Two Steps Forward, One Step Sideways

I suppose this could be considered a Short Attention Span Theater post, but I’m not caffeinated enough to think about that.

Step One: The Bay Bridge is still standi–no, wait, I’ve used that joke before. Never mind.

Seriously, the Bay Bridge did take a step forward this week. The bike path between Yerba Buena Island and Oakland is now open seven days a week. That’s actually a very big step.

Mind you, it doesn’t help would-be bike commuters. The path is only open from 6 AM to 8 PM. Any techies planning to bike in for their usual seventy-two hour week are likely to hit the barrier in one direction or the other.

Well, actually, they’re going to discover that there’s still no connection between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island, so unless they’ve got an amphibious bike, they’re only going to get halfway to work. Of course, if they do have one of those gadgets, they don’t need the bike path in the first place. Never mind.

It’s unclear to me whether there’s a plan to open the path at night, and according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a bike path on the western span is at least a decade away. But a scenic ride that’s available seven days a week is a decided improvement over one that’s only open on weekends.

Step Two: I said Tuesday that I would be having signings outside of Seattle. I can now announce the second scheduled event.

On Sunday, July 16, I will be at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. I’ll talk for a while about Scott Joplin and ragtime music, do a Q&A session, and then sign books.

This is breaking news, folks. Borderlands doesn’t even have it on their website yet.

But if you can’t make it to Sedalia or Seattle, I’ll look forward to seeing you in San Francisco.

And who knows, maybe I can arrange a signing in a city that doesn’t start with an “S”.

Step Minus One: Have you heard that McDonald’s has invented a new eating utensil? You probably have, but if not, the inevitable commercial is here.

Yeah. The “frork”.

As one might expect, the Internet is up in arms about this. To the extent that there’s ever a consensus online, it seems to be that this is the stupidest idea ever.

Having waded through more dumb Kickstarter projects than I can count, I disagree.

Seriously. I just can’t get upset about the frork. Come on, folks, it’s an advertising gimmick. It’s served it’s purpose: getting people talking about McDonald’s.

It doesn’t look like a frork uses any more plastic than the usual fast food restaurant’s plastic fork/spork/spoon, so where’s the harm?

Mind you, it is–as McDonald’s admits–completely superfluous. Toppings that drip out of a fast food burger (or even a slow food burger, IMNSHO) are meant to be scooped up with and licked off of an index finger. Preferably your own–or your date’s*, but whatever floats your boat. Personally, I think fries should be eaten with the fingers as well, but I’m not dogmatic about it.

* But not in a Tom Lehrer/”I Hold Your Hand In Mine” kind of way, please. Even if you’re a zombie, that sort of behavior doesn’t qualify as proper restaurant manners.

So, yeah, not the end of civilization. Not even a serious attempt at bread and circuses.

Teasing

If you were hoping for the deep insights that are the usual fare here, you’re out of luck today.

No meditations on the impending end of civilization. No searing critiques of the latest cutting edge triumphs from [Apple|Google|Amazon|Microsoft|Samsung]. No detailed dissections of America’s culinary obsessions.

I mean, yes, it does have matters culinary and technological, and it probably portends the coming apocalypse. But it probably won’t change your life for the better.

Sorry. Better luck Thursday.

So, with that said, here’s the key thought: “This household runs on tea.”

Many people would try to make the case that it actually runs on cat hair, and there’s some validity in that view, but I think it would be more accurate to say that it runs over the cat hair.

Not to be too blunt, but we haven’t found a way to metabolize fur. Which is a shame, really, because if we could, we’d never have to buy groceries again. Though now that I think about it, it seems likely to be a fairly monotonous diet. Sure, each cat’s fur probably tastes a bit different, but we’re going to a have a largely homogeneous mix.

But I digress.

Tea. It’s not that we’re anti-coffee. Maggie likes it and drinks it on occasion. I don’t drink it, but I’ve been known to eat coffee-flavored foods. But for real, day-to-day motivation–read that as “caffeination”–it’s tea.

We keep a variety of blends and flavors around, but naturally we both have our everyday favorites. (I’ll leave you to guess who prefers which. No helpful hints from those of you in the know, please.)

Making tea requires hot water, and microwaving just doesn’t work out for the high volumes* we require. Putting the bag in cold water before nuking produces less than optimum flavor, and adding the bag after the water comes out doesn’t work well either–pouring the water over the bag into an otherwise empty mug is the only way to go.

* Forget those wimpy eight and twelve ounce mugs. We start at sixteen and regularly go as high as twenty-two or twenty-four ounces. We take our tea seriously.

So that means we need a kettle. We strongly favor cordless electric kettles. (A point of clarification: they’re not fully cordless. As with cordless cell phone chargers, there’s a base station which does plug into the wall. But the kettle itself has no cord; it sits on the base station and draws power either via induction or a physical connection that’s shielded from accidental contact.)

We had a scare recently when we thought the kettle which had served us reasonably well for several years had died. That turned out to be a false alarm, but not before we had gone shopping for a new one.

And we discovered there are a heck of a lot of poorly designed kettles out there.

Kettles that give you no way to see how much water is in them.

Kettles that don’t shut off when the water boils.

Kettles that can’t pour without directing steam onto your hand.

We finally settled on this model from the well-known-by-nobody “Chefman” brand.

It’s not perfect. The fill levels are clearly marked, but only in liters. We’re probably not the only Americans who’d like to see ounces or cups. The temperature control can only be set in five degree increments and can’t be set any higher than 212*. Nor is the manufacture all that solid: the high-tech blue LEDs that are supposed to illuminate the water while it heats failed after less than a week.

* Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a way to set the kettle to use Celsius temperatures to go along with the metric fill marks.

But it works, and quite nicely. The blue light doesn’t actually do anything, so we haven’t missed it–especially because the three-character LCD in the base does a fine job of lighting up the water. The heat and hold function works perfectly: we set the target to 205 and pour the water whenever we’re ready, instead of as soon as it boils. The tea tastes just as good, and we don’t risk it getting cold while we’re doing other things. Very handy for breakfast time.

I thought the built-in (but removable) tea infuser would be a useless gimmick, but when combined with the heat and hold setting, it actually makes very good iced tea. Keep the water boiling while the tea brews, then remove the infuser and let the tea cool before refrigerating.

SAST 05

A few quickies for you today.

I’m betting that most of you have already seen the fuss over Juicero, but for those who missed it, the short version is that the company sells a variety of juices in bags–and a $400 machine (marked down from $700) to squeeze the juice out of the bags.

The controversy is not over “Why?” That’s quite clear: because there are enough people willing to shell out the money to buy the squeezer and the juice packets (at $5 to $8 a pop–though one hopes they don’t pop easily).

The controversy is over the fact that Juicero’s investors feel they’ve been defrauded because customers don’t need to use the squeezer to get the juice out of the bags. According to Bloomberg, hand-squeezing the bags produces almost as much juice as the squeezer, and does it faster.

Apparently, neither the investors nor Bloomberg have heard of a device called “the scissors,” which could be used to empty the bag even more quickly.

Let’s note, by the way, that the bagged juice is a perishable product, enough so that the bags can’t be shipped long distances.

My advice? Go to your local hardware store and buy a hammer. Stop at the local grocery store on the way home and pick up a box of zipper-seal baggies and a couple of pieces of your favorite fruit.

Place the fruit in a baggie and zip it closed. Pound the fruit with the hammer repeatedly. Unzip and pour.

When you finish your juice–which cost you considerably less than $400 unless you got the hammer on a military procurement contract–repeat the process, substituting Juicero’s executives and investors for the fruit.

Mmm, yummy!

Moving on.

There’s a letter to the editor in today’s SF Chronicle from one Lorraine Peters addressing the United Airlines fiasco. Ms. Peters suggests that United should have handled the matter differently. Instead of using force, she says, they should have made a loudspeaker announcement: “Attention all passengers, this flight cannot take off until the gentleman in seat (so and so) vacates it and disembarks with the other three passengers.”

I presume Ms. Peters is an investor in United Airlines.

Let’s not forget that the “gentleman in seat (so and so)” paid for that seat in the expectation that United would supply the service he paid for. Placing the blame on him when United failed to meet their obligation is disingenuous at best.

Allow me to propose an alternate loudspeaker announcement. “Attention all passengers. We fucked up and didn’t get a flight crew to the right place at the right time. The only way we can think of to fix our mistake is to kick four of you off this flight. So we’re going to sit right here at the terminal until four generous souls agree to disrupt their travel plans for the benefit of the rest of you. Complimentary drinks and meals will not be served while we wait.”

It wouldn’t have done any better by United’s reputation, but at least it has the virtue of being honest.

Moving on again.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (that’s the San Francisco Bay Area, for those of you in the outer provinces) has announced a regional plan to combat climate change.

Among the proposals included in the plan are such sure-to-be-popular items as “Explore vehicle tolls in high-congestion areas to discourage driving,” “Discourage installation of water-heating systems and appliances powered by fossil fuels,” “Encourage the removal of off-street parking in transit-oriented areas,” and (my personal favorite) “Start a public outreach campaign to promote climate-friendly diets.”

That first one’s interesting. I see some potential pitfalls in implementing it, of course. It’s taken months to get the local metering lights to work reliably; adding an automated payment system on top of that seems fraught with peril. Imagine the fuss the first time someone gets charged a four-figure fee to get on the freeway. More to the point, though, we had major congestion on the freeway yesterday outside of commute hours because of an accident. The metering lights at several on-ramps detected the slowdown and kicked in. If the payment plan had been in effect, would we have been charged to use the freeway while the police were examining the car that went off the road?

That last item, by the way, translates as “encourage people to eat less meat,” because meat production creates more pollution than growing and shipping plants. Maybe they should also tax “add-on” gadgets such as Juicero bag squeezers, since building and shipping them creates unnecessary pollutants. But I digress.

Needless to say, not everyone thinks the agency’s plan is a good one. According to the Chron story, the opposition–they quote a Chevron employee–is suggesting that local action is pointless because climate change is a global problem and needs a global solution.

Let’s not examine that logical fallacy too closely. Let’s just rejoice in the fact that a Chevron employee actually admitted that climate change is real and related to human activity.

SAST 3

I seem to be fever-free, which is nice. My attention span has improved. I haven’t gotten lost in mid-sentence in almost two days!

The cough is still distracting, however. Writing is a race to get words on the page before I drape my lungs over the keyboard.

Sorry about that image. But it is the only way to accurately describe the sensation.

So, another day of short notes, as I write a bit, cough a bit, lather, rinse, repeat.

Daylight Savings Time, how I loathe thee.

It’s not the lost hour of sleep Saturday night. It’s not the next several days of disrupted sleep. It’s not even the need to reset the non-Internet-connected clocks*–or the confusion to the Backyard Bunch, who are suddenly getting their dinner an hour earlier according to their stomachs.

* The stove. The microwave. The thermostat. The answering machine. The car. Half-a-dozen wall and table clocks. Hey, I just gained two wall outlets by unplugging a clock radio instead of resetting it!

No, what really pisses me off is that I’m suddenly getting up before sunrise again. I like having daylight when I stagger upstairs to say good morning to Rufus and take my first look at e-mail. Why should I have to turn on a light for that?

Mr. Trump, if you want to boost your approval rating, do away with Daylight Savings Time. That’s something both parties and the independents can get behind.

I’ve been following “Jim’s Random Notes” for several years. It’s an interesting mix of computer, wood carving, and cycling geekery. A post last week, North Dakota Mexican Food, amused the heck out of me.

You’ve played the game where one person recreates a drawing based on somebody’s description of the original, right? An NDMF is the culinary equivalent: someone describes a dish, and someone else thinks “Hey, that sounds interesting. Let me see what I can do.”

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t have a NDMF experience? I can think of three right off the top of my head:

  • The Mexican restaurant that thought fajitas were a stew.
  • The diner whose barbeque sauce was red-eye gravy with a couple of chili flakes.
  • The Mexican restaurant that served Saltine crackers instead of chips.

Maybe the Internet will make the NDMF less common. But really, it’s never been particularly hard to find a cookbook…

Moving on.

Google and Apple have been in the news around here lately over their new campuses. Most of the press has been positive, but I’ve noticed they’re both taking a ding in the letter columns because neither company has included housing in their developments.

Excuse me? Yeah, OK, finding housing in the Bay Area can suck. You don’t have to tell me horror stories about extended commutes, thanks; I’ve got plenty of my own.

But do we really want to return to the days of the company town, where your boss owns the factory, the house you live in, the store you shop at, the air you breathe, the booze you drink, and everything else?

Aside from anything else, if the company owns your apartment, it’s a five minute walk from your office, and they own the phone you’re required to carry, are you ever going to get any down time? Or are you going to be unofficially (or officially!) on call twenty-four/seven/three-sixty-five?

I think it would have been wonderful if Apple and Google had included some subsidized affordable housing for non-employees in their construction. Didn’t happen, but would have been great. But captive housing for employees? Bad idea.

Moving on.

Let’s wrap this up with a positive note. I write a lot–a hell of a lot, actually–about useless gadgets full of security holes and loaded with disappointment.

So it’s a real pleasure to write about a gadget that looks like it does exactly what it’s designed to do without putting your money and privacy at risk.

Take a look at the Fidget Cube.

Pretty slick, huh? Everybody fidgets differently, and the Fidget Cube is designed to offer fidgeting options for anyone.

I’ve carried a fingering stone in my pocket for decades. I’ll turn it around in my hand or rub the smooth side with my thumb when I’m on a phone call. Much less distracting than fiddling with the phone cord and quieter than tapping my pen on the desk.

The Fidget Cube’s got me covered with a smooth curve for rubbing on one side. A trackball for spinning. A joystick for sliding.

And several other goodies that I might never use, but somebody else will find addictive. Click-wheels. Toggle switches. Push-buttons. Spinners.

And it looks to be solid enough to stand up to a pocket full of keys, nail clippers, and thumb drives.

Would it replace my rock? Maybe not; it’s hard to top the appeal of a natural object shaped by wind and water. But who says it needs to replace the rock? Why not try some two-handed fidgeting?

Flap

Whenever Maggie fills the bird feeders (affectionately known as the Cat Entertainment Devices), we get swarms of the feathered noisemakers.

I’m not a bird person, so I only recognize three types:
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Jays

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Doves
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Little Twitter Birds

Life is even simpler for Sachiko.
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She calls them all “ek-ek-ek-ek [tail swish]”. As best I can tell–and why doesn’t Google Translate handle Cat/English?–that means “Lemme outta here, Daddy! I’ll moidelize da bums!”  Approximately.

You might think that MM and Tuxie would spend most of their time in the yard, watching and drooling. You would be half right.
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To be fair, MM does spend time keeping an eye on the avian activity.
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It’s not a very aggressive eye, but it is an eye.
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Note the orange little twitter bird at the silver feeder and the gray one at the red feeder, which is almost directly above MM’s head.

Based on our observations of MM’s interactions with the birds, we’re fairly sure that she, like me, has three names for them. About three-quarters of them are “Meh. Too much work.” Two-thirds of the remainder are “Missed it by that much.” And the remaining eight percent?

“See? I don’t need hoomins to feed me.”

Buy Me Some Alka-Seltzer and…

I trust you all–at least those of you in the US–had a pleasant Presidents’ Day holiday. I did, though I’ll admit that I accomplished the feat by completely insulating myself from any information about the current possessor of that office.

It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I skipped a large chunk of the front section of the newspaper, stayed off Facebook and Twitter, and left the TV and radio off. The result was quite relaxing: exactly what a holiday is supposed to accomplish.

Look, no matter how you feel about the current administration, following what’s going on in the world today is stressful. And nobody can run at full throttle all the time–that way lies burnout. So take a day off here and there. Unplug, tune out, and drop off the radar.

Moving on.

One newspaper article I did read was (no surprise) in the sports section. It seems the Oakland As have finally realized that the food choices at the Coliseum are offal. Pardon me. Despite the occasional flow of raw sewage through the stands and dugouts, the correct word is actually “awful”.

So they’ve spent something on the order of $1.7 million upgrading the “West Side Club”–now the “Shibe Park Tavern”*–and the food stands. It’s now possible for food to be prepared at the stands instead of in kitchens buried deep in the bowels of the stadium. Since we all know what else lies deep in the Coliseum’s bowels, this is unquestionably a change for the better.

* The changes at the Club/Tavern don’t have much to do with food, apparently. They’re largely to commemorate the Athletics’ glory days in Philadelphia with memorabilia, photos, and 24 beers on tap.

But the bigger change is that the plaza between the Coliseum and Oracle Arena will now host “eight to 16 gourmet food trucks”. And yes, there will be vegetarian and gluten-free choices. There will also be bocce ball courts and a “big video board”.

While I applaud the As for finding a way to bring higher quality (and, one hopes, safer) food to the fans, I can’t help but think that promoting bocce ball is a misstep. Why would I pay the outrageous price to go to a baseball game and then spend my time playing bocce ball and watching the game on TV?

To be fair, the As’ ticket prices aren’t as bad as many other clubs. Depending on the day of the week, the opponent, and the seat location, single game tickets can be as cheap as $14. But still. I’d be willing to bet that few bars offering big screen TVs and bocce ball courts have cover charges higher than the price of a baseball game.

I also worry a bit about crowd flow. The lines for beer and hot dogs on the stadium concourse are bad enough. If the food truck lines bottleneck through a single set of doors, the lines could easily get so slow that getting your gluten-free barbequed tofu wrap and GutBuster Pepperoni Pizza Burger* would take several innings. And, since the plaza is outside the stadium, they’re going to need to figure out how to handle re-admissions. With poor organization you might go out for your food before the third inning and not make it back until after the seventh inning stretch.

* Not real products. I think.

Mind you, this is all of theoretical concern to me. For the past several years, I’ve brought food with me to the Coliseum. While many parks have rules against fans carrying food in, the As have resisted that trend, and I don’t see anything on their website suggesting that’s going to change. Though, to be pessimistic, I don’t see anything about the food trucks either, so it’s possible that a rule change is in the works, and the website just hasn’t been updated yet. We’ll see.

Unseasonal

It’s been a damned long winter, but signs of spring are everywhere.

I’ve finished my current bag of oatmeal–Bob’s Red Mill Rolled Oats. I don’t insist on the organic variant, but Amazon doesn’t seem to have the inorganic variety–and it’s warm enough I feel no urge to replace it.

The Chron is beginning to run baseball stories that have nothing to do with the As’ attempts to relocate outside of Oakland. According to the latest story, their slogan this year is “Rooted in Oakland”. I’d suggest they reconsider, but since they’ve already filmed commercials using the phrase, it’s probably too late. (To clarify, “root” has several meanings, not all of which convey the sort of message the As probably had in mind. In particular, the Australian slang interpretation makes it a darn good summary of the organization’s attitude towards the team’s fans over the past decade or so.)

And, arguably most importantly, the recent rains have resuscitated our lemon tree. After more than a year of producing next to nothing, it’s suddenly covered in lemons.

Let’s get one thing clear. I know some of you outside the Bay Area are thinking “Whoa, that writing thing must bring in pretty good money if he can afford a house with an attached citrus grove.” Untrue. It’s one tree. And, to be blunt, lemon trees are common around here, only slightly rarer than indoor plumbing. Granted, ours is a little unusual, in that–until the drought took its toll–it produced so many lemons we thought it must be part zucchini. But realty listings don’t even bother mentioning lemons; they’re just assumed.

But I digress.

It’s not exactly the season, but what can you do? When your lemon tree gives you lemons…

So there’s a jug of lemonade in the fridge, made to an exacting, complicated recipe:

  1. Combine one part sugar, two parts lemon juice, and six parts water.
  2. Mix well.

(You can make this at home, even if you don’t have a tree. Do not get packaged lemon juice, especially the kind that comes in a little plastic lemon. The flavor just isn’t there. Buy lemons and squeeze ’em yourself. Better yet, get the kids to squeeze ’em. It’ll keep them out of trouble for a few minutes and give them a sense of accomplishment.)

I know some of you are thinking “Sugar? No, honey!” It’s a valid point. But I’ve never had much luck with honey. It doesn’t dissolve as well as sugar.

And, while I’ve had some tasty honey-based lemonades, IMNSHO the flavor of the honey distracts from the pure lemon-sour/sugar-sweet contrast that’s the soul of the beverage.

Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to Spring Training on Sunday. Have a cold glass of lemonade and enjoy the turning of the season.

Three Quickies

Another entry into our catalog of clues that decline of civilization is at hand.

No, wait, come back! I promise it’s got nothing to do with politics.

In addition to being one of the half-dozen people who still reads a printed newspaper, I’m also one of the three who still reads Usenet. (I know you all remember newspapers; please tell me you remember Usenet. Oh, all right: TFoAHK–or you can just think of it as a blog without posts, just comments.)

So, of course, in bringing my Windows tablet up to speed, I had to find a newsreader. Amazingly enough, there is is one in the Microsoft App Store. Yes, there are plenty of pre-Windows 8/10 programs out there, but about half of them are intended for downloading dirty pictures and pirated TV shows, and two-thirds of them have user interfaces that work fine with a mouse, but suck with a finger. So I wanted a UWP app if there was one.

I started reading the reviews, as I do, and then I found this gem:
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Oh, FFS‽ A lousy two bucks for something that you literally can’t get any other way, and you think so strongly that the developer should just give it to you that you give it a one star rating?

The level of entitlement this showed had me so flabbergasted that I bought the app without even taking the time to see if it suits my needs. And I’m going to abuse my lofty position as the Guardian of Civilization to encourage every one of you who has a Windows 8 or newer computer to click that link above and buy NewsgroupsRT. I don’t care if you have no idea what Usenet is all about, just give $1.99 to Mr. Schaffernak. Think of it as a contribution to staving off the Decline of Civilization.

And another item for the collection.

Last weekend, I went to Sizzler for dinner. (Yeah, I have some low tastes. Wanna make something of it?) It is possible to eat healthily at Sizzler, but that’s not really the point. And I wasn’t planning to be particularly healthy on this visit. I had been thinking about a hunk of cow, but then I saw this on the menu:
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It took a couple of seconds to sink in. (A hint for my readers in the UK: what you call “chips,” we call “fries”.)

My first reaction was that this was an item for the WQTS file. Obviously, the copy had been written by someone unfamiliar with fish and chips, and somehow bypassed the copy editor.

But no. This is by design. I know this because when I placed my order, the young woman at the register asked–completely straight-faced–“Would you like fries with that?”

I confess that my brain crashed. She took in the vacant look on my face as I struggled to reboot, and in a slightly defensive tone said “Some people want to substitute a baked potato or rice.”

I rigidly suppressed the fifteen minute rant about how, without fries, it’s not “fish and chips” and managed to mutter “Fries, please.”

But the more I think about this mess, the more it bothers both my QA and writer sides. Declaring “fish without chips” to be “fish and chips” is an orwellian devaluation of the language. Can we assume that their 8oz sirloin is actually eight ounces? How sure are we that it’s actually sirloin?

Bottom line: If Sizzler is going to put rice and baked potato on the same level as fries/chips, then they shouldn’t call the dish “fish & chips”. “Beer Battered Fish with choice of sides” is perfectly serviceable and accurately descriptive, and it doesn’t actively increase the public’s levels of doubt and uncertainty.

Civilization as we know it: doomed.

Maybe.

This might be a bit a bit of bread and circuses, but I’d prefer to think of it as a sign that there might be a little hope for civilization.

Remember when you could get toys and other prizes in your cereal box? That hasn’t been the case for quite a while*, but the mail-in prize hung around rather longer.

* I blame AOL. After finding a shrink-wrapped AOL disc in your shredded wheat, would you really want to risk eating that cereal again?

For those of you who are too young to remember, the idea was that you would collect a certain number of box tops, proving that you had bought (I won’t say “eaten”) enough of a particular cereal to justify a reward. You then mailed the box tops along with a couple of bucks for “shipping and handling” to the cereal manufacturer, and six-to-eight weeks later, a Postal Packin’ Person would bring your prize.

Of course, the prizes cost the manufacturers a tiny fraction of the profit they made on your cereal purchase, and the offer always included those dreaded words “While Supplies Last”.

But you know what?

Modern technology has made it so darn simple and inexpensive to produce cheap gimcracks that it’s completely revolutionized the concept of the mail-in cereal prize.

Consider: In August, I saw that Kellogg’s was offering a “Free Lantern” in a promotional tie-in with Disney’s release of Finding Dory. Actually, the offer started running in March, but I didn’t notice it until August.

Since I’m a sucker for “free” if it doesn’t inconvenience me too much, and since the necessary purchase involved cereals that I eat anyway, I decided to get me one.

So, four boxes of cereal later, on September 23, I went to Kellogg’s website and typed in four sixteen character codes. Nothing to clip, nothing to mail, and no “shipping and handling”.

The site informed me that “The promotion has been extremely popular and we’re currently awaiting stock of additional lanterns”. Right. It’s gotten so cheap to make toys, that they made more instead of invoking “while supplies last”. Imagine!

Apparently they were seriously backlogged. The site said to allow 12 weeks for delivery. This past Tuesday, guess what showed up on my doorstep? Yup. It took more than 17 weeks–really backlogged–but I got my cheap prize.

And you know what? It’s not nearly as cheap as I expected. It’s plastic, yes, but it feels solid. And it came with batteries installed. All I had to do was–well, let Kellogg’s show you:

So, yeah. A large company promised me something, and they actually exceeded my expectations in fulfilling that promise.

If that’s not a sign of civilization, I don’t know what is.

Hungry for TV

On Tuesday I suggested that the best way to get through this time of no baseball was to ignore the sport and find something else to do.

And, back in November, I mentioned that my usual alternative TV viewing options had been curtailed by the end of Cutthroat Kitchen.

I’ve been getting by, however. Even with Worst Cooks in America coming off a “Celebrity Edition” (blech!) and now in the between-season gap, I’ve still got Chopped and a DVR full of Chopped Junior episodes dating back to October.

The junior edition, by the way, is more entertaining than the original show. The kids are amazing chefs, and the producers generally avoid the temptation to dumb-down the baskets (I’ve seen several episodes in which the judges seemed to have even less of an idea of how to handle the basket ingredients than the cooks). But the kids are still kids, and the potential for a culinary disaster is much higher with them than with a kitchen of adult chefs who have decades of experience.

But I’ve also got two new shows to fill gaps in my viewing schedule.

They’re both Japanese imports, so you won’t find them on TV. Nor are they available on DVD or other physical media. Not yet, anyway. But they’re both legally available in the US via Crunchyroll, a major imported streaming media venue.

If you fondly remember Iron Chef and think the American remake wasn’t nearly as good as the original, Shokugeki no Soma, known as Food Wars! in the US, might just bring back that familiar glow.

The premise is one we’ve seen more than a few times: young student faces trial after trial as he masters his profession. But the glory here is in the details. Our hero, Yukihira Soma is already an accomplished chef, having been trained by his father since he was barely old enough to hold a knife. Without telling him, his father enrolls him in the world’s most prestigious cooking school (conveniently located in his home town), a school so dedicated to producing top chefs that only ten percent of the students will graduate.
Instruction focuses heavily on head-to-head cooking competitions between students, often with specified ingredients or particular environments–one sequence, for example, requires the students to create a dish suitable for a high-end hotel’s breakfast buffet, and then cook and serve two hundred servings in a short time.

Starting to feel the Iron Chef vibe? Add in the necessary allies and antagonists, some drawn from stock, some quite unique. Toss in an over-the-top approach to costumes, a liberal dose of fan service (surprisingly, not all aimed at a “fighting” show’s typically male audience), and Yukihira’s quest to perfect a recipe that combines peanut butter and squid, and you get a joyful turn-off-the-brain twenty-five minutes per show of entertainment.

The other show I’m watching is Wakako-zake. Like Shokugeki no Soma, the show is based on a manga*. Or, more precisely, the shows are based on a manga–Wakako-zake has been produced in both a live action and animation.

* For those of you with no knowledge of Japanese media, think “comic book”. I’ll save the refinements–and arguments over the details–for another time.

Both versions are available on Crunchyroll (live action, animation) and can be watched in any order. The animated episodes run approximately two minutes long, following Murasaki Wakako, a twenty-something office worker, as she drinks and eats her way to happiness. Each show features a different dish, usually with an appropriate beverage pairing, with tips on how best to eat it.

The live action show runs a more typical twenty-three minutes. Episodes are set in real restaurants–and there’s a post-story introduction to the restaurant and its staff–and there’s also a framing story focusing on her office life that sets the mood for the showcased dishes.

Either way, the show is high-grade food porn. Don’t sweat the plot, just kick back and eat with your eyes.

A Simple Method for Simple Minds

Since my brain decided to take today off, allow me to present a recipe–or rather, a cooking method–that requires no brain power whatsoever.

This is one of our go-to choices for the end of the week, not just because it’s simply, but also because it’s flexible, tasty, and a darn sight healthier than other no-brain meal options.

I’m talking about salmon.

“What?” I hear somebody say, “Doesn’t that require all sorts of annoying paraphernalia like cedar planks, and finicky cooking over open flames?”

Nope. I mean, you can do it that way, and it’s good eating, but for everyday* cooking, something simpler seems warranted.

* I don’t recommend doing this every day, though I suppose you could. The FDA recommends two meals a week of “fish that are low in mercury” and provides a list that includes salmon. And varying your spices can dramatically change the taste of the fish. But I still think seven meals a week is excessive.

Ready?

Start with the fish. Since we’re going for simplicity, don’t get a whole fish and fillet it yourself. Let someone else do the work. If your local market doesn’t have salmon fillets–fresh or frozen–find a new market.

I’m not going to recapitulate the entire argument about wild-caught versus farm-raised. I’ll just note that the majority of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List’s recommendations for salmon are for wild-caught. And, by the way, their choices overwhelmingly favor Pacific salmon, not Atlantic.

So, start the oven pre-heating to 500.

While you’re waiting on the oven, find a cookie sheet or broiling pan large enough to hold your fillets and a piece of aluminum foil twice as long as the pan. Place the foil in the pan so that it only hangs off on one side. Set the fish on the foil, skin side down.

Here’s the part where you can get creative. Sprinkle the top of the fish with the spices of your choice. We usually start with Old Bay and some dried shallot, then build up from there. Salmon is strongly-flavored on its own, so that might be enough, but we’ve also had good results with coriander and garam masala, a few different barbeque rubs, or thin slices of lemon. Don’t use salt or a spice mix containing salt: that sucks the moisture right out of the fish. Bleah!

Once your fish is well-decorated, fold the foil over the top and fold the edges together. Make sure you crimp them tightly together so there’s no way that steam can escape*.

* Assuming you’re not trying to make salmon jerky, that is. If you want dry, chewy salmon, leave a few openings around the edges of the foil.

Hopefully your oven heats faster than ours; we usually have the fish ready to go well before the oven is up to temperature. If yours is like ours, the time can profitably be spent on a side dish. Rice is a good choice.

Once the oven is hot enough and the fish is flavored and tightly sealed, put the fish in the oven and set the timer for ten minutes. Don’t worry that your fillets are too thick or thin. Only once in our years of cooking salmon this way has it come out underdone, and I can’t remember a case of it being overdone.

When the timer goes off, pull the fish out. Don’t open the foil yet. Let it rest for two or three minutes, then carefully* unfold the foil and serve.

* Very carefully. Hot steam will escape and parboiled fingers will ruin your enjoyment of the meal.