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On Public Restrooms [May. 3rd, 2016|11:39 pm]
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First of all, why are public rest rooms an issue? That's weird.

Second, what I think is the weird thing about public rest rooms is not what's in the news but that they are a thing which is still kind of "separate but equal" in modern times. Why do we even have that?

Our society is weird about nudity, yet it thinks people of the same sex should be allowed to be nude in public together in locker rooms. And share dorm rooms. And that same kind of thinking is probably involved in rest room philosophies. I mean, I guess some people re-arrange their clothing in rest rooms, so I guess it's similar. Plus men actually pee right out in the open. But I really don't see why we don't just have female-like rest rooms (stalls for everybody) and let everyone use them.

Third, I was realizing that I never notice anything about the other people in a public rest room with me except their locations. I am looking for a vacant sink at which to wash my hands, for example, so I really am noticing the spaces between the people. (I do the same thing on buses and can pass right by people I know without noticing them!)

One exception: My favorite restaurant has giant cardboard cut-outs of famous people and they put the male one in the female rest room and vice versa for some reason. I admit to panicking a bit when I saw a man in the rest room, but my first though was, "Oops, am I in the wrong rest room?"

And finally, I wish I could think of a good way to show solidarity with people who have to think about which rest room to use. When Nazis made Jews wear yellow stars, other people could wear yellow stars in solidarity. But I can't think of anything like that for this situation. Normally I can be quite creative, but it's just not coming to me.
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Plumbing mysteries [Apr. 25th, 2016|09:20 pm]
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Many plumbing realities don't make sense to me.

Shower dangers

You know that thing where you're taking a shower and someone turns on a sink or flushes a toilet somewhere else in the house or perhaps the hotel room next door suddenly your shower is too hot? I think I get that. Some of the cold water in your carefully calibrated water flow has been diverted, so ouch.

What I don't get is why this never happens in my house. It's awesome. Apparently I have a remarkable feature known as good water pressure. I do not live at the bottom of a hill or anything. I don't know how I got this, but I love it.


Sometimes we used to get weird noises for which the technical term may be "dinosaurs in the pipes." Apparently when air gets trapped, these noises happen and you have to flush the system. Or something. I really don't get it. Are the pipes always sitting around full of water? I guess so. Except not drain pipes.

Dissipating hot water

Before starting my shower, I turn on the hot water in the bathtub. It comes out cold, which I understand--the water in the pipe between the water heater and the tub has cooled down. So I have to wait for the water from the water heater to push that out of the way until the freshly heated water arrives.

While I'm waiting, I'll sometimes do something else like brush my hair out, and so I don't just blast it but keep it on low. Slowly, the water turns itself into a trickle, and then maybe even completely off. I don't get that. I have not drained the water heater; the water is still cold even.

Increasing water volume

Shortly after we got our new water heater, we also got a new kitchen faucet.

I had a style that Robin refers to as "trailer house" and we haven't been able to find a good replacement until recently. We found an adequate replacement at the Habitat Re-Store a while back, but eventually decided to use only the hot water side because the cold water side was too hard to turn off.

But it got to where we couldn't turn the cold water off at all, so Robin looked again and found a replacement in a style he refers to as "restaurant." The store selling it calls it a wall-mounted swivel faucet. You can see a picture at Webstaurant Store.

This worked out great, but sometimes when we turn the hot water on, it turns itself on more and more. I can watch the lever moving. Sometimes it can go from a tiny trickle to blasting (and maybe more, but I'm afraid to wait any longer). It's hard to rinse your dishes when you can use only one hand so you can control the water flow with the other hand. This happens only sometimes, and only with the hot water.

Robin theorizes that the water pressure is so great that it can turn our now smoothly moving faucet handle. Maybe as it gets older and stickier, this problem will go away.
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On Homeowner's Insurance [Apr. 13th, 2016|11:17 pm]
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When buying homeowner's insurance, the recommendation is to insure your house for the amount it would cost to re-build it.

So how much is that? I started with the default amount my insurance company suggested the first year. And then every year you can keep insuring for the same or for a higher value they add, and I've been choosing the higher value about half the time.

Actually, that's probably just flood insurance. It looks like my homeowner's insurance is adjusted upward each year automatically.

Personal finance blog advice

Personal finance blogs say you might be over-insuring because construction costs could be much less than the market value of your house which includes both the value of the buildings and the value of the land (location, location, location).

My tax office actually sends out notices of the appraised value of the property and they even break it down into categories. The relevant categories for my house are "structure and improvement market value" and "market value of non ag/timber land." So I could choose the value given for the "structure and improvement" part only.

However, an interesting thing happened between 2013 and 2014. Apparently they realized that gentrification was happening, so they raised the land value from 55K to 100K. And at the same time they lowered the structure value from 110K to 95K. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that construction costs did not plummet during this period.

I've tried googling construction costs in my city. If I could find average construction costs per square foot, that would be very helpful. But no. I can't find any such metric, and people asking this question always get answers that say it depends, with either no numbers or ranges so huge as to be worthless.

But at my last neighborhood association meeting, I picked up some meeting minutes from the Austin Neighborhoods Council that says "the total cost of new housing units in Austin is now averaging at least $245 per square foot (construction by itself representing $175 of that cost)." Score!

Suddenly I want to do comparisons:
* Latest appraised value of my house (last July) = $125K structures
* Square footage of my house times $175/square foot average = 960 x 175 = $168K.
* Amount of insurance I'm actually paying for = $133.5K dwelling + $13.K other structures = $146.5K
* Amount of flood insurance I'm paying for = $150K

And what about last year?
* appraised value = $95K structures
* homeowner's insurance = $144.7K
* flood insurance = $150K

So I seem to be paying between the appraised value and this researched amount--so maybe not enough, but not as little as it could easily be.

Anyway, this quote was summarizing something a guy named Wendler said based on a study his development firm made on housing affordability. Well, he won't be doing a study every year. And how much can I trust a development firm--I don't know if his is one of the slimy ones, or even if there's such a thing as non-slimy development firms. Oops, my bias is showing. Sorry, decent development firms!

Interestingly, this time when I googled construction costs in Austin I found the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's Construction Costs Standards. These show "New Construction Average Cost per Square Foot plus One Standard Deviation" for various types of construction such as labs, food service, and parking lots. No telling how much a standard deviation is or even why they would just add that on. But they update these every year. They don't list houses, but they do list "Housing, Apartments," which should be a little cheaper. And the amount they list is $179, very close to the $175 value in the study.

So I could look here each year to keep up with inflation. (Last year the figure was $171.) I can always look up inflation in general, but construction inflation may be very different.

Of course this is for the whole state; I'm not sure how well other college towns are correlated with mine. I'm pretty sure Houston and Dallas used to be more expensive and now they are less expensive.

Insurance company advice

According to Forbes:

Insurance experts say failing to have enough insurance to cover the cost of rebuilding your house if it’s destroyed is the biggest mistake homeowners make. Amy Bach, executive director of the consumer advocacy group United Policyholders, says one 2009 study found that two-thirds of U.S. homes are underinsured.

Why? For one thing, many homeowners buy only enough insurance to cover the amount of their mortgage. But the mortgage may be, at most, 80 or 90 percent of the value of the house, depending on the original down payment (less, if the home has appreciated in value).

For another, some policyholders insure an amount equal to the current value of their homes. But this figure may be far less than the actual cost of rebuilding your house, including labor and supplies (and both of those may rise sharply after a storm when there’s big demand and short supply).

What should you do? First, calculate how much it would cost to rebuild your house.

You could ask your insurance agent, but Bach encourages you to use a professional home-replacement cost estimator, who’d likely provide a more accurate number. The fee can run about $300, but some insurers offer this service for free to their high-value customers.

Ugh, and double ugh. Of course I expect insurance companies to say you should buy more. But they have a real point about everything costing more right when you need it. (Well, it's probably worse for hurricanes and earthquakes, that we don't get, than floods and tornadoes and fires.)

For the second ugh, I am not paying $300 per year to get this estimate; that's many months worth of premiums. Nor am I willing to be a high-value customer to, well, anyone.

Vaguely related information

According to those same meeting minutes, Wendler's study defined affordable as "a price of no more that $312,000 which is said to be what a family making 150% of the median family income might be able to afford." That implies that a family making the median family income "might be able to afford" a $208,000 house. Half the population can't even afford that. So $312K is a pretty whacked definition for "affordable."

The minutes continue: "In the 78704 area the study found that the prices of housing ranged from a low of $300,000 to $750,000 with the lower end all being what he called 'tiny' units of 500 sq. feet or less. In the 78702 area, the prices ranged from $300,000 to $600,000 with again the lower priced being 'very small.' In both areas Wendler said his study found that the closest thing to 'affordable' housing units were either existing older single family houses or older apartment units--both of which are being torn down to make room for newer higher cost housing."

I used to think that new housing means more supply which means lower prices. But the new housing I see is ALL "luxury" housing and I'm rarely in the two zip codes mentioned above. Market economics means those things should stay empty until the prices come down and people should quit building that stuff, or at least the prices of the older stuff should go down, but that's not how it's working. I mean, if things aren't affordable, where are people living? They don't all have millions of roommates like in NYC. Do they just spend 1/2 or 2/3 of their income on housing? Thus making it harder for other businesses to get customers?

So how about you guys? Those of you who are home owners, have you thought about the amount to insure your house for and, if so, how do you make your decision?
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On Vertical Storage [Apr. 11th, 2016|03:24 pm]
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Empirical Question posted a link to Honestly Modern's Spark Joy: One Simple Change to Organize Your Space. The author recommends storing things vertically. This way they are easier to see and to get at. They also have a smaller horizontal footprint.

One problem with storing things vertically is that they might not balance very well. Looking around my house, I see various strategies for helping things stay vertical.

Rigid Things

When things are rigid, just having something to lean against can be a big help. For example:

* Bookends and edges of bookshelves - Good for books, notebooks, CDs, and DVDs of course. We also use this strategy for some games and some toolboxes.
* Containers - We use mugs for pencils and scissors and a pitcher for kitchen utensils. Some people use cups for paintbrushes or make-up brushes or silverware. Sometimes you can find just the right sized box to store your plastic lids in vertically. The author of Honestly Modern now uses magazine holders for papers.
* Racks - We use plate racks to hold cutting boards, cookie sheets, and serving platters. I use a mail rack to hold envelopes into which I put receipts (one envelope per month). We also have pot lid racks.
* Walls - You can lean pictures or a cutting board against the wall. I also used to do this with my books before I owned bookshelves; I just lined them up against the baseboard like it was a bottom shelf.

Floppy Things

One strategy for dealing with floppy things is to make them less floppy. I think that's part of what bookbinding is all about, or even scrolls from the olden days. You can definitely prop scrolls up to store them. In fact, we roll our napkins and put them in a basket like flowers in a vase.

This is part of what people like about Marie Kondo's Spark Joy book. She shows you that you can fold things into smaller, more cubical shapes that can stand on their own better. I do now actually fold my knee socks into squares that can be lined up in my drawer.

Another strategy is to put floppy things in a space that's so small, they can't fall over. This is problematic when you actually use some of things, because then the other things can fall over into the vacated space. But a little slouching might not be a big deal--some people like magazine boxes, for example. The boxes that envelopes come in are like that. Or you can put dividers in so that nothing can take the spot of other things.

Another strategy is to hang floppy things so that gravity works for you instead of against you. For example:
* Hangers - Of course shirts, pants, and skirts are commonly hung, but you can also hang things like towels and tablecloths.
* File folders - The ones with the hanging rails are especially nice because you don't have to rely on stuffing the file drawer to keep things upright. You can use files for papers, but sometimes other things can work, like seed packets (especially if you have some way to keep them from falling out the sides).
* Towel bars - Robin uses one for ties and belts. We also have some in the kitchen with hooks to hang pots from.
* Tie racks - I hang accessories from these (mostly necklaces and glasses).
* Furniture - Many people drape clothing over chairs or exercise machines. I've also see people who do cross-stitch and needlepoint draping yarn lengths over a chair (or tying them to a hanger).
* Dark rooms and laundry lines - people clip things up to dry, and I've seen people string something like this against a wall to display greeting cards or their children's art.
* Laundry racks - Probably not too handy for storage because the bottom back rungs aren't very accessible.

Tiny things

Little things and liquids don't make very neat piles. So it's nice to put them in containers. And some things like cereal boxes are ideally suited for vertical storage--they're labelled on their sides and even stand alone. Glass jars are nice, too, because you can see the contents, and they also stand on their own.

Ideally it's easy to get the contents into and out of the containers. Spice jars are often designed to be able to either shake out the spices and/or use a measuring spoon. Some paper clip containers have a magnetized edge so it's easy to get one paper clip at a time.

Then you can line up the containers or corral them into bigger containers (like travel shower stuff).

Horizontal Storage

Of course sometimes horizontal storage is fine. When things stack well and they are identical, like plates, or functionally identical like different colored hand towels or library books ready to be returned, it's no problem that the bottom ones are easily accessible. And sometimes things nest well and it's pretty easy to get things even out of the middle of the nest.

And sometimes it's just best to store things flat. I have a stack of scratch paper that is wrinkle-free because I can store it flat. Printers store printer paper pretty flat, too. I've seen stacks of "in" boxes like bunk beds to let you be able to access different kinds of papers without going through the kinds of papers you don't want.

Do you have any favorite ways you store things vertically (or otherwise)?
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Review: "Zootopia" [Feb. 29th, 2016|11:44 pm]
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A friend had free tickets to "Zootopia," not to be confused with "Zoolander II," so I got to see it early. I recommend it.

I had seen and hated a preview consisting of one scene from the movie, but one other time I hated something I saw out of context, I liked it much better in context. So that could happen again, right? Highly unlikely. So I went mostly for the socializing.

It was crowded. There were a lot of kids; I steeled myself to be tolerant of screaming. We were too close to the screen--it took several minutes to get used to that. It was 3-D, but I didn't really notice the 3-D. So I was thinking that I don't even know why I see movies in theatres anymore. I really prefer cuddling in the living room in front of the computer screen that we watch movies on.

But some bits were funny. And sometimes hearing the other people laughing added to the experience. And one time I jumped, but my friend next to me jumped just as much, which made me laugh. I actually laughed out loud several times--in spite of myself. Not during the icky scene--when everyone else in the theatre was laughing basically continuously, but I could see that it was, indeed, better in context.

The movie is set in a land where animals have evolved to get along and the big city is where everyone can be whatever they want. All you have to do is try and keep trying--the usual kiddie movie message du jour. Except the city was completely racist and sexist (actually species-ist and career-ist, but using all the same kinds of horrible phrases) all the while either pretending not to be horrible or telling people to get real, this is the real world. It was kind of creepy.

But the actual story was good. The plot was great. The locale was gorgeous. Other people found the 3-D to greatly enhance several scenes. Most characters are likeable; all are interesting to look at. And there is plenty for grown-ups as well as kids.

There was one weird scene where the protagonists were freaked out by nudity. But the characters are animals, so it seems ridiculous to us viewers. Plus they have no genitals. But they are doing things that would make you uncomfortable if you are normally uncomfortable with the nudity of strangers who have genitals. I think this scene would affect adults more than children so that we all get the message that if something is scaring you or at least squicking you out, maybe you should think twice about where the problem lies.

Mostly it's a coming-of-age, cop-buddy movie, but also kind of sci-fi in a social science kind of way. You follow one character as she tries to follow her dream and you slowly find out the secrets behind some mysterious disappearances.

And, Empirical Question, the main character is a bunny. She doesn't hop like she should. Neither she nor her family quite have the right disapproving looks. And yet I still think you would like watching her.

I don't love everything about the movie, but I highly recommend seeing this movie and even seeing it in the theatres, maybe even in 3-D if you're into that. Even a theatre with kids in it.

Warning: there may be spoilers in the comments. Also. feel free to bring up spoilers in the comments.
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Review: Blood on Snow [Feb. 28th, 2016|04:28 pm]
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Jo Nesbø's Blood on Snow: A Novel had a plot twist so surprising that I immediately re-read the book to see if I could see it coming (no), to see if I could figure out what really happened in some situations (yes for some, no for others), and to decide if I still liked the book (I think so) and the protagonist (probably).

It's mostly first-person narrative and the protagonist is a hit man. Early in the book he lists four jobs he's no good for, explains why, and then you realize he learned this the hard way. For example (I've added paragraph breaks for my reader(s) who has trouble without them):

I can't be used in robberies. I've read that more than half of all bank employees who experience a robbery end up with psychological problems afterwards, some of them for the rest of their lives.

I don't know why, but the old man who was behind the counter of the post office when we went in was in a big hurry to develop psychological problems. He fell to pieces just because the barrel of my shotgun was pointed in his general direction, apparently. I saw in the paper the next day that he was suffering from psychological problems. Not much of a diagnosis, but either way, if there's one thing you don't want, it's psychological problems.

So I went to visit him in hospital. Obviously he didn't recognize me--I'd been wearing a Santa Claus mask in the post office. (It was the perfect disguise. No one gave a second glance at three lads in Santa Claus outfits carrying sacks as they ran out of post office in the middle of the Christmas shopping crowds.)

I stopped in the doorway to the ward and looked at the old man. He was reading
Class Struggle, the Communist newspaper. Not that I've got anything against Communists as individuals. Okay, maybe I have. But I don't want to have anything to against them as individuals, I just think they're wrong. So I felt a bit guilty when I realised that I felt a lot better because the guy was reading Class Struggle. But obviously there's a big difference between feeling a bit guilty and a lot guilty. And like I said, I felt a lot better.

But I stopped doing robberies. After all, here was no guarantee the next one would be a Communist.

I can't help liking that guy. And like in this excerpt, he keeps surprising me. It's certainly interesting to follow him around in his daily life. But he has problems. Too many, really, in spite of his efforts, conscious and subconscious.

The book is set in Norway. The fishing industry is relevant to the story. It's mostly in Oslo but we also see that Svalbard is relevant. Svalbard is a set of islands in the far North where both Norway and Russia have rights to coal. (Weird, eh? Norway is the western-most part of northern Europe and Russia extends to the easternmost part of Eurasia, but in the north, Norway and Russia share a border.)

I'm going to recommend this as a really good book. Powerful even. But not universally likeable. There is violence, as you might guess, but not just shooting violence. The ending provides closure, but I wished for a better ending, and then felt weak and maybe wrong-headed for wishing that for various spoiler-y reasons.

I have mixed feelings about the book. So I don't know if I want to own it. It's in the local library, so I can probably re-read it whenever I want anyway. We'll just see if that happens or not.
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Review: Culture Shock: Norway [Feb. 27th, 2016|10:43 pm]
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I found Elizabeth Su-Dale's Culture Shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Norway (1995) recommended by a few sources, so I picked it up.

One of the mysterious things about this book is who the audience is or where the author is from. When you're talking about culture shock, you're going to be comparing the new culture to the old culture, and I couldn't tell where the old culture is. The language sounds more British than English. The book was published in Singapore. I couldn't find anything about the author online--but then there was a short description at the end of the book. I think she's from Singapore. So it makes sense that some of the assumptions about where I might be from are off. For example, one might be shocked that Norwegians drink water right out of the tap. They don't boil their drinking water like people in some other places do.

"If you are single and lonely, you can learn to read the advertisements in the local dailies as well as some other newspapers. You will be amazed at the explicit statements of longing and desire for companionship. ... In the cities, there are the usual cafeterias and singles bars where you can hang out, if you wish." The usual cafeterias?

Part of the fun is that the book was published in 1995, and it sounds like it was published even earlier. The writing reminds me of golly-gee 'fifties writing but also enthusiastic hippie 'sixties writing.

The common potato ... is so much used in Norwegian kitchens that no Norwegian can conceive of a main meal without the ubiquitous potato. It is eaten boiled, baked, fried as chips, sliced and baked in a fricassee, served in soups... So be prepared when you are confronted with the potato in Norway--do not throw up your hands in despair and say you need rice, not potatoes; you need pasta, not potatoes; you need greens, not potatoes. Potatoes are what they have more than enough of in Norway and potatoes are what you will get, so learn to enjoy them.

Okay, Mom.

I did learn a few shocking things:
* When you move into an unfurnished dwelling, it might not have ceiling lamps, just switches and wires.
* When washing dishes by hand, a Norwegian generally "scrubs the dishes with a brush, rinses them in the soapy water, then takes them out of the water, still dripping soap, and places them on the dish rack to dry. ... The detergent is edible, anyway, and it will drip-dry."
* One of the items she recommends for your kitchen: "A birch whisk for smooth sauces is really a most useful tool to ensure no unsightly lumps in soups or sauces that use flour as a thickener." That sounds like a wire whisk to me. But made of birch? I can't imagine it!

And I learned other interesting things. For example:
* Lillehammer, where the 1994 Olympics were held, is in Norway.
* Bente Roestad saw an octopus while on vacation in Greece and created Inky, the Octopus, as a character in stories she told her five-year-old nephew. This became a book series about sea characters worried about pollution. Their popularity led to the formation of The Inky Club for "young environmental detectives" age 5 - 13. Members investigate environmental conditions in their neighborhoods, write articles for newspapers and contact politicians and industrial plants. And membership is open to kids all around the world. (Sadly, I can't find much on this organization today. But I like the idea!)
* Thor Heyerdahl sailed not only Kon-Tiki (to prove it would have been possible for Latin Americans to settle in Polynesia), which I read about as a child, but also other voyages and explorations.
* Roald Amundson and his team, the first to reach the South Pole, is also from Norway.
* It is forbidden to physically punish children.
* There is freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and gender equality. The freedom of speech and especially freedom of the press sound real, but the gender equality sounds like old-timey sexist ideas of gender equality. "No one is permitted to strike a woman. Abuse of women at home or at work is frowned upon." And only men have to serve in the military.
* At age 13, you can work light jobs and fill out your own tax forms. At 15 you can control your own income, appeal child welfare decisions in the courts, choose your own schooling, and be punished for breaking the law.
* The road systems include an "extensive network of car ferries, road tunnels, and bridges across fjords. ... dozens of long tunnels, either through a mountain or under the sea, substitute a ferry service. On some tourist routes, the old road across the mountain is kept open during summer for nostalgic tourists."
* The average Norwegian spends an hour a day reading more than one newspaper. The newspapers aren't exactly biased, but they do have a focus like a trade, a region, or things of interest to members of a political party. "However, newspapers have never functioned simply as mouthpieces for their own party. Sometimes, it was the paper that influenced the party rather than the other way around."
* They have a constitutional monarchy, and for the first time I get why people might want a monarch. Not being elected, they don't have to appease their party--they look at the whole nation. "King Håkon's resounding 'No' to German demands on 10 April 1940 stands sharply illuminated in the history of monarchy and of Norway. The Germans had wanted to install a puppet government in Norway headed by a man called Quisling. But the king refused to acknowledge this act. His statement to the government was, 'The decisions is yours. But if you choose to accept the German demands, I must abdicate.'
* Alfred Nobel, a Swede, stipulated that unlike the scientific and literature prizes, the Nobel peace prize was to be decided by Norwegians.
* The air is dry; it's good to have hand cream and lip gloss.
* There are lots of classes and club meetings in the winter--in the summer, people are adventuring, working on their gardens, and otherwise enjoying the outdoors.
* The Freia chocolate factory was "immortalised in Norwegian-American author Roald Dahl's book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Or a fictionalized version of it, anyway. But the real factory has lunch rooms decorated by Edvard Munch (Norwegian painter of "The Scream," among other things) and the company created Freia Park, full of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. (Hmm, this park is somehow not called that in any of the tourbooks I have but instead Frogner Park or Vigelands Park.)
* The "stave church, of which 30 remain, only in Norway[, is] the finest expression of wooden architecture. No nails are used in the contruction of the stave church which has withstood the ravages of wind and weather for 800-900 years. Norway is the only country in which wooden church architecture was developed to such an extent that medieval churches could be preserved up to the present time."

There was a whole chapter on food and drink. Like all human cultures through the history of time (probably), they have alcohol:
* beer, especially pils
* aquavit - very strong potato whiskey with caraway and other spices
* wine (mostly imported)
* gløgg - hot spiced red wine

But also:
* coffee - strong and black
* tea - "Today, there is a new trend among younger Norwegians who perceive tea-drinking as a healthier alternative to coffee. Earlier, tea was served only on formal occasions and also to the infirm." Heh.
* milk - drunk daily
* hot cocoa

And she mentions these foods:
* chocolate
* pålegg - something you put on bread; I knew they ate open-faced sandwiches--they have a name for what we would call the filling of a closed-face sandwich
* potatoes
* cheese - Gouda, Jarlesberk,goat cheese, and more; "The most Norwegian of all cheeses is red cheese. Called Gudbrandsdal, red cheese ... has a clean, sweet, caramelised flavour."
* salad - may contain flowers, cabbage
* mushrooms - they grow in the forests
* berries - they grow in the mountains and include blueberries, lingonberries (which are apparently wild cranberries), cloudberries, and raspberries. I can see why Dahl couldn't resist making up snozzberries as well.
* bread - mostly whole grain, flat, and often crispy
* fish - especially "cod, herring, trout, brisling, salmon, and mackeral," preserved in various ways
* Finnish Beef - thinly shaved reindeer meat from the Sami culture up north
* salted lamb ribs
* meatballs in brown sauce
* lamb stew with cabbage
* fishballs in white sauce - "For the Asian foreigner used to fishballs made wholly from fishmeat and boiled in soup, Norwegian fishballs are a rude shock. The Asian fishball is springy in texture and contains only fish, salt, and water. The Norwegian fishball is soft and milky, both in colour and flavour. It is an acquired taste, but you could get fond of it."
* potato and meat stew
* smørgåsbord - this idea of a buffet table may have started as Swedish potlucks.

Huh, no mention of porridge.

The author proposes the following reasons for Norway having one of the lowest crime rates in the world:
* minimal gap between the haves and have nots
* "emphasis on social justice makes Norway and Norwegians some of the most equitable administrators of justice"
* censorship of television to reduce exposure to violence
* deeply ingrained sense of human rights

This book is one of a series of Culture Shock books on various countries including the US--and Singapore. I may check out more of these in the future.
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Review: In Cod We Trust [Feb. 8th, 2016|11:05 pm]
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I once decided I'd rather read something other than travelogues for my media-from-other-countries project, but this title caught my eye, so I read Eric Dregni's In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream (2008). An American with Norwegian roots moves to Norway with his wife for a year to see what it's like (and write a book). The wife ended up getting pregnant before they left, and they had their baby there. The baby seemed to love the cold, the darkness, and getting bounced around a lot--it just goes to show how everyone's different! I learned loads of stuff about Norwegians, too. Note that the following are gross generalizations, of course.

It turns out that Norwegians do not open up to strangers right away; you say hi to your neighbor and they look at you like you're strange before they look away. The author says it's part of their Janteloven philosophy - don't show off, even to yourself. (That philosophy matches the main character's insistence in Broken that he was humble--so maybe it wasn't just about his own personality but also about what is expected in Norway.)

There's a Norwegian saying I like: "Don't go tramping in the salad." It means means don't show how dumb you are by opening your mouth. Another interesting one: "There's no bad weather, only bad clothes." They don't put heaters in the bedrooms because no one likes to sleep where it's hot. In Norway. Hot. At night. In the winter. Yeah.

They work 35 hours a week (or less) and are not into efficiency. They are into the welfare state, even the people paying a lot of taxes. One reason they haven't joined the European Union is because they want to keep up this tradition of taking care of their own. Similarly, they don't want to open up their waters to international fishing; they have rules to prevent overfishing.

They refer to Minnesota as "our colony in America."

I already knew they ate a lot of fish. They also love butter. In one cookbook the author found, half the recipes were for butter-laden pastries. There's a whole chapter for different kinds of porridge--which is not for breakfast, but for dinner. And they eat meat, but not many vegetables. There's a Saturday night tradition that kids eat as much candy as they want, there's porridge for dinner, and you hang out in front of the TV.

This made me wonder: how many kinds of porridge do I know about? Several actually. There's oatmeal of course. But also cream of wheat. And grits probably count. And I got a recipe from chikuru called Yulgrit which is rice pudding, so that probably counts. Norwegians also make something involving sour cream that you can't make here because our sour cream doesn't have a high enough fat content (35%) for it to work.

Their licorice is salty. And someone told the author "You know that the beef you find in Norway are old dairy cows that don't produce milk any more, not cattle raised just for food like in the U.S. That's why Norwegian hamburgers taste funny. You should really eat moose." Which apparently is delicious.

Boys are not circumcised except for religious reasons. Medical care seems amazing. For example:

After the birth, we were given a large room for the three of us with three meals a day (plus a snack and late-evening soup) delivered right outside the room. Many of the mothers, though, preferred that their husbands stay at home, so they could form a sort of girls' club while pushing their babies around the hospital in their little beds on wheels.

The midwives told us that we should stay at least three or four days in our family room to make sure that the breast-feeding was going well. In this large room with a view of the snow-capped mountains and meals delivered, why would we leave? We asked the head midwife, Sigrid, if they ever have trouble with mothers who won't leave the hospital. She told us, "Sometimes if we have too many people having babies, we have to ask mothers who have been here for a long time, 'so, how are things going? Do you have any plans?'"

Norway went from being one of the poorest countries in the 1880s to being one of the richest today, partly due to the discovery of oil offshore.

The author knew that his grandfather had emigrated from Norway when the country was poor. When he went to visit the place where his grandfather used to live, he met a shopkeeper who had the same last name. He jumped to the conclusion that they were related. Then he found out that back when his grandfather lived there, the laborers would take the same last name as the land owners. The store owner was a descendent of the land owner and the author was a descendent of a laborer, so they were not related. Oops!

Overall, it was an interesting read with bits of humor. Maybe I prefer travelogues where people are learning about someone else (in this case, the author's grandfather and other Norwegians) over ones where people are trying to find themselves.
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How to Try a Recipe: Biscuit Edition [Feb. 1st, 2016|11:12 pm]
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It's good to learn how to cook your favorite foods. Especially ones that you can't get in restaurants. Bizarrely, I have not been happy with any biscuits I've had in restaurants for a long time. Some are really rolls, some are full of sugar or otherwise trying to be really fancy. Also they should be served hot with salted butter that can be melted on them and this is hard for restaurants to do.

Unfortunately, on the way to finding that perfect recipe, there are, well, the other recipes. Some of them may even be perfectly good except for the user error. But, for the same reason I have only house plants that can handle being watered only once a week, I also collect only recipes that don't require me to do icky stuff that I refuse to do.

So, for your amusement, I submit my latest try, "Rolled Biscuits," from Prevention's The Healthy Cook. I've been looking for a good recipe for biscuits that is not full of a million calories. Because no matter how rich it is, I'm going to slather it in butter anyway. At first I was trying drop biscuits because they seem quicker than rolled biscuits. But they ones I tried were not quite right. So I've started trying rolled biscuits, which is what my mom makes, and they really aren't much more trouble.

The recipe will be shown below in italics and my thoughts and actions in regular font.

We cut the fat but retained the flaky texture of classic rolled biscuits by replacing butter and whole milk with margarine and buttermilk.

But margarine has the same fat as butter. Hmm, only 3 tablespoons, though. I'll try it.

2 cups all-purpose flour - which I don't have; I'll be using white whole wheat flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons nondiet tub-style margarine
- ick, no, I'm using butter
2/3 cup buttermilk - Robin keeps that--yes, he has enough for me to use some

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Can do. Coat a no-stick baking sheet with no-stick spray. - I mostly coated a regular aluminum baking sheet with no-stick spray. In case it's not needed, I left one end free of spray--it's good to experiment. I don't have a no-stick baking sheet but I love my aluminum baking sheet, so that's what I use for things.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder an baking soda. Medium bowl? I'm using my big bowl I use for mixing stuff. And a wire whisk.

Using 2 table knives or a pastry blender, cut in the margarine... Knives? I don't even know how to do that. I'll use a fork. Maybe I should try melting the butter first. No, I'll try that trick I heard where you grate the butter. Hmm, works nicely! Except that the butter that sticks to the grater does not want to come off. Well, this probably works best in winter. Wait! It IS winter. ...until course crumbs form. Course crumbs? That's not happening. I'll just stir it the same amount as I usually stir cookie dough, and that will probably be enough.

Gently stir in the buttermilk until a dough forms. Gently? Okay. Hmm, no dough. I'm going to add more buttermilk. And more. And more. Okay, that seems better.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead for 1 minute. How do you gently knead a dough? I'll just knead it normally until it's all nice and smooth. While it's still in the bowl, because it's still hard to get all of it together. And with no extra flour because it's barely moist enough as it is.

Using a floured rolling pin, gently roll the dough into a 1/2"-thick rectangle, or flour your hands and pat into shape. Gently roll? Again, I have no clue how to do that. I'm mashing it down with my unfloured hands on the unfloured counter until it's mostly flat, which turns out not to be a rectangular shape at all. Warning--I have very dry skin, so if you have normal skin, this strategy may not work for you.

Using a 2" biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds, rerolling as necessary to cut 12 biscuits. I've heard that the more you handle the dough, the tougher the biscuit gets. But in the cookie-decorating class I took, the instructor said you could re-roll the cookie dough as often as you want with no bad side-effects because you're not adding flour, just rolling between parchment paper pieces. So, no flour. And I used a juice glass. It was pretty easy to get the dough off the unfloured counter top. I ended up with only 10 biscuits.

Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Done. Lightly coat the top of the biscuits with no-stick spray. Oops, forgot. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the bottoms of the biscuits are browned and tops are lightly golden. Like I can see the bottoms of the biscuits. I guess I could use a spatula.

After 12 minutes the tops looked the same and the bottoms were lightly golden. After about 15 minutes, the bottoms were medium brown and the tops looked the same. I declared them done.

They did not stick at all to any part of the cookie sheet, even though they were made with so little butter. Score!

And they are a pretty good texture. Robin declares them yummy. I think they're close. They are the closest I've come to re-creating Mom's biscuits. But they might be a little boring.

When I couldn't get my oatmeal recipe right, it turned out it was because I wasn't including salt. And when I leave all salt out of my chocolate chip cookies, I merely quite like them instead of really liking them. So I decided to look up other biscuit recipes--they all have salt. Most have 1 teaspoon, one has 1/2 teaspoon. Next time I'll try 1/2 teaspoon.

Also, I'll try 1 cup of buttermilk (easy to measure), though maybe I won't pour it all in right away, just in case that's too much. And maybe I'll remember to spray the tops before putting them in the oven.

Hey, a victory for once! I really didn't think that would happen when I first stuck the biscuits in the oven and started on this entry!
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Review: The Ice Princess [Jan. 31st, 2016|03:07 pm]
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Due to an impending trip to Norway, I decided to read some books from Norway. But the first thing I found to help me find some was a list of recommended Nordic mysteries from my library, most of which are not set in Norway and most of which are not directly available at my branch of the library.

I did find Karin Fossom's The Caller, but the crimes are psychologically horrifying and the rest of the book is not enough fun. I only recommend it for criminals who don't understand just how much impact their crimes might be having.

But I also found Camilla Läckberg's The Ice Princess (2010), set mostly in a small town in Sweden, which had some really fun parts. Like this little conversation:

Writer: "Art and fine wine. Two areas that remain complete mysteries to me."
Art store owner: "And I can barly write a shopping list. We all have our specialities."

Another conversation, this one between two cops:

'You know better, Lena--he's not a "perp" before he's found guilty and convicted. Until then he's just as innocent as the rest of us.'

'I sure as hell doubt that. I'd bet a year's salary that he's guilty.'

'If you're so sure, then you would bet more than such a negligible sum.'

'Ha ha, very funny. Joking with a cop about salary is like tripping a cripple.'

And my favorite passage:

Inside the door he stopped short. Never in his entire life had he seen so many Santa Clauses. Everywhere, on every available surface, there they were. Big ones, little ones, old ones, young ones, winking ones and grey ones. He felt his brain go into overdrive to handle all the sensory input flowing towards him.

'What do you think? Aren't they magnificent!'

Patrik didn't know quite what to say, and after a moment he managed to stammer a reply.

'Yes, absolutely. Fantastic.'

He gave Mrs Petrén an anxious look to see whether she could hear that his words didn't really match his tone of voice. To his amazement she gave him a roguish smile that made her eyes flash.

'Don't worry, boy. I'm well aware that it's not really your taste, but when one gets old it involves certain responsibilities, you understand.'


'One is expected to show a bit of eccentricity to be interesting. Otherwise one is simply a sad old crone, and no one wants that, you know.'

'But, why gnomes?

...'Well, the best thing, you see, is that one only needs to put them up once a year. The rest of the year I can keep the place nice and tidy. Then there's the advantage that it brings a pack of children running up here at Christmastime. And for an old crone who doesn't have many visitors, it's a joy to the soul when the little creatures come and ring my bell to see the Santas.'

Interesting philosophy! All very well thought out!

If you were to pick out an eccentricity for yourself, what would it be? I'm thinking the idea I like best for me is dancing in public. Whenever there's good music playing at grocery stores, for example, you might find me dancing.

This is a long and complex novel that won Best International Crime Novel of the Year. So you get to meet lots of interesting characters, most of whom command at least a little sympathy. Not quite all of the lose ends were perfectly tied up, but they were tied up well enough that you could assume that things could work out fine if you wanted to. I figured out some obvious things before some of the characters who should have, so that was annoying, and sometimes the author would tell us that someone had discovered something without telling us what right away, but everything did eventually come out. So, you might like the book or it might be frustrating. I would read more by this author.

And did I learn anything about Sweden? Well, in the small town people sure did a lot of things to save face. Because what would people think? Ugh. They also invited in the police officer for coffee and pastries. Yum! Of course it was cold and snowy and can be hard to get your car started. Gentrification is just as annoying there as anywhere. And, I don't know if this is a cultural thing or not, but on two occasions a character would ask for a social visit when really they had business intentions that they sprung on their friend only after they came together. And they did it on purpose, knowing or feeling that it was mean.

And driving just before sunset yesterday, I found myself realizing: In these places where they hardly get any sun in the winter, the sun they do get is always low on the horizon. Is it the case that the only sun they get is the kind with the annoying glare? If so, that's sad.
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