Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Getting big like a cat

I have spent a lot of time over the last year and a half looking for ways to get cheap protein in my diet.  The trickiest thing about this has been the struggle between ethical meat consumption and cost because the cheapest meat is never the kind of meat that has 'ethically raised' stamped on it.

Last night though Wendy and I were talking about this and the idea of cat food came up.  Cat food is advertised as being high in protein and is cheap on a dollars per gram metric.  What could go wrong?

Comparing cat food to normal human food is tricky though.  Cat food doesn't have the same nutritional information panel that most human food does so I have to make some guesses about what I would get out of it.  The first thing that struck us when we started evaluating the cat food bag for weight lifting consumption was that the protein content was *really* high.  36%, in fact, which is higher than beef, pork, or chicken.  That seemed a little bit ridiculous but then I realized it must be due to water, or lack thereof.  Slabs of meat have a ton of water in them but the dried cat food doesn't so even though it has all kind of random stuff in there like corn the protein content is still fairly high by weight.

The ingredients in cat food read kind of sketchy though.  I don't know what "chicken by product meal" actually is but I bet it is all the worst parts of chicken that humans would never eat ground up into a paste.  One of the ingredients is salmon though, without any modifying words like "meal" or "by product" so maybe I can think of it as a fancy fish meal.  I could pretend that the crunchiness is like tempura coating!

I am not actually going to try to gain muscle mass by eating cat food, even though it is the cheapest protein I have been able to find.

I know that cat food has stuff in it that isn't good for humans in large quantity, particularly the high Vitamin A content that apparently can cause "nausea, vomiting, irritability, headaches, and blurred eyesight" and eventually death.  Good for cats, bad for people.

It does seem like there is a real market possibility out there though.  There are people like me hunting for cheap protein who are willing to eat whatever gross parts of animals nobody else wants, and if you don't put toxic levels of cat specific vitamins in the food I would totally eat it.

Now if only the invisible hand of the market would supply this particular need!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Raising burgers up right

This January has had some real rough spots so far.  I started off with a hideous illness, some kind of awful cold that put me down for a week.  It faded from there but had a long tail so after three weeks I thought the last of the persistent cough would finally end.

And then I caught another cold and am sick again. 

On the upside, being sick all the time has left me lots of time to watch animated sitcom Bob's Burgers.  I assume most people who talk about Bob's Burgers would want to talk about the silly events that occur or the ridiculous children in the Belcher family but the thing that really gets me about the show is the parenting.

I remember watching The Simpsons years ago and always being really uncomfortable with the parenting in the show.  Homer is constantly physically abusive to Bart and is generally a pretty awful person.  Marge is less brutal but still puts up with Homer choking Bart and does that parenting thing where parents desperately try to solve their children's problems by doing whatever they wished their parents had done instead of what their children need.

This is the thing that I like most about Bob's Burgers.  The parents are quirky and flawed people.  They make mistakes.  But they fundamentally believe in their children's right to self determination and do their best to support them.  They struggle to balance their own lives and dreams against the needs of their children and generally do all right at that.

The Simpsons is a classic model of abusive behaviour - Homer does horrible things, then at the end of the show suddenly gets all loving and kind and tries to make it up to everyone.  Not that every episode is like this, but enough of them follow that script that the dynamic was always very off for me.

When a show has parenting built into it I react pretty strongly to that parenting, even if the parenting is just a sideshow.  This even happened with The Walking Dead where I wanted to punch all of the parents in the face for their terrible decisions.  I get that they are living in a world of brain munching zombies and that puts a lot of strain on them, but the constant excessively controlling behaviour is just unpleasant.  Plus the parents constantly push the kids to try to make up for the parents latest screwup or meltdown and everything lurches back and forth all the time.  I hate that part of it.

I like zombies and apocalypse though so the show is generally fun but the parenting really puts me off.

Bob and Linda Belcher don't try to make their kids into their redemption.  They don't try to pin their lives and hopes on their kids following in their footsteps.  They let the kids be who they are, and hope for the best for them.  With many screwups and breakdowns along the way, sure, but their baseline relationship with their children is one I like.

So that is why you should watch Bob's Burgers.  Not just because Bob's voice is Archer and that blows my mind, but because the parenting makes me happy.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Too Like The Lightning

Wendy put quite a lot of effort into getting me to read the book Too Like The Lightning.  It is a science fiction novel by Ada Palmer set hundreds of years in the future.  The technology in the setting is advanced compared to what we have now but this isn't a space opera - humanity is still confined to Earth and a moon base.  Wendy absolutely loved the book and made it clear from the outset that I would find it hard to get into but she was sure I would love it by the end.  Lots of other people raved about the book too; it has plenty of ardent adherents.

I did not love it.  I spent the first 80% of the book thinking it was a rubbish mishmash and felt like reading it was a chore.  The final 20% was better, no longer a chore, but never a joy.

Massive spoilers ahead, by the way.

I have to give Palmer credit for creativity and research.  She obviously knows a ton about philosophers and great thinkers of the past (she is an academic in the history field, and it shows) and she brought a ton of that research into the book with characters constantly referencing philosophers from ages prior to now.  She tried hard to tackle all kinds of fascinating and worthy ideas in the book, and the list of things she attempted to write about is impressive.

Biological families being replaced by families of choice, called bashes.
Transport across the globe being a matter of an hour.
Traditional nations being replaced by nations based on personal characteristics rather than location due to the transportation revolution above.
The outlawing of organized religion and new ways to control thought.
Gender being nearly removed from mainstream society, and the pushback against that.
Children being raised to only interface with computers and never to interact with the physical world.
The ethics of trying to sacrifice the few for the good of the many.
Serious criminals being reduced to a particularly strange form of slavery instead of imprisonment.

And I could go on, this is just the stuff that came to me in two minutes thought.  The trouble is that when you try to do absolutely everything at once you end up not having enough time to do it right.  I suspect Palmer had all kinds of things figured out in her head but when you try to tackle all that stuff at once it becomes just impossible to do justice to any of it.  It ends up feeling like a massive rush of bits and pieces that are ultimately unsatisfying.

Much like she tried to tackle ALL THE ISSUES at once, she also tries to have an enormous cast of characters.  There are a good twenty important named characters and a collection of lesser ones and when you have so many of those everybody ends up being shallowly defined.  There wasn't a single character I empathized with, nor one that I felt I understood.  This is exacerbated by the huge number of societal changes that Palmer tries to tackle at the same time because with all the standards being different you need *more* time per character to let the reader really dig in, not less.  With so many characters interacting in a world where nothing is what you expect and standards are completely new I found it messy and unfulfilling.  People did stuff and I had no idea why, and I never got enough information about them to actually figure it out.

The majority of the plot is about a political intrigue surrounding a list of ten names.  That list was supposed to be a simple list of the ten people a newspaper reporter thinks are most influential in the world, and when the list gets stolen all the most powerful people in the world are terrified of the consequences and world peace teeters on the brink.

How it is that the world isn't a smoking hole in the ground if a simple list written by a random schmuck being stolen is a worldwide disaster?  Shouldn't everyone be dead by now in such a fragile place?

A lot of the way this world is put together feels bizarre like that, as though you can't really follow anything to its logical conclusion.  Technology seems to work randomly, and you have absolutely no idea what anyone can do at any given time.  People will often do things that make no sense at all given the tech they have at their command.  Maybe there are explanations in Palmer's head somewhere, but they didn't make it into the book.

Now there is one other thing that you have to add in to the mess - there is a kid with magic powers.  Not minor stuff either... he is capable of destroying the Earth in an instant, raising the dead, creating new intelligent life forms, curing diseases, wiping out humanity, or nearly anything else.  He has ultimate cosmic power.

And he doesn't matter.  His existence is a subplot, he doesn't make any relevant decisions, and the book ends with him having done nothing of consequence.  He just sits around being a demigod and like all the other characters there isn't enough time spent on him for him to have any depth.

Why is he there?!?

I get why people love the book.  It tries to do all kinds of things, interesting things.  However, Wendy is far more able than I to consume media and just forgive the nonsensical parts of it as long as the rest is fun and interesting.  We had similar differences of opinion on the latest Star Wars movie - I bristled at the obvious gaps in logic and nonsensical plot holes while she just enjoyed the scenery.  I couldn't get past the parts of this book that made no sense to me and while sometimes great characters can make up for that these characters never made me care.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Grand beginnings

Over the past year I have been reading a lot by N K Jemisin.  I raved about her book Fifth Season, and I stand by that.  I finished that series and also read two other series by her, the Dreamblood series and the Inheritance series.  There was a pattern in these series, which is that the first book absolutely rocks my world and then it goes downhill from there.

That sounds bad but it isn't like the followup books in Jemisin's series are bad, just that they don't measure up to the standard set by the first.  Sort of like The Matrix, where you are filled with wonder and excitement at the first installment and hope for exactly the same feeling when the next section arrives... and it doesn't do the same thing.  I wouldn't rate Jemisin's followup novels quite as badly as The Matrix 2 and 3, but the sense of disappointment was similar.

The reason they feel similar, I think, is that our minds fill in the gaps when we don't have enough information.  When we wonder why the Guardians do what they do in Fifth Season, we don't have much in the way of information.  When the stone eaters appear only in brief flashes with minimal explanation we have to guess at where they come from and what they are.  Jemisin is phenomenal at creating worlds where there is just enough information to feel satisfying and we spend our time wondering at what is around the corner.  The Matrix original was the same way because we didn't understand how things worked exactly but the parts that we saw were SO COOL.

But like The Matrix Jemisin kind of falls down when she tries to explain everything.  I don't know if she didn't have it all planned ahead and couldn't make it work or if she did have it planned but couldn't write a book where all the information came out in a way that would be completely satisfying to the reader, but the third book of the Inheritance trilogy and the Broken Earth trilogy both were big letdowns.  They tried desperately to show us all the things behind the curtain and ended up being far weaker than the first books in those series - they simply didn't achieve what they set out to do.

I think perhaps many great science fiction authors would struggle in the same way if they ever tried to follow up an amazing book with more story in the same universe.  While it might seem like it would be easy to simply continue on with a story you already have going I think that this is only true when the world is one that is familiar.  When you are trying to cope with a completely different world with rules and physics that are foreign to the reader it is extremely difficult to continue to write amazing fiction without running into all kinds of problems.  It is too easy to realize that the story you want to tell no longer works with the physics you have created, or that when you try to explain further the things you sketched out in earlier editions that they all fall apart.  Sometimes you have to just write something great and leave it, knowing that the conclusion that the readers will come up with in their own minds are better than what you can build yourself.  Many great science fiction books are like this, full of cool stuff that there isn't time to fully flesh out, and then left to the imagination of the reader.

This all shouldn't be taken as advice to avoid Jemisin's work.  Thankfully the first books in all her series are fantastic, engaging stories in magnificent worlds and you honestly don't need to read more of the books to feel happy with what she has created.  You can simply stop there if you like and you will have read a great book with wild and wonderful ideas.  I also love her seamless inclusion of a wide range of characters including queer people, trans people, poly people, and people of colour - these things are often a rarity in science fiction.

If you do continue on you will find good books, reasonable books, just not books that will blow your mind.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

In the zone

I just finished reading Zone One, a book about a zombie apocalypse written by Colson Whitehead.  It is written about a 3 day period after the rebuilding phase of the apocalypse has begun.  The government has begun to reform, people are organizing, and the protagonist of the book is part of an effort to clean out the last zombies from a section of New York which they refer to as Zone One.

When I was reading it the whole thing seemed kind of silly.  After all, with 99% of the human race wiped out what possible use could New York be?  Big cities would be useful for a portion of the zombie apocalypse scenario where survivors are scrounging for food and tools but after that it is completely worthless.

New York, like all large cities, requires a massive multinational supply chain to keep it functional.  It needs monstrous amounts of food, fuel, and other supplies trucked, floated, and flown in to maintain the lives of the people living there.  The most important of these is fuel because food can be grown in small, low tech chunks in parks, rooftops, and boulevards.  Fuel though, that requires a robust network to get it out of the ground, refine it, and transport it to its destination.  Cities require infrastructure to support them, and that infrastructure requires people.

In this kind of disaster scenario there are some things you never have to think about again, like mattresses.  They don't break down much, there are more of them than you can go through in 100 years, and they are everywhere.  With the population decimated you can safely ignore mattresses for the foreseeable future.  Cars would be in a similar sort of state - while they would run out faster than mattresses there are going to be usable cars that happen to be under shelter and work fine for decades at least.  The problem again is fuel.

Everything in our society runs on a steady supply of fossil fuel energy and that supply requires a huge number of people and lots of organization to be workable.  Even if you ignore the marauding bands of zombies that would make long distance shipping and manufacturing impossible you just don't have enough raw people to make it work.  Our system is designed around a certain scale and when that scale suddenly changes by a couple orders of magnitude nothing works.

When you think about an apocalypse like this you quickly realize just how dependent we are on this extremely fragile system for distributing fossil fuels.  Without that *nothing* works.  We can't get around, we can't build stuff, we can't make stuff.  Everything grinds to a halt immediately and then nearly everyone starves.  Decades from now we may be a lot more able to survive such a disaster, even if it is just an epidemic that kills people but doesn't reanimate them into flesh eating monsters.  If our society is much more dependent on solar power, for example, our ability to get the juice flowing again and make our stuff work would be much greater.  Disaster mitigation may not rank highly on our normal reasons for going solar but I think it is a real benefit, as it reduces our reliance on the global oil infrastructure.

At the end of the book the reason for the war to recapture New York from the zombies is revealed, and it does make a kind of sense.  The reasons may not be good ones, but they are the sorts of reasons that humans sometimes use for stupid things, and it does hold together.

I liked the book, generally speaking, as I mostly like zombie apocalypse fiction and this is a different sort of approach to the genre than is usual.  It doesn't have a happy ending though where attractive scientists find a miraculous cure and the world emerges from disaster stronger than ever... it leans more towards darkness and horror unending.  So if depressing is your thing, go for it.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

It hurts to be beautiful

This Friday I went in to get a tattoo.  I wanted to get the same artist who did my shoulder tattoos to do this new one, but I made the decision in June last year and she was booked up for seven months.  Seven months is a long time to wait, but I was sure I wanted the same artist so waiting was the thing to do.

For no good reason I wanted a flaming tree on my chest.  People have asked if it is some kind of biblical burning bush reference (HELL NO) and also if it has some kind of significance for me (regular no).  The only kind of memory I have that relates to a burning tree is one time when my dad was burning a brush pile in our field and the fire got away from him and ended up burning down a stand of huge old pine trees.  Thankfully the stand of trees was in the middle of a field so there wasn't anything to spread the fire to.  I recall me and my brother running around with pails once the fire was mostly burned out, putting water on the smouldering bits.  I had to put him on my shoulders so we could get water onto a smoking branch that was out of my reach.

But none of that has anything to do with my tattoo, it is just a funny memory.  I don't know why I wanted a burning tree on my chest.  It just stuck in my mind once the possibility was there and made me want it desperately.

Here is the picture the artist made of what she was trying to do:

I didn't like the background stuff or the drippy effect, so it got updated to this:

And then when I decided I loved it she went to work on me.  Keep in mind that this is halfway done - the line work is complete and some filling in is done but I have another whole day in the chair filling in the rest to go:

It looks fantastic.  I gotta say, shaving my chest in preparation for the procedure was really weird though.  I have never done that before and it highlighted how my chest hair grows in all kinds of unexpected directions.  I also immediately felt like I looked wider somehow, like normal Sky pattern chest hair is slimming.

Just 9-10 hours of constant pain and way too much money, that is all it takes to make me pretty.  SO worth it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The straw

Visiting Thunder Bay was a good thing, but it had one significant downside:  Disease.  I contracted something awful while there and it made the plane ride home on the 30th crappy, particularly as I had to cart both the cat and the big suitcase from the airport home.

The next few days are a blur of coughing, wiping my nose, standing around like an idiot trying to find the strength to do a simple task while simultaneously not being sure which task I should even do, and not being able to tell the difference between asleep and awake.

But the real final straw was hiccups.

I mean, this illness has had me spewing from everywhere, cramped with nausea, pain all over, and all of that is crap and all... but hiccups too?

Over and over again, for days.

That was the thing that really downed my mood.  Brutal winter illnesses are *not* supposed to cause hiccups.  That is in the fucking contract, I am pretty sure.  I haven't read the fine print in awhile but it has to be in there somewhere.

Also it turns out that regular cold medicine, taken in normal doses, can put me into a wild mental state that is some combination of hallucinating, daydreaming, and sleep.  For four hours!  It was not at all fun.  It did stop the runny nose though, I will give it that.