Banana Bars – by Isolde

banana-bars

Banana Bars
Adapted from “Bars and Squares” by Jill Snider

1/2 cup softened butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream (light is OK)
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups mashed ripe banana
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Grease a jelly roll pan (15x10x1), and preheat oven to 375F.

With an electric mixer on low speed, beat butter, sugar, sour cream and eggs for 1 minute.  Beat in bananas and vanilla.  In another bowl, combine flour, soda and salt. On low speed, beat flour mixture into butter mixture, stopping when the batter is smooth.  Don’t overmix!  If using walnuts, stir them in.
Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 20-25 minutes.  Let cool completely.

I frosted these with Swiss buttercream from Smitten Kitchen:
http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/07/project-wedding-cake-swiss-buttercream/

But when I make them again, I think I’ll use cream cheese frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

12 ounces cream cheese
6 tbs butter
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar

Beat all but the sugar together on medium-high speed until smooth (2-4 minutes).  Reduce mixer to low and slowly add the powdered sugar, beating until smooth.  Increase the speed to medium-high and mix until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

New Zealand Landscapes – by Tenebrae

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Book Review: Louise M. Antony’s “Philosophers Without Gods” – by Octavia

Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life
Edited by Louise M. Antony

philwogodsIn my trawl through the atheism section of the local library, I’ve learned to try and keep my distance from anything with “philosophy” in the title. Ignoring this rule leads to frustrating sessions with books full of gibberish; books only an author could love. But Philosophers without Gods looked new and shiny, and I could see from the cover that it was a collection of essays. If they each had a limited chapter to themselves, I thought, it will prevent them from getting up a head of philosophical steam. They’ll have to dumb it down to my level. This could be a philosophy book I might actually understand!

A couple of the authors didn’t seem to get what I was looking for, it’s true, and went wandering into the confusing bits. Even then, though, it has to be said, their contributions were watered down enough so that even a philosophy dunce like myself didn’t find them very difficult.

The majority, however, seemed to grasp the fact that Antony appeared to be trying to produce a book that would communicate with normal people. It’s really quite successful – and also rather canny. Philosophers without Gods is structured in two parts. The first is primarily personal experience – half the contributors tell how they came to embrace atheism. Most came from a theistic background, and the differing flash-points, or slower journeys, which prompted the changes, are a fascinating read. The traditional arguments for and against God which you often find in a philosophy text on the subject – the ontological argument, for instance – are barely touched on. The exception is the problem of evil, which comes up in a lot of the “experience” stories, although hardly ever in a technical way. The tone is very readable; in some of the essays it is almost chatty. In fact the essays are so reasonable, and draw such attention to the religious background of many of the contributors, that even a fairly obdurate believer could probably start reading and not be too shocked or horrified. I can see them being a little smug, though: “Yes, that’s terrible, I can see why it made you wonder why God exists, but have you thought about…” But it’s roughly equivalent to an atheist reading C.S. Lewis: the way the arguments are put is enough to keep you reading, even though you don’t agree with the argument itself, indeed can see glaring holes in it. A bridge-building sort of prose… This is really more a book for the irreligious than the religious, but if the latter happen to read it, there’s a fairly decent chance that the first part of the book will get them reading it long enough to get to the rest.

The second section of the book – Reflections – is a little harder in content. The language is still fairly clear and easy to understand, but the contributors are getting more to the meat of things. Jonathan E. Adler’s essay on “Faith and Fanaticism” turns that tired (and inaccurate) old meme about Dostoyevsky from The Brother’s Karamazov on his head in a way that is completely obvious – so obvious, in fact, that I never made the connection before. And David Owens “Disenchantment” essay on science and the natural world has a truly fascinating thought experiment set in the pharmacy of the future that’s as amusing as it is interesting.

The best essay, the one I most recommend reading, is “Religion and Respect” by Simon Blackburn. Blackburn talks about “respect creep”, where more and more it appears we expected to respect not only the rights of the individual to believe whatever stupid shit they want (fair enough), but the idiocies themselves – and those that hold them. Blackburn is really very convincing in his argument that, although we might genuinely respect a believer for their good qualities (honesty, kindness, etc.), if we cannot respect their religious beliefs, we cannot respect the individual for holding them. He extends this further… if an individual supports a God who is willing to inflict eternal torment, can we really respect the individual for offering that support? And if we do, are we worthy of respect ourselves?

I’d recommend this book for that chapter alone. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, read Blackburn. But read the whole if you can – especially if, like me, philosophy isn’t really your cup of tea but you still want to know what the philosophers are thinking.

Philosophers without Gods includes contributions by:

Jonathan Adler, Elizabeth Secord Anderson, Louise Antony, Marvin Belzer, Simon Blackburn, Edwin Curley, Daniel C. Dennett, Daniel M. Farrell, Richard Feldman, Daniel Garber, Marcia Homiak, Anthony Simon Laden, Joseph Levine, David Lewis, David Owens, Georges Rey, Stewart Shapiro, Walter-Sinnott-Armstrong, James Tappenden, Kenneth Taylor.

Pecan Pie Bites – by Isolde

pecan-pie-bites

Pecan Pie Bites
Cuisine Magazine

This recipe makes about 40 tartlets, so if you only have one mini muffin pan, this will take a while to finish.  You could make bars instead – halve the dough recipe, pat it into a 9″ square pan, prebake it for 12 minutes.  Make the filling as written, pour over crust, and bake 15-20 minutes.

Filling:

6 oz pecan halves
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tbs butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt

Crust:

1 cup softened butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt

Topping:

Pecan halves
kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350F.  Spray mini muffin pans with nonstick spray (I used silicon liners).  “Nonstick” never seems to live up to expectations with this sort of thing.

Toast the pecan halves on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes.  They burn easily, so keep a close eye on them. Once they smell fragrant and nutty, take them out of the oven. After they cool, coarsely chop them.  If you’re adding a pecan half on the top of each tartlet, you’ll need extras, but don’t toast those.

Filling: Whisk sugar, brown sugar, eggs, maple syrup, butter, vanilla and salt.  Stir in chopped pecans.

Crust: Cream butter and sugar until blended.  Add flour and salt; mix until sandy (dough will seem dry).  Press 1 tablespoon of dough into the muffin tin wells, pressing it up the sides.  Prebake the shells for 8 minutes, or until lightly golden.  Remove from oven and pat the shells down lightly with a small spoon or your fingertips.

Give the filling another stir, then add 1 tbs to each shell, topping with a pecan half.  Bake 15 minutes or until filling is set and crust is browned.

Sprinkle tartlets with a small amount of salt, then let cool in pan for 15 minutes.  If you didn’t use liners, run a knife around the edge of each to remove them from the pan, then nudge it up and out of the well.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the hollow landscape

A comment was left on my blog since my last post, about the perceived hollowness – the dead, spiritless existence – of life as an atheist. A lot of religious people seem to feel that – but it’s not that way to me.

When I think of atheism, my atheism, what I see is a vast plain spreading before me. Somewhere cold, somewhere polar. Somewhere with space, and mountains ringed round with snow on them. I think of myself standing on the tundra, and while it is the most beautiful thing in the world there is bleakness to it. It’s stark, and the deeply quiet. Frightening, too, if you cannot see the small intimations of life: the lichen, the birds that scatter over the bowl of the sky. But hollow?

It’s not hollow, not ever. It’s intoxicating, with air is so crisp it burns in my lungs, and overhead the sky is wheeling and there’s no-one there but me, a tiny intelligence against the vastness of the cosmos.

That’s what I carry around in my head, the home that I go to, the fount of my creation. It permeates everything I am, everything I do. I wonder if that is what Greg feels when he lies next to me at night: a great cool landscape in his arms, the bare, barren plain of my belly, the hard snowy ridge of hipbone. It’s not what I feel when I lie next to him – a spongy flesh, like blancmange, that spurts blood like molten iron when its integrity is threatened. My blood may be the same substance and colour as his, but there is ice water in it. The price of knowing where you come from…

It’s that mental landscape I want to pass on – in my art, though I am only learning, if in nothing else. Greg has a hard time understanding this – we are artists, after all. Creation is our thing. And wouldn’t this be the ultimate? But creating what? I love Greg’s art and his hands and to have a child with those things would be wonderful. But a child with Greg’s mental landscape? I don’t think I want to reproduce that – a very pretty garden, but there is a persistent, subtle reek of sulphur and a fountain of tranquilisers where the apple tree used to be.

This perception annoys him. We’ve been having some fights lately. He’s not fundamentally religious, but he doesn’t think that baptism or Sunday school or prayers before bedtime are a big issue. I do – they’re what reproduced his landscape, irrespective of his will. This is how he was taught as a child, and the foundations are there today – he didn’t choose them, but he’ll never be rid of them. And he wants to pass them on.

If I support the idea of the Auto-Pygmalion when I’m in the studio, how can I not do it in the womb? I’m not art school trained like Greg is, but I’ve worked hard to be able to develop my own skills, the skills that he taught me. I’m not religious like Greg is, and I’ve worked to understand how life without religion feels, and to find meaning in it. So for a child, to substitute that care of creation, to willingly produce a mental landscape that is stifling rather than liberating… how can I do that, let his sleepy water into my beautiful, wondrous world?

Greg doesn’t understand. He thinks I’ll come round soon, and if I’m to create a child, it has to be soon. It’s true that my biological clock has begun to tick, overwhelming the part of my brain that knows quite well that I don’t even like children. I certainly don’t want to raise them, have them interrupting my work. And yet, I begin to feel an obligation to carry on the genes. It just seems so marvellous that each of my ancestors, for billions of years, has managed to survive and reproduce. If only one had failed, I wouldn’t be here. Isn’t it a little arrogant to stop that chain?

What is arrogant is the other reason: people who drink the sleepy water have lots of children already. Greg wants five. Five. In a world of conspicuously declining resources. How can this be responsible, ethical? How can it not be stupid? It sounds horrible, I know, but we really only admire each other for what we can create – his brain puts me off, and he’s not that fond of my body. It’s too cool for him, I think, he can feel that beneath the outer covering of my skin there is marble that never really went away, because my creation is so much my own that even another artist cannot change more than a little.

He tries to chip at it, but there’s no hammer and chisel he can use that can touch me, simply because we both know, deep down, I don’t believe he has the skill to use it. If either of us lost our hands this relationship would be over before the blood was even mopped up.

He doesn’t like my mind either, you see. He just says he does, because when we use our minds we fight, and artists are meant to be temperamental. He says that he likes that I think differently to him, but I know that he doesn’t, not really. There are times I see him watching me, and just before he smiles, or reaches out, there is the tiniest moment in his eyes, and he is Pygmalion with a statue he never meant, never wanted. When he sees me sculpt, he knows that he taught me how, uncovered the talent in me layer by layer. He feels it should bind him to me, and it discomforts him to feel bound to something that is, by his own beliefs, flawed. Galatea was never flawed, never had a stain that could not be washed away. Never saw a stain where Pygmalion did not, even when it was in front of her face. Poor girl. But he can’t admit the flaw – his better angels prevent him, ha! – so that discomfort is channelled from my mind to my body.

He doesn’t admit this either, but when he sleeps and I touch him he moves away. He thinks my mind too hard, my view of life too hollow. I think his is too soft, too stupid.

The sleepy-water people reproduce enough already. Why facilitate more, if I truly feel it’s so pernicious? Leaving aside the fact whether or not it is right or wrong for me to believe Greg is sleepy, the fact is that I do. He knows and resents it, as I know and resent his true opinion of me, the one he doesn’t even admit to each other: that he thinks my life is hollow without his faith. Hollow! Hollow without any faith to funnel and support the creation within me.

Hollow, all my shining sky and endless wonder, when I know the landscape of his own mind. How can he bear it?

How can he? And how can I possibly justify a creation that inflicted that landscape, even a shadow of it, on somebody else?

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

Plant Talk! – by Octavia

Welcome to Plant Talk! In this new column, we’ll be looking at new and interesting pieces of plant science and research, and what they mean. This month, I’ll be telling you about how we can use fossil pollen assemblages in salt marshes to reconstruct past climate change.

The Jigsaw within the Rubik’s Cube: Using Fossilised Pollen Assemblages as an Indicator for Sea Level Change.

Science is full of puzzles. Unfortunately, in some cases many of the pieces that look like they should fit together actually come from different boxes. When dealing with something like the history of sea level change (itself part of the larger oceanographic and climate puzzles) there are contributing pieces from the geological, geographical, biological, and other jigsaw puzzles. When pieces from each of these separate jigsaws are muddled together in a single box, it can be difficult to sort out which pieces belong to which puzzle. Instead of one enormous jigsaw, it’s actually easier to think of these larger conundrums as a giant Rubik’s Cube, with each coloured square forming a piece of a disciplinary jigsaw. When each jigsaw is put together correctly, and connected to the other completed jigsaws, the Cube (and the puzzle) is complete.

One of the little squares within the Rubik’s Cube puzzle of sea level change is palynology – the study of pollen. Pollen is an exceptionally good palaeobotanical resource for several reasons. It gives an extensive record due to abundant production. Its hardened outer sheath of sporopollenin helps to protect it from damage resulting from the fossilisation process. Finally, pollen from different species is often very distinctive, allowing for easy identification. The one disadvantage to using fossilised pollen as an indicator species is dispersal – because pollen is very light and often wind-borne, it can travel large distances and spread far from its point of origin. Thus, any palaeobotanical assemblages indicated from fossilised pollen must be interpreted in the light of possible disassociation from the parent plant.

Palynology has often been used to reconstruct past vegetation patterns, which is itself an indicator for sea level and even climate change. A recent example of this can be seen in the salt marshes of South Carolina. Working with fossilised remnants, Pamela Marsh and Arthur Cohen were able to recreate assemblages that could be used to determine regional models of past sea level rise. Pollen fossilises well in estuarine sediments, and so the environment of Marsh and Cohen’s study site – the coast along South Carolina, which, like much of the south-eastern United States, is mostly characterised by tidal inlets, barrier islands and salt marshes – is ideal for recording palynological records. Unfortunately, this is complicated by the fact that salt marsh plants are often insect-pollinated, thus producing less pollen than the wind-pollinated plants seeding the salt marsh from a distance. Also, some salt marsh plants such as Juncus roemerianus reproduce primarily through rhizomes rather than pollen (while simultaneously producing pollen, flowers, and seeds). This complication can be partially mitigated by analysing palynomorphs – when pollen is extracted from a sample of sediment, other tiny organic remains such as spores, insect parts, fungal and algal remains are also extracted, and these are called palynomorphs. This broader analysis can help to provide context and supporting evidence to the vegetation reconstruction. Together, the various pieces fit together like a jigsaw to build a palynological “fingerprint” – a profile representing various ecological habitats on a local and regional scale.

Different types of vegetation can be found within the salt-marsh environment, as vegetation patterns change according to tidal movements: the lowest zones on the marsh are frequently inundated with salt water, while the highest marsh zone is only immersed in spring and storm tides. When patterns of vegetation within the marsh zone change, it can indicate a change in exposure to salt water. For instance, if the vegetation types that typically inhabit the highest zone in the salt marsh move even higher up the shore, it is an indication that sea level has risen, and the less tolerant salt marsh plants have had to migrate even further landward in order to survive.

Because the highest salt marsh plants are least exposed to the turbulence of the ocean waves, the sediment in which they grow is less disturbed than the sediment of the lower marsh plants. This means that their pollen assemblages are less muddled. If these “unmuddled” fossil assemblages can be identified, they give a means of tracing the geographic migration of the highest marsh zone – which is in this case a proxy for sea level rise. Thus, fossilised pollen from salt marsh plants can indicate the rise and fall of sea level along a coast. This is not necessarily an indicator of climate change (other factors, such as geology, may be in play) but this particular pollen “jigsaw” can mesh with other squares from the climate Rubik’s Cube.

In the South Carolina salt marshes, Marsh and Cohen tested palynomorph assemblages from three typical ecological groups, each characterised by a specific type of grassy or herbaceous vegetation: low-level salt marshes (Spartina alterniflora), high level salt marshes (Juncus roemerianus) and salt pannes (Salicornia virginica). Samples were collected from the top two centimetres of sediment, so as to represent a contemporary assemblage. Marsh and Cohen were unable to distinguish a consistent or distinctive jigsaw from either the low level-salt marsh or the salt panne ecologies. However, the high salt marsh areas with a preponderance of Juncus gave a distinct jigsaw pattern for three reasons. Firstly, there was a high diversity in palynomorphs in the Juncus dominated sediments, a diversity that was consistently almost double that found in the other marsh vegetations types. Secondly, over 10% of the palynomorph count was composed of what Marsh and Cohen referred to as Fungal Spore Type A, an unidentified spore found at all tested high-level sites (in contrast, Fungal Spore Type A was found in less than half of the low-level marsh sites, and at only one of the salt panne sites). Finally, a second fungal species, Atrotorquata lineata, was only found in sediments beneath high-level Juncus marshes.

This distinctive assemblage, found beneath Juncus grass, gives a key to a method for tracing sea-level rise over time. Given that this particular jigsaw effect – the Juncus jigsaw – exists, it can be used to identify other high-level salt marsh sites. Whenever this particular conglomeration is found within a sediment sample, there is a strong likelihood that when the palynomorphs were being deposited, they were deposited in an environment characterised by Juncus grass – in grasses that only occurred in high-level salt marsh sites.

Useful assemblages can vary from region to region. In the tropics, for example, mangrove pollen is a useful indicator of sea level change. Pollen assemblage clues like these help to establish the biological jigsaw that makes up one side of the sea level rise – and possibly the climate change – Rubik’s Cubes. And when those little bits of colour connect on the side of a very large, very complicated puzzle, we are amazed and delighted to find something as tiny and everyday as pollen has been the key.

References

Engelhart, S.E., Horton, B.P., Roberts, D.H., Bryant, C.L., Corbett, D.R. Mangrove pollen of Indonesia and its suitability as a sea-level indicator. Marine Geology, 242 (1-3) pp. 65-81, 2007.

Marsh, P.E., Cohen, A.D. Identifying high-level salt marshes using a palynomorphic fingerprint with potential implications for tracking sea level change. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 148 (1) pp. 60-69, 2008.

A Study in the Two Sides of Humility – by gimbol

St. Thomas

These days, the raw material of a saint
Is a bit less than it could be.

There is one that wants to argue,
But he’ll learn in the end.
In his own way, which is less than it should be.
If I got run over by a chariot tomorrow,
He wouldn’t believe it didn’t kill me
Unless he could put his fingers
In the ruts between my ribs and feel my heart.
One day, I tell him. Be patient, and maybe
You’ll learn in time to keep your sticky fingers out of it.

When that day comes, though,
He’ll want the proof of it. Always the proof.
I tell him: Go outside, Thomas!
Scream at the heavens,
Insult the Lord my Father
And bring down his rage upon your head.
That will be your fucking proof.

And Thomas?
God loves you. Just so you don’t forget.

A martyr before her burning

Those who suspect they’re weak try to hide it,
Even from themselves.
Put on a strong face, defy the world.
But those who know they’re weak, those that truly know,
Roll it around themselves, the shadow cloak,
Show their throats
Cut their own flesh to have blood enough to drip

In the end they were glad to burn me,
Glad to sear the voice from my throat –
Sick of hearing me whine:
A great fiery dose of Get a grip already,
You hysterical bitch!

But I could still whine to myself
Panegyrics to my own ability to be tortured…
I am grateful to be allowed to suffer.
But one can only be mild in comparison.

I had successfully provoked them, see.
They were kind at first, especially the young ones,
Too great pains to give me a way out.
But I was weak, determined to be mild, and so
I forced them to be devils.