Friday, April 30, 2004

Nightline's roll call.

Tonight's Nightline is going to read the names and show the photographs of U.S. servicemen and women who have died in Iraq. So, naturally, someone who owns 8 ABC affiliates has decided to boycott tonight's show because it places attention on people who have died, which therefore means it's trying to press public opinion towards getting out of Iraq. Whereas the patriotic thing to do, as the Prez has shown us, is to pretend that there are no dead American servicemen and women, which justifies the continuation of the pretend war.

Update: For another take on this owner's action - and more on the owner, himself - see Moore's Lore.

Perhaps I'm a cynic (O, no; not you, John), but I can't imagine who would watch the show tonight. Maybe friends and relatives of the folks who have been killed, but why would anyone else? Watching the show would be as impersonal and with even less meaning than watching, say, a televised Memorial Day observance.

Almost uncirculated.

The nation's coin collection is going to be put back into shoeboxes and shoved to the back of the closet. Well, not literally, I suppose. But close enough. The Hall of Money and Medals at the Smithsonian is closing this coming August, and closing for good. It seems that coin collections are not what people who go to museums want to see: they want to be thrilled. (I thought that's why people go to amusement parks; maybe that's just me.) On the other hand, I've been to the Hall of Money and Medals, and yes, it's pretty staid. Of course, it's in the same building - the National Museum of American History - as the collection of First Ladies' gowns and a working, albeit historical, post office, so it's not as though it's up against the competition in the Air & Space Museum.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

If Bob Jones can do it, why not?

There's a push on to found a Ronald Reagan University, to "focus on the former president's economic and diplomatic principles." You remember, promising to balance the budget and then increasing the national debt from $1 trillion to $4 trillion, paying homage to dead Nazi soldiers, and declaring sovereign countries to be illegal. Those principles. And they claim to be planning for a full-scale university, with law and business schools, a graduate school of foreign affairs and public policy, and a performing arts school. Presumably the botany department will study the close relationship between trees and air pollution, as well.

The Gospel according to South Park.

The NY Times TV critic has a column today about religion, parables and morality in South Park. Two weeks ago, the South Park episode was a wonderful send-up of Mel Gibson's S&M Jesus movie, where Stan ends up telling fans of that movie: "If you want to be Christian, that's cool, but you should follow what Jesus taught instead of how he got killed. Focusing on how he got killed is what people did in the Dark Ages, and it ends up with really bad results"; last week, they had an episode based on Michael Jackson as a father (and a side plot of getting set to frame Jackson for child molestation, but calling it off at the last moment when they see him and realize that, unlike the report on him, he doesn't appear to be black, after all), wherein Jacko realizes that it's time he take parenting seriously: "I've been so obsessed with my childhood that I've forgotten about his. I thought having lots of rides and toys was enough, but [my son] doesn't need a playmate. He needs a father, and a normal life."

And at the same time, South Park remains funny, rude, and fresh.

The one problem I've had with South Park over the past eighteen months or so is that I never know when a new episode is on. They seem to randomly have a couple of new episodes, and then a slew of repeats, and not of this year's episodes: ones from the first year or two, which we've seen loads of times. So now that I discover there are new ones on, what happens? Natch: after tonight's episode, new ones are "on hiatus" until October.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Three guesses: what's the largest viticultural area in the nation? Surprisingly, nope. And nope. And not that one, either. According to the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University, it's the Texas Hill Country, somewhere near Austin.

Well, there really is a "Texas Hill Country" viticultural area. (Not to be confused with the "Fredricksburg in the Texas Hill Country" viticultural area, which was created three years prior to the "Texas Hill Country" one.) And it's described as being a 15,000-square-mile area, and is home to 22 wineries. Of course, given that state-wide, Texas has a total of 55 wineries (and 250 vineyards) and only about 2,900 acres of vineyards, that 15,000 square miles doesn't really have a whole lot of grapes being grown in it. Which makes you wonder why they felt it necessary to issue a press release to brag about how huge the viticultural area is, especially when you consider that the larger the area is, the less distinctive the terroir can be.

Well, I guess it's distinctively Texan to brag about size, especially in an area where size doesn't actually mean anything.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Probably unintended historical connections. Probably.

One of the companies getting government contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq - or, more precisely, for securing the framework to rebuild Iraq, whatever that means - is named CusterBattles.

What? Why are you laughing?

And thanks to Ed's Daily Rant for finding this.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Beer and sausages at the World Cup.

But not, for instance, Bier und Bratwursts. Heh. Budweiser - yes, the American one - and McDonalds have won exclusive World Cup contracts from FIFA to supply all the beer and all the sausages on and around the 2006 World Cup stadium premises. The Anheuser-Busch deal is reported to be about $40 million.

The local organizers - especially in Munich and Nuremberg, the two venues in Bavaria, where they take their bier seriously - are looking to see if there's any wiggle room in the contracts; if not, they'll set up "fan villages" just outside of the stadium's exclusivity area where "proper products" (i.e., local beers) would be sold.

Speaking of movies which bomb at the box office....

but still eke out a profit from DVD and videotape sales, an 11th movie in the Star Trek franchise appears to be in the works. No real details, other than the proposed movie would be a prequel, as the poor box-office performance of the last Star Trek movie pretty much rules out any more TNG movies. (Star Trek Nemesis it was, and it broke the "odd number bad/even number good" rule very, very thoroughly.)

DVDs and big bucks.

Interesting in-depth article on DVDs in the NY Times earlier this week, on how studios are looking to cash in on DVDs, not that this is a real surprise. What came as a surprise to me were the figures for the first 2 1/2 months of the year, where Americans spent $1.78 billion at the box office, going to movies, and $4.8 billion to buy and rent DVDs and videocassettes. And Hollywood is realizing that not only will the sales of DVDs and videocassettes help a movie to turn a profit, but sometimes a movie that was an utter bust at the box office can turn into a successful hit through DVDs (Office Space, for instance, which cost $10 million to make and made only $10 at the box office, has sold over $40 million worth of DVDs).

The one dark cloud on DVD's horizon that the article mentions is the fear that the ability to directly download movies - "in five years when you can download a movie as fast as a song" - will cause the DVD bubble to burst. I'm not so sure that will happen, at least all that soon: I don't see that enough people will have the ability to download material that quickly in five years to make a a difference (isn't that a couple of orders of magnitude faster than DSL or cable?), or that enough of those people will have the ability to transfer it to their video screens of choice (who would prefer to watch the Lord of the Rings movies on their computer monitor instead of their 47-inch flatscreen TVs?), or that the convenience - if any - of being able to download a movie (instead of, say, getting it from Netflix or Blockbuster) outweighs the extra features that most DVDs have.

"There is ... another sky ... urgch!"

Yoda, alas, is dead. No, no; not the one who died in Return of the Jedi, at the age of 900+. This is Yoda, the genetically modified dwarf mouse, who died at the age of 4 years and 12 days, "the equivalent of more than 136 in human years." I especially enjoyed the photograph of Yoda with his companion, Princess Leia, who appears to be about 3 times his size, just like in the movies.

Instant winery.

Interesting in-depth article about "instant winemakers" - negociants - out on the West Coast. People who buy excess wine, perhaps age it a bit more, and bottle it under their own label. And one thing I learned from the article is that the wine they buy often isn't just "excess" that the original winery couldn't sell - sometimes it's awfully good wine that didn't fit into the blend that the winery wanted to make that year, and it wasn't enough for them to bottle on their own. Or they've lost access to grapes that they've been putting into a single-vineyard bottling, and rather than continue to market a wine they know they can't make next year, they'll sell last year's wine to a negociant, and move on to other wines.

Selling my own wine without having to be a farmer - perhaps this is what I'll do after I win the lottery.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

These hot April nights.

Sunday, it hit the high 80's; yesterday, it made it to 92 or 93. Hotter than I'd like for it to be in April, but a welcome relief from 40 and rainy, which is what much of the previous week turned out to be.

One of the things about my house is that it's good at retaining heat. Good in winter; not so great when it's in the 90's. Both Sunday and Monday nights when I went to bed, the thermostat outside my bedroom was registering 80 degrees. Sure, it was in the low 70's or below outside, and I had a few windows open, but that wasn't doing the trick.

So I pulled the cord on the light in the ceiling fan, and tried to get to sleep. Nothing doing: Eighty degrees, and all I can do is lie there and perspire. Okay, turn the light on, and I'll read for a while. Perhaps that will make me sleepy enough. A couple of chapters of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time ought to do the trick, don't you think? (Yes, I've had it for years; no, I haven't previously read it; no, I'm not learning a whole lot from it, other than some interesting trivia about quarks.) Well, it made me somewhat sleepier, so we'll try again - turn out the light in the ceiling fan, jump back into bed, and lie there with sweat collecting at the nape of my neck.

It seems to me that I've suffered through this excessive retained heat in previous springs, and I recall that after a couple of days, I do something that alleviates the problem. But what? It's not the small electric fan that I have downstairs in the office. And the middle of April is much too early to turn the air conditioner on (and that doesn't seem to be the right answer, either).

After about another hour of lying awake, opening more windows, checking and rechecking the thermostat, it finally occurred to me - accompanied by a Self-Applied Forehead Slap! - to pull the other cord in the ceiling fan, thereby turning the fan on. Much better for going to sleep, thank you very much.

The yellow peril.

Or, possibly, the yellow-green peril. Yes, it's springtime again, and that means that my car, normally silver, is covered with greenish yellowish pollen to an extent that it looks green. As do all the other cars in my neighborhood, and the normally blacktop streets. It is kind of fun, though, to be able to where small animals have crossed my driveway overnight, as you can see their pawprints in the pollen.

And the coming of spring heralds the beginning of my cat's spring fever: she wanders around the house, meowing plaintively. For what, I can't really tell. When I follow her, she doesn't go into the kitchen and stop (the usual "feed me" sign) or hop up on her box next to the refrigerator ("give me cheese"); she wanders by but doesn't stop at the screen door to the deck, where she can sniff the outdoors (so it would appear that she doesn't want to go out); and she doesn't want to be picked up and held (not surprising, with her long, black fur, the last thing she'd want would be to cuddle for warmth - unlike her winter behavior). And instead of sleeping at or on my feet, she's taken to sleeping sprawled out on the floor, presumably where it's cooler.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Nice day for a blackout.

Around 10:30 this morning, about 70 degrees out and not a cloud in the sky. (Ever so much better than the 40 degrees and loads of rain at the same time almost every day last week. But I digress.) So, naturally, it's time for *BOOM!* from someplace in the general direction of the transformer and Out! go the lights. No rain, no lightning, no trees taking lines out, no 100-degree-weather with air conditioners on maximum. Yes, it's time for one of Dominion Electric's favorite tricks: random power failures.

By the time I found my shoes and went out to the backyard to check, there was someone tramping through the yard, looking at the wire. I have to give them credit: Dominion Electric was already on the scene, and I hadn't yet called them to alert them to the problem. For that matter, neither had anyone else. So - hmmm - how did they know there was a problem? The easiest of answers: they caused it.

Another neighbor had complained that her lights dimmed for no apparent reason, so they came out and had her turn on everything in the house at once. That fried the line, which had some weak spots (perhaps related to Isabel last fall? no point in speculating, I suppose, although it's equally likely that this was a line that they installed after Isabel).

Took them about 2 hours to repair it. Wonder how long it'll be before the lights go out again?

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Another article on Netflix.

And then I'll stop. Promise. Or maybe not.

Post article talks about NetFlix facing competition from cable and from DVD-rental competitors. They mention Blockbuster, which will start a similar sort of monthly-subscription, no late fee service, but you'll have to go to the store to get your DVDs (at least, when the service starts). And they mention that on-demand cable downloads may turn out to be competition, as well, although you'd miss out on all the DVD-only extras.

More disconcerting is the likelihood of a price rise, from $20 per month to $22 per month, needed because the service is so labor-intensive (stuffing DVDs into envelopes to mail them out and individually checking the DVDs when they come back in). To me, it'd still be worth it.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Snacks a-comin'.

Make your plans now for an infrequent eating occasion. The 17-year cicadas are about to return. And there are those who like to eat them. Raw, sauteed, boiled. Or frozen, so you can snack on them between now and 2021.

Apparently, you'll want to gather them up within 12 hours of moulting, while the shells are still soft. (Some compare them to soft-shell crabs.)

And it seems that you'll want to make sure to add a lot of flavor - breading, garlic, lots of herbs - because, as one gourmet notes, "Served plain, cicadas have more crunch than flavor."

I don't have any special recollection of the 1987 cicada visitation, but I have plenty of memories of the 1970 emergence: playing tennis while the din of the cicadas serenaded us, and having to clear the court of cicadas before playing (and occasionally swatting at flying ones during the match).

Update: The author of a bug cookbook had an online chat at the Post's site today. Good reading, if you're on a diet.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

The economics of Netflix.

Okay, I really like Netflix. I think I've mentioned that before. Great selection, great "late" policy (you never have a late fee; you return the movie when you are ready for a new one); great service (mailing is covered, both ways). Here's an article from the LA Times interviewing the founder of Netflix, and his hopes that Netflix can change the economics of Hollywood by making "small" movies reach enough of an audience that they are affordable to make.

The interview also touches on the challenge from other DVD rental companies, notably Wal-Mart and Amazon. (Conclusion: Wal-Mart does real well with its bricks-and-mortar stores, and not so well online, and this is an area where they're really not succeeding, and Amazon is the competitor they fear, although my guess is that Amazon's wide sales focus will keep them from being successful in the DVD rental arena.)

And there's a hint that Netflix will go into downloading movies (for rental) within a year or two. Not to PCs, probably, but to other - and probably wireless - devices in the living room, such as a digital input to a TV.

Spin the Wheel! Pick a Vice-President!

The Washington Post is making it easy for you to pretend that you are advising Senator Kerry to pick a running mate. Pick up to five characteristics (Southerner, woman, name recognition, good fundraiser, etc.), and it will score a list of 25 or so people who have been suggested as possible running mates. My guess for the vice-presidential nod - the other Senator from Florida, Bill Nelson - often comes out near the top when I put in my ideal characteristics, as does my back-up guess, N. Mex. Governor Bill Richardson. (Yes, I know: validation of my guess and $1.25 gets me coffee at the McDonald's of my choice, tax and transportation not included.)

Well, it's got to be at least as good a process as one that ends up with Spiro Agnew or Dan Quayle.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

If only I had a birthday coming up soon.

Although it's possible that "coming up" is the right terminology. A nice little homemade Halloween cake.

Friday, April 09, 2004

TV, or not.

It's been a month, so it's probably time for another post on my latest TV-watching.

I watched and enjoyed the first couple of episodes of Wonderfalls. Recent college graduate, reduced to selling mementos in a Niagara Falls gift shop. And inanimate objects talk to her. Quirkily well-written and acted, funny in spots ("Let's get Suzy and go clubbing!" "Baby seals?"). Fox put it on Friday nights, where it didn't do especially well. So they moved it to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, opposite CSI and The Apprentice. To Fox's great surprise, it did even worse. So they cancelled it. sigh

The so-called Sci-Fi Channel has a couple of good shows going on. One, Mad Mad World, is their entrant in the "reality" show genre. As befitting the channel, the "reality" in the show is completely unlike any reality you're likely to encounter, even if you live in Southern California. The concept is that 10 "normal" people - okay, just how "normal" can a person be who is taking part in a second-tier "reality" series? Here's an answer: one is a stripper - live in a house with 5 people with "alternate" lifestyles (a wiccan, a vampire, a naturist, a voodoo priestess, etc.), and each week one normal person is voted out. Winner - the one who "grows" the most from the exposure to those with alternate lifestyles - gets $100,000. Completely outrageous, great fun. And last night, I caught the disclaimer at the end which sums it up best: The weekly challenges, based for the show's purposes on the alternate lifestyles of the non-contestants, are not indicative of actual religious or moral beliefs of those lifestyles' followers.

The other interesting Sci-Fi show is Tripping the Rift, an edgy, animated show. (Like South Park, it's not meant for children.) Very funny, in an "adult" (meaning "R-rated", not "sophisticated") way. Especially like how various well-known characters from science fiction show up - last night, Baltar (from the original Battlestar Galactica) made an appearance as the bad guy.

As usual, the best dramas are over on HBO. The Sopranos is back, and is joined by Deadwood. Intense stories, great writing, great acting. (If you've missed Deadwood, there's a mini-marathon of the first three episodes tonight.) Can't ask for much more than that, other than a new season of Six Feet Under, and that'll be along in June.

Haven't had much opportunity to see movies of late. Enjoyed The Battle of Shaker Heights, somewhat to my surprise. (This was the movie made during the second season of Project Greenlight.) Not a great movie, by any means, but enjoyable anyway. What makes the movie worth watching is the performance by Shia LeBoeuf. The movie has its weak moments: a few plot holes, a couple of scenes you saw shot during the TV series that didn't make it into the final cut, a couple of rough edges in the editing and sound mixing. But HBO is filled with movies that aren't as entertaining as this one turned out. (Ghost Ship, for instance, which I'd swear you could see every night for the past three months on either HBO or Cinemax, if you were so inclined.) And thank heavens for Netflix, because you'd never be able to see this movie otherwise. Finally saw Seabiscuit, too. I thought it was pretty good, for a feel-good movie, but no better than that. Not really worthy of a Best Picture Oscar nomination, in my opinion. I thought Chris Cooper turned in an excellent supporting performance, though.

More dollars than sense.

A Maryland law firm has decided to sponsor NASCAR teams. I guess the marketing connection is fast cars --> fast ambulance chasers --> better ambulance chasers.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Well, wouldn't you drink a lot if you lived there?

Ah, legislatures. The voice of the people. Alabama now has an official whiskey, thanks to the Alabama state Senate and House. And not a generic style of whiskey: the "official state spirit" is a commercial endorsement of a specific product made with water from Alabama.

Most states - including Alabama, up until now - tend to reserve their official designations for natural, historic, or native items, and are generally noncommercial in nature. Most states have an official bird and flower, and some states go a bit overboard with other official items - New York has an official state muffin (the apple muffin), New Mexico has an official state question ("Red or green?"), and Ohio has an official state bicentennial bridge, for instance - but I don't know of any other state using its official symbolic designation to endorse a product for commercial purposes.

Probably the best part of this story is that the governor vetoed the legislation, pointing out that the legislature might have more important things to do, and the legislature took the time to override the veto. I guess they don't mind being considered drunken buffoons.

Self-service grocery checkouts.

Story in yesterday's NY Times about self-serve checkouts in grocery stores. Kind of interesting to me that it's only now that the Times is getting around to covering them, as I first saw them in grocery stores in Durham almost 4 years ago. One explanation is that the checkout units are sufficiently expensive that it takes a larger grocery store to justify the purchase, and that many groceries in NYC are too small.

They make sense to me: one grocery clerk can man the station that oversees the four self-service registers, and can often find the time to help bag on the adjacent full-service aisle. And they're as convenient as pay-at-the-pump gasoline pumps. Sure, it takes longer for me to ring through my own groceries than it would in the full-service aisle - but I don't have to wait in that line behind 3 other shoppers before I can start.

The only consistent problem I had with the self-service checkout lines here in Richmond was that the bill-recognition circuitry didn't recognize the new rainbow-colored twenties when they first appeared last fall - but they got that sorted out after a couple of months. So now they accept the multi-color bills just like they were real money.

So now the only problem that keeps popping up is the shopper who is incapable of using the self-serve checkout lines but ends up there anyway. It's fairly infuriating to be waiting for one of the units to open up, and they can't figure out how to slide a box in front of the bar-code scanner or to put their ten-dollar bill into the slot clearly marked "Put Bills Here."

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Springtime, mow or less.

Ah, springtime. Flowers and trees in bloom, warm weather, bliss. Well, except for that "having to mow the lawn" thing.

Sure enough, I celebrated today's 75-degree weather by hauling the mower out of storage and putting it to good use (well, "to use") in the front yard, making sure to avoid the areas where I had crocuses come up, thereby allowing the crocus leaves to stay uncut so they can build the bulbs back up for next year. And I was reminded that every winter, I forget about my allergy to cut grass and dust. sigh. I made it though all of the front yard before I was simultaneously sneezing and so bored that I couldn't stand it any more. I'll doubtless start on the back yard tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Weighty issues.

One of my favorite columnists is Al Sicherman, of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He's eccentric, usually funny, and ostensibly a food columnist. And he wrote one of my favorite cookbooks, Caramel Knowledge.

One of his recent columns was on one of life's little mysteries: How much sugar is in a packet? (site may require free registration) You'd think that a packet of sugar held a teaspoon, but no. Standard packets hold between 1/8-ounce and 1/11-ounce; a teaspoon would be about 1/7-ounce.

Yes, yes, I know. Trivia. Just the kind of thing I was meant to know.

Cat antics.

You'd think that Mia would be happy to be home again, where there aren't lots of other people or cats to bother with. And her first night back, she was fine. Last night, though? Different story.

She usually treats "lights-out" as the invitation to jump up onto the bed and zonk out for the night. Not so last night: she decided that was her cue to noisily stalk, wrestle with, and subdue every piece of paper on the second floor of the house. When she was done an hour later, she decided it was time to sleep. So she jumped up onto the bed - landing directly on my right eye. Allow me to assure you, that does a really good job of waking one up. And when I couldn't get my right eyelid open for a couple of seconds, I was afraid I'd been blinded. Took a while to get back to sleep. (Well, for me, at any rate. Mia was sound asleep within a minute, of course.)

Not-so-Happy Together.

Okay, the first time I heard the jingle for Appleby's, I guess I thought it was cute. By the fifth time, I thought otherwise. And by the twentieth time, I was sick and tired of hearing it. Well, I guess it's not as though I need an additional reason to avoid Appleby's. The Post has an article today about the ad, the musicians who wrote and performed the song, and the licensing agency who rents out the rights to the song.

It's only The Turtles, after all. It's not as though Bob Dylan is licensing his songs to a lingerie company, or anything.