read:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Color Purple
Griffin and Sabine (Griffin & Sabine #1)
Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (Cecelia and Kate, #1)
Code Name Verity

* * *

And a picture of a not-at-all-an-alien-probably cat:)

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Transcript available on YouTube, or here: “Failures of Kindness”

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness

* * *

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

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Note: This post is long but both Ray Bradbury and Jane Austen make an appearance, so there’s that.

* * *

We keep a little pad of paper stuck to the side of the fridge to use as a grocery list. Every couple of weeks I get tired of crossing things out and trying to remember what we actually bought and what I only think we bought, and I start fresh. Yesterday I pulled the latest iteration of the list off the pad and turned to toss it in the recycling bin, when the back of the sheet caught my attention. It was blank.

Not a big surprise there, think of all the Post-its you’ve used one side of in the last decades. But! It struck me how much times have changed. Wealth is a continually moving target, and so are our measures of it. 

I mean you’re warm in winter and cool in summer and can watch the World Series on TV. You can do anything in the world. You literally live better than Rockefeller. His unparalleled fortune couldn’t buy what we now take for granted, whether the field is—to name just a few—transportation, entertainment, communication or medical services. Rockefeller certainly had power and fame; he could not, however, live as well as my neighbors now do.

— Warren Buffett, quoted in Getting the Goalpost to Stop Moving

And I’ve always liked this Ray Bradbury quote:

“To hell with more. I want better.”

* * *

In the case of paper, we’ve got both more and better.

Once upon a time, people had to use both sides of the paper. Heck, once upon a time, people didn’t have paper, and after its invention it took centuries to become what we think of today: cheap, high quality, readily available, reliable information storage, bird cage liner, and paper plane in waiting.

Even after paper became widespread in the Western world, wood pulp paper was terrible. Like, sheets of nasty grey pulp held together with weird glues and chemicals that slowly (or not so slowly) destroyed itself.

“Unfortunately, early wood-based paper deteriorated as time passed, meaning that much of the output of newspapers and books from this period either has disintegrated or is in poor condition; some has been photographed or digitized (scanned). The acid nature of the paper, caused by the use of alum, produced what has been called a slow fire, slowly converting the paper to ash.”

— History of paper – Wikipedia

* * *

Depending on the circumstances, writers also did their best to use every inch of a page. Part of that was the paper itself, and part was the cost of postage. (Insert obligatory statement of love for modern postal services here!) 

Click through to see a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra using cross writing, designed to condense as much information as possible onto a given sheet:

Autograph letter signed, dated Godmersham, 20–22 June 1808, to Cassandra Austen | Jane Austen | The Morgan Library & Museum

Here’s another example from Ontario:

crossed letter written by Mrs. F. L. Bridgeman to Fanny West, December 15, 1837. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

It turns out that paper wasn’t quite as expensive as I’d thought, but the good stuff still wasn’t cheap. 

Based on paper purchases by individuals from the 1570s to the 1640s, paper was “roughly a penny for six sheets… To put this in perspective, the average laborer making 6-12 pence a day could purchase up to 75 sheets of paper with a day’s wages. (Was early modern writing paper expensive? – The Collation)

Later, Regency-ish England did have additional duties that made quality paper, particularly in book-sized quantities, more expensive.

“The excise duty on paper was a frequent problem for all printers and publishers. The reorganisation of the duty in 1794, whereby it was charged by weight rather than ream, had the effect of making the burden heavier”

— Half the cost of a book | OUPblog

So, not prohibitive for a person of good fortune in search of stationery or a good novel, but not nothing.

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

* * *

In researching this I came across a wealth of fascinating economic information. For example, what was one shilling worth in London during the mid-1700s? So many things!

  • Dinner in a steakhouse – beef, bread and beer, plus tip
  • Sign-on bonus for army recruitment: The king’s Shilling
  • Admission to Vauxhall Gardens
  • Admission to Ranelagh Gardens (although it could be as much as 2 guineas on masquerade nights)
  • A dish of beef at Vauxhall
  • 1lb of perfumed soap
  • Postage of a one page letter from London to New York
  • 1lb of Parmesan cheese

— 18th century cost of living – redcoats history

Aaaaand this is where I fell into an internet black hole on commodity pricing vs. real wages in Regency etc. England, and had to take a break. (Step away from the seminal economics investigation of Seven Centuries of Real Income per Wage Earner and Super-cycles of commodity prices since the mid-nineteenth century!)

Photo by David Nitschke on Unsplash

* * *

Since we’re discussing costs, let’s sketch a quick portrait of sample economic expenses for gentlefolk around the time of Jane Austen:

Costs of Living During the Regency Period

  • Silk stockings — 12 shillings (£20.38 or $40.24 in today’s currency!)
  • Woolen stockings — 2 shillings 6 pence (£4.25 or $8.39)
  • A white silk handkerchief — 6 shillings (£10.19 or $20.12)
  • A pair of gloves — 4 shillings (£6.79 or $13.41)
  • A simple white dress — 5 shillings (£8.49 or $16.77)
  • A fan — 5 shillings (£8.49 or $16.77)
  • Simple shoes 6-11 shillings (£10.19-18.68 or $20.12-36.89)
  • Walking boots 2 pounds (£67.92 or $134.12)
  • Cotton fabric — 1 shilling per yard (£1.70 or $3.36)
  • Enough cotton fabric for a dress — 6 shillings ($20.12)
  • Velveteen fabric — 2 shillings 10 pence (£4.81 or $9.50)
  • Enough silk fabric for a dress — 1 pound 6 shillings (£44.15 or $87.18)
  • Shawls — if real silk or Kashmir could run £200-300
  • Shoes — men’s shoes went from 10 /6 to several pounds for boots so I think the ladies shoes will be in the same range.
  • A silk purse– a coin purse sort of thing– 2 s

For more of the nitty gritty, including detailed tables (3 cows equalled a pair of coach horses), see “How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice” by James Heldman.

* * *

How did we get here? Right, a grocery list, and my appreciation that so many of us now have access to things like affordable paper, postal service, and oh yes, literacy!

Photo by Nav Rashmi Kalsi on Unsplash

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Busy day today, and none of the three ideas I had for this post came together. Instead, have some fiction, this time read to you by Levar Burton. (You know, the Jeopardy host, and oh yes, Roots and Star Trek and Reading Rainbow and a few other things as well;)

His podcast is Levar Burton Reads, and he picks some of the best speculative short* fiction out there. So when you have a few minutes, sit back, listen, and relax.

* * *

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

* Shortish, anyway. Reading aloud always takes a bit of time, so a typical episode is about an hour.

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