“Small is Beautiful” on film: it’s not about the (tiny) house
May 5, 2015, 8:40 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, films, making a difference, reviews, simple living, tiny houses.

I was recently treated to an early screening of Small is Beautiful, a documentary film about the makers of tiny houses.  The film has its official Portland premiere on May 7 at the Laurelhurst Theater.

Nikki and Mitchell in their tiny house, photo courtesy smallisbeautifulmovie.com

[photo courtesy smallbeautifulmovie.com]

It’s a nice piece of film-making, alive with interesting characters and thought-provoking ironies.  But it might not be what you expect.  Director Jeremy Beasley hasn’t made a film about a movement, but rather a few specific people.  It’s less about houses than the choices people make, and the idea of independence itself.

This tack is fixed by the basic premise of the film: following four people (one couple and two singles) through the process of building three tiny houses.  The focus is on the process of creating or placing the houses, not living in them.  At the time of filming, only one of the four subjects has actually spent time living in her tiny house.

This is a natural setup for a film-maker, because the building projects provide a dramatic arc to what might otherwise be a structureless subject (just as in sports stories, there must inevitably be a “big game”).

That means housing geeks (such as me) may be a bit disappointed.  The film can’t say much about whether tiny houses actually work as long-term residences.  We don’t know much more than before about whether they’re a novelty or a truly progressive form of housing.

Instead, watching the process of creating and placing the houses makes one study character, and life choices.  All of the tiny-house makers, though they differ in age and style, seem to be looking for a kind of independence.

Ben, as depicted in the film, is a young man preoccupied with unresolved feelings about his long-estranged, and now dead, biological father.  For him making a tiny house seems to be an effort to create a bit of security in an uncertain world, which oddly enough seems rich in supportive family and friends.

Nikki and Mitchell are a thirty-ish couple looking for financial freedom, but it is safe to say the film portrays their real issue as codependency.  Their plan to live together in the tiny house they are building, along with two dogs, does not appear to be an idea that could work on any level.

“I think if we did it again, we would build his and hers tiny houses,” one of them says at one point, making one wonder where the relationship is really going.

Karen is an older woman who creates a tiny house so she can run her medical practice in a more charitable and idealistic way.   With the tiny house built, she runs her clinic the way she wants, but at the same time struggles with new insecurities, such as getting kicked out of her tiny house’s parking spot.

Landlessness is “part of the joy” of the experience, she relates.  Despite the anxiety about where to live, she also feels a growing ability to withhold judgments and to keep an open mind.

Director Beasley deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the easy road.  He could have made a film about design, full of tiny-house eye candy and absent any clue how real life actually proceeds.

Instead he’s given us something a lot more challenging. Even if the film is “small” in its scope, it presents a giant philosophical challenge.  Though tiny houses symbolize independence, creating them and placing them in the world just serves to illustrate how interdependent people are.

I hope he can return in a year or two with an expanded version, or a sequel, so we can find out how the tiny house makers have lived, now that they’ve built.

Salt roasted chicken
April 24, 2015, 12:13 pm by bottleman. Filed under: diy, invasive species, off-topic, simple living.

Be warned, I’m not a chef, a cook, a foodie, or anything of that kind.  But I am a person who has eaten a truckload of chicken in my life (sorry, fowl), so I know what for.  In this post I’m going to tell you how to prepare a chicken so that it is not a generic, stringy, miserable source of protein — so that it, in fact, actually tastes good.  As good as this picture, by Marjan Lavarevski, looks:

photo of roasted chicken by flickr user Marjan Lavarevski https://www.flickr.com/photos/mlazarevski/8500053523/in/photolist-dX7ZLX-6md2U-4YrREd-4wVvM-2f9YNJ-6XnaMP-4S2MBf-pom98-pom69-6rfxEP-5to2B6-6D9tro-6D9tLu-6D5kfM-6QhzCT-izXLmY-4wVwC-4jZnjV-6xCFpM-7PAXBC-7PAXUY-7PwYLR-2MVx1H-2MZMvq-2MZRGA-9hTUCN-4n3RHt-4wVwh-5An69i-7o6mPB-5Ygc8L-7Vt31N-wcoGV-dY4XFp-4dD1xC-6Nv28L-5HeyHb-2Adys9-7bXpos-5Hez4d-64xmQ5-6TD7c-7q5jRH-7dkeq-6TDcv-9TePZQ-5JJmF1-L7hKo-4YrCPy-73crBs/

It’s an incredibly easy recipe with just two ingredients, salt and chicken.  No quartering, no marinating, no onions or other BS.   You’ll get enough meat for two or three meals, and be left with the base for a soup besides.  It’s a tiny amount of work for all the food you get out of it.


Perhaps you’ve never experienced it, so know this.  A roasted chicken is like a ripe peach: if you’ve ever had a perfect one, it is a thing of sublimity.  It doesn’t just “wake your taste buds up,” it gives you a sudden awareness that there is color and good in the world, that life itself is a thing to be craved and savored.  That you actually want to continue to live, for moments like this.  You feel there is a rowdy f–, I mean roll in the hay, in your immediate future.

But such experiences are — sadly — few and far between.  Most chicken out there in the world is simply awful.  It is rubbery and/or stringy and/or dry and/or tasteless.  Then, in some attempt to save it, the tired flesh becomes a vehicle for flavorings or sauces or breaded coatings.  Yeah, barbecue sauce is kind of an art in itself, but the chicken should be good first.

Before you can make it right, you’ve got to kill all the impulses that make chicken recipes wrong.  The apparent goal of many chicken recipes is to remove all flavor, moisture, and tenderness from the chicken itself and replace it with something else.  Chicken recipes typically cut the meat into small pieces, inevitably drying it out, and separate the meat from the bone, removing a source of flavor and nutrition.  Moreover they seem terrified of fat, and remove the skin and/or drain the “drippings” away from the meat, removing another source of flavor and nutrition.  They then try to replace what they’ve lost with vegetables, spices, sauces, etc.

For the love of Pete, don’t do this.  Keep the chicken together and relish the fat.  Like so:

One storebought chicken, whole (5-6 pounds).  (Note: if your chicken is notably smaller, you may need to adjust the cooking times below.)
1.5-2.0 tablespoons salt

Preheat oven to 475F.  (Yes, 475).

Remove chicken from package and put aside any miscellaneous parts (“giblets,” neck, etc).  Rinse.

Rub the inside and outside of the bird thoroughly with the salt.  Really work it in there.  Some of the salt will fall off into the sink.  That’s ok.

Put the chicken, breast up, in the oven in a SMALL baking pan (the one I use is about 6.5″x10.5″x2.0″).  The smallish container will prevent the limbs from falling away from the body and drying out.  The walls should be high enough to collect the liquid that will be generated (1-2″ high).

Roast the chicken at 475F for 25-30 minutes.  At the end of this time, the skin will be crispy and turning brown, and you will just start to smell the fat in the skin burning.

Turn the oven down to 230F.  Roast for 1.5-2.0 more hours.  It should be safely cooked, but if you have any doubts, double-check with a meat thermometer.

Remove a perfectly done chicken.  Enjoy.

Right out of the oven: Try slicing breast meat and dipping it in the liquid in the bottom of the pan before serving.  This is what chicken breast is supposed to taste like.  It is not supposed to be dry.  The liquid in the pan is also really delicious on veggies.

After the first meal: cover tightly and store in the fridge. Draw on this reservoir of meat and broth for salads, sandwiches, etc.    Keep the fat and “drippings” in the pan.  This can easily last a couple of days and fuel a bunch of meals.

When most of the meat is gone: dump whatever remains in a slow cooker and make broth.

That’s it!  à votre santé !

How to make a really good homemade salad spinner
August 16, 2014, 4:00 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, fitness, simple living.

One of the more curious effects of my ongoing health kick has been an unhealthy obsession with salad spinners. Since I have been eating a lot of greens, I wash a lot of greens.  Greens that come straight from the farmer, like spinach, tend to come with a lot of dirt on them, and really need to be washed.  And those boxed salads from the grocery store have already been washed and dried, but the leaves tend to get too dry.  You don’t need to eat them that way. Washing and drying the greens again, which is easiest in a salad spinner, can really liven those boxed salads up.

Now the problem is, salad spinners are generally pretty crappy gadgets. They tend to be made of 100% plastic, which means they tend to build up flavors and stains, and when their spinning mechanism (which is generally in the lid) breaks, it’s basically unfixable, which makes me furious. I’ve had the OXO salad spinner a few times, and broken the mechanism each time.

Ergo I went in search of an all-metal, unbreakable salad spinner, and found nothing. A few extremely expensive spinners had metal bowls, but the mechanisms were still plastic. Along the way I found a discussion on Chowhound about plastic-free salad spinning that suggested to me there really was no good “product” to buy.  Thus I had to return to first principles and design my own.  And who else to demonstrate first principles better than Julia Child?

(This video should start around the 10:55 mark.  If it doesn’t, go there.)

The “French” salad spinner that Julia uses has only two basic elements:

- one, a porous mesh, colander, or filter which holds the greens that have been washed yet allows the water to pass through.

- two, something that uses physical action to encourage the separation of water and salad through centrifugal force.

Every other part is optional.  Julia’s “French” salad spinner has no bowl, because the sink catches the thrown-off water.  And it has no lid, because, well, I guess she’s not planning on storing anything after the meal. Julia’s salad is going to be so good there won’t be any left. :)

Personally I prefer a spinner to have a bowl and a lid, so that it’s possible to serve and store with the same bowl you used to wash the salad (why waste time washing extra dishes?)

For the record, here is a general diagram of a salad spinner:

diagram showing essential elements of any salad spinner

(props to johnny_automatic and voyag3r at openclipart.org for the salad and hand elements of this drawing)

Once you understand that this is the design of every salad spinner in existence, you can make a salad spinner out of  stuff you have around the house. It can be metal, plastic, fiber, whatever material you want.  And since it will not have a complex mechanism, it will be nearly unbreakable. For example:

- you can put your washed salad in a pillowcase or other porous cloth bag and whip it around your head, like this blogger. The salad stays in the bag, the water flies out.   The pillowcase is working as both the filtering element and the spinning element. This works surprisingly well — except you will get water all over the walls.  (Of course you can go outside to do it, but that’s not my favorite method in the middle of a rainy winter.)

- you can do the same thing with big kitchen towels. I understand this is an old-timey method favored by many good cooks. Same results — nice salad, but splattered walls.

- a more sophisticated variation would be to put the salad-laden pillowcase or kitchen towels into a waterproof bag, then whip that around your head.  In this case the towel or pillowcase is still the filtering element, but the waterproof bag acts as the “bowl” or water trap. That way the tossed-off water would won’t go on your walls.

- my preferred method is to put the greens in a stainless steel colander and use that for washing.  Then I put salad that colander inside a larger bowl, and then put the whole combination down into a sturdy cloth bag, then whip that around for about 30 seconds.  The colander is the filtering element, the bowl is the water trap, and the cloth bag is the thing that allows the bowl and colander to be “spun”.

Won’t the salad fall out without a lid? you say.  No, it won’t, the centrifugal force keeps the open “top” of the bowl lined up the right way.  After 30 seconds, stop whipping the bowl around, remove the colander, and dump the trapped water out of the bowl.  You can then use the bowl for serving.  If the bowl has a lid, then you can apply the lid if that suits your needs.

If all that verbiage was too much for you, check out the demonstration on Youtube:

The video shows that I tested two such homemade methods, and found they removed nearly as much water from a washed salad as the famous, and quite breakable Oxo spinner.

So basically, you never need to pay $25-$100 for a clunky and quite breakable salad spinner. There are lots of ways to wash and dry  salad that are nearly free and practically unbreakable.

Just remember one thing.  Salad spinning should be a vigorous part of the cooking process — not an attack with a medieval flail.  So leave plenty of room when you’re swinging that thing around your head.  :)

à votre santé !

Grown-up cookies: or why paleo tastes good but makes no ecological sense
December 7, 2013, 4:48 pm by bottleman. Filed under: diy, fitness, holidays, kids.

Is this blog jumping the shark?  Over the years it has descended from serious issues through miscellaneous fads to, finally, today:  a recipe requested by my sister-in-law (Hi Lynette!).

paleo chocolate-chip cookies by flickr user Chris and Jenni, used under Creative Commons
[photo by Chris & Jenni, Creative Commons]

But hey, these cookies are wheat-free, and feature a delightful clash of chunks of bitter chocolate and coarse sea salt, which give them a decidedly grown-up flavor.  That’s why I call them Grown-Up Cookies.  Unlike most advice on this blog, you can actually apply this material and receive some enjoyment now. :)

Call it my holiday gift to the Internet.

That clash of flavors and textures is my small innovation, and I’m kind of proud of it.  Otherwise these cookies are largely similar in ingredients to other “paleo” chocolate chip cookie recipes out there — there are dozens.

One of those recipes, Jenni’s,  had a cookie picture that was fantastic, and infinitely better than any picture I could take.  And yet, the cookies looked quite similar to the cookies I make.  I used it as the visual reference above. Thanks Jenni!

The “paleo” diet is fashionable in the Crossfit world, and it fits well with the kind of food I like to eat anyway, so I’ve been eating an easy, non-radicalized version of paleo lately.

The basic notion — that it makes sense to eat foods that fit with one’s evolutionary history — seems quite logical on the surface of it.  White sugar, for example, was not widely available until the 19th century, so it’s no surprise our bodies seem to suffer from an excess of it.

But after such examples, the logic and practice of the paleo theory gets harder and harder to support.

The paleo movement basically makes two claims.  First, that this diet is more “authentic” or “natural” given human history.  And second, that there are health benefits to eating this way.

I actually believe the health benefits part. There is persuasive evidence about the role of high-starch and -sugar diets in the chronic problems that trouble us in the modern world.  The low-fat diets that have been encouraged since the 70’s have been a failure. Etc.

But the authentic part is what I’m beginning to question.

Real paleo diets were likely to be extremely irregular, for one thing.  Anyone who’s ever read accounts of life among hunter-gatherers will recognize that these diets can be, above all, inconsistent.  Kill a big animal and everyone feasts.  But then game may disappear for weeks.   There aren’t that many calories in berries.  Starvation was a real possibility.

Real paleo diets were also extremely local, and potentially limited.  A prehistoric person in, say, the Great Lakes region might have plenty of deer to eat, but no avocados or coconuts.  Meanwhile someone in Mexico would be in the opposite situation.

So there certainly wasn’t one prehistoric diet.  People ate what they could from the local environment, not from all over the world.  If available food was the engine behind the evolution of diet, then the genes and diets of different human groups would have been pulled different ways… until groups of humans interbred and everything got mixed up.  That doesn’t seem like a formula for a meat-centric, a plant-centric, or an anything-centric diet.

Fast forward to today.  A tame, but probably healthful, version of paleo might go like this: “don’t eat anything that wasn’t available in the prehistoric environment.”  So that would rule out things like wheat flour and cane sugar — substances which in a chemical sense are natural but which require laborious agricultural and/or industrial processes to purify and make consumable.

To apply this rule when making cookies, the typical response would be to use non-cane sugar — for example coconut sugar.  Yes, it’s got a lower glycemic index and you can make a health case for it on that basis.  But it’s still a concentrated product of agriculture and industry.  There weren’t any cavemen walking around eating that stuff, or other concentrated products such as 70% cacao chocolate chips. For that matter, there weren’t any cavemen walking around eating the kind of almonds, spinach, etc that “paleo” dieters eat today — because crops like those have been relentlessly bred over thousands of years to make them more edible.   Eating a few wild almonds could, sadly enough, kill a cave man.

So come on — if you want to spear a deer and eat it with some huckleberries, that’s paleo for sure. And it sounds pretty tasty to me.   But beyond that the thing we know as the paleo diet is just as artificial as, well, most other diets. :)

Grown-Up Chocolate-Chip Cookies (with bitter chocolate and sea salt)

preheat oven to 350F

2 squares  (2 oz.) UNSWEETENED baking chocolate (unsweetened is key)

1/3 cup butter, softened, or corn oil (canola oil may also be substituted but cookies will be flat)
1/3 cup sugar — white, brown, coconut, whatever
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp honey

1 and 1/2 cups almond flour
2 tbsp corn meal
2 tbsp flax meal
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp COARSE sea salt (coarse is key)

the fun part: put chocolate squares in a sturdy plastic or paper bag, and go outside on a rock or concrete and break the chocolate squares apart with a hammer, until you get chunks and shards of various sizes.  The bigger the pieces are, the more bitter they will feel in the finished cookie.  I make the biggest pieces about the width of a pea.  Put the bag aside until later.

In a mixing bowl, mix well the butter (or oil), egg, sugar, vanilla, and honey.  In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients — the almond flour, corn meal, flax meal, baking soda, and coarse sea salt.

Combine the dry ingredients with the wet, but DON’T MIX TOO MUCH.   Just get everything evenly distributed.

Put in the chocolate chunks.  Mix, but again, don’t do too much.

Now you will have very sticky and delicious sludge.  Form into 9-12 ping-pong sized balls and place on parchment paper (another thing cave men didn’t have :) ) on a cookie sheet.

Bake for approximately 12 minutes.  They won’t quite look done but take them out anyway.

Let cool if you can.

Devour.  I like them with milk, just like Santa.

Happy holidays!

My tiny house, finally furnished right
September 28, 2013, 10:21 am by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, my tiny house project, tiny houses.

When my tiny house was finished six and a half years ago, my mother-in-law needed to move in immediately, and our budget was spent.  So we never really furnished it the way in a way that did justice to the architect’s design.  No more!

After 6 years of wonderful support for my spouse and child, my MIL has moved back East to take care of another grandchild, and we finally have dressed up the place for its new life as a furnished rental. I got help from interior designer Ann Reed at Redu.

Here’s a tour.  (All photos by ElleMPhotography and Martin Brown, used by permission).

Over the patio and through the door:


Installing and using Arke Karina alternating tread stairs: a review
June 27, 2011, 12:00 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, tiny houses.

As a fan of alternating tread stairs, and the owner of a rare city-permitted custom made set of them in the granny cottage I built, I’ve always been curious about one staircase option I did not use: the Arke Karina stair kit.

My own alternating tread device, like most I see around on the internet, was custom made out of wood by a carpenter, and is straight.  However the Arke kit uses a modular metal unit as its spine, giving it a lighter appearance, and giving it the ability to curve.  The Arke kit isn’t cheap ($1600 minimum, plus >$200 extra if you want a second handrail), though custom carpentry isn’t either.   Neither a custom made wood alternating tread stair, nor the Arke kit, meets most residential codes in the US so it’s a wash in that respect.  What’s the better choice for someone building or modding a small house?

I finally got a chance to see an Arke Karina kit in action, …more

A low-power HTPC running Boxee on linux 64 bit (and XP, sigh, brickbats to Netflix)
March 9, 2010, 1:22 pm by bottleman. Filed under: diy, reviews, software.

Last month I finally got sick of cleaning peanut butter off DVD’s. Between me and the 4.5 year old, there probably was a whole jar of the stuff inside the dvd player, and a corresponding amount of skipping. We’d turned to online streaming services like Hulu, which sat on remote servers and were invulnerable to the mess, but they tied up my laptop every time the kid wanted to watch Finding Nemo, or Super Structures.  Also, I didn’t enjoy the vibe that was building up, where there was no separation between the machine I use for work and the one I use for vegging out.

It was finally time to realize a scheme I’d been mulling for a while: making a tiny little home theater PC (HTPC) that would allow my household to go diskless.  Here’s how I did it and how it’s working — which is great, even if some providers of content and software seem determined to keep users stuck in the past.

I got a little Acer Aspire Revo R1600 computer.  …more

Beyond the kitchen triangle: saving work in the kitchen with some simple hacks
December 10, 2009, 3:28 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, simple living.

Lately I’ve been obsessed with kitchen efficiency.  Not green efficiency, but efficiency in terms of work. I would prefer to spend my time enjoying food, not preparing it or cleaning up.  Why does my mother-in-law’s kitchen seem like such a breeze to work in while my own kitchen felt so awkward?  And how can I save work without spending $20K-$100K on a major renovation?

I embarked on my own amateur analysis of kitchen flow and modded my kitchen to match.  My work began with this kitchen work flow diagram:

I’m not much of a graphic artist, but it succinctly shows why it can be so hard to do work efficiently in the kitchen: …more

An attic playroom
March 27, 2009, 9:36 am by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, kids.

I refit this end of the attic in my 1922 house as a play area for my son.  I wanted this attic to continue to feel like an attic, even though I was finishing it off.  So I did the walls and ceiling in tongue & groove beadboard, a material which was also used when the house was built.  It has new fireproofing and insulation underneath.  Other features inlcude: marmoleum sheet scraps for flooring, with soft padding underneath; an antique star-mullioned window to suggest a sunset; a Velux roof window for emergency egress; low-temperature LED light fixtures; a verdant-brand thermostat with an occupancy sensor, controlling a “hydronic” baseboard heater; and a tent-sized nap bay.

    More pics on flickr.

    A thermostat that knows when you’re away (review of Verdant V8-BB-7S with occupancy sensor)
    March 16, 2009, 10:22 am by bottleman. Filed under: diy, energy, kids, making a difference, reviews.

    Resources used by housing and transportation dwarf those associated by other parts of our “lifestyle.” (Click here for geeky background data.) If you want to be green in deed as well as attitude, you’ve got to take on the way you get around, and the energy used by your house.

    In the house, technology can obviate the impulse to nobly suffer to save energy (remember President Carter in his sweater?). Probably the first thing I installed in my family’s house when I moved in was a programmable thermostat.  It saves energy by lowering the thermostat when I’m not likely to be home or wanting heat, and raise it when I know I want it to come on. No more running across a freezing floor at 5:30 AM to turn the heat on.

    Now comes a thermostat that takes this idea one step further …more

    An even tinier house
    December 31, 2008, 4:00 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, kids.

    Updated, expanded room in this post.

    Cheap fix for overheating LCD TV — a USB powered fan
    November 2, 2008, 3:51 pm by bottleman. Filed under: diy.

    I’ve never been one to agree that thrift — as in trying to live “simpler” and “cheaper” on a purely personal basis — is much of a solution to global environmental challenges.*** Still, nothing motivates me to get thrifty more than planned obsolescence.

    It just offends my cheapo scion-of-a-depression-era-farmgirl-and-WASP-engineer sensibilities when perfectly good, or even quite nice, product designs are made of crappy materials and/or nonrepairable parts.  Many products seem designed to fail precisely 1 day after the warranty expires — take the nonreplaceable Apple iPod battery as the most famous example.

    My LCD HDTV seemed to be on a similar plan — failing for an obvious reason, just a few weeks after the warrranty expired.  Damned if I was going to be a victim and go out and buy another one.  Here’s how I fixed it. …more