How to make chocolate

While in Guatemala, I took a class called the Bean to Bar workshop at the ChocoMuseo in Antigua. This two-hour delight really did go from how cacao grows – to how beans are extracted from the pods, dried, and roasted – to how the cacao nibs are removed, crushed, ground, mixed with other things, and aerated – to make what we call chocolate.

We learned that the ground cacao paste does not become “chocolate” until it is mixed with some sugar. So 100% dark chocolate doesn’t exist; it is 100% cacao :) (and nearly inedible, even for chocolate lovers!)

Quite possibly the most challenging step was when we each took a turn stirring and roasting the beans, which was when our friendly host asked each of us to tell us something about ourselves (in Spanish!). He got really excited about my job at JPL and wanted to know if we’d found life beyond the Earth :)


We roasted cacao beans, then split them open to get the nibs out.

Grinding was a frenzy accompanied by a group chant: “Choco, choco, la-la! Choco, choco, te-te! Choco-la, choco-te, choco-la-te!” Aerating the mixed chocolate by pouring it back and forth between two pottery carafes was also tricky to do without spilling!

We made two kinds of hot chocolate (drink): Mayan (cacao, water, chili, honey, and BLOOD) and European (cacao, milk, sugar, no blood). We used spices instead of blood :) and most agreed that the Mayan was more tasty than the European.

Next, we poured chocolate (I chose 70% dark) into individual molds and added flavorings as desired – I went for cinnamon, mint, cashews, ginger, orange slices; others chose cayenne, salt, gummy bears (?!), and other options I’ve forgotten. Mine turned out tasty, but SUPER intense, and sort of crumbly, possibly due to its dark level and lack of wax/gum/binders/whatever they put in store-bought chocolate.

We also made chocolate tea. It turns out that you can steep the cacao bean shells (from which the nibs were removed) in hot water and make a tea that tastes like a cross between coffee and tea :) I brought home some of this “tea” with a cinnamon flavor. Yum!

Volcanoes in Guatemala

I recently visited Guatemala as a volunteer with Librarians Without Borders. We first visited the city of Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango), which is colorful and vibrant. We toured the central market, the municipal building/palace (fascinating history), the lone public library, and other sights. One thing we did not get to visit up close is the massive volcano that looms over the town.

Santa María is a breathtaking sight whenever it deigns to be seen. (Much of the time it is shrouded in cloud.) It has been active for the past 30,000 years and last erupted in 2009. It had a dramatic eruption + earthquake in 1902 that was the third largest eruption of the 20th century that dropped volcanic ash as far away as San Francisco (!).

Xela is at 7600′ above sea level, and Santa María rises another 5000′ up!

Here’s what it looks like from Xela:

And here’s what the south (active) side can be like (per Wikipedia):

We then traveled on to Panajachel (a cute touristy town on the shore of Lake Atitlán), where there are three more huge volcanoes – Toliman, Atitlán, and San Pedro. And then on to Antigua, with its own collection (Volcán de Agua, Volcán de Fuego, and Acatenango). In all, Guatemala has 33 volcanoes. Ring of Fire indeed!

How to drive in New Zealand

Start by staying on the left. :)

I found some great resources to prepare for driving in New Zealand.

Check out this interactive driving video/game, which is a good chance to practice for any driver. It definitely tests your observation skills!

Some of the road signs that I found interesting or unusual are:

Speed limit sign indicating that there is “no restriction” so the national speed limit of 100 kph applies
One-lane bridge ahead. The little red arrow means that you do NOT have right of way but instead traffic from the other direction (big black arrow) does.

There are lots of warnings that it will take you longer to drive somewhere than you may expect. I saw this billboard a lot:

and this great reminder to take breaks:

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the extensive construction going on everywhere I went, which certainly did make it take longer to get places. Many of the roads between cities were being resurfaced in various areas, so there was a lot of slow driving on gravel. In one place, there was a sign that we were driving on “wet concrete – wash car today” (!).

I also found that gas was much more expensive. Somewhat confusingly, prices are displayed in cents per liter (e.g., “199” instead of “$1.99”). I paid between $1.99 to $2.06 per liter, which works out to $7.50 to $7.80 per gallon (!). Giving how much driving I did, this ended up being a non-trivial part of my trip costs. An electric vehicle would make even more sense there :)

Trying out the impossible turn

Recently I completed my FAA flight review, which is required every two years. (It’s hard to believe that I’ve had my license for two years now!) This involved sitting down with my instructor to go over various flight regulations and knowledge topics (planning a cross country flight, airspace, interpreting weather products, etc.) and then going up in the air to put me through my flying paces. We did some takeoffs and landings, and then just after one takeoff he suddenly asked, “Now, if your engine quit right here, could make it back to the runway?”

My brain sort of froze because this is NOT how we practice engine-out landings. I had just turned crosswind and was perhaps 700′ above the ground. This isn’t quite the worst-case scenario (that is when your engine dies before that first turn, while you’re still pointed directly away from the runway), but it certainly was unfamiliar and unexpected (just like a real emergency would be).

“Power to idle,” my instructor directed.

My stomach sank along with the engine’s RPMs as I began banking back towards the runway – the WRONG runway – the end we’d just taken off from. Meanwhile, my instructor got permission from the tower for this wrong-direction “teardrop” landing. There was an 8-knot wind pretty much aligned with the runway, which was perfect for our takeoff. According to the audio recording, I said, “You’re a crazy man, I’m landing with a tailwind!”

Him: “Yep, so, we’ll be ready for a go-around.”

I could see we were coming in high (high!) so I kept turning to make my teardrop into more of an S shape and give me more time to lose altitude. Flaps went in. It wasn’t enough. We went into a slip and that helped. And then we were close to the ground and I flared and we landed – a little long, but acceptable. Wow!

So, this wasn’t quite the impossible turn (in fact it was very possible). But doomed (i.e., fatal) attempts to turn back to the runway without sufficient altitude are a serious and continuing problem in aviation. The general advice is to pick a minimum altitude above ground (e.g., 500′, 1000′) below which, if the engine dies, you should NOT try to turn and should instead continue straight ahead.

I like this advice:

Before every takeoff, prepare yourself for a possible engine failure with a short briefing stating out loud what you will do if the engine fails on the runway, below your minimum turnaround altitude and above that altitude. Then make a quick callout as you climb through your minimum turnaround altitude. That way, if the engine fails on takeoff, your decision is easy. If you haven’t made the minimum altitude call, you don’t even consider turning around. Just get the nose down, keep the airplane flying, and look within about a 60-degree arc for the best place to set the airplane down. The bad news is that someone will almost certainly have to call your insurance company. The good news is that you will almost certainly be able to make the call yourself.

The idea is that an abort/failure briefing can help make emergency response actions automatic rather than slowed by disbelief and denial. It is also possible to practice the necessary turn, at higher altitudes and away from the airport, to determine how much altitude you’ll lose. I’ve done this, and it was quite interesting, but it lacks the scare factor and adrenaline rush and “the ground is right there” visuals of a real low-altitude engine failure. Better than nothing though!

It’s good to get to try new things with the support of an instructor. He noted that that was about the limit (in terms of minimum height above ground and maximum tailwind) in which he’d like to try that sort of thing. I translate that into my own personal minimums as: “Don’t try this at home. Yet.”

“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

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