One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows four triumphant cavemen with a giant carrot hoisted onto their shoulders with the caption: "Early vegetarians returning from the kill."
That's kind of what it looks like every autumn weekend when my better half, Dan, comes home from the farmer's market with a half-bushel of apples balanced on his shoulder.
Dan is really into apples. On one memorable "date" a few years ago, we attended a rare apple tasting in Santa Cruz run by the Monterey chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers. "Really?" I asked. "A rare apple tasting? Is that even a thing?" Indeed it is.
When I was a kid, I knew about two kinds of apples: red and green — and I wasn't all that excited to find either of them in my lunch box. Who wanted a piece of fruit when the other kids had those little containers of crackers and "cheese product" with a red plastic stick for easy spreading? (You know the ones.)
But in Santa Cruz we joined a gaggle of rare-fruit enthusiasts to taste 71 different types of apples, and I realized that I hadn't been giving the apple enough credit. There were dozens of varieties here. These apples had completely ridiculous names like "Brushy Mountain Limbertwig" and "Karmijn de Sonnaville" and "Tydemann's Late Orange" and "Belle de Boskoop." Some were such a deep, dark red that they looked like plums. Others, when you sliced them, revealed pale pink insides.
It was eye-opening. And despite a steady drizzle, we spent a happy afternoon nibbling on little bites of cut-up apples and finally settling on our own favorite, the "Reinette Rouge Etoilee."
If there isn't a rare apple tasting coming up in your future, here's the next best thing: food writer and self-described "apple stalker" Rowan Jacobsen's new book called Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders. It's a who's who of apples — 123 "portraits," organized into categories like "Dessert Apples," "Cider Fruit" and "Oddballs."
Jacobsen makes the case that the apple renaissance we're enjoying now is actually The Second Age of the Apple. He says the first started back in the early 1700s, when seeds brought over from Europe by colonists multiplied like crazy in America. Unlike other fruits, apples "don't need us at all," Jacobsen writes. "They will run rampant through any temperate environment, metamorphosing endlessly."
Settlers began grafting the very best of those trees — snipping a shoot off one tree, fusing it onto another, and ending up with a clone of the original. "Every Granny Smith," Jacobsen tells us, "stems from the chance seedling spotted by Maria Ann Smith in her Australian compost pile in 1868."
The First Age of the Apple included Thomas Jefferson, who focused on four varieties of apples at his Monticello plantation — Esopus Spitzenberg, Newtown Pippin, Hewes Crab and Taliaferro. "They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown Pippin," Jefferson wrote disparagingly, from Paris, of European fruit.
The apple's biggest break came when Americans began to move west, Jacobsen explains. John Chapman (whom you might know better as Johnny Appleseed) helped establish nurseries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. It was a time of tremendous growth and experimentation; according to Jacobsen, there were some 7,500 American apple varieties.
But it wouldn't last. The 20th century brought with it industrial-sized orchards feeding national distributors who did not care to work with smaller farms or their "inconsistent" apples. Only a handful of apples — of the thousands once available in the 19th century — ever made it to the modern supermarket, Jacobsen says. The omnipresent Red Delicious apple was bred more for color than for taste: "American consumers brought this disaster upon themselves by consistently choosing the redder apple over the tastier one," he laments. Those are the ones I knew, until Santa Cruz.
That apple tasting was just a part of a larger movement focused on celebrating and saving these rare varieties before they die out.
John Bunker, founder of Fedco Trees, played a critical role in this second movement, Jacobsen says. He posts "Wanted" posters in towns in search of hard-to-find apples. Bunker has saved some 80 apple varieties that otherwise might have been lost.
A growing market for different kinds of apples has also spurred innovation from the apple industry. Jacobsen points to Gala and Honeycrisp as "recent stars of the produce aisle" that — though sometimes maligned by heirloom apple connoisseurs — he suspects would have been a hit among early American settlers. That said, there's concern that "focus-grouped" apples are being cast in Honeycrisp's image — sweet, crispy and juicy, but without much nuance.
The book also includes 123 apple biographies, with each fruit described and documented in loving detail. It feels a little bit like Facebook for fruit — profile photos taken from the most flattering angle, and a rundown of basic biographical data — origin, appearance, flavor, texture, season, use and region. (Of course, there's some good gossip, too — like how Golden Delicious "sired" Jonagold, Mutsu, Gala, Pink Lady, and many more).
You'll also find some fun facts in the short essays that accompany each variety. Remember fictional Vietnam vet and general badass Rambo? First Blood author David Morrell got the idea for his character's name from Summer Rambo, an apple his wife bought from a farm stand. The apple that helped 22-year-old Isaac Newton come up with his theory of gravity in 1666? It was a Flower of Kent.
There are some more useful tips as well — Jacobsen advises you on which apple to put in a strudel (Glockenapfel) and which apple to eat with a slice of cheddar cheese (Westfield Seek-No-Further).
And in a 300-page book devoted entirely to one fruit, there are some fairly creative descriptions such as: "Like the Incredible Hulk, Mutsu is huge, green, and strangely lovable." And, "Granite Beauty is like the Charles Bukowski of the apple world. It gives the feeling of dissolute existence brought on by life too deeply felt."
When you reach the end of the profiles, you'll find 20 apple-centric recipes, a glossary of apple terms, and resources for "apple geeks" — like mail order trees, mail order fruit, cider makers and annual apple festivals.
Speaking of apple festivals, don't be surprised if you run into Dan and me at the Monticello Apple Tasting in late October.
Ending decades of family leadership, Washington Post owner Jeffrey Bezos announced on Tuesday that Frederick J. Ryan Jr. would be taking over as publisher of the venerable journalism institution.
Ryan, a former Reagan administration official and founding member of the website Politico, will take over for Katharine Weymouth.
"The departure of Weymouth, 48, ends eight decades of Graham family leadership of The Post, which her great-grandfather bought in 1933. Bezos, who acquired The Post for $250 million in a sale announced in August 2013, initially kept the senior leadership team intact. He told Weymouth during a visit to Washington, on Aug. 18, that he had selected a new publisher, according to people familiar with the decision. She will remain on the company payroll as an adviser through the end of the year.
"Ryan, 59, an attorney, spent years rising in the Reagan administration, eventually becoming a top presidential aide and key leader in the construction of his presidential library and numerous other initiatives after Reagan left office in 1989.
"In an interview Monday, Ryan called The Post 'a world-class news organization' that has made substantial progress in building a digital readership. He said it would continue to pursue a 'growth strategy' that involved investing in journalistic innovation to expand The Post's reach and audience."
NPR's David Folkenflik reports that Ryan will take over Oct. 1; he's currently chairman of the Ronald Reagan Library foundation.
Of course, David is referring to Weymouth's decision to name Martin Baron, formerly of the Boston Globe, executive editor and the key role she played in the sale of the newspaper to Bezos, a journalism outsider who made his name as the founder of Amazon.com.
The members of Restorations have always had a heartland rock album in them. The Philadelphia band continued to flirt with punk and emo on LP1 and LP2 — it's hard to let go of lingering past influences — but LP3 is a lush, bottom-heavy rock 'n' roll record with a bleeding heart way out front. Premiering here, "Separate Songs" is its first single, with a video co-directed by Mitchell Wojcik and John Komar.
Singer and guitarist Jon Loudon writes:
"Separate Songs" is one of our favorite compositions off LP3. We got to do all the things we like in here: heinous feedback, giant chorus, too many guitar solos, etc. The song is about throwing your computer out the window.
Keeping to its lyrical theme of casting your life to the wind, the video features an unfulfilled man (a professional baseball player, it seems), shot in a cream-and-pastel palette that maybe just needs a splash of red paint.
LP3 comes out Oct. 28 on SideOneDummy Records.
The Kremlin is disputing the context of a controversial quote attributed to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As Italy's La Repubblica reported, Putin allegedly issued a defiant warning to European Commission President Josť Manuel Barros during a phone call.
According to a translation by the Huffington Post U.K., Barros first asked Putin about Russian soldiers on the ground in Ukraine. Putin allegedly responded with this warning: "If I want, I take Kiev in two weeks."
The Daily Mail reports that Barros relayed the conversation to leaders from the 28 European nations and that's where La Repubblica learned about the exchange.
The Kremlin, today, disputed the context of the conversation. The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reports that presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said Putin's words had a very different meaning and that Barros should not have disclosed the conversation because it goes "beyond the bounds of diplomatic practices."
"If that was really done, it looks not worthy of a serious political figure," Ushakov said. "Irrespective of whether these words were pronounced or not, this quote was taken out of context and had a very different meaning."
It's worth noting that Russia has also repeatedly denied that its troops have ventured into Ukraine. The U.S., NATO and Ukraine have accused Russia of intervening directly in the conflict.
The path from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light and from purposelessness to puppies goes something like this:
- Around 400 BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus and other "atomists" make the radical proposition that below all the worlds' appearances, all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible particles.
- Around 2,000 years later (in the 1680s), the fundamental laws of force and motion governing those atoms are laid down by the super-genius and generally angry guy Isaac Newton.
- In 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell, a mild-mannered professor in Scotland, reveals new laws governing electromagnetic fields that extend across space and time and are capable of exerting forces on particles.
- In 1890, desperate to understand the glow emerging from heated bodies, German physicist Max Planck imagines that light (electromagnetic radiation) comes fundamentally in tiny discrete bundles. Contradicting the established wisdom of the day, Planck starts the quantum revolution.
- In 1936, British mathematician Alan Turing proposes the concept of a universal computing machine (now called Universal Turing Machine) that reads instructions on a long tape and carries them out sequentially. It is the archetype of all modern computers.
- In 1948, electrical engineer Claude Shannon makes a brilliant leap forward associating the thermodynamic behavior of matter with the information content of a signal. Information Theory is born.
- In the early 1960s, under the auspices of a government funded research program, the first computers are networked together.
- In 2014, my sister sends me a cute video of a dog with different fruits and vegetables placed on its head.
My sister, like many Internet users, has a soft spot for puppy porn. She often sends links of puppy videos around to friends and family. Now don't tell her I told you this, but, curmudgeon that I am, I often doesn't look at the links. It's not that I don't like puppies. (Who doesn't like puppies?) It's just my innate reaction as computational scientist.
Here is my thinking:
For 2,500 years we've been uncovering nature's deepest structures and most subtle mysteries. For 2,500 years we've built ever more miraculous machines with this hard fought knowledge of cosmic laws and universal patterns. But what we do have to show for it?
We have lots videos of puppies distributed over the Internet. And let's face it: Puppies are the least of what we've done with the Internet. How can it be that we humans could take something built on the revealed truths of electromagnetism, quantum physics and information theory and reduce it nothing more than a puppy porn delivery system? Doesn't this show us how empty and vacuous we are as species?
That is what I used to think. But now, upon reflection, I have decided it shows just the opposite.
The noble-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg once said "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it (also) seems pointless." He was, in effect, saying the universe was without meaning — just a random collection of randomly moving atoms. You hear this kind of thing a lot in certain circles. But I think my sister's cute dog video shows us something quite different about the universe.
The thing is, it's a good cute dog video. It's really good. The fruit and vegetables are quite artfully composed on the pooch's head. The choice of music is perfect in its slightly sinister surf-punk rumblings. The editing skillfully weaves the dogs repeated vegetable-ejection head tilt into the song's pauses. And the dog, who is incredibly cute, is also quite the canine ham.
Whoever made the video took some time with it. They thought about it. Then, from their time and experience, they used the tools at hand and made something creative.
In that way, they created meaning. They made meaning for themselves and for everyone who watched. And that is the point.
Without the remarkable tools based on the remarkable physical laws — the digital camera, the computer with the video editing software, the YouTube site for uploading and dissemination — none of it would have been possible and none of it would exist. But the creation of meaning, human meaning, was an irrevocable part of the discovery of all those physical laws too. Newton's laws, Quantum Mechanics, Information Theory — these fundamental rules of existence may be of the universe, but they find expression in the human world for human purposes. And in that way they have been part of the creation of something new that did not exist before — something just as real as galaxies or planets or stars.
The universe is not without meaning. With the emergence of life and, most of all, sentience, meaning took its place as part of the architecture of the cosmos. Is that important? Well that depends on your perspective. From ours (or any other sentience in the vast universe), it's the most important thing that ever happened. But what about from the universe's own perspective? Well, you let me know when you figure out how to ask it that question.
So for me, for now, that cute dog video my sister sent me has suddenly gotten a whole lot more meaningful.