Superfluous Matter
In San Francisco

I'm in San Francisco and it's awesome! Unfortunately the move didn't quite go as planned. I won't go into detail here, but talk to anyone who has ever tried to get a TN Visa to work in the US and you'll probably hear a story similar to mine. Anyway, the four day delay meant I got to hang out in Toronto with friends for a bit more time which was great. Special thanks to Chris and John for letting me stay with them since all my stuff was already packed and taken away by the movers.

I had my first day of work on Friday and it went pretty well. My co-workers are all super friendly and were very welcoming. Plus it's just amazing being in the ILM buildings. I don't think I'll ever get used to walking past all the awesome stuff they have there.

On Saturday I did some grocery shopping at the Ferry Building (San Francisco's equivalent of Toronto's St. Lawrence Market) and also hung out with Mike, Michal and Alex. It's great having friends here in the city already. I signed up for a bank account with Wells Fargo in the afternoon, did a Costco run with Mike and Michal around dinner and saw a movie with Mike and Alex in the evening.

Today I started looking in earnest for apartments. I went to an open house up in Russian Hill and discovered that neighbourhood is likely too expensive. The place I saw was not very nice, was priced right at the upper end of my budget and the open house was totally packed with prospective tenants. Right now I'm thinking the Richmond District will provide better value and perhaps be a bit less crazy. I've also sent an inquiry to an agency to see what it would cost to get a little bit of professional help.

So far the biggest win for me on the logistics front has been around banking. Royal Bank has a brilliant cross-border banking platform and they were extremely helpful getting it all set up for me. Royal Bank in Canada is associated with an American bank called "RBC Bank" and so before arriving in the US I was able to create an American account at RBC Bank and link it to my new Royal Bank account in Canada for easy cross-border money transfers. I even received a US-style "Visa Debit Card" before leaving so that when I arrived I was instantly able to get cash from ATMs and pay for things without incurring hefty foreign transaction fees or currency exchange fees. Best of all, RBC Bank is issuing me a real US credit card based on my Canadian credit history.

The only unfortunate thing about RBC Bank is that they have no branches on the west coast. Wells Fargo is common here though and I had no trouble setting up an account with them. It was also trivial to link that account to my RBC Bank account so now I can move money back and forth between the US and Canada very easily and very cheaply. I'd say that as of 2014, Royal Bank/RBC Bank is the best way to deal with money as a Canadian living in America.

This week things will get a bit more real at work and hopefully I'll make some progress on the apartment front. I also plan to go climbing at least once. Onwards!

Cooking - Smoky-Cocoa Beer Braised Beef Cheeks

As the countdown to my departure continues I've had to make some decisions on which food in my pantry/freezer to eat and which to give away. It was not a hard choice to keep the 1.5kg of beef cheek in my freezer as it is one of my new favourite cuts of meat.

Beef cheeks are literally the cheek meat of a cow. The cut can be very tough and tends to contain more sinewy and fatty bits and so it tends to be cheaper. A long slow braise turns the meat into a uniformly soft and delicious hunk of protein. As I usually do, I cobbled this dish together based on a few different recipes from the Internet.

After patting dry the beef cheeks and seasoning them with salt and pepper, sear them in some olive oil in a dutch oven on the stove-top. Remove the meat and add some chopped onion, carrots, celery and potatoes to the pot. Stir and heat until the veggies soften. Then add equal amounts of cocoa powder and smoked paprika. Mix it all up nicely and then pour in a pint of beer (stout is perfect for this). Bring the mix to a boil and let it reduce a little. Return the beef cheeks to the pot and add some canned tomatoes. Get the heat back up again and then cover and transfer to the an oven (preheated to 325F) for three hours.

When it comes out of the oven, the meat will be tender and amazing and the veggies will have picked up tons of flavour. The sauce can be further reduced if desired. The meat somehow gets even better after sitting for 24 hours so definitely plan on leftovers (or make it ahead of time and just reheat when ready to serve).

Cooking - Curry Coconut Rainbow Chard

On Saturday my favourite organic produce vendor at St. Lawrence had rainbow chard on sale in honour of pride so I grabbed a couple bunches. I've only recently started using chard (swiss, rainbow or otherwise) but I wish I had discovered it earlier. Raw or cooked, I love the texture of the leaves. The fact that the stalks cook up well too is a bonus. No wasted material.

My favourite way to prepare chard at the moment is in a coconut curry sauce, which I guess is a bit reminiscent of creamed spinach (a dish I've never had).

First, strip the leaves from the stems and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Wash the leaves and dry them (salad spinner is great for this). Wash the stems and chop them into centimetre-sized chunks. Chop up some onion too. I've used actual onion, shallots or even green onions for this.

Heat up a big frying pan and then add a very generous chunk of ghee or cooking fat of your choice. Once the fat is hot, add the chopped stems and onion and stir-fry until soft. Next add the spices: curry powder (I use Penzey's Hot Curry Powder), Aleppo chili pepper, garlic and ginger. The garlic and ginger can be powdered or fresh minced. I've also used onion powder when I didn't have any actual onion. Mix the spices in well and fry until fragrant.

Next, add the leaves. Really pack them into the pan, add way more than you think appropriate as they'll cook down a lot. Cover the pan well and allow the leaves to wilt and shrink (at least five minutes maybe more). Don't worry about the spices and stuff sticking to the bottom of the pan. When the leaves are done wilting you mix them in well with the stems and spices and the moisture from the leaves will deglaze the pan to pull up the crusty delicious bits.

Continue cooking and stirring for a while until a good bit of the moisture of the leaves has boiled off. Then add enough coconut milk to make it kind of soupy. Mix well and then simmer for a while stirring occasionally until it thickens a bit.

Serve warm with other food. It's also good cold the next day. Last night I ate this with leftovers from the best roast chicken I've ever made and the extra coconut sauce went great on top of the moist lemony chicken meat.

Scotland

In May I went to Scotland to attend Lee and Jenn's wedding and also to explore that beautiful whisky making place. Mike joined me and we had a total blast. Due to my recent life-upheaval I've been a bit slow with my usual trip journal but I pushed through and finished it tonight! Check it out!

New Adventures...

By this point I think I've spoken with most friends and family, but I wanted to mention here too that I am about to embark on a new chapter in my life. I'm leaving my job on the Maya team at Autodesk in Toronto to join the R&D team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in San Francisco!

Shortly after returning from Scotland (the trip blog for which is in progress and will be posted soon), ILM flew me down to San Francisco to interview for the position. It went very well and they extended an offer to me which I have accepted. I start work on July 14.

I have a number of reasons for embarking on such a big life change. First, after years of interacting with film studios as customers of the product I work on, I feel it's time I get a bit more first hand experience and actually work on some films. ILM is one of the best visual effects houses in the world and the fact that I'll get to contribute to the new Star Wars movies makes me delirious with joy.

Second, I've always wanted to spend some time living in another country. I feel that the process of picking up your life and fitting it into completely new surroundings can be a great opportunity to learn about your priorities and to gain better perspective on the world around you.

Third, I now have almost as many friends and acquaintances in the Bay Area as I have in the GTA. I miss them and I feel it's only fair to spend some time living where they do rather than always asking them to come visit me in Canada.

Finally, I feel that it is time to take a break from Toronto. I absolutely love it here. It is without a doubt my home. But there are a lot of difficult memories here too and I've been a bit stagnant in many ways for the past couple years. I'm hopeful that moving to a new job in a new city in a new country will shake things up a bit and give me an opportunity for a fresh start.

Oh, also, did I mention Star Wars!?!?

Books - Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad

I really enjoyed "Heart of Darkness" so I thought I'd read something else by Joseph Conrad and Nostromo is widely considered one of his finest novels.

It took me a while to get into the book, and it took me a long time to finish it, but I still enjoyed it. Tales of heroics are layered on top of the efforts of one rich and powerful European man (Gould) fighting against the corruption of various governments in a fictional South American country (which happens to closely resemble Columbia).

Greed is rampant and swirls around Gould constantly as he is the owner of a very productive silver mine. To me the book seems to be a criticism of European imperialist policies as there are many attempts by Gould and his peers to impose order on the indigenous people much in the same way the western world today tries to impose democracy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Their failures are many and the costs of their successes are high.

Anyway, it's a good book, but a lot of work as it is easy to lose track of what is going on if you're not diligent in your reading. I feel like I should read it again someday over a shorter time frame and with greater focus.

Tags

Further to my previous post, I have today accomplished one of those forever postponed activities related to my blog. I can now apply "tags" to my posts for the purposes of categorization. Posts with tags will show them at the end of the body text but before the comments link. I haven't done anything else fancy with the tags yet but that might come in time. The main benefit of this for me is to get a bit more searchability in the future related to my cooking posts.

This activity took me a couple hours and was another exercise in letting go. I had lots of ideas for a perfect tagging implementation that were holding me back from doing anything at all. I wanted to use it as learning oppourtunity for Web 2.0 stuff and make it so that when I'm tagging things I get fancy dynamic feedback on already existing tags. But that's a lot of work and research and if I'm honest I just don't care enough. So I did something super ugly and hacky but it still works great for my needs. End result? I have tags and it didn't take up much time.

I do this sort of prioritization at work all the time with no problem, but for some reason I still have trouble doing it for personal projects.

Cooking - Apple Sauce

Like many people I have a list of things I'd like to do "someday" that I never actually get around to due to matters of prioritization. One item on that list is to add a recipe tool to this blog with lots of cool features to help me track and share my cooking adventures.

As of today, I am scratching that item off the list. Not because I've done it but because I recognize that I likely never will. By accepting this fact and moving on I remove one small thing hanging over my head and no longer have to feel even a tiny amount of guilt for not doing it.

Furthermore, I often refrained from sharing stories about cooking on this blog because I wanted to wait until I created the recipe tool so that I could share "properly." I also realized that I don't cook in a way that lends itself to exact recipes anymore; the tool I envisioned would actually be a bit of a hindrance.

So from now on I plan to simply write about things I cook in free-form blog posts when the mood strikes me. This shall be the first.

Over New Year's this year Mike, Matt and Adrienne all stayed with me at my apartment. New Year's Day we all lazily sat around watching Netflix and eating. Then Adrienne randomly made apple sauce for everyone and my mind was blown because I didn't know you could just make apple sauce any time you wanted. I think it only took her half an hour and then we all shared this delicious treat.

A few weeks ago I bought a 3lb bag of apples that turned out to be pretty crap for eating. Rather than ignore them until they went bad and then throw them out I decided to make apple sauce. Adrienne just cooked them on the stove top with cinnamon but I wanted to see if I could kick it up a notch so I searched for some tips on the Internet. As is my usual style I merged many recipes and added my own modifications so that what I made did not really resemble anything I found. The end result was delicious though!

To make my apple sauce I peeled, cored and chopped a bunch of apples (less than 3lbs but more than 2lbs). Then I put the apples in a big pot with a bit of water, a big knob of butter (several tablespoons worth at least), a generous amount of cinnamon, some nutmeg, cardamon, a bit of maple syrup and a squeeze of lemon juice. I then cooked it slowly (stirring regularly) until the apples had broken down and the volume had reduced considerably. Finally I used an immersion blender to blend until smooth. The combination of spices and butter gives the sauce the taste of apple pie. It's amazing at any temperature and freezes well too. I have since made another batch using Northern Spy apples and it was even better. I suspect one could attain even greater results with a mixture of different types of apples.

A nice side-effect of this recipe is that the smell of spicy apples filled my apartment for days after making it (in a good way).

I don't think I'll ever buy apple sauce again.

Books - The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

If I were to make a list of the most important and cherished bits of my childhood from my current perspective as an adult Calvin and Hobbes would be very close to the top of that list. I also believe that if I were to form such a list from my perspective as a child it would also be near the top of that list. I still own all of the original Calvin and Hobbes books, many of which I bought myself with whatever money I received as gifts or allowance. I spent countless hours reading and re-reading them and they are dog-eared with love.

Thanks to Adrienne, who had an extra copy, I now also own the beautiful hardcover edition of "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes" which gathers all of the strips and bonus material ever produced by the masterful Bill Watterson into a three-volume collection with the glorious Sunday strips printed in full colour. It is truly a monument to his creation (quite literally as it weighs 23.7 pounds).

I have not re-read any Calvin and Hobbes in many years, so it was an absolute joy to read them all start-to-finish in large format with full colour. Also, with years of additional life perspective many of the strips and the overall tone of the work take on new meaning. The art in the comic is frequently gorgeous, but the text is the true strength. Many strips are dense with words. The vocabulary is extensive and the social commentary subtle. I like to think that although I did not understand everything in Calvin and Hobbes as a child it still shaped my world view and provided me with a point of reference upon encountering new situations as I moved through the end of childhood and the first stages of being an adult.

Even now, the themes continue to be valuable. Presence in the moment; appreciation of nature; the value of friendship; finding fun in all that is around you; and most importantly imagination. These topics never become insignificant.

Like Neil Gaiman's The Sandman Calvin and Hobbes is not "just a comic." It is art. For parents of young children I cannot recommend Calvin and Hobbes strongly enough as a way to entertain them while encouraging them to think differently about the world around us.

If you've never read Calvin and Hobbes, the best way to experience it is to get a physical copy of one of the many collections and just read it. Preferably someplace quiet and alone, without the distractions of life. For anyone looking for more perspective on the work and its famously private and principled creator Bill Watterson, check out the excellent documentary Dear Mr. Watterson.

February Snowboarding

My blogging has been a bit non-existent lately as I've been travelling a bunch in the pursuit of my favourite winter activity: snowboarding. First I went to Tahoe and then to Whistler. Both were amazing and I was able to share them with amazing friends. I've written up the usual trip journal with lots of photos. The text is a bit more terse than I'd prefer because I made the mistake of not keeping notes while travelling.

Sadly the season has come to an end for me. But I'm already starting to think about where to go next year. Utah perhaps? Or maybe Colorado. Or...both?

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