Strictly for the birds

Well, not really... But I have a job ahead of me taming this camera/lens OR I need to get a new one that's up to what I want to do with it. Out of 70 pics, this is the only one I kept because it's not a blurry mess.

Jay with a peanut
Lightly edited Jay and his peanut. I absolutely love the blue stripes on their wings.

I know bird photography is hard, but even then the sensor isn't up to it with the shutter speed and aperture on this thing. Cameras have evolved since *checks* 2007/8 when this camera came out, and the buyer at the time did not have bird photography in mind in the first place.

Things I can try before chucking it all out and saving up for a new one:

  • use a tripod (need to find the right screw to attach camera to tripod)
  • clean the windows (they're not that dirty, honestly)
  • not take pics through the kitchen window (the birds won't dare to come close enough for the 150mm zoom I have)
  • trying out different settings

That last one would require me to go through the manual, and we all know how we feel about that, don't we? 😅

Have you succeeded in taking pics of the birds visiting your garden, and can you share them? Drop a link in the comments! I'd love to check out your pictures!

Two sunflowers close up

Backyard Wildlife College closes its doors!

But Collegium “Vanachter in den Hof” receives a boost with additional human caretaker!

salad-bar
The wildflower strip at Backyard Wildlife College; our bees and other creepy crawlies enjoyed this a lot.

On June 30 Backyard Wildlife College in Allentown, PA, closed its doors forever — we’re unsure if any new tenants at the human dwelling have moved in and kept up with the wildlife improvements, or if the wildflower strip (aka the salad and protein bar) disappeared when management prepared the property for a new caretaker human. In any case, some of the infrastructure went to neighbouring backyards. You can now find Café Colibri at the human dwelling to the left, and the heated birdbath, squirrel picnic table, and feeding tube right next door to the original location. You don’t have to travel far, and we carefully checked that the humans are wildlife-friendly.

The human caretaker has permanently relocated to Belgium, and has taken up the position of assistant caretaker at Collegium Vanachter in den hof (VIDH) in Flanders, with a side-gig as Orchid Whisperer (more about this in a separate post).

zomer23-overview-garden
Some portraits from the star performers in summer 2023 at Collegium Vanachter in den hof.

We look forward to learning how European wildlife delights the humans near their dwellings in the Old World. We already received reports of sightings of Erik Brown (Squirrel), and of Freddy Fox barking deep into the night. Owl hoot-offs are a nightly occurrence. Over the summer the mosquito aerial combat team prevented most outdoor human activity and we are curious to hear how both parties will negotiate a truce next summer.

At the moment, the caretakers are spoiling the Feathered Division rotten with this fab new addition to the infrastructure, and bespoke mixes of fat, insects, and nuts and seeds. They are setting themselves up for a real challenging Big Garden Birdwatch (Flemish edition) to count all the feathered visitors in late January.

Bird tube feeder mounted on a tray, and covered with a big L-shaped roof, sits on a small round table on a patio. Four birds are on the structure.
New infrastructure at Collegium VIDH is a hit with the Feathered faculty, staff and students!

PSA: For continuity we will continue using the category BackyardWildlifeCollege for all garden-related wildlife adventures even after this relocation.

Rich milk chocolate date and almond gateau

So: here's the recipe, scroll further down for the blabla story that other blogs put before the repice. I personally prefer the reverse: tell me how to do it, then tell me why this dish matters to you. 己所不欲勿施於人 as Confucius said. (Do not do to others as you wouldn't have done to yourself.1 )

Grab a 25 cm/10inch sandwich tin (I use one with a removable bottom), and a few mixing bowls, then gather the following ingredients, and follow the instructions below:

Ingredients:

  • 175g (6oz) unsalted butter
  • 250g (9oz) good quality milk chocolate. For my US-based friends: Trader Joe's Imported Belgian Chocolate is excellent, I personally vouch for it.
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 125g (4oz) light brown sugar
  • 175g (6oz) ground almonds
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) whole almonds crushed
  • 150g (5oz) medjool dates (or poach ordinary dates in water and sugar for ± 3 mins), cut in small pieces

Instructions:

  1. Grease the sandwich tin, and line the base with a circle of grease-proof paper
  2. Preheat the oven to 170C (325F, gas mark 3)
  3. Melt butter and chocolate together au bain-marie or in microwave
  4. Beat the whole three eggs with egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is pale and thick.
  5. Add the ground almonds, the crushed almonds and the dates to that mixture, combine well
  6. Incorporate the butter and chocolate mixture
  7. Pour everything into the sandwich tin and bake for about 50 mins. (I needed to add another 15mins, but our oven is geriatric and temperamental)
  8. Leave to cool before turning out
  9. Decorate with an icing sugar pattern right before serving, if you fancy

Tadaaaa!

chocolate-gateau
Icing decoration optional, but tasty!

On Christmas day we had not prepared the quiche that was murmured about – that one had fallen by the wayside. Just as well, so there was a small pie-shaped hole still available for our guests to try out this gateau. (I know I called it a torte in that previous post but to err is human.) Everyone enjoyed it, after all the other delights we served – including a gorgeous Yule log. Just look at that picture!

yule-log-2023
Our reindeer decoration approves of the Yule Log.

Anyways: it's still as good as I remember, and it reminded me of a very thick brownie with added pizzazz: ever so slightly crunchy on top, moist and substantially chocolatey on the inside, and almond flavour everywhere. My cousin compared it to frangipane but with chocolate, and that's the almonds talking.

This thing was so delish we even saved the crumbs from my clumsy cutting effort for the next day. (Tip: use a sharp knife and a decisive cut.) The Belgian Army didn't show up, neither did the Navy, to help us out, so we hid the rest of the cake in the freezer, because there was serious temptation to eat all the leftovers in one go and that might not have ended well. We're now slowly munching our way through it one piece at a time. We're tempted by cake, not by new year's resolutions here!

chocolate-gateau-piece
This yummy piece of cake survived the freezer effortlessly.

  1. Analects 12:2

Feeding an army (chocolate torte edition)

I'm sure you know the situation: family members (3 people) have been invited for a holiday dinner, with the promise of "something simple, not like you folks do." Then you let it all go for a couple of days and next thing you know, you pick up murmurings of a quiche for opening nibble, and a brunoise has miraculously appeared in the kitchen ("That's the soup. I'm not sure yet there will be a starter but I might do something yet."), and there is some coordination to pick up the guinea fowl and then somebody (not me) is hunting through recipe books to find the right sauce to go with the veggies. At least, I comfort myself, we have the cakes covered: picking up a Yule log from the local baker's is a safe bet. He makes great cakes, we like 'em. Ganache-covered option for us, of course, we're Belgian.

That was until I bumped about four days ago into a dead link on the newspaper website, for an Almond Chocolate Cake and I said "Oh well, I do have a good recipe for that anyway."
"Oh? You do?" piped up my housemate. Yeah, I do. Somewhere...

Next thing I know, I'm digging in the garage amid the piles of boxes with my stuff from the US, for my handwritten recipe notebook; we're strategising about the egg yolks that are left over from the brunoise; and somehow milk chocolate and dates have appeared in the pantry so resistance is futile: all ingredients are in the house. The almond-chocolate cake torte (as the recipe calls it) shall exist.

Just one small thing I had forgotten in the 13 or so years since I last made this thing: it's rather dense and even with its innocent measure of a 25cm sandwich tin it will feed the entire Belgian army (if we cut small slices, part of the navy too). How on earth five of us will manage to tackle this thing after an extended dinner and a Yule log is beyond me, but: I was requested to contribute this torte, and I have complied.

On Monday we'll get to try it out, and if it passes muster, I'll share the recipe. Hold on tight!

Stitch pulling a very airy chocolate cake that has risen to fill the entire inside of the oven, out of the oven.
Nope, it's not that fluffy...

Ten books of summer: update book 3

Yeah, summer’s long gone but I haven’t finished my reviews yet! More coming, I guess, as I did manage to read a few more!

Some books start off as one thing and then become something else and it’s ok — as I wrote about in my previous update, that happened in Dan Holloway’s Our Dreams Make Different Shapes, which morphed from coaching you in memory techniques to boost creativity into a manifesto for diversity in society and the workplace, but it all made sense.

For other books, that transformation from one thing to another doesn’t quite work. Justin Jacobs’ Indiana Jones in History should really just have dropped that last section about the space race. That’s pretty much my only quibble with the book, and once you know that’s coming, you can maybe decide to skip that section and move ahead to the final chapter which is just👌🏻

I taught a course on material culture of China, and we touched on the ethics of archaeology. I tried to ensure that one thing students would get comfortable with by the end of the course was to ask the question “How did this thing end up in this museum?” It's common sense enough and yet few people seem to ask! This book and the excellent accompanying little YouTube videos go a long way to answering those questions. Fair warning: you may want to watch the Spielberg Indie movies before diving into all of this, because the adventurer's story won’t be the same again.

Jacobs' writing is geared towards the curious non-specialist, and not weighted down with notes but still based on thorough research, I can confirm for the China chapters. Definitely worth reading!

screenshot of a Classical Studies Memes for Hellenistic Teens post on Twitter. 
lmaonade: My favorite video game quest trope is [all caps text] "help us, they are stealing our ancient artifact, thank you for helping us, as a reward you may have our ancient artifact"
Reply by 6qubed: "The ancient artifact was less important than having agency in its distribution"
Reply by Suinicide: "Nothing is more important than keeping it out of the hands of the British museum"
British Museum, Brutish Museums… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Connect with me on Bookwyrm, where I am adding details about my book reading adventures.

Pair of socks on sock holders, placed on the grass. The socks are grey-brown and have a short 2x2 ribbed cuff, the leg and foot has a cable running down the side, and the heel has a slip-stitch pattern.

“Little Brown Job”

LBJs are in the (UK) birders' world those little brown birds that all look unremarkable, brown, and yet can be the most amazing species you'll see only once in a lifetime. Or if it's a passer domesticus, you may yet be enchanted by its exotic patterning, as Inspector Morse was.

You only need a minute to watch his powers of observation

LBJs are not flashy with WILD!! COLOURFUL!!! MARKINGS! but I still like them.

Turns out you have those LBJs (or LGJs, Little Grey Jobs) in socks too... And with a little bit of effort, you can turn them into something worth observing, IMHO.

I ended up knitting these socks for mum in something of the following way:

Mum: Hm, I have this beige sock yarn I don't know what to do with. It's too meh for me.
Me: Oh. Can I knit with it? I don’t have any yarn with me.
Mum: Sure, you can use it.
*I start knitting a cable into the leg*
Mum: Ooooh that's nice! I like that. That looks a lot more fun now.
Me: Do you want me to knit them for you? It's your yarn after all.
Mum: Erm... 😬

(Fortunately they fit her!)

This is the world's easiest cabled sock to knit: take your basic 72 stitch top down sock pattern. For the leg, once you're past the cuff, knit 4, purl 3, cable over 8 stitches (cable every 8 rows), purl 3, and knit all the rest. Keep the rest of your basic pattern as is. I kept the cable going for the foot.

For the *other* leg I counted out the pattern so it was knit 18, purl 3, cable over 8 stitches (cable every 8 rows again, and if you're really fancy: turn them the other way), purl 3, knit all the other stitches.

If you want a pattern, check out Socks on a Plane (Ravelry), it's a toe-up version.

Ten books of summer: update books 1 and 2

I’m currently through the first four books of my Ten Books of Summer challenge (my personal list is in the previous post), but it’s slow moving, because I seem to have picked some titles for my list that just can’t be hurried. That’s because the content requires attention, not because they’re boring! And because these are worth my attention, I choose to savour the ideas they develop; I’m not in a hurry to get through them. Let’s kick off my mini-reviews!

Cover of the book “This Is Marketing” by Seth Godin

The first of these “slow books” was Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing: You can’t be seen until you learn to see. If you know me, the last thing that comes to mind is marketing, and I am not looking into a Sales and Marketing role. (“Influencer” is about as low as a theme can go on my Clifton Strengths list, FYI). But Seth is different, of course, and he clarifies that everyone is in the business of marketing something to someone, trying to convince someone somewhere of something: to hire you (oh hi, that would be me!), to check out your art, to attend a concert (whether with you, or to hear you perform), to spend some time with you, to listen to your cool idea to improve the team or save the world or just to get a raise, or even how to make better coffee. This is marketing that makes me able to live with myself: it’s not about selling your soul to the devil and then living on the proceeds, but about how to make your work align with your values. It’s about how to create something that you can be proud of, so you can share and –where appropriate– sell in a way that makes you proud to make the world a better and more beautiful place. “Who’s it for?” is the central question the book keeps returning to, because what you make can’t be for everybody if it’s actually a worthwhile thing. And that’s what I need to learn. That some of the things I create are not for you, but for somebody else. And that it’s ok when I need to say that. There’s a whole lot more in this short book, and I urge you to give it a look and spend some time with these ideas, and the many others from Seth Godin, because he has a lot of interesting and thought-provoking ideas. Not all of his ideas may be for you, but some of them will be.

Cover for the book “Our dreams make different shapes”

A second book I worked my way through quietly and slowly was Dan Holloway’s Our Dreams Make Different Shapes. The subtitle sounds ominous: How your creativity can make the world a better place (ok, not that part) and why the world will try to stop you. Why would the world try to stop you from making it a better place? Hmmmm… You should really read the book! But let me say this: this is a master course in writing a book with excellent “shadow objectives”: I know Dan a bit from our shared time in Oxford, and have admired him for his endurance feats in the mental and physical world. As a creativity champion and –among many other things!– an eloquent advocate for disability rights,  I’m ready to listen to what he has to say, because thanks to him I already learned a lot on how to make the world a better place for my fellow human beings (and I have a lot to learn yet). We start off with memory palaces, and how to deploy them for increasing our creativity, for creativity is putting things together in ways people haven’t done before, and you should have a healthy stack of nuggets of info on hand for that. It’s also about pushing boundaries in unexpected directions. It’s very practical “here are exercises you can do to make you a more creative person. Try it!”

But Dan has also carefully observed that we’re pushing against boundaries that even creative people cannot move leave behind entirely if they want their creativity to have an effect on the world. Those people who were “ahead of their time”? They went too far out of the box, and the world just was unable to see their vision, for instance. Problem is, we’re now in a world where we need creativity more than ever to solve those “wicked problems” and our society is not encouraging the maximum number of creative people to take part in solving them. Or society is not listening to them.

Once you reach that section, the book quietly slips for all the right reasons into a well-reasoned and clear manifesto for diversity. A truly creative society needs the diverse perspectives “non-normative” people bring (but what is normal but a small sliver of society, of those people that just happen to have power and money), and this slim volume deftly combines those tricks you crave to boost your creativity with a call to action that, if we choose to listen, will leave the world a better place for more creatures –including humans.

I did not intend for my first two books to be such nice complements to each other, but it turns out these are a nice set if you’re in need of inspiration and encouragement to act.

The next two mini reviews will follow shortly. Until then, connect with me on Bookwyrm or leave a comment and share what you’re reading this summer!

10 Books of Summer

A friendly Mastonaut tagged me for a reading challenge "20 books of summer", from the 746books blog.

It's a friendly challenge, with no strict rules, other than just reading books during the summer: "Set a list in advance. Make it twenty. Or ten if that feels better. Swap out books if that feels good." I mean... the more I look at that list, the more I see a host for this challenge who is indeed "bend[ing] the rules to help anyone reach their goal."

That suits me, because my tangible books will be on the move and physically unavailable to me from late June until they show up sometime in August I guess. But I do have plenty of books on my iPad and some stashed away in Libby, the library app, on my tsundoku pile.

Also, I LOVE that this is a blog where the comments are how you participate in the challenge. I feel like I'm back in 2009. Blogosphere was good. We still have blogs and RSS - that's a rant for another day. Here is my list for the summer of 2023 reading:

  1. Indiana Jones in History: From Pompei to the Moon - Justin Jacobs
  2. Our Dreams Make Different Shapes: How Your Creativity Could Make the World a Better Place and Why the World Will Try to Stop You - Dan Holloway
  3. The Confession of Brother Haluin (Cadfael series) - Ellis Peters
  4. Dead Famous - Greg Jenner
  5. The Memory of Love- Aminatta Forna
  6. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  7. The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller
  8. The Sinister Way: The Divine and the Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture - Richard von Glahn
  9. This Is Marketing – Seth Godin
  10. Ilias: Wrok in Troje - vertaling Patrick Lateur

That's a couple of books I already started, a few I heard the name of but don't really know what to expect at all, a few that have been on my "really should read this" list, one that slipped through the Africana Book Club so I'm reading it now myself. Some fiction, some non-fiction, some translation, some China, some history, some world literature. A nice variety. Now... I need to pin this list up so I don't lose sight of my goal!

Goal Setting
"Goal Setting" by angietorres is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Keeping it clean

I haven't really had a problem going out for a run the entire past year (viz. my previous post). I still wanted to try something a bit different this year and dug around in all the different games available on Fetcheveryone - that wonderful site that keeps a nice log if you link it to your GPS watch, and where for many a year before I had such a thing, I added my runs manually without any trouble. Data: beloved by runners.

It seems runners also like games! You can opt into a couple of games that use GPS coordinates (you can manually plot your route and take part if you're not there with the tech), encouraging you to explore the wider world. Conquercise is all about grabbing and keeping squares from your opponents but as the only Fetchie around these parts, I'm quite happily owning my "lawn" and retain the right to rename my little squares I visited as I see fit. So I am not yet entirely sure how it works but that's ok.

Photo of a typical Flemish rural landscape in winter, with trees lining the meadows, some distant buildings dotted near the horizon, and in the foreground green poking through the ploughed field. The sky, taking up about 3/4 of the image, shows sunny blue behind large dramatic clouds that threaten rain.
Flanders is rather flat, in case you didn't know.

The game I am enjoying most is Fetchpoint. I think it's a bit similar to Pokémon, but without the need to stop and battle things. You just run past and as you import your run later, behind the scenes things get figured out and you get your points awarded or deducted. The set-up is simple: you set a home circle with a 1 mile radius, and stuff to collect or get rid off appears. You can compete over ownership of some items with other Fetchies. Again... Unless my cousin in the next village starts to take part, not much of that will happen.

In my two runs since I joined I have already made a detour to squish a bug (run past, and then carry it out of your circle), and tried a completely different route from my regular two or three to get rid of some bugs, because they cost you daily points until you get them squished. I planted a few flowers by running outside my home circle. And this afternoon on a walk with mom I also collected some additional gems and a nuclear point. Fortunately this one was worth eight points – it may do something devastating but you just don't know until you have collected it and it's too late.

Above all, I want to keep my circle squeaky clean, without bugs. It's ok if it sparkles with gems for me to pick up as I move around but I enjoy not having anything dragging my score down!

So if you're looking for a fun game that gets you moving - and all movement counts: cycling, swimming, walking, hopscotching all are fine - this might be just the ticket. It's definitely doing it for me. What's got you moving in 2023?