Monday, May 31, 2010

Candy Review: Willy Wonka Exceptional Chocolate Bars

About a month or so ago my wife encountered three quite large candy bars manufactured by the Willy Wonka corporation, a division owned by Nestle. Now, when I was a kid many moons ago the Wonka brand always promised whimsy and charm, usually in the form of Gobstoppers and pretty much anything where the color didn't match the flavor or was shaped like a flower or a dormouse or something.

The purple one tastes like unicorn steak.

The Wonka candy pretty much fell off the face of the earth--or at least I assume; more likely I just moved on to Yuengling and bacon cheeseburgers instead of novelty chocolates. Recently--as in maybe two years ago--I began to see actual real-life non-Johnny Depp and/or Gene Wilder approved Wonka Bars in gas stations and small town grocery stores that still sell kerosene in jugs. They are, in fact, quite awesome, even though they are bascially just chocolate bars with graham cracker bits in them. Still, survey says: yum!

So my wife bought the candy bars and brought them home for me to devour. They are branded as "Wonka Exceptionals," which I presume means that they are of higher quality or at least different quality. It comes in three flavors: Scrumdiddlyumptious Chocolate Bar, the Chocolate Waterfall Bar, and the Domed Dark Chocolate Bar. 

These are huge bars, anagolous to the "king" sized bars that a certain other candy company makes.

  Suck it, Wonka! Stay away or I'll call Chris Hansen on you.

To show you the true scale of the size of the chocolate that I'm talking about, here, my dog Dexter is more than happy to help.

 The onwy thing biggow than these candy baws is my heart.

To truly get a taste for these confections, we decided to have a blind taste test, in which I would guess which of the three I was eating while wearing a blindfold. My wife eagerly wrapped a cloth around my head with an enthusiasm and speed I find endearingly alarming.

The safe word is "insulin."

So here are the three bars up for contention: 

Here we have it: The Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar, The Chocolate Waterfall, and the Domed Dark Chocolate Bar.

My wife gave me the first piece. It tasted good, but with a bit of an iffy aftertaste; it had to be the Waterfall. The Waterfall is a mixture of milk and white chocolate. I am not a fan of white chocolate, equating it somewhere on the tasty meter between cadaver meat and orange-flavored ammonia. 

Surprisingly, though, this wasn't a bad choice. The mixture is just about right. While I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to have some, people who are not fans of white chocolate shouldn't necessarily shy away. The texture was actually better than straight up milk chocolate, and the taste is there but not overly strong. At the very least, it was the prettiest candy bar of the bunch:

Welcome to Xanadu. I am your host, Ricardo Montalbon, and this is your concierge, Joan Jett of the Blackhearts.

The next piece was fed to me. It was crunchy, so had to be the Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar. You just can't quite go wrong with toffee, cookie crumbs, and peanut bits. Unfortunately for my wife, I found a bag of these cleverly hidden from my view a few days earlier and had sampled them once or twice or a dozen times. It doesn't matter. I'm sure this violates some aspect of the blind taste test, but the benefits (tasty chocolate) outweighed the drawbacks (pissing off my wife).

The W stands for Wonderful! Or Wax. Don't tell the FDA.

The last one, quite by default, was the Domed Dark Chocolate Bar. This one was surprisingly good since I don't care for dark chocolate.

This piece of candy says "Eat Me." Oh, wait, that's a different story involving creepy eccentrics who were probably pedophiles.

I'm not sure I could eat the large bar of just this, but fans of dark chocolate would appreciate the balance of dark and milk chocolate, I think. 

Quite surprisingly, I got all three correct! I believe this is the academic equivalent of an 800 on my verbal SATs.

Three for three, bitches! Take that, Marilyn vos Savant.

All three of these bars were pretty good, but the Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar is probably the only one I would buy on a regular basis. The other two certainly aren't bad--they were both pretty good, and I've actually dipped back into the Domed Dark Bar when my wife wasn't looking--but I can't see them crop up on my menu more than occasionally. And I don't think any of the three are as good as the simple graham-cracked-laced Wonka Bar.

A score of Oompa Loompas died so I could write this review. Remember them not in vain.

Each candy bar also came with a chance to win a Golden Ticket. You don't get to go to the whimsical chocolate factory, alas, where you get to eat experimental candy and meet with the non-union labor. You do, however, get a trip around the world. Unfortunately, we didn't win any Golden Tickets. I, however, did win a bout of indigestion.

This is what you get when you eat three 12-year-old's worth of chocolate in one sitting.

So there you have it. It's hard to go wrong with quality chocolate, and Nestle done good.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Crank Crank Theatre Presents


Sorry I've been light on the posting. I was on the vacation this week, and so I thought I'd get a lot more writing done, but it turns out that, uh, I didn't. Not to worry, I'll find some miscellaneous stuff to keep y'all entertained until I get back in the groove of things.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Ballad of Rand Paul

I've always been sympathetic to the libertarian movement. I consider myself a libertarian, but there are a handful of major issues in which I deviate from them, and a lot more that I differ in degree over. I would most likely be laughed out of any Libertarian Convention if they probed my stances on issues. Still, I consider myself to be too libertarian to be conservative, and too conservative to be libertarian. (I suspect that today's conservative movement will slide into libertarianism, so I may be eventually vindicated, but that will be another discussion for another day.)

That doesn't mean that I support the Libertarian Party candidates for election. Sure, I'd like to see a few elected, and I vote big-L Libertarian on occasion, but to be honest the Libertarian Party is looking more for drawing attention to unpopular issues for ideological and theoretical points instead of actually winning elections. The Libertarian Party has never quite grasped the concept that you don't win elections by fighting for, say, pornographer's rights, or flag-burning, no matter how just you think the cause is. My friend Mike calls libertarians "losertarians," and it's funny because it's true.

Rand Paul, it seems, may have finally caught on. But then, of course, I was quickly proven wrong.

Paul took his obvious libertarian leanings and worked through the Republican Party--which has, except for some anti-Patriot Act and Iraq noise in the middle of the last decade, always been closer to the Libertarians than the Democrats have--which was step 1 in actually winning an election, and most likely the only way libertarians will have influence in today's political process. Step 2, as noted above, is to emphasize those things that people actually want to hear and use it to propel you to office.

Paul, of course, is the son of Ron Paul, the libertarian former presidential candidate. While Ron Paul was hardly one to keep his mouth shut, he at least had that politician's sense to pick and choose what his key issues were. Aside from abolishing the Federal Reserve (and his subsequent love of gold) and some quiet academic deviations, his positions weren't anything that were out of the mainstream, though they may have not fit in with the GOP label he was running on. And Rand Paul seemed to be following this formula; during the primary race, he kept speaking to those issues that were near and dear to Kentucky voters, such as taxes and health care.

How on earth he managed to get roped into talking about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 I don't know.

The specific part of the CRA that Paul objects to is allowing private business to serve who they wish--even if that means discriminating on the basis of race. It is, in its heart, a property rights issue--if the government can tell you how you use your property, you don't really own it. (He's also singled out the Americans with Disabilities Act as well, stating that the costs of implementation far outweigh the civil benefits. I'm not sure how I stand on this, though to be fair since pretty much all of the costs have been implemented, there is no real political benefit for opposing it. Aside from ideological purity, there is no reason for Paul to discuss it. And since vocalizing this ideological purity is what causes libertarians from getting elected, this is a no-win situation for him.)

There is a free-market rationalization for Paul's position. A person who refuses to hire a minority, or refuses to serve a minority, is costing themselves money. If you deny a better-skilled black man so that you can hire a white, you're paying a premium for your racism. A competitor who will gladly hire the skills of anyone regardless of color will eventually win in the marketplace. Likewise, every dollar you refuse to accept from someone is a dollar going to your competition, and eventually you'll find yourself out of business. For free marketeers, the slow, gradual, but eventual demise of a racist from the marketplace is worth keeping to secure the economic freedom of property rights. Of course, this doesn't have to be limited to race; an owner denying service to, say, Catholics, or Scientologists, or health care supporters would be placed in the same situation, regardless of the law.

This is also the heart of a politician's worst nightmare, one that most politicians are more than willing to punt to the courts. Here you have a classic free speech vs. civil rights debate, a debate no politician really wants to get dragged into. No one outside of the ACLU really wants to defend flag-burners, and yet our constitution protects them. Likewise, no one wants to defend racism, but our constitution protects the rights of people who hold abhorrent beliefs. At first blush, most people would like to make racism a crime, but that can quickly lead to a clunky form of thought control that a vast majority of individuals would be quite uncomfortable with--a reason hate crimes haven't really got much traction.

Of course, my issue specifically with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that...well, had I been a politician at the time, I probably would have voted for it. The total institutional racism that existed in the South far outweighed the normal free market solutions. If anything, it has the opposing effect; instead of losing money, a racist would make money. The historical racism that was specifically supported in the statutes made it quite difficult to crack, and at some point the government basically had to break the lock of racism. And since the South had resisted even piecemeal changes to racial legislation, there was no reason to not go for an entire overhaul of federal oversight. I'm not sure if the CRA was the most elegant solution, and I'm not so sure the subsequent rulings that have grown out of that legislation have been positive, but it's legislation that was necessary. I would have preferred a more direct state's rights solution, specifically singling out the former Confederacy (or at least those resisting reform), since what works in Birmingham may not work in Boston. And I'm not so sure I would have made that section of the bill as strong, since it does violate my views on property rights.

Still, it's quite odd that Rand Paul would even bring this up. Rather than some inquisitive muckraker trying to trap Paul into an uncomfortable position, he voluntarily raised the point when talking about the Fair Housing Act back in 2002. (To be fair, many portions of the Fair Housing Act--including the one Paul opposed--contributed mightily to our current housing and financial crisis. Paul was right, even if that uncovered some uncomfortable positions.) Whether Paul can talk himself out of this one remains to be seen--Kentucky is quite red and he may be able to make it after all.

The Pledge
The Republicans don't need more candidates that can easily be painted as racist reactionaries. Standing up for your beliefs and keeping your mouth shut are not mutually exclusive.

That said, Rand Paul isn't necessarily wrong. There are better solutions that protect property rights and civil rights, but no one wants to touch them because they are messy and leads quickly to demagoguery. Such is the burden of direct democracy.

BP, Or Not BP

Why is BP still in charge of cleaning up its own mess?

Hey, I'm a free marketeer from the privatize-organ-donation-and-sell-your-vote camp. But British Petroleum--and all of the affiliated companies--are dumping one hell of an externality on the world. And if there's one thing free marketeers hate, it's externalities.

Yeah, I'm suspect of the environmental movement. Yeah, I'm realistic in the way that I know that there are going to be oil spills regardless of how much legislation and how many fail-safes are involved, and if we suck down a quarter of the world's oil we had better be prepared to bear the brunt of the disasters. So while I'm not excusing it, it makes sense that it's not going to be perfect.

And yet...the monumental jackassery that has occurred on BP's part in not bothering to come up with...well, ANY backup plan, or any way to clean up this oil spill--which I might add is still going on a month after it started--is an absolute injustice.

And I'm even (partially) willing to let BP off the hook for the original disaster--it hasn't been fully investigated yet, but it seems the initial explosion that caused this was an honest-to-goodness couldn't-see-that-coming ass-ploshun.  I'm also willing to grant a certain level of variance--each disaster is different and not easy to predict, so it's impossible to counter-plan each and every scenario. It's the fact that there really wasn't any plan that made sense to clean up the aftereffects.

The question I have is...why hasn't the government stepped in?

I'm all for letting BP try to do it first--after all, they have the technology, motive, and expertise to do it better than the government. And their initial attempts actually seemed to be done in good faith, even if it didn't work. However, at this point it seems that BP has effectively given up even trying.

I'm also sympathetic to letting the government be the avenue of last recourse; however, if there is one thing the government tends to be good at is the actual mechanics of dealing with things like this. Crises and situations differ, of course, but I bet if there was a Marine stationed in the laboratory where BP's scientists are just standing around glaring and fingering his weapon we'd have had more than the Big Box of Ice Crystals and the Creepy Oil Snake to show for it.

Don't bother. It's not what you think.

And, of course, we hear that the dispersant used for oil spills like this is being used, but there are less toxic dispersants available out there. For some reason they are not being used. Oh, and in an unrelated note, the manufacturer of the more-toxic dispersant has a former BP executive on its board of directors.

This isn't a Katrina, which was just a natural disaster that the government seemed ill-prepared for. For this mess, you have a specific company you can point a finger to. And this is like watching a hurricane in slow motion. I'm just not sure why there seems to be little involvement of the government at this point. It's not because the government has been shackled by anti-state reactionaries--if anything, post-Katrina disaster response has more support in both the population and elected officials, even those who would otherwise be unsympathetic.

The Nuclear Option, of course, is to blow the well up. I hain't no engineer, but I've been told by teh internets that this is an option--collapse the well and the oil plumes will stop. It's been done before. I'm sure there are variables and backup plans for the backup plans, but it seems like it's about time to send in a detachment of Marines and a Fat Boy.

Someone please call Michael Bay

Of course, collapsing the well means higher oil prices (at least temporarily), so it's understandable from everyone's standpoint (except, you know, BP) that this be the last resort. But after a month, it seems like it's time for the last resort.

The Pledge: 
Don't solely blame BP for the oil spill. We drink a quarter of the world's oil supply, so we shouldn't be shocked--shocked!--when something like this happens. Gluttonous Americans share at least part of the blame.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't kick BP in the teeth.

If George W. Bush had waited this long with little to no action on the part of the government, he would be "fattening the wallets of oil fat cats" and "trying to pay back his buddies at Halliburton" and "he doesn't care about the environment, or people, or anything." But since it's Barack Obama, well, he can't do any wrong. Anyone who thinks otherwise is being harmfully naive.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

As a child, I was never particularly interested in the Civil War. I mean, yeah, Abraham Lincoln was the shiznit and all, but I was more interested in, say, Andrew Jackson, who as far as I could tell shot bystanders for sport, or Teddy Roosevelt, who ate Rhino Macs for breakfast. Lincoln just kind of seemed like that tall, lanky kid that won the class presidency but still got picked last in gym. And the battles and the legislation and everything just kind of made me...well, bored. It just wasn't my thing.

But then a few years later something clicked. I don't remember what it was--a story I read, or a clip of documentary on the History Channel, or what--but I suddenly became quite interested. I read voraciously about the Civil War. I was still more interested in the political and social aspects of it than the military, but I was interested in it all. I'm not going to suit up and fire fake musket juice at five in the morning or anything, but it was enough to pique my interest.

I thought you said there'd be girls here

So hen my wife recommended Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, I wasn't sure what to think. The entire genre of historical horror didn't particularly appeal to me--I kind of assumed it was a one-off joke that wouldn't really take off. On the other hand, the entire concept of having Honest Abe splitting more than rails just seemed kinda cool.

Well, the book is kinda cool. It's actually a very good book--and also a very somber one. Unlike some of the other books of this type, it's not particularly camp or a spoof, it reads just like a historical biography would, except for all the--you know, vampires.

I'm not going to go into the plot of the book, mostly because it's more fun to read it. Basically, many major events of our American history somehow involved vampires, and author Seth Graham-Smith makes it reasonably plausible. It reads like a biography of his life, but (of course) emphasizes the vampire hunt. However, you don't really notice it, since it's integrated nicely into Abe's life--nothing really seems forced.

The book is a fast read--not because it's shallow, but it flows nicely. Excerpts from Lincoln's "diary" and intertwined with the narrative, which moves the book along fairly well. In addition, Lincoln's vampire hunts are usually quite exciting. The excerpts are written pretty much exactly as you would expect from someone of that era--the phraseology and terminology seem authentic. 

And, quite frankly, there's just something awesome about ole Abe Lincoln chopping up vampires for the good of the country.

I will emancipate your head from the rest of your body.

The book isn't perfect--some things are tidied up a bit too nice, and certain plot devices are rushed to a conclusion without adequate exposition. And some things (specifically the motivation of certain characters) are left unattended. Still, these are minor gripes; the book is definitely a recommendation. 

I'm not certain this book would exist in any other time frame. It would have been nice to see this book predate the current vampire craze, but on the other hand I doubt it would have sold as well. There is a movie in the works, which I think should be pretty good, but we'll see.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What's Your Problem?

I love The Atlantic magazine. I've subscribed for years and I have always highly anticipated its delivery each month. Unfortunately, about two years ago or so they revamped the entire thing--getting rid of standard columns, changing the article structure, etc. It's not nearly as good, but I understand why they did it. (Stoopid internets!) The quality of the articles is just as good and it's still a brilliant magazine (and not only for its awesome business and economics editor, Megan McArdle).

One thing they added was a quasi-fake advice column as the back column, written by Jeffrey Goldberg, that answers questions with ridiculous and amusing answers. I've not exactly been impressed; I think it's somewhat juvenile and seemed like kind of a lame attempt at humor. It wasn't the worst thing in the world, but I thought the real estate on the last page of a magazine is too valuable for a warmed-over Mad magazine-style attempt at silliness.

Of course, that's not to say it's not getting better. For some reason this past month's column had this gem:

For 20 years, I’ve been traveling up and down the East Coast because of school, work, and family. Each time I drive, I get depressed about the state of I-95’s rest stops. They are shabby, the bathrooms rarely get cleaned, and the food is always unhealthy and unappealing. Why don’t these rest stops ever get better? Should I give up hope?
J. P., Hamden, Conn.
Dear J. P.,

I tend to take the long view on this subject. The story of America is one of almost constant self-correction and self-improvement. We began our history as a country in which Africans were held as slaves. Today, we have an African American president. A mere 90 years ago, women did not possess the right to vote; now a woman is the speaker of the House. Four decades ago, gays and lesbians were alternately harassed and ignored. Now we are on the cusp of universally recognized gay marriage. We as a nation have defeated Fascism and Communism, and we have invented almost everything useful and worthwhile in the modern age. But it is helpful to be reminded every so often that only God is perfect and that to be human, and even to be American, is to live with limitations and inadequacies. And the dreadful, soul-crushing condition of rest stops along I-95 (especially the one in Delaware) is a reminder that our work as a people is never finished. This, at least, is what comes to mind when I catch my first whiff of Cinnabon at the Molly Pitcher Service Area, conveniently located between Exits 8 and 8A on the New Jersey Turnpike. 

OK, so maybe he's getting better. I enjoyed it this month, so perhaps I'll be a late convert. We shall see. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

You Too, Limey

From a local awesome restaraunt:
It was also awesome before this sign was up, of course.

The Pledge

I've been writing about the hockey playoffs and Twitter because I can't bring myself to write about politics and economics. Not because I'm scared or angry or foolish, but because when I write about such topics I usually follow this pattern:

1) Some issue gets me all legitimately cranked off
2) I forge a remarkably cogent defense of my position on said issue
3) I write a blog entry about it
4) I realize that I'm probably going to piss a bunch of people off
5) I amend my opinions with a bunch of waffling and qualifications to make myself appear less of a prick
6) The blog entry effectively becomes worthless because it no longer has an opinion, but a bunch of sentences with only slight variations to the conventional wisdom

So I'm going to be the guy that's running around saying things like "I think high taxes are bad!" and "Boy, our politicians should be doing something about crime!" I'd rather bang my head off the wall than listen to some milquetoast talking head making more money than me in my lifetime spout off prepared statements composing of nothing but the blatantly obvious, so I certainly don't expect my readers to put up with that. I expect you to put up with me talking about the hockey playoffs and obscure candy. 

 The new C2R mascot

So, in honor of election day here in the grand state of Pennsylvania, I'll make this, the Crank Crank Revolution Pledge, to you: I'll only write something if it pisses you off. Viva America!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Wife Is Sick

My wife is sick.

This isn't the usual "I have a cold because I don't want to play Super Smash Brothers with you right now" sick, this is a Grade-A Class-One Four-Alarm sickness. If my wife were a cartoon, the liquid in the thermometer would burst through the top and little green wavy lines would be permeating from the top of her head.

She. Is. Miserable.

I've tried to accommodate her the best I can, but, unfortunately, the tales of my healing prowess have been quite exaggerated, as we shall see below. About all I'm able to cure is a case of the Run Down To Sheetz And Get Me A Mint Mocha, which if I do say so myself I do end up doing pretty well.

But I feel infinitely bad for my wife. She felt so bad that her preferred method of travel from our upstairs to our living room is to slide down the stairs like a five year old. I caught her slowly descending the stairs with the saddest look of forlornity* on her face.

I couldn't face that happening again. So on a subsequent trip when she needed to go upstairs to take a bath, I wasn't sure exactly what method she had devised, so I volunteered to carry her up. She locked her arms around my neck and I slowly pulled her to the stairs, and one by one we went up each step. I'm not so sure it helped but it did get her up the steps, so I'm claiming a win on this one. 

Of course, I wasn't the only one to try and help. Our cat Nora gave it her best shot. My wife, curled up in bed and reading a good Sunday afternoon sickness recovery book, felt Nora creep up to snuggle next to her. Our cat has been a bit of a hot crank lately, but she can always tell when Mommy is sick. (She does not, alas, do the same for me; I will always be the interloper who only feeds, waters, and pets her.) So even though she's a little under the weather herself (she has a bad case of the feline hormone disease or whatever its scientific name is) she laid a single solitary paw on my wife. It was part empathic harmony and part Benny Hinn.

 Please send me ten percent of your fish sticks and catnip-laced stuffed mice shaped like bumblebees, and you too shall be hay-eled

Despite her best intentions, Nora did not make my wife's sickness disappear. So we had to take the next step--rampant pharmaceuticals. I basically picked up everything that was street legal at the store and brought it home like the world's worst junkie.

My wife looked it over.

"I'm going to dissolve the Alka-Seltzer Plus Cold and Flu in the Tylenol Night Time Cool Mint Syrup, then take a Sudafed chaser."

This did not seem to be the worst idea ever. I was, in fact, going to be sleeping with her in the same house tonight.

She felt so bad that she made up a song about how she felt. She started singing "I'm Pitiful," a parody of James Blunt's "You're Beautiful." It was a very pretty song the way she sang it, but I couldn't really break it to her that Weird Al already did that.** I didn't want her to try and mend her broken heart with more Vick's Vap-O-Rub and NyQuil Sinus Formula.

So in one last attempt to have her feel better, I decided to take our mini dachshund Dexter with me to my mother's house to give my wife some peace and quiet. She claims it was because Dexter was fussy all day, but I'm pretty sure it was me trying about every ten minutes to convince her that baking me chocolate chip cookies was a good way to cure a cold. Either way, it got us both out of the house for a couple of hours.

Unfortunately, it turns out my wife wasn't the only one with a touch of something. After driving for all of what seems like twenty seconds, my poor dog vomited in my car. I'm going to chalk this one up to a rather vigorous walk and subsequent water drenching coupled with a bumpy car ride, but I'm pretty sure he just wanted to see exactly how bad he could make me feel, because I felt about two inches tall.

Daddy, I'm sorry I urped all over the front seat of your Chevy Cobalt. I'm sure it knocked nearly a dozen dollars off of its blue book value.

Of course, since I couldn't make my wife no longer sick, I could at least try and make it as pleasant as possible. I had been jonesing for some cereal lately, so I decided that while I was in the appropriate aisle I would get my wife some of her favorite cereal. So when I got home and put groceries away, I proudly held up the box to show her that I got her some of her favoritist*** part of a complete breakfast, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It was almost a second later--and most certainly not an hour before when I was picking it up at the grocery store--when my brain reminded me that she actually does not like Cinnamon Toast Crunch at all, but it's Golden Grahams she craves. I even sang the damn jingle to her to make it more romantic****.


Here I thought I was going to get all these Awesome Husband Experience Points and maybe even level up, but I actually ended up making it worse, because even though she won't admit it I know that while she wasn't hungry for Golden Grahams before, she's sure as shit hungry for it NOW. I am SO SCREWED if she ever gets pregnant. She'll crave pizza rolls and pretzel flavored ice cream, and I'll come home with fresh mangos and a chicken salad sandwich.

So my attempts at making my wife as comfortable as possible during her sickness has not been going well. I certainly hope she gets better soon, because I'm afraid that my abilities may have mostly been taxed to the limit. She may send me to the clinic and I'll end up bringing home a giraffe hide snuggie and a composting kit. And I can only hope that this is why my wife puts up with me.

* This is not, technically, a word.
** I did anyway.
*** This is also not, technically, a word.
**** Sadly, this is true.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Make It Eight! Why Not?

The turnaround story of the NHL is somewhat legendary. It wasn't five years ago that the National Hockey League was in dire straights. Scoring was low and games were boring. Goalies were padded up like Sherman Tanks to stop one player--Wayne Gretzky. Fights were commonplace and nasty. Many mid-market franchises served as little more than farm teams for the five or six cities actually willing to pay for quality players.

In the meantime, franchises abandoned their historical hometowns for more lucrative pastures. Gone were the Hartford Whalers, Minnesota North Stars, Winnipeg Jets, and the Quebec City Nordiques. Teams were created and relocated in new cities, away from the Great White North and into the sun belt.

So where did all this lead? A league that nearly destroyed itself.

The games were--let's put this bluntly--boring. With no scoring but plenty of fistfights, hockey descended into a parody of itself. And with nearly a third of the teams either brand new or recently relocated, loyal fans were hard to come by. The NHL's idea was to crack the South, an area not exactly known as hockey fans; they presumably saw how popular football, basketball, and baseball were in the new franchises, most in the South, and assumed hockey would be successful as well. In addition, the promise of a population boom--a true demographic shift that continues--would lead these teams to find their financial footing just in time. But the fans never showed up, and even playoff runs left plenty of empty seats. ESPN finally gave up and dropped their coverage of the games, a death knell for a pro sports organization.

The lockout saved the NHL. It introduced a salary cap--making small-market teams viable--as well as a multitude of rule changes to make the game more exciting. In addition, the advent of HD television has made hockey more presentable; while all sports are better in HD, the impact it has on hockey is fairly strong. Seeing similarly-dressed players following a nearly-invisible rubber disc around an ice rink is tough enough, but with HD it becomes not only doable but actually visually orgasmic. There's no better way that Best Buy can move product than to slap on a hockey game.

Don't get me wrong--hockey is still struggling. They are by far the lowest-watched sport of the four major sports, though they are (quite obviously) much more popular in Canada. In addition, hockey fans tend to be wealthier, so from a financial standpoint hockey has some extra breathing room. And several teams (namely the Phoenix Coyotes, currently owned by the NHL itself due to financial issues) are on the verge of collapse.

Then again, I'm of the opinion that there is a lot more room for capacity in all sports; one day soon I'll lay out my Awesome Plan for Expanding the NFL. But for the NHL, the following needs to happen:

1) Get Back To Its Roots. I don't mind trying to crack a new market: it only makes valid business sense. But does there really need to be five teams in the south, seven if you also count Phoenix and Dallas? I would like to remind everyone that there are only six teams in all of Canada, the birthplace of the damn sport. So rip up some of the less successful teams in the South (Hi, Nashville!) and move them back north.

2) Expand to 32 teams. Yes, I know, this pretty much contradicts what I've been saying--why dilute the team pool with more teams and causing more financial distress? I say that the talent pool isn't as shallow as people think, and baseball has proved that small-market teams with little potential to be contenders can still be profitable. With the salary cap, this may actually work out better than MLB.

3) Speaking of which: There is an entire talent pool of above-average and outright awesome the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. The NHL is vastly superior, but it's not always going to be that way. Even now, many top Russian players are being lured away with huge contracts to play in Russia. Even the European Leagues have talent. None of these leagues are nearly at the top, but they're not minor league, either. There is a lot of room to attract good players and fill out rosters for new teams without diminishing quality.

4) Get back ESPN. This may actually happen fairly soon; the contract with the awful Versus will be up eventually, and the NHL has fixed a lot of problems since they got dropped. However, Versus has gotten some pretty good ratings, so there may be a bit of a bidding battle. For the NHL to grow, though, it needs a professional media outlet that everyone is devoted to, and Versus isn't it.

What teams would be the new teams? I have no problem vacating (at first) Nashville and Phoenix. (Other cities can be reviewed as time goes on; many of the newly minted teams need some time to establish themselves before the plug gets pulled.) Moving teams back to Winnipeg and Quebec City, and adding one to Hamilton, will probably be the top priority. Yeah, populations there are small, but they are MAD about hockey up there. (Plus they don't really have basketball or baseball to compete with, and while Canadian football is popular it's not THAT popular.) Adding teams to Seattle or New England (Back to Hartford? Providence, perhaps?) could also be viable, though Midwestern candidates like Kansas City or Cleveland may also work. (Incidentally, so would Las Vegas, but pro sports in general wants to avoid that city like the plague.)

Of course, it may be too soon to tell for any of this. Last year the Phoenix Coyotes were almost liquidated; this year, they made the playoffs and are more stable, and next year they may sell out every game. Meanwhile the Buffalo Sabres or the Minnesota Wild may go from stable to the bankruptcy court in a few years. Unlike the NFL, which is so wildly popular the only way to lose money is to actually physically lose the burlap sacks of cash with dollar signs painted on it on the trip to the rich person bank, or the MLB, with its wickedly complicated but lucrative New York Yankee Welfare Luxury Tax and Television Revenue Sharing Plan (and also with a lot more localized loyalty), the NHL has a lot of moving parts that hasn't settled yet. On the one hand, that's scary, since it leaves a lot of clubs on the balance; on the other hand, it gives them a lot of room to maneuver. We shall see.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To Hab and Hab Not

This is just a quick note to remind everyone that the PENS LOST.

Now, I am certainly a fan of our Pittsburgh sports teams; my long, winding road to becoming a fan of professional sports in general is a story for another time. Suffice it to say I've only followed the Penguins and Steelers for about five years or so despite living in the Pittsburgh Statistical Metropolitan Area all my life. But I'm also realistic--I know full well that not every team can win the championship every year. Even good teams get beat.

For me, this is a good thing, and one of the reasons why I don't like baseball. Due to its current setup (with no salary cap and little in the way of effective draft balancing), there is a fairly good chance that even before game one is played in the year, the playoffs are already determined (Hey, there, Yankees). What fun is that? No, money isn't everything,and a few teams make it in spite of this (Hey, there, Tampa Bay) but it's easy to spend your way to the top 20% of the league before a pitch is even thrown.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm not disappointed. The Pens are a better team than Montreal. They're certainly better than either Philadelphia or Boston, which would have been their next options had they won. I'm not as familiar with the west coast, but I assume that San Jose would be tough, but Chicago would be beatable. Of course, this is all quite theoretical, since I would like to remind everyone that the PENS LOST.

It was...strange watching the game last night. Sidney Crosby looked good, but Malkin looked flat. Gonchar was, for the most part, absolutely terrible; I watched several times as the puck slowly trickled past him and he had to run and catch it. I suspect his days in a Penguin uniform are done. Marc-Andre Fleury got chased from the net; I think Fleury is overrated (not bad, just overrated). Everyone was slow to react to everything. The only individuals I was impressed with were LeTang and--when he was actually on the ice--Ponikarovsky, who looked like they were actually trying.

So now it's time to wait. There are only two things to look forward to: Hossa losing and training camp next year.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Twitter This!

In case you haven't noticed the button on the sidebar, I've now created a Twitter account under @americancrank. I don't post often quite yet, but soon enough you'll be able to get the very best in frequent comments such as "Screw you, I know more about the British Election than you do" and "I would kill a man in cold blood for a toasted coconut donut from Dunkin Donuts right now." So, um, have at it.

The Lament of the Latecomer

Honest--I've been wanting to write about some of the stuff that's been going on lately, such as the oil spill and the nomination of Elena Kagan, but I suffer from a bit of a blogging problem. Basically, I am unable to write at work, something I am morally and culturally obligated to do for at least eight hours a day. Despite what y'all may think, I don't exactly earn a paycheck making fun of the Greek finance crisis and writing cleavage jokes. Since I can't really write at work--or, for that matter, research or read any news material beyond the most superficial of headlines--by the time I grasp a major news event and can mold a vaguely coherent analysis of the situation in my head, it's already been 48 hours and a thousand bloggers have already done a much better job of it. That doesn't mean I'm certainly not going to half-ass phone it in, as I probably will do with the two stories above, but I feel I owe it to the few readers here that it's going to be difficult to be more up to date than what you've already experienced.

Now, technically, I can write these blog posts from my phone, but this is a painful and long process I can't always accomplish. And posting photos is doubly impossible. As a test, a few of the previous posts were done in this manner, and let's just say it took a little longer than your standard Masters Tournament. So while the option exists, I doubt my phone blogging will be used beyond the simplest of posts. I am also going to blame my many grammatical and spelling errors on it, which is probably a gross violation of judgment but I am going to testify to its truth. Amen.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Eating Their Own

The old adage "Be careful what you wish for" is true in politics as it is in real life.

The Tea Party has converted itself from a grassroots organization to protest government policies into a leviathan giant-killer. Their plan, apparently, is to force primary challenges to Republicans who are considered to not be conservative enough and knock them from office. They've been successful twice so far: long-time senator Bob Bennett from Utah was ousted over the weekend in favor of their own candidate. And Charlie Crist in Florida opted to run as an independent, since he was trailing the Tea Party's favored candidate by wide margins. Their eyes are everywhere else, supporting Ron Paul's son in Kentucky and Pat Toomey's race in Pennsylvania. They've even targeted Arizona, with famously moderate (despite all the crank during the election) John McCain being alarmingly threatened by a Tea Party candidate. Take note: he was the candidate of the GOP last election, and he may lose his seat.

Now, primary challenges and anti-incumbent fever are hardly new, and hardly the sole provenance of the Tea Party. This sort of thing happens quite a bit. However, they are 1) usually not very successful and 2) usually not very organized. Both of those qualifications, so far don't seem to be taking hold.

Of course, the Tea Party is driving the Republicans nuts. Not only are they knocking off their veterans, but they are making it far more difficult to win in November. Cranky, inexperienced reactionaries may fly in Oklahoma or Georgia, but they're not going to win in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. By making the candidates far to the right, they're making it hard to run against, say, a Democratic moderate. And this anti-Washington fever could easily erode in six months, leaving the GOP with a bunch of goldbugs, birthers, and Birchers.

It's hard to blame the Republicans too much for this--by most accounts, they've had very little to do with all this.Certainly, they sympathize with the movement, and want to harness the Tea Party anger into electoral success. The GOP gladly encouraged the Tea Party when it began, because it helped galvanize the electorate against corporate bailouts and health care. But they've always known that calling Barack Obama by his middle name and kicking all the forners out of Amurica is bad policy. And they certainly don't like what is happening to their candidates. And the Tea Party is pretty much defined as an anti-establishment movement, which includes both Democrats and Republicans, though both the GOP and the Tea Party sympathize with each other. However, this last point was probably the GOP's undoing--they assumed it would simply be the angry, vocal manifestation of the GOP they could ally with, and so encouraged it; but now, the motives are quite different. Despite the Republican Party's agenda, their job first and foremost is to win elections.

On the other hand, the Tea Party's influence may be exaggerated. In a lot of the cases listed above, there are other factors involved. Crist was twenty points behind the Tea Party candidate; that scale of suck is above and beyond a simple upstart challenger. In Utah, one of the most conservative states in the union, the candidates are chosen by delegates, not by voters, and everyone knows that the chance of a Democrat winning the seat this year is practically zero, so why not just go with the most conservative candidate they can find? In Pennsylvania, the Republican candidate will most likely be going up against Arlen Specter, who switched parties since his last election, so the ideological battle is quite different there. And Kentucky is an open seat.

And a lot of primaries have yet to be decided; it's possible that the Tea Party leadership will realize they may be contributing to electoral defeat; while they certainly can't stop running candidates, they can change their strategy. However, I doubt it. This organization is more interested in lobbing cheap but entertaining shots at liberals and flexing their ideological purity than actually running the government. Someone needs to tell them there's already a job position available for that that doesn't include the Senate.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bedrock Memories

Last week, my wife and I went to go see the new Alice in Wonderland in Butler, a creepy and underwhelming experience.(Although it was nice to see Johnny Depp finally star in a Tim Burton film.)

On the way out, however, I was stopped in my tracks. Unnoticed previous to me, the theater had one of these:

 One of these days, Alice...

It is a Lucky Egg Flintstones vending machine! Holy cats!

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved these. Basically all it is is a cheap plastic toy vending machine. You slip in a quarter, Fred Flintstone spins around declaring that, indeed, Yabba Dabba does in fact do, then an egg comes out with some odd toy of some sort, like a spider ring or a temporary tattoo.

I loved it when I was a kid because when the guidance counselor of our school would ask us what we wanted to be when we grow up, I authoritatively declared that I wanted to pursue a career as a dinosaur. And I was always lukewarm when it came to the Flintstones, because it was all about going to the about the Water Buffalo Lodge or cranking about getting a raise from Mr. Slate, when I just wanted to see Dino run around like an idiot barking at the mailman.

But this vending machine was awesome, because while it was Fred twirling around, it was a big ole picture of Dino, looking proud like a new father, laying eggs for a quarter apiece like a rogue Duggar, that caught my attention.

 I've got eeeeeggs! And I know how to use them!

Of course, this confused me even more, because all signs pointed to Dino being kind of a dude, but I let it slide because dinosaurs were somehow related to birds and grew spikes on their backs so I wasn't exactly certain what was going on in the field of prehistoric physiology.

In fact, at one point years ago I ran into this machine at a local grocery store, since out of business, and I asked to speak to the manager to see if I could buy the machine; I assumed I could get it on the cheap since no one ever used it. It sat neglected in an odd corner of the store. Sadly he informed me that it was leased by the vending machine company and he was not in a position to sell it to me, and it was unlikely that they would part ways with it. I refused to believe this, since I'm pretty sure that not a single child in a decade had wanted Dino's dried up eggs, but I resigned myself that perhaps it was best that I let this one thing fade wistfully into nostalgia.

So it was a bit of a treat to see the thing, still up and pumping out eggs, at a second-run movie theater twenty miles away. I even suspect it's the same machine, but who knows. Of course, I had to see what Dino had to offer me after all these years:

C'mon! Daddy needs a Greek government-issued bond!

What Dino had to offer was a ring. Two, to be exact, one with a pink penguin and one with a blue turtle, which makes sense. In the end, everyone was happy, and I expect to see the machine next at Ollie's, or perhaps Big Lots. We shall see what happens by the next Ice Age.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Greek Like Me

Most people probably don't know what is happening in Greece. This is understandable--it's something most economists and diplomats aren't too keen on. But suffice it to know:

1. Their economy is a mess and their public finances are a joke.
2. Most third world nations--which at this point Greece is close to approaching--they inflate their problems away.
3. This causes other issues, but they can be punted for future politicians to worry about.
4. Since Greece is part of the EU, and therefore part of the Euro, they can't.

Since the government of Greece can't use monetary methods to aid their fiscal crisis, they have to use fiscal methods. For those keeping score at home, this means firing government workers and raising taxes. In an economy already in a tailspin this is already causing a lot of unhappiness.

This is nothing terribly new--other smaller economies in Europe such as Portugal and Ireland are teetering as well. However, everyone tied together in the Euro--a concept that is barely a decade old--means that the stronger economies (read: Germany) are going to have to come up with a bailout. This is certainly a test for the European Union; many problems have been masked by a decently roaring economy and a united front against both Russia and the United States.

The bailout is called an "Austerity" package, an amusing term, I think. It's like two thousand years of philosophy and culture is about to disintegrate due to a desperate need for a 10% cut in civil service pay.

Two percent decrease in my pension contribution? Hand me the hemlock, sir.

Of course, the rational response to this is not to elect a new government or take a fresh look at the's to burn down a bank and kill three people, then blame Obama for trying to force a strong dollar to boost exports to China.

To paraphrase something I assume a relationship expert would say if I listened to relationship experts, if you hated us under right wing reactionary George Bush and you hated us under lefty Barack Obama, maybe, just's not us.

I don't get it.

Of course, it's not like it hasn't had an impact in the US. The Dow dropped 1000 points yesterday (eventually to recover to a merely lousy day instead of a jump-from-the-window day). Partly this was because of the worries over Greece--world markets are still reeling--but because of...a typo.

Or at least that's the theory. Despite the idea that stockbrokers are on the exchange physically running around throwing papers at interns, or holding six phones to their ear with a cigarette hanging from the corner of their mouth and a pastrami on rye soaking in olive oil on a Wall Street Journal splayed out on their desk, most of it is done on computers. Complicated formulas and algorithms with years of refinement are develops to trigger sales of specific stocks. The computers do the heavy liftng while hedge fund managers and stockbrokers do whatever it is they do when they're not throwing fax machines across the room.

Well, apparently, someone fat-fingered a stock sale and all hell broke loose. Normally stable companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Accenture dropped like rocks. Computers used their intricate formulas and decided to head for the hills. Thankfully, the scary downfall lasted a relatively short time as non-HAL entities scooped up obvious bargains and the market corrected itself.

That's not a wad of penny stocks in my pants.

So, yeah, it's easy to hate on Greece and the EU, but if they blame some sausage-fingered Athenian for all their issues, we may have to give them a pass.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I'm UK, You're UK

Well, today is--finally--the day of the UK election. I've always been fascinated by British politics, not least because some foundation used to send me free surplus books about it in college.

The UK, aside from Canada and possibly Australia, arguably has the closest culture to the United States. Certainly in western Europe they have the most similar political culture. Sure, the Conservatives are more like our moderate Democrats, and they have an entire party of Dennis Kuciniches in the Liberal Democrats, but when it's all said and done it's not so terribly different.

One party, all of this guy. No wonder they lost an empire.

Of course, most comparisons are not going to be ideal. Few western democracies have anything close to our system; parliamentary elections run quite differently than our presidential one. In this case, it may make a difference. The UK has a small but significant third party, the Liberal Democrats. Normally they are a distant afterthought with the occasional bout of scathing importance. This year, however, it's different.

With an electorate comfortable but irritated at New Labour--the functional equivalent of Clinton Democrats formed under the Democratic Leadership Council in America, where Labour shed its embarrasingly pro-Marxist platform--but not quite ready to pull the trigger on the equally reformed but electorally untested conservative Tories, the Lib Dems have a shot to be a sizable minority. The alarmingly unexpected but otherwise electrifying charisna of the Lib Dem's leader, Nick Clegg, is also helping their cause. It's unlikely they will get past third place, but they may gain enough seats to deny either Labour or (more likely) the Conservatives of an outright majority.

In this kingmaker role, the Lib Dems are demanding a change in the electoral system. Without getting into the wonky details, it essentially makes it easier for third parties (such as the Liberal Democrats, but also the various nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland) to win elections. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are eager to do this, so the outcome isn't clear--and a few other options, such as the unstable minority government, are potential outcomes as well.

I'm certain few are as interested about this as myself. Perhaps the fact the the outcome will only at best tangentally affect us makes it more fun to follow.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Economist

The Economist is a British magazine; despite its title, it's not necessarily about economics but more like a slightly heavier Newsweek. It focuses a little bit more on Europe and finance, but usually has a large amount of American coverage that I find it just the right balance.

Anyway, the editors have a particularly British sense of humor--it even pervades the writing of otherwise completely serious articles, and I love it. But they also put effort in their covers, like the current week's:

You may have to click to enlarge it. Granted, for those of you who switch to SpongeBob SquarePants when they start talking about the Greek Debt Crisis--and I don't blame you one bit--this cover may not seem particularly amusing. But it just about made my day. That makes me a bad person.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Here We Go!

Two separate yet equally important events occurred in my life recently, but to place them in the proper context, it may be essential to review some of the more culturally significant areas of Western Culture.

It all started with a small character named Jumpman, who made his debut rescuing the ever-distressed Pauline from a huge ape who was called, inexplicably, Donkey Kong. As will become evident soon, Japanese culture is easily defined as being knock-down crazy all around.

Donkey + Kong = Donkey Kong. So Jump + Man = Jumpman! I Rike!

The little guy became wildly popular. I mean, why not? If people can fall in love with a gob of yellow that gets his rocks off eating a thousand little pellets of sugar pills, why not a lowly plumber who hops over barrels and dodges jacks that for some reason bounce?

Soon, Jumpman became Mario and--while it has never been officially declared--the suffering Pauline turned into Princess Toadstool, and finally Princess Peach. OK, so that's a bit of a stretch, but if that noisy tart who carelessly lets her umbrella and purse lay about in construction zones isn't already acting like royalty, I don't know who would.

You better have dinner ready when I get home after all this. And nothing with mushrooms, either. I get enough of that horseshit at work.

Mario, his brother Luigi, and a host of other creepy Japanese characters became a best-selling franchise, and has become the flagship franchise for the Nintendo corporation, and has been a money maker beyond the video game industry, form lunchboxes and candy to apparel and plush toys.

Which brings us to the first seminal event of importance. My wife found on the view it now on Netflix all of the old Super Mario Brother Super Show cartoons, which was part badly-animated cartoon and part live-action sitcom. Mario was played by none other than the great Captain Lou Albano.

The Hammer Brothers! Twelve and a half pounds soaking wet of chiseled shell and stone cold granite. Often imitated, never duplicated!

This show was just absurd. The live action segments were absolutely ridiculous, in a shamelessly charming way. These two guys basically spend their time cooking pizzas and plunging, something ridiculous would happen, and eventually some famous teen star from the late 80's would be involved, such as Winnie Cooper needing her toilet unclogged. 

The cartoon itself was kind First off, in each show, Mario and Luigi would engage "Pasta Power" by playing pattycake with new, hip, updated lyrics. Pasta Power would allow them to jump higher, run faster, and make better automobiles than the Americans. This was a completely nonsensical addition. In a world where eating mushrooms made you grow and chomping on flowers made you shoot fireballs from your fists, did they really need to add a playground chant that wasn't cool even when you were six?

The second reason that the cartoon was subpar was that a majority of the enemies and backgrounds were pulled from the awful Super Mario Brothers 2, the Godfather Part III of video games.

This made children cry and grown men curse the sky

So, yeah, there were Koopa Troopas and Bullet Bills, but there were a lot more Shy Guys, turnips, and Birdos. In an unrelated note, Super Mario Brothers 2 was released the same year as the debut of the cartoon.

The second major event is this game that has been circulating around the internet.

If, like me, you used to have free time, you no longer do.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Terror Alert: Defrost

In case anyone wasn't paying attention, there were actually two bomb scares on Sunday: the one in Times Square, and the one on 11th Street between Liberty and Penn avenues in Pittsburgh, right on the route of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Basically, the bomb squad was called out to investigate what a passerby claimed was a pipe bomb but what ended up being a microwave with ravioli in it.

Now, it's hard to become too terribly judgmental about this fiasco; after all, there was just a bomb scare in New York, and Pittsburgh had just been wracked with a series of disasters about two weeks ago. It was also during one of the few times that Pittsburghers gather en masse that doesn't involve erecting a statue of Franco Harris.

One has to wonder, exactly, how a microwave with food still in it managed to get on the street in the first place. There are two theories: one involves the Taliban, and one involves some chick telling her deadbeat boyfriend to go take the microwave for a walk.

 Be on the lookout for Al Queda's top commander: Al-Sadr Boy-Ar-Dee

It all ended up being OK, and at the very least we got to see the bomb squad robot try and set the clock with disastrously humorous results ("I said PM. PM!") But we shouldn't rest easy--I've heard rumors that Pakistan has developed the toaster oven.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Outliers, Blink, and the Tipping Point

I finished Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers a few weeks ago. I have also read his previous two works, the Tipping Point and Blink. Gladwell is the exact type of writer that I find frustrating--his works are basically a repackaging of the blatantly obvious, and yet they are a complete blast to read.

The Tipping Point, his first publication, outlines the sociological blueprint for the multiplier effect of social phenomena. Basically, small changes can have huge impacts on society; things such as how information is disseminated via marketing campaigns (whether commercial or public policy). He details several components of how a message can grow--from the types of people required (individuals who are socially connected, people who gather information, and salesmen who can push the message) to the message itself (context and longevity).

Blink discusses how people make sudden initial judgments, and how too much information may actually hurt people's decision-making process. "Gut feelings" account for a lot more than people think, and over-analyzing may actually do more harm than good.

Outliers concerns measuring an individual's success, and that innate ability and hard work are just as important as luck and background, particularly when it comes to those who have incredible success in their field.

Looking these over, I don't really see any new ideas. The Tipping Point kind of gives form to a rather mundane topic; the book could be easily summarized as "A small idea can become big by having the right connections and the right message." However, he does a pretty good job of defining what those connections are and what kind of message is correct, because some of his ideas aren't particularly intuitive.

Blink has a more simple thesis--gut feelings are more successful than we think. He relies a lot more on academic study here, so his ideas are supported fairly well with his writing. However, I find it to be the blandest of the three books. His informal journalist style of writing doesn't mesh well with what he's trying to explain, so it seems more like a hodgepodge of studies and anecdotes.

Outliers is probably the most disappointing, because the adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" pretty much sums it all up. Of course, it's not all that; he does emphasize that hard work plays a part, but for many people the time and effort for all that hard work requires chance and advantageous background. Bill Gates, for example, worked hard to get to where he was, but it was also because he was given a unique opportunity when he was a teenager--having free time and free money to play around with experimental computers at a nearby university that allowed him to do all that hard work. That last part was equal part chance and background as much as it was the work itself.

So I'm not all that impressed with any of the books, really. Gladwell takes a concept that is generally accepted by the population, standardizes it into a few axioms, then provides anecdotal evidence to back it up. As a result the books are normally a lot of fun to read, but I'm not sure they contribute much to how people think about society.

For example, in Outliers, he has an entire chapter devoted to cockpit conversations and how different cultures respond differently to emergencies. I was endlessly fascinated by this chapter because it was well-written, but ultimately the message he was trying to get across what only a tiny fraction in importance to his overall thesis. It was an entertaining chapter, but the central idea warranted perhaps a tenth of the effort he put into it. And Outliers is the only book of the three where I don't think he is quite correct in his overall thesis.

And that seems like how all of these books are--entertainment with some social value. Ultimately, I can't recommend these books as academic pursuits; however, they're still a lot of fun to read, and it's far from void of any academic value, so I can recommend them with that value alone.