Thought For The Day

January 26, 2009


Welcome To The Ox!

January 26, 2009


Today is the first day of the Year of the Ox, my birth sign.  I’m looking forward to next weekend’s parade in Chinatown.

Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

January 25, 2009

In March last year I wrote a piece about the Spring basho that was headlined: “The Champ Is Back“.  It chronicled yokozuna Asashoryu’s return from a dying career to oust the upstart yokozuna Hakuho and win his 22nd Emperor’s Cup.  Last night, at the end of the Winter basho, the same story unfolded.  Asashoryu had failed to finish the last three basho and all the talk was of retirement once again.  But he came back and beat all-comers.   In a winner-take-all playoff on the final night, Asashoryu dominated the younger champion, winning easily.  Just like last year, Asashoryu punched the air in triumph as Hakuho scowled off the doryo.


It was a wonderful moment (at least for those of us who support Asa against Hakuho) and it topped a fascinating tournament.  Everyone seemed so serious this time, matches were hard fought and losses taken badly.  All the ozeki’s had winning records (other than Kotomitskui who was injured), including our guy Haramafuji who overcame a dreadful 0-4 start.

The gentle Estonian giant sekiwake Baruto was a winner, as was komusubi Kisenasato.   But the two other senior rikishi were injured in bouts with Asashoryu.   When the big guy goes for something, he really goes for it.

An absorbing tournament.  Hopefully it is a sign of a good year to come in sumo.

Small Spaces

January 25, 2009

For a decade, I have written about people living in small spaces:  a couple who live on their balcony; a street person who makes a home in a doorway, for example.  My stories, and plans for more, are filled with the ingenuity required to live in such tight spots.  But nothing I had fantasized about prepared me for the real-life inventiveness of Gary Chang in Hong Kong as told in this fascinating piece from the New York Times.

Chang has managed to cram 24 different floor plans into his tiny 344 square foot apartment.


Using shifting wall units suspended from steel tracks bolted into the ceiling, the apartment becomes all manner of spaces — kitchen, library, laundry room, dressing room, a lounge with a hammock, an enclosed dining area and a wet bar.


In the last two decades, he has renovated four times, on progressively bigger budgets as his company, Edge Design Institute, has grown. His latest effort, which took a year and cost just over $218,000, he calls the “Domestic Transformer.”

Incredible ingenuity.  I couldn’t possibly live in it, but I appreciate the design skills that have brought it about.

Vancouver’s Fog

January 20, 2009

Over the last few days, we have experienced very heavy fog.  Sometimes it lasts all day.  It makes for treacherous driving, but …


… what an incredible view!

This was apparently taken at 6am today from Cypress Mountain on Vancouver’s North Shore, looking down onto the city.  I am actively seeking the name of the photographer so that I can give proper credit (it seems to be a friend of a friend of a friend); but I did want to share this as soon as possible.


Update:   With heavy legwork by commenter Derek Miller, we can now suggest that this image is the work of Blair Kent.  It was taken about 7:30am on Sunday the 18th.  Great shot.

In Honour of Martin Luther King jr Day

January 19, 2009


A Paean To The Big Mac

January 17, 2009

Later this year I will be 60 years old.  And I have never yet eaten anything from McDonalds.  I always joke with my wife that I’ll have a Big Mac on my 100th birthday — but not before.

I hasten to note that my aversion to McDonalds has little to do with healthy eating.  I’ll demolish an A&W Teen Burger, or a couple of BK’s bacon double cheeseburgers as quick as anyone.  No, the problem with McDonalds for me is the smell.  That special McDonalds smell spreads a block each way from every McDonalds store and lingers.  I hate that.


Still, McDonalds is incredibly popular and, from this review of the Big Mac from Fast Food Critic, you’d expect it to be.  Rarely can something so formulaic and manufactured have been honoured with such praise!

I’m happy to report the burger and overall experience was great. The special sauce was creamy, distributed evenly, and as intended was the perfect complimentary flavor without overpowering the other ingredients. I had forgotten how satisfying the Big Mac really is. Growing up, it was my staple burger. Once in a blue moon, I would attempt eating two of them (keep in mind I was just a kid and eating 2 would be quite an accomplishment), but I’d only be able to handle one. The Big Mac is still the same as when I was a kid, and most of you probably remember the ingredients by singing that famous old song that’s still floating around in your head… “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

The bun of the Big Mac has 3 pieces, and the center bread splits the burger into two sections, each with it’s own beef patty and toppings. The top of the bun is coated with sesame seeds, and all the pieces are lightly toasted. It’s a good bun, and even though it has 3 parts you never feel overwhelmed by having too much bread …

With only 1 slice of cheese (American), you might think they skimped on this burger, but that’s not the case. It’s all part of the plan, and everything is in balance. Each ingredient makes a solid contribution, blending together to create a winning combination of flavors. There’s nothing to add or cut. Just order a Big Mac, and eat it the way it was intended. You won’t need extra cheese or anything else.

Now, doesn’t that make you want to put a peg on your nose and run right out to the neighbourhood McDonalds?

I’m Ready For My Close Up, Mr DeMille!

January 16, 2009

A technological breakthrough that may “revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements” hasn’t received the press I think it deserves.   IBM have developed an MRI that is one hundred million times better than today’s standard MRIs.  I can’t even count that high!

By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may ultimately be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine. This achievement stands to impact the study of materials from proteins to integrated circuits for which a detailed understanding of atomic structure is essential.


In addition to its high resolution, the imaging technique has the further advantages that it is chemically specific, can “see” below surfaces and, unlike electron microscopy, is non-destructive to sensitive biological materials.

John Mortimer

January 16, 2009

It is with sadness I note the passing of John Mortimer at age 85.


Unlike my situation viz a viz Miss Calisher, I am quite familiar with Mortimer’s work.  Quirky and liberal-minded like the author himself, his creation — the world of Horace Rumpole at the Old Bailey — is a perfect satirization of much of British society.  Mortimer’s capture of Horace’s relationship to his wife Hilda — She Who Must Be Obeyed, as he lovingly calls her — is sharp and closely observed.  The stories are familiar, predictable, middle-class cozy; a perfect backdrop to Horace Rumpole’s fierce wit on the foibles of modern society.

Voyage Round My Father“, Mortimer’s portrait of his verbally abusive lawyer father, also captures a whole class of British characters.  The movie version starring Laurence Olivier is worth a look.

Finally, Mortimer was a real-life lawyer.  In the 60s he was involved in important civil rights’ cases.  An all-round chap, really.  Like Rumpole he liked a good laugh and a good wine.   Bon voyage!

Word On The Street #8

January 16, 2009


The Stuff We Miss

January 15, 2009

It is a truism to note that we are drowning in information these days.  Twenty-four TV channels and internet portals blast news and consumer information at us constantly; hundreds of thousands of new blogs are started each month, along with at least equal numbers of non-blog web sites.  Cable TV seems to breed new channels like rabbits, all with 24-hour programming schedules. There is so much stuff that there is no hope, ever, of seeing it all.   And that means it is inevitable that we will miss or indeed never know about stuff that we would like, perhaps stuff that could change our lives, make us smile, make a difference.

15calisher190I am prompted to this meditation by my daily reading of the New York Times obituary section, and especially by the reported death this week of 97-year old author Miss Hortense Calisher.

I consider myself reasonably well read in 20th century literature, and yet I had never heard of Hortense Calisher before today, let alone read any of her two dozen novels and short story collections.  But she sounds like a writer I would enjoy, with her “unpredictable turns of phrase, intellectually challenging fictional situations and complex plots”.

[H]er peers seemed most intrigued by her distinctive way of telling a story, her filigreed sentences and bold stylistic excursions. “Hortense Calisher has never been a writer who masked her thinking self or disappeared into her subject,” the critic Morris Dickstein wrote in The Times, commenting on her Jamesian fascination with the authorial intellect … Throughout her career as a novelist, opinion tended to split evenly among critics who found her prose style and approach to narrative better suited to short stories. “Hortense Calisher is a creator of voices, moods, states of mind, but not of worlds,” Robert Kiely wrote in a review of her novel “Standard Dreaming” for The Times. Other critics were mesmerized by her idiosyncratic language and imaginative daring.

Still writing in her 90s, she published her last novel in 2002.   Miss Calisher was president of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters from 1987 to 1990 and president of PEN in 1986 and 1987.

Her work sounds fascinating to me and yet, with all the other pressures, I may never get around to reading anything of hers.  That will be a shame, but just one of so many.

Bizarre Behaviour

January 14, 2009

StalkedThe US Bureau of Justice Statistics issues a lot of data, much of which I deal with in my work.  Most of it is dull stuff.   However, a new report issued yesterday notes that in 2005-6 more that 3.4 million Americans believed they were being stalked.  Three and a half million stalking victims in a single year!  I find that really bizarre.

Even more so is the statistic that in that same period of one year 130,000 Americans lost their jobs as a result of that stalking!

And as for advances in technology:

More than one in four stalking victims reported that some form of cyberstalking was used, such as email (83 percent of all cyberstalking victims) or instant messaging (35 percent). Electronic monitoring of some kind was used to stalk one in 13 victims. Video or digital cameras were equally likely as listening devices or bugs to be used to track victims.

Is this an American social phenomenon do you think?   And is it a modern phenomenon, from the last decade or so?

It’s Official: Art Has Crashed

January 13, 2009

It probably comes as no surprise after the fall auctions that both Christies and Sothebys are introducing “significant staff reductions.”

Christie’s reorganization is the first at the London-based auction house since 2001, when the end of the boom eroded investors’ appetite for art auctions. Its rival, Sotheby’s, said in December that it planned to reduce costs by $7 million in 2009 by cutting jobs and salaries, citing an “uncertain and challenging macroeconomic environment.”

vuillardSome art experts had been predicting that high-end art sales would simply float over the economic troubles of the rest of the world.  That hasn’t proved to be the case.  Even for the very rich, discretionary purchases (which is all that art at this level can be) have to be reined in, for a while at least.

One of Christies “salvation” pieces for sale next month is Edward Vuillard’s “Les Coutourieres” (see image). It is a beautiful work, one that I might like to grace my own walls, but can it really fetch the $8million asking price in this market?

Back In The Real World

January 11, 2009

That first week back at work last week certainly took its toll on me.  Four weeks without the day-to-day stresses takes the edge off; and it’s tough to catch back up to speed.  Long hours spent in snow and slush and heavy rain add to the shock.  Next week should be easier.  One victim has been the number of posts here.  But we have at least consoled ourselves with food.

My bride didn’t miss a beat all week, with wonderful dinners for me to come home to.  And a treasure they are.  I’ve enjoyed taking on the cooking this weekend: a weekend of comfort foods.    Last night I made James Barber’s Beef, Aniseed and Orange Stew.  The rich dark goodness that emerges after slow cooking, served over mashed potatoes with steamed broccoli, is a winter favourite of long standing.

Last night we stayed up into the wee hours to watch the first day of the January sumo basho from Tokyo. It was a mixed night for the rikishi we follow, and we were exhausted by the time we fell into bed.  This morning, I attempted to wake us up with a batch of spicy chilaquilles served with scrambled mushrooms and eggs, with toast and papaya juice.  Not bad stuff.

Also yesterday, I made up a batch of the no-knead bread.  I baked it this morning and the house smells grand. Later today, I will make another Barber recipe:  African-style pork and peanut butter stew, with rice and steamed vegetables.  I can hardly wait!

Thank God for good food!  Great leftovers, as always, will play a large part in making sure that next week is better than the last one.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

January 7, 2009

In a clear victory for free speech and secularism, the Atheist Bus Campaign raised more than $150,000 in just four days.  Yesterday, they unveiled their message on the side of 800 buses across Britain.


Next week, the campaign will put up 1,000 posters on the London Underground system with similar messages.

An interesting element of the bus slogan is the word “probably,” which would seem to be more suited to an Agnostic Bus Campaign than to an atheist one … But the element of doubt was necessary to meet British advertising guidelines, said Tim Bleakley, managing director for sales and marketing at CBS Outdoor in London, which handles advertising for the bus system.For religious people, advertisements saying there is no God “would have been misleading,” Mr. Bleakley said. “So as not to fall foul of the code, you have to acknowledge that there is a gray area,” he said.

Good old England!

Bravo Vancouver Transit!

January 5, 2009

As regular visitors will be aware, I am a serious booster for our city’s transit system.  It is one of the finest systems that it has ever been my privilege to patronize.  Having given up my car in 1991, and thus been a daily transit user for almost twenty years, I believe I know whereof I speak. Now, my faith in the system and its workers has been more than vindicated.

A few days before Christmas I went shopping downtown and on the Drive.  By the end of the day, I had a raft of packages that I was manhandling.  I got them all home safe, only to discover that my shoulder pouch had gone missing.  The pouch was worth just a buck or two, but it held my expensive and well-loved camera, my new expensive sunglasses, and my asthma inhaler.

On the days we haven’t been completely snowed in, I have made efforts to visit every store I visited that day to ask if I left my bag there.  No luck.   However, this morning we phoned Transit Lost & Found and, lo and behold, the pouch was there – and with all its contents!  It had been turned in by the driver (operator #50164:  if you ever see him or her, give them a pat on the back).

Can’t beat that for good service and honest workers!  Thanks to them all!

Odds & Sods #4

January 4, 2009
  • jim-bradyDavid Kamp has written a fascinating detective story surrounding the legendarily prodigious eating feats of Diamond Jim Brady.  He suspects some exaggeration, but the reality is probably close enough.
  • Gertrude Baines, daughter of slaves and Obama voter, takes on the most dangerous job in the world.  The previous job-holder survived just four months in the position.
  • How do salmon find their way back home after years in the ocean?  The open sea part still seems a bit iffy, but once they reach the river, it’s the schnozz that leads.  Maybe Jimmy Durante is their patron saint?
  • The earliest artificial eye has been discovered at an archaeological dig in Iran.

Feed A Cold

January 4, 2009

Vancouver is suffering the worst snow storms that I’ve seen in my thirty years here.  There has been snow on the ground since about the 15th of December, and yesterday’s storm must have dropped another foot or so on the city.  This is so unlike us.    While pretty to look at, the snow has severe disadvantages for old farts like us, making it almost impossible to get around.  I was out for a couple of hours  yesterday, but my best gal hasn’t left the house so far this year.

However there are advantages to such enforced isolation:  We’ve both taken the opportunity to cook our little hearts out, especially herself. Magnificent breakfasts have been created, fit for kings (including my first attempt at chilaquiles on New Year’s Day that I thought were pretty good); and we have both baked tasty breads.

chicken-tagine-41My bride gave me a huge tagine dish for Christmas.   It turned out to be the perfect vehicle for my unkneaded bread, and I’ve used it twice already to that purpose.  I also used it to create a chicken tagine for dinner the other night that was quite successful (recipe at the end of this post).  On her side, the boss has cooked a wonderful chicken pot pie, and a batch of the very finest mince pies.

Let the snow keep piling — we have a larder full of goodies to keep us warm!

Recipe for Chicken Tagine

This is best made using a tagine dish but, as you will see, a casserole dish would be just fine too.

First make up the spice mixture:

1 tsp cayenne      2 tsp ground black pepper     1 1/2 tbsp paprika                          1 1/2 tbsp ground ginger       1 tbsp tumeric    2 tbsp cinnamon

Rub half the mixture into about 2lbs of chicken (thighs and breasts) cut into 1 inch pieces and let those marinate for a bit.

Pre-heat the oven to 300.  Prepare a dish, either a casserole or tagine and heat it on the stovetop.

Rough grate 2 medium onions and in the dish, slowly fry the onions, three crushed garlic cloves, and the rest of the spice mix in a couple of tbsp of olive oil.  You want the onions soft and translucent, about 10 minutes on low.

Open a large can of whole tomatoes and separate the tomatoes and the juice.

In a large pan, brown off the spiced meat.  Use a little oil and a little tomato juice to keep them moist while they brown.  As each batch is done, add the meat to the dish with the onions.

To the dish add the rest of the tomato juice, the tomatoes, crushed roughly, a pint of hot chicken stock, flaked almonds, a tablespoon of honey, and whatever dry fruit you have (a palmful of raisins, perhaps, another of sultanas, and a handful of chopped dried apricots).  Add some saffron if you have it.

Bring to the boil and then transfer the dish to the oven.  Cook covered for 90 minutes.   Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve immediately with couscous or rice.

Hope you like it!

Word On The Street #7

January 3, 2009


Gentlemen, Stop Your Engines!

January 2, 2009

For two decades I was a devoted follower of NASCAR.  It was a sport that I truly enjoyed: Sunday race days couldn’t come quick enough for me.  I was a whole-hearted Richard (“The King”) Petty fan and when he retired, I latched onto Jeff Gordon, cheering on his brilliant duels with Dale Earnhardt.  I reveled in the sport’s history as an outlet for rum-runners, and I loved the old films of gas-guzzling monsters racing on southeastern beaches.


I stopped watching on a regular basis some years ago.  My wife, despite — or perhaps because of — living in Appalachia for many years, just hated the good ol’ boy southern accents of the commentators, and I was happy to go along with watching less to please her.   At the same time, the France family that essentially owns NASCAR, did a lot to drive me away — cutting out traditional races in favour of expansion to Las Vegas and Kansas, for example, and introducing their misbegotten “race for the chase” playoff series.


I spent a couple of years watching one or two races each year, following the rest of the season in the press.  But I haven’t even bothered to do that for two years or so.  Life without NASCAR has been more than tolerable and I rarely give it a passing thought.  Now, Robert Weintraub has spoken the hard truth — NASCAR needs to be wound up completely.

As Weintraub points out, the relationship between NASCAR and the big three automakers in Detroit is parasitic — the sport cannot survive without ongoing and expensive sponsorhip by Ford, GM and Chrysler.  The taxpayer bailout and the defensive retrenchment that seems to be the American industry’s future, might be — and should be — the death knell for stock car racing.  Injured by a massive fall in attendance last year, more than 1,000 race employees have already lost their jobs and more cuts seem certain:

[E]xamine the situation from the Big Three’s point of view. The automakers’ CEOs have already been reamed for flying private jets to D.C. while their companies wither. If the bailout does come through, making a huge expenditure on a diversion like NASCAR would be a jet-style PR disaster. Congress wants those dollars to go toward renewable-energy technology, not mammoth ad displays in the Talladega Speedway infield. Continuing to fund stock-car racing would be a sign that Detroit simply cannot function in the new century.

I’m not sure I agree with Weintraub’s suggestion that in the future we are “going to look back and shake our head in wonder that we let such a wasteful, environmentally disastrous ‘sport’ take place”.  But he is right that Detroit needs to pull out of the sport.  If Bill France and his people can find some other funding mechanism, then good for them.  If not, sayonara baby.