Saturday, April 26, 2008

Rolling in dough

Today, I decided to bake some more of the crusty, no knead bread again. It was a big hit last time. At Gen's request I made a sweet batch and a savory batch. Rather than do the rational thing and split the original recipe into two halves, I decided to make two whole batches. One batch was herb bread, and the other batch was honey wheat raisin bread. The original recipe makes approximately 4 medium sized loaves.

You might guess that I made 8 loaves, but that guess would actually be wrong. This time around, I made the mistake of not reading the recipe closely enough. Just because the ingredient list says 4 cups of water doesn't mean I should immediately add 4 cups of water to the dough. One of those cups is actually for generating steam in the oven. Oops. Needless to say, I had a very wet and loose dough.

Again, I defied rationality and succumbed to my laziness. I could have just added more flour after realizing my mistake (2 hours later after my dough had poofed really big). I instead decided to throw the wet dough in the oven as is and see what happened. Lo and behold, I did actually get really nice bread. Only this time, the crust wasn't quite as nicely formed on half the loaves, and the bread itself was a lot moister and lighter. Also, since the dough was a lot looser, I had a heck of a time dividing the dough into quarters. So, instead of having 8 loaves, I ended up with 11 loaves.

Near disaster was averted by smart thinking on my part. Ok, so there wasn't a whole lot of thought involved. Kitchen disaster was actually fortuitously avoided by a lazy decision on my part. But I'm apparently not the only cook redeemed by careless accidents. Brownies are commonly thought to have been discovered by a cook who accidentally left out the baking powder from a chocolate cake batter. Necessity may be the mother of all inventions, but I say laziness ranks up there for sowing the oats of accidental discoveries.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New toy

Ok, it's not a very exciting toy. There are no blinking lights or music playing abilities. It's just a simple 18'' long, 6'' wide cylinder of foam. Hey, what can I say? I'm easily amused.

What does it do? Well, for those of you who haven't experienced the wonders of self myofascial release (SMR) therapy, foam rollers are basically wonderful tools for giving yourself a massage. It won't ever be as good as having a live person massaging you, but it's a heck of a lot cheaper. I usually use tennis balls for my SMR treatment, but the foam roller actually hits my muscles in a slightly different way. The roller also more easily works things like my hamstrings, which always seem to be a challenge with tennis balls.

I know it may not sound like it does much, but rolling on the roller and/or tennis ball makes my muscles feel a lot looser and relaxed. If I start getting tight from a few days of hard workouts, a little rolling SMR treatment always loosens me up. I may not have been feeling bad before, but I'm always pleasantly surprised by how much better I feel after rolling. It's funny how you can sometimes forget what relaxed and loose is supposed to feel like. Good thing I've got tools around to keep reminding myself.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Soy, it's what's for dinner

Ok, that statement probably isn't true for the vast majority of people. Being vegetarians, it's often true for Gen and me. Of course, contrary to popular belief, vegetarians do actually get protein from other sources other than soy: quinoa, nuts, whole grains, hemp, beans, corn, and many other foods do contain protein. Anyhow, let's get to the primary topic of today's random musing: soy, the simultaneous wonder food and nutritional pariah.

Soy is a surprisingly controversial food. Some people tout its incredible culinary versatility, health benefits, and environmental friendliness vs animal proteins. On the other hand, other people bash it for containing phytoestrogens and being an inferior protein source to meat. Of course, I really like soy, and I'm surprised that I get some grief for deriving a lot of my protein intake from soy. I've been told by several people (including my own father who is amazingly uninformed about nutrition for a biochemistry Ph.D.) that I'm going to grow breasts, become sickly, and waste away because I eat soy.

For the moment, we'll ignore the fact that I eat a fairly varied diet with other plant derived protein sources. Asian cultures have eaten soy for centuries with no noticeable ill effects. I've been vegetarian for well over 10 years now, and I'll have to say that I've actually become stronger and healthier. So, I think that the theory of soy being bad for me is total bunk. Now, what about the phytoestrogens in soy feminizing me? Well, if that's true, maybe it's not so bad being a new age, sensitive guy. But then again, I don't think that statement holds any water either.

Not a result of soy.
I'm an avid reader of Testosterone Nation, and I often have to read many comments poking fun at puny soy-consuming girly men. Ok, I admit, those comments are often pretty funny in the context of the articles, but they only thinly mask the contemptuous scorn that some carnivorous types have for soy. But wouldn't you know it, this article appeared on T-Nation recently. Finally! T-Nation itself posted an article defending soy! I'll let you read the article for yourself if you care to read it, but the overall message is that soy is just another source of protein that can be readily incorporated into a healthy, varied diet. You'd have to eat a hell of a lot of soy (almost more than is physically possible) to be feminized by the phytoestrogens.

The article did reinforce the thinking that processed soy is probably not terribly great for you. Gen's been slowly convincing me to get more protein from alternative sources, and we've been cutting back on the highly processed soy products (i.e. minimizing eating soy protein powder). I can live with that. I've been trying to cut out highly processed foods from my diet anyhow. But at the end of the day, I'm still one of the soy boys, even if I'm not quite a metrosexual girly man.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Juicing up... your brain?

According to a recent study, nearly 20% of polled Nature readers (who are by and large scientists) use brain-boosting drugs like Ritalin, Provigil, and Inderal. It's already bad enough that we have to suffer with steroid enhanced athletes. Could it possibly be so bad that scientists are doping up to gain that mental performance edge? I know competition for grant money is fierce, but some things (like one's health) aren't worth the cost of success.

Personally, I have a hard enough time with just caffeine, which is an almost universal drug of choice among all the researchers I know. I avoid caffeine since I know it makes me jittery and gives me noticeable tachycardia. The unpleasant side effects of some of the other drugs don't sound worth it to me. I once had a friend in college who used some sort of herb product so he could sleep less and work longer. The big downside to that was dizziness, mild hallucinations, and the host of problems that occur with sleep deprivation. Then of course, we all have some knowledge about the experimentation with mind expanding and mind altering drugs that happened in the '60s and '70s. While most folks from that era turned out normal, there are plenty of high profile examples of people who either had close calls or just didn't survive long enough to become aging hippies.

You'd think that scientists would be smart enough to just look at what happens to athletes who tried tweaking with their bodies to gain an edge. Messing too much with the body comes with serious risks. There's no reason to believe that doing the same thing with the mind doesn't also have significant physical and mental consequences. Hopefully, this won't become a more common trend.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Awesome no knead bread

Well, I didn't take a picture of it this time, but you'll have to take my word for it. I made a simple crusty bread based on a recipe I saw in the Week (reprinted from the NY Times?). No kneading necessary. The dough was a little wetter than I'm used to with a traditional bread which requires kneading. The tradeoff is that you have to let the dough rest a lot longer, but I'll take that passive waiting tradeoff over 20 minutes of active kneading. More water in the dough apparently allows the gluten formation to happen without the need to knead.

So, how did it turn out? One word: awesome. Most home ovens don't have a steam injection feature like the pro bakery ovens. The wetter dough and the pan of hot water placed in the oven simulates a similar effect to the steam injection. I've never gotten such a nice crust on my bread before. I'm definitely going to have to add this gem to my regular baking repertoire.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It's not small, it's cozy

We've now officially lived in our small apartment for about 8 months. Initially, 550 square feet sounded like it would be rough, but it hasn't been all that bad. Granted, I do miss some things like having two bathrooms and a dishwasher. Having a bigger kitchen would be nice considering how much cooking we do, but our current small kitchen is workable. Also, there's not a whole lot of private, quiet space in the apartment. Talking on the phone on one side of the apartment is clearly audible on the other side of the apartment.

So, if there are those downsides about the apartment, what are the upsides? Well, location for starters. We can walk basically everywhere we need to go. Trader Joe's: 10 minute walk, even while laden with groceries. Train station: less than 10 minutes, 6 minutes at a brisk pace. Gym: roughly 10 minutes. Hardware store: 4 minutes. Barber shop: 4 minutes. Several parks: less than 10 minutes away. A bevy of restaurants are all minutes away by foot, even though we actually almost never eat out. Whole Foods is also technically a walkable distance, but it's just far enough that driving a car there makes sense.

Cheaper rent and utilities is also a big plus. Rent is about 30% cheaper than the larger apartment alternative we were considering, and we also get free heat and water. We have had to be creative with organizing stuff, but the flip side to that is that I've been forced to get rid of stuff. When you don't have space to store crap, you start focusing on the stuff that you actually need or has real importance. Oh, and cleanup (when we manage to get around to doing it) doesn't take nearly as long as it would with a bigger space. It takes longer to setup the vacuum cleaner than it does to actually vacuum the floor (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's not far from the truth).

I know a lot of people (many of my friends included) think we're a bit nuts for intentionally choosing to live in such a small apartment. I don't think it's so bad. People do actually live in even smaller spaces than we do. Personally, I hope things start trending towards smaller houses, better built houses, and smarter community layouts. I think it would go a long way to helping people prioritize the important things in life rather than the focusing on the material side of things and keeping up with the Joneses.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Wretched taxes. No more wheels.

Today has been busy. I'm dead tired. I went to the bank, filed my taxes, went grocery shopping, cooked, and had most of my time today sucked away by selling my car. Yup, I am now no longer a car owner. I posted the ad at 9 a.m. and had the car sold by 4:30 p.m. Most people would be happy being the new owner of a car, but I've gone the other way. I'm actually happy to be newly rid of a car. Of course, I can get away with it since I live in a city with good public transportation and a non-profit car sharing organization. I suspect there will be some hassles with only having Gen's car around, but considering how little I actually drive, I doubt the hassles will be that significant.

As I noted yesterday, recycling is probably going to be an issue. I used to store the recycling in the van and drive it to the recycling center in bulk. Considering how many recyclables we generate, those trips are going to have to be more frequent than in the past. There's no way to store the stuff in the apartment since we live in a roughly 550 square foot space. It's just another annoying problem to solve. I'll add it to my super long to-do list.

Oh, and taxes suck. I can't believe I pay so much in taxes. Federal tax, state tax, and city tax. I know we don't have it as bad as other countries, but it still hurts to see that much of my income being taken away. I find it particularly annoying that I have to pay state tax on my investments, and that Philadelphia city tax is significantly higher than my state taxes. What's up with that?

Friday, April 4, 2008

Challenge of recycling

I'm a firm believer in recycling. I'm also a firm believer in not buying extra stuff that takes up space and wastes my time, both commodities of which I have precious little. But I do have to buy some stuff, and that stuff inevitably generates waste in the form of packaging or from becoming useless end of life junk. That's where recycling should come into play. The responsible thing to do would be to recycle everything possible.

However, we seem to have a culture set up to make recycling a royal hassle. It's probably a result of our short attention span, consumeristic, throwaway mentality. Not many people take the time to consider how much trash they generate as part of their daily lives. If it's not convenient, recycling probably just isn't going to happen. Just take plastic bottles for example. They are mostly recyclable, but something like 80% of them get thrown out in the regular trash and landfilled.

Right now, I actually have to drive my recyclables to a recycling center. My apartment doesn't have recycling, and recycling at work involves walking down 2 flights of stairs and out into the courtyard to find a recycling bin. This doesn't even include harder to recycle items like a pair of power supplies and some dead batteries. I have no idea how to get rid of those without chucking them in the trash can. If my plan of selling my van (which is getting to point where maintenance is a real time and money drain) goes through, I'll have limited options for hauling my recyclables and will probably just have to toss everything in the garbage.

I guess Kermit was right. It's not easy being green.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Freelancing for fun and profit

It's been a long time since I've actually did something web related for money. The last time was in graduate school when I wrote a little php cardiovascular disease risk assessment calculator complete with a nifty bar graph generator. That was fun, and gave me a little extra pocket money. Recently, I agreed to help with setting up another website. It's a small job, but I honestly only have time for small freelance projects. It at least earned me enough cash to pay off the extra taxes I owe to the state and federal governments.

So, here are the fruits of my labor:

After I recover my sanity from juggling my regular job, home responsibilities, freelancing and training for my I-Liq Chuan test, I may finally get around to actually building my own personal website after years of putting it off.