Thursday, February 27, 2014

What If Pittsburgh Had Its Own Portlandia?

The newest season of Portlandia is coming up soon. Starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, it’s a sketch comedy that plays off of Portland's…quirky reputation. 

Of course, us Pittsburghers are no stranger to Portland.

There have been quite a few comparisons between the once-trendy Oregon metropolis and the Steel City, mostly due to each city's reputation as a place with a growing innovative class and a haven for hipsters. Once considered old with a rusty reputation as a burned-out post-industrial hub, Pittsburgh had transformed and sold itself as a city not on the rise, but reclaiming its earned reputation as a place where important things are happening...and not without merit.

But still, the popularity of Portlandia got me to thinking…what if there were a version of Portlandia, only for Pittsburgh? Kind of like a Yinztopia, if you will. Just to give you an idea of how awesome this coukd be, gere are a few ideas for recurring sketches:

  • Michael Keaton guest stars as an out-of-place industrial manager plopped into a dying steel factory, where through sheer force of his personality and keen diplomacy wins over the workforce and gets the place up and profitably a craft brewery.
  • A forty-part historical documentary on the flooding of the Mon Wharf.
  • A couple who invents time travel and, with the entire recorded history of all mankind at their fingertips and the ability to change the course of history for the better, spend their time going to Hills to buy popcorn, visiting the Civic Arena to call Jaromir Jagr a jagoff, and watching Nick Perry pull the 666 drawing.
  • Instead of a time machine, another couple just goes to Kennywood where they are immediately transported to 1978.
  • A charmingly unrealistic sketch where the mayor of Pittsburgh (Bill Peduto, playing himself) engages in routine administrative city work by using a social media platform like, say, Twitter to help facilitate some boring but essential civic task, like filling potholes.
  • A pretentious couple who critiques the art we have in our parking garages.
  • David Conrad and Joe Manganiello give dating advice to Pittsburgh, which mostly boils down to “Instead of ‘running out of gas,’ just take 28 home so you have plenty of time to get all handsy”; “Don’t use Hunt’s, even if it’s the only option, on your first date, or ever,” and “Try your very hardest to look a lot like us as possible.”
  • A pitched battle between two rival gangs: The Smileys (who eat late at night at Eat ‘N’ Park) and the Frownies (who eat late at night at Kings).
  • A recurring sketch centering on that one person that just now got why Kings calls them Frownies.
  • A professor attempts to explain to tourists why Pittsburgh seems to like mattresses and dinosaurs so much since there is no discernible reason for this to be the case.*
  • A middle-aged couple routinely tries to convince the rest of the world that Pittsburgh isn’t really all that racist by displaying such diverse activities as being concerned for a minute or two after reading that one article about the August Wilson Center closing down, seeing a show at the Rex, pronouncing the starting lineup of the Pirates correctly, and knowing that one guy from that thing you went to a year ago that they think might be from either China or Mexico.
  • A sports enthusiast who subscribes to an increasingly elaborate set of excuses as to why the Steelers are having a losing season, including everything from the clear pecuniary benefits Roger Goodell and the refs are making from Vegas bookmakers to the lasting effects of Ben Roethlisberger’s decades-old motorcycle accident I think everyone kind of forgot about.
  • I’m not sure how the sketch will start, but it will end with Sheetz selling pierogis crammed full of French fries, chipped ham, and haluski and then deep-frying it in Sarris chocolate.**
  • A group of people try to increase their exposure to fine culture here in the city, so they make it a plan to start attending more live performances. Their itinerary involves going to see The Chief, a college production of The Chief, and a Pirates game.
  • Billy Gardell standing next to Frick Park yelling at passing bicyclists that they would get a lot more respect from drivers if their bikes ran on gasoline and called them motorcycles.
  • Two local businesses attempt to outdo each other by making more and more obnoxious radio commercials until they start selling a negative number of cars.
  • A hilarious sketch where people think it’s acceptable to wear Steelers jerseys to church services as formal wear.
Call me crazy, but I think this just might work.

*I would like to know this as well.
**I would probably eat this.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A New Presidents Day Tradition We Can All Get Behind

So, as I was spending my copious amounts of free (non-fretting) time today, I thought of a grand idea that I believe will successfully unite all Americans.

Many holidays are associated with food. You have turkey and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving; candy canes and fruitcake for Christmas; dime-store taffy and razor blades for Halloween; and apple pie, potato salad, and food poisoning on Independence Day.

So...why don't we have an awesome associated food for Presidents Day?

I mean, c'mon--aside from @eleanorstrouser's twitter stream all day each year--there really aren't any Presidents Day traditions. Oh, I'm sure some Virginia urbanites get a lame parade, and we all enjoy getting shoes half off at the local Foot Barn, and probably a bunch of kids got to trace their hand on construction paper to make George Washingtons to hang on the fridge before they (for some unknown reason) get a three-day weekend. But by and large, unless you work for the government or the bank, you had to go to work today just like everyone else, and when you got home there weren't any Presidents Day gifts wrapped and placed under the Constitution to open up.

So I propose a new holiday tradition: Every Presidents Day, we all enjoy some peanut butter pie.

Why peanut butter pie? Well, why not? Sauerkraut has nothing to do with ringing in the new year. Ham has no special place for Easter (except to make Jews uncomfortable, I guess). Corned beef and cabbage would make sense on St. Patrick's Day only if being 1/128th Irish actually classified us as Irish (hint: it doesn't). There's no immediate correlation between peanut butter pie and Presidents Day except that Presidential History is awesome, and peanut butter pie is awesome.

So the real reason is: why the hell not?

I declare that, by this time next year, I will have mounted a massive campaign to create this tradition. It's a modest addition to an otherwise unremarkable holiday. And by massive campaign, I mean I will tweet it and then forget about it until the evening of Presidents Day 2015. But don't let that stop you from launching this juggernaut: next year, and every year after that, we shall declare this a new tradition.

And if you're one of those communists who "claim" to be "allergic" to "peanuts," then feel free to make a Nutella pie.

Doesn't your mouth water over the thought of a delicious, creamy, freedom-filled peanut butter pie? I think such an awesome tradition would make even the most cynical American give a tepid huzzah for Richard Nixon in exchange for some pie.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Tech Bust Of The Future

The mid-90's was a crazy time to be...well, to be anyone in the tech field. You younguns might not remember, but back then the Internet was more of a wild west than even today--no one knew what the rules were. Could you make an Internet site that sold pet food profitable? A nationwide grocery and CD-delivery service? How about creating your own currency? (It's different this time, we swear!) Everyone was giddy with the prospects of what the internet could provide, but too many bright-eyed entrepreneurs with more venture capital than business sense moved too quickly, and an alarming number of them became incredibly expensive busts.

One of the hallmarks of these crazy days was the young, vibrant, anti-corporate culture. Sure, these were kids in their 20s and 30s who took millions of dollars off of merely an idea, hired some code writers to mock something up, created a buzz-worthy marketing campaign to pimp it out, and then, after all that, maybe they would figure out if they could make a profit or not. This story repeated itself over and over again, and as more good ideas with bad business fundamentals went belly-up, it made the ones with slightly more stable foundations become even more rickety.

Well, as it turns out, some things never change.

The article above--detailing a fairly obnoxious party definitely not a party held to bring a bunch of tech companies together--is a little bit too darkly sarcastic to be taken seriously, but no doubt most of it's true. It's like a testament to every nightmare everyone has about the Millennials--the narcissistic quotes, the all-play-no-work vibe, the idealistic, unattainable overview with no one around to do the dirty work.When organizer Andrew Vecchio says:
“This is our fifth mixer. People are like, ‘Andrew, what could be next?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh. Done.’ We have a mechanical bull. Game-changer. Innovate.”
the staccato emptiness of his new-economy platitudes makes him come off less as an innovator and more of a tool, the sort of person who thinks they know everything because they read that one article on the Huffington Post last night. It's the sort of thing you envision a Saturday Night Live parody to be all about--a vapid, slick-dressed character, who, pressed for substance, tries to find random adjectives and nouns that sound trendy to cover the fact that the entire operation has less working parts than Rock Ridge.*

Now, this article notes something that was specifically designed to be a party definitely not a party, not the workplace, but let's not kid ourselves. The former Dallas office of once-hot Zynga was recently sold off after they laid everyone off, and the evidence of the excesses of that endeavor were found draped sadly over each primary-colored room.

Many of the people defending that slideshow say things like "Having video games and kegs and air hockey and massage tables are the only way to retain talent!" just strikes a lot of people as...horrifying. Oh, don't get me wrong--having luxuries is always a good thing, and it's not necessarily a bad concept. And yet for a lot of these places, it's not seen as a perk as much as it is a fundamental part of the compensation package. It shouldn't take a rocket scientist (or, say, a game developer) to realize that having robot battles on company time sounds great when you are 23, but when you're 35 and have a mortgage and two kids and suddenly the market is on a downturn you'll realize that it's all just show.

To be fair, times do change. No doubt the Mad Men set would be horrified that office staffers dress more or less causal now, and things once reserved for C-level employees are much more commonplace amongst lower management and the rank-and-file. And there's nothing fundamentally wrong with makings things generally more pleasant for the workplace. But as the article above shows, the sense of entitlement over "fun" is like a headlong crash into bankruptcy. It's a fine line between having fun and realizing that your two-year-old company is about to get demolished in the workplace so maybe having a vodka at 10am while playing Call of Duty should take priority over getting shit done. 

Maybe some companies can handle it; Google certainly seems to have been able to strike a decent work/play atmosphere at work. But most startups don't have the chops to weather the bad times. Sometimes, it seems like history is destined to repeat itself.

*I suppose nothing contrasts my own creaky worldview with that of the Millennials as much as using a Blazing Saddles reference.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Make Room For Kids

This is going to be a short and sweet post: I want you to go over to my friend Virginia's blog (That's Church) and, if you can, donate to her charity drive. Make Room For Kids is an organization that helps pay for making hospital-bound children have an easier time of their stay. They do this by providing games for kids--consoles, games, controllers, etc. It's the sort of thing that isn't always covered by charities and is often an afterthought; many charities focus on actual medical treatment. Hospitals can be dreary and sad for adults, and downright nightmarish for a child, so anything that can be done to help ease this atmosphere is always welcome.

Here is a pretty good explanation of what the project does overall.  It's affiliated with the Mario Lemieux Foundation and is also assisted greatly by Microsoft. But Virginia's great enthusiasm for the project overall is, no doubt, the key to its success. Please go over there and contribute to that success. And maybe, someday, the child you help today will be the one that headshots you from behind that bunker just as you were going to throw that grenade and she totally ruined your K/D ratio tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Movie Review: American Hustle

Yesterday my wife and I went to see American Hustle, a fictionalized portrayal of the ABSCAM fiasco from the late 1970s. It stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner.

This isn't an accurate retelling of the famous sting operation, where several congressmen and other politicians were caught in an FBI mission where Arab businessmen bribed the politicians to help with various developments. In fact, the movie starts with the teasingly accurate "Some of this actually happened," a kind of poor-man's "Based on a true story." Still, by setting the foundation that this is (more or less) how everything went down, it lets the rest of the cast and script breathe.

The movie starts off with Irving Rosenfeld (Bale, looking wonderfully sloven), a mid-level con artist, working with Richie DiMaso (Cooper), an overeager FBI agent, and Sydney Prosser (Adams), who is posing as English royalty. They are trying to rope Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito, a good-hearted if naive politician caught up in trying to do the right thing for his constituents. It quickly flashes back to Rosenfeld meeting Sydney at a party where they hit it off, and they soon pair up to start conning businessmen in the malaise-ridden Carter economy who are looking to keep pace with skyrocketing inflation rates.* Then introduced is Rosenfeld's unhinghed wife, Rosalyn, who basically ruins everything she gets into.

Rosenfeld and Sydney are soon are caught by DiMaso, who then uses them to catch bigger fish--four guys and he's off the hook. One of these fish is the mayor (now, we're brought back to the beginning of the movie), and they introduce a fake Arab sheik to use against bigger and better politicians. Of course, everything starts to unravel--the mafia gets involved, Rosalyn starts blowing the operation, DiMaso starts getting greedy with who he brings down, and so on. We eventually see the entire operation both succeed and fail, with good and bad consequences for everyone.

It's an entertaining movie, and with an all-star cast like this, you're expecting the acting to the fairly good. I was impressed across the board and, having known something about ABSCAM beforehand, found it to be true in spirit if not in detail. There's enough of a plot to keep you engaged without bogging you down in the financial details usually necessitated by this sort of thing. And there's some genuine unexpected twists towards the end that make it satisfying.

Probably the biggest accomplishment of the movie was how it painted the spectrum of morality. There aren't any good or bad guys here. The con men are bad (they're, um, con men) but they know when to stop and don't like fleecing the undeserved. The FBI is looking to take down corruption, but their overzealousness brings down a good politician. And the mayor is a good guy with great intentions, but also realizes that, in 1970's New Jersey, trying to revitalize Atlantic City without bribery is a fool's errand. Everyone has their good and bad sides, and the movie even references the fact that the real-life ABSCAM operation drew a lot of criticism for being unnecessary in a nation still reeling from Watergate--and had shades of entrapment to boot. It reflects the national mood of the time that, yeah, while it caught some corrupt politicians, in the grand scheme of things it was an expensive, morally ambiguous operation that ended up not really accomplishing a whole lot.

While all of the actors stood out, I was pleasantly surprised by Louis CK. His part isn't huge, but here's there pretty much from beginning to end, and his participation is crucial to the story. He's a comedian and his part is fairly comedic, but it's done in such as way as to be seamless throughout the entire plot.

There are a few negatives about the movie, of course. The love triangle between Sydney, Rosenfeld, and DiMaso was a bit boring. While it was necessary, it was by far the least interesting thread in the plot, and they spent way too much time developing it. The writing and pacing could have used some tightening up. There's a minor plot point--Rosenfeld needs to take heart pills--that just seemed like an awkward way to insert some artificial tension onto the screen. Also, while Jeremy Renner as the mayor was very good, he just looked too young for the role he was cast in. But these are all minor issues in the overall assessment of the movie.

Is it Best Picture quality? I'm not sure; I certainly think it's a good movie, and I've seen worse Best Picture winners. I think the plot and its uneven pacing will cause it to require a second look by critics, and that's not without merit. But overall, I'd recommend anyone to see it.

*Sadly, the movie doesn't go into the details of this economic disaster, but I suppose that's a good thing for the moviegoing audience who doesn't get off on historical economic situations.