Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review: 7-11 Select Gummis

People of a certain age will remember renting videos at "the store."

I don't mean from a Redbox kiosk. No, from a Blockbuster or Major Video (both RIP).

This experience was like shopping for a car, and the window shopping was half the fun. Under the not-very-watchful eyes of the teenage staff, you would peruse and discuss from the many thousands of choices.

Half of the time was spent pointing to movies you loved but would never rent again. Or guffawing over terrible ones whose very existence brought tears of joy (Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. - I'm pouring one out for you, homie).

Which brings me to the humble 7-11. When they are not being raided by ICE agents, 7-11's are a wonderful oasis in a world gone mad. There are wonders inside that are a siren's call to your inner child, and an airhorn of warning to your adult sensibilities.

Questions swirl about your dazzled brain:
  • How long has that pizza been there? 
  • Just how many different types of Doritos are there, anyway? 
  • And how can they sell three quotations for a dollar?
7-11's are like an old abandoned seaside carnival - enticing, magical, and a bit scary.
And they are bold. They are not content to sell high-quality Haribo gummi bears alone.
No, they enter the fray themselves with their own brand of gummified products. Let's look at two:

7-11 Select Gummi Worms
The packaging sports some highly literate and flexible "book worms," which I must admit do seem out of place near so many copies of Hustler.
They cost like 40 cents a bag.
The worms themselves have that thick generic look, and smell like a Solo cup left in the sun. Their cooking staff somehow managed to make them taste exactly as advertised - like worms.

7-11 Select Gummi Bears - 12 Flavors
I am a simple man. When I purchase candy, I have reasonable, Skittle-esque expectations: 5 flavors or so will suffice. Most gummi bears follow the "Big Five" rule as well.
So offering 12 flavors? TWELVE? You have my attention.
At first glance... no.
It can't be.
The mold of the gummis is incredibly similar to ANOTHER Top Three gummi bear - that of the rare and majestic Albanese:

For a second, I think I had somehow transmuted lead into gold. Is it possible to pay 90 cents for top shelf gummis that normally cost $5 or more? Could I actually make a living flipping gummis for profit? Did I finally find my hustle?

The taste brought me back to earth.

12 colors was accurate. 12 flavors was a bit of a stretch.

I was able to classify a few: Hot tar, sugar packet, old sock, and, I believe, litter box.

So I must bid you farewell as I brush my teeth for the next 12 hours. Adieu. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Review: Star Wars - The Last Jedi (obviously spoilers)

Saw it last night. Lots to say.

First, I do need to describe an exacting ritual I undertake with movies I care a lot about. Recently, it's been pretty much just for Star Wars, although I think maybe some Marvel movies fit in here as well.
And the ritual is: Zero information. None. No trailers. No movie posters. No "rumor" articles before it comes out. No toys. No toy commercials. No interviews.


The amount of effort it takes nowadays to NOT see something is incredible. And it's usually incredibly annoying to those with me, who see me averting my eyes on a regular basis like I am avoiding a horde of basilisk.

Back to Star Wars.  It's been a long and bumpy road for us Star Wars fans. I'll never forget the excitement of when Episode I came out (soon to be extinguished), or how delightfully surprised I was when Rogue One turned out to be excellent.

I'll admit that my expectations were low. It begins with the famed "A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away"  in that magical blue font, and the trumpets calling forth John William's majestic intro. I didn't feel the awe they were going for - there's only so many times you can be stirred by the same spectacle.

As the movie unfolded, I started writing this review in my head. I tried to think of the most succinct summary.

I think it might be: "This may be the worst Star Wars movie of them all biggest failure of any Star Wars movie.

I take no joy in saying that. I don't enjoy crapping on beloved franchises for no reason. And I know this is the era of hyperbole and over-indulging in throw-away phrases like "the worst EVER." Undoubtedly the prequels were ineffective, amateurish and lacked any real spark or impactful storytelling. But I think this movie is a bigger letdown, even while the professionalism may have increased and Jar Jar is pleasant absent.

Here's my reasoning:

Your eyes resist it

You don't want to keep watching this movie. After wincing at some of the issues I mention below for a while, I was prepared to tell my friend he didn't need to pay me back for the ticket. During the last third I actually couldn't watch a few scenes because I was embarrassed for everyone in the movie. Scenes that should have had huge emotional impact - Luke reuniting with Leah, Luke reuniting with R2 - were wasted and barely registered. They wanted us to go"Awwww" but they phoned it in. I confirmed with my friend that at a certain point, you actually feel like you are enduring the movie.

You don't care about the characters 

 They set up some nice characters in the previous film. Supreme Leader Snope was menacing and mysterious, but lost all the mystique in person. Finn was this unique turncoat Storm Trooper, and in this movie he becomes  a two-dimensional "Whoo-hoo!" action hero. Other characters haven't been sufficiently rounded out for you to care about them (the silvery Captain Phasma and purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, most prominently). And don't get me started on the totally unconvincing and overpromoted red-haired boss General Hux, who is neither "bad guy" nor comic relief.

The dialogue is awful 

There were lots of moments for great one liners: every second with Luke or Leia, when Rey and Kylo have their telepathy conference calls, and certainly with Snope.
But there's nothing memorable said in the movie at all. Really - what lines did you find yourself quoting afterward?
Rey: You're a monster.
Kylo: Yes, I am.
Luke: I failed you, Ben. I'm sorry. 
Kylo: I'm sure you are! The Resistance is dead, the war is over, and when I kill you, I will have killed the last Jedi! 
This sounds like bad high school writing, of which I am very familiar. There's also whatever forgettable dialogue happened between Rose and Finn during the end of the flick as well.
It doesn't inspire.

It punches holes in itself 

The movie makes a few huge mistakes that greatly impact the entire Star Wars universe.

Lightspeed Attack - First, I have been saying to anyone who will listen for the past 10 years that Star Wars did a good job of not including an obvious flaw with Lightspeed Technology: That's it's clearly the best weapon ever. Why bother to send a huge Star Destroyer against a transport ship when a tiny escape pod can reach lightspeed and blow it apart? But it appeared this was scientifically impossible, which gave way to the amazing space battles we all know and love.
But in this movie, when Vice Admiral Holdo lightspeeds her ship through the enemy fleet, it clearly was possible all along.
So they are saying no one ever thought of this before? (And I'll leave aside why, if there are only 50 rebels left alive, they would sacrifice a VICE ADMIRAL on that suicide run).
But there's even a bigger plothole revealed here. Most science says that a ship traveling at lightspeed would have almost limitless mass. That's enough to destroy... a whole planet. Why build a Death Star, exactly?

It's raining Jedis - In the Star Wars Universe, Jedis are clearly a big deal. Their name evokes feelings of great respect and fear, and the Jedi Council basically functioned as high-caste Samurai in powerful leadership roles. And their abilities, of course, are devastating. So the loss of Jedi Masters is seen as a loss to the universe, a dimming of goodness throughout the entire galaxy. Why else are Snope and Kylo so interested in killing Luke - the "Last Jedi?" Why else did they invent those awful midichlorians but to show how rare Jedi powers were?
But Luke here reveals that the Force really does touch everyone, and that the potential for there to be lots more Jedis (infinite Jedis?). If that's the case, then it's like all those rare Jedis turned out to be as common as Dixie Cups. If the Force as a resource is widespread, it devalues all of the movies and makes the deaths of all other Jedis to be much more meh. This was hugely destructive.

Not so stealthy -  Unless I am incorrect, the movie suddenly introduces "cloaking technology." This is a huge technological achievement that transforms the nature of every space battle. Even if we allow that this technology was invited in the 30 years since the end of Return of The Jedi, why isn't it ubiquitous? Why doesn't the newly rebranded Empire with limitless resources have it? Why do only the Lesser Codebreaker and the Escape Shuttles have them?
Stealth technology might have been a good thing to put on those bombers at the beginning of the film, hmmm?

U-Turn - The entire giant subplot with Finn and Rose and the fate of the fleet was to stop the tracking device on the Star Destroyer. But they never destroyed the tracking device, so their entire jaunt to the Casino and the Codebreak was a meaningless detour.

Wimpy in Red -  Of course I loved seeing the ninja Crimson Guard commanders fight Kylo and Ren. Until... it occurred to me that ninjas don't have any powers. Kylo could have mopped them up in three seconds and gotten back to moping.

All of these faults sting even more because of this final point:

They had time to make it perfect 

Disney had this incredible body of work, an effectively unlimited budget, and access to any actors or actresses they possibly needed (included beloved originals like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher). They also had their pick of the best writers and cinematographers. But even more importantly, they learned from the awful Prequels what NOT to do.
And yet here we are.
In summary, even the minor bright spots (good effects, diverse cast, the return of Yoda, Daisy in every scene) couldn't make up for these lapses.
It hurts me to say, but this movie is such garbage that it belongs in the trash compactor from Episode IV.
Maybe Star Wars was never supposed to be for adults. Maybe it's become a kids movie and I had no business watching it.
It did leave with one big question to ponder: Am I a good parent if I show this movie to my kids?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

In praise of... McDonalds?

I had an epiphany buying a Big Mac.

Which in, itself, was a rare occurrence.

For years, it has been more than fashionable to trash big business. It has been expected.

And with good reason - the stories of hegemonic mega-corporations crushing smaller businesses, avoiding taxes and being generally hellions are legion.

At the same time, it's easy to fall into polarized states where we ignore realities, especially ones that run counter to our own narrative.

And the realization I had inside that McDonalds was: They were helping a lot of people as well.

It was a hot day, and the AC inside was crisp. And quite a few folks who appeared to be down on their luck were taking advantage of this. Seated at tables, in groups or alone, they were experiencing one of the most important human emotions: Something a little closer to comfort.

Those who had money were able to buy something to eat or drink. I saw people's eyes close in pleasure as they bit into a sandwich or a toasty french fry.

Many of them are gathering points for people to get together, especially senior citizens with little cash to spare.

At a times where poverty and homelessness are almost criminalized, this particular McDonalds had an open door policy (I know not all of them do, and I understand the tough calls owners must make if there are certain people they feel they need to expel in order to run a pleasant business).

I also know, from watching the superb movie The Founder, that many enterprising men and women buy McDonald's franchises and do OK.

I'm still troubled by their deskilled labor process, their low wages, lack of benefits and anti-union stances. But that's from my point of view. From the people who were enjoying their food and a little rest, they didn't seem to have any issues.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review: Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chips

When you're a moderately healthy person who eats fast food rarely - and occasionally for the whimsy - you feel empowered when you make that order. You know about the poor nutrition and rich additives, and convince yourself that this knowledge is somehow a shield protecting you from its malign effects.

You also feel superior.

"Oh lowly Taco Bell - I'm eating you just for the Lolz. But I'll still invite you to my penthouse soiree."

So, like any arrogant and biased food reviewer, I was writing this review before I even took a bite. I imagined my lead would be: "Scientists rejoice as 4,327 new chemical compounds discovered in Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chips."

But I was wrong.

I took out a hefty triangle from its paper pouch, still hot, and dipped it in the Cheeto-colored Mayo, or perhaps queso.

I took a bite. I expected a rush of MSG, and the desire to drink an ocean of Diet Coke.
But something was happening in my mouth that I wasn't prepared for. The various seasonings and ingredients somehow perfectly repelled each other, as if they were finely-tuned by some virtuoso cook / chemist.

The flavors in the "chip" nullified each other so completely that what I tasted was... nothing. Not the absence of flavor, but a perfectly manufactured emptiness. I was in a crowded mall, and yet I was separated from all living beings. I was totally alone with my cheese sauce. I chewed and felt warmth, but my mind was already distancing itself from my mortal form.

I saw humanity as a net across the globe, each man and woman connected to each other by strands of kindness. I saw the earth as a small ball in the infinite blackness of the universe, rolling through the dark in tireless orbits. I saw time as a pair of hands that pushes each of us forward, without malice or pleasure. I felt removed from all things, and only from that great distance could I, at last, feel true harmony.

My companion said they tasted like Chicken McNuggets.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Maybe the world isn't hellishy terrible after all?

Ethics cannot be quantified. It is perfectly reasonable to have two competing, yet perfectly valid assessments of the world today. You can see goodness in people saving a wounded dog, or rescuing children from a burning building, just as you can spit on humanity when hearing about slavery in Sudan or the starvation of farmers somewhere in North Korea (or somewhere in America, probably).

But when if you COULD measure morality. And what's more, what if you did and you found that the earth - and humans - were getting better every year. There was a famous philosopher (I've been googling for 10 minutes and can't recall which one) who said that man inexorably moves towards morality. And that eventually, all people will be rational.

It seems impossible to believe this with even a cursory glance at the world. Increasing inequality gap in the U.S. ISIS' latest horrific thing. Unaffordable tuition. Billionaires controlling our elections. Plastic in the oceans. Anti-Muslim sentiment exacerbating already terrible refugee crisis.

All bad things. But one thing that isn't bad is that, generally, people agree that they are bad.

To measure something, you need to have a baseline. So let's look back at baseline morality through most of history:
  • Slavery = common
  • Women = few rights, not represented in government, seen as property (see above for that too)
  • Children = Seen and not heard, beatings common. Work in the coal mine, kiddo.
  • Colonialism = common. Kill, kidnap or educate the "savages"
  • Legal protection = Just for white men and / or rich people. I don't mean that rich people had BETTER legal protections (which they still do), but that they had pretty much ALL of them.
  • Gays = Not tolerated.
  • Knowledge = Owned by the few
Nowadays, more and more of these offenses are becoming intolerable. There will always be spikes of fundamentalism, fascism, and other nasties, but there is immediate pressure to stop these trends. They are globally vilified. The standard of morality, overall, may be improving.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Nerd on Nerd hate must stop

Nerds and geeks need to chill out.

Even in my dorkiest days, my contentions about what was and was not authentically geeky had limits. No so geek blog Io9's recent "Reminder: The Big Bang Theory Is the Goddamned Worst," article. It's not enough for the nerds of the world that comic book sales are rebounding, Fantasy (Game of Thrones) and computer geekdown (Silicon Valley) are dominating HBO, and the are showing superhero ads during the SuperBowl. Three of them, in fact.
Instead of feeling satisfied with this victory, or beleaguered by the over-saturation, they instead cast stones at the super smash hit, claiming the show goes for the "easy jokes." For example, when discussing the intergenerational hit Saga, which looks at the beauty, horror and comical nature of parenting set in a fantasy-science background, the show rags on the fact that there are boobs on the cover.
I guess their take is, why not use a prime time sitcom to discuss, at length, the impressive literary and artistic merits of Saga, especially in the context of ever increasing powerful, dramatic stories in the comic medium, and how they are receiving attention from the mass media.
Blleeeccchhhhh. What a terrible idea. And a boring one, too. I think a boob joke, if it gets Saga into a conversation on TV, is superb. This is prime time television. It's already a miracle that TV's #1 show discusses quantum physics, Hulk hands and uses a 14th grade vocabulary. Are you really going to push the "You're not going far enough" thing?
I suppose perhaps, it does come back to the "us vs. them" tribalism thing that no one is immune to. I guess seeing someone purporting to be even a little like you, on TV, is reason enough for people to recoil and say "Nay!" Perhaps they want higher standards for their dopplegangers. Or they feel that something sacred and private has become public and profane. Maybe having more people fighting for the future of geek culture is better than having no one.
Let's just not get too carried away with the purism.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Outbaked by the Brits: Great British Bake Off review

My wife and I are avid consumers of U.S. competitive baking culture. And in case you're not, it is a wide field: Chopped, Top Chef, Worst Cook in America, Masterchef, Masterchef Jr., and my personal favorite, Kitchen Nightmares, to name a few.

Recently we had a chance to try something with a bit more crumpets - the Great British Bake Off (GBBO), where a dozen home chefs compete in a baking contest. The setup is exactly what you'd see in the U.S., but the execution is completely different. The more I watched, the more I realized they had outdone us again. And while I still can't tell if the difference is due to editing, production design or just a different crop of people, the end result is no less striking.
Here's what I mean:

It's non-competitive - One of the first thing I noticed is how nicely all the contestants treated each other. There was no scheming, no trash talking, no "I'm the best" bravado. Everyone seemed to genuinely get along, and want to excel on their own merits. Do U.S. producers encourage people to backstab each other to heighten the drama? Or are our British counterparts equally skilled and yet less cutthrough?

It's more honest - Many, many times in the U.S. they show people an incredibly challenging thing to bake or cook, and say "Ready, Set, Cook!" Somehow, all the chefs, even home cooks or kids, all seem to know how to do it without any instruction at all. This always smelled fishy to me. In The Great British Bakeoff, you see people consulting general instructions given to them by the producers on a few challenges. It's no less challenging because the instructions are either vague or don't help with time management, but it's clear how the show works. I appreciated that.

It's cheeky - With the exception of Alton Brown, more U.S. hosts are picked for their knowledge and not necessarily their warmth. But the GBBO splits its hosting duties in half. The shows hosts and voiceover-ers are Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, two delightful, funny and real actresses who aren't baking experts at all. They crack puns, steal licks from chocolate bowls and occasionally even help contestants in a bind. The actual judges,  Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, are equal parts impressive and imposing.

It's about skill, not money - Why do most people compete on U.S. game shows? If you said anything but money, sit down. Yes, the fame of winning Top Chef and being on T.V. are important, but for most it's the big paycheck. Many shows remind people again and again of this. "Is this Crème Brulee worth $50,000?" Etc. But the GBBO has no prize money. None. The prize is to be named the winner, and that's it. To facilitate this, the show doesn't air over a period of back-to-back days like in the U.S. Instead, it's only filmed on THE WEEKENDS, allowing people to keep their jobs and routine! This simple fact was so extraordinary, I tipped my metaphorical hat to the television when it was revealed.

In short, all these pieces together create a competition that is more like a family cookoff. You don't want anyone to go home. Every contestant has something you like, even those with less skill. You learn more when the show is more honest. I'll prolly be catching the other seasons soon.