Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Columbus Bound

Sorry I haven't posted any updates for a good bit; I spend the past weekend visiting family in Ohio. My wife has done a good job of summarizing our trip, though I would like to emphasize the following:

1. The Book Loft is an amazing store. They have what I assume is approximately 3000 rooms stacked floor to ceiling with new books. Most are discounted. That said, they have one of the most absurdly out-of-date ugly web sites I have ever seen. It's like Angelfire and Geocities had a child that threw up on your screen.

2. My wife's brother Dennis and his partner Paul have two whippits, Una and Seamus. Una so totally looks like Anne Hathaway.

3. We when to Rita's, and some dude was wearing shorts with brownish palm trees printed on it, which made it look like he soiled himself. (See my artist's rendition here.) But he seemed almost proud of it, stepping one foot on a bench as if to say, "I am the sexy. Rita's ice is my refreshment of choice. Care for my stylish shorts? They would look pleasant on the floor tomorrow morning."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Indians

Are Indians the new Republican voting block?

OK, first, let's get this out of the way: Some people will say that reducing race or religion or any other self-identifying socioeconomic or cultural element is a waste of time. Everyone is different! You can't reduce a person's political outlook only by the color of their skin or the church they attend! Well, of course. But this is the sort of things that pollsters, politicians, and, yes, academics like to pick apart, and when over 90% of a specific demographic votes for only one party decade after decade, it's a legitimately safe assumption that we can make.

And let's not make any bones about this: pretty much every minority votes for Democrats. This has been happening regularly since the war, or at least until certain demographics grew large enough to warrant attention. The only exceptions are Hispanics, which George W. Bush, to his credit, made a concentrated effort to convert to the GOP. (There's also some legacy sympathy with Cubans, who are solidly Republican, and the built-in advantage of social issues from being an overly Catholic group.) From an issue standpoint, many Hispanics tend to agree more with Republicans than Democrats--and, not to mention, most of the states with significant Hispanic populations are fairly red--and Bush went out of his way to bring them in with a generous stance on immigration and appointing several Hispanics to reasonably top-level members of his cabinet. Of course, the remainder of his party practically went apoplectic, and practically drove everyone right into the Democrats' welcoming arms.

So the emergence of Indians (from India, moron, not the reservations) becoming elected officials--Republican, no less--seems odd. Aside from California, I don't think there's been a concentrated effort by Indians to participate electorally. I just assumed that they voted Democratic, but I honestly don't think I've ever seen a study or poll about their level of voting or what party.

Now, granted, this is hardly a trend--there is one Governor (Bobby Jindal) and a governor that hasn't even been elected yet (Nikki Haley). Two doesn't make an emerging trend. And Haley hasn't even taken office yet (though it is unlikely at this time she wouldn't get elected in the solidly Republican South Carolina).

Why is this? I could make some armchair guesses--Indians tend to be entrepreneurs, the natural bastion of Republican support. And the culture of the Indians seems to be reasonably compatible with the issues of the conservative party. However, I could probably look up some demographics about income levels and union membership and church attendance and come to the opposite conclusion--that they are natural allies of the Democrats. So I'm not sure I know the answer.

Of course, it could all mean nothing. I think it's telling that both candidates are governors from the South--especially Louisiana, where things seem to operate on a different plane than the rest of the world. Plus, they have reasonably Anglican names (Nikki Haley changed hers from a suitably Indian name, an action which has become a bit of an embarrassment to her).  So whether this will simply be an outlier or if they will be a hopeful beacon for a thousand future Indian policymakers, I don't know.

The Pledge: C'mon, GOP. Don't be assholes like you have for every other demographic in the history of our country.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gaffes and Generals

I'm not sure what General McChrystal was thinking. First off, far be it for me to advise the top brass of the military not to talk to journalists, but Rolling Stone? Really? Do you think you're going to convert anyone there? Or are they just reading to see if you give any good contacts on where to procure opium?

But...I didn't find what he said to be all that bad. It was childish, to be sure, and people have been fired in the private sector for less. But he is running a war. MacArthur was recalled for trying to start a freaking war with China; McChrystal got it for making fun of Joe Biden's name? At the very least, dismissing the General seems a rash decision in a war that requires at least the appearance of continuity.

That said, one of the cardinal rules of the military is that you don't question or denigrate the authority of your superiors. McChrystal of all people should have known to keep his mouth shut, or at least had the political acumen to make it off the record. So McChrystal clearly screwed up, and screwed up in a stupid way. But dismissal seems a bit of an over-reaction.

(A caveat: I haven't read the article--which doesn't get published until this Friday--so I'm just going off of what's in the published reports, which all summarize how he "mocked civilian government officials." Again, bad-mouthing your boss at your cubicle is a good way to get shitcanned. But being the general in charge of a way, I think, would let you get a few extra passes from the HR department than being a fourth tier compliance officer of a Fortune 500 Company. However, that doesn't mean that there isn't something in the article that is a smoking gun, like calling Michelle Obama a harpy or claiming Hillary Clinton is a secret Christian Scientist. So I'll certainly grant that may be the case, but I doubt it.)

Now, I also don't know enough about military logistics, so I don't know if this is simply a proxy for dismissing him for a terrible job in Afghanistan.Like Donald Rumsfeld famously said, there are plenty of unknown unknowns, which is particularly true for me because I know a lot less about the action in Afghanistan than I should

The only good thing I can see out of this is General Petraeus's elevation. Again, I don't know much about military tactics, but at least from a public persona standpoint he seems like the real deal. He could be a closet aerosol-huffing member of the Carbonari as far as I know, but I'm willing to give him the chance.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jonathan Coulton is the Awesome

About two years ago my brother tried to turn me on to a fellow by the name of Jonathan Coulton. I gave this interloper a full five seconds of thought and dismissed him as a charlatan and a johnny-come-lately. I have no idea, but he just didn't register with me.

 Screw you, guitar-playing computer nerd. I have no time for the likes of you. Signed, geocaching board-game-playing nerd.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I finally got around to installing Pandora on my Droid. (Good thing, too, since about a week later my MP3 player shit the bed. And the remainder of my songs are on a desktop I have mothballed in the attic, so it will be a while before I get to listen to "Take It To The Limit" by the Eagles which for some I sure is a feature, not a bug.)

For those who don't know, Pandora is a music service that sort of acts like your own personal radio. You type in the name of a song, artist, or album, and Pandora will try to create a station featuring songs like whatever you input. For example, if you type in Elton John, you get a lot of Billy Joel and soft late 70's rock. If you type in the Beatles, it will play a bunch of other overrated washed-up classic rock stars. If you type in Ke$ha, actual poop will come out of your phone.

Hold the phone, hoss, I think I can find some gold in that if I dig far enough.

So because I am a hopeless geek my first choice of Pandorafication was to create a They Might Be Giants channel. While rockin' it out to the best of Flood, this fellow by the name of Jonathon Coulton kept popping up. At first I skipped the songs, but I forgot once and actually listened, and I got hooked.

Why I didn't listen to my brother in the first place, I don't know. This guy is awesome.

He's pretty much the personification of Geek Rock--one of his signature songs is "Code Monkey" for crying out loud--and yet I think he's highly accessible. He's not singing goofy songs about the Star Wars cantina or making Battlestar Galactica jokes where you have to know what color of uniform the Cylons wear to know when to laugh. They certainly have, um, unique subjects and very few are topical, but they're all fairly general, about computers, space, zombies, and giant squids. (You really have to listen. It makes more sense.) And he's not solely a gimmick artist, like playing an accordion version of "Bad Romance," though he has fun with a few of those types of things. 

The thing is, the guy is a hell of a musician. He would be beyond passable if he hadn't found this niche of his. The important thing is the guy is having a blast doing this. He treats this as doing something fun, not work--he's released his songs under the Creative Commons license, and he once ran an experiment where he forced himself to perform one song a week for a year.

I wanted to buy some of his product, but I wasn't sure exactly what to get, and the half dozen songs or so of his were good, but I didn't know if a full album would be a good thing. I settled on getting a DVD/CD set of a live performance called "Best. Concert. Ever," which I would assume had his best stuff. I hesitated, though, because the thing was twenty bucks, and I don't spend that on basic medical care each year. I watched it tonight, and let me tell you, it most certainly lives up to its title. And, quite surprising to me, my wife loved it too.

So I have to give him quite a bit of credit. He's not for everyone--some people just won't find his style of humor all that interesting, and while the music is first rate it doesn't really fit a specific genre. He also hasn't released a significant amount lately. But I'll tell you one thing--I haven't had this much fun listening to a musician for quite some time. 

Also, I would so pay good money to hear an accordion rendition of Bad Romance. Signed, not a Cylon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

NOT an apologia, I swear!

Representative Joe Barton has been getting the heat lately due to his comments that BP was the target of a shakedown by the Obama administration, a charge that is not particularly unwarranted. Granted, being a Republican from Texas gives you a fair amount of leeway when it comes to defending Big Oil, but it's just bad politics--especially for the image of the national party--to do as such.

That said, David Brooks said in an NPR interview that Barton's comments weren't all that far off base--or, at the very least, they contained a "kernel of truth." Essentially, he stated that there is already a legal framework for payouts in place, so all this is pure political posturing, and, in fact, this escrow fund may not do anything at all since it will gum up the established claims process.

I'm not sure I agree, of course; I don't know enough of the details of the escrow fund to say. But as long as these are funds that are simply put in place for the eventual payouts, I don't see a problem. It's painless for BP--they're going to be paying anyway, so why not make some good PR out of the deal?--and it's good for Obama, since it gives something concrete to point at (since there is increasing worry within his administration that he really hasn't done enough.) As long as this is done properly I don't think there's an issue, but on the other hand it seems an empty gesture.

Of course, even if Barton feels that there were some unjustified strongarming involved--why do it now? If this were Jesse Jackson or the pharmaceutical companies, you could write it all off as a safe-seat representative scoring some political points for an interest group and be done with it. But I don't think there is any interest group that is sympathetic to BP that would be worth defending.

The second point is this column from the Straight Dope--hardly an academic source, but they've been doing this mythbusting stuff before Snopes and Jamie Hyneman were even created, so I more or less trust them.  Basically, oil cleans itself up--it's quite biodegradable, and (as the column notes) areas where no one cleaned roughly equaled areas where workers spent time cleaning--i.e., the natural processes of nature did just as good a job as individuals. Of course, this doesn't mean oil spills are good--once they get under rocks and (urp) animal's stomachs, the natural process stops and the green hand of human involvement is required. And--this surprised me-- 47% of the oil in the ocean is from "natural oil seeps" where no human action was involved. (Granted, it's spread out and thus less concentrated--and thus less dangerous--that what happens when a tanker capsizes or a well blows up. But, still, that's an alarming statistic.) And different areas of the world are better at it than others, and some don't biodegrade at all without help. Still, it's a little heartening to know that while the oil spill is a full-stop disaster, it could be worse, and we need all the good news we can get.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Speechification of America

Despite my interest in politics an current events, there's one thing many people find surprising about me--I refuse to watch presidential speeches.

Any time a President holds a speech, whether it be the State of the Union address or an impromptu speech like Obama's last night--I never, ever watch.

Why? Because they're boring.

Let's face it. No politician--not even the president--ever says anything remotely interesting in these speeches. Or, at the very least, nothing that couldn't have been presented in a five minute PowerPoint presentation. Politician's speeches are essentially a cobbled mess of qualifications, talking points, and code words. The President is not immune to this, and it doesn't matter the party or personality.

I never watched George W.'s, speeches, I never watched Bill Clinton's, and I'm not going to watch Obama's.

Anything of interest will be reported the next morning (or, in today's world, liveblogged in easy-to-read snippits.) At least for major news outlets, I can get the point of the speech in a few minutes, and it's usually pretty accurate. Sure, I may lose a little bit of objectivity when I read several columns of analysis, but to me the trade-off is worth it.

Some people find the fact that I don't watch these speeches are either hypocritical, disloyal, or lazy. I find just the opposite: it's a more efficient use of my time.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What is it good for?

I'm reading a thread on a non-political forum about what it means to be a hawk versus a dove. (I'm not linking to it because it degenerated pretty quickly into a third grade shouting match, quite unusual in anonymous internet forum postings.) On their artificial scale, I would consider myself a qualified hawk--mostly because I think the best way to ward off attack is to make sure your would-be attacker knows full well what the consequences would be, and this requires a large, efficient army that acts consistently and predictably to back up your claims. For much of its existence, the United States has done a pretty good job of balancing having such an armed force with retaining its own freedoms and ideals, though there are a few glaring exceptions.

The participants in this vigorous online debate fall into several camps; the Europeans believe any war fought for any reason at any time is unjust because War is Bad and the only justified reason for killing someone is if they've already killed you and besides war distracts everyone from shutting down mosques and burning headscarves, which are perfectly OK. Americans and other Anglo states are wondering what the fuss is, since not killing civilians is all you need to be dovish, right? And the Middle Eastern and Asians nations aren't saying much of anything because the autocratic bootheel of silence is pushing down on their vocal chords.

Personally, I've always wondered why people were so upset about the concept of "the business of America is business," which, by extension, means a free-market democratic society with a military to protect such interests.* The only other democratic society is one where all your obligations are met by the state, with the flip side being that the people are obligated to the state. This seems, to me, to be a scarier prospect, and I'm afraid less and less people agree with me.

*I don't agree with using the military to secure economic interests, even if these business interests are in the interest of America--the free market should be free, of course, something using military force kind of violates. However, with the exception of some limited engagements in South America (OK, maybe not so limited in the minds of the South Americans), "economic interests" make a good excuse and proxy issue for the real reasons war occurs, and that's generally due to plain old power politics.  But it's not good in polite company to state as such, so it's easier to claim it's for cheap oil and green bananas. Sure, "power politics" isn't a good excuse for war either, but pretty much all excuses for war are dumb, and you could do a lot worse. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Thomas Friedman is a terribly frustrating writer.

There are two main reasons for this; one is an opinion of him I've held for a while, and one that just manifested itself as I finished his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

The first reason is that he's a terrible writer. No, wait, I take that back. He's actually a very skilled writer. As a kind-of journalist--and not a scholar--he is able to take imperatively complex issues (mostly about foreign affairs) and put them in perspective. He's not one of those writers who is able to "boil everything down" to a few smart quips and bumper sticker slogans; he's actually quite verbose, and meanders just a little bit too much (but for the good, I feel) to be considered contrite. But he is able to score key interviews with second-tier figureheads in governments and corporations. Talking to the leader of a Middle Eastern nation will do little good; they've perfected the sound bite as much as the West has. But he'll talk to the fourth-in-command, and he gets some truly unique truths that many other journalists miss because they're looking for the big score.

When I say he's a bad writer, I mean that he comes up with the most ridiculous metaphors you'll ever come across, he cites weird web sites and mimeographed newsletters from fringe groups as if they were scholarly literature, and tries to coin so many phrases you think his main goal is to pad out what his obituary will say when he dies ("He coined twenty well-known terms in his lifetime, such as...") The result really seems to be a really, really, really good term paper by a college senior. It's not that it's not professional, but he bucks so many standard writing trends it's hard to get used to. Thankfully, this doesn't invalidate any of his points, but it is remarkably distracting.

The second most frustrating thing is he has the ability to be simultaneously spot-on correct and irreversibly mistaken at the same time.

The content of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that the environment has to be the most important issue that America and the world tackles, and it has to be done ten years ago. I think that Friedman is wrong on a lot--I mean a lot--of the little points, but the overall message that he has is quite correct.

The first thing to note is that he and I agree on one thing, as I noted in a previous post--those "101 Little Things To Do To Save The Earth" are pretty much worthless. I mean, yeah, they work, but those things aren't going to save the earth. Buying recycled toilet paper and saving bath water for the plants isn't going to do anything. At all. At the very least, things like that are going to be a substitute for real change--we need people to be doing the 5 difficult things to save the earth rather than the 101 little things. The thing that is going to save the earth are long-term solutions that pretty much revolve around one thing: energy.

And that's the second thing that we agree on: there isn't really any comprehensive program, private or public, that helps nurture new energy sources. As a warmed-over libertarian, I'd rather see little to no government regulation, but I'm not naive enough to think that it's going to develop naturally in the marketplace until it's too late. And I think this is where Friedman and I differ: ten or fifteen years ago, it made no sense to force companies to create, say, electric cars, or build wind turbines, because the technology really hadn't developed to the point that it was feasible beyond massive government subsidies. As technology has progressed, however, that's no longer the case, and that's why I'd like some conservatives to move forward when it comes to the environment--they still think that Al Gore is driving around in a tiny Smart Car that would have to cost three million dollars if it wasn't for the government pouring money into a rathole. There is a business case now for green technology--there are companies in Europe and China that are managing to do so right now--that would require somewhat painful but manageable government policies to make a reality.

Where Friedman goes wrong, however, is in political reality. And I think he recognizes this, but his solution isn't to create a politically palatable solution, but to throw up his hands and decide that he would like to be China for a day--that is, a dictatorship that could cut through all of the bureaucracy and special interest groups.

To be fair, I don't know what a political palatable solution is, either. For example, Friedman--and, dare I say, an increasing number of policymakers--advocate a carbon tax. This would 1) discourage the use of carbon, and 2) ensure that the price of energy doesn't fall below a certain point. That last one may seem an odd thing to note, but it's the one thing that works; businesses are more likely to invest in green energy projects if they're certain that the price of energy will be worth it. As it stands right now, the price of oil (and coal and natural gas) fluctuates so much that it's possible all the time, effort, and energy in a green project won't become profitable for a decade or more because of a glut. Business hate that sort of uncertainty, so they may throw a small percentage of R&D towards it, but they're not going to go large scale; unfortunately, large scale is exactly what is necessary to get to where we need to be. If the business sector knows it will be profitable, that changes. Of course, the end result is that you and I pay more for gasoline and heating our house, so it's going to be a hard--and nearly impossible--sell, and I'm not sure if it's a thing worth selling.

There are a few other possible ideas out there, mostly things like cap and trade, tax incentives, overhauling our power grid, and direct government spending, that can be useful but have to be immune from political posturing, something that will be difficult to achieve. But I more or less agree with it. This isn't the 80's, when doing such things was prohibitively expensive and the government would have to run the show because no business could possibly be profitable. There's enough technology and competition from other nations that a comprehensive environmental tax incentive and spending structure would be useful to transform how we use energy.

Granted, my libertarian heart cries out in shame that I would advocate this. And I do this with hesitation. But I also know that companies have, for decades, imposed externality costs on society (via pollution, strip mining, land grabs, etc.) and have never really had to pay them. To me, this is a valid free market excuse for intervention. And don't get me wrong--we're still going to be burning coal, oil, and gas for decades, which is probably the only way to sell this. Politically, you have to be smart by telling your constituents in West Virginia and Kentucky and Pennsylvania that their jobs are safe--for now--but you should prepare the next generation to be post-carbon.

The free market argument against government intervention in the environment is that, in the past, the true innovation occurs when pricing changes. Whale oil used to be just like our crude oil, with the overhunting of whales leading to a near energy crisis. But along came kerosene, and all of a sudden the demand for whale oil practically disappears overnight. The same things goes for this--when the market is ready, carbon energy will disappear. True change will come not when the government decrees it, but when the market decrees it. This is still true today, and I don't think we'll get there any other way. But I don't mind the government speeding the process up a little bit.

Where Friedman and I disagree the most is basically the first half of the book, which is basically the same science alarmism I've been hearing since the mid-70's. (Or would have, had I been living then.) I'm not a global warming denier by any means, but I'm also a skeptic. I think the earth is warming, I think it's a bad thing, and I think man has something to do with it--but I'm also not willing to say exactly how much our contribution to that warming is, and whether a massive-scale change in our behavior would have anything to do with it. I distrust scientists because it seems like any time there is some major breakthrough or announcement telling us that we need to change the nature of our lives right now, it turns out the data is flawed, the scientists are just flat wrong, or the issue was overblown to the point of absurdity. So I don't want to dismiss everything, but I also don't want to have a life-changing, comprehensive overhaul of our society based on the half-baked data of some attention-hungry scientists. (Hint: This has happened in the past, many times.)

Alas, Friedman makes some good points but more or less just repeats everything I've heard in the past, including: Yeah, some of this must be wrong, but what if it isn't? The drastic hypothetical is a bad start for any policy and I refuse to be held hostage to whimsical notions.

Friedman does go through a remarkably interesting (but otherwise useless) scenario of tomorrow's smart energy house, where people have "Smart Boxes" that regulate the energy consumption of the house. I think it's a great idea and it's at least conceivable--it's already been in use in trials--but I think the notion that somehow everyone in America will have this setup in the near future is absurd. It's certainly interesting but doesn't contribute much to his argument.

Friedman gets more interesting when discussing what other nations have done, and I learned a few things about what China and Europe are doing. I'm not certain any of it would work here, but I think that Americans do need to start innovating fairly quickly, or the next century will not belong to us. Even here, though, Friedman slips into alarmism: he laments that the United States only holds one of the top ten wind turbine companies in the world, which I was slightly distressed at. Then I looked at his chart. While true, the one company was General Electric, and they were at the top, and their market capitalization was higher than the other nine companies combined. Yawn. Still, right now, other nations are running laps around us for clean energy sources...and while it may not be profitable now in the US, the next century is going to be more about that than new sources of oil. The United States could easily be left behind, and this is a big industry; at the very least, we should be more prepared than we are.

So in the end, I think this is a terrible first half of a book and a remarkably sound second half of a book. I think Friedman is more or less naive when it comes to how policy and government works, although I think he knows it. As a writer, he has the luxury of declaring what needs to be done now without worrying too much about the details.

This is a book review so it really shouldn't have a Pledge, but this is one long-ass review, so, whatever.

The Pledge: It is the free market, not the government, that will decide when green energy sources will be viable. That doesn't mean that, due to the externalities existing power sources impose on society, the government doesn't have a role in speeding things up a bit. And the goal (at least in the short term) shouldn't be to punish carbon fuels (except, you know, BP), but to make sure that the right options come up with minimal interference.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Political Board Games

Starting in a few weeks, I plan on reviewing a series of politically-themed board games. This is intended to coincide with the release of Founding Fathers, a much-anticipated board game about the creation of the Constitution. There are three other games that are made by the same creators: Twilight Struggle (2005, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews); 1960: The Making of the President (2007, Christian Leonhard and Matthews); and Campaign Manager 2008 (2009, Leonhard and Matthews). Founding Fathers (2010, Leonhard and Matthews) is set for a late June release, so I'm going to try and space these reviews in a manner where I will have received the game and played it a few times before I review it last.

The trajectory of political board games is pretty dismal. Up until about ten or fifteen years ago, most presidential election games--which make up a bulk of the non-wargame political games--tended to be trivia games or Monopoly-style random luck games. There were a few games that had politics but were primarily about something else (such as Republic of Rome) and a precious few that actually were pretty good (such as Kremlin). But there was no one, overriding gem of a game that everyone could point to as the board game standard for presidential election games or, for that matter, political games in general.

Starting about a decade ago, a few companies tried to make decent presidential election games with limited success. Candidate by Avalon Hill was a solid game, but was more of a bluffing and abstracted trick-taking game than a political game. Road to the White House--which is amazingly still being sold despite being released in 1992 and being culturally out of date--was one of the few attempts to make an all-out strategic presidential campaign game, but it bogged itself down with a lot of dice rolling and unnecessary rules. Apparently, Mr. President (released in the 60's, so not technically new, but has many features that later games would adopt) is a pretty solid game, but I've never played it and it's been out of print for years. I may track it down some time, but reading the concept of the game I'm not sure if it will hold up well.

This "new" set of games have cleaned up the entire process of making politically themed games. They tend to have reasonably easy rules, quick playing time, and make an attempt to be less luck-driven and more realistic. The games certainly differ in subject matter and pace (especially Twilight Struggle) but they're all very solid.

I'm going to prepare these reviews, completed with pictures, and start getting them up probably in a few weeks.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Annie No More

Little Orphan Annie, who has been gracing our comics pages for over eight decades, is gone.

I say--good riddance!

I was never a fan of Little Orphan Annie. She kind of creeped me out. And don't lie--she creeped you out, too. She kinda creeped everyone out with the possible exception of Daddy Warbucks, and, well, my spidey sense tells me he's more on the creeper end of the spectrum than the creepee.

First off, Little Orphan Annie was sold to us on a lie. She wasn't an orphan! She had Daddy Warbucks! I suppose "Adopted Girl Who Has A Criminally Inattentive Father Figure of Great Means" doesn't sell too well in syndication. And yet she still tramped around with her mutt of a dog getting in scrapes and tribulations even though she would have been better off sitting at home eating pastries and learning Latin while the rest of the world was getting Great Depressioned.

And I just didn't like her looks. Her little red Jewfro and soulless blank-stare eyes made her look more like an early unfinished prototype of Vicki from Small Wonder than an orphan. I could never get past that, really. It's hard to look at her and think that of all the creative energy that could be poured into the early, lucrative days of the modern metropolitan newspaper, the best they could come up with is some carrot-topped dime-store albino who looked like a hypnotized whackadoo.

  May I interest you in a copy of the Watchtower?

Of course, just like restaurants and the radio industry, I'm not quite sure I understand how the entire comics business works. News reports state that Annie was down to twenty newspaper subscribers at the time it was canceled. Unless the New York Post was chipping in free health coverage with the syndication rights, I can't figure out how one man could have made a living doing that, let along the team I'm sure they had working on it. Heck, I could get twenty subscribers just drawing pictures of random items on my desk so long as you don't care that these newspapers have the phrase "Free City Paper" right in their titles.

This is either the working man's struggle to come to terms with the stripping of self-identity in the modern industrial world, or the cup I hold all my pens in. Ombudsmen, contact me for my weekly rates!

I don't quite get who reads these things anymore, either. I can't figure out how Terry and the Pirates or Mark Freakin' Trail lasted as long as they did, and I am continually baffled as to who reads Archie comics anymore. I mean, really? Archie? Who's sitting in the treehouse waiting for that to show up on the drug store spiral rack?

So, anyway, farewell to Little Orphan Annie. I hope someone finally bought you some pupils.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Wild Toaster Oven Appears!

As pretty much anyone, and most importantly my wife, will tell you, I am not exactly a culinary genius. I used to joke that I could fix any meal you wanted, so long as it was cold cereal or toast.

Well, it turns out at least one of those options got the best of me:

This was the Purple-Heart-Worthy injury I sustained while taking out a bagel from our toaster oven this morning. I'm still a bit shocked, mostly because 1) it didn't really hurt; 2) I have been toasting bagels in there for upwards of six months and have occasionally carelessly bumped the oven with nary a scratch; and 3) the size of the wound is remarkably larger than the point of contact.

Or I assume so, anyway. To be fair, this occurred approximately twenty minutes after I woke up, which is still within the zone of general haziness and crank when I wake up. I probably was wantonly swinging my fist around the toaster oven like a five-year-old with his sack of Halloween candy, hoping that statistics would eventually compel me to create a breakfast sandwich. Instead, I got a checkbox on my hand. Here is an awesome close-up:

My wife said it looks like I was at an amusement park at Hogwarts, and it's hard to disagree. Anyway, for those keeping score at home: Stephen 0, Toaster Oven 1.

World Cup Fever!

I don't get soccer.

I like to think of myself as being reasonably cosmopolitan when it comes to culture. I mean, sure, there isn't a whole lot of culture I admire that isn't Anglo in nature, but I'll at least give it a shot, or a glance, or a footnote, or learn enough about to drop randomly in conversation to prove to other people that I'm more intellectually superior than then even though I'm not.

But soccer just...baffles me.

Not in the I'm-so-confused sort of bafflement. I'm thinking more along the lines of how mind-numbingly boring it is. I tried, though. When the World Cup was played in America in the mid-90's, I tried to like soccer. I watched a few games and I remember purchasing soccer trading cards and I specifically remember buying a USA Today with the special World Cup insert so I could peruse it during study hall.

I tried. I really, really did.

I think it's the nature of the sport. Soccer is simple--just a ball, some nets, and a bunch of bucketheads. All of the proper elements are there, but every time I watch it I just don't get it. I mean, sure, basketball has the same amount of equipment, but at least someone is scoring every three seconds (at least those times when a foul isn't being called, which is every two seconds). But a sport with similar scoring--hockey--at least there is constant slap shots and checking going on, so even if there isn't any scoring going on, at least there are a bunch of current and former socialists slamming into each other.

In soccer, there's either scoring, or...running. Sometimes even the players get bored and pretend to be injured.

This is so going to endorsement deal with PowerAde.

Even their league formats are all screwed up over there in Europe. There's something like eighteen different championships and about the same number of levels. It would be like the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions getting knocked down to a minor league football conference and the Baton Rogue Oil Slicks playing against the Spokane Unrepentant Hipsters in the Superbowl, but there would also be about six other Superbowls scattered throughout the year. Maybe it's just a cultural thing, but the thought of a minor league teams playing against a bunch of major league professionals just seems chaotic, unstructured, and wrong.

Exhibit A

At least the World Cup doesn't do that, and there's a clear winner at the end of everything. It doesn't bother me too terribly much, I guess; we have football, which the rest of the world outside of Canada and Australia find just as perplexing and, I'm certain, boring as I find soccer. 
The level of enthusiasm for soccer in other parts of the world is hard to fathom for me. I mean, people go batshit nuts over here for sports, even so much in the sense that college football teams are leaving their current organizations to go to more lucrative conferences to make more money for their universities to prop up their academic programs that aren't getting any more money from the states or alumni because of the economy. So I can understand it. But it's almost like these countries add up all of the fan enthusiasm we Americans have for football, baseball, basketball, hockey, college sports, and NASCAR and funnel it all into one single sport, and their results are both parts fascinating and violent. It's just...nuts.
To each their own, of course. But, at the very least, thank goodness soccer isn't as boring as major league baseball. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Other People's...Problems. Yeah, You Know Me.

I have a confession to make--I love advice columns and wedding disasters.

I'm not sure why. This is sort of the provenance of, well, women. But I get an absolute kick listening to other people's problems. The bridezilla stories, in particular, make me feel like a better human being after I'm done watching them.

I'm sure this is not healthy. I am actively getting a positive experience out of someone else's problems and misery. Then again--and to justify my schadenfreude--it's an educational experience, they voluntarily provided it for public consumption, and if at least someone can get something positive out of it, why not let that person be me? 

Also, it lets me see how some of the other world operates. In this case, "other world" is defined as "everyone who is not me." To see the emphasis some people put on the most insignificant detail and artificially make it the biggest issue since D-Day, it kind of makes me look around at myself to make sure I'm not doing the same thing. It helps put things in perspective.

Of course, it also helps that I sometimes get angry at the advice-giver. Most of them are practical enough, but there are a few in particular whose answer to everything seems to be "It's not your fault," when the real answer to probably 90% of the inquiries is "You need kicked in the teeth and then you'll see what your real problems are."

The bridezillas are easier to comprehend and I don't have to think as much about them. They're just miserable women who feel entitled, and I just feel bad for their new husbands. I've lately been following a specific individual's story about their son's wedding, and it involves all of the normal wedding horror stories--twenty four total bridesmaids and groomsmen, interfering relatives, spiraling costs and the expectation of immediate payment by the father who had just been laid off. The kicker is that she wanted to be married in a specific beautiful church, but the pastor wouldn't marry them because they were living together, so they got married, and then got married again a month later just so she could get married in the awesome church. An unnecessary wedding that I would like to point out was not paid for by either the bride nor groom.

All this saddens me, but it also makes me want to somehow get involved with the wedding industry. Not because I have a particular fondness for planning weddings, but because I have a particular fondness for money. And you can make a lot of money doing that.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Winners and Losers, Part One

Who's winning in the election battle?

Obviously, the primaries aren't over; they have a while to go. Some numbnut states don't even hold them until September (I'm looking at you, Noo Yawk) which gives a precious two months or so to campaign for the fall election. Barbarians.

So far, the big races have pretty much been decided; the Arizona Senate primary is about the only one left to grab any headlines, though a few races here and there might pop up (such as Hawaii's odd situation with a House race, where two Democrats refused to back down and split the vote, electing a Republican until the fall election). Some of the runoff elections might also prove to be interesting, such as Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

But as time goes on, pundits are looking at races that were only mildly interesting in the past and now are infused with greater importance. This is due to (mostly) one factor, and that's the Tea Party.

The Tea Party movement has been pretty much running their own candidates against the established Republicans, making most of the GOP fighting with themselves instead of their presumptive opponents. Granted, it's not like primaries have never been fought in the past. But the Tea Party is so well organized and funded, it's almost like a third party challenging nearly every race of importance. I've blogged about the Tea Party in the past. The only thing that's different now is the impact they will have on these later primaries. If the Tea Party's influence wanes, then these latecomers might be safe. But if their numbers swell, more and more upsets will occur on the Republican side.

The Democrats have been largely immune to this infighting, but not completely. Still, right now, I would say that the benefits of people's anger towards the Obama administration is offset by the amount of effort, money, and time the Republicans have to spent to fend off the challenges from the far right.

So, to restate the question: Who has won and who has lost so far?

Sarah Palin: Winner. Sure, she's not liked by too many people, but her hit percentage is pretty high when picking candidates to endorse. Right now, she's golden. I, personally, think this will pretty much immediately disappear once the election is over, but in the meantime she is definitely a power broker within the conservative movement; she's no longer the shallow window dressing many people were writing her off as, for good or bad. 

Incumbents: Undetermined. Two weeks ago, reporters were looking at every single elected official of both parties and imagining their obituaries. Not really anymore; the primaries yesterday were fairly kind to the incumbents (excepting Nevada's embattled governor Jim gibbons who is currently undergoing some scandal and divorce issues, which, despite what you may thing, is not a net positive in that state). So, just because you are an incumbent doesn't mean your safe; it doesn't mean you have a target on your back, either.

Unions: Losers. The unions bet a lot of chips on Bill Halter, a challenger to sitting Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln. Unfortunately for them, he lost. Lincoln has always been a quite centrist Democrat--Arkansas is still pretty red, Bill Clinton be damned--and this was a particularly bitter battle that in many ways was the old Left versus centrist Democrat, with the former being a decidedly union creation. In addition, the unions could have easily capitalized (both politically and organizationally) on the recession, selling their organization as a safety net during hard times; however, tales of public service employees in California raking in 100 grand pensions, teachers blatantly grabbing money in some of the big city markets, and the UAW's rather shameless desire to not take any blame for the near-bankruptcy of GM or Chrysler have made people less sympathetic, I think.

The Tea Party: Undetermined. I suspect one of two things will happen: One is that once the smoke clears and moderate and independent voters look around, they may run scared from the hard right candidates. (They will probably stay home rather than vote Democrat, which introduces a different set of scenarios.) Or, Two: the far right candidates will realize they are in trouble, tack to the center, piss off their supporters, and find themselves without any support at all. Neither of these situations bodes well for any of these candidates. I can't immediately envision a case where the Tea Party candidates actually sell themselves to the public at large, as opposed to just conservatives and registered Republicans, unless Obama completely wipes out. The only good thing to say about the Tea Party movement from a political standpoint is that they haven't been running third party candidates when they lose, a temptation lost on a generation of Greens and Libertarians.

Rich Silicon Valley Women: Winners. At least for now. Meg Whitman might actually have a shot at winning the governorship of California, depending on whether California voters blame the GOP or public sector employees or the energy companies or whomever for their current fiscal disaster. Carly Fiorina is a complete disaster of a candidate. Sure, I think she would make a decent senator, and I think the tales of her incompetence as CEO of HP are more excuses than reality, but in today's political culture, evidence doesn't matter; it's only the appearance of evidence that matters. Hell, I could write an Anti-Fiorina ad in about six minutes.

I am certain that new winners and losers may crop up between now and November--For example, I am waiting to see if the Club for Growth develops into its own entity or if it's just going to be the cranky older brother of the Tea Party--so we shall see.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Political Scientists, Unite!

Christopher Beam from Slate wrote "The Only Politics Article You'll Ever Have To Read," a news article written as if it were written by a political scientist. As someone who walks around with a piece of paper that asserts that I have met all of at least the minimum academic requirements to be trained in the art of political science, it's a fascinating (and, more importantly, humorous) article. However, I think it has less to do with political science and more with what is wrong with the news media.

I had written a post a few weeks ago about the media, but it was getting very long and really wasn't going anywhere, so I scrapped it. I may revisit it at some point. But basically it boils down to:

1) Journalists no longer comprehend their subject matter; they are trained on passive voice and writing ledes, not finance or foreign affairs. Society has gotten so complex (at least in regards to economics and law) that trained people need to be covering this, but trained people don't go into journalism, they go into economics and law. So news organizations hire "experts" that give opinionated commentary on the issue, which no longer makes it news and is now an editorial.
2) There are a lot of rotten things going on in print journalism, none of which are surprising. News organizations will have to adapt to the internet or die. Some newspapers are handling it well; most are not. 

This latter point is the one that will most likely determine how print journalism survives. If they don't adapt, there will basically be one news organization (The Associated Press, or an entity like it) that everyone picks and chooses their stories from, along with freelance local writers of highly variable quality. We shall see.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Primer on Economics

After yesterday's long and boring post about economics, it occurred to me that perhaps my readership isn't really all that interested in it and would rather hear about me reviewing candy or pictures of my dog.

I can't promise I won't write about economics, but it won't be very often. Trust me.

However, I think an understanding of economics is important. A few points to remember:

  • Economics isn't just about finance and money. The study of economics covers a wide range of things, such as time, preferences, and trade-offs. Economics has a good bit of psychology mixed in it. 
  • The biggest problem people have with understanding economics is separating it from politics. Obviously, this is impossible; the market system of any nation is going to involve political involvement in some fashion. However, saying things like "Buy American!" or "We need a living wage!" sounds great but has a lot more to do with politics than economics. Having that particular opinion isn't wrong, it just isn't about economics. 
  • I firmly believe that teaching a few key, unintuitive concepts are all it takes to allow most people to grasp why the economy works the way it does. Understanding opportunity cost, for example, sounds simple but is subtly complex. Comprehending it is crucial to understanding why businesses and governments operate the way they do.
Anyway, for those who are interested, here are a few books I would recommend. You don't need to read them all, but what they all do is boil the complex issues of economics into a more manageable style. They're all fairly easy to read but still get the important points across. And few of them have graphs. Trust me, this is a plus.

The Armchair Economist by Steven Landsburg. This is one of the first books on economics I read, and it's by far the most useful. It's a little dated--the references are from twenty years ago--but it's remarkable in how he takes every day issues and presents them as economic problems. I'm still not convinced that his explanations are flawless even though the conclusion is right, but the vast majority of the book is a perfect mix of readability and importance. [I would also recommend his other books, Fair Play and More Sex is Safer Sex, the latter being a little bit more detailed than his other two.]

Hidden Order by David Friedman. Probably the most technical of all the books I recommend, it's still very useful. I would maybe read this one last if you are still interested, but it's very similar to the Landsburg books.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I hesitated to add this one to the list, mostly because it's already so well-known and it's also not really insightful about economics proper; it's more about analysis. It's still important, though, and it's also a good example of how not all economics is about finance. (I have not read the sequel, Superfreakonomics, but I suspect it's of equal quality.)

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford. This is by far the most fun of the books, Harford takes a legitimate look at economics with some lightheartedness. I perhaps would even recommend this first, but it is very similar to the Armchair Economist, and that book is much better as an introduction to economics. This one, however, is much more fun to read. (He has a few other books, too, but I haven't read them, either.)

Parliament of Whores/Eat the Rich! by P.J. O'Rourke. These are both humor books, not economics books, but I still think they are necessary. The latter is probably more important to read from an economics standpoint; however, it's more a travel book about economics than economics itself. Parliament of Whores is more about politics than economics, but it has some of the best descriptions of why the government operates the way it does.

None of these books will give you much in the way of technical economic information; however, at the very least, I think it will introduce you to some of the economic concepts that may explain why businesspeople and policy makers act in ways that seem counter-intuitive.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Hidden Terror of Inflation

The million dollar question: Should we be worried about inflation?

I'm mostly concerned with this question because it is one we haven't asked in a while. The last time inflation was an issue was in the mid-to-late seventies, which, coincidentally, is around the time I was born. So basically anyone like me under (cough cough) thirty years old has never lived in an America that ever had to even think about inflation.

However, some economists and business journalists are starting to worry. Not for anything particular in today's economy, but the tempting taste of inflation may be beyond the government's ability to ignore. (See here and here for examples.) And I'm starting to worry, too, because I'm not so sure there are enough people out there who understand exactly how crazy such a plan would be.

[Inflation--for those who weren't paying attention in Econ 101--is a general increase in the price of goods and services. Basically, it makes each dollar worth less as time goes by--$1.00 today may be worth 98 cents next year. And as a general rule, during times of economic booms, inflation becomes higher, and during recessions it becomes lower. The Federal Reserve's job is to monitor all of these factors and try to keep the inflation rate at a specific target by altering the money supply.]

Inflation is a tricky subject, because few people understand it--economists have a checklist of about 20 different reasons that inflation occurs. I'm an Austrian at heart--my dog's middle name is Hayek, for crying out loud--so I have one reason: changes in the money supply. (Actually, I'm not that theoretical. I'll gladly concede that, in today's global economy, forces that are beyond rational expectations will eventually filter their way back to the American marketplace. But for the purposes of what is going on now, I'll stick with this.)

Anyway, inflation isn't necessarily a bad thing--so long as it's fairly low and fairly stable. Those that are supporting an inflationary policy are forgetting the nightmarish years of the 70's that nearly destroyed the economy, when inflation routinely topped 10%. (The inflation rate for the past thirty years has largely hovered around 2-3%.)

[Historical diversion, and skip if you already have a headache: There were several reasons for the inflation of the 1970's, but it can be boiled down to three reasons. First are the multiple OPEC embargoes. Oil, unlike most goods, affects nearly every inch of the economy, especially back then, so the price hikes and rationings causes prices to rise for nearly everything. Second was Nixon abandoning the gold standard (this impact was most likely minimal). But the main reason was Lyndon Johnson--he didn't want to fund the Vietnam war by raising taxes, so he just printed up the extra money. It took a few years before it filtered into the system and by that time Nixon had to deal with it. Nixon, Ford, and Carter all struggled with inflation with little luck; the only sure way to sure it would be to lock down interest rates. This, alas, would cause a deep, deep recession. Which is exactly what Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker (under Ronald Reagan) did, and this is why the 1982 recession occurred and was so deep and terrifying. However, it was something that had to be done to effectively "reset" America's economy. Recessions aren't good, but spending the next few decades with 10% inflation would have been infinitely worse.] 

It's not necessarily a good idea to have no inflation. In the real world, inflation acts as a sort of lubricant to prices and wages--when fixed prices (due to contracts and other market forces) can't move, the economy grinds to a halt. Inflation, by changing the value of money, is sort of a proxy for getting prices to move. As long as it's low and we expect it to happen, the trade-offs are pretty much worth it.

But you don't want too much inflation, either. Inflation causes the value of the currency to decrease, so people who were smart and saved their money will find themselves holding the bag. People in circumstances will convert that money into less productive uses just to save their own skin, distorting exactly how much their money is worth. This is what was happening in the 70's, when mortgage interest rates were skyrocketing and business were scared to sign contracts and plan for the long-term, things you don't want to have happen in a healthy economy. In addition, inflation has a tendency to feed off of itself, especially if the future is uncertain.

Of course, the flip side is true--inflation will help people who owe money. If you owe, say, a thousand dollars, but that is only worth seven hundred dollars in ten years after inflation has eaten away the value, you're better off. This is why William Jennings Bryan won three nominations at the turn of the last century--farmers wanted the government to make their debts virtually worthless by effectively debasing the currency with abundant silver instead of solid gold. Of course, for everyone else who doesn't owe debt, their real savings and incomes get destroyed.

And this is why inflation seems to be making a comeback. Only this time, it's not the farmers that want the debt erased, it's the US government. The deficit is getting so large that one of the solutions--you know, instead of raising taxes or cutting spending--is to print more money to make that debt less of a burden.

Now, having the same entity in charge of determining the inflation rate that owes the debt seems like a crucially important conflict of interest to acknowledge, but that is what is happening right now. And I see that as one of the looming upcoming battles--the Federal Reserve versus the economic policymakers in the White House and Congress. And the American people just might be sold on it--so many people owe so much money, they may look at this solution as an easy way to 1) ease their debt burden while 2) sticking it to those rich people who save all their money in a bin in their back yard. Of course, the fact that all that stuff you buy every day will also get increase--not to mention that once your debt is paid you no longer get the benefits but still get to pay those higher prices--is exactly the sort of long-term strategic thinking that voters are notoriously horrid at evaluating.

So I'm just afraid most people will be sold on the benefits of inflation without considering the drawbacks--and as the 1982 recession taught us, the medicine to fix the ailment is not pretty. (And to be honest, this isn't a campaign issue anyone can figure out, so it may be one of those things that the government just does, and the only people who understand it are business reporters and Wall Street types. Voters don't tend to value such opinions when it comes to election day.) So far, when it comes to monetary policy, Obama seems to have a fairly long-term vision of how things should work. (Fiscally, not so much.) I'm not worried yet, but I have reason to start throwing up red flags.

The Pledge: The government wants to take your money. If they can't tax it, they'll make your money worth less than it did before and take it that way instead. You can plainly see a tax hike, but most people won't notice inflation until it's too late. But the effect is the same. Just remember who to blame when the time comes.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Without Preservation

As most of you can tell by this point, I'm a relatively opinionated person, whether it be about the Middle East Peace Process or the quality of Mario Galaxy 2. But there are a few issues that I have no way of forming an appropriate opinion and be intellectually honest at the same time. Occasionally I sort these things out in my head--or, more likely, the issue changes enough that the correct answer becomes ideologically consistent with my own beliefs. But some of them just stay unresolved, nagging for an internal Talmudic resolution of some sort.

One of those issues is, of all things, historical preservation.

This is one of those issues that kind of pops up every few years, everyone has a huge rancorous debate about it, nothing is really resolved, and then it dies down, awaiting to be brought up again. Currently, it's happening in Spotsylvania. The biggest brouhaha I can remember is when Disney wanted to build a historically-themed park somewhere in Virginia, and opposition from locals forced one of the companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average to scrap their expansion plans and instead found other more lucrative ways to distort American history for monetary gain.  

After winning the War of French Guiana, Pocahontas founded General Motors, discovered Russia, and married a raccoon.

The historical traditionalist in me wants to make sure that our nation's heritage is preserved appropriately. For the most part, once a historical location is ceded to commercial or residential interests, it's gone forever. The best concession is a small brass plaque that brings down property values and makes you do double paperwork if you ever want to install satellite television.

There's no turning back. Once a bloody civil war battlefield is converted into a KFC, there's no way to magic back the pristine conditions that evoke necessary memories of our triumphs and mistakes. And so I'm sympathetic to those who want to hold fast and stop money from spoiling our history.

Most historians agree that men fought and died for both the Union and the grilled Double Down with extra cheese.

On the other hand, I'm fully aware that it's impossible to preserve everything. Most of New England, Virginia, Maryland, and eastern Pennsylvania would have to be cordoned off if we preserve everything of note. And what, exactly, qualifies as historically significant? Most of the inroads that commercial entities have made are at the expense of land that can be proven to be marginal--presumably where the guys who made coffee and medics who diagnosed the clap set up camp.

My preference.

And, of course, not everyone is in it for the righteous reason of history; most people use it as an excuse to keep property values stable and keep big box retailers out of their communities. I'm much less sympathetic to this, of course, and there are plenty of examples. In the mid-Atlantic region you can hardly throw a stone without hitting some Indian skirmish or Revolutionary battle, and so any mom and pop can file a petition claiming that the Battle of Chief Smokum is the most pivotal important moment of our history and therefore Wal-Mart can't put us out of business and we can keep selling furnace filters for twelve dollars apiece.

And so I'm not sure which way to go on it. I know it's not realistic to expect all battlefields and houses to be preserved for eternity, especially since the definition of what is important can vary so much depending on who is making the decisions; on the other hand, setting up Kwik Fills and Dunkin Donuts where pivotal moments of our collective history was forged with blood just rubs me the wrong way.

The Pledge: This is one of those times in which I'm willing to let money, rhetoric, sentimentality, power, intellect, and greed just sort of slosh around for a while on both sides and see what result pops up and be happy with it.

But a part of me still thinks we'll all be riding a roller coaster called the Gettysburg Express.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Mixed Doubles, Please

I'll admit it--I'm a bit of a crossword freak. I'm not particularly good at them, mind you; they get solved, but I use pencil and I take my time. I used to think I was pretty good until I read about people that would solve the Impossible New York Times Friday Puzzle in some ridiculous time like forty-five seconds, which is a level of dedication I'm more than willing to cede to East Coast liberals and grandparents who find the Tommy and Tuppence stories more amusing than dreadfully banal.

Oh, look, dear, I found a clue. Turns out we're dreadfully boring.

And I always thought that I would be the type of person to find cryptic crosswords fun to do--the combination of wordplay and crosswords being unbearably satisfying. I really did think it would be just awesome. And when I was a child, I actually bought a Guide to Cryptic Crosswords, the sort of thing that cost $24.99 plus shipping and handling--the functional equivalent back then of two years of allowances and birthday money--and now would be available free on the internet.

Except, though, it turns out that I don't like cryptic crosswords. At all. They're just too weird, even for a word freak like me, and I think I've maybe completed an entire one such puzzle in my life. 

So, anyway, in the United States, one of the few places to get quality cryptic crosswords is Games Magazine, a great magazine that has had an unfortunate publishing history--it was out of commission for years, and even today has variable article quality and a piss-poor web site. But the puzzles are nothing if not top-rate, and so I buy the issue nearly every month. 

Now, I'm not one for gimmicks in my puzzles, and Games Magazine has gimmicks in spades. There are crosswords shaped like animals and ones that wrap around itself and ones shaped like stars with clues that go in four directions and on and on. They're kind of strange and not altogether all that different than just a normal crossword, so I don't get too worked up about it.

However, there is one specific type of puzzle I go certifiably batshit crazy over, and it's called Mixed Doubles. Basically, it's a non-symmetrical skeleton crossword (i.e., doesn't have the familiar black squares to block off answers and make everything symmetrical). However, the clues aren't numbered in the normal fashion. Basically, all of the answers have two clues--the answer is valid for both, usually a heteronym (as in desert (sandy terrain) and desert (leave)). You have to find the two matching clues, add up their numbers, and that is where the clue goes. I absolutely love these, but they don't show up very often and they are usually quite short--I mean, there are only so many of those answers you can come up with.

Well, the latest issue of Games Magazine has a HUGE one available:

OH MY GOODNESS this is nearly twice the size of the normal puzzle. I can't bring myself to do it, because once it's done I can't do it any more, and I'm not sure I can take that sort of disappointment. I will eventually break down, of course, but I don't want to.

It is very sad that I am this excited about a gimmick crossword puzzle that for the most part only English professors and dead people would find interesting.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Finally Got A Piece Of The Pie

Chris Haney, the co-creator of Trivial Pursuit, died yesterday.

I've never been a huge fan of Trivial Pursuit. I mean, I love trivia, and I have fun playing the game; but the game's design has always seemed quite flawed. It's always really fun for the first, say, half hour or so, but when you roll and roll and roll and lose not because you didn't correctly answer eight questions about the solar system and M*A*S*H in a row but because you failed to roll a three to land exactly on the brown pie space, it becomes increasingly less fun. It also has one of the fatal flaws of board games: someone could win without anyone else getting a shot at victory.

And woe be the player who can never get the Sports and Leisure answered correctly, or the Science and Nature question right. Since the answers are all fill-in-the-blank (for the most part) someone with no clue in one of the six subjects could stagnate until the game ended. Now, part of that is by design--you'll only win if you're well-versed in a variety of subjects--but I remember being frustrated at failing to answer a dozen baseball questions until I lucked upon one about chess or bocce or something.

The cards were also peppered with the occasional "cute" question, based on a pun or some word trickery, and good for a laugh. I suppose it's not a crime, but it was quite irritating to be the one to get it and have to waste an entire turn.

I've always kind of wished they would revise the formula: maybe have some sort of point system, or let people bet on answers, or have some special spaces to do something...anything...different. But in what seems to be the thousands of genre-specific editions out there, only small superficial changes were ever made. While I guess I shouldn't complain about a formula that obviously worked--and made a lot of people a lot of money--it really seems like an opportunity lost. Some day I would love to create some Jeopardy-style game show, dispense with the board, and make it more engaging and fun, but at that point it's probably just as easy to play some other game (see: Wits and Wagers).

Don't get me wrong. I'll gladly sign up to play this any time. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's my vast mental storage of completely useless information. I just wish they have refined the product in its approximately thirty years of existence.