Using the iPod Touch for Speech Notes

Earlier this evening I used my iPod Touch to help deliver a talk about religion in Harry Potter. (I’ll release a video and article about this soon.) I scrolled through my prepared notes on the Touch screen, and that worked very well.

I couldn’t find a good application for the purpose. So I just emailed myself the notes for the talk (a friend helped me sync my mail for the Touch), then cut-and-pasted the notes into the built-in Notes program. The only mistake I made was to leave some hotlinks in the text; Notes annoyingly opens up the web browser if you accidentally touch a link (which I did once, causing a brief pause in my presentation).

I liked the Touch much more than paper. You don’t have to shuffle papers or change pages, and the Touch is very small and easy to hold without interfering with gestures. It’s easy to change hands, too.

But there are a few things I don’t like about using the Notes program for this purpose. As noted, the possibility of hitting a hotlink creates a problem. In addition, if you touch the screen just wrong, the software thinks you want to select a block of text, which is disruptive when trying to deliver a talk. If you tip the Touch, it converts the text to the horizontal format, which I did not want. Finally, while Notes displays a clock at top, far better would be a timer. It’s hard to remember the start time and figure the total elapsed time when you’re concentrating on the material of the talk.

Obviously this opens up the possibility of some clever programmer developing and selling me the type of application I’m describing. To summarize, such an app would offer the following features:

* A timer prominently displayed on part of the screen.

* The rest of the screen devoted to the notes for the talk.

* Easy thumb-tapping to change pages or scrolling (user’s choice).

* The ability to import pdf files or cut-and-paste straight text.

* No disruptions involving hotlinks, text selection, or screen reformatting with the gravity sensor.

Let me know when you’re ready to sell this to me, and I’ll gladly buy it (for a reasonable price). Until then, Notes works adequately for the purpose.

***

Robin E. commented August 22, 2011 at 4:36 PM
I want this app too. I would use it for teaching, for workshops, for agendas for meetings, and other stuff too (yeah, I’m kind of busy…). I was just googling if such an app already exists and hit this blog. For now I’m sticking with emailing myself my notes in pdf format, but what you describe would work much better.

The only think I would add would be a check box for every point or paragraph or whatever, so I could check each thing as I cover it and then can easily find my place again when I’ve rambled off on a tangent.

Ari commented August 22, 2011 at 4:44 PM
Keynote seems to do much of this; however, it is too beefy for my preferences, plus I’m not sure it does at good job at the basics I describe. But I haven’t tried it.

Good Times, Mixed Ingredients

I prefer Fat Head to Super Size Me. I don’t think much of anti-fast food hysteria. I regard forcing restaurants to post calories as both foolish and tyrannical. I oppose the Nanny Statist campaigns against fast food and Ronald McDonald.

Yet I also believe that ultimately consumers drive production, and smart consumers demand full disclosure from producers. (The government rightly steps in to punish fraud.) Consumers should spend their money wisely and insist on quality goods.

Therefore, after I drank a yucky strawberry-banana shake from Good Times Burgers, I contacted the company to lodge a complaint and figure out what was wrong with it. Christi Pennington, an “executive assistant” with the company, helpfully provided me with full nutritional details.

Generally I like Good Times. I have regarded the best burger for the money in the Denver area is a bacon “bambino” burger (at $1.39 last time I checked), times two (and throw away the top buns). And generally I like the custard there.

A quick look at the ingredients indicates why the custard is pretty good whereas the shake was pretty bad. Here are the ingredients for the “custard base:” “All-Natural: Milk, Cream, Sugar, & Egg Yolks & Grade A Milk Powder.” (The ingredients come from a document dated September of 2010.) Relatively wholesome (though of course a lot of sugar is bad for you, and most Americans eat way too much of it).

Contrast those ingredients with the ones found in “strawberry syrup:” “High Fructose Corn Syrup, Strawberry Puree, Artificial Flavors, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate (preservative), Cellulose Gum & Artificial Colors (red 40 & blue).”

So, in other words, my “strawberry”-banana shake was actually a corn shake with several added chemicals, and a bit of strawberry. Gross.

Good Times lists the meat as “Meyer All Natural, All Angus,” which is good. However, I got nervous when I saw a listing for soybean oil immediately beneath the listing for meat. So I asked about this. Thankfully, Pennington replied, “No we do not cook the meat in oil at all.” That’s good, because as a rule I regard all vegetable fat as suspect.

Unfortunately, Good Times continues to add hydrogenated fat to a number of its products. Everyone agrees that’s horrible for you. You can get all sorts of conflicting dietary advice, but one of the well-documented and universally accepted claims is that hydrogenated fat is bad.

And yet Good Times serves up hydrogenated fat in all of the following products, according to the ingredients lists Pennington sent me: bambino bun, chicken dunkers, crispy chicken filet, onion rings, mushrooms in sauce, onion tanglers, cake cone, cheesecake (a custard flavor), cherry hearts, cookie dough, graham cracker, Heath English toffee, hot fudge, Oreo cookies, polar chips, pound cake, waffle cone, and whipped topping.

So I won’t be buying any of those items from Good Times! I mean, come on: you can make regular buns without hydrogenated fat but not bambino buns? How about you just get rid of the crappy vegetable oil altogether?

While we’re on that topic, I was relieved to read that AMC pops its popcorn in coconut fat, not vegetable fat. (The coconut, along with the avocado and the olive, is a fruit. My general view is “fruit fat good, vegetable fat bad.” Notably, you can find the former, but not the latter, in nature.) I think those calling for vegetable fat as a replacement for coconut fat are simply idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about. Thanks, AMC, for not subjecting your customers to unhealthy vegetable fat! (That said, popcorn is not inherently a health food! But that doesn’t mean moderate consumption is especially bad for you.)

When I make a strawberry banana milkshake, here are the ingredients I use: frozen strawberries, bananas, cream, and milk. (Sometimes I add commercial but quality ice cream, though I’ve decided to stop buying that.) When I make popcorn, I use popcorn, butter, and a little salt.

Perhaps a representative for Good Times would care to leave a comment here when the restaurant has decided to at least phase out hydrogenated fat.

So be a smart consumer, take responsibility for your choices, and don’t go crying to government to do your thinking for you. Because once you authorize politicians and bureaucrats to micromanage your life, there will be no stopping them. And that is the single most pressing threat to your health and safety.

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Anonymous commented June 24, 2012 at 8:18 PM
just drank a yucky banana shake from GoodTimes. Though they might actually JUST add a banana to their custard… no such luck. Not because I looked up the ingredients -found your blog. but because that taste was obviously NOT just a banana added to custard. darn. I told my kids, let’s stop eating chemicals! ok. we are going to see how that goes. No chemicals for tomorrow. thanks for your blog. I am not going to try to find what the heck makes banana flavor besides a good old banana…. chemicals, I’m sure.

No One Lives Forever

With some regularity I hear the claim that, with sufficient advances in medical science, people can live forever — become immortal. Clearly that’s nonsense.

Perhaps someday medical science will be able to halt and reverse the aging process in humans, to cure heart disease, cancer, and the other diseases that kill us, and thereby to grant people an indefinitely long life, without death from “natural causes.” But obviously an indefinitely long life is not the same thing as immortality.

Two things kill people besides medical problems: homicide and unintentional injuries. CDC reports that, in 2007, 18,361 U.S. residents (6.1 per 100,000 population) died by homicide. And 123,706 (41.0 per 100,000 population) died by unintentional injury. The fraction of people who die every year of non-medical causes, then, is 0.000471.

According to my geek friend Paul Hsieh, one can calculate average life expectancy simply by dividing one by the death probability, which in our case renders 2,123 years. Paul adds, “Of course, there’s a long ‘tail’ of some people who might live for” very much longer than that. Thus, the “half life” of the population — the time by which half the original population would be dead — would be a few hundred years less than the average, or 1,472 years. (Paul recommends the discussion at Wikipediafor details.)

No doubt a life span over two millennia is a very long time, but it is hardly immortality. Such a state obviously would dramatically impact our understanding of a “normal human life.” It would also replace the norm of expecting to die of natural causes with the expectation that all death would result from largely random and unexpected causes.

There are some variables with this. Obviously, not everybody is at the same risk of dying by unintentional injury or homicide. A drug-dealing extreme-sports fanatic is much more likely to die prematurely than, say, a fit librarian. And it’s possible for the human-caused (as opposed to medical) death rate to change over time within a society.

Then there’s the remote possibility of being able to “back up” one’s consciousness, say, by daily transmitting a large data packet to a backup site on Mars, such that a person could be regenerated even if his physical body died. Now we’re really talking far-out science fiction. But if you look at the rate of technological advances over the last hundred years, perhaps it’s not so crazy a scenario.

But even with very-long lifespans, death would remain a possibility, and therefore, an inevitability. You’d have to worry about wars, large-scale interstellar events, and so forth. If your backup gets destroyed (or there’s nobody around to access it) and you’re stuck in the middle of a brutal thermonuclear war, you’re pretty screwed.

Even the possibility of ending death by medical causes seems incredibly remote; the notion of backing up one’s consciousness far more so. So why should anybody alive today care?

To me, the real value of such speculation is to remind ourselves that everybody dies. Within Ayn Rand’s theory of ethics, this fact establishes life as the basic metaphysical alternative (to death) that gives rise to the entire phenomenon of value. In some sense it is our need to keep ourselves alive that gives rise to value as such. How that works out remains complicated and controversial, but it’s an important insight, I’m convinced.

I hardly expect to outlive Methuselah, though I’d like to live to be 120 in good health. I expect that might become fairly normal within the next century, provided politicians do not continue to muck up health care and the economy as a whole.

***

Paul Hsieh commented April 27, 2011 at 2:35 PM
It also means that working on reducing small risks might become far more important to future Methuselahs.

For instance, if wearing a certain safety harness while driving reduced your yearly rate of fatal injury from 0.0002 to 0.0001, it might effectively *double* your expected lifespan from 5,000 years to 10,000 years.

Andrew commented April 27, 2011 at 3:25 PM
What Paul added about the small risks! It comes up occasionally in speculative fiction (Lazarus Long’s prepared paranoia leaps to mind), and all the time in my own life ;P

I observe that I must be protecting like 10+ healthy lifespans in my moment-to-moment choices compared to the personal risk profiles I observe in ‘normal’ people. Actions >> words

Anthony commented April 27, 2011 at 3:51 PM
Presumably doctors will get better at fixing people who get assaulted or injured.

In fact, I assume the “fraction of people who die every year of non-medical causes” has gone down over time. But I guess I could be wrong.

Joshua J. commented April 28, 2011 at 10:05 PM
It is, of course, obvious that no one can literally live “forever”. No one believes this except theists. What “immortalists” believe is that people can live practically forever, for thousands, perhaps millions or billions of years (or longer, maybe).

Obviously, the longer lifetimes would require “uploads” of consciousness in order to be achieved, but given the enormous progress we’ve seen in just the last hundred years in science, I have no doubt such a thing will be possible in another couple thousand years.

As for why it’s important now: Biotechnology may very well extend the healthy lifespan of someone in their forties or even fifties by an extra 20 or 30 years (Aubrey de Grey estimates the likelihood of this at about 50%). If such a thing could be achieved, there would be an unimaginably large amount of money poured into medical research to fix disease and repair the damage of aging, because no one wants to die and all of a sudden living for a few centuries would be a realistic possibility for many (plus, think of all those people paying bucketfuls of cash to live longer, and with each advancement, they’ll be paying for it longer!). This would spur more development, and soon we will likely hit what is dubbed “actuarial escape velocity”, where our life expectancy increases by one year each year, so we never get statistically closer to death, and with an increased rate of advancement will retreat from it, indefinitely.

This, too, would spur more investment and research. I’m only 20, and I think there is a better than even chance I could live thousands of years. “Indefinite lifespans” as they are called seem an achievable goal within many of our lifetimes (certainly mine, haha), and that is why the whole idea is important. Just one more reason to want the government to get out of the way.

Fast, Cheap, Healthy Eating

For some time I’ve wanted to discuss “fast, cheap, healthy eating” in more detail, and finally I just decided to do it in a fast and cheap blog post. I should state that I am neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. I’m inspired by “paleo” type eating, associated with lower carbs and nutrient-rich meats and vegetables. Much of my thinking on budget eating was inspired by my “food stamp diets” in 2009 and 2007.

Good Time for Economy

Unemployment remains high throughout much of the country; it hit 9.3 percent in Colorado as of the last measurement. It seems very much as though the federal government’s inflationary monetary policies are starting to show up in food prices (see a first, second, and third article on the matter.)

So many people’s budgets are strained now more than ever. But we gotta eat. Thankfully, some easy, common-sense steps can help make one’s grocery budget stretch further while still providing great nutrition. That’s what this post is about.

My Dietary Pilgrimage

Once in college a fast food joint put burgers on sale, so I ate there every day until, one day, I nearly vomited. Then I stopped eating there. But the funny thing was, I wasn’t really saving any money by purchasing the “sale” food. Soon after college I stuffed my freezer with frozen dinners, again from a sale. But then I discovered that these dinners were full of salt and other junk, plus they just didn’t taste very good (at least after about the third one). Nor did they save me any money.

Now I’m still not much of a chef, but I’ve learned to prepare tasty, economical, fast, and nutritious meals. My wife and I eat things like curry chicken and saag, roasts with sweet potatoes and onions, quiche, and spaghetti squash with meat sauce. We eat very well, but we don’t spend a lot of time or money on our food. I thought others might benefit from my experiences.

The Great Myths: Eating Well Costs a Lot and Consumes Time

We hear constantly that nutritious eating is costly and time-consuming. It’s not. Some of the least nutritious food in the grocery stores, food full of sugar and processed grains, is also relatively expensive. Some of the least expensive food overflows with life-giving nutrition. Often preparing and packing a meal takes less time than going to a restaurant.

It is a myth that nutritious eating has to cost a lot. It is a myth that nutritious eating takes a lot of time. This entire post is about exploding those myths, but I thought it worth mentioning them explicitly at the outset.

Eating Out: The Great Budget Killer

I enjoy eating out at restaurants, just like most people do. But it’s important to understand just how much that costs. A nice restaurant meal easily can cost a person fifty bucks — enough for more than a week’s worth of groceries.

If you figure there are around 260 weekdays in a year, eating an $8 lunch for every one of those days costs over $2,000 for the year. If you buy a $4 coffee for each of those days, that’s another thousand.

Sure, if you’re bringing down a large salary, you’re very busy, and you enjoy eating out, spending that much or more might be worth it to you. But if you’re on a tight budget, or you’d rather spend that money on other things, preparing food and taking it to work is relatively easy.

Consider an Entertainment Budget

You probably don’t need to give up eating out, but you might want to eat out less often.

For a long time my wife and I bickered about spending money on entertainment. We’d spend money to eat out, then feel guilty about blowing our money on nonessentials. We’d argue about what entertainment pursuits were worth it.

We’ve solved those problems by adopting an entertainment budget. The idea was inspired by Diana Hsieh, though my wife and I adapted it to our own purposes. The basic idea is that you give yourself a certain amount each month for entertainment, to spend however you want without feeling guilty about it. Obviously the amount must make sense given your overall budget. If you spend less one month, you can carry the balance to the next.

We also decided to put a third of all extra income (beyond our regular take-home) into our entertainment budget (split evenly between us). We figure that gives us a third for fun, a third for taxes, and a third for investment.

Obviously the details of an entertainment budget can be adapted for the particular needs of an individual, couple, or family. But, having tried it, I really like the general strategy.

Forget List Shopping

It seems like every pretender who addresses the matter of budget shopping suggests that you shop only from an established list. Such advice is horrible. You cannot possibly maximize your grocery budget if you shop only from your preordained list. Indeed, while I do make lists for the essentials, often I shop without any list at all.

The grain of truth to the “shop by list” mantra is that it’s stupid to make impulse purchases of unnecessary items. Certainly I am not advocating that!

What I am advocating is that you take advantage of sales, the most important of which are never announced. I’m talking about mark-downs. You will never include mark-downs on your shopping list, because you cannot possibly know which items a store will mark down on a given day.

Now, not every store features mark-downs, but most grocery stores I’ve seen do. The idea is that stores will put items about to go out of date on steep discount.

My local grocery store — and this is similar to many other stores I’ve seen — features a regular “discount” section with breads, canned goods, etc. Most of these “sale” items are worthless: discounted junk carbs are still junk carbs. You’re not getting a “deal” by buying nutritionally worthless food. Sometimes, though, I have found spectacular deals in the discount sections.

Often, rather than place mark-downs in a special location, stores will leave them in their regular place. For example, once at Target I bought something like eighty 100-percent chocolate bars at a steep discount.

Other times, stores will create a special place for mark-down meats and dairy. So get to know your store. And get to know your foods: I regularly use eggs well after their stated expiration date. (Obviously eating spoiled foods can be dangerous, so you have to pay attention.)

Obviously my shopping strategy depends on my living in an urban and suburban environment, where I am constantly walking or driving past stores. Because my rented mail box is near my local grocery store, I’ll quickly pop into the store most days of the week. (Plus I just enjoy walking through stores.) This enables me to hunt for mark-downs. But if you live out in the country, you’ll probably be able to visit stores infrequently, so you’ll be less able to take advantage of unannounced sales.

The key to mark-downs is to figure out what you need that’s a good deal (sometimes mark-down sales aren’t a very good deal), then buy a lot of it. Often I’ll unexpectedly pick up 20, 30, even 60 pounds of produce or meat, because it’s on a spectacular sale. By shopping only by list, you close your eyes to the best deals out there.

Eat What’s On Sale

Don’t schedule your meals far in advance; cook the ingredients that are the most economical at the time. If you find chicken on a great mark-down, eat chicken, not hamburger. If squash is fifty cents a pound, eat squash, not a pricey salad. Hamburger and lettuce will be on sale another day.

Shop the Good Aisles

I don’t even look at most of the aisles in my grocery store. Boxed cereals? Forget it. Soda? Nope. In my world, there are really only three main sections of the store: dairy and eggs, meat, and produce. (Add to these the minor sections of spices and chocolate.) If you’re shopping anywhere else, chances are excellent you’re wasting money.

Use Your Freezer

If you live in a normal American house, you have a freezer conjoined to your refrigerator. Use it! Practically every meat freezes well. Practically every fruit freezes well, including bananas. (Frozen fruit works great for smoothies.)

The freezer is what enables you to buy mark-downs in huge quantities and preserve the food for several months.

Particularly fruits are subject to large seasonal variations in price. So buy when the prices are low!

I also bought a half-sized stand-alone freezer for the garage. That lets me really stock up on meat and frozen fruit. (I also freeze sprouted bread.) Be aware that the freezer costs some money, as does the electricity to run it, but for some people an extra freezer can save money overall. An extra freezer also allows you consider options like buying a side of beef.

Even if you don’t have an extra freezer, your standard one can still hold a great amount of frozen food.

Consider a Dehydrator

I also own a food dehydrator, which is great for drying fruits like peaches, apricots, cherries, and strawberries. (I tend to cut my fruit into thin slices for faster drying.) I’ve even dried banana slices soaked in orange juice, and they were delicious but exceptionally messy. (I’ve also tried canning before, which may interest you, but I don’t do it any more. I much prefer drying.)

Think About Gardening

This year my wife and I are putting in two long planters with soaker hoses. The goal is to grow food is that is relatively easy to raise in our region and more expensive at the store, like tomatoes. I probably won’t grow hard squash, because usually it goes on sale every year for about fifty cents a pound (which likely will inflate upwards over the coming years). I want to try yams, too, and perhaps even some type of berry if I can find a region-friendly one.

Minimize Coupons

I use coupons, just not very often. Usually coupons apply to overpriced items that you’d do best to avoid altogether. Getting a discount on overpriced, highly processed, nutritionally worthless food is still a bad deal.

Remember, there is no coupon for a mark-down, the best deal out there.

Often a coupon is a just a way to dupe the mathematically challenged into spending more money on unnecessary products.

Sometimes people trap themselves in a false choice with a coupon. They think, “Would I rather have Product X at its normal price, or at the discounted price?” The discount wins! But the third option is to buy some other product altogether, or to buy nothing. For example, a coupon for boxed cereal will rarely save you money over a box of uncooked oatmeal or a breakfast of scrambled eggs.

Very often, coupons are for suckers.

Watch Weekly Ads

Sometimes a grocery store will offer some spectacular deals announced in their weekly ads. Usually these ads are mailed to every household and are also available online.

A “loss leader” is a sale product that a store doesn’t expect to make any money from, and may even lose money on, in the hopes that the item will bring people into the store to buy other stuff. The loss leader is your friend. Just note any restrictions on quantity.

Sometimes stores offer steep discounts on products like eggs, some item of produce, tea, or a particular meat. Watch for these!

A couple of my local stores recognize “double ad day” every Wednesday, when the store honors ads from two weeks.

Consider Costco

Perhaps surprisingly, Costco (to which my wife and I have a membership) often offers worse prices on staple grocery items. I buy neither eggs nor yoghurt at Costco, though I did recently start buying milk there. One issue is that often Costco offers only a big-brand item, while a local grocery store may offer its own brand or a less-expensive third-party brand.

But some things I regularly buy at Costco: roasted almonds, large bags of fresh spinach, ice cream, and yams. But on many items Target or the local grocer beats the hell out of Costco’s prices. So don’t assume that “membership store” equals lower prices; very often it does not.

Use Math

Don’t assume a coupon will save you money. Don’t assume a “sale” will save you money. Don’t even assume a mark-down will save you money. Don’t assume the larger package will save you money. Don’t assume a generic brand will save you money. Don’t assume a membership store will save you money.

In short, don’t shop like a sucker.

Only two things matter: the quality of the food, and the price per weight.

If a grocer can sell you a generic brand on “sale” for more than a regular brand, he will gladly do so. If a grocer can sell you a larger package for more per weight than the smaller package, again he will gladly do so.

Thankfully, many stores now provide the price per weight, so that can help. If not, figure it out yourself. Put the fruit on the scales. Put that fourth-grade education to work and do a little division. Bring a calculator with you if you must.

Cook a Lot at Once

Some dishes (scrambled eggs) are so quick and easy that it makes little sense to prepare large quantities.

Very often, though, it’s a good idea to cook a lot, then keep the spare in the refrigerator or freezer for later. This is the primary way to save time on food preparation.

Don’t cook two chicken breasts; cook six. Don’t bake one flan; bake two.

You only have to cook major dishes two or three times a week if you cook a lot each time.

The Pan: Types

Now I’ll get into cooking proper. I’ll start with an essential item for any cook: the pan.

I’ve gone round and round with pans. I started with a nonstick pan, but it started getting scratched. I bought expensive stainless steal pans, but they’re hard to use without food sticking. I tried cast iron, which are theoretically very cool but are difficult to use without food sticking and even more difficult to keep clean without ruining the surface. So now I’m back to a nonstick pan.

Are nonstick pans safe? Consumer Reports states, “Some perfluorinated compounds have been found to be accumulating in human blood, but our past tests suggest nonstick cookware is not likely to be a significant source of exposure.”

The keys to safely using a nonstick pan are to use it only on low to medium heat and toss it once it starts to scratch or flake. (I suggest a soft silicone spatula.)

The best feature of nonstick pans is that they are cheap. I’ve seen small ones for as little as a dollar, and regular ones for ten to twenty dollars.

The Pan: Dishes

Pans are great for cooking bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, toast, and so on. Try an “egg in the basket:” a piece of bread with a hole cut in it (say, with a glass), cooked with an egg in the hole.

Often I cook a generic dish starting with an onion. Peel the onion, cut it in half, and slice it in wedges and then in small pieces. Place the chopped onion, perhaps with some chopped cloves of garlic, in your pan with some butter, olive oil, or coconut oil. Cook on low to medium heat until translucent. Then you can add practically any combination of vegetables, meats, and spices for a quick, nutritious meal (plus leftovers).

Are you in the mood for something spicy? Try some tomatoes, hamburger, and chili powder. Have some summer squash sitting around? Dice it up and toss it in with the onion, perhaps with some diced chicken or turkey.

I also use my pan for things like cooked cabbage.

The Crockpot

You can pick up a decent crockpot (with a removable bowl) for around twenty bucks. Do it! Nothing cooks food faster or easier.

Consider some possibilities:
* Throw a roast in the crockpot with some diced yams and onions.
* Combine a can of coconut milk, some curry powder, and a half dozen chicken breasts.
* For an easy, spicy dish, cook a half dozen chicken breasts in the crockpot with a jar of salsa.
* Throw in some ground hamburger for Mom’s chili recipe (or a recipe from the internet).

I love my crockpot.

The Oven

You can also bake chicken breasts, fish fillets, and dishes of vegetables in the oven. I really like ceramic dishes with glass lids.

We eat baked “fry”-style yams fairly often. Just slice up a yam or potato into strips, coat them lightly with olive oil and salt, and bake them at 350 degrees for about half an hour, stirring after fifteen minutes. Or I’ll cook a sliced onion the same way.

My wife is the master of oven-prepared desserts; for instance, she makes a spectacular cheesecake but uses only a quarter cup of sugar for the recipe. I make a great flan but cut the sugar way down.

The Knife

You don’t need a bunch of knives. You need only one knife. But make it a good one.

If I could have only one knife, I would choose the Wusthof paring knife. It’s great for cutting up all kinds of vegetables, and it can handle meats well enough.

I also use a larger Wusthof knife for bigger jobs, but I use the paring knife much more often.

If you eat a lot of bread — we do not — you might also want a bread slicer.

The Plates

Once I saw my sister drop a whole stack of Corelle plates, and not one of them broke. I love my Corelle plates. They’re inexpensive and sturdy, and they stack well.

But if you’re really on a budget, check out the local thrift store.

Don’t Forget the Simplest Dishes!

Some of the best dishes are the simplest.

What’s easier than throwing a couple of salmon steaks in the oven? Or tossing some chicken in the crockpot?

Salads can make wonderful meals or sides, and they are trivially easy to prepare. Top any combination of greens with any combination of vegetables, and perhaps some chunk tuna or chicken.

For a snack, I like something I call “Chocolate Uncovered Raisins.” Mix chocolate chips (I buy 60 percent Ghirardelli from Target, where I get the best price for that item) with some raisins (from Costco) and perhaps some roasted almonds (also from Costco).

Or for dessert I’ll mix a little ice cream (Costco) with shredded coconut (Sunflower), fresh walnuts (also Sunflower, from the bulk aisle), and chocolate chips.

If you’re not worried about your carb load, you can make silly stuff like popcorn or a microwaved Mug Cake.

Vitamins

I do take a multivitamin, along with Vitamin D3 and fish oil (all from Costco). We try to eat wild salmon (frozen) once a week, as I think that’s better than fish oil for getting DHA Omega 3. Salmon is easily the most expensive food I buy, which is why we limit our intake of it and supplement with fish oil.

Good Fat

I have severe misgivings about vegetable fats. Yes, it’s low in saturated fat, but it’s high in Omega 6 fat, and it’s just not something people ate as they developed. So, while a giant vat of vegetable fat is cheap, I go with butter, olive oil, and coconut fat. They’re a bit more expensive but still reasonable.

Invite Guests

My grandparents played cards, a lot. When I got older I realized why: they didn’t have cable, and they didn’t have money for restaurants and such. So the family would get together for dinner and cards. And people had a delightful time. The same simple, cheap forms of entertainment are open to us today.

Stay In Touch

For updates about my articles, blog posts, and videos, please “Like” myFacebook Page.

And please check out my book, Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles.

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Evil Red Scandi commented April 1, 2011 at 3:25 PM
You recommended a knife. Culinary flame war time! :-)

Seriously, though, if you have one knife it will have to be steel, because there are a few things ceramic knives can’t do – namely, cut through bone and other hard materials, and they can only be used on soft surfaces (wood, plastic, or bamboo cutting boards – no stone, metal, or ceramic). However, we’ve got plenty of very good knives and the knives we use 95% of the time are our Kyocera Ceramic knives. The reasons are simple:

1) They hold an extremely fine, sharp edge in a way that makes the best metal knives seem downright pathetic. Our “daily use” ceramic knives need sharpening about every two years. The big downside of this is that you have to send them back to the manufacturer for sharpening. This takes about two weeks (including shipping time), but they only charge shipping and handling (about $15 or so for the first knife, each additional knife for a few bucks more).

2) They don’t impart any flavor or increase the oxidation rate of your food. You’re probably reading this and immediately dismissing me as a brain-dead hippie who believes any stupid thing they read on the Internet. No, I’m serious – I noticed this myself before I started reading up on it. You actually can taste the difference – especially in acidic fruits – and see the difference in things like sliced apples (they go brown much more slowly). Really strange and not something we expected when we bought them, but I’m always willing to take yes for an answer.

3) They don’t stain or rust, and nothing sticks terribly well to them.

We had some very nice Henckels steel knives, and we were given a three piece set of Kyocera ceramics as a gift. We’ve expanded our collection of cermaic cutlery quite a bit since then. Aside from the steak knives (have to use metal on plates), the Henckels mostly gather dust these days. Our preference is so strong that we bought “backup” ceramic knives for the rare occasions when our main ones are out being sharpened.

Carol commented April 5, 2011 at 8:36 PM
I very much like the idea of cooking a lot and storing it for later as it would definitely save time on food preparations. I do have concerns though, how long do you keep it in the freezer before preheating it after- can it stay for say a week? We have tried it before but when I preheat it in the microwave- which is probably a bad idea as the food was still a bit cold even if it was already in the microwave for 20 minutes. Is it a better idea to heat it in a pan? Thanks

Walter in Denver commented April 6, 2011 at 1:32 PM
I enjoy cooking, although I’d never say I’m particularly good at it. But I cook all the time, and I have probably far too many pots, pans, knives, etc.

Things I find indispensable or at least extremely handy:

A dutch oven. If you are pressed for space you can forgo the slow cooker, any crock pot recipe can be made as well or better in a dutch oven. The only drawback versus a slow cooker is if you want to leave it cooking unattended, which may not be a good idea.

At least three knives – a paring knife, a chef’s knife for chopping and a boning knife, especially if you cook wild game.

A steaming insert for a large kettle.

A pressure cooker.

A smoker.

Over the long term having multiple cooking vessels for a variety of cooking methods makes cooking at home more interesting, and I will be less likely to eat out if I know I can cook just about anything myself.

Ari commented April 6, 2011 at 1:48 PM
Carol, How long food will keep in the fridge or freezer very much depends on the dish. But generally if you freeze something it will remain in the same state for much longer than a week. Whether you want to microwave or stove-heat a dish — with or without refrigerator thawing — again depends on the dish and the portion size. In my experience, microwaving smaller amounts, and stirring frequently, works better. (Don’t use plastics!)

Walter, Thanks for the tips. I never use a knife to cut bones, just because I tend to throw stuff in the crockpot, which nicely removes any remaining meat. I’ve found no need for a pressure cooker or a smoker, though I do have a nice steamer pan. -Ari

A Note on ‘No Soliciting’

This last fall, as I handed out flyers for Congressional Candidate Stephen Bailey, I wondered whether all the people with “No Soliciting” signs really wanted to avoid getting campaign literature. (I avoided handing out flyers at such places.)

A family member of mine put up a no-soliciting sign that excepts youth fundraisers. That gave me the idea to post the following: “No Soliciting. No flyers, handbills, phone books, etc. Youth fundraisers and political campaigns excepted.” I think that distinguishes the sort of contacts I want from the sort I don’t want. (I just used plain paper in a sealed ziplock bag.)

Moreover, the term “soliciting” is somewhat ambiguous, so the added detail is helpful. Dictionary.com includes the following two definitions, among others: “to solicit orders or trade, as for a business”; “to offer to have sex with someone in exchange for money.” So does “soliciting” include fundraising for nonprofits and political literature?

Generally I don’t want business flyers for several reasons. First, they’re wasteful (especially phone books), and I have to spend my time throwing them away. Second, I don’t really trust flyers handed out door to door. I’d rather find a business through referral or the internet. Third, if I happen to leave for a few days, collected flyers can telegraph to would-be burglars that the house may be unoccupied.

Today I happened to be returning from a walk, and I noticed a flyer distributer read my sign and then not drop a flyer, as my sign requested. I was so impressed that I asked him who he works for. It turns out it’s Miss Jenny’s Dry Cleaner. I had the following humorous exchange with a manager of the business:

[Me] I really appreciated your flyer guy in Westminster respecting my no-soliciting/ no-flyers sign. It gives me a favorable view of your business.

[Manager] I’m sorry, but was that sarcasm? If it wasn’t, then thank you. If it was, we instruct our marketing people to avoid houses that have a “no handbills” sign, as we do not handout flyers. If you have any questions, please feel free to call me.

[Me] No, it wasn’t sarcasm. I watched your guy notice my sign and then not place the flyer. (I was returning from a walk.) So, because I appreciate your respect for property rights, I posted a link to your web page on my Facebook feed.

The manager then thanked me again.

Now, it might be said that, if I hadn’t noticed the flyer guy avoid my house, I never would have heard of Jenny’s Cleaner. Perhaps, especially as I already have a dry cleaner I’m happy with. However, if he’d placed the flyer against my stated wishes, I certainly would have had a negative impression of the business.

So, if you have a generic “No Soliciting” sign posted, I suggest you replace it with a more explicit and detailed sign. If you don’t have a sign up, you might consider whether you want to try to limit what people leave at your door.

Freaky Unintended Consequences

I’m a fan of the Freakonomics books, though I don’t always agree with them. (I’ve written about them a couple times before.) The documentary of the same name includes some material not found in the books.

I enjoyed this line: “You can teach a kid just as much at a grocery store as you can at a museum, maybe more.”

But perhaps the most poignant new story from the film is of Steven Levitt’s experiences potty-training his daughter. As he relates the story, his wife for months had trouble getting their daughter to use the toilet. So he figured that, as an economist, surely he could come up with an incentive structure to encourage potty training.

So Levitt decided to offer his daughter a bag of M&Ms if she’d use the potty. Immediately she did so. And for a couple of days, she consistently used the potty in exchange for M&Ms.

But on about the third day, Levitt’s daughter said she had to use the potty, and she went a very small amount in exchange for the M&Ms. She immediately said she needed to go again, so she went a small amount for another bag of M&Ms. Levitt points out that his incentive structure had encouraged his daughter, in three short days, to develop excellent bladder control. What it had not done is accomplish his purpose of getting her to use the potty normally.

The moral of the story? If a genius-level economist can screw up the incentives to potty train his daughter, why do so many people think that politicians and unelected bureaucrats can centrally control vast swaths of our economy?

Quiche Bowls and Microwaves

My purpose here is two-fold: to briefly discuss the alleged harms of microwave cooking, and to mention oven-baked quiche bowls.

After writing about microwave egg bowls, several people claimed that cooking by microwave is unhealthy because of the way it modifies foods. While I remain open to evidence demonstrating some harm of microwave cooking, to date I have seen not a shred of evidence to suggest that microwaves are in any way unhealthy.

Note that evidence does NOT consist of parroting some other web page on the matter which itself relies on overblown and unsubstantiated claims.

Also recall that Franz Mesmer made some superficially plausible-sounding claims regarding magnetic health treatments — claims that turned out to be complete crap. (That hasn’t stopped various companies from continuing to sell magnetic underwear and such, which is comparable to snake oil.)

I have also read that cooking itself harms food and is therefore unhealthy; see the “raw food” movement. I do not doubt that microwaves alter foods, as does any sort of cooking; what I doubt is that microwave cooking alters foods in ways significantly differently than the ways that regular cooking does, and that cooking itself is harmful. (Obviously certain types of cooking, such as charring meat over an open, smokey fire can introduce carcinogens.) Rather, I am persuaded that cooking actually makes many foods more healthy for human consumption, and that humans evolved while cooking with fire.

Readers are welcome to point to actual evidence testing claims about microwave healthiness. However, I will not publish comments that merely cite other unsubstantiated claims.

Nevertheless, obviously there are many ways to cook foods other than by microwave, and different techniques provide better results for different dishes.

This morning, I cooked quiche bowls for my wife and me in the oven:

quiche

My bowl consisted of two eggs, some milk, a quarter of a diced red pepper, some sausage (which my wife skipped), and a slice of swiss cheese. The bowls cooked to perfection in 30 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. We used our regular, oven-safe ceramic bowls.

There are several advantages to cooking a bowl of eggs in the oven rather than in the microwave. I like the texture better. One can cook several bowls at the same time. There is no need to stir the contents during cooking, as is necessary with a microwave. I like bowls rather than one large quiche because they cook faster, and different eaters can add different ingredients. And the clean-up is trivial. We ate our breakfast straight from the bowls resting on coasters; the bowls would be too hot for children.

I will probably start cooking eggs more often this way, because they are healthy, good, and easy. So there are definitely reasons to choose some cooking methods over others for different dishes. Overblown, unscientific fear mongering is not among those reasons.

How To Use Lists On Facebook

I’ve started using lists extensively on Facebook, a practice that has totally changed the way I use the service and made it much more useful to me. I had a request to explain how to use lists, so I figured I’d write up my notes for all comers. (By the way, I learned this from my friend Keith, who is a social media guru.)

When you sign in to Facebook, you should be at the “Home” page. In the upper right corner, you’ll find an “Account” menu. Go to “Edit Friends.” Now go to either “All Connections” or “Recently Added.” At the top you’ll find a button for “Create New List.” Name your list. (I created a “personal” and “professional” list.) Now you can add individual “friends” to whatever lists you want and have created.

Now return “Home.” Type your message in the box under “News Feed.” Beneath that box, you will find a pull-down menu. My menu shows a padlock, because I’ve set my settings to send messages to “Friends Only.” Anyway, in that pull-down menu you can “Customize” who receives your message. You can “Specify People” — including lists — to receive a message. You can also hide a message from particular people or lists.

You can also limit your reading to a particular list. From the “Home” page, click “Friends,” and then a sub-menu should appear with your lists.

Though relatively simple to set up, lists can provide a powerful way to sort your Facebook messages and reading. Before I learned about lists, my usual strategy was to “unfriend” just about everybody, and I was seriously contemplating pulling the plug on Facebook altogether. (I like Twitter much more.) Now, with lists, I almost like Facebook again, and it is actually useful to me.

Freezers, Crockpots, and Microwave Egg Bowls

Since adopting a more “paleo” type of diet (real food, plenty of meat and eggs, fewer carbs, very little grain), I’ve found three machines particularly useful: my freezer, my crockpot, and my microwave.

I bought a five cubic-foot freezer at Sears for around $130. It’s a half-size top-loader. This enabled my wife and me to purchase half of a grass-fed cow for just over five dollars per pound. I’ve also purchased bacon, fruit, and other meats on sale, then frozen them. The cost savings for food far surpasses the cost of the freezer and the electricity to run it.

We bought a crockpot at Sears for about twenty bucks. I was unsure whether I’d really use it much, but I use it often and love it. Here is a photograph of ($2 per pound) chicken breasts cooked in the pot with a jar of salsa, then shredded:

food1

Last night we oven-baked a sliced onion with olive oil and salt, which went great with the chicken. Tonight we’ll probably eat it with guacamole and sour cream.

I’ve also used the crockpot to cook several pounds of bacon pieces, beans (not very “paleo” but at least very well soaked), whole chickens, and soup. The removable ceramic bowl is very easy to clean, and I love the fact that I can just plop the food in and leave it for hours at a time.

The third machine is more widely used by Americans: the microwave. I use it often to cook eggs (as I’ve mentioned). A single egg in a ceramic bowl cooks to perfection in about 45 seconds. More often I make “egg bowls.” Typically I microwave a couple of frozen one-inch cubes ofvegetable puree (usually cauliflower with spinach or broccoli) for a minute by themselves. Then I add precooked sausage (or bacon or whatever) and two eggs, then microwave at short intervals (30 seconds to a minute), stirring in between, until it’s done. Add cheese if you want. Not only do I love the results, but the egg bowls are extremely easy to make and clean up. Here are a couple of pictures:

food2

food3

To me, freezing good food, then cooking food in modern appliances, represents the perfect marriage of wisdom from the ancient past with modern technological sophistication.

Review: The Business of Being Born

Last month, my wife and I visited Mountain Midwifery Center, where we’ll probably go to deliver our baby (assuming we successfully get that far; we’re not even pregnant yet). Tracy Ryan, owner of the midwifery, praised The Business of Being Born, a film we’d already purchased (and which is now available on Netflix online). A couple nights ago my wife and I finally watched the video.

The main thesis of the movie (as it was with Ryan’s presentation) is that, in the large majority of cases, baby deliveries work best with minimal medical intervention. In unusual, abnormal cases, medical intervention, including C-section surgery, is necessary to protect the life of the mother and baby.

The film goes into this theme in greater depth. I am persuaded that, for normal deliveries, inducement of labor often makes labor worse by interfering with the flow of hormones between the woman’s body and the in utero baby. The drugs given to induce labor tend to stress the baby’s body, interfere with natural delivery, and make C-section surgery much more likely.

One of the greatest things about the film is simply that it shows several normal deliveries. (I had already watched some water births on YouTube.) Watching these more-natural births was an eye-opener for me. I had always just assumed that delivery is living hell, with the woman laying down on her back, legs in the air, with the doctor peering up her vagina. Well, delivery does hurt, a lot; on that point I remain persuaded. But it need not involve the excruciating pain and screaming we’ve always seen on television. Instead, the natural births I’ve seen usually involve a woman squatting or in a tub of water. The head blurts out, then the shoulders with the rest of the body.

Seriously: if you’ve never witnessed a normal delivery, you owe it to yourself to watch a video of one. See the movie, or watch the YouTube videos I’ve found.

I was horrified to watch how U.S. medical doctors treated deliveries in the 1920s. Doctors gave women horrifying drugs and strapped women to their beds, sometimes for days. In general this was a period of treating people as though they were machines, rather than viewing technology as a means to meeting human needs. This trend was also evident in the rise of factory education and, to a far uglier extent, the rise of fascism.

While today’s medical interventions are more humane, they are largely unnecessary and counterproductive. The movie mentions that U.S. infant and mother mortality rates are high relative to the rest of the industrialized world. While this does not take into account the fact that U.S. doctors try to save more premature babies or the fact that mortality is much higher among narrow segments of the U.S. population, I am persuaded that, in most cases, inducement drugs and C-section surgeries cause more problems than they solve.

I do worry that the “all natural” attitude may make those women who do need medical intervention feel somehow inadequate. Generally it is not a mother’s fault if something goes wrong in delivery. Yet one of the people interviewed for the film claimed that, because a C-section interrupts the flow of hormones spurring motherly attachment, such births somehow lack love. But especially for humans love is not reducible to hormones, and a woman who gives birth by C-section is just as able to love her baby as is any other parent. The movie explicitly makes room for necessary medical interventions, but I’m not sure it sufficiently emphasized that a troubled delivery manifests no moral failing.

The director of the film, Abby Epstein, got pregnant in the course of making the film. Unfortunately, she had a severe complication in her pregnancy; her body stopped delivering nutrition to her fetus, who redirected nutrition to the brain and away from the rest of the body. Epstein went into delivery several weeks early. Because of the premature delivery (and because the baby was breech), Epstein went with her midwife to the hospital, where she gave birth by C-section. Thankfully, everything turned out fine. However, the incident does reinforce the need to get good prenatal care and to seek medical attention when needed. While deeply unfortunate for Epstein, the silver lining is that the story made for a much more balanced and informative film.

Another thing that struck me about the movie is how much it reinforced my existing political views about modern American medicine and health insurance. One person interviewed for the film claimed that often a C-section surgery is a legal strategy. The idea is that, if a doctor performs a C-section, he or she has made every possible medical intervention, and so cannot be sued. So the problems with American torts certainly show in this area.

I have long argued that third-party insurance payments — entrenched by decades of federal tax policy and controls — subvert individual responsibility. One women in the film said, “People in our culture spend more time and effort researching to buy a stereo system, a car, probably a camera, than they do checking out what their choices are for birth.” In our third-party system of prepaid health care, most people have no incentive to seek out good value for their health dollars. Moreover, most people get the health care their employer’s insurance company tells them to get, rather than the health care that would best serve their needs.

My wife and I, on the other hand, buy low-cost, high-deductible health insurance and pay for routine and expected care through our Health Savings Account. We’re going to pay for our delivery by writing a check or running the debit card. We know what care we’re getting and how much it costs. It is only if something goes terribly wrong, resulting in higher bills, that our insurance would kick in.

Nothing is more central to the continuance of the human race than the delivery of babies. People should know more about that, and The Business of Being Born provides not only a wealth of information but wisdom on the matter.

***

Comment

Craig Latzke May 19, 2010 at 6:00 PM

My wife birthed our two kids (now 1 and 3-years old) at home with a direct entry midwife, her assistant, and myself. There is no place like home.

On the money/insurance topic you bring up: Both times we paid most ourselves, with insurance kicking in and reimbursing me for a portion after our deductible was met (the second time even at in-network rates). Between the two we probably averaged spending what our share would have been with a hospital birth, but saved my insurer lots of money. One thing you certainly won’t get at a hospital is knowing the fee up front (save for the very rare instance where transport to hospital is necessary).

On that rare necessity: You wrote, “The movie explicitly makes room for necessary medical interventions, but I’m not sure it sufficiently emphasized that a troubled delivery manifests no moral failing.” I don’t recall the movie enough to judge the balance you speak of. Even if it is off in the direction you mention it is but a whisper against the deafening shout of the medical establishment and popular culture (which are much farther off, in the other direction).