processed trivia roundup

Rounding up the trivial, featuring shapes, cheeses, cheese foods, enigmas of the mysterious, rogue mercenary teams, and false memory…

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1. James L. Kraft got the first patent for processed cheese in 1916. The “process” involved slicing, whisking, pasteurizing, and emulsifying cheese, yielding a cheese/food suspension that resisted spoiling and would not congeal and separate when heated—making it great for grilled cheese, assuming you ignore just how unnatural it is. 1916 was a propitious time to unlock the mystery of shelf-stable cheese: when the US went to war, soldiers ate processed cheese and the company made a mint. Predicting the future of globalization promised by Thomas Friedman and high on government-contract fumes, Kraft wrote to his employees: “After we are gone there will be Kraft salesmen trekking the veldt of Africa, braving the snows of Siberia and battling the superstitions of Mongolia—all earnestly striving to increase sales, which by that time will be far in excess of a hundred million.” Truly yes, the great wave of processed cheese will wash over this land and the next. Having gotten the short end of the economic stick, natural cheese producers tried to oust Kraft by means fair or foul, up to and including lobbying the government to force Kraft to label his product “embalmed cheese.” That plan failed, but it is why Kraft was forced to call it processed cheese.

Processed cheese created many opportunities for new products. Kraft Singles, for example, were invented in 1949 (and in 1992, the FTC forced the company to discontinue a misleading ad campaign centered on the amount of milk in each slice). Just three years later, in 1952, Cheese Whiz was born. One of its creators said that the Whiz “went well at night with crackers and a little martini. It went down very, very nicely, if you wanted to be civilized.” Then in 2001 the formula was changed, reducing the amount of cheese, at which time the same guy said it now tasted like “axle grease.” It is a strange truth of capitalism that it can both produce the necessary preconditions for the development of a deranged and visionary product like Cheese Whiz, but also demand its slow destruction to satiate the profit monster.

Perhaps the most scientifically intriguing branch of processed cheese’s family tree is Easy Cheese, a processed mucilage extruded through a flexible nozzle. Originally called Snack Mate when it debuted in 1965 with the slogan “instant cheese for instant parties,” the name was changed in 1984. In the singles-to-cheese whiz-to-easy cheese evolution we see how convenience foods tend to diverge every further from the very food they are convenience-ing, until reaching an absurd endpoint where semantic categories and meanings break down. Is Easy Cheese cheese, or not? The answer is yes. This extracts an alienating psychological cost from consumers, forced to confront and even actively participate in the disconnect.

On the other hand, Easy Cheese relies on some pretty fun physics. The cheese food product in that can is an oil-water emulsion that exhibits “pseudoplastic” behaviors during the extrusion process, as described by the Herschel-Bulkley model. A non-Newtonian fluid, Easy Cheese acts as a liquid when shear forces are applied (i.e., during the extrusion). When those forces are removed, it quickly returns to a high-viscosity state, holding its shape after being expelled thanks to “weak transient networks formed by the conglomerate cheese mass” and the “protein concentration within the cheese matrix.” Thank your local food scientist.

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2. The are seven types of triangles: equilateral, isosceles, scalene, right, acute, obtuse, and BERMUDA. The concept of the Bermuda Triangle as a mysterious sinkhole in which planes, ships, and people vanish without a trace dates back to around 1950. Theories abound about the supposed causes of these supposed disappearances, including magnetic anomalies or localized extreme weather; my favorite is that giant methane bubbles loosed by displacement of the continental shelves float to the surface, pop, temporarily decrease water density, and cause ships to sink. Not sure how that explains the planes, but that’s not my job. (For what it’s worth: most disappearances are easily explainable, and the frequency of accidents and mishaps in the triangle is no different than anywhere else).

Among the notable people to hypothesize about the ominous nature of the triangle was Ivan Sanderson, a naturalist and the man who invented the term “cryptozoology” whilst writing on similar topics. Sanderson claimed the Bermuda Triangle was just one of 12 “vile vortices” arranged in a geometric pattern across the world, all of which were the source of mysterious disappearances due to strange magnetic and/or gravitational anomalies.

vile vortices

Sanderson’s other works were even more bonkers (but less alliterative) than the vile vortices theory. His book Abominable Snowmen, first published in 1961, is a definitive history of giant hairy ape legends and research, including chapter titles like “Sundry Objectionable Facts” and “Further Sasquatchery.” In Invisible Residents, Sanderson develops a theory about a race of advanced aliens that lives on the ocean floor, or possibly beneath it. The book is subtitled “The Reality of Underwater UFOs,” at which point I begin to wonder what the “F” stands for.

Ultimately, Sanderson was too credulous for his own good. On the beach of Clearwater, Florida, in 1948, a resident found huge three-toed tracks, more than a foot long and nearly a foot wide. They came up out of the water, walked for two miles with long strides, then re-entered the water. The tracks kept appearing; residents began referring to whatever mythical beast left them as “Old Three Toes.” Eventually Sanderson went down to take a look. After months of investigation, he concluded that the tracks had been made by…a 15-foot tall penguin? What else could it be, Sanderson said—engineers estimated that 1000 pounds of force would be required to make impressions that deep; it must be a relict animal, an evolutionary dead end, the last of its kind stranded outside its normal habitat. Sanderson died in 1973, and it wasn’t until 1988 that “Florida man” Tony Signorini came forward to admit his hoax. He’d crafted a pair of 30-pound metal feet. The 15 foot penguin was never found.

The gargantuan beast of Clearwater, honest and true

3. Some notes on the A-team, reprinted from a prior roundup: Speaking of breaking people out of mental institutions, The A-Team ran for 5 seasons and 98 episodes, premiering after the Super Bowl in 1983 and lasting until 1987. The show’s iconic opening narration best describes it:

Here’s the thing: the “crime they didn’t commit” thing is some bullshit. The backstory, finally revealed in season 4, is that the A-Team were special ops in Vietnam and had been ordered to rob the bank of Hanoi. In that old spy-genre cliche, their commanding officer was murdered and HQ burned, leaving no record of their orders. So they are court-martialed, escape from the aforementioned maximum security stockade to the aforementioned LA underground, and live as mercenaries. OK, but they actually did commit the crime. The A-Team were war criminals. I feel so lied to.

Going by memory, the bulk of each episode is taken up by some combination of a) breaking Murdock out of a mental hospital, 2) tricking Mr. T into drinking a glass of drugged milk to get him onto a plane, d) suave conman Templeton “Face” Peck spitting game, often successfully, at the only woman on that week’s show, or 5) developing an elaborate costume for Hannibal. I was never clear on how Murdock can be in a government mental institution while the entire team is lamming from…the government, but I don’t want to pick nits.

Hannibal in costume

One of the more interesting critical takes on The A-Team is that it represents the culmination of normalizing the Vietnam War in American culture. Following critical, trenchant anti-war works like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, The A-Team is unambiguous jingoistic wish-fulfillment: brash, irascible good guys heroically fighting against murky, bureaucratic authority figures and winning the day. The violence is sanitized (actual death and serious injury are rare, despite the show’s predilection for gun play and car crashes), and so is the morality. So is Murdock’s apparently severe mental illness, for that matter. Incidentally, that review is by Mary Harron, who later directed American Psycho which, in contrast, uses extremely unsanitized violence to satirize the normalization of greed and amorality in the very same Reagan-Era America in which the A-Team operates.

Best A-Team episode titles: Mexican Slayride (wonderfully, this was the pilot), The Maltese Cow, Say it with Bullets, Chopping Spree, Lease with an Option to Die, Bullets and Bikinis, The Rabbit who ate Las Vegas, and Mission of Peace.

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4. So we learned the show was called Sex and the City, not sex IN the city. The and/in confusion is an oft-cited example of the Mandela effect, in which people have a sort of collective false memory about some past event—such as, for example, the vast numbers of people who remember Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. Examples of these conflicting memories abound: was it the Berenstein Bears or the Berenstain Bears? Fruit Loops or Froot Loops? Oscar Mayer or Oscar Meyer? Was there a movie with Sinbad as a genie called Shazam, which was distinct from a movie with Shaq as a genie called Kazaam? Did the Monopoly guy have a monocle?

There’s an entire internet subculture devoted to the Mandela Effect. Perhaps the most well-accepted explanation is that these collective eidolons occur because timelines from different dimensions/universes intersect and merge. So you might have grown up in a timeline where it was the BerenstAin bears, but that has merged with the timeline where it was the BerenstEin bears, making you feel like a deranged maniac for remembering something that never happened.

The internet connects us: the entirety of human collective knowledge at our fingertips, instant communication across the globe, that app that identifies bird songs. It also produces an alchemical transmutation of a mundane realization—”Weird, I thought it was the berenstAin bears. Huh”—into a collective cosmic philosophy of multi-dimensional, omni-universal quantum mindfucks. I’m a brain scientist, and I beseech you: don’t ever trust your memory that much, for anything, ever. Luckily no such confusion exists about my thriving segway tours business:


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