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December, 2009:

Your favorite posts from December

THANK YOU for making December the best month ever for Free Refills & Why I Love America. Here are the top posts for the last month:

The graph the New York Times doesn’t want you to see (3rd month on list!) “Safety experts” and paternalistic editorial pages around the country are pushing to ban cell phones in cars. But there is one question none of them can answer: if cell phones are so dangerous, why are the roads safer than ever?

Judging by the tremendous number of Google hits this post is getting, I think Americans are looking for similar answers.

Should we ban cell phones in cars? No. (2nd month on list!) A no nonsense post full of facts and graphs about the relationship between cell phones and car crashes.

#24. Breakfast Cereal Sugary breakfast cereal is God’s gift to America. It means that we don’t have to eat a horrible “continental breakfast” every morning. For that, we should be truly thankful.

#10. Super Big Gulp (4th month on the list!) There are some things that perfectly encapsulate the American spirit, and the Big Gulp is one of them. This post continues to get a constant stream of search-engine traffic.

#1. Ice There is something about the refreshing taste of an ice cold coke that you just can’t find in Europe… because they don’t serve ice. Who would have thought these little frozen cubes could make me love America so much.

Which fast food should I eat? [important questions] America has scores of Fast Food chains that blanket our great nation from coast to coast. They are all excellent, so sometimes it can be hard to figure out which one to go to. Fortunately, the folks over at Eating The Road developed this handy flow-chart to help.

Starbucks’ colonization of NYC [map] Speaking of chains, here is a handy map that shows the steady colonization of NYC by Starbucks over the last decade. I like to think of it as the taste of gentrification.

Making the world safe for free refills and decent coffee It’s not just New York that needs to be made safe for chain restaurants. We need to spread the gospel across the globe as well. Here is a handy map to see the progress we’re making.

General Mills is making cereal less yummy [tragedy] Just because something is a great American institution doesn’t mean it is safe from those who wish to attack the American way of life. Unfortunately news came this month that General Mills is going to deflavorize many of its cereals by lowering the sugar content drastically. This is a reminder that progress isn’t assured.

#2. Drive-Thrus This month lots of my earliest posts received a ton of traffic—this included the second post I wrote on the beauty that is the American Drive-Thru.

Check out last month’s list as well.

There is a reason we have building codes in America

The Naughties might have been the decade of the Great Rise of China. After all, they’ve built whole cities from scratch, flying trains and all kinds of crazy things. But perhaps the Teens will be the decade that New China comes crashing down due to shoddy workmanship and lax regulations—kind of like this apartment building in Shanghai did yesterday.

In the weekend’s bizarrest news, a nearly finished, newly constructed building in Shanghai toppled over, killing one worker. As can be seen in the photo below, the 13-story apartment building collapsed with just enough room to escape what would have been a far more destructive domino effect involving other structures in the 11-building complex.

A building at the Lotus Riverside complex in Shanghai’s Minhang district collapsed, nearly intact, on Saturday morning (Imaginechina via AP Images)

The development, known as “Lotus Riverside,” has a total of 629 units, 489 of which have already been sold. Now buyers are clamoring to get their money back, and authorities are making efforts to reassure them. The assets of the project’s developer, Shanghai Meidu Property Development Co., have been frozen and the city officials said the developer’s ability to repay homebuyers was secure, according to a statement on the municipal government’s Web site (in Chinese). A hotline has been set up for Lotus Riverside buyers, and by Sunday afternoon, more than half of them had met with a group of lawyers and officials organized to help them negotiate with the developer, according to the statement.

Meanwhile, the cause of the accident is under investigation and nine unidentified people from the developer, contractor and management company have been detained.

A representative of Shanghai Meidu could not be reached for comment.

The disaster could reveal some uncomfortable facts about lax construction practices in China, where buildings are put up in a hurry by largely unskilled migrant workers, and developers may be tempted to take shortcuts.

[The Wall Street Journal via Queens Crapper]

Maybe the tick to building a 13-story building is using foundation posts that are more substantial than those found on the typical American backyard deck–just a thought.

God Bless building codes and God Bless America!

Free Refills Roundup [The Land of the Free edition]

Only in America can a drink this big be considered a medium (30 ounces/900 milliliters)Free Refills are part of the American spirit and we tend to talk about them a lot–-particularly on Twitter. So once I week I post the best of the “Free Refills” chatter from the web. The third edition of the Free Refills Roundup features people longing to be back in the Land of Free Refills.

If u keep a McDonalds cup can u get free refills 4ever? @lenci812

My heart is a little broken because today is my last day to use my kum & go mug..no more free refills @bwtucker

Free wifi at mcdonalds… why did I pay $15 a day for this?! I love mcdonalds. Mmm coffee. Soda refills. @alliterating

recommends signing up for Starbucks Rewards if you got a gift card for Christmas.. you get free coffee refills & wifi. @kansasbob

Would you spend all day at a fast food restaurant to see how long it takes before you have to pay for your ‘free’ refills? @dmcromance

Free refills on coffee = happiness @eddysteddy

happy to be back in the land of the free … refills @charityk

The war on XMAS

Norman Rockwell knew the holiday was all about consumerism

President Obama has come under a lot of fire over the past week over the fact that he did not bother to go to Church on December 25. The typical loud-mouths on the right say this is yet more evidence that the President doesn’t buy into real American values and is probably some kind of Muslim sleeper agent.

I’m not sure about the Muslim-sleeper-agent part, but I do know that any criticism that the President was somehow undermining the holiday is hogwash. After all, when you put aside all of the parties and family obligations and travel nightmares and other distractions, the meaning of XMAS boils down to one thing: consumerism.

It is the time of year when we, as Americans, go out and buy each other gifts as a way of saying “I love you” to our family, friends and corporate America. It is a holiday that inspires amazing marketing creativity and clearance sales and an urgency to spend that helps business balance sheets creep into the black.  It is a wonderful, all-American tradition and the happiest time of the year for many families.

But unfortunately that tradition is under attack by organizations that want to hijack the holiday for their own interests. Powerful groups— like the Religious Right—say that we should eschew gift-giving and spend the XMAS season donating our money to charities and praying in churches.

For many years these groups have been successful at rebranding XMAS as “Christmas” and making us all feel a little guilty about our unbridled consumerism.

But this year the President took a stand. By not attending church on December 25th, he said that he wasn’t going to cave into pressure from religious groups and instead celebrated XMAS in the all-American fashion: by feasting and exchanging presents.

Thank you President Obama for putting the “X” back in “XMAS.”

Ads that sell products and restore faith [commercials]

With all of the bad economic news these days it’s easy to lose faith in the American economy and start questioning our system. I find myself doing it sometimes. But just when I’m about ready to give up and start waving a red flag, I invariably see some ad on TV that not only convinces me to buy the product it is touting but also renews my faith in American Capitalism itself. Such is the skill of Madison Ave.

Here are a few ads that always leave me feeling warm and fuzzy (and wanting a Coke). Enjoy!

(RSS subscribers may need to click though to see the videos).

NASDAQ Visionaries

Coca-Cola & WalMart

Texting-while-driving now possible for cyclists as well [American Innovation]

gallery-handlebarAlmost every American (except for technophobic old people) can chat on a cell phone or even text while driving with ease.

But what happens if you ride a bike to work? How are you supposed to text-while-biking?

An accomplished cyclist would have no trouble riding with one or even no hands of course. But for the rest of us there is a handy new gadget called the The Text Hook which can mount a smart phone on just about anything, including bike handlebars and strollers.

Finally the All-American habit of texting-while-driving is available to bikers as well. The only question is how long will it take for the self-proclaimed “safety experts” to try and ban it?

God Bless America

P.S. This really should have been on the Free Refills & Why I Love America gift guide.

A Christmas crash landing [retrospective]

Northwest 767 on final approach to Logan
Two years ago I spent Christmas in a burning airplane 36,000 feet above the Northern Pacific Ocean. The upside of the situation was that I got to miss the typical Christmas drama. The downside was I nearly died.

Here is a recap of the whole experience I wrote a few weeks later for my college paper, The Michigan Daily.

At 7:15 a.m. on Christmas morning, I was sure I was going to die.

Fifteen minutes earlier, I had been sleeping soundly, strapped into seat 39-H of Northwest’s flight 26 from Tokyo to Detroit, when it felt like a freight train tore through the airplane.

My friend gestured me over to take a look at the engine directly outside his window. While the engine outside my window seemed to be producing mostly noise, the engine outside his was spewing an alarming quantity of fire and sparks.

I didn’t say anything. I sat back down. I thought about what it would be like to go to my death with the 160 other people who had opted for the discounted Christmas day flight.

I glanced at the flight staff to try to determine whether or not panicking was in order. It didn’t seem like it. Most of the other passengers were still asleep. The screens playing “Monster House” kept playing.

A number of stewardesses were peering out of the windows at the massive flames spewing from the engine. Then the co-pilot ventured back into the cabin to ascertain for himself whether or not the plane was on fire.

It was.

Apparently the pilot did not believe his deputy’s story. So a few moments later, he came to the back of the cabin to investigate the source of the bright red light illuminating the northern night sky. My guess is that he too determined that the mysterious glow was likely caused by the billowing flames and sparks consuming the left wing of the airplane. I can’t be sure about this, though.

That’s when I decided that there were definite pros and cons to my life ending then and there – in a fiery place crash into the Pacific Ocean.

The clear upside to the situation, as far as I could tell, was that I was going to be spared from recounting my Chinese travels to the masses that were at my parents’ house for Christmas dinner. Plus, I knew a plane full of American’s dying in a plane crash as they were flying home from Communist China for Christmas would make a killer human interest story. It would have been quite the dramatic exit.

The serious downside to the situation was that I had spent my last hours in China purchasing presents for people I wouldn’t ever see again. If I had only known my return flight was going to catch fire, I would have spent those last few hours sightseeing or at the bar, not buying scarves at a silk factory.

By this point in the ordeal I had come to terms with my situation.

While I found my arguments in favor of a dramatic Christmas day death very persuasive, I nevertheless decided I was not quite ready to die. After all, just that morning I had heard that Bill Clinton was slated to be my commencement speaker.

So I decided to act.

I set out to spearhead the praying effort, since neither my emergency landing nor my airplane repair skills were quite up to snuff. So with a renewed sense of piety, I began praying the rosary. Because I left my physical rosary at home, I had to improvise with the materials I had available to me in seat 39-H. I made a mark on the index page of the Northwest Airlines Sky Mall catalogue after I completed each recitation of the Hail Mary so that I did not lose my place. Ten Hail Marys, recite the second mystery of faith, an Our Father and then more Hail Marys.

Sometime around the third batch of Hail Marys, the pilot somehow extinguished the fire. But he was not able to get the engine functioning again.

A little while later, as I was fumbling through the Apostles Creed for my second time, the cabin lights came on and the pilot read two announcements, both of which he delivered in the same tone.

The first announcement was that we would not be landing in Detroit after all. Because we had “lost use of engine one,” which I imagine is pilot speak for “engine one exploded for no apparent reason,” we were going to have to land in Anchorage, Alaska.

The second announcement had to do with our meal service. As the pilot explained, Anchorage was quite a bit closer to our current location than Detroit, so to make sure we received all the meals we paid for, they were going to have to serve breakfast several hours ahead of schedule.

Northwest was sorry for any minor inconvenience this might have caused us.

The good news, from my perspective, was that the pilot had some reason to believe the plane would be landing after all. The bad news was that we were still well over an hour from dry land – and judging by the precarious angle that we were flying at, I was not altogether convinced that we were going to make it to a paved runway before touching down.

After savoring every last bite of my SkyChefs’s French toast breakfast, I began preparing myself for a crash landing in the Pacific.

I diligently reviewed the emergency landing card to figure out the precise procedure for surviving a water-based landing and checked to make sure that there was, in fact, a life preservation device under my seat cushion.

There was.

It then occurred to me that the north Pacific might be rather cold in late December. I reasoned that the stewardesses were probably distracted by frightened guests and preparing for a likely crash landing, and I could probably get away with disregarding the normal rules. So I decided to violate the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign and retrieve my coat and scarf from the overhead compartment. I did not want to catch a chill while waiting for the rescuers to come. I also took this opportunity to move to a seat in an exit row. A careful reading of the crash-landing-procedure card had revealed that it was likely to be quite crowded on the inflatable rafts, and I reasoned it would be a wise move to make sure I was first in line for a seat. I did not want to be too uncomfortable waiting for the rescuers to come. It was Christmas day, after all.

But the rescuers never had to come. Somehow the pilot managed to get the plane to Ted Stevens International Airport, where we were greeted by a fleet of fire trucks and ambulances.

I think Northwest press-ganged every available bus driver in Anchorage into service that morning to shuttle me and 150 other Northwest airlines refugees to the hotel. We spent Christmas day at the anchorage Hilton waiting for a new plane – one with engines that did not explode into flame – to come and take us the rest of the way to Detroit.

The other passengers seemed less than amused that they had to spend Christmas in Alaska. Because I was nearly prepared to go down in flames to escape holiday misery, avoiding Christmas without having to die in the north pacific was perhaps the greatest gift I received this holiday season. Thank you, Northwest Airlines.

The last minute Christmas gift guide

With all of the distractions this time of year, it is easy to forget what Christmas is really about.

But when all is said and done, the office parties, the charitable contributions, the Christmas Pageants, the Salvation Army Bell Ringers, the Rockettes, the family parties and the traveling are all mere distractions. What Christmas is really about is consumerism.

It is the time of year when we all get a chance to go out to the stores and restaurants and give a little something back to Corporate America. Think of your Christmas shopping as a chance to say “THANK YOU” for all of the little things—like free refills—that American Corporations give us every day.

With the true spirit of Christmas in mind—and assuming that if you’re like me, you haven’t even thought about Christmas shopping yet (there’s still about 6 hours until Christmas, I’ve got time)—I’ve pulled together the first annual “FREE REFILLS & WHY I LOVE AMERICA HOLIDAY CHRISTMAS GIFT GUIDE.”

I’ve ranked them from worst-to-best because it is not really the thought that counts.

5. Luggable Loo–portable toiletLuggable Loo

We should all be thankful that free restrooms are ubiquitous in America these days, but if you have a traveler (or New Yorker) in your life, considering buying them the Luggable Loo. It is an easy-to-use 5 gallon toilet. Best of all, it’s only $19—that’s less than you’d pay in toilet-tolls on your next European vacation.

4: Soup and Spaghetti Os

Spaghettio's - 347 Campbell’s is caving in to the nutrition zealots and slashing the salt content in many of their soups and SpaghettiOs. But thanks to the nature if canned food, there is still time to stock up. Give the canned-food fan in your life a 1-year supply of the good high-salt version of all their Campbell’s favorites. They’ll be particularly thankful next March with the new reduced-sodium versions hit the market.

3. The steering-wheel deskSteering Wheel Desk

You can get a lot done when you’re on the road if you just master the art of driving with your knees. But sometimes you have tasks—like letter writing—that really require a desk. So for the power-commuter in your life, make sure to pick up a laptop steering-wheel desk. It’s the one gift that will help them transform that useless drive-time into productive billable hours.

2. Extra cup holders

Cup Holder
Cup holders are one of the things that make America great. Without them it would be dreadfully difficult for Americans to eat full meals while driving. But sometimes the 4-6 cup holders that modern cars come equipped with aren’t enough. Thankfully there is a robust selection of aftermarket cup holders you can buy for the driver in your life. Some of them even come with extra room to hold fries or particularly large Big Gulps.

1: Gift cardsARCH_CARD

Christmas is about giving back to corporate America and there is no better way to do that than with a gift card. These little pieces of plastic take perfectly good cash and tie it to a retailer. More likely than not, the gift card recipient will lose or never use the card. Those unused cards are not a waste; they’re just a gift to corporate America. Last year American’s gave an estimated $8 billion back to big business this way. Let’s see if we can make it $10 billion this year! The best gift card to give is of course on to McDonald’s, they very company who first popularized them.

Merry Christmas!

(Hat tip: John)

Back when cereal makers had balls [with video]

With their sugary-goodness and amazing variety, breakfast cereals are one of the things that make America great.  But recently, some cereal manufacturers have been caving in to pressure from the nutrition lobby to radically change the composition—and deliciousness—of some of our most treasured cereal brands. It didn’t used to be that way.

Check out this ad from 1959, back when cereal makers didn’t mess around with this “balanced breakfast” crap and instead focused on what people really care about: the sugar content.

Sadly Sugar Smacks have been re-branded as Honey Smacks. But if you’re looking for more sugary cereals, check out this flowchart.

(RSS readers might need to click through to see the video).

Free Refills Roundup [Panera Bread Edition]

Panera Bread Bakery-Cafe

With Free Refills this glass is never half-empty

Free Refills are part of the American spirit and we tend to talk about them a lot–particularly on Twitter. So once I week I post the best of the “Free Refills” chatter from the web. The second edition of the Free Refills Roundup features some praise for one of America’s great institutions: chain stores.

Man, this Moonstruck Diner had so much going for it. That is until I was told they don’t offer free refills. Never again, never again. @JohnnyFiveMikes

Free refills? Hell yes! @InsandeMistress

free refills. What a beautiful phrase! :)@memorytoamduck

If they offer free refills why would anyone pay for a large coffee? @KloKatze

Panera Bread, free coffee refills AND free Wi-fi? No wonder I’ve been here more than five hours. I got lots of work done, too. I swear. @Marshall9093

If you missed last week’s Free Refills Roundup which featured some good old anti-French sentiment, you can find it here.

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