Monday, December 23, 2013

Of Dragons, Ducks and Holidays (I'm back, and a few random thoughts)

Twas the night before the night before Christmas, and not a creature was stirring...except the insomniac at her keyboard...

So, you might have noticed I've taken a sort of involuntary hiatus from blogging. Mostly due to too much going on IRL, including interesting reading and other writing projects that might end up future blog post topics. But for now, there have been a few topics that have been on my mind, some more than others, so here goes...

Painfully, first, Duck Dynasty...no, I'm not going to rehash the bigoted comments made by and supported by fans of camouflaged clown Phil Robertson. That's been done to death (and, seriously, does anyone believe that this is going to end any way other than a nice, face-saving deal, where A&E keeps raking in the money, but gets to pretend they give a crap about people too? C'mon...the only “real” about reality TV is in the name, and I'm pretty sure that use is ironic...). But, for the love of all that's holy, can we please stop referring to this as an issue of “free speech”? From the Palins to Huckabee to I don't even now how many social media presences, I've seen this come up. Until the government fines, imprisons, or otherwise harasses or injures Roberston, it's not a free speech issue. Period. If you're about to say otherwise, do us all a favor, yourself included: shut your yapper, and get an education. Seriously. It's embarrassing to see voting citizens so painfully ignorant of our basic rights.

Alright, now that that's done. Desolation of Smaug came out, and I missed the reasonable time frame for writing a review. * sigh * Very briefly, I thought it was overall better than the first, but with neither the very high nor very low points of Unexpected Journey; a solid, if lengthy and sometimes rather too full of itself adventure. Major pluses: very little Radagast, some of the pieces that didn't make much sense in the first are fleshed out. Major minuses: other than Smaug, a lot of the CGI was quite remarkably bad; Beorn (*weeping*). While I didn't get a review finished in time, I did catch the midnight showing and that was a lot of fun. Probably more fun than the movie. Would be interested in hearing your opinions on it.

Finally, it's Christmastime again. If you're keeping score for the War on Christmas, that's 1 Point, Jesus; 0 points, atheists. Yup, as wars go, this one's still a snooze fest. As far as I can tell, the only Christmas-y thing that resembles a war zone is my tree, and that's because of the cat. (I have a picture, but for some reason it's not uploading at the moment. I'll try again tomorrow. At any rate...)

Seriously, though, I'm wishing all my readers a great holiday season and a happy new year. I will probably have some new posts up within the week (fingers crossed). Otherwise, I'm going to start my new year by having my wisdom teeth pulled, so I've got some time off scheduled. If I'm not too far out of it, I'll put something up then. Maybe even if I am. It could be interesting. ;) Happy holidays, everyone!


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Thoughts on the new Desolation of Smaug (The Hobbit) trailer


First thoughts. This looks a lot more like LotR than Unexpected Journey did. Radagast did not make a single appearance. The Thranduil plot divergence shows some promise of being exciting/interesting. Smaug sounds a little like The Eye (Thief: the Dark Project). The Gandalf/Radagast storyline is really at odds with Gandalf's ignorance of Sauron in LotR.




Further reflection on the above...Unexpected Journey diverged sharply from LotR character and creature appearance/clothing/etc. while still trying very hard to root itself in it (adding characters who really didn't further the storyline because they were popular in LotR, etc.). Based on what the trailer reveals, it is reasonable, I think, to speculate that they perhaps recognized this as a short coming. This just looks and feels more like LotR. As to how much could be corrected (the filming was all but done), that remains to be seen; at least in the trailer, however, they didn't embrace the divergences from the prior trilogy. Likewise for the absurdities.

Which is a perfect lead-in for Radagast the Brown, who made a complete non-showing in this trailer. Considering that he was a character of considerable consequence (and controversy), this seems significant; could it be that the studio realized that Radagast was a hideously unpopular character, and so decided no to remind fans of him while enticing them to watch the second film? Probably. On the other hand, while it's too much to hope that Radagast might take a shower/fall in a puddle/glance in a mirror and realize “Oh my god! There's fecal matter running down my face; I'd better get this off or I'm going to die of some nasty disease!” is it too much to hope that Peter Jackson will tone down the stupidity overload that has become the brown wizard? Again, probably. As it is, we're stuck with the aforementioned bird & fecal-matter headdress, the bunny-drawn sleigh, etc. Based on the leaked images of Sonic the Werebear...I'm sorry, Beorn...it doesn't look like absurdity is going anywhere soon. And based on the Goblin King (or, as How it Should Have Ended put it, he of the “scrotum beard!”), Jackson has a significant penchant for silliness. However, if you're an ardent fan desperately searching for a glimmer of hope that Peter Jackson recognizes that viewers aren't keen on the, shall we say, extra-creative touches, consider extrapolating said hope (though it probably isn't justified) from the fact that absurdities were kept to an absolute minimum in this trailer (and then in all likelihood be disappointed come December). That's my plan. ;)

As for Thranduil...he seems to be shaping up as a genuinely interesting (and sinister) character. Obviously different than the book, but different in a promising way. It remains to be seen how it is done, of course, but my curiosity is piqued.

“Well, thiefff...” Khan as Smaug. Awesome. Also reminiscent of Thief I's “the Eye”. A trifecta of awesome.

And, finally, as for Gandalf's continued realization that Sauron is at work in the world...it seems very much at odds with the entire beginning of The Fellowship. It will be interesting to see if Peter Jackson accounts for this in any way.

These are my initial thoughts after watching the trailer. Of course, I'm going to watch it when it comes out. (It's The Hobbit, for heaven's sakes. How could I not??) I think it's clear that this is not a production of the same quality as The Fellowship or Two Towers, or even Return of the King. But, if this trailer is any indication, it promises to have its moments of magnificence. I am moderately optimistic.

Your thoughts?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mocha cake


My cake of choice, I always make it (or, if I'm really lucky, convince my Mom to make it :) ) for my birthday. A fantastic way to make a cake mix taste superb.


Recipe:

Mocha Cake

1 package white cake mix (13 x 9 pan size)
1 cup strongly brewed coffee, room temperature
4 egg whites
1 cup milk chocolate chips, or ½ cup milk chocolate shavings 
2 tablespoons milk chocolate shavings (for garnish, optional)
Coffee or Chocolate frosting (your preference; for a coffee butter frosting recipe, click here)

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a Bundt cake pan (may also be prepared as two 8 or 9 inch cakes or one 13 x 9 inch cake). Beat eggs until fluffy. Mix cake mix, eggs and coffee thoroughly. Add milk chocolate chips or chocolate shavings, as desired. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Remove cake from pan. Cool completely before frosting. Garnish frosting with chocolate pieces, if desired.
After cake has been frosted, sprinkle remaining chocolate shavings on top of cake. Serve.



Begin by whipping the egg whites until they're nice and fluffy.


Add the cake mix.

And coffee.


Now add either 1 cup of milk chocolate chips, or...


1/2 cup diced milk chocolate, as you prefer/have on hand.

  

Spread the cake mix in a prepared cake pan.


Bake until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean. The cake should be a golden brown color.


Set on a wire rack to cool.



When completely cool, frost and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons chocolate pieces if desired.





Enjoy!


Coffee Butter Frosting



Coffee Butter Frosting
1 stick butter, softened but not melted
2 tablespoons very strong coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups powdered sugar (more or less, to taste)

Whip butter until fluffy. Add vanilla, coffee, and a small amount of powdered sugar, mixing as you go. Slowly stir in more powdered sugar. Beat frosting, adding powdered sugar until desired thickness is reached. This may require more or less powdered sugar (if a lighter thinner frosting is desired, you'll use less; if thicker, more).


First things first, whip the butter until it's reached a nice, fluffy texture.


 Add coffee, vanilla and a little powdered sugar.


Continue adding powdered sugar until reaching the desired consistency.


If you have a hard time picturing the way frosting will work with your cake, lift the beaters and watch it fall from them. It will spread, and drip from your cake if too thin, with whatever ease (or lack thereof) that you witness. Adjust powdered sugar as required based on that. :)


This is a perfect frosting for the Mocha Cake.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The non-virtue of blind belief

Belief is not an intellectual virtue, while blind belief better belongs in the category of vices than virtues. It is my assertion that reason, and belief tempered with reason, are the far better path. Here are my musings on the topic.

Belief is not an accurate guide to determining "rightness" in our world.
We know this to be true because all across the world, equally ardent people believe absolutely opposing and contradictory things; if belief was a measuring stick of accuracy, they'd all be right -- but by the very nature of the ideas in question, they cannot be. Even when we believe that we are right, others believe with at least as much ardor that we are wrong. Belief then, even when we assume that some set of believers is right, proves nothing in and of itself.

Belief is strongly tied to our point of origin.
Belief is, for most of the world, strongly tied to an individual's point of origin: the era and physical location of your birth, combined with the beliefs of your family and region, is and always has been, for the vast majority of the world, the deciding factor in what you believe. The most ardent Saudi Arabian Muslim, had he been born in the Bible belt to baptist parents, would almost certainly not be a Muslim; the most ardent southern baptist, had he been born to Muslim Saudi Arabian parents, would almost certainly not be a baptist today. A person who, things as they stand today, “knows” with absolute surety that Jesus Christ is his Lord and Savior, almost certainly would “know” with equal certainty that there is but one God, and Mohammad is his prophet, if he was born to a different set of parents in a different area. That “knowledge” that people will often attest to having is not knowledge at all, but belief; and that belief has far more to do with the believer's location than with any inherent truth or lack thereof.

Reason is independent of point of origin.
Unlike belief, the ability to reason, and the products of reason, can be arrived at by any person in reasonable control of his or her mind. An Indian Hindu of reasonable intelligence is no less or more likely than a Scottish Christian of similar intelligence to reach a given logical conclusion through the use of reason. Region and point of origin, in a mind properly equipped to use it, has no bearing on the application of reason, whereas it has a significant effect, even on well-educated minds exposed to a variety of different beliefs, on belief.

Reason is superior to belief.
In religious circles, belief is often heralded as a great virtue (“faith like a child”, etc.). This is a contradictory notion, since most of today's major religions simultaneously laud their own followers for this “belief like a child”, yet damn to hell (or some unpleasant alternative) everyone else for the same belief: it is a virtue when practiced by those who pay tithes to your church, and a vice in those who fund your rival. But belief is the lesser, the lazier and (if any of our primary religions are right) more dangerous route: more dangerous, because, if you happen to fall in a region, or to be born to parents, not enlightened by the true god, you will suffer dire consequences; lazier (and less intellectually honest), because it's easy and convenient to accept without question what you have been taught to believe; and lesser because reason is not susceptible to these critiques. It is also not dependent on wholly variable factors, such as region of birth, meaning its conclusions are at least more consistent than the violently differing conclusions of belief. (In a worst case scenario, if reason is, as Luther so charmingly put it, “the Devil's harlot,” and the path of reason some curious road to hell, we'll at least all know how we got there -- rather than opining “had my parents but been born a little south, I might have been a Calvinist, and now I should be saved! But alas, mine were Catholic parents, and so I must burn.” As it is, I would wager instead that, as with science, reproducibility and verification lends some merit to reason's workings that is denied faith.)
Furthermore, belief attempts to fill the same role as reason, but (without itself delving into reason's territory) offers only conclusions. In other words, pure reason may prove something, whereas pure belief may only claim it. If belief attempts to prove, through the use of evidence, inferences and deductions, some article of faith, it implicitly embraces the strength of reason by illustrating that even faith has need of it to establish its hold on humanity. Now, theologians have been doing this for centuries, and well-intentioned people as well as hucksters are hard at work today on the same endeavor. But if faith were the superior, it would have no need of reason to prove its rightness. By contrast, reason has no need of belief to prove whatever conclusions it reaches. Belief offers an end alone, whereas reason delivers both the mechanism to reach an end and the end itself.

Reason is a more accurate guide to our world.
Belief is not an accurate guide to the world, as we've already established. It is also highly subjective, changeable, and unprovable. Reason being none of these things, it is therefore a more accurate guide to the world.



I do not say that reason and belief are incompatible, or that it is wrong or impossible to validate belief by the use of reason: I say only that belief proven is no longer strictly a belief. You have no need to believe it because you have proved it: you have moved from the realm of blind faith to proof. I do not “believe” that I need oxygen to breathe, or that gravity is real: it has been proven, therefore I know it. On the other hand, I believe Whitefish Dunes is one of the most beautiful places in Wisconsin because this is something subjective and more or less unmeasurable. If, at some point in the future, a means of evaluating human perceptions of beauty was developed, and tests were run to establish that humanity in general agreed with my evaluation, I would cease to believe and instead know that Whitefish Dunes more fully fits the human concept of ideal beauty than other places. And belief tempered by reason, in matters of religious faith where some proofs are difficult and others impossible, while still belief, will ideally be less along the lines of suicide bombing and crusade waging, and more (you knew I was going to say it) reasonable. 

As for the fact that religion both embraces blind belief and “faith like a child”, and at the same time tries to find and reason proofs for itself and the validity of its ideas, well, that's tonight's brain buster...

Friday, September 6, 2013

Fox's "Five" take on the question of "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, with predictably laughable results

There is an article posted today at the Friendly Atheist (whose share of this post brought so many readers and much discussion :) ) that I find particularly interesting. Interesting, for all the reasons we've come to expect when discussing Fox News anchors.


The discussion point was the case pending in MA regarding the mention of one nation "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. These words, "under God", were not part of the original pledge, but purposefully were added in 1954. (This is only briefly noted, and then dismissed, by the panelists, despite the fact that a relatively recent and deliberate attempt to inject religiosity in government seems to be at odds with the separation of church and state.) The case argues that referencing God in this way violates the separation of church and state -- an argument that has some merit to it, and should at least be refuted in kind, if refutation is indeed possible. (Personally, I will be interested to see how this one plays out).

Now, predictably, Fox News hosts do not agree with the assertions made in the case. And equally as predictably, their disagreement did not come in the form of some reasoned or rational rebuttal. Friendly Atheist highlights some of the more mind numbing commentary, arguments like this, from Dana Perino:

… I think that our representatives have spoken over and over again [in support of the Pledge], and that, if these people really don’t like it, they don’t have to live here.

Dear God in heaven. Can you imagine if someone told the "War on Christmas" crowd that? "Excuse me, Fox anchors? You  know how you don't like that Americans say 'Happy Holidays' and put up Menorahs and atheist holiday displays? You don't like that some communities have decided, here and there, not to have 'Christmas' parades, but settle for a more generic 'holiday' parade? There's the door, my friends." 

Of course, in addition to being rather childish, it's a bad argument for all sorts of reasons. Our country is a nation of laws, our government a system of checks and balances. It's designed to work in exactly the way it's working in reference to this case. If, in fact, it turns out that the inclusion of "under God" violates the separation of Church and State (and Fox's "Five" really offered no good rebuttals to that one), then it must go. The fact that any number of people have signed on to keeping it is neither here nor there. Short of upending our constitution (which the Fox crew purport to be stalwart champions of) and tearing down one of the very pillars of our freedom, the separation of church and state, then a phrase deemed unconstitutional (should this be so deemed) must go. That is, after all, what our courts do in such cases: decide if the collective will of the people is, in fact, in accordance with our constitution. Large groups of people joined together to do unconstitutional things is the very point which the courts are meant to check. Those are the things the court evaluates for constitutionality -- things that have become law, passed by some majority, but whose legitimacy is called into question. "Checking" large groups of people making rules that violate the constitution is the purpose of our supreme courts and the Supreme Court! Arguing, then, that a large group of people have done something, therefore the courts are not needed, is to miss the entire point of the system.

But there's more gems to be gleaned. Greg Gutfeld thinks atheists should be OK thanking God that they live in a country that allows them to be atheists (an argument so absurd that it is cringe-worthy, not least of all for apparently missing by a substantial gulf the very concept of atheism); Kimberly Guilfoyle thinks the courts should not "cater" to atheists by hearing these cases of separation of church and state (one cannot but wonder what her opinion would be if a Christian student objected to being asked to make a pledge that linked, say, Allah with our nation in such a fashion), again showing that understanding of our system of government is not the "Five's" forte, etc. It was another statement by Dana Perino that really struck me, though.

"If you don't believe, then why do you care? It's just like some guy's name."
Again, would she apply this principle to situations identical save the deity at hand? Would she not "care" if the god in question was someone else's god, like "Allah" or "Vishnu" or any number of the other deities which Christians do not observe, rather than her own God? Would any of the panel? Considering that it's the world's heart attack hotspot at Fox when someone in a hijab passes by, I have to say, I'm leaning, strongly, toward "no". I suspect most of the "Five" would be outraged if their children were asked to make a pledge to some deity other than the one to which their parents hold allegiance. Furthermore, if the pledge is no big deal, what is the purpose of it? That's the point of a pledge, isn't it, that it is a big deal, that we need to mean what we say?

Merriam Webster defines pledge as "a binding promise or agreement to do or forbear". Is it right to ask someone to make such an agreement to offer allegiance with the understanding that some part of the 'binding promise' it is not actually meant? It being "just like some guy's name" notwithstanding, it would seem to violate the entire point of a pledge, to say it without meaning parts of it. That, of course, is beyond the question of constitutionality, but I cannot help but wonder at the thought that a child should be induced to pledge something that they do not mean (or else forgo the "patriotic exercise" altogether) with such poor reasoning as "well, who cares if you believe it or not": it shows a significant disregard for the child, with the presumably unintended consequence of cheapening the value of the pledge as well.

Ah well. Another day, another set of silly things said on Fox. It's not surprising, but it is saddening that people will presumably hear this sort of discussion and base their opinions on it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Norwegian Lemon Waffles




 
A sweet treat

These are delicious, but heavy, waffles. They make a great breakfast when you're in the mood for something sweet and filling. They tend to be a little dry to eat alone, so I added the lemon syrup. You could also eat them with sweetened cream, I suppose, but I prefer them with the whipped cream. At any rate, these melt in your mouth treats are an infrequently made but ever popular favorite at my place.

Recipe:


Norwegian Lemon Waffles
5 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
Lemon juice freshly squeezed from 1 lemon, or 2-3 tablespoons
Grated lemon peel from 1 lemon (or 1 tablespoon dried peel)
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons butter
Butter, Whipped cream, lemon syrup topping
Beat eggs and sugar until thick and fluffy. Add flour, mix thoroughly. Stir in sour cream, butter and lemon juice. Heat waffle iron. Pour thin layer of batter over entire iron (some waffle recipes expand/fill in “empty” areas; this one does not). Cook until waffle iron signals that it is finished (about 1 minute). Serve hot, topped with a small dab of butter, whipped cream and lemon syrup (recipe found here). Makes 12 waffles.



The "trick" to these is whipping the eggs thoroughly. You'll want to use an electric mixer, otherwise you will be there for awhile. Combine the sugar and eggs, and beat until they are thick and fluffy.






Beat in flour.

Mix in butter, lemon peel and juice.


Finally, add sour cream.



Your mix is ready. On an electric waffle iron, like I have, follow the directions, cooking for about 1 minute (until golden brown in color). If your iron is anything like mine, a signal light will let you know when they're done cooking.

Top with a small pat of butter (~1/2 teaspoon) and whipped cream. Drizzle in lemon waffle syrup (recipe here) and enjoy.


Lemon Waffle Syrup

This is a syrup I cooked up to go with Norwegian Lemon Waffles. It's somewhat on the sweet side, so add more lemon if you prefer extra sour.

Recipe:

Lemon Waffle Syrup
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 lemon, rind peel removed (set aside for candying, if desired), sliced into ¼ inch slices
5 tablespoons lemon juice

Combine water and sugar in small sauce pan, stir well. Add lemon and lemon juice. Turn on heat to medium temperature. Stir, breaking up/crushing lemon pieces as it cooks to release lemon juice. After about 20 minutes, scoop out lemon pieces and continue to cook. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring with some frequency.
Continue cooking for an additional 40 minutes or so, until syrup has reached 1 cup (for a thinner syrup) or hour, until ½ cup (thicker syrup) is left. Take off heat, let cool completely. Store in an airtight container. Chill before serving. Serve with lemon waffles.



Peel lemon. Slice into 1/4" slices. Combine sugar, lemon and water:



Cook, breaking up lemon pieces.


After about 20 minutes, scoop lemon pieces out:



Cook lemon syrup until it reaches the desired thickness.


After about an hour, you should have about 1 cup of syrup left:


Chill before use, store in refrigerator.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Syrian Meat Rolls



So I've been trying to recreate various Middle Eastern dishes lately (a taste first deeply cultivated on my journey to Israel...the exposure to a rich sampling of various culinary traditions being one of many, many reasons to recommend such a trip). I should mention right now Tori Avey's remarkable blog, The Shiksa, is a great place to find some of these recipes, with exceptional illustration. Her cheese bourekas and Israeli sofrito are particularly amazing. What follows, however, is my more more humble attempt to illustrate making Syrian style meat rolls. And when I say "illustrate", I more mean explain, because I forgot to take pictures until I was half way through the process. :)

Meat Rolls

Dough:
1 3/4 cups flour
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons), softened
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/3 cup plain yogurt
sprinkle of salt

Place ingredients in a bowl, mix and then knead. If necessary, add a sprinkle more flour so that dough is smooth. Set aside.

Filling:
1 lb lean hamburger or ground mutton (note: if you are using extra lean meat, include 1 tablespoon of melted butter)
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground tumeric
sprinkle of salt

Egg wash:
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons water
Sesame seeds (optional)

Mix meat, pressed garlic and spices thoroughly. Knead until a paste forms. Set aside. Combine egg and water, beating well, for egg wash. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a large baking sheet.

Divide dough into equal portions. Roll each portion into strips about 4" wide and roughly 12" long. Divide meat filling, and form two long "tubes", with a diameter of about 1". You may not get two full foot-long tubes of meat depending on the density of your hamburger; this is fine. After you get one 12" long tube with a 1" diameter, make a similar tube of whatever length is possible. Place these on the centers of the respective dough rectangles. Roll closed, forming seam at bottom. Cut 1" slices from the roll, place these on the baking sheet. They expand a little, but not much, so you can cook them fairly close together as long as they are not touching and have some room for expansion. Brush with egg yolk mixture and sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until crust is firmish to the touch and meat is cooked. Note that this crust does not substantially change color; a good test for "doneness" is feel. It will no longer "move" easily with pressure, and will have a firm/almost crisp feel when it's cooked.
Yield: 18-24



Despite being rather lengthy, this is actually a pretty simple recipe. The dough (which I forgot to grab a shot of :) ) comes together well, ideally having an easy-to-work-with texture. Do be careful not to add too much liquid, though, or it will become hard to manage. There's no need to overknead it, so once it gets to a workable point set it aside for later use.

The meat mixture, likewise, is pretty straightforward. Knead well, both to mix the spices thoroughly as well as to arrive at the pasty texture needed. When that's done, you're ready to make your meat tube. You might want to work in sections (that's what I did) because that tends to be easier than getting it all done at once.  Even and smooth it out (still in progress, below), then wrap the dough up to make a seam.


The seam should be on the bottom. Cut 1" strips and place on your baking sheet.

 

Brush with egg mixture and sprinkle with seeds if desired. Bake until the dough is cooked through and firm. Don't overcook, as your meat mixture will dry out.

Served with cucumber yogurt dip



Notice that the cooked dough is somewhat darker but does not substantially change in color. Serve hot. Cool leftovers completely before refrigerating to preserve the crispness of the dough. I like to pair these with a light, not overly seasoned salad, or a cool, refreshing cucumber dip. Enjoy!