Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Trust in Numbers

The policy geek that I am, I try to look at things from a theoretical standpoint. I don't--at first--look at the actual numbers involved in, say, a tax cut, or a proposed government program, or the demographic outlook of a region. I look at the underlying forces involved and distill it through my awkwardly developed sense of economics and draw my conclusions from that--theories that I hold to be true before crunching the numbers. This is terribly satisfying for me, but it has the rather unfortunate side effect of being completely useless for application in the real world.

Part of me could never figure it out--why was I so disinterested in numbers? You would think that I'd like to shovel down in the details and reach the much anticipated "AHA!" moment, but that almost never happens.

I think I may have figured it out this afternoon--I don't trust anyone's numbers.

I don't trust the government's numbers. I don't care if they are "official" or not, there are so many budgetary gimmicks in use by the government that if you take them at face value I have some guy in Oz I want you to meet.

I don't trust the CBO or the OMB. Well, actually, I trust the numbers themselves--these two departments are as close to accurate government auditors as we're ever going to get. The problem is they more or less have to go by the parameters given to them by Congress and the White House--which, of course, are skewed by politics. If Congress tells the CBO to completely ignore the effect of health care on the economy, the CBO will produce a highly accurate report that I trust--that is also completely useless.

I don't trust journalists. They don't know a thing about how the economy works. Hint: If you see someone who is a "Financial Reporter," that just means they were assigned the financial desk. The extent of their financial training most likely came from the exact sources they are reporting about. Also see: bias.

I don't trust pundits. Pundits all have their partisan opinions, and partisan opinions have a tendency to make shit up.

I don't trust universities, but they're better than the sources listed above. Sometimes you'll get someone who puts their academic reputation above partisanship, but not very often. In addition, academics tend to have the same problem I do--they're theoretical by trade, and that's the lens they look through.  

I don't trust think tanks--but I trust them more than most above. Yeah, they're just as partisan as pundits, but at least they're trained. Instead of just making stuff up, they tend to solve the problem first, then nudge everything until it hits their ideological base.

I'm also lumping ideological magazines in that last point, since they are an unholy combination of journalists and think tanks--they are the closest thing to "enlightened reporters" we have, but step one foot out of the ideological spectrum and you either need to be fired or lose a quarter of your subscriber base, so I don't trust them all that much, either.

When it comes down to it, the best I can do is 1) glean the most info I can out of mainstream news sources, since at the very least it's cheap and plentiful; 2) see what the think tanks, pundits, and magazines that I trust the most say; then 3) cross-check it with universities and non-partisan organizations. To be honest, the end result is just going to be some bastard consensus figure that has just about as much chance at being right as rolling dice.

The Pledge: Basically, I'll just bypass all the "research" nonsense and just automatically knee-jerk the answer out of my head with whatever solution it is that reinforces my extreme personal political position. Everyone else does it, so why the hell can't I?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Candy Review: New Flavors of M&Ms

Around a year ago, something surprising changed my life.

I was meandering through one of the aisles at Wal Mart and I happened to notice a new item on the shelf. That item, in its saintly white package, was nothing less than Coconut Flavored M&Ms. It's like I won the Nobel Peace Prize in Discovering Tasty Confections Everyone Else In The World Already Has Access To.

Now, over the past ten years or so Mars has been regularly coming out with new flavors of M&Ms, most of which I don't care for. Basically the only ones that were in existence when I was born were plain and peanut. They slowly added almond, dark chocolate, peanut butter, and crispy, and possibly others I don't recall. (I'm not sure which flavor is represented by that slutty green one.) None of these flavors really did it for me. Coconut, however, was something new.

Anyway, I decided to gather a few of the newer flavors to see what they're like. Let's take a look.

We have, from top to bottom, Pretzel M&Ms, Peanut Butter and Strawberry M&Ms, and Coconut M&Ms.

Pretzel M&Ms
I absolutely love chocolate covered pretzels. I have been known to eat the entire gross domestic product of Vietnam in chocolate covered pretzels in one sitting. For breakfast. So this was one that I was looking forward to.

I don't know what it is about chocolate covered pretzels that people love--probably the mixture of salty, sweet, and crunchy.* Though I never quite got the allure of "crunch"--you can't taste it, but I suppose it's better than it having the texture of raw liver.
Now you're looking at this tasty treat but tasting raw liver. Welcome, pledges, to Rush Week!

The problem is, chocolate covered pretzels are something to be savored, my breakfastime gorging notwithstanding. Munching on these pretzel M&Ms doesn't let you do that--you more or less gobble them down like Cookie Monster at the Keebler Treehouse. So they taste pretty good, but it's not a very enjoyable experience. 

Apparently, even though this might taste like the solidified nectar of the heavens, if it doesn't feel like an acid-laced ride on the Matterhorn at Disney, it's worthless.

Next up: 

Peanut Butter and Strawberry M&Ms

Unlike pretty much every other child on the planet, I was never one for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.** I don't know why--I absolutely love peanut butter, and while jelly isn't my thing, I certainly don't hate it. Probably the OCD in me just wanted either a PB sandwich or a J sandwich, not some hybrid frankenstein combination of the two. That's just sick.

 And if I don't much care for peanut butter and jelly, I most certainly don't like pre-made versions of the same, such as Oreos or ice cream flavors or any such thing.  Just ew.

Get lost! You disgust me! And take your disgusting bastard cousin fluffernutter with you!

For some reason they have freckles, not unlike a tan Lindsay Lohan.

Now you're looking at this tasty treat but tasting raw liver. Welcome, pledges, to Rush Week!

Granted, the M&Ms are strawberry, and not proper concord grape, but the idea is the same--vaguely fruit-flavors gelatin-style stuff combined with sticky peanut butter just hain't my bag.
So I wasn't expecting much, and I didn't get much. They basically were peanut butter M&Ms with a very faint strawberry taste--there's not actual strawberry filling, just flavoring in the goober paste.

This is your childhood, covered in a thin layer of chocolate and sold for a buck quarter per dozen down at the Citgo Station.  Ah, memories.

And, finally...
Coconut M&Ms

So far, I've been quite surprised that these aren't getting the treatment that the normal line of flavors have. After my then-fiance/now-wife and I discovered them in the aisles of Wal Mart, I was quite distressed to realize that they were stamped with the dreaded words "Limited Edition." That is, just as I found something awesome, they were going to take it away and never bring it back again, lost in the memories of forever. Just like Pita Stuffs and Banana Pudding Pops.

There is a clear and present conspiracy afoot, because in two minutes of searching I could find no confirmable pictures of either Pita Stuffs or Banana Puddin' Pops on the entire freaking internet.

As a completely unrelated aside: why are there no chocolate banana M&Ms? Mars, I expect royalty checks in the mail anon. 

A few months pass as the Limited Edition boxes slowly disappear and I quietly weep. Around Christmastime, I get curious and check the web site--it turns out that they were being added to the "regular lineup of flavors." Merry Christmas to ME! Unfortunately, this ultimately appears to mean that they will only show up in gas station candy aisles in those small trial size bags, because so far that's the only place I've been able to find them.

So, anyway, Coconut M&Ms were already determined to the best thing ever, because coconut is awesome. This candy doesn't disappoint--the taste is strong enough that it feels like you're immediately transported to a quiet tropical isle and your taste buds are assaulted with the marvelous taste as if someone poked a hole in a sweetened coconut, poured a pound of chocolate syrup in it, shoot it up, and jabbed a straw in it and handed it to you. But it's not so overpoweringly strong that it feel like Jimmy Buffet is rooting around in your jock strap looking for his roach clip while Che Guevara shoots dissidents in the back of the head in full view. 

Welcome to Margaritaville. Viva la Revolucion!

The only disappointment is it's clear that it's just chocolate mixed with that nasty artificial coconut syrup they put in coffee drinks. It would have been better if actual bits of coconut were stuck between your teeth so you could enjoy this wondrous confection well after the bag was devoured, but I can certainly understand why they didn't do that--I assume cost reasons, but why those pantywaists over at the Almond Joy factory can do it and M&Ms can't I don't know. Still, it's pretty good, so I can't complain too much.

Verdict: Coconut is awesome, Pretzel is pretty good, and PB&S isn't my thing but other people who have had normal person childhoods may enjoy it.

*This also describes my wife.
**OK, to be fair, there is a long, long list of reasons why I was unlike every other child on the planet. Getting a subscription to National Review in junior high just being one of the infinite reasons.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Board Game Review: 1960: The Making of the President

A few weeks ago, I announced that I was going to be writing a series of reviews about political board games, specifically the Leonhard/Matthews line of games. Last week I finally recieved their newest release, Founding Fathers, and hope to have played it enough times to review it by the time all of the other reviews have been presented.

The first game I am going to review is 1960: The Making of the President. It is designed by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews. It is published by Z-Man Games and was released in 2007.

This game is set in the final few weeks of the United States Presidential Election of 1960 between two future presidents: Senator John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon. It is a two player game, with one player playing as Kennedy and the other as Nixon. The object--quite obviously--is to win the election by winning enough states to put you over the top--the magic 270.

The game is played in nine rounds. The first five rounds are played where the candidates campaign; then there is a debate; two additional campaign rounds are played; and then election day determines the winner.

To win a state, a player simply has to have more support than their rival. Support is represented by either red (Nixon) or blue (Kennedy) cubes. Players place their own cubes or removing their opponent's from the various states, representing the level of support in that state.

The board is a representation of the United States. The electoral votes of all the states are listed, along with who historically carried the state.

Here is a close-up of the northeast section of the board:

There are several components in the game besides the cubes and the board. There are endorsement cards and tokens, momentum tokens, issue markers, and candidate cards, along with a small "Debate" board.

Above, in order, are Campaign Cards, Endorsement Cards, Candidate Cards, Momentum tokens, and Endorsement tokens.

The heart of the game is in the Campaign Cards. Each player is given a set number of Campaign cards each turn. With that card they can place support tokens on states; they can also place support on specific issues and buy advertising. Alternately, each card has a specific event they can play instead. The trick is that each card can only be used for one of these actions; determining which action is in your best interest is the crux of the game.

Let's take a look at one of the cards:

The 3CP at the top is how many "Campaign Points" the card is worth. Campaign Points (CP) can be spent on state support, issues, advertising, or moving your candidate. I won't go into all of the details, but generally speaking most of the time players will place support on the states, since that is what wins the game, but there are bonuses for controlling each issue and a small advantage for advertising, so at different phases of the game there are different justifications for what action you take.

The "Rest Cubes" notation allows a player to set aside some of those cubes--and the amount of cubes always add up to four, so for example if you spend three CP, you'll get one Rest Cube. These rest cubes go into a bag. At various times, it is necessary to pull cubes from the bag--so the more cubes you have in there, the better off you'll be. This is a nice balancing mechanism; if you play weaker cards that have less CP, that just means you'll have more Rest Cubes in the bag. 

The event listed on the bottom is also a choice--in the card above, it affects the Economy issue. Note that this particular card will help the player who has the most support in the Economy. If that's not you, you don't want to play the event on this card!

Which takes us to the very bottom of the card. That tank icon helps in the debate and the state abbreviation (in this case, Tennessee) help during the debates and campaigning, respectively; we'll get to those later. The two party icons (the blue donkey and red elephant) determine who can play this as an event. In this case, either player could since both icons are there. Had, say, only the red elephant been on this card, only Nixon could have played it as an event.

The cards dealt to a player come from the same deck--which means that Nixon may end up with events that only Kennedy can play, and vice versa. In this case, there's another choice to make. Each player gets Momentum markers. These markers can be used to "trigger" an event played by your rival. So if Nixon plays a card with a Kennedy icon, Kennedy could "trigger" that event by spending a Momentum marker. Timing your events now becomes more important--if you have several events that help out your rival, you may want to play the weaker ones first to force them to burn up their Momentum markers by the time you get to the hugely advantageous events. Alternately, you can play two Momentum markers preemptively so that your rival can't trigger the event; since Momentum markers are normally scarce, this is an expensive but sometimes necessary precaution.

Events can only take place once, so they are removed from play after they have their effect. Certain cards remain in play for the rest of the game, while others only affect the Debate or Election Day rounds. 

After both players have played all of their cards, they set the last remaining card aside for the debates. (In the last two rounds after the debates, two cards are set aside for extra campaigning at the end of the game.) Then, each player is awarded endorsements and momentum markers depending on how much support they have on the three issues (Economy, Civil Rights, and Defense) and the importance those issues currently have. Momentum markers, as noted above, are used to trigger events; endorsements are used to break ties at the end of the game.

The debate round is short, and I won't go into it--it's not difficult, but it's not easily explained, and the effect is fairly minimal. It more or less allows players a few extra cubes to the board based on how well they do. Astute players soon found out that it may be useful to "throw" the debate and use it as a sink for awful cards--a viable, if not attractive, option.

On election day, each player reveals the cards they set aside for some last-minute campaigning--cubes are pulled from the bag for those states each player set aside for the last two rounds--and a few other events (if played) are resolved. Then, each player tallies up their votes. A player that has at least one cube on a state wins all of that state's electoral votes. It doesn't matter if they have just one cube or twenty--either way, they win the state. Ties are broken by endorsement or, if that doesn't do it, by the historical result. The player with the most votes wins!

Let's be frank, here: This isn't Monopoly. While all of the above may seem like a lot of rules, it really isn't. The main part of the game--understanding how the Campaign Cards work--is pretty easy once you play a round or two and get used to it. There's a little bit of maintenance concerning the issues and timing, but it's not anything that's insurmountable. All of the cards and instructions are clearly noted, and the rule book has plenty of clear examples.

Since the Campaign Cards can do so many things--but only one thing at a time--and can also help your opponent, there can sometimes be excruciating decisions you must make. This may be internally (whether one action will benefit you more than another action) or externally (how your opponent will react to your decisions). This creates a fun, tense game.

There's a few items I didn't get into--such as carrying a state, advertising, the debates, decay, and the candidate cards. They're relatively minor but they all make the game more interesting.

What is good about this game:
*In case you didn't notice from the above pictures, the production quality of this game is top-notch. the graphic design and photographs that are used evoke exactly what a post-war election in the emerging mass media culture would feel like.
*The game is fairly balanced. While the different events for each candidate are wildly different, they are dealt equally to each player, and the ability to "trigger" most events helps regardless. As mentioned before, playing weak cards just allows you to put more cubes in the bag, which may help on election day. And so on.
*The number of things you can do with just one card is astounding--and this fact makes the game fun. You have no less than four choices with each card you have, and thanks to the CP value and the event, each card has a unique advantage and disadvantage for each choice you make.
*The theme is integrated into the gameplay itself. Many games try and fail to do this, and many games just plain don't even try. The events--all of which are actual events that occurred during the real election--have real, logical effects in the game.
*It's difficult for this game to get stale. While one would think that with a fixed deck of about 100 cards would get old, it really doesn't--drawing Card X on turn one may have a completely different effect than drawing it on turn eight.
*The game is just about the right length. It's a tight game, and after both players are acclimated one game takes about an hour. Any longer would drag, any shorter and you'd lose a lot of depth.

What I don't like about this game:
*Not much, really. The below points are all quite petty, but I think they're worth pointing out.
*The debate phase is a bit weak. It's a fun little mini-game, and a player who sweeps the debates will get a clear bonus, but it seems like an awful lot of work for minimal benefit. 90% of the time the debates end up getting split with only a few awarded cubes separating the winner and the loser; it hardly seems worth it. The debates are interesting, but I'd raise the stakes a little more by maybe adding momentum or endorsement bonuses in, too.
*This is what is called a "managed luck" game--while it's true the cards you are dealt are completely based on chance, the rule set allows you to manage that luck to maximize your benefit and minimize your losses. This is an integral part of the game; unfortunately, it also means that you are occasionally dealt a dog of a hand and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. It doesn't happen often, but it happens.
*There has been some talk about the "Issue War" problem, where players simply go tit-for-tat on the issues. While I can see why--unlike most of the other options, with only three issues the range of choice is limited--it also presumes that the rewards for controlling the issues are greater than just dumping the equivalent number of cubes in the states. I don't believe that to be the case. It's important to win the issues, since it's the only way to gain momentum and endorsement markers; I'm just not so sure this is a problem.

Overall, this is a fun game. It's a little higher on the complexity scale than most people are used to, but anyone who has played, say, Risk, will not find a problem with this game. I've been playing it for a few years now and I still see opportunities in different card combination that I've never encountered before, and that sort of longevity is rare on board games. I give it a clear A-.

The next game up for review is 1960's spiritual successor: Campaign Manager 2008.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Static and Noise

Comic Book Movies. This weekend I watched both Kick-Ass and Watchmen. I'm not normally a comic book guy--somehow that whole chuck of geekification missed my interest--but I absolutely loved both of these movies. Kick-Ass may have gotten a little bit too out of hand towards the end, but dammit if it wasn't just the right amount of interesting plot, wanton violence, and aesthetically pleasing cinematography. The Watchmen was another gripping movie, and I'm not exactly certain how on earth it's taken me this long to watch it. I vaguely knew of the plot before I watched it, but for some reason I delayed. With my current Nixon fascination I decided to go ahead and order it on Netflix. I'm glad I did, and the original comic book--er, I mean, graphic novel--is currently en route to my house for immediate perusal. I doubt any of this will get me any further interest in comics, though. 

Credit Card Changes. It baffles me that anyone could possibly be shocked--shocked!--that credit card companies are raising their interest rates. The new law that regulates credit cards took effect this week, and they are already changing the way they do business--you know, because the government changed the business on them. In a nutshell, the new regulations basically harm everyone (higher rates, lower credit limits, more paperwork) but helps those who don't pay their bills (lower late fees, making certain restricting the ability to adapt to changing behavior on the part of the consumer). As a general rule, I think credit card companies aren't evil incarnate--yeah, I don't like that they sneak in rate hikes for stupid reasons and are piss-poor at explaining finance charges. But they also get a lot of blame for things that are the fault of the consumer--i.e., living beyond their means. As usual, the government has decided that they will legislate away personal responsibility and in its stead frame the entire industry that ends up being worse off for everyone.

Ground Zero Mosque. My position isn't fundamentally different than most people's, or at least I think--I respect the right for the mosque to the built, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. My fear has always been that America would end up like Europe--you know, the Europe that looks down on us for being an aggressive, cold-hearted nation while they are busy banning minarets and headscarves. Thankfully, any American anger towards Islam has been latent and focused on specific acts, rather than a broad-based persecution. I'm not naive--I know full well how Ramadan goes down in Omaha and Birmingham--but we're a far cry from the type of restrictions that Europe has enacted. On the other hand, if our cities were being demographically assaulted like they are in Paris and London, I'm sure that attitude will change rapidly, and the Ground Zero mosque is simply a harbinger of things to come. I think we're a large enough nation that we will handle things a bit differently, but unless such an assimilation is long-term and slow, I'm not so sure.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bat Out Of Hell

When I wake up each morning to go to work , there is a rather long and comprehensive list of adjectives that do NOT describe me. "Chipper," for example, or " engaging." One of those adjectives--"perceptive"--was recently reinforced.

Last week I walked downstairs to go to work and I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a bird, who had chosen to fly circles around our ceiling fan.

"Heavens to Betsy," I muttered out loud. "I wonder how that transpired." Either that or I screamed like a little girl. I don't recall.

My wife came down to see what all the commotion was about.

"Steve, that's not a bird. It's a bat."

I scoffed.

"I've dealt with bats before. This is NOT a bat."

"It's a bat."

I was certain of my opinion, but I was also late for work, so I chose not to argue. Flying Animal Removal 101 tells you to open up the doors and chase it out with a broom. We opened our front and back doors and, while one of us played linebacker with the cat so she doesn't escape and throw in with the wrong crowd out on the streets, the other tried to chase the bird-bat from room to room. At one point whatever it was brushed my shoulder and disappeared. Since I was busy flailing my arms around like C-3PO I didn't see what direction it went, but we waited for a bit and didn't see anything flying about. We closed the basement door just in case. The safe assumption was that the animal was gone and all was right with the world, a fact my wife confirmed as the day progressed with nary a sighting. Problem solved.

Until that night. Very late in the evening I went downstairs again just in time to see the animal back again, making laps around our ceiling fan. This time, I meant business.

I grabbed a broom and we chased it from room to room again. Finally the bird landed right near our basement door. Just like the photographs from the Cuban Missile Crisis, our worst fears were confirmed: this was, in fact, a bat. Worse than the fact that it was a bat, it also confirmed that I was wrong:


Obviously, we didn't take any pictures of the bat proper. We were too busy running around with random anti-bat objects to be able to lug our camera around.

The problem was that in the intervening time between the initial bat sighting and now, neither of us had bothered to learn Step 2 in Standard Bat Removal--it was all 1) Open Door; 2) Hope. That wasn't going to work in this case. We more or less had him cornered, so we had to review some new options. Option 1 was Cover Bat With Bucket Then Slide A Piece Of Cardboard Underneath It And Take It Outside. I'm not sure if this plan was tried first because it sounded halfway reasonable, or if it was because the nearest bucket-shaped thing was a Halloween candy bowl.

Warning: This bowl does a poor job of catching bats, spiders, and ghosts; however, it does an excellent job of catching Almond Joys.

Unfortunately, even a rudimentary level of physics was required to realize that this would never work; mainly, because the size of the bowl exceeded the space the bat was in. So we look around hurriedly to find out what to do next.

"Try wasp spray," suggested my wife. 

Now, I am sure that there is some violation of the law of using wasp spray for its unintended usage, but considering Options 3 and 4 were looking more and more like smacking a frying pan on our wall and burning garlic on the stove,  I decided to give it a try.

I took the wasp spray and aimed. With a shower of nasty wasp poison, I hit the bat square in its blind eyes. My hope would be that after two seconds he would be dead. Obviously that didn't happen, since that doesn't even happen with wasps,and the bat immediately flew down our basement stairs and roosted to another part of the wall. I sprayed again, and the bat dropped to the floor like a rock.

 "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." --Jerry Van Dyke

I held up my fingers in a V salute, Nixon-style, proud of my victory. I go to examine the battlefield while my wife starts playing "We Are The Champions" on Guitar Hero, only to stop short in horror.

The bat was gone.

I hadn't won after all--apparently, after falling to the floor, the bat went...Somewhere Else. This is the worst feeling of all, because now at this point the bat could be flying around again or crawling in a rafter in our basement to hide until morning or--worse--die a slow and nose-assaulting death.

So we close the basement door and more or less seal everything up tight. My wife started looking up bat removal strategies while I rested up for what was certain to be an exciting but exhausting morning of bat-hunting.

Apparently, while I was asleep my wife went to the world's worst web site for bat removal advice. Because when I woke up her solution was:

1. Sneak up on bat
2. Take a washcloth and GRAB ON TO THE BAT.
3. Talk nice to it because it is scared.
4. Carry it outside and release it, like the dove it desperately wants to be but never will.

For the purposes of thoroughness, let me repeat step 2: Take a washcloth and GRAB ON TO THE BAT.

I'm not sure where she got this information--I can only assume it was the Edward Cullen Center for Rabies Appreciation--but at the time it was the only idea we had. (The frying pan was looking pretty good by this point, though.) So off to the store I went to suit up--rubber gloves, broom, washcloth, and dustpan:

Not pictured: Dignity.

Our best sources of intelligence are that the bat is in the basement. So I slowly venture on down to the basement, where the confrontation of the century is about to take place. I am more or less fed up--anyone who tells you that they are sleeping soundly when there is an 80% chance that a bat is in your house is a straight-up liar--and want this over with. Besides, I have a cat and a dog to worry about. And a wife.

Hope you are all koshered up, because it's time for your BAT MITZVAH!!!

In the basement, I find--nothing.

It was a harrowing experience. Every shadow, every bit of unfamiliar pipe valve or wire or renegade dryer lint all become vaguely bat-like in their attributes.  You know in horror movies where the protagonists make these improbable movements and about-faces and cliches every time a twig snaps--well, that was me. I was the last guy in the troop line in a Vietnam movie. I was the lawyer in Jurassic Park. As far as I was concerned that bat held a constant position 180 degrees behind my eyes, just waiting for the chance to lay eggs in my hair. 

It didn't help that it was sweltering--I mean, pants-seat-soaking hot. And for some reason I am more or less duck-walking, moving around in a permanent crouch because it is clear that being an entire two inches shorter than normal is going to save me from ending up like Officer Kane from Alien. Also, the kitchen gloves are making my entire body smell like rubber. So I eventually emerge from the basement, soaking wet and sticky with rubbery sweat, my leg muscles cramped in pain, and my brain psychologically reeling from spending forty-five minutes right on the verge of being attacked by a flying rat.

As a last-ditch effort, my wife convinces me to go shop for a "bat trap," something I am certain does not exist. A call to about four hardware and farm supply stores confirms this--there is no mass-market product that can be used to capture bats unless the bat is shaped like, and acts like, a rabbit. One helpful individual, however, did tell us to put rotten fruit in a garbage can, and then slam the lid on the can and take him out. However, this would require extensive waiting by a garbage can in my basement on my part, something I am not willing to do, so we come up with an even awesomer solution: put rotten fruit on glue traps, so we don't have to be there when the inevitable capture occurs. The only drawback is that we can't let the cat in the basement, since she WILL somehow find a way to 1) feel the urge to eat rotten fruit, and 2) roll around in the glue like a two year old. 


So that's what we did. After four days--nothing. No guano, no bite marks on our necks, not even the Joker. So we threw the traps away and opened the basement back up, and so far there has been no sign of the bat. I had mowed the grass and had to leave the basement door open for a bit, so he may have escaped then. There are quite a few low-level chances for the bat to escape, so right now we are chalking Operation Get This Damn Bat Our Of My House a qualified success. 

But if I start to glitter, call Van Helsing. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Illegal Contraband Review: Candy Cigarettes

I was shopping at one of our local corner grocery stores when I happened across a display box of candy cigarettes. I haven't seen these things in ages, and I was also under the impression that they had been declared illegal, so of course I had an immediate desire to purchase the entire case. Illegal awesome stuff tends to have that effect on me.

They were only a quarter a pack, and already my day was getting brighter. However, there were many, many more boxes in the case than I estimated and the grand total was going to be something like nine dollars. Since this would exceed the Crank Crank Revolution Marketing Research Budget by some 900%, I opted just for a buck's worth of compressed sugar logs.

Of course, I thought these things were illegal, since the government determined the following facts about tobacco products:

1) They are bad for your health.
2) They are an equally good thing to tax.

Since candy cigarettes let you smoke without actually smoking it was determined that they would be a bad influence on children. However, since they couldn't be taxed since they didn't have any actual, you know, tobacco in them, they had to go. Thankfully, they're still legal and the republic saved, though this is the third time in as many decades they have come to within a pretend-puff away from being declared contraband.

 I don't know about you, but I want a real cigarette RIGHT NOW.

I have to admit: these look about as close to real cigarette packs as you can get without either violating trademarks or being forced to slap a WARNING: SMOKING = DEATH label on them. Granted, I don't think I've looked at a cigarette packet in about six decades, so as far as I know they are neon and have 3D cartoon strippers imploring you to smoke Lucky Strikes.

Anyway, these things were just the AWESOME back when I was a child. Nothing made you feel more grown up than when you stuck one of these bad boys in your mouth and pretended your way to ordering that hit on Johnny Three-Knuckles or pouring an old-fashioned at the office.

 What do you want me to say? Oh, right, smoking kills, kids. Don't smoke.

For those who have never had candy cigarettes before, the offhand description I listed above pretty much does the trick: They are compressed sugar sticks. Of course, the company could hardly get away with just throwing a bunch of sugar in a container and selling it (though Coke somehow gets away with it), so they put the smallest dusting of red coloring on the end of it to show that it was being "smoked."

 I don't know about you, but I want to put these in my mouth like a walrus RIGHT NOW. 

Truth be told: the things are kind of nasty. They basically have no taste at all, and after about ten seconds all you do is chomp it away. They're just bland. I don't even think there's that much sugar in it: I think it's all glue, sawdust, and bleach with a hint of corn syrup. Of course, the point of candy cigarettes was never about the taste or satisfying a sweet tooth, it was always about looking cooooool without all the pesky lung cancer.

 Hey there, candy cane. You want a ride to the state store in my van? I have to pick up some stuff at the Rent-A-Center on the way if you don't mind.

The verdict: Eh. They're kinda gross, but you know what? I've already eaten a box. You win this time, Big Tobacco!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Trapped in the Attic

A few months ago I was taking some of my many, many important documents (read: board games) to my attic. We have a reasonably large attic, but, like most attics, it's kinda cramped and there's a lot of hunching and cranking, and getting to point A and point B is so complicated you'd think PennDOT organized it. In the midst of playing the world's sweatiest game of Tetris, I inadvertently backed into one of the light bulbs, quite literally ripping it out of its socket.

This picture of Angelina Jolie has nothing to do with what I'm writing, but it will keep the picture below from showing up on the previews. Trust me, this works in everyone's favor.

After checking that it was safe (cough, cough), I proceeded to make up new swear words to described my clumsiness. The attic isn't exactly well-lit to begin with, and this more or less enveloped half of the attic into perpetual darkness. It's a cosmetic issue, but it's still going to be a pain to fix. Hence, it has not been fixed. (My wife wisely chooses not to enter the attic except under extreme emergency, so the only person this is effecting is myself, at least for now.)

The other day I was taking yet another collection of boxes and bags (read: more board games) to the attic. While I was doing the exact same thing, I somehow managed to make the exact same mistake. This time, however, there was no light bulb to cushion the blow. (If it's hard to imagine how a glass bulb could cushion a blow, this gives you an idea of the sort of pain I endured the first time.) Of course, the only thing to greet my shoulder when I backed into the light is the jagged metal receptacle for the bulb. This was not, as they say, pleasant.

The result:
  Spoiler alert: This hurt.

Thankfully, it was only a surface scratch. It looks awful but it doesn't bother me except for wearing seat belts.

Of course, the only solution is to fix the light, so that I have more light so I won't back into the light. I think.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kicking Around An Idea

There is something fundamentally wrong with me. I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

I'm not sure why. It's the history I love and the political scientist in me, I suppose. But I contend that, despite the fact that so much has been written about Tricky Dick, he's one of the most misunderstood figures in modern American history--perhaps all of American history.

Maybe under-understood is a more accurate term. I'm not sure he's misunderstood because I don't think he is someone that could ever be fully understood. Here is a man whose political career literally lasted from the last shots of World War II up through the mid-1970's...and even somehow managed to become marginally relevant up through his death in 1994. I won't go into the particulars of his personal and political life--you can easily find that anywhere--but even erasing the tragedies of Vietnam and Watergate he had a notable life, even more so given his background and upbringing. 

Around 1995 or 1996, many (though not all) of the recordings that Nixon had made during his presidency were released to the public, and I, like a fool, made it the central point of a paper I wrote in college. I listened to reenactments of the highlights of the tapes. I read through droves of biographies and Watergate books. Nixon did some bad things, I wrote, but it's clear from the recordings that his intent was not to commit overt crimes. At most, it was a minor breach of the public trust and--although it didn't excuse his behavior--LBJ and Kennedy had done far worse. I didn't come across as a complete apologist, but I was clearly sympathetic to the man.

A mere week after I submitted my paper--and, notably, before it was graded--they released even more tapes. These tapes were, ah, not so sympathetic. They more or less recorded Nixon driving around the Beltway trying to run over grandmothers with his car and picking up male prostitutes while trying to convince Henry Kissinger to tripsit him for the day. (Or something like that. The details are fuzzy and, besides, mistakes were made.) The thesis of my paper--that Nixon was, at most, a small bit player in the corruption racket that was hung around his neck and most likely simply misunderstood and trapped by circumstance--was completely destroyed. Nixon was clearly calling all the shots I naively dismissed. My professor, in an act of charity that would normally elevate most to sainthood, gave me a stellar grade despite my mortified embarrassment.

I'm currently in the middle of reading Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, where he traces the life of Nixon and wraps the transformation of American culture during his career. It's telling that a man whose political life eclipsed the entire era--he was there during the staid Eisenhower years and ended through the mid-70's as the excesses of free drugs, free love, and inflation caught up with America. Nixon was as much trapped by this transformation as a perpetrator of it. I'm not so sure that, if Watergate had never happened, the story would have had a happy ending.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Newsweek, RIP

Well, it's official: Newsweek is dead.

OK, not quite. But it was sold for the princely sum of one whole dollar, which does not bode well at all.

Newsmagazines have been in a bit of a crisis lately. I used to subscribe to both US News and World Report and Newsweek (I couldn't get past Time's overt bias back in the early 90's). I enjoyed both immensely, but even back then I knew that US News was the RC Cola of the media empire: Always there, always minorly significant, never respected. It was thin on news and even less on analysis, and I am not surprised that a few years ago it effectively became a quarterly, with an emphasis on those sorts of things that are still newsworthy but essentially ended up being tabloid information--Mysteries of the Egyptians, Secret Societies in American History, that sort of thing.

Newsweek revamped itself with more analysis and commentary than actual news--a portent to the changing times. The entire news industry is getting shook up, so it's not surprising--though not exactly welcome, for either consumers of news or the journalists covering it.

I, for one, liked Newsweek enough--it seemed solid in its reporting, but it rarely offered anything I couldn't get from online sources and cable news. I remember looking forward to its Conventional Wisdom and Perspectives pages--fluff, to be sure, but it was fun. I always hated the "My Turn" essay, which was usually some sanctimonious prick prattling on about something emotional and with very little context about their problems--and, in the last year or so I actually subscribed, was usually some think tank policy flack instead of a "man on the street" essay as it was originally intended for.

Of course, I suppose I'm part of the problem--I stopped my subscription years ago, even though the cost was very low for what you got. I rarely bought off the rack, even. There was just...no longer a need for a newsmagazine anymore.

At one time it may have made a lot of sense. Newsmagazines never really went for what the daily newspapers did--they would generally go for longer, more in-depth essays that were still quite journalistic in nature. Somewhere between the morning edition and a general interest magazine like Atlantic Monthly, it provided people with news after it was sorted out and thought over.

I still think there is a place for newsmagazines, but I'm not sure what it is. I am continuously baffled by the media industry; I would assume having a crack staff of maybe a dozen reporters, shored up with a bunch of international stringers, and some paid columnists would provide much of what the public is looking for. The journalists may not like how they're effectively becoming independent contractors, but the nature of the media has changed drastically, and journalists (and editors and their owners) have been highly reluctant to change. The eternal struggle of the media has always been integrity versus profit, since the news the people want often do not coincide with what fills out the bottom line. Media moguls and editors have managed to balance this for decades, and the Internet has completely changed everything so much that newspapers are dying and magazines are folding left and right.

I don't know what the solution is, but I have a few predictions. News as we know it is gone. Newspapers, magazines, and all other print media are going to change from newsrooms full of typewriters and editors with pencils behind their ears to a core business board membership and a bunch of stringers. Online news is here to stay, and everyone is going to have to figure out how to make it profitable.* Google may end up being the savior; we shall see.

I'm certain Newsweek will be back in some form or another, but the media have a significant number of problems, and they can either drag it out for decades in the wilderness, or some form of shock therapy will jumpstart everything.

The Pledge: Some day I will write about the media's bias--I'm surprisingly forgiving of it--but for now, journalists have to realize and come to terms with the fact that they are paid a salary, and that salary has to come from people who pay them. The people who pay them are rapidly disappearing. The newsroom has changed very little in the last 15 years, pretending that the internet does not exist, and that is why journalists are losing their jobs. The sooner new models are developed--which may involve pay cuts and comprising ideals--the sooner stability will come.

*For those who don't know or haven't figured it out, it's not the fact that news is effectively free on the internet that is causing the death of the media. It's just that in the past, the classified ads and the big obnoxious car circulars paid for something like 70% of the operating costs of the newspaper--basically, people holding yard sales and selling used Escalades paid for that reporter in Kabul. Craigslist and eBay has killed the classifieds, and car dealerships (and other big-ticket ad buyers, like consumer electronics and appliances) aren't in a position to buy those ads anymore, and the method just plain isn't as effective as it used to be. This isn't some shortfall gap of 10% that needs to be plugged, this is effectively the entire cash flow of an entire industry literally disappearing in one decade (or less). How this problem is to be solved, I don't know, but the Google article linked above has some interesting if not guaranteed ideas.