Archive for October 2011 | Monthly archive page

On the evening of November 1st, 2010, San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood witnessed a procession of activists towing three faux-Chevron executives wearing gigantic, inflatable spheres atop hay bales pulled by their loyal, Hazmat suit-clad employees.  Streaming behind them were angry figures in skeleton suits and a number of passers-by that were encouraged to join in the strange parade.  Upon reaching Market and Castro and framed by a Chevron station in the background, the CEO’s explained that their unusual attire was a defensive measure that would help them to ensure their survival against the future calamitous repercussions of climate change.  Their large, silver “grub suits”, also known as  “Survivaballs”, were intended to help protect our society’s “most valuable citizens” from rising sea levels as well as violent retribution from other suffering, “less fiscally responsible” members of the community.

The November protest was created by the Yes Men, an absurdist performance-based activist group who utilize guerrilla theater tactics to call attention to the socially abhorrent behaviors of certain large corporations.  This particular event was intended to satirize recent political actions made by the CEOs of Chevron and the US Chamber of Commerce in relation to climate change policy.  The Yes Men originally began their social activism through the construction of parody websites.  After receiving substantial media attention over their sites lampooning then Presidential incumbent George W. Bush’s homepage and the World Trade Center’s “official” site in 2000, Yes Men founders Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno began to formulate a series of “identity correction” stunts.

The Yes Men, to their self-admitted surprise, have participated in many high-profile talks and symposiums largely due to a gross lack of fact-checking or close inspection of their satirical websites.  Beginning with the WTO and later moving on to corporations such as DOW Chemical, Union Carbide and McDonald’s, these guerrilla performances were characterized by the creation of figures who were intended to be received as genuine, high-ranking members of each organization.  These spokesmen would espouse outrageous proposals to members of symposiums, business meetings and TV audiences based on the very real and immoral practices of the companies they putatively represented.  Almost all of their stunts were accompanied by long-winded speeches, computer animations, flow charts, food items, and outlandish costumes.

For video of their exploits, watch their first film The Yes Men,  and their most recent feature, The Yes Men Fix the World.  For a hilarious read, pick up their new book.  To become a Yes Man and join the ranks of concerned pranksters worldwide, visit the Yes Lab and say Yes to social reform!

Our daughter Mathilda recently celebrated her second birthday, and since she has a lot more friends now than at the time of her first birthday, we decided to throw her an age-appropriate (i.e. messy) birthday party. It was inspired by her best friend Avi’s party, which consisted in part of 100 pounds of flour in two kiddie pools.

When planning this party, three things were important to me: Make it fun for the kids, keep it healthy, and produce as little trash as possible.

The fun factor I decided a “frost-your-own-cupcake” party was the perfect theme. And doing it at the park would keep the clean-up factor in our house to a minimum. I made the cupcakes and set up one table with frostings and one table with toppings. The tables were at an appropriate height for the kids. Each frosting was in a separate ceramic or glass bowl, and in a cup a bunch of bamboo butter knives were eagerly awaiting little hands. The toppings were also in glass and ceramic bowls, each with a spoon for easy topping. The cupcakes were on the higher tables, so the parents had some control over the process but on the frosting and topping tables the kids could do whatever they wanted. They seemed to enjoy the frosting, some even more than the eating of the cupcakes. The close-by slides and swings made it possible to run off possible sugar-highs and extra calories.

The food Making cupcakes healthier than the bright-colored ones found in your local supermarket (loaded with HFCS, artificial colors and who-knows-what) is actually pretty easy when you make them yourself. If you don’t have time, there are plenty of cupcakeries with tons of flavors and everything from vegan to gluten-free. And I’m sure you can get them unfrosted, too. I searched my favorite food blogs for ways to hide vegetables in cupcakes and came up with three different vegan flavors: spiced carrot cake, chocolate beet and lemon kale. The kale version was supposed to be zucchini but I changed my mind last minute, and there was definitely room for improvement. Stay tuned for an update on that one. The chocolate beet ones were my favorite. Find the recipe here. I made mini cupcakes for the kids and regular-sized ones for the parents.

For frostings I chose chocolate pudding, almond butter frosting and avocado-lemon frosting. I thought kids might be into the green avocado color, but the chocolate pudding was the definite winner on the frosting table (no surprise). So much so, that some kids would skip the cupcake altogether. Most adults thought the avocado frosting reminded them too much of guacamole and so nobody touched it. Oh well. All frostings were sweetened with stevia.

The toppings were shredded coconut, mini chocolate chips, chopped walnuts, raisins, green sprinkles (sugar dyed with vegetables) and homemade strawberry syrup.

I saved one regular cupcake, frosted it and topped it with two candles to serve as our birthday cake.

We also had some fruit (watermelon, grapes, blueberries and strawberries), chips and salsa, and other snacks, as well as gummy bears and lolly pops (sugar – yes, artificial colors & HFCS – no!) available.

With beverages we tried to keep it simple. Our local supermarket had a sale going for organic Santa Cruz Lemonade so I bought a bunch of bottles for $0.99 each. I also made a lemon verbena, lavender, mint ice tea, filled in into 1/2 gallon glass jars to take it to the park. There we served it from a (glass) pitcher which we filled up regularly.

Keeping it green I must admit it was quite a challenge and I was tempted again and again to go out and just BUY the stuff everybody is used to seeing at birthday parties for kids: plastic plates and cups, single-serve beverage containers with more or less sugar/HFCS, paper napkins, balloons, etc. But I resisted the consumer temptations.

I made a bunch of napkins from fabric scraps leftover from my sewing projects. They weren’t even sewn, I just cut squares with pinking shears. We needed new napkins anyway and I finally had an excuse to make some.

Replacing the plastic or paper cups was a little trickier. We didn’t really have enough glasses, so we went through our stash of jars and picked out the most suitable ones for drinking (think wide-mouth mason jars). To remove very persistent labels soak the jar in water for a few hours and remove most of the label, then rub oil into the remaining paper and scrub it off. You might have to repeat that a couple of times. It works! For the kids I found 10 glass votive candle holders for $1 at a thrift store. Perfect! That way I wouldn’t be bummed if one breaks. I was thinking baby food jars would also work great. We skipped plates altogether.

We set up a cardboard box for recycling, had a bucket for dirty napkins and rags, and brought our compost bin for food scraps. You can definitely pretty that up by having matching bins or buckets. We decorated the pavillion in the park with some prayer flags that usually hang in our bedroom, and the tables with two table runners we use at home.

Party Favors My original idea was to make aprons for all the kids, but in the end I ran out of time. I ended up using another Montessori idea I had been wanting to make for a while: Placemats with outlines of the plate, glass, cutlery and napkin. Setting the table is the perfect task for two-year-olds to do when you need a few more minutes to get dinner ready. I used wipeable vinyl mats and outlined everything with a sharpie, and personalized each mat with the child’s name. I also included a bamboo plate, folk, spoon and knife, as well as a napkin (made from my fabric stash again). Millie loves her placemat and is getting pretty good at setting the table before dinner. I hope her friends get to enjoy their mats as well.

All in all, I would consider it pretty successful. Depending on your time or helping hands, you can definitely improve on the decorations (think paper or even glass lanterns, paper pom poms, etc.) and in my case on the food (namely the lemon kale cupcakes and the avocado frosting). On the trash side we did really well. The only trash that couldn’t really be composted or recycled were the cupcake liners. And we now have a bunch of jars and napkins for our regular potlucks. As far as the fun factor goes, it seemed like everybody had a good time, although I’m sure we’re now considered “definitely different” and we will see which ones of our party guests will show up to Mathilda’s third birthday party…

Up until now, the issue of using hydrogen fuel cells as alternative sources of power has been a matter of debate.  They required fossil fuels for production, needed external inputs of electricity to operate, and were too expensive to be considered as an all-encompassing solution to the global climate crisis.  Enter the mighty microbe and a team of brilliant US researchers to provide a little hope for hydrogen.

An article recently published in the National Academy of Sciences describes the newly developed “MEC”, or Microbial Electrolysis Cell which generates its own hydrogen without the aid of external electricity.  Through a process called Reverse Electrodialysis, the cell uses fresh and saltwater membranes to generate and collect power from charged particles created between the gradients. In addition, the microbes manufacture hydrogen gas and small amounts of electricity by breaking down organic material.

This technology has implications far beyond transportation.  Without drawing power from the grid, MEC’s could also be used to treat waste water, refine oil, and process and stabilize foods.  Like most new, experimental inventions, the MEC is costly and would benefit from investment and large scale production to get it off the ground.  At the moment the Cell in on display at London’s Science Museum, and will hopefully be ready for real-world application some time in the near future.