Thursday, August 30, 2012

It is a minor work!

... A title which is far funnier in my inside the head voice, unless you have a good knowledge of minor West Wing characters, and can summon up the voice of Bernard from the Office of Protocol.

As a large aside, I've begun collecting Warhammer 40k models, and playing them again (I make a decent study of the Imperial Guard), and I have devoted a largely in-character blog to that pursuit over here:

In addition to random tales as the mood strikes me, I'll be doing in-character battle reports, photo spreads, and perhaps even the odd model review or two.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Union Thing Again

For those concerned, know that these temporary detours from green week do serve a purpose, and I'll be back in a post or two to talking about all sorts of ways you can be happier, healthier, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly in the home. 

Those who are familiar with my work history know that I once was a member of a union - the CAW - which happened to be the largest union operating in this country's private sector. By and large, the union didn't have much of an effect on my life. Nominally, they were in place to negotiate a new employment contract with my employer (they didn't) and to be a check on the powers of managemtient (they weren't). Near as I can tell, the union that was there was there to gobble up dues and to make sure I never had to set foot in the dish pit again, which is more ordinary refuge when pissed off in a kitchen. Those who know me know that back then I was a lot angrier than I was now, working under higher stress with less control over my emotions - never a good combination.

Still, I can't blame the union for what happened to me and the manner in which I arrived at losing that particular job. For one thing, I was pretty much presaged for failure from the word go - I had the least experience of any cook on staff and any new hire in years, I had a predisposition toward hating that particular manner of "cooking" (throwing hot pockets in the microwave doesn't count, ladies!), and I was a particularly irritable person working with a number of particularly irritable people who all (myself included) thought we were God's gift to the craft. Being a polymath doesn't help you much in that environment, especially when you are a polymath who is always right, and one who is disinclined to be particularly nice to your fellow jerks at 8 AM, which is a perfectly reasonable time to be up. Yeah, I pretty much dug my own grave on that one.

What annoys me is that the union rolled over. I don't have pay stubs any more (that filing season has passed), but I did pay close to $80 a month for the union's protection, which extended to mandatory lunch breaks I couldn't always afford to take (time is more valuable than air in a kitchen), discounts on work boots, and the aforementioned immunity from the shame and frustration of washing dishes. My friends still tell me that the contract that expired over a year ago still hasn't been replaced. Employees who were worse than useless (downright counter-productive) were immune from all but the most minor punishment and employees who put their heart and soul into their work were constantly being drummed up before the bosses and disciplined for petty infractions, some of which happened off property and off payroll. I remember quite clearly being told to cut my hair standing beside the man with the three-foot pony tail... but that's neither here nor there. He was a genius, a true master of the craft, and he deserved any indulgence he asked for.

Looking back on it now, I suppose I must have been pretty mediocre to hotel management. Hotel cooking has more in common with the fast food industry than with fine dining, and I was never cut out for a life of pressing pizza dough and dunking French Fries. That's not the Union's fault.

All this to say, of course, that I don't blame the union for losing my job. My anti-union perspective has little to do with my own history, or indeed some inherent hatred for the labour class - a class to which I, along with everyone else I know, happen to belong. A part of me wants to blame them, sure - it's easier than admitting to myself that I'm the only one to blame for that fiasco. But I have an actual grievance.

Labour Day's coming up, and it's always nice to have a day off. So are statutory holidays, the 40 hour week,  and then $10/hour minimum wage in this province. None of these are things I especially benefit from, except maybe the minimum wage, which, by the way, is only sufficient if you actually get a 40-hour week. Health benefits would be great, except by and large they take a cut out of my wage, an unnecessary cut considering basic medical care is covered by the provincial government and even my 'scrip is cheap. I like statutory holidays, and I really liked them when I was still plying the trade, because you almost always work stats as a cook, and getting paid time and a half to do so was fantastic.

Thing is... I'm not a service industry employee any more. Bar opening my own restaurant, I'm not likely to ever be again - the spectacular way in which I flared out at the hotel was more than enough to consume the already flagging fires of my passion for cuisine. I'm left with a few tender embers now, embers that need to be carefully stoked and built up again. No, I'm not a service industry employee, and a retail union wouldn't get very far. The things we want would cost jobs, rather than create them. Hard to get people to rally behind that.

No, I don't hate unions because I didn't get my grievance. I would have lost it anyway. I'm anti-union because I'm anti-waste. Workers in the western world are, by and large, fighting for more of the benefits they already have. A few fight fights worth fighting - cooks at my old hotel totally deserve more than what they're making right now. As a block one cook I was making less than I"m making now, even without the performance incentives. Lots fight for stuff they just don't deserve. $18 an hour to clean toilets and mop floors?

Man, for the kind of hours you get, I would do your job for the minimum wage. Oh, and, uh, throw in that optical you're getting on top of that pay. My eyes are always a little bit worse than I think they are.

For those who think that being anti-union means you hate the little guy, remember the name.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Americanization of Canadian Politics II: RCMP, Border Services to Allow Torture

I don't have a small child to frown at you, so you're going to have to settle for me looking unimpressed (to put it tacitly).

I've been working in the kitchen all morning, trying to get it ready for a long week of what I suspect will be low-cycle mentality, and I've finally taken a break scant hours before I have to go to work. I don't like the day-to-day feeling of banality that comes from only having the news of the mall to talk about, so today I flicked open the CBC page and had a little look.

Banner Headline: RCMP, border agents can use torture-tainted information.

Now, being a social liberal and having always leaned just slightly to the left of Christ Himself when it comes to how people should and shouldn't be treated by the governments they empower, a standing displeasure with the direction my country has been heading in has more or less been the norm for about... a decade or so. I wish I was kidding, but I'm not.

Still, it's a common practice to sensationalize your headlines to raise eyebrows and get people to read the article, and being the perfect little sheep I am, I have. I'll even admit to having done the same to my headline.

Directives issued about a year ago to the RCMP and the Border Service have recently been released to the press under various information requests. These directives make it clear that in exceptional circumstances (which are never properly defined), either agency may make use of information from all available sources - including foreign agencies, even if they suspect said information is derived from torture. This is some fuzzy logic away from being the same as the American practice of Extraordinary Rendition, a practice that I'll not seems not to have decelerated under the sitting President. 

In either event, it is simply an allowance of torture. While I'm not suggesting that we start fighting wars to end torture (I think that would be a job for some kind of UN standing army, not Canadian peacekeepers), it's absurd to believe that these foreign agencies would simply be feeding us their torture-gathered information for no reason. Somewhere, hidden in the accounting, to be sure, there's going to be economic or political consideration to these people. And that's why we're the enablers, which is why I get to use the phrase "Allow Torture".

I was disappointed when I started taking law and world issues courses in high school, and when I started paying attention to the news, because that was precisely when I started to learn that America, our dear neighbour to the south, has been denying her dream for years. That's when I started learning about Guantanamo and Abu Graib. I learned the real reasons behind Canadian involvement in the NATO invasion of Afghanistan - how we were holding the most dangerous neighbourhoods with some of the weakest equipment. I was extremely proud - as proud as a 14 year old could have been - when I found out we wouldn't be going to Iraq. It wasn't our fight.

To find out we're adopting this policy... this Jack Bauer, "where's the bomb!", enhanced interrogation policy... whether on our own soil or through well-paid foreign hands, is actually the last straw. I am a Canadian. I stand for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and I think that it should apply globally rather than nationally. I served two training tours as a Royal Canadian Army Cadet and I've considered, on and off again, making a career of military service. My true patriot land may still be free, but it is no longer glorious. This cannot, shall not stand.

Tell everyone you know about this. Tell everyone you know that his honour, the Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, is killing Canada.

Health and Life in the Kitchen, Pt. 2

This entry is a continuation of the previous, and a part of the Green Week Household Overhaul Series. 

Sufficiency of Storage
Storing things in the kitchen is an important ability for a number of reasons. For one thing, the more storage you have, the less often you should have to go out to get food - an important consideration in reducing fuel costs and associated emissions. There's really two types of storage in a kitchen - cold storage (your fridge/freezer), and dry storage (cupboards, bins, tins, and so on).

Mise en Place - Organization and Preparation
Mise en Place is a French phrase loosely meaning "everything in its place" - in professional cooking, this refers to having all your ingredients peeled, chopped, and ready to go. It's an important part of streamlining the kitchen for service, but it's also surprisingly helpful for storing things.

If you know, for example, that the only use you have for celery is making mirepoix, you're liable to do what I do - dice all of your celery as soon as you buy it and freeze it. Freezing isn't my favourite way to preserve foods, but frozen celery goes a long way - long enough that you actually get to use it all. This goes back to when I was talking about making grocery lists by making a menu for the week first. Now that you know what you're going to eat all week, do as much preparation as possible. Peel and chop vegetables, do whatever butchery you have to do, and freeze or refrigerate. Suddenly you have food that you can cook in a matter of minutes rather than inside of an hour.

Remember, there are only ever two reasons anyone eats processed foods - it's either cheaper than "real" food, or they can have it ready right away. Getting your mise en place done is a good way to cut that last advantage out of processed foods and back over to the real food.

The Fridge and You - a Study in Food Safety
One of the first things they taught us in school was food safety, and after we got through the tedium of memorizing the impacts of various biological hazards and their key temperatures, we learned that there was a right way and a wrong way to pack a fridge. Believe it or not, it's actually way easier to keep a walk-in fridge (with the volume of a 10'x10' room) than it is to keep the few hundred litres of your fridge organized. This is made worse by the fact that fridges are usually laid out wrong for this to work.

The Golden Rule - The elevation of food in the fridge is inversely proportional to the safety risk it poses. What this means is that foods you eat raw should be at the top, then produce, then meats. Ideally the meats themselves are stratified as well. This is where most fridges meet their first problem: they place their "vegetable crisper drawers" at the bottom of the fridge. For one thing, these drawers are functionally useless. You are far better off sticking your vegetables in the middle of the shelf (and knowing how to store them properly) than putting them in that bottom drawer.

Always try to keep a fridge as full as possible while still leaving room for air to circulate. Where possible, pad empty sections with containers of water - both to keep a ready supply of drinking water on hand, and to reduce the amount by which the temperature of the inside of the fridge changes when the door is open, and reduce strain and energy consumption for the actual cooling motor.

But What do I Use?
I'm a huge fan of containers of all kinds, and a part of that, I suspect, is tied to my addiction to shopping at Staples. In the kitchen, containers have every use, from holding raw to prepared foods, holding utensils, and so on. Very rarely now, does anything get stored in its own container. I immediately partition meat when purchased and freeze it in individual portions (double wrapped in Saran, until I find containers good enough to prevent freezer burn). Vegetables get cut up as quickly as possible and stored, either just in a container or in citrus-acidified water, depending on their nature. Cooked meals go into containers if there's any left over. Mason jars are perfect for soups.

I have found the use of containers, whether re-purposed from other products, being glass or plastic, to dramatically reduce the amount of garbage my kitchen outputs on a daily basis. Having a ready supply of containers has also made it easier to prepare lunches in advance and bring them to work, as opposed to eating the high-sodium, high-fructose meals of the mall food court.

The golden rule in this regard is to use containers that can be used over and over again. The more often you use a thing, the less often you're replacing it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Health and Life in the Kitchen: Green Kitchen, Pt. 1

And indeed, is there not something holy about a great kitchen? ... the scoured gleam of row upon row of metal vessels dangling from hooks or reposing on their shelves till needed with the air of so many chalices waiting for the celebration of the sacrament of food?
 -Angela Carter

I've talked a few different times on other blogs about setting up kitchens under various constraints, and when I was at the college I did full-on design plans for kitchens ranging from small-scale household bastions to grand, full-brigade services. If this, therefore, winds up sounding a little familiar, I apologize. As a part of our Green Week efforts here on A&G, I'm getting ready to tackle my favourite room in the house: the kitchen.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Philippians 4:5, Earth First!, Fiction, and Reality

I might have mentioned it once or twice before, but for those who don't know, I spent quite a bit of my time writing fiction - either privately or collaboratively through role-playing games - and I've gotten quite good at characters. One of these characters always draws fire for me personally whenever he appears, and that's because he's an environmental saboteur. There's a bit of an involved tale as to how I arrived at the concept but the long and short of it is that I did, he is, and I have a great amount of fun the once or twice a year I let him loose to smash things. Where this becomes problematic is that his beliefs are a little too firmly-set, his actions just a little too specific, and my enjoyment just a little too stated - people unfamiliar with how wide a spectrum my characters occupy assume that I must secretly harbour the same beliefs and it never fails but I get needled with the blowback from it.

See, when I write a character, especially one who does something I'm not familiar with, I do this thing I call Character R&D. I pull up actual, historical people of similar backgrounds and viewpoints. In Renes' case (the ecoteur), this also included hunting down a third-edition copy of Ecodefense, studying environmental issues, familiarizing myself with the environment of southern California and the industrial concerns there, researching the cost of failure for various common pieces of industrial equipment, and generally preparing in every way but deed to start bringing mining, logging, and dumping concerns to a crashing halt in a fictional version of Los Angeles.

The thing is that I agree with his viewpoint no more than I agree with any of my other characters who do nasty things. Their motives might be pure and might even sound justifiable when spoken with conviction, but the fact of the matter remains that these characters are antiheros in almost every case. Where one set of players might see Renes as a protagonist and potential ally, others would naturally see him as a threat, a bitter enemy, and an obstacle to be removed as quickly as possible.

That's how it's supposed to work. Not everyone is supposed to find any one character lovable - with one noted exception where that actually happened making it difficult to find a way to involve that character in any meaningful conflict except as a negotiator between sides. Neither are they supposed to be universally vilified, though I do create deliberate and often ad hoc antagonists from time to time.

In much the same way that I disagree with all of my characters, there's also a limited extent to which I agree with all of them, and Renes is no exception to that rule. AS it happens, I do consider myself to be environmentally cautious. That's why I'm starting a sort of impromptu Green Week here on the A&G (which, knowing me, could last as long as a fortnight). We're going to look at green living techniques for every room of the house, a bit about waste handling, and probably have a little chat on improving the nature of your daily commute.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Re-evaluation of Priorities

Oolong teas aren't really promoted for inspiring mental clarity (for that, I prefer to suggest something with orange and sage), but when I ponder, I like to ponder with a hot cup of Phoenix Mountain Dan Cong in my hand (seriously, and all promotion work aside, this may well be my favourite tea, bar none). I find the layers to be charming when I'm reflecting without being excessively stimulating or distracting.

At any rate, while I'm sitting here drinking my Phoenix Mountain I'm contemplating the idea of systems, perched upon my unmade bed and shooting askance glances at the old pizza box on the dresser and trying to remember if it had any food in it or not when I put it there. It comes up because my white-trash side is resurfacing and I've been watching entirely too much Wife Swap (before you ask how that got started, I honestly assure you I haven't got so much of a sweet clue), and their favourite gimmick seems to be slapping together chaotic and obsessively-ordered families.

Now, it's funny, when it comes to my digital life or my work life, I'm obsessively organized. Misfiled files and pens in the wrong place honestly drive me nuts in their contexts, but for some reason, in my home life, I seem to be content to let things quite literally pile up. The choice of "seems" is quite appropriate, because it secretly drives me as batty as everything else.

Thing is, I've always had systems handed to me for work. Sure, I develop my own way of doing things, but it's always in the context of a proper system. The same goes for my computer - while I don't entirely use the windows default file hierarchy, I do at least work within its confines. If I had to design a file system from scratch I'd probably lose my mind, or wind up with a terribly inelegant "catch all" folder.

I spend a surprising amount of my down-time trying to think of better ways to organize this house, but it's a daunting task, and one to be made more complicated by the impending move of my room-mate and the moving in of his replacement. Keeping the bedroom organized should obviously be a simple matter since no amount of room-mate swapping should change the state of my room.

And even with systems, there's no enforcement mechanism in place. Fortunately, my new room-mate is about as anal as I am so I can't see there being too many conflicts over cleaning... but it's getting the house cleaned first.

So I sit here, drinking my Dan Cong, and I suddenly come to realize that the obvious trick to implementing my system is going to be implementing it... which means most of my "down time" is going to be going into the process of cleaning, trashing, and organizing things. If anyone's wondering where I'm at the next few days, that's where.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tarot, Horoscopes, and Meditation (Eek!)

 You're all about to watch a train wreck, because I'm about to talk about three relatively new-age concepts on a blog that got its start talking about catholicism, specifically my conversion to it, and much of its initial readership from a fundamentalist catholic forum. If any of the original readers are still clinging on to the hope I might go back to my older style of writing I would have to apologize and hope that they can find some degree of understanding in the idea that the same open mind to things supernatural that brought me into their religion also means that all other ideas and influences get equal time.

This is going to sound like a weird position to take given the growing number of science articles I've written for the blog and the usual position of skepticism I take in day to day life. Of course fairies, nixies, spirits, ghosts, goblins, and aliens don't actually exist. Ah, but I can't make that statement declaritive. I can only say "absent any evidence of the aforementioned, I choose not to believe in them".

When I was in late middle school and early high school I spent quite a bit of time studying what people commonly call the occult but what would more accurately be known as a small collection of non-Christian cultural tropes and associated "magic". Specifically, I saved up my allowance and bought myself a shiny new Ryder-Waite Tarot Deck. I remember that the cards came with a book that taught you how to do a few different spreads, and the symbolism of each card - more importantly, though, it contained two injunctions:

  1. When studying the symbols on the card, if a meaning springs readily to mind, consider that its primary, and;
  2. Never provide readings for others except those with whom you are very familiar.
Now, the second injunction I took simply as a cultural norm like the old tradition that one does not sell their sourdough starter, Amish bread recipe, or kombucha culture. Clearly lots of mystics with more experience than I at reading the Tarot made a good living off of doing it, and no great ill had befallen them. I do however notice that such readings are often considered wildly innacurate (when honest) or demonstrative of cold-reading (when dishonest), where as readings I preformed just for myself actually tended to have a seed of truth.

Looking back on it now I realize exactly what had happened. For one thing, I rarely asked questions about the future of myself because I don't believe the future is fixed - once again, see Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. I asked questions about events in my past, people in my life, and facets of my nature, and I found out less than you would think (being fifteen tends to make you bad at introspection). Then, by and large I met Kat and after a while having a good companion to talk to and play with ended most of my interest in the occult for now. I don't have that tarot deck any more.

What I'm realizing now though is that the cards were a tool, and one I considered useful at the time, in the same way that I considered lectio divina useful for a time until I suddenly became bad at it again. While the cards drawn are more than somewhat influenced by chance, the mind's interpretation of those cards is done through a lens of the concern of the moment. The symbolic meaning, whether remembered (I no longer require the book) or referenced, speaks through and to those concerns and answers are only found after careful consideration. The tarot is a deck of cue-cards, and a helpful one at that, used for finding answers to the question of the day.

Where it becomes dangerous, and it rarely is, is when it becomes subject to absolute faith in inerrant truth of its results. I met a person who was like that, albeit with futhark runes. It was just as grating as faith in inerrant predictive power of the book of Revelation.

Now, I also mentioned horoscopes in the above, and it is well and good that I did, because they are another matter altogether. For one thing, I don't read broad-cast horoscopes of the sort found on facebook or in the local papers, which are cast for everyone born in every year under the dates of the same astrological sign. For one thing, I was born very close to the start of the "season" for my sign, and when you draw up a proper, charted horoscope, the line between the sign I've always claimed to be and the sign before it are fuzzy, which some would say is a nod to my dual nature and I simply say is an interesting artefact of the horoscope system with regard to the time and location of my birth. I don't have any real belief in the power of horoscopes - I'm just exactly anal enough to enjoy making and analyzing the charts. I've used them before as props for characters in role-plays. It is especially worth noting that I do not behave as a cancer should, but that same recognition is fuelled by the fact that most people exhibit the personality traits of most of the horoscopes in different amounts. For me, the construction of these charts by hand is an interesting intellectual exercise and one I enjoy doing a few times a year. It's not a science and it's certainly not a predictive tool. It's a fun little way to create a unique representation of yourself without a camera.

Meditation, on the other hand, is a very real and useful practice. While I doubt very much I'm about to become an old Zen master, acquire the Buddha nature, or begin doing supernatural feats, careful reflective meditation is an important part of keeping myself sane, with or without medication. We have to remember that meditation is thinking. Carefully unpacking and examining one issue at a time is a way to stop our multi-tasking brains and focus our full intellect on a single question, premise, or truth. I don't drink watered-down Oolong while sitting in full lotus on a cushion in the middle of my room with flute music in the background and incense everywhere. For one thing, my fire inspector landlord would probably have a fit if I put myself in a position to fall asleep with things burning all around me. Careful reflection, aided by whatever means we like, is itself a form of meditation. While often Buddhist monks are contemplating the Buddha nature, I'm usually trying to think about a new angle from which to bind my angry, impulsive, or irrational states, or trying to suss my way through a problem. And, to be fair, I'm usually doing it with a steaming hot cup of Dan Cong in my lap.

The trappings of mysticism we surround ourselves with are, by and large, tools. It's why I never believed in the efficacy of prayer quite as strongly as most. If it was something entirely out of my hands, it was indeed very theraputic to leave it up to God - it lead, however, to a state of thanking him if it worked and blaming myself if it didn't, which wasn't healthy either. Instead, if it IS something I myself have domain over, I myself take ownership of it. Budget's getting tighter? No problem, I can cut stuff yet. Low traffic at work? No problem, nothing anybody can do about that.

I honestly thought I still had my tarot deck somewhere, but I guess I don't. Just as well, I suppose. I do occasionally cast the Futhark to the same end on scraps of paper. Not nearly as fun, but, as a deck of cue-cards, it doesn't work that badly. Reflection is a helpful thing, however we choose to do it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Lessons from Cubeland: Communeguy Weighs In

My Settlement on Graymane's Server. I spread my wings and fly.
I was going through something of a communist phase when I worked for the major contact centre on my resume, probably because I was reminded of 1984 by the whole ordeal, and for that reason, I established my Minecraft Username as Communeguy, back when the game was cheap, and now I'm too cheap to buy a new account to have a different name, so Communeguy is the name I go by, and by and large it suits me well. I have a tendency to build things that are of utility and then offer them to other people on the premise that they were to repair or replenish the things that they used. Perhaps bizarrely, Minecraft's actually gone ahead and taught me a few things.

Chapel Interior from the Buildspace.
The first, of course, is that I'm pretty much Anal Retentive. I spend entirely too much time making things symmetrical and if there's a necessary construct I don't like the look of I find some way to hide it inside something else, which can be a resource intensive project - made worse only by my tendency to occasionally build things just to have the thing, when they serve no real purpose at all, such as the chapel on the right or the bridge above.

A slime farm, done badly. Photo from the Server.
I've also found a tendency to start projects without thinking them through. I get taken with an idea and follow it through to the end, frequently in a less than efficient way. Take the farm on the left for an example. There's a type of monster in the game called a slime, that only spawns below layer 40 on the y-axis, and only in certain spots. So I mapped out one of the spots, hiked out into the desert to find it, and dug this 16x16 meter quarry thirty-some layers down into the ground. What's worse is that it's STILL not working, because of other complications. If I'd taken a moment to do some consideration, I think it would have occurred to me that I could have dug down to the appropriate depth and then opened up the chamber, rather than making the chamber reach all the way up to the surface. And I've done this with a few other things - some of them more important than others.

An automatic wheat farm. Someone else's operating principals,
 improved with my design
 There are, however, some positive lessons applicable to real life in all of these adventuring. The first is to take ownership of the fact that the imperfect really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It's actually part of the reason I don't play on the server as often as I otherwise would. I very frequently wind up having to leave a project half-finished for a time, and it bugs the hell out of me every time I walk by. The same is true of the real world, of my work life, my home life, and my other creative and recreational pursuits. I've always been incredibly irritated by what I would define as the "half-assed" solution, which can be seen in my tendency to hyper-organize things. That whole tendency is just as bad, since a restrictive system tends to wind up becoming ignored.

This strange device farms and kills spiders. It's from the server.
The main lesson, though, is to learn to explore and have fun. Seriously. Keeping ones options open is the healthiest thing to do for the mind. I like to know that when I'm not working, there's no housework, and the rain's out, I have something else I can tinker with.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Living Well Without Riches

I'm sure someone is going to come along and tell me I don't get to talk, because I've always had a roof over my head, running water, and food (though the week of peanut butter sandwiches and whatever beverages I made at work wasn't very good). With that in mind I'm going to preface this article with a few caveats, namely: Crocker's Law and the Wellbourn Protocol - you can maximize information content in messages without having to worry about hurting my feelings, and all correspondence is ultimately bloggable unless requested otherwise. With these new rules in mind, let's play our game.

An anonymous commenter on the Curiosity landing post invoked, a couple of times now, the idea that living well and living richly are ultimately connected. While my first instinct in such a case is actually to keep the explanation bound to the comment thread, this is one of those topics that might be too large for the relatively narrow confines of the comment section feed.

I believe there is a difference between living well and living richly, and I believe a lot of it boils down to attitude. Consider two people, Alex and Beverly. Alex makes $45,000 a year working as a teaching assistant for persons with disabilities. Beverly is a student working her way through college as a retail clerk, with an annual net of about $22,000, between their RESP and wages.

On the face of it, we could make the argument that, because Alex is making more than twice as much per year as Beverly, Alex has the greater potential to live well. This may certainly be the case, as $45,000 can certainly feed, clothe, shelter, and accommodate better than $22,000 when spent wisely. Now though, let's add a few character traits into the mix.

Alex knows they makes a reasonable amount at $45k a year, and they want to live like it. After years of college, they're tired of living like a student and want to make it clear to their peers that they are living the "good life" now. Alex buys a brand new, higher end car and has a car payment. It's their first car, so now they also have to pay insurance and gas, which they never had to pay for before. Alex buys the very best phone their wireless provider carries, with the most capable data, text, and voice packages. They move out of their old studio apartment and into a two-bedroom, converting the second room into an office by the way they furnish it. We've now established a person who establishes their feeling of wealth on a foundation of possessions. Alex feels wealthy because it is outwardly visible to others that they are. However, they frequently eat poorly around rent day because it is hard to pay all these bills when they are due without it, or perhaps let small amounts slip into arrears to be covered by the second cheque of the month.

Now let's look at Beverly. Beverly knows they are a student, and doesn't want to get pegged with the "students live poorly" stereotype. They grew up, maybe, in a large or a poor household, but in either event, they know how to stretch a dollar somewhat. The college is a little off the beaten path, let's say, so Beverly still has a used car, but it's paid for outright and has been since they bought it with their summer working money in high school. It's insured, obviously, but Beverly only uses it for school and groceries, mostly, so the gas is a lot cheaper. Beverly's phone is a few years old, but it still works fairly well as both a phone and an SMS device, so they opt to keep using it and keep it on a simple plan that offers just enough minutes and messages to suit their needs. Beverly's a social individual so they find another, clean individual named Casey to share an apartment with, splitting rent and utility costs down the middle. Beverly never eats at the school cafeteria and always brings a box lunch. By saving in all these areas, Beverly makes sure that they always have food in the fridge, and they can even afford, every few weekends or so, to get a case of beer or a bottle of vodka to party with her class mates. Beverly establishes their feeling of wealth on a foundation of needs; they feel wealthy because it is visible to them that all of their basic needs are accounted for and they are reasonably comfortable in doing so.

There is a nobility in purpose in poverty. Granted, not having is worse than having. That is why the word poverty has such negative connotations in the modern parlance. When we look, however, at the monastic traditions of every culture, in every religion, we see a common trend of poverty being lauded.  The people I know with the least possessions are also the people I know with the greatest character. Those who can be satisfied by Compliments-branded laundry soap, Honda Civics, the yellow boxes are those who seem to be able to weather any storm. Similarly, those I know who "live well", who party every night, dine out every night, and drive fancy cars, can be ruined by the smallest outset. A man I know purports to own a car worth more than my entire net holdings and has been spending the last week eating nothing but instant ramen noodles because there was a hiccup and he can't swing the money. Someone else I know goes to parties every weekend, often in other provinces, and is getting tense because they're finally out of "fake money" on their credit card.

I'm not saying I have it all figured out, either - I did just admit to a week of peanut-butter sandwiches. But I have it figured to the point that I know that I CAN get by. Because frankly, sometimes you do need a diet of noodles and crushed legumes to do it. I also know that all states are temporary and so is this one. I don't feel poor, because I'm not. All my basic needs are accounted for. Sure, I can't party hardy or eat at nice restaurants every night, but I'm eating better than you are right now!

Okay, that's vindictive. But by now, I'm sure you all take my point.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Savory Sunday: Chicken, the Old Way

I appear to have, embarrassingly, forgotten the salad.
Hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes is a known trick, and the expression often means more than it literally does. In my case, I had grandparents that used to cook a lot of game meats, and I grew up fussy. If they were cooking, they had to come up with creative ways to hide the meat. These days, of course, I know what most of the dishes are. One old trick was to call things that weren't even tangentially related to chicken chicken. I always think of that when I prepared this dish, which I call Chicken Alles Zusammen because we all used to pitch in when it was time to make supper. Nearly everything they made for us back then was prepared this way!

Chicken Alles Zusammen

Just like Nana used to make; fried dark meat of chicken, lightly dredged to make it crispy, with fresh cabbage salad and cottage fries. Was a time I used to like to put a sauce on this, but these days all I need is a little ketchup for my fries and I'm set. Serves 2

  • Meat from 2 Chicken Legs (with thighs), cut into morsels
  • 1 Sweet Potato, skins removed and cut into thin dollars (retain in water)
  • ¼ Green Cabbage, Shredded
  • Creamy Ranch Dressing
  • AP Flour, sifted with salt, pepper, and cayenne
  • Basil Paste (or better, actual basil, finely chopped).
  • Canola Oil
  1. Rinse with water and dry with paper-towel the chicken morsels. Toss them in flour mixture and shake well to remove excess, discarding remainder of flour mix. Set aside in fridge.
  2. Heat two pans containing oil to the Sizzle Point.
  3. Shake-dry potatoes  and fry in a single layer in one pan. Fry the chicken in the alternate pan, aiming for golden brown on both. Add a smidgen of basil to each during the cooking process - season the potatoes also with pepper and salt to taste. Dry on paper towel.
  4. Salad is to be prepared at the last minute by binding the cabbage with the ranch dressing in the style of a coleslaw.
What do I have with this? There's always iced tea - Blueberry Bliss and Pineapple Kona Pop, in this case. This particular iced tea tastes more than a little like fruit punch and so is perfect for nostalgia.

Mellow Monday: Corn and Bacon Chowder with Biscuits

Chowders are an east-coast staple and they were one of the first soups I learned to cook from scratch. I can make just about anything into a satisfying rendition of a chowder - it's in the French blood on my mother's side. They are, however, time consuming - the process for this one started yesterday, when I made the stock. It's going to taste even better tomorrow, too, and will probably be lunches for at least a few days as I have to make quite a bit at a time.

Sweet Potato and Bacon Chowder

A staple of the NBCC St. Andrews kitchen, a corn and bacon chowder pretty much makes itself - this variation uses another naturally sweet vegetable in place of surprisingly elusive corn. Like all soups, it's a bit more labour intensive to make from scratch than you would think, but compared to the easy-make canned variety, it's really a whole other thing. This is supposed to be warm and hearty all on its own because I intend to eat it cold more often than not (done properly a cold chowder is actually very refreshing!) Serves Several

  • 250 g of smoked bacon strips, chopped well
  • 1 Fair-Sized Sweet Potato, peeled dice.
  • 250 g of mirepoix²
  • ¼-½ cup AP Flour
  • ~1L of chicken stock, retained warm
  • Sachet or Boquet Garni, as desired³
  • ½L Heavy Cream (35% M.F)
¹In my experience, good quality canned corn is worth the quality loss in order to gain the convenience.
²A blend composed of 2:1:1 celery, carrot, and white onion, finely chopped.
³A sachet is a cheesecloth bag containing the herbs (including peppercorns) that will be used to season the soup or sauce in question, to make them easier to remove afterwards.

  1. Render the bacon over medium heat in the bottom of a good pan with a heavy base.
  2. Sweat the mirepoix in the bacon fat until the white vegetables are translucent.
  3. Add flour and cook the roux blonde.
  4. Immediately begin to add stock in ladelfulls, whisking to prevent lumps with the roux. Bring up to a simmer.
  5. Add potatoes, along with sachet. Simmer until desired tenderness in potatoes is reached and the right level of herbaceous flavour, then add cream and stir well. Remove sachet and serve immediately with biscuits or rolls.

Perfect Tea Biscuits - Mavis-Saulnier Variation

My favourite cooking job (and possibly even my favourite job) that I ever had was working as assistant chef under Ross Mavis of Inn on the Cove, and one of the things I used to have to make a lot of was biscuits. He had a recipe he liked to follow, of course, and while that recipe was all well and good, I like mine like Mom used to make. This is a hybrid version of the two - what, in my mind, makes the perfect tea biscuit. Makes About 1 Dozen


  • 300g AP flour
  • 60g Sugar
  • 2 Tbsp Baking Powder
  • 75g Butter
  • 1/2 Cup Heavy Cream (35% M.F.)
  • 2 Eggs, pluss Egg Wash (a combination of eggs and water or eggs and milk)
  • ~1/2 Cup of chopped, cooked, and dried bacon
  • ~1/4 cup of finely-diced cheddar cheese
  • Herbs de Provence, White Pepper (both to taste)
  1. Sift the dry ingredients together.
  2. Cut in the butter just until mealy - do not overmix.
  3. Mix cream and eggs together. Add bacon, cheese, and herbs. Mix with dry ingredients just until combined.
  4. Kneed 2-3 times and roll out to about one-inch thick. Cut with the floured edge of a drinking glass.
  5. Place biscuits on a lined sheet, and brush with the egg wash. Let rest for 45 Minutes.
  6. Bake at 325ºF for 20-25 minutes - until golden brown.
While hot, serve with cultured butter or a compound butter. Once cooled, serve with cream cheese.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity, Our Child - Welcome to Mars.

 This thumbnail is the first tiny image from the surface of another planet by earth's youngest child abroad. We have just landed the largest man-made vehicle ever on the surface of another planet. The Curiosity rover, properly known as the Mars Science Laboratory, has completed a journey of 249 days from the surface of the Earth at Cape Canaveral to the Gale Crater on Mars. She has arrived safe and sound, already beaming back her first pictures to earth. Other bloggers more prepared than I have likely already posted about this, and if I thought this would honestly compel me to stay awake well into the wee hours of the morning yesterday, I would have done more to prepare.

Curiosity is a mission of firsts, and we have pinned all our hopes on an artificial intelligence scarcely brighter than a toddler. She is the largest single rover we have ever put on the surface of our nearest planetary neighbour, and has a wide array of tools to help us make the first exploration of the Gale Crater and the Aeolis Palus in human history. The method by which she landed was novel and original, another first.

A few of you were lucky enough to have my rather crude, ill-timed, and non-descriptive play-by-play showing up on facebook. I hate to admit it, but I had forgotten the landing would be today. I remember being excited when the MSL launched, but 249 days do surprising things to memory, and I simply expected this date to come later rather than sooner, I suppose.

But to know that everything went right, and everything is working with the rover, is spectacular.

I won't bore you with a recitation of facts, or expounding upon the purpose of Curiosity. I will only say it is the moments like these... the tense wait for hours as approach nears, and the sheer, exultant rush when the first signals come home from so far broad is what makes knowledge her own reward. There is the stuff of dreams. Right there, in that tiny, grainy photograph. All of my dreams, and the dreams of those before me, and the dreams of those yet to come. They are there, on that tiny red dot in the sky, and the dots further distant still.

We shall watch your development with great interest, child. There is nothing you can do that won't make us proud.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sizzle for Saturday: Mushroom Fajitas and House Salsa

I like mexican, but what I mean by that is that I have the occasional craving for something to be wrapped in a tortilla and strongly spiced, though I've yet to encounter the Mexican dish I didn't wind up liking. Anyway, like most things I know how to cook, this particular one has a bit of a story. One day a few years ago I was visiting Kat and her roommates in Fredricton over a long weekend and we decided we wanted fajitas. Not having any Fajitas, I grabbed the next best: button mushrooms. This recipe is (omitting the sour cream) totally vegan friendly and to all my understanding of the terminology, vegetarian friendly as written.

If you're feeling fussy you can even make your own tortillas but my experience has been this is too much work for too little reward.

Mushroom Fajitas - Intentional Variation

Cooking with mushrooms is a common trick for those who are trying to approximate the flavour of meat without actually including it. In this instance I've done the same, but I caution all of you that I've done nothing to enhance the protein content - those of you who like refried beans may well consider that an option. Serves 2

  • ~10 Button Mushrooms, diced finely
  • Cultured Butter or Canola Oil
  • ½ of a red bell pepper, cut into thinnish strips
  • Some strips of cabbage
  • ½ of a red bell pepper, cut into strips
  • Sour Cream
  • Tortillas, as authetntic as you can find them
  • Taco Seasoning Mix, to Taste
  • ½ cup of shredded old or sharp cheddar cheese
  • House Salsa (see below)
  • Using pre-heated butter or oil in a good frying pan, sauttee together the button mushrooms, seasoning mix, and vegetables. Cook all well, browning the vegetables if possible.
  • Nap sour cream over tortillas. Top with the hot filling. Top this with salsa and cheese. Fold in ends and roll to form.
  • If desired, press in a panini press/clamshell grill until tortillas are crisp. Serve with guacamole to dip and beer for a drink.

Mild Tomato Salsa - Summer Variation

The best thing that happened to me with the college was that I stopped being afraid to re-test foods I traditionally didn't like. The downside is that it's made me fussy about them - salsa and pickles being the two most common examples. This is a simple salsa: chop the ingredients up, chill for an hour, then serve. All I use are:
  • 3 Seeded Roma Tomatos, small dice
  • 5 sliced green onions
  • 3 coarsely-chopped cloves of garlic.
  • Chopped Cilantro (hefty pinch)
  • Jalapeño, fine chopped, seeds removed, 3 of the lower half of the pepper.
  • A shot-glass' worth of lemon juice
  • Dash of Cayenne Pepper

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Drama For Her Own Sake

I've mentioned Doctor Philip Mason before, when I did a post a little while back about the ludicrous Draw Mohammed Day public event. As always, I have to point out that I enjoy watching his videos on the Thunderf00t and BeautyInTheUniverse channels. As should probably be expected for a biochemist, the scientific content is bang-on stuff and explained so simply that a bag of hammers could comprehend it.

As always, though, I have a few criticisms of everyone's styles, if only because there are actually right and wrong ways to make an argument. Social Graces have been the hallmark of the gentleman for ages and the greatest heroes of the intelligentsia have always been those who could dissent with grace, poise, and an absence of invective.

Now, don't get me wrong, Dr. Mason's videos are good. He's a marvellous scientist, and I've had a lot of fun with his experiment in using water, a rechargeable battery, and a blast shield to create a plasma the temperature of the surface of the sun inside a coke bottle; watching his aerial photography using nothing more than a camera mounted to an inexpensive styrofoam plain, and particularly his astronomical sightings. When he talks about science he is bang on the mark.

Now, I should preface the rest of this rant by paraphrasing the usual Voltaire: Dr. Mason has the right to say anything he wants on any subject. Absent approval or disapproval of his statements I will still fight with my life for his right to do so. Likewise, anyone else has the right to express dissent or assent to his statements. I'll even go so far as to say I actively encourage him to respond to the following criticisms.

The next sharpest tool in Dr. Mason's chest after his scientific literacy has always been his invective, and that is not for a lack of use. It's generated him quite a fan base, myself included, and as always, invective is fun to watch. I've got a bit of ichor in my pen as well and I know how easy, tempting, and satisfying it is to add the odd insult into an argument.

Thing is though, it only works if it's an add-on to your argument, and even then, you're going to be taken more seriously without it. In a few cases, invective is used by Dr. Mason as a substitute for an argument, as in his recent obsession with... well, it takes some explaining.

The atheist community rarely thinks with one mind, but one of the central ganglia has always been the Freethought Blogs operated by PZ Myers. Recently, Dr. Mason was given an authorship position by Dr. Myers on the blogs. As I understand it, Dr. Mason commented on issues facing just about every society that has large conventions - the perception of sexual discrimination, radical feminism, and chauvinism. Whatever the comments made in this First and Only post on FTB, Dr. Myers removed Dr. Mason's authorship privileges. This has sparked a rather graceless drag-out, knock 'em down brawl between the two and has resulted in countless blog posts and videos tackling the subject on each side - in doctor masons' case, largely continuing to hammer on the original point, as here.

Now, I appreciate that Dr. Myers essentially promised Dr. Mason absolute freedom of speech and then promptly removed him over a disagreement of how far that freedom actually extended. I even agree with Dr. Mason that he should be reinstated and FTB, though it's hard to see why anyone would want to be now that it's clear content is being controlled over there. Where my irritation comes in is that this whole argument has turned something that is a reasonably valid concern (the potential mistreatment of women at skeptic conferences) into something more ridiculous (though admittedly, there was a lot of help coming in from the "skepchicks" themselves).

Dr. Mason, I have a reasonable assumption you will at least click on the link to this post I am leaving in your comment feed. I feel you are fighting a losing battle on this one issue. The more often you write about it, to the exclusion of your ordinary, science-based content, the less and less people are going to care about it.  Unfortunately, and this should not be taken as an insult, your content dealing with social issues and political issues has never been as effectively rendered or as exciting to view as your scientific content. In the same way that I do not write about sports, dating, or issues of race, it behoves your style and your intellect to remain in the scientific arena, where, quite frankly, you are a king among men. Choosing a hot-button issue like Rebecca is a marvellous way to generate page-views. Drama, for her own sake, sells, but they are empty calories, Doctor Mason. Unfulfilling, and, when all is said and done, you will still be hungry in five minutes.

To borrow your own signoff: Best Wishes,

Friday, August 3, 2012

Friday is Fast Night: Beef Hot Pot

A few of you probably caught on through Twitter that I was finally going to kick off food week, weeks after the reveal. That's ten points for being patient, and ten more points for following the feed.

Beef Hot Pot
Friday is pay-day for me, and that also makes it grocery night. Where I work most Fridays (I actually lobby to work Friday-Saturday-Sunday most of the time), I usually don't do the groceries until after I've worked, which means what whatever I choose for Friday's supper has to be something I can put together quickly - usually a stir-fry or a close relative. A few of you probably know that my first international cuisine love affair was Japanese, and sukiyaki was one of the first dishes I learned how to prepare. Of course, this isn't a proper sukiyaki, just my response to it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Beef Hot Pot - Duke Brunswick Variation

This dish combines beef loin, mushrooms, cabbage, noodles, and a umami-focused stock. This simplified version (Auditor's Note: "Duke" is my shorthand for recipes that include short-cuts) is streamlined for the busy home kitchen. Serves 2


  • ½ kg. Beef Loin, Striploin, or Tenderloin, cut into strips
  • ¼ head of green cabbage, sliced into strips
  • ½ Red Onion, sliced to half-rings
  • 4 or 5 Large Button Mushrooms, Sliced
  • ~1 L beef stock, preferably low-sodium packaged
  • 1 Ramen Noodle Cake, per Pot Noodle
  • Trace quantities of soy sauce, canola (or vegetable) oil, black pepper, and sage.


  1. Over medium heat, bring stock to a boil. Cook noodles and reserve both cooked noodles and stock separately. Allow stock to simmer.
  2. In frying pan, heat a thin layer of oil. Stir-fry, in order, onions, cabbage, and mushroom, seasoning with pepper, and powdered sage. Once tender, lightly toss with soy sauce. Add to stock.
  3. Replace noodles into the pot.
  4. Add the raw beef slices. Simmer until cooked to taste.
Traditionally, hot-pot dishes are served communally out of a large pot kept hot at the table, from which the diners serve themselves. For this particular meal I recommend nothing more to drink that clear, cool water. There should be flavour enough in the meal itself.

Variation: Brunswick Variation - use fresh beef stock prepared in situ in place of prepared product.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tea Review: An Adjusted Shape-Up Tea

Well it's that time again. I am going to review one of my own blends; a variation of teavana's shape up blend I call Very Berry Shape Up. As always, in the interest of full disclosure, it's only fair that I disclose that I am a teavana employee, but I remind everyone that I am not compensated in any way for these reviews. It's just a bit of a tea desert here and Teavana is what's up.

Now, I also have to open with a few caveats. While I am inclined to believe in the restorative mental and physical benefits of tea, the experience is anecdotal. I have neither the time nor the inclination for extensive double-blind testing to determine if the benefits are placebic or actual. That being said, I do vouch for this tea by saying it is just as effective at aiding in weight contol as with our original shape up, with the added benefit of a better taste, and the hydrating effect of antioxidant-rich white teas.
I combined our Youthberry white tea, the Monkey Picked Oolong, a darjeeling-style black tea named Himalayan Splendor, and, of course, our Raspberry Riot Lemon Maté. The combination of three different teas and a maté might seem strange at first blush (you'll have to pardon the pun), but each are chosen for their associated benefits, which are of special use to those engaging in the athletic study of physical fittness.

White teas, in particular, are known for their antioxidant content (while sufficiently fresh). This lends them detoxifying qualities, but also allows them to be particularly hydrating, which is especially critical for those who are physically active. The youthberry, particularly, adds a pleasant fruity tartness with its açai, mango, and apple pieces. Oolongs are, naturally, good for the metabolism, converying food to energy - the choice of such a high quality of oolong lends longevity to the blend. Black teas are beginning to be understood to positively impact blood pressure levels and general vascular health, and the Himilayan is mild enough that it adds a black tea body to the drink without being a prima donna. Finally, of course, the Raspberry Riot, which includes a bit of a caffine boost, along with 21 vitamins and minerals that contribute to a mild suppression of appetite and a natural boost of energy to eliminate the caffine crash.

The tea itself has a beautiful maraschino liquor, with tue first flavours tasted being the raspberry, açai, and lemon. As the flavour lingers on the palate, the pleasantly astringent and herbaceous himilayan speaks and encourages a second taste. This is especially true in the iced tea, where the lemon is not amplified by the heat of the drink. Overall, the blend is unpretentious, unassuming, and easy to drink passively.

Very Berry Shape Up Blend
Renew your focus and clarify your goals with a refreshing splash of raspberry and citrus. Tart açai and premium white tea combine with metabolism-enhancing oolong and enegizing mate. The subtle bittersweetness of Himalayan Splendor give the tea an elegant, but simple, finish. This wonderful variation of the classic Shape Up blend was created by Saint John resident and Teavana Teologist Zachary J. Adam.