Sunday, December 23, 2012

Eight media moments to watch in 2013

Let me start by confessing that my crystal ball is faulty at best. Of all the items on the 2012 list, I would have predicted few if any of them 12 months ago. Still, the following eight items deserve attention even if they don’t turn into major media moments.

The current month is likely to leave a couple of interesting points unresolved. In early December the United States backed out of talks about a new international telecommunications accord. At the outset of the consideration the terms seemed completely uncontroversial, the sorts of things that would interest only telecom nerds. But then a coalition led by Russia and China began building references to the Internet into the language. Though the accord wouldn’t have imposed an actual duty on any government to censor the net, the idea of incorporating content restrictions into a purely technical bargain rubbed the United States and several other countries the wrong way. As of this writing the dead looks dead, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. At least it’s nice to know that someone in our government understands the issues at stake.

Less comforting is the FCC’s current stance on ownership deregulation. Rumors from DC suggest that the commission is poised to further relax the rules governing how much of the country’s media markets may be dominated by a single company. The name Rupert Murdoch keeps coming up in criticism of the anticipated move, though of course Newscorp isn’t the only player that stands to benefit. So far the commission hasn’t made an official announcement, so this stands to be big starting early next year.

With the election over and politicians less immediately concerned about their popularity with voters, we need to watch closely for a brain-eating-zombie resurgence of SOPA. Recall that big media companies want this draconian crap something fierce, and folks with that kind of money generally aren’t great at taking no for an answer.

The net neutrality question will also probably continue to percolate. AT&T’s back-track on the FaceTime front feels more like a strategic retreat than a genuine surrender. I don’t know exactly where the next battle will flare up, but I nonetheless feel it coming.

A couple of media industries bear watching in the coming year. For some time now I’ve been wondering exactly when non-media corporations were going to start taking a closer look at the value of advertising. With budgets tightening and audiences migrating, I expect more and more companies are going to start asking hard question about the effectiveness of spending money on ads. I’m not predicting some sudden, momentous collapse of the entire ad industry. Still, this is an area worth keeping an eye on.

The movie industry also may be making some changes. For decades now Hollywood’s revenues have steadily increased with only a few relatively small hiccups here and there. But in 2011 the studios saw a decrease in box office receipts for the first time in years. The final numbers for 2012 aren’t in yet, but if they show continuing downward progress then we may start to see some changes.

One of the more disappointing trends to emerge during the election this year was wholesale disregard for media aimed at Hispanic audiences. Spanish-language and other Hispanic-oriented TV networks saw only a small fraction of the total money spent on campaign advertising. This was likely tied to efforts by the parties in power to prevent Hispanic people from voting (because if you can’t vote, why would anyone bother trying to talk you into voting for his candidate?). That might reflect the short-term status of this crucial demographic, but it isn’t sustainable in the long term. This segment of the population is growing too rapidly to be successfully marginalized forever. So wise media planners will monitor the growth of Hispanic-oriented media.

And finally, I’m counting the days until Google Fiber actually arrives. The company’s web site currently indicates that I can expect my fiberhood to get hooked up sometime this coming fall. Let’s hope the process stays on schedule. Because if it does, the “biggest moments” list in 2013 is likely to have at least one obvious entry.

And on that cheery note, I wish you all a happy new year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #1: AT&T caves on FaceTime

Speaking of American Telephone and Telegraph, the company rounds out the 2012 list with its early December decision to cave (at least in part) on its block of FaceTime use for its cell subscribers. FaceTime is an Apple app that allows users to video chat between Apple devices (especially iPhones). Neither Sprint nor Verizon had trouble with the app, but AT&T blocked it based on the claim that users would occupy too much bandwidth.

The claim was technically questionable. Worse, the decision was barred by the FCC’s net neutrality regulations. Though a service provider could conceivably charge users extra for excessive use, it can’t block software entirely. Only Ma Bell knows for sure whether the decision was prompted by potential legal woes or the possibility of losing customers to less assholish competitors.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #2: Fiberhoods

In early September Google set its “fiberhoods,” the neighborhoods in KCK and KCMO that will get hooked up to the new fiber optic network. The run-up to the official announcement was exciting stuff, as neighborhoods competed first to get enough pre-commitments to meet the company’s minimums and then to get enough pre-commitments for a prime spot on the installation timetable.

The run-up was also disturbing stuff. The map on the Missouri side revealed a sharp division between the gonna-get-its and not-going-to-get-its, a literal “digital divide” running right down Troost. Faced with criticism about who would get connected and who wouldn’t, Google extended its upcoming reach to neighborhoods that likely would not have qualified on their own. That partially resolved the backbone issue, but it should keep us all mindful of the social, cultural and economic differences between those who can consume the most up-to-date digital media and those who can’t.

On the plus side, at least I now have a general idea of when I’m finally at long last going to be able to fire AT&T.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #3: The Olympics

The non-election half of the quadrennial Landru-commands-it festival of media mania is of course the Olympics. NBC hit a down note when it ran an ad with a gymnastics-performing monkey right after Gabby Douglas won gold, but otherwise we all had fun watching talented athletes from many countries competing at the top of their games.

Oh, wait. No we didn’t. Plug pullers like me got to see little or nothing of the Olympics. Even the stupid ad with Her Royal Majesty and James Bond failed to play properly, crapping out in the middle and leaving me to wonder why Betty Battenberg, Daniel Craig and a gaggle of corgis walking down a hallway was such a big deal.

I already griped about this when it happened, so at this happy time of year I’m prepared to let the matter rest. However, when the festivities move to Sochi in 2014, I’m going to be quite put out if Comcast’s atavistic self interest deprives me of my beloved biathlon coverage.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #4: Gangnam Style

 This video came out in July. By my presentation in November, it was the number two video in YouTube history, rapidly gaining on Justin Bieber. As of this writing, it’s now number one by a substantial margin and likely to become the first video in YouTube history to get more than a billion views.

Its immense popularity has a few lessons to teach us about media in the 21st century. First, it reminds us that our media marketplace is global. One of the few things the United States exports more than imports is media products. And here we have a piece of K-pop fluff surpassing sophisticated efforts from big record companies.

The source is also significant. South Korea tends to live in the giant media shadows of Japan and China, so PSY’s success at least got the world to recognize that Korea exists. A big part of the video’s popularity comes from viewers throughout East Asia.

Except Japan, where it seems to be more of a “meh.” Anti-Korean racism aside, the Japanese may be forgiven for their luke-warm reaction to the whole “Gangnam Style” thing. After all, Japan has been producing weird goofiness like this for decades. PSY’s magnum opus (op-op-op-op-oppa Gangnam style! damn this thing gets stuck in my head) isn’t particularly different from literally thousands of Japanese animations, music videos and other pop culture offerings.

And that’s the real million-dollar question: what makes a video that isn’t really much different from a lot of other videos suddenly catch on and “go viral”? This drives Big Media nuts. In most other realms, they’ve got success formulas all worked out. They know what makes a blockbuster movie turn a huge profit. They know which singers are going to sell tracks and get airplay. They know what works and what doesn’t in just about every medium. Sure, sometimes they guess wrong. But they’re right often enough to maintain their considerable profit margins.

But not with stuff like this. There’s no apparent formula for raising a PSY out of peninsular obscurity and selling his performance to hundreds of millions of people. This lack of predictability makes web-based media one of the most interesting things going on now and an area to watch closely in the future.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #5: Penn sues The Star

Last year The Star fired Steve Penn, a columnist for the metro section. Penn had worked for the newspaper for more than 30 years, which made the termination seem odd at best. However, the editors’ allegations were damning: they said Penn had been copying sentences and paragraphs from press releases, pasting them into his stories and passing them off as his own work.

News folk have always had an uneasy relationship with press releases. In an ideal world, a reporter would start with a press release from an outside source (company, government agency, charity, etc.) and – convinced of the story’s newsworthiness – use it as a springboard to go out and find her own facts and quotes. Someone lazier – or more pressed for time, if we want to give this practice a positive spin – might use quotes directly from a press release, provided of course that the source was clearly identified in the story.

Back in my days working PR, I heard stories about newspaper folk doing what Penn did. In fact, I heard about some reporters who copied entire releases, stuck their bylines on them and passed the whole thing off as their work. At least Penn didn’t go that far. Still, what he did was bad enough, a clear violation of the ethics we all learned in J-school.

If the firing had been the end of the story, it would at best have been one of the Eight Most “That’s Just Sad” Media Moments of 2011. But then Penn put the mess on this list by filing a wrongful termination suit in June. His most disturbing allegation was that he shouldn’t have been fired for plagiarism because what he did was common practice at The Star and in the newspaper industry.

Though I hate to see a big media company get away with firing someone who worked for it for decades, I hope he loses his suit (or at least wins it on grounds other than his “common practice” argument). I’d really hate to see him successfully prove that news writers everywhere are parroting corporate spin rather than going out and gathering the news. As if the newspaper industry isn’t already beset by enough trouble. The last thing it needs right now is erosion of confidence from the few readers it has left.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #6: Political ad files on the Internet

Once every four years we can all count on two big media moments: the Olympics and the election. On the latter front, most of the public’s attention focuses on attack ads. “They’re awful. Everyone hates them. Why do the candidates even run them? Still, what are ya gonna do?” Collective shoulder shrug.

But one of the biggest moments on the political ad front went largely unnoticed, taking place months before the non-stop onslaught got underway. In April the FCC ordered broadcasters to make their political advertising files available online.

By virtue of their use of the public airwaves, broadcasters are subject to a lengthy list of regulations that don’t apply to other media. In the realm of political advertising, broadcasters are required to accept ads from candidates and run them at the lowest rate available. Stations must keep records of all such ads and make the records available for public inspection. The new twist this year was the requirement that the records be made available via the Internet.

The National Association of Broadcasters challenged the change in court, but the suit went nowhere. Now anyone can go to the FCC’s web site and find out exactly how much each campaign is paying each TV station. Of course a lot of advertising – such as ads from pressure groups – isn’t subject to the rules. But at least now it’s possible to track at least some of the doings on the airwaves without a trek to broadcasters’ offices.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #7: The death of SOPA

Congress kicked off 2012 with a couple of eerie efforts to smother free speech on the Internet. The version in the House was called the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Senate’s was the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Of course the two versions differed in some details, but the main idea was the same: extend copyright “protection” well beyond the already-generous boundaries established by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (a.k.a. The Mickey Mouse Protection Act) more than a decade ago.

The Mickey Mouse law was bad enough, but this pair were plain crazy. They would have introduced the principle of “guilty by accusation,” allowing big media companies to run crying to the federal government and get entire sites shut down based on a simple claim of copyright violation. The edges of the law’s protection are fuzzy enough – particularly in the realm of the fair use exception – to require proper adjudication, not censorship based on mere suspicion.

But more interesting than the proposals themselves was the reaction to them. Big Media (with Disney and Time Warner in the lead) lobbied hard, but they found themselves up against Big Internet (particularly Google). And worse, they faced a sudden groundswell of grassroots opposition from Internet users. After a 24-hour protest that blacked out Wikipedia and several other popular sites, legislators turned tail and removed the bills from consideration.

That alone made it a big moment. How often do you see Congress pay attention to anyone other than lobbyists?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #8: The Media Survival Guide

Last month I did an Academic Symposium at the college where I work. The subject was the eight biggest media moments of 2012, and my goal was to cover things that might have gone unnoticed by people who don’t follow the media for a living. Many of the things the communications industry gets up to behind the scenes have a strong influence on our daily lives as consumers. I decided to do the events in chronological order, which I admit led me to lead off with the most self-serving item on the list.

In January 8sails officially released the Media Survival Guide. I wrote the bulk of the text while on sabbatical in the fall of 2011, and in the spring the guide underwent a largely successful “beta test.” In the summer I added a downloadable PDF and a Kindle edition. In the future I hope to release it as an iBook and on the web in a format customized for mobile devices.

Based on the “bite-sized learning” model, the guide is designed for easy reading in smaller chunks, customized for students who need to study in short bursts between other activities (such as during a break at work). If a particular topic happens to pique the reader’s interest, she can delve further by exploring the links at the bottom of each page.

Amazon makes me charge 99 cents for the Kindle version, but everything else is available free of charge, a considerable savings over the $80 or so the textbook publisher charged for the textbook I used to use for my Intro to Mass Comm class. And that’s the real importance here. In the old publishing world, creating a textbook was a costly proposition requiring students to pay the substantial costs of production. Now content is key and distribution is free (or near enough to free that publication costs don’t have to be passed along to those least able to pay them).

I’m not ready to proclaim “behold the future of textbook publishing” just yet. Too many people (professors and publishers alike) are still making too much money for this new approach to learning to instantly catch on. But at least now such a thing is possible.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Six shots or only five?

Several days later, the Clint Eastwood speech at the Republican National Convention is still bugging me.

At first the whole talking-to-an-empty chair thing was just bewildering. Apparently an imaginary Barack Obama heckled Eastwood throughout his rambling, incoherent speech, repeatedly telling him to shut up. That by itself would have been odd, as I can’t say as I’ve ever heard the President tell anyone to shut up. I suppose he’s done it, but it seems more like Bill O’Reilly’s thing.

Far more chilling was the spirit of Ralph Ellison invoked by the stunt. Black people have gone from not being seen when they are there to being seen when they aren’t. That’s a funny kind of progress.

Overall the experience just made me sad. I’ve enjoyed Eastwood’s work in the past, even admired some of it. But here he was clearly trotted out by the GOP with the cynical supposition that no matter what he said, his remarks would still serve as a rallying point for the party faithful. Mission accomplished. I posted a dig on Facebook about the difference between Eastwood’s notion of who owns America and what the Constitution says on the subject. It drew an “I liked his speech” from an acquaintance who sports hunter orange in his avatar photo.

The most telling moment: when even Eastwood wouldn’t stoop to uttering the line for which the crowd so deeply lusted: the Reagan-co-opted line from Sudden Impact. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle raised the only question worth pondering about this legendary moment: why the hell would a handful of heavily-armed criminals just sit there gawking while Dirty Harry reached into his jacket to draw out his trusty hand cannon? “Do 50 bullets in your ass make your day?”

Do you feel lucky? Well do you, RNC?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lesson learned

If you want to hear from a lot of people on Facebook, you needn’t bother with cute pictures of your kids, links to your favorite web sites, funny videos or fuzzy kitties. Just say something mean about a candidate.

A remark Mitt Romney made during a recent speech set me off, so this is what I posted:

“Hey Mitt Romney, here's a citizenship test for you: does being born in Michigan automatically make you a U.S. citizen even if one of your parents was Satan and the other was a jackal? I don't want to see your birth certificate, Mitt. I want you to shave your big, stupid, rubbery head on live TV to prove that you don't have a triple-six birthmark.

“Congratulations, jackass. You just made me decide to vote in November. I know the electoral college keeps you safe from the likes of me. But now I'm going to vote against state and local Republicans as well, something I might not have done if not for your birther crap. Keep up the good work.”

So as I expect you’ve gathered from that, the “birther” stupidity really pisses me off. Romney just made it worse by helping de-marginalize it.

Mass media nexus: this rant drew more feedback than anything else I’ve ever put on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More from Ma Bell

Speaking of AT&T, here’s the potential fruit of its latest dissatisfaction with the amount of money it makes:

When I posted a link to Freepress’s petition to the FCC on Facebook, the whole mess brought me mindful of those ancient days of yore when the Justice Department actually tried to do anything about monopolies. Seriously, didn’t this noise get broken up back in the 1970s? And now here it is again. This thing is like a T-1000. There’s no point to busting it into a thousand pieces, because it’ll just put itself back together and come after us again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It’s a beautiful day in the fiberhood

This post commemorates our neighborhood’s achievement of the minimum number of pre-registrations for Google Fiber. So now it’s official. When the company starts installation, we’ll get hooked up.

Oddly, it isn’t even the prospect of an internet connection 100 times faster and more reliable than our current arrangement. It’s that long-cherished dream that someday, if I was pure at heart and said my prayers by night, I’d finally get the opportunity to fire AT&T.

Because I don’t just hate AT&T. I hatey hatey hatey hate AT&T. Hate it so much that flames out the side of my face, burning ...

Well, you get the picture.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Another 21st century TV casualty

I like watching the Olympics. Or to be more precise, I like watching Olympic venues. Most of the sports don’t do much for me, but I like looking at the elaborate stadiums, pretty swimming pools and the like.

Or to be still more precise, I used to like watching the venues. This is my first once-every-four-years without cable or the dish, so I’m forced to limit my viewing to what the Web can provide. Which turns out to be not much. I tried downloading NBC’s Olympics coverage iPad app, but to no avail. It required a userid and password from my multichannel service provider, which of course I don’t have.

So here’s the latest elaborate corporate relationship: NBC has no problem screwing its broadcast affiliates by allowing viewers to watch directly over the Internet. Yet it still seeks to compel us to remain thralls of Comcast, Time Warner, or DirecTV.

I suspect this will work out okay for the network this time around. But I wonder about the state of the infoscape four years from now. How tempting might it become to pick up five or ten bucks per viewer for an app for people without MSPs? And how much more of key age and income demographics will become unreachable except via the net?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I’d walk a mile for a Morlock

Awhile back Staban was driving down Kansas Avenue when he happened to see a Morlock driving the car next to him. Or at least he thinks it was a Morlock. It had stringy, white hair. It had a shriveled face. It looked like it had never seen the light of day.

Trouble was, it was smoking a cigarette.

This prompted a discussion about whether or not Morlocks smoked. Certainly we never see them doing so at any time during the George Pal production of The Time Machine. But that doesn’t definitively answer the question, because all the Morlocks we see in the movie are at work. They’re on the Eloi-boiling production line, and of course in the food service business you can’t smoke on the job.

Further, I’ll bet Morlock smoke breaks are short. Eloi boiling seems like the kind of job where if you and your co-workers wander off for even a couple of minutes that you’d have the boiling foreman all up in your business.

“You Morlocks need to keep busy. I can’t have you Morlocks loafing off. If the boss comes up here and sees you loafing off, he ain’t gonna yell at you. He’s going to yell at me. So get back to boiling those Eloi.”

Thus they only get to really bust out the Winstons and relax in the car on the way home.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Disclosing tablet 4

I hate to do disclosing tablets two weeks in a row. But I also hate to let this go so long that the next Mental Floss arrives before this one’s written up (like I did last time).

Clear spots

19-0 – This was a good stream of trivia about Harriet Tubman’s perfect record of slave rescue missions.

The Wu Tang Clan – I had no idea this apparently-silly group had such a profound effect on music marketing.

Pink spots

101 Masterpieces: Jaws – The article made some good points about the importance of this movie to the blockbuster marketing process, but it didn’t do much to justify its inclusion in the canon of world art treasures.

In Praise of Sin – Once again, Mental Floss runs a piece that’s more concept than content.

Complicated Concepts Explained Using Kitchen Items – Sadly, most of the explanations weren’t all that illuminating.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review – Absentia

See, indie filmmakers? It is possible to make a good movie with a low budget. All you have to do is think “scary” rather than “stupid.” In this delightfully creepy little tale, a woman has her husband declared legally dead only to have him resurface. He’s in bad condition, and all anyone can make out about where he’s been for the last seven years is that he was abducted in a nearby pedestrian tunnel by something monstrous and vaguely insect-like. The characters are believable, the acting is reasonably good, the script is solid and the story is genuinely chilling. I could have done without some of the forcefully arty trappings such as the use of black and white, but otherwise this was an outstanding horror movie, far better than the here’s-some-more-torture-porn box cover implied. Worth seeing

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Disclosing tablet 3

The arrival of the July/August issue of Mental Floss should probably have been a good indicator that the disclosing tablet for the May/June issue was a bit overdue. Still, better late than never.

Clear spots

The “Scatterbrained” devoted to bears – Every issue the trivia flood at the start is devoted to a theme object. This time it was bears, a personal favorite subject. I was intrigued to learn that polar bears are invisible to infrared cameras and that the Humane Association has specific rules for handling bears on movie sets. Of course part of it was bear hunters and Berenstains. But for the most part the section was good.

The Easter Island Statues Have Bodies! – And so they do.

10 Shocking Secrets of Flight Attendants – I wouldn’t go as far as “shocking,” but some of these were interesting. The height and clothing restrictions aren’t all that fascinating, but I would have figured stories about sneaking dead bodies onto planes were urban legends until I read this.

Are Dogs Really Man’s Best Friend? – Spoiler: cats win.

Pink spots

Cheat Sheet: The Kentucky Derby – Once again explain to me how doing this with animals is okay while dog and chicken fighting isn’t.

10 Essential Life Pointers from John Hodgman – Who? Or more directly to the point, why?

9 Weapons That Failed Spectacularly – Too much animal suffering. Bad enough we have to come up with new, stupid ways to make people suffer.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Quiz answers: Fireworks or Justified?

The fireworks are all shot. I’ve finally got the ash cleaned out of my hair and my left eye. The brush fire has been extinguished. So the final cap for the Independence Day holiday is to post the answers to the Fireworks or Justified quiz.

The first one was a giveaway, as it was both the first episode of the series and also a basic bit of pyrotechnics. The rest, on the other hand, were far trickier.

1. Fire in the Hole – Both

2. Missouri Kicker – Fireworks

3. Bad to the Bone – Fireworks

4. The Lord of War and Thunder – Justified

5. Shock and Awe – Fireworks

6. The Hammer – Justified

7. Cottonmouth – Justified

8. Total Blowout – Fireworks

9. Midnight Rider – Fireworks

10. Blaze of Glory – Justified

11. All Jacked Up – Fireworks

12. The Gunfighter – Justified

Hope you all had a great Fourth of July.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Quiz time! Fireworks or Justified?

Once again Independence Day is upon us, which means that it’s time for our annual fireworks quiz. This year’s challenge: fireworks or episode of Justified?

For those unfamiliar with the latter, Justified is a crime drama on FX. The 8sails staff got started watching it mostly because of the star, Timothy Olyphant. Who of course pretty much guaranteed that the show is known informally around the office as Not Deadwood.

The series follows the exploits of federal marshal Raylan Givens, a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-if-he-feels-like-it lawman who brings his particular brand of justice to Harlan County, Kentucky (locale of a famous documentary about the hard lives of coal miners). This testosterone festival is based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, who is also one of the show’s executive producers.

So it should surprise precisely nobody that the names of the episodes are typically bite-sized chunks of machismo that would be right at home on T-shirts from Labor Day in Sturgis. Or a Bob Seger greatest hits collection. Or fireworks.

Good luck!

1. Fire in the Hole

2. Missouri Kicker

3. Bad to the Bone

4. The Lord of War and Thunder

5. Shock and Awe

6. The Hammer

7. Cottonmouth

8. Total Blowout

9. Midnight Rider

10. Blaze of Glory

11. All Jacked Up

12. The Gunfighter

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Pizza Hut thinks I’m going to eat this:

Actually, Pizza Hut seems to think that I’m willing to eat anything with a P and an apostrophe in front of it. What’s next, guys? P’Garbage? P’Shit? Oh, wait ...

Further down, the copy describes this thing as “heroic.” That’s either an insinuation that a P’Zolo is distant kin to a hero sandwich or just the latest lost battle in the war to assure that the word “hero” means anything at all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The soft, luminous glow of the apocalypse

How can we go on without masterpieces like this?

The 8sails staff meeting is online this week, as a scheduling conflict prevents our usual Friday get-together. Despite the odd venue, we have important business to deal with: the passing of Thomas Kinkade.

Dead at 54 of "natural causes"? Who the hell do you people think you're fooling? Apparently behind the twinkly born-again glow the guy was a serious alcoholic and poon hound. My favorite tidbit: he was ejected from a Disney theme park for urinating on a statue of Winnie the Pooh. Given the character's name, perhaps we should be grateful it was just urine.

So now I envision a painting. Sunset. Pine trees twinkling in a gentle breeze. A babbling brook. Old-timey pick up trucks parked around a ramshackle building, a warm glow emerging from the open doorway. And up top, another kind of warm glow shines forth from a neon sign announcing "Live Nude Girls." Thomas Kinkade's "Love Shack."

What a fraud, Beria says. I hope that when portal to the motel of the mysteries is first breeched, the future Carnarvon isn't assailed by the scared religious paintings of Thomas Kincaid or videos of the orgiastic gospel weltanshauung  of Lawrence Welk. They'd just pull the backhoe up and bury the whole mess.

So now I find myself wondering if civilizations get some kind of advance warning when their time comes, sort of like individuals who can sense that the end is near.

Pharaoh: Okay, everyone. I just got the word from on high. Our civilization is going to come to an end, so we need to tidy the place up a bit. We don't want archaeologists 2000 years from now to think we were a pack of idiots, so I need you all to get rid of anything that might make us look bad. Take all those velvet paintings of "Ammuts playing poker" and "My dad drowned chasing Jews across the Red Sea and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" apparel out into the front yard and set fire to it.

We should be so lucky.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Laws, sausages and shipping

I recently ordered a few items from Cafe Press. They arrived yesterday after sitting in the UPS warehouse in KCK for two days.

I honestly wish the Internet didn't facilitate package tracking. Before I could peek behind the scenes, I just figured that if something took awhile to get from the source to my doorstep, it spent most of the time in transit somewhere. But now I know that more often than not an item will cross the country in less than 24 hours and then spend the rest of the time sitting on a shelf less than ten miles from my house.

Maybe they could introduce a you-pick-it-up service. At least then it would be my own fault if it just sat there for awhile.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More fun with album covers

Awhile back I posted about a blog that specializes in album covers with dead band members removed. In that general spirit, here’s another attention-worthy album cover blog:

The idea here is to recreate classic covers using nothing but clip art and Comic Sans. I’m not sure exactly what lesson I’m supposed to be learning from this, but clearly it’s a good one.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Small House of Uncle Thomas

Amid the hustle and bustle of uploading the Books chapter of the Media Survival Guide this morning, I paused to examine one of the external links a little closer.

One of the chapter’s “key players” is Harriet Beecher Stowe. And as standard practice (to increase student comfort with the material) I’ve been including Wikipedia entries. Stowe’s just happened to have a “this article may include inaccuracies” flag at the top, so I hopped over to the discussion section to see what the problem was.

As if I didn’t already know. And yes, there they were. Crypto-racist trolls insisting that the entry should include a mention that “Stowe never actually visited a plantation.”

Problems with this argument:

1. It implies that you can’t accurately depict the horrors of slavery unless you’ve seen them first-hand. I hope the next stop on the troll journey was over to George Lucas’s Wikipedia entry, demanding that it point out that Lucas has never actually been to outer space. Though Star Wars includes no end of disconnect with reality, Stowe’s writing was based not only on proximity to the problem (she lived right across the river from a slave state) but also on extensive research.

2. It implies that Stowe unfairly portrayed slavery as an unending hell of pain and misery. Not so. The protagonists begin Uncle Tom’s Cabin on a relatively benign plantation. But their owner falls on hard times and has to sell some human beings in order to make ends meet (breaking promises to them in the process). And that’s when the trouble really starts.

3. It side-steps the issue. What’s the counter argument to Stowe’s abolitionist thesis? That slavery wasn’t all bad? That some slaves were happy darkies just like Stowe’s contemporary detractors claimed? Are such claims subject to proof? How could you possibly reliably demonstrate the happiness of a slave?

More directly to the point, is anyone really claiming that it should be okay for one person to be the legal property of another, to be forced to work without compensation, to be bought and sold at will, to be treated in whatever manner the master sees fit? Even under the best of conditions, on a hypothetical plantation on which a kindly, generous master provides good food and comfortable homes, plenty of time off to rest and pursue cultural activities of the slaves’ choosing, and never overworks, sells, tortures, rapes or murders any of them, slavery is still wrong.

A century and a half later, are we still having this debate?

No we aren’t. The entire Confederacy-was-misunderstood jerkweed coalition needs to come to grips with the rotten roots of this belief. If you think slavery is such a hot idea, go to one of the countries where it’s still legal and sell yourself to someone. Send us all a postcard letting us know how it works out for you.

Until then, take your traitor flags down and join the rest of us in the 21st century.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Disclosing tablet 2

I just happened to notice that we still have the January / February issue of Mental Floss (Vol. 11, issue 1) lying around. So if you don’t mind it showing up somewhat out of order, here’s another disclosing tablet.

Clear spots

14 Essential Talking Points for the Constitutional Enthusiast – I already knew a fair amount of this, but it was nice to know that it was nice to know.

101 Masterpieces: American Gothic – I like this series. Though this particular painting doesn’t number among my favorites, I do like it a little better now that I know a little more about it.

The Most Important Questions of 2012: How secure are electronic voting machines? Not very, apparently. Sorta creepy, if you think about it.

Pink spots

Pop Quiz: Name that Cereal – The quiz is interesting enough, but it was better when it was originally published on the web. Whenever I encounter shovelware (regardless of which direction it’s being shoveled), it leaves me wondering why I’m paying for content that I could be getting for free.

Octopus Wrestling! – Return with me now to the ancient days of yore, when people apparently had nothing better to do than bother wildlife that wanted nothing more than to not be bothered. The Washington state legislature tried to dump this “sport” in the dustbin of history in 1976. Thank goodness Mental Floss dug it back out again.

The Meticulous Patriot’s Guide to Celebrating Presidents’ Day – This too-clever bit divides 24 hours up proportionally based on presidential popularity based on a Gallup poll. Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton (in that order) take up nearly half the day all by themselves. I get that we don’t collectively think too clearly about The Great Emancipator, but I’m deeply saddened by the notion that anyone would consider either a traitor-coddling dimwit or a tail-chasing jackass “history’s greatest president.”

The Most Important Questions of 2012: What’s the future of tattoo removal? – Because everyone who gets a tattoo will eventually want to have it removed, right? Assholes. Actually, other than the voting machine “clear spot,” most of the cover story was pretty useless.

Forget About Garage Bands – It’s All About Garage Science – Normally I’m a big fan of DIY tech, but these are some genuinely non-inspirational examples, stuff that bears the same relationship to serious science that garage bands have to actual, talented musicians.

No Business Like Shoe Business – I started reading this with a heavy dose of skepticism about the need for “The Story of the Sneaker.” Oh boy, right again.

The Airplane Graveyard – More reverse shovelware. Or is it just that this place has already been covered by so many other sources that it doesn’t really matter if this is new to Floss or not?

A+B=BBC – I already griped about this in a previous blog entry.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Disclosing tablet

Back when I was a youth, dentists supplied little pink pills called “disclosing tablets.” After kids brushed their teeth, they could dissolve these things in their mouths, producing a bright pink stain on any spot the brush missed.

Fast forward to last year. Mental Floss magazine changed hands, and the new corporate owners naturally made some changes. And naturally some were better than others. The switch came at a bad time for me, because as a reader I’d reached the end-of-the-honeymoon point where I’d stopped reading it cover to cover anyway.

So I find myself wondering if the time has come to part company with this publication. To get a little longitudinal perspective, I’m going to write a “disclosing tablet” Floss critique each time I finish a new issue.

Starting now, with Volume 11, Issue 2, March-April 2012.

Clean spots

The Greatest Greeting Card of All Time – A few brief paragraphs about the Pansy Card, which has outsold every other card ever printed.

Visa: An Underdog Story – What a pleasure it was to read about the rat bastards at Bank of America taking a multi-million-dollar loss. Too bad the tale has a “happy ending.”

101 Masterpieces: City Lights – This entry wasn’t quite as good as some of the other installments in the 101 series. Still, I do love Chaplin in general and this movie in particular.

Going Viral – I’ve been in the computer business long enough to remember the first legends about Brain, the world’s first computer virus. So it was kinda cool to learn the real details.

The Oldest Living Things on the Planet – Because trees rule, especially impossibly ancient ones.

Arbitrary Throwdown: The Architecture Edition – Too clever for its own good, but the ancient vs. new comparisons were interesting enough.

Pink spots

Poker Lingo Worth Knowing – Is there such a thing? If so, it isn’t to be found in this quartet. Everyone already knows about Wild Bill’s legendary, fatal eights and aces. And is a pair of fives really known as a “Sammy Hagar” by anyone other than those sad individuals who self-identify as Sammy Hagar fans?

The Unauthorized Biography of the Easter Bunny – This is an example of one of the new ownership’s less attractive practices: working too hard to make stories clever. A straight presentation of Easter Bunny trivia would have been more readable than this working-it-too-hard “celebrity tell-all.”

Science on the Rocks – Maybe this was just a matter of taste, as I don’t personally give much of a crap about either molecular gastronomy or cocktails.

Hard-Drinking Hamsters – Always nice to know what inventive new ways scientists have found to mistreat animals.

A.J. Jacobs Is Your New Personal Trainer – No he isn’t.

The Fix: $100 and a Box – Journalist Jonah Lehrer assembles a “creativity kit” that apparently includes a DVD of Robin Williams Live on Broadway. Maybe if you gathered your friends together and used it as inspiration for a contest to come up with the most creative way for Robin Williams to die. Extra bonus for anything especially painful and lingering.

The Quiz – These have sucked consistently since the format change. The magazine’s online offerings are way better in this department.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Satan, you can’t have my child-molesting husband

Mental Floss recently ran a quiz in which the object was to distinguish between Guns n’ Roses song titles and the titles of inspirational books available at CVS checkouts. At the risk of giving away one of the answers, one of the books was called Satan, You Can’t Have My Children. With such a tempting title, I just had to look it up on Amazon.

The book was pretty much what you’d expect (evangelist Iris Delgado shares fundamentalist family value hogwash). But one of the reviews was absolutely priceless. I reproduce it here in its entirety:

False advertising. Satan still got my kids. After buying this book, I put into practice all the recommended techniques. But the dark one still got my kids. He used their weakness, taffy, to lure them out into the back yard where they were escorted aboard his star-cruiser (which I've heard is roomier on the inside than it looks). For all I know, they're half-way to the Death Star by now! I've only received two calls from them, and it turns out Satan is treating them OK. But still, I want my kids back. Iris Delgado is a crook!

One of the other (actual serious) reviews of the Satan book pointed out that moms should make their daughters dress in demure, conservative outfits so that their fathers won't become aroused and molest them. Which makes me wonder how reliable an anti-Satan guide can possibly be if Satan himself actually wrote it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

AGF #4

Absolutely Goddamn Forbidden: random hops through time.

One of the most galling things a writer or director can do is yank the audience around by constantly shifting from point to point in their story’s timeline. Even under the best of circumstances this is a risky move. In general the time shifts in Godfather 2 work just fine. Coppola establishes clear visual distinctions between the 1910s and 1950s. He doesn’t switch back and forth rapidly or at random.

Even so, when Mad did its inevitable parody of the picture, in the final panels the two frames get knotted up together, with father and son having a conversation about what to do next.

More recently, I’ve noted an increasing tendency to set up separate threads only a few years (or even a few days) apart. The characters aren’t different ages, they don’t dress differently, they supply only subtle clues that the time frame has changed.

Perhaps this is some kind of stupid trick to make sure viewers are paying attention. If so, in the future these hacks need to work harder on meriting attention rather than tricking people into giving it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Crast from the Past - I Aim at the Stars

Gather ‘round while I sing you of Wernher Von Braun, the subject of this biopic from 1960. Given the date, I guess I can see why the main character’s Nazi past gets a whitewash. Besides, they couldn’t exactly release a movie called I Aim at the English. Curt Jurgens plays Von Braun, who comes across as a man obsessed with rockets, “apolitical” to quote Tom Lehrer’s ironic assessment. In the first half of the movie, he battles against the SS and his own conscience while working on the V2. Once the war ends and he ends up in American hands, Von Braun finds himself dogged by an officer/journalist who lost his family in a rocket raid on London. Though this was somewhat more morally ambiguous than I would have guessed before I actually saw it, the message – particularly at the conclusion – is clearly that the end justifies the means. Verdict: mildly amusing.

For more movie reviews, check out 8sails Movies.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fun Fact to Know and Tell 4

Stanley Kubrick, darling of audiences and critics alike, began his directing career making industrial movies. A typical example: The Seafarers, a promotional film for the Seafarer’s International Union.

For more on his movies, see the 8sails Kubrick filmography.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Redo the math

The most recent edition of Mental Floss includes a sidebar full of simple math regarding shows from the BBC. Most of them looked fairly terrible, but one caught my eye. According to the formula, if you take The Wire and add Sherlock Holmes, then you get a BBC series called Luther. Intrigued, I added the first season to my Netflix queue.

The Mental Floss equation works if The Wire is equal to crime plus Idris Elba and Sherlock Holmes is equal to crime plus England. A more appropriate formula would have been Dexter plus 24 only with British accents.

Detective John Luther divides his time between chasing graphically brutal serial killers and having violent temper tantrums about his failing marriage. Dear American media: this is what happens when you give other countries the impression that it’s okay to base a show largely on bloody torture and a black guy with anger control issues.

Nor are matters helped by Alice (Ruth Wilson), the protagonist’s clever serial killing helper character. Just what the world’s been waiting for: Hannibal Lecter in a dress.

I probably won’t do a full series write-up for the Television section of 8sails. The first season was only six episodes, which doesn’t give me a ton to work with. The second season isn’t currently available, and from what I’ve seen so far I’m unlikely to anxiously await its release.

Monday, January 23, 2012

I neither see nor hear dead people

In the ongoing spirit of “if it exists, there’s a blog for it,” some folks have set one up for album covers that have been edited to remove dead band members. Initially this struck me as a case of “too much time on my hands” (was John Panozzo on any covers?), but some of them got me to thinking.

In particular, the Ramones and the Clash made me really sad. There’s something about absences in familiar images that sharpens the sense of loss.

On the other hand, it’s weird to note some of the bands that don’t currently merit an entry on the blog. In particular, I was surprised to learn that Ace Frehley wasn’t dead. Not that Photoshopping the Dynasty cover would have been much of a challenge.

Staban adds that Ace Frehley is also surprised that he isn’t dead. Indeed, he may have tweeted to his fans, “Oh, my God. What? Who's that thinking these thoughts? Me! I'm not dead!”

Still, his Wikipedia photo makes him look like Mickey Rourke. If that isn’t a fate worse than death, I don’t know what is.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Crast from the Past - Dreamaniac

In case you missed it, here’s what the staff had to say about the movie Dreamaniac:

How handy that the end of the first word in the title and the start of the second word just happened to be the same letter. Unfortunately, the movie itself turns out to be a crapile. A rocker summons a succubus who makes him popular with the ladies in exchange for the chance to waste 90 minutes of your life. Eighties-era moronicrud ensues. Verdict: see if desperate.

For more reviews, check out 8sails’ movie section.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fun Fact to Know and Tell 3

Angry Birds games have been downloaded more than 500,000,000 times. Estimated total game playing time worldwide currently totals more than 200,000 years.

For more fun stuff about Angry Birds (and gaming in general), check out the Media Survival Guide’s entry.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


For future reference, today several web sites – including Wikipedia and the Cheezburgers – replaced their content with black screens in protest of “anti-piracy” legislation currently being considered by Congress. Several other sites (Google comes to mind) stayed up but found ways to symbolically join the protest.

So 8sails symbolically joins it as well. I couldn’t black out the site because I needed to show the Media Survival Guide to my students this morning. But these bills – SOPA and PIPA – are more than just garden variety government stupidity. Promoted by media giants such as Time Warner and Disney, these things in their unamended form would allow an allegation of copyright violation to serve as complete legal justification for blocking access to an “offending” web site. That would make copyright the exception to the First Amendment that swallows the rule.

It should tell you something about the interests involved that former Senator Chris Dodd called the protests an irresponsible abuse of power. High compliment, coming from someone who would recognize out of control authority when he saw it.

Oh, and speaking of students and the Guide, it seemed to meet with a favorable response. At least the Survival Cow was popular. We’ll see how it goes once they start using it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Crast from the Past - Honky Horn Guys

Here's a question that often surfaces whenever the topic of discussion is "the movies" and someone needs an ice breaker question. If you could be any character in any movie, whom would you be? An action hero like Indiana Jones? A romantic lead like Ilsa or Rick from Casablanca? Someone noble like Atticus Finch?

Not me. I want to be a Honky Horn Guy.

You've seen these musicians in every historical epic ever made. They stand there in the background, looking snappy in their ornate uniforms and big, snazzy hats (they always get the best hats). They have the ultimate in job security. Archdukes and senators can get their heads lopped off left and right, but even the maddest monarch never bothers with the Honky Horn Guys. And best of all, their job is about as easy as it gets. These things aren't trumpets or saxophones or something that takes actual talent to play. As near as I can tell, it's strictly a case of "put your lips on it and blow." Caesar approaches! Do do do do do WAAAAAA! His majesty will now pronounce his verdict! Do do do do do WAAAAAA! So let it be written, so let it be done! Do do do do do WAAAAAA!

I can do that.

For the rest of the movie jobs I’d like to have, check the full list.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fun Fact to Know and Tell 2

In an average 65 days YouTube users add more hours of content than the four major broadcast networks have created in the last 65 years.

For more interesting stuff about YouTube (such as current usage statistics), check out the entry in the Survival Guide.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Survival Guide update

I promised myself (and y’all as well, whether you knew it or not) that I wasn’t going to clog the blog with a bunch of updates on Survival Guide progress. As I’m getting at least a little done almost every day, it would become a daily thing to keep up with it, boring everyone in the process.

But this week I hit a couple of big moments. As of this writing, the first four chapters are available online. And more than that, the first eight chapters (i.e. half the book) are available in “beta test” format as a PDF. You can check “the herd” for access to the online chapters, and you can download the PDF edition from 8sails Press.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

AGF #3

Absolutely goddamn forbidden: Michael Moore.

Actually not Moore himself. He does what he does and makes a tidy living at it. More power to him. But the cheap Moore imitators have to go.

We went ahead and finished Dive! yesterday. For the most part finishing it was about the same as not finishing it, as it continued on in the same usefulness-free preaching mode established in the first ten minutes. To their credit, the neo-hippies did set their whining aside for a few minutes to drag some food to a homeless shelter.

But then they bust out the Michael Moore let’s-go-make-a-nuisance-of-ourselves trick, sending a string of nagging letters to the corporate offices of Trader Joe’s. As if that particular store was somehow responsible for the problem. Naturally the chain’s PR people sent the guy a reply telling him to quit being a jerk (not in so many words, but the point was plain). And I have to admit I probably would have done the same thing if I’d been the PR person.

So seriously, low-budget indie whiners, find some different footsteps to follow in. Impress your audience with the sharpness of your wit or the justice of your cause, not the audaciousness of your nagging.

Monday, January 9, 2012

One big lump

Garbage dump, my garbage dump,
That sums it up in one big lump.
– “Garbage Dump” by Charles Manson

On Saturday we abandoned our first movie of the year, a masterpiece called Dive! Living Off America’s Waste (I deleted a superfluous colon in the title). It had been awhile since the staff had to let a movie go, at least in part because we’ve been focused more on other media of late.

This particular film fell victim in part because it got that damn Manson song stuck in my head. They didn’t play it, of course. But they could have and likely would have if it had come from a less mass-murdering source. The theses of the picture and the song aligned seamlessly.

The idea these neo-hippies are trying to get across is that we throw away an obscene amount of food. That’s true, and perhaps if we’d given it more of a chance they might eventually have gotten around to some bigger picture solutions to the problem. Sadly, the lead-off was so off-putting that it discouraged us from pursuing it further.

The picture alternated between neo-hippies Dumpster diving, neo-hippies gobbling Dumpster-dived food, and stock footage of starving children in other parts of the world. And over everything lay a lattice of whiny preaching about how people in the United States systematically throw away perfectly good food.

This should probably go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Digging through the trash for food is not a solution to the food waste problem. If more than a handful of us were so bereft of gainful employment that we had the time and energy to feed ourselves in this manner, the Dumpsters would run dry in short order. Altering food disposal policies isn’t exactly a panacea, either. The production ignores a lot of legitimate concerns about food quality and safety.

Further, the Starving Biafran Babies aren’t a legitimate part of this equation. The argument assumes that pork chops that hit their sell-by date in Kansas City can somehow be magically transported directly to hungry families in distant lands (who will of course gobble them up because their cultures are the same as ours and they eat the same food we do). In reality the relationship between wasting less food here and serving more food there includes so many complex variables that the connection is tenuous at best.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in the “person in the mirror” approach to social ills. And I would never begrudge someone a hearty meal of spoiled strawberries if such things were to her tastes. But when the practice takes the form of a sanctimonious documentary, what we end up with is a stupid, 21st century version of Catherine of Siena drinking pus from a sore. “Look at what we’re doing. This is all your fault. Don’t you feel bad?”

Not as bad as I would if I tried to eat that expired fish.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Crast from the Past – Gigli

In case you missed it, here’s what the staff had to say about the movie Gigli:

Me don’t see what fuss was about. Me think this very good movie. Acting good. Ben talented. Jennifer talented. Script good. Pacing good. Long sequences where characters drive aimlessly around LA sharing deep thoughts about gender relations philosophical and entertaining. Cameo by Al Pacino very welcome and amusing. Only trouble, me think me have higher IQ before me start watch this movie. Verdict: wish I’d skipped it.

8sails has more movie reviews. A lot more.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fun Fact to Know and Tell

Are you reading this blog via a dial-up modem? If so, take heart. America Online – the world’s largest dial-up service provider – still has 3.5 million customers, even in the age of high-speed connections. That’s down quite a bit from the service’s high water mark of 30 million subscribers, but it’s still nothing to sneeze at.

To learn more about AOL, check out its entry in the 8sails Media Survival Guide.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Legal and marketing need to talk more often

So some guy sues PepsiCo, claiming that he found a mouse in a bottle of Mountain Dew.

Possible PepsiCo responses:

1. No you didn’t.

2. And even if you did, we have enough lawyers to turn your frivolous suit into your darkest nightmare. We’ll bury you under so much paper that Hoarders will show up to do an episode about you.

3. Um, you know those bottles are made of transparent plastic, right? So you surely should have seen the alleged mouse before you took a big swig.

4. And if you’re suing us just because of an alleged mouse that you didn’t even drink, what’s your recovery? A buck and a half for a bottle of Mountain Dew? Or are you going for millions based on the mental anguish caused by a dead mouse? Good luck proving that eggshell skull nonsense.

5. Did we mention “no you didn’t”?

Instead, here’s what Pepsi went with:

6. You couldn’t have found a mouse in a bottle of Mountain Dew because Mountain Dew contains chemicals that would have dissolved the mouse into a wad of gelatinous goo.

You guys seriously need to work that into your next ad campaign. “Cool, refreshing, mouse-dissolving Mountain Dew. Introduce it to your digestive tract today!”


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Show idea – Antiques Roadshow: Gaza Strip

This would be just like the British and American versions, only of course shot in the title location.

Typical scene:

Farmer: I found this in my goat pasture. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe a warhead?

Appraiser: Yes, this does in fact appear to be a warhead. Do you have any idea how long it was in your goat pasture?

Farmer: Not really. I found it after some of the goats dug it up. Is it valuable?

Appraiser: Normally my answer would be “no.” It’s actually a little hard to find a goat pasture that doesn’t have a warhead buried in it somewhere. However, if we turn this particular warhead over and inspect the bottom [camera zooms in as Appraiser turns the warhead over] we find a marking that indicates that this particular piece is in fact a nuclear warhead.

Farmer: Wow. So how much is it worth?

Appraiser: I’d be guessing, but probably somewhere between $300 and $10 million, depending on whom you sell it to.

Oh, and just in case the idea of a nuke ending up in a pasture sounds absurd (or that such an event would only happen in a place like Gaza), um, no.