blarg?

Apropos of nothing in particular, here’s a line that came up in casual conversation which inadvertently-but-I-am-nevertheless-OK-with-that made the person doing the quoting look like a bit of a imbecile. Be warned, people: if you treat glib quotables like some sort of intellectual highlight reel, these pratfalls are inevitable. Throwing around clever quotes about stuff you clearly don’t understand is the signature useful-conversation-finishing move of obnoxious jackasses the world over.

Some of you are nodding to yourselves right now, because you know exactly who I’m talking about.

“In the long run, we are all dead.” – John Maynard Keynes

Depending on who you’re talking to this means either that the economic structures of the world are an enormous machine controlled at cynical distance by shadowy figures and we can’t do anything about that so screw it or, more often, regular old screw it. The extended quote, however, is as follows:

“The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes is actually halfway through saying that the world is a complicated place, and if you’re an economist and you want that to mean something, you’d better be ready to raise your game.

I wonder if economics is the only field out there where people cite the most basic stuff they teach you in the entry-level course as being the definitive answer to some arbitrarily complex problem. Certainly, anyone who made some claim ending with “… but that’s just computer science 101″ would be immediately put on the to-not-take-seriously list. “Obviously, that’s geology 101.” “Obviously; that’s just biochemistry 101.”

The other day the Globe & Mail had an article in it about how the market for Canadian painters was still dominated by the Group Of Seven, how their works were skewing the marketplace and how the “discerning buyer” didn’t really need to buy into that, and could find “bargains” for “as little as $60,000″.

I felt better, as I rode the subway to work, knowing that there were $60,000-dollar paintings in the world that are a bargain at that price. After I’ve won several lotteries in a row, I thought to myself, I will remember that information! And after I buy the Globe & Mail outright for the express purpose of ending the career of the jackass who wrote that article, I will ferret out this undervalued art. Those of you wondering why the nyekulturny seem to be everywhere these days might do well to write that shit down, next to a scrawled note saying “people think I’m an asshole – could this be why?”

Underline that last bit a couple of times, so that when you’re struggling to see their faces past the edges of your coarsely-fashioned blindfold and your lungs are full of that last cheap smoke, you’ll be able to remember the moment you picked which side you were on.

If you’re wondering where Canada stands on the world stage vis-a-vis technology, please note that there are Google street-view maps of Preston Memorial Park Cemetery in Juneau, Alaska, but none anywhere in Canada.

A while ago I wrote a note to people immigrating to Canada outlining the seasonal situation here in our chilly northern clime. I have here an important addendum to that information concerning a risk that I feel you should be aware of.

While I advised you to acquire a heavy jacket for the colder parts of the winter, one that will likely have a hood, I overlooked the following: at some point in mid-winter, in your first few steps outside, somebody that you believe to be a friend will seemingly pat you on the shoulder or something of the sort and making some remark in order to distract your attention.

This is a ruse. As you put up your hood, you will find that your friend did not in fact pat you on the shoulder. Rather, they have instead put a large fistful of snow into your hood, which is now sliding down your back, inside your clothes.

Immigrants: do not fall for this.

One of the things used to like about Reseau Des Sports, the French TSN (or the French-Canadian ESPN, to my American readers. “Le Ocho”, you might say) was that unlike TSN, you would occasionally see sports that weren’t hockey, baseball, basketball or football. You might not be aware of this, but it turns out that there are literally dozens of other sports in the world, and they occasionally feature competition. And stranger still, those competitions are often recorded via modern video-capturing apparatus, to be viewed later by interested parties. A wild idea, I know! But true!

So, while using the googles to find something on the youtubes, a phrase originally drafted as “filling my tubes with the yous” and immediately rejected for reasons I think are obvious, I discovered that the internets have been doing That Thing They Do, and that there a surprising number of things in the world that I was not aware you could aspire to be a world champion of.

For instance:

Turns out the world is a pretty big place.

So: Two yams and one potato, peeled, sliced, boiled and mashed with a whole bulb of roast garlic, some butter, kosher salt and olive oil. Some quite nice young zucchini, sliced diagnonally and sauteed with, again, a little salt and olive oil. Two very nice rib-eye steaks (a little pricy, but a nice treat on a rare occasion) seasoned with a little salt and pepper, cooked in a cast-iron pan (because summer, sadly, is not yet here) and served with an acceptable bottle of red wine.

I have just had a wonderful meal. Could I have had cooked the meat just a little less, rare-to-blue as is my preference? Perhaps, perhaps. Could the wine have been a touch less sharp, perhaps had slightly more complex overtones, some touch more oak in the nose perhaps? It could, I suppose. Could the company have been perhaps a little better, the conversation slightly more rewarding? Absolutely not.

OK, nerds, listen up: whatever all those “life hack”, “getting things done”, moleskine, “signals” and “folders” people tell you, I need you to drop all that, because it is less important than what I am telling you right now: if you are going to do just one thing to make your life better, it is this.

Learn to cook.

I’m aware that you think you can’t cook, and I don’t care. Pay attention to and care about what you’re doing, and it’s not that difficult. Which is not to say that you’ll be able to cook as well as a professional chef in no time but to borrow a line from my brother, a professional chef himself, you have to remember that ninety percent of that workforce is twenty years old and fighting a killer hangover. Beating out all but the top ten percent of that field is just not all that hard. The biggest difference between restaurant food and your home-cooked meals isn’t brains or talent or drive, it’s butter and salt. Lots and lots of butter and salt.

The New York Times is, curiously, a good place to start reading up. Mark Bittman, author of How To Cook Everything, has written a ton of articles for the New York Times, and has a blog. If you’re only going to buy one cookbook this century “How To Cook Everything” is the one you want, but he’s also written some terrific introductory articles, like the $200 kitchen article that basically tells you how to go from zero to fully-functional kitchen on a budget, 101 meals you can cook in 10 minutes or less (later 111) and a bunch of others.

Generally speaking the skills required are, in order of importance, as folllows:

  • Salt. Salting food properly brings out the natural taste and aromas of your food as you cook it, and doing this part well can forgive many other sins down the line. Salting food at the table is far, far too late, and cookbooks with names like “cooking without salt” or “salt-free whatever” are written exclusively by miserable old harridans who want you to eat food that tastes like burnt sand and then act like you’ve won something. You might as well buy a vegetarian cookbook called “YOU CAN REALLY BE HAPPY WITHOUT BACON REALLY” with the strained smile of some obviously despairing, emaciated hippie on the cover. Cooking without salt or, God help you, with some alien chemical salt substitute is a practice reserved for mental defectives, banana slugs and people whose taste buds were shot off in some third-world jungle conflict.
  • Knife work, for reasons that are obvious once you’ve said them out loud: food needs to be cooked evenly, and to be cooked evenly it needs to be cut evenly. Despite Bittman’s strong argument for a $10 stainless-steel chef’s knife, in a professional setting those knives are provided to the restaurant, sharpened and cleaned by a knife service; at home having one well-made, hefty and cared-for chef’s knife in your collection will improve your cooking and (eventually!) eating experience quite a bit. (He’s right, though, that there’s no way a starting cook needs a hundred-dollar knife.)
  • Temperature control. Well, you know, of course. Different foods will be ready at different temperatures, foods will taste different at different temperatures and there’s way more going on here than I, talented amateur that I might be, have the room or expertise to tell you about.
  • Plating. I wouldn’t have thought this would be super-important for the home cook, but it turns out that just organizing your food on the plate a little before you serve it can make quite a bit of difference. No link, here; just find yourself some pictures of food-porn and decide how to lay it all out. It’s the sort of thing that you’d think shouldn’t matter, but really, really does matter – well-plated-but-average food will be better received and regarded than great food that looks like it’s just been slopped onto the plate.

Beyond that, I say only that if you do nothing but care about the quality of your ingredients and the quality of your work, you’ll consistently be able to surprise yourself. Don’t buy crap, and you won’t end up eating crap; fresh ingredients will get you an awfully long way, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel after a week of eating good home-made food than the garbage an average restaurant feeds you. And all that, in fact, for a fraction the price.

Good night and good luck, internets.

I’ve recently rebuilt my portable-computing setup, both because doing so has gotten ridiculously cheap, and because the world of portable electronics has changed quite a bit recently.

I now roll as follows.

  • A Nokia E51 cellphone. This is an astonishing phone, full of the various goodnesses that, I’m certain, people who live in countries with actual telco competition considered to be standard-issue kit years ago. Non-cripped Bluetooth that will pair with anything. Wifi, (In a phone! Jesus!) and the ability to install random applications and talk to the Exchange server while I’m at work. A 2 Gb MicroSD chip in the side that’s in there on general principles, now, because I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, and an interface that while-not-perfect doesn’t (and Motorola understand that I’m looking directly at you) make you wonder if you’d rather be having an epileptic seizure in the middle of your root canal operation than phone a friend. In year or two, when data-via-cellphones in Canada doesn’t cost fifty fucking dollars a megabyte, it will even be able to act as a wireless bridge for any other wifi or bluetooth devices nearby.
  • A Nokia N800 tablet which is also, I should tell you, a miraculous little device. About three inches by six, wifi, bluetooth and a shockingly beautiful, bright and fine-grained touchscreen. Runs Linux, takes 2 SD cards, has a ridiculous battery life, power management seems to work right, and it all fits in a coat pocket. If you’ve got one of these things, upgrade to OS2008 instantly – it’s a significant improvement over the OS2007 that comes in the box, and the available applications range from “well-adapted to the tablet environment” to “just shockingly great”.
  • A Wintec WBT-201 GPS widget that speaks the bluetooths, letting you pair it up with the N800 and act as a GPS map thing, but it also lets you just run it by itself, saving the route you’re running and points-of-interest you might mark in the device so you can download it later. All that, and
  • A Dell-rebranded iGo Stowaway bluetooth keyboard that’s perfectly acceptable for people who insist on real keyboards, talks to either the phone or the n800.

The only thing that saddens me about all this is that you can’t charge the Nokia stuff over USB. Which really ought to cost somebody at Nokia their job and arguably some teeth. But everything else about this setup is just so great that I’m willing to put up with it. That said: what the fuck, Nokia?

The only thing missing here is a decent camera that I can also talk to over bluetooth, ideally both to geotag pictures and pull them out of the camera sans wires, and I welcome suggestions.