Flash fiction: Cotton Eye Joe

Now and then I see interesting posts on the subreddit /r/WritingPrompts. Today I saw one that was too good to pass up: After he ruined your relationship, you finally come face to face with Cotton Eye Joe. I knew I could have fun with this one. I posted on the thread, but I’m crossposting it here, just because.

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A breakfast pizza experiment

A while back I was at Walmart and I was shopping hungry. I picked up a premade pizza crust (store brand) because I wanted to try making breakfast pizza with it. Oh I know, I could have used another brand, but 1) this one had the best use-by date, and 2) I really doubt it would make a significant difference.

Sunday night I made that pizza, and I had a few successes and mistakes that I will share now.

My first mistake was buying a ready-made pizza crust. It was not worth it. To be honest, even after cooking it well (2 minutes longer than the 8-10 minutes at 450° it called for), it was kinda doughy in texture and flavor. It never got super crispy. It was also cracking a bit as it came out of the package. I doubt a different brand would fix this; I honestly think this is simply a consequence of not doing it the smart way and using actual pizza dough and blind-baking the crust first. Lesson learned there.

The second mistake was forgetting I had a nylon knife in the drawer when I cut the first couple of slices, so I put some scratches on my good nonstick cookie sheet. I basically use that with foil all the rest of the time though, so I’m not terribly worried about it. The nylon knife did not cut as well but it did get the job done eventually without scratching the pan any further.

The rest of the pizza came together rather better. I topped the crust with a little Italian seasoning (I believe the crust was a little bit seasoned too), mozzarella, eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and cheddar.

The bacon came in the form of crumbles that you can buy in a package near the salad dressings. The mushrooms were freeze-dried; I buy the Mother Earth quart jar on Amazon, and they’re great for all kinds of things. This jar was getting to the bottom and was mostly a lot of broken pieces, so I just poured out a bunch into a bowl and rehydrated them with some hot water before sprinkling them on the pizza.

Where this experiment actually worked well was in preparing the egg. There are two schools of thought when it comes to breakfast pizza. One is that you add the egg, uncooked, to the pizza dough and just cook everything at once. This can result in a nice uniform layer of tasty egg but it can take longer to cook, and that’s kind of a problem. The other, more popular option is to partially cook the eggs beforehand in a pan, but not let them reach a fully done stage, and then add them to the pizza. One reason I don’t make breakfast pizza as often as I should is that this second method is a pain in the butt, and when you’re cooking eggs in a pan you’re not only dirtying a pan, but it’s harder to stop the eggs from reaching doneness without watching like a hawk.

My solution this time around was to use the microwave. I like to microwave scrambled eggs because it’s pretty easy and I can surprisingly get a really nice fluffy texture on them. I beat the eggs and milk together in a microwave-safe bowl and then nuke it for a bit, stir, nuke, stir, and so on, breaking up big clumps as I go along. That’s part of the secret. For my eggs I usually use about 1/8 cup of milk per egg, but this time I used a little more because I knew I wanted the eggs to take longer to cook. By doing this nuke-and-stir technique, I managed to get the eggs to a perfect pre-done consistency where they could be spooned out onto the pizza crust. This pizza by the way used two eggs, and I want to say probably 3/8 cup of milk; the round crust was probably less than a foot across, so if I had filled up the cookie sheet properly I would have used both more eggs and more milk.

Now the advantage to the ready-made crust is, obviously, you don’t have to prepare a dough. Even preparing a store-bought dough can be a pain. And maybe there are better crusts than the one I used (kind of likely, actually), so if you’re a busy parent looking to come up with a quick dinner option, maybe that’s still the way to go in a pinch.

But I will say that whether you use dough or crust, the rest of the pizza can come together very quickly. While the oven is preheating—or the dough is blind-baking after a preheat—you can nuke the eggs and get them ready. It was pretty easy for me to throw all that together, so this is a great option if you’re trying to make a good, fun dinner in a hurry.

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Wing season

Preseason football is finally here!

Boy, that snuck up on me. We’re less than two weeks from the opening of the Fair now, and that means summer is on its way out. Sheesh. This summer has raced by.

I’m at a phase right now where I’m really torn, because I’m not ready for summer to be over and I’m nowhere near a fall mood, but I’m incredibly stoked for the Fair and the return of football.

I came close to deciding to make teriyaki chicken wings for dinner tonight and watch the first preseason game, but instead I opted to wait. First of all, it was kind of a last-minute thing. Second, work has been crazy enough I thought it was unlikely I’d be able to get it all together for an evening meal. Third, wings are so much more special on opening day, and by that point the Fair will be over and I’ll be sad, so wings are a nice way to deal with that. (I know, I could do wings now and later, but I chose to wait.) As it happens I decided tonight I’d rather watch TV with my wife anyway, so I’m watching the game right now from a recording.

But the approach of wing season has me thinking ahead to fall meals a little bit, and also I’m thinking of all the stuff I’ll do at the Fair. This is a good time for food.

On a related subject, our venerable old microwave may finally be dying. My wife has reported that a couple of times it turned on when she closed the door. But that hasn’t happened since, so we’re wondering if we should replace it or stick it out. Currently we leave it unplugged when it’s not in use, which is kind of a pain but it’s a good idea for safety. This microwave has served us well. I’m a little afraid of going to a full 1100 watts because 1) I don’t know if that’ll give our wiring any grief, and 2) I’m so used to cooking with this little 700-watt model I’ll have to re-learn everything. On the plus side though, I can try to look for microwaves with cool new features and that might be worthwhile.

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Summertime slump

I very much did not plan to go on blog hiatus for two months. So what happened?

The short answer is things got busy and in down time I didn’t feel like I had a lot to say. Work-wise things ramped up unexpectedly on me with a series of semi-disasters, where I ended up playing bug whack-a-mole. The heat wave that hit at the end of June and early July did not help anything, and threw me off my game in every way. During all this time, we’ve also been dealing with a sick cat.

Hobbes is doing well now, but a couple months ago that wasn’t the case. He had been steadily losing weight for months and months, even when eating two wet food treats a day. This started when he was having “litterbox problems” (I’ll spare you the gory details) that indicated he wasn’t necessarily absorbing all the nutrients he needed, so we tried a bunch of things to help with that. He had been on prednisone for a while, so we withdrew that and nothing changed. Recently we put him back on it, which helped a smidge, but what really turned the corner was when my wife remembered how well the cats have always responded to baby food. Meat flavors, obviously.

Actually it was mostly always Hobbes and Mouse who loved baby food the best, but Mouse is no longer with us, which is one reason baby food was forgotten. My wife decided to offer some to the cats this time, and Hobbes went nuts for it—while Jack and Puff basically ignore it, in spite of Puff’s love of chicken. So we started giving Hobbes a jar of baby food, usually chicken since that’s his favorite but sometimes ham or turkey, twice a day. We call it his “snack”, and it basically falls to me to do this since I can give it to him around noon and midnight; my wife handles the wet food treat in the morning and before we eat dinner. The snack has been doing wonders, to the point where he started to gain a little weight and at his last vet visit he was back up to nearly 10 lbs. again.

So Hobbes is basically out of the woods, even though he now pesters me incessantly before snack time. Not all that long ago we were seriously worried he was on his way out. He’s 15 after all.

I haven’t done any adventurous cooking projects recently. Some of that was the heat. When it wasn’t a million degrees or raining or both, I did get a little grilling done from time to time.

On books I’m still in a dilemma about what happens next as far as release schedules, but we’re into August now and I have to start thinking ahead to November. I’ve committed myself already to do NaNoWriMo again this year, to keep the Paranormal Curio series going, and that means I need to get more ideas together for the next book. I really want the third book to have a bit of mystery flair, which involves a little more planning than I normally put in.

Also in the middle of all that’s been going on, a surprise opportunity opened up for my wife and me and we’re moving on that. It’s going to dominate our attention for some time to come I think, but hopefully will all work out for the better.

Overall I’m trying to get myself back on track on everything. This summer has been nuts.

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The next book

Since getting The Well of Moments out, I’ve been wondering what to do next in terms of book releases. I basically have three books sitting in the can right now: Gray Area, and the first two volumes of Merchantman Halflight. I’m still in a bit of a stuck spot on the third Halflight book, and I’m also trying to get a good Latin translation for something in the first book and getting conflicting replies, but the main thing is I haven’t really had any beta reader feedback on any of those yet.

One thing I badly need to do is to get better organized in terms of seeking out beta readers. Relying on friends and family really isn’t enough. To be honest, my friend circle is simply too small to handle the job. So I think I need to find out how other writers handle this.

A while back my sister did start reading Gray Area, only she had some problems with the character. I recently took another look back through that, and although I made a couple of tweaks in there, I’m not sure I really see it. I think the character may actually be fine, but the book just goes to some dark places.

This is another thing that concerns me. I’m still trying to get better established, and Gray Area could be a very, very polarizing sort of book. It digs some philosophically deep holes and strikes blood. I could see some readers having a problem with it; whereas others might be genuinely intrigued by the questions it poses and, I would hope in a good way, find something striking and memorable about it. The protagonist goes to the dark side in a big way, but for well-articulated reasons—and whether those reasons are ultimately valid, or rationalizations, is an open question for the reader.

On the other hand we have pretty upbeat space comedy. Not profound, but I’m proud of the overall story and I’ve been dying for people to enjoy it in some form or another for about 17 years now. I have enough comic scripts written to cover four or five books, and I’m currently in the midst of the third. Adapting the material to a novel format is hard, but what I’ve got so far is, I think, good.

Oh, and I basically have a cover already for Gray Area, albeit not a full wraparound, but I likely have the files in a state where that isn’t a serious problem. Getting covers for the Halflight series will be a lot harder, since I’ll want to secure a real artist again and I’ll want someone who is both affordable and available for future books. With two books ready to go in that series, that’s kind of a big hurdle.

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Bacon won’t give you stomach cancer, redux

Two years ago I posted about a story that had gone viral on Facebook, in which the World Cancer Research Fund claimed bacon would cause stomach cancer. When I did actual due diligence to see where they came up with that claim, I found no evidence it was backed up with anything remotely akin to science. In fact the little bit I could discover on Google suggested that the WCRF either mostly or exclusively does meta-studies, analyzing trends in other people’s research, which is as scientifically valid as drawing theories out of a hat and proclaiming one of them true. Meta-studies are not science: they do no new research of their own, and combine the results of multiple studies which may have radically disparate methodologies, sample validity, etc.

There’s a new article today in the Mirror, a UK paper, claiming no amount of alcohol, bacon, or sausage is safe and all of them increase your cancer risk. Inside the article they also mentioned processed meats, the great hobgoblin of the WCRF’s last scare, and sure enough the WCRF was at the front and center of this piece. Once again there’s no citation of science done. This time they didn’t even bother to hint at what kinds of approaches they even took to reach this conclusion. For that I blame the Mirror, for publishing an article supposedly on a science topic but not asking for even four words to describe the methodology behind this bold, dare I say outrageously asinine (I dare), conclusion.

Any time an article tells you that supposed experts in a field came to a shocking conclusion, and doesn’t tell you how, you know two things right off the bat: The journalist utterly failed at their job of reporting the salient facts, and the “experts” probably are not experts but are more likely to be an advocacy group putting out a press release to drive a narrative.

Does the shoddy quality of this article prove the WCRF is nothing more than an advocacy group pushing junk science? No. But if they’re not, they should be furious with the author of the article for making them look that way, because holy crap do they look that way.

Real scientists want people to understand how they reached their conclusions. Real scientists lay their data and methodology bare for the world to see, and beg others to poke holes in their findings so they can refine their work and get closer to the truth. Any time a supposed scientist goes out of their way to avoid replication, bias peer reviews, or push a conclusion instead of continuing to question it, they’re not doing science. And any time a science journalist fails to spot such problems, they’re not doing journalism.

Let’s name names! The reporter behind this article is the Mirror’s health and science correspondent, Martin Bagot. Here are my questions for Mr. Bagot:

  1. What was your source for this article? Was it, as I suspect, a press release? And if so, didn’t it occur to you to question anything it said?
  2. What specific research did the WCRF site in the source material? Why was absolutely no mention of that specific research, or lack thereof, made in the article?
  3. Why does the word “study” appear nowhere in the story until a quote from the head of health of Bowel Cancer UK, and why is said study never mentioned in the article outside of that quote? (See also question 2.)
  4. Speaking of Bowel Cancer UK, why is it not disclosed or even mentioned that they are a charity group with a particular agenda? A group looking to get more funding, albeit obviously for a worthy cause, has a vested interest in calling special attention to alarmist findings, does it not? Which could also be said of the WCRF itself, could it not?
  5. As a science correspondent, isn’t it your frelling job to include basic information regarding the research in question, including its methodology, sample sizes, and so on? If there was an actual research study done, why was this information left out of the article, and did you even try to find out? Or, if this article pertains to a meta-study, the scientific equivalent of getting your horoscope from a puppet, why was that never mentioned?
  6. Why didn’t the “No amount of ____ is safe” claim not immediately peg you that this claim warranted extra skepticism? Or was that extremist wording yours, or the Mirror’s, rather than the WCRF’s?
  7. How in the world did your editor let this story through without addressing, or rendering moot through due diligence, every single one of the previous questions?

So let’s assume the WCRF’s findings here are on the up-and-up. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s the result of rigorous valid science, leaving aside that I said in my previous post that there is almost no such thing as valid science in the field of linking specific dietary items to cancer, for reasons that are obvious to scientists and those who hold the scientific method in high regard. Let’s pretend this study is beyond reproach. In that case, Martin utterly botched the story by failing to describe, in overview, how the WCRF reached its findings. I mean that’s the bare minimum he’s supposed to do in every article about a scientific finding: give us a brief glimpse of the science behind it, so we can see if it’s thoroughly backed up or if it’s suspect.

Now let’s assume the far more likely scenario, that the WCRF is relying on stupid meta-studies and putting out an alarmist press release. Martin still dropped the ball pretty heavily, by repeating the source material uncritically. As a science reporter you do not get to simply say “Experts said X” and not tell us their justification—and if you don’t know their justification, you push for details or you don’t run the story! Turning a skeptical eye to all research claims is not only his job, but the job of all scientists everywhere.

Interestingly, the one relevant thing Martin mentions in the article is that the WCRF included stomach cancer among other cancers on their list for the first time with this new report, even though two years ago I was seeing them say the exact same thing. This news is not new, even if it’s true. Maybe the change to their guidelines is a new thing, but the supposed link to stomach cancer is not. Also, this fact is trivial compared to the more serious concerns about where the conclusions came from and how; if the article was kept short to fit a certain word count, then this was the wrong information to include.

And really, this part gets my goat the worst: “No amount of ____ is safe.” That’s such a ridiculously extreme statement it doesn’t pass the sniff test. Maybe the only thing that statement might be true for is aerosolized plutonium, the deadliest substance known to man. For everything else, even tobacco, it’s flat-out wrong. Whenever you read a statement like that, if your BS detector doesn’t start screaming then you need to get a new one because yours is broken beyond repair. That’s not a statement from science, it’s a statement from someone trying to use shock to push an agenda. Whether that agenda is to push everyone into eating vegetarian or just drum up more funding for a cause or whatever, I have no idea; but whatever it is, that statement was not a conclusion someone came to through research. (For clarity’s sake, I don’t know whether that statement came from the WCRF or it’s a muddled echo dumbed down by Martin or whoever wrote the headline. But if it came from the WCRF, that’s all the more reason Martin should have been on the ball.)

Oh, I know, I know: maybe I’m being too hard on Martin. Only I’m not. If you’re a science correspondent for a major publication you owe it to your readers and your employers to get the whole story, as much as possible, every time. If your publication for some reason imposed untenable bounds on your ability to do that, shame on them, but shame on you too for letting them. And none of how he’s screwed up is malicious, but it sure is lazy. Digging for the deeper story is important, even if you’re doing something as picayune as a human interest story on a dog who sings and plays piano. This is about cancer.

And as for the WCRF, suffice it to say what I’ve seen of them across two articles and a bit of lightweight Internet sleuthing has suggested to me they’re not doing science; they’re doing meta-studies. This is only a hunch, not an accusation, but I suspect they have a bit of confirmation bias when it comes to that, where the more extraordinary a result appears to be the more they want to believe it, so they can put out press releases that bonehead science reporters will repeat, that will remind the public of their name and get more funding kicked their way. I don’t blame them for wanting to push funding or hyping extraordinary results, because cancer is serious and research is important, and I’m sure everyone in that organization has their hearts in the right place. But it’s precisely because good research is so important that if they are doing meta-studies, that crap needs to end. Either do real science or direct your research funds towards people who are.

Science is important, and so is reporting on it correctly. The whole scientific endeavor has had quite enough trouble lately as it’s come to light repeatedly that many researchers—doing or at least purporting to do actual research, not meta-studies—have had to retract their papers for serious flaws ranging from severe biases to outright scientific fraud. So why hasn’t science reporting, in major publications at least, not gotten the least bit better as we recognize just how fraught with inaccuracy, mistakes, and misinformation the discipline has become? You don’t have to have the skeptical bona fides of James Randi to realize there’s a problem with whatever was used to source the article, and try to get to the bottom of it in an objective way.

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Anatomy of a book cover

Now that my release is out, I thought I’d do a fun post to help out fellow indies looking to do their own book cover work. Here’s a rough breakdown of everything I did to put together my most recent cover and a general process you can use yourself. Continue reading

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