Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cablevision new high-speed champ, beating FiOS

Cablevision plans to announce today the fastest Internet speeds available from any cable or phone company.

Starting May 11, the cableco will offer speeds of up to 101 megabits per second downstream throughout its service area, and 15 Mbps upstream. Cablevision has three million subscribers in the New York metro area.

Cablevision also plans to double the downstream speed of its Wi-Fi Internet service up to 3 Mbps for free. Cablevision offers wireless Internet at several Wi-Fi hotspots in New York's Long Island, Connecticut and Westchester service areas, and in parts of New Jersey.

Cablevision is in a race against Verizon Communications, which is rolling out its fiber-optic FiOs service in New York City. At present, Verizon's top Internet speed is 50 Mbps per second with a starting cost of $140 a month plus a free wireless router. Cablevision is offering its service at $99.95 a month.

The second fastest Internet speed offered by a cable operator is up to 60 Mbps from Charter Communications, but currently it's only available in the St. Louis area. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

UPDATE: K GRILLED C is delicious.

I tasted it and I approve. Delicious, juicy, healthy, and fewer napkins are needed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

KFC now has GRILLED chicken,
and you can try it for FREE

A while ago Kentucky Fried Chicken morphed into mere KFC, to avoid the heart-stopping F-word, and maybe to save money by using smaller signs.

KFC has had various kinds of non-fried fare over the years, including pretty good roasted chicken, and ultra-greasy beef ribs. As other fast feeders like Subway, Wendy's and Mickey Dee's have been promoting "healthier" menus, the heirs to Colonel Harland Sanders are now cooking up grilled chicken.

KFC’s Kentucky Grilled Chicken is marinated and seasoned with a blend of six herbs and spices and "slow-grilled in special ovens." I'm not sure how you can grill in an oven, special or otherwise. So, technically the KGC pieces maybe not be really grilled, but actually baked or roasted, but WTF. The pieces do have grill stripes on them. I hope they're not from Magic Markers. Maybe the pieces are grilled in the chicken factory, and hen reheated in the local restaurants. I'm going to try to get a clarification, and I'll update this posting when I learn more.

KGC is KFC’s second "secret recipe", and the first not developed by Col. Sanders. It has between 70 to 180 calories and four to nine grams of fat depending on the piece. KFC is a bit late to the grilled game, and will compete with El Pollo Loco, Chick-fil-A, and even gilled chicken sandwiches, salads and wraps at "The Inn of the Golden Arches."

KFC is inviting America to sample the new menu item on “UNFry Day,” Monday, April 27. People are encouraged to stop by KFC and receive a FREE piece of Kentucky Grilled Chicken. A full page ad will run in USA Today on April 24 to remind Americans to get their freebies. See www.unthinkfc.com for more details. The website has some funny chicken dancing (you can upload yours), a game, commercials with un-funny outtakes, and an iPhone app.

In addition to the UNFry Day national sampling, KFC also has a new ad campaign challenging America to “UNTHINK What You Thought About KFC.” The TV spot, produced by Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris, contains Kentucky Grilled Chicken endorsements from celebrated chefs Sandra Lee, editor-in-chief of Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade Magazine, and TV One’s G. Garvin.

“The new Kentucky Grilled Chicken is delicious,” said Sandra Lee. “In addition to being a better-for-you option, I love that moms can swing by the drive-thru of their local KFC and pick up an entire meal for the family that is high in quality and taste.” (Blogger's note: I've heard of Sandra Dee, but I have no idea who the hell Sandra Lee is.)

KFC’s KGC recipe is a combination of six herbs and spices that KFC has developed over several years working with one of the world's most well-known spice companies. (K FRIED C has 11.) Only a few KFC executives know the second secret recipe and they have all signed confidentiality agreements to keep the recipe as secret as the Colonel’s Original Recipe. One of them told me the recipe, but if I tell you, I'll have to shoot you -- so don't ask. The original copy of the second secret recipe, kept on an encrypted computer flash drive, will join Colonel Harland Sanders’ handwritten Original Recipe in KFC’s recently beefed-up (chickened-up?) high-security vault.

The high-tech, customized oven used to grill (or roast, or maybe just re-heat) the chicken is proprietary to KFC and is patented, so don't expect to see it at Arby's.

On April 4, KFC conducted a mandatory three-hour session where KFC cooks successfully mastered the KGC cooking process, becoming KFC-certified “Grill Sergeants.” You’ll find a “Grill Sergeant” in restaurants nationwide. It's like the program that Red Lobster did when they introduced their wood-fired grilled menu last year.

KFC has spent major moolah developing and launching the new KGC. If the taste is as good as the marketing, it should be delicious. I just wish I could convince them to bring back KFC chicken noodle soup. It was probably the best I ever had in a restaurant.

Kentucky Grilled Chicken is now available in participating KFC® restaurants nationwide – at the same price as Original Recipe Chicken. A two-piece Grilled meal (breast & wing or drumstick & thigh, along with two side items and a biscuit) is priced at only $3.99 plus tax. You can even mix KFC and KGC in the same bucket.
This is a preview, not a review.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A new way to save gas: drive more smoothly

"Eco-driving" is a technique that combines a racecar driver's skill with the proverbial grandmother's pace. By learning to drive all over again a woman in Phoenix estimates she has boosted her pickup's fuel economy to 21 miles per gallon from 15, a jump of 40% that surpasses the mileage advertised by its manufacturer, Toyota. With that shift in behavior, she has done more to curb oil consumption than most people zooming around in the latest hybrid cars.

Even without futuristic technologies, drivers can achieve amazing fuel economy in their current cars with nothing fancier than their brains and some lighter feet. The idea is to maintain momentum much as on a leisurely bicycle ride: accelerating only gradually, coasting whenever possible and constantly adjusting speed to minimize the need to stop.

The challenge will be to get Americans to ease up instead of variously slamming on the gas and the brakes. In the meantime, as early eco-drivers lower their own emissions, they are certain to raise tempers of the impatient drivers around them.

Trials in Europe, Japan and the US are finding that drivers commonly improve their fuel economy upwards of 20% after deploying a handful of eco-driving techniques, such as driving more slowly on highways, shifting gears earlier in cities and shutting off the engine rather than idling at long stops.

Technology still matters. A car that is lighter and loaded with the latest environmental hardware will use less gasoline than a car that is heavier and conventional under the hood.

Attempts to promote eco-driving have puttered along for at least a decade, mostly in northern Europe. In 1999, Germany began requiring that elements of eco-driving be taught in driver-education classes, in the land of the autobahn and the Porsche. About 800,000 new drivers get their licenses annually in Germany, and they are supposed to learn three basic eco-driving tips.

First, watch the tachometer, not just the speedometer, and shift gears before the car's engine speed reaches 2,000 revolutions per minute to minimize how hard the engine has to work. Second, don't tailgate, because tailgating requires a lot of unnecessary braking and accelerating. Third, coast if an upcoming light is red, letting it turn green so there is no need to stop.

In the US, where 5% of the world's population consumes 23% of its oil, eco-driving has existed so far mostly as a tiny subculture. In "hypermiling," a quirky new competitive pastime, the winning drivers have surpassed 150 miles per gallon in mass-produced hybrids.

The basic hypermiling technique is the "pulse-and-glide." The driver slowly accelerates to about 60% of full throttle -- the point where a car's engine tends to operate most efficiently -- and then steps off the gas, coasting until the car's speed drops. At the right moment, before losing too much speed, the driver gently presses the gas pedal again.

One tip: Drive as if there is a hot cup of coffee in the cup holder at risk of splashing.

Auto makers are enthusiastic eco-driving promoters. Pressured to improve the fuel economy of their vehicles, they see eco-driving as a way to shift some of the responsibility away from themselves and onto their customers.

Ford has been promoting eco-driving for several years in Germany. Last July, Ford flew German Road Safety Council instructors to Detroit to give an eco-driving lesson to drivers from Pro Formance, the Phoenix professional-driving company. A month later, Ford and Pro Formance staged an eco-driving test with 48 drivers, who improved their fuel economy an average of 24%.

To help drivers make the change, car makers have begun providing technological aids, including dashboard gauges that display fuel economy in real time. If drivers see how their behavior affects their energy consumption, they will be more likely to change.

Within the next two years, Nissan plans to start offering in the US and Japan a feature that it calls the "eco-pedal" -- a sensor that, when the driver is accelerating too piggishly, pushes back against the driver's foot.

But Nissan realizes that slow and steady also is the rule when it comes to changing drivers' behavior behind the wheel. "Not every driver likes to be an eco-driver," notes Nissan's Kazuhiro Doi. So Nissan will include a switch that allows drivers to turn the eco-pedal off. (info fro mThe Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Crappy Birthday to me, R.I.P. Dunk'n Donuts pizza, and dog vig

Yesterday was my birthday. It has long been a family tradition that the birthday kid gets to choose the restaurant.

I told my wife that I wanted to celebrate with a delicious (red) clam pizza from Papa's, my favorite local pizzeria. She has been trying to cut back on body-stuffing bread and cheese, and argued in favor of going somewhere where I could get pizza and she could get something else. After much whining, I agreed to go to Vazzi's. It's a pretty good -- not great -- local Italian restaurant that had replaced a truly great Italian restaurant operated by a nice family from Cape Verde.

She ordered veal marsala, and didn't like it. Our niece Allison ordered chicken parm with linguine, and didn't like it. I ordered my red clam pizza and it sucked. The pasta fagioli was cold and loaded with carrots. Yeccch.

My pizza was made perfectly (heavy on the sauce, but light on the cheese, crisp but not burned). Unfortunately the sauce had no flavor and the clams were obviously from the can.

Since none of us finished the unsatisfying meal, the food was packed to take home. I knew I would see the same rejects a few hours later, for supper.

After work, in an effort to avoid the misery, I stopped at the Dunk'n Donuts next to my office to get one of their little car-convenient CD-sized pizzas to eat on the way home. It's not "real" pizza, but it's better than the shit that was waiting for me in the fridge at home.

Alas, my plan failed. The disembodied voice from the speaker squeaked something like "no more pizza."

Dejected, I drove home. Wife tried to push her rejected veal marsala on me, emphasizing how good the mushrooms are. I like mushrooms. I don't like marsala sauce.

The thought of eating the non-Papas clam pizza was too depressing, so I opted for Allison's leftover chicken parm and linguine. Wife wanted to heat it in the microwave. I told her not to bother. I can enjoy cold linguine, and I planned to scrape off the clotted cheese anyway. She insisted that it would taste better hot. I countered that re-heated shit is still shit, and not to bother.

I forced myself to eat a few strands of pasta and a few pieces of chicken and then bailed out. Throughout the meal, my eager-to-eat dog Hunter was in his normal position with his chin firmly perched on my upper right leg, awaiting his "vig."

Vig, from "vigorish," was originally a Yiddish word, derived from a Russian word, now more often associated with Italian mobsters. It's used in several ways. It can be the fee charged by a bookie for his services, or the interest charged by a loanshark, or the 10% "protection" fee paid by a business to the mob to avoid murder and mayhem.

In our family, the vig is the approximately 10-25% of my food (which could be Rice Krispies, scrambled eggs, potato chips, cooled wonton soup, a burger, an apple, or even lobster or steak) that is paid to appease Hunter, the Golden Retriever with the endless appetite.

Hunter is usually quite patient because he knows he'll collect at the end of the meal. Sometimes, however, if he feels that I'm eating too slowly, the pressure of chin-on-upper-leg will increase. Sometimes he'll switch from right leg to left leg. If he gets really impatient, I'll see a damp dark nose emerge from under my armpit. Sometimes he may provide some verbal encouragement to hurry up and pay the vig. If he's extremely pissed off, he'll stand up and put his face in the plate.

If I'm eating something that's inappropriate for canine consumption, I say, "not for doggies." Hunter knows this means that although I don't think he should eat it, if he is willing to wait, he will eventually wear me down. If it's something he really should not eat, like chocolate cake, he'll settle for around 3% vig instead of his usual 10-25%.

However, last night's food sucked so bad, I wouldn't give it to a dog, and certainly not to my dog. He settled for some rice cakes and ice cream. So did I. Not exactly a birthday banquet, but 63 is one of those "dumb" ages that does not merit much commemoration.

Today I will celebrate 63 years plus one day, with a proper clam pizza, at Papa's, alone. I'll save some of the crusts for Hunter.

CLICK for the original blog about Dunk's pizza.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Finally a Japanese dressing you can buy in the supermarket

I love the ginger dressings served in many Japanese restaurants. When I lived in Westchester County, NY, my favorite Japanese restaurant was Noda's.

I was a regular customer and earned two special privileges. Because I drank a lot of water, I got an extra large "sumo size" water glass. I also was able to take home some of Noda-san's special ginger dressing in a cleaned out Kirin beer bottle.

It has always surprised and troubled me that despite the overwhelming effect of Japanese culture on the US (sushi, Kirin, Benihana, Honda, Sony, Godzilla, hentai, anime, karaoki, Nintendo, kanban, judo, transforming toys, pokemon and much more) I could not simply go to the supermarket and buy a bottle of Japanese dressing to take home and slosh on a salad.

Many other nations were represented. There were endless choices of French, Russian, Greek and Italian dressing, but nothing from one of America's most important trading partners. I could even buy dressings with dumb names like Ranch. What the hell does a ranch taste like? Dirt? Cow shit? Cowboy sweat? None of the alternatives have been appealing enough for me to taste it.

Fortunately I don't seem to be the only one seeking the taste of a Japanese salad at home.

Makoto is a Japanese steakhouse in Melbourne, Florida, in business since 1985.

Makotos' customers, like me up north at Noda's, begged to buy their ginger dressing after a meal. Local grocers wanted to buy it for resale, too.

In 1990 they began packaging and selling Makoto dressings and sauces for local retailers in Melbourne, and since then their distribution has expanded across the US, and made me a very happy gaijin. It is absolutely delicious, and I recommend it highly.

Makoto dressings are made with fresh, natural ingredients. In addition to being great on salads, Makoto dressings and sauces are excellent as vegetable dips, sauces or marinades for beef, poultry and fish.

In addition to the traditional ginger dressing, you can also get Makoto Honey Ginger Dressing, Dill Dressing, Seafood Sauce, Teriyaki Sauce, Ginger Slaw Dressing and Vegetable Sauce. Until I typed this list, I didn't realize that they made teriyaki, too, and I'll definitely try it as an alternative to my usual Kikkoman.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dog-friendly Element coming from Honda

At the New York International Auto Show, Honda displayed new dog-friendly transportation concepts designed for the Honda Element.

The Dog Friendly™ components demonstrate the potential for a dedicated pet restraint system designed to meet the needs of dog owners. A finalized version of the Dog Friendly Element is scheduled to debut this fall.

Major components will likely include:

a cushioned pet bed in the cargo area with an elevated platform;
second row and cargo area pet restraint systems;
an extendable cargo area load-in ramp;
a 12V DC rear ventilation fan;
second-row seat covers with a dog pattern design (matches the bed fabric);
all-season rubber floor mats with a toy bone pattern;
a spill-resistant water bowl; and
Dog Friendly exterior emblems.

"In an interesting turn of events, cars are now chasing dogs," said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda. "Factory integration of a cushioned pet bed, restraint systems and other components is intended to transform the Element into the ultimate dog car."

The Dog Friendly equipment, engineered specifically for the Element, is designed to accommodate the transportation of dogs in the second-row passenger seats or in the cargo area. The restraint system concepts were designed and fabricated by Takata Corporation, one of the world's leading automotive safety systems suppliers, exclusively for display on the Dog Friendly Honda Element concept vehicle.

The restraint concepts are intended to complement the potential of the vehicle's existing restraint systems by helping to protect the dog and helping to prevent injuries to other vehicle occupants due to an unrestrained dog impacting them in a collision. For convenience, a ramp is included to help dogs access the rear cargo area. The ramp stores underneath the bed platform and can be conveniently accessed when the rear tailgate is down.

The Element has long been recognized for its dog-friendly interior with an easy-to-clean urethane floor and expansive, flat cargo area (up to 74.6 cu-ft. with rear seats removed), wide-opening side cargo doors, low lift-in height, and accommodating dimensions for tall items. The consumer pet travel advice Web site, Dogcars.com, honored the 2007 Honda Element with its first-ever "Dog Car of the Year" award.

Substantially restyled for the 2009 model year and available with new features, the Honda Element builds on its spacious and versatile SUV character with a more chiseled exterior appearance and a refreshed interior design. Three unique Element styles are available that range from the rugged and simple Element LX, to the more refined Element EX, to the sporty Element SC.

Powered by a 2.4-liter i-VTEC® 4-cylinder engine, the Element is available with either a 5-speed manual transmission (standard) or an available 5-speed automatic transmission. Available Real Time 4WD™ can enhance all-weather traction. The interior provides seating for up to four people along with a cargo area that adapts to large items with its flip-up rear seats that fold flat, fold up and to the side, or can be removed altogether (64-plus seating arrangements). The Element EX has a water resistant urethane-coated utility floor that wipes down for ease-of-cleaning and seat fabric that resists moisture.

For 2009, all Elements incorporate significant exterior styling changes that include new front grille and bumper designs, restyled front fenders (now metal, previously composite material), a new hood design, squared wheel arches, and new headlight and taillight configurations. Interior enhancements include revised dashboard color combinations with titanium-look side linings, new fabric patterns, and enhanced switchgear designs and instrument panel meter graphics. The Element EX exclusively adds a new convertible center console with a removable cooler/storage box. (Photo from The Wall Street Journal)
This is a preview, not a review.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Time out

I'm taking a few days off.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Segway with roof and a seat

General Motors is working with Segway, maker of upright, self-balancing scooters, to build a new type of two-wheeled vehicle designed to move easily through congested urban streets.

The machine (Project PUMA, Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility), which GM says it aims to develop by 2012, would run on batteries and use wireless technology to avoid traffic backups and navigate cities.

GM and Segway say the vehicle could allow people to travel around cities more quickly, safely, quietly and cleanly, and at a lower total cost.

The struggling auto maker, surviving on a government lifeline, is looking to generate enthusiasm for its appearance at the New York auto show this week.

GM has slashed product-development programs, advertising and spending on auto show events, but it will have PUMA on the streets of Manhattan today to show off.

The Segway Personal Transporter was launched with considerable hype eight years ago but practical issues prevented the scooter from becoming a mass-market product, including its relatively high cost and restrictions on its use in many jurisdictions.

GM is betting PUMA's more car-like traits -- an enclosed compartment and top speed of 35 miles per hour -- will lead to better results. GM didn't say how much the machines would cost, but research chief Larry Burns said owners would spend one-third to one-fourth of the cost of a traditional vehicle.

PUMA would have a range of about 35 miles. GM said it aims to use so-called vehicle-to-vehicle technology to avoid traffic problems and potentially have it navigate itself through city streets. Info and photo from The Wall Street Journal)

If you don't mind pink, you can save big on a camera

The Kodak EasyShare C813 sells for $89.95 direct from Kodak, and usually goes for $75 to $200 elsewhere.

If you don't mind being seen with a pink camera, or actually like pink or know someone who likes pink, you can get the camera for just $65 in a special limited-time deal at OfficeMax.

8.2 MP for prints up to 30 × 40 in.
3X optical zoom lens
2.4 in. indoor/outdoor color display
Digital image stabilization
High ISO, up to 1250
HD still capture
Video with sound and print options

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sunshine, Ocean, Fiat and Dire Straits
Make My Day

Yesterday was the first perfect top-down day of the year.

The morning temperature was in the mid-40s. It was too cold for driving, so I puttered around in the garage, shined up the ancient Fiat 124 Spider and replaced a fuse that restored operation of fuel gage, directional signals and fuel pump. I could live without the fuel gage, but it's tough to drive without a functioning fuel pump. The dual Weber carbs need liquid gasoline -- not just fumes and memories.

By one in the afternoon it was 52 degrees, the sun was shining, I was in a pair of shorts and a Fiat-red shirt with Fiat-red Seiko on my wrist, and eager to greet the Spring. Per my standard ritual I cued up my hit-the-road theme song "Money For Nothing" (I want my MTV, chicks for free, etc.) and hit the road.

I started my trip with a five mile drive west on the Boston Post Road so I could try to get some spare fuses at Pep Boys.

As usual, the road was filled with shoppers, but I hardly noticed them. I was absorbed in the sound of Dire Straits and my engine. I might have been as loud as the assholes who blast hiphop from their Hondas, but if anyone complained I felt I could easily defend my action and not merely flip the bird in response. No one complained and I received a few smiles and thumbs-up. I know that Dire Straits deserves and demands max SPL (maximum sound pressure level, i.e. HIGH volume). I didn't need approval, but the positive reaction felt good.

I was thrilled and surprised that Pep Boys did have weird fuses for an old Italian car. I bought some extras, because future availability is certainly uncertain. When I got out of the store there was a small crowd around the car. I'm used to that. The most common question is always "what year is it?" I point to my license plate (ITSA-78) to answer the question. Thirty-one years old used to be old. It's not anymore. Neither is nearly-63.

I got back on the road and headed south toward Long Island Sound, still grooving to Dire Straits coming from the huge Pioneer TS-TRX40 speakers behind me powered by a big-watt Opti-Lanzar 2X150D power amp in the trunk, connected directly to the car's battery. Although the new Kenwood KDC-MP338 receiver in the 31-year-old dashboard can play AM, FM, XM and iPod, I tend to just play the Brothers In Arms CD over and over.

When I got to Jimmies in Savin Rock, I headed west to follow the shoreline. The water and the world were on my left. The right seat and my mind were filled with the spirit of an old girlfriend whom I know would have enjoyed the trip.

I've always felt empowered by the ocean, and by the sun. They're the source of life, and joy. When I feel sick, I soak up some rays. I can feel the sun penetrate my body and drive out the "evil spirits." Water is my favorite toy. I've often said that if God never got around to creating dry land, I would not complain. I could be a very happy sea creature, eating other sea creatures.

Floating is just plain magic. Swimming underwater is close to flying. (Astronauts train in big tanks with diving gear.) When I'm under water I can move left, right, forward, reverse, up or down. Gravity becomes irrelevant. The feeling of freedom while driving a sports car is pretty close to flying, too.

Even up on the surface, ocean equals freedom. If I had the strength and supplies, I could walk from the beach into the ocean in Connecticut, and walk from the ocean onto the beach in Spain or Japan. No highways or airports are necessary to see the world. If I chose to hollow out a tree and carve oars or weave a sail, my trans-ocean voyage would be more likely to succeed. Ocean equals freedom, and life.

For about 30 minutes I followed four guys on motorcycles. It seemed like we had the same emotional objective and physical itinerary so the four-wheeler bonded with the two-wheelers. It was the vehicular equivalent of the "zipless fuck" that Erica Jong wrote about in Fear of Flying.

At one time another old guy in a bright red Ferrari approached from the other direction. In a pleasant and completely unexpected violation of sports car etiquette, the Ferrari driver waved first. Traditionally, drivers of equal cars try to wave simultaneously, but in an economic mismatch the driver of the lesser car pays homage to the superior vehicle and waves first, hoping for a fleeting recognition. Ferrari Guy recognized a kindred spirit, and so did I.

The bikers and I passed lots of ordinary cars, other bikers, kids and adults on un-engined bikes, one horse rider, and lots of dogs with their dog-walkers. I was disturbed by seeing many cool cars being driven by people who didn't appreciate them, and therefore didn't deserve them. What kind of an asshole would own a Porsche 911 and keep the top up on a perfect top-down day? With a car like that, on a day like this, I'd put the top down even for a two-minute trip to 7-11 for a quart of milk.

The call of the ocean was irresistible, like the Sirens' songs in Greek mythology, so I parked at a nice beach in Milford. I had no beach blanket, but I just stretched out on some warm grass, closed my eyes and absorbed the sunlight and sea-smell breeze and dreamed for awhile.

I got up from the beach and got back in the car and kept following the shoreline west. I kept the engine speed at about 4500 RPM. It was a bit higher than normal, but the exhaust sounded great, and the "throttle response" was amazing. I was either in second or third gear and the slightest change in gas pedal pressure caused an immediate reaction from the engine and the Yokohama A378 tires on the pavement.

The speed limit signs meant nothing to me. I wasn't racing, but was breaking the law, maybe doing 40MPH in a 25 zones. Part of the magic of being in a small car with a high-revving engine is that 40 can feel like 80. When I'm on the highway, with the wind blowing, there is sufficient ecstasy at 55 and seldom any need to enter the fast lane. Other cars may pass me, but it's unlikely that the drivers' fun surpasses mine.

Driving a car with a 5-speed transmission (even a somewhat loose 31-year-old 5-speed) is a special experience. I would never want a car with a manual transmission if I had to drive in Manhattan every day, but in a sports car on the right roads it's ecstasy, car-gasm, wander-lust.

A car with an automatic transmission ("slush box") can drive itself, at least until it hits a wall.

A car with a manual transmission and no driver would probably stall before it hits the wall.

A car with an automatic transmission is needed by the driver to get somewhere.

A car with a manual transmisison needs the driver to go anywhere.

The car and driver have to combine in the human-mechanical equivalent of Mr. Spock's "Vulcan Mind Meld." They become one. The tires, tranny, brakes and engine had direct links to my cerebral cortex. Continuing the Star Trek analogy, it's Borg-like, but I'm not sure who or what does the assimilating. I suppose I was the humanoid drone that was assimilated by the Fiat/Borg Collective. The Fiat was my bright red cybernetic implant -- but I volunteered for the implant.

In an ideal world, Fiat drivers would have evolved with three feet to handle the three pedals sprouting from the firewall. It's not just gas pedal and brake pedal, but there's a clutch pedal. The three pedals both invite and require a delicate interplay between the right and left feet to maintain the car in the proper position while "hovering" on an upward slope at a red light.

When the light goes green, the foot movement has to be just right to avoid stalling and seeming like an asshole (especially in a loud, bright red car) or sliding back and crashing into the car behind you. "Heel and toe" and "double clutching" add to the control. They're not necessary with modern cars and pretty much a lost art. I'm not sure if I can still do them.

As planned, I headed north through Milford and Orange into Derby. I had two five-mile laps on the Wilbur Cross Parkway to give the car its annual "Italian tuneup" (drive with the tach at the red line to blow the crap out of the carbs), and then a great ride on the Derby-Milford Road and Wheelers Farm Road, and went home.

This next part seems like bullshit and I'd yell BULLSHIT if I saw it in a movie; but I swear it's true.

Exactly as I entered my driveway, I heard Dire Straits start to sing: "Now look at them yo-yo's, that's the way you do it. You play the gee-tar on the MTV. That ain't workin', that's the way you do it. Money for nothin' and chicks for free."

My odyssey was ending on the same note it had begun with. The overture and the finale of my loud-but-personal symphony were identical. I shut off the engine but kept the CD running. I shut my eyes and leaned back to absorb the sounds and the sun.

When the song ended I opened my eyes and saw a neighbor standing next to the car looking down on me. He said, "At first I thought you were dead, but then I saw your knee moving along with the bass beat, and the smile on your face, so I knew you were OK."

I was much more than OK. I just had the perfect day.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Vanity, laziness and Michael's
baby/old-man sneaks

I'm not lazy. It's just that I think some things are not worth the effort they require. Even though many other people think it's not much effort and the end results are worth it.

I'm selective about the things I will work at and work for. I have limited time, and have to establish priorities.

I guess that means I'm selectively lazy.

I'm also selectively vain.

I long ago decided that I'd risk "blepharoplasty" surgery if I developed old-people hanging bags under my eyes. I could not stand seeing them in the mirror and I check for them periodically.

My neck has suddenly developed some loose skin. It's usually hidden by my beard, but I hate my mirror during the first few days after a beard trim. I'm not sure if I'll go for plastic surgery or a long ZZ Top beard or a big supply of turtleneck shirts, or keep my chin tilted down.

On the other hand, I'm too lazy to get involved with a hairpiece, so the whole world knows I've lost most of my top-of-head hair.

I'm too lazy to get involved with contact lenses, so the whole world knows I need glasses.

Except for a few brief interludes, I gave up on shoes with laces many decades ago.

I got along fine with loafers, boots, sandals, sneakers with Velcro straps, and even rubber beach booties.

Two years ago I discovered Crocs. They were comfortable, durable, grotesquely fashionable, inexpensive, suitable for work, weddings, beach, backyard and bedroom.

Two weeks ago my podiatrist proclaimed I had a heel spur and Achilles tendonitis. He prescribed cold packs, twice-weekly physical therapy and new shoes. Real shoes, not Crocs. And with laces. Something with support.

I told him I don't wear real shoes. When I was in college, I often went to class barefoot, like my ape ancestors. Merely enclosing my foot is a major compromise, and maybe going against nature. Except in the winter.

I have a few real shoes for funerals, but I'll be barefoot or Croc-ed at mine.

The doc offered a compromise, New Balance sneakers, with almost as much support as shoes.

I went to a local shoe store. The NBs cost over a hundred bucks. I remember when regular sneakers cost $5.98 and expensive ones went for three bucks more.

But the NBs were comfortable, and they were even available with Velcro instead of laces. I thought I could live with that.

When I was trying them on, there was a little kid a few seats away from me, getting new lace-up dress shoes for Easter. His old and tattered Vecro sneakers were on the floor nearby. He was about four years old. He saw my new Velcro-equipped NBs. He laughed. He pointed to me and said, "look Mommy, that old man is wearing baby shoes like I used to wear." His mother told him to be quiet and that it's not nice to point.

When I got to the office, Cynical Cousin Dave laughed and pointed, too.

He said, "Nice old-man shoes, Gramps. When are you moving to Florida?"

Dave is about 36 years younger than I am. He has a huge sneaker collection, including weird pink ones. He sometimes serves as an artistic advisor for my websites and book covers, and keeps me aware of Gen-X fashion trends. I think his hats are stupid, but he has a good graphic sense and I like his T-shirts and we usually agree on wristwatches. I knew he wouldn't sanction Velcro, but I thought he'd agree that the NB bottoms were cool. He said the bottoms were not cool enough to counteract the Velcro.

I know he's right. There is a fundamental visual flaw in Velcro-ized footwear. The vertical gap in a shoe just doesn't easily coexist with the two horizontal straps. Laces really do look better. Snapjacks, which I wore in sixth grade, were a visually coherent solution and a good compromise among vanity, utility and lazyness. Alas, they disappeared around 1960.

In 2009 I'm getting abuse for being a baby and for being ancient. All because of Velcro.

I'm just not sure if laziness will continue to beat vanity. My podiatrist will be pleased if I vote for vanity.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Panasonic lawyers lose April Fools' fight

April Fooler Michael N. Marcus Rejects Panasonic Gag Order, Urges People to Attend Free Speech Rally at Patrick Henry Memorial in Virginia

Michael N. Marcus is an author, businessman and April Fooler. Born in April, Marcus says April Fools' Day and Halloween are his favorite holidays. For nearly ten years, he's "pranked" electronics manufacturer Panasonic in early April, but this year his perennial victim has gotten tough, and has threatened court action to block the pranking. Marcus remains defiant despite the threat.

Marcus is president of AbleComm, Inc., a Connecticut-based supplier of telecommunications equipment. The company's main phone system brand is Panasonic. Marcus said, "I also own some Panasonic stock, and I review Panasonic electronic products on my GottaGet1 blog. I have a lot of respect for the company, but that doesn't mean I can't have some fun with it."

Marcus continued, "Since the mid 1990s, I've distributed an April Fools' news report about a mythical press conference that took place at a non-existent hotel, where fake people announced fake corporate policy changes and fake new products. For those who were in on it, It became an eagerly awaited annual tradition. Lots of people love my spoofs, but gullible victims, of course, don't. Some of my fake news has actually become real news in later years."

The annual custom reached a new height in April, 2008. Marcus realized that the public and the news media were becoming increasingly sophisticated and skeptical of "news" distributed with a 4/1 date. So, to enhance credibility, he skipped the first of the month and distributed a spoof two days later.

Early on April 3, 2008 he launched a 90%-false press release. The press release contained several revelations, but the most important was that Panasonic would be manufacturing cellphones with plasma video displays. A few months earlier Panasonic demonstrated the world's largest plasma TV, so Marcus decided they should also have the smallest.

Through very lucky timing, a few days before the "news" went out, AT&T had announced their Mobile TV service for watching shows and sports on cellphones, which added usefulness and legitimacy to the fictitious device.

Within a few hours, the story was picked up and published by websites around the world. Many news writers added original material to demonstrate their extensive knowledge of the phony subject; but only one of them called Marcus to check on the story, and Marcus told him that it was a spoof.

Mobileburn.com was particularly fanciful in enhancing the fake news. They said "Panasonic took the stage at CTIA 2008 this week with partner AbleComm to announce that it has been working with AT&T to develop plasma displays for mobile phones, for use with the carrier's new Mobile TV service." There was absolutely nothing in the news release about an appearance at the CTIA event or Panasonic "working with AT&T.".

Crunchgear.com had a headline that read, "AT&T wants Panasonic to develop plasma screens for cellphones." The news release never said that, and neither did AT&T.

Some people at Panasonic laughed as expected, but some, particularly new employees who were unaware of the tradition, were upset. One outraged exec sent an email saying that Marcus caused "people to lose thousands of productive working hours." Panasonic demanded that the news distribution service that Marcus had used issue a retraction -- and this added fuel to the fire.

The retraction generated more coverage of the fake news, and personal insults, Marcus explained. "Several websites that received the retraction accused me of forgetting what day it was. One critic with dubious credentials said it was a "late, poorly executed April Fools' joke," and another called me an April Idiot. Actually it was not late, and it was extremely well executed, and my mother didn't have any stupid kids."

"There's certainly no rule that limits hoaxing to one day per year," Marcus continued. "No one who was filmed for TV's Candid Camera on 3/20 or 10/15 objected because it wasn't 4/1. Similarly the celebrities who were victims on the MTV show Punk'd may have grumbled, but not because they were not punked on the first day of the fourth month. And the subjects of "Stuttering John" interviews on The Howard Stern Show didn't check the date before deciding to participate."

Many of the websites that ran the news of the retraction, but had not run the original fake news, ran it with the retraction, thus increasing the circulation and readership of the spoof.

Some victims were complimentary.

Dailytech.com said, "Yesterday AbleComm sent out a press release that was all very believable talking about how Panasonic was going to be using small plasma displays in a mobile phone designed to be used on the new AT&T Mobile TV service launching in May. The release was professional, interesting and all very plausible replete with quotes from Panasonic and all. It didn't take long before the story was all around the internet…"

Some websites were actually suspicious of the retraction. Phonemag.com said it "Looks like someone let the plasma cat out of the proverbial bag too soon, and is now desperately backtracking to try to salvage a business relationship. It's unclear whether this was a deliberate or accidental occurrence, though the release was sizable and contained multiple quotes from all the parties involved which lends weight to the idea that it was an authentic document prematurely distributed."

In anticipation of another April Fools "attack" this year, Panasonic's law firm Katz, Honigman, Shapiro and Flynn sent a registered letter to Marcus last week warning him against further spoofing. The attorneys told Marcus that "unless you agree to restrain yourself, Panasonic will go to Court to obtain a restraining order against you."

Years earlier, Panasonic's in-house legal department had warned Marcus not to contact the then-new head of Panasonic's Business Telephone Systems division, and Marcus refused to obey.

Now in 2009, Marcus is once again making a stand for freedom of speech and freedom of fun.

He said, "It's ridiculous that the company that I have invested my money in, and that makes products that I sell and recommend, will spend money and time merely because they have no sense of humor. I will not be silenced. I will not obey a "gag order" even if they convince a court to issue one. We are living in dark times, and Panasonic and the rest of the world need to lighten up."

"Freedom of speech is a fundamental part of American culture," Marcus emphasized. "In 1791 it was guaranteed in the very first Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. Even earlier, in 1215, free speech was included in the British Magna Carta, and the caliph Umar incorporated free speech as part of Islamic law in the 7th century."

Marcus invites all supporters of free speech, both serious and spurious, to gather on April 1 at 2:00 p.m. at the Patrick Henry National Memorial in Virginia, about 35 miles south of Lynchburg.

Patrick Henry is known for his immortal words supporting the American Revolution in 1775: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" The rally will take place at the Orator's Stage, near Henry's grave and law office. All attendees will be allowed five minutes each to address the audience on any topic. While there will be no censorship, Marcus urges that speakers "keep it clean" because there will probably be children in the audience. The address is 1250 Red Hill Road, Brookneal, VA 24528.

Marcus noted, "My former spoof victims and passive co-conspirators have been eagerly waiting to see what I would devise for this year. I won't let them down and will not be intimidated by lawyers. I'm reminded of what John Belushi said in his Bluto Blutarski role in Animal House: "Over? Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!"

The merry prankster proclaimed, "I proudly reiterate the defiant words of Bluto Blutarsky. I say to Panasonic and to its uptight attorneys, Hell no!"

"It's time they realize that pranks, spoofs and put-ons are part of normal American life, and should be responded to with a smile, not an injunction," Marcus concluded. "Besides, most people know not to believe anything they read on the first day of April."

Michael N. Marcus is author of the recently published I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life, Phone Systems & Phones for Small Business & Home, and The AbleComm Guide to Phone Systems, all available at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.

(Patrick Henry painting by George Matthews from the U. S. Senate website. Michael N. Marcus photo by Cloe Poisson. © 2008 The Hartford Courant.)

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