Monday, February 23, 2004

Hearts on the Vine International Wine Festival.

Interesting wine festival here in Richmond last weekend. Described as 150 wineries and 325 wines, from all over the world. A lot of California wineries - many were small Napa and Sonoma producers - but the Pacific northwest was represented, as were international producers: from France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand. It was a fund raiser for the American Heart Association, so it was a bit on the expensive side, but the majority of the wines you could taste were very good.

A couple of disappointments - there were some wineries that were present, but only barely. Cakebread Cellars was there, but represented only by their chardonnay, when I'd have loved to have seen some of their cabs. Kim Crawford wines were represented only by their unoaked chardonnay, which I certainly enjoy but I'd have expected to see at least their pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, as well.

My favorites: Barboursville's viognier, Smoking Loon's viognier, and Arrowwood's syrah.

The event was a lot of fun, and I hope that it was sufficiently successful that they'll do it again next year.

A better independent choice.

If you don't want to support either of the major parties' candidate for president, that's certainly your choice. But there's a much better option available than Nader.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Opinions are like noses; everybody has one.

Somehow, I got onto the NBC "opinion panel," which means they'll send me emails asking me to take a survey about something or another. I don't remember signing up for it, but it's the sort of thing I'd be willing to do, so it's probably just that it's been more than 3 or 4 months and I've forgotten about agreeing to do it.

So this morning, I receive the first survey, and it has to do with variety shows, mostly of the late-night type. How frequently have I seen Letterman's show, or Leno's, or Kilbourn's. What do I think of these potential qualities that a good host of a late-night show would have: friendly, warm, funny, sarcastic, multi-talented, former professional athlete, opinionated, short-tempered. (Short-tempered? Absolutely. I would surely watch Leno more often if only he were short-tempered.) Am I familiar with and what do I think of certain celebrities: Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller, Bob Costas, John McEnroe. And for that same list, how would I rate them as possible hosts of a late-night show: stupendous, wonderful, good, fair or poor?

That's when the survey turned ugly, because the survey really was about McEnroe. "We notice that you rated McEnroe fair/poor. Please tell us why." Because you didn't have a rating of "sucks dead skunks," so "poor" was as low as I could rate him. Because he's an obnoxious, whiny, crybaby jerk. Because I would actively boycott any advertiser who purchased commercial time on his show. And then the survey went on for another 4 or 5 screens of questions specifically about McEnroe: a 5-point scale on level of agreement - extremely agree to extremely disagree - on whether certain terms describe McEnroe well (e.g., funny, friendly, sarcastic, short-tempered, juvenile, gracious); a yes-no list of whether you recall McEnroe in certain roles (substitute host for Letterman, married to Tatum O'Neal, commentator for tennis matches, host for Saturday Night Live, and my favorite, professional tennis player a long time ago - sadly, they didn't ask about his stint as host of the reality/S&M TV show, "The Chair"); how often you'd watch a talk show for which McEnroe was the host (frequently, sometimes depending on what else was on, never).

If it were up to me, McEnroe would never get a TV show. And if he does? Well, that's why they invented cable - to have choices when crummy shows are on. And there are always books.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Can Every Flavour Beans be that far away?

In Great Britain, the makers of KitKat bars are considering new flavors. Among them: Curry-flavored KitKat bars. Okay, strictly speaking, "cumin and masala flavour," but you know what I mean. And they're thinking of lemon cheescake KitKats (currently for sale in Germany and Japan, possibly as a punishment for losing WW II), liquorice, saffron, and passion fruit flavors. The theory behind the exotic flavors is that the trend towards healthier lifestyles is causing people to eat fewer chocolate bars.

Elsewhere in Great Britain, other companies are selling chocolate flavored bottled water and egg-and-bacon-flavored ice cream.

Ah, fine British cuisine.

Welcoming the telegraph to the 21st Century.

For the first time in "at least several decades," a new symbol has been added to Morse Code. It's the "@" symbol, to be officially known as a "commat" and represented by the signals for "A" and "C" (dot-dash and dash-dot-dash-dot respectively) with no space between them.

And it's being done to allow ham radio operators to exchange email addresses more easily. (They use Morse Code to initiate conversations that end up taking place over the Internet.)

Back in my Boy Scout days, I knew Morse Code reasonably well, and even took part in a competition by wig-wag flags. And I'm happy to say that I've forgotten virtually all of that stuff.

Choreographed photo ops as a substitute for leadership.

Interesting column documenting the Bush campaign's penchant for providing resonant backdrops to campaign appearances, including (among others) repositioning a Coast Guard cutter that had drifted out of position and gathering thousands of soldiers and ordering them to cheer his arrival, instead of the traditional standing-at-attention during the playing of "Hail to the Chief." Of course, it was merely a coincidence that the planning for the trip to Ft. Polk to be photographed in front of the cheering soldiers started only a week earlier, after the latest flap over Bush's failure to show for his National Guard service started to heat up. And the White House press secretary is shocked! shocked! that anyone might think otherwise.

I'm John. I read.

Hi, John.

I read. A lot. I am compelled to read. Newspapers, magazines, books, web pages, backs of cereal boxes. I read 'em all. Can't go to sleep at night without reading at least a half-hour. Gotta read.

So it's no surprise that while I was making dinner last night, and waiting for things to bake or boil or something, I found myself reading a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing. The ingredients list, to be precise, as I was wondering what they thought constituted "herbs" and "seasoning" justifying the product name (as opposed to, for example, "Bag o' Bread Crumbs"). All sorts of bread ingredients, of course, and corn syrup and salt. Then you get to the magic line of delineation, "Contains 2% or less of:" More bread/grain ingredients, "spices," molasses and honey, nonfat milk and cultured buttermilk, and nothing I'd call "herbs" other than parsley. Vinegar. Onion powder. But the oddest mystery ingredient was - "raisin juice concentrate."

Raisin juice concentrate? What a concept! They crush raisins to free whatever miniscule moisture is present, and then reduce that to a more concentrated form? I bet it's expensive. And I bet you could make a great dessert wine from it.

Alas, no. "Raisin juice" is what you get when you soak raisins in water, and the resulting liquid is what gets concentrated. And it's used in bakery products as a natural preservative and mold retardant, and a natural coloring agent.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Talk about a little change in his diet ...

French doctors were surprised to find the reason for their patient's sore, swollen stomach - he had swallowed 350 coins and assorted necklaces and needles. That's about 12 pounds worth of coins, enough to force his stomach down between his hips, and they were swallowed over the space of a decade. Surgery was performed to remove the badly damaged stomach and its contents, but the patient died from complications 12 days later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Making a deposit at the bank.

Paula, a participant in a wedding ceremony in rural northern Germany, apparently got bored and left the ceremony to go to a nearby bank. Wandered around, didn't make either a deposit or a withdrawal, and left, presumably to go back to the wedding, where she was due to be milked. Yes, Paula's a cow, and not in an insulting way. Here are the security camera photos. Perhaps if they'd offered her a toaster, she'd have stayed.

"We're going to Disney World!"

I'm of mixed feelings about the report that Disney is buying the Muppets from the Henson family. Certainly, I'm happy for the Henson family that they're getting a big payday out of the deal. But I don't see that the Disney suits will allow the Muppets to have the wonderfully cranky, individual character that they presently have. I foresee Gonzo, Animal, Statler & Waldorf, and all the others being dumbed down and cuted up to fit the Disney mold, and that will be a loss.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Just in time for Valentine's Day.

Official imaginary girlfriends. What won't they think of next? For some amount of money - say, $40 for two months - a girl (or someone pretending to be a girl - and hey! what does it matter to you?) will send you perfume-scented letters, photos, and even articles of clothing. And when your paid-for time is up, you can break up with her for whatever baseless reason you want, and she'll write you one more letter, begging you to take her back.

And yeah, technically it's too late for Valentine's Day - but I'm willing to be she won't mind a bit.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

There's a time and a place for big, romantic gestures.

So there I was late this afternoon, schmoozing in one of the local wine shops that I frequent on Saturdays when they're tasting new and interesting wines. A customer walks in and wants a specific champagne in a half-bottle. It being 4:30 on Valentine's Day and all, the shop's champagne selection was wearing a bit thin, and they not only didn't have the precise label the guy wanted in a 375-ml bottle, they actually had only one half-bottle of champagne remaining. (They did still have a pretty good selection of regular size bottles, though.) After whining about it at length, he decided that the half-bottle they had was too expensive (and while it was certainly expensive for my tastes - as it was $55 - it probably wasn't grossly overpriced, as the 750-ml bottle of the same champagne was $79), and ended up not getting anything.

Come on, guy: it's Valentine's Day. Splurge and buy a whole bottle of something. There can't be many good reasons for having only a half-bottle of champagne when you could have a whole bottle instead.

And a very happy Valentine's Day to you, as well.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

That's "MISTER Observant" to you.

This afternoon while I was out doing errands, I decided to wander by my polling place to see if there were a line of voters or people from another campaign, and if so, I'd stop and get out my Kerry sign and greet voters as they arrived. And to no great surprise, neither was the case.

Turning out of the school driveway, though, I noticed an official "state polling place HERE" sign by the driveway to a church across the street - and sure enough, another precinct had its polls right across from my precinct's polls. What are the odds that two precincts would have their polling places on the edge of their districts, and that they'd be across the street? High enough, apparently.

But this surely isn't the first time the other precinct has voted there, which means that not only did I fail to notice that polling location this morning, but I've missed it the other two times I've voted at my precinct.

I guess there's a reason why I'm not a detective.

Sleeping on the job.

Note to the cutting-edge manager: an afternoon nap at work can improve workers' alertness and productivity, at least in New Zealand.

Now if I could only find a manager who'd agree that a beer or two in the afternoon enhances my creativity, I'd be set.

Valentine cards for the bitter.

Or, more accurately, Anti-Valentine cards. Perhaps my favorite - and there are many in the running - is the Lord of the Rings-based one.

Vote early, vote often.

It's Primary Day in Virginia.

I went out to work the polling place for my precinct. When I went to Kerry headquarters yesterday to volunteer to work a polling place - any polling place, wherever they needed me - they were happy to let me work the precinct where I vote, and gave me a sign on a four-foot stick to hold, but were otherwise a little disorganized. No assignment of a particular shift to be there, no additional signs to put along the driveway to the polling place.

I showed up at my polling place - the neighborhood elementary school - around 6:40 this morning, the polls having opened at 6:00. The only signs I saw posted were a couple for Dean, and there was no one from any of the campaigns greeting voters. It turns out I was the first person to vote at the precinct today, and the election officials did everything but hug me. They insisted on showing me how to vote a butterfly ballot, and on pointing out each step (here's where you show your driver's license, there's where you actually vote, there's where you put the ballot into the machine). Very helpful, I suppose, and exactly the same procedure as the last two times I voted there.

After I finished voting -and it didn't take all that long, as there was only the one race on the ballot and I couldn't write my own name in - I went to the car and got the Kerry sign, and returned to the electioneering area through which all voters must pass (and which is marked off with the invisible dog collar line beyond which I could not legally carry my sign) and waited for people to show up.

And I was prepared to wait quite a while. I live in a very conservative, very Republican precinct. Which pretty much explains why the first vote cast in the Democratic primary didn't occur until 40 minutes after the polls opened. I also understand that my presence was unlikely to sway any votes - when there's only one race on the ballot, I'd expect that anyone who showed up to vote had already made up his mind. But I figured I was there to show the colors, to lend support to any Kerry voter, to assist them in running the unfriendly gauntlet of, well, this empty elementary school parking lot.

After a couple of minutes, someone showed. Three or four minutes later, another voter arrived. Five minutes later, someone else. "Good morning!" I'd chirp. "How are you doing today?" as I show them the sign. "Fine," was the usual response, "how are you?" "Chilly!" which usually got a chuckle. And two minutes later, after they'd voted, we'd have a short conversation about how nice it was to not have to wait in line to vote. Perhaps one person in three volunteered that they'd voted for Kerry - and no one volunteered that they'd voted for anyone else.

Around 7:00, an SUV pulled up, and a kid with an enormous backpack got out, and went into the school. Car drives off. Five minutes later, another SUV, another kid dropped off. Five minutes later, another one, and another one five minutes after that. And during that fifteen-minute period? No one voted.

The trickle of SUVs disgorging children with huge backpacks became a torrent of them, and a line of 25 SUVs appeared, waiting to drop off their kids. By the time school started at 8:00, probably 200 vehicles - mostly giant, gas-guzzling SUVs, although there were a couple of Jeeps, a few minivans, and a couple of real cars as well - had dropped children off at this entrance. Maybe another 10 to 20 vehicles went to the teachers' parking lot, close to this entrance, and the parent accompanied the child to the school. Out of all those parents who brought their children to school, only three then went in to vote. I suppose a good argument could be made that someone driving a Ford Expedition or a Toyota Land Cruiser isn't likely to want to vote in a Democratic primary.

When the school day started, I once again became the only person standing outside in the cold. Here's a person, there's another, five minutes later one more arrives. It's telling, I think, that in the time I was there this morning - during the "morning rush" - there was only one time when there were as many as four voters inside the polling place at the same time. And as they had four booths to vote in, there could never have been a line.

By 9:00, a grand total of 59 people had voted, the time between voters had lengthened back to about 10 minutes, and my fingers were the same shade of blue as my shirt. So I went home to warm up, and I'll probably return for the afternoon rush (5:00 to 6:00).

And tonight? I'll watch election results at the state headquarters.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Thinking far too much about the Death Star's trash compactor.

A fairly in-depth analysis of the implausible nature of the Death Star's trash compactor and of some of its engineering shortcomings.

What sort of costume do you suppose the author wears to sci-fi conventions?

Wine Brats act bratty.

It appears that the Seattle branch of the Wine Brats is closing up shop, and all because they decided not to follow state law regarding the import of out-of-state wines. They were having donated wine sent from California, and when they discovered that they'd have to register an in-state address with the Washington state liquor authorities, they decided none of the 2000 members of the Seattle branch could be bothered.

For what it's worth, other Seattle wine groups think that the permit and license processes are user-friendly.

I can't say that I'm surprised that the Wine Brats have such a casual attitude towards alcoholic beverage control laws; it seems to fit in with their Gen-X philosophy to promote wine tastings and parties. Not that they do that especially well either, in my experience: When I was in Durham, I went to a couple of Wine Brats events in Raleigh, and they were nothing more than thinly-disguised singles events, with no one present who was even mildly knowledgeable about the wines being tasted.

Where's Bill Haley when you need him?

Looks like this spring might be a good time for comet watchers: the possibility exists that two recently discovered comets will be visible to the unaided eye at the same time, around April and May. Of course, they could also both turn out to be Comet Kohoutek.

Virginia primary.

Not that it's especially news to anyone, but there's a primary in Virginia on Tuesday. And with the change in the primary's date - from April or May, long after almost every nomination race has been decided in recent memory - this year's primary may actually mean something. Primaries are relatively new to Virginia: although there was one in 1988, the results were odd enough - Pat Robertson won on the Republican side and Jesse Jackson won on the Democratic side - that the state went back to caucuses. The next primary was in 2000, won by Bush.

We've been getting plenty of TV ads for Clark (his ads started between Christmas and New Year's), Edwards and Kerry. They're mostly "here's the candidate" ads, telling of the candidate's path to the candidacy and touching on issues without really addressing them, and don't mention their Democratic opponents either directly or indirectly.

Saturday night was the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a fundraiser for the state Democratic party, and the leading candidates showed up to make their cases: Kerry, Edwards, and Clark. For comic relief, Sharpton was there, too. Dean was scheduled to attend, but blew the event off just as his candidacy is being blown off by the voters.

Before the J-J Dinner, each candidate had a rally. I went to the Kerry rally, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sure, it was his stump campaign speech which I'd already seen a half-dozen times on CNN, but it's energizing to see it in person. And to be close to the candidate: I was within 10 feet of him, as close as I've been to a politician of national scope since I saw President Carter at the National Air & Space Museum back around 1978. (It occurred to me that this will be one of the last times for a while that one will be able to get to be close to Kerry without running Secret Service protection - I'd guess he'll have their protection by the end of the month.) Kerry actually had to vary his speech a bit - near the end of it, someone in the crowd had some medical problem (chest pains, I think), so he cut his speech off fairly abruptly and implored the crowd to make way for medical personnel to approach (and then to go vote for him). Luckily, there was a fair-sized cadre of firemen with paramedic training at the rally, so the affected person got attention pretty quickly.

Although they urged people to stick around and listen to Kerry give another speech in an hour or so, I decided to take off. On my way back to the car, I saw a surprisingly quiet knot of people with a mixture of signs for different candidates on the corner beside the building where the J-J Dinner was to take place. As I got closer, I realized that Gen. Clark was speaking, so I stopped to listen to him. Nice enough guy, I suppose, but his speech wasn't compelling or especially polished - he repeated a couple of his personal factoids (his mother was a secretary, he was career military) three times in eight minutes, at least two times more than was necessary - and he seemed tired, like he knew he wasn't going to be doing this much longer. And about the time that he started to repeat himself yet again, I decided to wander off to get a beer.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Another reason to watch Letterman.

Monday night's David Letterman show will include a performance by the Beatles. One of their songs - I Want to Hold Your Hand - from their original performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, forty years earlier to the day and in that same theater.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Bob Knight? In trouble again? O, say it isn't so!

And speaking of things that cause me to be shocked, shocked! Bob Knight is at it yet again. Knight has been suspended for five days because of a loud public confrontation with the Texas Tech University chancellor. Witnesses report that the chancellor approached Knight to compliment him on his recent good behavior. Naturally, Knight flew into a rage and called the chancellor a liar. I guess Knight learned something from listening to Saddam Hussein.

Knight's knee-jerk reaction was to quit. Sadly, someone gave the jerk his knee back, and he's decided to stay for the rest of the season.

I'm sure that Texas Tech is delighted with its decision to hire Knight. They sure can't claim that his actions come as a surprise to them.

Update: Well, it looks like he won't be suspended after all. He'll just get a letter, possibly not even called a letter of reprimand. I bet it won't be all that long before he attacks another secretary or student, though.

Ah, technology.

TiVo has announced that Janet Jackson's little striptease during the halftime show at the Super Bowl is the most replayed moment in TiVo's history.

I'm not sure which is more frightening: that people did repeated instant replays of the incident, or that TiVo's monitoring system can tell that precisely what you're watching.

Equine flatulence: the soul of wit.

I thought it was a pretty crummy collection of ads televised during this year's Super Bowl. Personally, I thought that matched the quality of play in this year's Super Bowl, too; a minority opinion, I know. Sure, the game was exciting - it just wasn't good.

I thought all of Budweiser's ads were utterly pointless and unfunny, and none of them would cause me to want to buy Bud. A crotch-biting dog; yes, I want to support that concept. Cedric the Self-Styled Entertainer getting a bikini wax; I suppose I'd be willing to buy a Bud if they'd promise (a) he'd really be given a bikini wax and (b) they'd never use him in a commercial again. And horse farts? Well, I view that as Budweiser's contribution to Truth in Advertising, as that particular image is one that I associate very closely with the taste of Budweiser.

Also pointless and stupid were the ads for AOL. Their message seemed to be "If you're stupid enough to think we can super-accelerate your motorcycle, then we're the internet service provider for you!" No wonder they're having problems. Well, this'll give Ted Leonsis something to work on while he can't mess up his hockey team.

I'm not sure why anyone would think that Mike Ditka is a good spokesman for erectile dysfunction. He strikes me as a fine choice for the "Before" photo, though.

I thought the car ads were pretty stupid, with the exception of the Chevy truck ad with all the kids with soap in their mouths, which was kind of cute (although again, the ad caused no interest on my part to buy a Chevy truck, even a bright yellow convertible one).

I enjoyed the Pepsi Jimi Hendrix ad, for the music if nothing else. Did it cause me to want to go out and buy Pepsi? Well, no.

I liked the concept of the Willie Nelson advice-giving doll, and thought it was a great match for H & R Block. But enough to go there for tax advice? Again, no.

And I sort of enjoyed the NFL Network ad with players singing Tomorrow and "Jerry Jones" turning cartwheels. Of course, it was also an irrelevant ad to me, as my cable system doesn't offer the network (nor would I pay extra to receive it).

All in all, no classic ads, and none that were especially clever. Nothing to rival Apple's 1984 ad.

I'm sure it's all just a coincidence.

For anyone left to be shocked, shocked! by Janet Jackson's PR machine, a single from Jackson's new album was released to radio stations yesterday. Which proves the old PR adage: any exposure -- make that "press coverage" -- is good press coverage.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Economic analysis applied to football decisions.

And no, I don't mean the age-old question that owners ask themselves, "How much should I raise the price of a ticket this year?" This is the analysis of the value of going for it on fourth down vs. kicking the ball, done by a UC Berkeley economist, where the conclusions reached suggest that teams should be less conservative in their decisions and ought to go for it more often. For instance, where you're on the opponent's 7 yard line, and you have fourth-and-two, going for it yields an average value of about 4 and a third points while kicking the field goal yields a value of almost 3 points (from that distance, it's almost automatic). One of the factors not often considered in this situation is that if you don't make the first down, the opponents get the ball at around their 7 yard line, while if you kick the field goal, after the kickoff, they'll get the ball somewhere around their 25 or 27 yard line - and that difference in field position is valuable to you, too.

Another conclusion is that on short-yardage fourth downs, from almost anywhere on the field, you're better off by going for it than by kicking. The Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick, read the paper last year, and must have remembered it in the conference championship game two weeks ago: at fourth-and-one on their own 44 yard line, on the first possession of the game, they went for it, to the surprise of the commentators in the TV booth. And, of course, they went on to win the game. I'm willing to be that the Panthers' coach has made a point of studying this paper during the past two weeks, too.