May 292011

When I was growing up my mother baked two particularly tasty things; whole wheat bread and Cornish pasties. I don’t know if my mother ate pasties when she was a child growing up in Anaconda, Montana, but my father certainly did when he grew up in Butte. In Butte, the Irish had co-opted the delicious pasties from the “Cousin Jacks” or the residents of Cornwall, England. The pasty was a popular lunch item, especially for school kids and underground miners.

If you search the Internet you can find many recipes for pasties, many of which will contain all sorts of additional vegetables. I’ve tasted many meat pies over the years, and I agree with the opinion of my parents that a pasty doesn’t need anything besides just the basics. The following recipe is a transcription of a letter my mother sent me some years ago. In the penultimate paragraph my mother has the chef creating an incision in the top of the pie before it’s baked. My father also made pasties for himself years ago, and suggested that one wait until the pasty is fully baked before cutting into the pie so that the moisture from the interior remains inside.

Frozen prepared pie crust may be purchased from the freezer department of a supermarket, or prepare crust using standard measurements of one cup flour and one-third cup shortening, plus ½ teaspoonful salt per pasty for plate-sized pasties.

Purchase about one or 1&1/2 pound good grade round steak, and trimming off most fat, place in freezer compartment so that it becomes about semi-frozen. It will be much easier to cut into small cubes if first frozen. It should cut up about as easily as chopping celery. Before freezing, seasoning can most easily and accurately be added by sprinkling salt and black pepper quite liberally on both sides of the meat as you would season something like a hamburger patty. Otherwise, it’s difficult to measure just how much salt and pepper you would add to the mixture Considering that you won’t need to season the potato which will be added later, on should be quite generous in applying the salt and pepper. Also consider that you will be adding butter or margarine at the last minute so that will also provide a salty flavor.

After trimming all fat off your frozen piece of round steak, cut into strips and chop meat into cubes about ¼ inch in size. Your meat will bake much faster with small, uniform pieces of meat so that you won’t over cook it, which would make it more tough. Set aside meat in a large bowl.

Peel and cube potatoes in about the same size small pieces as the meat. (A French fry cutter is ideal to form the proper sized strips for uniform chopping). Use about three large baking type potatoes. The proportion of meat to potatoes should be about half and half. Add to mixing bowl containing meat cubes.

Finely chop two large onions of the white Bermuda type and add to mixing bowl. Mix together meat, potatoes and onions. At this point, mixture can if desired be covered and refrigerated overnight to blend flavors, but is not necessary.

On a slightly floured surface, roll out pastry with slightly floured rolling pin to the approximate size of a standard dinner plate, or smaller if desired. Place one cup of meat mixture onto crust just off center to the bottom half so that when crust is placed over meat it will form a half circle. Meat mixture may be somewhat runny from onion juices, but if crust is not rolled too thin, it should hold the mixture without running out. After flopping crust over mixture, cut carefully around outside edge so that you form a neat semicircle. (I use a fluted small pastry cutting wheel). Dip fork tines into cold water and seal edges carefully all around the semicircle so that nothing drips out. Cut a small slit about one inch long in center which will be used as a steam hole escape and an opening into which you will add melted butter and a little hot water when pasties are just taken out of oven. Use about one stick plus about two tablespoonfuls hot water heated together and poured equally divided into steam holes. Oven temperature should be preheated to 375 degrees F. and pasties baked for 45 minutes or until slightly browned. Any left over meat mixture may be refrigerated and used as a single top crust meat pie baked in an oven proof deep dish.

After you have formed and sealed pasty, carefully place it on a large cookie sheet which has been pre-greased, or a parchment paper which requires no greasing. About five pasties can be placed on a standard cookie sheet. Bon Appetite!

 Posted by on 05/29/2011 Growing Up In Montana Comments Off on Cornish Pasties
May 182011

I think I first encountered the term “thixotrope” in conjunction with epoxy and the additives you can mix it with. I remember reading about fumed silica, and was amazed that such a product could be created and sold commercially that was so small in particle size. I’ve worked with fumed silica, and indeed it is an amazing substance.

I suspect that other people might conceptualize the property of thixotropy much like I did, and imagine that it’s a property of a material. But if you look at the definition of thixotropy, at least that given by Wikipedia, you notice that it’s a property of “certain gels or fluids.” What got me thinking about this is that a material can become more or less thixotropic depending on its physical state.

I remember sitting at a Mexican restaurant in LA with some of my cousins back in the summer of 1984 and one of my cousins was pouring a carafe of frozen margarita mixture into a glass. He tipped the carafe higher and higher, but the icy mixture still wouldn’t flow. All of a sudden the mixture started flowing catastrophically, at least as far as the glass and table was concerned… One of my other cousins remarked something to the effect that “he wondered if that was going to happen.”

If I understand the concept of thixotropy correctly, then I believe that water is a sort of “auto-thixotrope” in that it’s a material that can become thixotropic depending on its physical state. A fine grained ice slush, like that in a Slurpee or a margarita, exhibits thixotropy. Neither ice nor water by itself is thixotropic, yet a mixture of the two is.

Perhaps I should qualify the last concept, as when I think about it, I suppose that a block of ice would behave differently physically than the same mass of ice broken up into cubes. Perhaps snow is thixotropic, as I think an avalanche might qualify as an example. So now I have to wonder if particle size, particle shape and temperature are factors as well. With water, or more accurately snow or ice, you have further complications conceptualizing this, as you have the molecular lattice structure on the microscopic scale, as well as the “particle” size and shape on the macroscopic scale. The drink in your hand behaves differently as a material depending on the size and shape of the ice “particles” inside. A Slurppe pours differently than Kool-Aid with ice cubes.

So it makes more sense to me how the definition of “thixotrope” is constructed broadly, to encompass “certain gels or fluids” and not strictly as a property of a material. There is a lot more going on than one simple physical property.

I remember a physics class in college where I was introduced to the fact that there was an entire branch of materials science known as “rheology.” At the time I was amazed that an entire branch of science could be devoted to such an esoteric thing as fluid flow. Now it makes more sense, as I can begin see how complex it really is!

 Posted by on 05/18/2011 Opinion, Science Comments Off on Thoughts on Thixotropy
May 052011

I moved into my house in Seattle way back in 1994. Back then my front lawn was a mess. It was full of overgrown grass, Himalayan blackberry, and all sorts of other weeds. It was so bad that I had a feral cat taking up De facto residence. Compounding the problem of getting rid of the grass and weeds was that my lawn was full of boulders! The root systems of some of the more tenacious plants would hide under the boulders, so even if I trimmed the plants, they would often grow back.

I decided to wage war on the boulders. I reasoned that I would need to address the most fundamental problem first before trying to get my lawn in order. My front lawn is bisected by a concrete stairway. The east section is smaller than the west section. All in all, I figured there must have been about twenty(!) boulders in my front lawn. I decided to break up the boulders in the east section first. Using just a sledge hammer, I would blast away at the big rocks, cracking off chunks until they were small enough to carry away. Here’s a photo of one of the boulders, with the sledge hammer included to provide a sense of scale:

This was much harder work than I expected, as I simply underestimated how hard the rock was. I don’t know a great deal about geology, but I was told that the big rocks commonly found in Seattle were basalt. One factor that began to concern me was that tiny chunks would blast off, and I was worried that a chip might scratch the paint from someone’s car. Eventually I managed to clear the boulders from the first section. It was terribly strenuous labor, and often made my back ache. I basically put this project on hold for about 8 years.

Eventually, I decided to attack the boulders on the other side of my yard, this time using a rented electric jackhammer. You would think this would work like a charm, but it did little or nothing. I began to take notice that I was certainly not the only homeowner that had big “ornamental” boulders in my front lawn. I began to wonder why. Eventually I found the answer in a somewhat surprising place, a book on Washington architecture.

Authored by Sally B. Woodbridge and Roger Montgomery and published by the University of Washington Press, it’s an excellent introduction to a large subject.

An amazing photo is found on page 100:

It’s a bit hard to see in this photo, but there is a pile of boulders at the base of this huge mound of soil. The explanatory text is brief, but answered the question I harbored all these years.

Regarding the Denny regrade, in which high pressure water jets were used to move huge masses of soil, the text on pages 100 and 101 reads:

“Denny Hill, one of the most important topographical features of early Seattle, comprised sixty-two city blocks. The top featured a famous hotel and the first city park. Under the direction of Seattle’s most renowned city engineer, R. H. Thomson, the hill was leveled in several places beginning in 1891. Sluiced down by the method of hydraulicking that Thomson observed in the California goldfields, the hill produced enough earth to fill the rest of the tidal flats and, at the same time, to furnish garden designers and nurseries with a long-lasting supply of boulders for retaining walls and rockeries.”

At some point I learned that the ancient Romans had excavated tunnels by heating rock faces with fires, then dousing the hot rock with cold water. This would cause the rock to shatter, and the rubble could be removed. I bought a propane tank and one of those “50,000 BTU” fire wands. Working with a partner, I would blast the rock with fire, then my partner would spray water from a hose onto the rock. Sometimes it would work, but mostly it didn’t. I would then resort to the sledge hammer, but even then I concluded that the “Roman method” didn’t work on these rocks.

I finally came upon a solution that worked. I had a DeWalt roto hammer, with a 5/8″ diameter bit that was quite long. I would drill three holes in a line as close together as I could. It just so happened that a wood-splitting wedge would just fit within that width. The wedge would have to knock out the walls between the bore holes, but that was no biggie when struck by the sledge hammer. Furthermore, this process didn’t create any tiny high velocity projectiles that might upset the neighbors. As hard as it was, the rock was no match for the simple power of the wedge. I remember one day in particular, I believe I broke either two or maybe even three boulders using this technique!

Of course, this generated a huge amount of waste rock. In fact it took two full sized pickup loads to transport it all away. I found a rock pile down in Skyway, south of Seattle, near some railroad tracks. I assume it was owned and used by the railroad for rail bed ballast. So I didn’t feel morally wrong about “dumping” my rocks there, and in fact I like to think I was actually helping add to the railroad’s supply!

With the boulders totally gone, it was an easy matter to get rid of the noxious weeds and vegetation, especially the Himalayan blackberry. My front lawn is still not finished, but at some point I think I’d like to terrace it, so I don’t have to mow a harshly curved surface.

Deep in my mind, I hold the thought that long after I’m gone, someone will decide to decorate the front lawn with beautiful basalt boulders…

 Posted by on 05/05/2011 Personal History 2 Responses »
May 022011

Way back in 2007 I had my first sighting. It was a bright, sunny day and I was walking on the footpath around Seward Park here in Seattle. Suddenly I saw it; a serpentine form sticking its slimy neck out of the water! Thankfully I had my camera with me and was able to capture this remarkable image:

I didn’t know what to do exactly; was there some sort of Lake Monster reporting center where I could log my encounter? Would they think I was a crypto-crank, a crackpot, a wanker, a chain-yanker, and mock my slithering serpent sighting? This beast was no beaver, or even an otter as some scoffing skeptics have suggested. No, it was the real deal, whatever it was.

But time moved on, and I began to doubt that I could ever see the Seward Park serpent ever again. But the fickle finger of fate has a way of appeasing the prepared, and lo! I saw it again! This time I was even closer, and managed to get off this quick pic:

I know it’s going to take a specimen on a slab for the skeptical scientists to take this seriously, but until that time I’m going to give it the tentative title of “Sewardsaurus.” Note that the second specimen seems to sport some sort of muzzle, or perhaps it’s licking a Frappuccino from a Starbucks cup. Though it’s no Ogopogo, a perfect palindrome like Aja, Aoxomoxoa, or Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas, we see that “Sewardsaurus” is at least alliterative, like “Dover Demon” or “Fence Fiend.”

 Posted by on 05/02/2011 Culture, Hoaxes, Pseudoscience Comments Off on Second Sewardsaurus Sighting!