"Finicky" means very hard to please. "Finick" means someone like me, who is very hard to please.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A negative review for a book I have not read in the more than six years I've owned it

Back in February 2010 I bought a copy of Wingnuts: how the lunatic fringe is hijacking America. Written by John Avlon, it deals with the wackos on the far-right and far-left wings of politics, such as the 9/11 "truthers," the "birthers" who insist that President Obama was born in Kenya, and those who accept MooseMama Palin's "death panel" paranoid fantasy.
  • This is the debut publication from Beast Books, a joint venture between the Perseus Book Group and The Daily Beast, a website dealing with politics and pop culture.
Tina Brown is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Beast. She's an author, talk show host, and an award-winning editor. She edited Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, created Talk magazine and is in the Magazine Editors Hall of Fame.

Although she is apparently not a trained designer, she is credited with redesigning The New Yorker and hiring Richard Avedon as staff photographer. So, Tina should know something about publishing production values. She cares enough about her own work to have claimed a copyright for the foreword she wrote for Avlon's book -- an extremely uncommon practice.

So why am I pissed-off about a book I have not read yet?
It looks like crap, feels like sandpaper, and costs too much.
  • The designer, Jane Raese, chose a compressed, bold sans serif typeface for the chapter titles, headers and other spots. The words are both ugly and hard to read. With the huge selection of available typefaces, both sins are unforgivable.
  • The pages are rough, pulpy semi-sandpaper, of a low grade I have not had the misfortune to touch since I bought 35-cent Signet paperbacks more than a half-century ago. I almost felt the need to wear thick work gloves to protect my fingers from splinters. This book has a cover price of $15.95 -- not 35 cents -- so the budget could certainly have covered a nicer, smoother grade of paper. I'm just an amateur publisher, but my own $15.95 books have paper that's as smooth as a baby's ass. I would not insult my readers by using  cheap paper that might be found in a hotel room john in a third-world country that just made the transition from wiping with tree leaves.
  • The book has 284 pages and measures just 5 by 7-3/4 inches. That size is commonly used for the "mass market paperbacks" which sell for less than $10 and are displayed near the cash register at supermarkets and Walmart. Wingnuts is not vital for college or business. It's basically entertainment, and not important enough to warrant an inflated price. Other entertaining books often sell for $2.99 or less.
According to The New York Times, "Perseus is paying The Daily Beast a five-figure management advance to cover the costs of editing and designing the books."

Based on what I've seen and felt, Perseus grossly overpaid.

An author's words are important, but so is the package that contains them. Be aware and be careful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Michael's improved homemade egg cream recipe, plus a quick cheat

The egg cream is nothing like a creme egg and contains neither eggs nor cream, and is like an ice cream soda made with milk instead of ice cream. It has been a basic part of the New York City diet for over a hundred years.

It apparently was invented in a Brooklyn "candy store" and gradually became common at other candy stores (which were like rural general stores moved to the city -- with soda fountains).

The egg cream was copied by soda jerks in drug stores and ice cream parlors throughout New York City (but maybe not Staten Island -- which is more like Kansas than New York). The drink then followed New Yorkers to Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Florida, Las Vegas and California. Probably even Arizona and Israel.

I enjoyed my first egg creams at Morty & Etta's candy store on East 205th Street near the Grand Concourse in daBronx.

When my family moved from daBronx to New Haven, CT in 1952, my father taught multiple soda jerks how to make egg creams. I recently taught the owner of a diner in Milford, CT how to make them.

The origin of the name is open to debate, as are the techniques for making the drink. My wife and I have been making egg creams at home for many years. Hers are too foamy and sweet for me, and my own had too little foam and too little flavor -- and were never cold enough.

I recently found a 1970s- or 80s-vintage Pepsi glass with a bulbous top that has become my official egg cream glass because it enables me to judge the mix pretty well, and the large top surface provides plenty of room for the foam. 

Traditionally, there are only three ingredients.
  1. COLD Milk (whole is best, but you can use less fatty types)
  2. Chocolate syrup (Fox's U-Bet is the traditional syrup, but Hershey's is fine)
  3. COLD Seltzer (best from a real seltzer bottle, but you can use club soda)
A couple of days ago I started adding a fourth ingredient -- some crushed ice -- and the result is heavenly. For me, there is no such thing as a drink that's too cold. I love beer in frosted mugs. I'd probably love an egg cream in a frosted mug.

There is great controversy about the proportions and the sequence for blending the ingredients, and I recommend that you experiment. Here's what I do:
  1. Fill about 15% of the glass volume with crushed ice.
  2. Fill about 10% with chocolate syrup.
  3. Fill about 25% with milk.
  4. Stir with a long "ice tea" spoon.
  5. Fill the rest with seltzer. I pour the seltzer into the spoon and let it overflow into the glass.
  6. Stir until you get a thick white frothy head on top of light brown.
  7. If you want to get artsy-fartsy, drizzle some chocolate syrup onto the foam.
  8. Drink with or without a straw. Without a straw you'll get a telltale egg cream mustache, which is nice for people and dogs who kiss you. Drink quickly before the bubbles dissipate and the ice melts. You have only about two minutes of ecstasy.
The traditional accompaniment is a salty pretzel rod which provides good contrast to the sweetness -- but nuts, popcorn and chips are acceptable substitutes. Chili would probably not be a good choice. Last night I had an egg cream with a fresh onion bagel and it was an absolutely delicious combo.

You can also use other syrup flavors including vanilla, cherry and coffee.

Believe it or not, there is a National Egg Cream Day (March 15th) and the previous link will take you to a superb source of egg cream info plus videos showing various techniques for making this delicious drink. The site even has a list of places that will make you a professional egg cream.



But what if you don't have chocolate syrup? There is a compromise:

  1. Put some crushed ice in the bottom of a tall glass.
  2. Pour in lots of Yoo-hoo.
  3. Pour in some milk.
  4. Pour in some seltzer.
  5. Stir.
  6. Drink.
  7. Say "aaaaah."

    Quantities are not specified, to encourage experimentation.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

WOW. A 'Keurig' for milkshakes and smoothies

You may think of Cumberland Farms as a place to fill your gas tank, buy a newspaper, a lottery ticket, cigarettes or a beverage -- but it's much more. The 700-store chain has evolved into pleasant purveyors of all kinds of products. The stores are hybrid gas station/restaurants/convenience stores and more.

Today I stopped in my local "Cumby" to buy gas and a hot chocolate and maybe a muffin. While wandering around I was distracted by a sign proclaiming "MILK SHAKES" and I had to investigate.

Cumby is not an old-time ice cream parlor. There are no soda jerks to concoct beverages and ice cream sundaes, but there is a very talented milkshake-making robot. It's like a Keurig for cold, thick drinks, from a company called F'real.

The company says: "
f'real foods is a fast-growing company that designs, sells, and markets authentic milkshakes, smoothies, and frozen cappuccino blended frozen beverages -- all made from real ingredients - ice cream, fruit, milk, and coffee. Consumers freshly blend our products in our patented blender found in over 13,000 locations across the US and Canada, at convenience stores, colleges & universities, theaters, and military bases."

I'm used to interacting with lots of talented robots (even one that prints books), but none produce the ecstasy that F'real does. For $1.99 I got a big-enough, good enough, fast-enough drink with almost as much excitement as a video poker machine.

I could select from three thicknesses. Since this was my first test, I picked "regular." The machine whirred and clanked and in about a minute my drink was ready. There was about a half-inch of vacant space at the top of the cup, so I squirted in some milk from the coffee supplies and stirred with my straw.

The shake was delicious. It was thick enough so I knew it was a shake, but not so thick that it would not pass through a straw.

You can CLICK to see how the shake is produced.

CONFESSION: I was so delirious with my new discovery, I walked out without paying for the shake and forgot to buy gas. I'll pay next time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Improving watery hot chocolate at Cumberland Farms

Cumberland Farms is a chain of about 700 gas stations and convenience stores in Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. The privately owned company started in 1938 in Cumberland, Rhode Island and is now based in MA. Annual sales are abut $16 billion. That's a lot.

The company has inexpensive gas and lots of inexpensive snacks. The "New Concept" stores are hyoooooooooooj, kind of mini-Disneylands, with much joy for serious munchers and slurpers. They're not as fancy as a Wegman's, but there is no Wegman's near me.

Every Saturday morning while my wife gets her hair done I fill my gas tank and part of my belly at Cumberland.

For several months my local CF has been offering any size coffee for just 99 cents. That seems like a good deal, but I don't like coffee.

Fortunately, the 99-cent deal applies to other hot beverages, including hot chocolate. My favorite hot chocolate comes from Dunkin' Donuts, and there is one right across the street from my local CF. However, a large HC from DD can cost nearly three bucks, and DD does not sell gasoline.

My first HC at CF was very disappointing: watery and weak.

Rather than abandon the company, I thought a bit and devised a strategy for the following week.

CF allows customers to squirt as much milk as they desire into their cups of hot drinks. So I squirted a couple of ounces into the bottom of my cup, then filled it with HC, stirred it and slurped. It was fine.

If Dunkin' Donuts earns an A for its HC, with added milk Cumberland's entry rises from a D to a B. Starucks is a C minus. Boo!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Stupid pool float costs more to run than a real boat

Hammacher-Schlemmer, Home Shopping Network, Amazon and others have offered the Excalibur Motorized Pool Lounge, for $60 to $150 or so. It looks like your basic big ugly pool float; but in addition to the usual cup holder, it has two joysticks that control underwater propellers.

It may seem cool to be able to silently swoop and spiral around your backyard pool, but you better own an oil well -- or at least a battery factory -- if you're going to get one.

You can spend more money running it for an hour, than you spend to buy it. I received one as a gift about five years ago. I used it once.

The float uses 12 D cells (with no built-in charger); and a set of batteries will provide just a 15 minute cruise.

Alkaline D cells cost about a buck-fifty each. A full boatload will cost $18. That works out to $72 for an hour, plus sales tax.

If you want to emulate Gilligan's planned "three hour cruise," figure on spending close to $230 -- and you'll have to put Excalibur in dry dock every 15 minutes to change batteries.

Also, when you're onboard Excalibur, you're dry. You never touch the water, so why be in the pool? You may as well buy a boat, or stay in bed and save the money.

For comparison, a 80 horsepower outboard motor -- big enough for a 16-foot boat carrying six people -- will use about eight gallons of fuel per hour, costing about 16 bucks, much less than the cost of propelling the inflated motorized pillow with one aboard.

Friday, February 12, 2016

And now, something for the ladies in the audience

I get tons of spam email, at least 100 each day. In addition to the Nigerian princes who want to help me to get rich, and the discount Canadian pharmacies, and warnings from religious fanatics, I get a lot of sex stuff.

The spam senders are getting much more sophisticated. In the past I got an equal amount of promos for penis enlargement and for breast enlargement, but lately the spammers are about 90% correct in their gender assumptions.

Nevertheless, I recently got an email intended for the ladies. The product seems to make sense, so I'll pass it on.

I've always been a selective neat freak. I have no problem working with a messy desk, but I hate seeing messy, snarled, over-long electrical cords. I also don't like seeing bra straps. Actually, I don't mind seeing the straps on the bra of a well-built lady -- unless she's wearing something over the bra.

Now, in the era of hybrid cars, flat-screen TVs and VoIP, science has a solution. StrapPerfect, "the ultimate bra strap solution," is supposed to hide the straps, improve posture, give cleavage "a firm and youthful lift," and increase the apparent cup size by at least one letter. 

Sounds good to me.

Note: I have not personally tested this product.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Presidential Hot Line Phone: give one to a losing candidate.

These phones are great consolation prizes for losers who will never live in the White House and answer a call from the Kremlin in the middle of the night.

Send them to Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul,
Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Lincoln Chafee, Martin O'Malley, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Al Gore, John Kerry, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Bob Dole, Mike Dukakis, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, John McCain, Rick Santorum, Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Michael Bloomberg, Lindsey Graham, Herman Cain, Jimmy McMillan, Sam Brownback, etc. 

Suitable for Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Whigs, Tories, anyone. Used in movies made by Paramount Pictures and Disney Studios.

This is not an empty shell or a fake phone. It's a real high-quality made-in-America phone, warranted for FIVE YEARS (nearly two presidential terms), and ready to plug in and ring. Price is $115, with FREE shipping to any destination in the 50 states. CLICK

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Meet Buck -- the talking, singing robot deer head

If you no longer get excited about animated singing lobsters, hamsters and fish, and you have a big empty space on your wall, Buck should make you smile, and scare others.

Buck is wall-mounted deer trophy, hand-detailed to look remarkably realistic, complete with whiskers, eyelashes and tufts of ear hair. He has lifelike movements, makes wise-ass remarks, and sings six songs (Sweet Home Alabama, La Grange, Friends in Low Places, Rawhide, On the Road Again, Suspicious Minds) with perfectly synced mouth movements.

Buck also comes with a wireless microphone, so you can speak or sing through his mouth, and he moves his head and ears along with the voice. An auxiliary input lets you feed in a recorded soundtrack. I put Buck on my front door for Halloween, and had him singing Monster Mash and Purple People Eater.

A wireless remote control operates his movement, voice, and songs... great for scaring the crap out of unsuspecting passers-by. Buck can also be motion-activated.  Buck may have been discontinued by the manufacturer, but you should still be able to find one on eBay. Prices range from about $100 to $200.  Maybe I'll sell mine before I die.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Many winners, one loser, at the Ikea cafeteria

(left-click on image to enlarge)

Ikea is the Sweden-based home furnishings giant that has been planting big blue boxes in cities around the world.

Although best known for flat beige cardboard boxes that contain the bits and pieces to furnish a home, the stores have a variety of cheap eats, and some of the food is quite good.

All around the world, people enjoy a pre-shopping (or a pre-no-shopping) bargain breakfast at Ikea, even before the rest of the store is open for business.

In the US, one buck will get you eggs, turkey sausage and potatoes.

In Germany, there are organized breakfast clubs that meet daily at Ikea. A German newspaper says "Ikea is increasingly turning into a welfare center for pensioners, young moms, low-earners and the unemployed." For €1.50 Germans can get two rolls, butter, cold cuts and cheese, jam, smoked salmon, and unlimited coffee. Beer is available later in the day.

The Ikea in Israel serves Kosher food. During Passover, the food was Kosher for Passover. The food market that sold food that was not Kosher for Passover, was temporarily closed.

In Japan, Ikea serves traditional Japanese food along with Ikea standards Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and sauce.

British Ikea customers can get fish and chips.

And so it goes, in hundreds of Ikeas around the world.

My local Ikea (New Haven, CT) has a large cafeteria upstairs and a smaller snack bar with a more limited menu on the main floor.

I'm not big on lingonberries, but I love the Swedish meatballs (made with reindeer meat?). I usually run away from yogurt ("baby barf"), but Ikea's low-fat concoction is absolutely delicious, and a fine substitute for more dangerous ice cream.

The 50-cent hot dogs won't win any awards; but they are cheap, and no worse than what you'll get in a gas station or 7-11.

Some Ikeas have offered a limited time "special" pizza pocket. It's basically a Swedish interpretation of a zeppole, and it sucked. It looks and feels like an over-cooked potato knish, with a hard doughy shell filled with a tomato and cheese paste. I took two bites, and got my two bucks back.

Fortunately Ikea has lots of good choices from the land of the Vikings and elsewhere, including excellent salads, deserts and kids' meals; and you can buy frozen cooked meatballs to take home. There's also a Swedish Foodmarket with candy, cookies, crackers, jams, drinks, and more.