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 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’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 as easily as I can order from, but I can’t go to the 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. 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?