Wednesday, October 30, 2013


At this point, I wish the Washington Redskins would finally change their name just so I don't have to hear about it anymore. My suggestion? The Washington Foreskins. Then their fans can still yell, "Go skins!" And the hardcore fans, well, I'll leave that to your imagination.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure

When I read very local author Wendy McClure's I'm Not the New Me, I loved her remarks about some old Weight Watcher's recipe cards she found in her parents' basement. In The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan, McClure shares more than 100 of them along with snarky comments. I bought an autographed copy long ago at The Book Cellar (my very local bookstore) and although I browsed through it a few times over the years, I finally read the whole book this month.

Many of these foods look just awful. Crown Roast of Frankfurters? Molded Asparagus Salad? Yikes! I would have liked to read more about the ingredients because when McClure mentions them, they are ghastly. For example, one of the Slender Quenchers is water, sherry extract, and two beef bouillon cubes. Yum! And as if the food itself isn't enough to laugh at, some photos are staged with ridiculous props such as the Veal Stew surrounded by dominoes and the Chicken Kiev being watched by a pair of canoodling ceramic ducks.

As Sallie Tisdale notes in The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, American tastes were far less international in the 1970s than today, and many of these pseudo-ethnic recipes reflect that. The prime example is Marcy's "Enchilada" (the quotation marks are part of the name on the recipe card), which doesn't look like any enchilada I've ever eaten. McClure writes, "We don't know who Marcy is, only that she thinks 'enchilada' is wacky Mexican talk for 'shit on a shingle.'"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink

As Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Wansink has learned a great deal about how people eat. This book is mostly about the experiments he has conducted over the past two decades, plus he distills his findings into dietary suggestions. While How to Read a French Fry is about the science of food preparation, Mindless Eating is about the science of food consumption.

Most of the studies in this book have been published in professional or academic journals, so you may have heard about a few of them in the media:
  • Diners were given identical wine, some from bottles labeled as California wine and others labeled as North Dakota wine. Drinkers of "North Dakota" wine ate less food and left the restaurant sooner than the "California" wine drinkers.*
  • Tables were rigged with "bottomless" soup bowls that were secretly refilled via a tube in the bottom. Without the empty bowl as a cue, people ate a lot more soup.
  • Cafeteria diners sampled a free brownie touted as a potential new menu item. Whether it was served to them on a china dish, a paper plate, or a napkin influenced both the perceived quality of the brownie and how much diners were willing to pay for it (from $1.27 on a china dish to only 53¢ on a napkin).
  • In the experiment I found most amazing, they gave 32 people strawberry yogurt to eat in the dark. But actually it was chocolate yogurt. Regardless, 19 people—more than half—said it had a good strawberry taste!
Wansick's basic diet theory is that we eat a lot without really thinking about it, and if we learn to recognize those circumstances we can eliminate 100 calories per day without it really affecting our satiety. It's not the fastest weight-loss plan—100 calories a day works out to 10 pounds a year—but it doesn't involve any categorical restrictions (i.e., no desserts or no carbs) or gimmicks (like juice diets). Virtually anyone could implement at least a few of his ideas and probably stick to them.

I told my wife how he describes the household food shopper (me) as the nutritional gatekeeper. Her response was to go out to Jewel and buy a bag full of total crap—cake, candy bars, cookies, etc. <Sigh>.

Whether you are looking for ways to lose a few pounds or you want to learn more about the behavioral science of eating**, there is a lot of fascinating stuff in this book. Plus it's a quick and entertaining read. For more info, check out

* Hilariously, a woman from Fargo gave this book one star on Amazon (one of three one-star reviews versus 183 five-star reviews) because she felt Wansick was dissing North Dakota. Silly NoDaks!

** I bought it six years ago for the latter.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food by Sallie Tisdale

This is another selection from the clearance section of Half Price Books, which is where I discover a lot of books on subjects I don't ordinarily browse.

The Best Thing I Ever Tasted is a polarizing book. A look at ratings reveals a nearly equal number of one-star and five-star reviews. What's more, there are zero three-star reviews.

Naturally, I would give this book three stars.

When Tisdale writes about the history of food, cooking, and dining, she digs up some really interesting stuff. When she writes about her personal and familial experiences with food, she can be dreadfully boring. It took me an entire week to read this book—a long time for a book that is neither technical nor especially lengthy—and it seemed like longer.


How to Read a French Fry and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons

This is the perfect transition book from last month's science theme to this month's food theme. I bought it for my wife at Half Price Books for $1 but she never read it.

The science parts are really great. The title refers to the five stages of frying oil and how one can tell the age of the oil used by examining the resulting french fry. Parsons also explains why fresh oil is not good for frying and why pouring in a bit of the old makes it better. His description of the chemical processes unleashed by cutting onions made me understand why I like them minced better than sliced. My main disappointment with the science is that I had hoped for more about baking since that's where most of my kitchen experience lies.

But what spoils How to Read a French Fry is the recipes. I would much rather read an entire book about kitchen science instead of so many pages devoted to recipes.* It's not just that I wouldn't cook these dishes; what's worse is that I wouldn't even eat most if someone set them in front of me. It's highfalutin** gourmet snob food. Someone out there must want these recipes, but I think they detract from a book with great potential.

I didn't actually read the recipes (how boring would that be?), though I did read the introductory paragraph for each.

** For some reason I've encountered that word a lot recently and I've been dying to use it.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

September Wrap-Up/October Theme

I read seven books in September on the theme of science. Naturally, I learned a lot. Best of all, there were no duds. Physics for Future Presidents was my favorite. I passed it along to my wife, who is currently enjoying Bad Astronomy after seeing Gravity yesterday.

October's theme will be food. I won't be reading cookbooks.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Anil Ananthaswamy

I finished September's science theme with a big bang (groan).* Ananthaswamy begins with the premise that physics has become too theoretical in recent years and we need to confirm these theories with observations. Then he goes around the world to visit telescopes and other instruments that are looking for breakthroughs in physics. His journey takes him to six continents excepting Australia.

The author generally does a good job of explaining things for the layperson, but The Edge of Physics is right on the edge of my comprehension. I don't have a lot of background in quantum physics and string theory so I got lost a few times.

I find it very encouraging that in the three years since this book was published, at least one of the objectives stated within has been achieved: scientists at the Large Hadron Collider detected the Higgs boson in 2012 (and namesake Peter Higgs just won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Francois Englert). Regarding that project, Ananthaswamy offers many fascinating details about the unusual challenges engineers confronted in design and construction.

I like science books about actually doing science more than those that merely report results or explain theories. The Edge of Physics is that kind of book, and it was a great way to end the month.

* An interesting tidbit from The Edge of Physics: Fred Hoyle, the guy who coined the term "big bang" in 1949, actually supported a different theory; he was using the words disparagingly!

Saturday, October 05, 2013

No Comments

If you do something remarkable and no one remarks about it, is it still remarkable?

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard Muller

Wow, September was a great month for reading. I love this book! Muller looks beyond the politics to explain the science involved in terrorism, energy, nukes (weapons and power), space, and global warming in this brilliant volume.

There are so many good parts, but I'll say a bit about nukes. Nuclear power is such an emotional issue for many, and they ignore the science. For example, after the Three Mile Island accident, some residents set up Geiger counters and found radiation levels 30% higher than the national average. But it turns out the radiation comes from uranium in the local soil. Incidentally, this poses a much greater threat than the tiny amount of radiation leakage from the nuclear reactor.* Incredibly, at least one person (quoted in a PBS documentary) thinks radiation from the ground is okay because it is "natural", as if that makes any difference.

Muller suggests building pebble bed reactors, which are much safer than current US reactors, but regulations must be updated to make that possible. He also addresses nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, completely changing my perspective. In brief, just because the radiation will last for thousands of years doesn't mean the containment has to be 100% perfect for that long. I didn't oppose Yucca Mountain, but I accepted some of the arguments from environmentalists (perhaps just NIMBYs). Now I'm upset that the Obama Administration defunded it.

My only complaint about this book is the title. Most people aren't even going to consider running for president (I wouldn't, and I don't even have a job!). Maybe it wouldn't grab as much attention, but Muller should have called it Physics for Voters because anyone who votes should read this book.**

* This anecdote also appears in Armageddon Science.

** "Physics for Future Presidents" is a course Muller teaches at UC-Berkeley, so that's why he used that title for this book.