Archive for January, 2010

Gadgets – The Apple iPad is a False Media Savior

January 27, 2010

So, Apple today debuts the iPad (…really, guys?), which is basically Apple’s idea of an eReader and a netbook smashed into one. I’ve little doubt it’ll be a popular, if niche, product, just like I have little doubt that it won’t do a damn thing for print media.

It’s worth asking: how does the iPad solve any of print media’s problems? It’s basically just Apple’s version of a netbook. It’s nice the New York Times has made a custom app, and I’m sure that’ll get it a few subscriptions…but enough to put off the fracturing of the audience? Enough to solve the problem of being able to get news from a thousand different sources? It’s worth remembering that Newsday’s paywall has yielded precisely 35 subscribers. And Newday isn’t a piddling little rag in the middle of nowhere.

It’s like the Kindle and all the other eReaders: I see it fulfilling a niche but I don’t see it catching mainstream acceptance. And even if it does, I suspect most of the iPad’s users will decide they only want to pay for the device.

It’s like the Times’ paywall scheme: most people go to the Times for news they can get elsewhere. Once they’re charged a fee, they’ll go to CNN.com or YouTube or any other of a thousand sources that can afford to give it away for free.

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Movies – Weird Al’s Back!

January 26, 2010

For those who are not up on their culture, Weird Al Yankovic, in addition to his invaluable contributions to satirizing godawful popular music, made one of the greatest comedies of the ’80s: “UHF”.

“UHF” basically got screwed by timing: it tested incredibly well, it had a lot of kid appeal, Al was a popular performer…and then it came out the summer of 1989, you know, the same summer “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, “Batman”, “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids”, “License To Kill”, “Star Trek V”, “Lethal Weapon 2”, “Ghostbusters 2”, “The Abyss”…you get the point. “UHF” was drowned out and the movie went on to become a cult classic as people discovered it over video.

This is because it is incredibly funny, in fact one of the greatest comedies of the ’80s. “UHF” mixes Yankovic’s innocent yet deranged comedy (SPATULA CITY!) with a Mad Magazine influence, right down to a tribute to the magazine in the form of the character Uncle Nutzy, and it really, really works. Terrible puns, out-of-nowhere gags (“My work here seems to be done! I now must return to my home, the planet Zarkon.”), and non-bodily-fluid gross-out moments (find me one person who didn’t gag at the idea of the Twinkie weiner sandwich), combined with a real sense of place make it a great little movie.

Sadly, Al will not be starring in this new movie, nor is it a sequel to UHF. But it’s just nice to know that twenty years later, he finally got a second chance.

Politics – The GOP Has a Rather Short Memory

January 25, 2010

You see, guys, this is why you need to not vote lockstep NO! Because then you’re forced to say silly, contradictory things. You know, like how you’re suddenly opposed to tax breaks.

Plus, there are fun nuggets whining about how Obama has a “stay the course” mentality. Gee, you know, somehow that sounds really familiar. Like I heard it from a Republican politician all the time over the last five years or so. I think John Stewart put it best when he referred to Ballsheimers, a disease where you suddenly forget that you actually did all the things you’re accusing your opponent of.

Leaving aside the mockery, Obama basically wants students to be able to pay less on their student loans, to make child care more affordable, and to try and expand retirement savings. It’s seriously as moderate as it gets. It doesn’t even do much to the budget, which is the real kicker. The allowance to help people care for elderly parents comes out to about $100 million.

Here’s my question: what’s the strategy from here? They can rant and rave and whine, but do they actually pull the trigger and filibuster? How bad is that going to look?

Filmmaking – Why I’m Buying a Red and Never Looking Back

January 25, 2010

This semester, I’m taking a cinematography class, which is essentially a grip boot-camp: 14 weeks of studying lights, using lights, and learning about how to set them up and use them. As part of this, we have to shoot two projects on film, and this weekend was the first.

And you can guess how that went, if you’ve read the title.

I was using a Bolex, and while it was an interesting experience, it was also one of the most frustrating filmmaking experiences I’ve had in my entire life. First, I had to lug about twenty-five pounds of gear all over Boston. Then I had to load the film, which required a visit to a Canadian website and a video tutorial as the manual for the camera was worse than useless in actually explaining the process of putting the film in the goddamn camera. Then, I had to hand-crank the damn thing. Then I had to recrank the damn thing.

For every…last…shot.

It made me think, and think hard, about the benefits of film versus the difficulty of it. I’ve only ever shot on video for a simple reason: cost. But I never realized just how easy I had it until I had to shoot with this beast.

Does film have benefits? Yes. But how often do we actually use them? People can gripe film has a better color range, but find me a stock in current use that really uses that range. People can note that film has a finer grain than much of video, but this is a problem that can be solved with proper lighting. People gripe that film “just looks better”, which is an utter crock of shit because the way most people shoot film, it doesn’t matter. Seriously. The way most film is shot is just flat-out unmemorable. It’s not art, it’s getting the scene lit so the actors can perform and the DP can hit the crafty tent.

Furthermore, it lends to this annoying chauvinism that you’re seeing increasingly in the film world that film is somehow “just better”. Well, it’s not. That’s a crutch for snobs and people who don’t want to learn about video. A really good DP who studies the medium knows how to use a camera’s advantages and to turn its disadvantages into advantages. One of video’s big problems, moire, can really be solved by careful wardrobe selection, for God’s sake.

Nobody who has any understanding of the demands of independent, especially low-budget, production would really object to video being used. There’s a reason the indie world has run gladly into the hands of the Red, and I plan to join them.

A friend of mine told me to “take it back” when I complained about film because “film is prettiness and sexiness.” Yeah, well, the same is true of a lot of things that are difficult to use, picky as hell, and extremely hard to maintain. I’m going to buy that Lumix GH1 and Red Scarlet without a hint of regret; film is just not worth it.

Politics – Why Big Corporations Won’t Change Their Tactics

January 22, 2010

I don’t happen to agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling that it’s OK for large corporations to spend money freely on political elections. I think it’s an overly literal reading of the law that doesn’t seem to want to address the fairly fundamental question of whether large organizations have the same rights as individual Americans. Admittedly, that’s a pretty tricky issue, which we won’t tackle at the moment, but we’ll tackle it eventually…which is more than the Supremes seem to want to do.

However, all the bellyaching that this is going to totally destroy everything is a bit over the top. It’s a rather naive view of campaign financing, and the benefits (to companies, at least) of the current model.

Most companies have a very strong vested interest in you not finding out what foundations, PACs and so on they provide funding for. For example, Richard Haynes, the owner of Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Free People, was busted for using all that money he collected from disaffected urban hipsters who think “Idaho? You Da Ho!” is the height of wit to back quite a few scumbags, most notably Rick Santorum, who even some members of the GOP find terrifying.

That’s the thing: Urban Outfitters would, very much, like for you, me, and everybody else to spend as much money as possible at their stores, and overt political action on the part of a company is as good as a marketing effort saying “fuck you” to any customer who might disagree with the company’s viewpoint.

And therein lies the first problem: any kind of overt political speech is also, like it or not, a part of the company’s marketing strategy. If the company has no stake in wooing voters opposed to a candidate or bill, like, say, Remington, then openly backing a political candidate has little marketing cost. But for somebody like, say, Johnson and Johnson? It could be a marketing disaster, and certainly a huge risk.

And for what benefit? It’s difficult enough maintaining political capital when you’re a business. People like to harrumph about how Big Business Runs Everything, but the reality is, politicians keep their jobs because people vote them into office, and if public sentiment turns against your company, the politician who was your friend yesterday will have no qualms about eating you alive. Now say you’ve come out in public backing a party 110%, and then they fall out of power. Precisely how much heft do you think you’ll have with the people you screwed?

What about candidate races? Again, why would you openly back a candidate? How bad is it going to look, from a marketing perspective, if the guy you’ve championed turns out to be a thief, cheating on his wife, or otherwise caught up in scandal? And it can be turned around on you, as well. “David and Goliath” is a tried-and-true narrative in politics, and Big Business is always cast as Goliath.

Similarly, backing or attacking a bill is risky based on public opinion. All it takes is one idiot with a point to make and a pen, and suddenly you’re backing the “Abort the Gay Babies” bill. By the time a bill gets through Congress, it’s substantially different.

It’s worth remembering, also, that most companies play both sides of the fence. Republicans may get the bulk of corporate donations, but that’s only because the current GOP leadership’s idea of solving a problem is to throw them lots of taxpayer money with no oversight (i.e. free profit). Plenty of corporations back Democrats, as well.

Does this mean there will be more campaign cash out there? Possibly, albeit unlikely. Businesses have to make money, after all. But whatever is out there, it’s still going to be quietly funneled and hard to spot who’s paying for who.

And let’s not forget, the same law applies to private citizen’s groups and unions. This entire suit was because some dumbasses wanted to buy airtime to run a “We Hate Hillary” steamer and were blocked from doing so.

And that’s really the thing. So much of this material is doing little more than preaching to the choir. Big Business can do a lot, but it can’t make an unpopular candidate popular. Something to consider, as we go down this road.

Entertainment – Two Ideas To Save Broadcast TV

January 21, 2010

Broadcast TV apparently needs saving. OK. Easy enough.

1) “Fix” Hulu without destroying it.

Comcast, Time Warner, et. al. have repeatedly demonstrated they’re anti-competitive, lazy, greedy scum. But they have a lot of heft, so they have to be accomodated.

So, Hulu is about to go paid, which means it’s about to die a miserable death. And that’s what the cable operators want, because the idea of anybody watching television in a way they can’t control makes them cry, and won’t you spare a thought for the technologically-backward billionaires?

So, here’s a simple idea: adopt a Netflix-type model. Nobody is going to give Hulu five bucks a month, not when they have tons of other cheaper solutions. And truthfully, it’s a sign of how clueless the TV industry is that they expect people to pay for something they give away for free.

But, if you can prove to Hulu that you live in a household that pays for cable, you get Hulu for free. That satisfies the cable operators, because they know they’re getting paid and it’s a solution they don’t have to run. That satisfies the networks. And it keeps Hulu from being murdered by stupidity.

2) Buy the American public HDTV USB dongles.

This next one is so goddamn obvious I’m amazed I’m even typing these words.

Broadcast networks can’t just jump to cable because they have all this infrastructure and deals with affiliates. They’re viewing this as a Sisyphusean boulder, but that’s because they’re not thinking. The US buys eight figures worth of laptops a year. The laptop is rapidly becoming the recreational and personal computer of choice.

Look, guys, an HDTV USB dongle from Taiwan is $35, and presumably getting a few million would result in a bulk discount. All of these laptops have USB ports. You blanket the goddamn country in signal.

This isn’t hard math to do.

Yeah, it’ll be a costly up-front investment, but there’s real appeal, especially if you bundle it with TiVo-style software that doesn’t allow ad-skips (you know, like Hulu Desktop, which you’ve already paid for). With this, you’ve basically just allowed Americans to consume TV at their convenience, and regrabbed all those eyeballs you’ve lost in a space cable can’t compete in.

Think about it.

Politics – Streak, GOP? Not So Fast.

January 21, 2010

Let’s talk a bit about the alleged GOP streak, and what it proves.

Namely, that, yes, the GOP can win. But only against unpopular candidates, as of now.

Seriously, there’s not much victory really here if you look at the elections. In New Jersey, Corzine was going to be voted out of office no matter what; he was deeply unpopular. Virginia was not much of a surprise, either: it’s a conservative state, and there wasn’t much of a credible candidate against the GOP’s nominee.

And, of course, Scott Brown, who’s already accidentally endorsed an idiot birther, William Hudak, for Congress, won against Martha Coakley.

Winning against candidates for which there isn’t much enthusiasm isn’t much of a win. Then, of course, there’s the GOP’s fuck-ups.

But notably being left out of the GOP’s narrative was NY-23, where the GOP went all out behind an unpopular candidate in what should have been a chip shot. It was a conservative candidate in a conservative district, and the GOP was really going to show how much America, especially right-wing Americans really loved their conservative ideals…

…And then NY-23 went for the Democrat. In fact, the GOP candidate in the race before the nationals interfered dropped out and endorsed said Democrat, one Bill Owens.

We won’t know the GOP’s real strength until we see if they can wrest a seat away from a popular candidate. And if it’s consistently people like Hudak, well…

Politics – The Fate of Scott Brown

January 20, 2010

So, a fairly young, handsome, dynamic Republican won a surprising victory in Massachusetts, one that was a shock and that nobody expected.

I refer, of course, to Mitt Romney. And Mitt’s going to be fairly instructive on what’ll happen to Brown.

For all their celebrating, Republicans need to remember one thing: Brown only won by a five-point margin. If just 51,000 votes had gone the other way, Coakley would be headed to the Senate. If Brown’s smart, that’s got to give him pause, because that’s a tiny margin. Pissing off 51,000 voters in a liberal state when you’re a Republican is not remotely difficult, which is why I bring up Mitt Romney.

Of course, Romney’s gubernatorial campaign was just a springboard for higher office, but since that’s what Brown’s is going to turn into, the comparison is just more valid.

Don’t think so? Stop and consider. Brown’s got some amazing political capital right now. He’s shown he can pass himself off as moderate despite, well, not being one when it was convenient to him (again, shades of Romney). He’s a powerful symbol, and the GOP’s going to milk that for all its worth.

Then consider the Presidential field in 2012. Palin, who can’t win. Romney, who a quarter of the right won’t even vote for because of his religion (it’s distasteful, folks, but there it is). Pawlenty, who is basically an undistinguished doughy white guy. Keyes, who’s nuts. Santorum, who gives even right-wingers screaming terror fits.

Ideal ground for a fresh face, no? After all, the guy who took that Chappaquidick guy’s seat would be perfect to run against Obama, at least by the GOP’s standards. And his daughter was on American Idol! If the Democrats can run some community organizer, we can run this guy! Yes, it’s the face of desperation, but it’s there.

However, again, Romney is instructive. This is how much Massachusetts hated Mitt Romney after one term in office: Deval Patrick blundered into the nomination because the other nominees all killed each other in the primary. He had no campaign or much of a personality (still doesn’t). Kerry Healy outspent him, using $10 million of her own money.

And she still lost by a margin that’s generally reserved for candidates going out on a miserable scandal. Against a milquetoast. Hell, I can see Brown’s victory leading to Deval pulling another “Being There” and winning the governorship again just as a lesson to teabaggers and to limit Brown’s ability in Massachusetts. Romney doesn’t like to talk about this, but it’s an uncomfortable truth: he got his ass kicked, “liberal media” or no “liberal media”.

Whether Brown realizes it or not, he’s trapped. He can’t get too cuddly with his own party, because that will hurt his chances of getting re-elected in the state, which still loves Obama in the high fifties (don’t delude yourself, Republicans; the poll that Obama had somehow dropped to 44% in Massachusetts is a joke).

Make no mistake, he has a tough fight ahead of him in 2012. He’ll most likely be up against Mike Capuano, a long-time representative who has none of Coakley’s reputation or image problems, and the backing of a Democratic machine that even with a candidate who took the race for granted still nearly beat him. You know, like how Kerry nearly took Ohio in 2004, despite a lackluster campaign. So Brown has to avoid, over the next three years, giving that machine any rope to hang him with.

So, cuddling up to the party is a mistake. But trying to play a moderate will ruin him on the national level.

The GOP, as repeatedly noted, votes lockstep NO! against Obama. They’re not interested in debate or moderation. So, if Brown plays along to get along, and quite frankly, we’ve seen that’s exactly what he does, he’s going to put the torch to the bridges he needs to get reelected in 2012 as a Senator awfully fast.

So, in short, for him to last beyond 2012 as a Senator, he’s going to have to grow some balls, stop flip-flopping, and choose between the GOP’s future and its past. I don’t see Brown as some sort of catalyst for the GOP to develop some hindsight, so, you can guess how I think that’ll end.

As to what chance Brown has in 2012 as a Presidential candidate, talk to me in a year for a fairer assessment, but as of right now? Hell no. Two years is plenty of time for the economy to turn around enough for Obama to win a second term. That the GOP is committing the same political suicide they committed against Clinton less that twenty years ago is an eerie echo of, I suspect, how things will go in 2012.

The reality is, the Democrats still have a majority, and the GOP is basically hoping they drastically fuck up and the economy (which they ruined) is still bad in 2010 so they can go back to the same old policies. They’re facing fourteen retirements to the Democrats’ ten. They’re still fighting over their party’s future.

In short, Brown’s likely just another dollop of the same old shit. But who knows? Maybe he really will manage to be a conservative anomaly in a liberal state.

Until he proves himself, though, color me skeptical.

Politics – Can I Get Some F**KING Election Results? Please?

January 19, 2010

Regardless of how this contest goes, I’d like to know NOW whether or not I need to start drinking immediately after I get home or whether or not I go to the gym first.

Oh, and if you’re reading this, and you haven’t already voted, go vote, dammit. This is important.

Politics – Scott Brown’s Lack of Character

January 18, 2010

Go ahead. Watch that fifteen seconds.

Then watch this:

This is his attempt to cover up for his little Facebook episode, wherein he read a bunch of obscene comments teenagers made about him on Facebook to a public assembly of teenaagers.

Then tell me why anybody is voting for this guy. What a fucking ass.