Jan 01 2013

Reading List: Books I Read in 2012

As per tradition, here’s my list of books I read in the year just ended (in this case, 2012), listed alphabetically by author:

  • The Crossroads, by Niccolo Ammaniti *
  • Ed the Happy Clown, by Chester Brown (Graphic novel)
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks *
  • The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, by Scott Carney *
  • The Awakening, by Kate Chopin *
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow, by Wade Davis
  • A Partisan’s Daughter, by Louis de Bernieres
  • Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt *
  • Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Falada
  • The Confidential Agent, by Graham Greene
  • Plunder and Pillage: Atlantic Canada’s Brutal and Bloodthirsty Pirates and Privateers, by Harold Horwood
  • Eight Worlds of C.M. Kornbluth, by C.M. Kornbluth
  • The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer
  • Solar, by Ian MacEwan
  • After the Apocalypse, by Maureen McHugh *
  • Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller
  • Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley

* e-book.

A few notes:

17 titles, which is an improvement over last year’s abysmal low of nine and nowhere near my 2007 high of 38. However, as with last year, I did read much, much more medium- and long-form journalism than in earlier years, thanks to my iPad and Instapaper.

I put down, unfinished, only one book last year: James Wolcott’s Lucking Out. I had bought it in hardcover, at full price, based on the rattlingly good first chapter. By half way through it had deteriorated into a dull “been there done that” and celebrity roll-call. At least that’s how it felt. I didn’t throw it across the room or anything, I just set it down one night and never picked it up again.

As usual, I read way more men than women. And as usual, I will offer no explanation for this.

Most of the books on the list are not what you’d call “current.” I’m not one to obsess over best-seller lists nor do I feel a need to read “the latest thing.” I buy and read according to what strikes my fancy as I’m browsing, and there’s generally a significant lag between my buying a book and actually reading it. For paper-based books this is, on average, about two years, but it’s not unusual for it to stretch to ten or more. Unusually, most of the books I read in 2012 were actually purchased in 2012.

Six out of the 17 were e-books. This is higher than in previous years because I obtained a Kobo e-reader this past June. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it, and I’m considering going back to the iPad for book reading (or in this case, my new iPad Mini). I might go into detail on the problems of e-readers in a later blog post.

[Previous years' reading lists.]

Categorized under Moi

9 comments

Dec 27 2012

12!

The Blork Blog turns twelve years old today. Loyal readers will have noticed that I post a lot less than I used to back in the glory days, but this sucker still has a pulse.  There are 65 half-written (and for the most part, no longer  relevant) unpublished “drafts” mouldering away in here, plus another dozen or so sketches of  posts in my various virtual scratch pads. But for reasons that likely don’t need explaining I have trouble drumming up the enthusiasm to see them through.

Perhaps this will change in 2013, or perhaps not. Personal blogs are largely irrelevant these days, with Twitter taking care of linkage and brain farts, and the dreadful Facebook taking care of pretty much everything else. But as you know, the pendulum swings in both directions, so perhaps there will be a resurgence of relevance, or at least interest, or maybe I’ll get inspired to completely change the direction of this space.

I’ll most definitely post my last-year’s reading list some time in January, as that’s been a tradition since 2003. After that, we’ll see.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of my cat:

The Mini doesn’t like the direction this blog is taking.

Categorized under Cats,Moi,Weblogs

6 comments

Aug 28 2012

The Squirt Gun: a Parable

True story: when I was seven years old I had a squirt gun that I really loved. It was a big yellow plastic thing that held about a litre of water and shot a stream long and true when the trigger was squeezed. One day my big brother — three years older — was teasing and annoying me for some reason that no longer matters. He wouldn’t let up, and my protests went unheard by anyone in a position to make him stop.

Finally, at the end of my rope, I threatened to smash my beloved squirt gun against a pile of rocks if he didn’t stop teasing me. Developmental psychologists will tell you that at seven years old, our sense of personal agency is very poorly developed, and we don’t have the intellectual or emotional capacity to realize that the world does not revolve around us. Destroying my squirt gun was a completely pointless threat, as I was the only one who would suffer; but in my immature and egocentric mind everyone would suffer if I suffered. Therefore, my brother would surely stop teasing me in order to avoid our mutual suffering.

He didn’t stop, so I threw my yellow plastic squirt gun against the rocks and watched in horror as it shattered. The episode concluded with me fleeing the scene, bawling hysterically. My brother didn’t suffer at all, and I suffered greatly.

My self-immolation was entirely without benefit. While it did put a short-term stop to my brother’s teasing, it was replaced by a greater suffering at the loss of my squirt gun and at my confusion and anguish over what had transpired.

And it didn’t stop my brother from teasing me the next time he was so inclined.

Whenever I hear about Quebec students boycotting classes as part of their ongoing protest against tuition increases, I think of this. It has nothing to do with my inconclusive feelings about the issue, and nothing to do with the evening marches and other actions. It’s just about the boycotting of classes.

Boycotting classes achieves nothing. It applies no pressure to anyone. There is no leverage at work. If the students were protesting the universities and CEGEPs themselves it would be different, or if they were protesting their teachers, or the curriculum. But they’re protesting the government. Staying out of school doesn’t put any pressure on the government. And it gives the appearance that what the students are fighting for — education — is not something they really care about very much.

The only people to suffer from the boycotting of classes are the students who miss their classes.

This is a bit of an old story now, and the boycott of classes seems to be evaporating as the fall semester begins and the election looms. Think of this blog as the sober second afterthought.

PS: For those of you who read too quickly and with only one eye on the text, this should not be seen as an attempted refutation of the cause of the student protesters. It’s just a comment on this one tactic. There are many ways to make their point that actually does put pressure on their target (the government), such as the street protests that received so much news coverage. They could also protest directly at government offices, or engage in a handful of other direct actions. The point being that if you’re protesting against party A, you protest in a way that bothers party A. There is no point in bothering party B, especially when party B is yourself.

Update: Perhaps this story is not so old, as it seems the “strike” is picking up again now that the fall semester is starting.

One comment

Jul 14 2012

How to Walk on a Bicycle Path

First of all, don’t. You shouldn’t walk or run on a bicycle path. Hardly ever. I want to be clear about that. But I say “hardly ever” because there are a few circumstances when it may be grudgingly permissible. For example:

  • If there is sidewalk construction or the sidewalk is otherwise blocked and you have little choice but to use the bicycle path.
  • In some less urban areas where there are bicycle paths that exist on their own, with no pedestrian path nearby. I can’t begrudge runners and pedestrians using those. (More on this at the bottom of this post.)
  • If the path is clearly marked as a shared pedestrian/bicycle path.

I spend a lot of time cycling on the various bicycle paths in and around Montreal, and I see pedestrians on them frequently. It’s really annoying when people choose to walk or run in the bicycle path when there is a pedestrian path right next to it. This is not a rare thing; I see it all the time. In many cases it’s when a parallel set of paths run through a park and the bicycle path is paved and the pedestrian path is gravel. It seems that people who don’t think much about what they’re doing will gravitate towards the paved one, just because it’s paved.

But this isn’t about whether or not you should be walking or running on a bicycle path. That’s a separate discussion. This is about those times when, for whatever reason, you choose to do so. This is about the preferred, and safest, way to do it.

It’s simple. Walk against the bicycle traffic.

No, this isn’t a joke. It comes from the same wisdom that says if you’re walking on the shoulder of a road you should walk facing the traffic. The reason is simple:

The most important thing is that the pedestrian and the cyclist see each other.

It’s like this; when you walk with the cycling traffic (i.e., in the same lane as bicycles going in your direction), you can’t see the bicycles in your lane coming. You probably can’t hear them either, based on my observation that at least 50% of pedestrians on a bicycle path are wearing earphones. The result is you get the crap scared out of you every time a bicycle whizzes past, because you didn’t know it was coming.

Now let’s consider it from the cyclist’s point of view. You’re cycling along and you see a pedestrian up ahead. As you get closer you see the person is in your lane, walking in the same direction as you (with their back to you). You know they can’t see you. You ding your little bell, but you don’t know if they heard you. You slow down a bit, but you need to get past them. You’re worried that they will make a sudden random step to the left — into your passing lane — because they don’t realize you’re coming up behind them and wanting to pass. Or you’re worried they’ll realize at the last second that there’s a bicycle behind them and try to jump out of the way, to the left, right in front of you.

Don’t laugh. Every single time I come up behind a pedestrian in my lane on a bicycle path who is not facing me, I suffer those worries. That means dozens of times a week.

Now think about what happens when you do it the way I suggest. A pedestrian is on the path, facing oncoming bicycle traffic. Both parties can tell from a hundred feet away that they are aware of each other. The pedestrian has ample opportunity to step off of the path for a moment while the bicycle passes, or if for some reason they can’t, the cyclist simply changes lanes and passes by without any worry that the pedestrian will suddenly jump or move.

It’s as simple as that. Walk facing the oncoming bicycle traffic because it is safer and better for everyone.

Afterword

I know a lot of people will completely ignore everything I just said because they can’t get past the initial argument of whether or not people should walk or run on a bicycle path. I don’t plan on engaging in that discussion because it’s one of those issues, like religion, where the more vocal people are, the more blinkered they tend to be, so there’s no point in even talking to them.

However, I suspect some people might be curious about cases (or more precisely, places) where I don’t really object to people walking or running on a bicycle path. Here are two of them:

Case # 1: South Shore, along the river

On the south shore of Montreal (which is actually east, but Montreal has a strange relationship with geography) there’s a long and reasonably well kept bicycle path that runs along the Saint Lawrence river from Boucherville to Brossard. The stretch that runs for a couple of kilometres south of the Jacques Cartier bridge is quite isolated, and there is no pedestrian path. To the east is a bit of grass, then a fence, then a major highway. To the west is a bit of grass, then a rough slope down to the water.

It’s a great place to go for a run, walk, or bicycle ride, and I do not begrudge anyone from using that path for any of those purposes. You can see the path somewhat in Google Streetview, if you look on the left.

Case # 2: Lachine Canal

There are a few stretches of the Lachine Canal bicycle path that do not have a corresponding pedestrian path, such as the area around the McAusalan brewery. There’s lots of grass, and it’s quite spacious, but I can’t blame people who are travelling on foot for stepping onto the path. I did that myself one day last summer when I was walking along there. At first I thought I’d be all “correct” and walk in the grass, but when you’re hoofing it for more than a few feet, walking in the grass can get annoying. (I’m not talking about idyllic strolls with your sweetie, I mean when you want to get from point A to point B). So I walked on the path, facing traffic, and I stepped off the path whenever a bicycle approached.

You can see it in this photo from Google Maps (give it a few seconds for the photo to load).

Afterword 2

Walking through Parc Lafontaine yesterday, I spotted this sad scene. Pedestrians on the bicycle path (not so unusual) and a bicycle on the pedestrian path.

pedestrians on bike path, bikes on pedestrian path

Categorized under Environment,Health,Montreal,PSA

8 comments

May 08 2012

The Great Caramelized Onions Debate

There’s been a kerfuffle over the past week around the issue of caramelized onions and whether or not they can be made in a short period of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes. (What you missed it?)

It started with this article on Slate.com, in which Tom Scocca complains that “recipe writers” lie about how long it takes to brown/caramelize onions (he uses the terms interchangeably). That caused a bit of a roar here and there, with some people agreeing with him that it takes at least 40 minutes to caramelize onions, and some disagreeing.

I can’t say I followed the issue very closely, as I’ve always been in the “low and slow” camp; my caramelized onions take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and I have many better things to do with my time than argue something like this. Then Jacob Burton of StellaCulinary.com weighed in, creating a somewhat annoying but quite informative video in which he proves that onions can be “caramelized” in ten minutes.

He raises some very good points about the kind of pan that is used and whatnot. However, I am not convinced. I absolutely do believe that Jacob Burton browned those onions in ten minutes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is one of terminology:

“Browning” and “caramelizing” are not exactly the same thing.

What Burton created was a really nice pan full of browned, fried onions. This is in contrast with what many people (myself included) refer to as “caramelized” onions, which are slow cooked for a long time. The result is something quite different. Fried onions have both a sharp and a mellow flavour, and a strong aroma. (Everyone loves the smell of fried onions!) Caramelized onions–and perhaps I should be specific and say slow caramelized onions–have a much mellower and sweeter flavour and a more low key, almost buttery aroma. The flavour of slow caramelized onions is hardly oniony at all; in some ways it’s more like baked apples in butter. (If you’re really patient, you can go for deep caramelized onions, like these.)

I suspect that back in Julia Childs’ day, few people confused the two. It was clear that fried onions were fried onions and caramelized onions were caramelized onions, the same way we distinguish between roasted meat and braised meat. But few people make the distinction now. I speculate it’s because “caramelized” sounds fancier and “fried” is like a swear word in some circles. With the rise of the “foodies,” and all the half-informed and competitive bombast that came with it, the result is that “caramelized” is now used whenever you apply heat to onions and make them turn colour.

Let’s drill down a bit more: Wikipedia makes a distinction between caramelization and the Maillard reaction. In brief, the Maillard reaction is:

…a form of nonenzymatic browning. It results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.

And caramelization is:

… the browning of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting nutty flavor and brown color. As the process occurs, volatile chemicals are released, producing the characteristic caramel flavor.

Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? The caramelization article goes on:

Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning. However, unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is pyrolysis, as opposed to reaction with amino acids.

Aha! I’m no chemist, but based on the Wikipedia description of pyrolysis:

Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen.

And there, perhaps, lies the difference. Most recipes for slow caramelized onions call for low heat in a covered pan. That’s nowhere near an oxygen free environment, but it’s a lot less oxygen rich than something sizzling in an open pan over high heat with a lot of stirring. (You need to read the whole article to get the full picture, but suffice to say that my recipe for slow caramelized onions uses a very moist environment, exactly what is needed for pyrolysis.)

I won’t go on with the technical stuff because there are plenty of people on Reddit who will gladly dedicated their dying breath to the splitting of such hairs. I’ll leave it to them.

My point is that when you fry onions fast and hot, you get a different plate of food than when you cook them slowly under low heat. Both are good, but they are different. And because they are different, they should have different names.

I propose “fried onions” and “caramelized onions.”

6 comments

Apr 16 2012

For and Against the Quebec Student “Strike”

When the Quebec student protest (it’s not actually a “strike”) started heating up a few weeks ago I found myself falling into the standard trap of people like me — people who have been out of school for some time and who, rightfully or not, tend to see the current crop of young people as perhaps a bit too entitled and completely unaware of how good they have it. After all, tuition in Quebec is lower than anywhere else in Canada, and has been since as long as I can remember.

And indeed that is a trap. I like to call it the “geezer trap,” as it is the most likely hole for people of a certain age to fall into. That’s not to say there aren’t younger people who feel the same way, but for them I blame ignorance.

To cut a long blog post short, I’ll just say that I know the burden of student debt, so I can relate to their concern. It took me almost 10 years to pay off my student loans, and during my first four years post-university, I didn’t know how I would be able do it.

The amount I had to pay seems rather small in retrospect; $16,000 in official student loans plus another $3000 in short-term loans and credit card debt that I acquired while trying to launch myself into a post-university, so-called “real life.” (I knew people who were paying that muct just to get a car.) But you have to consider that I was not graduating with a degree in video game design or object-oriented programming. There were virtually no jobs available to me with my lowly bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. It took three years before I found a job that had the slightest hint of a career path, and that job paid only $6.50 an hour. (I quit a $7.00 an hour dead-end job to take it.)

Kids these days (ha! I just had to say that) seem to think that everything was all rosy and filled with unicorns in times past and now is the only era of bleakness. Not so. When I started university in 1983 the national unemployment rate was 12%. By the time I graduated it was down to 9% but it went north of 10% by 1991. Those are national averages; for people in my geographic and demographic groups the rates were consistently higher by three or four percentage points. Today’s national unemployment rate of 7.2% seems rather glorious by comparison.

But I’m not going to dig deeper into the geezer trap by yammering on about how tough I had it. But I will say this: from the point-of-view of freshly-graduated me looking forward from 1987, things looked very bleak indeed. Big debt, high unemployment, and few personal prospects. Adding weight to that burden was the fact that I was coming from a bleak place with a long history of unemployment and minimal prospects, so I started off having very little hope. I went off to university not because it was expected, but because I forced myself out of a quagmire of defeat and dispair and got myself some education with the hope of smartening myself up and improving my prospects a little.

In 1987, 88, and 89, those prospects seemed worse than ever. Now, in 2012, 20-plus years into a fairly interesting and reasonably lucrative career, it’s easy to dismiss my youthful worries. That too is part of the geezer trap, although there is potentially a positive “it gets better” type of message in there, if anyone’s looking.

While I probably won’t remember your name two minutes after we meet, I do remember how defeated I felt in those few years after university, and how empty the future looked. I remember how that debt felt like a ball and chain, keeping me from having the kind of life that people in their 20s are supposed to have. I also remember that despite all that, I was always very grateful for the student loans I was able to procure, and how the annual increase in tuition fees at my university always felt like a stab in the gut. (For perspective, the tuition for two semesters in my final year was about $1600. That was 1986-87.)

I maintain that one should pay for the things one receives, but I also think that we all, as a society, benefit from an educated population. (Please re-read that last line and ponder it. Save us both the bother of me writing 1000 words on how important it is to have an educated population, as that should go without saying.)

Surely there’s a balance point that places less burdent on the students, particularly when you remember that not all of those students are there to “train” for high paying jobs. They all bring something valuable to our society, and not all of them will be engineers and doctors.

I agree with many who acknowledge that the price of tuition should go up somewhat, but I also agree with many who feel that the currently proposed increases are way too much, way too fast.

What I cannot agree with are the tactics the student protesters are using. Boycotting classes hurts themselves and their fellow students who may not want to boycott classes. Their practice of disrupting public transit and bridge traffic only turns public opinon against them. Then there are the recent acts of vandalism, including failed Molotov cocktails and throwing bricks on the Metro tracks, that may or may not be associated with the student protest. That’s where they are really shooting themselves in their collective foot, because the only way the student protests will have any effect is if they can create and then ride a wave of positive public opinion.

Pissing the public off only plays into the government’s hand. It’s bad enough that there is a general perception that today’s youth are spoiled with self-entitlements and their discontent is just them crying like children under threat of having their candy taken away (I tend to believe that does define a minority of todays’ youth — as it always has). But when you pile that perception on top of public disruptions, all wrapped in a fog of conflicting information on how much money we’re really talking about, then you have a very strong formula for protest failure.

I doubt the tactics will change, so I doubt the tuition increases will be stopped. That is unfortunate, as it will cause some students to drop out of their studies, and it will place a large burden of debt on those who do manage to finish.

As for those of you who are stuck in the geezer trap and can’t take your eyes off that “lowest tuition in Canada” factoid, it’s a false argument to compare the fees of Quebec students with those from other provinces and other countries, because the question is not “why shouldn’t Quebec students pay as much as others?” The question is the simpler and un-relative “how much should Quebec students pay?”

Categorized under Montreal,Society

7 comments

Mar 25 2012

Talking About Books

I like talking about books. What I like even more is listening to people talk about books. Over the years I have entertained this fetish by listening to CBC Radio and by attending various book festivals around town, most notably the Blue Metropolis festival (which, while still good, was a lot better when it was smaller and less ambitious).

Top of the list on CBC Radio is Writers and Company, with Eleanor Wachtel. I’ve been listening to that show for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad episode. It’s so good that I cry a little bit every week when I think about Ms. Wachtel’s long career; she’s older than me, so in my golden years, while I pass the hours in a squeaky rocking chair next to a warm Tivoli radio, my dear Eleanor will be long retired and Writers and Company will be no more.

The only strike against Writers and Company in the context of this discussion is that it isn’t really about books; it’s about writers. But since writers are more likely to talk about books than anything else, it still counts, and counts big.

CBC’s other books show is The Next Chapter, with Shelagh Rogers. I confess I’m not the hugest fan. I don’t dislike it; in fact I’ve enjoyed many an episode. But its cheery “fan” vibe is a bit much for my taste. All pens and no swords. Hugs and camomile tea. So it’s good, but it’s rarely (to me) great.

Then there’s the late, lamented Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. Now there was a books show. The format was a panel discussion, lead by Brown, with various grumpy and curmudgeonly guests, most of whom were regulars. The knives were long and the bouquets were florid. Lots of people talking and yelling over each other and a few times it sounded like it might come to blows but it always ended in laughter. If you told me the setting was a smoky pub on a stormy night I wouldn’t doubt you. Unfortunately, Talking Books was cancelled in 2008, after 11 years.

So what’s a guy to do if he needs a fix of grumpy book talk? He starts a book club!

Last year, while bending elbows with a few of my surliest friends, I proposed exactly that; a book club. The intention was to be as unstructured as possible. As such, we have but one rule: there are no rules. Neither are there required readings. We simply meet, every four to six weeks, and talk about books. If patterns develop, so be it, but they are not to be seen as rules or requirements.

And there does seem to be a pattern. Most of our book club meetings unfold as follows. We meet at Amelio’s on Milton at about 5:30 on a Thursday or Friday evening. Once ensconced we order our “book club special,” a large vegetarian pizza with Italian sausage. I never fail to add, while ordering, “because that’s the kind of vegetarians we are.” The waitress never fails to smile and pretend, ha ha, she’s never heard that before.

After the meal, which is accompanied by an inordinate amount of wine, we over-tip then make our way along rue Milton to The Word, a quiet, beautifully shambled tiny gem of a used bookstore. Having four burly men smelling of sausage, cheese and Sangiovese burst through the door of such an establishment is surely terrifying, but so far the police have not been called and there have been no injuries. We do eventually calm down and manage to keep things reasonably civil, and we always make amends by purchasing a few books.

Unfortunately these wine-fueled book benders have resulted in a few duplications on my bookshelf as I sometimes forget if the luscious object in my hand is one I desire because I want it or because I already own it. In one case I had a copy of Michael Frayn’s Headlong thrust upon me by one of the book club members, along with a five minute oration on its merits. So I bought it. At our next book club meeting the exact scene repeated itself, with the same book, and I bought it again. I also recently discovered that I have not two, but three copies of Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo. One is the paperback I bought at a church flea market in 1986 (my first Moore, and the one that turned me into very much a Brian Moore fan). Another is a first Canadian edition hardcover from 1962 that was given to me as a gift, and the third a hardcover “club edition,” that I likely bought at The Word during a book club meeting.

After The Word we usually end up in a pub downtown, often the Old Orchard on rue de la Montagne because it’s a convenient hub for our divergent exits homeward, and it’s usually not so loud as to it prohibit conversation.

So if you enjoy books, and in particular you enjoy talking about books, I highly recommend you form a book club. But if you want it to succeed I suggest you eschew the usual book club formalities of required readings. And stay away from the tea and crumpets. The most important thing is that you all be friends, and that you all really like books and talking about them. In fact, you can substitute “books” for just about any shared interest and you’ll achieve the same success. And to make it that much better, don’t put it on Facebook, and never, ever tweet about it.

Categorized under Books,Moi

3 comments