Sunday, September 19, 2010


This book was written with a certain amount of trepidation. That’s a seasoning—like salt and pepper. And like a seasoning, trepidation can either make the writer more flavorful to the reader, or it can make the reader sneeze.

It took me a long time to get started. Back in the 1980s, I had a contract with Judith Jones at Knopf to write a book about Chemistry and cooking. I wrote something, but she didn’t like where it was going, so my contract was terminated and that was that. At least I got to keep the money. A contributing factor to my downfall was the wonderful classic, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, which is one of the most useful food books ever written and which made my efforts look a little pathetic.

But, here I am, back to writing something. I decided that I had lived long enough without recording my memories. I’m 60-ish, so I wanted to leave something, even if it wasn’t something of McGee’s caliber.

This book is a simile of my brain—nutty like a Gruyere and full of holes like an Emmenthaler. At least it’s not rotten like a ripe Gorgonzola! This book is also a metaphor of my brain—random access and corny. Ever since computers came out and James Burke wrote his fabulous Connections, I have grown to appreciate how refreshingly undisciplined a brain can be. Although I have taught for 30 years in the hallowed halls of American academia, whose sacred curricula are based on the boringly accretionary model of knowledge, I have always been a not-so-secret admirer of chaos, of disorder, and of disrespect for hallowedness.

And so, this book is a hodgepodge of random thoughts. Reality, instead of being based on sedimentation and the plodding of pedantic academics with their grey-tinted beards, is instead based on Reddy Kilowatt, bouncing around inside a matrix, swallowing any colored pill to get the latest version of reality.

Here’s another metaphor for ya. Thank God human memory is not like the old moon tapes. At one point in my life, I spent more than a few hours in the company of computer nerds, one group of which worked for JPL. They told me about the old moon tapes. These were of course the tapes that recorded memory on reoriented iron filings. Great technology. But it had one downside: the iron filings had a tendency to come loose from the plastic and fall off. Apparently, the recordings of early spacecraft data were preserved in the nick of time: as the bits and bytes were being transferred to the more permanent medium of the CDROM, the iron filings literally came off on the read-write head and the tapes self-destructed.

Another memory metaphor I learned from the JPL folks. Never be surprised what memory is most valuable. Remember that color picture of the earthrise over the surface of Mars? The one with the bands of color? That picture, which won so many awards, had been literally tossed into the trashbin. It took a nosy reporter to retrieve it, pocket it, and make it history. To the person who discarded the picture, it was an embarrassing admission of the limits of 256-bit color. So, never be surprised when just what you value least turns out to have enormous value.

So, dear reader, take your pill, whatever color you want, and enjoy the ride.

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