Superfluous Matter
Zhuhai/Macau/Hong Kong!

For American Thanksgiving my company gives two holidays: the Thursday and the Friday. A four-day weekend is too long for me to not use it to travel somewhere so I decided to use three of my precious and few vacation days to extend it and take a week long trip.

KJ, one of my oldest friends, has lived in Zhuhai, China (near Hong Kong) for the last ten years and I had never visited her. When she told me she and her family plan to move to Germany in 2015 I realized it was now or never. I booked plane tickets to Hong Kong for the week of Thanksgiving and got a double-entry Chinese visa in order to be able to stay with KJ and her family in mainland China (Hong Kong does not require a visa for Canadians).

In addition to seeing Zhuhai I spent a day in Macau and four days in Hong Kong. KJ was an excellent host and guide and as a result I saw so many amazing things in a very short time. The focus of the trip was definitely food and many things I ate have claimed the spot of "best I ever had" in their respective categories. Hong Kong is a wonderful food city. Besides the food I saw some great scenery, enjoyed being in a world class city and had a wonderful time catching up with a dear friend and her family.

I've written up my usual trip journal very quickly this time as I wanted to finish it before Christmas. Check it out!

Tucson!

In October I went to Tucson for the weekend with Matt and Adrienne. It was super fun to see the desert and the city itself is pretty amazing too (like Portland or Austin but in Arizona). I've written up a short trip journal for it. Check it out!

Books - The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is great. He writes short stories, graphic novels, regular novels, screenplays for movie and TV (he won a Hugo for an episode of Doctor Who) and he tweets like crazy.

His latest novel continues his legacy of awesome. It seems to have the trappings of a fairy tale, but not like any I've read before. It's also quite short, in a good way. It's succinct. It gets right to the business of inspiring unusual thoughts and musings in your mind. It sticks with you days after reading. And the prose are just lovely. At one point a main character is described as looking like "pale silk and candle flames" immediately following the narrator's description of dark matter as "the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find."

I'm super excited to have the opportunity to attend an event at the San Francisco JCC entitled The Enchanting Neil Gaiman in March where he will have a live conversation with another amazing author, Michael Chabon. I'm definitely going to get one of my volumes of the Sandman series signed if I can.

Job Awesomeness

When I accepted the offer to come work for ILM I knew that it was going to be a pretty cool place to work. There is the amazing set of co-workers, the endless inspiring work produced by the studio and the cutting-edge technologies. I also get to help out with the new Star Wars movies. But I expected all that stuff based on conversations with Mike and my on-site interview. I was not prepared for all the other awesome things that happen all the time.

I'd like to document here some of the amazing things that have happened since I joined less than three months ago (and which can be shared publicly). I'm not trying to brag, I just realized that I literally will not be able to remember all of this a year from now without aid and I don't want to forget any of it.

First of all ILM has a huge theatre that is used for screenings both internal and external. The Academy regularly uses the theatre to provide screenings of new films to its members. Employees are often invited to join in on these Academy screenings. ILM also provides employee+guest screenings of movies we work on and also just random movies that people might be interested in seeing. There's at least one movie a week and since joining I've seen the following in our theatre: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Lucy; Noah; Men, Women and Children; Guardians of the Galaxy; and today I saw The Theory of Everything.

Free movies are awesome...but the kicker is that many of the screenings are associated with a special guest. ILM has something called the Speaker Series where various personalities from the industry come and give an hour long chat plus question and answer session with the company. I've been to four now: Gareth Edwards (for Monsters), Jason Reitman (for Men, Women and Children), Darren Aronofsky (for Noah) and Eddie Redmayne (for The Theory of Everything). These sessions are not trivial, the guests go very deep into their processes and so far all of them have been super inspiring. Edwards, Reitman and Aronofsky are all incredible directors whose work I admire so it was really cool to hear them speak in person. I was not as familiar with Eddie Redmayne before today. However his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything was absolutely incredible. I would be shocked if he did not at least receive an Oscar nomination for best actor. It was so cool to hear him talk about how he was able to put together that performance.

In addition to cool screenings and special guests I've now had the opportunity to hear several members of senior management speak and that has also been truly incredible. The president of Lucasfilm is Kathleen Kennedy, a woman with a long history of producing many of my favourite films. She is currently producing Episode VII but had time to give a talk to the company a few weeks ago. It was immediately clear to me that she is an amazing leader. I've used this word a lot but it was very very inspiring to hear her speak. Similarly, the president of ILM (the subsidiary of Lucasfilm that I work for) Lynwen Brennan, has spoken at a couple company meetings since I've joined and I feel just as strongly about her leadership abilities as I do about Kathleen's. Plus, in a recent update meeting she recognized my little team directly for our contributions, naming us each in front of the whole company! So cool!

On the technical side of things we have Dennis Muren (a true visual effects pioneer) and John Knoll (original creator of Photoshop and VFX supervisor on many amazing ILM projects). Recently Dennis Muren gave a talk to the company about his very first feature film, Equinox. He made the movie himself in the sixties and did all the visual effects. His budget was tiny, but the things he learned he later used in his work on movies like The Empire Strikes Back. There was a point in his talk where he showed how he applied something from Equinox to one of my favourite scenes in Empire. It was, perhaps, the coolest thing ever.

It's been a wild ride so far and I haven't even been at the company for a whole quarter. In addition to all the big things the little day-to-day stuff is pretty fun too. I've been made to feel so incredibly welcome by everyone. I'm working very hard, but I rarely notice. It's a very special company.

One more awesome thing. Almost everyone cares at least as much about Star Wars as I do and so everyone loves to talk about it all the time. This fills me with joy.

Cooking - Thai Red Curry Tomato-Squash Soup

I've settled in enough now in my new home to be cooking regularly once again. I haven't done anything new yet, but I have many "staple" recipes that I regularly make in large batches and freeze for future use. One such recipe is for a squash-based soup which I made this evening. Much of my cooking is cumulative and this soup is a perfect example as many of the ingredients are things that I have prepared in advance.

Shortly after moving into my new apartment I made a slow-cooker full of bone-in chicken thighs (rubbed with my current favourite spice mix of cocoa powder and smoked paprika) and I saved all the bones in the freezer. Then a couple weeks ago I roasted a whole chicken using an awesome recipe from Jamie Oliver. The thigh bones were added to a pot of water with the chicken carcass and a splash of apple cider vinegar and then simmered for four hours to make chicken stock. I froze the stock and use it for rice or for soup.

I regularly buy large quantities of tomatoes and roast them slowly in the oven to make sun-dried tomatoes. Thinly sliced and mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper, these tomatoes become like candy after three or four hours in an oven at 275F. They freeze well and add excellent flavour to many dishes. Lately I've been using "dry-farmed" Early Girl Tomatoes for this recipe with great success.

I also make and freeze my own tomato sauce in big batches from time to time. Rather than deal with blanching and peeling fresh tomatoes (which may or may not be in season locally) I buy four 28oz cans of whole peeled D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. These are generally canned at peak freshness and as such are always delicious. But I get ahead of myself. First I heat a half cup of olive oil in a big pot and then add a bunch of anchovies stirring them until they dissolve. Then I add half an onion, finely chopped, and sauté until tender. Next I add five cloves of garlic, thinly sliced; one and half tablespoons of fennel seed; two tablespoons of oregano; some dried chili flakes and sauté until fragrant. Next a cup of red wine is added which I simmer until the volume is reduced by half. Only then do the tomatoes get added, breaking up the chunks right in the pot. Finally I add a cup and a half of finely chopped fresh basil and a bit of salt and pepper. I bring the whole mixture to a boil and then simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour. At the end I purée the sauce with a hand-blender to achieve a pleasing consistency.

I know, this post is supposed to be about soup. But all of the above happened before I could make my soup today. What's more, I will often use the soup as a starting point for future, more complicated meals. The soup is good on its own but you can also add various meats and vegetables to make it a more complete meal. I will sometimes thaw a pre-made container of the soup and heat it on the stove with leftovers to use them up.

The recipe for the soup is flexible (like most things I make these days) but I consider the following to be the canonical version. First get a big, orange-fleshed squash and roast it in the oven until soft. I've successfully made the soup with butternut, kobacha and red kuri. The roasting method will vary depending on the squash but for butternut you can just cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, rub the cut-side with olive oil and roast on a pan cut-side down. Once roasted it is pretty easy to peel away the skin.

At the same time as roasting the squash you should also roast a whole bulb of garlic. Simply chop off the top, pour olive oil into the bulb and wrap it with tin foil. Leave it in the oven for however long the squash takes. When it's done you can squeeze the delicious roasted garlic right out of the skins. Try not to eat too much of it immediately as it is meant to go in the soup.

Once the squash and garlic are roasted heat a generous amount of coconut oil in a big pot. Add a bunch of chopped onion and sauté until tender. Then add a few inches of minced ginger, the roasted garlic, some chili flakes and two or three tablespoons of concentrated Thai Red Curry Paste (I get the "Thai Kitchen" brand, but you can also make it yourself). Mix until fragrant, then add a bunch of sun-dried tomatoes, some tomato sauce and the roasted squash. Mix well and then add four cups of chicken stock and a can of unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk. Bring to a boil while stirring and then simmer for an hour or so. Turn off the heat, then add a couple tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice and purée with a hand-blender until smooth.

Do I need to make my own chicken stock, tomato sauce and sun-dried tomatoes to make this soup? No, not really. But I feel that the end result is much better. Plus, all the precursor ingredients are easy to make, keep well in the freezer, and have a ton of other uses. In fact, when I don't have a freezer full of such precursors I find day-to-day cooking to be much more challenging. I really should make my own red curry paste at some point and freeze a bunch of that too.

I've made a few variations of this recipe in the past. Obviously you can add veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli or cauliflower, or meats like crumbled sausage or shredded chicken. But I prefer to keep the soup pure and plain. Then I freeze it and add extra stuff later in order to increase the variety of meals achieved by a single batch. However, for the base soup you can use leeks instead of onions or you can swap the tomatoes for chopped, peeled apples. You can also substitute beef bone broth for chicken broth to get a heartier result.

More so than chicken, beef broth should definitely be home-made. Gather a bunch of bones (ideally from pastured cows) and put them in a big crock pot with a splash of apple cider vinegar and enough water to cover everything. Cook on low for at least 24 hours (I normally do 36). My mix of bones generally includes an oxtail, some marrow bones, some knuckle bones and some neck bones. You can roast the bones for an hour before making the broth to get a darker more savoury result but it's not strictly necessary (but if you have marrow bones be sure to eat the marrow on its own after roasting...delicious!). Strain the result with cheesecloth and freeze. If you've got good bones and simmered them long enough the broth will be very gelatinous even at room temperature. This is exactly what you want. I often drink the broth plain when I'm feeling less than 100%.

Many of the precursor ingredients I've discussed here are also used in my chili, but as this post is long enough I shall leave that recipe for another day.

Books - The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton

This is the second book I've read by the esteemed Mr. Berton. While "Prisoners of the North" is a biography of five individuals connected to the Arctic, "The Arctic Grail" is a history of the quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole (both geographic and magnetic) from 1818 to 1909. But it is not just a recitation of events. Berton exercises his considerable skill at exposing the personalities of the characters involved and really brings the history to life.

At almost 700 pages "The Arctic Grail" is a hefty tome and despite Berton's skill as a story-teller it does drag on in places. Not every story connected to the exploration of Canada's Arctic is exciting. But the book is not meant to be pure entertainment. His goal was to provide a single narrative for the entire period of exploration. Countless books and articles exist on each of the events and people he covers but there is little in existence that attempts to tie it all together.

As expected much of the book focuses on the doomed expedition of Sir John Franklin and the subsequent attempts to discover the fate of his ships and men. This topic was covered in "Prisoners of the North" from the perspective of Franklin's tenacious wife Jane, but here a much more comprehensive account of the events is provided. This section of the book was made all the more interesting because the government of Canada recently announced it had discovered the location of the wreck of one of the ships from the Franklin expedition, over 150 years after it was lost. Reading about the vast sums of money, the endless human suffering and the tragic loss of life that all happened as a result of the search for this ship in the 19th century truly underscores the significance of this discovery.

Although the exploits of Franklin and other British explorers is interesting I also found the stories unceasingly frustrating. The British Navy of the time stubbornly refused to learn from the mistakes of its previous expeditions. And at no time did it acknowledge that there might be something to be learned from the Inuit about Arctic living. These failures led to so much avoidable suffering and death that even the stories of miraculous survival and escape are marred by the fact that most of the hardship need never have occurred in the first place.

For me, the stories of the Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen were much more interesting because those men took the time to properly prepare for their expeditions. They adapted their tactics to the conditions of the Arctic rather than using standard naval practices like the British. As a result their respective missions succeeded with relative ease. This makes their stories less exciting, but, to me at least, also much more satisfying.

If you're interested in the history of Arctic exploration, particularly by sea, this book is a good overview of many of the key events and can help lead you to topics to explore in a deeper manner. I intend to seek out further material on the Norwegians and will attempt to avoid further reading about the failures of the British.

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).

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