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Archive for March, 2011

Gary Ackerman Reponds on Citizens United

Posted in Editorials on March 31st, 2011
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Congressman Gary Ackerman recently sent me this response to my letter:

Thank you for contacting me to express your concern regarding corporate influence in political campaigns.

The Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission strengthens the power of corporate lobbyists and special interests in the political process. This misguided and overreaching decision grants corporations the same First Amendment rights as American citizens to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of or in opposition to candidates for public office and inhibits the ability of average Americans to have an impact on elections.

As a result of the Citizens United decision, American citizens will be forced to compete with corporations who can spend millions of dollars in support or in opposition to candidates for public office without breaking the bank. As a result of the Court’s decision, oil companies can threaten to spend millions to ensure the defeat of Members of Congress for supporting a clean energy bill, or corporations with foreign interests can spend millions in support of a candidate to secure a favorable trade agreement for another country. At a time when the American public increasingly questions the impact of big donors and lobbyists on the legislative process, our democracy certainly does not need to reverse the progress that has been made with regard to campaign finance reform.

In response to the Court’s decision, I introduced the Corporate Politics Transparency Act. Under my bill, publically-traded companies would be required to notify shareholders of all independent expenditures made either for or against a candidate for public office over the last six years if spending exceeds $10,000 in an election, by disclosing the spending in quarterly statements, annual reports, proxy statements, and registration statements. I am also a cosponsor of legislation that would require corporations to seek approval from a majority of shareholders before spending on politics. I firmly believe that if companies want to spend corporate funds to influence elections, their shareholders have a right to know, approve or disapprove of the spending, and have the opportunity to hold corporate management accountable for how their company is spending their money.

Beer For Beasts

Posted in Food and Drinks on March 28th, 2011
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On Saturday, I attended the afternoon session of Beer for Beasts – a fundraiser for the Humane Society. It was at The Bell House in Park Slope and featured a large variety of Sixpoint beers and food from around Brooklyn.

There was a large crowd of people who were enjoying the festival, but it was not so packed that it was difficult to move around. The program provided listed the beers on tap and where they could be located. Staff members were very helpful and could answer questions and help you find what you were looking for. Although some of the beers ran out early I think it was a generally well organized and successful event.

My favorite beers were Nessie’s Revenge and Das Doppellsticke. Nessie’s Revenge is a Scottish Ale infused with distilled scotch. This was delicious and I really hope to be able to find it again. Das Doppellsticke is a wood aged double altbier. It was very rich with a nice finish.

The food was amazing and I especially enjoyed the Weisswurst & Sauerkraut on Homemade Pretzel Roll from Prime Meats and the pizza from Pizza Moto.

There was a performance by Jersey Fresh Burlesque. I’d never seen a burlesque performance before, so I was curious about what to expect. It was a lot of fun, and I had no idea anyone combined geekery and erotica outside of fan fiction.

I had a great time and I was very impressed that I got such great food and beer and entertainment for the price of my ticket – a portion of which went to charity! I will definitley be on the lookout for Sixpoint beers from now on and a trip to Pizza Moto is probably in my future as well.

Photo Sunday: Shaking My Head Edition

Posted in Pictures on March 27th, 2011
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Photo taken with my iPhone on Friday March 25th 2011 in Midtown Manhattan
I am relieved that corporations have now co-opted stencil graffiti. Heaven knows I don’t want to look down at the sidewalk without being advertised to.

Cappie Pondexter Assures Us God Makes No Mistakes

Posted in Editorials on March 18th, 2011
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Cappie Pondexter is an amazing basketball player. I cheer for her and Team USA during the Summer Olympics. She always had me on the edge of my seat when the Pheonix Mercury came to town – with Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor she was part of a triple threat to my beloved New York Liberty. Last year, when she signed to play for the Liberty, I was excited. And she didn’t disappoint – averaging over 21 points per game it seemed at times she was carrying the whole team on her shoulders.

I follow a lot of the players in the league on Twitter. They’re very unfiltered and often interesting to read even when not tweeting about basketball. Pondexter’s tweets frequently mention God. However, I was not looking at my Twitter feed when she tweeted this in the wake of the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan:

So I think a lot rt! I knw it’s tragic n God makes no mistakes but what if japan was bout to do some bad things 2 another country?

u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can’t expect anything less

And then to a follower who was arguing with her:

r u jap?

There was a controversy on WNBA message boards almost immediately. Most condemning her for using a slur and saying something so ignorant. The media started to pay attention when she made a apologized, it was picked up by ESPN and The New York Times.

I wanna apologize to anyone I may hurt or offended during this tragic time. I didn’t realize that my words could be interpreted in the manner which they were. People that knw me would tell u 1st hand I’m a very spiritual person and believe that everything, even disasters happen 4 a reason and that God will shouldn’t be questioned but this is a very sensitive subject at a very tragic time and I shouldn’t even have given a reason for the choice of words I used.

I think it’s really awful that she would use an anti-Japanese slur, and it seems even worse at this time when so many Japanese people are in danger of losing their lives. Sportswriter Michelle Vopel explained the racism inherent in her comments and the irony of a Rutgers alum saying something so insensitive.

But I want to focus on something else in her tweet that the mainstream media – or at least ESPN, NYT, WNBA, etc seem to be ignoring. It’s what she said about “God makes no mistakes” and her insistence that everything that happens is caused by God, who has a reason, that we might not know or understand.

Why is it that when she says this about a devastating natural disaster that kills thousands of people, there is outrage, but when she (or anyone else) says that God caused something as trivial as the outcome of a basketball game (and she’s not the only one) why do people just nod and accept it without questioning? Because if God influences basketball games, then obviously God must also decide who gets struck with earthquakes.

And Cappie Pondexter herself is not consistent in her own beliefs. Before she issued her apology, she said:

So funny the moment something is taken totally out of context, taking negatively the whole world wanna retweet n talk! Let’s talk bout Taking action n donating money to help! Why we as people focus on the negative? I’m not a negative person by me stating my opinion That will never change! I pray for people countries everyday not just when something tragic happens!

So… the almighty God has decided to kill thousands of people in Japan with an earthquake, tsunami and debilitating nuclear radiation, and our first instinct should be to stay positive, take action, donate money to help and pray for them. That makes no sense. If she really believed that God was trying to torture the people of Japan to death, she would not want to help them. Why should she want to interfere with the will of God? And if it’s a good thing to help them, then why would she believe that God caused the earthquake in the first place.

Taken a step further, why should Pondexter even show up for practice? Won’t God decide who is going to win or lose anyway? How could her efforts possibly matter?

That no one in the media ever points this out is a shocking example of the privilege religious people, especially Christians have in the United States. As a former Catholic and current Unitarian Universalist, I had noticed this, but never to the extent I have the past few days.

This has made me reexamine something I hadn’t give much thought to. Lady Gaga’s current single, “Born This Way” is a celebration of humanity in all of our diverse ethnicities and sexualities. She sings the chorus:

I’m beautiful in my way
’cause god makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track baby
I was born this way

and I love it! It’s the deepest part of my philosophy that I have taken with me from Catholicism to Unitarian Universalism. We are all brothers and sisters. We all have inherent worth and dignity. And there are responsibilities – to God, to each other, to the universe that come with that.

But the same problem occurs. What about sociopaths? Or people with brain tumors that make them pedophiles? Or children born with birth defects so severe that they cannot live more than a few days? Are they mistakes?

When both Gaga and Pondexter assure me that “God makes no mistakes,” I have to wonder – does that mean anything at all?

How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

Posted in Editorials on March 17th, 2011
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Last week I went to see “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York City. The new production stars Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette.

I was familiar with the play having seen an amateur production a few years ago. It’s about a young man, J. Pierpont Finch, who smirks his way to the top of a corporation using a book with the same name as the show. The songs are catchy and while the play is very dated in terms of gender roles (more on that in a minute) that doesn’t make it worth skipping.

Radcliffe, at 21 is twelve years younger than Matthew Broderick was when he played the same role in a 1995 revival, and comes across as more fresh faced and earnest. He’s pitch perfect (pun intended) and an absolute delight to watch as Finch. Radcliffe’s American accent is spot on, and his comic timing is impeccable.

Advertisements for the play are reminiscent of the aesthetics of “Down With Love“, and I hoped that also meant sending up the sexual politics of the time with a wink and a nudge. It was an accurate impression. The cast was wonderful and I found a lot more humor in the play than I had appreciated before.

The way gender roles are dealt with in this play is in some ways inherent to the script, but different productions can and do make choices about how much of it to play straight and how much to poke fun at and satirize.


Rosemary
The character of Rosemary is Finch’s love interest and sings longingly of how she would be Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm in New Rochelle. The first time I heard this song I was very uncomfortable. I couldn’t decide if the point was that Rosemary’s supreme ambition in life was to be a housewife with no interests outside her husband or if her desires were supposed to represent what all women wanted. Perusing other productions on YouTube, another character interpretation is just that she’s just desperate for male attention. When Rose Hemingway took the stage in the current production and began to sing this song, I felt a palpable discomfort, which ceded to a few stifled giggles. Hemingway’s Rosemary is simply completely infatuated with Finch and might as well been singing about how he’s her “freshly baked love dumpling, fuzzy huggy squeezer and big old pokey bear.” It was really cute, and while faithful to how silly most of the characters in the play are at heart – much less insulting.


Heddy
Heddy La Rue is a more problematic character. She’s stupid (or at least we are meant to laugh at her ignorant gaffes) and has seemingly no sexual ethics. She claims to love Bigley but makes advances on Finch and then marries Womper at the drop of a hat. It’s unclear if she’s a libertine who wants to enjoy as much of her youth and beauty as she can – like say, Clementine Johnson from “Reno 911!” or if it’s her way of accessing power and status, or if she doesn’t really understand what she is doing. The sexy secretary is an old cliche and I don’t think cheesecake (or beefcake) is in and of itself always sexist. But I really feel bad for Heddy as a character – the play dumps a lot of abuse on her and it’s not explained if she understands that almost all of the other characters don’t respect her, either because of the lust or jealousy she invokes in them.

A Secretary Is Not A Toy
This song always makes me squirm. The men of World Wide Wickets are advised not to get involved with their secretaries because they have talents other than being fondled and flirted with, and on top of it you will be fired, with a bunch of silly puns and double entendres to make it rhyme. I’m at a loss as to the original intent of the song, or why it was funny – watching the video from the movie is painfully uncomfortable – and try as I might I can tell it was meant to be humorous but… I’ve got nothin’, and I think that says a lot for how much times have changed. However, I do like what the current production did with the song. I don’t like slapstick humor, at all, but the choreography suggesting the male characters were trying to cover up their arousal (and possibly more) was brilliant and hilarious. In addition, guffaw inducing visual aides were added to the song. In total it was a lot like “Its’ Easy MMMKay” from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a spot on parody of how silly it is to say something that shouldn’t have to be said, but somehow must be said.

Paris Original
I’ve loved this song since the first time I heard it in my high school auditorium. It’s pretty much a feminist anthem about the Beauty Myth – no, really. Rosemary is ecstatic that she has found a dress that will make her beautiful enough for Finch to take notice of her. It’s like the fantasy of being thin, only using an article of clothing as the magical talisman rather than a change in weight. If I only had the perfect dress, (or car, or phone, or styling gel) I would be so attractive and and my dream guy (or lady) would fall head over heels for me. And then as quickly as the madness came on, your money is spent, the glow fades and you realize you’ve been had. The party continues on, playing out as it probably would have no matter what you (or anyone else) were wearing.

Cinderella Darling
This song opens Act 2, when Rosemary is considering quitting her job and breaking up with Finch because although he has declared his love and proposed to her, he put a (brief, week long) hold on their romantic relationship to focus on his career. The women in the cast will not stand for this rebellion. They sing to her, begging and pleading not to leave. Not because they care for her and will miss her friendship, or because Finch is a great guy and deserves a second chance, or even because she has a good job and shouldn’t let a personal relationship interfere. They tell her to stay because it’s so rare that a woman can fill the dream of marrying her boss, and if she leaves now, they will all lose hope that their bosses will ever propose to them because her actions would discourage them. Rosemary must stay and live out a fairy tale, because some of them will not get to experience one, except vicariously through her. It’s all so ludicrous I can’t decide to laugh or face|palm, but know this: Cinderella Darling is an excellent illustration of how patriarchy works. When all women are given is crumbs of respect, they will fight over and for them, and shame and ostracize anyone who dares ask for more – because she might cut off their supply of crumbs. This is not an indictment of women. It’s a thoroughly rational response.

In some ways, the drudgery of making a living as a white collar employee hasn’t changed much from How to Succeed through Dilbert and Office Space (which both will one day be just as dated) and that’s one of the reasons people still like this play. It’s actually more relevant now, more people work in those kinds of environments because there are a lot fewer jobs in manufacturing than there were in the 60′s, so more people are in on the jokes. And in spite my criticisms above, it was really cool to see Harry Potter singing about TPS reports.

About Philandering Phil…

Posted in Book Reviews on March 16th, 2011
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Back in January, when I reviewed Sex at Dawn, one of my criticisms of the book was:

[T]heir chapter about modern day marital infidelity only includes one case study of a man cheating on his wife. I will say that they did a very good job of skillfully and sensitively presenting the evidence of why a man with so much to lose would do such a thing, and making it clear that they do not mean to rub salt in the wounds of the wives who are so hurt. But there is no corresponding narrative of why a woman would cheat or why her husband should make an effort to understand her natural drives and hormonal confusion. Simply presenting evidence that men who have more partners have higher testosterone levels, and that low testosterone can lead to all sorts of issues up to an including death is sobering. But it doesn’t fiat away the fact that this does lend strength to the “standard narrative” that they are so opposed to. Instead of falling back on “Sorry honey, my sperm is cheap, her eggs are expensive and my secretary is young and fertile,” will it now become “Sorry honey my Testosterone was getting low so it was pretty much sex or death?”

Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with this chapter. The paperback edition of the book will include an addenda to the story, addressing reader feedback:

First, many men report that they had affairs simply because opportunities arose, while women—for whom such opportunities tend to be more plentiful—generally report a more complex confluence of motivations…

A woman in her 40s may well approach a “friends with benefits” situation completely differently than she would have two decades earlier, for reasons relating both to hormonal levels and life experience.

In addition to these internal factors, women tend to be more responsive to external conditions (Are the kids grown and out of the house? Is she financially independent? What would her friends and family say? Does she suspect that he’s having an affair?). Men—even highly intelligent, otherwise cautious and calculating men—often blunder into these situations blinded by something that doesn’t seem to render women quite so helpless…

A similar assessment of women’s motivations and experiences of extra-marital affairs would require far more space than we have.

I think this is fair. Men are more straightforward about their reasons for having affairs than women. I’m interested to know what further research would say about this topic. When a tempting situation arises, do men stray more easily? Or is it just that men have a set of criteria that are met more frequently?

Lies, Damned Lies and Bimodal Distribution

Posted in Editorials on March 15th, 2011
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One of the most maddening expressions in common use is “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” Statistics can be used to mislead people, but that doesn’t make them automatically invalid. In part I’m defensive because I did better in statistics than any other mathematics classes I ever took and because it’s the type of math that I really grok. But also because I am at a loss for how to respond to arguments that are inherently anti-intellectual. Statistical significance is not terribly difficult of a concept to grasp. That the general public can’t is maddening.

That being said, I find this graphic very interesting. It’s from the New York Times, and I found it on Sociological Images.

It’s kind of counter intuitive that women and Hispanics could be both the happiest and saddest people in the country. But, off the cuff, I have a few hypotheses for why this might be:

-Women smile more because they both get more rewards for it and more social derision if they don’t smile.
-Previous studies report that Latin@s have stronger ties to their families than people from other ethnic groups. This could result in an increase in happiness.
-Women and people of color are more likely to experience discrimination and poverty – accounting for higher rates of unhappiness.

The picture this data creates would be very easy to distort. Simply ignoring one half or the other would create an incomplete picture that could lead to false conclusions. And that might be the closest to a “damned lie” you cold tell with this set of data.

Finally, something I think that’s very interesting is that single people report similar levels of happiness to married people. This lends support to the idea that an increase in the age of marriage over the past century is a good thing. The people who are unhappiest are the ones who have had to end a marriage or who are in the process of doing so.

It’s The Heartbreak

Posted in Editorials on March 9th, 2011
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I quite enjoyed Benjamin Dueholm’s article about Dan Savage’s sexual ethics. Amanda at Pandagon did a good job of explaining why his argument about the free market fell flat, but the thing that bothered me the most was his questioning that

[F]or Savage, no matter how we direct its expression, our sexual self is our truest self.

I think that if Dan Savage was saying that, and I’m not completely sure that he is, the reason that he advises people to get out of relationships where their sexual needs are not met is to avoid future heartbreak. Savage knows that if a person has strong sexual desires that are unmet they will suffer silently and alone, or they will cheat and possibly destroy the relationship. This is why he encourages honesty and for people to seek out a compatible partner – because people shouldn’t force themselves to stay with an incompatible partner who makes them miserable, and breaking up is difficult enough without the feelings of inadequacy and humiliation that may accompany being cheated on.

This Aspiring Honest Nonmonogamous Dude (AHND) takes greater pains than most of Savage’s correspondents to praise his girlfriend, not only in general but specifically with regard to their sex life. They have already spent several happy years together. He is anxious about his surplus of desire, but apparently nothing else. Yet that consideration trumps all others in Savage’s answer. Sexual compatibility—in terms of libido or in terms of tolerating nonexclusivity—is the coin of the realm. Love, emotional compatibility, the possibility of a life together, not to mention irrecoverable years already spent—these must all be staked against the value of a fully deployed libido. But what, exactly, is the upshot of “calmly winding down” a relationship with a high risk of infidelity? Potential romantic partners, unlike firms in the classical free-market model, are not infinite in number, and a life of comparison shopping is not free of cost. If the aspiring HND dissolves this years-long transaction in order to find a partner who is just as lovable but less jealous, or who shares his libido at every point, he will likely have a lonely road ahead of him.

Dueholm seems to be ignoring the destruction that would be caused if HND cheated after he had married his girlfriend or had children with her. For some reason he is discounting how much potential unhappiness that would cause in the future when compared with a relatively uncomplicated breakup today. As a minister who counsels people about their relationships I fail to understand why he would think that way. And for someone who is so fond of economic terms, he has a hard time understanding the idea of a sunk cost.

Monsanto, Microfungi and Mass Hysteria

Posted in Editorials on March 8th, 2011
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I never understood the argument against genetically modified food. I’m not sure how species of crops created with new methods are any different from the bananas and strawberries I love today that were created from less palatable fruits over many generations of careful cultivation. After watching Food Inc., I had a better idea of why Monsanto has a bad reputation. The way they enforce their patent on the most common type of soybean in the United States makes earning a living almost impossible for farmers. But does that take away from all the successes of genetically modified foods? What about golden rice? I remain unconvinced that genetic modification of crops is inherently a bad idea, and I find the rhetoric about “Frankenfood” childishly silly

However, when I heard that the scientists at Monsanto may have unleashed a hellish horror on the world from their labs, I was alarmed. Dr. Don Huber, a retired professor from Purdue University wrote a letter to the USDA about the discovery of a new pathogen found in Monsanto Roundup Ready crops (crops that remain unharmed when sprayed with pesticides). If I am understanding him correctly, this pathogen evolved in response to the use of genetically modified crops, the way that MRSA evolved in response to misuse of antibiotics.

The discussion around Huber’s letter is intense, and it should be. If there really is some new “microfungus” pathogen that can attack plants and animals, and it’s in our food supply, this is very dangerous. I started thinking about mad cow disease and swine flu and SARS and the Ebola virus!! All my friends who had warned me about genetically modified food were right! It should be labeled! How could I have been so naive?


Dear Lord, where is Rene Russo!?

But after a few days of not seeing the story in the mainstream media, I wondered if things were as bad as Huber is presenting them. Now, I know that there are scores of important stories not covered in our media. But in general, they seem to be at least semi-competent at covering food safety and all over anything that can create panic in the masses. (Panic sells more beer and Strawberry Pop Tarts.) Contamination of common staples
like spinach, or the latest gross out of who found what in their fast food are usually top stories. Why not this?

There is some evidence that Huber is misrepresenting what he found, or just plain wrong. I’m hoping for all of our sakes that he is. And I think that before everyone goes wacky, we should at least understand what we are up against.

What is frustrating me the most about this controversy is the way that anti-science forces have muddied the waters in previous scientific debates. If science were not so abused by the likes of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and others it would be easier to follow what was going on. But the checkered history of Monsanto and the way some people abuse science to drum up panic makes it difficult to choose a side. I don’t want to be a rube easily led by the megatheocorporatocracy (hat tip) but I’m also hesitant to jump on a band wagon that may be carrying Jenny McCarthy and James Inhofe. I don’t know how many people are alarmed by Huber because what he’s saying really is alarming, and how many people just don’t like the idea of genetically modified food and now they have found their reason to crow. In an age where any two groups of people who disagree on an issue can rarely agree on any facts in common, I hope the dust will clear soon.

2011 Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival

Posted in Food and Drinks on March 7th, 2011
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I’ve been interested in micro-brews for a few years, and I like trying new ones. I think it started because a restaurant I liked to go to had a really easy guide to the different types of beers and what they tasted like. This made it very easy for me to ask questions and find something that I enjoyed. A basic knowledge of wine eventually followed (this book helped) but at the time I felt intimidated asking a server or bartender about the different varietals of wine.

On Saturday I went with a group of friends to the Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival. I had only been to one before, The New York Brewfest this past summer. I do love New York, but the Philadelphia festival was much more enjoyable. The event was crowded but not oversold. It was indoors, but I felt safe – the New York event was on Governor’s Island there were times between waiting on endless lines that I felt as if I would be trampled – especially waiting to get in or for a ferry to leave.

There were many beers to sample, including some of my favorites like Franziskaner, Ithaca and Blue Point. One of the things I like about these events is that you can discover a beer that you enjoy that’s brewed close to home. It’s a good way to support local businesses and reduce your number of food miles.

I tried a few that I have never had before and these were the ones that stood out:

Innis & Gunn


Innis & Gunn makes beers that are aged in oak barrels that previously contained navy rum. The taste is rich and delicious. It’s not something you would drink at the beach but I am going to be asking my local beer distributor if he has any very soon.

High Point Brewing Company

I’m a fan of wheat beers, no matter their country of origin, and was interested to try the Ramstein Hefeweizen. It was very smooth with the almost hint of butter that a lot of premium wheat beers have a satisfyingly medium bodied finish. It compares favorably with Franziskaner and I like it better than Stella or Blue Moon. Their brewery in New Jersey is open for tours once a month, so I think that might be my next beer related excursion.

Stone Brewing Company

This one was a surprise. I thought I was on line to try the Stone Smoked Porter. But what I got was a pour of the infamous Arrogant Bastard IPA. I don’t really like IPA’s in general but this one was excellent and I am happy that I tried it. I did eventually get to the Smoked Porter which I enjoyed as I expected to.

The one complaint I had about this event was that a map of the tables would have been extremely helpful, but was not given to the attendees. My friends and I were there the entire time and could not find Allagash or Original Sin. Ithaca and Troegs were almost impossible to find. I know that the point of these events isn’t to go and only drink beers you already know that you like, but if you really have a hankering for something that’s difficult to buy when you feel like it, it’s disappointing to know that the beer you want is somewhere very close to you but just out of your grasp.

I would recommend the Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival as a great activity for people who like beer or who are interested in learning more about what kinds they enjoy. Don’t forget your pretzel necklace!