Friday, May 21, 2010

Moment of Excessive Auto-Biography

So, I'd like to talk a little about healthcare. Yes, I realize I missed the whole debate as legislation was being worked up in the U.S. government.

But lately, for the first time, I've personally had to dig into health care and health insurance for myself. As much as I dislike dealing with personal issues in this space, I've got something on my mind.

I applied for a health insurance plan through a major provider. They lovingly forced me through a convoluted application process whereby I had to provide them with all kinds of personal and medical data before I could even get an inkling of what they might charge me. Sure, their premiums were printed on glossy brochures, but rule number one of surviving is business is "never trust ad copy" (rule number two is "Unless some schmuck's signature is on it in a way that accrues legal liability for them, it's ad copy.")

They, of course, rejected me as being a poor risk. Apparently I'm too underweight for my height. As others have noted, had I been four hundred pounds, they likely would have covered me.

Ah-ha! There's another option? The state offers an insurance plan for people who have been rejected by a private plan for being high risk! Huzzah!

Oh, wait. They're legally required to charge you 101% to 125% what a private plan would. Hu-wha?

Now, I'm still really new at this health insurance thing. I admit there's a lot I don't understand. Like the plan they'd like to offer me. With a $2,000 deductable and 20% co-insurance payment after that, I will have the privilege of paying them $230.71 per month (or more with fees, taxes, and graft. Never trust ad copy).

In exchange, I get... what?

I'm still a little fuzzy on the whole concept here. The premium they're asking for is more than half of what I pay for *rent*. Yes, my parents have generously offered to pay some or all of the premiums, so I can choose instead to sell of my dignity, pride and sense of self-reliance. If I understand correctly, that money is just being pissed down a hole. If - god forfend - I ever *need* medical services, they'll go ahead and charge me up to $2,000 for it, and then 20% after that. Which, given that I make $25,000 or so a year gross and make my bills with not a lot left over, is going to be tough to scrape together. If, say, I needed a liver transplant worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and can't pay for one, they will gleefully laugh in my face. If I want to go talk to some chump who had eight years to spare going to school just so I can get a magic piece of paper to buy insulin and other supplies, I have to pay for it myself anyway.

So, for what am I paying the insurance premium, exactly?

Do I look like a charity for the chronically unemployable? Why can't these people go out and get real jobs and become actual productive members of society and the economy? Make things with your mind; if you can't do that, make things with your hands. Living your life making paper is no way to live.

When Marxists talk about bourgeois parasites in society sucking value off the labor of people who work for a living, I will now add insurance company employees to the list. I cannot imagine the world being worse off if all of their kind were lined up and shot.

"...there ain't no cure / The rich stay healthy, the sick stay poor / but I... I believe in love" - Bono.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Box Monkey Beef and Garlic

For each serving:

1/4 pound ground beef
1 clove garlic

Thaw the ground beef, either in the refrigerator or in the microwave. Crush the garlic with flat side of a french knife or chef's knife, cut off the woody part of the root, and remove the paper covering. Mince the crushed garlic. Cook the ground beef and garlic in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Drain the grease into an empty tin can.

Serve over rice or noodles.

That's it. This is the ur-dish in the box monkey school of cooking. It's the dish that leads many other techniques. It's also a dish that rings many variations; it all depends on what else you choose to add. This dish is a good way to test savory herbs and spices; if a student of the box monkey school wants to test what a new spice tastes like, it can easily be added to this dish.

Crushing the garlic before mincing is important. Crushing the garlic breaks the cell walls, and lets the essential oils out. This makes the garlic more fragrant, and allows a little garlic to flavor the whole dish.

Possible variations: Add ginger (dried or fresh) and other Chinese herbs for an East-Asian flair. Sauces useful for this variation include hot Chinese mustard, horseradish or wasabi, or soy sauce.

Adding basil and oregano points toward Italian. Marjoram or thyme gives it a Northern European theme. Possible sauces include Worcestershire, ketchup, or steak sauce.

Cumin, chilis, chili powder, or cayenne pepper can add a Tex-Mex flavor and zap to the dish. Sauce with salsa or sour cream.

Other sauces that can be used in this dish include Frank's hot sauce or mustard.
This is a decent dish coming home from a club or waking up with a hangover. Honestly, it can even impress dates in the 16 - 22 bracket. It's a wonderful educational foundation for stove top skillet cooking. Mastery of this dish can lead to cooking meat for tacos. Substitute chunks of beef or chicken, and you have the beginnings of fajitas, stir fry, or bubble and squeak.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Box Monkey Beef Stew

2 lbs. Beef roast or beef stew meat
1/2 cup flour
6 Tablespoons olive oil (butter or bacon fat may be substituted)
1 bottle red wine
8 cloves garlic
1 yellow onion
3 potatoes
3 carrots
3 celery stems
3/4 cup barley
4 bay leaves
ground black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
pinch paprika

1. Cut meat into approx. 1 inch chunks. Do *not* cut the fat off the meat!
2. Pour flour into a bowl. Put in meat chunks. Toss to coat meat chunks in flour.
3. Pour 4 Tablespoons olive oil into a heavy skillet, burner on high
4. Add flour-coated meat to saucepan. Brown on all sides, approx. 2 minutes.
5. Extract meat, oil, and pan residue to a large stockpot.
6. Cover meat in the stockpot with red wine. Turn burner on low to low-medium. The stew should steadily, quietly simmer.
7. Add Bay leaves
8. Crush garlic cloves with the side of a chef's knife - remove woody roots and paper. Mince the garlic.
9. Slice onion into chunks, 3/4 inch.
10. Pour remaining 2 Tablespoons oil into skillit, heat on high.
11. Add garlic and onions to skillet. Sautee until wilted, approx. 1 minute.
12. Add garlic and onions to stew. Deglaze skillet with red wine into stew.
13. Cook approx 30 minutes.
14. Cut potatoes into 1 inch chunks. Retain the skins! They have good minerals we'll want.
15. Add potatoes to stew.
16. Add herbs and spices to stew. Adjust quantities to taste. Cayenne and paprika should be half quantity or less of the green herbs.
17. Cook about 30 minutes longer.
18. Peel and chop carrots into rounds, about 1/4 inch thick. Add to stew.
19. Cook 30 minutes.
20. Add barley to stew. Stir thoroughly.
21. Cook 30 minutes.
22. Cut celery into 1/4 inch crescents. Add to stew.
23. Cook for 15 minutes.
24. Ladle into bowls and serve hot. I like to serve it with hot artisan bread and butter.

Be sure to monitor the fluid levels throughout the process. Make sure that the meat and vegetables are covered and floating until the barley is added. After barley is added, stew should begin to thicken; if it becomes too thick, add additional water. Optionally, add wine or beef stock instead.

Cooking times are variable.

Lo these many years ago, I was employed as a box monkey for a major parcel transportation corporation. During the Christmas rush, I managed to pick up a position assisting one of the delivery drivers. My workday was fairly grueling - 5 hours in the warehouse unloading semi-trailers, and then another seven outside in winter weather running packages around. I'd go hope, collapse, sleep for a long while, and then get up and do it again.

One night, the company asked one of its worker health consultants to come in and look into our ergonomic working methods. Fairly forward thinking for corporate America, the company thought they would spend less money on hiring safety and health consultants than they would on worker's compensation claims. Thankfully, I passed, but the health worker remarked on my paleness and generally fatigued appearance. She recommended I see an occupational health physician on the company's dime.

I duly did. I was in pretty decent health, if fatigued and somewhat stressed. I was good to go back to work. Except for one thing: "When did you eat last?"
"Ummm... Tuesday. What day is it today?"

He recommended I eat more to sustain my strength. That weekend, I made my first batch of box monkey stew.

Be aware, this recipe makes a large amount of stew - it's supposed to. Share it with your neighbors, and keep any leftovers. What I do is ladle it into ziplock sandwich bags, and then freeze them; each makes a decent single serving meal, easy to transport and heat in a microwave.

We cook the stew slowly - it needs to be stirred occasionally, but its possible to mostly ignore it and chop vegetables, cook dessert, or clean the kitchen during the cooking process. The slow, steady heat for hours breaks the collagen in the meat down, allowing the meat to become fork tender. The same heat tends to melt the fat, allowing it to permeate the gravy; this is in contradiction to low-fat cooking and 'fat is bad for you' diets. We do this because we actually want to keep the calories in the gravy to provide energy. At the same time, fats are primary contributor to feeling full; we tend to eat less of foods with a decent fat content, because we feel fuller sooner.

The same slow cooking allows the starches in the potatoes and carrots to break down into sugars. Those sugars give us nice quick energy. As the sugar burns out, the carbohydrates in the barley, carrots and potatoes give us nice medium-term energy; and the starches and fats allow us access to long term energy. Meanwhile, the protein either becomes burned as energy, or helps to sustain and repair muscle, connective tissue, and other tissues in a hard-working body.

This recipe is unapologetically *not* low-fat, low-calorie, or low-carbohydrate. One decent serving is intended to provide a lot of food value. There's no salt added in the original recipie, although it's a common option - the stew ought to have reasonable sodium levels.

It is, however, designed to allow someone to eat a fairly quick, filling meal and keep it all day. Good for someone who has to work hard or long hours with sketchy mealtimes.

Like Christmas box monkeys. IBT local 631, represent.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

An Approach to Ontology

I start out with a basic subjectivist or idealist thesis: the individual mind's only interaction with any 'objective reality' is through the mediation of the senses and the perceptual faculties. In a sense, the mind uses the senses to build a virtual or Cartesian model of reality . These perceptual faculties are not perfect; they suffer from errors, falsifications, imprecision and incompleteness; the virtual model does not and cannot map perfectly onto the original reality.

Despite the fact that I cannot assert the existence of an objective reality outside the mediation of my senses and perceptual experience, I accept the existence of one on the basis of pragmatism and consistency. Despite the fact that I only percieve the existence of a coffee table in my living room through my senses, I accept that it is objectively real - it's in the same place every day, and it appears to hold my tea cup off the floor. When guests come over, they also behave as though my coffee table exists, and that it behaves in a similar way that I believe it to - it holds teacups and will cause you to stub your toe if you disbelieve in its existence.

However, I have no non-sensory way to prove that the coffee table exists. I have no way of proving that my friends who believe in the coffee table exist. At the same time, my subjective universe continues to operate in a consistent manner if I continue to believe in the coffee table.

In a similar fashion, I believe that there is bread in my kitchen. I cannot prove the objective existence of this bread. But when I put the subjective bread object in the subjective toaster object, and then eat the subjective toast object, my perceived feelings of hunger go away. The bread may be an illusion, my hunger may be an illusion, but the interaction of both serves a pragmatic purpose. I'm comfortable in saying the bread exists because it succeeds in being useful.
Having asserted the existence of an objective reality due to reasons of consistency and usefulness, it becomes difficult to speak reliably about it. Since all of my perceptions are mediated by my senses, and my senses may be incorrect or deceived, there is an element of uncertainty about all of my statements of reality. While I can assert with some confidence that my coffee table exists in some sense, my assessment of its various predicates and qualities are entirely subjective. I may assert that it is three feet long: I may be mistaken, and even if I am not, there is an inherent limit on the precision of that statement. Evin if I use some advanced technology (possibly involving lasers) to determine the length of the table, there is a chance that I will misuse the instrument, or misread it. In any case, I can only become more precise rather than perfectly precise.

Meanwhile, someone else who comes into my house to measure my coffee table might arrive at a different measurement of its length. He might say that it is 3.2 feet in length, while I maintain that it is 3.0 feet. Who is correct? It is impossible to say "the coffee table is 3.0 feet in length." At best, I may assert "I measure the coffee table as being 3.0 feet in length." My subjective reality and that of the coffee-table measuring intruder do not map consistently upon each other, and neither has a more legitimate claim to being mapped correctly onto objective reality.
The analogy that is often used here is one from philology, or textual analysis. Say a scholar has discovered pieces of a lost work of Sophocles, and wishes to attempt to reconstruct the original text. He begins with the assumption that there existed at one time a perfect text - the one that the scribe produced at the direction of and with the proof-reading of Sophocles himself [in this analogy, objective reality]. Unfortunately, the modern scholar does not have access to that manuscript. Instead, the scholar has only four different corrupted partial versions of that text [subjective models of reality]. He may attempt to reconstruct, as best he can, the original; however, he has - at best - simply created a new corrupted version of the text.

If the new version of the text turns out to be consistent, readable, and aesthetically enjoyable, though, the scholar will have succeeded in a sense. The new text, if not mapping perfectly on the original, succeeds in its purpose; it is useful. One can read it it, perhaps even perform it, and achieve some sort of aesthetic or intellectual satisfaction. Which is good enough, since we can't ask any subjective model of reality to be perfect, just useful.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

A restaurant review

The Mediterranean Cruise Cafe:

First, let me point out that although I'm not a professional cook or restaurateur, I do enjoy a lifelong passion for Greek, Italian, and Mediterranean food. I've been eating and enjoying it since my early teens; I've had good and bad. I like to think I know what I'm talking about. That being said...

Last Saturday, my lovely lady took me to the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe in Burnsville, Minnesota for a special occasion. We had high hopes that we'd enjoy a novel experience, with good food, live dancers, and a comfortable atmosphere. Despite the fact that a genuinely fine restaurant pokes through here and there, the overall experience was somewhat disappointing.

First of all, let me say that I'm not sure I'm the true target demographic for this sort of eatery. Guessing from the crowd, the atmosphere seems firmly pointed towards an aging, upper-middle-class, suburban crowd. Quite likely, a sociological analysis of this demographic would suggest that this crowd is looking for a reliable dining experience, with few surprises and few pushes outside the comfort zone. Sadly, our dining experience reflected that.

Things went bad quickly. Despite the fact that the two of us had prior reservations, the two of us were asked to wait in the chilly lobby area. The restaurant's primary dining area is a large, open room. The dining area melds into a bar at one side, and a lobby area at the front door, only slightly offset by a number of pillars. Despite having a foyer with two sets of glass doors (a logical layout for the upper Midwest), and despite the winter weather, the inside set of doors were puzzlingly propped open. This allowed a chill breeze in any time the front doors were opened.

Our table was placed, almost as an afterthought, right next to the receptionist's desk near the front of the building. Traffic on all sides of the table was heavy, with frequent backups along the main transit way between the dining area and the bar that caused various servers and patrons to cut in between our table and our neighbors. A very poor layout that left us feeling alienated and isolated.

The menu, as expected, differed from the online version. Unfortunately, the discrepancy included a number of dishes that were initially attractive to my companion. In its favor, the menu did include a mix of traditional Eastern Mediterranean dishes and more comfortably familiar Euro-American ones. Those who aren't ready to enjoy ethnic cuisine choices will have a decent number of options here. However, as an aspiring eclectic sophisticate, I would have preferred to see less shying away from the terminology. Americans seem to have figured out what "salsa" means, why assume that they can't figure out "tzatziki"? I understand if you want to add a parenthetical remark explaining that it's a cucumber/yogurt sauce,

First out were a pair of Greek salads. These were decent, if uninspired. Lettuce, with tomato, feta cheese, banana pepper, and kalamata olives with a non-descript vinaigrette dressing. Nothing challenging here, but nothing inspiring, either.

The appetizer we chose came next, named in the menu as a "feta cheese plate". A more accurate description would be "stuff we have in jars and in the refrigerator, thrown on a plate, with hummus". The hummus was actually pretty good - a good balance of tahini and chickpeas, under fresh olive oil and paprika. Smooth without being pasty. But the rest of the plate was disappointing.

The rest of the plate consisted of anemic, pale tomatoes, better cucumbers, feta cheese out of a plastic package, and kalmata olives and banana peppers straight out of a jar. Now, I recognize that it's hard to get fresh produce in Minnesota in the middle of January. I also recognize that appetizers aren't the center of a dining experience, and busy cooks would rather not spend much time on them. Still, this vegetable plate isn't cooked; it has no dressing or sauce; there is no way to cover up anything less than fresh, high-quality ingredients. A vegetable platter really ought to show off the best stuff the buyer can get.

Now, a word about cheese. True Greek-style feta cheese is made half from sheep's milk, half from goat's milk. It's slightly sour, salty, and fairly strongly flavoured. It should have a certain musty-acidy tang to it. Such cheese exists in the metro area. I have bought it, tasted it, eaten it, exulted in it. This cheese was not it. This cheese was a pale shadow of feta cheese - the kind that comes from a plastic package in a grocery store. Which is fine as a snack at home on the cheap, along with your mass produced cheddar and colby; but an eatery aspiring to Greek cuisine, especially on a dish labelled "feta cheese plate" really ought to aspire to more.

As an entree, I picked the lamb platter which promised at least two different lamb dishes. The result was a perfect exemplar of the divided personality of the entire establishment. One dish, lamb shank roasted in a marinade of lemon and herbs was very good. This is often a tough cut of meat, and hard to cook correctly. Whoever prepared this recipe knew what they were doing: the tough meat was properly tender, the seasoning done in such a way to permeate and compliment the strength of the lamb flavour. This was done right by someone who understood this dish, what it could do and what had to be watched out for.

On the other manipulator, the other lamb dish tried to be as inoffensive as possible. French-cut (i.e. thin strips of) lamb rack. Lamb Rack is one of the tenderest cuts of lamb, and easy to do a lot with. Unfortunately, the MCC decided that lamb should be beefsteak. This rack of lamb was cooked with sauteed onions and mushrooms, and served with a creamy garlic sauce. Not out of the question for prime rib at a steakhouse. Sadly, it found its way to a Mediterranean restaurant instead.

These two entree pieces were joined by a truncated cone of Spanish rice. This came right out of a box, dry, flavorless, and mundane. I felt repelled at the first forkful. C'mon - there's so much more one could do with this! In fact, working with the same box at home, I've added butter or olive oil for weight and smoothness, herbs and spices for flavor, and fowl or meat stock for firmness and body. Even adding a little of the juices and fat from the overperforming lamb shank could really rescue this pathetic little number.

In short, this place could really be something. It just needs an infusion of heart and courage. Really good cooking is roughly50% ingredients, 30% recipe, 15% technique, and 5% presentation. At $20 - $25 a plate, an establishment really shouldn't be cutting corners on ingredients like this. If I can do as well as they can straight out of a box, something is wrong here. Give me something I can't do on a Wednesday night at home.

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

A note to 'truth' commenters

To the anonymous commenter posting about the role of hypothetical earthquake technology in the recent Haitian earthquake, with ties to HAARP and other things.

1) Quite frankly, as far as Et in Arcadia Ego is concerned, Alex Jones, Jeff Rense, or anyone consistently appearing on either one's program is not considered a credible source (including Benjamin Fulford) without *extraordinary* evidence that can be independently verified and examined. So don't bother.

2) HAARP as superweapon, Chemtrails, 9/11 truth, no plane theories, the New World Order, vaccine poisons etc. are all a part of my day job. If you've heard the theory, so have I. Unless you have something new to add, or want to talk about the interplay of conspiracy theory, urban legend and modern myth as aspects of the study of semiotics, mythology, and cultural unconsciousness, don't bother commenting. Simple mockingbird-like repetitions of legends will be deleted unless they're particularily novel, interesting, or add something to a meta-level critique.

3) Despite what Alex Jones may imply, mindless spamming is not an effective means of communicating your worldview. The rest of us just switch you off, edit you out, and disregard you. If you really want to communicate effectively, be on topic, in a forum open to such discussion. Argue intelligently, concisely, and avoid using the term "sheeple". Back up your assertions with *facts* that are independently verifiable, investigatable, and falsifiable. Avoid common logical fallicies. Show an understanding of your subject matter, be ready to back up your claims on the spot without reference to other "truther" videos, websites, and media that have not been accepted as credible sources by all concerned.

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