27 December 2007


Want to wonder why no one watches CNN anymore? Look no further than today's coverage of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. We've got two options for streaming web video here at work: CNN and Fox News. So far, I've tuned in four times to see the latest news.

On Fox News, it's wall-to-wall Bhutto.

On CNN, it was the weather twice, then a story on Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, and, just a minute ago, a story on the travails of frequent business travelers.

Are you kidding me? This is the sort of shit that could instigate a nuclear crisis. This could be the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

CNN, grow up.

Discreet vs. Discrete

discreet: prudent, especially capable of preserving prudent silence
discrete: constituting a separate entity, individually distinct

Learn the difference, people. Yes, I'm talking about you, Scott Adams.

While I'm at it:

principal: most important, consequential, or influential
principle: a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption

I'm sure there are other frequently misused homophones that annoy me, but those two are the worst.

19 December 2007

December 2008 - Movie Update

Well, I never caught The Darjeeling Limited...it closed at the local Muvico the day before I could use my passes. Still no movies seen since Harry Potter V. I'm starting to wonder if I've fallen so far behind that I'm just going to give up and wait for everything to come out on cable or DVD. Even The Golden Compass has such bad buzz that it doesn't seem worth the trip.

Anyhow, here's my top 20-or-so to see. The ones in bold are still in the theatres or haven't been released yet.

1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
2. The Dark Knight
3. The Darjeeling Limited
4. Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End
5. Idiocracy
6. Children of Men
7. The Departed
8. The Golden Compass
9. Stardust
10. Invincible
11. Pan's Labyrinth
12. Hot Fuzz
13. Crank
14. National Treasure II
15. Live Free or Die Hard
16. Spider-Man 3
17. The Simpsons Movie
18. The Prestige
19. The Fountain
20. No Country for Old Men
21. Sweeney Todd
22. There Will Be Blood
23. Gone Baby Gone
24. Persepolis
25. King of California
26. Ocean's 13 (Barb really wants to see this)
27. Michael Clayton

Dropping off the list: The Savages (the reviews don't really enchant me, although the interview on NPR's Fresh Air was good).

Any wonder why I haven't bothered hitting the theatres? Nothing compelling to see, and most of what I want to see is now on DVD. I told Barb I'd get her a Netflix/BB Video subscription once our son is born.

I'd also like to buy the PotC trilogy on Blu Ray, but I'd rather buy it as a trilogy since it's likely to be a better deal than the individual movies (which I've resisted buying thus far). Unfortunately, there's no trilogy in the stores just yet (does that make sense with Christmas coming?)

Edited: Finally saw The Bourne Ultimatum in DVD thanks to a free rental from Redbox. Mediocre at best. I'd be pissed if I bought it. Added Indy 4, The Dark Knight, and Persepolis.

13 December 2007

Most. Addictive. Game. Ever.

How Well Do You Know Your World?

It's like Jeopardy meets Ticket to Ride.

Best score: 485,913 points. Took me 20 tries to get to Level 11. I don't think I have the skills to get to Level 12.

Josh Rovner, I hate you.

Question of the day.

I always seem to read about people "battling" drug addiction. How come I never see articles about people "embracing" drug addiction?

Just wondering, since it seems there's far more of the latter.

Oh, and Andy Reid should stay.

11 December 2007

Now this is a movie I'll see opening night!

Somehow I don't think they're going to screw this up.

Now, my only question is will they update Lego Indiana Jones to include the 4th movie?

Somehow, I doubt it. I may have to wait for Lego Indy: The Complete Saga.

03 December 2007

Bought a car.

I'd hoped with the rise of the internet that buying a car would prove to be a fairly democratized process. I had envisioned a stress-free process where I would tell a bunch of local dealers what car we wanted, and with what extras, and they would come back with a price. Then I'd see if anyone would beat that price. Then I'd buy the car. Pretty simple, right?

Well...mostly. It turns out that there's still plenty of chicanery, incompetence, and outright lying perpretated by the sleaziest of occupations: the car salesman.

I did my homework. Once we had test-driven and selected our vehicle, a 2008 Toyota Highlander 4x4 Sport (with leather, satellite radio, and a nav system), I went to CarsDirect.com to see what the MSRP and Invoice prices were. I went to CarBuyingTips.com to read up on what I should expect from the salesmen in terms of shenanigans and bogus add-ons.

I had in my mind a target price, but I was interested in seeing what the dealers out there would offer me. CarsDirect and Edmunds.com (among others) have nice, if clunky, referral systems in place that send my info and desired vehicle to various local dealers. I ended up sending out messages to more than a dozen local Toyota dealers.

Most of them responded instantly, some with "we didn't read your referral, but I hear you want a car", and some with "I see you want a Highlander, let's see about putting one together for you." I sent them all a form message stating what I wanted and giving a color preference (Salsa Red and Magnetic Grey were our favorites, but so long as it wasn't Black, White, or Champagne, we were fine with it).

The initial call for offers went fairly smoothly, although the range in prices were fairly staggering. We had a statistical median at the low end of the cost spectrum, but there were some offers that were as much as $5000 more than the median. When I wrote back the expensive outliers and told them how out of line with reality they were, most of them said something to the extent of "call me when you want to deal with a reputable dealer." I hope they're not waiting.

We also tried to go through CostCo's fleet dealer (Jim Coleman Toyota), but they told me one thing on the phone ($500 under invoice), and another thing once I was in the store ($500 over invoice).

So then we iterated. I told everyone (save the lowest price) what our lowest price was, and asked they like to match or beat it. Most did, or indicated that the car they were trying to sell me had features that made it worth a few extra bucks. I got the offers in, picked the best deal, and made the call to buy our new car.

That's when things went south.

I ended up selecting the dealer who had been the most responsive, and seemed to be offering an excellent, if not the best price. This offer came from Castle Toyota in Baltimore. The sales rep was very nice and was very responsive over email. She also made an offer to me for a car that didn't exist.

So I went to offer two: the lowest price we were quoted, from Beltway Toyota in Marlow Heights. The car, he said, had been sold. Que sera sera.

Offer three. Antwerpen Toyota in Clarksville, was very close to a couple of other prices. I called Antwerpen up to say that, since they were the closest dealership to my office, I was leaning towards them. To close the deal, they offered me free installation of the Sirius radio system (Toyota charges a ludicrous $200 for the service). That was enough to seal the deal, so I made a deposit on the car. My mistake was not getting that last $200 discount in writing.

When I showed up there 3 days later to pick up the car, they wouldn't honor the $200 discount. I never spoke to the sales manager who offered it to me again. I declined to do business with them. This really seemed stupid on their part, since I would be likely to do all of my service and maintenance with them, but their sales staff and maintenance people don't seem to be on the same page insofar as maximizing profits. I guess Jack Antwerpen will have to deal with that. The salesman was PISSED.

Fortunately, four was a charm. While we were in LA for Thanksgiving, Russel Toyota in Catonsville came through with an offer $7 less than Antwerpen's bogus discounted price. We got a great car at a great price.

Would I recommend Russel to someone else? Sure, but even so, do your homework. Drop me a line if you want to know the name of our salesman.

30 October 2007

Happy Halloween!

I had a little extra fun this year with the pumpkin carving. I downloaded templates, taped 'em to the pumpkin, poked out the design using corn-holders (my own idea...you are able to stabilize the next point by putting the other corn-holder spoke into the previous hole), and cut it out with a cheapie pumpkin-carving knife I got for a dollar at some orchard last year.

Spooky Roscoe:

Lights out:

Better view:

Dog Template

Smiley Template

29 October 2007

Movie/TV Update

I had a post earlier this year listing all the movies I wanted to see this summer.

I watched 4. One was great (Ratatouille); one was good (IMAX Night at the Museum), one was mediocre (IMAX Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix); and one was dreadful (Transformers). They're pretty much all out of the theatres by now...some have even made it to DVD already.

I've noticed that since I've gotten a DVR, my movie/DVD watching has gone down the toilet. I've still got months-worth of DVDs to watch sitting on shelves downstairs, but it's just too easy to click on that as-yet-unwatched episode of Doctor Who. TV isn't even all that good anymore. The only shows I watch are The Office, Scrubs, Pushing Daisies (still taking that one for a spin), The Amazing Race (starting next weekend), and Iron Chef America (when it's new). There are a few short-season shows (less than 22 episodes a season) that I enjoy, but they're all on hiatus now: Doctor Who, Monk, Psych, Eureka, and Battlestar Galactica. Even with that limited list, I've got 10 or so hours of backlogged TV on the DVR at any one time. Who's got time for DVDs?

As for movies...I've learned that I just hate the people who attend movies. I hate cell phones. I hate text-messaging. I hate talking. I've got 4 movie passes left at home. I'll be using two to see The Darjeeling Limited for my birthday this weekend. I'm not sure when I'll get around to using the other two.

And I don't really mind.

Movies from the last year or so, and upcoming this fall/winter, that I'd like to see at some point, but it wouldn't kill me if I missed most of them:

1. The Darjeeling Limited
2. Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End
3. The Bourne Ultimatum
4. Idiocracy
5. Children of Men
6. The Departed
7. The Golden Compass
8. Stardust
9. Invincible
10. Pan's Labyrinth
11. Hot Fuzz
12. Crank
13. National Treasure II
14. Live Free or Die Hard
15. Spider-Man 3
16. The Simpsons Movie
17. The Prestige
18. The Fountain
19. Gone Baby Gone
20. King of California
21. The Savages
22. Michael Clayton (I'm not even sure if this belongs on the list...)

I suppose I'll keep updating this, as time goes on.

I'd also like to eventually watch Deadwood, Weeds, Carnivale, Dexter, and Entourage.

While I'm at it, I'd like to somehow get insanely rich and thin.


In the little free time I had over the weekend, I deleted my MySpace, Friendster, and Livejournal accounts. I never used them...in fact, the only reason I got them in the first place was because my friends got them. For the same reason I got Facebook and LinkedIn accounts. To be honest, I never really use those, either, but I see no reason to leave any useless open Social Networking accounts. Facebook has the advantage of having hooked me up with two friends in Turkey and Cyprus that I hadn't spoken to in 13 and 12 years, respectively. LinkedIn seems to have some sort of business tie-in functionality, but thus far I've not used any of it outside of expanding my network.

It's been reported to me that kids today are using Facebook postings more often than email. Maybe I'm getting set in my ways, but the idea of actively monitoring a webpage versus passively receiving email seems counterintuitive; especially when you get an email every time you get a Facebook post, and then you have to go login to Facebook to read it.

I'm lazy here...the fewer steps the better.

I wonder if I've got any SN accounts I've forgotten about...I'd've dumped my AOL and Hotmail accounts years ago if it weren't for AIM and Windows Messenger. Not that I use those, either.

12 October 2007

Mob Rule by Scientists

Neat article in the NYTimes the other day about how, in science, the "general consensus" can be self-perpetuating, even if fallacious. How well this applies to sacrosanct items is still to be determined, and the author, probably wisely, chose not to go there.

Since the NYT tends to pull articles after a week or so, I'll just violate a little copyright and post the text here:

Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus

Published: October 9, 2007

In 1988, the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, proclaimed ice cream to a be public-health menace right up there with cigarettes. Alluding to his office’s famous 1964 report on the perils of smoking, Dr. Koop announced that the American diet was a problem of “comparable” magnitude, chiefly because of the high-fat foods that were causing coronary heart disease and other deadly ailments.

He introduced his report with these words: “The depth of the science base underlying its findings is even more impressive than that for tobacco and health in 1964.”

That was a ludicrous statement, as Gary Taubes demonstrates in his new book meticulously debunking diet myths, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Knopf, 2007). The notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly. The evidence against Häagen-Dazs was nothing like the evidence against Marlboros.

It may seem bizarre that a surgeon general could go so wrong. After all, wasn’t it his job to express the scientific consensus? But that was the problem. Dr. Koop was expressing the consensus. He, like the architects of the federal “food pyramid” telling Americans what to eat, went wrong by listening to everyone else. He was caught in what social scientists call a cascade.

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.

Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better, according to the economists Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch. If, say, 60 percent of a group’s members have been given information pointing them to the right answer (while the rest have information pointing to the wrong answer), there is still about a one-in-three chance that the group will cascade to a mistaken consensus.

Cascades are especially common in medicine as doctors take their cues from others, leading them to overdiagnose some faddish ailments (called bandwagon diseases) and overprescribe certain treatments (like the tonsillectomies once popular for children). Unable to keep up with the volume of research, doctors look for guidance from an expert — or at least someone who sounds confident.

In the case of fatty foods, that confident voice belonged to Ancel Keys, a prominent diet researcher a half-century ago (the K-rations in World War II were said to be named after him). He became convinced in the 1950s that Americans were suffering from a new epidemic of heart disease because they were eating more fat than their ancestors.

There were two glaring problems with this theory, as Mr. Taubes, a correspondent for Science magazine, explains in his book. First, it wasn’t clear that traditional diets were especially lean. Nineteenth-century Americans consumed huge amounts of meat; the percentage of fat in the diet of ancient hunter-gatherers, according to the best estimate today, was as high or higher than the ratio in the modern Western diet.

Second, there wasn’t really a new epidemic of heart disease. Yes, more cases were being reported, but not because people were in worse health. It was mainly because they were living longer and were more likely to see a doctor who diagnosed the symptoms.

To bolster his theory, Dr. Keys in 1953 compared diets and heart disease rates in the United States, Japan and four other countries. Sure enough, more fat correlated with more disease (America topped the list). But critics at the time noted that if Dr. Keys had analyzed all 22 countries for which data were available, he would not have found a correlation. (And, as Mr. Taubes notes, no one would have puzzled over the so-called French Paradox of foie-gras connoisseurs with healthy hearts.)

The evidence that dietary fat correlates with heart disease “does not stand up to critical examination,” the American Heart Association concluded in 1957. But three years later the association changed position — not because of new data, Mr. Taubes writes, but because Dr. Keys and an ally were on the committee issuing the new report. It asserted that “the best scientific evidence of the time” warranted a lower-fat diet for people at high risk of heart disease.

The association’s report was big news and put Dr. Keys, who died in 2004, on the cover of Time magazine. The magazine devoted four pages to the topic — and just one paragraph noting that Dr. Keys’s diet advice was “still questioned by some researchers.” That set the tone for decades of news media coverage. Journalists and their audiences were looking for clear guidance, not scientific ambiguity.

After the fat-is-bad theory became popular wisdom, the cascade accelerated in the 1970s when a committee led by Senator George McGovern issued a report advising Americans to lower their risk of heart disease by eating less fat. “McGovern’s staff were virtually unaware of the existence of any scientific controversy,” Mr. Taubes writes, and the committee’s report was written by a nonscientist “relying almost exclusively on a single Harvard nutritionist, Mark Hegsted.”

That report impressed another nonscientist, Carol Tucker Foreman, an assistant agriculture secretary, who hired Dr. Hegsted to draw up a set of national dietary guidelines. The Department of Agriculture’s advice against eating too much fat was issued in 1980 and would later be incorporated in its “food pyramid.”

Meanwhile, there still wasn’t good evidence to warrant recommending a low-fat diet for all Americans, as the National Academy of Sciences noted in a report shortly after the U.S.D.A. guidelines were issued. But the report’s authors were promptly excoriated on Capitol Hill and in the news media for denying a danger that had already been proclaimed by the American Heart Association, the McGovern committee and the U.S.D.A.

The scientists, despite their impressive credentials, were accused of bias because some of them had done research financed by the food industry. And so the informational cascade morphed into what the economist Timur Kuran calls a reputational cascade, in which it becomes a career risk for dissidents to question the popular wisdom.

With skeptical scientists ostracized, the public debate and research agenda became dominated by the fat-is-bad school. Later the National Institutes of Health would hold a “consensus conference” that concluded there was “no doubt” that low-fat diets “will afford significant protection against coronary heart disease” for every American over the age of 2. The American Cancer Society and the surgeon general recommended a low-fat diet to prevent cancer.

But when the theories were tested in clinical trials, the evidence kept turning up negative. As Mr. Taubes notes, the most rigorous meta-analysis of the clinical trials of low-fat diets, published in 2001 by the Cochrane Collaboration, concluded that they had no significant effect on mortality.

Mr. Taubes argues that the low-fat recommendations, besides being unjustified, may well have harmed Americans by encouraging them to switch to carbohydrates, which he believes cause obesity and disease. He acknowledges that that hypothesis is unproved, and that the low-carb diet fad could turn out to be another mistaken cascade. The problem, he says, is that the low-carb hypothesis hasn’t been seriously studied because it couldn’t be reconciled with the low-fat dogma.

Mr. Taubes told me he especially admired the iconoclasm of Dr. Edward H. Ahrens Jr., a lipids researcher who spoke out against the McGovern committee’s report. Mr. McGovern subsequently asked him at a hearing to reconcile his skepticism with a survey showing that the low-fat recommendations were endorsed by 92 percent of “the world’s leading doctors.”

“Senator McGovern, I recognize the disadvantage of being in the minority,” Dr. Ahrens replied. Then he pointed out that most of the doctors in the survey were relying on secondhand knowledge because they didn’t work in this field themselves.

“This is a matter,” he continued, “of such enormous social, economic and medical importance that it must be evaluated with our eyes completely open. Thus I would hate to see this issue settled by anything that smacks of a Gallup poll.” Or a cascade.

08 October 2007

MNF Live Bloggin' - Aaaaaag!

Clearly the folks at ESPN were about as impressed with Romo as the Bills were...for the first quarter, anyway:

06 October 2007

Robbie Williams at the El Rey

Robbie Williams took the stage on October 3rd to sing The Only One I Know, his and Mark Ronson's cover of the Charlatans UK song. Sometimes I really miss L.A.

05 October 2007

People = Sheep

So I read that McDonalds has to pay $6.1M to a Kentucky girl who, when she was 18, was strip-searched and ultimately sexually assaulted by her manager and others on the orders of a phone caller pretending to be a police officer. Intrigued, I wanted to find out just what exactly happened. The Louisville Courier-Journal had the scoop. I've just finished reading the article, and I still can't believe what happened to this poor girl.

It's no stretch to compare what happened here to the Milgram Experiment (in fact, the C-J reporter does just that) or Stanford Prison Experiment. Somehow, we're just wired to accept orders from authority figures.

Pretty horrifying. I'd like to think I'm intelligent enough to have seen through something like this, and I probably am, but I'm sure under different circumstances I could be hoodwinked into doing something I wouldn't normally do at the behest of an authority figure.

17 September 2007

I know it's horrible, but...

In Autumn 1998 I attended a Robert Jordan book signing of The Path of Daggers at Pages for All Ages in Savoy, IL. He was duly impressed with my first edition oversized softcover copy of The Eye of The World, the first book in The Wheel of Time series. TPoD was book 8. I was a huge fan of the series after I finally got around to reading TEotW (then, as now, I acquire books with no timetable regarding the reading of them). I even contributed a bit of undergraduate Judaica knowledge to the offical WOT FAQ.

But I digress. The series was showing no sign of ending anytime soon, and that was fine by me, since I was thoroughly enjoying the voluminous series of 700-page tomes full of memorable characters, witty dialogue, and emotional imagery. I recall telling Mr. Jordan that he was welcome to take as long as he liked to finish the series. He cracked that other folks had wondered whether he'd live to finish spinning the tale.

Well with one book left in the 12-volume series, it seems that the "other folks" were justified in their concerns.

And as I said in the header, I know it's horrible, but only one word echoes in my mind after the loss of this hugely talented master of high fantasy.


Someone is going to get shanghaied into finishing this series, and I can only hope that it's done in capably. Clearly he was prepared for this eventuality, but asking someone else to finish this is a lose-lose proposition for the writer. Either it's great because RJ made it great, or it sucks because the new author wasn't up to snuff.


12 September 2007

Board Gaming

I've never really mentioned here my lifelong abiding love for board games. I suppose it started with Scrabble, Chess, Monopoly and Risk with my dad and brothers when I was in my pre-teens. There were dozens of other games, but mostly flavors of those four (Hotels, Solarquest, Sorry, Castle Risk, Dead Stop, Trivial Pursuit, Clue, and Save the Whales were highlights). Once I hit twelve or thirteen, I'd started playing Talisman and Lost Worlds with my friends from school. Talisman was my first fantasy board game, and the first game I'd played with add-on expansions. My complete Talisman 2nd Edition contains The Adventure, The Expansion, Timescape, City, Dungeon, and Dragons, plus some custom cards published in White Dwarf Magazine. I suppose it's worth a pretty penny on eBay, but I'd never sell it. Same goes for my complete Talisman 3rd Edition, with City of Adventure, Dungeon of Doom, and 3-D Sorcerer's Tower expansions. (Talisman 4th Edition comes out this fall. Supposedly they are adding some rule changes to make it more fun for adult gamers (Talisman can drag a bit), so I'll be sure to get it.)

During my senior year of high school, I started playing serious Scrabble with some friends, and I've been playing that regularly at a high level for over 15 years now, along with the occasional Boggle session. The wife won't even consider playing with me. In college, I dabbled with Dungeons and Dragons, but I never really became a big fan.

My real eye-opener was when I moved to California in 1999 and played Settlers of Catan at my buddy Kaleb's place. Settlers is considered among the first of a new vanguard of adult board games, mostly German in origin, that combine relatively simple play, a healthy amount of luck, and fairly complex strategy into a 60-90 minute timeframe. Settlers and its various expansions and alternate versions (Seafarers, Cities and Knights, Stone Age, Starfarers, etc.) were my games of choice for a few years, and I infected friends in several states with them. Then I read an article in the LA times about "new" board games, including Settlers and another newly-popular game called Carcassonne.

The Game Keeper at the Westside Pavilion was closing down for good, and they had a stack of Carcassonne Limited Editions (which included the Inns & Cathedrals, Traders & Builders and The River expansions). So we got a copy and took it for a spin. Another rock star of a game. Extremely simple to learn, but with infinite variability in strategy. This was followed by other expansions and flavors (Castle, City, Discovery, Hunters & Gatherers, etc.), but none of them really measured up to the original, which remains a masterpiece of casual gaming.

In the last two years, having moved back to the DC area where some of my more adventurous gamer friends live, I've added Tigris and Euphrates, Puerto Rico, Anno 1503, Tikal, Caylus, and Lost Cities to my repertoire. All excellent; all vastly different. Puerto Rico doesn't even have an actual board. Thanks to Board Game Geek, I'm never short of inspiration regarding what game to play next, and for the ~$30 these games cost, it's a cheaper night than a movie, and a far better way to spend precious time with friends. It makes buying birthday presents for me pretty easy for my wife (you get free shipping from online game companies once you spend $125 or so).

So what prompted this post? Last weekend I played Ticket to Ride: Europe for the first time. Holy crap that's an awesome game. The innovation these game designers show never ceases to amaze me.

Go out and play a game. Next up: Power Grid (are you reading, wife-o-mine?).

Looking for recommendations? Look no further.
  1. Settlers of Catan (2-4 Players, 2-6 with Expansion)
  2. Carcassonne (2-5 Players)
  3. Puerto Rico (3-5 Players)
  4. Ticket to Ride (2-5 Players)
  5. Tikal (2-4 Players)
  6. Starfarers of Catan (3-4 Players, 3-6 with Expansion)
  7. Settlers of the Stone Age (2-4 Players)
  8. Tigris and Euphrates (2-4 Players)
  9. Caylus (2-5 Players)
  10. Lost Cities (2 Players)

06 August 2007

Harry Potter and the Needlessly Long Final Episode (spoilers at end)

Let's be clear here, the book wasn't too long. I just think that JK backed herself into a corner with the whole "yearlong" structure of the first 6 books, so she felt that she had to have Harry et al. spend their 7th year of school defeating Voldemort. Furthermore, by having Hogwarts being no longer a safe haven, she had no choice but to stage virtually the entire book away from Hogwarts.

Having done this, we're faced with a book that's about 90% Harry, Ron, and Hermione camping all over the English countryside (couldn't they go anywhere else?). No Neville. No Luna. No Fred and George. No McGonagall. No Snape. No Hagrid. No Tonks. No Hogwarts. Bleah.

It's axiomatic that the protagonist of any good work of fiction is generally someone fairly uninteresting. It's the antagonists that are interesting. It's the events s/he experiences and people s/he meets that make for a rollicking read. In the case of the Potter books, all 3 main characters fall into the "not very interesting" clique. Consequently, most of HPatDH is a fairly dull read. Large sections of the book are dedicated to nothing, or very little, going on. And lots of time needlessly passes.

In the end, though, JK redeems herself with a damned good finale. I'd've preferred half of the book be the final battle, or a series of battles, rather than the lackluster leadup, but then again, I'm not the billionaire novelist.

Three final thoughts:

1. So Harry and Hermione are by themselves, for months, in a single house. They're in mortal danger. They're terrified. They're teenagers. They're attractive. And nothing happens? Please. Even good, proper British kids would've been screwing in a week.

(here be spoilers)

2. After a little online reading, I've accepted that Neville could have been able to pull Gryffindor's Sword out of the Sorting Hat, but a bit more exposition would have been nice.

3. What's with the half-assed epilogue? How many kids really end up with their high school sweethearts? Isn't it a bit creepy to name both your kids after your dead parents? Doesn't Ginny get to name someone after Fred? Are we supposed to assume that Victoire is Fleur and Bill's daughter? What kind of name is Victoire? And what is Teddy still doing at Hogwarts at 19?

13 July 2007

Cold-Brewed Coffee

Until I read this article, I thought the best iced coffee I could get my hands on was from Dunkin' Donuts (mind you, they still make some tasty iced java), but it turns out it's pretty simple to make some amazing iced coffee at home. I tried this with some Cafe du Monde Chicory Coffee and haven't gone a day without a tall glass of iced coffee with a splash of milk since. (Interesting fact: the coffee grounds sink, the chicory grounds float).

I use 6 tbsp of coffee with 10 cups of water in a screw-top pitcher and shake it. At least with the chicory coffee, skip the dilution step; it's unnecessary. One packet of splenda for every 8 ounces of water left after straining.

Since NYTimes.com tends to make articles member-only after awhile, I'm repeating the piece here:

Iced Coffee? No Sweat
by Cindy Price

BEFORE I go telling everybody that the secret to great iced coffee is already in the kitchen, my friend Keller wants me to confess: I didn’t know from iced coffee until he showed me the light.

It’s important to cop to this now, because not a summer goes by that he does not painstakingly remind me, a rabid iced-coffee drinker, that he’s the one who introduced me to the wonders of cold-brewed iced coffee. The funny thing is, when the subject came up we were holed up in a summer rental with three friends off the coast of Puerto Rico, on a tiny island not exactly swimming in upmarket coffee houses.

Our first morning there I brewed a blend from the local grocery in the coffeepot, laced it with a little half-and-half and sugar, then let it cool. Classy, I thought, carrying the pitcher to the table. “I’ll just take it hot,” he mumbled, while I blinked in disbelief.

Clearly, this boy didn’t know any better. A drink has a time and place. Surely he didn’t subscribe to drinking hot coffee in summer?

“No, I only drink iced coffee if it’s cold-brewed,” he said.

For five days we watched him sullenly sip his hot coffee on a broiling Caribbean island in the dead of summer. We chided him for his pretensions, ridiculed him, tried valiantly to break him, but he patiently waited us out. Once we tried it we would understand, he explained. Like friends disputing a baseball stat in a bar with no access to Google, we had no way to settle the argument.

Two weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I saw a sign: “Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee Served Here.” Fine, then. I threw down two bucks and took a sip. Though it pains me to admit, the difference was considerable. Without the bitterness produced by hot water, the cold-brewed coffee had hints of chocolate, even caramel. I dropped my sugar packet — no need for it. The best brews hardly need cream. It really is the kind of thing a gentleman might spend five days in hot-coffee solitary confinement for.

Most days I’m too lazy to hunt down the elusive cold-brewed cup. But recently I discovered an interesting little fact. Cold-brewed coffee is actually dirt simple to make at home. Online, you’ll find a wealth of forums arguing for this bean or that, bottled water over tap, the 24-hour versus the 12-hour soak. You can even buy the Toddy cold-brew coffee system for about $30.

But you can also bang it out with a Mason jar and a sieve. You just add water to coffee, stir, cover it and leave it out on the counter overnight. A quick two-step filtering the next day (strain the grounds through a sieve, and use a coffee filter to pick up silt), a dilution of the brew one-to-one with water, and you’re done. Except for the time it sits on the kitchen counter, the whole process takes about five minutes.

I was curious to see how it would taste without all the trappings. The answer is, Fantastic. My friend Carter, something of a cold-brewing savant, turned me onto another homegrown trick: freeze some of the concentrate into cubes. Matched with regular ice cubes, they melt into the same ratio as the final blend.

Very fancy. Can’t wait to tell Keller.

06 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I really hope I get my copy of HPatDH next Saturday, but as it'll be on the way across the pond from Amazon.uk (I prefer my Britishisms intact, thank you very much)., I fully expect not to receive it until Monday. That means I'll have to willfully ignore all TV, newspapers, and internet (especially RSS feeds) until I get the book and plow through it in a single sitting.

1. Neville Longbottom will save everyone, and die.
2. Severus Snape will save everyone, and die.
3. Harry, Ron, and Hermione will live.

08 June 2007

Summer Movies

Another summer of blockbusters has arrived. Considering I haven't seen a film in the theatres since 300, perhaps I'm being a little ambitious here, but in order of how much I want to see them are my top summer flicks:

1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
2. Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End
3. Live Free or Die Hard
4. The Bourne Ultimatum
5. Ratatouille A
6. Spider-Man 3
7. Stardust
8. Transformers C+
9. Knocked Up
10. The Simpsons Movie
11. Evan Almighty

And the list of last fall/winter/spring movies I missed and would like to catch on DVD:
1. Idiocracy
2. Children of Men
3. The Departed
4. Pan's Labyrinth
5. Crank
6. Invincible
7. The Prestige
8. Hot Fuzz
9. Night at the Museum A-
10. The Fountain
11. The Good Shepherd
12. Smokin' Aces

If I see 5 of the 23 on these lists, I'll be shocked. The only slam-dunk is Harry Potter at the Smithsonian IMAX. They'll be doing the last 20 minutes in 3D. I'll probably wait a few weeks after release, though, to avoid the crowds.

17 May 2007

The black swan

Fascinating. Clearly I have a new book to buy.

03 May 2007

Sold out, my keester!

So I'm going to be in Brooklyn on May 19-20 for my sister-in-law's sister's wedding on the 20th. Yesterday I read that Ricky Gervais was going to be performing at Madison Square Garden on the 19th. Despite this image's (courtesy of RickyGervais.com) assertion, Ticketmaster came through for me, and I got 2 seats in the center mezzanine. I guess they released some new ones. Rock on.

14 April 2007

Electric cars are evil. So are electric ranges, dryers, water heaters, furnaces, and ovens.

Okay, maybe that lede was a bit deceiving, but hear me out here. One of the things I've always had a huge problem with was the idea that heating anything with electricity was a good idea. For the uninitiated, electricity is generated by rotating a copper coil around a magnet (or a magnet inside a coil, same difference). In practice, this is usually accomplished by using steam to turn a turbine. Where does this steam come from, you ask? Unless you're in France, odds are it's done by burning coal, oil, or natural gas. The heat vaporizes the water, and the rest is history. (Wind turbines and hydroelectric plants sidestep this by using moving air or water to do the heavy lifting, and solar cells do a direct conversion. However neither of these are as effective on a large scale as fossil fuels or nukes.)

So here's my problem, if you haven't spotted it already. You're taking, say, natural gas and burning it to boil water to spin a turbine to generate electricity to travel untold miles of inefficient wires to heat a coiled resistor on your cooktop. Rube Goldberg couldn't've designed it better.

The same thing goes for electric cars. Gasoline-powered cars are, actually, wonderfully efficient. Perhaps not optimized, and somewhat polluting (although that's pretty close to zero these days), but burning gas to move a car and generate electricity at the same time is a pretty solid way to go about your business. For electric cars, you go through all that rigmarole that you do for your electric range without the pollutant-reducing car technology employed at the energy plant and with all of the inefficiencies of transmission lines.

Simply silly.

Now I never really had an argument against the Prius, other than the fact that it's small and I'm big. I also suspected that, like the electric car, the technologies that went into making the Prius were not as green-friendly as the Priusphiles proselytize.

Clearly, I was right. More info and comparisons here.

While I'm sure there's plenty of issues that one can take up with the research (100k miles lifetime?), even if the Prius gets triple that, it's still a bad bet compared to the Scion xB.

I wrote a few ages ago that the NIMBY environmental movement was potentially self-defeating. Clearly, it still is.

22 March 2007

Better late than never...

We had what was likely the last good snowstorm of the winter on February 25th (a Sunday of course...heaven forbid we get a day off during the week). We went out and made Barb's (and Roscoe's) first snowman. Enjoy.

04 March 2007

Day Broke. (Here be Spoilers)

Okay, I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum here, but I've got to celebrate the end of one of the best TV shows of the season. The 13-episode Day Break was a great dramatic, noir twist on Groundhog Day. Unfortunately only six episodes actually aired, so the rest had to be watched via ABC.com.

To sum up: Brett Hopper (Taye Diggs) is framed of murder, and he keeps reliving the day until he exposes the conspiracy behind the frame-up. Predictably, the conspiracy is wide-ranging, but it's actually fairly believable, as it's been well-developed by good writing and acting.

And the architect of the whole mystical scheme to exonerate Hopper was...

Clayton Rohner?

Yep, the dude who got the guy/girl Terry in Just One of the Guys. Apparently he did it. So he's God, or something fairly close to it, 'cause he's the one (cleaned up from his scruffy Jared character) at the end of the finale looking on as things return to normalcy for Brett et al. Makes me wonder if he appears in episodes where Jared doesn't in other disguises.

So it's over. Most of the baddies get their comeuppance; Mitch Pileggi turns out to be good; and Adam Baldwin turns out to be bad, and yet he escapes to somewhere (back to Firefly, perhaps?). Nice switcheroo there, since they're setup for the reverse.

Great show. Great finale. ABC should've aired it instead of reruns of According to Jim and The George Lopez Show. If it's ever released on DVD, it better have a lot of extras, 'cause I don't know how re-watchable this series is. But, then again, since no one watched it in the first place, it may do quite well.

Yet another example of Hollywood's inability to differentiate the good from the bad.

One question, though. What happened to Margo?

02 March 2007

Io, Volcanolicious

Here's a snazzy little photo of Io taken by New Horizons. The visible plume (at roughly 11 o'clock) is effluent from the active volcano Tvashtar. Earlier photos required the plume and the surface to be taken with different exposure times to ascertain the features of both, but this is one single, 75 ms exposure.


01 March 2007


New Horizons made its closest approach to Jupiter yesterday, part of its gravity assist maneuver that will boost its speed by roughly 4 km/s.

They'll be posting pics from the hundreds of Jupiter observations here. To whet your appetite, check out this Long Range Reconaissance Imager (LORRI) image of the Little Red Spot:

27 February 2007

Trust Snape.

Got these stickers at the Bethesda Borders on Saturday night. I found out later that there's quite an online hubbub about them, as you're supposed to get one free by preordering Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There was just two stacks of them on the info counter, though, so I assumed they were gratis.

Fun stuff. Snape's sure to wind up a good guy, but I like the promotion nonetheless. Of course, I'd never buy the Americanized version of HPatDH. I want my English heroes complete with intact Briticisms, so I preordered this one from Amazon.co.uk.

25 February 2007

How did this not win an award?

Today, on the snowy eve of the Academy Awards, I caught the Jeffrey Ross documentary, Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie, which is based on his weeklong USO tour of Iraq back in 2003.

It's a fascinating, presumably uncensored, voyage into the midst of the troops deployed in Baghdad, Tikrit, and other Iraqi cities. I have no idea why this fine film didn't get more play, bigger press, and even an award nomination or two. See it, it's on cable now.

24 February 2007

Another reason TV is better than movies

Last night, on The Office, dialogue from Jan Levinson (the lovely Melora Hardin) to the camera, on her relationship with Michael Scott (Steve Carell):

I am taking a calculated risk. What's the upside? I overcome my nausea, fall deeply in love, babies, normalcy, no more self-loathing. Downside, I date Michael Scott publicly and collapse in on myself like a dying star.

Best writing on TV, even if it's painful to watch sometimes.

For the uninitiated, first watch the British version with Ricky Gervais, including the Christmas finale (7.5 hours total), and then start on the US one (Season 1: 3 hours, Season 2: 12 hours, Season 3 to date: 9 hours). It's worth the time. You may have to add a few hours for cringe-induced pauses.

23 February 2007

21 February 2007

Happy Day Breaks!

I owe the good folks at ABC half of an apology. I was under the misapprehension that they'd let the great Day Break fade away without airing the final episodes anywhere. It turns out they've put the unaired episodes 6-12 online, and they're pretty darned solid. I imagine the finale will be worth the wait.

On the flipside, the wife and I have given up on Studio 60. Last I checked, it was supposed to be about the backstage of a comedy show. They've lost their way, and, with it, their audience. I've replaced it with The Dresden Files. Dresden is another fine effort from the Sci Fi channel, on the heels of the excellent Eureka. It's no wonder I don't go to the movies anymore (although I'm dying to see The Departed, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, Crank, and The Prestige...on DVD, of course).

For those interested, shows I'm still currently watching: Heroes, The Office, The Amazing Race, Boston Legal, Battlestar Galactica, Scrubs, Iron Chef America, The Soup, and The Dresden Files.

Shows I'm waiting for the next season of: Doctor Who, Eureka, The Shield, Hu$tle, Nip/Tuck, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

New shows I'm going to give a chance: Painkiller Jane and The Ri¢hes.

Two Swords-a-Swinging

This story is almost too perfect. He's 39, lives with his mom, owns a sword, and he's not afraid to use it.

Why do I get the feeling that he hoped the damsel in distress would overlook his distended belly, patchy facial hair, pattern baldness, and "Wisconsin Civil War Re-Enactment Society" t-shirt, and fall passionately in love with her sword-brandishing rescuer?

It's one thing to watch porn; it's quite another to try to live it.

12 February 2007

The XO (a.k.a. the $150 laptop)

This thing is cool. They're rolling out this month. I want one. The OLPC group aren't stupid, though. I'll be able to buy one eventually. No way Negroponte and his buddies would willfully pass up the biggest source of private funding to support the entire One Laptop Per Child initiative: me. And other geeks like me who want hand-crankable computers with wireless capability. I'd pay more than $150 for a fully functional XO laptop, so they can overcharge me and sell them at an even deeper discount to impoverished nations.


Plus, from a national security perspective, it makes sense for everyone to have a similar device in the event of a catastrophe. Pretty soon this, or something like it, will be in everyone's house.

Brave new world, indeed.

06 February 2007

Methinks Tom Wolfe will be writing about this...

Well, wow. You don't often hear about astronaut love triangles and attempted astronauticide, but that's what ye olde RSS feeds had pouring on my homepages today.

Here's the scoop.

And some analysis.

And some more links, courtesy of cnet.

Oh, lordy wow.

30 January 2007

The Burial

It was Sunday, 1pm. We have some older cousins who were on their second funeral of the day. Can you imagine?

Good crowd, if small. Shiva was at my uncle's. Good food. Deli tray and a fish tray.

Got some Philly soft pretzels, too. Those things are like crack cocaine.

Grandma Doris graduated high school at 15, in 1937. Got her accounting degree at 19. Her grandmother, Flora, was the first woman to pass the New York Bar, in her late thirties, after raising 5 kids. Grandma and Grandpa, while not blood related, met at a mutual cousin's Bar Mitzvah. They were married on October 10, 1943. Grandpa Les then went to Germany to fight the Battle of the Bulge. Having survived, he came back and raised 3 kids with Doris. They had 5 grandkids. Thus far, 1 great-grandchild.

Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants, but I'm not doing too shabby, either.

25 January 2007

Grandma Doris died...

...last night around midnight. I left work for an extended lunch to visit her yesterday since we spent a long weekend in Seattle. Good thing. She looked good, if drugged out of her gourd. I figured she'd last till Sunday and longer.

Guess not.

05 January 2007

The best magazine published in the US.

As my overfull bookcases can attest to, I'm a voracious reader. I also tear through magazines as often as I can, and, in my not-so-humble opinion, the New Yorker is the best magazine there is. I've been an off-and-on subscriber for the last 15 years, only halting my subscription when the stack of backissues starts to tower over me (24 cover-to-cover issues annually can tax the most speedy of readers).

The highest compliment I can pay the magazine is that I cannot recall ever finding a single copy error: spelling, punctuation, or otherwise. However, beyond their magnificent copy staff, they write about simply every topic under the sun, and they write it well. They also eschew the "continued on page X" abominations that pepper most periodicals. Everyone should read their weekly Talk of the Town segment.

For two wildly disparate examples of their journalistic prose, check out two of my favorite pieces of the decade: David Remnick's "The Experiment" on democracy in Turkey and Louis Menand's "Cat People" on Dr. Seuss.