Submitted for your approval . . .

I’ve been lax in submitting my freelance work lately. Since I got a regular gig at Care2, I’ve been spending my mornings writing articles that I know will run, rather than investing my time submitting previous pieces to markets who may or may not be interested. I’ve also been tapped to contribute to another soon-to-launch site, which makes it even easier to keep busy with my writing (more on that later).

But I’m going to be slowing down my output at Care2 a bit compared to last month. I’ll write when something really strikes me; maybe a few posts per week. Not because I’m not enjoying it — it definitely beats the more technical stuff I’ve done a lot of in the past: stock analysis or calculus tips, for example. But I’m ready for a little break.

What I’d really like to see in print is a little thing I wrote all about tea. That may not immediately sound fascinating to you, but I enjoyed writing it. It’s a sort of spiritual successor to one of the more popular piece I’ve written, called “The Art of Science — The Science of Art?” I might define it as creative non-fiction moreso than feature writing, if I stop to think about it; particularly the tea article, since I let myself loose stylistically a bit more.

I had this piece in mind for at least six months before I actually wrote it. Where my previous piece in this vein started out talking about DNA but used that as a jumping off point to discuss the works of Salvador Dali, this newer piece starts off with me talking about my chemistry lab and then discussing all sorts of little-known facts about my favourite hot beverage. It’s a kind of writing I really enjoy because it combines my interests in science and culture by drawing connections between them.

It’s also difficult enough to categorize that finding the right market is a challenge. But if I don’t keep sending it out, it won’t happen. And the same goes for everything else that’s making the rounds at the moment. You have to submit. It’s a basic rule of freelancing: keep your stuff circulating until it sells.

Care2 Blog Weekly Roundup (01/27/12)

Politics:

Climate Change Deniers Set School Policy, Forecast Weather

Post-Fukushima, Nuclear Policies in Flux Around the World

“Climate Skeptic” Thinktank Asked to Reveal Secret Funders

Act on ACTA: The Internet War is Not Over

Canadians Want Legislation to Regulate Sex-Specific Abortion

Animal Welfare:

Texas Pastor Kills Neighbours’ Cat

Why We Will Boycott “The Grey”

Environment:

Tipping Point: Amazon Basin Becoming a New Carbon Source?

Migratory Birds Struggle to Adapt to New Climate

First Look Inside Fukushima Reactor

Responses to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

John Scalzi recently wrote a post for Tor.com about Starship Troopers the film, listing several reasons for watching it. The film is ostensibly based on Heinlein’s book of the same name, which, amongst other things, is often credited as creating the military science fiction genre.

My own reason for watching it, a couple years ago (or, rather, re-watching it), came from this AV Club post, which told me a lot about director Verhoeven and his intentions with the film I hadn’t picked up on the first time through. On the surface, it’s a crappy, brainless action movie. A little deeper, it turns out to be incredibly satirical, both anti-war and an intentional argument against the very ideas Heinlein put forth in the film’s source material.

Some might suggest he misrepresents Heinlein’s ideas in responding to them. For example, he’s clearly stated his belief that Heinlein’s imagined society was fascist, but this isn’t really a fair reading. Still, I’m of the school “everyone should read Heinlein, but never stop arguing with him”. So I appreciate the effort to refute him, even if Verhoeven does a sloppy job of it.

And I did get something out of re-watching the movie with a more critical eye; I even went back and watched Robocop for the same reason. But when it comes right down to it, I didn’t enjoy either one. They may only be pretending to be crappy, brainless movies — hiding deeper messages just below the surface — but really, what’s the difference between pretending to be and actually being crappy?

For that matter, the messages were pretty vague and simplistic. They’re anti-fascist, and? Can you get a little more specific with that? In the end, I suspect there’s only so much you can do with satire compared to a more detailed argument in a compelling story. That’s why Brave New World can’t live up to 1984. The former is satire at the expense of being real literature.

For that matter, I don’t need Verhoeven’s to refute Heinlein. It’s been done. The Forever War was written maybe 15 years after Starship Troopers, and is a clear, politically-opposite response, written by a veteran just returned from Vietnam, no less. Joe Haldeman had both the writing and military creds to challenge Heinlein, and in so doing may have exceeded his work.

In fact, even Verhoeven’s cheerleader, Scalzi himself, has done this. Old Man’s War is clearly aware of Heinlein’s work, challenges it, and is an excellent novel in its own right. Scalzi should just read his own book next time he feels the urge to watch Verhoeven’s film.

I guess the moral of the story (as I take it) is that even when something is arguably important as part of a body of critically relevant work, it may have few artistic merits of its own.

Care2 Blog Weekly Round-up (01/20/12)

Politics:

SOPA and PIPA Are Only a Skirmish

Harper and Chiefs to Hold Summit: Expectations are Low

Education:

Teach for America: Doing More Harm Than Good?

Equal is Better: What’s Missing from the Debate on Education Reform

Environment:

Should Auld Species Be Forgot?

Umbrellas in the Sky? When and Why Geo-engineering is Crazy

Book Review: The Green Hills of Earth & The Menace from Earth

The stories of Green Hills have that special just-can’t-wait-for-the-future sheen that science fictional works of the ’40s and ’50s tended to have. Luna City, colonies on Mars and Venus, a new class of adventurers and fortune-seekers rocketing to the outer planets to establish new outposts and write their own tickets. There’s opportunity for the taking, if you just have brains and gumption enough to get it!

Read my complete review on Revolution Science Fiction.

Sweating to Books on Tape*

A few years ago when I was living alone in China, my job gave me a significant amount of free time. I taught either one or two classes per day (biology and pre-calculus), had no official office hours — I was able to make it to the gym most weekdays (morning or afternoon depending on my schedule) and had all my evenings free save Tuesday nights when I ran a sort of phys ed program until about 5:30 or 6:00.

What I didn’t have were friends. That may be part of the reason I started listening to audio podcasts. Craving the human voice (in English, rather). I listened to Escape Pod and enjoyed it quite a lot, though I stopped being able to keep up after a few months back in Canada, particularly once I was working a genuine full-time teaching job.

I do like audio fiction, and it’s particularly ideal for short stories, which I am also fond of. Not everybody is, even avid readers. Or at least, it doesn’t occur to a large segment of the reading population to pick up an anthology or collection. This is a shame, really.

Certainly there’s a place for novels and short works, both, but there are a number of advantages to short fiction, including the ability to read it in one sitting, the chance to get a number of neat and unique ideas in a single book instead of focusing on just one, the ability to see a basic narrative idea stripped bare and not buried in an overwritten novel (it’s harder to overwrite a short story and still get it published).

All of which is to tell you I was thinking of a short story I “read” some time ago (I realize I heard the audio version only), and tracked it down, and if you’re interested, perhaps you’ll give it a listen. It’s called “Usurpers”, it’s hosted on Escape Pod, and it’s about a stubborn runner in the future who refuses any sorts of bodily enhancements, but still dares to compete against modified humans. He’s kind of a jerk but the story makes an important (and legitimate) point about “grit”. It’s more important than you think. For anyone who strives for greatness, physically, intellectually, artistically. . . .

*The title is a reference to a Family Guy cut-away gag.

A New Bloggy Home

I’ve started blogging at Care2.com, “Care2 make a difference”. A good clearinghouse for progressive causes, news, petitions, and such. I’ll be writing on education, environment, things of that nature. I’ll link to my posts from here as they go up.

Of course writing on other topics, reviews, arts and culture, and such, will go elsewhere, and will also be linked to from here.

First post: Girls Can do Math Just Fine, Thanks.

The Best Disney Animated Movies

I’ve just stumbled upon a complete ranking of all the Disney Classic/Disney Masterpiece animated features on Rotten Tomatoes, the film rating aggregator website. Supposedly they use some formula based on ratings from the site, box office performance, and I don’t know what else. Of course it goes without saying that a slew of people have left comments disagreeing with the ranking.

50 movies are included. Everything from the first full-length Disney feature, Snow White (1937), to the second-most recent, Tangled (2010). Not included are sequels (Aladdin: Return of Jafar), Pixar flicks (Toy Story), or any other Disney property that isn’t marketed through the Disney Masterpiece Collection label (or the Disney Classics Collection label until the mid-90s).

Anyway, no point in arguing about it. However, we happen to have been doing a fair bit of Disney viewing hereabouts of late. Thus, I will provide my own top-ten list, as follows:

  1. Beauty and the Beast
  2. Aladdin
  3. The Princess and the Frog
  4. The Lion King
  5. The Little Mermaid
  6. Lady and the Tramp
  7. Alice in Wonderland
  8. Bambi
  9. Dumbo
  10. Pinocchio

If you don’t like it, feel free to make your own list.

Recipe: Huevos Rancheros de Costa Rica

I think it’s fair to promote myself from novice to apprentice home chef. I’ve absorbed enough of the basic principles of cooking to be able to play around in the kitchen and put something together without relying on a step-by-step recipe. One recipe I’ve recently come up with is this Latin-fusion breakfast.

Huevos rancheros, or ranch-style eggs, is really a Mexican dish. Essentially, eggs with some salsa and other toppings (refried beans and guacamole, melted cheese possibly). The particular version that inspired my own dish is here. However, I knew even as I was skimming it that I would be doing a very different spin on things.

The one local dish I really like in Costa Rica is the bean and rice dish, pinto de gallo. I’ve been eating a lot of it and have not gotten sick of it. I prefer black beans, V prefers red, but it’s also completely fine to mix them together in absolutely any proportion if you don’t have enough of either kind.

I knew I wanted to use pinto de gallo as my base for the huevos rancheros, and that’s why I call this dish Huevos Rancheros de Costa Rica.

Ingredients (see the end of the post for approximate amounts):

  • onion
  • garlic
  • pepper (green, red, or whatever you like)
  • beans (black, red, or both)
  • cumin
  • black pepper
  • other spices to taste (we usually throw some “complete seasoning” in there)
  • rice
  • corn tortillas
  • eggs
  • salsa (as spicy as you like it)

1) Here’s a good rule of thumb: unless you’re baking, 99% of recipes start with frying some onions (and probably garlic). And so it is here. Throw some chopped onions in a saucepan with a little oil (your choice what kind) on high heat. Include some minced garlic at the same time (crush the garlic before mincing it to release more of its flavour). After a minute or so, add the peppers.

2) Once they’re decently seared (a couple more minutes) add some beans with their water/juice and turn the heat down to medium.

[A note on the beans: you can take them from a can and they're good to go -- those are cooked black/red beans. However, if you buy them raw in a package they're cheaper. All you have to do to get them like the ones in the can is boil them on medium-high for two or three hours until soft (check every 20 minutes or so to replace the water that has evaporated away). Do this the previous day and keep in a container in your fridge to use for all your Latin cooking. If you're in a rush or don't want that many beans, buy a can.]

3) Around this same time, you can get the rice started, since it has to be cooked before you add it to the pan.

4) You can also pre-heat the oven to around 400 F, and throw in some corn tortillas (as many as the number of people being served) to bake when it’s hot enough. They’ll only need about five minutes, depending on how crispy you want them.

5) Add spices to taste as the beans start to reduce/become less watery. There are many variations on pinto de gallo depending on what you’re using it for. The one I’ve described here is a nicely savoury, not overly spicy take on it that is good for making burritos. When pinto de gallo is the main dish (rather than a component in something else), I’ve been making a Cuban-inspired version with vinegar and chipotle peppers. I’ll give the recipe for that another time.

6) Before the rice is done, start making preparation for your eggs. I think soft-boiled works really well, but you can prepare your eggs literally any way you want. When soft-boiling, I found half an egg per tortilla (per person) was plenty.

7) Cook, tasting regular and adjusting spices, until much of the water from the beans is gone ( you don’t want it overly dry, however, just no loose liquid). Add the rice when it’s ready and mix it in well. You probably want a little less rice than you have beans, but there’s quite a bit of margin for error. Stir it in, keep checking for taste. When you’re satisfied, you can turn off the heat.

8 ) Put it all together. Spoon and spread some pinto de gallo on each baked corn tortilla, then put the egg on top. I shelled my soft-boiled egg, cut it in eighths, and put four pieces each on the two pinto de gallo-covered tortillas. A little yolk ran out over them and provided a nice flavour.

Lastly, top with some salsa, as spicy as you like it. I used chunky medium salsa, but then added some drops of chili sauce for additional heat. Eat and enjoy, no utensils necessary.

Notes: There’s no butter and only a dash of oil in this recipe (for the onions, garlic, and peppers). You could cut even this out by using a spritz of low-fat cooking spray. If you’re watching cholestorol, you could use egg-beaters or just egg whites, and poach or scramble them (again with cooking spray rather than butter or oil).

On the other hand, you could make this (reasonably) healthy and very filling recipe a little more fattening by frying the corn tortillas in oil instead of baking them, frying the egg instead of boiling or poaching it, add some slices of avocado or worse, guacamole. You could also melt some cheese on top.

I think you’ll find that this is very hearty and filling as is, however.

I didn’t give any specific numbers in the ingredients list because I measure everything out by eye. But here are some approximate quantities:

For eight servings, use one good-sized pepper, one whole onion (medium to large), maybe three or four cloves of garlic, four to eight eggs (if you want to give everyone their own fried egg, for example, but half an egg each should be plenty), maybe a cup or a little less of cooked beans, less still of the cooked rice (maybe half a cup to three quarters, depending on how ricey you like it), at least one tablepoon each of cumin and allspice, and half a tablespoon black pepper (to start, add more of everything as necessary based on tasting). Eight corn tortillas, about half a jar (about 250 mL) of salsa.

Humans Can’t Create Randomness

What happens when a human being tries to create a random sequence of ones and zeroes (on and off, yes or no)?

Similarly, what if you wanted to randomly place objects around a room? Would they all be equally spaced? No, because if it’s truly random, each object isn’t thinking about the objects that are already there and trying to find its own spot.

In reality, random distribution of objects will also include (random) clustering. If a person tries to distribute objects on a two-dimensional plane and make them seem random, the lack of clustering is a clue that it was a person trying to be random rather than truly random.