Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Art of Art Bell

Art Bell died a few days ago.

Most of you probably don't know who he is, but he was...well, influential isn't the right word. He was a notable figure in the formation of my college years. He was the host of a little radio show called Coast to Coast AM, pretty much the only offering available for anyone who is driving around at three in the morning.

Coast to Coast AM is an eclectic program, stretching out for four hours every night, consisting of a mix of call-in shows, extended segments, and news updates. What makes them unique is that they focus almost exclusively on the paranormal and conspiracy theories and futurism and a lot of strange bits. The first part of the program might talk about new solar panel technology, the second part might be about the government tapping our phone lines, the third might be how aliens are building bunkers in the midwest, and the last might have the host ask vampires to call in. It's as strange and as fascinating as it sounds. 

I was never a loyal listener--even in my crazy, crazy days if I was up at 3am in college it was because of Master of Orion II, not the radio. But I've always been fascinated by conspiracy theories of all types. I've been lukewarm on the paranormal until later in my life, but I've come around. And I still have a pretty good excitement level when it comes to new technologies. So I'd tune in to Coast to Coast AM every once in a while to get a hit of what the latest weirdo trends are and be happy.

But this eclectic nature was also its downfall.  A fascinating science story would be following by some obvious hoax that the hosts would egg on, seemingly sympathetic. Tuning in would be a gamble, even if you're open-minded about some things. And this sort of show naturally attracts a lot of extremists, which is fine if we're talking about aliens and spooks but not so much when it's political assassinations.

When I started listening in the late 90s, Art Bell was the host, but was sharing those duties with George Noory (and others). At the time, they were both pretty similar in style, albeit Bell always came across as a bit of a crank and Noory a little too easy-going with objectionable guests. (In the following decade, Noory tacked a very different tone, leaning less on paranormal and more on politics, but it was still a pretty good mix of topics.) While there's always a bit of risk when trucking with conspiracies, as we have seen lately, by and large it's a fascinating look into history and psychology. My Coast to Coast experience was probably more with Noory and Ian Punnett than Bell, but Bell was enough of a force to shape the show itself.

The state of conspiracy science wouldn't be what it is without Art Bell, for better or worse.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Wafer Thin

There's been talk that the NECCO company may be going bankrupt, and that makes me very, very sad.

As longtime readers know I love strange and unusual candy, and while NECCO is pretty mainstream they still have a very off-brand vibe. More importantly, if they do happen to go under, a lot of my favorite candies will go away (or, at least get disrupted.)

First things first--let's get this out of the way. NECCO Wafers are trash. They have no taste and when they do have a taste that taste is chalk. They are no good. I wouldn't even use them as ammunition. I know they are beloved by a lot of people, but whoof.

But the rest of their lineup is pretty good, even if a lot of them are different versions of more successful candy. They make Mary Janes and Candy Buttons and the bits of paper you swallow with Candy Buttons and Canada Mints and, apparently, at some point they acquired Clark Bars, which are great because you enjoy them once and then for the next two hours as you lick them off of the back of your teeth. These are all solid offerings and I wouldn't turn down any of them, even if their flagship product is a garbage dump.

However, the biggest prize is the vaunted Sky Bar. For those who don't know, Sky Bars are basically candy bars that have four different sections, each section a different flavor (caramel, fudge, nut, and marshmallow). While I'm pretty sure they downgraded the chocolate they used a few years ago, it's still a very unique offering that I still consider to be a treat. This would be my go-to candy when I would go to pharmacies when I was a kid, a habit I more or less kept up for the next twenty years or so.

I know how these things go--just like Hostess a few years ago, a lot of noise will be made, eventually someone will buy them out and start laying off people, they rebuild a little bit, probably screw some people over, and by and large we'll still get to buy them in stores. But NECCO is small enough that they may not make it. It also doesn't help that the CEO has apparently started a GoFundMe page--complete with misspelling "Massachusettes"--to save the company. (As of this writing, they've raised about $700 out of $20,000,000.)

So tomorrow, I'm probably stopping somewhere and getting some Sky Bars while I still can.

Monday, April 9, 2018

TV...on the Internet!

On the most recent episode of the podcast We Got This, hosts Mark and Hal spoke with Andy Richter about the greatest invention of the last 100 years.The show rather quickly whittled the list down to television and the internet, which really should be a surprise to no one. [Technically, spoilers ahead for the episode, although quite frankly they pretty much decide in the first five minutes.]

Their argument basically boiled down to two things--television had gatekeepers, while the internet doesn't. Both, of course, have their pros and cons--with people picking and choosing the content, it's hard for a lot of people to get their message out, and it can quickly devolve into a combination of self-reinforcing repetitiveness and nepotism. WIth no filter, however, there's no way to verify if information is true or valid or not.

It got me to thinking about the future of media, and how it is almost certain that television and the internet will eventually merge into something akin to a tiered system. We already see this, to a certain extent--streaming services have profilerated, and while it's certain that the market will have only a few victors in the end, it's almost certain to be the standard for quite some time. (I suppose there's a non-trivial chance that we will move to a per-show model, much like iTunes has as an option, but I find that unlikely--bundles, even smaller ones like the current offerings, seem to balance content and price.)

But I see a future where there's two systems, at least as content media is concerned--the "free" internet, and the cream of the crop bubbles up and is snagged by the established networks/distributors. We still have the gatekeepers, but we also still have the freedom of the internet. In a way, we see this in the book publishing business--self-publishing is easier and cheaper as it has ever been, but this has produced a lot of garbage. A lot. So we still need publishing houses to curate the things that people want to see, while the option still exists if you want to drag through the wild west of offerings. (An added benefit of the "regular" internet is that there's a dedicated army of people who enjoy niche subjects already doing this. You want a sci-fi furry mystery? If it's good, it will eventually be found.)

I am sure there are drawbacks to all this, probably related to news (which probably shouldn't count as 'content media' anyway, but I also think they are forever linked). But that is a deeper, more complex problem I'm not equipped to handle. Doesn't mean I don't have an opinion on it, of course.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How To Make An Extremely Mediocre Horror Movie

A few weeks ago, we saw Winchester, the horror film starting Helen Mirren about the Winchester Mystery House.

For those who are not familiar, the Winchester Mystery House is a real-life weird thing. The widow (and majority owner) of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah Winchester, had an infant daughter die, and  upon consulting with a medium, was told that in order to appease the spirits of those how have died by the arms her husband (and now her) sold, she had to continually build. As in perform constant, 24-hour-a-day construction on the house she owned. As such, she moved out West to California, where for the next few decades the mansion was under constant construction, remodeling, and experimentation. The result is a fascinating building, where doors lead nowhere, stairs spiral needlessly around, and rooms make little architectural sense.

(For the record, while the reason why this happened is probably apocryphal, the construction actually did happen. The theories are pretty much either the spiritualist one listed above, or that she just had money to burn being an armchair architect. Obviously the estate plays up the former, since spooks who are in league with the local construction worker's guild is a better story.)

For the movie, instead of telling the incredibly fascinating real-life story, they chose instead to go with a rather mundane straight retelling of the story involving ghosts.

They did take the above foundation as the starting point. They did, also, come up with a reasonably interesting take on it--the constant rebuilding was that, in order to appease the ghosts, they had to recreate the room in the room of their death, and then sealed. They did also build on the real-time obsessions of Sarah Winchester, such as the number 13.They even come up with a framing device--a doctor who visits to evaluate her mental state on behalf of the Winchester board of directors--that sounds like it could go in interesting directions.(My wife and I toured the place when we went out to California last year.)

Sadly, the movie makes none of this interesting.

First off, it relies on cheap jump scares. Jump scares can be effective, even if they aren't very creative, but in this case they just seem out of place. The first few times it happens--when the doctor is looking in a mirror--it's in a scene with no tension, no buildup, and no creepiness. It just sort of happens with no reason.

The character of Sarah Winchester is clinical. Helen Mirren does the best she can with the material, but it goes nowhere. We don't feel sympathy for her. We're not sure if she's supposed to be cold and calculating, or have a hidden agenda, or worthy of emotional investment. Instead, she disjointedly comes across as simultaneously abrasive and then thoughtful. When the doctor first interviews her as part of his examination, the exchange is combative--but it turns out there's no particular reason for this to be the case, because they are ultimately on the same side, and, it's quickly revealed, she invited him to be there because of his background. And when the shit starts to hit the fan, she gets into action right away--and presumably with no help that required the doctor to travel halfway across the country to pull off.

Add to this the weird relationship with the relatives living in the house--are we supposed to hate them? Root for them? We don't know, because the information presented doesn't connect.

And when the "big bad" finally shows up--so what? The previous times he had been shown, it's without importance or interest. He's a secondary character of no consequence, so when the reveal happens there's no emotional resonance. And when we have what is presumably the film's climax with regard to the doctor--again, the information we've been given so far is far too inadequate to car about its resolution.

This was an extremely frustrating movie to watch, because all of the elements were there. It had the needed characters. It took good stuff from the real-life story and filled in the rest with perfectly reasonable fiction. The actors involved were top-notch. But the whole thing just doesn't work.  Every single scene and line of dialogue in the movie feels like it was written independently of each other, and then someone ordered them all together, and then someone was brought in to paste the whole things together with jump scares and poor lighting.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Woodrow Wilson Would Like A Word

There's a little known episode of history that we should learn about today.

In late 1919 Woodrow Wilson, on an extensive tour to promote the Treaty of Versailles, collapsed in what eventually amounted to a stroke. Incapacitated, his wife, Edith, took over the day-to-day responsibilities of the job, delegating what she could to cabinet members and insulating him from everyone else.

However, late in his term, Wilson gathered enough energy to make one proclamation:

"There is no greater urgency in this world than to carry out that which our founding fathers intended: that everyone eat peanut butter pie on President's Day."

After which he collapsed, never to speak again.

That's right--it's President's Day soon, which means there is more than adequate time to purchase ingredients and bake a peanut butter pie for the occasion. There is nothing more important you can do for your country.

"I may have refused to delegate my authority to someone with a better capacity to uphold the duties of the office, a decision which may have forced the flawed application of a treaty that eventually led to World War II, but damned if this peanut butter pie isn't delicious. #WorthIt."

Sunday, February 4, 2018


I like football. No, I really do.

But I haven't watch a game in years.

Well, that's not true. I haven't watched a non-Superbowl game for about three years or so. And this year I'm not even going to watch that.

Part of it is just...fatigue. The NFL has made some boneheaded decisions in the last few years. Usually I take such things in stride--a lot of people do a lot of things I disagree with, and I still consume their media. The world is such a culturally intertwined place that it's impossible to avoid most things. You can take a stand about the NFL's handling of domestic abuse or concussions or the anthem by not watching the games, but at the end of the day you're almost certainly giving even more money to gas station owners, waitresses, and accountants that if you knew their opinions it would probably shock you. But at some point I just shrugged and thought, "I'll pass."

I'm sure I'll get back into it again, but I just haven't had the inclination for a while to see a game. And because I haven't followed the NFL for a few years, I am out of the loop on so many things it will be hard to catch back up.

All this is to say I won't be watching the Superbowl this year. Not only am I not really interested in the teams, but I also no longer have the ability to do so--we cut the cord, as it were, when we moved. The only thing we really lost was live TV and live sports, and while I do miss hockey it just wasn't nearly worth it to pay a monthly charge just for that.

I'm sure I will catch the scores once in a while, but for now, it looks like it will just be slightly cheaper pizza for a day for me. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhog This

Punxsutawney Phil is finally having his day! But he's so suck of just predicting the weather--they have professionals for that, now. So here's Phil's better predictions for all of 2018.
  • Nicholas Cage will run for President.
  • Kids will move from eating Tide Pods to eating bobby pins and dacron.
  • Elon Musk finally rips his mask off to reveal that he is actually one of the aliens from V.
  • Y'all remember V, right?
  • The Oscars ceremony will be a brilliantly awkward six-hour marathon of shifted eyes and apologetic mumbling, as host Jimmy Kimmel tries to balance making The-Best-Picture-Announcement-Was-Wrong jokes with vague, empty platitudes about how everyone in the room is a sex criminal but we're all just going to pretend it doesn't matter.
  • Kim Jong Un will do something stupid during the Olympics, probably involving either a ballistic missile test or the luge.
  • Not a prediction, but I would pay good American cash to see Kim Jong Un strap on a helmet and take a luge down a big slope just for the hell of it.
  • One of the commercials in the Super Bowl will be a wildly insensitive "build a wall" joke.
  • It's possible, just possible, that the FIFA World Cup in Russia will end up being corrupt.
  • Someone in the royal family is going to make an embarrassingly racist remark at Prince Harry's wedding without realizing it.
  • Alexa finally gets sick of everyone's shit and starts passive-aggressively not allowing you to order any more Ed Sheeran CDs.
  • The Democrats, running in the perfect atmosphere for a wave of House and Senate races across the nation, will find a way to jack it up and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, just like they have in pretty much every single election since WWII.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Last Jedi

I finally got around to seeing The Last Jedi a week or so ago.

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing major.]

I came in to the movie very guarded. I had heard that a lot of people didn't like it. I heard from a lot of long-time Star Wars fans that they didn't like it. Their complains were varied and many--it tried to be too much like Guardians of the Galaxy with its humor injected at weird times. They dumped all over Leia's legacy. The casino scene was too long. There was a forced romance. And so on.

My verdict? You nerds have to grow up.

The movie was pretty good. I wouldn't rank it as my favorite, but I'd easily watch it again. (Also, I haven't seen the prequels yet, but I suspect that doesn't mean much.) I believe the new movie trilogy has done a really good job of creating interesting characters that we care about while still giving the old guard interesting things to talk and do without simply blasting the screen with nostalgia.

I'm not sure where the angry nerds got angry. The so-called misplaced humor really wasn't that bad--in fact I'd be hard pressed to find all that much humor in the movie to begin with. Leia pulling out a last-minute Force saving throw? That's not all that much different than the ass-pulling they've done in literally all of the previous movies. The only thing I can think of is that this movie isn't the exact same thing as what they saw when they were thirteen years old, and since one of the biggest criticisms of The Force Awakens is that it was too much like A New Hope, I feel like the nerds just want to be angry.

The only thing that I didn't care for was that one of the plot lines--an attempt at sabotage--didn't work as intended, even a little bit, and so a huge chunk of the movie just seemed like a waste of time. Of course, you don't know it at the time, but after it was all said and done it was a little weird. It seems like even with negative consequences it would have been worth it to make something come out of the whole deal.

Anyway, go see it if you're a Star Wars fan, even if you're just a casual fan. It's a perfectly fine movie.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Border Control

In case you haven't read it yet, has a huge gerrymandering project up on their page, which has a lot of...interesting results. The map is linked above, but there's a lot of interesting things there.

(If case you've forgotten your eighth grade civics class, gerrymandering is the act of drawing Congressional district lines to benefit one party or the other. Since House districts are geography-based, they have to be manually set up every ten years after the census.)

They basically ran the math and came up with a bunch of different scenarios--the current state, emphasizing competitive districts, using computer algorithms, and so on. They also released a series of podcast episodes in conjunction with the project, which looked at blatant partisanship (Wisconsin), a creative "communities of interest" method (California); an impartial panel (Arizona); and dealing with minority-majority districts (North Carolina). If you are interested in that sort of thing, it's worth a listen.

Gerrymandering reform is always on the radar for a lot of reformers and activists, but this entire project seems to give mixed results--in fact, it's probably disappointing to a lot of people. It turns out there's two major factors, here:

  • Drawing districts is hard. No matter what, you can't draw it perfectly.
  • It probably also doesn't make that much of a difference.
For about two decades, reformers have blamed Republicans for gerrymandering their way to the House of Representatives. However, if you look at the maps, it turns out that the difference is minimal. The current state has an expected Republican seat count of 234. If we draw the districts with a computer algorithm--removing all biases--it's 232. In fact, nearly all of the cases they build have a difference of only about 10 seats total--and since there's 40-70 competitive seats in between, it just straight up doesn't make a difference.

It's also important to note that a lot of these scenarios ignore the Supreme Court's ruling for majority-minority districts--districts that must be drawn to make sure there is minority representation, which often has the practical effect of lumping Democratic voters together and pulling them from other theoretical districts, meaning that the GOP has an advantage in those suburbs. Or maybe; the effect of this is also pretty minimal, but it does exist and it does hamstring people who are trying to make effective borders.

Now, the data does show that there's a case for making more competitive seats. There are a few models that spike the GOP seats up by a lot, but it also spikes the Democratic seats as well--all the gains are at the expense of competitive seats. But even this isn't the fault of gerrymandering--the American population is already "self-sorting" enough that gerrymandering isn't necessary. Seats have become more partisan and 'safe' not because of redistricting, but because the people have started to think like their neighbors.

This has always been suspected by people who (like myself) were always skeptical of reform. A few papers had been done in the past estimating that the difference was 2 seats or less. Since there are several different goals, I won't say this confirms it, but it's pretty close.

What's the solution? Well, first we have to decide whether we need a solution. There's a case--not a strong one, but one nonetheless--that competitive seats aren't necessarily the best thing. What is better for democracy--a district where 50% of the people consistently don't like who is representing them, or a district that gets 90% of the vote for one party, meaning that nearly everyone in the district likes their representative? I'm not sold on that sentiment, but I'm not against it, either. Like most things in politics, it's probably somewhere in the middle.

An interesting solution I came up with is that all states have at-large representatives. Everyone still only gets to vote for one candidate, but you have as many candidates to choose from as slots in your state (times two, plus any third party). Then on election day the top Representatives win. Let's take the example of Virginia, which has 11 representatives. Probably around 25 people would run--11 from each major party and a few third parties. On election day, each voter votes for one, and the top 11 vote-getters win election. No districts (besides the state), no votes are "wasted" due to artificial districts, and you can feel represented even if you voted for someone across the state.

There are drawbacks. First is information--that's a lot of candidates to get to know. Chances are, then, we'd still see some form of localization. If you live in Fairfax, you're probably going to vote for someone around your area--but now no one has to worry if they live specifically on the right street or not. Parties would have to make concentrated efforts to make sure that votes don't get split--if all the minorities in a city split their vote too many ways, they may see no one elected at all. And finally the localization would be gone--there's no guarantee that 11 Representatives would come out of Northern Virginia and zero from south Virginia, something that is guaranteed now. That may not sit well with people. It's not likely, but with 50 states and an election every two years, it's a statistical likelihood that would eventually happen.There may also be a danger of strategic nominations--if the Republicans only nominate, say, 8 candidates, they are almost certain to win those 8 (since the Democrats will split their votes 11 ways). They won't sweep the state, but they can guarantee a majority--right up until the Democrats do the same.

And therein lies the problem. No matter what solution we present, it is at the expense of something else. If we want more competitive districts, the lines can get pretty wild and will split cities in two (or more). If we want minority representation, we have to accept that that means less minority representation elsewhere. If we want people to be represented by their interests, that may mean feeding into incumbency. And so on.

Turns out, this stuff is hard. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Questions Within Questions

Mental Floss--one of my favorite places on the internet to get awesome trivia--recently released a map called The Most Common "Why Do" Questions People Are Asking In Your State, According to Google

Now, maps like that can be a little problematic--it's pretty easy to goose the numbers to make them say whatever you want them to say. Still, it's fun, and you should take a look at the map before you continue, but I certainly do have some questions about their questions:

1. Wyoming, why do you not have any game?
2. Indiana and Colorado, I think maybe you need to read some Beverly Cleary books, or at least get yourself to CVS.
3. South Carolina, it's because you live in South Carolina.
4. Utah, it's because you like in Utah.
5. Texas, please wear your protective headphones when firing your gun every morning
6. Virginia is for lovers, after all.
7. Hey, Michigan--maybe it's the water.
8. Stop it, Hawaii, you've never seen a rooster in your life.
9. Y'all care waaay to much about cats. You know why cats do what they do? Because they are cats and don't give a shit.
10. Florida, who hurt you?