Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Christmas Dinner 2010: Recipes and Suggestions

You may be wondering what a Jewish woman is doing preparing Christmas dinner, much less writing about it. It's true that I'm nominally Jewish, but the ubiquitousness of Christmas--the carols, the TV specials, the shopping madness, the time off work--is a reality of the culture in which I live. Anyway, Paganism has always spoken to me more than Judaism or any other religion that emerged from the Middle East, and really, Christmas is Yule, a pagan celebration of the winter solstice. None of the customs, from tree decorating to lights, have a thing to do with Jesus, who, if he ever existed (which some have called into question), was born in a desert in July, and was, to boot, a nice Jewish boy. So there. Now on to the food.

Sweet Potato and Apple Stuffing

This is a modified version of a recipe I got from The Good Cook: Poultry, by Time-Life books, who in turn got it from Louisiana. I'm always interested in stuffings that don't contain bread. In addition to being a pleasant change from the ordinary bread-based stuffing, they are gluten free and good for celiacs and anyone else who doesn't do well with wheat. It's delicious too.

The original recipe calls for sugar. A lot of recipes with sweet things in them call for sugar. Sweet potatoes with sugar. Beets with sugar. And so on. I have always found this to be insane. It's like putting blue eyeshadow on a blue-eyed woman "to bring out her eyes," except that instead of simply being in bad taste, it's bad for your health as well. No sugar in this version, and it's still plenty sweet.

  • 4 cups diced apples
  • 1 cup chopped celery (I didn't have any, so I used white turnip)
  • 1 cup water
  • 6 sweet potatoes (about 3 lb.)
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice (I used cider vinegar)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  • grated peel of 1 lemon (I left this out)

The recipe said to peel the apples and sweet potatoes, but I didn't bother. Both have perfectly edible skins. Yes, the sweet potato does too. Try it some time; it saves effort and reduces food waste.

Steam or boil the sweet potatoes for 25 minutes. While you mash the sweet potatoes with the butter and cinnamon, simmer the apples and celery in the water until tender. (If you use turnip, as I did, you'll need to put it in first because it takes longer to cook than the apple.) Mix the apples, celery and chopped nuts into the sweet potato mush and stuff it into your turkey.

Turkey-Cooking Suggestion

Cookbooks and every other turkey-cooking expert I've ever heard of advise you to place the turkey on its back to cook it. It is, I believe, a presentation thing, but results in the quickest-cooking part of the bird--the breast--being exposed to the most heat. You are then expected to get around this by basting, or by covering the breast with bacon. If you're lucky, it works out. More likely, you end up eating overcooked breast meat, or slicing off the breast meat and eating it first while you put the still-uncooked remains back in the oven, because you've been waiting for hours and you're starving and you can't take it any longer.

Well, try this. Place the turkey on its breast instead. Now the dark meat, which takes longer to cook, is getting the most heat, while the white meat is protected from being overcooked. Doesn't that make more sense? I think so. It's what I did this year and my turkey came out perfect. The stuffing was fabulous too--better than cranberry sauce.

Mince Pie

A modified version of a recipe from The Vegetarian Feast by Martha Rose Shulman. Here's another recipe that cries out to have its sugar removed. It's made mostly from dried fruit, which is very sweet, plus it contains juice. Why would you add sugar, or even honey or other sweetener? That would be dumb. Leave it out, and you can actually taste the fruit. And buying mince pie filling in a jar, when you can easily make a more delicious version at home, is also questionable.

  • 1 pie crust (see below)
  • 1/2 cup currants
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 2 apples (I used russets; they're very nice)
  • 1/3 cup chopped, pitted prunes
  • 1/3 cup chopped, dried, pitted apricots (get the sulfite-free ones from the health food store; they're better for you)
  • 1/4 cup chopped, pitted dates
  • 1/2 cup broken pecans or walnuts
  • Juice and grated peel of 1 orange (I used a Mandarin orange)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground clove
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 3 tbsp rum (I used Screech rum from Newfoundland; good stuff)

Since preparing Christmas dinner is a huge chore, a job for a masochist, it's a good idea to make the filling part the day before. Grate the orange peel, then cut the orange in half and juice it. (At which point, if you used a Mandarin orange as did I, you will discover that the peel disintegrates under the stress. So proceed with care.) Throw the dried fruits, nuts, juice, peel and water into a pot, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook over low heat for 20 minutes or until it's all nice and mushy. Add the spices and booze, mix and cook for another 5 minutes. There. You're done. Told you it was easy.

Pie crust

One of the things that has mystified me all my cooking life is why cookbooks call for such a small amount of water in pie crust. "Oh yes," they coo, the liars, "just chill those 3 dainty tablespoons of water with those ice cubes, and your crust will be fine." Then you try to roll it and it cracks into particles like a freshly-unwrapped ancient mummy. (Sorry if that metaphor wasn't appetizing.) Well, I've had it. I'm doubling the water quantity, and if any pie crust experts out there want to float over to this blog and mock me, feel free. I'll just ignore you.

  • 2 cups some kind of flour (this year, I used 1 cup brown rice flour and 1 cup buckwheat)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 oil or fat (I used chicken fat. There, that's Jewish)
  • 1/2 cup or more water, and I don't believe it makes any difference whether it's iced or not

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine dry ingredients. Work fat into flour mixture with hands, a butter knife or one of those pastry cutter things until the little bits are smaller than peas. Mix in the water and add as much as you need to make a dough that holds together. Roll the dough out on a floured surface, or if that doesn't work out for you, which it often doesn't for me, pick it up in little pieces and press it into the pie pan, as you would for a crumble crust. There's no shame in that. Pie crust is like love and war: all's fair so long as it gets the job done. Poke a bunch of holes in the bottom with a fork and prebake for 5 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool, then spoon in the mince. Top with a lattice crust if you like, or with an unbroken top crust, or even sprinkle the dough on like a Dutch apple pie topping if that works better for you. Did I mention pie crust is like love and war? Now stick it back in the oven and bake for 40 minutes. Cool and eat, if you have any room after all that turkey. If not, it makes a delightful breakfast.

--Brought to you by The Rebel Cook (my new name for my cooking alter ego)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mildly Amusing Writing Exercises: Nursery Rhyme + Genre

In writer's groups I belong to, or have belonged to, we sometimes do writing exercises. Most of them have been focused not so much on honing specific stylistic skills as on getting the creative juices flowing while having fun at the same time. As a result, we tend to lean toward the funny and silly exercises. After which, one is left with a piece of writing that one doesn't know what to do with. (Look, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. If only my writing exercises were more highbrow, I might have known better.)

I have old writing exercise results lying around that I am fond of, even perversely proud of. It seems a shame that they are only seeing the inside of my underwear drawer. Still, it's not as if I can submit them for publication. But here's a thought: I could post them on my blog.

One of my writing friends is fond of nursery rhymes, and she came up with the following writing exercise. Write several nursery rhymes down on little scraps of paper and put them in a hat. Then write down several genre names and put them in a separate hat. Each participating writer draws one piece of paper from each hat, that is, one nursery rhyme and one genre. The challenge is then to write a short story in the given genre, that somehow references the nursery rhyme.

I did two of these. See if you can guess both nursery rhyme and genre.


"Captain Wutax!" A note of alarm crept into the ensign's voice. "A Knitter's Guild vessel just decloaked off our starboard bow."

Before Captain Wutax could respond, the ensign cried, "They're powering weapons, Sir!"

"Raise shields," barked Captain Wutax, his jaw jutting out manfully.

"Shields at maximum. They're hailing us, Sir."

"Open a communication link. Onscreen."

With an electronic chirp, the hated face of Mrs. Connor, compulsive knitter, appeared onscreen. Fear and loathing twisted in Captain Wutax's guts as he saw she was swathed in a hand-knitted Victorian lace shawl over her hand-knitted cable sweater. The woman had no notion of when to stop. It was said that the Guild kept its ship ice-cold. Otherwise they'd swelter under all that knitted stuff.

"This is Captain Wutax of the Black Sheep. What do you want?"

"I think you know exactly what I want," drawled Mrs. Connor. "We know you've got wool. Hand it over."

"The Black Sheep has no wool for you!" thundered Captain Wutax.

"Don't hand me that. I know you have three bays full."

"Yes, for Master Blaster and his wife. They're going to share it with little Kimmy. We have wool for honest, paying customers, not pirates like you."

Mrs. Connor's mouth twisted. "Fine. If that's the way it's going to go. Let's see if your shields can stand up to our Needle of Doom!" The screen went black.

"Evasive manoeuvres," barked Wutax. "And arm... the Crotchet Hook!"

* * *

Nursery rhyme and genre: Baa Baa Black Sheep/Space Opera. I know it sounds a lot like a Star Trek rip-off. That's because I haven't been exposed to much space opera, so Star Trek naturally came to mind. By the way, I was going for a cheesy, overwritten effect. That's why so many faces are twisting and jaws are jutting manfully. I don't normally write that way. Honest.


As the police officer outlined the body in chalk, Sherlock Columbo took in the sumptuous surroundings. "Lovely place you've got here," he remarked absently to the distraught young woman on the sofa. She'd stopped crying, but her eyes were red-rimmed and the tissue in her hands had disintegrated into moist little shreds. "That's a very nice sofa," Columbo continued. "I bet that's no later than 18th century." She gazed at him with bewilderment.

"That's a nice piece too." He nodded at the grandfather clock that rose above the corpse. "Excellent condition."

Watson, his assistant, leaned in close and said in a low voice, "Sherlock, the young lady is obviously upset. Do you think it's appropriate..."

"Oh! I'm sorry." Columbo smiled at the woman, who dissolved into fresh tears. "Oh now... here, take my handkerchief." He whipped the white cloth out of his breast pocket and handed it to her. She blew her nose with a loud honk.

"Keep it. I have plenty."

He turned to Watson. "One thing we know," he murmured, "is that the murder occurred between midnight and one in the morning."

"We do? How do we know that?"

"You'll notice the mouse." Columbo pointed, and Watson saw the tiny black eyes peeking out from behind the pendulum. "As we know from the scientific reports the deceased published in Nature Journal, this mouse was in the habit of running up the clock at midnight, and back down at one. It was like... well, clockwork." Columbo allowed himself a small chuckle. "And yet the mouse is still in the clock. Why?"

Watson looked at the body. "The mouse was afraid to come down because of the body at the base of the clock. Very clever, Sherlock!"

"Elementary, my dear Watson."

* * *

Nursery rhyme and genre: Hickory Dickory Dock, the mouse ran up the clock/Mystery.


Wasn't that fun? Maybe I'll post some more later.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

FYI: Eighties Music Really Did Suck

How do you know when you're getting old? Is it when that first grey hair appears, or the first time you groan as you hoist yourself out of a chair? Well, here's my definition: you know you're getting old when the music of your youth develops nostalgia value. This has happened to me. It's become a common thing for night clubs to have "eighties nights." That makes me feel ancient.

Is it just a matter of the eighties getting their turn? After all, clubs used to have sixties nights and seventies nights (maybe some still do) and many radio stations devote themselves to these decades. But you see, there's a difference: the eighties were musically wretched. It wasn't all Duran Duran, Thomas Dolby and Bruce Springsteen. It was also Mr. Mister, Soft Cell and Toto.

I decided that there was a need for this essay one summer evening. I was at a friend's house watching a DVD of the eighties stage musical, Chess. If no bells of recognition are going off in your head, this might help: the eighties hit, One Night in Bangkok, is from this play.

Watching this eighties play led to talk of eighties music. The youngest person in the room, a striking beauty in her twenties, mentioned eighties nights in clubs and how fun they are. I felt a moral obligation to speak up.

"You know, eighties music really sucked. People don't realize that because nowadays they only play the good stuff. They never play all those shitty songs that were on the radio when I was a teenager."

"But that's true of any decade," our hostess pointed out. "They only play the good songs from the seventies, too."

She had a point. So what is my basis for claiming, nonetheless, that the eighties sucked worse than other decades, musically speaking?

The Argument

For one thing, I've lived through other decades, so I do have a basis for comparison. I can vouch for the fact that the radioscape improved immeasurably once the eighties ended and the nineties began. It was great; finally we were through the bland desert of tinny electropop and into a verdant landscape of Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20, etc. The noughts were also good, as far as I could tell, though I've spent the latter half of them in a town largely devoid of decent music radio.

I can't speak with authority of the decades that preceded the eighties, since I either wasn't around yet, or was too young to tune my own radio dial. But I have some idea, at least of the sixties, because my brother had Woodstock on a set of vinyl records. Not just the best of Woodstock—the whole thing. It stands to reason that the decade's most massive, notorious concert would include artists that faded into obscurity as well as the ones who are still remembered, and it does. Many of the songs on the Woodstock album were just OK, or even forgettable, but there is not the killing monotony of sound that marked the eighties.

I don't think so, anyway. This is only my opinion, and you may well be asking yourself why should give it any credence. That brings me to my other point: I am not the only one who found the eighties to be musically monotonous. The Fifth Estate did a segment on it once. I have tried to find out which episode it was, but the CBC has been diligently at work making its web site ever less navigable and functional, and I was unable to glean anything from it. I'll have to settle for estimating that the episode aired in the late eighties to early nineties. It discussed the bland sameness that possessed radio stations in this period and the independent music industry that sprang up in response. I remember the narrator stating that many of these new outsider bands sounded angry, and they had reason to be: radio was neglecting them. Alternative bands existed throughout the eighties, but did not get played on mainstream radio stations until the nineties. Not on any that I had access to, anyway.

The Evidence

I can argue myself blue in the face on this point, but unless I can give you a listen to the sort of crud I heard as a teenager every time I turned on the radio, you are unlikely to be persuaded. And thanks to Jango, I can do just that.

Jango is a free, web-based service that lets users create their own "radio stations." Here's how it works: you type the name of a musical artist into the search box. If it's found, Jango will create a new station named after the artist (you can rename it if you want) and begin playing a random selection from that artist. But it will go one better than that. It will provide a list of similar artists that you might also enjoy and want to add to your station, and it will insert their songs into the playlist. Jango is pretty good at finding matches by style and period.

The idea, of course, is to present you with music you will like, but there's nothing to stop you from using it for other, more nefarious purposes. I found it an invaluable tool for digging up all those old forgotten bands that dissolved my brain cells during my youth. I got the ball rolling with The Thompson Twins, and soon I had a whole stack of dismal bands. Mind you, The Thompson Twins weren't the worst the eighties had to offer. (I'd tried Chalk Circle first, a band I remember with deep disgust, but Jango didn't know it.) However, Jango helpfully brought up other bands that were even lamer, and I added the worst of them until I created a station that is truly soul-destroying. I offer it here for your listening displeasure: Vivian's Bad Eighties Music. Take only in small doses, and bear in mind that this is what about three-quarters of airplay sounded like during my formative years. Condolences accepted.

To be fair and balanced, I also created a Jango station of good eighties music. This one, Vivian's Good Eighties Music, reproduces the experience of going to one of those eighties club nights.

The Playlists

Here are the playlists for my two Jango radio stations. Keep in mind that these lists do not encompass everything you will hear on these stations, since Jango inserts its own "recommendations" from time to time.

Bad Eighties Music

  1. Icehouse
  2. Book of Love
  3. Depeche Mode
  4. Johnny Hates Jazz
  5. Love and Rockets
  6. Mr. Mister
  7. The Housemartins
  8. Soft Cell
  9. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  10. XTC
  11. The The
  12. Missing Persons
  13. Berlin
  14. Cutting Crew
  15. Thompson Twins
  16. China Crisis
  17. Toto

Good Eighties Music

  1. Simple Minds
  2. Fine Young Cannibals
  3. The Fixx
  4. Eurythmics
  5. Duran Duran
  6. Pet Shop Boys
  7. The Human League
  8. ABC
  9. The Cars
  10. T'Pau
  11. Spandau Ballet
  12. a-ha
  13. Bronski Beat
  14. Arcadia
  15. Thomas Dolby
  16. Wham!
  17. Yazoo
Monday, August 16, 2010

Omigod What an Awful Sentence

It is said, "Those who can't do, teach." At times I think one could just as well replace the word "do" with "write" and the word "teach" with "edit." Which is fine. After all, we writers need editors so that we can get our work perfected and published. That's the theory, at least. The reality is more like, we writers need editors to send us rejections containing foolish remarks or cryptic "advice." I got a particularly disturbing rejection letter yesterday, which I may make fun of later. But not right now. Right now, I'm making fun of something else, because I need to find another place to send this rejected story, a need that sent me to the Internet, which in turn led me to an article entitled, "A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had."

Just the thing for a writer who's been rejected, right? Well, you would think. But there's the problem mentioned above: editors often can't write. This fellow admits as much, calling himself "a tolerably mediocre author who has seen more form-letter rejections than penis-enlargement spams." Having gotten just short of halfway through his article, I agree with all of that statement except the "tolerable" part. Now, it's great that he has found a way around his unfortunate handicap--by becoming an editor--and kind of him to share his hard-earned knowledge with us writers so we can improve ourselves... I guess. I confess, I'm always a little suspicious of constructive criticism, especially the unsolicited kind. What portion of the motive is sincere helpfulness, and what portion is smug superiority? Even putting that aside, good intentions and frank admission of shortcomings are nice but not enough in themselves. If you know you don't write very well and you still want to get your wisdom out to the world, you need to get yourself--now, this is ironic--an editor. Or perhaps a ghost writer. If you don't, you're liable to end up embarrassing yourself in front of the world with sentences like this:

Point of view failures are usually some kind of loss of containment, such as when the narrative voice is first person but the narrative perception starts slipping off to places where the narrative character could not carry the reader or a third person POV that usually stays outside on the shoulder of characters but sometimes jumps inside the head for a first-person peek.

No joke, I read this sentence five or six times and I'm still not sure what he's trying to say. The latter half of the sentence is particularly scary: a mess of interlocking, ambiguous subordinate clauses. Sentences like this happen when a "writer" gets more involved in showing how clever and imaginative he thinks he is than in conveying his meaning to the reader. That this particular "writer" was absorbed with his cleverness and imagination, or imagined cleverness, is shown earlier in the article. Unnecessary zombie and condom metaphors abounded, but the thing was still readable. It is this one sentence, the sentence from the eleventh layer of hell (also mentioned in the article) that stops a reader dead, like the sight of two shattered cars by the side of the road. And when said reader stops reading altogether in order to make fun of the sentence on her blog, then clearly the article has failed. Which is a shame, because the world can indeed use a comprehensive listing of things that can go wrong in a piece of writing. I can't help but notice, however, that this one isn't completely comprehensive. After all, it makes no mention of long, convoluted, horrible sentences. Hmm. Maybe that's a blind spot.

Mockery aside, the article does make some good points. Read it, if you can.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Installing Adobe Flash Player on Firefox

Or: forty years of wandering in a desert of unhelpful Adobe links

After one tooth-gnashing hour of frustration, I have managed to install the Adobe Flash Player 10.1 plug-in on my Firefox 3.6.4. Why it was so difficult, I don't know. I'm pretty sure I performed the same installation at work without a hitch. That discrepancy may have something to do with the fact that my work computer is running Windows 7 Enterprise and this computer is running Windows XP Professional. I don't know.

One thing I do know is that if I'm having problems with Adobe, I'm probably not the only one, so I feel it is my duty as a citizen of the human race to provide the solution I eventually uncovered.

But first, a detailed description of my travails. It will be like Passover in summer. (You can go straight to the solution if you want. I won't be offended.)

Why is This Installation Different From All Other Installations?

Firefox usually takes charge of installing its own plug-ins. But Adobe Flash Player 10.1 doesn't want to let Firefox install it. It wants to install itself, via its own installation manager plug-in, GetPlusPlus. It's like a boy who doesn't want Mommy to dress him anymore, because he's a Big Boy now, only he winds up putting his underpants on backward and his shoes on the wrong feet.

How Did It All Start?

I downloaded the latest Firefox upgrade. Everytime you download a new version of Firefox, it takes you to a web page detailing what's new with this release. This time, the page included a scary yellow message telling me I must install the latest Adobe Flash Player for security reasons.

I followed the link provided to the download page. By the way, as long as I'm kvetching about Adobe (which didn't used to suck), may I remark on how annoying it is when a download page includes another piece of software without asking you, with the checkbox already checked, so that if you don't notice and uncheck it, you can end up installing something you don't want or need? In the case of Adobe Flash Player, McAfee Security Scan Plus is the piece of stealth software. However, I'd already had that experience at work, so I was prepared, and unchecked the checkbox.

Then I hit the installation button, and it took me to the Thank You page. These pages usually say, "If the download does not start automatically, click here." This one had a twist on the old theme: "If it does not start, click here for troubleshooting information [italics added]." It was my first moment of annoyance, and there were many more to come.

What Went Wrong?

The download didn't start automatically, of course. Firefox helpfully popped up its little top frame letting me know I was missing a plug-in: the aforementioned download manager. Since there didn't seem to be any way to download one plug-in without first installing another, I clicked on the button on the frame. A window opened asking me if I wanted to manually install the plug-in, which was in a file called gp.xpi. So I agreed to that, Firefox downloaded the file, and a window asked me what application I wanted to use to open the file. Surprisingly, it suggested an application, but that didn't matter because it didn't work.

After a few futile tries, I thought I might have to look at Adobe's troubleshooting page. It was no help, but the thank you page did also say, "For Firefox users, please see the Installation Instructions." So I did, and that's when my blood pressure really started going up, because the instructions, and screen shots, seemed to have no relationship to Firefox whatsoever. "LOOK FOR A YELLOW BAR AT THE TOP," the instructions advised (in all caps). The screen shot showed a button marked "Edit Options."

If I ever found that button, I certainly would have clicked it. At the top of WHAT? (I was starting to think in all caps myself.) Not at the top of the browser, since that bar didn't have any button marked "Edit Options," only the button that led me on the merry dance with gp.xpi. I looked all over the place. I opened the Add-ons window: not there. I went into Options. There, under Security, I found something that looked hopeful. Not anything mentioned in Adobe's instructions--no, those appear to have been written by space aliens. But I did find a checkbox marked "Warn me when sites try to install add-ons" next to a button marked "Exceptions." I clicked that button and it did indeed open a box that looked just like the one in Adobe's second screen shot ("ADD THE WEB SITE TO THE SITES WHICH ARE ALLOWED TO INSTALL ADD-ONS").

So I got there in the end, even if not by the non-existent button Adobe recommended. I added Adobe to the list of sites, and hit the Refresh button as advised in the next step. Unfortunately, it didn't work. None of the things that Adobe said would happen as a result of that action actually happened. I remained unable to install the plug-in that would let me install the plug-in.

Did You Eventually Get GetPlusPlus Installed?

Yes I did, and I highly recommend you not bother. Once I was finished letting Adobe's useless instructions work me into a lather, I turned to Oracle Google and found this handy page: Install a Firefox Add-on Manually. Manually installing a plug-in turned out to be very easy once you knew how, and soon GetPlusPlus was safely ensconced. Thinking all would be well, I went back to the Adobe download page and refreshed it. GetPlusPlus launched, it showed me a progress bar, it filled the bar up with a pretty green colour, and then it choked. "Installation failed," it said. And that was all. No more meaningful error message, no useful information. Nothing. I tried three times, with identical results.

So How Did You Finally Get Adobe Flash Player?

I got creative. As much as Adobe wanted to download and install its own plug-ins, it didn't seem equal to the task. So here's what I did. I went to YouTube. I selected a random video. Firefox opened its top frame letting me know I was missing a plug-in. I clicked the Install button. And it installed. Firefox was doing the installing, so it worked. This is the route I would recommend to any Firefox user who is having trouble getting the plug-in at the Adobe page. Until they get their act together, don't even waste your time trying to do it their way. Save yourself an hour or two of aggravation.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you already have an older version of the Adobe Flash Plug-in in your Firefox, remove or disable it before trying this trick. I didn't have to because Adobe's abortive installation attempts had already done it for me (I think). If you already have an older plug-in, going to a video will only make the video play.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Kobo eReader: a Long-term Review

The Kobo eReader, a lower-priced alternative to devices such as the Kindle, has launched in Chapters and Indigo bookstores across Canada on May 1, and will launch in Borders bookstores in the United States on June 17. Having rejected the Kindle as too expensive and proprietary and the Sony as too slow in its page-turning, I awaited the Kobo eagerly and pounced on it as soon as it became available. Had I reviewed it during those first two weeks, the result would have been about ninety percent gush. Now that I've had a month to live with the Kobo and learn its little quirks--now that the honeymoon glow has faded, I am in a position to dispassionately discuss its strong points and shortcomings, and even those bugs that reveal themselves only upon extensive use.

Advantages

Price

Indeed, the $149 price tag is what first attracted me to the Kobo. The first e-reader I ever heard of was the Kindle, which at that time cost over $300. My initial question was, how many e-books would you have to buy to make back your money? Thirty? It would take years. I didn't see the point of bothering with e-books when such an extraordinary initial investment was involved. (Let's not even get into the iRex iLiad, with its US$859 price tag.)

Pre-Kobo, I'd looked into the possibility of getting my hands on a Sony e-reader that is no longer made, the PRS-505. For reasons known only to themselves, Sony chose to discontinue this e-reader, cutting their line down to only two, one that is too expensive (the PRS-600) and one that is too small (the PRS-300). If you don't want to shell out for the touch-screen, your other option is the piddling 5-inch screen. I don't care if my e-reader has a touch screen or not, and in my experience, they don't respond very well, in addition to getting covered in finger grease. Neither do I require all the other bells and whistles, such as 3G wireless access and the whiz-bang rotating display, to say nothing of Internet surfing. I want an e-reader in order to read books on it; isn't that really the point? Kobo, it seems, is the first company to clue into this. I might not have bought the Kobo e-reader if I'd found a reasonably-priced PRS-505 before it came out, but owners of PRS-505s charge high prices for their used e-readers. They seem to believe they are collector's items.

Page-turning Speed

I am glad that I didn't get a PRS-505, though, because it probably wouldn't have turned pages fast enough to suit me. I have tried out both the current Sony e-readers and the page-turning is uncomfortably slow, taking as long as 4 seconds. This is the Sony e-readers' primary weakness. I'm a fast reader, and I want to be able to turn pages on an e-reader at least as fast as I turn them on a real book. Kobo pages turn in about 2 seconds, which is just about right. New chapters are slower to load, but as that's an event of much less frequent occurrence, it's not a concern.

Design

I like the uncluttered design of the Kobo. Why does the Kindle have an entire keyboard? What is the need for that? It's space that they could have given over to a larger screen. Despite its smaller overall dimensions, the Kobo's screen is 6 inches across, same as the Kindle. It has a matte finish that emits minimal glare, providing a comfortable reading experience.

100 Free eBooks

The Kobo comes with 100 free public domain classics, more than any other e-reader. This is a nice perk. While it's true that all those books and more can be downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg and ePubBooks, it would take some time to download all one hundred of them. Plus the Kobo versions come with prettier covers. It feels as if you're getting your money's worth immediately. After all, if you wanted to, you could read your Kobo for years without having to buy any new e-books, and fill in all those gaps in your classical literature education.

Prompt, Respectful and Helpful Customer Service

In response to a discrepancy between my experience and what was stated in the user manual--which I will describe in more detail later on--I wrote an email to Kobo customer service. I got a better response than I have received from any other customer service agent I've ever dealt with via email. This may say more about the dismal quality of online customer service in general than it does about Kobo's, but I had never before had the experience of having my issue fully understood and appropriately addressed on first contact. I'm more accustomed to the agent not reading my email carefully and so telling me things that I already know and that have no bearing on the problem. Or worse, copy/pasting a section of their help file into an email and sending it to me. Obviously I read all available documentation before contacting customer service. I don't need to have customer service waste my time in this way, nor am I an idiot, but the average customer service agent appears to assume that all the emails they receive come from idiots, and treats them accordingly. It is insulting and ultimately does not solve the problem.

I didn't get this from Kobo customer service. I got an email that carefully addressed every issue I'd brought up and told me exactly what I needed to know. It was most refreshing.

Kobo's shortcomings

User Settings Not Retained

When I'd just brought the Kobo home and was still working out what I could do with it, such was my enthusiasm that I read the user manual all the way through. I know, I know--I'll have to turn in my Techno Geek membership badge. Anyway, I discovered I could change the display of the book list, to make it look like books sitting on shelves--cute! I could also change the sort order from title to author. I preferred that. I liked seeing how many books by a particular author I had--Jane Austen is especially well-represented.

I was perfectly happy with these features until I turned the e-reader on the next day and discovered that everything I'd changed had reverted back to the defaults.

The Kobo e-reader will remember what books you are reading, displaying them in a separate list, and will bounce you straight to your current page when you select them. Why on earth can't it also remember and retain your display settings? This seems like quite the careless oversight.

Missing Features

Another thing I learned by reading the manual is that you can remove books from your "I'm Reading" list--that's the list of books you have started to read but not finished--by plugging the e-reader into your computer, logging into your Kobo account and clicking on "I'm Reading." I tried that, but could not locate "I'm Reading."

When I contacted customer service, (a positive experience, as mentioned above,) I was told is that there is no "I'm Reading" section in Kobo Online, and no way to remove books from your "I'm Reading" list. This feature hasn't been implemented yet.

I daresay it might have been wiser to hold off on adding its description to the manual until the feature itself was safely functional in the Kobo. After all, it's not as if the manual is a print publication. Appropriately enough, it's an e-book. Reprinting it and sending it to the customers when appropriate should be no very difficult or expensive thing. Furthermore, it's not a great idea to draw your customer's attention to handy little features that your product doesn't have.

Minimal Formats

Kobo supports only two formats, ePub and PDF. This is not very many, and is the one thing that made me hesitate before buying one. I bought it anyway because I knew I could convert other formats, such as HTML and word processing documents, into PDF. When I did so, I discovered quite the colourful bug. More on that later. Kobo promises to add more formats later. Readers who feel it important to have good format support might want to wait until then before purchasing.

Room for Improvement in the Big Blue Button

In his review of the Kobo Reader in the National Post, Mark Medley memorably declared about its famous big blue button, "a pox on whoever designed this thing." I have not found it as troublesome as he has, but it doesn't need to click so emphatically. One day, I was sitting on the couch reading one of my freebie Jane Austen novels. James sat at the other end, using his computer. Several pages later, James turned to me and said, "Reading e-books is a lot noisier than reading regular books." My clicking was disturbing him.

We also wonder why the choice was made to place the big blue button (Kobo calls it the directional pad or D-pad, but that's never going to stick) in the right corner. It would have been more convenient to have it in the middle, where it would be equally accessible to both hands. I suppose they might have been imitating true books, whose pages you turn by grasping the right corner, but there was no need for that and no advantage in doing it. No button is going to feel like turning pages anyway, and they may as well have put it where it would have worked best.

eBook Formatting and Proofreading (or Lack Thereof)

About those free e-books... they're not that nicely formatted. There is no indenting, and italics are represented with underscores. Sub-chapters have not been properly rendered. James is reading Madame Bovary on the e-reader, and was puzzled when he finished chapter 13 and turned the page, only to find himself apparently back at chapter 1. It turns out that Madame Bovary is in multiple parts. There are 13 chapters in Part 1, and when you finish that part, you come to Chapter 1 of Part 2. But the parts are not shown in the table of contents; only the individual chapters. James also found multiple misspelled words, as though the novel had been scanned in and then not proofread.

Kobo is using the 100 free books as a selling point. It would have been a better one if they'd gone to more effort to format the books.

Unnecessary Lights That Don't Work Properly

Besides reduced eyestrain, the greatest advantage of the non-backlit E Ink screens found on true e-readers like the Kobo (as opposed to multipurpose devices like the iPad) is the low power usage. Eco-friendly E Ink screens only draw power when the image onscreen is changing, for example, when you're turning a page. So it seems a shame that the Kobo company chose to put two indicator lights into their e-reader. I don't know how much this ups the power consumption, but I would imagine the percentage must be sizable.

The red light is meant to go on when your e-reader is fully charged. This is useful and arguably necessary, or at least it would be if it worked. In actual fact, this untrustworthy light often goes on well before the e-reader is fully charged, and pointlessly stays on even after the e-reader has been unplugged.

The blue light, on the other hand, is useless and silly. It goes on when the e-reader is processing: when you're turning a page or bringing up a new book or chapter. Or rather, that's what it does some of the time. It seems to operate fairly randomly. But in any case, you don't need a light to tell you that a page is turning; you know when a page is turning, because the screen flashes a negative image of itself. All the E Ink screens I've seen do this; it seems to be an unalterable part of their functioning. The e-reader also displays a little sunburst shape in the upper right corner when loading a new book or chapter, and in contrast to the light, it does so consistently, rendering the light even more redundant and pointless.

The only positive aspect I've noted about these lights is that they both come on at the same time when you turn the e-reader on, resulting in an attractive purple colour. Other than that, their primary impact is to force you to charge your e-reader more frequently.

Bug Report

After converting a Word document to PDF and loading it into the e-reader, I decided I wanted to make a change to its table of contents. I regenerated the PDF and reloaded the document into the reader.

To add a new document to the Kobo, you plug the e-reader into your computer's USB port, where it is treated just like a memory stick, and copy the new file onto it. But when I copied the new version of my file onto the Kobo and booted it up, the document turned out to be unchanged. My alterations to the table of contents were missing. It looked as if the Kobo did not recognize and implement the file change when a file with the same name was copied over the old version. What I had to do was delete the original version, unplug the reader and let it recognize the change, then plug it back in and copy the new file. I had to go through that whole tedious process every time I changed the file. That's bug number one.

After deleting the old file and copying the new one, I discovered that each chapter title now appeared twice in the table of contents! Neither of the two pointed to the right page either.

Thinking something must have gone wrong with the generation of the table of contents, I went back to the Word document, regenerated the TOC, and generated and loaded a third PDF. It looked fine in Acrobat Reader, but once loaded into Kobo, it now had three of everything in its table of contents.

After much frustrating deleting, unplugging, plugging back in, copying, regenerating and so on, my table of contents getting ever longer, I began to wonder if the file deletion was in fact complete. Perhaps the file was only removed from the document list, its table of contents remaining intact? Then, when a new version was introduced, perhaps its new table of contents entries were being appended to the old.

Acting on this hunch, I renamed the file and copied it into the reader. This time, its table of contents was fine.

Apparently, Kobo accumulates ghostly tables of contents that can never be eliminated, never sent to their rest. Whooooo...

Conclusion

Although the Kobo eReader has its shortcomings, they are minor (except for the lights; as an eco-worrier, that really bugs me), outweighed by the device's advantages, and many of them can probably be repaired in later software releases. If money is no object for you, you'll probably want to go with something more high-end--the iRex iLiad looks quite nice. But if reluctance to drop a few hundred dinero is the only thing preventing you from shelling out for an e-reader, then the Kobo may be the one for you.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Silliest New Product Award 2009

Once again, the time has come to bestow the Silliest New Product Award. A long time has passed since I last gave out this award, for Bagel-fuls. But please understand that this award is not just for any minor foolish product. If it was, I could give it out weekly. But no--a Silliest New Product must scale the Everest of foolishness. And at last, we have a contender.

Once again, the product in question is a food product. I will have to start keeping an eye out for foolish devices or articles of clothing. I don't want to limit myself to food, although admittedly it's something I get passionate about. This food product is even sillier than Bagel-fuls was. It add a whole new dimension to silly food, in my opinion. There's no denying that our society is loaded with silly food, even dangerous silly food. Yes, we keep trying to find ways to stuff more caffeine into our beverages. Yes, our desserts are so sweet that sugar is often the first ingredient. And let's not forget poutine.

The thing is, though, we know that that sort of stuff is junk food. People may joke that poutine is a meal, but they don't eat it as such too often, unless they actively want to die young. As much junk food as we eat--and we eat a lot of it--at least we are aware, however dimly, that it's not a real meal, and not something we should be eating very often.

But what if some daring and black-hearted individual should redefine the meal? What if you could eat something that was incredibly bad for your health, but still feel as if you'd had a perfectly adequate meal and were not doing anything wrong? For such is the cunning of my award recipient that he, whoever he may be, has entirely redefined the concept of "meal" in just such a revolutionary way.

Oh, we've had meal redefinition before. Don't get me wrong. I am aware of the bold stroke that created the TV dinner: meals apportioned out in a partitioned foil tray. (That was before the advent of microwaves, of course; now it's a partitioned plastic tray.)

Still, the TV dinner, and its offspring, the nukeable dinner, continue to give lip service to the idea of food groups. Some form of vegetable matter still constitutes part of the meal. Said vegetables may be limp and tasteless and people may not eat them, but at least they're there.

Then there's the junk food meal, with its three food groups: hunk of meat with filler, bun, and fries stuffed into a little cardboard packet. Admittedly, the vegetables are absent, but at least some degree of food groupage remains. Also, look at the name. We recognize that this is junk. We don't take it seriously. That's important. In this age of rising obesity and diabetes rates, it may be little enough to hold onto, but it's something.

The real coup has come with the throwing out of food groups altogether. Now, it seems, we are ready to accept the concept of a meal consisting of just one food group, and in a form almost totally devoid of fiber and nutrients. At least, somebody thinks we are, and frighteningly enough, he may be right. It is a stroke of Lex Luthor-like genius. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... drumroll, please... Domino's Pasta in a Bread Bowl.

That's right. What's pasta made of? White flour. What's the bread bowl made of? White flour. So you have a situation where someone can consume a great big lump of refined flour product with a little bit of creamy sauce on top (also containing white flour) and consider that he or she has eaten a meal.

This is bad, folks. This is very, very bad, although perhaps it is the logical end of decades of addiction-fueled, simple-carbohydrate binging. But I don't think we can just blame the consumer in this instance. I refuse to believe that Domino's has been hounded by people crying, "Stop serving us our pasta in real bowls--we want it in pizza dough! It's the only way we can get enough bready stuff!" No. I think what's going on here is that Domino's is actively trying to kill us.

This brings up the question: Why is Domino's trying to kill us? My best guess is, for the fun of it. I think they're serving up those bread bowls and then hunkering down like Kilroy and peeking through the little window where the waitresses leave the orders, watching as the customer eats his "meal" and giggling maniacally to themselves. Perhaps saying things like, "Oh my God, he's eating it! What a moron!" Much like Colbert Report viewers did when that suicidal guy ate a fifteen-pound burger.

Now, you may argue that this is a shortsighted way to do business. Sure, you have a little fun watching the mayhem. Sure, your customers' addiction to simple carbohydrates gets even worse, and you do a brisk business for a while. But then they die, and where is your business then? OK, there's a new generation, but if they do the same thing, they'll die untimely deaths as well, and eventually the shrinking population is going to impact your bottom line, right? It's not a good long term plan, is it?

To which I'd respond, hey, it's worked for the producers of cheap alcohol. So far, anyway. And let's face it, most businesses are based on short-term gain. Hell, the whole economy's based on short-term gain. That's why nobody wants to do anything about global warming.

But I sense myself drifting off-topic, so let me just return to the point and say, Dominos, you suck. Once, you seduced me with your Extravaganza pizza. But with Pasta in a Bread Bowl, I have lost all respect for you.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cast-on, the Foundation of Knitting

Before you can knit anything, you have to cast on. That is, you have to place a row of stitches on your knitting needle. Casting on is an essential element of knitting that does not always get the attention it is due. I suspect that there is many an elderly lady out there who has been knitting all her life and never used anything but the buttonhole cast-on, thus impoverishing many a knitted garment. It's unfortunate, especially since these grandmotherly types often don't know their way around a computer very well and are not likely to find their way to my blog. Still, I hope my cast-on roundup with be useful to those who do.

Cast-Ons All Knitters Should Know

Buttonhole Cast-On

Let's get the most basic cast-on out of the way first. The buttonhole cast-on is the easiest and commonest of the cast-ons. Here's how you do it:

Step Zero

Make a slip knot in the yarn, slip the needle through the loop, and tighten.

I call this step zero because, in the case of buttonhole cast-on, it's not really necessary. I don't usually bother to do it. I just do one stich more than I need (see following steps), which falls away once you've knitted all your required stitches.

In fact, if you're using buttonhole cast-on for its eponymous purpose--to create a buttonhole--Step 0 is completely pointless and must be skipped.

Step 1

Loop yarn counter-clockwise around your index finger.

Step 2

Insert the knitting needle into the stitch in the same direction as the finger. Slide finger out and tighten stitch on needle, but leave a little slack. Overly tight buttonhole-cast-on stitches are hell to knit.

Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you have sufficient stitches.

The buttonhole cast-on has its advantages. It's easy and fast to do, and that makes it fun as well--watching the stitches pop off your finger and onto the needle, one after the other, as if by magic. If you're a brand-new knitter, it's the cast-on you should learn to do first, as it's easy and will help you get the hang of cast-ons in general. It's also serviceable if you need to add extra stitches to a piece of knitting already in process--say, if you're making a buttonhole. But the cons outnumber the pros. The buttonhole cast-on is more difficult to knit than any other. Being only loops with a twist, the stitches readily tighten up until you can't get your needle in, and then you have to work them loose with your fingers. There is no distinction between one stitch and another, so as you go, the loose piece of yarn between the knitted stitch and the stitch not yet knitted gets longer and longer. For this reason, buttonhole cast-on should only be used when a small number of stitches are required.

Finally, buttonhole cast-on results in a tight, unyielding edge. If you want an edge that is at all stretchy, for a cuff for example, your best bet is the longtailed or thumb cast-on, but even the cable cast-on will work better than the buttonhole.

This is the tragedy of so many handmade knits. If you have ever received a gift of hand-knitted socks or mittens, or perhaps a sweater, or if you have ever taken a close look at such products in a flea market, you have probably seen it: a ribbed cuff that terminates in an unyielding little band that renders all that nice stretchy ribbing pointless, a band that barely permits your hand (or foot, whichever the case) to pass. That's the buttonhole cast-on. It's the only cast-on that many people know. Let's all work to change that.

Cable Cast-On

A step up from the buttonhole is the cable cast-on. While still not your best bet for a stretchy edge, it's an improvement on the buttonhole. The advantage of both these cast-ons is that you can use them to add stitches to a knitted piece in progress, something you can't do with the stretchier (and more fun) longtailed cast-on.

Step 1

Make a slip knot in the yarn (as shown above), slip the needle through the loop, and tighten.

Step 2

Insert the other needle into the stitch knitwise. (To insert a needle knitwise means "as if to knit." This is in contrast to purlwise: "as if to purl." When you knit, you insert the right-hand needle in the same direction as the left-hand needle. When you purl, you insert the right-hand needle in the opposite direction as the left-hand needle.)

Knit, pull the stitch through and over the tip of the left-hand needle. This makes the second stitch.

Step 3

Insert the right-hand needle in between the last stitch created and the one before. Knit, pull the stitch through and place it over the tip of the left-hand needle.

Repeat step 3 until you have sufficient stitches.

So basically, with cable cast-on, you knit the stitches onto the needle, first through the original stitch, and subsequently in between the last and next-to-last stitches.

Why is the cable cast-on called that? I don't know, so I'll hazard a guess. It's called cable cast-on because it's used as a beginning for cable knitting, and the reason it's used for cable knitting is because cable knitting doesn't require an especially stretchy edge. If you're knitting a cable sweater, it will probably have ribbed cuffs and lower edge, and for those you'd want a stretchy edge. But you could be knitting a cable afghan, for which a stretchy edge is not so vital. You could still use longtailed cast-on if you wanted to; it's just that there'd be no big advantage to it.

Don't start your cable afghan with a buttonhole cast-on though. Don't start any major project with a buttonhole cast-on. Save buttonhole cast-on for buttonholes and practice pieces that you plan to unravel afterwards. Or use buttonhole cast-on to knit for your enemies (if you are so saintly a soul as to knit for your enemies).

Longtailed or Thumb Cast-On

As I've already stated, longtailed cast-on is the undisputed best for a stretchy edge. If you're making socks, mittens or a sweater, you should start with a longtailed cast-on. You owe it to yourself to learn to do it, even though... you knew there was a catch coming, didn't you?... getting started is a little more complicated than it is for the other cast-ons.

Longtailed cast-on gets its name from the fact that you need to start it off with a long tail. More to the point, you need a tail of the right length, and that length will vary depending upon how many stitches you want to cast on. If you give yourself too short a tail, you'll run out and will be a most unhappy knitter when you have to unravel all your cast-on stitches and start over again.

What to do? The average knitting book would have you calculate the necessary length. I can't remember what the calculation is, and anyway it will vary depending on needle size and yarn gauge. But it doesn't matter. Screw all that. There's a much better way to determine the required length of your tail and it involves no calculating or measuring. It's a method I've developed myself and it's never failed me.

Determining Tail Length
Step 1

Hold up your needle in your left hand. Let a length of yarn hang past it, say six inches. You want to start off with some excess so you'll have a margin for error.

Step 2

Wrap the yarn around the needle, counting the wraps as you go.

If you run out of needle, squish the yarn over to the far end of the needle to give yourself more space.

Keep wrapping until you have counted as many wraps as you need stitches. (If you need ten stitches, wrap the yarn ten times.)

Step 3

Firmly grasp the yarn in front of the wraps between thumb and forefinger and let go of the needle. Let all the wraps unroll until the needle falls out. You now hold the correct length of tail.

The Actual Cast-On
Step 1

Don't let go of that yarn! The spot you're holding on to is the spot where your first stitch needs to go. Tie a slip-knot in that spot (as shown above), slide the needle through the loop and tighten.

Step 2

Arrange the yarn so that the long tail is to your right and the ball of yarn is to your left. Hold the needle in your right hand. Take the yarn leading to the ball and wrap it around your left thumb counterclockwise. The speedy way to do this is to hold the yarn in your left fingers and bring your thumb down upon it from the top, then swish your thumb around counterclockwise to wind up the yarn. (This is the reason that the other name for this cast-on is thumb, in case you haven't figured that out by now.)

Step 3

This part is similar to Step 2 of the buttonhole cast-on, only with a thumb instead of a finger. Insert the knitting needle into the stitch in the same direction as the thumb. But here's where it varies from the buttonhole cast-on: don't slide your thumb out of the loop. Keep it there.

Step 4

Transfer the needle from right hand to left hand, pick up the long tail in your right hand and wrap it over the top of the needle.

Then use your thumb to pull the thumb loop over the tip of the needle.

Pull on both loose ends of yarn until the stitch tightens.

See how it works? The loop from the long tail makes the stitch, and the loop from the thumb holds that stitch in place around the bottom. That's what makes this cast-on stretchy.

Repeat Steps 2 to 4 until you have the required number of stitches.

You can see that this cast-on requires more dexterity than the other two, what with handling two lengths of yarn and passing the needle back and forth between hands. But with a little practice, you'll fly along and this cast-on will be just as much fun as buttonhole cast-on, only it will be much more fun to knit on because your stitches won't keep shrinking on you. And your cuffs will look and feel fabulous.

More Esoteric Cast-Ons

The three cast-ons I have shown you here will serve you well for a lifetime of knitting, but if you care to experiment, there are others to try. In the same way that buttonhole cast-ons are for buttonholes, cable cast-ons are for cable knits and for adding stitches to knitting pieces in progress, and longtailed cast-ons are for stretchy ribbed edges, the more unusual cast-ons were created with specific knitting situations in mind.

Double-Knit Cast-On

Double-knitting is a technique whereby every even stitch becomes part of the front of the fabric and every odd stitch becomes part of the back of the fabric. The result is a fabric that's double thickness, and you need twice as many stitches to achieve the same width. Frankly, I'm not sure what double-knitting is good for and why it exists, but it does, and so there's a special cast-on for it. You don't have to use it--other types of cast-on will work for double-knitting--but it has a peculiar advantage.

Double-knit cast-on, like longtail cast-on, requires a long tail, so do the three steps given in Deterining Tail Length. Then, instead of making a slip knot, fold the yarn in half at the point where you gripped it between your thumb and index finger. Now you're ready to begin.

Step 1

Hold the needle in your right hand and the folded yarn in your left, and slip the point of the needle into the fold from underneath.

Step 2

From above, slip your index finger and thumb into the fold and open it up. You will need to hold onto the yarn with your remaining fingers. Like longtail, this cast-on takes dexterity.

This is where things get complicated, so from now on, the yarn held taut by your index finger will be called "the far yarn" and the yarn held taut by your thumb will be called "the near yarn."

Step 3

Tip the needle away from you and bend it around the far yarn. Then tip the needle towards you and bend it around the near yarn. Finally, bring the needle under the far yarn. You now have two stitches on the needle.

Step 4

Tip the needle forward over the near yarn and wrap under it. Tip the needle back over the far yarn and wrap over it as well, then duck the tip under the near yarn. You now have three stitches on the needle.

Keep alternating Steps 3 and 4 until you have enough stitches (an even number, which means you will end on Step 3, not on Step 4).

Complicated enough for you? Well, yes, but after you've done a few of these, you'll see that the alternating stitches face in different directions. That makes the odd stitches appropriate for the front of the fabric, and the even stitches appropriate for the back. It really is a cast-on you'd only want to use for double-knitting, and maybe not even then.

I got this cast-on from the Spring 2003 issue of Knitter's Magazine, the greatest knitting magazine in the known universe. Look for it on your local newsstand. If your local newsstand doesn't carry it, instead seeing fit to fill its knitting section only with more pedestrian offerings such as Vogue Knitting, tell them they suck.

That's all I have to teach you about casting on for now. Let me know what you thought of my first instructional blog post by leaving a comment. Thanks.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Recipe: Maritime Bean Dip (and bonus Pizza)

Jacob's cattle, soldier and yellow eye are three varieties of bean that are commonly grown in the Maritimes of Canada. If you buy one of these types of beans at the supermarket, it will in all likelihood come with a recipe on the bag, a recipe that never varies. It is Molasses Baked Beans. It is always, always Molasses Baked Beans, as if no Maritimer has ever done anything else with a bean.

That seems a shame to me, not to mention boring, so I have taken it upon myself to provide the bean-buying world with other things to do with a bag of yellow eye or soldier or Jacob's cattle beans, starting with this tasty bean dip that may, if you are so inclined, be made entirely with Maritime-grown ingredients.

The Dip

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup yellow eye, soldier or Jacob's cattle beans
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • Ground black pepper, to taste

Soak the beans 4 to 6 hours or overnight in 3 cups of water. If you're not good at advance planning, you can use the quick-soak method: bring water and beans to a boil, cover, turn off heat and let sit for an hour.

Whichever soaking method you use, once the soaking is complete, bring the beans to a boil, reduce heat, cover and let simmer until soft--from 30 minutes to an hour.

Drain beans, place in a bowl and mash. (If you're feeling lazy or have arthritis, use a blender or food processor.) Mince or press garlic and add to mashed beans. (For extra points, use garlic grown in the Maritimes. We have many fine organic farmers ready to supply you. Points will be deducted for garlic that comes from China.) Add cider vinegar, preferably made in the Maritimes. I use Boates vinegar from Nova Scotia. (You can substitute lemon juice, but do note that lemons don't grow this far north. Points will be deducted if your lemons come from Argentina.) Add remaining ingredients. Go to the head of the class if your peppercorns were also grown in the Maritimes. I have yet to come across local pepper, but I know it must exist. I've seen pepper grown in Quebec, and that's the same climate.

Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. Yummy, right? And you can't spread molasses baked beans on a cracker.

If you want to get fancy, you can use this bean dip in a pizza. Here goes.

The Pizza

Ingredients:

  • Pizza dough, enough for 12-inch pie (to make your own, see recipe below)
  • 1 recipe Maritime Bean Dip
  • A few handfuls of spinach or other leafy green vegetable (precision is not vital here)
  • 1 cup grated cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees, 400 if you have a black pizza pan. Oil a 12-inch pan and flatten the pizza dough until it fits the pan; feel free to get fancy and work it between your hands in midair like the pros. It's not that hard, though you toss it into the air at your own risk. Place in pan.

It's not absolutely necessary, but if you want to ensure as crispy a crust as possible, bake the untopped dough for 8 minutes. Spread the bean dip over the dough.

If you are using spinach, wash, spin dry and slice up. You don't need to cook it. If you're using a tougher vegetable like kale or cabbage, you will probably want to sauté it a little first. Sprinkle the vegetable on top of the bean dip.

Top with the grated cheese. As always, extra points for cheese made in the Maritimes; you might want to try some of that asiago that they sell at Aura Foods in Fredericton.

Pop in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes.

Pizza Dough

There are probably a lot of people who have never made their own pizza dough and would be amazed to discover that such an option is open to them. That's a pity, for although it takes time and planning, it's not hard, and kneading the dough is fun and good for stress release.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 tsp. dry yeast
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups flour, preferably whole grain
  • 1 tbsp. oil

Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup of the water and let sit 10 minutes. Here's a tip: buy yeast by the jar instead of in those silly little packets that come in strips. The packets may be convenient (it's just sooo hard to use a measuring spoon after all) but they're much more expensive, and if you do any amount of baking you're just wasting your money. Plus they constitute wasteful packaging and produce more garbage. Even if you don't do that much baking, jarred yeast will keep a long time if you store it in the fridge.

While the yeast is doing its thing, mix together the flour and salt. When the yeast is done, add the yeast mixture to the flour along with the remaining 1/2 cup of warm water and the oil. (I have a confession to make: I use olive oil. If I knew of any local oil appropriate to the task, I would try it instead. Actually, I'm not aware of any cooking oil being made in the Maritimes.)

Mix, gather into a ball and knead until smooth. If you knead dough frequently, you will get to know the feel of sufficiently-kneaded dough. It is a satisfying moment.

Oil a bowl, stick the ball of dough into it and turn once to oil the ball on both sides. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise for an hour in a warm place. If you're using white flour you can expect the dough to double, but with whole grain flour the rise is slightly less. No worries; it will still be delicious.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Prorogued Blog

I think I have probably followed the pattern of many a new blogger. When I started out, I tried to put up something new at least a couple of times a week, mostly because the author of Blogging for Dummies said I should. That didn't last long, especially when the posts began to get longer. Multiple postings per week may work well for short posts, but not so much when each post is at least 2,000 words long and takes several hours to research and write.

But I did maintain a steady if plodding pace for a while. However, life has a way of intruding sometimes. In my case, I went into therapy and recovered memories of being molested by my grandfather. That kind of thing can throw you into a tailspin. It's nice to know, finally, why you're plagued with chronic pain and other problems of mysterious origin, but the revelation is a distracting one, to say the least. At times like this, investing a lot of time in a blog that makes you zero money falls to the bottom of your priority list.

Still, even with a good excuse, it was disconcerting to realize I'd let more than a month go by without updating my blog. This happens to many a well-intentioned beginning blogger, and the proof can be found in the apology-ridden blog posts that abound all over the Internet. Apologizing and explaining is an option, but not the most dignified one. Have we done so badly, after all? At least we haven't abandoned our blogs. Abandoned blogs are another thing you can find all over the Internet.

What to do, then? Simply slap up a new post, make no remark about the large gap, and proceed as if nothing happened? That was an option. But then I realized that I could take inspiration from an unexpected source.

Nobody knows the value of not apologizing like Stephen Harper. A demagogue can't apologize--it would be tantamount to admitting imperfection. You can't have that. Such an admission would hamper his ability to bully his lackeys. So when such a demagogue faced with a pesky opposition that won't stop going on about the multiple memos he ignored concerning the torture of Afghan detainees, what does he do? Especially when the knee-jerk counter-attacks are starting to sound tired and contrived?

Why, he prorogues Parliament. He got away with it before, why not a second time? So what if 36 bills, representing incalculable hours of work and therefore tax dollars, get flushed down the toilet? He places much more value than that on his own hothouse-flower ego.

After I got back from the protest rally, I realized this could work for me too. I don't want to apologize either. I don't happen to have a perfectly pliant and obedient governor general to sign all my forms without question, but that's OK because this blog is entirely under my control. I have absolute power over my own blog. I already have the autocracy Harper would like and is working towards.

I therefore announce that I am retroactively proroguing my blog, from the date of my last post (Remembrance Day) to the present. That's right, I even went back in time to prorogue! Eat your heart out, Harper. (Or did you already? Maybe that's where it went.)

There are differences, of course. One might argue that the need to apologize for not updating one's blog is negligible to nonexistent, given that it's not a true responsibility but just for fun, and one's failure to do it hurts nobody. The same cannot be said for letting people get tortured. For that matter, a prorogued blog doesn't have the national impact and expense of a prorogued Parliament. It doesn't cost millions of dollars and waste everyone's time. It's not a show of disrespect towards an entire nation.

I'm glad I don't have that level of responsibility. That would be burdensome indeed. But then, someone who runs for Prime Minister has some idea of what he's getting into. If he should find he doesn't want to do the job he's being paid a great deal to do, he should step down, forthwith, and let someone else, someone more willing and able, take over.