January 2006 Archives

Lost Cities Online

Lost Cities is a simple little 2-player card game, with a heck of a lot of luck. But the oversize cards are very pleasing to handle, the illustrations are attractive, and the game is addictive in that potato chip kind of way. And so it is with evil glee that I invite you to get sucked in as I have to Lost Cities online. The site presents a very faithful version of the game, complete with scans of the cards. The site also hosts a version of Schotten Totten, a game similar to Lost Cities but with perhaps more scope for strategy. It's a bit harder to get a ST game going, however-- most of the players are there for Lost Cities.

The nail in the coffin is that it maintains rankings, so with every game your rating rises and falls. I've always been a sucker for games with high score boards-- that carrot of inching up the list and trying to achieve a meta-goal is hard to resist. Someday I'll reach number one on the leader board. Someday...

Bait and Switch

So I was right, and I was wrong.

This week's Smallvillle was the worst kind of lazy, manipulative storytelling. The first iteration, where Lana gets killed, actually had some pathos. But from the moment Clark grabbed the deus ex machina crystal-- with the show's writers frantically waving their hands in the wings and imploring us to pay no attention to what's behind the curtain-- I cried foul. Jonathan's death was telegraphed early in the show, when he said Clark was a man now who didn't need his father's advice anymore. Right then I knew he was a goner. And that saddens me, because one of the things I really liked about the show was the father-son relationship and the great performance by John Schneider. He was Clark's moral center. Killing him off breaks the show from current Superman continuity, where both of Clark's parents are still alive, but not in a way that makes the series more interesting. So Lana's still in the dark about Clark's secret after all, and now we'll be treated to scenes of Lionel cozening up to the widowed Martha, Lex moving in on Lana, and Clark torn between the memory of his adoptive father and the siren call of his biological one. Do they really think viewers want to go there? I'd much rather have lost Annette O'Toole's Martha, whose hangdog Martha Kent sucks all the energy out of a scene.

If the show had ended after the first half hour it might have been more predictable, but a heck of a lot less disappointing.

Comment (1) | last by Brad Berens, Jan 31, 1:06 PM

The Jury Has Spoken

A jury found original Survivor winner Richard Hatch guilty of tax evasion today after only a day of deliberation. His defense strategy sounds like it was plucked from the bottom of a cereal box. In the media, he claimed that producers offered to pay his taxes for him in exchange for his silence upon discovering that other contestants were getting food snuck in, against the rules. It's not unlikely that cameramen in the first season were on a loose leash and dropped candy bars or other munchies in the path of players they liked, although Hatch's fellow players deny that any cheating went on. But the jury never heard about the supposed deal, because he never testified to it in court and his attorney never asked producer Mark Burnett about it during the trial. Instead, Hatch's ingenious defense boiled down to this: "I'm the world's worst bookkeeper."

I'm no Ernst or Young. I rely on Turbotax every April. But when I got my TV show windfall, I forked over the government's share. I wasn't sure if the producers would withhold my taxes or not, but when a check arrived for the full quarter million it didn't take a genius to realize I'd be writing a fat check of my own to the IRS.

There's no way he could have honestly believed his taxes had been taken care of by the network. And even if I believed he was being truthful on that count, there's the little matter of the taxes he didn't pay on the over $300,000 he earned for hosting a radio show. Did he think CBS was picking up the tab there, too? And the charity money he spent on home improvements was just an indictment waiting to happen.

Hatch isn't stupid, so this whole situation baffles me. How did he possibly think he'd get away with it? He was so cocky, he rejected a plea bargain agreement last year to take the case to trial. Apparently he forgot that all that money came to him as a result of becoming reality television's first break-out villain. A jury might well have let Rupert Boneham off the hook, but Hatch was dead meat.

Soon he'll be fresh meat.

Comment (1) | last by RichM, Jan 26, 10:22 AM

Lanatomy

Next Thursday is the 100th episode of Smallville, and to herald the occasion they're making two major changes to the show (warning, spoilers follow). Clark is finally going to tell Lana who he really is, and somebody close to Clark is going to die. There are really only 5 candidates: mom, dad, Lana, Lois, and Chloe. Chloe, as the only character not part of established Superman continuity, seems like the obvious choice. But I think we're going to be cheated.

I think they're going to kill Lana.

The previews make it look that way. And it lets them shake up the show while simultaneously maintaining the status quo. Clark's secret is the only thing standing between he and Lana. If they remove it, they lose dramatic tension. And a happy hero is never as interesting as a troubled one. Killing Lana breaks the stagnation the series has struggled with while clearing the way for Clark and Lois to get closer.

it also creates a major break with traditional continuity, which can only be a good thing. It's ok if the big strokes-- Lex favoring power over friendship, Clark and Lois winding up together-- remain inviolate, but the show's more interesting if the smaller things aren't fixed in stone.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Chloe's in the driver's seat next week, or Jonathan Kent (clearing the way for Lex to win the election). Maybe, for once, the previews haven't given everything away. But I wouldn't bet on it. Which means only one change to the show instead of two.

Any day in which free box lunches can be scavenged from conference rooms is a good day.

Comments (6) | last by Bruce, Jan 24, 11:30 AM

Extravaganzine

A while back I commended The Puzzle Boat to your attention. About 100 puzzles in length, it's a great way for teams of puzzlers to get some practice between live events but is a bit much for just one or two people to bite off (not that that's stopped some individuals from doing it all themselves).

Thanks to the strong response to The Puzzle Boat, its creator has started a bimonthly "extravangazine" (in the National Puzzlers' League what I call a puzzle hunt is called an Extravaganza) offering more of the same on a lesser scale. Each issue promises in the neighborhood of a dozen puzzles, each resolving to a word or phrase which link together via a metapuzzle to reach an overall answer for the entire set. It plays very much like a single ring of The Puzzle Boat, and the puzzles are of the same high quality (although the first issue's puzzles were unfortunately riddled with minor errors, most of which have since been corrected). It's a great way for one or two people to enjoy a puzzle hunt experience at their own pace.

The first issue includes a diagramless fill-in, a color paint by numbers with a nice final flourish, a clever two-layered soduku, a variety cryptic, a puzzle involving cryptograms, some fun miscellaneous word puzzles, and more.

Each issue is distributed as a PDF file download for $4.95-- a trivial sum for the hours of enjoyment it will provide. I'm already eager for issue #2.

Comment (1) | last by Steve Dupree, Jan 12, 10:50 AM

50 Best Foods: Desserts

Saved the best for last...

Häagen Dazs Caramel Cone ice cream: I've covered this previously.

Oreo Blizzard: The Blizzard single-handedly saved Dairy Queen, accounting for an astounding percentage of its annual sales (I looked, but couldn't find the precise figure). The Oreo Blizzard is nirvana in a cup, with the chocolate crunchiness of the cookie offering a perfect counterpoint to the creamy vanilla soft serve ice cream.

hazelnut gelato: I don't go for fruity ice creams-- mixing fruit and dairy has never been a huge winner for me (Creamsicles? Ugh!) I've always gravitated toward the creamier flavors-- butter crunch, mint chocolate chip, etc. Hazelnut gelato is like super-creamy frozen nougat. I ate three cones of this every day I was in Florence.

Good Humor Toasted Almond bars: I'm not even sure if they make this anymore. If they do, I want some. This was my treat of choice as a kid, when I used to run to the end of our dead-end street and cut through a neighbor's backyard to reach the Good Humor truck that was always stationed there on warm spring and summer afternoons. Other kids got the red, white, and blue rocket popsicles that turn your tongue colors, or the italian ices with wooden tongue-depressor spoons. For me it was Toasted Almond or nothing. The simple vanilla ice cream was nothing special, but that "toasted almond" coating... mmmmmmmm. At one gelateria in Florence I had amaretto gelato that tasted EXACTLY like this, and for a few minutes I was a kid again.

PBMax: Late and very much lamented, the PBMax was an answer to the atrocious Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, with it's chalky <air quotes>peanut butter</air quotes>. PBMax covered a crispy puffed-rice cookie with real, honest-to-goodness sumptuously creamy peanut butter, all dunked in chocolate. It was like dipping a chocolate bar into a jar of peanut butter, but with a satisfying crunchy cookie layer to bind and unify the experience. Had I only known it was disappearing, I'd have pulled an Elaine and bought up every case Costco had in stock. By now, they'd all be gone-- and none of you would have been PBMax-worthy.

buttercream frosting: Specifically, the kind of sweet frosting found on bakery cupcakes and sheet cakes. I know, I know-- but I love the stuff. Corner piece? Mine! Big pink frosting rose? Mine! Quadruple bypass at 50? Mine!

Puyallup fair scones: At the Western Washington State Fair held every September in Puyallup, WA, one of the signature foods are Fisher scones. Slap your buck on the counter and you're instantly rewarded with a waxed paper bag containing a piping hot scone, sliced and slathered with honey butter and raspberry jam. I never get just one. The mix is available year-round to be made at home, but unless your home basks in the odor of cow manure baking in the hot afternoon sun, it's just not the same.

Cinnabons: I know I could probably make cinnamon buns at home that are as good or better, but what a production, with the kneading and the rolling out and the cutting and the GLAY-vin! And then, a dozen cinnamon rolls later, I'm reflecting that perhaps it would have been better all the way around to just pop over to the mall for a Cinnabon. It may not be buttercream, but it's all about the frosting.

Cheesecake Factory dulce de leche caramel cheesecake: Oh. My. God. Insanely good. I'm not a whipped cream fan at all, but even the accompanying dollop of cream is spectacular. Best of all, they top the whipped cream with something that tastes an awful lot like Good Humor toasted almonds! I will never, ever leave a Cheesecake Factory restaurant without a slice of this, and have been known to swing by solely to get one to go.

freshly baked chocolate chip cookies: The Chewy, of course. The key is to get them out of the oven immediately to ensure their chewiness when cooled, which is essential to the preferred chocolate chip cookie experience. Assuming they last long enough for it to matter, of course. Nothing I ever cook makes me as happy as the simple pleasure of a warm Chewy and cold glass of milk.

Comments (5) | last by Bruce, Jan 16, 3:26 PM

tom kha gai soup: Silky smooth coconut milk and spicy red chili paste make a good tom kha gai a sublime pleasure-- especially if the cook resists the urge to overload the soup with stalks of inedible lemongrass.

chicken tikka masala: I don't believe I ever had Indian food before going to college. Once there, friends-- yeah, I'm looking at you, Springberg-- introduced me to chicken tikka masala, and it became the archetype. In my mental dictionary, the picture next to the "indian food" entry is this dish. You know what I love about Indian cuisine? Cream is not a four letter word. The tikka is tasty, but it's the tomato-cream sauce that makes the dish.

jambalaya: There are really only two vegetables I hate: brussel sprouts and okra. Gumbo, which I'd otherwise adore, is too often an excuse to foist okra onto an unsuspecting diner. So when it comes to N'awlins chow, I turn to jambalaya. Cajun andouille sausage, shredded chicken, plump shrimp, all nestled in a pot of zesty, gooey rice. It's a hearty one-pot meal that always brings the happy.

blackened salmon: Really, this could be blackened anything-- chicken, steak, whatever. There's very little in the way of protein that can't be improved with a healthy coating of cajun spices. Salmon fares particularly well, however, with its moist flesh providing a counterpoint to the charred exterior. Served up with grilled onions and a creole mayo and BAM-- your dinner's kicked up a few notches.

curried chicken salad: So simple, and yet sublime. Grapes, golden raisins, and granny smith apples provide sweetness and texture, while celery lends a satisfying crunch and red onion provides a little extra zing. Forget sandwich bread-- I'll eat the stuff right out of the tupperware. The perfect use for poached chicken meat produced by my favorite stock-making procedure.

jerk chicken: Someday I'll get to Jamaica and have the real thing, cooked in allspice leaves with scotch bonnet peppers. In the meantime, I have to content myself with off-the-shelf marinades and sauces.

chicken pot pie: The ultimate comfort food, especially since I learned to make it from scratch at home. As with so many things, a liberal application of Tabasco to the tender-flaky crust makes a good thing even better.

General Tso's chicken: The barometer by which all Chinese restaurants are measured. Nobody knows who the General really was, or if he ever existed, but in my book a General trumps the Colonel.

Comments (9) | last by Springberg, Jan 17, 12:19 PM

Paseo pork sandwich: The best sandwich on the planet, served from a tiny little hole-in-the-wall in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. Why is it the best foods always come from tiny holes-in-the-wall? The marinated pork is unlike anything I've ever had. It's served on a fabulous Cuban roll with mayo, cilantro, and the most incredible marinated, grilled thick-cut onions you'll ever find. The Paseo pork sandwich redefines finger-lickin' good.

bosna: An Austrian sausage I spent most of my visit in Salzburg greedily inhaling. Served doubled-up on a bun with curry, mustard, and onions, bosna was love at first bite.

steak: Your plain old basic steak. I could specify New York strip, porterhouse, filet, or even my Costco value pack tri-tip, but I love 'em all. Just rub it with some olive oil, season with kosher salt and coarsely-ground black pepper, maybe a dash of Worchestershire, and cook on the Weber until medium-rare. Sometimes, you can't beat the classics.

skirt steak: I'm listing this separately because, while it's still a slab o' cow, it's an entirely different thing from other steaks. The texture of skirt steak is similar to flank, but unlike any other cut. And once again, we can trace my love of it back to mom. I grew up before fajitas hit the big time, sending the price of skirt steak soaring. Back then it was a very cheap cut of meat, and it was the only form of steak that ever made it to our dinner table. And I relished every appearance. Mom used a marinade of soy sauce and brown sugar that I've never been able to replicate-- in part because she never measured anything. But damn, did it make a scrumptuous steak. .

chili: I favor Cincinnati style (with cinnamon), but a good bowl of Texas red is a fine, fine thing. The key is to eschew ground beef in favor of cubed-- the difference in texture and flavor is remarkable. I generally buy a chuck roast and dice it into tiny cubes manually. An hour well-spent. Serve it over white rice, top it with some cheddar cheese, and spoon it up with tortilla chips. And no beans, please. But imagine my surprise to discover that Stagg makes some very credible chili-in-a-box in the form of their habanero variety-- useful to keep around the office as emergency rations.

lamb kabobs with red onion: Lamb is underutilized in the U.S., but not in my house during the summer. A Costco leg of lamb makes for terrific kabobs when diced into large cubes, seasoned with kosher salt and pepper, rubbed with olive oil, and threaded onto a skewer between wedges of red onion. While many would consider the onion an afterthought, to me it's essential. When grilled, the onion loses its edge and takes on a surprising sweetness that balances the lamb. It's a perfect combination.

Seven Flavor Beef: If you ever visit Seattle or have guests in from out of town, the one essential restaurant is Wild Ginger. Their signature Crispy Fragrant Duck is all well and good, but I make a beeline for the Seven Flavor Beef: slices of flank steak cooked with lemongrass, peanuts, chilies, hoisin, basil, garlic and ginger. The flavors dance on my tongue and make me swoon every time.

Chinese barbequed spare ribs: Ubiquitous in New Jersey but seemingly impossible to find here in Seattle, spare ribs pink with marinade and charred black around the edges are the best way to eat pork ribs. A dip in duck sauce is optional.

pulled pork barbecue: I'm not getting into the debate over what constitutes "real" barbecue-- a tomato-based sauce or Carolina's mustard-and-vinegar approach-- because I like them both. I'll eat it in a sandwich or mounded high on a plate. If the pork's been mixed with chopped onions, so much the better.

Comments (4) | last by Jake, Jan 5, 9:28 AM