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Quotation of the Day for July 2, 2014

“I think the deepest sacrifice of those that we ask to go to war is not the possibility that they may die or their colleagues may die, but the sacrifice of their normal unwillingness to kill – and in particular that when they come back we don’t want to know what it is that they’ve had to do.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theology and ethics at Duke University.

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The cheese stands alone

Quotation of the Day for June 21, 2014

“A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality.”

– Clifton Fadiman

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Cross-stitch patterns are the plushies of the 2010s
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Yep, that’s an accomplishment

I just got back home after being on the road for three weeks. I was in Jordan in the Syrian refugee camps, the United Nations, I was signing books in Norway and in Sweden and in Spain. And I got home, and waiting for me was the board copy of “Chu’s Day,” which they’d just gotten for really little kids. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud holding this big cardboard thing where the pages are big and thick and you know the pages are going to get chewed on and sucked.

And your mind goes back 52 years, in my case, and you remember what the taste of chewing a board book is. I’ve made one of them. I’m a real author finally.

Neil Gaiman

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Why else?


Me: What? Why are you roaring?


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On the folly of not clearing the leaves in the street

This past autumn, my city decided they weren’t going to pick up the leaves that fall into the street in my neighbourhood. Normally they come by once each year after most of the leaves have fallen and enormous street-sweeping-leaf-picking-upping machines haul away the detritus. But not this year. Instead, as a cost-cutting measure the leaves were left to lie in the gutters. There are really a lot of leaves in my neighbourhood, since it features many large maple and oak trees and many of them overhang the street.

Fast forward to November. Now the leaves in the street have been driven over, parked on, and generally reduced to a thick fibrous mash covering much of the surface of the street. It’s very slippery to ride a bicycle on this mess.

Leaf mush

Then it snows. People drive over the snow plus leaf mash, turning it into a stiff slurry that slides to the sides of the street and freezes solid, blocking all the drains.

Then it snows again. Because the plows push the snow to the side of the street and because even when it does warm up a bit none of the meltwater can make it through the leaf slurry covering the drains, the snow builds up on top of the frozen leaf slurry. People park on it, crushing it into ice.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Now we have a berm of solid ice a good 15 centimetres thick and two metres wide between the street and the sidewalk.

Ardagh Ice Berm

It’s taller than the sidewalk, so any meltwater from the berm and from people’s front yards can’t go anywhere. On warm days the sidewalk becomes an enormous deep puddle.

On the street side of the ice berm, the meltwater also has nowhere to go since the berm forms a solid barrier between the street and the (inaccessible anyway because they’re under six inches of ice and frozen leaf slurry) drains.

The temperature is supposed to reach highs above freezing for most of this week, with rain and perhaps more snow. What falls on the street will stay there, making a swamp; what falls on the sidewalk will stay there too, joining the meltwater from people’s front yards, forming deep puddles during the day that will freeze into treacherous slipperiness at night.

It is going to be a very big mess. There will be many soggy basements and many irate calls to the city.

I’m not sure what they thought would happen here — I predicted this very state of affairs back in October when I heard they weren’t going to sweep the leaves. And I would put quite a bit of money on the cleanup costing far more than it would’ve cost to sweep the leaves in the first place. Sigh.

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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.
Apropos of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death

Me: I wouldn’t be able to pick Philip Seymour Hoffman out of a lineup. Well, maybe today I could. He’d be the slumpy one with the flies.
Husband: (spits wine)

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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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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Dec 18, 2013

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Dec 11, 2013

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Nov 27, 2013
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Dinner is such a fun time at our house

Child: There’s bacon on my pizza ewww! Poor piggies!
Me: Oh no! And the cheese is made from milk stolen from baby cows!
D: And the wheat! Have you heard how wheat screams when it goes into the grinder to become flour!
Us: Just eat the pizza.

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Thu Nov 07, 2013

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Blinky gloves

I’m experimenting with wearable computing as a way to get back into programming. It’s fun because it involves more than just pixels on a screen; you get to mess with real-world stuff like LEDs and circuits and sensors and whatnot. And it’s low-risk because it’s hard to shock yourself badly or make stuff blow up when you’re working with 3 to 5 volts.

Eventually I’m planning to make a turn-signal jacket for biking, much like this one, but I wanted to get a sense of how to work with the various necessary bits — sewable processors, LEDs, conductive thread and so on — before adding programming to the mix. I thought I’d start by just adding some uncomplicated LEDs to the back of some gloves so that when I stick out my arms to signal a turn there’s a little bit of extra light there to make it yet more obvious what I am doing.

I was going to just sew some LEDs to my gloves, using the conductive thread as a resistor and connecting them directly to a battery holder for power (so the LEDs would be on whenever the battery was in). This is a good enough plan, but then I found tiny boards pre-programmed to light up 4 LEDs in random blink/fade patterns and I liked the idea of that better. So I bought two Lilypad twinkle boards and a bunch of sewable LEDs (normal LEDs are also sewable of course, but not so much washable which for gloves is definitely a factor) and some stainless-steel thread. I wanted LEDs in a colour other than red or white (which have legal meanings for bike lights) but only red and white were available. I used red, then, so they look like taillights and not headlights, which I thought might be confusing for people behind me.

Here’s a picture of the circuit concept. There are 4 LEDs, each with their positive end connected to a petal on the board (the white and green clips) and their negative end connected to a wire connected to the negative port on the board (the yellow and black clips). The wire then connects to the negative end of a battery. The red clip connects the positive port on the board to the positive end of a battery (not shown). When the circuit is closed, the LEDs blink and fade in random patterns.
Circuit proof of concept

Since the proof-of-concept worked I started sewing, connecting the LEDs each to one of the four ports on the board by sewing a very short seam with stainless-steel thread. It’s terrible stuff to work with; very high friction, very sharp, very prone to tossing off tiny thread fragments that short out your circuits, very hard to seam-rip. After my first experiments with it I started to wrap several of my fingers in first-aid tape to protect them. You can use stainless-steel thread in a sewing machine as a bobbin thread, which is probably a less personally damaging idea but not one that would really have worked with gloves. I tested each seam after I finished it to be sure it worked.

Testing each sewn connection

After all four LEDs were attached to the glove and the board, I ran a long seam from the negative port on the board to each of the negative ends of the LEDs, testing each one as I went.

Testing the thread connections on negative board point

Once that was all working it was time to attach the battery and sew the seam from the positive and negative ports to the battery case. I put the batteries on the inside of the gloves to shield them from the weather somewhat.

Showing the battery case on the inside of the glove

They work! The patterns are mildly mesmerizing so I don’t look at them while I’m riding.

Finished gloves

Once I was satisfied that they were working I covered the exposed stitches with black fabric paint to help protect the thread and keep it from throwing off the aforementioned circuit-shorting fragments.

It’s a good and successful first experiment but there are a couple of obvious improvements I could make:
– Move the batteries farther away from my wrist. I put them close to the wrist elastic on the gloves to keep them protected and to keep them from getting joggled around too much but I think it would be easier to pull the gloves on and off if they were closer to the far edge of the glove.
– Add a switch so I don’t have to pop the battery in and out all the time. This is just a matter of sourcing a suitable switch; they do exist, but not easily through Canadian suppliers. The joys of Canada Customs await.

Fortunately I have helpful cats.

Carson feels a need to help with the electronics

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It’s all oppression all the time at our house

Child: Daddy made me carry you your coffee and I brushed my hand against it and it was hot and it hurt.
Me: Well, thanks anyway.
Child: I hope you appreciate it came from pain and suffering.

Child: I want to go buy some candy but I don’t want to get dressed.
Me: A dilemma for sure.
Child: Can I just go in my footie pjs?
Me: Um, no. You need to get dressed.
Child: Society should be more accepting. It should be like, you want to go out in your footie jammies? AWESOME. YAY FOR YOU.
Me: Go get dressed.

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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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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Mon Sep 09, 2013
  • School is no Place for a Reader « Canadian Notes & Queries:

    “Sequential levelled readers” are making their punctual way to the house in the backpack, one every week. The teacher leans forward and says, mysteriously, “There is a difference between decoding and comprehension. Perhaps she is decoding that book, but she isn’t comprehending it.” Raised fingers twitch around his words.

Shout out to the children’s librarians at Brentwood library who made many excellent book suggestions and eventually gently told me I might do better in the adult section.

And another shout out to my parents, who never limited my reading but who offered to read and discuss anything I wanted them to. I’m following their excellent example on this with M.

It’s good to read things that challenge, that you might not absolutely understand. Sometimes you need to let the language wash over you, take from it what you can, and come back some years later. How else can we learn? How else can we learn elegance?

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That’s about right — R.I.P. summer…


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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Aug 14, 2013
  • Tech is killing childhood – Salon.com
    Tech is killing childhood – Salon.com:

    Some of the worst, most passive writing I’ve yet seen on this topic. She makes it sound like parents can’t do a single thing to put boundaries around technology use.

    “I tell you, it feels overwhelming,” says a mother who used to look forward to the drive time as talk time but has seen it devolve into a futile exercise in screen censorship. “All of a sudden I’m driving and hear them in the backseat—they’re looking at YouTube and I think, What the heck? I mean, how much screening and censoring can a parent do?”

    Well, for a start, you can not take the screen into the car. Also you can not provide your children with Internet access you can’t supervise. I mean really, people. 

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