The superhydrophobic diving flies of Mono Lake

Mark Twain described the odd diving flies (Ephydra hians) of Mono Lake, California in chapter XXXVIII of Roughing It – one of his finest books:

“Then there is a fly, which looks something like our house fly. These settle on the beach to eat the worms that wash ashore—and any time, you can see there a belt of flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear around the lake—a belt of flies one hundred miles long. If you throw a stone among them, they swarm up so thick that they look dense, like a cloud. You can hold them under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it. When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report, and walk off as unconcernedly as if they had been educated especially with a view to affording instructive entertainment to man in that particular way.”

A couple of Caltech scientists have now detailed exactly what’s going on with those superhydrophobic flies—whose Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus predates ours by a long stretch—with an overview article and video here. Links to their freely downloadable research paper and supplemental videos are at the end of that page.

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Ceci n’est pas un oxymoron

Slow-cooking as a time-saver? Yes, indeed. I need to slow-cook some bacon for Thursday’s cornbread stuffing (and a BLT or two), so I decided to slow-roast the Yukon Gold potatoes – the last of my cache from Willard Farm – and the sweet potatoes at the same time.

The potatoes are scrubbed clean, pierced with a fork several times each, and given a coat of olive oil and a sprinkling of kosher salt.

The bacon usually takes 80-90 minutes, which should be about right for the Yukon Golds at 285F/140C. I have another pound of bacon to slow-cook, and the sweet potatoes will conveniently be done around the same time as that second pound, three hours total. [Edited to add: The Yukons actually took a little over two hours at 285F/140C and the sweet potatoes were indeed done at the three-hour mark.]

The Yukon Golds are destined for mashed potatoes with butter, heavy cream, salt, and plenty of pepper. Baking instead of boiling means I won’t have to dry them out in a pan over medium-low heat before mashing – nor will the mashing take much effort at all. The sweet potatoes will get a maple-cinnamon treatment, but only enough maple syrup to taste because slow-roasting is going to make them even sweeter than usual.

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My new favourite cinnamon buns

I keep the butter & cream cheese icing separate, warm the buns before serving, and let people slather on as much or as little icing as they like

This is my new favourite recipe for cinnamon buns. With a dough not too far away from a brioche, they’re a bit crispy on the outside and, inside, beautifully soft and light but not mushy.

Cinna-Buns

Adapted and expanded from the King Arthur Flour recipe here: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/cinna-buns-recipe

Makes 12 very large buns or 24 medium buns

Ahead of time: An hour or two ahead, take two sticks of butter (three if you’re doubling the icing), a package of cream cheese, and two eggs out of the fridge so they can warm to room temperature. Note that you can use salted butter if you want – there’s a negligible 1/8th teaspoon of salt in a quarter-pound salted stick, so it won’t make an appreciable difference.

Ratios are crucial in baking, so I measure by weight – especially important for the flour.

Ingredients

Dough

  •     1 cup lukewarm milk [heat in microwave about 1 minute until 115F/45C or so]
  •     2 large eggs, at room temperature
  •     1/3 cup (2 5/8 oz, 75g) softened unsalted butter, cut into half-tablespoon pieces
  •     4 1/2 cups (19 oz, 540g) all-purpose flour
  •     1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  •     1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz, 100g) granulated sugar
  •     2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast or active dry yeast

Filling

  •     1/3 cup (2 5/8 oz, 75g) softened unsalted butter
  •     1 cup light brown sugar, packed  (7 1/2 oz, 210g)
  •     3 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Icing

  •     6 tablespoons (generous 1/3 cup, 3 oz, 85g) cream cheese, softened
  •     1/4 cup (half stick, 2 oz, 57g) unsalted butter, softened
  •     1 1/2 cups (6 oz, 170g) confectioners’ sugar
  •     1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

[I usually double the icing recipe and then let guests use as much or as little as they like. I also decrease the sugar and increase the butter and cream cheese to make the icing not as sickly sweet as the original recipe.]

Directions

  1. To make the dough: Mix together and knead all of the dough ingredients – by hand, mixer, or bread machine – to make a smooth, soft dough. [In a stand mixer with a dough hook, this will take 6 or 7 minutes. When the side of the bowl is fairly clean and the dough starts to climb the hook a bit, it’s ready. Note that, like brioche dough, which is similarly enriched with butter, sugar, and egg, this may seem too wet at the start, but it isn’t.]
  2. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to grease all sides, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise for 60 minutes, or until it’s nearly doubled in bulk. [Enriched doughs can take longer to rise – up to two hours in a cold kitchen or if your ingredients weren’t at room temperature or if your yeast is a little tired.]
  3. Deflate and roll out the dough: Gently deflate the dough, and transfer it to a lightly greased work surface. [It’s very important to grease the surface – you’ll need two feet by a foot-and-a-half – because you’re rolling a fairly wet dough to 3-4mm thickness and it would stick like tape otherwise. This may seem daunting, but don’t worry, the dough is very pliable and easy to stretch without tearing.] Pat the dough out into a rough rectangle, then roll to 16×21″/40x53cm, keeping the corners as square as practical.
  4. Filling: [For this step, I find it’s easier to microwave the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon for about 30 seconds, then mix to form a paste that you can spread fairly evenly onto the dough. Allow it to cool a bit if it feels hot. This method also stops a bunch of the filling from falling out and ending up on the bottom of your pan.] Original method: Spread the dough with the 1/3 cup butter. Mix the brown sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle it evenly over the dough.

5a. For 12 large buns: Starting with a short end, roll the dough into a 16″/40cm log and cut it into 12 slices. [Cut in half, then cut each half in half, then cut each quarter into three equal pieces.]

5b.  For 24 smaller buns: Starting with a long end, roll the dough into a 21″/53cm log and cut it into 24 slices. [Cut in half, then cut each half in half, then cut each quarter in half, then cut each eighth into 3 equal pieces.]

6. Place the buns in a lightly greased 9×13″/22x33cm pan. [3×4 rows for 12 buns or 4×6 rows for 24 buns.] Cover the pan and let the buns rise until they’re nearly doubled in size, about 30 minutes. [Again, your results may vary – it can take up to an hour. Be patient and let them puff up.]

7. While the buns are rising, preheat the oven to 400F/200C

8. Uncover the buns, and bake them until they’re golden brown, about 15 minutes. [Check them every few minutes starting at 15 minutes, but I’ve found that golden brown won’t appear until more than 20 minutes have passed. If you have a probe thermometer, 190-195F/87-90C inside the center buns is your target.] While the buns are baking, make the icing.

9. To make the icing: In a small bowl, beat together the softened cream cheese, softened butter, sugar, and vanilla. [I double the icing recipe and modify by using a little more butter and cream cheese and less confectioner’s sugar.]

10. Remove the buns from the oven. Spread the icing on the buns while they’re warm. [I keep the icing separate, partly so people can have as much or as little as they like and partly because only the baker normally sees that nice spiral. It would be a shame to hide it away permanently.]

11. Serve buns warm, or at room temperature. [Room temperature? Stop it.] Wrap in plastic and store at room temperature for a day or so; freeze for longer storage.

This is how slack the kneaded dough will be

The first rise will result in nearly two quarts/litres

Island surface sprayed with canola oil

Patted into a rectangle, then rolled out to about 16×21”/40x53cm and 3-4mm thick

Filling spread over dough – it doesn’t have to be perfect

Dough rolled up on long side, sliced in half, then quarters, then eighths

Those eighths cut into thirds for 24 medium buns

Arranged in buttered 9×13”/22x33cm pan for second rise – a bit wonky looking, but…

…after the second rise, the wonkiness from the slicing has corrected itself

Out of the oven

A previous bake of the larger size – they’re pretty huge

 

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Next twist: “Did I say fishermen? Obviously I meant space aliens.”

Gosh, they left out the juiciest part a couple weeks ago. Not mentioned in the linked Focus Taiwan story is the further claim, also only revealed once they got on network TV, that after the inexplicably murderous Taiwanese commercial fishermen rammed them on purpose, she floated over to their ship in the night on a surfboard and used their satellite phone to call the Coast Guard. One presumes she craftily presented her book pitch to incapacitate the homicidal sailors as they rolled around the deck helpless with laughter.

“Anybody can tell lies: there is no merit in a mere lie, it must possess art, it must exhibit a splendid & plausible & convincing probability; that is to say, it must be powerfully calculated to deceive.”
– Mark Twain in his Autobiography, Volume 3

“A thunderstorm made Beranger a poet, a mother’s kiss made Benjamin West a painter, and a salary of $15 a week makes us a journalist.”
– Mark Twain, opening the first story he filed for the Virginia City, Nevada Enterprise, 1862

 

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What could possibly go wrong?

So a simple straight-line driverless shuttle spots ahead an 18-wheeler backing into a loading dock in front of it and stops – a smidge late and directly in the truck’s turning arc. Incapable of, say, tootling its horn melodiously while bellowing “Yo, dummy!” or quickly backing up 48 inches because “that numbnut doesn’t see me”, it sits there, obstacle stop logic performing perfectly, happily getting its bumper smushed. And it’s sponsored by the American Automobile Association.

For some reason, the local news story is not framed in the manner I just used, maybe because everyone wants driverless cars, don’t they, and we’ve all agreed not to be negative about them, haven’t we, and what’s Mr. Just-Ate-a-Lemon’s problem over there, anyway?

In related news, $300m of driverless and aptly-named imagocurrency Ether was accidentally stolen and then promptly digitally burned to a whisp as the inadvertent thief tried to return it. No smoke, no muss, no cleanup. Not even a sound effect, I’ll wager.

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The long con fish story

A fine-toothed comb is passed through that “five months stranded in a sailboat” story from the other day in a delightfully expert fashion here.

When I initially read the story in the news, it was the fantastical shark details that wafted up to my crinkling nose not unlike a stagnant rock pool, but nothing about the story they told made sense, really. The not-so-finely crafted fish tale struck me as the ramblings of two small children who’ve broken a lamp and quickly invent a fairly complete but nonsensical alternate universe in which impish goblins did it, not them. In this case, one presumes with the hope of selling the Fantastic Unbelievable Story of the Broken Lamp and the Goblins for six or seven figures.

“And then, and then, and then, a force eleventy-‘leven storm hit for three days and it didn’t even show up on the satellite because the goblins hid it and stuff!”

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