The Squirt Gun: a Parable

True story: when I was seven years old I had a squirt gun that I really loved. It was a big yellow plastic thing that held about a litre of water and shot a stream long and true when the trigger was squeezed. One day my big brother — three years older — was teasing and annoying me for some reason that no longer matters. He wouldn’t let up, and my protests went unheard by anyone in a position to make him stop.

Finally, at the end of my rope, I threatened to smash my beloved squirt gun against a pile of rocks if he didn’t stop teasing me. Developmental psychologists will tell you that at seven years old, our sense of personal agency is very poorly developed, and we don’t have the intellectual or emotional capacity to realize that the world does not revolve around us. Destroying my squirt gun was a completely pointless threat, as I was the only one who would suffer; but in my immature and egocentric mind everyone would suffer if I suffered. Therefore, my brother would surely stop teasing me in order to avoid our mutual suffering.

He didn’t stop, so I threw my yellow plastic squirt gun against the rocks and watched in horror as it shattered. The episode concluded with me fleeing the scene, bawling hysterically. My brother didn’t suffer at all, and I suffered greatly.

My self-immolation was entirely without benefit. While it did put a short-term stop to my brother’s teasing, it was replaced by a greater suffering at the loss of my squirt gun and at my confusion and anguish over what had transpired.

And it didn’t stop my brother from teasing me the next time he was so inclined.

Whenever I hear about Quebec students boycotting classes as part of their ongoing protest against tuition increases, I think of this. It has nothing to do with my inconclusive feelings about the issue, and nothing to do with the evening marches and other actions. It’s just about the boycotting of classes.

Boycotting classes achieves nothing. It applies no pressure to anyone. There is no leverage at work. If the students were protesting the universities and CEGEPs themselves it would be different, or if they were protesting their teachers, or the curriculum. But they’re protesting the government. Staying out of school doesn’t put any pressure on the government. And it gives the appearance that what the students are fighting for — education — is not something they really care about very much.

The only people to suffer from the boycotting of classes are the students who miss their classes.

This is a bit of an old story now, and the boycott of classes seems to be evaporating as the fall semester begins and the election looms. Think of this blog as the sober second afterthought.

PS: For those of you who read too quickly and with only one eye on the text, this should not be seen as an attempted refutation of the cause of the student protesters. It’s just a comment on this one tactic. There are many ways to make their point that actually does put pressure on their target (the government), such as the street protests that received so much news coverage. They could also protest directly at government offices, or engage in a handful of other direct actions. The point being that if you’re protesting against party A, you protest in a way that bothers party A. There is no point in bothering party B, especially when party B is yourself.

Update: Perhaps this story is not so old, as it seems the “strike” is picking up again now that the fall semester is starting.

The Great Caramelized Onions Debate

There’s been a kerfuffle over the past week around the issue of caramelized onions and whether or not they can be made in a short period of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes. (What you missed it?)

It started with this article on Slate.com, in which Tom Scocca complains that “recipe writers” lie about how long it takes to brown/caramelize onions (he uses the terms interchangeably). That caused a bit of a roar here and there, with some people agreeing with him that it takes at least 40 minutes to caramelize onions, and some disagreeing.

I can’t say I followed the issue very closely, as I’ve always been in the “low and slow” camp; my caramelized onions take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and I have many better things to do with my time than argue something like this. Then Jacob Burton of StellaCulinary.com weighed in, creating a somewhat annoying but quite informative video in which he proves that onions can be “caramelized” in ten minutes.

He raises some very good points about the kind of pan that is used and whatnot. However, I am not convinced. I absolutely do believe that Jacob Burton browned those onions in ten minutes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is one of terminology:

“Browning” and “caramelizing” are not exactly the same thing.

What Burton created was a really nice pan full of browned, fried onions. This is in contrast with what many people (myself included) refer to as “caramelized” onions, which are slow cooked for a long time. The result is something quite different. Fried onions have both a sharp and a mellow flavour, and a strong aroma. (Everyone loves the smell of fried onions!) Caramelized onions–and perhaps I should be specific and say slow caramelized onions–have a much mellower and sweeter flavour and a more low key, almost buttery aroma. The flavour of slow caramelized onions is hardly oniony at all; in some ways it’s more like baked apples in butter. (If you’re really patient, you can go for deep caramelized onions, like these.)

I suspect that back in Julia Childs’ day, few people confused the two. It was clear that fried onions were fried onions and caramelized onions were caramelized onions, the same way we distinguish between roasted meat and braised meat. But few people make the distinction now. I speculate it’s because “caramelized” sounds fancier and “fried” is like a swear word in some circles. With the rise of the “foodies,” and all the half-informed and competitive bombast that came with it, the result is that “caramelized” is now used whenever you apply heat to onions and make them turn colour.

Let’s drill down a bit more: Wikipedia makes a distinction between caramelization and the Maillard reaction. In brief, the Maillard reaction is:

…a form of nonenzymatic browning. It results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.

And caramelization is:

… the browning of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting nutty flavor and brown color. As the process occurs, volatile chemicals are released, producing the characteristic caramel flavor.

Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? The caramelization article goes on:

Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning. However, unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is pyrolysis, as opposed to reaction with amino acids.

Aha! I’m no chemist, but based on the Wikipedia description of pyrolysis:

Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen.

And there, perhaps, lies the difference. Most recipes for slow caramelized onions call for low heat in a covered pan. That’s nowhere near an oxygen free environment, but it’s a lot less oxygen rich than something sizzling in an open pan over high heat with a lot of stirring. (You need to read the whole article to get the full picture, but suffice to say that my recipe for slow caramelized onions uses a very moist environment, exactly what is needed for pyrolysis.)

I won’t go on with the technical stuff because there are plenty of people on Reddit who will gladly dedicated their dying breath to the splitting of such hairs. I’ll leave it to them.

My point is that when you fry onions fast and hot, you get a different plate of food than when you cook them slowly under low heat. Both are good, but they are different. And because they are different, they should have different names.

I propose “fried onions” and “caramelized onions.”

Name Plates in the Cube Farm

I once worked in an office environment that was a vast array of cubicles, and every cubicle had a name plate to identify the cube’s inhabitant. There were two kinds of name plates available; one type was a free-standing A-frame of the type you see on executive desks that say “The Buck Stops Here” and the other type was a flat frame that clipped to the cubicle wall.

From my perspective, the free-standing ones were more useful. You could put it on top of your cubicle’s shelf unit, and anyone within 50 feet could see it and know where you were sitting. That’s very useful for helping new employees figure out who’s who and who’s where, and for locating someone in a part of the cube farm that you’re not familiar with.

The flat ones were less useful, as you could only really see them when you were within a few feet of the person’s cube. In other words, you had to begin your search with pretty tight parameters, such as “third floor, north wing, fifth row” which is a lot more complicated than just “third floor, north wing,” or “near where Bob sits,” or even “over there” if you’re already in the north wing.

Given that I’m in the business of helping people figure things out and do things, I much preferred the free-standing name plates that could be seen from afar. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of my colleagues–in some cases people in the same line of work as me–preferred the flat ones. I thought about this for a while and eventually realized that name plates perform another function that I hadn’t considered before. They are territorial markers.

Not being one to lay much territorial claim to a cubicle, this had escaped me at first. After all, I didn’t put any personal photographs or art projects or any other significant “me” markers around. (Exception: I pinned a cartoon that I’ve been carrying around for 15 years on the wall, along with a slip of paper on which was written my verbal mantra, “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”) Because really, I’m happy to show up every day and to do good work, but I don’t want to move in.

However, some of the cubicles around me were overflowing with photos, children’s doodles, plants, gizmos, knick-knacks, and other personal detritus. (There’s a good article on CNN about this phenomenon.) Whatever. It’s your cubicle dude, you can decorate it as you like. But the name plate is there to help people find you.

What really drove home that these were territorial markers was when I noticed some people had their name plates inside their cubicles, where only people in the cubicle could see them.

Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes people just don’t think things through. But I brought this up a few times with a few people–doing so casually so as not to raise defenses–and the response was always along the lines of “whatever, it’s how I like it,” as if the location of your name plate was purely a matter of personal preference, like the color of your socks. When I pressed them on the issue of people needing to find them they’d say something like “if people want to find me all they need to do is ask!” (Insert mental “GONG” sound here…)

I’ll let you ponder that. In the meantime, I’m deleting a lot of text that I had written–stuff along the lines of this being so territorial it’s like a declaration of war–because I try not to be judgemental. Let’s just say that if you don’t understand what the purpose of a cubicle name plate is, you probably don’t understand a lot of other things you need to know to do your job right, especially if you’re in the same line of work as me.

Here’s a picture in case you were reading too fast.

Update:

Due to overwhelming demand in the comments, here is the cartoon that I’ve been carrying around for 15 or so years. OK, maybe it’s eight years. Or nine. No, at least nine. Maybe 12… It’s my “justify your existence” mantra, and in a way it relates to the name plate issue:

(For more like this, check out Ted Goff’s website: www.tedgoff.com.)

Taglines from Hell

Because I am a masochist at heart, I sometimes spend my lunch break eating at my desk and reading discussion threads on Linked In. In a recent thread, some poor sap was asking for help coming up with a promotional tagline that connected the idea of volunteering with the concept of “winners” or “winning.”

Having been charged with creating taglines in a previous job, I have a special appreciation for the challenges involved. It’s way harder to come up with a good one than you might think, and one of the biggest hurdles is deflecting the tin-eared suggestions that come from your co-workers and colleagues. It’s an especially big hurdle if the sour notes come from your boss (or client, if you’re a freelancer).

I knew what to expect when I saw that person asking for help in a Linked In discussion. I knew it would be bad, but the part of me that loves a good train wreck had to click through and read the suggestions.

Below are a few of them, verbatim. Imagine any of these painted on a tall banner at a flashy trade show, presented as the cornerstone to a volunteer recruitment campaign:

  • You can’t win, if you don’t volunteer to do so!
  • Winners say no to drags
  • Winners join us because here is where cream always rises to the top!
  • There aren’t any winners without losers. Choose your side. (Ed. note: the guy who came up with that one is a CEO.)
  • Winners have volunteers on their team
  • Premiere as a Volunteer – Begin and Win
  • Oh I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Winner, that is what I’d truly like to volunteer!
  • Let the other person win, volunteer.
  • Winners…..get up one more time than they fall down!

And the Pièce de résistance:

  • Winners do not compromise the position, Leaders fo not compromise the goals adn Volunterrs do not compromise the causes. (sic)