Kitchen Analogy

I spend much of my time singing the praises of the vibrant and skilled GIS development community.  There are a lot of very smart people dedicating a ridiculous amount of energy to developing new and interesting data manipulation tools on a regular basis.  These tools are usually quite powerful, but they are often not for the faint of heart.  The people building the tools are aware of the skill level of the people using the tools, so they tend to initially focus their energies underneath the hood, only later working toward ease of use when and if time allows.  This tends to result in tools that achieve astounding results, but that are not necessarily user-friendly.

The upside is that we are able to do fun, useful and amazing things with data long before any proprietary software vender would dare to release the appropriate tools.

The downside is that performing any but the most routine of GIS tasks usually entails the dexterous employment of a MacGyver-like set of skills.  Because of this, we often spend more of our time wrangling software than we do wrangling data.  And while there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, it is difficult to explain to those who do not work in our (or a similar) field.

So allow me to illustrate.  If meal preparation necessitated a process anything like that of the average GIS project, Daddy’s Night to Cook would go something like this:

It begins with a trip to get ingredients, which entails at least half a dozen stops.  This is not because there are so many ingredients, but because any given stop rarely accounts for more than one or two.  When I get home and start putting the ingredients away, I immediately find that the refrigerator isn’t working properly, so I spend some time fixing it.  Afterwards, I realize that I don’t really have the refrigerator I need.  Some of my ingredients need to be stored at different temperatures and humidity levels than the other ingredients.  I read somewhere that the next generation of the refrigerator will accommodate this need, but the new model is only out in beta and I haven’t yet received an invitation to try it out.

A setback, but only a minor one.  After some thought, I journey to the basement for supplies.  A half-hour’s worth of creativity later a vegetable drawer has been turned into an adequate secondary storage unit through application of some rigid foam insulation and duct tape.  It’s a temporary measure, but if need be it will probably even suffice if I need it again before I get my hands on the next generation device.

That done, I can set about the task of food preparation.  I begin by chopping up a variety of vegetables, a task best approached with a food processor.  Unfortunately, the food processor really only exists in theory.  Oh – it’s been talked about for a long time, and in theory it’s certainly attainable (at a conference earlier this year a few guys even had a working prototype), but the reality is still a long way off.

Still, I think I can probably simulate it enough to achieve the desired effects.  I start with a simple knife, one of my favorite tools.  The truth of this quickly becomes evident when I start cutting and discover how dull the blade is (an unavoidable byproduct of frequent use).  So I take a few minutes to sharpen my knife.  While I’m at it I sharpen a few more, just for good measure.  Then I proceed to coarsely chop the vegetables in preparation for the next tool I’ll be using.

The blender.  A fine tool by any standard, not least because it is responsible for bringing us the Daiquiri. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually have the setting I need.  ‘Mix’ is too coarse, ‘Blend’ too fine.  What I really need is something halfway between.

A fair amount of head-scratching later, I get an idea.  If I lash a pair of chopsticks together with duct tape, the thicker end will be just wide enough to push both buttons at once.  Then, if I turn the buttons toward the wall, I can butt the blender up against the stove while I wedge the chopsticks against the wall, thereby pushing and holding the ‘Mix’ and ‘Blend’ buttons simultaneously.

This plan works so beautifully that I can’t help but stand back and pat myself on the back as I watch the blender work its magic.  When it’s approaching the texture I desire, I suddenly realize I cannot, in fact, turn the appliance off.  The depressed buttons need to pop out in order for this to happen, and the chopsticks are wedged too firmly in place.  A flash of insight reminds me that I can just unplug the device, and a moment of despair informs me that I am unable to reach the outlet because of the position I have wedged the blender into.

Desperation gives rise to inspiration, and I sprint down the basement stairs and head toward the breaker box.  Halfway across the basement I soundly crack my skull against a low-hanging pipe, but the pipe remains intact and I never actually lose consciousness so all is well.  I reach the circuit breakers and successfully kill the power to the blender, then return triumphantly to the kitchen, stopping only long enough to acquire a pair of wire cutters with which to cut the chopsticks.

The end result is better than I had hoped, and I actually feel pretty smug about it.  I sauté the vegetables very quickly, then drown them in wine for a long, low simmer.

I briefly entertain the notion of going the extra mile and baking a nice dessert.  Unfortunately, all the recipes I can find are metric and Celsius.  Of course, all my measuring devices are in imperial units, and my oven only does Fahrenheit.  I could just make the conversions every damn step of the way, but it seems like a whole lot of extra effort for something that’s not really necessary.  I decide to give it a pass.

The next step is making the pasta.   The recipe calls for fresh pasta, and since I am perfectly capable of making fresh pasta I intend to do so.  For this task, though, I have to use the other kitchen (hey – I’m a food dork.  Of course I have more than one kitchen).  The kitchen I’ve been working in thus far is my primary kitchen – the space where I do most of my cooking.  It’s larger, brighter (it’s got all those windows), and I’m just more used to working in it.  When I need to do something more hard core and technical, though, I have to use the kitchen my wife joking refers to as the “Formal” kitchen (because it’s decorated all in black and white, and she thinks it’s like being inside a tuxedo).

So I repair to the Formal Kitchen and set about the task of pasta production.  I mix the dough the traditional way, simply building a ‘volcano’ of flour on a chopping block and cracking an egg into it.  The block is dedicated to this task, and the pasta machine is secured directly to it.  I have a joyful, Zen-like experience making a decent amount of fettuccine, which I place upon my lovely pasta drying rack (a gift from the in-laws) for transport to the other kitchen.

Back in the primary kitchen, it’s time to have at the chicken.  This promises to be the fastest and easiest task, which is why it’s left for last.  It should be a simple process of slicing the poultry into appropriately-sized chunks and quickly frying it up.  Should be a cakewalk and it turns out to actually be one.

Or it would be except for the fact that I read through the rest of the recipe at this point.  Buried deep in the nether regions of the document, it explains that this recipe works equally well with dark or light meat (I’m using breasts).  However, use of lighter meat necessitates accompaniment by thinner, faster-cooking pasta (like spaghetti or linguini).  I sadly look at my rack of fettuccine (by now too dry to just run back through the machine) and sigh.

And so back to the Formal Kitchen I go, this time to make a nice batch of fresh spaghetti.  There’s nothing even remotely Zen-like happening this time around.

But the payoff finally arrives.  I plate the food and it looks spectacular and smells even better.  My mouth waters and I realize that I am famished.  I set the table and go in search of my family.

I find my wife – alone – in the living room, reading.

“Where’s the boy?” I ask.

“I took him to bed hours ago,” she responds, not even looking up from her book.  “It’s almost eleven o’clock, honey.”

“What?  It is?  How did… I mean… aw, crap.  What about dinner?”

“Well, we had to eat and it was getting late,”  she explains.  “So I just ordered pizza from Google.”