Saturday, July 31, 2004


I wasn't planning to do a full entry for Blockbuster video, but my friend Aaron went off on them the other day, and frankly he has a point. Blockbuster is a fairly steady source of minor irritations. I still wasn't going to write a column, but then I was browsing in a blockbuster the other day and I saw Space Ghost: Coast to Coast season 1 placed in the children's section. Huh? I moved one aisle over and saw the George Clooney "Solaris" in the action section. What? Action? The Whales of August starring Jessica Tandy had more action than Solaris. That's when I knew someone had to start bitching about Blockbuster. And that foot is me.

Aaron was steaming about the unreasonable $5 charge for a rental, but also the absurd policy whereby movies are due back at noon. How can this possibly be convenient for anybody? The Blockbuster guy says "2 Fast 2 Furious is due back on Tuesday at noon!", like he's doing you a huge favor. Here's a question for anybody reading this, anywhere. Aren't you busy next Tuesday at noon? Of course you are.

This takes me back to the old Blockbuster sleight of hand trick. The "3 day rental". Do you remember this scam? The movie you rented under the 3 day rental agreement was due back in... wait for it... 2 days! Yes! Really! People tend to rent movies in the evening, right? Anybody out there ever go to a blockbuster at 9 AM to rent something? No? Me either. So you rent your movie on Friday around 7 or 8 PM. Then it's due back Sunday night by closing time. You generally would bring it back at a decent hour though. Say, 7 or 8 PM. Now let me do the math here... yep. TWO DAYS.

But forget my casual assumptions about when you're renting your movie. Pick any point in time. Rent a movie. Now fastforward exactly 3 days. Uh-oh! Your 3-day rental is late! 9 hours late at the absolute minimum.

So that is strike one against Blockbuster. The stupid return policies and the bald faced lying. Let's move on to movie selection. Strolling through blockbuster reminds you of something you often forget: that most movies in existance are just absolutely god awful. Wouldn't we all like to forget Three Fugitives starring Nick Nolte and Martin Short? Thanks to blockbuster, that'll never happen. You're going to be 80 someday, hobbling around through a blockbuster of the future, and that stupid, stupid movie is going to be there, staring you in the face.

Wouldn't that be a good idea? A video store that screens its catalogue for zero-star turkeys and removes them from the shelves? Let's also not forget the scores and scores of horror movies. Why is it that any random blockbuster just has an unbelievable wealth of selection when it comes to Z-grade horror? A lot you've heard of, lots that you haven't. 70's, 80's and 90's horror, direct to video horror, new releases horror (also that you've never heard of).

I'm not in any way opposed to every blockbuster everywhere being a living testament to the entire horror genre. But why bring all that depth and selection to just horror? Why not documentaries or anime? Why not westerns or silent film? Why not television, martial arts or music video or stand-up comedy? Who knows? Maybe they bought all that VHS horror in bulk real cheap. Another genre that's overrepresented is 1980s, Jean-Claude-Van-Damn-style brainless action. Early Stallone stuff. Chuck Norris. Big machine guns and big dirty warehouses. Those kinds of movies. Tons of those.

Why is half the store dedicated to new releases? Why are half the movies in the new releases section not actually new releases? Do you think maybe the "Blockbuster model" that is still used today is based on an obsolete understanding of what the customer wants? Is today's rental customer as obsessed with renting the new releases as his counterpart was in 1985, when the VCR was new and interesting, and the biggest thrill came from screening a new movie in your living room? Does breaking all movies into four general categories: Action / Comedy / Drama / Sci-fi-Horror still make any sense? How can an American Pie sequel be placed on the same shelf as Peter Seller's The Party? Where do you put the Sopranos? How do you charge a one-rental fee for a two-disc movie like the Godfather, but charge one full price per Sopranos disc, even though the season is 4 discs and the last disc only has one episode?

Strike 2.

Now we come to the biggest grievance. The major annoyance. The soft core porn. Blockbuster prides itself on its family friendly movie policy. Nothing that is unrated, or rated NC-17, and absolutely no porn. (Forget for now that they carry the most gruesome and disturbing horror, and apparantly those are family friendly movies. That's a whole other topic.) Yes, they carry no porn. Their sister chain-store Hollywood video handles the porn. Okay fine. It's your store, carry what you want. So why is the average Blockbuster riddled with Soft Core pornography (the Playboy channel kind of porn, where they can show full nudity and everything else except actual contact with genitals) and why is all of it in the drama section?

Frankly, I'm not much for the soft core porn, and I don't think much of the dudes that are. Isn't it just a lot of closeups of the guy's face? If porn is what you want, can't a grown man do better than soft core porn at blockbuster?

But setting that aside, the complaint here is two-pronged. (ewww) First, it's the hypocracy of the no-porn store clearly carrying porn. I mean it is porn, lame porn though it may be. But secondly and more importantly, why must they crowd it all into the drama section? If someone is browsing for a good drama, why must they be forced to wade through all this porn? Every third movie on the shelf is Night Mistress 3, or Midnight Satin 2, or Steamy Nurses 4, etc.

On the other hand, I feel just as bad for the guy looking for some good soft core porn who has to sludge through Amistad and Lorenzo's Oil just to get to his steamy nurses. He deserves better too.

So that's the beef with Blockbuster. They need to remove the crap from their catalogue, diversify into new genres, and refuse to appeal directly to the lowest common denominator of moviegoer. Force that moviegoer to watch better movies by improving his selection and removing the swill. Either ditch the softcore porn or put it in its own section. Make return times as convenient as possible lest you lose more people to Netflix.

And no, I don't want to join the 30 day club or whatever the hell it is. Stop asking me.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Let's Take Stock

There's nothing like a relaxing beach vacation to make you sit back, turn your thoughts inward, and start considering the big picture. Looking over the first 30 entries in this journal, is it possible to draw conclusions? What is it exactly that is so irritating? What are the common factors that unite all these annoyances? What, in short, is the real problem?

Well, looking over the data, I think I've found some common threads.

First is the presumption of idiocy. I seem to get annoyed a lot when people give me credit for no more brains that those of a sea sponge. When a box of Q-Tips says "Insert into ear and rub gently" or a coffee cup says "Watch Out! Coffee is Hot!", the presumption of my idiocy is just too palpable. If the box on a bar of soap said "Wow, are you a moron." it would really be just the same thing.

Now I realize those Q-Tip and coffee warnings exists because of frivilous lawsuits. Dairy Queen has to say "Coffee is hot!" lest they be sued for not warning someone. Man I wish I could get on one of these juries. I almost was, once. I made it into the Q&A phase of a jury selection of one trial where a drunk homeless man had climbed onto an elevated New York City subway track at 4 in the morning (scaling one or two fences and breaking numerous laws) and had predictably been mowed down by a train. He lost a hand and a leg and was suing the city because the train driver didn't spot him on the elevated subway track and come to a stop.

Man, do I wish I could have gotten on that jury. I would have handed that guy his hat (in his remaining hand) and not given him a cent. You know, that jury probably gave him a huge cash award. It rewarded idiocy. It catered to idiocy. The result is that we are always going to be treated like idiots and assumed to be idiots.

Then there is the lying. The way that people and marketers and friends and businesses and colleagues just lie to your face all the time. Case in point. I was in Barnes and Nobles yesterday, and saw a hardcover book with these enormous words written on the cover:

I thought, cool. Those Bourne books are really turning into a phenominon. That Ludlum might really have something there. Maybe I'll read them someday. Then I just happened to give the book a second glance a little later and saw the fine print buried under the large type face. The book cover actually says this:
classic character Jason Bourne, in
by Eric Van Lustbader
So, the whole cover of this book is one big lie. The only purpose of the cover is to impart the information of title and author, which it does - but in a manner designed to make you believe that the author is in fact someone else. They say there are millions and millions of stars in the galaxy, with possibly billions of planets. But do you think on any other planet you'll find a novel written by someone other than Robert Ludlum trying to pass itself off as a Ludlum novel? I don't think so.

And that's just the tip of the lying iceberg. How about the junk mail that you get everyday in the mailbox (not your email-box, your actual mailbox) and the desperate, cunning attempts the mail makes to get you to open it. My new favorite tactic is the "fake stamp". This is where the envelope appears to have been stamped by a human being, weilding an actual inky stamp. The stamp appears to say "certified" or "registered". Or if they're being bold "From the Office of the Burser" or "From the dept. of Check Issuance". This faux-inky-stamp will be cragged or slightly smudged, furthering the impression that an actual person stamped it. Look closely however, and you'll see the pixel marks, and the ruse is laid bare.

Another recent tactic that has fooled me a few times is where the junk mail envelope is of the kind that has three perforated edges, that must be creased and peeled back individually to open the letter. It has the distinct resemblance, therefore, to a paycheck or some other official government mailing. You see, these triple perforated edge envelopes are much more of a pain of the ass to open than a normal envelope. Your brain therefore concludes that it is very unlikely to be junk mail, as no junk mailer would deliberately make their letter so difficult to open. It's brilliant reverse psychology.

Some old tactics to get me to open the envelope have fallen out of favor. The old "You could be a winner" is pretty much dead. "Dated materials enclosed" is on the wane. "Final Notice" is very close to being a perfect falsehood, as it almost certainly will not be the final notice. (The only true perfect falsisms in the junk mail business occur in internet popup ads and in spam. "You are a winner" contains no true information except that you are in fact not a winner, and the word "Free", which means nothing except "Not Free") The old trick where the name and address appear to be handwritten (complete with pixelated smudge) hardly ever works.

The boldest, most audacious junk mail letter I ever got was a seemingly authentic letter from a Texas lawyer, addressed to my apartment but not to me, to a name I had never heard of. (possibly the previous occupant?) The lawyer then expressed relief that he had finally found me, (or rather, Judith or whoever the name was) and that if Judith would simply respond, she could finally claim her portion of the settlement of some very complex sounding lawsuit.

To make a long story short, the letter was inviting me to conlcude I had stumbled upon a letter for the previous occupant of the apartment, who apparantly was owed a lot of money but couldn't be reached, and would some next of kin or family friend please contact the lawyer, so the lawyer could have some bank account to deposit all 3 hundred thousand dollars.

All the greed nodes in my brain were stimulated to life, and I had to consciously tell them to calm down  - this wasn't real. But man, what a bold effort.

I think I'm pretty much immune now to all the common attempts to get me to open junkmail. They still get me once in a while, but it's rare. If they want me to bite, they'll have to try something really unexpected and bizarre. If an envelope said "Open Immediately: Contains Perishable Portwine Cheese" then I guess I'd have to open it. And I'd say "Damn you Poway Toyota! You fooled me again!"

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Flying, Part 2

So my fourth and final flight on this trip was on the hip new airline, JetBlue.

Ooooooohh... JetBlue! A new kind of airline! They do things... just a little different!

Nope. It's the same old shit. I was genuinely excited at first. I had heard all this hype about JetBlue. They had taken a page from the Southwest playbook and were trying to reinvent the flying experience. I was psyched. I had heard that every seat had its own TV monitor. This was certainly good news. I had only experienced this on international flights, never on domestic.

JetBlue does try to distinguish itself in a few ways. But overall, I wasn't impressed. I'll take American anyday over JetBlue.

Innovation #1: No first class.

This doesn't impress me. I'm not one of those egalitarian types who seethes at the very existence of first class. I like first class. Sure, I never get to sit there, but it's like a carrot being dangled in front of me. It's an incentive to work hard and be prosperous. In order to get to my cramped seat I have to walk by the comfortable seats. The considerations to have a first class cabin are purely economic. If first class wasn't profitable for the airline, no airline would have it. Since most do, I have to assume it's profitable.

Innovation #2: No beverage cart. The stewardess takes drink orders and then comes back with a tray. Also like Southwest.

I don't get this either. The beverage cart works. Why have a stewardess try to balance a dozen drinks on a tray, waitress style, on a moving plane? There's no point to this.

Innovation #3: A simple piece of paper, like a receipt, for the boarding pass instead of the usual larger sleeve-style boarding pass.

This works. I didn't mind this.

Southwest has the no seat assignment policy, which I despise. Dammit, I want to be able to reserve an aisle, window, or emergency exit row seat in advance. I like to be able to guarantee myself the avoidance of the dreaded middle seat. Southwest also has backward facing seats, a la trains. I get so nauseous on these seats, not to mention I have no desire to be staring directly into another person's face for the whole flight. These are bad ideas.

In short, I'm happy JetBlue exists - it's always nice to have more airlines to service more routes and keep things competitive - but don't fool yourself into thinking you're getting a different kind of flight. Oh, there was no hot meal by the way. And this was on a 6 hour, coast to coast flight.

Finally, I would like all airlines to reconsider a few of their basic policies.

First: that bags must be stowed under the seat in front of you during takeoff and landing. My problem here is that this space is where I need to stow my feet. I'm a 6'4 tall man. My legs have no other position to occupy. If I could place the bag behind my feet, problem solved. But they won't permit this. The reasons have something to do with the bag flying around during violent turbulence, but come on. Really.

Second: the no electronic devices rule. Is my discman or gameboy really interfering with tower comminication? No, it's not. So ditch this rule.

I think that's about it. Anyone else got any gripes about the flying experience? Feel free to complain here.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Flying, Part 1

Aaaaah. I'm back. What a delightful vacation. Relaxed on the beach. Ate several lobsters. Read Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. (man that guy can churn out the pages) But of course I wasn't idle the whole time. I carefully noted all the things that annoyed me in the airports and on the planes, and I'm ready to report. Now I have to be careful here. Airports and the whole flying experience have been exhaustively stripmined for years by stand up comedians looking for material. (cue Jerry Seinfeld: "What's the deeeeeaaaal with the peanuts?") So I don't want to just rehash old airport complaints. At first I thought this would put the kibosh on the whole thing. What fresh complaints could I possibly make about flying? But I needn't have worried.

1) The People who block aisle traffic after the plane has landed.

Isn't this just the biggest bitch? You've been on this plane for hours. You're sore. You're stuffy. For some reason it usually gets hotter after the plane lands. They turn off the air. Your ears are still popping. All you want is to disembark. (Or as one stewardess really said on a flight I once had: "The captain requests that you deplane in the rear.")

But some total asswipe has to stand there putting on his sweater, then his coat, then getting his first bag.... then his second... then telling his kids to put on their shoes....

Maybe one of you out there reading this is that guy. Why not? Every flight has at least one or two. To you: GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE LEFT LANE. Seriously. Jesus. If you know that getting all your stuff together is going to be a whole production, then sit there and wait until most of the people have gotten off.

Are they blind? Do they lack all consideration? What makes some people think they're so damned important? This is complaint number 1.

2) The way all airlines are now in an unspoken conspiracy to pad all their flight times in order to disguise chronic lateness.

This has been bothereing me for a few years now, but it really demanded my attention on this trip. My flight from Newark to Nantucket was half an hour late boarding. Then, after boarding, it sat in a line of planes for another half hour before it could take off. So we were at least an hour behind schedule. Yet the plane arrived exactly on time. Huh?

This is the new fad. Schedule the flight with at least a half hour of delays built in. Ever hear the pilot come on the PA and say something like "Good news folks. We were a few minutes late taking off, but we've had some favorable winds and some good skies and we're actually going to touch down 15 minutes early!" Wow! (you think to yourself) Did I get lucky! Good skies! Favorable winds! Thanks, pilot!

Nope. Bullshit. This is like the government redefining the poverty level to get people out of poverty. Airlines are redefining the flight time to improve their arrival stats. A person might argue that this is for the best, since there will always be late flights. You might as well incorporate lateness into the schedule. The problem is that this disguises the problem, rather than tackling it. If there's some route that is consistently late, and another that is consistently on time, isn't it in our best interests to highlight the failures of the chronically late route and see what we can do about it? Our tickets should have four times printed on them: Boarding Time, Close of Boarding Time, Takeoff Time and Landing Time. That way, if a flight is late, we can see exactly where it went wrong.

3) Taking pictures out the window

What makes people think that this is such a great idea? Have you ever seen a picture taken from an airplane window? They suck. They look terrible. It's a bad idea. 

4) The people who make desperate pleas to cut the ticket line or the security line, on account that they'll miss their flight.

This is an extremely common occurance on your hellishly long ticket line and security line. People desperately seeking out an airport official, telling them a sad story, begging to cut the line. Often, the airport officials let them cut. Sometimes they even stroll the line, saying "Anyone here on flight 185? Anyone on 185?" Then they let those people cut. (My favorite is when someone responds to that question saying "I'm on 1108!" desperately hoping to get some sympathy)

Here's the truth. Ready? When you allow someone to cut because they arrived late, you penalize everyone else who arrived on time. I didn't get to the airport an hour before my flight so that my cushion of extra minutes could be exploited by someone who misplanned their trip to the airport. There should be no cutting. Don't you see? If the person who desperately needs to get to the gate is forced to stand on the line and miss the flight, then what do you think the chances will be that he'll get the airport on time the next time? 100%

By allowing him to cut, you're guaranteeing yourself a perpetual stream of latecomers who have never been taught their lesson. Plus, isn't it fun to watch the spectacle of someone's breakdown when they miss their flight? It's their own damn fault.

I have more, but this is running long. Next time I'll tell you about Jet Blue which I flew for the first time this trip. Is the hype deserved?

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

40 Annoyances

Well, I'm leaving on a vacation for ten days, so I probably won't be posting for a while. Now you may be wondering, how does an unemployed man take a vacation? It's not easy. It's a delicate art. Before I leave, here are 20 more annoyances from my big list.

21. Woody Allen casting himself in the romantic lead

22. Sitting backwards on a train

23. People who correct your grammar

24. Aggressive pan-handling in the New York City subway

25. Guys who hock loogies in urinals

26. When TV networks use that new software that can edit every 24th frame out of a show, eventually storing up enough seconds to add one extra commercial.

27. Guys at the gym who hit on women riding stationary bikes

28. People who lick their fingers when they hand out paper

29. The neverending parade of inferior Ender's Game sequels

30. The Nikkei and the Dax

31. The intense desire to own a boat

32. People who just run out and get a dog without thinking it through

33. The final Prisoner episodes

34. People who just assume you'll want whatever wacky-ass pizza topping they're planning to order

35. When mattresses get called "Sleep Systems"

36. People who passionately advocate the merits of driving stick, even just for normal suburban driving

37. The fact that every Sea World whale gets named Shamu

38. Any Time Magazine cover story on hospitals

39. Discolored froth that does lazy circles around the jacuzzi

40. The viciousness with which the "Happy Birthday Song" copyright holders go after any unauthorized uses

Those people are some greedy sons of bitches. Every 25 years a whole catalogue of copyrighted stuff would fall into public domain, but every 25 years new laws get passed that extend copyrights. Happy Birthday was written by a schoolteacher in, like, the 1870s. But it's still copy protected until something like 2050, at which point undoubtedly new laws will get passed extending it even further. The bastards.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

High School English

What do these books, all mainstays of high school English, have in common: Death of a Salesman – The Scarlet Letter – Animal Farm – Brave New World – The Lord of the Flies – 1984 – Cuckoo’s Nest, etc. etc?

Answer: they make you want to kill yourself.

What do these other books, also perennial high school English favorites, have in common: Pride and Prejudice - Ethan Frome - Wuthering Heights – anything by D.H. Lawrence or Henry James or Zora Neal Hurston, etc. etc?

Answer: they make you so bored you want to die.

It’s time to totally rethink how we teach high school English. And I don’t mean minor tweaks and adjustments; I mean a complete overhaul from the ground up. It’s time to set new goals in the high school English classroom.

Old goal: To teach students how to read critically. To take them on a tour of the great classics of western literature, offering insightful and penetrating analysis along the way.

New goal: To teach students the joy of reading.

That’s the idea in a nutshell. The primary problem with the old goal is that it presumes the pre-existence of an interest in reading among the students. It presumes that a 15 year old is ready for Ethan Frome. The secondary problem is one of priorities. To teach students to read critically gives them an important skill, with all kinds of benefits that extend beyond English lit. But to teach students to love reading is twice as important a skill, with more benefits down the line.

I appreciate that a high school has enough faith in their freshmen’s abilities that they think they can jump right into Othello. I don’t fault them for lofty ambitions, but the sad fact is that many of today’s incoming high school students simply have never truly become fluent in reading any literature of any kind.

There are so many distractions today for kids. For every 12 year old girl you see on the bus reading a teenage mystery novel, there are 5 other kids that have never read a book for pleasure in their lives. With TV and video games and the computer, and a full load of extra-curricular activities to boot, when does a kid find the time to read a book these days?

I got extremely lucky. My parents read to me constantly as a child, and always had me well supplied with age appropriate books. Even though as a kid I was a video game junkie, my parents made sure that books were a part of my childhood. Many other kids didn’t have this advantage.

The school could provide a lifesaving function by providing an introduction to pleasure reading that these kids never got. However, for all appearances, most high schools seem to be doing their damndest to convince their students that reading is a complete fucking ordeal.

Animal Farm is one of the most accessible reads that a high school student will likely be offered. However, the page turning qualities of this book are entirely offset by the fact that chapter after chapter, it completely ruins your day. It’s a great book to analyze on a blackboard, but it doesn’t exactly make you want to run to the library and check out 5 more books, does it?

And Animal Farm is about as reader-friendly as your high school reading list gets. The rest are more demanding, equally depressing and/or as boring as all hell.

It’s not that I’m demanding books with happy Hollywood endings, and I’m not requesting a dumbed down reading list. My point is that teaching the joy of reading is more important than teaching someone who doesn’t love reading how to offer critique of Macbeth.

And that’s another thing. Shakespeare is just way out of the league of high school students. It should be saved for college. Now I know that some of you out there fell in love with Shakespeare in 10th grade, and you’ll tell me I’m full of shit. Well, it’s not you I’m worried about. I’m worried about the other 90% of the students who aren’t getting anything out of it. Do you know what Shakespeare does to a student who never learned to like reading in the first place? It further alienates him from the process of reading. It’s yet another reminder that “this reading thing isn’t really for me. I’m more into music.” I’m sitting here today, 10 years out of high school, and I’m telling you for a fact that all that Shakespeare I was taught in high school was practically worthless. It should have been saved for college. There was no way I could grasp Shakespeare in a meaningful way as a teenager.

I’m sure if a high school English teacher was reading this, he’d step forward at this point and say RD you’re completely wrong. When I was in high school I swooned over Pride and Prejudice! I ate Hamlet with a spoon and asked for seconds! I read Faulkner! I read Hemmingway! Each book was better than the last. I would never have fallen in love with literature if my high school hadn’t made me read the classics.

And this would be my response. YOU’RE A FREAKING ENGLISH TEACHER. Of course you enjoyed Faulkner in high school! You represent a tiny, bizarre fragment of the general population. You somehow managed to enjoy Pride and Prejudice despite the fact that it is the most boring book ever written with absolutely no redeeming qualities! What about the rest of us who DIDN’T become English teachers? Don’t we deserve to get something out of high school English?

Currently we are producing class after graduating class of kids who don’t know how to enjoy a book. Here’s the solution. You ready? Science Fiction. Fantasy. Mystery. Adventure. Hell, even Romance if it’ll work. I realize those words make your English teacher cringe, but the reality is that Piers Anthony, that fantasy author and horse fetishist, has done more to help kids learn English than All Quiet on the Western Front ever, ever will.

Piers Anthony, to name just one author who was popular when I was in high school, is the secret. He teaches a kid how to enjoy reading. Personally, I was into Douglas Adams, Richard Adams, and Isaac Asimov in a big way. (all easy to find in their respective bookstore sections)

My first semester of college, my English teacher asked us to go around the room and name our favorite author. She brought things to a halt when I said Asimov.


“Uh, yeah.”

“Asimov is shit!”

“Well… he’s… sorta one of the big, top respected sci-fi authors. He once won an award for the best sci-fi/fantasy novel of all time. He beat out Tolkein!”

“Tolkein is shit!”

I never did take any more college English classes. I think that teachers need to realize that while Tolkein may not stand up to Shakespeare, he could be indispensable in teaching high school English. Ditto the fantastic tales of Jules Verne or the swashbuckling adventures of Alexander Dumas.

When you discover the joy of reading for pleasure, many things happen. Your vocabulary widens without you even realizing it. You are opened to new ways of thinking that never would have occurred to you. You are introduced to new subjects that might captivate you. Your imagination is stimulated. The list goes on and on.

Man, this is getting long and is starting to sound like a public service announcement. I think you get the picture. If an incoming high school student has never read a book for pleasure, then it’s pointless to stick Othello in his face and expect him to be inspired. Devise a reading list with books that will snare a teenager and get him/her hooked on reading. This doesn’t have to mean abandoning high literary standards. Place the classroom emphasis on the rewards of reading. Give students some latitude. Send them to the bookstore to browse. Let them come up with their own paper topics based on what inspired them.

This may all sound remedial – students *should* be taught Hamlet – but high schools ignore this aspect of English instruction at their own peril.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Clubbing / Offering Drinks

I've got two medium sized annoyances to report for today.

The first is clubbing. It's an activity that I don't understand. I spent a night clubbing once, and it was one of the least fun nights I ever had. Let me make my case.

1. You must wait in a long line to enter.
2. When you get to the front, you must pay a cover charge.
3. You enter an environment that is way the hell too hot.
4. You enter an environment where you can't hear a goddamned thing.
5. You enter an environment so packed with people that you can't really move around.

Then you pretty much have three choices.

A) You can go to the bar and buy a drink. This might make perfect sense to the seasoned clubber, but I don't get it. Didn't I pay to get in? Why should I pay to get to a bar counter where I'll just have to pay again for a drink? Aren't there other places, called bars, that let you in for free?

B) You can try hopelessly to have some kind of conversation. But it's nearly impossible. Here's a related question: why make the music so loud it hurts? I'm planning on discussing this further in a later rant.

C) You can try to find a spot to dance.

Then, after about an hour, you leave the club and go to the next club, where there's a new line, new cover charge and new sweaty, sardine packed interior. This is all "fun".

Obviously, some people love spending an evening this way. Maybe, if drugs are part of the equation and you have a lot of money to burn... And maybe if you really love the music or you love to dance, the negatives somehow get cancelled out. If someone would like to volunteer to explain the joy of clubbing, I'd appreciate it.

The other thing that's annoying me today is these people who aren't happy unless you're drinking with them.

Let me say for the record, I have never in my life cared one bit, for one solitary second whether or not my companions were choosing to drink. Obviously if they were driving, or were 5 years old I'd care. But just in a general situation, watching TV, having a barbeque, whatever. You can drink, not drink. I really do not care. I really really do not care. I'm having difficulty coming up with the words to truly express how little I care whether or not my friends are drinking with me.

Yet there are people, and now I think I've known 3 or 4 of them, who really, REALLY want you to have a beer. They are seriously unhappy if you won't have the drink and will express their unhappiness in a variety of ways. If I'm making myself a bloody mary and offer some to my friends, it's not because I WANT them to drink a bloody mary. It's because I want to extend a hospitable choice so they feel at home. I'm equally happy if they say yes or no. It's not the drinking of the beverage that matters, it's the friendliness behind the offer.

But some people have bought into the culture of drinking, and they think that if they decide to partake, then it's a slap in the face if you don't join them. One of these people might offer to buy you a drink. Now if you say no you're being doubly insulting. Not only was he offering to drink with you, but he was offering to buy the round. You asshole.

I remember the scene in Temple of Doom where Mrs. Spielberg is offered the plate of crap, and she turns it down, but Indy warns her to eat it because it would be an insult not to. I thought "Ahhh, that sure is a wacky Indian culture!" Well, it's the same thing with these drinkers.

I just don't get it. There's not a single atom in my body that makes me want to pressure someone else to drink. Again, I understand the *offer* of the drink. It's a wonderful gesture of friendliness. But if I say, "No thanks, I'm not thirsty." why isn't that the end of the conversation? Why do I have keep saying no until it becomes uncomfortable?

Could it be that you're insecure and that you're just not happy drinking unless others are joining you? Why... yes!

Saturday, July 10, 2004

College Students Who Want to be Teachers

Talking about school reminded me of one of the big petty annoyances I dealt with in college. It was the sheer number of students who, if you asked them what kind of career they were going to pursue, told you they really wanted to teach.

This wasn't just a few individuals. I made a habit of asking a lot of students this question. What did they want to do with their life? There were a lot of honest I don't know's, plenty of artists, a few doctors - but an overwhelming number of teachers.

I never said anything at the time, but I'll say it now. Bullshit. I am enormously suspicious of any college student who wants to be a teacher. Here are the reasons.

1. There are about... (counting on both hands here) a bajillion different jobs out there. Really. A staggering number of professions, paths, avenues, career choices. The average student has never spent much time with, say, a seismologist or a patent lawyer. They haven't hung out with the Coast Guard, they've never seen the inside of a fertility clinic, they've never sat in a city council meeting. They have, however, logged in thousands of hours observing teachers do their work.

Am I supposed to dsimiss as a complete coincidence that the one profession you've spent about 20,000% more time with than any other just happens to be the one you yourself want to do?

If a kid grows up on a potato farm, miles from anywhere, and you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, and he says "I want to be a potato farmer"; do you think maybe, just maybe, he hasn't totally thought through all his choices?

2. These college students I think had a romanticized notion of the teaching profession. Most teachers teach sixth grade Spanish, or fifth grade math, or gym. They don't sit around having lively discussions of Tennyson. They don't take class trips to New York City to see the Bolshoi. They won't be teaching string theory to a packed auditorium.

They'll be spending 25 minutes of each period trying to get the
class to shut up. And they'll be paid a pittance for it.

3. I think there's a strong psychological component to a college student's desire to teach. Teaching is a power trip. In that stuffy little room filled with twenty people, one person is presumed to know more, one person can tell the others what to do. The teacher is in control. The teacher is wise and respected. I think that has a powerful appeal to students, who at this point in their life have never been in control of anything.

I believe that teaching, for a select few, can be a real calling. For those who have a calling to teach, it doesn't really matter whether you're the embattled 5th grade teacher, or the tenured Ivy League professor. Because the calling is about helping the next generation. That's why it's a noble profession. It's selfless. Instead of taking what you've learned and blazing a trail in the real world, you stay in academia and help to prepare other people to blaze the trail. It's honorable.

Now how many of those college students were thinking about the sacrifice and hard work of teaching? Not many. They were fantasizing about all that respectability, all that prestige. They daydreamed of eager college students coming to *them* with the tough questions. They deliberately ignored that off-campus there was a world with thousands of other possibilities. They displayed a stunning lack of imagination.

Now most of these people did NOT become teachers. They went on to other things. But if there are any college students reading this, feel free to ask your classmates what they want to do as a career. If they say teacher, feel free to downgrade your opinion of them. Ask them about what 4th grade subject they'd most like to teach. Ask them what size they think is ideal for 9th grade homeroom, and what tactics they'd use to control a hostile class.

Bah! I say.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Corporal Punishment

Since my 10 year high school reunion is coming up, I've been thinking about the school system. You know, ways to improve it. And let's be honest, most schools could use some improvement.

The answer is corporal punishment. We need to bring it back in a big way. Cast your mind back your high school days. Remember those classes where the teacher would spend 30, 40, maybe even 50 or more percent of class time just keeping order? I went to a fancy private high school, and not even the teachers there could control the classroom. It was bedlam. Grade school was just as bad. God only knows how bad it is in our overcrowded public schools.

I can remember endless numbers of classes where the students would make it impossible for the lesson to get taught. Occasionally you had a teacher who was a real putz and had it coming, but most of the teachers were decent enough. Remember seeing your teacher clearly at the edge of some kind of nervous breakdown at the hands of your merciless classmates? Think of how much more could be taught per day if the buffoons were put in their place?

What can a teacher currently do to restore order? Politely ask for quiet? Kick someone out into the hall? Threaten a visit to the principal? Kids aren't scared of any of these things. Teachers have no real tools to restore order. Eventually, they either lose their sanity or give up completely. It's time to put the authority back into the hands of the teacher.

When some ninth grade jackass in the back row won't close his mouth, the teacher (after an appropriate warning phase) should be permitted to pick up a dictionary with both hands, walk over, draw his arms back, and deliver a full powered wallop right into the side of the face. Enough force to send the kid flying out his chair with ringing in his ears, 5 minutes of dizziness and a 2 week bruise. Honestly, I would endorse this.

Cast your mind back to a school in the English countryside about 100 years ago. A room full of students during study hour, quietly working. One English boy, decked out in shorts, a blue school coat, knee high socks - drops his nib off the side of the desk. It clatters to the floor. The boy's face turns white with fear as the bushy eyebrowed headmaster looks up, privately judging if a caning will be necessary - and if so, how many strokes. But he decides just to arch his eyebrow as a warning, and study hour resumes.

Now contrast that to the modern overcrowded junior high class, where students call their teacher bitch and spend the whole class making sure nothing can get done.

There need to be consequences. Consequences a kid can understand. In the early grades, it should be simple. A ruler on the wrist, a slap on the face, or if necessary, a trip to the principal for a solid paddling. In junior high you graduate from the paddle to the cane, and teachers can up the ante to throwing books.

In high school, it's really no holds barred. Leave bruises, draw blood. Kids heal quick. They're great rebounders.

Look, the point isn't to make beatings a regular feature of the school experince. They're primarily a deterrant. Once you've been beaten once, you don't repeat the behavior. If you've received this correctional treatment in the early grades, you'll be much more likely to be a well behaved high school student.

Why are we all so opposed to corporal punishment? What's the downside? Parents who disapprove? Here's what you do. Make the parents sign a "you can beat by son" waiver. If they won't sign it, then take their kid - but at the first sign of trouble just send him home for a few days. If he repeats the behavior, he's gone. Kick him out. Now the parent will send him back and sign the waiver.

For girls, all the same applies, except you have to be a bit gentler. Have a headmistress administer the punishment, preferably directly on the knickers, using a hairbrush or slipper.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Crab Legs

Oh RD, what could you possibly have against crab legs? They're meaty, they're succulent... they're delicious!

My problem with crab legs is that in Las Vegas, in the exciting world of 4-star buffets, they have unjustly been crowned the king of all foods. They just don't deserve that much respect.

Maybe you're unfamiliar with the Las Vegas buffet scene. Every big hotel/casino sports a high quality buffet. For around $10 for a lunch, or $20 for a dinner, you can sample some of the tastiest foods prepared by some pretty talented chefs. These buffets ain't the suburban Sizzler-style buffets you may be used to. These are top quality culinary experiences. Whatever you're in the mood for, a buffet will provide; and at the top hotels, every dish is uniformly excellent.

But walk into any Las Vegas buffet, no matter what time of year, time of day, no matter where it is, and you will see everyone making a bee line for the crab legs.

I just don't think they're that good. I mean they are good, but shrimp cocktail on ice is at least equally good, and no one gives the shrimp a second look. If seafood is your thing, you've got filet of sole, salmon in cream sauce and lobster newburg right there. That doughy midwesterner probably hasn't had salmon since his prom night, but nope. He's jockeying for position around the crab legs just like everyone else.

Do you know how much work it is to eat a plate of crab legs? It's a bitch! If science had a designation for food received per unit of pain in the ass, crab legs would be a very low number. Only sunflower seeds and pomegranites are harder to eat.

Instead of being baffled by the crab worship, the buffet masters actively cater to it. They advertise their crab legs. Some hotels have special buffets devoted exclusively to seafood. Meanwhile, on the other side of the buffet, a master chef has whipped up a mean chicken marsala that no one's touching. This is a shame.

The other food preference that puzzles me at the buffet is the immense popularity of the guy in a poofy hat who will personally carve you a piece of ham or roast beef. Am I the only one thinking BFD? The guy at my local sandwich shop will personally carve me a slice of ham. Whoop dee doo. Yet this guy has a huge line.

Here's my theory. People don't have a lot of imagination. Plus, on some subconscious level, they're strategizing how they can get the most value out of the buffet. In their normal Nebraskan lives, the seafood is always the most expenseive item on the menu. Therefore, they gravitate toward it at the buffet. It's no use telling them that they can sample 12 different kinds of sushi, or that it might be a long time before they can try another correctly prepared ratatouille. They don't care. They gunna get them some crab legs!

Of course I can't just pick on the doughy midwesterners. It's the Asians too. Man, I've seen the old asian women pile their plates high with the crab. Why? Hey, you know what I wouldn't mind eating if it showed up at a Vegas buffet? Whale. Aren't they off the endangered lists now? I'd definitely try whale.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Other Blogs

Ever since I started this journal, I've been browsing other blogs to see what people are talking about. I just cruise around randomly, clicking on interesting looking titles, seeing what people have to say.

And here's what I'm finding. Browsing through blogs is like browsing through your local Blockbuster. If you just selected a movie at random, once in a while you might get a quality film - a Magnificent Ambersons or a Judgement at Nuremburg. But most of the time, that movie you grab is going to be Boat Trip with Cuba Gooding Jr. or that one with Tony Danza and the Chimp. Or American Ninja 3, or something you've never heard of that mysteriously stars Burt Reynolds and Paul Newman. In other words, it's going to suck.

And that's really the status of blogs, too. In about the same proportion of good movies to bad at Blockbuster, most blogs suck. Of course, a person should get a minimum of credit for deciding to have a blog at all. Even if it sucks, at least you're trying.

So as a public service, let me point out a few common blog mistakes that we can all correct in order to have better blogs. Here are 10 things a blog should avoid:

1) Some poetry / song lyrics that were inspiring you today.

This is easily the no.1 problem. All that poetry. All those lyrics. Please stop posting lyrics, people. No one cares. No one.

2) Your anti-Bush rant / opinions about Iraq.

It's not that you couldn't have an interesting anti-Bush rant. It's not that you couldn't have interesting opinions on Iraq. It's just that you don't.

3) Describing how bored you are.

4) Your sad breakup story / love life / crush / overall state of depression.

Granted this stuff is the bread and butter of diaries, but in my opinion, you have to adopt a different standard for online posting. In the diary you keep in your sock drawer, by all means, go nuts. But if you're going to share it with the world, have something unique to say. Offer a fresh perspective.

5) Your fiction.

6) The play-by-play of your whole damn day.

7) A "daring" overtly sexual blog title.

I could have titled this blog "Twisted Nutsack" or "My Vagina". But why? Why?

8) How much you hate your job.

9) Your movie reviews / sports scores roundup / something interesting you just saw on the news.

You're not Gene Shallit, Bob Costas and Wolf Blitzer. And if you were, well that would look pretty strange.

10) Anything in one of them "foreign" languages.

That's a good start. Also, just so you know, if I click on your blog and it's just suddenly bam! Anime! I'm gone. Ditto if I'm immediately greeted with some midi-format melody.

But really, it's mostly the poetry and the lyrics.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Commercials are Doomed

Yeah, their day is over. TV commercials have been with us since the 50s, and admittedly, back then there wasn't any better way to showcase your product. What else were you going to do? Buy a two page spread in Life?

The first commercials were straightforward. They lacked pretense. It was a guy standing next to a Chrysler saying: Buy a Chrysler. I can even remember, from earliest childhood, some of these simple, straightforward, bullshit free commercials. There'd be a dad sitting in his kitchen next to a tub of Land o' Lakes butter, saying "Mmm mmm, Land o' Lakes butter. Frankly it's delicious, and it's priced quite competitively." Back then you couldn't have a commercial with rollerbladers dancing around an animated can of pringles, using its top to pop out a Latin rhythm.

But the point is, commercials have lost their power to sway us, and thus must eventually die. I was reading an article in the Economist the other day where some ad indutry analyst was saying how most companies knew half of their marketing budget was being wasted, they just didn't know which half.

People are watching less TV than ever before. That's the latest factoid that's been buzzing around the media. Young people are choosing to spend evenings on the computer, chatting with friends. And the lure of the computer is only going to get stronger. Man, the best entertainment I could get during my junior high evenings was an episode of Night Court or Quantum Leap. If I had had today's internet back then...

In my opinion, advertising will have to go back to the old fashioned style. Bullshit free. Either that, or it will have to find ever more clever ways to fool us. The 2wenty feels like the end of an era, not the beginning. People have TiVo now. Web browsers have popup blockers. We're getting better at avoiding the ads. People openly boo the ads before movies. We're getting wise to the tricks.

I just saw a commercial for a viagra clone called "Levitra". I have to stop and admire the handiwork. Look at this word, Levita. The central syllable is Vit, very close to the Latin word for life. You think "vital", or "vitamins". But also, the first four letters "Levi" - sounds a bit like levitate? Leve means "stand up" in French. Then the word as a whole: Levitra. Sounds vaguely European? "Le Vitra" - The Life? Maybe Italian or French? Those sure are romantic countries. Those romantic French sure do know about stimulating blood flow to the penis!

The whole word is contructed like a beautiful house of cards, using multiple avenues of subliminal suggestion to make you impressed. And that's just the word. The commercial itself is employing ten other suggestive strategies.

So gone are the days of the Land o' Lakes dad. We live in an age of Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Ads can either get cleverer and cleverer, like Levitra, and consumers will get more and more adept at blocking them. Or, ads can reform. They can get smaller and less obtrusive. Then can stick to simplicity and straightforwardness. Again, consider Starbucks. They don't advertise. Maybe you've seen a fleeting Starbucks ad here and there in a magazine. Maybe you've seen some prominent product placement? Maybe they were a high profile Olympic sponsor? But you've never seen an annoying Starbucks TV ad.

Starbucks is so low key with their marketing that you don't even realize it. I applaud them. They've created great brand awareness for their product, and I can't think of a single time I've seen a Starbucks ad.

Starbucks demonstates conclusively that you don't need commercials. Hopefully, other companies will follow suit and then we'll all be free of this pestilence.

But then what will fund our TV shows? Simple. They'll have to end up being subscription based. Every channel will have to be HBO. Worried about the cost? Don't be. The only people who need to be worried are Kelsey Grammar and Ray Romano who wouldn't be able to get $1 million an episode anymore. Make channels compete against each other for your subscription dollar and the quality will stay high.

I can dream, can't I?

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Commercials Insult You

Tell me if this is familiar to you: "The Twenty! Entertainment Ignited!"

Oh wait, I'm sorry: "The 2wenty!"

If you watch a movie on one of Regal Cinemas 4000 screens nationwide, you may have seen the twenty. Sorry, 2wenty. It's a slickly produced aerial bombardment of TV-themed ads that play during the "twenty" minutes before the movie showtime. I used to think the old fashioned "unscramble this name: TMO HANSK" slide show was annoying. Now, I look back at it with warm nostalgia. So the 2wenty airs at top volume and prevents you from talking to your friends, fails to convince you to watch "The Grid", and then mercifully ends.

Here's where I really wanted to punch the 2wenty. At regular intervals, the 2wenty says "Don't go anywhere... the 2wenty! will be right back!"
And then you get a normal, non-TV-themed commercial. Say wha?

Ladies and gentlemen: a commercial just paused for a commercial break.

My good God. You know, I paid $9. Infomercials on TV at least are free. At least they don't pause for commercials, even though they are just one big commercial. What a sucker I am. Am I really so desperate to see Spiderman 2 that I'm willing to sit through commercials within commercials? And pay for the priviledge?

The insult of the 2wenty is not so much that it occasionally pauses for other ads, but that it tries to pass itself off as something more entertaining than a commercial. At the end of the 2wenty, this message plays: "We hope you enjoyed the 2wenty! If you missed any part of the 2wenty!, try to get to the theater early! The 2wenty! Entertainment ignited!"

"We hope you enjoyed the assrape! If you missed any part of the assrape, try to get to the rapist early! The assrape! Your sphincter igntied!"

Sit at home and watch some commercials, and keep a running count of how often your intelligence is slyly insulted. I'm going to do it right now. I'm going to turn on the TV and get insulted. Here we go.

Whoa. The Next Karate Kid with Hillary Swank. Let's move on. Okay, here's a commercial. Shermin Williams paint. yadda yadda...

Yes! Shermin Williams wants me to join them during their Great Paint celebration! Aha! A perfect example!

In any other context besides a TV commercial, the concept of a "Great Paint Celebration" is quite possibly the stupidest thing ever conceived. Think about it. "Hey Bob, you coming down to the GPC? I think they got some rides, $6 draft beer, and some kinda new paint-based candy!"

But no, your brain is so attuned to the unique logic of the universe of commercials, that when you get invited by a commercial to join them in a Great Paint celebration, nothing could be more natural. Of course there's a great paint celebration. Why wouldn't there be a great paint celebration? Sign me up for the GPC.

Here's what you do, in general. Think about what the commercial wants you to believe. Sure, the commercial wants you to go to Red Lobster. That's obvious. But how is it making its point? If it says that there will be Cheddar Bay Biscuits at Red Lobster, think about what a Cheddar Bay Biscuit means. Is it a biscuit from Cheddar Bay? Bobbing carefree in the low tide until it was netted?

Well no, it's probably just a cheesey biscuit. But why throw the word bay in there? Why call the chicken "Dockside chicken"? How can you stick a seafoody adjective on land food? The sad answer is that it's all part of an effort to confuse you into thinking that there's some sort of seafood magic imbued in each menu item. Again, what would be completely preposterous in real life somehow manages to make total sense in a commercial.

Yesterday, I tried to argue that commercials no longer work. We've erected barriers. Today, I tried to offer several examples of how commercials insult you by letting you know exactly what they think of your intelligence. Tomorrow I'll offer a theory on the future of commercials. Hint: I think they're doomed.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Commercials are Pointless

Let's say you turn on the TV and see a commercial for the new, rugged Toyota 4Runner.

On a scale of 1 to a million, how much is this commercial going to influence the purchase of your next vehicle? Me personally, I think zero. Maybe some of you out there, 2? 1 and a half? So basically, diddly. I don't know what kind of budget a Toyota 4Runner commercial has, but I'm guessing it's in the hundreds of thousands. A lot of people worked for a long time and for a lot of money to make that 4Runner spot. Union guys, actors, someone had to get a permit to shoot on the beach. The legal team had to come in and check the fine print.

And for what? Let's say that God steps in to do the post game analysis of the commercial. He uses his divine perception to determine how many individuals bought a 4Runner due to the influence of the commercial. Let's say, nationwide, it was 20. That's about $800,000 in sales. But the commercial cost half a mil to make and another mil to put on the national airwaves. So the final score for the commercial: -$700,000.

But that's not all. In addition to the whole enterprise losing 700K for Toyota, they annoyed and irritated millions of people relaxing at home.

Here's what Toyota might say in its defense: Commercials are designed to work subconsciously, establishing "brand awareness" and creating good feelings toward the brand. Even if this doesn't result in an immediate sale, it can bring in sales down the road and add strength to the image of the brand.

Okay, here's my response: 1) More is happening subconsciously than you're allowing for. People these days are bombarded with so much marketing and so many ads that most savvy consumers have created subconscious barriers that tune out and reject ads automatically. 2) Every car that Toyota is competing against also has ads. In the long run, the brand awareness and positive image is a wash, because every competitive brand is doing the same thing.

If Pepsi was a substantially better soda than Coke, everybody would buy Pepsi and no one would buy Coke. People do have personal preferences between the two, but neither is objectively a better product than the other. They will always share the cola market. Perpetually. There is no need to raise awareness of Coke. Everyone is familiar with it. There is no need to try to make the case that coke is better than pepsi. People already know what they think. When Pepsi spends millions in Superbowl ads, they are just wasting their money.

Remember Starbucks, home of the sippy lid? Starbucks is one of the biggest consumer success stories of the last decade.

When was the last time you saw a Starbucks ad?

Honestly, advertising just doesn't work. I can't remember the last time a commercial convinced me to try a product. Sometimes, a commercial will make me aware of something, like an upcoming movie, that I didn't know about, and that may spark some interest. But that exception aside, commercials are all costly failures.

What they do very effectively though is create waste and irritation in our lives. They clutter our existence. They interrupt more important things. And I'm not just talking about TV spots. I'm talking billboards, bus station ads, logos behind home plate, radio ads, internet ads, the whole caboodle. Everywhere they appear they cheapen our lives, and they appear everywhere.

I'm going to spend a few more days talking about commercials. How they mess with your head, how they're adapting to the modern consumer and what the future might hold...

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Bond Franchise

Switching to movie geek mode, isn't it a shame what's happened to James Bond?

These used to be great spy movies. They had action, intrigue, comedy, suspense, style, and a dashing hero you couldn't help like.

Now, 4 movies deep into the Brosnan era, look at Bond. These movies are like animated versions of Maxim magazine. They've got chicks, they've got cars, they've got gadgets, and they've got stuff blowing up real good.

The modern Bond movies have a total mastery of one element of the Bond formula. They have great action set pieces. Though I could fault them for eschewing believability in exchange for wilder action, I will admit that the modern Bond movie knows how to throw together a good fight and a good chase. It's a far sight better than the lame stage punches Roger Moore used to throw on the cheek of a tightly-turtlenecked Jamaican henchman.

But that, sadly, is the only praise I can give to modern Bond. When Denise Richards, as eminent nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones said, "Excuse meeeee... I don't speak spy." she may as well have been talking about the whole franchise. James Bond stopped speaking spy sometime around when Joe Don Baker was blowing up model tanks in The Living Daylights.

These movies used to be spy thrillers. There used to be intrigue. Double crossings, rogue agents, cold war conspiracies... Remember the brilliant sequence on the train in From Russia With Love? Bond vs. the Russian spy. Each pretending to be someone else. Each having mastered his mannerisms. The Russian orders red wine with fish... The booby trapped suitcases... the fight in the sleeping car...

Now, try to imagine a modern Bond movie having anything half as inventive or interesting as that. Not a chance. 20 minutes on a train? With mostly dialogue? Only a little fighting? Does the train crash into an oil tanker? Is it attacked by armored helicopters? Maybe the Russian spy should have a robotic skeleton!

Nowadays, every new Bond movie has only one objective, to surpass all previous Bond movies with even wilder stunts, bigger action, sexier chicks and faster cars. Really. I don't think a modern Bond scriptwriter is really concerned with anything else at the concept level.

I have nothing against Pierce Brosnan. I even liked Timothy Dalton. They both did a good job with the material they had. But a trip to a Bond movie now is like a trip to a stunt show. You can sense the impatience in any scene where firearms aren't being used. Exposition is a distraction, something to be gotten through quickly on the way to the next exotic location. The obligatory briefing with M feels like a begrudged ritual more than a part of the story. You can tell that the director wanted to cut the scene of Bond flirting with Moneypenny but someone reminded him that it was part of the "tradition".

All right. It's not too late for Bond. He's immortal. Here are a few modest suggestions to revitalize a great franchise.

1) The Broccoli family (who control Bond and have final creative authority on any script) should let someone else with new ideas take a crack at Bond. Call Steven Soderberg, or Tarantino or Spielberg, or any great director and say "Hey, want to make a Bond movie? It's all yours." I think they'd be surprised at the number of great directors who would love to make a Bond movie. The worst case scenario is that you'd end up with an oddball Bond movie that sucked. But even that's better than a average Maxim-style Bond movie that sucks.

2) Someone floated the idea of setting a new Bond movie in the 60s. Hey, that works for me.

3) Come up with some story arcs that span out slowly over 4-6 movies. Each movie would stand on its own, but figure into a larger plot. Pretty much like what they did with Spectre in the Connery era.

4) Take the action down a notch. Oh don't get me wrong, there should still be great action and plenty of it; but bring it down from the stratosphere into, say, the troposphere. No more Bond driving motorcycles off of cliffs to catch up with plummeting cargo planes. No more Bond trying to outrun an avalanche on a snowmobile. If you bring the action down from total fantasy to semi-believability, it actually gets more compelling.

5) Believe it or not, there's plenty of room for originality within the Bond formula. Spend some time on the story. Spend time crafting the characters. When Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise is beating Bond in the story department, you know you have work to do.

I guess there's more, and I'd welcome any comments (not that MGM is listening) - but that's basically an overview of what's wrong with Bond.

"I thought Christmas only came once a year!" uuuuugggghhhhhh.....