Now you’re cooking with gas . . . in space

They even put it on buttons.

The expression “Now you’re cooking with gas!”, which has the meaning of “Now you’re doing it right/making progress/on the right track,” had its origins at the end of the 1930s, when it was used on radio shows as a way of promoting the home use of natural gas. Some have attributed it to Bob Hope (or one of his writers) and it apparently does get used by him in Road to Zanzibar (1941), a movie I haven’t seen.

My father liked to use the expression. I heard it a fair bit growing up. I never heard anyone else say it. Whenever I’ve used it I’ve only gotten confused looks. I think it may have been the equivalent then of “Where’s the beef?” for my father’s generation. That’s an ad line that found it’s way into a movie too.

You can imagine my surprise then on reading Miles Cameron’s Artifact Space, which is space-opera SF set sometime in the distant future on board a giant “greatship” that is sailing through the cosmos. When the crew of a hydrogen harvester are unloading their cargo of fuel the captain tells the rookie “Now we’re cooking with gas.” This provokes a questioning response, “We are?”

“It’s an expression,” he said. “Apparently, once upon a time cooking with gas was very . . .” His eyes met hers. “Honestly, I don’t know. Half our jargon is from the old United States Navy and the other half is from the ancient British Royal Navy, and there’s a bunch from early spaceflight operations and some even from Old Terran trucking. Navies are the most conservative linguists anywhere — we preserve even the meaningless terms for hundreds of years.”

I don’t know why the connection is made here to navies, since it’s an advertising catch phrase that started out on radio directed at people using gas ovens in their kitchens. In any event, this may be the first time I’ve ever seen the expression in print, and what a strange place to finally find it!

Bowling alley time machine

Not the alley I was at, but close.

This weekend I went bowling. It was part of an outing to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I hadn’t been bowling in thirty years! I can date it because I remember the last time was the day of a friend’s wedding.

I think I’ve only bowled three or four times my entire life. So I’m not a good bowler. I can still recall that day thirty years ago and how bad I was. Which made it all the more enjoyable this time, because I was much better. Indeed, I was the only person in our group who bowled a strike! Such satisfaction. I had a great time and I think bowling is fun.

Of course, taking a thirty-year break also led to a bit of culture shock. Hence the title of this post.

Do you recall the bowling alleys of your youth? Or on screen in such movies as Kingpin and The Big Lebowski? Well, I’m sure they’re still out there, but the only bowling alley in my city is part of a larger “Family Fun Centre.” Which basically just means there’s an arcade as well. I thought being linked to an arcade was apt because everything had been done to make the actual bowling alley look like a video game.

In the first place, it was all dark, with lighted strips on either side of each alley in all kinds of crazy colours. There were disco lights over the alleys as well, but luckily they weren’t turned on. Above each alley was a monitor that showed various messages and displayed your score, and a screen by the ball dispenser that you entered your name into and that also kept your score. So much for those scorecards we used to use!

This wouldn’t have been too bad, but the big monitor over the lane wasn’t in synch with the screen by the ball dispenser, so it was always displaying the wrong scores, and in mixed-up order. Plus they kept changing the screen and running various animations on it so you could never just look at it and get any idea of the standings. I also thought it a sneaky bit of business in that, being logged in, it wouldn’t allow you to start off with a few practice balls. Nope, you had to sign in on the computer in order to get the pins to set and after that every ball counted. The system also kept track of how long you’d been playing, so that when your time was up that was it. The system just shut down. Which I guess does the job, but seems a bit tight-assed. Basically the computers are running everything now. They tell you when to start and when to stop and that’s it. I thought bowling was supposed to be a more relaxed atmosphere than this. We were really trying to go fast at the end to get another game in. We didn’t, quite.

Call me old-fashioned, but I much preferred bowling with all the lights on and just keeping score by pencil. The scoresheets were a lot easier to look at and to understand than all these screens.

The other thing that really stuck out for me was the expense. Wow. This is really pricey entertainment. With shoe rentals, a party of four came in at somewhere between $125 and $150 for an hour of bowling. Now admittedly I’m sure the guys running this place took, and are still taking, a huge hit from COVID. And I’m also figuring there’s some significant overhead. But there were only three or four lanes in use when we were there (out of more than 20 available), and it was a Saturday afternoon. That’s not good.

I have to think the lack of attendance is partly being driven by price. It’s a fun game to play for people of all ages and levels, but I can see why, at that price, bowling went into a tailspin in popularity (to the point where it became the central metaphor for Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone).

But this is a problem a lot of places are facing now. Prices are going up everywhere, while the actual goods and services being purchased ain’t what they used to be. We’re paying more and more for less and worse. I’ve talked before about the gym. The same membership rates (if you’re lucky) are being charged for gyms that are cutting back in hours, offering fewer amenities, and making you wear a mask. No thanks. And who wants to eat in a restaurant now with all the regulations and rules you have to follow? Everybody is just getting take-out. Shopping? More and more people have been buying stuff online, but prices at my favourite sites have spiked by around 20% over the last year (something that Amazon led the way on).

Like I say, I can understand why some businesses have to do this, but still the new normal that’s taking shape looks pretty grim to me.

Eighties house party

Making a comeback?

The American social critic Kurt Andersen has a thing about the present age being a culture of nostalgia, one that is no longer creating anything new. One of his favourite examples is today’s music, and whenever I read him going on about this I find myself doubting how strong an argument it is. It has an air of “grumpy old man” about it, complaining about all this noisy rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t real music. I mean, I liked, and still like, the music I listened to in high school and university, but I assume kids today have moved on.

This past week saw students moving back in for the start of university in my home town. A house behind me that sold a couple of months ago is apparently going to be party central, filled with a lot of good-looking young people. On Saturday night they were having a house party, and I was sleepily listening to the tunes they had cranked up. After a while I started noticing something, and began making notes on the party playlist. Here’s a stretch of what I heard:

“Hungry Heart” Bruce Springsteen (1980)
“Come On Eileen” Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1982)
“Bust a Move” Young MC (1989)
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” Tears for Fears (1985)
“Groove Is in the Heart” Deee-lite (1990)
“Freedom” Wham! (1984)

Wow. I have to say this really surprised me. Kids at university were literally playing the same songs thirty years ago. I think the only thing I missed was Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and I might have just nodded off before they got to that. If they’d started up Black Box’s “Ride On Time” I think I may have had to go over and introduce myself.

What gives? Is Andersen right? Don’t today’s young people have their own music to listen to? I’m not complaining, but I don’t think the music I listened to as a young man was anything special. I just like it because it’s what I grew up with. Shouldn’t something have replaced it by now?

Update, January 24 2022:

Writing in The Atlantic, music critic Ted Gioia asks “Is Old Music Killing New Music?”

Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.

The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.

I encountered this phenomenon myself recently at a retail store, where the youngster at the cash register was singing along with Sting on “Message in a Bottle” (a hit from 1979) as it blasted on the radio. A few days earlier, I had a similar experience at a local diner, where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old. I asked my server: “Why are you playing this old music?” She looked at me in surprise before answering: “Oh, I like these songs.”

Alpha bullshit

While working on an essay-review of some of our most pernicious new ideologies I’ve ended up listening in on what’s known as the “manosphere.” This is basically the male take on relationships today, and while some of it is entertaining, in that podcast-on-while-I’m-making-dinner sort of way, and there’s even some helpful, commonsensical advice on tap, most of it is awfully repetitive and reductive.

Within the manosphere it’s now glibly assumed that there are these creatures known as “alpha males”: special beings who dominate the commanding heights of evolution through their easy reproductive success. The losers are then “betas” who don’t get to breed. (There are other Greek letters as well, but they aren’t as important.) On the other side, women are said to hit a “wall” after peak fertility, with their Sexual Market Value going into steep decline thereafter, to the point where by the age of 40 they have become virtually worthless. Stay away from these painted harpies because all they want is to steal your money and screw alphas behind your back!

Both sexes can be precisely graded on a scale of 1 to 10, as High Value and Low Value mates, their score determined by a mix of biology and Internet algorithms (hey, it’s how Facebook got its start!) whose judgment cannot be questioned because, you know, it’s science.

And so we’ve arrived at a point where it’s now become common to speak as though something like an “alpha male” actually exists and is not just a metaphor. For what it’s worth, my understanding when the word first started being used a while back was that it only referred to not-very-bright jerks who had no friends, couldn’t hold on to a job, and usually had substance abuse problems and/or criminal records. Now they are apparently supermen, and to be celebrated. You may hate these people, in a spirit of Nietzschean ressentiment, but that’s only because you’re inferior.

I’m depressed to see that this crudely reductionist ideology has become something concrete, a mythology and mental space that young people at least are now trapped inside. Just as with the myth of a “meritocracy,” an after-the-fact justification of everyday selfishness and narcissism is now seen as the intellectual underpinning of some kind of immutable law. I don’t think people any more stupid than they’ve ever been, but being steeped in a culture full of such bullshit I’m afraid that they’re becoming more vicious.


I thought it was over. Or at least that things would be getting better soon. I’ve always been aware of the fact that we’re never getting back to normal, if by “normal” is meant the way things used to be, but I thought we might return to at least an approximation of the status quo ante.

A couple of recent developments have shaken my faith in this a bit. In the first place there’s been an announcement on the status of the annual Friends of the Public Library Book Sale. I’ve posted before on this event (in 2016 and 2019). It’s something I look forward to every year. Of course it was canceled last year due to the pandemic but I thought there was a chance it might be a go now. Where I live we have a very high full-vaccination rate (over 80%) and the sale isn’t until October. But they’ve already said it’s off again.

Understandable. If they were going to hold it they would have to start accepting donations now, and they probably aren’t fully comfortable with that. Plus it’s an event that can only run with a lot of volunteer help and they might have had some trouble on that score too. So I get it. But it’s still quite disappointing and leaves me wondering if it might be in trouble next year as well, or even if it’s going to be viable at all going forward into our “new normal.”

The second bit of news is more upsetting. I’ve always been a bit of a gym rat, and with the gyms being closed for the past eighteen months I’ve been having to manage withdrawal symptoms. Well, the gyms are open now, but with two big caveats.

In the first place, you have to wear a mask. Now I agree this may be for the best. And I accept that it’s possible to work out while wearing a mask, if not a lot of fun. But I don’t want to wear a mask while exercising, and I’m certainly not going to pay to do so. Until the masks come off I’m not going back.

Also, and less understandable, is the fact that the hours have been severely restricted. The gym I was previously a member of was a 24-hour gym, which suited me perfectly, as I am a night owl. Since they’ve reopened their new hours are 5 am to 10 pm on weekdays and only 7 am to 7 pm on weekends. 7 to 7! Is that a joke? And is it the new normal? I’m afraid it may be, as one person on staff who I talked to let it slip that they had no plans to ever going back to being a 24-hour gym. Consternation! Is this the world that COVID-19 made? Damn.

Crushing it

In an earlier post I talked about how I was playing a lot of online chess during the lockdown but that I still wasn’t getting any better. I’m a terrible chess player, and remain so. But every now and then I do have a good game. Here’s the brilliant checkmate I scored against Sven, the 1100 ELO avatar on

A great game by me? No. I have to be honest, Sven played very poorly this time out. Sometimes he does that. But I had no blunders or mistakes and totally dominated. I may have to move up to Nelson someday. But he’s a bully and usually beats me very quickly. I need to get better first.

COVID-19: Final thoughts?

On June 30 2021 I received my second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, thus marking what I hope is, for me at least, a beginning of the end of the pandemic. Maybe I’ll post some more follow-ups, but for now I thought I’d go over some of my earlier posts and offer an initial attempt at a personal retrospective on a remarkable global event.

At no time did I feel any anxiety over COVID-19. This was mainly for two reasons. In the first place, the fatality rate for COVID-19, at least in its initial iterations, was under 1% for those under the age of 65. The majority of deaths in the early days were the result of outbreaks in retirement/nursing homes. At one point the average age of people dying from COVID in B.C. was reported as being 88, which is older than the normal life expectancy in this country by quite a bit. Now obviously I don’t want to diminish any unnecessary deaths but this suggested to me that there was no need for anyone in a low-risk group to panic.

The second reason I didn’t feel anxious was the lack of any personal impact. Within the first year of the pandemic the media were reporting how “everyone” now knew someone who had died of COVID. I didn’t. Even today I don’t know anyone who died of it. I don’t know anyone who even had it. In fact, I only know one person who knows someone who had it. Maybe I was just lucky, but given the number of people I talked to about this I don’t think I was that much of an outlier. So for me, and almost everyone I know, COVID remained something that I read or heard about on the news but that I had absolutely no experience of.

What about the response to COVID? I’ve said before that we were lucky this was such a mild pandemic, as we could learn a lot that might help us deal with the next one. What lessons might we take from what we’ve been going through?

Scientists did their job in coming up with a vaccine on schedule. In the first days of the pandemic all of the experts I heard gave a timeline for how long it would take for a vaccine to be developed and when it would be available that turned out to be accurate. If anything the vaccine might have even arrived slightly ahead of time.

The medical establishment gets mixed marks, mainly for sending so many mixed signals. In Canada there was endless waffling over the status of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Then there was debate over how soon one should get a second dose. Follow the manufacturers’ recommendations? Or would a longer wait actually be better? I still don’t know what the answer is. And what about mixing vaccines? Good, bad, or of no real consequence? It seems to me we might have expected clearer guidance on these matters. Meanwhile, why did it take so long — over a year! — for it to finally be acknowledged that the chances of getting COVID outdoors, aside from attending crowded gatherings like sports events or political rallies, was nearly impossible? Even in the first months of the pandemic I never wore a mask outside, thinking just on the grounds of common sense that it was useless. I wasn’t going to get COVID just by walking past someone. And yet wearing a mask outdoors still seems to be a sort of virtuous fashion statement for many, even in the wee hours of the morning when there’s no one about, as does the annoying habit of running to the other side of a street to avoid passing someone on the sidewalk. This is taking hygiene theater to an extreme, and in a way that sends a confusing message. Are such people saying that they’re infected and that we should avoid them? I don’t think that’s what they mean, but it’s the most logical interpretation for their behaviour.

I wonder how much of this acting out will change in the months to come. In an earlier post I referred to the split between double-maskers and anti-maskers. Apparently there is another group known as ultra-maskers, who are defined as individuals who are going to continue to wear masks, everywhere, for the rest of their lives. This suggests a real mental illness.

I’m not a fan of the government’s handling of things. The poorly timed openings and re-openings were only part of it. The rollout of the vaccine also struck me as chaotic and divisive. Six months ago I even described it as a disaster. Who was an “essential” worker? Somebody delivering for Amazon? I knew home care workers who weren’t considered as being on the front line. A neighbour in his mid-80s couldn’t get a shot while in hospital because he was “only” in for surgery and not in long-term care (he ended up having to stay in the hospital for two months, unvaccinated). “Racialized” groups were at the front of the line for vaccines, but what is a “racialized” group anyway? It sounds like a political or sociological label. How arbitrary were the various age cut-offs? Was there much evidence that you were more at risk at 65 than at 60?

A lot of this made no sense to me. If COVID had been a more deadly pandemic I don’t think people would have responded well to it at all. Then throw in the jumble of pharmacies and vaccine pop-ups whose sporadic supply issues and “first come, first served” model made the whole business of vaccination into a lottery. It’s great that it all worked out well in the end, but when I found out from a friend that most people living in Buffalo, New York had their second shot before I’d even been able to make an appointment for my first, I’ll admit I felt more than a bit of frustration at how we were doing in this country.

The public response was disappointing. A significant percentage of people, though by no means a majority, rejected vaccines entirely. There was initial panic, leading to lots of irrational behaviour. Remember the run on toilet paper? Or how much a box of medical masks cost in March 2020? Meanwhile, I saw little, really no, evidence of people “coming together.” Instead there was ignorance, confusion, anger, and paranoia. I consider myself lucky to have only been yelled at twice in the last eighteen months for getting too close to someone (both times while walking past them in a grocery store aisle, while masked).

The fallout will be enormous. Much greater, I believe, than the political and economic wreckage from the 2008 financial crisis (and that was bad enough). I wrote about all this a year ago and I haven’t seen anything to make me change my mind about what I said then. Basically the pandemic was another case of the rich getting richer and the poor being wiped out. There are two economies. As Warren Buffett recently observed, “many hundreds of thousands or millions of small businesses have been hurt in a terrible way, but most of the big companies have overwhelmingly done fine.” For the past year the stock market boomed and house prices continued to soar while small businesses closed. More inequality and resentment coming up! What could go wrong with that?

Shifting focus a bit, there are two negatively-affected groups in particular that I don’t think have been getting enough attention.

In the first place, the closing down of hospitals for all but emergency procedures has created a scary backlog in things like cancer treatment and any surgery that could (but really, really shouldn’t) be delayed. This is having a huge impact on people’s lives that I’ve been witness to, resulting in a lot of extra suffering that will continue to be felt for years to come. As I said, I was never worried about catching COVID. But I count it a blessing that I didn’t get sick with something else in the last year and a half. I would have been screwed.

As a corollary to this I want to flag a related and equally worrying pandemic development. Doctors stopped seeing people for regular check-ups over the past year, instead getting by with “virtual” consultations (phone calls) that basically only addressed the most urgent situations. I have heard that this may be a new model moving forward, and even one preferred by many people. If so, it will be a disaster, and I say that with no hesitation. Hands-on, physical exams are absolutely necessary to catch a lot of medical problems before they get any worse. To take one example, a PSA test is no substitute at all for a digital rectal exam when it comes to catching prostate cancer early. I can’t count the number of people I’ve known who have had cancers, of all sorts, discovered on routine check-ups. People wanting to switch over to remote doctoring because it’s quick and convenient shouldn’t be under any illusions as to what they’re going to be losing and what the consequences are going to be.

The second affected group are schoolkids and what UNESCO has dubbed the “shadow pandemic” of “education disruption” (you can read more about this in an excellent article in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s by Sarmishta Subramanian). I didn’t think the educational system was ready to switch to online learning, and it wasn’t. From what I’ve seen just over the course of the last couple of months, it never really got up to speed. Top students, those most, privileged, disciplined and motivated, have managed. They usually do, and there’s no need to worry about them. But for everyone else (which is to say, the overwhelming majority of students) it’s been nearly two years down the drain. I don’t blame the teachers. I met some new teachers who had just graduated before COVID struck and I can’t imagine how at sea they felt being thrust into such a situation. But based on the online classes I saw, and the students I spoke to, “school” this past year was a total waste.

In sum, if we can look at the COVID-19 pandemic as a test I don’t think we did very well. What’s worse, I have little faith that we’ll do any better when the next pandemic strikes. And it will.

The kids aren’t alright (but their grandparents are worse)

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently posted some thoughts on “young people today” that has been getting a lot of play. Here’s the pull quote:

In certain young people today like these two from my writing workshop, I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.

I find it obscene.

I think this is well observed and very nicely expressed, but I’m put off a bit by Adichie attributing this frame of mind to young people. It’s a targeting I hear a lot and I think it’s unfair, even a bit of a smear. Are young people the only ones behaving like this and having these sorts of opinions? Some of them are. And I do put a lot of the blame on social media, which is having a terrible effect we haven’t begun to plumb the depths of yet. But are kids the worst offenders?

Not in my opinion. If we’re playing the generational blame game I think Adichie would find spending time with some retirees a revelation. In my own experience it’s the much- and justly-maligned Boomers who are even more politically intolerant, rude, bitter, selfish, narrow-minded, entitled, angry, and narcissistic. To make the easiest point, in the U.S. it was older voters who elected Trump. I find most (but not all) young people to be pretty decent. I find most (but not all) old people (a group I’m having to include myself in more and more) to be insufferable.

The golden calf

New type of tree, wearing a towel.

I made a comment a while back where I mentioned Jamie Dornan’s calves. Here’s a picture of what I was referring to.

Jamie Dornan is a model/actor/musician whose best known turn was playing the kinky billionaire in the 50 Shades franchise. I haven’t seen any of those movies (or read the books) but thought Dornan was great in The Fall. I even preferred his performance to that of his co-star Gillian Anderson.

Dornan’s a good-looking fellow, and apparently was named “the Golden Torso” by the New York Times. What surprised me the most, however, were the scenes in The Fall where he shows his calves. I mean, they really stand out. I don’t think you can get calves like that from doing anything in the gym. They have to be genetic. And while they’re impressive, they are kind of weird to see on a model.

The high price of living (somewhere)

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about the affordability of homes in Canada, and whether we are experiencing a real estate bubble. A lot depends on location, as always when talking about buying a house. But the numbers on the ground where I live are concerning.

In March 2020 the average resale price of a home where I live was $590,176. A year later, March 2021, the price had risen to $744,775. A 26.2% increase in one year, which is a record-setting pace. The average house was appreciating in value over $10,000 a month. That makes for a very fluid marketplace. I was recently informed by a real estate agent that one local home had sold for more than $300,000 over asking. I do not live in Toronto or Vancouver, by the way.

I don’t know if this is a bubble, but it is a run-up that has to stop at some point. I don’t see how such inflation is sustainable. But will there be a collapse, or just a freeze or gentle deflating? And who is buying all these million-dollar homes anyway?