Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Christmas

dark beer
sparkling juice
salt-n-vinegar chips
pepperoni sticks
Danish blue
paintbrush cookies
cinnamon buns
strong coffee
...yup, it's Christmas.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

We've gotten past the holiday preparations: tonight we light the last Advent candle (the white one) and go to Christmas Eve services. Then we come home and hide presents for the kids to find in the morning.

I love Christmas.

So I'm listening to Diana Krall, The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field, the Choir of King's College, The Sixteen, Sarah MacLachlan, and Bing Crosby; I'm remembering fondly being cloistered from the cold and dark, sitting near the roaring woodstove. I remember sleepless Christmas Eves, Gwen's Santa costume, and Shan sleeping next to the tree.

I remember one Christmas morning when Shan got the present she wanted so much (won't mention what it was, for fear of embarrassing her): it was exciting, even for me.

I remember cinnamon buns with cherries and raisins for breakfast.

I remember one Christmas in particular, when it started to snow as we were eating turkey. I remember playing in the snow under the streetlight on Twillingate.

I remember Trev coming to stay a few days shortly after Christmas. That was one of the best Christmas presents I ever got.

And of course I remember kneeling on the beach one Christmas, and Ames said "yes".

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quick Hello

Haven't written much of late, so I thought I'd shoot a quick update or two.

The biggest news is that a friend: a younger guy who used to work for me, who learned Unix from me; lost everything in an apartment fire last weekend. I suppose everything is a slight exaggeration: he was able to grab one pair of pants and a cell phone on his way out. But everything else: wallet, pets, important documents, birth certificate, drivers license, Social Security card, credit cards... all that stuff is gone. He saved one pair of pants and his cell phone.

Those aren't really an indicator of his priorities: he stayed too long in the apartment trying to save his birds, dog, and cats. When he realized he was about to die, he managed to stumble out the door, grabbing a cell phone on the way out.

Obviously he's devastated, and with good cause. So if you think about him, he needs all the help he can get: praying is good. I'm trying to figure out what else I can do for him, as are all the people he knows around here.

My youngest has a fever: that's the annual "It's Christmas! Let's get sick!" tradition we've built over the last several years.

I've only made a single batch of Stollen this year: this weekend is time to make Stollen, Almond Puff, and Paintbrush Cookies. We're a little behind on the Christmas stuff this year, but with good cause: we've taken time out to celebrate Advent this year. So while we're a little slow to gear up for Christmas, we've taken a long time to contemplate the Lord's imminent return. I think that's a good trade-off.

With that in mind, I've been listening to Approaching Christmas: Songs and Music for the Season of Advent a lot. It's a collection of Advent carols: "On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry," "Lo, He comes with clouds descending," and so on. Excellent album.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Good timing

I was driving home from work a week or so ago, and I saw a guy walking down the sidewalk, hand-in-hand with a three or four-year-old girl. And I couldn't help but see the look on his face.

If you don't have daughters, you don't know the look. In fact, only really men get the look: it's pretty much reserved for daddies. It's the smile you get when you're walking with your little girl and she's chatting about something or other, and you have an irrational happiness from being around your little girl. I suppose there's a little pride mixed in there too.

I have three little girls: they're not so little as that little girl was anymore; but they're little girls. I've personally smiled that smile many times. I know it well.

So this guy and his little girl were walking down the street: not the worst part of town, but far from the best. I assume they had just gotten off the bus, although I don't know that for sure. But the way he was dressed, the location, and their mode of transport all combined to indicate they weren't terribly well off. I could be wrong, of course.

I've often wondered why people have kids precisely when they're least prepared for it: young, inexperienced, and generally poor. That's changing somewhat as people are starting families later---and we certainly started younger than most---but it's generally true that having and diapering babies is for the young. And the young certainly seem to be least prepared to deal with that sort of thing.

But when I saw that guy's face, it suddenly struck me that the timing is perfect: an obviously poor guy in a less-than-desirable part of town doesn't have a lot to cheer him up. A pretty, chatty little girl is perfect.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Well, Charlotte's ridiculous weather continues. They're predicting record-breaking heat today; Monday it was 80 F. That's 27 C for all you Canadians.

You can't enjoy eggnog and hot chocolate in this weather: mojito and margarita seem more appropriate.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


We have an arrangement with our kids. It goes something like this: if we're in a restaurant and the server gives us an unsolicited compliment on the kids' behaviour, they get dessert. Dessert is not necessarily gotten at the same restaurant, although it makes it easier to keep tally when it is: sometimes we really need to get somewhere on time, or the dessert selection isn't worthwhile, or something. But there is dessert in it for the kids whenever a server compliments their behaviour with no prompting.

This arrangement has served us well, but it has started to get expensive: the kids have started to rack up the compliments, and it's harder and harder to keep tabs on what I owe them.

Which, I suppose, is better than the opposite problem.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


We were out the other day, and decided to stop and eat at Subway. Nothing special: just some sandwiches to provide fuel for the day. It was fine, but the staff was a little on the thick side. My ten-year-old told me "I don't want to come back here. The people working here are not over-burdened with intelligence."

Friday, November 30, 2007

St. Andrew

Well, today is the Feast of St. Andrew. I have no idea what that entails, I'm just proud of actually knowing that.

Every year the team from work goes out for a Christmas dinner. This year's dinner is tonight: yeah, it's a little early, but everyone (except me, of course) has their weekends booked from all through December, so we thought we'd just go early this year. So tonight we're going to the Capital Grille for dinner. The kids will be spending the night with some close friends, and we'll enjoy the best onion soup I've ever had.

Sounds promising.

In other news, I'm trying to learn to properly sharpen our knives. I purchased the Spyderco Sharpening System a few weeks back (a close friend has one and loves it), but I've been hesitant to mess with my Endura until I figure out how to do it right. My Endura has the "combo blade": the blade is serrated for about half it's length, and I don't want to ruin the serration. So I started on the kitchen knives yesterday: they're more expensive than my Endura, but they're also a much simpler blade: less opportunity to wreck something.

So far, it looks like we're getting the hang of sharpening: the Henckels seem to work a lot better, and I haven't actually hurt myself yet. Bonus!

Saturday, November 24, 2007


A couple weeks ago, my daughters were talking about something. I don't remember what it was: for the sake of argument, let's say they were talking about horses. It was a typical little kid conversation:
"I want a horse"
"I want two horses!"
"I want a hundred horses!"

My six year old pipes up: "I want aleph-nought horses!"

I was so proud.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends! Have a good and safe holiday. I'll be eating fried fatback, collards, chicken-and-pastry, turkey, pumpkin pie, and pound cake tomorrow. Hope you fare as well as I.

Thanksgiving might be my favourite day, but I'll be honest with you: I see no real meaning to it except a day off work. Ames' family enjoys Thanksgiving, which is sort of ironic: I mean, if they hadn't fed us, we wouldn't have survived to attempt genocide on them. Like Ames says, "I have no idea why we celebrate Thanksgiving."

Since Gwennie asked, the walks are proceeding slowly. We're getting back on track since work has calmed down again. We're planning to have a walk early tomorrow, before bundling in the 'burb and driving to Ames' parents' house. Thanks for asking.

Our house has been on the market just over a week, and we've had one showing. Not great; but not terrible, given the holiday season. We'll see how this all pans out...

Jeanne asked where "Clumsy Ox" comes from. Good question, actually. What happened was this: when I was about 10, my baby sister was drawing a silly little comic strip. I suggested she name a character "Clumsy Ox," and she delightedly did so. But then, by some cruel twist, she deluded herself into thinking that she had come up with that clever name. Over the years, I have borne silently with having my one (rather small) contribution to her comic strip misattributed; I finally decided to "take back Clumsy Ox," and hence this blog. But by happy chance, I have discovered Clumsy Ox is a perfect screen name: easy to remember, but also unique. See, "all things work together for good," even one's little sister taking credit for one's creativity.

Finally, I figured out the secret to professional typing. It's always interesting to note how few people in IT actually know how to type. Like me, they sort of hunt and peck, really quickly. But the secret to professional typing is, hit the Backspace with the same rhythm as the other keys. If you manage to learn that one skill, people hear a constant rhythm and figure you know how to type.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Checking in

Well, this week has gone very well: we've brought another factory online, and things have gone exceedingly smoothly. Of course, I am tired, worn-out, and sore from being on my feet for 12--14 hours at a time: my cushy job writing software has caught up to me in more than just my increasing waistline!

Speaking of which, I've been stumped recently by how to deal with the problem of exercise without spending yet more time apart from the kids. I suddenly had an inspiration a week or two ago. One of my daughters is a lot like me: adverse to physical exercise, fond of spending time with a book. I've been trying to figure out how to motivate her to get some exercise when I hit on the plan of father-and-daughter walks in the mornings. It's taken off well, except for turmoil caused by this week of chaos at work. So now three or four of us gambol along when it's still dark outside, enjoying the crisp morning air and each others' company. It's a chance for mum to get a little calm first thing in the morning too. And I might be over-optimistic, but I think it's having a positive affect on at least two of us.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Yesterday I was given this rather nice bookmark by a Christian family we know:

Isn't that nice? It's actually metal, rather than the typical flimsy cardboard. And it's got a quote from "Prufrock" on it! How cool is that?

According to them, they saw it in a store and said "That would be perfect for Clumsy! It's all about coffee and T. S. Eliot!"

I'm touched.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

I made some rhubarb pies (with rhubarb I bought for $2.89 a pound !?!) to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving tomorrow. To all my Canadian friends: Happy Thanksgiving!

We've been trying to clear out our house to match the unreasonable expectations of the realtor. That is, we're trying to make it look like Ken and Barbie live in our house, rather than five real people. We rented a spot in one of those storage places, and started putting stuff in there today. We're also throwing out a lot of dreck.

So far the kids have been real troupers. We'll see how long that lasts.

Speaking of the kids, they asked me to bury a robin they found in the back yard. I was going out there to get a shovel and perform the grim task, when the youngest shouted "Wait! Wait! I need to get a hat with a veil to lift up!" After they got their hats, I was allowed to perform the funeral.

They all declined to say a few words over the grave, but they were stylin' in their funeral hats.

In final news, the drought here has caused a lot of cracked mortar and even cracked bricks in the houses in our area. As the clay continues to dry out, it shrinks; and all the brick houses are settling into it. The most common advice is "don't worry about it, rain will fix it;" which is probably true. But it doesn't show well in the meantime, and it could potentially cost some money to "fix" the foundations (which will presumably become "unfixed" when the drought breaks). Hopefully the ugly cracks won't be deal-breakers on getting our house sold. If they are a problem, we might be able to get them "fixed", but it could cost a few thousand dollars. We'd appreciate everyone's prayers.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Such is life

I've half-written some posts here and on my other blog. That is to say, I've been wanting to contribute more to the online conversation I've been having with family and friends for the last 10 or 11 months. But honestly, I've very little to say, and what I want to say I'm having trouble saying.

This might be what's commonly referred to as "writer's block."

Work is keeping me occupied: not "busy" so much as "unavailable." We're trying to sell our house, and that has brought a huge list of new tasks, as well as some serious excitement. Additionally, I've reconnected with several friends (some of whom I taught in high school) over the last few weeks. So not only do I have less time, but it's divided into many more, smaller parts.

I've not even really been cooking over the last week or so, which is almost depressing.

One annoyance is the weather in Charlotte. It's been the worst drought anyone can remember, and it shows no signs of breaking. It's October, and the weather is still in the 80s (that's 30s to you Canadians). They're predicting a tough winter, but so far autumn is just a cooler summer. And the drought is wreaking havoc with everything around here.

So life's too full. Work will reach a fever pitch on November 3 and stay that way for the whole month. I'll be working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for the month except Thanksgiving weekend (the fourth weekend in November for all my Canadian friends).

But we all have our trials...

Sunday, September 30, 2007


Well, I just finished renewing my Green Card online. So after a $370 filing fee and 20 minutes of my life, plus several minutes' re-reading my application to make sure it is all accurate; I'm now on my way to being allowed to live here after February 2008.

So I had posted about whether I should stay in the USA or come home: renewing my Green Card is essentially option #3: make up my mind later. Actually, option #3 is a good one for an international family.

So long as I have a Green Card, I can leave the USA for a given amount of time without losing it (somewhere between 6 months and a year). So this way, we can cross the border and give Canada a try for a few months. After a few months there, my American wife and I can decide what to do next.

If Ames decides she can't stand Canada, then I will probably get a US citizenship. But by renewing my Green Card, I've given us a chance to spend a little more time on the decision.

Still, $370 is a pretty hefty filing fee.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Something fishy

Well, Alaskan wild-caught salmon was on sale this week in Charlotte, so we bought some. Of course, the only way to cook salmon is on the grill:

So I took the salmon, put some coarse salt, black pepper, a little garlic, and some dill mixture on it, then threw it on the grill.

I've heard people say they don't like to grill fish, because it sticks to the grill. Let me give you a hint: fish sticks to your grill because you're not getting the grill hot enough.

I cook on cast iron; both my grills have cast iron cooking surfaces, and I would have to seriously question buying a grill that has anything other than cast iron for its food grates. Porcelain's a fad, stainless is flashy, but real, serious grilling requires cast iron. If I can cook fish on cast iron without having it all stick, then we know for a fact that fish is not doomed to sticking, just because it's cooked on a grill.

So here's how you cook fish on the grill.

First, get the grill hot. I know, you're not cooking steak; and the very fact that you are planning on cooking the fish a little lower indicates you've learned something. But you need to understand this: regardless of how hot you intend to cook something on a grill, you almost always need to get the food grate really hot. So when I cook something like chicken or fish on the grill, I get the grates hot first, then I lower the grill temperature when I put the food on.

If you have fish with skin on it, put it on flesh-side down. I do this before I turn down the heat. The idea is to sear the flesh on one side while the grill is hot.

If you try to turn the fish before it's seared, it will stick, and you'll end up with a piece of torn-up fish and really messy grates. So don't turn it too soon. How can you tell when the fish is ready to turn? It lets go of the grates. Let me re-iterate that. When you first put fish on hot grates, it will stick. If you leave it a few minutes, it'll sear through and release the grates, at that point, it comes cleanly off the grates and you can turn it. If your fish sticks to the grill, it's because you tried to turn it too soon, or else you didn't get the grill hot enough before you put the fish on it. This is the same principle for steak. As Smoky Hale says "When a steak meets the proper grill, they seize each other with the intensity of a pair of newlyweds. At the proper time, they will turn loose."

Once the fish is ready to turn, you can gently flip it over, reduce the heat, and cook it slowly, skin-side-down. At this point, I put a little butter or margerine on it, just to keep it from drying out.

I should probably admit I like sashimi, so I may like my fish a little less well-done than a lot of people. But it's a mistake to over-cook your fish. It dries out faster than you'd think.

If you cook the fish flesh-side-down first, then you get nice grill marks on the flesh side of the fish.

Notice that dill mixture's still a little green. You're not trying to blacken salmon, just get some nice char marks on it. I obviously turned one piece a little too soon, and didn't get quite the char marks on all three pieces that I wanted.

I like to eat salmon with red wine, but ABC ("Anything But Chardonnay") is fine. Tonight I drank a nice Zinfandel with my fish.

One thing about salmon, we never have leftovers out our house.

Canadian Geography Lesson

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Well, we're getting more and more excited about the prospect of leaving Charlotte.

We still need to finish painting the house. Actually, the house has been painted, but the woodshop and deck haven't. We need to slap some paint on there before we list the house. Of course, the brutally hot weather for the last several weeks has kept us from moving forward with painting. At these temperatures, paint just bubbles off the wood.

In the interim, I need to put down quarter-round on the baseboards of the wall. When we ripped up the carpet to expose the hardwood floors, we never put the quarter-round down to finish the job. So today I'll go off to Lowe's and get some of that. Hopefully we'll make some real progress on that today.

It is my sincere desire to move back to Canada by the end of 2008. The biggest obstacle is selling our house, and that is dependent on getting the painting, etc. done so we can list it. Hopefully we'll be listed in the next few weeks.

In my little fantasy world, we'll be leaving North Carolina immediately after Thanksgiving of 2008 (that's the end of November for all our Canadian friends). When we moved back to NC from Michigan, we arrived right around Christmas. It was a good time to be homeless: the end of the year is a good transition time for jobs, tax-wise; and the holidays are a good time to have some chaos. If there is a good time for chaos.

Well, I'm just fantasizing now.

I know some of my Canadian friends would wonder at my desire to come home: you want to come back here? Yeah. I came to the USA for what was supposed to be a two-year stint, and it's stretched to 13. The USA is a good place, but I never intended the move to be permanent. Maybe we'll spend 6 weeks in Canada and decide we can't stand another 6. Maybe not. But one way or another, I really want to head back and give it a try.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

3.14 (Reprise)

Xingyi class last night was great, but the problem with a good kung fu class is, it leaves me sleepless. So I tossed and turned all night. Today I lost a whole day looking for a bug in Hibernate code I still haven't found. But after dinner, as I sat with my youngest on my lap and listened to the Moody Blues anthology Time Traveller, I realized it was a good time to have another go at pie.

Ames bought me a new pie plate, so I washed it out and started.

After some contemplation, I have decided my mistakes last time were two-fold:

  1. I made the pastry too dry. The Tenderflake Perfect Pastry recipe calls for one egg, 2 tsp. vinegar, and water to make it up to a Cup. But then the recipe says to use "only enough liquid to make dough cling together." Well, I learned my lesson last time, so now I realized "only enough liquid to make dough cling together" is code for "all of it."

  2. I used whole-wheat flour. That might actually be all right, but I thought I'd try again with the white stuff.

So this time I followed the recipe again, but used white flour and all the liquid. Oh, and I used lard too. I've only got 1/2 pound of lard left, so I'll have to join the Great Unwashed and use shortening next time. But today, I use lard.

After blending and mixing, I cut the pastry into six pieces. I kept two for the pie and put the rest in the freezer.

Last time I made apple pie. Tonight I made my second-favourite: cherry. Only rhubarb pie is better than cherry. I would have made rhubarb, but rhubarb is not indigenous to the South; and every person I know who's tried growing it here has met with unmitigated failure. So rather than pay more than $2.50 a pound for what every northerner knows is a weed, I cheated and opened two tins of cherry pie filling.

I rolled out the pastry, lined my new pie plate with it, and dumped the two tins of cherry pie filling into it:

Then I rolled out a lid and laid it gently atop my new pie

I've never figured out how to crimp the edges of the pie properly, so I just run around the perimeter with three fingers and make those little triangles in the pastry. Here's a close-up of my amateur attempts at crimpage:

Finally, I sliced a few slits into the lid to allow for venting and put it in the oven.

You know the drill: 15 minutes at 425F and then 30 at 350F.

Well, it certainly looks better than the last attempt, but it did bleed a little.

Haven't tasted it yet. I suppose tomorrow for breakfast is as good a time as any.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Hah! I got MacTeX going on the new MacBook. I've missed being able to crank out decent-looking documents... It used to be that LaTeX of one form or another was the first thing I'd install on a computer. This time I've been slow on the draw. Still, the MacTeX installation is extremely complete, and I'm finding I have to do very little customization to make it work the way I want it.

What is LaTeX? It's a document preparation system based on Donald Knuth's legendary TeX. Rather than a word processor, it's a type-setting system. So it works a lot like HTML in a web page: you input plain text commands into a file, then run the LaTeX system against it. The system produces the document in an image-based format (I always generate PDF, but DVI or PS are common), which prints predictably on any decent printer (unlike, say Microsoft Office documents).

People who use TeX, LaTeX, or their ilk hold them in deeply religious awe. They are truly the ultimate in document preparation. Rather than using a word processor, which is designed to let you type out pages; you're using a type-setter, which is designed to produce books. So LaTeX documents have kerned, ligatured output.

I first learned LaTeX when I was unemployed and broke, but needed to generate some decent documents. I couldn't afford to buy a word processor, but I had plenty of time on my hands, so I downloaded LaTeX (which is free) and invested a lot of time learning it. It's not necessarily easy: there is a learning curve involved; but I had more time than money then, and I've never regretted the choice I made.

I still find all word processors primitive, inadequate, and kludgy. Pages is better than most, but even that's no LaTeX.

Anyhow, I've spent some time making sure all the fonts are in place, etc. and now I'm ready to get back to the world of nice documents...

Friday, September 14, 2007

OCaml, my love

I want to love OCaml, I really do. In fact, I want to love Haskell too, but OCaml seems just a little more pragmatic.

But in the end, there is something that keeps me from loving OCaml: I can't find a compelling use case. I can't see anything that's significantly easier to do in OCaml than in Lisp, for example. And while OCaml apparently make very fast executables, Lisp is certainly "fast enough."

OCaml doesn't seem to own anything I want to learn. Lisp owns AI, Erlang owns concurrency. I know, there are other options in both categories, but you get the point.

The most interesting feature I can see in OCaml from where I sit is the type system. No question, OCaml's typing is strong and static. From an outsider's point of view, it seems much like Haskell's; although I am sure devotees of either tongue would recoil in shock from such a suggestion. But the rigidity of the type system is a barrier to learning the language. You'd think there would be some sort of evangelism based on that; instead the OCaml-istas seem more interested in looking down on others for not having an adequate type system than giving examples of how such a system is a Good Thing.

I bought Practical OCaml, and I read it. More than once. But it fails to present me with interesting solutions to problems. Online tutorials have a similar problem "Look! You can add two numbers in OCaml!" Hardly worth learning another whole language, especially one with very different syntax from the ones I already know.

And when the language has a bondage-and-discipline type system, even adding two numbers seems inordinately difficult. I mean, in OCaml there is no auto-boxing that I can see... none! Even the arithmetic operators are different! "+." adds floats, "+" adds integers.

I suppose there is an opportunity here for me to learn OCaml and bring a decent book on it to market. Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way.

So if OCaml isn't compelling, then why do I want to love it? I suppose because there are some interesting features in functional languages (like Haskell, OCaml, and Erlang) that intrigue me. One is the whole "clause" thing. Where a function in C might look something like this:

int add(int i, int j){
return i + j ;

And in Java it might look like:

public int add(int i, int j){
return i + j ;

That same function in OCaml looks like:

let add i j = i + j;;

But OCaml gets more interesting when you differentiate between inputs. So you could write some function that returns the sum of a list of numbers like:

let rec sum list = match list with
[] -> 0;
| head :: tail -> head + sum tail ;;

Actually, that's pretty cool: there are actually two definitions ("clauses") in the function. One is the definition of the sum of an empty list '[]'. That sum is zero. The other clause says if you get a list that has some data in it (i.e. a head and a tail), the function adds the head to the sum of the tail.

I suppose Lisp could do the same thing with DEFGENERIC, but I find the simpler recursive solution more intuitive:

(defun sum (LIST)
(if (null LIST)
(+ (first LIST) (sum (rest LIST)))))

So I suppose the OCaml version is shorter than the Lisp version.

Anyhow, I'm just rambling now. Programming is only interesting when you're learning something new. Right at the moment, my Java job is getting a little mundane. I had hoped OCaml would provide an interesting diversion, but it appears I was barking up the wrong tree.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


Well, today being a Saturday, and we having too many apples, I made some apple pies today. They might be the ugliest pies I've ever made, but they're pies. Apple pies.

Actually, they were a bit of a team effort. I made the pastry too dry (and I used whole-wheat flour), so I broke it several times trying to roll it out. Eventually Ames stepped in and got me some pie shells from the mess I made.

I finally fixed my pastry, but not until it was pretty much too late. Ames takes credit for the nicer of the two pies.

How did I make the pastry? you ask. Well, I used the Tenderflake Perfect Pastry recipe. It's the only one I can get to turn out for me at all. And yes, I used lard. I live in the South. I actually would have used shortening, but I ran across some lard in a cupboard, so I thought "why not?".

It turns out we're missing a pie plate again. Apparently there's a gremlin in our house that steals pie plates: it seems we're having to buy pie plates very frequently. At any rate, we used the one pie plate we have, and I got Ames to roll out the other shell and put it into a glass casserole dish. In the end, I re-worked the pastry scraps into a new "batch" and was able to get it to roll. So I took that pastry, rolled it out, and put it in a cast-iron skillet. Ugy, but it works. I then used the shell Ames made me for a lid. That was a flop, and resulted in the mess in the photos.

Now, there's been some whining about my not including recipes in my blog. Let me set the record straight: there are at least three reasons I don't include recipes:

  1. I personally hate reading recipes. I find technique more interesting than recipes; and when I read something with a recipe in it, I simply skip over the recipe(s) and keep reading.

  2. I'm unsure the legality of posting a recipe I didn't invent. I post my own (when I keep track of them), but hesitate to post someone else's

  3. I almost never use recipes. If there is something specific I want to make, I do so. But the vast majority of my cooking is done on-the-fly. I may refer to a recipe, but I rarely follow one.

So for those who are criticizing my lack of recipes, please understand I usually don't have one to post.

But I'll gladly share how I made the pies.

First, I read the recipe in A Century of Canadian Cooking. Their recipe calls for the following:

  • 5 apples

  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice

  • 1 tsp. cinnamon

  • 3/4 C. granulated sugar

  • 1 Tbsp. butter

You're supposed to peel and core the apples, then combine everything but the butter. After than, you dump it in a pie shell and dot with butter, then you bake for 15 minutes at 425F, then reduce heat to 350F and bake 35--40 more minutes.


I thought brown sugar sounded better than granulated sugar, so I put brown sugar in a bowl. I ran 5 granny smith apples through my apple slicer; then I realized it wasn't enough and I was out of granny smith, so I ran a couple small red apples through too.

I thought 1 tsp. cinnamon sounded stingy, so I dumped enough in to cover the sugar.

I couldn't find any lemon juice, and Ames assured me we had none; so I thought "Well, rum's pretty close to lemon juice." I measured 1 Tbsp of rum over the sugar and cinnamon. Then I realized I was intending to make two pies, so I put another Tbsp of rum in there.

I was going to put another 3/4 C of sugar into the mix, when I realized I had snapped my 1/4 C measure with the first 3/4, so I grabbed a 1 C measuring spoon, got it 3/4 or so full of brown sugar, and dumped it in. Then I added more cinnamon and whisked it all together.

It looked a little dry, so I poured in some more rum.

Now I had a nice rum-sugar-cinnamon mixture, so I put in all the apples (I think I had six or seven at this point). I got it all mixed up, and realized I had made a sort of redneck Rumtopf. I put as much of that as looked reasonable in the first pie shell (which was almost all of it), and had one of the kids put some butter here and there on the apples. It was supposed to be 1 Tbsp. of butter dabbed on the apples, but my daughter was a little over-zealous, and it ended up being quite a bit more than that.

I rolled out a lid, and covered it. The lid broke terribly, so I just sort of jammed it all together and had one of the kids jab some holes in it.

By now, the second pie needed doing. I didn't have enough apples left, so I peeled and cored 3 or 5 more, and threw them into the remaining rum juice. I put some more cinnamon in there, and a dab more rum, then I threw in a handful or so of raisins and mixed it all up.

I put that mixture into the pie shell Ames had put in the casserole dish. At that point, I fixed the pastry, rolled out what was supposed to be a lid, realized it would be a good shell, and put it into the skillet. Then I up-ended the casserole dish over the new shell, and used the pastry from the casserole dish as a lid for the pie. Oh, and I remembered to put some butter over the apples before putting on the lid.

So I can't post my recipe, because I have no idea what is actually in those pies.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Holly and Ivy

Every year I look for a CD of Christmas music that will become the Christmas CD that year. Actually, I generally allow two such CDs per year. Since I listen to "Christmas music" all year (primarily of the hymn sort: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and so forth), I get a much wider window of opportunity to find that CD.

Over the last couple years, the title "Christmas CD of the year" has been bestowed upon several worthy albums, including:

  • Wintersong by Sarah McLachlan

  • Happy Holidays by Jo Stafford

  • Christmas with the Academy by The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field

  • Noel by King's College Choir

  • In the Moon of Winter by Northern Variations

  • December by the Moody Blues

So my tastes range somewhat. I like tacky Christmas music in December, but I really prefer more classic sounding stuff.

Well, last night I found one of the CDs for this year: A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection from The Sixteen, by Harry Christopers and The Sixteen. I've had trouble finding it at places like Amazon, so I just bought it from iTunes.

Now this will sound a little bold, but I put this CD slightly above Noel and Christmas with the Academy. The repertoire is very similar, and performance is about equal. But the difference is recording quality. Where the other two albums consist of tracks recorded as much as 40 years ago, this CD is all new. That is, the sound is much more three-dimensional; the high notes soar, the low ones surround.

I was honestly shivering at the beauty of the sound.

What songs does it have? There are the standby carols: "The Holly and the Ivy," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," etc. But there are the better ones that make a CD worth purchasing: "See Amid the Winter's Snow" and "The Sussex Carol."

That's one task off the Ber Month checklist.

Note: After posting the above, I found the CD at Amazon: A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection. Why couldn't I find it last night?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Four fried chickens and a coke

A few weeks ago, I wrote about deep frying in the South. Today we got to test some of my theories.

Yesterday was Labour Day, so we had some friends over. As my friend was cooking a dozoen potatoes in the deep fryer, he mentioned frying whole chickens. I was manning the grill while he took the fryer, but my thoughts went to a couple chooks waiting patiently in my refrigerator. So today when Ames called me at work and asked what I wanted for dinner, I said "We're going to fry those chickens!"

And we did.

Ames started out by battering the whole chooks. She used a "recipe" based on her mother's chicken batter: "A little salt, a little pepper, some flour." Ames' batter consisted of several spices, including paprika, which gave it an orange tinge:

While Ames was making sure the chickens were completely covered in their batter, I was starting the turkey fryer. I mentioned it in the other post: it's a 34-quart fryer. I took some pictures:

Yeah, that's the trash can in the background.

The oil in the fryer is still relatively new. We basically only fry potatoes, so it takes a while for the oil to darken. I only change the oil every 12 or 18 months: of course, cooking chicken in the oil will require a change in the next week or so. I think we'll try and get in a fish fry in there.

Then we dropped both chickens in the oil.

It got to be difficult to maintain the temperature between 325F and 350F. I ended up cutting the gas almost entirely, and the temperature still stayed too high.

After 20 minutes, we took out the chooks and cut one open.
It was still a little soft inside, so we put them back in for another 5 minutes:

Well, the chickens were done after the additional 5 minutes, so we took them out. And cut them up.

Add a little potato salad, and you have a winner. The potato salad had a slight orange hue, due to the paprika and red-skinned potatoes. I guess it was the day for orange tint.

The verdict? Excellent.

Lisp moment

So I had one of those "Aha!" moments this weekend. I was working on an HTML parser in Common Lisp. The "why?" isn't terribly important: I have a lot of data in HTML I want transformed into PDF. Rather than do it by hand, I figured it would be a good opportunity to try it in Lisp.

I've written a Lisp HTML parser before, but I was never quite satisfied with it; so I decided to start again from scratch.

Well, I was working on a recursive function that walks through an HTML string and turns it into valid Lisp, so this:

<title>Some Title</title>
<h1>Some header</h1>
<p>Some paragraph containing <a href='#'>some link</a></p>

Should get converted to:

(head (title "Some Title"))
(body (p "Some paragraph containing" (a "some link"))))

Not exactly rocket science, but it has the advantage of generating valid Lisp as an output format. That way, I ought to be able to define functions "html", "head", "title", etc. that know how to render their arguments, and I have used HTML to generate a Lisp program that generates a PDF. Slightly circuitous, but a good pet project to learn some Lisp nuances while I get a tedious task done.

Notice too my example dropped the attributes for the <a> tag. That's because I haven't decided how to handle tag attributes yet.

Well, I was working on that piece of code (so far just under 100 lines and generates the Lisp: I need to write the compiler next) when I had a sudden flash of insight.

Functional programming is essentially applying a series of transformations to data.

OK, that is oversimplifying a little, but consider this example. Suppose we want to write a function in Lisp that doubles each element of a list. With no error handling, type-checking, etc. one might write something like this:

(defun double-list (some-list &optional accumulator)
"Double every element in a list."
(if (null some-list)
(nreverse accumulator)
(double-list (rest some-list)
(push (* 2 (first some-list))

OK, OK, it would be easier to just do something like this:

(defun double-list (some-list)
"Double every element in a list."
(mapcar #'(lambda (x) (* 2 x)) some-list))

But that wouldn't make my point so clearly!

But in the end, I finally saw something I hadn't seen before: the work is done entirely in the call to the next function. That is, successive calls to the function only transform the data, then call the function again. So essentially the only work done in the function is to decide what arguments to use when it calls them again.

OK, that's rather simplistic. I mean, that's not really worthy of writing a book or anything, but it helped me understand a little better why functional gurus keep going on about applying successive transformations.

I guess it all comes back to what I said to a buddy a year or so ago: "Recursion is just iteration that keeps its state on the call stack."

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Ber Months

Well, today is September 1, the official start of the Ber months. These four months: September, October, November, December are my favourite months of the year. In actuality, I enjoy January too, but it's not quite a Ber month.

In the end, I like the Ber months because my favourite seasons are winter and autumn (in that order). Here in North Carolina, that doesn't mean much: the weather is always relatively warm and balmy, even in winter. But it's a respite, however slight, from the blazing heat of the sun, which is almost a constant in the South. Sure, it would be better if the Ber months were also the Brrrrr months; but here in the South that's a bit much to ask.

This summer has been brutal. We've broken a couple records: the heat went up past 100F any number of times in the last 6 weeks, we're on water restriction, and the grass is all dead.

Let the Ber months begin!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

I don't like talking about my flair

Well, the really big news since my last post has been all very personal stuff. So call this self-absorbed if you will, but I've very little of general interest or significance to report.

Of course, the most significant event in the last week has been meeting back up with my closest friend from way back when. That is, my closest friend in high school and most of college. At some point 12 years ago or so, we ended up losing touch with one another, and Google was of no help reuniting us. Facebook to the rescue: we're suddenly back in contact and finding that our friendship appears to be quite strong enough to overcome little things like more than a decade of neglect.

All this reuniting with people has gotten me thinking. I mentioned this earlier, but it's striking how easy it is to neglect people. I never do so maliciously, but I frequently get caught up in day-to-day life and reponsibility, and then suddenly it's been several years since I spoke to someone.

Part of that is just my personality. Like my father or my uncles, I am quite willing for someone I haven't spoken to for years to just appear, and I will drop what I'm doing to help them out or whatever. Well, I suppose there are limits on that sort of thing; but I'm quite willing to welcome a friend back in (so to speak) to whatever place they once held, with no hard feelings about the years of silence. I don't assume that a lack of contact is indicative of offense given.

But to look at it from anyone else's point of view, that's exactly how it's interpreted. So I'm now endeavouring to maintain what long-distance relationships are still active.

The fact is, I have been very priviledged to meet a great many interesting friends in my short life; and frankly, I've been blessed to have made several friends that become fast and intimate friends very quickly. Trev is no doubt the foremost of these, but there have been four or five people like that over the last twenty years. And that sort of friendship is worth a lot more than a curmudgeon like myself is prone to think.

But enough introspection!

I honestly wonder whether that sort of friendship is precisely what's missing in this degenerate society. Why are close friends always assumed to be lovers? It's exactly the same problem with people who like kids: society assumes they're paedophiles, just because the vast majority of the culture are philistines who can't comprehend a genuine interest in another person's well-being without some sort of self-interest. Sadly, the North American culture in which I live is aggressively, almost offensively individualistic. Self-centeredness is a virtue; genuine concern for other people is a flaw.

Oh sure, you can have the politically-correct general philanthropy of the political left wing. But that's not genuine concern: those same bleeding-heart liberals are generally unable to actually quote the names or personal details of the victims they so vigilantly advocate. I am positive that's because they're not interested in the person, but in some sort of abstract ideal the person represents. A real person who has real problems is not the concern of the political activist: he or she is interested in the Single Mother or the Iliterate Man or the Native American as an ideal, not as a real person. They ignore the fact that people are individuals, and see them as statistics.

Well, that turned into a rant.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Three Little Piggies

Well, a friend's brother-in-law raised three pigs this years, and just had them slaughtered last week. We were given an opportunity, so I purchased half a pig. Today I picked it up.

Head and organs were already spoken for: I just got meat. It came out to 83 pounds and some change. So today I brought home three coolers full of pork. They're in my freezer now. The freezer I just bought, specifically because I knew I had a half a pig coming, needing somewhere to stay until I need some of him.

There are ten pounds pf bacon still outstanding: the brother-in-law is smoking that, it should be here next week.

In the meantime, I have chops, ribs (not much ribs: there's only so many ribs on half a pig), hams, shoulder, sausage, ground pork, and butts. This could be a very interesting time in our life as far as food is concerned.

Of course the ham is not cured: it's just raw meat. I suppose I could cure it, but I've never cured or smoked ham before, and I don't have the facilities (i.e. a real smoke house).

So I'm thinking the hams, shoulders, and butts will all be barbecued: 18 hours or so at 200F in woodsmoke could make those really special.

Monday, August 20, 2007


My oldest daughter was complaining about a tooth ache. My wife offered her some Ibuprofen, and she responded "Ibuprofen? I was hoping you had some laudanum."

For some reason, that struck me as funny.

Friday, August 10, 2007


This is a little self-indulgent, but this is my blog. Deal with it.

University was hard for me, because I was young, hot-blooded, arrogant, and stupid. Not stupid as "below 16 IQ", but stupid as "had not the slightest clue how to relate to people". I didn't so very well there: I mean, I got acceptable grades and all that, but I didn't do very well. There were a lot of growing pains, and a whole lot of that pain could have been avoided except for my poor judgement, aimlessness, and laziness. I was, in a word, a slacker.

But in the last year and a half of my time at university, I made some incredible friends. I've tried to get a hold of them off and on for the last thirteen years (I graduated and left in 1994), but always failed. This week, exactly 13 years after I left, we have re-established contact. I've emailed with Rachel, Karina, Herb, and Kelly. There were others, and I hope to run across them too, but this is a good start.

So I'm a little irrationally happy right now. It'll probably pass, but I'm so very excited to be in contact with such great friends again. I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

It was tough being a Christian on campus: it was a very hostile environment. And in the middle of all that, there was Kelly, one of the campus chaplains. He was a wonderful influence on all of us, but particularly on me. Kelly really demonstrated Christianity as a holistic thing: emotional, intellectual, ethical, mystical. He did them all without emphasizing any one at the expense of the others. He knew his Bible, but didn't worship it. He reached out to the people who needed Jesus, but not in a naive, baseless optimism. Kelly is still one of my heroes.

Herb and I were in a Bible study at Kelly's house (Monday nights?) with Chris, Wayne, and (I can't remember his name). We were all a little disgruntled, and joked that we had all been declared heretics by at least one major denomination. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what Wayne was doing in that study: he seemed awfully normal for us. I can't remember a lot of what we studied, but I can remember the way Kelly would bring everything into a holistic focus. I wanted to have knowledge: Kelly satisfied that without worshipping the intellect. And he pushed me to go further than just having the answers.

Herb might be the smartest person I've ever met. He was smart. Not "college kid smart" but "really, really smart". Herb and I were inseparable: at one point, I suddenly realized everyone thought we were gay. Oops.

Herb taught me that the Bible is not nearly the book I thought it was. He had the habit of reading something like Derrida or Kierkegaard and relating that to something like Hebrews. My respect for the Word of God has increased from that. I remember Dean, another friend of ours, saying the most convincing part of the Bible is that Ecclesiastes is in it.

Finaly, Rachel and Karina were very dear friends. How we ever got all of us into my VW Rabbit is baffling even now. I remember Rachel would start laughing so hard I thought she'd choke. I can't imagine Rachel without a grin. I still have horrors thinking of her careening down the ramps in the University auditorium, or casually crossing the street through thick traffic. Rachel was busting at the seems with personality, and it was worth while just to bask in it.

Karina sent me a very nasty letter when I moved away, chiding me for leaving without telling anyone. That letter's haunted me for years: there's more to friendship than joviality, isn't there? I've always had an easy time making friends; but like Mr. Wickham, whether I can keep them remains to be seen. I think it was Karina who first showed me that there is a certain amount of responsibility in friendship. That's a lesson I'm still trying to learn.

I remember one time complimenting Karina on her English (not her first language), and she started laughing, saying she only understood half of what we were saying. I guess she had mastered the "smile and nod." Every conversation with Karina would lead to some form of revelation. A lot of people seem to be shocked by what I say in conversation: rest assured, if you had spent enough time with Karina, you'd find me rather flat.

So Rachel, Karina, Kelly, and Herb, you've no idea how much I missed you and how happy I am to have emailed with all of you again. And everyone else (Dean? Jeff? Chris?) I'd love to hear from you if you ever stumble across this and recognize my ugly mug on the side.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


Well, I talked just a little about bagua (pa kua) yesterday, so I thought I'd give a nod to xingyi (hsing-i) today.

Xingyi is one of the three traditional Chinese Internal martial arts: the other two are bagua (pa kua) and taiji (tai-chi). They are three different interpretations of the principles of "internal energy" in fighting. All three arts are "internal": they all work on the principle of relaxation and breathing. But they take different approaches to interpret those principles.

In general, xingyi is linear: the practitioner moves in roughly straight lines, striking and kicking to attack the opponent's structure. Bagua is generally circular, the practioner moves in a circular pattern, typically around the opponent. Taiji is somewhat of a spiral, where the practioner moves more or less from one point.

These, of course, are generalizations. There are certainly linear bagua sets, just as there are spinning, circling xingyi techniques.

As far as aggression, xingyi is about the attack; taiji is about reaction to an attack; bagua is somewhere in the middle. Bagua has a strong focus on evasion, taiji is about "yielding", xingyi is about crushing.

Traditional wisdom says aikido is based on bagua, karate on xingyi.

Xingyi is based on five motions: splitting, drilling, crushing, pounding, and crossing. These "Five Elements" correspond to the alchemist elements of: metal (splitting), water (drilling), wood (crushing), fire (pounding), and earth (crossing). Here's a video of a xingyi practitioner practicing the Five Elements:

That style looks slightly different than ours, which is not surprising.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


According to my Oregon Scientific thermometer, it's 104F outside. That might be a little higher than the official 99F with 31% humidity; but I guess sensor placement makes a difference...

Last night was bagua night. After walking hundreds of steps, I was soaked in sweat: I could actually have wrung out my shirt!

I did find a couple interesting bagua clips. The first one is a fairly typical form:

But this is very interesting: the apparent lack of effort that results in visible power is characteristic of all the internal arts. This guy's apparently a 94-year-old bagua practitioner:

But work's been picking up, so I've not been blogging much. Sorry.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sweet, schticky brew

A couple weeks ago we grilled out with some friends. The food wasn't anything special, but we had a couple beers I had bought on my Easter weekend beer forage. They were a good choice.

They were both He'Brew beers: we drank a MONUMENTAL JEWBELATION, and a BITTERSWEET LENNY'S R.I.P.A..

In general, we start at the lighter-coloured brews and move to the darker ones. A cursory look at each bottle against the light showed that the Lenny's was significantly paler than the Jewbelation, so we started there.

BITTERSWEET LENNY'S R.I.P.A. is an "IPA" that contains rye. In other words, it's not an IPA. But it is very good. In fact, it was a great beer.

For the non-beer people, a brief description of some styles. Please understand I am greatly over-simplifying here. The main distinct ingredients in beer are barley and hops. Barley is malted in the brewing process, which creates a vaguely sweet flavour. Hops, in contrast, are bitter. Thus, a lot of the flavours in beer are from the varying balance of hop bitterness vs. malt sweetness. There are three main "bitter" families of beer, all British in origin: Bitter, Extra-Special Bitter (ESB), and India Pale Ale (IPA).

Bitter is a coppery-coloured, top-fermenting beer. It tends to favour hop over malt, so that the result is a nicely bitter beer. The difference between "bitter" and "pale ale" is vague: "bitter" is a type of "pale ale".

ESB is a high-alcohol bitter. It is not necessarily higher in hop content, although it might be. The most commonly known is probably Fuller's ESB. My current drinking beer is Bridgeport ESB, from Oregon. The term "high-alcohol" is perhaps misleading. British beers can be as low in alcohol as 3% ABV. Budweiser and similar swill are typically 5% ABV. Bridgeport ESB is 6.1% ABV.

IPA is extremely hoppy, and frequently very high in alcohol. Legend has it that IPA was developed by the British as a way to get beer to India for the troops. The super-hoppy IPA was supposed to be like a "beer concentrate" that would withstand the rigours of the voyage to India without spoiling. If memory serves, the IPA was supposed to be watered when it arrived to produce something more like an ESB, but no one does that anymore.

Americans have added a level to the traditional IPA, in so-called "hop monsters". These are beers more or less designed to prove they can actually be made. Some are undrinkably bitter, and they frequently live in the 10+% ABV range. I don't have a lot of use for these, as a rule; although I've tasted a few.

So Lenny's is perhaps not really an IPA, but it is a very good beer.

The addition of rye to a very hoppy recipe makes an interesting beer. The beer is much maltier than any IPA I've ever tried, and the rye adds a spicy darkness. You can see from the photo that the beer is almost amber in colour. The alcohol content is 10% ABV.

I'll buy more if I stumble across it.

The second of the night was MONUMENTAL JEWBELATION:

Consider the colour of that beer. The alcohol content was 10% ABV, and the flavour was every bit as dark as it looks; although it wasn't as malty as I expected.

This beer is almost attempting to play in the "Belgian Ale" category; which is exactly where I don't see He'Brew as a competitor. I've said it before: the only North American breweries that do "Belgian" right are Unibroue and Ommegang (and possibly Dragon Mead, but I haven't sampled enough of their offerings to swear to it). There are any number of excellent American breweries, but they almost always like to push the envelope, and "Belgian" is best in the traditional form. That's not to say I won't drink the other offerings! But I find I much prefer the conservative approach of Unibroue and Ommegang.

Nevertheless, Jewbelation was a treat. If you see one in the store, pick it up. The label is enough reason in itself to buy one of these.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Satan Bug

This is wonderful news for a nice summer, there's been a botulism outbreak at a cannery in Atlanta. They've put out a recall for canned chili. The best part is, they manufacture chili for various companies and store brands, so if you eat that stuff, you need to look at the recall notice.

Interestingly, they ship chili as far north as Canada and as far west as San Diego.

I found the story at CBC before I saw it on an American site. There were a couple memorable quotes:
In states like North Carolina, more than one in three stores checked by state officials in recent days were still offering recalled products for sale. Officials there pulled 5,500 cans and pledged to keep searching

Health Canada on Sunday issued a warning to avoid consuming Great Value brand Original Chili with Beans and Hot Chili with Beans, made by Castleberry in the U.S. and sold in 425-gram cans exclusively at Wal-Mart stores across Canada. No illnesses have been reported in Canada.

As anyone knows who's lived in the South, Southerners like their burgers with chili, slaw, and mustard. Consequently, we frequently have a can of chili from some store or another lying around. And eating a hot dog without chili is just plain barbaric.

Of course, eating a hot dog is arguably uncivilized, regardless of whether slaw's involved...

So check your cupboards, people!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

It was all worth it

Apparently five calculus, three differential equations, one abstract algebra, one linear algebra, and one tensor analysis courses have all paid off:

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

I feel very smart, all of a sudden

Jaymz Game

KingJaymz has suggested a contest, involving the blog toys at Miss Fortune's Cookies. I thought I'd play along. The first two were lame, but I must say, the Harry Potter spoiler made me crack (so to speak) a wide smile.

My Fortune Cookie told me:
If you never look out of the window, you will not see the llama until it is too late.
Get a cookie from Miss Fortune

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Grand Duke Clumsy the Blue of Lower Hellswicke
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

My Harry Potter Spoiler of Doom is:
Draco Malfoy gets addicted to crack after converting to Scientology
Get your Harry Potter Spoiler of Doom

Sunday, July 22, 2007

In one sitting...

Well, I bought Deathly Hallows today, then I came home and read it.

It was surprisingly good. In fact, I was astonished how well she managed to tie up the loose ends more observant Potter fans had noticed. I knew she was good, but not that good.

In other news, we've managed to lose our camera. Isn't that crazy? We have a decent DSLR, and we can't find it for anything.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The blog sits empty;
Ideas race in my brain,
But I can't write them

Monday, July 9, 2007


So I was sitting at work today, sans air conditioner, and I suddenly heard my car alarm go off. Thinking it was odd, I stood up to look out the window, and saw a young man with his hand on the door of my Suburban. He paused a moment, then took off running. He ran across the parking lot, and jumped into the passenger side of an older minivan (I think it was a Mazda MPV, but I couldn't tell for sure). The passenger-side door of the minivan was open: he managed to get in and the minivan took off very quickly.

Sadly, I was slow on the draw on my cell-phone camera (which may not have been very relevant: my phone is obnoxious with the camera, making me explicitly save between every picture), so I never got any pictures of the young man. I did manage to write down the license plate number of the minivan: North Carolina # WPF-8886.

Of course, I called the police, but they didn't seem too interested in my story. It went something like this:
"Did anyone get hurt?"
"Is there damage on the car?"
"No, he never got in, the alarm scared him off"
"I have the license plate number of the car he took off in"
"Do you want it?"
"Well, I guess I could circulate it"
"North Carolina WPF-8886"
"Thank you"

I guess just touching someone's door and setting off the alarm isn't a crime. But I would have expected with all the car break-ins that have been happening in the area, they would have liked to at least know the license plate number.

So I don't want to slander or libel anyone, but someone who was touching my car was very upset when the alarm went off, and hot-footed it into a running, waiting minivan with a North Carolina license plate WPF-8886. If you see it, you might want to be careful.

It would have been better to get pictures, of course, but alas! such was not to be this time.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


Disclaimer: I linked to a couple reviews I wrote for Epinions in this article. If you read my Epinions reviews, you'll earn me credit for traffic. Not like I really care, but I thought I should disclose that I have a material interest (however paltry) in directing you to my reviews.

Well, the Fourth of July was a Wednesday this year, so a bunch of us decided there wasn't a lot of point to coming in Monday or Tuesday. Well, Sunday night I was in the grocery store (after meeting), and I saw pork butts on sale for $0.97 a pound.

So Monday was barbecue day.

Now, barbecue is a greatly misunderstood art form. It's not about sweet and sticky ribs, salty beef brisket, or even vinegar-soaked pig shoulders. Barbecue is about tough cuts of meat, slowly and patiently cooked over coals at around 200F. Whether that meat is brisket, ribs, or hog shoulders; the point is to cook it slowly over coals at around 200F.

Personally, my favourite barbecue is the Eastern North Carolina style: where a whole hog is cooked overnight over coals. The folks out there make their barbecue sauce out of vinegar, water, peppers, and some spices; no sugar, no tomatoes. There are other styles, of course: Texans cook beef with tomatoes and sugar, folks in Kansas City cook beef with molasses, and folks in Memphis use molasses and tomatoes on pig shoulders or ribs.

But North Carolina is where barbecue started, and the flavours and styles vary from county to county. Further east, they cook the whole hog in vinegar. Here in the Piedmont, they cook only pieces of the hog (mainly the shoulders), and they add some sugar and tomato to the sauce. West of here in the mountains, the sauce gets more and more tomatoey, until you get over into Tenessee.

I can't cook a whole hog on my grill, so I just cook shoulders. But I do tend to use the simpler "original" eastern-style sauce. I use a mop sauce loosely based on Smoky Hale's "Eastern North Carolina Basting Sauce" on p. 245 of The Great American Barbecue and Grilling Manual (I wrote an Epinions review too). My version of this sauce is a little different than Smoky's, but I think mine gives a more rounded flavour. And mine reminds me a lot of the sauces I've actually eaten in eastern NC. Here's my mop sauce:
2 C. water
1 1/2 C. white vinegar
1/2 C. apple cider vinegar
1 T. crushed red pepper
1 1/2 T. salt
2 t. black pepper
1 T. garlic powder
2 T. paprika
Just mix all that up and you've got a basting sauce

Now I'll be honest and say I love the "Memphis style" sauces I buy from Red Hot and Blue. But I cook pretty exclusively with either my own baste or Carolina Treet, an excellent "eastern North Carolina" sauce.

This time, I cooked the shoulders for 14 hours, but I think I cut it a little short. It could have used another hour or so. There are those who claim to cook barbecue in eight hours or less, but they're really shorting themselves the final burst of flavour and tenderness that only come in the last couple hours: say after the first twelve.

Well, here's my grill with some meat on it:

Notice I moved my Santa Fe up by my other grill. Well, Ames and I lifted it up. I figure my brother-in-law can have it, just as soon as he comes to get it. Until then, I'll keep using it.

My daughter and I prepped the meat and got it cooking before 9:00 AM. I took it off the grill at 11:00 PM. What does prepping involve? For pork butts, it means spreading cheap yellow mustard all over the meat, then sprinkling it with salt, black pepper, and garlic. Then it goes on the grill.

The most important part of barbecue is the temperature. If you look at the photo above, you can see two temperature probes: one in the butt on the left, the other over the butt in the middle. The first measures the temperature of the meat, the other measures the temperature of the grill. Both readings come out on this display:

Its range is in the several-hundred-foot neighbourhood. I wrote a review of this thermometer on Epinions, if you care.

This go 'round, I created a grease fire on my grill. That is, a grease fire started when I was... er... detained. When I got undetained, I checked the temperature and found that is was too hot to register ("HHHH"). Oops! I ran outside in my bare feet, and saw a tremendous grease fire. I managed to stop it, but not before it completely destroyed my pit temperature probe:

That's why there's only one temperature showing on my thermometer above. I guess I need to replace the pit probe: it permanently reads "HHHH" now. I must have permanently shorted out the thermocouple in there.

Thereafter, I had no remote thermometer, so I had to spend most of the rest of my day in an adirondack chair, sipping a beer, and watching the grill. The built-in thermometer on the grill reads low, but it appears to read consistently low. That is, it appears to be very consistently 70F too low. So, I sat there, trying to make sure my grill thermometer was reading between 120F and 150F.

As I've said before, the key ingredient in barbecue is temperature control. Sometimes my grill gets too hot, so I have these little wooden blocks that I use to prop the lid open and lower the temperature a little. They're basically a cut 2X4, with a groove routed in them:

They sit on the lip of the grill and keep the lid cracked (these are old photos):

Well, after 14 hours and a few of these:

I finally took the meat off the grill at 11:00PM. It could've used a couple more hours, but I think it was (all in all) a good day's work:

Now that is a relaxing day.