The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

king me
What, or who, was The Turk?

As the book will tell you, it was an 18th/19th-century automaton that was supposedly unbeatable in chess, taking on the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.

The Turk can be considered the inspiration for modern-day computers like IBM's Deep Blue--in more ways than one, based on what Charles Babbage's observation of The Turk reaped. In a more oblique way, The Turk helped Edgar Allan Poe develop the modern detective genre.

I think I'll have to pick up the book. It took me a while of reading amid these various websites to figure out whether this machine actually ever existed, or if it was some sort of historical-fiction hoax. I'm surprised I've never come across it before.
If you've got an email address, you've run into the Nigerian spam scam. (Actually, even if you've never even heard of email, there's a good chance that you've encountered the scam pitch purportedly from Nigeria, or some other distant land, as it's been around for years.) While I hate spam as much as anyone, I can appreciate the humor found in these clumsy attempts to separate fools and their money.

So when Howard Troxler dedicated a column to his attempt at stringing along one of these alleged "Nigerians", I was ready for a good, fun read.

I have to say I was disappointed, as the column almost seems truncated at the end:

I've traded e-mails with the lawyer, who wants 5,000 pounds from me to handle the deal. Since then, I've also gotten messages from "Mr. Clemtus Peters," "Mr. Creek Banjul" and some guy just known as "Frederick," all three offering new versions of the scam. Being loyal to Mrs. Karen Norman, however, I think I'll give them a pass.

... And that's how it ends. Poof. It feels like a sloppy edit job, making Troxler come off as though he didn't really play this scenario out to the fullest.

I appreciated the historical background behind the scam (I didn't realize it went back to the 1920s) and some of the bizarro storylines pitched, but there wasn't enough touch-and-go with the anonymous spammer to lead him on. I suspect Troxler did the best he could, but it winds up falling flat. In particular, I think the story would have benefitted from having Troxler engaging (or even saying he engaged) the additional spammers, in an attempt to get a bidding war going! It's doubtful the scam artists would have fallen for it, but it'd be worth a shot.

Fortunately, Will Sturgeon at had a much more extended, and therefore funnier, experience with his Nigerian spam story, including a halfhearted attempt at initiating the above-described "bidding war".
Yesterday Steve Spurrier resigned as head coach of the Washington Redskins. Today comes the wider media reaction.

Just in my hometown paper, the St. Petersburg Times, you'll find five separate stories. This may seem like a lot for an out-of-town team, but it is Spurrier, a favorite son from his UF playing days, to his coaching stint with the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits, to his Gator coaching tenure. Notable coverage includes a gauging of reaction from a range of Gator fans, especially timely with so many of them in town to watch Florida take on Iowa in the Outback Bowl (then again, the Tampa Bay area has a good amount of resident Gators).

Of most interest to me is Gary Shelton's column, which makes several of the points and observations that I did. The main difference is where we were each coming from: Shelton expected Spurrier to be successful in the NFL, whereas I had little doubt he would flop.

Meanwhile, Steve Klein notes that the breaking news of the resignation allowed the Washington Post to shine in its online and offline coverage.
I took the day off from work today, even though the office was only going to be open until noon. Why?

Because the weather forecast for the Tampa Bay area, which turned out to be accurate, was for 76 degrees and mostly sunny. So I slept in, woke up , puttered around for a couple of hours, then went outside to the pool and sunbathed for about 90 minutes.

On New Year's Eve day. In December. In the middle of winter.

Yes, I love you too.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Face need a lift? Instead of going under the knife or smearing on gobs of cream, you can opt for some low-level shock treatment, courtesy of the handy-dandy Perfector.

"It felt wonderful," said [Peggy] Lyon, a seasonal Clearwater resident who has undergone two treatments. "My skin had a real glow."

Of course it had a "glow"--your skin just had the crap shocked out of it by electrical current! If you want that glow effect on your whole body, just lick your finger and stick it into a wall socket. Dumbass.
With a name like Outback Steakhouse, you'd assume the company was based in Australia, right?

But no, in fact, Outback Steakhouse Inc. is an American company, based in Tampa (not to mention one of Florida's Top 250 Public Companies).

But when it comes to the dreaded mad cow disease, and its Korean operations, Outback is quick to emphasize its Australian roots.

UPDATE: It was a good joke, and according to Outback, it was on them too. The Korean Outback franchisee was apparently acting on its own in distancing itself from the American mothership. I'm skeptical that the corporate office is really going to do any reprimanding, though; move was done to prevent a likely sales plunge, so it's hard to argue with it from a business standpoint.
sacre bleu!
Has Disney done it again? Years after allegedly ripping off Tezuka Osamu's "Kimba The White Lion" to make it's monstrously-successful The Lion King, French author Franck Le Calvez claims that Finding Nemo is based on his children's book.

Disney's track record on intellectual property disputes like this is pretty damning. In the words of Cecil at The Straight Dope,

When The Lion King came out in 1994, a lot of people concluded that Disney--so zealous in defending its own intellectual property that it once demanded removal of Mickey and Minnie Mouse images from a day-care center--might have appropriated someone else's.

Not only that, but consider: Disney built itself up in large part, not only through its proprietary characters like Mickey and Donald, but also through film adaptations of public-domain properties like Cinderella, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid. So it's more than a little ironic that a company that's so protective of its intellectual property would be the product of so much copyright-free content.
One of the weird tangents to come from the already-weird-enough Michael Jackson child molestation investigation is the rumor that Jacko has joined the Nation of Islam, which would be the capper in a bizarre fall from grace for the ex-King of Pop.

Now comes word that the Nation of Islam is denying that it's calling the shots for Jackson, or that Jackson has converted to Islam or joined them.

Lemme get this straight: The Nation of Islam is a racist, radical organization--and even they don't want to be associated with the freakshow that is Michael Jackson. Just checking.

The other strangeness in this is the news that Jermaine Jackson has, in fact, converted to Islam (but is not a member of the NOI--not that that's ever necessarily a related matter). Jermaine was once, kinda-sorta, a solo pop idol himself. In fact, for a while in the '70s and even '80s, people were speculating that he, not Michael, would end up being the breakout star from the Jackson 5.
Always wanted to go parasailing, landlubber? Go for it, but make sure your tow line is secure.
bring back the orange! el league-o
Speaking of football... Closer to home, Bucs coach Jon Gruden sounds the horn on the rebuilding project, all the while deferring to the new general manager who hasn't yet been hired:

Gruden said the new general manager does not have to be someone with whom he is familiar.

"No, but philosophy is a big thing," Gruden said. "I heard a lot about philosophy around here, about how I don't like young players and I don't like to build through drafts. I heard a lot of hogwash, to be honest with you. We need to find (a general manager) who, philosophically, comes in here and has the same vision we do as a staff. ... We are not going to discriminate between sizes, ages or positions. We are going to get the best players we can get and we are going to coach them as hard as we can.

"We will try to handle (the hiring process) privately and try to go about this with as little attention as we can get. We are going to be under the radar, I think."

In a nutshell: Gruden wants to have all the powers of a GM, without any of the position's responsibilities. He wants to call the shots on which players come and go, but he doesn't want to deal with contracts, salary cap issues or anything else that detracts from coaching. That's the basic theme, and that's why Rich McKay was chased out of town.

Given that, who would want the Tampa Bay GM job? Certainly not an established general manager. It would have to be someone who's looking for his first shot at the position. He'll also have to be extremely agile, professionally, and learn to bite his lip for the likely short-term he'll be at One Buc Place, because his role will be to serve as a rubber stamp to Gruden's personnel moves.

It's going to be an interesting next few years in Bucland...
says it all
Yesterday, when Steve Spurrier said he would bring a tougher mentality to the Redskins next year, I resisted the temptation to comment on it (despite the coach tossing out the juiciest of tidbits--"Hopefully I can get back to my old style a little bit more"--as if that hadn't gotten him into the mess he was in). I felt there was something grander on the news horizon for the ol' ball coach, and figured I could get in all my jabs at a more appropriate time.

Well, that time is today, as Spurrier quit as head coach after two seasons, and managed to do it in the most convoluted way possible.

Spurrier's resignation was worked out by agent Jimmy Sexton while the coach played golf, presumably in Florida. Spurrier, who had hired Sexton on Monday, was initially unable to reach the agent today because of cell phone troubles on the golf course. That led Spurrier to deny that he had quit after the team had announced his departure in a news release.

"I was caught off-guard," Spurrier said when asked about his denial. "Obviously, when a person resigns he usually calls it in himself. The bottom line is if that's what's best for everyone concerned that's what we'll do. We'll get to the bottom of it by the end of the day."

Spurrier's official resignation statement can be found here. Read it and weep... or not.

Where to begin... With Spurrier himself? It's fitting that his resignation be so confused, as it reflects his entire tenure as an NFL coach. He was a fish out of water from the start. Right away, I thought that the ex-Gator players he brought on board his first year--NFL washouts like Danny Wuerffel and Jacquez Green--were brought in for little other reason than to create an automatic pro-Spurrier bloc in the locker room. These were players who knew they had scant chance at catching on with another NFL club, and so would stay scared of, and intensely loyal to, their former college coach. It was pretty transparent to me, and I have to believe other Redskins players saw through this too.

Beyond that, so many things pointed to Spurrier being a great college coach whose methods just didn't cut it in the big leagues: The prepostorous 2002 preseason, when he ran up 30- and 40-point victories over third-string opponents; the over-delegating in his first season, especially on defense, that gave the appearance of disinterest; the inability to motivate, and especially intimidate, pro players; and probably most galling of all, the slow realization that the Fun 'n Gun doesn't work against defensive players that are a hundred times better than the average college team's.

How much blame does team owner Dan Snyder get? The team's record speaks for itself, as does his coach-hiring record--five coaches since 1999. On the one hand, he gave Spurrier just about everything he could ask for: A contract that provided security, just about total control over coaching hires, huge input over personnel decisions. Snyder loaded up on players like Laveranues Coles and Regan Upshaw and otherwise gave his coach free reign. On the other hand, when things started going sour this season, Snyder did about the worst thing he could do in terms of relations with his coach, and brought in "coaching consultants". Having an overbearing owner like Snyder can't be easy, especially for an egomaniac like Spurrier.

I think, ultimately, Spurrier realized he was in over his head, didn't like losing, didn't like the atmosphere, and decided to cut the experiment short. His last pro head coaching job twenty years ago with the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits must have seemed like a dream compared with his two years in Washington.

People often ask me why I'm such a big NFL fan, yet care nothing for college football. Spurrier's saga, in some ways, sums it all up: They're two different games. The uniforms look the same, the ball looks the same, the players even look the same. But the game, from what happens in the coach's office to the locker room to the field, is not the same. It's not even close. It's like taking a multi-Tony-winning Broadway play and a community theater production and then trying to argue that all facets of the two are identical. It'd be a weak argument. That's how I feel about the NFL and college, and I'll wager that Steve Spurrier feels about that way right now, too.

So what's in store for Spurrier? In speculating the departure a couple of days ago,'s Len Pasquarelli figured Spurrier would need an escape strategy, if for nothing else than to make his next move more managable. Officially, Spurrier is looking to take a year off. That might be the case. Whether he does or not, I'd guess a return to college ball is the next stop, with the "where" being the main issue.

Call me crazy, but I'm thinking the seat just got hotter for current Florida Gator coach Ron Zook. It wouldn't be the craziest turn of events if UF's athletic director was asked to keep Zook on for another year until Spurrier is ready to return. It would seem to be a case of Spurrier coming back with his tail between his legs, but as he'd be coming home, it'd be easy to brush that sentiment aside--for the most part.

The other options would be to take on a head coaching job elsewhere in the NCAA. A return to an SEC team would be a hoot. If he really wanted to put it all behind him, he could opt to take a college job out West somewhere.

In any case, it's all over. I expect Eric at Off Wing Opinion, who lives in the DC area, will have plenty of thoughts on the end of an error--er, era.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Remember Magic Cap? Probably not, in this age of Palm and Windows PocketPC (didn't this used to be "Windows CE"?). But guys like Bruce Barrett and Richard Doherty (via Tony Fadell) do.

Just for fun, click on the links provided on Barrett's page for General Magic and its former partners. It's amazing where some of them now point to; for instance, the old URL now points to, curiously, OnStar Corp.'s login site. I guess OnStar parent General Motors bought up the company's assets after everything went bust. Goes to show how some ahead-of-the-curve ideas live on.
Beyond catching the regular news bites, I haven't spent much time thinking about Rush Limbaugh's drug-related legal woes. The only mention I've made of Rush at all on this blog was when his stint on ESPN came to an untimely end (just as news of his pill-popping was breaking--which may or may not have been a coincidence).

But when I get wind of the conspiracy theories that Limbaugh is weaving as a defense against the investigation on him, my first thought is: What would his public reaction be if these actions were being taken on one of the random "actors and actresses and sports figures" he references? Would he sympathize, or would he denounce? Given his track record, I'll give you only one guess.

Ultimately, I have to say I have practically no sympathy for Limbaugh over what he's going through, precisely because it's pretty obvious what his opinion on this issue would be if it were happening to almost anyone but him. Whipping out the crackpot vendetta theories only make the whole thing more laughable than it already was, and only serves to contradict what he's advocated during his whole broadcasting career. Not to mention that he's risking his long-term credibility in exchange for short-term self-preservation.

Actually, I'd like to think that a consequence of this would be long-term damage to his credibility. But I'm all too aware that most people on either side of the love-hate line on Limbaugh have already made up their minds, and so any resolution short of jail time won't make a bit of difference in how he's perceived. His dittoheads will continue to back him, and his critics will continue to pan him. As usual, even in the face of pretty clear evidence, people will believe only what they want to believe. It seems to be endemic in the relationship between media consumer and media provider, especially so when it comes to talk radio of any format (news, opinion, sports, etc.).

Limbaugh will get his day in court, and the issue will be resolved. But as the story unfolds so far, it's reflecting rather poorly on Limbaugh both professionally and personally.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Where in the world can you find the most willing sperm donors? In Denmark, of course; and the rest of Scandinavia is no slouch either.

Speaking of those ancestors, I got a kick out of this:

Childless couples can browse through about 250 successful donors on Cryos's US website, under Viking aliases such as Birk, Gorm, Olaf and Thor alongside curriculum vitae listing hair and eye colour, height, education and professional details.
I got to see an old friend last night, somewhat unexpectedly. Jennifer Grinovich is the sister of my friend Tom, who's a local. Jen went to college with us, and has been in and out of the area since graduation. She's in town, along with other family, to see her newborn niece, Kaya.

Jen's been living in Oakland, California for the last few years, and so she had the opportunity to participate in last October's gubernatorial recall election. She clued me into her brief brush with celebrity during the election.

She was on her way to cast her vote when a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle tried to get her comment. She brushed him off while she tried to find the right polling booth. After casting her ballot, the reporter found her again. Despite protesting that she wasn't the ideal political interview, she gave a quote. Her words appeared in the Chronicle the next day:

"I like Peter Camejo the best, and I can't stand Davis, but I cast my votes to stop Schwarzenegger," said Jennifer Grinovich of Oakland. "I had to vote no on the recall. In the end, the most important thing was to try to stop the Republicans."

The catch? According to Jen, the above quote was only remotely similar to what came out of her mouth. The part about preferring Green Party candidate Peter Camejo and voting "no" on the recall are accurate, but she says she never explicitly said anything like "stop the Republicans". She did wind up voting for Democrat Cruz Bustamante, making a strategic decision to help the candidate most likely to beat Schwarzenegger; so the sentiments behind this misquote are pretty much on the money. But Jen was a little perturbed over having words put into her mouth.

It was an iffy move by the reporter to craft a new quote in order to make it fit the story's theme. It's one thing to clean up a quote for clarity (removing "uhs" and "likes", extraneous information, etc.) or even fact-checking it, but to plant a whole phrase like that, even if it mirrors the person's thinking, goes beyond acceptable practice. There was no real harm done--Jen's pretty laid-back about it even now--but things like this tend to erode the press' credibility.
Three weeks ago to the day, I made note of the story about a Southern California Muslim football league with controversial team names like "Intifada" and "Soldiers of Allah". Now, the story is back, with the controversy ramped up to the point where the league's tournament is threatened with cancellation. In particular, the issue centers around the "Intifada" team, which, unlike the teams formerly known as "Soldiers of Allah" and "Mujahideen", decided not to change its name in the face of criticism.

Like I said before, one side's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. It's an emotionally-charged atmosphere.
art of the heel
During the past week, I've gotten into two separate conversations about Donald Trump. It's probably because his new reality show, "The Apprentice" is close to debuting (on January 7th, 2004), and because I'm the designated "New York guy" in my social circles (strictly on legacy, as I haven't lived in New York for more than 10 years, although I visit a couple of times a year).

During the course of both these conversations, I arrived at the conclusion that The Donald owes his present fame to his involvement in professional sports, chiefly as a former team owner in the long-defunct United States Football League (USFL). As's Greg Garber noted, this stint in the USFL transformed Trump from a regional celebrity to a national one, thanks to all the press a football team owner attracts.

"He was just a Donald, not The Donald," remembered Charlie Steiner, who as the radio voice of the Generals had a front row seat for the histrionics. "He was a boy builder and then he bought the team. It was the best thing that ever happened to the USFL and the worst thing that ever happened to the USFL.

"He bought the back page of the Daily News and the Post. Suddenly, he was a man about town. He was building the greatest football team in history. Pretty soon, he was making Page Six. It didn't matter to him if the league made it or not, he had already succeeded."

Thus, Trump provides a compelling case study for how pro sports provides a platform for mainstream notoriety. It also points out how much of a high-stakes game pro sports is, and why money issues between ownership and labor are so hotly contested.

I'm not suggesting that the USFL is solely responsible for Trump's success. He made his fortune in high-stakes real estate, using the resources he had at hand (including his family fortune, as well as his own business acumen). What's more, he built his business empire in Manhattan, one of the world's premier real estate markets and a virtual playground for high-profile business deals. And you could argue that Trump's dealings in Atlantic City's casino industry was what really put him over the top as a mover and shaker. His rise during the '80s makes him perhaps the epitome of that decade:

... If one is going to nominate a man of the decade, Trump has got to be at the top of the list, along with Reagan and Gorbachev. The Trump Shuttle, Trump hotels and casinos, Trump books, Trump high-rises, Trump luxury ships, Trump ads in major newspapers on foreign trade, the Generals or the New Jersey football Trumps, Trump The Game - what's next, Trump The Cereal? Yes, the '80s were definitely the age of Trump. Manipulating money, property, and corporations - and putting the right spin on one's actions - was the name of the game in the '80s. And nobody was more successful at it than Trump. Sure, he was a popular foil for stand-up comics and social commentators, but he also was - if not a media darling - certainly a media sidekick...

He didn't just make a lot of money and acquire a lot of property. Trump became a star. He had no talent outside of the business world, but big business was the glamour sport of the decade and Trump was the Most Valuable Player. Unlike many famous wealthy people of the past, he did not ride the fame of show business friends to notoriety. He renamed everything he bought after himself. He was a master at public relations, always in the news. No matter where we went, Trump was there. Yes, he was an arrogant self-promoter, but by all '80s standards he was a success.

(Note the sporting world analogies: "glamour sport", "Most Valuable Player".)

It's important to note that Trump could have accumulated all his wealth, closed all his deals, and achieved his business success without ever having owned the USFL's New Jersey Generals. And yet, had he done so, most of America (and the world) never would have heard of him. He'd have been a business world luminary, a guru worthy of a few business book deals and speaking seminars, but probably only on the same level, fame-wise and influence-wise, as his sometime-adversary Leona "Queen of Mean" Helmsley. He'd be a fixture on the New York fame scene, and so would get some measure of national exposure, but always in the context of Manhattan. It's hard to believe Trump would get a national television show on the strength of that.

As noted above, one of Trump's driving forces is his penchant for self-promotion. As often as this is assigned to his egomania, it appears to me that it's just as motivated by his desire to maximize his business opportunities. While for some businesspeople, relative anonymity is a preferred asset in their dealings (depending on industry), for Trump, the highly-visible approach works best for him. Being the owner of the Generals was the perfect means, at the perfect time, for getting that high level of recognition.

Interestingly, Trump has since made it known that, not only was he exploiting the USFL for his own advancement, he was using it as a stepping stone toward eventual ownership of an NFL team, ideally the Giants or Jets:

TRUMP - Well, I never thought the league could make it. I thought it was a shot in the dark, which it was. People don't want to watch a football game on Easter.

PETERSON - Donald certainly had ulterior motives for coming into the league. He did some good things for the league, publicity-wise and that. But I know that he certainly wanted to be an owner in the National Football League and felt the United States Football League was the most direct course to get there.

WERDER - On that point, too, Trump's position has changed dramatically over the years.

TRUMP - We are not looking for merger. It would be ridiculous to even consider merger right now on our behalf, frankly.

Thinking back at it, I almost had a shot at getting a chief NFL franchise.

WERDER - And that's what you wanted?

TRUMP - I guess. You know, I'm just thinking back to those days. It was a long time ago, but perhaps that's in the back of my mind. Sometimes I can't even figure out my own mind. But in the back of my mind, I suspect I wanted to get into the NFL at a low price. The problem was we had some owners that couldn't afford to play the game. And if you can't afford to play that game, that game's not going to work out...

TRUMP - I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot about football. If people like myself owned every team in the USFL, we'd be in the fall and we'd be playing against the NFL, and we'd probably right now, there would have been a merger a long time ago.

So, let's add The Donald's rise to national mindshare as yet another part of the old USFL's lasting legacy. And let's look forward to scenes from "The Apprentice" that won't be nearly as entertaining as these made-up outtakes.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

12 TO 13 TO 12 AGAIN
where's the extra guy go?
Enjoy this little picture puzzle. No, I haven't doped it out yet, despite staring at it for five minutes straight. Something to do with the leftmost guy's head getting chopped off. Feel free to comment the solution.

(Picture filched from Tom McMahon, who got it from someplace else.)
When does the use of ethnic-speak cross the line from casual hip to offensiveness? Apparently, when you devote a whole column to it, like Naples Daily News columnist Brent Batten did earlier this month.

Batten is Southwest Florida's third-rate answer to Miami's Dave Barry; as I don't much care for Dave Barry, you can imagine what I think of a Dave Barry wannabe like Batten.

Batten's column provoked a stir as it spread through the Internet, eventually earning a rebuke from the National Association of Black Journalists. This in turn prompted published apologies from both Daily News editor Phil Lewis and Batten himself.

Eric Deggans at the St. Petersburg Times offers a good overview of the episode, including some pertinent points on why exactly this was a problem:

What Lewis said he didn't realize before publishing the column was the context.

Though hip-hop fans include people of all races, the music and its culture come from black culture. Black artists and producers still dominate the form. And the patterns of speech come directly from black culture.

For this black reader, seeing Batten's parody felt like watching an Amos and Andy routine. Forget about the tenuous connection between hip-hop slang and a failed concert; the story felt like a veiled racist joke, implying that the limited intelligence of people who talk a certain way was the real reason the concert failed.

For me, as I implied at the start of this post, the joke stops being a joke when it runs too long. A piece like Batten's works as long as the slang is used sparingly, ideally in a skillful blend. When it consists of continuous paragraphs with obviously strained usage, it becomes, at best, tiresome to read, and at worse, cluelessly offensive.

I make use of rap lingo extensively, in my writing and my everyday casual speech. One of my favorite examples on this blog was, appropriately enough, germane to the topic: CNN's leaked internal memo on encouraging its reporters to incorporate more flava into their stories. My feeling is that you go by your gut--you just know when how far is too far. I'm playing for comedic value, and you have to know where the funny line is. Hopefully, it doesn't rub anyone the wrong way; then again, I'm not staying up at night worrying about it. I think I know how to express my true intent, and using urban verbage is not the tool I'd ever think of using to give offense.
If you're in Chicago during this next week, you may want to swing by the Shedd Aquarium for the final days of its acclaimed Seahorse Symphony. Shedd has pulled off what many experts considered impossible: They kept a couple of dozen seahorses alive for over five years, instead of the customary 2-4 months usually associated with captivity.

Aside from their interesting look, seahorses also have unusual gender roles:

Many Shedd visitors are taken by the fact that seahorses are the only species in which the male gets pregnant. Seahorses also perform an elaborate courtship ritual in which the male dances around the female, often for several hours.

"Women really like this," Mitchell said of the male's romantic routine. "I would say it's the perfect man. He's at home, he gets pregnant and he dances every day. What more could a woman want in a mate than that?"

Friday, December 26, 2003

use the force, mate
As a follow-up to speculation regarding Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of DirecTV and how it could catapault News Corp. into an even bigger industry role, Chase Carey, President/CEO of Hughes Electronics Corp. (operator of DirecTV) revealed several upcoming initiatives designed to make that speculation reality.

In particular, as I suspected, the digital video recorder, or DVR (or, as it's referred to in this Reuters article, PVR for personal video recorder) is going to be the prime driving force for News Corp.:

"I think PVRs are going to be a critical component of the television experience," Carey said.

As the biggest consumer of PVRs, Carey said he expected News Corp. to use its scale to drive down the cost of devices, and that DirecTV would role out initiatives next year to take advantage of the devices.

He said DirecTV would send customized sports highlights, weather and news programming to be uploaded continuously to the PVR.

Next year, he said, the company would offer a PVR capable of recording high-definition television.

"We want to be the leader in providing PVRs," Carey said. "Today the universe is under 1 million for PVRs, but I think that's going to grow quite rapidly."

This pretty much confirms the fears expressed by the rest of the industry earlier this month. In particular, the bit about the customized sports, weather and news content going directly to the DVRs is probably the biggest concern for other media outlets:

Other programmer fears, discussed in more private settings, were that Mr. Murdoch would pack DirecTV with exclusive Fox content and use the DBS menu to give prime channel placement to his own stations.

Finally, back to the Reuters article: As I expected, these moves put Tivo behind the 8-ball:

News Corp.'s focus on the PVR would seem to bode well for TiVo Inc., DirecTV's longtime supplier of the devices, but Carey made it clear DirecTV would look beyond TiVo in order to get the best prices.

"They have many more capabilities than anyone else in the marketplace but its important to make sure we fully develop all avenues to bring PVRs to DirecTV customers," Carey said.

Carey's comments here are pretty much a warning shot over Tivo's bow. He's saying that they're not married to DirecTV's previous deal, and unless Tivo comes down in their licensing fees, News Corp. will find another dance partner. In fact, I think the inclination is to go with a more bare-bones DVR service. If News Corp. is planning to ram all it's own conent onto the DVR programming grid, it really doesn't need anything that Tivo offers in this area; and the basic DVR technology (hard drive, recording manipulation, etc.) is widespread enough that there are plenty of other providers in that area.
spook fish
This fish's name is Charlie. He's a catfish, of the fake-but-convincing variety. He worked for the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. He's now on display at the CIA Museum, along with a robotic dragonfly camera and other spookware technology from the past.

Despite being retired for a couple of years, Charlie's mission with the CIA remains classified. Something to do with collecting water samples near suspected chemical and nuclear facilities.
I may have found a solution for the discontinuation of Ben & Jerry's Festivus ice cream. Custom Ice Cream Creations by Reinhold Ice Cream Company will mix up just about any flavor of ice cream and ship it out to you. They've had a good deal of success with this service:

"This woman from Miami said she would be interested in a strawberry basil and also a sunflower flavor," said [Bill] Mandell. Though he said such flavor sensations aren't necessarily his taste, "this is about the customer, so there it is."...

Feeling the squeeze as larger companies swallow up or merge with competitors, the third generation ice cream maker is seeking a niche audience outside the delivery range of its 19 trucks.

"The bigger regionals are buying up smaller dairies to extend their product lines," Mandell said. "To be a small dairy and ice cream manufacturer, you have to be specialized."

Pittsburgh-based Reinhold is currently sold in Ohio, West Virginia and the western half of Pennsylvania.

There is one hitch, though:

Customers must order at least three and a half gallons of ice cream, about 70 servings. The cost, with shipping via FedEx, is about $80.

A bit steep for some ice cream! And that's assuming they can get the right Festivus blend of cinnamon and brown sugar ice cream, laced with gingerbread cookie bits. Plus, it's already after Christmas, so 'tain't the season. Maybe next year. Even better, I can post an offer on Craig's List to see if anyone shares my taste and would like to split the order.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

as i rained blows upon him
If the cultural significance of "Seinfeld" continues to grow (as manifested by the comeback of spongeworthiness), then I'm thinking that one day, we'll all be invited to a Festivus celebration.

When you do go to such a gathering, be sure you bring the essentials: Your List of Grievances worksheet, your Festivus Fruitcake Tag, and most importantly, your Festivus Feats of Strength Challenge Card. Frank Costanza would be proud.

I was going to suggest topping off the holiday with a pint of Ben & Jerry's Festivus-flavor ice cream, but sadly, it appears to be dearly departed. That sucks! It was good stuff: Cinnamon and brown sugar ice cream, laced with gingerbread cookie bits.

UPDATE: Good God, Festivus is real! In Arizona, anyway.

There's a big inaccuracy in this article, though:

Kyle McNally saw the fateful "Seinfeld" episode that gave birth to Festivus and knew it was a can't-miss party, even at the age of 10.

"I just looked at my dad and said, 'We have to do it,' " said McNally, now 19.

The episode that brought us Festivus was called "The Strike", and it debuted on December 18th, 1997. That's only six years ago. So either the kid's lying about his age, or else he and his family have faulty memories; or the reporter got it wrong.
love, liza
This little photographic gem appears to be circulating the Web in good time. Consider it my holiday gift to all youse. For more of the same, in glossy format, pick up the current issue of Entertainment Weekly.

I'm not a Will Ferrell fan, but it looks like he nailed the David Guest look. And what can you say about Jack Black as Liza? Priceless.

(Above photo courtesy of Stereogum, via The Cosby Sweater.)
I'm not wild about gift wrapping. Mainly because I'm inept at it. I've been told often enough by gift-wrapping mavens that it's such a fun activity, and gives you a chance to be creative, and all that jazz. All I can say is, that's a crock. As far as my application of it is concerned, of course.

Take note that this distaste for wrapping presents doesn't translate into a dislike for the presents themselves. I enjoy buying and giving gifts for holidays and other special occasions about as much as the next guy. I enjoy receiving them just as much. But the wrapping thing--just not my bag, baby.

In years past, when I zapped through the malls for gifts, I'd often take advantage of the gift-wrapping services offered onsite. I especially went for it when they were charity- and donation-based. But as I get older, I find I have even less patience for the mall environment (this coming from a former mallrat). Plus, all the online shopping I do puts a crinkle in the wrapping option. Sites like Amazon typically offer wrapping for a couple of extra bucks, but I have an unusual aversion to this, don't ask why. I guess if at least some of the money paid for the wrapping was to go to charity, I'd be more inclined to take the option (are you listening, Jeff Bezos?).

I have noticed that people who enjoy more artsy-craftsy type of projects are the same ones who get into gift wrapping. It's a natural connection, obviously. Again, I'm not into the arts and crafts thing; words are my expressive medium (for the most part), and you can't wrap a present with a dictionary.

This season, as I was going through my usual ham-handed wrapping methods--cutting too little wrapping paper, cutting too much, getting the wrong-sized gift box, mis-applying Scotch tape--it occurred to me that there has to be an easier way. This is 2003, for God's sake (almost 2004, even). If someone, somewhere, deemed seedless watermelon to be an important enough goal to reach, then an easier way to wrap gifts has to be under development.

I could just bitch about this and not offer up a solution. But in the spirit of giving, I'll share what I dreamt up: Spray-on gift wrap (or, if you prefer, wrapping in a can).

For now, this idea resides solely in my noggin--and now, on this blog, too. I haven't thought too hard about it beyong conceptually. But basically, it would work in a similar manner to spray-on snow or silly string: You get an aerosol can full of the stuff, aim at the gift, and after a coat or two, you have a fully-wrapped present! Slap on a bow and address tag to complete.

The details involve a lot of chemical-scientific stuff that I don't know much about: Which polymers to use to achieve the right texture, how to avoid toxicity, how the stuff would react with certain items like clothes, food, paper (actually, the solution to that last one would be to sell the spray can as a package, along with gift box, so you just put any loose gift items in a box and not have them come in direct contact with the spray).

The marketing for this will be key for success. As I mentioned, my feelings on gift wrapping are far from universal. In fact, I'd guess most people enjoy doing it, so this idea might not catch on with the general population. I'd think the target market for this would be: Male, youngish (12-35), time-saver, gadget-lovers. This could be positioned as the perfect holiday life-saver for holidays and birthdays.

Why post this sure-fire idea on the Web, and risk someone stealing it and making millions? For one thing, I don't have the background to really invent this stuff or make it fly. For another, the basic idea is already floating around, in a few different forms; so simply tossing the concept out there isn't exactly a groundbreaking revelation. So there.

Maybe this will come into being by next Christmas, so I'll be spared yet another frustrating gift-wrap session. Dare to dream.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

pucker, sucker
In the vein of News of the Weird, the 14th Annual Sour Orange Awards celebrates 2003's most ludicrous news stories from the Sunshine State.

Lots of funny-funny here. I'm not sure I can pick a favorite, but this one comes close:

HEAVY LIFTING: Two Florida Atlantic University researchers who published a paper on detecting plagiarism were accused of plagiarism.

From an online design standpoint, I have to offer this critique: Why didn't the St. Pete Times provide hyperlinks to each story's original article? Links to the originals occurred to me while I was reading this list in the print newspaper; I checked out the online version hoping to find it laden with links, but alas, it wasn't. I'm betting most, and maybe all, of these items appeared in the Times during the year, and so should be archived on their site. I think this is a good example of a missed opportunity for what the online edition can add to a story.
Steve Outing at Poynter takes a look at the results of the "Best Looking Blog" category of the 2003 Weblog Awards, and finds the winners to be lacking in basic design quality.

As Chuck Olsen at Blogumentary notes, the Weblog Awards are pretty much a free-for-all popularity contest, without much in the way of qualifying criteria. The results should be taken with a grain of salt, assuming you care about them at all.

The post did bring to mind the debate regarding the perceived association between blogging and amateurism. In some people's minds (notably Dave Winer's), a blog ceases to be a blog once editing or other elements of polish are applied. I would imagine that this mindset would extend to layout and design. If you subscribe to this definition of blogging (and I don't), then what exactly should a "best looking blog" contest be judged on? Should bare-bones colors and graphics that stress readability be held in higher regard than a site that has lots of flash and eye-catching visuals?

I do take issue with a comment Chuck Olsen made:

In fact I think that blog aesthetic is the cutting edge of design, very much influencing corporate web sites.

I'm not sure where he's seeing this influence manifest itself, but I certainly haven't seen it. In cases where corporate/commercial sites have a blog component, no doubt the look of those pages will reflect a typical blog, following a general blogging style. But beyond that? Minimalist, clean design abounds on the Web, but also in the offline world. I don't think blogs have directly influenced that; if anything, bloggers were themselves influenced by this aesthetic. And it's not always appropriate: In cases where the written content is the key, it works, but on things like ecommerce, multimedia presentations, etc., you have to ramp up the eye candy.

This very blog is the result of very minor modifications to a Blogger/BlogSpot-provided template. The most notable thing I did to it was to reduce the original three-column structure into the current two-column. That, and the addition of a few side-item boxes, are the only thing that distinguish it. I've considered other changes, especially with the color, but laziness has kept me from implementing it. Plus, I'm not too concerned about it. I feel the posts I write are the focus; the frequent photos and graphics I stick in satisfy my desire for design elements that contibute to the words.
ho ho %$@#&!
Only in Noo Yawk: Fans dressed up as Santa Claus at an Islanders home game started brawling when a couple of them unveiled the Rangers jerseys they were wearing.

I could pull out the old "I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out" joke, but I think I'll refrain. Considering the Isles were playing the Flyers, though, I will trot out the old Philly fans booing Santa Claus schtick.

Eric McErlain of Off Wing Opinion was actually in attendance at this game--and missed the melee due to a bathroom break. Sometimes life can't suck enough.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

an arcade unto itself
Blog, and ye shall receive. Only a couple of days after writing that I was thinking of getting one of those JAKKS retro game controllers, what should I get as an early Christmas gift but the Namco version from my officemate, Jamie!

(Actually, I doubt she got the notion from reading this blog. I believe I mentioned toy during office chitchat, and she picked up on it. Of course, if you are reading this, Jamie, let me know by commenting!)

Take note: Combined with her gifting of the House Party (greatest movie ever made, ahem) DVD last year, Jamie is officially 2-for-2 on holiday presents. What a gal!

The thing has five games loaded on it: Bosconian, Dig-Dug, Galaxian, Pac-Man, and Rally-X. I remember all the games except for Bosconian (what a name!). I've already hooked it up and taken it for a spin; I'm happy to say they're all maddeningly addictive, right off the bat.

The games all seem authentic... "seem" being the operative word. The video portion for the games appear to be the same as the originals from twenty years ago. The audio, to me, seems to be a little more low-tech than I remember it. I may be influenced on that by other, latter-day ports of classic games for the Xbox and PlayStation2; no doubt, those versions had subtle upgrades applied to them (I always suspected that the Xbox version of Pac-Man had ghosts that were waaaaaaaaay too smart).

UPDATE: I'm loving this thing. But I can detect a major design flaw with it (beyond the obvious wear-and-tear on the joystick and firebutton, for which there's no real preventative): It's powered only by 4 AA alkaline batteries. Why? That's great for portability, but why didn't they include an AC power cord as well? I can see burning through batteries on this real quick, and I hate replacing those. What would make that especially onerous is that the battery hatch has to be opened and closed using a screwdriver. Seems dumb. It's still a cool-rad gift, though.
Kids today don't know what they missed back in the 1980s: Cold War politics, nuclear detente, recession, "The Cosby Show"... It was all good, I guess.

I guess they could try to recreate the experience by donning throwback jerseys from the Reagan era. Keep in mind, though,

"True retro," [28-year-old Brian] Williams said, "would be snug."
coming up, short
Do you ever check yourself out in the mirror and think, "I hate my body"? Ever wish you could chop off your too-fat legs, too-boney arms, and any other offending body parts? If you're like most people, you have at one time or another.

Still, I bet you never took such thoughts to their logical conclusion, like taking a shotgun to your leg or asking a surgeon to lop off your limb. Body Integrity Identity Disorder, or BIID, is a condition that impels people to desire the removal of a limb, or limbs (or, I imagine, other body parts) in order to achieve peace of mind.

BIID has gotten additional exposure lately thanks to the documentary film Whole, by Melody Gilbert. It's already suspected that serial plastic surgery patients, notably Michael Jackson, suffer from this syndrome. If awareness on BIID spreads, I'm guessing more people will start seeing signs around them, and perhaps within themselves.

This topic brings to mind a lot of ethical issues, mainly centered around how the body plays into a person's sense of identity and, indeed, self. From the City Pages piece:

Perhaps Western culture's aversion to BIID doesn't lie in our objection to the surgical transformation of the body, or even in a distrust of the notion that the body can adequately represent identity. Maybe our discomfort stems from the moral worth we assign to that identity in the first place. Dr. Michael First, a BIID specialist featured in Whole, compares BIID to the desire for plastic surgery, a largely socially acceptable practice despite the fact that people have their skin stretched, their fat sucked out, and the ends of their noses shaved off just to feel more like themselves.

A long while ago, I was listening to a philosophy lecture on the radio that dealt with how we perceived our relationship with our physical selves. It was insightful. Think about how often we consider our bodies to be not so much who/what we are, but instead merely a casing for our minds or souls--our "real" selves. This tends to be the case most often in the above example of hating how you look in the mirror: If it's bad news, you try to dissassociate yourself from it any way possible. But you can experience it even when considering what you like about your bod.

The truth, of course, is that we're much more the sum of our parts than we'd like to contemplate. We are our bodies, our bodies are us--we're stuck with each other (at least for the foreseeable future, cloning and astral projection notwithstanding). It's hard to accept sometimes, as it can lead to be objectified into what you look like instead of what you feel like. But as much as we don't want to solely identified by our outer shell, what we look like and function as is a vital part of who we are.

I'm not totally sure where BIID, or any other body modifications (even dieting or healty eating) fit into all this. If you're not satisfied with how you look, there are relatively safe options. How much such modifications actually do the job, especially mentally, is debatable.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Is anyone really buying the spin that Wil Wheaton got his recent three-book publication deal on the strength of his blogging, as Blogger would like people to believe?

News flash: Wil Wheaton got the book deal because he achieved his celebrity by playing a character in Star Trek television series and movies. Without that, no one would be giving him a book deal. Allow me to pre-enact a future telephone conversation between Wheaton and his book editor:

Wheaton: So, what did you think of the pages I just sent over?

Editor: Yeah, they look good, but do you think you could add in some more stuff about how you were on Star Trek?

Wheaton: Well, I kind of already covered all that in the earlier chapters...

Editor: Sure, sure, but we could always use more. I mean, there are a lot of Wesley Crusher fans out there, you know? Got to give them what they're looking for. We are looking to sell some books here, Wil.

Get the idea? There's a built-in audience for all things Star Trek, and publisher O'Reilly & Associates recognizes a sure opportunity for a quick buck when it sees it. Wheaton was just the best option for a book deal.

Wheaton's blogging came after he had already made a name for himself; while it helped sustain the measure of fame he achieved, it didn't create it for him. That's actually a common theme for practically all the "celebrity bloggers" out there: They made a name for themselves in their respective professions, and then used that cache to build an audience for their blogging. I'm not sure there's one solid example of a blogger who's built a name for his/herself solely through blogging.
off with you
What's ahead for media behemoth Time Warner? CEO Dick Parsons hints at horizontal acquisitions, thus keeping the company a player on the industry scene.

No real surprise there. TW can't help but be a factor in the media M&A market, given its dominant position. What I found interesting was Parson's vision for the once-high-flying AOL unit (late dropped from the corporate parent's name):

"What AOL really needs is to create a new business model... I see AOL as a kind of wholesale supplier. They add content and bring it together in a way that satisfies the consumers' needs. For example weather information, traffic and sport. In most areas we will not create content but rather we will dedicate ourselves to bringing it all together in a specific place."

Actually, this is how AOL has functioned from the start, really: As an aggregator and gateway to the online world. The old "Internet on training wheels" knock has actually been pretty successful; other Internet portals have strived to emulate the brand identification AOL built up in the early days of online/Internet service.

Still, Parsons' description serves as something of a demotion, in that AOL was once perceived to be the wave of the future for the entire media company. Now, it's struggling and finds itself in need of a redefined purpose. The mighty have fallen.
I figured my succinct account of this past weekend in South Florida would be well-received by whoever's out there reading this blog. But I never expected such glowing praise as I got from Lisa Williams at Learning the Lessons of Nixon, who felt my flowin' prose was reminiscent of the late mystery writer Charles Willeford:

My heart leaped with joy when I read this as I realized I had a new source for descriptions of seedy, beer-soaked South Florida frontons, something that is surpassingly rare here in my frosty, self-possessed homeland of Massachusetts.

Always happy to supply a demand. However, I have to clear up a little fuzziness: I don't live in South Florida, despite some local geographical confusion. I live in the Tampa Bay area, which is properly classified as West-Central Florida. Two different worlds, in a lot of ways.

Now, Tampa and environs have plenty of shady credentials of their own. Whenever I hear the words "seedy" and "Tampa" together, I think of ex-NFLer Dexter Manley's autobiography, "Educating Dexter", wherein he calls Tampa a "seedy town". Of course, considering he wound up in the Big Guava playing for the then-woeful, orange-clad Buccaneers as a result of a league suspension over cocaine use, I can't blame him for having bad vibes toward Tampa. (And let's face it, given Manley's post-football life, he's an authority on rating seediness.)

Then again, if it helps Lisa and others like her, I'll be only too glad to take regular jaunts down south--schedule permitting. (Maybe I'll even take the picturesque Tamiami Trail route.) Or, to save on travel time, I'll just spend more time in the local seedy joints.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

I went out of town this weekend. My friend Kirby was a free man, figuratively, with his wife and child out of town for a week, so he decided to take a road trip to Fort Lauderdale to visit with his youngest brother Rob. I hadn't been down that way in a long while, and didn't really have anything planned, so when he offered me the ride-along, I went for it.

It was good to get out of town for a couple of days, if nothing else. The weather was a lot colder than what we're used to, and that had an impact on what we did for entertainment.

We went to the Jai-Alai arena in Dania Beach on our first night. I was amazed that Rob and his friends had never been. They had heard about it, but knew nothing at all about how it worked. Tampa used to have a jai-alai fronton for decades, but it closed down a few years back; while I never made a habit out of it, I got a kick out of having it around, and still miss it. I figured heading down south would give me an opportunity to re-experience it.

We spent a couple of hours there; there wasn't much of a crowd, but it was fun having a couple of drinks and placing bets based on absolutely no knowledge. Plus we started yelling at the players every time they screwed up (and, in the process, screwed our chances at winning). There was one player named Bergo, who was a chunky sonuvabitch; it was fun hurling verbal abuse at him.

The only other major outing was on Saturday night, when we went bowling. I wasn't real high on it, but it was what the group wanted... My feeling was that, if I felt like bowling (and I pretty much never do), there's at least one bowling alley within short driving distance from my home. Plus, I figured the chances of finding any attractive single women in a bowling alley on a Saturday night were slim (even accounting for my unfamiliarity with Broward County's mating rituals). It was simply something to do, again accounting for the cold weather.

Other than that, we pretty much played poker all weekend. I'm not much of a card player, either in skill or temperament. But, again, it's something the group wanted to do, and do lots of, and I didn't have the energy to fight it. On the bright side, I think I came out a bit ahead on all those rounds, including making a big killing on the last hand we played (something like $25 for the pot).

Other lesser time-fillers were playing videogames (on an outmoded Nintendo 64 game system), latenight drinks at a TGI Friday's, and general hanging-out until 4AM. There was a noticable lack of single women around; but I guess having plenty of male bonding experience was a compensation, of sorts.

The capper was, on the way home tonight, Kirby and I made a pitstop at the Seminole Indian Casino. I'd never been. They're building a pretty large hotel/entertainment complex on the Seminole reservation east of Tampa; a Hard Rock Hotel will be the anchor. Things looked to be in transition when we popped in. There were plenty of bluehaired ladies planted in front of slot machines, then another, slightly livelier, group of people in the poker room. Not a lot of action, so we left after about 15 minutes. It was worth a look, though.

The driving time was fairly quick. I think we made it in three hours, both getting down there and then getting back. Had enough conversation to make the time go quickly.

It's nice to get away sometimes. Just as glad to be sleeping in my own bed tonight.
I've noted before, to the point of ranting, my preference for oldschool-style videogaming over the modern incarnation. I've often wondered if I was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Now, I know that it's a generational thing, with millions of my ilk going with retro-techno stylin'.

While this report covers a range of product nostalgia, the videogaming part of it is what grabbed me:

Intellivision this year is offering "Intellivision Lives!" for PS2 and Xbox, resurrecting long-forgotten titles like "Shark! Shark!" and "Space Armada." Its Intellivision 25 direct-to-TV controller lets users without a console play 25 games by plugging a game controller into their TV or VCR.

Similar game controller products are available from Atari, Activision and Namco, bringing "Dig Dug" and "Asteroids" from the era of Lionel Ritchie and Diane Keaton to that of Missy Elliott and Ben Affleck.

Each game controller looks almost exactly like the original joystick-and-single-button model -- a relic compared to current models that often sport six buttons and two directional sticks.

"People identify with the original Atari 2600 joystick," said Genna Goldberg of JAKKS Pacific Inc., which makes the three joystick games. "For many it was the first video game system they had as a kid."

I've noticed these controllers being sold at mall kiosks, and I'm sorely tempted to pick one up. I've got my Xbox hooked up for regular use, and still have my vintage Atari 2600 and Sega Genesis consoles, along with cartridges, in working order (last time I checked). But it's a hassle to wire up the old machines, and there's something about buying these new compact packages that's appealing.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Yesterday, some moron kept calling my cellphone. One wrong number I can understand, but multiple attempts suggest a lack of brainpower on the dialing end. After the second call, I did a reverse lookup on the number that was calling me. Turned out to be a freakin' KFC (nee Kentucky Fried Chicken) in Clearwater. I'm going to go ahead and make assumptions about the calibre of employees at that fastfood restaurant. Whoever it was called about four or five times total, with me missing the remaining calls. Not a crisis, but annoying.

And how's this for coincidences: I looked upon the referral websites at the bottom of this page this morning, and what should be on the list than this screed from Breakfast of Losers back in September about the very same thing: Mobile phone misdials! It's a funny ol' world...

Friday, December 19, 2003

It's hard to imagine getting wistful over a gun, but I'm sure many a firearms enthusiast will be saddened by the Israeli decision to stop using the famed Uzi submachine gun, no doubt hastening its demise. Not to mention gang members, drug warlords and other gun hobbyists. But hey, there'll still be the AK-47, although I believe that's also on the way out.

The news brings to my mind Public Enemy's "Miuzi Weighs A Ton", for obvious reasons.

You wouldn't think the name "Uzi" was derived from a person, but that's indeed the case, as Uzi Gal invented the gun that now bears his name. This seems to be a trend in firearms, with the Kaleshnikov rifle and Howitzer heavy artillery.
sky candy
At left, a comet surrounded by a cloud is about 20 times bigger than Jupiter. A stellar nursery, shown at right, is a large cloud of dust wherein stars are forming.

I hope we'll be getting used to awesome images like the one above from the Spitzer Space Telescope. These are the first pictures to come back from the newest eye-in-the-sky, which requires ultracold temperatures to achieve maximum image clarity.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

As I've noted recently, the television industry is going bonkers over the defection of younger viewers, and is grasping at straws over what to do. Acknowledging that videogames is one of the non-television activities that is pulling away eyeballs, attempts are being made to integrate gaming and traditional TV programming.

While I don't doubt this news, it's reports like this that turns me off to Wired so much. Check out this bit:

As for now, the age-old defense from veteran Hollywood producers and TV executives that "no one wants to watch people playing video games" has been tossed out the door with the huge success of poker TV shows.

If people can watch poker players sitting around the table, they certainly could watch the vibrant worlds of video games come to life in new and interesting ways.

Talk about specious reasoning! I'm certainly no fan of the recent poker tournament fad on TV, but to compare it to videogame gawking is idiotic. You might as well use spectator sports as a comparable example. With the poker shows, the big draw is observing the body language and nuances from the participants; you don't get that from watching a bunch of guys acting jittery while sitting in front of a videogame console. This is typical geek wishful thinking.
Just how "world wide" is the web? You can find Internet access in some surprising places: The base of Mount Everest, the heart of the Amazon rainforest, etc.

Yet touting the ability to get online is missing the point. There has to be a reason for people around the world to access the Web, aside from initial novelty. Unfortunately, outside the West, the Internet has very little to offer in terms of relevant content, language and culture.

I'm sure the average American (and maybe even European) websurfer will consider this to be Third World whining, twinged with envy of the developed world. This is the same mindset that considers English to be the "natural" lingua franca of the Web, just because that's the way it is. I wonder if the tune will change in the next five or so years, when the Chinese are expected to outnumber Americans on the Web. It's easy to assume your culture is the worldwide default, until another one usurps it.

Getting back to the original news report, I really liked the quote that wrapped it up:

"If people go on the Internet and do not find good content for themselves, then they go to pornography."

The history of the Web in a nutshell, really.
clown roll
Fame is indeed fleeting. I'd hate to imagine what happened to Albert Brooks. But at least it's a visually pleasing presentation.

I think the jury's out on whether this fate is preferable to the old flush-and-grind.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

standing tall
That's 5 foot 10 inches, in normal human terms. But if you too wonder how tall you are in relation to an upright iPod, then plug in your height numbers to the iPod unit size converter. Go 'head on--it's your move.

I assume the next development in this field would be an iPod weight converter.
c'est moi
Maybe that's stretching it a bit, but the news that New York and other states are using eBay to auction off their surplus inventory certainly is a high-profile citation for the Internet darling. It also points to how ubiquitous online auctioning is becoming.
Figuring the field is already thick enough with mobile phones, Hong Kong residents have taken to downgrading their technology with walkie talkies, at least as a backup option.

It's not as big a shift as it would seem: When you break it down, cellphones, like walkie-talkies, are not much more than fancied-up radios. When you get down to it, Hong Kongers are basically having retro-style fun with a toy.

I think there's something about the locale--a densely-populated enclave--that makes walkie-talkies a workable option. Here in the Tampa Bay area, I've seen ads on the beach communities (St. Pete Beach and others) selling two-way radios as cellphone alternatives. Range is basically from one end of a beach town to another. Monthly cost is about $20, which is just under what you can get on even the barest-bones cellphone plan. It sounds archaic, but if you know how these beach towns function, you realize it's just about perfect: There are residents there who literally don't leave the beach area for months at a time, and the only time they do is to head for the airport for vacations.
Ah, the humor you'll find just from scanning the daily sports transactions (yesterday's, actually):

Roanoke Express (ECHL) - Placed forward Robert Snowball on injured reserve.

Quite the name for a hockey player. Considering that he was never drafted, it's safe to assume that Mr. Snowball's chances of making the NHL are the same as (yes, you guessed it) one of his namesake's chances in hell.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

not quite dead
Hindsight is 20/20, of course; and all of us have been wrong at one time or another. Still, this 2001 article from Lukas Hauser, aka MacCommunist, declaring the then-new iPod a dud that would be as big an Apple flop as the ill-fated Cube, brought a smile to my face. Especially when paired with the news that the iPod accounts for about 50 percent of all portable digital music players.
Following on the theme touched upon above... Media Magazine commissioned a survey involving media planners and buyers on one hand, and consumers on the other, to gauge just how in-tune advertisers are with their audience.

The results? Not surprisingly, the professionals are well off-base on a lot of their assumptions about the very people they're supposed to be influencing. The slick Powerpoint report on the results may shed more light on specific questions.
There's been lots of hand-wringing of late over numbers that indicate a mass defection of younger demographics from the boob tube audience. The broadcast networks have been most affected, and thus are making the most noise about it, but even cable is feeling the pinch. Early attempts to lay the blame on Nielsen's methodology have given way to deeper examination of what's causing the big turn-off.

Why are the youngsters ignoring TV? Aside from a perceived different approach toward all kinds of media, the pullback on reality TV programming this fall is starting to be identified as the culprit. The theory that's developing is that reality shows are sure-thing attractors for young demographics, and the much-talked-about lessening of that genre after last summer sent the message to 20- and 30-somethings that there was nothing left for them to watch. Naturally, the remedy would be a strong comeback by reality shows.

The drawback to that strategy? Oddly, it involves taking care of the advertisers:

Last February, when the broadcast networks were heavy on reality, "it absolutely wreaked havoc with the broadcast schedules," said [Initiative Media research chief Stacey Lynn] Koerner.

Where there was reality, broadcast networks got younger, while other programs skewed older. Advertisers looking for older viewers, she pointed out, were left with spots on young-skewing programs. "It left a lot of advertisers scrambling and angry" and prompted broadcasters to hype scripted shows over reality in their upfront presentations last spring.

Few advertisers took the bait, though, Koerner said. "I wouldn't say that any of them believed we wouldn't see reality back on the schedule this year."

I can't believe it'd be so difficult to slot advertisers with the appropriate shows. It's not rocket science: Sell one target demo for younger-skewing shows, another for older-skewing shows. What's the problem? They've been doing it that way since before television.

I've got to wonder about how these media insiders view their audiences:

One of cable's cheerleaders, MTV Networks research chief Betsy Frank says viewers born since the mid 1970s—she calls them "media actives"—are disenchanted with broadcast programs (heavy on drama this fall) and scheduling (late night is young viewers' prime time). They're accustomed to having multiple entertainment options: videogames, cable and the Internet as well as television...

"They gravitate to content that appeals to them at the moment," said Koerner. "That doesn't mean, if there is nothing on broadcast, they will watch more cable."

This reminds me of an article relating a brief stint by a Tampa Bay household as a Nielsen family, which didn't work out because they didn't watch enough "default" television. I swear, these execs can't conceive of a population that doesn't have every television set in the house on for 20 hours a day. Is it really such a revolutionary concept that the TV isn't the sole entertainment device in the average household? I mean, videogames have been around for almost thirty years, for crying out loud.

Monday, December 15, 2003

It's a mighty light night for bloggin'... Just one of those nights where I'm not particularly motivated (at the moment, anyway), and in any case don't have anything pressing to post. So I'll take the opportunity to lay some thanks for a couple of recent entry-specific backlinkages to this blog:

- Not just one, but two linkbacks from Eric McErlain at Off Wing Opinion. Both have to do with my recent musings on the National Football League, and I'm glad Eric considered them worthy of consideration by his audience.

- Steve Outing at the Poynter Institute picked up on my comments regarding the St. Petersburg Times' "build-your-own-movie-epic" feature, specifically how the online-only portion wasn't referenced in the print edition.

I'm always up for more exposure; spread the word.

In that spirit, I'm going to do a quick update to the handmade blogroll in the left-hand column of this page. It's due for an update.
I've noted before my interest in the topic of blindness. But because it stems from my experience with failing eyesight while growing up, it's of a narrow focus: Namely, the prospect of starting life with sight, then losing it, and being left with just the memory of that sense.

It's quite another thing to be blind from birth. In that situation, not only are there no memories of vision, there's really no frame of reference. All you know of the world is how it sounds, feels, tastes and smells; the visual world simply never comes into play. This isn't necessarily a drawback--you can't miss what you never had, and obviously, blind people are able to live and thrive without the use of their eyes. But considering how much sight is the primary medium for most people when experiencing everyday life, it's a hard concept to wrap your mind around unless you're living it.

One way to imagine how it feels is to try explaining a purely visual phenomenon to someone who's never had sight. It's amazing how quickly you have to re-orient your mind and substitute certain descriptors.

I think this is a good example of how to bridge the communication gap:

Anyway one time I told her if she ever wanted to see the stars, she should put her hand out when it's raining and feel the little points fall down on her palms. Because rain falls so quickly it can also have the effect of 'twinkling'.

One of my first exposures to this concept was in a story featuring the origin of a lesser-known Green Lantern Corps member, Rot Lop Fan. (God, I feel like such a geek...)

Sunday, December 14, 2003

crazy like a fox
The next time you get indignant over how many millions/billions of dollars television networks will pay to a sports league for broadcast rights, keep in mind what happened ten years ago this past weekend. Fox did the unthinkable in 1993 by stealing the NFL's National Football Conference television rights from CBS for $1.58 billion over four years. As a result, it transformed itself from a pseudo-network to a full-fledged television power.

Having the NFL legitimized the network, and gave it a platform to promote its shows to a wide audience, especially in the coveted young adult male category.

"This really became very much the face of the Fox network in many ways," said Ed Goren, now Fox Sports’ president.

Soon, the network had signed deals with the NHL and Major League Baseball. A NASCAR deal followed in 1999, and races began airing on the network in 2001. Fox’ prime-time lineup was also bolstered as top-rated shows were plugged frequently during the NFL broadcasts.

"It’s earthshaking. It’s a watershed change. The power of the NFL is even underestimated by the industry today," [former president of CBS Sports Neal] Pilson said. "No other entertainment or sports property gets anywhere near that number of viewers. It’s the dominant entertainment-sports programming on television today by a huge margin."

While losing the NFL "crippled" CBS, Pilson said, Fox’s prime-time ratings rose almost immediately. Fox was the fourth-rated network among adults 18-49 the season before it got the NFL contract. Last season, it trailed only NBC.

Think the conditions that led Fox to make this bold move don't exist today? Tell that to NBC, which is watching its once-vaunted primetime lineup disintegrate (e.g., the approaching end of ratings powerhouses "Friends" and "Frasier", and the spectacular failure of designated successor anchor series "Coupling", among others). Not so coincidentally, NBC doesn't currently broadcast any of the four major sports leagues. Watch for the Peacock Network to make a hard pitch at the NHL and other leagues shortly as their present broadcast deals expire.
Is there anything those ancient Greeks didn't know? They invented the steam engine, the coin-operated vending machine, and even a rudimentary computer.

Now, they can add the mathematical field of combinatorics to those breakthroughs, courtesy of a familiar name: Archimedes. Archimedes' obscure and incomplete "Stomachion treatise" has just been interpreted as an early exercise in combinatronics, "a field that did not come into its own until the rise of computer science".

News like this makes me wonder if the ancients really were that far advanced, or if we're simply not as far along as we usually assume. It's taken this long to develop a world/society/civilization that can foster the continued development and progression of advanced concepts; and maintaining such an environment is a lot trickier than it seems. Imagine if what had been started 2,200 years ago had been sustained.

One thing that annoyed me about this piece was that it took until the very end to explain the name of the treatise:

As for the name, derived from the Greek word for stomach, mathematicians are uncertain. But Dr. Diaconis has a hunch.

"It comes from 'stomach turner,' " he said. "If you get involved with it, that's what happens."

As I was reading through this article, I kept thinking that "stomachion" sounded alot like the modern Greek (and by extension, English) word for "stomach", but you can't always tell with ancient words. I wish the reporter would have revealed that early on.