See the World

A while back, my son introduced me to this online game called Geoguessr. It was something that he had done in school on days that it was too cold or rainy to go outside for recess. On their website, they give you one free game per day. We did that for about a month before purchasing a one-year membership for somewhere around $25, which in my opinion, is totally worth it.

The premise of the game is that it drops you somewhere in the world using Google Streetview, and then you have to figure out which country you're in. Personally, I think it's really cool to see what these random locales look like, as a vast majority of them are places that I have never been. Many are in parts of the world that I knew very little about but now want to visit because of this game, countries like Slovakia, Uruguay and Sri Lanka. 

Please note that I am not being compensated in any way to write this, not by Geoguessr, nor by the Ministry of Tourism in the beautiful nation of Slovakia. I just genuinely think this game is a hell of a lot of fun. It's not for everybody, of course, but on some level, it does fulfill at least a little bit of my wanderlust while also keeping me from going completely stir crazy. Considering that we've barely left the house for this entire pandemic, between this and playing video games are about the closest that we have come to actually traveling. 

In the time that we've been Geoguessing, we've developed a few strategies. Usually, the first thing we do is try to narrow it down to a continent. License plates are a good place to start. Even though they're blurred out, you can usually see their shape. In North and South America, the plates are boxier, as they are in Japan and some other places as well, whereas European plates are wider and shorter. We also take note of which side of the road they're driving on, as that can help narrow it down considerably. Models of the vehicles are sometimes worth paying attention to as well. We like to look at any graffiti we find, too, even though it doesn't usually help all that much in figuring out the country. We just happen to find it interesting.

We also search for words on signs and vehicles. It helps to be able to recognize and distinguish between languages, but this can certainly provide a useful exercise in that regard. It's good to know the difference between Spanish and Portuguese, for example, or Korean and Japanese, Italian and Romanian, or Icelandic and Danish, etc. Also, with countries that essentially have their own alphabets, it can be helpful to memorize at least a few symbols from each. You might be surprised to learn how many countries still use the cyrillic alphabet, too. I didn't expect to see it in North Macedonia or Mongolia, among other places. Unofficially, in our house, we have a rule where we don't look things up while we're playing, although I suspect that most people probably don't play it that way. These are the same people who helped to ruin online Scrabble. 

While we're looking for all these types of clues, we're also looking at the landscape. Are there palm trees? That can be a pretty big hint that you're not in Canada. Are there mountains? Then you are not in Belgium. More to the point, are there any flags? That can also be a tremendously useful clue, but it requires that you memorize a lot of flags. I've also made a point to learn website country codes. Outside of the US, most of them end in something other than .com. For example, RU is Russia, MK is North Macedonia, DE is Germany, Switzerland is CH (for Confoederatio Helvetica - i.e., Swiss Federation), LV is Latvia, etc. As you may have noticed, some are more obvious than others. Knowing these are useful when playing Geoguessr, because a lot of billboards and company vehicles have web addresses on them. 

As far as pre-game strategies are concerned, it is also helpful to know where the various European powers held colonies in Africa. If you see women carrying baskets on their heads, but all the signs are in French, then you're probably either in Senegal or Tunesia. If it's in English and they're driving on the left side of the road, you might be in South Africa.

Incidentally, when we lived in Micronesia, the cars all drove on the right, but most of the steering wheels were also on the right, as it was generally easier to import them from Japan. I think this is somewhat of an anomaly, though. Either way, this is one of the places that the Google car has yet to go. Knowing stuff like that can be useful, too, as in knowing that you''re probably never going to get placed in Saudi Arabia, Iran or North Korea, either. There are certain places that the Google car either cannot or will not go. Every once in a while, we do get one in China, but it seems to be limited to approved tourist destinations.  

Is playing this as good as traveling? Of course not. For one thing, you don't get to sample the local cuisine, which is part of the fun in going to new places. On the other hand, you're way less likely to get your wallet or your camera stolen this way, plus you can do it all without even putting pants on. 



Writing Agenda

I've decided to put the detective novel that I had been developing aside for now to work on something else. As far as the book is concerned, the story is fully outlined and I've got the characters pretty well figured out... but then I got an idea for a screenplay that I want to run with while it's still fresh. Sometimes, I find that's the best way to write comedy. When the muse appears and says that it's time to write, I just go with it. 

I have a certain fondness for screenwriting, too. I like the economy of language in the form. You only have about ninety pages, with relatively limited space on each page, to tell a cohesive and compelling story. This requires discipline, knowledge of the craft, and the ability to choose just the right words to say more with less. In some ways, it's actually harder than writing a book. I tend to think of my first three or four screenplays as practice scripts. They live in a box somewhere, never to see the light of day -- but sometimes the best way to learn something is simply by doing it. In the process, you improve.

The screenplay that I'm writing started with a title and just kind of snowballed from there. It's a comedy that could be shot on a modest budget. That's all I'll say for now. I suspect that the deeper I get into this project, the less time I will have to write blog posts. That said, I hope to have this script done within the next couple of months, at which point I will probably do a few more blog posts and then get back to working on the book. Once I am vaccinated, I also hope to get back to teaching. 



Summer Squash Soup

The other day, I went to the grocery store and they had all these "imperfect" summer squashes that they were selling three for a dollar, so I bought six of them. This evening, I made them into soup. Here's what I did:

1. Peel and cube summer squash, put in bowl with melted butter, olive oil, salt, black pepper, red pepper, paprika, cinnamon and about a little bit of brown sugar. Stir it up until it's all coated, then spread on cookie sheet covered in parchment paper. Cook at 400°F for about half an hour, until they start to brown. 

2. Chop up two carrots, two celery stalks and two onions. Put in bowl. Cut up about a pound of boneless chicken breasts and put in different bowl with a little bit of Italian dressing. 

3. Heat up soup pot. Melt butter. Put chicken in. Put lid on for a few minutes, then take it off so that the chicken can brown. Once the chicken was browned, I removed it from the pot and put it into a different bowl, which I set aside.

4. In that same pot, I cooked the onions, carrots and celery. I also added some minced garlic, chopped spinach and red pepper flakes, along with a little more butter and salt. 

5. Once that was brown, I took it out of the pot and put it into a blender along with the roasted squash. I blended it until it looked kind of like baby food, then I put it back into the pot, along with the cooked chicken and about two and half cups of chicken stock and a little bit of chicken soup base. I also added about a half cup of heavy cream.

6. Salt to taste. This was when I added some lime juice, ginger juice and white vinegar a little bit at a time until it was adequately bright. Then I sprinkled in some oregano and parsley, plus a few thin slices of gruyere cheese, and called it good.

Personally, I enjoy the mad science aspect of making soup. Add a little of this, a little of that, until eventually it tastes like something you want to eat.  

Balance

Balance is the secret to the universe. Now you know.



It is why atoms do not like their nuclei to be separated and why we don't all fly off into space from the cetrifugal force of the earth's rotation. Good old gravity has always got our backs.

We also have just the right balance of particles in the air around us that allows us to breathe, even though about three quarters of it is actually made up of nitrogen. Consider that if all of the air on earth was oxygen, then it would only take a single spark to set the entire planet ablaze. Nitrogen is what they put inside incandescent lightbulbs to prevent the tungsten filaments from burning too hot.



Homeostasis is happening all around us. If you leave a piece of bread on the counter, eventually the humidity level of the bread is going to achieve an equilibrium with the rest of the kitchen. The same is true if you leave a can of beer in the garage. Eventually, it will be equal in temperature to the air around it. Nature, by nature, seeks balance.

Sometimes when the very delicate balances of the natural world are disrupted, it can cause serious problems. For example, over time, as predators like coyotes, bears and wolverines are killed off and their habitats destroyed, then the animals that are further down the food chain overpopulate and overgraze, which casuses soil erosion and other problems. Before long, these environmental imbalances can go so far as to change the way that rivers flow... and worse. Nature is constantly reminding us of the imperative of maintaining balance.


I tend to think that balance is an integral part of any artform as well. If you're using blue in a painting, for example, then an orange background will help it to stand out. In terms of the broader aesthetics, a balanced composition tends to make for an interesting image, as it invites the eye to move through it (instead of leading your attention to land in one place). 


When cooking, in most cases, a person seeks to achieve a balance between the various flavor elements at play. This is why cilantro can fuck right off. It overpowers everything else. If you want chocolate to stand out more, add some cinnamon, as this helps to ground it and provide balance. If you want to balance out a heavy umami flavor, add lime juice or some other acid to brighten it. If you put in too much spice, add a little bit of sugar. When in doubt, add ginger.

This holistic balance method is how I tend to approach baking as well. All measurements are approximate and subject to change at my discretion. I know that the fundamental difference between most kinds of dough is the ratio of liquid to flour (and sugar, if applicable). If I know what that dough is supposed to feel like, once I've got the right balance of the wet and dry ingredients, that's when it's ready to knead or bake or whatever. It really is all about having the proper balance. That isn't to say equal amounts of everything, just that each element is contributing to the whole without calling specific attention to itself. You don't taste the flour, the buttermilk, the sugar, the eggs, the vanilla extract, the baking soda or the salt. You taste the pancakes, which is to say that you taste all of these things in proportionate balance with one another. Then maybe you drown it in syrup, because pancakes usually need something sweet to balance out the flavors.




I could go on, as there are examples of this in nearly all of the things that bring us joy. In fact, I tend to think that the key to having happiness in one's life is to seek (or perhaps more accurately, allow) balance at every opportunity that presents itself. My spouse and I, for example, have very different personailities from one another, but we balance each other out. Further, it seems that the more balanced I am in my own life, the happier I am. I suspect that this is probably true with most people. 

If I make a conscious effort to take time every day to exercise and nurture my mind (by reading/writing/teaching/solving puzzles), my body (through physical activity) and soul (by playing music/creating art/being with the people I love), then I generally find this to be a day well spent. 

It all comes down to balance.  


What is in a Name?

Part of the fun in making my own beer, other than the obvious reward of getting to drink it and share it with friends at the end of the process, is in naming my various creations. Before I started putting it in kegs, I bottled it myself, and every time, I would design a label to go with the name. Sometimes I drew it and sometimes I used clip art, but it was always fun. Frankly, it's the only thing that I miss about bottling.

I was designing beer recipes today, which happened to correspond with my ordering of the various ingredients online. One of the beers that I shall be making later this year is an American pale-bodied pilsner with complex notes of fruit, some European flavor and hops from Oregon that smell faintly of cannabis. I'm calling it Rick Steves. 

Watching his show, or other travel shows, helps make up for the fact that we can't go anywhere right now. It's not as good as a vacation, but at this point, I'll take it.


Twitter

Now that Drumpf isn't on Twitter anymore (that's still fun to say), I've started using it slightly more, which is to say occasionally. This past week, I've pretty much just been using it to yell at the television during the impeachment trial, a practice that has proven to be only mildly cathartic. Sadly, I know that it's going to take a lot more than that to preserve the integrity of our democracy. 

You can follow me @sands_zach, if you're into that kind of thing. Even though I still rarely use social media, please feel free to like me. Just like everybody, I like being liked. Every once in a while, I might even say something funny and/or intelligent in 140 characters or less. You never know. 

For me, the hardest thing about using Twitter is ignoring my inclination to employ proper grammar, or not choosing the right word just because it doesn't fit in the space available. Also, I'm kind of a compulsive editor, but only because I know that first drafts of anything tend to be inferior to what they could be if revised and polished. Even these three simple paragraphs underwent a number of reivisions before taking their present shape. 


Anything Goes

Keeping with the title of this blog, I've decided that this is the place where I will write about whatever I feel like on a given day. You may have noticed this. While I do have pretty diverse interests, they are all interconnected in certain ways. 

Plus about the only thing that I enjoy as much as acquiring knowledge and wisdom is the act of sharing these things. That's why I've been teaching college courses for over a decade. It's also why I created this blog. While the ideas that I seek to convey in these venues are quite different, the idea behind them is more or less the same. 

I believe that knowledge and its byproducts are worth exponentially more when shared, so I try to do whatever I can to make that happen. 

If you like my work, please share it with others.