Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The 5 Most Disturbing Christmas Songs

It's no secret that Christmas has become primarily a marketing scheme used to push wares that vary from desirable to entirely useless. One need only reach out to the world via a trip to any retailer or just by turning on a television or radio for undeniable proof of this. But beyond the gaudy displays, frenzied shopping, and seasonal sweet aromas, there's an incredibly powerful marketing device employed at this time every year: Christmas music.

We hear it every year, whether Pagan, Christian, or Jew. Christmas songs are broadcast into our ears from Halloween until New Year's Day to help "get you in the spirit of the season" (which translates into "shopping"). Some people truly enjoy it. Some people hate it with extreme malice. One of the main problems is that there's not much variety; in fact, there's only something like 35 Christmas tunes that are played regularly, and not one of them was released recently.

A Christmas song generally fits into one of two categories: Carols (mostly written in the mid-19th century) and radio hits (mostly written in the mid-20th century). These carols are generally what you might consider to be a "traditional" song. Here's a selection of a few of them:

  • Away in a Manger: 1885
  • Deck the Halls: 1881
  • Good King Wenceslas: 1853
  • Silent Night: 1859
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas: 1780
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas: 17th century

These songs are generally focused on being merry, enjoying tradition, and actually recognizing that Jesus guy that the holiday is somehow related to. In the days before the Sears catalog, Christmas wasn't really about buying gifts with a panicked expression on your face, it was mostly a time to recognize the beginning of the harsh Winter months and enjoy the warmth of fires, food, and company.

The radio hits of the 1940s and 50s brought us a completely different spin on things. Tiring of the stuffy atmosphere provided by these traditional tunes, record producers sought to write new Christmas music to accompany shoppers as a new era of the holiday season began to emerge. The trend began in 1934 when "Winter Wonderland" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" simultaneously emerged, kicking off two decades of similar songwriting. By 1970, when "Feliz Navidad" hit the radio, the trend was over.

What we are left with is a curious mix of dusty old tunes left over from a pre-electricity world juxtaposed with upbeat tunes that feature a drumkit-driven backbeat. And the newer tunes, as "cool" as they were when they were released, attempted to jazz up the genre with occasionally ill-conceived subject matter.

Here, then, are the five most disturbing Christmas songs of every holiday season, imposed upon us for half a century of season's greetings.

Winter Wonderland — 1934

Okay, so it's not actually that disturbing to us in these times, but in the 30s this song was considered scandalous. It alludes to a romantic couple who intend to elope:

"In the meadow we can build a snowman, and pretend that he is Parson Brown"

"Parson Brown" is actually a made up character. A parson, at the time, was a protestant minister who would travel to towns performing wedding ceremonies:

"He'll say 'Are You Married?' We'll say 'No man, but you can do the job when you're in town!'"

Then the two intend to deceive their family, bringing shame to generations:

"Later on, we'll conspire as we dream by the fire,
To face unafraid the plans that we've made"

Yeah, I know. Not that disturbing. But consider that elementary school children sing this song every year!

Santa Claus is Coming to Town — 1934

I often unpopularly refer to Santa Claus as "Training God" because children, who have little concept of eternity, can be tricked into acting morally straight if they think Santa is all-knowing and might choose not to bring them workshop-built video game consoles. This is the song that cemented that view of the jolly gift-giver into our minds.

"He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake"

Thinking of God or Jesus watching over us at all times isn't disturbing, and can actually be comforting for many. But there's something about a guy who actually comes into your house watching you while you're sleeping that's just unsettling. Yep, this is when Santa started to become sinister.

"He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!"

Considering the fact that Santa appears to be a real guy you can meet and sit on the lap of at the mall, this is just weird. It's like he's following you around with binoculars, watching you from behind a tree while you shove other kids down a metal slide. As we'll see in the next few songs, Santa might be omniscient, but he's not necessarily omni-benevolent.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — 1939

This incredibly famous song of adolescent bullying originally appeared as a poem in a coloring book being distributed by retail giant Montgomery Ward as a Christmastime promotion. The song paints a morbid picture of psychological torture perpetrated upon the eponymous reindeer by his peers.

"All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names,
They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games."

Imagine poor Rudolph, discriminated against just for being different. We supposedly learn a lesson about acceptance as his unusual nose becomes the device that saves Christmas, leading the sleigh through especially foggy weather:

"Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say,
'Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?'
Then all the reindeer loved him."

Oh. OH. NOW you love him. If I was Rudolph, I sure as hell wouldn't be their friends. Dicks.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus — 1952

This holiday classic features a boy's perception of his mother's infidelity, and not just with some strange man. No, in fact, the child's entire moral foundation is shaken as he witnesses his own mother cheating on his dad, while simultaneously witnessing Santa, the gift-giving diety, cheat on his own wife, solidly placing him on the naughty list:

"I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night."

Had he been caught spying on them, they might have used the mystical plant hanging over their heads as justification. After all, if two opposite-gendered people notice they are standing underneath it, they have to kiss, right? But that doesn't explain this next part, wherein mommy gets frisky:

"Then, I saw mommy tickle Santa Claus underneath his beard so snowy white."

Presumably, this is where the kid gets the hint and leaves town for a life on the rails with a scabby old dog, eating out of garbage cans and telling everyone he meets the story of how his mother is a whore. But no, the child chooses a more healthy defense mechanism: Laughter.

"Oh, what a laugh it would have been if daddy had only seen mommy kissing Santa Claus."

What a laugh indeed, if by "laugh" you mean "bloodbath."

Santa Baby — 1953

As if these portrayals of Santa as a creepy stalker, irresponsible caretaker, and adulterer weren't bad enough, this song makes him the target of a sultry temptress who intends to arouse him into giving her unreasonable gifts. After all, she's been an "awful good girl," right?

"Think of all the fun I've missed, think of all the fellas I haven't kissed."

That's right, she's well aware that no one, not even Santa, wants to get involved with a girl that gets around. In many later versions (Madonna, Taylor Swift) the vocal tone is replaced by lifeless interpretations relevant to the popular music of the time (New Wave and Pop Country), but in the original Eartha Kitt recording, her clear intent is to seduce Santa. And I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want to think about what's going on in Santa's giant fluffy red pants.

"Santa cutie, and fill my stocking with a duplex and checks."

Now to fully understand why this is the most disturbing Christmas song of all time, picture this for a moment: Santa is standing there in her living room after breaking into her house. She's wearing a sparkly cleavage-exposing cocktail dress with a giant slit up one leg, singing this line to him. His cheeks become rosy as usual, but more because he's a little embarrassed. Is there anything more disturbing than a man in a Santa suit chuckling awkwardly as his giant belly bounces around while a woman performs a sexy routine for him? Maybe if she was also tickling him under his white beard.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day Trip: Longswamp Valley

Georgia, like many other places, has seven natural wonders. Or rather, someone compiled a list of “Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders,” the seven most compelling natural formations in the state. Georgia is big for an eastern state, so unfortunately, the wonders are widespread and few are close to Atlanta. Stone Mountain is the exception, but everyone in this city has been there a thousand times.

However, I noticed that the list has changed over the past century. When the first list was compiled by librarian Ella May Thornton in 1926, it included two items that were replaced. One was Jekyll Island’s forest (and anyone that knows me well knows I go apeshit for Jekyll) and the other was “The marble vein in Longswamp Valley in Pickens County.”

At the time, Jekyll Island was an exclusive retreat for the world’s richest white folk, only accessible by ferry and special invitation. This major publicity as a playground for Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies probably earned it its place on the list. Today, it’s been developed with bulldozed dunes, beachfront hotels, and golf courses, and the maritime forests are still attractive and mosquito-filled, but it has been booted from the modern list.

But enough about Jekyll. I’ve been there more than twenty times. I was more intrigued by this marble vein in Pickens county—a mere two counties north of my house. This meant that an Atlanta resident could take a day trip to see it. I just had to figure out where Longswamp Valley was.

Sometimes Google is no help. A search for “longswamp valley” consistently returned the 1926 natural wonders list and nothing else. I suspect that this article will now be in the top ten results because of this. Maps didn’t clarify anything. I resolved to drive through the area and find a non-violent local for further guidance.

I figured my best bet would be to head toward the community of Marble Hill, a relatively short drive down a two-lane highway at the end of interstate 575. After all, if there’s a marble hill, there’s likely a marble valley nearby, right?

So I took I-575 north to its end point, where it begins its life as a regular ol' highway and turned right at the first light, heading eastbound toward Tate. This town has a history of marble excavation, so I presumed that someone in the area would know what I was looking for.

Georgia Marble Company, ca. 1930s
Pickens County’s history is based entirely around the marble industry. Laying pretty far east of the rail line that birthed Kennesaw, Marietta, and even Atlanta itself, very few had ventured into its endless woods in the early 19th century except for the Native Americans that had lived there for ages. For more than a thousand years, these natives were aware of the curiously pure rock that jutted out of the earth in a stretch nearly five to seven miles long, and word eventually got around to pioneering entrepreneur Henry Fitzsimmons who intended to work the marble in the 1830s. His early efforts were crude and unfruitful but paved the way for the establishment of the railway into Tate and the successors to the marble industry fortune, including Col. Sam Tate who became the president of the Georgia Marble Company in 1905.

Marble coming from Pickens’ quarries was quite popular, being used to build the Lincoln Memorial, New York Stock Exchange, and countless other prestigious public and private spaces. By the 1930s, marble demand began to slow down, but the Georgia Marble Company continued to hold the market on high quality marble production.

As I began my trek off the beaten path and into the rural heartland of the Appalachian foothills, dotted by collapsing long-abandoned houses, rusting automobiles, and dogs chasing my car down the street, I pondered the list in my mind. Why did Providence Canyon—a 150 foot deep chasm in southwest Georgia created by erosion due to irresponsible farming techniques in the 1800s—replace Jekyll’s forests as a wonder? Why did Radium Springs, also in southwest Georgia, bump this amazing marble vein from the list?

Entering Tate, I crossed train tracks partially overgrown with weeds and stopped at an ancient train depot. It looked like something that might host a Postal Service hook for mail delivery in the 1800s. Consistent with almost every other structure for miles, it needed a new roof and its wood siding was beginning to rot. Preservation efforts were clearly considered, due to a sign posted next to the road:



The Tate House
Like nearly everything else in marble country, even its preservation had been forgotten. I pressed on in search of the former wonder, and began looking out for my next landmark: The Tate House, a pink marble mansion open for weddings and bar mitzvahs. As the road began to drop in altitude for the first time in miles, I spied it through the trees on the right and pulled onto a short but paved road leading to a rear parking lot. The road forked to the left toward a marble processing plant and passed to the right behind seven small wooden cabins. Sitting in my car in an empty parking lot, I stared at the convention center attached to the back of the mansion, admiring the smooth marble walls. Had it not been 7:30 AM on a Sunday, they might have been open for tours. I got back on the road heading east.

Literally a few hundred yards back on the road, I crossed a bridge labelled “Longswamp Creek” and the road began to immediately ascend. The creek was at the bottom of a small valley! I had found it without having to consult a scary local! My mind snapped back to the marble processing plant I had just seen, and I pulled a stupid and dangerous three-point turn on a double blind curve to rush back to it. These words were emblazoned in huge, bold letters on the front of the building:


I had found it! The plant’s gates were closed, but a sign on the razor wire fence declared that visitors could report to the main office, which I could have done if it wasn’t 7:35 AM on a Sunday. My marble vein lay just beyond that slicy barrier, and I wasn’t going to see it.

When I got home, I consulted Google Earth to see a massive white streak in the belly of the valley. As I zoomed in, I began to be horrified. The front of the plant that I could see was only the beginning of an incomprehensibly large marble mining operation that stretched nearly an entire mile. Every conceivable speck of what could possibly be considered part of the wondrous marble vein had been worked and split up into chunks. This wonder could no longer appear on the list because it hardly continued to exist—at least not in the form it had in the 1920s.

I’d still like to visit it, but I’d bet that 85 years of increasingly efficient excavation techniques have killed the magic a little bit. But for anyone else searching for the great marble vein of Longswamp Valley, here’s how you get there from Atlanta:

  • Take I-75 north from downtown Atlanta, past I-285
  • Veer to the right onto I-575 North and follow it until it ends, becoming Highway 5/515
  • Turn right at the first traffic light onto Old Waleska Road, Highway 108/53
  • Cross the train tracks in Tate and look for the historic train depot
  • Continue east about 1.25 miles until the road begins to go downhill
  • Turn right onto Georgia Marble Road (also the access road to the Tate house)

200 Georgia Marble Ln.
Tate, GA 30177

Monday, December 5, 2011

Paused for Sixteen Years: Teenager of the Year

I pulled the unfolding stairs down from the attic by a decaying, dangling rope as my brother gently rested its feet to the ground. I followed him up into the nostalgia dungeon in search of something long forgotten in the archives of my parents’ attic. We had a mission, but became immediately distracted by the relics of an earlier age: The Atari 2600, a wood-paneled game console; the creepy, cobweb-covered rocking horse eyeing us dangerously from the periphery. But it was in a shoebox containing a dozen or so random items where I made an unprecedented discovery.

It was a transparent and unlabeled cassette, through which I could see words hand-written on the case insert. I would have disregarded the tape were it not for two distinct words poking through in exactly the right spot:

Olé Mulholland

I traced back through my memories to determine the source of this phrase which caught my eye. Suddenly, my brain returned an answer.

“Oh my god, do you know what this is?” I asked my brother. He looked at it, but continued digging through another box of useless-to-anyone-else contents. I flipped the case open and yanked the tape out, confirming my excited suspicions. “This is Teenager of the Year by Frank Black!”

My brother looked at the tape, but couldn’t recall the source, and couldn’t understand the reasoning behind my excitement over one old bootlegged album on archaic magnetic media. I imagine few could, but I understood exactly why this find was so special—and the gift that I would get to reveal the next time I placed it into a tape deck to spin its reels once again.

You see, this is a wholly immense album, released in an incredible moment in music history. The year was 1994—one of the best years for music of my lifetime—and Frank Black had just disbanded the Pixies, a group ten years ahead of its time. That four-piece had almost single-handedly birthed the “alternative” music scene that was so prolific in that same year. Black had reinvented himself, becoming less a teacher and more of a peer. It was his second of many solo albums, and widely considered to be his greatest effort ever.

The single-disc album features an insane 22 tracks and never loses momentum. And these weren’t leftover Pixies songs either; those were released on his self-titled debut the previous year. Yes, Frank Black had written twenty-two non-filler tracks for this album within a year, without having to use any recycled material.

And he did so with the best possible musicians as well. Joey Santiago from the Pixies followed him to play on five of the album’s tracks, with nearly all other non-Black guitars handled by the inventive and talented Lyle Workman, a man who would go on to great success as a session musician and soundtrack composer. Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Feldman handled both the bass and synthesizers. It didn’t hurt that Nick Vincent was the perfect drummer for the songs, either.

Someone had given this tape to my brother before he moved out of my parents’ house in 1995, judging by the context of the shoebox’s other contents. This meant that this tape had been sitting dormant, waiting patiently for at least 16 years, paused during a time when the album was still brand new. It was like finding an unopened Surge soda, and there was only one way to find out if the contents had degraded. Each spool held a more-or-less equal roll of tape—the album had been stopped mid-song.

I still have a tape deck in my car, but my CD player died. As a result, I use a tape adapter to my MP3 player, but its battery dies often, leaving me to the choices of silence or, even worse, the radio. I desperately needed a Car Album to keep in the glove box for emergencies, and I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate record to hold that honorable title.

With an average song length of two minutes, fifty-one seconds, the album plays like an old Beatles record, switching songs before the listener can get bored with the current melody. It opens with “Whatever Happened to Pong?”, a spastic, nostalgic tribute to simpler times. Lyrical content is strong and well-founded, featuring political commentary (“Thalassocracy”), the magic of the Great American Road Trip (“Calistan”), and a literal-yet-not-obvious tribute to the Three Stooges (“Two Reelers”). Black proves his worth as a science fiction buff with inventive tales of Mars, the space race, and terraformation (“The Vanishing Spies”, “Big Red”), a direct reference to sci-fi tome A Wrinkle in Time in the album’s lead-off single, “Headache”, a tale of alien abduction in “Fazer Eyes”, and even the paranoid ramblings of a conspiracy theorist who believes satellites are controlling his mind (“White Noise Maker”).

A particular gem lost in the middle of the album includes the retrospective critique of the practices of circus magnate P.T. Barnum in “Superabound” in which Black “bought a ticket to the freaks” only to become Barnum’s proverbial “sucker born every minute.” It’s tough to place the song into a specific category due to its catchy, snappy guitar leads and jolly organs, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of magic that can happen when you put Black in charge of such a varied and talented cast of musicians.

Beyond “Calistan”, the story of Black’s migration from his native Boston to Los Angeles, the album is clearly influenced by the Golden State. The aforementioned “Olé Mulholland” gives a transplant’s perspective of life in L.A., including the recollection of famed architect William Mulholland who built the aqueducts that made life in the desert possible. “Space is Gonna Do Me Good” is a futuristic tale about his projected eviction from the city to “the islands of Phoenix in 2016” when southern California is fabled to be completely underwater.

The album has its low moments, too, but even those are not so bad. “Speedy Marie” is an earned self-indulgent ode to romance in which the first letter of each line in the coda spells out the full name of Black’s girlfriend at the time. “Sir Rockaby” is an ironically not-rocking ballad. But when you put “Headache” between them, somehow it works out.

The only time Black really falls into the character of his own legacy is during “Freedom Rock,” in which snarky employees of a record store try to tell the songwriter of the Pixies what albums he should be listening to. The fallout from this is severe, as indicated by the sampled gasps of horror heard in the background when Black relates this part of the story. Beyond this brief moment, he’s happy to focus on cranking out incredible music and thought-provoking storytelling. The album ends on a high note with the upbeat, feel-good sun-worshipping song “Pie in the Sky”.

As I cranked up my car to leave my parents’ house, I held the cassette in my hand. Who made this for my brother? Did he listen to it? Why did someone eject the album mid-song? I put the tape down, deciding to never solve any of these questions. After all, it would be a shame and a waste to open an ancient can of Surge, too.

Then, at the last moment, I stuffed it into the tape deck. “Speedy Marie” was playing, and I wasn’t surprised.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Delicious Nostalgi-O's

I’ve been trying to buy all my groceries from the Publix BOGOF list lately (Publix honors partial-purchase discounts, so buy-one-get-one-free means 50% off for me.) These kinds of promotions aim to get you to try something you’ve never purchased before, or to get you to pick up something you haven’t touched in a long time. I’ve tried just about every type of spaghetti sauce and frozen pizza, and I’ve discovered a few that are actually pretty good, so this type of promotion must be effective.

In the “stuff I haven’t touched in years” category was a BOGOF coupon for Cap’n Crunch cereal. I usually only eat grown-up cereals these days, like Honey Bunches of Oats. You know, the stuff your parents might make you eat instead of Mega-Marshmallow Sugarsplosion. My experiment with half-off Fruity Pebbles went horribly awry, so I was skeptical. However, I needed cereal, so I went off for my first interaction with the Cap’n in more than a decade.

The most notorious thing about Cap’n Crunch is the way it tears away at the roof of your mouth. Whatever formula is used to create this cereal is designed to retain the eponymous “crunch” even when soaking in milk for a long time. In fact, during the years when all cereal commercials were 30-second cartoons, this cereal brand featured a gang of antagonists named the Soggies, morphable humanoids composed of thick, dripping slime intended to resemble milk.

Without bad guys to fight, what good would a cereal mascot be? And not only was he fighting their scheming ways, he was also preserving the integrity of his name. If the Soggies got to the cereal, the crunch would be lost. Unfortunately, the cost is the destruction of the inside of the eater’s mouth. This is what I was least looking forward to.

But wait, what exactly is this cereal? At least I know that Frosted Flakes is corn flakes covered in sugar. Honey Bunches of Oats has a pretty descriptive title. But what the hell is Cap’n Crunch? The ingredient list should help.

  • Corn flour
  • Sugar
  • Oat flour
  • Brown Sugar
  • Coconut Oil
  • Salt
  • Crushed-up multivitamins to achieve FDA guidelines for nutrition

After reading this, I expected a nice wholesome blend of corn, oats, salt, sugar, and more sugar. I imagined dumping all of these ingredients into a giant vat and stirring vigorously until it reached a consistency that would be thick enough to walk across, and then pouring it into thousands of weird square-shaped molds. I ate a bowl of the corn oat sugarsalt.

To my surprise, it tasted a lot more like peanut butter than I would have expected. And then nostalgia hit me.

You know how a specific smell can take you back to a time you’d completely forgotten? You may not even know what it is at first, but a unique odor can evoke memories more strongly than a visual or audio cue. Well, taste works very much the same way. I was immediately ten years old again.

A thick film of nasty sugarmilk-flour covered my mouth and instantly gave me halitosis. This was mixed with the slight taste of iron, not from the mineral additives, but from the lacerations to the inside of my mouth. I felt partially chewed cereal squares stabbing into my esophagus on their way to crunch-obliterating stomach fluids. It was disturbing, but it kind of tasted good. I couldn’t imagine why children would eat this. Then I remembered something important.

At some point, kids began associating the taste with emergency room visits, so Quaker Oats needed to devise a plan to draw whiny children back in. This goal materialized in the form of Crunch Berries. The cereal children loved and paid the price for now featured neon purple spheres with a berry-like flavor. One would assume that this was more of the corn-oat-sugar-salt mixture, but its rounded shape meant less jagged corners causing GI destruction.

This is probably the only part of the cereal that kids actually want to eat anymore, considering the wide array of cereals that exist now, with their panic-inducing colors. That mostly bland yellow square cereal with the occasional purple dots just wasn’t enough, which is why Quaker Oats had a brainstorm session that led to this spectacular and highly nutritious cereal:

Oops! All Berries is the newest in a line of Cap’n Crunch spinoffs, featuring a sheepish but strangely apathetic Cap’n on the box cover surrounded by dozens of neon colors. “Limited Time Only!” the box proclaims, probably because it likely also houses a smaller disclaimer somewhere about how repeated exposure to this much food dye could cause sterility. Regardless, the berry-wrap print should drive children into a frenzy. That’s right, kids, the Cap’n’s mistake is your reward!

So in a grocery store aisle with these three boxes, which one do you suppose the kids claw each other’s faces off to grab?

Oops! All Berries might not be around forever, but the Crunch Berries will. That leaves plain ol’ gross mouth-film-and-pain yellow Cap’n Crunch Classic by itself. So who’s its new target audience? I found out when I flipped the box to the back to play stupid kid’s games.

Shit. It’s me again.

Thirty year cycles, indeed. Cap’n Crunch is clinging onto my generation, all growed up and responsible, and our never-ending lust for nostalgia. It was what caused me to pick the box up in the first place. The Atari joystick and Rubik’s Cube on the back of the box appealed to my longing for a time when things were simpler and the Internet didn’t have everything, ever, instantly. Back when I was amused by impossible cubes and one-button gaming controllers. Why, I can even order a retro t-shirt if I want!

Nostalgia experiment completed, I put the box back in the cabinet next to the Fruity Pebbles to be thrown out in a year. Guess it’s time to go back to Honey Bunches of Oats.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Why Bookstores are Failing

I’ve been to Barnes and Noble a few times over the past year looking for a list of books, and it never turns out as expected. You’d think that someone tech-savvy like myself would have an e-reader or other means by which to read books, but honestly, I like the entire packaging of the book: The cover, the dimensions, the pages, illustrations if they exist, etc. I realize this is like holding on to the love of CDs, another dying physical media format, but really, e-readers lack a lot of the character that actual books do.

When I’ve made up my mind to get a book, I need to get it ASAP. I don’t want to put it on hold, I just want to go out and get it. I don’t want to order it from Amazon.com because I’m just too damn impatient for that. So I head out to my local bookstore—you know, the massive, mega-store for literature that choked out all the independent stores in the area. With two stories of books and the impressive ink-on-paper smell, they’re certain to have it, right?

First, I’d need to find the correct section. Fiction is easy; just look up the author in alphabetical order. But I’m a non-fiction guy, and those books are organized by genre. If I can’t find it, I’ve got to track down an employee to help. This takes a long time, because there are three employees, and two are at the registers.

Then I find the section, and the book’s not there, so I wonder if perhaps it’s in a different section. I’m not going to check all sections, so it’s time to hit up a computer and do a store search. While lots of places (Wolf Camera, libraries, Futurestore) have had these types of public computer stations for years that let you help yourself, book stores always require an employee to run the computer. If the employee is nowhere to be found, I generally just start pounding away on the keyboard and generally being a dick.

Once the employee shows up, or if they had lead me back to the computer after a failed aisle-search, it’s up to them to find the book for me. They do this by performing an Internet search—something I could have done from my phone. But with their special employee login information, they have the ability to see the stock of the current store and all stores in the area. That’s when this happens:

“We don’t have it here, but I can order it for you.”

What exactly does that do for me? I need that book tonight! If I had wanted to order it, I would have clicked “Add to Cart” when I had it pulled up on Amazon.com’s website when I was at home, credit card and shipping information saved, qualified for free shipping. And it probably would have been cheaper, too.

I understand that they can’t stock every book, but I’m not always looking for something obscure. For example, I knew what I was getting into when I walked into a Borders going-out-of-business sale, dragged an employee to a search computer, and asked her to look up LSD: My Problem Child. But when I go to a fully-stocked Barnes and Noble and I ask them for any book on art deco style—architecture, furniture, jewelry, anything—and the in-store hunt is futile, it’s extremely disappointing.

Instead, they stock tons of best-sellers and keep the racks short. They rely on “free shipping to the store” as a compromise for failing to provide you with the thing you want to give them money for. Occasionally, the in-store search leads to an area store that actually has the book, like when my wife needed Summer for the Gods the next day of school so we drove to a Borders 25 miles away to get it. That worked, but for a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of literature, it shouldn’t have been that difficult.

Bookstores think they’re competing with online book sales by having the ability to special order books, so they don’t feel as pressured to carry a well-rounded stock. But what they have is a major advantage over online sales: A brick-and-mortar store. I can order a book from BarnesandNoble.com as easily as I can order from Amazon.com, but I can’t go to the Amazon.com store in fifteen minutes to get The Heroin Diaries. I can pay $11.90 at both websites, or I can order it for $14.99 for the Nook or Kindle, the two websites’ e-readers. But if I don’t own an e-reader, or just want to be able to put the book on my shelf and want it tonight, I can always drive to the bookstore. Assuming they have it. When I get there, though, the answer seems to always be, “I can order it for you.”

It’s not the e-readers that are killing off bookstores. It’s not even the online sales. Webvan didn’t destroy Publix and Kroger. NewEgg.com hasn’t shut down Best Buy and Micro Center, or even the tiny Ginstar up the street. Sometimes when you need something, you want to get it right away, and the urge to read a book can be strong, even a craving. I might be on a plane tomorrow, or at jury duty. I might just have the weekend off work and want to sit in a hammock for hours. I definitely don’t have time for that book to be driven across the country to my front door when I should be able to find it up the street.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Nuclear Paradox

There’s something about nuclear weapons that is inherently exciting and ultimately frightening at the same moment. Perhaps it’s the sheer raw power held in such relatively small amounts of matter, or the poetic, untimely demise that a sudden flash of nuclear energy produces. Either way, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a time where the threat loomed over us as an imminent doom: Not “Is it going to happen?” but “When?”

Of course, the bomb never dropped. Here we are, nearly two decades out from the “end” of the Cold War, and nuclear weapons are every bit a reality as they were before. Now, just as in the 50s and 60s, they’re used as a deterrent to aggression from other countries, and not so much as a method of attack during wartime. We’d never consider dropping nukes on Iraq or Afghanistan like we did to Japan. And why not? Collateral damage. We don't want to repeat mass civilian extermination.

In 1945, FDR died and Truman took the lead in the most horrifying war in Earth’s history. Hitler was done for, but we still had those pesky Japanese molesting our Pacific islands. After dozens of firebombs failed to halt Japan’s actions, Truman ordered the only two wartime nuclear weapon detonations in world history. So far.

These were puny nukes by today’s standards, detonating with a force of only 16 and 21 kilotons respectively. Regardless, the immediate deaths from the explosions totaled as high as 150,000 people and resulted in 245,000 deaths by the end of the year. It’s a good thing modern nukes have never been used, because they measure in megatons—more than fifty times the power of those two devices.

The Tsar Bomba, the most powerful weapon ever created, had an explosive yield of more than 50,000 kilotons. That’s 3,125 million times the power of the Hiroshima bomb that killed 80,000 people instantly.

It wasn’t our bomb, either; it was the Russians’. Our mortal enemies. No wonder we were so paranoid in the 60s. We spent four decades aiming nukes at each other with military personel who had fingers literally inches from the launch buttons. The stalemate was the only thing that stopped this incredibly deadly near-genocide from actually happening. We got lucky—and by “we,” I mean humanity in general.

And yet there’s something so spectacular about watching nuclear explosions. Maybe it’s our affinity for fireworks; maybe it’s the knowledge that we, as advanced primates, brought them into existence; maybe it’s the graphic visual of what could very possibly be the last thing many of us see. We like to stare death in the face when we know we’re safe, and through the television or computer screen, there’s no risk of radiation.

The concept of “nuking” something made its way into comedy awfully fast, probably partly as a coping mechanism. From the bomb-riding captain in Dr. Strangelove to Nelson’s “Nuke the Whales” poster in The Simpsons, we’ve adopted it as a cultural nuance worthy of laughter. Had “The Bomb” killed millions every year for 67 years, we probably wouldn’t be laughing so hard, but at this point, we don’t really worry anymore anyway. It’s almost like we’re waiting for something to explode.

"'Nuke the Whales'?" Lisa Simpson asks Nelson in disbelief, "You don't really believe that, do you?"

"Gotta nuke somethin'," he responds.

Over the past two decades there have been numerous efforts to put an eternal halt to what has been considered the biggest potential threat in existence to life worldwide. The United States and Russia agreed to scale back their nuke stockpiles, but still openly maintain massive quantities (in addition to the secret ones they’re not disclosing). Nuclear testing has been banned for years. The United Kingdom, France, China, India, and Israel have all held them since before the end of the Cold War, but never had more than a few hundred warheads to match the U.S. and Russia’s combined total of 19,500 (that’s 19,500 after greatly reducing armament). In recent years, Pakistan and North Korea have joined the club, with Iran rumored to not be far behind.

Is there need for worry? India and Pakistan have feuded for a long time, and they share a border. North Korea has ICBMs that can reach California. Russia leads the world in active warheads. None wants to fire first because of the fear of equal or apocalyptic retaliation. However, the concern is that the first fired nuke, or even a misinterpreted nuke attack on its way, might trigger a domino effect of massive, deadly destruction worldwide.

The thought of committing global suicide this way is a little bit magical. If we can’t achieve world peace, maybe we should just pull the trigger. There’s always someone out there plotting world domination, anyway. I did it myself, recently, in a game called Civilization V, in which you play as the leader of a primitive nation that grows over time. There are four ways to win the game:
  • Convince the other countries to acknowledge you as their leader through diplomacy
  • Develop “The Utopia Project” through specific social policies
  • Win the “Space Race” by being the first to colonize another planet
  • Blow up everyone else.
It was my intention from the very beginning to thoroughly dominate the planet by force, so I intended to build nukes as quickly as possible. I played as Julius Caesar, leading the Romans who were known for their uncompromising military prowess. Due to sinking all of my funding directly into researching weapons technology and building my army, the rest of the world stood no chance against me. I completely obliterated them all just a few turns before developing nuclear weapons.

As I stood as undisputed leader of the world (since there was no one left to dispute it), I scanned the map and realized it was all mine. I could finally focus on cleaning up the poverty and famine in my cities. After a few turns, my scientists informed me that the nuke was ready to be used. Unfortunately, there was no one left to nuke.

As I toiled away, mining and farming the Earth for the benefit of my citizens, my massive military aimlessly roamed the planet with no mission and no purpose. We developed the cure for cancer, and the infantry didn’t care. We built a spaceship and colonized another planet, and yet there was still no need for the military.

Then one day, as a fleet of adamantium-plated tanks rolled through a more remote region of the planet, they happened upon a barbarian encampment that had gone previously unnoticed. The group of twelve or so primitive humans beat the ground with sticks and threw rocks at the tanks. I ordered the vehicles to clear the vicinity and dropped my 50 megaton warhead directly into the center of the barbarian village, incinerating them and a nine square mile radius.

I paused to look at the destruction. Without enemies, there was no need for nukes.

If we have no enemies, we have no need for nukes.

But without nukes, we might have more enemies.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The 5 Most Creepy Moments in Beatles History

I really like The Beatles. Don’t get me wrong—I find their music to be innovative and enjoyable, even in their sickeningly sweet sugar pop roots. They really pushed the bar and set the standards for what a band could produce, both in songwriting ability and studio recordings.

However, the meanings of words and phrases can shift over the years. The Beatles’ discography happens to be quite extensive, and they weren’t afraid to say things that could be considered controversial at the time, so their records are a goldmine of semi-questionable language that has shifted over the years. When you factor in that 75% or more of their music is romance-oriented, this makes for quite the collection of romantic euphemisms.

Without insulting these four fantastic songwriters too much, I present to you The 5 Most Creepy Moments in Beatles History.

  1. I Saw Her Standing There
Going all the way back to the beginning of The Beatles’ professional recording career, we find this classic song at the very beginning of their very first LP. And we don’t need to go further than the very first line to get the fifth creepiest moment in the Beatles discography.

As the song kicks into its immediate rock n’ roll groove, Paul McCartney croons this line:

“Well she was just seventeen, you know what I mean?”

No, Paul, what exactly do you mean? This could just be an innocent rhyme intended to kick off a song about a pretty girl, and Paul was only twenty years old at the time he wrote this anyway, so it’s doubtful that he’d be tried for statutory rape and forced to register as a sex offender for life according to today’s standards. However, the vague “you know what I mean?” leaves one’s mind searching for exactly what he’s implying. It's like he's elbowing you while pointing at a girl who's way too young to be looking at that way and acting like it's completely appropriate when it's clearly not.

Actually, it was not Paul, but in fact John Lennon who devised this line, saving the song from one of the most hideous opening lines for a debut album of all time. According to Paul:

I had "She was just seventeen," and then "Beauty queen". When I showed it to John, he screamed with laughter, and said "You're joking about that line, aren't you?"

The two agreed to replace the ill-conceived rhyme with the line in question, and history was made. Creepy history.

  1. Getting Better
If the vagueness of “I Saw Her Standing There” was what made that song so disturbing, it’s the matter-of-fact tale of anger management issues related by Paul McCartney in “Getting Better” that makes it just a tad bit creepier. It comes close to the end of the immaculate and legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, quite a bit further along The Beatles’ lifespan. McCartney introduces his history of anger within seconds of the song’s start:

“I used to get mad at my school,” he sings. What exactly is it, Paul, that made you so angry?

“Teachers that taught me weren’t cool,” he continues. Well, that’s reasonable. You’re not cool, so I’m angry! But at least he admits that it’s getting better all the time, right? Not quite. By the second verse, he still hasn’t learned his lesson.

“Me used to be angry young man,” he says, clearly suffering from the inability to properly form a sentence due to ignoring his uncool teachers. Again, though, he promises that his uncontrollable rage is getting better all the time—until the third verse comes, after he’s blissfully wed.

“I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved,” he matter-of-factly states. However, he reminds everyone that he’s really just misunderstood and that he promises not to do it again.

“Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene, and I’m doing the best that I can,” he swears, and then reminds us for the rest of the song that it's indeed getting better all the time. Sounds like the hollow promises of a serial domestic abuser to me.

  1. Dig a Pony
By the time the Beatles had decided to “Get Back” to their roots and play some good ol’ fashioned rock music, John Lennon had done every drug in the book and fried his brain not entirely unlike the eggs in those old anti-drug PSAs. In this song from the group’s last official LP, he discreetly reveals his passion for farm animals.

“I-I-I-I-I dig a pony,” he croons, “Well, you can celebrate anything you want.” That’s good to know, John. I guess ponies are the kind of thing you might have at a birthday party, so that kind of makes sense.

“I-I-I-I-I do a road hog,” he continues, “Well, you can penetrate any place you go.” What? Umm... did you... what? Are you saying that... never mind. I don’t even want to know.

“Yes, you can penetrate any place you go! I told you so!” he shouts, as my skin begins to crawl. This song has most definitely taken a turn for the worse, and we’re only 45 seconds in.

“I-I-I-I-I pick a moon dog,” he begins, as I shut off the song.

  1. Run For Your Life
Keeping with the themes of underage women and violent rage, this tune came at the end of the classic Rubber Soul album. John Lennon hadn’t quite lost his mind yet, but he nonetheless penned this tune of domestic abuse that not only reaches far beyond McCartney’s “Getting Better,” but is apparently written from the point of view of a delusional jealous pedophile. Eight seconds into the song, he wastes no time getting to the point.

“Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man,” he admits. But that’s only the beginning. The catchy refrain says it all:

“You better run for your life if you can, little girl. Hide your head in the sand, little girl. Catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.”

Then George Harrison’s perky guitar jingles a few happy notes while we imagine a full-grown, hairy John Lennon running around a playground with a meat cleaver. But wait, maybe he was only kidding!

“Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy and I was born with a jealous mind,” he reminds us as he begins the second verse. Another refrain, another cooky guitar solo courtesy of Harrison while we envision screaming children scattering like pigeons from a deranged Lennon as he homes in on one small child.

“Baby, I’m determined, and I’d rather see you dead,” he viciously promises, and sings another refrain. “You better run for your life if you can, little girl.” If this doesn’t make you feel ill, you’re not interpreting it literally enough. (Lennon would later admit that this was the song he most regretted writing, taking a literal look at it himself.)

  1. Little Child
I don’t mean to pick on John Lennon. He just chose the most awful euphemisms while writing some of his music. Sure, it wasn’t unheard of for unlikely synonyms like “baby,” “little girl,” and “child” to make it into romantic tunes of the time. It was also common for Lennon to write lullabies and silly songs for children. Judging by the title of the song, you might expect this song to fit that theme.

On the A-side of the 1963 release With the Beatles, this song was pretty early in The Beatles’ career, and was an up-tempo dance tune. McCartney admitted that it was a “filler track,” and so very little attention was given to the content of the song. If only they had thought about it just a little harder.

As was common on Beatles albums, Ringo Starr often sang one of the songs. Lennon and McCartney wrote this for him to sing, but Starr backed off from the ill-conceived subject matter to sing the much more grown-up “I Wanna Be Your Man.” I can’t blame him.

The song begins with a strong rock n’ roll backbeat and the boys waste no time getting to the lyrics:

“Little child, little child,” they sing in a hypnotic manner, “little child, won’t you dance with me?” Lennon and McCartney could be having a bit of innocent fun at a family function, but then things get worse.

“I’m so sad and loooonely,” they harmonize in a highly disturbing manner. I think it’s this line, borrowed from the song “Whistle My Love” by Elton Hayes, that really sends shivers up my spine. But the worst is yet to come.

“If you want someone to make you feel so fine, then we’ll have some fun while you’re mine, all mine,” they sing. “So come on, come on, come on!”

At this point, I’d like to clarify that I’m well aware that they’re speaking to an anonymous of-age romantic partner, but the repeated use of “little child” is just completely unnecessary, and it sends the tone of this song off in the exact opposite direction of where it was supposed to go. Regardless, they feel the need to remind us that they intend to dance with a little child, then jump into this gem:

“When you’re by my side you’re the only one. Don’t you run and hide, just come on, come on!”

The real humor here, of course, is the upbeat tempo, party atmosphere, and generally having-fun feel of the song while they sing these horrifically creepy lyrics. Just imagine for a moment: A cheruby John Lennon and a fresh-faced Paul McCartney on opposite microphones, big grins on their faces, singing these highly inappropriate words to a room full of concertgoers who all become simultaneously disgusted and walk out. Hey, I’m not the only one who feels this way!

Well, we’re only talking about a handful of songs from The Beatles’ 300+ song catalog, so their batting average is actually pretty good. There’s bound to be one or two songs that slip by that really sound like the confessions of a child molester, right?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Why are Rugs so Freakin' Expensive?

I’m hoping to move in to a house in the very near future, and the house we’ve put in an offer for has hardwood floors throughout. Not a speck of carpet in the entire place.

I’ve lived my entire sheltered, suburban, new construction life with wall-to-wall carpeting, which is probably why I broke my foot from walking barefoot on concrete too much. I’ve never known a living experience in which there was a hard surface to lay on other than the kitchen or bathroom floor (not that I’ve done that too much, ha ha.)

But I’m kind of a weirdo. My computer is on the floor, and when I say “on the floor,” I mean the main case, the monitor, and the mouse and keyboard—all on the floor. The monitor doesn’t even have a stand, it just leans up against a subwoofer.

So I spend a lot of time on the floor at home, laying on my stomach to type, game, or read the news. I can’t imagine doing that on hardwood floors, so rather than get a computer desk, I’m looking to drop my life savings on area rugs. How expensive could they be?

As it turns out, I could buy an entirely new computer for the price of one rug. And I don’t need a little one. Nope, no puny 3'x5' is going to work in my living room. I need something bigger. At least 8'x10'.

One thing I noticed pretty quickly about rugs is that 9 out of 10 look like something you’d see hanging on temporary display in a gas station parking lot. They’re the overstock oriental rugs you see everywhere, and even those are expensive. I’m more of a minimalist, so I don’t want stupid fancy decorations all over the floor, and floral is out.

Mission: Find a non-oriental, non-floral 8'x10' or larger area rug without spending too much.

Unfortunately, what constitutes “too much” is impossible to determine in the rug world. That’s because it’s an industry with such wildly insane prices that your spirit is broken within minutes of shopping, and you begin to think that $350 for something your dog’s going to wipe his ass on is a “good deal.” Example:

I’ll just Google an 8'x10' contemporary rug and sort results from lowest- to highest-priced. Ooh, look at that tacky one! I’d pay $50 for that.


Okay, so I can get it as low as $50. I’ll check out the Rug Stop because they also don’t charge tax and offer free shipping.


Oh, really? You mean it’s not $50, it’s in fact a mere $770?

Well, let me just get out my credit card and pay $770 for this tacky-ass rug. Note that the 2'x3' is still more than $50 by about 150%.

And so it goes in the world of rug shopping. You can see by now how one’s spirit can be broken so easily. Your choices are oriental rugs, flower rugs, or paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Shaggy Raggy
When we were first looking at the house I mentioned earlier, we noticed that the current tenants have this wonderful, huge white rug made from a material I’d never heard of. While in a baby store a few weeks later I saw the material and recorded what the consumer tag said: It’s called Shaggy Raggy. Stupid name, incredible material.

They had at least an 8'x10' in their house, so I figured if I can afford to buy their house, I’ll probably be able to afford this rug, right? Couldn’t be more than $150 or so. Wrong. It’s $280 for the 5'x8', the largest size I can find. But hold up for a moment, that’s not even totally accurate, as this comment on the Bed Bath & Beyond website eloquently points out:

I realize that for rugs they round to the nearest foot, however, you vshould know that this rug is 4'7" by 7'7" - In my opinion, the absolute minimum size you could be to call it a 5'x8' rug. Since is $280, I thought I would let others know. It is a soft rug.

Thanks, nickname55. I noticed this myself when I first looked up these rugs: Rather than calling it 4.5' by 7.5', (which would be 4'6" by 7'6"), they’ve technically moved up into the 5' by 8' category (by rounding up from 4'7" by 7'7".) Isn’t that sneaky? So, overpriced, too small, and practically false advertising. How much did the current tenants pay for their magical unobtainable rug?

55" x 91" = 5005 square inches, and 96" x 120" = 11,520 square inches. If the price scales evenly, then we can assume this logic:

$280 / 5005"^2 = $.056 per square inch, so 11,520 x $.056 = $644.48. Crap.

I can’t afford $650 for a rug! Not with a $932,698,326,903 baby due in 10 weeks! So, it’s off to Ikea to buy the world’s crappiest rug. Their selection is amazingly crappy, yet modern, like my tastes. No oriental rugs there.

Without looking too long, I find a $200 rug at 9'x10'. It looks like cheap apartment carpet. Oh well, that’s what I’m used to, and it’s what I lay on already, so cheap Ikea rug it is. But still... $200? Why are rugs so expensive?

Seriously, you walk on them, spill stuff on them, and your baby drools on them if you have one, so what’s the point in paying a crapload for one? And how do they justify charging so much? I asked Jeeves. A rug maker in India responded:

Expensive is a relative term. You need to get more objective here. Being a rug manufacturer in Agra , India ; I feel that my customers (who import the rugs) charge a King;s ransom when they sell a rug made by me to the retailer, but what the retailer charges from the consumer is even more than a Kings ransom.

An oriental rug of size 8' x 10' takes upto 4-5 months and 5 weavers to make. Thats a lot of time. A 8x10 rug may have anything between 640K Knots to 1.7 million knots in it depending on its quality. Each knot is tied by hand. IF you take out the price per knot it will be much less than a cent. Each knot takes an average of 7 seconds to tie.

If you ever happen to come to Agra, call upon me and I will take you to the looms where the rugs are woven. Then you will truly come to appreciate the value of these rugs.

Thanks man, but the plane ticket to India would cost me three rugs. Don’t we live in the era of robots? I just want a machine-manufactured piece of shit that emulates carpet and can eventually be rolled up and thrown on the side of the road somewhere so I can drive by it every day as it slowly decays without thinking about the 5 weavers that dedicated 4-5 months of their lives to creating it.

Mission accomplished, I guess. I just didn't think that $200 would be "not too much." I guess I have a different view of the American Dream.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 80s Movies that Should be Rebooted as TV Series

MTV recently broke ground by creating a new series about high school life. No, wait, they always do that.

MTV recently revived a classic 80s movie and turned it into a new series about high school life. You remember Teen Wolf, right? The hilariously bad coming-of-age Michael J. Fox movie where the teenage protagonist begins morphing into a lycanthrope, and discovers that his dad deals with the same thing? You know, the really, really obvious metaphor for puberty?

Yep, they remade it. Or rather, as is the popular phrase of the moment, they “rebooted” it, and it’s taken new form as a series of episodes—but there’s very few similarities between the 1985 movie and the 2011 TV show.

Both feature a protagonist named Scott and a best friend named Stiles; Scott turns into a werewolf sometimes. Remember anything else from the movie? Gone. It’s all different. Even Scott’s last name is different now.

Taking a cue from this re-imagining, here’s five of my own suggested 80s movie reboots, updated to fit a 2011 world.

Back to the Future

Let’s stick with the Michael J. Fox theme, because he’s a pretty easy target. The 2011 TV show takes place in San Francisco. Marty, played by Michael Cera, lives in the Castro, born to a gay couple who used a surrogate mother to conceive him. Marty takes frequent trips down to M5 Industries to hang around the Mythbusters set with Jamie Hyneman.

One of Hyneman’s more interesting inventions is the flux-capacitor-equipped Prius that is capable of time travel. When the show’s not filming, Marty and Hyneman take the vehicle to Naval Air Station Alameda, the only place in San Francisco where they can get a Prius up to 88 miles per hour.

Pilot episode: Hyneman appears at Marty’s Castro townhouse, frantic and worried. Since he never shows emotion, Marty knows something’s horribly wrong. Hyneman informs Marty that his life is in danger. They travel back in time to 1985 to stop one of his dads’ ill-conceived heterosexual marriages. In a bizarre twist, Marty’s surrogate mother falls in love with him.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Might as well squeeze all the life out of the time travel theme, right? Bill and Ted (played by Alex Pettyfer and Joe Jonas, respectively) are two aspiring professional snowboarders who run a grow-op in Denver. Their plan is to get Shaun White to appear in one of their iPhone 4-shot snowboarding videos, but unfortunately, they need a totally triumphant snowboarding video to get Shaun White.

Ted’s dad works for the DEA and wants his son to quit the cannabusiness altogether. He’s planning to send his son off to a labor camp if he can’t make a profitable snowboarding video before the end of ski season. Fortunately, Rufus (Doug Benson) is sent from the future to inform the pair that they eventually bring peace to the world by being the ones who finally legalize weed.

Pilot episode: The local government wants to shut down dispensaries in Bill and Ted’s community, prompting them to use their iPad’s time-travel app to collect famous lawyers throughout history to have a debate against Harry Anslinger at the town hall meeting.

The Goonies

The Goonies are a group of pre-teen white-hat hackers split off from Anonymous and living in Astoria, Oregon. Led by an asthmatic 12-year-old named Mikey, they are facing pressure from the Secret Service to shut down their group, even though they’re just trying to expose security holes in major companies’ websites.

After finding a Power Mac in the attic and booting it up, the group discovers an email from Steve Jobs to Mikey’s contractor dad that includes blueprints for a personal underground lair beneath the campus at One Infinite Loop. Despite not knowing if the lair was ever built, the Goonies decide that this could be the ultimate security exploit if they can just get in.

Pilot episode: The Goonies discover Steve Wozniak, locked in a closet and screaming for “Baby Ruth!” Data correctly guesses a WEP key to connect to the WiFi so they can sniff traffic they think might be coming from a massive underground data center known as One-Eyed Willie.

Short Circuit

We’ll stay in Astoria for a moment. Big Dog is a protoype robot built by the UC Berkeley Robotics department, intended to be used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to carry packs of equipment across unpredictable terrain. While on a top-secret test in Saddle Mountain State Park, the entire crew is killed by a lightning strike to Big Dog’s head, providing him with a sudden and unexplainable consciousness.

After wandering through the woods for a while, he finds himself at the apartment of animal lover Stephanie (played by Miley Cyrus) who satisfies the robot’s cravings for power by discovering a USB port in his belly. Her computer recognizes him as a storage device, and she copies documents over from his memory that reveal a torturous life condemned to the battlefield.

Pilot episode: As FBI agents come to town looking for the robot, she has to dress him up like a saint bernard to keep him from blowing his cover. Unfortunately, he can’t stop hopping around. She tells the agents that she feeds him a steady diet of Red Bull to win the Astoria Saint Bernard High-Jump dog show.

The Breakfast Club

And finally, the second reboot in a row that is courtesy of Ally Sheedy. This series features a group of five very different students who get to know each other during detention one Saturday. The show centers on the characters as they continuously knock each other up and get hammered, concealing their unlikely acquaintances from their friends.

Pilot episode: The group is tasked with collectively writing an essay to explain who they are before the end of the day. Instead, the jock hooks up with the pretty girl after beating up the nerd, and the criminal and crazy girl sit in the bathroom huffing spray paint.

How to Remove a Search Hijacker—for Free

The short answer: Install and run ComboFix. Details below.

I’m usually pretty good at removing viruses and crap from my computer, and I generally avoid using anti-virus software to do it. I’ve got good reasons. First, I’m a control freak, and I can’t stand the idea of something restricting my movements on the web. I don’t even run Windows Firewall. Second, they slow down your computer, and they might just delete stuff that you don’t want them to. Third, I know the Windows Registry like a freaking maniac.

Seriously though, when you do such processor-heavy stuff like video editing or playing Bulletstorm, you don’t want some resource hog hiding in the background, ready to jump up and say stuff like “CNN.COM IS TRYING TO REFRESH ITSELF, BUT DON’T WORRY, WE CLOSED YOUR ENTIRE BROWSER. PROBLEM SOLVED!” Your online Black Ops team will wonder why you suddenly decided to stand still in the middle of a battlefield and get shot to death.

Then there’s the boot-up issue, and this is the main reason I tell people to avoid Norton Antivirus at all costs. For years I’ve nicknamed this bloated software the Black Icy Hand of Death, turning an otherwise fully-functional computer into a crawling zombie who can’t even take commands from its master, spending half its life running a series of processes on every boot to ensure the maximum protection possible. It’s like putting bars on all the windows in your house, then boarding them up, putting 20 locks on your front door and then pushing all your furniture up against it. You’ve gotta take some risks if you want some freedom.

Usually, when I suspect I’ve got a virus, my normal routine goes like this:
  1. Start the Task Manager (Ctrl+Alt+Del) and look for weirdly-named processes
  2. Google those executables to find out if they’re known viruses
  3. If it’s a virus, search both the entire file system and the registry for that file name and delete all references to it
  4. Reboot
This is pretty much all anti-virus software does anyway; they just go about it with a different method. Sometimes the virus isn’t listed in the processes and I’ve got to run Ad-Aware or ClamWin to have it point out the files to me, but then I’ve got to remove them manually from the file system and registry anyway. So it was an especially frustrating week when I noticed a new type of virus I’d never seen before and had no clue how to remove.

The Asshole Search Hijacker

I noticed that my normal Google searches were taking me to suspiciously amateur-looking websites. I googled the IP addresses I was being sent to and discovered that I had what is called a “search hijacker,” also known as a “Google search hijacker,” "Scour Redirect Virus," and other names. But it didn’t stop at Google. It affected Bing, too. Not that I cared about that.

And it wasn’t just Firefox. It was Internet Explorer and Chrome, too. For days I used Ask.com, and not for the usual ironic reasons, but because this search hijacker was ignoring it. I couldn’t find a process. I couldn’t find anything weird in the registry. It was baffling me.

Here’s what was happening: I would do a Google search, and normally, I could just click on results to move on to the linked website like we all do a jillion times a day, every day. But the moment I’d click that link, the URL would be replaced by a hijacked URL, linking me to one of many asshole websites. If I hovered the mouse over the link, it’d look like this:

And then, right-clicking the URL, it would immediately change to this:

For every single result. Here’s a list of IP addresses and domains that I was being redirected to (*WARNING* DO NOT VISIT ANY OF THESE URLS):

  • aicse.com
  • askthecrew.net
  • b00kmarks.com
  • bizzclick.com
  • cpcadnet.com
  • expandsearchanswers.com
  • fibrosearch.com
  • get-search-results.com
  • mylocalheadlines.com
  • scour.com
  • superpages.com
  • yellw.info

I ran ClamWin, and it didn’t find anything. I ran Ad-Aware, and it didn’t fix the problem. I then went on a free anti-virus installing spree, during which time I also used TFC (Temp File Cleaner), Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware, and SUPERAntiSpyware. None of them solved the problem.

It wasn’t until I installed ComboFix, a curiously low-key program, that the problem finally went away. If you’ve got some variant of search hijacker, this should fix the problem.

Finally, the Details of How to Remove this Stupid Search Hijacker

TFC won’t harm your computer, and it may have helped solve the problem in my case since it removed 7 gigabytes of temp files. If ComboFix doesn’t solve the problem, I’d suggest running TFC first, then running ComboFix again.

So, download and install ComboFix, choosing all the standard options, and then let it run. It’ll close all your browsers without prompting you, so save anything you need before it does this. It’s all text in a box—no fancy graphics here. It could take up to an hour, but it probably won’t, and then it’ll automatically reboot your computer. When the computer boots, don’t do anything until it spits out a text file log. You might want to save that, just in case.

When you see that text file, all should be well. You no longer need to cry yourself to sleep using Ask.com for your web queries. Remember, if this doesn’t work, try running TFC, then ComboFix. Hopefully you’ll be back to normal again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Incredible True Story of Bat Out of Hell

Sometimes three people collide in a way that changes the face of music forever. Sometimes they just end up making the most overdramatic song of all time.

In 1977 an unknown, seemingly unmarketable man who insisted on being called Meat Loaf was performing in a similarly unknown, seemingly unmarketable Peter Pan-based musical called Neverland. The musical’s principal songwriter Jim Steinman had worked closely with Meat and the rest of the cast to create an over-the-top performance about youth, love, and extreme manliness. It wasn’t like the Peter Pan everyone knows so well; this version involved knives, blood, motorcycles, and electric guitars.

It was an interesting time in rock n’ roll. Operatic performances, epic songs, and fantasy imagery were popular. Queen was getting ready to release “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” Cheap Trick were about to drop their debut album and go on a world tour. Broadway favorite Annie opened on April 21st to immediate acclaim. The world was ready, Steinman proposed, for the “most extreme crash song of all time.”

In the 1950s and 60s, as cars became faster and more powerful, a car crash epidemic began to emerge. This resulted in dozens of pop and rock songs romanticizing the phenomenon that proved especially popular with teenagers. Steinman loved the mix of power and romance, love and tragedy. It was his destiny to pen the genre’s ultimate achievement.

One day, after an especially strong performance of Neverland, Meat Loaf and Steinman had a simultaneous epiphany.

Steinman and Meat Loaf
“Meat,” Steinman said to the overweight singer, “What if we...”

“Recorded the motorcycle song as a single?” Meat finished.

“Absolutely! It would be...”

“THE GREATEST CRASH SONG OF ALL TIME!” they both grandly announced at once.

But they didn’t stop there. They pulled three songs from the musical and combined it with four new tracks to create Meat Loaf’s debut album. But the real story lies behind the rewriting of that crash song, a single that would become known as “Bat Out of Hell.”

The two paired up with an eccentric producer named Todd Rundgren who was skeptical of the two at first, thinking they were ridiculous theatre idiots. But after listening to Steinman’s unique beyond-description vision of power and excess, he joined in for the humor of the whole thing. Rundgren told some of his bandmates the idea for the song, and they agreed that it would be funny to record it, and then he grabbed Bruce Springsteen’s drummer and pianist to complete the musicians who would go on to write history.

As Jim Steinman assembled the musicians on the morning of the first sessions, he briefed them on what they would expect in the following hours. “You all have been chosen to participate in something so ground-breaking, so spectacular, that you’ll be remembered for the rest of time as the musicians who performed it,” he said, hands folded behind his back as he paced back in forth in the front of the studio’s control room. “This will be the apex of your careers.”

A young Max Weinberg spoke up. “Really? Me and Roy recorded Born to Run with Springsteen two years ago, and...”

“DESTINY!” Steinman shouted as he turned and glared directly in Weinberg’s direction. “It begins with dark streets, hoodlums everywhere, someone being knifed in a corner!” he excitedly described while waving his hands wildly and looking up to the ceiling. “Suddenly, a man—a real man,” he motioned in Meat Loaf’s direction, “comes riding in on the most badass Harley you’ve ever seen, with a giant hairy skull mounted in place of the windscreen.”

Meat stepped forward sheepishly with an embarrassed grin on his face, kicking the ground. “Gosh, Jim, do you think he needs to be that manly? I’m not exactly a superhero.”

“HE WILL BE THE MANLIEST MAN OF ALL TIME!” Steinman shouted, unable to keep froths of saliva from being projected out of his mouth. His eyes began to roll back in his head, but eventually settled back into position. “Let’s do a take!”

The band burst forth an explosion of sound lead by a frantic piano and played nearly two minutes of instrumental music before Meat joined in on the vocals. He set the initial tone of the song, describing a dirty, dark city full of dangerous characters:

“The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling way down in the valley tonight. There's a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye and a blade shining oh so bright. There's evil in the air and there's thunder in the sky and a killer's on the bloodshot streets. And down in the tunnel where the deadly are rising, oh, I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter, he was starting to foam in the heat.”

The recording stopped. “Jim, are you sure these are the lyrics?” Meat asked.

Steinman calmly walked over to the vocal booth and looked in at him. “Meat,” he softly cooed, “You’ve just got to trust me, okay? We’re about to make history.” He then walked back into the control room, and with his back to the window, punched himself in the side of the head three times, took a deep breath, and turned around. “Let’s try that again!”

As the band played a second take, Rundgren sat back on a couch with his feet propped up on a table, laughing to himself.

“What’s so funny, Todd?” Steinman sharply inquired.

Rundgren sat up and leaned forward, removing the sunglasses from his face. “It’s too much, JIm,” he responded. “No one’s going to buy this record. It’s just too ridiculous.”

“People come to Neverland. What makes you think they won’t buy the greatest crash song of all time?”

“Okay, man, do you what you will. Just remember what I said.”

The band blew through ten more takes before the late afternoon approached. Steinman just wasn’t quite getting the feel he wanted from the song. It wasn’t loud enough, big enough, or remotely as epic as he had hoped. Steinman called it quits for the the day and sent the band home. He asked Meat and Rundgren to stay behind.

“You know what the song needs?” he said. The two sighed and shook their heads.

“A boy’s choir right when Meat starts singing. I think that would add the level of beauty and innocence that we’re looking for.”

Rundgren spewed water out of his nose and jumped to his feet coughing. “What? A boy’s choir? Isn’t this already crazy enough?”

“I kinda like it,” Meat Loaf quietly chimed in.

“Yes, a real boy’s choir. Let’s not do any weird vocal tricks or tape effects, let’s bring in an entire choir and have them sing during the section where Meat first comes in.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Rundgren asserted.

“Well why not?” Steinman asked. “There’s nothing in this world more beautiful than the sound of twenty boy sopranos singing,” he said as he began dreamily waltzing himself around the room with his eyes closed, humming quietly to himself. Meat and Rundgren looked at each other.

I think he's crazy, Rundgren mouthed to the obese singer.

“Look, let’s worry about that later. We’ve got a lot of post production to do anyway, and we’re already at close to four minutes by the time we get to the end of the first chorus anyway, so we’re going to want to wrap it up soon,” he said aloud.

“But that’s just when the bike is first introduced!” Steinman protested. “The story’s only getting started.”

Rundgren looked at him, disappointed. “Look, let’s just go home and regroup tomorrow.”

They split up and, took another crack at the song the next morning, moving into the second verse where Meat sang about the motorcycle’s introduction.

“I'm gonna hit the highway like a battering ram on a silver black phantom bike. When the metal is hot and the engine is hungry and we're all about to see the light,” he belted out over the roar of the band.

Steinman stood in the control room, banging his head furiously, tears flying onto the mixing board from his face. “Yes, YES, YES!!!” he shouted, “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER!”

Meat Loaf put his full soul into the lyrics as he progressed through the verse.

“GET TO THE PART ABOUT THE DAMNING!” Steinman shouted through the glass.

“And I know that I’m damned if I never get out, and maybe I’m damned if I do. But with every other beat I got left in my heart you know I'd rather be damned with you. If I gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, dancing through the night with you.”

“OH MY GOD THIS IS SO GOOD!” Steinman shrieked with incredible furiousness.

“If I gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, dancin’ through the night, dancin’ through the night, dancin’ through the night with you!”

“GAaaAAAaAAHHH!!!” Steinman shouted as he fell to the floor and began openly sobbing. “That was... the most amazing... thing I have ever experienced,” he quietly whispered. Two shoes appeared in front of his face. He looked up to see Rundgren towering over him as he lay underneath the control panel.

“You ruined a good take with your shouting,” he said. “We were picking you up in the vocal mic. Just chill, baby. We gotta get through this song, and it’s already beyond what most radio stations will play. We haven’t even hit a second chorus yet.”

They worked into the later afternoon to perfect the second chorus to the high standard of Steinman’s expectations of ultimate epicness, with the end of this chorus seamlessly moving into a powerful bridge with a sudden, jarring ritard.

“Then like a sinner before the gates of heaven I’ll come crawling on back to you,” Meat Loaf crooned. Steinman stopped the recording and sat back on the couch, weeping. Rundgren walked into the studio.

“Is he okay?” Roy Bittan asked.

“Yeah, he does this all the time,” Meat Loaf confirmed. Everyone waited patiently for the eccentric songwriter to get his wits back together to continue beyond the bridge, but he never came out of his sobbing bundle. The recording session ended for the day.

Finally, Rundgren entered the control room again to reason with Steinman. “What’s the problem, man?” he asked as he began to try a different approach with this clearly tortured genius.

Between gasps of breath, Steinman finally began to become intelligible again. “It needs...” he began. The sobs choked out his words.

“What? What does it need? More guitars?” Rundgren asked.

“No... it needs a crash, but I don’t want to see this glorious man die,” he softly revealed. Rundgren cocked his head to the side and looked directly into Steinman’s face.

“Are you shitting me?” he asked. “We’re almost six minutes in and you want to do a crash now?” he angrily shouted.

“I have an idea. Let me think about it tonight and we’ll start again tomorrow.”

In the morning, Steinman arrived slightly hung over but fully ready to work. He assembled the entire band and asked Meat to come stand next to him.

“I want you all to imagine this,” he began. “Our protagonist is riding his phantom bike with its skull windscreen’s hair flapping in the wind. He’s going fast. Faster than you can imagine.” He looked up to the ceiling.

“Faster than any boy’s ever gone before.”

The band looked around at each other. Meat, generally a pretty easy-going guy, became defensive.

“Wait, this song keeps going? What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the crash,” Steinman responded. “And he never sees the sudden curve until it’s way too late. He’ll lay torn and twisted at the foot of the burning bike, but that’s not all. Meat’s got the lyrics; everyone else just play the music.”

Everyone headed back into the studio. “Todd, I need the sounds of a motorcycle in this section. Can you handle that?”

Rundgren looked at him as if he was crazy. “You want me to bring a motorcycle in here and record it? I think we might all die.”

“No no no NO! Use your creativity, man! We need a freaking motorcycle! It’s a MOTORCYCLE CRASH!”

The band struck up again and Meat took to narrating the story.

“I can see myself tearing up the road faster than any other boy has ever gone,” he read off the lyric sheet.

“Yes! Feel the speed!” Steinman shouted.

“And I never see the sudden curve until it's way too late,” Meat continued.

“Feel the danger!” a frenzied Steinman interjected as the music barreled on.

“And I never see the sudden curve 'til it's way too late!” Meat screamed.

Steinman abruptly halted the recording and turned to Rundgren.

“Todd! We need that motorcycle NOW!” he demanded.

Rundgren sighed, walked into the studio and plugged in his guitar. “Cue up the bridge,” he said. The engineer rolled the tape back and armed a channel. “Hit it,” he said.

Holding down the tremolo until the strings were literally hanging off of the guitar, he struck a low note and whipped the tremolo bar up and down. His guitar growled the sounds of a powerful bike revving up its engine and accelerating, screaming directly into a guitar solo.

“OH MY GOD! THIS IS PURE GOLD!” he could see Steinman mouthing through the control room window. Man, I hope his voice doesn’t come through on this track. I really want to just do this once, he thought.

Meat blinked his eyes. He couldn’t believe what was happening. With no rehearsal, Rundgren had just spewed forth the greatest guitar solo of all time, and he did it directly out of the emulated sounds of a phantom bike. When the solo was done, everyone stood in silence for a few seconds.

“Was that good?” Rundgren asked.

Everyone erupted into cheers. The applause lasted for several minutes as Steinman fainted, Weinberg catching him on the way down. The entire band gave him the thumbs up to come back in for the playback.

“Holy crap, how is that possible?” bass played Kasim Sulton said to him as he patted him on the back. They listened to it and decided it was worth pushing on beyond the eight-minute mark.

Steinman came back to full consciousness. “Meat, we’ve no time to lose. You’ve got that lyrics sheet, right?”

Meat Loaf nodded.

“Get in there! You know what to do!”

The band piled back into the studio and prepared for the most tear-jerking moment in rock n’ roll history. In a quiet lull in the song, Meat sang the tender words.

“Then I'm dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun, torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike,” he sang, shedding a single tear.

“And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell.”

Rundgren got up off of the couch with a mesmerized stare and stood with his face pressed up against the glass, hands on the mixer.

“And the last thing I see is my heart, still beating, breaking out of my body and flying away—like a bat out of hell!”

Steinman slapped himself in the face to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “More! Bigger!” he shouted.

“Then I'm dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun!”

Weinberg’s eyes shut and he grit his teeth as he struck the drums with maximum force.

“Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike!”

One of Sulton’s strings popped as he struck it with his thumb harder than he’d ever played the bass before.

“And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell. And the last thing I see is my heart! Still beating...” Meat Loaf restrained himself as he built up to the song’s climax.

“Still beating...” he continued, while everyone looked around the room anxiously.

“Oh, breakin’ outta my body, and flyin’ awaaaaaaay... like a bat out of hell!! Like a bat out of hell!! Like a bat out of hell!!”

Steinman and Rundgren turned and grabbed each other in a triumphant embrace. The engineer sat frozen, unable to concentrate on the mixer. Bittan banged his head as he smashed his hands down on the piano keys. Meat Loaf delivered the final notes.


Everyone collapsed to the floor except Sulton and Bittan, who held it together just long enough to finish the epilogue of the song. As they played the last notes and the song came to a close, no one spoke or moved.

Finally the engineer shut his open jaw and stopped the tape reel. “I think that’ll do, guys,” he said through the studio monitors.

No one spoke as they left the studio. They knew what they had done. There was nothing to be said.

The single failed miserably on release.

Thirty-four years later, the album Bat Out of Hell has sold more than 43 million copies, solidifying it as the fifth-best-selling album ever. There’s something to be said about creating the most epic crash song of all time.

This story is factual to the best of my knowledge and is therefore proclaimed as “true.” Any embellishments are added purely for satirical purposes. This story used the following references with the purpose of being as accurate as possible:

Classic Albums: Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell
Jim Steinman's Bat Out of Hell
Neverland by Jim Steinman
RIAA: Sales data for "Bat Out of Hell"
Songmeanings: Meat Loaf - "Bat Out of Hell"
The Julia Child of Rock and Roll
To Hell and Back: An Autobiography by Meat Loaf
Youtube: Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell