Sunday, August 31, 2003

Why we get wine from New Zealand.

And not art.

Tyler Hamilton out for season.

Sad news about Tyler Hamilton. He's gotten a hairline fracture on his hip bone and will be out for the rest of the year. He's had tough luck with broken bones over the years. This year, he broke his collarbone on the first stage of the Tour de France but continued on, finishing fourth.

Hope he recovers well for next year.

And in the darkness bind them - to their seats.

Mark December 16 on your calendars, Lord of the Rings buffs. You'll be able to spend all day in the theater, watching the LOTR movies back-to-back-to-back. And the first two movies will be prints of the extended versions, previously found only on the DVDs. Fellowship of the Ring was 208 minutes, The Two Towers will be 214 minutes when it's released on DVD in November, and The Return of the King will be over 3 hours in its regular release (opening Dec. 17, or for this special showing, starting at 11 pm on Dec. 16).

I think it's good that the extended versions are getting a theatrical release, and I think it's a good marketing strategy to get the films back in the theaters (FOTR starts on Dec. 5, Two Towers on Dec. 12) to rev up people's interest in the film trilogy. (I might have released them with more than one week between the episodes, but that's a minor quibble.)

But 10+ hours of Lord of the Rings in 11 hours (the distributor's guidelines tell theater owners to start FOTR at 3 pm, TTT at 7 pm, and ROTK at 11 pm, ending around 2 am) strikes me as a bit too much of a good thing. I'm sure it'll make for good local TV coverage, with shots of people in costume in line, waiting for the marathon to begin.

And I'm sure that when the ROTK extended-version DVD finally comes out (I'm guessing Nov. 2004 - after the next presidential election, when we'll all want to escape to a fantasy land), I'll have my own, in-home Lord of the Rings marathon. But it will probably be a Friday-Saturday-Sunday, one movie per day, event.

Star Wars aside # 1: When Star Wars Episode 2 came out a year ago, I saw it on its first day of release (of course). I went to the second showing of the day at the sole theater in Durham showing the movie, and was disappointed that no one at either showing was in costume, and that near as I could tell, I was the only person even wearing a Star Wars T-shirt. Such a long way from people camping out to see Episode 1.

Star Wars aside # 2: Okay, I confess: I've been to a back-to-back-to-back marathon of the classic Star Wars movies. Mid-80's, as I recall, at the AFI theater at the Kennedy Center. It was great fun, but it made for a very long day - and it was only about 7 hours of movie to sit through. That'll be about the equivalent of only the first two movies of the Lord of the Rings cycle.

And one final aside: Can you imagine a back-to-back-to-back showing of the Matrix movies? Perhaps the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment comes into play here.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

No corkscrew needed.

The NY Times has an article about the coming new thing with wine: wine in a box. Or, as the article takes great pains to make clear, wine in a bag in a box. (The bag is air-tight, and contracts as wine is drawn off, so the remaining wine is never exposed to air and thus doesn't oxidize.) They claim that 20% of all wine consumed in this country comes from a box, and a third of all wine in Norway and a half of all wine in Australia. Can't prove it by me: all the wine consumed in my house comes from bottles, and to the best of my knowledge, all the wine I consume at restaurants does too.

The article says that the wine in a box concept grew as a replacement for jug wines in the 80's, and that they expect that consumers will appreciate the concept as they realize that wine is more important than the packaging. As proof of this, they point to the success of a silver-medal winning chardonnay now being packaged in 5-liter boxes for $25 (that works out to about $3.75 per normal 750-ml bottle), as a step up from Gallo's Delicious Red, which is 5 liters for $9.

Yeah, I don't think so. Maybe it'll work for the current equivalent of jug wines, or things like that Delicious Red (described on the website as "grape wine and natural flavors", a red wine best served chilled, and - I think - with 3.5% residual sugar, which to me is pretty sweet for a white wine and death in a red wine). But not for real wine.

Old cat, new tricks.

I suppose Mia isn't all that old, although she'll turn 11 at the beginning of October. She continually learns new tricks, though. I just wish they were tricks that I taught her, instead of ones she thinks up on her own to torment me.

Normally, she's a good sleeper. An excellent sleeper. At night, she sleeps at the end of the bed, and not only doesn't stir when I get up, she sometimes will sleep in until 10 or 11 before deciding that it's time to get up and eat. Last week, she learned a new behavior: she wakes me up fairly early and demands that I feed her. And she doesn't just jump up and yowl at me - she's more subtle than that. She sits close to me and tickles my shoulder with her whiskers. Or she walks around the bed, and carefully steps on my hair, making sure to pull it enough to wake me. Very passive-aggressive of her. "Oh, no. I didn't wake you. But since you're up anyway, why don't you take this opportunity to feed me?" Once she dines, she goes back to sleep, of course. But I can't, so I get to see what 6:30 looks like.

On the other hand, she seems to be fairly brave, at least during thunderstorms. Last night and again this evening, we've had huge, violent thunderstorms nearby. The kinds of storms where the thunder arrives no more than a quarter-second behind the lightning, which itself was bright enough to light up my bedroom at 2 a.m., where the thunder sounds like an artillery brigade on the street behind me, and the rain is coming down so hard that I cannot see the house across the street from me. Sabrina, my previous cat, would bolt at the first, faraway sound of thunder, and hide shivering under a bed until the storm had passed. But the storms don't faze Mia in the least. She happily sleeps through the thunder, and wakes only when I pet her to comfort her. She glares at me that I should go back to sleep, the better to be rested and ready to feed her every three hours the next day. I don't think she's hard of hearing, although she certainly pulls that particular trick if I try to call her. But since she can hear the opening of a refrigerator from the opposite side of the house, or the click and opening of a can of cat food while asleep on another floor, I'm discounting the possibility.

Always interesting to see what she'll do next. I just hope that her next trick allows me to sleep relatively uninterrupted at night. Well, I can always hope.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Gimmick du jour.

Interesting new gadget from MetaCork: a wine bottle closure that is a combination cork and screwtop, without exactly doing away with the drawbacks of either.

You twist off the solid plastic capsule on top of the wine, and when you do, it pulls the cork - attached to the plastic capsule - out of the bottle. You can then take the capsule apart, and the sleeve can go back onto the bottle as a drip-protector. You're left with the cork, which is screwed onto a plastic lid, and a screw-top. If you want to reseal the bottle, you can use either the cork or the screw-top.

So you have some of the convenience of a screw-top enclosure (you don't need a corkscrew to open the wine, and you can close the bottle with the screw-top) and some of the romance of a cork (Look! It's a cork!). But you still have the potential for cork taint. Oh, and it's more expensive for the winery than either a cork enclosure or a screw-top. Enclosure.

I'm betting I don't ever see one of these in the flesh.

California dreaming, again.

I knew it was too good to last. The fun is starting to die off in the California recall race. Yes, you can still get fun bumper stickers. But, even so. Gary Coleman wants to be taken seriously, although luckily no one is. People are looking at polls and parties are trying to consolidate their candidates.

You know who would have been the ideal candidate for this recall election? Pat Paulsen. I'm sure he would have loved the circus atmosphere, and would have reveled in the utter absurdity of it all. Lord knows he'd have been a better candidate than most of those on the ballot. And he's a member of the Norwegian-American Hall of Fame. Let's see Arnold touch that!

Red wine, greenlight.

Great news about red wine: one of the natural substances found in red wine, reseveratrol, may activate a survival reflex in humans, and act as a fountain of youth. It apparently mimics the life-extending effect that reduced-calorie-intake diets have. (Added bonus: it makes your cells more resistant to radiation blasts, in the event of nuclear attack.) It's found in the skins of grapes for both red and white wine, but is more concentrated in red wines because of the extended contact that reds have in the manufacturing process. Different wines have different levels of reseveratrol: pinot noir has a higher level than cabernet sauvignon, and wines made in regions that are cooler or have more stress on the vines (they cite New York or Burgundy) have higher concentrations than wines made in hot, dry climates (like California or Australia).

Great! A reason to drink pinot noirs! And to celebrate, tonight I'm having a 2001 Twin Islands Pinot Noir, from the Marlborough region of New Zealand.

The Wine Wars.

Robert Bork vs. Ken Starr! What more could you ask for? They're on opposite sides in the continuing controversy over direct interstate distribution of alcohol. Starr says that the interstate commerce clause should prevail, mandating free interstate trade; Bork says that the specific language of the 21st Amendment should prevail, which grants states the right to control the importation of alcoholic beverages.

I hope that Starr's side wins: I really despise the current three-tier system of trade - wineries and breweries have to sell to distributors who have to sell to retailers - and if no distributor wants to purchase and resell wines from, say, the Mount Palomar Winery, then I'm out of luck, as I can't have it delivered directly to me or go even have a local wine shop order some for me. On the other hand, alas, I think the better legal argument is that the 21st Amendment, being specific and later-adopted, prevails over the earlier, general provision of the Commerce Clause.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Lessons learned from mowing the yard.

This year's odd weather - all the rain, no excessively hot stretches - has not only made for an unusual summer, but for good conditions for having the lawn grow. And that, of course, leads to spending a lot of time mowing the lawn. My yard is big enough that it takes about 3 hours to mow it all, and I've had to mow it about every week through the end of June and every week and a half since. Huge difference from last year, when my yard was mowed once during the last six months of the year.

So that's been a lot of time trudging along behind the lawn mower; a lot of time to think. A lot of time to reach some conclusions:

Mowing the back yard isn't as important as mowing the front yard. Keeping the front yard relatively neat makes the neighbors content, but virturally no one sees the back yard, so it has less impact on my neighbors. Mowing the back yard two-thirds as often as the front yard, or even every other time I mow the front yard, works out pretty well. Mowing the back yard every third time I mow the front doesn't work out quite so well: the grass (and weeks) grow sufficiently high that it takes a lot longer to get through it all. Back to every-other-time-I-do-the-front-yard, I guess.

I should have gotten the riding mower, like the previous owner had. With the self-propelled mower that I do have, I can do either the front yard and maybe 10 percent of the back yard or the rest of the back yard before my patience and energy run out. With a riding mower, I could probably do the whole yard in the time it now takes me to do half the yard. Plus, it'd be cool.

On the other hand, mowing the lawn as often as I do makes it so I get to know the neighborhood wildlife a bit better. I've mentioned the neighborhood bunny rabbit a couple of times; there are also squirrels, chipmunks, and the occasional possum. So today, I was out doing the back yard, cutting down the last of the foot-high grass and weeds. I noticed that the mower seemed to throw a stick out sideways (as it sometimes does). Oddly, though, this stick didn't go in a straight line: it went in sinuous curves, and stopped about two feet away from me. Oh, wait a sec. That's not a stick looking up at me. It's a SNAKE! I simultaneously shoved the mower forward a yard and leaped backwards two, happily noting that the mower's automatic cutoff switch does, in fact, work, not that I was mowing uphill at the time. We stared at each other for a moment, as my breathing and heartbeat came back to normal. He stayed still, hoping that if I thought he really was just a stick, I'd leave him alone. I decided on a policy of live-and-let-live. Well, live-and-let-live-in-somebody-else's-yard, to be precise. So I stomped my foot in his general direction, and he hightailed it (presuming that's an appropriate action for a snake) to the fence. And that led to yet another conclusion: Cut the grass before it gets tall enough for snakes to hide in.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

My new motto.

Clamo, clamatis, omnes clamamus pro glace lactis.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Wine festival.

Went to a wine festival over the weekend, the 28th (!) annual Virginia Winegrowers festival. Over 50 wineries present, lots and lots of people. And the weather was extremely cooperative for the middle of August: neither torrential rains nor over-100-degree temperatures.

I go to festivals like this one to try new wines from familiar wineries and wines from new vineyards, and to enjoy the wines I'm having, but not to seriously taste the wines I'm trying. The middle of a field, ninety degrees, and too many people smoking cigars nearby all work against serious evaluations. With those caveats, then, I came up with some observations:

Wineries that make good wines continued to show their quality at the festival. Among them: Barboursville, Cardinal Point, Am Rhein, Wintergreen, Burnley, Breaux, and Villa Appalaccia. I was especially pleased by Cardinal Point (open only since May) and Am Rhein (relatively new to me, and willing to take risks to experiment: bottling a 100% petit verdot, for instance).

Those wineries that haven't done such a good job continue to do poorly. One such winery is trying to sell off its back stock of a chardonnay by offering it at $6 per bottle and calling it "Six Buck Chuck". You should get that wine only if they're paying you the six bucks, and you can quickly discard the unopened bottle. There's a good reason why so much of this wine was in unsold stock, and it's not that it was too expensive. (It was yummy, if you like the taste of freshly-sharpened pencils.)

And on a reasonably-warm August afternoon, a good chilled white wine is wonderful. (Unless, of course, it's "Six Buck Chuck".)

Thursday, August 14, 2003

California recall election.

I promise. I'm not going to have every other posting be about the California gubernatorial recall election. It'd be too easy for one reason, and will probably stop being funny pretty soon, for another. But we can still ridicule it while it's topical.

It would be easy enough to make fun of Larry Flynt, or porn star Mary Carey (whose campaign website has a video of her doing naked jumping jacks). Or the 100-year-old candidate. Or Donald Novello, famous for playing Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live, or Leo Gallagher, famous for smashing watermelons and not using his first name, or Gary Coleman, famous for, I don't know, being short, I suppose. (I said it would be easy.)

But let's take the high road, the one Gary can't reach. (Easy, I say.) Let's just make fun of ... ah, examine closely ... some of the less well-known candidates.

So here's one for you: Trek Thunder Kelly. Trek, to his friends. A 33-year-old artist, who shows his dedication by wearing only blue. Not entirely clear what that dedication is to, but he certainly shows it. His "Know Your Candidate" page has flying tacos on it, perhaps because "I eat only tacos and steak. I drink only water, salsa, and Cran-grape juice. I love traveling in politically unstable countries; I sleep with socks on my hands." Sounds eminently qualified to me.

And then there's Nathan Whitecloud Walton, whose sole claim to fame is that he's Bill Walton's son. He is mentioned on his father's website, but doesn't have a site of his own. He's also planning to attend graduate school at Stanford this fall, and I guess he thinks that being governor wouldn't take much time away from his studies.

Oh, and if you were wondering: Yes, someone is already selling "Recall Arnold" bumperstickers.


Update: Alas, Don Novello - a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci - didn't make it onto the ballot after all. What a disappointment that must be to California voters.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Who are you really, and what were you before?

Casablanca. With a commentary track by Roger Ebert. A new DVD release; one that I'll have to add to my small-but-growing DVD collection. Yes, I already have a DVD version of Casablanca (I'm enough of a traditionalist that it was the first DVD I bought), but it'll be worth it to hear Roger's commentary.

On the other hand, there's a report that J.Lo and Ben Affleck will do a remake of Casablanca. One can only hope that their recent success with Gigli will stop that particular train wreck before it starts.

Monkey Shakespeare Simulator.

Just what I needed: a new time-wasting site. This one purports to be a simulator of monkeys typing Shakespeare, luckily in an accelerated format. And it'll keep going in the background, so you can have it busily typing away while you're working on your resume, or whatever.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Herb Brooks.

Sad story this afternoon, Herb Brooks - best known for coaching the 1980 Olympic hockey team to a gold medal - died in a car accident today.

In a bizarre coincidence, HBO has a one-hour special on this evening on the 1980 Olympic hockey team. A rebroadcast of the 2001 special, and scheduled for only this one showing this month.

Redlight, Greenlight.

One of this summer's guilty pleasures has been watching the HBO reality series, "Project Greenlight." This year's independent-movie-making contest picked separate winners for the script and the director. Or, as it turned out, co-directors. And to create some artificial drama, the screenwriter stayed around to have input on the directors' choices and changes. (Okay, officially the writer was around to make verbal some of the directors' thought processes. But it was really to inject some conflict.) And some of the other time constraints seemed artificially tight, to create additional tension and thus better TV.

When you get past the artificial pressures, though, you get a good look at the real-life problems in film-making: casting, finding locations, getting shots set up and filmed within the film-making day, getting the right material to be edited into a complete film, making sure the suits at the studio are happy with the final product so they'll market it. Great fun. I'll recommend it. Can't yet recommend the movie they're making; it'll be released in a couple of weeks. And, of course, no telling how widely it'll be released. But the original script is pretty good.

Astronomy photo of the day.

I've always been a sucker for astronomy photos. Here's a cool one: a time-lapse series showing the face of the moon as it goes through its monthly cycle. And there's an archive of photos at this photo-of-the-day site; great fun to browse through.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Don't drink the Kool-Aid.

Well, the trial of the summer is over. No, not Kobe. Ohio v. Donkers. You know, the woman who was arrested for breastfeeding while driving her car at 65 mph on the Ohio Turnpike, and whose husband claimed that according to their faith, he should be the one to stand trial because he is responsible for his wife's conduct and he's the only one allowed to punish her for her deeds. She was charged with child endangerment and a handful of lesser charges; sadly, he was not charged with being a lunatic.

Fascinating trial. Donkers ended up representing herself, as the public defender wouldn't use only the Bible as their defense, and her husband wasn't allowed to represent her. (Didn't stop him from calling out comments from the gallery of the courtroom, until the judge informed him that this wasn't The Jerry Springer Show.) She admitted to breastfeeding while cruising along at 68 mph, while simultaneously talking to her husband on the cell phone and writing down notes about another lawsuit they're involved in. And that she'd taken both hands off the wheel when she was moving the baby, while tooling down the highway. She had the car in cruise control; that makes it okay. And with all of this, she thinks she didn't behave recklessly. The court acquitted her on the child endangerment charge (he said that the State's case didn't show it, as the troopers saw only the child on her mother's lap, but no feeding -- and yet, she testified to the breastfeeding while driving while on the cell phone while taking notes), and found her guilty on the others: violating the child-restraint laws, driving without a valid driver's license, and fleeing from the police. Sentencing has been postponed pending further investigation of the defendant.

It's interesting that the husband has threatened to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court. Howso? Because he believes that the Supreme Court doesn't exist (at least the way the rest of us do - as established pursuant to Article III of the US Constitution). On one of his "voluntary tax" argument websites, he argues that the Article III Supreme Court has never been established.

What a bizarre little cult they belong to. In addition to the husband-is-responsible-for-the-wife strictures, other tenets of their faith that came out during the trial include a disregard for governmental licensing (they don't believe in, and thus don't have, driver's licenses, and they married themselves without benefit of a marriage license), and for governmental regulation (they don't believe in, and thus don't have, social security numbers). The cult believes you don't have to pay taxes, and you can become a "Sovereign in good standing" (what we mortals would call a "member") by sending them $100 every year - and you don't even have to leave your real faith to become a member.

This trial been immortalized in Dave Berry's blog.

Now, they've moved on to California. Arriving too late to register for the gubernatorial recall election, it appears. Too bad: they'd have made what looks to be an otherwise boring recall campaign interesting.

Friday, August 08, 2003

The good news about global warming.

Article in the NY Times today talks about the recent benefits of global warming, at least with regards to wine. Wineries in historically cool climates - Germany, Oregon, Champagne, mountainous regions in Italy - have seen warmer weather ripen their grapes better, so much so that areas that considered themselves lucky to get two good vintages out of ten saw nine good or great vintages during the 90's.

The winemakers will tell you that it wasn't just the weather; improved vineyard techniques account for some of the improvements. They'll also point out that the warmer seasons make it more difficult to make other wines, like eisweins.

Whatever the reason, we end up with bigger, riper, richer wines.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

WW I.

Best line I've heard today on the zoo that they call the California recall election:

"If it's Arnold against Arianna, it will be like fighting WWI all over again, with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire battling the Ottoman Empire."

It's the pits.

And speaking of people with too much time on their hands.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Gotta love California.

The state where anyone can become Governor. What a zoo. Arnold. Larry Flynt. Both Huffingtons. Gary Coleman. All running in the circus that is the recall election. Makes one proud to be from somewhere other than California.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Harry Potter, again.

I've just finished the latest Harry Potter book. Really very good. I've enjoyed the way the series has turned darker, that the themes mature as Harry does. I'll be intrigued to see how this book translates into a movie, and I hope that J.K. Rowling can continue to keep close control over the movies as they're produced.

Harvesting mushrooms.

Yes, it's that time again. To mow the frickin' yard. (Especially since the weather weenies are predicting thunderstorms everyday for the next week.) This time, the two weeks since the last mowing and all the rain have combined to give me lots and lots of mushrooms in the front yard. Oddly, though, they were all whole, which makes me wonder where the neighborhood bunny rabbit is? I saw it last week, gamboling in a neighbor's yard, so unless it's done so recently, it hasn't gone to bunny heaven. Perhaps it's just that there are mushrooms everywhere, so it doesn't need to come and chow down on mine.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Too much time on their hands. As it were.

There is a "World Rock Paper Scissors Society", complete with web page and an "Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide". Yes, official rules and all. A discussion of the philosophy of opening moves. ("Rock ... is seen ... to be a sign of aggression.") Gambits. Historical archives, with such tidbits as a photograph from the Potsdam conference, showing the differences in personality types of the three leaders: Churchill (scissors), Stalin (rock), and Truman (paper). Not surprisingly, you can buy T-shirts and stickers, if you're so inclined. More surprisingly, they're having what an International World Championship" at a bar that actually exists in Toronto (instead of someone's basement, as I'd have suspected).

More interesting, I think, is the report a couple of links away to a Rock-Paper-Scissors programming competition held in 1999 (and a second in 2001). The winning program was a lot more complex than the Tit-for-Tat programs that always win Prisoners' Dilemma competitions - this one was called "Iocaine Powder" (which should mean something to film buffs), and includes built-in second- and third-guessing of your opponent.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Vertical tasting at Burnley Vineyards.

Went to a vertical tasting of cabernet sauvignons at Burnley Vineyards yesterday. As usual, it was both fun and informative.

A vertical tasting is when you taste the same wine from the same vineyard over a number of different years. (Similarly, a horizontal tasting would be tasting the same wine from the same year from a number of different wineries.) This tasting had cabs from 1995 through 2001. The winemaker - Lee Reeder - pours the wines for you, and tells you something about that year's vintage that makes it different, and which you may be able to tell in the wine: whether the summer was hot and dry, or cool and wet, or when they changed to a heavier toast in the barrels the wine ages in, or when they changed to a better, more gentle wine press.

It's this focus on education, making sure you have a written description of the differences in each year's production and allowing you to study and savor one year's wine before going onto the next, that makes their vertical tasting so good. I've been to vertical tastings at a couple of other Virginia wineries, and they tended to be poured by people whose knowledge of the wine was limited to what was on the label ("This is the 1998."); not nearly as good an experience.