How Maple Syrup Was Invented (My Theory)

Yesterday, Derek had a post about a non-geotropic icicle at his house.  It got me to thinking about my own icicle story – it’s about icicles AND maple syrup.

While Québec is the largest producer of real Maple Syrup; here in New Brunswick, we have a pretty solid industry built around it.  Of course, maple syrup is only one of the products you can make with the sap of the Sugar Maple: maple butter and maple candy are also popular, especially in these parts. As a matter of fact, there is an annual tradition for most people to take their kids out to the “Sugarbush” to visit a “Sugar Camp” AKA “Sugar Shack.”  Here you see my daughter and three neighbourhood friends about to enjoy their treat of some hot thick maple liquid, which is kind of halfway through the refining process between syrup and candy.  Here it is being poured onto some snow, where the kids roll it onto popsicle sticks and it cools into a kind of lollipoppish thing.

For those who don’t know, maple products are made through a series of evaporations.  The sap that is taken directly from the tree is boiled until most of the water is gone and the sugary part dominates the liquid.  That’s syrup.  You get about 1 part syrup for every 8-10 parts sap that you boil.  Boil it some more, and pour it into molds, let it harden – that’s candy.  The technique was probably discovered by the Algonquin First Nation, but there are other theories.

Anyway, my question has always been, and the Web doesn’t even seem to know the answer, what prompted some nutcase hundreds or thousands of years ago, to boil tree sap and then eat it?  Did they try this with everything?  Was there some mad proto-scientist who went around boiling random things and feeding the results to people to see what happened?

For years I wondered about this, and then, last spring, I figured it out.

First, some physics about how maple sap is collected.  Or, more importantly, when.  It can only be collected in the spring, when the temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise above 0°C during the day.  As you know, water expands when it freezes.  So the night-time freeze forces the sap (which is produced by the roots) up the trunk of the tree to nourish the buds that will become leaves.  During the day, the sap melts inside the tree to become liquid again.  That’s when the taps that have been hammered into the tree trunk drip out the sap into waiting buckets.

But the question remains; who figured out it was worthwhile to do all this?  I got my answer one spring evening when I noticed an icicle, about 30cm long, hanging from a branch of the sugar maple in our front yard.  Nothing strange about that, but then I noticed that there were no other icicles on any other tree in our yard, or any other on this particular tree either.  I then noticed that this icicle was emanating from a place where that branch had been broken during the winter – probably by ice/snow overload or something.  Therefore, the icicle hadn’t been formed by rain or snow-melt — it must be frozen liquid that came from the tree.  I broke off the icicle (like people, including Algonquins, have been doing for millennia), and tasted it, and it was decidedly sweet.  Aha!  So I rushed inside and put the icicle into a pot and boiled it.

Now, bear in mind that the total volume of this icicle was only about 100ml.  But I did triumphantly produce about half a teaspoon of syrup.  Mystery solved!


What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Back in July, I attended the 25th reunion for the class of ’84 at UNB.  Part of the allure was that is was also a get together for many of the cast and crew of the ’81, ’82, ’83, ’84, and ’85  Red ‘n’ Black Revues.  We all had a tonne of fun, including re-enacting perhaps the biggest and best production number that UNB’s annual variety show has ever seen:  the Time Warp/Sweet Transvestite numbers from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I have woefully few pix from the event, but my pal Eric Langshur has posted a good mix here.  That’s me sporting the skull cap in the role of Riff-Raff.  Unfortunately, the skull cap looks more like a condom.

Amusement with Preposition Misuse

As I’ve mentioned before, I very rarely literally LOL when I’m reading, watching, or listening to funny stuff.  Not that I’m not entertained – it just takes a lot for me to actually utter audible laughter.  Well, a SINGLE PANEL of Scott Meyer’s latest Basic Instructions comic got me to LOL for at least a minute this morning:

Made With

The rest of the strip is here.

Waiting in Traffic

Yesterday, I was in Manhattan for the day for a meeting.  Afterwards, I took the NYC subway and New Jersey Transit commuter train back to Liberty Newark airport.  My flight left the gate right on schedule, and then we proceeded to spend 70 minutes in line waiting to take off.  Our pilot said we were 30th in line.  As we accelerated down the runway, I counted 50 aircraft in line behind us, most of them wide-body jets.

This happens to me almost every time I leave Newark at around the end of the business day, so I presume it happens the majority of the time, at least at that hour.  And of course, all of them have to leave their engines running, so they can inch forward when required.  I have no idea how much fuel an A340 or 777 uses while “idling” but I presume those big, honkin’ Pratt & Whitneys consume more that your average Prius.

It seems to me that arranging things so that 80 planes aren’t all trying to leave on the same runway at the same time wouldn’t be that difficult.  Perhaps I should call Al Gore.

BTW, when I image-googled “planes waiting in line” this was the best shot I could get.  They’re mostly 727s, so this shot is probably from c. 1980, but it IS Newark — you can tell from the 5 smokestacks in the background.

Elevator Defaults

I am genuinely curious about the behaviour of the elevators in the building where I work.  As I am frequently in on the weekends, and often the only person in the structure at that time, I have noticed a peculiar phenomenon that others probably miss.

Some background:  the building has seven floors, plus a basement.  There are two elevators – the one on the left serves the main (ground) floor through 7; the one on the right goes to the basement as well.

When either elevator drops you off, it doesn’t stay where it left you.  The one on the left always goes to rest at the 4th floor; and the one one the right always goes to park at the fifth.  ALWAYS.

It would seem to be a waste of energy to move the cars for no reason, especially since if it has just discharged a load on the ground floor, that’s the highest probability for the next rider to summon it to.  Why not just stay there?

I considered the fact that they may go to some mid-point where they can respond most quickly to a request from ANY floor, but that doesn’t make sense – if they were trying for rapid response, the one on the left (which services 7 floors only) should indeed hang out at 3½ (so we’ll say 4 is OK), but the one on the right (which also handles the basement should be at 3, not 5.  AND, when I am calling a car to the ground floor from their default resting places, the one from 5 always comes to get me, not the closer one.

Is it possible that it takes more energy to hold a car at G than at 4 or 5?  Is that why they always return to those floors?  Does anyone know anything about elevator efficiency algorithms? 

As an aside, I wonder about the naming conventions of “floors” and “stories.”  In Europe, the main (ground) floor is usually called “Main” or “Ground” or “Lobby” or something like that.  And the level directly above that is called “1.”  In North America, the floor immediately above the ground level is called “2.”  Do you think it’s because when the first two-story structures were built, the upper level was the only one with a “floor,” since the main level would have dirt or mats or thrushes or something other than a floor?  So the second STORY had the first FLOOR.

Three String Bass

Hey, you with the short attention span!  Pop a Ritalin and invest 4½ minutes to watch this cool video.

Mixed Message

ttThis post will start as another jab at the editorial and proof-reading capabilities of the Moncton Times & Transcript, but it gets much more philosophical towards the end.  (This is one of the rare entries of mine where I actually know where I’m going to end up as I start to write.)

This is from the financial section (ha!  more like the financial 6 sq in.) of a recent T&T.  Many people nervously track the financial markets these days, wondering if they’re going to retire to Florida or live out their lives in a van down by the river.  So when they glance at the headline of the “At the Bell” corner of their paper, it’s not exactly reassuring to see that the markets are “mixed.”  I guess it’s better than “down,” but not as cheery as “up.”

But look closer – it seems that Murray Guy’s definition of the word “mixed” is different from, say, everybody else’s.  Mssrs Merriam and Webster think that “mixed” means, “combining characteristics of more than one kind.”  So there should be more than one kind of status for the financial markets covered in this report.  Yet the states of all of them are identical!

I’m not accusing the T&T of deliberately trying to frighten the populace; I’m sure this was just an oversight.  But it did draw my line of thought back to the topic of the last post.  The media, in general, prefer to report on bad, sensational, scary stuff, and even spin stories that might not otherwise be so, in that manner.  Not that I’m blaming them, either – they just, in the words of The Kinks, “Give the People What They Want.”  (Full lyrics appended.)

So why are we, “the people” like this?  Why do we prefer to hear about bad stuff over good stuff?  Is it some latent evolutionary thing where we are at our highest level of excitement when we are afraid?  In the book, Life of Pi, Yann Martel writes about how, despite the ideas of PETA, animals are actually happier in zoos because they’re not at risk of being eaten every single minute.  I’m wondering if this is true – perhaps people, and animals, PREFER to be constantly on edge.


Give the people what they want

Well, its been said before, the world is a stage
A different performance with every age.
Open the history book to any old page
Bring on the lions and open the cage.

Give the people what they want
You gotta give the people what they want
The more they get, the more they need
And every time they get harder and harder to please

The roman promoters really did things right.
They needed a show that would clearly excite.
The attendance was sparse so they put on a fight
Threw the christians to the lions, sold out every night

Give the people what they want
You gotta give the people what they want
The more they get, the more they need
And every time they get harder and harder to please

Give em lots of sex, perversion and rape
Give em lots of violence, and plenty to hate
Give the people what they want
Give the people what they want

When olswald shot kennedy, he was insane
But still we watch the re-runs again and again
We all sit glued while the killer takes aim
Hey mom, there goes a piece of the presidents brain!

Give the people what they want
You gotta give the people what they want
Blow out your brains, and do it right
Make sure its prime time and on a saturday night.
You gotta give the people what they want
You gotta give the people what they want
Give the people what they want
Give the people what they want
Give the people what they want

Wanna See a Yurt?

home-image1Too busy for real post, so here’s a link from a service I subscribe to that sends me interesting stuff every day:

In the last days of the Russian Empire, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii traveled the land in a specially outfitted railroad car: Czar Nicholas II had commissioned him to photograph the entire length and breadth of his territories.

Unusually for that time, the photos are in colour. By taking three shots in quick succession with red, green, and blue filters, Prokudin-Gorskii was able to capture the peacock robes of a Central Asian emir, the lushness of a Chakva tea farm, and the vibrancy of Russian Orthodox icons in a Smolensk church. Prokudin-Gorskii took his last photographs, of the Murmansk railroad, in 1915; three years later the czar was dead. The photographer ended up in Paris. His glass-slide negatives found their to the Library of Congress.

Oh – here’s the yurt:


Work Prevents Blogger From Meaningful Post

So here’s a link to a strangely hypnotic slideshow of flickr photos from all over the world.


Wiccan Prime Minister?

Barack Obama is being inaugurated today.  What?  You already knew that?  Dang, so much for my blog being a source of late-breaking news.  It is of course significant because he is black.  Just as JFK’s election was significant because he was Roman Catholic.

I know it seems silly now to think that Catholicism vs. Protestantism would be an issue in selecting a President, but 50 years ago, it was.  (Maybe in another 50 years, skin colour won’t matter either.)

But back to religion.  I have a friend who is a practicing Wiccan, and who ran for office in the last federal election.  I don’t for a moment believe her religion affected any of the voters, but what if she had been on a bigger stage?  What if she had been running for the leadership of her party or even Prime Minister?  Even if you believe that Canadians are tolerant enough to handle that, imagine a devout muslim or sikh running for the US presidency.

Why should it matter which invisible friend you believe in?  I personally don’t believe in any supreme being.  But then I don’t believe in acupuncture or meditation either – and that doesn’t lessen my regard for those who do.

So why is it that people can get over an obvious physical difference like race or gender, but not a subtle variance in belief systems?