Blue-Blood Spuds

As I was digging into dinner last night, I surveyed the contents of my plate and decided the food was looking rather pedestrian. Yes, I’d topped the roast pork with a tasty sour cream and onion sauce. I added lemon zest and shredded cheese to the broccoli. But the potatoes were run-of-the-mill, simply diced and baked with nothing but salt and pepper. I could’ve done more there; a lot more. Starting with potatoes from La Bonnotte.  It’s just, I don’t want to spend $300 for a pound of them.

$300 for potatoes – yikes.  It sounds ridiculous unless you’re British royalty or the finest restaurants in Europe.  A couple of medium-sized Russets – the ones we bake – weigh a pound, but the Bonnotte potato is more like the small red ones you cut up and season. 10-12 Bonnottes in a pound; so like, $30 each.  That’s a pricey bite (and not exactly “small potatoes”).  But if you’re willing, you can purchase your share of this delicacy; that is if you’re quick.  They’re only on the market ten days a year.

What makes the Bonnotte the aristocrat of spuds?  Here’s the meat and potatoes of it:

  1. La Bonnotte potatoes are found on a small island off the Atlantic coast of France, and nowhere else.  It’s as if they’re grown in some fortified castle, surrounded by a wide moat.
  2. The potato field is limited to fifty square meters, so they’re not even using the entire island.  You could walk the perimeter of the entire crop in about five minutes.
  3. Even though the island soil is ideal for growing La Bonnottes, the “secret sauce” is nearby seaweed and algae, mixed into the dirt by hand.  This is perhaps the first time I’ve heard of a good use for seaweed.
  4. Every Bonnotte is harvested by hand, then treated, cleaned, and sold by a small cooperative of local farmers.  Talk about an exclusive club.
  5. As I said, the harvest is only available for purchase ten days a year.  Mark your calendars for May 1-10, 2023.
The island of Noirmoutier-en-l’ile has a church, a chateau, and very expensive potatoes.

Here’s my favorite reason to buy this hot potato (and for heaven’s sake, don’t drop one): you don’t peel them.  You shouldn’t peel them.  Their unique flavor – tastes of lemon, earth, “the sea”, and chestnut – is most concentrated in the skin.  You eat them just the way they come out of the ground.

Luxuo is an online news portal whose mission is “to uncover the values which permeate the fiber of the world’s most recognizable luxury brands” (Got all that?) The Luxuo website has a dropdown menu for timepieces, yachting, motoring, properties…. and now you’ll find potatoes, because La Bonnottes (you don’t even call them “potatoes” at this price) are the most expensive potatoes in the world.  By some measures they’re one of the most expensive foods in the world.  Saffron, macadamia nuts, Beluga caviar, and white truffles are the top four, followed by La Bonnottes.  Blue-blood spuds indeed.

[Author’s Note: I just had to know why we refer to things as “blue blood”.  The term originated in Spain.  It was used to differentiate between people with light skin from those with darker complexions. The veins of southern Europeans appeared bluer due to their pale and translucent skin. Wealthy landowners or their descendents were part of an upper class in Spain, and somewhere along the line the veins were associated with wealth.  Not a look I prefer, but the money is tempting.]

Couch potato fare

After the La Bonnotte harvest and sell, a small number of the potatoes are reserved for a local festival, where they’re served plain, just as you see them in the entertaining video below (because no other ingredient deserves to share the pan).  Who can blame the farmers for throwing a party?  They’ve convinced the world to purchase potatoes for $300/pound yet again, just as they’ve done for decades before.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

P.S. I Love You

When it comes to snack foods, I’m not a fan of variations on a theme. Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts debuted in the 1960s with just four flavors: strawberry, blueberry, apple, and brown sugar cinnamon. Today you choose from more than twenty Tarts, including “Hot Fudge Sundae”. The original Triscuit cracker was a baked whole wheat square with a little salt. Today you’ll find a dozen Triscuit flavors on the shelf, including “Fire Roasted Tomato & Olive Oil”. Then we have the Oreo cookie. The original, of course, was two chocolate wafers sandwiching just the right amount of vanilla cream filling. Now Oreo flavors are too numerous to count.  But there’s one you can be sure is a whopping success: pumpkin spice.

 Welcome to mid-September, Americans, and the beginning of our pumpkin spice delirium.  For the next two months you can expect an endless parade of “P.S.” product advertisements.  My wife & I, we’ve already caved to the obsession.  We have a package of “Pumpkin Spice Snaps” sitting on the counter.  We have two leftover pieces of this year’s first homemade pumpkin pie sitting in our frig.  And it’s only a matter of time before my car veers off the road and right through a Starbucks drive-thru for one of their classic P.S. lattes.  (I’ll take a grande, if you please).

My daughter just reminded me Starbucks also brings back their pumpkin cream cold brew this time of year.  That’s a good one too but let’s be real: none of Starbucks’ P.S. offerings should be considered “coffee”.  We buy them for the spice and the sweet, not for the taste of the beans underneath.

Lest you think Starbucks gets the credit for our pumpkin spice mania, the record must be set straight.  McCormick and Company, they of the little red-capped spice bottles, debuted their “Pumpkin Pie Spice” in 1934.  At least three of the following are in the bottle: cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg.  Do I have this spice blend?  Yes.  Do I use it?  Heck, no.  My wife’s family recipe for pumpkin pie contains a different proportion of the individual spices than McCormick’s, which may be the secret to its delectable flavor.  Plus, pumpkin pie is easy enough to make without having the spices combined for you. Dump the ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Pour into a pie shell.  Bake. My kind of dessert.

Starbucks can’t even take the credit for the first P.S. latte.  That accolade goes to Mexico’s Candle Company in 1995.  The Starbucks version debuted eight years later.  But you could argue Starbucks kicked off the forever-trend where we infuse P.S. into everything imaginable, including the good (Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Cheerios, candles) and the ridiculous  (lip balm, deodorant, beer).  As of 2016, “pumpkin spice consumables” accounted for an annual market of over $500M. Yep, we’re hooked.

The “Pumpkin Spice Flavored Creme Oreo” is not even an Oreo, at least not in my pantry.  Nabisco attached the word “Oreo” but c’mon, let’s just admit it’s a seasonal wolf in sandwich cookie clothing.  “Golden” Oreo cookies… with “festive pumpkin spice flavored cream” (and is it cream or creme?)  Nope, the only Oreos in my book are black and white, though I will allow shelf space for the “Double Stuf” variety.

I’m not sure why this topic caught my eye because I haven’t had an Oreo in years.  The last time I did I realized the taste was different from the Oreo of my youth.  The cookies are not as soft, and there’s less cream filling in between (which is like messing with the ratio of chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s, a sin for all mankind).  Like the misfortune of many other snack foods though, size and ingredients change for the sake of profit.  And new varieties pop up to keep consumers buying.  At least we’re not talking about the Lady Gaga Oreo.  You’ll need your sunglasses for that one.

Now you’ll excuse me as I head off to a doctor’s appointment.  My drive will take me past several Starbucks, which means I could be caving to my first P.S. latte of the season.  Not that I’m worried about missing out.  As soon as the P.S. season is over I can look forward to Starbucks’ Chestnut Praline latte all the way through New Year’s Day.  Now we’re talking!

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Oreo is bringing back this flavor after a 5-year hiatus:, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Credit Guards (or AT&T pt. 2)

When my “favorite” service provider AT&T (tongue-clearly-in-cheek) challenged my creditworthiness last month amidst an adventurous request for internet service, I was forced to bow down before the Big Three. No, not Ford, Chrysler, Dodge – I don’t drive any of ’em. And not CBS, NBC, ABC either – I can now stream their programming (since I finally have internet). Rather, today’s big three are Equifax, Experian, TransUnion – those behind-the-curtains guards who man the credit rating tollbooths as sternly as passport checkers from former Eastern Bloc countries.

Credit guard companies are more difficult to deal with than credit card companies.  The moment I entered college, offers for credit came pouring into my mailbox.  I could qualify for ridiculous amounts on little plastic cards, even though I was a penniless freshman with little reportable income.  But they want you hooked on credit at an early age so you’ll pay back a lifetime of fees in interest.  Yet now, with decades of credit history under my belt (all of it positive, I say with muted pride), dealing with the credit guards is infinitely more challenging.  It’s like walking up to Fort Knox and asking for a bar of gold.

If you don’t check (or even know) your credit score, you may not be familiar with the Big Three.  They’re like triplets hired to do the same job: “consumer credit reporting agencies… collecting and aggregating information… on consumers and businesses worldwide”.  Equifax tracks 800 million consumers.  Experian tracks a billion.  In other words, the next time you use your credit card, you can bet the Guards will be watching.

The Guards help themselves to your transaction, blend it with the others you’ve racked up recently, look at how well you manage your total credit and debt, and come up with a score.  If you and your wallet behave, you get a number in the neighborhood of 700; if not, you’re closer to 500 (sounds like a college entrance exam, no?) 1.2% of Americans maintain an absolutely perfect credit score, though darned if I know how they do it.  Maybe they pay for everything in cash.

Consumer credit reporting agencies are b-o-r-i-n-g (I’m surprised you’ve made it this far) so I’m not fired up to write about them today.  Instead, let me tell you a story – humor at my expense, really – where the Guards were peripherally involved… and I was fired up.

When I was battling working with AT&T on my request for internet last month, the customer service rep stole took a full hour of my valuable time to botch set up the account, even though I already had another account with AT&T for wireless service.  He asked a million questions (including the oft-scripted “how’s the weather where you are today?”).  A marathon later – because I could’ve run one by this point – he said it was time to check my credit.  Here’s where I should’ve thought to hang up because AT&T owns decades of credit history on me (thanks to the Guards).  If AT&T couldn’t tap into my score already then maybe I shouldn’t be doing business with them.  But I really wanted internet so I surrendered cooperated like a good little lamb, supplying my name, rank, and social security number.  And this is where everything went horribly wrong.

“I’m sorry sir, but your credit is blocked.”

Blocked?  What the *$%^#! HECK does that mean?  When I asked him to please explain, my smooth operator countered by saying, “Let me run the check again.  Repeat <your> social security number”… which I did, only to hear the word “blocked” again.  When the third time wasn’t the charm he made a rather stupid bold announcement:

“I’m sorry sir, but you must have an invalid social security number.”

Invalid social?  So you’re saying the nine-digit number I memorized when I was like, oh, an infant; the one I’ve spoken or written millions of times in my life, the one I’ve been trying to protect from identity thieves since I was born, is “invalid”?  What kind of incompetent fool professional was I dealing with here?

More like “think twice”

Again I should’ve slammed the phone down hung up, but silly me, I surrendered more minutes of time to understand my “two options for service when I have blocked credit”.  One, I could set up the account in my wife’s name. Involve an innocent bystander in this circus request and risk divorce?  No way.  Two, I could pay AT&T a $250 retainer fee to offset my newfound credit liability. Okay, NOW I’m insulted.  When I declined both options, my customer service imposter temporary friend apologized, bid me good day, and hung up without another word.  Seriously, he hung up on me (without so much as a sales pitch for DirecTV). I suppose you could call it a fitting conclusion to a totally worthless call.

My story does have a happy ending.  Several days later I mustered the courage to call (A)nguish, (T)orment, & (T)orture again.  Maybe the more you call them the better the service because the next rep let me know my credit was frozen (not “blocked”).  Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!  Frozen credit, for those of you in the not-know, is initiated by the consumer (me).  A credit freeze is put in place to counter identity theft.  I totally forgot I’d done that, like, last century, but thanks to a smidge of online access (the Guards are more hospitable these days) I was able to drop the freeze with just a few keystrokes. Bingo. Credit check passed. Internet service permitted.

The inspiration for this post was a recent headline about Equifax.  The Guard issued millions of incorrect credit scores last spring, which meant consumers were either denied loans when they shouldn’t have been or charged higher-than-deserved interest rates.  One ambitious soul is leading a class action lawsuit to reclaim the interest she never should’ve have paid.  As for me, I choose not to deal with the Guards any more than I have to.  After all, I get enough credit check grief from AT&T.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Lost in a Dense Fog

When I first learned to play the piano, it was a challenge to master the weight of the keys. Weighted keys allow the piano’s sound to be louder or softer depending on how hard you press them down. Since fingers vary in size and shape it takes practice before the index and ring fingers (for example) generate the same volume on the keyboard. In hindsight, if I’d chosen the theremin over the piano I could’ve developed the technique much faster because this instrument makes its music without weighted keys. In fact, the theremin makes music without any touch at all.

I should’ve posted about the theremin closer to Halloween because it produces one of the eeriest sounds you’ll ever hear.  Click the red preview button on this list of Theramin Sound Effects and tell me if you disagree. Doesn’t your mind conjure up a ghostly apparition floating in the darkness of a haunted house?  The theremin provides the perfect soundtrack for all things scary. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg once described the theremin’s wail as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”  I like that (and it’s much classier than “pig squeal”).

How the theremin creates its unique sound involves too much science to keep your attention today (and more words than I want to type).  Suffice it to say, the instrument has two antennae; a looped one to control volume and an upright one to delineate pitch.  The player’s darting hand/finger movements – touching nothing but the air in between – create its spooky music. 

Now watch the following performance.  Seeing the theremin played is almost as jaw-dropping as listening to it.

I find the theremin to be a fish out of water next to traditional orchestra instruments, yet there are several other weirdos out there.  The bassoon features a tiny mouthpiece attached to a massive piece of black pipe and requires a deliberate overbite to create its nasal tones.  The glockenspiel (which gets points for a fancy name) is really nothing more than a metal xylophone.  The tam-tam is a giant gong, lucky to be struck more than once in a performance.  And the hand saw doubles as a musical instrument when you warp and release the blade (and sounds pretty darned close to the theremin).  But each of these outliers requires physical touch to make their sounds.  The theremin sings with mere jabs of the air.

[Author’s aside:  Every time I write theremin my brain wants to override with Theraflu, the over-the-counter cold and flu medicine (“Discover the Powerful Relief!”)  You don’t find many thera- words in the English language – therapy being the only other one I can come up with.  I’m happy to announce I need neither Theraflu nor therapy at the moment.]

The theremin was invented in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin (whose life story involved a lot more than science).  RCA picked up the commercial production rights but the musical instrument never really developed a following.  Instead, its soprano voice showed up randomly in music and movies.  If you recall the Beach Boys’ hit, “Good Vibrations” you should also recall the theramin solo at the end of the song.  You’ll also hear its moan in the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.  But the theramin seems a more logical fit in the soundtracks of horror and science fiction movies like The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and more recently, Monster House.

My favorite account of the theremin (and with this I close) is a collection of melodies recorded and blasted into outer space back in 2001.  The effort was an attempt to communicate with other worlds, including Gershwin’s Summertime and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  The name of this collection? First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials.  Seriously?  We chose the theremin?  Wouldn’t these classics have sounded a whole lot smarter on the instruments they were originally written for?  No wonder the (more intelligent) races out there haven’t stopped by our little planet to say hello.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Oh, For Heaven’s Sake!

A “utility” is defined as a public service, “… a system to provide water or electricity… a cell tower network, or the like”. On dictionary.com, utility is also labeled as an “elementary level” word, meaning a grade school child should be able to understand its meaning. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, because elementary is the perfect way to describe the customer service I’ve received while setting up the utilities in my new house.

Power. Water. Gas. Internet.  I’d call these utilities the four cornerstones of a functioning modern house, wouldn’t you?  Without them you’re just looking at your walls (if you can see them in the dark) wishing you could take a hot shower and check your email.  So why is it so difficult to get the utilities going again when you move, especially when they’re already up and running in the first place?

Power was almost an open and shut-it-off case for me.  I called the supplier to transfer the electricity into my name, which seemed a straightforward process until they sent their technician to the house.  Here we have the classic case of the right hand not talking to the left.  The technician proceeded to turn the power off.  How my neighbor – the former owner – had the presence of mind to stop him in his tracks is beyond me (I owe her something from my kitchen now).  She saved me a week or two of “the lights are off and somebody’s home”.

Water comes from a well where I live.  The best example of good customer service may be no customer service because if you have a well, you don’t have to call anyone at all.  Assuming your well pump is working (and you have power) you simply turn the lever and out comes the water.  But then you realize the water is cold, which is why you need…

Gas – or propane in my case – requires a call to customer service because they won’t let it flow without a safety inspection of the system.  I get it (now) since I have a 500-gallon tank under my house.  This is good news and bad news.  The good news: I’m “energy independent” of a piped network, so as long as my tank has propane I have heat (and a stove to cook on, and a fireplace to enjoy).  The bad news: I get charged for the 500 gallons in one shot instead of paying by the month.  Whoa.  My household budget went off the rails with that bill.  And just how big is a 500-gallon tank of propane anyway?  I’m not sure I want to know.

Is my propane tank the size of a giant peach?

If not for internet, I’d say I’d fared pretty well with setting up my utilities but bless their hearts AT&T makes a big-screen adventure out of the simplest request.  Your phone call takes you to a menu of prompts, then to another menu, then to another menu, until the recorded voice seems to capitulate by finally transferring you to someone who can actually talk (but not think).  The someone who comes on the line is clearly not from your neighborhood (or even your country).  The someone says, “Yes, hello, and how is your day today, Mr. David?”  Mr. David?  No one calls me that ever.  The someone then follows a scripted line of conversation by launching into a series of sales pitches to try to get you to bundle with a bunch of stuff you don’t need.  The someone sighs when you repeatedly decline, and finally says something like, “I’ll now be transferring you to another representative who can help you with that”.

I have to pause, no, stop my AT&T rant for three reasons now.  One, my frustrations will continue for twice as many words as I have space for today.  Two, it’ll drive me to drink just revisiting the experience.  Three, if AT&T reads this post they may be tempted to turn off my internet.  Very long story short, I lost track of the number of someones I talked to, failed AT&T’s screening process three times because of poor credit history (wrong), an incorrect social security number (wrong again), and a street address where AT&T doesn’t provide service (is three times the charm?)

Go figure, the only way I finally succeeded with my internet setup was to request the service through AT&T’s website.  The tech showed up as scheduled, set up the service, and now I’m able to type my blog posts again.  Small miracles.

Because of the newish ways we now communicate with one another (most of them electronic) getting good help or prompt help or even the right help is more of a challenge than ever.  When I share these adventures with family or friends I always hear my late mother remarking, “Oh, for heaven’s sake”.  Maybe she would’ve been better saying, “Heaven help us”, because customer service for utilities down here on earth just isn’t cutting it.

Local Fare for the Win

When you pick up and move to a new town 1,500 miles from where you used to live, “getting the house in order” is a little overwhelming. Thirty years in the same spot creates a lot of favorite “thises” and preferred “thats”. So whenever my wife & I step away from the endless unpacking, we’re trying out supermarkets, large-animal vets (for the horses), and restaurants, to figure out which ones best replace those we chose time and time again in Colorado. And here’s what we’ve quickly discovered about life in the South (of the U.S.): good Mexican food is a tough ask.

Pizza as it should be

Let’s take a bit of a detour. (Don’t worry; we’ll be back on the main highway before you know it.)  In a surprisingly candid post from fellow blogger Brilliant Viewpoint, her recent trip to Rome and Florence determined pizza – at least the classic Italian version of the pie – is not what it used to be.  The writer suggested the crusts are like cardboard, the mozzarella chunky and unappetizing, and the pizza itself a little soggy.  Having spent a college year in Italy (when I survived on pizza and not much else), I found her conclusions shocking.  Maybe this is why Domino’s – they of the generic-but-convenient home-delivered product in America – decided to give Italy a try?  It’s true.  In 2015, a Dominos franchise opened several stores across Italia to capture the then non-existent delivery market.  It almost worked.

No matter what the state of Italian pizza these days, Domino’s Pizza stores in this of all countries lands on my “you’ve got to be kidding me” list (alongside Starbucks coffee).  Put yourselves in their shoes to understand the absurdity of it all.  You’re an Italian.  Pizza was invented in your country, which has thousands more years of history than America.  You can choose from any pizzeria on any block of any street in your town and the homemade product will be excellent.  Yet you’re going to call Domino’s to order a mass-produced American knock-off instead?  At least Baskin-Robbins was sensible enough to stay away instead of going head-to-head with gelato.

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn – after a seven-year run – Domino’s Italian franchisee filed for bankruptcy in April.  “Of course“, you say. “Their product just couldn’t compete.”  Well, that’s not quite the story.  It was more about pizza delivery itself.  Remarkably, Italy had very little delivery before the pandemic.  You wanted a pie back then, you went out into the streets and got it.  But just like American restaurants, Italian pizzerias did whatever it took to survive the pandemic years, and that meant delivery to front doors.  Domino’s thought they had the market cornered before they ever entered it.  Next thing they knew, everyone else was doing the same thing.

No matter the reason, I’m happy to say arrivederci to Domino’s Pizza in Italy.  Franchise food doesn’t feel right in a country with so much history and wonderful local food.  Shortly after my college year in the 1980s, I learned a McDonald’s restaurant somehow landed a lease at the base of Rome’s famous Spanish Steps.  That’s like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.  America has much to offer the world, but fast food is not our proudest accomplishment.  I’m not even sure it’s an accomplishment.

Let’s get back to the main highway now.  Up top we were talking about Mexican food… er, the lack of it, in the American South.  It’s true, if our new little town is any indication.  Yes, we have several options to beat a sit-down at Taco Bell, but they’re only a whisper better.  Everything looks and tastes so generic.  What should be salsa roja inside of enchiladas tastes more like pizza sauce.  What should be a margarita with the sublime afterbite of tequila tastes like syrupy lemonade.  The chips might as well be Doritos.  Yet you look around and the restaurant is packed.  These people don’t know what they’re missing, but they seem happy enough.  As a result, just like Dominos, I don’t expect a Mexican restaurant from outside of the region to waltz into town and do well.

My theory on good Mexican food goes like this: the further west and south you go the better it gets.  Colorado and Tex-Mex trump anything east of the Mississippi.  Arizona and Southern California fare trump Colorado and Texas.  In other words, my favorite Mexican place in my new hometown is destined to be close to my front door. In fact, it’s inside my front door.  It’s my kitchen.  Time to start making my own margaritas and enchiladas. 

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Domino’s tried to sell pizza to Italians…”, and the Brilliant Viewpoint blog.

(No) Separation of Church and State

This weekend my wife & I packed up the last of our things and moved from Colorado to South Carolina. We’ve decided the lower elevation and milder temps of the “Palmetto State” make better sense for our retirement. But instead of a moving truck, we trailered the horse (and the dog and the barn cat) along with our suitcases. A half-ton of horse means driving in the slow lane, our top speed 65 mph without blowing a gasket. And driving through Kansas in the slow lane – or any lane for that matter – feels like forever.

The western edge of Kansas, at Interstate 70, is an encouraging starting point as you leave Colorado.  You pass an attractive “Welcome Center”, a convenient place to take a break and learn a little about the “Sunflower State” before you venture further.  More importantly, you notice an immediate improvement in the road conditions.  Kansas, unlike Colorado, not only earmarks tax dollars to keep its highways pristine, the state actually spends those dollars accordingly (instead of dipping into them for other purposes).  Our horse – standing on four legs the entire journey – appreciated the smoother ride, if not the triple-digit temps.

Twenty or thirty miles into Kansas, the sobering reality of America’s Heartland sets in.  For one, you could lay a ruler on the hundreds of miles of Interstate 70 and hardly need a turn of the steering wheel.  For two, you realize every town along the way – save Kansas City to the far east – looks exactly the same.  Water tower. Cell phone tower. Church. Gas station. Fast food. A surround of corn fields. Lather, rinse, repeat.  It’s like someone drew up a generic template of a town and laid it down a couple dozen times along the interstate.  Doesn’t help to keep a slow driver alert, especially when you’re on cruise control.

But suddenly, mercifully, and completely out of nowhere, you see little Victoria, Kansas on the horizon.  Not Victoria, British Columbia (though it might feel like you’re driving all the way to Canada).  Victoria, Kansas, with its mere 1,200 residents and one square mile of town.  And right in the middle of Victoria, rising out of the earth as abruptly as the Rocky Mountains, sits the Basilica of St. Fidelis, better known as the Cathedral of the Plains.

You can probably spy St. Fidelis from fifty miles away as you approach, but you certainly don’t believe what you’re seeing.  Kansas is as flat as a pancake yet Victoria boasts a cathedral worthy of a spot in Rome.  The first time I saw St. Fidelis several years ago (driving a whole lot fast than 65 mph), I thought it was the Kansas heat bringing me a heavenly mirage.  I half expected the clouds to part (even though there weren’t any) and a host of angels to surround those tall twin spires.

But St. Fidelis is a lot more real than a mirage.  It was built in the early 1900s by German and Russian immigrants, each of whom pledged to haul six wagonloads of limestone and another four of sand from nearby quarries.  St. Fidelis predates any kind of construction equipment so the entire structure was raised by hand.  These industrious Kansans knew the meaning of hard work.

St. Fidelis boasts forty-eight handcrafted stained-glass windows, valued at more than $1M.  Its beautiful procession of Romanesque-style arches hovers above marble floors.  The cathedral was “elevated” to the status of Minor Basilica by decree of the Pope in 2014, and earned a place on America’s National Register of Historic Places.  In other words, there’s no separating this church from this state.  Not bad for an old building in a tiny metropolis in the middle of cornfields.  I only wish I’d had the time to exit the interstate and head down to Victoria for a closer look.

The Sunflower State has adopted the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera as its motto.  It means “to the stars through difficulties”, representing the aspirations and hard-working spirit of the state.  I’d say the Cathedral of the Plains is Kansas’ perfect example, wouldn’t you?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Clash of the Titanium

The Mohs Scale (which you have no reason to be familiar with) is a 10-point scale used to measure the hardness of natural substances. For example, silver and gold can be shaped into jewelry with the easy tapping of a hammer, so they only rate a 2.5 on the Mohs. On the other hand, diamonds are so hard they’re used to make drill bits and saw blades. The Mohs Scale rates a diamond a 10 out of 10. And then there’s titanium, which rates a 6. Not diamond-hard but still pretty hard, right? So what in God’s name is titanium doing in a bag of Skittles candies?

You know it’s a slow week of headlines when an article on Skittles earns a spot in my newsfeed.  As if we don’t have enough high-profile lawsuits floating around (ex. Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder, Monsanto’s “Roundup”, Cleveland Brown QB Deshaun Watson’s, uh, “indiscretions”), we’re now dragging the “taste the rainbow” candies into court.  Why?  Because Skittles contain titanium (dioxide) and that means the colorful little guys could be toxic if ingested. Oh.

So this suit may not be so frivolous after all…

The “substance” of the Skittles lawsuit

And yet, if scientists are to be believed, we could be talking much ado about nothing.  Titanium dioxide (TiO2) can be toxic above a certain amount (operative words: can be).  The amount you’ll find in Skittles is below this amount.  But the consumer who filed the lawsuit uses the European Union (EU) as his “Exhibit A”, saying they’ve banned titanium dioxide as a food additive altogether.  He is correct, except the EU banned TiO2 as a measure of caution, not as a statement of “toxic or not toxic”.  Safe to say the ingredients in your Skittles won’t be changing anytime soon, and you can give in to the occasional sugar rush without worry.

I haven’t had a bag of Skittles in a long time.  My last taste was probably from the leftovers of the bowl of candy we handed out many, many Halloweens ago.  It never occurred to me to wonder how they make Skittles so brightly colored.  Yep, titanium oxide.  Without it they’d be slightly duller, like M&M’s.  Subconsciously you might not find them as appealing.

“Red” had a ten-year absence

Speaking of M&M’s, TiO2 has a parallel with a substance called “Red Dye No. 2” (RD2).  In the 1970s the Soviets (as the Russians were called back then) created a mass conniption fit when they claimed the RD2 caused cancer, which was a common food additive back then.  M&M’s was forced to remove their red-colored candy, even though it contained no RD2.  The claim was never proven but it took another decade before the public conscience allowed red M&M’s to be added back to the bag.  If this lawsuit gets enough press we may see the same impact to Skittles.  Duller colors, at least until people make peace with TiO2 again.

To be clear, I can take or leave Skittles these days.  Unnatural-looking, chewy candies are an obsession from my childhood, far removed from my relatively healthy diet today.  But there was a time, no doubt when I seemed intent on spending more time in the dentist’s chair.  Skittles didn’t hit America’s supermarket shelves until 1979 but by then I was already into several of their colorful counterparts, like Starburst, Jujyfruits, Now and Later, Mike and Ike, and Jujubes (the ultimate stick-to-your-teeth candy).  Oh, and anything with the word “licorice” in it.

“Skittles”

Skittles may revive my childhood memories, but not just because of the candy.  “Skittles” was also a clever wooden game (way before anything electronic), where you’d pull the string on a top and send it spinning down a board, knocking down pins for points.  Imagine, young people, a game where not only are no electronics involved, but no hands either.  You’d just pull the rip cord on the top, then sit back and watch.  Yep, kids actually had an attention span back then.

The other day in the supermarket checkout line, I made an uncharacteristic impulse purchase of a box of Good & Plenty.  The little pink and white candies are essentially black licorice with a candy coating and they’ve been on the shelves almost a hundred years longer than Skittles.  I’m surprised Good & Plenty hasn’t faced a lawsuit of its own.  The candies are the same size and shape as your standard prescription drug – bright little pills.  Then again, they’re not as bright as Skittles.  Yes, they may be junk food but at least they don’t contain any of the “nasty” TiO2.

Some content sourced from the Scientific American article, “Are Skittles Toxic from Titanium Dioxide?”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Child’s Play

When I dove into piano lessons at the tender age of six, I learned the piano is “foundational”; a good place to start if your future destination is another musical instrument. The piano teaches concepts like keys, chords, and “Do Re Mi” in a straightforward way. My son learned about foundational instruments when he started the sax – it’s best to spend time on the clarinet first (the fingering is easier). But today I want to talk about real foundational instruments; the ones I dabbled in even before the piano. I can think of at least six (and one honorable mention).

My granddaughters – ages 2 and 4 – already attend weekly music classes (which brings me no small amount of joy).  They’re learning to sing and play simple rhythm instruments like drums and tambourines.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised this past weekend when the older one pulled out a kazoo and began “playing” for me.  Not a formal song or even a melody; just a handful of notes from what is technically a wind instrument.

Let’s call the kazoo Child’s Play (CP) #1.  The kazoo starts my list of six because it’s undoubtedly the easiest to play.  You simply hum into the mouthpiece and the kazoo takes care of the rest.  The kazoo’s buzzing sound is utterly annoying and after a few seconds you wish it would just stop (unless your granddaughter’s playing, of course).  The kazoo rides a fine line of the definition of a musical instrument.  To be honest, I’d rather just hear a person hum.

CP #2 – Triangle.  The triangle has often been described as “having no musical function and requiring no skill to play”.  A brutal (and fair) description to be sure, but consider this: the triangle is the only instrument on this list to earn a spot in a formal orchestra.  You’ll find the little guy in the orchestra’s percussion section (alongside the drums and other rhythm instruments).  The triangle also outclasses the kazoo since it’s cast from fancy metals (ex. beryllium copper, brass, bronze).

CP #3 – Xylophone.  The xylophone tops the triangle because it’s a percussion instrument that can also carry a tune.  There’s nothing more inviting to a small child than a set of colorful bars you can whack with mallets, and they make music!  Sure, you can hum “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” on the kazoo but it’s much more fun banging it out on the xylophone.  The xylophone gave birth to the vibraphone (an electronic version) and the marimba (a wooden version), both of which generate rich, warm, beautiful-sounding notes.

CP #4 – Recorder.  The recorder ranks a close second to the kazoo on the annoyance meter.  A child can pick up this woodwind instrument (the cheap plastic kind, not the fancy wooden one), blow into it, and instantly produce a note.  The same child then realizes he can change the note by covering/uncovering the recorder’s holes.  Now he can produce many notes.  And what’s wrong with many notes?  It just sounds like so much wailing.  Watch the video (if you can stand it) and tell me if you don’t agree.

CP #5 – Harmonica. The harmonica, another wind instrument, is also known as the “French Harp” or “mouth organ” (I prefer the former) and it comes in all shapes and sizes.  A child will find his first harmonica in the same section of the toy store as the kazoos and recorders – where you find anything made of cheap, colored plastic for less than a dollar.  Here’s what a child learns about the harmonica very quickly: he can fake it.  If you hum into the harmonica instead of just blowing, you’ll create a pretty good imitation of what it’s supposed to sound like.  You won’t fool anyone who really knows the harmonica but as a kid (that would be me), you thought it was pretty cool to whip out your harmonica and pretend you could play it.

CP #6 – Autoharp.  The autoharp made its first appearance at my elementary school choir classes.  It was the coolest instrument I’d ever seen.  It’s like playing the guitar (pick and all), only you press down bars to create the chords instead of using your fingers.  One kid would be chosen from the choir to strum the autoharp while the rest sang.  Playing the autoharp wasn’t cool, but being chosen to play it?  That was pretty special.

CP Honorable Mention – Hand Flute.  The hand flute is a fancy name for whistling through two fingers or through the hands.  I can’t remember when I learned to whistle (with just the lips) but I was certainly inspired by my dad, who gave the family a distinctive two-note greeting every time he walked through the door after work.  But I never learned to whistle through my hands.  The hand flute not only sounds cool (a lower note than a mouth whistle, like the cry of a nightingale) but it looks like you have a built-in musical instrument when you “play”.

Wrapping up this topic suggests I pick a favorite instrument from the list above, but the choice is impossible.  Each one is bonded to special memories from a long time ago.  If I had more space here I’d add others to the list (like the tricky piano horn).  Instead, let’s just agree the foundation of my piano play is a team of smaller, less-appreciated musical instruments.  Child’s play?  Hardly.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Too Much on My Plate

In the latest spin on subscription services, BMW will – for a small fee – heat the seats in your car. Maybe you saw this headline already and thought, “Fake News”.  Afraid not. Rather than simply pushing the heat-the-seat button on your 3 Series sedan you must contact BMW first, who will remotely unlock the feature and charge you by the month. A separate soon-to-be-offered subscription gets you a heated steering wheel. I shouldn’t be surprised by this latest cash grab at the expense of driving comfort. After all, we’re also about to enter the era of electronic license plates.

I find U.S. license plates to be mini-artworks, don’t you?  They’re colorful, often including an image or slogan to proudly advertise the state itself.  The letters and numbers raise from the rest of the aluminum rectangle, giving the fingers a pleasing sensation when you brush over them.  Drivers who choose “vanity plates” offer the rest of us on the road a puzzle, to figure out what phrase the chosen letters/numbers represent (and never getting the chance to ask).  The U.S. Mint should take a cue from colorful license plates and print American dollars with the same pizzazz.  After all, “greenbacks” are anything but mini-artworks.

But I digress. Today we’re talking about license plates, displaying numbers and letters in pixels instead of raised metal.  My first thought when I read about electronic license plates?  Fraud.  I mean, seriously, how easy will it be to hack into the software and alter the numbers and letters, effectively rendering the vehicle impossible to track?  Or worse, what if the software hiccups and the plate displays nothing at all?  It’s kind of like when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana several years ago.  Our state didn’t think that one through either and now we’re dealing with all sorts of hitches in the giddyup.  Electronic license plates are bound to be an imperfect technology.

And yet, just like heated seat subscriptions “digital display plates” have their advantages.  They’ll emit a signal for tracking and monitoring (which some will surely drive to the Supreme Court as an invasion of privacy).  They can flash an easy-to-see message if the vehicle is not properly registered or insured.  They can interface with parking meters and toll systems for automated payments.  Finally, inevitably, they’ll offer advertisements to the captive audience in the car directly behind them, switching from letters/numbers to digital commercials when the car is stopped.

Colorado has joined four other U.S. states who already offer electronic license plates.  Like BMW’s services, the plates will be offered on a monthly subscription.  At $20-$25/mo. they’re a whole lot pricier than standard or even vanity plates.  But you just know there are plenty of drivers who want the latest/greatest technology, even with the inevitable drawbacks of a first-generation product.

[Trivia Break!  Recent demand in several U.S. states moved the license plate character count from six to seven.  Guess how many unique plates you can make from a combination of three numbers and four letters alone?  Sixteen million. It’s fair to say we won’t be needing an eighth license plate character anytime soon.]

I admit I’m slow to adopt new inventions, even though I spent the last twenty years of my career in tech.  The laptop I’m typing on is five years old and doing just fine.  The SUV I drive will last fifteen years since the one I had before it did as well.  And the fitness band I wear gives me a dozen angles on my health yet I’m more interested in the time of day.

Electronic license plates may be overcomplicating the issue.  The metal variety sits there quietly, displaying letters and numbers like it’s supposed to.  The electronic variety aims to be anything but a license plate.  Amber Alerts.  Insurance/registration violations.  Product advertisements.  Or – God forbid – electronic bumper stickers, where the owner can publicly express the kinds of opinions to drive the rest of us to road rage.

Say what you will about BMW, but the automaker is simply climbing onboard the subscription bandwagon.  Who can blame them for finding new ways to make (our) money?  On the other hand, drivers may wake up one day and wonder why we ever caved to electronic license plates.  We just have to glance at our roadside billboards to know we had it coming.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.