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16 May 2012
Honey from Huffman trees

Did you know that NYC Open Data includes latitude/longitude for every tree in NYC? A tree census - amazing! Surely there's something fun we can do with that!

Well, bees in NYC do a lot of their nectar foraging from flowering trees. It could be interesting to see which kinds of trees my bees are likely foraging from. Bees can fly startlingly long distances to forage if they have to, but my sense is that a 2 mile radius is a decent rough estimate for how far they're likely to fly in search of nectar barring a barren neighborhood. Sure, there are plenty of other flowering plants in the city (I can certainly taste the clover in my spring honey, for instance), but it's still interesting to see which trees are likely contributing to the honey I harvest locally.

So, I pulled the tree census data into mysql to play with. (Bread crumbs for the inspired: I wanted to deploy on Dreamhost, so I used an old version of mysql and was stuck with mbrcontains narrowed down with the haversine equation (and cosine approximation, of course) to find only those trees actually within an n-mile radius of my starting point. Postgres and stcontains with a polygon approximation of the circle would be better, really.)

I'm displaying results as a Huffman tree - a visual representation of the data structure you create when you use Huffman encoding.

Visualized with D3.js, with leaf sizes proportional to the percentage of trees found of each type, it looks rather like this:

You can put in your own beehive address (or home, or neighborhood you're thinking of moving to, whatever makes you happy) and play with my tree-finder here.

When a thing is as dorky as it can possibly be, I know it is done right.

03 May 2012
“What I tell you three times is true.”

My partner, Dave, just received the most amazing email from a brilliant and delightful friend of ours (emphasis added):

You were in a dream I had last night, and I thought it might amuse you.

You had a couple tables set up in the foyer of a (nonexistent) restaurant specializing in dumplings molded into cube shapes and sold in powers of two, and you were handing out atheist literature and cookies to people waiting to get tables. The cookies were chocolate chip, except the dough had a sort of smoky cherry taste - like a cherry brandy, not like a cherry jolly rancher - and was purple.

There was a sign announcing you would talk to anyone about anything they wanted to talk about, and you were telling someone that they should solve their problem by trying three times to fix it - any way they wanted, as long as all three attempts were different - and then pick which of their attempts came closest to the desired result and ask an expert how to improve on that. They should keep doing this until they ran out of experts, at which point they themselves were the expert.

"That's how I learned to communicate with sea lions!" you said. At which point I suddenly noticed the sea lion in a powered exoskeleton and little square glasses hanging out under one of your tables, happily reading one of the atheist books.

I thought it was amusing. Even though I don't like chocolate chip cookies. :)

I just had to share (with permission, of course), because that's actually pretty great (and very Dave-ish) problem-solving advice!

(The cookies are nice, too. Seeing as how life imitates dreams, Dave got inspired and had to make a batch of smoky cherry chocolate chip cookies for us tonight.)

29 Apr 2012
Spring has sprung with a LOT of bees.

My bees looked a bit sparse and weak going into winter, so when I had the opportunity to order a new package of bees through the Backwards Beekeepers a few months ago, I went for it. I wasn't sure if my hive had survived winter (or would survive spring), especially given how strange the weather has been, but it was then or never on making sure I had bees this summer. I figured it was worth a gamble - either my hive would die, and I'd want a new package to replace it, or my hive would survive, in which case I could try to sell my package to someone else or (gulp!) start a second hive.

I lost track of time this spring, what with focusing on Recurse Center and all. So when I got an email a few days ago saying that I had to come pick up my package on Friday, I was in a bit of a panic. I hadn't checked in on my bees at all since last fall. I had no idea if I had bees! And I sure didn't have any spare hive to put the package into if it turned out my bees had made it through after all, or anyone to buy the package from me last-minute.

After some hurried consultation with my delightful bee purveyor, I stopped by Hayseed and picked up a spare bottom board, inner cover, and outer cover along with my package. Can't hurt to have spares just in case, and if I did need to start a second hive, that was the bare minimum equipment I needed, given that I have some extra medium supers and frames that I tend to use for honey a bit later in the season.

Turns out, I have a LOT of bees.

(Yeah, I need to pick up some more cinderblocks for the new hive to stand on. That milk crate was the best I could find in a pinch!)

You can see that the new hive is just one super at the moment, while the old one is three supers high. (Or was two days ago, anyways.) I use all medium supers for both brood and honey in my hive(s!). And right there in front of the new hive is the box the new bees came in.

A package is a box with about 3 lbs of bees and a little cage with a queen in it. When you want to install a package, you basically just reach in and gently remove the queen cage, then pry the mesh off one side of the package and shakeshakeSHAKE your booty all the bees out into the hive. That's it, really. I scold them lovingly and literally brush them from the tops of the frames down in between the frames, but mostly just because it's fun. And finally, you just leave the box out in front of the hive so the rest of the stragglers can follow the queen's scent and find their way into their new home.

I suspended my queen cage in my hive, then closed it up. The idea there is that the queen is trapped in her cage by a sugar plug. The bees have time to get used to her scent while eating her free, and so are more likely to accept her once she's out among them. I tend to use a business card and a thumbtack to hang the queen cage between frames in the hive. This time I used Kyle's business card (he's a Recurse Center alum who now works with Tumblr), since we've chatted by email already and I know I have his contact info saved elsewhere by now. (Hi, Kyle! I hope you're charmed rather than offended by this. You've become part of a rather delightful process, it turns out!)

I went back this morning to make sure the queen was released properly. Tomorrow would've been better, but bees depend on weather and my work schedule, after all. They'd mostly gotten through the sugar, but not entirely - her handmaidens were free, but the queen herself was still in her cage. Everyone sounded happy, though, so I manually released her and watched for a moment to make sure that the hive continued to sound cheerful and that they didn't start balling her immediately. Everything looked fine, so I closed that hive up with a sugar syrup feeder on top and moved on to my older hive.

The weather was nicer today, so I wanted to get deeper into my big hive to see what was really going on in there. They were chill as can be, friendly and relaxed, so I figure they're probably queenright. I saw some very young larva in there, too, along with some older brood and honey and pollen and assorted bee stuffs. And so many bees! That hive is seriously busy. Not too many queen cells, surprisingly, so they didn't seem in imminent danger of swarming, but they were starting to back-fill the brood nest with nectar. Time to take action!

No prob. I closed up the hive, went downstairs, and got my last remaining super and set of frames. I checkerboarded the top two of the now four supers on that hive, to confuse their swarming instinct and give them more space to lay and to save whatever nectar they may find this early in the year. I'm going to gave to buy some more supers and frames at Hayseed, stat! I don't have any spares left for my expanding new hive or to collect honey in the old hive.

One more thing to take care of before I was done. I had a bit of a varroa mite problem last year (remember my snow bees?), and I want to stay on top of reducing the mite population as much as possible. How lucky, then, to discover a nearly fully capped frame full of drone brood!

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See how it bulges out? Drones (males) are bigger than workers (females), so they need more space to grow when developing. Worker brood has flat caps, but, well, you can see why we also refer to drone brood as "bullet brood"!

Varroa mites preferentially lay in drone brood. Drone brood takes longer to mature, and is bigger, so it gives the mite mama more bang for her buck, as it were. (Catch me in person and ask me tell you of my scheme to miniaturize my bees at some point, by all means! I have theories and plans. But it has been a hectic spring, so that will probably wait for next year.)

Point being, in addition to sprinkling powdered sugar everywhere, you can also cut down on your mite population by taking capped drone brood and sticking it in the freezer. The mites die, and then you return the frame to the hive, where the bees will clean it up, lay more drones, and restart the process. Frankly, my ladies don't really need more drones around anyway. They're not terribly useful. So we can do this all summer to try to reduce the number of bugs on my bugs. Fantastic! So basically, what I'm trying to say here is that all is gorgeous and amazing out in the Brooklyn sky, which is where I'll be most Sunday mornings for the next few months. Happy spring!

17 Apr 2012
The why and how of it all

Idealist asked: "Tell us: What quotation reminds you to keep your priorities straight? #favoritequotesroundup"

I'm such a literary packrat that I couldn't fit my answer into 140 characters, so here goes instead:

From my best-beloved Buckminster Fuller, in his Everything I know (emphasis added):

"I've wanted you to think about, "Why are humans here?" "Why do they have that beautiful mind and why they have access to the great principles of Universe itself, of the great design nothing else we know has access to?" I say we, common to all human beings, in all history, completely independent of any ethnic nuance or whatever it may be have problems, problems, problems because WE ARE HERE FOR PROBLEM SOLVING. Not to have problems out of the way in some stupid, sublime something called peace. We're here strictly for problem solving, and the better you get at it, the more problems you're going to get to solve."

Also from Buckminster Fuller:

"When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

From Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (via PC Wordsmiths):

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, write as if for an audience consisting only of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

"...One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something will arise for later, something better. These things fill in from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

“After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ‘Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.’”

From Keith Olbermann:

"...the simple idea that those other people you see every day, the background characters, the extras in the movie that is your life, that they count too, and that the only obligation you truly have in life is to try to do something, something for them, even if you will never meet them, even if you will never know them. Something. Not everything. Something. ...You will die and I will die and everybody you will see tomorrow will die and so will their children and their descendents, and we will be, at best, memories. And by what are all those who preceded us judged? Name anybody in history—name anybody we all know or somebody only you know—by what are they judged? The answer, stripped of the bells and whistles, is not wealth nor fame not beauty nor power, but what impact did they have on the lives of others?"

From Neil deGrasse Tyson:

"For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you."

From Kasey Chambers:

"The miles take time, but the time is mine, and always moving suits me fine. I’ll catch my breath when I sleep. And after all that I’ve done, I’m not half what I’d hope that I’d become. There is still a long way to go."

And a few from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:

"The riders in a race do not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voice of friends and to say to one's self: 'The work is done.' But just as one says that, the answer comes: 'The race is over, but the work never is done while the power to work remains.' The canter that brings you to a standstill need not be only coming to rest. It cannot be while you still live. For to live is to function. That is all there is in living. And so I end with a line from a Latin poet who uttered the message more than fifteen hundred years ago: 'Death plucks my ears and says, Live – I am coming.'"
"Alas, gentlemen, that is life. I often imagine Shakespeare or Napoleon summing himself up and thinking: 'Yes, I have written five thousand lines of solid gold and a good deal of padding – I, who would have covered the milky way with words which outshone the stars!' 'Yes, I beat the Austrians in Italy and elsewhere: I made a few brilliant campaigns, and I ended in middle life in a cul-de-sac – I, who had dreamed of a world monarchy and Asiatic power.' We cannot live our dreams. We are lucky enough if we can give a sample of our best, and if in our hearts we can feel that it has been nobly done."
"The rule of joy and the law of duty seem to me all one. I confess that altruistic and cynically selfish talk seem to me about equally unreal. With all humility, I think 'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might,' infinitely more important than the vain attempt to love one's neighbor as one's self. If you want to hit a bird on the wing, you must have all your will in a focus, you must not be thinking about yourself, and, equally, you must not be thinking about your neighbor; you must be living in your eye on that bird. Every achievement is a bird on the wing."

06 Apr 2012
How to get an accurate recipe from your grandmother

If your grandmother is anything like mine, she has an incredible repertoire of recipes from the old country which involve a set of ingredients and no measurements whatsoever. Everything is by feel, by sight, by years of experience rather than lists of precise numbers. It's amazing, but hard to learn from.

I like numbers. They are clean in my head, and lead to reproducible results. I also like chicken paprikash and palacsinta and all sorts of delicious things that my grandmother cooks so well, and want to be able to make them myself.

This came up in conversation yesterday, when a fellow I was chatting with mentioned that he has the same problem getting accurate recipes from his mother. I told him my trick for getting accurate recipes from my grandmother, and it occurs to me this morning that I've never written it out before and probably ought to share.

It's simple, really. I collect multiple data points for each recipe by asking my grandmother (and my mother, when she can remember) for the same recipe multiple times on different days and times of day. I push them each time to just give me their best guess at what the measurements are, based on their memory of what they do by feel and sight, and write down what they tell me. This can involve some hand-holding, and tends to go rather like this:

My grandmother: “You put in some paprika.”
Me: “How much paprika?”
Her: “Until it looks right.”
Me: “Is it more than a cup of paprika?”
Her: “Oh, no no no.”
Me: “Is it more than half a cup of paprika?”
Her: (longer pause, then) “Noooo.”
Me: “Is it just a teaspoon? That can’t be right. The taste is too strong.”
Her: “About three tablespoons, maybe. More if you need it.”
And so on.

After a few iterations of this (three per family member seems to both work and not try their patience too much), I average out my data as follows: For each ingredient where there is a mode (a measurement that appears more often than any other measurement), I take the mode, and for each other ingredient, I take the mean.

That's it, really. Dead simple, if you have the sort of family where you're encouraged to be a loving but pushy nudge as needed. But it works! I can cook amazing, authentic Hungarian food in the style of the old ladies of Tarpa and Kisar this way! So, go forth and gather awesome recipes. Then come back and teach me them! I can always use more awesome recipes.

Oh, and if that made you hungry, here's my approximation of my Hungarian grandmother's recipe for stuffed cabbage.