Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Brief Thought on Bathrooms

There's been a lot of debate in the last few years about public bathrooms and the transgendered. I find it fascinating that there's one solution to this issue that would make both sides happy, that'd have real logistical gains even in a world where transgender didn't exist, and that absolutely nobody is talking about.

Every one-person bathroom should be unisex.

Think about it. The only costs associated are a few new signs, so that's not a serious concern. It helps reduce lineups caused by one gender or the other being disproportionately in need of a bathroom at that moment. It gives everyone twice as many choices, which is convenient for all involved. There's no concerns about a dude being in the ladies' room, so the prudish and paranoid will have a lot fewer concerns on that front. And while the current debate about bathroom use is in keeping with what transgendered people want, all the other categories of non-binary gender that people identify as these days won't be helped by a slight rule change about binary bathrooms, whereas this would help them quite a bit more.

It's not a perfect solution, of course, because it only deals with a portion of the issue. But it's an easy to implement, non-controversial solution that would help pretty much everyone at least somewhat. And nobody is talking about it. I pitched the idea to a city councillor of my acquaintance who's highly involved with the LGBT community a couple years back, in the middle of this debate being big in his city at the time, and it was just a total non-starter. The reaction was more or less "Interesting idea, but women with penises exist, and we should let them use the women's bathroom"(and I think that may be verbatim).

I understand why people on the left tend to shy away from half-measures like this - it feels like you're abandoning the rest of the problem, and there are issues of anchoring to contend with(i.e., "We just gave you what you wanted, why are you still whining?"). But I'm stunned that the right hasn't picked this up as a counter-proposal. It gives you progressiveness points, it doesn't offend the religious crowd, and it could well deflate the entire issue if it was done properly. In some parts of the world fighting the culture wars to win may be a vote-winner for the right in the short term, but it seems like something like this is a much better plan overall. I feel like I'm missing something here, because I do not understand this.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday Night Video - Square Hammer

I've commented in past on my Facebook FNVs that I'm liking less and less new music these days - must be getting old, I guess. Or maybe I'm just not spending as much time digging up new music, whatever. But this one really caught my attention - it's been stuck in my head like half the time since I first heard it a month or so ago, and I've listened to it dozens of times at this point. Freaky-looking group they are, but it's good music.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rehabilitating the Enemy

Partisanship is an odd condition. It makes you say and do things you wouldn't otherwise, and think differently too. Some of it's obvious - the lack of generosity, the desire to attack your enemies and defend your allies even when they're not always worth it, and the habit of forming opinions based on what people around you think. None of these should surprise anyone who thinks about what partisanship means for a minute.

There's subtler effects that can be rather interesting, though. Partisanship tends to compress time in a very unusual way. You can't hang around politics for long without seeing that every election gets called "The most important election of our lives", whether or not it actually is. Every opposing leader is some uniquely bad kind of monster, and every friendly leader is the only hope that the forces of purity and goodness have to slay the dragon. The future gets subsumed into your ideology("We only have a chance if [GOODGUY] wins the election!"), and the past gets mined for a few examples that support your thesis("Remember when [BADGUY] won the election and there was an earthquake the next day?"), but there's no sense of perspective, no sense of scale. Everything is right here, right now, this race, that person, now, now, now.

When you step back and think about things from a distance, it looks very different. For example, I first got seriously involved in politics during the early GW Bush years, around 2002. I remember a lot of people on the left who were 100% sure that he'd never leave office peacefully and would be a dictator forever, that he was simultaneously a simian with an IQ below room temperature and an evil mastermind who could trick a whole nation into wars without breaking a sweat. Millions of people took to the streets to accuse him of this and more - I think he got called everything but late for dinner at one point or another, and if you put all the Hitler mustaches that got drawn on pictures of him end to end, they'd probably reach from here to the moon.

Of course, it didn't get posted on Facebook, so it didn't happen. Right? Because I see a lot of people today who sure want to forget it. If Upworthy had existed in 2003, they'd have been near the front of the Chimpy McBushitler crowd, but today they're posting stories like this. A throwaway mention or two that they didn't like him much, and then a bunch of his comments that are civil, wise, decent, and humane.

At first glance, this looks like a long-needed return to balance. Maybe we can finally stop condemning people as inhuman scum and take a reasonable, balanced perspective on their merits and their flaws. Once you take someone out of the immediacy of partisan politics, get them away from the rough and tumble of fighting over news cycles, and have a chance to realize that your opponents deserve a bit of generosity, we can get past all this mud-flinging and reach a sensible consensus. Right?

Yeah, I'm a dreamer. I know. This has nothing to do with moderation or balance, though that is a long-term side effect. I think the real reason for the article is one line near the end:

"It's almost unthinkable that these statements would come from President Bush's successors in 2016."

This is why the article exists. It has nothing to do with Bush - it's about Trump. It's about taking the negative feelings that they built up towards Bush, and saying "You know how bad the old guy was? The new one is even worse!". It's about trying to take those old feelings of hatred towards the other side that are obsolete and useless to a partisan, and turn them into new feelings of hatred that can be mined for partisan advantage.

Perhaps I'm being unkind to Upworthy here(though if anyone deserves unkindness, the inventors of the clickbait headline do). But this is something I've seen over and over. Every partisan I've ever seen who elicits strong feelings in their opponents is rehabilitated almost instantly by people on the other side as soon as their successor needs a good smearing. Every time their successor is "just more of the same" if the successor is boring and has no traits worth attacking, or "somehow even worse" if they actually have opinions of any sort.

To be clear, this is in no way limited to the left. Ontarians can look, for example, at how Wynne has been treated by the PCs - she was McGuinty Jr. for the first year or so, until bad things started happening that could be pinned on her(even if the biggest, absurd hydro rates, was mostly McGuinty's doing), at which point she became "even more corrupt", "even more out of touch", et tedious cetera. I've seen multiple right-wing strategists describe this process of building up enemies as a fundraising and voter mobilization tactic pretty openly. I'm sure if I got involved in a left wing party, their guys would say the same. It's a strategy - its goal is to be successful, not to be nice, or even accurate. It's about winning. This is another example of why successful political leaders should usually be lacking in principle, so they can do things like this and still be able to function.

Even if this is a functional strategy that all sides use, though, we are under no obligation to take it seriously. Those who know me know I've got fairly strong partisan leanings, but I've always made a point of keeping my identity small and not tying it too closely to the party. I've given at least brief thought to voting third-party in most elections I've ever voted in, I roll my eyes at the hyper-partisans on my own side, and I make a point of discarding the opinions of anyone who doesn't disagree with "their side" on at least one or two issues.

When it comes to rather transparent nonsense like this, just ignore it. Remember that the bad guys that your side builds up as bogeymen do probably mean well. Remember that the last one did too, and that most people are a lot more balanced than their opponents give them credit for. Heck, even Hitler ate sugar. This doesn't mean you need to stop fighting them, but remember that you're fighting someone who means well and is really bad at it, not someone who wants to burn the city down just to provide a good backdrop to their fiddling. Go find out what the good things about them are - give yourself the ability to complement them if you ever need to, and make sure you'll never be surprised by the fact that good things can be said by people with bad opinions. Don't stop standing up for what you believe, just make sure you're being smart about it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cooking for Bachelors - Week Two

So after week one, you've learned the basics of cooking - stove and oven use, the joys of leftovers, and how best to do a few basic tasks. There's nothing too crazy on tap for this week, we're just going to expand your repertoire a bit, and try to burn down some of that budget deficit from the setup costs last week.

Also, one slight change I want to make. The grocery website I was using last week is brutally overpriced. I sort of knew that before(it's a Longo's brand, and they're not a cheap store), but I couldn't find better. But I went looking around a bit more, and I found much better options. As a result, I've switched to Walmart's "order online and pick up" service for my price checks. Last week's grocery bill fell from $79.11 to $55.17 as a result, and it's been edited accordingly. This is why shopping at cheap stores when you can is such a good idea - the savings can be huge. I'm not assuming that you will use the same specific stores I do - prices vary, and you should use whatever option makes sense for you. But if you have the choice between FancyCo and CheapCo, you'll often save far more than you would ever expect by shopping at CheapCo.

Milk - $4.27
Pancake Mix - $2.47 (Get the stuff that needs milk and eggs, not the "just add water" - it's not as good)
Table Syrup - $2.16 (You can get real maple syrup if you prefer, but I'm a bad Canadian who likes the fake stuff)
Chocolate Chips - $2.22
Boneless Pork Chops(x6) - $10.00
Boneless Ham - $10.00
Pineapple Rings(1 can) - $1.67
Minute Rice(large box) - $5.47
Large Freezer Bags - $3.97
Soy Sauce - $1.88
Vegetable Oil - $2.97 (Any sort of vegetable oil is fine - "vegetable", canola, sunflower, olive, etc. are all good)
Perogies - $1.78
Sour Cream - $1.97
Instant chili(1 can) - $2.97
Potatoes(10lb bag) - $3.97

Total for the groceries is $48.29, but we'll also need a bit more equipment.

Milk Pitcher - $2.27 (Non-Canadians can skip this one, because your milk isn't in bags)
Can opener - $5.37
Knife Set - $28.99
Cutting Boards - $13.99

With tax, that's an extra $57.20, for a total of $105.49. Again, we're over budget this week, but you can see how the savings on the grocery side will pay it off over time. Sadly, there's a lot of startup costs for having a serious kitchen, but we're definitely past the worst of it now.

A note about the knives - knives vary in quality more than you'd expect, and the cheap ones are more likely to break, dull, and/or get rusty over time. It's actually worth spending more than this on knives if you want to be cooking for quite a while, but a cheap set is enough to get you off the ground. The set I linked seems like the best of the cheap sets, but if you pick up cooing as a serious hobby, you may drop a couple hundred on top-notch knives down the line. 98% of what you need can be done with a large chef's knife, a small paring knife, and a serrated bread knife, plus steak knives to eat with. If you already have some steak knives kicking around, consider a set like this one instead - it's about the same price for a lot fewer knives, but they're better-quality, and those are the only knives you really need.

We're following the same basic plan as last week - do most of the cooking on the weekend, then eat mostly leftovers during the week. Because there's less need for simple recipes to show you the ropes, there's only 4 things to cook this week instead of 6.

Saturday lunch: Chicken strips and perogies. Cook up half a dozen chicken strips just like last week(parchment paper on cookie sheet, ~400F/205C for ~20 minutes), but also include about a pound of perogies on the same sheet. This is two meals worth. Serve the strips with BBQ sauce and the perogies with sour cream - just put a bit of each on a plate and dip, this is finger food. Save the other half as a leftover.

Also, while you're waiting for this to cook, you want to do a bit of prep for dinner. Open the can of pineapple, and pour the juice into a large freezer bag, then add roughly the same amount of soy sauce and perhaps half as much oil. Don't worry too much about exact proportions. Then put in the pork chops - try to spread them out so they're not stuck together, you want their surface to be in the liquid. If there's not enough room, split the stuff between two bags. Squeeze the bag(s) until almost all of the air is out, then seal them up and put them it in the fridge. This is marinating, and it helps make the meat more tender and flavourful - the liquid you use is called "marinade", rather confusingly. Also, put at least four of the pineapple rings in a tupperware container(so they don't dry out), and put them in the fridge too - the rest you can snack on. (Food safety note - if you spill some of the marinade while sealing the bag, treat it like raw meat - clean it up with soap and water, and wash your hands afterwards. The raw pork contaminates the liquid. and it's unsafe until you cook it)

Saturday Dinner: Pineapple Pork Chops. Take your chops out of the fridge, and put them in a large pan with about half the marinade. Dump the rest of the marinade down the sink. Put them on medium, and fry them for about ten minutes, flip them, and fry them for another ten. When you flip them, start your rice - you want to take a large glass(about two cups, ideally), fill it with water, and boil the water on high heat in a small pot. When the water hits a boil, fill the same cup with Minute Rice, pour it in the pot, turn off the heat, and cover the pot. About 5-10 minutes later, the rice should be dry and cooked. If they seem cooked from the outside, take the biggest one and cut it open - it should be cooked through fully, no pink left. If the biggest one is cooked through, they all are. Put about a third of the rice on your plate, plus two pork chops, and serve with BBQ sauce if it seems a bit boring.

Save two leftover pork chops, two leftover pineapple rings, plus half the rice in a Tupperware - that's the material for another similar meal. The two extra pork chops have another purpose you'll see tomorrow. Likewise, the rest of the rice is for a meal during the week

(Side note: You can use regular rice instead of Minute Rice. The instructions are almost identical, except you want two measures of water to one of rice instead of 1:1, and you should expect it to take 20-30 minutes to cook through. Because of the added time, you also want to leave the burner on low heat instead of turning it off entirely)

Saturday Dessert - Goddamn Dishes. The dishes from today's meals will be needed tomorrow, so give them a quick wash. There's only a few, so it should be fast. 

Sunday Breakfast: Chocolate Chip Pancakes. Spray a medium/large pan with cooking spray, and put it on medium heat. Follow the instructions on the box to make pancake batter - generally, it's a cup of mix, a cup of milk, an egg, and a splash of oil in a large bowl. Mix the batter thoroughly with a fork, then pour about half of it into your pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. As with the omelette last week, wait until the top is dry(~5 minutes), then flip it. Give it another minute, then put it on a plate, and drizzle it generously with syrup. Save the leftover batter in the fridge for another day - it'll separate and look a bit gross when you pull it out, but re-mix it for a minute and it's fine.

Sunday Lunch: Pork Chop Sandwich. Those two leftover pork chops from dinner last night? There's a reason I didn't include pineapple there. It's time for the king of sandwiches. Take your pork chop, microwave it until it's hot, then add a slice of cheese and some BBQ sauce, and put it between slices of bread. It's a bit tough to chew cleanly through, but it's fantastic.

Sunday Dinner: Maple Ham with Roast Potatoes. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C, and place the ham in your parchment-lined baking pan. Drizzle maple syrup over it, and put a bit of water in the pan as well(perhaps half an inch deep).

While that's starting, take about 10 normal-sized potatoes(or equivalent), and wash them - scrub them with your hands briefly in a stream of warm water, and set them aside. Using your chef's knife(or a mid-size utility knife, if you have one), cut them into cubes about 1/2" to a side - generally, a single cut along the long axis, then set them flat side down on a cutting board, and cut in the other two directions. Exact size doesn't matter too much. Put the pieces on a parchment-lined cookie tray, give them a light coat of oil(either with cooking spray, or with a drizzle of vegetable oil plus some hand-mixing), then toss them in the oven with the ham. About 20 minutes later, re-drizzle the ham with maple syrup, and mix around the potatoes a bit to ensure they cook evenly. It should be ready about 20 minutes after that.

Knife Safety Note - A good knife is a sharp knife, and a sharp knife is one you can hurt yourself with. Keep your hands away from the blade and away from where the blade will be at all times, and never cut towards yourself. Remember that knives can sometimes move in slightly different directions than you expect, so keep a safety margin as well - if I can, I like to keep my hands at least an inch from the blade. Also, don't cut like you're in a samurai movie or any stupid shit like that. 

Like most other starchy foods, the potatoes will be ready when they're lightly browned. Ham is pre-cooked, so it just needs to be heated through - both should happen around the same time. The leftovers from this meal should be good for at least three full meals, and you may well have extra ham over and above that - if you do, cut it thin and use it for sandwiches in future. (In a couple weeks I'll be leaving gaps in the schedule for you to repeat your favourite recipes, so save it until then - it'll keep in the fridge)

Sunday Dessert - Goddamn Dishes. Yes, this is still necessary. Sorry. Just remember, any other person teaching you to cook would tell you to do dishes seven times a week, not twice. 

Meals for the Week: You should have 7 leftover meals - one of chicken strips and perogies, one pineapple pork chop dinner, one spare pork chop, one pancake, and three of ham and roast potatoes. Toss in your one fast food lunch and one restaurant dinner, and you're still a meal short. This is where the leftover rice from Saturday comes in. Open the can of chili. pour it on top of the rice in a bowl, and microwave until hot - the rice adds bulk and texture, plus it's a really cheap way to stretch your chili into a bigger meal. 

We were $210.70 over budget last week, and spent $105.49 this week, on a budget of $65. That leaves us $251.19 over budget. Again, I promise that will start dropping soon. On the time side, you spent 20 minutes shopping, 10 minutes on the chicken strips plus prep time, 15 minutes on the pork chops, 10 minutes on the pancakes, 20 minutes on the potatoes and ham, 20 minutes on dishes, and 20 minutes on prepping leftovers. That's 115 minutes, which is 15 minutes faster than fast food. (And on my word count promise, this is less than half the size of last week, so I was close there too)

Come back for Week 3, where I introduce you to the wonderful world of actually giving your food a bit of flavour.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Buying the Dream

I talked a bit last week about lotteries, but there's one other parts of the lottery phenomenon that interests me as well.

It's common to discuss lotteries using terms like "idiot taxes" in some circles - after all, smart people know that the lottery has terrible odds, and people are normally risk-averse, so why would anyone ever take on a money-losing risk? It doesn't make any sense.

Thing is, I'm not generally a believer that millions of people do things simply because they're too dumb to know better. It happens sometimes - in particular, gambling addicts seem to have their brains wired in ways that promote profoundly self-destructive behaviours - but the millions of people who drop by the corner store weekly to buy a $2 ticket aren't usually wrecking their lives to do it. But still, that's several grand over a lifetime, for like a 1/5000 chance to ever hit it big. Why do people do that?

People like the idea of being rich, but for most people it's not something they consider attainable. Even upper-middle-class families who have the income to build up a nest egg in the millions usually don't, because the point of being rich is usually to have the ability to buy rich-people stuff, and scrimping and saving to be rich sort of defeats the purpose. They already have a career, they already know basically which path their life will take, and they know they're never going to have a real chance to be an NBA player or a rock star or whatever. Their only plausible path to the high life is the lottery. Yeah, the odds are slim, but a 35 year old nurse with two kids has a better chance of winning the lottery than of writing the next Harry Potter series.

Everyone likes to dream. The dreams differ - one person wants a Veyron, another wants to buy a private island getaway in the Caribbean, and some just want to be able to tell their boss to shove off without worrying about money. But not many people will ever get there on their own. For someone who knows they can't, but who doesn't want to abandon the dream, what choices do they have? Some will sigh and say "Oh well, maybe in another life", but others want to hold onto it. They want to think it could happen to them, and not just to someone else. And for people like that, the lottery sure looks like their only option.

The average lotto player isn't buying an expectation of winning for their $2 a week. They're buying the right to dream. They're spending the money so that they can hope in a way that feels realistic. It's not because they think it's a good deal on paper, it's because they don't expect to ever have a better chance. I'm not the sort to do that myself, but I get it, and once I started getting it, the idea of poking fun at people who play got a lot less appealing.

One final note, if anyone reading this is a lotto player themselves. You do have a better option available for getting yourself millions of dollars. Take the money you spend on lotto tickets in a year - call it $100. For a lottery like the local 6/49 we have here, this gives you just shy of four chances in a million of winning in any given year. But if you take it to your local casino, and put it all on 00 at the roulette table, you have $3600 if you win, $129,600 if you win twice, and $4,665,600 if you win three times in a row. $4.7 million sounds like a good-sized lotto win to me. Your odds there are about 18 in a million, or about five times higher than the actual lottery, and one casino trip a year is a lot less time out of your life than fifty trips to the corner store.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Night Video - Beginning

I've been doing this as a weekly series on Facebook for just over four years now, but if I'm going to have a blog, I should make sure I actually populate it with content. I think I've been doing decently at that, but I can do better. Besides, if I want to post my weekly blog output on my Facebook wall with the Friday Night Video post, there's better ways to do it. Also, this lets me pre-schedule posts, which means I should wind up missing a lot fewer weeks.

So, to celebrate this new beginning for Friday Night Videos, this song seems apropos.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cooking For Bachelors - Week One

I've known some really good cooks over the years, but I was never actually one of them. I was the sort of guy whose idea of cooking a fancy meal was putting hot dogs in my Kraft Dinner. Then a woman came along and ruined me. Now I eat vegetables sometimes - I mean seriously, what's up with that?

Thing is, I know a lot of young guys, as yet un-ruined by womenfolk, and they all cook like I used to(which is to say, visiting McDonald's). And much as I joke, this change has been very good for me - I eat healthier, the food is genuinely tastier, and I spend less. Heck, I don't even spend much more time on it than I used to all told. Cooking is a very useful skill, and I'm glad I've developed it.

I got to thinking, would it make sense for me to share what I've learned? There's a lot of folks out there who don't cook in large part because they don't really know how to do it well, and fast food is better for right now. And for people like that, the cooking advice that exists out there is spectacularly ill-suited. A few years ago, I saw a piece from one of my favourite bloggers on how cooking advice aimed at beginners was too advanced, which made a ton of sense to me...until she started posting recipes, and my first reaction was that she went from missing the point by a mile to missing it by half a mile. Yeah, it's better, but it's not good. If you showed 19 year old Alex the first recipe on that list, a 10-part recipe for pasta that requires a garlic crusher, "the smallest mozzarella balls in water", chopped tomatoes, and fresh basil...well, I don't know what I'd have done, but I sure as heck wouldn't have cooked it.

This is a series intended to fix that mistake. This is aimed at someone who thinks "broil" is a typo. This is the complete list of recipes I expect you to have mastered:
  • Cap'n Crunch for breakfast
  • Peanut butter and jam for lunch
  • Instant ramen noodles for dinner
I figure it's safe to assume even the most stereotypical of bachelors can handle that menu by themselves. I don't expect you to know how stoves or ovens work, and I don't expect you to even own cookware. And I know that the sort of person this guide is aimed at is probably both cheap and lazy, so I'll make one more commitment - this plan will be faster than fast food. Cheaper, too. I'm going to use every shortcut I know, every half-assed lazy-man approach, and every trick I've developed in the last few years of actually knowing how to cook to teach you how to get this done in a way that's so much better than McDonald's that you'll wonder why nobody ever taught you this before.

A few notes before I get into the meat of this. 
  1. My benchmark is someone who eats all their meals from fast-food places, except visiting the Cap'n for breakfast. I figure a decent fast-food meal costs $5 even if you eat cheap, and you'll spend 10 minutes going to the restaurant, waiting in line, and actually getting your food. Both of these are pretty conservative estimates in my experience, but I don't want to be accused of cheating. I don't want to stop your current habits cold turkey, so I'll leave you one lunch and one dinner a week out - McDonald's is still tasty even after you've learned to cook, after all, and you might have a date once in a while. I'm also assuming you eat a quick and dirty breakfast of some sort most days, so I'll only be giving recipes for Sunday breakfasts. This means 13 meals a week will be outlined, and thus my budget is $65 and 130 minutes per week. (And naturally, in a guide for bachelors, you're cooking for one)
  2. All prices are in Canadian dollars, which for any non-Canadians in the room mean that eggs and dairy products are grossly overpriced. To make things easy on the price-finding side, all the items I find will be sourced either from Walmart or Amazon, unless there's something weird that requires me to look elsewhere. You can probably do better if you shop around, but that's not very lazy. 
  3. I'm going to suggest a few ideas that sound grossly inefficient. This is intentional. If it bothers you, think of it this way - it's still way more efficient than hiring a bunch of teenagers to cook for you. Likewise, I may make mistakes - I'm no chef, I'm just a dude who thinks he knows how to burn water now. But while this guide may not be perfect, it'll be a hell of a lot better than fast food. 
  4. I'm scaling these recipes to my appetite, and to my usual meal-size preference of a smaller lunch and a bigger dinner. 99% of recipes can be scaled up or down quite easily, so if something seems off, you can either cook more or less, or just stretch the same food further/less far. 
  5. I use "bachelor" and refer to young guys, but this guide is for bachelors of all ages and genders. The recipes will be more appealing to stereotypical 20-something guys than stereotypical grandmothers, but I've cooked basically all of these for my bride, and she hasn't dumped me yet. Deliciousness has no gender. 
Stocking Your Kitchen
I'm assuming you have spoons, forks, knives, plates, bowls, and cups in your kitchen, and nothing else. In practice, you probably won't need all of this, but I want to be conservative.

Pots and Pans - You'll want at least two of each, in different sizes. For now, everything you buy should be non-stick. Yes, purists will bitch at me, but non-stick is cheap, more forgiving of most newbie mistakes, and about a million times easier to clean. It also keeps food from burning 90% of the time, which you will be very glad of. The only relevant care notes are that you should avoid cooking on super-high heat(nothing above medium unless there's liquid or a lot of food in there to absorb the heat), and avoid scraping the inside with anything metal or heavy scrub pads, both of which will damage the non-stick coating. Both ceramic and Teflon non-stick are mature, reliable technologies at this point, and you should go for whichever one is a better deal.

Cooking Utensils - To avoid scraping your pots and pans, buy silicone. It's a near-perfect material - withstands very high heat, easy to clean, and about the right stiffness for most purposes. You'll want a spoon, a spatula/lifter(names vary), and a pair of tongs, plus a pair of oven mitts and a pasta strainer.

Baking Sheets - For throwing things in the oven. You'll want a cookie tray and a baking pan.

Tupperware - Just like duct tape is the handyman's secret weapon, tupperware is the lazy cook's secret weapon. It's what lets you eat home-cooked without actually cooking that day. Get a good-sized set, one with a couple big containers and enough smaller ones to store at least half a dozen meals. (You don't need "real" tupperware for this - reusable takeout containers work perfectly well if you have them lying around)

Cleanup Supplies - Sadly, the biggest downside of cooking for yourself is cleaning up afterwards. You'll want a few supplies to make that easier - a sponge(either one with one side a bit rougher, or grab a second sponge for heavy-duty cleanup), dish soap, and paper towel. A cheap plastic pot scraper is not strictly necessary, but a great time-saver. If you have space, a drying rack is good. Also, while it's not used for cleanup per se, parchment paper is a really good idea. Use it to line your baking trays and make sure nothing sticks to them, it makes cleaning up bakeware a ten-second job.

A lot of this stuff is sold in sets of various sorts, so you may get a bit more than the above. Here's the best sets I can find on Amazon:

Pots, pans, and utensils - $83.63
Silicone tongs - $9.99
Oven mitts - $7.66
Pasta strainer/colander - $10
Baking sheets - $19.82
Tupperware - $26
Sponges - $7.99
Dish soap - $2.85
Paper towel - $1.99
Pot scraper - $1.99
Dish rack - $17.99
Parchment paper - $5.25

Now, needless to say, this is more than $65 on its own - the total, with tax, is $220.53. Stocking a kitchen isn't cheap. But even if you need all of this stuff, it'll be paid off over time in the form of cheaper food. I expect within a couple months the running cost will be below budget. Again, if you want to save money, you can probably find better deals on a lot of this stuff - the pot and pan prices seem particularly high to me(which is to be expected, given how much extra stuff comes in that set). Walmart is a good bet here for pots and pans, and a lot of the smaller stuff you can even get at the dollar store. But I like a challenge, so I'll use this price.

We're looking for basic supplies this week, generally. I'm not going to do anything too outlandish to start, but simple stuff like eggs and cheese and BBQ sauce needs to be bought. Here's the list, with prices:

Bread - $2.27
BBQ Sauce - $1.94
Ranch dressing - $3.97
Tortillas - $3.97
Chicken strips - $4.97
Tomato sauce(2x 680mL-ish jar) - $2.94
Pasta(2 lb) - $1.00
Ground beef(1 lb) - $4.50 - leave this in the fridge
Doritos(your favourite flavour) - $3.31
Eggs - $1.97
Pre-grated cheddar cheese(or cheddar derivatives - Tex-Mex type flavours work well this week) - $5.47
Processed cheese slices - $2.97
Grated parmesan cheese - $4.67
Margarine - $1.47 (butter also works, but it's more annoying to spread)
Frozen pizza - $6.97
Cooking spray - $2.77

Total price is $55.17. Not only is this under budget, but well over half of this food will still be in your fridge at the end of the week.

Holy Shit, You're Actually Cooking
We're finished talking about cooking, and so it's time to actually start cooking for real. It's Saturday morning, you've had your cereal and gone grocery shopping, and now it's time to start cooking like a bachelor, with two of the simplest meals in the world.

Saturday lunch: Grilled cheese. Get out a big pan, put it on a big burner on your stove(in general, you should always match pot/pan size to burner size). Turn that burner of the stove up to medium-high heat, i.e., halfway between medium and high. While it's warming up, take out four slices of bread, two cheese slices, and the margarine. Spread margarine on one side of each slice of bread, just like you would your PB and/or J, only a lot less of it - you just need a thin layer. Put two of the slices of bread on the pan, margarine-side down. Orientation is important here - the margarine being on the pan size of the bread is what makes the bread turn delicious and brown, instead of becoming a stuck-on disaster. Then put a slice of cheese on each, then put the other slices of bread on margarine-side up.

Leave each side cooking for perhaps 2 minutes, then flip it. If it's golden brown, you're done with that side. If it's not, that's fine - you can flip it back later. Don't wait too long to flip, or it could burn. Once both sides are a nice brown, the cheese inside should be melted, and you're done. Turn off the stove, throw the sandwiches on a plate, and give your spatula a quick rinse(it's the only dish you'll need to use twice this weekend, so you want it clean-ish without needing to do dishes). Then eat.

Saturday Dinner: Pizza. Turn your oven on to about 350F/175C, which will be the default temperature for most ovens. The pizza box will include instructions to preheat the oven(i.e., get it up to temperature before you put the pizza in), but that doesn't actually matter for 99% of recipes and it means another trip to the kitchen. Ignore it, put the pizza straight on the rack then and there, and set a timer for about 20 minutes. Go play video games. When the timer goes off, check the pizza. If the cheese is melted and the crust is a bit brown, you're probably done. If it's not, throw it in for another 5 minutes. (Food safety note: If the pizza had raw meat on it, you'll want to leave it in the oven a couple minutes longer just to make sure any bacteria are safely dead, but pre-cooked meat like pepperoni is generally safe).

When it's done, grab your oven mitts and pull it out straight onto a plate. Cut it into pieces, since you don't want to eat it all - you're saving some for lunch during the week. Toss the rest in a Tupperware in the fridge. Eat, with ranch as your dipping sauce if desired.

Side note: Ovens are set by temperature, not power level the way stoves are. In general, oven temperatures go from about 200F/90C at the low end, which you'd use for slow warming of things that overcook easily, to about 500F/260C at the high end, which you'd use for getting things crispy in a hurry. Most of the time you use an oven, temperatures should be somewhere in the middle, about 350. Also, some ovens need to be turned off when you're done. Don't forget!

So, that was pretty easy. Now you know how to use an oven and a stove, so we can get a tiny bit fancier.

Sunday Breakfast: Omelette. You want one nice breakfast a week, so let's start easy. Take your small pan, and like you did with the grilled cheese set it on medium heat while you're prepping the other ingredients. Because the eggs won't be covered in margarine, also give it a quick spray with your cooking spray - that'll prevent sticking.

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, so let's figure out how to do that right. You crack an egg by hitting it against a solid surface hard enough to crack the shell but not so hard that you smash it. Start out a bit weak, you can always try again if the first isn't enough. Once the shell is cracked, there's a membrane underneath it that also needs to be broken, If the cracking didn't do that, stick your thumbtip in and break it yourself. The shell will stick to the membrane, so once it's broken, the egg should come apart easily. Use your thumbtips to pull the halves of the egg apart, and let the egg fall into the bowl. It gets a bit messy, but your hands will clean up easily with a bit of water.  Stack the half-shells in the egg carton, and do it again. You'll want about four eggs, depending how hungry you are.

Once that's done, throw out the shells, wash your hands, and then take a fork and mix the eggs up - you'll want to break all the yolks and get the mixture a bit more homogenous(it won't be perfect, nor should it be, but they should be mixed). Pour the eggs into the pan. Wait a few minutes, until the eggs are cooked through(i.e., the top is basically dry). Then take your spatula and flip it. Throw a handful of shredded cheese on half of the omelette, and wait until it's partially melted(about 1 minute). Turn off the stove, flip the non-cheesy half of the omelette on top of the cheesy half, and put it on your plate. Om nom nom.

Side note: Any meal where you flip it halfway through, you generally want to wait until the top is at least very close to dry. Otherwise, the wet food flies all over the place. You'll get better with time, but for now, wait until it's dry. 

Sunday Lunch: Nachos. Nachos sound like a lot of work, but they're actually stupid easy. The secret weapon here is Doritos - they're tortilla chips, but already covered in delicious flavours. You can get fancy, and in a few weeks when we discuss spices I will, but for now we're doing two-ingredient nachos. Preheat the oven to 350, then grab your baking pan(if you got a set, the mid-size one, 9"x9" or so, is good). Grab a handful of Doritos, spread them around the bottom of the pan, then sprinkle shredded cheese on top generously. Then grab another handful, and make another layer. Usually, 3-4 layers fit in a baking pan. Toss it in the oven for 20 minutes or so, until the cheese at the top is a bit browned, and not just melted, because that'll mean the inner layer is melted too. Pull the pan out with oven mitts, stick it on a plate to prevent burning the table, and eat.

Sunday Dinner - Pasta in Meat Sauce. This will be the biggest and fanciest meal you cook this week, and it'll provide the bulk of the leftovers you'll be eating through the work week. But hey, there's no garlic crusher or tiny mozzarella balls.

Grab two pots. Put the smaller one on medium heat, and throw in the ground beef. Break it up with your spatula, and let it cook. While the beef is cooking, fill the big pot about 2/3 full of hot water, cover it, and put it on max heat to boil. Turn the beef over every few minutes, trying to put the red bits on the bottom to cook as best you can. Once the beef is browned through, grab a few paper towels and run them through the beef(using the spatula, not your hand - burns are no fun) to pick up all the extra grease the beef drops when it cooks, then throw them out. Try to leave one corner dry so you can grab the paper towels and out them in the spoon, to avoid grease drops on your kitchen floor as you run to the garbage. Once you've done that, put the tomato sauce in the pot, cover it, and reduce heat to medium-low. Stir it every few minutes, to make sure it heats through evenly. Sauce is done when it's warm - as a lazy man's way of checking, stick your fingertip in. If it's too warm for comfort, the sauce is done. (Food safety note: Ground beef is not necessarily 100% cooked even when it's brown. But since you're cooking it in the sauce for another 10-15 minutes after it's already brown, you'll be fine.)

When the big pot hits a boil, which may be before or after the meat's done, drop the heat to medium and put the pasta in. Some long pastas, like spaghetti, may need to be broken up to fit properly - just grab a handful and snap it. You'll want to stir it with your cooking spoon right away, and again a minute or two later - that way it doesn't stick to itself too badly. Pasta is done when it's the texture you like, so grab some with a fork and eat it when it looks close - if it's at the correct level of softness for your preferences, turn off the heat and drain it through the strainer. If the strainer fits in the pot, put it in the pot to contain dripping. Otherwise, leave it in the sink or put it on a plate.

Because you're cooking two dishes, making sure they're both ready at the same time is a bit of a challenge. This is one of the bigger concerns for practical kitchenomancy at all levels of skill. Thankfully, both sides of this recipe are quite forgiving. If it looks like one will be ready before the other, adjust the heat of the sauce to compensate(though don't go above medium, or it might burn). If the pasta is done before the sauce, spray it with cooking spray and mix a bit to prevent it from sticking to itself(cooking spray is just canola oil, so this is fine), and cover it with the pot lid to prevent drying out. If the sauce is done before the pasta, turn the heat down to the lowest setting, and leave it on to keep warm.

Spoon out the pasta, cover it in sauce, and sprinkle parmesan cheese on top. This recipe should be good for at least five leftover meals as well as the main dinner, so break out the tupperware.

Sunday Dessert - Goddamn Dishes. We have, unfortunately, come to the shittiest part of cooking - doing the dishes. It's not that bad, really, but it's a hassle. A few basic tricks are good here.
  • Dishwashers are a miraculous invention, and you should get one if you can - it instantly cuts the job in half. 
  • Soaking dishes is a great way to loosen up a lot of crap off of them, but it should be pointed out that soaking is a process that properly takes about two minutes, not a month and a half. If you put something in warm water and do a few other dishes, you'll get about 95% of the value of an eternal soak by the time you finish those other dishes. And, as a bonus, it won't have time to grow mold like some of the truly foul dishes in my university houses. 
  • If you don't know whether something is clean, run your finger across it. If it feels smooth and non-greasy, you're probably good. (Side note: Nonstick pans will develop holes in the coating that feel like stuck-on food over time, from times you hit them the wrong way with a fork or whatever. These can't be cleaned. Don't worry too much, just replace them every few years when they start getting too beat-up to stay truly nonstick). 
If you have a single sink, turn the water on to warm, and wash dishes in the stream of water. Pour a bit of soap into your sponge, and use the spongey side to clean everything. The outside of pots and pans just needs a quick five-second pass, but the inside takes a bit more work. Don't use the scrubby side on nonstick surfaces, but for metal/ceramic/silicone it's fine. If you stop getting suds, just add more soap. When you're done with a dish(which doesn't normally take more than 20-30 seconds even for a big pot unless something is burned on), rinse off the soap suds in the water, and put it in the drying rack. Towels on the counter can function as extra drying racks, as can the stovetop.

If you have a double sink, you can do it the same way if you like, but there's a more water-efficient option. Fill one sink with warm water and use the other one for rinsing off the soap suds. Wash dishes from cleanest to dirtiest, so it doesn't mess up the water.

Also, while you're doing this, give a quick cleaning to your kitchen surfaces, particularly the stove. Even just a wet paper towel with a tiny bit of soap and 30 seconds will prevent filth from accumulating too badly.

Monday Lunch - Leftovers. This is why we cooked so much on the weekend. We have at least 6 meals of leftovers in the fridge(5 pastas and a pizza), and you can nuke them up in the microwave in two minutes to have a fast, hot, and cheap lunch at work or at home.

Monday Dinner - Leftovers. 

Tuesday Lunch - Fast Food. Hey, I said I didn't want to break you of all your habits overnight. Go have that Baconator.

Tuesday Dinner - Leftovers.

Wednesday Lunch - Leftovers. 

Wednesday Dinner - Chicken Wraps. You're probably a bit tired of leftover pasta, so let's mix it up a bit. Take your cookie tray, cover it in parchment paper, and cook half a dozen chicken strips per the instructions on the package(generally ~400F/205C for ~20 minutes). When they're done, take them out and grab three wraps, the shredded cheese, BBQ sauce, and ranch dressing. Put some ranch in the middle of the tortilla, from one edge about 2/3 of the way to the other edge. Sprinkle shredded cheese on top, then put down two chicken strips, more cheese, and BBQ sauce. Fold the back third of the tortilla(with no stuff on it) towards the front, then fold the two sides into the middle. You should get something that looks sort of like this. Then you'll want to throw them back in the oven for a few minutes to crisp up the wrap and get the cheese nicely melted. If you have toothpicks you can use them to hold the burrito closed, otherwise just stick something on top(even something as basic as a knife will work here, just don't burn yourself with it). Once the bread is lightly browned, you're done. Two are dinner, and one is a leftover for tomorrow's lunch.

Thursday Lunch - Leftovers.

Thursday Dinner - Leftovers.

Friday Lunch - Leftovers.

Friday Dinner - Restaurant. You've got a hot date, or a cool concert, or a buddy in town, or something. Or you're a sad bastard who wants to order in pizza and watch Bloodsport for the 47th time. Hey, who am I to judge?

Since this is the first week, the spending was way out of line from what we'll do going forward. $220.53 on kitchen equipment plus $55.17 on food is $275.70, on a budget of $65, or $210.70 over budget. It'll go down over time, don't worry.

On the time side, you should have spent 5 minutes buying that stuff on Amazon, 20 minutes grocery shopping, 5 minutes on your grilled cheese, 5 minutes on your pizza, 10 minutes on the omelette, 5 minutes on the nachos, 20 minutes on pasta, 15 minutes on dishes, 10 minutes on the chicken wraps, and 15 minutes heating up leftovers through the week. That's 110 minutes of actually dealing with food, instead of the 130 you spent on fast food. I promised you this would be faster than fast food.

Come back for Week 2, where I write a post like a third of this size and not a 4300 word monstrosity.

Friday, February 10, 2017

"I have ALL THE MONEY!" "Sir, that's a toonie."

When I was a kid. maybe 6 years old, we went to visit my uncle who lives in a small town with unpleasant-tasting water, and this was a big local issue at the time. We drank from a Brita filter, and I made some comment about how the town should just install a really big Brita for the whole town. In my youthful enthusiasm, I said something to the effect of "It'll cost like a thousand dollars". My uncle's reply was "If it cost a thousand bucks, they'd have done it already". And this confused me quite a lot at the time. That was a huge amount of money - I don't think I'd ever had more than $20 to my name in my life. How could $1000 not be enough to afford everything?

I've spent a lot of time dealing with math and big numbers over the years since then. I was the kind of kid who learned what a googol is, and then doubled down on nerdiness in my teen years to learn about Skewes' number and Graham's number(which is so big you need whole new types of notation even to write it down). I scroll through pages called "A Tediously Accurate Scale Model of the Solar System". And bringing it back to the concrete, I routinely debate the breakdown of a budget in the trillions, and I work a job where I get to tell people "A million dollars isn't nearly as much as you think it is" on a regular basis.

In other words, I've trained my brain out of the mistake I made as a kid. Not consciously, but it looks the same in the end, I've been immersing myself in orders of magnitude for twenty years now. And I still catch myself making this mistake sometimes.

It makes sense, though. Big numbers are tough, because our brains aren't really wired that way - nobody on the East African savannah in 100,000 BC needed to know what a trillion was, or "100,000 BC" either. Even with experience, even with a pro-mathematical disposition, a lot of numbers ending in "illion" still sound the same and create the same gut reaction.

This habit of mind, this insensitivity to the actual scale of large numbers, explains a few things. The one I find most interesting is how people deal with big sums of money. Look at lottery winners. About 2/3 of them go bankrupt within 5 years. That's bonkers! This is something people dream of all their life, and when it finally happens, it destroys them. The dynamics of it are simple, though. Someone who's lived on $50,000 a year(and never had more than a few grand in one place at any given time) gets $5,000,000, and they see it as "Holy shit, I have ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD". So they spend like it. Buy a million dollar house and another one for your mother, get his&hers Ferraris, give $10k to everyone you know on Facebook, invest a quarter mil in your brother-in-law's surefire success of a bar that he wants to open, and so on, and so on. And it's gone.

Lotto-winner bankruptcy doesn't generally happen because the lottery payout is too small. It happens because a lot of people don't understand that any number over a million actually has limits. Why would they? They've never needed to bother with it. It's not $5M, it's $Lots, and therefore they spend money on all the things that a person with $Lots can afford. As it turns out, a big number is not actually infinite, and there's few piles of money so large that you can't blow through them with dedicated spending.

A lot of other problems in how humans deal with big numbers are explained pretty well by this phenomenon as well. CEO pay is $Lots, some wasteful government program you dislike is $Lots, and rich people all have $Lots. If you think the problem is not enough money for you or things you like, just take some from $Lots - that'll be enough to provide for it. Right?

Sadly, the real world demands real numbers, both on the small scale and the large. Fudging it all into an "illion" somewhere doesn't work when you need to solve real problems, not even when you really want it to. Even if you don't care about math, math cares about you.