Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Attractions for 2013

It's Halloween! Yay! Now is the time when grown men and women walk around dressed like bumblebees or sexy bumblebees or Walter White or Paula Deen in blackface or whatever is trendy this year and no one bats an eye. In fact, this is the sort of artificially-created holiday that lets normally serious people let off a little creative steam by getting sugared up and dressing like sluts.

One of the better ways to spend the spooky day tomorrow is by visiting a haunted house. "Haunts" are big business anymore, and are no longer restricted to houses--there's haunted cornfields, haunted swamps, haunted amusement parks, haunted Social Security Administration buildings*, and so on.

Well, me, being ever the entrepreneur, will gladly provide--free of charge for my readership!--a list of proposals for various rooms and attractions at the next big haunted house. So go put on your licensed superhero costume, put some boo juice in your red Solo cup, and go scare the shit out of some people!
  • Upon entering the haunt, you will be assigned to a group that must stay together the entire time. In this group, one will be a vegan, one will be a college-aged atheist, one will be a libertarian, and one will sell crafts on Etsy. You will know who is who within thirty seconds. 
  • Lead a bunch of people into a room. Then lock the door. They can't leave until they each eat an entire bag of spiced candy corn. The only thing they can drink? Diet Fresca.
  • There will be a room full of mirrors, but instead of reflections the mirrors will publicly display what you've been watching on Netflix. Yup, even The Bad Girls Club and My Super Sweet 16.
  • Get strapped down, Clockwork Orange-style, in front of a live feed of tweets from Luke Ravenstahl where he tries to convince you of all his accomplishments as mayor of Pittsburgh.
  • Have a pitch-black room devoid of all sensory input except for car dealership radio commercials played on an endless loop.
  • You have to watch a set of grandparents try and buy health care off of healthcare.gov and you're not allowed to help them. You just have to watch.
  • In order to move into the next room, you have to read the most recent Facebook statuses of all your high school friends that you no longer actually talk to. Out loud and without wincing or defriending.
  • You enter a room with three people. One really, really likes Firefly. One really, really likes Homestuck. One really, really likes Naruto. That is all.
  • You are blindfolded. You are going to be fed a Primanti's sandwich...or maybe an Eat 'N' Park sandwich pretending to be a Primanti's sandwich.
  • You must stand next to your childhood pastor and watch the Miley Cyrus performance on the VMAs on a loop.
  • Remember that time when you were in ninth grade and you asked that girl out and she said no and someone overheard and told the whole school and then she made fun of you the next day in front of all your friends the day you had gym and forgot the combination to your locker and there was that quiz you forgot about and failed and the teacher gave you a disapproving look right before you found out you didn't make the soccer team and you've been trying since college to create better memories to flush out the cripplingly embarrassing ones like that one? The haunted house remembers, and is going to gleefully remind you all night tonight.
  • Enter a corn maze where the only way to get out is to ask directions from a guy whose iPhone has "almost found, any second now" his GPS coordinates and insists that that be the only way to get everyone out of the maze.
  • The hallways are lined with pumpkins carved out to look like John Boehner, which is surprisingly easy to do.
  • Stand around in a group with people wearing costumes that were at best mildly funny a few years ago, like the Octomom, Miss South Carolina, or Susan Boyle, and you have to pretend it's the most hilarious thing you've ever seen.
  • Get locked in a room where you can't leave until you drink a jug of Gatorade and then brush your teeth. Or the reverse; it's your funeral.
Have fun sleeping tonight!

*No, wait, that's every day.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Toaster Oven 2, Me 0

For those of you who have been reading for a while, you know that me and my toaster oven have a relationship that, if my toaster oven were on Facebook, would put our relationship at "It's Complicated."

I love my toaster oven for the fact that it is awesomely convenient to prepare pretty much any tasty food. I hate it because occasionally it lashes out for my blood.

Yesterday, I had gone to the store and picked up a frozen pizza. This was in anticipation of watching what was surely going to be a battle for the ages, otherwise known as the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers playing against the lowly Oakland Raiders. Both teams have been pretty terrible this year, so I wasn't expecting much.

And I was right, because in the fifteen minutes or so by the time my pizza was done the score was something like 127 Oakland -12 Steelers (I think), so I decided that I should just watch Breaking Bad in my robe with the dogs instead. (As it turns out, I watched the episode of Gus Fring at the old folks home and he ended up in better shape than the Steeler's defense.)

Anyway, my friend the toaster oven says "ding!" and I go to take out my pizza. I take every known precaution and use an oven mitt; I slowly slide my tasty spicy pepperoni pizza from the circular pizza sheet onto a regular plate. Because the pizza has been successfully transferred from Baking Hardware to Eating Depository, in my mind that means that the metal pizza baking sheet is no longer hot and I casually go to throw it in the sink. And when I say "casually" I mean "press it up against my stomach which, if you were paying attention above, is exposed due to me wearing a robe."

Needless to say, I mentioned something like "Heavens to Betsy, I appear to have burned myself" out loud to no one in particular. I'll spare the reader a picture of my wound; it's actually not that impressive (also, it's on my stomach, so...) Thankfully, unlike before, it's in a place where no one can readily see it, so I don't need to answer any embarrassing stories. Unless I publicly write about it, of course.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Twitter and the IPO

A few weeks ago, Twitter announced that it was going to be releasing an IPO, joining the ranks of companies like Facebook as social media companies get into the big game.

Of course, every time this happens with any of the "new media" companies, one overriding question haunts them all: How, exactly, do you plan on making money? This isn't an unimportant question; for most companies, there's a clear and valid way of measuring profitability. But with social media (and web site in general), the question has become a lot...hazier. One would think it wouldn't be much different than, say, a magazine or a television station selling advertising, but the internet is, of course, different.

Anyway, this article (looking for the "social" downside of a Twitter IPO) pins Twitter's problems on more than just a revenue model and prospects for future growth: It's that people are confused by Twitter. And that's just absurd.

First off, the article looks a lot like a scattershot attempt to take down the company, since the Facebook IPO pretty much bombed (and made juicy headlines). It's entirely possible that Twitter doesn't mind this sort of coverage, since it tempers expectations in the media as to how their IPO will go.

But the point of my post isn't necessarily the financials of it; it's just that Twitter is by far one of the easiest applications in social media to use.

Some of the objection of "Twitter quitters" I can understand. Most people are confused by the utility of it, and I can see that; if you don't have a lot of friends that also use Twitter, following random celebrities probably isn't going to be much more interesting than just to doing it at all. So there may be a little bit of education: following news sites, weather, local governments, etc can be significantly more useful. If you set things up right, Twitter can be at extraordinarily effective "news feed" for whatever interests you may have.You do have to wade through that bad stuff to get to the good, and it's not hard to see how someone could get frustrated.

However, some of the other objections people have seem...well, silly. It takes about two seconds to figure out how hashtags work, and being confused by shortened web links seems silly. Even not understanding acronyms can be quickly and easily fixed with minimal effort. New rules with photos and videos make things a little easier to manage as well.

I suspect a lot of these dissatisfied users are those sort of people who type search items into the web address bar. Twitter isn't ever going to capture those users.

The fact is, Twitter has more or less gone out of its way to make the product as useful as possible with a minimal amount of complication. Following and getting followers is not much different than Facebook; composing tweets is just like composing a text message; and while there are a few different functions that require a little explanation (retweeting, conversations, favorites) none are required to find it useful.

So, in my mind, articles like this get it backwards. The problem with Twitter isn't that it's complicated or difficult to understand; it's that people need to find a way to make it useful so it becomes worth it to put the minimal effort into it to be able to figure it out. It might take five minutes to teach someone 90% of all there is to know about Twitter, and the rest of it can be learned as needed.

I'm certain there's a certain level of tech-savviness required for using Twitter (such as knowing what web links are), but that's not necessarily a problem unique to Twitter. In the end, of course, the IPO will be a success if people think it has a profitable business model and has the potential for needed growth; this is IPO 101. And getting new users is a valid assessment point, which the above is a part of, so it's not something that can entirely be ignored. It's just the focus should be on presenting its utility rather than streamlining its usability, since it's already pretty much as easy as possible. You guys will have to let me know how it goes, because sadly I'm not rich enough to figure out firsthand.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pens Social Suite: Penguins vs. Oilers

Last night I had the opportunity to sit in with the social media team for the Pittsburgh Penguins via the Pens Social Suite event.

Late last week, I had entered a contest that the Penguins organization announced on their Twitter feed, and a few days later I was contacted by their social media contact to tell me that I had won. I would be attending the game against the Edmonton Oilers from one of the suites in the Consol Energy Center and given the opportunity to utilize social media during the game. I brought my wife as a guest--who was so excited she went out and bought us new Penguins shirts--and on the day of the game we met at the arena about two hours before the puck dropped.

We got fancy PLASTIC tickets for this game! I feel like I need to punch a hole in it and attach it to my keychain to use the next time I get gas.

There were about ten other winners, along with their guests, so once everyone had arrived we headed on up to a fourth floor conference room. Once there, we got to screen the newest episode of In the Room, a behind-the-scenes look at how the Penguins operate. It functions much the same way that HBO's 24/7 program does, filming locker-room, training, and meetings within the organization to give everyone an idea of how things work before and after the game. It's certainly an interesting idea, and I'd recommend watching it if you are a Pens fan; even if you are not it's worth checking out for at least an episode or two. I am certain it gets more interesting as the season continues and new conflicts, worries, and high-stakes decisions develop. One of the more interesting aspects of the show is how amazingly similar working for a pro hockey team is to pretty much any other job--tired men in suits sitting around a conference table having a staff meeting and talking about coffee.

After the viewing, we them moved up to the suite. There, we got settled to see our view:
 

They're pretty good. They're so good I can almost see the last time the Oilers were in the playoffs from here.

Then, they did the greatest thing ever: they passed out Media Guides.

If you can spell "Harry Zolnierczyk" without consulting this guide, you are either a wizard or a charlatan. Either way, congratulations. 

I don't know why, but I was absolutely fascinated with this thing. You know how you're listening to some broadcasters and they seemingly know every single stat for every single player for every team? Well, this packet is full of information like that. It's mostly current stuff (i.e., how many goals per season) but they include everyone who is on the roster that day and an alarming amount of information. Upon receiving this packet of modest xeroxed paper, I immediately felt significantly smarter and instantly became a Certified Hockey Expert. I started saying things like "The third line looked tired that shift. They should throw Adams in" and "Yakupov got away with something there; I expect a makeup call here by the end of the period" and I honestly felt like I just wasn't making it up. Oh, I was, but I didn't feel like it. Oh, simple Media Guide, you make me so happy with your false and unwarranted sense of detailed hockey comprehension.

The winners (but, sadly, not the guests--sorry honey!) then were escorted down to the rinkside center, where we were encouraged to take pictures, video, etc.

You know you've made it when you walk right past this sign and no one stops you even though you kinda look like the Unabomber.

Unfortunately, I was a lazy idiot and never really used Vine before, so the few videos I tried look more like an edited-for-TV movie where they cut out all the parts of Marc-Andre Fleury inhaling. Still, I got some good footage:

DAMMIT KOBASEW GET OUT OF THE WAY! SAVE IT FOR THE POWER PLAY!




About two minutes to game start, we had to leave and on the way out I passed Jeff Jimerson and his alluring strawmat tresses*, where he then subsequently belted out a beautiful rendition of "O Canada" and then our own national anthem. It is times like this you realize that the "Star-Spangled Banner" kind of sucks. Thankfully, Jimerson did it justice and our national pride was retained.

Then, the game started.

During the game, we were encouraged to send out updates and tweets and messages via whatever social media platforms we wanted. We were provided facts and stats about the game if we wanted to send them out (I did, deliciously. It was probably the Media Guide talking). I had a lot of fun doing it, sending out horrible tweets that were in no way serious and then having very serious people retweet them. My only regret is that I didn't really have the opportunity to take any decent in-game pictures.

Hockey is an awesome game. It's a different experience live. It's a lot more exciting and the atmosphere of the crowd changes things. Previous games I've been to have been fantastic, both in the old Civic Arena and the new building. Still, there in the capacity of someone who was ostensibly providing information to the public about the game, I suddenly  came to a realization as to how difficult that can be. There aren't any camera close-ups of the players when they have the puck. There aren't any convenient text popups that hover over the player's heads. With everyone wearing the same helmet, moving as fast as possible, switching shifts every few minutes, having the number on their jersey only visible occasionally, and having no play-by-play commentary to help, it is effectively impossible to see 1) who is on the ice at any given time and 2) what specific player is, exactly, doing what. I'm sure the pros get good at it, but for me there was a lot of "Who did that? Who just scored? Wasn't he just on the bench? Where did he come from? I can't tell who is doing what and it's awesome."

As for the game itself, it was decent; there were a couple of goals per period, the score was tight the whole time, and penalties were kept to a minimum. Sadly, there were no fights (I know, I know). There was plenty of cheering for Fleury. Malkin netted a goal, thus now making him score a goal against every team in the league save, of course, the Penguins. Edmonton seemed slow and sluggish, but that just may be the West Coast "style" I hear other people talk about (i.e., indifferently lazy). The Pens only won by one goal (3-2), so while the Oilers might have looked kinda blah they certainly made a game of it.


All in all, the experience was incredibly positive. While we were all clearly there for marketing purposes, it never seemed like it; our contact for the event was incredibly accommodating and gave us plenty of opportunities. The Penguins organization invited us in and gave us the opportunity to be there, and the staff at Consol went out of their way to make us comfortable. Mikey and Big Bob, morning radio hosts, were there, being friendly to everyone and hanging out and just being awesome people.

I know I don't really have to sell the Penguins to most of my readers; they already know how much good that organization can do. And for a company that is essentially exists for entertainment purposes, they do a lot of positive good for the community. Hopefully the future of the Pens will utilize social media for its fullest potential, and it looks like they know exactly what they are doing. And if there is one thing that I've learned, it's that you people really, really, really love that "What Does The Fox Say?" song.





*I know y'all love Letang's locks, but from a purely theoretical standpoint I prefer Jimerson's. He could run for mayor of London with that hair!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Halloween Costume Ideas For 2013

It is only a few weeks away from Halloween, and it's never too early to start planning for your sweet Halloween costume. Here are just a few ideas if you can't think of what to wear:

Miley Cyrus: All you need is a wrecking ball, a creepy bear costume, and some salvia. Not required: dignity.

Zombie from Walking Dead: If you can’t find an adequate zombie costume, a dead, beaten horse works just as well.

The Network TV Fall Schedule: Just recycle what you wore last year.*

Walter White: Shave your head and just walk around spoiling the last episode of Breaking Bad for everyone. That’s truly scary.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: Have a track suit? Like to eat horrible food? Want to punch Rand Paul in the throat? We have the perfect costume for you!

Andy Rooney: Just get some felt strips for eyebrows and walk around talking about how you need a knife to open the package the knife comes in and what’s up with the Sears catalog? WAIT IT’S NOT TOO SOON TO MAKE FUN OF ANDY ROONEY, RIGHT?

Grand Theft Auto V: Walk around demonstrating the inherent virtues of freedom of speech and taking a stand against the overzealous moral guardians patrolling the cultural landscape by randomly beating people to death for money.

The NSA: Walk around telling people you know what they look like before they wore their costume. This is intended to be as creepy as it sounds.

Google Glass: Walk around telling people you know what they look like before they wore their costume. This is intended to be as creepy as it sounds.

Grumpy Cat: Actually, don’t. Please, don’t.

Obscure Character From That Cartoon You Are Too Old To Be Watching: Yes, I vaguely recognize you from Adventure Time or possibly The Normal Show. Just let me eat this Chex Mix without you going all meta on me, OK?

Whatever Is Marked Down In The Leftover Bin At Spirit of Halloween: Sexy Bike Messenger with pink mascara and lime-green highlights, anyone?

The Pittsburgh Pirates: Have  the best damn costume you’ve ever worn in the last twenty years, then leave right before the party gets good.

Brooding Vampire: Are we done with this Twilight nonsense yet? No? Then do this, ‘cause it will probably get you laid.

Italian Cruise Ship Operator: Just crash a party and refuse to take any responsibility for your actions.

Siri: Dress plainly and simply, using your vast database of random information delivered with a rewarding level of pretentious superiority, smugly satisfied with the that that while they all hate you, they also can’t live without you.


*Just like I do with this post every year.                                                            

Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus Day

It’s Columbus Day, which means we follow the quaint American tradition of closing down the banks, advertising tires on sale, and grousing about what an awful person Columbus was and why we have a holiday named after him. Holidays have been founded on much, much worse.

Anti-Columbus fervor seems to have reached an all-time high this year; not sure why. There was some damning new evidence that Columbus wasn’t all that great of a guy (what with the mutilating torture and genocide) back in 2006, and it’s just now filtering out into the cultural patchwork. Well-known cartoonist The Oatmeal has an appeal to ditch Columbus in favor of revered Bartolome de Las Casas that has been making the rounds, which probably adds to the fuel.

For the record, I’m for changing the holiday. I think single-person holidays are generally a bad idea specifically for this reason; our heroes are often flawed, and it is not until later when attitudes change and new evidence is released that people realize how much of a dickhole they really are. Christopher Columbus was a pretty good explorer, but once he got to the New World he proved to be a rotten administrator, an uninspiring leader, and a greedy, morally bankrupt awful human being.

Now, every nation on earth has their horrible yet venerated leaders; people who did good, but had some bad qualities as well. We usually handwave these away as “the context of the times,” or “the ends justify the means,” both of which can be valid (depending on the transgression, of course). And while everyone in the back of their mind knew that Columbus was kind of a jerk, we didn’t really know the extent of his assholishness until the last decade or so. 

Still, a lot of things people are holding against Columbus are a bit unfair. Specifically:


  • Genocide of the Indians: While Columbus was quite unkind to the natives of Hispanolia, historical revisionists are keen to dump the entirety of the North American purge of Native Americans at Columbus’s feet. While he was horrible from a human rights standpoint, his direct hand influenced relatively few of them. So Columbus can rightly be held responsible for bringing Europe to the New World, but that’s hardly enough to warrant accusing him of continent-wide destruction. If it hadn't been Columbus, it would have been someone else.
  • Not Really Discovering America: Yes, yes, we get it—the Vikings were here first. But detractors miss the point: Columbus found America specifically for European trade and colonization (Europe being more or less the most powerful entity on the planet at the time), thus changing the course of history more than pretty much any other act. Yeah, Leif Ericson was first, but then they went home. They barely ranked a blip in the overall grand scheme of history. Columbus’s actions—not just for navigation, but politically and culturally—was humongous, for better or worse.
  • A lot of people bring up the point that, no, Columbus and Europeans did not really believe that the world was flat. And while this is true, it also discounts exactly how treacherous the journey still was. Yeah, they knew the earth was round, but they still had no idea what was beyond a certain point. Columbus somehow managed to sail three ships full of sailors who had no idea if they would survive—more so than usual, anyway. So, yeah, it’s not like they were completely ignorant of cartography, but that doesn’t mean the voyage wasn’t unprecedented, difficult, and—yes—courageous.
It is difficult to really have a position on things like historical revisionism. New information is discovered all the time, and this most certainly should factor in how we treat our historical figures. On the other hand, a lot of people love to heap unwarranted and exaggerated blame on our history because it suits their ideological needs. In the case of Columbus, it splits the difference—new information has shown us that he is an unrepentant scumbag, but that also shouldn’t diminish his real and history-changing accomplishments.

Do I think he holiday will go away? Absolutely not. Purging a federal holiday is nearly impossible; it would be like banning gifts for Christmas. Will it be changed to something else, probably something like Explorer’s Day or (my preference) Discoverer’s Day (to encompass science as well as exploration)? I can see that happening. We should totally have a holiday celebrating science. The question remains, though: will the Knights of Columbus let us?

The Pledge: Christopher Columbus was an awful person who should not have his own holiday, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t important.

Edit: A lot of anti-Columbus sentiment (and, sadly, a lot of bad history) comes from a book called A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. This book brings a unique and needed perspective of history; unfortunately, it's also badly researched history. It mainly consists of accounts from the "common" people but without any context, sort of like if we had written a history based solely off of Facebook statuses. While I don't want to dismiss the accounts listed in the book, most people don't realize that from an academic perspective the Columbus account presented there is not optimal. There is no doubt that most of it happened, but People's History is a bad source to cite for your arguments, and appears to be the one The Oatmeal uses.

Requiem for Buctober

Anyone who has been to Pittsburgh knows that the professional sports scene is...something peculiar. Sure, all teams have their devoted fan base and the less square sociologists have a field day theorizing as to why (when your industrial base is declining while you're being sold a Morning in America, of course you'll flock to a violent team-building organization bent on making you forget your troubles [for a modest fee!]). Still, there's something about Pittsburgh sports that's always seemed more or less unique.

Yeah, the sociologists might have a point. When the steel mills closed down and Pittsburghers had to create a diaspora across the nation looking for work, they brought with them that devotion--and it didn't hurt that the Steelers were in their prime, winning four Superbowls in a five-year period (and the Pirates winning a championship twice in a decade). Pittsburghers acted as highly effective evangelicals for the Steelers and the Pirates (and the fledgling Penguins, too, for that matter) all across the nation and, in many cases, the world.

Anyway, as with most franchises, the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins all had their ups and downs. As with all things, of course, Pittsburgh had to be unique: the Pirates, once a proud and cherished team, had managed to go over two decades without having a winning season. Not just not making the playoffs, mind you--they failed to win more games than they lost for twenty consecutive years. There were plenty of excuses--the cocaine scandals of the 1980's, financials issues with the small media market, a series of horrible management decisions--but twenty years of failure was absolutely unprecedented in postwar professional sports.

Of course, this year was different, For the first time in recent memory, the Pirates made the playoffs.

A few years ago I implemented a graphic on the side of this blog called the Pittsburgh Pirates Care-O-Meter, a one-off joke that stuck around for a few months and periodically updated. I added it because, while there was a new coach in Clint Hurdle and so there may be some hope, it also had the very likely chance of just begin another huge disappointment for fans. So the Meter was supposed to gauge my level of interest in following the Pirates, and, sadly, spend most of its time at the bottom as it proved to be yet another dismal outing. I didn't repeat it simply because the joke got old, but this year I kind of wish I did just to see it hit the top row.

Once it was clear they were going to have a winning season, Pittsburgh was, of course, ecstatic. While there had always been a devoted fan base, it was anemic enough in recent years to cause consternation amongst the people paid to worry about such things. The owners seemed more interested in cashing the luxury tax check from the Yankees than fielding a decent club. Finally, years of patience, a new coach, and--not unimportantly--a dismal Steelers start made October exciting again for baseball fans. They dubbed it "Buctober," and even though they lost in the first round it was more than enough to showcase an entire new generation the magic of having a talented baseball team in PNC Park.

And just when that heartbreaker of a fifth game against St. Louis (ok, not so much a heartbreaker; it was a bad game for Pittsburgh) ended and hopes dashed, the Steelers finally win a game (against a decent team, no less). Ah, such is the volatile life of the sports fan.

Oh, and did we mention the Penguins are currently 4-1? Just thought I'd point that out.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Forever Objectivist

It appears that clothing brand Forever 21 has pulled an Ayn Rand-inspired shirt from their catalog.

It's not immediately apparent they actually pulled it from rotation; it seems like the item just disappeared. It's possible it's an inventory thing, but it's doubtful. (For the record, the shirt has a rather generic self-esteem boosting quote, "The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me." Because, as we all know, Rand was huge on boosting the self-esteem of teenage girls with vague platitudes.)

No, it doesn't seem like a big deal, but I find the situation to be a little curious. Like, what happened? Did one of the designers just stumble upon this inspiring quote and say "Hey! The foremost political philosopher of free-market capitalism and unabashed atheism who is normally known for writing incredibly long and dense treatises disguised as novels sure knew how to throw out a sound bite that I can slap on a t-shirt teenage girls can wear to the gym! Crank up the iron!"

Actually, that more or less seems to be the case: when the shirt was added, they specifically tweeted about her objectivism, so their marketing department was clearly aware of who she is. It does seem an odd choice for the company; they are known to be religious, and it's not like their target clientele is going to be particularly interested. (The fact that it is classified as the "Unstoppable Muscle Tee" is just slightly, jarringly hilarious.)

Now that the item appears to be pulled, it just adds more question marks to the situation. Did some C-level suit suddenly realize what is going on? Did sales bomb so they just pulled it? Although I doubt we will find out, it would be interesting to see what happened.  Dagny Taggart would expect nothing less.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Point/Counterpunch

All of the news about the current government shutdown has produced a lot of "lively debate," and by "lively debate" I generally mean a bunch of image macros with midleading text pasted all over everyone's Facebook feed. As such, I've more or less been trying to avoid it.

However, there's always been something that bothers me every time the government gets jacked up, which is basically how people claim that politics today is so divisive and partisan and that is why we are having so many problems. I know I'm practically alone in this, but I don't find high-level arguments amongst our politicians to be so bad.

I mean, why wouldn't politicians argue? That's their job. If every issue was an issue that everyone agreed on, then we wouldn't need to have a government at all. When you hear politicians argue with one another, that's a good thing--that means that they are doing their job. If everyone is agreeing on everything, that either means there aren't any major problems to discuss (unlikely) or they are deliberately avoiding hard decisions (more likely).

There is also a more practical reason why things seem much worse: perception. During any sort of negotiation, both sides keep their information secret. That makes sense; that's how negotiations work. Both sides have a list of what they are willing to compromise on and what they are going to demand, and you can't reveal that list because that would make the "negotiation" moot. And yet, as public servants, they have to pronounce things to the public every so often. So what you get is a lot of non-specific blather that just serves to infuriate people. But just because it's public finance doesn't mean it's exempt from the standard rules of negotiation. The advent of social media doesn't help; not even ten years ago the publicly-made negotiation statements were tight and controlled, and now everyone can say anything in 140 characters or less.

(For the record, I'm not supportive of the current situation. Sure, I agree with some of the details for the Republicans and I understand why they did it, but my overall fear is that the GOP has a "shutdown fetish," as if that is a solution in and of itself instead of a negotiation tactic. I don't necessarily mind if a shutdown happens occasionally as a PR stunt or a short-term tactic; while there is a lot of bluster and nervousness and stress amongst government workers and citizens, in the end it never really amounts to much, so the mere fact that it happens doesn't bother me too much. And I recognize that there may be a long-term stratagem here, and it may eventually pay off. But there are a few too many Republicans out there who gleefully keep a countdown calendar on their desk as to when they can next shut down the government. While my little libertarian heart goes all a-flutter, I realize that there are better ways of accomplishing their goals.)

The Pledge: Can politicians be petty and argue about stupid things and call people names like they are in fifth grade? Of course they can, and they should be called out on it. But don't think for a second that politicians from either party aren't unaware of the effects on the population that their actions take. When you hear politicians argue for one side or the other, they aren't being "partisan," necessarily, they are doing their job.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tom Clancy

It appears that Tom Clancy is dead at the age of 66.

Most people know the name through all sorts of different media--he's plastered all over video games, movies, and the like--but of course his claim to fame is his books. He churned out a remarkable number of books and his works were well-known as being remarkably accurate about military history.

Of course, most of his famous books were flagships of the Reagan-era Cold War. Whether it's Russian subs vs. the US or the CIA vs. KGB, his fiction was realistic enough that you knew who was going to win, but the United States wasn't always white and the Ruskies always black. The global struggle of the Cold War was dirty and questionable and Clancy made no apologizes that the US didn't always keep their hands clean. And yet it was always clear who, in the end, was always right. I was actually assigned Clear and Present Danger in a college course since its depiction of CIA missions was incredibly realistic.

As the Cold War ended, his works lingered on into the post-Soviet world, full of Russian gangsters, rogue nukes, and Chechan rebels. Finally, as the world spun from communist standoffs to the war on terror, a new enemy became the focus of his works. The military details were not much different even if the accents were.


For me, personally, three things stick out. The Hunt For Red October was a book I owned for a long time before reading it. Having read Clear and Present Danger, I like it, but a little bit of Clancy went a long way. Still, when I actually sat down to read it, I was amazed. Near the end of the book there is a submarine chase; you would think that a sub chase would be boring, and especially if it's written and not seen, but you would be wrong. It was a very satisfying and exciting moment in the book, and is Exhibit A as to how books can be just as good, if not better, than the movies--even action films.

The second thing was his Op-Center series. Now, these were licensed by, not written by, Clancy, but I found them to be decent quality; enough that I read about 6-8 books in the series. They were light on the technical details but they did a reasonably good job of fictionalizing real global threats of its time period. I suspect they might be a little dated, but I ripped through those books quickly.

Finally, Clancy was a wargamer (as I was, back in the day) and designed a board game called Politika (which, of course, has an accompanied book). While the game itself was a little dated and unbalanced, the concept (who controls Russia after the fall of communism) combined with a decent amount of strategy made it a pretty good game. It was one of the first times I found that my love of board games and fiction could easily be combined.

Clancy wasn't perfect, of course. Many of his works--especially the early ones--were overly technical in their military details, and many chapters seemed to be nothing more than Clancy showing off that he knows the engineering specs of mid-70's Soviet tanks. His name was licensed out to all sorts of fiction of varying quality, so just having his name on something doesn't necessarily mean that it's good. And while he was known for his realism, he didn't shy away from sacrificing it for the sake of good fiction.

I can't vouch for the quality of his more recent work; while I think he did a good job of melding popular fiction with important history and accurate information, it does seem to be repetitive after a while. The introduction of the war on terror, I'm sure, mixed things up quite a bit, so it may be worth pursuing. Still, even if you're not interested in those pesky Reds or tank specifications or what would happen if Kurdistan became a thing, it's worth reading at least one of his original books. Clancy defined the 1980's action novel for a reason.