28 June 2009

This Week in Awesome (6/28/09)

Damn, I almost forgot again. It's not like I've been so incredibly busy; we went grocery shopping, and when we came back I put out the trash and recycling, then I had dinner and watched some TV... and here we are.

Regardless, let's go. We're all over the place this week. First, an artsy-craftsy person got hold of a stash of unused auto upholstery from the 1970s and is using it to make some pretty bitchin' handbags.

I guess the folks at Consumerist were getting a little hungry, because they started talking about ways to get your entire day's worth of calories in one meal. But I don't think they mean for you to really do it.

Weird products: at first it seems that this video couldn't possibly be real, but it's just too bizarre to be fake. The web site it's from contains a second video for a slightly more specific part of the target audience. But really, who thinks of this stuff? Somehow I suspect it wasn't a woman.

And finally, our old friend Fake Steve Jobs resurfaced this week, first to talk about his new liver, then to post this curiously touching tribute to the celebrities who passed this week.

25 June 2009

Driving While Stupid

Every single one of you should go have a look at this article over at Car and Driver magazine's site. (Well, maybe not you, PB, because like me, you don't drive.) They devised a test to compare driving while drunk to driving while reading and sending text messages. Interesting results, to say the least.

Since our society is apparently too self-absorbed and stupid to realize just how dangerous this is (and people who do it will likely end up hurting or killing an innocent person while emerging unscathed but just as self-absorbed and stupid), I really wish some state government had the balls to pass a law making this behavior punishable by something like 90 days in jail and a $5000 fine. (While we're at it, I'm sure drunk driving laws could stand to be strengthened in most places.)

23 June 2009

Beer Me, Marge

Over the weekend I attended the American Craft Beer Festival. I was fortunate enough to go as the guest of my friend Sandi, who covers food and drink as Boston Restaurant Examiner. Along with a couple thousand other beer enthusiasts, we filed into the World Trade Center on Saturday afternoon and received our two-ounce plastic tasting vessels.

Actually, they held about four ounces, but there was a two-ounce line marked on them where the breweries were supposed to stop pouring. With unlimited tastings available over the course of three and a half hours (depending on how many times you were willing to stand in line), watching one's overall consumption was a good idea. I also ate a big sandwich beforehand, which helped to absorb some of the beer's effect.

Nearly 80 breweries were in attendance, and nearly 30% of those were Massachusetts companies, which isn't terribly surprising. Other states with strong representation were California, New York, Maine, and Colorado. Given the size of the crowd and its inevitable intoxication, everyone was relaxed and genial; there was no jostling while waiting in line, and periodically someone would initiate a mass toast, resulting in raised arms and a whoop that passed through the crowd like the wave at a ballgame.

Due to the size of the crowd (to say nothing of the body's alcohol tolerance), it was impossible to visit every booth, and equally impossible to try every beer offered at a given booth. Inevitably I missed a few beers I'd wanted to try, but I still found a few choice ones. Bear Republic from Sonoma County, CA makes a mean IPA called Racer 5, as well as other interesting brews. Ommegang, from near Cooperstown, NY, works in Belgian styles, normally not my favorite, but their Witte was subtle and citrusy, and almost didn't taste like beer. Rogue of Oregon is known for its Dead Guy Ale, but its Shakespeare Stout was wonderfully rich and complex.

Probably my favorite of the beers I tried was Sword Swallower Steel Hop Lager from a line called Coney Island Craft Lagers, which is brewed by the people who make He'Brew, The Chosen Beer. The beers are really interesting, and the labels are colorful and evocative of Coney Island's storied history. I'll be picking up some 22-ounce bottles of this one at my local "packie," and from looking at the brewery's events calendar, it looks like they make fairly regular tasting appearances at Boston-area bars and liquor stores, so you too may have a chance to try it soon.

America may no longer be the industrial behemoth it once was, but craft brewing is thriving, and it's obvious from meeting various brewery representatives that they put a great deal of passion and desire for excellence into their work.

22 June 2009

This Week in Awesome (6/21/09)

A belated Happy Father's Day to all of you dads out there. And it's a belated TWIA as well, because (a) I was visiting my own dad yesterday, and simply forgot about it when I got home, and (b) I was a little light on content this week. But never fear, the awesome is here...

Supposedly the creator of this colorful bit of roadside art was arrested for his creation. You'd think the highway department would have hired the guy to be its PR liaison, or something. (Jalopnik)

Way, way back in the paleolithic era of television (otherwise known as the 1950s), Jim Henson's Muppets were eking out a showbiz living as advertising spokespuppets (one of them looks a lot like a proto-Kermit). These ads are seriously strange, in a wonderfully twisted way. Just try to imagine a company wanting to run ads like these today. (TV Squad)

The new season of Top Gear premiered last night in the UK. For those of you who don't know, Top Gear is a BBC show about cars that's really more about being ridiculously entertaining than anything else. The Mrs., whose interest in cars covers only that her own car is safe and has gas in the tank, thinks it's terrific. I guarantee you you'll find it far more satisfying than any ludicrous "reality" trash. If your cable or satellite company has the BBC America channel, you can find Top Gear on almost as often as Law & Order reruns are on TNT, USA, Bravo, etc. Anyway, BBC did a couple of cute promo spots for the new season, with boys representing younger versions of the three hosts. (The one in the helmet is their test driver.) (BBC via YouTube)

19 June 2009

Another Close Shave

Recently I started noticing that drug stores were no longer carrying my trusted Schick razor, and some of them stopped carrying replacement blade cartridges. I was in need of a new razor handle anyway, so I thought it might be time to revisit the razor question.

I still don't want to use Gillette products, because in my past experience they have gotten dull much too quickly, and I just can't get past the notion that they might be doing that on purpose. (I even keep my razor in a solution called RazorGuard that purports to prolong the life of blades, but with Gillette blades it makes no difference.)

I came across a reference to a Waltham, MA-based company called Preserve that is manufacturing razor handles and toothbrushes out of materials like recycled yogurt containers. I decided to try out the razor, and picked one up at Whole Foods. I wanted to like it, but I could barely get two mediocre shaves out of one blade cartridge. I'm hoping they'll keep trying and will find a way to improve their blades.

My next thought was to go back to Schick and try the Quattro, the four-blade razor that is gradually edging my three-blade out of existence. It was better than the Preserve, but I still wasn't wild about it. I found the solution at BJ's. They're still carrying my preferred razor; in fact, they had so many that I wondered if maybe that's why I can't find it anywhere else. Each package contains a handle and twelve cartridges. Since I only shave a couple of times a week, that will last me a year or so, for $13. Maybe I should buy two, just in case...

16 June 2009

El Pollo Local

Last night while watching a Family Guy rerun on TBS, we saw a commercial for the fast-food chicken place El Pollo Loco. I've never had it, but The Mrs. grew up in southern California and has fond memories of it.

Commercials for stuff we don't have around here are nothing new (Sonic comes to mind, though they are scheduled to open on route 1 in Saugus in a couple of months), but neither of us remembered seeing commercials for El Pollo Loco before, and this commercial said "come visit us on Revere Beach Parkway in Chelsea." It seems it was a locally produced ad, and for now there's only the one location, though apparently Tewksbury is getting one soon. Let's hear it for franchsing. Anyway, the Mrs. immediately said that we needed to go eat there tonight, and who am I to argue with such things?

The restaurant is in a newly built plaza adjacent to route 16 just before the Revere line, so unfortunately it's not exactly T accessible. They have quite a large and varied menu (though if you're not into chicken I suppose you're out of luck), with sandwiches, salads, and burritos in addition to the "flame-grilled" chicken, and even the decor is much nicer than a typical chain fast-food place. And if you order your food to eat there, someone brings it to you at your table.

The Mrs. opted for a traditional two-piece chicken meal with sides of refried beans and rice. I went for the chicken tostada bowl, which had pinto beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo, and sour cream, and came with a side of creamy cilantro dressing. Yuh-hun. All their chicken is marinated in a blend of spices and citrus, making it moist and very tasty. Everything is really fresh, nothing tastes artificial or processed. And yes, I ate the tostada bowl. In fact, I broke it up into pieces and dipped them in the dressing.

I would definitely rank El Pollo Loco miles above the swill served at Taco Bell, and I would also choose them over Qdoba (where I've always been made to feel like they're doing me a favor by serving me). I'm already looking forward to our next visit.

14 June 2009

This Week in Awesome (6/14/09)

I didn't forget, but I am thinking of posting these on Saturdays instead of Sundays, so visitors might have more time to check them out during the weekend.

What was the best-selling car in the United States in 2008? The answer may surprise you. (Autoblog)

Here's a cool little video making clever use of sticky notes, that was done as an art school project. (Dvice)

Another product of dubious usefulness, but with an awesomely bad commercial. (Consumerist)

Shopping Tips

In my ongoing mission to help you spend your money wisely, I feel compelled to pass along info about noteworthy sales and discounts. If you or a male person you know is in need of anything along the lines of inexpensive basic clothing, you might want to head to the nearest Old Navy store between now and Father's Day (which is next Sunday, in case you needed reminding) because all men's clothing is 50% off. Yeah, all of it. I picked up some more T-shirts (for $4 each), but there are also khakis for $15, polo shirts for $7.50, and so on.

I probably should have mentioned this one earlier, but Lord & Taylor is having a "friends and family" sale (which means you have to sign up to receive their emails) through Sunday June 14th. Bring the coupon in the email you'll receive and get 25% off all regular and sale prices. Their typical bonus coupon discount is 15%, so this is a decent deal and they only offer it a couple of times a year. What makes this offer better is that they are also taking 10% off cosmetics and fragrances, which is almost unheard of. Better move fast, though.

Now, an unrelated story: today, in the course of our typical weekend errands, we went to a Target in Woburn, where I've been a few times but where we don't go regularly. As soon as I walked in I knew something was up, because there were lamp shades directly ahead of me, where the men's department usually is. After walking around for a couple of minutes it became obvious that the store is in the midst of a rather extensive remodel. Nonetheless, I overheard a fairly exasperated woman berating a staff person: "I can't find anything! Nothing is where it's supposed to be."

And of course, being me, I immediately thought, is it not obvious to you this is because they're in the process of redoing the whole goddamn store while keeping it open for ungrateful pinhead wretches like you? I think it's highly possible that woman is also one of the thousands of people who woke up today and couldn't figure out why all her TV channels had turned to static.

11 June 2009

The High-Low, Part 2

A lot of the clothing I've bought in the past few months has come from eBay, which is kind of like a giant online thrift store or rummage sale. There are thousands of bargains just waiting to be discovered, and some of them are fixed-price listings, so you don't even have to wait around for an auction to end and worry about bidding. Some auctions also have a "make an offer" option that effectively allows you to haggle with the seller, and can lead to some unexpected deals.

This method of shopping can be time-consuming (I tend to browse during my lunch hour), but eBay gives you the tools to save specific searches, which makes it easier to keep track of new listings in categories you're interested in (for example, you can set up a search for V-neck cashmere sweaters in only certain colors or from specific brands). And many people are offering free shipping these days, or building it into their selling prices, making some items an ever better deal.

Obviously, with any online clothing purchase, sizing is crucial. Brands you already own or are familiar with are safer, certain items tend to have more consistent sizing than others, and sellers should provide thorough size info and measurements. However, lot of people just toss auction listings on eBay without putting a lot of thought or effort into them. Sometimes that's okay, but with clothing, photos and descriptions are very important, and should match. Make sure if a seller says an item is NWT (new with tags), the photos do in fact show the tags.

Look over everything carefully, and figure out what information the seller might have neglected to include. If you need to know something that's not in the description, send a polite email, ask your question as clearly as possible, and try to be considerate: don't ask a question 45 minutes before an auction ends and be upset if the seller doesn't respond to you in time. Believe it or not, not everyone has round-the-clock access to their email.

Also, in my own experience, even if the seller claims the item comes from a smoke-free, pet-free home, there's a decent chance it will arrive smelling of something, so be prepared to launder it or hang it outside for a few hours, or both. I have one shirt I bought on eBay that still smells faintly of an extremely strong laundry detergent, even after several months and numerous washes using our own fragrance-free detergent.

A few months ago I saw a red and white striped Tommy Hilfiger shirt in a store, but when I went back to look at it again it was already gone. I decided to take a quick look on eBay and found it NWT for $10. (For those of you who might not have noticed, Tommy has toned down the branding quite a bit recently, and this shirt has only a tiny embroidered flag logo on the left sleeve placket, which is unobtrusive enough for me.)

Sometimes I search for specific items, but I've also stumbled across things while not actively looking for them. Cargo shorts are kind of necessary in summer, when you don't have coat pockets but you need to carry your phone, sunglass case, and assorted other stuff (I usually carry that stuff to work with me in a messenger-style bag, but I like to give myself weekends off from carrying it). Eight or nine years back, Ralph Lauren made some really nice cargo shorts (before cargos got all crazy-looking and huge, with all the drawstrings and zippers and crap). They had plain, flat side pockets with no pleats or gussets, set-in back pockets with no flaps, and a very small, subtle label above the back pocket.

I had a pair of these that I got at the late, lamented Filene's Basement downtown store, and I loved them dearly, because they fit well and were appropriately mature-looking. But my waistline expanded and I could no longer fit into them. Last week I came across a pair of these shorts in my current size. There were four bids, but mine was the highest; I got them for $13.50, certainly less than I'd pay for a decent pair of shorts elsewhere.

Other good recent finds: cashmere sweaters for $20, two corduroy sportcoats (one was $16, the other was $10), a bright pink Ralph Lauren shirt with a pocket (always harder to find than the ones with horses) for $9, Banana Republic khakis for $8, and my favorite deal of the past six months or so, a J. Crew suede sportcoat for $22. A great deal of this stuff was worn by someone a couple of times at most, then hung in a closet for a couple of years before being put up for auction or sale.

Of course, not every purchase is a success. A few weeks ago I thought I'd lucked out when I found a listing for off-white L.L. Bean jeans in my size. Bean stopped making these a few years back, right before I started looking for them. The starting bid was only 99 cents, so I added the auction to my watch list and waited. Several days later there were still no bids. I ended up being the only bidder, so I got them for a buck plus shipping. When they arrived, they fit great but were about an inch too short, and it was my own fault because I never asked for actual measurements. Just because the seller says "the tag reads 36 x 32" doesn't mean those are the actual measurements, especially on items that are a few years old and have been through the wash a number of times.

One other thing you notice shopping on eBay is that a lot of sellers have a seriously overinflated idea of what their items are worth. This can sometimes be amusing, but more often it's annoying, especially when it's something you've been searching for that happens to be scarce. Just because an item sold for $150 new doesn't mean it's worth $150, or even half that much, three or four seasons later. And if it's a current-season item, then a seller probably ought to know what it's currently selling for elsewhere; those $80 pants someone is trying to sell for $60 may have already been marked down by 50 percent or more out in the stores. As a consumer, you need to do a bit of homework so that you know the cost of an item, the current value of that item (not necessarily the same thing), and what it's worth to you.

10 June 2009

The High-Low

I've been on one of my periodic clothing acquisition sprees, though not really so much specifically for summer items, since I have more than enough polo shirts and shorts to cover work and weekends. I did pick up a very nice pair of white jeans at Target, of all places. I've been looking for a pair of off-white jeans for several years, and while these were described as "ecru" on the tag, they're closer to white, which I guess will have to suffice.

The fabric is of an appropriate summer weight, the cut is relaxed (I had a bad experience two years ago with some off-white jeans from Uniqlo that unfortunately were way too snug and low-waisted), and they are better made than you might expect (in Egypt, interestingly), all for only $25. If they had a Gap label they'd be at least twice that, and I've seen similar stuff going for as much as $100 (I don't know anyone who pays a Franklin for jeans, but I guess some people do).

I also ordered a pair of Born fisherman sandals from the REI outlet site, which has some decent deals. If you are not in a big hurry and there's an REI store close to you, you can have your order shipped to the store for free and pick it up; mine took just over a week. The sandals are too big (this often happens when footwear comes only in whole sizes) but I went back on the site and the sandals are still available, plus they are now offering an extra 20% off one outlet item, so I just ordered another pair in the smaller size, and I'll return the first pair and end up saving more.

Beyond that, I've been experimenting with shopping some new sources. A couple of months ago I saw something online about web sites that offer an online equivalent of the sample sales that take place all the time in New York. Coincidentally, that same day the Boston Globe ran a piece about the same sites. I decided this was a sign that I needed to check them out. The two biggest are Gilt and RueLaLa (the latter is part of the locally-based SmartBargains group, where I briefly worked a few years back).

Each day I receive emails telling me what is going on sale that day, and each sale lasts a couple of days. The discounts off original retail prices are significant, but prices can still be pretty steep, depending on how ridiculous the starting prices were. One thing to consider about pricey designer clothing is that regardless of where you buy it or how much you end up paying, you should expect high quality of materials and construction; if you buy something and are not satisfied with it, these sample sites do allow returns, but only for site credit.

Of the two sites, Gilt has more men's merchandise, but in both cases much of it is more trendy or fashion-forward than my tastes. I have yet to buy anything from either site; however, these sites do offer an opportunity to get a look at clothing from labels I'm not familiar with or might not otherwise be exposed to, and some of it is worthwhile.

For example, Rag & Bone is sold at stores like Barneys, where I rarely venture, but the clothes are tasteful and low-key, and the whole line appears to be made in the United States. If I find the right item at the right price, I wouldn't hesitate to buy it. And I've learned about a guy named Billy Reid. The only thing that kept me from buying one of his shirts off Gilt was some funky contrast stitching that was a little too noticeable, but I liked his clothes in general, and most of them seem to be made in Italy. He has a store in New York, and last week they threw a party to celebrate the opening of another store in his hometown in Alabama: any place that gives out free fried chicken, bourbon, and beer is worth considering as a place to shop.

07 June 2009

This Week in Awesome (6/7/09)

Let's see, what sort of awesome did the internet fairies bring us this week?

You may have heard about the band Weezer endorsing its own version of the Snuggie. I tried to think of it as analagous to when high-end designers do collaborations with mass-market stores like Target or H&M. Then I remembered that I don't really care about Weezer either way. (Consumerist)

Now that summer is more or less upon us, sometimes you come across a person who chooses to disregard the typical way of dressing for the season. This site has lots of them. (Racked)

80s TV, as those of us who were around to watch it can tell you, is an endless source of amusement. This is another of those videos that someone really put a lot of work into. For extra fun, the second clip shows a side-by-side comparison with its original source. One caveat though: if you watch with the sound on, you run the risk of having a theme song embedded in your brain all day. (TV Squad)

And if you really have some time on your hands, there's this advice column on boston.com. I don't make a habit of reading it, and it's a bit out of the range of my usual stuff here, but the other day Universal Hub linked to someone who linked to a discussion that was going on about whether or not a partner's distaste for a certain intimate act was reason enough not to marry that person.

Because it's a family newspaper/web site, the moderator substituted an amusing euphemism for the act in question, making for a particularly surreal round of commentary as this euphemism grew and took on a life of its own. Let's just say you may not look at a certain food item the same way after reading it. Also, there are a couple hundred comments by now, so if you don't want to get wrapped up in this all day, I suggest skimming them.

06 June 2009

How's Your Weekend Going?

Hey, you know what's really fun? When your hot water heater decides to take a leak all over your basement floor, and you haven't even gotten to take a shower yet. Yeah, lotta fun.

Being renters, a call to the landlord was the first order of business. He's already been through this once, since the water heater for the upstairs unit gave out a couple of years ago. He's hoping he can get the same guy to come back and take care of ours, but it's probably not going to happen until Monday morning, because plumbers tend to charge extra when they are called to work on a weekend. That's understandable, but it does make things a bit more inconvenient for us.

The hygiene issues were addressed with the equivalent of a sponge bath, using water heated on the stove. Wow, it's like living in the old West, or something. Hopefully this will be resolved soon.

04 June 2009

Get Burned

Tonight is the welcome return of one of television's most enjoyable hours of pure escapism: Burn Notice revs up its third season on USA (at 9 PM Eastern time). If you are not familiar with the show, it's a perfect summer blend of Alias (spies, personas, disguises), MacGyver (improvised gadgetry), and The Equalizer (helping people in need who can't always go through normal channels), stirred with a dash of romantic tension, lightened with a touch of humor, and aided and abetted by a series of gorgeous, authentic Miami locales (you do realize that CSI: Miami is not actually filmed in Miami, right?).

Former spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) has been cut off by his shadowy employers (the title refers to the spy world's equivalent of a pink slip) and left in his former home town without ID or means of support. Gradually Michael has found his way by acting as a sort of unlicensed private eye, bodyguard, occasional mercenary, or whatever gig will get him paid without crossing the lines of his moral code. The mystery of who had Michael burned, and why, was a thread running through the first two seasons, but took a background role to his weekly adventures.

Ladies like the show because Michael is easy on the eyes, he's a snappy dresser, is loyal to his friends, and looks out for his mother Madeline ('80s TV icon Sharon Gless). Guys like the show because Michael's primary partner in crime, ex-IRA operative Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), is equally easy on the eyes, because Michael has a cool vintage Dodge Charger, there's lots of action and, on average, something gets blown up (usually by Fiona) about every other episode. Michael also has the assistance of Sam Axe (the great Bruce Campbell), a former military man whom he worked with many times in his former life.

Really, what more could you ask for from summer TV? It's all here. If you're looking to sit down at the end of your day and be entertained, this is a show to check out.

01 June 2009

False Alarm

Around 11:30 last night, as I was loading the dishwasher and getting ready to go to bed, the smoke alarms went off. I say "alarms" because the house has a hard-wired system (as opposed to ones that run on batteries) with detectors on each floor, including the basement and the attic. If one goes off, they all go off.

These alarms are frighteningly, ear-piercingly loud. I sleep quite soundly knowing that if there is ever an actual fire, we will all get out safely. But when they do go off, as they did one other time, it's so loud it's literally painful. The dog came into the kitchen, whining because of the noise. The Mrs. had been asleep, but she scurried out of bed, grabbed the dog's leash and the dog, and headed outside. Not for a moment did I think there was a fire; I was more concerned about what did set off the alarms.

I quickly checked the stairs heading down to the basement: no smoke, but I caught a whiff of what I thought was a toaster oven type of smell from the upstairs apartment. I was on my way outside when the alarm stopped. A moment later it started again, then stopped after a few seconds. We went back in the house, and a minute later there was a knock at the back kitchen door. One of the upstairs neighbors wanted to know if everything was okay. I mentioned the smell, and he said, "Oh yeah, I had the oven on its cleaning cycle. Do you think that could have set off the alarm?"

I suppressed the urge to say something mean, and suggested that in the future he might want to make sure he opened a window before running that cycle. The dog settled back down, the Mrs. went back to bed, and I followed soon after.