Friday, April 14, 2006

None more BlaK

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Welcome, friends, to another exciting lecture brought to you by the Institute of Bizarre and Revolting Foods! IBARF is my own personal scientific research facility dedicated to the study of awful mass-produced foodstuffs.

Today's exhibit: Coca-Cola BlaK. It's a new drink by Coke that mixes cola with coffee — a perfect candidate for study with IBARF, which has a whole wing of study devoted to junk mixed with other junk to make grosser junk. Like caffeinated beer, and hot dogs with cheese already injected into them like cheddar veins.

Coke BlaK's premise is simple: Can't decide if you want a lot of caffeine or more caffeine than that? Why choose when you can have both?

My first question when I heard about BlaK was, isn't this just a flavor extension?

"Coca-Cola BlaK is not just a flavor extension," reads a helpful press release. Hooray!

"It is a blend of unique Coke refreshment with the true essence of coffee ... and has a coffee-like froth when poured." Either nobody told them that coffee froth comes from the milk, or this stuff has milk in it, too. Eeeesh. Let's move on.

Coca-Cola has something like 6 jillion different varieties — regular, caffeine-free, cherry, cherry vanilla, lime, diet, zero, half — so you may be asking where BlaK fits in. Easy. BlaK is the one that's going to fix your crummy life. Hence the press materials on the Web site:

"Welcome intrigue. Welcome sophistication. Welcome BlaK. Every sip is an experience to enliven your senses and welcome new possibilities." In other words, it's like there's a party in your mouth and only rich, mysterious people are invited.

As for the flavor, the press release calls it a "sophisticated, premium blend" that's "designed to appeal to adult consumers looking for an indulgent and revitalizing alternative to other beverages." Having woken up the other day with a massive headache and a thirst for something indulgent and premium, I picked up a four-pack at Stop & Shop.

The first thing I noticed when I cracked open a BlaK in the IBARF laboratory (my kitchen) was the bouquet. I lifted the bottle to my nostrils and pretty much all I smelled was sophistication. I caught a whiff of intrigue, but it was my wife's oatmeal in the microwave.

BlaK's a bit different poured out of the bottle — then the indulgence really hits the fan. Think of wood-flavored cough syrup folded into a saucepan of weak caramel. Except fizzy. Coca-Cola memorably describes this as "Coke effervescence with coffee essence." It's effervescessence!

BlaK went down more or less like a two-day-old Coke — sort of flat. Then, right on time, the flavor of underbrewed room-temperature coffee rose in my throat.

My wife saw me retching and smacked me on the back between my shoulders. "What the hell did you just drink?" she asked. "Moxie?"

"Worse," I said. I held the glass under her nose. "Coke Bleccch."

As I wiped my tongue on my sleeve, I made a few scientific notes: Invigoration levels, dropping fast. Refreshment factor, 2. Sophistication, too early to tell. Wish I had a piece of dry toast I could swallow in large uncomfortable chunks to scrape the inside of my throat on the way down.

Chugging a Coke BlaK isn't recommended — as I did when I had the second one — unless you can do it in a sophisticated or intriguing way. At a staggering $1.99 per 8-ounce bottle, you really wouldn't want to, anyway. Unless you're made of money, and then congratu-frigging-lations.

BlaK's biggest problem is that chemists at Coke have figured out how to make a drink that tastes sort of like both Coke and coffee without answering why — for Chrissake, why? But if for some reason you're still BlaK-curious, here are some of my other IBARF findings in question-and-answer form:

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Q. Jeez! Why is BlaK so bloody expensive?

A. As you know, it's made with "coffee essence" rather than "actual coffee." Getting the essence of a coffee bean is a time-consuming process that involves existential philosophy.

Q. Are there any ads for Coke BlaK, so I can avoid them?

A. Good question! One ad out now perfectly explains the product. Ralph Malph and some other guy are walking toward each other on the sidewalk, and Ralph Malph is so busy drinking his coffee, and the other guy drinking his Coke, that they careen headfirst into the other. Ralph Malph says, "You got Coke effervescence in my coffee essence!" The other guy goes, "You got coffee essence in my Coke effervescence!" They discover their happy accident has created a deliciously intriguing beverage, and they become fast friends who form a sleepy little soda bottling company that markets this drink to adults looking for new forms of stimulation and refreshment. The company becomes a success, and the two open a plant where pairs of guys crash into each other all day to make the stuff.

Q. I have no affiliation with Coke. I'm just curious — are those copycat assholes at Pepsi going to make a coffee soda that tries to be as delicious and cool as BlaK, too? Sincerely, [name withheld], CEO, Coca-Cola North America.

A. Yes! My inside sources tell me Pepsi is working on not just a coffee cola, but a latte version, an Earl Grey tea cola, and a mocha macchiato cola called Pepsiato.

Q. Will Coke stop with BlaK, or will they keep mixing stuff together to see if it tastes lousy?

A. Coke has a whole spectrum of fantabulous new flavors! Coming out later in the year is Coke YelloW, a mixture of Coke effervescence with nacho cheese essence. If that's the stirring success it sounds like, we'll be seeing Coke WhitE: Coke effervescence with garlic essence; Coke PinK: Coke effervescence with pimiento loaf essence; Coke CruncH: Coke effervescence with sea salt essence; and Coke RarE: Coke effervescence with 100 percent Angus beef essence. The company also plans to roll out Coke RedundanT, Coke effervescence mixed with Coke essence. That one sounds pretty nice, although it's still $1.99 for 8 ounces. Go figure.


This column was previously published in The Herald News in slightly edited form, and is reprinted here with permission.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Reporting from an insecure location

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President Bush is listening on the phone. The government's got my library card. Eighteen-year-old computer geeks spy on my favorite Web sites. Every telemarketer knows I own a house and have unconsolidated student loans. Shaw's has it on file that I like Teddie's brand peanut butter and Eggo brand toaster waffles and Shaw's brand yogurt. Netflix has my movie taste — foreign, documentary, comedy — reduced to a math equation. And pretty soon, I won't be able to pick my nose in the Flint without the police getting it on instant replay.

The mayor recently let it slip that he's planning to install security cameras in high-crime neighborhoods. You walk into the projects, you're on film, I guess — so don't dress like a slob.

The idea is to catch criminals in the act and deter crimes. It's worked for every 7-Eleven in America. Those places are swarming with video cameras, and nobody ever even thinks of committing a crime there.

Even as I lament the loss of yet another sliver of American privacy, I have to admit that it's an interesting idea — this way, we'll be able to tell which crimes are committed by gray smudgy blobs in puffy jackets and which are committed by gray smudgy blobs in hooded sweatshirts.

But it does raise some troubling questions. For one thing, is this really a good way to catch criminals — I mean, come on. Really? Like, do we have actual figures to back it up? Figures you found up your ass excluded?

And how long will the police keep the tapes? How much electricity do 20 security cameras use? You know that old saying, "If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t need to worry"? Do people who say that realize it's actually the most basic argument promoting guilt until you prove your innocence? And how long before the first camera gets tagged by gang graffiti — two, three minutes? Since business leaders in the Fall River Industrial Park are buying these cameras, will they buy us a new one when some kid chucks a hunk of asphalt at one and breaks it?

Friends, these questions have no easy answers. What is more certain is that the comparisons to Big Brother from "1984" are silly. This is simply videotaping people 24 hours a day without their knowledge in their own neighborhoods in case they commit crimes! Sheesh — relax! Besides, in the book, the nation was caught in a bizarre war that had no end. And everyone was addicted to television. And,
uh ... there was an authoritarian government that ... well, lied about its own motives for the war and locked away alleged traitors. And the main character worked at a ... er ...newspaper. Hmm. Wow. OK, let's pretend I never said anything.

It does make me wonder who exactly will be watching these tapes...

---

Scene: A secret bunker in Fall River. Oh, all right — a converted utility closet on the second floor in Government Center, two doors from the elevators as you exit left. Inside, two henchmen are studying a bank of 20 TV screens showing street corners in working-class and poor Fall River neighborhoods. The two henchmen are bleary-eyed and pounding Dunkin' Donuts Turbos like they're going off the market. On the wall is a poster depicting a shadowy, caped figure labeled "Mystery Mooner."

HENCHMAN 1. Anything afoot there, Gary?

GARY. (studying his TVs) Nope. Just some Portuguese guy on Bay Street painting his concrete lawn green.

HENCHMAN 1. Boy, spring sure is a pretty time of year. (suddenly alert) What's this?

(He watches a father and son play Wiffle ball near Maplewood Park. The kid swings and the bat goes flying — right into dad's crotch.)

HENCHMAN 1. Oof! (taking notes) One for the blooper tape.

GARY. (watching Davis Street) And here comes Sizaltina and her boyfriend, right on time. (checking his watch) Come on, Sizzy, you got four hours until Carlos comes back with the kids.

HENCHMAN 1. Say! That's not Julio with her.

GARY. No, she's so over Julio. Her new guy's nice — more her type. He's got a nice car, buys her flowers. Too bad he's also messing around with her sister.

HENCHMAN 1. You know Carlos isn't the father, right?

GARY. Duh.

HENCHMAN 1. (points to Camera 6) And that he's got another kid with this lady from East Main Street?

GARY. No, that's not Carlos. That's his twin brother, Jay. He used to work for the Mob, and he's trying to leave the life behind, but the money's too good. The thing is, his girlfriend is studying to be a criminal lawyer. She has no idea what he does. Your classic "Odd Couple" type deal. They usually have new episodes, but it's been in reruns for a couple of days.

HENCHMAN 1. (shrugs) I hadn't noticed it that much.

GARY. (sotto voce) Amateur.

(They both start as a mysterious figure appears at the corner of Plain and Pine streets. It's a short gray smudgy blob — wearing a cape!)

HENCHMAN 1. (on a radio) We have a Code Blue in progress! Repeat — a Code Blue!

RADIO. (staticky) What's the location?

(The figure sneaks looks over both shoulders, stares directly into the camera for a moment. Then he lifts the cape over his head, undoes his belt, and moons the camera.)

HENCHMAN 1. (into radio) Oh God! Oh horrors! He did it! The Mystery Mooner struck again! Pine and Plain! Step on it!

RADIO. Let's boogie.

(The Mystery Mooner stands up quickly and dashes offscreen.)

GARY. Zounds, he's getting fast! He's got to have that belt on some kind of quick-release buckle system!

HENCHMAN 1. (pounding the table) I hate that guy! How can someone just ... misuse the security cameras like that! And why doesn't he at least get a body wax if he's going to put his ass on tape?

(Gary pulls up a computer keyboard, presses a few buttons, and we zoom in on an image of the Mystery Mooner's round bum. Gary
touches the screen near a birthmark shaped like a four-piece dinette set.)


GARY. And Bingo was his name-o. (sighing) He can't hide behind those Old Navy jeans forever. He was a little careless today. And he'll be a little more careless tomorrow. And when he does, we'll be there to pinch him. (Stands on a set of phone books to
look important.)
We'll get him yet, Henchman 1. We'll get him yet.

(They nod contemplatively for a moment, sighing away the disgust, then quietly maneuver the cameras to peek into people's bathrooms.)
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