Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Art of Art Bell

Art Bell died a few days ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Wafer Thin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 9, 2018

TV...on the Internet!

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

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

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

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

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