Thursday, March 31, 2011

The best children's book you've never heard of

Here at The Billy Blog, reviews are commonplace (you know, whenever I can't think of anything real to write about, I just tell you about the things I like!), but book reviews are somewhat of a rarity.  In fact, I can't recall having reviewed a book thus far, and here I find myself reviewing a children's book!  Well, there is a reason for this - this book is AMAZING!!!  What children's book am I talking about?

Why it's none other than Big Things, by Auntie Licia and Unkie Wayne.  As of yet, I do not have permission from the copyright holder(s) to license dissemination of this work, so I'll only be able to offer a limited sample of images from the book, which I believe falls under the "fair use" provision of US copyright law pertaining to reviews.  However, I am fairly confident that I will be able to obtain permission, so I offer a tentative promise to share the work in its entirety in a future post.

Certain frequenters of The Billy Blog are aware that Auntie Licia and Unkie Wayne are very dear to me.  However, I believe that my appreciation of Big Things is independent of that fact.  Big Things is on the forefront of books written to children, rather than for children.  In fact, Big Things actually opens by addressing the as-of-yet unborn child to deliver its overarching messages of how belief in oneself can lead to great accomplishment, that opportunity is boundless, and that family will always be there to offer support.  Of course, because the opening is written to the unborn, it is perfect for an expectant mother or father to read to the child, but the message is also appropriate for young children as well.

One of the other appealing aspects of Big Things is the artwork.  The illustrations, cheerful and brightly colored, mainly feature a child and his yet-to-be achievements.  The people are perfectly drawn to the target audience of children - the characters are simple enough that a child can identify with them, yet nuanced enough to actually distinguish certain individuals. 

Finally, in addition to the uplifting and inspiring message it delivers to children, Big Things is also a very touching story for an adult to read to his child.  The message of accomplishment, as written to the child, becomes a visionary tale for all the hopes and desires the parent has for his child.  For parents of a child not yet born, the emotion is compounded.  It provides a bonding opportunity for the parent and child, and it spurs the parent toward a more real understanding that his child will soon be experiencing the activities described in the book.

I cannot recommend Big Things by Auntie Licia and Unkie Wayne highly enough.  I would tell you to scour your local bookstores to find this treasure, but I don't want you to waste your time.  If your local bookstore was fortunate to get a hold of a copy or two, you wouldn't be lucky enough to be the one to find it first - it would be long gone.  However, keep your eyes open for it - someday, when you're looking for something else, you may just be fortunate enough to stumble across it.  Don't let it get away!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Juggling our Fascism

On my way to work this morning, I heard about a recent happening in the Illinois State Assembly – apparently the Illinois House voted to weaken the statewide smoking ban by approving an exception for casinos provided the nearest state allows smoking in its casinos.

Amazing photoshop skills

Supposedly the statewide smoking ban has had an adverse affect on casino revenue in Illinois (An unintended consequence of legislation??? How shocking!!!). According to the sponsor of the exception bill, Daniel Burke D-Chicago (aren’t they all D’s from Chicago?), “since the imposition of our statewide smoking ban, to date our state has lost revenues in excess of $800 million. We’re telling people ... go ahead, earn the money in Illinois, then get in your car and go to Wisconsin to gamble.”

Now this makes me laugh deep down on so many levels, mostly because I was strongly against the smoking ban in the first place, even though I don’t smoke. Honestly, the smoking ban doesn’t really affect my daily life because I live in Missouri, but I do see it every time I make the pilgrimage home. Besides, I grew up in Illinois, so I still feel that I have a stake in its fortunes (or its misfortunes). Does this make me happy, seeing that the smoking ban, once championed as the state’s only hope for healthy workplaces, is now in danger of being whittled away in an attempt to put some money into Illinois’s empty coffers? No, it's just that all of the hoopla surrounding the smoking ban seems to me like a dog humping a wooden leg – there’s a lot of effort, but nothing’s really being accomplished.

My big problem with the smoking ban is that it takes away the business owner’s right to decide if he wants to allow smoking (which is a legal use of a legal product) in his place of business. It kind of strikes me like George Carlin’s question of why prostitution is illegal – “Selling’s legal. (Something else) is legal. So why isn’t selling (that something else) legal???” 

But Matt, what about the people who patronize the business that don’t like smoke? Go somewhere else. I don’t particularly care for Mexican food, but you don’t see me in Mexican restaurants asking for pizza. I just go to the pizza place! If enough people refuse to patronize a business that caters to smokers and those tolerant of smoke, either that business will have to change its policy regarding smoking, or another business will seize the opportunity.  

Well, then, what about the people who work at that business who don’t have a choice about being exposed to smoke? Actually, yes, they do have a choice. Find a different job. I don’t want to work in narrow, damp tunnels that may collapse on me, so I didn’t become a coal miner. I didn’t have coal mining outlawed.  

But just for the sake of argument, I will grant you that point. Let's suppose the economy sucks (just try to imagine it), there are no jobs to be had, so you’re stuck with Sophie’s choice – do you continue to work somewhere that would perhaps jeopardize your future health, or do you just not work and harm your current and future finances, and possibly be a drain on our social services? OK, just for the sake of argument, you are right; we should totally outlaw smoking at any place where anyone (who can’t make the decision to allow smoking) would work. But why should I, the owner and purveyor and sole employee of The Billy Bar (and Grill!) not be able to allow smoking at my establishment?

I went a little far with my anti-smoking ban rant, so back to the point at hand – OK, so the government forced all of these business owners to disallow consumption of a legal product for the greater social good. . .er, we banned smoking from all of these places so that the workers would have a healthier work environment (this is the fascist social interventionism that I am decrying). Sweet, we did a good thing; the American Heart Association and American Lung Association are proud of us. Of course, the American Diabetes Association can’t wait until we get around to banning all refined sugars and soda, and the American Lardbutt Society wants to outlaw couches. Again, I digress; back to the subject at hand – so we banned smoking from all of these places to promote healthier work environments. Why did we do it? Because we care.

We care about the single mother who can’t get a different job (for some reason, it's always a single mother).  It’s bad enough that she has to spend so much time away from her kids; how can we condemn her to an early tobacco-related death? We also care about the taxpayers, right? I mean, let’s face it – the more that people smoke and that are exposed to smoke, the more that the state spends on public health related expenses, so if we reduce one, we reduce the other, good times, right? Well, isn’t that what got us into this boat to begin with? The government (and by extension, we the taxpayers) is on the hook for medical costs and now we have to cede direction of our lives and livelihoods to the state to lower those costs. Again, American Diabetes Association and American Lardbutt Society – just you wait – your payout is near!

I think what I like most about the story surrounding the smoking ban is the apparent shift of priorities for the state. For example, all the way back in 2007 and 2008, when Illinois was only running a “serious” deficit (as opposed to the current “crushing” deficit), Illinoisans and their legislators cared about all employees and their hazardous work conditions (Well, at least they cared about all the employees that were facing dangerous second-hand smoke; I’m sure that railroad and mine safety enthusiasts may disagree, but injured miners don’t make my clothes all stinky when I go out for a bite to eat.) However, in these lean times of $13 billion dollar deficits (Just think about that for a minute – Illinois has a $13 billion shortfall – not $13 billion in expenditures, but is spending $13 billion more than they’re taking in this year. That’s roughly $1000 per Illinoisan over budget!), some legislators have decided that while they still care about most workers, in the interest of competitive fairness regarding casino tax receipts, we don’t care about you quite as much if you’re a casino worker. Even if you’re a single mother. Especially if you’re a single mother. We need money!

So there you have it – a dog humping a wooden leg. I’m pretty sure that this legislation, even if it passes the State Senate, won’t be signed by the governor, and that puts the cherry right on top of this whole cluster - think of a dog humping a wooden leg in the back of a pickup truck spinning its wheels in the mud.

So really, for the love of God, what is the purpose of this exercise in futility?  Do we really care that people have safer workplaces?  Or were we just tired of going to restaurants that smelled like smoke?  Here in St. Louis (County), a countywide smoking ban was recently enacted, but it made sure to carve out very generous exemptions for bars and casino floors.  Of course, all the major health organizations highlighted the positive effect it would have on workplace health, but I guess, again, does anybody care about the health of the bartender or blackjack dealer?  It seems, once again, that we only really care about going out to eat (or bowling!) and not smelling like smoke.  At the very least, if someone would just fess up to that (you fascist!), I'd at least feel less like it was such a huge waste of time. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

If you could watch just one movie for the rest of your life. . .

which one would it be?

For the sake of argument here, let’s say you are in a position where you would have to choose only one movie to watch for the rest of your life. We’re not talking about a situation where some deranged psychopath is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to choose which movie you’d want to watch for the rest of your life. Let’s face it, that situation is unreal; is that guy really gonna hold the gun to your head for the rest of your life, forcing you to watch this movie over and over and over? No, he’ll have to go to the bathroom at some point in time, and that’s when you can make a break for it. Besides, I’m not saying you’ll have to watch this movie continually for the rest of your life; you’ll just not be able to watch any other movies. 

Think of it more like you’re working on a cargo boat shipping TV/DVD combos and solar power electric generators, and the ship is in a terrible wreck; after a harrowing escape, you black out and wake up on a deserted tropical island with one TV/DVD combo and a solar power electric generator, both sealed in waterproof containers! (Boy, those manufacturers spending a little extra on packaging really paid off in this instance, huh?)

Upon further inspection of the island, you find its one unnatural feature to be a Redbox of infinite capacity (with every movie title ever made inside), but you only have one dollar on your debit card, so you can only get one movie! Let’s face it; we all know you’re not going to return the movie the next day because you’re a thieving bastard. Also in that vein, you thieving bastard, it’s no use to try to break into the Redbox of infinite capacity – as it turns out, this is the prototype machine for use on the mean streets of St. Louis (look it up - statistically one of the most dangerous cities in the USA!) and so it is also is the Redbox with infinite armor. The bottom line is that you can only have one movie. Well, I guess since I brought Redbox and the concept of DVDs into this little thought experiment, you can actually have any one DVD. It can’t be a made up “super high capacity DVD” or something, but if, for instance, you wanted to have a DVD of your favorite show, you could have that – but just one DVD, so you could only watch the same 6 or 7 episodes over and over and over!!!

Now that we’ve replaced the ridiculous crazed-psychopath-with-a-gun situation with a much more plausible deserted-island-with-infinite-and-invincible-Redbox scenario, we get down to the crux of the matter – if you could watch only one movie (or DVD) for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?

Well, I realize that everyone has his own cinematic favorites, but this is a much different question than simply “what are your favorite movies,” or even “what is your one favorite movie of all time?” Granted, the one movie you might choose could be your favorite movie, but I would ask that you try to think if your favorite movie would still be as good if you watched it all the time. Does it have any annoying parts? Would those annoying parts be tolerable the 1000th time you watched? Is it a comedy? I’m not sure at what point it would happen, but I’m certain the humor eventually wears off after watching Johnny Knoxville get kicked in the nuts so many times (I’m guessing around 300). Even if you are a die-hard fan of Deep Throat, could you really stomach (haha) having that as the only movie to watch?

I asked some people at work, and I got a few good answers: Pretty Woman and Gone with the Wind. Of course, these answers are wrong. The correct choice (The careful reader may note that earlier I referenced how everyone has his own cinematic favorites, but that is irrelevant. Here at The Billy Blog, we do things the right way; there is one correct answer, and that’s just how it is.) is The Godfather.  

 Was there any doubt?

 So why is The Godfather the correct choice?  It's perfect in every way!  It has drama, intrigue, murder, Brando, Pacino, severed horse heads, deceit, gunfire, and nudity!  The score is so good that I could just leave it on in the background to keep me company (which I've done before!), and it even has a recipe for pasta sauce!  (you know, for all those times you'll be making pasta sauce while you're trapped on the deserted tropical island)

How to make pasta sauce, according to The Godfather

 Let's face it, The Godfather could keep you company for years.  If only there were sofas and beer on that cargo boat. . .

OK, ok, I'll tolerate a little dissent.  Which movie would you choose?  I demand reasons why you don't agree with me!! 

Monday, March 28, 2011

No Blood for Oil!

I happened to be listening to the President on the radio tonight as I drove past a gas station with $3.55/gal gasoline advertised, and it made me wonder where these guys have been:

Have they just not had enough time to organize a protest?  Surely it can't be because their guy is in charge. . .

Saturday, March 26, 2011

When Bureaucracy Crosses the Judiciary

Last year, a lawyer in a public-records case being heard by the Ohio Supreme Court had a hard time getting a $64,000-a-year Cuyahoga County worker to say whether the county recorder's office had a photocopier.

The effort consumes nearly 10 pages of a court transcript.

Ten pages of court transcript???

The overall case is about whether deeds and other records at the county recorder's office -- records that were collected and are maintained with your taxes -- should be readily available at reasonable cost.

The lawyers involved in the case say the question about the photocopier is technical, getting at an arcane point of law.

The following is a transcript of Lawrence Patterson, acting head of technology for the recorder's division of the county fiscal office. David Marburger, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of title companies. Matthew Cavanagh, a second attorney, represents the county and raises objections.
Marburger: During your tenure in the computer department at the Recorder's office, has the Recorder's office had photocopying machines?

Cavanagh: Objection.

Marburger: Any photocopying machine?

Patterson: When you say "photocopying machine," what do you mean?

Marburger: Let me be -- let me make sure I understand your question. You don't have an understanding of what a photocopying machine is?

Patterson: No. I want to make sure that I answer your question correctly.

Cavanagh: Dave, I'll object to the tone of the question. You make it sound like it's unbelievable to you that he wouldn't know what the definition of a photocopy machine is.

Marburger: I didn't ask him to define it. I asked him if he had any.

Patterson: When you say "photocopying machine," what do you mean?

Marburger: Let me be clear. The term "photocopying machine" is so ambiguous that you can't picture in your mind what a photocopying machine is in an office setting?

Patterson: I just want to make sure I answer your question correctly.

Marburger: Well, we'll find out. If you can say yes or no, I can do follow-ups, but it seems -- if you really don't know in an office setting what a photocopying machine is, I'd like the Ohio Supreme Court to hear you say so.

Patterson: I just want to make sure I answer your question correctly.

Cavanagh: There's different types of photocopiers, Dave.

Marburger: You're speaking instead of -- you're not under oath. This guy is.

Cavanagh: I understand that, but I understand what his objection is. You want him to answer the question, but I don't think it's fair.

Marburger: It's not fair?

Cavanagh: It's not a fair question. A photocopy machine can be a machine that uses photostatic technology, that uses xerographic technology, that uses scanning technology.

Marburger: I don't care what kind of technology it uses. Has your offices -- we don't have technocrats on the Ohio Supreme Court. We've got people like me, general guys --

Cavanagh: Objection.

Marburger: -- or gals. I'm not really very interested in what the technology element of it is. I want to know --

Cavanagh: That's what's at issue in the case, Dave.

Marburger: Not in my judgment. Do you have photocopying machines at the Recorder's office? If you don't know what that means in an office setting, please tell the court you don't know what it means in an office setting to have a photocopying machine.

Patterson: I would like to answer your question to the best of my ability.

Marburger: I'm asking you to answer that.

Patterson: So if you could explain to me what you mean by --

Marburger: I'm not going to do that because I want you -- I want to establish on the record that you really don't know what it is. I want to establish that.

Now, do you know what it is or do you not know what it is? Do you understand what that term means in common parlance or not?

Patterson: Common parlance?

Marburger: Common language.

Patterson: I'm sorry. I didn't know what that meant. I understand that there are photocopying machines, and there are different types of them just like --

Marburger: Are there any in the Recorder's office?

Patterson: -- there are different cars. Some of them run under gas power, some of them under electric power, and I'm asking if you could help me out by explaining what you mean by "photocopying machines" --

Marburger: That's a great point.

Patterson: -- instead of trying to make me feel stupid.

Marburger: If you feel stupid, it's not because I'm making you feel that way.

Cavanagh: Objection.

Patterson: I have self-confidence and I have no problem.

Marburger: I don't think you're stupid.

Patterson: I think -- I don't have any problem answering the question.

Marburger: I think you're playing games with me.

Cavanagh: Dave, the word "photocopying" is at issue in this case, and you're asking him whether something is or isn't a photocopy machine, which is a legal conclusion --

Marburger: This isn't a patent case. There's no statute that defines -- where I'm asking him to define technology for me. I'm asking -- I want to find out from a layperson's perspective, not an engineer's perspective, not a technician's perspective, but from -- I have an idea.

Marburger: How about this: Have you ever heard the term "photocopier" or "photocopy" used in the Recorder's office by anybody?

Patterson: Photocopy? I'm sure in the time I've been there someone has used the term.

Marburger: And have you ever heard them use it in referencing a particular device or machine within the Recorder's office? By way of example, "can you photocopy that for me?" That's an example of office parlance.

Patterson: That particular terminology I've not witnessed.

Marburger: What was the context that you've heard the term "photocopy" used in the Recorder's office?

Patterson: I'm sure it's been used. I didn't say I remembered a specific instance.

Marburger: All right. But you have a general understanding that people have used the term "photocopy" within the Recorder's office in terms of something that could be done there; is that true?

Patterson: I'm sure it's been used. I don't remember a specific instance or how it was used. I'm sure it's been used.

Marburger: And is it fair to say that it's been used in terms of being able to copy one piece of paper onto another piece of paper using a machine? No? Not sure of that?

Patterson: I'm sure it's been used. I don't recall a specific instance in which it was.

Marburger: Do you have a secretary?

Patterson: No.

Marburger: Does anybody there have a secretary?

Patterson: Yes.

Marburger: Have you ever heard a secretary use the term "photocopy"?

Patterson: No.

Marburger: Have you ever--do you have machines there where I can put in a paper document, push a button or two, and out will come copies of that paper document also on paper? Do you have such a machine?

Patterson: Yes, sir.

Marburger: What do you call that machine?

Patterson: Xerox.

Marburger: Xerox. Is the machine made by the Xerox Company? Is that why it's called Xerox?

Patterson: No.

Marburger: So Xerox, in the parlance that you've described, the language that you've described, is being used generically as opposed to describing a particular brand; is that right?

Patterson: All of my life I've just known people to say Xerox. It's not commonplace to use the terminology that you're using.

Marburger: You mean it's more -- people say Xerox instead of photocopy?

Patterson: If you're referring to a type of machine where you place a piece of paper on the top and press a button and out comes copies of it, they usually refer to it as a Xerox.

Marburger: Have you ever heard it referred to as photocopying?

Patterson: Not with my generation, no. 


Now I'm pretty sympathetic to the guy on the stand, because you always have to watch what you say in court so that you don't perjure yourself.  HOWEVER, how does the "acting head of technology" not know what a "photocopying machine" is???  Not with your "generation?"  Are you 95 years old, still using the old pantograph?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Meet the WWE’s Newest Owner!

That’s right, The Billy Blog has joined the exciting world of trading on the stock market.  The first purchase?  $100 worth of WWE on the NYSE.  As a proud owner of the biggest name in sports entertainment, all of the superstars now answer to me.  Now that I am a major investor, even the Chairman, Vincent K. McMahon himself, must seek my approval!


He may be the boss’s son-in-law, but now Triple H works for me!


What’s that, John Cena?  I can’t see you?  Please.  I own you!

 Even the mighty King Sheamus must bow down before my importance!!!

 Well, I guess kneeling is OK, too.

You might be wondering just how I, a one-time nobody, could make such a landmark financial acquisition.  It was actually very easy. 

(corporate shill mode engaged) 

My mom had been using this online trading website called ShareBuilder (through ING Direct) for awhile, and when she showed it to me, I really liked its format and ease of use.  
Fast forward several months, and I happened to see that ShareBuilder was offering a $50 bonus on your first $50 deposit for a new account.  Well, I’ll take a free $50 any day of the week!  But yes, before you say it, I am aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch; I realize that they can offer this bonus because they will probably (probably!) eventually make it back through trading fees and the like, but if you are the least bit interested in online trading (as well as a free $50!), you should check it out.  If you are mindful, the $50 goes a long way.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that you could game the system by depositing your $50, receiving the bonus, investing and let it sit for 90 days, and then cashing out.  Even if you don’t want to game the system, it’s a great offer, because you can purchase stocks for just $4 a trade.  They have a ton of additional investment options at a range of prices, but for the beginning investor, or even someone who knows what he wants and doesn’t want to hassle with a middleman (for example, market savvy investors such as myself), $4 a trade is one of the best prices around, especially when you’re paying for it with your $50 bonus. 

(corporate shill overdrive engaged) 

Additionally, ShareBuilder has been sending me all kinds of offers to make me love them even more.  I signed up in time to get a birthday present from them – one free trade (that’s a $4 value, baby!!!).  There’s also an offer for a free trial of the premium services, which gives you (up to 12) free trades for a month, which I plan on utilizing when next I expand my portfolio.  You even get free trades if you get someone else to join!  (that’s where you come in)  Again, if you have any inkling of trading online yourself, whether it be big bucks or just a little for fun, check it out. 

(/corporate shill mode)

In your face, Ted Turner!  I’m way more successful of a wrestling investor than you’ll ever be!!!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Is George Michael Bigger than the Chicago Bears?

Now, as a child of the 80’s, I love me some Wham! just as much as the next guy (probably a little more so, in fact), but when I saw this, I knew I had to share it with the rest of the world.  A little background - you may recognize Wham! from their amazing hit song Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go or the insipid holiday single Last Christmas, but if you were ever anywhere in the 1980’s that had a radio turned on (even just for background noise), you probably heard the saxophone riff to the song Careless Whisper.  

Don’t remember it?  That’s ok; thanks to the magic of the internets, nostalgia is just a click away.  If you do remember it, feel free to skip down to the next section . . . unless, of course, you want to hear it just one more time.  Go ahead, you know you want to click it; I won't judge your guilty pleasure. . .

I'll be honest; I didn't even know there were
words to this until the late 90's.  
All I remembered was the sax riff.

The single was actually a George Michael solo project, but it was released while Michael was still performing in Wham!  Credited as “Wham! featuring George Michael,” it rocketed to the top of the US charts, spending three weeks at number one.  Of course, a song this triumphant sold plenty of records, and was even named Billboard’s #1 song of 1985.  (How it beat the Super Bowl Shuffle, I’ll never know.  I mean, it was good, but Super Bowl Shuffle good?  Please.)

Billboard #1?  More like NFL #1!!!

You may be wondering why now, 26 years after Careless Whisper took the world by storm, am I writing about it?  You may be saying to yourself, “self, I respect George Michael for his musical genius, but why is The Billy Blog bringing up this blast from the past?  Didn’t I dedicate enough time in the 80’s to listening to his music?”

Well, yes, you may have lost enough time listening to George Michael, but have you heard Sergio Flores, AKA “Sexy Sax Man,” play his tune? While you’re shopping at Wal-Mart? Or perhaps sitting through a lecture in biology class?

You're doing yourself a disservice 
if you do not click on this link.

Normally I don’t really care for these “reaction” videos that are filmed to catch people’s reactions when difficult or ludicrous situations are forced upon them, because I am overly empathetic to people just doing their jobs. I go to work and have to deal with difficult people sometimes, so I really feel for people who are just trying to get through their day when some moron shows up and starts causing a scene. However, this one is strangely different. Perhaps it’s the way that international saxophone superstar Sergio Flores completely buys into his role, or the fact that most everyone is generally treating it as the humorous situation it should be, or maybe it’s the unwavering dedication to finishing the saxophone riff regardless of the consequences, but I like it. I wouldn’t mind for this guy to show up to my work to liven things up!

And just to bring it home – Is George Michael better than the Super Bowl Shuffle? I would certainly say no, but you don’t see anyone doing the Super Bowl Shuffle in the electronics section of Wal-Mart, do you?

Come on, who doesn't love Da Bears???

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Speed Metal Sunday featuring DragonForce!!!!

One of the things that I both love and hate about games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band is the large portion of songs that are from artists or genres that I don't listen to or don't care to listen to.  When I just want to beat the game straight through, I don't want to bother with the unknown.  However, the exposure to new (to me) artists has enlightened me to several songs that I otherwise would never have heard.  One of the biggest unknowns that I now listen to on a regular basis is DragonForce.
DragonForce's Through the Fire and Flames is included as the bonus song awarded after the player beats Guitar Hero III.  By the third edition, Guitar Hero had turned from a family-fun guitar game to a sadistic, impossible solo-fest, and yet Through the Fire and Flames was still too difficult to include as a part of the regular game.  As difficult as this song is to play just by using 5 buttons, I am amazed that someone actually plays this in real life.  Check it out, the video is AWESOME.  Grab a bucket, because your face is about to be melted:
I can only imagine how awesome it would be to be able to play the guitar like that. 

If you'd like to see how fun the Guitar Hero version is, here you go:

And, for a little humor (and to show you that some people have WAAAAAAYYYY too much time on their hands), here is a Mario Paint rendition:


Saturday, March 19, 2011

How "Super" is the Supermoon?

I'd like to start off by saying that, once again, I think the media is dumb.  When I saw an article headline mentioning the "supermoon," I thought it was going to be an article about Superman that was either misspelled or discussing how mankind is going to need Superman if we are ever going to travel to the moon again.  Unfortunately, no, several media outlets are kicking around the term "supermoon" to describe the full moon today and asking if the "supermoon" will have a profound or adverse affect on us.  In this age of media sensationalism, nothing is too sacred or mundane to be sensationalized.  It's just a full moon - it happens roughly once every 28.5 days.  But somehow this one will be soooooooooooooooooooo special that it apparently warrants the use of the term "super" to describe it - not "above average," "slightly better," or even "great."  No, my friends, tonight you have the opportunity to witness a SUPER moon. 

 A "merely adequate" moon

What, then, will make it so super?

As many of you are aware (and many, I'm sure are not), the moon does not revolve around the Earth in a perfect circle; it actually has an elliptical orbit.  For those of you who are not familiar with the term "elliptical orbit," it means that the moon's orbit is oblong, and so the distance from the Earth to the moon varies.  The closest point is the "perigee," and the farthest point the "apogee."

the moon's elliptical orbit
These distance variances combined with the changing phases of the moon mean that not every full moon is of the same apparent diameter.  Obviously, they are all the same actual diameter because the diameter of the moon isn't really changing (at least, not appreciably enough for the purpose of this discussion; I don't want to hear anything about space dust or tidal forces!!!), just our perception of it due to the difference in distance.  Here's a little illustration:
Obviously, the closer the moon is, the bigger it looks

So that sets the stage for tonight's SUPERMOON!!!  The phases of the moon and the eccentricity of the moon's orbit have coincided so that the full moon tonight will be the closest full moon since March of 1993!!!  Isn't that just super???

Interesting, yes, but probably not super.  You see, just over a scant 2 years ago, in December 2008, we had an awfully close full moon too.  Don't get me wrong, this one is closer by 21 miles!  21 miles seems like a lot to me as a pedestrian, and perhaps even a passenger in a motorized vehicle, but as a planetary resident and lunar observer, 21 miles is really small potatoes.  The full moon in December 2008 occurred when the moon was 221,587 miles from the Earth.  The full moon tonight will occur at a distance of 221,566 miles - making it closer by 0.009477%.

Would Superman be quite as heroic if he was only 0.009477% more super than your average guy?

And so I say to the media, when it asks me questions such as this:

Kindly shut up.  I have a marginally-better-moon to watch!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Behind the Mystery of St. Patrick

Thanks, everyone, for the St. Patrick’s Day birthday wishes!!!  It’s really nice to know that so many people care enough to remember my birthday, but it could also just seem that way because Facebook reminds everyone!

Anyways, being born on St. Patrick’s Day, I felt it would be interesting to take a fresh look at the legend surrounding St. Patrick himself.  Much in the same way that some historians see L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a parable of populist propaganda, I think that perhaps the mystique of St. Patrick hides some brutal political truth.

First, a few details of the life of St. Patrick, which come from two surviving letters of his, and are generally accepted as true – Patrick was born in Roman Britain, and around the age of 16, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland.  He lived in Ireland for six years before escaping back to his family, entered the Catholic Church, and returned to Ireland as an ordained bishop in the north and west areas of the island.  Supposedly he died on March 17, which is why St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on that date.  He lived from the late fourth century to the latter half of the fifth century, and by the seventh century he was revered as the patron saint of Ireland.

One of the things for which St. Patrick is famous is spreading Christianity throughout Ireland.  As you can see from this stained glass window, the feat was actually very easy for him - it seems that St. Patrick was a giant (and a direct ancestor of the Jolly Green Giant – why do you think he’s green?  It’s the Irish!!!), and so he could just carry pre-assembled churches in his arm like a football and set them down throughout Ireland.  Very convenient!!

One of the enduring legends of St. Patrick is his banishment of snakes from the island of Ireland.  As a student at an engineering school (St. Patrick is supposedly the patron saint of engineers), I had to craft a shillelagh and bludgeon rubber snakes until they were “dead” in honor of St. Patrick’s famous feat.  But is it historically accurate?  Did St. Patrick and his flock really get rid of all the snakes in Ireland with wooden clubs?  Alas, no.  Apparently all that time I spent making my shillelagh and biting the heads off of dead rubber snakes was a waste.  Ireland has been devoid of snakes since the glaciers last receded, so it would seem that the attribution of this “feat” to St. Patrick is symbolic – but what could it represent?

Historical re-analysis #1 – St. Patrick was a conservative politician, and the snakes represent illegal (or “undocumented”) immigrants.  In this scenario, the Irish people got tired of all the snakes laying “anchor eggs,” taking all the welfare, and clogging up the emergency rooms, and the Irish setters got tired of all the snakes taking all the setting jobs at lower wages.  And so, St. Patrick, with his xenophobic redneck tendencies, successfully rid the island of all the snakes, none of which had the courtesy to come to the country the right way anyway.  Of course, this was met with great acclaim at the time, but soon the Irish were cursed with a lack of diversity.  Their food would consist of only potatoes and cabbage, and they would be forced to turn to whiskey to cope.  This reliance on potatoes would doubly curse the Irish, for in addition to blandness, the potato famine would eventually ravage the country.  This, in turn, would lead to a mass exodus from Ireland, causing the movie Far and Away to be made, in which Nicole Kidman would flee to America and Tom Cruise would pretend to like girls.  Do you see where closed-mindedness leads us???

Historical re-analysis #2 – St. Patrick was a liberal politician, the snakes represent the greedy rich, and the shillelaghs represent social justice (higher taxes).  In this scenario, for too long, the rich snakes had been taking advantage of all the services the Irish government had been providing without bothering to pay their fair share.  You see, every year around tax time, the snakes gave up the skin off their backs, but it was not enough.  St. Patrick (and his followers) knew the snakes could give more!!!  The greedy snakes tried to fight back with their highly paid lobbyist shillelaghs, but in the end, social justice was triumphant.  However, the snakes that weren’t whacked by shillelaghs were chased off the island, and the Irish were forced into a period of deficit spending washed down with copious amounts of Irish whiskey.  At some point, severe austerity measures would have to take place, but with enough whiskey, will it even be noticed???

Historical re-analysis #3 – St. Patrick was a Japanese nuclear reactor, and the snakes are terrified citizens.  The shillelaghs, of course, are a combination of radioactive steam, misinformation, and media sensation.  St. Patrick and radioactive steam?  Where do you think the Jolly Green Giant came from??? 

Thanks again, everyone, and I hope you all had a great St. Patrick’s Day!!!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Is Daylight Saving Time Worth It?

I apologize for the lack of posts over the last few days.  In addition to a very busy week, daylight saving time has been kicking my butt.  So, what better to write about?

Get your hoe ready!

Daylight saving time (notice that it is not daylight "savings" time) was established in the US in response to WWI and WWII, as wartime measures to conserve energy resources.  However, a peacetime federal law standardizing DST in the US wasn't passed until 1966.  While individual states were allowed to exempt themselves, it set the dates for the time change to be from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October.  In 2007, DST was extended to last from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday of November.  And so, here we are, sunny times!

Why must I be robbed of an hour of sleep every year?  Well, the idea is that by setting clocks forward an hour, people are generally forced to get up an hour earlier, being more productive and requiring less energy to light homes and businesses in the evening.  Does it work?  There are mixed results from various studies on the issue; I personally like having more sunlight later in the evening, but I also hate having to get used to it.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Billy Blog Makes the ULTIMATE Bacon Cheeseburger!

Have you ever just thought to yourself, "you know, self, I really like quarter-pound cheeseburgers, but I just wish they were larger. . .sixteen times larger!"

Something like that happened to me the other day.  I don't really know exactly how it went down, but somehow I got this urge to make a gigantic cheeseburger, and at some point in time I decided the magic number would be four pounds.  Four pounds of beefy deliciousness!!  Jealous?  You should be.  Read on:

Like usual, I had to assemble the arsenal of freedom:
The astute observer may notice that I have the 3 lb. tube-o-beef (don't knock it; it makes delicious burgers!) and 1 lb. of  hot pork sausage.  Well, I happen to have a pregnant wife, so I have to make sure that beef is cooked all the way through (as opposed to the usual flavorful colors of pink and red in the middle).  We all know that pork fat is delicious, and so if I have to cook burgers all the way through, adding a little bit of pork sausage kicks up the flavor and helps to keep the final burger moist throughout.

Mix the beef and pork together, seasoning with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  My "secret" burger ingredient is Worcestershire sauce - add it while you're mixing in all the rest of your seasonings, and let it soak in to the meat.  I feel it improves the "beefy" flavor, and it really adds depth and complexity.  If you're cooking normal burgers, now would be when you would make individual patties.  Of course, if you're making the *ultimate* burger, you have to form your burger patty on a baking sheet:

Make sure to douse that baking sheet with non-stick spray, so you can slide it off without too much damage!

Obviously, something this awesome has to go on the grill; was there any doubt?  So, like any good student of the grill, we need to preheat the grill, and we need to make sure the grill is clean.  I also took this opportunity to cook some bacon on the grill; it turned out pretty sweet, but you have to make sure to kill the flame directly underneath to keep it from flaring up!!

Once the grill has been properly preheated, oil it up thoroughly.  Then toss the burger on!
I had to stop and marvel at this point.  I'm not sure what I really expected; I guess I partially thought that the mass of the burger would just cause it to squeeze through the grates like play-dough.  After it cooked for awhile, I picked up my *two* spatulas to flip it, and saw the beauty beneath:
One thing to keep in mind is that the fat from the sausage is prone to flaring up.  This mother is pretty thick, so it will take awhile to cook all the way through, and we want to make sure it's not solid charcoal on the outside by the time it's good in the middle.  Once a good sear was on both sides, I turned off the flame directly below the ginormous patty, but left the other burners on full blast to keep the grill temperature up.  Keep your burger moving, so it doesn't char too badly:

you may notice that it takes two spatulas to flip

How will you know when this monstrosity is done?  Well, I doubt you have any experience in cooking 4 lbs of burger in one lump, so the easiest way is. . .an instant read thermometer:
Make sure to insert the thermometer horizontally, so that you really are getting the internal temperature, and not the temp of the grate or flames.  When you're ready, add the cheese and let it melt (I think I did 7 slices):
When you are satisfied the burger is done and the cheese is melted, it's time to pull it and dress it up!

Tomatoes and onions!
Finally, lettuce and the top:
Wait a minute - you say that's just a close-up of a normal sized bacon cheeseburger?  Well, I offer this frame of reference for you:
What's that?  You say I drink too much Tecate?  Well, that may be true, but I also made a 4 lb bacon cheeseburger!


Friday, March 11, 2011

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Smoke a Chicken

Well, last week we learned how to properly grill, but now I wanted to take a little time to show just how delicious you can make something if you have a few hours to kill.  Shop n Save had whole chickens for 78 cents/lb, so that gave me someplace to start.  For those of you with very rudimentary culinary knowledge, a whole chicken is, well, pretty much the whole chicken, minus the head, feet, and feathers:
One Whole Friggin' Chicken

I got two whole chickens (around 3-4 lbs each), cut them in half (making four chicken halves!), and brined them overnight in a mixture of water, salt, brown sugar, and a pinch of cumin.  I found out about brining poultry from BAM! watching Emeril, and I do it every time I cook a turkey for Thanksgiving because it makes the bird moist and juicy.

After brining the chicken overnight, I assembled my ingredients:
My ingredients assembled, ready to do battle
I'm sure that you are familiar with salt, pepper, vegetable oil, cider vinegar, wood chips, and beer.  You are probably also familiar with chipotle peppers, since they're currently in every dish in every casual dining restaurant across the nation, but you may not be familiar with achiote paste:
You may notice this picture says "annatto paste" because we're looking at the English side
Mayan in origin, achiote paste is a spice blend from the Yucatan in Mexico.  One of the key ingredients is annatto seeds.  I love it because it imparts a very earthy flavor onto meats, as well as turning everything red.  If you feel that the food you eat isn't red enough, try to find achiote paste.

For this particular recipe, I made a chipotle-achiote marinade for my chicken.  I used the entire 100g container of achiote, 4 chipotle peppers and all of the adobo sauce that the chipotle peppers came with, around 1/4 cup of oil, and about 3/4 cup of water.  I blended this sauce up:

Make sure to blend it well so you don't have too big of chunks
Drained the brined chicken pieces and patted them dry with paper towels, and marinated with the sauce:
I said it was red!

While that marinates, soak your wood chips and fire up the smoker:
I got this bad boy for $4 at an estate sale.

While marinating, I also made a mopping sauce to use while the chicken smokes.  The mopping sauce is 1 cup of cider vinegar, 1/2 cup of beer (the rest is for you!), 1/2 cup of the reserved achiote marinade, and salt & pepper, all whisked together.  Also, instead of using a mop or a brush, I took the lazy way out and used a squirt bottle:
 Almost ready to cook!

And so finally, at long last, we are ready to put meat on the grill!  My chicken was a little crowded, but it still worked out well:
 Time to make it smoky and delicious!

Make sure to put your wood chips on the fire, and don't forget to use your mopping sauce!
Mop, mop, mop, all day long!  Mop, mop, mop, while I sing this song!

When smoking, make sure not to lift the lid too often, because you lose a lot of heat, and it sets the cooking time back a lot.  The object of smoking is low and slow, so make sure not to have a rip-roaring fire, either!  (Perhaps I'll do a smoking tutorial sometime in the future)

The length of time it takes for the chicken finish cooking will depend on how hot your fire is, as well as how many times you open it up.  For chicken and other poultry, you'll need to cook it all the way through; the easiest way to make sure it's done is with a meat thermometer.  Hopefully your bird(s) will look something like this:
I told you it was friggin' red!

To serve, you could cut it up into individual pieces or serve the whole halves (depending on how hungry you are), but I found it pretty convenient to cut it in half, leaving a portion of the breast meat on the bottom (thigh and drum) half:
Much Deliciousness!