Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Scuba Diving, La Romana, Dominican Republic

Of course you could spend a whole week in the Dominican Republic (DR) lazing about on a beautiful playa, reading trash fiction and sipping pina coladas out of freshly-cored pineapples. This was the way of my last trip to the Casa de Campo resort near the town of La Romana, when I finished Ken Follet's medieval man-centric sex epic Pillars of the Earth. This is still a highly recommended way to experience a tropical beach vacation.

But, as an avid diver, I decided to take a different approach this time, having resolved to leave no stone unturned when the opportunity to dive presents itself, which is practically anywhere there's water. As part of this ongoing mission*, it's a little strange that I didn't go diving last time I was in the DR, but you could chalk that up to me being seized with apathy, a dearth of cash, and not having a partner since Jill wasn't PADI certified at the time.

Having solved that last problem in Maui over Memorial Day weekend, I treated my mom and Jill to a diving excursion out to Isla Catalina, just a 15 minute boat ride from La Romana harbor.

So far, diving in the DR is a bit of an after thought. As such, there's very little evidence of good or bad diving available on the Internet at the popular diving websites. This leads most divers to believe the diving is bad, because otherwise there'd be something and this island would be more of a diving destination. The assumed thinking and pervasive reputation, by dint of lack of actual accounting, is that the DR is a crowded, clumsily and irresponsibly-industrialized island that has destroyed and over-fished it's reefs.

So going in blind, with scant impressions via first-party reports from here and there on the web, I had extremely low expectations. These weren't raised much when the diving outfit we ended up with turned out to be hitching a ride on a 100-person snorkel tour/booze cruise. (This booked for us via an under-the-table exchange with ex-patriot, unofficial tour director extraordinaire, Dave Black.)

There were six divers total, on this calaypso-playing, meringue dancing catamaran rum runner, including the 3 of us, two Frenchmen and a single Kazakh, the first I'd ever met. Joel, our divemaster, was a friendly Dominican who turned out to be an excellent dive master, when he could turn his attentions away from pawing my wife and mother.

Our first dive was The Wall. We dropped into warm, clear water with visibility in the 70' range and dropped down to 25 feet or so and kicked over to the eponymous wall for a cruise up and back at around 45 feet max depth. My impressions immediately centered on the health and vitality of the reef. Having seen degraded reefs in Florida, Hawai'i and Mexico, I was expecting the grunge of bleached coral skeletons, but instead was treated to a reef as full of live as any I've seen outside of Palau. There wasn't manifest in great hard-coral growth, so much as a lushness of soft corals, gorgonians and abundant large tubular sponges. Amongst this there was great macro life going on with flamingo tongues, arrow crabs, cleaner shrimp and a host of colorful small fish and sea anemones. The highlight of the dive was a lionfish, which we spotted hovering in a nook in the wall. These fish are non-native invaders of the Caribbean from the South Pacific.

Outside of a lone wahoo, I didn't see much in the way of big animals, but there was an abundance of small groupers in the 18 inch range. This could be a good sign of things to come if Dominican diving gains popularity and the value of sustained preservation becomes more imminent and economically valuable.

Our second dive, The Aquarium, is located just off an appealing beach on the North shore of Isla Catalina. This dive features a flat, sandy bottom butting up against significant hard-coral growth. Again our depth was 45 feet with 70' of visibility. Once again, we saw vibrant soft-coral life and perhaps even better macro than on the first dive. Five minutes in, Joel proved the worth of a local dive master and found a couple of seahorses, one black and the other canary yellow nestling in some coral. We spent a minute or two playing with these shy, passive creatures. He also found a large rock crab, several small, colorful moray eels, two grumpy, stone-like scorpion fish and a spotted skate. The highlight of the dive for me, was the orange, painted frog fish, I found perched on a coral head. A shockingly bright species of angler fish, these at first appear a piece of coral, but then you spot them as a kind of strange, half-fish, half mutant toad. About the size of a softball, it has stumpy little legs and claws it uses to guide it's sinking more than swim. Once on the bottom, it crawls around ambushing creatures its own size or smaller, a kind of coral reef gargoyle.

It was a great find, and one that I'd been looking forward to since I started diving. All in all, it capped a great two-dive day in the Dominican Republic and completely changed my malformed opinion of diving in the DR. As someone with some experience diving around the world, I would expect many seasoned divers would also have thoroughly enjoyed these dives. Neither were technically challenging, but we got to enjoy an unexpectedly vibrant reef with great surprises in terms of diversity of species and rare finds.

The irony of viewing this with a sugar refinery churning out smoke in La Romana in the visible distance was not lost on me. But it served perfectly to illustrate the contrast between the old Dominican economy and what I hope the future economy will be. I think there are signs the the DR is taking steps to adapt its approach to the environment to this eco-tourism oriented end. Given the health of the reefs around Catalina, and the abundance of small fish, notably groupers, I get the feeling that things are changing and better care is being taken of the DR's natural resources. I don't have much policy evidence to support this, but if my theory is correct, those small groupers will grow up and we may have experienced the tip of the iceberg of Dominican diving. I also hear great things about diving on the other side of the island in an area called Samana, where humpback whales spend the winter calving, and am looking forward to my next trip back here to continue my exploration of this large island's underwater environments.

*The Ongoing Mission; Places I've Dived:
Redfish Lake, Idaho
Lighthouse Reef, Belize
Turneffe Atoll, Belize
La Jolla Cove, California
British Virgin Islands (all of them)
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Nanaimo, British Columbia
Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts
Connecticut River (beneath Ledyard Bridge), Hanover, New Hampshire
Ocean City, Maryland
Cabo Pulmo, Mexico
Key West, Florida
Makena Beach, Maui, Hawaii
Isla Catalina, Dominican Republic

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ze Frank Summarizes 8 Years in Afghanistan in Less than 5 Minutes

Ze Frank says at the end that he wanted to write an opinion piece on Afghanistan, but the general surplus of opinions about what is going on, have been obscuring the facts about what is actually going on.

I think this is a useful realization. So here you have a <5 minute summary on 8 years of convoluted conflict. Not as funny as his Frank's usual schtick, but this really helped me get a summary grasp of the Afghanistan conflict.

Google Real Time Search? Meh.

Watching the Top Chef Semi-Final last night with Jill, I wanted to get the word on this Bryan Voltaggio guy, who's said to have a restaurant in Maryland somewhere. Within striking distance of Philadelphia, I wondered, so I went to Google and had my first encounter with the heavily-hyped 'real time search.'

So it's early, and Google's got the whole reputation of releasing half-cooked products in beta, but I have to say I was expecting more than just an embedded Twitter Search feed.

Relevance being Google's goal, I have a hard time seeing how the real-time blather going on over at Twitter merits a higher ranked result than either the Top Chef site or Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant Volt (the result I clicked on). I would rank both of these as primary sources of more credibility than the voices of ignorami en masse, like @mandelicious85's 'Speculating that Bryan Voltaggio win's top chef.' This stuff is meaningless.

Fortunately, it appears Google may have anticipated a degree of time-sensitivity as determining factor for when the 'real time search' functionality appears in search results. Doing a little follow-up research this morning, now that the Bryan Voltaggio wind on Twitter has died down, the embedded feed didn't appear.

I suspect there's probably some threshold of activity that determines when real time feeds go on or off. This suggest that Google will learn something from their early experiments with this, and I hope they'll trip on someway to parse the noise and find better sources of real time relevance than rote Twitter feeds.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Beware the Grooveshark

Which shark species presents the greatest danger to man kind? The Great White? The Tiger Shark? Perhaps the Bull or Mako? Nope. None of the above.

It's the Grooveshark music streaming website. Hyperlink intentionally omitted because I'm too afraid of it to visit or link to it at this point, following not 1, not 2, but 3 known laptop meltdowns in just 2 weeks using the site.

My colleague Ben and I both got stuck on the site, which seemed like the latest evolution in the streaming music genre of websites, introducing an iTunes like user interface and and wide variety of searchable songs that you can assemble into shareable playlists. Sounds great.

And it was, until my computer got KO'd by the nastiest malware infection I've ever witnessed - a piece of work known as SecurityTool - and ultimately had to be re-imaged. Ben, smug during the additional week of his Groovesharking, got it later and was also laid up for two days sans-laptop while IT went to work on the hard-drive.

I'm sharing this so other folks avoid this fate,but also as a plea to corporate IT policies around corporate America. Just let people have iTunes alright? At my company, the double-secret IT security policy is the equivalent of the War on Drugs - a costly and futile mission under the auspice of public safety that has the unintended effect of sending people under ground for entertainment and productivity tools that aren't regulated by reputable purveyors of web-based services. In this most predictable of ironies, it causes as many problems as it tries to prevent.

The bad stuff is always one step ahead of the firewall. As soon as IT blocked Pandora, I replaced it with LastFM and Imeem. When they banned Imeem (which never crashed my machine) I moved onto Grooveshark and had this encounter.

Now none of this would have happened if they'd trusted me with iTunes in the first place.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas Decorations Gone Wrong

This is one of those things I got in an email from a cousin, of a friend of my brother's friend from his last job. For the personal touch of realism 'Greg' sends along this little note, explaining his seasonal hijinks:
"Good news is that I truly out did myself this year with my Christmas decorations. The bad news is that I had to take him down after 2 days. I had more people come screaming up to my house than ever. Great stories. But two things made me take it down.

First, the cops advised me that it would cause traffic accidents as they almost wrecked when they drove by.

Second, a 55 year old lady grabbed the 75 pound ladder almost killed herself putting it against my house and didn't realize it was fake until she climbed to the top (she was not happy). By the way, she was one of many people who attempted to do that. My yard couldn't take it either. I have more than a few tire tracks where people literally drove up my yard."
I'll leave it to you to assign voracity, but I thought it was funny enough either way.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dats Hats - Business Sequel to TOMS Shoes

That TOMS Shoes thing is a pretty good idea right? Giving a pair of shoes to a needy kid in the 3rd World for every pair sold retail, lending automatic globalized magnanimity to the company and its hipsumers*.

Wish I'd thought of it so I could roll like Blake Mycoskie on my $340,000 yacht. Now I see Dats Hats has adapted the concept to hats and I'm thinking, what's left for me?

Does the 3rd World need toasters?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Valient Thorr Loves Idaho

I was surfing on's Featured videos section and caught this hairy-looking maniac from a band called 'Valient Thorr' and was scrolling right past it when, hang on, was that guy wearing an Idaho t-shirt? All references to my home state being so rare, and generally detrimental, in the popular culture, that little yellow caution flag in my brain went up, so I went back to check it out.

Sure enough Valient Thorr himself (of Chapel Hill, North Carolina) rocks out for the duration of the song 'Tomorrow Police' with an Idaho t-shirt beneath his leather jacket and above his heavy metal belly. The best part is there's no hint of the hipster irony I'd expect from someone wearing this sort of shirt, just straight up metal. And as a result of his excellent sartorial taste, Valient Thorr has a new fan in Pennsylvania by way of Idaho.

Funny how things just seem to work out sometimes.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Anti-Tradition Becomes Tradition

On Sunday morning, Jill and I took a 4 mile walk on a wide-open Bethany Beach, Delaware, a day after returning from  La Romana, Dominican Republic, where we spent the week including Thanksgiving Day.

At over 60 degrees, it was unusually clear and sunny for this late in November in the Mid-Atlantic and I was still recovering from the mind-blowing experience of airplane rides, which not 24 hours earlier had ferried me at 38,000 feet from Santo Domingo to Philadelphia over the very same beach on which I then stood. So it was this kind of reflective, expansive mood I was in.

I'll come right out and say it, because this is the season for giving thanks: I'm fortunate. For lots of reasons and going over Thanksgivings past in my head I realized that since Thanksgiving 1997 I have not spent consecutive Thanksgivings in the same place.

Cooking this up for a blog entry, I resorted to the familiar formula of the list of locations I have spent the last 13 Thanksgivings dating back to 1997:

1997 - Boise, Idaho
1998 - Basking Ridge, New Jersey
1999 - Queechee, Vermont
2000 - Edinburgh, Scotland
2001 - Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
2002 - Aspen, Colorado
2003 - Lancaster, Pennsylvania
2004 - Cecilton, Maryland
2005 - Todos Santos, Mexico
2006 - Russian River Valley, California
2007 - Lake Tahoe, California
2008 - Vashon Island, Washington
2009 - La Romana, Dominican Republic

With the odd jaunt to Hood River, Oregon (~1993) I had spent nearly every Thanksgiving up to and including 1997 in my hometown of Boise, Idaho. Since then, I've shown a fearsome resistance to tradition by spending no-two Thanksgiving Holidays in the same place twice and without even meaning to built something of a new tradition.

Next year is virtually assured not to be a repeat of this year so the anti-tradition will live on another year at least.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Leonid Meteor Shower: The Sky is Falling

We're in the middle of the Leonid Meteor Shower and here's video evidence captured from Hailey, Idaho's Friedman Airport runway camera of a meteor the size of an oven erupting in the atmosphere at 80,000 miles per hour at 12:02 am, Mountain Time Wednesday morning.

According to the article in the Idaho Mountain Express, remnants struck the ground in northern Nevada and the fireball was likely visible from several Western states. Amazing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Scored a Masterpiece on the Way to Work

Whippin' our way up and down Lincoln Drive this week to and from work, Ben and I noticed this painting on the front porch of the yellow house (police station?) at the corner of Gypsy Lane. After seeing it both Wednesday and Thursday while the remnants of Tropical Depression Ida drenched the region, we resolved to nick it in the morning if it was still unclaimed, citing the age-old and Constitutionally sound principle of 'finders keepers.'

This morning, the painting was there and we scored our masterpiece in a bit of a roadside snatch and run. Now, with its daring mixed Hellenistic/Flemish school approach and relevant mix of Classical Western and Eastern cultural themes this 2' x 3.5' painting has turned the visual volume in our office all the way up to 11.

Let the bidding begin at $1 million.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Irresistible Wawa Cross-Sell

If it's not already obvious, I'm developing something of a Wawa Obsession. From their amazing convenience store coffee bar, 'Coffetopia,' to the fee-free PNC Bank co-branded ATMs, and now my quickening addiction to their breakfast sandwiches, I'm fully in the gravitational pull of the Wawa Blackhole.

Strangely, I can't tell if its due to the quality of the products, the service, the convenience, the whole Wawa experience, in short, or my corporate jealousy as a marketer of what seems to be an enviably customer-centric and well run company pulling the strings behind this amazing retail experience. In the wildest skews of my self-image, I'd never foreseen myself gushing over a convenience store.

As an example of this crush-worthy ingenuity, I'd like to highlight the custom, electronic sandwich-ordering process pictured above, which removes the element of dual-operator error acute to traditional human-to-human sandwich ordering by giving the user no less than 3 chances to include bacon.

As an up-selling system, this is absolutely brilliant, at one stroke delivering mass-customization, ensuring order accuracy, and possibly doubling or tripling Wawa's peripheral bacon sales.

Would I like bacon? Of course I would.

Bacon is but one of dozens of up-sell possibilities baked into this interface from cheese to bread to veggies. In navigating this digital labyrinth of temptation, my accomplice Ben has already been tricked twice this week into upsizing from the 4" Breakfast Ciabatta to the 10" Breakfast Hoagie. But the great thing is both Wawa and Ben came out feeling like winners.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Important Information from the Consumer Electronics Association

I'm of the general opinion that the sense of hearing is not overrated in being at least in the top 5 senses. The good people at the Consumer Electronics Association apparently agree, and are willing to stump for the preservation of hearing, as opposed to say, smell, which sense probably doesn't help them sell anything as widely marketable as iPods. (But come to think of it 'SniffPods' might be worth looking into.)

So I unwrapped my new Sony IC recorder today and felt the warmth of a faceless corporate interest group giving me love and looking out for my interest with an informative pamphlet on the importance of enjoying sound at moderate volume. Because at CEA "We Want You Listening for a Lifetime." How's that for dovetailing consumer protection with the corporate interest of lifetime customer value? Peddlers of sound got to know that those who most love that sound stand the greatest risk of losing the ability to hear it. If only drug dealers were so conscientious.

The pamphlet goes into some examples of decibel levels to define the spectrum of suitable noise exposure. Your basic day to day experiences go from the 30 decibels of 'Quiet library, soft whispers' to the 80 decibels of 'Average city traffic, garbage disposals, alarm clock at two feet.' Koans of thumb for daily life in the great puzzle of preserving one's hearing.

But then we're stepped up to a curious array of warnings.
The Following Noises Can Be Dangerous Under Constant Exposure:
90    Subway, motorcycle, truck traffic, lawn mower
100  Garbage truck, chain saw, pneumatic drill
120  Rock band concert in front of speakers, thunderclap
140  Gunshot blast, jet plane
180  Rocket launching pad
Questions to the CEA: is this the best scenario you could think of to end your list? Was the Quality Assurance team getting expansive or somehow otherwise occupied when this list of bullet-pointed potential encounters snuck through approval?

Then, it's possibly just me who's way out of touch with that great swath of population living 'under constant exposure' to rocket launching pads.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Week's Gripes on Fantasy Football

Way back in early September during my Fantasy League draft, as things were going well and I picked up Drew Brees, I got real long on the Saints picking up Marques Colston, and their D, in addition to Brees. This has mostly worked out, paving the way to a 3-1 start in my league. But, I realized I needed a plan for Week 5 (today) when the Saints don't play.

So, cleverly I looked for the QB playing the Raiders in week 5 and got Eli Manning. He's playing great, but then the dude got Plantar Fascitis which put the week in doubt, but then he played and the Giants did so well that he was out for most of the second half while crappy David Carr completely ignored the Giants receivers on my roster (whom I also needed to fill the Saints gap this week.)

Then, Ben told me to play Jerome Harrison and Fred Jackson, both of whom sucked royally in the royal suckfest that was the Browns beating the Bills in a field-goal duel 6-3.

So I breezed from all-league scoring leader last week, to cellar dweller posting the league's puniest point total in Week 5 and my confidence is shot. This was the trap week for my team, and I've got to move on but I didn't want to drop it this miserably.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

University of Alask-Fairbanks Nanooks Hockey Hype Video

If you are like me, a fellow student of the Internets, you know that the tubes have been on fire for a few weeks over this gem of a hype video for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks Hockey team. But it merits some further analysis.

Consider the concept. We've got a polar bear (Nanook) going on a cosmic rampage in which he is born from the big dipper, supernovas, destroys a planet, the moon and the rival city of Anchorage, before finally tearing the roof off the Carlson Center and landing on the ice to pump up the crowd. Nanook gradually shrinks throughout his journey, as his rage subsides, much like the Incredible Hulk, whose strength and power also share a high P value with his level of anger.

Monday, October 5, 2009

It Wasn't a Dream

When I was a teenager, my brother had this dream in which my parents displayed an irresponsible largesse and bought him a Porsche. He woke from this lucid dream one school morning with the feeling that it was real and went downstairs with an extra bounce in his step, anticipating how awesome it would feel to roll up to Boise High in a hot new Carrerra GT.

Needs to say, his dream was crushed. There was no Porsche in the driveway, just our beat up Volvo 740 TurboWagon (which was fast and danger, but still no Porsche). Despite the readily dismissible fallacy of his expectations in this scenario, Pete stayed salty with our parents for failing to live up to his dreams.

For my part, I tended to expect the letdown of coveted ideals realized in dreams. But not this morning.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Early Season Dump in Sun Valley

That's 18+ inches so far today, October 4, and hopefully a good portent for the season to come.

See you in December and again in February!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Oh Monsieur!

Pump up the volume so you can enjoy what is so much more than just another 'guy gets hit in the balls' YouTube video.

Anyone know the name of this announcer? He's got zero empathy for the French. Genius!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Jim Harrison

I didn't get to attend the Sun Valley Writer's Conference, but thanks to Plum TV and YouTube, I can still get some idea of what my long-time favorite writer Jim Harrison was all about during his visit in 2008.

I'd equate the experience of seeing a video of him, hearing him talk and seeing his affect, to finally meeting someone with whom you've carried on a lengthy phone relationship. Your expectations are never met 100%. And not to say they're exceeded or disappointed either, it's just that the idea and the actuality of a person who you know intimately in one dimension are always different when you expand your perspective.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Best Way to Recycle Packing Peanuts

Having recently moved from the West Coast and only just now completing my unpacking, it's been common to find my apartment as a mess of ripped-apart packing materials. Given the green guilt I feel triggered by stimuli as abstract as Moby, and my general quest to be more responsible about my own small stewardship of my community, it was hard to contemplate merely putting all this useful stuff out on the curb. Not moreover, but as an aside, it wasn't really convenient to do that either, since trash pickup is just once a week and leaving it out there any longer than a few of the late hours of Thursday night makes the neighborhood messy and I'm all about the appearance of high property value these days.

It occurred to me then that the very people who'd brought me this shit might still be interested in it. So I called the local UPS Store around the corner from my apartment and asked them how they felt about used cardboard boxes and packing peanuts.

They said they were thrilled about those things and would gratefully accept any leftovers I had to drop off. Done. After schlepping it all over, I quizzed the typically-hipster UPS clerk at the store about how many people do this very thing and he said 'a lot... we reuse it, it generally works out.'

And I've got say I see that. I got the convenience and the green self-image support I needed and UPS got packing perfectly usable packing materials gratis. So it also made me wonder why UPS isn't more active about promoting this virtuous readiness to accept and recycle used packing materials. It's clearly green and also convenient when you've got a lot of this material on your hands, plus writ large it isn't too hard to imagine this could do good things for UPS' bottom line.

And I supposed you could do the same at FedEx, or the US Postal Service, where I am not in product management or marketing, but maybe should be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

John Phillips the Pervert Has Forever Ruined the Mamas and the Papas

The emerging John Phillips/Mackenzie Phillips incest story is really disturbing and it will be interesting to see what effect it has on the musical legacy of the Mamas & the Papas. For me its putting quite a damper on my enjoyment of the music. Suddenly, with the revelation that Papa was a deeply, disturbed pervert, there's a sinister subtext behind seemingly innocent songs like 'California Dreamin'.

Whatever coincidental ties they had to the fringes of the mid-'60s hippy movement (proximity to the Manson Family, for example) are much harder to ignore as aberrations in light of this story and its clear Phillips was never as naive as his music might have made him seem.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Duct-Taped Cat, Philly Grit and the Word on Street Cred

Look at the grit I wake up to in Philadelphia. How am I supposed to pretend I live in a civilized place when cute cats can't roam the streets without fear of hostile duct taping?

Many cities and areas lay claim to a birthright of street cred, as if by dint of being from Paramus you're endowed with gritty street-wisdom. This is declared by the applique of a clever nickname like 'The Dirty Jerze' or 'Strong Island' when referring to your native soil.

After three months in Philly, I'm here to level those claims as largely lacking in comparative grit and power. Particularly so when matched against anyone who truncates and appends their city as such: Nashville --> Nash Vegas. Good grief dude, look what I've got to deal with in Philly.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Introducing the $35 Six Pack

Now, to be clear, this is a world-class six pack and there aren't many single places on Planet Earth, let alone Philadelphia, where you could hand-pick six worldly cervezas this awesome without a passport. The Foodery is the one such place that I know of.

Here I have Belgian gnome-happy La Chouffe, Doghead Fish Brewery (and there truly bizarre Midas Touch), crazy wood-fairy brew from Amsterdam and something Norwegian called the Celebrator (so much friendlier than the German beers) plus some Peroni La Rossa which you can't see.

At the Foodery, my beer-drinking wonder was indulged and without realizing it I was traipsing giddily from freezer door to freezer door nabbing beers for my eco-friendly, recycled six-pack carton.

In the checkout line, where I pay attention to the commercial behavior of fellow patrons*, the girl in front of me had a Zima(!) and a pint of Haagen Dazs. Weird. Then I was on the spot and paid for my little trip around the world by crashing hard on the truth of my life in Philly and here you buy beer at blue, state-liquor-law prices which effectively means even your PBR is pricey. So, throw in transportation costs, pirate insurance and international tariffs on these imports and you have a six pack that checked in at $7 per bottle. Jeebus.

*This is ready-made fun for you fellow students of humanity's oddness. Sort of in the way of studying people in traffic who mistakenly believe they aren't plainly out in public, you get astonishingly honest confessions of truth, taste and weakness on display in the things people choose to buy. For example, at work the other day, I was behind a woman who checked-out with something she custom-made at the salad-bar and which I'm now referring to as the Ultimate Salad: hard-boiled egg crumbles, pepperoni slices, and shredded cheddar cheese. Amazing!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Google Fast Flip Just Blew My Mind

Two things of note here:

First, Google Fast Flip blows my mind as a way to browse current news as if flipping through a Magazine. It still links to the originating site for the full article, but it's fast, convenient and visually more stimulating than the original Google News interface.

Second, I took this screenshot in Google Chrome 3.0, which is only noteworthy because it is a 'currently selected window' screenshot (Alt + Print Screen) which was previously, and annoyingly, either extremely difficult or impossible in Chrome.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Remarkably Nice Thing Starbucks Did

I'm really excited about my new coffee maker, a Cuisinart DGB-600 Grind & Brew Therml 10-Cup Automatic, in 'brushed chrome,' which I received as a wedding gift over 2 years ago and have just now retrieved from my father-in-laws attic and deployed in my kitchen.

Next step was getting some coffee. So this morning I ran out to the nearby Starbucks and picked up 16 ounces of 'Shade Grown Mexico,' which only sounds like an exotic strain of marijuana. (Which 'coincidence' must have crossed the minds of Starbucks' marketers before it crossed mine. So you kind of think they're doing it on purpose, but hey... weird works sometimes.) As I pulled out my card to pay, the woman at the counter asked if I would like my free tall cup of coffee with that?

I'm not sure why, since a cup of coffee isn't really a huge freebie, but this really surprised me in a good way. Perhaps it's because I'm paying for my coffee at work these days. Anyway, I accepted the free cup of coffee, then tipped her a buck, thus negating the monetary advantage, and went on my merry way.

Sad it derailed my vision of my own carafe of home-brew, but that can wait in light of such remarkable marketing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cheer Up Oregon

0903 local BSU7
I couldn't resist this photo, courtesy of Idaho Statesman photographer Shawn Raecke, which depicts:
Ben Holland ... and Duckboy... who wouldn't give his real name... not enjoying the game as the Ducks lose to the Broncos 19-8 on Thursday night at Bronco Stadium.
The game was marred by general sloppiness of play by both teams, and extreme offensive frustration by Oregon at the hands of dominating BSU D, which, you probably know, culminated in LaGarrette Blount's show-stopping sore-loser-sucker-punch.

Sore feelings aside (what sore feelings? we won!), I hope for the sake of both Boise State and Oregon, that the ducks can put it back together again.

BSU will need Oregon to be a better team this weekend than they were last, and so on for the rest of the season (a win against USC and/or Pac 10 title would be ideal) if they are to realize grand hopes of a BCS bowl. Because, in order to over take BYU's gift of a win over Oklahoma, they're going to need this to look like a 'quality win,' and right now it (rightly or wrongly, TBD) doesn't quite have that luster.

I think you could say the same for BYU's win over OU, lacking luster that is, or at least being too soon to tell. The Sooners clear star and difference-maker, Sam Bradford, goes down and BYU squeaks out the 1 point win over a then lame and disabled team.

Somehow this is seen as a better win than BSU dominating a full-strength Oregon squad and now we're looking at BYU as our token 'non-AQS' team in the BCS this year. Why exactly? I don't think we have enough information to make that determination, but then BYU jumps like 11 spots in the polls and BSU is playing catch-up.

And once again it frustrates because Boise State might do everything right (should they go undefeated, again) and yet be reminded that they aren't the masters of their own destiny in this modern college football era of NCAA and BCS bureaucracy.

So screw the Cougs, and the Sooners (what jerks seem to choke when it matters most, 1-5 in last 6 bowl games) and Go Ducks Go!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Yelping in Philly

I wanted to write something today but didn't have any good ideas. A lot of the time, the blogging bit is inspired by something stupid or spontaneous that just somehow seems catchy. No such luck today, but still had the inkling to write, so I sat here for a while starting at this empy space and all I could think of at first was complaining about something. There's always plenty to complain about, Idaho wolf hunts, the economy, how disappointing I'm finding Obama's handling of the health care debate, but how productive is that?

So, I decided I'd point out how much I've gotten into Yelping recently, and I think I'm being creative there. Back in San Francisco, Yelp is taken for granted since it's a homegrown site everybody uses and the saturation level of reviews is high enough that most everything's got a gazillion reviews. As a result, I got used to making about 90% of my local consumer decisions using Google Maps and Yelp (and they're integrated of course) as my resources, but due to the abundance of opinions never felt like contributing my own.

Not so in Philadelphia. Here Yelp is still catching on comparatively. There's decent coverage, but not depth of reviews and you hear a lot of businesses don't know what it is (whereas they advertise their Yelp-savviness by sticker in San Francisco) so I'm finding a niche in promoting the technology and making it richer by bringing to bear my considerable, ahem, taste and opinions on the Philadelphia consumer market. So far I'm pretty bar and restaurant focused, as is a lot of the general blather online (evidenced by the surplus of banal Twitter and Facebook status updates about eating (who cares you're eating a sandwich)), but on Yelp at least it's solicited rather than forced upon.

But, to branch out and contribute usefully to the collective discourse in areas of life more fraught with import than the simple and regular filling of bellies, I've got reviews coming on a framing shop (results TBD), a barber (it takes a month to know how good a haircut is) and a home contractor (the first I've ever employed). I'll be thinking critically whenever I purchase a good or service and think the next guy might benefit should I pay it forward. Would this be a good forum for spreading the word amongst newcomers to Philly about the ugly necessity of automatic witholding of the dread Philadelphia Wage Tax and ensuring your employer's got your back there?

So I'm thinking big, but won't always blog about it, so I've embedded the Yelp map of my reviews on the right nav. I hope you'll follow.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Maggot Mistake

You learn something every day if you're careful enough to pay attention, and sometimes even if you're not the blunt force of an experience is enough to learn you anyway. In any case, the following is a bit of a long form apology to my sister-in-law, who suffered grave embarassment due to an act of goodwill on my part gone wrong.

Jill (The Special Lady) and I were until recently living with our in-laws waiting to close on the house, and during that time, after a decade or more calling my own shots, I slowly learned how to be a gracious long-term houseguest. It's small things that make a difference, chipping in for groceries, closing doors and turning out lights, putting stuff away, doing dishes, not pumping the AC out at 69 degrees.

Around a house with 3 children the ambient entropy creates a consistent list of chores and so it's nice to tackle a thing or two that slips through the cracks without expectation of praise or remuneration.

So, one Monday back in August we were really feeling generous and decided a civil thing would be to barbecue the five pounds of chicken Jill's sister had bought and hadn't gotten around to yet. We got home after work and opened the fridge to discover a full-blown funk odyssey underway. Raw chicken doesn't keep forever. No matter, I wrapped it in a plastic bag and took it out to the trash and we went out and bought more chicken.

Now, coming from San Francisco, where high taxes pay for niceties like twice-weekly trash pick-up and mild weather slows the decaying forces of archaea and insects, you can toss out 5 pounds of spoiled chicken and not think twice. In the Philly burbs, during the hottest week of August with once-weekly trash detail on Friday, this was a bad idea.

By Wednesday a new evil was in the air and accompanying that stink was a writhing maggot orgy that was even scaring off the supernaturally-ravenous Bala Cynwyd squirrel population (who had previously eaten squirrel-sized holes in the plastic lids of the garbage cans in their lust for human trash). At the same time as it was revolting, it was also kind of spectacular how life could respond with such abundance. I'm not officially-licensed in this kind of math, but if I had to guess I'd say there were 100,000 maggots in that trash can, easy, each one furiously wiggling like a grain of soft-cooked white rice on ecstacy.

The thought of a spray-bottle of bleach crossed my mind, as did gasoline and flame, but recalling how gross problems can unexpectedly snowball, I decided against introducing toxic chemicals or comustible fuel into the situation. Which made things a test of endurance to see how bad things could get before Friday.

Finally, on Friday, my poor sister-in-law had a run-in with the garbage men. She happened to be out on the drive way when they came, and had no option but to take their cold, judging stares as they removed our low-rent, little problem.

My excuse is that I was just trying to make a nice, home-cooked meal and take out the trash. But it was my mistake and that should have been me facing down those garbage men. Jo-Anne if you're reading, I apologize.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Most Wondeful Time of the Year

Geeze, I looked down for a smoke and a pancake and when I started paying attention again it was September. Here's an incomplete, annotated bullet-point list documenting my reasons for being really thrilled about this Fall:

-the end of East Coast-muggy hot weather
-Indian Summer
-looking good in my liberty-red capertons during the pending and glorious Fightin' Phils post-season run
-College Football in general
-Boise State Football, in particular, kicking off tonight against Oregon at 10:15 PM EST on ESPN, which means a lot of things, I'll be up late tonight, and I could be devastated or elated tomorrow morning based on the outcome, essentially being a single-game rite of passage for BSU's BCS aspirations.
-NFL Football in general
-Fantasty Football, in particular, my team 'Dickhead Banana' of the GFL led by Drew Brees.
-the return of my faithful sweater collection
-forgetting the compulsion to put lime wedges in my beers.
-chicken wings on the reg.
-Pearl Jam at the Spectrum on Halloween
-birthday parties: mine, my brother's, my nephew's, my niece's
-b-school lite at Wharton
-Thanksgiving Tropicalia in the DR

Monday, August 31, 2009

ABC & ESPN College Football TV Schedule & Coverage Map 2009

Updated: September 16, 2009

The Elusive and Inconsistent ABC/ESPN Coverage Map seems to live here for now:

Without updating in Week 2 (the page automagically updated today from Week 1 to Week 3), here's hoping things stay more up to date from here on out.

The TV Schedule lives here:

Damn this page has been elusive.

Amid their raging torrent of web traffic, the world wide leader probably doesn't notice that the above linked-to page has some serious SEO issues. For college football fans it holds some of the most precious and relevant information for planning your Saturdays throughout the fall, yet it is buried obscurely within the architecture of

Furthermore, it is very hard to find using routine Google searches such as: 'abc college football map,' which currently yields archived copies from November 26, 2008 and some weird ass page from 2002 as the top two results.

Methinks this preventable situation is largely due to the the terrible URL structure of the genuine site, versus the two currently showing in its place in the rankings.

So this is my little experiment to see if I can index and drive some traffic on that frequently sought information. As well, there's dim hope this might work its way up to the brass who should generally make this information more readily available by better SEO and more prominent guidance on the website.

In the meantime, I'm pointing users to the correct clearing house for this information.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

From Housewarming to Hospital Visit in 30 Seconds

Friday we closed on the new place and before moving in and cluttering it up with our junk, we decided to throw a little housewarming party for the new friends and family we have in Philadelphia.

At 6pm, just as guest were starting to arrive Jill showed up in the pouring rain with all of the food and drinks for the party. Since our young newphews were attending, some fun drinks of the non-alcoholic variety were also procured - notably a carbonated pink lemonade that comes in a carafe resembling a wine bottle.

On her way out of Whole Foods it started raining and before Jill could get all of the groceries into the car, she and the bags were soaked.

In our driveway she went around to the back of the car to get out the groceries. As she yanked out the first bag, the heavy bottle of lemonade tore through the soggy paper bottom of the bag and exploded on the cobblestones at her feet like an IED.

I was watching from the porch, with the gaseous burst of noise and broken glass ringing in my ears, as a thin dark ribbon of blood cut horizontally across Jill's right calf, then made an abrupt downward turn, gushing down her ankle. I told her she was bleeding a lot and ran down to help her into our apartment.

A trail of blood and mud and rain water followed us in to the couch, where I sat Jill down and told her to hold a washcloth against the wound, which was deep and yawning like an imp's mouth. She clearly needed stitches, but it wasn't emergency mode just yet and I was thinking, we'll still get to party, maybe.

Then I noticed Jill had dropped the washcloth and her hand was hanging limp at her side. I watched as her eyes went glassy, crossed and unfocused and the color drained her skin. She was lifeless, waxy, my zombie bride, as she slumped lower into the couch and unconsciousness.

Now I really freaked out and punched 911 into my cellphone. Then I was alternating between barking at the poor lady on the 911 dispatch line, and helping our friend Shelley as she tried to wake Jill, while our nephews burst into tears thinking (and justifiably, given what we'd just witnessed) that she had died. Because that is what it looked like, though I knew better from her short breathing - it was damned scary all the same. Peter, at 6 years old, got so upset that he ran out of the house and sat in the car in the human approximation of an ostrich's head-in-the-sand response. Thomas, not even 4, still thinks he witnessed a miracle, recounting the story that Jill died, but came back to us.

About 30 seconds in she started snoring, then began some light convulsing as she came around and her systems came back online. She appeared confused and asked us what had happened. Seeing her back in the land of the living, I haven't felt so much relief ever.

We got immediate returns on the dread Philadelphia Title Transfer Tax we'd just paid earlier that day as the paramedics arrived within 5 minutes of my call and dressed the wound, before advising that it made no difference whether they or I took Jill to the ER.

So I scooped her up and put her gingerly in shotgun and drover her down to the ER at Penn Hospital. There, we were treated to the excellent experience afforded by our premium health insurance which included a surly intake employee, a threat of a $200 parking fine for leaving my car in the ER driveway for 5 minutes, and a 3.5 hour wait to see the resident.

We got to watch 2 episodes of the Simpsons, 1 episode of Seinfeld and half of the Dallas Cowboys/Tennessee Titans pre-season game before the resident arrived to clean the wound, re-dress it and order X-rays to ensure no glass was still inside my wife.

But an hour later, after the x-rays came back negative, we were treated to the real highlight of the visit when the resident felt compelled to demonstrate the surprising depth of the wound by sinking his finger up to the first knuckle in Jill's leg and asking, 'hey, wanna see something cool?'

It was 11pm when I helped Jill hobble out and we retreated to our empty apartment and ordered a pizza. Our party ruined by the freakiest of freak accidents, we reflected on the dangers of carbonated beverages in glass containers and the sequence of odd events that led up to the injury by gas-propelled glass shrapnel. Don't underestimate that stuff.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wawa Coffee

Slate recently did an unscientific review of the mass-market cups of coffee and missed the mark by crowning Dunkin' Donuts their champion. I realize they were going for a broad, nationally appealing contest, but Dunkin's kind of a regional player compared to McDonalds and Starbucks, so why not consider Wawa too? They're not so small-time, selling 195 million cups of coffee each year. Perhaps Slate is too highbrow for gas station coffee?

Which is sad, because Wawa is doing something so right with gas station coffe at the in-store coffee hot-pot kiosk they refer to as Coffeetopia. Coming from the West Coast I had little previous experience with Wawa, but was first drawn in by the no-fee ATMs they sport, which are also really awesome considering my bank's ATMs don't line the freeways of the Mid-Atlantic region.

Like any naive, recent arrival on the East Coast, I was on a dangerous Dunkin' Donuts bender which bore the mark of nacent, longterm addiction as the daily injection of blistering-hot, coffee-scented syrup yielded quickly diminishing returns. A little used to do it, as they say, plus there was the growing donut side-effect. I needed an intervention of variety without the expense of Starbucks.

So I gave Wawa a shot and have been pleased by this discovery of the true nexus of cost, quality and variety in coffee. Just this morning, I enjoyed a cup of 100% Colombian Supremo with a splash of Irish Cream non-dairy creamer and was instantly transported to misty, old Dublin. Who knows where this adventure will lead next?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wikipedia's Random Article Link

It was pointed out to me by the great Ben Felix that this would be a cool way to find your band's name. And even if that's not your particular use case, you can enjoy by clicking repeatedly for one of the Web's most illuminating, non sequitur experiences which yesterday took me on a journey from Norway's tallest structures to the Five Pure Lights followed by a brisk dip in the cosmic flow of the Mindstream.

To blow your own mind wide open:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Imeem's Shot in the Dark Advertising

When I logged into Imeem this morning to add music to my 'Relaxin' Vibrations' mix and pulled up the lite '70s classic 'Sweet City Woman' from Canadian rock trio the Stampeders (currently playing for the dual purposes of your enjoyment and illustrating the irony of this juxtaposition), I was a little surprised at the agro advertising that interrupted my early-morning mellow not only with its image, but a recorded vocal track saying something to the effect of hey man, you into goth?

I'm not sure if this is what GothScene signed on for exactly, because it sure seems like a shot in the dark and Imeem could probably do better to psychographically target the ads they serve based on the music. This ad might be a little more appropriate along side a Mars Volta track, for example.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One Bad Friday, Twice a Victim of Mistaken Identity

Friday was a weird day. Of let's say four major transitions in my life at the moment, two errupted into chaos late on Friday afternoon and sent my pre-weekend buzz into the toilet.

First, and most gravely, I'd been expecting to close on a house next Friday. Yesterday my loan officer calls after days of radio silence, during which I had to prod her for information just to make sure things were going smoothly, to tell me that my loan approval is in jeopardy because the FHA thinks the place I'm buying is in a another building with a similar name. I assure that it is not the building in question, where several FHA loan applications have been deemed too risky, but another building a short distance away (hence the similar names). Oh, yeah. Well, now we've got to convince a federal agency of the difference in time to save this deal and its 4:45pm on Friday, so we're pretty much screwed until Monday. When discussing it later on, my father in law advised me to be careful that this isn't one of those obscure tricks that mortage people, car mechanics and others with esoteric knowledge use to fleece the layman out of more money. I'm leery, but hopeful.

Second, I'm applying to an evening program at Penn and just got my application finalized yesterday. No sooner had I gotten off the phone with my Loan Officer than the admissions office calls with a problem concerning my college transcript. Apparently I only earned an Associates Degree and that will be a problem. I assure them that I did indeed get a Bachelor's and that they can call Dartmouth if they need to verify this. For more background, I let them know that for reasons of tradition, Dartmouth lists their Bachelors' degrees as AB (artium baccalaureus) rather than BA and that this might be the source of confusion. Looking at a list of Associates Degrees now I can how this might happen and want to put the word up to anyone in the Registrar's Office at Dartmouth if they read this to be prepared for this kind of confusion. Just when I started to get testy, and thought of reminding her that Dartmouth doesn't even grant Associated Degrees, I stopped and tried to claw back some good will by being polite, because even though I'm right, they could still reject me for being an asshole.

But all in all, ARGH! What a one-two sucker punch to drown the weekend with doubt.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Traffic Reports Are Bull Shit

In the days since I've dismissed my driver Jenkins and resumed schlepping my own ass back and forth to work, I'm listening to tons of NPR and all the Cokie Roberts' and Robert Siegles' with their voices sounding like rich drinks and dark, grained wood and generally feeling edified about things distant and abstract like Ugandan subsistence farmers' struggle (yes, it's unified) against weeds.

A fact about NPR is that no matter where you are, in the morning and in the evening they assume their listeners are either in the car or about to be, so they interrupt the broadcast every 15 minutes or so with the 'Shadow Traffic Report,' which is strangely at home amongst the other abstract news they consider important on NPR, because it's depressing and unavoidable and you can't do a damned thing about it.

And that's how I started to question the whole enterprise of the Traffic Report. What good is it doing? Clearly it's not making traffic any better, because every morning and evening it's more or less the same, though inevitably, imperceptibly, creepingly worse than the day before. Traffic is just one of those horrid snowballs of a problem that is certain to eat the world if given enough time. I saw a glimmer of hope in the economic meltdown, when suddenly public transit got crowded, but then the bottom dropped out of oil, cash for clunkers came along and we're back in the business of mushrooming motor cars covering the globe.

But back to the question, why does NPR persist with this enumeration of life's suckier side? Is it because there's some naive hope held that we might change our behavior based on the Traffic Report? Like, well, dang, WHYY says the traffic's bad, I guess I'll go another way to keep things from getting worse. I'm like 95% rational, and that's not how I work.

So it must be that they, or we, humanity man, gets some pleasure or comfort from knowing that everyone's in this shit together. Well, eastbound Schuylkill's jammed at the curve and crawling, but at least we don't have it as bad as those suckers on 276 West where a four-car fatality has emergency response vehicles on the scene and all four lanes closed. Sucks to be them. Hey! I have it pretty good!

And they don't neglect to rub it in by having no sponsorship scruples and reminding the screwed lot of us that 'today's traffic report is brought to you by Preparation H' or, indirectly, the collective hemorrhoids that are just one of the many collateral problems we can look forward to after too much time in traffic. What a neat little package.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Road Trip: Bringing the Ill to Philly

It was coolish, clear and bright in Southeastern Pennsylvania when we woke up and drove the remaining 70 miles of our Road Trip into Philadelphia to deliver me to my destination and btw, spend Independence Day, in the experienced old city where it all went down over 200 years ago.

I've taken all kinds of approaches to the 4th of July, but generally skewing away from any challenging pursuit in favor of drinking and relaxing. As I've got older, fireworks even, have taken a back seat to the aforementioned lack of effort. Really, what better way to commemorate the legendarily dire struggle of our ill-equipped forefathers, facing the longest of odds against the world's greatest army, for the dream of a freedom we now take for granted, than barely lifting a finger?

But then we were in Philadelphia and I thought, well, this is an opportunity for a new, high-minded kind of Fourth of July. And we went for it and 'did our thing out front,' per the advice of living-in-the-moment master Ken Kesey. The result was a steaming-rich slice of Americana you can't get outside the 215.

Being that we needed our beauty rest and we're late to rouse after a large day of driving on the 3rd, we didn't get into Philadelphia until around lunch time, which was fine because the day's first priority was cheesesteaks and the first decision was Pat's or Geno's?

We weren't alone in this determination and found ourselves in a busy Italian Market neighborhood with both Pat's and Geno's sporting horrendous, multi-corner lines. Some clown from a local radio station was broadcasting Pointer Sister's tunes at ear-wrecking volumes in front of Geno's, so we retreated to Pat's and braved the line. 15 minutes later, we were mowing down steaks 'whiz wit,' spicy cherry peppers, fries and cokes. Satisfying. Delicious.

And perfect brain food for the introspective afternoon that followed, where we found our way north and east up to Independence Mall to soak up some meaningful history. We'd missed the parade (probably a good thing) but there was still plenty of historically-themed stuff going down around Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center, which offers a pleasant and educational stroll through an air-conditioned glass corridor with more than you could ever want to know about the Bell.

We did the tour, marveled at this Bell which has achieved more as an inanimate object than most of us could ever hope to, including serving as an inspiration to nascent democracy around the world, and then posed with this awesome Colonial American to capture the moment.

By this time our feet and brains were aching, and I had a lump in my throat from all the nostalgia being a lot to handle and making me feel sad and guilty for the comparatively little that I've sacrificed for this country besides tax money. My grandfathers both answered the proverbial call of duty and spent their lives battling America's foreign enemies. What proxy in my modern life is there for this kind of sacrifice? I thought about it for a second and remembered the call to arms of late is simple: consume, for the benefit of America, consume. And away we went to the bar at Jones, where the 4th of July as I know it officially began. I started to cheer up as we drank American beers from local brewers like Victory, Yards and Yuengling and watched the Phillies stick it to the Mets on tv.

From there the only thing we could do was eat and drink some more to kill the time until the free Sheryl Crow concert and fire works at the Art Museum at 10. So we decided to take advantage of Philadelphia's fantastic BYOB tradition and drop in on the Jamaican Jerk Hut where ridiculous island-style decorations and a reggae band stand liven up an empty lot next to the restaurant with rastamon vibrations. The chicken's ayrie and so is showing up with your own bottle of Mount Gay and ordering cups of juice alongside dinner.
Them belly's full, we joined the throng in the streets headed for the Art Museum and caught the tail end of Sheryl Crow's free set culminating in an encore, which I called, of 'All I Wanna Do.' But then she tacked on a second song in the encore and wrapped up her show with a Zeppelin cover, 'Rock 'N Roll,' which, alright, I dig it, but shouldn't any musician prefer to close with their own material? Or was Crow really saving the best for last?

After fireworks the crowd of probably 250,000 (since I'm really good at estimating large crowds in the dark you can trust that stat) dissipated back into the City and we along with them headed to South street to close out the night with yet another Philadelphia tradition, 'the special,' at Bob and Barbara's. The Special, at any Philly bar that honors this savvy order, is an ice-cold can of PBR accompanied by a shot of Jim Beam, and at $2.50 per Special at Bob and Barbara's it's an economic way to get your drink on.

There we spent the rest of the night, jamming on with the house band and their slippery smooth instrumental grooves on old '70s hits from Stevie Wonder and Al Green to the Chi-Lites. God Bless America.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Magistrates! Make this Work

It's good to know that in this slick, overly-produced and auto-tuned world (but shit, I still love you T-Pain) there's an audience for simple, raw rock and roll. Which is why I can't stop listening to the Magistrates, and this tune in particular, 'Make this Work.' Don't say I never gave you nothing. Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Road Trip: Country Roads, Mountain Mama

It was hot and sticky in Nashville as the power of Big Mo's sloppy burger and fries crept from my belly, into my blood and then spiked joyfully in my brain. High on a flood of sweet, sweet dopamine it was time again to hit the road. So I gassed up the hog, handed the map to Blake, donned my road fadora and put the rubber to the road pointed East on I-40.

With 800 some miles to go until Philadelphia, the route of the day was a northeasterly winding cruise along the spine of the Appalachians. There is some beautiful country between eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, with rolling hills, lush forests and the bucolicly hazy vistas of the Smoky Mountains which that certain, fuzzy gold light in the late afternoons that you don't get elsewhere. Throw in picturesque red-barn farms and the murky presense of colonial and Civil War vibes and it begins to feel like the mythical America of history books that you suspected never really existed. I put it up there with the Rockies, rugged spots of the Pacific Coast, and Northern New England in the fall, in my list of favorite American landscapes.

One thing you'll learn is that, like Colorado, there's a lot of Tennessee east of it's major city. So the journey to Bristol at the Virginia border is more of a slog than the map foretells. To break things up, we stopped in Knoxville to visit Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee. (Blake and I both being rabid college football fans, we made every effort to visit the the football shrines we passed on our journey and worshipped in person at the stadiums of the Boise State Broncos, Wyoming Cowboys, Tennessee Volunteers and Virigina Tech Hokies.)

Of all of these, Neyland was probably the biggest in our minds before the visit, but failed most spectacularly in living up to the hype. Admittedly, we didn't get inside, so I can't say what it's really like on game day, but the impression from outside is underwhelming as the stadium is buried within a fortress-like complex of other campus buildings as well as being hidden under a rector-set of scaffolding doing some kind of external repair work. Rather than imposing sports edifice, Neyland from the outside looks more like the Coney Island Cyclone. Which, like, is about as intimidating as a corndog.

So disappointed with that side show, I was a little skeptical when, hours later, we made an extensive (10 mile one way) sojourn off I-81 into Blacksburg, Virginia. The sports complex at VA Tech was more of a pro-style affair, but isolated by several miles from the campus. So they lose points there.

Fortunately, we had a secondary motivation for visiting Blacksburg. It was dinner time and in the pursuit of eating, Blacksburg exceeded expectations - namely in the barbecue department. You must forgive the Log Cabin BBQ for its completely contradictory tenancy in a strip mall because the dry-rub barbecue is simply that good.

I quizzed the girl at the counter on the state of the economy, and she insisted that, surprising to her, the barbecue segment was still holding strong. Then she loaded up the half-rack plate I ordered with a full-rack of ribs and I became a believer. This was literally the most meat I've ever seen on a rack of ribs, and it was moist and fall-off-the-bone tender. There were 8 choices of delicious home made barbecue sauces that made each bite an agonizingly difficult but rewarding choice. Sides of cole slaw, baked beans and Blake's mac 'n cheese also satisfied in the extreme.

Between Virginia and Pennsylvania, the eastern flange of West Virginia delicately spoons the western flange of Maryland in a symbiotic ying yang of mid-Atlantic statehood. This strange area comprises all of twenty-five miles of freeway and brings the outsized roadtrip joy of three-border crossings in little more than half an hour. It may seem a small achievement, but after enduring the West, where state crossings down give themselves up easily, this felt awesome.

We were racing to join an ongoing party in Lancaster, Pa. where the Special Lady was holding court. Being that we had heroic visions of reinvigorating the party, and because I remembered Pennsylvania's got the bluest liquor laws, we commenced the festivities in Winchester, Virginia with a couple of Dunkin' Donuts coffees for immediate consumption and our first sixpack of Back East's Best Beer - Yuengling - because you don't show up to a party empty-handed under any circumstance.

The only hiccup was a second encounter with the fuzz in West Virginia. I should have expected one of the two flanges to be a speed trap, but dammit, the barbecue made me careless and the next thing I knew there were the flashers in my rearview again. This time, and not to betray my preconceptions about West Virgina cops, he was cool and understanding. Agreeing that it looked like we were moving across country and late to the party, he let us go with a warning. Thanks dude!

We entered Pennsylvania near Gettsyburg in the deep darkness, and jammed on east on the Turnpike into Lancaster, arriving a little after 1am. Though we held out hope for the hero's welcome at the party, we arrived to a quiet house where the Special Lady was keeping watch and welcomed us with a fresh-baked cherry pie.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Cowboy Poet's Weather Alert

There must be a real cowboy poet working at the National Weather Service in Idaho considering the lonesome, introspective flourish of this recent 'Local Weather Alert' for Boise:

The recent reappearance of El Nino... And the often-discussed topic of climate change... May prompt the question... Why are we having this storm? Scientifically... This particular storm cannot be tied to any one process. For most of this warm season... Up until about three weeks ago...The Northwest United States was in a persistent pattern of below normal temperatures and above normal rainfall. This storm signals a return to that pattern. It appears likely that this pattern will dominate the summer of 2009. This is not to say we will not have another hot spell... But overall this summer will end up being relatively cool and wet for most folks in our part of the country.

Not only is our man reporting on the strangeness of observable weather conditions, he's tying it all back to larger concerns like man's vain attempt to classify and make meaning of the events surrounding us. Ultimately he asks, why it is; only to conclude that the feeble scientific tools at our disposal may never be up to the task of unraveling the mysteries of the world, like El Nino and the dread spectre of global warming. And we are left with our strange weather, our faith, and the familiar feeling that we may all be little more than victims of a world we can't control.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Road Trip: Nashville Nights with Lady Antebellum

I suppose it's only right to give Illinois and Kentucky their due, we did drive through these states en route to Nashville. However, I feel more compelled to break with the naming convention of previous entries (which dryly recited the states encountered on a given day) to focus on the meaty parts of the experience starting and ending with Nashville, Tennessee where tough dudes like me and my boys like to straight chill.

We met up with my brother Pete around lunchtime and convinced him to call it a day at the office and went straight to drinks and cajun food a
t the Mojo Grille in Midtown. From there ambition trickled off into a mighty relaxing afternoon at Pete's pad with his roommate, a bongo circle with all the trappings, fireworks and a Southern grill featuring pork chops, more wine than you could shake a stick at and finished off ever so perfectly with homemade peach cobbler. (Word, Katrina.)

Around, 10:30, just when it looked like red wine had sapped our motivation for good, a second wind arrived and the group somehow managed to pile into a cab bound for the Honky Tonks on Broadway.

This is another world as far as I'm concerned. One block of pure neon and rhinestone where every bar (at least on a Thursday night) features a
skilled but nameless country band singing Keith Urban cover tunes to a positive legion of mostly female fans in varying states of undress and drunk signing along to every single word. In other words, it's overwhelming and irresistible. If you bring someone here and they can't get manage to have a good time, you have cause to be deeply suspicious of either their motives or their authenticity.

So there we were witnessing crisp line dancing and quaffing pobre-chic beer like Old Style from patriotic metal cans. Life was good and things were g
etting groovier by the minute, as we worked up the line from The Stage to Tootsie's, where a curious thing happened.

Now, I'm not a disciple of country music. I enjoy it on occasion and even follow a limited range of artists, but am generally vegetarian when it comes to the rare, bleeding meat of the movement. So it came as some surprise to me when a woman at Tootsie's accused me of being 'that guy from Lady Antebellum.' This was literally the first I'd heard of such nonsense, but my accuser would not be convinced otherwise and even after I showed her my driver's license persisted with the idea that I was a famous country musician on the DL and playing coy.

'That guy from Lady Antebellum' is Charles Kelley, convincingly photoshopped in with me and Blake for comparison, and I appreciate that the sweet beards we both rock may evoke a similarity, but I'm still not totally seeing it. He may have the twangy pipes and million dollar record deals, but I'm way better looking and more fun at a party too.

My brush with a celebrity death crush was enough to convince the group that we'd better get away from the CMA celebrity-obssessed Fatal Attraction types that frequent the Honky Tonks and retire to the more laid-back environs of Midtown, more Old Style and a competitive shuffleboard table.

By 3am we were back at Pete's where we slept through breakfast and roused just before noon and took our wrecked bodies over to Fat Mo's for excellent, grease-bomb burger nourishment - heavy fuel for another day on the road.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Road Trip: Kansas and Missouri

But before we got to this happy scene depicted above, 500 miles of I-70, stretching in a mind-numbingly straight-assed line across Eastern Kansas and all of Missouri, remained to be conquered! And this was an "easy day" of the road trip.

Sweet Jesus, I thought as I rubbed the dust out of my eyes at the Best Western in Hays, Kansas at 6am. Why do I do this to myself? (Short answer here, because this is complicated and deserves deeper exploration at a later date, I must hate myself, or love to hate myself, rather.)

The free breakfast at the BW was betrayed by its price way before visual inspection commenced at 6:15am. Despite such low expectations, I was still disappointed by the spread of anemic fruit in light corn syrup, assorted single-serving Kellogg products, DIY batter-burning (or 'waffle') station, and de rigeur sweat-flavored instant coffee. Being generally tetchy , I opted for an orange juice and a cup of Activia, figuring a healthy dose of bifidus regularis might be a good counter-measure to the typically constipating force of road trip cuisine.

By 6:30am we were rolling again, edging up over 80 and settling into the familiar groove of the day before.

By 6:32am, I was stopped on the shoulder with the state of Kansas' finest processing my license and registration.

You see, the western speed limits of 75mph dip down to 70mph in Kansas for no
obvious reason other than that Kansas may be hurting for revenue and the largest touch point they have with the broader GDP is I-70 itself. The traffic stream is the revenue stream. This particular cop was so eager to get his quota filled that he whipped across the grass-ditch median from the west-bound lane in a daring, Dukes of Hazzard high-speed U-turn, and nabbed me going east after a mile and half slow-speed chase. Allegedly, I was doing 81 mph and was handed a $128 ticket.

In my relatively light criminal experience, there are few things as chastenin
g as a speeding ticket, especially since it had been almost 5 years since I'd gotten one and in the interest of my insurance payments I wanted to keep it that way. So, I took the rest of Kansas like an 80-year old Sunday driver and counted no-less than a dozen more patrol cars either in the act of issuing tickets or waiting to pounce.

The sight of Kansas City, springing up on the opposite shore of the Missouri River was a welcome, as we'd find considerably less police presence in Missouri and were able to make good time crossing the state.

We stopped somewhere in the nameless middle of the state for my first taste of Sonic, so effectively advertised on the West Coast yet, sadly, few and far between. Since Sonics lack restrooms (part of the cost-minimizing business plan that let's them focus on high-concept food ideals like chili-cheese maximization), we had to retire to the McDonald's across the street and order kiddie-cones as a justification for using the john. After that we bought fireworks at one of the ubiquitious, road-side 'Pyro City' stands and were safely in St. Louis by 3pm, where we indulged in much-needed naps at Blake's friend Katie's house.

Katie roused as around 5:3o with pizza, salad and the peculiarly delicious St. Louis tradition of deep-fried ravioli. After that we drank Budweiser products (what else?) outside of Busch Stadium before going in and watching a pitching duel between the Cardinals and Giants from excellent seats along the 3rd base line courtesy of Katie's family. (Thanks Again!)

After the game we followed everyone in St. Louis out to the burbs for a little frozen custard at the world-famous Ted Drewes. At Ted Drewes it doesn't matter what you do, because you will be sucked in by the undertow of St. Louisians' surging around the place, and then serviced so quickly by the horde of teenagers in yellow t-shirts working behind the bar that you don't really remember deciding on something, let alone ordering. But it doesn't matter, you'll come out happy with something called 'concrete' that is thick enough to be served to you upside-down and resembles the high-minded, pure-bred precedesor of the Dairy Queen Blizzard (sort of the ice cream Athens to our United States, if you swap in the evolution of democracy as a allegorical trope).

Bellies full on brats, beer and frozen custard, and comfortable in the hospitality of St. Louis, we slept soundly on the second night of our journey with visions of Nashville dancing in our heads.