Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wasting important people's valuable time

At a conference today I had the pleasure of seeing some top-notch speakers, one of whom was Craig Newmark, famed founder of Craigslist and all-around liked and brilliant guy (here's his pathetically thin Wikipedia entry).

Anyway, I told my girlfriend that I was hearing him speak, and she said, "Hey, ask him how come I can't sell my TV."

So I did.

I waited until after he was done (he was nice, nerdish and charmingly odd, BTW) and approached. I congratulated him on his speech, and asked if I could ask him a silly question. He said sure.

"How can I sell my girlfriend's 19" inch SONY TV?" I said.
"Is it flatscreen?" he asked.
"Hmmm.... well, tell the truth about it, and lower their expectations. And maybe be prepared to give it away. There are better TV's than that for free on Craigslist," he said.

Well said, Mr. Newmark.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Nicolas Cage has the magic power to ruin any movie

All I have to say is "Put the bunny back in the basket."
If you don't know this classically bad line from Con Air, then you might not know the awesome power of Nicolas Cage to make you squirm.
My friend Jacob put the idea in my head that Mr. Cage can drop the enthusiasm curtain on every comic book movie he's in, from Ghost Rider to more recently in Kick Ass. Indeed, he's best when he plays a doltish chump who for some reason is carrying a firearm, like in The Rock. I ever heard he was supposed to be Superman in one of the Superman movies that never got made.
He's just a bad actor who is always the same character in every film, and is completely unbelievable, just like Keanu Reeves or My Arch-Nemesis John Cusack.
Two exceptions for Cagey: Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas. That is all.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I try (and fail) to get real answers from Morningstar about poisonous veggie patties

In researching the minor uproar about whether veggie patties are cooked in a neurotoxin, I emailed my favorite fake meatery, Morningstar, and asked them what's up. Here was their response:

From: <>
Subject: Morningstar Farms® Consumer Affairs 020872476A
To: Jon's email
Date: Friday, April 23, 2010, 10:31 PM


Thank you for taking the time to email us regarding the use of hexane in the processing of our soy products.

Hexane is approved by the USDA for use as a solvent in the processing of the soybean to separate the protein and fat. It is not used in the direct production of isolated soy protein or soy fiber products. Soy protein isolates from alternative sources are not widely available and cannot currently support the volume demands of the growing soy foods market.

Organic soy by definition cannot be processed with hexane. If the product is organic we do not use a solvent, but rather mechanical means (pressure) to separate the oil from the meal, resulting in organic soy protein. We do offer Morningstar Farms® Breakfast Patties made with Organic Soy. I invite you to visit the "Where to Buy" section of our website;, to check availability in your area.

We take great pride in providing safe, delicious vegetarian foods. Please be assured that your comments are valuable to us and will be shared with our marketing and research and development teams.


Consumer Affairs Department


I was happy to get a response, even a form-letter one and with incomprehensible garbage at the end. But it doesn't 100% address a few things, like:
a. are any of your products made with Hexane, and
b. do you consider Hexane to be safe despite fears that it is not.

I asked for a follow-up. I won't hold my breath.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Google's offices acually are pretty cool

It's very easy to put the awesome power of Google's brand into perspective. Think about this: What brands would you actually wear on a T-shirt? Everyone loves free corporate swag, but what brand-name merch would you actually request if you knew a friend was going to have access to it. What you say, "Hey man, make sure to get me a Toyota pen while you're at the factory." Or "Don't forget to get me a Brawny pin or something while you're over there."
That would never happen. But if you're going to Google, every promotional piece suddenly has HUGE value to all your friends. I brought back pins, pens and notebooks and they were all hotly contested. Google is so cool we can't even admit it to ourselves. They are a global force, and we see them kinda as "informational Robin Hoods."
Their offices are no exception to the unconventional rule. Here are some photos from my visit to their DC office this week. My favorite is the one of Wolf Blitzer. It's a cardboard cutout of Wolf in the Google Conference Room officially called "The Situation Room." And the icing is that Wolf is wearing a Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" T-shirt as well.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A second thought about Unions

To the chagrin of some of my more liberal friends, I have become very anti-union over the years. As a young demonstrator, I was very and unequivocally pro-union and anti-corporate. Now, I'm anti-both to some degree. In both I see elements that are corrupt and greedy, and tribalistic in their protectionism.
As for unions, a few experiences and some cursory research put me on this bender:
  • My mom was almost fired by her union for changing a light bulb (which was another union person's job)
  • Friends who are managers have been sued and incredibly inconvenienced trying to get rid of poor-performing union employees, and
  • Finally, I believe in a strict meritocracy in the workplace, so a person should be protected largely by their own competency. Unions, or so the saying goes, largely protect the lowest common denominator, people who would be fired if it wasn't for their union backing.
Yesterday, I went to bocce with my friend Michelle, whose parents used to be active in unions. We had a chat about unions, and I gave her my pitch, adding, "Why the hell should auto workers make $120 an hour?"
Her response: Why not?
She then proceeded to give me the living wage argument, about how jobs with benefits are so hard to find, and that as long as a company can pay someone well they should. That was an interesting take.
Regarding when my mom got in trouble for doing custodial work, her argument was: If they let my mom do this seemingly minor task that "belongs" to someone else, she and other people might do it all the time because they could do it faster than the custodian. Then, that person would lose their job. Or, if a company had full ability to hire or fire anyone, they would eliminate everyone they could and overload all the employees with these tasks. It would devolve into a sweatshop, and people would then have to fight for fairer working conditions. So it's better to fight for the less-efficient union scenario than the unprotected workers slaving themselves model.
It's meritocracy vs. good jobs. I'm not sure I agree, but it's certainly a different viewpoint.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why doesn't the U.S. value educators?

I like talking about educators. They have one of the most interesting jobs out there - almost cartoonishly entrancing in some cases. I wondered before if some people can't be educated, and now I have another question: Why do teachers get such lousy pay? The NY Times says U.S. teachers rank 11th in the world in salaries, which is better than I thought, but still very low for all the hours they work.

So why? Why are police viewed as heroes for saving lives, but teaching, which affects far more children, is seen by many as a back-up profession? Next to your parents, teachers have some of the greatest potential to pushing you towards career excellence. People always credit their teachers for their success. They spend up to eight hours a day with our kids, after all. We value our babysitters and day care when our kids are younger, so why don't teacher salaries match this interest when our kids are older? We value teachers, but we hate paying them - or, more accurately, the idea of paying tuition. Someone else should pay for this, not me.

My friend Ilan says we don't value teaching because we think that anyone can do it. They're just talking from a book, right? Anyone can do that, right? Well apparently not, since you need a Master's equivalent before you're allowed in a public school.

I don't know where this is all going, but it just seems that it says a lot about our society that we undervalue our teachers so much. Teaching is probably about as glamorous as plumbing in the U.S., and yet it pays much, much worse.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What would you do if you became the CEO of Fox News?

There is some legitimacy about questioning the future of Fox News, not because of its profitability, but because Rupert Murdoch's kids seem to hate each other and, possibly, him as well.

Given the question of what would I do if magically promoted to CEO / Chairman of Fox News, my reaction was clear and immediate - shut the damn thing down, turn off the lights, go home, collect enough brownie points to get into the heavens of every religion ever. But my trusted girlfriend, Dianna, had the nerve to point out some holes in my argument: News Corp, Fox's parent company, has approximately 64,000 employees. These are obviously not all bad people, or even biased / misguided journalists. And given that most journalistic outfits are in the shits right now, Fox News may be one of the larger employers of "journalists" in the U.S.

So let's say one day yours truly walks in and kills the power. What happens? Families from rich to small have suddenly lost their main source of income, and replacement jobs may not be around the corner. For the families lower in the food chain, given the competitive job market out there, I may have just sent them down the road to financial ruin, or even alcoholism and or homelessness, all based upon my lofty ideals. Do those families give a shit about journalistic objectivity when they are facing joblessness? After all, maligned or not, Fox isn't killing babies, just informed pubic discourse.

If I did Deep-Six the whole thing, would another, more conservative group be waiting to grab the market share and start the whole thing over again? Certainly there's a market for this stuff. And think about this - Rupert Murdoch may suck, but he is a shrewd businessman and and his brains do employ thousands. So even if I did get the reins and decided not to close it down, what if I can't pull this off and the whole company goes down the drain anyway? It's like the Sandman comic where Morpheus is given the key to Hell. Whether he keeps it or gives it away, he's still screwed.

I tried to reframe the argument, saying that owning a business denotes responsibility for its actions. So if I owned a toxic waste dumping company, I would be morally responsible for its actions, and since I do my best to live an ethical existence, I would have to shut it down. But once again the issue of jobs comes up. What if this dumping company was the only industry in town (America has so few left, you know) and by shutting it down I'd turn the place into Detroit. Could I live with THAT?

Someone in my head, I hear the voice of Ben Parker: With Great Power comes Great Responsibility.... (Sweet, two comic references in one article!)

Monday, April 19, 2010

States that hate welfare get the most welfare

I'll never understand things like this (click to enlarge). Maybe its the job of journalists to be informing people when they are this confused / hypocritical. Or maybe people don't pay attention to things they don't like, or anything at all, really.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I take down the KFC Double Down

Why? Because I'm an idiot.
And here's a video of me eating it. Dianna says I'm a bit of a narcissist when it comes to stuff like this. I like to think of myself as a documentarian with poor choice for subject matter.
Anyway, here are the important background pieces:

1. It costs $3.99

2. While I was able to overlook that Jewish prohibition against mixing meat with milk in the name of science, I wasn't comfortable eating bacon. So I took the sandwich home and cooked turkey bacon and threw that in (see pic #2).

3. The sandwich itself was heftier than I imagined. These weren't wimpy Tyson's chicken patties but thick pieces o' meat. It didn't feel like a sandwich, however - without bread, there can be no sandwich (Man, I hope this thing doesn't become an Atkins staple...). Opening up the two patties revealed a rather gross cheese blanket (see pic #3)

4. The taste? If you have eaten KFC before, it just tastes like KFC. There are no special ingredients here - chicken, cheese and (turkey) bacon, so if you've eaten those there are no real surprises. What may surprise you, however, is the way that KFC food eats as a MSG delivery system - its basically just a container with an MSG filling. So prepared to drink a lot of water afterward.

5. I ate it with a side of potato wedges in a few minutes. When I was done, my heart felt like it was beating a little faster, but that always happens when I eat KFC. Then, by sheer coincidence, I took a 3.5 hour nap.
A pic of the completed (and defeated) item of record is on the bottom.

The REAL reason why the KFC double down shocks us

First, it's not the nutrititional value - the double down has the same amount of calories and saturated fat as a Big Mac:

KFC Double Down: 540 Calories, 32 grams fat, 10 Sat fat, .5 trans fat, 145 Cholesterol, 1380 sodium

McDonald's Big Mac: 540 Calories, 29 grams fat, 10 sat fat, 1.5 trans fat, 90 cholesterol, 1190 sodium

Second, it's not even the ingredients - based on some half-assed Internet research I just did, it doesn't seem like our bacon consumption is decreasing, and our overall meat chomping seems to be increasing at the rate of 1.3 per cent a year.

So if it's not the fat content or the ingredients, why are people so enamored with this heart buster? Once again, Stephen Colbert shows us the way. His take with my exaggeration - already hinted at above - is that without bread, there can be no sandwich. And this puts this item in a category all it's own. It is unclassifiable foodstuff. The missing link between the fossil record. An anomaly. And we like to put things in categories, so mysteries scare us. The KFC Double Down is the International Manwich of Mystery - why would someone create it? Or eat it? Should this be legal? Is it a portent of horrible things to come? Was it created by extraterrestrials ? Does God know about this?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

We want Americans to have good jobs... but not too good

During my protesting days, I used to fight for others to get a living wage - which is the hourly wage you actually need to pay for life's essentials - rent, food, clothes, and kids. McDonald's may employ tens of thousands of Americans, but it's minimum wage / a tad above, and no one can pay the bills on that.
So when someone creates good jobs, you'd think we'd be happy, right?
But no. When we hear about average people getting larger than average salaries, we get pissed off:

1. Outrage over RI crossing guards who get health insurance

2. Angry over well-paid Federal employees

3. Fury over auto workers making up to $70 an hour

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Just because it's funny (click to enlarge)

One thing I miss about journalism - the Swanky Shit

I went with a journalist I know to a D.C. fundraiser. They were covering the event; I was covering the food and drink - sampling, if you will. And prodigiously.

Journalism doesn't have a lot of perks (which is why I left) but there are a few, and one is crashing seriously high-end events that you have no business being at.

I generally feel comfortable in any environment I find myself, and this was no exception. There were food snobs there, but if they tried to hold it over me I simply took my compliments and lavish praise to the next table.
Unlimited food and drink. Indian curries, pea soup shooters, Kobe burgers, hand-crafted chocolates, sugar-coated grapes, green tea ice cream, and more.

A delight.

Note: Some of these pictures were taken by my ace journalist buddy.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What if you adopt a kid... and they're quasi-homicidal?

This CNN story is pretty interesting.
In summation:
  • US families adopts Russian 7-year old boy.
  • When they bring him to the U.S., they find he is violent, possibly a pyromaniac, and talks common about killing his foster family.
  • They decide he's a liability, and buy him a one-way plane ticket home to Russia and send him home alone.
So there are two issues here.
One, what do you do if your adopted child is violently crazy, and you weren't told (as they allege).

And two, can you return a child like they are a plastic knick-knack from Wal-Mart?

For issue number one, I feel their pain. Adoption certainly is a very complex and heart-wrenching issue, especially when the child has grown up in a series of foster homes. Some degree of mental trauma is to be expected. But what about if you feel you've been duped by the adoption agency? They have a responsibly to tell the truth about their wards, and, on some base level, it is an agreement between two parties. Yes, the agreement involves a human life, but many of our important issues involve human lives - Do we keep a loved one on life-support? Do we donate a kidney and decrease our quality of life to improve someone elses'? Or, on a more mundane level, do we continue drinking / smoking if it affects our health or the health of those around us?

There are many unanswered questions here - Did the family seek mental health assistance for the child? Did they try? This may matter, or it might not, but it would be good to know. Certainly when you adopt a child (or have one biologically) you are expected to put up with some shit. But can there be a limit? You hear stories about parents throwing a kid out of their house for being really bad. If the child is adopted or not shouldn't really matter when you are talking about VERY bad things, right? So is there a line or a limit somewhere for how much crap / danger you need to take as a parent, or should love be unconditional, even if you are at risk?

Then we have the second issue, which is sending the kid on a plane essentially with a note saying, "Hi. This kid sucks. I am returning and waive my right to a refund. Thx." A radio report I heard this morning said that they paid some unknown person in Russia $200 to pick the kid up at the airport and take him back to the orphanage. This seems pretty heartless, even though I'm sure the family just wanted this kid out of their lives, period. But they still agreed to be his guardian, and they should look over him until he's been resettled elsewhere. Leaving him to the care of the airline stewardesses seems raw, B.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Truly awful Lotus Notes

1. I've written about how awful my work email is before (I think) but I had to share this - observe how the Tip of the Day is more mystifying than whatever problem it's trying to fix. THAT'S why you on't know anyone who willingly uses a Lotus product.

2. Because I am occasionally a good boyfriend, I try not to put up a fuss when Dianna's wants to watch chick movies.
So I was silent during the watching of a very strange Harvey Keitel / Joshua Jackson movie called "Shadows in the Sun" a story about an editor trying to get a reclusive writer to pick up the typewriter again. I thought that Harvey Keitel was a pretty big ticket actor, but I guess I was wrong - this straight-to-DVD sap fest is dangerous to diabetics everywhere with it's molasses-level of sweetness.
The acting is laughable, all the characters seem like they can't wait to get off camera, and the production is of that fine "fourth-grade" level of quality. It's about as enjoyable as a video of your feet. Dianna agreed, and the final scene, when the heroine actually rides to save her love from a departing train on a pair of horses (!) caused epileptic fits in both of us.

Monday, April 5, 2010

It's gotta be tough to be the Final Boss

Imagine you are the final boss - Zeus, the Queen Alien, Mother Brain, etc. You are the most powerful creature in the world / game, and therefore you are pretty smug in your powerfulness. Any one of your attacks can almost instantly dispatch a foe into goo.
Since it takes numerous hits to kill you, and very few to kill your opponent, the odds are heavily weighed in your favor. Of COURSE they are - you are 1000 feet tall and he is smaller than your toenail.
And, sure enough, when the hero DOES come around, you quickly kill him and return to your evilness.
This is the world as it should be. After all, how could you ever defeat a boss when you don't know its weaknesses or patterns? You try your "Hadookens" or your Ice Beam and you get demolished. Game over.
But life doesn't work this way. No, because your tiny foe has one thing you lack - multiple lives. This is, in effect, a form of time travel / omniscience. After dying by your hand a few times, the player returns to fight you with added insight. You are not given this chance. He learns to adapt to your secret moves ("When Mike Tyson blinks, dodge!") while you try your seemingly unblockable move to find it.... blocked!
You, who have seemingly unlimited power, are suddenly getting improbable missles fired up your meter-wide exhaust chute. Suddenly, you see, all your foes have The Force - they know what you are about to do before you do it. They confer with each other, even share strategy guides on how to kill you. You fight him for the first time with no prior information, while they've been studying you like an amoeba for days.
And eventually, you fall, despite having thousands of times the hit points of your foes and innumerable weapons at your disposal. You may have seemed arrogant in your boasting, but in truth your enemy was cheating. It totally sucks to be on top.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Passover and Usability

There are four basic types of seders:

1. The Whole Megillah - The only one you ever heard at your Orthodox Uncle Bob's. They do the entire Haggadah, in Hebrew, with no frills, explanations, or diversions. After a while it turns into Hebraic background noise.

2. The Educational - The focus is on explaining the seder, answering questions, and creating lively discussions. Warning: May run very long.

3. Let's not take this too seriously - We already went through all the effort to do all the cooking and preparing, so let's not get bogged down on details, OK? We might use a Hagaddah (with skipping over the boring parts) or we might just print some stuff off the internet.

4. Show and tell - A rare but rich experience that takes #2 to the next level. Performances, songs, skits and other personal touches for a very unique seder. Common among artists, offbeat Hebrew school educators and Reconstructionist Jews.

So the question is, of course - which is best? And not which is best for you, which obviously is too subjective to answer, but which best to fulfill the key obligations of Passover: To explain the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and to make you feel as if you, personally, were there during these events.

I think this is one example when the tradition-focused Orthodox and their straightforward "let's do it all" method miss the mark. There is nothing experiential at all in a verbatim reading of text. There's no emotional connection in rote rehearsal.

Instead, the offbeat performances and educational to-and-fro have a much better chance of penetrating our busy minds. Passover needs to meet the attendee where HE / SHE is. It needs to rise to the occasion, adapt to the times. It needs to succeed on a usability level. Maybe someone should run national usability tests on Seders and find out which actually work best at creating significant memories and experiences, and run with those.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Life Lessons from Bioshock 2

While hanging in my friend's unheated apartment last weekend, I had the perverse joy of playing approximately 26 hours of Bioshock 2, the Ayn Rand-esque dystopian underwater shoot-fest.
But between the rocket-propelled spears, the micro-sized drill bits and the creepy, syringe chicks, I realized that a game mechanic was dealing with one of life's big questions regarding resource allocation.
Simply put: The game, like life, provides you with resources that you can put towards enhancing your abilities. You have the choice between putting all your points in one basket (i.e. super-powering a single weapon, like your shotgun) or spreading them through multiple fields for less spectacular, but more rounded results. Initially, I chose the more rounded while Geo chose the single-skill method. Is it a coincidence that he is a skilled musician and I am more well-rounded but less singularly achieved?
I think not.