Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Christmas Observations

On December 25th, I made an interesting observation. It was about Christmas music. You know by now I'm sure how much I hate the annual aerial bombardment of Christmas music. From the first moment some daring indivdual decides to pipe in "Silver Bells" over the system in the mattress store sometime in mid-October, to a few days after new years when the last Starbucks clerk realizes he needs to change the store CD back to Louis Armstrong, it's all-Christmas, all the time.

And of course, it's all really lame remixes of classic carols. I've commented on this at length before. But my observation this week was noticing the dramatic change on Christmas Day itself. For months, all the music we are subjected to is this pop-tripe. Hip teenage country vocal starlets giving us down-tempo Silent Nights with too much vibrato. Then suddenly on Christmas Day, no more of that shit! For one glorious day it's all bell medleys, purely instrumental versions of carols, boys choirs, orchestral pieces with generous horn sections.... Now that's good Christmas!

Too bad it's only one day a year we actually get some decent Christmas music. Or maybe, good that it's only one day. We wouldn't want to get sick of it.

Another observation. The calendar-as-Christmas-gift is PLAYED. It's the official least imaginative, least original, least exciting gift in the gift universe. It makes socks look like a 1st edition autographed copy of a favorite book.

I mean, sure, it's a somewhat useful gift. Sort of. And there are ways of personalizing your calendar choice. Kind of. But even if the person gets you a Weimeraner calendar because they know you love Weimeraners, there's still that feeling that they used Microsoft Gift-Wizard to get you the present.

For me, a present warms the heart in a direct proportion to how much thought was put into it. It's not about money, and it's not about practicality. Isn't it about an expression of affection? The calendar is the anti-affectionate gift. It says "I was obligated to get something, but I either a) don't care one bit, or b) lack rudimentary present skills."

And this years award for most irritating Christmas commercial goes to....

Honda's "Happy Hondadays" - for actually blending the loathsome use of holiday in the singular (as in "Have a great holiday" or "This holiday...") with blatant greed ("Hondaday") and simultaneously exploiting their little play on words as a way of excusing their taboo use of a Christmas Carol through humor. Hmm, I bet no one understood that. I think when it comes to hating Christmas marketing, I'm in my own little universe that only I can understand. Basically what I'm saying is, most commercials are too timid to actually use Christmas Carols in the commercial. It's too preferential to Christmas as the expense of say, Kwanzaa. Honda found a way around that politically correct obligation - not by growing a backbone - but by gently mocking the holiday through the use of a pun. Instead of "Holy", now it's "Honda"! Isn't that funny! Using a Christmas carol is okay, since it's meant in jest!

These are the things I think about.

Finally, I have a Christmas gift for anyone who's reading this. Don't think I haven't forgotten about you. Your present is that I'm going to spare you the long, detail filled, terminally boring story of my hassle-filled airport experience coming home yesterday. See, most people would tell you every last excrutiating detail, as if they were the only people in history who ever had hassles at the airport, and as if it was an interesting story, even though it would not be one. Like these people, I too am seized with a desire to start talking about it. But I will refrain. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Man of the Year

Time Magazine's Person-of-the-year award just annoys the hell out of me. And for so many, many reasons. It's POTY season just about now, in fact I think the POTY is being announced in a day or two. But let us look back at the many failures of this botched enterprise, and see just what they're doing wrong.

Let me start by pointing out that the reason I'm able to get pissed about the many glaring failures in the history of Man of the Year is because Man of the Year is, genuinely, a really good idea. You don't see me getting worked up over the daytime Emmys or the People's Choice awards. What would be the point? Time's POTY, by contrast, is actually really cool. It's cool because it acknowledges the "Great Man" theory of history, which I strongly concur with - basically the idea that the tides of history can turn on the actions of individuals. That a charismatic, passionate individual of will and determination can really change the face of history. Maybe by being a head of state, or an artist, or a scientist, or a general, or even a poet - who knows. The individual can make a difference. I think that's just obviously true.

So bravo Time Magazine. I love the idea. But man, sometimes they just really make terrible choices!

First offense: whenever they choose a non-person. Like "The Personal Computer" or "The Endangered Earth"

Obviously I won't dispute that the personal computer has massive historical importace. And global warming too is an important issue. But, um, so is the rise of the internet... and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disintigration of the USSR, and 9/11, and the end of South African apartheid, and genetically engineered food, and the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, and HUNDREDS OF OTHER THINGS. Time has over 50 other weeks during the year to do a big cover on global warming. This is the MAN of the year issue, not the PET CAUSE of the year issue.

There will always be big stories. But POTY should acknowledge a person.

Second Offense: choosing whole groups of people. Like "The American fighting man.", "Middle America", "The American Woman" and I even include "The Peacemakers" (concerning the Oslo Accords)

The American fighting Man was from the Korean War era I think. But just last year it was "The American Soldier". No no no no no. Nyet. I hate these the most, even more than the abstract choices like the personal computer, because they represent to me a denial of the Great Man Theory. A lot of people don't like the great man theory. They think there's a kind of arrogance or elitism in saying that this one person made more of a difference this year than everyone else. In their view, the common man and his culmulative actions are really in history's drivers seat.

Now I don't wholly disagree with that point. But I reject that naming one person the Person of the Year is an arrogant, elitist thing to do. It seems like everytime Time Magazine gives it up for "The American Soldier", they do it as kind of an apologetic concession to this alternate viewpoint. "Hey readers," Time seems to be saying, "Most years we give this thing to a CEO or a president, but our hearts just go out to the troops right now. They're the ones making it all happen. They're the people of the year!"

Well, except that it's just not true. In WWII, at various points, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill were all men of the year. Why wasn't it "The British Soldier"? When the CEO of General Motors won it, how come it didn't go to "The Assembly Line Worker?"

Do you see my point? If the purpose of the award is to say "Here's one person who changed history this year", then give it to one person. If the purpose of the award is really just "The Big Thing of the Year", then give it to "The Iraq War". Either way, giving it to "The American Soldier" is not correct, and obviously just a concession to the Great Man Theory rejectionists.

Unless, I don't know, did the American Soldier really reinvent the wheel on soldiering in 2003? Were they an entirely new kind of soldier? I don't really think so.

Third Offense: The provincialism. Examples: every newly elected or newly reelected US president - also "The American Soldier" and the "American" anything.

Granted, the US is the lone superpower and all that. The things we do as a nation and a culture are worthy of a little extra scrutiny. Our trends can become global trends. But that's no excuse for the way-over-the-top America-centric worldview of POTY. I mean, if you want to add the disclaimer that the POTY award is meant to be by Americans, for Americans, about Americans, then yes, many of the choices are fine. But I don't think that's what Time has in mind. Time wants it to be global. Every single US president since POTY got started (hmm, except Ford) has been included. Is there no difference in importance between Carter and FDR?

A politician who I will not name, said (during the debate from 1999 about who should be named Person of the Century) that it should be "The American Soldier". Wow, I just find that so arrogant it makes me want to cringe and apologize to anyone reading abroad. Now if you wanted to name "America" the country of the century, then you have a case. But the "American Soldier?" Are we talking about the same American soldier who turned a blind eye to global atrocities in two world wars and only belatedly joined the struggle each time?

Now, I love my country and I love our soldiers, but how is the American Soldier any braver, nobler, smarter, stronger and more courageous than any other soldier of any other nation fighting the good fight? How about the British soldier in WWII, fighting on against Hitler after every other ally had given up and surrendered, fighting on for a year with no help when England's defeat seemed inevitable. The Brits alone in 1941 against the entire nazi war machine. But no, let's give it to the "American Soldier". Great suggestion Hillary. (whoops!)

Fourth offense: the whole gender thing with the name of the award.

Look, they found a great way to do it in the 80s and 90s. If it was a man, then that year it was the Man of the Year. If it was a woman, then it was the Woman of the Year. That's great. That works. Now, whoever wins it, it's the person of the year. That sucks. It's doesn't sound good. It's annoying in that unique way that only a politically correct phrase can be.

And how about that 1975 winner "U.S. Women"? It's the hat trick of bad. It commits offense two, offense three, and also this one. Just as "The American Soldier" is really just a concession and an apology to the "Great Man Theory" rejectionists, isn't "US Women" really just a way for Time Magazine to declare that the Man of the Year award is not sexist? Does it serve any purpose besides the rah-rah cheerleading of the "American Soldier" variety?

Now who could possibly agree with everything I've just said? Probably no one. Oh, one more: naming Gorbachev man of the decade for the 80s. Great choice comrades. Really, there's maybe half an argument for "Reagan & Gorbachev" as a men of the decade duo, but just choosing Gorbachev? Time could have just sent Reagan a private letter saying Fuck You and spared their readership the burden of actually having to read all that drivel.

There. Now definitely no one can agree with all that.

But I will give Time props for the eventual man of the century choice: Eintstein. That was the right choice. Though an equally opinionated friend of mine was insistent that it should be Churchill and we almost came to blows.

Here, for reference, is the full list.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Magicians and Plants

A word now on magic acts.

Anyone else out there like a good magic show? No? Well too bad. That's our topic for today. I like a good magic show. I like the oohs and ahhs and the howd-they-do-that puzzling during the drive home. Vegas has a lot of magic shows and I've seen a bunch now.

But here's a big word of warning to the magic world at large. Having your "volunteer from the audience" be a plant is just not acceptable. I think we should ban the audience plant.

Take the Cirque du Soleil show "O" here in town. It's technically not a magic show, but there is a little bit of that. Specifically, 3 times during the show they came into the audience and drafted a volunteer. And to make a long story short, with each of the three audience volunteers, the "O" crew does an amazing trick, involving the life-or-death peril of the audience member. And each time, we ooh and ahh. And then each time, a-ha! The audience volunteer is revelaed to be part of the show, a skilled acrobatic performer.

Not once. Three times. That is so lame. The third time the seemingly uncooperative audience member had to hand his coat to his wife and get pulled onstage by a clown, I'm thinking "They're not going to do this AGAIN, right? He's not going to be a plant, right? They wouldn't go for this cheap, unearned nickel & dime surprise for a third time, right?"

And then a-ha! Presto! He was a cast member all along! Just like the other two times! Let's have a hand!

That's just one example of how cheap it is to use plants. Consider a Sigfried & Roy performance I once attended. (pre-mauling of course) Toward the end of the show, right before the big finale where they make an elephant disappear, my eagle eyes noticed men and women sneaking in to the audience from the back and qiuetly taking seats. About 15 people secretly entered from the back and took empty seats while the audience's attention was distracted on stage. I felt triumphant. When these people were eventually used for a trick, I alone would know the secret. But then the show ended - without Sigfried and Roy using the plants. Huh? Why were they there then? They were obviously part of the show.

But the secret was revealed when Siegfried and Roy came out for their bow. The 15 plants, scattered through the audience, initiated a standing ovation with practiced coordination.


But the more general problem with audience plants is that they have the capacity to ruin any trick. Take Penn & Teller's magic bullet trick. (The trick they've been closing their show with for years and years) The trick has worked so well for so many years because it really is unfathomable. Two volunteers from the audience write their initials on two bullets, which are loaded into guns - the volunteers inspect the guns and the bullets for authenticity - then the guns are fired across the stage into Penn & Teller's mouths - and then Penn & Teller spit out the bullets - at which point the two volunteers confirm that yes, those are the actual bullets they signed just moments ago. Ta-da.

Now if those audience members were plants, then there was no trick. "Yes, Penn, that was indeed the bullet that I just signed. How did you DO that? Whoops, sorry, have to run, Siegfried & Roy need me to generate a standing ovation."

There's just no way of knowing if those guys were plants. Anytime I see a trick using a volunteer, the easiest explanation for the trick is going to be "The volunteer was a plant. He's in cahoots with the magicians. The trick therefore is childishly simple."

So this is why I think plants should be banned. I don't really suspect that Penn & Teller were using plants for the bullet trick, but then again I don't know for sure. And if plants are used, then that's really, really cheap. Your magic act sucks if you use plants.

A general proclamation or sign would suffice. "This show does not use audience plants. All volunteers are 100% legit. We would not jerk you around in that sorry manner. Thank you."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

More Magazine Suggestions

I felt good ranting about how asinine it was to put the wrong date on the cover of your magazine. Like calling the April newsstand issue "The May Issue". So here are some more problems.

Why must every magazine and newpaper article without exception stop halfway and redirect me to a new page? Why?


Wouldn't it be nice if they didn't do that? I can understand if A) you want to cram a lot of headlines on the first page of a newspaper, and therefore each front page article needs to be continued elsewhere, or B) you're having trouble fitting everything neatly so one or two articles need to be cut up and finished elsewhere. Those things I can understand. But EVERY article in the magazine?

And how about the table of contents. Why is it on page 6? Wouldn't this be satisisfying, just once - you open your magazine - BAM! Table of Contents!

Subscription cards.... in my subscription copy?

Hey editor in chief, isn't it enough that you're the editor in chief? Do you really deserve a whenever-you-feel-like-it column on the FIRST PAGE, wherein you never say anything more substantial than "2004 was a great year to be a wine enthusiast"?

The local news section of the paper? Boooooooorrrrrrrrrinnnnnnnng.

The 3 dense pages of stock quotes in tiny font? Let me be the first person in a G8 nation to point this out: These Pages Are No Longer Necessary. Any real person who still actually relies on the newspaper for his stock quotes is not someone you want to trust with your money. I'd sooner trust my money to a guy with one of those bubble domed telegraph-powered stock quote machines from the 40s with the little white tape that sputters out.

If you're going to direct me to a new page, NUMBER THE PAGES. I know you don't like to put page numbers on, say, an ad; but if your magazine is all ads, like Vogue, then how the hell am I supposed to find the new page? Not that I would, a-hem, read Vogue. Heh heh.

Now USA Today. I admit it, there's a guilty pleasure. It's just so well formatted. And it's so nice and predictable. It's like the McDonalds hamburger of newspapers. It's warm, spongy... well no. But it's concise, no big words, a big 'ol friendly weathermap. A little McNugget of news from each state. (Dayton Ohio is hosting the nerf oylmpics! Get outta town!) And sure, they'll give you an actual article or two about, say Colon Powell giving testimony to some committee. But it won't be a long article. They keep it nice and digestable. Like McDonalds, the nutritional value is negligable - in fact at the end of some USA Todays I actually feel like I know less - but the sense of satisfaction is unmistakable.

Oh, and just about every arts/TV section in USA Today has a guy with a cowboy hat on the first page. Howdy partner!

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Ice Cream

This is especially petty, but can a man get a pint of ice cream that doesn't have chunks of crap floating around in it?

Not actual crap of course. I mean almonds, brownie chunks, sponge cake, reeses cups, cookie dough, brazilnuts, etc. etc. Can a man get a pint of ice cream that is free from all this shit? Besides chocolate and vanilla?

Here's another newsflash: Haagen Daaz is way better than Ben & Jerrys. That's right hippies. It's better ice cream. Take a pint of HD side by side with B&J, leave them out of the freezer for a few minutes, and then open them up and take a scoop from each. You can tell right there as you scoop that Haagan Daaz is the real deal. Ben & Jerrys is a lighter, fluffier ice cream, and I don't mean that in a good way. It's got a vaguely grainy feel to it, and it's a little gummy in the mouth. When you scoop it, it's almost like it's coming out in tufts.

Now Haagen Daaz. That baby scoops like liquid silk. And when you taste it... it's like Holy Shit. Haagen Daaz is that good. It's makes me feel like my tongue is taking up valuable real estate in my mouth, space that could be better utilitized by Haagen Daaz ice cream on a 24/7 basis.

Now I know that B&J is this great organization that treats it's employees really well, they're eco friendly, they saved the rainforests, they promote Phish and the Dead, they just want everyone to be happy, etc. And Haagen Daaz is this corporate bully that broke a bunch of laws. There was that whole "what is the doughboy afraid of?" scandal. And they aren't even really German. Or Dutch. Or whatever nationality the name is meant to suggest. They just invented it to give them some ice-cream cred. And that's exactly the sort of bullshit I take a strong stand against.

But my friends, the proof is in the ice cream, and HD puts out a better product.

And then we get to the chunks of crap. Now maybe you like chunks of crap in your ice cream. God bless. Mazel Tov. But me, I like that liquid silk sensation thing I was talking about earlier. And you know what brings the whole smooth and creamy reverie thing to a screeching halt? An almond does.

And the problem is that chunky ice cream, for a long time now, has completely dominated the market. It's taken over. Ben & Jerrys made their name by trying out weird and wacky new chunk flavors and eventually finding a few winners and now everybody is following suit. And it sucks. Sure, there's still chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and maybe coffee if we're lucky, but that is it for those of us who like a smooth ride. Your average ice cream selection at the Quikie Mart now is only going to have flavors with Bannana chunks, and oatmeal cookies, and marshmellow bits and pretzels....

Yes, pretzels.

And how about that flavor, Chubby Hubby? Every single purchase of ice cream for me is a little private guilt battle. If I win the battle, I buy the ice cream. If not, I don't. It's usually 50-50. But no waaaaaaaay am I going to buy a pint of ice cream that is basically called "Fat Man".

Now Haagan Daaz's Dulce de Leche. That's a flavor! Caramel ice cream with a caramel ripple. Or is it a ribbon? Either way it aint a chunk. When you dig that spoon into the virgin topsoil of a pint of dulce de leche and come back with a glistening ribbon of caramel, it must be just like when our ancestors drove that axepick into the mountain and exposed that rich vein of silver.

Yep, just like that.

And then it was Ben & Jerrys turn to be the Digimon-style imitators. They couldn't just sit by and watch Haagan Daaz corner the caramel market with their exciting new flavor. No, they had to act. And they acted the only way they knew how: by taking a decent flavor idea and injecting chunks of crap into it. So they gave us Triple Caramel Chunk, which was essentially Dulce de Leche with chunks of caramel filled chocolates floating in it. Bravo Ben & Jerrys. Another masterpiece.

Ben actually spoke at my college once. I went to hear him talk. This was 97 or 98. The lecture topic wasn't ice cream and the great chunk debate, it was US military buildup and how unnecessary it was. I remember he used long rolls of toilet paper to make a point about the US military budget. I also remember how he ridiculed the idea that a "rogue nation" like Afghanistan could possibly pose any kind of actual threat to the United States. Yeah that was some sharp analysis there Ben. Don't quit your day job.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Homework Psychosis

Have you ever been sitting around, Sunday afternoon, nothing to do? Maybe there's a light drizzle, maybe you've been working on a crossword, maybe somewhere in the background Wolf Blitzer is talking about seatbelts...

And you feel vaguely disconcerted. Like you shouldn't just be sitting around. Like you shouldn't be wasting time. Isn't there something you should be doing? Isn't the clock ticking on some important task and you're just letting precious time slip by? Are you wasting the day? Why are you just sitting around on your lazy ass?

This, I believe, is the damage that homework does to the brain. Grade school, high school, college, grad school. I think we've been conditioned to feel like we should never have a free moment.

Because homework is never done. You can't do ALL the reading. You can't do ALL the recommended exercises and problems. You can't possibly have gotten an adequate start on that term project. Homework is never really finished. You can take breaks, and parcel out the work in chunks, but every minute you're not doing anything is a minute when you could be doing homework.

This mindset becomes ingrained in your teenaged head and never leaves. Shouldn't you get some of that homework done? You haven't even cracked that one book. How can you sit there and watch TV when that rough draft is due Monday?

Homework invades your personal space. You aren't safe at home. You're not even safe in your bedroom. You could be working.

One thing I loved about my old job is that when 6 o'clock came around, the day's work was over. You were done. The rest of that evening? Not a care in the world. If you wanted to do nothing but watch ESPN classic and drink Coors until you dozed off in front of the TV, then you had a big 'ol green light.

But some people get permamently frazzled by the homework psychosis and never learn to give it up. Some people just aren't comfortable doing nothing. Oh, they'll do nothing. But it won't be a comfortable nothing. It will be a vaguely stressful and agonizing nothing. They'll never feel like Ron Livingston from Office Space when he says "I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing. And it was everything I thought it could be."

I think it's wrong that school related work is allowed to invade every single moment of your day. Maybe The Brak Show had a good idea when Brak and Zorak went back in time to prevent the invention of homework. When they arrived back in the present, school work was only allowed to be done at school.

I recommend to everyone that they set aside a day to do absolutely nothing. Well, not literally nothing. But nothing of significance. Plan it in advance so you know you won't have any obligations, and then just let the sweet nothingness fly.