Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Magic of Low Density

Night Driver

It's 1980 and my big exploits are 1. learning to drive and 2. hanging out in pinball/video arcades (arcades in the 80s were like philosophy in the 00s, art in the 10s, bebop in the 50s, pop music in the 60s, film in the 70s, and food in the 90s). I like playing an early driving game, "Night Driver". Unlike current day ones, there is no photorealism, just a highly abstract ribbon of highway to be navigated via physical steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. Per video game convention, one crashes frequently. So, after an hour or so, having "died" umpteen times, I make an anxious connection: "Wow, it's so easy to crash while driving! Should I be much more scared?"

It took a while to recognize the critical difference: The video game takes place at the equivalent of 200 mph. If you were to slow the game way down, it would be extremely boring to play, but you'd hardly crash at all. That's real driving. Real driving I realized, with relief, is like a video game played at 1/10th speed. Boring, but you don't crash.


I've always eaten a lot of cereal. I once experienced the joy of impressing my favorite food writer, John Thorne on the topic. While reading his erudite and beautiful white paper on the historical foodway of "milk toast" (reprinted in "Best Food Writing 2010", and much of the piece can be viewed via Google Books) I emailed him this:
About 3/4 of the way through, though still full from dinner, I stormed into the kitchen like a man possessed, and, without thinking, poured myself an enormous bowl of cereal. And immediately realized that breakfast cereal is, in just about every way, the contemporary stand-in for milk toast.
He loved it. He hadn't thought of that connection.

To this day I curate more cereal choices than anyone over age 10 with parents worth under $100M (I normally stock like six or seven boxes). Sometimes visitors ask me to account for this overabundance, and I offer this explanation: "I'm a grown-up now, so I at least get to have as much cereal as I want." It always strikes people as 1. odd, and 2. completely indisputable. It is what they call a "conversation stopper".

At some point I learned, to my immense surprise, that muffins contain 500 calories or more, and even Dunkin Donuts crappy soft little bagels - plain ones, shmearless - weigh in at a hefty 310 calories. And yet a serving of Corn Flakes or Rice Chex is just 100 calories (sans milk). How is this possible, when a bowl of cereal occupies similar volume to a bagel or muffin?

This, too, took a while, but I figured it out. Cereal is almost entirely air. Break it up and compact it, and a bowlful would reduce to a few tablespoons.

I find it cognitively soothing to connect these two epiphanies. What's at play behind both counterintuitive conclusions? The magic of low density!

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