Saturday, February 6, 2010

Miscellaneous: Interesting San Francisco Houses--Webster and Filbert

Two San Francisco architectural gems. The one with the red domes is about the oddest Queen Anne-style Victorian I've ever encountered. Corner of Webster and Filbert--an old friend; I've always liked this one especially. The section to the right of the picture appears to be a later addition. On the side of the building not pictured there is another tower with castle-like crenellations. Today the building is painted an unfortunate shade of lavender (hard to see in the picture), although that may suit its present use as a temple of some sort.

[Update: in early 2017, the temple was completely repainted and the exterior considerably renovated. It's even more attractive now. See a photo here.]

Found Art: San Francisco Drain Pipe

Another fine example of found art. I saw this stained and paint-spattered copper drainage pipe today at the Fort Mason Center, in San Francisco.

Art I'm Looking At: San Francisco Print Fair 2010

Went to the San Francisco Print Fair today at Fort Mason, an annual event at around this time of year--although often at the end of January (continuing tomorrow, Sunday, February 7, 2010; free admission). It always attracts very high caliber dealers. They come from all over the country--from places like New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Seattle, and, of course, the San Francisco Bay Area, including Santa Rosa (represented by our local fine art print dealers, The Annex Galleries, right here on College Avenue). Inevitably I fell in love with something I couldn't have, something beyond my means--at the moment at least; a mixed-technique piece (etching, aquatint, engraving) by Oakland artist David Kelso, with wonderfully subtle use of layered aquatint and etching. I enjoyed seeing the show nevertheless. I picked up a small contemporary woodcut by American artist Lockwood Dennis. Happily, the show did not coincide with the ZAP zinfandel tasting this year. There was actually a place to park--and no half-drunken wine tasters to deal with (not that I have anything against wine tasters, of course. it's just that there are always too many of them when ZAP and the print fair fall on the same day).

For you lovers of things on paper, the San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print, and Paper Fair is also going on through Sunday, February 7.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Art I'm Looking At: Found Art on the Playground (February 5, 2010)

More found art from the playground of my son's school. Beautiful.

Plants I'm Growing: Daffodils

First blooms today on the yellow daffodils in the garden. Actually, just a single flower has opened. These bloomed on February 6th in 2009, so a year according to the daffodils was 364 days. It's remarkable how close to a calendar year each of the botanical years I've recorded so far has been. Who needs calendars?

Rain: Nearly an Inch Since Last Reporting (February 5, 2010)

Just to report that we have had 0.95 inches of rain since I last noted rainfall, bringing the total at my location to 18.95 inches for the 2009-2010 season. That's above the official average for February 5 in Santa Rosa (18.42 inches), but lower than the 21.59 inches that at least one local station has reported.

[Update as of February 7: We had another 0.65 inches over the weekend. Our total now stands at 19.6 inches.]

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Food I'm Eating: The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part II (The Yogurts)

I tasted six vanilla yogurts today to kick off my yogurt comparison project. If you want to know what prompted this, see my previous post on the topic of yogurt--the Introduction.

There were a couple problems from the outset. First, I noticed on careful examination that some of the yogurts I've purchased so far are in fact nonfat yogurts--which underscores the difficulty in choosing yogurts from among the many confusing options. I've decided to include these because the difference in fat content is generally small and, well, the stuff has to be eaten. Second, I had no idea how to do a taste comparison. Do you judge yogurt like wine--using color, aroma, and flavor? I was pretty sure swirling the yogurt containers would be pointless, but decided that, yes, essentially yogurt tasting is like wine tasting. I looked at color, scent, flavor, and texture. Each review also gives information about sugar and milkfat content and price.

Lucerne (Safeway Brand) Low-fat Vanilla Yogurt
($0.40 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.07 an ounce, 1% milkfat, 33 grams sugars)

Very pale whitish color--rather like goat's milk cheese, but semi-transparent. Has a somewhat gelatinous look. Smells like yogurt--a slightly sour scent--and distantly of vanilla. Stirred, it began to look a little creamier. There was nothing to stir up from the bottom. Tastes very sweet with only a moderate vanilla character. Not at all unpleasant, but has no really outstanding characteristics. I did, however, prefer this to what turned out to be the Yoplait yogurt, and it is considerably less expensive. Sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup and sugar. Certainly the best value of any of the yogurts I sampled. This isn't my style, but, if you like it, there doesn't appear to be anything cheaper, and many more expensive yogurts were not necessarily better, in my view.

Siggi's Icelandic Style Non-Fat Vanilla Skyr
($2.49 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.42 an ounce, 0% fat, 10 grams sugars)

A different beast altogether. Skyr is Icelandic for "thick yogurt," according to the label, and that's appropriate. Thick and creamy-looking and heavily flecked with bits of real vanilla bean. Slightly creamy color. Thick enough that you can turn the container upside down and the yogurt doesn't budge. It sticks to the spoon, making it somewhat difficult to stir. Nothing to stir up from the bottom. Maintains a rustic, cheesy texture. Not much of a scent, but it has a very distinctive flavor. A real yogurt tang. Not sour like unsweetened plain yogurt, but does not taste sweet either. Thick, sticky texture. Not a lot of vanilla flavor, but distinctive and interesting. Feels authentic. I found myself liking it better and better the more I ate. Probably unappealing if you're used to heavily sweetened yogurts, but delicious if you like real yogurt flavor. Sweetened with agave nectar. Real vanilla beans. On the downside, it's expensive--six times the price of the Lucerne product.

Yoplait Low-fat French Vanilla Yogurt
($0.69 for a 6 oz. container, or about $0.12 an ounce, 1% milkfat, 27 grams sugars)

Noticeably yellowish color (artificially colored with annatto and turmeric extracts; simulated egg yolk to make it French vanilla?). Slightly gelatinous look. Creamier, but still fairly thin after stirring. Nothing to stir up from the bottom. Has a strong scent that suggests caramel more than vanilla. The gelatinous texture was a bit unpleasant, but I recognize that there are many styles of yogurt and this may appeal to some people. Very sweet to the taste. Although this has less sugar in it than the Lucerne yogurt, it tastes sweeter for some reason. Flavor a bit suggestive of caramel or something toasty, but not exactly vanilla. Has no real yogurt flavor. Tastes mostly like corn syrup. Sweetened with corn syrup and sugar. I liked this least of the first three.

Wallaby Organic Low-fat Creamy Australian-style yogurt
($0.75 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.13 an ounce, 1.5% milkfat, 20g sugars)

Plain white with a quite liquid look to it, but not at all gelatinous like some brands (see above). Creamier when stirred. Nothing to stir up from the bottom. Clean vanilla and yogurt scents with good yogurt flavor. In other words it has tang not overwhelmed by sugar, but it is noticeably sweet. Medium body. Creamy texture, but not especially thick. Not exciting, but good middle-of-the-road yogurt. Wallaby is a brand I often have bought in the past. Moderately priced. Sugar from sugar cane.

Brown Cow Low-fat Vanilla Bean Yogurt 
($0.99 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.17 an ounce, 1% milkfat, 25g sugars)

Firm rather than liquid, but not dry or stiff as in some cases. Smells of cream rather than sour like yogurt. Vanilla on the bottom. Stirring reveals vanilla bean flecks. Very nice creamy texture to this one. Full vanilla flavor, but yogurt tang masked by sugar. Quite sweet. Tastes a little like bananas, although there is no banana in it. Sugar from sugar cane. Excellent for its creamy texture, but doesn't really taste like yogurt because of the excessive sweetness. Overall, though, not bad.   

Stonyfield "Oikos" Organic Greek Vanilla Yogurt
($1.00 for a 5.3 oz. container, or $0.19 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 20g sugars)

Very creamy-looking. Thick and creamy when stirred, not at all dry or cheesy in texture like some Greek-style yogurts (or the Icelandic-style yogurt reviewed above). Nothing to stir up from the bottom. Very nice yogurt tang. Moderate vanilla flavor. Has a distinct cheesy aftertaste balanced by attractive sour yogurt flavors. Tastes like real food. Remarkably rich and creamy despite the 0% fat content. Sweetened with sugar, but not so much that the yogurt flavors are overwhelmed. Excellent balance. Delicious. My favorite so far. 

Continued (see below)--You can eat only so much yogurt at a time.

[The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part I--Introduction]
[The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part III--The Yogurts, Continued
[The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part IV--More Yogurts]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Food I'm Eating: The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part I (Introduction)

About two weeks ago, I put an oyster knife through the fleshy part of the middle finger of my left hand. This was not idle self-destructive behavior. I was trying to open an oyster. The knife slipped and went in deep. I felt the tip of the blade hit the bone, in fact. Needless to say, it was very painful. Although the wound bled a lot, it was comparatively small. I washed it, bound it with a heavy band-aid, and hoped for the best.

In a civilized country, I would have gone to the doctor without hesitation. Here, however, my health insurance co-pay is so high (Kaiser Permanente), that I determined to avoid a visit, if possible. This is exactly the kind of thinking that US health care providers encourage and benefit from. I pay Kaiser lots of money every month and then do my best to never use their services. Two days after the incident, my hand was inflamed and clearly infected--it seems oyster shells harbor nasties better dealt with in the stomach than in a deep puncture wound. I went to see the doctor. One-hundred and twenty-five dollars later, I had a ten-day supply of Augmentin (amoxycillin and clavulanate potassium). The main side-effect of this broad-spectrum antibiotic is lower digestive tract havoc--also known as diarrhea. I won't go into the details.

This is where yogurt comes in. I finished the prescription yesterday, and, having spent the past ten days waging total war on the bacteria in my digestive system, I decided yogurt would help to get the good bacteria going again after the bombing was over. I stopped in at Whole Foods to pick something up, but, as usual when I look for yogurt, I found myself searching the shelves for something simple and getting nowhere fast. There's much too much to choose from. There is yogurt made from cow's milk, from goat's milk, and from soy milk. There's Swiss-style yogurt, Icelandic-style yogurt, Australian-style yogurt, Greek-style yogurt, and yogurt in Eastern European styles. There's whole milk yogurt, lowfat yogurt, nonfat yogurt, and cream-top yogurt. There's plain yogurt and yogurt with all manner of sugary gloop under it, on top of it, or mixed up into it. I should have gone to Safeway--although the situation is only marginally better at the less trendy stores.

How do you choose? I choose wine with confidence, because over the years I've done so many blind tastings and written so many reviews that few wines are a mystery to me. I eat a fair amount of yogurt, but I tend to stick to one or two brands. Suddenly, it dawned on me: I should blind taste all the yogurts in the world and decide what's best, and then scratch the yogurt problem off my list. Well, tasting all the yogurts in the world was slightly impractical, so I decided to taste 10-15 lowfat vanilla yogurts blind, and you, dear reader, will get to read about it. I chose vanilla because most yogurt is flavored, most brands make vanilla, and vanilla is a fairly neutral flavor that should allow the underlying yogurt flavors to show through. I chose lowfat as a compromise between the nonfat and whole milk varieties, but I ended up tasting lowfat and nonfat yogurts (see notes in the following section).

Tomorrow, I begin. Stay tuned. (For the record, I have no financial interest or any other connection with any of the companies producing or selling yogurt mentioned in this series of reviews.)

[The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part II--The Yogurts]
[The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part III--The Yogurts, Continued]
[Part IV--More Yogurts]

Miscellaneous: Super Bowl XLIV (2010)

I plan to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. It'll be the first football game I've seen all year. I'm not sure who is playing who. I really don't care. My football allegiances, such as they are, appear to be firmly rooted in the world of 1960s football; the first team names that come to my mind are always the Jets, the Eagles, and the Green Bay Packers. They were the big teams when I was a very small boy--and that was about the last time I paid serious attention to football. There was a brief period in the late 70s (in high school) that I followed the Oakland Raiders. Ken Stabler, Cliff Branch, and Fred Biletnikoff were something to watch, but then I spent all those years in Japan and lost track altogether. I'm still surprised now and then by team names I've never heard of and franchises in cities that don't sound quite right. I do know that the Bengals almost made it this year. Would that have been a first? I remember when the Bengals were a brand new team. My Boy Scout troop trooped off to an exhibition game (in 1970, maybe?). Who is playing in the Super Bowl matters less to me than how well they play--and the more passing the better. Short-yardage pile-ups followed by long huddles, punctuated by vulgar advertising is not my idea of sports entertainment. I'm hoping for two teams with aggressive passing games. I'm looking forward to a lot of passing followed by long huddles, followed by vulgar advertising.

Pass the chips.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Miscellaneous: What Ever Happened to the Expression "There are?"

I shouldn't let grammar errors bother me, but my mother was a school teacher, one of my grandmothers was a school teacher--in fact, a teacher of English and English literature--and one of my grandfathers was a teacher (of art history). Let's just say it's in my blood.

We all make mistakes. God knows, I make mistakes. I try to correct them when I can, but some mistakes-- for one reason or another--can't be corrected.

But back to grammar errors. One common mistake that baffles me is the use of "there is" or "there's" to mean "there are" or its informal spoken contraction "there're." If people can count, they ought to be able to get this one right. Many who should know better say things like "There's three on the table" or "There's so many reasons to go." I hear this with increasing frequency. It's almost beginning to sound normal. When did saying things like "There're three on the table" go AWOL? And why?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Plants I'm Growing: Manzanitas and Japanese Plums

Blooming in the garden now are Japanese plums and manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.). The top two photos are different varieties of flowering Japanese plum, Prunus mume, usually among the first flowers to bloom in the new year. They smell soooo good.

The next photo shows flowers on Acrctostaphylos pajaroensis, a comparatively rare variety that it has taken me several attempts to get established. It's hard to see from this close-up photo, but the plant is striking for its deep (for a manzanita) pink flowers that are set off against blue-green foliage. New leafy growth appears in an orangey-red hue that is particularly pretty.

The bottom photo shows Arctostaphylos densiflora "Sentinel." As its Latin name suggests, it becomes densely covered in blossoms at this time of year. It's one of the primary early nectar sources for the bees.

Books I'm Reading: Strange Maps

I've just finished reading Strange Maps (Viking Studio, 2009), by Frank Jacobs--one of the most pleasurable reads I've had in some time. Strange Maps is subtitled An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities, and that it is--a collection of odd maps (map broadly defined) collected from the many that have been featured on the Strange Maps Blog. It is a choice selection of some of the most interesting and whimsical cartographical creations you're likely to find.

I picked this book up off the counter at Borders just before Christmas, where someone had left it, squashing candy bars or something in front of one of the registers. As I walked by, finally headed for one of the cashiers (after the longest wait in a bookstore I've ever experienced--about 40 minutes) something made me grab it and add it to my stack. My gain. Too bad for the person that abandoned it at the last minute. (If you're out there and have had second thoughts, go back and get a copy.)

The maps are arranged in broad categories such as Cartographic Misconceptions (maps that simply got it wrong); Zoomorphic Maps (as the name implies); Political Parody; and Strange Borders (why are the outlines of so many countries seemingly illogical?), among many others. One section is devoted to unusual maps of Manhattan, one to maps used as propaganda, one to maps as thought experiments (mapping the world of alternative realities--for example, a map of Europe based on the assumption that the Nazis won WWII), another to maps based on the familiar London Underground route map, yet another to maps of places in outer space. If you're not already salivating, this book is probably not up your alley.

Some of my favorites:
  • Drawn from Memory: United Shapes of America
A collection of children's drawings of the outline of the United States. They range from fairly accurate to remarkably amorphous. As the commentary points out, a few features seem to lodge themselves fairly easily in the mind--notably the Florida peninsula. Others are almost uniformly mangled--for example, the Great Lakes region. Alaska and Hawai'i get short shrift almost without fail. I found this one amusing as it reminded me of sitting around with friends from the UK in Tokyo, drinking wine, trying to draw maps of each other's countries from memory on the backs of napkins. On the whole, my English friends were better at drawing the US than the kids asked to draw the US for this map were. Of course, my friends are adults. Sadly, I'd venture to guess that my (admittedly, mostly highly educated) English friends can draw a map of the United States better than the average adult US citizen. Lest I seem condescending, I plan to post a map here of the UK that I've drawn from memory--when I get around to it. A sad sight it's likely to be, and you can laugh all you like.

(I have a feeling this blog entry will be way too long when it's finally finished.)
  • Scott's Great Snake; or the Anaconda Plan
  • The Jesusland Map
  • A New Simplified Map of London
  • Oklahoma's Stillborn Twin: The State of Sequoyah
  • The Circle and the Wedge: Delaware's Curious Border
  • May the Sauce be with You: Battle Lines of the Barbecue Wars
  • Bubbleland--Not Far from Monkey's Eyebrow: The Kentucky Bend
  • Your Antipodes Most Likely Have fins
  • From Spuyten Duyvil to Battery Park: A Wordmap of Manhattan
  • Itineraries Into Eternity and Back
I think this last may be my favorite of them all. It is a "route map" in the style of the London Underground map we all know and love to paths from birth to death (or rebirth or eternal damnation) as conceived by the world's major religions. Hilarious. I especially like the footnote about the "closed" route from birth directly to Limbo for unbaptized babies, shut down in 2006 by papal decree. The map shows the main routes through the religious life for Muslims, Jews, Christians (Catholics), Buddhists, Hindus, and believers in Shamanism. I don't see any path indicated for us atheists.   
  • Turn the Other Cheek: The French Kissing Map
  • Super Interesting: The World from a Brazilian Perspective
  • One Small Stroll for Man: The First Moonwalk. 
Having picked out favorites, I should say the maps are interesting almost without exception. In an ideal world, I'd be able to describe each of these, but the world is not ideal, as we all know.

Highly recommended. I recommend both the Strange Maps Blog and the book, Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities that collects some of the most interesting maps from the site.
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