January 31, 2012

January 31, 2012

Angry Birds, For Real

Though my favorite Hitchcock film is Rear Window, The Birds is probably the most well-known of his oeuvre. Viewers connect with it on a visceral level, unlike the machinations of my fave (binoculars, Perry Mason, Grace Kelly, etc.). And I think enough of us have had bad avian run-ins to be at least moderately annoyed with the genus, if not outright pissed. I mean, they poop on us, they fly at us, they peck holes in stuff, they give us flu. Egad. They start swarming Tippi Hedren and we collectively Freak Out because It Could Have Been Us.

Then I find out that the film is loosely based on truth. In 1960s Monterey Bay, birds mysteriously started flying into buildings and acting bizarrely.

Um. WHAT?!

Luckily, science has for once proven itself useful and discovered that toxins in the Bay probably caused the erratic behavior. These toxins were likely from leaky septic tanks, so the laugh really is on us…until it turns to horrified shrieking as the avians attack.

The first time I saw The Birds was during my summer of Hitchcock a few years back. I was prepared to be terrified in ways I’d not experienced since I saw Signs, which continues to be the film that most profoundly affected me. Sheer nerves for three weeks. Completely illogical. Anyway, my dad saw The Birds when it was first released, and he talked it up during my childhood as incredibly scary. (Fun fact: His Signs is The Exorcist. A film I will definitely never see, because my dad is a former Marine, and anything that scares the batshit out of him would certainly kill me.)

Then I saw the movie and was relatively unscathed. Part of it was the good-for-the-time special effects, which are less impressive when viewed through the jaded modern lens of IMAX IN 3D NOW WITH 4D AND SMELLOVISION. Not that I’m suggesting they remake The Birds. For one, Hitchcock is dead. For two, a remake of The Birds would probably end up something like Van Helsing. Bad idea.

Basically, unless a bird is selling me cereal, living on Sesame Street, or a friend of Colonel Sanders, I’m going to keep my distance.

January 30, 2012

January 30, 2012

Lukewarm Pockets Would Be Ideal

There are days when you feel like a grownup, and then there are days when you eat nothing but Hot Pockets.

Hot Pockets certainly aren’t the pinnacle of food evolution, because they take entirely too long to cool. I counteract this by splitting them open, thus increasing surface area. Then again, I’m no novice when it comes to Hot Pockets. (Note to self: New catchphrase?)

So when I read that some guy has invented a video game controller that doubles as a Hot Pocket holder, I switched from “grumpy” to “pleased” for several minutes in a row. Though I’m not a gamer, I’ve covered enough keyboards in grease to have learned that humans really need an extra hand. I can’t eat and type at the same time, unless I’m slurping soup with a straw, and really not even then.

You THINK you can do it, at first. “I will just type with one hand and eat with one hand, tra-la.” But if you’re like me, you eat with your dominant hand.* So you’re typing with a single, non-dominant hand. 80 wpm (your mileage may vary) goes to like 20, tops. Oh, you have a password that requires a Shift + combination? HAHAHAHAHA. You’re going to give yourself arthritis, all because you thought you could tweet while eating a pot pie. It’s like Icarus, except for the flying and the sun.

But I’m hoping that this invention will spur others, benefiting the non-gamers. I mean, I do very few things with my hands that wouldn’t benefit from the addition of eating.** Reading. Playing piano. Writing ransom notes. Photography. Corn shucking. And so on. If I didn’t have to stop for meals, well…that’s like one extra episode of Gossip Girl every! single! day!

What is technology for if not the creation of robots that will feed us and cater to our every whim?

** Get your mind out of the gutter. Honestly.

January 26, 2012

January 26, 2012

Sorry I Missed It: Big Shrimpin’

One of the few benefits of modern reality TV is the opportunity it affords viewers to peek into little-known slices of life. Your humble blogger knew nothing about what it takes to run a pawn shop, buy abandoned storage units, or renovate a restaurant before Pawn Stars, Auction Hunters, and Kitchen Nightmares came along.

While browsing Hulu recently, I found a link for something called Big Shrimpin’. Few things entice me more than shrimp and a terminal apostrophe, so I decided to check it out. What I found was an eight episode program following the crews of three shrimping shrimpin’ boats from Bayou Le Batre, Louisiana. (The show aired on the History Channel over the past few months, but I hadn’t heard anything about it. Probably because I subscribe to neither the History Channel nor TV Guide. Eh.) And while the French student in me cringed every time they pronounced “Batre” as “Bat-ree,” I chalked it up to the South’s general disregard for literacy.

As with Spike’s Coal and its cadre of miners, Big Shrimpin’s shrimpers faced a lot of adversity. A lot. Of adversity. Just when things would be going well, the boat would break down. A net would tear. They’d run out of gloves. A shark would start following the boat. The freezer wouldn’t freeze. Someone’s foot would get infected. Rocks would get caught in the net. The navigation system would stop working. A tropical storm would blow in. A hurricane would blow in. They’d run out of boots. The captain would find out his dad was near death.

YOU GET THE IDEA. Those are all things that happened over the eight episodes!

Frankly, it’s a wonder I get any shrimp at all with which to fill my gullet.*I’d say the ratio of misfortune-to-good times is each episode was about 5-1. I mean, they had plenty of good hauls, and they celebrated and pranked each other and whatnot. But still. You get the feeling that the guys are shrimpers because it was the only option, and not for the love of the game.

And herein lies a fascinating anthropological study of the availability of work in various locations as compared to the chosen professions of the local populations. Or something. It’s like how everyone in West Virginia seems to be connected to coal mining. I doubt it’s because they love risking their lives underground, right? As a citified northerner, I just can’t wrap my head around a community where everyone does one thing, because that one thing is the only work available. Fascinating.

I’ve no idea whether a second season is in the works, either following the same crew again or a different crew altogether or perhaps shrimpers from some other part of the world. I do know that the eight episodes we did get made me appreciate the work that goes into feeding my shrimp addiction.

* Thank you, China, and your giant shrimp farms. Ni-hao!

January 24, 2012

January 24, 2012

A True Daily Double

Online tests for Jeopardy! were held last week. As you may know, I registered for and took the test last year. Nothing came of it, obviously. Not a surprise, since actually getting onto the show involves several hurdles.

First, you have to do well on the online test. It’s 50 questions on topics ranging from geography to literature to history to pop culture. A working knowledge of capitals, large bodies of water, European monarchs, and bands of the mid-20th century is essential. You only get 15 seconds to answer each question, so there’s really no time to Google. Though you don’t have to phrase answers in the form of a question, or spell things exactly right, it’s still not much time. I myself got tripped up quite a few times (once on a BIBLE question, no less!) and can’t say for sure how many questions I got right.

Not that there’s any magic number where the scores are concerned. Do you have to get 40 right? Do you have to rank in the 90th percentile? Those who know aren’t telling. But when you consider that thousands of people take the test and only a couple hundred get on the show, the odds are long. I’m totally cool with that, since the thrill of answering rapid-fire trivia is quite enough for me. That ten minutes will likely end up being the best ten minutes of my 2012.

If you do pass the mysterious screening standard, you get invited to an in-person audition. I’m lucky, because DC is one of the locations where they’re held. Live in Iowa? Tough luck. (For this, and many other reasons.) I’m told the in-person auditions involve playing a sample game, which would be super-cool, if only because I’d get to use a buzzer. And make it a true Daily Double.

No idea how you get from in-person auditions to the actual show. Probably a combination of screen presence and knowledge. Maybe bribes, or Canadian citizenship. But the odds of making it that far are so remote that I’m not chuffed about it.

(See, what I’m doing here is a little thing called “tempting fate.” By making a big deal about how unlikely, nay, near-impossible it is for me to ever make it to Jeopardy!, I’m hoping to in fact end up on the show. If I’m ever going to play a “reverse psychology” card on the universe, I figure I should do it before December 21.)

In case you’re looking to prepare for the next test, some things I wish I’d studied more or at all: Led Zeppelin, Las Vegas magicians, the Mediterranean Sea, Shakespearean characters, the moons of Neptune, and the Spanish-American War. Go.

January 23, 2012

January 23, 2012

Our Daily Bread

Bread bowls are a thing now, I guess? I’ve seen several ads along the lines of “Warm up with soup!” and the soup is always in a bread bowl, so I assume all of America’s meals will soon be served in containers you can eat. Q.E.D. I concede that whether it’s soup, chili, or perhaps a really watery meatloaf, it’s going to taste better in a bread bowl. It’s like those taco salads that come in a giant bowl-shaped tortilla chip. Edible dinnerware makes everyone a winner. (Say that five times fast.)

As a child, I thought one of the most delightful aspects of the Middle Ages was the concept of a trencher. Your lunch was served on a giant slice of bread! C’mon! This infusion of carbohydrates would have completely made up for the diphtheria and Crusades, in my opinion. Why did we stop doing this? Was there a bread shortage? Was it Atkins? Should I blame Tupperware?

Regardless, we have now come full anti-celiac circle and embraced the bread bowl. I hope some day soon to get my Subway sandwich wrapped in a tortilla, and my chips served in a Hot Pocket. Let us not squander the promise of the turducken. Long live food surrounded by additional food. Ideally, starchy food. It seems like a fitting renaissance after years of anti-carb propaganda. As I’m sure you did, I called bs on that some time ago. I knew two people who lost a startling amount of weight while eating little besides butter and bacon, and they have gained it all back. And honestly, if a diet is going to fail, shouldn’t it allow you to have macaroni and cheese?

(Speaking of potatoes, we noticed while in London that the bags of Walker’s chips [a brand whose logo is so similar to that of Lay’s that they must be corporate partners] included a line like “Made with 100% British potatoes.” Is this a sentiment against Irish potatoes or what? How incredibly bitchy. I love it. No filthy Irish spuds in this bag of shrimp-flavored crisps!)

Maybe someday, The Container Store will actually be a restaurant. Here’s hoping.

January 20, 2012

January 19, 2012

Tie One On

Try as I might, I have no sympathy for men who complain about wearing ties. And believe me, I’ve heard a LOT of complaints on the subject. The uberstrict religious schools I attended had the harshest of dress codes,* and ties were required for men on a daily basis. Personally, I think they look sharp. Anything that makes my everyday life a little more like Harry Potter’s is preferable.

“But Heather,” men will say, “You don’t know what it’s like. “They choke you. They’re so uncomfortable.” To which I reply, “YOU REALLY WANT TO TALK TO A WOMAN ABOUT UNCOMFORTABLE CLOTHING?” Honestly, if I had to wear JUST one uncomfortable piece of clothing every day, I would be thrilled. The typical woman in a white collar job is constricting at least four body parts during the day and several additional ones during evening cocktail parties. Guys, try on a full-body pair of Spanx and see how fast you turn back to a little discomfort in the neck region.

For those men who’ve accepted the tie as a way of life but dislike paying $100 for 50 square inches of fabric (your mileage may vary), there may be hope. Specifically, TieTry.com. It’s like Netflix for ties. You pay a monthly fee and get between one and five ties at a time. I guess you would supplement your existing tie wardrobe, or perhaps use TieTry exclusively if you have enough disposable income.

I can’t comment on the feasibility of this idea, since there is nothing analogous for women. We do not have bra libraries or pantyhose consortiums. Our shapewear tends to be a little more personalized. Everyone’s is different. (Ironic, since the endgoal is almost always the body size of a malnourished teenager.)

Ties for women never really caught on, did they? My first exposure to the concept was my local Ponderosa Steakhouse, though thinking back on it, I’m guessing those women were conscripted into neckwear. I myself was inspired to at least learn how to tie a cravat,** but my lack of internet meant I just ended up wrinkling one of my dad’s ties. I’ve still no idea (nor motivation) to learn, though I’ve discovered these cool zipper ties that require no knotting at all. Brilliant.

Should the androgynous look ever catch on in the wider world (i.e. with anyone besides Tilda Swinton and David Bowie), I shall be ready. Someone can zip me up, right?

* Among the things regulated: hemlines, fabrics, collar plunges, clothing brands. The not-so-tongue-in-cheek description of the ideal woman’s outfit? “Long, loose, and lots.”
** I use the word “cravat” only because I don’t want to use the word “tie” thrice in a sentence. If cravat turns out not to be a synonym for tie, then the joke’s on me. But the tie isn’t, as we’ve established.

January 18, 2012

January 18, 2012

Things I’ve Read: In the Garden of Beasts

Author Erik Larson writes about fascinating little-known history juxtaposed against famous world events. The first book of his that I read, The Devil in the White City, was about the serial killer running loose during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Indeed, a pseudo-doctor calling himself H.H Holmes was abducting, gassing, and autopsying people (mostly unsuspecting young women) while the rest of the world was riding the first Ferris Wheel and whatnot. Fascinating and grim, you put the book down with disgust and amazement at the human condition. It’s a nice change from my usual straight-up disgust.

In the Garden of Beasts was even more fascinating and grimmer. (Nazis trump serial killers any day of the week.) Set in Germany during the 1930s, it details the experiences of American Ambassador William Dodd and his family in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power. And you think YOU have problems at the office. Psh.

Dodd was a Chicago professor, nearing retirement yet unable to find time to complete his magnum opus, a book about the old American South. Since he had connections in the Roosevelt administration, he decided to angle for a cushy ambassadorship. He figured that a posting to a second-tier city would give him plenty of time to write, and a decent wage as he did so. Ha.

Once he arrived in Berlin, Dodd was truly a fish out of water. For one thing, he was a frugal academic. At that point in history, most members of the foreign service (and almost all ambassadors) were independently wealthy. They threw lavish parties and ran expensive households because they had the personal means to do so. Whatever the State Department didn’t cover, their paid from their own pockets. Dodd, however, was a fiscal conservative. He had his personal Chevrolet shipped from Chicago, and had his son act as chauffeur. As you might imagine, this embarrassed diplomats in Berlin and in DC.

Dodd also had to contend with the Orwellian nightmare of 1930s Germany. Laws were changing. You never knew what to say to whom. Forget to salute an SS parade, or sit on the wrong park bench, and you’re toast. Hitler’s contradicting words and actions were detailed by Dodd in numerous cables. Yet the US government continued to focus on Germany’s war debts rather than on its obvious preparations for round 2.

(I’m sorry if you’re not familiar with the events leading up to WW2 and this makes no sense. I forget that not everyone was raised by a huge WW2 student. The entirety of my German knowledge is war-related: panzer, stuka, Luftwaffe, lebensraum, Deutschland Deutschland uber alles, etc. When discussing this book with my dad, I would start a sentence with something like “Then Himmler…” and he would finish with my exact thought. It was like freakish history mad libs.)

Dodd wasn’t a huge social butterfly, either. And being an ambassador is all about entertaining the rulers of the nation to which you’re accredited. When those rulers are people like Goring, Rohm, and even Hitler himself, IT GETS AWKWARD. I mean, try to imagine yourself in his shoes. You’re forced to throw a party that you can’t afford, and to invite people that you and the other guests detest. Larson is great at throwing in these little foreshadows, like how seven of the eight guests at one dinner party were dead four months after the fact. Ouch.

Then there’s Dodd’s daughter Martha. She was what one might euphemistically term “a romantic opportunist.” Though technically married when she moved to Berlin, she was linked to fellow diplomats (of several countries), members of the Nazi party, members of the Communist party, and even notable Germans. (Yes, she was set up on a date with Hitler. They were both taken to the same restaurant and she was introduced to him in the hopes that he’d be taken with her. He wasn’t.) Martha proved to be a huge liability for her father, especially since she was later revealed as a spy for the Soviets. She ended up moving to Prague and dying in 1990. TRUE STORY!

So poor Dodd is just trying to do his job, while his colleagues sabotage him by leaking his cables and letters to the press, while DC gives him no support, while the Nazis bug his phones, and while his daughter spies on him for the Commies. I repeat: and you think YOU have problems at the office.

Dodd is “encouraged” to give up the posting by Roosevelt in 1937, which he does in 1938. He returns to the US in the hopes of finally finishing that darn Old South book. He does a bit of speaking to stir up anti-Nazi awareness in the US (remember, we were laissez-faire in the days before Pearl Harbor). But the years in Berlin had taken their toll, and he died a few short years later. The book itself ends shortly after the Night of the Long Knives.

The effusive length of this review should indicate that I found this to be an absolutely fascinating read. Though I knew where it was going, the ominous march to war was chilling. I can only imagine what it was like for the Germans, both Jews and Gentile, as their society changed into a police state under the guise of patriotism. I love novels about an Orwellian future, but this true-life tale of an Orwellian past was even better.

January 17, 2012

January 17, 2012

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Christmas 2011 is behind us, and Christmas 2012 isn’t set to start for another nine months or so. I put my decorations away last week, in fact. My tree-shaped Ikea ornament holder, my Hallmark stuffed Santa, and so on. I once again lamented the absence of a real-live tree, but I just don’t see how the logistics would work for an apartment dweller such as myself. And since my motto is always carry a fork real tree or no tree, ornament holder it is.

Then I read this snippet from the Arlington (VA) Animal Welfare League:

12/2/11 — 1400 block N. Kenilworth St. — A resident purchased a Christmas tree and when she brought it in the house, a wild animal, thought to be a squirrel came out of the tree. Animal control set a trap for the squirrel overnight, and the resident propped her front door open so the animal could exit. The animal did not go into the trap and is no longer in the home so it is believed it ran through the open door.

Holy &*$%.

That must have been some amazing foliage to hide a LIVE SQUIRREL. The trees I’ve purchased have been closer to the Charlie Brown Christmas tree end of the spectrum. The boughs could barely conceal the trunk, much less a small animal. I’m impressed.

I’m also horrified, because this poor woman had to deal with a (probably) rabid squirrel in her home. And when she called the professionals, the best they apparently could do was “We set a trap, just leave your door open.” Yeah, nothing bad will come of THAT plan.

Cue to: the next morning. The trap is empty. Strike one for the pros. (Related: what bait do you put in a squirrel trap? Is it peanut butter, like with mice? Acorn butter? The Geico gecko?) The squirrel can’t be located, so “it is believed” that it’s gone. Now, perhaps that woman is my kindred spirit and searched HIGH AND LOW for that li’l mofo, including the insides of all her coffee mugs. I mean, the squirrel obviously has the ability to remain still for some duration; that’s how it got in the house to begin with.

But since the story refers to a house, it would seem there are literally thousands of places the squirrel could be hiding. With the assortment of creatures that I assume waltzed in that night the front door was left open. Basically, this woman’s house is now hosting a reenactment of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Eurgh.

I have nothing against squirrels, since they seem to take pretty good care of themselves. (How many times have you seen a dead squirrel? Zero, amiright?) I just don’t want to share my fruitcake with them.

January 16, 2012

January 16, 2012

Dixie Camp

Living in Virginia, especially for the next few years, will involve a lot of Civil War commemoration. I hadn’t really considered this possibility when I moved in 2008, a mere 147 years after the start of the Civil War. We don’t do a lot with it in Wisconsin outside history classrooms. You’ll note that Sherman marched to the sea, and not to the frozen tundra. Smart chap. (Now Napoleon and Russia? We take grim delight in that one.)

My first exposure to the South and the Civil War came when I visited friend-of-blog Amanda in North Carolina. Kept noticing little “Civil War Trails” signs pointing down roads and whatnot. I’m pretty sure that we have exactly zero such signs in Wisconsin, so I was intrigued. (The plethora of signs seems to indicate that the majority of the Civil War was spent meandering around the Raleigh area, by the way. No wonder it took four years.) Then I realized that there are historic houses and other structures still standing that played a part in the conflict. Too cool!

Move to Virginia, though, and it is a whole other ball of wax. One which could be termed Battlefield-a-palooza. We got forts, we got shrines, we got acres of land where one could reasonably film a remake of “The Red Badge of Courage.”* Saw an advert the other day for a Civil War kids camp at Fort Ward here in Alexandria. Apparently, where I associate Civil War battlefield conditions with gangrene and hardtack, others see fun times for the kiddos. Mmmkay.

TheBoy’s parents’ backyard (stay with me now, I know it’s a lot of possessives) actual abuts a battlefield. They’ve found bullets and things on it. Actual Civil War memorabilia, right in the backyard! We had nothing comparable in Wisconsin. No mammoth bones or Eskimo teeth. I heard that a friend-of-a-friend found an Indian Native American arrowhead once, but I’m sure that’s just an urban myth. Certainly no rebel-maiming munitions.

One of the reasons I moved to the DC area is the history, so it’s a pleasant surprise. So long as the reenactors keep their distance, of course.

* I am referring, of course, to the Wishbone episode.

January 13, 2012

January 12, 2012

January 12, 2012

The Cookie Crumbles

Getting people to buy things is hard. Anyone in sales can tell you this. That clothing/office product/newspaper doesn’t sell itself (items featuring the Kardashians excepted). You’ve got to package it, you’ve got to hawk it, you might even need to discount it. Luckily, these are all areas where the typical people in marketing or sales can have some input.

Not so with Girl Scouts and cookies, my friends. Not so.

Your humbler blogger was indeed a Brownie for several years during the ignominious time I refer to alternately as “childhood” and “my blue period.” I bought a jumper and a sash. I made crafts and got badges. And I sold cookies, a process much more scarring than anything you’d dream up with a hot glue gun and some wire hangers.

I guess the whole cookie selling riot is ostensibly to teach young women entrepreneurship and give them a taste of business. How this is supposed to be accomplished by forcing painfully-shy adolescents to bang on the doors of strangers, I don’t know. I had trouble interacting with people I knew well. Now I’m supposed to not only confront my neighbors, but ask them to give me money in exchange for baked goods? Oh REALLY?

And when I was a kid, we didn’t just set up a table in front of Walmart. For one, I don’t remember there being a Walmart. (I was born in 1867.) For two, you didn’t get the cookies up front. You got a piece of paper with pictures of the cookies, and you had to get your neighbors to sign up and give you money. ‘Twas a more trusting time, obviously. (Ah, Reconstruction.) Ideally, your parents would pass the form around at their workplaces and do the dirty work for you. Yet while my parents spoiled me in the other 99.9% of my “blue period,” this they refused to do. Dastardly!

Anyway, this semi-bitter reflection is all introduction to the fact that there’s a new flavor out: Savannah Smiles. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of utter failure on behalf of the people who came up with this idea.

We don’t need another cookie. You got Thin Mints, Peanut Butter Patties, and Samoas (my personal favorite, HINT). Fun fact: other varieties do exist, but no one in America cares. The three aforementioned varieties comprised 100% of cookie sales this past year. We as a nation do not acknowledge the other flavors. It’s not because they’re the moderately-healthy ones (shortbread?) or the vaguely-ethnic ones (dulce de leche?). It’s because the trio of Thin Mints, Peanut Butter Patties, and Samoas satisfies our every cookie need. We are content.

We certainly don’t need a cookie with an indiscriminate name. Savannah Smiles? I think she does the weather on channel 4. I’m all about honoring the founder of the Girl Scouts (from Savannah, apparently) and I’m a big fan of lemon products, but FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, it’s as if these cookies were named via mad lib. “I need a place and a verb!”

While my sole basis to judge is my former membership in Brownie troop 469 (Clement Avenue School), that is way stronger than the nothingness on which my judgments are usually based. I may not have gone on to become an Eagle Scout or what-have-you, but I know Girl Scout cookies. And you, Savannah Smiles, are no Jack Kennedy Girl Scout cookie.

January 11, 2012

January 11, 2012

In My Opinion: Mission: Impossible 4

I can’t claim to be an expert on the M:I movie franchise. Though I’m a fan of the TV series, I’ve only seen the third and now fourth films. Nothing against Ethan Hunt, but he’s no Rollin Hand or Cinnamon Carter. However, as a lover of effects, explosions, and gadgetry, I figured that I’d enjoy M:I 4 on at least a visceral level. Luckily for me, it turned out to be loud and bangy, straightforward, and mostly sexless, which is exactly what I was looking for.

The subtitle of this film, as you may know, is “Ghost Protocol,” which kicks in when the Secretary (which one isn’t clear, but TheBoy voted for Defense) disavows the entire team after a mission gone bad. How bad, you ask? Blowing-up-the-Kremlin bad. So, officially, the IMF (Impossible Missions Force, DO try to keep up) no longer exists, and its former members are considered terrorists of the type usually printed on playing cards.

Team leader Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is backed by the lady, the techie, and the Mysterious Analyst-with-Field-Skills. The names and backstories of these characters are not within the purview of this review; knowing them may mean you enjoy the movie more, but not knowing them doesn’t mean you enjoy the movie less. ‘Twere ever the way with action films (see: anything with Bruce Willis).

Let’s talk gadgets. The commercials highlight the crazy gloves Hunt uses to scale the world’s tallest building. These are apparently based on actual technology and it is just as “gee whiz” as you’d expect. The camera work in these scenes is phenomenal, btw. When one of Hunt’s gloves shorts out and he’s hanging like two miles above the ground by a single hand, you’re not sure whether you want him to survive or plunge to a gruesome death. I imagine spectators in the Coliseum felt similar.

My favorite bit of high tech is a projector Hunt and the Techie used while in the Kremlin. The projector reflected what was behind it, like an invisibility cloak. Apparently this too is based in reality, which means it’ll be the hot Christmas toy circa 2025.

My favorite bit of low-tech was a bellhop uniform worn by the Techie that had two fake hands in it, so that he could do trickery (diamond swapping, to be precise) with his real hands while using the fake hands to serve tea. Trust me, it makes sense when you see it. It also made me laugh out loud, to the possible chagrin of my fellow IMAX patrons.

(Oh, and speaking of IMAX. Funny story. We went to this on New Year’s Eve, which you may remember was a Saturday night. Hence the showing was pretty crowded, perhaps even sold out. TheBoy and I were one of the first in line, and ended up sitting next to a youngish (mid-teens?) fellow who was saving like six seats. As the theater filled up, numerous people approached the seats and were turned away by the youngish fellow. This became increasingly awkward as we approached showtime and those six seats remained empty. I’m sure late arrivers saw them as a sort of seating mirage. People got testy: “You’re saving the seats? For who? Are they here?” Finally, after the lights had dimmed (!), his companions finally arrived. I think the moral of this story is, if you’re going to do something that annoys a large crowd of people, send a kid to do it for you. They are less likely to be accosted, and cheaper to treat if anything does in fact occur.)

This film didn’t really have any double- or triple-crossing, and I liked that. Good guys were good. Bad guys were bad, and often Russian. It couldn’t have been simpler, unless they’d worn pinnies or colored hats. Also missing: sexual tension, unresolved or otherwise. Despite the presence of an attractive female team member, no one was trying to get it on with her. Just like, y’know, EVERY ACTUAL WORKPLACE. Thank you.

So, yeah, this turned out to be a pretty good flick. Easier to grasp than the last one, with its rabbit’s feet and its Phillip Seymour Hoffman and its bombs exploding in people’s heads. This was good guys vs. bad guys, using gadgets, sometimes in sand storms. As in days of yore. Ooh-rah.

January 10, 2012

January 10, 2012

Posh Nosh

My (free) subscription to Bon Appetit magazine is only occasionally helpful. I don’t use it for cooking inspiration, since I don’t really cook. I don’t use it for eating inspiration, since the recommended restaurants are usually in New York City. I don’t use it for entertaining inspiration, since I hate people. But every once in a while, the mag will suggest something that I actually can enjoy. This month, that thing is Posh Nosh.

As far as I can tell, Posh Nosh was a 2003 series of cooking webisode parodies. The co-hosts are spouses the Honorable Simon Marchmont and his wife Minty. They run a fancy restaurant called The Quill and Tassel. As you might guess from his title, Simon is heir to one of those fancy estates people in Britain seem to have. (Apparently, there’s an entire subtext about how Minty is just a social-climber. It has to do with her accent and phraseology and whatnot. Crazy Britons.) Other running gags: Simon’s thinly-veiled homosexuality, the couple’s obsessive love for their dog, and a penchant for using only the best ingredients. Like Greek olives. That must be purchased in Greece.

Oh, and a confusing use of overly-florid verbs to describe cooking techniques. You don’t skin the potatoes, you “embarrass” them. You don’t boil the water, you “interrogate” it. And so on.

There are eight webisodes, each about 10 minutes long. Not a huge commitment. Here’s one of my favorites:

As a fan of Britons, food, satire, and the 1%, I find a lot to love here. Won’t you join me?

January 9, 2012

January 9, 2012

Things I’ve Read: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago

Chicago is a great town, innit? To call it “the New York of the Midwest” wouldn’t do it justice. Sure, it’s the Second City, but to anyone who grew up with casseroles and snow pants, Chicago was the place to be. If you were lucky, your parents took you there to see the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. To marvel at the Sears Tower. To peruse the wares on Michigan Avenue (and an actual American Girl store, squee!). If it weren’t for the snow, I would quite possibly be living there now.

Yet for all its current charm, Chicago has a pretty sordid history. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City recounts serial killings during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Everyone knows about the political corruption, which apparently continues rather unabated. Chicago is the kind of town where gangsters, bootleggers, and stockyard workers co-mingle with those American Girl fans. The kind of town where Roxie Hart could kill a man and get away with it.

Oh, yeah, did you know that Roxie Hart was a real person? As the intern at my office would say, totes true.

Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago describes a string of women who committed various murders in 1920s Chicago and got away with it. (Technically, they were found “not guilty,” but we all know what THAT means.) The cases of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan inspired one female reporter to create Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. Chicago, which was first a (non-musical) stage show, then a silent film, then a talking film, then a Bob Fosse musical, then a 2002 movie, lifted plotlines and even dialogue directly from the trials. If you’re at all familiar with any of Chicago’s iterations, you’ll have no problem following this book. They’re that similar.

(I myself personally love Chicago—it is my absolute favorite musical. While reading this book, I found myself mentally singing “They both, they both, reached for the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, for the gun” on an almost constant loop.)

So what factors allowed for the egregious injustice? How could Belva, Beulah, and the handful of others mentioned in the novel go free, even when evidence, testimony, and their own confessions pointed to guilt? Turns out it’s all about a pretty face. In 1920s Chicago, only men were allowed to serve on juries. And it’s just not gentlemanly to sentence a woman to death, you know. Hanging is so gruesome. And in Roxie’s Beulah’s case, you have the unborn baby to think about.

These women (and their counsel) knew how to play to the crowd. They purchased new clothes, they got makeovers, they displayed the posture and voice of helpless innocence. Sure, maybe they’d shot someone….but only because he was going to shoot them first! Or hurt them! Or ruin their virtue! They both reached for the gun!

The era’s sensational journalism just stirred the pot. In those days, reporters sat in on prison interviews, hung out at the police station, and even got close enough to murder scenes to get blood on their shoes. Since TV was non-existent, movies were silent, and radio was still young, newspapers were the shiznit and they knew it. A string of beautiful murderesses, sometimes rich and high society, were like a gift from above.

The epilogue, always my favorite part of any non-fiction work, reveals that most of the freed murderesses died shortly after the ‘20s, in relative obscurity. They left their husbands (again), moved far away, or both. The reporter who covered much of the trials, Maurine Watkins, never equaled the success of Chicago. But oh, what a one-hit wonder.

January 6, 2012

January 6, 2012

Pastimes of Auld Lang Syne, Day 4: Choose Your Own Adventure

The open of a new year is a good time to look forward at all you hope to accomplish during the next 365 days. Unfortunately, since the world is ending this year, there’s not a lot to look forward to. So I’ve decided to look back instead, writing about various phenomena I pursued as a youth. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. This is sorta like that.

I’m not sure where or when I was introduced to the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. They were ubiquitous at my public schools, so it was probably there that I first learned to make decisions like:

To take the elevator to the roof, turn to page 43.
To wait in the lobby for your guide, turn to page 119.

And you obviously chose the elevator, because a) there was a rocket on the roof and b) choices that far towards the end of the book almost always mean death.

(Yes, Virginia, there IS a strategy.)

We all know these books, right? A crazy scenario (you’re on the moon, you’re under the sea, you’re microscopic) whose plot is propelled by the choices you make. Some plotlines have a happy ending, some have a sad ending, and some send you flipping back and forth between the same two pages for all eternity because you’ve fallen into a wormhole or something.

Real life turned out to be a disappointment after all that excitement. Let’s be honest.

Even as a child, I was impatient and enamored of office supplies, so I had a bookmarking system for these books. Every time I came to a choice, I would mark the page with a Post-It. Once my current path reached an end, I’d go back to the first decision point, remove the Post-It, and follow the other choice. Through this process of elimination, I’d ensure that I followed every possible path in the most efficient way possible. Take THAT, Microsoft Project. Someone hand me a PMP certification, for real.

(Plus, if reincarnation turns out to allow for a similar system, I AM GOLDEN.)

They stopped making these books in 1998. A shame, though they certainly wouldn’t do as well in today’s digital age. When I was your age, the only virtual worlds we had were in our heads. No Facebook, or Farmville, or Words with Friends.* We used our imaginations, darnit, and we liked it!

* I’m medevam on Words with Friends. We should totally play a game.

January 5, 2012

January 5, 2012

Pastimes of Auld Lang Syne, Day 3: The FRIENDS Name Game

The open of a new year is a good time to look forward at all you hope to accomplish during the next 365 days. Unfortunately, since the world is ending this year, there’s not a lot to look forward to. So I’ve decided to look back instead, writing about various phenomena I pursued as a youth. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. This is sorta like that.

What’s your comfort TV show? I’m not asking about your favorite show. Your favorite show is the one you dress up and trot out at parties. The critically acclaimed and/or fantastically popular one. The one you take home to mother. When people ask me what my favorite show is, I say Mad Men.

But my comfort TV show? That’s Friends.* When I’m feeling depressed or bored, I turn on “The One With the Embryos” and all is well. You know who I’m NOT turning to when I’m depressed? Don Draper. I’m just saying.

A good comfort show is one you’ve seen so much of that you can quote scenes (yes, entire scenes). You should own at least one piece of memorabilia. You should know some serious trivia, too.

In fact, I realized that I knew so frakking much about Friends that I started a trivia website called “The FRIENDS Name Game.” It was part of that defunct GeoCities dealio I mentioned earlier, but it has been archived in all its Technicolor glory (sans pictures) here.

Really, I wanted to give other fans a reason to a) watch television even more obsessively, b) prove their superior intelligence, and c) be rewarded by public identification as A Smart Cookie. Coincidentally, these are also my personal life goals.

When I realized that I learned Chandler Bing’s bank account number (7143457) before I learned my own, I knew I had to use that power for good. And until GeoCities went bust, I did. Or at least, I tried. I composed a series of topical quizzes (food, animals, romantic relationships) whose answers could all be found in the shows.

Because let’s be real: grading people involves a lot of judgment calls. And I hate people, so only 1-2% of my judgments will be in favor. (As a jurist, I would be a prosecutor’s dream.) None of my questions were multiple choice, so people had to use spelling and logic skills.


Example: The answer to one of the questions was “Chanandler Bong.” (If you don’t know, don’t ask.) Now, I was willing to give people without closed captioning a break, so I’d take anything close. But, like, “George”? No. “asdf”? Really no. Why? Why would you not put in even a modicum of effort? Now I’m deleting your submission email because you’ve pissed me off. At least the “George” guy made a (poorly-educated) guess. Eesh.

*Runners-up: The West Wing (reminds me that government service has its moments) and Will & Grace. In fact, I prepare for my parents’ annual Thanksgiving visit by doing a marathon of W&G episodes. Keeps me from becoming completely homicidal when three people are shoved into 767 square feet and I have to wait to use my own effing bathroom.

January 4, 2012

January 4, 2012

Pastimes of Auld Lang Syne, Day 2: A Treasure’s Trove

The open of a new year is a good time to look forward at all you hope to accomplish during the next 365 days. Unfortunately, since the world is ending this year, there’s not a lot to look forward to. So I’ve decided to look back instead, writing about various phenomena I pursued as a youth. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. This is sorta like that.

Everybody knows the Where’s Waldo? books. And the I Spy series. You pore over a complicated picture until you spot the man in glasses, or the seashell, or what have you. Your reward is that satisfaction that you found that little scarf-wearing mofo.

Now imagine if Waldo was instead a woodland creature who could potentially lead you to $1 million of jewels. That was “A Treasure’s Trove.”

Released in 2004, “A Treasure’s Trove” was a semi-oblique tale of woodland creatures. I don’t think I ever actually read the book itself. I must’ve heard about it on the internet or TV. The hook was brilliant, of course: anyone could follow the clues to find one of twelve tokens hidden around the United States. Each token could be traded for a jeweled insect (ladybug, dragonfly, etc.) worth LOTS of money. We were told that the tokens were on public property, and not so hidden that you’d need to risk life or limb to get them. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean, but with less rum.

Sadly, I did not find any of the tokens. Many of them were hidden on public park land, and I try to avoid the outside.

The whole venture was funded by the book’s author, who also financed it. He made millions in software development, apparently, so this was just a fun side gig. You or I might build birdhouses from balsa wood. He self-publishes books and commissions jewelry. Not surprisingly, the company went bankrupt a few years ago. Turns out you have to sell a lot of semi-oblique tales of woodland creatures to recoup $1 million.

Who knows where the 12 winners are now? Do they still own the jeweled bugs? Were they sold on eBay? Pawned? Lost in a high-stakes game of Battleship? Who can say?

January 3, 2012

January 3, 2012

Pastimes of Auld Lang Syne, Day 1: The “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” MMORPG

The open of a new year is a good time to look forward at all you hope to accomplish during the next 365 days. Unfortunately, since the world is ending this year, there’s not a lot to look forward to. So I’ve decided to look back instead, writing about various phenomena I pursued as a youth. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. This is sorta like that.

It was a different world in 2001. We as a nation had no consciousness of the Kardashians, or Twitter, or 3D movies. Our entertainment was limited to two channels, talkies were just coming to fruition, and a young fella named Steven Spielberg was preparing to release a film called “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

While there were probably commercials, interviews, and Entertainment Tonight segments created to promote the film, the marketing people also decided to create an online game, later nicknamed the Beast. Clues were hidden in movie trailers and posters. Elaborate websites were involved, with entire plotlines and dozens of characters tangentially related to the film yet not part of it.

The gist of the game: in 2142, a man named Evan Chan died while on his AI-enhanced boat. All is not how it seems, of course, and players who investigated the death uncovered a world of conspiracy, weather control, anti-robot sentiment, pro-robot sentiment, education, and architecture. Many of us joined a Yahoo! Group (remember those) called the Cloudmakers. We pored over the internet, called phone numbers (and were called back!), and even rallied in person as part of the game. The blurring of reality and game was what put the experience over the top. Since the game creators (nicknamed the Puppetmasters) were just a step or two ahead of the Cloudmakers, questions and issues raised by the players would later show up in the game. The 1% were actually engaged with the 99%. (Did I just solve the Occupy movement?)

A guy named Adrian Hon wrote a guide to the game here. Sort of a narrative “this is what happened” type of deal. I printed it out, ten cents a page, at my local library. I still read it sometimes; it so perfectly encapsulates the Beast. The film itself turned out to be a letdown after its hoopla. MMORPG stands for “massively multiplayer online role-playing game,” and the twelve weeks of the Beast were certainly all of those things.