December 25, 2013

December 18, 2013

December 18, 2013

Investigate THIS, NCIS

I don’t mention it a lot, but NCIS is one of the shows in my regular rotation. I enjoy it for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that I’m secretly 65 years old. It’s generally light in tone (I had to stop watching CSI after the hundredth incestual blood splatter), it’s got great characters, and it’s set right here in my backyard.

As a bonus, the show is generally phenomenal at paying attention to detail. When they mention a place, it’s a real place. When they show a CAC (Common Access Card—the ID used to enter DOD facilities), it looks like a real CAC. Their technical advisor is on the ball, and I salute him or her along with the people who research and create props and graphics and things. I totally believe all of this is real.

Well, okay, except for this one little nitpicky thing I noticed in the most recent episode. Note the comparison of a dude’s Virginia driver’s license and his CAC:


While the format of each card, from the colors to the fonts, is perfect, take a look at the pictures. Even pretending for a moment that each card would use the same color blue background, and that he would have the exact same facial expression and appearance, WHO WEARS A SHIRT AND TIE TO THE DMV?

I’m working through this by telling myself the guy used the Pentagon branch of the DMV* to renew his license, so he was in work attire for the photo. They just didn’t have time to mention that in the episode.

Whew. Close one.

(P.S. What are we thinking of Ellie Bishop so far? I like her, but she's no Kate.)

* I’m told it’s real so let’s assume it’s real, okay?

December 12, 2013

December 12, 2013

New York New York

New York magazine recently announced it was switching to a bi-weekly publication schedule. Thus I will receive an issue every two weeks rather than every week. To clarify, this is a completely different magazine from the New Yorker, to which I do not subscribe. Probably because they never offer free subscriptions.

That’s how I got into NY mag in the first place, you see: they offered a free subscription deal online. I’m a big fan of the city, a big fan of magazines, and a huge fan of free things, so I signed up. I expected a monthly magazine with some interesting pictures and stories. What I got was a weekly dose of all things New York, along with fascinating stories about history, art, culture, business, politics, and other topics of national interest. In short, it’s a great periodical, regardless of your interest in the city itself.

One of the things I love about DC is its importance. That sounds terribly smug and self-aggrandizing, but the fact remains that DC’s news is the national news. Watch any network evening news program and you’ll see correspondents at the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, and other buildings near which I have spilled yogurt on myself. They call this “living the dream,” folks.

New York has a similar national influence. I’m pretty sure Mayor Bloomberg is North America’s second most recognized mayor right now after Rob Ford. Not to slight the heads of, y’know, St. Louis and Boise and stuff, but if one of them banned Big Gulps you probably wouldn’t hear much about it.

Anyway, because I go to NYC on a regular basis, I find the mag’s tips on new sights and upcoming events particularly helpful, and occasionally the reason for an impromptu trip there. (+1 for being childless!) Like this week, when I read about Myers of Keswick, a British grocery store near Chelsea. I no longer have to fly to the UK to get shrimp-flavored potato chips. Rule Britannia.

Look, I get a crapload of magazines, many of which I flip through in five minutes or less (sorry, Bazaar). But some magazines I savor, and NY mag is in that list. I’m sorry to see it cut back to bi-weekly, but at least it’s staying in print. (I find reading digital magazines excruciating.)

December 10, 2013

December 6, 2013

December 6, 2013

FY 2013 Books of the Year

Now that you’ve had some time to digest the also-rans, and now that I’ve had time to present them to friend-of-blog P for her birthday, allow me a moment to discuss three of the best books I read this year. It’s holiday shopping season, after all, and few things* make better gifts than books. Keep in mind that my reading tastes may not match yours, though keep in mind I have excellent taste in books.

NON-FICTION

Dad Is Fat
A collection of comedic essays on parenting by Jim Gaffigan. Before reading this book, I knew Gaffigan only as the guy who played a version of young David Letterman (Indiana weatherman-cum-funny-guy) on a short-lived sitcom a few years ago. I’d never seen the Hot Pockets bit or any other of his routines. And I obviously wasn’t looking for something to increase my appreciation of parenting, because the No Babies Here policy remains in full effect.

Which is why I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this book. I laughed. A lot. Because Gaffigan is the rare** parent who realizes that parenting is terrible. It’s loud, messy, and exhausting all at once. It’s expensive and logistically difficult, especially when you live in a large city. In short, this is a book written by a parent BUT with sympathy towards non-parents.

The best book I read this year in the biographical, comedic, and essay collection genres.

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
My 2013 was full of trivia. Even more so than usual. I participated in the World Quizzing Championships. I won scads of money on a TV quiz show. I tested for Mensa.*** I found myself needing to know a lot of things about a lot of things, and my modus operandi in these situations has always been to read voraciously. Among the books about history, biology, and geography, I consumed this gem about the elements.

It’s probably been a while since you considered the periodic table, if ever you did. (I myself was always more of a biology person, because classification soothes my inner obsessive compulsive.) But it turns out that that grid contains some fascinating characters. Learn how they got their names, how they were discovered, and some of the freaky things they can do.

The best nonfiction book I read this year, and the better of the two I read specifically on the periodic table.


FICTION

 
Calling Me Home
One of the authors I greatly admire posted her summer reading list online, and I tried to read every book on it. Alas, they tended mostly towards vaguely-romantic fiction. Couples separated for various reasons, kids estranged from parents, and the like. If I’m going to read about kids, I want them thrown into an arena fighting to the death.

But calling me home, about an interracial relationship in a pre-Civil Rights Era America, managed to rise above the fray. It’s a little like The Help.**** There’s a big twist about ¾ of the way through, and it made me sob like a ridiculous person. The novel simultaneously tells stories set in the past and in the present, and they show both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. But all that Big Idea stuff aside, it’s just a good story.

The best fiction book I read this year (that I also feel good about recommending to people).

So that’s me. What did you read and like this year? My roster for 2014 needs filling.

* Cash, property, vacations, and vital organs excepted.
** As far as I can tell, anyway. If I never again hear from a parent about how wonderful their kid is, it will be too soon. Unless I’m related to it, I don’t want to know. Sometimes not even then.
*** Results not in as of press time.
**** This year’s Gone Girl was Before I Go to Sleep, which I read with a growing sense of dread. I didn’t want to stop reading, but I also didn’t want to keep reading. Open at your own risk.

December 2, 2013

December 2, 2013

What Happened in Vegas, Part 4

I’m going to combine the last two days of my Vegas trip into one entry because I didn’t do all that much on the very last day of the trip and also it’s taken me two freaking months to write these four measly recaps. Honestly, I’d consider a recall-the-blogger petition if I were you.

My first stop was the Hoover Dam. (Pretend I made a series of clever puns on the word “dam” here.) Though the Dam is in fact run by the federal government, and though the government was still sequestrated down at the time, the Dam was open because it’s funded by revenue collected through fees. For my friends in the federal budgeting world, it was a revolving fund situation. For my friends not in the federal budgeting world, it means I got to go on, in, and around the Dam.




Oh, and the nearby Callahan Bridge, which was built so regular people could avoid the tourist traffic chaos of the Dam.

IMO, just as spectacular as the Dam.

I love the Art Deco era, and the stylings of such novels as The Great Gatsby and The Fountainhead (if not the novels themselves), so I totally dug the feel of the Dam. Say what you will about the 1930s; those people built things to LAST.

Things like this cue up Rhapsody in Blue in my head. MURICUH.

On the way back to Vegas, our tour bus driver stopped near Lake Mead (actually for serious closed due to the slimdown) so we could get some pictures from afar.

Shouldn't it be tarped or something?

Once I got back to the Strip, I was drawn like a moth to a flame to the World of Coke store. Specifically, their tasting tray: 16 samples of Coke products sold around the world.

Definitely let the colors freak you out. They're a hint of the danger ahead.

I consider myself a champion Coke drinker, averaging at my peak four cans a day. But even split between me and TheBoy, this tray did us in. Also doing us in: flavors like cucumber, pine nut, and Beverly. Beverly is served in Italy and we thought it tasted like death. Fun!

I knew I had to see the Strip at night, because it was my best chance of finding Ocean’s Eleven it’s entirely different then than during the day. The Bellagio fountain looks different:


You’ve got the Mirage volcano:


And don’t forget the freakishly-bright column of light emanating from the Luxor:


It’s like Christmas decorations. Some look best during the day, some during the night. And rarely do those two groups overlap.

So will I ever go back? I think I probably will, once enough years have passed. Maybe for my 40th birthday. I need to see whether David Copperfield has aged at all, and if perhaps Beverly tastes better when you’re old(er).

November 19, 2013

November 19, 2013

Hulu Originals

I was reminded during a brief Twitter conversation with friends of blog M and D that Hulu is a wealth of original/exclusive programming these days. As if you didn’t have enough to watch between television, film, and the crazy show being put on by the dude across the street. (That last one applicable only to urban apartment dwellers.) We’re living during the best age of entertainment since bread and circuses. (GLADIATOR!)

But back to Hulu. They dipped their toe in the original programming pool with Battleground, a series I enjoyed a great deal. It was about politics. It was set in Wisconsin. Friend of blog M worked on it. And so on. This was a series that radiated quality, despite the fact that it aired on a website and not a network. (These days, they’re becoming the same thing.)

And Hulu’s been purchasing and airing various British productions, including Spy, Whites, and QI—some of which you may be able to find on YouTube elsewhere, sure, but still. Spy is a bit like a British version of Chuck (or so I assume, having only the vaguest idea what Chuck was about). Same with Whites and Kitchen Confidential. QI, short for Quite Interesting, is a panel show that teaches me more in 30 minutes than some of my college classes taught me in a semester. Word.

Currently, two Hulu shows are tickling my fancy.

Behind The MaskThe first is Behind the Mask, which follows the lives of four mascots at different levels: high school, college, semi-pro, and professional. They’re scattered across the country, from Las Vegas to Pennsylvania. Some of them are just doing the job while it’s convenient. Others have made it a life calling. I’m pleased to report that the dude who plays Bango (of your humble blogger’s very own MILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLWAUKEE BUCKS!) is not only amazing at it; he loves doing it.

Not as much of the show is dedicated to logistics, but they’re definitely in play. Those costumes are hot. Block your sightlines. Make it even harder to do cartwheels, or slam dunks, or whatever crazy routine you had in mind to pump up da crowd. Plus you’ve got to come up with dances and stunts, get along with the players, keep the peace with your parents/spouse/children…cripes.

In this era, when every profession under the sun has its own reality show, it’s refreshing to get a series about a job I’m actually interested in. Nothing against loggers, truckers, fishers, cupcake artists, duck call makers, beauty pageant contestants, or the Kardashians. But still.

The Wrong MansBut let me also mention The Wrong Mans, about two lowly municipal government employees pulled into a Jack Bauer kind of day. The main character played the sidekick on Spy, so don't keep asking where Tim is (as I did), because they're different shows entirely. It's set in Britain, and chock-full of comedic misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and general incompetence. Think David Brent pretending to be James Bond. I believe it's limited to six half-hour episodes, so the entire time commitment is barely three hours. You know you've wasted more time on movies that weren't half as deserving.

November 18, 2013

November 18, 2013

What Happened in Vegas, Part 3

The third day of my trip to Vegas ended up involving the three Cs: chocolate, cactus, and Copperfield. Pretty standard desert stuff, really.

The chocolate refers to Ethel M, the fancy-schmancy branch of Mars. Y’know, the M&Ms people. TheBoy has a long-standing family connection to the company, so I’m only allowed to eat Hershey bars in secret. (Not really, but I pretend.) Ethel M has a factory in Henderson that you can tour (!) and that gives out free samples (!!) and that is accessible by public transportation in case you’re a tourist without a rental car (!!!).

Indeed, we took not one but two buses to the factory, and I was pretty proud of myself for figuring out how to do that. (My second-finest public transportation-related hour, after the time I rode the bus in LA. That was a scene straight out of Southland.)

Can you spot the heart containers? They were producing for Valentine’s Day already.

For some reason, the Ethel M factory has a delightful cactus garden outside. Because it’s in the desert? Because the Mars family is really into cacti? Because they’re secretly putting cactus in the M&Ms? Perhaps all three. But for your humble Wisconsin-raised, Virginia-living blogger, getting to see a real-live cactus was sorta mind-blowing.

In the books of my childhood, these were always wearing sombreros.

Called the purple pancake cactus, for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

It may always be Christmas in Vegas, though I doubt it’s ever snowy. Rendering these snowmen even more incongruous.

The evening was spent watching David Copperfield make stuff appear and make stuff disappear and pretty much Blow Everyone’s Minds just as he did during the television specials of my youth. No pictures because I'm pretty sure they would have executed me on stage and I'm too young to die in a non-food related event.

After the magick show, I played $1 at a penny slot machine (walked away with $2.32 so booyah) and spent not a little time Googling the secrets behind David Copperfield’s tricks. You’d think that sort of thing would be easier to find out these days. It isn’t. The magician’s guild apparently has a pretty close hold on the internet.

In part 4: A dam, Vegas after dark, and a drink named Beverly.

November 4, 2013

November 4, 2013

What Happened in Vegas, Part 2

My birthday trip was happening smack dab in the middle of what has been referred to variously as a government shutdown, a government slimdown, sequestration, and WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THEY’VE CLOSED THE GRAND CANYON?

It was that last one that worried me most, because one of the side trips I’d planned for my time in Vegas was a visit to said canyon. Turns out it’s not that far away, despite being in a completely different state. (Now that I live in the DC area, jaunting from state-to-state isn’t nearly as exotic to me as it seemed when I was a kid. Growing up in Wisconsin, out of state license plates are cause for excitement. Until you realize it’s just Illinois. BEARS SUCK.)

So I spent August and September haplessly planning for my once-in-a-lifetime 30th birthday trips to the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. Tra la freaking la. Then the government shut/slimmed/sequestered down and I would say I was up a creek without a paddle except the National Parks Service had barricaded off the entire creek. Closed for business.

But wait! Turns out that not all of government shut down, for reasons many and varied. In my specific case, both the Grand Canyon* and Hoover Dam** were open. At which point I stopped paying attention to the news because GRAND CANYON.


The West Rim is operated by a Native American tribe, and they do their best to make you feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of a John Wayne movie. Complete with western village:

In my opinion, the orange safety cone just adds to the ambiance.

And wagon rides. Oregon Trail, anyone?

You have died of dysentery.

To be fair, my favorite part was the meal:

Not pictured: The rest of my chicken, and all of TheBoy's chicken, which I also ate.

Shuttle buses moved us from lookout point to lookout point. And though it was cold and windy, at least I got to see the thing.

It was so cold, the Hualapai were selling a boatload of Grand Canyon hoodies. I toughed it out, but barely.

In part 3: The Candyman can ‘cause he mixes it with love. And cacti. Also, David Copperfield blows my brain. Figuratively.

* The West Rim of the Grand Canyon is operated by the sovereign Hualapai Nation.
** The Hoover Dam is funded by fees, and so is not subject to authorization by appropriation. Real life West Wing is boring.

October 31, 2013

October 30, 2013

October 30, 2013

Love It More Than Sharks Love Blood

House of Cards, I’m confident to report, is the best thing I’ve seen on television this year.

That’s right: on television. Despite its release on Netflix, and thus possible categorization as some sort of online production, its style and its substance absolutely rank it with the very best “traditional” TV has to offer.

For goodness’ sake, watch it now. Or read the little bit I’m going to say about it, and then watch it. (Spoiler alerts, because I suspect a number of events from the British version will play out in seasons 2 and following of the US version.)

The series is based on a British production. Three four-hour miniseries from the 1990s. I watched them before the US version came out, partially to prepare but also because I love British politics even more than almost as much as even more than I love American ones. Obviously, some things had to be adapted for the US market, due to our not having a Parliament and all.

(But oh if ONLY…)

I’m not going to waste your time by talking plot; you likely have some idea of what the show’s about already. (Or have even seen it yourself; I’m quite late to the party, I know.) Rather, I’m going to do a bit of a compare/contrast analysis, because now that I’m no longer a student my opportunities for such criticism are sadly lacking.

What I Liked

Claire Underwood. The British version had four hours to cover the events in HoC; the US version had thirteen. Understandable, then, that certain events and roles were either created or elongated to fill the time. The best example is this character. The wife in the British version was seen little and heard even less. But here, Robin Wright Penn gets a job and a personality and is pretty much the thinking woman’s dreamgirl.

The down and dirty dealmaking. As much as we all like to pretend that politics is full of idealists, it’s actually full of pragmatists that owe each other. The job of the whip—and thus the focus of HoC—is making deals. We got to see a lot more of that here than in the British version, or perhaps it’s that the deals make more sense to me when they’re American (e.g. getting the CoS’s kid into Stanford) rather than British (pretty much every constituent issue raised on any given Prime Minister’s Questions).

Stamper. In the British version, Tim Stamper was scary. In the US version, Doug Stamper scared the living shit out of me. Exactly as he should.

What I Didn’t Like

The Sentinel. Here, the dark side of having more hours to fill. I didn’t mind SC peach/butt kerfufflegate, because we mustn’t forget that even the House leadership has to deal with silly home state issues. But the entire hour spent at Underwood’s alma mater, drunken revelry and possible homosexuality included, advanced the plot how, exactly?

WARNING, MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Zoey Barnes is still alive. At the end of the British HoC miniseries (again, that’s the first four hours of twelve), Francis Urquhardt pushes Mattie Storin off the roof of the Houses of Parliament. She dies, people. And she’s become quite meddlesome by that point, so we FoUs (Friends of Urquhardt) kind of enjoy it. Now, I realize that Kate Mara is a big name and everything, but Zoey has become just as meddlesome as Mattie was. TheBoy and I spent the first twelve hours listing buildings we thought she would get pushed off of. Disappointing.

(For those of you who really want to know, here’s a bit of a tease: The DVD lists four names: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, and Corey Stoll. By the end of the British version, three of those characters are dead. Dun dun DUN!)
                                                                                              
THE SPOILER ALERTS ARE OVER. PLEASE RETURN YOUR SEATS TO THEIR UPRIGHT AND LOCKED POSITIONS.

The sexting. I’m a leetle doubtful that someone of Francis’s position and age would be such a skilled texter. (At least it was a BlackBerry, though.) And don’t give me the Anthony Weiner argument; Francis has a good decade plus on Underwood. I know men of Underwood’s generation. I work with men of Underwood’s generation. I’m related to men of Underwood’s generation. They don’t text. Related: When Francis calls Zoey, he pops up on her caller ID as “Francis Underwood.” REALLY?

Where do we go from here? I have a few ideas, but I don’t want to spoil more than I already have. Because the ending of the British version is a doozy. I will say that I don’t think this ends with the Vice Presidency, anyway.

October 28, 2013

October 28, 2013

What Happened in Vegas, Part 1

Though I’d planned for years to spend my 30th birthday in and around Las Vegas, it wasn’t until recently that I picked specifics. I knew that I wanted to visit the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. I knew that I wanted to see a magic show. I knew that I wanted to rob the Mirage, the Bellagio, and the MGM Grand on a fight night. And I knew that I wanted to eat half my body weight in shrimp.

Government shutdown notwithstanding, I accomplished almost all of these aims.

The first day of the trip, October 8, was my actual birthday. Because I flew west, the magic of time zones meant that my birthday actually lasted for 27 hours. It also meant that by the time I landed, I was starving like a mofo. Thankfully, that was quickly rectified.

Let’s pretend this is all I ate.

I’d heard good things about the Fremont Street Experience, which turned out to be a sort of covered arcade lined with older casinos and shops.


But also with the Heart Attack Grill, which I for some reason always assumed was in the South.

If only I hadn’t already eaten lunch.

Since I was downtown (rather than on the Strip), I decided to also check out Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, of Pawn Stars fame. I progressed from “I’ll just ride past it on the bus” to “I’ll just take pictures of the outside” to “I’ll just pop in for a bit if the line isn’t too long.” Don’t worry; this story doesn’t end with my buying an antique sword or anything.

It was much smaller than it looks on TV. That’s what she said.

The rest of day one was spent wandering the Strip, marveling at the size of the casinos and the lack of open container laws. My favorite bit was the Bellagio fountain, which uses so much water it blocked out the freaking sun.


In part 2: The Grand Canyon, dysentery, and my grateful thanks to the Hualapai Nation.

October 25, 2013

October 25, 2013

FY 2013 Book of the Year: The Contenders

I read a lot of books. A lot. Combine long commutes with a love of books and you realize you consistently get through two or three tomes a week. It adds up. It also means there are simply too many for me to write in detail about, deserving as they may be. I try to mention the best of the best, but as I recently compiled a shortlist to buy for friend-of-blog P’s upcoming birthday, I realize that there was more to be said.

These are some of the best books I read in the 12 months since friend-of-blog P’s last birthday, the dates of which roughly coincide with the federal government’s fiscal year. Without further ado, the also-rans for my Book of the Year:


NON-FICTION

America, You Sexy Bitch
In which Meghan McCain (daughter of John) and comedian Michael Ian Black take a roadtrip across this crazy country of ours. They stop in states both red and blue, and meet folks of her conservative ilk and his liberal one. Funny and unexpectedly touching.

Self-Inflicted Wounds
It’s possible to have a crazy upbringing and still turn out leggy and hilarious. Aisha Tyler did it, and she doesn’t shy from the punches. Chapters have titles like “The Time I Accidentally Set Myself on Fire.” Loved it.

Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture
Short (and I mean short) essays on the philosophy of different quotes from books, film, TV. “Wax on, wax off” isn’t just a catchy saying. It’s a way of life.


FICTION

The Engagements
Which traces the lifetime of one diamond ring through a number of owners. “Diamonds are forever” was coined to sell more diamonds around the Mad Men era. But in a technical sense, it’s true; diamonds are tough little mofos, and pretty hard to destroy. This book is like a neat nesting-doll set of stories. Barely missed the shortlist.

Seating Arrangements
A novel of manners similar to The Engagements, but set over the weekend of a wedding. Unlike HIMYM’s current season, though, it’s enjoyable.

Before I Go to Sleep
Think Memento, but not told backwards. Each day, the main character wakes up with no memory of what happened since she had a major traumatic car accident (spoiler: or was it?). At some point, she started journaling her days, and this journal becomes her lifeline as she pieces together wtf really happened to her. This year’s Gone Girl. Chilling in a completely-absorbing way.

Lexicon
In which certain people can use magic/superpowers/whatever-you-wanna-call-it to control and even injure other people. It’s a sort of messed-up sci-fi love story, and I loved it.

Amped
If you liked Robopocalypse, you’ll like this. Same author, more robots. Specifically, humans with robotic enhancements. Imagine, if you will, that a small chip implanted in the brain, could cure a number of neurological diseases: Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and the like. Amazing, right? Nobel award-winning stuff, right? Now imagine that that same chip, implanted in a “normal” brain, creates superintelligence. Which some (specifically, those who can’t afford it) would call an unfair advantage.

Actually, hang on. I need to write a fuller review of this one. Stay tuned.

These aren't the three very best books I read; I'll tell you about those later. And there are many others that I read and didn't care for, or at least didn't care for as much as I liked all of these. Start here, and stay tuned for my top three.