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This world is ruining my reading

I’m so tired lately.

A lot of people have been saying they’re tired. It’s hard to get up every day and read about what horrible new thing has made “normal” move another step towards “intolerable”. We’re all frogs in the pot at the moment, aren’t we? (Cue Bruce Cockburn: The Trouble With Normal Is It Always Gets Worse) (an excellent song, in case you’re unfamiliar.)

Since the unfortunate event in the US last November, I’ve found my reading has been seriously thrown off. Normally I’m happy to read weird things, dystopias, things with sad endings, things that put characters in difficult situations, things that twist my brain in strange new ways, just for fun. Right now: nope.

I keep putting down books whenever they hit an uncomfortable bit or a challenging bit or an unpleasant moment. I had to create a whole new shelf on Goodreads for “on pause”.

For example, I’ve been struggling exceedingly slowly through 33 Jours, someone’s story of fleeing the Nazis as they entered France in WWII, and I have to keep putting it down not because the French is difficult — it’s delightfully clear and elegant — but because I just can’t deal with it. I had to leave off Perdido Street Station at a mere 4% read because every page oozed or squelched or was in some way deeply squalid and/or sordid. I keep thinking I should re-read The Handmaid’s Tale since my daughter has it as assigned reading this year (her English teacher deliberately brought it back into the curriculum), but — no. Rome fell. The Dark Ages were a thing, and a thing that’s a little too close for comfort at the moment.

I fully acknowledge it’s pathetic. I have no doubt they are excellent books. But not now.

Sales of romances are up, apparently. I’m not the only one who just can’t even. Tina Fey’s sheetcake sketch was as tone-deaf as the critics noted, but still — there was a kernel of something there, wasn’t there. If sales of Sauvignon Blanc aren’t also up I’ll… I’ll finish this bottle, so I shall.

Of course we’re tired. You can’t do all the invisible emotional labour of keeping yourself, your relationship, your work, your family all going in an uncertain world AND keep the US and North Korea from nuking each other, every single day, among news of disastrous new laws and weather-related disasters and mass shootings and other bits of startling horror. It’s too freaking much to ask; one can only hold so many airplanes in the air with the power of one’s mind and firmly clenched stomach muscles.

And so the ability to read heavy — in the figurative, not literal sense — books is temporarily misplaced, it seems.

To be clear: I’m talking about recreational reading here. The kind of essential reading that helps you tackle privilege and patriarchy and colonialism and other -isms is difficult and important and should not and cannot be tossed aside to handle later at one’s convenience, but that is in the whole other category of Must-Do, not the category of Recreational. Those things I continue to read and take seriously as part of personal development because it seems to me that getting more people on board with those ideas will move us forward societally, assuming we manage to avoid The Dark Ages, The Sequel.

So let us praise Soothing Books for recreational purposes, lest we all languish in despair and ennui. You know: books in which the characters make their way through a world that is reasonably orderly and reasonably far from slipping into The Dark Ages, The Sequel. Or is at least distractingly engrossing and/or has some hot sex in it or something.

Let me make a few recommendations.

First: re-reading, generally. I am dealing poorly with the unknown. Perhaps you are too. Re-reading solves that neatly.

Second: chatty cookbooks, the kind that mostly talk about cooking, food, ingredients, and (preferably) foreign locales in a way that allows one to both fantasize about living [wherever] but also cook [whatever] right now at home. Example: David Lebovitz’ My Paris Kitchen. You can pretend you’re in Paris but enjoy your non-microscopic non-Paris kitchen and cook his recipes today if you want. I’m going to start with the scalloped potatoes with blue cheese and roasted garlic, which sounds soothing in and of itself. Or there’s Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First if you prefer ideas to recipes.

Third: romances, as mentioned above. They may have uncomfortable moments but they’re usually short and trivial, and the books virtually never end badly (I see people reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance [not a romance!] on the subway sometimes and I want to tap them on the shoulder and let them know it ends badly — VERY BADLY INDEED yes yes I am a bit scarred ok). Recommendations: anything, really, but my friend Josie Kerr’s books would be a pleasant place to start if you want romances involving people over thirty years old and excellent depictions of consent. Going back to authors like Georgette Heyer is another solid idea. If you don’t mind some dragons and things, Katie MacAlister.

Fourth: period pieces. Some online friends recommended the Miss Read books to me and they are pretty much the Platonic ideal of Soothing (assuming one can overlook the British class system, which can be, I know, a substantial ask). Georgette Heyer again. I’m also extremely partial to Patrick O’Brian’s 20-book Aubrey/Maturin series, ideally as audiobooks. They are just the thing. Jane Austen, too. (Avoid Dickens.)

Fifth: Alternative realities, whether sci-fi or fantasy or whatever. The trick here is to avoid the unpleasant/dystopic ones. Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy suits the bill here, and Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books within the Discworld series. A lot of reality just now reflects Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to me — metanationals, political bickering, climate change disasters – so I haven’t re-read those, but those with stronger dispositions than mine might enjoy the parallels and the eventually optimistic future view. Similarly, Ender’s Game (but for the love of all that’s holy don’t read the sequels). Harry Potter, of course.

Sixth: Mysteries might work for some people, for example Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, or Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, or if you can tolerate some alternative Hells and some squelchiness, Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen series. With mysteries you know there will be unpleasantness but it will be predictable and resolved by the end of the book, for the most part.

Seventh: Books from cultures remote from your own might work, although it’s hard to screen those in advance for potential sudden unpleasantness. Americanah is one suggestion. Books from India and South/Central America are riskier, I find.

Things I have found that, for me, are unhelpful:

  • Anything reality based, viz., 33 Jours
  • Anything that focuses on capitalism (Michael Lewis) or the environment
  • Nonfiction, except maybe memoirs of rock stars or actors or whatnot
  • Anything Russian, pretty much (sorry)
  • Anything that’s intended to be purely humorous (I’m not in the right mood and it all strikes me as facile)

There’s nothing wrong with purely escapist recreational reading if it’s what keeps us all from running stark mad. I think we’ll just have to go with that for a while. The heavy books will be there waiting when we’re ready to pick them up again.

Books 2014

I just realized I never did a books post for 2014! Ah well, better late than never.

Goodreads did this nice summary for me (click through the graphic for a full-size version which links to all the books), which shows that apparently I gave lots of books 4 stars and didn’t give any books only 1 star. I’d guess that this is probably more because I abandon what would be 1-star books pretty quickly rather than being an easy marker.

2014 books on Goodreads

The number is approximate; I’m sure there are a few books in there marked as abandoned and on the other side a few I didn’t bother to enter. Whatever. Reading is about pleasure, not accuracy.

Of particular note this year —


  • Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things. I would never have guessed that Elizabeth Gilbert had this book in her and I dearly hope she continues along this line. A really lovely book; even her science was good (I can overlook some bad science in an otherwise good book, but in this case I didn’t have to).
  • Kate Atkinson, Life After Life. A nicely done conceit. Some readers feel the war parts were too long but I don’t share that criticism. Hard to put down.
  • Jonas Jonasson, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. Starts off more or less straight but the humour and absurdity build and build. One of those ones to avoid reading on the subway if you don’t like giggling uncontrollably in public. There’s even an elephant. I give bonus points for elephants if they can be worked into the plot at all plausibly.
  • Jo Baker, Longbourn. Lovely and elegant.
  • Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened . Her wonky illustration style is so totally perfect.
  • The whole Peter Grant / Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich. Supernatural police-procedural mysteries with dry humour, amusing pop culture references and a clear love for London. The last one had enormous invisible carnivorous unicorns. (Apparently I give bonus points for all manner of absurd large animals.)


  • Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. All of Atul Gawande’s books are excellent, but this book about what does happen vs. what should happen in end-of-life situations is particularly good. Full of compassion and practicality.
  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Don’t be put off by the slightly hyperbolic title. There’s lots of interesting stuff in here about exactly how food is processed, and it’s an exploration, not a rant. Really interesting. It confirmed my hunch that most breakfast cereal is pretty weird stuff.
  • Katha Pollitt, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights . Just what it says on the tin. A good and very readable summary of some of the horrifying legal nonsense happening in the US and in what specific ways it’s problematic.
  • David Byrne, How Music Works . Insight into music theory as well as the workings of David Byrne’s singular creative process, and a well-thought-out summary of the pros and cons of the various ways to make money from music in the 2010s.
  • Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry, Last Chance to See: In the Footsteps of Douglas Adams. In 1990 Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine wrote the first Last Chance to See, which — in Douglas Adams’ inimitable style — explored various endangered species. For this follow-up book, Carwardine enlisted Stephen Fry, with predictably successful results. I’d offer some choice quotes but it would be hard to stop so I won’t start.

I’ll leave it at that. Feel free to plunder my Goodreads account for other ideas to read or avoid, depending on how your taste lines up with mine…

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On touring high schools

Because my child is rather unbelievably already in grade 8, in the past couple of months we’ve seen, I think, twelve high schools, both public and private. The tours (and the schools) have varied from appalling to excellent. During the appalling ones I spent my time thinking about what makes a tour (and a school) good.

Things that are promising

  • The principal/admissions person/greeter at the door breezes past parents to greet the child first. Correct — it’s her schooling and her ultimate decision. We’re just along for the ride.
  • A minimum of adults speak — they trust the kids (of all ages) and let them do their thing. Bonus points if the female student president is clearly gay, ESL, beloved by all students, and intending a career as an engineer. And is followed by a grade 9 who’s been at the school for perhaps six weeks and might say anything at all about her experience.
  • Show me what you do instead of telling me.
  • Talk about what you do with kids while they are there instead of telling me all the things they do after they leave you. High school is not just a waiting room for university.
  • Talk about your teaching in terms of the kids’ accomplishments (“last year the kids won x robotics competition” or “we have three IB Biology classes because so many kids signed up”), not in terms of your own accomplishments and ego (“we win so many teaching awards!”).
  • Sell the experience your school offers. Tell me what you’re good at and which niche you fill. Don’t spend all your time talking about how hard it is to get in. Show me the stats and move on.
  • Talk about fit. Your school may be a great school for somebody else but not for my kid, and that’s fine, and we should all be clear about that and comfortable with it. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Stick to the niche you (hopefully) told me about.
  • Demonstrate your culture, don’t just talk about it. If you say you’re inclusive, let me see and talk to kids of all different kinds.
  • Show me that your student supports are proactive and not just reactive. Do you wait until kids are in trouble to offer help? Yeah, not good enough — why did you let them get into that state in the first place if your supports are so excellent and you know your kids so well?
  • Provide a program for the tour to tell me what will happen when (and, ideally, where, and even more ideally, in advance of my arrival) and who will speak.

Things that are not promising

  • You get the day wrong on your website so we miss your tour, and you do nothing but post a “sorry!” note on the door.
  • You’re very expensive but only ~80% of parents think you’re providing “good or excellent” education. Yet you trumpet this rather low figure.
  • Nobody is at the front door to welcome and guide visitors. If it’s a tour day, let me know I’m in the right place and at the right door by posting someone there.
  • There is nobody anywhere to guide visitors. Having one person inside who points vaguely down the hallway when the room I need to find is in fact upstairs, around the corner and down another long hallway isn’t helpful.
  • Your PowerPoint is a big series of “how not to use PowerPoint” examples. During one such horrorshow I leaned over to M and said “soon he’ll say ‘I know this is too small to read, but…'” and it was the very next slide.
  • Nobody seems to know who should be speaking and what they should be saying. They repeat some things and leave other important things out and argue about who is going to talk next or forget people entirely. Don’t waste my time or my kid’s.
  • Principal fails to introduce herself. Who is that mysterious person talking?
  • No students speak OR students who speak are obviously not reading their own words. I don’t want to hear schmaltzy prepared statements, I want to hear kids talk about their real experiences.
  • How do you teach programming? “Oh, we have separate groups for boys and girls”.
  • All you can find to hype about your school comes down to “we have nice grounds and are really into nepotism”.
  • Students all look the same (white, thin, able-bodied). I don’t care if your diversity is multi-ethnic, involving various forms of ability/disability, or more of an international-student thing, but it’s not healthy to have none at all.
  • Endless talk about hard, hard work, with regular all-nighters being required (in high school?! WTF) and university-level work — but only an OSSD at the end. What’s the point of pushing kids that hard if they don’t even get any advance university credit for it? Bizarre.
  • You do all kinds of advanced science — but hey, you’re balanced because you go to the opera once! Yeah, no. Those kids aren’t going to have the writing and textual interpretation skills they’ll need later. Trust me on this; I’ve TA’d for science classes.
  • “This is our pool and our fitness room, but we never get to use it really”. Fancy facilities are lovely (although utterly unnecessary), but not if they’re only there for show.
  • The student band is really, really bad. Sharp, flat and off time all at once. Don’t make me want to cover my ears and run away!

Fundamentally, it comes down to culture: how you treat people who take your tour tells me quite a bit about your attitude towards the kids. You’re demonstrating for me — and more importantly, for my daughter — what her next four years might be like. Don’t hedge, apologize or weasel — show us what you’ve got!

Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Tue Jul 29, 2014

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The ten most useful things I have learned from the Internet

…and from people with whom I converse there.

  1. The arrows on the Toronto PATH signs refer to the directions: north is blue, south is red, east is yellow and west is orange. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually told people this? My mnemonic is silly but in case it helps: blue is a cold colour so it’s north. South = red because of sunburn in southern climes. East = yellow for sunrise; west = orange for sunset.
  2. On most newish cars there’s a cunning little arrow next to the gas thing on the dash which tells you which side the gas cap is on. In the image below, it is on the left. Of course if you have your own car you probably just know which side it’s on but we drive a wide variety of Autoshare and rental cars and this saves a lot of tedious exploration.
  3. A housecleaner is possibly the cheapest and most effective kind of preventative marriage therapy.
  4. Bandelettes.
  5. Proper bra fitting. Key point: the whole adding 5″ to your underbust measurement is bunk. And you have to stoop & swoop. Then you have to throw out all your existing bras which have become suddenly hateful and go buy expensive new ones three cup sizes larger and two band sizes smaller.
  6. Menstrual cups. I always particularly resented that there is GST feminine hygiene products, as they’re a basic necessity and there is no equivalent product than men (and only men) must buy. Before you say “but condoms”– no, condoms are not equivalent; both men and women buy them and they’re also fundamentally optional in a way that feminine hygiene products simply are not. A DivaCup (stupid name, but never mind) can be bought once and used more or less forever — the recommendation to replace it annually is just plain silly. They used to recommend replacing it every ten years but I suppose they weren’t making enough money that way. Mine is twelve years old now and shows no signs of wear whatsoever. Also, they must have let their lawyers near the tips section: actually it’s perfectly fine in the dishwasher (wash it thoroughly first of course!) if it needs an extra-thorough cleaning, and medical-grade silicone is not going to be affected by a bit of vinegar or bleach either. Oh: cut the silly prong off the bottom; it serves no purpose except to irritate one’s labia.
  7. You can do calculations, unit conversions and a lot more right from the Google search bar.
  8. Do Not Feed the Energy Creature. Applies offline too, of course.
  9. If you adopt cats from a reputable rescue organization, someone else has already done the hard work of vetting their personality (and probably getting them spayed/neutered).
  10. Yes, this pastry recipe really is foolproof.
Books! 2013

Books! According to Goodreads, on which I track the majority of what I read, I read 114 books (give or take) in 2013. This year I diverted more time into reading magazines, since the TPL started carrying e-versions of such, and I also spent a chunk of time doing time-consuming things with my hands such as making quilts for various babies and re-learning to program and make things blink and flash and so on, which cut into my reading time. Such is life.

This year I also decided to do some reading in French since it would be Good For Me. My office is bilingual, so I hear a lot of French day to day and I work with French texts, but don’t spend a lot of time reading. I read roughly eight times faster in English, by my rough calculation, because I don’t have to spend so much time internalizing the tenses and sentence structures.

I thought the Harry Potter books in translation would be good since they’re not particularly babyish in vocabulary and I’m familiar enough with them in English that it might help me follow the plot adequately. I made it through the first three, which pleases me although it’s less than I’d hoped to read — but on the other hand I haven’t read a whole French novel since Les Liaisons Dangereuses about twenty years ago. My pace puts me in mind of the two-headed monster on Sesame Street, sounding out words:

Okay, well, not quite that bad, but I do look up two or three words per screen which does slow me down even beyond the slowness of reading in French to begin with. I assume I’ll get faster over time, just as I’ve gotten faster at doing our French newsletter at work. I used to have to put on French music while working on it; now I’m fine with whatever the iPod throws at me and I’m still much faster than I was before. (Yay for progress, I guess.) Bonus: excellent translations, such as Choixpeau for the Sorting Hat! And a magic wand is a baguette magique which gives me amusing if incorrect mental images of people wielding long sticks of bread. The TPL has the French ebooks should you want them and they’re usually not in great demand so you won’t have to wait long on hold (if at all).

Beyond that, my top recommendations from stuff I read this year:


  • Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang. Some minor flaws in character and pacing, I thought, but overall I enjoyed the heck out of this book. It walked the fine line between pleasant absurdity and fardo with delicacy, and some of the art pieces were howlingly funny. Here’s a quote, which truly isn’t a spoiler for anything:

    The Fangs found Buster hiding under the van, conspicuously sparkling as he shifted his weight upon the uncomfortable asphalt. Mr. Fang knelt down and helped his son inch out into the open air. “What happened to the line from Milton?” Mrs. Fang asked. Buster flinched at his mother’s voice. “You were supposed to throw the crown away.”

    Buster looked up at his mother. “It’s my crown,” he said.

    “But you don’t want it,” Mrs. Fang said, exasperated.

    “Yes I do,” he replied. “I won it. I’m Little Miss Crimson Clover and this is my crown.”

    “Oh, Buster,” she said, pointing at the crown atop his head, “this is what we rebel against, this idea of worth based on nothing more than appearance. This is the superficial kind of symbol that we actively work against.”

    “It. Is. My. Crown,” Buster replied, almost vibrating with righteous anger, and Mrs. Fang allowed a slow smile to cross her face and unclenched her jaw. She gave in, nodded three times, and hopped into the van. “Okay,” she said, “you can redefine the crown if you want to.”

    It’s just not possible to read that on the subway and not giggle; it just isn’t.

  • Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan Saga. I read the first eight books but stopped there only to enjoy still having more of them to read. I’ll be sad once I’ve run out.
  • Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men and its sequels (the Tiffany Aching series, embedded in the Discworld series). Really fun YA stuff with some pleasantly serious embedded themes. The audiobooks are excellent.
  • For fluff of a purer nature and a steampunkish bent, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books. I see numbers 2 (Changeless) and up on my list for 2013 — I must’ve read #1 in 2012. Very silly. Lots of supernatural beings and James-Bondish devices.
  • On a less fluffy note, Drew Hayden Taylor, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. Sweet and very Anishnawbe. Don’t piss off the raccoons, yo.
  • G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen. Not a perfect book by any means but well worth the time.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. The creepiness ebbs and flows (or more accurately, flows and then ebbs) with extreme precision.


  • Howard Rheingold, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Very good advice, very low bullshit. I rarely disagree with Howard and this continues that trend.
  • Jessice Hiemstra, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss. Very good collection of stories from when things went south. I’ve had five miscarriages myself (very early ones, thank goodness) so I’m in the intended audience here, but even if you’re not it’s worth a read.
  • Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Another hard read, and long, but thoughtful and covers territory I haven’t previously seen covered well for many of the exceptionalities he covers.
  • David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service, following recent US veterans through a variety of postwar re-integration experiences while fighting PTSD and other injuries. Just brutal, but well done.
  • Frank T. Vertosick Jr., When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery. Who can resist a gory brain surgery memoir?
  • David Stuckler, The Body Economic: Recessions, Budget Battles, and the Politics of Life and Death. Details the disastrous health (and economic) effects of cuts in social spending by governments. So often books of this type — books which have one major point to make — fall into the trap of making it too many times, using too many similar examples and losing readers’ interest. The Body Economic avoids this trap perfectly, giving enough diverse and well-supported examples to support its main thesis but ending before going overboard.

So that was 2013. Feel free to chuck me recommendations for 2014 here, on Goodreads or on FB.

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Science! And spaghetti sauce.

Every year about this time we make a metric buttload of tomato sauce. Well, not quite tomato — mine has onions, garlic, peppers and stuff in it too. From a canning perspective this has been a problem because tomatoes alone are only borderline acidic enough to be canned without using a pressure canner and once you add even lower-acid veggies nobody will make themselves liable for your death by botulism by giving any kind of canning time or direction even for pressure canning.

We like the flavour of our sauce when it’s been frozen but of course fitting the amount of sauce produced by 75lbs of tomatoes in our World’s Smallest Chest Freezer is a challenge.

Last year I pressure-canned it following the time and pressure directions as if it was meat sauce. Massive overkill, but again, nobody is willing to give directions for random veggie mixes. It worked reasonably well and we loved having it on the shelf and not in the freezer but we found the flavour much less fresh. It had a bit of a stewed taste to it. And the pressure canning took forever. I’d much rather water-bath can it so the flavour stayed fresher.

To avoid botulism I’d have to do at least one of two things:

  1. Make the sauce acidic enough (below pH 4.6) that botulism spores won’t thrive.
  2. Make the sauce hot enough to kill botulism spores (240F for a good while)

Then it dawned on me: really, the problem is that I don’t know the pH of the thing being canned. Secondarily, if it’s natively over pH 4.6 I need to know what it takes — what it absolutely, reliably, definitely takes — to give it a pH under 4.6, because I am not in the business of giving myself and my family members botulism.

So: science!


How much, I wondered, do decent pH monitors cost? (I don’t think the cheap little test strips are sensitive enough for this application.) The answer was only ~$20 after tax and shipping, so I ordered one.

Then I did a bit more research online and found this paper, which found that 1/4 cup of lemon juice very reliably acidified a pint of either single or mixed low-acid veggies and tomatoes while still not tasting terrible. Useful information, but 1/4c of lemon juice (4 tablespoons) is kind of a lot — it’s 4x what you’d use for plain tomato canning, and I thought it might make the sauce runny. We like our sauce pretty thick.

Many tomato canning sources recommend 1 tablespoon of lemon juice OR 1/4 teaspoon citric acid to acidify plain tomatoes. I decided to go with citric acid for this experiment since it’s powdered thus not runny. The paper above found that 4T of lemon juice per pint jar produced a pH well below 4 so if 1T lemon juice = 1/4t citric acid, then 4 x 1/4t = 1 teaspoon of citric acid might be hypothesized to do the same.

Also, I had citric acid around because I use it to clean the dishwasher and I didn’t have bottled lemon juice. Science! Perhaps I should submit that to Overly Honest Methods. You can buy citric acid at bulk food stores, usually near the spices.

Overly Honest Methods

But what’s the dose-response ratio to citric acid, since pH is a logarithmic scale? And does the sauce taste okay? Will it need sugar to counteract the extra sourness from the citric acid (I hate sweet tomato sauce)?

There were about ten cups of sauce left after the freezer was full. So I water-bath processed five clearly-labelled pints of sauce (40 minutes processing time, probably 5 minutes more than necessary at this altitude) with these additions:

  • 1 pint with 1/2 tsp citric acid
  • 2 pints with 3/4 tsp citric acid
  • 2 pints with 1 tsp citric acid

As soon as they were reasonably cool I put them in the coldest corner of the fridge instead of on a shelf, because again, not in the business of botulism.

Now we had to wait for the pH meter to arrive. Why do things not arrive immediately? Tappy foot tappy foot.

We had an extra frisson of excitement when our main fridge/freezer died and the jars of sauce spent 36 hours at room temperature. Since they’re properly sealed and processed they’re sterile, but were they acidic enough to be safe from botulism? Would we have to boil them for yonks just to be sure? *Where* was that pH meter?

Eventually the pH meter arrived and I calibrated it using the buffer solutions provided.

pH meter and buffer solutions

I am not a hand model

And so we had pasta for dinner. We had a jar of frozen, unadulterated sauce open so that was first — pH of 4.6 so yes, without some sort of intervention it was out of the comfort zone for water-bath canning for sure. My family wouldn’t eat pasta for a week straight though so it took a while to work through the jars with citric acid. To make a long story short:

  • Plain sauce from the freezer: pH 4.6
  • Pint of sauce with 1/2 tsp citric acid: pH 4.4. Taste was normal.
  • Pints of sauce with 3/4 tsp citric acid: pH 4.3, 4.2 (for the two jars). Taste was a bit sour.
  • Pints of sauce with 1 tsp citric acid: pH 4.1, 4.1 (for the two jars). Taste was distinctly sour; remedied with 1/2 tbsp sugar.

None of them were likely dangerous to us during the interval when the fridge was dead. But for long term non-fridge storage I’m not comfortable with a pH of 4.4 so half a teaspoon of citric acid really isn’t enough. Given the limitations of the pH meter, which is accurate to +/- 0.1, and possible variation across a huge pot of sauce, I’m going with the highest dose — 1 tsp of citric acid per pint, equivalent to 4 tbsp of lemon juice — as the safest, most reliable intervention for water-bath canning my own particular sauce. This agrees with the dose suggested in the paper I linked above so while it sounds high it’s not particularly surprising.

I’m going to thaw, re-boil and water-bath can a number of jars of sauce with 1 tsp citric acid and will continue to pH test them (recalibrating the meter regularly with buffer solution) to check the effects of longer-term storage and also to check repeatability.

Your sauce may — probably does — vary. Please don’t take my word as recommendation but as a place to start your own testing, because botulism, while rare, is deeply unfun and pH meters are both cheap AND fun.

Bonus cat picture, because it’s the Internet:

Bonus picture of a kitten, because this is the Internet

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RIP Jake, 2005(?) – 2013

Yesterday evening our fine cat Jake let us know his time was up and after lots of snuggles he made his last trip to the vet.

It wasn’t unexpected. In January the vet discovered a large, fast-growing tumour in his abdomen. As an FIV+ cat he was not a candidate for either surgery or chemo so we took him home to spoil him in his last weeks — and oh yes, he was spoiled, spoiled with chopped chicken and tuna and even milk, and endless cans of $3-a-can special prescription yummy food, and was allowed to sleep on my head and had fresh water run for him every five minutes and all kinds of other spoiledness.

He came to us in 2007 with his pal Elwood, sick enough that his FIV+ status was quickly discovered. His original name was Ricky Bobby but we thought that was too goofy even for him so he quickly became the other Blues Brother.

After his initial illness, despite his lack of an immune system his health was pretty good except for his teeth. Over two separate surgeries several years apart he had them all removed and was a much happier guy afterwards. (Cats don’t actually use their teeth for chewing, so it didn’t stop him eating pretty much whatever he liked. It meant he could stick his tongue WAY up his face though.) After his first surgery he got a hilarious special gold-star certificate (which I should have kept) from the vet for excellent behaviour.

Here’s the first picture we took of him when we got him — lying on the stairs, demonstrating his habit of being totally immovable and also his other habit of lying down in inconvenient spots where he blended in well and could be easily stepped on.

Jake on the stairs

Of course, laundry was a different matter. He always had to sit on contrasting laundry for maximum shedding effectiveness.

Jake on the black laundry

He liked laundry a lot. Particularly dirty laundry — underpants or other unmentionables — the kind an enterprising cat could dig out of the hamper, drag down the stairs with much triumphant yowling and then hump to death in the middle of a dinner party to great effect. Jake killed all of our socks repeatedly and sometimes even larger items, whole pairs of pants or dressing gowns, fell to his mighty hunting skills.

In a more practical vein, he was an excellent hunter of millipedes. It used to be Elwood who found them and played with them a bit before turning them over to Jake to kill and eat, so for four happy years I didn’t have to deal with a single millipede myself*. After Elwood died I had to take over the finding (ick) but could still sic Jake on them for killing and disposal.

After his teeth were out his tongue often stuck out when he was sleeping since there was nothing to keep it in:


Not that we got to see it much since he often slept with a paw shielding his face:

Jake, paw on face

He was particularly fond of sitting on my head if I was lying down with a migraine. You wouldn’t think a purring cat on your head would be at all good for migraines, but somehow it did help. Perhaps he learned it from Elwood.

Jake on my head

He was a huge burrower. When I washed the duvet cover I’d try to pile the duvet in an entertainingly burrowish way for him.

Jake likes to burrow

In his last weeks he wasn’t much good at grooming himself so he’d park himself in front of Carson and let Carson groom him, at least his front half.

Carson grooming Jake

They were good pals, although not above taking a random swat at each other just for fun when passing each other in the hall.

Carson and Jake

He affected a dignified obliviousness to being dressed in cunning outfits.

Jake with cravat

He was never full of mischief — he wasn’t a climber (although he did like M’s loft bed), nor did he push small objects off shelves. He limited himself to scratching the furniture, jumping on the kitchen counter, and doing absolutely anything in pursuit of fresh water.


Bye, dude. You were a good pal.


* Bugs are a Pink Job in our house

An encouragement: Soup stock

Soup! A foundation of winter food in our house for sure.

I’m a huge proponent of making one’s own soup stock. It costs pretty much nothing and if you start with your own yummy stock it’s very hard to make a soup that’s not also yummy (as well as being free of excess salt and preservatives and who knows what else). It’s also really easy, since it’s more a general technique than a recipe and it doesn’t need any special equipment. It does take a number of hours but the active time is very minimal.

First, save up some chicken (…duck, turkey) bones. Chuck them in a ziploc and toss them in the freezer. A friend once added the brilliant notion of also tossing parmesan rinds in there — definitely do that if you have any.

Once you have some bones and a longish afternoon, it’s time to make stock.

Put all the bones in a big pot and cover them with water.

Chicken stock - start

While the pot comes to a boil, poke through your veggie bin and pull out any or all of these according to your taste and whatever’s in the bin: carrots, celery, celeriac, onions, shallots, garlic, mushrooms. How much? Not a lot. Some. Doesn’t matter much. A carrot or two, an onion or two, a few cloves of garlic. Whatever strikes your fancy. They don’t have to be lively fresh veggies — elderly limp-ish ones will do.

Chicken stock - chopped veggies

Wash them, cut them up roughly (no need to peel) and toss them in the pot too.

Chicken stock - with veggies

Add some seasonings. I usually put maybe a dozen peppercorns, some savory (a teaspoonish pinch in my very large pot), some thyme (another teaspoonish pinch) and a small pinch of rosemary. Sage is nice too. But again, whatever strikes your fancy and/or whatever’s handy in the cupboard.

Once the pot boils, put the lid on and turn it waaaaay down. You want to keep it boiling gently but not at the point where it might boil over or otherwise cause you to pay attention to it. You want a nice quiet simmer so you can stir it once an hour or so and go about your business the rest of the time.

Chicken stock - mid-boil

So yeah, stir it once an hour or so. At this point your house will smell strongly of yum and your stomach will rumble so make a sandwich or something.

At some point you have to declare it done. In our house this happens in one of two ways: either I notice the chicken vertebrae have totally disarticulated and I’m sure no further goodness will boil out of the bones, or I get really bored and declare it done just because.

Now comes the only boring part: getting all the icky bones and drowned veggies out of the actual soup. I usually get a strainer and a second large pot and pour or ladle the soup and bones through the strainer and into the second pot.

Chicken stock - straining

When the strainer fills up, dump it in the green bin & repeat. Take the garbage out right away because it’ll stink really quickly, but make sure it’s safe from raccoons because they LOVE this stuff. Don’t even think about eating the veggies; they’ve given their all at this point.

Now you’ve got a pot full of soup stock, hurray! Except it’ll have a layer of fat on top.

Chicken stock - strained

You can either cool it off a bit put it away right away, in which case the fat will rise to the top in whatever containers you’re using, or you can leave it overnight in the fridge and skim the fat off before putting it into containers.

Chicken stock - skimmed

Either way it’ll keep for a short while in the fridge and approximately forever in the freezer.

Chicken stock - packaged

Then whenever you get sick all you need to do is pull out a container of stock, some salt (I never salt my stock so whatever soup I’m making will need salt) and some noodles and there you are, chicken noodle soup. Or for a quick dinner: container of stock, finely chopped random fridge vegetables and/or meat, bit of cream, cook it, done.

Oh! I should mention that homemade stock will gel when cooled. It may also still have a little fat in it or seasonings that settle to the bottom. This grosses some people out (my husband for one) but it’s totally normal. Actually the gelling is very convenient because nice thick soup is less likely to leak out of its container if you take some to work to heat up for lunch.

Related post: Jam, an encouragement

2012 books retrospective: Goodreads

Around April last year I thought it might be interesting to join one of the more interest-based forums out there since it’s a mode that’s really taking off. The cooking ones are scary and the craft ones are even more scary-intimidating so I picked Goodreads. Books, I can do.

If you’d asked me how many books I thought I read in a year I would’ve said I dunno, maybe thirty or forty. No. From late April through December 2012 alone I apparently read 104 books, and I know there are a few I didn’t enter for off-the-charts fluffiness or whatever other reason*. The number is neither here nor there but it’s interesting that my self-perception was so flawed. It’s inflated, I suppose, by the kids books and fluffy novels which take 2 hours max to read.

You can see from the list it’s a mix of kids/YA (so I can talk to my kid), fluffy fiction, non-fluffy fiction and nonfiction. More nonfiction than I would’ve guessed too, but then I had a lot of vacation in the summer in which to kick back and use brainpower for reading instead of actual functioning. Busy/stressful correlates directly with fluffiness of reading, IME.

I joined Goodreads because I was at a bit of a loss picking out new books and I thought Goodreads’ recommendation feature would help. Well, not so much. Even now that I’ve entered a few hundred books I find its recommendations banal at best even for the kids’ and YA books I read in hope of passing them on to the miss. Oh well.

On the other hand, the social aspect really is useful. Not so much being able to read strangers’ reviews, although that’s fun, but seeing friends’ list additions, ratings and reviews and being able to add mentioned books to one’s own to-read list with one click. That’s been very handy. I quickly got a sense of whose tastes approximated mine and whose differed wildly. Both are useful — the first to find things I’m nearly guaranteed to enjoy and the second for variety.

Looking at my ratings, the books I read in 2012 that I’d most recommend were:

  • The whole Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve read them before and have them all in paper but the audiobooks read by Simon Vance are wonderful. You just think you’re not interested in early-19th-century sea intrigues. Trust me, you are in fact interested.
  • In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs. Short and perfect.
  • The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin. An excellent takedown of the whole absurd autism/vaccine hoax.
  • For those of us who harbour a hostile and/or xenophobic tendency, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books. Great, hostile, violent, gory fun.
  • Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto. I was less a fan of her more recent book State of Wonder but Bel Canto was lovely.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. People who seemed to take this as a serious tale gave it bad reviews but it’s very, very funny.
  • Doppler by Erlend Loe. Another one for the xenophobes out there, and again very very funny. As in don’t read it on the subway unless you don’t mind giggling helplessly in public kind of funny.
  • Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe. A good summary of the issues and entertainingly written.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. All extroverts must read this book immediately. Introverts are welcome to read it at their leisure.
  • Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs by Marc Lewis. Really well done and thorough descriptions of what various drugs feel like, and excellent science too to back it up.
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Yet more evidence that going walkabout can be surprisingly curative. Anyone who’s ever spent any significant time in the woods, who’s physically run away from a dead relationship or who has properly hated a pair of hiking boots will recognize something in this. It would be good to read alongside Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, I think.
  • And finally, Les Misérables. Victor Hugo, of course. Even in translation the language was so lovely it really made me wish my French was up to reading the original.

And now on to 2013! If you’re on Goodreads feel free to friend me; the more the merrier.

* No, I did not read that 50 Shades of Grey book. It sounded ghastly.

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Oct 03, 2012
  • The Evolutionary Advantage of Depression – Brian Gabriel – The Atlantic
    The Evolutionary Advantage of Depression – Brian Gabriel – The Atlantic:

    It turns out that depression may not be a mere trade-off for a vigorous immune response. Dr. Miller suggests that depressive symptoms like social withdrawal, lack of energy, and a loss of interest in once enjoyable activities were actually advantageous to our ancestors. For example, a loss of energy might ensure that the body can leverage all of its energy to fight an infection. Also, social withdrawal minimizes the likelihood of being exposed to additional infectious agents.

    Interesting, if not entirely convincing. More evidence needed, etc.

  • The fiscal cliff: Are cliffs very dangerous? – Slate Magazine
    The fiscal cliff: Are cliffs very dangerous? – Slate Magazine:

    About 76 per year. Between 1999 and 2009, 761 Americans died falling from cliffs, according to the CDC’s magnificently detailed data. That’s a relatively small number. If commentators wanted to scare the public, they might have called the looming economic crisis, the “fiscal anvil,” because falling objects killed nearly 10 times as many people as cliffs between 1999 and 2009. Or they might have gone with the “fiscal cobra,” as venomous plants and animals killed 856 people in the same 10-year period. Another option would be the “fiscal hansom cab,” since 1,201 Americans perished while riding on an animal or in an animal-drawn vehicle.

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Aug 15, 2012

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Jul 25, 2012

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Thu May 03, 2012

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Not the SOUL!

Me, upon entering the kitchen and finding the child on the floor at my husband’s feet, clearly in the middle of a ticklefest: Are you torturing our child?

Him: Not in any way that’ll leave a mark.

Child: It’ll leave a mark on my SOUL!

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Why We Are Married, part Infinity Minus One

Me, 10am: I didn’t sleep well and I still have the headache I had last night and my nose is stuffy and I have cramps and a backache and I have skinless patches of psoriasis in spots where it’s very awkward not to have any skin and there’s a big pile of laundry and waaaaah, it’s too early to start drinking isn’t it?

Him: Yes.


Him: But it’s not too early for drugs.

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It’s not the headphones

Here we have an article exploring pedestrian-vehicle crashes “in which the pedestrian was using headphones“.

Results There were 116 reports of death or injury of pedestrians wearing headphones. The majority of victims were male (68%) and under the age of 30 (67%). The majority of vehicles involved in the crashes were trains (55%), and 89% of cases occurred in urban counties. 74% of case reports stated that the victim was wearing headphones at the time of the crash. Many cases (29%) mentioned that a warning was sounded before the crash.

This sounds a bit confused — were there 116 incidents, or 74% of 116? One wonders. Either way, 116 over seven years (16.6 fatalities a year) doesn’t seem like a lot to get excited about, given that the USA has over 30,000 fatalities annually from car crashes (did they have their car stereos on? Perhaps it’s the music that’s at fault).

One also wonders, if I count as “one”, why the headphones are being blamed here. Being a pedestrian is not in itself inherently dangerous. It’s hard to kill yourself just walking around; it’s the large vehicles with which one may suddenly come into contact that are the danger here. As a pedestrian walking around at 6km/h, I am not dangerous. A motor vehicle comprising a bunch of metal traveling at 50km/h or more is dangerous.

A train is also dangerous. If 55% of these crashes involved trains, mostly in urban areas, why is the focus not on decreasing pedestrian access to train tracks? And since when is 29% — where “a warning was sounded” — “many”?

This sort of blame-the-victim writing really ticks me off.

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In Which I Read Stuff: Fiction

While I love them, physical books have a few practical issues for me at the moment.

One, it’s trivially out of my way to pick them up at the library. It’s only a few blocks but it has to be either on my way to work (unlikely, since the library doesn’t open until 9, and I leave to take M to school rather before then) or on my way home (which means I can’t use a transfer and take the bus, or which means I add 2km to my bike commute) – both awkward.

Two, I have to physically carry them around. My purse is big but once it’s full of Purse Stuff, lunch, coffee thermos, keys, iPod, etc. there’s not a lot of room for a book. Plus if the subway is crammed — and it always seems to be crammed these days — there’s not a lot of room to wave around a large book.

Three, if I buy them, they don’t go away when they’re finished. I rarely re-read books so more and more I enjoy reading something and then giving it back to the library so it takes up their shelf space, not mine. I know it’s there if I ever need it so the whole library concept seems pretty ideal really.

Four, aside from subway time, I mostly have time to read late in the evening after the dinner/child-putting-to-bed fuss is over, which means I’m tired and have trouble keeping my eyes open.

I haven’t yet committed to an ebook reader / iPhone type of object, so unless I read on my computer (and I sometimes do) my commuting/bedtime salvation is found in audiobooks.

Hurray, audiobooks! An especial hurray for unabridged (abridged books are an abomination) audiobooks read by authors or readers who are good at reading. A huge, monster-size hurray for ones I can borrow from the library. (Granted, borrowing most audiobooks from the library usually means I have to have a Windows computer “read” them to my Mac in real time and re-record them before I can actually listen to them, but whatever.)

So lately, my audiobooks:

Katie MacAlister – lots of fluffy but entertaining quasi-romances about dragons and whatnot. In the first couple months of this year I was working insane hours and wanted pure fluff to distract me as I fell into bed, and this fit that niche to a T.

Neil Gaiman – I had some short stories on my iPod as well as Coraline (kids book) and The Graveyard Book (YA-ish). He reads his own books, and well. They’re very good. I’ve read all his other stuff on paper, as it came out.

“I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.

I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.

I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state.

I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste.

I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like martians in War of the Worlds.

I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.

I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.

I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.

I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too.

I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.

I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Patrick O’Brian – a wonderful, wonderful friend loaned me the entire 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series in paper when I was pregnant with M and hopelessly sick and bed-bound. They’re fabulous books. “But I don’t care about 18th-century naval battles and spycraft,” you say. Yes you do. Trust me. Read them. Or get the audiobooks — the first one is read badly, much too slowly and ponderously and with no sense of fun, but the rest are excellent.

As actual physical books:

Ian (M.) Banks – I have a couple of these on my nighttable, waiting to be read. He never disappoints. But they are heavy, and I am tired, and once I read them they’ll be read and I won’t be able to look forward to them anymore. So they’ve sat for a while.

Jasper Fforde – recently I finished pretty much all of his oeuvre by finishing off the last two Thursday Next books (not quite as clever as the first couple in the series), the Nursery Crime books (fun but more ponderous, somehow) as well as Shades of Grey. They’re all well worth a read. I somehow came across Shades of Grey as an audiobook after I’d read it in paper, and I liked it rather more as an audiobook. Not sure why. It was very well read, anyway.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. I wasn’t crazy about this one; I think his reach exceeded his grasp somewhat. Great universe, great concepts, but the plot and characters didn’t do much for me. The supposed cleverness overreached the actual content, IMO.

Anyway, there’s a brief overview of my recent fictional explorations.

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To do

A to-do list I found on M’s floor today.

I detect a nascent world domination plan here, which I suppose was inevitable given her genetic material.

I’m intrigued by the possibilities of the “fake lightening machien” and the “bat machien” and I wonder what the stuffed horse robots are going to do with their remote-controlled car, but I particularly like the note at the top: “*clean desk before attempting any of this”.

Latest in plush: statistical distributions

Having pretty much exhausted biological subjects (roadkill, organs, diseases), makers of fine plush lovies have moved into statistical distributions. You can buy a full set of ten, or individual distributions if you’re particularly fond of one.

Plush statistical distributions

I note they also sell “statosaur” burp cloths featuring embroidery which combines dinosaurs and statistical distributions. Excellent!

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