Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pre-Tea Pontification: Foreign Trade

So, while I'm sitting at my desk waiting for my Earl Grey White to steep, I've been reading stories through the CBC, La Monde, and BBC websites detailing a deadly fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 workers over the weekend - believe it or not, this is the first mention of it on the CBC since the weekend. The coverage, by and large, is more concerned with the protests surrounding the deaths than the deaths themselves - probably because 112 faceless Southeast-Asian workers don't pull much weight in a predominantly white readership.

Still, the protests highlight important points - Bangladesh clothing factories such as the one that burned down have claimed 300 lives this year, largely due to poor safety regulation, and, in this one particular case, managerial snafus. The Bangladeshi clothing industry is second only to that of China, with major retailers like Disney, Sears, and WalMart sourcing from this one particular factory. La Monde reports that these workers are paid between 40 and 80 euros a month, which is my take home pay in a week at minimum wage, and they work far longer hours than I do.

Sears and Disney did not comment, but Wal-Mart claims that the factory was subcontracted by a supplier (which they refuse to name) which no longer does business with the company. The BBC has also reported that three middle-management officials from the factory have been arrested in relation to the fire.

The western economy has become dependent on South-East Asian manufacturing - at this point, nobody can dispute that. Even products designed in Canada are manufactured in China and by and large we don't pay nearly enough to the people who make them. Because we can all live comfortably on the minimum wage (or so they would like us to believe), people like me have the time to passively consider the issue and pontificate on it without due thought for the consequence.

The problem, as I see it, is not the salaries of the workers per-se - we do not live in a post-scarcity society and until we did I think that the pay rate a person can eke out for themselves will have to suffice - but the safety standards we are willing to effectively underwrite by purchasing products produced in these factories.

Having said that, there is one important consideration to make. If someone such as myself purchased clothing exclusively from western manufacturing, or even locally, I'd own perhaps two of each article of clothing, or need to be making a lot more money than I am now. The fact of the matter remains that the reason there are so many middle-class families in the west is that we exported our lower-class to the nations that make the things we luxuriate in.

It's time to bust out your keyboards and printers and send a letter to the retailers you frequent, protesting use  of manufacturers located in countries without adequate safety standards for their products. I know I for one have even less motivation to go back to Sears or Walmart in the near future. In fact, let's throw down a blanket boycott of all department stores and support local business at the same time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fish Profile: Synsipilum Cichlids

Iranian Specimen of Vieja Synsipilum. UWOP.
Synsipilum Cichlids are a perfect case for two things: why cichlids are a niche pet, and why I hate common names. This species has about fifty to sixty trade names - locally they are sold as Tie-Dye Cichlids - which makes doing one's research, as one should before adopting any pet, rather difficult.

As you can see, they're very colorful fish. The specimen to the left is 10", though these fish can be expected to grow to about 17". The are relatively peaceful, but show considerable aggression with each other - it is best to keep them in a sexed pair or singularly.  The best way to include these fish in a tank is in a South American Cichlid community tank, provided with ample territorial spaces - caves, bogwood, and plantations. Even in such a space, success is not assured and you must take care to ensure your fish are not fighting amongst each other.

You're looking at about 55 Gallons for a single adult fish, and as South American fish, you are best off in the range of 6.8-7.8 pH with neutral hardness and a temperature of 79 Fahrenheit. They're from slow-moving sections of the Rio Usumacinta and appreciate a relatively low floor.

A good diet for these fish include cichlid pellets and algae wafers, augmented with prawn or mussel meat in adults and live blood worms or brine shrim as juveniles.
Tie-Dye Cichlid Juviniles. A&G Photo.

Breeding is said to be relatively easy, when a compatible pair are found. The parents do not turn against the fry until they are ready for a second spawn, and the fry feed easily on brine shrimp and common fry staple.

Regarding my point about the niche pets, these fish are a wonderful example of what I hate about cichlids. The picture to the right is far closer to what you see in the pet store.

Fish Profile: Red Bellied Piranha

Red-Belly Piranha Juvenile. Auditor and a Gentleman Photo.
Among the many fish species that never fails to get an excited response from child and adult alike are the Red-Bellied Piranha. They seem to be a staple of fish shops in the area, but they are poorly understood at bed. Pygocentrus nattereri have some special care requirements that are belied by their apparent simplicity at the store.

In spite of the small size at which they are purchased (usually on the order of about three inches), these fish can reach 13 inches in length with a weight of about 8 pounds. Close relatives of tetras, they do best in groups - a group of 4-5 can be kept comfortably through adulthood in a 70 gallon tank, though this tank would likely have to be a species tank, as these fish are carnivorous.

The terrible reputation of the red-bellied piranha for violence is overstated - even large ones are more likely to swim away from a human intruding on the tank than to attack them. Having said that, it is preferred to feed them live food wherever possible. I feed an alternating pattern of live insects and frozen blood worm, though it is possible to keep them plenty healthy on a diet of predator sticks. Resist the urge to feed such as mice or larger fish as neither, kept as pets, are nutritionally balanced for these animals.

Adult of the same species. Wikipedia Commons.
These tropical fish prefer waters of 78-79 degrees Fahrenheit, with a pH between 6 and 7, and moderately soft. They are, after all, amazonian fish.

These fish have a terrible reputation that is largely unearned. Though oft-feared, they are just as docile a pet as any snake, reptile, or rodent I've ever handled, and more docile than quite a few of the latter - hamsters spring to mind.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Selected Meal: Country Style Roasted Chicken

So, I know I promised articles on the full menu, but the thing is, the menu itself got abandoned pretty quickly. Instead, I'm just going to post some of those recipes I think everyone should have a rough idea.

I have been perfecting a roasted chicken. Roasting poultry is one of those things that every chef "knows" how to do, but not every chef (or even every cook, for that matter) feels they can do well, or make exciting. In terms of chicken itself, there are a few techniques that really help the bird do what it needs to do. Here's my recipe for a "country style" chicken that draws upon some of my favourite flavour combinations to produce a moist, robust bird as suited to a Sunday dinner as to sandwiches.

Country Roasted Chicken with Pan Gravy


  • 1 Whole Chicken
  • 1/2 cup cultured butter (salted)
  • 1/4 tsp garlic paste or minced garlic
  • 1 Whole Lemon
  • Herbs de Provence
  • Lemon Pepper (alternately, lemon juice and crushed black pepper)
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Sticks of Carrot and Celery (see below)
  • 1/8 c of Flour, approximately.


  1. Preheat oven to 350F and remove middle rack.
  2. If the chicken includes giblets and the neck, remove both. Retain for later use.
  3. Make an incision along the breastbone.
  4. Combine butter and garlic paste until well mixed and carefully stuff between the skin and flesh of the breasts. This will help to keep the bird moist and avoids the need for basting or barding the bird. Using compound butters in this way is the preferred method of roasting a chicken in a commercial setting.
  5. Season exterior of bird with Herbs de Provence, Lemon Pepper, and Cayenne.
  6. Line a deep pan with the carrots and celery, to elevate the chicken from the bottom of the pan, along with the neck and giblets.
  7. Roast until thoroughly cooked - use a calibrated thermometer to get the accurate temperature, which should be 165F. This should take about 45 minutes.
  8. Set the bird on a board to rest while you prepare the gravy. Discard the carrots and celery (or retain for other recipes). The neck and giblets are also to be discarded.
  9. Deglaze the pan with (in order of preference) white wine, chicken stock, or water.
  10. Sift in flour and whisk, as needed, until the gravy is the desired thickness.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pauper Kings: A Gentleman's Menu for the Fortnight of Nov. 16

As has become my practice over the years, I'm making a menu for the next two weeks, to get my groceries pinned down. I thought I'd share it here, and maybe we'll do some food posts again for a while. Don't worry: I have two more fish profiles planned as well!

The Pauper Kings

  • Friday - Mussels with Garlic Drawn Butter and Fresh Bread - Just what it says on the tin - fresh Atlantic Canadian mussels pan-steamed in a wine-stock sauce and eaten with herb-cultured butter and bread.
  • Saturday - Salisbury Steak with Mushroom Sauce - Salisbury Steak with a home-made mushroom espagnole and served with sweet potato dollar fries, green beans, and beats. Nothing at all like a Swanson TV dinner.
  • Sunday - Country Chicken - A favourite returns - lightly-dredged chicken leg is pan-fried to perfection and served with sweet potato dollar fries and fall vegetables.
  • Monday - Pork Tenderloin Chops with Mushroom - A home-brew variant on a childhood favourite - moist, tender pork is enveloped in a home made mushroom-cream pan sauce and served along side mashed sweet potato, green beans, and beats for a hearty fall meal.
  • Tuesday - Penne Bolognese - Whole-wheat penne rigate in a bolognese sauce of my own perfecting - a smattering of shaved cheddar cheese makes a mockery of all it means to be trained in Italian cuisine.
  • Wednesday - Revived Mother-and-Daughter Ramen - Ramen noodles in home-made chicken stock with fried egg for a topper. Eating noodles doesn't mean eating poorly.
  • Thursday - Pork Schnitzel with Fries and Fall Vegetables - Pork Tenderloin trimmed and beaten, breaded with seasoned crumb, pan-fried. Served with crinkle cut fries, green beans, and beets. Mayonaise for fries, and a squeeze of lemon per the direction of acclaimed Master Chef Markus Ritter of Europa.
  • Friday - Stuffed Haddock Fillet with Fall Vegetables - A MacEwen Family favourite, and rapidly becoming mine as well. Haddock fillet is stuffed with seasoned crackers and baked en papillot with the vegetables to be eaten alongside and lemon. No starches are necessary or welcome - you'll want a whole fish to yourself.
  • Saturday - Taco Night - What's there to tell? Softshell tortilla "tacos" with a well-spiced beef stuffing, home-made salsa, and all the fixings. What could be more appropriate than summer food in november?
  • Sunday - Pork Fried Rice - Fried Rice is a favourite of mine, a quick-and-clean ritual that requires exacting control of temperature, seasoning, and elements in order to achieve perfect flavour. I have tried for years to perfect a fried rice, and this is the closest things come without a wok.
  • Monday - Chicken Fettucini Gratinate alla Novembre - A variation on an acclaimed dish used in the Italian Night event at the Lady Dunn Diningroom that I cheffed. Chicken leg meat with green beans in a citrus-augmented alfredo sauce, with fresh whole-wheat fettucini pasta, parmesean, and broiled to a molten perfection.
  • Tuesday - Winter Vegetable Ragout on Toast Points - Taking my cues from Chef Markus Ritter, a selection of some of the remaining green beans and beets are to be sauteed with just a little bacon and reduced in a thick creamy sauce, then used as a delicious additive to points of toasted, home-made bread.
  • Wednesday - Minestrone - Which I will hopefully remember not to thicken this time - a fantastic, tomato-flavoured vegetable soup as hearty as any cream. 
  • Thursday - Pizza - I prepare a pizza of my own devising and bake it at home on a crisp, thin crust. Would that I had a wood fire upon which to, well, fire it!
Lunches: Low-Budget Ramen Noodles with Veggies.
Breakfast: All-Home Trucker's Breakfast - Two eggs with bacon, mushrooms, and onion on home-made buns cooked fresh each morning.
Snacks: A small selection of chips and crackers
Beverages: Egg nog, soda, and a wide selection of teas both hot and iced.

I also had an interesting idea regarding an online business... more on that later, however.

Monday, November 12, 2012

And We're The Ones Who Did It

I've been having an awful lot of fun lately, absorbing the aftermath of the American presidential and house elections. I find it pretty telling of the level of understanding Americans have in their own political system that everyone is ruing what will happen now that Democrats control the White House for four more years, conveniently ignoring that the House of Representatives is quite firmly in republican hands. Ignoring for the moment that people can vote their conscience rather than the party line (which is statistically unlikely) and that at least a significant number of Americans were foolish enough to vote for a democratic president and a republican congress (never understood that move), it's pretty much unlikely Obama can get anything done before I turn 25, and even less likely after that, because it'll be an election year and nobody wants to light powder-kegs then.

Now, whenever someone's favorite horse loses an election, you always hear at least a few of them threatening to leave. I myself famously threatened to a few of my friends that I would leave for France at once if the conservatives won a majority of seats in Parliament a few years back. They did, I didn't, and the NDP have the official opposition for the first time since, well, confederation. What you're always surprised to hear is people saying they'll succeed from the union. For one thing, sepratism is only a common idea in Quebec around here.

The US has a deeper history of that sort of thing, of course, and one of the bloodiest civil wars in history followed the last honest attempt to split the union. Now we've got petitioners in 15 states - all red states - trying to gain support for popular movements to break up the union.

We'll ignore for the moment how 25,000 signatures, being the magic number for Presidential consideration, won't be enough to split the union, if any of these petitioners even get that far, and skip right on in to why that is a bad idea.

It's a little bit different in the US, mind you, but in a multi-tiered system of government, the federal, state/provincial, and municipal governments all handle different tasks. Now, Colorado (one of the states in question) might have a decent national guard, but a fully-operating military it ain't. Should the Coloradans contract with the Americans for access to NORAD and air defense? Can they afford to continue to beef up their military to the sorts of (frankly, excessive) force that the US enjoys? How about prisons? Food production and manufacturing? Colorado is landlocked - should they build a major international airport to ship in all of their Chinese goods at increased costs, or do you suppose they can import the imports from America, at what I imagine would be considerable tariffs? How do you suppose the Americans will feel about losing their largest source of uranium? Separatism worked so well last time. Let's ignore also the Department of the Treasury. As an internet entrepreneur  I already deal largely with four currencies. Am I really going to have to accept Colarado Dollars as well?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Introducing Quite Simply Designs

I'd like to take a moment to feature another artist - where I work with words and foods, she works with pixels and cloth. I'm very pleased to announce that Kat MacEwen is finally making her public debut with the launch of Quite Simply Designs. Working in graphics and surface design, Kat's work is the product of brilliant inspiration and extensive, hard-earned education in the arts.

I strongly urge everyone to go ahead and check out her website, and I'm willing to bet we might find some artwork for sale in the near future. There's even more artwork on display at Meekability, her deviantart profile.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Four More Years

Of Stagnation, Whining, and the Status Quo, that is.

Most of you already know I'm not american, so please don't interpret this sudden attention to the recent Presidential Election as being about personal preferences over, say, reasoned thought. I tried very hard to avoid any mention of the American elections in the months leading up to them simply because I thought it would be untoward to engage in electioneering from another country altogether.

Having said that, I have the unfortunate luck in having a Prime Minister and Capbinet that would very literally jump off of bridges if the President of the United States so ordered, regardless of who that president seems to be, which means that there is a very real extent to which we actually do feel the impact of those elections.

In that respect I can call this election a disappointment - not because I didn't want Obama to win (I don't really have a horse in that race, apart from thinking Romney an idiot), but because the American public managed to split tickets, again.

Now don't get me wrong, I split tickets myself when I vote around here. I want the right person with the right ideas for the job regardless of party, or else I'd porbably just vote straight Green and waste my ballot. The problem I have is that, while that approach works in a multi-party system, the US two-party system doesn't allow it. You end up with a White House of one party and a House of Representatives of the other party, and absolutely bugger-all gets done in the next four years.

Now, the democrats did take back the senate.. with the tiniest majority I have ever seen, mind you... which I suppose is something. Still, it's not going to help much for anything besides confirming political apointees... which is something I never thought should be decided on party lines to begin with. It's all a little frustrating, and would make a good season eight of The West Wing. Fun fact, though: I wouldn't have voted for Matt Santos, dem or not. Vinnick was the clear better choice, no matter how much I liked the other guys.

For those of you who are treating this as the end of democracy in your country, quoting Trump or Alexis de Toqueville or Jefferson, bear in mind that the left did the same thing when you gave them four more years of bush. In the last several decades, the election has largely been a formality. I can think of only a few presidents in my partents' lifetimes that only served 4 years instead of eight.

People actually like the status quo, regardless of how dire it seems, it seems.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fun with Exorbitantly Large Numbers

I came up with a concept in the shower this morning called the Turing Constant, which I defined as the number of "operations" done by a system in a single step. In a four core computer, this would be four. I chose to represent the Turing Constant with the Greek letter Xi, which is surprisingly hard to type, so I won't.

Then, I had an idea. From a purely mathematical perspective, it's possible to calculate the Turing Constant of any system - like the universe. I went a head and made a few assumptions: I assumed the mass of the universe to be constant to within a reasonable degree, thinking that the matter-energy conversion produces a net change of zero. Mass and energy are equivalent in physics, so this is not a huge problem. Once you know the mass of the universe, all you need to know is how many moles of stuff are in the universe.

That's right, moles. One mole is 6.02x1026 of a thing. It's equivalent to the mean molecular weight of an object. Using fancy (and fuzzy) maths involving the expanse of the known universe, its suspected density, and the mean molecular weight of the universe's five most common elements, I came up with a very large number.

1.77 × 1081

As it happens, this represents more or less the number of atoms in the universe. It is a very, very large number, but certainly not the largest number ever derived. It's not even the largest number I know. It is, however, very, very big. It's 177 million, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion atoms. It's so large that it's enough to construct, well, a universe.

And that's how many permutations happen within the universe in a single step. But what do I mean by a step? Well, that's fairly elementary. A "step" in the universe should be the smallest meaningful period of time. An instant.

We have such a time. See, the universe has a finite resolution in terms of distance - the Planck Length. The time it takes a photon to traverse one Planck Length is the Planck Time, which is the smallest meaningful unit of time.

It's about 5.4 x 10-44 seconds.

As it happens, the age of the universe is known! That means, we can figure out how many steps it's taken to get to the precise time: 7.90x1060 steps.

How many individual things have happened in that time?

1.40 × 10142

This is an incredibly large number. 

A Strange Dream

Often, my dreams go unremembered pretty much as soon as I wake up. I've always chalked this up to having a fairly mundane life - I get lost in the grind these days, and don't have much time even for writing. What little writing I do so closely resembles a reality that dreams about it probably wouldn't stick much longer than any of the other dreams I have.

Last night, though, I had an unusual dream, in that it was both memorable and mundane. I spent the full length of the dream insisting that I needed to make my way to New York City, knowing full well that I couldn't afford it. This is unusual for me, in that, when I daydream about travel, I rarely think of American cities - America is far too much Canada Senior for me to care overmuch about whether or not I see every major city. Also, when I insist on going somewhere in a dream, it's either somewhere far more removed, or somewhere I've already been.

I've never been to New York City. I've been within sighting distance, certainly. There just isn't anything for me there, apart from a few restaurants I have a passing interest in visiting. I've never been a metropolis kind of a guy and the famously abrasive personality of the average New Yorker seems to me to be like taking a tiger and throwing it to the lions.

As the dream evolved, it became less about the fact I was going to New York and more about the fact I was going to meet all sorts of interesting people when I got there. A lot of those people exist only in my mind and the mind of one or two other people. Then, in trickled the real people. My little rodent brain somehow decided I was important enough that people who lived nowhere nearby would drop everything and come to New York for no reason other than to have a conversation, and before long an inverse convention of a sort was planned, where I suddenly had for myself an audience with all the people I've loved to watch, listen to, or read, regardless of how logical that was, relevant the things I have to say are to their experience, or even, in three cases, whether they were alive or dead.

Delusions of grandure are nothing new to me - I've almost always been the centre of any universe I walk in to - but the idea of the famous, or even the internet-famous, knowing who I am is baffling. I'm a nobody, in terms of audience, and I take a certain amount of pride in that. I don't have to pander, and I don't have to sugar-coat things. I'm not in it for the money. I consider myself lucky as compared to a number of the people I dreamt about meeting because my livelihood does not yet hinge on my being entertaining.

Among the attendees of the conference was a large contingent of YouTube personalities, followed by a small smattering from Film and Television. These last were not invited so much as they spontaneously appeared and I think that made the little reverse-convention that much more exciting. It also created an unusual situation where people who would never, should never have gotten along wound up rubbing elbows for a few hours while my tiny mammal brain cooked up ideas for conversations. What did I have to say to TheTruePooka, and how was it different from what I had to say to AaronRa or Thunderf00t, all of whom speak on the same topics and all of whom I feel quite differently about? What was to stop me from using the ten minutes I get to speak with John Spencer to do nothing but ask him for advice on how to behave like one of his more famous roles, and how was that different from the conversation I intended to have with Richard Schiff? When OgreVI showed up, there was nothing to say. The gentleman provided the wine and I provided a smoke and we talked about crayfish etouffe and why I'd never been to New Orleans, or thought of going.

I'm not creole, not by a long shot, but with as much French blood as I have you'd think I'd at least want to look.

Cam and Paul showed up and there was nothing much to talk about. After a few minutes it became apparent I have no brain for Theology and no interest in football so we wound up talking about Freezer Cooking. I think I might have accidentally given away the secret of my scrambled eggs... or was it the secret of my creamy tomato soup. You know, a good soup like that, all you need is a little extra roux and you have a sauce instead.

Thinking about all that got me thinking about the time I went to Atlantic City for a baking convention, which got me thinking about how cool it would be to drag the old class together again. We had some fun times, especially when we were away, and what was more there were some surprising minds mixed among the riff-raff.

Thinking about that, of course, got me to thinking about why I picked New York in the first place, and then the reality collapsed back down, and I woke up.

An unusual dream, by my standards.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fish Profile: Plecostomus

Common Plecostomus, Lynn Smith Photo
Plecostomus might not be as abused as B. Splendens, but they're easily as misunderstood. There's actually quite a few genus in the grouping and even more species - all simply called "plecos" at your local fish shop. The photograph to the right here is of what's known as a "common pleco" - any of about a dozen species in two genus that happens to look just-so.  There's also a variety of other fish in the group, each looking more exotic than the last.

Plecos are an unusual fish - fans of plecos are few and far between, and yet they are ubiquitous in both the industry and the hobby. They are renowned for the habit of juveniles of the species to be voracious consumers of awfuchs - the algae that cakes onto items in the tank. They are usually kept for just that purpose, with their owners having no idea how large they get as adults (we're talking a foot or more), or that their eating off of the glass diminishes with age. A few keepers keep them because of what they are - big, placid armoured catfish.

I'll be the first to admit that's actually pretty cool, but I'm learning I have a soft-spot for large catfish.

At any rate, it's difficult to talk about the ideal conditions to raise plecos, because there are, as I mentioned, quite a few species that are all slightly-different. There are, however, a few general rules. The depth and volume of the tank is not nearly so important as the length, and the longer the better - an adult should be in a tank no shorter than 4 feet and should have about 50 gallons of "breathing space". The adults eat wood, rather than algae, of which mopani is preferred - real drift-wood should be present in their tanks at all time as both a digestive aid and a decoration. They prefer dim lights with places to hide. Aquatic plants will usually get eaten, but consider surface-plants. They prefer quite a bit of flow and high oxygenation - if I was doing a dedicated river-fish tank, I would consider a bubbler and use a power-head for flow.

These fish are amazonian. They prefer corresponding temperatures (in my experience, they are quite happy at around the 79 degrees F mark, though I've heard anywhere from 70 to 80, water that's relatively soft (5-25dH), and a pH in the neighbourhood of 7.2, though they tolerate everything from 6.5 to 8.0.

I've had some success feeding larger plecos blanched zucchini in addition to their regular diet, but this breaks them pretty quickly of their cleaning habits.

There are, of course, more interestingly-coloured and exotic species of pleco, that carry more cost and correspondingly more or less difficulty in handling.

But wait, you say: My pleco is doing just fine in a (10, 20, 30, etc) gallon tank. Okay. I'll believe it. When you're considering replacements, however (he'll either stunt or get to big, trust me), consider Ancistrus spp., or Bristlenose Plecos. They're smaller, and never lose the algae-habit. Plus, their little bristles make them look cthuvian, and that's always a plus.