Friday, July 24, 2009

Wilco (the blogpost)

I have been listening to Wilco's new album so I picked some of my favorite Wilco songs for my first playlist. There are so many great songs I left out but here are the ones I picked in order of posting date (plays in reverse order):

1. Casino Queen from A.M. [1995]
2. Misunderstood from Being There [1996]
3. Outtasite (Outta Mind) from Being There [1996]
4. Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again) from Summerteeth [1999]
5. ELT from Summerteeth [1999]
6. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [2002]
7. Hummingbird from A Ghost is Born [2004]
8. Impossible Germany from Sky Blue Sky [2007]
9. Wilco (the song) - Wilco (the album) [2009]

To recap from a previous post, "Each weekday I am going to try to add one song and then on Friday, I will post the playlist". The songs will play in an embedded playlist.

Also watch the awesome 4 minute Nels Cline guitar solo on Impossible Germany. Enjoy!

Monday, July 20, 2009

New Music Feature

I added 1 song a few weeks ago as a test but as of today, I am officialy adding a playlist feature to the blog using Tumblr and streampad. Clicking on the bar at the bottom of the blog will start playing music (set to auto play right now). You can also pull up the playlist to change the song playing. Each weekday I am going to try to add one song and then on Friday, I will post the playlist and maybe make a few comments about the music. The music added each week could be random based on what I am listening to or have a theme (birth of rock, artist, etc.)

Wilco released a quality album a few weeks ago, Wilco (The Album), so to highlight their past work, each day this week I will add songs from a record or two beginning with A.M., their first record after the break up of Uncle Tupelo. A.M. is more straight alt-country than most of Wilco's other work but still a fairly solid record. Enjoy!


Last week I saw Food Inc., a new documentary examining America’s food system (hopefully I’ll have a review up at some point). For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in food which has gradually translated into being interested in food policy. I’ve been thinking about it for a while but after viewing Food Inc., I’ve officially decided to start writing about food. I am planning on including posts examining policy, farm practices, and how I eat (first, open my mouth. sorry) among other topics. I wrote restaurant reviews for my college paper so I’m hoping to include a few of those as well. My first post is a brief overview of several food labels.

The last few years, it seems US consumers have reached the peak of accepting foods just because it is on the grocery store shelf, tastes decent, and is cheap. This includes processed foods that have a laundry list of unrecognizable ingredients and milk from cows treated with rBST. Recognition of the trend is exemplified by Haagen-Dazs (owned by Nestle). They recently released a new line of ice cream called “five” meant to highlight that the ice cream only contains five ingredients. The ingredients in “five” are the same as the equivalent flavor in the original Hageen-Dazs product line.

This is a good trend but as more people start caring about what they put into their body, trips to the grocery store are getting more complicated as a larger number of food manufacturers adopt labeling meant to convince potential customers of the products health benefits (or at least lack of detriment). To make things more complicated it is slowly becoming popular to actually care about the conditions animals were raised in. Imagine that! Now walking through most markets, not just Whole Foods, I see terms such as free range, grass fed, cage free, organic, and biodynamic. What do each of these terms mean? Keep reading.

Free range
Free range is used for all animal products but only claims on free range chicken are regulated by the USDA. Eggs are not regulated, just chickens. According to Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, “USDA considers five minutes of open-air access each day to be adequate for it to approve use of the free range claim on a poultry product.” Free range does not mean chickens are raised on grass. Open air access could very well mean gravel or concrete. Further, free-range has nothing to do with the chickens’ diet or housing conditions. The EU and UK have specific requirements for the number of chickens per hectacre while the US does not. Without knowing more about the producer, I will not pay extra for free range chicken.

Cage free
Caged laying hens are usually kept in spaces so small that it is impossible to stretch their wings. It is a cruel life which is certainly not healthy for the bird nor do caged birds produce great eggs. Cage free birds live in a better environment than caged ones but the difference is not always as large as you might think. Unlike the EU, the United States has no space requirement for cage free birds (surprise, surprise). Cage free birds do not have outdoor access or feed requirements. A good indication of the environment cage free chickens live in is the color of the egg yolk. If you buy cage free eggs and the yolk is the same color as regular eggs, find a different brand. Quality eggs from chickens that are allowed outdoors should be a deep yellow/orange.

Grass fed
Grass fed claims refer to ruminant animals. USDA verified grass fed ruminants must be fed 100% grass fed. This includes cereal grain crops in their vegetative (pre-grain) state. Be sure to look for the “USDA Process Verified” symbol (see below). According to Consumers Union,

Prior to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's (AMS) 100% grass-fed standard, grass-fed claims were overseen by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), but there were no standards and no independent verification, although FSIS has the ability to verify grass-fed claims through the Office of Field Operations or the Office of Program Evaluation and Review. According to the USDA, grass-fed claims that were approved by the FSIS prior to the AMS standards will be grandfathered in. That means FSIS will retain oversight of those claims and they do not have to meet the 100% grass-fed standards. However, all new submissions to FSIS for a grass-fed claim must meet the AMS standards.

There are three organic definitions recognized by the USDA. They are “100% organic”, “organic”, and “made with organic ingredients. From the USDA website:

Products labeled as “100 percent organic” must contain (excluding water and salt)only organically produced ingredients and processing aids.

Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).

Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel. For example, soup made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients and only organic vegetables may be labeled either “soup made with organic peas, potatoes, and carrots,” or “soup made with organic vegetables.”

Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are banned in organic production except for a small number approved by the National Organic Standards Board. GMOs are banned in organic production. For livestock to be certified organic, they must be fed 100% organic feed, have access to pasture, and cannot be given antibiotics (vaccinations are ok). There is some controversy over the access to pasture requirements. The rules for organic livestock released in 2002 with respect to access to pasture were very broad which led organic activists to complain that large scale organic livestock operations are able to find ways to provide very little if any true access to pasture. It appears though that the rules are about to become more clearly spelled out if a draft rule introduced in late 2008 is made official. Overall, organic is a highly meaningful certification though there is heavy pressure from food conglomerates to reduce organic standards. The Washington Post had a good article recently addressing some concern entitled “Purity of Federal ‘Organic’ Label is Questioned”.

Biodynamic agriculture is derived from a series of lecturers delivered in Germany by Rudolf Steiner (inspiration for Waldorf schools) in 1924. According to Wikipedia, “biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a closed, self-nourishing system.” Biodynamic agriculture is not recognized by the USDA but it is certified by Demeter, a respected certification agent classified by Consumers Union as highly meaningful. Some of the practices of biodynamic agriculture seem way out there but I do like the focus on a closed system.

I hope the above was a helpful, fairly quick review of labeling standards. Go check out Food Inc.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Movie Review - The Hangover

In the movie business, summertime means a proliferation of big budget action flicks and to my delight, comedies. Most of the good comedies are saved for summer release though more and more it seems studios are releasing a few in March and April. This year has already seen “Adventureland”, “Observe and Report”, and “I Love You, Man”.

“The Hangover” is the latest comedic release. It has been getting positive reviews so I took the first opportunity I had to go see the movie. People I talked to gave glowing reviews so maybe I expected too much but I must say, the movie was a letdown. I do think the plot is a creative spin on the typical Vegas/bachelor party movie and the movie is well structured. The basic premise is that four friends, Doug (Justin Bartha; getting married), Phil (Bradley Cooper; frat boy friend), Stu (Ed Helms; nerdy friend), and Alan (Zack Galifianakis; crazy friend/soon to be brother-in-law), head of to Las Vegas two days before the wedding. After for a night of debauchery, Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up to find Doug missing. Most of the movie is spent retracing the steps of the night before so the remaining three friends can make sure Doug makes it back to Los Angeles for his wedding.

My favorite comedies come from Judd Apatow and crew. Apatow or Apatow inspired movies almost always provide at least one joke that I can say is comedy at its best and sometimes even comedic genius. The same cannot be said about “The Hangover”. There were funny moments -- with the funniest provided by Ed Helms (The Daily Show, The Office) -- but nothing side splittingly funny. There were too many jokes that fell flat or went too far. Not that I was offended by any of the jokes but sometimes it’s what you leave out that makes the movie. Addition by subtraction.

The movie was well cast. The best thing about the film is the emergence of Ed Helms as a movie actor. Stu was the only person I found consistently funny. He’s always been good on TV but this is the first time I can remember thinking, he could play the leading role in the right comedy. He’ll never be a star but has the potential to be a reliably funny wing man.

As for Alan, I can’t see many other people playing him. Zach Galifianakis does a fantastic job of making Alan crazy but not so crazy that the audience tires of him. Uttering odd, sometimes incomprehensible lines, Galifianakis always makes you think “what the hell” and more often than not the “what the hell” is accompanied by laughter.

Bradley Cooper did a good job playing Phil but he is the actor that could most easily be replaced in the film. This has more to do with the writing than Cooper’s acting abilities. His main role in the movie was to create the environment for Helms and Galifianakis to be funny.

One of the reasons I might not have loved the movie is that the two trailers for The Hangover gave away too many of the funny surprises. Overall, The Hangover was a fun movie but has nothing on my favorite comedy of the year so far, “I Love You, Man”. Coming July 31 is the movie I am most excited about seeing this summer, Judd Apatow’s third feature film, “Funny People”. Next up, “The Proposal”. Or not. Peace.

I highly recommend seeing "Up" and "Away We Go".

Other reviews of "The Hangover"

Local DC Blogger - Plight of the Pumpernickel - Not only a good review of the movie but she also answers the question on everybody's mind: Does Bradley Cooper deserve heartthrob status? The answer might not surprise you.

My favorite movie reviewer - NYT's A.O. Scott

Friday, June 12, 2009

Best of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (June 8th-12th)

I never watched Late Night consistently but since Conan started the Tonight Show last week, I've been watching each episode the day after on Hulu. Starting today, I am going to post my favorite clips of the week. Enjoy the comedy!

New Chrysler Commercial

Twitter Tracker

Jim Gaffigan interview

Tonight Show Mug Shots

Norm MacDonald interview

Tonight Show Children (from last week)

Gun Fears

Paul Krugman has an interesting non economics column in Friday's New York Times entitled "The Big Hate".
An excerpt:

Yes, the worst terrorist attack in our history was perpetrated by a foreign conspiracy. But the second worst, the Oklahoma City bombing, was perpetrated by an all-American lunatic. Politicians and media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.
Check out the whole column. It is incredible that even with Democrats in control of the Presidency and the Congress, Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, was able to get through an amendment, to a credit card bill of all things, that allows concealed handguns in national parks. Really? Are we that paranoid of a nation that we think it is necessary to carry handguns wherever we go. Recent legislation in Tennessee would allow guns to be carried into bars. Great idea, or not. From the AP:

The legislation that takes effect July 14 retains an existing ban on consuming alcohol while carrying a handgun, and restaurant owners can still opt to ban weapons from their establishments.
Also, it is quite disturbing that gun sales are at record levels since Obama was elected. From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

On the gun counter at Ace Sporting Goods in Washington County, customers are greeted with a picture of President Barack Obama next to the caption, "Salesman of the Year."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Learned Helplessness and the Age of the SUV

I just came upon an essay Malcolm Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker back in 2004 entitled "Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. Ran Over Automotive Safety". It is a fascinating look at the claim that SUVs are safer than cars Below are a few excerpts. I highly recommend reading the whole essay.

In the parlance of the automobile world, the TrailBlazer is better at "passive safety. " The Boxster is better when it comes to "active safety," which is every bit as important.

The S.U.V. boom represents, then, a shift in how we conceive of safety—from active to passive. It's what happens when a larger number of drivers conclude, consciously or otherwise, that the extra thirty feet that the TrailBlazer takes to come to a stop don't really matter, that the tractor-trailer will hit them anyway, and that they are better off treating accidents as inevitable rather than avoidable.

S.U.V.s are unsafe because they make their drivers feel safe. That feeling of safety isn't the solution; it's the problem.

Read the whole thing.

Books by Malcolm Gladwell:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking