Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Volume 6, Number 17: New Food Discoveries

Here are a few food-related discoveries I made earlier this month (the first two of which, I admit, I should have realized sooner except that some stupid and/or lazy thinking got in the way):

Pre-sweetened cereals aren't such a good deal.  Three weeks ago, Kroger had selected varieties of Kellogg's cereals on sale for $1.99, and two of those varities were the 17-oz. box of Frosted Flakes and the 12-oz. box of Corn Flakes. A few years ago, I would have snatched up the Frosted Flakes, based off of the belief that I would be getting 5 more ounces for the same price. But it dawned on me, part of that 17 ounces of Frosted Flakes has got to be sugar. And I need to cut pre-sweetened cereals out of my diet. So I went about figuring out how much cereal I would really be getting, by reading the Nutrition Facts box (seen here.) The math goes like this:
  • A 30-gram serving of Frosted Flakes contains 11 grams of sugar--so it stands to reason that a little over a third of a box of Frosted Flakes is sugar.
  • Considering the entire 17-ounce box, that box has 6.23 ounces of sugar and just 10.77 ounces of actual cereal.
Now I understood why my parents always thought pre-sweetened cereals were expensive (as well as unhealthy): They did the math. At long last, I picked the 12-ounce box of Corn Flakes over the 17-ounce 10.77-ounce box of Frosted Flakes.

Just because something comes in a mix doesn't mean it's hard to make!  Evidently, when it comes to cooking, I have been depending way too much on mixes. Brownies are a prime example--for the last ten years, the only way I ever made them was out of a mix (with Duncan Hines being my personal favorite). How ignorant I was. Earlier this month, I found out that brownies are easy to make--I already had all the ingredients for this simple recipe in the house, including a few I had hardly been using:
  • Cocoa: Last year, I bought a canister of unsweetened cocoa with the idea that I could use it to make hot cocoa in the wintertime, only to find that I'm not in the mood for cocoa nearly as much as I was in my childhood. So it had been sitting in my cupboard for a while (thank goodness it doesn't expire until 2014). Then I saw the recipe linked above on the back of the canister.
  • Flour (I bought it for making bread in my breadmaker, but it's something I don't do very often--not when I can get a loaf of bread for a buck most of the time)
  • Sugar (I bought it for making Kool-Aid, but I had given up Kool-Aid when I switched to diet drinks, so I wasn't using that as much)
  • Vanilla extract (I bought it eight years ago to use in a granola bar mix my mother gave me, but between then and a few weeks ago, I had not used it)
Imagine brownies suddenly appearing out of nowhere.  That's what this "discovery" felt like to me.  Making them without a mix could be cheaper than those boxed mixes, too (it's not often that the Duncan Hines mix goes on sale).  I've already made the above recipe a few times.

Steak sauce gives a kick to one flavor of Hamburger Helper: I used to consider the Beef Pasta version of Hamburger Helper to be one of the more boring varieties, one I'd have "once in a while". That is, until I had the idea of stirring in a little A-1 Steak Sauce. That makes all the difference in the world to be because I bleeping LOVE the taste of A-1.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Volume 6, Number 16: Diet Soda Reviews, Part VII (and a Coke Freestyle Update)

Diet Barq's Root Beer: Thumbs up. It's a different root beer flavor than Diet A&W--my guess is, Barq's is sharper (hence the slogan "Barq's got bite"), while A&W is creamier and not quite as strong. Bottom line, Diet Barq's is chug-worthy.  There's only one reason why it took so long for me to try this soda: My local grocery stores only make certain sodas available in cans but not in bottles, which sucks because the per-ounce price for soda in cans tends to be much more expensive than soda in bottles***.  Diet Barq's Root Beer is one of those sodas.

Diet Sierra Mist Ruby Splash: Thumbs WAY up. I like this a lot, partly because I like grapefruit-flavored sodas like Squirt and Fresca, and adding some grapefruit to Diet Sierra Mist is a home run for PepsiCo. The lemon-lime Diet Sierra Mist is available in both 2-liter bottles and cans, but for some reason, like Diet Barq's Root Beer, I have only ever found the Ruby Splash version in cans.

Kroger Diet Big K Citrus Drop Xtreme: On the fence (but only because, as I mentioned back in Volume 6, Number 9, I was never a big fan of Mountain Dew in the days when I drank "regular" sodas). I would drink it if there was nothing else in my fridge, but I can name 20 diet sodas I like better. That said, I suspect that if you like Diet Mountain Dew, you'd like Diet Big K Citrus Drop or Diet Big K Citrus Drop Xtreme.

Walmart Diet Dr. Thunder - On the fence. At least it didn't insult Dr Pepper the way Walmart's diet root beer offering insulted Diet A&W and Diet Barq's. But for what it's worth, it's not often that I go to Walmart for anything, so there isn't much point in buying a soda when the only place where you can return the bottle is a store you don't often go to.

Dr Pepper Ten - Thumbs up. This tastes even more like regular Dr Pepper than Diet Dr Pepper does. Maybe a tiny little bit of high fructose corn syrup (10 calories per 12 oz. serving) makes a big difference. I wonder what Cherry Vanilla, Cherry Chocolate or Raspberry Creme versions of Dr Pepper Ten would taste like if they existed (these are all varieties of Diet Dr Pepper than used to exist but no longer do).

Diet Coke with Cherry - On the fence. Not to be confused with Coke Cherry Zero (which I like). I liked it, but not quite as much as Coke Cherry Zero.

Coming soon: Diet Mountain Dew Code Red.  I bought a 12-pack of this at the same time that I bought the 12-pack of the Diet Sierra Mist Ruby Splash (it's yet another soda that I can only find in cans but not 2-liter bottles).

One more thing: I mentioned the Coca-Cola Freestyle Machine over a year ago.  Now it's available in many more locations, including several in Michigan, the closest of which is a burger restaurant in Auburn Hills (about 20 miles north of me).  And earlier today, Coca-Cola announced that it would install the machines at over 800 Burger King restaurants (note: that's only restaurants owned by BK, not those franchised by BK). The dream of tasting Coke Orange Zero, Coke Raspberry Zero, Coke Lemon Zero, Diet Barq's Vanilla, the various flavors of Sprite Zero, and a 50/50 mix of Fanta Cherry Zero and Fanta Lime Zero may come true in 2012!

*** For example, you might be able to find a 2-liter bottle of your favorite soda on sale for $1, which is 1.48 cents per ounce; you're lucky if you can get a 12-pack of cans of that same soda for $3, in which case it would run you 2.08 cents per ounce, which is over 40% more expensive.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Volume 6, Number 15: Introducing the XBA

OK, let me get this straight about the labor situation in the NBA... you've got greedy owners saying they're losing money, players making ridiculous amounts of money to play a game that's cheaper to play than baseball, football or hockey, and a commish who's been known to talk about expanding his league overseas when there are a dozen TV markets in North America that would be thrilled to have NBA teams.  No wonder more people like college basketball better (never mind for the moment that a lot of its players are "overpaid" in that they get full scholarships to play when their grades suck).

Here's my question: Why hasn't someone tried to create a new league to fill the void?  After all, basketball is a cheaper in terms of expenses (virtually no equipment such as pads, helmets, gloves or sticks; 12-man rosters, smaller than the other 3 "big league" sports; just a wood floor, which is cheaper to maintain than grass or ice; and a couple of hoops).

The fictitious teams listed below represent twelve markets that are larger than Memphis (the 48th largest TV market) but DON'T have NBA teams, and would constitute the equally fictitious XBA (a reference to Vince  McMahon's XFL, a football league that fizzled in 2001; I have sworn up and down that McMahon should have started up the XBA due to the aforementioned lower costs, plus you could have pyrotechnics going off after particularly dazzling dunks, long 3-point shots and game-winning shots).

Cincinnati Scorch - OK, this is one I came up with back in 5th grade for a football league I dreamed up. I like names with alliteration in them (Pittsburgh Penguins, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Drive, Denver Dynamite, Boston Braves, Miami Marlins, etc.). Cincinnati used to have an NBA team called the Royals; they are now known as the Sacramento Kings.
Pittsburgh Pisces - Named after the fictitious team featured in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, a 1979 film starring Julius Erving and Stockard Channing. It wouldn't be the first time a pro team named itself after a movie--remember the NHL's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim?
Kansas City Steers - Named for the local cattle ranching industry. Oddly enough, there used to be a professional basketball team in Kansas City in the early 1960s called the Steers.  Another thing, too, KC has a relatively new arena now (the Sprint Center) to lure NBA and NHL teams.
St. Louis Rhinos - St. Louis is home to one pro team named after a horned animal that starts with "R" (the NFL's Rams). Why not another? Besides, this city very nearly got the NBA's Grizzlies from Vancouver: In 1999, Bill Laurie offered to buy that team and move it to St. Louis, but David Stern blocked the sale, citing his desire for the team to succeed in Vancouver. One year later, Stern approved the sale to a Chicago businessman named Michael Heisley, who promised to make every effort to make things work in Vancouver, and in 2001, he moved the team to Memphis. Now, the only difference I saw between Laurie's offer and Heisley's is that Laurie told the truth about what he planned to do with the team, whereas Heisley made a promise he had no intention of keeping.  Way to double-standardize, David Stern.  Bad enough you've stolen players from teams that sorely needed them via your Draft Lottery, but you stole the NBA from St. Louis as well.

Birmingham Maulers - Named after the local steel industry (another steel town, Pittsburgh, once had a USFL team called the Maulers). This city has hosted franchises in the World Football League, Canadian Football League, United States Football League and the XFL.
Jacksonville Jackals - Jacksonville's support for the USFL Bulls (1984-85) was the reason why it beat out St. Louis, Baltimore and Memphis for an NFL expansion franchise in 1995. It's also one of the bigger cities among those listed here. The Jackals nickname comes from the short-lived UPN action/adventure show Deadly Games, whose main villain, Sebastian Jackal, was a video game "big bad" come to life following a freak accident.
Nashville Hee-Haws - Named after the syndicated comedy show. The LA Lakers can keep Jack Nicholson. The Hee-Haws would love to give Reese Witherspoon free mid-court tickets for life.
Tampa Bay Barracudas - I don't know if barracudas are common in Tampa Bay, but they are got to be more common there than in Birmingham (the Canadian Football League once had a team called the Birmingham Barracudas). This team would have to compete with the NHL's Lightning for attention, but it's not like Tampa was ever a hockey hotbed.

Las Vegas High Rollers - A high risk--"Due in part to perceived risks with legal sports betting, no major professional sports league has ever had a team in Las Vegas" according to this Wikipedia article. But it is one of the largest cities in the United States without a major league sports team and it has been a candidate to get a relocated NBA team in the past (for example, the then-owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, Howard Schultz, talked to ownership groups from Las Vegas, St. Louis and Kansas City before deciding to sell to Clay Bennett, who moved the franchise to Oklahoma City).
San Diego Avispas - "Avispa" is Spanish for wasp. Having a Spanish nickname would appeal to basketball fans just south of the border. Hey, it worked for the Padres in Major League Baseball, didn't it?  And no, the home jerseys would NOT say "Los Avispas," just "Avispas".
Seattle Cyberpunks - Hey, Microsoft isn't far from here, and remember, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen helped save the NFL's Seahawks from moving to Los Angeles back in the '90s. I considered naming this team after the local music scene (which brought us Jimi Hendrix in the late '60s and the grunge bands of the early '90s) but "Rock Stars" and "Grunge" just didn't resonate with me. This team could enjoy a Pacific Northwest regional rivalry with the team listed right below it...
Vancouver Beachcombers - Named for those who travel coastlines to track down and salvage logs that have broken away from barges and/or logging booms, as well as a long-running Canadian TV series about two men who did just that.

Well, there you have it... a 12-team league.  Now, I realize this league doesn't have teams in many major TV markets and therefore would have a hard time competing with a healthy, fully operational NBA, but hey, if things keep going the way they've been going, maybe a number of NBA teams would "secede" and join the XBA.  We can dream, can't we?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Volume 6, Number 14: I'm Not the One with My Face on Some Wack-Ass Cap'n Crunch

I haven't made a blog entry in a while so here are a bunch of quick updates:

The Penn State football child sexual abuse scandal: Truth be told, I didn't know a thing about it until Saturday when that sicko, Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator, got arrested and charged with 40 counts of molesting young boys.  From there, in just a few days, what looked like one sick man being arrested morphed into one exemplary and clean program (high graduation rate, no gifts or money like USC several years back or SMU in the early '80s, no "Pro Combat" uniforms or even helmet logos) has been reduced to a tarnished, corroded shell.  Head coach Joe Paterno was fired and president Graham Spanier were fired Wednesday night by the Penn State Board of Trustees.  Two other things that shocked me right off the bat: First, this isn't the first time that a charity was set up to help wayward boys, then used for the sexual abuse of those boys.  Father Bruce Ritter set up Covenant House in 1972 and at least four men later said that Fr. Ritter engaged in sexual activities with them.  Sandusky set up a charity called The Second Mile in 1999 and it was through that charity that he molested those boys (most of whom are now young men, and all of whom will have to deal with damaged, violated lives for the rest of their lives).  Scandals like these really hurt charities that do help young boys.  Second, the rioting in the wake of Paterno's firing (including turning over a TV news satellite van)--does it occur to these schmucks that there are more important things in life than college football?

The Tigers: I was amazed by them this past season.  Despite having to patch up a bunch of holes with players that would never have been drafted in my fantasy league in a million parallel universes (Andy Dirks? Al Albuquerque? Danny Worth?), they won their first division title since 1987.  Hats off to Tigers manager Jim Leyland and team president Dave Dombrowski.  A couple of days after they lost to the Texas Rangers in the AL Championship Series, some idiot posted on ""No team finds more ways to LOSE than the Leyland/Dumbrowski Tigers."  My response to this stupid comment: "We all need to be grateful for the work that Leyland and Dombrowski have put together in making the Tigers what they are today. Before Leyland took over as their manager, the Tigers had exactly TWO winning seasons between 1989 and 2005--a 17-season span that included four seasons of 100 losses or more and Randy Smith's near-destruction of the team. They have had five winning seasons since. Mitch Albom once said that Sparky Anderson was great at getting the best out of his team no matter what, "folding the rag for every drop," and Leyland has been great at that as well. The rag just came up dry in the ALCS against the Rangers, that's all. Dave Dombrowski has drafted or traded for many of the Tigers' key players since taking over as the team's GM in 2002. It's no surprise they have been so successful here; after all, they succeeded elsewhere (Leyland with the Pirates and Marlins; Dombrowski with the Expos and Marlins, and incidentally, the Pirates and Expos/Nationals haven't seen much success since they left)."

The Lions: After a 5-0 start (their first since 1956), they are now 6-2.  Again, I give serious props to Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew.  The Lions have done a much better job of drafting under Mayhew than I had expected (especially considering that Mayhew made very different decisions than I would have made at key points in the 2009 draft--he took TE Brandon Pettigrew with the 20th overall pick when I would have gone with OT Michael Oher, and FS Louis Delmas at #33 when I would have opted for a linebacker, either James Laurinaitis or Rey Maualuga).  Matthew Stafford is healthy--knock on wood--and when they can run the ball, they can win.  All in all, it's a 180-degree turnaround from the Hell of the Matt Millen years.

Funniest video in recent months: Epic Rap Battles of History #13: Mr. T vs. Mr. Rogers.  Mr. Rogers absolutely pwned Mr. T in this one in my opinion.  Epic Rap Battles of History is a series of short videos featuring rap battles between historical and/or fictitious figures (Darth Vader vs. Adolf Hitler, Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare, etc.)  

I don't know if I've ever said it before, but I still consider the greatest acting performance I've ever seen to be Martin Landau's Academy Award-winning portrayal of Bela Lugosi in the 1994 Tim Burton biopic, Ed Wood.  (Here's a clip from the film--warning for you little kids out there, there's some swearing in this one.)  Landau, for me, defined what it meant to disappear into a character to the point that you wouldn't recognize the actor, and keep in mind, Lugosi was both a real person and an actor himself.  His performance was so good that if anyone wanted to remake a film Lugosi had made during the final years of his life, I would hope that Landau would play whatever character Lugosi played.  It would be as if Lugosi had come back to life.

One more thing--I wish that Daylight Savings Time would go back to starting on the final Sunday in April and ending on the final Sunday in October.  (It changed in 2005 in the Energy Policy Act so that it now starts on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November; this, among other things, means kids trick-or-treating in broad daylight when it should be "dusk".)  Never mind that I really wish we were in the Central Time Zone (all TV shows start/end an hour earlier--yippee).

Friday, September 30, 2011

Volume 6, Number 13: Another Do-It-Yourself Win

For well over a decade, I have hated certain things about brand-name computers that you and I find at our favorite electronics and office supply stores.
  • They come with software loaded on it that I don't need.  Four years ago, I bought a Dell computer that had Microsoft Money and Microsoft Works loaded on it. Works is fine if you just need basic word processing or spreadsheet software, but for an experienced Word and Excel user like me, Works is like trying to eat dinner with a Swiss Army knife.  Microsoft Money is a finance software program that I just never had a use for.  I keep tabs on my budget with an Excel spreadsheet.  That's all I need.
  • They also come with hardware that you don't need.  Every new computer, it seems, absolutely has to come with a matching keyboard and mouse, when chances are, the keyboard and mouse on your current computer are working just fine.
  • Finally, there's the brand name.  In most cases, the brand can say a lot about the quality of the product and the company that made it that product, and it makes perfect sense for someone who doesn't take apart, fix or maintain anything to "go with a brand you trust."  But if you were to take apart a PC, you would find that the components inside it come from various companies.  The hard drive could be from Seagate or Western Digital.  The optical disc drive may be from Sony, Samsung or LG.  The motherboard may have been made by MSI, ASUS or Gigabyte.  And that's on top of the fact that the CPU chip--the brain of the computer--is from Intel or AMD.  The point is, when you buy a branded PC like HP or Compaq or Acer, you're buying a lie.  They didn't make most of the key components; all they did was put them together in a factory and slap their name on a stylish case.
I always wanted get a PC that had just what I needed (a better CPU, more memory, a bigger hard drive, etc.) without having to pay the extra costs listed above.

In 2007, I went to a local custom builder and asked him about building me a PC that re-used several components from the old PC I had been using (more details in this blog entry).  This project proved impossible due in part to the time factor--it would have taken that custom builder extra time to put one together a PC that matched my specs--and because computer industry standards had changed significantly enough that the components I wanted to re-use were obsolete anyway.  That's when he sold me that Dell I mentioned earlier.

Last Friday, I finally got my wish.  I ordered a "build-it-yourself" kit from Tiger Direct that met most of the specs I had in mind (most notably, an Intel Core i5 processor and 8 GB of memory) and successfully put it together, and it cost me much less than what I would have paid at Best Buy for any computer that had that processor and that much memory in it (around $350).  I didn't have to pay for any unneeded software or extra hardware.  And most importantly, I was able to put the kit (case, motherboard, CPU, memory, drives) together successfully on the first try.

What were the differences between last Friday and what happened in 2007 that led me to finally ditch the "Custom Building Blues"?

  1. I know computers a lot better.  Back in 1998, I dropped $700 on a computer that crashed a lot and became obsolete in fairly short order.  All I knew how to do with computers back then was things like put in modems or replace disk drives.  A year later, much better computers were on the market for lower prices.  In the past 13 or so years, a number of previous computer upgrade experiences helped prepare me for last week's project (a few successful memory upgrades, a successful CPU upgrade in 2009, a failed motherboard replacement attempt in 1999, a failed CPU upgrade attempt in 2001).
  2. PCs are much easier to build today.  Older computers were hard to build and easy to screw up; for example, it was easy for someone who didn't know what he was doing to get a critical cable on backwards (like the cord from the power supply to the motherboard).  Older motherboards had dipswitches and jumpers on them that were easy to mess up, too.  Today's computers have a lot of things that are "fool-proof," like SATA cables (which can't be put on backwards).  CPUs are easier to insert and remove (not to mention that they have notches and things built into them to make it easier for people to put them in correctly and prevent them from putting them in wrong).  (Note: Putting together a PC, like repairing a car, is not for everybody and is not something to be taken lightly.  You still have to read the manuals that come with each component, especially the manual for the motherboard, to make sure you're doing everything right.)
  3. Labor savings.  When you're buying a "ready-made," "off-the-shelf" PC at a store like Best Buy or OfficeMax, part of the price you pay goes towards the time and effort spent at the factory to put the computer together.  It works the same way with asking a "custom builder" to put one together--it takes time for him to put it together and he'll want to be paid for that time. Putting it together myself allowed me to keep those labor costs in my pocket.
I'm happy for another reason: Now that I have experience in successfully building a computer out of a "build-it-yourself" kit, it is very likely that when I get my next computer in 4 years or so, it, too, will be one I build myself.

So there you have it.  Past personal experiences with computers, coupled with the willingness of the computer industry to make PCs easier to build, have led me to build a very good computer for less than half of what I spent in 1998.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Volume 6, Number 12: Stepping Into Google TV

When Google TV came out just under a year ago, Logitech came out with a Google TV set-top box called the Revue, which caried a hefty $299 price tag. I did not even consider buying one at that price. But in late July, Logitech chopped the price down to $99, and last week, TigerDirect sold a limited quantity on eBay for $9 less than that.

Long story short, I went and took the Google TV plunge (thanks to the TigerDirect/eBay $90 offer). Why?

  • Google TV has a few advantages over its competitors (Roku, Boxee and Apple TV), such as integration with my existing cable service and the fact that it has the Google Chrome web browser as one of its built-in apps. (Chrome supports Flash, so I could watch YouTube videos, and if I so desired, play Facebook games like Madden NFL Superstars on this device as well.)
  • As I let slip in the previous bullet point, the Revue's got apps built into it. It's got about a dozen right now, including the Logitech Media Player (more on that later) and the Pandora Internet music service as well as Google Chrome. Now, down the road, I wouldn't be satisfied with just a dozen apps; however, an upcoming operating system upgrade is supposed to change all that--the new Google TV OS would have tons of new apps available that aren't compatible with the current OS. And anyway, TVs with wireless Internet connectivity and built-in apps are becoming more common nowadays, and my HDTV (a 32" Toshiba set I bought two years ago) wouldn't have those features otherwise. Buying a new TV with those features would have been much more expensive.
  • No going back and forth between the living room and the office anytime I want to do something on the computer that's related to something I'm watching on TV. A fine example was last year's Harrison High School state football championship game, when I went between watching the game in my living room and giving Facebook and Twitter status updates in the office. (For those of you who say I could have done that with a smartphone, yes, I could have if I wanted to pay out the nose for one, and I have no plans to do so.) Or if I'm watching a TV show and seeing an actor or actress that I couldn't quite place where I've seen him or her, I can just switch to Google TV and run the Chrome web browser (I should mention that the Revue Google TV box has a picture-in-picture feature so I can continue to see the TV show while searching IMDB for the actor). And of course, I could check e-mail or surf the Web to kill time during commercial breaks.
  • The ability to play, on the TV in my living room, content from the PC in my office using the Logitech Media Player app--this functionality wasn't the easiest thing in the world to set up, but once I figured it out, wow, was I happy. Basically, the Revue has Wi-Fi, so not only can it access the Internet through my wireless router, but as long as my PC is on, it can also access and play content from the PC. It rocks being able to play videos on a 32" HDTV while laying on my couch instead of on a 20" monitor while sitting in my office chair.
Bottom line, I'm happy with the Revue already. I'm really looking forward to the aforementioned OS upgrade. There are two categories of apps that might interest me: Apps to improve my TV viewing experience (either in the form of cable TV content I wouldn't enjoy otherwise, or an app that lets me search the next two weeks' worth of TV listings by keyword instead of just by category), and certain kinds of games (I'd love to see a Google TV pinball game, for example, as it it might be more fun to play one of those on a 32" TV instead of a 20" monitor).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Volume 6, Number 11: Another Fall, Another New TV Season

In an entry I wrote a year ago, I mentioned that one reason that fall is my favorite season is that a lot of new TV shows start in the fall. At that time, I mentioned that there were four new shows that had my interest--No Ordinary Family, Detroit 1-8-7, Outsourced and S*#! My Dad Says, all of which didn't keep my interest long (those last two were shitcoms that didn't even keep my interest for one episode), and incidentally, all have long since been cancelled.

This season offers six new shows that could potentially grab my interest. These are ordered by the day on which they premiere.

Ringer (The CW, Tuesdays at 9 starting September 13)
Synopsis: This is the story of two twin sisters. One, Siobhan, is a socialite who is on the run from a would-be killer. The other, Bridget, is an ex-prostitute on the run from a mobster, and thinking that Siobhan really is dead (following a suspicious boat accident), she assumes Siobhan's identity, hoping this helps her hide from that mobster, but not knowing that Siobhan was also being hunted.
Why I'm interested: Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Siobhan and Bridget in a dual role. Triple if you include Bridget-posing-as-Siobhan. Gellar has been terribly underused in recent years, and considering she already had an Emmy Award to her credit when she was still in her teens, and how dedicated she is to her craft, it's a crime that in the last 20 years, the only memorable major motion picture roles she's had were Cruel Intentions, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scooby-Doo and The Grudge.**

The Playboy Club (NBC, Mondays at 10 starting September 19)
Synopsis: Set in 1963, this series centers around the Bunnies at the first Playboy Club in Chicago.
Why I'm interested: Two words: Eye candy. There is also the potential to examine how women in American society saw themselves at the time and how this self-image evolved over the course of the next few years, but there's one show further down this list (ABC's Pan Am) that I figure will work with this context better, and as a result, last longer as a series. Anyway, the early '60s were a very interesting time for me--it was as though the country still wore a veneer of prosperity, perfection and innocence, but that veneer was starting to wear thin and crack due to the turbulence and trouble that lay beneath (the ongoing fight against sexism and racism, the Cold War, and the JFK assassination, and later on in the '60s, the MLK and RFK assassinations and a general increase in civil unrest).

The X Factor (Fox, starting September 21)
Synopsis: Simon Cowell brings this singing competition to the USA from the UK. (Why another singing competition, you ask? Well, back in his native UK, Cowell wanted to have a singing competition in which he owned part of the TV rights, whereas with Pop Idol--the show on which American Idol is based--he did not. In the UK, Pop Idol was cancelled after just two seasons and replaced by X Factor, but here in the US, both American Idol and X Factor will exist, on the condition that only one show can air at any time; X Factor will air in the fall and American Idol will air in the winter and spring.)
Why I'm interested: I enjoyed Cowell's criticism of various auditions on American Idol, especially the bad ones. I stopped watching American Idol after he left that show.***

Pan Am (ABC, Sundays at 10 starting September 25)
Synopsis: Like The Playboy Club, this series is also set in 1963. This series revolves around the flight attendants working for the now-defunct Pan Am Airways.
Why I'm interested: Christina Ricci, another actress that you wondered where she had been lately, was hot in Sleepy Hollow (you know, the 1999 Tim Burton film that starred Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane), and she looks just as delectable in that Pan Am stewardess'--oh, excuse me, flight attendant's--uniform.

Terra Nova (FOX, Mondays at 8 starting September 26)
Synopsis: A group of people in the 22nd century, threatened with extinction in their own time, travel back to prehistoric times to begin civilization anew.
Why I'm interested: I like the idea of using time travel to correct mistakes, and Terra Nova takes it to the extreme. Also, Jason O'Mara, who plays a cop trying to bring his family back together in this series, played a cop who found himself in 1973 after a car accident in a series that ABC cancelled way too soon (Life On Mars).

Grimm (NBC, Fridays at 9 starting October 21)
Synopsis: A modern-day homicide cop fights supernatural creatures infiltrating the real world.
Why I'm interested: The juxtaposition of fantasy and real worlds has always interested me (I recall a miniseries called The 10th Kingdom in which a young woman and her father find their world colliding with a magical fairytale world). As long as it stays closer to the modern world side--a few years ago, the fairy tale-style narration in ABC's Pushing Daisies just turned me off. Also, the pilot was co-written by David Greenwalt, who worked with all-time great creative genius Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. Sadly, given that this series gets a relatively late start, was placed on a crappy night, will likely be on against a baseball playoff game or two, and its network (NBC) has fared poorly on Friday nights in recent years, I suspect that this series may not last long.

So there you have it. Out of this group, I am looking forward to Ringer and Pan Am the most; The X Factor, I'll watch the audition stage but (as with American Idol) may not watch the competition proper; the other three shows, I'll take a wait-and-see approach (meaning that as much as I like the premises for these three, they better tell good, riveting stories or they'll lose my interest quickly).

** You know, if I had been casting the movie Charlie's Angels back in 2000, I would have cast Gellar as the athletic, tae kwon do butt-kicking one; Reese Witherspoon as the "street-smart" one who had "been around" (you ought to check out Witherspoon's performance in the 1996 film Freeway if you don't buy into that particular casting decision); and Kellie Martin (yet another criminally underemployed actress) as the more intellectual, "book-smart" one.

*** I wished the producers of American Idol had brought in British TV critic Charlie Brooker, who like Cowell uses awesomely acerbic wit, just to find out if he could skewer bad auditions the way he skewers bad TV shows and disconcerting TV trends in the UK. in Screenwipe and Newswipe).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Volume 6, Number 10: Assorted Idle Thoughts

If adversity is the mother of invention, then desperation must be the father.

Has anyone asked a "where" question on Jeopardy!? By that, I mean, whenever I watch that show, I've noticed that every answer on that show is responded to by a "Who is..." or a "What is..." question. I've never heard anyone use a "Where..." question, like "The answer is: 'This state is bordered by Canada to the north and Idaho to the west'" and a contestant responds, "Where is Montana?"

Why in the heck do Iowa and New Hampshire dictate what happens in every U.S. Presidential campaign? At the very least, the states in the primary/caucus system should be shuffled (never mind that I would prefer to trash that whole system in favor of a national primary--the primary/caucus system dates back to the 19th century, when the fastest way to send and receive information was by telegraph, and railroad trains were the fastest way to travel).

The names of those Vietnam veterans who died from Agent Orange exposure should be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the same thing as dying from friendly fire, isn't it?

You know how some designer eyeglasses come with optional "clip-on" sunglasses? Are any eyeglass designers doing something similar with 3-D, making 3-D clip-ons that match the frame so I wouldn't have to use these? (I'd rather have the former--if it exists--because I imagine that, if you were to see a 3-D movie with the latter, the clip would get in the way, diminishing my enjoyment of the 3-D movie.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Volume 6, Number 9: Diet Soda Reviews, Part VI

Before I go into my latest batch of reviews, a few quick notes:
  • A quick shout out to Scott Miller in Texas, who really likes Diet Mountain Dew and has been asking me to try it out. I will review it someday, but the thing is, I was never crazy about Mountain Dew or similar sodas (Mello Yello, Vault) even when I drank regular sodas. I do know that there is a Diet Mountain Dew Code Red (with cherry flavoring) and they recently came out with Diet Mountain Dew Supernova (strawberry/melon flavored) and Diet Mountain Dew Voltage (citrus-flavored). As soon as I get my hands on those, I'll share my opinions on them. It's a shame I don't see them in 2-liter bottles (which stinks because, frankly, when I want to try something that I don't know whether I'll like it or not, I'd rather get the smallest quantity available, so I'd rather buy the 2-liter bottle than the 12-pack of cans).
  • I didn't get any response from Faygo back in April when I posted on their Facebook wall asking them to consider switching their artificial sweetener from aspartame to the aspartame/acesulfame potassium blend most diet sodas use nowadays (and that includes all four of the diet sodas I review below). So I reposted that request, adding the note, "Wake up--it's not 1982 anymore!" I'd be so happy to have a Diet Faygo Rock & Rye or a Diet Faygo Redpop if it didn't have the dreaded aspartame aftertaste I got when I tried it last year. Their diet Creme Soda and their diet 60/40 (grapefruit/lime soda) were both OK but I'd bet they'd be even better with the aspartame/ace-K blend. In my estimation, Faygo is really missing the bus on a chance to make some gains in the diet soda market.
  • I find that diet sodas, when they go flat, actually taste worse than when regular sodas go flat. By that, I mean not only is the taste not as good, but the aftertaste is even worse. This means I may have to start buying diet sodas in cans instead of 2-liter bottles to minimize the chance of the soda going flat before I finish it. It sucks because 12-ounce soda cans usually have a higher per-ounce cost than 2-liter bottles. For example, most times I can get a 2-liter bottle for $1 (1.48 cents per ounce), but supposing a 12-pack of cans of the same soda was on sale for $3, the per-ounce cost for those cans would be 40% higher (2.08 cents per ounce).
On to a few more reviews:

Kroger Big K Diet Black Cherry Soda: A big thumbs up--a rare occasion where I actually liked the house brand better than the national brand (in this case, the "national brand" was Diet Rite Black Cherry). Even more rare, I liked this WAY better than the Diet Rite version. Big K Diet Black Cherry Soda actually has some significant cherry flavor to it, whereas the Diet Rite version tasted more like something made by the Original New York Seltzer Company back in the '80s. I like both the taste and the aftertaste of the Big K version.

Kroger Big K Diet Lime Cola: On the fence. I was hoping for a hit here given the surprise home run I got from Diet Coke with Lime. I like the lime flavoring in this Kroger offering but it almost overpowers the cola flavor and it's also more acidic than Diet Coke with Lime. (Incidentally, "on the fence" just means I neither give it thumbs up or thumbs down; I'd drink it if it was the only diet soda to be found at some party or barbecue, and I might buy it over my preferred brand if it was at a ridiculously low price, but I wouldn't go out of my way to buy it again given that I do prefer a similar product.)

Bubba Zero Cola: On the fence. I recently bought a 2-liter bottle of Bubba Zero at Save-A-Lot because, well, I want to try just about every diet soda on the planet. It's part me being a mad scientist (I wanted to be one when I was seven years old) and part me embracing the spice of life that is variety (as a kid, I made my mother buy every peanut butter on the planet because I was bored with Jif, only to realize many years later that Jif really is the best). It goes down well, and the aftertaste gave me no problem whatsoever, but it still has the undistinctive "generic cola" flavor. I know I really enjoy a soda when I'm able to finish off a 2-liter bottle before any of it goes flat. That didn't quite happen with Bubba Zero. All things considered equal, I'd still rather have Diet Coke with Lime, Coke Vanilla Zero or Coke Cherry Zero.

Diet Sierra Mist: Thumbs up. I like it as much as Diet 7-Up, but I still think Sprite Zero is the most crisp and refreshing of the diet lemon-limes I've had.

Kroger Big K Cola Oh: On the fence. This is the Kroger imitation of Coke Zero, complete with a black label (because men apparently like black packaging, especially where diet sodas are concerned). I tried this back in December but never put in a formal review. I seem to recall the taste being a little on the acidic side (which I'd rather it wasn't; the acidity factor is why, when I drank regular colas, I preferred Coke over Pepsi). In the end, if it doesn't land among my favorite diet sodas, it lands in the group where I'd drink it, but would only buy it again under certain circumstances.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Volume 6, Number 8: The Death of the XFL: 10 Years Later

Exactly 10 years ago today, the XFL, a professional football league created as the result of a joint venture between the National Broadcasting Company and World Wrestling Entertainment, folded after little more than three months. It had a number of things going for it that the United States Football League (1983-85) and the World League of American Football (1991-92) did not:
  1. Prime-time coverage on a major TV network. NBC, which had broadcast AFC games for years prior to being outbid by CBS for that package in 1998, gave the XFL the entire 8pm-11pm Saturday night block.
  2. Vince McMahon's slick packaging. WWE was at the height of its success, having crushed its competition, World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling. And the main reason was that Vince McMahon had transformed pro wrestling from lowbrow television to mainstream entertainment. At the time, WWF Monday Night RAW was actually beating out ABC's Monday Night Football in the Nielsen ratings.
  3. A hold on the Los Angeles market. Los Angeles lost both its National Football League teams in 1995. In 2001, LA's only other pro football team was the Arena Football League's Los Angeles Avengers.
  4. A perception that the NFL was becoming too rigid, especially regarding on-field celebrations by players.
  5. A salary structure that ensured that player salaries would not escalate out of control (as they did in the USFL). The league owned all ten teams, which meant teams could not outbid one another for players (the way USFL teams did for players like QB Steve Young).
The short story is that the XFL failed miserably, both at being professional football and at being entertaining. It only lasted one season, folding after no TV network--not even the struggling United Paramount Network--wanted to carry any of its games in what would have been its second season.

But I don't do 10-second editorials. I go into detail. And beneath the failure of the XFL laid a catalog of errors:

1. No exhibition games Only 30 days to prepare for the first game of the regular season (which wasn't nearly enough time to allow for players on each team to get on the same page with one another to minimize mistakes and poor play, as well as give the XFL a chance to try out the various new rules prior to going on TV). In a new league like the XFL, each team basically functions like an expansion team because each player is playing with teammates he hasn't worked with before. The XFL should have scheduled some preseason games--non-televised, of course--in an effort to improve the initial quality of the "regular season" games, for two reasons: Ultimately, the initial quality of the play reared its ugly head in the XFL's very first game, the Las Vegas Outlaws against the New York-New Jersey Hitmen. That game could have been a lot better if the teams involved played a preseason game or two to iron out any problems they had.  Also, rule changes had to be made during the regular season, which helped destroy the XFL's credibility as a professional football league (as Adam Hofstetter pointed out in this column about failures in sports), and that whole rule change mess could have been avoided without a single fan even knowing about it.

2. Teams in only eight markets. The XFL had a team in Los Angeles, but the Midwest--home to some of the NFL's oldest teams--only had one team (the Chicago Enforcers). Did Vince McMahon expect people from Detroit, Green Bay, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Cleveland to root for the Enforcers? Did McMahon expect people in Philadelphia and Boston--cities whose sports teams enjoy great rivalries with their New York counterparts--to give a darn about a league that had a team in the Big Apple, but none in Philly or Beantown? (By contrast, when the USFL began operations in 1983, it had teams in Boston and Philadelphia.) And at a time when Texas had emerged as a football hotbed, the XFL had no teams in that state. Dumb thinking.

3. Failure to do one single thing well. The XFL was the spork of professional sports. It attempted to do two things--to entertain and to present hard-hitting, exciting football--but it was a jack of both, and far from a master of either. As entertainment, it was cheesy; as football, it had no credibility.

4. Lack of unity between NBC and WWE. The XFL was supposed to be a joint venture these two companies, but the two parties seemed to distance themselves away from each other just as often as not. A telling example was this March 2001 interview between Bob Costas and Vince McMahon on Costas' HBO show, Off the Record:
Bob Costas: The XFL doesn't go anywhere near where the WWF goes but it is still considered a low rent form of television.
Vince McMahon: Have you seen any of the games? Tell me what is low rent about the games.
BC: Not so much within the games. The pregame show in week 1 was one of the most mindless things I've ever seen.
VM: We don't have any pregame shows.
BC: Week 1, there was a pregame show.
VM: We don't have any pregame shows, which is one of our problems.
BC: Anymore?
VM: No, we've never had a pregame show!
BC: What was the pregame show--
VM: Dammit Bob, we don't have any pregame shows!
BC: --the thing that aired in Los Angeles, New York and other markets prior to the first game?
VM: A local thing that the NBC O&Os put together of which we had nothing to do with.
Oh, so when McMahon said "we," he meant WWE, not the XFL. It got me thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, I thought WWE and NBC were supposed to be in this together."

5. A great lack of professionalism. McMahon spoke often about creating a more exciting football league, but he forgot that the XFL's would-be fans still wanted it to be professional football. What they got instead were garish uniforms (the Orlando Rage and Memphis Maniax are fine examples), nicknames on the backs of jerseys, a scoop of sleaze, a dollop of raunch, and oh yeah, players demonstrating why they couldn't cut it in the NFL.

One only wonders how the XFL would have fared over the past ten years if not for all the errors they made, if only WWE and NBC had properly taken advantage of the opportunities that they had then. Might it have developed players who failed the first time around in the NFL? After all, today's NFL teams crave players who can contribute as soon as their rookie year and are more likely to cut unproductive players after just a few years; by contrast, some 30 years ago, New York Giants QB Phil Simms did not get cut after his first five years in the league (1979-83) and went on to win two Super Bowls. And what advantage might it have taken of the NFL's current labor situation?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Volume 6, Number 7: A Draft Like No Other

Well, here we are... the NFL Draft begins tonight.

But due to the labor impasse, it is unlike any that we, the professional football fans, have ever seen. That's because teams will have to draft for needs that they could have filled through trades or free agency in previous seasons.

Presently, teams cannot sign free agents, because without a new collective bargaining agreement in place, there is no way of knowing exactly who is a free agent. Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams and San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson are two examples of players who would be restricted free agents if the old CBA was still in effect, but could become unrestricted (and thus free to sign with any team) if a new CBA says they can. With respect to the Draft, teams now have to spend draft picks to fill needs that they might have been able to fill via free agency. For example, an NFL team (such as the Miami Dolphins or New England Patriots) might have to draft a running back early on because Williams is presently not able to sign with that or any other team.

Teams also cannot trade for veteran players. Trading comes into play in the weeks leading up to the draft and during the draft, when players are traded for draft picks (examples from last year included Donovan McNabb, Santonio Holmes and Leon Washington). Again, NFL teams are going to have to draft to fill needs in situations where trading a lower draft pick for a veteran might have worked.

Once the draft is completed, teams cannot sign undrafted players (as they become free agents after the draft).

Finally, teams cannot sign the players they did draft to contracts (particularly because the owners and players have not yet agreed on a new rookie wage scale--it makes perfect sense because no team should ever have to pay millions in guaranteed money to unproven players like JaMarcus Russell, but the players have wanted the owners to reallocate the money they save under such a new wage scale to a pension fund, and that has been a sticking point).

Things I'd love to see happen:
  • For the game: Darnit, owners, you've lost. When ESPN--a network that just gave you a ton of money to keep Monday Night Football--keeps saying stuff along those lines (as in this column by Gene Wojciechowski), Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners had better listen. Basically, get back to the table and be prepared to make some concessions to the players. You and the players both have way too much to lose here.
  • For my Detroit Lions: I hope that either CB Prince Amukamara (Nebraska) or OT Tyron Smith (USC) fall to #13 and the Lions take whichever of the two they can get (Amukamara's my first choice). Their secondary, while improved over what we had a few years ago, still needs a shutdown corner and I still look back on when they passed on CB Quentin Jammer in 2002 in favor of QB Joey Harrington. Smith would be an upgrade for an offensive line that sorely needs it. I still contend that the Lions should have drafted OT Michael Oher with the 20th overall pick in 2009, mainly because they had just spent $42 million in guaranteed money on Matthew Stafford and owed it to him and the team to protect that investment and Jeff Backus is not, and has never been, a franchise tackle. The O-line and the secondary have both been needs for this team for years and I'll be happy if the Lions can satisfy either one.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Volume 6, Number 6: Diet Soda Reviews, Part V

Here I go again, trying a few different diet sodas and letting you know what I think:

Diet 7-Up: Thumbs up because I liked it, but it just wasn't as chug-worthy as Sprite Zero was. Back in the days when I drank regular sodas (1982-2010), I liked 7-Up better than Sprite, so I thought maybe I would like Diet 7-Up better than Sprite Zero. Nope--I guess certain flavors work better with certain artificial sweeteners.

Boylan Diet Root Beer: I found this at a local Big Lots store and thought I'd try it because this brand is a) one I don't see at local chains like Meijer and Kroger, and b) is a brand that goes for about $4 a bottle on "more expensive" is supposed to mean "better" right? Another point of note is that unlike the other root beers I've tried, this brand uses a blend of sucralose and acesulfame potassium. Sadly, this one tasted like someone spiked it with some sort of medicine (Sucrets, maybe?). Thumbs down to this particular variety (note: I have never tried Boylan's regular sodas so I cannot say as to how good those would taste, and my thumbs down review is not meant to discourage people from buying Boylan products).

Diet Dad's Root Beer: I also found this at a local Big Lots and it also uses a blend of sucralose and acesulfame potassium. Diet Dad's tasted better than Boylan, but it left behind an aftertaste I didn't like, so thumbs down to this one, too. (Again, it's possible that the regular Dad's tastes way better, but I am not reviewing regular sodas here. My previous experience with Dad's Root Beer was--drumroll, please--those little barrel-shaped hard candies you see in that Halloween candy mix, the one that also has the Smarties and the Dubble Bubble bubble gum.)

Meijer Diet Encore Cherry Cola: Thumbs down. I really disliked this one. It tasted like someone had spiked Cherry Coke Zero with sawdust. It ranks right down there with Walmart's Diet Root Beer among the worst diet sodas I've had. I don't think anything with cherry flavoring in it is supposed to have "hints of wood". (Note: Meijer is a chain of hypermarkets that is based in my home state of Michigan, but also has locations in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.)

Meijer Diet Cream Soda: Thumbs up. Yes, I said up, even though Meijer's store-branded food and drink products have had a mostly bad track record with me. Meijer has themselves a very good imitation of Diet A&W Cream Soda--I liked the taste and found the aftertaste very easy to live with (because, as with Diet A&W Cream Soda, the flavor goes well with the aspartame/ace-K artificial sweetener).

I just asked Faygo (via their Facebook page) if they could look into using an aspartame/ace-K blend. Their diet sodas currently use aspartame, which, in my book, puts them a decade behind many of the other diet soda makers.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Volume 6, Number 5: Clean Plates

Have you ever heard that phrase, "You could lose weight if you left some food on your plate?" A number of weight loss web sites, such as this one, or this one, will say that. But I usually disagree with that statement.

Cooking at home as much as I do, it seems to me that if, at the point that my hunger was satisfied, I still had "extra" food on my plate, then I cooked too much for that one meal.

Don't get me wrong--it's always good to stop eating when your hunger is satisfied. And there are circumstances where cooking less is not possible--you can't exactly tell a restaurant to cut back on the amount they make. It's generally one size for one price, and I suppose you could always "doggy bag" whatever's left over.

But at home, I prefer to get what I pay for and that's why leaving food on my plate never enters into the equation. If I can save it for leftovers, fine--I always have leftovers from frozen 12" pizzas and Hamburger/Chicken/Tuna Helpers--but there is no way anything gets left on my plate. My retort to that age-old saying about leaving a little on your plate is this: it would be less wasteful to cook less food than to leave "extra" food on the plate. A few less rotini in the boiling water here and a few less tater tots in the oven there would surely stretch your food dollar farther.

Or better yet, buy a little less food to begin with!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Volume 6, Number 4: Diet Soda Reviews, Part IV

Gosh, two months without a blog entry? I guess I've just been really busy, especially with a draft in a fantasy baseball league I run. Anyway, I've been drinking a few different diet sodas over that time, and here are my reviews of each one:

Diet Coke with Lime: More than seven months ago, when I began reviewing diet sodas, I gave Diet Coke a scathing review, but it was terribly biased, based on the experience I had with it when I was a kid. Recently, however, I was at a restaurant where the only diet soda available was Diet Coke, so I ordered one. And you know what? It didn't taste bad at all. Maybe drinking other diet sodas has had that effect on me. So I figured, if Diet Coke tastes OK, I'll give Diet Coke with Lime a try (because there is no Coke Lime Zero). Guess what--the lime flavoring actually made this chug-worthy and a serious contender for the Diet Soda Federation Inter-cola-nental Championship. Thumbs up.
Sam's Choice (Walmart) Diet Root Beer: Thumbs down--this crap gives root beer a bad name
Diet Citrus Blast (new from the makers of Pepsi): formula similar to Diet Squirt but I like Diet Squirt better): On the fence (it's OK but I like Diet Squirt a lot better)
Diet Ruby Red Squirt: Thumbs Up (I would have tried this sooner if it wasn't so hard to find)
Fanta Zero (orange soda): On the fence. It's better than Diet Orange Crush, but it just doesn't measure up to Diet Sunkist.

After seven months, here are the diet sodas I swear by (meaning I'd buy them again and again, and I wish they were available at restaurants):
Colas: Coke Vanilla Zero, Coke Cherry Zero, Diet Coke with Lime, Pepsi Max
Orange: Diet Sunkist
Root Beer: Diet A&W
Ginger Ale: Diet Canada Dry
Lemon-lime: Sprite Zero (note: I haven't tried Diet 7-Up or Diet Sierra Mist yet)
Other citrus: Diet Squirt, Diet Ruby Red Squirt, Fresca, Diet Faygo 60/40
Cream soda: Diet A&W Cream Soda
Others: Diet Dr Pepper, Diet Dr Pepper Cherry

Friday, January 28, 2011

Volume 6, Number 3: Challenger, 25 Years Later

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy.

Obviously, I will never forget that day. For many in my generation, it marked "the end of the innocence," just as the 1963 Kennedy assassination did for the Baby Boomers and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing did for Generation Y. I was in eighth grade at the time. I didn't actually see it live--I was having my lunch in the cafeteria at my middle school, and to the best of my knowledge, that school didn't have a cable TV connection. And CNN was the only network carrying live coverage of the launch.

The first class after lunch--5th hour--was American History with Mr. Sutherland. Another student in that class said to me, "Did you hear that the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up?" I took it as a sick hoax and quipped back to him in a sarcastic tone of voice, "Oh, whoa, (Libyan dictator Muammar) Khadafy must have sabotaged the launch pad." Basically, I felt insulted--he didn't know this, but I secretly dreamed about living on a space station--and that Khadafy thing was my way of insulting him back.

Over the course of that hour, the news spread around the school, but in retrospect, it was obviously not in as organized a fashion as I would have liked--I didn't know the story was true until well over an hour after the disaster. When 6th hour--Science with Mr. Van Horn--rolled around, I still didn't believe what I was hearing until Mr. Van Horn set me straight. We spent the last two hours of the day in silence, sitting at our desks and doing nothing except reflect on what had happened and contemplate the fates of the men and women that President Reagan called heroes that "broke the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God." I remember as I headed home, I hoped that the crew, which included teacher Christa McAuliffe, survived the explosion.

A side note: As it happened, a film called SpaceCamp was being made in which a bunch of kids and their instructor are accidentally launched into space aboard a space shuttle. Even after the Challenger tragedy, I was still interested in seeing that movie. I confess that I once dreamed of living in space, on a space station where everything was within walking distance--food, entertainment, friends, everything in a self-contained community. (A number of years later, I finally did see SpaceCamp on the SciFi Channel. I liked the story, I liked most of the human characters, but that damn robot ruined it for me. You're going to have me suspend my belief so much that I would buy into a sentient robot existing in the 1980s, much less one that would put the interests of one kid ahead of everyone else? A computer malfunction would have made more sense--heck, even an error on the part of one of the kids could have been somewhat believable.)

Note: For a related blog entry I made about CNN's news coverage of the launch and the tragedy that ensued, and how that tragedy affected the world of TV news reporting, go here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Volume 6, Number 2: The Great Zodiac Shakeup

Just yesterday, Time magazine posted this article about the Minnesota Planetarium Society and its research on the 13-sign zodiac--yes, that's right, 13. Apparently the Babylonians wanted a 12-sign zodiac and threw out Ophiuchus, the snake holder, a few thousand years ago. Something about wanting to balance "yin and yang" and an odd number wasn't going to cut it. (In retrospect, I'd love to call out across space and time to those ancient Babylonians, "Every sign has their good and bad, there's your balance right there.")

What's more, the signs are off by anywhere from a week to a month (it varies from one sign to the next), so people who were born under one sign in the 12-sign zodiac belong to another sign in the 13-sign one.

It's not exactly new information. Stories about the 13-sign zodiac had been floating around the Internet for a few years. It actually goes all the way back to 1977, when Dr. Lee Shapiro of the University of North Carolina published a paper about the 13 constellations, but anyway, I didn't know about it until came out with it.

The Great Zodiac Shakeup affects me. Almost every 12-sign Cancer is a 13-sign Gemini. Now, I don't read horoscopes every day, but there are certain parts of me that led me to easily identify with Cancer. The self-reliance, frugality, being security-oriented, letting emotions get the better of me at times, those are all Cancer things.

But there are parts of Gemini in me, too: Geminis are intellectual, living in a world of logic and science, and can experience two sides of things at the same time. I listen to songs from a whole bunch of different genres (pop, rock, metal, rap, classical, jazz, etc.), which fits in with Gemini's willingness to try varied experiences to gain knowledge. I'll bet they talk to themselves a lot (I do that as well). Even when playing fantasy sports games, I'll compile and process data (for example, in a dynasty fantasy football league I'm in, I'm trying to get an idea of which players could possibly fall to my pick in Round 2 so I've compiled a list of players who will be taken in next year's NFL Draft, that league's labor situation notwithstanding). Geminis like variety (so do I--growing up, my favorite cereal was those variety packs where you got to have a different cereal every day) and get bored easily. They also reportedly have a very short span of concentration and tend to get distracted very easily--that's me, too!

After I read the article, I imagined myself battling a giant crab (Cancer) in my bedroom, ultimately breaking its shell to reveal my long-lost twin (Gemini). I further imagined the twin had mistaken me for an enemy for years and is now ready to be my best friend.

So bottom line, I don't reject the 13-sign zodiac at all. To the contrary--I'm living the first full day of my life as a Gemini in a world where my mind has better control of my emotions. Hopefully I don't lose much of my self-reliance in the bargain.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Volume 6, Number 1: Janus Strikes Again

It's time to take a look back and a look ahead (the title of this blog entry refers to the Roman god of beginnings and endings).

Personal accomplishments in 2010:
6. Another fantasy football title! My San Francisco Slobberknockers--the team that got me my first such title back in 2004--won the BDFL championship for the second time Sunday. (Yes, I know Sunday was the second day of 2011, but the way I see it, the NFL season started a week late and should have ended on December 26.)
5. New gas range - This was item number one on my Shopping List for the Near Future. I had been wanting to ditch the 43-year-old pile-of-crap Montgomery Ward Signature range that had a series of problems (burners didn't always ignite off the pilot light, the oven usually took two minutes or more to turn on, the handle on the oven door was broken, no oven light). Back in July, I finally did. I got a Hotpoint range with sealed burners, electronic ignition, an oven light, a window you can see through pretty well, and an electronic timer for about $340. (On a related note, I also took care of items 7 and 10 on that list: I got a better digital camera and replaced my tires.)
4. Low-cost alternator replacement - Back in February, the alternator in my 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix went on the blink. My mechanic, a very trustworthy guy who I entrust to fix whatever I can't fix, offered to replace it for $300 or so. Thing is, I knew beforehand that the alternator is easy to access and replace. So I did some research and found the step-by-step instructions I needed in order to replace it myself, then bought a rebuilt alternator and installed it myself. Final cost: $65.
3. Low-cost body work: On that same car, a piece of plastic molding on the passenger side had been sagging. The reason: A piece of metal railing under the plastic had turned to rust; the only things keeping the molding attached to the car were four screws--two on the front of the rear wheel well and two at the back of the front wheel well. So in July, I bought a replacement molding rail on eBay (from Ed Morad, a parts dealer in Cleveland specializing in parts for late-model front-wheel-drive GM cars) for $68, and was able to install it myself. Final cost: $74 (I also bought a can of spray paint to repaint the molding). Heaven knows how much Maaco would have charged to get that fixed.
2. Finally, a vacation: The week of Labor Day, I went to St. Louis to cross one item off my "bucket list": Going to the top of the Gateway Arch.
1. Weight loss: You all know about this one because I've been harping on it for a while now. The first year that I started living on my own, my weight shot up as I ate more freely than I did previously. From July 2001 to July 2010, my weight had slowly been creeping up at the rate of roughly a pound a year. (Before that, I was overweight at about 180.) On July 31, 2010, I weighed 191 pounds. Not even my mirror would tell me how wrong that was. It took a picture someone else took of me at a friend's barbecue to shock me into making two changes to my diet: I switched from regular soda to diet soda--a change that, for years, I found inconceivable--and stopped buying junk food (because every time I bought and ate it, however much I liked it, it amounted to turning money into flab). This morning, I weighed 174. My hope is that I can lose a pound a month over the winter, then go back to losing a few pounds a month in warmer months. (On a related note, I've saved at least $38 since August by avoiding junk food items that my younger, not-so-careful self would have bought.)

Resolutions for 2011:
1. Exercise. A year ago, I figured all I'd have to do to get rid of my excess weight was exercise. But then I'd have a hard time running without feeling tired just a 1/4-mile. I was caught in a Catch-22 I created: I couldn't exercise due to the excess weight, even though I needed to exercise to lose that weight. Now that regular sodas and junk food are no longer a regular part of my diet, that Catch-22 is broken. I need to use my aerobic rider more now, and need to run more in the summer.
2. Knock another item or two off my bucket list. I still haven't been to a Lions football game, a Red Wings hockey game, or been on a rollercoaster. (Quick question: Anyone know of a theme park where you can pay for each ride instead of paying a larger amount up front for admission to the whole park?)
3. Take care of another home improvement project or two. Last year, I replaced the range; two years ago, it was the hot water heater; in 2007, it was the fridge. This year, projects I need to tackle include the garage door, the driveway and the steps to my front porch (items 2, 4 and 8 on that "Shopping List For the Near Future").
4. See my younger brother in Texas. He moved to Austin, TX in 2006 and I have not been down there.
5. Lose more weight. I'm still a little "out of shape" at 174. 170 should be no problem. Getting my neck size down to 15.5 and my waist size to 34 seem possible as well; after years of being stuck at 16.5 and 36, respectively, I am now at 16 and 35.
6. Be more organized. I have let my clutter get out of control at times.
7. Keep the house clean more often. I need to act like I have people over more often, even though I almost never do.
8. Look for new meals to cook. My "menu" is seriously limited--Hamburger/Chicken/Tuna Helper, chicken chimichitos, that kielbasa/potatoes/sauerkraut dish, frozen pizzas (Freschetta/DiGiorno/Red Baron only), pasta, canned soups, frozen dinners... and I have a half-dozen cookbooks sitting on top of my fridge! It's time I went through them.
9. Read more books. I've bought a number of books over the past few years with the intent of reading them, but end up failing to make the time to do so.