Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Life: Oatmeal Bread

There is nothing so warm and comforting and homey as fresh-baked bread, still hot from the oven.  Yes, bread machines are all very well, but there's something deeply satisfying about an oven-baked loaf of bread cooling on the rack (or, for those of you who can't wait, burning the fingers of those ripping off chunks of hot bread and dunking them in milk).  This is a recipe that my roommates and I made many times in college for it's difficulty to deliciousness ratio.  The molasses gives it a sweetness that's not overpowering, and the whole wheat and oats add a robust, nutty flavor to the white flour.  You can, of course, substitute butter for the oil and regular flour for the bread flours. (P.S.: This recipe was originally "Everyday Oatmeal Bread" from Simply in Season, a cookbook I think everyone should own.)

Oatmeal Bread
(makes 2 loaves)

1 1/2 c boiling water
1 c rolled oats (not instant)
2 c lukewarm water (about 75 - 80 degrees)
1 TB dry yeast
3/4 c molasses
3 TB oil
2 tsp salt
6 cups bread flour or unbleached white flour
2 c whole wheat bread flour or regular whole wheat flour

Mix in a large bowl the boiling water and rolled oats.  Set a timer for 30 minutes.

While the oats are sitting, mix the lukewarm water and yeast together in a small bowl (I usually use a cereal bowl.)  You can also grease your two loaf pans, oil a large bowl (with olive oil), and clear and flour a space for kneading the dough.

When the timer goes off, check your yeast.  It should have a kind of bubbly foam on the surface of the water.  If so, carry on.  If not, your yeast is no good and you will need to repeat the yeast and water step with fresh yeast.

Add to the oats the molasses, oil, and salt.  Mix thoroughly, then add the yeast mixture, stirring well.  Add flour, alternating between the white and whole wheat, until you have a soft dough that you can dump out into your floured kneading space.  Knead in the rest of the dough and then keep going for about six or eight minutes until the dough is smooth.

Put the dough into your oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for an hour or until doubled.  Punch down, then divide in half and fold the ends of the halves under to make loaves.  Put each loaf in the pan, cover, and let rise another 45 minutes or until double.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, then bake your bread at 400 for 5 minutes before lowering heat to 350 and baking for another 40 minutes.  The bread should be brown and crispy and smell amazing.  You may want to bake it an extra 5 minutes - I've found this recipe tends to be moist inside.

Eat with butter and honey and milk, or just plain.  It's delicious either way.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

El sitio web que está buscando no está disponible en su área.

by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

Europe has a Google problem. Its web search traffic is even more popular there than in America, its tools used daily by hundreds of millions. But Google is now competing with the great cultural icons of proud nations, and European governments are struggling to figure out how to adapt. If you have five minutes to spare, read on to discover how Spanish newspapers stood up for democracy, the time when Google stole thousands of books, and how the European Union clashes with American law.

Many of you have used the Google News in the past; some of you may have set up an alert whenever your name pops up on the internet. Google runs these services by aggregating links in one place and sorting them by topics. Spain recently passed a law that requires Google to pay newspapers for the links instead of taking them for free or working out deals with individual companies à la France (more on that later). Google has responded by shutting down Google News Spain.

Spain, like France, are leery of the dominance Google has over their newspaper industry. El País, the dominant newspaper in Spain, rose to fame after courageously speaking out against a military coup in 1981. As it was the first paper published in the morning, Spaniards woke up to read El País railing against the military for taking the congress hostage. The Spanish government has been loath to see it and its competitors squeezed out of business by Google News, which short-circuits the newspapers’ traditional funding through advertisement. Hence the new law requiring Google to pay a set amount each time it uses a Spanish newspaper’s article.

This set payment is at odds with the French approach to resolving conflicts with Google: lawsuits. Google has been sued many times in France: for aggregating newspaper articles as in Spain, or stealing the copyrights on thousands of French books. Each time Google was caught breaking copyright law it bargained with the companies it offended. As if it were following Admiral Grace Hopper’s (a founding mother of computing) maxim: “it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission.” Uber seems to have adopted the same approach.

Such an approach to web-based businesses is driving a wedge between the American and European models of jurisprudence. Here, “disruptive innovation” companies are in vogue; they are seen as models of the free-market working correctly. In Europe, attention is being paid to how corporate innovation impact individuals: their livelihoods and their privacy. Spain is legislating mandatory payments in an attempt to keep journalists employed. European jurists have also put forward an interesting idea: the right to be forgotten. Unlike the U.S., which favors the concept of free speech over privacy, many E.U. nations favor a person’s right to be anonymous. For now, Google is being ordered to delete references to E.U. citizens on a national level (at the .uk and .fr level, not the .com level), but the time may come when the Europeans may act first against Google, and seek forgiveness later.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Bitch in Business

So there's another "All About That Bass" parody out there (because of course there is) and this one is interesting beyond a clever rewording of the lyrics.  It was reportedly made by a Columbia MBA student who has clearly has some experience with the double standard to which professional women are held.  It's clever, funny, and very definitely not safe for work.

And I'm torn in my reaction.  On the one hand, the video is brash, confident, and very feminist.  The singer owns her sexuality, proclaims her goals and desires with no qualifications, makes some great points regarding gender expectations in society, and reclaims the word "bitch" for power rather than degradation.

On the flip side, this is all set against a background of what I'll call business culture - glorification money, power, looking out for number one - that I find troubling.  The creators of the video went to great pains to do a switch of gender stereotypes, and while it works for the video I sort of wish the success conditions portrayed were a little more palatable to me.  But you know, maybe that's the point.  Feminism isn't about telling women what they should be striving for in life; it's about fighting for all women to have the opportunity to strive for whatever they want.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday Writing: Pitches That Worked

Between #SFFPit and #PitchMAS, Twitter last week was chock full of books that I really want to read (and some that I really, really don't.)  I noticed some trends - the Fae courts seem to be coming back, and YA is suffering from a glut of Twilight-like love triangles and/or Hunger Games-esque extreme survival stories - but there was a pleasing array of fresh story ideas with decent pitches.  Let's look at a few of my favorites, shall we?

Thanks to a Google translate f*up, the Russian mob kidnap the wrong girl: the wrong badass girl. Go on boys. Run. #YA #PitchMAS

This has a couple of things that drew me - the Google translate f* up is a creative, tech-savvy (i.e. modern) way to kick off the plot, I'm a sucker for criminal organizations, and it sounds like there's a kickass female protagonist.  It's the kind of plot that could drop into Mary Sue-land so easily, but the pitch is strong enough to convince me that the author will make things interesting.

Book fan Ella pries like Marple, disguises like Holmes, and smoulders like Spade. Well, the police can't have ALL the fun... #PitchMAS #A

Marple! Holmes!  Spade!  This author knows her audience - mystery readers - and pitches right to them.  Including Marple and Spade was an especially good touch, since Holmes is everywhere these days and by himself, wouldn't necessarily have hooked me.  But anyone who compares their heroine to Marple has my attention.

#PitchMAS Lacey was enjoying her last summer before college, until some spellcasting asshole threw her and her brothers in a dungeon. #YA #F

This is a YA that I could have easily passed over, since there's not anything in the plot that specifically interests me, but I had to laugh at the attitude behind the narration.  Yep, attitude alone hooked me.  It gave me the sense that the author has a strong and entertaining voice, and that's enough to get me into the story.

#PitchMAS Zoe Gale's got to pay the rent on her sagging PI agency and catch the crazy bastard who blew up her husband with a car bomb.

This was on the border for me, since I'm usually not a huge fan of dead spouses, but the tone isn't overly serious and female PIs are rare enough to snag my notice when they show up.  I'd like more of an idea as to genre and time period, though - is this a contemporary murder mystery, a la Kinsey Millhone or more of a noir?  It could be spun as women's fiction, if the focus is more on her dealing with her husband's death, or it could even be a romance, if the crazy bastard didn't actually blow up her husband but was framed.

The chief bard is the only one who can muster Wales against the Irish; he’s shocked when his best friend turns him over #pitchmas #HF #A

This is probably more indicative of my interests than general guidelines for successful pitches, so we'll call this one another good "know your audience."  I got a strong idea of the story from the pitch - betrayal (and music?) set against the background of Welsh history - but overall I think the hook provides a good starting point because I'm left with a lot of questions about the best friend and why he turned over the bard.

Everyone thinks Grandma has dementia,but really her mind is stuck in parallel dimensions.Can Hannah save her before time runs out #PitchMAS

I loved the idea behind this.  I think a lot of people could relate to having a parent or grandparent with dementia, and this is a fresh take on your typical sci-fi/fantasy rescue mission.  Plus, how many sci-fi/fantasy stories feature a grandparent as an active character?  The variation in ages really goes a long way to distinguish this pitch from the crowd.

A Victoriana world, a time-stopping broken clock and a heroine who must cross realities to free her fiancé from his brother. #PitchMAS #A FR

There's just enough detail to leave some really intriguing questions here.  Victoriana is big these days, thanks to steampunk, so the descriptor will grab an interested audience.  The clock and crossing of realities provide a little more flavor, although I have to admit that they're not as strong as the statement that the heroine must free her fiancé from his brother.  Since that's not indicative of a normal brotherly relationship, I'm hooked.

When a sexless marriage and job termination push a traditional Jewish woman toward infidelity, she discovers family secrets. #WF #PitchMAS

This is pretty far out of my usual reading range, but I was hooked by the religious aspect and question of what the heroine would choose.  Family secrets on their own were too generic to be that interesting, but I'd really like to know what happens to the heroine.  (This is a great example of non-lethal stakes, by the way - because she's described as traditional and religious, I assume that infidelity is going to carry pretty significant risk for her from a psychological/emotional standpoint.)

A Persian teen investigating her father's disappearance uncovers a plot to kill Cyrus the Great. Zoroastiran mythology. #SFFpit #FA #YA

Another YA that caught my eye, primarily because of the cultural setting.  I'm a big fan of myth and fairy tale retellings, and I don't know that I've ever seen one involving Zoroastrian mythology.  Also, it looks like this might be a historical fantasy set during the time of Cyrus the Great which, again, you don't see a lot of.

#SFFPit #YA Leah must help stop a galaxy-ending cataclysm—if her birth sister, who unleashed it as a power grab, doesn’t kill her first.

I believe I retweeted this during both #PitMad and #SFFPit, and it was entirely because of the sister thing.  YA heroes go around averting galaxy-ending cataclysms all the time, but how often is the villain who unleashed it a sibling?  I'm hopeful for some great family dynamics here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Life: Haystacks

I was first introduced to haystacks as an Amish/Mennonite dish, and it wasn't until an embarrassingly long time later that I recognized the similarity to taco salad.  Both recipes are personally customizable and use many of the same ingredients - meat, lettuce, cheese - but I have persisted in thinking of the two as separate for three reasons.  First, haystacks have a precise stacking order, whereas taco salad does not.  Second, haystacks lack taco seasoning.  And third, the cheese for haystacks is presented as a sauce rather than grated.

Yes, yes, I admit they're rather weak reasons, but think of Theseus' Ship.  If there is no taco seasoning, is it really taco salad?

(serves 4)

1 head of lettuce, washed and torn
1 lb ground beef, browned (optional: can be in a tomato sauce)
2 cups cheese sauce (2 TB butter, 2 TB flour, 2 c milk, 1 c shredded cheddar cheese)
rice or chips (Doritos are great)
chopped tomatoes, onions, other vegetables

To make the cheese sauce, melt the butter over medium heat.  Mix in the flour and, stirring constantly, cook about 5 minutes.  Gradually add warmed milk, still stirring, and cook until the sauce thickens or just to boiling.  Remove from heat and stir in cheddar cheese.

One important part of this recipe is that everyone builds their own, so set out the ingredients and let people help themselves.

There are differing opinions on how one stacks the haystack, but this is how I was taught.  Start with a layer of starch - rice, chips, or if you're going really old school, Saltines - and then layer lettuce on top.  Add beef (or beef sauce), followed by the cheese sauce.  Top off with any other chopped vegetables you have. 

Devour, and go back for seconds!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Spies, Masons, and the Catholic Church

I like this Pope. He represents a refreshing change of pace for the Catholic Church. He seems to have it together. His actions seem to be in line with the teachings he espouses. And most importantly, he is cleaning up Catholic institutions. If you can take 5 minutes to continue reading you’ll discover how a priest was caught smuggling $30 million dollars, the malign influence of Italian spies and secret Freemasons, and the Vatican’s connection to unsolved murders from the past.

Although he is not turning out to be the radical leftist pope that many wanted him to be, Francis has tirelessly worked on reforming the bureaucracy (the Curia) of the Vatican City. The Curia has seemed dominated by corrupt prelates for years, and while they are not all corrupt, most definitely some of them are.

Consider the case of the Institute for Religious Works, the Vatican’s bank. In January, Pope Francis fired most of the directors of the bank after they failed to reform fast enough. He also may have been motivated by the arrest of Monsignor Scarano for smuggling $30 million in cash across the Swiss-Italian border. Recently he fired most of the financial regulators that oversee the bank’s functions over money-laundering fears. As in, fears that the Mafia and tax cheats are laundering money through the Catholic Church.

About forty years ago the IRW invested heavily in Franklin National Bank in New York. Unfortunately for Catholicism the bank was run by a shady banker named Michele Sindona who was in cahoots with the Mafia. Allegedly the bank was used to launder the Mob’s money from the drug trade. The Bank failed two years after Mr. Sindona bought it due to rampant embezzlement and questionable accounting. Mr. Sindona died of poison behind bars after being convicted of sixty-five charges in two countries. Peculiarly, he belonged to a secret Freemason organization called “P2” which helped him meet many of Italy’s economic and political elite before his fall.

A decade later passers-by found the corpse of Roberto Calvi, former head of the Catholic-influenced Banco Ambrosiano, hanging beneath London’s Blackfriar’s Bridge. The bank collapsed in 1982 when the modern-day equivalent of $3.5 billion was found missing. Days before his death, his secretary wrote a denunciation of him before she fell out a window to her death. He had frantically destroyed documents and fled Italy on a fake passport, eventually ending up in London. Like Mr. Sindona, Mr. Calvi was a member of “Propaganda Due” (P2), a Masonic organization that operated as a network of acquaintances rumored to be the remnant of Operation Gladio. Gladio was an organization of stay-behind spies and guerillas preparing for war with the USSR and communism in general. At the time of Mr. Calvi’s death, P2 had just been revealed and its leader was on the run (he was caught three months later trying to withdraw $10 million from a Swiss bank).

The books also showed that substantial amounts of Banco Ambrosiano’s money involved the IRW, which owned a 10% share and was later court-ordered to repay investors ~$280 million dollars. Other suspicious inconsistencies in Banco Ambrosiano’s books are thought to be involved with money-laundering for the Mafia. And while Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the head of IRW at the time has never been formally charged with collusion with either the Mafia or P2 in the murder of Mr. Calvi, he was the inspiration for Archbishop Gilday in Godfather, Pt. III.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Saints and Martyrs

"...when we devalue the arts, we devalue our own creative impulse."
 - Sarah Manning,

Last week I came across this article over at Artist Empathy.  As a musician, anything about earnings in the music industry is close to my heart, but this is a topic that easily translates to writers - or any artists, for that matter.  Back in August I wrote a post on Writing for Love and Money about the value of the arts in our society, and the false dichotomy that it seems all artists are presented with at some point in their careers - are you doing art for love, or for money?  And it always seems to come with the belief that the artists should be doing it for love, and therefore should be willing to make art for free.

But this is a problem that goes beyond a misunderstanding of the role that arts play in our culture, and the importance they hold for our society.  This is a deep-seated issue that hits at the heart of what we as individuals have been taught to value about ourselves.  I can't say it better than Ms. Manning's quote above - devaluing the arts by cutting funding, pulling programs from schools, or disparaging artists who are trying to make a living encourages us to devalue our own creativity.  Art has been present nearly since the dawn of humanity, but we're discouraged from pursuing it at every turn.  We're taught that making the attempt at art is something reserved for children or the select few who make it big.

Creativity is a universal impulse, and it's what drives us forward as a society.  If we're going to harness that - if we're going to progress as a culture - we must place value on it.