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I Ate Sardinia's Live-Maggot-Infested Cheese

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Cheese, by its very nature, is an organic, ongoing process. It’s cultivated, mixed, pressed, formed, and often left to age. Except when it’s been specifically processed to counteract this (and can we really call those slices “cheese,” anyway?), cheese is continually becoming cheesier. It can’t stop, won’t stop maturing, ripening, sharpening, and, in the case of moldy cheeses—decaying. So if you’ve ever enjoyed a nice creamy Brie, a marbled gorgonzola or a crumbly blue, you are eating a slowly rotting life form, infested with a parasite—the mold—that is giving the cheese its unique and delicious flavor.

This is the line of thinking I sold myself when I set out to eat casu marzu, the famously rotten cheese of Sardinia that is infested with live maggots. It’s just another form of decay, and I eat decaying cheese all the time. Maggot cheese isn’t that different.

That’s the story I’m going with.

For residents of Sardinia, Italy's second-largest island, casu marzu (literally "rotten cheese") is much more than a culinary curiosity—it's part of their cultural heritage. The sheep's milk cheese gets its flavor and texture thanks to live maggots, who eat the cheese, digest it, and then… expel an acid that causes the hard cheese to break down and become spreadable. The maggots can be introduced deliberately by cutting a hole in the top of a hard wheel of pecorino and pouring in milk—which, when spoiled, acts like a red carpet rolled out for flies who will lay eggs that will hatch into maggots. But more often, a wheel of casu marzu is a happy accident—happy, if you like maggot cheese, that is—that results from a random fly laying her eggs before the cheese rind is fully formed.

The cheese has been consumed on Sardinia for centuries, and harkens back to the island's shepherding traditions and the necessity of adapting foodways in a land of limited resources and hardscrabble existence. Maggots infested your cheese? You eat it anyway. But to the European Union food health authority, casu marzu is a creamy, squirmy wheel of intestinal parasites waiting to happen—commercial production and sale of the cheese have been banned since the 1990s. Some Sards may have been outraged, but as my Sardinian-born friend Vanni reasons, “It’s rotten. You can’t sell food that’s rotten.”

These days, there’s an ongoing effort to get casu marzu declared a traditional food and therefore exempt from EU food laws, as well as studies to produce it in a controlled environment—with sanitary flies that haven’t potentially just flown from dog poop. For now, the EU appears to turn a blind eye to casual production of casu marzu, but you can only find the cheese on Sardinia if you make it yourself, or if you know a guy who knows a guy.

Vanni (who doesn’t want his last name included in a story about his access to illegal cheese) is my guy-who-knows-a-guy. When I expressed curiosity about casu marzu, his eyes danced. “I’ll get some. Next time I come back from Sardinia, we’ll eat it.”

Hold up. I just said I was curious to learn more, not that I necessarily wanted to eat wormy cheese. I’m curious about the Black Death too, but for that I’d rather just read a book. Still, I knew if Vanni said he was going to bring back casu marzu, he was going to bring back casu marzu. And once I was faced with this fabled, forbidden cheese I couldn’t not taste it, right?

Sure enough, as soon as Vanni arrived in our little Umbrian hilltown for the summer, he popped up on Messenger to ask when I wanted to come over for maggots and cheese. I implored my husband—a man who hates even cheese that doesn’t have live worms in it—to come with me for moral support and was met with a cheerful “Fuck no.”

“But how am I going to eat it?” I asked him.

“That’s your problem,” he replied, lovingly. So I went alone.

Casu marzo cheese

Vanni’s wife cautioned that I should cover my eyes when I ate the cheese, so that the maggots wouldn’t jump into them. Or cover my eyes, I thought, so no one sees me cry while I choke down this cheese. Vanni led me down two flights of stairs to his cantina—these Italian men know a thing or two of mancaves—and gestured toward a deep kitchen pot covered with a dish towel and a lid. He was proud of his contraband, smuggled in the back of his car on an 11-hour ferry ride from Cagliari to the mainland. The room was filled with the pungency of stinky cheese on steroids, like something that was already smelly but then got left in the trunk of a car on a really hot day.

And I was about to pop the trunk and dig in.

Vanni ceremoniously removed the pot lid, the dishtowel, and then, the top rind of the cheese, revealing the squirmy surface of the marzu. The maggots were smaller and less revolting than I expected, but they were everywhere, way too numerous to attempt to pick out of the cheese—just in case anyone would consider trying that. With the lid off and the lights turned on, they started to hop—seriously hop—over the surface of the cheese and onto the table. I watched, transfixed, as one of the tiny worms—which are maybe two millimeters long at the most—contorted onto its tail and launched itself like a spring. It landed on my jeans and jumped away in a nanosecond.

Vanni poured us some Cannonau wine, a Sardinian red that is strong AF and for which I was really, really thankful in that moment. I asked him where he got the cheese, and he pretended not to hear me. I asked again and he mumbled, “Oh a friend.”

hand holding bread with cheese in the background

He broke up some pieces of carasau, the paper-thin, crunchy Sardinian flatbread, and proceeded to spread the pungent marzu. He added another piece of flatbread on top—presumably to keep maggots from jumping into my eyes, which was suddenly seeming like a real liability—and my Spartacus moment was upon me.

I tasted the cheese. I washed it down with some wine. I tasted some more. I drank some more wine. I tried not to think of live maggots in my mouth or in my digestive tract. And here’s what I learned about casu marzu:

  • It tastes pretty good. If you like strong cheese, like gorgonzola, Stilton or camembert, you will like the taste of casu marzu. If anything beyond medium-sharp cheddar is too cheesy for you, you will fucking hate marzu, maggots or not.
  • You can’t feel the maggots in your mouth. But the maggots are very much alive when you start to eat them. As long as you can chew without thinking too hard about it, it’ll be fine.
  • You need to wash it down with wine. Between the overwhelmingly strong flavor of the cheese and you know, the whole eating maggots thing, I took a sip after each bite. Cannonau is 15% ABV. Vanni and I killed a bottle.
Woman eating cheese while a child takes her picture.

Despite vowing to never seek out casu marzu again, I ended up eating it a second time this past summer, after the worms had mostly died off and the wheel of cheese was almost gone. Everything I’ve ever read about casu marzu claims that you shouldn’t eat it after the maggots have died, but Vanni assured us small group of brave souls that a few dead maggots never killed anybody. And since I had already successfully eaten rotten cheese full of live maggots, I was feeling pretty invincible.

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1959 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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This Genius Figured Out How to Make Booze Stronger

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It was a blindingly bright summer day in Islay—a remote, windswept Scottish island synonymous with smoky scotch—when American writer Aaron Goldfarb learned about cold fingering. What sounded like hot high school gossip was actually a solution to a problem Goldfarb had had since he started writing his book, Hacking Whiskey, a collection of DIY ways to take your whiskey to the next level at home.

Goldfarb was tired of bourbon distilleries releasing products at 80 proof, the lowest alcohol content a spirit can legally have to still be called bourbon (most bourbon in the barrel is 110+ proof). Bottling a lower-proof bourbon means a distillery can sell more inventory per barrel, and the lighter flavor can be more palatable for the general public. “I was constantly trying these 80-proof bourbons that smelled great, but when you sipped them they were like bourbon-flavored water,” Goldfarb says. “I could tell a great flavor was hidden underneath, it had just been ruined by being watered down.”

He embarked on a mission to find a way to raise the proof of commercial whiskey, not sure if such a way even existed. “What I wanted to see if I could remove the water from an 80-proof bourbon and get it closer to its natural strength, mouthfeel, and taste,” says Goldfarb.

Ardbeg. Photo by the author.

Goldfarb went to Islay to see the more than 200-year-old Ardbeg distillery during his book research and writing. He toured the seaside distillery with its highly-acclaimed director of whisky creation, distilling, and whisky stocks, Dr. Bill Lumsden, a guy who also holds a PhD in biochemistry. “One of the brightest minds in whiskey,” Goldfarb notes.

In the distillery’s barrel warehouse, Lumsden mentioned that sometimes a barrel’s contents can fall below the 80-proof legal minimum briefly due to climate, and that there were two ways of rectifying the problem. One was legal: to blend under-proof scotch with a higher proof one. The illegal second way was something called cold fingering.

Goldfarb thought he’d found the answer to his bourbon problem. “Except—he wouldn't tell me what exactly cold fingering was,” Goldfarb says. “He just said the words and walked away to continue giving the tour, leaving me stunned, and still left with so many questions.”

After his Islay visit, Goldfarb would go on to ask more whiskey experts about cold fingering, but no one had heard about the term before. He was confused, thinking maybe Lumsden was fucking with him. Not only was the name ridiculous, but it was coming from a man with an infamous sense of humor.

“Besides being brilliant, [Lumsden] is one of the biggest jokesters in the industry,” says Goldfarb. “He might have loved the idea that some naive American writer was going around asking any distiller he could find: ‘Hey, do you know how to cold finger?’ ‘Do I know how to WHAT?!’”

Back in New York, Goldfarb finally found someone who knew about the unfortunately-named proof-raising process. “It would take the equally brilliant Dave Arnold to finally tell me about cold fingering,” he says.

Photo courtesy Scott Gordon Bleicher.

Goldfarb describes Arnold as “the world’s maddest scientist of alcohol, a chef, a bar owner (formerly of the brilliant Booker & Dax), an inventor, and even an author of the unbelievable Liquid Intelligence.”

Arnold shared that the cold finger is a device (shaped like a finger, hence the name) you can use as a condenser on a rotary evaporator. It can cool alcohol down to −78°C and eliminate its water. The result: a higher-proof liquid.

Costing more than $10,000, a rotary evaporator (or rotovap) is impractical as hell for the everyman. Arnold advised Goldfarb not to waste his time on the cold finger method, and to try a much easier method with a more professional sounding name, cryo-concentration.

Arnold explained that cryo-concentration is when you chill a liquor below its crystallization point, then filter out the frozen crystals before they melt (he uses a French press). For an 80-proof liquor, that crystallization starts at about -23C. To get that cold ass temperature, all you need to do is put your whiskey into a styrofoam cooler with dry ice, and the magic will happen.

The pro tip came at the perfect time.

“This sounds like an apocryphal story, but the same day Dave Arnold told me about cryo-concentration I received one of those big holiday packages in the mail from my father-in-law (you know, fruit and cheese and charcuterie and shit) that was packed on dry ice in a styrofoam cooler,” Goldfarb says. “I had no excuse not to try it.”

The breakthrough was momentous for Goldfarb, although it might not be life changing for the general population.

“I don't see frat boys all of the sudden doing this just to make their alcohol more alcoholic,” Goldfarb says. “But, for geeks, this is a fun experiment to conduct to see if you can make a weaker bourbon have more body and flavor. Although, knock yourself out, frat boys.”

Aaron Goldfarb’s book is available for purchase online here .

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2005 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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The Door Problem: How a game developer explains her job to non-technical people

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“So what does a game designer do? Are you an artist? Do you design characters and write the story? Or no, wait, you’re a programmer?”

Game design is one of those nebulous terms to people outside the game industry that’s about as clear as the “astrophysicist” job title is to me. It’s also my job, so I find myself explaining what game design means to a lot of people from different backgrounds, some of whom don’t know anything about games.

The Door Problem

I like to describe my job in terms of “The Door Problem”.

Premise: You are making a game.

  • Are there doors in your game?
  • Can the player open them?
  • Can the player open every door in the game?
  • Or are some doors for decoration?
  • How does the player know the difference?
  • Are doors you can open green and ones you can’t red? Is there trash piled up in front of doors you can’t use? Did you just remove the doorknobs and call it a day?
  • Can doors be locked and unlocked?
  • What tells a player a door is locked and will open, as opposed to a door that they will never open?
  • Does a player know how to unlock a door? Do they need a key? To hack a console? To solve a puzzle? To wait until a story moment passes?
  • Are there doors that can open but the player can never enter them?
  • Where do enemies come from? Do they run in from doors? Do those doors lock afterwards?
  • How does the player open a door? Do they just walk up to it and it slides open? Does it swing open? Does the player have to press a button to open it?
  • Do doors lock behind the player?
  • What happens if there are two players? Does it only lock after both players pass through the door?
  • What if the level is REALLY BIG and can’t all exist at the same time? If one player stays behind, the floor might disappear from under them. What do you do?
  • Do you stop one player from progressing any further until both are together in the same room?
  • Do you teleport the player that stayed behind?
  • What size is a door?
  • Does it have to be big enough for a player to get through?
  • What about co-op players? What if player 1 is standing in the doorway – does that block player 2?
  • What about allies following you? How many of them need to get through the door without getting stuck?
  • What about enemies? Do mini-bosses that are larger than a person also need to fit through the door?

It’s a pretty classic design problem. SOMEONE has to solve The Door Problem, and that someone is a designer.

The Other Door Problems

To help people understand the role breakdowns at a big company, I sometimes go into how other people deal with doors.

  • Creative Director: “Yes, we definitely need doors in this game.”
  • Project Manager: “I’ll put time on the schedule for people to make doors.”
  • Designer: “I wrote a doc explaining what we need doors to do.”
  • Concept Artist: “I made some gorgeous paintings of doors.”
  • Art Director: “This third painting is exactly the style of doors we need.”
  • Environment Artist: “I took this painting of a door and made it into an object in the game.”
  • Animator: “I made the door open and close.”
  • Sound Designer: “I made the sounds the door creates when it opens and closes.”
  • Audio Engineer: “The sound of the door opening and closing will change based on where the player is and what direction they are facing.”
  • Composer: “I created a theme song for the door.”
  • FX Artist: “I added some cool sparks to the door when it opens.”
  • Writer: “When the door opens, the player will say, ‘Hey look! The door opened!’ “
  • Lighter: “There is a bright red light over the door when it’s locked, and a green one when it’s opened.”
  • Legal: “The environment artist put a Starbucks logo on the door. You need to remove that if you don’t want to be sued.”
  • Character Artist: “I don’t really care about this door until it can start wearing hats.”
  • Gameplay Programmer: “This door asset now opens and closes based on proximity to the player. It can also be locked and unlocked through script.”
  • AI Programmer: “Enemies and allies now know if a door is there and whether they can go through it.”
  • Network Programmer: “Do all the players need to see the door open at the same time?”
  • Release Engineer: “You need to get your doors in by 3pm if you want them on the disk.”
  • Core Engine Programmer: “I have optimized the code to allow up to 1024 doors in the game.”
  • Tools Programmer: “I made it even easier for you to place doors.”
  • Level Designer: “I put the door in my level and locked it. After an event, I unlocked it.”
  • UI Designer: “There’s now an objective marker on the door, and it has its own icon on the map.”
  • Combat Designer: “Enemies will spawn behind doors, and lay cover fire as their allies enter the room. Unless the player is looking inside the door in which case they will spawn behind a different door.”
  • Systems Designer: “A level 4 player earns 148xp for opening this door at the cost of 3 gold.”
  • Monetization Designer: “We could charge the player $.99 to open the door now, or wait 24 hours for it to open automatically.”
  • QA Tester: “I walked to the door. I ran to the door. I jumped at the door. I stood in the doorway until it closed. I saved and reloaded and walked to the door. I died and reloaded then walked to the door. I threw grenades at the door.”
  • UX / Usability Researcher: “I found some people on Craigslist to go through the door so we could see what problems crop up.”
  •  Localization: “Door. Puerta. Porta. Porte. Tür. Dør. Deur. Drzwi. Drws. 문”
  • Producer: “Do we need to give everyone those doors or can we save them for a pre-order bonus?”
  • Publisher: “Those doors are really going to help this game stand out during the fall line-up.”
  • CEO: “I want you all to know how much I appreciate the time and effort put into making those doors.”
  • PR: “To all our fans, you’re going to go crazy over our next reveal #gamedev #doors #nextgen #retweet”
  • Community Manager: “I let the fans know that their concerns about doors will be addressed in the upcoming patch.”
  • Customer Support: “A player contacted us, confused about doors. I gave them detailed instructions on how to use them.”
  • Player: “I totally didn’t even notice a door there.”

One of the reasons I like this example is because it’s so mundane. There’s an impression that game design is flashy and cool and about crazy ideas and fun all the time. But when I start off with, “Let me tell you about doors…” it cuts straight to the everyday practical considerations.

Recent edits: Added localization, character artist, system designer, combat designer, composer, audio engineer, monetization designer, and I think that’ll be it for now.

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2257 days ago
San Francisco, CA
2256 days ago
Excellent article. Applies to all software.
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Never Stop Sneakin Review – Repetitive Mission Creep

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Gamers have shortage of indie games that tap into our love for the 8 and 16-bit eras, but developers rarely seek to emulate the first PlayStation generation, with its grainy textures and polygon-shaped heroes. Humble Hearts has embraced this outdated look with a stealth-based action game that pays homage to Metal Gear Solid. While you could probably count the number of polygons used to construct Never Stop Sneakin’s characters, it’s gameplay is what really needs more detail.

Much like Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation, Never Stop Sneakin’ asks players to sneak through a series of secret military bases and avoid the vision cones and laser sights of patrolling enemies. Sadly, the gameplay doesn’t evolve past that. You have a limited supply of bullets and EMP grenades that save you if you get spotted, but these are all automatically used when you walk into an enemy’s line of sight. Because your only form of input is moving the character around with the analog stick, the action isn’t engaging.

Never Stop Sneakin’ encourages you to move quickly through each level, sneak up behind enemies, and take them all out in an efficient manner so that you can build a combo. The higher your combo, the more resources you will collect from hacking the computer terminals (another automated process) scattered across each level. Because of this system, Never Stop Sneakin’ feels more like an arcade game than a true stealth-action adventure.

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Even when viewed as an arcade experience, Never Stop Sneakin’ is shallow. The game only has a handful of environment types, and despite their procedurally generated nature, I felt like I was repeatedly exploring the same space. Enemy behavior is also incredibly predictable. Most guards have simple patrol patterns where they walk back and forth along a single hall, and they don’t change that behavior even if they see a fellow guard take a bullet to the head.

After infiltrating several levels of an enemy base, your operative takes a break, and you get to spend all the ESP they’ve collected to upgrade your FOB. Unfortunately, these upgrades don’t serve a purpose other than to push a nonsensical narrative forward. You can unlock several perks, and some of these let you scavenge more ammo on a level or increase the range in which you collect ESP. These don’t dramatically change the action either, and in Roguelike fashion, you must find them again each time you start a mission.

Never Stop Sneakin’ tried to appeal to my nostalgia for the original Metal Gear Solid. Unfortunately, you can’t judge this book by its cover. Dodging enemy sight cones and building up a stealth combo is only compelling for a short while, and the lack of overall variety made me want to sneak away to play other games.

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2269 days ago
Disappointing. DUST:AET was a really fun metroidvania game. Still want to give this a try to see for myself.
San Francisco, CA
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A haiku about DNS

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Here is a haiku (a Japanese poem) about DNS (“domain name system”):

It’s not DNS
There is a no way it’s DNS
It was DNS

Here is a postcard for your sysadmin friend whenever there is a DNS issue:

dns haiku

dns haiku

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2510 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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You can now watch these declassified nuclear test movies on YouTube

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Between 1945 and 1962, the United States conducted over 200 nuclear tests up high in the atmosphere to learn about the power of nuclear weapons. The terrifying explosions were filmed from every possible angle and distance, and the movies — an estimated 10,000 of them — were then stored in high-security vaults scattered across the country.

Now, for the first time, about 4,200 of thee films have been scanned, and around 750 have been declassified by the US government. You can watch about 60 of them on YouTube. Some are in color, some in black and white, and all of them bear the whimsical names of top secret missions: Operation Hardtack, Operation Plumbbob, Operation Teapot.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory


Continue reading…

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2544 days ago
nuke porn
San Francisco, CA
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