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Event review: A Machine to See With

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Here you go folks.  Here's the second in my series of event reviews.  And it'll probably be the last in quite a while.

A Machine to See With was a presentation by the Walker Art Center, and it is a show that is presented in a quite unconventional format.  There's no theater here, no chairs, no crowd to watch the show with.  Instead of watching a show in the traditional sense, the audience member is more of a participant.  I was pumped to see this show.

Here's the way it worked.  I signed up to see the show, and all I really knew was that I would be walking around St. Anthony Main, that I'd be using my cell phone a lot, that the show riffs on the noir thriller, and that I'd be called an hour before the show to tell you exactly where to go to start.  The likelihood that you'll actually see this show is pretty small, as it isn't particularly likely to come back, but I know there are purists out there who will scream if I don't put a spoiler break, so follow on only if you're okay with spoiling the show.

star star star star star star star no star no star no star

Event review: Jonathan Coulton concert

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I've decided to start doing some reviews of live shows.  I'm going to restrict it to artists who are national, as the local shows I go to could lead to bruised feelings, and although I go to a fair number of shows, I don't think that my particularly ascerbic reviews would go over well.  I'd like to stay friends with the folks in the local arts community that I know, after all. 

But I feel fine panning media that got a wide release; there's an anonymity which is a-ok with me.  Besides, for those shows, I'm likely to be a drop-in-the-bucket.  With a local artist, my half-assed review on this blog might be the only review they get.  I'm dating a dancer, and even though her group gets almost exclusively good reviews, because they get so few of them, the review tends to get over-analyzed, and innocuous statements can be seen as negative.  When I'm one reviewer in a thousand, or even one in ten, it means a lot less if I pan a game.  If I happen to be the only review, it gets blown out of proportion in a way that I'm not ready to deal with.

Anyway, on to the subject of the review.  I went and saw Jonathan Coulton's show a week ago, at the Guthrie.  I have some wonderful ubernerdy friends who scored me second row seats, front and center.  I felt a bit awkward, because, you know, I like Jonathan Coulton, but I've never seen him live, and, you know, it's not like I need to count the hairs in his nostrils at the first show I see.  But they were great seats.

And the show was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be.   Paul and Storm were the opening act, and they took their novelty rock schtick as far as it can go, which is typical from what I understand.  They had some pretty funny stuff, but so much of it was schtick that it was unfortunately really difficult to tell what they actually thought was funny, and what they were just laughing at because the audience was supposed to laugh.  I still wish that I had seen Da Vinci's notebook.

When Coulton came on, it was more of what I expected.  I got to hear a couple of my favorites, but missed a couple others that I wished would have been played.  Coulton's a funny guy, and he writes funny songs.  But he's not that great in performance.  Most of his songs sounded almost identical to what I knew.  The most entertaining stuff was his new stuff.  Of course, it doesn't get the rise that much of the rest of songs do, but it was stuff I hadn't seen, hadn't already immersed myself in.  I don't go to concerts to hear the same stuff I can get out of any CD, I come to a concert to get something new, something different.  And the fans didn't sing along.  If there's a type of artist out there that is made for singing along, it's one dude with a guitar.  Hell, Raffi based his whole career on it.

The whole concert left me somewhat disappointed.  I don't dislike Jonathan Coulton now, but I do think that it's pretty unlikely that I go to another of his shows.  I'm glad he's out there, I'm glad he's making music, and I'll be happy to keep listening to his music.  I'll probably purchase his new album when it comes out.  But in concert?  I'll save my time for something else.

star star star star star no star no star no star no star no star

Genki Sudo: World Order: Machine Civilization, and what it can teach us about globalization and racial politics

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I try not to make it a habit of reposting cool shit I find around the internet, mostly because I am invariably late to the party and don't-you-know-I-already-posted-that-on-twitter-last-week.  But I have some stuff to say about this video, so please indulge me.

The first thing that came across to me is the beautiful camera shots, over and over and over.  The color is amazing, and there's a cohesive industrial style that comes across.  In fact, that industrial/business style is what really drew me to the video in the first place.  There's a not-so-subtle commentary here about the businessman in suit as a robot in society, subverting individualism in favor of becoming part of the larger machine, complete with Starbucks coffee and business suit.

But I think what most appeals to me about this video is the raw, unbridled optimism of the message of globalization and interconnectedness.  Now, I hate the international policies of multinationals like Wal-Mart as much as the next card-carrying liberal, but the message of connectedness from this video is different.  This message is not sponsored by Coca-Cola, but comes directly from the artist reaching out.  Sure, the song is in Japanese (mostly) but the message is clear, that we aren't really that different at our roots.

And I miss that kind of earnesness, an earnestness which feels very rooted in the 90s to me.  There's been a cultural shift in the last 10 years away from an effort to understand, and a regression to a cultural concept of people being "just different."  It's easy to get cynical about this in terms of global policy, and say that this is largely due to the US's place as sole superpower being threatened by the bombastic growth of China, but I think this is larger than that.

I see this kind of division happening more frequently in discussions of domestic race politics as well.  "Politically correct" has become such a charged term that conservatives are comfortable dismissing it out of hand, and have begun expanding "politically correct" to refer to any discussion of race at all that acknowledges any kind of an economic or class disparity.  More and more frequently, the conservative mantra seems to be "We fixed this stuff in the 60's, and if there's still problems, then its clearly due to the minority not working hard enough."  This idea, of course, is absurd.

I'm not advocating a complete reversal of global or racial policy of the last 10 years.  We have made strides, most obviously the election of a black president, and the ability to bring discussions of race into casual conversation.  But we should be very careful about painting a picture of a static other, one that we can box back into the same familiar stereotypes we learned to reject 20 years ago.  The 90s had some important lessons to teach us in race relations, and we should not dispense with them entirely.

Why you should take another look at the Bee Gees

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I may get disowned by all my indie-rock oriented friends for saying this, but the Bee Gees are one of the best bands of the 70s.

It took me a while to come to this conclusion.  Just like everybody else, I know Stayin' Alive just a little bit too well to really appreciate it.  But as I was flipping through the six radio stations that come in on my drive home to rural Minnesota, I came across Night Fever, and I caught myself singing along.  When I caught myself, and realizing that I was singing along with the biggest group of one of the most reviled mainstream music movements of the last half century, I was forced to reexamine.

I gave myself a chance, and asked for a Bee Gees album for Christmas.  My dad loves these kinds of requests on my wish list.  It's a virtual guarantee that if I ask for a musical act that predates 1980, my Dad will get so excited that I like music that he's heard of that he goes overboard and buy me the most exhaustive greatest hits collection that he can find (see also: Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, even Mozart).  On schedule, I open up my gifts on Christmas to find the hilariously overtitled cd "The Bee Gees: Their Greatest Hits: The Record."  No, you didn't read that wrong.  Even though this is a two CD set, the collection still is called "The Record."  In honor of this absurdity, you will now be subjected to the nearly-as-unwieldy abbreviation: TBG:TGH:TR.

When I first played TBG:TGH:TR, I kind of hated it.  And really, it's mostly because the collection is put together chronologically.  And chronologically, the Bee Gees start out really fucking boring.  They are shitty Beatles knock-offs, by which I mean that they are a shitty band that knocks off the shitty parts of the Beatles' career.  Still, I give every CD I own a legitimate shot, so I ripped it to my computer anyway, fully expecting to expunge all trace of them within six months.

You know what happens next.  I fall prey to their catchy songs enough that I really start listening.  And damn, they are good at what they do.  Their instrumentation is not as lackadaisical as I had thought.  But what really put me over the top was "Nights on Broadway."  Here's a YouTube video.  Listen to it through the first chorus, somewhere around 1:23.

Did you catch that?  The three voices are passing the melody back and forth going into the chorus, but where is the chord resolution going into the chorus?  Which voice is singing the line we're supposed to be listening to?  Go ahead and listen to it again, starting in the bridge section at 0:42, and then tell me where the melody goes once the refrain starts at 1:01.


It still isn't obvious, is it?  Well, here's a hint.  Try listening to the same section starting at 1:42.


There it is!  They bring the melody as an echo.  They make you feel the missing melody in the first chorus by leaving it out entirely.  When they do finally bring it in, it's as an echo, in a nod to the theme of the song, which is an unrequited ballad (with some creepy undertones), sung to another who doesn't return the feeling at all..

Sure, this isn't exactly rocket science.  It's still a pop song.  But I bet you didn't think the BeeGees had it in them, did you?  It's worth taking another listen to some of their catalog.  They were great at what they did. Give them another shot.

Why I'm Not On Facebook: The Anti-Manifesto

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I'm not on facebook.  I was on facebook for a while.  I disabled my account sometime a year or two back.  I didn't make a big deal of it.  I didn't storm off in a huff or post on everybody's wall saying what a Big Deal this was, or whatever it is that those crazy kids do these days.

And, believe it or not, it wasn't a principle thing.  I wasn't angry at facebook's privacy policies.  I wasn't online enough for them to have a significant impact on me.  I wasn't mad about the drama it imposed on my personal life.  I wasn't active enough to see the drama, much less get involved in it, at least until it became a real-world issue.  And I wasn't upset about wasting my life on it.  I barely was on, and my sites of choice for wasting time had nothing to do with facebook.

But man, few other decisions have elicited as much puzzlement from such a wide variety of my friends.  Most people assume that it's some kind of a principle thing for me.  It's not.  I seem to be one of the few people that really didn't get much utility from the site.  I rarely logged in, never posted any updates.  And it's not that I hate people, or can't get along with them.  I actually consider myself pretty good with people, and enjoy the foibles of large social groups.  Hell, I even gossip and/or live vicariously through others now and then.

No, the reason I left facebook is that I finally got embarassed at having such an outdated presence up on the biggest social networking site out there.  It was the first hit on Google for my name, something that, especially as I moved into freelancing as a career, I was uncomfortable with.  After all, the picture on there was a grainy one from those halcyon days when digital cameras were still pretty rare, and took mostly crappy pictures.  And my interests were all interests from my sophomore year of college.  Things have changed, man.

Anyway, most people I tell this to still think I'm crazy.  But now at least you know, at least I have something to point to to explain my position.

And to all you addicts out there, keep facebooking.  I wish you all the best on it.  Revel in your hobbies.  Certainly I do, they just might happen to be different from yours.

Maccabees, and how it taught me a lesson on review objectivity

No, I'm not talking about the Deuterocanonical books of the bible, I'm talking about the board game Maccabees.

This past NFL season, a small board game designer/publisher ran an NFL pick-em league, in which the goal was to pick the most winners correctly in any given week.  The weekly prize for winning was the user's choice of 10 geek gold (the virtual currency on the site, used for things like buying an avatar and the like), or one of five different games that this publisher had published.  I wasn't really that interested in the prizes, but I DO like pick-em.  This seemed like a good excuse to revisit pick-em leagues.  Who cared if I won anything?  I was just excited to play.

Turns out I had a pretty good year.  In week 5, I won, and I chose one of the free games, Pirate King, as my prize.  Pirate King was the heaviest of any of the five options, and although the reviews compared the game to Monopoly, they also talked a lot about how great the components were, and how the gameplay really was superior to that old standby. (I still haven't gotten it to the table, but I expect that to change in the next few weeks.  I have read the rules, and I expect it to be leaps and bounds better than Maccabees.)

Week 7 comes around, and again I manage to win.  Well, I had already gotten the one prize that most appealed to me.  There was very little information to be found about the other four games.  From what I could tell, all four of the games were based around the traditional Jewish game dreidel, which I didn't know how to play.  They had a level of variation that appeared similar to the difference between Ticket to Ride, Ticket to Ride: Europe, and Ticket to Ride: Switzerland, which is to say very little.

So, knowing that gameplay wasn't a deciding factor, I went with Maccabees.  Of the four, it had the most engaging theme, and it was appropriate to the season, no less, as the story of the game was somehow, in a way that is still unclear to me as I write this, relevant to the holiday.  (It has something to do with the menorah tradition, and having enough oil to have the lamp burn, or something.  Go look it up on Wikipedia.)  I figured I'd even give it to my token Jewish friend for the holiday.  I told the publisher that I would take Maccabees for my prize, and thanked him for his generosity in sponsoring the contest.  I also told him that I would try to write a review of Maccabees, to publicize it and get the word out.  I figured that it was the least I could do in return for him sending me out games for free.

I was excited.  I figured the game, though simple, would be a good fit for my Jewish friend, a non-gamer.  When the package arrived, I opened it and started reading the rules.  This is when the misgivings began.  Where was the story of the theme?  These rules were simple, yes, but they were also very unclear.  What's the difference between the pot and the bank?  Were these flimsy cardboard things that bent super-easily really the only way to track your amount of oil? 

When I played it, it was bad.  Really bad.  Roll-and-move gets a lot of hate for being a mechanic which doesn't allow choices in game play, but this was basically the same thing.  Instead of roll-and-move, this game was spin-the-dreidel and move.  There was very little decision making to be had, looking up what your roll meant got old quickly, and the theme was as pasted on as the theme on those games that your children get on their placemats at family restaurants, to distract them for 20 seconds while their food is being made.

Oh, how I regretted my promise to write a review!  I couldn't bear to tear the game to shreds.  There was so little information out there.  Three comments, and one very short review.  If I were to write a review, it would probably be the definitive review, despite being very harsh.That could do terrible things for sales of the game.  But then again, I couldn't write a positive review, because the game was worst-game-of-the-year-consideration level awful, and I didn't want to be a cheap shill. 

I took a weasel way out, which in hindsight might have been the worst choice.  Instead of writing a review, I decided to write a comment blasting the game.  As a bit of background for those not familiar with the site, BoardGameGeek has a ratings system, out of 10, and when you rate a game, you are free to write a small snippet, customarily anywhere from a few words to a paragraph or two about the game.  It's a way to encapsulate your feelings about the game without going to the trouble of writing a full review, and it's also really useful to take a look at all the comments for the game to get a large number of opinions summarized very quickly.  I take pride in my comments, and I write at least a short paragraph on every game.  Maccabees was no exception.  I wrote my comment, and I blasted the game.  I said exactly what I felt, and I definitely did not feel well-disposed toward the game, despite having gotten it for free. 

Although I hoped that would be the end of the matter, the publisher/designer checked the ratings, and he was unhappy.  To his credit, he handled it pretty well.  He found my earlier promise to write a review, quoted my comment in a private message to me, and sent me a sadface emoticon.  Yes, I'm sure you're busting a gut right now with laughter, but he got his point across, which is that he was disappointed. 

Because I was raised Catholic, I burned with guilt.  I felt that I had betrayed his generosity by writing a scathing comment.  I edited the comment a bit to make it slightly less harsh, but left it mostly intact, and also left the low rating.  In the end, I wanted my credibility, insignificant as it was to most people, to remain intact, even if it did mean that I would be hurting a publisher that went out of his way to treat me well.  I'm still not sure I made the right decision.

In retrospect, I wish I had paid for the game, or gotten it from any other method than gratis direct from the designer. My comment is still there, and although there has been another review added, mine is still the only rating below 6.  I can't speculate on how much my comment has reduced sales.  I don't think the average BGG user is the target market for this game anyway, but I do make it pretty clear that I don't think this game is really worth playing if you can at all avoid it.  Certainly that could have hurt sales for the game.  After all, a Google search for "Maccabees board game" has BGG as search results 1-3.

So, what should I have done?  Should I have kept my mouth shut?  Should I have taken a stand even further and reviewed the game and blasted it even more publicly?  Should I have whipped myself with a knotted rope dipped in brine to cleanse me of my sins?  I honestly don't know.  I don't think I made any bad choices, but things sure worked out shitty for everyone involved.

Ah, regrets.

Played this week: Samurai, Dixit, Bohnanza, Paydirt

Boys and girls, I'm going to read you a book today.  The book is titled "Tara and the the Awkward Board Game."

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Tara who worked in an office.  One of the people she worked with was named Grant.  Grant was a jovial character, and Tara and Grant quickly formed a work-friendship, which is to say, the type of friendship that revolves around camaraderie and telling stories to one another, but not actually spending time together outside of work.  Tara and Grant seemed to be okay with this kind of relationship, and everything chugged along nicely for a long time.

Then, one day, Tara and Grant were swapping stories as usual, when Tara told Grant that, now and again, she would play boardgames.  Tara said this with certainty that Grant would have no idea what she was talking about, as most people thought board games were for children, and never played them anymore.  They would say things like  'Oh, like Monopoly?' when Tara told them about board games.

But Grant was different.  When Tara said "I play boardgames," Grant said "I used to play boardgames too!"  Tara was very shocked by this.

Grant continued. "I have this board game sitting in my house.  It's an old board game, and I love it very much.  It's called Samurai.  I used to play it, and love it, and raise armies in feudal Japan."  But then Grant got very sad.  "But now I never play it.  All of my friends who played with me moved away to other neighborhoods.  Nobody plays Samurai anymore, or loves it, or raises armies in feudal Japan."  He sighed heavily.  "In fact, I want you to have it.  You will probably play it!  Then it will be played, and loved, and you will raise armies in feudal Japan!"

At this, Tara was very frightened.  Grant really loved Samurai!  What if she did not like it?  Board games had changed very much since 1983, and she was not sure that a game that was good in 1983 would still be good today.  But she had to take the game, or else Grant would be very sad.  Not only would she have to take the game home, but she would also have to play it in order to be nice to Grant.  But what if she did not like the game?  What if she played it, but did not love it, and did not like raising armies in feudal Japan?  What would she tell Grant then?

She took the game home.  She showed it to her friend Paul, who played games with her.  "Grant gave me a game," she said.  "It's called Samurai.  Grant used to play it, and love it, and raise armies in feudal Japan.  I am worried that we will not like it."  Paul was a game snob, and did not like many games. 

Paul went and looked up information about the Samurai on Board Game Geek.  "It's called Samurai?  It sounds very similar to Kingmaker, a stupid game that I played once.  I think it will stink.  We will probably play it, and not love it, and hate raising armies in feudal Japan."

Tara was very worried.  Paul was very picky.  How could she get Paul to play this game, and love it, and raise armies in feudal Japan?

Then, suddenly, she had a brilliant idea!  She would invite Grant, and they would all play the game together!  Grant would teach them the way of playing Samurai, and loving it, and raising armies in feudal Japan!  And Paul would like it too, as Grant's enthusiasm would be contagious.

But then she remembered something dreadful.  She had never seen Grant other than at work.  Oh, there were so many bad things that could go wrong if she invited Grant.  What if he wouldn't want to come over?  What if he smelled bad on weekends?  What if Paul was right, and Samurai really was bad?  What would she do then?

She became nervous, and she fretted, and she worried.  But finally, she made up her mind.  She would invite Grant anyway.  So what if it turned out poorly?  At least she had tried, and trying was all she could do.

The next day at work, Tara found Grant.  "I am going to play Samurai, and love it, and raise armies in feudal Japan.  "Great!"  Grant said.  "I am so happy that you will play it."  Then, Tara continued.  "But I would like you to play as well, and love it, and raise armies in feudal Japan.  I think you will help my friend Paul appreciate it as well, as he is quite stodgy and not given to new things." 

Grant seemed taken aback by this.  "I have never seen you outside of work before.  Do you smell bad on weekends?"

"Nope," Tara said.  "In fact, I usually smell better on weekends, because I bike several miles to get to work, and I get much sweatier then."

"Well that's good," said Grant.  I would be very sad if you smelled funny.  "Do I have to know the rules?"

"No," Tara replied, "we will read them and teach them."

"Very well then," Grant said.  "I will come over to your house."

The big day came, and Grant and Tara and Paul (and their friend Matthew, who hasn't appeared yet in this story for narrative reasons) all played Samurai.  They played it, and loved it, and raised armies in feudal Japan.  The events of fate deprived first Tara of her army, then Matthew, and finally Grant.  Paul had won as the last man standing.  But they all agreed, Samurai was a very good game.  It was fun to play, and they loved it, and they enjoyed raising armies in feudal Japan.  It was not as bad as Kingmaker.  They would have to play it again sometime.  And they all lived happily ever after.  6/10



And now, breaking away from that story, I also played Dixit.  I am not a big party game player, but I thought I'd give it a try, as it had won the Spiel des Jahres, and got a lot of bona fide gamers excited.  We played it with the Dixit 2 cards mixed in.  Color me unimpressed.  I like my party games to be loud and raucous, and there's just not enough of that here.  It's a little too staid, and the everybody votes mechanic is very stale for me at this point.  I will stick to Taboo or Pictionary for my party game fix, thank you very much.  4/10


I also got a play of Bohnanza in, after making a bit of a fuss about playing Dixit for longer than I wanted.  I felt a little bad, but I wanted to play something else for the evening, and not have a bad taste in my mouth.  I know Bohnanza forwards, backwards, and inside-out at this point, so there's not much to surprise me.  I did manage to win, despite being the last player in a six-player game.  I still suspect that the person who cashes in the most rare beans will win.  But I enjoyed it.  7/10


Also played a game of Paydirt, continuing my season with Ben.  We're going to finish it eventually.  I'm not going to bother writing about it, as I'm sure you're more than sick of hearing about it by now.  But it was fun, as always.  9/10

Flash games- The post that will end your workday

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I admit, I am a huge fan of flash games.  In fact, I'm a big enough fan that they've almost completely replaced console gaming for me.  I mean, you sacrifice long-term engagement, but in return, you get free gaming, and you get some cutting edge ideas.  And, you get an awful lot of satire, particularly about Flash games.  Sometimes, they're nothing but rehashes, but other time they are truly special.  Here's a list of a few favorites, in no particular order.

Bowja 3 - Really, anything this studio touches is gold.  They specialize in point-and-click puzzle solving games.  Did I mention that I love that kind of game?  This is a cute little adventure that plays quickly, has puzzles that will engage you, but not frustrate you, and is ludicrously cute.

Bowmaster Prelude - Terrible graphics, but really interesting take on real-time strategy.  Lots of upgrades, and just the right difficulty level.  Be sure to change the aiming mode for best results.

Corporation - Great satire of flash simulation games, as well as corporate life.  This game was the single game that inspired the post.  This is as close as flash games get to art, what with a sharp moral as well as very polished visuals and gameplay.  It's worth it to dig out some of this designer's other games as well.  Some are terrible, but some, like Achievement Unlocked, are truly fantastic.

Primary - Holy crap it's hard.  But it's also crisp as all hell, particularly the controls.  This one is long, extremely well-crafted, and just perfect in almost every way.  Fans of old-school platformers like the Megaman series owe it to themselves to check this one out.  This is good enough that it could have been sold as a stand-along game.

Recordshop Tycoon - A blatant rip-off of the RollerCoaster Tycoon series, this is still a fun little game.  Get your recordshop into working order as quickly as possible.

Epic Battle Fantasy 3 - Fans of old-school RPG's rejoice!  Takes for-fucking-ever, but with a much more interesting combat system, and plenty of completist stuff to drool over.  And it's way easier that finishing the fucking bonus dungeon in Lufia II.

And there you go.  I would strongly NOT recommend clicking on any of those games while at work.  You've been warned.

Orange Juice

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In the off-the-wall part of the blog, I bring you a rant about no pulp orange juice.

Man, I hate no-pulp orange juice.  It's a crime against the orange.  The pulp is what makes you know you're drinking orange juice.  Here's the decision making process for knowing whether you're drinking OJ.
Q. Does what you're drinking have floating bits in it?
Yes: You're drinking orange juice.
No: You're not drinking orange juice.

I would render that in flowchart format except that I couldn't find an easy way to do it in five minutes.

Anyway, that simple process is too easy for some people, so they filter the shit out of that orange juice.  Suddenly, there's no floating bits.  No substance.  No aha moment.  No, these assclowns, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that orange juice is great, but you know what's better?  That travesty for fucking humanity, Sunny Delight.  Delite?  Fuck, I'm not going to check that shit, this is a rant post.  Fact checking is for arguments about less important things.  I have a fruit product to opine about.

When I want orange juice, I want a sweet, sticky residue.  I want visceral.  I don't want namby-pamby shit that's reminiscent of orange juice like those overpriced fruit juice blends that say stuff like 'Nutrismoothie with acai berry.'  Orange juice is an experience, and if you don't get that, partner, you're missing out.


Orange picture courtesy Andrew_B on Flickr.

Guys, guys, guys! Know what?

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Fresca and spiced rum is horrible.  Also, no blog post today.

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