Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The 100 Best Things I Saw, Read, Ate, Heard, Or Otherwise Experienced in 2012 (AND SOME THINGS THAT SUCKED, THROWN IN): 50-26...

50.  The Buffalo Bills fired their coach, Chan Gailey.  Here's how you know the numbers aren't that relevant, either; this might have ranked lower but it didn't happen until after I wrote 100-51.

The Buffalo Bills are my favorite football team, the only team I root for year-in and year-out.  Football (and sports) is not a passion for me, not anymore; it's more like a TV show I check in on from time to time, like Up All Night, and follow through news reports.

Actually, football is more like the movie industry for me: it's a huge deal, nationwide, and people talk about it constantly, and so I know a lot about what is going on, but I watch only a fraction of the movies that are released, based on what I personally like, have time for, and think might be interesting.

So the Bills, the nation's most adamantly mediocre team-- they have won 82 games in 12 years, for a yearly average of just under 7 wins out of 16 possible, and are 14-15 in playoff games, but have not appeared in a playoff game since 1999, the nation's longest streak -- are sort of like a movie franchise to me, and like many movie franchises (Star Wars, James Bond, Batman, Indiana Jones) they get weaker with time until they need a reboot.  The early 1990s Bills were the original Star Wars trilogy: brilliant but flawed.  The late 1990s-Doug Flutie-led Bills were the second Star Wars, a paler imitation, not without its charms but nowhere near as good as the first run.

2000-2012 has been the disappearance of the series:  It may exist in some nether realm of cartoons and Timothy Zahn books, but it's not really worth caring about except for die hards.

THAT is the single most successful extended metaphor I have ever come up with, and further proof that everything in Western Civilization is based on Star Wars.

Firing their coach is the reboot... hopefully.  It won't entirely work as the franchise is still run terribly and wants to move out of Buffalo (I suspect but can't prove) and according to Bill Barnwell the salary cap numbers mean Trebuchet Fitzpatrick, their quarterback

...this is a trebuchet:

...so you can imagine what I think of Fitzy as a quarterback given that I compare him to a catapult.

... will be back, so there's not much hope for anything good out of 2013 even with a new coach, but maybe if they add Tebow and a new coach and spice things up a little, the franchise might recapture my interest.

If anything, it's a change, and when someone's been mired in the muck for a while, it's nice to see them at least put the car in reverse and give that a shot.  To mix metaphors.

49.  Archer.  I can't remember when I started watching Archer, but I watched every episode again on Netflix this year, so I'm throwing it in.  Archer, along with Arrested Development and Happy Endings, appeal to me primarily because there is so much going on that it bears repeated rewatchings.  That was what I liked about Community, too, when I got into it, which wasn't all the time: the complexity of the stories, the wordplay, the extended gags, the inside references, all allow me to get something out of a show by rewatching it.

I'm not crazy about rewatching or rereading things, mind you -- but that's not just because there's so much new stuff to experience (which is one of the reasons) but also because so little bears re-doing; if you're not going to get something new out of re-doing it, why re-do it?

48. Great Expectations:  Speaking of re-reading things, this year I re-read Dickens' classic book, one I'd always loved but hadn't read in decades, and got an understanding of why it has lasted so long.  Reading it as an adult gave me a new insight into the comedy Dickens presents, and also the tragedy.  Where I'd always remembered Pip as a sad character, in love and lost in the world, a little boy who never really grew up, the re-read gave me Pip as a selfish jerk, figuring that the world was set up solely for his gratification and who, when he learned otherwise, reacted badly only to be saved by the one good thing he'd done during his brief wealth.

47.  Firefly:  OK, I only watched one episode of this this year, and that was about six months ago.  But I taped all of the episodes and I want, really want, to watch all of them.  I just need to commit myself to finishing that.

46.  Mail Online:  I read earlier this year that Mail Online is the most-hit website in the world.  An online version of the English tabloids, I checked it out and made it a regular stop on my news-reading in the morning, adding the app to my phone so that I can get a mixture of weirdly-written actual news stories, true crime stories, disappearances, and updates on celebrities, all through the British eye.  Any news site that puts "Jen Grimaces At Jimmy Kimmel's girl's trim body" ABOVE the story that the fiscal cliff deal passed the Senate is all right by me.

45.  The Queen of Versailles:

I read about this documentary, which starts when the subjects, a man who made his fortune in time-shares and his low-level former-beauty queen trophy wife, are at their high point, and told Sweetie I wanted to Netflix it; she scoffed, then read about it, and we got it.  That's how our house works.

Starting with shots of the two in a throne... a literal throne, at their palatial home in Florida, the documentary had the luck to capture footage during the economic downturn, tracking the family through battles with the bank as their over-extended personal empire (including an attempt to build a $100,000,000 house modeled after Versailles) gets cut back.  One of the high points? The wife takes a limo to McDonald's.

It would be easy to just brush off the superrich in the documentary as having been frivolously extravagant -- but the documentarians actually make it an oddly sympathetic account, and it's easy to see echoes of ourselves in the subjects.  Sweetie and I, for example, have started this year trying to be better at budgeting and saving.  Our mantra?  We don't want to be the Queen of Versailles.  If

THING THAT SUCKED:  The Continued Mountain Dew-ification of entertainment.  You know why there's Mountain Dew Code Red and Pepsi New or whatever?  It's because you won't buy something if you don't recognize the name.  If I marketed Code Red soda, you'd never buy it. Put Mountain Dew in front of the name and despite the fact that Code Red and Mountain Dew have nothing in common, it sells.

This year, Disney decided to put zero effort into creating a new movie that we might like (John Carter...) but spent a gazillion dollars to have the right to tack "Star Wars" in front of whatever crap it might want to spew out next year.  And people will buy it.

If there are new Star Wars stories to be told, and they are good, great; I'm about the only person ever to argue in favor of sequels.  But I worry that in lieu of telling new stories, we are going to just spend our time mashing new-ish ideas into Skywalker Ranch-moldings.  (See also: Planes, from the makers of Cars.)

44. Sno-Blitz.

I hate soft serve ice cream. OK, "hate" is a strong word.  I suppose I should reserve it for things I have actual emotions for, and instead of "hate" the emotion I feel for soft-serve ice cream is the same emotion I feel for people who turn left in front of me, which is: "Why do you exist?"

But this year, Sweetie picked up these Sno-Blitz things that promise to be soft-serve ice cream in a cup that you can eat at home.  And here is what won me over:  You keep these things in your refrigerator, and then when you want to eat them the label says to let the cup sit on the counter for two minutes, during which time it transforms from "rock solid chunk of inedible material you would have to chip at with a spoon just to get the smallest part out and that part will probably fly onto the floor and you will have to pick it up, clean up the spot, and still not be any closer to ice cream" to "soft-serve ice cream" that you can eat like it just got handed to you through a drive-thru.

I don't know how they do it.  I actually tested it: I took a Sno-Blitz and an ice cream and put them on the counter for two minutes.  After two minutes of just sitting there, the ice cream was that inedible hunk etc., while the Sno-Blitz was able to easily be spooned up.

So foodwise, I still hate soft-serve ice cream because it's just not as good.  But this is more than food.  This is science.  Sometimes I pull one out to eat it just to try to figure out how they do it.   OK, that's never the reason, but I still try to figure it out.

43.  Wondermark.  Another cartoon: old drawings, hilarious concepts, like the one where this guy discovered that packaging can be more than just a one-way message, or this one:

While I'm on comics,let's run through:

42.  Basic Instructions:

41.  XKCD:

All great comics I read every day, along with:

41.  Pibgorn:  Which deserves more of a look at it, together with the next one, number 40, Girl Genius, which I'm going to lump together as conceptually they are sort of the same thing only not at all.

Here's Pibgorn's latest panel:

and here is Girl Genius' latest:

Both are ongoing stories told through comics, but they're webcomics and so they're available for free, which appeals to me, and both are intricately drawn, well-developed stories.

Pibgorn is a series about fairy, Pibgorn, and her friends which I gather include a human she is in love with (or married to?) and a succubus who wants to be evil but isn't, really.  The stories are long but come in discrete packages.  The current storyline, which only began recently, centers on a genie who keeps getting called not to lamps or other typical genie-devices, but to coffeepots and pill bottles, where he is generally ignored.  Pibgorn has (at the point I've gotten to, which is a bit behind the curve) been pulled into the genie's world to become the genie, which is similar to other storylines in that Pibgorn seems to get transposed with a lot of others.

The mood of Pibgorn is generally comedic, light -- the elements of the story including Hell and the succubus are presented lightheartedly but still with a serious undercurrent, making it enjoyable while still having some heft.  The art is beautiful; each day is a one-page continuation of the story, but the best pages are, like the one above, ones that don't advance the story much but still are great to look at.

Girl Genius, meanwhile, is a story about Agatha Heterodyne, a "spark" in a steampunk world ruled by an autocratic baron.  I wasn't sure what steampunk was until I really got into reading this story again this year (I started a few years ago and then drifted away from it and came back to it one weekend when I was battling my usual health crises and couldn't really concentrate on anything much, so I whiled away the time reading Girl Genius.)  "Steampunk," if you're unfamiliar, is sort of 1800s' sci-fi, a reimagining of what might happen if science had moved more in the direction of steam engines, wind-up robots, and the like rather than quantum mechanics.  (I liked the concepts so much that I'm working on my own steampunk version of The Odyssey, here).  

Agatha, as a "spark," has the ability to create complex, self-moving machines, but her power is out of control and she doesn't herself know that she is the heir to the power of the Heterodynes, the family that used to rule this world's version of Europe until the Baron took over; the story follows her adventures going back a few years, all of it free.  I recommend starting from the beginning, because this story is every bit as intricate as anything you've read, and the drawings, again, are excellent.

39.  Longform.org.  One of the Longform stories this year was good enough to make this list-- Angels & Demons, on day one -- but the entire site deserves to be mentioned.  In this day of shortened attention spans and 15-minute TV shows, any site that celebrates longer writing is okay by me.  (Especially, I should say, by me.)  This year, I read stories on Longform that taught me about Andy Capp's creator, a man who hunts giant squid, five missing kids that disappeared during a house fire under suspicious circumstances, a trip to Disney World when it first opened, and more.

Look, nobody says you've got to read everything in one sitting. 

38.   Russell Wilson:  "Every season has a Tebow," I like to tell people -- a "Tebow" being that thing that captured everyone's attention about the sport that year.  Last year, it was Tebow.  This year, in the NFL, it was Russell Wilson, the former Badger quarterback who was drafted in the fourth round to the Seahawks, set to sit the bench as an undersized project behind Matt Flynn, a Packer castoff who'd set a franchise record for single-game TD throws and signed a huge contract.

Wilson won the starting job in the preseason, though, and the Seahawks made the playoffs and will square off against a rookie who started the season with more hype (the Redskins' RG3).  I would LOVE to see Wilson in the Super Bowl. 

Not least among the thrills that Wilson gave were the world's "First Ever Game Winning Interception," the famed "Worst Call Ever"

a call that allowed spoiled Green Bay Packer fans to whine that a bad (?) call cost them a game and a higher seed in the playoffs (ignoring the 10 sacks they gave up and the other losses they had including losing the final game of the season to a clearly inferior Vikings team in an effort that QB Aaron Rodgers described as "nothing to be ashamed of," because apparently losing late to a poor team is all right with him.

"WORST CALL EVER" claimants who blame that call for victory are people who don't understand that no single call determines the outcome of a game any more than a single link makes a chain.  But it's far easier to blame a disliked call for losing than the lack of a running game, poor play-calling, lousy blocking, and generally bad play.

A large part of why I was turned off of football this year was the fact that nothing INCLUDING A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION seemed to rouse people's ire more than Worst Call Ever.  Sure, we are being led over a fiscal cliff by a party determined to end civil rights for women and minorities while protecting plutocrats from modest tax increases and undermining our social safety net.  BUT A BAD CALL IN AN NFL GAME? OCCUPY GOODELL'S OFFICE!  Screw those people.  Anyone who suggested a protest... of any sort... about Worst Call Ever is a horrible human being.  On the list of suffering and bad things that can happen, your team getting a bad call against it is about 1,000,000,000th down on the list.

I say that as a Bills fan who suffered through the "Music City Miracle" and was upset for a while, a long while, about that.  I have since had my priorities straightened out and now no longer get upset for even a second over things that don't matter.  People upset about Worst Call Ever need to grow up.

So if the Seahawks can make the Super Bowl, let alone win it, that will keep the Packers out and serve as a sort of in-kind punishment for people who still are upset over Worst Call Ever.

37.  IO9, the website about sci-fi and sciencey-stuff.  If I had to nitpick, I'd downgrade this site (along with Gawker and Deadspin and Jezebel, which I also read and which are all by the same company) for having sites that are so Kindle-unfriendly that I no longer try to get them to load on my Kindle.  A smart article on Slate magazine

THING THAT SUCKED:  Articles that aren't in any way even kind of pretending to report anymore, especially on Slate.  I used to be a big fan of Slate, but lately I've noticed that the "magazine" is becoming less a "magazine" and more a blog-for-friends.  There were, this year, the usual made-up seeming letters on "Dear Prudie."  Has anyone EVER seen a letter on Dear Prudie that didn't seem totally made up by hipsters?  EVER?  I doubt it.  It's like that so-called advice column is a new-age Mad Lib:  "Dear Prudie: Recently my [family member] took up [hobby that was in the news last month and which is dangerous] but if that's not enough he has nude pictures of [politician] stuffed into his [body part or piece of furniture nobody actually owns.]..."

But worse than that was the "article" on fake Twitter followers that did not in any way investigate the phenomenon or bring any analysis to it: it was a straightforward recounting: "I did this, and then this, and then this, and this is how I felt about it."

That's not news.

That's not even interesting.

And Slate, especially, was overrun by that kind of writing this year, as article after article was simply "Hey, here's something I did," which is what blogs are for, Slate.  You are supposed to be a magazine of professional writers.  Not a Mommy Blog.  Consider this article on packaging after Christmas, subtitled "Packaging is less infuriating." Sounds like an article about improvements or changes in packaging, right?


The "article" starts with this premise:

Considering how many packages I open, I’ve become a kind of expert on how consumer goods are wrapped.

Oh, that's what it takes to be an expert?  Not a degree or working in the field or even interviewing people in the field.  Just I open a bunch of stuff so I am an expert on opening.

I eat a lot of stuff, so I must be a molecular gastronomist.

Says the writer:

A few years ago, you’d spend many long, frustrating minutes on Christmas morning trying to get stuff out of boxes. This year I bet you spent less time puzzling over packages. I also bet you hardly noticed that many of your packaging woes had been solved—if you became red-faced, it was from trying to crack into the one or two remaining impenetrable plastic clamshells under your tree.

 "I bet" being shorthand, apparently, for "rigorous journalistic investigation."

After a brief paragraph-long foray into mentioning (without details) some company's initiatives to improve packaging -- including a shout-out to Amazon for reducing the amount of twist ties without putting that reduction in perspective (Is it 1%? 90%?), the "article" goes on to say:

As far as I can tell, these initiatives are working. Yes, my assessment is woefully unscientific—Jack Shafer is sure to smite me for relying on the old “numbers are hard to come by” journalistic hedge. There’s no agency that tracks how consumer goods are packaged. Some packaging industry analysts suggest that the use of “high-visibility packaging” (including clamshells) is on the rise, but there’s no way to know how many of these are new, easy-to-open clamshells and how many are the classic, finger-slicing variety.

You know what? That's not journalism.  And saying it's not journalism doesn't make it any better.

There are tons and tons of people who would love to be professional writers, myself included.  If I could get paid enough money to write for a living, I'd do it in a second.  What's disheartening is to see that the so-called "professional" writers are taking things so unseriously that the entire world is going to be a blog soon.  Slate is this close (and that's very close) to dropping off my reading list entirely.  

...a smart article on Slate magazine suggested that websites need to be reconfigured for mobile devices, and they should.  I love reading IO9, for its mix of real science and sci-fi news, but if I can't read it on my Kindle or phone very easily, I'm going to move on to a site that wants me to read it.

36.   Once Upon A Time, the TV series.  I only got into this after trying to look up a Hot Mom for a post here, but the three episodes I've watched so far have me hooked.  I just need to find time to watch more.  MY RESOLUTION FOR THIS YEAR: devote my life to inventing a time-stopper like in The Fermata.

One quibble with Once Upon A Time: Snow White's hair is about as goofy as it can get, in both fairytale land and real life.

35.  Orange Julius: I didn't even think they made these anymore.  But then Sweetie and I went on a date for ice cream and Dairy Queen had them and I got one and it was delicious.

34.  The Planet Money podcast: I wish I had known how cool economics was.  Anyone else here feel like high school sort of screwed them over by presenting interesting topics in a boring way?  I had terrible, terrible chemistry, physics, and economics teachers.  I thought those were three boring stupid subjects.  YES, I was a teenager, but I was a bookish nerdy teenager who was inclined to like learning, and yet those three subjects -- which have occupied my time this year via things like the book The Disappearing Spoon and the number 1 item on this list and the Planet Money podcast-- are fascinating subjects that were not presented as such in high school.

In high school economics, we studied markets and things like that.  In Planet Money they investigate why we are printing dollar coins and storing them in caves, talk about things like "reserve currencies" and why it would be a bad idea to pay off the national debt, and discuss why putting more taxis onto New York streets might not help people at all. It's better, even, than Freakonomics, which I listened to for a while but which I eventually found too repetitious and thought it tried to hard.  Planet Money is more down-to-earth and interesting. 

33.  Hot Wheels' Wall Tracks:  Remember Hot Wheels? Mr Bunches is into them, and Hot Wheels now don't have to hook onto your kitchen table or whatever to set up a good track.  They hang 'em on walls now.

 32.  To-Fu The Trials Of Chi: Game.  I only have ever paid for one app game, ever, for myself -- Plants vs. Zombies, which I originally got free but then had to pay for when my phone died and I got a new one.  I try a lot of the free apps offered by Amazon, and delete a lot of them because things offered for free are generally not very good.  (I do pay for apps for the boys, as they like the games and I'm not opposed to paying a reasonable amount for a game). 

To-Fu is a game I got free, but would've paid for had I known.  The concept is simple, like the best games:  You are a piece of sticky tofu, and you must "spring" yourself (by stretching like a rubber band and then flinging) through various mazes.

31.  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  

There was nothing bad about this movie.  NOTHING AT ALL. So long as one does not stop to consider how stupefyingly incompetent all IMF agents are.  But still, I loved it, as I have loved every single Mission: Impossible movie, even the first one.

30.  This Book Is Full Of Spiders, Seriously Dude Don't Touch It By David Wong.  I was a huge fan of Wong's earlier book, John Dies At The End, a book that began as a serialized story on a blog and now is supposed to be a movie.  This is the sequel to John, and it lives up to the hype: hilarious, imaginative, fast-paced, and well-done.  It's a zombie apocalypse story that somehow makes zombie apocalypse stories new again, which is hard to do, I bet.  When I started reading it, I got about 10% into it and thought "Oh, Crap, Zombie Apocalypse this sucks," but I stuck it out because Wong is a great author, and I was rewarded for that because it's not just a zombie apocalypse story.  It's way better and like the first book has enough cool twists and improbable changes that it'd be worth reading even if it was just zombies.

29:  Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy, by Jack White:

28.  "Little Talks" by Of Monsters And Men:

27 .  "Ho Hey" by The Lumineers:

26.  On Top Of The World: by Imagine Dragons:

I didn't like any of those groups enough to get the albums for the songs, but I bought the singles and listened to them a collective 318 times in 2012.   



M.J. Fifield said...

Happy Endings, Community and Firefly. Apparently, I'm going to have to start watching Archer.

Andrew Leon said...

My wife hate soft serve ice cream, too. Archer is on my list of things. I recognize the artist of Girl Genius, but I'm not getting the name, right now, so I'm gonna have to go look. Bah!
I'l come back to listen to the songs. Have to leave to get another child from another sleepover.

Liz said...

Firefly--watch them in order. It helps.

I'm also obsessed with Once Upon a Time. I'm a geek that way.

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

This reminds me that season 4 of Archer premieres this month sometime. I'll probably forget that it's on like I often do. I wish Netflix had season 3 but they don't. And there were those like 3 episodes or so between seasons 2-3 where they're on some island and the gay guy gets "crippled" that I only got to watch the last episode I think because it was On Demand since I hardly ever watch FX and thus never know when stuff is on.

BTW, is it better to be a mediocre team like the Bills than an absolutely dreadful team like the Lions, Raiders, Chiefs, and Jaguars have been over most of the last 10 years? I know a lot of years in the Millen error I would have killed to go 7-9 instead of 2-14 or 3-13. Sad that after one year they're already back to terrible again and I don't even have an explanation why except they need a better running back and a secondary that isn't guys they pulled in off the street a day before the game.

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