Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

So I heard the other day that dystopia is the new vampire, at least in terms of what is coming down the pike in Hollywood movie releases. If the reaction to The Hunger Games is any indication, then I guess teens will be trading in their fangs and face powder for spears and arrows. I am not sure that's such a good thing.

And where do they get off calling it The Hunger Games, anyway? I thought it was going to be about competitive eating or a battle of celebrity chefs; not a bunch of teenagers killing each other in gladiatorial contests. If that's the route they are going to go down, why not make it food critics battling it out to the death? Everyone wants to see that, don't they?

Speaking of food critics, did you see where former the New York Times restaurant columnist admitted to having gout last week? I guess that is an occupational hazard when you eat at fancy restaurants for a living. If you are not familiar with it, gout is a build up of uric acid crystals in your blood stream that settles in your joints, usually your big toe. It's really, really, painful, and has been described by the Mayo Clinic as feeling like your "toe is on fire". Clinical descriptions usually refrain from colloquialisms like "on fire," so you know it really hurts. Foods typically associated with causing gout are things like booze, anchovies, brains and other organ meat, broth and bouillon, goose, gravy, mincemeat, mussels, fish roe (caviar), scallops, sardines, sweetbreads and all types of yeasts. In other words, all the stuff you eat at fancy restaurants. Hmm, I might want to watch it myself, considering how much dining out I do.

Of course that is another advantage to renting a timeshare: you almost always get a kitchen. Now I know you don't want to spend your whole vacation cooking and cleaning dishes, but preparing at least some of your meals can really save you some coin, and perhaps help you avoid a case of gout. Think about how much you spend on breakfast, lunch, and dinner during a typical seven night vacation stay. If you ate breakfast in your unit each morning, and packed a lunch each day, I bet you could save half of what you usually spend on meals, and still eat dinner out each night. Plus, you can take your doggie bag with you and stick it in your unit's refrigerator as a lunch or snack for the next day. Who knows, you might manage to return home the same weight as when you left, or less.

All timeshare kitchens are not created equal, of course, so you are going to want to do some research. A large villa at Harborside Resort at Atlantis, for example, has a kitchen and dining area large enough to do Thanksgiving dinner. The Manhattan Club, on the other hand, has what is known as a kitchenette. So it is more than what you get with a typical hotel room, but it's not intended for any serious dining-in. In other words, it's like owning an apartment in New York City.

Well, I am off to make my annual pilgrimage to Augusta, GA. There's nothing like the sights and smells of springtime in Georgia, as the world's best descend upon this corner of the Peach State. I am of course referring to the Hooters World Wing-Eating Championship Qualifier. Ten minutes and all the Hooters wings you can eat, with $500 and a trip to the championship round later in the year on the line. Now that's what I call a hunger game. I hear there is a golf tournament going on as well. I'll have to check it out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Against All Odds

So have you ever heard of a guy named Don Johnson? No, not the overly-tan, frosted-hair, pretty boy from Miami Vice fame. I'm talking about Don Johnson, the blackjack player. I didn't think so. And neither had Atlantic City’s Tropicana casino. Ditto for the Borgata and Caesars. But they all know who he is now. In fact, Mr. Johnson is now reportedly banned from all Caesers's locations worldwide, and only the Tropicana is (tepidly) welcoming his patronage. So what did he do to draw such ire from Atlantic City casinos? Well, he won. A lot.

Over the course of about six months last year, Johnson took The Tropicana for $6 million, the Borgata for $5 million, and Caesars for $4 million. Each jackpot was won exclusively at the blackjack table, and in a single sitting. So if you are keeping score at home, that's $15 million dollars in three nights. Are you kidding me?! Most households don't make that in a year. So how did he do it?

Whenever somebody takes a casino for a large jackpot, which is rare, they are typically cheating, or improbably lucky. Cheating, at least that's what the casinos call it, takes the form of card counting. As impossible as it may seem, there are people who can keep track of every card that has been dealt out of the eight decks usually in play at a blackjack table. Once there are only a few cards left, the counter knows which cards remain. A partner who can really play then uses this knowledge to step in and win the big hand. Just like Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man. But Johnson plays solo, and unlike Tom Cruise who is like two feet tall, he is a big burly guy, usually attired in an Oregon State hoodie. And while you might get lucky once in a while, they don't build those big casinos and hotels by handing people money. No, Johnson came up with a third way.

He's what you call a "high roller". In addition to being an excellent - some say perfect - blackjack player, he loves to gamble and had a lot of money before his big wins. Casinos rely on these high stakes players to come and wager huge amounts of money at their establishments. They buy them drinks, give them complimentary rooms, and even flights on private jets. They still very much lose their shirts, but they feel like royalty while doing so, and come back often. Johnson doesn't do any of that. Instead, he took his perks in the form of the loosening of the rules afforded to only the highest of high rollers. That's right, he convinced the casinos to move the odds a little less in their favor, in exchange for him betting sums of up to $100,000 per hand.

If you were unaware, each casino sets its own subtle rules on each game to determine the advantage the house enjoys. So while they vary from place to place, blackjack hands usually break out with the house winning 48%, the player 44%, and a tie 8% of the time. So you might win here and there, but over enough time, the casino is going to take you for 4% of everything you spend, in exchange for some cheap booze and a ride in a plane they've paid for with your money. But subtle changes in the rules, like using only six decks or letting the player split their hand multiple times, create tiny reductions in this advantage. Over the course of a few weeks, Johnson negotiated an arrangement that greatly improved the chances of a truly great player - with a ton of money to risk - to possibly win a bundle. And word has it that he's since been seen partying with the likes of Bon Jovi, the cast of Entourage, Charlie Sheen (remember him?), and even hosted a birthday party for Pamela Anderson. Well, I guess you can't buy class, but he's got enough money now to buy just about anything else.

Of course you don't have to win $15 million to enjoy yourself in Atlantic City. A timeshare rental at Atlantic Palace puts you right in the heart of the casino district, as well as steps away from the famous boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. When the weather is warm, there is so much to see and do outside in the greater Atlantic City area that you may never see the inside of a casino. Plus there are great shows and fabulous restaurants to choose from. RedWeek members rate this resort 4-stars and in-season rentals are available for as little as $125/night.

Speaking of gambling, I've gotta run and check on my bracket. No not the NCCA basketball tourney (that's so played). I'm talking Beard Madness. I've got the abolitionist John Brown in a very tough seating against Abraham Lincoln. Of course Karl Marx looks strong, and Confucius is always a force to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Saving Daylight

So have you managed to shake the effects of Daylight Savings Time yet? I totally missed an appointment yesterday, because the clock in my timeshare rental hadn't been set forward. Thinking I had an hour to spare, I went to one of these aqua massage booths to blow off some stress. Have you seen these things out at the mall or airport? They look like a cross between a tanning bed and an George Forman grill. It opens like a clam shell so that they can close the thing down around you, and you pay by the minute for an invigorating, pulsating, full-body massage. Now I know what you are thinking, whose going to take off all of their clothes and get a public water massage? Lot of people, unfortunately. But an aqua massage does not require that you take off anything but your shoes, and you don't get at all wet. In fact, the industry term for it is "dry water massage". I know that is bit like "light beer" or "meatless bacon," but the water jets are behind a thin membrane. So you get all of the benefits of a water massage, without the moisture. Perhaps they should have called it something else, but believe me when I tell you that your worries will just melt away. What was I talking about anyway? Oh yeah, DST.

So you've probably heard that DST was started by Ben Franklin, and that it has something to do with farmers. But that's all nonsense. If you think about it, why would a farmer care what time it is? They are about the last task-oriented group of workers left in the world. They are getting up when the sun (and the rooster) gets up, regardless of what it says on the clock. And as far as Franklin goes, he did write a satirical piece while in France, suggesting that they could save money on candles if they'd get up earlier when the daylight hours start to lengthen. In the same piece, he also suggested taxing window shutters, and waking the public at sunrise by ringing bells and firing cannons. He certainly never suggested changing the clocks by an hour.

No, the blame for that seems to fall squarely upon George Vernon Hudson, an entomologist from New Zealand who proposed the idea in the 1890s. That's right, a Kiwi bug collector wanted more time to search for creepy crawlies after his shift ended, and had the bright idea to move the clock to more closely align the increasing amount of sunlight with his availability. An English builder named William Willett made a similar proposal in 1905, because he was tired of seeing his after work golf game cut short by darkness. Are you seeing a pattern here? These are folks whose jobs required that they work against a clock, unlike a farmer. And if you are above or below the equator, the hours of sunlight shift as the seasons progress, but the time-clock doesn't. So where you used to have an hour or two to go look for bugs or that 7-iron shot that you hooked into the tree-line, you now found yourself in the dark. Literally.

But in the end, it would seem to be energy conservation that led to widespread adoption of DST. Perhaps this is why Franklin is often cited. He was, albeit humorously, suggesting that Parisians could simply get up a little earlier and do what they needed to do during daylight, and save a ton of money lighting the city with candles later on in the day. But it was not until the German WWI war machine instituted it as a way to save coal that the idea really caught on. Adjusting the clocks to maximum sunlight hours greatly reduced coal consumption for home heating, so that it could be used for a massive war effort. Russia, the UK, France, and the United States followed within the next year or two. In fact, European countries and their various colonial interests around the world are pretty much the only places that observe this practice.

On the face of it, it certainly makes sense in terms of saving on both lighting and heating costs, and anything that promotes more outdoor activity can't be all bad. But folks who already make their living outdoors (farmers, landscapers, etc.), and those that benefit from indoor activities (movie houses, theaters, etc.) don't really see it this way. And if you live near the equator, or very far from it, changing the clocks by an hour has little or no effect on the amount of daylight you experience.

So why do we still do it? Who can say. Some places don't. Several provinces in Canada do not participate, and neither does the state of Hawaii, most of Arizona, and parts of Indiana. That can create some real travel headaches. If you are going to Hawaii, it probably doesn't matter too much. You'll be spanning several time zones no matter where you are coming from, and will likely have spent all day in airports and on planes. There's almost no chance you are going to know, or care, what time it is when you finally touch down. But imagine if you are like a friend of mine, and you live in Illinois - 50 minutes from your job in Indiana. During DST, he gets to his job 10 minutes before he left home. Are you kidding me?! And I thought I had it bad with all of the traveling I do.

Well, I have to get to the deli and lay in about 20 lbs. of corned beef if I want to be ready for Sunday's big event. No, I'm not having a St. Patrick's Day party. I am competing in the 3rd Annual TooJay's World Class Corned Beef Eating Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, and I've gotta work out if I want to be on the podium this year. I know, I know, I need to get a new hobby. Maybe I'll look into bug collecting after I recuperate.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Super Tuesday

I don't know about you, but I had been looking forward to yesterday since the first of the year, and it truly did not disappoint. No, I don't mean the Republican presidential primary. I'm talking 100 years of Oreo cookies. That's right, that famous sandwich of two chocolate wafers with creme in the center was born on March 6, 1912, at a Nabisco factory in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. And life has been that much sweeter ever since.

Hey did you know that the first Oreo ever sold was in a grocery store in Hoboken, NJ? Yep, the city directly across the Hudson River from the Nabisco factory knew a good thing when they saw it, and made that famous sale. Hoboken was also the site of the first baseball game ever played (the whole Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown story is a myth), was the backdrop for the famous Brando movie "On The Waterfront", and the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, Eli Manning, and indie filmmaker John Sayles. Of course it was also the birthplace of Jon Corzine and Pia Zadora, so I guess it has had it's share of duds as well. I heard one time that Pia Zadora was in a production of The Anne Frank Story that was so bad, that during the final scene - when the Nazis burst into the house - the audience screamed out "She's in the attic!" Gosh I love that joke. What was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Oreo cookies... how could I forget? Do you know what the word Oreo means, other than delicious goodness? Neither does anyone else. Seriously. There are lots of theories and speculation, but even the folks at Nabisco are not really sure. Best anyone can figure is that it just sounded good. Of course it has gone through some rebranding over the years. To date, it has been known as the Oreo Biscuit (the original name), the Oreo Sandwich, the Oreo Creme Sandwich, and the Oreo Chocolate Sandwich Cookie. Its ingredients have changed as well. The original recipe had lard in the filling, which was then switched to partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), and finally just non-hydrogenated vegetable oil. Boy, I wish I was alive 100 years ago (I wasn't) to have one of those lard Oreos. The design on top of the cookie itself has been tweaked and refined over the years, as well, but by and large it's the same cookie that debuted 100 years ago.

Over the years, additional products have been added to the Oreo line. Fore example, the Double Stuff Oreo - introduced in 1975 - has twice as much filling as a regular Oreo. Too sweet for my tastes. I think the ratio of filling to cookie is just right in the original. It would be like doubling up on the McCartney and not the Lennon, if you know what I mean. The Triple Double, introduced in 2011, is a whole other kettle of fish. That's three wafers with both chocolate and original creme between. Those babies are 100 calories each folks. Keep that in mind the next time you knock back a sleeve of them while watching Jersey Shore. You can't have a 100th anniversary without a commemorative edition, and Nabisco recently began sales of the limited edition, sprinkle-filled birthday Oreo. A bit of a disappointment if you ask me, but heck, it's still an Oreo, and they go down.

Of course nothing lasts forever. The Hydrox reigned supreme as the creme-filled chocolate cookie of record prior to the Oreo. They finally went out of business in 1996. Should Americans ever lose their taste for the Oreo (not likely), sales of them have begun to take off in China. They tweaked the recipe to be not so sweet, and they've become the best-selling cookie in China. There are 1.4 billion people in China, in case you had forgotten.

Well, I am heading back (with some Oreos) to my timeshare rental on beautiful Tybee Island, GA. There is another 100th birthday going on in Savannah, GA, just about 20 miles from here. On March 12, 1912, Juliette Gordon Low began the Girl Scouts of the United States America from her home, which is now the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace and museum. I plan on touring it, and the site of the first-ever headquarters of the GSUSA. I'm told the scouts have also branched out into the cookie business. Sounds like some field research is in order. Man, I love my job.