The Trash and Recycling Our Family Generates

Recycling center

I am consistently amazed by how little landfill trash our family of seven generates. Our trash company gives us a 96-gallon barrel for trash and two 96-gallon recycling barrels, which they pick up every two weeks. The basic level of service is usually one of each, but we eventually discovered we needed two recycling bins. We could also get weekly pickup if we wanted, but it hasn’t been necessary from a volume standpoint (although in the summer heat, I sometimes wish it was every week) and there is a substantial savings if we go every other week.

And while the amount of trash and recycling varies, in general the amount of landfill trash (i.e. what can’t be recycled) is about one or two 13-gallon kitchen trash bags per week. Meanwhile, I’m often left trying to jam in more and more recycling into the two recycling bins by the day of pickup.

I usually divide our recycling between the two barrels1, with one barrel holding just cardboard boxes and the other holding all the various household paper and metal and glass, mostly from the kitchen. It often works out to about even amounts in the barrels. The cardboard is mainly Amazon boxes because we do so much shopping there, including Subscribe and Save on things like large boxes of paper towels.

Of course, there’s a third kind of trash I have to deal with, namely all the things that I can’t put in the barrels, like broken bicycles and a broken wheelbarrow and very large cardboard boxes that have to be broken down before they can fit in the recycling bin and even then only in pieces over time so as not to monopolize it. For that stuff, I think I will begin to do an occasional Bagster pickup, as needed. I had one last year when we had our floors redone and I managed to put a bunch of other stuff in there too.

A valid question is how we manage to divert so much from the landfill. Certainly, our trash has changed over the years. For one thing, we no longer (for now anyway) have lots and lots of diapers as we did for almost a decade. We also don’t subscribe to a paper newspaper (I’m iPad subscription only now), which took up a ton of space in recycling.2 We also try to re-use food waste in other ways as well. We save chicken bones and vegetable ends for making stock and put other kinds of vegetables and food in our compost. Melanie even saves orange peels for making marmalade and old bananas (so many overripe bananas) in the freezer for smoothies, breads, and chocolate ice “cream” for Lucy.

We are by no means perfect at this. Nor are we especially militant about it. And there are recent questions about whether household recycling makes as big a dent in the landfill problem as we think. But it makes me happy anyway to do what I can to show that big families are not necessarily the resource hogs that some people say they are, that in fact big families can have a light environmental footprint compared to, say, a twenty-something childless couple living in a hip downtown loft.

  1. This is not a requirement of the trash company; just something I started doing on my own as an experiment.
  2. Although junk mail continues to be a substantial amount of recycling.

Review: Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization

The thesis of Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization is that the whole structure of Western civilization, every major institution, all of its intellectual, entrepreneurial, and cultural accomplishments can be traced to the work of innumerable priests over the past 2,000 years, both famous and faceless.

I have to admit that Fr. William Slattery provides a compelling case that the history of the West, in ways both surprising and unsurprising, owes nearly everything to the Church. But that’s my small quibble. In almost every example given, while the contributions of the ordained clergy of the Church was vital, the contribution of laypeople was just as vital.

Fr. Slattery does acknowledge this early on:

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

[…]

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

I don’t disagree with a bit of that, but I don’t think this book necessarily builds the case for it either. On the other hand, whatever the book’s subtitle or thesis, what it does do is provide a look at the remarkable contribution of the Church in the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance to building a better world that we continue to benefit from today.

What Heroism and Genius does best is to strip away the accumulated cruft of centuries of “black legends” concocted by the Protestant reformers as well as Hollywood inventions that collectively created this image of the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and Martin Luther’s 95 theses as an unrelieved slog through the muck and mire of superstition that left 95% of the populace as virtual slaves serving privileged and backward-thinking robed masters. In fact, as presented by Fr. Slattery, the Church—in her priests, bishops and laypeople—advanced the cause of humanity in great leaps.

Read More and Comment

Looking Back on 2017

I begin ever year with a look back at the year just ended to review how it was and to count my blessings before the new year starts1. In contrast to some recent years, 2017 was comparatively quiet and with less drama. Nevertheless, there were some notable moments.

MCFL

2017 was the first full year of working for Massachusetts Citizens for Life as director for community engagement. Most notable for me was the rollout of a brand new website that is more than a website and more of a communications platform. It’s built on the Nationbuilder platform and includes built-in event management, ecommerce donations, mailing lists, and relationship manager. I’m still plumbing the depths of what it can do (as well as its limitations), but I’m happy with the change. Apart from that have been several interesting events that we’ve run, including my first time testifying at a legislative hearing on a proposed bill.It was a bit nerve-wracking and exhausting, but I was generally pleased by how it turned out.

SQPN

My “other job” at the Star Quest Production Network ended the year on a sad note. SQPN’s founder and primary voice, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen, has decided that he needs to collaborate with people closer to where he lives in the Netherlands and to go in a whole new direction with his his online media ministry and so Trideo and SQPN have split. I’m saddened that I will no longer be working with Fr. Roderick, who I’ve listened to for over a decade and who I’m glad has become a friend, and we’re still working on what SQPN is and will become without him. I’m sure we’ll find out in 2018.

The Fathers Show

While it began in late 2016, Fr. Chip Hines and I really hit our stride with our podcast, “The Fathers Show,” in 2017. It helps that we record the show in person and not over Skype. While a remotely recorded podcast can work and be excellent, there’s something about being in the same room that provides a different experience. Every other week, Fr. Chip comes to my house, we talk about what’s interesting to us as a Catholic dad and a Catholic priest, drink a beer, and have some fun. If you haven’t listened before, I recommend you give it a listen.2

Home Repair and Improvement

We had the opportunity to make some much-needed home improvements this year. We started out with new manufactured wood floors to replace the old ones that had begun to move around like a bad version of a sliding puzzle game. In the spring we replaced our ancient furnace/boiler with a brand new and much more efficient one, thanks to a generous rebate program through our local energy collaborative. However, it did mean 48 hours with no hot water or heat and a whole day with no water at all. But now we can run hot baths for our kids without having to boil pots of water on the stove.

We also got our chimney and living room ceiling repaired. The chimney was leaking like a sieve, which caused our living room ceiling to leak and get stained. We finally had the resources for repair work, so we got a professional chimney guy to do the chimney and then had professional interior guys in to replace the ceiling. I’m glad we finally did because they found so much mold in the ceiling that when it was all gone, Melanie had a noticeable difference in her asthma and sinus infections. I’m sorry we didn’t do it sooner.

This summer, when my father-in-law came to visit, he started building Melanie long-desired patio in our backyard. She’s wanted one since we moved into this house 9 years ago and so this summer he bought a gazebo/sun shelter and then flew up to build the patio itself. Unfortunately, he put the shelter up first and tried to build the patio under it, which meant some difficult maneuvering. Then he was only able to get about half done before he had to leave and so I spent several days figuring out how to do what needed to be done. The final product isn’t as level as I’d like, but it’s a great addition to our living space.

However, as we end the year, we have a number of expensive repairs looking at us. One of the elements on the electric gave out and that’s going to cost $170 to repair and the over-the-stove microwave oven has started running when you open the door, which isn’t good at all. That should be about $250 to replace. I’m also worried about the dishwasher again and even the refrigerator, which is getting close to being a decade old.

Lake House

For summer vacation, we had a kind of last-minute opportunity to get a week at the lake house in Maine we’d been able to get two years ago, this time in June. The first few days it was very hot and then got a little more seasonal (i.e. chillier) the rest of the week, but it was sunny every day except the last. We pretty much just swam every day, hung out, did puzzles, played games, and read. It was a quiet and relaxing week. We did have Melanie’s sister Theresa visiting from Texas at the time and she stayed with us the first couple of days in Maine before Melanie had to drive her back to catch a bus to catch a plane back home.

Health

As Melanie and I get older, we have more and more of those little health issues that seem to crop up and I get to look forward to turning 50 next year and getting some, um, invasive tests at my next annual physical. Otherwise, everybody was pretty healthy. Okay, Lucy did have to get a couple of stitches for a nasty gash above her eye right before our lake house vacation and Melanie did have to ask for a suture removal kit from the doctor because we weren’t going to be anywhere near a doctor’s office when they needed to be remove and Melanie did accidentally cut the ends too short so it was near impossible to pull the stitches out with tweezers, but eventually we did and it was all good.

At least we didn’t have any hospital stays in 2017. In fact, everything was going pretty well until December when we caught the plague. The week before flying to Texas (more on that in second), the kids starting getting fevers and coughs. The worst of it came and went the beginning of the week, but the effects lingered into our trip to Texas and then continued to linger when we came back. Anthony and I had the most terrible coughing fits and it was hard to do anything about them as we rushed to get ready for Christmas in one week. Finally, both Anthony and I separately got to see doctors and get some medication that seem to help. That’s when we got the stomach bug from hell. For a period of about 12 hours, four of the five kids were all sick, throwing up over and over. Poor Melanie was up all night, cleaning up vomit, washing load after load of towels, sheets, and clothes. But as we head into the new year, we seem to be better.

Also, while it falls under the topic of health, the fact that Isabella got prescription glasses for the first time isn’t really an ailment. Bella’s new glasses were indeed one of the best things to happen for her this year because she was having so much trouble reading signs and seeing other things that were readily legible to everyone else.

The Children

As for the kids themselves, they’re all growing up nicely. Isabella, turning 12 in spring 2018, is almost my height now and acting more and more mature. She’s also a book devourer. We got her a Kindle for her birthday and she’s constantly reading new books and re-reading old books and always has her nose stuck in some book.

Sophia is also maturing and while it’s easy to overlook given Bella’s growth spurt, Sophia is getting tall too. She’s not as much of a book worm as Bella, but she does love her books too. She’s just more measured in how she reads them, very disciplined in a chapter a day at bed time, for instance. Ben and Anthony joined Cub Scouts (which means I did too) and we’re all so very excited about this new experience. I’m especially happy to have them meet other boys and interact with other men in order to develop some socialization skills. I’m also reminded of how well they behave compared to the other boys their age. Lucia is turning 5, but she’s still so wee that it’s easy to forget how old she is … that is until she opens her mouth and says something so very precocious. She’s still very easygoing and mature for her age.

An important milestone this year was Ben’s First Communion. He was so very solemn and excited by it. He’s definitely a “still waters run deep” kind of guy. In fact, after the First Communion, he decided all on his own that he wanted to keep wearing his suit and tie every week. And even now that he’s outgrown his jacket, he still insists on a tie every Sunday. So proud of him.

Field Trips

We took a number of field trips this year, as usual, but because of my work situation I was unable to join them on as many. There were a couple of trips to the Museum of Science; some trips to the Museum of Fine Arts (including one I was able to go on that started with a punctured tire on the van and an unexpected stop to replace it); Battleship Cove (where Lucia almost fell headfirst down a ladder to what would have certainly been a serious injury, but miraculously caught her foot on something); a one-woman play about the only female Colonial soldier, Deborah Sampson; an owl biologist at the local library; a performance of “Merchant of Venice” for Shakespeare in the Park; exploration of life in a salt marsh in Duxbury Beach; a lesson in local geology while exploring colonial-era stone farm fences in Rhode Island; several other nature walks in Plymouth looking at aquatic creatures and fungi and more; and a couple of hands-on art workshops for kids at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art.

And while it wasn’t exactly a field trip, we did have a lot of excitement surrounding the solar eclipse this summer, which was only partial where we live. Nevertheless, we made some eclipse viewers out of some cereal boxes and had a lot of fun watching the crescent shape form in the shadow.

Visiting Texas

In mid-December, we visited Austin, Texas again for the first time in five years., since Melanie’s brother’s wedding. It’s just very expensive to fly all 7 of us (and at that Melanie’s parents generously paid for our flights), even with a discount airline, it makes sense for her family to fly up and visit. However, neither of her brothers have managed to come up and she hadn’t seen them in five years. But the real reason for going down was to celebrate Melanie’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We had a great time visiting and managed to get out almost every day to enjoy the mostly good weather and visit the sites.

We went to the famed Zilker Park one day and rode on the Zilker Zephyr a scaled-down train. We visited the Bullock Museum of Texas History, which was a real unexpected hit, very well done, and included a neat History of Computer Games exhibit that I geeked out over. Another day we went to the University of Texas Blanton art museum, which was small, but had some very nice art from the medieval and renaissance eras. I wasn’t as thrilled with the modern art. And of course, I went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi with my mother-in-law on opening day.

Then there was the food. Our tradition upon arrival in Austin is always to go to Taqueria Guadalajara Arandas, near Melanie’s parents’ house, for some amazing, simple Tex Mex. We got Tex Mex several times, including at Chuys near the park. After the Texas museum, went to a Greek restaurant that was very good (but didn’t have avgolemono soup and acted like they never heard of it?). Before the Blanton art museum, we stopped at Top Notch, Melanie’s favorite drive-in burger place from childhood that indeed had some mighty fine burgers. After their anniversary Mass, Melanie’s parents got the most amazing takeout barbecue from Ruby’s BBQ. One day we went out for great ice cream with mix-ins from Amy’s Ice Cream. And on the second-to-last day, I got my wish and was able to try an In-n-Out Burger Double-Double Animal-Style.

It was indeed a great trip and I hope it’s not five years before we go back again.

New Tech

As usual, a new year saw some new technology showing up. I’ve managed to get myself on a yearly upgrade program with my iPhone and this year I dithered between getting an iPhone 8 Plus or an iPhone X to replace my iPhone 7 Plus. I knew I’d be fine with the 8 Plus and wondered if the higher price of the X was worth it. Finally, I figured out a way to get the X without paying too much more and decided to go for it.3 I have not regretted it. Face ID is a revelation, almost like not having a password at all. I don’t even have to think about it most of the time. And the photos and video are amazing, even better than the already great 7 Plus camera. The speed of the phone is great too, as is the beautiful display. I’m happy with my phone.

The other big piece of technology this year was the purchase of an iMac 27” Retina 5K. This was a purchase by SQPN, the podcast network I work for as executive director, as I’ll be doing more and more audio editing and other heavy lifting work in the new year. This is an amazing machine, so very fast with lots of RAM and a big hard drive. After a couple of years using a MacBook Pro as my primary machine, it was great to have that freedom and elbow room again. Of course, you can never have too much monitor space so I supplemented the built-in 27” screen with a second 27” monitor to sit next to it. It’s not quite twice as much desktop since the second screen is not 4K, but it’s still great to be able to get all my windows viewable at once.

Another tech addition this year was my new Synology DS-216+II4. I had another older Synology network-attached storage (NAS) unit serving as a big place to store all my big or rarely used files, but it wasn’t quite fast enough. The beauty of a NAS is that it is itself a computer and can run programs. One that I use is Plex, which is a media server. I like to rip my DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and store them on the NAS so that we can watch them whenever we want without having to fiddle with discs and boxes and such. It also works as a personal cloud storage for holding stuff that’s too sensitive or too big to keep in the cloud. I also use it as a backup server, backing up my computer, but then also storing a backup offsite on Amazon AWS Glacial storage. And it does several other things for me as well. The nice thing about the new NAS is that it has a much better CPU and more RAM so it’s much faster at nearly everything. For instance, it transcodes movies so fast that it doesn’t stutter when playing them back on my AppleTX any more.

I almost forgot that my Apple Watch Series 1 was also 2017 purchase. For a long time I didn’t jump on the bandwagon because I needed to see that it could be more useful than simply taking my iPhone out of my pocket. When Watch OS 3 came out along with the newer faster Series 1 and 2 watches, I saw that it was finally time. It’s been great having the watch this past year. Not only does it provide cool fitness tracking and prompts but it gives me access to notifications and reminders at a glance, including marking as complete; I can take phone calls if my phone is in the other room; it gives me access to my two-factor authentication system on my wrist; it lets me record a note for myself; it keeps me informed of messages without the intrusiveness of pulling out my phone to look at it; and more. I liked it so much and Melanie was so intrigued by it that I gave her one for her birthday. And it has become my normally tech agnostic wife’s most favored gadget.

Books

I managed to meet my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 35 books this year, although most of the books were not heavy reading of any sort. I think I’ll keep the goal at the same level because reading a book every 10 days seems like my limit. Here is my complete list of books read and here at my favorites:

There were also the usual new installments in favored book series, as well Star Trek and Star Wars books.

Podcasts and YouTube

Podcasts continue to be an important part of my life, but I realize my podcasts habits really haven’t changed and I’m still listening to the same list of podcasts I listened to last year.

There were a couple of additions though. My good friend Patrick Coffin has gone independent and has a wonderful interview-based show, The Patrick Coffin Show, which includes everyone from White House advisers to former FBI agents to Hollywood stars to academics on the front lines of the culture wars. With his blend of humor and insightfulness, Patrick always elicits a great interview from his A-list of guests.

The other addition is also a new show, OSV On-The-Go. This is a short format weekly show hosted by Greg Willits that offers to-the-point commentary and information on a Catholic topic, like How to Celebrate Christmas as a Catholic or How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice.

Movies and TV

Obviously, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was my most anticipated movie of 2017, but some others made my list of top movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, Moana (a surprise addition), Wonder Woman, Logan, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. There were also plenty of others I saw that were from previous years that I’m only now catching up on via Netflix DVD and streaming and all the other new releases that I couldn’t get to the theater to see and haven’t watched on streaming yet.

As for TV, some of my favorite new shows are SEAL Team, S.W.A.T., The Good Place, The Orville, and Star Trek: Discovery.

Alton Brown

For several years, food TV personality Alton Brown5 has had a seres of traveling culinary comedy shows that I kept seeing him talk about and other people rave about. Last spring, I saw that he was coming to Boston in October and Melanie agreed that I should get us a pair of tickets as a birthday present for me. We were able to go for a rare night out, including dinner and then the show. The seats were nosebleed, high above the stage of the Wang Theatre in tiny seats and a very, very hot atmosphere, but no matter: The Eat Your Science Tour was a very fun evening of jokes, audience participation and food-related hijinks. Melanie had a great time. I hope to be able to see him again the next time he has another show come through town.

Our Extended Family

We continued to welcome Melanie’s family to visit us throughout the year. Because we don’t have a lot of room they usually come one at a time, although this Fall, Melanie’s dad and sister came together in order to do some foliage tourism together.

But the visits began in June, which is a good time for Texans to visit because it’s getting super-hot there while our weather is just getting nice. Theresa came up for about 10 days, part of which included the aforementioned few days at the lake house in Maine, as well as Ben’s First Communion in early June on Pentecost Sunday.

The a couple of weeks later, Melanie’s mom flew in on the Fourth of July to stay for a couple of weeks, including being here for Ben’s birthday. And then in August, Melanie’s dad came for a couple of weeks, which included the gazebo and patio work I mentioned earlier. Finally, in October, Theresa and my father-in-law came back to visit and do some day trips up to New Hampshire and Vermont to see the changing of the leaves.

We also had some sad moments in 2017 with extended family. My dad’s wife, Mary Ellen, died after a long battle with a degenerative disease. My 85-year-old dad had been taking care of her for years, with the help of my half-sisters, and while they were very loving and heroic, I could see the toll it took on all of them. That was in the spring. This fall, my dad fell coming out of church one Sunday, breaking his leg badly and was hospitalized. Things were touch and go for a while, but eventually he was able to recover without surgery, including a stint in rehab. The upside is that after he was discharged, he didn’t move back to his house that’s some distance away from his older kids, but moved into my brother Bernie’s house, where he’s close by.

Looking Ahead

I end as I usually do by looking ahead and behind. Like I said, we have some expensive home improvement ahead, but we’re also working on getting solar panels installed, which should bring down our electricity costs. There are big changes at SQPN, which have to get sorted out to see what the future holds there, but I’m hopeful. I’m sure there will be plenty else that is unexpected as well.

But what I’m hopeful for is that 2018 continues to see us healthy and living together in a home full of faith and joy and love.

  1. See 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013
  2. We’re in a bit of an expected hiatus at the moment as Fr. Chip is dealing with some medical issues and isn’t readily mobile but our already recorded episodes are a good place to start.
  3. Once I made the decision, though, shipping and delivery times had slipped right to the dates I would be in Texas. They won’t ship to a non-residential address and if I wasn’t there to receive it, they wouldn’t leave it, of course. I was resolved to wait until I came back, but then I was checking in-store stock and saw my local Apple store had the model I wanted so I went in and snatched it up!
  4. There’s a newer version of this model, the DS218+II, that’s about what I paid for mine.
  5. You may remember him from such Food Network shows as Good Eats, Iron Chef America/Gauntlet, Cutthroat Kitchen, and Food Network Star.

A Correction to NPR Story that Quoted Me

I was interviewed this week for a National Public Radio story on the decline of the influence of the Church in Massachusetts. I talked to the reporter for about 45 minutes and had two quotations in the resulting article.

One of the quotations is slightly in error.

On the one hand, 45 minutes was boiled down to two short soundbites, including something that is quite obvious and wasn’t even the main thrust of what I tried to convey, but that’s the nature of an article like this and is expected. On the other hand, I am the least famous or influential person quoted by name in the article (and the first) so I’m sure that was also a factor.

But the article quotes me as follows:

“The church recently managed to pull off a legislative win, helping defeat a measure that would have allowed physician-assisted suicide. But Bettinelli cautions that even that vote doesn’t necessarily mean an upswing in the church’s influence.

Lawmakers are voting “based on their faith,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily because they are being influenced by [O’Malley].”

I didn’t say lawmakers are voting based on their faith, but voters who voted down the 2012 referendum on assisted suicide. There is currently a bill on Beacon Hill being debated that would legalize doctor-prescribed suicide and I and many others testified against it during a hearing on September 26. But all of those people came on their own or through grassroots pro-life groups. I believe there was a single lay official from the Mass. Catholic Conference, but no bishops or Catholic clergy.

As for what the legislators will do, that’s anyone’s guess. Undoubtedly some will vote their faith, but my guess is more will vote based on what they think the majority of their constituents want (or more cynically, what will advance their future career in the Legislature.)

As for the rest of the article, the mindset behind it falls into the old trap of thinking that the Church’s power is in her ability to influence politicians. While lobbying on behalf or against legislation that promotes or hinders a more moral society is important, the primary reason for the existence of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. While we like to imagine that the Church pre-Scandal was like Alcuin standing at the right hand of Charlemagne, building Christendom in Europe, the reality is that the worldly authority of the Church in the US had already long been in decline.

In another sense, you might even say that the influence of the archbishop of Boston beyond the borders of Massachusetts is even higher with Cardinal Sean than it was with Law. No American bishop is closer to the Pope and most observers believe that Cardinal Sean may have come in second or third in the conclave of 2013. And when it comes to issues of immigration and pro-life matters, Cardinal Sean’s voice is heard above many others. The article does acknowledge this last point.

I will note that as far as I can tell, I was the only conservative source consulted for this article.

A Million Little Big Brothers

Perhaps you’ve seen this scenario play out online: Someone says something outrageous on social media or does something that’s just wrong. Not criminal necessarily, but wrong from your point of view. The person usually isn’t famous, just someone whose social outburst has gone viral. They could be from anywhere on the political spectrum, right to left, but whatever they said ticked off everyone on the other side. So someone else does some digging into their background, finds out where they work, and announces, “I wonder how their employer feels about having an employee who says this?”, beginning a pressure campaign to get them fired from their job for the sin of saying something stupid in public.

The practice of finding out personal, real life details about people you have encountered online and then using that information against them in real life is called “doxxing”.1 It’s a form of social punishment, a message that if you anger the online mob, the online mob can reach out to hurt you. It has been used against liberals and conservatives, Christians and anti-Christians, people of all races and sexes and persuasions and ideologies. It has become a way to widen the split in our society that has grown, the division that makes everything about politics and impossible to have polite, civil conversations where we disagree.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Everybody says stupid things occasionally. Our duty, if we want to have a civil society, is to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially if (a) we don’t know them personally and (b) this is one statement/incident out of context. Perhaps even if the person has made a habit of saying or doing dumb things.

Most people I know have at least in their lives said something stupid? Would you want everyone at every time now and the future to be able to potentially use that against you?

I have seen Twitter accounts whose reason for existence is to find people who show up in photographs of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer and then try to get them fired for their jobs. No nuance, no understanding. If you were there and you are white, you must be a white supremacist Nazi and you must be stripped of any ability to feed or provide for yourself or your family. And if your employer thinks you have a right to be wrong and to say stupid things on your own time, then his business will be punished.

I’ve seen it used to attack a black woman on Twitter who said white women’s sons should be killed because they are likely to be criminals. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make any sense.) Someone figured out she’s a nurse and suggested she should be fired.

Was she actually calling for people to murder others or was she being outrageous for attention’s sake? I don’t know for sure, but I have seen the most upstanding people say some pretty crazy things in private conversations, not because they really believed it, but to elicit reaction from the people they are with. They’re not exactly joking, but exaggerating rhetorically to make a point or eschewing nuance to be more direct in a conversation with someone who knows them so well that the other person can fill in the context. The difference now is that Twitter and Facebook can trick us into thinking we’re having private conversations with a small group of friends … until suddenly we’re not and our post has gone viral and now the whole internet is attacking us.

A Self-Police State

We used to worry about a George Orwell “1984”-style totalitarian oppressive regime, a police state that monitored its people for any and all transgressions of the party line, no matter how small. It turns out that wasn’t what we should have been afraid of after all. Now we need to worry about an oppressive regime of a million supreme leaders.

Can you imagine a country where everyone has to police their every public and private utterance, no matter how dumb or off the cuff, lest the mob of those ideologically opposed to them find out and ruin their lives? Who needs Big Brother government when you have a million little Big Brothers?

Shake your head at the boorish and outrageous. Criticize them strongly. But don’t seek to destroy the lives of perfect strangers. That’s hardly either Christian or conducive to the building of a good society. And it’s a weapon that targets the good and the bad, the right and the left, those of every stripe indiscriminately.

  1. There are other definitions and perhaps a broader usage of the term, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick with this for now.

Great Turkey Gravy in 45 minutes

Quick Turkey Gravy

This Thanksgiving, I was responsible for the turkey and gravy and my family recipe for stuffing. (Melanie makes her own stuffing too because she likes a different style.1) I had the turkey recipe and the stuffing recipe ready to go, but I had left the gravy recipe to the last minute. I needed a quick turkey gravy.

I was going to make the Cooks Illustrated Turkey Gravy, but then I looked at what was involved: roasting veggies for an hour, simmering for 90 minutes, cooling another hour, cooking again. We were eating in an hour and I needed to start this yesterday!2

So I adapted. I put the gizzards and veggies in a saucepan and sautéed them for 15-20 minutes. Then I added 4 cups of homemade chicken stock plus all the turkey drippings, and 2 cups wine and thyme. Let that simmer for another 15 minutes. Strained it into a bowl and put 1/2 cup of oil in the bottom of the saucepan plus 1/2 cup of flour and cooked that into a roux for about 5 minutes. Whisked the strained liquid back in, added a dash of Worcestershire and a pinch of Accent flavor enhancer for umami and served a silky smooth quick turkey gravy that was one of the best I’ve ever made. All in under an hour. Whew!

Ingredients

Reserved turkey giblets and neck, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 medium carrot (or a handful of baby carrots) cut into 1-inch pieces
1 stalk celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small onions, quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
1 tsp thyme, dried
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oil, canola or sunflower or other neutral flavor
1/2 tsp Accent flavor enhancer (optional)
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Salt and ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Place the roasting pan with turkey drippings on a stovetop burner (if you can), set it to high heat and add the chicken broth. Simmer while scraping the drippings for 10-15 minutes.
  2. If you have a burner available while the drippings and chicken stock deglaze, put a large saucepan on it and add the turkey parts and vegetables, plus 1 tsp salt. While the roasting pan is deglazing, sauté the veggies and giblets over medium heat for 15 minutes, until the vegetables are soft, but not browned and the giblets and neck have started to leave a fond on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Add the drippings and stock to the saucepan along with the wine and thyme. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Strain through a mesh sieve into a bowl and discard the solids. If you have time to let it cool and sit, you can skim off the fat that rises, but my turkey did not have so much fat in the pan and the gravy did not come out greasy. You could replace some of the oil in the next step with turkey fat.
  5. Put the oil in the saucepan over medium heat and the sprinkle the flour over the top. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon for 4 minutes until it starts to turn brown.
  6. Whisk the broth back in slowly, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil and then reduce to medium low. Add the Worcestershire and Accent, if using, and simmer for 10 minutes or until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. (Dip your spoon, turn it over, run your finger down the middle. If the part you didn’t touch remains coated in gravy while the part in the middle stays clear, it’s thick enough.)
  7. The gravy should be slightly saltier than you expect because it will then be perfect on your turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Add salt, if necessary.
  1. The problem is that my family recipe include sausage meat and green bell peppers, which are anathema to her in stuffing.
  2. I looked at their Easier Roast Turkey and Gravy, but that would have meant preparing and cooking the turkey differently and my turkey was already done.

The Reason Your Coffee Tastes Weak May Not Be What You Think

One of the most common myths and misconceptions about coffee has to do with what makes it stronger or weaker. I often hear people say something like, “This coffee tastes weak, so I’ll reduce the amount of water,” or “I don’t like my coffee too strong so I use fewer grounds.” Unfortunately, these adjustments will produce exactly the opposite of what the speakers intend. This is because they misunderstand the chemistry involved in brewing coffee.

Most people think of coffee like it’s a solution, i.e. one item dissolved in another. And if you want the solution to be strong, you add more of the solute to the solvent. For example, you dissolve a tablespoon of sugar in a cup of water. If you want it to be more sugary, you add more sugar or reduce the amount of water. You concentrate it.

But coffee is not a solution. It is an extraction1. The coffee doesn’t dissolve into the water; the water extracts the flavor compounds out of the grounds by passing through them. The difference is seen most clearly in that with the sugar-water, once dissolving is completed, you don’t see sugar; but after brewing coffee, you still have the exact same amount of coffee grounds.

So if you pass too little water through the grounds, you will have weak tasting coffee. Pass too much water through the same grounds and you extract too much from the coffee. That’s because once you’ve extracted the good-tasting compounds, what’s left are bitter compounds.

In the end, while some coffee aficionados come up with special recipes of their own, for most people, the best ratio of water to coffee doesn’t change from one cup of coffee to another. Basically, you want 6 ounces of water for 2 tablespoons of coffee grounds.

What if you want to make your coffee stronger or weaker? Well, there are other factors that influence the strength of your coffee, including the amount of time the water is in contact with the grounds, the temperature of the water, how coarse or fine the coffee is ground, how fresh the coffee is, the kind of roast of the coffee, and the type of coffee, including where it is grown and under what conditions and how is processed.

For most people, you’ll primarily want to look at the roast. In general, a darker roast will give you a stronger-tasting cup of coffee, although the caffeine will be lower because the longer cooking time that makes it darker also breaks down the caffeine molecules. Conversely, a lighter roast makes a milder cup of coffee with a bigger caffeine kick.

In the end, it’s all about the chemistry and now we’re seeing the answer to that question we all asked in sophomore year in high school: When am I ever going to use chemistry in my life? Now you know.

N.B. Thanks to GeekLady for double-checking my chemistry on this post.

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1 It’s also a suspension, but that’s not really relevant to my point.

Remembering Father Timothy Murphy

The summer of 1996 I was planning to move from Ohio back to Massachusetts. I had finished up at Franciscan University of Steubenville and had a job that allowed me to work remotely from anywhere I had an internet connection. My friend, Randy, who was from Phoenix, had got a job as a youth minister in Salem, Mass., and so we agreed to get an apartment together. However, he then was offered by his new boss, the pastor, Fr. Timothy Murphy, to come live in the spacious, mostly empty rectory to save money. Randy was concerned about our agreement, but the pastor extended the invitation to me as well, letting me rent a room and receive board for monthly rent.

That was how I met Fr. Murphy, who would become a friend, a mentor, and a father-figure to me over the next two decades. Fr. Murphy retired from active ministry a few years ago and has now died after a short illness.

In 1996, Fr. Murphy was the newly arrived pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Salem, the second oldest parish in Massachusetts after the cathedral-parish in Boston and the oldest church dedicated to Mary in New England. Fr. Murphy was always proud of the history of the parish, including the fact that he was the second pastor named Timothy Murphy, his eponymous predecessor having lived in the 19th century.

Father Murphy had previously been pastor of St. Angela’s Parish in Mattapan since 1979, an inner-city parish with a very large Haitian immigrant population that had grown there as the neighborhood transitioned from mainly Jewish and Irish families who were moving out to the suburbs. Notably, Fr. Murphy was the first of his seminary class to be named a pastor (back in the days when not every parish priest became a pastor and if so after decades of ministry) and he learned of his assignment on the day Pope St. John Paul II celebrated Mass on Boston Common, October 1, 1979. He served St. Angela’s until 1995 when he took a sabbatical year in Rome before going to Salem.

That year in Rome was special to Fr. Murphy and he talked about it often in the following years and he stayed in touch with the other priests from around the United States who were in the same program year. It also prompted him to do more pilgrimages and international travel.

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A Night Out with Alton Brown’s Eat Your Science Tour

I’ve watched every episode of Good Eats, both seasons of Feasting on Asphalt, and the one season of Feasting on Waves. I’ve got the cookbooks. I listen to the Alton Browncast. I even pepper my everyday conversation with references to unitaskers and refer to stuff that isn’t fit for eating with “That is not good eats.”

I am an Alton Brown fan.

So when I heard six months ago that the current leg of his touring show “Eat Your Science” would be coming through Boston this weekend, I knew what I wanted for my birthday. So I picked up a couple of tickets, put the date on my calendar and waited.

It was a rough week this past week. On Tuesday, I got to sit with a dying friend for what is probably the last time. On Thursday, I had a very long day working a banquet for my day job, spent all day Friday editing audio, video, and photos from the event, and then had a board meeting on Saturday morning. I was wiped. But by Saturday afternoon I was energized and excited for the show.

Leaving the kids with grandma, Melanie and I headed into the city for dinner and the show. We were going to get sushi at this trendy new place, but it was packed so we headed across the street to one of the best known Vietnamese places in Boston, Pho Pasteur. That was indeed good eats.

For the show itself, the entry lines were long and nearly every one of the 3,000 seats was filled. We had a small glitch going through security as I had forgotten to leave my Leatherman multitool at home1. I thought I was going to have to choose to lose the tool to get into the show or potentially miss the beginning to run back to the car. Luckily, the head of security had pity on me. After all, it’s an Alton Brown show and I was carrying a multitasker.

The show itself was a lot of great laughs. It’s not a cooking demonstration show. Alton is the first to admit he’s not a chef. Think of it more like a cross between a stand-up routine, a magic show, and an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

The first part of the show featured a bit exploring what Brown would do if he were the god of food, including ending the reign of Sriracha as a trendy food with a song called “Sriracha” sung to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story. He also started an interactive bit in which he would make all the rats in the world taste like bacon that was supposed to include participation from an audience member, but the woman acted all weird and he ended up having to abort. There was also a very funny story involving breaking tortilla chips, a late-night visit to the refrigerator and an old blind dog.

Next was another audience interaction in which a woman was brought up from the seats to pick a terrible cocktail recipe at random, which would then be improved by the application of science and liquid nitrogen. This one worked out much better.

After intermission, most of the time was talking about popcorn, including one of Alton’s signature mega-cooking constructions, in this case a massive rocket-shaped hot air popper. This also included an audience member and was very funny. Finally, there was a Q-and-A featuring questions gleaned from audience members over Twitter.

All in all, it was a great show with lots of fun and lots of laugh, showcasing Alton’s showmanship, his rapport with his audience, and his great improv skills.

It was also a great night out for me and Melanie, with just a few downsides. The Wang Center’s seats have about 16 inches for your knees, which was torture on Melanie, plus the seats were about 16 inches wide, which was torture on me. And up where we were sitting it was crazy hot and humid, especially since we dressed for late October, not midsummer. Getting home also took forever, probably because of everybody going out for Halloween weekend, but that wasn’t terrible since we got to have good uninterrupted conversation in the car.

On the whole, however, it was all worth it to see Alton Brown, who I’ve watched and followed for years and admire for his approach to food, but also to how to live like a gentleman. The next time he’s on tour, I hope we can see him again. Next time we’ll spring for better seats though.

  1. It is, after all, part of my daily carry.

More Tales of Social Media Marketing Mistakes

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post1 about college students moving to low-tax states. I wanted to illustrate it with an image of a young person house-moving and found one on Flickr on the account of a small moving company that looks to appeal to young people. The photo was available under a Creative Commons license with an attribution requirement. So I used the photo under the terms they had provided.

Fast forward to earlier this month. I get an email from a marketing company. Thank you, they said, for featuring our client on your web site, but we need you to hyperlink the image so that it directs readers to our web site. They didn’t tell me which photo or where it was on my site. My blog has been around for nearly two decades and has thousands of entries. I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Eventually through some sleuthing, I figured out which blog post and photo. First, I wasn’t featuring their client on my site. I was using their photo—in accordance with the usage restrictions they had listed—to illustrate an unrelated story. Second, I had followed the attribution requirements that they selected when making the photo available. Third, that’s not how my site software works. I can’t hyperlink the “hero” image at the top of my blog posts.

I didn’t want the hassle so I just found another image on a different site that was about “moving” and replaced theirs. Then I sent the PR person an email in reply telling her, “Never mind, I’ve replaced the image with one unrelated to your client that doesn’t have special requirements.”

So instead of free advertising for her client (the logo was prominent in the image), they get nothing. Rather than increase her client’s virality and Google-rank, she decreased it by making a silly and annoying request. If they want people to handle their images differently, then they should say so up front in their rights disclosure.

  1. I’m not linking the post or mentioning the mover because it’s not relevant.
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