2012 – The Year of Records

Festive Orbs

Congressional Approval Rating: 18%

President Obama’s Job Approval Rating: 54%

Unemployment Rate: 7.9%

Gas Prices (Source Gas-Buddy):  Tuscon – $2.858; Lubbock – $2.865; Little Rock – $3.068; Chicago – $3.40; Boston – $3.475; LA – $3.609;  NYC – $3.773; Honolulu – $3.918

Most expensive college:  Sara Lawrence College (not to be confused with Sara Lee) – $60,116/yr

Motor Trend 2013 Car of the YearTesla Model S – $58,000 (an all electric car) 0-60 4.4 seconds with no emissions.

Weather 2012:  (source – Dr. Jeff Masters’ wunderblog)

  • Great Drought of 2012 – driest since Dust Bowl era.  In July, 61% of U.S. contiguous land mass in drought like conditions. Mississippi River at lowest levels ever.
  • Hottest year on record.  On August 1, half the state of Oklahoma recorded temperatures of 110 or higher.  Death Valley tied record for highest low at 107 and highest average 24 hour temperature of 117.5.
  • Hurricane Sandy – largest tropical storm-force winds spanning 943 miles of coastline.
  • 28 tornadoes hit on Christmas Day breaking the previous record of 12 set in 1969.

Average movie ticket price: 2012 – $8.12; 1995 – $4.35.

Best LPs of 2012:  my picks sourced from Rolling StonesNPR and Stereophile.  26 albums, multiple genres, one playlist.  See below:  Don’t have Spotify, get it free (with ads, sorry), but it’s worth it.

12/12/12

The end of the world came and went without incident.

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Best of 2012

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Here’s a random list that came to mind over morning coffee.  I know I’ve left some stuff out, but it also occurred to me that I need to do several lists.  This one is mostly devoted to entertainment.  I plan to post a couple of political ones too, maybe a best and worst.  I might even do a top news items one too, though it’s sometimes difficult to separate news from politics.

Best Film:  Argo (reviewed here) and then probably Lincoln, but I didn’t see it.

Best Actor:  Alan Arkin in Argo

Best Indie Film:  Beasts of the Southern Wild.  See my review here.

Best Jazz Album:  Unity BandPat Metheny

Best Rock Album:  Clockwork Angels – Rush This one got them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is their best work in their 35+ year career.

Best Musical DVD: Orchestrion – Pat Metheny.  Fascinating.  I saw him perform this in concert in 2010, reviewed here.  My words did not do it justice, but do yourself a favor and buy the DVD.

Best Classical Album:  HarmonielehreShort Ride in a Fast Machine – John Adams

Best Book:  Drift – Rachel Maddow

Best Weekend Talk Show:  Up With Chris Hayes

Best TV Show: Top Gear UK

Best Concert: Yes – Boston (the only one I saw all year)

Best Wine: Santa Cristina Toscana IGT 2010.  Sublime wime and nicely priced.

Best Commercial:  Wax Vac with best actor going to the guy who stabs his ear with a Q-Tip and yells OUch.

Best electronic gadget: Kindle Paperwhite e-reader.  I plan to review it later, but will say that it meets my expectations, which are admittedly low and I’ve managed to nearly read one free book on the thing: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.  The Paperwhite lovingly keeps track of my reading speed and tells me how long it will take me to finish a book and how much of it I’ve read.  I’m 91% through Nostromo and have 38 minutes to go.  But the book is a slow slog and I’ll be happy when I’m done.  I like Conrad, but don’t recommend Nostromo.  I’ve downloaded lots of other free classics including Moby Dick, which may take me 8 years to read and thankfully the battery charge is said to last 8 years…or maybe its 8 weeks, I forget.  I accidentally purchased The Complete Sherlock Holmes for $2.99 after downloading a free version earlierI had this coupon from Amazon for a free download from a selection of books including the aforementioned Sir Authur Conan Doyle masterpiece illustrated, but I somehow botched the instructions and wound up buying it instead.  Now I have two Complete Works.  I have tons of other books on my wish list but I can’t bring myself to knowingly buy a book when there are so many classics for free that I want to reread, or have never read.  One thing is sure, with my Paperwhite, I’ll be reading more in the coming year and that’s a good thing.

Cheers!

Velveeta Is Almost Cheez

Velveeta Cheese

Velveeta Cheese (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was eating some “cheese dip” the other day.  Cheese dip is one of my comfort foods that I take with a good, warm and crisp restaurant style tortilla chip.  I know this combination is a health hazard.  Fortunately, I don’t have major cholesterol issues…yet.  But it occurs to me that eating the goop is a bit like swallowing globs of fat.  Rather than buy the stuff in a jar, I usually just make the dip myself – a box of Velveeta, a can of Rotel and a sprinkle of chili powder and cumin with a good stir and about 5 minutes in the microwave, the everyday appliance that used to be suspiciously called a radar range.  After about 3 minutes in the mike,  I stir with a wooden spoon and then continue nuking it till the cheese is fully melted.  I test the dip with a tortilla chip, careful not to burn my tongue.  Last, I pour a diet soda in a glass brimming with ice.  When I eat unhealthy, I like to drink unhealthily too.  Complimentary hazards.

What is Kraft Velveeta, anyway? Is it even cheese, or just a blob of plastic?  For one thing, it is processed; I guess as opposed to made.  It seems to have a bunch of ingredients not found in real cheese or even on planet earth – like lots of preservatives to give it an unrefrigerated shelf life of hundreds of years – well, maybe not hundreds, but a long time.  Good stuff for Doomsday preppers. Velveeta is not real cheese because it contains less than 51% cheese.  It’s classified as a “cheese food”.  It’s cheesy, you know – cheesish, cheese-like.  And it does sort of look like cheese – or orange sticks of Crisco.  Kraft should commission Kraftwerk to do a jingle.  Velveeta melts beautifully, like ice on a hot day, silky smooth like Parmalat, another ultra pasteurized European product (Velveeta has Suisse roots). Its sister product, Cheez Whiz, doesn’t even pretend to be cheese and frankly, is not very tasty.  Tostitos sells a better Queso dip proudly made in the U.S.A. with “real” cheese and about 20 other things.  However, unlike Velveeta, Frito-Lay Salsa Con Queso leaves a terrible chemical aftertaste, one that only a beer or a grape popsicle can erase.

Heart and Rush in the Hall

RRHOF

Rush and Heart along with a handful of other artists will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) next year, two bands I grew up listening to back in high school.  They may not have been the most significant bands of the era, or the most interesting or flashy.  Their records were not all masterpieces, but they had tons of fans in their hey days and sold out big arenas across the U.S. and Canada.  Interestingly, they are both Canadian bands.  Heart actually formed in Canada where they recorded Dreamboat Annie (1976), their first and perhaps best LP.  2112 , also released in 1976, propelled Rush onto the international stage.  As a teen, it was one of the records in constant play on my turntable, as was Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978), an underrated classic and in my view, the band’s magnum opus.

Are the two bands deserving of the RRHOF?  Perhaps.  Given the amount of time I spent listening to Hemispheres (1978) and Dog & Butterfly as a teenager, I think yes.  And from the standpoint of durability, the bands are still standing and playing after nearly 40 years – and that’s a lot of years rock and rolling.  Heart may not have had quite the impact that Rush has had.  They still tour, but play theaters, not arenas.  Rush on the other hand just completed the North American leg of their Clockwork Angels  (2012) world tour where they have played large arenas and will continue to do so in Europe in 2013.  And by the way, Clockwork Angels may be their best LP to date.  No many bands who have been playing since the 70’s would be capable of producing a masterpiece together nearly 40 years later let alone pulling it off as Rush has.

To Rush, Heart and all the 2013 inductees to the RRHOF, Congratulations and rock on!

Key Free Living

English: Sundry key fobs.

With all of today’s technology, why is it that we have some many keys?  I think I speak  for others on this issue – I can’t believe I am the only person with 15 keys on my main key chain.  Yes, main key chain – that is to say that I have more than one key chain as I suspect is true for you too. I have one for the house, and two for work – totaling something like 25 keys.  Some I have no idea where they came from or what they open.  And they are of all shapes, and sizes.  Some with teeth, some without. Gold, silver, thick and thin – one goes to a suitcase, I think, the other to a cheap filing cabinet on wheels, both thin and pliant like a paper clip for locks that could just as easily be opened by a paper clip or a toothpick.

How long have keys been around anyway? A long time, to be sure.   The first ones were thought to have been used by ancient Egyptians some 4,000 years ago.  The principle of a lock and key hasn’t changed that much since and yet technology is so advanced these days that we could really go keyless, just as we’ve gone wireless and paperless for the most part.  I know some cars have keyless entry and do not require ignition keys; just hit the start button and off you go.  I don’t happen to own one of those cars, maybe you do.  Actually, I want my car to read my mind or operate totally on voice commands – my voice and the voices of whoever I might authorize to drive it.  Furthermore, I’d like for it to just drive itself.  I’d get in, tell it where to go and then have my morning coffee and maybe blog or read a book or newspaper until the thing announced it’d reached my destination.

The thing with keys is that they are heavy and bulky on a chain and they clank around and get stuck in my pocket or fall to the bottom of my briefcase where I have to fish them out – I don’t really have a briefcase.  What I have is a student style canvas bookbag which doubles as my lunch bag.  Actually I put my lunch bag inside my bookbag, which I used to call a backpack, but it’s really not – I never carry it on my back or go camping with it – it’s more like a shoulder bag.  Anyway, I’d rather not have to dig for my keys to open my house door.  I’d like for it to open like the automatic doors in supermarkets or like the doors on the Star Trek Enterprise along with those swishing sound effects.

What about this? There should be a key free holiday – something like leave you keys at home day.  Maybe that’s not such a good idea because you’d have to leave your door unlocked and take the bus to work or call a locksmith.  If we went totally keyless, say by executive order or something, this would put locksmiths out of business but maybe they could “retool” and become metallurgical engineers or alchemists with a little job training.  Congress, are you listening?  Call it the key free living jobs bill for the 21st century.  The Government needs a Department of Alchemy to convert all our melted keys to gold.  This would help balance the budget and keep us from going off the fiscal curb.

Newtown Tragedy Is Just So Sad

My heart, thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families and to the entire community of Newtown, CT.  20 children and 7 adults are dead, victims of senseless violence, murdered by a mentally unstable gunman.  Although the facts are not yet clear, the gunman, described as a man in his twenties, allegedly killed his mother, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary school and open fired on a class of kindergartners, killing 20 of the children and 6 school personnel, including the principal and a school psychologist before taking his own life.

This unspeakable crime is almost too gruesome to process, and as horrifically shocking as it is, mass murders are not all that uncommon in the U.S.  Mother Jones recently released a report finding that 61 mass murders have been committed in the U.S. in the last 30 years, and 7 such murders have occurred in 2012 alone.  In most of the cases, the atrocities were committed by mentally unstable gunmen with semi-automatic handguns and assault weapons they legally obtained.

Given the frequency of these tragedies, it’s time for lawmakers to get serious about enacting gun control legislation and providing more funding to support mental health services to people in need.  We seem to care more about the right to own a gun, than we do about the idea of a social contract, one based on love and support for all and a commitment to those in need – the poor, the hungry, the neglected and those suffering from abuse and mental illness.  We should look after each other and this also may mean institutionalizing those who are a threat to themselves and the community.  But I’m tired of the slogan that “people kill, not guns”.  I’m sorry conservative NRA members, but you are wrong.  Guns obtained legally do kill when in the wrong hands.  In the 61 cases of mass murder in the U.S. in the last 30 years, victims were slaughtered not by baseball bats or fists, but by guns purchased legally by people with serious mental health issues.  Honestly, what is the purpose of a semi-automatic handgun or an assault weapon anyway, if not to kill?  And consider this:  the 2nd amendment does not state that people have the right to own an AK-47.  In fact, the 2nd amendment refers only to the rights of gun ownership within the context of a well-regulated militia for the purpose of national defense.

Society did not kill 27 people today.  But aren’t we in some way responsible as a nation for trying to prevent mass killings?  And what have we done lately? At the federal level, Congress let the Federal Assault Weapons ban of 1994 expire in 2004.  At the state level, Florida passed an open carry law, as did Oklahoma. Florida leads the nation in mass murders.  Texas passed a law in 2011 that permits workers to keep guns in their parked vehicles at their workplaces.  And in Kansas, permit holders can carry concealed weapons inside K-12 schools.  According to research by Mother Jones, 37 states have passed 99 laws in the last 4 years with strong backing from the NRA that make it easier to own and carry a gun.  Finally, as the GOP refuses to allow tax increases on billionaires and pledges to keep state and corporate tax rates low and wages low too for that matter, 31 states in 2012 reported cutting mental health services by $840 million to deal with revenue shortfalls.

What will our nation’s policy response be to the Newtown massacre?

Top Gear UK reviewed

English: The BBC Top Gear presenting team of ,...

English: The BBC Top Gear presenting team of , and . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had never heard of the show before, not even the American version on the History channel, which incidentally, is now in its third year.  Top Gear UK, the original series has been on the air for some 17 years in the UK and other parts of Europe presumably, and it wasn’t until I stumbled across the show one day clicking around on the cable box that I saw a bit of an episode for the first time.  It was on the BBC channel which I didn’t even know I had, which might explain why I had never seen the show.  I might have just passed it by, but there was something about the scene that caught my attention.  There was some British bloke talking about a Chevy that many stars had driven that he could not sell.  He was driving it to some industrial site where it was to be given a proper Viking burial.  He parked it between two smokestacks and proceeded to blow it up with explosives.  The smokestacks collapsed onto the car simply flattening it, but not completely covering it as its nose stuck out.  This Brit was not impressed by the demolition and thought it a travesty that the car had not received a proper burial.  I thought the whole bit was pretty interesting, so I stuck around to watch the next part of the show, something about a celebrity barbecue to christen a new “reasonably priced car”, which turned out to be a KIA Cee’d, “the only car in the world with an apostrophe in its name”, said co-host, Jeremy Clarkson.  This too sounded intriguing.  Well, no stars appeared, not even Angelina Jolie or Johnny Dep who had been invited twice.  Only random people from the BBC showed up to do laps around a race track in a cheap Korean car with an apostrophe in its name, whilst Hammond, the short co-host who had blown up the Chevy earlier and who looks like Davy Jones of the Monkees horsed around and burned the barbecue sausages and the cauliflower Clarkson had brought for vegetarians.  I don’t think I watched any more of the show after that, tiring of the theatrics, but it was a good laugh.

Fast forward to several weeks later and I found myself on Netflix and once again I randomly stumbled across the show, this time the first 17 series of Top Gear UK.  Curious, and remembering that the first episode I had seen, which was Series 15, episode 1, I started watching random episodes and found myself quite addicted to the show.   If you like cars, super cars, British humor, and the British way with words, you’ll love the show.

Here’s a typical show:

  • 3 presenters (co-hosts) Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May
  • A live audience
  • Lots of silly banter
  • New cars, mostly European ones, in the news with reviews of select cars
  • Lots of witty banter
  • Clips from test drives of select cars including super cars
  • Live interview with a celebrity
  • Clip of celebrity going around a track in a “reasonably price car”
  • A road trip with a wacky challenge
  • Lots of witty banter and pranks
  • Wrap-Up

And it works, it really does.  First of all, the chemistry between the presenters is spot-on, as the Brits would say.  They are genuinely funny and even funnier together.  Jeremy is probably the sharpest wit of the lot, and arguably the bully of the bunch.  Hammond, whom they call the hamster because of his size, seems always amazed, or astounded at one thing or another.  He’s rather more prone to hyperbole and is the only one of the three who I think you could genuinely call fearless – the guy to fire out of a cannon or drop from a 30 story building onto a stack of foam cushions.  James May is aptly called the slow one – not slow or dim witted, but slow in a car.  He’s the pessimistic one with a bit of a monotone and dreary disposition whose second nickname is Eeyore.

They describe cars dramatically as “fantastic”, “brilliant”, “magnificent”, “horrific”, “rubbish” or that it’s a “bloody hybrid”. They endlessly insult one another.  James May called Jeremy Clarkson an “apocalyptic dingleberry”, and they often call the other “stuuuupid”,  a “moron” or a “blithering idiot”.    They often “roast” the guest celebrities.  Clarkson introduced Lionel Ritchie as a man who lives in a Hollywood mansion with 17 bathrooms.

On road trips, they are prone to frat boy pranks.  Once Clarkson and Hammond rigged the horn on May’s car to go off every time he hit the brakes.   Another time, Hammond’s 70’s Land Cruiser with suspect brakes rammed into May’s Suzuki 3 wheel drive vehicle every time he needed to stop.  Clarkson “accidentally” set fire to the rag top on Hammond’s Land Cruiser which they had to put out with beer.

Their road trips are journeys that are like no other.  They’ve traveled to India to promote British products, like a self-propelled lawn mower, a travel ironing board kit and English biscuits.  They went to Albania to demolish a building with big trucks rather unsuccessfully.  They traveled through Vietnam on second hand motorbikes – Clarkson on a Vespa.  They  trekked from Florida to New Orleans in cars they bought for 1,000 U.S.  and were nearly killed by the locals they insulted when they spray painted provocative slogans on their cars like “NASCAR sucks”.

They aren’t fond of American cars and don’t seem too fond of America either.  They endlessly insult the country and the culture, but it all seems tongue in check.  They are, well Clarkson at least, Anglo centric and promote the superiority of all things British – which sometimes also sounds tongue in check.  They are each fond of super cars, none of which come from the U.S. Clarkson favors Mercedes AMG cars, Hammond the Porsche 911 and May, any Ferrari or Peugeot.   They typically review cars from Britain, Germany, France and Italy and race them around the track  somewhat non-professionally.  They leave the professional driving to the mysteriously helmeted staff race car driver they simply call the Stig.

Top Gear UK is one of the more entertaining car shows I’ve ever seen.  I’ll have to check out Top Gear USA to see how it stacks up against the original.

Mutant Genes on Casual Friday

Genetic Mutations_Providence RI
You are probably walking around with some mutated jeans and don’t even know it. No, I am not talking about casual Friday, or the latest fashion. It’s genes I mean. Humans are brimming with genetic mutations, or to put it more mildly, flawed genes, even the healthy among us. The gene pool is corrupt. Some of the mutations spell disaster in the form of disease – heart disease, cancer and the like. The interesting point of all of this is that if you wanted to have your DNA analyzed, you could meet your genetic mutations, all 400 of them, which is the average number most of us have. But I’m not sure I want to get to know my bad genes. I don’t need any negativity in my life. I don’t want to deal with any trouble makers. But surely there’s something we can do to get rid of the mutations, no? I drink diet soda and eat cheese dip with Rotel. I’m thinking the jalapenos in the Rotel might take out at least a few of the rogue genes and come on, how many of them can survive in a pool of carbonated artificial sweeteners?

I suppose one day science will find a way to engineer out all the bad genes so that humans can live for a whole lot longer than we do. That of course would put a big strain on the solvency of social security, unless we raised the retirement age to something like 130. And I imagine doctors could design a baby to the specifications of the parent. Wouldn’t that be a sight?  Or a fright!

Dreaming in Old Norse

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not of Viking heritage, as far as I know.  I once rooted for the Minnesota Vikings back when their defense was known as the “Purple People Eaters”.  I remember the likes of Fran Tarkenton and Alan Page, but I’m no Viking – truth be known, I’m a Patriot, but this post is not about football, but rather language.

Did you know that English may not be of Anglo Saxon origin at all and may be a direct descendent of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings?  According to two professors, one from the Czech Republic, the other from Norway, English is of Northern Germanic origin from which Norwegian developed and is not a Western Germanic Language from Anglo Saxon also known as Old English.  This makes sense because I had a really hard time understanding Beowulf in high school.

The professor from Norway may be a little biased, but he may speak the truth.  They do point out that Scandinavians have no trouble learning English.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of English speakers, particularly those from the U.S. who don’t routinely master Norwegian, Finnish or any second language for that matter.

I may be an exception.  I do dream in a foreign language, and not Spanish, the only one I know.  It has always been a mystery to me as to the language, as if I were speaking in tongues, but now I know that this strangely familiar language  must be Old Norse.   This also explains why I was a Minnesota Viking fan as a kid and why I had this odd fascination with the state; some sort of atavistic pull related to the history of English.

Fiscal Curb Hopping

The F-22 Raptor fifth generation

Let’s go off the fiscal cliff.  Let’s do it.  I, for one, have always wanted to bungee jump or sky dive off a mountain.  It would be a thrill of a lifetime.  And I’ve been saying for years now that cliff diving should be an Olympic Sport and with all the attention given to going off the fiscal cliff, cliff diving may just make a comeback.  By the way, speaking of the movie Skyfall, which I keep wanting to call Free Fall, I reviewed it here, if you are interested in a review that won’t ruin the ending to help you decide whether to plunk down serious coin to see it at your local theatre.  But back to the fiscal cliff, why not take the plunge, not only would it be fun, it would:

Raise taxes by 2% on everyone, sorry billionaires, I know it’s going to hurt you most of all.

Reduce bloated defense spending by 10%.  Sorry Lockheed Martin, we don’t need that 6th generation F-22 Raptor II upgrade.  The 5th generation of birds will do just fine and are still the finest birds by two generations over anything else out there.

Cut medicare by 2%.  Ouch, I know that hurts, but it will only hurt profitable providers, not beneficiaries.

By the way, the sequester would not touch programs like social security, medicaid, food stamps, temporary assistance to needy families, and veteran’s benefits.

But it won’t happen.  We ain’t going off the cliff people.  Actually, some call the cliff a curb.  And we’re not even going off the curb, because as Chris Hayes says, “no one actually cares about the deficit“.  They don’t, GOP and DEMS alike.  The GOP wants to preserve tax cuts for billionaires and spending on a bloated military.  And DEMS whose home districts benefit from military spending, don’t want the automatic spending cuts to defense even though our country is armed to the teeth and as ready to defend and wage war as ever before.

Dang, I always wanted to skydive – to freefall just like in my dreams where I’d wake up before I hit the ground.  I’d even like to put on one of those jet pack suits and fly freely like a bird, although it appears the cliff is little more than a bridge from which one could safely bungee jump.  And if it is simply a curb as some have suggested, well, I’ll just put on my sneaks, stand at the precipice and pretend.