Monday, November 15, 2010

Your Chance to Win an iPad

Let's keep this simple: you bid just $10, your $10 goes to an awesome charity that's building a village in India, and you get a pretty good chance to win a snazzy new iPad.

An iPad very much like this one could be yours for only $10

In last year's Passports with Purpose fundraising drive, I bid $10 on a trip and another $10 on a stroller. I won neither, but for a mere $20 I helped build a school in Cambodia currently serving about 400 kids, with books, teachers, a school nurse, a food garden and a drinking water well (check out some photos of the school here). Best $20 I ever spent. This year I'll be bidding on a few prizes again and I'm putting up a prize of my own as well, the aforementioned iPad (see details below).

So who are these Passports with Purpose folks and how does it all work? PwP was started in 2008 by four travel bloggers (Debbie Dubrow, Pam Mandel, Beth Whitman and Michelle Duffy) as a way to build community among travel bloggers and to give back to the places we, as travelers, visit.

The concept has proven wonderful in its simplicity and effectiveness: travel bloggers procure prizes for people to bid on, they spread the word through their social networks, people bid on prizes at $10 per bid (tax deductible), and the money goes straight to the charity of the year. Last year, over $30,000 was raised through PwP and some school kids are enjoying the results right now.

This year, PwP is supporting LAFTI, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of the Dalit (untouchable) population in India. The fundraising goal this year is even higher: $50,000, money that will go toward building a village in India, providing homes to people who have never had a roof over their heads. See more details about the project on the Passports with Purpose website.

I know some of the PwP founders personally and can vouch for them being sincere, passionate, cupcake-loving and all-around excellent people. They also write some fantastic blogs that you should check out. Don't just take it from me, check out the PwP website and the sites of the dozens of travel bloggers involved this year and in previous years.

If you have an iPad already, or simply don't want one, there are dozens of other great items to bid on and support Passports with Purpose.

The Prize:

A shiny new Apple iPad 16 GB Wi-Fi + 3G

About the prize, plus BONUS prizes*:

This lovely iPad comes all the way from Australia, where they not only have large bouncy marsupials, but nifty tablet computers made by Apple as well. I won this iPad recently in a staff writing contest at Lonely Planet, and, while I love how pretty and fun it is, and identify with the early adopter crowd, I know for a fact that it could be doing more good raising money for charity than it ever could do in my hands.

Because the Australian version did not include the free Winnie the Pooh ebook that seems to come with US models – an exclusion that is morally wrong – I have added this in order to not deprive the winner of great literature involving heffalumps. I have removed the mp3 of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" that comes standard on all Australian electronic devices.** Being an Australian model, it came with a plug that only works in Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tokelau. Whoever wins, I'll throw in a power adapter for your country (if they happen to be from Tokelau, so much the better).

Sound good? If so, click here to bid on the iPad and any other PwP prize!

You can bid more than once, and bid on as many items as you like. It all goes to support this year's charity, and every bid makes it more likely that you'll win a prize!

Thanks to this year's generous sponsors of PwP: BootsnAll, LiveMocha, Round the World with Us, HomeAway, Traveller’s Point, Hostelling International, Quintess, Raveable, TravelPost, and Uptake. Thanks as well to Lonely Planet for quite unintentionally providing the prize that I'm putting up this year.

* Bonus prizes include a Winnie the Pooh ebook and a regional power adapter.
**This might be a rumor.

Pooh has volunteered to eat an entire jar of honey for every $10 donated to PwP

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Soda vs. Pop

Do you know that feeling of jealousy when someone else has a great idea you wish you had thought of yourself? This happened to me recently when I stumbled across the brilliant web-based scientific study Pop vs. Soda, an attempt to answer once and for all the geographic breakdown of who uses "pop" and who uses "soda" in the US.

If you're not from the US, this undoubtedly sounds somewhat trivial, but this is a long-lasting debate in the US over a product that, for better or worse, is an everyday part of most Americans' lives.

Growing up in California, solid "soda" country, I thought for a long time that "pop" was only used by the elderly and Minnesotans. Clearly I was wrong: pop is huge. Looking at the responses to the survey, there are also a fair number of indecisive fence-sitters out there that use the redundant term "soda pop" and others that prefer other terms like "soft drink" blurring the boundaries, but the geographic pattern is clear nonetheless.

The fact that "Coke" has become a synonym for soda as a whole (an intriguing instance of synecdoche) in the South is, to me, a surprise. If I ordered a Coke in a Memphis diner and the waitress asked me "What kind?" I'd assume she was asking "Regular or diet?" The idea that "7-Up" or "root beer" would be equally acceptable answers blows my mind.

There are a few as yet unexplained mysteries in the Pop vs. Soda data set:

Mystery #1: The St. Louis soda bubble

Soda is predominant in California, Arizona and the Northeast, with pop and Coke fighting it out in between. One notable exception is a large soda bubble in the middle of the country hovering over St. Louis and surrounding counties, wedged between Coke to the south and pop to the north. What accounts for this?

Mystery #2: Chicago Pop vs. Milwaukee Soda

Less than 100 miles separates downtown Chicago from downtown Milwaukee, and yet one favors pop while the other favors soda.

For a brief moment, I wondered if beer might be explain both of these mysteries somehow, as both St. Louis and Milwaukee are big beer producing cities. Sadly, I can't find any strong reasoning to support that connection (although the German word for soda is, if I'm not mistaken, "soda"), and Golden, Colorado, home of Coors, sits in a decidedly pop-favoring county.

If you haven't taken the survey yet yourself, I'd strongly recommend that you pop go over to Pop vs. Soda now and add to the data set. And if you can burst the bubble on one of these mysteries, feel free to chime in below.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

One ice cube

On her first day on the job, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines received a word of caution from another member of the flight crew, "The passengers are generally pretty nice, just watch out for the Californians."

Being from California herself, the new flight attendant asked, "What do you mean? What's wrong with the Californians?"

"Well," explained the experienced flight attendant, "they always want something very specific, like a Diet Coke with lemon, and one ice cube instead of two."

More than one ice cube

While order modifications might be a bit annoying when you're trying to work your way efficiently through a cabin, most flight attendants would probably agree that there are worse things that could happen on airplanes than a passenger asking for a specific number of ice cubes in a drink. In fact, I would gladly give someone just one ice cube in exchange for evidence that they're actually thinking about and experiencing the world around them.

"Last time they gave me 5 ice cubes and left room for almost no liquid, so this time I'll ask for just one ice cube. More liquid, a little bit of cool ice, that sounds about right."

"This Diet Coke tastes like crap, a little lemon would go a long way towards making it taste like something I should be ingesting on purpose."

Those are perfectly reasonable lines of thinking to me. A person that repeatedly gets annoyed by too much ice or crap-tasting diet cola and never tries to fix the problem isn't being polite, they're just being dense.

Two questions:
1) Is hyper-discerning taste to the point of being annoying to others a Californian trait? I'm Californian, so I'd like to know how much I'm bothering the rest of the world every time I ask for no guacamole on my burrito or walk an extra 3 blocks out of my way to get to the good coffee shop.

2) While I'm in favor of people having discerning tastes, perhaps there's a balance to be sought? After hearing more and more people with bizarrely specific food orders lately, I'm starting to wonder: have we reached a point of too much choice in Western society?

Today I overheard an order for "a medium decaf non-fat extra-hot latte", and recently a man in front of me ordered "an extra-large mocha, but hold the whipped cream 'cuz I'm trying to watch my weight". Starbucks has made preposterously complex orders into a fashion statement. In fact the only thing that ever seems to faze a Starbucks barista is an overly simple order. Order a single cappuccino at Starbucks next time just to enjoy the 10 seconds of confused blinking while the barista waits for you to add a litany of modifications to the beverage. Ordering an extra-hot wet half-calf skinny venti quad caramel macchiato no whip with legs is almost boringly normal by comparison.

On one hand, you have to give Starbucks credit for making people personally identify with ultra-complicated beverages that all taste like frothy scalded milk. On the other hand, it makes me wonder what larger effects this might have. Would we be better off with less choice and more room for compromise?

[Photo by Chrysaora]

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Atoms: They Crunk Like That

I have a friend who goes through phases of collecting unusual found objects. At one point it was buttons found on the pavement, for a while it was pictures of fire hydrants and ice cream trucks from around the world, and then it was discarded notes and shopping lists.

In case you're thinking that this "friend" is me, I'll come clean with my own list of odd collections I've had over the years: corks, found keys (one I actually stole from a church while waiting to sing with a boys choir, so that one doesn't really count as "found"), coins, Garbage Pail Kids, yo-yos, and, in recent years, hideous refrigerator magnets and squashed pennies. All of these, but not discarded notes.

But this time I couldn't help myself. Walking near Oakland's Morcom Amphitheater of Roses (despite it's dotcom-sounding name, it's actually named after former Oakland Mayor Fred Morcom), a piece of paper covered in handwriting caught my eye. The word "neutron" jumped out — this was clearly not your average discarded shopping list.

It was a handwritten rap about about chemistry, written most likely by a high school chemistry student with the unfortunate contribution by his father. The rap goes as follows (please add your own beat-boxing while you read):

I got the protons,
protons and the neutrons.
The nucleus, I suppose
I just want to be an atom.

Protons have a positive charge,
Electrons have a negative charge,
Neutrons have a neutral charge.

[Enter father with nice handwriting. Note how this part is OMG so lame.]

I'm the Dad, my name is Nucleus.
I got two sons Proton & Neutron.

[Father exits. Thankfully.]

Electrons on the outside
in the electron shell.
Atoms are everywhere,
even Taco Bell.

Ya, our atoms crunk like that,
Didn't you see the atomic #,
We rock like that.

Never sit on less than 24 chrome,
if you're not an atom,
go back home.

If only all scraps of paper on the ground were this interesting. And if you've lost your chemistry homework, feel free to drop me an email.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The urban forest for the trees

Not far from where I live is a stretch of sidewalk that has been reduced to one narrow path by a garden encroaching from both sides. The corner house doesn't have much room for a large garden, so they've taken over the strip along the curb and packed in as many plants as possible. The garden rarely gets trimmed back, so at points you have to duck and dodge to avoid the branches and leaves. I could easily walk on the other side of the street, but I always head for this mini-forest on purpose, even crossing over out of my way to get the chance to walk through and admire the plants and see what's in bloom.

The garden gets a little out of control, and it's probably in violation of some city code, but I think it's fantastic. The gardeners picked some wonderful plants, mostly California natives: towering matilija poppies looking like fried eggs on stilts, scrub oaks, flannelbush, fragrant purple sages, ragged bonsai-like manzanitas.

Matilija poppies

Cleveland sage

Landscape architects would probably shudder at the overcrowding and lack of consistent vision, but the wildness of the garden is what makes it so wonderful. It's a small gift to the world from the gardeners: for a half of a city block you're on a forest path buzzing with happy bees.

Tree mallow in bloom

I walked this way yesterday, leaning into a large bunchgrass to let a woman and her small children by coming the other way. She paused briefly to say thanks, but then she frowned. "This garden" she said, shaking her head in disapproval, "I can't believe they let it get like this."

"Really?" I asked, coming to the defense of the plants and the planters, "I like it. I think it's beautiful what they've done."

"These people are just so inconsiderate. They come and go by the back entrance and never even walk on this part of the sidewalk. They don't know how much of a nuisance it is to people with kids and strollers." The kids had toddled ahead, happily grazing their hands along the plants as they walked.

"I suppose..." I said, trying but mostly failing to see it from her perspective. "To me it's like a mini-forest in the middle of the city."

She didn't buy it; she shrugged and continued in the other direction.

It seemed a funny thing to get upset about, especially in the springtime with all of the flowers in bloom, and no one was forcing her to walk down that side of the street. I can see her point to a degree, in fact I recall once getting angry at an overhanging Japanese maple that I walked into mid-sneeze: how dare it be right in my path at that very moment? Stupid tree. But if she had just looked down at the wonder in her kids' faces as they strolled along this path through a towering gallery of plants many times their height, I think she would have quickly cast aside her gripes and seen the forest for the trees.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Know Your Gestures

Our van twisted up the mountain through tea plantations on the road to Tanah Rata. It was gray and drizzly, and in the dry warmth of the van I felt sorry for the two soggy backpackers we passed trying to hitch a ride in the opposite direction. They were obviously Westerners: ginormous backpacks, shorts, bandanas, thumbs up in the air trying to flag down a ride as cars hurtled by.

Tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands

Warm and dry in the van, I didn't envy their situation, but I couldn't help laughing a little at their predicament when I thought back to the passage I had read in the guidebook on the long flight to Kuala Lumpur. The thumbs-up, unlike in the US where it means "good" or "way to go," in many parts of the world including Malaysia, can look like you're telling someone to go stick a thumb up their ass.

Needless to say, telling someone to stick a thumb up their ass is not the best way to get a ride from a stranger.

The following day, I was on my own in Tanah Rata taking a day to rest and do some laundry. I had passed a laundry service the previous day, and I walked there in the morning with a big bag of jungle-dirtied and leech-wound-stained clothes. The door was closed and locked when I got there, and I hunted around unable to find any posted hours.

A local man was passing by and noticed my confusion. "They're closed now," he said, guessing that I spoke English.

"Do you know what time they open?" I asked him.

"They open at 10," he said.

And then it happened. In a completely involuntary motion, I gave him a beaming smile, thanked him, and laid a big fat thumbs-up on him.

He froze and his face fell as I walked away. I spun around and was half a block away happily staring at a cart piled high with durian before I realized what I had done.

"Oh no," I thought, looking back to see if he was still there. He had disappeared. "Did he think what I think he thinks? I hope he just took me for an idiot tourist and wasn't offended. Aw hell, he looked pretty offended. Do I actually use the thumbs-up? If so, what a choice time to use it. I really don't think of myself as a thumbs-upper."

It's as if conversation had gone like this:

Helpful man: "They're closed now."

Me: "Do you know what time they open?"

Helpful man: "They open at 10."

Me: "Great, thanks. Oh, by the way... up yours old man!"

That was it — no more. That was absolutely the last time I would use a thumbs-up on this trip. I would not offend another person with my reckless digit. That was the plan, but to my horror, the involuntary thumbs-upping continued over the next few weeks, making it all too apparent that I use the gesture far more frequently than I ever would have guessed.

To the woman serving me noodles at a floating restaurant in Kuala Tahan, "These noodles are delicious! Screw you, you old bag!"

Floating restaurants at Kuala Tahan

At the Muzium Perhutanan, a museum at the remote hill station of Gunung Jerai in northern Malaysia most famous for a large fossilized elephant turd, "Thanks for letting us in to look even though you were closed! Stick a thumb where that turd came from!"

It got so bad that I was fighting my own hand like a parody of Dr. Strangelove by the end of the trip and watching it out of the corner of my eye for any suspicious activity. It's one thing to know about gestures and their meanings in other cultures, but breaking an unconscious habit is another matter entirely.

Now that I'm safely ensconced in a thumbs-up-friendly society, I couldn't even tell you if I've kicked the habit. So if I ever unconsciously give you a thumbs up, feel free to flip me the bird — even if I don't understand, I'll deserve it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Santa Fe Winter Light

It was cold and stormy here in the Bay Area this past weekend, so I did what I could do to counteract the lingering winter weather at least on a small scale: cook posole. Posole, whether you spell it with an 's' or a 'z', or even if you call it hominy stew, is a warming hearty meal, and for me the ultimate comfort food in cold weather.

I decided to make my favorite variation, posole rojo made with red New Mexico chiles, hominy, and pork shoulder. Not to overly pat myself on the back, but I really nailed it this time and eating it made my mind drift back to winter in Santa Fe, crackling fires, icy clear air, the smell of corn, chiles and desert piƱon. Like I said, it was good posole.

Chile ristras: decorative and delicious

We hit Santa Fe in early December, which turned out to be an excellent time to go. It's cold enough that visitors drop off steeply from the warmer months and lodging rates are low, it's too early for ski season, and it was before the popular Christmas and New Year holidays, so even the ever-bustling area around the plaza was calm. If you can stand a little cold, this is a great time to see Santa Fe.

The spicy New Mexican food suits the cold weather (I would also argue that it suits hot weather and everything in between), and a big bowl of posole rojo or green chile stew sets you up perfectly for walks in the cold, and believe me, if you're one of those crazy people that enjoys stunning gorgeous things, you'll want to take walks in the cold as the winter light in Santa Fe is something to behold. The crystalline clarity of the air, the long shadows of winter light cast from the soft-edged adobe buildings, the deep blue sky and hanging chile ristras set against bright patches snow create an effect that you won't find elsewhere. Every morning I would get up at sunrise to take a walk crunching along the icy streets and I would have the town entirely to myself.

Palace Ave. in the early morning

First Presbyterian Church

Cathedral in the morning light

Shadows on the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Alone in the Plaza

A warm glow from the porch light

The New Mexico Museum of Art is a work of art itself

Georgia O'Keeffe has plaque

Morning on Canyon Road

Magpie on Canyon Road

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Kilda: Sun, Sand, and Scary Clown Heads

Winter weather in California is nothing to complain about, but stepping onto a plane in the dead of winter and getting off some hours later in the height of summer feels less like a plane trip and more like time travel. The flight to Australia is, of course, monstrously long, but the brain has a remarkable ability to quickly forget the sensation of passage of time. I got on a plane, something halfway unpleasant happened, I watched Julie & Julia (also halfway unpleasant as it turns out), and moments later I emerged on the other side of the planet with bad hair into a disconcerting world of heat and sun. Presto. You can go on and on about jet engines and Bernoulli's principle as much as you like, but you can't completely remove the magic from planes.

Most of my recent trip to Melbourne was occupied with work, the sunny weather passing by without me, so I was happy to have a weekend to take advantage of my short preview of summer weather. On a hot, bright blue Saturday, I rented bicycles in central Melbourne with two colleagues and we took a leisurely ride first along the banks of the Yarra River and then down to the beach, eventually ending up in St. Kilda.

Pedaling along the Yarra River

St. Kilda reminds me of many other beachside towns: slow, breezy, pricey in parts, a bit weather-beaten and fraying at the edges but mostly no one notices or cares because of the beach and the view. It felt very familiar, equal parts Santa Monica, Brighton, and Coney Island. The Coney Island comparison is perhaps the most apt, as St. Kilda is best known for it's old-timey fun park Luna Park, shown below in the middle of construction in 1912.

I can just imagine the architects gazing at this partially completed park sitting next to a glorious beach and saying to themselves, "This isn't quite right yet. You know what this needs? A giant freakish clown mouth for an entrance." And thus Mr. Moon was born.

Mr. Moon

Can't sleep, clowns will eat me. Can't sleep, clowns will eat me.

My nightmare: being eaten alive by a clown named Mr. Moon

I'm endlessly fascinated by clowns and mimes. Please do not take this to mean that I like clowns and mimes, in fact clowns are about the scariest things on the planet next to goats and Rush fans, and mimes tap into a part of the human psyche that was really best left unexplored. But they fascinate me as a concept: how did something so objectively unpleasant and disturbing become so ubiquitous?

This kid had the right idea

Luckily, if you brave the walk through the clown's mouth, the inside of Luna Park isn't scary at all, as this short movie shows:

As disturbing as giant clown mouths are, perhaps the scariest thing I saw in St. Kilda was somebody's future lunch. Ever seen (or heard of) a yabby before? I hadn't, but it certainly sounded Australian. I have no illusion about how food gets to my plate, but I can't eat something that I've been introduced to; I'd rather walk through a giant clown mouth.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Melbourne Sign Language

When I go to a new city, I always take time to examine signs. There are interesting and sometimes funny differences in the way cities use signs, and Melbourne certainly kept me entertained.

In most places around the world that I've paid attention to such things, pedestrians are shown on signs as gender-neutral walking figures (although in Berlin you sometimes get the guy with the jaunty hat). In Melbourne you get the full walking man on street lights, but you just get legs on signs:

Legs ahead

Ahh, here are the legs

I loved the odd habit in London of naming streets after cuts of meat (Haunch of Venison, Shoulder of Mutton, e.g.) seemingly without any humorous intent whatsoever. Melbourne seems to have taken to naming streets with a wink.

This looked better after dark, but there was a man peeing on the wall under it when I went at night, so I decided to pass on the night photo.

And all this time I thought Gotham was based on New York City.
(Sadly, this is named after early Melbourne settler John Batman, not Bruce Wayne)

It's a shame they couldn't include the lightning bolt

Huh, what?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

How to piss off an entire hotel full of people at 6:45 a.m.

Anyone who stays in hotels enough will eventually have the fire alarm experience: loud sirens, generally in the dead of night, confusion, fumbling with clothes, standing for ages on the street having forgotten some key item of clothing, the arrival of the fire department, and it's inevitably a false alarm. Someone was sneaking a smoke in room 215. Broken sprinkler from a thrown shoe in 422. Power cut out on the 5th floor.

Melbourne after dark

I was in Melbourne staying at a hotel that had just recently opened for business, one of the only places available as hotels were booked up for the Australian Open. It was an infant hotel that had yet to figure out quite what it means to be a real hotel and had opened before it was really ready for guests. No phone, no clock (luckily I brought one), no iron, no hair drier, a bathroom fan the never turned on, a light in the closet that never turned off — and prices that would lead you to assume that they would have had all of these sorted out. I had been staring murderously for two nights at the blinking device on my hotel room's ceiling. Every 5 seconds it would flash. No, 8 seconds that time - wait, back to 5 seconds but this time with a double flash. What the hell was it doing? It looked like it was trying desperately to find something to detect. I closed my eyes, but the light was still visible through my eyelids. Die flashy thing, die. It must have sensed my hateful thoughts, because the following morning it decided to play dirty.

After a shower in the small windowless bathroom with broken fan, I cracked the door to let in some air. Less than a minute later the piercing fire alarm started wailing through my room. I immediately assumed it was me that had done it. Hoping illogically that it was somehow isolated to my room, I swatted helplessly at the screaming and red-flashing detector on the ceiling. No reset button. Nothing I tried did anything to stop the scream of the siren.

I looked at the clock. It was 6:45 a.m. Fuck fuckity-fuck.

I pulled on some clothes and hustled out the door barefoot. Sure enough, sleepy-eyed guests in pajamas were already shuffling down the stairs to the street looking none too happy with the situation. As we reached the door, fire trucks were already pulling up in front.

"It was me officer, all I did was take a shower." Hell with that, I was staying quiet. The pajama mob might turn on me.

It occurred to me at some point that perhaps I wasn't actually the one to blame. There were dozens of other people in the hotel. Maybe some other guest had desperately needed a morning cigarette and caused this whole debacle. Can steam even set off a smoke detector? Crappy smoke detector if so - should just call it a "stuff in the air" detector. If it was a shower, maybe it was someone else's shower that set it off?

A stuff in the air detector much like the one in my hotel (photo by ixographic)

The firemen emerged after a predictably long time and told us we could all go back inside. Filing up the stairs past the firemen, one called out, "We're looking for someone that just took a shower - room one eight."

Shit. I was in room 18 and my hair was still wet. He repeated, "Room one eight." Is that how Australians say 18? He had to be talking about me. Resisting the urge to whistle out loud, I walked past the fireman without a word. This is not the recently showered droid you're looking for. In my defense, what was he going to do, reprimand me for my cleanliness?

I never heard a thing from the hotel management after the incident: no polite note asking me to keep my bathroom door closed until they fixed the problem, nothing at all. It was a good thing that I realized what the problem was so that it didn't repeat itself every morning for the next week. If you happened to be staying in the same hotel and were awoken by the alarm, my apologies for the rude awakening, but if you're looking to place blame, place it on the evil flashy thing in room 18.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Retraction

About a year ago I made the statement that people who buy vowels on Wheel of Fortune are morons. Further watching of the show has convinced me that I was wrong. There are still vowel-buying morons out there (the people that buy a vowel to confirm that they know the answer, or, even worse, the people that buy a vowel to finish a puzzle), but in many cases it's a good strategy to buy vowels.

Here's why you should buy vowels:

1. Winning Wheel of Fortune is all about maintaining control of the board and not giving the other contestants the opportunity the solve the puzzles. The winner of the game is nearly always the person that wins the prize puzzle (nearly always a high value trip that puts you out of reach of the other contestants), so you should do everything in your power to win that round.
2. Buying a vowel means that you don't spin, eliminating the risk of hitting Bankrupt or Lose a Turn.
3. Of the 10 most commonly used letters in the English language, 4 are vowels (E, A, O, I), so vowels are low risk especially in larger puzzles.
4. E is powerful - it's the most common letter in the English language and more than twice as common as R. Buying an E is the quickest way to fill in the board.

Correcting the Wheel of Fortune Consonant Myth:

R, S, T, L, and N are the favored consonants by Wheel of Fortune players, but are these really the best letters to guess? The top 10 consonants in the English Language in order of frequency are T, N, S, H, R, D, L, C, M, W so until I see a breakdown of the consonants used on Wheel of Fortune that convinces me that L is a good letter to guess, I'm sticking with T, N, S, H, and R.

The next puzzle to solve is why I'm watching Wheel of Fortune in the first place when I should be watching Cash Cab.