Thursday, July 23, 2009


The gym I go to is serves a community of mostly college students, graduate students, faculty and staff. One would think that this collection of high quality grey matter would be able to understand simple instructions and concepts, even for things unfamiliar to many of the brainy set, such as going to the gym. One would be wrong in this assumption.

Almost every time I go to workout I am confronted by at least one example of some piece of gym equipment being misused or abused, or someone exercising in an incorrect manner. The latter is more understandable than the former, given how much bad information and misinformation is out there regarding exercise.

Nevertheless, you would think that just by watching someone else do a proper workout you would pick up a few things. Yet almost every day I see someone butchering that simplest of weight exercises, the bench press. Earth to gym people: its not a bench press if you only bring it down three inches and then push it back up. It doesn't make you stronger if you lift your hips and bow your back like you're trying to do yoga on the bench. Lie flat on your back, bring it down to your chest, push it back up. Its just about the simplest exercise you can do.

When you're down with your bench press, maybe you'll want to do some curls or shoulder presses. That's all good. Now when you're done with that, do everyone a big favor and put the weights back on the correct rack. Preferably side by side, without taking up the middle two of the four open spaces on the rack.

To be fair, these are mild complaints. My biggest gym peeve is the flat out abuse of the exercise bike foot straps. They are clearly labeled with and "R" and an "L". They don't work if you put the L where the R is supposed to go, or vice versa. They don't look right, they don't feel right. They just get bent out of shape and eventually ripped apart. I would say that this is why we can't have nice things, but the stupid straps aren't even nice! I've long since given up using them because they were always ripped up and never available.

Its gotten so bad that the gym now has its few remaining foot straps at the desk, and you have to ask for them if you want them. You would think that would be a foolproof system, right? The desk gives you an R and an L, and you put them on like so. Ha! Sure enough, today I looked down at the bikes and saw the L and the R reversed on not one bike but two!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Right Choice

It was forty years ago today that human beings first set foot on the moon. The first moonwalk (or probably more accurately, moon hop) was the culmination of years of effort put into the Apollo Program at a cost of billions of dollars and, tragically, at least 3 human lives. The Program itself was built upon thousands of years of human advancement in science and technology.

The Apollo program ranks with the Manhattan project as the greatest technological achievement of the 20th century, and as one of the greatest of mankind's achievements in age. I think it goes without saying that it represents the best that humanity has to offer in terms of knowledge, ingenuity, and sheer force of will. All too often the skills of mankind have been turned to devious, crass, immoral or inhumane purposes, and what the Apollo program represents, more than just the conquering of a frontier, is what our species can accomplish peacefully and creatively.

Naturally, its easy to point out that the Apollo program was merely an extension of the American military industrial complex, and the entire space race was merely a measuring contest between two rival superpowers who owned the most deadly arsenals in the history of the world. Its also easy to point out how many a select Congressional district was the benefit of NASA largess, something which no doubt helped to push the program forward with such speed and enthusiasm.

These criticisms, while valid, should not overshadow the incredible achievements of NASA and the Apollo program. It was an accomplishment of will and spirit and guts as well as science. President Kennedy's famous speech to Rice University, excerpted here, addressed the goal of a moon landing not as something to hope for or dream about but as something we would do because it was worth doing in itself.

"We choose to go to the moon"

It sounds like hubris or perhaps bluster, and perhaps it is, but its also a reminder of the potential of mankind in those brief moments when we decide to pursue great things.

Getting closer

Just one week left.

Till what, you ask?

Oh, like you had to ask. What, you really don't know?

One week till Camp! Oh boy! Camp!

So get out your tent, pack some s'mores, and for god sakes sign your remaining draft picks so they can get in on time!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Shack Shack: the Review

Savoring a great hamburger is one of life's little joys. A really great burger can take a seemingly mundane undertaking and elevate it beyond merely obtaining sustenance. I've written about my love for great burgers before, both on the East Coast and back home. Today, in the interest of science (gastronomy is a science, right?) my taste buds and I went to seek out the now legendary Shake Shack.

My first encounter with Shake Shack was actually over a year ago, at the 2008 Big Apple BBQ fest here in NYC. The Fest was held down at Madison Square Park, which also happens to be home to the original Shake Shack, which lives up to its name since it actually is a shack in the middle of the park. What amazed me is that despite the presence of the once a year BBQ fest, with pit masters from around the nation and beer and music, and despite the 100+ degree heat, there was still a line a block long for Shake Shack. This line was easily as long as any of the BBQ lines and longer than most. Clearly something good was coming out of this little hut in the park.

I encountered the Shake Shack phenomenon next on my trips to the new Citi Field, which boasts a Shake Shack location in the plaza beyond the outfield bleachers. I was again amazed at how much people seemed to crave whatever was coming out of their kitchens. On both trips the line for Shake Shack zig zagged several times before stretching out down the length of the left field bleachers, and it stayed long the entire game and well after. My understanding is that the Citi Field location opens hours before the game and remains open an hour after the last out, something almost unheard of for a ballpark concession stand.

You get the idea: people really love Shake Shack.

Shake Shack has been described to me as the closest thing to In-n-Out here on the East coast. This is no small thing for me to hear. In my mind, comparing something to In-n-Out is like comparing a basketball player to Jordan or a golfer to Tiger. You don't just throw that comparison around. I've also heard a few less enthusiastic reviews, mostly from displaced Californians who long for a Double-Double. Nevertheless I had to see, and taste, for myself. The franchise has four locations that I know of, and luckily for me one happens to be on West side.

The menu at Shake Shack is similar to In-n-Out, with an emphasis on simplicity and fresh ingredients. They do burgers, fries, hot dogs, and frozen custard served several ways, including in a variety of shakes. They also do beer and wine. There decor at the Upper West Side location is basic and has kind of a faux industrial feel similar to Chipotle.

There is a large menu on the wall but it lacks much key information. For example, it will tell you that one of your Options is a Shack Burger, but won't actually tell you what that means (I thick it means is has Shack Sauce). Worse than that are the many frozen drink concoctions, which are named but not described. Smaller paper menus fill in the details, but it seems to me like a big oversight. They also proudly claim that all their electricity is wind generated. Bully for the them, I guess, but when your business is selling beef its hard to really see you as hardcore environmentalist, given the resources that go into and pollution which results from raising cows. Whatever.

The line was long but moved quickly enough. When you order they give you one of those little beepers like they use for people waiting for tables at a sit down restaurant, and then they beep you when your order is up. Seems like overkill to me but it works for them.

For the purpose of this taste test I decided to order what I would normally get at In-n-Out, to see how it stacked up, with one exception: I got a single cheeseburger instead of a double. Shack Shack differs from In-n-Out, and most other fast food joints, in that the burgers are served plain and any additional items must be requested when ordering. I like this idea.

I ordered a cheeseburger with lettuce and onions, fries, and a chocolate shake. The first thing I noticed was the prices. A regular hamburger will run you $3.75. Add cheese and its $4.25. Get a Shack Burger and you'll pay $.50 just for the addition of Shake Sauce, whatever that is. Double Hamburgers are $5.75, and it takes $6.50 for a double cheeseburger. Keep in mind, that's a la carte. No fries, no drinks, no anything. The fries were reasonable if still a little steep at $2.75. Add a dollar and you can get cheese fries, though the only ones I saw didn't really look like they had a dollar's worth of cheese on top.

These prices are high but tolerable given that were are in the Big Apple, but what really breaks the bank is the shakes. A frozen custard shake will cost you $5.25. And we aren't talking about a large cup either. Its the equivalent of a small sized soda. For the purposes of this comparison I went ahead and got it, but I doubt I ever will again.

There are also McFlurry-like custard treats with mix ins which will cost you $7 a pop. They might be worth it but I didn't try them on this trip.

I placed my order, waited a few minutes with my beeper, and then finally got to see what all the fuss was about.

First things first: the burger. It was... great, actually. Fresh beef and cheese, cooked medium so it was still juicy, topped with onions and lettuce on a kind of sweet bun. The bun was ok, better than an average burger bun but not measuring up to the Sponge Bun. The onions weren't grilled but were still fine. What made the burger was the burger: tasty, juicy, flavorful. If I had any complaints, its that it was on the small side, especially given the price, but quality wise it was there. Even as I sit writing this, hours later, I can still taste it in my mouth, one of the signs of a great burger and a familiar sensation for anyone whose ever enjoyed a Double Double.

On to the fries. They resemble the crinkle cut fries you find in the supermarket freezer case, which made me hesitant at first to even order them. However, they surprised me with how crispy they were, and the taste was nice as well. A fine enough side order, though not in the running for the title of Best Fries.

The shake was interesting. Despite being made of custard, which I figured would have made it thicker, it was actually thinner than most shakes I've had. The taste was good, very chocolaty and a little bit different than what I am used to. Worth the price? Meh. But a good drink to be sure.

So what's the initial Shake Shack verdict? The cons have mostly to do with cost and value for your money, though that may be partially the result of expectations. I got a good burger, fries and a shake for $12. In half the restaurants in this city I'd be lucky just to get the burger for that, and it likely wouldn't be as good. Still, its a lot for fast food, even good fast food. The beer and wine are also no bargain, though they are not overpriced either. The other con is the line and the wait time, though with some timing and luck that doesn't have to be a problem.

In the Pro column, the food does satisfy the taste buds and the appetite. I can't make this claim for the whole menu, but for what I tried it certainly was a good meal.

Of course, the real question here is simple: does it stack up to In-n-Out?

I my own very, very biased opinion... not quite. If In-n-Out is Tiger, than Shake Shack would make a decent Phil. Maybe not the greatest but certainly close, and with a style which is slightly different and has its own charm. I won't be moving downtown just to be closer to it, but I will certainly be enjoying it again when I have the chance.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Make a wish America

Our wonderful nation turns 233 years old today.

Sort of.

The birth of America is kinda like the birth of Jesus, in that its hard to pin down an exact date when it really happened. True, the Declaration of Independence was made official on July 4th, 1776, but it was actually passed the the Continental Congress on July 2nd. John Adams actually wrote to his wife saying that he thought the 2nd would be the day which later generations celebrated the Independence of America. But the thing wasn't even actually signed by most of the delegates until August of 1776.

But really, is just saying we were independent sufficient criteria for the birth of a nation? Whatever its rhetorical and symbolic power, the Declaration was nothing without the might to back it up and force Britain to acknowledge it. Perhaps then it would be more accurate to date the birth of America to the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Or perhaps the Declaration is better thought of as the conception of America, with the actual birth coming after the surrender at Yorktown or the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

All of this gets really complicated (and boring), so instead of worrying about it we did the smart thing by picking a date and celebrating the hell out of it, same as we do with Christmas. I think it works out pretty well.

On this 4th of July its natural to think of the Founding Fathers. Its interesting to me how the Founders (capitalized, naturally) are viewed as demi-gods by people in our time. Not that they don't deserve our respect and admiration. They certainly do. What I find interesting is the way in which the founders are so idealized and revered as though they were both infallible and spoke with one all-knowing voice, two ideas which cannot possibly be true. I think its perfectly American that we do this, ignoring (or simply never learning) those facts which may cloud and contradict in favor of a simple and positive view of events.

We know that no man is infallible, and the shortcomings of the Founders are well known. I don't mean to disparage them with this, its just the truth. Some were slaveholders. Few thought particularly highly of the abilities of women or non-whites, or for that matter non-educated, propertied white men. There is an elitist streak which runs through much of their thought and deed which makes me laugh at the current charges of elitism which are hurled at modern politicians, often by the same people who revere the Founders above all else.

Some were men of ill temper, some were a bit slow, many quite full of themselves. No doubt some were philanderers and some drank too much. I doubt many of them would recognize religion as it is often practiced here in America, as many were Deists, and even a few were atheists. Thomas Jefferson himself went so far as to make the famous Jefferson Bible, a copy of the bible with ever reference to Jesus's divinity and the supernatural removed.

As to being a monolith of thought, the Founders were such a diverse group (in experience and beliefs, if not in background) that the idea that they had one mind about anything is crazy. Their political debates were often fierce, while their personal feuds could run even deeper, ranging from mere insults and at times escalating to the point of violence. At times they campaigned against each other with a vulgarity which would make our modern campaigns look tame. Its true that campaigns today too often focus on irrelevant minutiae and negative attacks, but the idea that this is somehow new is laughable.

Despite these contradictions, it seems that in any political question, any argument that is to be made about policy, the proper role of government, or America as a whole, the ultimate rhetorical trump card one can pull is to say that you are on the side of the Founders, if not in exact words than at least in spirit. Its a tactic attempted by conservatives, liberals, moderates and partisans of every stripe in support of pretty much every idea and proposed policy you can imagine. They have been quoted (and often mis-quoted) countless times, a practice which sometimes seems futile to me. Given their wide range of beliefs, its usually possible to find supportive words from the Founders for both sides of a given issue (and sometimes even from the same Founder). Despite all this the Founders remain the gold standard of rhetoric in America.

I don't write all this to disparage the Founders. Quite the opposite. I think our Nation benefits from a more thorough understanding and knowledge of who they are, a complete picture which includes their virtues, beliefs, contradictions, and their faults.

My favorite Founder is Ben Franklin, probably more for his sense of humor and playfulness than for any of than any of his political accomplishments (though they are impressive as well). Franklin strikes me as America's irreverent Uncle, not quite so stiff and serious as the other Founders. Perhaps he didn't have to be so serious given his advanced age, reputation and the fact that he never served as President or in any office under the Constitution. Whatever the case, if I could meet only one Founder I would certainly pick him.

I sometimes wonder what the Founders would think of America today. No doubt they would be surprised by many things, even shocked (though we can speculate at what), but I think on the whole they would be pleased by the progress America has made. Some more than others, I'm sure, and while I have no way of knowing I suspect that Franklin would be among the most proud of the Nation he helped create.

Enjoy your 4th of July everyone. Special thanks to all Veterans or those who are currently serving our Nation, both at home and abroad. And thanks of course to the Founders for their bravery, vision, genius, and luck. Here's to another 233 years.