Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What happened to the Metric System?

I have a project at work where I am converting all our documentation to include measurements in metric. This is incredibly tedious, and has me wondering why are the measurements in the Imperial System in the first place?

When I was in school, I was taught the metric system.  I was told that the US would be going metric soon and I better know what a kilogram was.  I even remember this pro-metric PSA on television. (Yes, I am that old.)

Then it all disappeared.  The signs didn’t change, the grocery stores still sold apples by the pound, and the news still reported the weather in Fahrenheit.  It became like the quadratic equation – something I was taught in school and never used again. What happened?

There are multiple answers:
  • Cost – it’s expensive to convert everything over
  • American Individualism – Americans like being different (and we’re stubborn)
  • The US government didn't make switching over mandatory (like the UK and Canada did)

Even so, a lot has been done. If you check packaging labels, most things are labeled in metric and imperial measures: the speedometer on my car, vitamins, a bottle of coke. I went home and checked, my measuring cup has both systems on it.  

Metric on one side, imperial on the other

I think as the world continues to get smaller, the US is going to have to give in and go completely metric. It’s going to become too expensive and confusing to maintain two systems. It may take a while, but if we can remember the number of pints in a quart and pecks in a bushel, we can figure out a base 10 measurement system.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Living in a construction zone

My neighborhood has been overtaken by builders. When I moved in, there were a fair amount of empty lots, and of course I expected people to build on them. I just wasn't expecting it all to happen at once. There are 6 houses going up on my street, 3 of them directly across from my house.  It seems to be contagious, because the people who live behind me have decided to build an addition onto their house, too. 

There's nothing like opening your curtains and suddenly finding yourself face to face with the workmen you had no idea were there. It makes you a lot more diligent about wearing clothes. It's been noisy, dusty, and I've developed a new found appreciation of Norteño.

Perhaps it's better this way. Instead of the neighborhood being disrupted by individual building projects over several years, it's one big building spree and then it will be over. At the rate the houses are going up, I expect them all to be done by July 4th, if not sooner.  Then I will have a bunch of new neighbors! 

In the meantime, I'm concentrating on my backyard, which is looking it's best right now, because the jasmine I planted two years ago is starting to to fill in. 

Pretty, isn't it? The cats remain unimpressed.
There are three of these, giving me the sweetest smelling backyard in the neighborhood. I'm hoping that over time, it will grow thicker, so that you can't even see the fence. Obviously, that's going to take a few more years.

Add a background track of circular saws, earth movers, and pounding hammers, and this is what my neighborhood sounds like.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spring Asparagus

Not everybody likes asparagus, and I admit it's not the easiest vegetable to like, particularly if you have ever been subjected to the canned variety. (School cafeteria, I'm looking at you.) But fresh asparagus is wonderful. My mother is of the opinion that if you get really slender stalks, you should eat it raw, like a carrot. That's going a bit far for me. My favorite recipe is tossed with olive oil and salt and roasted in the oven.  But what's a Japanese take on asparagus?

I give you Asparagus Tossed with Crushed Black Sesame (aspara no kuro goma aé)

The ingredients are: 
  • 12 oz. asparagus 
  • 2 tsp. mirin 
  • 2 tsp. light soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. black sesame seeds 
Michael Pollan would approve: it has only 4 ingredients. 
The sesame seeds are the hardest part, since they have to be toasted. One thing I have learned: heated sesame seeds pop! They were jumping out of the pan like popcorn. Save yourself some cleanup and use a lid.
black sesame seeds
Basically, you toast the seeds, and process them in the food processor with mirin and soy until its a grainy kind of paste, the book says it should resemble "wet sand". You can add stock or water if you think it's too thick. Put to one side.

With the sesame seeds out of the way, put a pot of salted water on to boil, and prep the asparagus. Remove the woody ends and slice the spears into 1 to 1-1/2 inch pieces. Save the tips separately.

prepped and ready to go
When the water has reached a rolling boil, but in all the asparagus except the tips. Wait for the water to come back up to a boil and add the tips. Cook for another minute or two and then drain it. 

Put in a bowl and toss with the sesame seed mixture. It is now ready to serve. Tasty, green and oh so good for you. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Shiny, Pretty Things

The International Gem and Jewelry Show was in town this weekend.

I haven't been in a couple years, but I'm still on the mailing list, so I thought it might be an interesting outing.
If you are looking for fine jewelry, investment pieces, I would recommend going somewhere else. But if you just want a fun afternoon looking at glittery stuff, this has it's good points.  It's also educational, because a lot of the market is aimed at people who make jewelry, so there are a lot of loose gems around. 

amber - $25 a strand
Jewelry stores have everything locked up, but here, there are tables full of pearls, twisting like lustrous spaghetti. You can learn a lot about semi-precious stones. Particularly how inexpensive many of them are.

blue-gray chalcedony
And if you like working with beads and crystals, this is heaven:

There is, of course, a ton of jewelry available. Jewelry styles at the show range from the modern, to vintage, to south Asian. You can get  a strand of pearls, or a full Indian parure (including ankle bracelets) or Navajo turquoise. It's all available. I would have pictures, but the vendors tend to get upset about people photographing their products.  

Of course I couldn't leave without buying something. 

Amethyst, citrine and gilded metal - $15
Aren't they pretty? And I ended the afternoon with a dozen on the halfshell at Captain Benny's.  If you are ever near the dome at lunchtime, I recommend them highly. It's never a bad time for oysters.

Sadly, no pearls.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Being on time

“Punctuality is the politeness of kings.” - Louis XVIII

I am very conscious of time.  If I make an appointment to meet at seven, I will do my best to be there at seven. Not seven fifteen, not seven thirty, seven.

I have been told that this is ridiculous, and that I should loosen up.  What’s a few minutes? The people who tell me this are typically the ones who call at 7:15 with charming excuses and explanations for why they will be another half hour, even if they are the ones who set the time of the meeting in the first place. Of course you forgive them, there is no civil option, but it drives me completely up the wall.

Because I see time as a very precious thing.  Everyone gets the same 24 hours every day, and neither love, money, or social standing will buy more.  So when you agree to meet someone, and you are late, you are wasting their time; time that cannot be gotten back.

This is not to say that I have every minute of the day scheduled.  But when I waste time playing video games or daydreaming, it’s my choice.  It’s the difference between spending your own money, and spending someone else’s.  Making someone wait for you is rude. In effect, it’s saying that your time is more important than theirs.

I’m not perfect and of course I realize things happen. Sometimes there really is a wreck on the freeway that has it backed up for miles, you forgot it was daylight savings time, unexpected guests, etc.  But if that happens, you should still apologize for being late. Even though wasn’t your fault, you still wasted half an hour (or more) of someone else’s life.

As you can probably tell from this rant, this happened to me recently.  The time was set (not by me) for seven. An hour and a half before seven, it was pushed back to eight. As I’m pulling into the parking lot, I get a text saying it’s going to be another 40 minutes.  Not even a sorry for it being another 40 minutes.  And they’d pulled this on me the previous week. I was ticked and told them so.

Was I out of line?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Japan Festival 2014

a red umbrella in the park - best picture I took all day
Houston is a twin city of Chiba, Japan. This is why Hermann park has a beautiful Japanese garden, and every year there is the Japan Festival.  The festival was last weekend.

You could be forgiven for thinking you were at an off-season Halloween party, as many people took the opportunity to dress up. There were a lot of anime characters, some people in harajuku style, (predominantly “sweet Lolita”), Nintendo characters like Mario Brothers, and a lot of riffs on the traditional Japanese kimono. My only comment is that there should be a cut-off point for dressing like Pikachu. You CAN be too old for some things.

yo-yo fishing
The best part, (aside from the people watching) was the demonstrations. You could attend a tea ceremony demo in the Japanese garden, watch tae kwon do demonstrations, ikebana, taiko drumming, and so on.  Any down time was filled with Japanese pop music.

It wouldn't be a festival without food, would it?
And of course there was shopping for all sorts of useless trinkets. If you wanted a plastic samurai sword, this was the place to be.

Hello Kitty, of course. Is there anything she isn't on?

I was tempted by these, I loved My Neighbor Totoro
I love Spring in Houston, there's always something going on.

Friday, April 11, 2014

And when I die

I was driving down Shepherd the other day, when I saw a great black cube, built of plywood, and stenciled with Before I die…

Next to the box was a bucket of chalk, so passersby could add their own statements.

Most of the statements were personal goals:

Some were pipe dreams:

And some people had been reading Hunter S Thompson:

I originally thought the cube was someone’s attempt at participatory art but in fact, it was a clever way of introducing a new business to the area: a funeral parlor.

It must be difficult to advertise funereal services. Everyone will need them someday, but the solemnity involved means you can’t run a two for one sale. Can you imagine someone like Mattress Mack yelling “SOLID OAK coffins & No backorder slips!” on television at two o’clock in the morning? It just wouldn't work. 

Anyway, back to the thought-provoking box. What do I want to do before I die? And what can I do to make it happen?

5 things I want to do before I die
  • Travel to Vietnam and Cambodia
  • Speak a second language, fluently
  • Create something of lasting value
  • Have a closet where absolutely everything in it fits
  • Make a positive impact on the world
What do you want to do Before you die?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Two Chicken Dishes

I've been thinking about recipes I could make ahead and take to work. Things that could be packed in a lunch box and reheated in a microwave.

I started with gingery ground chicken (tori soboro). This was a snap to make, since it's just ground chicken cooked with a marinade. The highlight of this was I got to use my Japanese grater, which is such a neat tool. If you have ever spent time trying to finely chop ginger for a recipe, this is the most wonderful thing ever invented. You just rub ginger on the tines and it practically liquefies.

The chicken itself is pleasant, mildly spicy, but nothing to write home about.  But it is wonderful as part of a composed meal, so add the rice, the vegetables, the mushrooms I wrote about earlier. This is a choral meal, one where everything together creates a harmonious whole. All the components are okay on their own, but they are better in combination with other things.

Tangy seared chicken wings (tori teba saki no su itame) are soloists. They can stand alone. The wings (or in this case, thighs) have a more aggressive flavor profile.  It's the same procedure as the ground chicken, brown it and then letting it complete cooking in a marinade. But with this recipe, the flavoring is much more aggressive. And once you have taken the chicken out of the marinade, cook it down until it becomes a thick, tangy, vinegary sauce. Yum!

Unfortunately, neither of these was photogenic, so there are no pictures.  Well, I took some, but they wouldn't convince you to try the recipe. Pretty, they weren't. (Oddly enough, there were no photos in the cookbook either.)

Next up, Spring vegetables, which should look much better.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Things I'm Loving Now: April

The theme of this post is borrowed (stolen) from my friend Leslie. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

I'm really getting a kick out of my new Kindle. It's got a bright screen, it was reasonably priced, and it's small and light enough to carry around all the time. I'm having a lot of fun with it. 

Since I don't have the budget for serious jewels, I'm building a library of them instead. In 1912, some workmen were excavating a sub-basement in Cheapside (London), and stumbled on a cache of jewelry that had been lost since the Great Fire (1666). This is more than just a catalog or a book of pretty pictures, it tells about the discovery of the cache, and about jewelry making at the time. Did you know that "the acid test" and "up to scratch" are goldsmith's terms, and originally refer to proving the karat weight of gold? Lots of fun nerdy stuff like that, and the pictures are gorgeous! 

I watched the original Cosmos as a child, and remember being mesmerized. This updated version of the series is a worthy continuation. And I've been a fan of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson for years. You can see clips and full episodes online at

And last but not least, sushi socks! What's not to love?