Constructed wetlands (CWs) are often mentioned as possible solutions to certain water pollution problems. They certainly are well-studied and reliable large-scale aquatic installations. Where there is plenty of land and no need to use it for other purposes, a CW can be a great ultra-low maintenance water polishing facility. They probably aren’t the right solution if you have a high throughput of water needing polishing, especially if that water has a high concentration of nutrients. CWs don’t really recycle nitrogen (it just gets “mineralized” into the atmosphere), and their effect on phosphorus is to accumulate it as an insoluble precipitate until there is so much you need to dig up and replace the whole shebang, maybe every thirty years. While I’m not opposed to CWs per se, I’m pretty much not a CW person, as I valorize area-efficient, energy-efficient, labor-and-capital-efficient ways to recycle as much nitrogen and phosphorus as possible, and I haven’t seen a way to get many of those requirements out of a CW.

But. What if you think of the CW not as a water polishing facility, but as an ore concentrating factory. One of the worst aspects of a CW, from the nutrient recycling perspective, is its accumulation of insoluble phosphate salts. Granted, you could call it recycling if, every thirty years when you need to grudgingly dig out all that accumulated sediment, you are able to recover that phosphorus, but it’s not like it’s a concentrated source. You probably couldn’t make a profit from it. But what if you could engineer the wetland to precipitate more than just an occasionally recycled fertilizer?

One problem with some wastewaters is their metal ion content. Many of these are toxins like heavy metals, while others are typical industrial metals, like iron. Indeed, iron was once harvested from natural wetlands, where the source water was high in iron and the chemical and biological environment of the wetland precipitated those ions out in the form of various minerals. Possibly you’d be able to design a CW to facilitate this process, although operating costs would likely rise. Many of the unwanted toxic metals, if present, would also tend to precipitate out in these deposits. The idea is to take a known natural process and facilitate it. This is what I do with algae – it already wants to grow, and with a little help it really proliferates. As with this algae process, you would probably have to sacrifice some specificity, as your ore production depends on what wants to happen, not what you want to happen.

Just as there is no landscape that cannot be improved by the presence of a horse (as some claim), there is probably no aquatic bio-process that cannot be enhanced by integration with algal turf scrubbing (ATS, the process I refer to, invented by my colleague and former boss Walter Adey). I’ve pretty much committed to ATS as my humanitarian contribution, so if I look into any environmental situation, I’m mainly interested in it only if it is ATS-integrable. No surprise, then, that if I were to look into improving CW, I would try to figure out what integration of ATS into the wetland process could do. Would I simply withdraw wetland water and discharge it back into the wetland after a single pass? Would I take batches of wetland water out and treat them down to the limit of ATS before discharging back into the wetland? Ultimately, if ATS is so great, maybe the best way to “integrate” ATS into a CW is to replace most of it with ATS, and surround the facility with a decorative screen of wetland.

Oregonian Popcorn

I come from a family of corn-poppers. I pop in vegetable oil, rarely buttering the finished product, although I do salt generously. I love it even without butter, and no butter makes cleanup easier. Here I describe each step of my corn-popping technique, explaining why I think it helps. Having used several combinations of pan and stove, I believe my approach is sound.

The pan. I recommend a dedicated corn-popping pan, say three quarts. I just can’t keep the pan clean enough for other uses. As the corn pops, oil seeps out between lid and pan, oozing down the outside and turning into a black and impenetrable coating. I simply wipe the pan free of debris with an old sponge, as with cleaning cast iron. The whole pan eventually becomes sticky, so it does get an annual trip through the dishwasher.

The oil. I use canola. Extra virgin olive oil contributes too much of its own flavor for me, although adding some to the canola is enjoyable. I’ve read that the distinctive flavor of movie theater popcorn is due to palm oil, but I’m not particularly fond of that flavor and so far haven’t tried it (although I’d like to, just to test that claim). I’ve used half bacon grease, but it somehow gets all over everything, doesn’t add much taste, and requires more cleanup, as with butter.

The corn. I like Orville Redenbacher’s yellow popcorn, because it consistently pops up into bigger, fluffier kernels than other popcorns. It’s more expensive, but so cheap per actual batch that it’s my first choice. I’ve found nothing wrong with megamart store brands. Yellow corn usually pops up bigger and fluffier than the white corn, and to me has a more intense corn flavor, but I’ve spoken to people who insist that white popcorn is superior. Obviously, it’s a matter of taste.

The technique. First, decide how much popcorn you are going to make, then add the right amount of oil. This step takes experience. I slowly pour it in until it doesn’t quite cover the pan bottom. In summer, when the oil flows freely, I stop adding just before it fills the bottom. In winter the oil is thicker, so I stop adding just past the half-way mark.

Second, add three kernels, adjust the burner to the proper setting, and put the lid on. This step also takes experience. Your pan/burner combination defines the appropriate setting, and the three pops you hear will be informative. Starting from cold, it should take a couple minutes before they pop. There may be quite a long time between pops, or they might be nearly simultaneous. Rarely, one will not pop, or will only half pop. If they pop too quickly or look small and burned when popped, your burner is too hot. A bit above medium may be the right setting.

Third, pour in the kernels. The oil will now flow like water rather than sludge. I pour until there are still a few lakes of oil visible among the kernels. Then I give the pan twelve good swirls and some back-and-forths to make sure the kernels are fully coated. I then check and add more kernels (with swirling/shaking), repeating until the kernels are glistening with oil, but there are no major lakes or rivers. Then I let er pop! If it starts pushing the lid off, just pour a bit out into your bowl, put the lid back on, and set the pan back on the burner, perhaps with a few shakes. If you get a lot of burned or unpopped kernels, you may have put in too much oil and thus too much corn. Or you may have the oil to corn ratio too low.

Escher Slice

I think the year was in the early 90’s. A worldwide tour of M. C. Escher prints, all, or almost all of his life’s work, was visiting the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, where I lived. The Baloneys all bought tickets. They seemed expensive, but you got to go twice. I think you had to schedule your visits in advance.

As with most of the Baloneys, I had been familiar with Escher since my high school days. Some of us had even read Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. We had all paged through large-format books of the prints and were conversant with much of his oeuvre. Some of us had hung Escher posters on our walls.

Our first visit was late afternoon on a summer’s day, or maybe late spring. A fine one, whatever the season. Grasshopper had brought an Aerobee™ and some frisbees, as was his wont, and we were flinging them about a lawn. Come to think of it, it must have been spring, as will be obvious. I’m not that great of a thing-tosser, but the other Baloneys were doing it and it isn’t un-fun and I was trying to get into the spirit. Prompted by repeated bits of unsolicited critique about my technique, I was feeling somewhat wrathful and vengeful. In my wrath, I flung the aerobee with rage-high angular-momentum, on a flat, ground-hugging trajectory, ostensibly towards my would-be coach but clumsily at rather the wrong angle. Here’s how I know it was Spring: the cursed object turned out to be aimed at a bed of blooming tulips. We noted the toy’s progress through the flowerbed, not by observing its actual flight but as revealed by the appearance of a shallow, ‘bee-wide rectangular trough, carved by the spinning blade’s premature decapitation of the dazzling petals. Turns out you can put a lot of angular momentum into an aerobee, and tulip stems don’t offer much resistance to spinning knife-edge disks. The craft plowed all the way through the tulip bed, landing in the lawn a ways beyond. I don’t think there was any constabulary patrolling the area, or maybe they simply took pity on us rather than confronting, as we sheepishly retrieved our bloom-slaughtering projectile and decided it was near enough to our scheduled visit time to slink over to the Science Center.

After viewing only the first or maybe the second print we realized the genius of the two-visit conceit. We knew our brains were going to have to digest what we were seeing before returning for more study. Irrespective of the high resolution of the large reproductions, the prints themselves had a presence well beyond the reprographics. The infinite was slightly more infinite, the illusion that much more illusory. There were many works I couldn’t remember having seen, some smaller than the more famous prints, bookplates and the like. My second visit, I believe just with Mrs. Dean-to-be (we were not yet affianced), I thought to spend more of my time on the less familiar works, but I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. All of his works simply draw the eye and the mind. Even familiar old foot stompers had unremembered or novel details on second viewing.

I’ve watched some Escher documentaries, and I’m familiar with Roger Penrose’s and his father’s mutual influences with Escher. Geometry fascinates me – spherical, Euclidian, hyperbolic. Ever since I learned about tesseracts, I think in third grade, I have felt that there must be a way to envision geometry, to “see” theorems in an intuitive way that gives the correct answers, so that even if you can’t or don’t know how to write it down, if you did you would see it truly proven.

Bangers and Hass

Bangers and mash, one of my favorite British dishes. Mrs. Dean and I took in a guided pub walk in Chelsea, ending up at what was then the King’s Head and Eight Bells. We had been chatted up by some fellow pub crawler from Florida who was on various airline “sudden deal” lists, and pretty much every weekend he would fly somewhere on an overnight exotica trip for ninety nine bucks or whatever.

The pub walk itself was slow yet enjoyable. Unlike USians who find British beer warm and flat, I easily adapt to it and am prone to having perhaps one too many pints of Old Speckled Hen or Boddington’s. Besides the beer stories, our guide regaled us between pubs with history, probably so that people like myself wouldn’t outpace the others, staggering or stumbling to the final venues. One of the first pubs had “Oregon Ale”, brewed locally but hopped with leafy buds from the Willamette Valley. Ah nostalgia! The penultimate pub, our guide assured us after lecturing about various events in the history of, perhaps, Cheyne Walk, was guaranteed to be a surprise! And it was! It was the Surprise! Tavern, named after HMS Surprise! It was so memorable that on a later trip, after dropping lug at some hipster youth hostel in Gray’s Inn Road, I insisted that we tube over to Sloane Square and find the place again.

The King’s Head etc. was the last pub of the tour, but we stayed for dinner. Seeing bangers and mash on the menu, I knew what I would be ordering. Florida Man had I guess been wandering about but had returned, espied us, and joined us just after we had ordered. This was when we learned of his travel hobby. We also learned that he tended to be strict about his diet, eating mostly vegetables, didn’t usually drink so much. He struggled through the menu looking for an acceptable item. Waitstaff was eventually signaled, and his salad order placed just as ours was being delivered. Mrs. Dean likely had lamb, as that meat is curiously (to us USians) inexpensive in the UK so we never really ate it that much at home.

“What’s that?” asked Florida Man as waitstaff flourished a platter of fatty meat carbs before me. “Bangers and mash”, said I, “sausage and mashed potatoes with onion gravy. It’s a traditional…”. Before I could finish my lecture, FM was standing and shoving his chair back, prior to actually running after the waitron shouting about wanting to change his order.

I recently had guests. Snacks were demanded. “I could make some onion gravy”, I suggested, but they weren’t into it. I often make it: quick, tasty, nutritious, uses up the extra alliums often laying around trying to sprout. “It’s just a stock reduction!” – I usually have ample poultry stock as well. Good on the leftover carbs abundant after guest feasts. Having mentioned it I wanted some myself, so made rather a lot.

Days before, watching cooking videos, I saw a new (to me) dish, Hasselback potatoes. Like making thick potato chips but not slicing all the way through, so you have an intact spud that looks like a ribcage. Slather with tasty fat and bake. A nice substrate for possibly too much gravy. I picked up a couple of Russets and gave it a whirl. Having some duck fat on hand (not as usual has having alliums or poultry stock), I basted them every twenty minutes or so with that. Somewhere along the line I realized that in a couple of months when I allow myself to have sausage, I could concoct a new dish, derived from the British classic, bangers and Hasselback potatoes, bangers and Hass for short.

Unconscious Power

Many belikeme posts are speculative, but this one is moreso. Imagine scare quotes everywhere to avoid assuming there are definitive hallmarks for what I speak of (see what I did there?, if so you win a belikeme know-prize).

Consciousness is, perhaps, “merely” the activation of existing memories, rather than copying data from long-term to working memory and processing it. Working memory is just that tiny subset of all memory currently being accessed. Activation itself changes the memory, often to reconcile it with memories that share similar information. It is seemingly more important to the brain that memories be reconciled than that they agree with extra-cranial facts. Alas that eyewitness accounts, demonstrably so unreliable, are counted on to convict accused persons.

Possibly, memory formation itself is sensed; if so this may feel different from activation, so that the first time a memory is formed, we sense it twice. Or, memory formation may not be sensed at all, and conscious awareness is wholly the activation of memories previously stored. Memory activation could be the physical basis for the notion that consciousness is “but an illusion”. It also might help erode cognitive traps that prompt so many cognitive scientists to pursue answers to “the hard problem”. It may also be useful in dismissing the evidently highly popular “thought” “experiments” that postulate “zombies” – actual human persons who act just as if they were conscious, but don’t actually experience the feelings that are under scrutiny.

Free will, then, would be the simultaneous activation of memories of both events and preferences, all of which stored previously, with the cloud of that activity producing action potentials coursing out to the neuromuscular junctions of interest. This activity forms new memories of having performed whatever action was “decided” upon, along with revising all the memories originally involved in the total decision-making event. A final lagniappe has the subconscious store a ginned-up memory of the emotion of having decided something via one’s “will”.

None of these notions refute the validity of guiding people’s behaviors, say via punishments for affronts (shunning shitstains, dunning dipshits, incarcerating incorrigibles). The offender’s own memories of punishments incurred, of reading or hearing about other people being punished, of being told about mystical beings who punish offenders, all get called up by the unconscious when planning next moves. The neural network that eventually transmits the action potentials and concocts the fictions of having “decided” on “behaviors” for “reasons” takes much of that stuff into account when creating the new memories and re-aligning the old.

The brain as a (von Neuman) computer is a pretty bad analogy, but perhaps it does not go too far to imagine talking about free will as something that utilizes the equivalent a framework when writing an app. The neophyte can build a product that satisfies specifications, but the savvy developer knows that directly calling into the DLL or whatever, while potentially fraught, provides the greatest flexibility and performance. What cognitive science needs to work out (in this highly speculative rant-context) is the equivalent of the entry points into the innards of the workings. Getting its hands on the steering wheel and pedals rather than pressing the “auto-drive” button.