Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lost in the Shuffle

There are a ton of good bands that we never hear of here in the United States. If you're Canadian and love the sounds of Matthew Good and Sam Roberts, you have to learn that those two artists never happened here. I know. Sad.

We Yanks have missed the boat on so many of them them. What do I mean? How about:

  • Oasis - They were only NME's band of the year recently. Only we haven't heard much of them here lately. Buried on the radio, Oasis has quietly retooled itself into just a fantastic rock band. Their last two albums are as solid as anything that came before 1997 and some of the songs you missed in between (go check out "Magic Pie" and "The Hindu Times") should have been gigantic here. Alas.
  • Matthew Good - Mentioned above. In 1994-5, with a full band, he was making songs as good as anything that was hitting radio here. But with a political bend, American record companies stayed far away. Now, seven albums in, Good is still making fantastic rock. His 2007 album Hospital Music was an amazing piece of work. And I'm not sure it was even released in this country.
  • The Corrs - A few songs have hit radio here. I've always bitched that, to most Americans, Irish bands begin and end with U2. The Corrs are outstanding. Nice, accessible pop stuff. Except here.
  • Sam Roberts - Also mentioned above. All this guy has done is write and perform intelligent rock music during the same time frame we've been subjected to pile upon pile of crap. Every time Nickelback is on the radio, it could be Sam Roberts instead. And you'd feel better about the world.
Anyhow, in this Internet age, I encourage everyone to seek out other sounds. You can order music from any country in the world and have it delivered to your door or computer. And it's worth it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Clearing the air

Who'd've thunk it? North Carolina, a state that produces more tobacco then any other, where city names adorn cigarette packs (looking at you, here, Winston-Salem)... has banned smoking in bars and restaurants in bars effective Jan. 2, 2010. The state senate and house have agreed on a bill and the governor will sign it into law.

Me? I'm going to celebrate by wearing a wool sweater into a bar on Jan. 2, knowing I will not have to Febreeze it afterward.

The truth is, though, I'll likely celebrate it by going to the bar more. I cannot tell you how many times Sarah and I have gone out someplace, thought about getting a drink, and then saying "eh, don't want to deal with the smoke."

Smoking in bars, for me, has always made it so I have to be in a very specific mood to go to the bar. Because after an hour, my eyes are burning and I reek all night.

And, yes, I hear all the people saying "Oh this is going to mean people won't go to bars any more." See, that's not what happened in Boston. Or Bismarck. Or New York City. Or Houston. Or Hilton Head and Charleston. Or any number of other cities. Some bar owners have reported that they had to shut down after smoking bans went into effect. In those same cities, other bars have opened and thrived. Given the challenges of owning a bar or restaurant, it's just as likely that the bar closed because it just plain sucked, smokes or not.

Lots of folks are whining that the government should let individual business owners decide this issue. Some are saying "oh, well, let's be consistent and ban alcohol."

The thing is, if I'm sitting next to you smoking, you end up having some of the cigarette. If I am sitting next to you drinking, you don't get any of it. The common retort to that is "yes, well, what about drunk drivers?" Drunk drivers come from houses, too, kids. Separate issue.

While legal, alcohol and tobacco are controlled substances. And the involuntary ingestion of smoke is an issue. There is plenty of scientific evidence that second-hand smoke is harmful and loads of anecdotal that its just plain annoying. Drinking has none of those issues.

So, kudos to NC for not shying away from passing the law. I'll be sure to raise a glass on Jan. 2.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making a Pass

Last year, I read this fantastic book, Traffic. If you drive anywhere every day, you need to read this. It has, actually, made me a better driver, I think. Certainly, if we all adhered to the rules of traffic science it explains, we'd get everywhere faster (and it's not about driving the speed limit... in fact, many of the things we should be doing are counter-intuitive).

Anyhow, one of the points the book makes is "slower is faster." Essentially, what this means is, in most situations, speed does nothing to get you any place faster if you are on roads with any manner of congestion. One of a few things happens when you speed:

-You speed to the next stoplight, nullifying any advantage of speed
-You end up in congestion behind someone not going as fast. This causes you to hit your brake and then the people behind you overreact and slam on theirs. This creates those aggravating backups where you wait and wait and... nothing. No gory accident or anything.
-You inadvertently end up behind the slower people because your assumptions are meaningless in traffic

That last one is what happened today in a beautiful karmic way. I got cut off - from behind - merging onto our beltway here in Charlotte. What I mean is, some fatso in a CRV was behind me on the ramp and merged into the travel lanes before me. This meant I had to slow down and wait to merge. I was not pleased.

The CRV went piling down the road... until the part of 485 where traffic dies every day at rush hour. After days of this, I realized the fastest way through this mess was to, against common wisdom, stay in the middle lane of the highway. Why's this? Well, based on some thing I learned in the traffic book... we get into backups and we tend to move into the "fast" lane on the left. Truth is... that simply adds volume to that lane and clears out the adjacent middle lane.

What this means is despite taking 2 seconds longer to accelerate to 70 on the highway, I passed the fatso in the CRV halfway through the rigmarole. I hope she's still sitting there.

Anyhow, everyone should read this book. Because as aggravating as driving is, it's awesome to "win" by not getting mad and reckless, but by using science against these schmos.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tune Day: Song of the Year?

There's a lot of music to come out yet this year. And the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs' disc It's Blitz! looks like one that might hang with the best. "Zero," the first single off this album, though, is a lock to be among the top singles of the year if you ask me. I've been listening to it for the better part of a month... and I like it better every time.

Zero - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Sunday, May 10, 2009

'Roid Rant

I guess my real question is why Manny Ramirez couldn't have been caught doping immediately following game four of the 2004 American League Championship Series. Then, perhaps, the Yankees would have won game five, there never would have been any of the ridiculousness with A-Rod interfering with play as he ran down the first base line...

...of course, then, we'd have had to have dealt with A-Rod's on steroid use at the same time. Apparently, Lily Allen is correct (per the first track of her awesome new-ish CD) and everyone is at it. We're all medicating one way or another. It just seems athletes are doing do to bulk up.

The sad irony here is that baseball is the one sport that steroid use almost doesn't matter. Steroids don't put the ball on the corners of the strike zone. Steroids don't put the bat on the ball. Steroids certainly haven't made A-Rod get hits in the playoffs. They didn't help Barry Bonds and the Giants in the World Series several years ago, when the Giants collapsed. They might give you an extra four miles on your fastball. They might let your 450-foot home run travel 500 feet - both distances easily clearing any modern-era wall in the game.

So, in baseball, the sport where steroids provide the lowest ROI, we have the most strict punishments. The NFL, where size and strength play a role on every snap of the ball, offers comparative wrists slaps. The NFL - which in almost every other way is the model for how to run a major sports league - is seemingly content to allow its players to dope up and die young (see "Alzado, Lyle") than give any suspensions of consequence to its players.

That may be a good solution for Darwin, but it doesn't do much if we're still going to say that steroids are awful.

Perhaps the only real solution is to kick the bums out en masse. Let's announce that at the start of every league's 2010 season, there will be mandatory, weekly testing. That gives everybody (except for baseballers) more than a year to get clean. The players who are benefiting from steroids will quickly be weeded out. And we don't have to deal with the whining that we're kicking out the best players, not giving second chances and all that. This plan, simply, would mean everyone's second chance starts now.

Even that, though, may not go far enough. Much like we try to fight terrorism with guns and bombs, we still have done very little to stop young Pakistani boys from being motivated to join the terror-core.

Similarly, even my plan fails in that it will do little to stem the desire of every athlete to be a step ahead. Sure, performance on the field would be the best way to separate, but, like anything else, we know people will lie and cheat to get ahead.

And sports offer a major incentive to be set apart. It's not salaries players play for. It's Nike endorsements, licensing deals and more. Tiger Woods has his own logo, folks. Endorsements have always been part of sports and always will be. And media - especially ESPN - glorify these athletes, not just by glossy feature segments and preening analysis, but by paying the athletes to participate in ads and events of their own.

Fantasy sports only holds to reinforce this, placing individual efforts above that of the team the individual plays for. More people play fantasy sports than ever before. Every year, some stud running back is the first pick in everyone's fantasy draft. And almost without fail, that running back's real team never makes the playoffs.

If you're a baseball player, that's money in your pocket. So, the solution to the Steroid Era isn't simply drastic prevention/discipline methods for the players. We, as a culture, need to change the way we experience sports and its stars. We need to cheer for our teams, and demand they play the game right.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pandemic post-mortem

You would think - and hope - that with more access to information that ever before, we (as in residents of the whole flipping world) would be able to sort out what's what faster than ever.

In fact, I remember in college (not long ago) a discussion of a specific media criticism that posited that mass media - the FEW choices we had - made us, as a population, susceptible to manipulation. In other words, if the major TV networks all decide something is an issue, it makes all of us think about the issue more, for better or for worse.

This criticism suggested that having more options would allow us to be able to parse out the "reality" of a situation and have more access to information... ending in a better understanding of a given situation or issue.

After the swine flu debacle in the past week, I think we can all say that either that media criticism is wrong, or we are likely to be the most overreactive population in history.

If you followed the swine flu news, we went from zero to "full on apocalyptic panic!" in about two days. Schools closing! People altering travel plans! Calls to close the Mexican border! Quarantines!

The only pandemic that materialized in that time frame was one of panic and overthinking. Fueled by every analyst and his sister speculating on what could potentially happen, we started thinking that anyone with a sneeze was about to kill off a family or two with this "deadly" flu.

No one stopped to think that all the deaths in Mexico... happened in MEXICO. Mexico is many things. Certainly it is not what the stereotype of it is, but... is it any surprise that people in a country that has areas still plagued by bad water died of a case of the flu? Yet the media treated those deaths like a bunch of triathletes from Norway died.

Today, according to this story, 787 people worldwide are sick with swine flu. In other words, 0.0000117% of the world's population is sick. For reference, about 0.4% of the world has AIDS.

Granted, wearing a condom won't prevent flu, but still... we're flipping out because fewer than 800 people have swine flu, but 33 million with AIDS is la-di-da.

We should be ashamed. We have run up the panic flag while the World Health Organization took it's time and now reports that this might all be no worse than the normal flu, which the WHO notes kills 250,000-500,000 people every year anyway!

So, I am going to continue my normal handwashing routine. I am going to dare to scratch my eye or blow my nose moments after touching my computer keyboard. And you know what? If I get sick, I'm going to take care of myself. I'll go to the doctor if I need. Crazy stuff.

And the next time a "pandemic" threatens us, I'm going to wait until it strikes to get nuts.