Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Alice Opens the Door at the Toronto Reference Library

I've mentioned my veneration of Lewis Carroll on here. I've also written a story (available for free in almost any e-reader format!) that borrows heavily from Carroll's style.

I've also mentioned my membership in the Toronto Writers' Cooperative, no matter how poorly the picture of me turns out. TOWC meets at the Toronto Reference Library most Sundays.

Put Lewis Carroll in the Toronto Reference Library, and you get Alice Opens the Door. I went this past Sunday (the 27th), its very last day. I exited the exhibit five minutes before it closed.

Inside, there were an assortment of Alice-related treats from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and whatever else felt relevant. There was even a pop-up book featuring select scenes. My favourite was a pop-up table where the March Hare, the dormouse and the Mad Hatter perpetually sit for tea, with Alice looking perturbed at the whole production.

I now really, really want to play this board game I saw at the exhibit.

It's conceptually almost identical to Candyland, but it has that great Wonderland aesthetic.

Although Alice's door has closed, there are rotating exhibits. They're all free! Check the TRL as they emerge.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Ringer Discusses Tom Brady vs. Aaron Donald

I don't usually repost articles, but when I do, they usually involve some sort of ferocity.

This time, in my second NFL-related post this month, it's about the Los Angeles Rams' record-breaking defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Earlier this morning, The Ringer published this fantastic feature article on this coming Sunday's Super Bowl, focusing on legendary Patriots quarterback Tom Brady versus the only strategy that ever seems to stop him in the Super Bowl: relentless pass rush. The Giants in 2008, the Giants again in 2012 and then the Eagles in 2018* used their elite defensive lines to game-winning effect.

Brady vs. Rivers. Brady vs. Mahomes. Brady vs. Goff. None of them ever happened.

Unlike in basketball or hockey, football's offensive players never (or rarely**) see the field at the same time. This is truest of quarterbacks, who are generally ill-suited to pass coverage or tackling. The important rivalries are between the players who look into each others' eyes.

Tom Brady is playing in his ninth Super Bowl. Aaron Donald's 20.5 sacks this season is a single season record for a defensive tackle. 

Here's one of the more pointed observations from the Ringer article above: (extensive statistical analysis excised)
The Rams need to get to Brady, but it needs to be the right type of pressure. Brady’s passer rating is 118.7 when he gets pressured from the edge, but it’s a positively mortal 63.1 when it comes through the interior. The Rams lead the NFL in interior pressure rate, while the Patriots have one of the best offensive lines in football, which kept Brady clean nearly 85 percent of the time against a good Kansas City pass rush in the AFC championship game.
Now comes Donald, who, according to Pro Football Focus, had 106 pressures and a 26 percent win rate on his matchups, both the best in the NFL by a wide margin. “Donald can do things that no other defensive tackle in NFL history has been capable of,” PFF’s Austin Gayle wrote; namely, get to a quarterback even when the offensive scheme dictates he shouldn’t be able to. Donald is nearly unblockable on certain plays. When the Bears single-teamed him in Week 14, rather than try to block him, they got rid of the ball in 1.5 seconds on average. Amazingly, Donald has the effect of making his teammate, Ndamukong Suh, a three-time first-team All-Pro, a side note.***
Last summer, I wrote about the rise of the “two-second” offense and how to defend it. I focused on the Eagles, who were better last season than any other team at quickly generating pass rush, as evidenced by Brandon Graham’s strip-sack of Brady to seal Philadelphia’s Super Bowl win over the Patriots. It is one of the defining schematic changes in the league right now, and it will once again help decide the result of the Super Bowl.
It's the Patriots versus the Rams, just like in 2002. Will the Patriots capture an NFL record sixth Super Bowl? Or will Brady end up chatting with Stephen Colbert again?

I have the Rams, but we'll see.

Good on The Ringer for mixing hard analysis with accessible writing here, and for focusing on the one-on-one matchups that actually occur on the field.


*All years given are when the Super Bowl was actually played, not when the regular season was played.

**Occasionally, a wide receiver or tight end will be pressed into pass coverage, or a defensive back will catch a pass on offence, or a defensive lineman will play tight end. Here's a fun example from yesterday's Pro Bowl: Jalen Ramsey for the receiving touchdown!

***This is without mentioning midseason pickup Dante Fowler or stalwart Michael Brockers. After a rocky start in Jacksonville. Fowler is perhaps now best known for his devastating hit on Drew Brees in this season's NFC Championship game that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl. The Rams have the best defensive line in football.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

A Tofu Biological Discovery

For those who have been reading this blog for the almost seven years of its existence so far, you might know I love cooking. I rarely discuss it on here, though, except when I do. (I'm far more likely to mention it on my Quora account.)

Not every cooking adventure goes according to plan.

Today, one of my blocks of tofu looked as though someone had poked it with a yellow highlighter several times. I took a picture of it:

My first thought was, "well, this can't be good". My second thought was, "what is it? Let's find out!"

According to The Prokaryotes: Volume 4, edited by Stanley Falkow et al., it could be L. mesenteroides. This bacterium can apparently cause spoilage. Upshot: I didn't actually consume any of this tofu.

None of the Google Image Search results I came up with for any variation on "yellow spots on tofu bacteria" look anything like the picture above. Replacing "bacteria" with "spoilage" changes nothing. As far as my limited searches have yielded, my picture of afflicted tofu is unique to the internet.

I've always wanted to be the one to take a picture of something worthy of a demonstration. Like the rather beautiful red-tailed hawk in Wikipedia's hawk article, for example, but it may be my lot in blogging to contribute a picture of a soy product with a bacterial infection. The L. mesenteroides article linked above does lack a picture.

If anyone has a clearer idea of what happened to my tofu, I'm always eager to learn.

Friday, January 25, 2019

I'm Now on Instagram!

After almost nine years of careful, reasoned debate (or so I tell myself), I've finally made an Instagram account. Don't expect too many posts right away, although there may be something of greater value...

For those readers in Toronto, I follow all the hottest local happenings. (According to me. Expect a lot of coffee shops and the city's smaller zoo.) I also follow my favourite sports teams, organizations I frequent, and most things involving the NFL or the NBA. Then, of course, there's my alma mater, Cornell University - Go Big Red!

My sterling shiny profile pic:

That's not me, though. I have longer hair.


NOTE: It was apparently National Hot Sauce Day three days ago, on January 22. I didn't notice because every day is National Hot Sauce Day to me.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

January's Book: Notes from a Big Country

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson
Journalism (1998 - 363 pp.)

Bill Bryson was born in Iowa in 1951. In the '70s, he moved to the UK, where he would spend his next two decades. Over the course of his career, he became an established travel writer and, later on, science journalist. During the mid-'90s, he, his wife and children moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth University. Bryson's impressions of returning to the USA after such a long absence are this book, one weekly column at a time for eighteen months from 1996-1998.

I can identify with Bryson in moving back to a home. I grew up in Toronto, lived in Ithaca, New York (another Ivy League home city), then lived in Edmonton, Alberta with a pit stop in Houston, Texas... all to move back to Toronto, where I am now. Coming back, it's all so different...

Bryson's most prevalent and hilarious theme is his return to American consumer culture. Advertisements featured in Notes from a Big Country include a character conveniently carrying hemmorhoid cream in his pocket while at a bowling alley, (37) a $39.95 (in 1997 dollars!) revolving tie rack (234), and an artery-clogging "chili cheese tater skillet" that is exactly what it sounds like. (297) How to acquire all these fantastic items has changed only slightly since the book's 1998 publication date. Bryson notes telemarketing, outlet malls and more detailed catalogues as three signs of increasing commercialization; (81) of the three, only outlet malls are relevant today despite their brick-and-mortar nature. As a child of the '90s, I remember telemarketing and catalogues well, but I went to an outlet mall last month. On a more heartwarming note, a now-defunct highway attraction called Roadside America consists of a scale model of a train set with surrounding people, animals and stores; it was a highlight to Bryson. (217) Notes from a Big Country would be nothing without great one-liners, though, and Bryson offers one of his best on commercialization: "CNN, as far as I can tell, has nothing but commercial breaks." (114)

Many of the issues Bryson confronts remain relevant in 2019. His commentary on rising American tuition costs for his newly matriculated son (212) ring truer with each passing year. (CNBC) (US News) (NCES) Airport security is comprehensive in a way someone in 1998 couldn't have envisioned. Observational humour with a slightly political bent has become so popular we're all saturated with it.

Bryson has written extensively on travel, so it is no surprise he has plenty to say about Americans' travel habits. I sympathize with his frustration at having no way to walk across the street from a mall to a bookstore, being forced to drive by virtue of the roads connecting the buildings. (157) His fury at incorrect travel guides on the UK had me in stitches; (190) I can only imagine what guides about Canada say. Fun fact: in Bryson's article on motels, he reveals that one of the original terms discussed for a motel was a "tourist court". (70) Amazing how things change. Although the popularity of motels has waned since the '90s, I stayed in a motel on Route 66 in Pasadena back in 2017.

One of Bryson's final statements is this quip: "Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding." (356) A few lonely times in Notes from a Big Country, I side with Bryson's irritating opponents. When Bryson is angry in an airport for being asked to show picture ID, I wonder why he doesn't carry picture ID anyway. He seems to have a driver's license, for example. (58) When he phones the Social Security Office to ask for his wife's SSN, and the person on the other end only agrees to divulge that information to Bryson's wife, (185) of course. I would never expect to be able to find out someone else's SSN. Likewise, when Bryson is exasperated at all the options '90s coffee shops have,* he could simply ask for a "drip coffee" or, worst case, an Americano, and receive a cup of coffee. (330)

Younger readers may miss a few of the experiences I share with Bryson. Bryson's frustration with a payphone, for example, (167) is something I've barely felt since 1998. Bryson's love of the since-demolished Des Moines theatre, (173) with its single screen and old-fashioned charm, reminds me of the also since-demolished Westwood Theatre in the west end of Toronto. I saw Titanic there for $2, funnily enough, during the time when Bryson was writing these columns. Y2K was everywhere in the late '90s, which inspires a short rant from Bryson, (231) but now there are registered voters who were born after Y2K's interest expired. The one reference that was too old for me was his detailed description of interwar-era diners, which, according to Bryson, were pre-manufactured in set designs and then shipped to site. (288) I've never eaten in a diner quite so formulaic before, but then, there's a lot of America I still haven't seen.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: Although this is my first Bill Bryson entry on this blog, I've read A Short History of Nearly Everything. I mention it as the end of this 2015 entry on 51 Eridani b, and I also mention it recently on Quora. As Notes from a Big Country predates A Short History of Nearly Everything by seven years, Bryson's other listed works didn't include anything I'd read.

ANOTHER NOTE: My dad loaned me this book. He also loaned me Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz, which I discussed three years ago this month. Apparently, January is the month to read my dad's books. Happy New Year indeed!

*The number of coffee shop options has snowballed since then.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The 2018 NFL Season: A Refusal to Be Average

In the 2018 NFL regular season, teams occupied each record from 13-3 down to 3-13, except one. The four teams that played to a tie finished 9-6-1, 8-7-1, 7-8-1 and 6-9-1, clustering around .500 ball.

No team actually finished 8-8, despite it being, by definition, the league's average record. Every team had either a winning season or a losing season.

Past seasons' standings have seen notably absent records, like the curious lack of 12-4 teams last season despite three teams being 12-3 (Patriots, Steelers, Vikings) and another three teams being 11-4 (Panthers, Saints, Rams). This season, the only 8-8-eligible teams heading into Week 17 were the Eagles, who won in emphatic defensive fashion to win 9-7, Washington, who took a 7-8 record into that same game, and the 7-8 Miami Dolphins. The Arizona Cardinals were the only NFL team to finish 8-8 last season. With only one 8-8 team in the past two seasons, this is either a trend toward more complete rebuilds (as there's no reward for barely missing the playoffs), or it could just be random noise.

This is the first time no team has finished 8-8 in the history of the 16-game season. No team finished with a .500 record in the shortened seasons of 15 games (1987) or nine games (1982), but that is easily explained by both seasons having an odd number of games, meaning a tie would be required to play .500 ball. Even then, in each of those seasons, there were nine teams within one game of a .500 record. The previous high is nine 8-8 teams in 1999.