Sunday, September 30, 2012

Musings on the Nature of Food (and Tea)

So I have, as it happens, a relatively nice little kitchen, considering the size and style of my home, and it's certainly something you could describe as being above pay grade. I guess some of you might have thought of that as a given, considering the amount of work I do, and my past experience as a chef, but like most other things, the nature of my kitchen is one of life's little consequences that has to do more with the way in which I hunt for a home than any prowess on my part in choosing this one.
When you have a kitchen that looks like this one, you like to use it, and I generally try to keep my fridge and cupboards stocked, since it staves off the Delivery Devil and my terrifyingly poor spending habits. I spend what some of my peers consider to be a small fortune on food every week (when I'm using my kitchen), but it's still far cheaper than the steady stream of delivery, take-out, and on-the-fly dining that pretty much ruined my September.

The reason why my grocery bills look high is that I tend to get fussy about the groceries I buy, particularly if I have the good fortune not to be hungry when I'm doing it. I find good cuts of the meat I want, buy fresh produce, and keep the herbs, spices, and staples well-stocked. Some of my friends are surprised to learn I make my own bread from scratch (I still have not figured out the right way to use this bread-maker. Admittedly, I also only do this on occasion) or that my only use for instant ramen is that it's the cheapest way to buy the noodles. I've managed to avoid the various forms of powdered boullion in over a year, and while I salt my food rather conspicuously, I still use less salt than most anything I've found packaged.

Not every jam is home made (but it can be) and not every stock or broth is made from scratch (though it's about a 50/50 wash at the moment). Sometimes my makinori zushi came from the store and not my kitchen, but that's rare.

See, my groceries cost a lot because I take food seriously. I scrutinize the labels carefully and take only the foods that fit my increasingly narrow parameters of what I'm really willing to put into my body. Does that mean I never eat hamburger helper, kraft dinner, or McDonalds? No - no more than not being a smoker means I don't have the odd cigar on special occasions, or the fact that I'm not a drunk doesn't mean I don't enjoy occasionally getting sloshed.

I want my food to be what it is - not what marketing committees think it should be to appeal to the widest possible audience. If I want say I want rosee sauce for my pasta, I really mean I want a white-wine veloute seasoned heavily with garlic, oregano, and anise and thickened with the pulp of fresh tomatoes and parmesean cheese. If I say I want a hamburger, I mean I want medium-fat ground beef bound by its own fat and seasoned with salt, pepper on worchester shire, on a bun (flour, water, salt, and yeast), usually dressed with mayonnaise (oil, eggs, salt, and vinegar), lettuce, tomatos, cheese (havarti, usually) and sometimes a little bacon (salt-cured pork, smoked) or sauteed mushrooms. No more than what I said.

While I recognize that most food additives are harmless (like maltodextrin) or at least considered harmless (like corn syrup), I do for the most part prefer to have the real thing. I like, for example, to bake with beat sugar, though I'm trying to find a Canadian source since we grow so damn much of the stuff. My three favourite Root Beers (on which I am quickly becoming something of an expert) are all made with sugar (two with cane, one with beetroot) and without HFCS. They have remarkably more dimension, and are remarkably more satisfying to one's thirst, than either major soft-drink-producer's offering. A cranberry juice whose main ingredient is actually pear is (a)more a virgin cocktail and (b)much less satisfyingly tart.

Now, where the tea comes in is that I still work for a major tea retailer, and I tend to drink a lot of our own product, both at home and at work. I have lots of interesting teas to choose from (98, in fact), and quite a lot of these teas are really very good. Teas and fruits are all grown according to some arcane EU standard I can barely remember the name of but which is much more comprehensive than, for example, the USDA Organic certification.

As it happens, I do have one USDA organic tea. It's grown in Rwanda, so it's out.

Lots of teas, even the flavored ones, are additive-free. More and more, though, the favoured teas are beginning to contain interesting ingredients, like maltodextrin, as a consequence of lowering our own buying standards. The additives are, by and large, ingredients in the production of ingredients we use to make our flavoured teas.

Now, I still drink these teas, since they're still better for me than the steady stream of soda I send flowing down my gullet - but that's like saying I still cut my wrists, because it's better than cutting my throat.

I won't publish a list of the teas with the ingredients I don't approve of, partly because it would be hypocritical to continue to drink them if I did (and I do like them), and partly because it's probably damaging to my career goals with that company. What it won't do is violate the terms of my employment, especially if I leave you with this final piece of advise, which goes for everywhere food is bought and sold.

Always check the ingredients listing.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Welcome to My Laboratory
The main reason I was never good at hacking (in the sense of manipulating systems) is that I have no sense of constraints, particularly when it comes to resources. I play fairly well within confined systems (and I freely admit to an overly nerdy fondness for developing systems) and even fairly well in open space, but when I'm in a space that doesn't come with reminders and error messages, I hit walls pretty fast.

The problem usually comes in resource allocation. For example; on Monday, I got my power cut off because the account was a staggering number of days better measured in months in arrears. The key problem is that paper doesn't flow in my office/living-room - it makes it as far as that black paper-holder you see there, and nothing ever gets done with it. This lead to bills going unpaid, which has lead to some costly mistakes, and thanks to that, my second (and very enjoyable) job is actually a matter of subsistence as opposed to the disposable income it was supposed to be, since paying the last several months of power bill and doing a sweep of my other bills to scope out what else is owing has left me pretty much having gone through the fall term's RESP funding. At least it was there, I suppose, or I'd be feeling a cascade of service outages as internet, telephone, and so forth slowly joined up in falling behind.

Now, I've been cleaning a lot lately, because I'm still between room-mates and generating a surprising amount of mess considering how little time I have to be at home (and this between-roommates thing isn't doing my cash flow any favours either!) ... when I have time, that is. Last week I worked what was essentially a full 40 hours, which is doable, I suppose, but only when you're organized enough to do it, and/or have some sort of division of labour set up at home.

Worse than being bad with money, see, is being bad with time. You can always make more money, but He who gives out the time allowance is a pretty strict disciplinarian.

When I was a kid, I had an obsession with the old Palm Pilots. I've owned two of them, actually, over the years, and while I liked them, I never had a use for them. Same with day-timers. I've never been that guy who was so busy he needed a way to keep track of his schedule minute-by-minute and make at-a-glance additions and subtractions in order to -

Wait. I'm that guy now!

Multi-task, multi-pace has become the name of the game, and it was enough to bring me out of what was a pretty nasty downward spiral, I must say. So if my backpack has to be a few pounds lighter (or my phone's memory a few megabytes smaller) in order for me to keep track of what I'm doing, I guess that's the price I'll have to pay.

At the moment it's late, and I'll be going to bed soon, but the task at the top of the queue for tomorrow is going to be finding a better way to manage my time. I think this posting thing might dwindle a bit. I have big hopes for a video project that isn't eating too much time, and also serves as a decent excuse to play some games while I'm at it. A downtime thing, I suppose.

And I should probably block in a defined time for chores every day. That'd be good too.

I am, as Ever,

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Notebook Guy

Living Reminders
Science doesn't have all of the answers - if it did, it would stop.
-Dara O'Breien

So, an oft-spun platitude of mine has been that knowledge is the penultimate good. Things are to be done if only to know how to do them. After all - you can't stockpile knowledge, really. It is a commodity you always carry with you, cannot consume through use, and always has a value. That's probably why I've horded it so obsessively. It doesn't take long for me to from "The New Guy" to (today) "The Short Gentleman with Glasses", and just about everywhere I've worked, I've carried a general aura of knowledgeablity. You can't blamed me; I've been raised on the idea of a "knowledge economy".

As a result, I have a vast amount of information on my fingertips, from the correct usage of any of a dozen elogical compounds, brewing directions for a number of classes of teas, the recipe for the so-called Mother Sauces, and the correct pH balance for eight classes of fish. Unfortunately, I actually need quite a bit more, and my memory is terrible. There are, frankly, some facts and techniques I only need the once in a while, and those gaps are more than enough to get me to remember it.

For example, it is not uncommon (but rare enough) for creatures of relation to lagomorphs and rodents to develop diarrhea, colloquially called "wet tail". This is a simple enough condition to correct given the right diet and environment. Our little friend, top-right, is one perfect example of a survivor! And yet, I would not remember the treatment (rather simple - higher protein diet to firm up stool plus ample hydration) by the next time I need it.

That's why I keep a great number of notebooks on my person, or at least in the locations I need them. For the most part, I favour the moleskine. My experience has shown them to be terrifyingly durable, and given my propensity to abuse my belongings, this is a good thing. They're also easy to carry. I have a tea notebook, a pets notebook, a kitchen note, an Office Note (full of excel, word, and access hacks), and a few other notebooks. I'm pretty sure there's a whiskey book in here somewhere.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Union of Heavens: Jin Hou Dan Cong

Self-Taken Photo
A few weeks ago, an internal contest with Teavana employees has had us all scurrying around and tinkering with tea blends. This is one of the blends I have made that doesn't actually qualify, so I thought I would talk about it here. All it would have needed to qualify was a third tea, but I find that to be the punch that Ali never gave Foreman when he was down...

Jin Hou Dan Cong
This tea is a rich blend of Golden Monkey tea (a famous Chinese black tea - very tippy with cocoa notes) and our Phoenix Mountain Dan Cong (rich and smokey). Golden Monkey, known more properly as Jin Hou Cha, is one of the 10 Famous Teas of China and a very popular tea from Fuijan and (if I haven't lost my mind) Yunnan Provence.

It's taken some doing, but I've gotten the flavour balanced just-so, so that the sweetness of the Phoenix Mountain is balanced perfectly by the bitterness and cocoa notes of the Golden Monkey. Thus, I have created Jin Hou Cha Dan Cong - a fine tea for fine tea drinkers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Moving On, The Good Fight, and Values Statements

I have a serious love for Blau, our Eastern
Blue-Tongued Skink
So, some may have heard on facebook (while others would obviously not have) that I've taken a second job. In addition to convincing people to spend their hard-earned on tea in a city that barely spends money on shelter, I now help to maintain a suitable living environment (and, presumably, sell) a wide variety of animals at the largest pet shop in town. For the most part, I'm doing freshwater fish and lizards, so this is right up my alley.

Well, sort of. To be honest, I'm not wild about the Golden Tegu (who is notoriously mean), the live food for the animals (getting over that fairly quickly), or the arachnids in my care (the tarantula and the scorpion are much like getting whacked with a hammer by an angry gully dwarf, while the baboon spider will probably require some paperwork after a trip to the local hospital), though the vainglory of tending over fifty different species on a nearly daily basis is compensation enough... not to mention that I'm well paid, and well compensated in other ways.

Like Blau here, who might well one day be mine, if Kat'd have it. She won't, I'm certain, so I think I'll just get back into fishkeeping... but it's a nice thought.

Anyway, some of you are probably complaining that this is the first real post in a while and it's not saying much of anything. There's a good reason for that. I haven't much of anything to say. I suppose I could comment on the Northern Gateway pipeline, some of the local infrastructure snafus, or the great majority of just plain abusive pet handling in this city. I had to home a snake today because his previous owner abandoned him in an apartment upon moving out. That's a frustrating idea.

Truth is, last couple weeks, I haven't really felt like writing, well, anything. I've been grumpy, and concerned with other problems that, frankly, aren't interesting enough for the pen, as it were. Some of these problems I should simply deal with and move on, but, being hopelessly 22...

Anyway, moving on. I'm working two jobs now. Not unusual, in itself. In fact, it's depressingly common. The idea, of course, is that I work hard in order to play hard. I have become accustomed to doing certain things, and to a certain level of acceptable quality. I have been eating largely fresh foods (when not eating take-out), taking quite a bit of pride in the quality of my tea, and my moleskine collection is getting large enough that it might well need a dedicated shelf. Doing things well takes time, and resources. Resources can be expensive, and so, I work in order to play.

... Plus, come on, look at that face. Say no to a lizard as friendly as a puppy dog. Just say it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Relatively Stupid

If you're going to deny one of physics most fundamental principals and the theory that explains it, you'd better be packing some serious heat. I won't pretend to be a physicist, but since it's my second favourite of the hard sciences, I felt like this particular page was a big, fat, slow ball over home plate.

I am going to do a point-by-point refutation of Conservapedia's "Counterexamples to Relativity" page, ignoring the political screed at the top, which is nonsense on the face and requires none of my art to be discredited. I think a refutation of their "45 counterexamples; any one [of which] shows that the theory is incorrect" will suffice.

Where Were You?

I had just turned eleven when terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on the eleventh of September, 2001. I remember it because my brother swears up and down that we were going to fly to Disney Land that evening, a fact of which I have no recollection beyond his protestations. It was the early morning and I was up. It was a Tuesday, and I remember that because Tuesdays were a reading day and not a math day, and the tuesday book was Silverwing by Kenneth Opal, a book I have thoroughly forgotten.

Its weird what things your memory catches and what things they know. I know exactly where every classroom I ever had a class in at Uplands Elementary was, same with Beaconsfield Middle and Saint John High. Can't remember more than a dozen teachers without thinking heavily, though.

You remember weird things. I remember my brother coming down and seeing it on the news. That itself was wierd. Grandma watched the news in the morning down in the sitting room, but this was up in the living room, and mom and dad were watching it. I remember two things: the look my brother gave my mother (he'd have been nine at the time), and the surreal feeling that the television had to be showing a movie or something.

By the time I was awake that day, even with my childhood tendancy to wake up early, both towers were already struck. I think they were even already talking about terrorism then, but I don't really remember. I remember it looked wrong. Fake, somehow. You have to remember, I lived in a pretty remote neck of the woods back then. New York itself was only slightly more real than middle earth, and only then by virtue of the fact that I had been to a couple of towns in Alaska and a reasonable amount of Washington State by then and America was sort of solidified as "rude Canada" in my brain.

I'm even reasonably certain I went to school that day, but I think I got sent home. I know there was an announcement over the PA at the time and for the first time ever, everyone in the class shut up entirely to listen to it. Getting a pack of sixth graders to pay attention to anyone was hard back then, made harder by the fact that mine was a split class, and half fifth graders.

Again, it's funny what you remember.

So... where were you?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Danger (And Benefit) of Absolute Morality

It's been a subject of debate for, frankly, as long as I can remember. We all know from infancy that there is such a thing as right and wrong. What seems to be a bone of contention is whether or not something is right or wrong in every given test case - if morality is absolute.

Meet Andy. Andy is a hypothetical person belonging to the middle economic class of a fully modern, westernized country. Andy was "brought up right" and is generally concerned with the rightness or wrongness of their actions. We're going to follow Andy as they run through some simple scenarios.

Andy is walking down the street when they encounter two others, Bobby and Casey. Bobby has backed Casey into a corner, which distresses Casey. Because Andy is only just encountering the pair, Andy cannot determine the exact mode of conflict, except that Casey is distraught, and Bobby seems not to care.

As a moral case, we know that violence is wrong. Sure, most of us are accustomed to violence through film, television, and gaming - but we know that violence, particularly for its own sake, is wrong. If we treat this as an absolute, however, the ways in which Andy can help Casey are limited. Does Andy approach Bobby and offer to be a mediator in this dispute, which like as not could start a fight? Or does Andy move on, inform the police, and leave Casey figuratively twisting in the wind? Further, if Andy does intervene, that intervention would commit them to see the end of that conflict, however it develops. Were Bobby to round on Andy and attack, Andy would be forced to defend against that attack - or does the absolute wrongness of violence mean that Andy should simply take what is coming?

While we're mulling over those particular waters, let's take an ethics question that should be familiar to ever business student.

Meet Darian. Darian is Andy, except that Darian was born in a different part of the world - one of the many countries where it is customary to give a gift of some kind before concluding a deal, often as soon as the first negotiating session. In the west, many would see such a practice as a discreet form of bribery, a practice that we all agree is wrong. In Darian's homeland, however, the absence of such a gift is a gross insult. The gift serves to acknowledge that the recipient has something the giver wants, and that the exchange is intended to be genial and mutually productive.

Knowing this, should Andy accept the gift, and, moreover, should he reciprocate as is customary?

Absolute morality would be very useful, if we all could agree on the rules. Killing is absolutely wrong, but it is a wrong I would hope many would commit if their families themselves were threatened with death. Now, where Wrath is almost certainly my primary sin, I think most of my readers would agree.

Comfort Zones and Having Fun

Last week, I had the great pleasure of playing host (more or less) to the great Kat Q. Simply, who is, among other handles, the fantastic Meekability on deviantart and the pleasantly famous The Meek One of various ARGs. Her work is stellar, though I freely admit that's the least of my concern.

You'd think after six years of dating we'd find a way for it to feel pretty proziac, but there's a lot of the commonplace we still haven't done. As it happened, last week my city also played host to the Exhibition, with its midway entertainments, rides, games, and, well, exhibits! I haven't been to an exhibition since I was a kid (which implies I'm not still a kid, I suppose), and therefore, it seemed like a better than perfect way to spend the afternoon.

Thing is, I'm something of a homebody. Since I stopped riding it daily to get to the high school, even the bus has begun to make me a little motion sick some days. If you combine a general dislike of new experiences with a predilection to minor motion sickness and a general hatred of crowds, you're going to start to understand why I sometimes need to think things through a little better.

Our first ride was the Ferris Wheel, an old favourite of mine, largely because it is predictable and I have a reasonably healthy understanding of the engineering forces involved and just what it would take for something to actually happen. It had rained a few hours before, and while people were starting to arrive again, the park was mostly empty. It made the ride very smooth, and I learned that Kat doesn't like Ferris Wheels. We watched some divers doing improbable things across the parkway, and I felt secured, somewhat, by Kat's anxiety. If we're both nervous, this could actually be a lot of fun.

As it turned out, the only thing that bothered Kat about Ferris Wheels was the vertigo she gets from heights. She rides amusement park rides like a boss. The first night I got pushed beyond my limits relatively early and I think that disappointed her. To this day, I don't begin to understand how she could handle the ride that shattered me considering her own anxieties and foibles, but that's neither here nor there.

The point of this story was that I still went back the next day. If anything, the next day should have been worse - it was hotter, the crowds were bigger, my proverbial blood sugar was low, and all told in the end I was predisposed to having a bad time... but I didn't. True, we rode different rides (except the Ferris Wheel, where we watched the sun set), but I actually had a blast. For one thing, I'd had a second look at the rides. I started to understand the forces that were actually at play (as opposed to the forces that felt like they were in play). On ride that looked rather tame was actually quite stomach-churning, whereas another, which looked like it would be frustrating, was actually very enjoyable and little more than being thrown around a nine-point star. I believed I described that one as trying to escape a frozen surface while being bungee-corded to the centre... and someone gives you a strong push.

In the end, what it really was was that I left my comfort zone and had fun. I'm already looking forward to doing it all again next year.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Aaah! Economics!

It is impossible to write a blog post about economics-in-general. It is, in fact, all I can do not to try, because that would be embarking on writing a book, and I would rather make my name in paid writing through fiction rather than non-fiction. So, if you're wondering where I've been, it's mostly been thinking about economics. I might even post on a small subject of it, if I find the time after work.

French Boulengerie - A custom Blend!