Thursday, March 31, 2011

Static And Noise: Libya, Oh Libya

I Had A Dream: Last night that my wife received a long, rambling voice mail from Jim Morrison after he (to his own admission) took five Valium. He was dead within the week, and my wife set out on a journey to write a song based on the message. This for some reason included a trip to a construction zone in Vandegrift that had recently flooded for inspiration. Do you know what this sounds like? An awesome idea for a movie. File this under yet another million dollar idea.

Boots on the Ground: The situation in Libya appears to be...not good. I don't have an official position on this; while I'm a fan of the low-risk and relatively cheap air strike--as long as it actually helps--it also leads to other problems (Flashback to Bosnia, if you dare.) News reports are showing that the government has adapted quickly to the airstrikes and they are no longer effective, and in fact the government is now gaining the upper hand in the battle. What do we do if Gaddafi ends up winning? Do we stop the airstrikes and let them be, allowing a festering nation of anti-Americans brew up some awesome revenge ideas? Or are we now committed, and have to send in ground troops? The justification for entering this conflict sounds eerily like GWB's for the Iraq war, even as Obama specifically differentiated the two conflicts. (They are certainly different, but are also similar in many ways as well.) Covert support has apparently been authorized, which more or less means supplying rebels with arms, so hopefully that will be effective and end there. In the end, it is probably a good thing to do what we've done, but I don't expect it to be as limited in scope as the President thinks.

The Donald: What an odd, strange scenario we face: Donald Trump running for President? This is the third time he's flirted with the idea, and given how much he's been talking about it I think he may actually go through with it this time. I don't think he will make a good president--he doesn't have the judgment or temperament to do it, although I think he has a burning desire to succeed and his analytical abilities are stronger than people believe. But I also think he will run a lousy campaign. He will say what he wants how he wants. Normally, this is refreshing, but as a non-politician he is not familiar with where the boundaries are. And he hates to lose, so if he looks like he's losing ground, he will self-destruct. It's also possible he will simply run his polls, crunch the numbers, realize he doesn't have a chance, and start on the next season of the Apprentice instead.

Twitterati: In case any of my readers missed it, my Twitter account was named by Pittsburgh Magazine and Virginia Montanez as one of Pittsburgh's notable Twitter accounts. Thank you, Ginny. Anyone can sign up for my Twitter account (@americancrank) by clicking on the button on the right column of this page. There are several other notable Twitter accounts listed, so go check them out.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Do You Call It When...Wait. What Were We Talking About?

Is there a name for the action of repeatedly doing some mundane task the wrong way over and over and over again?

In this purely hypothetical scenario (cough, cough), say I was driving home from work and listening to the news on the radio. I was anticipating an exciting story (something like "Army of Cyborg Dachshunds Intervenes in Libya") but in the meantime the radio insisted on airing news items I definitely did not want to listen to ("Third Graders' Reactions To The Latest Episode of Dancing With The Stars"; "YouTube Sensation Is More Important Than War In Afghanistan"; "That Hobby You Like So Much? What Is It, Board Games? Geocaching? Yeah, That Gives You Cancer"). To combat this menace, I decided to listen to the newest awesome CD* I own, Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons.

Now, to switch from FM Radio to CD, I have to press the CD button. However, every single time I do so, I instead press the "Band" button, which cycles through the AM radio and the stock satellite station that I refuse to subscribe to. This in and of itself isn't so bad, but in the course of trying to catch the awesome story, I switched back and forth about four times to hear a snippet of a story I didn't want to hear ("Environmentalist Thinks He Is The First Person To Realize Oil Companies Are Bad People"). Each of those four times I managed to do the exact same wrong thing.

And I have been doing this for maybe four straight weeks. I don't think I've pressed the right button once.

I think somehow my brain has trained itself to do this. Now that I've done it the same (wrong) way so many times, my brain thinks it's the right way. I suspect the only cure is more caffeine.

*Yes, I still purchase CDs. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Dirty Little Sports Secret

I'm a good, decent Pittsburgher. I love the Penguins, I love the Steelers...heck, I even love our minor league baseball team, the Pirates. But as much as I love the local sports teams and wear the jerseys and complain about their inability to win or wax poetic about their mastery...I rarely watch the games on television.

Alas, this usually applies to the Penguins. Since football is more or less on a regular schedule, it's not hard to forget when a Steelers game is on, and there's far fewer games to watch. Hockey, however, has plenty of games each season and they are on at more or less random times throughout the week. When it's time for a Pens game, one of the following normally occur:

1. I have something legitimately planned so I don't watch it.
2. The NHL, for some reason, insists on showing about ten percent of their games during weird Canadian metric times of the day, like two in the morning on Saturdays, so I don't even pretend I'm going to watch those.
3. I completely forget the game is on.
4. We are playing someone like Phoenix or LA or Calgary or some other basement-dwelling Western Conference team and I can't bring myself to care. 
5. I remember the game is on, but it turns out it was on yesterday.
6. I remember the game is on, and I sit down all excited to watch it, and then I realize it's on Versus.

As it get towards the end of the season, I make a more concentrated effort to watch. Since the games matter more, and there is a good chance we're going to play Philly or the Rangers and someone's head might end up flying into the stands, there is more of an incentive to coordinate my schedule.

Of course, even when I'm watching the game I end up screwing something up. The same thing happens each time. Let's take tonight:

Announcer: The Pens are up 2-1. Let's break for commercial.
Me, in my head: I think I'm going to go to the kitchen I will be gone for at most two minutes.
[two minutes later]
Me, in my head: Let's sit down and see what is going on.
Announcer: The Flyers are up 3-2.
Me, out loud: Son of a BITCH.

So, you know, there's that. Go Pens, or something.

We're Having A Party

I was going to post this within yesterday's post, but I had a desire to expand a little bit beyond the scope of the subject at hand.*

Much has always been made about the "broken" two-party system in this nation. The arguments tend to fall into two alternating categories of "I'm sick of all the polarizing partisanship" and "There's not a dime's worth of difference between them," both of which represent completely different sentiments and occur at reasonably equal regularity depending on one's preconceived ideology and the current state of the parties in question.

The solution is--always--some sort of mystical messianic third party. I'm not against third parties in general--like I mentioned yesterday, they bring fresh, innovative ideas to the political marketplace--but they rarely, if ever, have a genuine chance at gaining power. And, despite what most people believe, this isn't because the Republicans and Democrats have constructed a biased system that inherently perpetuates the current party system.

Unlike most other democracies, the United States isn't run as a parliament. In, say, a European system, there are usually four or five parties, all across the political spectrum. After an election, various parties will form coalitions and govern. In the United States, we've simply skipped that coalition-forming step.

Pretty much throughout the history of our nation, we've always had multiple parties. They just aren't organized as separate entities. While trends and ideas drift around, we can look at the post-war situation to get a good look. Republicans generally represent a coalition of religious evangelicals, suburbanites, businessmen, and the military, while the Democrats have a coalition of laborers, progressives, cities, Catholics, and environmentalists. Various other groups, such as farmers and senior citizens, waft from one party to the other based on their local state and the issues of the times.

What might be a Green Party in, say, France, or Germany--which also generally represents far-left sentiments--is simply a faction within the American Democratic party. Likewise, what would be a nationalist party in Europe would be a faction within the GOP. Coalitions still form and dissolve--witness the blue-collar workers and Catholics who plumped for Reagan, then snapped back in the heady Clinton years--it's just not formalized as it is in the Europe.

Neither system is right or wrong. I happen to think the American system, where factions tend to come and go as the situation fits, is more fluid and stable. Which is why third parties tend to fail in the United States--a Populist or Libertarian or Prohibitionist party that gains any amount of success will quickly find itself absorbed by one of the major parties. The followers of the party normally don't care, since their cause is being taken up by an established organization that actually has the power to get real change in effect, rather than a fly-by-night newcomer with zero chance of gaining any immediate power. Sure, it could grow into a movement, but would advocates rather gamble for five or six election cycles, or have most of their platform recognized by the powers that be? Of course, the European system, which has stability within its party, also has its benefits, but the recent prevalence of minority coalitions and factional infighting is a little bit too unstable for my taste.

To bring it all back to what I wrote yesterday, simply being labeled as a "Republican" or a "Democrat" means very little. A Ron Paul is much different than a Sarah Palin or an Olympia Snowe. (And thank goodness.) Likewise, a New England Democrat like Patrick Leahy is much different than a Midwesterner like Ben Nelson. It's not too surprising to find a Democrat more like a fellow Republican than a fellow Democrat (much to the chagrin of the party leaders).

Labels, in the American political sense, have meaning, but not nearly as much meaning as people impute upon it. And signaling support for a particular individual doesn't necessarily represent a duplicate match of policy positions. If any individual is interested in engaging in any sort of meaningful debate, stripping away misleading indicators of one's own preconceived imagination is the first step.

*i.e., I forgot.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Stand Tall and Proud To Be A [Insert Label Here]

Now that Virginia has outed herself as a Republican on That's Church, it seems like a good enough time to examine the dilemma of the American political spectrum.

As noted in her blog, amongst many others, one of the main reasons people are disenchanted with politics, and the two-party system in particular, is that both sides are more often than not portrayed as cartoonish parodies of themselves: Democrats are all socialist baby-killing union thugs, while Republicans are all gay-bashing bible-thumping gun nuts. By painting such broad, simple strokes, it makes it easier to dismiss people you disagree with, and sadly for most people that is easier to do than to form more complex views about various issues.

This, of course, also dismisses those people who agree with a party for, say 70 or 80% of their positions, but not all. And this applies to candidates, too: A person who supports, say, 70% of what Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi stand for--not an unreasonable proposition--are assumed to agree with 100% of those said positions. This is particularly acute with presidential candidates, since there are effectively only two choices. This makes it much easier to cherry-pick arguments.

For some reason, though, Americans have drawn this up as a source of embarrasment rather than practicality. People routinely say they "hold their nose" to vote for Candidate X, as if they are ashamed. But in reality, there are very few instances when candidates and voters will match 100%. Why should everyone be worried about others' erroneous conclusions drawn from this fact? If I publicly state that I support, say, John McCain, or Barack Obama, why should I immediately be on the defensive for the 15% of positions I disagree with? This fact is more than likely going to apply to every voter in the nation in some manner--even if in varying degrees--and so I'm fundamentally astounded as to why it's so permissible to perpetuate this distortion.

The answer, of course, is that it's easy. A tried and true debate tactic is to do exactly that--draw out the few identifiable traits of a candidate and point to it as a flaw in your endorsement. Both sides do this, of course, and have been for decades. People who think the deplorable state of partisan politics hasn't been paying attention for the history of our nations.

And, of course, part of it is all about perception. If you were to ask me to make a checklist and start ticking off issue positions, you'd start to think that Benito Mussolini and Ayn Rand had a baby and started a blog called Crank Crank Revolution, probably somewhere around "Sell Organs for Money" and "Truck Hipsters to Re-Education Camps." But my actual positions are (at least in my eyes) much more nuanced than that, and the implementation of such issues are of a much more pragmatic nature.* Sure, I want taxes down to a more reasonable tithe-like level, but I know full well simply slashing spending by an order of exponents means making the streets of Madison, Wisconsin right now look like a Boy Scout meeting.

I also hold a rather unpopular opinion in that extremism in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. There is certainly a chance that politicians or pundits act irresponsibly, and that is not to be endorsed. But the edges of the spectrum are often where raw, innovative ideas are born. They get hammered down and smoothed out as those ideas move to the center, in which it becomes a necessary movement. There's also a good bit of cage-rattling that I think is necessary in a functional democracy; extremists tend to permit opposing politicians to refine their own positions, and similar, more moderate ones to define their differences. They shouldn't be in charge, of course, but they shouldn't be wished away.** A congress full of moderates that are mere degrees apart is a congress that will never enact any sort of meaningful reform.

All this is to point to one overriding problem in our political culture. Simply supporting or belonging to a particular party is never, and never has been, an endorsement of a party's entire slate. Nor do I think there is a fundamental problem if you happen to do so. Immediately dismissing someone because they watch Fox News or voted for Obama says more about yourself than the target.

*This is, in part, my problem with the Libertarian party. I'm very sympathetic with their beliefs and goals, but the part itself is more interested in scoring intellectual points and gripping a copy of The Fountainhead close to their chest as they drift off to sleep at night, rather than actually winning elections once in a while. So while I actually agree with libertarians on many key points, I don't have much use for them as a party. 
**Those that believe that the extremists are already in charge are falling victim to the same thing I mentioned above. At least since the Civil War, I can't think of a true-blue radical that has ever been in a position of power in the federal level of the United States, either in Congress or the White House. Thankfully, our system is set up so that any extremists that do settle into office don't get very far. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Easy Money

There appear to be new rumblings from the think tanks and the blogosphere about reviving an old economic saw: whether we should be sacrificing low inflation to prop up employment. Hopefully, it will be dismissed as quickly as it crops up, which seems to be about twice a year anymore.

First, a quick economic primer. This is badly simplified, but it will get us to where we need to go. When the economy grows too quickly, we get an inflation problem and prices tend to rise. The Federal Reserve (or any central bank) has the tools to effectively slow down the economy and keep inflation low. It's generally the policy of most western capitalist democracies to maintain a low inflation rate and a modest unemployment rate (usually around 4-5%). Low inflation is desirable since a little inflation does very little harm, but batting it down to zero or less does a lot more harm than good, so a low but steady inflation rate seems to work the best.*

Likewise, the reverse is true: if the economy needs to get going to hire workers, they can prime the money supply to speed the economy along. Overall, the Fed wants the economy to grow, just not too fast--so by manipulating the money supply, they can even things out.

Of course, there are benefits and drawbacks to both. Obviously as consumers, we feel the pinch both ways--higher prices and lost jobs both being bad things.

But for many, high inflation doesn't seem to be a bad thing. Who cares if prices are high if no one has any money to spend anyway? High inflation also has the extra added populist bonus that it makes loans easier to repay--since money is worth less, you're repaying loans with cheaper money than what you borrowed. Many progressives content that as long as you rig up gasoline prices and food from exploding, the government should have no problem flooding the economy with easy money to bring down employment.

The problem is that we've been here before. The major debates from the turn of the century pitted high-inflation demagogues like William Jennings Bryan against "sound money" candidates like William McKinley. Of course, the story is not an easy rivalry of inflation vs. unemployment. For decades, economists assumed this was true: you sacrificed one to get the other. In nearly a century, the data proved this to be true: in times of high inflation, unemployment was low, and when unemployment was high, prices stayed put. But that model was busted in the 70's when we encountered stagflation--high unemployment and high inflation. We then had the reverse in the 90's, when we had both low inflation and low unemployment. What happened?

No one really knows--the economy is too complicated for simple answers like that, though that doesn't mean most economists (and lay people like me) have their opinions--but the tools we've developed in the meantime at least let us point in the right direction. We know for a fact that dumping dollars in the market will increase inflation--the question is, however, whether the economy has enough slack to absorb the new money with minimal impact, or will we see a sudden shock two quarters down the road?

In any case, purposely goosing the money supply to increase inflation is not a particularly valid solution to the problems. It's a short-term fix with some pretty obnoxious side effects; when LBJ refused to raise taxes to pay for the Vietnam war and simply turned on the printing press instead, he instigated a long decade of misery (OPEC didn't help, either). Thankfully, so far, the independent Fed has not caved to pressure. I'm not so sure that will always be the case, alas.

*For the record, there is an "acceptable" level of unemployment. 2-3% seems to be a "natural" level--people transferring to a new job field, for example, or quit/got fired for reasons unrelated to economic health.An additional point or two is added to allow things to be more fluid--badly run business that shut down, or obsolete industries withering away.  Grinding down the unemployment rate to zero would cost too much money for very little benefit, so while "full employment" sounds great, it's impractical.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sucker Punch is an Oddly Accurate Title

Last night my wife and I went to go see Sucker Punch, a steampunk/dystopian movie about a bunch of girls trying to escape from an insane asylum.

It looked awesome from the previews. The overall idea of the film seemed pretty cool. It is a visually stunning experience, and the soundtrack is downright kickass.

Unfortunately, the movie is an absolute disaster. How on earth can anyone screw up steampunk Nazis*, cleavage, and Jon Hamm?

Don't let her do any PG-13 cockteasing on you. This movie is only dystopian in the sense that some day we will live in a society where people will still be paying thirteen clams a ticket to see movies like this. 

I suppose at this point I should mention that there are spoilers ahead, but, quite frankly, it doesn't matter.

A quick rundown of the "plot," as it were. Baby Doll is thrown in a sham "mental institution" which ends up being a dumping ground for rich old men to dispose of inconvenient relatives. In this case, Baby Doll is framed by her stepfather for the murder of her sister, and he throws her in the nuthouse to cover it up; a planned lobotomy will cause her to be an unreliable witness to the crime.  It turns out the asylum is also a brothel, and the "insane" girls regularly practice dance routines to entice customers. With the help of four accomplices, Baby Doll forumaltes a plan to gather four items: a map of the asylum, fire to start a distraction, a key to unlock doors, and a knife to defend themselves. They have to accomplish this all under the suspicious eye of Blue, the owner of the brothel/asylum, and they also have to do it all before the "high roller" appears to ravish Baby Doll and make Blue a ton of money.

The movie is then re-framed to represent the fantasy elements of her plan. When she "dances," the individuals watching her are so enchanted that one of the other girls can procure the item. When the "dance" starts, we as viewers don't get to see it; the movie then shifts to a fantasy setting, where the goal in real life is abstracted into a fantasy sequence. For example, when trying to get the map, the girls are transported into a war zone with steam-powered zombie robots, much like an old war movie. They fight through the trenches to find a map, and when the finally reach their objective in the fantasy sequence, they have gotten it in real life as well. The fantasy sequences cover science fiction, dragons, big jetpack-fueled robots, and all the other stuff standardized in the steampunk genre.

And so the movie goes on--as they find each item, they run through another fantasy sequence. They often receive help from a mysterious old man, who prattles on with cliched platitudes and advises their objectives. Bad Things continue to occur until the last climatic escape, when various secrets are revealed. Or not.

First off, we might as well point out the good stuff. As I mentioned before, this movie is a visual feast. If you're a fan of the Sin City/300 style of cinematography, you'll love how this movie looks. It's very stylishly done and enjoyable to soak in. It's possible some people might find it too much--a few of the fantasy battle scenes were sensory overload for me. But it's a very beautiful movie.

The music is also solid. The scoring is appropriate, and many songs are rearranged (such as "Sweet Dreams" and "White Rabbit") in an incredibly impressive manner. From an overall sensory standpoint, this movie is pretty good.

But that's about it. When we get to the end of the movie, it's made reasonably clear that there is no brothel, no high roller or mayor, and pretty much everything we've just watched is either a lie or highly exaggerated. All of these challenges were simply a fantasy within a fantasy. These girls are in a real asylum, so they've fantasized about it being a brothel, and then fantasized these steampunk battles within that brothel, and then legitimately try to find the items in a fantasy within a fantasy. And towards the end of the movie we are brought right back to a point about ten minutes into the movie, when they complete a lobotomy on Baby Doll. They reveal that much of what the girls had done (such as stabbing Blue and burning down part of the building) were, in fact, true, in the meantime, but not in the context in how it was portrayed.

Perhaps had the movie come out earlier, this would have been better appreciated by me, but I doubt it. I guess I'm more or less tired of the whole "is it real or fantasy?" genre; scriptwriters were dragging this out way back in the day with movies like Total Recall, and it was kind of old even then. Since then, it seems like every other "suspense" movie is simply supposed to make us guess throughout the entire movie whether everything we see is true or imagined, with no logical tools to guide us. Some can pull it off--I haven't seen Inception, but I assume it was done well based on what I know--but unless it's a completely new twist on the concept, I'm over it. It just seems to be a poorly written and lazy way of basically saying "We can write whatever we want with no sense of logic or plausibility, because none of it actually happened!"

This movie, therefore, is a mess. Even though going in you know it's a fantasy, there is bascially no frame of reference for how anything works. Since the movie is revealed to be a brothel very early, we base all of the characters, motivations, and truths to be based on that. When it turns out that it all still happened but completely different than how we saw it, it only creates more plot holes and illogical aspects instead of answering them. Aside from a few points here and there--like the "mayor" really being the guard, or the fact that the doctor and the "high roller" are coming on the same day--there's basically three subpar movies crammed together in a beautiful mess of a total experience.

As an aside, the movie is also quite similar in some senses to Brazil--in fact, the doctor-giving-a-lobotomy scene is eerily similar. And it's the exact same concept--a character is about to undergo a procedure (albeit torture vs. lobotomy, but with the same end result), the movie shows something completely different happening, and at the end of the movie we realize that everything we've just seen was in the imagination of the person just about to go under and none of it even happened. The scene where it cuts back to the doctor is almost the exact same setting. I'm sure they'll call it a homage instead of plagiarism, but you can make the call.

I really, really wanted to be able to recommend this movie. But it's just a jumbled mess, and I can't.

*Granted, I realize that the setting for the steampunk Nazis was probably World War I and not II, what with all the iron crosses and trenches, but when you're fighting troops powered by steam and headed by zombies and fighting them with a big robot with machine guns for hands, I am assuming historical accuracy was not a high priority.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Short Way To The Top

Obama has ruined it for us all.

Thanks to his famously short tenure in government before becoming president--four years at the federal level, two of which were effectively spent running for president--anyone with a picture on the landing page of everywhere from CNN to the Bozeman Leader-Tribune thinks they have a shot at winning the White House. Michelle Bachmann, a no-name representative from Minnesota, and Rand Paul, who has barely moved into his Senate office not even three months ago, are "exploring possibilities," which are code words for "Let's see how much money I get first." No doubt Alan Grayson is fiddling with the paperwork down in Florida.

Of course, this isn't Obama's fault. Our post-war experience has been with electing tenured and seasoned politicians. (Pre-war presidents are a different story, since back then killing Indians was an acceptable substitute for "executive experience.") This isn't only because a long-lasting politician has experience, but that they also have the clout, connections, and sources of fundraising that newcomers do not have access to. However, it's a different political world today. I don't think modern politicians have quite grasped how to exploit it, but things such as social media and instant news feeds have lowered the barriers to entry for running for president. Obama did this in a partial way, but he clearly had an entire political infrastructure to work with even before the primaries. At some point, nominees won't necessarily have to be the old guards and familiar faces.

Whether this will be good for democracy or not, I don't know. In some ways, the presidency is too important to leave to newbies. The initial legislative fiascoes of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama point to individuals who lack the experience for political negotiation on a federal level. Then again, look at that list: one was defeated, one served two terms, and one is pending. So simply being inexperienced doesn't necessarily mean a presidency will end in failure; it will require an ability to quickly learn and adapt. There's also something to be said about bringing new and fresh faces into the process; then again, that's what Congress is for, not the presidency. The House and Senate are custom-built for long, drawn-out negotiations where brash young politicos can make their mark, while the Presidency requires quick-thinking decisions that require years of experience and an overall sense of how each pertinent issue relates to other issues. The former positions are perfect for fresh faces to make their mark and specialize, while the Presidency is not the sort of place to throw dice too often.

Still, everyone knows that individuals running for president aren't always aiming just for the presidency. There are book tours, radio shows, and--in the case of Dennis Kucinich--spouses to be found.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Garbage Pail Kids

Some people recall where they were when they heard that JFK was shot. Some remember when man first walked on the moon. Some, it was 9/11 that causes a specific time to be forever burned in memory. For myself, I remember the very first time I saw a Garbage Pail Kid.

It was mid-fall in the third grade. I, quite luckily, sat in the row of desks next to the windows, and I usually spent my time staring vacantly out the window so that I could suffer through another year of elementary school. All week I felt particularly out of place, since many kids had been huddled in masses and sneaking things covertly for the past few days.

Thankfully, in third grade, the concentration of cliques and establishment of statuses had yet to congeal. If anything, friends were lumped together geographically, but in the wide-open days of primary education all locations were leveled—everyone was at school. So one individual—no idea who, alas—surreptitiously slipped a small packet of cards in my hand.

Looking them over, I realized that Garbage Pail Kids were the greatest invention of mankind since the wheel and possibly television. 

For those uninitiated few, the Garbage Pail Kids were trading cards. You purchased them in packs like baseball cards, and the cards themselves parodied the highly popular (with girls and absentee parents at least) Cabbage Patch Kids. Of course, these were the anti-Cabbage kids; the ones unlucky enough to be left behind when the patch was picked over. They were the kids with issues, exaggerated deformities, and a lack of social skills. Each kid came with a name—two, in fact, so collect them both!—that was a pun of some sort. Like “Roy Bot” or “April Showers”. The hook for schoolkids was that they were often gross—the sort of thing pretty much any third grade male kid obsesses over as a career choice—and snot, blood, vomit, drool, and (in the later, daring years) urine were the high-priced commodities of the day. The cards were released in a succession of series, adding new kids (and revenue) in each version.

Imagine my frustration when I ran to the store to pick them up—only to find them all gone. I had caught the tail end of the craze for the second series. I would eagerly check each drug store and toy section just in case every time we went shopping for what seemed like forever but was probably more like two weeks, only to be disappointed each time. 

Then, one day, I saw an unfamiliar green box on the shelf, and there they were—the much-anticipated Third Series. It was a marketing miracle. By building up so much anticipation, imagine a young boy’s delight to realize that each pack of five cards was a measly quarter—even back then something most kids could afford. It was a struggle not to just grab handfuls of packs and rip them open. It was a fad, pure and simple—and, as an added bonus, parents and teachers—and girls—hated them.

In retrospect, I never quite understood why. Sure, there were a lot of gross cards out there that obsessed with nose-picking and vomit. But it never really seemed any worse than what passed for entertainment as a child. Many—like Ray Gun (a GPK version of the then-President) and Adam Bomb–were simply nice, solid references of adult stuff even kids could recognize. But mostly it was toilets and zits.

Well, an obsession had started. There were a grand total of 88 cards per series, so for the paltry investment of around five bucks you could get the whole set. Of course, Topps, not being complete morons, made the shrewd move of making all Garbage Pail Kids stickers—an easy way for kids to burn up cards and buy new ones. They also insisted on inserting a piece of that nasty pink “bubble gum” which—let’s face it—tasted very much like the cards themselves. (Please note that this doesn’t mean that I didn’t chew each and every stick I got my hands on. And note this does not imply I tasted the cards themselves.) I’m also sure they had different rarities, because I specifically remember desperately needing specific cards to complete my set that went well beyond the bell curve.

It is odd the specific things one remembers. I remember wanting desperately to get a copy of the 1st series card Heavin’ Steven, because at the time it was the only one with my name. (I think there was a Tee Vee Stevie, but I was heartily unimpressed with that card.) I was also quite disappointed when I found out they spelled Steven with a V and not a PH. I remember only getting one copy of Melba Toast, and it was cut wrong, and as far as I can remember never got another “good” copy. I remember thinking I was Sherlock Freakin’ Holmes when I realized they had changed the names of a few of the cards in one of the series, thinking this was some awesome added bonus, when in fact they just got sued by the real-life names of celebrities they were parodying; apparently, Topps was under the impression that lawyers don’t have kids that love gross-out humor.

I also remember the day that one of the local department stores had what to a third grade amounted to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre—an entire bin full of packs of cards that were only twenty cents. My purchasing power had increased by a full-on 20%, and I was not allowed to let this opportunity pass me by. I then got home and discovered the ugly truth—the packs had apparently been set in the sun, and the gum had melted and ruined the top card in each pack. 

For some reason, I was both surprised and excited when the fifth series game out—and also this was the series that made me a little sick. I don’t remember the card, exactly, but some disgusting suggestion on one of the cards made me queasy. It didn’t stop me from buying up packs upon packs of the stuff. As time wore on—it seemed like ages between series, but upon research it was mere months—the cards got grosser and grosser. Topps played up the fact that the cards were getting banned, and human nature being what it is the more parents and teachers banned them, the more sought-after they became.

And so it went on, through the various series. And then one day—like all childhood fads—it was over. For me, I remember it being the ninth series; at this point, I had hundreds of cards. I was bored with them now. Either my income had changed drastically or I was a shrewd dealmaker, because I specifically remember having waaay too many ninth series cards. And I was done with them. Some of my friends would get excited, but at that point I became that guy—sporting the “oh, you’re still collecting those things” attitude to make myself feel superior, even though I myself was enjoying some pants-peeing excitement mere weeks earlier when I saw the new boxes. I moved on to Desert Storm cards (which were, and still are, awesome) to collectible card games, of which I still have an embarrassing number of boxes that my wife hasn’t found yet.*

And that was it. A few years ago when I was cleaning out some junk I found my old box of Garbage Pail Kids. A few things stuck out: one, I didn’t have nearly as many cards as I thought—years of INWO and Middle Eastern wars caused quite a bit of card inflation since my childhood. Two, I apparently didn’t take good care of them—the cards were gray with age and all worn out. And three—and most important—they were really, really stupid, and were a huge waste of money. One can either assume—depending on your perspective—that I either learned from my stupid mistakes, or simply used it as practice for future decisions.

*Topps has since come out with new series which, I would like to say, is a little bit wittier. (Not much, but at least some.) Sure, they're still full of awful gross-out humor, but it seems that they've at least made a token attempt to concentrate more on pop culture and current events than vomit and blood. I am assuming that they are aiming this not only at kids but at 30-year-olds as well. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Nuclear Solution

We have had about a week or so now since the devastating earthquake in Japan. While the news reports concerning the nuclear power facilities appears to be mediocre-to-good (as in half the earth isn’t going to slide away), there’s still a lot of ambivalence about what this means for the future of nuclear energy.

I’ve always been fascinated by nuclear power. Of course, I mean this in a Bachelor of Arts way, not an engineer way. I’m an idiot as far as things like this are concerned. As far as I know there is a big cast iron swimming pool-shaped thing somewhere that some dump truck backs up to, unloads a truckload of coal into it, someone squirts some lighter fluid and throws a match on it, they slam a lid on it and flip a switch, and the end result is that it makes my air conditioner run all night long each summer.

In physics class the books always had a schematic showing how nuclear power works. It always seems so neat and clean. Some element gets real hot real fast, which causes steam to form and turbines to run, which then generates electricity. At some point the stuff we’re burning doesn’t create smoke but a small amount of excrementally radioactive material, which then must be disposed of in the congressional district that has the least amount of clout. There are a lot of fail-safes involved because when I say “real hot” I mean “China Syndrome hot” and this is what makes it simultaneously efficient and worrisome.

So when the reactors in Japan started going wonky, they brought some physicist on the air to tell us how this all worked. Which, of course, had to be dumbed down for the general audience. Their response was scarily similar to what I just wrote in the above paragraph. But even when you could see through the simplistic model to the incredibly complex science he was describing, you could tell that we're really still talking about steel tubing and concrete containment centers, not space-age elements and Jetsonesque engineering.

I'm even still astounded at some of the solutions. Fire hoses and rain barrels? When some of the workers were exposed, a reporter casually mentioned that "luckily, they could wash all the radiation off." I just assumed radiation was like poison or radon, where it seeps into your body and starts the Hulkinization of your body that can't be arrested without massive medical intervention. I didn't realize you could hose yourself off afterwards and be A-OK.

Certainly, I know it's not as simple as that, and that there are different types of exposure. I guess I'm just surprised that many of the solutions involve plenty of rather mundane and unadvanced technologies. Which I suppose is a good thing, especially when the advanced technologies fail us.

Of course, in the long run, this hopefully won't stop the advancement of nuclear power. Despite all of the worrying and scares, it's still the most promising energy source out there. (Look up the fatalities of coal mining as compared to nuclear.) What's happening in Japan is clearly an outlier. While the contamination is unfortunate, right now if that's the worst that happens, it's still safer than other carbon-based forms of energy production. (Apology to Japan: I am fully aware that the act of me writing that sentence just increased the chances of a meltdown significantly, because the world is engineered to make me look like a fool whenever possible.) Still, I'm watching what happens to the reactors with interest, and hopefully things will be back online soon.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Smoky Donut

I do believe my dogs are trying out for Ocean’s Eleven.

Chloe is currently in her barking phase. She barks when she needs to go out which, partly because she’s still a puppy and partly because she is female, appears to be approximately every fifteen minutes. Of course, she also barks when she wants attention, or if she just woke up, or if she is just about to go to sleep, or if she is awake. She barks. A lot.

Dexter, on the other hand, grew out of his barking phase quite a while ago. He will only bark at the mail and the cat. Neither of these things are unusual because he only sees them every single day of his life. However, one habit he had not grown out of is chewing his blanket. We have tried to keep him occupied by giving him lots of Pork Chomps, which have been wonderful, but in the past year or so he has also picked up enough XP to become Pork Chomp Devourer +10 Master, making it difficult to keep up.

He does not care for all the tapping, though.

Other chew-related toys don’t work so well, because Dex appears to be uninterested in recognizing that thin but important line between “digestible” and “colonic nightmare.” (Note: Colonic Nightmare would be a great name for a band.) So my wife stopped at the store one day to get him some Pork Chomp-related items that may last a little longer. So far they have done their job well, but if it were up to Dexter he would simply chew and chew and chew until his teeth are ground down to nubs or his stomach looks like the bottom of a coral reef. So at night we take the chew toys off of him. 

Well, the most successful chew—the definition of which means he hasn’t successfully swallowed the entire thing in a half hour yet—is something I call the Smoky Donut. (Note: Smoky Donut would be a great name for a bar.) Basically it is a donut-shaped thing with something that smells like either Liquid Smoke (according to my wife) or an electrical fire (my take). Dexter loves it and I once caught him sleeping on top of it with his head cradled in the donut. We still have to take it from him at night and put it on our living room table so we don’t wake up to see a wiener dog with a donut-shaped bulge halfway down his stomach. 

Fig. 1: Why did you become a vet, again?

Well, a few nights ago I had to do some work around the house, and I decided to let the dogs run some energy off so that Chloe wouldn’t bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark all night long. (Pro tip: This never, ever works.) So after I was done, I walk into the living room just to see this:

 Not pictured: George Clooney about to lose his shit.

Part of me wishes I had just let them go to see if they could pull it off. Alas, my first reaction was defensive and they both ran away. As an act of charity I let Dexter chew on it for a while. As another act of charity I didn’t lock Chloe in the basement for bark bark bark bark bark bark bark bark barking all night long.


Monday, March 21, 2011

X Marks the Spot

My wife and I enjoy geocaching. Last year we didn't get out much, which is something we had hoped to rectify this year. Turns out, it happened earlier than we planned.

This past weekend was probably the first halfway decent weekend one could go out and geocache. It was still a little chilly, and we hadn't planned on doing anything. But about a week and a half ago, I casually mentioned that we would have to get on the stick about geocaching this year, and she agreed, but not much more was said about it.

Rewind to Halloween last year. While tramping about at the Black Cross that night, I stumbled upon a geocache without even looking for one. This is reasonably unusual--geocaches are usually pretty hard to find. This one was, in fact; it was literally dumb luck that we found it in the dark.

So as we were driving around after a botched attempt at getting my car inspected, we passed the Nellie Bly memorial. I had forgotten that my wife had never seen it, and given that Bly is the only famous person from my county aside from Jim Kelly, it seemed a good idea to at least stop and have a look. (The Bly memorial is accompanied by a revolutionary soldier's memorial, and as far as I can tell the main accomplishment of the enlisted man is that he had plenty of descendants wealthy enough that they could pay to construct a memorial.) Imagine our surprise when we stopped only to find yet another unplanned geocache. This was a clear sign that it was time to start up again in earnest. (Our local tourist office also engineered a number of geocaches around the county at important spots--such as the Bly Memorial--to encourage sightseeing, and it's likely we are going to try and find them all.)

The next day--a little chillier than it should have been--we set off to find some local geocaches, just to get the rust shaken off before we start repelling cliffs and climbing trees to find cereal premiums in washed-out plastic bulk pretzel jars.  Alas, we were only able to get one out of three--not bad for the amount of time we invested, but disappointing nonetheless. Still, I'm excited to see what we find this summer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Erin Go Bragh

Today is St. Patrick's Day. Not a huge holiday in my book--aside from occasionally wearing green and searching the yard for pots of gold, I tended to treat it pretty mildly; Oktoberfest and/or Columbus Day being the particular holiday more in tune with my ethnicity--though I will say that my wife's potato soup done the holiday good this year. The Irish couldn't have made it any better, even if they actually had any potatoes left to use.*

Still, I was saddened to hear that the lead singer for one of my favorite Irish-Yankee bands, Ceann, passed away in a vehicle crash about two months ago. It answers why they have been pretty quiet this year--this is usually their big holiday. Ah, well.

*This is an Irish Potato Famine joke. Unlike Gilbert Gottfried, I made sure I don't have 75% of my web traffic coming from Ireland. And it's not too soon. Hopefully, no major disasters will hit Latvia anytime soon.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Grand Unified Theory of Charlie Sheen

Just so y'all know, I'm going to be That Guy. The one who's still saying "Winning!" six months from now, long after the joke is over and everything is just sad. Then again, I can't see how that's any worse than someone who says "gnarly gnarlingtons" in 2011, so there's that.

Here is what I think happened. Now, I'm not a psychiatrist, or an addiction specialist, or even a cut-rate Dr. Drew. But quite frankly that doesn't much matter anymore.

 I defeat earthworms with words. What higher medical standard are you looking for?

I think this is what happened: Charlie Sheen did something. I don't know if it was withdrawal or overdose or he just inhaled a big pile of powdered crazy, but he started going off on every media outlet with a collection of stream-of-consciousness yet oddly poetic rants. When he came down (or crawled up, depending on your perspective) he looked back and thought, "Gosh, there are a lot of catchphrases I've uttered in my vaguely coherent ramblings. That will sell a lot of mugs and T-Shirts!" And some enabler somewhere somehow convinced him that this lucrative business will be worth more than the cool two million he was pulling in on Two And A Half Men.

I'm also pretty convinced that he thinks he is getting paid per Twitter follower. I don't want to be the one who breaks it to him.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Springtime for Sports

It's March, and here in Pittsburgh, that means a few different things: hockey playoffs start soon, and there will be a brief, naive outburst of optimism about the Pittsburgh Pirates followed by the inevitable letdown and subsequent indifference of Major League Baseball.

It also means two other things, one new and one pretty standard: the NCAA College Basketball tournament and Arena Football.

First, college basketball. If there is something I could care less about, it's college sports in general. The entire system is a racket filled with deceit and waste of money and talent. The games are rigged and the entities unfairly collude--even if just via the conference system and not actual outright bribery--and anyone thinking that these are just amateurs playing for the love of the game rather than the back-door bribes they routinely get is naive. Recent events at Ohio State and USC confirm what has been blatantly obvious for decades--college athletes are compensated above and beyond their scholarships and the students provided to take the tests of athletes for them.

I'm also not impressed with the methodology of selecting "winners," which more often than not has little to do with who wins actual games. I'm willing to grant that with hundreds of colleges and universities competing, a straight-up playoff system is most likely unfeasible, but the entire notion of having "experts" vote for winners and complicates conferences and formulas to figure out how to determine a victor just seems like a system rife with favoritism and corruption. Which, most likely, it is.

And if there's something I could care less about in college sports, it's college basketball. I can respect basketball as a sport, and the only one in high school I actually had fun playing*, but as a professional sport I'm not impressed. I'm sure part of it is because there isn't a pro team here in Pittsburgh. But I love playoffs of any type, and every year I at least make an attempt at following what is going on and I just can't get into it.

So combine the two, and you'll find something I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever.

That brings us to Arena Football. Tonight was the debut of the Pittsburgh Power, a new Arena Football team for our area. We had one, ages ago--actually, one of the inaugural teams, the Gladiators--but it moved out to Vegas or Columbus or something. Apparently things went pretty good. I fully intend on going to at least one game this season, and I hope that it remains popular--these things have a tendency to wax and wane pretty rapidly.

This logo makes me want to drink something with taurine and lemon rinds in it.

For those who don't know, Arena Football is football played indoors with half of a field. The rules are fairly similar to gridiron football, but with obvious changes made for the shortened field. Most of the time, you're witnessing a lot of long passes and high scoring and a lot of guys knocking down big foam advertisements. It's actually quite fun to watch.

A few years ago I tried to watch it all season, but the problem was that one game was shown on national broadcast each week. Not one game per team--one game per week. So if you wanted to watch, say, the Austin Wranglers, you got all of one chance to see them all year long unless you actually sat your butt down in a seat at Frank Erwin Center. So it's hard to get all that excited when you can't follow the fortunes of one team.

Competing football leagues are always at a disadvantage--the mere power of the NFL makes it so. If there's a strike this season, however, that make change; people might try to get their fix in because it may be all they get for a year. (And the Arena Football ranks may get filled with NFL players looking for paychecks, improving the game.) The AFL has actually been around for a while--almost two decades--but after rapid expansion in secondary markets they succumed to a massive debt burden a few years ago. It was reograznied and rebooted this weekend.

The team may need the support of the fans to survive. It may not do so, but hopefully the new business model they have created work better. Competition is always a good thing--something the NCAA should look into.

*This is not to insinuate under any circumstances that I was any good. I looked like Winnie the Pooh trying to bat down a beehive full of honey. It is a miracle of high school interrelationship dynamics that every game didn't somehow end up with my ass half-stuck in the basket.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cue the Mayans

Believe it or not, but the 2012 election is less than two years away--and most Americans (myself included) already want it to be over with. (As a proper political scientist of sorts, I should normally be excited about this expressive outlet of our democracy--but what passes for campaigning anymore is tedious and test-marketed enough so that all the fun is drained out. The days of LBJ harassing a beagle or George Bush Sr. gawking at a checkout scanner are long over. But I digress.)

However, cynics take heart--keep in mind that last election at this time, there were already eighteen declared candidates between the two major parties. As of right now, it's pretty much just Newt Gingrich forming an exploratory commission. (To be fair, the Democrats won't have any candidates beyond Obama himself--any opposition he has will be dispatched quickly.) So things are off to a slow start, which is probably a good thing--the campaign season is probably long enough as it is.

That said--why are things so quiet? It's not like Republicans aren't licking their chops to take on Obama. The problem seems clear to me.

Take a look at the list of potential contenders: New Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, Jon Huntsman, Michelle Bachmann, John Bolton, Jeb Bush, Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Haley Barbour, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Jim DeMint, Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, John Thune, and Rudy Giuliani, with Herman Cain, The Donald, and--what the hell--Jimmy McMillan thrown in for good measure. Hardly half of these are household names, and the other half are also-rans and nutbags. Aside from Romney and possibly Pawlenty, none of these are really standout stars of the Republican Party--they are solid politicians, to be sure, and none would be a disaster*, but can you see any of them energizing a campaign like Obama did?

The problem is the same problem both parties have had for a long time: your base wants an extremist, while the people want a moderate. The base is what selects the candidate, but it's the electorate at large that isntalls the President. That's the nature of politics; sure, a Reagan or an Obama slip in once in a while, but by and large the mere necessity of reaching for the middle of the bell curve forces one to moderate their message.

So what do the Republicans do? All of the standout stars that they have were forged in the Tea Party movement--looking at the list above, most of them rose to prominence just in the last two or three years, and the rest were maybe one election cycle ahead of their time. I don't find this list to be particularly appetizing. There are plenty of "acceptable" candidates in relation to what I think is important, but "acceptable" isn't what wins elections.

The Pledge: Even if defeating Obama was a sure thing--which it most certainly isn't--the Republicans will still find some awesome and creative way to screw it all up.

*This is a lie. Plenty of these would be a disaster.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

To The Bone, I Say!

The governor of Pennsylvania released his brutal budget today, and, as predicted, many services got cut and many interest groups are revving up for a fight. I'm not going into the details here, since it's not really relevant, except to point out that it's not fundamentally different than what we're seeing in Ohio and Wisconsin and even New York and New Jersey.

Really, I can't see how this hasn't been anticipated--governments have known for quite some time that resources have been strained, tax revenues have dried up, and that federal bailout stimulus money was going to come to an end. Candidates for office said they were going to slash spending, and then they got elected, and now they are doing the slashing. There really shouldn't be any surprises on anyone's end, except perhaps a brief moment of refreshing contemplation that a politician is actually 1) doing what they said they would do, and 2) doing it against popular opinion.

But wait--you say--how can it be against popular opinion if you just said they got elected on the same platform? It's easy--voters love it when they say you're going to slash spending, but when it actually comes time to rev up the chainsaw, they get outraged. It's happened in the past. Usually, someone backs off and reforms are tiny, piecemeal, and miss the point. I don't know if that's going to happen this time or not.

My opinion probably isn't worth much for public consumption--I'm quite the heartless jerk when it comes to this, in that I don't think it's inappropriate for the government to put the scare of life in people once in a while--but there are plenty of things I can already see. Many of these lessons were witnessed during the budget battles in the mid-90's, and it will be a test of greatness whether our leaders have learned from them.

For one, many departments, like the government is wont, are bloated and inefficient.* By starving them of funds, they will suddenly and presumably find ways to cut costs that probably should have happened years or decades ago. In the private sector, this happens when profits are lean or in the usual ritualistic cost-cutting campaigns managers are fond of performing in worryingly slim cycles. The public sector has no such mechanism, so it's up to the politicians to snatch the budget and get their manager-equivalents to figure out how to make ends meet. To me, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. While private and public sectors are different in how they should operate, the essential fundamentals of running a division/department/program are the same either way. Since there is no "natural" cost-cutting event in government, one has to be artificially forced by politicians. This is what we are witnessing now.

Of course, there is a good counter-attack by the affected government agencies, and, again, we saw this in the Gingrich-Clinton battles. When a department is forced to cut something, they don't push for efficiencies or find better suppliers or create new ways of performing your service. They cut something immensely popular first, like school lunches or Sesame Street or home heating rebates--and lift palms to the air in a shrug and state that what with the funds going away, something's got to give--and, oh look, Big Bird is eating food from Oscar's can because he got laid off. No matter that there were hundreds of things that could have been cut before it--strike at the flagship programs people actually want, and suddenly they'll be clamoring for heads on pikes.

Personally--and without knowing much about the situations in each state--the most amenable solution is probably some form of modest cut in budget with a real and specific structural change that will prevent the departments in question from busting their bottom line every year. Easier said than done, of course, but that's why I'm not a politician. 

The Pledge:  I say slash the budgets and let each department fight tooth and nail for every last dollar. But who hasn't been saying that since 1776? 

*I have a particular issue with education in this matter--I find many state-run (and private!) colleges and universities to be bloated, sloth-like monstrosities whose purpose of education has long ceased to be their primary objective. They have become mini-municipalities where lifestyle services are expected and social engineering readily available. But that will be a discussion for another day.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Best Decision Ever

So this weekend has left my internal schedule to be a little Not for any earth-shattering or particularly negative reason, but mostly because we made some decisions that threw my personal well-being for a tailspin.

Basically, early on Saturday, I asked my wife if she would like to go to the Eat 'N' Park Midnight Breakfast Buffet. This seemed like a grand idea, so we planned our entire schedule around it--as in we ate a late lunch and no supper, and we both took brief naps so that come midnight we would 1) want to eat massive amounts of food and 2) be wide awake and ready for some hot buffet action.

[For the record, if you think that planning your day around a midnight buffet makes us sound old and just a little weird, then you are missing out. Charlie Sheen is jealous of our lifestyle.]

For those that are unaware, Eat 'N' Park is a reasonably standard sit-down family restaurant in our area. Its main claim to fame is the Smiley Cookie, which is a sugar cookie with a big smiley face on it. I'm not a huge fan--I mean, it's a sugar cookie, which isn't bad, but for all the awesome things they could do with it (like add chocolate or peanut butter or ANYTHING ELSE besides glazed sugar) they seem unnervingly reluctant to experiment beyond making them in the shape of Easter bunnies or shamrocks.

Don't make me change or I will sneak into your house at night and implant nightmares into your subconscious. SO HELP ME, I WILL DO IT.

Of course, Eat 'N' Park also has a breakfast buffet, but not all of them do it, and certainly not all of them do it at midnight. Thankfully, our local one does.

Besides the impending buffet, the weekend had so far had one up and one down--an aborted airing of The Walking Dead that my wife forced us to stop watching being the down, all because she thinks [spoiler alert] smearing dead carcass all over yourself crosses some arbitrarily-defined line of taste. Boo hoo, I say.

The up part was the fact that I aced a game of You Don't Know Jack that had both a question about how long the gap was in the Watergate tapes and what year the Berlin Wall fell. It was like the Wii was speaking directly to me.

Right before we left on Saturday night it started to pour, and my wife lost the lens cap to her camera* on a last-minute photographical excursion, so things started off wet and sullen. Well, shortly, we showed up at the nearly-empty restaurant where we had a free run of the buffet for like a half an hour until the usual skankfaces and drunks staggered in. I fell into the trap of loading up on corned beef hash, which is 1) very good but 2) very filling, in as much that about halfway through the mountain of salty beef and potatoes I was ready to throw in the towel. But just like William Wallace, Rudy, Akeelah, and the bee, I wasn't about to give up--and, sure enough, I conquered that hash, along with eggs, toast, and chocolate mousse. Not all together.

Alas, much like the Iraq War or watching The Holiday, it didn't take me long to realize that Mistakes Had Been Made. The drive home was a long, somber one, where at any given time the cosmos of the universe was going to roll doubles and I was going to expel my recent culinary trophy. I made it home, however, and at the tender time of two in the morning I finally dozed off to sleep.

Of course, the following day, I woke up reasonably late and not at all hungry. Which didn't stop either of us from eating lunch at 10:30 in the morning. (Technically, it was brunch, but I'm not sure a spicy chicken sandwich technically counts as a recommended brunch item.) And that lunch included a Coke that should have been a Diet Coke--I haven't drank a regular cola for a few years--so I spent most of the day sugared up, full, and (according to the dogs) cranky. Of course, an afternoon nap--which, oddly, is not a normal occurrence for me--was the casualty of my sugar crash.

Needless to say, at this point both my appetite and my sleep schedule are all screwed up, and I anticipate some dissonance from my physiological signaling system. Still, being out with my wife for a midnight meal was, hands down, the best decision of the weekend.

*Thankfully, a crisis was averted, when a rescue mission was formed and the lens cap retrieved the following day, in much brighter and drier circumstances. The nation was saved for tyranny.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Static And Noise: I'm an F-18, Bro

The Sheen Dream: I have specifically avoided writing about Charlie Sheen for a few different reasons. Mostly, it is that I (quite undeservedly) agree with a lot of what he's saying. Save me your protestations: I'm aware that he's a convicted drug user and an alleged domestic abuser, among probably a thousand other reasons that he's a scumbag. And yet, when you strip away all of the crazy and the catch-phrases, his arguments are quite logically sound and I'm afraid I agree that they make more sense than not. (But, of course, the crazy and the catch-phrases are still quite awesome). I've debated writing a full-length post about Sheen, but I haven't, and for one major, overriding reason: the moment I make public some heartily constructed and valiant defense of Charlie Sheen, he will come out supporting a man's right to snort lines of coke off of newborns or that the Holocaust was scriptwritten. So...we'll just leave it at that.

And So It Begins: There is an easy way of telling when someone is running for president, and that is when they pop up in the news twice in a week when they hadn't been in the news for like three years. And so enter Mike Huckabee, who has managed to botch Obama's upbringing (claiming he grew up in Kenya), and a sloppy attack on (of all people) Natalie Portman. The Portman episode is probably overblown--the actual content of his message isn't particularly controversial, though his delivery was a bit uncouth--but otherwise, he's clearly stoking the fires to gauge his support. Newt Gingrich, of course, officially declared his exploratory committee. One of my friends long ago labeled Huckabee a "con-man preacher," which is probably accurate; and I've long held that Gingrich is an impressive ideas man and an efficient policy wonk but an awful presidential candidate. So if you take what we've seen this week, multiply it by like a hundred, you'll see what we're going to witness for the next year and a half. Yay for democracy!

The Dog Days of Spring: My youngest dog, Chloe, is running around in our backyard for the first time. She is absolutely loving it, but she hasn't quite got the grasp of leaving a lane open. Don't know what that means? Let's just say there is a place where people walk and a place where dogs do what they do when they are outside, and never shall their paths cross. Dexter picked up on it pretty quick, so I'm hoping that she'll catch on as well. But she also learned to race up the steps on her own, which Dexter took a while to figure out. In any case, we're hoping that a side effect of all this is that she stops BARKING SO MUCH. We shall see.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Catfish Blues

I'm currently reading False Economy by Alan Beattie, and so far it's a pretty good summary of economic history--and it's fairly accessible for those who aren't into economics or history. I haven't finished it yet, but this particular paragraph stood out for me:
A few years ago, American catfish farmers got cross when cheap Vietnamese catfish started entering the U.S. market...the farmers hired lawyers and lobbyists who persuaded lawmakers to force the Vietnamese to stop calling their catfish catfish....the Vietnamese relabeled their exports as basa or tra (meaning, in Vietnamese, catfish). American consumers, amusingly, appeared to regard the newly renamed catfish as a fancy imported premium product, and sales continued to thrive.

Undeterred, the U.S. catfish farmers changed their strategy. Their lawyers successfully secured import duties on Vietnamese catfish on the grounds that they were being "dumped," or sold at unfairly low prices, in the American catfish market. To do so under U.S. trade law, they needed to prove that Vietnamese catfish were a "like product" to American catfish. Which they did, having previously spend many thousands of dollars in fees to establish that Vietnamese catfish were not, in fact, catfish.
Say what you want about our system, but situations like these are not representative democracy's proudest moments.