Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wednesday Culture: The Empire Strikes Back Uncut

Today's movie of choice is truly a testament to...something.  How much Star Wars stuff people have just lying around, maybe.  The creativity and imagination of humanity.  How deeply a story about good and evil and space wizards and rebels resonated with the world.  The incredible technological power we have at our fingertips.  The importance of story-telling in our society.  This movie, filmed by friends, families, and some professionals, in schools and malls and living rooms, with handmade costumes and props made from cardboard and household goods, gave me a little more faith in people.  Maybe it's because of all the gender-bent characters, or the dad-and-daughters combos, or just the sheer willingness of people to be very silly for fun.  Or maybe it's just because I love Star Wars, and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to know that hundreds of strangers love it too.  Whatever the reason, I hope you enjoy this mesmerizing, sometimes bizarre, take on "The Empire Strikes Back."

And look for my two favorite moments - Yoda as portrayed by a baby with a large bag, and an Imperial  Officer with a sheet of what looks like sudafed pinned to his chest.  (Also, a shout-out to Seattle group &@, who did part of the Han torture scene. Among other things, they have a very creative Hamlet you should see.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday Writing: Should You Do NaNoWriMo?

Ah, October!  That month of crisp sunny days and fall colors (or, in Seattle, grey rainy days and sodden trees), that time of pumpkins and Halloween, that build-up to NaNoWriMo.  Yes, friends, it is that time of year when writers all around the world take a good hard look at their lives and ask themselves that age-old question - will I do NaNoWriMo this year?

I have participated in (and won) NaNo for five consecutive years and took last year off to edit the previous year's manuscript, so I have a pretty good idea of what I'm getting into.  I love NaNo, and I've written before about what you can get out of NaNoWriMo, but it's true that writing 50k words in a month isn't for everyone.  For those of you pondering NaNoWriMo for the first time, here are some things to ask yourself.

1. Is your significant other in agreement?
This is just common sense, and it is doubly important if there are small children involved.  You must get your family onboard.  You are not permitted to drop all household chores and childcare on your partner for the duration of NaNo unless you have talked it over and your partner has agreed to said deal.  Yes, NaNo requires discipline, and some things in your life are going to have to slide, but don't be a jerk.

2. Are you in grad school/working more than two jobs?
There were two times in my life I said no to NaNoWriMo - the first year I heard of it, when I was in grad school, and last year, when I was working three jobs and editing a manuscript on the side.  Be smart about your scheduling and don't kill yourself trying to do one more thing, even if it is a fun thing. The same goes for major life events - if you're getting married or having a baby in December, maybe consider doing NaNo next year.  Yes, people have added to their word count from the delivery room, there's nothing that says you can't, but you might consider whether doing NaNo is going to improve your life or make it temporarily harder.

3. Can you handle stress?
Make no mistake, NaNoWriMo is stressful.  I've finished every year with well over 50k words (once up to 75k) and it's still stressful.  You're working towards a deadline, and again, even if it's a fun project, the looming nature of November 30th and the sheer number of words you have to get in is going to raise that blood pressure just a little.  You must be able to do three things: manage your stress so that you are not miserable to the people around you, take NaNo less seriously so that you have as little stress as possible, and be able to recognize the point at which NaNo has become so stressful that it's not worth finishing anymore.  If you can do these things, you'll be fine.

4. Do you thrive on deadlines?
Speaking of deadlines...the whole point of NaNoWriMo is to provide support for an arbitrary deadline. If you just can't work with deadlines - either they stress you out to the point of being unable to write at all or they don't put any pressure on you to finish - then maybe this isn't the writing challenge for you.  If you're unsure but you've had good answers for every other question on this page, then consider giving NaNo a try.  At the very least, you'll find out if deadlines work for you.

5. Are you ok with a terrible first draft?
It's going to be terrible.  It will be wonderful, too - there are definitely parts of my NaNo drafts that I love - but it's going to be awful.  It's going to require a ton of editing and probably a major reworking.  Prepare yourself for something that doesn't follow consistently, has lots of long boring parts, is filled with clichés, and basically needs to be taken apart and put back together again.  You will love it anyway, but you have to accept that it's going to be bad.  And that's ok!  NaNo is about quantity, not quality.  The quality comes in the editing and the rewriting.

6. Do you have other writing goals you should be meeting?
THOU ART NOT PERMITTED TO USE NANOWRIMO TO PROCRASTINATE ON A WRITING GOAL.  Thou mayest, however, use NaNo to take a two-month break from a project you're struggling with in order to emerge with a draft for a future project provided that come January, you're back to the struggling project and the NaNo draft goes into a drawer.  (If you have an editor waiting, no, you may not do NaNo.  Be nice to your editor and get your project in on time.  You can do NaNo next year.)

7. When will you write?
Think this through carefully.  You need 1,667 words per day.  How long does it take you to write that many?  And where are you going to find that time?  I've squeezed in words by writing on the bus to and from work (usually about five hundred words), getting up early, staying up late, writing on lunch breaks and once, during work (I don't recommend this unless you have the kind of day job that allows it.  I did, once, and it was glorious).  That time is going to have to come from somewhere, and while you may find that your writing patterns shift somewhat during the month as your life adjusts to make room for all this writing, it's best to have some scheduled writing time set up for at least the first week.

Will you be doing NaNoWriMo?  What's your story?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Life: Canning Applesauce

When I was growing up, store-bought applesauce was the delivery mechanism for medicine, in the hopes that the sweet applesauce would disguise the mashed up pill.  Still better, in my opinion, than the nasty syrup, but bitter enough that to this day, I won't eat store-bought applesauce.  For a long time I wouldn't eat applesauce of any kind, but then I tried my grandma's homemade stuff and was hooked.

Grandma always made her applesauce out of Lodi apples, so for me that will always be THE applesauce apple, but there are lots of other varieties you can use.  If you plan to make dorda pie, you will of course require Northern Spy apples, although I have heard that the Swiss Orange apple is a good substitute.  As a rule, I never use Red Delicious, but otherwise (unless I have Lodi - I'm a purist with my Lodi applesauce) I'll throw a mix of whatever I have into the pot.

You can freeze the applesauce by popping it in freezer containers and sticking them in the freezer - done and done.  Freezer space is limited in my apartment, however, so I prefer to can whenever possible.  If you're planning to can your applesauce, you'll want to do it while the sauce is hot.  Before you do anything with your apples, get your hot water bath going on the stove.  It will take forever (half an hour to forty minutes) to get to a rolling boil, and you can use that time to prep and make the applesauce.  Canning is a relatively simple process but requires an obsessive approach to cleanliness and sterility.  You must take the food safety guidelines very seriously.  I'd recommend reading through the site for the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  I also like Putting Food By as a resource.

A bunch of apples (3 lbs apples = 1 quart of applesauce)
1/2 c water
Optional: cinnamon, brown sugar

Wash, peel, core, and slice your apples.  (The smaller you cut them, the faster they'll cook.) Put them in a large pot with about 1/2 c water and cook on medium high, stirring occasionally, until the apples fall apart.  This will take maybe 20-30 minutes, depending on how the hardness of the apples and the size of the pieces.  You can add sugar and spices if you like, but I've never found that to be necessary - the apples are plenty sweet on their own.  If you like a smooth sauce, you can run the hot chunky sauce through a food processor or use a wand blender.  I prefer mine chunky, so I don't bother. (If you're feeling especially lazy and don't mind bits of peel in your sauce, you don't have to peel the apples. I like the color it gives the sauce, and peeling is a pain.)

Canning Applesauce
Prep your quart jars according to the guidelines for safe food preservation.  For applesauce, this means thoroughly washing and rinsing the jars.  I find the dishwasher is easiest; you just keep them on the rack in the closed dishwasher until they're ready to fill.  I like to keep boiling water on hand to slosh over and in my jars just before filling - probably unnecessary, but it makes me feel better.  Lids should be kept submerged in boiling water until you're ready to use them.

Ladle the hot applesauce into the jars and lid, screwing the screwband on until it is firmly in place but not too tight.  Process the jars in your boiling water bath at the recommended time - 20 minutes for quarts at sea level - and make sure that the water covers the top of the jar by one to two inches.  (Another good reason to keep boiling water on hand.)  When the processing time is done, remove the jars and let them sit for 24 hours at room temperature (away from direct sunlight.)  Then remove the screwband, check the seals, and store.  If any of the seals are bad, stick that jar in the fridge and eat within a couple of days.

If should go without saying, but: "when in doubt, throw it out" is extra important for home-canned food.  If you have even the slightest doubt over whether something is good (it smells weird or looks cloudy or has leaked from under the seal) get rid of it at once (and follow the guidelines for safely disposing of spoiled food when doing so.)  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Zombie Banks and the Lost Decades

 by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

China is the new Japan. Economically speaking, I mean. Twenty-five years ago Americans feared that by the year 2000, the Japanese would own everything. By 1989, the land value of the Japanese Imperial Palace was notionally greater than the entire state of California. Japanese companies were outcompeting American giants and it seemed like Japan would soon be the world’s number one economy. Many Americans viewed Japan as a national enemy instead of an ally. This should all sound familiar to the current reader. However, Japan’s performance since 1989 should come as a warning to modern Sinophobes.

The popular Japanese term for 1989 to present is the Ushinawareta Nijūnen (Lost Two Decades), reflecting twenty-plus years of economic recession and stagnation. Wages have fallen, unemployment has risen, and there has been a hollowing out of the middle class as young workers have much worse job security. There seem to be three reasons for this economic collapse: demographic shifts, a housing bubble and zombie banks.

While it is amusing to think of zombie banks rising from a corporate graveyard to feed on the brains of the living, in reality they are much more dangerous and mundane. A “zombie bank” is one that should have closed down, but survives on repeated government subsidies; it should be financially dead, but is kept alive in a state of constant torture. Normally when a borrower does not repay a loan, the bank has to declare (“write off”) the money lost in the loan. Zombie banks refuse to write off the bad loans they have, insisting that their borrowers will repay them, even if the borrowers are bankrupt or dead.

This means all banks’ money is tied up in old bad loans and they don’t have the ability to lend money to people for new things. If the banks were to write off all their debt, they would have to close down because they have no more money. If that happened, there would be an immediate, intense economic crisis for Japan. Instead, zombie banks have kept the economic crisis going for over twenty years at a milder, yet crippling pace. Periodically they write off a large portion of bad loans, but convince the government to give them money to cover their loss because: “Hey! This will be the last time we have to do this! Really!”

Currently we don’t know of any zombie banks in China. However China’s opaque system of lending and housing market makes many analysts fear that when we hear about a zombie-bank turning, it will be too late for the Chinese economy. And possibly much of the world, based on America’s experience as epicenter for the 2007.

The Japanese had a similar housing bubble to the one that caused the Great Recession. Banks lent out too much to people and businesses that could not repay their debt. In America we had the NINJA loans (No Income, No Job or Assets). In China today there is a fear that zombie banks are feeding useless land development, the famous ghost towns, and that is creating a housing bubble. Lack of transparent accounting practices mean that few people know which banks have made loans, who has taken money. China’s banks could be doing well, could be about to collapse, and no one outside China would know the difference.

The final nail in the coffin for Japan’s economy has been its demography (statistics of humans). More people in Japan die each year than have babies. In the social sciences this is called sub-replacement ferility. Each year there are fewer and fewer workers to take over from retirees, which means that a lot of possible work (and money earned from the work) is never realized. More retirees also requires more care, meaning that resources that could be used to create wealth are used to maintain the health of the elderly.

In the US we don’t have a problem with fertility. We have plenty of babies. China, however has the One-Child Policy (a couple can have only one child). It has achieved its purpose and now there are about half as many 15-20 year olds as there are 45-50 year olds. The specter of not having enough workers to fully fill the workforce has alarmed the Chinese leadership, but worrying practices still continue. For example, Chinese parents prefer having a boy rather than a girl, some going so far as to aborting a pregnancy to try later for a boy. This has led to a situation where nearly 20 million Chinese men under 20 years-old will never be able to find a wife, causing trouble for the future of China’s economy.

American fears of China’s economy are generally overblown. The Chinese work force works harder (we think) and for less (we know) than us. If China’s economy keeps growing at the same rate, it will overtake us as the world’s largest economy by 2030. Yet experts said the same things about Japan twenty-five years ago. Since then, we’ve created Apple, Google and Amazon while Japan is still mired in its past crises. China is rising, but still needs to surmount several significant challenges before it can rest on its laurels.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Geek Girl Con (Astronomy)

We are two days past the whirlwind of strange creatures and glorious geekery that is Geek Girl Con, and I'm already sorry it's over.  What I particularly love about GGC is the opportunity to spend two whole days immersed in a woman-positive, geek-friendly culture with a couple of awesome friends.  That being said, the learning is also fun!  For the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting highlights from the convention on Wednesdays.  We start with a Saturday morning panel:

What's New In Astronomy

This panel was presented in part by a Star Fleet Captain, so when she talks about space and habitable planets, you know she knows what she's talking about.  Conversation kicked off with a discussion about twitter/social media and the surprisingly significant role it's played in astronomy today.  One can follow astronauts, NASA, and the Mars Rover on Twitter (@sarcasticrover was particularly recommended), getting real-time updates and images. (You can talk to someone in SPACE. How cool is that?)  Plus, social media has opened up conversation on astronomy not just between amateurs but between far-flung professionals as well.  And for a real mind-blower, a new supernova was recently discovered via Google+ - a virtual "Star Party" that you, too, can drop in on at any time.

In other astronomical news, there is an upcoming solar eclipse that will be visible from Seattle (cloud cover permitting) on October 23 from 1:35 pm to 4:20 pm. (I see that is next Thursday, so be sure to mark your calendars and make up a suitable excuse for getting out of work.)  Farther out, there is a comet soon to side-swipe Mars' atmosphere, and since there are a ton of Mars orbiters and whatnot up there, we're sure to get a good look.  This is particularly exciting because this comet has been traveling since before the dawn of man to get here.  If you're still in mourning for Pluto, well, it's still not a planet, but NASA did launch the New Horizons spaceship - the fastest ship ever built - that will get to Pluto next year for some in-depth study.  Regarding the current push to land people on Mars, the panel was gently skeptical of the timeline put forth by MarsOne

If you'd like to get your kids interested in astronomy, the panel suggested that you mine the internet for activities (there are lots of them!)  SciGirls is an especially good resource, and has tips for engaging young kids in science.  Involve them in hands-on activities, including looking through a telescope or studying the stars in the night sky.  For very young kids, you can start with a sky window - a cut-out rectangle with blue sky on one side and night sky on the other.  Give them stickers with objects you can see in the sky and let them classify the stickers by whether you can see them at day or night (or both.)

Next time: Fangirls Find the Force

Monday, October 13, 2014

Monday Writing: Scansion & Symbolism in Shakespeare (part 3)

Over the last two weeks, we've looked at how the text indicates a disordered mind in Macbeth and a pairing of perfect love in Romeo and Juliet. Today, let's take a look at what is arguably Shakespeare's greatest and best-known play - Hamlet.

Hamlet has seven soliloquies throughout the play, and the most famous is the fourth, "To be or not to be." It's been done a thousand different ways by a thousand different actors, and interpretations abound. But the text itself has some interesting things to offer. I'd like to start by placing it in context of the play and looking at the beginnings of some of the earlier soliloquies.

The first soliloquy takes place early in the play, when it has been established that Hamlet's father has recently died, Hamlet's mother Gertrude has remarried Hamlet's father's brother Claudius, and Hamlet is deeply unhappy about all of this. Gertrude and Claudius have urged Hamlet to cease mourning his father and Claudius has refused Hamlet's request to return to Germany to study (after agreeing to Laertes' request for the same - either a snub to Hamlet or a desire to keep any potential threats to the throne close). When everyone has gone, Hamlet rails against existence:

Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!

Near perfect iambic pentameter, here. Hamlet is upset, but no so much that he's lost his eloquence, and even the outburst to God maintains the pentameter.

In the next soliloquy, Hamlet has just seen the ghost of his father and learned of his father's murder. This soliloquy starts with extreme emotional disturbance:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! — Hold, my heart;

But he quickly gets a grip on himself and falls back into an even meter:

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. — Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!

Next, he meets the players and begins to question his own inaction. This soliloquy begins with beautifully solid iambic pentameter, slipping in a feminine ending only once in the opening:

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wan'd;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,

And now we come to that famous soliloquy, Hamlet's fourth. By this point, Hamlet has begun a campaign of presumably feigned madness. He's joyfully greeted his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern only to find he can't trust them, and startled Ophelia in her chamber by ultimately deciding he can't trust her, either. He is truly alone, and despite all the proofs of his uncle's treachery, still struggles to act. So what does Shakespeare's verse say about Hamlet in this moment?

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

Feminine endings all the way down, that's what Shakespeare says about Hamlet. We previously saw feminine endings used in Macbeth, when Macbeth, too, was quailing at the terrible actions ahead of him. There's no stern resolve here backed up by perfect meter. Hamlet is stuck. He can't bring himself to take the actions he knows he should, but neither can he drop the idea of revenge altogether. He uses this soliloquy to explore the consequences of his actions and hesitates when he sees the results.

A lot is made of Hamlet's failure to act, but the truth is that "Hamlet" is much more than a simple revenge story. There are complicated emotions at work - grief, mistrust, betrayal - and through the course of the play Hamlet deals realistically with the emotional fallout of his and others' actions and the pressures on him as Denmark's crown prince.

There's so much more to be said about Hamlet, but it will have to wait for another time. If you'd like to see a detailed breakdown of the meter in "To be," then be sure to check out this wonderful article at the Shakespeare Resource Center. And if you're looking for a good filmed version, David Tennant's is hard to beat.

What do you think about Shakespeare's textual hints?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Life: Roasted Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Soup

Ah, fall.  The time of year when I feel compelled to buy a lot of squash, despite the fact that I don't have the least idea of what to do with it.  Well, pie, of course, but there is actually only so much pie I can store in the fridge.  Fortunately, while I was roaming Ireland a few Octobers back, I happened to stop in at a little place in Dublin that presented me with one of the most delicious fall soups I have ever encountered - a golden orange creamy squash and sweet potato soup.

The really glorious thing about this soup is that it's easy.  Seriously, ridiculously easy.  Plus, you can make it out of leftovers, and what's better than using up leftovers?

Roasted Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Soup
1 squash
olive oil
2-4 sweet potatoes (I tend towards an equal balance of squash and sweet potato)
4 c broth or bouillon (chicken or veggie)
salt, pepper, garlic powder to taste
optional: onions, heavy cream (or coconut milk)

With a good knife, slice the butternut squash in half.  Brush with olive oil and set on a baking sheet cut side down. Add sweet potatoes (poked and wrapped in foil) to the oven and set it to 400 degrees F.  Roast the squash and potatoes until a fork goes easily through the skin and they are soft all over (30 min - 60 min at 400 degrees F.  Might take more or less time depending on the size of your squash and potatoes).  Remove from oven and scrape out of skin.

While your squash and potatoes are cooking, you can make your broth from scratch or heat it up, if you have it pre-made.  If you're using one of the little bouillon cubes, I recommend sauteing some onions in olive oil in the bottom of the pan before you add the bouillon and hot water to give it a little richer flavor.

Combine the squash, potatoes, and broth.  I like to use a stick blender to get a nice smooth flavor, but you can also use a food processor or, in a pinch, a whisk.  Add seasonings to taste and for a richer soup blend in half a cup to a cup of heavy cream or coconut milk.  Alternatively, drizzle the cream or coconut milk on top of the soup when you serve it.

The soup will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.