Black and Decker Toaster Oven

I worked part-time in the Sears Electrical Department in my college years. We sold tons of earlier iterations of those popular kitchen appliances, 90% of them in the Christmas season on Saturday Specials. I developed a distaste for the whole category, and, in over 40 more years, never had one in the house or apartment.

A couple of weeks ago our 8 year old $100-plus Cuisinart four-slice toaster crapped out. What was particularly irritating was the way it died. Toasting regular bread, I pushed the plunger down and the whole mechanism just collapsed, as if made of tin foil. The outer shell had been made of plastic, and that had developed heat cracks over the years too. Repair it? I just threw it in the trash.

Now, I do a lot of microwaving, which is fast and energy efficient, but it doesn’t brown food dishes such as packaged casseroles. It makes no sense to fire up the oven for a single serving. So I began researching toaster ovens on the web!

As we’d expect, one can spend hundreds on these things, but I can’t. I loath digital displays and touch pads on home appliances anyway. They are harder to see and set than old-fashioned knobs, and all I want to to is cook the food, not program it. I have the same issue with digital camera menus, noting that one manufacturer, Fuji, even makes a full digital with retro manual controls imitating the film SLR’s of yore.

So I found Black and Decker made a toaster oven for only $39.99, and decided to buy it. I bought it at Ace Hardware, just down the street. How good could it be at that price?

Black and Decker Countertop Oven, Model TRO480BS, $39.99

The B&D model toasts, broils and bakes. It has mechanical knobs for all the settings and adjustments, two adjustable rack levels, a bake pan and a crumb tray, and a bell timer. At about 16″W x 9″H x 10″ deep, it requires little counter space. It will hold a 1 quart Corning Ware casserole dish with cover, about 7 inches square. It has a sturdy, solid feel in use, and is of all-metal construction except for the generous glass window door.

So far, I’ve used it for sliced french bread, bagels and a frozen turkey casserole tray. The toast and bagels come out perfectly in about 4 minutes, and you don’t have to worry about thick bagels as you do with toaster slots. In my opinion, my slices come out more evenly and consistently toasted than with the old Cuisinart.

For the frozen casserole, I precooked it with the microwave to save time over cooking instructions in an oven. I finished it off in the Black and Decker, giving a perfect browned crunchy top.

I really like being able to see the meal’s progress in the oven. In a toaster, the first sign is the smell or the smoke. But with the B&D I’m learning I can trust settings I’ve already used before.

You wouldn’t try to cook the Christmas bird in this device, or rotisserie a chicken. For one or two people, this does much more than a toaster, and it does it better. FIVE STARS in my book. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

View giving idea of size. The included baking pan is shown in front.


LINK to Black and Decker page for this item

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Most of us grew up on Clint Eastwood movies. We rued the evolution of the original iconic roles over the decades, in ways we didn’t fully follow, and then he started producing movies like “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino”. You could make a case that Eastwood grew up faster than some of his fans.

New Yorker reviewer David Denby has written a brilliant review of Eastwood: not just the movie career, but the evolution of the actor.

Now, returning to elements from “Josey Wales,” he began to notice and even to celebrate true outsiders, people who had much less power than his own characters did. Had he become, of all things, a liberal? Probably not, at least not in any overtly political sense. It’s more likely that, as he got older, he saw his own prized values embodied in people he had essentially ignored before.

Read more: Out of the West, Clint Eastwood’s shifting landscape. by David Denby.

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“Whale Wars”

Here is a TV “reality show” where a vessel of foreign registry tracks seagoing traffic, approaches and intercepts, shouts non-negotiatable demands at vessels flying the flag of friendly nations, and hurls stink bombs of butyric acid at those vessels’ crews.

You may be thinking, “Aah, I’ve seen this one, it’s more about those Somalian pirates.”

Unless you’ve watched Animal Planet (Comcast channel 51), you might not realize the ship is American. Vessels of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have had registry denied or revoked by the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.  The Steve Irwin currently plies its trade under Dutch registry. Continue reading

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TV Ad “Golden Age?”

Every 20 years or so, there is an advertising cycle in which sponsors rebel against the insultingly mindless TV spots, offering us a few brilliantly executed ads which endure in memory for years. If you are “Baby-Boomer” or older, you probably still remember the “No matter what shape your stomach’s in” ads of the 1960’s, with clever photography and the Anita Bryant Singers — Alka Seltzer.

The television year 2007 has offered a bumper crop of fun, imaginitive ads, the kind that make you stay so you can watch the commercial, and then leave for the kitchen or whatever.

A survey of Google reveals there’s quite a cottage industry devoted to ranking and displaying videotaped TV ads. Nonetheless, would like to propose our awards for the Best of 2007.

First prize goes to General Electric for its wind energy commercial “Catch The Wind”:

Catch The Wind TV ad for wind energy, by General Electric

To the familiar sound of the Donovan song “Catch The Wind”, a little boy goes to the seashore and captures the ocean breeze in a glass jar. Racing back home by a number of conveyances, he makes it to his Grandpa’s birthday celebration in time for the old man to open the magic jar – SWOOSH! You only need to see it once to remember its magic forever, but I watch it every time I can.

YouTube has proven to be a safe, reliable source of video images, and you can watch the commercial at their posting “GE General Electric commercial – Wind Energy”.

Honorable Mention

  • Geico Gecko – I did an informal dinnertable survey on this imaginitive advertiser. Everyone loves each one of the gecko commercials – the cute little green lizard with the Aussie accent.
  • Geico Caveman – Not everyone liked this one, many sensing that the usage of the Caveman theme was somewhat exploitative. But others find it delightful, and it became somewhat of a cult thing. I enjoyed the theme song “Remind Me“, from Royksopp, and ordered the CD from Amazon.
  • Comcast Turtles – “You push it real good!” – Bill Slowsky the turtle has a little spat with his wife, right in front of millions of viewers. But hey, when you’re a turtle, who’s in a hurry to switch from DSL to cable?

Dishonorable Mention – All The Rest

When 1960’s FCC Chairman Newton Minow complained about TV as “the vast wasteland“, everybody remembered, but everybody still watches. My current irritations:

  • Car salesmen doing their own ads
  • Cialis and Viagra ads
  • Pharmaceutical ads that describe a horror show list of possible side effects in graphic and very mortal detail. Diarrhea followed by heart failure and general shutdown? Hey, who wouldn’t jump at the chance?
  • Credit card ads (just about all of them) promoting irresponsible credit use or abuse in order to gain credit card points, peer approval or social equilibrium: would you swipe your credit card into a card reader just to pay for a 99 cent burger and fries?

In the vast wasteland, the occasional oases of cool entertainment and bona fide information are a welcome relief from the fetid winds that blow off the swamps and alkali flats of American television.

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DISCOVERY: “How It’s Made” *****

five stars

Produced by a Canadian affiliate, How It’s Made just concentrates on what its title promises: how things are made. From ordinary devices and foodstuffs to high-tech products, whether it’s guitars, pianos, Greek pastry, soda pop, folding doors, machine and hand tools or poultry and cattle farming, How It’s Made compresses a lot of detail into a five or ten minute “process” that takes us from beginning to end of the cycle. And it’s all set to music, which I found irritating at first, but later found more like viewing production as an art form. Well, when I think about it, it is — and should be.

Taking an admirable high-road cue from golf tournament broadcast convention, perhaps, narrator Brooks Moore sequences a soft, calm professionally pleasant narrative into the video capture. The voice is always in the background. This puts the focus on the process where it belongs, not as a showcase to the excellent narrator. The video footage is so well sequenced that, for the most part, the process explains itself.

I have a friend who used to watch TV at night with the sound turned off. He can read lips, and so enjoyed this offbeat method of TV “viewing”, though it drove his wife nuts. I think to remember this here because I often watch “How It’s Made” with my eyes closed. I often “do my eyedrops”, two different prescriptions, five minutes each in both closed eyes, during evening air time of “How It’s Made”. This wouldn’t work well on most TV shows! It’s a credit to the narrative that this works so well for me on this show, especially considering the complex industrial fabrication processes being presented.

If you like tools, woodworking and finishing, metal machining and fabrication, casting and foundry, moldings and plastic injection, fiberglass, baking and food preparation, and especially if you just like “making things” or visualizing the process, you’ll really enjoy this show. Themes focus on everyday things you might see at home or work, such as the day bed or the coffee machine. Hi-tech electronics fabrication and nuclear physics are usually avoided, though a recent plain-language sequence showed how video game software is choreographed and made – the presentation was outstanding. “Really Big Things” picks up on devices and processes larger than a house, so if you want to see, say, the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, 27 kilometers in circumference — or, heck, was that Mega-Builders? In either event, Discovery has just the right size Erector Set show for you.

It might just be that the local cable people, or whoever figures out how to fill the air time slots, uses How It’s Made as filler. In my area, I always get two evening shows back to back in the 5PM-6PM half hour time slots. One weekend I think we had How It’s Made all morning. With a show like this, that’s fine with me. I could watch it all day if I didn’t have stuff to do.

I wrote earlier that the show’s presentation is smooth and professional. Underlying all that, I like the treatment of the topics. How It’s Made always eschews the gosh-all-getout-Mr.-Science, sensationalized, “this is so COOL” approach to technology [see my less than favorable review of Future Weapons]. How It’s Made takes the high road and presents the material in a matter-of-fact style that gives you the technical essentials in plain panguage, without ever getting bogged down in tangents or details. How It’s Made – check it out.

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DISCOVERY: “Future Weapons” with Richard “Mack” Machowicz – **

two stars

“Future Weapons”: Unless you’re totally anti-military and anti-weapon, the array of high-tech ships, subs, fighter planes, attack drones, mortars, cannons, smart bombs and frighteningly deadly small arms offer a lot for the military toy freak. I find the toys compellingly fascinating, but the story they tell of future warfare seems (to me) somewhat dehumanizing and demoralizing. I suppose that’s the way folks felt about the first machine guns, too – no chivalry in mowing down legions of bad guys.

Not my favorite show. I would like to believe I’m wrong here, but this seems to be one of the few shows that recycles re-reuns in with fresh material in the same segment. The show-stopper for me is Mack himself: ex-military, way too taken with himself and his presence as show host, Mack likes to affect one of those phoney deep-gruff junior high school voices about how cool the military toys are. Frankly, he comes across like a strutting kid who just spent a night in juvenile hall learning how to make a switchblade while hanging with the really tough guys. With these mind-boggling weapons, Mack’s emotive enthusiasm is certainly understandable, but he doesn’t make any effort to temper it. It gets in the way of the show, and it’s annoying.

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DISCOVERY: “Man vs. Wild” with Bear Grylls – *****

five stars

“Man vs. Wild” is my favorite Discovery show. Star Bear Grylls is a low-key, soft-spoken ex-commando Briton who parachutes into the Rockies, Sierras, Alps, Utah high desert, jungles of Costa Rica, tropical islands, volcanic islands and generally any place you ought not to be if you know what’s good for you. Typically, Bear is dropped into some gawdawful remote and hostile place with only the clothes on his back, a knife, and (usually) a fire starter flint. When he doesn’t have the flint, he’s convincing with the old Indian fire stick technique, though I hope to gosh I never have to do that myself.

Bear has scaled Everest, so he is really competent at climbs that frighten me just to watch them. He knows survival inside and out in any type of climate or terrain. If you found yourself lost or stranded in a hostile terrain, days from civilization, chances are you wouldn’t have a map, compass, backpacking survival gear or a change of clothes. Bear brings none of those survival amenities, either. He shows you how to improvise on the fly, what to look out for, and what to avoid. He lives off the land, fends off the travails and dangers of the night, and finds his way back to human habitation within five days.

I have to admit I like Bear as a person. He’s a warm but low-key, outward-directed and incredibly knowledgeable individual who actually directs his narrative to the theme – surviving in diverse, isolated and dangerous environments. His dialog is utterly free of the self-serving, back-patting macho patter of other similar shows.

Anyone who can casually remind you that when you jump 80 feet down into a body of water, you have to keep your body and legs vertically straight or you’ll kill yourself, and then do it, is pretty cool in my book. Bear loves nature and the outdoors. It shows in the way he talks about it and the way he tells us what he sees.

The survival skills are real. They are clearly and cooly demonstrated. Bear (his real name) focuses on the environment and what he has to know and do in order to get through it safely. The photography is superb. There is always a low-key natural history lesson. And I’ll always be there watching, when I catch the time; I don’t care that much when it’s a re-run. It’s good solid adventure under any circumstance.

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DISCOVERY: “MythBusters” with the MythBusters staff *****

five stars

“MythBusters” stars Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman and the great MythBusters staff.

“Never try this at home. NEVER!”

Ever wonder if you could jump up in the air at the last second in a free-falling elevator, and save your life? Are the safecracking and hi-tech burgling scenes in the Tom Cruise movies bogus? Did eye patches ever actually aid pirates? Can Mentos and Diet Coke explode? How many Christmas lights do you have to put on a Christmas tree for it to catch on fire? Can you really fake out a guard dog with a juicy beefsteak and steal the jewels out of the safe? Are these historical and urban legends really based on fact — or are they myths that will be totally, totally “Busted”?

I thoroughly and unequivocally enjoy this show and recommend it without reservation. The “myths” are for the most part legitimate parts of the lore of society, and contain some real science and hi-tech, which I like. Some “myths” are frivolous and just fun, and so get tested anyway, which I also like. The cast is knowledgeable, highly trained, unpretentious, informative and almost like family: Jamie, Adam, Kari, Grant, Tory, Scottie and Christine are fun, hardworking, real people of the sort you would actually like to get to know and talk to.

These guys and gals have years of real-world training in film stunts, mockups, explosives, firearms, scale modeling, ocean diving, computers and test instrumentation, wood and metal working, and lab techniques and documentation methodology. They bring lots of this expertise to each show. For anybody who likes toys, gadgets, hi-tech, whiz-bang or just plain fun and adventure, this is a show, and a cast, that has a lot of very original and amusing material to offer.

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DISCOVERY: “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe ****

four stars

“Dirty Jobs” Host Mike Rowe grows on you, and he occasionally rubs your fur the wrong way. His humorous insights can be funny, though once in a blue moon he pushes it over the top. Mike’s a nice guy, actually. Reminds me of some relatives of mine. Knowing how to share the stage is a fine art. There’s still room for improvement in all of us, I guess.

Mike pulls no punches in seeking out the world’s nastiest, filthiest jobs and the people who do them “so that the rest of us can live normally”. From sewers to waste disposal to compost to monkey cages, from termite repair to Hurricane Katrina cleanup, from counting rotting salmon to scooping elephant droppings, Mike’s on top of it. And he’s no TV sissy, either – if there’s dirt, Mike finds it right away.

I often watch this show more than I plan to because Dirty Jobs captures every imaginable slice of society’s support structure. It also captures many slices you’d never imagine in your worst dreams. Humor takes the edge off the filth and the gag reflex, but there are times I’d like to see Mike asking his job mentors and pit bosses more questions about the job, spending less time stealing the show with wise cracks and gratuitous snide comments. Even if, well, it is his show.

Mike’s show crams too many Dirty Jobs into a time slot. Combined with the ubiquitous ads, “Dirty Jobs” suffers from fragmentation and bad splicing more than most. But the Dirty Jobs are real, and the people who do them are real, interesting, and knowledgeable about their work. We couldn’t keep civilization as we know it going without them. I will be honest and admit that you couldn’t get me within a hundred yards of most of those Dirty Jobs, so hats off to Mike and all those folks who make his show possible. I’ll lend my support (but only as an armchair observer) as often as I can.

Sundays seem to be “Dirty Jobs Day”. Based on the number of first-time segments Mike seems to produce over the short haul, he must get paid in stock in Not only does Mike get really dirty, he works really hard. You can’t really get mad at a guy who can sucessfully deliver that much fresh dirt day after day.

Job Safety: I can be a pretty sarcastic OSHA critic myself, but neither Mike nor his counterparts on other Discovery shows usually wear hearing protection, dust masks, respirators or other safety gear — unless it’s foisted off on them by the people they work with. I know it’s hard to carry off being a show star and producer, while mumbling through a respirator and listening through ear muffs. I have even seen Jamie (MythBusters) plug his ears with his fingers before a loud explosion. I know he knows better than that. And Matt, on “Future Weapons” – no ear guards with a 50 caliber automatic rifle? Good GOD, man – WHAT?

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All the Little Live Things, Stegner, Part 2

One way to rush through a book review is to give away the ending. In Joe Allston’s final narrative:

I could not forgive any of them for the fact that Julie’s spite child would be born and that Marian’s love child had been born a blob of blue flesh that moved a little, and bleated weakly, and died.

And we knew that Marian herself was dying of cancer, from the middle of the book, almost as soon as we fell in love with her vibrant and keenly perceptive sense of life. Author Stegner had at least the decency to warn us it was coming, and this is a grace lacking in most modern authors. Marian hung on to life until her pregnancy with the child she and her husband John had hoped for could come to full term, which died unhappily at birth, and Marian died screaming in agony after that.

Joe and Ruth befriended Marian and John from the first day they met them. Marian was everything positive in life that Ruth’s ever-complaining Joe was not, but Joe was the one, of the two of them, who was drawn most strongly to Marian. Opposites attract. Joe despised and hated Jim Peck, the bearded hippie squatter who spoiled the set ways of the hilltop with his pretentious 60’s anarchist freethinking. Marian found him intriguing and the kids on the hill all liked him, of course. Joe looked down on the LoPrestis and made fun of them; Marian cultivated their friendship and dealt with them in the terms the lived and understood.

In terms of plot and character development, Marian the animated lover of life – the book’s title belongs to Marian – upstaged Joe the critic and narrator. She shone with the blue white radiance of a star burning fuel too fast.

I felt betrayed when Stegner contrived to have Marian’s old cancer flare back up when it had been thought to be in remission. Stegner knew the symptoms too well. For anyone who had watched a loved one go through this, Stegner left early and unmistakable warning signs. I do not feel I am giving too much away.

The novel is made entirely whole by Stegner’s brilliant presentation of Marian’s personality and character. We often found ourselves wishing Joe would stow his introspective philosophizing and fretting so we could get to the next visit with Marian and John. I recommend the novel for this reason (the visits to a world intensely alive) if no other – and there are others.

As noted earlier, Stegner was an eminent naturalist and western writer. He had a remarkable flair for capturing the essence of the western experience through the eyes of a perceptive and sensitive observer. A typical passage:

ONE KIND OF midsummer day here starts gray, with a cool sweat of dew on the leaves, a smell of wetted oat grass, dark wetness in the angles of fences and on the patio screeds. The sky is obscured by the unmoving unmottled ceiling of high fog that will burn away about ten. Once it does, the rest of the day will be warm and even until the evening chill comes on.

Much of the character development in Stegner’s fiction may strike one as oddly one-dimensional. We meet Joe Allston again in The Spectator Bird (1976), much the man we already see?in him here, in All The Little Living Things (1967). Joe has lost a son to a surfing accident, a senseless tragedy that will not diminish with time. As Ruth tries to help him claw his way out of the hurt and self-recriminations, we see that Joe will not let go, and resists being drawn into those things we suspect he once loved and in which we can only guess he once found real joy. Joe is the principal, the first-person narrator, in a book that also includes people who are not afraid to live life fully. This accounts for some uncomfortable moments, long spells of private rumination and fulmination that compare well to a phone call with too many of those long, awkward, silent spells. These, however, always transition mercifully to real and lively dialog as Joe comes out of his dark moments.

Joe is probably a Stegner alter ego, a stand-in for those whose internal life can be enormously larger and more perceptive than any public accounting could possibly reveal. I find Joe’s private observations interesting, if often negative, and often comforting in its depth and overall sense of being on target. I’m afraid I know the type.

This contrast between dialog and introspection is quite obviously intentional, and skilfully done even if it does instil a certain impatience with Joe. The flatness of the characterizations of Joe and Ruth contrast vividly with the full, rich development of Marian’s persona, and perhaps there is a moral lesson here also; as we noted, it is Marian who carries the book.

Contrast this with the compellingly realistic dialog and character development in The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), and in the superbly incomparable Angle of Repose (1971). There can be no question that Stegner is a master writer who knew exactly what he was doing in presenting Joe as an essentially static entity, capable only of brief bursts of genuine expression and interactive behavior.

Despite all this, it’s clear why Ruth sticks with him. For all his faults and eccentricities, Joe has depth. He lives very much in a self-built castle of ideas, but can relate these to others when pushed. In the final analysis, he tries to do the right thing, and he is a likeable person. Even though many readers may find aspects of the novel troubling, it is worth the read to get through these moments to the essence, as taught so well, though sadly so briefly, by Marian.

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