Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pittsburgh Smart

According to a recent study, it turns out that, of all places, Pittsburgh is America's smartest city.

Of course, for those of us who have grown up in the Pittsburgh area, this is not news. Everything about the Western Pennsylvania area verifies the fact that we are of above-average intelligence. Evidence abounds, from the hard data collected from establishments of higher eduction to the fact that we invented putting french fries on salads. Perhaps, though, a few examples are in order.

Other cities saw hills and made reasonable accommodations as for how to travel around them. NOT PITTSBURGH. No, Pittsburgh carved the shit out of them and DROVE THEIR CARS RIGHT THROUGH THEM. Then they looked at the rivers and said SCREW YOU and they took all the stuff that they just scooped out of the hills and threw it all into a blast furnace and out came a thousand bridges and now they can go ANYWHERE THEY WANT. Pittsburgh makes sure that simple things like topography will never stop progress.

Other cities have a parking problem. They complain and they whine and they run to the courthouse to petition to get laws passed about parking. Does Pittsburgh do that? NO. They go in their garage and they get a dirty lawn chair. That lawn chair goes in the parking space, marking it as their own much like a feral dog. “THIS IS THE LAW,” Pittsburgh says. “This simple chair is our solution to the problem. No lawyers, no politicians, no suits. We have taken the law into our own hands.” Instead of being crybabies about it, Pittsburgh just gets it done.

History is very important to Pittsburgh . A guy named Henry Clay Frick who was pretty much an asshole shot his own workers in his steel mill while Andrew Carnegie was on a conveniently-timed vacation, so Pittsburgh tried to assassinate him because that was kind of a dick move. When Frick somehow survived, they instead named an awesome park after him. BECAUSE THEY COULD.

The "smartest city" designation relied heavily on science education, and for good reason. Pittsburgh built the robots that will build the robots that will be your boss one day. Where other cities put up bronze statues of long-dead generals or unnamed soldiers, Pittsburgh instead puts up hundreds of DINOSAURS. Why dinosaurs? Because dinosaurs are awesome and THAT'S THE ONLY REASON PITTSBURGH NEEDS. And then they paint them up so people can tell which dinosaur is by which building so people can adequately give directions. Then Pittsburgh cured polio and invented the Ferris wheel and designed the Big Mac, all of arguably equal importance.

Pittsburgh somehow managed to create Andy Warhol, an unlikely product of the salt-of-the-earth practicality of the industrial powerhouse known as the Steel City. And when that rail-thin albino flake started painting soup cans, an entire city of pinko-hating blue collar steelworkers and coal miners said THIS GUY IS ON TO SOMETHING, LET’S BUILD HIM A FACTORY SO HE CAN PAINT CELEBRITIES AND MAKE STAG FILMS.

Pittsburgh has solved the age-old problem as to what to do with the coleslaw and french fries being on the same plate next to your corned beef sandwich. They transformed barely digestible red paste into a mouth-watering condiment that, with only slight variations, can be a meal in and of itself. They take dumplings and a bit of potato and soak it in sauerkraut and fry it in grease and they cram the base of the food pyramid full of them and everyone just laughs and laughs at people like Jamie Oliver. 

When the rest of the world said “You know what? Having the ‘h’ on the end of ‘burgh’ is so old fashioned. It’s time to get with the program. Let’s get rid of it.” Pittsburgh said "HELL NO. We’re KEEPING the H and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it." AND NOBODY COULD.

Pittsburgh has created, from the corrosive cocktail of intellect, determination, steel, and haluski, a diverse population of game changers. Pittsburgh produced Fred Rogers, the greatest, most kind-hearted person on the face of the earth, who inspired generations upon generations of Americans to be better to each other and to be better to themselves. Pittsburgh supported Roberto Clemente, a black Hispanic playing baseball when black Hispanics weren't allowed to do too much else, including baseball, who then died helping earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Pittsburgh also revered football players like Jack Lambert, Rocky Bleier, and Mean Joe Greene, all who more or less single-handedly prevented the spread of communism by winning four Super Bowls in the 70s as part of the Steel Curtain. A few decades later Pittsburgh looked at Hines Ward and said, “Yeah, dancing around for no reason except for personal accomplishment is a perfectly acceptable way for our Hall of Famer wide receiver to spend his time off season.”

Pittsburgh adopted Mario Lemieux, with or without his consent. He helped the Penguins win two Stanley cups. And then he got cancer and had to quit playing hockey. Then he said “SCREW THIS CANCER” and went back to playing hockey. The Penguins were broke and Lemieux said “No problem, I'll take an IOU.” Then the checks bounced and the Penguins said “Why don’t you take this poorly-run, money-hemorrhaging team instead of actual American dollars?” and Lemieux said “Sure.” Then he adopted Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Uncle Jagr who doesn’t come to Thanksgiving anymore and then they all won a thousand Stanley Cups between them, give or take.

 And yet we see Amish dudes clopping their horses down the freeway and think, “Good on them,” then pass them gently on the left. Pittsburgh generally doesn't care what you do as long as you don't pronounce the 'g's at the ends of your words and let people go left when the light turns green.

When the bowels of the earth opened up and devastated Haiti a few years ago, Pittsburgh said SEND US ALL OF YOUR BABIES. And they came and they saw the dinosaurs and the bridges and the french fries on the salads and they STAYED.

The steel mills closed down and Pittsburgh became the poster child for the collapse of post-industrial America, the backdrop of a thousand forgettable documentaries about What We Once Were And Will Never Be Again. But from the ashes of coke and pig iron and bauxite and gas wells rose a phoenix of a modern economy. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't without its dark periods, but by and large Pittsburgh knew that the future wasn't in praying fruitlessly for the mills to come back, it was to create something better than the mills.  Pittsburgh stands now as an ever-rising example of health care, education, creative innovation, and--if such a thing is important anymore--civic pride.

Pittsburgh ain’t perfect. No city is. Pittsburgh has problems with local politics and race relations and bankruptcy and traffic and not cleaning up embarrassing messes after country music concerts. We care too much about football and not enough about not electing jerkholes to the mayorship. But in contrast to what the city was, and how many cities are today, Pittsburgh stands as a reasonably effective example as to what the character of a city truly means.

A century ago, all the old steel barons slowly died and, to assuage their guilt from the confines of the afterlife, gave their money to fund universities, hopeful that their legacy would be one of a well-educated population with the knowledge base to lead America into the future. Perhaps that is a bit of an overstatement. But whether we lead by example or produce the instruments of the future or simply supply the talent to fuel the engine of progress, one simple, undeniable fact remains: we’re still way cooler than Portland.

Photograph courtesy of Tiffany Harkleroad.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Be Your Own Superhero!

So, Superman: Man of Steel came out this past weekend, and, just like every other summer for the past twenty years, everyone is going nuts over superheros. And, just like every other summer, everyone walks around wishing they could quit their job to be Batman or Wonder Woman or Aquaman. So, why not? Below, I've given my readers the ability to create their own persona for a superhero. Simply choose one item from each list, and when you are done you have your own identity to go fight your own brand of extralegal justice! 

Also, I was totally kidding about Aquaman. No one wants to be him.

  • Bit by a radioactive animal of some sort
  • Born on a radioactive planet and abandoned on Earth
  • Injected with radioactive serum by a future villain
  • Could not escape a chamber being flooded with radiation
  • Ate some bad seafood

Secret Identity
  • Ace reporter that somehow doesn’t get fired despite an 80% absentee rate
  • Mild-mannered milquetoast pencil-pusher who can rip the heart out of a lion-man-beast on a weekday afternoon yet still can’t ask that broad out for a cup of coffee
  • Self-made rich guy who is somehow 1) old enough to make shittons of money yet 2) young enough to jump from buildings and kill thugs with his bare hands and 3) didn't invent Facebook
  • Former ninja who faked their own death and now lives in a gross cave or a Tibetan monastery
  • A hardened cop who, after he’s done with his shift, engages in completely constitutional vigilante justice and shoves a slim rubber mask over his eyes so IA doesn’t have a clue

  • A fusion-powered suit that apparently makes you a roidhead
  • Incredibly unlikely use of a largely mundane object, like a lantern or a bracelet, that held relevance maybe six centuries ago
  • +2 Sword of Amazingness
  • A fanny pack full of sweet devices that let you do all sorts of cool stuff. And, no, it’s not a utility belt or a satchel, it’s a fanny pack.
  • An ancient staff that is somehow more effective at killing people than a machine gun.

  • Anthropomorphic version of a nocturnal animal
  • Standard heroic costume that exudes that right balance of power, confidence, and not-being-a-perverted-weirdo-in-tights vibe
  • One of the few Nordic gods that haven’t been culturally plundered yet
  • Half-breed between a human and some fantasy creature, the origins of which we do not care to think about
  • Asian dude who is really just a white dude.

Special Power
  • The ability to advance the cause of civil rights or gender inequality or some shit like that
  • Ability to fight the Japs and somehow not come off as a racist eighty years later
  • Ability to cause massive amounts of property damage in pursuit of justice yet somehow be immune from liability or insurance claims
  • Ability to paper over major plot holes by claiming it’s “alien technology” or “genetic mutation” or some other intellectually-insulting dues ex machina
  • Ability to be in denial about the fact that you’re pretty much a furry

  • A completely functional jumpsuit that also somehow cause bullets to only hit shoulders
  • A costume with your logo plastered on the chest, as if the guy wearing bright red spandex standing on top of a skyscraper punching a man-octopus with lasers for eyes wasn’t a dead giveaway
  • Some sort of historically accurate outfit, despite the fact that an entire city of public servants, citizens, and villains are really not going to take you seriously when you are dressed like a freaking Viking
  • Ability to look fabulous in a cape
  • Ability to somehow leap and do gymnastics with DD’s in a latex suit that barely covers the areola.

  • Someone dressed up like a creepy animal that vaguely compliments the creepy animal you yourself have chosen to dress up as
  • Token Black Dude
  • Friend who doesn’t really do much except not tell everyone the blatantly obvious fact that you are a superhero
  • Some chick you are totally not banging on the side
  • A miniature version of yourself, you narcissistic bastard

Fatal Flaw
  • An obscure element with a vaguely recognizable name that somehow can be found in the general population with alarming frequency
  • Reluctance to pay FICA taxes
  • An unfortunate attachment to an easily capturable civilian
  • Some sort of "moral code" that prevent you from "killing people." Ppft.
  • Nutella donuts
  • A dirty, filthy, crime-ridden city that is definitely not New York City
  • A dystopian future involving a lot less streetlamps where the cops apparently just stop trying and they chew through DAs like antacids.
  • An alternate history where the Nazis won World War II or Rome never fell or whatever fantasies history majors come up with while waiting for the next Starbucks order
  • Downtown Detroit. AMIRITE OR AMIRITE FELLAS?
  • A planet just like Earth, only apes. OR MAYBE IT IS EARTH. (Hint: I don’t know, I fell asleep.)
  • A criminally insane person who somehow still manages to come up with a pun for a name
  • A rogue scientist that somehow acquires enough nefarious equipment valued at approximately the GDP of Japan even though leaving their lair would cause them to be arrested immediately
  • Somebody that you had a slight, tangential role in causing their downfall two decades earlier and somehow you're supposed to remember. Dude, I can't remember I was supposed to pick up juice.
  • For some reason, a clown. Because apparently that’s a thing. Why not?
  • You, only evil. And yet remarkably similar. Oh, right. Spoiler alert.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Mystery of the Burrito

Recently, my wife and I went to an awesome restaurant called Hot Heads (free plug 'cause they are that good), which specializes in Mexican food that—surprisingly—will burn the first layer of skin from the inside of your mouth while it savors the deliciousness. It’s a local chain that has a wide variety of menu items to choose from, with the only real drawback being that it takes forever for us to drive to one. (This is one of those instances where it is probably a good thing, lest I eat a spicy pork burrito for every single day for the remainder of my life.)

Anyway, since we travel so far for it, every time I go I am tempted to play it safe—I hate to have the trip end with me ordering something that I don’t like, and then have a long and stomach-grumbling trip back home. Thankfully, most of the menu is fairly standard, so there aren’t a whole lot of pitfalls to just slapping everything delicious found in the kitched and wrap it up in yet another delicious thing and devouring it like some sort of savage animal.

Still, there’s a few interesting items that stick out, one of them being that they offer “barbacoa” as a meat option. Now, I have occasionally eaten my share of non-standard meat products, but I had no idea what this meant. My best guess would have been a cross between an invasion of Russia and Jane Fonda.* When I asked the nice clerk what, exactly, barbacoa was, she gave an unnecessarily lengthy description about the processing of steamed meat being spiced with chili flavoring instead  of giving me a more direct answer of what animal it came from. “Beef,” she said when pressed, with more than a little hesitation.

So I had my wife look it up on the internet. It turns out that “barbacoa” is where we get the word “barbeque” from, so my initial thought is that this was simply some sort of spice flavoring. The unnecessarily lengthy description (again) given on the ever-accurate Wikipedia is that it is a Taino (Caribbean) dish that “generally refers to meat…slow-cooked over an open fire or (more traditionally) in a hole dug in the ground covered with maguey leaves.” It also gives the convenient safety valve of “this interpretation is loose” which is a fancy-lawyer way of saying "wrong."

Still, I was unconvinced. To me, the entire thing reeked of ritualistic ceremony and not some skewed final product of tribal culinary school. Who digs holes in the ground, shoves meat in there, and then covers it up with aloe? And then proceeds to eat it? That doesn’t evolve organically from any sort of food preparation; that is what the town cleric decides after a morning with Mary Jane. Tellingly, this ceremony is non-meat specific, ranging everywhere from sheep to pork to beef. 

Finally, it dawned on me…the existence of barbacoa solves a huge mystery. Barbacoa is actually chupacabra meat. That’s right—that’s the big secret. Caribbean communities have taken their revenge on the legendary goat-suckers by throwing them in a pit, lighting them on fire, absolving their guilt by throwing skin lotion leaves on top, and then disguises the taste of evil with chili powder and eats it for dinner. It answers all of the questions and fits everything perfectly, from the reasoning behind the ritual to my woefully underdeveloped knowledge of anthropology. It answers so many questions I can’t possibly see how I can be wrong.

But with how good that burrito tasted, it has to be right.

*Both of which, I am told, were famous for the mass grinding of meat.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Best Way To Play Monopoly... to not play it at all.

There's been a lot of attention played to how we've all been playing Monopoly wrong. (The story of this article is actually somewhat interesting; it's a two-year-old blog post, so I'm not sure how it suddenly hit the social media (and, apparently, real media) rounds, and the poor guy got misrepresented a lot. Read that linked article on the Buzzfeed site, then read his update at the bottom about what's happened the last few days. It makes me excited that maybe some day someone will tweet one of my years-old blog posts and I'll get all rich and famous and on the front page of trendy internet sites and eventually be misquoted by traditional media outlets--the true sign of celebrity--but there's always a chance they'll ignore my honest treatise about The C2R Patented Two-Step Solution To Solve All Health Care Problems In America (tm) and instead run with my hard-hitting story about Slugger McMucus instead. But, anyway, I digress.)

It also spawned a legion of articles, much like this one, about the rules of Monopoly. As a self-proclaimed Board Game Evangelist, I thought it would be a pretty good idea to bring some additional insight to the entire realm of the board game hobby.

First off, Monopoly kind of sucks. Even with all of the above amazement about how we're playing it wrong, playing Monopoly wrong has been as much an American institution as playing Monopoly has. People throw money at Free Parking. People don't bother with interest or housing shortages or calculating the dreaded Income Tax. People make up their own rules because, to them, it makes the game more fun, not realizing that it also makes the game longer (and, eventually, not nearly as fun anymore.)

First off, you should read my previous post about why Monopoly sucks (modern games do everything better) and how you can make it better (first player to go bankrupt ends the game (richest player then wins), and auction all properties immediately when the first person lands on it).

But I think it's also important to point out that the board game hobby has been fantastically successful since the Great Eurogame Migration in the mid-1990s. That's when "German Games" hit the United States market and the industry was changed forever. German Games were called that because Germany was, by far, the biggest producer of such games--games with minimal luck, no player elimination, limited conflict, and a more abstract theme. (They are more commonly known as "Eurogames" now to reflect their wider base, although Wikipedia still lists them as "German-style Board Games.") These games were more social than the war- and conflict-driven games like Risk, Axis and Allies, or the old and dusty Avalon Hill thousand-cardboard-chit games you occasionally saw at your creepy grandfather's friend's house that dominated board gaming in the 1970's and 1980's.The flagship game in 1995 was The Settlers of Catan--it used dice, so people who played games like Monopoly were familiar with the concept, but its use of those dice (simulating a bell curve for resource-gathering rather than a roll-and-move mechanism) was incredibly innovative. It's also created whole new genres of games.

Most modern board games are considered "designer" board games (so called because these games usually have a specific designer credited on the box, much like an author). This is mainly to differentiate them from the classic casual games mostly created by faceless committees in large corporations, but it also injects a sufficient amount of snootiness to elitist hobbyists who don't want to get lumped in with the proles who play things like The Game of Life for fun.*

I won't go into the history of board games, but in the nearly 20 years or so since then companies have cranked out some high-quality board games. In fact, large big-box retailers (namely Staples) have started stocking some of the more popular games. I've recommended them before, but good, solid board games for beginners include Pandemic - 2nd Edition (a cooperative game where you try and cure diseases ravaging the world against an  ever-dwindling clock), Ticket To Ride (a game about building trains across the US with mechanics similar to rummy), or Small World (play as various creatures, such as elves or giants, trying to control the world).

Each of these options are significantly better than Monopoly, and very few of them will involve your little sister crying because you built a hotel on Park Place or your dad only half-paying attention because the baseball game is on or your snotty brother's friend flipping the board instead of mortgaging properties. Like I said: innovation.

*I am only being slightly facetious. Hobbyists in all fields can be pricks.

The Perfect Dog

This is a new age that we live in. We have every bit of information from every era of history easily accessible from a small electronic box in our pocket. We have reached the stars and came back. We have found and subsequently cured a whole host of diseases. And we've decided that the next logical step is to start cloning household pets.

There is a company in (surprise!) South Korea that wants to clone our canine friends. Good, clean, perfect dogs, of course, since dogs are notoriously hardy when it comes to genetics. (I also can't possibly imagine why South Korea would have a need to clone dogs, but I digress.) But the practice has gotten a fair bit of news, especially since the company offering this service has launched a contest: they're looking for the UK's Worthiest Dog, something that turned into a bit of a diplomatic faux pas since the Koreans apparently forgot that the UK already has such a contest called the royal family.

Still, it's useful to think about exactly what traits would be useful in the perfect pet. They should have the ability to:
  • bark only when there is something to bark at, and not some imaginary spot in the middle of the floor
  • not take treats and hide them in blankets so six months later there isn't an unfortunate surprise.
  • willfully know that rolling around in the mud and then yelping like you're on fire when you get a bath is not cool.
  • tell the difference between dinner and poop. I'm looking at you, Chloe.
  • finish licking a spot when it is clear that every single conceivable molecule of food has been consumed. Especially on my pants.
  • not act like total spazbuckets when someone comes to the door. Especially the mailman who comes to the door nearly every single day.
  • not eat that thing that is clearly not designed to be a piece of food and can't even fit in your mouth.
  • use that supposedly awesome snoot to help me FIND THAT EFFING REMOTE ALREADY THE GAME STARTED TEN MINUTES AGO
  • have their ears flop around in a manner that does not make them look like hobos.
  • spend less than an hour and a half sniffing every single inch of back yard, then bark two minutes after I crawl into bed to go out.
In case you are wondering, the sticker price of cloning a dog kicks in at about a hundred grand. Since I already got two perfect dogs for a fraction of that price, I think I made out pretty well.