Apr 302015

I remember the popularity of the Book of Lists. It came out when I was in high school, and I believe my friend Dave Peterman had a copy. I seem to recall a list of famous alcoholics, with Ambrose Bierce being listed as an “eminent tankardsman” but I could be mistaken. Despite its sensational and easily digestible format, I feel that lists are a useful way of organizing one’s thoughts. It’s also useful to write things down. I suspect, but do not know, that many people besides myself think in a similar way, particularly about rock bands, TV shows, or certain movies. We discover something we really like, and wonder why EVERYONE doesn’t feel the same way. Ultimately of course, it comes down to “matters of taste” so it’s difficult if not impossible to count these as objective esthetic facts. In any event, here’s my attempt to organize my own thoughts on things I’ve discovered which other people don’t seem to venerate to a similar degree.

1. Baked beans for breakfast. Popular in the UK, not so much in America. Americans are certainly willing to embrace sweet things for breakfast, particularly pre-sweetened breakfast cereals, or perhaps donuts for adults, but not baked beans. Ultimately of course, the argument is that they are delicious, not that they constitute “health food” as they are full of sugar.

2. The Leatherman tool. Jesus God in heaven, how I have tried to promote this meme. I have saved my own bacon and the bacon of others so many times since my first Leatherman tool in the late 80’s I have lost track. Just last weekend I helped fix a folding chair owned by my friend Alex using my Supertool 300. I keep it on a belt pouch so it’s always within reach, yet doesn’t weigh down my pocket. I also keep a “Micra” on my belt in a pouch. It has a small folding scissors, which is eminently useful. I have wished for years that Leatherman would scale up the Micra to a “full sized” unit, but this has not happened.

3. Net t-shirts. Way back in the stone age of the 70’s “net” shirts had a period of popularity. Many were made of synthetic materials, which I suspect may have led to their decline. That, coupled with the vaguely transgressive display of seeing men’s nipples…

I happened to discover a particular brand sold at K-mart that was sold as a t-shirt, and had very small holes, perhaps only a millimeter across. They were the most comfortable shirts I’ve ever worn. I suspect they were a cotton and polyester blend, or perhaps all cotton. They don’t even seem to have come back as hipster retro style, as big beards have. If I found net shirts as comfortable as the ones I wore in high school, I’d wear them again in a heartbeat!

4. Cutting food, usually meat, with the knife in the right hand whilst holding the fork in the left hand, then moving the food directly to the mouth with the left hand. This is a “Continental” or “English” style of eating, as opposed to the American style of eating, which sets down the knife in the right hand, swaps the fork to the right hand, then uses the fork in the right hand to bring the food to the mouth. Not surprisingly, I changed my behavior while in Europe. I was helped along by discovering the utility of using both hands to manipulate tools while working on cars. There are situations where it makes better sense to hold a tool in the left hand than in the right hand, usually due to cramped quarters. People often think of their “handedness” as a binary; either right or left. Yet it’s really just a matter of habit: I’ve found that I actually underestimate how poorly my left hand functions. Yes it feels less capable, it feels strange, but it’s really not as uncoordinated as I anticipated.

5. HP sauce, or brown sauce. Another quirk I picked up from Europe. Americans love ketchup, which I find sort of middling in value. Most American supermarkets have a section devoted to barbecue sauces which might include a tiny bottle of HP sauce, which is only one brand of brown sauce. Brown sauce is distinctly different from ordinary barbecue sauces, and compliments both beef and baked beans. Ultimately I don’t use it on a regular basis, as it’s full of sugar, and it no way could be defined as “health food.”

6. Bulgur. I love this stuff! Classified as a “whole grain” I find it cooks up easier than rice, or at least is less finicky. I like the coarser versions, which are given numeric gradations from one to five. I’m spoiled here in Seattle, as I’m not far away from an ethnic food paradise in the form of the DK Market in Renton. They sell a plethora of bulgur. Why is this wonderful grain not more popular?

7. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. Years ago when I started working on cars, I didn’t wear gloves. My hands would become utterly filthy, often a thick sort of grease mixed with dirt. At the time, I believe that liquid soaps that included pumice as a suspension would be the best, sort of like good old Lava soap. One day a gear head friend of mine suggested Dr. Bronner’s and I thought he was kidding. Amazingly enough, it worked better than the pumice style liquid soaps. I shower with the stuff, and it’s even possible to shave with it, but it doesn’t quite have enough emollients in it to properly shave with. It rinses off very well, and leaves no lingering perfume odor. Fantastic stuff, despite it’s hippie connotations and psychotic religious texts.

8. Coconut syrup. I had this over pancakes while in Hawaii. Delicious! With the current popularity of coconut “water” and “milk” I am befuddled why coconut syrup is not better known. Most Americans use maple syrup on pancakes, with sorghum and honey following in popularity. Why not coconut? I’ve seen it for sale only once here in Seattle.

I’m confident I will think of additional items, which is really a testament that we don’t always categorize disparate concepts in our minds under tidy category headings. I suspect that many people think the same way but may not have drawn up an itemized list. I encourage everyone to do so.

 Posted by on 04/30/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Why Doesn’t Everyone Like This?
Apr 202015

Recently I was boasting to a friend of mine that I had successfully predicted the emergence of Starbucks bottled coffee. Alex and I were shopping at an Asian market here in Seattle, where I found this outsized bag of dried chilies for sale:
Dried Chilis

I bought some chili paste with garlic, and several containers of coffee bottled in steel cans. I recounted to Alex how I discovered this sort of coffee way back in the late 80’s. At the time I was a staff pharmacist at the Westwood Village Pay ‘n Save in West Seattle. Pharmacy

As I recall, at the time I had an entire hour for lunch. Being that I was from Montana, a largely mono-racial state, the Asian markets of Seattle were endlessly fascinating to me. I discovered several Asian supermarkets in West Seattle that sold canned, sweetened coffee. The two brands I found were “Mr. Brown” and “Mr. Black.” I think Mr. Brown had milk, and Mr. Black was straight. I believe both were sweetened. At the time I had a subscription to Reason magazine, which promoted a largely libertarian viewpoint. One of their arguments was that the free market would, at least in some ways, reduce solid waste by more efficient consumer packaging. An example they used was the “aseptic pack” which was novel back then, but is quite common today, especially for little boxes of fruit juice popular with children. I remember buying an entire case of canned “Mr. Brown” which I took back to the pharmacy and placed in the refrigerator. It was one of those discoveries which makes you wonder “why doesn’t everyone do this?” Why don’t Americans embrace canned, sweetened coffee? I predicted that some big American company would start selling pre-made, sweetened coffee in aseptic packs.

Well, as we see, eventually an American company finally did! These days Starbucks sells a bunch of bottled coffee products, though not in “aseptic packs.”

At a deeper level, it’s always prudent to “date stamp” a prediction in some way. I have no proof that I made this prediction in the late 80’s, other than possibly the recollection of my pharmacy co-workers. These days one can blog about things, or post them on Twitter, or upload things to YouTube. It’s a no-cost social game that everyone can play, and even if one is wrong about a prediction it’s often a useful learning experience, as we can often infer WHY a prediction was inaccurate.

I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, so speculating on the “future of food” is somewhat despairing, as it surely involves more processed food rather than “real” food. Nevertheless, I shall take this opportunity to make two predictions about the future of food:

1. I predict that genetic engineering will become prosaic, commonplace, and will lose its feared reputation. From this, we will see low-cost meat substitutes being “grown” in factories. This will appeal to our growing moral revulsion about treatment of animals on factory farms, and its gratuitous use of resources. On the upside, imagine the range of flavors and textures could be developed for synthetic meats. Lipid profiles could be altered, and healthier sorts of fats could be incorporated into these meats. They could be as delicate as fish, or as robust as a roast.

2. I predict that genetic engineering will broaden the range of fruit flavors in fruits. So-called “tropical” flavors will be transplanted into plants that grow in moderate climates. Flavors which are entirely synthetic, such as “tutti-frutti” could be produced by transgenic plants. Imagine eating an Idaho potato which tastes like pineapple or mango! Imagine a carrot which tastes like taro. I suspect that the first applications of such transgenic fruits will be in ice cream, as I believe issues of texture would take more time to optimize than pure flavor.

Personally I look forward to the day when I can eat a hamburger made from transgenic mastodon meat, accompanied by a milkshake flavored with REAL Frankenberries…

 Posted by on 04/20/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Predictions
Apr 192015

I remember a strange incident from my childhood which involved what might be called an improvised weapon.

This must have happened when I was in about the 8th grade, which would have been the mid 70’s. I recall it occurred in the springtime, as it was light out after dinner, but not summertime. I was at home, and I began to hear an unusual sound outside. It was strange “foomp” sound, a loud and occasional percussive noise. Eventually I went outside to investigate. I saw several boys I knew gathered at the corner. They had constructed a cannon of sorts, which could shoot tennis balls into the air.

It consisted of a number of steel soda pop cans, each ganged together in a vertical stack with tape. Back then pop cans were made of steel and not aluminium. The bottom can of the stack had its bottom intact, but its top was crudely punched out with a tool, probably a screwdriver, resulting in a plate of mangled metal. The bottom of the next can in the stack was similarly punched in both the bottom and top. The top can in the stack, which was probably 5 or 6 cans tall, had the very top carefully removed, I think with a can opener. The can at the bottom of the stack had a small hole punched in the side, just above the very bottom. A tennis ball was placed in the top can of the stack, which fit just perfectly.

The boys would squirt lighter fluid into the small touch hole at the bottom, insert a tennis ball at the top, and shake the stack. In retrospect, the use of the crude tool to mangle the tops and bottoms of the middle cans instead of using a can opener was rational, as it increased the surface area inside the cannon, enabling greater vaporization of the lighter fluid. The cannon would be placed vertically and a match or lighter would be brought to the touch hole. A great “whoomp” sound would be produced, and the tennis ball would be shot perhaps 50 feet into the air.

You would think that an activity like this would become insanely popular amongst boys back then, but I only saw it used the one time. Years later, I built one myself with my friend Tim Cridland. I’m not sure what sort of can I used, as this would have been the late 80’s, and steel cans were becoming harder to come by, but not impossible. As I recall, I got it to work, but the novelty of the creation was gone, and it wasn’t quite as amazing as seeing it for the first time.

The stimulus for writing down this recollection was drinking canned Asian coffee recently, which made me recall the days when soda pop was packaged in steel cans. I’m not even sure if tennis balls are packaged in steel cans anymore, or if they would provide a tight enough fit to make such a thing.

 Posted by on 04/19/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Tennis Ball Cannon
Apr 152015

When I was a child I had a wild friend that I’ll call “R.” I’ve written about him before, and he was the subject of many of my wild and dangerous childhood adventures. This adventure started out prosaically, with a shopping cart.

R told me that he knew of an abandoned shopping cart, stashed under a building near the Clark Fork River in Missoula. This would have been the early 70’s, when stolen shopping carts were not as prevalent in the world as they are today. Back then I never saw a homeless person with a shopping cart. R suggested that we could transform this ordinary shopping cart into a go-cart. This sounded like fun to me, and we set about to do it.

Arriving at the building I discovered that R was speaking the truth; there was indeed an abandoned shopping cart under a building which I believe was used for cutting grave stones. We used wrenches to disconnect the wire basket from the underlying frame and wheels. We left the basket there and took the frame back to R’s house. Seen from the side, the shape of the frame was a sort of “J” shape, with the “J” laying on its side. From the rear, there was a gap between the two rear wheels. About 12″ above this gap was a cross-bar, which formed the curved part of the “J” shape. I could see the legitimate fun this vehicle could have, but it was clear that a board needed to go between the gap between the two rear wheels. We found a board, and I recall it was either bolted down or in some way firmly attached. Not surprisingly, there was no adult supervision during this process…

From here things began to get weird and dangerous. I imagined that one should ride this go-cart by kneeling on the board while holding on to the crossbar. R suggested that one ~sit~ on the board, and use the crossbar as a “roll bar.” We quickly tired of simply pushing each other along, and decided to take it to the next level. We enlisted the help of our friends John and Chris. We headed for Mt. Sentinel which as you can see by the photo on the Wikipedia page is largely grass covered. Of all all four of us, R was the only one of us crazy enough to actually try riding the go-cart down the hillside. R insisted on sitting on the wooden plank, which made “bailing out” virtually impossible. We tried launching R down the hillside several times, but each time the clumps of grass which covered the hillside stopped his progress. The wheels of a shopping cart are small, and easily stopped, sort of like how a small pebble can stop a skateboard wheel. On the final attempt R gained escape velocity, and began to roll down the hillside on his own. Soon enough the clumps of grass plus his “roll bar” proved his undoing and he began to lose control, first in great bumps, then by CARTWHEELING down the mountain side. Eventually his cartwheeling stopped, but he was still sliding down the mountain, face down. We ran down after him as fast as we could, but we couldn’t catch him. He managed to stop just a few feet before a small cliff.

Thankfully R was more or less unhurt; no broken bones or bleeding that I remember. Needless to say, that was the last time I remember using the go-cart. I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how kids use their free time these days, but I suspect this sort of thing doesn’t happen too much during modern supervised “play dates.”

 Posted by on 04/15/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on That’s How We Rolled.
Apr 132015

When I was a child our family experienced a strange series of events involving a telephone. I was probably about 10 when this happened so it must have taken place in the early 1970’s.

One day I answered the telephone in our house. Our phone was a landline, probably a model 500, and owned by the “phone company.” The caller hung up immediately. Not an uncommon experience, of course, but it began to happen several times a day, for days on end. It became obvious to all of our family members that we were the victims of some sort of crude harassment. One of my parents, probably my father, decided to contact either the police or the “phone company.” To their credit, Mountain Bell took action, and put a “tap” on our phone line. Here is where the story gets weird.

The representative of Mountain Bell told my father that what we must do upon receiving any phone call was to pick up the receiver and immediately put it on a pillow. From there we were to make no noise in the house at all, and in fact whisper as we spoke. We were to keep the phone on the pillow for several minutes, at least. A bit of a hyperbolic over-reaction in my opinion! I don’t think telephone receivers have ever been that sensitive. We had to call all our friends and ask them to cease and desist from calling our house for several days. In some way, the relative silence of the open phone line would facilitate the “tap” of the phone to determine the caller. In the end it turned out to be a female friend of my mother’s, a woman who we believed had become mentally ill.

The really strange part of the episode is that the Mountain Bell representative told my father that the “tap” occurred almost instantaneously, and that the receiver-on-the-pillow protocol was essentially overkill. The weirder thing about this was that the Ma Bell rep told my father that this was “secret” information, and that we should keep it a secret!

This makes total sense, as if one made a long distance phone call back in the old analog days, the “phone company” would need to know the number to which the call was made, and the duration, to properly bill the caller. Back then “long distance calls” were a BIG FUCKING DEAL as they were expensive, and not to be utilized frivolously.

For many years, I’d watch TV or movies in which the “bad guy” made a telephone call and had to be “kept on the line” for some dramatic amount of time, though he usually delivered his key lines just before the “trace” was made. Complete and total bullshit, of course, but it goes to show how effective the corporate propaganda of Ma Bell was back in those days. But why would they engage in such a propaganda campaign in the first place? Why would Hollywood voluntarily go along with it? It’s the same sort of thing as not showing a tension wrench used to pick pin tumbler locks. Perhaps some taps recorded the caller’s voice, and could be used in court as damning evidence above and beyond the originating telephone number. Perhaps Ma Bell chose to err on the conservative side, and promoted the fiction that ALL tapped called needed to be of a substantive duration.

For those in Seattle interested in analog telephones and switching equipment, there is a telephone museum in South Seattle, though they do a terrible job of self-promotion.

 Posted by on 04/13/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Wiretap