Spatchcockian in Scope

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I'm not much for holidays. Anyone who knows me isn't surprised when I say that. I'm a classic curmudgeon. This New Yorker cartoon sums me up when it comes to holidays. 

And yet... I can't deny that I love turkey. And some (although most certainly not all) Thanksgiving side dishes. The holiday that's devoted to culinary excess? Yes, go ahead and count me in because I would regret not having the opportunity of hunkering over a kitchen sink and tearing off the salt-and-peppered skin of a turkey wing with my teeth. But spare me the traditional family gathering. It's boring and cliched. I'm sorry, but it's too often true. 

I know that tradition is an important thing, but frankly America has some pretty boring holiday traditions. So sometimes I try to branch out and do something more interesting. A few years back, I went on a hike in a dried-out riverbed in Austin with the lovely Molly on Thanksgiving Day. We had our dinner on a rock. And found geocaches. Probably one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever. 

This year, I didn't go on a hike or do anything all that interesting. I played a whole lot of Battlefield 4. But I couldn't resist cooking a turkey. My no-nonsense approach to Thanksgiving deserved a no-nonsense turkey, so I decided to spatchcock it. If you're not familiar with that slightly racy term, it basically means cutting the backbone out of a turkey and flattening it out so it will cook in a fraction of the time of a fully trussed and stuffed bird. In fact, you can cook it in about an hour. 


Why, I wondered, is there no turkey spatchcocking recipe on Instructables? I was flummoxed and made it my mission to add one. Voila: Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey in One Hour with the Spatchcock Method. I also made some superb Stuffin' Muffins that one of my co-workers came up with. It was delicious and way easier than cooking a traditional turkey. And I had my moment at the kitchen sink with the other half of the pictured chicken wing. 


Norman Rockwell's work maligned in Pixlr Express by me.

Norman Rockwell's work maligned in Pixlr Express by me.

Shark Hunt

"Let's go hunting for sharks," said our boss. Okay, sure. Why not. "To the Farallones Islands." 

The occasion was celebrating 1 million visitors to Instructables in one day — the day before Halloween. We all wanted to go out on a boat, and nobody had ever been to the Farallones Islands, but we knew that soon enough the weather in San Francisco would turn to a whole lot of wind and rain. So we didn't dilly dally. We just rented a fishing boat (and its crew) for the following week. 

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Little did we know that the wind and rain would get here before then. But we didn't care. We wanted a little adventure, and being out in the Pacific Ocean with rain and swells sounded like it was just dangerous enough for our crowd. 

We brought a few bags of food for lunch. Someone brought a cooler of booze and started making Dark and Stormies (rum and ginger beer).  Someone (me) stayed away from the morning cocktails. Four people lost their lunch. No one saw a shark, but we did see a porpoise. Everyone had a great time. Even the people who threw up. 


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When Will My Novel Have a Playlist?


Playlists for books. You heard me right. Seems like a natural idea to me. If you're a writer of books - an author of either fiction or nonfiction - would you want your book to come with suggested songs or sound compositions? I don't see why not. 

I envision a future in which authors (and smart marketers) bundle playlists of songs that set moods for chapters, add a deeper level of meaning, or that simply match the historical period being written about. That period novel set in the 1930s that mentions a song being played during the dance scene in the story? Let's put that song directly in your digital book. Maybe as an author you would like to set the mood and readerly pace of your Elizabethan novel, while simultaneously indulging your love of Dead Can Dance. Worried that your WWII biography of Hilter won't stand out from the crowd? Your "Going to Hell with Hitler" playlist will.  

Furthermore, the success (well, 1990's success) of CDs like Bach for Book Lovers suggests that a fair amount of readers like to listen to music while they're exploring worlds in their minds. I know of no statistics on this topic, but it's fair to assume that peaceful, wordless, ambient music (classical included) is what people like to listen to while they're reading. What a boon to ambient musicians this could be, the creation of an entirely new marketplace. New Age soundscapers have surely been waiting a long time for their own technology-aided Renaissance. In fact, it's not too hard to imagine a future job of "book composer." I wouldn't mind being one of those.  

What fun for an author, this extra plane of meaning could be. Curating the soundtrack of your characters' lives opens up a sensory channel for authors that's never really existed before. It could enhance the highest literature with new levels of meaning, and it could make that dusty old Bible a lot more enjoyable to struggle through. Maybe some authors would prefer to include a playlist of the music they listened to while they were writing their book. That's the kind of behind-the-scenes content that real fans go cuckoo nutso over. 

In a way, e-books inevitably seem to be a candidate for this kind of "DVD extras" treatment. I welcome it, so someone please get right on it. While I'm not sure I would want all of the behind the scenes info for a book — spare me the "Writer's Edit" of your 800-page Roman à clef — I certainly wouldn't pass up some great background music. 


The Long Tail of the Favorites

Another month, another Instructables Build Day.  

The people I work with in the Instructables Lab drop what they're doing the last Friday of every month and make something. Not that they don't make stuff all the time, but the last Friday is the day everyone makes stuff together instead of toiling away at regular work. It's a little intimidating because many of them are incredibly talented at wiring up electrical thingies that flash lights and make noises, up-cycling trash to become unique household items, or making full-fledged robots. I can do none of these things. I am, however, excellent at washing dishes and not so shabby at cooking. So that's where I pitch in.

Last month, I was super thrilled that my L'il Pomme Anna recipe was well received (33,000 views, 452 favorites, and counting!). I followed that up with the ridiculously silly Deep Fried Mac & Cheese for our "Fried Day" which was devoted to frying anything and everything in peanut oil.


This month, I think I may have hit my stride. Three successful Instructables in a row. 

I came up with Hash Brown Egg Baskets. I've seen a few recipes out there that kind of play with the idea of making baskets out of various foods, and I thought that hash browns and eggs were a perfect complement. I've been kind of stuck on potato recipes lately, and I've been stuck on the idea of using muffin tins to reshape food into single-serve portions that look pretty on a plate. 

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The few recipes out there I found that dealt with molding hash browns or potatoes into shapes all seemed to be disappointing to the people who tried them, and I think I figured out why — they all seemed to be using frozen hash browns. Those things are full of preservatives and flavorings that I can only imagine would turn to paste if you subjected them to anything but frying in very hot oil. To combat that kind of watery mush, I turned to a thing I often have on hand, leftover baked potatoes. I've long used leftover baked potatoes to make hash browns because they are easy to work with, are already cooked and just need to be crisped, and my son likes them. Plus, they're crazy cheap. They're unadulterated potatoes and nothing else. What could be better? Enough of the water content in the potato gets steamed right out when you bake them to make them just right for making crispy hash browns. 

The recipe appears to be doing crazy well. In fact, I think it will surpass the first one quickly and appears to be the most favorited of the week or month or something. I think it's successful in part because it was included in the Instructables email newsletter, but also because I think people dig the idea of making something like this. This kind of recipe — with pretty pictures helping it along — is probably a winner on the social-media "favorite" front. But will they actually make them? That's a tough question to answer, although the comments may end up answering that question. My first recipe (the pomme Annas) actually did get a number of people reporting back that they made it and that it actually worked as a recipe.

My theory on Pinterest and other favorite-heavy communities is that people often click the heart button because they want to come back to it or be reminded of it. They are in some way saying, "I want to do this later or look at this again later at some point, so I'm going to bookmark it." But they never come back. Or rarely do. Call it the Long Tail of the Favorites — an unending list of favorite things that you hope to enjoy again later but that stretches ever further into the past as you like and love more and more stuff. Or call it the Second Run of Internet Content; social-media-savvy content that passed its expiration date and needs to uncovered by a new generation of likers and favoriters and given new SEO life by reblogging, repinning... and maybe even actually making. 

In any event, I called it delicious. 



Maker Faire: I Go for the Art of It

Tape art stuck to me like glue.

Tape art stuck to me like glue.

Each year the Maker Faire surprises me. I think it will essentially be the same thing as last year, but I always find something that jumps out at me as wildly creative and inventive.  

Which is not to say that all of the exhibits are winners. Occasionally, I'll amble up to a table with a hand-drawn poster board sign inviting me to build something out of pipe cleaners — or something similarly outdated. There are a few exhibits that have clearly been trotted out to every Burning Man and Stanford-sponsored science kids' camp in the last decade. But I'm usually pleasantly surprised, and this year was no different. 

This year what stuck with me the most was tape art. If you've never thought of masking tape as an artistic medium, the folks who created Tapigami have found a way to transform ribbons of paper and glue into flowers as pretty as cake icing and tribal village sculptures that cluster together under clothes-hanger covered skies. They'll happily rip off a new piece of one-sided tape and show you how to bend, fold, and crease your way into the art form. They taught me a few tricks to help with architecting formless tape into structures that can stand up to the relentless force of gravity. It's gorgeous and unexpected and wonderful. 

I'm surrounded by science nerds in San Francisco, but art and literature and music are the things that inspire me, and based on the photos I took that were worth keeping, it's clear that's what I gravitated toward. One understated booth that impressed me in a big way was the California College of the Arts table (near our own Autodesk cluster of booths). They exhibited student work centered around building egg-like structures. They are constructed of wood, string, and weird plastic-like materials, some of which were even cast from molds. It seemed like the perfect way to get art and design students thinking about how to use 3D modeling software for both art and architecture. It made me want to go to art school.

My Ongoing Rdio Churn

I'm a music nerd. I've tried just about every music service out there, and none of them really works for me. If Apple follows through on the song-streaming service that has been rumored to be in the works seemingly forever, then perhaps I will finally get what I need. Or perhaps not because I'm pretty fickle. (Even if Apple does create a streaming service, will it have any kind of friend or social component? They proved with Ping that they're not good at social, so what's to think they could nail it with a streaming service.)

Of all the streaming services, the only one that comes close to fitting my needs is Rdio. And yet... I always find it lacking. I think I have churned — subscribed and unsubscribed and subscribed again — four times now with Rdio. Maybe more. I keep coming back, and I'm back at it again this month.

Here's why I want to love Rdio: 

  • They have the best design, IMHO. Design matters to me. A lot. And they keep innovating on their many apps and listening options. 
  • They have a reasonably deep catalogue of music.
  • I can play it on my Sonos at home (for an extra fee).
  • I mostly like the way I can view my friends' music collections. Their social details seem to be the best in my cursory comparison with other services (e.g., Spotify).

But here's why I may churn (yet again!) and unsubscribe after one month (yet again!):

  • I've seen some bugginess here and there. Their help links on mobile, if I remember correctly, used to push me to a signed-in view, so I couldn't actually read the help documentation. This may have since changed. Little things like that are to be expected from startups, so not the end of the world. 
  • They don't have a deep enough catalogue of music. While it's impressive, when I compiled my April 2013 playlist — which I took directly from a playlist of purchased songs on iTunes — I couldn't find 5 out of the 21 songs on Rdio. That means over 20% of the songs I went looking for weren't on Rdio. I understand that they are always adding more, but that's an abysmal percentage for a music nerd completist like myself. 
  • I have to pay extra to play Rdio on my Sonos. I totally get it. They need to have tiered subscriptions, but it's a drag for any consumer to have to pay extra for something they know they won't use all that often but nevertheless want the option to be there. 
  • The sad truth is that I don't end up getting a lot of great recommendations for new music from my friends. Some of them have great taste in music, but I'm not feeling the gee-whiz-where-has-this-music-nerd's-playlists-been-all-my-life discovery that I always want. And I'm not certain anyone really looks to me for music suggestions, either. Maybe music taste isn't as share-able online as we  expect it to be (for some unexplainable reason).
  • Most important: I fear they will lose the battle to Spotify. The Spotify folks are pretty great at building excitement by roping in artists for live Spotify events. They've got branding muscle and advertising dollars to flex that muscle. The battle isn't won yet, but sometimes the better product loses in these battles (e.g., VHS vs. Beta).

But I don't want to sound too harsh. I still think Rdio is the best service out there. It just doesn't satisfy my need for discovery. Then again, I think that my relentless focus on discovery may only be truly satisfied by human DJs. The kind you can still  only find on old-school radio.