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The Jerks of Cooking

(Science days are here again. Secondhand SCIENCE days, that is!

Check out the latest semi-scientific silliness, all about the lysosome. It’s not here to say please. Trust me.)

It’s possible I’m going soft in my old age.

(That’s emotionally soft, by the way. I don’t have any hard evidence (yet) that I’m going mentally soft. And there’s no way to refute the physical evidence, so we’re not even going there.

No, I said we’re not. Let it go.)

What I prefer to believe, though, is that I’m approximately as soft — or as hard, or firm, or steely, or weepy (or sneezy, or Doc, for that matter) — as I always was, and that the world is progressively hardening all around me. Or at least, the American bits of the world, where things seem to get a little grittier, a little angrier, and a little louder every day.

I have evidence for this, in an area that’s emerging as one of our nation’s most brutal and ruthless arenas, filling daily with more bile and greed and wanton ego.

Yes, that’s right: cooking shows.

As just one example, consider Alton Brown. Not so many years ago, he hosted a program called Good Eats. It ran for 14 seasons, and in addition to disseminating cooking tips and recipes, was also basically a variety show full of skits and entertainment. There were recurring characters — the grouchy neighbor, a prissy sister, a dungeon master, for crissakes. Blackboards saw liberal use for demonstrations. Heroes and villains and experts of dubious merit came and went — Lever Man, Waffle Man, Sergeant Pepper — next to actual authorities on nutrition and food history. It was, if not quite “delightful”, exactly — we’ll get back to that — certainly clever, informative, entertaining and heartfelt. I love Good Eats.

I even came up with a set (or three) of Alton Brown facts, in the style of Chuck Norris facts. I was basically suggesting that Alton Brown is the Chuck Norris of cooking shows.

And then Alton Brown began hosting Iron Chef America, a cooking contest pitting (typically) balloon-egoed pro chefs against each other, serving dishes to (mostly) haughty near-celebrity judges while a (cartoonishly) smug “chairman” looks on. There’s food in this “cooking show”, yeah — but it’s really more about clash and pressure and bravado than anything else.

“But how you get ball-grabbingly macho over, ‘my meatloaf can kick your meatloaf’s ass’ is beyond me.”

(That last bit is frankly a mystery. I appreciate a good chef as much as the next guy. But how you get ball-grabbingly macho over, “my meatloaf can kick your meatloaf’s ass” is beyond me.

I mean, yay, you cooked a thing. Bully for you. If you’re expecting a cookie for it, then get your ass back in the kitchen and bake one. That’s your gig, right?)

In his narrating role, Brown got snippier and cockier himself. Maybe to match the tone of the show. Maybe as another character to play, that just happened to share his name. Or maybe he felt his meatloaf was the Iron-iest of them all, and was pissed he didn’t get to prove it. But Iron Chef America played up conflict over cuisine — far more than the original Japanese show — and Alton Brown became a cog in that machine.

And so went a lot of new cooking shows around that time. Chopped began in 2009, for instance, pitting four smack-talking chefs against one another in front of a panel of judges, most of which would make the Queen of Hearts seem pleasant.

(Some of these judges went on to become Iron Chef (America)s!, which proves that they can apparently sneer and sous vide with comparable skill.)

By 2013, all the charm had seemingly been squeezed out of food TV, like icing from a piping bag. Alton Brown signed up for Cutthroat Kitchen, in which the contestants and the host now all actively mock, despise and sabotage one another, and incidentally, once in a while some food might get prepared. By a guy who’s only allowed to cook with an E-Z Bake oven and has to use his underpants to strain pasta. Because Alton Brown told him so, and nyah-ed at him the whole time. Because Alton Brown now evidently believes he’s the Chuck Norris of cooking shows.

Good Eats, we hardly knew ye.

I’ve been a big fan of cooking shows — even some of the competition shows — over the years. I look at people expertly preparing food in the same way I do a lumberjack or a human cannonball or Lindsey Lohan: certainly I could never do what they do, and I would grievously hurt myself trying. But it’s fascinating to watch, and to learn about, and to put bets on who’s losing a finger first.

That doesn’t mean I want to see them bitching at each other about who whips their souffles correctly. If that’s a thing chefs do. I don’t even souffle, apparently.

But that’s the landscape of food-ertainment these days — or so I thought. Because among all the Fight Club Sandwich and Mad Mixer: Beyond Frappedome nonsense being shoved (deliciously) down our throats, I recently found a BBC/PBS show called The Great British Baking Show. It’s not perfect. It can be uneven. Sometimes it’s a little slow.

But it’s also delightful.

I’d forgotten it was possible for people on a cooking show — much less a contest — to be nice to each other. But they are. In just one recent episode, the motherly sort of woman helps the nervous young girl. The builder — who is possibly also Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, I’m just saying — loans out the pencil tucked behind his ear. The crusty old Scottish guy recites Robert Burns, for crissakes — Robert honna’e-ta-Gae Burns! There’s no one on the show that’s anything but lovely.

And on top of that, all they do is bake pies and crumpets and petit-fours or petit-choux or pettycoat junctions — look, I don’t really know what they’re doing, exactly. They could be defusing bombs, for all I know, by wrapping them in dough and baking to golden brown. What I do know is they’re lovely and delightful and entertaining, and it is too still possible to do all those things and make food into a camera.

Do you hear me, Alton Brown and every-foody-body else? It is, still, too.

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A Fairy Tale, Not-So-Grim

(Hey, there! If you’re interested in fun stuff that’s sort-of science, but not always science, then you might enjoy my latest nonsense over at Secondhand SCIENCE, which is all about noble gases. Somehow, I didn’t make any fart jokes. Not even one! Who knew?

And if actual much-more-real science is your bag, then check out the “Daily Discoveries” over at Sciencescape. All the posts are fascinating, thought-provoking and chock full of the latest in cutting-edge research. And some of them are even mine!)

Recently, I had the great pleasure of being a small part of a short play festival here in the Boston area. The Theatre@First crew staged a set of works with the theme “Fractured Fairy Tales”, and were kind enough to include a bit of silliness that Jenn Dlugos and I wrote concerning a certain pair of Bavarian children lost in the Black Forest.

Or, we decided, in the Boston Common. Because “write what you know”, liebchen, ja?

I got to watch the show a couple of times during their run, and they’re all fantastic. And while the live production is over, there’s a YouTube playlist with many of the plays available for your personal viewing pleasure. That includes our Hansel and Gretel entry, which is also uber-conveniently located just below. Gutentag!

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On Her Menagerie’s Secret Service

(You like zombies. You like computers. So you’d certainly like a zombie computer, right?

No, probably not. They’re sort of nasty. But maybe fun to learn about, over at Secondhand SCIENCE. Go on over, and feed your braaaaaaaaaains.)

I was just watching Dr. No on cable. I’d forgotten just how old — that would be 53 fricking years, if you’re scoring at home — it is. As someone who was interested in space as a kid, but grew up with Roger Moore’s Bond (I was in 3rd grade when Moonraker came out, for reference), it’s bizarre to watch a movie where the villain is disrupting Cape Canaveral rockets, before the start of the Apollo program.

I mean, today it would all be done with drones and femtolasers and such. And would probably be sabotaging the Facebook SpaceFace Social Satellite orbiter or something. So it would be dreadfully difficult not to root for the bad guys. Still.

Of course, Dr. No also began the long, convoluted and futile history of sending exotic animals to do an evil assassin’s job. Namely, killing James Bond. In a middle scene, a tarantula in bed fails to subdue Sean Connery, and eventually gets smashed all over a hotel floor.

I mean, we’ve all been there, amirite?

“Just because a critter is poisonous doesn’t mean its vicious and bloodthirsty and has a grudge against Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

Obviously, the animals — like the assassins, the henchmen, the hired goons, the masterminds, the evil geniuses and possibly ebola (I haven’t seen a couple of the more recent ones) — always fail. But unlike the evil idiots, the animals aren’t to blame for this failure. They’re just animals.

Spiders and vipers and boa constrictors (oh my) — these aren’t spy killers. Some of them are barely carnivores, for crissakes. Just because a critter is poisonous doesn’t mean its vicious and bloodthirsty and has a grudge against Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Which all comes back to the evil idiots, because — if you absolutely insist on sending an animal to kill James Bond, at least pick a good one. Here are a few suggestions, all better than the feeble attempts thwarted in the movies for the last fifty years:

Rhinoceros:

There’s been at least one snake snuck into a shower 007 was having, and it killed a big old bunch of nothing. But if the baddies had crammed a rhino in the tub? Bye-bye, Bondie. Rhinocerii are ill-tempered, huge and prone to trampling. And what’s more — for the first nineteen films or so, back when smoking was “cool”, James Bond was lighting cigarettes all over the place. Before sex, after sex, during a firefight, while he’s smushing spiders into the carpet, always. And rhinos hate fire. It’d only be a matter of time before some evil henchman has to come scrape Bond guts off the rhino’s shoe.

Jellyfish:

I know what I said about poisonous docile creatures, but this is different. You don’t rely on some snake to slither to the perfect spot or a black widow to bite just right. This plan is simpler — and yet, more diabolical. You take a bunch of lethal stinging jellyfish, seal them in a chintzy waterbed and stick it in Bond’s hotel room. The jellyfish don’t have to sneak anywhere — Bond will come to them. (Probably in the company of some cleavage-laden floozy named Charming Titters or Vagina Ponderosa, if history is any guide.) At some point, the flimsy mattress bursts, and Bond sinks into a stinging mass of death. Honestly, how hard is that?

Africanized bees

Look, I don’t know if they’d kill him. But half of Bond’s deal is looking pretty for the ladies, and I don’t know how you do that with fourteen angry bee stings on the tip of your nose. Lob a hive full of these bastards into the bedroom, and Bond might not be dead — but he won’t be Bond without an epi pen and a gallon of Bactine, either.

Housecats

Cats hate everyone, but they also pick up on people who don’t like cats. And James Bond is no cat lover. He might even be allergic. If you let nineteen cats into his room while he’s sleeping, by morning he’ll either be in asthmatic shock or they’ll have sucked his soul out, as cats are not-so-secretly planning to do to each and every one of us some day. And then they’ll eat his dead British spy face. Because they’re cats.

Blue whale

I’m just saying. Blue whales literally weigh two hundred tons. If you drop a blue whale anywhere on the same city block as James Bond, you’re going to kill him. Instantly. He’ll be a fine paste glommed onto a whale ass. Game over. Do the homework.

So I expect the next couple of Bond flicks will take some of these ideas to heart, and — if they just have to make animals do the dirty double-agent work — we’ll at least see more effective animal assassins in future flicks.

There’s a whole kingdom of critters out there, evildoers. Get your shit together, already.

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Dinosaur in the Driveway

(Shift yourself into a new frame of mind!

That’s a clever wordplaying way to introduce the latest post over at Secondhand SCIENCE, all about frameshift mutations.

There’s wordplay over there, too. But also science. Clever, clever science.)

There’s a fine line — or so I’m told — in deciding when your car isn’t worth keeping up or fixing, and buying another one instead.

Mostly, this fine line has nothing to do with the car, and everything to do with money. If you’re a big bank CEO or sultan of some sweaty desert nation, you can buy a new car the first time some random bird turd-bombs your windshield.

(In fairness, I don’t know how many birds live in those desert countries. Maybe there, it’s more of a problem with camels shitting on your whitewalls. That would suck.)

Of course, there’s the other end of the spectrum, where either money’s so tight or you’re just that clingy with your ride that you can not swap cars, under any circumstances. Then you keep the old jalopy limping along with cracked pistons and busted gauges and a door that maybe isn’t attached so much to the frame any more. You spend more on duct tape for the thing than Donald Trump spends on Aqua Net for the chinchilla on his head. “New car” is not a phrase in your vocabulary.

For the rest of us, the answer is somewhere in between. But where, exactly, and how do you know? Do you tally up maintenance and repair costs, and when they equal the purchase price, you cut the cord? Do you wait a certain number of miles, out of respect? Where does the Blue’s Clues Book value come into it, anyway? Is that a thing? I don’t know cars so much.

“Let’s keep this conversation vehicular, sparky. My headlights are up here.”

What I do know is that I’m in the ballpark for a new ride. Not yet the market. But the ballpark. My car’s pushing ten years old, the brakes have worn repeatedly, some electronics have fritzed, certain bits have rusted, and I just had the front shocks replaced.

I mean, sure. That also sounds like the results of my last physical, but we’re not talking about me here. Let’s keep this conversation vehicular, sparky. My headlights are up here.

Worse for me and my particular peccadilloes, though, is the car’s profound out-of-dateness. I’m not a fancy guy, nor looking to drive a penis extension. I don’t need a Mercedes-Bonz or a Koenigswangg or one of those Masturberatis.

(Let’s hope that last one is a convertible. I’m just saying.)

What I do like, though, are gadgets. I’m a programmer; I can’t help it. Anything that connects or plays music or lights up or plays holograms of Obi-Wan Kenobi giving me directions to a sushi place out in the suburbs, I’m in. And my car does a little of that, barely. But so much capability is missing. I mean, do you even Bluetooth, car?

(You do, technically. But only to connect with the phone to pick up calls. If I want to play music from my phone, I’ve got to pair it to another device that shoots the signal to your FM radio, of all the 19th century places. And that other device?

It plugs into your cigarette lighter. Holy embarrassing Edsels, already. The lighter plug is a holdover from, like, the Model T. Get it together, man.)

Automotive engineers — and millennial automotive engineers, sometimes, probably — have had nearly a decade to figure out cool gadgety crap to cram into a car, and I want it all. YouTube on the dashboard console. Fingerprint sensors on the glove box. A gearshift that doubles as a selfie stick. And an automatic ignition starter embedded in a chip planted behind my shoulder blade, like some sort of Jason-Bourne-meets-Helio-Castroneves superhero. Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme.

I’ve got none of that right now. Not even close. I’ve got a fob to unlock the thing, yes. And an in-dash GPS, with directions apparently programmed by blindfolded hyperactive monkeys. And that far-far-too-phallic prong shoved into the cigarette lighter, so I can hear Not Shakespeare and Masaladosa any time I’m driving.

But it’s all pretty cheesy by modern standards. I mean, I’m using a key — an honest-to-god key — to start the engine, like a caveman. There’s no self-driving, self-parking, self-washing or self-respecting feature anywhere. And the stereo has a slot where you’re supposed to insert something called a cee-dee. I don’t even know if I’m saying that right. Is it pronounced “k’d”? What prehistoric nonsense is this?

So the car is old, in the same way your Luddite Aunt Carol is “old” and uncool and thinks Instagram is a fast-delivery system for dessert crackers. But since I only drive the thing — that’s the car, not your Aunt Carol, by the way — maybe twenty miles a week on average, it’s not quite fallen apart enough to warrant replacement.

Oh, it’s close. Another brake rehaul or a misaligned frame might do it. Hell, a flat tire might do it at this point. But the truth is, right now, as we net-speak — there’s nothing wrong with the vehicle. Debilitating out-of-touchness with the new millennium and the internet of things age, notwithstanding. Obviously.

Now I come back to my calculus question of: when to drive it, and when to dump it? As much as I might be ready for a bunch of new gadgets — and the motor, comfortable seats, ample trunk space and impressive safety rating that would of course come along with them — my old pile is still, in a manner of speaking, doing the job. Barely. And it’ll take a fairly significant problem to justify trading the old girl in for a shiny (and wirelessy and multimediay and augmented reality-y) new one.

So I suppose my real question should be:

Who’s got a screwdriver I can borrow to loosen a few important bolts? Or maybe gouge a brake line? I promise I’ll return it, quick.

Just as soon as Obi-Wan tells me how to find your house.

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You Say To-MAH-To, They Say Get the Moose

(Psyched about science? Me, too!

Check out my latest Secondhand SCIENCE post about the so-called birthday problem [my guess: an improper cake to frosting ratio], or check out a bunch of us slapping science around over on the ScienceScape blog.

Two great tastes that science great together. How could you lose?)

I met a guy the other day whose name is Elias.

Only his name isn’t Elias. His name is pronounced “Elias”, and he certainly answers to “Elias”, but he gave me his business card and the first name on it is:

Alias

This makes me wonder what he did as a little tiny baby to piss his parents off so badly.

Because it’s one thing to give your child an unusual name. The Kal-els and Jermajestys and Moxie Crimefighters of the world have their own, sometimes spectacular, issues. But to name your kid “Alias” would seem to set him up for a lifetime of exasperating conversations.

With government employees. Who are already plenty exasperating enough.

Imagine the fun at a border crossing with a name like Alias. Not even a touchy border; say, just the one between the U.S. and Canada. Even the uber-polite Mounties would be all up in your business. Why do you list “alias” on your passport? Where is your real name, eh? What name are you hiding, anyway, hoser?

Honestly. You’d be cavity-searched by a randy moose before they’d let you cross into the country.

And that’s nothing, compared to what the DMV would do to you. Applying for a driver’s license would be like a hellish Laurel and Hardy routine:

DMV Flunky: Okay, sir. Do you have any any aliases?
Alias: No.
DMV Flunky: But you indicated “alias” here in the name column.
Alias: That’s my name. “Elias”.
DMV Flunky: Sir, aliases must go in the “alias” column. Names in the name column.
Alias: But that is my name.
DMV Flunky: What is?
Alias: “Elias”.
DMV Flunky: Elias is your alias?
Alias: No. My name. Right there.
DMV Flunky: This says “alias”. Those go in the “alias” column.
Alias: No, it says “Elias”.
DMV Flunky: Sir, we have a moose you’re going to need to talk to…

I’m just saying. I’m all for unique names. But one that will make you spend umpteen hours of your life, needlessly arguing with civil servant flacks?

That must have been one infuriating baby.

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