10/14/13

Bread the Old-Fashioned Way


Bread step 1...For all the reading, the reviewing and the researching for the best bread maker these past few days, it’s somewhat ironic that instead I turned back to the old-fashioned method and made a couple of loaves by hand, this morning.

Not perfect – I haven’t made bread these past twenty-odd years, and have forgotten the techniques and the tricks I knew back then. More time was needed for the rising, but I grew impatient, and unsure about the timing. Into the oven too soon.

But they are tasty nonetheless. Chewy, rich and delicious, especially warm. And reasonably light, but with a wonderfully leathery crust.

The smell of baking bread wafting up the stairs was enough to get Susan out of bed to come and enjoy a buttered slice with her morning tea. Dogs gathered around, sniffing for crumbs. It seemed like a moment out of some other, homier, domestic world. We talked about her aunt, who baked bread every day, in her small rural English village.

We have a different culture here in Canada (and the USA): convenience. Bakeries have for decades been almost a curiosity, an affectation, or an ethnic thing. They weren’t common in the suburbs, with its population of supermarkets and strip malls.

That may be changing – even big supermarket chains now offer in-store baked bread, buns, muffins, etc. But for the most part, they aren’t as good, at least in my experience, as those small bakery products.

Better, of course, that the majority of pre-packaged, sliced breads we casually buy: the loaves of replicated perfection and uniformity we put in the grocery cart week after week. Not always the healthiest choice, of course, but even these have getting better:

As recently as 15 years ago, 80 percent of bread sold in the U.S. was white bread.(1) Today, it’s a much different story. We’re buying more whole grain bread and less white, and in 2010, for the first time, sales of whole wheat bread surpassed that of white bread—$2.6 billion compared with $2.5 billion.(2) Thanks to education, availability, and improved labeling (like stamps and logos indicating healthier products), whole grains have become a top priority with consumers.

Bread step 2...Don’t be fooled: many in-store breads aren’t really artisan. They come frozen, pre-mixed and read to shove into the oven. Like a fast food oputlet, where the “fresh” food arrives frozen and pre-cooked, merely heated in store.

Well, the bread dough still needs to be cooked, but the recipes are fixed, immutable and almost as perfect as the packaged stuff. The employees don’t do much more than feed the oven, then stuff the results into the appropriate bags.

However, I like it better than 95% of all packaged breads (Rudolph’s and Dimpflmeier’s breads are an exception…), but I don’t have the same attachment to these pseudo-artisan breads as I do those from a real bakery. They seem less authentic, but so do most big-store items.*

To be fair, some of the breads offered in stores are brought in from real bakeries (usually outside the region), places like Ace Bakeries. And some of these are great products, worth the $3-$4-$5-and-up a loaf. Some are pale imitations, overpriced and mediocre. It’s hit-and-miss (and I’ve tried many).

I’m of an age when I can remember the breadman and the milkman delivering door-to-door. That’s long gone. I don’t remember the breads, but I remember the milk bottles, with their funny necks that held the cream when it rose, so it could be poured off. The Fifties. So long ago. Back then, spongy, tasteless white bread was the pinnacle of modernity. Crusts were tossed into the trash. The miracles of science translated into the domestic life.

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09/20/13

Swimming with Vivaldi


VivaldiToday, for an hour, I swam with Vivaldi. Not the actual composer, of course. He died in 1741 at the age of 63. Would have made a mess of the pool to dig him up and toss him in.

The “red priest,” as he was called (for his red hair), probably couldn’t even swim. Not a lot of people back then could. but he could write music, and play the violin beautifully. Almost 300 years later his music is still as powerful and moving as when he was alive.*

Rather, as you guessed, I swam with his music, the Four Seasons to be exact. Gil Shaham/Orpheus Chamber Orchestra version from 1995, Deutsche Grammophon, my favourite of many versions I own. Crisp, clear and full of life, that version. And almost perfectly timed – not quite an hour long.

Composed in 1723, The Four Seasons remains Vivaldi’s most famous work. Justifiably so, in my estimation. It is instantly recognizable even by those unfamiliar with classical music, and has graced many a Hollywood production. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel over-used. But maybe I’m just a sentimental fool for it.

Vivaldi was born in Venice, a city built on the water, a city of canals and gondoliers, bridges and sweepingly beautiful architecture that towers over the water. The city permeates his music, as does – to my ears – water. The rhythms of waves, of tides. Which seems entirely appropriate for the waves I make as I swim laps.

He actually wrote his masterpiece while working out of town. In 1718, Vivaldi took a position at the court of the governor of Mantua. He moved from there to Milan in 1721, then in 1722 he moved to Rome. He didn’t return to Venice until 1725. During his absence, he wrote the Four Seasons. It wasn’t published until 1725, however.

Vivaldi’s concerto was written the year before another famous Venetian – and one of the historical characters I both admire and delight in reading – Giacomo Casanova was born. Not quite contemporaries, Vivaldi died in Casanova’s 17th year, but no doubt Casanova heard the piece – and many other Vivaldi compositions – when he lived there. The concerto has been used in TV and movie biographies of Casanova, and in my mind they are intrinsically linked.

The Four Seasons, as its name suggests, has four movements, each dedicated to a different season. It’s actually four mini-concertos linked by thematic components. Wikipedia suggests Mantua was his inspiration:

The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires.

But I can’t help but hear the busy plazas and streets of Venice, see the masks and the palaces when I hear it. I imagine Vivaldi sitting indoors in Mantua, writing out the notes, thinking of his Venice, not the hills outside his window.
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09/1/13

What’s it all about, Alfie?


Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

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07/16/13

The sum of all knowledge


Know it AllIn his 2004 book, The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs tells of his quest to become “the smartest person in the world” by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover.

Right away, you can see the fly in this intellectual ointment: knowledge doesn’t equal intelligence.

Jared Diamond, in his introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel, credits the barely literate, ill-educated tribespeople of New Guinea as being the smartest people he ever met. Not because of their ability to discourse, as Jacobs says, on the intricacies of the Phoenician legal system, but rather because their daily life is such a struggle.

That struggle, combined with a hostile environment that lacks many of the natural resources like metals that propelled western civilizations’ technologies ahead, Diamond writes, forces them to think a lot about how to survive. They have to be creative in ways we never consider, or have long since taken for granted. They have to find solutions using limited tools and resources. That makes them very smart.

You want dinner? It’s a few steps away, a short journey between freezer and microwave. They want dinner, it has to be found in a challenging and dangerous world, caught, killed, cleaned, a fire made from raw materials, then cooked. They survive every day having to solve life-affecting problems. Our biggest challenge many days is whether to watch this channel or another one.

Modern civilization often relieves us of the necessity to think critically. Convenience is wonderful, but it also can make us stupid. Just look at the number of cute kitten photos on Facebook paired with sappy “inspirational” quotes attributed to the wrong person. Or the number of homeopathic sites. Convenience often makes us susceptible to marketing, advertising and propaganda because we accept rather than analyse.

And reading alone isn’t enough to alleviate it. People read all sorts of stuff online – volumes of the written word – but still believe in all sorts of superstitious, stupid claptrap like chemtrails and vaccination conspiracies. People read and give credence to wingnuts like Jenny McCarthy and Anne Coulter. There is no shortage of written material online about Bosnian pyramids, UFO abductions, religious intolerance, astrology, “psychics,” racism and political extremism.

So reading itself is not a path to intelligence. You need critical thinking and skepticism, too. Lots of skepticism.*

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07/14/13

Small glitch, please stay tuned


Oops. Seems there’s a coding glitch in the latest WordPress update. Comments are getting attached to a header image rather than to the post they’re supposed to be associated with.

And it’s not a new glitch – the WP support forums have discussions on this that go back at least a year, albeit an earlier version of the software. So I suspect there will be a solution that involves changing one of the PHP modules. Just not sure which one yet.

I’ve posted a request on the WP support forum for some help and will try to get things fixed as soon as I know how. Meanwhile, feel free to read and comment, just keep in mind that the comments may not show in the right place. They’re still there – just need to be moved when I figure out how.

If you are the author of a recent comment that has not appeared, try reposting to see where it attaches to. I can email the content of your posts to you if you wish. Contact me for this. Meanwhile, I’ll try some tweaks at this end.

My apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll try to get it fixed ASAP. Meanwhile, comments have landed here: image attachment page.

 

11/17/12

Post-US Election Thoughts: The Blame Game


GOP soul searchingIt didn’t take long for the blame, the vitriol, the accusations and the excuses to start spewing forth from the Republicans, after Obama won a second presidential term. You would think that the party would be chastened, introspective and look to where they failed to engage the electorate. Do some serious soul-searching: what failed? Policies? Platforms? Ground work? Attack ads? Flip flops?

Instead they seem to have their collective heads stuck in the sand and instead to looking inwardly, they are blaming others for their failure. And throwing in an unhealthy dollop of vituperation, as expected.

Mitt Romney, the billionaire whose wobbly platform shifting, and his wildly inappropriate choice of a Tea Party running mate, isn’t blaming himself, his party or his candidate for VP for his failure. He’s blaming Obama for giving gifts to select voter groups:

“The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift,” Romney said in a call to donors Wednesday. “He made a big effort on small things.”

Romney said his campaign, in contrast, had been about “big issues for the whole country.” He said he faced problems as a candidate because he was “getting beat up” by the Obama campaign and that the debates allowed him to come back.

In other words: it wasn’t his fault. It was the other guy who bought votes. Nothing to do with the misogynist comments from a handful of Tea Party candidates running for office under the Republican banner. Or his own comments about the “47%” of Americans who live off the government.

Paul Ryan, too, is blaming others, rather than his own ideologies. As Thinkprogress noted:

After the election, Rep. Paul Ryan blamed “urban voters” for costing him the vice presidency…

So, Paul, you would now restrict urban voters from participating in the democratic process? Not surprising: Republicans tried very hard to to (and did, in some cases) put into effect restrictive voter ID laws that would have seriously limited the right of many to vote – especially the poor and non-white populations.

Personally, I’d put a good weight of the blame on the choice of Ryan for the loss because he scared anyone with an education higher than third grade or with an income less than $250,000 a year. Aside from getting that harridan Ann Coulter into heat, his choice even alienated the moderate side of his own party. Others agree:

But Romney’s worst choice of the campaign—besides being honest about his belief that Detroit should go bankrupt to really punish the unions—was the man he picked as his running mate: Paul Ryan.

People wondered what Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney had in common besides being born into rich families and a profound belief that poor people are lazy. Now we know: they both lost their home states. Heck, they both lost their hometowns.

LOL.

The main reason Ryan still has his seat in the House is the only reason the GOP still has control of the House—gerrymandering.

Secessionist cartoonThis blame game is happening on the oddest fronts, too. A wacky secessionist movement has developed among the fringies and tin-foil-hat crowd. In the southern USA, Derrik Belcher, wants to withdraw from the USA because of Obama taking the USA into a socialist state (proof that Americans don’t understand what the word actually means). Belcher himself is quoted as saying in what is surely one of the quotes that best sums up the Tea Party’s systemic stupidity:

“I don’t want to live in Russia. I don’t believe in socialism. America is supposed to be free.”

He was the focus of a good interview on The Current yesterday. Belcher’s story would be funny if it wasn’t gaining ground swell among the Tea Party fundamentalists: he’s mad at Obama because his state (actually, his own city, and not the federal government) closed down his topless car wash in 2001 for obscenity (when Bush was president, not Obama). Even though he comes across as an angry crackpot in interviews, he has garnered about 30,000 signatures on his online petition. Birds of a feather.

Belcher is just one of many. As Rawstory reported,

Disaffected Americans have created hundreds of “We the People” petitions on the White House website following President Barack Obama’ re-election earlier this month. There have been petitions from each of the 50 states requesting permission to secede.

Secede? Because you don’t like how the democratic process works? Or maybe don’t understand it? Boggles the mind. Well, not really – 46% of Americans believe in creationism, so I would expect to have the same percentage does not understand the basic tenets of democracy or how elections work. I suspect what these Tea Party followers think of as a good government, most of us would think of as the Christian Taliban – a scary, repressive theocracy.

It’s a bit ironic that the last times states sought to secede, in 1860, it was because a Republican president had been elected.

My solution: give the secessionists Alaska: see how they fare after one winter and how many are begging to come home. And then tell them no. They can have Sara Palin, their dim-witted poster girl, as their new leader.

It’s also ironic is that Republican Senator, Ron Johnson, blames Obama’s win on “an ignorant electorate”:

“If you aren’t properly informed, if you don’t understand the problems facing this nation, you are that much more prone to falling prey to demagoguing solutions. And the problem with demagoguing solutions is they don’t work,” Johnson said. “I am concerned about people who don’t fully understand the very ugly math we are facing in this country.”

To me, these angry secessionists are examples of an “ignorant electorate” and they all seem to be Republicans! So is he blaming his own supporters? After all, that “:ignorant electorate” elected him…

Some Goppers are blaming Romney rather than Obama, for their failure, merely a different flavour of the blame game: blame the guy, not the party that has been hijacked by the uber-right minority. Few seem to blame Paul Ryan, probably because his anti-working/anti-middle class ideologies are close to the fringies’ hearts. Plus they’re too busy trying to secede to focus their myopic sight on one of their own.

To be fair, not all Republicans are playing the blame game, or screaming secession. Several high-level Goppers have decried Romney’s comments and suggested a need for the political equivalent of a deep colon cleansing for their party. They’re calling for some collective navel-gazing, instead of finger-pointing.

My own take: the Republicans will split into two parties: the radical right and the moderates going their own ways. Or possibly a third national party will emerge that appeals to one of these groups and they will jump the GOP ship for it. Either way, the Republicans cannot continue as a party divided by such opposing ideologies before it implodes. Or the fringies take over completely. Either way, their ship is on the rocks and the Tea Party is still at the helm.