See the sights

Last night, devoted VM reader Elayne text-messaged me to let me know that she had just bumped into Gabriel Byrne. Today, my wife calls to let me know that she just bumped into Peyton Manning (the gravity field of his enormous noggin made this inevitable, I bet).

Me? I work in northern NJ, so about all I can hope for is to cross paths with Danny Aiello.

The Music of the Spheres

Sorry to be out of touch, dear readers. I was busy finishing up the last stages of the Top Companies issue, plus dealing with our annual conference. For some reason, whenever I finish up this issue, I get sorta down. Maybe all that writing and research leaves me drained, but I think it might be that I don’t feel it was good enough, and that triggers a bit of a depression. If I only had more time, resources, expertise, etc., I could make the report that much better.

But it’s off to the printer, and now I have a little while to breathe.

Some of you have e-mailed to ask about the new header-picture for this site. It’s from a postcard I bought in Budapest, at a park devoted to old Soviet-era statues. I posted a bunch about my trip in July 2004 (look it up in the archives), and also put the pictures up on Flickr. That guy’s around 35 feet tall, and mighty imposing, so I laughed when he got recontextualized in that postcard.

And I went to the beach!

To use the local parlance, Amy & I “went down the shore” this weekend, staying at her friend’s place in Lavallette, NJ. It was only a 27-hour getaway (so as to avoid traffic), but refreshing. We lounged on the front porch, lounged out on the beach and read while listening to guys who made Gino the Ginny sound tame, cooked up fajitas, watched Sexy Beast, and meandered down the Seaside Heights boardwalk on a Saturday night.

It’s that last one that I know you want to hear about, and I’m peeved that I forgot to bring my camera with me on that journey, since it was filled with awesome sights.

Starting with the tattoo/piercing shop that had two studios with big windows facing out onto the boardwalk. That’s right; you can stand outside and gawk as knuckleheads get inked with “tribal bands” for tribes they don’t belong to. It’s captivating. When we passed the shop, a woman was getting something tattooed on her ankle while her underaged kids sat in the studio. We started to wonder if the windows were actually two-way mirrors, and they had no idea we were watching.

The people-watching vibe held up; they just weren’t behind glass. The Saturday night attire was fantastic, what with the boardwalk’s cosmopolitan mix of gaudy Italians, gaudy Puerto Ricans and gaudy black people, all dressed to the, um, fours. Maybe to the fives, but definitely not to the nines.

There was the obligatory “Jersey Girl” stamped across the ass of a girl’s sweat-shorts, the combo of “wife-beaters” and Italian horn necklaces, the throwback basketball jerseys (and a Utah Jazz DeShawn Stevenson authentic: what’s up with that?), the generally short (except when way short) skirts, and the families with baby carriages, just taking an evening out on the promenade.

We stopped in front of some T-shirt places, where we considered buying several novelties:

“Two tickets to the gun show” (with arrows pointing at the arms)

“Free hand lotion” (with an arrow pointing straight down)

I (Heart) My Italian Stallion

I (Heart) Black Guys

I (Heart) Puerto Rican Guys

(but no I (Heart) Jewish Guys, sad to say)

Later, we walked by a video arcade where a pair of teens were playing Percussion Master, a drum-based game. You have three different drums to hit, and you have to follow the symbols scrolling down the screen to get the sequence right.

Scott, who loves this sorta stuff (he was playing Guitar Heroes on his PS2 earlier in the afternoon), waited for them to finish and then popped in his coins.

He selected the Easy level, which I cruelly hoped would consist solely of Def Leppard songs, but in fact contained some goofy dance tracks. No Underworld or Chemical Brothers, unfortunately; I guess those come in the later rounds. Scott drummed pretty well, even though his avatar in the game was a Japanese schoolgirl.

But the video arcade actually brings us to the real reason we hit the Boardwalk that night: reconnaissance!

See, my brother and his family are planning to come out to NJ next month, and it’s my mission to find a boardwalk that has our favorite pastime: a functioning Addams Family pinball machine. And Scott knew exactly where we could find one.

Strangely, it seems that I’ve never written about pinball on this blog. I’m amazed by this fact, because it’s actually a subject I can ramble on about at length (and am about to).

To paraphrase A River Runs Through It, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and pinball.”

My brother and I both love to play pinball–and this particular machine–but we play in very different ways. Like the brothers in Maclean’s sublime story, our methods say something about how we each achieve grace in this world.

Why does the Addams Family machine enthrall us? It’s a combination of the tricky-but-not-tortured layout of the playing-field, the “mission” aspect of the 13 mansion rooms (you want rules?), and all those great Raul Julia and Anjelica Houston soundclips that it plays.

About those clips: I hadn’t played a machine about three or four years, until Saturday night, but it all came back to me as I played my first game:

“Quicksand, fumes, toxic waste . . . It’s all ours!”

“Good show, old man!”

“Raise the dead! Out to the cemetery! Come on, everybody!”

“Dirty pool, old man . . . I like it!”

And, during the apocalyptic buildup to the multiball sequence, “SHOWTIME!”

(What’s great is that my wife was watching me play this, as Scott and I called out these lines in the loud arcade (“The Mamushka!” “It’s Cousin It!”). I say “great” insofar as I mean “pathetic.” I have an impression of what I look like when I’m playing, actually, and it’s not pretty. Because I tend to lean on my palms, middle fingers on the flippers, the rest of my body is sorta slack while the tension runs between my shoulders, as if I’m on braces. It’s like a feedback loop, in which I’ve simply extended the circuit of the machine, and I’m afraid it makes me look like a zombie slave of the machine. Which would be so different than how I usually look.)

To my brother, the game is a matter of precision, of slowing down the field of play and making every shot count. For example, when the ball kicks out of The Swamp, he traps it on the lower right flipper so he can size up his shot toward the Electric Chair, the Bear Kick Ramp, or the Thing Ramp. He’s awfully accurate in that scenario.

Me? Most times, I’m in the “Mark McGwire vs. Randy Johnson” school, where I take the momentum of the kickout and connect it to a well-timed hit from the flipper. It’s done on instinct, and a quick twitch (who just finished re-reading All The King’s Men?) that fires the ball (pretty much) where I want it. And it’s not as embarrassing as missing the shot when you’ve got the ball trapped on your flipper.

These styles carry throughout the game: my brother tries to slow the game down, while I try to speed it up. It’s most obvious during a multiball sequence, when three balls are in play at once. That’s when I give up on any semblance of control, instead chasing all three in their dance, influenced though they are by the fluctuating magnet near the center of play (“The Power”). I jokingly call it “The Music of the Spheres,” but I find a beauty in it, melding physics, chaos (lousy Power), and Hollywood (“Jackpot!”).

It’s interesting to note that, while I’m much more into the speed of the game, I’m much less into putting english on it. I rarely bump the machine, except very subtly. My brother tends to tilt more than I do. If a bad bounce leads to the ball going down an outlane, I tend to punch my palm, and let it go. I also like to leave a free game on the machine: libation to the pinball gods.

None of this is to sneer at my brother’s style of play. It mirrors the way we learned Attic Greek together (because that’s how we spent the summer of 1992). I had a natural facility for it, while Boaz had to bust his butt night in and night out. I never had to, and subsequently never developed a deep understanding of it. He’s now teaching ancient Greek, while I’m the editor of a pharmaceutical trade magazine.

He admits to some awe when I really get my speed-game on, and I admire the patience he has to make it play his game. But neither of us can function well using the other’s style.

It probably also mirrors the way we approach religion. My brother’s an observant Jew, while I favor physics, chaos and Hollywood. Okay, it’s not that simple, but my view of the universe–when I have one–is one of intuition, of constantly shifting patterns and speed. We both have ineffable visions of what This is about, and I’m hoping he uses the Comments section to offer his.

The great thing is that our top scores on the machine are just about equal, and we both enjoy the heck out of playing.

The best news from the weekend is that the pinball machine in Seaside Heights was in pretty good repair (a couple of mansion room lights were out, and the upper right flipper isn’t strong enough to finish the left ramp). I’m hoping we can make a trip down there next month, even if our wives give up on us and take Bo & Jane’s kids out to the beach for a while.

Works Every Time

This BizWeek article on how fast food joints don’t give a crap about healthy eating is accompanied by a slideshow of Bad Things We Love, which features some great headlines.

I’ve been afraid to try Coca Cola BlaKKK, but my drink of choice in grad school gets its own page in the slideshow:

With its cheap price, large bottles, and high levels of alcohol, no good can come from Colt 45. Its high alcohol content categorizes the drink as malt liquor rather than beer, and a bottle of Colt 45, now owned by Pabst, is sure to give your liver an unnecessary workout.

Don’t Be Frank

Jonathan Lethem has an open letter to Frank Gehry, enumerating reasons to pull out of Bruce Ratner’s “development” project for Brooklyn:

The proposal currently on the table is a gang of 16 towers that would be the biggest project ever built by a single developer in the history of New York City. In fact, the proposed arena, like the surrounding neighborhoods, stands to be utterly dwarfed by these ponderous skyscrapers and superblocks. It’s a nightmare for Brooklyn, one that, if built, would cause irreparable damage to the quality of our lives and, I’d think, to your legacy. Your reputation, in this case, is the Trojan horse in a war to bring a commercially ambitious, but aesthetically—and socially—disastrous new development to Brooklyn. Your presence is intended to appease cultural tastemakers who might otherwise, correctly, recognize this atrocious plan for what it is, just as the notion of a basketball arena itself is a Trojan horse for the real plan: building a skyline suitable to some Sunbelt boomtown. I’ve been struggling to understand how someone of your sensibilities can have drifted into such an unfortunate alliance, with such potentially disastrous results. And so, I’d like to address you as one artist to another. Really, as one citizen to another. Here are some things I’d hope you’ll consider before this project advances any further.

I’d write more about it, but I’m way hungover from last night’s foray to Fenway Park. On the positive side, I maintained my cover throughout (“I’m a Kansas City Royals fan!”) and thus didn’t get killed by the local fans. More later.

It ain’t Camp Gitchy Gloomy

Official VM buddy Mitch Prothero has an article on the meanest Palestinian camp in Lebanon in this week’s U.S. News and World Report.

In any Palestinian camp or neighborhood, the walls are adorned with posters depicting “martyrs” of the fight against Israel. But in Asbat’s neighborhood, the Iraq battlefield is evident: The main road has been renamed “Martyrs of Fallujah,” and the signs glorify men killed fighting alongside Zarqawi or in suicide attacks against U.S. troops or Iraqi Shiite Muslims.

No word on why Lebanon never tried to assimilate the refugees into its population, of course. Read more.

Short Bus

Last week, I had a little ramble about Boeing’s manufacturing issues with the 787 Dreamliner. This week, it’s Airbus’ turn to get raked over the coals, as its gigantor-plane, the A380, is going to have shipping delays because of wiring problems.

Airbus’ stock got hammered for this, and now there are some questions about stock sales by executives and their families, according to this WSJ (registration required) piece:

One key question surrounds large stock sales by [co-CEO of Airbus’ parent company] Mr. Forgeard, three of his children and other top EADS managers in mid-March. “We were not aware, not the shareholders, not the directors” of the A380’s problems at that point, Mr. Forgeard said. He said the troubles with the A380 surfaced in April, and that in late May they still seemed surmountable. EADS stock plummeted 26% Wednesday after the announcements of the delay and a profit warning. The stock price rose by Friday to €20.50 ($25.85). It remained well below prices in March, when Mr. Forgeard exercised €2.5 million worth of options at €32.01, and three of his children each sold €1.4 million worth of shares at the time at €32.82, according to the French stock-market regulator AMF. Board members Francois Auque and Jean-Paul Gut also sold shares.

The BusinessWeek piece on Airbus discusses more of the problems with the A380, which seems to me like the giant-SUV of airplanes. It’s funny that the European company comes up with that model as its big splash, while the U.S. company comes up with the smaller, lightweight, fuel-conscious 787.

I find the workings of various industries fascinating, but the airplane and airline businesses are particularly interesting to me. The battle between Boeing and Airbus helps me think about the role government subsidies and the WTO; changes in materials, manufacturing and design paradigms; economy-of-scale strategies for travel routes, and why the hub-and-spoke model collapsed; and how emerging markets are shaping policy (have any of you guys flown on Singapore Airlines or Emirates?).

(Update: More on the story — and how it affects airlines — at the NYTimes.)