Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sean's Ramblings 2015 Year In Review (Sort Of)

Welcome to my 11th annual year in review, where I take the first few lines of the first entry of each month in order to produce a random and (hopefully) interesting summary of 2015.

January: Happy 2015! Now that 2014 is complete, it's time for my annual post where I share data about Sean's Ramblings visitors and how people find this blog.

February: Happy Tuesday everyone! Let's get right to the trivia today. Your challenge is to answer the questions based on the pictures below.

March: I don't understand Maroon 5. I mean, I understand that they have a string of catchy pop hits, but they're as big as they are solely because of Adam Levine.

April: Today’s post comes from Stephen of the Crank Crank Revolution, and is part of a special day of shenanigans from other Pittsburgh Bloggers. You can see my post over on Jelly Jars where I share a never-written about story about trying to impress my wife by biking on our honeymoon.

May: I received a message in my Spam folder recently from someone named BadGirl28. Yes, it really was a Spam folder. Anyway, I was curious about why BadGirl28 went by BadGirl28.

June: There hasn't been a Trivia Tuesday here in a while, and this one is unique. Your challenge is to answer these very random questions.

July: Meow Mix isn't saying anything, but I can see what's happening. They are discontinuing the wet cat food that Ziggy eats. I used to purchase Ziggy's wet food at Target, but they stopped carrying his specific food a few months ago.

August: I watched a lot of wrestling when I was in middle school/junior high. Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, The Junkyard Dog, The Ultimate Warrior, The British Bulldogs, King Kong Bundy, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and so many others including Rowdy Roddy Piper who passed away on Friday at the age of 61.

September: We went to a birthday party at a park on Sunday, and as we were leaving, I noticed that a youth group that I was involved in during high school was setting up in a nearby pavilion. I approached one of the girls, who was probably about 16, and had the following conversation.

October: One of my favorite events of the year, the Fall for Fairfax KidsFest, takes place this weekend (Saturday, 10/3 & Sunday, 10/4) at the Fairfax County Government Center. This free event is a huge hit for my kids.

November: Many years ago, I was somewhat of a political junkie. I majored in politics, organized a successful voter registration drive in college and had internships with my Congressman and a State Senator. Like many people, though, I got tired of all of the partisan fighting.

December: I received a coupon pamphlet in the mail recently featuring ads and deals for local businesses. While there didn't seem to be anything worthwhile, I couldn't help but notice this ad on the cover.

While this was a "summary" of my blog in 2015, I encourage you to check out my Best and Worst of 2015 post.

Have a very Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sean's Best & Worst of 2015

Many television shows, magazines, websites and newspapers have best and worst of 2015 lists. Well, I do too, and while mine is probably not nearly as good as their lists, I think that my list is more entertaining.

Best TV Show of 2015: Fargo

Game of Thrones is always amazing, and while I don't see every episode, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is both educational and extremely entertaining. I also always enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. However, my favorite show this past year was Fargo. Although season one was in 2014, I didn't actually watch it until late 2015. And I couldn't stop watching it. Billy Bob Thornton was incredible in such a fascinating character, and the rest of the cast was amazing. I've recorded all of season two and am finally going to start watching it any day now.

Worst TV Show of 2015: The Mysteries of Laura

I've never actually seen this show, but the fact that it wasn't cancelled cost me The Ted Marshall Open TV Death Pool championship for the 2014-2015 season. I seriously have no idea how this show got renewed and is still on the air.

Best Song of 2015...

My rule is that the best song must be from a video that I posted on my blog in 2015. Your nominees are:

Renegades by X Ambassadors
Ex's and Oh's by Elle King
Uma Thurman by Fall Out Boy
Beggin for Thread by Banks
Kathleen by Catfish and the Bottlemen

And the winner is: Kathleen!

Worst Song of 2015: Dooo It! by Miley Cyrus

The Video is NSFW due to language...and for it being a terrible song and terrible video.

Best Movie I Saw In The Theater: Trainwreck

I saw two whole movies in the theater in 2015. That's double what I saw in 2014! Trainwreck was much funnier than I expected. Surprisingly enjoyable appearances by John Cena and LeBron James. Oh, you may have heard that Amy Schumer was in it too.

Worst Movie I Saw in The Theater: The Martian

Okay, so The Martian was better than Trainwreck, but it was a weird experience for me. I finished the book only a few days before I saw the film, so I compared the two constantly. While I won't give away much, there was a part in the movie where Matt Damon drives thousands of miles across Mars. In the book, this was quite an eventful trip. In the movie, driving across Mars was as difficult as driving from New York to Chicago on the interstate in perfect weather. I was also frustrated by the ending. It's really my fault though. I should have known better than to finish the book and see the movie so close together.

Best Book I Read in 2015: My Sunshine Away: a novel by M.O. Walsh

Here's the description: A man reflects on the summer of his fourteenth year, where in Baton Rouge he fell in love with a golden-haired girl across the street before an unspeakable crime shattered illusions in his seemingly idyllic neighborhood.

My Sunshine Away is a coming of age book, but quite dark because of the crime that I guess I can't speak about. The book was very well written and the neighborhood certainly had some fascinating characters. I highly recommend it.

Honorable mentions: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and The Martian: a novel by Andy Weir.

Worst Book I Read in 2015: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books all of time, so I felt like I had to read this book. It actually felt like a homework assignment reading the "new" Harper Lee book at times. There were parts that were really good. Lee also gave what appeared to be an accurate description of what it was like to live in the South during a specific time period. However, Atticus Finch, though fictional, is supposed to be perfect (at least in my mind) and some of his views in Go Set a Watchman don't mesh with how most people in the real world view him.

Best Sports Moment: Max Scherzer's No Hitter

I didn't like the fact that this occurred against the Pirates, but seeing a no-hitter live and at my son's first baseball game was priceless.

Worst Sports Moment of 2015: The Pirates Losing the Wild Card Game

The Pirates had the second best record in all of baseball and were rewarded by getting to host the NL Cy Young Award Winner. Naturally, Arrieta dominated. Here's what ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote about Arrieta:

1) Over his last 18 starts of the season, the Cubs went 17-1 -- and in the only loss, they got no-hit (of course they did) by Cole Hamels. (2) Over his last 20 starts, he hit as many homers as he allowed (two). And (3) if you'd started your clicker on Aug. 1, you'd have counted 269 pitchers who allowed at least four earned runs in an inning. And while all that was going on, Arrieta was also allowing four earned runs -- in two months.

Stupid Cubs. Stupid Arrieta.

Best Blog Post: (Tie) My Summer of Sean series & a special TMI Thursday

The Summer of Sean series chronicled part of my incredible summer of 2000. Unfortunately, I only wrote a few posts. When I have free time, maybe I'll continue this series. I also shared what really happens in my bedroom on nearly a nightly basis.

Worst Blog Post: My Interview With Dr. Christopher Geary About Big Ben's Injury

Based on his position as an Orthopedic Surgeon and Chief of Sports Medicine at Tufts University Medical Center, you would think that Dr. Geary would be better than sharing wild Tweets. He also didn't give much in my interview with him or come close to apologizing for declaring that Big Ben was out for the season.

I hope that you had a great 2015 and a better 2016!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Pittsburgh Pirates Should Hire Phil Elson

On Monday, WEEI in Boston announced that New Hampshire native and now former Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Tim Neverett will join the Red Sox radio broadcast. This is apparently Neverett's dream job, so I wish him well in Boston. In the meantime, it seems that the Pirates need to find a new radio and TV play-by-play broadcaster. I know the perfect candidate: Phil Elson.

Phil is currently the radio voice of the University of Arkansas' baseball and women's basketball teams and the play-by-play broadcaster for Henderson State University football. He also served as the broadcaster for the Arkansas Travelers, Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, for over a decade. Here's more about Phil from this October 2014 article:

Phil, 37, has 20 seasons of experience in professional baseball, including 17 years on the radio. Phil has also worked for baseball teams in Stockton, California; Ogden, Utah; Helena, Mont; Akron, Ohio; his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was voted the 2009 Arkansas Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

"Phil will always be a part of the Travelers Family," said General Manager Paul Allen. "We will miss his patented "Seventh Inning Stretch" and the energy he brought to our broadcast. We are proud to say that Phil was on our team and know that he will continue to shine as a Razorback."

While I have no idea if Phil is even interested in the job or moving back to Pittsburgh, Phil is a Pittsburgh native graduating from the world-famous (thanks to Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller) Taylor Allderdice High School. He certainly has experience in the baseball broadcast booth, and if there's anything Pittsburghers like it's successful Pittsburghers (especially when/if they return home).

Full disclosure: While I can't remember if Phil and I ever attended the same school, we definitely went to the same camp and probably competed against each other in a basketball league growing up. While we are Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter, I haven't seen Phil in about 20 years.

Please don't let this ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video impact your views on his abilities as a broadcaster!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

24 Hours

On Monday evening after the kids went to sleep, I got the mail which included a rather significant check from all of the games I worked as a soccer referee this fall. Wooooo! Then, I took the 2016 soccer referee recertification test online. (Please note that the next portion of this blog post is about soccer ref stuff, but there's non-ref stuff below.) This 100-question, multiple-choice test is painful. Some of the questions are poorly worded, and there are plenty of others where they are trying to fool you. Here are some questions:

#1: A player, while in an offside position, is guilty of interfering with the opponent and therefore guilty of offside if he does the following:

A) blocking an opponent’s view of the ball but not involved in challenging for the ballherefore guilty of offside if he does the following:
B) running beside the opponent towards the ball without making contact with the opponent
C) making gesture of not playing the ball obvious to everyone
D) none of the above

Does no one proofread this? Although the answer is A, I answered none of the above since I had no idea what the wording in A was supposed to be.

#2 True or false. The ball is in play on a corner kick when the ball is kicked, moves, and leaves the corner arc.

Fortunately, I've taken the recertification exam enough to know some of the quirks. While it's true that the ball is in play on a corner kick when the ball is kicked, moves, and leaves the corner arc, they are asking if the ball is required to leave the arc to be in play. Therefore, the answer is false.

#3 Red #20 is ready to take a throw-in. White #31 pushes a Red attacker down inside the penalty area while jostling for position. You stop the throw-in and caution White #31 for unsporting behavior. The restart is

A) Dropped Ball
B) Thrwo-In
C) Kick-Off
D) Corner Kick
E) Gaol Kick

Is it too much to ask to spell throw and goal correctly?

It took me nearly two hours to take this exam, but I passed with a score of 87%. I don't feel bad about this score either. After the exam, I watched the end of the Detroit Lions-New Orleans Saints Monday Night Football game almost entirely for fantasy football purposes. In a semi-final match, one guy (we'll call him Mike) had a slim lead late in the fourth quarter. His opponent (we'll call him Michael) still had Saints RB Tim Hightower and Lions WR Calvin Johnson. On the last play of the game with victory certain for the Lions, Hightower caught a meaningless 18-yard pass. However, with a half-point per reception and .1 points per yard, this play gave Michael a victory by .1 points. Oh, this play happened just a minute after this rant by Michael:

I *#(@ing don't make the finals because some fat &*^% can't rember to tell the official he's eligible on second down after he remembers to do it on first down. That's the biggest bull &$*# ever in the history of fantasy football.

I feel like the fantasy gods will (or at least should) look poorly at Michael in the championship. Of course, now that I shared this, perhaps the fantasy gods will look poorly at me for the two leagues where I'm still in contention.

On Tuesday morning, I had my regular dentist appointment. I'm sure that I've mentioned this before, but I have a great relationship with my dentist. She knows that I don't floss and never says anything about it. (She also got me an electric toothbrush as a wedding gift.) However, the dental hygienist apparently doesn't know this deal. She asked how often I floss. I replied about once every 6 months which basically corresponds to when the hygienist does it during my appointment. So the hygienist made sure to give the spiel that I need to floss. I'm still not going to floss. If flossing was so important, the dentist should include some with the free toothbrush & toothpaste bag. On a different topic, I need a filling though this is nothing that flossing would have prevented.

This is turning into a very long post. Thanks for staying with me. After the dentist, I took my car to my mechanic for the required state inspection. I've been dreading this since I knew my car wouldn't pass due to an always on airbag light and my driver's side window not working. My 2003 Honda Civic only has 118,000 miles, and I only drive it about 5,000 miles per year. While I definitely need a car, I don't want to put too much money into it or start with a new car payment.

It turned out that the air bag light wasn't a problem. However, my headlights were. Another Honda was there, and I could see how clear they were in the other car compared to my foggy lights. Then, I needed a new window regulator and motor driver. I'm just happy that Warren G is involved with my car.

So my car is now fixed and passed inspection but the soccer referee money is gone.

Finally, I had my soccer referee recertification class. With the class scheduled for 3:30-8:30, I brought snacks and hoped they would provide pizza like they did in previous years. No pizza. I was hungry when I got home but I knew I couldn't eat too much so late. Therefore, my dinner consisted of a cheese stick, clementine, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Dinner of champions!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday Video: Terry Bradshaw on Blossom

Terry Bradshaw. Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback. Television analyst. Author and singer. Bradshaw is all of these things as well as an actor appearing in films such as The Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit II, and the awful Failure to Launch. Bradshaw also had television appearances in The League, Las Vegas, and Malcolm in the Middle. Perhaps hidden on his resume is Bradshaw's 1994 appearance on the television show Blossom starring Mayim Bialik and Joey Lawrence. Whoa! Here's Bradshaw playing Lawrence's coach and a video of the whole episode. Enjoy!

Enjoy your Friday and weekend!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Who Wore It Better?

During Sunday's Steelers-Bengals game, Coach Mike Tomlin was confused and perturbed by a call. He expressed his displeasure by making the gesture below. However, who "wore" this expression better: Coach Tomlin or the Night's King from Game of Thrones?

You make the call!

Thanks to @steelersnat for the Tomlin picture.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Trivia Tuesday: Pop Culture Math Edition

We're combining pop culture with math for today's Trivia Tuesday. It's not as scary as it sounds. There are 10 "math problems" below. The answers are anywhere between 4 and 18, and there are no repeat answers. Good luck!

1. Homer & Marge's Children Plus (+) Jon & Kate's Children

2. Back To The Future Films + Michael Bay Transformers Films

3. Members of The Monkees + Members of NSYNC

4. Harry Potter Novels Minus (-) Lord of the Rings Novels

5. Tom Brady Super Bowl Wins Times (x) Joe Montana Super Bowl Wins

6. Step By Step Children x My Three Sons Children

7. William Shatner Star Trek Films + Sean Connery Bond Films

8. Destiny's Child Studio Albums + Led Zeppelin Studio Albums

9. Anne of Green Gables Novels - Divergent Novels

10. Magic Johnson NBA Championships x Larry Bird NBA Championships

As always, please leave your answers in the comments section below and don't use the internet for assistance. Good luck.

This quiz is courtesy of the fine folks at Trivia Kings.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

My Life (December 2015 Edition)

- I was at Wegmans a few weeks ago (shocking, I know), and I saw a kid, probably around 5 years old that looked familiar, but I wasn't exactly sure why, particularly since I didn't recognize the kid's mother. Then, I realized that I thought I saw pictures of her on Facebook. Before this sounds too creepy, I'm friends with someone I knew through camp when I was in high school and college on Facebook. I haven't seen him in probably 20 years, but I know that he also moved from the Pittsburgh area to Northern Virginia. Anyway, I didn't want to randomly go up to the girl and her mother, so I sent my friend a Facebook message to see if his wife and daughter were at Wegmans. Sure enough, it was them, and my friend said it was fine to say hi as long as his older daughter wasn't driving his wife crazy. Since I was with my 4 year old (The Moose), I understood this completely. Naturally, after my Facebook correspondence, I didn't see them in the store again. Are scenarios like this why people use those missed connections on Craigslist? (Actually, don't answer that question.)

- I picked up The Moose from preschool recently and had my 1 & 1/2 year old (Pedro Tulo) with me. In the carpeted hallway on the way out, The Moose tackled his younger brother. They both laughed hysterically. It was cute. As the younger one gets older, I think they're going to have a lot of fun playing together.

- We had an extremely rare date night (and by date night, I mean dinner out on a weeknight) recently at a fairly nice restaurant. In the middle of our dinner but at the end of meal for a table near us, I saw a guy get on one knee and propose to his, I suppose, girlfriend. No one else saw this. It was like a was witnessing history. And here is the video I took of this:

As you can tell, this was not a video. While I considered taking a picture or video of the proposal, I thought it would be in poor form if I did. I actually think that was a plotline of a Modern Family episode. Anyway, she hugged and kissed him, so apparently she said yes. About two minutes later they left. I had food in my mouth as they passed by our table, so I didn't say anything. (Hmm...this seems like a trend in this blog post.)

- I received a letter from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management stating that my social security number and other personal information was including as part of a "malicious cyber intrusion." Lovely.

- As a reminder, if you're celebrating Hanukkah make sure you include pickles as part of your celebration. Here's the history of the Hanukkah tradition of eating pickles.

- Finally, please follow Sean's Ramblings on Facebook. Please?

Friday, December 04, 2015

2015 Hanukkah Guide

Hanukkah begins on Sunday evening, so I thought I would prepare a guide for everything you need to know about this year's Festival of Lights.

A Dr. Dreidel? Yes please!

The Maccabeats and Six13 are back to their dueling holiday songs again. First up, The Maccabeats with Latke Recipe based on the tune of Walk The Moon's Shut Up and Dance With Me.

And here's Six13's Watch Me (Spin/Drey-Drey) based on Silento's Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).

I asked this last year, but is there a rivalry between these two groups? I must know!

Meanwhile, Adam Sandler has the 4th version (yes, really) of The Chanukah Song.

As a reminder, don't forget to include pickles as part of your Hanukkah festivities. Pickles: A Hanukkah tradition since 1998.

I'll end with a few more videos. Some are better than others.

Happy Chanukah! However, you choose to spell it!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Truth In Advertising?

I received a coupon pamphlet in the mail recently featuring ads and deals for local businesses. While there didn't seem to be anything worthwhile, I couldn't help but notice this ad on the cover.

Apparently, Cheng's Asian House, a restaurant I never heard of, is the Best Rated Restaurant on Yelp. This seems like quite the claim. With no disclaimer, is Cheng's Asian House the best rated restaurant in the country? In Virginia? On Airline Parkway? So I went to Yelp for some answers.

Searching for best restaurants in Chantilly, Virginia, Cheng's is listed as #2 of 2272. That's really, really good, but not the best rated restaurant. That distinction goes to Megabytes Eatery. Searching Yelp for the best restaurants in South Riding, VA, the next door neighbor of Chantilly, Cheng's finished #7 of 414. Again, really good, but not the best. Curiously, Megabytes Eatery was not among the top 6 for South Riding.

Based on these results, I call on Cheng's Asian House to change its ads to be more accurate. One of the Best Rated Restaurants on Yelp may not be catchy, but it would be correct.

On a different topic, am I the only one who thinks of RUN-DMC's Run's House when I see the name Cheng's Asian House?

Who's House? Cheng's House!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Pizza Bagels

We interrupt your Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend for a very important blog post.

Pizza bagels are delicious. When I was at camp, this was always our favorite meal. While I usually ate pizza bagels traditionally with the bagel, tomato sauce and melted cheese on top, as a kid, there were times when we used ketchup in place of tomato sauce. The result was still a delicious meal. Recently, I made myself a pizza bagel with ketchup and found that at least one person was shocked and a little disgusted by this creation. Therefore, I'm sharing this with the entire world today.

Have you ever used ketchup in place of tomato sauce on a pizza bagel? If so, do you agree that they are tasty? If not, would you consider trying it or are you adamantly against this?

(While you're here, please "Like" Sean's Ramblings on Facebook.)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Message 2015

On this Thanksgiving, I wanted to share this message for you and your family:

Gobble gobble goo and gobble gobble gickel
I wish turkey only cost a nickel.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Trivia Tuesday: College Football Edition

Earlier this fall, Learned League conducted a 3-week college football mini-league. It was awesome (mostly since I fared well in this category compared with how I do during the "regular season")! Your challenge for this Tuesday as we near the end of college football's regular season is the answer the questions below.

1. Since 2000, two Heisman Trophy winners have been born outside of the United States. Please name either player (and as a bonus that player's country of birth).

2. As of 2015, what school has the only FBS stadium that seats at least 100,000 people that is not in either the Big Ten or Southeastern Conference?

3. What two SEC teams play annually for the Golden Boot, a trophy first awarded in 1996 and named for the shape the two states make when removed from the geographic context of the remainder of the United States?

4. Provide the one element missing from this unordered list: Aggies, Longhorns, Bears, Cougars, Mustangs, Horned Frogs, Red Raiders, Owls, Bobcats, Roadrunners, Mean Green, and [BLANK].

5. The first college football game broadcast on radio was KDKA's 1921 broadcast of a matchup between Pittsburgh (home of KDKA) and what longtime "Backyard" rival?

6. As seen in the redacted image that follows, since 1959, the Platypus Trophy has been awarded to the winner of an intrastate rivalry game. Give EITHER the nickname of that rivalry game or the two schools involved.

7. What player ran for 332 yards in a 45-42 victory over Texas Tech in a 1988 game in Tokyo to set the NCAA's all-time single season record for rushing yards?

8. Which school has won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy a record 20 times, including being the 2014 winner?

9. Urban Meyer has been the coach for three national championship-winning teams. In the 2009 National Championship Game, his starting quarterback was Tim Tebow. Name Meyer's starting quarterbacks in the 2007 and 2015 National Championship Games.

10. Earning roughly $4.6 million in 2015 from buyouts from two previous coaching stops, what man will be one of the ten highest paid college football coaches in the 2015 season without actually coaching a college football team?

As always, please leave your answers in the comments section below and don't use the internet (or newspaper, Encyclopedia. etc.) for assistance. Good luck!

These questions are courtesy of Learned League.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Links

- The Best of the Burghosphere Ceremonies take place tonight and Sunday at Most Wanted Fine Arts. Although I'm not able to attend, you can go as I receive the "Best Darn Pittsburgh Blog of Pop Culture and Sarcasm Awesomeness" Award and accept this on my behalf. [Most Wanted Fine Arts]

- I had never heard of Cespedes Family Barbecue until Thursday, and I feel like I've missed out on some great baseball discussions. In the latest podcast, you can hear interviews with Arthur Lenk, a Mets fan and the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Mauritius, and newly acquired Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Trevor Williams. Really good stuff. [Cespedes Family Barbecue]

- Heidi is going to be an extra in a UPMC commercial. I have a feeling this is going to be her big break! [The Steel Trap]

- You can tryout to play for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. I'm saying you since my soccer career peaked when my team won the U-10 championship. Sure, I had some other big moments like playing at the Civic Arena, scoring a goal in my last high school game, and winning a college intramural championship, but I don't think this resume is enough to play professional soccer. I'm also not a fan of paying $125 to participate in an "open tryout." [Pittsburgh Riverhounds]

- On a much lower level of soccer, it appears that the US Soccer Federation is prohibiting and limiting headers for youth players. I have a feeling this is going to be a major topic at my next referee recertification class. [New York Times]

- I need to step up my Twitter game since I haven't made Alex's week in tweets in a long, long time. [Everybody Loves You]

- Happy 13th anniversary to ALOTT5MA. [a list of things thrown five minutes ago]

- The Washington Post shares the Best Books of 2015. Although Amazon now owns The Post, it is a little curious that links for all of the books direct you to so that you can buy the books there. [Washington Post]

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sean Goes To The Doctor

I had my annual physical earlier this week. This seemed like a bigger deal this year because I'm now 40. I thought that a colonoscopy was in my near future, but it turns out that I don't need one of those until I'm 50. Woo Hoo! The physical turned out to be no different than any other one with one exception: an EKG. I've never had an EKG before, but it's really quite easy. You lie down on the table and the physician's assistant puts stickers all over your body like this.

The difficult part is removing the stickers one the EKG is over, particularly when the stickers are attached to your chest hair. Oh, I also found two stickers by my ankles when I went to sleep 15 hours after the appointment.

Anyway, the EKG results were good. My blood pressure and heart rate were also good. My weight was down slightly, and I'm right at where I want to be. Unfortunately, I'm still in the 5' 7" height range, so my growth spurt still hasn't happened yet. Maybe next year!

Now the big stuff. My cholesterol results:

Good again! My cholesterol was significantly higher about 10 years ago, but I've been fine lately. Basically, I'm healthy as a horse. Well, presumably, a healthy horse. You don't want your health to be compared to a sick horse.

Based on all of these results, I think I was robbed by People Magazine. Forget David Beckham. I should be People's Sexiest Man Alive! I guess Beckham just has a better publicist.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Man Arrested For Assault With A Sandwich

This story just in from ABC 7 News WJLA:

A man was arrested for assault after throwing a sandwich at another man Sunday night, police said.

According to the Fairfax City Police Department, 32-year-old Jonathan M. Magnes was transported to an Adult Detention Center and charged with assault and battery, driving under the influence of alcohol, and refusal of a blood and breath test.

Magnes threw a sandwich at a 50-year-old man at Firenza Pizza on 10160 Fairfax Boulevard in Fairfax, Virginia. Magnes left the area after the incident and was followed by the man, police said.

Police said Magnes was later released and the victim was not injured.

Several items here. First, what a waste of a perfectly good sandwich! If you're going to go out to buy a sandwich, why throw it at someone?

Next, I like that ABC-7 titles the picture "Police lights with handcuffs (ABC7 file photo)" on its website. Why not just show a picture of a sandwich?

Finally, I'm not sure that I can take Firenza Pizza seriously. I believe that the first car I ever drove was my parents' Oldsmobile Firenza. Near the end of its life, the car really struggled to make it up hills. This was a problem in Pittsburgh where hills are unavoidable. I regularly drove on the Parkway East from the Edgewood Swissvale exit toward Monroeville. Despite putting the pedal all the way on the floor, the car struggled to get over 35 miles per hour. The other drivers did not appreciate this. Maybe Magnes also had bad experiences with a Firenza, and this explains why he threw his sandwich at someone!

Fairfax Patch also has information about this story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Seattle Trip

I recently visited Seattle for the second time in my life (this was my first trip) and thought I would share some notes about the trip.

- I love the Pike Place Market. Sure, there are aspects that are touristy, but I really enjoy any place where you can buy fresh food and flowers and so much more. It’s just such a neat place to walk around, and yes, I enjoyed seeing fish being thrown.

- Besides the original Starbucks in the Pike Place Market, there are seemingly Starbucks on every downtown corner. They really love their Starbucks coffee in Seattle.

- Part of the Pike Place Market is the gum wall which will be cleaned for the first time in 20 years this week. Before the cleaning, I took a few pictures.

This sign seems pointless.

- I found a Steelers bar not far from the hotel where I stayed. I was a little shy when I went in, so I just grabbed a table by myself. A few minutes later, two guys arrived and asked if they could join me. Sure. The one guy just moved from Alaska and wore an Alaska Steelers fan sweatshirt. His friend had a Seattle Seahawks hat on. Over the next few hours, I learned that I had absolutely nothing in common with them. The Alaska guy liked to swear. A lot. Meanwhile, I only seemed to swear when Roethlisberger threw an interception. Discovering that I live in the Washington DC area, he dismissively asked if I work in politics. Um, no. I learned that the guy is seven months sober and that’s part of the reason why he moved to Seattle. He also enjoyed chewing tobacco. As for the Seahawks hat guy, I don’t think I talked to him during the entire game, but I did overhear him telling his friend that he never heard his former girlfriend fart in the four years they were together.

- I had my first Uber experience in Seattle. Actually, I got a ride with a friend that has Uber, so I’m not sure if it counts since I still don’t have an Uber app and I didn’t actually pay for the ride. Overall, it seemed like a rather easy process.

- I went to a nice restaurant one night for dinner, and the waiter raved about crab cakes and duck as the two dishes that are most popular and are the restaurant’s specialties. Since I don’t eat crabs, I decided to eat duck for the first time in 15 years. It will be at least another 15 years until I eat duck again.

- The Space Needle is cool. What is less cool is when the temperature is in the 40s and it is rainy and windy when you get to the top. I think I was only on the outside portion of the Needle for a few minutes since I didn't like being cold and wet.

- The Fremont neighborhood was also a cool place to see.

- Finally, the Chihuly Garden and Glass wasn’t in Seattle when I visited last, and I’m so glad that I saw it on this trip. His work is incredible. Enjoy some Chihuly pics.

Completely unrelated to Seattle, this is my 2600th blog post. That's a ton (+600) posts. Wow! In honor of this tremendous (insane?) achievement, please like Sean's Ramblings on Facebook.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

TMI Thursday: In The Bedroom

I am the last person to go to sleep at my home each night. Actually, what often happens is that I fall asleep on the couch watching TV, only to wake up an hour or two later. I generally check e-mail, Twitter and Facebook to see if I missed anything, look up my fantasy football or baseball teams and then to go my bedroom. And that’s when the magic happens.*

Like clockwork, about 90 seconds after I lay down, Ziggy jumps on to the bed and goes under the covers to curl up with me. As I pet him, he purrs happily, readjusts himself to get comfortable and licks my arm. After a few minutes, Ziggy decides that he’s done and will either jump off the bed or move on top of the covers to sleep by my feet. I consider this as quality bonding time between me and Ziggy and a nice way to end the day. Ziggy probably has his own opinion on this ritual, but I don’t have access to what he writes on his own blog to know what he thinks.

* Perhaps I am using this phrase incorrectly.

Please click here to see previous TMI Thursday posts.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Sean Analyzes Song Lyrics - Fall 2015 Edition

Welcome to the latest edition of Sean analyzing song lyrics where I tackle lyrics of some of the biggest current pop songs.

Adele - Hello

Hello from the other side
I must've called a thousand times
To tell you I'm sorry for everything that I've done
But when I call you never seem to be home

I'll take the under. There is no chance Adele called 1,000 times. She must have sent some text or e-mails too. Plus, after maybe 20 or 30 calls, wouldn't you leave a message? I'm sure the person she called has caller ID and would get really upset at seeing hundreds of missed calls. That's probably the point when you change your phone number.

Demi Lovato - Cool for the Summer

Take me down into your paradise
Don't be scared cause I'm your body type

I'd like to think that I teach my children values and lessons. Saying please and thank you are important. Not tackling your brother is something we're still working on too. However, one thing that I learned this summer that I hope to instill in my kids is not to be scared of people that are your body type.

Justin Bieber - What Do You Mean?

When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean? Hey
When you don’t want me to move
But you tell me to go
What do you mean?
Oh, what do you mean?
Said we’re running out of time
What do you mean?
Oh oh oh what do you mean?
Better make up your mind
What do you mean?

I'm sorry, but I can't take Justin Bieber asking questions seriously. I mean, this is the guy who was arrested and received probation for throwing eggs at his neighbor. Plus, he wore this when meeting now former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

Silento - Watch Me (Whip / Nae Nae)

You already know who it is

No, I don't know who it is. Oh wait, are you Cali Swag District of Teach Me How To Dougie? No. Are you the Harlem Shake guy? No. Well, I knew Los Del Rio of Macarena fame. Los Del Rio were friends of mine. You're no Los Del Rio.

Charlie Puth featuring Meghan Trainor - Marvin Gaye

Let's Marvin Gaye and get it on.

Look, I enjoy listening to pop music. I even like that Justin Bieber song up there. However, this is just a terrible song with terrible lyrics. When I think of this song, I think of the awesome kids' book, The Gruffalo. Why? The Gruffalo features a line that "He has terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth and terrible jaws." Notice how often terrible is used? Just like this "Marvin Gaye" song. Terrible.

Click here to see previous versions of Sean analyzing song lyrics.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Best of the Burghosphere

Many years ago, I was somewhat of a political junkie. I majored in politics, organized a successful voter registration drive in college and had internships with my Congressman and a State Senator. Like many people, though, I got tired of all of the partisan fighting. There is little cooperation between both parties on the national level, and as a result nothing seems to get done. Sure, I still follow elections and the Presidential campaign. And yes, I'm going to vote on Election Day. However, I don't have the passion for politics that I once did and like Pat of Community Matters does. So for the Best of the Burghosphere, I'm proud to award Pat with the Most Likely To Know Your Member of Congress Based on Your Zip Code Award.

Pat is a consultant specializing in external, program-oriented projects for progressive nonprofits dedicated to social welfare and justice issues. (Yes, I took that sentence from her website.) She also writes passionately about political issues with resources for lobbying on both the national and local levels. While many of Pat's recent entries focus on national politics, she wants people to get involved. Government is of the people, by the people and for the people, but as citizens, we don't always do enough (look at the voting percentages, particularly in non Presidential elections) or even know enough about how government works. Pat tries to change this by keeping people informed and explaining civics. So due to all of her efforts, Pat has earned the Most Likely To Know Your Member of Congress Based on Your Zip Code Award.

The Best of The Burghosphere is an awards ceremony to honor the creative bloggers in the Pittsburgh region with proceeds benefitting the Most Wanted Fine Art Resident Artists project.

The official Awards presentations will be on Friday, November 20, 2015 at 7:00 PM at Most Wanted Fine Art at 5015 Penn Avenue. You can RSVP on this Facebook page. This is a 21+ event.

The family friendly party is Sunday, November 20th at 1:00 PM. And yes, there is another Facebook page to RSVP.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sheffield Wednesday Defeats Arsenal!

There was a time when I considered myself a Pittsburgh sports blogger. I wrote about other topics too, but it seemed like I wrote more about Pittsburgh sports than anything else. Now, two months into the 2015 NFL season, and I've barely mentioned the Pittsburgh Steelers. I haven't written any posts about the Penguins this month. The Pirates reached the playoffs for a third consecutive year, and while I typed notes from the Wild Card game, I didn't feel like publishing it. So even with the World Series and NBA season starting on Tuesday, my first sports post in a long time isn't about any Pittsburgh sports teams. It involves Sheffield Wednesday and the Capital One Cup, one of England's soccer competitions.

If you're not familiar with English soccer, there's the Premier League with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and 17 other teams. This is the biggest soccer league in the world with arguably the biggest names in the sport not named Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The Capital One Cup involves all of the Premier League teams and the other 72 professional teams in England. Granted the other teams are professional teams, but they are at a lower level (sometimes MUCH lower level) than the Premier League teams. The best comparison in the United States might be baseball. There's the major leagues and the minor leagues ranging from rookie league to AAA. Yes, players in the rookie league or A league are professionals but they would struggle to compete with the Royals or Mets.

Anyway, this is a very long way of describing what happened Tuesday. Sheffield Wednesday, my favorite British soccer team, stunned Arsenal, 3-0. I started supporting Sheffield Wednesday shortly after they were relegated from the Premier League. They have struggled the past 15 years or so, and while they are doing well this year, getting back to the Premier League remains a challenge. But on a late October Tuesday evening, the Owls advanced to the 5th round (the final 8) of the Capital One Cup by defeating Arsenal, currently the 2nd place team in the Premier League. Sure, Arsenal didn't play all of their normal starters, but this doesn't take anything away from Wednesday's impressive win. This is sort of like the AAA Indianapolis Indians defeating the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe Michigan State football beating the Green Bay Packers. It's a big deal (at least in my mind).

Here are the highlights:

(And a longer version)

Go Owls!

Full disclosure: I haven't watched a complete Sheffield Wednesday game since my visit to Hillsborough. (It's not like the games are on TV very often.) I can't even name most of the players on the team. With that written, if Sheffield Wednesday wins the Capital One Cup and/or makes it back to the Premier League, I'm definitely getting a jersey.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Trivia Tuesday: 80s Music Edition

Happy Tuesday! The Learned League recently conducted an 80s music mini-league. This was by far the most success I've had in Learned League since I signed up, barely missing the finals. Today, I thought I would share some questions, so let's see how well you know your 80s music.

1. What musical act, whose members met in a Philadelphia elevator in 1967 while escaping a gang fight, went on to become Billboard's best-charting duo of all time (and Billboard's #3 act of the '80s, behind Michael Jackson and Madonna)?

2. What 1981 song, which spent more time atop the Billboard Hot 100 than any other '80s song (10 weeks), was recorded by a granddaughter of Max Born, who won a Nobel Prize "for his fundamental research in quantum mechanics, especially for his statistical interpretation of the wavefunction"?

3. Who sang backup for Chaka Khan, duetted with Teddy Pendergrass, was one of the women that inspired Billy Joel to write "Uptown Girl", and graced the cover of Seventeen magazine—all before releasing her eponymous debut album in 1985?

4. Written by Tim Rice and ᗅᗺᗷᗅ's Benny and Björn, what single (from a concept album that became a 1986 musical) juxtaposes chorus lyrics that speak well of the title capital city ("the world's your oyster") with verse lyrics denigrating it ("crowded, polluted, stinking town")?

5. The names are the same. When written as two words, it's the title of The Whispers' biggest hit—a Hot Black Singles #1 in 1987 and an early product of the prolific production duo of Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. When written as one word, it's the music-themed handle of Bebop's rhinerocerine partner, who was created in 1987 for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series. What is this shared name?

6. If Cheryl James is "Salt" and Sandra Denton is "Pepa", then who is Deidra Roper?

7. The cover of what album, one of three ever to include seven top-ten singles, features an Annie Leibovitz photo of the singer's butt (because, according to the singer, it looked better than a photo of his face)?

8. Debbie Gibson wrote and co-produced what album, the follow-up to her 1987 debut, which resulted in four Hot 100 singles (including the title track), a 1989 world tour, and a perfume (manufactured by Revlon)?

9. Give both where Tommy used to work (union's been on strike) and where Gina currently works (working for her man) in the lyrics to Bon Jovi's signature hit "Livin' on a Prayer". Two answers required.

10. The names are the same. It's the name of Bobby Brown's 1988 album, as well as its lead single. It's also the Elvis Presley song that Cheap Trick covered that same year. What title do they share?

As always, please leave your answers in the comments section below and don't use the internet for assistance. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Proud Father

Recently, my 4 year-old son (The Moose) was taking an unusually long time in the restroom. Naturally, I wanted to see how he was doing.

Me: Are you okay?

Son: Yeah.

Me: Are you done?

Son: Not yet.

Me: What are you doing in there?

Son: Reading the newspaper.

That's my boy!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Interview With Sean Guillory of Sean's Russia Blog (Part II)

Welcome to part two of my interview of Sean Guillory of Sean's Russia Blog. You can check out part one by clicking here.

This could be completely inaccurate, but my perception is that Ukraine isn't in the news much these days. What is the latest there?

Ukraine has been off the news since the Minsk II agreement in February. I’ve felt for a while that the European powers would rather the Ukrainian crisis go away. The only reason they reluctantly responded with sanctions is because of American pressure and the downing of MH 17 by the rebels using Russian supplied Buk missiles. The EU is in no position to inherit a political and economic basket case like Ukraine except to open its markets to free trade. Sure, they would ideally like to see Ukraine adopt European political and legal standards, but I don’t really see any EU invitation coming. Nor do I see a NATO invite coming for a long time, if ever. Putin put the kibosh on that by showing he was willing to support a proxy war in the east. No one in Europe or the US is willing to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, except for neoconservative hawks, Russophobes, and Cold War re-enactors. This is why the US response has mostly been lukewarm. Ukraine might matter in the geopolitical game board of Risk, but Ukraine is not a vital object of US interests, regardless of Russian paranoid induced fantasies. Plus the US can’t even contain the Middle East. We won’t even mention Africa, which will be the next theater in the “war on terror.” Sure Obama had to do something in response to Crimea and certainly to MH 17. Being the global hegemon comes with that kind of obligation. Sanctions and attempts at isolating Russia from the “West” are pretty much all the US can do. The Obama Administration has the power to subordinate Russia but the will isn’t there because the costs are way too high. The US and EU will sell out Ukraine eventually, and it will be done quietly as not to be perceived as not being tough with Putin. We see indications of this already. In the last few months in particular, the French and Germans have been putting more pressure on Kiev to comply with the Minsk II agreement. The US has almost completely disengaged diplomatically though it still engages in backroom machinations in terms of guiding the outer contours of Ukrainian politics (as best it can) and, mainly, influencing the neoliberal institutional and economic reforms (as best it can). Ukraine remains a pet project for a handful of American Russia obsessed imperialists who salivate at the prospect of Russia’s collapse and neoliberals searching for “live experiments” for their defunct doctrines. But the whole of the American foreign policy establishment has moved on, if they were really ever “on” in the first place. The Ukrainian populace is also tired of the war and polls show that the majority want some kind of resolution in the Donbas. Even the Russians are backing off as attention turns to Putin’s Syria adventure.

Indeed, Ukraine has mostly fallen victim to Syria, which I’m sure is a secret big relief for many in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and Washington. This is not to say that they would rather deal with the refugee crisis and the Syrian civil war. But Russia’s involvement in Syria allows for a potential diplomatic deal with Moscow. There have been hints of this in the press. Putin may be willing to trade Assad for a neutral Ukraine and some kind of de facto recognition of Crimea. Putin’s main condition will probably be that Moscow has some say so over a post-Assad Syria, in whatever political or geographical form it takes. If a deal is able to be struck (the Americans would have to get the Turks and Saudis to go along), the West can quietly let Ukraine go. That is a big if, though, and a lot of it depends on how far the Russians are willing to go to prop up Assad. Russia faces the danger of getting sucked in to Syria as the Americans, Turks and Saudis double down and prolong the conflict. Ironically, what might happen in Syria is exactly what some were saying would happen if the US supplied weapons to the Ukrainians. Now the situation is reversed.

In all, I think we’re seeing the twilight of the Ukrainian crisis unless something brash and unforeseen occurs. It will likely continue on a low simmer for a while which will benefit Putin. In fact, I’m sure there are Russian elites eagerly waiting for the Russian state to aid in the rebuilding of the Donbas so they can pillage the kitty. This is what happened in Sochi and I’m sure is happening in Crimea. War presents all sorts of economic opportunities and I’m sure there is a tacit agreement between Putin and his elite that they will get access to the spoils in the Donbas in exchange for their loyalty. The only problem with all this is that Russia doesn’t have the money since oil and gas prices are so low. Nevertheless, the opportunity is there.

In regard to Syria, the propaganda response in the US has been incredible. The ramping up of the Russian propaganda machine is expected, because as I said above, this is one of the few mechanisms the Russian state has at creating consensus. But in America, it has been clumsy and transparent—the transformation of jihadists into “moderate rebels” or just “rebels” and the constant harping on the fact that the Russians aren’t hitting ISIS like they said they would. I mean it has been really pathetic. I think this desperate response by the entire US ideological state apparatuses is in part due to Russia interfering on US turf, and by doing so revealing the utter failure of US power projection in the Middle East. You can see this in all the rhetoric about Putin outfoxing Obama, winning, “not letting him get away with it,” etc. It’s like the US’ collective masculinity was insulted by the bare-chested Slav on horseback.

You've spent the past few years in Pittsburgh and I understand that you speak Russia fluently. So have you met and talked with Evgeni Malkin?

I’ve been in Pittsburgh for four years. It’s a great place and we decided to stay. The one (of many) things about Pittsburgh that disturbs me is how racially segregated it is. This is not to say that LA isn’t segregated. It is. But LA is a multiracial and multiethnic, albeit balkanized city. Here it’s just black and white. And frankly I’m not so comfortable with all these—what my mother would call—white-white people.

I don’t speak Russian fluently. I wish! I have a constant battle with the language even after all these years. I read a lot better than I speak. I’ve been in Russia for a year at two different intervals—2004-2005 and 2009-2010, in addition to several shorter trips. My Russian got quite good in that period. I think the only solution is for me to spend some extended time in country, and by extended time, I mean 3-5 years. That’s not going to happen under my current situation. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to go back. Maybe when my daughter is older and she can appreciate it. This is too bad because I really enjoy being there. It’s a fabulous country despite all its flaws. In all, I’m just not good with languages. I’m always amazed by those people who have picking up languages as their superpower. Unfortunately, I think languages are my kryptonite.

I’ve never met Evgeni Malkin.

The Original Hot Dog: Great place to get a hot dog and fries or greatest place for a hot dog and fries?

It’s okay. (Sean's note: It's better than okay!) I’ve been there a few times. Honestly, no fast food anywhere beats In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles. N-o-w-h-e-r-e. Five Guys is a decent substitute. But still . . . I don’t miss a lot of things about LA except three things: In-N-Out, the Lakers, and the weather. Oh, perhaps medical marijuana as well.

(Sean's Note: In-N-Out is very, very good though I'll take the O Fries over In-N-Out fries.)

It seems like your blog has been pretty quiet lately. Are you currently working on anything for the site?

I’ve been real busy this summer. I was in Tanzania for ten days. It was absolutely amazing. I’ve always wanted to go to the African continent so this trip was very special for me. Then my wife and I bought a new house in East Liberty. Moving and setting up the house has taken a lot of time and has been my singular focus for the last two months.

But I’m now starting to reemerge from my hole. I’ve started up the podcast again and I will be writing more.

The big project ahead of me, however, has nothing to do with Russia. I’m embarking on a research project into American non-profit funding of Israeli settlements for the organization my wife works for, Partners for Progressive Israel. The idea is to track, collect, and make publically available information about the non-profit organizations that provide funds to organizations that send money to settlements. Our goal is to make this information available in a searchable database. We’re only getting started and it probably won’t be until sometime next year before it’s done.

Thanks again to Sean for taking the time to participate in this interview. These two posts are probably the most thoughtful entries on my blog ever. I'll get back to my usual posts about kids and other stuff in my life next week.

Please make sure to check out Sean's Russia Blog, follow the other Sean on Twitter, and check him out on iTunes.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Interview With Sean Guillory of Sean's Russia Blog (Part I)

About 100 years ago (give or take 93 years), I wrote a post highlighting other blogs with Sean in the title. Recently, I found another Sean blog, Sean's Russia Blog. The topic itself was intriguing but I also found a connection with the site's author, Sean Guillory, since he was a post-doc at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian & East European Studies. I sent Sean few questions about himself, Russia and Pittsburgh and he was extremely generous in providing excellent and thorough answers. So thorough that I'm dividing this up into two separate posts. This is a little different than my usual posts and topics, and I hope you enjoy this interview.

Plus, this is the first time that "plutocrats" has ever been used on Sean's Ramblings.

Tell me about your background. How did you become interested in Russia and Russian history and decide to get a doctorate in this subject?

I’m originally from California. I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to Los Angeles when I was ten. I consider myself a Los Angeleno first and foremost. A Laker fan for life. My entire family is from Louisiana, though. Theirs is an interesting story in and of itself. I learned a few years ago that my family was legally categorized as “black” until they moved to California in 1960s. It was a big secret, and some relatives refuse to talk about it. It’s as if they are living in the closet, so to speak. If you look at the census records of both my mother’s and father’s family going back to the 19th century they are all categorized as “negro” in the race column. My mother likes to say that at some point a “black” person entered our genealogy. I’ve come to wonder when a “white” person did.

The reason why I say they were “categorized” as black is because as far as I know none of them self-identified as black. Rather since Louisiana had the “one drop rule” my family was legally designated as black and had to live according to Jim Crow laws. However, I’ve been told that they didn’t identify as either black or white, though given a preference they identified as white and do so today. Instead, the more culturally conscious of them see themselves as Creole.

Like I said, it’s an interesting story, but by no means an uncommon one. It does show the malleability of race in America, and to some extent even its artificiality. In fact, I recently finished a book by Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft: the Soul of Inequality in American Life that makes a very strong argument that when we talk about race we are really talking about racism. Race is a fiction, but the category of race, how we understand it, how it functions institutionally and discursively is based in racist ideology, and specifically on the debunked science of biological racism. When we speak about race in America, we do so by unconsciously invoking assumptions based on the fictitious biology of race. This however is not without its problems. I don’t think we can properly call race a “fiction” when we recognize and people identify themselves as members of say African American culture that is rooted in the historical experience of being black in America. Sure, Fields might say that A-A culture is to variegated to reduce it to one “race,” and that suggesting that there are commonalities in the experience of African Americas is based in racist assumptions. We don’t, after all, speak of a “White American” culture. Instead we tend to associate white Americans with the culture of their ethnicity: Irish, Italian, Jewish (a difficult category considering American Sephardic Jews), etc. I don’t know what Fields would say about the intersection between culture and race/racism. It is certainly one of the questions, if not criticisms, I have.

In regard to Russia, I got interested in Russia in college after taking a class on the history of the Soviet Union. The professor, J. Arch Getty, would become my dissertation advisor. My interest initially was for political reasons—interest in communism and Marxism. That has evolved over the years to include a wide variety of issues and topics like Russian state formation and state craft, social history, and politics and culture of Russian society. Currently, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the history of neoliberalism as a way to form a theory and picture of capitalism in Putin’s Russia.

Why did I decide to get a doctorate in Russian history? That’s a good question, especially considering I’m no longer in academia. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t regret it though I wish things would have turned out differently.

Vladimir Putin is a fascinating person. Despite there being a legislative body in Russia, he seems to run essentially a dictatorship. How was he able to assume total power in Russia and is there any possibility of this changing?

I don’t like the word dictatorship and I wouldn’t call Russia one, though it is fashionable in some quarters—in the West and in Russia—to use this terminology. While I agree it is certainly authoritarian, but the concentration of power in the hands of the presidency is granted by the constitution. The legislature is weak because the Yeltsin constitution of 1993 made it such. That said, Russia has always had a top heavy, authoritarian structure. The legal strictures of the Constitution allow for an easy convergence with traditional Russian statecraft. I call it authoritarian because the legal system and state structure are mechanisms of the Russian elite, upon which Putin sits as the head. Moreover, the structures that would allow a politics independent from the state—political parties and civil society (structures which were always nascent in Russia)—have been neutered over the last 15 years under Putin. More tolerate assessments would call this “managed democracy” in which the space of acceptable political participation (which may expand and contact depending on the domestic and international situations) are defined by the state. This is a contrast with liberal systems where the law theoretically sits above the state, and it is the law that defines the rules of the political game. In liberal societies, the law is constructed to serve a class—the political and financial elite who may wage political battles against each other, but do not wage politics as a zero sum game. There is a more or less shared consensus among liberal elites in terms of class interests. However, we can see in the United States at least that the “rule of law” has increasingly become concentrated in the service of plutocrats and the neoliberal state. This best example of this convergence between law and neoliberalism is the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United.

Russia has some elements of this, but there are important divergences. The law is merely reduced to an instrument of elite power and is exercised selectively to not only subordinate the masses, but more importantly as a disciplinary mechanism against the elite. Therefore I would argue that in Russia the elite lacks class consciousness as such. Rather, a small faction of the elite rules for its own benefit and demands that other elites fall in line if they want to maintain the wealth and privileges. The leader, in this case, Putin, maneuvers between these various factions, playing one against the other, ensuring divisions between them, and making sure his indispensability. Here, how Russia is ruled has more in common with feudal relations than modern class relations. Putin sets the rules for the elite: steal but only within certain parameters, understand that your wealth and privileges are in exchange for loyalty, and be ready to mobilize your wealth in service of the state when called upon. Corruption has been both the means for the elite and other bureaucrats to gain wealth at the same time it is a mechanism of discipline.

Now looking at both of these, the United States and Russia, you might see some convergence occurring as wealth and power are concentrated in few hands. There is something to this. I think the main difference is in the relationship between force and consent.

In many ways, this power dynamic within today’s Russian elite reproduces centuries old relations between Tsar and the nobility. In fact, some historians have argued that there is a strong continuum in Russian elite relations along these lines. I think it is too presumptuous to suggest that 17th century Russian elite relations continue virtually unaltered to this day. However, the analysis certainly gives deserves reflection.

Putin was able to become the dominant force in Russian politics through his adept manipulation of this system. He did this in several ways: 1) he broke independent oligarchic power and subordinated Russia’s elite to the state; 2) Utilized the flood of petrodollars in the 2000s to raise Russians’ standard of living; 3) Consolidated the political system by delegitimizing the non-systemic opposition on the one hand and taming the loyal opposition on the other; 4) Returned Russia into a global player capable of defending and prosecuting its geopolitical interests, a process in which we are seeing at the moment in Syria.

At the same time, Russia is a terribly under governed country. The concentration of power into few hands, if not solely into Putin’s, has resulted in micromanagement (in Russian ruchnoi kontrol or manual control) at the top and, as a result, subterfuge below. The centralization of power has resulted in the permanent atrophy of local state structures. The whole system is top heavy and as you burrow down the rung is actually quite fragile. This is why I say, to borrow a slogan from the preeminent Indian historian Ranagit Guha, Putin and his circle have dominance without hegemony. Dominance remains because the consensual apparatus of Russia is so weak. This is why I think the system relies so heavily on state controlled propaganda.

In many respects Putin rules over a country with chronic historical problems: the weakness of law—not in a liberal sense—but in a state sense. There is an absent of a rechtsstaat where the system operates on automatic control. While the bureaucracy is massive and the state bloated, governance is rather weak. The elite, to put it in Marxist terms, is a class in itself, but not for itself. That is too say, that the Russian elite sees itself as a distinct class vis-à-vis the masses, and at times, will even consolidate when faced with threats from within and without. But it doesn’t possess the consciousness to press for its collective class interests, and do so without cannibalizing itself. This is why it still requires a Putin to maintain the balance.

Finally, there exists very little political flow between the elite and citizens. While Putin and his circle are obsessed with the mass opinion of the population—Russians are some of the most polled people on the planet and the government is very mindful of maintaining Putin’s astronomical approval ratings. At the same time there are very few mechanisms for the masses to have any influence on governance. Hence there is a tendency toward the political stagnation we’ve been witnessing since Putin returned for a third term. There is just little dynamism in the system to perpetuate it or, more importantly, renew it.

As for the possibility of Russia changing, the question is in what direction. The hollowing out of popular politics in Russia has left a space where only Putin dominates. Once he’s gone there will be a vacuum, and who will occupy it is anyone’s guess. The problem is, and this is another one of Russia’s chronic historical problems, is that there is no mechanism for transition. Every succession produces crisis and every one of them has, except for a brief period in the 19th century from Alexander II to Nicholas II. Every other instance has led to conflict, palace intrigue, palace coups, state disintegration, civil war, and revolution.

Substantive political change in Russia has historically occurred in two ways: the rise of a modernizing or reformist leadership that is from above, or through revolution, that is from below. I, as well as others, thought that the Medvedev experiment of 2008-2012 was going to be the beginning of evolutionary process, particularly in terms of leadership transition, but, for whatever reasons, and people have various theories, that didn’t happen. Just the opposite actually.

This may be an odd question, but does Putin care about what the world thinks of him and Russia? He invaded Crimea and the Ukraine with little repercussions and recently delivered weapons to Assad, not at the top of the most popular world leader list, helping him maintain power in Syria. Conversely, he has spent billions of dollars on the Sochi Olympics and 2018 World Cup, two major events to showcase Russia.

Why should he care? He is not a president subject to an election by the world nor is he or should he be in a global popularity contest. He leads according to what he perceives are the interests of the Russian state. Now whether those perceptions are actually in the interests of the state, let alone the Russian people, is another question.

Meanwhile, we're not going to see a Putin-Elton John summit on gay rights anytime soon, are we?

No, and the one that supposedly happened was a prank.

Tomorrow, we'll cover Ukraine, Pittsburgh, The Original Hot Dog and more. (Part II is now available here.)

In the meantime, check out Sean's Russia Blog, follow the other Sean on Twitter, and check him out on iTunes.