Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fruits of 2008

Honeycrisp cider by Carlson Farms. We stumbled onto one of only 36 jugs that Wilson Farms received last week. Sweet, light, and young. I seriously don’t want a regular apple cider after this one. Word from the owner is that they’re going to do another pressing next week. A good way to start the new year.

Golden kiwis from New Zealand. Apparently seasonal, these turned up at Whole Foods for a couple of weeks this past summer. The flesh has an identical texture to a regular kiwi, just different in color, but the flavor is tropical. The hairless skin wasn’t as entertaining as the usual kiwi skin, so I stuck to eating the inside.

Fresh-squeezed pineapple juice by Kennesaw. Starts out tasting like a perfect pineapple. If you leave it in the refrigerator for more than a couple of days after opening, the sugars ferment quite rapidly despite the light pasteurization. No complaints about that.

Lisa’s cranberry sauce. Lots of honey and orange peel turned this Thanksgiving obligation into a real treat.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pay it forward

For a few weeks one summer in high school, I worked for a flower farm picking weeds. Rumors were rife that the owner would fail to pay you at the end of the week or at the end of the summer. This didn’t happen to me at that flower farm, perhaps because I was hit by a car before it could become an issue.

For one summer in college, I worked as a department secretary. My instructions were simple: photocopy anything that a professor asked me to photocopy. Journal articles gradually gave way to stacks of library books, which in turn gave way to a professor who left me a key to her office and instructions to photocopy the contents of her entire filing cabinet so she could have a duplicate for her semester in California. The regular department secretary, it turns out, would have said no if she had been around. I was good at photocopying, however, and did not complain or say no. At the end of the summer, the department said they did not want to pay me for most of my work because the professors should not have asked me to do all that work.

When I was in graduate school, I was offered a fellowship from the US Department of Education. The university saw an opportunity to obtain free labor, and told me that the fellowship included a part-time work requirement. When I later responded to a Department of Education survey that I thought those fellowships would be more useful if students didn’t have to work for them, a chain of threats and hilarity ensued.

I stopped working for other people after that. I do employ people, and I take my responsibilities as an employer seriously. I’ve never even considered not paying someone for their work. That’s not because of my past experiences as a worker; in fact, I tended to run into problems as a worker because I considered each of my past experiences to be exceptional, and never believed that any other employer would treat workers that way.

Last week, I discovered that the Employee Benefits Security Administration of the US Department of Labor feels that it’s fine for employers to retroactively reduce compensation for 50 weeks already worked, as long as the money has not yet been paid. All work is done on spec, even when your contract says otherwise. A judge would say differently, but a social contract that tells workers their only recourse is legal action is fundamentally broken. The right way to reduce employment-related lawsuits, as with any lawsuits, is to provide some other recourse. Otherwise employers like me wind up as the exceptions that follow the rule.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

not Frost/not Nixon

Over on graphpaper, Christopher Fahey recommends taking some time to record an interview with your family:

For the last decade of her father’s life, my wife would interview him for an hour or more almost every time we visited her parents, videotaping each interview. For his funeral, she edited all the tapes into a single 45-minute movie where he tells stories from his incredible life. It’s hard to [overstate] how happy this video made a lot of people.

More and more people are collecting stories from their families and sharing them with their families and even the public. So this holiday season, why not kill two birds with one stone: video your family but in particular talk to them about what is important to you, trying to find out the historical roots of your own life and interests.
I love this idea, and I know that it’s never too soon to start. Have any of you done anything like this? Advice on how to start?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

To every room there is a purpose

Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times about his 7' x 6' kitchen:

... when it comes to kitchens, size and equipment don’t count nearly as much as devotion, passion, common sense and, of course, experience.
So why do I want a bigger kitchen? Well, part of it is having enough room to put everything away. As with many 19th-century homes, ours has very little storage space. No coat closet by the front door, single tiny closets in the bedrooms, and a cobbled-together broom closet and pantry. We have nine linear feet of upper cabinets in the kitchen, and the majority of the shelves are out of comfortable reach. 

Part of it is having enough room for both of us to work at the same time without getting in each other’s way. That’s really a layout issue more than a size issue, but it’s easy to confuse those. I’m quite sure that Mark Bittman is not trying to cook alongside another person in his kitchen, nor is he trying to avoid cross-contamination because of food allergies.

Part of it is wanting more or larger appliances. I want to add laundry to the kitchen, since we don’t have a good way to add it to the second floor. It would be nice to replace our kitchen and basement refrigerators with a single larger refrigerator and a freezer. We don’t need a larger oven, but we could definitely use an extra burner or two somewhere in the kitchen since we often run out of burners when we’re hosting a crowd.

And part of it is wanting to have a comfortable space for other people to hang out in while we cook. Our kitchen is quite separated from the rest of the house, and there’s nowhere to add a passthrough or other conversational connection. I don’t think we need to go as far as the Edinburgh kitchen we used that included a sofa, but some sort of seating or standing room that isn’t in the working traffic corridor would be great.

Bittman’s point, of course, is that none of this is relevant to cooking well. He’s right. Cooking, by itself, doesn’t require storage or a good workflow or conversation. None of what I want to improve in our kitchen about cooking well. I already do that. What I want to improve in our kitchen is about living well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Time for my annual post about testing lead in toys. In two months, a new law takes effect in the US that requires manufacturers and importers to test toys (at significant expense) for lead and phthalates. As implemented by the CPSC, there are no exceptions for toys imported from European countries with much stricter safety laws than ours. There appear to be no exceptions for toys made entirely of safe materials such as cloth or wood, or using materials such as paints that are already tested by manufacturers. No exceptions for handmade toys sold at craft fairs. But we will still allow toys that are made, tested, and certified in China, which can’t be trusted to keep melamine out of our food chain.

There is an exception for toys that aren’t primarily for children, so the teaching aids I produce don’t have to be taken off the market. But I want to be able to buy the handmade wooden rattle, or the all-organic-fabrics stuffed animal, or the unpainted wooden train like the one I grew up with. I want to be able to buy German and English toys without traveling to Europe myself and sneaking them into the country as if they’re unpasteurized cheese. I want to be able to shop at the funky independent toy stores that sell American handmade and European toys. I’ll be glad if the CPSC can improve the safety of children’s products, but I’d like to see their focus start on where the problems have been: paints and plastics.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yankee pill swap

Different ways of learning: Tutoring vs. the classroom. Individual therapy vs. group sessions. Individual medical appointments vs. group medical appointments. It’s nice to have options, and we surely need to try some new approaches to providing medical care.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Solar, wind, and fire

An article by Chris Goodall in The Guardian about current environmental issues has brightened my Sunday morning, so I pass the link along to you.

I attended a focus group recently about energy efficiency, and it was clear that most people are concerned about the environment and are willing to take productive steps to reduce their energy usage. Utilities, too, would be happy to continue the trade of helping us reduce usage in exchange for higher rates. And with a potential massive public works program to improve energy efficiency in public buildings, our federal government could finally get on board the solar train to Cleanville. That prospect makes me really happy. And researchers say that means you’ll now be happier too. Smile, and the world is up to 34% more likely to smile with you. Catchy, ain’t it?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Safe for a while longer

As we sat around at work today nervously awaiting news as to who got laid off, this post on essential steps to take before you're laid off caught my eye.

The advice made sense: figure out how much less you can live on, build your network, build your skills.

And this one: blog under your real name about your profession.

My name is uncommon. If you google my name, you get me and a school nurse. I've been quite reluctant to use my full name on the web: I haven't joined LinkedIn---another thing I'm supposed to do before I get laid off---because it's useless without the personal information and I just don't like the idea of being in another database.

I blog here a bit. I certainly don't take it as seriously as Michael does.

But I hadn't really thought much about blogging about math and editing and education until I read the advice to blog about your profession as part of preparing for a job search. Of course, quilts and origami can fit nicely into the mix.

Blog under my own name. Blog only the things I would want an employer to read. Blog like a professional writer. Blog like my career depends on it rather than as if it might get me fired. Hmm.

You folks, our readers, mostly blog under pseudonyms. What do you think? Privacy vs. name recognition. T'is a puzzlement.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Talking turkey

The dark meat on a turkey needs to get to 185º, but the white meat on a turkey only needs to get to 165º. The solution that we follow to avoid overcooking the white meat is an adaptation of advice from the Cook’s Illustrated folks: we cook the bird upside-down for 40 minutes at 400º first, then flip it and finish it at 325º. Total time for a 25-28 pound turkey is usually 3-3.5 hours.

We don’t put stuffing in the bird, just chopped vegetables, lemon, and orange. Dry rub a spice blend on the outside, and this year we added a bit of apple cider instead of butter when we needed to baste. This year I added a small pan of water next to the bird for the last 30 minutes to increase the steam level in the oven without having the bird sitting in liquid.

Flipping an enormous hot turkey is hard. (Not to be confused with whatever the kids are doing these days that they call “flipping a hot turkey.”) I find the best approach is just to use a pair of washable oven mitts and grab the bird directly from both ends. There’s a risk of the turkey’s breast skin tearing or being stuck to the roasting pan. The color on the skin usually looks absurdly uneven when you flip it, because the weight-compressed part that has been in contact with the roasting pan is much darker, but the color evens out by the time the bird is done.

This year’s turkey came from neighbors of Lisa’s parents, who raise a truly free-range bird. When we’re buying it locally, we go to Owen’s Poultry Farm in Needham, who raise their own eggs but get their 3000 Thanksgiving turkeys from another New England farm.

After stripping off the meat, the carcass and pan scrapings go into a stockpot with more vegetables: onions, carrots, celery, garlic, green pepper, whatever comes to hand. Fill the pot with water, and simmer slowly for 24-36 hours, adding more water as needed. Strain through a cheesecloth, then chill and scrape off the fat, and you’re left with a fabulous condensed stock. Add water and salt when reheating to taste.