Sunday, September 30, 2012

'Tis the Season

Not the Christmas season, of course; it's much too early to be thinking about Santa Claus. Unless you're a major department store, in which case you've had your light-up snowman yard ornaments on display in your seasonal section beside the rakes and lawn bags for two weeks. I know it's true because I saw this guy at Sears last week and would have brought him home to live with me if he wasn't so ridiculously expensive.

But I digress.

What I'm trying to talk about is cold and flu season, which started a week ago for me. Despite my best efforts to wash my hands and stay healthy, I caught a real humdinger of a cold. In hindsight, handling a giggling snotty nephew wasn't the best idea, but I just couldn't help myself. So I got to enjoy blocked sinuses, sniffles, sore throat, fatigue, and a low fever, making me a miserable slug for a week. I'm grateful that everyone has given me permission to take it easy and rest up, and I'm glad that laundry is a fairly low-energy task, because otherwise we'd be out of socks by now.

Don't be like me. Don't get sick. Avoiding small, sniffling children is a good start, but that's only one (very effective) method of germ transmission. So what's to be done?

Wash your hands.


Everyone says this, because it's absolutely the best way to keep from getting sick. The CDC has a whole page dedicated to handwashing, with links to videos, factsheets, and podcasts.

How to wash your hands. Image from

Yes, sometimes people will cough or sneeze right at your face (small children, I'm looking in your direction) and you'll be out of luck, but it's far, far more likely that you'll get germs on your hands and deliver them to your face yourself. Someone coughs into their hands and then opens a door, or sneezes on an elevator and pushes the buttons, and then you follow behind them a few minutes later, unaware of the collection of cold viruses waiting for you on those surfaces. You open the door, you push the button for your floor, then you rub your tired eyes or bite your nails. The next day, you'll start feeling off and will probably start distributing those germs yourself.

Cold and flu viruses (and plenty of other nasties) can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours under the right conditions, so unless you want to wear gloves all day and get strange looks, you should make an extra effort to touch only what you need to, wash your hands every chance you get, and keep your hands away from your face. At home, if someone's sick, break out the Lysol now and then to spray doorknobs, toilet handles, and faucets. Encourage everyone to wash their hands after using tissues to blow noses, and to cough and sneeze into their sleeves instead of into their hands.

You don't need to bother with antibacterial soaps. Any soap will do, used with warm water and brought to a good lather. In fact, there's research to suggest that the main antibacterial agent in most of the commercially available hand soaps, Triclosan, is contributing to antibiotic resistance.

It's also a good idea to keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you, for times when you may not have quick access to soap and water. Again, antibacterial agents aren't necessary here - anything that's got an alcohol content of 60% or higher will be effective in destroying most of the bacteria and viruses that are on your hands. You should still look for a sink eventually, though, and wash your hands the old-fashioned way as soon as you get a chance.

With all this handwashing, you're likely to get dry skin, no matter how many emollients the soap and sanitizer manufacturers add to their products. Get yourself a good hand lotion, because chapped and cracked skin is not a good barrier against germs!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Have We Done to This Place?

I'd love to give everyone another update on the new floors, but unfortunately, nothing new has happened since the end of July. Not only do we still have our old nasty carpets, we've still got a pile of old hallway carpet sitting on the front porch because the nice Columbia Floors folks never took it away. We're still missing the shoe molding around the new tile by the door, and in the laundry room where it would hide the uneven edges left by the tile guy. All of this is supposed to be done by the mysterious carpet people, who keep cancelling their appointments at the very last minute (and only after we call to ask what time to expect them). Part of why it's taking so long is because we want one specific guy to come back and finish the work, because he showed up on time and had some pride in his work, but it's been hard to book him.

As of this post, he is scheduled for next week. Again. I guess we're just having a hard time finding reliable contractors. We bought into the Angie's List thing, thinking it would save us some grief, but we've been so disappointed with this company despite their good reviews online. Hopefully the end is almost here, and I can have my cozy new carpets in time for the cold weather.

But you know, we've done an awful lot to this place in the two years we've been here. It's not all drama and chaos and epic failures in our quality assessment of hired professionals. I made a list of the accomplishments:
  • Painted red room, bedroom, family room, computer room
  • Removed wallpaper and painted living room, dining room, hallway
  • New curtains and rods in most rooms 
  • New vertical blinds in dining room and family room
  • Replaced porch light
  • Replaced front door and doorbell
  • Pulled up shrubs by lamppost
  • Replaced mailbox
  • New a/c and air handler
  • Added doors to family room fireplace
  • New sliding glass doors in family room
  • Hardwood floors in living and dining room
  • New vinyl tile in laundry room
  • Replaced ceiling fan in bedroom
  • Replaced doorknobs everywhere
  • Replaced fan/heater assembly in two bathrooms
  • Re-grouted shower in master bathroom
  • Updated closet door hardware in family room
  • New fridge
  • New light fixtures in computer room, red room, hallway, dining room
  • Had trees removed in backyard
  • Had trees removed in front yard (post-Irene cleanup)
  • New section of fence and gate (post Irene)
  • Tore up vines along fence
  • Repaired side fence
  • Cut down dying shrubs in back and side yards
  • Landscaping work in front yard, removing poison ivy 
  • Put hooks up along front porch for easy Christmas light installation
  • Had chimney rebuilt
  • Repaired roof leak
  • Painted outside windows
  • Put up drywall ceiling in computer room (replaced tile ceiling)
  • Replaced toilet in downstairs bedroom
There are so many things left on the to-do list, not the least of which is getting the carpet situation settled, but when I list out everything we've gotten done so far, I really feel that we're making progress. Just look at all that stuff! Bit by bit, it's all getting done, and the house looks and feels a whole lot more like we wanted it to. It feels like home.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The pet of your dreams

Full disclosure: the topic of today's post was shamelessly stolen from a Paul and Storm podcast I had the pleasure of listening to on the Montreal road trip. Many, many times while we listened to their chats, Dave and I hit the pause button and discussed our own views on the topics they brought up, which was really the best part of the drive. I took some notes on topics I wanted to explore on my own blog, and today's post will be the first of (hopefully) several Paul-and-Storm-inspired musings.

Assuming that science was able to make it happen, what pet would you be willing to pay 
20 thousand dollars for?

My first thought, my first immediate thought: House Hippo!!

Hippopotamuses are among my favorite animals at zoos. They look like they've been overinflated with a bicycle pump, and they're smooth and shiny and have those disproportionally tiny tails that make them so comical. Of course, in real life, hippos are vicious. They're incredibly large, aggressive creatures who are known to attack humans any chance they get, capsizing river boats and just being mean old sons of bitches.


But if science could create a teeny little hamster-sized hippo, and maybe breed out some of that aggression, I would be seriously tempted to save up my money and get one. Of course, the cats would hate it, but if I built it a little hippo habitat in a fish tank, it might work.

Unfortunately, I doubt that very much research money is going towards the shrinking of giant wild animals for house pets, so my house hippo dreams are never likely to be fulfilled. So, just in case I ever end up rich enough to spend obscene amounts of money on ridiculous pets, I have a backup plan.

Glow-in-the-dark cats. 

No, really. These are a real thing. When scientists are trying to splice a gene into an animal's genome, they need a convenient way to know whether it worked. One of the simplest ways for them to do this is to pair a glow gene, usually from jellyfish, with the important gene. If your test animal glows, then the insertion was successful. And adorable.

Glowing kitties of the future!

How great would it be to have a cat nightlight? Considering how often my boys like to dart around my feet when I'm walking downstairs in the darkness of early morning, a little glow could go a long way to keeping my neck intact.

What super-creature would you fork over 20 grand to have in your house?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Montreal Bagels

Since it's a trip home and not really a vacation, you wouldn't think I'd bring home many souvenirs for myself when I visit Montreal. Usually, this is true, but this time I had a moment of bready weakness and brought back dozens of fresh bagels. 

Explain to me how anyone can walk into a place like this and not leave with as many bagels as they could carry. I'm grateful they didn't have shopping carts, or I may have bought more. The staff was very understanding of my need to take pictures of their bagel oven. Apparently they get that all the time. See those long flat boards? They use those to get the bagels into and out of the oven, and they slide the hot golden bagels off the boards  into the big bin you see on the right, where they get scooped out and put by the dozen into paper bags for the customers waiting in line.

Brossard Bagel, in Greenfield Park, QC

One dozen of the delicious bagels I imported were to share with my coworkers, because I thought it would be a welcome change from the boxes of saltwater taffy that always appear in the break room whenever someone gets back from vacation. Also, we're a pretty seriously carbohydrate-loving group.

I sent out an excited "OMG you guys!! Montreal bagels for everyone!!" e-mail and then spent the rest of the morning trying to answer "what's a Montreal bagel?" And that's a difficult question. All I know is that they're dense, they're delicious, and I can't find anything like them around here.

So, in the interest of educating the world, I acquired different types of bagels so that I could proceed with: 

A Comparative Anatomy of Bagels


I started with one sesame bagel from Brossard Bagel, and one poppyseed bagel from Wegmans. I was going to get one from Panera, but I was grocery shopping anyway, and the Wegmans ones looked exactly like the Panera ones I'm used to, so I think it's a good example of a generic "bagel" available in this area. I specifically did not buy the packaged Thomas Bagels in the bread aisle, because I wanted to compare a fresh-baked Montreal bagel with a fresh-baked generic bagel from this area. The guy at the counter at Wegmans assured me that they bake them fresh, so we're on more or less even ground there.

First, let's have a look at them.

Left: Montreal bagel. Right: Wegmans bagel.
The first thing that you notice is that the Wegman's bagel looks a lot bigger than the one from Montreal. It's taller, and while it's about the same diameter, it has a much smaller center hole, making it look a lot less dense. But is it less dense?

Here's a look at the insides.

Left: Montreal bagel. Right: Wegmans bagel
They both show evidence of bubbles inside, but the ones in the Wegmans bagel are bigger. This doesn't necessarily mean it's less dense, but I noticed a big difference in texture just by poking them. The Wegmans bagel is much, much more squashable.

I crushed the bagels with my girly pink dumbbells to demonstrate the squash factor. Using a 5-pound weight on each bagel eliminates the possibility of me pushing harder on one or the other.

Left: Montreal bagel. Right: Wegmans bagel
As you can see, the one on the left barely deforms at all, and the one on the right looks like a Tempur-Pedic commercial. I'm going to let this stand as my test of bagel density, because calculating bagel volume is a little too intense a task for me, and I'm not in the mood for math.

I told my coworker that I was doing a bagel experiment, and she generously offered to get me a couple of bagels from a Jewish bakery in her neighborhood, to give me a third data point. Fantastic!

I didn't squash the bagel from the Jewish bakery, because I was too excited about jamming it into the toaster so I could eat it, but I did take a photo of its insides for you.

Bagel from Jewish bakery
It looked very much like the Wegmans bagel, both inside and out. It was fat and fluffy-looking, and it had many large bubbles inside. The biggest difference was the smell - much more yeasty than the Wegmans bagel. I also noticed that the texture was denser, but not as dense as the Montreal bagel. Many of the little holes had doughy threads across them, making me think there's a lot of gluten in this bread.

The Taste Test

I toasted the bagels in my cheap two-slice toaster, and then tasted them both with butter and plain cream cheese. I also tried the bagel from the Jewish bakery with some veggie cream cheese, which is a specialty of that deli. It seemed like the right thing to do. The bagels were tested at least a half hour apart. I am so very very full of carbohydrates.

Wegmans bagel
It got crunchy on the outside, and remained very soft and bready on the inside. It felt like it took a long time to gain any brown color. Where I cut the toasted bagel in half, the knife flattened the bagel completely. It tasted bland, vaguely yeasty, like a big soft chunk of white bread. No dominating taste or smell. Not entirely different from a dinner roll.

Montreal bagel
Much more difficult to cut in half because of its density, so my halves were uneven. If ever there was an appropriate time for those safety bagel cutter things, it's with Montreal bagels. It turned brown much more quickly than the first bagel. The Montreal bagel had a much sweeter taste, and I posit that the higher sugar content led to faster browning. Incredibly chewy, with a crunchy crust. Coworkers commented on the sweetness of the bagels I brought in, and how chewy they were.

Jewish bagel
Its browning speed fell somewhere between the other two. The smell and the taste were very yeasty, and it was chewier than the Wegmans bagel by far, which surprised me given how similar they look. It was nowhere near as dense and chewy as the Montreal bagel, though, so although it was good it didn't win my taste test. Yes, I'm biased. I admit it.

So why are Montreal bagels so dense? I'm not sure. Wikipedia has the following to say about how Montreal bagels differ from the "generic bagel":

  • The bagel dough includes egg and honey.
  • Honey is also added to the water used for poaching the bagels before baking.
  • The bagels are baked in a wood-fired oven. 
All these things make them so much more delicious than any other type of bagel I've ever tried. I don't know why they haven't spread out and become more popular across Canada and the United States - you'd think the sweetness would be a great selling point. There are some recipes I've found online for "Montreal-style bagels", and one of these days I may give that a shot, but for now, I have dozens of frozen bagels to tide me over.

Oh, before I close this out, I have one more reason why Montreal bagels are better. Check this out, from the same Wikipedia article:
Montreal-style bagels are currently the only style of bagel to have ventured into in space. Gregory Chamitoff, who grew up in Montreal, took three bags of sesame bagels with him on his assignments to STS-124 as passenger and ISS Expedition 17 as crewmember.

That's right. I thought I was a hardcore fan because I dragged dozens across the border in my Honda Fit, and here I learn this guy brought them to space. We loves our bagels, what can I say.