Saturday, July 29, 2006

Oops, spoke too soon

Yesterday, when it looked like the Republicans might pass a minimum wage increase for political purposes, I suggested they would do the right thing for the wrong reason. This was naive and optimistic of me. The Republicans are doing their best to appear to vote for the minimum wage while actually scuttling it
by attaching the bill to a millionaire giveaway already rejected in the Senate. This way, Republicans can say they voted for the minimum wage even though they know the bill won't make it out of committee. I feel foolish now; how could I believe that the Republicans, even when in fear of electoral vengeance, would do anything that would, in any way, help a single poor person in the United States. I hang my head in shame, as should all Republicans.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Republicans consider biting the bullet and doing something for poor people

Apparently there's a good chance the GOP is going to allow through a minimum wage increase, according to the Times. If you read the article, you'll see that nowhere do the Republicans say anything like, "no one should have to survive on a pittance." Instead, you get this:

Republican moderates used a closed party meeting on Thursday to make their case for a vote, saying it was crucial for helping to dispel the partyƂ’s antiworker image.

So in election years Republicans will do something for poor people. The hope is poor people are so stupid that they will totally ignore the fact that Republicans don't do shit for them in non-election years.

There would be no minimum wage is not for Democrats, there would have never been an increase in the minimum wage if not for Democrats, and it would be a shame if Republicans can get one once of credit from the public simply for doing the politically expedient thing. But never underestimate the gullibility of The People.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bush on conflict resolution: war is the way to go

In this
article on the current war in Lebanon, there is this paragraph:

Saniora has pleaded with Washington to press Israel to call a cease-fire in bombardment that has demolished Lebanon's infrastructure and killed hundreds. President Bush has opposed an immediate cease-fire, saying the root cause of the conflict must be resolved.

This pretty much sums Bush up. A war is raging, but we shouldn't do anything to stop the killing until the basic issues have been worked out. The guy's a monster, and anyone who can't see that is morally bankrupt.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

It's so much easier to impress people when you have no power

Remember how cool Hillary Clinton was when she was the wife of a president? Sure, she seemed like this solid liberal who would fight for the right things. Anti-folker Lach even wrote a song touting her for president. But now she's just a kind of useless, Liebermanish senator whose only real goal is to balance on the fence and pander to the red states with dumb things like bills to "protect children" against violent video games. I post this link just for those people, like my friend Sharon, who haven't really kept track of Hillary's politics and still think of her as a shining beacon of goodness rather than a compromised politician.

It horrifies me people keep talking her up for president. She's not a good senator, I have no respect for her, she's still a polarizing figure on the right, who can't forgive her for marrying Bill, and let's be honest, the odds of this country electing a woman are slim even in the best of circumstances. And in terms of politics, America is definitely not in the best of circumstances.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The real blue velvet

A while ago I suggested that Blue Velvet, who was gonged off of America's Got Talent in about ten seconds, might not be a real band. I had two reasons, one, because I couldn't find them in an internet search, and it is awfully rare for any band to not have its own website, and two, because Blue Velvet was gonged faster than much worse acts; they were obviously going for a funny cheesy thing, they sang on key, and there was no reason to gong them without letting them sing.

Turns out it wasn't a set up: the judges really are pricks that will give a horrible impressionist more air time than a quirky musical group. I know this because this morning I received an email from Kevin Cavanaugh, their male singer, saying that after seeing my blog post he was inspired to create a Blue Velvet website.

They really should have got to sing more on the show, because their "retro lounge act" approach is interesting, particularly on lounge-inappropriate songs like Born to Be Wild. They also have a very nice, straight version of Blues in the Night.

Of course, they wouldn't have won America's got talent anyway, the winner is most likely to be a precocious child or perhaps a flashy dance act - all the jugglers, magicians and novelty acts will wind up where they always do, somewhere out in left field. But Blue Velvet deserved more respect than they got on the show. Hope at least the exposure is helping them get bookings.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Are you sure we've met before?

If I meet someone at a party and we chat a while, I will always make sure to say to them, if you see me a week from now and I don't recognize you, don't be offended. I'm not snubbing you, I just can't remember faces of people until I've talked to them on several occasions.

I've heard of people much worse, people who can't recognize their own wife if she changes her hairstyle, and there's an
article in the New York Times on the subject. Which lead me to, which lead to two tests to see if you're "face blind," a condition known as prosopagnosia.

On the tests where you have to identify celebrities I do just fine. In fact, once I've seen someone enough times I'm almost as good at recognizing them as most people. Usually if I meet someone and talk to them on three separate occasions within a couple of months that will be enough. And I am able to recognize people generally for perhaps a day after I meet them (people I see rarely are another matter; there's one guy I've given the "don't be offended if I don't recognize you" speech to several times, because he's a friend of a friend I see about twice a year. It's like that guy in Memento who keeps having to explain his situation).

I did poorly on the second test, scoring 74%, which is one percentage into the "possibly face blind" category. My girlfriend scored an average 85% while Francis, the disgustingly brilliant guy who sent me the link to the Times article, scored 100%.

I'm glad to find a test that suggests this is a real problem, because I've been accused of just being anti-social and someone who just doesn't really try to remember people. Which isn't at all true. I have at times studied faces intently during conversation, only to find two weeks later they don't even have the same hair color I thought they had. It doesn't matter if it's a passing waiter or a girl I'm hot for; all memory of the face will fade within a few days. I do remember they exist, my impression of them and what we talked about, I just don't remember their face. (A general impression can sometimes be enough in the right context: I didn't recognize my girlfriend's face the next time I saw her, but I remembered swing dancing with a tall skinny girl so when I was at a swing dance club and saw a tall skinny girl I kept walking past her in hopes it was her and she would recognize me, which she finally did).

The problem with this one is people don't believe it. It's true in general for invisible imperfections. No one accuses a guy with a cast on his leg of not trying to jump the high hurdle, but people with an anxiety disorder are told they are just letting their fears get the best of them. But the fact is, we are all limited both physically and mentally. Not everyone can run a five-minute mile and not everyone can memorize a book just by reading it, nor could any amount of training make it possible for them, but some people can do these things easily. But while no one will look down on you for not being able to memorize a book, because it's a rare talent, people will judge someone who can't remember faces, because it's so rare that they just don't believe it. People are far more accepting of people who can't remember names (which I also can't do). I've had people get very mad at me for forgetting their face.

All you people who can recognize faces are so lucky and don't even realize it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

the lack of basic competence in television

Perhaps it's a small thing, but on the talent show America's Got Talent, while performers were dancing or doing acrobatics a big banner would be flashed over them telling you what number you could call at the end of the show to vote for them, thus preventing the viewer from actually seeing what they were doing. This, even more than the frequent cutaways to David Hasselhoff watching them perform, just suggests that the people making the show don't actually understand that people watch a talent show to see the performances, not to stare at banners and judges.

The thing is, this isn't remotely uncommon. It's like when you watch a movie with subtitles and a big station logo or one of those awful animated advertisements that crawl across the bottom half of the screen, sometimes including sound effects, block out the subtitles. It's hard to decide whether these things are simply a display of open contempt of the viewers or pure incompetence. My guess is it's a little of both.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing gets worse every year because there's not really much you can do about it short of not watching shows you otherwise enjoy. And if you did stop, would the networks even understand that was the reason? Once I stopped watching a cool anime series on MTV2 because they had this huge flashing logo that was like one of those awful flash ads on web pages. What could be more inappropriate than a distracting animated logo on an animated series? I probably wasn't the only one who was annoyed, but I'm sure if the ratings for the show were low MTV2 would just assume people didn't like the show. It would never occur to a network that people didn't like garish logos and advertisements and banners.

You can't even email networks to complain, in most cases. All you can do is complain in network forums, which may allow you to vent steam but which doesn't get the word out to the networks.

Yes, there are bigger problems in the world, and at least on America's Got Talent that little yodeling girl made the finales, but still, big banners cutting off the bottom half of the screen while a clog dancing troupe is performing just pisses me off.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Opinionade: The Series

For a while last fall I was doing capsule TV series reviews, but then new shows started coming so far apart that I couldn’t do a few at once, and devoting an entire blog entry to one show just seemed excessive.  And shows come and go so fast; I would have given a favorable nod to Emily’s Reasons Why Not if it hadn’t been cancelled after one episode.

But I’ve realized that there are now a few shows I’ve started watching recently that seem interesting, so I’ll write a few words on them.

Psych (10 pm on USA)
Premise: Guy with Sherlock Holmes-style skills pretends to be a psychic

Review:  There was a brilliant, short-lived comedy-detective show years ago called Tenspeed and Brownshoe with Jeff Goldblum as a nervous dork and Ben Vereen as a cool, con man type.  About a year later there was some other show I remember nothing about that had four characters, and the one black character was a cool, con man type.  And I thought at the time, why can’t the white guy ever be the con man and the black guy be the nerd?  I knew black nerds and white slicksters, and it just bugged me when TV runs to the obvious stereotypes.

Well look how far we’ve come in a measly 26 years.  In the very fun new detective show Psych, the white guy is faking it ever step of the way, dragging along his nervous Nelly black partner every step of the way.  (And yeah, I know there have been black dorks on TV shows, most famously Urkel, but this just happens to be exactly what I felt was missing in the 80s, so it caught my attention)

The show is a lot of fun.  Shawn, whose father trained him to be hyper-observant, has been phoning in tips to the cops based on what he notices on TV shows, but his advice is so good they decide he must be a criminal himself (this part is not convincing, but now that it’s out of the way we probably won’t have to hear about it again).  To get out of hot water he tells them he’s a psychic, and uses his observational skills to convince them, doing such a good job that they hire him to investigate a case, which he solves.

This comes on right after Monk, and it’s very much in the same mold (of the early Monk, not the present hit-or-miss Monk).  It’s funny and reasonably clever, and it’s neat the way the camera zeroes in on the telling clues Shawn notices.  It’s not, perhaps, as good as I remember Tenspeed and Brownshoe being, but hopefully it will last longer.  

Conclusion: Well, I’ve only seen one episode so I may be getting ahead of myself, but this looks like a winner.

Kyle XY
Premise: mysterious kid with strange abilities and no belly button joins a wholesome American family

Review: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Guy wakes up naked in the middle of nowhere with no idea of how he got there or who he is.  Fortunately he turns out to be preternaturally brilliant, and … oh, you have heard this before?  Of course, that was the short-lived  series John Doe.  Kyle XY has pretty much the same opening, although according to the producers they had the idea for that scene years before John Doe came out.

Anyway, John Doe started out great and went downhill, but I’m hoping that Kyle XY, which also started out great, keeps its momentum a little better.

The first two episodes were great.  Kyle is reminiscent of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, an observer of humans trying to puzzle out why they do what they do.  The show is often funny and it’s playing out the central mystery quite well.

The third episode worries me a bit.  This is on the ABC Family Channel, and the third episode was like something you’d see on a “family channel,” with lessons learned about lying and too much sweetness with too little story.  But I’m still hoping this won’t go the way of John Doe, getting bad and then getting lost.

Conclusion: I’m hoping Kyle can avoid both family sappiness and the loss of focus, sense and interesting stories that plagued John Doe.  If it does, this could be really great.

Dog Bites Man
Premise: inept news team goes around pestering people

Review: Comedy Central has only had a few series that more-or-less fall into the classic sitcom form.  There’s Reno 911, a series that has been running for years that I think is horrible, Stella, a brilliant and original comedy that was cancelled after one season, and now Man Bites Dog, which falls somewhere in between comedically.  The show details a news team’s adventures as they investigate important stories like spring break.  The central conceit is that while the news team is made up of improve actors, everyone else on the show is a real person who isn’t told they’re on a comedy show, and presumably believe these people are who they’re pretending to be.  

I haven’t really decided on this one. It’s amusing but not hilarious, and the real-people angle hasn’t really resulted in anything that funny.  The Daily Show’s interviews with people who don’t see to be aware they’re talking to someone from the Daily Show are funnier.  Still, I always have admiration for comedians who have the guts to act like total jackasses in front of people who don’t realize it’s a put on.

Conclusion: I could go either way on this one, but for now I’ll keep watching.

Blade: The Series
Premise: a couple of good vampires try to kill a lot of bad ones.

Review: First off, I think adding “the series” to the end of a title is incredibly lame.  But then, Blade likes the obvious.  The show is mean and macho and generic, with the only interesting personality a peripheral cop-gone-very-bad character.

I don’t need to write a review of this now, because When I saw the movie Blade II I posted a review on, and the series is so like the movie that I can just use most of that review:

Blade II Blade: The Series is basically decent. It's got a few cool and/or effective moments, it keeps moving, and everything about it says "basically adequate though uninspired action flick." Snipes The series' star makes an acceptable b-movie sort of action figure, with less presence than Vin Diesel but more talent than Chuck Norris.

I watched it to the end and didn't feel overly restless, so if you just kind of like action pictures and it's on TV it's worth at least looking at. But that's about the best I can say for it.

Conclusion: This is just keeping me slightly interested enough to stick with it, but it’s really a week-by-week decision.  I could very easily give up on this one, but it’s pretty watchable all the same.

Friday, July 14, 2006

okay, born again bush haters, make nice!

It took me a few listens before I realized the Dixie Chick's
Not Ready to Make Nice was about their controversial statement a few years back that they were embarrassed that our jackass president was from the same state as them. I just thought it was about not being willing to make peace with an ex until I heard "And how in the world can the words that I said/Send somebody so over the edge/that they'd write me a letter sayin'’/that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over"

So I'm thinking, don't all those people who voted for Bush and now say he's doing a shit job owe the Dixie Chicks some sort of apology? I'm just wondering, are people writing them now saying, "I'm sorry I was such a complete and utter moron, and I shouldn't have burned your records, and you were right and I was wrong and I clearly should never try to think for myself because I don't have the intelligence of a half-wit."?

I hope so, but I doubt it. Even though it has become so obvious to everyone except the blindly faithful that Bush has lied, misled and screwed up every step of the way, I don't think too many people are saying, hey, this is my fault. But they should, and the Dixie Chicks should get a reward for being brave and right when so many people wergoingig along with war fever. I think they should be given the right at least to just go on stage and say, "I am so ashamed that there are so many utter and complete morons from Texas and every other state in the U.S" without receiving a single angry letter.

We are all doomed

If there's one lesson to be learned by reading about United States anti-terrorism measures, it's that the government doesn't know what the fuck it's doing and we are all doomed. Latest case in point, a report from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general criticizing the inclusion in the department's National Asset Database of petting zoos and popcorn factories as terrorist targets.

The database actually winds up with more "terrorist targets" in Wisconsin and Indiana than in New York, which would explain why anti-terrorist funding has been slashed for us and increased in the mid west.

There are a few problems here. One, the government is more concerned with playing politics than protecting us from a terrorist attack. They'd rather funnel the money to states that like Republicans.

But it's also another example of the utter lack of common sense the administration exhibits at every turn. After Hurricane Katrina when the government was doing nothing they later explained that they had no information through official channels that things were going badly and emergency help was needed, even though it was on the news. When something makes no sense - the news is reporting people starving while reports are coming in saying everything's going fine - Indiana looks like a bigger terrorism target than New York - the sensible thing to do is say, wait, that isn't right. It's as though the government is a weatherman reporting a sunny day, refusing to just turn his head and look out the window at the rain.

There will be a terrorist attack, it won't be in Indiana, and we are all doomed. Have a nice day.

cyclists want to run me down

You never know what's going to piss people off, at least I don't. Otherwise I would have expected all the angry e-mails in response to my comment in my review of MotoGP 06 (along with World Tour Soccer 06) that motorcycles are, to quote myself "insanely dangerous."

I soon learned from outraged readers that riding a motorcyle is no more dangerous than having a pillow fight in a marshmallow factory, even if a 2001 report by the National Highway Safety Administration reports that in 2000 "motorcyclists were about 21 times as likely as passenger car occupants to die in a motor vehicle crash and 4 times as likely to be injured."

Well, po-tay-to, po-tah-to. I think the world would be a safer place without motorcycles, but then, in the words of Three Dog Night, "if I were the king of the world ... I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the wars," so really, I'm ready to take everyone's fun away.

The emails that annoyed me the most were the ones that said something along the lines of, "keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself and just tell me if the game is any good." Those seeking impersonal, dryly written game reviews can find them in myriad game publications that will speak at length about frame rates and bonus extras and supported resolutions and controller options and all sorts of useful, uninteresting stuff.

But that's not what I do. My idea of a great critic was Dorothy Parker, whose best work was a series of theater reviews for The New Yorker. She would go on about herself, talk about her day, go off on tangents, and be very witty and insightful. Was she the most informative, detail-oriented critic at the time? I suspect not. But her reviews are worth reading as prose,even though without access to a time machine I have no way to go back and see the plays she recommends. In fact, who I read is not tethered to who is most useful. Years ago I used to love reading Andrew Sarris's film reviews in tea Village Voice. He wrote intelligently about film, about what it should be, about what it was, about what makes a film great. I also disagreed with almost every opinion he gave on specific films. For game reviews I tend to go to Gamespot, even though I often disagree with their reviewers, because they have better writers than most of the gaming sites. (Although I may have to start paying more attention to Eurogamer after reading this hysterical panning of Gene Troopers.)

What I aspire to is reviews that people would read simply because they are interesting to read. And I believe to do that you have to bring yourself into the article; interesting writing does not come from dry analysis, it comes from finding an interesting take on a subject allows people to understand where you're coming from and how your perceive what you are writing about. I may not always succeed in my goal of entertaining, but if someone's going to complain, I would rather they complain that I wasn't witty than that I didn't discuss frame rate flutters.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

White is coming

In an attempt to win a "most peculiar ad of the year" award, Sonny created the "white is coming" billboard in the Netherlands, advertising the upcoming release of a white PSP. The billboard, which shows a white woman holding a black woman's face in a rather domineering way with the text "Playstation Portable White is coming," was pulled by Sony after generating cries of racism.

In terms of racism, well, if no one were conscious of race then this really wouldn't mean anything to anyone. If the billboard were a woman with white hair holding the face of a woman in black hair, it would just be an odd picture. The question is, is anyone really not conscious of race? Were the people who designed this ad really so color blind that it didn't occur to them that there was societal context that would make this offensive to some people?

But while my initial reaction to the billboard was, that could be seen as racist, my second reaction was, what the fuck are they trying to say in this ad? White is going to kick black's but? I mean, Sony put out a black PSP: are they now saying the white one will be superior and all those people who bought the black one are losers stuck with the inferior gadget?

Yes, the people who designed this ad seem to have not thought through its racial ramifications (unless they did it on purpose to stir up controversy), but really, it appears the designers didn't think through anything about this ad at all.

An internet was sent by my staff ...

The Daily Show showed a clip of Alaskan senator Ted Stevens' explanation of the Internet, so I went searching to see what else he said. Boing Boing has the
best bits, but if you want to read the whole thing it's here. In context it's not quite as horrendous as out of context, but it's still clearly the speech of someone who doesn't know a thing about the internet and is sort of parroting back some information some staffer gave him.

Stevens, a sleazy, right-wing, pork-barrel politician who has never shown a bit of restraint or common sense, is proof that most voters are idiots.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Those latecomers the pilgrims

The Times has an interesting
take on the immigration debate. While the point they're making seems like a stretch from time to time, what caught my interest was that the describe yet another case in which history as taught in school has almost nothing to do with what actually happened. There were apparently lots of Europeans in America by the time the Pilgrims got here, mainly Spanish. And that's what interests me. It's something Robert Wuhl spoke about in a fascinating comedy-lecture he did on HBO called Assume the Position. I can't remember anything from that special, except that in it he shows that a ton of stuff we learned in history classes is just plain wrong. There's a little trivia quiz on the website, and some questions, like was Benedict Arnold hung as a traitor and was George Washington the first president of the U.S., have surprising answers.

It's really kind of freaky how much stuff I've been told in my life is just plain wrong, or incredibly skewed (I recall Wuhl said that Paul Revere's ride was much shorter than another American on the same night, but a poem was written about Revere because he had a catchier name). It leaves me with the knowledge that my brain is probably filled with disinformation. And even worse, all the lies I was told growing up are still being told.

Depressing, isn't it?

Sharper girls besting slacker boys

With long New York Times articles, I usually read the first page or two and give up, but this one is worth reading through, at least if you find discussions of gender differences interesting.

Basically, women have scooted ahead of men in academic studies, not because men are doing worse but because women are doing better. Guys are more likely to slack off, women have their eyes on the prize.

An interesting result of this is that the difference is getting more notice than some feel it deserves. There are larger gaps between races in college than sexes, but apparently the men-women gap is a hot topic.

Of course, the question is how will this play out after college. Will employers snatch up these honor-laden women while guys get the lesser jobs (except in the hard sciences, where men still rule). Or will men still win out simply because that's how it's always been. I'm expecting a change, more girl bosses and CEOs, but only time will tell.

Friday, July 07, 2006

velvet or polyester?

On the first episode of America’s Got Talent, a modern version of the gong show in which the least talented performers are kicked off stage, an act called Blue Velvet came on.  They harmonized in a rather tacky way in an intro but were kicked off before they could actually start their song.

It struck me as mean, but it also struck me as odd.  While they were cheesy, they were on key, and at times the same judges would let some other act go on for a minute or more before stopping them, as was the case with a terrible impressionist.

Anyway, I wondered what Blue Velvet’s song was actually going to be like, so I tried googling for them.  But I couldn’t find them.  I found lots of clips of their gonged performance and a lot of references to the movie and the song, but not to the singing trio.  

This could mean they simply don’t know how to get a site on the internet, but it does increase my suspicions that they were just a set up, perhaps day actors brought in so the judges could cruelly gong someone without giving them a chance.

The cruelty in talent shows does not appeal to me.  It’s interesting to see the people who think they are great and aren’t (some are so delusional in the estimations of their own talent that one does wonder if they also are set-ups, but I have actually known tremendously untalented people who though they were geniuses, so it’s hard to say), and it’s fun to see genuinely talented, original performers.  But I would rather not see people flatly insulted and mocked to their faces.  The mean guy on American Idol (which I don’t watch) has said he is mean because people need to know not to waste their time if they suck, but a lot of people who suck manage to get pleasure out of performing (you don’t have to be very good to get a gig) and some people who can’t sing turn out to be quite appealing (i.e. Bob Dylan).

As for Blue Velvet, well, if they are a real group, I think it was awful the judges didn’t give them a chance, and I also think they really need to learn how to use the internet.  

Saturday, July 01, 2006

My great significance

Recently I made a list of my pick of the most necessary PC software.  One of the things I mentioned was Weather Watcher, a nifty little freeware program that puts the current temperature on your task bar.  I said I far preferred it to WeatherBug, a similar program.

Someone from WeatherBug actually emailed me to argue for their software, claiming their network of weather stations gives them the most reliable and up-to-the-minute forecasts and that their network is used by many important agencies.

Maybe so.  Weather Watcher just pulls the data from, and I have no idea if they’re as accurate or not, nor do I much care.  I recall WeatherBug having a clunky, obtrusive interface and it’s ad-supported if you want it for free, so I’ll stick with Weather Watcher; I still remember how thrilled I was when I discovered it and could get rid of the useful but always rather annoying WeatherBug (to be fair, I haven’t used it for years, so maybe it’s better now).

What interests me is not weather WeatherBug is worthwhile but that a PR person bothered to try and convince me it was.  I told her I only got 5 hits the day I posted my software list, but she still insisted on sending me a little map of WeatherBug’s weather network.

This isn’t the only time someone has been interested in the dubious power of my blog.  A while ago Stardock sent me KeepSafe, real-time backup software, not because I occasionally cover technology for the New York Times but because I have a blog.  It’s a kind of odd program, in that you can’t just back up stuff already on your PC, it only backs up new stuff as it’s created and it backs up stuff everywhere, so when I installed a program it, having been set to back up documents, backed up the readme file.  I much prefer Iomega’s software, once called Quicksync and now called Automatic Backup Pro, which will backup your data to wherever you like as you create it.

All of this makes me wonder, how do I get better stuff from my blog.  If I start reviewing movies here instead of on The Internet Movie Database will studios start sending me movie tickets?  What if I review DVDs?  

Probably wouldn’t get me anything.  I have occasionally tossed in reviews of TV shows, but that hasn’t got me any notice at all.  But hey, any PR people who want to get a little extra space on the blogosphere, I’m here for you.