Friday, November 30, 2012

A Short And Incomplete List Of Things I Will Never Understand


People's hate of reality TV. I mean, I get it, it's trash, but so is 90% of music, movies, restaurants, books, stand-up comedians, charities, job descriptions, your friends, and the government. Why get all bent out of shape about a single TV genre?

The fashion industry and how it's about one step above Gitmo in terms of pretty much everything.

Skateboarding. That seems like just the sort of thing that disappears from your life when you turn 10. It's like one step above sippy cups and one below getting an actual car.

Pirating advocates. (As in music/movies/media/etc.) I understand why they exist, but I've heard so many ridiculous justifications from shitty armchair lawyers as to why it's not stealing when it's completely apparent that it is the exact definition of stealing I almost have to laugh.

Live concerts. At least of the get-so-drunk-before-the-concert-you-remember-nothing variety.

Why people pay so much for an iPad/tablet when you can get a much more powerful and versatile laptop much cheaper even if it is a little less convenient.

Likewise, how on earth teenagers are allowed to have $500 phones for any reason. /oldmanrant

How radio stations make any money.

How restaurants don't make any money. You and I both know they spend, like, pennies for a crate of sub-grade meat for soup stock and scrambles they change five bucks for.

Electronica and/or techno music. I mean, I get it--different tastes and all that--but it just seems to me like "I enjoy listening to an endless loop of the theme song of the clueless tech segment of NPR programming."

Math Trades.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Next Big Sitcom

Remember back in the day, when most sitcoms had some sort of theme? Today, all sitcoms are pretty much the standard family setup (yawn) workplace comedy (snore), or possibly random groups of friends (boooring), yet back in the day we managed to mine astronauts plagued by paranormal activity, vaguely corrupt Indian reservations, and even freakin' Nazi prison camps for solid laughs. Where did those days go?

So as a public service, I'm going to propose several "alternate" settings for sitcoms. You can cram as much quirk as you want to make it hip--get Kat Dennings on the phone, shove Katy Perry in a historical costume, heck, drag Dick van Dyke and a healthy dose of irony out of retirement--and you can plug them in however you want and spin that stale television straw into comedy gold.

The Big House
(Alternate Title: Prisoner's Dilemma)

A cell block of quirky inmates live out their 112-episode-or-so sentences in a desperate attempt to make life manageable. Watch as hardened felons become friends and band together when times get tough--from the hardass new warden to the day they switched to generic orange juice. You'll laugh so hard, it will be criminal!

Stock Characters: The Crafty Deal-Maker, the Humble Philosopher, the Wise-Cracking Cook Staff
For Your Consideration: Heart-wrenching visits from six year old sons once a year.
Potential Problem: The mess hall is gonna have a lot of sausage on the menu, if you know what I mean.

Moonbase Alpha
(Alternate Title: Space For Rent)

Six astronauts are charged with living on a moonbase for years, not only battling a hostile environment bent on killing them, but with bureaucratic red tape from Earth and each other's annoying peccadillos. Bonus points if it's set in the 1980's and involves Stephen Root being the contact from Earth they speak with over the intercom.

Stock Characters: The Know-It-All Captain That Keeps Screwing Things Up, The Foreign Exchange Russian, the Woman With Awkward Hygienic Needs
For Your Consideration: 99 Luftballoons, baby!
Potential Problems: Production values, since everyone will be floating.

Step Right Up
(Alternate Title: The Big Top)

This ensemble comedy will showcase a broad range of characters as well as the gloomily hilarious side of the circus business. Follow fire-eaters, weightlifters, and carnies as they entertain the locals while snarking at each other. For extra credit, performances can be either done straight (and awesome) or comedy fodder for what is generally a collection of travelling failure.

Stock Characters: The Draconian Cost-Cutting Manager, the Flamboyant Ringmaster, the Unintelligibly Foreign Lion Tamer
For Your Consideration: Clown makeup doesn't run when it comes in contact with tears.
Potential Problem: Elephants Local 203

The Black Flag
(Alternate Title: Walk The Plank)

Yarrr! It's time to take to the high seas with this motley cast of renegades and buccaneers. Being aboard a ship in close quarters is ripe for comedy, plus it allows for occasional visits to local tribes for much-needed foils for the characters (also: opportunities for guest stars! Beyonce as a Caribbean goddess, anyone?)

Stock Characters: The Salty Sea Captain, the Naive Cabin Boy, the Barely Closeted First Mate, the Wise and Understanding Cook
For Your Consideration: A once-a-season visit to the local native tribe should remind us that, eyepatch or no, we're all human.
Potential Problems: Anyone remember Waterworld? No, seriously?

Hat Trick
(Alternate Title: Past the Post)

How aboot a game of hockey, eh? A rather sad-looking lot of minor-minor-league hockey players in the wilds of Canada--or, possibly, a burned-out logging town in northern America--play games in empty arenas while always under the threat of getting shuttled to the minor-minor-minor-league in an even worse burned-out logging town. Add some exciting hockey play once in a while along with a barrage of one-liners and it's every hockey fan's delight.

Stock Characters: The Hotshot Center Who Isn't Nearly As Good As He Thinks, The Alcoholic Coach, The Language-Garbling Import, The Wealthy Goofball Owner, The Barely Intelligible Goalie
For Your Consideration: That nail-biter of a game they lose on purpose because of 1) the rival star's kid's leukemia 2) the best player on the team runs away to find his true love 3) keeping the aging pro who used to play for the team's record intact.
Potential Problems: A few too many accents and Canada references for American audiences.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Get Rich Quick

Yesterday was the much-hyped Powerball drawing, where the jackpot swelled to over half a billion dollars. (Assuming an annuity and that you pay zero taxes, of course.) Plenty of moral guardians (calling the lottery, quite sourly (and, sadly, accurately), a tax on the poor) and humorless economists (the chance of winning is nowhere near the cost of buying the ticket) miss the point, of course; plenty of people (myself included, I should add) are more than willing to pay two dollars to dream about being a millionaire, even for just a day.

Yeah, that's sort of corny. But it's the best kind of rich--you don't have to work for it, you just get it for the simple virtue of being lucky. And that does have some sort of reality-TV level sort of satisfaction to it. Of course, there are plenty of downsides as well; even though everyone assumes that problems go away once you have money, you more or less just trade them for a different set of problems. (Watch any of those sad television shows devoted to past winners and you'll see it's much more than just having "rich person problems.") That is; alas, the downside of not earning money--since you didn't work for it, no one thinks you are entitled to it. And most likely none of us poor folk could properly handle it without help. I would end up spending it all on vintage Pokemon posters and platinum bars to keep it "safe" from internet scammers and the gummit.

There is, of course, not much true in the get rich quick world. Aside from pyramid schemes and shady fly-by-night scams, you're not going to get the payoff without some sort of risk, and most people are pretty poor judges of assessing risk. It doesn't help when there are forces actively working against you to keep you from succeeding (I'm thinking about competition--which if it is a threat it by definition is already successful--but in my more paranoid times the government can easily apply as well) and there's very little incentive to take risks without losing everything. That's why working to get rich is not nearly as popular as simply gambling it away or settling for less; when the world seems stacked against you, there isn't much incentive to take a chance.

So aside from the normal dollar-signs-in-the-eyes halo of the lottery jackpot, people love it because it seems to have no downside (everyone has a couple of bucks to waste, so if you lose no big deal) with all upside (if you win, yay!). So let the sourpusses whine about how much people play the lottery; we all know that we simply buying tickets to be a potential millionaire.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Things That The Internet Gets Wrong About News

I heart the internet, much like our forefathers likes the steam engine and anti-ballistic missiles. But that's not saying that the internet doesn't make mistakes. Sometimes they are horrible mistakes and sometimes they are simply differences of style. Still, I think the internet needs to take a long, hard look at itself and get its act together. This is particularly noticeable in the realm of news, of which the internet is (thankfully) becoming a significantly more important source. A few of the major points:

1. Stop sticking ads in the middle of news stories
I'm not talking about standard ads--like a dancing cactus trying to sell me car insurance or a flashing orc persuading me to give World of Warcraft a try. I'm talking about actual links that are in the format of a regular sentence (with the appropriate link) so it looks like it's part of the story. I have come across too many news items that do this:

According to the State Department, Al Qaeda and North Korea have joined forces and have purchase massive quantities of sarin gas and dirty bombs and storing them in Kashmir and the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Pakistan and Cuba have both installed generals that have been clkinically declared insane and placed in charge of their respective nuclear programs.

What is the hot new purse Kim Kardashian wore to the AMAs?

Officials state that the chance of survival of the human race five years from now is practically zero.
This needs to stop.

2. Not every news story needs to be a video
I get it that it's awesome that we have this wonderful resource that allows us to do massive amounts of multimedia. It seems a shame to have it be a waste. Yet I can't imagine how many times I wanted to read a story, click on the link, just to see that it's actually a news report I have to watch. To paraphrase Socrates, I don't have time for that shit. I read news on the internet because live reporting is generally very poor, with more emphasis on inflection and cadence than content. Now, that's not always the case and sometimes the visual medium is better, but as a general rule if a story can convey the information in a news story, use words. You can use a video, too, but make it optional.

Add to this that many people can't really watch those on work computers or on their phones and it's just infuriating.

3. When I search for something, don't pretend that there's news about it when there isn't.

Not all search engines do this, but many do. I will type in something obscure, like "How many Mormon butchers are registered voters in Florida?" and the search results will lead off which "NEWS about Mormon butchers who are registered voters in Florida" and for a brief moment I will flip my shit that I might be able to get exactly the information I want right up until the point where I realize that that is false. Turns out that it will give information about Mormons and butchers and registered voters and Florida, but not all in the same article. WHY are you such an info tease, Yahoo!?

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Case Against The Elf On The Shelf

There are a lot of sickening traditions that the world has created and propagated--including but not limited to Honey Boo Boo, Aztec sacrifice, and the Byzantine ridiculousness Western democracies call tipping--but none are nearly as insidiously ingratiating than the Elf on the Shelf.

For those that don't know, the Elf on the Shelf franchise--for now that there is an actual animated movie it can be properly called a "franchise"--centers on the eponymous Elf. The elf, once purchased, is placed somewhere in the house, where he keeps an eye on the children; once they go to bed, the elf magics his way back to the North Pole to submit a report.

Actually, the elf is not so eponymous--an elf's "magic" is created when you name him. Now, if I were an elf and I was (inevitably) named Snutterkins or Honeyfluff the only magic I would be interested in would involve getting drunk and sneaking back before daybreak. You can't run a successful surveillance operation with any sort of seriousness when you are named by a five year old who eats crayon shavings for breakfast.

The fun-and-games part of it is the fact that parents are supposed to hide the elf each night, and the kids are supposed to find it--but whatever you do, don't touch it, because then the elf will lose his magic and not be able to report back to Santa.

Don't ask me why The Elf on the Shelf bothers me so much. Perhaps it's the blatant outsourcing of parental responsibility to a fake mythical creature. Maybe it's the glossing over of a century's worth of Santa Claus-related tradition. Maybe it's the Big-Brother-esque nature of the concept. And maybe it's the fact that in this shitty economy parents are more than willing to shell out thirty American dollars for what amounts to a dime-store children's book and some Malaysian-assembled felt.

(There is also a certain amount of irrational hatred of the fact that the book has, in large, imposing letters on its cover, "A Christmas Tradition," as if that's part of the marketing gimmick to get guilty parents to buy it. Anything that has to specifically be labeled as a "Tradition" probably isn't.)

And so it's marketed as a simple way to keep the kids in check. But here's the problem--there are a lot of logical fallacies in the elf's backstory. For instance, if the elf is hiding, how is he keeping surveillance on the kids? That seems to be a manifestly inefficient way of keeping tabs on the rugrats. Second, if the elf has the supposed magical ability to go to the North Pole and back in a night, why can't they all just "magic" it all from the North Pole, as Santa presumably has done for about a century and a half? And, finally, there is a fatal flaw in the elf mythos: if touching the elf means that he can't report back to Santa, why wouldn't a kid be bad, then touch the elf so he can't tell Santa? I mean now that the elf has been established as the conduit for Santa's information, the weak link is simply to touch the elf and Santa is none the wiser. Then a child can be bad and get presents.*

The thing that makes me the grumpiest, I think, is why this was necessary in the first place. I mean, c'mon: to believe that the original story about a fat man with a red velvet fetish and a dearth of razor blades delivering a world's worth of toys to good children and shafting the bad ones with market-price coal was completely unbelievable, but once an inanimate flap of cotton gets throw in the mix it all makes sense now. There was this burning, gaping hole in the story of Santa Claus that needed to be filled by Bumperfart the Elf. And thirty dollars, American.

*To be fair, it's possible that if Santa does not hear back from an elf at all that he will send a Rambo-esque rescue mission after him, but I doubt Saint Nick has time for that. That sounds more like an Easter bunny thing to me anyway.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Paths Not Taken

Much discussion has been made after this election about the future of the Republican Party. This is the sort of postmortem that occurs after most lost elections, of course, and sometimes it involves some introspective naval-gazing and sometimes it involves an uncoordinated bloodbath of no consequence. A generation ago, the Democratic Party has suffered a grand total of one Presidential win in 24 years--and that was the hapless Jimmy Carter. It took that long for the party as a whole to basically get their shit together to elect Bill Clinton, who was a far cry from the liberal base that Lyndon Johnson has cemented so many decades before.

It's not quite that bad yet for the Republican Party, but I think it's important to look at the future of both parties. While some of this might not make a difference in 2016, nor is anything set in stone, there are real differences (and a further string of evidence that there will never be any sort of "permanent" majority by either party).

For the Republicans:
  • This isn't news, but the Republicans will have to make major inroads into the Hispanic demographic. This is certainly going to be tricky, since Hispanics aren't simply one-issue (i.e., immigration) voters; they tend to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal. There is a danger in embracing populism too much (lest they lose support from other constituencies), so parsing this issue might require blatant pasting of support (nominate and run more Hispanics while tacking to a more pro-immigration stance) while the more nuanced aspects of the demographic are sorted out.
  • As a corollary, it's important to remember that the larger a group is, the more diffuse it becomes. For Hispanics, it may mean that they fracture into two or even three camps: the small business owners, veterans, and Catholics might become Republican, while the younger and more labor-oriented Hispanics might remain Democratic. We already see this happening, but as time goes on it, like so many other demographics, won't act as a base for either party. (This, of course, works both ways.)
  • The litmus test for social issues in general needs to be removed. High-profile platform floor fights that were witnessed this year at the convention are ultimately damaging from a PR perspective. It used to be that platforms were meaningless safety valves to let hard-right or -left delegates vent out their frustrations; platforms don't mean anything and aren't binding, and for decades were never given a second thought. (For example, there were planks on the 2012 GOP platform that Romney did not agree with, but you wouldn't know that from the coverage.) In today's media landscape, however, the platform is front and center, and will now have to be treated as such--and a case can be made that, since it has no practical effect, it may be worth discarding altogether. Republicans can easily frame social issues differently.
  • What about the Tea Party? In some ways, the Tea Party is a scapegoat; it's not like these were people who previously had stayed home on election day. It's just a better-organized collection of a faction within the Republican Party. (Just for the record, there's equivalent factions in the Democratic Party as well.) Most likely they will remain a force, but not anything close to what they were before.
For the Democrats:
  • The temptation is going to be to keep things going the way they have--two solid electoral victories where key swing states became even more blue is probably a good recipe to keep doing. Still, there is a danger in becoming more complacent; after all, the Republicans managed to flip it in 2000 after a solid two elections under Bill Clinton. If the Republicans crack one big demographic--say, Hispanics or single women--the entire formula falls apart. The fact that Congress is as divided as ever means that there isn't a solid majority for either side.
  • Aside from demographics, there are some unique fissures in the Democratic party, almost all under the flash point of labor unions. There are already deep ideological differences between Hispanics and unions (open immigration--i.e., more low-skill and low-wage workers--cause pressure to keep wages down), and the fight between environmentalists and unions is just going to get worse (energy workers in particular will most likely face hard times if Obama's presented policies take effect). 
  • The biggest throwdown is going to be for public sector unions: their pensions, after decades of generous contracts and lackluster oversight, are going to explode rather shortly, and the money just isn't going to be there. This is going to force most workers to dramatically increase their contributions or take pension cuts, neither of which will be a happy time for either side. (And there isn't really any other sort of recourse--the promises made had zero chance of being feasible.) Of course, the Democratic Party has counted on this constituency and holds pretty much all the places of power to deal with the public sector, so when the shit hits the fan there is literally only Party to place blame. Unions and environmentalists aren't going to be voting Republican anytime soon, but this is the exact sort of thing that causes them to stay home. 
So what will happen in the next few elections? While Democrats have certainly made gains in both the South and the West, the Republicans have been surprisingly successful the past two years in New England. Despite the huge wins for Obama in 2012, states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are still very close, where only a shift in 2 or 3 percent will flip it. About the only state that is no longer a swing state after the past three elections is New Mexico, which Obama won handily by 10 points (although this was surely skewed by the presence of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate who was a former governor of that state).

What should each side do? The Democrat's job is simpler (although not necessarily easier): hold on to those demographics they have managed to win the last two times: single women, Hispanics, and suburbanites. The Republicans is more complicated, since it will involve balancing different constituencies. The most lucrative tack is probably to dial back on many social issues so they don't scare away those demographics they used to win handily, but also should start poaching in New England and western states; both of these areas seem to prefer fiscally conservative and socially moderate Republicans, and making them more plentiful will let them win seats in sympathetic states like New Hampshire, Maine, Colorado, and even (maybe) places like Oregon and Connecticut. The map won't change much, but it will certainly change as elections continue. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pixel Best

Time magazine recently ran an article detailing the best 100 video games of all time.

Lists done by magazines are almost always done to create controversy, while readers debate what should and should not have been added to the list, and discussing the merits of each. Thankfully, this list is not ranked; ranked lists often add an extra layer of artificial controversy while people debate about whether something should be #56 or #57 on a list of 100.

Still, this list is reasonably (and surprisingly) solid, although I would think they should rename it "most influential"--most of the early games (like Pong) aren't even close to being the "best games ever."  I really would only change some of the similar games (for example, I would place Maniac Mansion instead of Grim Fandango, even though they are both excellent games). And I don't quite get how the sequels are incorporated into the game; in some write-ups the game represents the entire franchise (King's Quest is a proxy for all King's Quest games) while others are about a specifically sequel (say, Half-Life 2).

There's also the problem of platform abuse: it's hard to compare, say, Civilization on the PC, Goldeneye 007 on a console, and Angry Birds on your iPhone. Yeah, they're all games, but the creations are almost too different to compare properly. Also I'm not sure that Solitaire really counts.

Things sort of fall apart towards the end, as the multitude of platforms fracture the list beyond comprehension. I've never even heard of a lot of these games even though I'm fairly well-versed in popular video game releases. And there are some glaring omissions, such as Fallout 3. And there doesn't appear to be more than one real-time strategy game in the mix--a genre that dominated PC gaming (think Command and Conquer and Age of Empiresfor about three years--which is laughable. (The comments also seem to be lamenting the fact that Minecraft isn't listed, but I don't know enough about the game to say much.)  (Also: no Pokemon? Really?) Still, it's an interesting read, especially for younger gamers who aren't familiar with the arcade and computer games of the 70's and 80's.

Friday, November 23, 2012

And They're Off!

It's not entirely unusual to start jockeying for the White House only days after the election, and this time was no exception. Of course, four years is a long time, and the names that were batted around in 2008 and 2004 and 2000 ended up not meaning a whole lot, so don't take too much stock in what's being talked about now. Still, why not do some baseless speculation?

For the Republicans, they benefit from having a huge pool of politicians. The winners in 2010 and even 2008 have now gained enough experience and political capital to be contenders, and the disaster of the Romney campaign has flushed a lot of the old guard out. Still, the names that keep resurfacing for the GOP--namely, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindall, and Chris Christie--bode well for those looking for change in the GOP. Christie and Jindall predate the Tea Party movement, and while Rubio has certainly benefited from their support he never properly signed on to the movement. While they all hold traditional Republican positions, there's enough diversity in their political pedigree (Christie is a moderate, while Jindall has had years of hands-on management of a disaster-ridden state) to be actively different. Rubio is still early in his senate career, so there's plenty of opportunity for growth (and disaster, of course), but the demographics (Florida + Hispanic) suit him perfectly.

I'll throw my own names in there, namely Nikki Haley and Kelly Ayotte. Haley is the Governor of South Carolina, and a decent if unremarkable choice. She still has some proving to do during her tenure, which has been quiet and lackluster so far. Ayotte, a current Senator from New Hampshire, is a solid, moderate Republican but has little name recognition. Aside from that, very few of the candidates--potential or otherwise--from the last election will appeal to many next election cycle, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, or John Thune. All are solid, uncontroversial conservatives (and, in Huntsman's case, appealingly moderate). Anyone else that will probably run, such as Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, or Paul Ryan, will probably be successful; if none of the new upstarts are unable to get a quick foothold these stalwarts will be an early favorite.

The wild card for the Republicans is going to be Rand Paul. He clearly has presidential aspirations, and he's a clear beneficiary of the Tea Party. And yet he doesn't quite fit the conservative template. His position on gay marriage is the same as Obama's (he wants to let the states decide) and he routinely is the voice of opposition for defense spending and the drug war, both cause celebres of conservatives. He also holds many positions much more libertarian than conservative. However, many of his other positions--which he would call "nuanced" but everyone else calls "controversial"--probably will mean he has no political future. (For example, his position on private property trumping the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sounds reasonable in an academic sense, but it will take a rival politician seconds to simply call him--with some political justification--a racist.)

The Democrats are a little less interesting; most likely Biden will run (and probably win); if he chooses not to, for whatever reason, Hillary Clinton will instead. (It's always possible, of course, that Hillary runs regardless.)  Both are moderate Democrats, but both are probably too old to run in 2020 so there may be some keen competition between the two. There is a pretty good chance that a young upstart will also run--even if they lose, they'll force the party more to the left and will easily make a name for themselves. That person probably hasn't seen their political fortunes rise just yet, although Julian Castro (mayor of San Antonio), Cory Booker (mayor of Newark), and Elizabeth Warren (Senator-elect of Massachusetts) are good potential candidates. However, none have been around long enough (or a high enough office) to really make a proper impact.

Obviously, everything will change in four years, so don't follow things too terribly closely. Still, place your bets now.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What Are YOU Thankful For?

Mitt Romney: "I am thankful that even though I lost being the most powerful man in the world, I have several billion dollars with which I can wipe away my tears."

General Petraeus: "I am so very thankful that people care more about losing the Twinkie than me having an affair and potentially compromising the intelligence of America."

Donald Trump: "I am thankful that I do have the funding that allows me to be batshit crazy without remorse."

Plaxico Burress: "I am thankful that the Steelers organization is willing to give me a shot and also thankful that they not discharge me too soon."

Barack Obama: "I am very thankful for low-income Hispanics, residents of the Midwest and Northeast areas who live in cities of 500,000 or greater, and Single Women under the age of 30. Just sayin'."

Soundgarden: "We are so very thankful that apparently a bunch of 30 year olds still do drugs, still have piss-poor taste in music, and yet have enough disposable income to see us in concert."

Hillary Clinton: "I am thankful for this cease-fire and also that I told everyone I'm getting the hell out of Dodge before things gets much, much worse. Good luck, John Kerry!"

MC Hammer: "I am so very thankful that for some reason Americans crave awkward Korean pop music, even if just for a few weeks. LET ME HAVE THIS."

Chris Christie: "I am thankful that Old Navy is having a Black Friday sale on fleece."


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ruh Roh

I have a confession to make: I never really liked Scooby-Doo.

OK, that's a bit unfair. I like Scooby-Doo. I've watched it and I enjoy it and it is deservedly considered a classic. Let's just say that I've always found something a about it, that's all.

First off, it was never really all that unpredictable. We all knew that there were never any real ghosts. We all knew that whoever owned the house/property/evil dude was most likely a fake ghost. And while Daphne and Fred would be the competent if uncreative leads and Velma the brains, Shaggy and Scooby would always be there to screw it up yet be the ones to actually solve the mystery by accidentally leaning on a bookshelf or sniffing a canister of pepper and sneezing the glow-in-the-dark dust right off Mr. Jones, the cryptically silent groundskeeper. No M. Night Shamalan bullshit for the Mystery Gang.

I never liked Fred. He was too alpha-dog for me. And Daphne seemed like a nice enough girl, but a bit of dead weight if you ask me. And Velma was pretended to be all smarty-pants but you and I both know she went home every night after getting dropped off by the Mystery Machine and cried herself to sleep eating cherry cordials, drinking box wine, and watching The Holiday. And don't get me started on Shaggy, that unshaven proto-hippie getting Scooby hooked on Scooby Snacks. And just who do you think was the sole distributor of Scooby Snacks? Yeah, that's what I thought. And let's all agree to never speak of Scrappy-Doo again.

Of course, if the show were to be created today, they wouldn't be "mystery solvers," but straight up paranormal hunters. Let's let that sink in for a moment: Scooby and Shaggy single-handedly created a genre that people take 100% seriously today. (OK, maybe not single-handedly, but c'mon. These guys weren't looking for D.B. Cooper or looking for the Shroud of Turin, they were looking for spooks with the Harlem Globetrotters.)

Perhaps I'm being unfair. It's a cartoon, after all, and it's not like other cartoons were exactly paragons of virtue and common sense, either. I've just never found the Mystery Gang's personalities to be all that appealing, and I can't really get behind a group that, more often than not, succeeded not due to their own abilities, but dumb luck or sheer clumsy incompetence instead.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Static and Noise: Sticks On Ice, Please

What's In A Name? Whoever named the Daily Beast should be drug out into the street and shot. What a horrible name for an otherwise useful site. I've noticed a trend of modern companies picking particularly asinine names for their companies. Long gone are the days of General Motors or U.S. Steel or Atlantic Monthly; the oddest name you might see would be strange abbreviations, odd derivations from actual products, or ethnic last names, much like Alcoa and Pepsi. Now we get companies like Survey Monkey who try to operate as a standard business despite the fact that it sounds like you're signing up for a child's birthday party instead of answering important market research questions. Even Yahoo! and Google are kinda stupid, if you ask me. But I guess that's the sort of think companies laugh at while dragging their huge sacks of cash to the bank.

Bettman Ready: Now that the Steelers are becoming more and more unlikely to be a playoff team this year (although, oddly, still a wild card contender), the fact that the NHL hasn't come to an agreement has been making me more and more sadface every day. I'm relatively neutral on the players/owners spat; the fact that a majority of the teams are losing money means something has to be done, and yet I can't shake the feeling that the books are probably cooked on many of those teams. Still, there's probably more benefit, long-term and financially, by moving teams out of the South (Nice try, I guess, but it's just not working) and transferring them to more profitable cities (I'm looking at you, Seattle, Hamilton, and possibly Indianapolis). Still, carving out somewhat successful teams from hockey-bored markets (such as Anaheim or Tampa Bay) isn't impossible. Anyway, it's getting much, much closer to the point of no return for professional hockey, so hopefully a decent agreement can happen soon.

And Not A Drop To Drink:We had a minor crisis here in the C2R household: namely, our city water supplier tested the water and found out it was poison. OK, not really, but their tests showed that the pH levels were dangerously high. They had to shut off the water to the entire city--restaurants included--and so for about twelve hours my hometown couldn't shower, wash dishes, or poop. Turns out that it was unlikely that any of the tainted water actually got through the pipes, but the act of shutting off the water treatment plant meant that bacteria might be in the water, so a boil warning was issued. Thankfully, we were prepared in case Hurricane Sandy somehow reached inland so we had plenty of jugs of water. It's strange 1) how granted we take our utilities for, and 2) how our water company clearly doesn't have a proper backup plan.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Top Ten Movies Of All Time

Here is a list of the top ten movies ever. According to (who else?) me.

Obviously, a list like this is subjective, and I certainly haven't seen all the movies. Still, I've seen a pretty representative sample of movies and I've seen a lot of the movies popularly considered classics, so this isn't coming from a narrow viewing of films. I'll only admit to a bias against older movies; not that older movies aren't good, but the technology, dialogue, and acting has gotten a lot more stable and reliable in current years, so an older movie really has to impress me to crack my top ten. I also skew towards watchability; an awesome movie that loses its appeal after you've seen the ending will be considered lower. That may not be fair--a movie really should just stand on its own--but I still feel that a truly excellent movie could somehow pull off both. (A good example of this would be The Shawshank Redemption.)

That said, I'll also admit that a lot of similar movies that might normally be good are represented only once. For example, if I include a specific director's film, and there was a similar film that was almost just as good, they only appear once. It seems sort of pointless to gum up the list with a bunch of similar movies, so I've noted those entries below. (For example, The Naked Gun could easily replace Airplane! on this list.)

And, of course, everything can change. Ask me next week and I'll probably give you a slightly different list. That's also why I didn't properly rank these entries; the difference between what would be #10 and #1 is too small to even be considered measurable.

I won't go into too many plot details for any of these--that can be looked up easily online--but I give a justification for each as to why they are on my list.

Anyway, in no particular order:

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Hands down the best western ever written--apologies to the Duke all around--this take by Sergio Leone encompasses so many different ideals while being shot as a beautiful movie as well. The premise, of course, is deceptively simple: the "Good" really isn't all that good (and is certainly quiet), the "bad"...well, he's actually pretty bad, and the "ugly" is so in spades--nominally bad, but with a proper (and emotional) justification and ends up being a sympathetic person. Sort of. Complicated, but not needlessly so, this movie eats up its lengthy running time. Pro tip: the extended version isn't worth it. (Not bad, but the added scenes add nothing.) Once Upon A Time In The West is an excellent companion, more so than the proper sequels to GBU. 

Children of Men: This film sets the perfect tone to make you feel as uneasy as possible. Mankind is living in a world where everyone knows they are going to die, and yet everyone also knows it's a few decades away, so life more or less goes on as normal. Painting this bleak picture of sheer, low-key terror--occasionally punctuated with legitimate acts of violence and political dissent--is significantly more effective than any overt scenario of immediate apocalyptic terror could ever be. And the single-shot war scene is one of the most terrifyingly beautiful things to witness on film.

Primer: Famously low-budget (supposedly shot on a budget of 7000 bucks), it looks it.  And yet the science behind this time-travel tale carried the movie the whole way through. You don't get to see flashy effects and the "hard" science explanations sound equally plausible and baffling, yet the basic concept is simple enough and the script takes us for the rest of the ride. I almost put Donnie Darko in this slot, but the sheer impressiveness of the plot (less the unexplained weirdness of Darko) put this one over the top.

Airplane!: Nominally a spoof of the disaster-of-the-week movies of the 1970's, it ended up being a cultural phenomenon  not only did it re-start Leslie Nielsen's career as a comic actor, but it created a long, long list of parody movies of admittedly variable quality. Less a "situation" comedy and more just an absolute barrage of bad puns and even more horrible (by which we mean awesome) dialogue, its only drawback is to be slightly dated.

Patton: It may not be the first proper biopic, but it's certainly one of the best. A long, epic detailing of Patton's life--or, more appropriately, his time in the European theater for World War II--this movie set the standard pretty much since. People not interested in the detailing of the behind-the-scenes drama of the European leadership during the war will still find plenty to enjoy (and learn) from this movie.

Gran Torino: Seen by many to be Clint Eastwood's swan song (though, as it turns out, not really), this story of racial tensions and badassery hits every sentiment without all that pesky emotions. Not only is the story unusual in a variety of ways--picking the Hmong of Detroit as the race involved, making Walt simultaneously sympathetic and reprehensible at the same time, and somehow making the priest not be the one to give the proper "Can't we all just get along" speech--there's enough action and unexpected resolution that after the movie is over you don't realize that there was a message there after all.

Shawshank Redemption: This is one of the few movies with a supposed "twist" at the end (although it's not exactly unexpected) that still holds up to repeated viewings. There's not a lot this movie doesn't get right.

Inglourious Basterds: A rather absurd movie about a group of undercover Nazi hunters in Germany during World War II, this stretches all points of believability while still being an absolutely fantastic movie. Even if you don't care for Quentin Tarantino's style, this movie doesn't dwell on his trademarks quite so much. While more than just an overt homage to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, it takes Tarantino's dialogue and makes it so tense you can feel the sweat from the characters. It's not for everyone but it's still pretty good.

The Big Lebowski: One can be forgiven for not liking this movie; it has a rather pointless plot that sort of rambles along, it has the exact sort of creepy bookended narrator that I find pretentious, and very few of the characters are likable in any way (save for poor Donnie). And, indeed, when I saw this Coen Brothers movie for the first time, I didn't like it at all. Yet later viewings made me appreciate it more, to the point where it made this list. It's hard to really explain its appeal except to encourage you to see it. (I almost put O Brother, Where Art Thou or No Country For Old Men, both Coen Brothers productions that easily fill this slot, but Lebowski is the best overall.)

Hot Fuzz: After decades of Airplane!-style spoofs (see above), the parody genre seemed all but dead; a string of horrible movies nearly killed it. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, two British actors/writers/comedians started one of the few revivals in earnest, first with the zombie/horror film Shaun of the Dead. I prefer the police-procedural parody Hot Fuzz as not only funnier but more accessible to a wider audience. While it doesn't have the rapid-fire jokes of Airplane, it more than makes up for it by having actual personalities in their characters that serve more than just props for a joke.

Honorable Mentions (again, in no particular order): 

Bridesmaids: Brash, crude, and more than just a little sweet, this takes the romantic comedy and leads it to its logical conclusion: women are absolutely filthy animals, just like men are. While it drags just a bit in the middle when the main character hits rock bottom, the rest of the movie somehow manages to mix the crass and the cute for an intimately satisfying film. 
Lawrence of Arabia: It was either this or Patton above for the standard three-hour biopic category; this one is a little overly long for the subject matter, but it's still a remarkably beautiful movie. A few too many scenes of Lawrence dancing in the desert, though.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The best of the series by far and the only one worth repeat viewings. Harrison Ford at his best, with the extra added bonus of Sean Connery and a very smart script.
Se7en: The very first time you watch it (and assume you haven't been spoiled by the thousands of pop culture references to the film), this is an amazing film as you realize what's happening just as the characters do. This probably would have made the top ten, but once you know the ending it doesn't hold up quite as well.
The Bank Job: A fairly standard action heist film made great by sharp writing, a believable cast, and (strangely) based on a true story. I wouldn't consider it a classic, but it's just the right blend of history, character, and intelligence that more action movies need.
There Will Be Blood: An epic, drawn-out drama about the oil industry at the turn of the century, it captures the period perfectly and does so beautifully. (The oil business may seem like a boring subject, but they make it surprisingly interesting.) Some of the character development skips around and gets jumpy, but not so much as to distract from the film.
Snatch/Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels: I've lumped these together because they are pretty much the exact same film. (RocknRolla almost makes it except for its stupid name and painfully contrived macguffin.) These aren't great classic films and the similarity is more than disappointing, but the artistic style is certainly unique. Probably the most "fun" non-comedy on this list. If you watch one and like it, watch all of Guy Ritchie's "caper" films (although expect some creepy Kabbalah references in Revolver--thanks, Madonna!). They aren't to everyone's tastes, but Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has enough of an indy feel to it that it's still a lot of fun.
Princess Bride: A solid classic that is purely enjoyable and quotable, this sweet story blends a near-perfect mix of comedy, romance, and action, and ends up being suitable for kids as well. If it weren't for the awkward bookending of grandpa reading to this grandson (although more of Peter Falk is rarely a bad thing) it would be a near perfect movie.
Dr. Strangelove: A very, very, very black comedy, it manages to both critique the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction while also giving a backhanded (and probably unintentional) support for its rationale. It's not quite as funny as its fans make it out to be, and some of the goofiness seems oddly out of place next to the otherwise tight script, but it captures the mood of the nation in a bleak yet humorous way.
Bridge on the River Kwai: A beautiful movie, perhaps overly long, and not the best war picture, but the build-up to what eventually degenrates into complete madness (Madness!) at the end shows both the glory and the pointlessness of war.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Absurdity, as a concept, rarely makes a good movie, but the Python boys were pros. Don't expect a linear plot or any sort of historical accuracy; even if you're not a fan of the comedy troupe you can appreciate this skewering of the Arthurian legend.

So what did I miss? What should I watch? What, of the above, is absolute trash? 

Edit: Yeah, this is an edit to a three-year old post. But upon reviewing it, I realized that I really should have some Hitchcock on here somewhere as well as some Mel Brooks. Maybe I'll re-sort these under a new blog post. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sans Comics

What has happened to the state of the comic strip?

Comics (the daily newspaper kind, not the superhero/pulp magazine kind) have always held a kind of awkward space in America's culture. While still a primarily children's domain, there was certainly enough room for social/political commentary (think Doonesbury, Bloom County, The Boondocks), content that, while not strictly "adult," could certainly be enjoyed on several levels (Lil' Abner, Calvin and Hobbes, Pogo), and of course an appreciation for the artwork itself--which could go from the relatively simple (yet brilliant) doodlings of comics like Hagar the Horrible or Beetle Bailey to more high-culture quality of strips like many "dramatic" strips.

Still, scanning the pages of the standard Sunday comic section of your local dying dead-tree newspaper, and it looks just like a graveyard of nostalgia. Strips that once contained spark and life are shells of their former selves. Intrinsically rotten jokes have been pound into the ground, and comics that should have died long ago--when their creators retires or died themselves--have been taken up by the empty creativity of a syndicate (or an uninspired child). While there are some reasonably fresh newcomers (think Pearls Before Swine), there aren't many--newspapers and syndicates preferring the stable, boring staples of the past (and, understandably, zero desire to get thousands of upset letters if you dare cancel the moribund Garfield).

One would think that this is, in fact, OK--the fresh, sharp, updated writing is now found in the form of the webcomic. It makes sense--the internet is the place for free creativity, and cartoonists are no longer bound by the small panel sizes, conventional daily strips, censorship, or the fate of fickle readers. And yet, for me, that is not how it has gone. There are very, very few web comics that have even come close to the conventional popularity of the newspaper. And while you would think this would create a diverse environment for all sorts of creativity, they all end up being the same comic strip over and over again--angsty, hip, sexually frustrated white tech-savvy guys living vicariously through the medium of comics, with barely humorous gags and, for some reason, a burning desire to confront social issues in the most ham-fisted and least effective manner possible. And--let's be honest--many don't have the artwork or graphic design that decades of polished industry techniques have produced. (Not to name any names, but how the poorly-drawn and almost painful to read webcomic Questionable Content is so popular is beyond me; it looks like a seventh-grader who just discovered MS Paint draws it, and the storylines aren't much better.) 

There are rays of hope, of course. The quality of webcomics has gotten much better, and it's allowed some unique comic strips to rise to the top (think xkcd or SMBC). And the genre of gaming-related strips, such as Penny Arcade and PvP, have actually utilized conventional comic strip standards and produces some pretty high-quality (if somewhat narrow) content.

Sadly, though, the things that allow webcomics to thrive--niche subject matter, freedom of format creativity, and the ability to address controversy--are the exact sort of things that will keep them out of newspapers. It seems highly doubtful that there will ever be a golden age of comic strips, since it seems as if the age of the newspaper (at least on paper) is nearing a slow decline. And I am not sure if the free-wheeling, unrestricted webcomic scene has the resources and discipline to create a thriving and popular medium again.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Junk Food

Thanks to all of the news coverage about the (most likely temporary) passing of the Hostess Twinkie, there has been a lot of press about the state of junk food in general.

Time magazine ran a piece about the top ten most iconic junk foods. Sadly, since I seem to write about junk food a lot, I figured it would at least be worth a look. Now, this is a list of the most iconic, not the best, but still there seems to be a lot of wiggle room as to what they are talking about. Anyway, here is my take on their list:

Twinkie: Oddly, I was never a true Twinkie fan. They were OK, but nothing I would go out of my way for.
Cheese Puffs: Oddly, this is one of the Few things where I prefer the nasty, roof-of-your-mouth-destroying version over the brand name version. Don't ask me why; there's just something about subgrade fake cheese and gravelly puffed corn over the more refined version.
Moon Pie: Not a fan. Too much stale marshmallow.
Doughnuts: This is a little too generic. I wouldn't ever really turn down a donut, but a lot of them end up being too sweet for my tastes. Good donuts are awesome, but it's easy to make bad ones.
McDonald's French Fries: Not quite sure why they specified McDonald's french fries. Micky D's seems to have a high standard deviation; they are usually either really, really good or really, really bad. Other fast food joints have a much more consistent quality.
Chipwich: I am not sure if I would consider this "iconic," but there you go. I love these, but Klondike used to make a version of these that was just excellent. I miss them.
Pork Rinds: Gross. No thanks.
Snickers: I have always liked Snickers, but it's never been my candy bar of choice. Some of the variants are pretty decent.
Pepperoni Pizza: I realize this is "junk" food, but pizza doesn't really fit in with the rest of this list. There are plenty of ways to make pepperoni pizza halfway decently healthy, unlike most of the other things on this list.
Doritos: Who doesn't like Doritos? While a lot of the flavor variations are hit or miss, the standard fake red-dyed nacho cheese powder is pretty damn tasty.

I am not sure what else I would add to this list--although you would like regular chocolate chip cookies or Oreos would be on this list, and if pizza and french fries make the cut (get it?) I would think other appetizers would get included as well. Still, I think I gained about six pounds just writing this post.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What is the Next Great Innovation in Board Gaming?

Those of you who know me know that I enjoy board games. Though I haven't gotten to play as much as I used to, I still follow most of the news around the industry (yes, there is some). I'm particularly interested in how board game design evolves over time, since that is the one thing that will keep the hobby fresh and innovative--and make sure it doesn't end up in the pile of discarded industries as happens so often.

That said, it appears we are in a bit of a lull for new, entertaining innovations. The last major creative leap was the deck-building game, which started off with the much-vaunted Dominion. (It works as sort of a reverse collectible card game, where the actual customization of your deck is the game. It's strange but makes sense.) The success of Dominion has led to dozens of imitators, most of which are mediocre and many that simply use a license from an established property (like Resident Evil or Star Trek) much like what happened during the CCG boom. It's also creative many side variants, such as dice-collecting (such as Quarriors!)

There is an opening for something new that was announced with the release from a rather surprising place--Risk. Specifically, Risk: Legacy. In this variant of Risk, you actually change the game itself as you, for instance, if you nuke Australia, you put a nuke sticker there and Australia no longer exists for any game you play with this set. All such changes are permanent for that copy of the game. There are also sealed envelopes that you open only under certain conditions that add new rules and pieces to the game.Each set lasts for approximately 15 games or so. You can still continue to play with that set (no more changes will occur, however) which also means that for every copy of Risk: Legacy that is sold, it will end up being a completely unique game.

Oddly, however, this has not produced any similar games. It may, perhaps, be a game that is too innovative--any new game will easily be seen as a copy, and due to its nature these sorts of games tend to be more expensive. And the concept appears to work best with light wargame, which while still popular doesn't lend itself to a whole lot of ideas that casual players would be interested in. I expect that aside from an existing property (like, say, Star Wars, or World of Warcraft) we won't see too many of these--despite the fact that it's an incredibly creative idea.

Another new innovation which has nearly created its own category is the cooperative game. While co-op games have always existed (namely the 2000 version of Lord of the Rings), it truly hit the mainstream with the critically popular Pandemic. Many new co-op games have emerged sense, many to similar critical acclaim (Flashpoint: Fire Rescue being one of the more popular ones). I suspect the next innovation from this is the blended co-op, where people cooperate yet there will still be a winner of sorts, or some sort of setup where two teams of players secretly co-op with each other but still compete with the other team. There are already some games out there like this, but few that don't eventually betray the whole co-op nature of the game.

Finally, there is a new style of CCG out there called the Living Card Game. Right now, Fantasy Flight games has done well with this concept, especially with their popular Game of Thrones LCG. The concept is similar to the old CCG format: you purchase cards, then you customize a deck based on those cards (where you then play the game). The new concept comes from the fact that the cards you purchase aren't random--they are in pre-packaged sets where you already know what is in them. This "innovation" has been out for a  while, though, and has only been modestly successful. However, plenty of old, popular CCGs could easily be adapted (and re-tuned) for the new market. Also, existing properties that weren't around in the 90's could jump in.

So where will the new innovations come from? I am not sure. I am of the mindset that party/social games are played out--we will see variations on mechanics but I don't see anything immediately clear as an opening. Wargames are often slow to develop; the last great new thing out of wargames, aside from some minor ideas, is the card-driven wargame, and that's over twenty years old. And yet when wargames do create something, it is often duplicated throughout the industry--the card-driven mechanic being adopted by nearly all categories at this point. Abstracts don't normally lend themselves to easy transfer to other game types, although they can often be innovative on their own. Pure card games tend to not have enough depth to truly be innovative, although this isn't always the case.

That mostly leaves Eurogames and American-style strategy games. Both of these genres tend to either be the drivers of innovation or easily adopt the mechanics from other genres in a more robust manner. (Also, combined they make up the vast majority of new released, sheer numbers would dictate that new ideas will come from here.) Reviewing the new releases for the holidays nothing really jumps out. These things happen every few years, though, so hopefully something new will emerge in the next year or so--or, most likely, there is some hidden game this season that just hasn't popped out yet.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mid-Season Report

We are a little past the halfway mark for the NFL season, so it may be useful to look things over and see what is going on in the league. Granted, for some reason this year I've found that I care less and less about the games, and yet I am drawn to it. I think it has less to do with the quality of the game and more to do with the fact that hockey is still not on.

Perfect No More: Every year there is one team that just keeps on winning. Some times it is a surprise and sometimes it is somewhat expected and most times it's the New England Patriots. This year, the steamroller was the Atlanta Falcons, who were on track to be good this year but few expected it to be perfect-season good. Of course, this came to an end last week against the mediocre New Orleans Saints. The Texans--while they didn't have a winning streak--still has the same record as the Falcons, with an impressive 8-1.

The South Shall Rise Again, But Not This Year: Both South divisions appear to be doing poorly, much like the AFC West was last year. If you snip out the aforementioned Falcons and the Texans (and except the originally-lousy but currently-hot Indianapolis Colts) you have a pretty ugly 16-30. Even Dallas has a losing record.

It's The Year Of The Comeback. Maybe. There was an alarming level of parity in the league this year. If I remember correctly not that long ago at some point in the AFC there were only two winning teams--everyone else was tied or below. Things have started to pull away now, but even still the outliers are much less common. Still, a lot of teams that started off lousy--the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Colts, and the Patriots tin particular--now have solid, if not stunning, records. This is, of course, a good thing, since it keeps things exciting throughout the season.

A Tie! There was a tie last week. That's awesome because it almost never happens.

The Modest Surprises: The Seattle Seahawks are doing surprisingly well, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have a winning record. Due to the various shakeups in staff, there were question marks over the Colts and the Denver Broncos, so I'm not sure if those can be called "surprises" or not, but in either case they are both doing reasonably well.

The Major Disappointments: Some teams that were set up for major successes turn out to be mediocre at best. The Philadelphia Eagles, the golden child last year, are a lowly 3-6. The defending Superbowl champs, the New York Giants, have a solid if unspectacular 6-3 record. The Detroit Lions--having had a relativity stellar two seasons after spending a decade as one of the worst teams in the league's history--has a losing record at the moment.

The Usual Suspects: The St. Louis Rams, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Cleveland Browns still suck

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Success of the Trope

If you are like me--and why wouldn't you want to be me?--there may have been some times in your past when you got sucked down into that rabbit hold known as the Wikipedia. You start off looking up something completely legitimate like what the Volstead Act is and two hours later you are reading a list of all of the cultural references of the Simpsons found in the Lockerbie bombing.

There is a certain value in that; I'm sure there is some sort of sociological craving innate in human nature to find interconnectedness in things, things that usually involve reading a history of Savage Garden. And, like it or not, randomly reading things on what amounts to a reasonable accurate, if a bit unfocused, encyclopedia isn't exactly the worst thing to be doing. You learn things. Random things that may have no context or meaning, but it's better than obliterating brain cells with beer while watching Matt Cassel stink up the field for four hours on a Sunday night.

Anyway, for those who haven't found out about it, and prefer that your random learnings are more pop-culture laden, you can take a trip over to TV Tropes. This is a web site dedicated to identifying the random tropes in pop culture (and, increasingly, real life). Tropes, of course, are situations that viewers (or society in general) easily recognize and can immediately relate to. While it's not the equivalent of a cliche--cliches are, by definition, unoriginal, while a trope doesn't necessarily have to be--they are very close in meaning. For example, the trope Not What It Looks Like appears repeatedly in Three's Company, and it exactly how it sounds: Janet/Jack/Chrissy get into some sort of shenanigans dripping with innuendo, but then when the innocent activity is revealed it's, well, not what it looked like.

[For the record, even though it's called "TV Tropes," it's actually about all pop culture, including books, movies, even non-popular culture like history and careers.]

There are all kinds of tropes, most with descriptive and straightforward names (Starving Student, Jerk With A Heart Of Gold, All Girls Want Bad Boys), while some are silly but otherwise to the point (Timmy in a Well (when a character can't speak for some reason (usually choking) and others have to decipher what they are trying to say), Chekhov's Gag (a reference to Chekhov's Gun, when some joke is made, then unexpectedly comes back later in the episode), His Name Really Is Barkeep (when a character happens to have a name that matches their profession), Aliens in Cardiff (when strange things happen in out-of-the-way places to rationalize away plot points)).

This sounds, well, rather mundane...but just wait until you actually start looking at your favorite TV shows. Most come with examples. And there are a lot of examples. Suddenly, you'll start clicking on all the different tropes associated with a show, which will lead you to other shows with the same tropes, which will lead you to tropes of that show, and so on...

Of course, it's not perfect. Some of the tropes just seem a little to broadly defined, and then the site goes out of its way to re-define it so that it isn't so broad. And some of the trope titles are a little too obscure, which makes some paragraphs practically incoherent. (Of course, once you start clicking--and you will--everything starts to make sense). Some of the tropes are too clever by half. And there is probably an disproportionate (and unhealthy) focus on anime; thankfully, it's indexed so you can usually skip right through it.

Still, it's odd how many small, obscure facts I've learned--and, strangely, new things I've learned--hopping around from link to link. If you happen to have a spare eight hours today, I suggest giving it a try.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Eat A Twinkie For The Common Good

Sadly, it appears that yet another American institution is near death.

Hostess Brands--the makers of such wonderful desserts as Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and the ever-elusive Chocodiles--is nearing liquidation. This is, sadly, nothing new; they have declared bankruptcy before, in 2004, and then again (most recently) in 2011. They have struggled for over a decade.

However, take heart. Reading a map of their mergers and acquisitions is an exercise in headache-inducing corporate warfare. They own, in part or in whole, about a dozen different brands (such as Nature's Pride and Wonder Bread), no doubt with a mixture of success and failure. So even thought he company overall may have overextended itself, it's not necessarily due to the lackluster sales of the legendary Twinkie.

What happens now remains to be seen. Liquidation, while it sucks, may be best--because that basically means those dozen brands (including the original Hostess snack cake brand) will be spun off and gobbled up by some other company. Presumably--at least from what I've read--the recipes and brand are still quite valuable so will probably be a steal for any eagle-eyed corporate raider.

Whether the whole thing falls apart remains to be seen, of course, Right now the baker's union has gone on strike, and the company is trying to force the union to accept the contract via the bankruptcy court. (Another union, the Teamsters, have already accepted an altered contract.) Part of me thinks this is hilarious--a bunch of bakers in tall white hats covered in flour and holding picket signs, probably chanting something in French. Sadly, it's probably a lot of disgruntled, sweaty middle-aged people who look nothing like that.

Anyway, buy and cram a Ho Ho in your mouth today. You know, for solidarity.

Monday, November 12, 2012

There Is Always Money In Quality Programming

One wouldn't necessarily be remiss if it didn't seem like television had a nostalgic problem.

The long-cancelled Arrested Development is currently filming a new season of the show--over five years since it has been off the air, something nearly unheard of in the industry--and is possibly going to turn it into a movie. Meanwhile, yesterday an all-day marathon of the similarly missed Firefly was aired. Both of these shows have devoted fan bases and are often the prime example of quality television that people just flat-out refused to watch. The usually loud fans have made both of these things possible--along with solid DVD sales and the industry awards to validate their opinions.

That more or less begs the question: is this how television is going to be from now on, or has it always been this way?

The media landscape has certainly changed, of course. There are hundreds of channels all vying for the same number of viewers that four networks had exclusive control of not even two decades ago. (Actually, probably fewer viewers.) It's this terrible balancing act of how much to pay stars and how much to spend in production costs versus the actual amount of revenue you get from advertising--and if people aren't watching, there is no such revenue.

While we all like to complain about reality television, the proper answer is that it's saving quality television: it's allowing shows with higher production costs to even get to the pilot stage. Still, it can't really go on forever. At some point the viewers just aren't going to accumulate to one channel, and it's going to be very, very difficult for one show to get enough of a budget to produce something decent. And the cheap-but-profitable reality television trend will eventually diminish in its money-making status, and it will be difficult to find something to take its place.

Then again, who knows what all the variables are. There's a reason HBO has had so many quality programs--people are literally paying for those shows to air, and so those shows get the budget based on this response. The rise of the internet has allowed demographics to get winnowed down to its smallest fractions; fans of steampunk apocalypse shows can now support those shows actively, whereas fifteen years ago you could maybe catch it on TV and hope the ratings reflected it. Even places like Netflix and devices like TiVO are going to change the game: not only that, but it's getting increasingly easy (along with internet viewing) to get nearly fully accurate ratings (along with the appropriate demographics) on each and every show.

Personally, I suspect the Netflix model to be the future: on-demand viewing with no set schedule or dicking around with DVRs. Real, accurate numbers will determine whether shows live or die, and it will all be available instantly. The question will be whether this model will include an irritating tiered-price system (like cable and satellite providers do) or if they will anchor all these shows with advertising, effectively reducing what makes them useful to begin with.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Most Boring Awesome Job Ever

I think I've mentioned this before, but years ago I thought that I might like to be a private investigator. (Editor's note: I did mention it. Here's the post.) What turned me off was that the job would mostly entail hanging out in bushes looking for cheating spouses and not skulking around drafty mansions with a magnifying glass looking for scraps of paper to solve a cipher.

Still, I occasionally think what it would be like to do such investigations and I always end up realizing that it will involve 1% awesome and 99% dealing with horseshit like cocaine mules and child molesters. So when I see articles like this I'm reminded of the awesome part and not the depressing part.

Basically, the famous 1903 patent from the Wright Brothers has turned up missing.

I'm sure it's still the same old mundane investigation and it won't be nearly as exciting as I assume. I picture that it involves some wayward historian gone rogue who is coldcocking off-duty cops and hiding the document in plain sight in front of clueless investigators. Meanwhile, a rival historian is plotting revenge against him to gain this priceless document via a multitude of measures that I assume mean Chinese mercenaries and a safe house.

Of course, if you read the article you realize that the patent has been missing since 1980. Apparently they are just coming around to letting us know. Somehow I doubt that the standard federal bureaucracy is making the investigation move much more slowly. And now all of a sudden we are back to dealing with the 99% horseshit again.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Sad State of PC Gaming

I an a PC gamer. I used to buy all of the new, trendy games. Well, not all of them--there are waay too many--but I would usually buy the popular ones along with some of the lesser-known titled that fit my favorite genre.

I rarely do this anymore, however. I don't think I've purchased more than two or three titles a year, if that. And there is a clear reason: Nobody makes decent games anymore.

Obviously, that's not 100% true. But nearly all of the new releases that come out fall under about three categories: MMORPGs like World of Warcraft; "casual" games (think Angry Birds and hidden-picture games); and First Person Shooters (pretty much everything else).

Now, there are good games in all of these categories, but you can only do so many variations before it gets old. And, sure, a new game might come along and revolutionize the entire genre, but those are becoming far and few between. Regardless of whether a new MMORPG is absolutely fantastic, unless you are in college no one has any time for it anymore.

Now, these things go in cycles--it wasn't five years ago that Real Time Strategy games were the thing, and it was Adventure Games a decade before that. However, it seems like the next phase of game genres is takign an awful long time to come around.

Part of this makes sense: all of the money is in console gaming, not PCs. New gamers who aren't interested in long, involved games have made casual games significantly more lucrative. Social media games are bringing in an entire host of new gamers, but it also pulls resources away from--shall we say--more traditional gamers.

There is always a silver lining, of course. A new independent movement in PC gaming has emerged. I've purchased some of them in the past, and while it's certainly hit-or-miss of varying quality, there's still a lot of really, really good games out there that you're not going to find in GameStop of Walmart. In fact, you really can't buy a physical product anymore--you don't really have to.

Sadly, however, the days of the slickly-produced and amazingly entertaining PC game are slowly going away--at least for those of us who don't like the same game getting released every single year. Hopefully the new trend of smaller games will help.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Creative Reuse

Last night my wife and I went to the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse (as part of a BlogMob project). The PCCR is an organization that advocates the conservation of resources by reusing items in a creative way. By accepting donations of items that could be of use for various other reasons, they take items that currently have little use and try and repurpose them, saving money, time, and resources from all sides.

Ostensibly, this normally means crafts or other creative pursuits. For example, a local university donated all of their slides--mostly art--to the PCCR (now that they've gone all digital). There were barrels and barrels of thousands of slides, all of which could easily be adapted to a variety of pursuits.

Of course, the center has plenty of projects as well that utilize these creative pursuits; for example, we made Christmas ornaments for a tree that will eventually be donated to a shelter. The PCCR is also involved in the Knit the Bridge project, where individuals knot squares that will cover one of the many bridges in Pittsburgh. It will look awesome, and then squares will be donated to various homeless and pet shelters for use in the winter.

While the inventory of the PCCR is a bit too random to rely on it as a standard crafts store, sometimes that's not a bad thing--by utilizing the items available to make your project, you can sometimes find more new and creative ways of doing something than if you determine the required parts beforehand. I recommend stopping by, even if to see the process they use to maximize the reuse of various things that many people would just throw away.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Sad Decline of the Web 2.0

It's been nearly two decades since e-commerce became a reality. With the pioneers of Amazon and eBay, the internet has changed how everyone does business--including the old brick and mortar stores as well. All in all, it's been a very good thing for pretty much everyone across the board, save the few dinosaurs that never learned how to adapt (and thus were most likely on their way out anyway.)

Strictly speaking, the phrase "Web 2.0" refers to a basket of various interface changes that occurred around the turn of the century--namely multimedia capabilities, social networking, and basically a place where users generate content instead of simply being passive recipients of the information. Still, the revolution in how commerce is conducted also occurred around this time as well, so I think it can be safely bundled in with the updated phrase.

Sadly, however, I've found that many of the old stalwart websites have failed in their initial objective of making the activity of shopping a different endeavor. While the details certainly have changed, there's been a notable decline in quality, insomuch that navigating some sites are just as bad as having to get in a vehicle and going to a crowded store used to be.

eBay appears to be the poster child for this sort of thing. Over ten years ago I bought my first item. It was exciting and thrilling and awesome: here I was, buying something from some stranger, and I never had to leave the house or deal with a big box store or anything. I don't recall what it was, but it went from someone's junk drawer to my mailbox in about a week. The only transaction costs were modest shipping charges and a reasonably slim percentage from the corporation that brought us together. It was a deal that worked out for everybody.

Buying something on eBay right now is a horrible, awful experience. They have added about twenty new steps to listing something, each of which is basically a way for you to throw an extra fifty cents in their pocket for putting flashy blinking icons next to your listing (and since everyone is buying them, it's an arms race where the only winner is the buy taking the money). Everything is skewed against the seller; the feedback system has been altered to incomprehensibility and policies basically let the buyer get away with everything. Fees have gone up and gotten much more complicated. While they don't force you to use PayPal, there are penalties for not doing so (either through deliberately making it more difficult or an outright fee); given that PayPal has its own set of horrible anti-consumer issues, it ties everything together. Finally, if you sell something, they inexplicably hold your money for something like ten days for no other reason than to (apparently) piss you off.

Granted, I understand some of these policies: it's to prevent fraud, which to be fair was getting pretty bad. Still, a lot of the policies appear to be blatant money-grabbing endeavors. While it's obviously their purpose to make money, they've made it so bad that a casual user (such as myself) ends up giving them no money because it's such a pain in the ass.

eBay, of course, isn't the only offender. Plenty of web sites that once held promises of cheap prices and smooth transactions eventually degenerate down into crass, for example, used to be a reasonably decent mechanism for organizing groups. I just went there after not being active for a few years and it's an absolute bloated mess. I can't make heads or tales of anything because the setup is so remarkably unintuitive as to be almost useless.

The main exception to all this is Amazon. While they aren't perfect, they've done a pretty good job of combining growth, ease of use, and profit margins where going there is a much better experience today than it was a decade ago.

There's a reason for a lot of this, of course. People had these grand ideas about how the internet would be completely different, only to get bogged down in the same details that plenty of normal business have been for centuries. The great internet crash of the late 1990's weeded a lot of these out, which is why Web 2.0 had such promise--they were going to learn from their mistakes and grow. Sadly, it increasingly seems like this is no longer the case.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


After all of the analysis posted in the past three days, it appears as though everything ended up roughly how everyone expected. Sadly, this includes Nate Silver, who I certainly hoped would have been fired this morning.*

The few takeaways from the election results:
1. The only pickups from 2008 were Indiana and North Carolina. Indiana wasn't considered a swing state, and North Carolina just barely was. However, even for those states that seemed to be trending Romney--mostly Colorado and Virginia--went for Obama for quite a few percentage points.
2. The biggest surprise to me was Florida, where Romney led in nearly every poll up until the last day or so. Technically, as of this writing, it has yet to be resolved, but it looks nearly impossible for Romney to win it. Less importantly, I expected Wisconsin to be a lot closer than it was.
3. The Democratic Senate candidates appear to have done much better than expected, and with good reason--the GOP candidates were of pretty poor quality. I think this was one of the things everyone already knew, because I never saw any serious pundit stating that the Republicans would gain all that much.
4. About the only Senate race I cared about was Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren won. I think Warren is one of the least economically literate individuals to get elected in proportion to her power, and no good can come of it. But Massachusetts will keep electing her forever now.
5. Paul Ryan appears to have been ineffectual. Vice Presidential candidates rarely make much of a difference (at least for the positive) but a Marco Rubio or even Condi Rice certainly would have been a better pick.

Personally, I think this was Romney's race to lose, but Romney didn't seem like he cared at all up until about a month ago. This is not like 2008, where no Republican stood a chance. Part of this was Romney's inability to convince people he had anything to offer besides something that wasn't Obama, but part of it was a lot of distractions--namely, from Senate candidates who couldn't keep their mouth shut and some dazzling issue-framing on the part of the Democrats (namely, Romney's tax returns and the War on Women). While these sideshows weren't Romney's fault, he didn't have the ability to convince people otherwise and was unwilling to be more forceful about countering them.

Romney should have campaigned with the promise that he would be a center-right technocrat, much like how he governed Massachusetts. This probably would have been a reasonable strategy: no new bold initiatives or controversial changes, but just getting a bunch of smart people in a room to solve economic problems and letting everything else sort itself out. He didn't do this in any meaningful sense.

As for what this means for the next four years of the Obama presidency or the future of the Republican party--well, we shall see. 

*Not that I think Nate Silver's analysis is particularly wrong, although I think some of his stuff was pretty shaky. It's just that Silver has somehow managed to convince the pundits (i.e., New York intellectuals who basically control print media in the US) that he is the second coming of analysts, when in reality his track record is about the same as everyone else's.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What To Expect Tonight For Election Day

Here is a guide for what to look for in tonight's election night coverage. This is more or less a companion post to yesterday's analysis, so I recommend reading it first if you haven't yet:

1. Question Marks: First off, a caveat: since there are a lot of new voting rules (namely early voting and Voter ID laws), what has happened in the past may not happen in the same order this time around. A state that posted early in 2008 might end up taking an extra few hours now. In addition, many of the battleground states are going to be close, so reporting may take longer than normal--it would not surprise me if some tight east coast states aren't declared until we are well into the Rocky Mountains. Since it's a bit unpredictable, things may not happen in the below order, and don't necessarily interpret unusual delays as anything more than administrative issues.

2. Unexpectedly Close States: That said, if any states have vote totals that are being declared as unexpectedly close which had previously been considered safe for one candidate, that's a pretty good omen for the other candidate. For example, if Connecticut is very, very close, that's bad news for Obama. If South Carolina seems like a tight race, things may get bad for Romney very quick. If one of these states actually goes for the other candidate, all bets are off.

3. Indiana: The state of Indiana has always been an early reporter; they are often first save for a few New England states. Their polls close at a remarkably early 6pm (7pm EST) and in the past it's almost always been a Republican blowout. Not last election, though, when the state unexpectedly went for Obama. It's unlikely to happen again--Romney has had a large lead for a long time--but if the results are slow (indicating a tight race) or the state goes for Obama again, it will be a long night for Romney.

4. Maine: It's possible that Romney will win Maine's 2nd Congressional District. In an election year where a tie is possible, this may be significant, but probably not. Still, it will provide a signal to things to come.

5. East Coast Battlegrounds: New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. These will be the first to report (their closing times range between 7pm and 8pm EST). The biggest story is Florida--as noted yesterday, if Romney doesn't win it, he is all but defeated. Of course, we should find out in short order: the other three states listed here will report as well. Romney should be safe for North Carolina, so if he loses this he has few other options. He can lose both Virginia and New Hampshire, but it will be a lot closer. Expect there to be delays either way in Florida and particularly Virginia, which has a new Voter ID law, so don't take these delays as an indication of results.

6. Pennsylvania and Michigan: These are wild cards for Romney. While they are both probably going for Obama, his lead has been very, very close to the margin of error. Especially in Pennsylvania, where Hurricane Sandy might depress voter turnout in Philadelphia, Romney might find some breathing room. A win in either of these states would be good news for Romney. Obama still has a few more options if he loses either one, though.

7. Great Lakes: It is entirely possible at this point to declare Obama a winner. Depending on the results from the east coast, a win in Ohio will effectively declare him the victor. (The same is not necessarily true of Romney.) If there is a split decision--say, Romney wins Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Florida and Obama wins Ohio--it's not quite over. Wisconsin in particular will be interesting; no Republican has won it for decades, and it's unexpectedly close this year. In addition, a win here will blunt the necessity to win Ohio. Still, it will be difficult, and Ohio is very, very close to a must-win for Romney. (Again, see my post from yesterday to see Romney's very poor Ohio-less victory conditions.) Expect this to clinch it one way or the other.

8. The Rest: At this point, if there is no clear winner, it will come down to the last few small swing states, namely Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa. Chances are the race will be decided by then, but in case it's not this will be a very long wait--polls close much later. It's also possible that, in the event that either candidate has won a lot of the battleground states but just needs one more state to put him over, this could be a dramatic night. (One scenario: Obama wins PA, MI, OH, and NH, while Romney wins FL, NC, VA, and WI, making it 259 Obama-258 Romney.) There aren't a whole lot of surprises from the Midwest onwards; only Minnesota, Arizona, and Oregon are even close, and they really aren't--only if there is an odd blowout will these change, so it probably will not matter.

9. Recounts! There is an almost 100% chance that some states will have to do a recount. Too many battleground states are too close to call, and many states have an automatic trigger for recounts. Depending on the math, it's not entirely unusual that we don't have a winner Tuesday or even Wednesday night. Think back to 2004, when the Ohio results were close enough that it came down to the absentee ballots; and this year, with early voting in Ohio, it will probably be worse.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Victory 2012: An Electoral Analysis of the 2012 Presidential Campaign

The election is a mere one day away. Let's take a look at the different paths to victory in the electoral college each candidate has for tomorrow's election.

I suppose that it should be pointed out, for those unfamiliar with the process, that regardless of the vote totals, it's the electoral college that will determine the winner, not the popular vote.

I won't go into the history or the pros and cons of the electoral college; those can be found on the internet elsewhere fairly easily. (For the record, I think the electoral college is a good idea for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it makes election administration easier and it has the effect of forcing candidates to appeal to different demographics.) In any case, regardless of how you feel about it, the electoral college is how the next president will be elected, like it or not.

A quick note about polls: I went over how polls work on yesterday's post, but it might be useful to get a little more specific for this analysis. Generally speaking, nearly all of the "unknown" factors will trend towards Romney. Historically, undecideds break for the challenger. While the proportion who do so varies quite a bit, and it's not an absolute rule, it's highly likely that undecideds are going to break towards Romney. In addition, 2008 was such an unusual situation demographically (mainly the abnormally high turnout by first-time voters) that the formulas used by pollsters have a greater chance of error. While this technically could go either way, it's most likely that the demographics will be understated for Romney and turnout will (probably, though not definitely) favor him. Obviously, none of this can be confirmed until Election Day, but it's worth pointing out when you are looking at the polls.

If you're looking for information about the electoral college--or, more importantly, want to play around with the maps, which is a perfect way of getting a good idea of how each candidate can win--there are several good websites to go to. has a simple setup; you can look at the map at a glance and it has raw data for polls. The analysis can be a little iffy and the interface a tough clunky, but it's probably the best stop for beginners and has probably the best poll-averaging policies. Sadly, it does not have an interactive map. has the best set of information and analysis and is my preferred site; it's easy to use and has plenty of analysis from both sides. The interface is pretty much perfect, with enough information to give you both a snapshot picture of the race as well as enough historical context to see how things could go. Its interactive map is a little too complex (perfect, though, for people like me) but not so good for easily playing around with. is the resident pollster/electoral college analyst for the New York Times, headed by Nate Silver. I don't care for either Silver, his analysis, or the site itself, but plenty of people use it and seem to like it.

CNN has a very basic electoral map. It has no analysis to speak of, and it rarely ever updates, but it has by far the best interactive map. This is the place to go to play around with the state totals.

There are nine states that are considered swing states--states that are close and that either candidate could conceivably win. These states (and their electoral votes) are Ohio (18), Florida (29), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Iowa (6), Wisconsin (10), and Colorado (9). All other states are safe for one candidate or the other (with a few exceptions, which we'll go over later); this puts the total at Obama: 237 and Romney 191. 110 electoral votes are thus up for grabs.

Map courtesy of

The candidate to get to 270 wins the presidency. Obama clearly starts off with an electoral advantage, only needing 33 of the 110 electoral votes to win. Of course, it's not that simple.

So, let's look at the scenarios:

Romney needs, needs, needs Florida.
Florida is a must-win for Romney. If he loses Florida, he would have to win every other Swing State save New Hampshire to win, and quite frankly that is nearly impossible. Effectively, if he loses Florida he's lost the election. So all scenarios below assume he is going to win Florida, since otherwise he is done.

The good news for the GOP is that Romney has led in Florida for quite some time, and while the polls have tightened recently all of the demographics seem to be favoring him. Obama also won with less than 3% last time, in an election year that favored him greatly. Romney has a decent chance (though by no means certain) of winning it.

This puts the gap to 237 Obama - 220 Romney, a much more competitive landscape.

Romney is probably going to win North Carolina.
While Obama unexpectedly won North Carolina in 2012 and the race has been close, Romney has led here for a while. In fact, up until about a week ago he had been leading above the margin of error for almost a month, so much so that CNN stopped calling it a swing state. Of course, it did end up swinging back to toss-up status, but chances are that Romney will win this state as well. We'll still look at scenarios where Romney loses NC, but baring some odd surge in the polls it seems unlikely at this point.

At this point the contest is practically even at 237 Obama - 235 Romney. Now it's a race.

All other states are now more or less within the margin of error, so they can honestly go either way. 

Romney needs, needs, needs Ohio. Though not as bad as Florida
With Ohio's 18 electoral votes, Romney will need this to stay competitive. Since many of the other states have been trending for Obama, it's going to be a lot easier for Obama to pick up the remaining 15 votes (to get to 270) then it is for Romney. If Romney wins, he still has an uphill battle with the remaining states, but if Obama wins his options become severely limited.

For example, if Obama wins Ohio, he only needs to win North Carolina or any two other states (except New Hampshire) to win.

The good news for Obama is that he's been leading in Ohio for months. It is highly likely that he will win. It's still within the margin of error, of course, so turnout and undecideds can always make it much closer, but there's a good chance that Obama will win Ohio's 18 electoral votes.

Still, either candidate can cobble together states to overcome a loss in Ohio. It's just a lot easier for Obama than Romney.

Romney has a few sad options for an Ohio-less win
As noted above, the chance of Obama winning Ohio is pretty good. While the demographics and turnout favor Romney, the 3% lead Obama has enjoyed, even though it's within the margin of error, has been consistent enough that it seems solid and it will be very difficult for Romney to crack. So what options does Romney have if he loses Ohio?

Assuming a Florida and North Carolina win and an Ohio loss to Obama, Romney will need 35 electoral votes to win. He can make up for the Ohio loss by winning both Virginia and Wisconsin, and then winning some combination of the rest: Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire. He can win Colorado and any other state, or both Iowa and Nevada.

He can lose Wisconsin and make up for it in Colorado (and can be interchanged above), but the one-vote loss at that point will make things a little tighter. Virginia is nearly a must-win if he loses Ohio, since that means Obama only needs two more electoral votes to win.

The problem for Romney is that if he loses Ohio, there's a pretty good chance he will lose Wisconsin as well, which has very similar demographics. This means he will have to rely on every other swing state to win.

The most likely Ohio-less Romney victory is winning Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Colorado. Obama would then win Nevada, Iowa, and Ohio. If Romney wins both Nevada and Iowa he can lose any other state and still win.

Remember the Maine!
A monkey wrench in this entire analysis is Maine's second congressional district. It is possible, due to Maine's electoral distribution rules, that Romney wins one electoral vote here. This actually opens up a few more options for him--a lot of the totals above are only one or two votes to victory--but quite frankly if Romney wins this district he is going to have a pretty good night anyway.

Wild Cards: Pennsylvania and Michigan
Two solidly Democratic states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have been oddly close this election season. While still outside the margin of error, Obama has less than a 5% lead--and since there are still 2-3% undecided in each state, it's not unreasonable to think that Romney could pull it off. This is especially notable in Pennsylvania, where Hurricane Sandy might cause less than the expected turnout in Philadelphia. If Romney somehow wins either of these states (with 20 electoral votes for Pennsylvania and 16 for Michigan), it cracks his opportunities wide open--he can start losing other states (like Ohio) without many problems. Although, again, if Romney is winning states like these, he's probably going to win anyway.

Less Than Wild Cards: Minnesota, Oregon, and Arizona
There are a few other states that are unexpectedly close. Minnesota, in particular, is oddly close, though still outside the margin of error. In Obama's favor, Arizona is also somewhat in play. Since the electoral prizes for these are smaller and the polling not as close as the others, these haven't been getting much attention and are unlikely to change from the expected winners. But if somehow Romney wins Minnesota, it will let him roughly make up for a Wisconsin, Colorado, or even Virginia loss.

What No One Wants To Think About: A Tie
Unfortunately, in all of these scenarios there is an increasing likelihood of a tie. While it's always been a threat, this year the chance seems better than normal. Here are a few situations where a tie could occur:

Assume that Obama wins Colorado and Virginia and Romney wins Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida:

Obama wins Wisconsin and Romney wins Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire;
Obama wins Iowa and New Hampshire and Romney wins Nevada and Wisconsin;
Obama wins Nevada and New Hampshire and Romney wins Iowa and Wisconsin

Add into this the chance that Romney wins Maine's 2nd congressional District, and there are even more opportunities for a tie. I won't go through them all, but one of them is Romney winning Ohio, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa and Obama winning Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia.

In a tie, each state in the House votes for one of the top three candidates (for practical purposes, Romney and Obama) with each state getting one vote. Romney would definitely win this one. The senate would elect the Vice President; in this case, it would be Biden, since the Senate would be controlled by the Democrats. While this is an unlikely scenario, the possibility is certainly there.

Game Plan for Romney: If he can win Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, and then win Virginia and any other state, he wins. (Virginia and New Hampshire would put him at 270, the minimum required to win.) If he loses Ohio, he had to get most of the high-count swing states to win.

Game Plan for Obama: Win Florida and you can go to sleep--he just needs one more state (even New Hampshire) to win. Otherwise, win Ohio and North Carolina--or any equivalent 15-vote combination, which shouldn't be hard--and you win. Lose both Florida and Ohio, though, and you have to start sweeping everything else.

Most Likely Victory Scenario for Romney: Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio (Puts Romney at 275)

Most Likely Victory Scenario for Obama:  Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire (Puts Obama at 294)

The Polls: Right now, it looks like Romney will take North Carolina. He is up in Florida. On Obama's side, he's consistently polled high in Ohio and Wisconsin, so will probably take both of those. Virginia and Colorado are less than 1% difference, so they are true tossups. The remainder (New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nevada) are trending Obama, but all are within the margin of error. Although Wisconsin and North Carolina look like they are locked pretty good (for Obama and Romney, respectively), these states are well within the margin of error and could go either way.

Warning Signs: If Romney wins Maine's 2nd district, it will probably mean a good night for him--it means the undecideds and turnout is favoring him. A Pennsylvania win would mean the same thing (and almost assures a victory--if Romney is winning PA, he's probably winning in places like Ohio and Wisconsin). If Obama take North Carolina, it's going to be a long night for Romney.

Tomorrow--election day!--we'll take a more in-depth look at what to watch out for throughout the night.