The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

January Challenges:

  1. Restart Italian Lessons on Duolingo. So far 1458 points, compared to my son’s 5780 points for Portuguese and daughter’s 1201 points for French. But, hey, my son is highly motivated since he married a Brazilian woman and my daughter has only just started. Yeah, we’re competitive.
  2. Read a book every two weeks. So far, so good, with three read in January (see notes below). One was really short, so is that cheating?
  3. Get back to sketching. Nope, total fail. Watch for my new February Challenge.

Lost Opportunities?

Did you know that The University of Texas’ mascot, BEVO, is an endangered livestock breed and that there are only 1,200 purebred Texas Longhorn cattle left in the US? This breed is disappearing because most ranchers don’t want to deal with those enormous horns and instead cross them with other less-horny breeds so they can benefit from the Longhorn’s unique genetics while avoiding those hook’ems. I bring this up because the University has an opportunity to make the breed its poster-child for the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. Why not use $1 from each athletic event at UT to fund a conservation program at The Livestock Conservancy? And to engage ag students to find a market need for these creatures so that farmers will add a few of these impressive cattle to their herds? Just wondering. Seems so obvious a win for ag and a creative way to support diversity.


Anniversaries: Memories of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919

In case you missed this, on January 15th, one hundred years ago, over two million gallons of molasses burst from storage tanks in Boston’s North End. A combination of warming temperatures, ethanol, cold syrup, and decaying storage tanks all contributed to the wave of sticky molasses that rolled through the area, killing 21 people and injuring over 100 people. I noticed this when researching the history of food supply chains. Could this happen again today?

Unexpected and Surprising

While attending the Antigua Forum in Antigua, Guatemala (of all places) I learned about the history of Haas avocados, our current toast obsession. In the 1920s, Wilson Popenoe of The United Fruit Company brought the Antiguan variety to Southern California where it eventually became the Haas variety. A plaque in Antigua presented in 1946 by the California Avocado Society celebrates the connection with Antigua; in the 1950s, I remember three avocado trees growing in our front yard. I’d pile the ripe ones in my red wagon and sell them door-to-door on the street where we lived. An early startup venture. Wonder if they were the new Haas variety? (See my doodle below)


Books Read in January

  • In January, I read three books, each entirely different. Edward Dolnick’s Clockwork Universe covers enlightened, scientific thought from Aristotle to Sir Isaac Newton. He explains how scientists began to view the world as a machine, decipherable through an enlarged understanding of mathematics. He moves from Copernicus to Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and finally to Leibniz, showing how each built their theories upon others, some arguing, disputing, and sometimes stealing the ideas of their peers. Looking forward to re-reading the last chapter of Newton’s The Principia, written in 1729, where Newton’s spiritual views come to the surface. “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets,” he says, “could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Another example of how art, science, and spirituality comingle.
  • J. Jacobs book, Thanks a Thousand (A Gratitude Journey) is just that. A journey from a field of coffee beans to his morning Joe. He seeks out 1,000 people who brought him his cup of coffee and personally thanks each of them. Not only does it reveal just how many people perform the tasks required to deliver a simple food item, but mostly how important it is to practice gratitude. Not naturally an optimistic, grateful sort, he is honest about how challenging it is for us to stop to thank those who perform simple tasks. Inspiring and a quick read.
  • H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald is not a quick read. I picked up the book after taking a lesson in falconry over the holidays and remembered that the book also related to the death of the author’s father. My dad passed away in September, so the two touch points pulled me into her story. Don’t even think about trying to skim those pages for you’d miss her exquisite prose, words that pop, stop, and pleasantly ramble. The passing of her father creates a compulsion to return to her hobby of falconry. Her story exposes her pain and the process of finding her place in a new landscape. So much to learn here about falcons, especially Mable, her goshawk. In the end she her new landscape embraces her as she rediscovers love and a balance between humans and the natural world. There’s a quick trip to Maine near the end that reveals Maine’s falconry culture, a far cry from MacDonald’s Cambridge fens.

Manic Color: Pierre Bonnard exhibit at London’s Tate Modern

One of my favorite museums is the Tate Modern in London. This month it opened an exhibit of paintings by Pierre Bonnard from around 1912. His paintings are full of vibrant color, everyday domestic scenes, transparent yet luminous. Rich layerings of texture and color.

What better canvas for Bonnard’s colors than my own hair, noted above over the past year or so.

Sundance Film Festival, just a taste

For our 39th wedding anniversary, my husband and I attended the Sundance Film Festival and saw (among other films) the premiere of The Innovator, a film about Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. Most of you will be familiar with the rapid rise and calamitous downfall of the company. Ms Holmes and her former partner (the COO) are currently awaiting trial for wire fraud … among several other counts of fraud. The company has dissolved. The story is dramatic; woman drops out of Stanford, creates a company built upon the promise of making blood tests accessible and affordable to the public. The problem appears to be a combination of a bold vision, miscalculations of the complexity of the problem, and a total lack of transparency. While the film seems to disparage Silicon Valley startups as being arrogant and irresponsible, perhaps a lesson for us here today is that, like technology for blood testing, technology in our food system can have direct life and death consequences. Food poisoning for example. Perhaps, the lesson one could draw from Theranos is that when it comes to startups with ideas that involve our personal health, we need to be even more diligent about the consequences, on multiple levels. Human privacy, physical integrity, health. While the payoff can be huge, transparency, personal control of our health, less waste, the downsides are also huge….some of Theranos users received test results that falsely indicated they had cancer. Innovation in our food system will deliver positive results, but requires extra due diligence not apparent in the Theranos story.

Other films of note that we saw: (star-ratings, totally my own)

Monos: (3 out of 5 stars) Lord of the Flies meets Apocalypse Now

Share: (5 out of 5 stars) Moving story about a young girl who survives the fallout after images from a night she can’t remember appear on social media.

Sea of Shadows: (4 out of 5 stars) Panoramic, action-filled account of the Mexican Mafia, Chinese traders, and the loss of sea life in the Sea of Cortez. The main character is an endangered whale, the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale. Only 10-15 remain, threatened by sea nets used to catch totoaba; the Chinese falsely claim the totoaba bladders are a remedy for various diseases. Intense film, a grim view of how multiple levels of corruption cooperate.