Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vote Now! The 2014 Miserable Crank Awards: Day Four

Today is the last post for voting for the 2014 Miserable Crank Awards. Go vote for each of the categories now!

Here is the link for Day One. [Government, Technology, Sports, Embarrassment]

Here is the link for Day Two. [Business, Popular Trend, Incident]

Here is the link for Day Three. [Entertainment, Person, Inconvenience]

Edit: Don't forget that you're voting not only on the list below, but on the three links above as well! That way don't have to decide between a disease that will kill us all and a mildly annoying Disney song. 

Vote in each of the categories above, and then the final vote is below. Remember, this vote is for the absolute worst thing of 2014, regardless of category. You can vote for something different or re-vote for something you voted on an earlier post; it doesn't matter. Whichever gets the most votes below wins the overall award, and whoever the runner up for whatever category it was out of will win that category instead. Remember: you need to vote in the previous three posts (ten categories total) and vote below.

Remember, voting ends on Thursday, December 18th, 2014, so the polls will be open for a full week after today.

[Voting is now closed.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Vote Now! The 2014 Miserable Crank Awards: Day Three

Here are the candidates for day three of voting for the Miserable Crank Awards of 2014. (The first day of voting, for Government, Technology, Sports, and Embarrassment, can be found here. The second day of voting, for Business, Popular Trends, and Incidents, can be found here.)




Kim Kardashian Breaks The Internet
Have you ever wanted to see Kim Kardashian's greasy ass? Well, welcome to 2005, because that's been available for everyone to see for the last decade or so. Oh, but you want a classy picture of her ass on a highbrow New York magazine cover? Well, the long national nightmare is over, because that became available the winter of 2014. Of course, the paradox that the dead-tree cover was supposed to break the internet--where there isn't enough digital Clorox in existence to scrub her off of it--was lost in the struggle to not see it pop up on every Facebook feed. 

How I Met Your Mother Finale
After nine long seasons, How I Met Your Mother finally met their mother--in the most disappointing way possible. Given that the entire premise of the sitcom was building up to the finale, expectations were really high. And the unexpectedly long run of the show made the creators stretch the story out a little bit too long for the sake of the concept. I won't spoil anything here in case future internet citizens want to catch up, but the other totally dies at the end.

Sharknado 2
OK, so maybe putting Sharknado 2 on this list is a bit of a cop-out. It is, after all, an intentionally horrible movie, and you can't fault the creators for filling it with so much cheese and ham you could make an omelet out of it. (And--I won't lie--I watched the first one and it wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen. Close, but not the worst.) And it's clear that everyone involved in this movie was just having a good time with it, and there's precious little of that anymore. Still, I feel like I should put it on here because the novelty has worn out its welcome and I don't want to encourage another installment.

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham--the creator and writer of the series Girls--is propped up by many to be a feminist icon and a star on the rise. And yet when she released her autobiography, Not That Kind Of Girl, she freely admitted to some...strange things that happened when she was younger, including some sexual interactions with her younger sister. Defenders say it was innocent sexual curiosity and an overreaction; detractors paint her as a hypocrite, since similar actions by men would most likely be career-ending, and the light-hearted way she presented it was tasteless. Regardless, the whole thing is just creepy.

Shia Labeouf Gets Weirder
Having apparently graduated from the Joaquin Phoenix School Of Bat-Shit Craziness, Shia LaBeouf--a fairly high-profile actor these days--descended into abject madness, or, as the experts call it, "art." He ran laps wearing a marathon outfit in an Amsterdam museum--which was notable for having a lack of a marathon that day. He chased down a homeless man to take his McDonalds. He was arrested for disorderly conduct outside Studio 54, notable because you have to be actively committing a felony to get in there in the first place. He appears at his movie premier wearing a paper bag over his head that says "I am not famous anymore." And that's just some of it. It's a thin line between making a statement and being an embarrassing footnote to the entertainment world.




Donald Sterling
What do you get when you cross a rich person who's also a racist? You get Donald Sterling! Of course, it's good that he's not in a position where he has to deal with a significant number of minorities or anything. As owner of the LA Clippers, his remarks--admittedly made in private and recorded without his consent--nonetheless made his position as an owner untenable. Several punishments were suggested, such as attending sensitivity trainings, publicly apologizing, or being forced to buy the Timberwolves. In the end, he had to sell the team, and was reduced to carting all of his money to his huge house where he will have to live in luxury for the rest of his life, where hopefully he can afford to do something about those puffy eyes.

Ray Rice
The NFL has a little bit of an image problem, and the actions of Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice didn't make things easier. Early in the year both Rice and his fiance, Janay, were arrested for an altercation in a casino. Video evidence later showed that he was apparently, at one point, dragging the body of an unconscious Janay out of an elevator. Rice avoided jail time by undergoing counseling, although the Ravens terminated his contract. Commissioner Roger Goodell's actions also caused problems, as the initial punishment was a two-game ban, then extended to indefinite once the tape was released, then the exposure that the NFL had seen the tape before the public did and decided two games was enough until the public outcry was too high. In any case, it brought an unwelcome but necessary spotlight to a lot of NFL players with violent backgrounds.

Bill Cosby
One of America's top-tier comic actors, Bill Cosby has always been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct, but most of them were so old they never really got past the rumor stage. After comedian Hannibal Buress re-opened the wound in one of his sets, several women came forward stating that since Cosby's rise in 1965, he had a pattern of drugging and assaulting (and, often, raping) women. Maybe other notable people, including Janice Dickinson and Carla Ferrigno, also said they were victims of Cosby's assaults. While none of these accusations have been proven or vetted through a court of law, the pattern and stature of many of the accounts seem to demand attention. Regardless of the outcome, one has to admit that it takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude and/or reckless foolhardiness to make a pass at Lou Ferrigno's wife.

Vladimir Putin
Russian President and part-time Bond Villain Vladimir Putin has had a good year, at least from his perspective. He oversaw a successful Olympics in Sochi, he successfully parlayed internal disagreements in Crimea, and he threatened economic retaliation for those capitalizing off of falling oil prices. It's been a good year, of course, unless you're gay. Or Ukrainian. Or an importer. Or a Russian.

Justin Bieber
This is not Mr. Bieber's first appearance in this category, but it's worth nothing that 2014 introduced The Bieb's first actual, history-impacting official arrest. His crime? A DUI, of course. (Also, an expired license and resisting arrest.) More amusingly, his neighbor accused him of throwing eggs at his house and causing thousands of dollars worth of damage, prompting the question of how on earth eggs can cause thousand of dollars in damage? He was arrested again for driving dangerously and apparently fighting with the person in the vehicle that was hit. In any case, this is the year where either Justin Bieber straightens up and goes the route of Robert Downey Jr, or takes the other road, paved with the reputations of Britney Spears and every Disney sitcom star.



Polar Vortex
Winters can be rough up north, but this year mother nature decided to be a little bitch about it. The meteorological name of the phenomenon was the Polar Vortex, which sounds more like an X-Men villain than a weather-related anomaly. Record low temperatures were set across the nation, airports shut down, and schools closed. Hell, jet fuel was freezing. Places down South even got hit, with Atlanta getting shut down after the streets were lined with snow (and officially offsetting Sherman's March to the Sea to make the average historical temperature zero again).

Bendable iPhones
Now that Steve Jobs is done, it seems that Apple can do wrong. Or maybe not. The iPhone 6's release started off just like any other--a whole lot of obnoxious people waiting a long time and paying a lot of money for something that is slightly more advanced than what they've had before. After its release, though, design flaws began circulation around the media--some involved user's hair getting caught and ripped off, and some phone randomly would reboot. But the most notable was the bendable chassis--if a user stuck their phone in their pocket, for instance, and pressure was put on it, the phone would bend (and break). Given the iPhone's reputation of being engineered to perfection--and one of the reasons people were willing to pay its exorbitant price--this caused a lot of consternation. After media reports showed that the problem really wasn't that bad, their reputation seemed to be intact--until they banned one media outlet after a slightly unflattering story was aired. 

U2 Pushes Album To iTunes
Another Apple mishap, this involved their iTunes application, where nearly all Apple product users store their media (whether it be music or something else). Venerable music legend U2 released a new album, which was then sent to anyone with an iTunes account for free. While it was, you know, free, and there were conflicting reports as to whether it was forced or you had to opt-in, a lot of people were upset at this intrusion into their own private files without their consent. Also, it's U2. 

Comcast-Time Warner Merger
Comcast is not exactly one of the most popular corporations in America. Time Warner is not exactly one of the most relevant corporations. A merger between the two, though? Katy bar the door! While approval is still pending--and stiff opposition since it's announcement makes it more likely that it won't be approved--if it is finalized will represent a monopoly (of sorts) in about 30% of the nation for cable services. Given the reputation of both companies, there's a lot of folks out there not looking forward to the prospect.

Ride-Sharing Obstacles
Innovation marches on, they say, although public policy often has difficulty keeping up. One of the newest concepts in city transportation, ride sharing, saw exponential growth in 2014--well, in theory, since a lot of cities are doing everything they can to stifle it. Promoted by leaders Uber and Lyft, ride sharing involves individuals using their own cars as taxi cabs to make a little extra money. Taxi drivers in cities, of course, don't like this--most cities have a well-entrenched medallion system to keep their numbers down (and, thus, prices up) and most laws on the books reinforce that. Still, fighting the good regulatory fight is slow and expensive, and as cities work their way through the details only the consumers lose out. Oh, and I guess the taxi cabs, too.

[Voting is now closed.]

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Vote Now! The 2014 Miserable Crank Awards: Day Two

Here are the candidates for day two of voting for the Miserable Crank Awards of 2014. (The first day of voting, for Government, Technology, Sports, and Embarrassment, can be found here. The third day of voting, with Entertainment, Person, and Inconvenience, can be found here.)




Elk River Chemical Spill
It's easy to make fun of West Virginia for a variety of reasons. But it's hard not to feel bad when a chemical spill--made by chemical company Freedom Industries--affected over nine counties. While the chemical itself isn't fatal--it's used to remove impurities from coal (or something; I'm no orthocoaldibiologist)--it can make people feel nauseous, burning skin and eyes, and--worst of all--makes water smell like licorice.

GM Recall
I suppose it's relevant that when I researched this entry I had to specify that I wanted to know about the 2014 General Motors recall. Over 800,000--wait, I mean 24 million-- vehicles had to be recalled early this year for ignition switch (and, eventually, other) issues. The initial issue was that the ignition switches didn't account for heavily weighted keychains and would cause the key to turn off on its own due to gravity--bad news for the sort of people who keep keys on their keychain as if there may be a sudden National-Treasure-Style emergency that has about six dozen locked doors as obstacles.

Urban Outfitters
Urban Outfitters has had a long and surprising history of controversy, especially for a company that slings third-rate clothing to ungrateful teenagers. this year was no different; first, they release a shirt with the word "Depression" slathered all over it, as if the word is the trendy new YOLO. Next, they started offering a Kent State hoodie that looked suspiciously like it was covered with splattered blood; they countered it was simply a stock design. Either way, the company has to hire some guy whose idea of sensitivity didn't come from an old Andrew Dice Clay cassette tape they found in their uncle's pickup truck.

Radio Shack
"Even CEO Can't Figure Out How Radio Shack Still In Business," blared a classic Onion headline. Not so funny anymore, really Despite a flashy (and hilarious) Superbowl ad and an attempt to update their image, Radio Shack finally bowed to what was inevitable to everyone else in the planet. While certainly not out of business, they had to shutter about 20% of its stores and stopped matching 401(k) contributions for their employees. Retail revamps like this rarely go well, and given Radio Shack's reputation as a place to buy nothing of use whatsoever unless you are a ham radio operator or a small child in 1981 its future doesn't look nearly as bright as a LED display.

Tesco
The retail giant based in the UK--it's the second largest retailer in the world and the biggest employer in all of Europe--has been around for nearly a century. It's a well-established brand with its mainstay in groceries but has its hand in a wide range of services, from banking and internet services to film-making and cell phones. And yet 2014 marked one of its most troubled years, having an overstatement of their profits by over 260 million pounds (that's close to a half billion dollars to us yanks) and forcing the ouster of its CEO.



Let It Go
No, seriously, let it go. Disney's Frozen came out late last year, but the movie's signature song--aside from that stirring ballad about the ethical implications of building a snowman--caught every single six-year-old girl in the world in a whirlwind of popularity. No doctor's office, supermarket, or elevator was safe without hearing the tune which--in my humble opinion--sounds like every bad 80's hair band rock opera that everyone makes fun of now. Of course, I don't have a dancing snowman to back it up, but I guess that's my problem, not yours.

Ice Bucket Challenge
Three cheers for having a successful charity campaign, and one can't be too harsh given how much money it raised for ALS, but this past summer it was hard to look anywhere on the internet without seeing yet another video of someone dousing themselves in ice water. One can nitpick that it's not exactly torture to be drenched in cold water in the hot summer months, and one can grouse about people who would rather do fun stuff instead of donating money or volunteering their time, but in the end it raised a ton of cash. Still, one can't feel guilty for being happy that it's finally over.

Flappy Bird
A simple, elegant game, Flappy Bird was destined to be the next Candy Crush or Angry Birds...until it wasn't. With graphics shamelessly pulled from Super Mario Brothers and a rather unoriginal interface, its creator pulled the game from the phone markets. Claiming that the attention was overwhelming and that he only intended it to be a small, fun game, he withdrew all applications relating to it--along with all the potential revenue. Thankfully, the phone gaming market being what it is, there were immediately two million clones created within a day.

Alex From Target
Hey, props to a teenage retail worker for becoming an internet phenomenon just by looking cute and doing his job. So many of us could be so lucky. Still, the fame seemed to be far in disproportion to his claim to fame--even by social media standards--and it got a little too squicky when Target and some branding managers tried to take credit for the ordeal. Still, Alex will be "Alex From Target" for the rest of his life, which I am sure will come in handy in college.

Minecraft
If you don't know what Minecraft is, join the club. Actually it's not a difficult concept--you take a bunch of blocky graphics that look like it was created on a Commodore 64, you make a "game" that isn't really a game but a reason for preteens to dick around for hours on the internet, and make just enough culturally relevant icons so you can sell T-shirts and you have a hit game. Minecraft's been around for years, but this was the year that the big guys took action--Microsoft bought the franchise for $2.5 Billion dollars. All for a game you don't pay for and has no immediate revenue stream.



Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Fresh off of its success in hosting the 2014 Olympics, Russia decided to completely throw it away by annexing the Crimean peninsula.Crimea is made up largely of ethnic Russians and are sympathetic more to Moscow than Kiev, but (as is usually the case when it comes to Russia) there are a dozen factions with a dozen loyalties all tied up to a history of conflict and shared interests. Of course, all of this violates international law in one way or another, and will probably end up in live armed conflict at some point.

Ferguson, MO
It was not a good year for police officers and the public. With very public, very much recorded incidents of police brutality and flawed tactics--with subsequent refusals of juries to convict any of them--the reputation of many officers are under question. This all came to a head in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. When the grand jury declared that the case would not go to trial, violent riots broke out in the town (and protests held in cities across the nation). While most agreed that the facts of the case favored Wilson, the fact that it didn't even get out of the grand jury (and thus no proper trial) angered many, and many were also mad at the overall treatment of the issue.

Ebola
When medical personnel travel to help others in need across the globe, there's always some risk involved. When that risk is then carried back home and spreads, however, it can lead to panic. So it was with the Ebola virus, a violent disease with little chance of survival; after several individuals traveled home and infections started to gain media attention, people who came into contact with the medical professionals--including airplane passengers and airport workers--became concerned. Only ten people have been diagnosed (two have died) and all had been in Africa or dealt directly with those just coming from Africa, so the threat to many was seen as overblown, and how the government handled it was seen as either lackluster or overzealous.

ISIS
ISIS--or IS or ISIL or about ten other acronyms--came to the forefront this year as probably the most influential, if not biggest, organized threat to the West from the Middle East since Al Qaeda. The organization has launched attacked, beheaded journalists, and generally fostered violence in the Middle East with a particularly efficient manner of needling the United States. They've also gained political influence in the area as well from various sympathizers, and chances are they are the future of the enemy.

Malaysian Airlines
Everybody loves a good mystery, although it's hard to wrap your head around 239 missing people. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was flying over the South China Sea when it simply disappeared. No explosions, no particularly mysterious messages from the pilots, no signs of terrorism or large payments to bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. To date, no wreckage has been found and no survivors discovered. The only casualty was the 24 hour news networks, who had to find something else to air after about three months. (See: The other items in this category.) 

[Voting is now closed.]

Monday, December 8, 2014

Vote Now! The 2014 Miserable Crank Awards: Day One

It's time for the 5th annual Miserable Crank awards, where we determine the worst events of the year!

The categories are:
  • Worst Person
  • Worst Business Decision
  • Worst Entertainment
  • Worst Government Decision
  • Worst Embarrassment 
  • Worst Sports Event
  • Worst Inconvenience
  • Worst Popular Trend
  • Worst Incident
  • Worst Technological Advance
Simply vote for one candidate in each category over the next three days. Then, you can vote again for any one event as the "Worst Thing About 2014" on day four. On that day, you can vote for the same candidate as you had in the past or a different one; it's up to you. Whichever one wins the overall vote wins the Worst Event, and whoever the runner-up is in that category wins that category instead. I retain a little bit of judgement and discretion on this one, however, since not all of the candidates are appropriate.

(The second day of voting, for Business, Popular Trends, and Incidents, can be found here. The third day of voting, for Entertainment, Person, and Inconvenience, can be found here.)

Voting will end on Thursday, December 18th. The results will be posted the following Monday.




Secret Service Breach
It's the job of the Secret Service to do a lot of things, but the most notable is to provide security for the President of the United States. When that duty fails, it's usually quite notable. It was a comedy of errors this year, when the Secret Service allowed a stranger to get through to the White House grounds. One agent obliviously chatted away on a cell phone while the suspect scaled the fence, and other agents simply assumed that a group of bushes would stop him and so were in no hurry. When your agents are replying on foliage to do their job for them, it might be time for a review.

Chris Christie Shuts Down A Bridge
Things are done a little different in Jersey. When the mayor of Fort Lee chose not to endorse Chris Christie for re-election last year, Christie's administration (allegedly) ordered the closing of the George Washington Bridge for a "traffic study" for the sole purpose of gumming up the roads of his city. While Christie doesn't appear to have been directly involved, his staff certainly was. Revenge is weird in politics, doubly so in the Garden State.

Brakes Put On Tesla Sales
Don't let a little thing like innovation or the future of our environment get in the way of car dealerships. For decades, laws on the books restricted how cars could be sold; it's generally illegal for manufacturers to sell directly to consumers. In practice, this really didn't matter, because it worked out better for both the auto companies and the dealerships (and, usually, consumers as well). Along comes Tesla Motors, the innovative car manufacturer, who wants to dispense with the archaic middleman structure altogether. Those old laws, however, instead of being repealed, were reinforced across the nation. Many governors effectively prevented Tesla from selling cars in their state due to the rusty, unresponsive nature of the industry. Tesla will find a way, of course, but it's a testament to the power of entrenched institutions.

#NYPD
As would become abundantly clear by the end of the year, police departments around the nation have a bit of a PR problem. But early in the year, in an effort to transform public opinion, the New York Police Department tried to use the tools detractors use against them--social media, specifically Twitter. inviting the public to use the hashtag #NYPD to provide examples of how the cops are helping everyday folks sounds like a great idea within the walls of a meeting room, but once released to the public it quickly because an easy showcase for abuse and violence. The department quickly backtracked, although in retrospect they probably wished this was the worst thing that happened to them this year.

 Veterans Hospital Scandal
The VA hospital system in America has always been a shining example to the commitment to our veterans and also a shining example of how bloated and inefficient the government is. Both of these things came to a head when it was revealed that veterans were dying because the government hadn't been able to get their shit together and admit patients who needed to be in the hospital. It started off in the Phoenix system and soon spread to the entire system as a whole, culminating with the resignation of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.


Heartbleed
Heartbleed wreaked havoc on the Internet this past spring. The bug operated in the OpenSSL cryptography library, which is used in the Transport Layer Security protocol. I don't know what any of that means, because I copied and pasted it from Wikipedia, but I do know that it affected about 17% of all internet traffic. Hell, even Grumpy Cat couldn't get those numbers.

Space Disasters
Private space flight has always been touted as the panacea of the future: no longer was exploration the exclusive domain of a bloated, inefficient government agency prone to interference and used as a tool for warfare development and misplaced economic activity in Texas and Seattle. Sadly, it was easier said than done, when several privately-held spacecraft crashed and burned upon launch, sending a huge does of reality to futurists and Kickstarter backers everywhere.

Assault On Net Neutrality
The ongoing battle over the internet's openness continues this year, as the FCC announced they were considering changing their stance on net neutrality, the (hugely simplified) concept that internet speeds should remain equal for everyone. Activists rallied around keeping the internet the same for all, while telecom companies pleaded their case for a tiered internet. The political situation has wavered back and forth but, so far, appears to be continually punted down the road for future officer holders to decide. Still, the trend was decidedly against net neutrality by the year's end.

The Fappening
Much has been made about oversharing in social media; it's one thing to post pictures of every single thing you eat, it's another to post explicit pictures of yourself in unfortunate poses for your significant other/future employers to see. The huge cache of leaked celebrity photos--notably Jennifer Lawrence, Kaye Upton, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead--that were stored in the cloud demonstrated to everyone--especially actresses with big boobs--that even if you take every precaution to keep your information private, someone, somewhere, has access to it.

GamerGate
 It all began when a female game developer was accused of sleeping with a gaming journalist who gave her (otherwise unremarkable) game a glowing review, bringing up several points about gaming journalism and how welcome women were in the industry. What started out as a civil debate ended up with an amicable agreement that different viewpoints should be considered by both sides and that a rational course of self-reflection was acknowledged by both sides. Ha! Just kidding! It became a complete shitshow and held a sad, lonely funhouse mirror to the entire gaming industry--including its customers--as a whole.



World Cup Protests
Soccer is the world's game. No matter how hard Americans close their eyes and cross their fingers and wish really, really hard, it's not gridiron football. So when the 2014 World Cup was held in Brazil--the Patron Nation of Pele, The Only Soccer Player Americans Know--most assumed it would be a fantastic time. Not so; the preparations for the event were marred with corruption and dissonance; protests were held by Brazil's poorest citizens at the cost of the thing; and accusations of financial mismanagement by FIFA hung like a dark cloud over the entire event. Germany was the eventual victor, while Poland got the cavalry prepared and the UK started asking for crates of ordinance from the US.

Sochi Olympics
A lot of hand-wringing was done over last year about Russia's homophobic laws, but the Olympics themselves weren't great, either. While most of the day-to-day operations ran relatively smoothly, there was the embarrassment of that fifth Olympic ring not opening in what could have otherwise been an awesome opening ceremony; figure skater Ashley Wagner's unbelieving face quickly became a meme; and the imminent invasion of the Ukraine precipitated much of the conversation.

The Washington Redskins
Time marches on, but sometimes branding doesn't. The Washington Redskins--for those who for some reason don't know, "redskin" is a derogatory name for native Americans--have long had pressure put on them to change their name to something less offensive, and the Redskins organization generally ignores such pressure because they're stubborn jerks. Things got a little more tense this year, however; their trademark application was denied by the government, congressional hearings have been held about it, and several high-profile football analysts have said they will not use the team name when referring to them on air. The vast majority of people don't want to see it changed, but then again the vast majority of people weren't forced to move to Oklahoma.

NFL Abuse
Professional sports has never denied that they have a problem with behavior. Many athletes get into trouble with the law. This is nothing new--when you get a bunch of hot-headed teenagers playing a violent sport and give them a million dollars, bad things are bound to happen. But the NFL took it to a new low: it wasn't the errant pot arrest or punching a random towel dispenser at Sheetz; we're talking domestic violence and child abuse. commissioner Roger Goodell's lackluster response has caused many longtime fans to question their loyalty to the brand.

Tony Stewart Runs Over A Guy
Accidents happen. But it's still a little disconcerting when that accident kills someone, and the entire incident is broadcast live during a sporting event. So it was at a sprint car race in New York, when Kevin Ward, Jr., exited his vehicle on the track to admonish participant and NASCAR legend Tony Stewart and was then run over by Stewart's vehicle. Despite some talk of it being negligent behavior and even some insinuations that it was deliberate, Stewart was cleared of all wrongdoing in the incident. 


 Renee Zellweger's Face
Rene Zellweger hasn't been around lately, and when she finally showed up earlier this year something was...different. Specifically, her face. Her facial features were so strikingly different it caused a lot of people to be equally confused and amused. Armchair outragists and feminists decried the attention given to her looks, but then again she is an actress who is paid specifically for people to look at her, so...it would have been weird not to.

Solange Knowles 
 The sister of Beyonce, Solange has had minor success in the entertainment field. She made headlines this year, though, when video footage of her assaulting Jay-Z in an elevator surfaced. Jay-Z didn't react (good on him) and Beyonce seemed nonplussed at the incident, and none of the three will talk about what the hell happened, which is awesome because we can thus assume the absolute worst and spread rumors to that effect. 

 Alaskan Pot Reporter
Reporters are supposed to be impartial arbiters of the facts--even when they are a third-tier on-air news reporter for an Alaskan television station. Carlo Greene has been reporting on a marijuana business illegally operating in the state, and one day finally had enough when she declared, on air, live, that 1) she was quitting and 2) she was the one who actually ran the illegal club she was reporting on. Pot enthusiasts rejoiced, but most everyone else found it both bizarre and unprofessional. 

The Mispronunciation of Idina Menzel 
Call it a temporary slip-up. Call it a random muddling of an admittedly uncommon name. Or call it a coded shout-out to fellow Scientologists. When John Travolta introduced Idina Menzel at the Academy Awards this year, he called her something that sounded something like "Adele Dazeem," which most cryptologists believe has very little in common with Frozen

Bob Costas' Pink Eye
You know what I don't like watching? The Olympics. You know what I really don't like watching? A long-time highly acclaimed sports broadcaster suffer through a painful facial anomaly that makes me want to vomit every time he shows up on the screen. Poor guy--it wasn't his fault, but damn was that difficult to watch.

[Voting is now closed.]

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Blogroll Update

It's a lazy housekeeping post today, friends! But it's sort of an important one.

I've updated the blogroll on my sidebar. Not much has changed, but I'd like to point some of them out.
  • A Random Stranger is a blog from one of my friends. He recently moved to China to teach, and he's been writing about those experiences a lot lately (among other things--there's a treasure trove of previous posts about all sorts of things.)
  • A local author and friend, Jeff Boarts, has written a series of mystery novels set in the Kittanning/Pittsburgh area. I highly recommend them, especially if you are into the mystery genre. I've posted both his blog and where you can purchase the books.
  • Ya Jagoff! is another Pittsburgh-based blog that ostensibly calls out city residents who are behaving badly, but his posts are about much more than just yinzer-shaming. Of particular note is his current campaign to have "jagoff" added to Webster's Dictionary. (If for some unknowable reason you don't know what a Jagoff is...well, just click and find out.) 
  • Vito Delsante, another local who is now a comic book writer in New York, has a pretty robust online presence. His new project, Stray, is available now.
Also make sure you check out the other links. I'm slowly going to add more once I get everything together, so keep an eye on it.

Another note about this blog: I've wanted to mention this for a while, but I've never got around to it. As a general rule, I try not to alter posts once I've hit enter, but invariably there are minor punctuation or grammatical errors that slip through. (Also, about 10% of the time I forget to title the post. Whoops.) If it's a minor correction and it doesn't impact the post, I don't mention it; I just fix it. If it's a more substantial edit that actually adds or changes content, I try and make a note of it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In Requiem: Congressman Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin

I was doing what I normally do on a Saturday night, which is argue with people on Reddit. In one of my lively discussions I came across a table that listed the longest-tenured politicians in America. At the very bottom of this list is the sad tale of one Henry Allen Cooper, representative from Wisconsin starting in 1893:

"Defeated & Died." That's his legacy, after 36 years of service. Some jerk probably engraved that on his headstone.

Actually, it's not that bad. He's listed as such because he was defeated in 1918 for voting against going to war against Germany in World War I, but was then re-elected after his constituents got over their snit, where he thereupon died ten long years later. So it's not like what I first thought, where in 1918 a messenger knocked on his door, told him he lost the election, and poor Mr. Allen Cooper immediately keeled over and died and then someone updated his Wikipedia article.

Hot trivia about Henry Allen Cooper: He was the chairman of the Committee of Rivers and Harbors for an entire two-year term and authored the act that set up the Philippines as an American colony. You know full well he was just swimming in it when be went back home to Racine.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: From Please Pass The Guilt to Death Times Three

This is the tenth, and final, installment of the Nero Wolfe Project.


This time, we're going to be looking at Please Pass The Guilt, Death Times Three, and A Family Affair.

In Please Pass The Guilt, a doctor consults with Wolfe--one of his patients is having a recurring episode where he has blood on his hands. Reluctantly, Wolfe speaks with him, only for the patient to not give him any useful information and is summarily told to leave--but not before getting him to give up his name. Through this, they eventually find out that he was involved with a company that recently had a bombing; a candidate to be president of a company walked into the room of another candidate, opened the bottom desk drawer--which was known to hold the owner's whiskey from which he faithfully drank every day--and was instantly killed. Archie and Wolfe then net a fee from the victim's widow--the person who opened the drawer had a vial of LSD, and presumbaly was opening the drawer to lace his drink. The widow hires Wolfe to solve the murder without that fact getting disclosed. One of the better mysteries, and also a surprisingly candid book--a mildly graphic discussion about language (which seemingly does not advance the plot) is present, odd given that the series up to this point has eschewed things like that. Also notable is that the Wolfe universe has been brought, kicking and screaming, into "modern" times, with mentions of LSD, hippies, feminism, language, and the sexual revolution.

I'm cheating a little, here; we're going to skip to Death Times Three. This was published posthumously, and includes Bitter End, Frame-Up For Murder, and Assault On A Brownstone. Bitter End is a reworking by Rex Stout another non-Wolfe story, but it's certainly worth reading. It's one of the better short stories: it involves someone spiking canned goods with quinine, and Wolfe commits to uncovering the murder of the owner of the company out of pique. Frame-Up For Murder is simply a reworking of Murder Is No Joke (from And Four To Go); it's slightly expanded, but it's really not worth reading if you've already read the original. Assault On A Brownstone is a variation of Counterfeit For Murder (from Homicide Trinity); the first few pages follow the original story, but then takes a completely different turn. It's worth reading just to see the different possibilities from the same characters and settings. Because two of the three stories are variations on a previous story that was probably closer to what Stout intended, you can safely skip this book; only get it if you're a completest (or really want to rad Bitter End).

A Family Affair is the final Nero Wolfe book written by Rex Stout. When a waiter at Rustermann's restaraunt comes to Wolfe's office after midnight, demanding to speak to Wolfe, Archie demurs. The waiter, clearly agitated, mentioned that someone is trying to kill him; as a compromise, Archie allows him to sleep in the South Room until Wolfe has been advised and is awake in the morning. Not long after, an explosion goes off; Archie enters to find that the waiter is dead, killed by a bomb. Thus sets off a series of clues, linking the waiter to an electronics magnate who had died the previous week, and eventually another client. Sadly, I can't get into too many more details, because the major thrust of this book builds up to an alarming and depressing twist. This book was written during the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in 1974; it's a major plot point that it's suspected that one of the victims was somehow directly or indirectly involved in the scandal. It's hard to rate this one, since Stout was clearly writing it from a place of sadness and frustration, and he wrote it in his late 80s and had to know it was probably going to be his last book, or close to it. It does end with a certain level of finality, but not with a whole lot of closure; in fact, it's utterly depressing. In some ways it is quite a fitting end, but in others one has to wonder how optimistic it could have ended instead.

And that's it. Through 33 novels and 39 short stories, we've lived through Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin, Inspector Cramer, Fritz Brenner, and a multitude of other characters. For now, I'm skipping the continuation of the Wolfe line by Robert Goldsborough--by all accounts they're solid, if not excellent, novels, and some day I'll read them and maybe even review them. But for now, I'm done. I'll write up a more in-depth look at the series overall in a later post.



Thursday, November 27, 2014

Snack Review: Weird Pringles Potato Crisps Flavors

Some things should never happen. I know the trend lately is for potato chips to come out with strange, unique flavors (I'm looking at you, Lay's Cappuccino Flavored Potato Chips). I'm also never opposed to that in principle, because I've tasted some very awesome things that otherwise sounded disgusting.

That said, let's take a look at some new Pringles flavors: Milk Chocolate, Pecan Pie, and Cinnamon Sugar.


Pecan Pie: I don't care for pecan pie, so my expectations were low on this one. I was pleasantly surprised. The flavor is strong, but not overwhelmingly strong, and it does taste a lot like pecan pie. Unfortunately--since I don't like pecan pie--it didn't do much for me, but if you're the sort of person who likes to have a bowl of glazed sugar crammed full of stupid nuts then have at it. It's really good at what it does, I just don't like what it does.

As much as Pecan Pie tastes like pecan pie, Milk Chocolate tastes nothing like milk chocolate. It almost tastes like a slightly sweet Pringle. It doesn't taste much like milk chocolate at all. At best, it's a slight aftertaste, but in either case I can't really recommend it for either chocolate lovers or Pringles lovers.

I will admit that I cheated a bit. There was another flavor, White Chocolate, and I passed it over in favor of Cinnamon Sugar. I knew full well I was going to have White Chocolate, and in retrospect I'm sure it's not much different that the Milk Chocolate. Cinnamon Sugar is OK; they're tortilla chips, not potato chips, so it's a little different. They're not particularly strong, and this is the one flavor where it can afford to be a little strong. SO while they aren't bad there are other snacks out there that do cinnamon sugar a lot better.

Sadly, I can't recommend any of these. Pecan Pie would probably be a decent choice for anyone who loves pecan pie, but I would pass on the other two.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beverage Review: Weird Carbonated Drink Edition

While finding new and odd flavors of candy aren't all that uncommon anymore, finding strange drinks is a little more...interesting. Below, I'm going to review three drink flavors that are out of the ordinary: Coconut Wave, Moxie, and (wait for it) Chocolate-Covered Maple Smoked Bacon.




Moxie: Moxie is a famously old-fashioned drink associated primarily with New England and Maine in particular. The name--Moxie--is now a legitimate word that means determination and spirit. While it's not sold much anymore outside of the northeast United States, you still see it pop out now and then in popular culture. Anyway, I'd never tried the drink, and since it is a distant cousin to sarsaparilla, I figured it was worth giving it a try.

Perhaps things are best left as theory. Moxie taste like--well, there's no better way to put it. It tastes like carbonated cough syrup. Oddly, it's actually not that bad: it's not very sweet (despite sugar being a main ingredient) and it's very light. I can easily see why people get addicted to it; I know enough people that have a love-hate relationship with the taste of OTC medicine. It is not, however, what I would consider the taste of determination to be. If I could find a diet version, I could see this being an occasional indulgence.

Chocolate-Covered Maple Smoked Bacon: This one deserves a close-up:


"Breakfast In A Bottle" indeed. I've had chocolate-flavored pop before (verdict: Just go eat some chocolate instead) but I've never had bacon-flavored. I've had bad luck with bacon-flavored things lately; most of it just tastes like the fake smoke you put in toy train sets. (Not that I'd know, of course.) Of course, adding maple into the mix is a game changer, although I'm not sure what game it's changing to.

First thoughts: it smells delicious. But that's mostly because all you smell is chocolate. And it tastes...not bad, but mostly because all you taste is chocolate. You can clearly tell that there's maple in it once the aftertaste kicks in, but I barely noticed a hint of bacon. Once I took a few swigs (more than sips, less than gulps--you have to pace yourself with this sort of thing unless you want it to end up on the floor) I could taste all three things--bacon, chocolate, and maple--and it wasn't altogether bad. Not great, mind you--I couldn't drink more than a fifth of it before I said quietly to myself, "OK, that's enough," but if you want to win any bets with your friends you could do a lot worse. Even so, it's worth buying and trying just to say you did it.

Coconut Wave: While I was able to find the other two items in a small, disposable bottle form, I wasn't able to find a third item to fit the theme. However, Wal-Mart, of all places, provided me with a good choice: coconut-flavored soda.

At first, I thought it was weird, but, really, how is it all that much different than, say, a lemon-lime drink? And that's sort of what I expected with this--a light drink that tasted sort of like coconut, much like Sprite kind of tastes something sort of like lemon-lime.

However, I couldn't get behind this drink. It actually tastes exactly like Sprite, except the aftertaste, which tastes like artificial coconut. This isn't really a drink I'm interested in--even if it was in diet form, where the artificiality of it might not be so bad, I don't think the novelty of it would stick after a few sips.

Final Verdict: If you are going to sit down and drink a coconut, chocolate-covered maple bacon, and cough syrup cocktail in one sitting, be fully prepared for some burps that are nothing short of Lovecraftian.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Board Game Review: Forbidden Desert

Forbidden Desert puts you and your crew crash-landed on a vast desert landscape. It's up to your team to piece together your escape vehicle and get away from the steampunk-inspired lost city that you've discovered alive. Forbidden Desert is designed by Matt Leacock, the same designer of the much-heralded game Pandemic.





Like Pandemic, this is a cooperative game. Each player takes on the role of some sort of specialist, like a Navigator or a Meteorologist. Players are looking for four parts of their vehicle which are a propeller, an engine, a sundial-type thing, and a...spiky orange thing?

Whatever that orange thing is on back, I want no part of it once it gets me home.

The game starts off with a bunch of desert tiles placed randomly in a 5 by 5 grid, with the center tile missing. There are also piles of sand all over the place. Most tiles look like nothing but dunes, although some have a small icon noting the possible presence of water as well as the starting point. Players travel around these tiles, excavating them and taking any bonuses they get. There's also a sand storm marker to note how bad the sandstorm is.

A desert landscape with a few of the tiles turned over. Note the piles of sand (the plus-shaped tokens) and the "eye of the storm" in the middle. 

Each player, on their turn, can take four actions. This can be a combination of moving, digging out piles of sand, excavating a tile, and picking up a part. After they take their actions, the sandstorm moves.

The sandstorm moves in such a way that it will shift the tiles. In the image above, the yellow card with the red arrow is a "shifting sand" card; it means that the eye of the storm (the space without a tile) is going to move two spaces to the right. To do so, it simply shifts the two tiles to make room for it. Every tile that gets shifted also gets a pile of sand on it. Since multiple cards are drawn as the storm gets worse, the eye of the storm will probably shift multiple spaces in multiple directions each turn.

Players are trying to excavate as much as they can, because the goal is to find the missing parts. These are found by excavating two different tiles: one notes the column while the other notes the row, and where the two intersect is where the part is. Of course, since the sands are constantly shifting, where the part was last turn may not be where it is this turn, so it can be a bit of a chore. In addition, all that shifting sand is producing a lot of piles of sand--all of which require valuable actions to dig out. In addition, players simply can't enter tiles with a lot of sand piled up on it, and many players may find themselves buried in the sand with no recourse but to dig themselves out!

Occasionally, a "Storm Picks Up" card is revealed; this will increase the intensity of the storm. There's also a "Sun Beats Down" card that will cause the players to get thirsty--each player has a certain amount of water, and when they need to take a drink and find their canteen empty, they're dead (and the game is over). Thankfully, there are several wells in the desert, although coordinating everybody to be in the same spot can waste valuable time, and one of the water spot is actually a mirage.

There's also a few other items. Tunnels connect two parts of the map, and can protect you from the sun. There are also cards can be drawn to aid you in your quest. There are quite a few ways to end the game in failure--if there's too much sand, not enough water, or if the storm just gets too out of control. Winning simply means collecting all the parts and getting everyone back to the launching pad.

What I Like About The Game:
  • The "shifting sands" concept is very innovative. It's so simple, and yet once you see it in action it's amazing what it does to the board.
  • The part clues mechanism is also very clever. It's one of those things that has a small amount of information with a big impact. A lesser game designer could have made it significantly more complicated for no reason.
  • It's a nice, short game; an easy game takes less than half an hour. It's incredibly easy to teach and, since it's cooperative, easy to help players along.

What I Don't Like About The Game:
  • It may be a touch too simple. For players used to the intensity of, say, Pandemic, there just isn't as much tension flipping over shifting sand cards. It's certainly not bad, and this is a game that can stand on its own, but it may leave some players unsatisfied.
There's not a lot of downsides to this game. Not everyone loves cooperative games, of course, and if you aren't a fan this game won't convert you. And the theme and lightness of it can sometimes feel a little unsatisfactory. But the fun-to-time ratio is just about perfect, and it's hard to find too much fault with it. I'd give this a solid B+ grade. I can't say I'd want to play it all the time, but I doubt I'd ever turn down a game.