Jan 172017

When I was a child my mother and brother were both very fond of French cuisine. As a child I was too young to understand why they chose this particular fascination. I suspect but do not know that one factor was the publicity given to Julia Child, both by her books and her popular TV show.

My mother kept the kitchen knives on a magnetic knife bar mounted on the window sill. Why this was done I don’t know for sure. After my mother and brother were both deceased I learned that Julia Child had promoted magnetic knife bars. I strongly suspect that this was a major factor in its installation.

The problem with the knife bar we had was that it wasn’t very strong. My understanding is that stainless steels largely eclipsed carbon steels for use in kitchen knives as the 20th century progressed. By the 1970’s, most of the kitchen knives my mother owned were stainless steels. In general, stainless steels are much less magnetic than carbon steels, and so have more trouble adhering to magnetic knife bars. It’s also possible that my mother simply bought a cheap unit.

The result was that our kitchen knives would periodically fall down. Sometimes this would result in a cascading, domino effect. My father had worked in the mines in Butte, Montana before he taught law at the University of Montana in Missoula. Though he never worked underground, I suspect he formed a life-long fear of the damage that various tools and mechanical devices could do.

My father did not cook. When my mother would put a knife back on the knife bar it would sometimes cause the others to come crashing down. Inevitably this would provoke a strong startle response in my father. I believe he would dramatically exaggerate this response in a passive – aggressive but wordless protest. The knife bar really did represent a genuine danger, and obviously harshed the mellow of the Crowley household.

By the time I got to high school I became fascinated with knives in general. I took great pride in sharpening knives on sharpening stones, including my mother’s kitchen knives. At one point I got a great idea: I would create a wooden knife block and give it to my mother as a Christmas present. This would do two things, namely demonstrate that I was a clever and crafty person and solve the PROBLEM OF THE CHRONICALLY FALLING KNIVES. I found some scrap boards in the attic. I recall having to enlist the help of a friend’s father to cut the boards with a table saw. I used wood chisels to hog out the slots in which the knives would rest. I remember gluing the boards together with epoxy adhesive. Needless to say, this block was customized to hold my mother’s knives. Being that my carpentry skills were at a beginner’s level, this block was an old school vertical type. Most knife blocks today are angled, which is a superior design ergonomically.

The big day came, and I bestowed this gift to my mother. Sad to say, she never used it! Deeply entrenched in her irrational fixation with the flawed magnetic knife par, the wooden knife block was sentenced to storage in a basement storage room. When my father died in 2014 I found it again, languishing in dust.

Part of the reason I’m attracted to skepticism as an intellectual enterprise was witnessing first hand the irrational behaviors of my mother, and the real world harms that resulted. Even given rational solutions, my mother failed to adopt them. There is a wider point to this story, namely that we should be open to change based on reason and evidence at all points in our lives.

 Posted by on 01/17/2017 Growing Up In Montana Tagged with: ,  Comments Off on The Knife Block
Nov 222016

It’s an ongoing truism that “kids today are different.” No doubt true, and surely this is in part due to changing educational methods. I was in high school from 1976 until 1980 in Missoula, Montana. I strongly suspect that the unique demonstration I once witnessed in a history class would not be performed today.

I wish I could remember the name of the Hellgate High School history instructor at the crux of this story. I remember virtually nothing of his class besides this particular demonstration. He was intelligent and sufficiently erudite to not arouse any negative memories in me. I think the classroom was on the second floor of the building and faced east.

His demonstration was a great example of the pedagogical power of props. In this case the prop was a percussion cap rifle. As I recall, he used this prop to illustrate the power and effectiveness of this particular device for those who owned them. The percussion cap rifle was a great advance technologically over the flint lock rifle. Perhaps it fit into an historical narrative about “taming the west.”

As I recall, the rifle he brought into class that day was quite long. I think it was a muzzle loader. The instructor stood in front of the class, explaining the various functions of the rifle, probably illustrating how to use the rod to ram a ball down the muzzle. He did not “load” the weapon with black powder, nor ram a ball down the muzzle. He did however, load a live percussion cap into the piece.

At this point my memory of the event becomes much more deeply ingrained. Knowingly and purposefully, he cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger, discharging the percussion cap! This was unexpected, profoundly startling, and really loud. In retrospect, I believe he had obtained permission from the administrators of the school to do this.

I remain curious if such a stunt was an artifact of the times, the late 70’s, or was a product of a firearm tolerant culture like that found in Montana, or both. I strongly suspect, but don’t know, that such a demonstration would be utterly inconceivable today, in any public school.

 Posted by on 11/22/2016 Growing Up In Montana Tagged with:  Comments Off on The High School History Demo
Nov 142016

Have you ever had frostbite? I have.

I think I was in about the 8th grade when my father started telling me how he enjoyed ice skating while growing up in Butte, Montana. Being indoors in the winter time in Montana in the 70’s was boring, isolating, and claustrophobic, I was interested in finding an outdoor activity that entailed being outside. Missoula had a pond, fed by water from the Clark Fork river, that froze over and was officially sanctioned by the city for ice skating. It had a “warming hut” that was supervised by an employee and was surrounded by tall wooden poles that supported powerful flood lights and a speaker that played music from one of the local radio stations. The flood lights obviously enabled skating at night.

Being that this was a pond, and that the water level of the pond would vary over the course of a winter, giant cracks would form on the surface. The city was clueless regarding maintenance of the rink, and would only flood the top surface about once a season. They would never scrape off the accumulated ice shavings that would inevitably accumulate on an ice rink.

Being that my introduction to ice skating was through my father, I took what he told me about it very seriously. He told me that all the serious skaters in Butte would
use speed skates, not hockey skates or figure skates. My father and I drove to Butte to buy ourselves some speed skates. Not surprisingly, we were the only two
humans on the rink wearing speed skates…

The skates had no insulation. The upper part was one thin layer of leather. Whatever insulation to keep my feet warm had to come from my socks. Over the course of
several seasons I tried numerous sorts of socks; wool socks, silk socks, and special “Space Age Socks” which I believe had little strips of Mylar woven into them. None of them worked to keep my feet warm! One night I even sprinkled chili powder inside my socks, but the rink happened to be closed that night, and I was not able to go skating. That
was a bad idea! My feet began to burn painfully…

I still continued to skate, despite having cold feet. I discovered a pattern: I would start skating and my feet would become very cold. This would be uncomfortable and borderline painful. Eventually the pain would go away, but this was actually my feet becoming numb. When I would finish skating and change into my tennis shoes, the feeling in my feet would return in a matter of minutes. I did this repeatedly, and didn’t think anything of it.

One night I returned to the warming hut after changing into my shoes and my feet remained numb. By the time I was in the car and driving home I became more concerned, as the feeling had failed to return to my feet. When we got home I decided to warm my feet in hot water. In retrospect, this was the WRONG thing to do, and I take full responsibility for my ignorant action. This did not result in a return of feeling. I went upstairs and joined my unflappable father in the study. I told him what was going on. He suggested I had frostbite, and the correct action was to put my feet in a pan of COLD water and warm it up slowly. My mother was in a bedroom, and became aware of my predicament. She became alarmed, and called her friend Betty, who was a nurse. This resulted in new orders; namely to put my feet in a pan of WARM water. This was the wrong advice, and my father was unwilling to overrule this bad advice. I didn’t know better either way.

My feet were placed into a pan of WARM water. Eventually the feeling started to come back, and I became less alarmed. But with it came PAIN.

By the time feeling fully came back into my feet I was in agony. I believe this was the worst physical pain I’ve ever been in my life. It was a searing, burning pain. I believe I was given some sort of OTC pain killer, probably acetaminophen or aspirin. This did nothing. I remember writhing in pain sitting in the study next to my father, trying not to exhibit the outward signs of burning agony.

In retrospect, I must assign blame to myself for the initial immersion in hot water, yet that was an act born of ignorance, not willful disregard of good advice. I wish my father would have interceded and overruled the bad advice from Nurse Betty. The good news is that I never lost a toe, or experienced necrosis.

If you live in a cold environment I believe it’s essential to thoroughly understand the nature of both hypothermia and frostbite.

These days MCcormick Pond is no longer used for ice skating:


 Posted by on 11/14/2016 Growing Up In Montana, Opinion Tagged with:  Comments Off on Frostbite
Nov 092016

I’ve loved peanut butter all my life. As a child I read a biography of George Washington Carver, who ran numerous experiments trying to find novel uses for the humble peanut. I was so motivated by his life’s work that I decided I wanted to be a biochemist “when I grew up.” That idea tied in with my general reverence and fascination with science as a child, driven by the books I read and watching Star Trek.

My mother developed type II diabetes in about 1970, when I was about 8 years old. To her credit she decided to change her diet, and thus our family’s diet, for the better. The peanut butter brands she purchased were either Sunny Jim or Adams. Neither of those had added sugar or hydrogenated vegetable oil. To this day I’m more or less repulsed by peanut butter that has added sugar or fat. I recall walking home from both grade school and high school for lunch and eating peanut butter smeared on my mother’s home made whole wheat bread chased by whole milk. Delicious!

Our family had a copy of Frances Moore Lapp√©’s book Diet for a Small Planet. Her book promoted the now-discounted notion of “complimentary proteins.” If I recall correctly, peanuts and wheat were considered a complete source of all necessary amino acids. A quick Google search suggests this idea is still being promoted:

“Complementary to peanuts, whole grains contain high levels of L-methionine, but lack L-lysine. Grain products and other foods can be eaten with peanuts and peanut products to give your body a complete source of protein. Combine peanuts with whole grain bread, pasta, rice, wheat, corn, almonds or sesame seeds.”

The older I got the more I noticed that peanut butter was subtly associated with childhood. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich was something that children ate, not “grown ups.” But I never lost my reverence for peanut butter. As a young adult living in Seattle, I was energized to learn that Thai cuisine commonly incorporated the humble peanut into peanut sauces. Sadly, this discovery led to me going too far down the peanut butter rabbit hole…

The great problem with peanut butter is its caloric density, because of its high fat content. It’s all too easy to ingest an appalling number of calories in just a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. I would buy peanut butter from Costco in huge containers. I think this packaging subtly reinforces the idea that it’s OK to consume it in commensurately large amounts. In about 2000 I discovered a remarkably hedonistic taste combination. Being that Seattle is chock full of Asian markets, imported dried ramen noodles are commonly available. I would buy them by the case. I found brands which I considered to be MUCH more tasty than Top Ramen, that reviled staple of poor college students. Asian markets would sell very large melamine bowls, designed for pho. I would crush up two packets of dried noodles, add a large chunk of Lloyd’s shredded barbecue chicken, replete with sugar and fat, and top it all off with a large dollop of Adams peanut butter. I’d add water and microwave it. I would eat this in reaction to the slightest impulse of boredom or hunger. Not surprisingly I began to gain weight, and within several years weighed between 250 and 260 pounds.

By 2008, I had regained good exercise and impulse control habits. I’ve largely retained those good behaviors and have bettered them in some ways. For a time, I decided that peanut butter was simply too tempting to keep in my refrigerator! It was all or nothing thinking.

We all backslide about things from time to time. I’ve taken peanut butter back into my life, and have even discovered the intoxicating combination of straight peanut butter with a tad bit of chili-garlic paste. An objective observer would probably see this consumption as abusive, sort of like eating cake frosting right out of the jar…

I lift weights for exercise, and so listen to the advice of various bodybuilders on the subject of exercise and nutrition. I came across a video made by a bodybuilder named Arash Rahbar in which he mentioned a product called PB2.


I was curious. They sold it at Costco, so I decided to try it. It’s simply peanut powder in which a large part of the oil has been extracted. My guess is that it’s really an industrial byproduct of peanut oil manufacturing, now being sold as food for humans.

The beauty of this product is that it retains the taste of peanut butter, yet is MUCH lower in calories. It’s simply mixed with water to create a paste. I add a bit of chocolate protein powder to create a wonderful chocolate / peanut combination as a paste. Sort of like eating straight cake frosting without the guilt! The Costco I frequent is currently selling another brand, called PB Fit. I find it indistinguishable from PB2 as far as taste and consistency goes.


Recently I discovered by chance another tasty combination. I cooked some dried hominy in my pressure cooker for lunch, but happened to add a bit too much water. Peanut powder is claimed to be able to thicken watery dishes, but I don’t find it as effective as corn flour in this regard. Nevertheless, I added some peanut powder to the hominy, which had been seasoned with soy sauce. It did thicken the resulting product a bit, but more importantly I discovered that peanut powder plus soy sauce is a very tasty combination!

If you supplement your diet with protein powder, I HIGHLY recommend you try adding a bit of peanut powder to any chocolate flavored supplement beverage. It’s a superb combination, and doesn’t add that many calories.

I suspect there are a number of other tasty and novel uses for this new product. Good luck in discovering them!

 Posted by on 11/09/2016 Opinion Tagged with:  Comments Off on An Homage to Powdered Peanut Butter
Nov 042016

I recall that when I was a child I would occasionally become embroiled in arguments. This being the days long before Google, the notion of “fact checking” in real time was a science fiction fantasy. Nevertheless, I recall using the term “physically impossible” as a knockdown argument in rebutting claims. I wish I could remember where I picked up this term. I don’t recall it was from Star Trek, so perhaps it was my mother. If one of my little friends walked into an argument that could be countered with “that’s physically impossible” then I won!

Not surprisingly, as time went on I found myself using the term less and less. I honestly don’t recall the last time I adjudged something to be “physically impossible.” Nevertheless, over time, I’ve given the notion of things being “impossible” some degree of thought. I’ve concluded that possible vs. impossible is not a binary, but falls on a continuum. I’ve come to this conclusion partly because I believe there are different ~kinds~ of impossible, or different “flavors” if you will.

Consider the assertion “it’s impossible to eat the sun.” Indeed, that’s a good example of something that’s physically impossible. Now consider a different sort of assertion: “I could be President of the United States.” Sadly, with the nomination of Donald Trump, the strength of this argument is weakened, as Trump so lowered the bar of what would traditionally be obviously disqualifying behavior. Yes, I am ~legally~ allowed to be President, but beyond that I possess a set of social and cultural characteristics that would disqualify. We see that “legitimate candidacy” falls on a spectrum, and is not a binary, thus the possibility of Presidency also falls on a spectrum.

Consider the assertion “It’s possible that I’ll have sex with Elizabeth Taylor.” This is obviously IMPOSSIBLE, but impossible in a completely different way than eating the sun or becoming president. Death is a binary, as is time travel, as far as we understand the laws of physics and biology.

Consider the assertion “I could run a marathon race.” That may not be physically impossible. I would have to achieve many small goals before attempting the main goal. I have two legs, I can run, and I’m generally physically fit. Many in my cohort have achieved this goal. So we see that this example falls on a spectrum much closer to “possible” than “impossible.”

So why discuss this issue at all? Why analyze the notion of “impossible?” What is the value of thinking out loud about this issue? I believe it’s possible to make profound changes in one’s life for the better. It’s possible to change one’s emotional and physical well being. Sadly, some people simply label reasonable goals as “impossible” when they really are not. I suspect they may be conceiving possible and impossible as a binary when it should be viewed as a spectrum. This is a much more realistic way of thinking about the subject. Rational solutions to problems entail utilizing the best models of reality we can muster.

 Posted by on 11/04/2016 Culture, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Different Flavors of Impossible