Friday, August 22, 2014

How to Make Greek Yogurt

Retirement has brought me more time to do things that I always thought that I'd never have the time for.  I've always wanted to try my hand at making Greek yogurt.  It turns out that it's fairly easy, so easy that even I can do it. The first thing you need to make Greek yogurt is yogurt.  You can either buy plain yogurt or make your own. Not only making yogurt at home cheaper than store bought but read the label on the stuff from the store and depending on the brand you'll find sugar, thickeners (because starch is cheaper than milk) and a science fair full of chemicals. Homemade yogurt contains milk and some special bacteria and that's about it.

To make yogurt from scratch take the store bought milk of your choice (skim, 2%, full or even goat milk).  The higher the fat content the smoother and creamier your finished yogurt will be) and slowly heat in pan, pot or microwave until the temperature of the milk reaches 183F.  Keep stirring as you heat or the milk will burn onto the bottom of your vessel.  I use an electronic thermometer with a probe.  Heating the milk kills off any bacteria in the milk and makes it an ideal growth medium for the yogurt bacteria that you'll stir in later.

I've read that there are lots of variations on this theme and they all work.  The milk can be heated in a microwave oven and yogurt can be made in a crock pot and even in a rice cooker, anything that will hold the constant temperature that the yogurt bacteria requires to prosper in your milk.

Once the milk reaches the desired temperature let it cool until it reaches 110F, then stir in a dollop of yogurt.  The yogurt bacteria is alive and you're going to introduce it to the warm milk to let it grow in and colonize the milk.

Next to the yogurt I make I favor Fage
Stir in and dissolve some store bought yogurt into your now cooled to 110F milk and then move to plastic containers.  For the next 10 hours or so the idea will be to keep the milk warm so that the stirred in store bought yogurt can colonize it.  Too hot and the yogurt bacteria dies, too cool and the yogurt bacteria goes to sleep and either way you'll just wind up with spoiled milk.  110F is just right but that temperature has to be maintained.  I put my budding yogurt crop into the oven to incubate.

2 containers of yogurt to be
Why the oven?  The oven is insulated so it'll hold heat.  I preheat the oven to around 110F and keep my eye on the temperature during the day thanks to a laser thermometer.  The brown rectangle on the bottom of the oven in the picture above is a pizza stone, it'll hold on to some of that heat.  Bonus yogurt making points if you have an older oven with a pilot light.  You also swaddle the plastic containers in a blanket or a towel to hold in the heat.  After 10 hours of incubation remove the yogurt from the oven and refrigerate overnight and prepare to be Greeked.  

The next morning......

It's yogurt!
Time to put the Greek into the yogurt.  In order to Greek the yogurt you have to strain out the whey.   I use a fine mesh strainer sitting over a small pot to catch the drained whey.

Before yogurt
Add yogurt and wait for the whey to strain out.
Draining a-whey
I also use several permanent #4 coffee filters (Gold Tone) to drain yogurt.

Empty Gold Tone filter
Gold Tone filters getting the whey out of my way
Cover the straining yogurt and refrigerate.  The longer the yogurt drains the thicker the Greeked yogurt left behind in the strainer or filter, 5 hours usually gives me the thickness I like.

Optional: add fruit, flavorings and sweetening to taste.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How I'm Spending My Summer Vacation

When I decided to retire I made sure to do it in the summer, as far as I'm concerned that's the very best time to be in the Pacific Northwest.  The other 3 seasons are in varying degrees wet, damp, gray, dark and depressing.  Maybe it's because of the other 3 seasons but summer in Seattle is special, summer in Seattle is just glorious.  The days are long, the sky is blue and cloud free and I love feeling the warm sunshine on my skin.  When it rained for a few days last week I stayed home and experienced life through the Internet which doesn't bode well for me during those other 3 seasons.

But since this is my first summer vacation since I was 15 I'm spending it exploring the Seattle area as I would explore a foreign city.  I pack my camera, I put on my walking shoes and I take public transit.

One of the first things I discovered was just 2 blocks from my house.  A marijuana store is preparing to open for business in an old State liquor store.
Oddly enough the store seems to be named "Grass"
Washington state has legalized recreational marijuana but you can't use the stuff recreationally if you can't get it and as of this writing there's one open pot shop for nearly 700,000 people and when they're not out of product to sell the line to buy snakes around the building, across two parking lots to Lander St and then all the way down the street, perhaps 3 blocks in all.  Seeing that line made me recall things I've read about buying bread in the Soviet Union or shoes in North Korea.  More pot stores should mean better selection and lower prices and I won't have to bus it down to Lander street again to look at the lines to buy a legal product.

I attempted to explore Ballard but Market Street seems to have changed into an area of tiny expensive condos and trendy coffee bars, wine bars, pet grooming salons and yoga studios.  I hopped back onto the #44 bus and made my way to Wallingford.  There I stopped for ice cream at Molly Moon but when I sat down to eat my treat the place was suddenly descended upon by perhaps 40 Asian tourists who I had passed earlier as they gathered in front of and inside Archie McPhee.  The clogged the ice cream store and took pictures of each other.

Let's take pictures of each other and eat ice cream!
I walked back to the University District, boarded the #343 bus for home.  Explorations will continue until the weather changes.  As long as the sun shines I'm taking active retirement seriously but I know that by Labor Day change in the form or rain, clouds and falling temperatures will be in the air.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Retirement: The Fountain of Youth?

Today is the first weekday of my new life.  The weather is normal for summer in Seattle, which is to say absolutely fantastic.  I feel energized.  The world just opened and I want to take advantage of everything.  It's the fountain of youth.  

This is my first summer vacation since I was 15.  In a way I want to spend this time the way I would in Bangkok or Taipei.  What I usually do in a cities like those is to purchase a transit pass and find a different neighborhood to explore every day.  The transit pass that I've carried for the last 20 years of employment is good until the end of September so I'm good to go.  But first a new life needs new clothes so it's off to Cabelas to score new touring threads.   I  also took a daytime run through Costco so I could rub slouched shoulders with the rest of the old retired codgers who seem to haunt Costco on weekdays.

The Freeway Stop at 145th st & I-5 South

The stress of work has left behind a few layers and some extra belt notches and they need to go.  Bus pass plus lots of summertime walking = sweat and expended calories so I walked down to I-5 and took Sound Transit's 512 bus to to 45th street in Wallingford. 
Meat Activists?
I lived in Wallingford for my first few years in Seattle and I haven't crawled 45th street in 20 years.  My how it's changed.  Nearly everything seems to have changed, much shinier, grander and more upscale. More gourmet ice cream, gelato shops and coffee shops trying not to be Starbucks than I remember.  Until today I'd never seen a shop run by "meat activists" before.

From 45th street I walked into Greenlake and briskly walked to the Starbucks at the top of the lake so I could drink something, catch some A/C and plot my next destination.  I whipped out my bus pass and hopped a bus heading toward Ballard and got off at 85th and Aurora to take the "E" line downtown so that I could catch and express bus home.  

Gosh the park was pretty today:

I'm not sure whether it's the sudden freedom or the magnificent weather and I'm just one day into this but so far it's great.  I keep wondering how this would be if it was 45 degrees, overcast, wet and damp, and the sun was going down at 5PM; in other words just like 9 months of the year in this part of the world.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Onesuite Pre-Paid Long Distance - How to Lose a Customer

Poor customer service will kill any company.  Onesuite is a pre-paid long distance provider who I have relied on for at least 10 years, probably more.  I urged friends and family to open accounts with them and many of them did, among them my Mother and brother.

November 18:  Onesuite also has a VOIP service which I used when I was in Malaysia to call my credit union in Anchorage, Alaska.  I understand that Onesuite charges a higher rate for calls to Alaska than they do on calls that terminate in the continental US.  I called my credit union to inform them that I'd be using my ATM card in the Philippines and hung up.  This call took no more than 5 minutes, most likely less.

For this Onesuite completely drained the money in my account, more than $7 for a call they said lasted 136 minutes.  That's over 2 hours to tell my credit union that I've added a country to my vacation itinerary.  Since they had drained my account I was unable to call Onesuite to point out their error or to call anyone else.  Onesuite left me high and dry overseas.

November 19:  But I could send them an email to explain what happened and I did.  On November 19th I got a robo-reply which said, "Dear Customer, We received your message. We will reply to your e-mail in 24 to 48 hours."  24-48 hours took 5 days.

November 24:  Onesuite finally got back to me and asked for the details of the call, which they already had since I had already told them and they processed the call so they certainly had a record of it.  I replied on November 24th with all of the details that they had requested.  Meanwhile, I was still overseas without the phone service that I had already paid for.

November 25: Onesuite sent me an email stating that my balance was $0 and urged me to add money.  Fat chance.

November 27: Onesuite responded to my email from November 24th, "We do apologize for any inconvenience. We have forwarded your connection problem to our Technical Department. The reference number is XXXXX.  Kindly give us 24 to 48 hours to have the problem fixed. We truly appreciate your patience and understanding.  There's that 24 to 48 hours promise again.  It's now 10 days and counting that I am without the service that I have already paid for due to their error compounded by Onesuite's poor customer service.

December 4:  I'm back home in the USA.  24-48 hours had finally elapsed from November 24th and I heard from Onsuite again with a result that I could sense was coming all along,
"Our Technical Department already checked on the exact duration of the call you have made on 11/18/2013 15:59:00. They have confirmed that it lasted for 136minutes".
Holiday weekend delay? Not likely, Onesuite's customer service people are in the Philippines and after visiting Manila for myself recently I assure you that there is no American Thanksgiving holiday in the Philippines and unfortunately very little to be thankful for there.

This is outright theft but hey, I only lost $7 and change.  But if I had more money in my account I am sure that Onesuite would've run the clock out to drain whatever I had given them.  In a world of GoogleVoice and cell phones there is little need for a company like Onesuite and I'm sure that their business has suffered.

I retained them for calls from overseas but the joke was on me.  Onesuite cannot be depended upon.  Even if their customer service people kept their own promises (24-48 hour turn around) Onesuite certainly can't be depended upon when I'm out of the country.  When I'm overseas I have many alternatives and I certainly wouldn't advance Onesuite another penny for such incompetent, awful service.

Poor service compounded by poor customer service, a company I have long depended upon and recommended to friends and family has crashed and burned.  I'm sorry to see Onesuite go this way.  Let the buyer of pre-paid telephone service beware.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Few Words About Freedom

Freedom is euphoric. This has been a great trip, even considering the crowded and late flights, the questionable hotel, the dehydration and jet lagged lack of sleep. Manila was absolute anarchy marinated in diesel exhaust and feral children in squatter camps but the people we met in Manila had hearts of gold. In Manila we were treated like family, maybe better.

I loved the freedom of the experience and the open ended nature of this trip, how the this trip was planned out through Dubai and Kuala Lumpur with the rest of the time to be made up as we went along through research and inspiration. I loved the breakfasts of simple drip coffee in the hotel room or Nescafe instant, cheese roti, laksa, kwey teow, breakfast at a Pakistani restaurant where I couldn't read the menu or tell you what we ate (but it was good) even Camelicious camel milk. This time we ate tiger prawns, next time I will attempt to find and eat the pissing shrimp.

Have a Camel!
I don't know what I'm eating...
Without freedom none of this would be possible, being off the leash for 3 weeks makes me want more. But first we need to put our leashes back on and slide the rings through our noses. We have a 16 hour time change to slowly digest, to wade though and pay bills and to back to our jobs which makes all of the above and the previous dispatches which you can read below possible.

To some extent my age is making a trip of this nature less possible, it was harder this time to deal with the jet lag and the tropical heat. I didn't sleep much for 5 days and allowed myself to get dehydrated resulting in one day on the DL in the hotel.  I wanted more time to kick back but maybe it's not such a bad idea to stop pushing myself so hard and to act my age.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Philippines

Partially written at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila:

Awaiting our flight out of Manila to Kuala Lumpur.  The hospitality here in Manila has been wonderful, we haven't been able to buy a meal and it hasn't been for lack of trying.   Eleanor's friends opened their hearts to us and in at least one case, their homes.  They showed us the city and even some of the countryside.  But as wonderful as the Filipino people have been the Philippines itself is heart breakingly broken.

Take the airport in Manila.  Most Asian capital cities have wonderful new airports speeding arrivals to their downtowns by modern high speed rail lines.  NAIA is not one of those Asian airports.  It looks and smells like an American Greyhound bus station from the 1970's.  Light fixtures are dark with missing or blown out bulbs, the ceiling is stained by roof leaks.  The 2 guards who were supposed to inspect our boarding passes were too busy taking cell phone selfies to bother with us.   Except for the liquor store the shops at the airport are few, dimly lit and poorly stocked.  This airport doesn't need a makeover, it needs a wrecking ball.

But it's not out of character with the city that it serves.  Manila traffic is absolute chaos.  I saw many stop signs in Manila but I never saw a car stop for one.  When we were being taken around Manila kids would approach the SUV at a red light and get right up to the windows attempting to sell home made feather dusters, brooms, plastic Santa Clauses or sunglasses with built in LED's.  This is the kind of place that I've read about where if you stop for a traffic light and dangle your arm out of the car window street urchins could steal your watch in a flash.  I was cautioned by locals to not ride the rapid transit rail lines, they were tightly packed and unsafe due to violence, groping and pickpocketing.  A friend of Eleanor's told me that the rail rapid transit lines have no escalators because the money to buy and install them when the lines were originally built had been pilfered because the government in the Philippines is a kleptocracy.

Before I came to Manila I had read about the jeepneys, the icon of the Manila streets.  When I got here I saw them, they're banged up homemade minibus/trucks that carry people or sometimes cargo, a sort of home made ragtag private rapid transit substitute for the buses that the government doesn't seem to provide. Passengers and barefoot feral children hang off the backs of the jeepneys in traffic.  When the jeepneys move they belch coal black diesel exhaust onto everything and everybody so Manila lives under a brown cloud.  The spare tires on a jeepney are often bald, sometimes so bald that the tire cord shows.

Worse yet are the tricycles, sort of a local tuk-tuk.  A tricycle in the Philippines is a motorcycle lashed to a sidecar.  I saw tricycles carrying 7 people at once with 4 crammed into the sidecar and 2 people sitting behind the driver. With such a load the tricycle can't move very fast and for safety's sake that's probably a good thing.  But that slows down the cars, trucks and jeepneys to the speed of the tricycles which gums up everything.  Because of the insane traffic entry into Manila is restricted by licence plate number.  The well to do get around this by simply buying and licensing a 2nd car.

Or take the cell phone system.  Locals tell me that it's necessary to have several cell phones or a phone that accepts multiple SIM's because while the local competing cell phone carriers do interconnect with each other they charge more to connect calls to their rivals so many people have service with all of the companies because it's cheaper to do that then to pay their higher charges to call people who use competing companies. Businesses often list several phone numbers, one for each carrier.

So if the government is a screwed up bribe and kickback machine why not vote them out?   Corruption is rampant but the electorate votes the same folks back in with majorities that would make Saddam Hussein proud.  When we were were in Batangas province, I saw incredible poverty with spots of very conspicuous wealth.  I checked, in recent elections the governor was reelected with almost 94% of the vote.  But it's worse than that, read a few paragraphs here about the governor  That kind of comic nonsense is the norm in the Philippines, the people get the government that they deserve.  I broached this subject with several people I met in the Philippines, all were aware how sad and desperate it made the country seem.

So the Philippines makes due economically by exporting workers to more prosperous economies and exists financially by remittances sent home by these OFW's or Overseas Philippine Workers.  The rich families that control the Philippines make money every time an OFW deposits their earnings into one of their banks or calls home to friends of relatives via the phone companies that they own at toll rates that are kept artificially high.

When we were in Dubai we had dinner with Eleanor's niece Rachel, she's been an OFW in Dubai for 10 years.  Exporting workers means that the motivated best and brightest of the Philippines are working and benefiting someone else.  Some of the money comes back but the talents and skills that the country needs do not.  There's an separate OFW entrance and lounge at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.  I asked Rachel if there were any advantages to being an OFW at the airport.  She replied that the only one she would think of was that OFW's were exempt from having to pay the exit fee of $12.70 US.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why I'll Never Fly Malaysia Airlines Again

I've flown Malaysia airlines before, this year we flew them from Kuala Lumpur to Manila and back.  The flight to Manila was 90 minutes late, the flight back to Kuala Lumpur was 2 hours late.  Airlines have scheduling problems and things happen that aren't within their control, it happens to all airlines.

But my recent flight from Manila to KL was perhaps the worst flight I've ever been on.  Stuck on the tarmac, screaming children directly behind me, the person behind me had long legs and we all had confining seats so he kicked me in the ass for a half hour.  A dirty look made that stop.  Eleanor had a talk about proper mothering with the fat Filipina with the screaming child, that worked for only a few minutes

The 737-800 was in poor shape.  My seat pocket was bent out of shape, broken and ripped.  The carpeting on the main aisle down the airplane was worn and unraveling.  My seat belt was worn out.  It was so old and worn out that I could stick my finger through the webbing and that's a safety hazard (see below).  If the seat belt in my car was this worn out I would've replaced it before it got as bad as I saw tonight.  I've flown Air Asia before and while the terminals was bargain basement the flights were better than Malaysia Airlines and the planes in better shape.

I showed the holey seat belt to the steward when he asked me to buckle up.  He thanked me to bringing it to his attention, assured me that the seat belt was absolutely safe and said that he'd let someone know about it just as soon as we got to Kuala Lumpur.  Assuming that he did that it'll be great for the next butt to sit in that seat but it only convinced me that Malaysia Airlines is either too poor to fly safely (they've been losing money) or they don't care about their customers and employees.  Either way I won't fly them again, a blatant safety problem such as the seat belt below makes me suspect that the safety neglect could be deeper and I'd rather not fly such an airline.

Buckle up for safety on Malaysia Airlines!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kuching: Beware of Extreme Weather

Kuching is the largest city in East Malaysia, the capital of Sarawak state and is on the island of Borneo, a large island that Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei.  Sometimes parachuting into a foreign city clicks and sometimes it clunks.  Kuching has been partly clunk.

For one thing I picked the wrong hotel.  We stayed at the Citadines, they're a Singaporean chain that I've had good luck with in the past in Bangkok and Tokyo.  But the Citadines Upland Kuching is in a terrible location for anything downtown, one that I should have noticed from a map.  The Citadines Upland Kuching is located on a 4 lane divided boulevard halfway between the airport and downtown and is central to nearly nothing except an under rented mall across the boulevard.  There are no sidewalks.  Although on the 10th floor we awake daily to the sounds of chickens and especially roosters.  The hotel staff told us that there was no bus to town.  "Taxi only, we call for you!" said the check-in clerk.

But there is a bus.  From our 10th floor window I saw a beat up green bus taking on passengers at a covered bus stop right outside the hotel.  We gave it a try and it worked, sort of.  The K-8 bus meandered through the city and took us to a downtown street that doubles as the local bus station.

Last stop, everybody out!
From there we jumped into the city to be exposed to the weather, which seems to alternate between a searing, punishing, will sapping equatorial sun and steamy humidity and the tropical downpours and violent thunder and lightening storms that roll in from the interior jungles.  The buses stop running at 6PM, or sometimes 5:30 PM or whenever they want to pack it in for the day.  We were marooned at a bus stop in the afternoon watching others wander away after they had given up any hope of the bus.

The next morning we were waiting for the bus to take us into Kuching when a small beaten up beige Toyota van stopped and the others waiting with us at the bus stop scampered aboard so we did too.  It took us downtown to the same street as the bus, we paid our fare of 1.50RM and scampered out for our morning broiling.

There were 9 of us in this tiny van.  The driver is the one wearing the Islamic headgear
We got a one hour respite from the searing sun by taking a river cruise. The boatman seated us in the boat, prepared for the journey by taking a leak against a wall before we headed down river.  The boat was so tiny that shifting my body for a comfortable position or a better camera angle caused the boat to list.

But the shade and the breeze as the boat headed up and then down river was so refreshing in the stifling afternoon heat that we took the river cruise twice.  The second time we had run into a semi retired tour guide while we waited for one of those city buses that never come.  Richard Yeo gave us a river tour seemingly just out of personal pleasure.  He seemed to be an all round great guy who answered all of our questions about Kuching and helped to turn our trip here around.  That's him with Eleanor below.

Hi Richard!
Questionable hotel location in a city with great food but weather extremes. Our next destination will still be tropical but I've already secured a reputable hotel in the best part of town.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Back From the Dead

It took a while for the will to live to return to my food poisoned body. Between hurried trips to the bathroom I spent most of a day in the hotel curled up on the bed in a shivering ball waiting to either get better or die. Eleanor kept waking me to feed me ibuprofen and insist that I take a long pull on a bottle of water. The next morning the shivering gradually subsided, the fever ebbed and I felt like pressing on for another day.

So we went to the Kuala Lumpur Auto Show at the Putra World Trade Center.  There's nothing special on the car market in Malaysia but I wanted to take in the whole experience.  They were displaying Chinese semi trucks, Volkswagens assembled in India and locally made Peroduas.  But in some ways it was like the car shows I remember as a kid growing up in New York.  Back then cars were displayed at shows with the aid of provocatively dressed women but we're enlightened now and no longer do that in the US.  The official state religion of Malaysia might be Islam and many local women wouldn't dream of walking outside without their hair covered.  Female police officers here keep their hair tucked up inside of a sort of canvas helmet but they still do cars shows here the old school way, with provocatively dressed women posing for men holding fancy cameras with long lenses.  How refreshing.  How sad that such displays are against our state religion but an Islamic country seems to have no problem tolerating this.  As for how women are seen by the Malaysian car industry check out Perodua's Female Empowerment Movement, FEM for short.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Kuala Lumpur: Sick

5 days without sleeping and pushing myself hard has finally caught up to me.  Chills, shivering, dehydration, fever, runs, headache with a touch of delirium.  Food poisoning?  Parasites?  Several big thunderstorms swept through during the night and in my delirium I couldn't tell whether the thunder and lightening was outside the hotel or inside my stomach.  The answer: both.  Eleanor is fine, it's just me.  Right now I can't be away from the can, it's at times like this that I'd rather be in my own home.

We ate at a banana leaf restaurant in KL's Little India the other day, a strange experience.  That night I bought some prepackaged cut yellow watermelon at the Cold Storage supermarket and Eleanor didn't eat that.  I once ate at an Indian restaurant in Seattle with friends from NY and I was the only one who got food poisoning.  Am waiting for my body to expel the poisons before we decide what to do next.