Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

At work, I have a reputation for outspoken clumsiness. These days, whenever I let out a squawk because I've just caught my finger in a crate or dumped an entire scoop of trail mix everywhere but into its intended bag, they say I'm having a "Valerie moment."

At home, I keep a bottle of hydrogen peroxide around to clean the clothing I'm always bleeding on. The most mundane of tasks result in injury. Yesterday, while washing my bike, I managed to put a 2-inch scratch in my forearm when I spun the wheel and spun my arm with it, straight into the gears. This morning, while putting the hose attachment on the vacuum cleaner, I whacked my hand into a sharp edge and scraped my knuckle. I also walked into a doorknob, a car door, and a wall. Just now, I kicked my ankle into the leg of my chair hard enough to remove the top layer of skin. [Edit: the next day: And then I bruised my knee while getting into bed!]

If ever there is a day that I don't have some self-inflicted injury somewhere on my body, I think angels would descend from the heavens and sing halleluia.

Surprisingly though, when working on more difficult chores, I escape mostly unscathed. Perhaps its because having to concentrate on an unfamiliar task makes me work more slowly and carefully. In any case, my mission today was to adjust the poorly shifting gears on my bicycle.

Last year, a clicking noise caused me to take old Greenie to REI, where it waited 3 weeks in the shop before finally getting tuned up. After that, the brakes worked better, but the clicking noise was still there! I took it back to REI, where they determined the source of the noise to be a loose pedal. This year, I decided not to put my bike into the incompetent, expensive, and slow-moving hands of REI employees, and do it myself instead.

The following resources were helpful in educating me on the workings and repair of a bike gear shift: http://www.ehow.com/video_4985712_fix-poorly-shifting-bicycle.html, http://www.ehow.com/how_117871_fix-poorly-shifting.html. But I still had to resort to a lot of trial and error to get it done. At one point, I was terrified that I had rendered the bike completely unrideable and would have to shamefacedly take it to REI to be put to rights. But I tried again and got it into a semblance of working order. I might have even fixed it! The gears shift now, with little of the slipping, grinding, and gabbling that plagued me before. And at no point did I cause injury to myself! My fingertips are a little raw from yanking on cables, but they'll get over it.

The moral of this story is: If simple tasks cause you woe, complex tasks are the way to go!

Monday, July 25, 2011

So this is what they do in a sweat lodge...

This heat wave has got me philosophizing.
What is the nature of "room temperature?" It's such a vague word. Is it the seventy degrees to which most American establishments seem to set their thermostats? Is it the 75-to-80 degree range that I and my fellow reptilians prefer? Is it the positively sweltering 93 degrees that the rooms in my house were yesterday (due mostly, I confess, to a malfunctioning air conditioner rather than any conservation efforts on my part)?

I have a recipe for a sugar paste, which is supposed to cool to "room temperature" before using. But the temperature of the room it's in now would turn it ooey-gooey--not at all the firm texture it's supposed to be. Ahh, I could ponder for hours on ambiguous standards...

But instead, I shall turn to contemplation of irrational behavior. To whit, the kind of impulse that leads an otherwise sane person (me) ... OK, OK, otherwise mostly sane person ... to decide, as the ambient temperature climbed into the 90's, that she absolutely must acquire a new winter coat as soon as possible.

I think I know where the impulse came from. On Friday evening, I walked home through a sauna to a house that was, if anything, hotter than the surrounding air. And when I attempted to inspect the ventilation center down in the basement, I found the room around it full of cat puke! And when I brought my computer down to (another, cleaner) room in the basement because the temperature there was much more comfortable, my nostrils were assailed with the odor of my housemate's neglected litterbox! I was incensed. So Saturday, I did what any sensible woman would do: I drowned my sorrows in the shopping mall!

I bought all the things I'd been putting off, one of which was a dressy winter coat. And now, I shall philosophize about clothing sizes. Women's sizes (as any man will tell you) are confusing. They are numbered arbitrarily, and a size 6 in one brand may be a size 10 in another. When you graduate out of junior's sizes, you typically go down a size instead of up! Why is it that someone who usually fits into size 8 or 9 dresses (me), ended up purchasing a size 4 coat? Are coat sizes different from dress sizes? I never knew.

And lastly, I feel it is my duty to ruminate over the nature of hot and cold. Why is the average human (me) always either too hot or too cold? While being subjected to external temperatures 85 and above, I feel quite ill and miserable and I can't concentrate and I have been known to complain I am too hot. Yet when the temperature drops below 75, I feel quite stiff and miserable and I can't concentrate and I do nothing but complain I am too cold. There will always be people who will call you out for being fickle about temperatures, and so here I would like to establish that even though I feel pretty icky when I'm too hot, I'd still prefer that to being too cold. If I never see another winter, I will be content. But in the likely occasion that I do, I will have a spiffy new coat to cheer me up!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Luscious Lemon Poppyseed Cookies

Let me tell you about my friend, the Alternative Baking Company.

They make delicious giant cookies which are individually packed for retail. This is great, because you can buy them any time, save them for days or weeks, and be confident they'll still taste fresh when you eat them. That's what makes Alternative Baking Company (ABC for short) cookies my choice for stockpiling. I always keep one or two of them lying around for when I get the giant cookie munchies. Even better, they are vegan. Best of all, they are delicious!

Today, I'm going to review one of my favorite ABC flavors, Luscious Lemon Poppyseed. This particular variety has a number of things going for it:
  1. It is relatively low and flat, so it looks bigger (which makes it more appealing to my artist's – or is it just "glutton's?" – eyes.)
  2. It is soft and chewy.
  3. It has poppy seeds, which add interest to the soft and chewy texture.
  4. It tastes like lemon!
Lemon is a great flavor! Cookie flavors tend toward the rich, such as chocolate or peanut butter, so a lemon-flavored cookie, while not exactly rare, is a step off the beaten path. While I adore these particular lemon cookies with a good portion of my heart, I think a little stronger flavor would add to their lusciousness a bit. And then if ABC came out with a soft chewy key lime cookie, this glutton would be in hog heaven!

You can find ABC cookies in natural food stores for around 2$ apiece. And considering that those 2 dollars buys you about 120 grams of cookie, I'd say they're a pretty good deal!

The bottom line:
Taste: 4 stars
Texture: 4 stars
Price: 4 stars

Monday, July 18, 2011

Technology continues to strike again.

Above, you see a picture of my floor littered with all the paper that my printer ate up rather than printing on. When I finally got the obnoxious machine to actually feed the paper out the other end, it printed on the wrong side! As you can imagine, I had a pretty frustrating afternoon.

Fortunately, I have a new keyboard to ease my computer frustrations a bit.

That's right. I have a 1200$ laptop, and I had to buy a separate keyboard for it. Allow me to retype the first paragraph on the built-in keyboard and you'll see what I mean.
Above, you see a picture of my floor littered wth all th paper that my printer ate up rather than printing on. When I finally got the obnoxious machineto actually feed the paper out the other end, it printed on the wrong side! As you ca magine, I had a pretty frustrating afternoon.
All the missing characters are the result of keys being too unresponsive for my light typing style. I tried to learn to type harder, but all that was doing was making me angry and worried about carpal tunnel and other repetitive strain injuries. So I bought a USB keyboard at the thrift store for under 2$. The funny thing is, I have to hit the keys on the traditional keyboard just as hard as the keys on the laptop, but since they are higher from the base, I guess I get enough speed on the downstroke that I'm not constantly missing characters.

So, now I can type again without backspacing for missing letters every sentence or two, but I have to listen to the loud clacking of a cheap keyboard, and I had to find a place to put it. I tried putting it right on top of the laptop keyboard, but that looked dumb, made the power key inaccessible, and made the keyboard too high. Instead, I put it in the drawer of my desk that's meant for a keyboard. But that meant I could no longer keep one of my organizer trays in that drawer, and I had to rearrange everything (which subsequently fell on the floor in a giant mess when I shut the drawer too hard whilst being angry at the printer, and then I had to rearrange it again!) I'm used to leaning forward on my desk when I'm working, but I have to lean backward to type on this new keyboard, so I either have to keep rocking back and forth like I have autism, or I have to actually sit up straight! The horrors.

The new keyboard is black as night, but unlike the equally black keyboard of the laptop, it does not have backlighting. Consequently, right now, I can not see what I'm typing. It's not too bad when you're touch-typing, but when you're looking to set down your hands to start with, or you need an obscure F-key or something, it sure is a pain.

So much stress from a couple pieces of office equipment! Well, I guess that's what office equipment is meant for.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I'm nonplussed (In my own special way)

Today instead of filling my timesheet like a good little employee, I was thinking about the evolution of languages. They do that, you know—change. That's why we have a few dozen Romance languages, rather than just Latin. Part of me – the liberal part that loves words – is thrilled by this process. I love new words. English has more words than pretty much any other language on earth, but that's not enough! When you don't have a word to say what you mean, make up a new one, or borrow from another language! One can never have too many words! The more the merrier! The other part of me  – the uptight part that loves grammar – is horrified. We have rules for a reason! They lose all their meaning when you keep changing them! It is never going to be OK to say "Billy and me went to the movies." Never!

Today the liberal part of me (that also happily seizes on every possible distraction) succumbed to a sudden urge to find out the origins of the word "nonplussed."

Ever since I saw this word used in one of my teen magazines, I had believed, based on the context of that first encounter, that it meant something along the lines of "dismayed." After all, if you are non-plussed,  you must not be having a positive experience. I always thought this was a clever word to express disappointment, but I didn't use it very often—and fortunately, because I was wrong. My search on the etymology of "nonplussed" revealed that its meaning is closer to "completely confused or perplexed." ("Non plus" is essentially a Latin phrase meaning "no further." Thus, someone who is so confused that they can go no further in their line of thought is nonplussed.)

Well, needless to say, I was "dismayed." The actual definition of this choice word is so much less commonsensical (that's a real word, by the way) than my interpretation of it. What's worse, my research revealed that in common usage, "nonplussed" is increasingly used to mean "impassive" or "unaffected"—meanings that are not only decidedly non-commonsensical (based on the root words which are familiar to everyone) but are completely contrary to the word's original meaning! This is the kind of language mutation that makes the uptight part of me that loves grammar cringe in horror.

So readers, I implore you! Even though it doesn't mean exactly what I'd like it to mean, don't allow "nonplussed" to be poisoned at the hands of the ignorant! Fight back! Use it in its proper form at every opportunity!

While we're on the subject of defending our language's honor, here's a quick aside (that will probably stretch out into a long digression as per my typical M.O.). While a draft of this post was patiently waiting in the wings, I received an email from my dad with a comment that I "write so often about grammar" and a link to this article about the writing industry's attack on the serial comma (the one that goes before the "and" that marks the last item in a list). I myself am a fan of the serial comma, for much the same reasons as the article's author is, and feel that (if you are not too worn out from campaigning for the proper usage of "nonplussed") you should take some time to educate other users of English in its merits.

Interestingly, I found some links at the bottom of the article to other works by someone calling herself "Grammar Girl." I'm fond of referring to myself as "Grammar Girl," but since the name is already taken, I guess I'll have to find a more creative title. Language Lady? Eh, I'll keep thinking.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What the DLL
Or, 101 Things Wrong With My Computer

Back in February, I purchased a new laptop. It was a serious upgrade from my old system, which tended to restart instead of shutting down, would flash the Blue Screen of Death at the slightest provocation, and – worst of all – could not play Portal 2!

I invested a thousand+ bucks in my new computer and was pretty happy with it, until I noticed it was making little popping noises right before it would play a sound. And it would continue periodically making these noises the whole time when I listened to streaming music. Fortunately, the system came with a 2-year warranty from ASUS, so I sent it back and they replaced the I/O board. (I like to imagine I know something about computers, but I didn't know what that was, and I still haven't bothered to look it up!) Shortly before the machine was returned to me, I noticed that my old computer was making the same popping noises! I concluded that was something every computer does, and I probably shouldn't have sent mine back, because they reinstalled the operating system, and I had to reinstall all my software and reconfigure all the settings just so—which, me being my picky self, is the only way I can tolerate them.

A week or so after finishing with that tedious process, I was in the midst of some work when the computer slowed to a crawl and then froze entirely. Nothing I tried made it work again, except for restarting. But that only worked for a little while, and then it would recommence with its freezing-up antics. Two days of troubleshooting provided no answers, and my attempt to (again!) reinstall the operating system was thwarted when that process also froze up and, after a long long pause, told me it could not be completed. I called ASUS again; they concluded my hard drive had failed; I sent the system back to get it replaced.

Wait another week. Upon receipt of my fixed-up laptop, I carefully, painstakingly, began the steps of getting the system ready for use. I'm convinced whatever those ASUS dudes did to my system, they did it wrong. Because what followed was weeks of error messages and endless frustration as nothing worked the way it should out of the box.

One of the first things I did was check to make sure System Restore was turned on (When my hard drive failed, I first tried running System Restore, only to find it was turned off!). It was turned off this time, too. When I tried to rectify this, I was informed that I could not turn on System Restore because my computer could not find the C: drive. (Hello! My computer is the C: drive!) Fortunately, (miraculously, I should say), the next time I turned the computer on, System Restore was on and perfectly healthy.

But my antivirus wasn't. Although I had just installed it a few days before, it already thought my subscription had expired. Attempts to renew the free subscription resulted in a "Connecting to Update Server" message that never – ever – moved on to the next step. And oh, boy! Have you ever tried uninstalling an antivirus program? Those things protect themselves like they're their own Secret Service Agency. When I couldn't uninstall it using Add/Remove Programs, I foolishly deleted all of its program files (that I could find) from the computer, which did not discourage it in the slightest. I then tried to delete all of its registry entries, but I kept getting "Access Denied" errors. Meanwhile, ol' Antivirus kept running and preventing me from installing other antivirus software, but now I had no access to its controls and settings! Finally it occurred to me to check the vendor website, where I found an uninstall utility. Problem solved. But there were more problems occurring simultaneously.

Now, normally when I reinstall Windows, Windows Update runs in overdrive, downloading thousands of updates and installing them over a period of several shutdowns and days. A day or two into possession of my restored system, I noticed I was not getting any messages from Windows Update. So I opened it up to find out what was going on. Well, whaddaya know! Automatic Update was turned off, too! When I tried to turn it on, I was told, "Windows Update cannot check for updates, because the service is not running." What service, you might ask? Well, Windows Update was not so kind as to explain. Interestingly, right below the button to check for updates, I saw the following text: "Click here for more free software from [null]." I was terrified I had some sort of deadly virus. Lots and lots of scouring the Internet only confirmed this fear, telling me that the only solution was to reinstall the OS, which made me very, very angry! I had already spent days tidying up this system—twice! I did not want to have to do this again within a week of getting it back from service! Fortunately, lots and lots and lots of scouring the Internet revealed a Microsoft Fix It that, in fact, fixed it.

After Windows Update was happily chugging away on its gazillion downloads, I thought I was finally in the clear. I had several programs already installed, and I thought I was finally ready to get back to work. Then, one by one, my installed programs turned on me.

Keyboard backlighting, which was a feature that came with the computer, wouldn't turn on automatically. I had to push the button to turn off all the lights, then push it again to turn them back on. With them came the keyboard lighting. I had to reinstall the whole pack of utilities that came with the computer to make this work properly.

Then my Google sidebar couldn't load any of my previously installed gadgets. I had to reinstall Google Desktop.

Then Google Chrome wouldn't open. Clicking the icon caused absolutely nothing to happen. I had to reinstall Chrome.

At this point, you might think that Google just sucks and I should stop using their software. But the next program to fail was from Adobe. Acrobat could not convert any file into a PDF. I had to repair the installation of Adobe Acrobat.

Then I started having the MSVCR issues. One program after another would freeze up, treating me to an error message about a missing MSVCR90.dll. Some more Internet searching led me to believe that if I found this file anywhere on my file system, I should copy it to the Windows/System32 or Windows/SysWOW64 folders. Well, I found it. In multiple places. In each place, it was a different size and had a different modified date. I chose the newest one and popped it into both of the recommended directories.

The next day, my error messages had changed somewhat. Now I was getting messages like:
Runtime Error! Program: C... [Thanks for the informative file path info]
An application has made an attempt to load the C runtime library incorrectly. Please contact the application's support team for more information.
First it was Word, then it was Firefox and Dreamweaver in rapid succession. Well, then I started putting MS and C and R together, and came up with Microsoft Visual C++ Runtime. I deleted the misplaced DLL from the System32 and SysWOW64 folders, and installed the Microsoft Visual C++ 2010 Redistributable, which I found online. It did not put MSVCR90 back in either of those folders, but since then, I have not received any error messages.

It has been several weeks since I got my computer back the last time. I have been stockpiling all these problems, waiting for the day when I would stop running into them. Then, I would dump them on my unsuspecting readership! Since it's been 3 days since I suffered any computing catastrophe, I think it's safe to share! Don't you feel privileged?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Adventures in Independence Day Cooking!

Today is Independence Day (a holiday), and thus, I chose to make it one of those days where I don't allow myself to do a lick of work. 

OK, so I worked at the store, but only because my schedule decrees it...and in any case, I managed to finish everything in a little over 5 hours, so it was practically a day off! Following work, however, I was free to do a little celebrating. And I chose to make food. This is something you often do if you are hosting or attending a Fourth of July party. I myself am actually avoiding all the parties today (because in Valerie-Land, any excuse is a good excuse to miss a party, and having to work the next day shortly after 6 a.m. is one of the best ones!) but when holidays call, you respond with spoon in hand!

Speaking of spoons, I must say that one of the best inventions in cooking was the wooden spoon. Wooden spoons are tough enough to stir the most solidified of concoctions. And unlike metal spoons – which bend under the pressure of a hearty cookie dough – and plastic spoons – which melt at the slightest opportunity – wooden spoons, well, don't do either of those things!

On the other hand, the worst invention in cooking has to be Teflon coating. I'd rather have my baked goods stick to the side of the pan any day, than have the side of the pan baked black and scratched all up. Unfortunately, despite its annoyingly fragile nature and recent concerns about its detrimental effect on human health (oh, I can't remember exactly what it is—probably some kind of carcinogen. Like everything else in the world), Teflon does not seem to be losing its foothold in the world of cookery.

But enough of this digression. This is supposed to be about Valerie's Adventures in Cooking!

Today's adventure actually began yesterday, with another attempt at Spinach Cheese Squares, which ended with me not hearing the oven timer go off and overcooking my squares by a considerable amount. Apparently not too considerable, though, because I tasted them today, and they were just as delicious as always. With an extra-crispy edge that only added to their yumminess.

Actually, today's adventure actually began a few weeks ago, when I realized that my beloved giant chocolate Easter bunny (immortalized in the photo to the right) was actually a lot more cute than tasty. After eating a few bites of him, I decided I'd rather not do that any more. This has nothing to do with any sense of guilt over consuming an adorable rabbit bit by bit. Of course not. I decided instead to take his remains and use them as the topping for a delicious dessert. The few weeks during which the pieces of chocolate rabbit reposed in my refrigerator were a result of me having too much work, not enough motivation, and no powdered sugar.

Today, I acquired powdered sugar and cleaned out the 8-inch square pan (I had to remove the spinach cheese squares first) and filled it instead with what are known in Ohio as buckeye bars, but in places that are not Ohio are probably called "peanut butter chocolate squares" or something equally un-colorful.

Buckeye bars are simple to make: Mix 4 cups of powdered sugar with 1.5 cups of peanut butter and .5 cups of softened (melted seems to work OK, too) butter. This is where your wooden spoon comes in handy, because stirring this mixture is not unlike stirring a rock.

Once it is in a fairly homogeneous clump, spread it in a 9x9 pan (or you can improvise with an 8x8 pan plus a bread pan, as I do. By choice, of course; not because, after all these years of baking, I still lack a 9x9 pan. Of course not).

Then melt approximately a cup of chocolate in a double boiler. This is where your chocolate Easter Bunny comes in. If you lack a double boiler, you can use a microwave. Or you can do it the Valerie way, which is to place a quart pot inside a skillet, fill the skillet with as much water as it'll hold, and turn on the heat! This is almost like having a double boiler, but with the added excitement of allowing boiling water to splash all over your kitchen while you are stirring your chocolate!

Once the chocolate is melted, spread it on top of your peanut butter mixture. At this point, you will likely discover that the half-eaten remains of a chocolate Easter Bunny are not quite enough to cover an 8x8 + 9x4 surface of peanut butter. Do the best you can. So what if some of your peanut butter is bald? You can just eat it immediately because it's not fit to show the rest of the world. You win when you lose!

The last crucial step in making these buckeye bars is to place a Ziploc bag on top of the hot burner cover immediately after removing the double boiler. You don't want your burners to get lonely after this sudden separation! And of course, you want that extra melted-plastic-goopy challenge in the cleanup stage. After all, if it's not character-building, it can't be an Adventure in Cooking!