Thursday, January 24, 2013

What is the extent of the school-student relationship?

As a local Principal warns students over social media comments, students, educators, and commentators are gearing up to spew vitriol at one another over a few comments made on social media, of the sort children usually make about adults that have been left to supervise them. While a few of the comments made are genuinely legally actionable, the vast majority of negative comments made by students about teachers are drivel without any real significance even as defamation of character.

Be that as it may, schools are calling for social media usage policies.

Hmm... it raises an interesting question; a few, actually:

  • Do public schools, as government endeavours, have the ability to censor, monitor, control, or otherwise limit student messages on social media, and if yes,
  • Would such policies apply to students who are not at school, and, if yes,
  • What other policies should apply to students at all times?
The first question is possibly the most critical, since government agencies are proscribed from making laws which abridge the freedom of speech. While the constitution does contain a Non-Compliance Clause, the uses of that clause are limited and such acts would be subject to review every five years. However... do those restrictions apply only to laws, or to all government policies? Certainly, many government employees are on Non-Disclosure Agreements, which would amend the same rights that allow for the use of social media. So... let's suppose such a policy isn't unconstitutional.

Your next problem is that students aren't that likely to use these services at the school - unless they feel like having their electronics confiscated or their network access rights revoked. This sort of cyber-bullying-style behaviour usually takes place after hours. Having school policies - even ones that are largely agreeable, apply when students are not in school is a sticky area for me. While I'm all for character education, citizenship/leadership courses, and all the rest of it, programs affecting your behaviour after class are largely voluntary.

Should we draw the line at social media policies? How about dress codes? Standards of behaviour?

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Moment from the Hilltops

For the longest time, the tagline of this website was "Of Faith, Friends, and Function". I hadn't written about faith of any kind one way or the other in a while and I believe I'd decided to change it around the same time I started working on a new skin for the website. Even after changing it though, I left the word Faith in there. It's sort of near the back, sitting there quietly with much de-emphasis. From time to time, I ask myself why it is still there.

It's been a little over a year since I was baptised as a member of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, at a small, rather liberal parish within what I've come to call "fair weather walking distance" of my house. Since then, I've been to church about a dozen times: two baptist christmas services, a noon mass for last year's Ash Wednesday, my great-grandmother's funeral mass, two random masses, and two Easter services - one baptist service and an Easter Monday mass.

For the most part, nothing about my life as a potential convert (going to mass regularly), changed when I stopped. I still feel the same connection to God, which is admittedly very little, largely on an abstract plane. In fairness, this doesn't make Him any less real to me - I have no strong connection to the idea of the weak nuclear force, either, but I know it to be a reality all the same.

When I look back to my childhood, I remember church being a mechanism for marking special occasions more than anything else. My family did not have the "Sunday habit", as I've come to think of it. We deaths, mostly. Weddings too, but more often than not it was a funeral. There were a few summers where we attended bible camps during the days held at the local "Anglican Free Parish" church, down by the medical clinic. That why, for most of my life, I've had a child's understanding of the bible, where I have any at all, and I'm always occasionally surprised which stories from childhood turn out to be biblical, and which did not. Fables have been particularly bad in that regard.

When I was a young lad I took an interest in archaeology, specifically egyptology. At around the same time we moved, I became aware of the various neopagan groups, and I began to think of myself as a practitioner of wicca, though I realize now I had even less of an idea than many of why and how rituals were a certain way. Even if necromancy was within my power, I seriously doubt that using greek and euro-druidic techniques to invoke Egyptian dieties is a reliable way to contact the dead. The most surefire way would be, of course, to be dead, but that isn't exactly a practical option.

When I met mybetter half, the new-agey side of me settled down. I ascribe much of my attraction to the "new age" to my sense of curiosity and my passion for myths - I no longer have any real interest in magic as a practical, motive force. In the same way, when it was time to go away to college and the appetite for a faith to call my own returned, I can credit much of my redevelopment back to her.

I mean, sure, I independently came up with my own framework for what I think God actually is, which involved a lot of conjecture and the perpetual caveat that a mortal mind probably can't truly conceive of a diety. When it came time to find a god that fit that framework, though, Kat was an invaluable help. She kept my head screwed on upside-rightways throughout the whole thing.

She also pretty much accurately predicted that I would ultimately find myself not fitting in with Catholicism. While I consider myself a centrist in most things, when it comes to matters of Church Doctrine I am just simply to liberal. I went from not knowing enough of the bible and simply rejecting doctrine out of a desire to be rebellious or out of a place of general resentment, to knowing enough about it to reject most of the same doctrines for consistancy's sake.

In the end, however, I always have to remind myself that it isn't about your relationship with a Church as it is about your relationship with God. I'm not going to say I'm the most faithful person on the planet. I'm unabashedly free-willed and when it comes to prayer "prgamatist" might be the polite way to describe my feelings.

I believe Faith, almost regardless of what it is in, is a powerful tool. It glues a person together psychologically. Empowers them to do whatever it is they've set their mind to. Faith in a Free India and the power of nonviolence allowed Ghandi and his followers to lead a revolution without ever once instigating violence. Faith in God's will has allowed the Amish to continue living their simple lifestyles and thriving in an environment that most of the developed world has left behind.

But, like most tools, it has its abusers. Those who use relative levels of faith to exclude certain people, to condone acts of violence, and to be the aggressors or naysayers of life are, for the most part, misguided. It turns people off of the idea of faith, to be honest.

When I was my teenage self, periodically invoking Bast and Set into conversation and looking at the church off of the edge of an upturned nose, it was probably a good idea to realize that I, along with other members of my generation who are making up an emergence in the atheist community, had specific complaints. Hell, even when I was converting to Catholicism, even when I was baptised and confirmed as a member of the Church, those complaints didn't go away, or become any less valid.

For the most part, though, I lead my day to day life with fairly realistic understanding of the great influence my twenty or so daily hits has on world affairs, and I've honestly come to the conclusion I could care less. I care more about individual ideas and beliefs of individual people. I don't even really care what religion a person is as much as I care about their behaviour. If a man can go through his life with reason and understanding and passion, if at the end of the day he can sit down and find a little compassion for his fellow man, then he's my brother.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Time to Digest

I can't not look creepy in a photo.
So, something I never used to do was stay seated after I ate. Whether it was at home or eating out, I usually ate the slowest in the group, or had something more important to go off and do (or so I usually considered it). It wasn't really until I met my better half that I developed the habit of sitting down to digest a meal.

Or to digest just about anything else, for that matter. I suppose the old trope about women trying to change their men probably has a grounding in reality - they're certainly a pretty good reason to grow up.

Now, I point this all out to set me up for the statement that I haven't really been digesting lately, neither in the literal sense nor as the usual metaphor for a little introspection and reflection. I've just been too busy with work to do much anything beside be busy with work. I suppose there's a lesson in there somewhere. People rail on and on about work-life balance as if it's some kind of contest to cram as much as possible of both work and play into your life, and while there's certainly something to that idea, you have to be able to sit and listen to yourself once in a while to really call it balance.

All this, of course, is to set me up for saying that I hope to be back to something resembling activity here throughout the weeks to come as I start to get back to that balance.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Grilled Chicken Breast with Sweet Potato Risotto and Sauce

As it happens, I eat a lot of chicken. That's because it's cheap right now - whole chickens are under $2 a pound these days - and I can stretch a whole chicken pretty far. This particular dish uses a lot of chicken without using all that much at all.

Chicken Suprême with Risotto

There's a fundamental premise in cooking that we're all taught early - the mother sauces (Espagnole, Veloute, Bechamel, Tomato, and Hollandaise) and their derivatives. Suprême is a derivative of a chicken veloute, which is made by infusing the veloute with mushrooms and adding cream. The result is far more subtle than one would expect. Here I have paired the mushrooms with another fall vegetable - sweet potato.

Stage One: Preparing the Stock

A number of the components of this dish use chicken stock as a base ingredient. I've never given my recipe for chicken stock, so here is a brief explanation of how I do it. If you're also making your stock from scratch, do so a day or two in advance.

Take one whole chicken, and remove the breasts and legs for later use. Place at the bottom of a slow cooker with one small onion, quartered, and five chopped stalks of celery. Fill a cheesecloth pouch or cloth tea bag with black peppercorns, sage, and thyme. Fill with water and allow to stew for 4-6 hours, tasting the flavour hourly and adjusting as necessary. Chill stock immediately. Once chilled, remove fat layer (now solid) with a spoon or ladle. Strain. The meat remaining on the chicken may be picked clean for sandwiches, salads, and the like - the bones and skin should be discarded along with the other ingredients. The stock is now ready for use.

Stage Two: Preparing Sauce Suprême

As I mentioned, suprême is derived from a veloute, which is a white sauce made by thickening stock with a roux. Before you begin cooking, bring the stock back up to a warm, but not hot, temperature. In a saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter (european-style, or cultured, butter where possible), and add 2 tablespoons of all purpose flour. Stir consistantly until a thick paste is achieved. Continue to cook roux over medium heat until it has obtained a rich blonde colour. Begin adding stock a ladle-full at a time, using a whisk to beat out the lumps of the roux. Continue adding stock until you have added approximately 1 L, and season to taste with salt and white pepper - white pepper is preferred for both its different flavour and its lack of impact on the appearance of the sauce. Simmer on low heat until the desired consistency is reached. A well made chicken veloute will appear to have taken on cream, when no such liquid is used.

Once you have the veloute, add 1 cup of sliced white button mushrooms (or any blend you like), and 1/4 of a small onion, diced. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes, then pulse in the blender. Strain through cheese cloth to remove remaining solids. The result should be a thick, warm-grey sauce. Adjust the seasoning if desired and add a squirt of fresh lemon juice, and 1/4 cup of heavy cream (35% milk fat, usually sold as whipping cream)

Covered, this sauce will keep for up to one week under refrigeration. I've never had much luck with freezing it.

Mise en place for this dish. Note some absent utensils.

Stage Three: Putting it all together

When cooking a meal with multiple components, it's important to have as much of your prep done as possible in advance, which lets you clean as you cook, and lets you time your cooking better. I don't have a time for cooking this dish because it takes long enough to make the risotto that the chicken will be cooked thoroughly (though not overdone) by the time it is ready. Start by preheating your oven to 350 and bring both the stock and the sauce back up to a high temperature (boil the former, but try not to boil the latter).

The mise is simple for this dish, as dishes go. Fine-dice one half of a small onion and set aside, prepare 1/2 cup of shredded extra old white cheddar (Parmesan would be more traditional), and dice 1/2 of a large yam. Lay out one of the chicken breasts you saved earlier and salt the skin side - season with sage, thyme, basil, and finely minced garlic. Immediately put the sweet potato into the stock to cook. Rinse about a 1/2 cup of arborio or long grain white rice until the water runs off clear and drain as well as possible.

Melt cultured butter in an all-metal frying pan over medium heat. Place the chicken breast skin-side-down and allow to cook until a rich golden brown. Turn over and sear before throwing into oven. Take another pan, add two tablespoons of water, and sweat the onions until they are translucent. Add the rice and toast it gently over about 40% heat.

Preparring a risotto is easy, but time consuming. One quarter-cup at a time, add stock and let it "cook away" before adding the next ladleful. Repeat this process until the rice is al-dente. Include cubes of the sweet potato - if you are feeling fancy, blend the potato into the stock to get a more uniform product.

Next add a double-shot of cream, and the cubed cheese. Cook thoroughly until thick.

To present this dish, form a round bed of the risotto (I would have used a ring-mold if I was working), over which you lay the chicken, and nape the whole dish with the sauce. As an afterthought  I think this would have been quite good with some sauteed asparagus with a little extra lemon.

History Lessons

"You're involving yourself in centuries-old conflicts without sufficient regard for history."
-Lord John Marbury of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing

Canada has a rich and varied history that it shares quite well with its renegade older brother to the south. It takes only a cursory examination of our politics to realize there are really only five factions in the country, in terms of people.

  • "Old Clan" whites with history in Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, etc;
  • "Ancien Famille" whites with history in France;
  • "Wang ming guo wai zhe" Chinese-Canadians whose family lines came over during the expansion of the railways;
  • "De Novo" immigrants in their third, fourth, or fifth generations;
  • "First Nations" aboriginals who have been on this continent for longer than anyone else.
A look at current-running tensions felt in the first and second groups to everyone else (including each other, and often in mutual ways) can usually be summed up as simple xenophobia or racism, with only a cursory examination, but in truth, the matter runs far deeper. Things were not always at peace between the British and French colonies, and in fact the only reason why Quebec is a part of Canada at all was that it was under British rule basically from the end of the 18th century onwards - by the time of confederation in 1867, Britain had ruled over the Province of Quebec for nearly a century and defended it against revolutionary forces in the American Revolutionary War. The resentment is still felt in the Quebecois desire to have as much freedom and independence as possible in both real and cultural terms, and the insistence in many English communities that the Quebecois should embrace the same bilingualism that they must.

To be fair, I live in the only formally bilingual province in Canada (historical note: most of the province used to be the French colony of Acadia), and speak very little functional French - something I'm hoping to rectify.

The animosity felt between the Quebecois and the Anglophone community is largely of a deep-rooted, resignation-type feeling, with no good reason for it other than "that's what we've always done". It is still nothing, however, compared to the relationship between Old Clan and Ancien Famille whites and the First Nations.

Our history with the First Nations is no better than the history to the south - the current situation was preceded by centuries of war, ranging from skirmishes over land, to outright conquering and through on to full-on genocide. The image we have in our minds of the First Nations being far-flung, primitive, and sparsely-populated tribes is somewhat belied by modern archaeological understanding of the situation. While they might not have build such wonders as Tiahuanaco or Machu Pichu, the First Nations of North America are generally thought to be on a par, technologically speaking, with the Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, and other aboriginal peoples of the South American continent.

To be fair, much of the early slaughter was unavoidable - in spite of relatively peaceable and open first-contact, the First Nations simply could not resist our European pathogens. Whoops.

But it's the memory of that conquering and pillaging that moves on. We displaced huge populations onto reserves, and backed the people into treaties while we imposed upon them our culture and belief systems. Even to this day, many First Nations don't have formalized treaties with Canada, meaning we're either there as a de facto occupying force, or our maps are wrong. Reservations appear not unlike third-world countries, lacking proper infrastructure, and as I reported a year or so ago, even proper housing.

There's a genuine class- and race-war not terribly far in the offing if the current trends in rising tensions continue. We cannot ignore so rich a piece of history for long. History is like a time-bomb - if you don't study it and diffuse it, it's going to blow up in your face.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fish Profile: Acarichthys Heckelii

A. Heckelii sub-adult. A&G Photo
A few days ago I introduced my new 55 gallon tank, just a few short days after I had introduced a pair of A. Heckelii into the tank.

A. Heckelii is known by a variety of names, including Heckel's Cichlid and the Threadfin Acara. The adults are very colourful, rather large, and surprisingly laid-back for South American Cichlids - their behavior and size is akin to freshwater angels like P. Scalera or to the various Severums... making them slightly more suitable to community tanks than some other cichlids, though there's still some care to be taken when finding them tankmates.

I have a fondness for these fish, as you can probably tell - they're my first cichlids, and unarguably gorgeous in their full adult colouration and finnage. They're also relatively hardy in my opinion - I'd say this has to do with their origins in the northern part of the Amazon basin, but I could also just be blowing smoke. I'm a fish-keeper, not a formally-trained ichthyologist.

Their natural habitat are slow-moving sections of their rivers as well as flood planes, so they prefer a somewhat lower flow. This is their only complication in handling as they are sensitive to chemical flux, leading to problems like ammonia shock or "hole-in-the-head" disease months or years down the road. This is easily avoided with somewhat-heavier-than-normal water changes or the use of a sump with a highly powerful filter... in practice, this is less of a problem than one would think.

Their natural environment exposes them to 76-84 degrees F, and they respond to the higher end of that range somewhat better, with a pH near 6.2 preferred, and softer water preferred, in the neighbourhood of 10-100 mg/L of General Hardness.

Same Specimen, 1 Week Younger. A&G Photo
The fish you encounter in the pet store are usually juveniles  and even if they aren't, they tend to resist developing their adult colour if they are in too little water or crowded.

I've found them to enjoy a varied diet, though they eat food only once it has begun to sink. Blood Worms, Krill-based Predator Sticks, and ordinary Tropical Flake are all devoured readily, and the cichlid will readily hoover up any Algae Disks my tiger hillstream loach ignores. Their diet should include some vegetable matter - blanched spinach and spirulina are the most important sources keepers offer.

Aside from fin nippers and fish that need entirely different conditions, or are overly aggressive, just about any fish over a couple of centimeters makes an okay tank-mate for even an adult specimen, though keep water volumes in mind - the pair of these fish pretty much fill my 55 once they're full grown.

Sexing the fish is difficult, with no external features to rely on to provide a clue. Their spawning behaviour is particularly complex, and it should be noted that attempts to reproduce it in home aquaria usually fail. Having said that, even the impossible often happens by accident, and I'm told the fry themselves are easy to raise.

Evolving Communications Technologies and History

One of the technologies that made it possible to have countries spanning continents, and a British Empire upon which the sun never set, was not actually a technology at all, but a method for doing something - most of the major technologies that shaped the world were precisely that sort of thing; less physical than technical. It was the modern model of a postal service, the idea that it should be possible to gather up all manner of objects from parcels to letters and deliver them to destinations, for set rates and with regularity of service.

I rather enjoy the mail. For one thing, there are quite a few items, the entire computer on which I am writing included, which are difficult or unduly expensive to purchase in person, even in a city of this size. I do a lot of business online, accordingly - everything from supplies for work to exotic kitchen utensils to computer parts. I've even ordered a fish once, though that's a tale for another time. The idea of postal systems changed the world, and they are now ubiquitous in the developed world.

For the most part, my mailings-out consist almost entirely of letters and cards. In Canada, the going rate for letters and documents up to 30 grams is $0.61. For the longest time, the annual postage rate hike was a true annoyance - then Canada Post introduced the "permanent" line of stamp issues, which have been the standard domestic stamp basically since I left high school. These stamps hold their value indefinitely, and are adjusted for the rate hike. A very useful feature indeed.

In any respect, every now and then a friend or two (usually younger), watches me drop a couple of letters into a mailbox, and I invariably get asked why. Nowadays, anything from your income tax return to all of your bills can be processed online - the physical mail has mostly become a convenient delivery service for printed ads. Paying to send short messages, which take longer to get where they are going, and are usually harder to generate (I don't have a printer), all seems to be counter-intuitive... and it is.

But the thing is, I just like the mail. It's no replacement for emails - if I need an answer on something, I pull a keyboard or pick up the phone - but for casual correspondence, it's actually a fun thing to do. I like getting mail a lot more than getting email. And frankly, I enjoy the sending almost as much.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Fish Profile: Sewellia Lineolata

S. Lineolata Adult near-surface.
Last night I introduced a new fish to you all as one of the occupants of my 55 Gallon tank. The tiger hillstream loach - properly known as Sewellia Lineolata - is a native of southern Vietnam and a riverine fish.

Squat and wide, with fanned pectoral and ventral fins, S. Lineolata reminds many of a ray in miniature - such a resemblance is superficial, and while there are a few species of freshwater ray (mostly Chinese , few are suited to the freshwater aquarium, or at least one so small as any I have ever owned or worked in.

S. Lineolata is actually a loach, though it is more commonly identified as a pleco, with which it bears no resemblance other than a superficial one, and a similarity in tank role. Beyond being striking enough that a small school of these would be an excellent feature in a tank (if not an expensive one), Lineolata is a fantastic grazer of awfuchs, including a few strains that common plecostomus won't touch, such as blue-green algae, or brown algae, which are actually bacteria and diatoms, respectively. Because of this diet, it is best to introduce them into a tank with advanced biofilm development - if this is impossible or undesirable, they can usually be persuaded to eat a sinking algae wafer such as those produced under the Wardly brand, but, as alway, the natural route is preferred.

These fish like to be kept in large groups of six or more only if sufficient territorial markers such as branches, dens, and large rocks are provided. They are domineering and exhibit some (usually harmless) violence between con-specifics and similarly-shaped fishes. For this reason (and matters of financial practicality) I keep only one. Ideally, one such fish would live in about ten gallons of water at a minimum.

A relatively new fish to the hobby (first appearing in the mid-2000s), these fish can be somewhat difficult to source. Locally, Pets Unlimited carries a small selection of them when they are available from our breeders, usually for around $21.97 a piece, depending on what we paid for them. Their newness to the hobby makes them a little more finicky than more veteran species, and the best success is found in imitating their natural conditions.

Those conditions are fairly predictable based on their location - overfiltration (tank turnover of 15-20 per hour), 68-78 degrees Farenheit, soft water at about 6.0-7.5 pH.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Advancing the Seasons

My new baby looks right at home... or is this a dentist's lobby?
So, the last little while has been a flurry of activity, both the good and the bad, and I'm about as tired as I've ever been - in the best possible way.

At the moment, I'm resting on my laurels at the end of an unusually long shift - one of many that I've worked in the past month or so - taking what I hope is just a well-deserved break before I clean up the dishes and clean the smaller of my tanks, which is having problems with brown algae. Brown algae are diatoms, and there's really nothing to do about them but scrub them off by hand. Such is life, and Friday is supposed to be water-change day anyway.

As it happens, I've been busily overhauling the 55 and getting it right up to around where I want it. All that's left to do now is wait for the plants (and the fish) to grow into their surroundings. Fishkeeping is a good hobby for the impatient, like me - it forces you to practice that particular virtue.

Fishkeeping trains patience.
I've gone for what I'm calling a river's edge theme but is probably too composed to represent any sort of natural environment. I've got throngs of Hygrophilla and Amazon Sword plants, water-worn stones, and a piece of mopani wood.

The mopani wood is going to soften and slightly acidify the water, which is perfect for the fish I'm hosting. It's a type of a bogwood, as I understand it, from South Africa... none of the fish in the tank would ever encounter it naturally. Just as well - I wasn't really going for a biotope build anyway.

Speaking of pets, I should introduce the fish themselves - I've aquired a pair of A. Heckelii and a Tiger Hillstream Loach, in addition to the six danios I cycled the tank with.

At any rate... Katherine is still here, and I can never stay away for every long. :) So long, kids.
Acarichthys Heckelli - the Threadfin Acara

Tiger Hillstream Loach - sometimes called a "butterfly