Friday, May 28, 2010

Vortex Time?

I took a moment this week to ponder the ever more ridiculous innovations in the beer drinking market ("beervations" to the initiated) after having the opportunity to try Miller Lite's new vortex bottle.

If you missed the commercials and online ads trumpeting this bold step forward in technology, a Miller Lite vortex bottle employs "specially designed" grooves in the spout of the longneck. These grooves, which remind me a bit of rifling, channel the beer in a way that it swirls deliciously into the drinker's mouth. With this level of genius and "outside the box" thinking, we should get these thinkers working on the oil spill problem in the gulf.

Sampling one of these new bottles at McFadden's Restaurant and Saloon on Wednesday evening, I was struck by how ridiculous this trend of one-upsmanship is becoming. Long ago beer executives passed beyond the "hey, why don't we try putting this stuff in an aluminum can" stage of innovation. Now we're in the "hey, my can should tell me when it's at the perfect temperature to chug" stage.

I am sure this has been going on for a while. With my quarter century of experience, I can remember the heralded release of Bud's "born on date" or Samual Adams' "drink by date." How little time appears to have passed since Coor's widemouth pour cans hit the supermarket coolers or those beer cans with the vent to increase refreshocity.
It smacks of overcompensation. If the aluminum can the brewer is using as a "beer delivery system" needs to be outfitted with all sorts of bells and whistles to make the perfect pour at the perfect consistency at the right temperature, then it's probably not a good beer. Hell, the Brits drink their beer at a little under room temperature and it tastes fine (or so I'm told).

I was less than overwhelmed by the vortex bottle. Did it change the drinking experience for me? Not really. I mean a Miller Lite is a Miller Lite is a Miller Lite. A step up from Busch and several flights of stairs down from a Harpoon.

I'll give the execs over at MillerCorp this: they did somehow get me to buy a Miller Lite.

Oh wait, now I remember, the bar's taps were broken. That's why I ordered a Miller Lite.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Metro to consider hikes Thursday

We know it's coming, but not when. We understand there is a shortfall, but not exactly why. We have an idea of the hole that needs to be filled, but not how much will come directly from our wallets.

We know times are tough, but maybe this is a stretch.

Metro fare hikes are on the way, though the specifics of the plan have not been publicized. Neither the media or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority have released the details surrounding the plan to make up a $189 million budget hole for FY '11. This much is known: the Metro needs revenue and the best way of getting it is from their users.

On May 13 the finance and administration committee turned their plan for proposed fee hikes over to the full board, according to The Washington Post. Here's what WaPo's transportation beat team reported at the time:

"Options include a 15 percent hike in rail fares and a 20 percent increase in bus fares.

Peak rail fares could go from $1.65 to $1.90 and bus fares from $1.25 to $1.50."

Also being weighed are new "peak of the peak" rail fares, an additional charge during the service times when ridership is heaviest, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m."

This is expected to raise about $104 million for the Metro... which just leaves the remaining $85 million to deal with. There's no word yet on how that's going to get resolved, explaining why some members of board are less than pleased with the approach. Once again, from WaPo:

"Other members disagreed with taking the unusual step of moving forward with a significant fare increase without considering the entire $1.4 billion operating budget.

'I'm very uncomfortable," said Graham, the only committee member to vote against the fare package. "This is a flawed process.'"

The full board is expected to pick this up on May 27. So by Friday we commuters may know how much more we ought to start loading onto our SmartTrip cards every week.

One can't help but find fault with the Metro's spin on their "Peak of the Peak" rate hike, if what The Washington Examiner's Kytja Weir reports is correct. Not only will a potential spike in cost help make up some of that deficit, it also will "encourage riders to spread out their trips."

Good to know. I hope everyone who uses the Metro on a regular basis has that kind of flexibility at their jobs.

The official word from Metro officials is a bit more muted. Officials will likely make service adjustments, i.e. cutting back on trains, to fill in a portion of the budget hole. According to a Metro press release, after six hearings on the issue it's clear the public prefers fare hikes over adjustments:

"'During the public comment period, we received a great deal of input from customers,' said Sarles. 'We have taken these inputs into account as we propose a solution that we feel balances the FY2011 budget as well as the interests of all in the region fairly.'"

The release also notes the Metro is considering cutting 313 positions, eliminating pay raises for non-union employees, increased contributions from Virginia and Maryland and divert capital funds to preventative maintenance. You can see their proposed fare changes here and their full release here. Other than that, the Metro hasn't done a particularly good job of outlining why they need cash and why they need it now.

But maybe there's a white knight or two riding in to the rescue. As I write it appears a few members of the U.S. Senate are pulling a cavalry act and pitching a $2 billion Public Transportation Preservation Act of 2010 to ease the pain of floundering public rail and bus services across the country.

I guess in the end, myself and several hundred thousand other D.C. area commuters may be spared the fee hike, thanks in part to generous taxpayers of, let's say, Montana.

So thanks Montana.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Facing Facebook

I'm beginning to think Mark Zuckerberg thrives off of bad publicity.

Another year, another privacy-related imbroglio surrounding Zuckerberg's brainchild, (I'd throw in a hyperlink here, but what's the point?). This came to my attention a few weeks ago when word was first getting out Facebook was sharing information on your profile page with third party Web sites. I did some digging on the subject after Facebook forced me to adopt linked pages to everything on my profile, from my hometown and high school to my list of favorite movies.

Zuckerberg will have to pry that information out my cold dead hands. I don't want him sharing the fact that I actually really enjoyed Reign of Fire with anybody but my friends.

I'd explain the nuances of Facebook's changes, but a Google news search will bring up several thousand hits from reputable sources. Do your own research, people.

What has piqued my curiosity is the outrage and surprise. Users are deleting their accounts, people are protesting, the media has thrown their spotlight on the social networking site's privacy settings for the umpteenth time and even congress is looking into doing something about it.

I don't mean to gloss over the concerns of others regarding their privacy rights on the Internet and I certainly don't mean to oversimplify their arguments. I can understand why people are upset. I can't understand why they didn't see this coming.

By joining Facebook, you tacitly agree to give your personal information to someone else, namely Zuckerberg and his team of Web geniuses. Thems are the rules. If you don't want to share your name, gender, likes, dislikes, opinions on politics, music and anything else under the sun, you don't have to join.

It's very simple.

What's problematic is that our Internet-driven society has come to depend upon Facebook. Businesspeople use it to network, journalists to find sources, friends to reconnect... The list goes on and on. For many of us, Facebook is a resource we use on a daily basis.

But that doesn't change the fact that we've already agreed to freely hand over everything about us.

If Zuckerberg's recently released college IMs have any truth in them - and still reflect how he feels about privacy - he sees it the same way.

Look at it this way (Editors Note: I'm awful with analogies, so if this falls flat don't blame me): some time ago in Washington, D.C. the authorities built the Metro. I don't have a car, but I work in the city and live in the 'burbs. Thus I depend on the Metro to get to work. Now that I've become adjusted to using the Metro every day, should I demand that it be free? Would I be right to demand it be free?

To sum up, it's a two-way street. Facebook connects us to the rest of the world. It just comes with a price. In this information age, what we've given up is worth its weight in gold.

Oh and do I think Facebook and Zuckerberg are going to survive this? Absolutely.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Around the world in an afternoon

Who was the guy who decided it'd be a good idea to lick the bottom of a beer barrel?

I only ask because I had the opportunity to try Vegemite this weekend. Sure, I've heard it's awful, disgusting and made from the leftover yeast of beer brewing process. But on the other hand, if Men At Work like it, how bad can it be?

The word I'd choose to describe the subtle yet haunting flavor of Vegemite is... Interesting.

Picture this: It's a warm, muggy not-yet-summer day in the District. The sun bears down from a cloudless sky. There is little to no breeze. We're standing in line outside the Australian Embassy. We're there for one reason. That reason is a Vegemite sandwich.

An embassy staffer, blessed with a charming Aussie accent (put a shrimp on the barbie charming) and donning a Washington Nat's cap delivered Vegemite samples on a silver tray. Color me pleased. Despite the way that taste lingered in the back of my mouth.

Around the World Day, or whatever they call it, in the District of Columbia is the one day (that I know of) you can tour the various embassies, sample local dishes, listen to the music and other cultural engagements. If you don't mind a few lines and the occasional deadbeat foreign government (Croatia only had a tour of their embassy, whereas South Korea served up BBQ ribs. Croatia 0, Republic of Korea 1) it's a great way to spend an otherwise lazy Saturday.

It's a tough day on the feet if you want to scope out as many embassies as possible. Though Mass Ave is the well-known home to the world's representatives to the United States, these stately manors are spread throughout the city. We managed eight, from deliciously strong coffee at Columbia to a dance party at Iraq's place.

Maybe you missed out this past weekend, but never fear, Europe is up next. So get out there. Try some culture.