The Writer in Black

The Writer in Black

Monday, July 28, 2014

Feeding the Active Writer

This week:  Italian Meat Loaf

There are several variations of the meat loaf recipe that one can use.  I did a Mexican Meat Loaf before.  This week I'm doing an Italian theme.  Unlike traditional meat loaf, this is done without bread, cereal, or other grains.  The secrets to doing a really good meat loaf this way are first, to use the leanest ground beef you can (generally sold, progressively leaner, as ground chuck, ground round, and ground sirloin; locally we also get "extra lean ground beef" which is the leanest yet).  The less fat in the ground beef, the less shrinkage and the less the loaf will end up swimming in liquid (normally absorbed by the bread or equivalent) during cooking.  The second secret is lots of egg, which helps bind everything together.

Ingredients:
3 lbs lean ground beef (chuck or leaner)
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
1 12 oz. can tomato paste
1 cup diced bell peppers (I use them from frozen bags so how many bell peppers that might be, I don't know).
1 cup diced onion (ditto)
4 Oz chopped fresh mushrooms
5 eggs
1 Tbsp finely minced garlic (for folk who know me, this is actually a remarkably small amount)
1 Tbsp Oregano.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ingredients.  The best way really is to get in there with your hands (I don't need to remind you to wash them first, right?  Oh, I just did. ;) ) and squish it all together until it's thoroughly mixed.

Place the mix in a 4-5 quart slow cooker.

Cook 8-10 hours.

Let cool.

Portion.  I like to cut it into eights like a pie and remove the pieces to zipper bags to freeze to take to lunch.

Enjoy.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pantsing vs. Plotting

One of the great questions of the writing world:  Pantser or Plotter.

Um, yes?

When I first got started writing, I'd have an "idea".  Since I write mostly SF and Fantasy the idea was usually in the form of some story gimmick:  what would it be like to play tennis on the moon?  How would an EMT service on the moon work?  Suppose psychic powers existed but were really, really limited?  Suppose "her world exploded" wasn't a metaphor but literal truth?

And then I'd sit down and start writing, making things up as I went along.

Most of the time the story would fall apart and I'd have nothing.  I'd have an opening and either be going in circles or just get stuck and have no idea what to write next.

So I started plotting in advance, outlining the things that happen in the story.  I'd still have the stories fall apart in my hands but at least I wouldn't have written a bunch of finished text before reaching that point.  And I learned that I can work from an outline.  If I ever do collaborative work, that can be important.

So, for a long time then I was a "plotter".  But I often didn't adhere closely to the outline.  Instead, I'd find the story going in different directions.  That was okay.  I could just pause, redo the outline to reflect the new direction, and proceed from there.  Sometimes it might take several iterations through that before I was done.

But here's the thing.  The final stories weren't any more likely to sell when I plotted than when I'd pantsed.

Enter Dwight Swain and his book "Techniques of the Selling Writer".



One of the things Mr. Swain had in his book, on preparing for writing a story, was having a "starting line up." This meant defining five elements of the story:  situation, character, goal, opposition, and "disaster".  Your character exists in an initial situation.  He has a goal he'd like to achieve (which could simply be avoiding some bad thing happening).  There's opposition to the character's goal (usually a "villain" of the piece, but not necessarily).  And some bad outcome from failure to accomplish the goal, the "disaster".

The stories of mine that failed to get off the ground in the past were usually over the lack of some element in this starting line up.  So, lately, I started to spell them out explicitly before starting writing a story.  Oh, if I have an idea for a story opening or something I might write that to get a feel for things and then pause to create the starting line up.  But I do it, every time.

And the result is that I've found myself going back to pantsing.  I can just write the story because the elements I need are there.  I can wonder a bit in subplots, explore character a bit, take some time letting minor characters strut their stuff, but with the starting line up to give direction I can keep the story moving in the way it needs to move.

So now my outlines, if used at all, tend to be smaller bits meant to work out particular story problems, a kind of guided free association to figure out how to resolve challenges. (Character is here.  I need him there.  How do I get him there?)

But that's how I work today.  Tomorrow?  Who knows.  I've changed my working method before and there's no reason to suppose I won't do it again.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Feeding the Active Writer

This time Barbeque Pulled Pork.

Most commercial barbeque sauces are loaded with sugar.  But I like barbeque, and have for as long as I can remember.  So I found a recipe which was okay, but wasn't quite there.  Over the course of several iterations I tweaked it until I was happy with the result.  So today, we'll have the recipe for homemade, low carb barbecue sauce and and use some of it in making some pulled pork loin.

I like a  sauce that's tomatoey (that's totally a word; I don't care what my spell checker says), smokey, heavy on the garlic, and with some "zing."  This recipe fits the bill.

The sauce:
6 strips of bacon, chopped fine.
1/2 cup finely minced onion
2 tbsp finely minced garlic (I buy it in jars pre-minced so I don't know how many cloves that would come to--I like garlic).
12 oz tomato paste
1 12 oz can Diet Coke with Splenda (I kid you not!)
1/2 cup sugar-free catsup (Heinz has that available here)
2 Tbsp mustard.
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 Tbsp hot sauce (or to taste.  I use Cholula original because their Chili Garlic is no longer available--did I mention I like garlic?)

Fry the chopped bacon in a saucepan.  A two-quart or so should be fine.  Stir frequently to prevent clumping.

Add the onion and garlic cook over medium heat until the onions are soft, about 3-5 minutes.  Here's one place where you can tweak the sauce to your taste.  If you like the sweeter taste of roasted garlic, cook it on the longer side at this stage.  If, however, you prefer the sharper taste of raw garlic, cook a bit less here or even wait until the onions are done before adding the garlic.

Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, and then simmer covered for 20-30 minutes to combine the flavors.  If you consider it too thick for your taste, add some water.  I usually add about one cup.  The result is a little "chunky" because of the bacon bits, onion, and garlic.  That's normal.   You can blend the final product to smooth it out if you prefer.  I don't bother.  The chunks give it character.

That done, I filled a 24 oz glass jar to set aside and had some left over.  We'll come back to that left over sauce later.

The  pulled pork:
Take one pork loin, 3-5 lbs, and cut it into 4-5 chunks.  Place the chunks in a 4-5 quart slow cooker.  When cooking in the slow cooker, I use slow cooker liners to save on cleanup.

Cook on low 8-10 hours.

Now, traditionally, you would take the pork chunks out of the cooker and pull it apart with forks.  I don't bother.  By this time it is so tender that you can simply take a large, metal, slotted spoon and stir.  The pork will fall apart nicely and the juices that had cooked out of it will mix in with the shreds.

Mix in barbeque sauce.  How much you use is largely up to you.  For my taste, the amount left over after making up the batch above and filling the jar (for more barbecuey--totally a word--goodness some other time) is just about the right amount to flavor a batch of the pulled pork.  If you like to go heavier on the sauce, indulge.  If you prefer a lighter touch with the sauce to allow the flavor of the meat to come through, be my guest.  In the end, the Active Writer cooks to please himself and perhaps his family.

I made this batch for my lunches to take to work, so the final step was to let it cool, then portion it out in single servings in zipper bags.  So I take a bag to work, add the contents to a microwave safe plate along with some non-starchy vegetables, and microwave until warmed through.  Makes a hearty and tasty lunch.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Immigration Policy

In another forum, I was discussing the topic of immigration policy.  Specifically, supporting legal immigration while not supporting illegal immigration.  The question arose of children of illegal aliens, brought here through no fault of their own.

In the case of these kids there are two options as I see it. First, either they are still kids in which case the only realistic thing to do with them is send them back with their parent(s). Second, if they are not still kids, then as an adult they chose to stay here illegally and that's on them.
 
The above options are for children brought here from out of country. In the case of children born here to illegal alien parents, there are two different options because of "birth citizenship." The first is that the parents may choose to retain their parental rights, in which case the child goes back with them (As far as I'm concerned amnesty followed by promises of future border enforcement is a non-starter.  "Fool me once....") but, as a citizen, may return on reaching adulthood. The second is that the parents may, at their option, give up their parental rights and allow the child to be taken into foster care and possibly adopted by an American family. In neither case do the illegal aliens remain in the US.


Now, while that would be the base policy I would also agitate for a bit of flexibility to deal with innocent mistakes, paperwork errors, or being misled in procedures that lead to someone through no intent of their own being here illegally. I've known people who've had that happen, My wife had that happen. (We filled out my wife's paperwork after our marriage. I sent it off. Only between the time when we received the paperwork and we sent it off the location to which it was supposed to go changed. After a period of no response, no response, no response, we ended up hiring an attorney who helped us resolve things.  And I checked.  Our copy of the forms said "send here".  Lawyer said, "No, send there". And the "there" is what finally got things straightened out.)

Oh, and I would bend. over. backward. to encourage people I think of as "Americans who just happen to be born elsewhere" to come here, people who could read the Constitution (the Bill of Rights in particular) and the Declaration of Independence, and basically say "Duh" (Or call it, oh, say, 85% or more agreement), people like Darryl Hadfield and Sarah A. Hoyt. I don't much care how they get here, so long as they do get here to counteract the "we're going to come to America and turn it into a replica of the place we just came from" folk.

And with that, I leave you with this musical interlude:

 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why is medicine so expensive?

Over on FaceBook an image posted a Senator's facebook page asked the question "why are prescription drugs so expensive in the US? It also claimed to answer it: "We are the only major country without a national healthcare program and the pharmaceutical industry can charge whatever it wants."

Well, let's leave aside that latter part which ignores things like competition and supply/demand curves. (What?  You've never price shopped among different treatments?  Asked if there was a lower cost alternative to some expensive medication?  Whyever not?  I have.)  Instead, let's look at what effect a "national healthcare program" really has.

The production of new medicines and passing the extensive testing required to get them approved is extremely expensive. That cost, and the cost of those medicines that do not get final approval has to be recouped somewhere. Now, all these places with "national healthcare" are a monopsony (that's "single buyer" in the same way that "monopoly" is "single seller) and, thus, can dictate the price they will pay. This means the cost of development cannot be recouped there. But it has to be recouped _somewhere_.
And that means that we're subsidizing medical research for the rest of the world. Even if something is developed overseas--One of the medicines I used to take (a beta blocker--not allowed while I'm on allergy shots) was developed in Great Britain and only just "aged out" to having generics available--guess who pays to recoup the development costs? Yep. We do.

We not only subsidize our own research into new medicines and treatments, we subsidize the research of the entire rest of the world.

The problem is, if we stopped doing that--by whatever means, national health care, some "fair price" law, whatever--then research into new medicines would _also_ stop. We could "enjoy" the same level of medical progress as, say, Yugoslavia.

Don't think so?  Get a copy of an insurance formulary (many of them are available).  These list the various approved medicines at various copay price points.  Go through and list the ones that were developed in the Soviet Union, Communist China, Cuba, or similar highly "socialist" society where it's all "good of the State" rather than profit motive.

Did you even have to turn the paper over to continue the list on the reverse side?  I didn't think so.

So, take away "recouping costs" and "making money" from the equation and go instead to  top-down government funded and dictated research and medical progress essentially goes away.  You may reduce the costs of what you have now, but what you have now is all you will ever have.

So why, you may ask, do the pharmaceutical manufacturers sell to these other countries if they can't recoup their development costs?  The answer lies in a concept called "marginal cost."  Marginal cost is the added cost of producing one more of something.  If you're making 10,000 pills, the marginal cost is how much more you have to spend to produce 10,001 instead.  Now, so long as you have some way, some how, to make back the fixed costs you can make money selling more so long as the price is higher than the marginal cost.  Sell 100,000 pills in the US priced to recoup costs and make a profit.  Sell 100,000 pills in the US at the same price and also sell 10,000 in France just a bit more than the marginal cost and make a somewhat bigger profit.  But without that 100,000 selling in the US at a price that recoups cost, the 10,000 to France won't exist.

As I said, we're subsidizing the world.

The bright side is that once that cost is recouped, prices do come down. Half the medicines I take every day are "$4 generics" (that's not a co-pay. That's what the pharmacy charges). And the ones that aren't are mostly in the $10-20 range. But all of them were expensive during that limited window the developer had to recoup costs.

The Senator in question, of course, knows all this. At the very least, someone on his staff could explain it to him if he asked. But it's much more useful for him to use the cost as a means to grab even more government power.

And that's what this is really about--a power grab. The more dependent you are on government, the more they own you.

We're subsidizing the world.  But if that's the price for continued development of new prescription drugs and other treatments, I can live with it.  End that, however, and you end medical progress, which means my daughter, when she gets older, won't have anything better than I have today.

And that I will never forgive.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Surgery results

I don't recall if I mentioned the nose surgery I would be having:  septoplasty and some trimming of the "turbinates" in the nose.  They were causing restricted air passages which is why the least little bit of congestion (and I've got a lot of allergies) would shut down breathing.

That surgery was this morning.

I've been up and down with short naps since returning home. My wife went out to the store to pick up the pain meds. Have completely saturated through two gauze pad ("sterile eye pad" held across the nostrils with an elastic band), now working on a third.   My nose hurts (of course).  My head hurts (probably at least partly caffeine withdrawal since I couldn't drink anything pre-surgery).  My throat hurts (breathing tube during surgery).

I always respond to general anesthetic with severe nausea on waking. I told the anesthesiologist and he provided a scopolamine patch pre surgery (to stay in place three days) and said he would include some anti-nausea meds in the IV before I woke. I think that may have helped some but not nearly enough.

Was a bit concerned when I vomited up blood, but the nurse who was attending me then explained that was from the surgery and probably a part of the nausea issue. Oh. I was flat on my back while the doctor was cutting inside my nose. Where did I think the blood would end up?

Phone call to the doctor's nurse said the amount of bleeding is normal.  No driving until after I have the gauze removed. (Appointment tomorrow at 10:10).

Since I can't breathe with my mouth closed, eating is a bit of a problem.  Fortunately, my appetite seems to be down.  My wife made a sugar-free cheesecake pudding thing that I can take in small bites without having to chew.  That seems to be adequate for now.

What fun.

Edit:  Update 7/15/14
Got the packing out of my nose.  Man, those packs were _huge_.  I can breathe now, although my nose is a bit tender (more than a bit, to be honest) and there's a "burning" sensation when I breathe through my nose.  I am told that this is normal.

The procedure was first to suction out the area at the bottom of my nose, then remove the packs, then stuff cotton balls soaked with a numbing medicine up in my nose.  After the numbing medicine takes effect (about a 10 minute wait) the doctor used a vacuum tube to suck out any gunk left behind. He stuck that tube far enough back that I actually felt him poke the back of my throat.

No strenuous exercise for two weeks (anything that might elevate blood pressure).  Saline spray hourly and saline nasal rinse daily.

One of my two prescription nasal sprays is "gone for good".  The other it's a matter of seeing how things go.

A possible downside, with more airflow through my nose, air bringing in allergens, my allergy symptoms may worsen.  But that's what the allergy shots are supposed to be for.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Feeding the Active Writer

I experienced a lot of frustration with the coming of the first major holiday after I was diagnosed with diabetes.  I was used to preparing a big feast with all the trimmings.  Turkey, Dressing, Mashed Potatoes and Gravy, other stuff.

Most of that stuff was not on my new diet.  I'd already gone through a period of severe "carb cravings" after cutting back, way back, way way back, on the carbs.  Didn't want to do it again even if "just one time won't hurt you."

So, I had to come up with alternatives.  And one of them was a replacement for mashed potatoes and gravy.  Gravy, as I knew it from childhood, was basically fat and a meat broth thickened with flour or cornstarch.  As folk who've been reading "feeding the active writer" know I've come up with an alternate thickener in xanthum gum.  The problem was the "gravy delivery system." Potatoes are seriously high in carbs with a ridiculously high glycemic index. The solution is cauliflower.

The trick to good mashed cauliflower is to overcook it.  Ordinarily, for best effect, cauliflower is lightly cooked, lightly steamed, or even eaten raw.  For mashed cauliflower you need to boil it until it breaks apart at little more than the touch of a fork.

So, here we are  This is a basic recipe.  It scales fine.

Ingredients:
Cauliflower (1 lb)
1 tbsp butter or margarine, softened.

For the gravy:
1 cup beef broth
1 tsp Xanthum gum.

As described above, boil the cauliflower until it breaks apart with slight pressure from a fork. Drain in a large strainer or colander.  Let it sit in the strainer for several minutes to ensure that all the excess water drains away.
Break up the large pieces using either a pastry blender or potato masher or, if you must, a fork.
Add in the butter or margarine.
Use a hand mixer on high to beat smooth.  It may retain a bit of a soft granular texture.  That's fine.

In a small saucepan bring the beef broth to a boil.  Whisk in the xanthum gum, stirring constantly until the gravy thickens.  If it is not thick enough you can add a bit more xanthum gum.  Note that it does not thicken much on cooling.  In fact, I've noticed in the past that flour and cornstarch thickened gravies tend to congeal into solid lumps when refrigerated for later consumption.  Xanthum gum doesn't behave that way.

Serve out a good dollop of the mashed cauliflower.  Top with the gravy.  Enjoy.