Superfluous Matter
Getting Settled

A couple weeks have passed since my last post and my life is considerably more stable now. Work continues to be amazing and I have moved into my new apartment and unpacked my things. I have a home once again.

I'm living in an "in-between" neighbourhood and as such the rent is a bit cheaper. For those who know San Francisco I'm up the hill behind the Trader Joe's near Geary and Masonic. It's not really Laurel Heights and it's not really Inner Richmond. Depending on the neighbourhood map you look at I might be in Lone Mountain or Jordan Heights, but neither name sparks much recognition in the eyes of the average San Franciscan.

My walk to work is about twenty minutes and half of it occurs inside the Presidio. It's lovely to walk through a forest as part of my commute. Also in the Presidio is the huge climbing gym Planet Granite. On Friday morning I finally got out there to climb for the first time since leaving Canada. It was fantastic but I'm a bit out of shape. I'll soon fix that.

So far I've noticed two "little things" I miss about Canada. First, as always when moving to a new place I desperately want a Canadian Tire. That store is so useful for miscellaneous house stuff. I haven't found a single spot here that is quite as comprehensive. The second is a small detail on the buses. As in Toronto there are signs inside encouraging people to move back. In Toronto when you get to the back there is a sign thanking you for being considerate. That is missing here and I notice its absence every time.

I've made a video walkthrough of my apartment for anyone who's interested in seeing my new spac, but I'd highly recommend visiting in person instead of (or in addition to) watching this crude facsimile.

Video walkthrough of my new apartment
Trials and Tribulations

I don't want to complain. However, moving to a new country necessarily involves a certain amount of nightmarish bureaucratic failure. I have had three such instances so far (two resolved and one still open) and I would suspect there are several more waiting in my future.

To being with I definitely should not have boasted about how I totally had my banking figured out. Almost immediately after publishing that post it all exploded.

When I linked my new Wells Fargo account to my RBC Bank account RBC immediately froze that account due to a recent rash of fraudulent activity originating from Wells Fargo. To fix this problem I had to get a letter from Wells Fargo indicating that I owned the account and that it was in good standing. Since Wells Fargo is a real bank I was able to accomplish this quickly and get my RBC bank account unfrozen.

Unfortunately for me I opened my Wells Fargo account with a cheque from my RBC account. Of course they tried to cash that cheque while my RBC account was frozen and so it bounced. This didn't sit well with Wells Fargo and so they froze my accounts. I went in to chat with Wells Fargo and they told me that unless I got a letter from RBC indicating that it was not my fault the cheque bounced, my Wells Fargo accounts would be closed and I would not be able to bank with Wells Fargo in the future. Apparently I was being suspected of bank fraud.

Because RBC is not quite a real bank here it took a few days of increasingly frantic phone calls to get the letter. Eventually it came through and my Wells Fargo accounts were unfrozen. Just not before I needed to make a certified cheque to use to secure my new apartment. Fortunately I have awesome friends in the Bay Area and Mike made the cheque for me with the understanding that I'd pay him back when I could access my money again.

I'm in a good place with my banking at the moment, but I'm trying to be careful not to trigger any more catastrophic feedback loops.

In other failure, last weekend I returned to Canada to go on my family's annual Algonquin canoe trip. This is a major event for my family and is very important to me personally so I requested that I be allowed to go back for it as a condition of accepting my job offer. Turns out getting permission from my new employer would be the least of my difficulties.

I had booked a return flight between San Francisco and Ottawa (connecting in Chicago) back in June and the timing of the segments seemed perfect. I arrived at SFO early Friday morning, got checked in and boarded the plane. There was a bit of a delay but nothing unusual. Then the captain came on and notified the passengers that something was broken on the plane which meant they'd have to start one engine by itself and then use it to jump-start the other. A bit concerning, but the captain made it sound normal. A few minutes later this procedure was attempted. The first engine didn't even cycle to full power before it shut itself off. We were then informed that the plane was properly broken and would not be flying so everyone had to get off.

A new plane was ordered but it would not be available in time for me to make my connection in Chicago. I went to the service desk and eventually they were able to route me through Washington DC instead. Cool stuff and not too painful. But the plane to DC turned out to be broken as well. They were able to fix it without unloading, but the delay made my connection in DC very very tight. I ran across the airport on arrival, grateful that I had no checked luggage, and made it to the gate to Ottawa in time.

Unfortunately I was promptly informed that I did not have a seat on the flight to Ottawa. This was a surprise to me because I asked the agent back in San Francisco to confirm I had a seat since it would be very useless for me to be stuck in DC. With nothing to be done I waited around until boarding was complete at which point I was notified that because another passenger had failed to show up there was a seat for me and I could board. I arrived in Ottawa just two hours later than scheduled. Not too bad at all.

But when I returned to the Ottawa airport on Tuesday to fly back to San Francisco I was informed that one of the agents on Friday had inadvertently cancelled my seat on the Ottawa to Chicago leg of my return trip and that flight was now full. In fact there was no way to get me to San Francisco on any flight through any city on Tuesday. They had to book me in on Wednesday instead. For my trouble they put me in first class so I can't complain but that trip was by far the biggest failure I've ever had with air travel. It has made me want to stay in one place for a while.

The final instance of failure was my attempt to apply for a Social Security Number. I went to the office first thing the morning before my failure flights with all the required paperwork nicely prepared. The wait was not long and a very friendly man took care of me. But then he discovered that DHS had issued my TN Visa to a person with the first name of Matthew-Christopher (i.e. they merged my first and middle name to become my first name). Normally Social Security would just follow suit and to the US government I'd forever be Matthew-Christopher. But in my case my merged name is too long and it would not fit in the text field on the computer. So Social Security has to liaise with DHS to verify my identity meaning that my SSN will require somewhere between four and a million weeks to arrive. Since everything in the US requires a SSN this is a bit inconvenient. Hopefully I'll get it sometime in September.

Again, I'm not trying to complain. I'm fortunate to have this opportunity. But some days it really feels like my brain is going to explode. I've stopped assuming anything will go as planned. These experiences are definitely not what I pictured when I thought about all the personal growth I'd experience by taking a new job and moving to a new country.

On the more positive side the canoe trip was great. My apartment is nice and in a good area and won't bankrupt me. My stuff has apparently made it from Canada and will be delivered Monday morning. I'm slowly getting settled into my new job and the people, challenges and environment continue to be quite inspiring. I have very decent health benefits even if the health care system remains totally confounding to me. I'm lucky to be here and everything is awesome.

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.

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