Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My Computer and I - An Endangered Alliance

My computer and I don't get along very well. I always thought I was in charge and told it what to do. In actuality, I tell it what to do, and it does whatever it wants---much like one of our teenagers. I've always treated it well. You know: cards, monitors, keyboards, mice. A wide array of utilities. Firewall. Other Security. It has no reason for complaint.

I should have stayed with this.

Okay, so I talk to my computer. I plead with it. Sometimes I yell at it. Big Deal! Lots of people do that---and I have good reasons just like anyone else. I can't have the computer arrested and hauled off to jail, you know. On several occasions I've threatened to bounce its innermost electronic circuitry off a brick wall---but I need it, and I'm stuck with it for the moment. At least until my new computer shows up. [Shhh! Don't let my old computer know about that, it might fall completely apart, and I can't afford a computer analyst.]

My computer needs a new name. My brother originally called it 'knucklehead' when he set it up. I'm sure he thought that was funny, but apparently my tower of electronic gibberish is living up to its current name. So any change of name must be as properly descriptive. [I tried to use the words onomatopoeia and onomatopoeic here to impress all you readers, but they don't quite fit the bill.]

Anyway, based on what I've been calling it lately [at various decibel levels,] I've a lot of names to choose from: 'C'monnnnn!!!'; 'C'mon dammit!! ' 'Stop this!!!' 'Damn You!' 'Not Again!!' 'Arggghhh!!!'---though I don't have a drop of pirate blood in my veins, so help me. But, I'm sort of partial to 'Damn Thing!' at the moment---'Dammette!' for short.

And this.

My computer constantly freezes during my work, no matter the program. [Doesn't global warming affect computers?] My cursor [great name!] disappears and appears with a rationale all its own. The program I use most is driving me up a wall. I type in words and I see authentic, electronic gibberish on the screen. The cursor jumps around all over the place, moving words by itself. I have to be careful deleting a letter or a word, because just as I hit the 'delete' key it often highlights whole paragraphs, and I delete everything. I'm often reduced to the two-finger typing style. [The publisher says it can't duplicate the problem, so it must be me. Yeah, right!] Because of all this, I have to make a liberal use of the 'restart' option.

I've been told some of my programs are 'incompatible' with the operating system. What!!! I use Microsoft XP with all the updates. What do you mean 'incompatible?' Perhaps Bill Gates owes me a new computer? [He's not responsible, but he does have more money than the software developer of my db program.]

With all my programs, 'the Damn Thing' makes its presence known by freezing and flashing all over the place. [Electronic version of the Wave?] The manufacturer says the problem can be fixed if I take all my files off the hard disk and we set it up again. And I get to put all my data where? And how? Big deal!

And this.

Now, I readily admit that I do suffer from a bit of fumble fingers, and I'm told that comes from trying to type info as fast as I did when I was younger, and I no longer can do it---though I've determined separately that much of that problem comes from the side effects of a pain medication I'm on. Besides, when you have software and hardware working together to destroy your psyche, your concentration does wander a bit. N'est Pas?

My frustration is also increased---necessarily, I sadly admit---from the numerous alarms I have set on my various computer timepieces for medication, a movie, meeting, or other special need. I tend to get absorbed in my writing, research, and the damning of my computer, thus forgetting everything else. I also have this tiny program which freezes the computer for thirty seconds every three hours [as I've set it] while a picture of an animated and stern, but kindly, woman with an apron and a rolling pin makes rude noises and tells me to take a break. I don't question her. I take the break.

So my writing is now being done with Open Office Writer. [It's the only word processor that doesn't have all the problems. I guess that comes from its being free.] Open Office Suite is a worthy answer [and it's free] to Microsoft Works Plus. I'll copy this essay into my regular program later.

The 'Damn Thing' in recent days.

And when the changing-of-the-guard occurs, you're all invited to 'the Damn Thing's' 'mother board execution,' [by lethal rejection, of course] at dawn on the second Tuesday after the third Friday of the second blue moon month of Summer. I know the word 'mother' is involved here, but despite that, it's a necessary event. Here it comes: It's a dirty job but someone has to do it! Yo! I'm qualified!

This is now the morning after, and some of my programs are working quickly as God intended. Perhaps threatening the old tower of gibberish---excuse me, the 'Damn Thing'---helps control it's anti-human feelings. And I'm certainly feeling more human today. I did some cleaning, cooking, treadmill, and took a shower. You really wanted to know that, didn't you?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

From 'The Horseless Carriage' Magazine, November 6, 1901:

Doctors Turned Automobilists

Letter One

'After having used horses in my medical practice for ten years, I became interested in the automobile as doing away with the great expense of keeping teams, the bother and disagreeable features of drivers, etc. I subscribed for the three leading automobile journals, sent for a catalogue of every vehicle I saw advertised, attended every automobile show I could get to, and finally pinned my faith to steam as the best power for my business.

'The first of April finally saw me in possession of a steam carriage of the latest construction. Ready for anything, and on the point of selling my teams---so sure was I that the automobile was the proper means of locomotion for a doctor. My experience with steam had all been on paper, my knowledge of it being derived entirely from catalogues and journals. So after fixing up after a fashion I started out and ran quite a distance very successfully.

'Then wishing to appear before my family as a full-blown chauffeur, I started for my residence, just in front of which I began to smell gasoline for five minutes. Without stopping to think, I pulled out a match and attempted to relight the fire. Piff! Bang! And the whole thing was ablaze. I retained presence of mind enough to turn off the main gasoline supply and to throw out the cushions and throw mud and dirty water from the street at it until I had subdued the flames, but my $800 auto looked like a bad case of delirium tremens: the paint was scorched and soiled and my reputation as an expert shattered the first day among all the neighbors, who, as usual, witnessed the accident.

'This first experience rather put a damper on my enthusiasm, at least for two or three days, but when the machine had been washed up it looked somewhat better, and after much persuasion I induced my wife to accompany me on a short spin. After we had ridden out about a mile I suddenly missed the water. The fusible plug blew out and my boiler burned. Now I was simply going to shine! I explained how this could easily be overcome, for (according to the catalogue) all that is necessary is to insert a key where the fusible plug was, pump up the water by hand, and go rejoicing on your way. Spreading a robe on the ground I proceeded to put my printed instructions into practice; but, alas! I found the key would not fit in the opening, as the babbitt metal stuck to the sides and the tubes were leaking badly. So with fingers burned and clothes soiled and disordered I was again towed home in disgrace, and here I learned my first two lessons in automobiling: First, don't believe over one-half you read in the printed catalogue; second, never wear a silk hat, frock coat and white linen on an auto trip; they don't look well after an accident.'

Letter Two

'Many object to the steam type of machine on the ground that there are so many important matters to keep in mind. I personally think this is one of the advantages, for it gives one a great deal of personal satisfaction to master a beautiful piece of mechanism and keeps his faculties alert while utilizing the same.

'We do not go fishing for pleasure with a net, and spirited horses are still in demand. As I have never had two machines at one time I cannot really decide on my preference for use. I intend to have both styles next year and shall be curious to find out which one I really get the most use out of. I am sure the beginner will usually have more luck with the steam machine, for its main points can be appreciated in fifteen minutes' time. I have seen an expert work on a gasoline machine all day, and then after it got to running be unable to tell which of his various adjustments had accomplished the end in view.

'There is no question that the gasoline machine is far ahead as to economy of fuel, though the repairs of batteries and cost of oil used are somewhat amazing. The usual repair shop would hardly care to tackle the mechanism of a gasoline engine, and if the carriage is purchased from a manufacturer some hundreds of miles away the element of time and expense involved is rather appalling. Another trouble with the heavy gasoline machines is the very weight which enables them to obtain the high speeds and be properly steered. Many of them cannot be pulled by a single horse and offer a severe strain to the ordinary harness. If one gets down into a ditch it is practically impossible to do anything without the assistance of quite a gang of men.'

Saturday, March 08, 2008

I Still Can't Buy it Sliced!

I was 'speaking' to Intef the other day [an ancient figment on my imagination], and he agreed to assist me in recording my thoughts about Ancient Egyptian grains and breads. His duties in the Pharaoh's palace as 'Major Domo' are heavy, but since I'm a modern figment of his imagination, he felt okay in working with me.

In case you're wondering, the Ancient Egyptians were not Arabs. The Arabic people did not invade and conquer until many centuries into the AD period. So, I'll be speaking of the 'old folks' in Egypt---though their language was somewhat Semitic.

One reason Ancient Egypt was able to become a great agricultural country was the lure of the Annual Nile Flood. Why roam as a nomad when the river created a rich, stable farmland for you on a regular basis? So the ancients settled down; the growing lands were fertile, crops grew well, and animal domestication progressed. It seems logical then, to believe that this reality led to the production of more than enough food for the populace, thus allowing civilization to spread out and develop human specialties: farming; religion; politics and leadership; crafts; services; etc. We must also remember that 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, the Egyptian countryside was not as arid as it is today. The lusher land then was populated even by lions, elephants, and hippopotami. And, at its maximum, the population of a larger Egypt was no more than 5 million, compared to today's smaller Egypt with about 50 million souls.

The earliest domesticated crop was probably barley, with emmer wheat developing a bit later. The grains were first used by themselves: chewed, soaked, dried; mixed with various ingredients to make cakes of sorts; and finally, grilled or baked. Barley and wheat grains could be used as porridge or mixed with other foods to make stews or gruel. Cracked wheat 'groats' were often served.

Pounding the grain and separating the chaff created a rough flour that was easier to work with than the raw or dried grain itself, thus providing tastier ways of basic food preparation. But, barley flour's chemical make-up was unsuitable for leavening, and its breads were probably dense, flat, rough, and course.

Early Egyptian wheat was toasted to make it easier to separate from the chaff [thus leaving us numerous charred grains to examine.] A later developed strain permitted easier threshing without the heating process, and production of a wheat flour capable of being 'raised' by wild yeast microbes began. Improved winnowing, pounding or grinding, and sieving procedures created an easier-to-handle flour, something akin to our 'whole wheat.'

But the pounding, grinding, and sifting procedures never improved sufficiently for the Ancient Egyptians to create a pure, finely ground flour. There were always foreign particles and grit in the end product. Chewing and eating such breads, especially of the courser barley, wore down their teeth to a great degree. A good modern dentist would have been able to earn millions---perhaps deification?

You can almost hear a representative worker or craftsman sitting down to an evening meal with his family and biting into the latest loaf of bread with disgust. 'Great Khufu's Ghost! They can build a 965 cubit Pyramid, but they can't bake a decent loaf of bread without a lot of grit in it!' Some things never change.

Raised wheat bread was probably discovered by accident. Dough left to sit before baking could have become the resting place for wild years microbes. The bread rose slightly and, when baked, created a lighter and better tasting product. Fortuitous accidents like that always seem to move people to re-create them for their own benefit. Once the process of raised bread was a little better understood, the perfection of a raising agent came next. Beer froth, wine froth, and by the 18th Dynasty pure yeasts were used with the dough. Perhaps baking soda [bicarbonate of soda] was prepared from the easily obtained natron salts [hydrous sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.]

Once a wild yeast was in the dough, however, it could replicate itself in other dough batches through the use of a 'left-over' starter. Keeping a piece of yesterday's dough for incorporation into today's, created a dough which would rise and become lighter and better tasting bread on a regular basis. In effect, some Ancient Egyptian bread was similar to our modern 'sourdough bread.'

Barley was cheaper than wheat, and as a matter of economics it would have been a staple for the poorer Ancient Egyptians, and certainly used for feast representations of deities and animals. The tastier and more expensive wheat products would appear in the wealthy households regularly.

Coarsely ground barley was mixed and used to make a semi-baked barley bread starter for brewing beer. The light baking did not destroy the enzymes needed for fermentation. The discoverers of beer, although never positively identified, have probably been blessed for thousands of years---though this beer was always rather cloudy and a bid doughy.

Intef told me many tales about the wine and beer parties at the palace. Why, he remembers one occasion---but that story's for another time.

The wheat bread was baked in many shapes and qualities: flat bread; triangular bread; raised loaves; molded conical loaves; enriched loaves; sweetened loaves; etc. Some breads were imported from Syria. Breads were enriched or sweetened with milk, eggs, spices [thyme, cumin, coriander, anise, etc.]---perhaps even filled with meats.

Some breads were flattened or rolled into spirals and deep fried; some were decorated, marked, or slashed; and some were baked into special shapes for religious or celebratary reasons. Some were baked in an oven, some along the inner sides, and some in pre-heated pots.

If baked in a covered pot, they would be moister from the retained steam. Fresh dough placed on a near-finished stew and cooked covered seems plausible, so my imagination sees it in the Ancient Egyptian kitchen [which was away from the house in most cases.] The Ancients would probably have felt comfortable creating and baking bread with anyone's Grandma.

In many cases, the Ancient Egyptians kneaded the bread dough with their feet. [Products might then be thought to be Cheese-Bread?] I don't know why, and neither did the ancient Greek, Herodotus, who said: 'dough they knead with their feet, but clay with their hands.' Perhaps Grandma wouldn't be so amenable to their kitchen assistance, after all.

Intef, our mystical advisor, says that today's cooks don't have to be perfectionists when it comes to making modern versions of the Ancient Egyptian breads. You can easily purchase bread if you're not an accomplished baker. Even Intef used a specialist for the palace. There are many fresh doughs and breads on the market with simple ingredients: water, flour, salt, yeast. [Sand and ground stone are optional]

Pizza dough, Italian Bread, French Bread, Portuguese Bread, and Pita Bread are good examples. I've seen available in the local markets a bread called Mountain Bread, or Syrian Bread---thin, flat breads sold in a package that is rectangular, but the two thin loaves are folded over to make a circle into a rectangle. An excellent Chinese style 'bread' made with flour, salt, and scallions [oil cake or scallion cake] is available, as are olive or raisin breads. Other rustic breads from the various cultures in the World probably have the same ingredients as these simple examples. Buy them all unsliced and slice them on the go or tear them apart in an Ancient Egyptian mystical frenzy.

'Bread is the staff of life.' Indeed, it's among the first food products to be prepared in a beginning civilization. So make sure you have your seed and recipes when you get stranded on that dreamy, desert island. Or else, make sure your companion is a baker. You'll need a proper companion to start a new civilization anyway.