Macaroni and Cheese Off

I did get one question about the Macaroni and Cheese Off I hosted on Sunday, but otherwise, it was just a few friends. A friend of Ali's who I see around once in a while is a great local chef; every year I've mentioned having some kind of best mac-and-cheese contest with him during the winter. And every year, January, February, and March slip by before I remember to organize it. I finally got to it this year in February … just before it ended.

We had four entries including my own. Every one was significantly different: mine was a pretty by-the-book cheddar/parmesan baked number, our chef friend brought one with prosciutto, another included condensed milk, and the final entry was chilled like macaroni salad. Amusingly enough, everyone picked different shaped pasta, too. We also had a couple people bring vegetables to counteract the starch/fat/salt wonderland. As it turned out, prosciutto (and expert cooking, presumably) wins but nothing loses.

Spell check has its own opinion

Spell check has its own opinion

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Dinner at Rocco with Ali

Ali and I went to Rocco (165 Monroe Ave., formerly The Olive Tree) for dinner and it was fantastic. We dropped in without a reservation and were happy to eat at the bar. Ali got the ziti with a side of meatballs which she loved — if I remember right: I was overwhelmed by the quality of my thick-cut pork chop special with parmesan cheese and a chili-spiced red sauce. Drinks, too, were excellent: the Stormy Monday was a great choice.  Ali even liked it despite that she otherwise hates the taste of bourbon. As it ended up, we were too full for dessert.

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Listening to Rick Dorschel Sell Cars at Thursday Thinkers

I finally managed to get out of the house and get to The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) in time for Thursday Thinkers. Rick Dorschel was there to discuss, Where's My Electric Car? Imagine my disappointment when I found it to not only be a press conference (that is, "way to advertise for free"), but possibly the most ill-informed Thursday Thinkers I've ever attended.

He started out talking about the problems in the latest Toyota recall concerning accelerator pedals sticking. My dad said they showed a diagram of the mechanism on the news, and it was an affront to good design: even a cursory glance reveals to an engineer like him that the mechanism can easily bind. Dorschel, however, said the problem was related to the complexity of synchronizing 4 computers on-board — largely to meet efficiency and emissions standards (implying, in my opinion of his tone, that the days of carburated engines were far better, and further, that government interference in capitalism was to blame more than anything else). As a computer programmer and electronics designer, I can tell you flat out that synchronizing the behavior of 4 computers is not simple, but it is well within modern techniques to make it extremely reliable and to make it fail safely. Dorschel also said that the computer was designed to split user input on the accelerator and brake "50-50". What the shit is that? If you have an accelerator and brake system, if the user attempts to use both, you always pick the brakes! In these days of computer-controlled throttles, there is absolutely no reason to make the car behave like a 1960's muscle car.

He went on to reassure the audience that Toyota is still a quality car, and the problems they have encountered have been fixed. No drivers in the Rochester area have reported a stuck accelerator — it is, after all, rare. Alas, he did not say how the design process was changed to add checks to make sure such bad design decisions are not propagated to the public. I can only assume it's "business as usual" at Toyota until, and after, the next problem. Same as all car companies for that matter — there's no reason to buck the system when, as an amoral corporation, it can achieve such easy free publicity at the cost of a few dead customers. Heck, did you see the advertising they're doing about safety? Ride that publicity wave to profit, for that is all that matters.

But on to the actual topic at hand …

Dorschel starts out by referring to electric cars as "golf carts" that are street-legal. Way to kick things off with your GM-based logic — presumably referencing the literal street-legal electric golf-cart from Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motorcars, LLC. Anyway, his discussion was rife with inaccuracy. Dorschel is indeed good at selling cars. But on the topic of cars and transportation, not so much.

He referred to the future of electric cars as being hampered by the battery. In some ways, this is true: with today's technology, it is impossible to replace the quick-fueling internal combustion engine, and electric vehicles are essentially limited to (at best) a 300 mile daily range, followed by hours to recharge. However, he completely misses the boat that things are changing. Many people can get by without owning a car at all, relying instead on public transportation, bicycling, and walking for most trips, and using a car sharing or car rental service for when an automobile is most convenient. Considering the prevalence of car rental and sharing services, one could literally get by on a commuter car. Also, the notion of driving your own private vehicle to a far-away destination is a concept only possible after the middle of the 20th Century. The belief that all things that we have now will be available forever, and new things will only add to that is plain foolish.

He said that ethanol is a failure because it takes more energy to make than it produces which is true, but he went on to claim that hydrogen and the fuel cell is the answer. I had to pick my jaw off the floor on that one: hydrogen is, at present, a mediocre energy storage medium. It will always cost more to buy hydrogen than to buy energy some other way because it's one more step removed. In other words, energy is attained from one source (i.e. petroleum, coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear) and used to convert inaccessible hydrogen (like in water) into accessible hydrogen (like hydrogen gas). Therefore, hydrogen from petroleum will necessarily cost more than petroleum itself — it doesn't just exist in pockets below the earth like oil does. Another way to look at this is that ethanol produced from, say, corn is essentially energy from the sun; harvesting that energy takes more energy than you get out. Hydrogen is guaranteed to be the same way. His statement that we may someday use the hydrogen and fuel cell in our car to power our house may be possible, but it would be excessively costly compared to the energy systems we have now — for that matter, we can leave our car idling in the driveway and run an inverter to run our house today, but who's foolish enough to waste that kind of money?

He gave a sheepish shrug when he said that Americans want giant cars. Someone asked, "if Madison Avenue can make giant SUV's and pick-up trucks desirable, why not energy efficient cars?" He had no answer, but said that all he knew is that they have such a hard time with consumers because they demand big cars when gas is under $2/gallon and small ones when it's over $4. After a grumble of support for gas over $5/gallon, he claimed that it would be yet another way that government interfered with our freedom. I had enough and asked, "why, then, is it okay to pay property taxes to pay for roads, but not for that same amount to come from gas tax?" He said that he hates government interference as well, and we should probably start a tea party (I believe he was talking about the conservative-funded astroturf protest called the Tea Party movement.) I think it's funny that he thinks that subsidizing his industry is called "freedom" but taxing based on use is "government interference".

Alas, in the end, Rick Dorschel struck me as a stalwart buggy-whip salesman. The fundamental business model under which car dealerships operate is eroding as people migrate toward more reasonable, ecological, and debt-free solutions.

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Grumbling About the Eastman House

As regular readers know, I am often compelled to rant vociferously on one inane topic or another — particularly if there are other, more productive ways to address my grievances. This time it's the Café at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) — and in two parts.

First, why the absence of regional treats? The inventory of the refrigerated case was recently changed to exclude Saranac or Stewart's soft drinks, end even the milk is inexplicably not from Byrne dairy, Pittsford Dairy, nor even Upstate Farms. Heck, The Little (240 East Ave.) offers treats from both Stever's Candies, Inc. (623 Park Ave.) and The Nut House (1520 Monroe Ave.) — a welcome respite from the chemical sludge inside colorful corporate wrappers. At least the gelato comes from The Royal Café (15 North Main St., Fairport) and the cookies are baked in-house (and, if I recall correctly, locally made as well).

Second, what's up with these Best of Rochester bars they sell? They are chocolate bars — and I am emphatically surrounding chocolate with sarcastic air-quotes … er, I guess then I mean they are "chocolate" bars whose label features a suitably bland image of the city skyline. It takes some audacity indeed to claim these as the best Rochester has to offer — I mean, what of Stever's Candies, Inc. (623 Park Ave.), Hedonist Artisan Chocolates (674 South Ave.), or even the sweet old Peter's Sweet Shop (880 S. Clinton Ave.); each of those are not only better, they offer some real excellence. Attempting to affect bizarre upstate city rivalry, I'll say it must be made by someone in Buffalo or Syracuse (where, perhaps, this might be considered "best"). More likely [and a more bizarre attempt to affect Monroe county township rivalry] is that they were made by some ignorant suburbanite who sees Rochester not as a vibrant, muti-cultured mini-metropolis, but the root of problems their leeching ways have caused.

They are sold by a company doing business as Made in Rochester in this area: a storefront for distributing locally sold products. Why the presumably identical candy bar (which is definitively not made in every city on their site, and "best" of none of them) is also sold is a mystery. Then again, I possess equal measures of congratulations and disgust: for this site caters to people with more money than, at best, desire to stay — five 6-packs of Zweigles hots sells for $65 for instance. There must be a word for the financial abuse of a population all too glad to pay: usury? good business? — it's hard to say anything but both.

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The King of Comedy at the Dryden

Christina and I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. Jim Healy gave the introduction and said he had seen this film probably the most number of times of any film he's seen (and I fully believe he has seen a great number of films). The gist is that Rupert Pupkin played by Robert De Niro plays a stand-up comic who attempts to get the fame he thinks he deserves by kidnapping a TV host Jerry Langford played by Jerry Lewis.

The beauty of the film is in its portrayal of Pupkin as the fanboy inside me (and presumably most people) that just goes too far. For the sake of filmmaking and the story, Pupkin's fantasies intermingle with reality — disastrously. For instance, he has a fantasy of having dinner with Langford where the star begs him to take over the talk show — despite that Langford actually does not see any refined talent in Pupkin, and far from the degree that Pupkin's fantasy lays out.

When I set my mind adrift and daydream of an encounter with some famous person — be it a consistent legend like Randy Newman or a cute-girl-du-jour like Kate Micucci — some event happens where I get to meet them by chance, and for some reason they are interested in me or thankful for something … basically, what Pupkin does. Only in his world, this is the way things actually happen: these absurd, unlikely, coincidences are believed to play out because the fantasy person does not have a real existence. In other words, I realize that famous-person-in-fantasy has, in real life, their own existence that simply does not include me whereas Pupkin does not have such a realization. He fully believes that fame makes the real person disappear — that the celebrity is no longer real, or that celebrity can completely obscure that reality.

The movie asks, in part, how do you handle a person like Pupkin? How do you handle someone who has disposed of your value as a human being? I believe it is the same haunting psychology that leads to stalking, rape, genocide, and any human-on-human atrocity: if you can convince yourself that another person is not a human being (or that they are simply a thing) then your mind is freed to do anything to them without remorse. And if you are on the receiving end of such behavior, all you can do is either change your mind so they are no longer human and you can do what you want with them, or save your own humanity, do what you can to educate them, and wait for them to realize that you are a valuable person too.

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Ramen-off at the Krown

Ali and Christina each made a dish for the "Ramen-Off" at Monty's KrownMySpace link (875 Monroe Ave.) I tagged along although I didn't make anything — but, heck, a tasting and a couple beers was just a few bucks. All the dishes were surprisingly creative, although most were based on substituting ramen noodles for other kinds of pasta. Nonetheless, the Thai-peanut dish that Jeff brought was the crowd favorite among the 14 entries. Judges, however, chose Ali's "Lucky Sombreros": baked spicy ramen wafers topped with chicken, guacamole, and sour cream (not that Ali's weren't popular: her dish was the first to be emptied). So congratulations, Ali and Jeff! We'll look forward to next year's competition.

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