Explore the Hill Country on horseback

Austin offers horse-back riding opportunities.

Horseback riding is a classic pastime, and trail riding in particular invokes visions of sunsets and open land. Southwestern University is surrounded by the famed Texas Hill Country, and a trail ride is one way to take in the scenery, particularly as the days grow longer and the weather warms.

In addition, riding a horse has a multitude of physical benefits. Though it may seem like all that the rider does is sit, horseback riding exercises abdominal muscles that are otherwise rarely used, promotes balance and causes less stress on joints than walking or running.

Luckily, there are a number of opportunities to go horseback riding in the Central Texas area. For a basic group trail ride that offers a view of prime Texas countryside, head out to Post Oak Farm in Burnet. Bee Cave Riding Center in Austin also provides trail rides for riders of all skill levels. The Nameless Horse Center provides this service as well. Lack of experience should not discourage anyone from trying out a trail ride, as all three stables provide instructors to guide the more inexperienced rider.

For something a little more adventurous, try White Fences Equestrian Center in Manor. They provide trail rides of all sorts, including one that has a picnic in the countryside. Silver’s Trails has a special trail for the more confident rider that includes going through a creek. Finally, for the truly dedicated, Colbert Ranch in Bertram has trail packages that allow riders to explore the ranch and participate in a variety of activities throughout the day, including a home cooked lunch.

SIRA recently organized a trip to Colbert Ranch. Senior Callie Paige went on the trip and said that it consisted of a two and a half hour trail ride and a picnic.

Paige said, “It was loads of fun, and it was really nice to get away from campus out in nature. It’s always fun to be around horses.”

If you are interested in going on a trail ride, it must be scheduled via phone or email, and further information is located on each ranch’s website.

For those who are feeling truly philanthropic and want to be around horses, there is also the Ride on Center for Kids (ROCK), which provides therapeutic horseback riding services for individuals with cognitive and physical challenges. Check out the ROCK website to find out more about volunteer opportunities.

MegaPhood: Gluten free baking

A gluten intolerant friend of mine once expressed her frustration in describing her condition to others.

“But what can you eat?” people would ask her.

The answer is complex. Gluten intolerance is a broad term. Some people may confuse gluten intolerance with celiac disease, which is also caused by gluten but is not the same condition. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that results in the immune system overreacting to the protein found in gluten. Antibodies are then released, which, over time, erode the body’s ability to process nutrition. Gluten intolerance, though it takes many forms, is the body’s instant reaction to a food component that it perceives to be an invader. Both conditions are treated primarily by following a gluten-free diet.

Those with gluten intolerance of some sort can still eat a wide range of foods, though they may have to be specially prepared. For instance, there is a range of alternative flours. Popular ones are rice flour and bean flour. However, when baking with these items it is typically advised to add agents such as xantham gum to help maintain the same texture in baked goods.

Cooking like this can, indeed, be a challenge. As first-year Kati Eason said, “The list of ingredients are all things that a college student doesn’t have money or time for.”
Luckily, in recent years many strides have been made to make more considerations for gluten intolerance. Gluten free items can be found in most mainstream grocery stores. Betty Crocker has a line of gluten free mixes. For something a little more upscale, Namaste Foods, found in Whole Foods and other specialty stores, has everything from biscuit mix to pizza crust.

However, Eason said, “Gluten is in so many foods, the obvious being breads and pastas, but it’s also in a lot of sauces and soups, too, because manufacturers add flour to thicken them. Gluten is pretty hard to avoid.”

The restrictions extend beyond the obvious. Fast food companies put wheat in meat patties to stretch them out. Also, many restaurants do not take precautions for the gluten intolerant or offer alternative menus, though some restaurants are beginning to.
Eason said, “French fries are also hard to eat, not because of the potatoes, but because they may be fried in oil that breaded things have been fried in, like onion rings. It’s definitely been hard to adjust to.”

It is hard, but not impossible. Even if you are not gluten intolerant, eating less gluten does have benefits, since a gluten free diet is devoid of refined wheat, such as white bread. This diet can lower cholesterol and increase energy.

Gluten Free Chocolate Financiers. Courtesty Google Images.

Recipe of the Week

Gluten-Free Chocolate Financiers

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup almond flour*
4 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup egg whites (approx. two large)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly grease and flour financier molds or mini-muffin tins. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set it aside until it reaches room temperature.

Mix the almond flour with the cocoa powder, salt, and powdered sugar. Stir the egg whites and almond extract into the almond mixture, then gradually stir in the melted butter until incorporated and smooth. Spoon the batter into the molds, filling them three-quarters full.

Bake the financiers for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are slightly puffed and springy to the touch. Remove them from the oven and let cool completely before removing the financiers from the molds.

Once cooled, financiers can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

* I made this by pulsing blanched almonds in the food processor until they were reduced to a powder.

Recipe courtesy of Smitten Kitchen, originally found in Gluten-Free Girl by David Lebovitz.

Several suitors seek supercomputer’s sweet, sweet services

Robot Watson wins Jeopardy. Courtesy of Google Images.

Audiences this past week were stunned as they watched “Jeopardy!” champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter lose a 3-day exhibition match to IBM’s artificial intelligence named Watson. With Watson’s defeat of the champs, several organizations are fighting over who will get to use Watson next, and for what purpose.

Prior to Watson’s embarrassing answer during the first round of Final Jeopardy, the U.S. Military was interested in acquiring Watson. During the first round of Final Jeopardy, the contestants were given the clue: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero, and its second largest is named for a World War II battle.” Watson incorrectly guessed “Toronto” instead of the correct answer of “Chicago.”

Following this blunder, the military withdrew its bid for Watson.

A spokesperson commented, “Well, it really wouldn’t have been the most embarrassing geography problem our government has had to deal with. There was the time that Dubya called Africa a country, but with the threat of budget cuts looming we really didn’t want to risk landing our supply planes in Canada. The last thing the Tea Party wants to hear is that we accidentally landed our supply planes in a ‘socialist country.’”

Also in the running for a bid for Watson was the Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest school district in the state of Wisconsin. However, due to the threats of massive budget cuts by Governor Scott Walker, the district was forced to withdraw its bid.

Superintendent Gregory Thornton made a quick statement in-between protests at the state capitol.

“Look, I’m a fan of expanding horizons and all that fancy stuff, but with education in the cross-hairs of Governor Walker we simply cannot afford this system.” However, one proposal by the governor is to fire every geography teacher in the district and have Watson teach via-television in each class.

A spokesperson for the governor said, “The governor is sure that as long as Watson avoids the topic of U.S. cities, the program will be a rousing success. Watson will be more cost-effective than paying hundreds of geography teachers.”

Southwestern University is also interested in acquiring Watson as a part of the University’s effort to re-brand itself.

“The PR buzz surrounding Watson would be sure to boost the University’s profile,” said one SU administrator. Students that were interviewed were less receptive to the idea. One student who spoke under the condition of anonymity feared what type of work Watson would expect from students.

“I’m already dying from the work-load our human professors assign; I can’t imagine what the work-load would be from a computer.”

Regardless of which group or institution gets Watson, the machine has solidified itself in the history books. The demand for game-show playing AIs is sure to rise in the coming months.

Science explains why love makes the heart go aflutter

Stomach Butterflies. Courtesy of Google Images.

Many people would probably agree that butterflies do, in fact, exist somewhere in our abdominal region and that they only become active when they sense the presence of somebody special. Whether you have labeled them as parasites or welcome insect companions, it is interesting and helpful to understand why they exist, how to invoke their metamorphosis and how to keep them from migrating when a relationship starts to go cold.

Human emotion is thought to break down into two parts: the physiological arousal that we experience and the belief or cognition as to what caused that arousal. Sometimes the process is simple. When you see someone ride away on the pirate bike you were about to grab, your heart may beat faster and your temperature may rise. You might think, “I am feeling angry because that jerk just stole my pirate bike.”

Other times the experience is more ambiguous, such as when we are affected by multiple things at once. Excitation transfer theory says that sometimes excitement or arousal from one experience may enhance or amplify the excitatory response to another. For example, studies have found that if people are aroused by an activity such as exercise or riding a roller coaster, they will rate strangers to be more physically attractive afterwards. This idea suggests that because someone’s heart is beating faster from one activity, they may feel more of an attraction towards another person. This sensation may be caused by a misattribution of their arousal.

There is still much to be discovered about how humans perceive themselves, specifically regarding the question of what comes first, the physical feeling or the thought. Some believe that we learn about ourselves the same way that we learn about other people, through observing ourselves. By applying this idea to our sentiments, is it possible that the emotions we experience are just our best explanations for what we are feeling?
Regardless, this misattribution is frequently seen in dating and, in fact, might be one of the most important components to a successful date, and especially a first date. As important as it may be to talk to someone and get to know them over a meal, if you want to evoke the butterflies’ kiss, you may need to come up with a more elaborate game plan.

A good first date or a date intended to re-spark a stagnant relationship should be something fun that evokes feelings or emotion. Also, whether it is physical activity or active thought, a good date should require action that someone will be able to remember not only by what they saw or did but by how they felt. Chances are some aspect of that memory will be associated with you.

Keeping this in mind, a pair could go on a bike ride, play racquetball, go for a run, go horseback riding, watch a thrilling movie, go to an amusement park, go to a comedy club, go camping, go for a hike, go to a slam poetry event, go bowling, go kayaking or go dancing.

Also effective but not recommended, two could take ecstasy which was once prescribed to couples with marital problems before it became illegal in the mid 1980s. Its euphoric and arousing qualities are easily and often associated with one’s partner in crime. The bottom line is that whatever you two are into, pick something that will evoke a feeling you by which you would like to be remembered.

Both parties continue to punt on budget deficit

Last week, Obama presented a $3.7 trillion budget. While this is enormous, it actually is a cut (for following years) – $33 billion cut in 2012 and about a trillion dollars over the next decade. Roughly two-thirds of the reduced cost over the next decade comes from spending cuts and freezes – such as the five-year freeze on discretionary spending.

However, despite these cuts, our debt is projected to rise by over $7 trillion in the next decade, and the deficit is projected to never fall below $600 billion. Deficits this year are expected to hit $1.6 trillion.

Snake-like Deficit. Courtesy of Google Images.

According to Obama, the savings would bring the share of discretionary spending to its lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was president. However, discretionary spending is only a small portion of what the government spends. If one excludes military spending (as Obama is doing) discretionary spending accounts for less than 20 percent of the budget.

The vast majority of spending can be attributed to non-discretionary things, such as defense spending (the military), entitlements (Social Security and Medicare) and the interest the government pays on our debt.

The 2011 budget includes $740 billion for Defense, $740 billion for Social Security, $500 billion for Medicare and $250 billion in interest on our national debt. These four items alone account for over $2.2 trillion of the budget – almost two thirds of it.

If this budget were deficit neutral, that is to say, the government didn’t have to borrow any money, these four items would take up all of it, leaving out things such as spending on education, infrastructure and many other things.

Republicans and Tea Party members alike are quite displeased with this large budget. They propose further cuts to discretionary spending.

“This is a punt,” Republican and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said. “You cannot borrow, tax and spend your way to fiscal responsibility, but that’s exactly what the president is trying to do.”

However, they too are being hesitant in addressing entitlement and defense spending. Republicans’ proposal currently cuts an additional $60 billion or so from Obama’s budget for this fiscal year.

If we take a look at the numbers, it seems as if members of both parties are “punting” – avoiding the inevitable change that needs to be made to our entitlements as Americans live longer and grow older.

In December, a bi-partisan commission recommended large spending cuts and tax raises to bring our bloated budget under control. However, as of now, it seems as if neither party has the stomach to do what is necessary. Republicans refuse to raise taxes (as we saw when they forced the continuation of tax cuts, costing the government around a trillion dollars over the next decade) and Democrats refuse to cut enough.

It seems as if all we can do now is hope that Obama and the Republicans manage to force enough compromise in the right direction from each other to fix the government, rather than allowing the Republicans to lower taxes, the Democrats to spend more, and the nation to go broke.

2011 awards season: a recap

This year’s award season will draw to a close with the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 27. Throughout this season, the winners have stood proud, while some have been shocked by the results. The Grammys this year was no exception.

The most shocking of the results was that the seemingly unstoppable force of tween idol Justin Bieber did not achieve the covetous Best New Artist award.

He lost to a new jazz artist, Esperanza Spalding, who has played at the Peace Prize Ceremony.

Another surprising win was the Album of the Year going to Arcade Fire for “The Suburbs.” The band beat out hopefuls such as Eminem’s “Recovery” and Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster.”

Unsurprising were Lady Antebellum’s wins in six different categories, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

Lady Gaga took home Best Female Pop Vocals, Best Pop Vocal record, and Best Music Video (Short Form) for “Bad Romance.”

Cee-Lo Green won Best Urban/Alternative Performance for F*** You and Eminem won Best Rap Solo Performance.

The SAG Awards are taken as major hints for how the Oscars will play out. Best Actor went to “The King’s Speech” for the performance given by Colin Firth, while Natalie Portman won Best Actress in “Black Swan.”

The movie “The Fighter” claimed both Best Supporting Actor and Actress. The TV show “Boardwalk Empire” won Best Dramatic Actor and Best Ensemble in a Drama.

Best Actress in a Comedy went to Betty White in “Hot in Cleveland” and “Modern Family” won Best Ensemble in a Comedy. “Glee” and “The Big Bang Theory” surprisingly did not win anything.

Usher and Justin Bieber also perform a duet at the Grammy's. Courtesy of Google Images.

The Golden Globes is another useful way to predict the Oscar wins. Some of the Golden Globe winners were winners at the SAG Awards, too, yet others managed to squeeze their own victories.

“The King’s Speech” took home Best Dramatic Actor and “Black Swan” won another Best Dramatic Actress. “The Social Network” swept the board with four wins including Best Motion Picture.

“The Kids are All Right” won Best Comedy and Best Comedic Actress. “The Fighter” again took the two Best Supporting Awards and “Toy Story 3” won Best Animated.

In the realm of television, “Boardwalk Empire” took home two notable wins in Best Dramatic Series and Best Dramatic Actor.

“Glee” made itself known as it took Best Comedy/Musical Series and Both Supporting Actors for Jane Lynch and Chris Colfer.

The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons won Best Comedic Actor for Dr. Sheldon Cooper and Robert DiNero won the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Golden Globes were most notable this year though for the host, Ricky Gervais, and his somewhat biting humor that many of the actors and critics took offensively. Halfway through the special, they began cutting more of his airtime to deter any more snide remarks.

The Oscars are sure to cause a stir this year. Who will win Best Picture? “The Social Network” or “The King’s Speech”?

Will Collin Firth and Natalie Portman keep their reigns on Best Actor? Will “The Social Network” make a clean sweep or will there be an unexpected victory from “127 Hours” or “True Grit”?

The fashions on the red carpet and the stars who will parade in them promise new splendors. And Helena Bonham Carter has promised a fashion scandal when she appears that everyone will remember. Whatever happens, it will definitely be interesting.