Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Seven Wonders

Tonight is the last episode of the current season of American Horror Story. This season's narrative arc, The Coven, follows the lives of a group of witches in modern-day Louisiana. (I almost said it follows the "trials and tribulations" but that might hit a little bit too close to home.)

Now, I don't have any particular interest in witches or witchcraft; the whole thing mostly falls outside of my interests. However, I *do* have an interest in watching attractive women strut around on basic cable after 10pm, so here we are.

Anyway, on tonight's show, the current Supreme (which, depending on your viewpoint, is either the Witch Prime Minister or Witch Fascist Dictator) has "died" (it's American Horror Story, so who knows?) and the current coven of witches have to compete and go through the "Seven Wonders" to see who the next Supreme is.

The Seven Wonders involve: setting shit on fire (pyrokinesis), moving random stuff around (telekinesis), figuring out tomorrow's lottery numbers (clairvoyance), getting that one girl to take her bra off (mind control), skipping rush hour (teleportation), vital vitalis (I don't know what this means but it sounds Latin and scary) and descensum (I don't know what this is either but I bet it has to do with going to Wal Mart at 8pm on a Saturday).

Now, that all sounds so VERY BORING. It's the sort of thing Hermione does in her sleep and Samatha does to land Darrin's account at the firm. So here's a list of my own personal Seven Wonders I would expect to complete:

  • Mnemonics: Walk downstairs and successfully remember why I walked down there in the first place
  • Diplomacy: Successfully discuss immigration reform and the health care act with your elderly neighbor for ten minutes without either of you swearing or using any racial slurs
  • Gratitude: Watch cable news without immediately wishing I was doing absolutely anything else in the world
  • Audacity: Find a small child and tell them that all the Disney princesses died and it's directly their fault because they wouldn't clean their room last week. Walk away smiling.
  • Culinary Appreciation: Eat an entire plate of cajun dry rub chicken wings and not feel like a street criminal afterwards
  • Self-Control: Go through an entire Steam Sale or board game closeout without buying anything. No, seriously.
  • Hyperbolic Tolerance: Read Atlas Shrugged. I mean, isn't that enough?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stand PAT: A Case For Keeping The Extra Point In the NFL

No doubt with all the press about the upcoming Superbowl, Roger Goodell has recently been talking a lot about doing away with the extra point in football. This, I'm afraid, is a bad idea.

On the face of it, it makes sense. The extra point in the NFL--a touchdown is 6 points, and having the kicker kick the ball through the uprights adds an extra point to make it 7--is drama-free and kind of boring. The number of misses is miniscule (less than a half a percentage point per season amongst all teams). Why not just do away with it, save some time, and get on with the game?

Well, there are a few reasons why it makes sense for it to play.

The biggest reason is the 2-point conversion. Nearly all of the time teams go for the extra point. However, they have the option to go for two--that is, pass or run the ball to effectively make a second touchdown, getting two points instead of one. It's risky and not used very often, but when it is used it's extraordinary exciting. Now, Goodell's proposal would still allow this option--if you opt for the two point conversion and fail, you revert back to 6 points--but then the tension of having a fake occur disappears. It's rare, but it's awesome when it happens.

Personally, I prefer the NFL's odd-scoring system. In pretty much every other sport you simply get a point for getting a goal/home run/etc. (Basketball, of course, has the three-point line.) In football, you've got all kinds of options: touchdown, extra point, two point conversion, safety, and field goal. Having a mix of scoring opportunities increases the strategy of the game--going on fourth vs. field goal attempt is always dramatic, as is the aforementioned conversion. Lessening the number of ways to score subtracts ever so slightly from this strategy, and I think the chess-like system in place is pretty solid.

While missed extra points are rare, they do happen, and they do affect games. On regular autumn days it's not very exciting, but when it's raining, or snowing, or the wind is whipping everything around, there's always that fleeting chance that the kicker is going to miss. Again, it's rare, but it adds just a small amount of tension into games that might otherwise not be very interesting.

And, finally, it lessens the importance of kickers. Kickers are always the odd guy on the team, much like goalies are in hockey--they're necessary, but their training and skill set is so vastly different than everyone else on the team that they live in a different realm. By taking away a fairly large part of their job it lessens their role on the team, and quirky kickers can be an awesome asset to the PR of a team. They wouldn't go away, of course--they still need to make field goals--but they'll certainly get paid less, and that's just not cool.

In the end, of course, I suppose it won't make that much difference, By eliminating the extra point, it would make some very rare plays slightly less interesting. It wouldn't break the game. But from a systemic standpoint, football is pretty well balanced. I'm not sure upsetting that balance is really needed.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bottoms Up

It's almost Superbowl time, where everyone waits in eager anticipation for the awesomest televised broadcast of the year: a bunch of mildly amusing commercials occasionally interrupted by football.

The week before the Superbowl, companies start ramping up the PR to get buzz going about their commercial spot. Previews are often given to reporters, much like movies or TV shows. Sometimes they hit, often times they flop, but there's usually a few memorable spots each year.

This year, SodaStream is getting ahead of the game with their commercial featuring Scarlett Johansson.* SodaStream, for those who are not aware, is a carbonated beverage machine (and subsequent formula) to make fountain soda pop at home. I've never had it, mostly because when I first researched it they didn't have diet varieties, but I've heard it's a decent product.

However, the "controversy" over this commercial is that it directly references the competition. Apparently that's a thing for the Superbowl--they don't want specific attacks on competitors, which I find a little odd. But the commercial was originally rejected, and then reinstated once they removed the references to rivals Coke and Pepsi.

Of course, the spokeperson for the company called it something far more nefarious:
"SodaStream is a real player in the carbonated beverage industry, competing with Coca-Cola and Pepsi," said [Yonah] Lloyd, in an e-mail. "We want consumers to know that there is a smarter alternative to these Big Soda companies, and we see Fox's directive to be nothing less than pure censorship."
That's baloney. Censorship is when the government tells you you can't say something; the example we have here is simply two private organizations negotiating a contract. It's not in Fox's interest to air commercials that attack rivals, or so they believe...and, really, what they believe is all that matters. This isn't in any way, shape, or form censorship.**

And, of course, SodaStream has come under pressure because they own a factory on the West Bank (which incidentally, makes a point of hiring both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs). Far be it for a company that makes convenient novelty drinks in your house not get sucked into the centuries-old conflict in the Middle East. So help me, I don't know where my opinions lay unless I know what Tab and 7Up's position on the Gaza Strip is.

But, I guess, they've got me writing a post about it, so in the end their little marketing gimmick worked. I just wish it was for reasons less needlessly hysterical.

*It's nice that CNN/Money wrote this article, but you'd think they'd provide a photo that is better than what looks like a screenshot of a still frame from a paused VHS tape.
**Yes, I know you can internally "censor" things and the term still applies, but it's clear that's not what the spokesperson is talking about.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Bus Stops Here

If you want to see what Ground Zero of the class war is, take a look at San Fransisco.

Recently, many tech companies located in Silicon Valley--such as Google, Apple, and Facebook--have approached transportation a bit differently. They've started a bus program, which will pick up employees around San Fransisco on a company-owned bus. This bus, of course, is outfitted with luxury amenities (or at least as much luxury as you can put on a bus) with the understanding that the commute to work will involve you doing some work. It's a win-win situation; the company gets productivity out of the workers (as well as offering a perk); you don't have as many cars on the streets clogging up the traffic; you're helping the environment; and workers aren't paying for gas.

Win-win, of course, except for activists.

You see, the bus system uses existing bus stops that are taxpayer funded. Never mind that so are the roads or any number of other things that private people use every single day. They also have to stop and pick up workers, which, just like any other bus, can cause congestion--never mind that it's no more, and much less, congestion than each of these workers being in a car and causing more traffic. It also provided less jobs for public bus drivers who (oh, gosh!) happen to be unionized. Regardless, the fact that a private company is providing a service to its relatively well-off employees has outraged many city residents, and it finally came to a boiling point last week. The council--in a highly contentious public meeting--decided to charge the private buses $1 for every stop they make, apparently as a way to recoup the cost of using existing bus stops (or a token "Screw You" and a a sop to the activists). Google is annoyed, and activists are outraged that the buses weren't banned altogether.

In case you haven't figured out this particularly grim fairy tale, this isn't about buses. It's not about using bus stops or employees getting a perk. This is a highly public and visible way to stick it to the rich--the people who dare to provide good jobs in the San Francisco Area and trying to reduce the impact they have on congestion and the earth by providing an innovative way to revolutionize transportation and employee experiences.

It's news items like that this just drive me up the wall. Here is a company--a wildly successful company--trying to do good. Trying to do every thing right that progressives want. But the mere fact that they dare be successful enough to make a lot of money is the only thing that matters--they are evil by the mere fact that they are successful. That's the only way to read this. There is no other explanation that doesn't use the sort of twisted logic that narrow-minded rage-blinded activists use when all their reasonable points are exhausted.

And, of course, a lot of the anger is misplaced--the rank-and-file workers of Google, while certainly well off, are nowhere near the 1%. They have rents and student loans and mortgages just like everyone else.

Now, don't get me wrong--there are real public policy issues. Gentrification has always been an issue for cities, as poorer people get priced out of the market. And there's a who mix of public/private interactions that are real concerns, such as the bus stops. But that is sort of, works, right? If you want higher employment and you want new, clean, well-paying jobs, you're going to have higher property values and thus (quite obviously, one would think) higher rents, mortgages, and tax revenues. You can't have some mythical beast that encompasses both. That's not how economics--or the real world--works.

The Pledge: The laws of supply and demand are real, even if you  close your eyes and wish really, really hard that they weren't. And the first way to make your city become Detroit is to start destroying those who are trying to bring your city into the current decade.

And--most importantly--when San Francisco finally hates your guts enough that you just move, Pittsburgh is more than happy to take those awesome jobs off your hands.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Thank You...Thank You Very Much

Due to some unfortunate circumstances* for the first time in twelve years I did not have my work ID badge. So upon a frantic search of my car just to make sure, I had to suck it up and take the walk of shame up to my work building. There, I had to wait patiently outside in the cold until the security guard noticed me and buzzed me in. I then had to humble myself, hat in hand**, and ask for a temporary badge, which I had to wear as a scarlet letter around the hallways of my office.

Now, the fact that I had not forgotten my badge also means that my picture hasn't been updated in a while. So, when I gave the guard my name he brought up my photo in their system and said "Oh! You're Elvis!"

Now, I have been, in my lifetime, compared to the following people:
1. Fred Savage
2. Jaromir Jagr
3. Elvis Presley

So this wasn't a huge surprise. What was surprising was the alarmingly cavalier way he said it, as if all of the security guards simply knew me exclusively as "Elvis." There are worse things to be called, I suppose.

The guard then asked if I was deliberately going for an Elvis look; I sadly informed him that it was genetics, not a conscious effort to look like The King. We then chatted briefly about how he used to dye his hair to accomplish the same look, but that was a few decades ago.

For the record. Let's just say I'm not skinny Elvis.

Now, personally, I feel that my work photo makes me look more like Jim Jones's mug shot than Elvis, but to each their own.

Anyway, we got everything sorted out. As I swiped my badge to go into the hallway, the guard yelled "Elvis is in the building!" Ten points to Gryffindor for the security guard on that one, because that was pretty damn good.

*I was an idiot and forgot my badge at home. I blame lead pipes or mercury poisoning. 
**If I wore a hat. Which I don't. Good visual, though, no?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bean Boozled: Jelly Belly Candy Review

For Christmas my wife bought me a pack of Bean Boozled candy by Jelly Belly. If you've ever seen or read the Harry Potter books, you are familiar with the concept--these are jelly beans that have a wide variety of flavors, and my "flavors" I mean completely disgusting flavors. Or awesome ones. Who knows? That's the fun.

Anyway, below is the video of my review:

I would like to point out that my wife CLAIMED that I needed to do this for a review, which she completely pretended to deny as soon as this video was done. To her credit, she did taste each set of jelly beans as well.

Note that the above link to Amazon is for the third series (I tried the second), because for some evil, unknowable reason they have released more horrible, horrible flavors.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Yellow Brick Road Less Traveled

The Wizard of Oz is rightfully considered to be a classic. It's a very effective morality tale about believing in yourself or following your dreams or the French Revolution or the gold standard or some such thing. I don't remember; it's been a while.

But maybe it's time to update this literary classic with some fresh eyes. The only lions people see are the drugged-up husks of cats caged up at the local zoo. Tin men are known more as lame Richard Dreyfuss comedies and not for chopping down forests. And I don't think anyone has seen, or needed, a scarecrow since the Great Depression unless crows have suddenly descended on the fortieth-floor laboratories at Monsanto.

So who would be the newest companions of Dorothy's? Here are some pretty good candidates and what they don't have but desperately seek:

  • The Bro, who is looking for their Axe Body Spray 
  • The Geek, who is seeking the Legendary Four-Hour Version Of David Lynch's Dune
  • The Cleveland Brown, who is searching for a Quarterback 
  • The Miley Cyrus, trying to find her Dignity
  • The Winter Pittsburgher, looking for Bread and Milk
  • The Hipster, who is looking for his Sense of Self-Awareness
  • The D-List Celebrity, who is in the hunt for A Basic Cable Reality TV Show 
  • The Older Version of Judy Garland looking for That Bottle of Pills She Hid From Herself
  • The Occupy Wall Streeter, who is trying to find the Irony Of Using An iPad To Protest The Rich
  • The Kat Dennings, who is trying to find an Appropriate Vehicle That Doesn't Obliterate Her Soul
  • The Liza Minelli on a quest to Lose Her Mother's Shadow
  • The Lukewarm Scorsese Fan, who is looking for This Damn Movie To Be Over Already 
  • The Chris Christie, who is seeking his Chances of Winning the Nomination
  • The Blog Reader, trying to find Something Actually Funny On This Post

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Rules of Incompetence

The following could be considered a fairy tale, or perhaps a fable with a moral at the end. However, the events depicted below are 100% true. So take that as you will. 

For months, the headphone jack on my cell phone wouldn't work. You could plug it in, but it would often pop right back out. It seemed like it was ill-fitted. It wasn't the headphones; I tried several different sets of headphones and they all did the same thing. Which was a shame, because it kind of made the entire point of having headphones in the first place unattainable. The only explanation was that somehow the jack on my phone was somehow deformed, not that there was anything jammed inside of it. So this was the First Crank Crank Revolution Rule of Complete Incompetence: When there is a valid explanation, ignore it and assume it's something vastly more complicated.

I put up with it for a while; as long as the headphones were steady and I didn't accidentally bump it and didn't hit any potholes with my car, it would still work about 20% of the time. The other 80% it would just pop out for no reason whatsoever except to be a dick. I would occasionally walk around with my thumb pressing on the top of the headphone jack, as if I were some sort of medic whose pager was on the fritz and it was vital that I keep in constant communication with the Command Center. I also tried looking up if there were any known issues with my model of phone or what my options were of replacing it, all of which turned out to be relatively expensive and/or nonexistent. Thus was the Second Crank Crank Revolution Rule of Complete Incompetence: Come up with a labor-intensive solution to a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place.

Finally, I decided that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that the reason my headphone jack wouldn't work properly is if there was some foreign object inside of it. I didn't think so--nothing fell out if I turned it upside down--but who knows? It would be simple, and require only a flashlight (preferably a small one, like a pen flashlight you get at the dollar store) and something to dig out whatever was in there. However, this proved to be difficult: the times in which I would remember I needed to do this (work, car) did not coincide with when I had access to a flashlight (home). So I would pull up to my house and immediately forget for the next 16 hours that I should grab a flashlight and a pair of tweezers and take ten seconds to fix the problem. And this went on for easily eight to ten weeks. Third Crank Crank Revolution Rule of Complete Incompetence: Don't bother writing down or taking notes or otherwise creating a reminder for yourself; instead, shamelessly convince yourself that you definitely will remember as soon as you get home to literally do the single simplest task that could ever be created. And then not do it.

Finally, yesterday, I managed to get the stars to align: I asked a co-worker for a flashlight (which he ended up having, thank goodness); I peered down into the jack and, sure enough, there was a bunch of lint crammed down in there. (No doubt from the six months of me doing everything possible to compress it down as hard as possible.) A simple bent paper clip and ten seconds later, and I had a small, millimeter-sized puff of lint that had been giving me heartache for the past half year. Sure enough, I popped my headphones in, and they connected with a satisfying "click."

So, in summary, follow my simple rules if you want to succeed and frustrating yourself at the blatantly obvious.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Does Binge Watching Change How We Perceive A TV Show?

Warning: Breaking Bad Spoilers below.

Thanks to Netflix and similar services, "binge watching"--watching a bunch of episodes of a television show over a short period of time--has become increasingly common. I do it all the time--in fact, I'd consider it the norm. There's nothing quite as satisfying as sitting down on a slow Saturday afternoon and kicking out an entire season of, say, Dexter, Mad Men, or Parks and Recreation.

This, of course, is relatively new. You could do it before, provided you purchased the TV show, one season at a time, on DVD. Since this can get very costly very quick, it presumably happened much less. But now that Netflix exists--where, for about ten bucks a month, you could theoretically watch entire series in one sitting--it's become a lot easier--and, many say (including myself), preferable. And now that Netflix has started original programming, which is almost specifically designed for binge viewing--it seems like it is going to become the norm.

Still, one has to wonder--is the act of binge-viewing altering how the actual creative process works?

The reason I bring this up is because of Breaking Bad. I was late to the BB party; I watched the pilot last summer and it didn't really click. (Especially odd since many people specifically mention BB's pilot as being particularly engaging.) When the final season started I decided to try and catch up on it, so I started watching the entire series. I would spend every night watching 3-4 episodes at once. Unfortunately, I didn't get to go through the entire series before the finale, so I missed it.

Over the holidays, however, AMC had a Breaking Bad marathon, and I recorded them all. (The last half-season wasn't available on Netflix yet.) I then sat and watched the last 8 episodes in one day. While I enjoyed the ending, I could feel that my experience with the show was changed because I had binge-watched it.

Basically, on the last few episodes, nearly all of Walt's enemies are killed in some way. This includes Todd, Uncle Jack, and Lydia. (There's a bunch of other stuff, too, of course.) It's a fantastic chess-piece maneuvering by Walt, filled with all sorts of tension and resolutions. And yet, a part of me wasn't satisfied. It slowly dawned on me as to why: all of these characters had been introduced in the first half of the last season. Unlike the previous seasons with a main antagonist (especially Gus Fring), the anticipation of what Walt's enemies would do spanned multiple seasons--which, in real life, would have been years. Here, I had just met these characters not that long ago, and their resolution just didn't really click. I didn't care what happened to Lydia. I really didn't care what happened to Uncle Jack; he barely had any screen time up until the last three or four episodes. It was nice to see the revenge plot fulfilled, but I didn't have time to build up any resentment towards any of them.

Had I watched Breaking Bad in a real-time manner, this would probably be different. Lydia, for example, was first introduced in July 2012...and the final episode was September 29th, 2013. In real life, people had a year and a half to discuss her character, complain how they hated her, analyze her intentions, and so on. For me, it was about a month, if that--and had I truly binge-watched it, days. She was a blip in the 60-odd episodes of the series. 

I don't know if this is something that will be common or not. Maybe it was just with this one series; maybe everyone will get used to it and compensate accordingly. Presumably this would only be an issue with dramas; comedies rarely have anything so important that binge-watching would ruin it. Still, I wonder if this will change the way in which episodes are written.