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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Apr 24, 2013

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Apr 10, 2013

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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


M tells us a long story about a friend snapping a shot of her brother falling over while skiing

D: And so it was immortalized on film, huh?
M: No, it was a picture.
D: I’ll just go over here and feel old now.

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Feb 06, 2013

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Thu Jan 31, 2013

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An encouragement: Tomato sauce

Tomato sauce! We go through so much of it I’ve always thought it might be one those things that’s worthwhile to make in bulk, but so many recipes involved peeling endless tiny tomatoes and/or removing seeds, neither of which sounds the slightest bit appealing. This method involves slow-roasting, which makes the skins more or less melt away and which takes very little effort indeed. It does need a food processor.

Time involved: Five or six hours total
Active time: Maybe a little over half an hour

First, have it be August when there’s a ready supply of nice cheap Roma tomatoes. Buy a 25lb box of tomatoes (don’t pay more than $1/lb), a couple of onions, a few heads of garlic and a few red peppers.

81/365 Sept 11: Tomato sauce - before

I say 25lbs because that’s how much my oven holds either in two large roasting trays or four smaller foil trays from the dollar store. The oven’s going to be on for hours; may as well fill it up and make it worthwhile.

Put on some music. Wash everything. Take the stem ends off the tomatoes and cut them in half or in quarters. This works well as an assembly-line kind of thing, if there’s someone else you can lasso into helping. Toss the tomato chunks right into the trays. Do the same for the rest of the veggies. It looks like a huge pile of tomatoes but really it’s about 20 minutes of work here.

Tomato sauce - before

Pour a bit of olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar (if you have it) over each finished tray then pop them in the oven and set it to around 300F.

About once an hour, switch the trays around and give everything a good stir. You can ignore them the rest of the time.

After a number of hours — probably five or so — it’ll get to a point where the volume has decreased to about 1/3 of the starting volume and there’s very little obvious liquid left in the bottom of the trays. Now it’s done. Don’t worry about cooking it too much though. If it ends up too thick for your taste you can always thin it down with a bit of water or wine.

Tomato sauce - after

Scrape the trays directly into the food processor, process it until it’s smooth, then pour into containers and freeze. It’ll need salt but I find salting is best done at the point of use. If you think you’ll forget and end up eating oddly bland sauce, salt it while it’s in the food processor.

There! Easy tomato sauce.

Other encouragements: jam, chicken stock.

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Of course

Me to child: What were you DOING in the shower for twenty minutes if you didn’t even wash your hair?!?

Child: I was travelling to other dimensions! Singing a pirate song!

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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 Friday Jan 18, 2013
  • PLOS ONE: How Large Should Whales Be?
    PLOS ONE: How Large Should Whales Be?:

    The title implies that one can consider this as a sort of abstract idea for one’s own judgement: really, how large DO you think a whale really should be?

    The article, sadly, is about the usual sort of size-regulation issues in mammals. But never mind. The title is such fun.

  • Should Hybrid and Electric Cars Have to Sound Like Regular Cars? – Commute – The Atlantic Cities
    Should Hybrid and Electric Cars Have to Sound Like Regular Cars? – Commute – The Atlantic Cities:

    Earlier this week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally published its proposed “quiet car rule,” mandated by the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010, setting out standards for what the quiet cars of the future must sound like. And the long-awaited answer: They must sound like… cars.

    A very disappointing decision. There must be ways to protect pedestrians other than adding to ambient noise pollution.

  • Algonquin Park is no place for a cottage. Or is it?
    Algonquin Park is no place for a cottage. Or is it?:

    “These aren’t cottages that are flipped every two, three or five years,” he adds. “A lot of these cottages have been there for 60, 80, 100 years and have been in the same family over that period of time.”

    Their presence, however, restricts the park’s use. Most of the cottages are on lakes close to Highway 60 — Cache Lake, Canoe Lake and Smoke Lake. And people aren’t allowed to camp on lakes with cottagers.

    Twenty-one of the leased lots are in the park’s interior. Winters says the government should phase out those leases. Canoeists who make the effort of portaging their way deep into the park should be rewarded with an environment more natural than lakes with cottages, Winters says.

    The debate over cottagers, Winters argues, distracts from greater pressures threatening Algonquin. Fully 51 per cent of the park is open to logging. Winters’ concern is the 6,000 kilometres of gravel roads mostly built and reserved for logging. As roads proliferate, so will the demand for their use for reasons other than logging, he argues.

    “There’s no bigger issue in Algonquin Park than roads,” he says.

    Good, evenhanded article. They’re entirely correct, although (I did a huge piece of research on this way back in grad school) from the article it’s not clear that Algonquin does work quite well as a multi-use park. Trippers rarely see or hear any logging… unless they go more than 150m inland, which they seldom do, and the logging roads are not typically marked on canoe maps. The roads would be excellent for biking, horse-riding and other similar pursuits if such uses could be deconflicted with the logging-truck use.

    As things stand, both cottaging and logging are critical to the whole area’s economic success. And I do say that as an environmentalist and a canoe-tripper! Algonquin is a great example of how one space can accommodate multiple uses with a bit of compromise and thought.

    If the government does eventually take over the cottages I’d suggest we rent them out instead of destroying them. They’d be a nice Night 1 or end-night for serious trippers and would be a great stepping-stone into the woods for the less-experienced.

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Dec 12, 2012

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Cargo bike, 8 months on

So back in March we bought a cargo bike. We’d set out intending to buy a tandem, but on the test ride it turned out that I hated the tandem with the intensity of a thousand burning suns within about ten seconds of getting on the thing. Totally synced starts and stops? No control? Ummmmno. Not working for me. But since we were at a good bike shop we tried this massive, bright orange Yuba Mundo cargo bike because it was there, and we all loved it immediately, bought it on the spot, and nicknamed it The Beast.

Cargo bike in action!

Since then we’ve put the better part of 2000km on the thing, what with schlepping the miss to school (~8km away) and many trips to the grocery store and Home Depot and general errands and whatnot. It’s put a huge dent in our Autoshare usage — when your bike carries 75lbs of tomato flats, 6 2-4s of beer, 8 large bags of groceries, or two human passengers, a car becomes much less necessary — and wow pushing its 50lbs around (often plus a heavy 10-year-old child plus our own pannier plus her school backpack, or whatever other cargo one has loaded on) has been good for our quads and general aerobic fitness. We put a little over 100km on it each week during the school year — 5x20km on weekdays plus a grocery run and maybe a Home Depot run or something similar on weekends. It is in very heavy use.

Since the photo above was taken, we’ve added extra handlebars attached to the main seatpost so the miss doesn’t have to hold on to either us or the frame of the bike. We switched to disc brakes, because the original brakes were insufficient to the task and were actually scraping bits of metal off the rims. We also added a yellow BikeGlow to help outline the bulk of the thing in the dark. The bike is 6’9″ long, quite a behemoth, bigger than anyone really expects a bike to be, so it’s good to have the outline more clear. Here’s an amusing photo of what it looks like in the pitch black dark (front is at left, rear is at right):

Cargo bike in the dark

The BikeGlow runs down the length of the left (traffic side) running board, up the back (not visible in the photo), and then forward the entire length of the bike.

It’s a very sociable thing, riding a cargo bike, whether you like it or not. At stops one is forever answering the questions of other cyclists and pedestrian passers-by.

  • What the heck is that thing (A long-tail cargo bike. It can carry 440lbs of cargo plus the rider. The other main kind of cargo bike is a bakfiets)?
  • Is that legal (Yes. While you can’t carry passengers on bikes not intended for it, bikes designed for passengers are just fine.)?
  • Where did you get it (Urbane, although Sweet Pete’s also probably carries them)?
  • And the sexist one I get that Dave doesn’t: Can you really ride that thing All By Yourself Dearie (hell yes).

…Among other things. Now that we have the BikeGlow and it’s dark by 5pm, we also get to chat about that. So: don’t buy a cargo bike if you’re averse to random conversations with passers-by. Eventually we plan to put a big sticker on the bike with a QR code which links to some sort of explanation and details, much like this post.

Once you’re up to speed, riding it is less work than you might think. It’s the acceleration that’s killer. There are 21 gears on the thing and we use every one — I use many, many more gears on the cargo bike than I do on my own bike, especially on hills. On average I probably change gears every ten seconds or so, less if going up a hill. It is otherwise a very smooth and pleasant ride, though; rather similar in feel to a Bixi, if you’ve ever ridden one of those. Lots of stability, lots of momentum. Hit someone with the thing going reasonably quickly and you’ll probably kill them, so look out. It has power but it is crazy heavy and it is not what one might call nimble.

We’ve found it a really excellent substitute for both Autoshare and the TTC. We haven’t quantified the Autoshare part, but we’ve made about 120 round trips on it that would have otherwise required the TTC, so one adult at 2x$2.60 + one child at 2x$0.60 = $6.40 per round trip, that’s saved us roughly $768. At that rate it’ll pay itself off in another year or so. Not that we’re fussed about that — we prefer riding; it’s not about the money — but it’s kind of fun to track.

In short: recommended. You can put 2 baby seats, 2 child seats, 2 very large cargo bags, or a combination of the above on the back. Or you can just go wild with bungee cords. Cargo bikes really solve many of the problems with using a bike as your primary transportation in a reasonably bike-friendly environment. We’re very fond of our Beast.

Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Nov 07, 2012

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Oct 24, 2012
  • Not guilty | This Magazine
    Not guilty | This Magazine:

    Choice should be delightful, not debilitating. The secret of it is that there is no wrong book to read. Even if you’re re-reading Harry Potter on the subway. So maybe we should take the opportunity to cast aside the textbooks inside of which we’re hiding our comics books, and embrace the fact that we can strive to expand our reading habits without beating ourselves up—and that most importantly, guilt adds nothing to the reading experience.

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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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This is a picture I did not take

of a long line of idling cars waiting to get into the gas station, as I rode by on a bicycle powered only by sweat.

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A softer world

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Sep 19, 2012

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No arguing with that

(At Canada’s Wonderland)

Me: Oh, sad, the waterpark is all closed.
D: There’s nothing sadder than an empty waterpark.
Child: Except a dead puppy.
Us: …. OK, you win.

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