Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lunch Amongst the Twitterati

Another check mark on my Life Experiences List: today I attended my first Tweetup.

For those of you who have not yet been inculcated into the Twitterworld, "Tweetup" is an overly-cute term for an organized meeting of two or more Twitter users, in the Real World as opposed to online. OK, I'll accept the overly-cute term. At least it makes me feel better about myself than if I were to tell you I attended a "Twitup".

Anyhoo, there is an ever-growing group of Twitterers here in Lancaster, PA who have been deemed Lancaster's "Twitterati". And how, exactly, does one become a part of this esteemed group of highfalutin' folk? Live in or near Lancaster (or at least, be able to locate Lancaster on a map), be on Twitter, and ask to be listed. As curator of the list @danielklotz notes,

"On the whole, we are a coffee- and beer-loving crowd that can be easily coaxed into spontaneous Tweetups. If you’re from out of town and need a recommendation on what to do or where to go, these are good people to ask...We’re also useful if you’re bored, or want to know what the weather’s like, or if you’d like to keep up with what’s going on in Lancaster when you’re away."

I can attest to the fact that it's a warm, friendly, and accepting group of people, and I've gotten to know several of them well online. But, despite the fact that we are all local, I had met very few of them in person before today.

Our Tweetup was organized for lunch at a little "see-if-you-can-find-it" Spanish restaurant called Antojitos, which opened up on West King Street about three months ago. I am a fan of Spanish cooking, and the food that was served was very tasty...but it was clear that the 20+ folks who attended the event were a larger group than the staff was prepared to handle. Our first clue to this appeared when we were asked for our drink orders. Those who asked for water were promptly served bottled water; those who asked for regular sodas were given cans of Pepsi or Sierra Mist; those who asked for diet soda sat waiting until one of the staff came running in with a plastic shopping bag filled with cans of diet coke. Had he run down the street to the store? Probably better not to ask.

After initial attempts to provide each person with their own plate as ordered proved futile, our hosts began bringing us large platters of rice, beans, pork and chicken to pass around and share. Oddly, rather than bringing salad, they brought us one large plate of lettuce, one large plate of tomatoes, and a dish of lime quarters, prompting me to comment that we had reduced them to bringing us random plates of food. It added to the conviviality of the event, though -- so many of us meeting each other for first time were passing food and laughing like a family at a holiday meal. Really, the owners of the restaurant went out of their way to make us feel welcome and did their best for us -- even providing the table with a complimentary flan (and how often do you get complimentary flan?)

My fellow Twitterati proved to be as enjoyable a group in person as I have found them to be while interacting online. A range of ages, backgrounds, occupations and hobbies provided a wide variety of conversational topics. This is a creative, intelligent, and downright funny group of folks, and I am honored to be among them.

I am one who, especially over the past several years, has dealt with sometimes horrendous social phobia. I am diagnosed OCD (far more obsessive than compulsive), and hand-in-hand with that has been a growing fear of social situations. It has caused me to go from a once very social life to very hermit-like one. In recent times, I have consciously made efforts to turn that around.

That said, today was a bit of a personal victory for me. There was a time - as recently as six months ago - when I would have found or created out of whole cloth any excuse at all not to go by myself to have lunch with a group of people I'd never met in person before. And sure, this morning, I had the nerves going and had to give myself a bit of pep talk to get moving. But I went, and I had a great time! And you can bet I will be at the next one!

If you are in the area, or even just on Twitter, and want to find and follow a great group of people, you could do a lot worse than those listed on the Lancaster Twitterati page found here. Please feel free to follow me on Twitter - I'm @berutt.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #4

999 album coverImage via Wikipedia

The line between what was "new wave" and what was "punk rock" was, at times, an intentionally blurry one. Punk rock couldn't sell in the States in the late '70s and early '80s - radio programmers wouldn't touch a record by a "punk" band, and in those pre-MTV days, if you weren't on the radio you weren't going to sell records.

Hence the term "new wave" came into vogue circa 1976/1977 in the hopes of getting past this genre block. Of course, this didn't work either because American radio at the time was still sleepwalking through the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, about to turn the oh-so-safe corner to meet Journey and REO Speedwagon. Zzzzzzz....

Meanwhile, there were myriad bands who were being labeled as both Punk Rock AND New Wave - The Ramones, The Dickies, Blondie; I can still pull out my copy of the Wave News new wave compilations which included obvious punk bands like The Exploited and Dead Kennedys under the umbrella!

So it was with this weeks NW4NW entry, 999.

Named for the British equivalent to America's 911 emergency phone number and consisting of Nick Cash (vocals/guitar), Guy Days (guitar/vocals), Jon Watson (bass), and Pablo Labritain (drums), 999 starting playing the British punk clubs in 1977, being one of the umpteen-hundred bands inspired by The Ramones and The Sex Pistols to pick up instruments and began thrashing away. While they are often included in the list of first-round UK punk bands, they always had a bit more of a melodic sense than some of their contemporaries. Indeed, by the time their self-titled debut LP hit the shelves in 1978, they had already taken to wearing the bright neon colors and skinny ties that came to be more associated with new wave than with punk rock.

The clip this week, for their fifth single, 1978's "Emergency", also shows off that new wave look. It's a classic bit of early video production - just the band in front of an all-white background, with a basic wash-out effect on the picture. But it's a clip that's hardly seen anymore, and it's a great song, so...your New Wave for the New Week is 999's "Emergency":

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Great Egg Debate Great Egg Update!

The Great Egg Debate is far from decided...and right now it is a dead heat between Reeses Peanut Butter Eggs and homemade PB eggs!


Vote for the egg of your choice, BUT VOTE!

Which are the best Easter eggs?
Cadbury Eggs
Reeses Peanut Butter Eggs
homemade peanut butter eggs
Farmer's Market peanut butter eggs
Cadbury Mini-Eggs
candy robin's eggs
Doesn't matter - white chocolate bunnies beat them all
Other (describe your choice in the comments)
pollcode.com free polls

Friday, March 27, 2009

Favorite Five Places to Find Great New Music for FREE!

fifth generation iPodImage via Wikipedia

If you are even half the music fan I am, you're always on the lookout for new and exciting stuff to fill your iPod with. A lot of the music I have discussed on the blog to this point has been from my own "Golden Era" of punk rock and new wave, and that is the music that I truly love the most. But I do try to keep an ear to the ground to hear what's bubbling under the mainstream these days, and every now and then something catches that ear.

Most of what's catching my ear these days I'm finding by regularly visiting a few free-and-legal mp3 sites. Doing so is the high-tech equivalent to spending hours picking through the dollar bins at used record shops. You're going to have pick your way through a lot of crappy records to find the gems, but that only makes those wonderful finds sound that much better on your turntable....er, iPod.

I'd like to share with you five of my favorite online sites to find those gems, along with a gem I've found from each in recent weeks. Start poking through the bins yourself - you may just find the next big thing!

#5 - 3Hive
3Hive is a site that was started by three friends who wanted to share good music with others. They brought a few more friends on board over time, and these days a team of seven do the footwork of visiting innumerable record label websites from all over creation and finding the best free promotional mp3's. They link directly to the labels' websites and do very nice, consice and informative write-ups about the artists they feature.

Bryan's Recent Pick from 3Hive: "My Balloon" by Men Without Pants

#4 - Free Albums Galore
Nothing beats truth in advertising! This site is exactly what its name implies - a collection of complete albums and EPs (as opposed to individual tracks as you'll find on many sites) that are offered online, free for the downloading, sometimes by a label but more often than not by the artists themselves. Our mono-named host, Marvin, supplies a widely varied selection of music from jazz to classical to psychedelia to rock to the utterly undefinable. This is the kind of site you can lose hours logged into!

Bryan's Recent Pick from Free Albums Galore: Without You I'm Napping by Japanese Gum

#3 - MP34U
This site uses an open door policy that allows anyone to become part of their team of "sources" who are constantly scouring the Internet for free-and-legal mp3's. Here, you have the option of streaming or downloading each track, and again the variety in genre is wide. So is the notoriety of artists and timeframes for the songs - anything might show up here, so long as it is being offered free and legally somewhere on the web: an early-20th-century blues 78, late 70s punk rock, and country standards sit alongside bands you've never heard of before and may never hear of again. It's a potpourri of music, almost mind-spinning at times but well worth the time to pick through!

Bryan's Recent Pick from MP34U: "My Maudlin Career" by Camera Obscura

As the description from their own FAQ page says, "RCRD LBL is a network of ad supported online record labels and blogs offering completely free music and multimedia content from emerging and established artists." Much of the music offered here is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which means it's already pre-cleared to be shared or remixed, so long as neither are done for commercial purposes. Lots of nifty stuff to find here, and each artist gets their own page worth of description and info. Again, both streaming and downloading options are offered.

Bryan's Recent Pick from RCRD LBL: "Lalita" by The Love Language

#1 - Fingertips
A weekly selection of three free-and-legal mp3s culled into blog form from their main site, each with a well-written explanation of the music and artist. Very often the stuff presented here has not yet been officially released. The music here tends towards the more indy-pop sound on the whole, but the occasional surprise rocker shows up, too.

Bryan's Recent Pick from Fingertips: "Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh" by Say Hi

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Larry, Moe and...Jim?!?

Curly (center) was in his glory while filming ...Image via Wikipedia

Oh Good Lord! Is no one in Hollywood capable of coming up with an original idea? Why must we be subjected to unnecessary, ill-conceived and poorly executed rehashings of classic material?

There have been the attempts to turn classic TV shows into current movies: George of the Jungle, Lost in Space, Bewitched and Land of the Lost have all been rendered as misguided movies that failed to deliver on even the most basic elements of entertainment, failing both as tribute and as parody in each case.

There have been the attempts to up date classic movies: Did we really need a new Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? A new King Kong? A new Planet of the Apes fer crissakes?

No, we did not - we needed none of these. As a rule, these attempts at nostalgia (which are often done with the same faux irony that programs like VH1's "I Love the 70s" have made people believe passes for wit and insight) result in cheaply done grade-Z crap that seldom has even the most minuscule bit of the original's personality and wit. They tend to be written on a lowest-common-denominator level, and are played so broadly by casts who are obviously there only to pick up a paycheck.

And now...well, now they've gone too damned far!

Now they're planning to remake The Three Stooges. Attempting to cast three new Stooges would, in itself, be an affront, but what is being planned borders on blasphemous. Are you sitting down?

How about Sean Penn as Larry Fine? Tough time picturing that? Then you'll have an even tougher time picturing Moe Howard as portrayed by Benicio del Toro. You think I'm joking, don't you? It gets worse: how about arguably the most beloved of the four "Third Stooges," Curly Howard, played by the horrifically overbearing Jim Carrey?

The announcement was made yesterday on Variety.com. Come on, people! Who greenlighted this? Who on Earth is this aimed at? Long time Stooges fans are going to be offended; those who never got the Stooges to begin with will have no need or desire to see this; kids who never saw the original Stooges will have no frame of reference for this. And could a worse cast be chosen?

Am I alone in my sorrow here? Tell me what you think - would you go see this? Would these be the three actors you would have chosen? Is there any chance whatsoever of this being a good thing?

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

AIG Executive's Public Resignation Letter

American International Group, Inc.Image via Wikipedia

Saw this over at The Consumerist (a site you really should bookmark and read regularly!) The letter, which was puiblished in the New York Times was enough to give me pause in my anger at AIG in general, though I'm not sure it swings me around to their side; the reader comments are even more interesting. Does it change your mind at all? As the poll question asks, do you feel bad for this guy? Or is he grandstanding?:

DEAR Mr. Liddy,

It is with deep regret that I submit my notice of resignation from A.I.G. Financial Products. I hope you take the time to read this entire letter. Before describing the details of my decision, I want to offer some context:

I am proud of everything I have done for the commodity and equity divisions of A.I.G.-F.P. I was in no way involved in - or responsible for - the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung A.I.G. Nor were more than a handful of the 400 current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. Most of those responsible have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage.

After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company - during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009 - we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself.

I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down.

You and I have never met or spoken to each other, so I'd like to tell you about myself. I was raised by schoolteachers working multiple jobs in a world of closing steel mills. My hard work earned me acceptance to M.I.T., and the institute's generous financial aid enabled me to attend. I had fulfilled my American dream.

I started at this company in 1998 as an equity trader, became the head of equity and commodity trading and, a couple of years before A.I.G.'s meltdown last September, was named the head of business development for commodities. Over this period the equity and commodity units were consistently profitable - in most years generating net profits of well over $100 million. Most recently, during the dismantling of A.I.G.-F.P., I was an integral player in the pending sale of its well-regarded commodity index business to UBS. As you know, business unit sales like this are crucial to A.I.G.'s effort to repay the American taxpayer.

The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my compensation. I never received any pay resulting from the credit default swaps that are now losing so much money. I did, however, like many others here, lose a significant portion of my life savings in the form of deferred compensation invested in the capital of A.I.G.-F.P. because of those losses. In this way I have personally suffered from this controversial activity - directly as well as indirectly with the rest of the taxpayers.

I have the utmost respect for the civic duty that you are now performing at A.I.G. You are as blameless for these credit default swap losses as I am. You answered your country's call and you are taking a tremendous beating for it.

But you also are aware that most of the employees of your financial products unit had nothing to do with the large losses. And I am disappointed and frustrated over your lack of support for us. I and many others in the unit feel betrayed that you failed to stand up for us in the face of untrue and unfair accusations from certain members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that you didn't defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut.

My guess is that in October, when you learned of these retention contracts, you realized that the employees of the financial products unit needed some incentive to stay and that the contracts, being both ethical and useful, should be left to stand. That's probably why A.I.G. management assured us on three occasions during that month that the company would "live up to its commitment" to honor the contract guarantees.

That may be why you decided to accelerate by three months more than a quarter of the amounts due under the contracts. That action signified to us your support, and was hardly something that one would do if he truly found the contracts "distasteful."

That may also be why you authorized the balance of the payments on March 13.

At no time during the past six months that you have been leading A.I.G. did you ask us to revise, renegotiate or break these contracts - until several hours before your appearance last week before Congress.

I think your initial decision to honor the contracts was both ethical and financially astute, but it seems to have been politically unwise. It's now apparent that you either misunderstood the agreements that you had made - tacit or otherwise - with the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, various members of Congress and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of New York, or were not strong enough to withstand the shifting political winds.

You've now asked the current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. to repay these earnings. As you can imagine, there has been a tremendous amount of serious thought and heated discussion about how we should respond to this breach of trust.

As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.

Many of the employees have, in the past six months, turned down job offers from more stable employers, based on A.I.G.'s assurances that the contracts would be honored. They are now angry about having been misled by A.I.G.'s promises and are not inclined to return the money as a favor to you.

The only real motivation that anyone at A.I.G.-F.P. now has is fear. Mr. Cuomo has threatened to "name and shame," and his counterpart in Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, has made similar threats - even though attorneys general are supposed to stand for due process, to conduct trials in courts and not the press.

So what am I to do? There's no easy answer. I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn't disagree.

That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.'s or the federal government's budget. Our earnings have caused such a distraction for so many from the more pressing issues our country faces, and I would like to see my share of it benefit those truly in need.

On March 16 I received a payment from A.I.G. amounting to $742,006.40, after taxes. In light of the uncertainty over the ultimate taxation and legal status of this payment, the actual amount I donate may be less - in fact, it may end up being far less if the recent House bill raising the tax on the retention payments to 90 percent stands. Once all the money is donated, you will immediately receive a list of all recipients.

This choice is right for me. I wish others at A.I.G.-F.P. luck finding peace with their difficult decision, and only hope their judgment is not clouded by fear.

Mr. Liddy, I wish you success in your commitment to return the money extended by the American government, and luck with the continued unwinding of the company's diverse businesses - especially those remaining credit default swaps. I'll continue over the short term to help make sure no balls are dropped, but after what's happened this past week I can't remain much longer - there is too much bad blood. I'm not sure how you will greet my resignation, but at least Attorney General Blumenthal should be relieved that I'll leave under my own power and will not need to be "shoved out the door."


Jake DeSantis

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Monday, March 23, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #3

Lene LovichLene Lovich (via last.fm)

For this week's NW4NW entry, we're back to 1979 and one of the godmothers of the New Wave scene, Lene Lovich.

For the uninitiated, Trouser Press provides the best description of Lovich's place in New Wave history in her entry on their site:

"Lene Lovich helped pave the way for female vocalists to use as many vocal eccentricities as their male counterparts, to be unafraid to play a solo instrument (Lovich's is sax), and — as important as anything else — to feel free to adopt and project personae that are obviously feminine yet not socially stereotyped."

Vocal eccentricities indeed! Lovich is famous for her occasional yelps, gulps, yodels, chirps and gurgles with which she conveys as much of the feeling of her songs as she does with her lyrics. Her longtime collaboration with husband Les Chappell (he's the bald dude in the clip) has given forth only limited fruit - her records have been few and far between - but what is there is wonderful. Her cover of Dutch band The Meteors' "It's You, Only You (Mein Schmertz)" was a standard in the early days of MTV; songs like "New Toy", "What Will I Do Without You", and "Say When" are bona fide New Wave classics.

Her grand work, though, was her first single, 1979's "Lucky Number". In this one song all the pieces of the Lene Lovich puzzle were strewn out and pieced back together: the vocal hiccups, the driving yet danceable beat, and the very visual aspect of her personality and performance. The clip is not without its humor, both intentional and unintentional. Just take a gander at the hair and clothes of the mall crowd!

So friends, here is your New Wave for the New Week for this week, Lene Lovich's "Lucky Number":

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Great Egg Debate

Easter eggs // OstereierImage via Wikipedia

Easter is just about three weeks away, but over on my Facebook page I seem to have struck a nerve with a simple question I posed about Easter candy - or, more specifically, about candy Easter eggs:

"Which are better - Cadbury Eggs or Reeses Peanut Butter Eggs?"

Should be a simple enough question, right? Wrong!

So far, the responses have been varied and passionate, and few will answer the question directly, opting instead to cast write-in ballots for another option!

First came the sub-debate regarding homemade peanut butter eggs. While the general consensus is that homemade are the very best (one person even going so far as to declare that to compare Reeses OR Cadbury to homemade would be utterly unfair), a question was raised as to whether homemade should be considered an option for this discussion as the extent of my culinary abilities was an unknown factor. Not to worry; the homemade-egg faction promised delivery of homemade eggs if my skills fell short of the mark.

(BTW, I happen to be a pretty good cook, having worked in restaurant kitchens for many years in my 20s, although by my own admission desserts are not a strong point in my culinary skillset.)

Other write-in candidates so far have been peanut butter eggs bought at a farmer's market, Cadbury's Mini-Eggs and those candy "robins eggs".

I myself muddied the waters a bit by noting that the argument was really moot, because when it comes to Easter candy all others are trumped by white chocolate bunnies - now that's REALLY going off the board for an answer!

Of the initial choices, Reeses seems to be favored. Cadbury has been making a recent surge, though, and as comments continue to be added, the race between the two main contenders is tightening.

And so I bring the debate to you, my readers. Please cast your vote in the following poll, and make your arguments or provide your supporting evidence in the comments, and we will, over the next three weeks, definitively answer the question as to the best Easter eggs in the world!

Which are the best Easter eggs?
Cadbury Eggs
Reeses Peanut Butter Eggs
homemade peanut butter eggs
Farmer's Market peanut butter eggs
Cadbury Mini-Eggs
candy robin's eggs
Doesn't matter - white chocolate bunnies beat them all
Other (describe your choice in the comments)
pollcode.com free polls

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Don't Throw Away Your Old VCR Yet!

Instead, hack it! You'll be pleasantly surprised at the treasures to be found inside:

Monday, March 16, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #2

Top o' the mornin' to ya!

St. Patrick's Day is Tuesday, so I thought it only fitting that this week's clip should come to us from the Emerald Isle. In fact, the luck of the Irish shines upon you: this week I thought I double shot was in order!

First off, the band that Trouser Press once dubbed "the best band ever to come from Northern Ireland," The Undertones. Starting with 1978's "Teenage Kicks", The Undertones put together a string of fantastic punky/power-poppy records that swiftly earned them the nickname "the Irish Ramones." While you can definitely hear that influence in their earliest material, by 1980 they had settled into a moodier, almost neo-psychedelic sound (check out 1980's "Wednesday Week" or 1981's "Beautiful Friend" to hear for yourself.) Sadly, the ride was over in 1983 when lead singer Feargal Sharkey left to pursue a solo career. The Undertones have reunited a few times in recent years for the occasional shows, but the magic of their moment is captured best where and when it started - in 1978, with "Teenage Kicks":

Now then, no St. Patrick's Day is complete around my house without a good bit o' The Pogues! Also rising out of the Irish punk scene, The Pogues (shortened from Pogue Mahone, or "kiss my ass" in Irish slang) combined the energy and attitude of the era with traditional Irish folk music. 1986's Rum, Sodomy and the Lash brought The Pogues to most people's attention, and it is simply a stunning album. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, lift a mug of green beer along with Shane MacGowan and his band (who, in this clip, looks as though he's had more than a few - it's one of the most classic examples of drunken lip-syncing you'll ever see!) and sing along with "Sally MacLennane"

Again, if you have suggestions for clips for future installments of NW4NW, please let me know in the comments. For now, a Happy St. Patrick's Day to you all, and may you be half an hour in heaven before the Devil knows you're dead!

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

And Here I Thought We Had an April 15 Deadline...

This one'll leave you with jaw agape, I'm sure -- it certainly left me staring blankly at my screen.

No wonder the Democrats don't understand why hard working people get upset to learn that their tax money is being spent frivolously or "redistributed" to those who refuse to contribute to society in any meaningful way. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D - NV) explains here that, in the United States, taxes are VOLUNTARY!

"Now who can argue with that? I think we are all indebted to Gabby Johnson here for clearly stating what had to be said. And I'm glad the children were here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish...but it expressed a courage that is little seen in this day and age."

- David Huddleston as Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Update: The Steve LeVeille Broadcast

Ben Goodman, the force behind the immensely successful Bring Back Steve LeVeille campaign launched in January in response to WBZ's decision to lay off LeVeille and replace his overnight program with a syndicated one, will be live in the studio during tonight's Broadcast.

Goodman isn't certain whether he'll be on air or not (knowing LeVeille, my bet is "yes"), but he received the invite when he called in during LeVeille's first night back on the air.

For all of you who supported the effort to bring Steve back to WBZ's airwaves, and for those who just may have been interested in passing by the pieces I wrote on this blog here and here, tune in tonight to WBZ 1030 AM, or listen to live streaming of the broadcast on WBZ's website, tonight from midnight to 5:00. You just may hear the voice of the fellow who started the wave!

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The Cost of Being "Nice"

Bottles of KahlĂșa photographed with a Canon Po...Image via Wikipedia

No sooner do I put up a post declaring that nothing has caught my eye or ear to rant about lately than, sure enough, Stupidity pops its ugly head out of its hole and yells "Hey Bryan...over here!"

Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board announced that this month it will begin a campaign to train the state's 4000+ State Store employees in the art of common courtesy. Basically, how to be nice to customers.

For those of you who live in states that do not have the bizarre and outdated alcohol laws that we have here in good ol' PA, the State Store is the only place where you can purchase wine and liquor. Let me stress: the ONLY place. It is, in essence, a government-imposed monopoly. Apparently, state-wide, the feeling of those people who work behind the registers at these State Stores is "Why should I have to act humanly towards these people? It's not like they can take their business elsewhere!"

As a part of what the LCB's chief executive Joe Conti calls "...the renaissance of the Liquor Control Board," an effort needs to be made to correct this perceived behavior. Hence, a training program focusing on how to pleasantly greet a customer, perhaps help with the customer's purchase, and how to thank the customer and invite him back after the transaction is complete.

You know: manners. The stuff your parents should have taught you when you were a child.

Now, I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of teaching those in any service-oriented job the importance of being polite and helpful to the customer. It seems, sadly, that basic customer service is swiftly going the way of the dinosaur; customer service that goes above and beyond to help with a purchase or answer questions is rarer still. More than one pundit has declared recently that those businesses which begin practicing stronger customer service are the ones most likely to survive and perhaps thrive in this tough economic world.

I should also point out that, in my dealings with State Store employees over the years, I have never run into a clerk who was less than pleasant. Where these rudely grunting oafs of employees who need to be retrained are I don't know. If we're going to teach anyone how to better treat the customer, it should be the nation's grocery store checkout folks. "Lesson one: Don't chomp your gum while scanning my produce. Lesson two: I'm right in front of you. Don't yell over my head to the next checkout person about how hard you partied last night..."

But, for whatever reason, the State feels this is necessary. OK. So how hard can this be? Maybe a day-long seminar with a morning lesson and afternoon role-playing, run on location by each store's manager?

No. To do this, the state of Pennsylvania feels it necessary to hire an outside consulting firm, the Pittsburgh-based Solutions 21, to spend the next year (!) facilitating this training at a cost of over $170,000 dollars.

Let me repeat that: A full year at more than $170,000 to teach people to say "Hello," "May I help you?" and "Thank you, please stop by again!" with a smile on their face.

And it gets better: The president of Solutions 21, the consulting company hired at this unreal rate to perform this virtually unnecessary training? Married to the LCB's Pittsburgh area regional manager. Of course, they see "no conflict of interest" in this arrangement.

Let me make this offer to Governor Rendell: I'll save the state thousands of dollars right now. I don't even ask for reimbursement at all - it's this simple: print out the announcement I've written below and pass it out to all state store employees.

Attention all PA State Store Employees - new procedures in effect immediately!

1. When a customer enters the store, smile and say "Hello!"

2. If the customer appears to be struggling with his choice of beverage, offer to help by smiling and saying "May I help you find something?"

3. If a customer asks a question, smile and answer it to the best of your ability.

4. After concluding the transaction with the customer, smile and say "Thank you for your business. Please stop by again!"

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Favorite Five Comedy Routines

There are some comedy routines that you hear once and they're funny, but they just don't hold up well upon repeated hearings. And then there are those that leave you in tears laughing again and again no matter how many times you hear them. You might even know the routine by heart, be able to recite it word for word, and you still double over in hysterics when you hear it. That's what this list is about. These are my favorite five. Let's do this countdown style, shall we?

#5 - Rowan Atkinson's Amazing Jesus
British humor seems to either strike me as utterly unfunny or utterly hysterical. Seldom do I find any middle ground - must be a cultural thing. Nonetheless, Atkinson is one Brit who never fails to leave me laughing, whether he's doing his slapstick Mr. Bean shtick or doing something a bit more cerebral, like this.

#4 - Andy Kaufman's Old MacDonald
Ah, the Genius himself. Kaufman is one of my favorite comedians of all time, and the very fact that most people didn't "get" what he was doing is sad. He was (and probably still is) way ahead of most other comedians, essentially doing meta-comedy (the comedy itself is often the butt of the joke). I almost went with the classic Mighty Mouse routine, but this one actually builds on that premise by involving audience participation...even if they had no idea what they were participating in until it happened!

#3 - Larry Miller's Five Stages of Drinking
The best comedy is always rooted firmly in truth, and (to be cliched) in holding a mirror up to ourselves when we are at our worst. Hence Miller's classic routine - we've all either been there or seen many a person who has.

#2 - Groucho and Chico Marx's Contract Scene from A Night at the Opera
Hard to top the Marx Brothers when it comes to funny. This particular bit is a classic piece of silliness and punnery. Pay attention to the apparent throw-away lines: Groucho saying "You must've been out on a tear last night" when he does is so perfectly timed.

#1 - Bob and Ray's Slow Talker
Absolutely the funnniest bit I have ever heard. The characters here are so perfectly portrayed, and even though you'll know what's coming from the halfway mark on, it's brilliantly funny. You know the frustration of dealing with someone so oblivious to the obvious, and therein lies the hilarity.

All right, gang, those my faves. What are yours?

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

New Wave for the New Week

PlasticsPlastics (via last.fm)

Happy Monday, everyone. Sorry to go through another posting dryspell - nothing is catching my eye or ear to rant about lately. But, I don't want to leave you unentertained, so I have come up with a few regular features to begin debuting on the blog. This is the first of them: New Wave for the New Week will be a regular Monday feature, where I will dig up some long-forgotten new wave video clip to help get your week started out on a good note. Suggestions/requests are welcomed - leave them in the comments, and I'll see what I can do.

The clip I've chosen for the first post of this series is a bit of a rarity. The only place I have ever seen the Plastics' video clip for Top Secret Man was on the old and fondly remembered SCTV; indeed, the clip you see here is cut from that show (hence the very un-PC opening bit). The video and song are from 1979, the very height of the New-Wave era.

The Plastics' two Japanese albums, 1979's Welcome Plastics and 1980's Origato Plastico are leaps and bounds better than the watered down American release Plastics (also known as Welcome Back), where the key songs from the original LPs were actually rerecorded to better suit "American musical palettes." While this may have resulted in slicker production, the quirkiness and angular DIY feel of the original recordings was lost, along with much of their personality. All three are worth picking up if you can find them, though. They have all been issued on CD, but have gone out of print and now fetch a pretty penny on Amazon.com.

The clip used the original Japanese version of the song. It is obviously dated, using early video techniques, but that is a large part of its charm. You'll hear echoes of The B-52s, Devo and Suburban Lawns here, so if you like that sound, this will be right up your alley. The darn thing just makes me smile, which is why I picked it.

So, without further delay, here is your New Wave for the New Week: Top Secret Man by The Plastics:

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