Friday, May 27, 2011

Free Music Friday

"Free" as in "via YouTube."

First off, here's a remarkable cover of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance by Lissie:

A little old and another cover, but they're just having so much fun with this video:

I know I'm a little late in the game for this, but so help me I swear this is the single greatest cultural achievement of the 20th century:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trending: Everybody Gets A Car Edition

Nerds: +3: Today is Geek Pride Day--the first Star Wars came out this day in 1977--and it is also Towel Day, commemorating Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's also Glorious 25 May in Discworld. Still, none of this gets you that hot girl who sits in front of you in organic chemistry. 

Donald Trump: -5 A month ago he was almost declared President for Life. Now, one Osama Bin Laden death and a middling Celebrity Apprentice finale later, he's just the same old Donald: Tired toupee jokes and teasingly coy comments about still running for president. It's tempting, of course, but why give up the money, glory, and freedom to do whatever you want? I never understood rich people running for president. My goal in life is to be rich enough to buy a yard big enough to piss outside without anyone complaining, and you can't do that in the Rose Garden.

The Office: -4 I tend to give sitcoms a lot of leeway. It's hard to maintain fresh, awesome comedy for more than about three years, and the good ones can stretch it to five or six seasons. A very limited few--counted on one hand--can make it past eight. So while I still enjoy watching The Office, I no longer find it to be all that funny. Interesting, yes, in a soap opera kind of way. But I can't remember the last time I laughed or found anything particularly clever.

Arnold Schwarzenegger:  Push Sure, he was one of the most bankable action movie stars in the past few decades, and he got to play the governor of California for a while. But then he was accused of fathering a child with the maid. I mean, c'mon. He's a movie star and a politician. The chance of him never having an affair was very, very close to singularity. Plus if the worst thing that comes out about a native Austrian weightlifter is an affair and not narcotics, steroids, or unfortunate uniforms in the attic, he should consider himself lucky. Given expectations, this will probably fade away.

Hines Ward: +2 A famed future hall-of-famer just won nothing but publicity and an Fingerhut-level glitter ball trophy to put in his million dollar mantle by winning a ballroom dancing contest. This is the sort of shit that happens when you prevent football from occurring.

Peace in the Middle East: -10, repeat as necessary The Middle East is full of hope, confusion, history, hate, religion, failed diplomacy, broken dreams, empty promises, and, oh, yeah, oil. Recent events--i.e., Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama's dueling speeches--have probably made things more difficult, although there are approximately ten thousand things in the last five decades that have made things more difficult.

Lady Gaga: +5, wavering She has been everywhere this past week: Saturday Night Live (drawing some of its biggest ratings) and American Idol, not to mention an album sale promotion on Amazon that crashed the servers. But as any former pop stars can tell you, there's a time to capitalize and a time to pull back: there's a certain level of overexposure that risks her being knocked down to a second-rate Madonna...oh. Wait.

Oprah Winfrey: +5 Her talk show ended today, terminating 25 years of a cultural phenomenon. I never cared for her--there are about two dozen reason I am not exactly in the target audience--but she seemed genuine, if a touch naive, in the good things she tried to do with her power. Which, of course, will continue--she owns an entire network, for crying out loud, so we'll still see her every single day of our lives for the rest of eternity.

Dexter and Chloe: +Infinity We took them out for ice cream today. Two dachshunds have never been happier. Or sleepy.

 Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom: -1,000 Hey: Newsweek is broke, but I'm still here. So sit and spin, Sidney Harman! I'll plunder what I please!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Crank Crank Kitchen: Gourmet Popcorn

My wife and I recently attempted to make gourmet popcorn. While we're still learning, so far it's been a pretty positive experience, with the extra added bonus of getting to eat a ton of awesomely flavored popcorn.

Gourmet popcorn is really just flavored popcorn. The trick is, though, that it can theoretically be pretty much anything you want--from dill to chive to astronaut ice cream to Purplesaurus Rex.* There are a few city-based shops that specialize in this sort of thing, but they're sold at a premium price, and in my mind it wouldn't hurt how to learn to make the stuff wholesale. And then proceed to eat wholesale amounts of it.

It took a little convincing, but my wife went along--which is good, because me + kitchen = disaster of UN Peackeeping Forces proportions--and so our first attempt was a simple one: white cheddar popcorn. It didn't help that we purchased and ate what I approximate to be about six score pallets of the stuff on the way back from Erie, the calories of which we burned off in a failed attempt to keep the dogs from eating it all instead, and were both craving more.

Given it was our first try, we went to the expert: the Internet. Pretty soon we** popped up some corn, and, according to the instructions, mixed in white cheddar seasoning with butter, then poured that over the popcorn. Except that it didn't exactly work. Pro Tip 1 From The Gourmet Experts: when you mix white cheddar seasoning with butter, it becomes Solid White Cheddar Chunks of a Non-Pourable Consistency. We didn't know any better at the time, so we did our best to mix up the cheddar clumps in with the popcorn. It actually turned out OK, but it was a bit uneven, and every once in a while you got a (surprise!) big salty chunk of flavor in your mouth which was not necessarily what culinary experts call a positive experience.

 This is me "helping."

The second attempt went much better. We mixed buffalo ranch in with the popcorn, and it was just the right level of spiciness without being overwhelming. Luckily, we wised up and mixed the butter in the popcorn first and then added the seasoning afterwards, which worked wonders.

 No bone plate necessary.

After two seasoned recipes, we tried our hand at something sweet. We decided to go with chocolate peanut butter, since every single person in the world up to and including serial killers and Scientologists loves chocolate peanut butter. We simply melted PB and chocolate chips, and then mixed it in with the popcorn. Oddly, this one did not work as well. The chocolate/peanut butter combination got a little chewy and dry,and while it wasn't bad, it clearly wasn't the right consistency.

After that small disappointment (well, we were so disappointed we ate all of it, anyway), we did Parmesan garlic, using regular shredded Parmesan and garlic powder. This also went over well, though the mixture may need to be tweaked a little. 

For the latest recipe, we went sweet again: this time, we tried our hand at smores. We got some Golden Grahams, chocolate chunks, and baby marshmallows. Mixing it all together, and we got something that was truly delicious. The marshmallow helped everything stick together, and we got pretty much the right proportion of ingredients. There were a few logicistal problems--the chocolate chunks fell off often--but it was still very, very good, and the best part was that it kept for an entire week, still tasting pretty fresh.

 I want to eat this computer monitor RIGHT NOW.

I'm not sure what we're going to try next. We still have some tinkering to do--the seasoned flavors tend to get soggy after day two, and I'd like to try more sweet recipes before I declare victory--but I have approximately 1,000 different flavors I want to try. I will be glad to show all of you our results, of which you will not be able to taste. That is the benefit, and the bane, of the Internet.

*Unrelated: I just came up with four new flavors to try.
**I am using the word "we" in the sense that it means "my wife did it while I watched because the moment I touch a pan that isn't room temperature the entire kitchen will crumble into ash, dust, and broken rainbow dreams."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Static and Noise: Flavorishistic?

There Should Be A Name For That: Channeling Sniglets, I am wondering if there is a name for this: an artificial flavor that tastes nothing like the flavor it is supposed to be but still tastes pretty good. My case is pizza-flavored potato chips and Combos and the like. They taste absolutely nothing like pizza--not even if you grind a pizza up into a dust-like substance and powder it all over corn chips. And yet that doesn't mean they are bad. They are flavorful. But not even unrepentant drunks think this is pizza. Anyone know of such a word or phrase?

Completely Unrelated: So, what exactly has Rich Hall been up to lately?

And Then There Were None About Fourteen More: I've tried to limit my political posts, but the primary fight each election cycle is like my Sturgis, Burning Man, and Hockey Night In Canada all rolled into one. Obviously, there is little chance of a primary fight on the Democratic side, so the attention will by necessity be with the GOP. It's still too soon to draw many conclusions--candidates are still forming exploratory committees, declining to run, or--as per the custom--hemming and hawing and sitting on their hands and sending trial balloons by ordering local delicacies in remote parts of New Hampshire and Iowa. There's still plenty of time to shake out who will be the right-wing/centrist/foreign policy expert/con man preacher in the entire mess. Alas, you'll hear a lot more about this from me as time goes on.

A Short (But By No Means Comprehensive) List of Things The World Could Do Without: 
1. Those creepy mortgage ads that have someone's face change/dancing figure/photoshopped cowboy hat/etc.
2. Mobile versions of normal web sites. THEY DON'T EFFING WORK. EVER.
3.Restaurants that have a really awesome food item "for a limited time only," then take it away. I KNOW YOU HAVE THE INGREDIENTS BACK THERE, JACKASS. JUST EFFING MAKE IT.

My goodness, I sound like either an old man or a lame comedian. Which, I guess, are both quite accurate.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Happy 250th Anniversary!

This is my 250th post here at Crank Crank Revolution. I'm not sure what I wanted this to be when I started this a little over a year ago, and I'm still not sure where it's going to end up. But I enjoy doing it, and while I don't get to invest the amount of time an energy into this blog as I would like, I'm still quite proud of it.

Of course, I've picked up quite a few new readers over the past several months, mostly due to my Twitter account. I was an avowed skeptic about Twitter, and I'm still not convinced it won't collapse under its own creative weight at some point. But it certainly is a useful tool at this point and I'm hoping the creative energy of its followers will allow it to adapt.

Alas, Twitter--along with my writing situation--has already caused some issues for my writing. I don't work at a job that allows me access to do anything with my blog, so by the time something in the news occurs and I get home and am able to write, everyone else has already written about it and my Twitter feed fills up with jokes and observations. By the time I get to sit down and bang something out, I feel like everything I write is old hat and stale, and any witty one-liners I've dreamed up have been co-opted by others. As such, you may notice I don't write about newsworthy things in a humorous manner like I used to, for exactly that reason.

Granted, even though I've been writing this blog for a while, I've actually blogged for longer than that. I used to maintain another blog at American Lament, though it was much more structured--specific, 800-word posts approximately once or twice a week.  There is a lot of good content over there--though much of it is dated at this point--and most of my readers I think will enjoy browsing some of the things I wrote. I'm proud of a lot of what I created, and I wish I had been able to spin that endeavor into something larger, lucrative, or more notorious.

Those who haven't had the time or patience to read through a lot of my past posts may not know everything that I've written about. This tends to be a general-interest blog, which has the benefit of allowing me free reign to write what I want, but with the downfall of being a go-to place for any specific topic. So just as a guide, here are some of the things you may see from time to time around here:

Candy Reviews: I'm not quite sure how this started, but I started to pick up various candies I've found and reviewed them. Sometimes this is nothing more than to point out that a specific type of candy exists, but I do taste each and every one of them. If anyone ever comes across any unusual candies, by all means let me know.

Crank Crank Theater: These are comics I draw.

Million Dollar Idea: I have an embarrassment of awesome, lucrative ideas bouncing around in my head at any given time. I will often post the best of these ideas--such as selling individual packages of cereal-grade chocolate marshmallows, which are amazingly absent from the marketplace--to the world. I am doing this as a public service so that my readers will become rich and purchase ad space on my blog.

Static and Noise: This is the standard catch-all for when 1) I can't think of anything to write, and 2) I have short, non-fleshed out opinions about several things. It's the equivalent of a random post about a lot of different things.

My Wife's Blogs: My wife maintains three blogs: one about life in our town, one about our pets, and a book review site. She also takes plenty of awesome photographs, many of which can be seen here. While I do write about the same things on occasion, she does it much, much better, so I tend to let her do it.

Sports: For some reason there is a disproportionate number of sports-related posts that I make. Maybe it's because this is Pittsburgh, and the Steelers made a Superbowl run this year, but really I know very little about sports. I never even regularly watched any professional games until I was in my late 20's. I am trying to write about some of the other, local sports franchises, such as arena football, but I'll probably also have plenty of misguided opinions about sports in general to write about. 

The Miserable Crank Awards:  Last year, at the end of the year, I held a poll to find out what the worst event of the year was. (The BP Oil Spill won, in case you were wondering.) There were plenty of other categories and over 40 nominees and I had a lot of fun with it, but basically no one at all voted in it and I was kind of disappointed. The amount of work didn't really exceed the participation. I'm going to hold it again this year, and hopefully it will work out better.

Board Games: I am a board game fan. For those whose knowledge of board games pretty much stops at Monopoly, Risk, or Scrabble--no problem. Modern board games, such as Pandemic and Twilight Struggle, are much different, and require a certain level of creative investment to play. Most people can't, or won't, for the same reason that many people don't play fantasy football or console video games. I try to be a board game evangelist, since I think that many people who could play these modern board games would enjoy them immensely. They are certainly getting more popular--the big chain booksellers sell many of the more popular games, although you're much less likely to see them in department stores like Wal Mart or Target. Unfortunately, I don't get to play board games as often as I'd like--my friends play when they can, but coordinating the time to do it can be a challenge. But I plan on writing occasional reviews and vaguely interesting board game design theory, since the posts tend to be well-received. 

Politics, Economics, and Current Events: I am a political science and economics major, and so I have a vested interest in such things. I actually do get excited about seeing some obscure economic theory making it into the news, or some politicians understanding how things truly work instead of some dime-store market-tested dreamworld vision of how things should work. The problem is that I'm fully aware that very few people share my, ah, enthusiasm about such things. With the exception of electoral issues--I am an electoral college junkie, and will write often and repeatedly during presidential election years--I try to not write political and economic posts very often. While I love doing it, they are by far my least popular posts. When you see me write about politicians or economic theory, you'll know it's because I can't think of anything else to write about.

The Pledge: That said, when I write about politics, I realize that I very rarely come to a striking, controversial point. I waffle and meander and make excuses. To me, there's no point in pissing off half the readers when I'm probably not going to gain any new ones for those that agree. So my opinions tend to be whittled away into safe territory even though I personally hold some pretty obnoxious views about our society and government. So to combat this, I created The Pledge: When I write a political post, I come right to the point and make a grand unified reasonably controversial statement to make the entire experience at least somewhat interesting.

I hope that I bring to my readers something to enjoy. I never want to waste anyone's time, and so the challenge is to create something that I enjoy doing and that other people will appreciate. I have plenty of projects in mind for the upcoming year: I'm going to a few local sporting events, we have started making homemade gourmet popcorn, there are a few new "departments" of types of posts I want to make, and the ever-elusive podcast project that has become incredibly Duke Nukem 3D-ish in its existence.

But, as always, readers, let me know what you want to see in this blog. Let's make my small corner of the Interwebs all that much more enjoyable.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Don't Laugh

Roseanne Barr recently wrote an article for the New York Magazine (which can be found here), basically detailing the fact that her entire sitcom experience was one full of disgrace, heartache, and injustice. Barr has a bit of a reputation as a complainer--as per her appearance in this year's Superbowl Snickers ad with Richard Lewis--and also of being batshit crazy. Reading this article simply reminds me how out of touch Hollywood actors and actresses can be.

Barr casts herself as a feminist working-class heroine, single-handedly breaking down those awful artificial barriers men have spent decades constructing. Despite her admitted mental issues, everything horrible that happened was never her fault, and she scatters blame around like birdshot. The simple fact remains--as I brought up in my Tina Fey post a few months ago, where she had a much milder and more rational opinion than this one--in Hollywood, the rules are different. There are hundreds of people who are only a few degrees different than anyone else in ability and creativity; the system is unfair, but it's all creative and everyone knows the rules of the game going in. Crying about sexism or favoritism or the old-boy network has its place and can certainly be valid, but more often than not it's simply a crutch to use when you don't get your way.

First, she complains about not getting credit for her show, despite the promises of another woman--whose only qualification for being a "sister-in-arms" is that she is, um, a woman.
It didn’t take long for me to get a taste of the staggering sexism and class bigotry that would make the first season of Roseanne god-awful. It was at the premiere party when I learned that my stories and ideas—and the ideas of my sister and my first husband, Bill—had been stolen. The pilot was screened, and I saw the opening credits for the first time, which included this: CREATED BY MATT WILLIAMS. I was devastated and felt so betrayed that I stood up and left the party. Not one person noticed. 
Really? The sitcom is based on your standup act but you didn't get credit for "creating" the show? Boo hoo. A quick look confirms that Home Improvement, which if anything is even more of a direct lift of Tim Allen's hypermacho standup act--is credited to several people who are not, in fact, named Tim Allen. The same is true for Ellen and Everybody Loves Raymond. If you have the clout, you get the credit--like Seinfeld or The Cosby Show--but if you're just another circuit standup act, you're not getting credit. The fact that she signed a contract without looking at this piece of information shows now much of a neophyte she was at the time.

The first few episodes were apparently a non-stop torture for everyone involved. Instead of enjoying the fact that she landed the dream job of every comedian of a sitcom--no doubt there were a thousand hungry comediennes would would have gladly pushed her aside and took her place if she was that miserable--she spend it in a psychological hell, demanding throwaway lines be changed because they didn't fit her idea of a working-class feminist ideal. And when it came to the wardrobe--and pretty much everything else--she didn't do much to hide her disdain:

I grabbed a pair of wardrobe scissors and ran up to the big house to confront the producer...I walked into this woman’s office, held the scissors up to show her I meant business, and said, “Bitch, do you want me to cut you?” We stood there for a second or two, just so I could make sure she was receptive to my POV. I asked why she had told the wardrobe master to not listen to me, and she said, “Because we do not like the way you choose to portray this character.” I said, “This is no fucking character! This is my show, and I created it—not Matt, and not Carsey-Werner, and not ABC. You watch me. I will win this battle if I have to kill every last white bitch in high heels around here.”
Because if there's one way to break sexist stereotypes, it's to threaten people with scissors over what type of clothing they wear.

And she is shocked--shocked!--that the power level of celebrity waxes and wanes as your popularity fluctuates. With her show dropping out of the top ten for the first time, reservations at a trendy restaurant are denied--oh, the horrors like this the "working class women" she represents must face! And, all told, it boils down to the fact that we have to tear down the bourgeois:
Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that’s why you won’t be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.
Apparently, "enterprising" is a pejorative. Which tells you everything you need to know, I suppose.

I try very, very hard to be sympathetic concerning celebrities. The system sucks and is based much more on sex, luck, and who you know than actual talent. I do think that creativity is often stifled, and the suits take credit when there is a success and blame the talent when things go wrong. But this isn't any different than, you know, every other job in existence. So when celebrities bellyache about the creative process or the system in how television shows or movies are made, it's sometimes hard to not remind them that it's a system that actually has worked pretty well for decades, and just because they don't fit doesn't mean it's broken. And it's very hard to garner a whole lot of sympathy about pride and justice when the loudest complainers are pulling down a quarter million per episode. I've also heard the complaint many times--always from women--about the boorish writer's room full of testosterone and perceived bigotry, and yet that's part of the entire creative process--and, one hastens to point out, produces the types of jokes that often pay the bills.

So--no surprise here--I have very little sympathy for Roseanne Barr. I think she is yet another person who can't overcome the problems they create for themselves, then blame others for the miserable live thousands of others would love to have had a chance at.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Times, They Are A-changin'

Yesterday was Pennsylvania's primary for local elections. Allegheny County--where Pittsburgh is--had their chief executive primary. Below is a picture from the Tribune Review:

Raja is on the left, and Fitzgerald is on the right. You only get one guess: Which is the Republican nominee, and which is the Democratic?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Full Stop

Back in the day--primarily the Old West and early 60's sitcoms--people actually sent telegrams. Amazingly, Western Union still sent telegrams up until about five years ago, when the market pressures of everything that has happened in the last 100 years finally caught up with them, and they mostly transfer money from day laborers now.

I'm not going to say the telegram is high on the list of important cultural events of our nation, but one has to admit that there was a certain charm to having an individual dressed up like a palace guard hand you a small slip of carbon paper you could excitingly tear open which contained a message that could be anything from "It's a Girl!" to "Bet 100 on Red Velvet to Show."

Of course, since one paid by the word*, senders were generally contrite in their messages, and would go through hoops to reduce the verbiage. And this reminded me of today's social media phenomenon--Twitter. Just like a century ago, people were trying to cram as much content as they could in as few words as possible. Of course, back then it costs money to send such messages, so people carefully chose their words to have the maximum impact. Today, people try to arrange their wording so they can tell people exactly the degree to which they feel about Taylor Lautner or try to avoid wording it to seem like they believe that the Korean War never happened.

So I think I'm either advocating bringing back telegrams or telling stupid people they have to pay for each tweet now. I'm not sure which.

*Or perhaps character. I don't know and I'm not looking it up.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Movie Review: Bridesmaids

I don't like reviewing movies too much, mostly because my appreciation for movies is fairly shallow. Mostly, I don't know what I'm talking about, though that's not going to stop me from posting a top ten movies of all time list later this summer. (It is a perpetual work in progress.)

So my review for Judd Apatow's Bridesmaids should be taken in this context.

I am a lukewarm fan of Apatow's movies, or of the entire "bromance" genre of movies such as Knocked Up, Superbad, or The Hangover. I find them funny enough but with a certain level of shallowness to them; the catchphrases and scenarios always seem to ring hollow for me. (I'm sure the fact that I'm older makes a difference.) So when this was billed as a "female Hangover" I wasn't sure what to think.

The first thing that sold me was the fact that Kirstin Wiig was in it. I find her to be extraordinarily talented, even more so since she's the isolated talent in that dry cesspool of hack talent known as Saturday Night Live. (I'm not a fan.) I also love Ellie Kemper (from The Office) and, while I don't watch her show, I find Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly) to be enjoyable enough. So the ensemble cast looked very promising.

The trailer also did a pretty good job of hooking me. Most movie trailers you can more or less extrapolate what all the jokes are going to be. While that's still a little true in this case, there's a lot of humor that is mined from all of the scenes they show. And--in retrospect--this movie was so full of jokes that the trailer includes (I would say) about 30% content that is not in the actual movie itself--a stunning reversal from those trailers were you end up pretty much seeing all of the good stuff.

Anyway, I won't go too far into the plot of the movie itself, since you can find that anywhere. Maya Rudolf asks Wiig to be her maid of honor, who then strikes up a catty rivalry with the rich, good looking wife of the groom's boss. While everyone else is enjoying the ride--no doubt fueled by the massive amount of resources at their disposal--Wiig's life slowly falls apart, and the disparity causes tension amongst the party. This plot strings along a disastrous trip to Las Vegas, a high-end bridal shop, Wiig's job and home life, some cute subplots involving a flirtatious cop and an overly caddish John Hamm, and Wiig's failure at business, romance, and acceptance of the few positive things in her life.

Of course, peppered in all of this is plenty of grossness and profanity, most of it to effective results--enough to make it funny, not too much to make it unnecessarily gratuitous. (In one particularly awful scene that involves the bridal dress, nothing is shown, which makes it all the funnier.) The balance of crassness versus sanity hits almost perfectly throughout the movie, and the results are hilarious.

Of course, the movie isn't perfect, but it's pretty close. There's about a half hour where Wiig's life just crumbles, and there's nary a laugh to be found. Now, this part of the movie is largely necessary, not only for the plot, but to frame the rest of the movie around it; by dragging everyone down in its own level of melancholy, it enhances the humor of the rest of the movie. Still, one wonders if that sad segment couldn't have been a bit tighter, since many of the scenes could easily have lent itself to humor other parts of the film and still had the same effect. Also--a minor detail--one plot, Wiig's relationship with the cop, ends up fairly predictable, and as such probably the time spent on it could have been 1) funnier, or 2) shorter.

And, of course, there's the same trope being drug out and beat--the movie is misogynistic, an excuse to show how all women are jealous harpies only interested in spending money and emotional manipulation--having potty mouths and gossiping about sex only makes them shallow and incapable of seriousness. Not to be condescending, but--really? These are people who believe that the only way in which women can't be portrayed as serious is if they are in yet another cookie-cutter romantic comedy, and I'm firmly convinced it's the modern rom-com that's set women back decades in cultural parity.

In any case, Bridesmaids isn't for everyone. It's often crass and the storyline isn't ironclad, but it's also filled with a lot of genuine humor and plenty of subplots that are legitimately emotionally valid. And don't be fooled: This movie doesn't fall in the "chick flick" category or the "female bromance" category, but some sweet spot in between. It's one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time. I recommend it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Editor's Note: Since Blogger has been a little bit of a bitch for the last few days, I've more or less forgotten all the posts that I intended to write. So things may be slow going for a bit. No worries, though; what I lack in content I will make up for in subpar quality.

Psychologists often look for subtle clues to pick up various nuances of a person's mental portfolio. And what better way to do this than to observe the actions of everyday mundane behavior? So as a public service, let's take a look at the world's most popular board game and convert it into a psychological test without having to go through all of the trouble to visit a "professional." So let's see: what type of Monopoly piece you select determines what kind of person you are:

Thimble: You value security and safety. By picking the least pointy token--and also with its protective connotations--you reduce the risk of anything going wrong, what with all those stories of back-alley Monopoly tournament bloodbaths you read about in the tabloids. Also, you may be a klepto, since this is the only token you can also actually use in its real-life representation.
Scottie Dog: You are codependent. By bringing along a "companion"--silent and metal as it may be--you rely on her to take you where you want to go, build the dreams you want to dream, and take the fall for you when you go to jail.
Racecar: You crave danger. Race cars are inherently flashy and dangerous machines, and by choosing this you convert a reasonably dry game about money and make it into your own personal race track. As you speed up along the admittedly race track-shaped board, you leave your competitors behind. There are no pit stops, though, so when you crash and burn you have no one to blame but yourself.
Sack of Money: You are under the impression that your high-rolling 13-year-old cousins are playing for real money. You will spend your life largely disappointed in such leaps of faith.
Man On Horseback: You thought we were going to play Risk.
Wheelbarrow:  You are a workhorse and value the act of labor. You're playing this game as a facade against the bourgeoisie social model you're forced to accept, but deep down inside this game of greed and corruption properly displays the flaws in the capitalist system. Comrade.
Shoe: You are poor. You don't just live outside of your means, your means now consist of a small pewter fake shoe. You're playing this game grasping at the last few remaining hopes and dreams of becoming a cardboard millionaire.*
Cannon:You eschew the voluntary nature of the free market in favor of military supremacy. By investing your emotional income into a show of intimidation as opposed to the liquidity of congealed labor, you accomplish the same goals with different means. That is, if this was 1955 and not the 21st century. Dinosaur.
Iron:  You are a woman.
Top Hat: You are a pretentious, dick-swinging Type A jackass. You think cause you put on the pretense of dressing like a rich boy you actually become one? What, you land on Park Place and suddenly you're the cock of the walk? And not the old-school throwback meaning of the phrase "cock of the walk" but the definition you'll find in the urban dictionary? Jerk.
Battleship: You are going places. Sure, you're conscripted under duress by the governing military authority in your municipality, but you're not patrolling Market Street or the Jaycee meeting. You want to visit exotic locales and mythical peoples, all accompanied by the presence of unstable governments or the vested interest of the United Fruit Company. By seeing and possibly conquering the world, you love adventure and don't mind genocide so much.
Train: When you are offered the easiest path possible, you cast it aside. What good is life if you glide through it unopposed? By taking the rough way--as in, say, selected a massive, expensive, dirty mode of transportation instead of, say, racecars or ships or even shoes--you overcome challenges and build character. You also also likely to be riding with a few thousand tons of coal and scrap waste, because, hey, who the hell rides trains anymore? Hobos, maybe?
Hovercraft: You are from the future. This tells us that they are still manufacturing this stupid game well into the future, and that the one thing you want to do if you go back in time is to spend three hours playing this game only to have your little sister quit halfway through because The Voice is coming on. Why? Why would you do this?

*"Cardboard Millionaire" would make an awesome band name, or possibly a reality television program.It also kind of sounds like a country western song.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I Have A Confession To Make

I have a few confessions to make. Most of these will probably cause my geek cred to be revoked, but some of these things just needs to be said:

1. I have never played Portal. Or Portal 2. This sounds like something I should do.
2. The amount of my life I have spent watching America's Next Top Model is embarrassingly large. But I'm married, so, you know.
3. I skipped over large parts of John Galt's radio address in Atlas Shrugged. Anyone who tells you they didn't is a straight-up liar.
4. I have always wanted to start a podcast, but I'm a total lazitard about it and would most likely spend most of the time talking about Civilization V strategy and making cleavage jokes, so I never do it. Though I am fully aware that that's a lucrative demographic.
5. If you've followed my Twitter account--which you totally should do by clicking on the box on right--you know that I've been eating dog treats. That really should be past tense, but we all know that would be a falsehood.
6. I watched nearly the entire last season of Jersey Shore. It's not the worst show in the world.
7. Mink Car by They Might Be Giants was an awful album and I think I listened to it once. I know it still sucks because Pandora insists on playing songs from it and forces me to use up my skips.
8. I am a total judgmental grammar Nazi in all of its ugly forms, but I still can't spell "separately" without a spellcheck and I still have to think for an alarmingly long time about "then" versus "than."
9. As I was writing this list, a bee landed on me and I screamed like a little girl.
10. I really, really, really don't like Star Wars. At all. I mean, it was good for a kid's movie...WHICH IT TOTALLY IS. Just sayin'.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Pittsburgh Power: Arena Football

This weekend, my wife and I went to see the Pittsburgh Power, our local Arena Football franchise.

What, exactly, is arena football? Good question--not too many people know.

 I will try to be more specific than this.

Arena football has been around for over twenty years. It was developed in the mid-80's by an ex-NFL executive named James Foster. The Arena Football League operated for about two decades before finances caught up with most franchises, and had to fold for a season. This year, the league was re-booted, from which Pittsburgh was awarded a team.

Arena football plays very much like regular gridiron football, with a few notable exceptions. It's indoor, which means that the field is only 50 yards. There is no punting permitted so players always go on fourth down. And while there are no uprights, there are huge nettings in its place. Since field goals are almost always played within 10 yards or so, the FG range between the netting is quite narrow.  The roster and formations have much fewer individuals, so "ironman" players who play both offense and defense are common. And, oddly for gridiron fans, one offensive player may be rushing forward (but not past the line of scrimmage) at the time of the snap.

Rules-wise, those are the major changes. Of course, with only 50 yards to play around in, it changes strategy immensely. Rushing the ball is much less common. Long bombs and high passes are common, and scoring is much, much higher--no 7-3 grindfest games in the AFL. Games commonly end up in the 40 to 80 point range.

So while you're most definitely watching a football game--the formations are similar and the roles everyone plays will look familiar--it's a much different game. Everything is compacted together, which means faster players and athleticism play in place of huge, bulky tanks of men slamming against each other. (Although there's still some of that--don't get me wrong.) It seems a much less violent game, mostly because there's not a whole lot of room for huge collisions, and there's not enough roster space to waste on guys whose job it is to pound people into the floor. Not that there aren't any injuries--there were quite a few, including a poor ref, in the game we watched. And--unlike the other major Pittsburgh sports teams--the Power have a cheerleading squad, the Sparks.

The experience we had at the Power game confirmed most of this. Games are held at the Consol Energy Center, where the Pittsburgh Penguins play, so it's a new arena and very nice--and also very large, much larger than most other Arena franchises.

They sure know how to make an...electrifying...entrance. 

Last weekend's game pitted the Power against the Spokane Shock, the kind-of defending champions; the bankruptcy and season suspension and ownership of the minor league franchises causing a lot of dissonance. It started off with a bang--appropriately enough, with the Power and the Shock playing--with Spokane scoring a touchdown on the first play, but then missing the field goal. The Power then struck back on the next series to score a touchdown.

 I promise, that is the last electricity-related pun I make, which is a promise no sports writer will ever make.

And so it went. It more or less seesawed back and forth, always within a touchdown or so for each side. Then Spokane pulled ahead by about two touchdowns, but Pittsburgh pulled through and, in the last minute of play, tied the game. Finally, with one impressive 40-yard touchdown pass, the Power take the lead; and four successful defensive stands later, the game is over. The Power's record rises to 4-4, not bad for a franchise that hasn't even existed for a year (and, dare I say, a record equal to the Pittsburgh Pirates.)

 After a congratulatory celebration, the coach took everyone out for ice cream. At Diesel.

So, how was the experience? It was quite fun, and I'll encourage anyone to go--but it will seem significantly different for anyone who watches the Steelers or the Penguins, which is what I am sure most people who comes to these games do. While it's football, it's not quite the level of football fans are used to. There is a certain high-school game feel to it; none of the players are stars, and there aren't any heated rivalries or personalities to follow. This can be fun, of course, since there's a few local kids on the squad. And fans obviously want their team to win, but the sport is still too young and unknown for there to be much of an emotional tie to the game.

Although you never know. 

It will also seem strange to not see a full arena. Attendance figures have hovered around the 9000 mark, although this last weekend's game was competing with SkyBlast at PNC Park, so it was down to about 6000. At first glance, people may wonder if the franchise will continue with a half-empty arena. However, keep in mind that Consol is a huge place for arena football--nearly all other franchises have much, much smaller facilities. Spokane's, for example, holds 10,000 people; Pittsburgh could nearly sell this out on a regular basis. Pittsburgh's fan base is very encouraging.

Of course, that's not to say there aren't some sketchy economics going on here. It's a young sport with a young team, so I'm sure it (along with most other teams) will operate in the red for a while. And there's a certain level of that minor-league feel to it, with strange endorsements, over-enthusiastic announcements, slightly desperate gimmicks, and constant shilling (although let's face it--this doesn't differ form the major league sports, either). Thankfully, the staff at Consol is an experienced outfit, and despite some of the modest ballyhoo the whole enterprise is very professional. Tickets are plentiful and prices are still pretty low, and you don't have to wait an hour before you can leave.

Bottom line, though, is that you should go see the Power. It's a fun time. If you're a football purist you may not care for it, but at least there's a few decades of tradition behind it. (Also, keep reminding yourself that Kurt Warner got his start in the AFL.) But if you're looking for a fun time with an interesting new sport, it's definitely worth the price of admission.

And the Arena Football League has one other good thing going on for it--they will actually be playing next year, unlike some other football leagues. Assuming all the checks clear, of course.

All photographs courtesy of Tiffany Harkleroad.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

And They're Off!

The Kentucky Derby is today. Horse racing always kind of creeped me out--I don't care for horses, and the old, dusty unemployed men at the OTB just make me sad. Also, I suck at gambling, so there's that.

Still, one of the more fascinating things about horse racing is the names they give horses. They're always kind of weird and nondescript. There's no "Boxer" or "Trigger"or "Silver" running laps; it's names like this year's "Dialed In" and "Midnight Interlude" and "Pants on Fire." Some get away with normal-sounding names (for, well, horses, anyway) like "Nehro". But just like show dogs, they tend to get saddled (ha!) with odd phrases for names.

And so I began to think--where do they come up with these crazy names? I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that jockeys are pretty much just 80 pounds of muscle powered by a thin stream of Red Bull and cocaine, and the type of rich guys who own race horses border on the Howard Hughes end of the sanity scale. So I thought of the only place where such odd names come up readily available: Amazon's "Statistically Improbably Phrases."

The SIPs are supposed to be phrases within the text of a book that are unlikely to show up in any other work--they have to have been specifically strung together and unique. They're often very strange but oddly make sense in the context of the book. So I've made the quiz below: match the classic or well-known book with one of Amazon's Statistically Improbably Phrases that would serve well as the name of the race horse you will one day own, and the most likely owner of said horse:

1. Quaker Librarian
2. Red Hunting Hat
3. Bloated Colonel
4. Impudent Strumpet
5. Great Snipe
6. Green Green Brown
7. Portable Property
8. Stable Buck
9. Lemon Verbena Sachet
10. Incarnate History

a. Free-Market Objectivist With Little Imagination
b. Someone Very Hungry
c. Trophy Wife
d. The Most Boring Dinner Party Invitee
e. Rich Prankster Everyone Secretly Resents
f. Sour Professor
g. Foreign Billionaire With Language Syntax Problems
h. Retired Officer Living Off Of Pension
i. Risk-Averse Cad
j. English Lord With Little Fashion Sense

A. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
B. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
C. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
D. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
E. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
F. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
G. Catcher In The Rye by J. D. Salinger
H. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
I. Ulysses by James Joyce
J. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

The Millionaire's Club

It's that time again--an article with some misleading statistics makes a bold, unverifiable claim. In this case, it's Daniel Indivigliofrom The Atlantic claiming that 9% of Americans are millionaires.

It doesn't take much to deconstruct this. It's a little tricky, because the links and wording don't give us full information, but the first thing he does is lump everyone into households. This, more or less already falsely doubles the number--or more. A millionaire wife and a layabout husband get combined together, and the slacker hubby disappears in a statistical anomaly. Second, he combines all sorts of figures to arrive at the "millionaire" label--it's not just income, it's also housing and retirement. Heck, anyone who lives in a $200,000 house is already a fifth of a millionaire, and anyone with a pension or 401(k) is probably adding huge numbers to it. But those things aren't liquid and no one would even consider those as factors, because you can't really use them in your day-to-day living expenses.* Finally, inflation and cost of living doesn't appear to be factored in--someone making an income of a million bucks is going to live quite differently in Manhattan than they do in Minot.

When you stack all of these variables in, it's not very surprising that 9% of Americans (i.e., have households with Americans in them) are millionaires (or have a million dollars in assets they can't really touch).

I'm not sure what the agenda of the writer is. Is it to say the rich are getting richer? Well, even given the chart he presents shows that millionaires are less numerous than they were in 2004. If it's just to show the novelty of the rich economy, the fact that he has to rig the numbers belies this. It just seems to be a useless article and one more reason I tend to not trust journalists.

*As mentioned above, I can only assume this is part of the equation. The source doesn't say, but the way some of the article and the source material describes the results point towards this being asset-based instead of income-based. This makes a huge difference. Even if this turns out to be income-related, the other two points above stand.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Picture Perfect

President Obama has reached one of those stages in his presidency when he realizes exactly how much of a thankless job it is. After achieving one of the few things that pretty much all Americans have been waiting for for decades--the end of Osama bin Laden--he was most likely expecting a grateful, celebratory nation. Stacked on top of this was the humiliation of his opponents and their petty demands for his birth certificate, all but negating Donald Trump's aspirations and neutralizing all but the most recalcitrant fringes of his adversaries. It seemed like a good time to be Barack Obama.

And yet he's now caught in a dilemma over the photographs of  a dead bin Laden. Here is a problem that must be resolved and yet has no positive resolution. Release the photos and you may incur the wrath of the global community with the very real chance of bolstering bin Laden's martyrdom and agitate already-violent terrorists. But keep the photos hidden, and you create a brand new cabal of conspiracy theorists--as well as regular Americans who just want to see proof of justice--that will dog him for years. There is no right solution here,* but either way Obama has to live with the consequences.

In fact, this may become a wider issue for Obama as the election draws near, and the death of bin Laden may be worse for him than he thinks. Based on the information that has been released so far, the location of bin Laden was drawn from information collected from Guantanamo Bay, with the possible introduction of torture. By claiming (political) credit for bin Laden's death, he's also going to have to embrace the methods used to capture him--and that is a ton of baggage he's spent his entire political life constructing a political culture against.  By playing down his involvement, he'll give credit to his Republican predecessors and have to accept any political fallout thereof. To Obama's credit, he has not tried to do either one yet, but it's another decision he will have to make before long and one that probably could have been handled a lot better.

And supporters for both sides, at this point, will have to realize that it's not easy for their opponents, either. Despite the tattered legacy that most people view George Bush's legacy, his presidency was riddled with the exact sort of no-win political decisions that Obama is facing now. To be fair, many of Bush's problems were self-inflicted, but certainly not all of them (and I would argue not even a majority). Unlike domestic policy, where factions can be played off of one another and nuisances punted to another election cycle, for foreign affairs and domestic disasters the Presidency requires quick decisions made with imperfect information in which there may be no positive outcome. This was particularly burdensome for Bush, and is becoming more so for Obama.

Obama's record of dealing with things such as this, so far in my opinion, has been mixed. Hopefully it will end up being more positive than negative.

*A possibility that I think would work is to release to photos to a few trusted sources--say a handful of senators and trusted media pundits from each party--to view the photos, and publicize it. This may reassure most Americans without the drawback of releasing them to the public. You'll never please everybody, but I suspect this will do the least amount of damage.

Also, this is most likely a problem that could have been handled better. One would think that there would be a pre-determined plan as to what to do in a case like this--I can guarantee Bush did--but there appeared to be no such plan. CIA director Leon Panetta said they would probably release them, then Obama said no, and everyone in between was hinting in every direction. While I can't really blame them that much, it's exactly the type of problem his predecessor was frequently blamed for. Turns out sticking on message isn't so easy.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Everything on the Internet Is A Lie

...Including the title of this post.

Most everyone has seen a lot of lies over the past day or so. That quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.? A lie. (Although apparently a benevolent one.) Pictures of Osama Bin Laden dead? Fakes, and bad ones at that--but not so benevolent, since clicking on it will most likely give you some sort of virus. And expect your inbox to be filled with wonderful tales of nameless Muslims doing horrible things, or the vague political actions of leaders are ascribed nefarious motives, or so help the family restaurant chain that doesn't put off a 21-gun salute every time an unmarked veteran orders a cup of coffee.

Falsehoods on the internet are nothing new. They have a long and storied history, from the Nigerian Prince that nearly brought down a major agricultural corporation to the otherwise previously respected press secretary's thoughts on pre-9/11 airline terrorism. And yet people continue to fall for such hoaxes. Sure, some of it is unintentional and deliberately malicious, but this is more due to criminal activity than perpetuating stupidity. People want to believe the exciting, but the exciting is almost always someone's bad PR, and PR is just microwaved lies served for popular consumption.

The reasons such lies exist, also, aren't new. But it's spreading, and does not appear to be ending anytime soon. It's not only the internet--there are 24-hour cable news shows looking for things to talk about. Small misrepresentations are reported at the 4 AM news loop, which then are picked up and become big misrepresentations, and that needs to be reported during prime time, and soon enough everyone has heard the self-fulfilling prophesy of nonsense.

It's easier on the internet, though. No one has vetted the information for accuracy. Most stuff like this starts off with a grain of truth, people make assumptions, other people use their imagination to exaggerated these assumptions, someone trying to summarize it strips away the assumptions and makes them fact, and soon that grain of truth is a full-on blow-out lie. When all you have to do is click "forward," though, your work is done. Surely someone else had put a little effort into it, right? Journalists are sloppy, but at least put in an effort. And all of this is for naught if the email or Facebook status is formed into an "opinion," where it's unverifiable and having it called into question insults the writer's right to free speech.

Of course, any time there is a huge event--9/11, the Iraq war, the 2008 election--there is a spate of new and often erroneous information all over the internet. So we should expect a lot more over the coming weeks, and the best advise I can give is to ignore everything and pretend everything is a blatant lie. At the very least, that will let us get to sleep at night.

The Pledge: If you're looking to the 140-character limit of Twitter to validate your cultural and political beliefs, perhaps you should just play FarmVille instead of writing scribes about how the arms manufacturers are keeping bin Laden alive or the royal family is using their newfound party-supply connections to distribute narcotics.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Obligatory "Osama Bin Laden Is Dead" Post

Presumably, most everyone in America has heard that last night the President announced that Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the military has ownership of the body.

This is the sort of news that requires comment; amazingly, though, I don't have much to add. A few strained points, though:

1) While this is a huge symbolic victory for America, sadly, I don't think it will make much difference in the long run. The extent that Bin Laden has been an effective leader for the past decade is unknown to us, but it's clear that whatever he hasn't been able to do others have been able to do in his place. So from a tactical standpoint, this doesn't seem like it will have much effect; from a symbolic standpoint, it may have a deeper but more temporary effect.

2) I'm very interested to see the details of how he was found. Aside from a reallocation of resources--of which Obama should get credit--I don't think we've had a huge change in our methods of tracking him down. Given the information we know now, it seems like it was simply determination of trying the same thing repeatedly. It took a long time, but it worked.

3) Is this a moment of joy for the United States? I say yes, but immediately following this news there was a lot of individuals simply stating that the news of anyone's death--even from an admittedly evil man--should bring sadness at the situation, not joy. While I'm sympathetic to this sentiment--force should almost always be a last resort and is almost never the optimal solution--I also think that it's legitimate to celebrate this resolution. Bin Laden brought this on himself, as it were, and he's done everything possible to confirm that given the chance he would do it again. I don't see how not killing him would have any positive effect at all. It is sad, but it's because the situation had to exist at all in the first place, not because of the actual act of removing him from this life.

Lastly, I think it's legitimate to pick apart the political ramifications of this news...but not quite yet. That's not going to stop a lot of politicians from saying stupid things over the next few days, of course. Such is the republic.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Love Letter to Erie, PA

About two weeks ago we traveled to Erie, Pennsylvania. We went for a few different reasons, many of which we couldn't do because it was snowing up there in April*, but it was my first experience with the city aside from driving through it on my way to Canada.

I was, as they say, impressed.

Now, first off--don't get me wrong. I know full well that we were only there a few days. I know that I missed large parts of the city. I'm sure there are dead and decaying areas that passed over my radar. I didn't check property taxes or the level of outright corruption in the local political scene. I know that winters there can be understandingly torturous and the job market is flat. I'm sure I wasn't there the three-quarters of the year when locusts or tsetse flies or hippies infest State Street or when the red tide rolls in. So I'm going to up front admit that this is more or less a first impression.

That said, we had a blast. The city looks nice and clean. There's a reasonable amount to do for visitors, the people are by and large very nice,and I didn't find the incidence of dissonance to be any better or worse than any other place I've visited.

Of course, part of this simply may be one of expectations. Just like the other nearby cities--such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh--I assumed Erie was another burned-out industrial shell of a town trying to cope with changing times. And no doubt that's true. But it certainly didn't look like it. It seems like the plan in Erie is that when an old factory or an old building is no longer used, it actually gets torn down. Granted, they may just replace it with yet another memorial to Oliver Hazard Perry, but at least it's gone. Contrast this with Pittsburgh, where every abandoned warehouse, shuttered steel mill, or dirty manufactury shut down in the mid-70's is still there. There is a obstinate reluctance to tear anything down, either with the hope that someday it will magically re-open in some alternate economy or because someone assumed two Stanley Cups had been won there.

And I know most of the residence there would bemoan the lack of interesting things to do there. News flash: Everybody thinks this about where they live. Every city, regardless of how large, is going to run out of things for residents to do. So with that caveat, I could see how people feel limited, but I didn't see it as a problem.

Now I will grant this: Erie drivers are pretty bad. Drivers are bad everywhere, of course. Here in Pittsburgh drivers are obnoxious on many levels, but--with so many bridges and roads built for horses to drag steel I-beams around--there's an inordinate number of lane changes, awkward merge points, and outright illogical traffic patterns. Because of this, it's easy to excuse a lot of bad behavior. Not so with Erie. Erie is pretty straight-laced when it comes to city planning and roads, and there's no reason for the quality of the driving I witnessed there. They still drive like they do in Pittsburgh, just without any reason to do so.

Erie is not without its charms. They do what a lot of cities are doing and have a series of figures around the city--in Erie's case, frogs. I'm not sure what the significance of frogs are, but I love it when cities do that sort of thing. Frogs are kinda weak, though. Here in Pittsburgh we have T-Rexes, which, granted, also don't make a whole lot of sense, but at least they're freaking T-Rexes. They will eat you. Frogs will just annoy you on mild summer nights.

C'mon, guys, I learned this in like third grade.

I'm not saying Erie is perfect, but we had a lot of fun there, and we plan on returning soon.

*Not that I'm bitter.