Monday, July 27, 2009

Further evidence we've been infiltrated by zombies

I really wish I was making this up. A new highway sign put up near the Wisconsin cities of Rothschild and Schofield has every word misspelled except "exit." The full story can be read here.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ten simple activities I love

Cut and paste this into a Facebook note with your own list, then tag a bunch of friends (go ahead, they like it - that's why they're on Facebook!), so they'll do the same.

Here are the rules: list ten simple activities that would make you smile if you did them right at this moment. I’ll go first…

Snap my fingers

Take a hot shower

Roll up my sleeves

Play frisbee (there's one in my trunk)

Go for a hike or a walk

Pet a dog

Hear a baby laugh

Kiss

Listen to / write about music

Hug my sons

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ten simple things I love

Cut and paste this into a Facebook note with your own list, then tag a bunch of friends (go ahead, they like it - that's why they're on Facebook!), so they'll do the same.

Here are the rules: list ten simple things you can hold in your hands that make life worth living. (These cannot be people.) I’ll go first…

Glass bottles

Wooden pencils

Chopsticks

Cornbread

Old records

Ginger ale

Masculine-smelling soap

Dark chocolate

Bacon

My iPod ("the precious")

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Twisdom

I tweet. Twitter is a "micro-blogging" site: every post is limited to 140 characters or less. It's kind of like updating your Facebook status, except that Twitter does nothing else. I actually have my Twitter account linked to Facebook and to my Alien Robot Zombie Skeptic website, so that when I update Twitter it automatically updates the other two. Also, both ARZS and my other website, Three Perfect Minutes, are linked to Twitter, so that when I post something new it updates my Twitter status (and thence Facebook, etc.).

I also subscribe to tweets from other people. Some are friends and some just tweet about topics I am interested in (gluten, music, whiskey, diesel engines, etc.). I'm not into the whole cult-of-personality thing, but if you want to know when Madonna is having tea with the queen or taking out the trash, you need to be on Twitter.

You can follow me on Twitter here. Sometimes my tweets are pretty mundane: simple, in-the-moment updates to let my Twitter and Facebook friends know what I'm up to. (For example: "sinuss hedaache cannnot tfrink straihgt ughh.") At other times, they can be pretty entertaining standing alone. The enforced brevity can be limiting, but sometimes it can also be freeing. Sometimes there is beauty to being creative "inside the box." With that in mind, I have reprinted some of what I'm calling my "twisdom" below. (Disclaimer: uh... well, maybe you had to be there...)



I can pull this trigger 128 more times before this battery dies!




oh cruel spring - how you tease me, entice me, but leave me cold





worst ad placement ever: Ronnie Milsap gospel album in the middle of something called "Robot Chicken" on Cartoon Network





William Henry Harrison will not let me be. (Also, separately, William Henry Harrison will not let me be me.)





Done! Apartment finally clean! ...wait for it...wait for it...ok, it's dirty again.





FYI "on the street" does NOT mean the same thing as "on the road"





CHAOS...CAHOS...OAHDS...OEDRS...OREDR...GTYHFXPQZ...oh well...





A picture is worth a thousand words. EXACTLY a thousand - no more, no less.





madness... mmm cornbread... madness...





I see ghost ninja / secret powers can't kill me / unless has gluten





Ah, William Henry Harrison, I've missed you.





Geographically: Eastern Time. Biologically: Pacific Time. Mentally: Hawaiian Time.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Random top 10 list: best superhero movies

In my opinion, these are the best superhero movies (or movie series) to date:

#1. The Incredibles (2004)

This one had it all: action, humor, interesting characters and a fantastic story. Pixar's animated format proved perfect for bringing comic book action to (larger-than-)life. Sure, it was a ripoff of the Fantastic Four and dozens of other comic book sources. But it was a good ripoff. And it had tremendous heart. Make a sequel, please!

#2. Iron Man (2008)

This movie perfectly straddled the line: it was fantastic enough to wow us, and down to earth enough for us to connect with it. Robert Downey, Jr. was a big part of the reason: his portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man showed amazing depth and a wicked sense of humor. The cool gadgets and effects didn't hurt either. [Update: Iron Man 2 (2010) is a worthy sequel.]

#3. Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008)

For this dark take on the Batman mythos, superhero conventions were thrown out of the window and we were left with an extremely gritty detective story and one very eccentric man's struggle to work around the very law he is trying to uphold. Heath Ledger's portrayal of the psychotic Joker in the second film was chilling.

#4. X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003)

While the superpowers in these movies bordered on the ridiculous, what made them a success was the underlying humanity of the story: people who are different trying to cope and fit in. Some of those people just happen to have metal claws or laser beam vision, and aren't afraid to use them when all else fails.

#5. Batman (1989)

Tim Burton's take on Batman was at times campy, but two fantastic performances make it work. The first is Jack Nicholson, who puts a delightfully over-the-top spin on the Joker. Almost as good was Michael Keaton's minimalist, everyman Batman. (Note: if the sequel, Batman Returns, would have scrapped the Penguin part of the story and featured more of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, it could have been just as good.)

#6. RoboCop (1989)

This is a very '80s movie and is full of the storytelling conventions and dated special effects of that decade, not to mention a heavy dose of biting satire. Underneath, though, there is a very human story, wonderfully captured by Peter Weller's straight portrayal of the title character. I'd buy that for a dollar!

#7. Spiderman (2002) and Spiderman 2 (2004)

While the villains are somewhat weak, Toby Maguire is well cast as the spider-bitten hero, and the stories are told well. Spiderman 3 was a noticeable drop off, but not a fatal one, and it's still possible that the best Spiderman movie is still to come.

#8. Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

An unusual premise, but it somehow works. The titular demonic being (played by Ron Perlman) turns out to be the most normal thing in the films, which are packed to the hilt with all manner of mutants, paranormal beings, mummified Nazis and magical special effects by director Guillermo del Toro.

#9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

This movie was largely overlooked when it was released, but it was the best screen adaptation yet of the familiar Hulk story. The movie skips the typical "origin story" (flashes of it are seen in the opening credits) and launches right into the action - which never stops.

#10. Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980)

The plot holes in these two movies are so big that they are almost unforgivable. (Seriously, if Superman were to reverse the rotation of the Earth it wouldn't reverse time, it would kill everyone on the planet.) Still, Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the most famous superhero of all cannot be topped.

Honorable mention: Darkman (1990)

This small-budget gem was director Sam Raimi's first picture, and it has become a cult classic. It had an intriguing story that captures the spirit of superheroes, while adding its own original twists.

Honorable mention: Watchmen (2009)

Widely regarded as the greatest comic book in history, Watchmen was deemed "unfilmable." Zack Snyder proved them wrong, and while it doesn't work 100% of the time, there are plenty of compelling moments and dazzling imagery.

The flip side: worst superhero movies

I try not to watch bad movies, but I have seen a few really bad superhero ones. The worst was Ghost Rider (2007): honestly, how can you mess up a movie featuring a burning-skull, motorcycle riding demonic hero?! The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) was the worst interpretation of the source material. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) was the worst case of jumping the shark (an even greater plummet than the original Superman and Batman movie franchises). The Daredevil (2003) and Fantastic Four (2005 and 2007) movies were also huge disappointments, given how much good storytelling potential they had.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Recent movie tweviews

I have seen a few movies recently. Here are my ratings, along with a Twitter-sized (140 character or less) review (tweview?) on each:

Up
***** five stars ("essential")
This movie had a lot more depth than I expected. There were some sad moments, some truly funny moments and moments that just inspired awe.

Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs
**** four stars ("recommended")
My favorite so far of this series. The story was kind of goofy and full of holes, but it had plenty of action and laughs. Baby t-rexes rule!

The Hangover
**** four stars ("recommended")
LOL hilarity. Keeps you guessing what happens next, and it's always worse/funnier than expected! Not for children or for the faint of heart.

Public Enemies
*** three stars ("worthwhile")
Interesting historical film. Well-acted by Johnny Depp. A little slow and over-long. Not enough of the insane Baby Face Nelson.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Whiskey primer

I am a big fan of the taste of whiskey, but a relative novice to the sub-culture. To help familiarize myself, I created a brief “cheat sheet” of all of the key terminology. Today, I share it with you. Enjoy...

Spirits

Since before recorded history, people have been making alcoholic beverages by fermenting things like grapes (wine) and grains (beer). Europeans first began to make distilled alcoholic beverages – also known as “spirits” or “liquors” – around the time of the Renaissance.

There are many varieties of spirits. Some are made by distilling a beverage only until it reaches its final alcohol content: in this way, brandy is produced from wine or fruit-based alcohols, rum is produced from sugarcane, tequila is produced from blue agave, and whiskey is produced from various cereal grains. Vodka can be made from any source, but it is distilled repeatedly until it is almost pure alcohol, and is then cut with water. Gin is produced similar to vodka, but is infused with juniper berries and other botanicals for flavor before being distilled a final time.

Additional terminology: A liqueur is any alcoholic beverage to which flavorings and sugar are added. Moonshine is any spirit made illegally in an unlicensed still.

Spelling

Whiskey originated among the Celtic people of Scotland and Ireland, and the term is derived from from uisge (or uisce) beatha, "water of life." If produced in Scotland, it is always spelled “whisky” (without an e). Originally, the Irish spelled it that way too, but in the late 19th Century, they changed the spelling to “whiskey” (with an e) to distinguish their product from the flood of low-quality Scotch then on the market. In the rest of the world, there is no set rule, although “whiskey” dominates in the U.S. (for the same reason as in Ireland), while “whisky” is most common in Canada, Japan, Australia and elsewhere.

Character

The appearance, aroma and flavor of a particular whiskey can be attributed to any number of factors. Some of the key ones include the types and proportion of grains used, the soil and overall growing environment of the grain, whether or not the grain is malted, whether or not the malt is peated, the kind of water used, the kind of yeast used, the distillation method (e.g., pot still vs. column still), filtering, the kind of barrels used to store the whiskey during the aging process, the environment of the aging warehouse, how long the whiskey is matured in the barrel, and whether and how the whiskey is blended before bottling. Each of these variations produces differences in the character of the whiskey, just as one would expect from different types of wine.

Grains

Barley is the only grain used when producing Scottish malt whisky, and is heavily used in other types of whiskey as well. There are many different varieties of barley, and new ones are constantly being developed.

Barley is often malted, a careful process in which germination is begun (the barley begins to sprout) and then halted at just the right stage by heating and drying the grain. Malting releases extra starch from the grain, as well as enzymes that help convert that starch into fermentable sugars. It also adds sweetness and cookie overtones to the flavor of the resulting whiskey.

In Scotland, the germinated barley is sometimes dried with smoke from burning peat. Peat is densely packed earth that forms in boggy areas. It is comprised of plant matter (such as mosses and heather) that has not fully decomposed, and once dried it can be burned just like wood. The smoke from the burning peat infuses the malted barley and imbues it with rich, earthy aromas and flavors, which vary based on the environment and plant life in the area it was taken from. (Despite an abundance of peat in Ireland, Irish whiskey is rarely peated.)

While the famous Scottish malt whiskies are made entirely from malted barley, many other kinds of whiskey utilize barley, wheat, rye and corn in varying proportions. “Grain whiskey” (made from unmalted grain) is lighter and crisper than full-flavored malt whiskey and comes with its own palette of flavors. Unmalted barley imparts a nutty flavor. Wheat adds a sweet, honeyed taste and a mellowness that balances other flavors. Rye is a versatile grain that can add spicy, minty or dried fruit flavors. Corn can make the whiskey creamy or even oily. In young whiskeys, the corn’s flavor (sweet, spicy and husky) can overwhelm other, more subtle flavors, but it mellows the longer it ages in the barrel.

Varieties

Scotland is the epicenter of whiskey production, and any whiskey distilled and matured in Scotland is labeled “Scotch.” There are four historical whiskey producing regions in Scotland: the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and the Highlands. The Speyside region was traditionally part of the Highlands, but is now considered its own region. It contains by far the greatest concentration of distilleries in Scotland. The Highlands area also includes several islands (including Jura, Skye, Mull, Orkney, etc.), which each have their own character collectively are sometimes unofficially considered a separate region.

Each of Scotland’s whiskey-producing areas contains several different distilleries. A malted whiskey is called a “single malt” if it comes from just one distillery. (Note that a single malt may be “vatted” – combined from several different barrels from the same distillery – to achieve a consistent taste.) These single malt Scotches are bursting with character and have a smooth, full flavor that is prized by many whiskey lovers, but their complexity can sometimes present difficulties for novices.

However, Scotland also produces blended whiskeys, which combine various malt and grain whiskeys for a lighter, more consistent experience. Blended whiskeys like Johnnie Walker account for the vast majority of Scotch sales, and some of these blends are also very highly regarded.

Like Scotch, Irish whiskey is primarily made from barley, but rather than just using malt barley, the Irish traditionally add some unmalted barley before fermentation and distillation. Irish whiskey is also typically triple distilled, giving it a lighter flavor. The end result is a distinct but easy to drink whiskey, whether traditional “pure pot still” or blended with grain whiskey.

In North America, several new styles of whiskey have developed from a combination of grains. The traditional Canadian style blends malted rye whiskey with corn and other whiskeys and neutral spirits. The result is softer and sweeter than many other whiskeys, but with the characteristic bittersweet spiciness of rye.

The dominant style in the U.S. is bourbon, which is whiskey made from between 51-80% corn, with rye and malted barley typically accounting for the rest. (Some “wheated bourbons” like Maker’s Mark substitute winter wheat for the rye, and a few rare bourbons use both.) Tennessee whiskey, made famous by the Jack Daniel’s brand, has much the same ingredients as bourbon but is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before it is matured, significantly altering the character of the whiskey. American straight rye whiskey contains a minimum 51% rye, while straight corn whiskey contains at least 80% corn. (In recent years, other whiskey varieties have appeared in the U.S. as well, including straight wheat whiskey and various types made primarily from barley.)

Maturation

Immediately after being distilled, whiskey is called "new make" and is clear as water. Although it is sometimes bottled at this point, nearly all whiskey is put into oak barrels to mature. To be called “straight bourbon,” for example, the whiskey must be matured at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels. (Flame is used to bend the oak when making barrels, but the charring also helps open up the oak, so that its character infuses the whiskey.)

By law, Scotch must be matured for at least three years. For single malt Scotch, this is usually done in barrels that have previously held American bourbon or Spanish sherry (a type of fortified wine) – although other kinds of barrels are also sometimes used. In practice, most bourbons are matured at least four years, and most single malt Scotches for at least ten.

The amber color associated with whiskey is gained while it ages in the barrel. (Occasionally this effect is enhanced by adding caramel coloring.) The long interaction with the wood also profoundly affects the flavor. Once the whiskey is removed from the cask and bottled, the maturation process ends; whiskey does not continue to age in the bottle in the same way as wine.

Drinking

There are many ways to drink whiskey: neat (plain), straight up (shaken with ice then strained), on the rocks (with ice), with water or soda, or as part of a mixed drink. While some prefer to drink whiskey neat, at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), the burn of the alcohol often dulls the taste buds, so you may want to cut the whiskey with a little bit of water. Even many seasoned whiskey drinkers add a drop or two, as a small amount of water does a wonderful job of bringing out otherwise hidden flavors and aromas.

Likewise, adding ice can sometimes over-chill the drink and dull the flavor. As a general rule of thumb, I like to treat single malt Scotches and premium blended whiskeys like fine red wines and sip them at room temperature or slightly chilled. American whiskeys and standard blends, on the other hand, are more like soda, and I am just as likely to drink them on the rocks or mixed with water or soda. Either way, whiskey is best when sipped slowly and savored.

Tasting whiskey is an immersive sensory experience. After you pour yourself a dram (small amount), observe the color: each whiskey's unique hue tells a story about its time spent in the cask. Then hover your nose just a fraction above the glass (not deep in the glass, as with wine), and take in the “nose” (aroma) of the whiskey in small, gentle whiffs. This will give you a first impression of the whiskey – sweet, smoky, salty, floral, etc. – which will continue to evolve throughout the tasting experience.

Next, take a small sip – maybe 1/5 of a mouthful – and “chew” it to move it all around your mouth. You will notice two things as you do. The first is the “mouth feel” of the whiskey, which might be soft, creamy, slippery or any number of other sensations. The second is the whiskey’s initial taste. No two whiskeys taste the same, and the best have complex flavor profiles that layer various different notes: earthy, fruity, spicy, oaky, etc.

Once the whiskey’s taste peaks in your mouth, it continues to evolve; this is called the finish. Some whiskeys have short, crisp finishes while others are marvelously complex and have long finishes that continue to reveal new dimensions long after the whiskey has left your mouth. A whiskey that contains a wide variety of flavors in good proportion is said to be well balanced.

Take your time, and don’t forget to cleanse your palate with water between sips.

As a final note, for Celiacs like me, the distillation process removes the highly poisonous protein known as “gluten” from the grain and makes whiskey the only sensible way to consume wheat, rye or barley.

Of course, one should always consume responsibly!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Secret military robot zombie program revealed

Two days ago, a press release was issued titled: "Cyclone Power Technologies Responds to Rumors About 'Flesh Eating' Military Robot." You can read the full release on their website here.

Although the press release denies that the fully mobile, militarized robots are being designed to feed on human flesh, a close inspection reveals what is written between the lines. Namely, that these terrorbots could be made to feast on human flesh with only a slight program modification. Notice that the press release says: "Desecration of the dead is a war crime under Article 15 of the Geneva Conventions." It does not say anything about desecration of the living!

I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I applaud the U.S. military for consistently striving to develop weapons so terrifying that another nation would have to be batshit insane to mess with us. (I'm talking to you, North Korea.) On the other hand, if a hostile nation (pretty much all of them these days) gets its hands on this technology, we're going to have a robot zombie arms race on our hands.

And, of course, we all know that the aliens already have this technology...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Happy must be a relative term...

"Costa Rica is the happiest place on earth... according to a new survey by a British non-governmental group." (Full article here.)

Fun facts about Costa Rica:
  • Costa Rica is "developing nation" (third world country) with a per capita GDP of $6,554. To put that in perspective, its per capita GDP is only 14% of that of the U.S., and only 85% as much as Mexico's.
  • Costa Rica ranks 48th (out 0f 177) on the United Nations' "Human Development Index" score, which is a composite ranking of things like life expectancy, literacy and poverty. A sample of nations ranking above it on that list includes: South Korea, Slovenia, Qatar and Bahrain. Oh, and every developed Western nation from Australia to Portugal.
  • The UN also ranked Costa Rica 100th worst out of 126 nations ranked in terms of income inequality, meaning that much of the nation's money is held by a relatively small group of people.
  • Costa Rica's economy is heavily dependant on tourists from the U.S. Inflation rates and national debt are both very high.
  • Teen pregnancy is high and rising in Costa Rica, and AIDS and other STDs are also on the increase.
  • Costa Rica has no army and is a sitting duck relying on allies like the United States to save its butt should the shit ever hit the fan with one of its less stable neighbors, like Nicaragua.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country, a well-educated and environmentally conscious one, and a relatively stable democracy in an unstable part of the world. I wish it well.

However, it is still a third world country. Happiest place on Earth? Maybe happiest third world country on Earth. ("Best of the worst!") Nice try, New Economics Foundation.

As bad as the Detroit economy is right now, there's no way in hell I'd give up living in the good old U.S.A.