Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Am Tired of Hearing that Samus Aran is Some Kind of Videogame Feminist Icon

I don't get any pleasure out of saying this - but don't you think it is patently clear that the Metroid protagonist Samus was made female as an afterthought and as a joke? I mean, isn't it plainly the case that the Japanese programmers who made the original Metroid in the mid 80's made Samus a girl so they'd have a Ha-Ha twist ending? You win the game... the hero takes off his helmet for the first time... and surprise! It's a girl!

I have to bring this up because in the 20 years since the surprise ending of Metroid, Samus has evolved into a bona fide Videogame Feminist Icon. She's constantly trotted out as a prime example of how videogames provide strong female protagonists and role models for girls, and have been doing so since day one. And the more I read these gushing homages (like this one) to a great shattering of the videogame glass ceiling, the more of a fraud I think it is. I mean, isn't it clear she wasn't conceived as female?

It's actually a serious point. If she wasn't intended to be a female character, and her female identity was thought up and added as a postscript for a cheap "gotcha!" moment, then where does that leave the people who say that she represents gaming's first strong female protagonist?

Here's the original Metroid director, Yoshio Sakamoto, talking to in 2007: "We were partway through the development process, when one of the staff members said Hey, wouldn't that be kind of cool if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?" Exactly. The character had already been designed and scripted, and then they gave her a gender. And let's remember, this was a game that had a secret password to let you play as Samus in a leotard, and a bonus ending showing you Samus in a bikini. This is not the Marie Curie of videogames. This is joke territory, replete with 8-bit titillation.

Apparently I'm not the only one who feels that the empowered-woman reputation of Samus is sort of at odds with the way she's actually shown in the game. Here's Gamespot editor Greg Kasavin in the article "Samus' Suit Was Made by Men":

"Metroid, the perennial favorite sci-fi series from Nintendo, has a female main character. This was first discovered by surprise at the end of the original 1986 Metroid game, in which, if you finished the game having met certain special conditions, you'd see a brief cutscene of Samus Aran's red and gold armor magically disappear to reveal a shapely, scantily clad woman, who then waves at you. It comes as a bit of a shock, and why shouldn't it? Samus doesn't sound like a woman's name. ... While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I disapprove of this--I like the series, after all, and it's targeted at people like me--it also rubs me the wrong way. I don't appreciate that Samus being a woman is a punch line. Ironically, Metroid is often cited as one of those games that's quite progressive in its portrayal of women. It's obvious, I hope, that I happen not to think so."

Yes yes, this is all a big nitpick, but I've had to listen and read about the historic nature of Samus and her inspiration to girl gamers everywhere for 20 years. I've had to listen to how videogames were ahead of their time, morally serious responsible citizens because Nintendo had strong female protagonists like Samus Aran. And you know, if some young person out there is genuinely inspired by the example of Samus from Metroid, a retroactively designated woman, then shucks, I have no desire to piss on their parade, but how about we set the record straight for everyone else?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

These Entertainment Weekly Best-Of Lists

This year, Entertainment Weekly published a whole issue of lists. Best 100 Movies of the last 25 years. Best 100 books, music albums, TV shows, etc. We all know that magazines use lists like these to sell copies (because if nothing else they allow you to show any celebrity photo you want, without the annoying burden of reporting any actual news) - but I had never seen an entire issue that consisted of nothing but lists.

In general, I like best-of lists. They're good conversation starters and fodder for debate. They're good old, empty calorie fun to read. So I'm reading these new Entertainment Weekly lists, and I'm enjoying them, but.... something wasn't quite right. There was that nagging little tingle on the back of my neck. That slight, barely perceptible sound of fingernails on blackboard or a violin out of tune. I knew that something about these lists was seriously wrong. And now, I think I've got a good grip on it.

Here's the thing. You've got the Academy Awards, right? Or the other top tier film award societies. The groups that genuinely try to reward the best films of the year. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you've got something like the People's Choice, or better yet, the MTV Movie Awards, where someone like Tom Green can win Best Tongue or something like that. So you've got two completely different standards of seriousness.

The question is, where on this continuum of seriousness does Entertainment Weekly purport to be? Where is their disclaimer? I think the problem I have with them is that they clearly are claiming membership in the A category, putting on airs of total seriousness, while making B category choices.

Let's lay it all out on the table. And just to be clear, I have no problem with the B category. I have no problem with the MTV Movie Awards and handing out golden popcorn buckets to rappers and teenagers and Eugene Levy. My problem is solely with Entertainment Weekly's posturing.

EW is actually playing a very artful game here. I give them credit. I'm sure if I pressed them on naming "Speed" as the 40th best film of the last 25 years, they would respond with something like this: "Of course our standards are different than the Oscars. We don't dismiss all popular entertainment out of hand. Other critics won't consider the Matrix, Spiderman 2, Steven King, etc. because they reject crowd pleasers. We strip away that pretense and analyze everything on the merits. We're not afraid of looking at mainstream entertainment and calling it high art." That, I think, would be the EW retort.

And it's such a sensible, smooth, compelling explanation that it almost fools me. It sounds true, doesn't it? Think about it. Movies like The Dark Knight and Lord of the Rings - big blockbuster movies really can be high art, right? Maybe EW really does have the right idea?

But no. It's a lie. Here's what's really going on. And now that I've figured it out, I'll never be fooled by an EW list again. EW, when making these lists, is limited to pop culture product that the average Joe has heard of and seen. And that's it. They have to choose popcorn blockbusters to round out these lists because that's all they will permit themselves to consider.

Roger Ebert has a list of his own best movies of all time, and it's chock full of films you're never heard of. In his top 10 is something called Aguirre: Wrath of God. Now, maybe Aguirre: Wrath of God actually is one of the top 10 films of all time. But Entertainment Weekly could not ever, in a million years, acknowledge that. Why? Because you've never heard of Aguirre: Wrath of God, and if a magazine told you it was the 5th best movie of all time - then you'd feel just a little stupid. 'Cause you consider yourself a little bit of a movie buff. Hell, you subscribe to Entertainment Weekly after all - clearly you're into movies. And the 5th best movie of all time is something called Aguirre: Wrath of God? Kind of a let down. Kind of makes you feel dumb. This is the taboo that EW can't break. They can't risk making you feel dumb in this way, and so all risky and obscure choices are off the table.

Now that you understand the logic of the EW list, you can look at every category and finally understand the choices. The only category where I can bring any personal expertise is the best video game category. And looking at this list, I can say with certainty that each one of these 50 games is a mainstream, blockbuster best-selling hit. Every game there is a super safe choice. There are no misunderstood masterpieces. No brilliant Japanese imports that never found a US audience. Instead there are games like Guitar Hero, whose greatness lies solely in the immense number of copies it was able to sell. This isn't a list of the 50 greatest games you've ever heard of, it's a list of the 50 games you've ever heard of.

Look, EW is welcome to this shitty approach to the ranking of film and TV and music. It's nice that there's someone out there validating my enjoyment of Ghostbusters. But we need a disclaimer EW. We need you to acknowledge that you are limiting the candidates for these lists to movies found in the surplus inventory stock room at Blockbuster.

Oh my God, did they really list The Bourne Supremacy as movie #29? Was that the middle one? Man, I'm feeling a little nauseous now.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seasonal Potpourri

What Use is a James Bond Blu Ray Boxed Set that features 6 Completely Random Bond Movies?
This happens all the time. You get six random Bond movies, jumping across decades, with no unifying theme. No particular reason for the pairings. You don't (with this set) even get a sample of one movie with each Bond actor. It's totally, bafflingly arbitrary.

If you're a completist, then you're screwed. How how are you supposed to assemble a complete James Bond Blu Ray collection? Even if the other 17 or so movies do come out later, how do you make sense of the scrambled order? Why do they do this? Why?

It's not just Bond, it's any multi-movie boxed set. They all do it. I've seen Woody Allen box sets that have a collection like "Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, Interiors, Another Woman, Bullets over Broadway and Small Time Crooks. And I'm like... "Wha?" I mean, you could do "The Comedies of Woody Allen". You could do "Woody Allen: the 70's". You could do "Woody Allen: the Mia Farrow Collection". There's lots of way to creatively package his 80 feature films. But to write each of his films on a ping pong ball and then have a lotto machine serve up a random six... that's just infuriating.

I guess maybe the strategy with these blender-style collections is that you get to package a couple of stinkers in with a couple of known favorites, but man - my logical collector's brain just starts steaming when I see these boxed sets.

Ladies: Please Put Away the Goddamn Camera

What is it with women and their need to take a thousand pictures? Why must every fun or spontaneous moment be stopped for documentation? Let me distinguish between female photography and male photography, since both kinds exist and there's a distinction I'm trying to make. Guys who are into taking pictures are different. These are loner guys with full beards and an unkempt appearance. They get up early to take pictures of the sunrise and they carry thermoses. They have one of them fancy cameras and they can tell you about the lens. They would much rather get a candid photo of you putting on your shoes than get you and two others to huddle in for a group picture. They like working in black and white and they have their own darkrooms. These guys are inoffensive and they aren't the problem.

The problem is the women who actually make everyone stop what they're doing in order to get a group picture. Not once, or once a day, but every 30 freakin minutes. "Oh oh! Can we stop for a picture!" So you stop, and you pose. And you force a smile. Then you have to wait to make sure she likes the photo, cause if not, well then you do it again. And again. Then she wants to get in the photo too and you have to "Ask the Stranger". I hate asking the stranger. And I hate putting other, innocent pedestrians in the position of having to pause and walk around us so they don't get in the picture.

And all for what? To create a scrapbook? Who cares? Who's going to look? Why not just do what the rest of us do and rely on your brain to remember what happened? Sure, take a few pictures - but keep it low key. Don't interrupt the momentum of whatever's going on to get a group photo.

When Did 5 O'Clock Shadow Get so Hip for TV Professionals?

The other guy that comes to mind is the cop from Heroes, the telepathic one who does everything in his life: work, leisure, family time, with a perfectly unchanging coat of 18-hour stubble. I couldn't find a good picture though. Watch the 1st season episode where he plans the perfect date for his wife, and he's dressed to the nines and serving a candlelit meal - but he still doesn't shave! Are other cops besides him allowed to show up for duty with a 1-day beard, let alone a perpetual one?

Try showing up for work at your job with a 1-day beard and see what happens.

Wait, looks like someone has beaten me to the punch here and is already chronicling a list of TV characters who sport perpetual 5 O'Clock shadow. Here's the link.

My Secret Vestibule Trick

For anyone reading this far, I'd like to offer you a little secret bonus that is guaranteed to make your life a little more pleasant. I've been doing this for years and it's never let me down. It's my secret vestibule trick. Say you are walking towards the entrance to a place of business. A restaurant, a hotel, a Starbucks, whatever. You notice another person is on a trajectory to arrive at the door at roughly the same moment as you will get there. Whichever one of you gets there first will clearly end up getting served first, and the second person will have to wait in line. Furthermore you know that the other person is perfectly aware of this too.

Now traditionally, there are 2 things you can do in this situation. 1) You can preemptively forfeit. You don't want a confrontation, you don't want any bad blood, so you hang back for a minute and let the other guy get there first. 2) You speed up, pretending not to notice that it's a race. You get there first, but the punishment is that both of you know that you're an enormous prick.

These are both bad choices. Here's what you can do instead. Look inside the building and see if there's a vestibule. That is - a small space with a second set of doors after it. You've probably never considered it, but many, many businesses have these vestibule entrances. If there is a vestibule, here's what you do. Allow yourself to awkwardly arrive at the front door simultaneously with the other guy. Give him a smile full of brotherly love, and graciously open the door for him.

My friends, you'd better believe you'll be sampling ice cream flavors with the little sampling spoon first and that other guy will never know what hit him. To him it will all be a blur of politeness and smiles and vestibules, but the next thing he knows he's standing in a line, and you're getting served. That is the secret vestibule trick. Share it only with those you trust.

Now, if there's no vestibule, you're back to square one. I would suggest whipping out your cell phone and pretending to be engrossed in a call. It makes your fast-walking seem more plausible, and you can pretend to be totally oblivious to anything around you.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Scientists: Lets Move a Little Faster on Immortality

Why is no one talking about immortality? How come it isn't on the agenda? How come all this progress on decoding the genome and sequencing our DNA is going on all around us, and the cutting edge of speculation on future gene therapy all revolves around changing our babies eye color, and stuff like that? Aren't we really close, theoretically, to being able to fool the body into not aging?

My layman's understanding of aging is that our cells are all capable of regenerating, but after age 25 or 30 or so, some genetic instruction kicks in and tells the cells to start failing at reproduction every once in a while. Eventually, the failure rate increases and we start to show visible signs of aging. Finally, some major organ fails catastrophically and we die. In theory, if we could suppress the genetic instruction that causes aging, we could generate healthy cells forever and be perpetually 25.

Is it really that simple? Probably not. But where the hell is the research? Where are the foundations? Where are the charitable trusts? The clock is ticking over here. I need this now.

Here's the truth of it, and it's been bugging me for a while. For some strange reason, there's a social taboo against pursuing this goal. The pursuit of immortality - it's uncouth. It shows poor character. It's a moral failing.

Well no. No it's not.

At what point does "I don't want to die." go from being a reasonable and universally shared feeling to being a tragic character flaw? 60? 70? 80? You know those movies where the old man on his deathbed has a twinkle in his eye and comforts the child by saying "Don't worry son, it's my time." That's some Hollywood bullshit right there. I think Woody Allen had the right idea when he said "Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I’d prefer to live on in my apartment."

There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep living. The naysayers caution "Do you REALLY want to live FOREVER? Wouldn't that be boring? Wouldn't life lose all meaning?" Well, I'll let you know. Or probably I won't, cause you'll be dead. Suicide is always there if I change my mind, right? Let me tack on another 100 years to my current lifespan, and then I'll reassess the situation.

Again the naysayers: "What about the overcrowding of the earth?" Me: If a vasectomy is the price, then sign me up. No problems there. After those two arguments are rebutted, the anti-immortality guy realizes most of his ammunition is gone, and the remaining arguments he tries to field are really vague and wishy-washy. "What about the hubris? What about tampering in God's domain? What about the need to refresh the species with new blood? What about death giving meaning to life? What about..." And here is where I just slowly turn the volume dial down to mute. So, really, there's no ethical problem with a pursuit of immortality.

Which brings us back to the original question: why aren't we all over this shit? Why isn't there a Newsweek cover story on this all the time? Shouldn't we be talking about it? Do you have any idea how significant a development this would be? This is a real monkey-throwing-a-bone-upwards moment in the history of our species. Conquering death! This is evolution man! If we achieve immortality, (and don't just insist, categorically, that it isn't possible) then I will argue that it is the third most important moment in the history of mankind, after 1) the dawn of civilization and 2) Enlightenment. This would be the third milestone on the road to wherever it is we're going. And theoretically, it's within sight. It could happen in our lifetimes. And no one's talking about it! All because of this foolish social taboo.

I've looked online in the past for any guidance on this, and the difficulty is separating the legitimate thinkers from the cranks who want to sell you miracle tonics and stuff like that. Here is one organization that I think is fairly legit, and it provides links to other good sources.

The champion of the current legitimate immortality movement seems to be this man, Dr. Aubrey de Grey.

You see, immediately, my pessimism. To me, his beard and shirt say only one thing - that I may as well shop for a casket and burial plot now. And this is his publicity photo! Do you realize that he appears to be lying down? I'm screwed, man!

Look, Dr. Aubrey de Grey could be a genius, I don't know. But if he wants my donation, if he wants to get his act together, he'd better take some cues from 1960's NASA to set my mind at ease. How about a lab coat? A starched shirt? A tie? A shave? A crew cut? A clipboard? Anything!

I'm not usually in the habit of making predictions. My political predictions for this year (see the January 2007 archives) were spotty. My digital piracy prediction (that one day all music and all film will be free and there's nothing anyone can do about it) is still in the balance. But I'm ready to make a new prediction: immortality will eventually be the most important issue on the planet. Because the power to achieve this isn't in some distant future - it's coming soon. Mother nature never anticipated humans achieving this level of fundamental meddling. We're going under the hood of human existence and we can make whatever changes we want.

You heard it here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Toilet Closets

At first they were a curiosity. A novelty. They popped up in the bathrooms of the rich - I don't know how long ago - and have since been trickling down, so to speak, to the bathrooms of the common man.

I speak of the toilet closets. These bathrooms within bathrooms. You enter a bathroom, you say "Hey, where's the toilet?" and then you see a door leading to an even smaller chamber that contains the commode and perhaps a little picture of flowers hanging on the wall.

I'm not knocking the rich here. God bless the rich homeowner and the pathbreaking service he provides, trying out all kinds of wacky new home design ideas, and occasionally stumbling on something genuinely useful, like wall-mounted TV speakers, or remote control drapes. But this innovation process can lead to trouble too. Take the whole island kitchen fad. It used to be that the appliances and the counters were on the perimeter of the kitchen, and the center was reserved for some family space, like a breakfast table. Now, when the rich folk want to fundamentally rethink a classic room, like the kitchen, the goal is really just to figure out how to make it bigger. How do you make a kitchen bigger? If you double the size of the room, that's going to be one huge breakfast table. That's no good. So say hello to the "Island kitchen". Now, all the important appliances are in the center. Now, the center is a "workspace". Efficient use of space? No.

But that's still fine with me. It's your money, it's your house. The problem is when, in an effort to boost the value of a modest house, the builders install an extra-large island kitchen for no other reason than to lend the house the appearance of wealth, at the square-footage expense of other rooms.

Which brings me back to today's annoyance: the toilet closet. All these new houses I've been visiting have a toilet closet in the extra-large master bath. It seems like the toilet closet has become a permanent feature of the 21st century house. Well that's a damned shame in my opinion. Let me lay out the case against the toilet closet.

First let's dispense with the one argument in favor of the TC. This is the argument that it permits someone else to use the bathroom while the first person uses the toilet. I can't speak for anyone else, but I personally do not want anyone, even a loved one, standing 24 inches from me, brushing their teeth on the other side of a closed door while I attempt to get in the state of mind necessary to relax the bowels. I don't want to hear the sink running and the patter of footsteps. I don't want anyone out there. I don't even want anyone in the bedroom beyond. Ideally, no one really should be in the house. In fact I sometimes play a little game with myself on the toilet. "It sure does suck to be the last man on earth," I say in my head, "Oh well, at least it means I can take this shit in peace." Solitude, really, is what I'm looking for at that moment.

But the main problem with the toilet closet is much more serious. The toilet, frankly, is the whole point of the bathroom. Don't think so? You see restrooms with toilets but no showers all the time, right? When have you seen a bathroom with a shower or bath but no toilet? Never. The toilet is the whole point. Let's stop pretending that it's not. The problem with the toilet closet is that it relegates the act of shitting into some kind of secondary concern. It shuffles shitting off to the side, forcing you to enter this cramped, unappealing space. It's as if the bathroom is saying: "Oh, you want to take a shit? You don't want to sit at the vanity and powder your nose? You don't want to take a shower that also has a flip down seat? No? You really just came here to take a shit? Well... I suppose you can if you want, we have a little space for that over there."

No, that's bullshit. Think about it. Think about how fancy the shower has gotten. All the granite and the ceramics and the misted glass, and the shower head with all the settings, and the waterproof iPod docking station, etc. Now look in the toilet closet. You get nothing! The message is that you should be ashamed to even be in there.

Let me tell you about the bathroom I would like to see when I open the door. First, to even approach the bathroom, I ascend a staircase to the highest level in my house. Then, when I push open the door, I am greeted with a stunning visual composition. A long, bright, tiled hall. As I walk down this hall I pass the shower and tub on my left and right. I pass the sink and the vanity. And then friends, I ascend a final 3 steps into an open rotunda, a circular space with wide open windows in all directions and all spangled with natural light. The cross breeze blows this way and that, filling the room with a constant rush of fresh air. And in the middle? The toilet. As you take your seat on the throne, you can see everything. The backyard. The setting sun. The distant forest. Or the cityscape, the skyline. Or, in my perfect world, the inky blackness of deepest space. On your left hand side, toilet paper - the strong stuff. I like Scott Original. Toilet paper with some bite. Beside the roll, a small water fountain for optional dampening of the paper. On the right hand side you'd find a small side table with the appropriate, customizable miscellany: a book, a magazine, sudoku. And of course a remote control to activate some music if the mood is right.

Now that is a compelling shitting experience. Compare that to taking a thankless dump in a space no larger than an airplane john, and with no ventilation to speak of. I don't want a toilet closet, I want a toilet command center. Now, really, I just have to become rich myself, so that I can realize the whole Rotunda Bathroom. And then it'll catch on as being all nouveau-riche and popular, and then all new starter houses will come equipped with one. That's the dream.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Attempt at a Thomas Friedman Column

I was off in an exotic and dangerous part of the world when an extremely mundane thing happened to me. Maybe a hotel waiter gave me profusive thanks for a gratuity, or I saw an impoverished man using a cell phone. This event suddenly and vividly gave me an entirely new understanding of how the world works. Such was my dumbfoundment and surprise that I realized a new term or phrase was needed to succinctly describe this vital new lesson. So I coined one and am introducing it here.

This new Coined Phrase explains a lot. It explains why Americans are losing their competitive edge, and why Europe is leading the way in green tech. As I explain this is detail, your mind will wander back to the original mundane event, wondering a) if such a thing really illustrates what I am claiming it does, and b) why all of my vignettes seem to occur during the taxi ride to the hotel or the airport.

Now that I am returning to the aftermath of the mundane thing that happened, I will repeat the new, Coined Phrase in a tautological attempt to validate it. Do you really want to leave your children unprepared in a world that has ignored the clear signs of what I've been talking about? Look at the clever citizens of the country I am reporting from... do they look like they're unprepared?

To put it all in perspective, consider what links the Coined Phrase insight with the events of 9/11. Haven't guessed it? What links them are my own puns and facile alliterations. Such as: "While we're scrutinizing our ocean ports, they are busy upgrading their computer ports."

Friends, make no mistake - the time for change is now.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Petty Annoyances Guide for Selecting a Second Language to Learn

Like many Americans, you've long thought about learning a second language. Perhaps you're a college student and want to take a language course as an elective. Maybe you're an adult with some time on your hands and a desire to broaden your horizons. Maybe you're just tired of being monolingual while those around you speak other languages. Or you may be like me. In which case you think there is really only one good reason to learn a second language, and that's to lay 90% of the groundwork for getting laid in that country.

I refuse to believe that I am the only person who has ever considered sex as a primary motivating factor to learn a foreign language. Quite the contrary, I think that it crosses everyone's mind as they scan the list of languages, deciding which one to attempt. Sure you might consider the number of countries where Language A is spoken versus Language B - but don't try to tell me you aren't also considering the possibility of mind blowing coitus with an endless supply of young women who are all stunned that an American is actually fluent in their native language.

Because no one besides myself will publicly admit that this plays a role in second language selection, it falls to me to actually analyze the languages out there, and determine where it is that the least amount of effort expended will yield the highest return of eager young women bouncing on your face.

Here are some of the factors we will be considering:
  • Difficulty of the Language
  • Hotness of the Women
  • Local perception of Americans
  • How sexually open the culture is
  • The relative rarity of an American / White man speaking this language

Because the overall analysis here is so complicated, maybe we should start with the last one first:

Rule #1: No one will be impressed if you show up in Paris speaking French.

Discussion: In France, you are expected to speak French. The French assume that their language is global and cosmopolitan and that if you visit Paris you must have already taken the time to learn a few words. There are a few other reasons why French isn't a great choice, but here's the question to ask yourself: Who is going to be impressed when I show up speaking language "x"? French obviously fails this test. Spanish does too. No one will be impressed anywhere by an American speaking Spanish.

Basically, if you are white, and the native speakers of this language are also white, you are at an immediate disadvantage in the quest to have a woman laugh with delight at your courageous attempts to speak her language at the conversational level. Like say, Italian. Now, if you're an African American, then by all means, go with Italian. But for us white dudes, Western Europe and even South America isn't the most fertile ground to impress anyone.

Now if you showed up in Addis Ababa and start speaking fluent Amharic, cars will screech to a halt and jaws will drop. You might be the first Amharic-speaking white American they've ever seen. Does this mean that Amharic and Ethiopian babes are the way to go? Not remotely. This leads us to:

Rule #2: If the female population isn't already sexually liberated and open, then you're wasting your time.

Discussion: Ask yourself - are they religious? Do they have intensely strong family structures and family bonds? Is this the sort of country where in order to take the girl out for a soda you need permission from the parents, the grandparents, and all uncles older than 16? We're talking about the Middle East here. Many African countries. Some Asian countries. Places that have no casual sex culture. You may impress the hell out of everyone with your mastery of their obscure tongue, but be prepared to live with a dry dick.

Rule #3: On the other hand, there's no point in learning the language if they're going to fuck you anyway.

Discussion: Thailand. Russia. The Balkans. You're an American and you show up with cash? They're going to be breaking down your door to fuck you! No need to learn a single word. Let them struggle with their English. Let's eliminate these countries and languages. We really only want to focus on countries where the knowledge of the language is going to make a huge difference, and in a society with loose morals to begin with.

Rule #4: You're looking for the widest gap between female hotness and male unattractiveness.

Discussion: We're looking for countries where the women are smoking hot, obviously. But less obviously, it's a big plus when the local men are ugly, uninteresting and charmless. It'll make you stand out as an exotic prize. Here I want to be sensitive and not hurt anyone's feelings, so I won't name any of these countries except for South Korea.

Rule #5: Some languages are far easier to learn than others. Don't break your back here.

Korean turns out to be one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. Which is a pity, since it scores great on our checklist in most other respects. Here's a website that gauges the relative difficulty of foreign languages for English speakers. All things being equal, why choose a more difficult langauge?


So which countries and languages are we talking about then? Here are my thoughts.

#1 Greek

Hottest of all Bond girls - the Greek one from For Your Eyes Only

I keep coming back to Modern Greek as being the best choice. Greek women: beautiful, passionate, sensual. They're looking for an excuse to sleep with you. Give them one. And name me one non-Greek American dude who speaks Greek. There aren't any! You'd be the first! Greece is great to spend time in anyway - food, climate, culture - it's a fantastic country.

#2 Something Nordic

I think Norwegian, Swedish or Finnish aren't bad choices. Again, these aren't languages anyone bothers to learn who doesn't a) have some family tie to the country or b) have a really compelling reason to be there. Nobody picks up Finnish for fun. And the women? Gorgeous. The kind of women you'd take on a spaceship to colonize a new planet. Now, according to that difficulty website, Finnish isn't easy. Maybe Swedish is the way to go.

#3 Japanese

Ya ta!

Then you've got Japanese. It's one hell of a hard language. But the rewards are potentially staggering. I've never been to Japan, but if all that violent, wild-ass-crazy tentacle-porn-cartoon stuff is even remotely grounded in truth, then I can't even fathom how awesome it would be. And you can't beat Japanese women for strange, exotic hotness. Those schoolgirls outfits. Those tomboy haircuts. That small, supple physique that's so intoxicating that you can't help but think NAMBLA may be onto something. These girls already love you because you're American. Now you can really blow their minds.

So have I missed anything? By all means add some suggestions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Carnevino is in Trouble

Mario Batali Update

Loyal readers know that I intensely dislike Mario Batali the chef. His sin was that he composed the most asinine, incoherent, treacly piece of pious bullshit I've ever seen on a Starbucks cup. I mean, all of those Starbucks cup quotes were bad, but the Mario Batali one towered over the rest for its 100% pure-cut Colombian stupidity.

Then I actually bumped into him at the Palazzo in Las Vegas outside his new restaurant Carnevino. Not initially realizing who he was, I missed the opportunity to grab his ridiculous hat and run away.

I had meant to eventually eat at Carnevino but I never got around to it. I had actually wanted to sample the food of a man who, according to his Starbucks cup, was no more than two generations removed from a guy who shook hands with another guy who picked the peas of the first guy. But the word now is that the restaurants at Palazzo are tanking. Apparently you can walk in and be seated immediately at any of them, any time of day, any day of the week. Just yesterday I read a scathing review of Carnevino and I'm glad I stayed away. Oh, this is awful. I almost feel bad for Mario. Almost. Check it out (courtesy of Eating Las Vegas):

And speaking of not-so-nice prices, be prepared for some serious sticker shock and some seriously over salted food, should you or your dining companions mindlessly insist on enduring a meal at Carnevino. This Mario Batali meat emporium has all the charm of a bus station, and is so massively overpriced that you’ll feel like one of Adam Perry Lang’s overstuffed cattle being led to slaughter when you get the bill. For example: I just returned from New York where a prime, well-aged steak for two, at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse on Park Avenue South that gives Peter Luger’s a run for its money, cost $82.50….at Carnevino it’s $150.

What's the air and soil telling you now, fat boy?

The Dark Knight: A Fictional Story

Did anyone see the Dark Knight? Yeah? So did I. Skip this section if you don't want spoilers. The always dependable Moriarty wrote one of the best Dark Knight reviews on Moriarty doesn't bat 1000 - he enjoyed The Love Guru for instance, but he's a capable reviewer and I agree with his take on Batman.

But hold the freakin' phone. In the review, he discusses the scene on the ferries where each group of passengers is given the option of blowing up the other group to save their own lives. He mentions the part where Tiny Lister (big, imposing black guy, here playing a convict) takes the detonator and throws it out the window. Moriarty writes:

When he steps forward and demands the detonator, I did exactly what Nolan wanted me to do: I judged Lister on his appearance. I looked at him, and I knew full well what he was going to do with the detonator. Nolan really milks the suspense, too, as Lister talks about the difference between someone strong enough to make the awful moral choice and someone who is too weak to do it. He takes the responsibility and the detonator out of the hands of the warden... and then throws the detonator out the window and returns to his friends so they can pray. It’s not a moment I would have ever expected to see in a summer blockbuster, but more than that, it’s a moment that made me realize that no matter how enlightened I like to think I am, I harbor prejudices like anyone else. I leapt to a conclusion I had no business making, and the reversal made me feel terribly guilty.

Um, Moriarty... a couple of white, non-convict screenwriters wrote that scene. Tiny Lister, an actor, was hired to play a fictional man who does a fictional thing with a fictional detonator, with hundreds of fictional lives at stake. In other words Moriarty, IT DIDN'T ACTUALLY HAPPEN. Therefore, it does not present some kind of striking counter-example to challenge your conventional prejudice. Tiny Lister's behavior in the scene does not reflect the behavior of an actual person, and thus does not create a basis for your self-doubt and introspection.

[Necessary disclaimer: there are of course REAL reasons to not be prejudiced against big imposing black guys like Tiny Lister. His Christopher-Nolan-scripted behavior in The Dark Knight is merely not one of them]

American TV and film are relentless in the way they purposefully defy racial stereotypes. If some group has a stereotype of being lazy, Hollywood will portray them as industrious. Poor? Hollywood makes them wealthy. Criminals? Virtuous. Not so smart? Geniuses. Greedy? Generous. etc. etc. But what I don't usually see if someone pulling a "Moriarty": citing these fictional portrayals as actual evidence that the stereotype is unfounded. Now that takes stupidity.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My Pistachio Story

Here's the story. I really really like pistachios. They're definitely in my nut top 5. They share elite space with cashews and pecans, and they easily beat other high-profile premium nuts like walnuts and macadamias.

The only problem with pistachios, as we all know, is that they are a bitch to get out of the shell. Only about half the nuts in the bag will open easy. Another 40% will be a real hassle, and the final 10% impossible. We've all been there. And yet prying open a stubborn shell and claiming its salty reward has a certain satisfaction that is undeniable. When I eat pistachios, the dilemma is usually: eat this single nut now? Or open three more shells so I can pop four of them into my mouth at once, peanut style? It is a subtle but serious test of my will power, because the desire to eat the nut in hand is always so strong, but the pleasure of having a mouthful of pistachios is that much better.

And that's the thing. I've never experienced the bliss of stuffing my face with mouthful after mouthful of de-shelled pistachios. I've crammed many a mouthful of cashews into my maw, believe me. I've grabbed and eaten peanuts by the bowlful. But pistachios? No, I've never known the experience of grabbing a handful and stuffing my face - due to the labor factor.

And so for years, I have dreamed of doing just that - stuffing my face with de-shelled pistachios. Maybe you, reader, have different dreams. This one was mine. And every time I would visit a supermarket, I would casually scan the produce and nut section, looking for the elusive holy grail - a bag of de-shelled pistachios. But in years of looking, I never found it.

Until last weekend, where at a trip to Trader Joes I spied what I had searched for, at long last: a bag of raw pistachio nutmeats.

Now, a word on Trader Joes and hippie supermarkets in general. I'm of mixed mind here. I like the product that they sell. But I have two issues. Why do Trader Joes shoppers have to be so insufferable? And secondly - why the exclusivity? Consider: I like Chef Boyardee mini raviolis. I like fruit loops. And, I also like local artisan cheeses and Orangina. Why can't I have both at the same place? Which is to say, why is it not enough that Trader Joes carries a great stock of organic, local, environmentally safe hippie food - why do they also have to exclude doritos? Whole Foods has the same problem. I like Whole Foods, I really do. But I also like Diet Coke. Why can't I have a one stop shop? But anyways....

Back to the holy grail of nutmeat. I had my de-shelled pistachios, finally. Courtesy of Trader Joe. You really have to imagine the excitement as I got home and poured a generous helping of the de-shelled kernels into a broad and deep nut bowl. I switched on the TV, grabbed a soda, and prepared to do what I had never done before: stuff my face with huge handfuls of pistachios, with no labor involved at all.

And now here is where we get to the point of the story. For believe me, I did indeed stuff my face. Over and over. I was barely graduating the previous mouthful of nuts before I was introducing the next freshman class. As Fat Bastard said in Austin Powers: "Get in ma belly!"

And then it hit me: this doesn't taste that great. I mean, it was all right. They weren't bad. But the explosion of flavor from a single nut fresh from the shell didn't seem to translate well to the face-stuffing experience. It was a bit like drinking a cold can of cream soda. The taste is exquisite on the first sip, but then rapidly loses flavor on each subsequent sip, until the bottom of the can just tastes like carbonated sugar water. (Maybe I'm the only one who experiences cream soda that way). But it was the same with pistachios. Now that I finally had my unlimited supply and could scarf them down to my heart's content, I discovered that the flavor doesn't hold up at all. In the end, eating these things became a crunchy chore.

Apparently, some foods are enjoyed best in small, dainty quantities. The pistachio shell, which to me had always been an annoying speed bump in the pistachio experience, turns out in hindsight to have been crucial to the enjoyment. I would have never guessed that. From now on, I'll enjoy my pistachios the old fashioned way: one at a time.

(But I'll still stuff my face with the spicy jalapeno-lime cashews. I can fucking drink those things.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Amazon Kindle? Seriously?

"This is the future of book reading. It will be everywhere." - Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker.

You know, I enjoyed Moneyball. And Liar's Poker looked pretty good. But my stock in Michael Lewis's judgment just went into freefall. Does he really think the Amazon Kindle is the future of book reading? Man, first Ben Stein comes out as a creationist and shatters my impression of him, and now Michael Lewis comes clean as a moron. What's next? Steven Hawking announces his favorite movie is Norbit?

eBooks. What a tremendously stupid idea. Does anyone actually believe that reading books via portable back-lit monitor is somehow superior to reading ink on the page? I'm typing this on a monitor and I already have a headache. You're reading this on a monitor and even you are already feeling the twinge of eye strain. Who would want to read an entire novel this way?

The modern book has been around since, oh, 1450 AD. It's pretty well tested. It's fairly tried and true. Sitting in a library, or in a cafe, or on the back porch, or in bed, and turning the pages on a good book... does Michael Lewis really think that we're going to give up that unique pleasure, en masse, for some kind of gussied up Apple Newton that also checks email? Is he out of his cotton picking mind?

I know what's going on. Somebody thought that this was a natural evolution of book reading. Somebody figured that books were due for a revolutionary step forward. After all, VHS made the transition to DVD. CDs gave way to the iPod. The cell phone replaced the land line. Email replaced snail mail. Online news replaced newspapers. It was only a matter of time before someone figured that the "book" was ready for some similar makeover.

But is it? When it comes to "revolutionizing the way people do X" the internet has a spotty track record. Sure there are successes: Google, eBay, YouTube, etc. But for every MySpace, aren't there 10 or 20 "Gourmet-Meals-Delivered-To-Your-Door".com's? Or's? Or's? Isn't recent history littered with these failed grand ideas? To me, the Kindle feels like it belongs in 1997, with 4 engineering college drop out buddies in rented SoCal office space, tinkering with sautering irons and old PC parts trying to cook up a working prototype, while one of them sits on the phone making desperate cold calls to potential investors. That's where the eBook belongs. An idea whose inevitable failure was baked into the very concept: that book-reading was something that needed modernizing and revolutionizing.

Amazon is trying sooooooo hard to convince me that the Kindle is a must-buy. Don't I realize that I can download new books wirelessly? Don't I know that as soon as I'm done with one I can load up another? You see, the Kindle solves an age-old problem that has hindered mankind for centuries. It used to be, before the Kindle, that when you were finished reading a book, the book was still there in your hands and it didn't go away. Yes, you could dispose of it, but what if you wanted it later? Well, then you were stuck with the ownership of a "book". Many people, again, before the Kindle, would have to keep all manner of books stored in their homes for just this reason, sometimes even installing a "book-shelf" for the very purpose. I think we all know the shame of having someone visit our homes and seeing row upon row of "books" on shelves or in specialty cabinetry, unused and inert, a physical monument to inefficiency and waste. Again, before the Kindle.

And of course, Kindle apologists wouldn't sit still for my comments about getting headaches from reading off a monitor. Don't I know that the Kindle uses a revolutionary new kind of electronic display? A display so advanced it's virtually indistinguishable from paper, with the same hues, opacity, refraction and albedo? Have I even looked at a Kindle?

Of course I haven't looked at a Kindle. And what, it's got a display almost as good as paper? And pressing "page forward" becomes almost as second-nature as turning a real page? And the battery life is 16 hours, almost as good as infinity? All that for only 400 times the price? This is a no brainer! Where I can I sign up?

The Kindle is a solution to problem that doesn't exist. Useful innovations tend to be born out of need. Kindle-style innovations aren't midwifed by necessity. They're born out of pure greed and shortsightedness. Now it should be said, I have nothing against greed. I'm a Gordon Gecko man all the way. But Gordon Gecko would have never hawked eBooks. The entire Kindle concept has no more underlying logic than a Madlib: "The internet will revolutionize the way we experience books." It isn't compelling. It's unnecessary and unwanted. And, no offense to Steve Gibson, nobody will want it.

Prediction: Amazon slowly scales back their promotion of the Kindle. They will drop price, hoping to generate more interest, but it won't work. Ultimately, a niche market will appear for the Kindle. It will be a) the elderly who need larger, manipulatable font, b) disabled people who can't operate normal books easily, and, c) well, Steve Gibson. So Amazon will come out with a new version with enhanced features for those people, price will go up slightly, we'll never hear about eBooks ever again, and the world will be well.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

One More Question

What the hell happened to Dana Carvey? Look at him! How is he younger than he was 20 years ago, and female?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

20 Questions: 2008

Time for another round of those niggling, nagging questions I have about life and the universe. Any help here would be appreciated.

1. Why do people encase their license plates in those frames that are just advertisements for the dealership? Who would do this voluntarily? Are they employees of the dealership? Seems like there's a lot of them.

2. Why does every supermarket have 3 times more aisles than they ever use?

3. Why the hell, when we were conquering huge swaths of territory from the Mexicans in the 19th century, did we stop short right at the Baja? Who made the decision that we didn't want Baja California? Were they insane? Wouldn't Baja have been an awesome 51st state? I'd be there right now.

4. Do you think sometimes the ambulances don't really have an emergency and they just feel like they're too good to sit in traffic? I have a strong feeling that this happens.

5. If I use illegal file-sharing to download a Ken Burns documentary, is that really unethical? I mean, it's PBS. It was free to begin with. I think I'm on firm ground here.

6. When I press stop on the microwave and quickly open the door to take my coffee cup out, how fast do the deadly microwaves dissipate? What I'm worried about is that for a split second, my hand is getting roasted in the microwave. Yes, the light bulb in the microwave turns off when the door opens, but that really doesn't tell you diddly. Wouldn't the microwaves still be bouncing around in there for another few seconds?

7. Why do PC monitors have USB ports placed so close together that you can't actually have two flash drives inserted side by side?

8. Let's talk zombies. Unlike the original Night of the Living Dead (which in my opinion basically got it right, with slow moving, stupid, fall-over-dead-at-dawn zombies) these modern zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead remake, Land of the Dead, and I am Legend which I just saw) feature, essentially, energizer bunny zombies. Meaning, years after their original zombification, they're still walking around, just as powerful as ever. I'm sorry, but this just defies all common sense. After the initial feeding frenzy where they wipe out most of humanity, what are they eating on a day to day basis? Okay, in some zombie movies there's a supernatural element, so you can argue that the normal rules don't apply. But most zombie movies go out of their way to remind us that there is a highly scientific explanation for the zombism. Every zombie movie has the obligatory newscaster on scratchy television footage explaining about a mutated Hanta virus or something. So, how can zombies walk around for years at full power with no food?

9. Do you think the deaf know how to quiet their farts? Is it something that can be taught?

10. What is it about being homeless that makes you want 10 sugars in your coffee? Don't believe me? Just keep your eyes open. I've seen this going back decades. From my teenage stints at the local soup kitchen where homeless guys would empty entire sugar bowls into coffee mugs, to modern Starbucks fixins bars where the homeless go crazy with the chocolate powder and the cinnamon shaker, it's just a fact. I have a private little bet with myself that I will give all the cash I have on me to the homeless person who says "No no no, just black, please."

11. Sort of a legal question here, but why do we sometimes see the headline: "He will be tried as an adult."? I don't get this. Isn't there a cutoff age for juvenile crime? Maybe it's different from state to state, that's fine, but what's with the prosecutor saying 'We're going to seek to try him as an adult."? How does that make sense? If he was under 18 at the time of the crime, he's a juvenile. If he was older than 18, he's an adult. Who gets this discretionary power to decide who's really an adult? What's the criteria for seeking an adult trial? That the kid looked at the prosecutor funny? That the crime was heinous? And where is the fairness if one kid gets the adult treatment and the other doesn't? Someone needs to explain this in detail.

12. You know the tired old argument that men are supposed to leave the toilet seat down to be considerate. Well, without hashing it all out here, I do have one question that's always stumped me. The women in these arguments always point out that one time at 4 in the morning, they actually fell IN the toilet, because their idiot man left the seat up. This is what I want to discuss. Who the hell sits down on a toilet without looking at it? In my entire life I have never done that. I don't care what hour of the morning it is, I don't care how bleary eyed, tired or drunk you are, who the hell just parks their ass on a toilet sight unseen? What if the toilet had been closed entirely? Would you have peed on the lid? I mean, how dumb do you have to be? It takes less than a second to look at what you're about to sit on. You get no sympathy from me.

13. Sharks. Every time there's a shark program on TV, the narrator reminds me that if you bleed even a single drop of blood into the water, a shark can smell it up to three miles away. I'm sorry, but I just can't believe this. I realize I'm probably wrong, but how is that possible? For animals on land, they can smell you when the wind cooperates and sends your smell along. But the wind has to be just so, and there's a time lapse. Now, for sharks, how can they have instant awareness of blood from three miles away? Doesn't at least one molecule of blood have to make the physical journey from my location to the shark's nose? Wouldn't that take time, considering that it's water, not air? And wouldn't the shark have to get lucky, being on the receiving end of that specific current? Right? I just can't believe that I put one drop of blood in the water, and suddenly, three miles away, a shark says "Hey! Blood!" Just doesn't make sense.

14. Here's a pretty naive one: Why are ancient ruins buried underground? Why is it that the deeper you dig, the further into the historical record you go? I don't get it. So, if I abandon my house and come back 2,000 years later, it's going to be underground? How is that? Is it weather patterns? Continental drift? Erosion? I thought erosion exposes things? So, eventually everything on earth is going to be buried, and the whole world will someday be three times as large, covered by unlimited, magical new layers of topsoil?

15. Daylight savings. Why do we spring forward on saturday nights and lose precious, precious weekend sleep? Wouldn't it be much better to spring forward on say, Tuesdays, at 2 in the afternoon? This is a no brainer.

16. Do you think the Wii shortage has actually fueled its popularity?

17. Those videos you see during karaoke songs. The couples walking through gardens and the sailboats and all that. That's like thousands of hours of footage. Where does it come from?

18. How come, when A&E or the History Channel or Discovery airs a documentary on the history of video games, it's always showcases games that you have not once in your life ever seen or heard of? Oh, they do the obligatory 30 seconds on Tetris and Super Mario Bros., but then the balance of the show is some moron, some absolute moron, waxing philosophical about technology while on the screen we see endless footage of some blocky, polygonal Everquest type of game that you have never seen before in your life. Some circa-1998 questing game where a valkyrie or a barbarian is endlessly running across a featureless plain. The guy in the background is talking about how computer modeling can now accurately capture emotions on faces, and meanwhile we're watching the most dated, ugly 3D tech-demo shit on the screen. What the fuck? This is the history of video games? When is somebody going to make an actual video game history documentary that doesn't feature the opinions of a teacher at some technology institute and that doesn't canvas the screen with bullshit?

19. Why do ATMs that can only dispense twenties ask you to specify how much cash you want down to the penny?

20. I just saw American Gangster on DVD recently, and it's not a bad movie, but at one point I started counting all the cop movie cliches. You've got the main character taking a bullet... in the fleshy part of his outer-upper arm (the all-purpose body part for gunshot wounds that don't have to be there in the next scene). You've got a lieutenant type screaming about how "Internal Affairs is breathing down my neck." You've got the detective who puts the tiniest amount of white powder on his pinky, then pats it against his tongue and can instantly say "Yep, that's pure heroin." But then there is this one cliche that really has me intrigued. You've seen it before. The bad guys have a drug lab, and in the lab are beautiful women, all naked and wearing face masks, seated at long benches, quietly doing something-or-other to the drugs. They're naked, explains a character, so that they can't steal.

Okay, did this ever, in real life, ever happen? The beautiful naked women in the crack lab? I'm open to being told yes, by the way. By all means, dazzle me with a documented example. I've seen this in movies going back as far as those 1980s Steven Seagal bone-crunchers, and probably earlier. Is this phenomenon really based in fact, or was it invented to provide a flimsy excuse for nudity in a movie too busy to include a strip club scene? I would like to know.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

People Who Love Telling the Chevy Nova Story About How "Nova" Actually Means "No Go" in Spanish

If I have to hear this cautionary marketing tale one more time, I may just start slitting throats. I don't know what gets me more - a) that the story is a bogus urban legend (more on that in a bit), b) that the entire rationale for diversity in business seems to rest on the strength of this one anecdote...

Or c) that every nincompoop, tie wearing, pit stained professional who clears his throat and says "Let me tell you a little story about the Chevy Nova" seems to be under the impression that no one has heard this story before. I think "C" wins. Over the dozens of times I have heard the Chevy Nova story, the speakers have all had this beatific attitude like they were about to relate the parable of the good Samaritan to virgin ears. Nobody, and I mean nobody who tells an audience the Chevy Nova story ever considers that we've heard it 18 times. There's just something about the Chevy Nova story that makes a man think he can dazzle an audience. I am here to tell you that it is not so.

Of course, it's not just the Chevy Nova story that suffers from this weird problem. Other factoids and bullet points from the history books also tend to lather people up into this lecture mode. Have you ever had someone tell you, with solemn authority and a clear expectation that your worldview was about to be shattered, that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? That Jesus was Jewish? That Hitler came to power legally? Oh, the worst is Schrodinger's cat. What is it about Schrodinger's cat that makes everyone think they can blow your mind?

But I digress. Let's fight one battle at a time. Here, just for the record - and not to imply that you don't already know it - is the short version of the Chevy Nova story. General Motors wanted to sell the popular Chevy Nova in their two largest Latin American markets: Mexico and Venezuela. However, because they didn't embrace diversity, it never occurred to anyone at GM that "Nova" in Spanish means "No Go". The car was a complete failure in those markets as a result. The lesson? Diversity. Hire some brown people.

Now, I can't remember the first time I ever heard the Chevy Nova story. I know that every textbook I had from high school onward was legally bound to include it somewhere. And every teacher found some excuse to invoke it. But things didn't reach a critical mass until I started going to business school in 2004. Business school, as it turns out, is not about preparing you to succeed in the professional world. It is actually an elaborate Chevy-Nova-story delivery system, complete with its own staff, campus, endowments and government sponsorship. UNLV had one mission - and it was to tell me the hell out of that story.

It got to the point where I would start judging the professors on their skill at telling the story, like some ancient Greek Homeric recital where we all know the story, we just want to see the craft of the storyteller. Would there be some flourish of the arms? Would there be some invented detail about how the CEO cast his eyes sadly around the room, and realized he didn't see a single brown face?

I am not the only one fed up with the Chevy Nova story. A quick search on google will reveal dozens of web sites all sounding the same alarm: the story is completely bogus. GM knew full well that "no va" meant "no go" when they launched the car in Latin America. But they launched it anyway, with the correct reasoning:

1. The word "Nova" did exist in Spanish (e.g. Bossa Nova) with the intended meaning intact. There was even a brand of gasoline in Mexico called Nova.
2. No reasonable Mexican would confuse "Nova" with "No va." just as no American would confuse "carpet" with "a pet that belongs in your car".
3. "No va", in Spanish, is incoherent as a statement that a car is broken. A person would say "no marcha" or "no funciona" instead.

Did the Nova bomb in Mexico? No, it sold well. In Venezuela it exceeded sales expectations. The thing about the Chevy Nova story is that requires stupidity on all sides - the executives at GM had to be rock-stupid, and the entire population of Mexico/Venezuela also had to be exquisitely dumb - for the story to make sense. But then, to buy the Nova story as some sort of compelling rationale for corporate diversity, you'd have to be pretty dumb yourself.

You see, the argument for corporate diversity is that without it, you end up in "Nova" type situations. You end up making some terrible blunder. You don't appreciate cultural differences, you don't truly understand your customer, so you end up botching your marketing or your customer relationship management. A secondary argument is that without diversity, you don't get the full advantage of all perspectives in your internal operations.

Now, the viking in me wants to pick up a broadsword, some sort of Claymore or Zweihander, and just start hacking my way, screaming and foaming, through the dense bullshit in those arguments. But to keep this completely on point, I'll just point out the errors in the Chevy Nova morality tale as they relate to the diversity case.

Let's say the Nova story was not urban legend. Let's say it was more or less true. Can we conclude from it that GM suffered from a diversity deficit? Putting it another way, does the Nova debacle justify jettisoning a race-blind hiring policy and instituting a race-conscious hiring policy? Because that's what diversity ultimately comes down to. Do we consider race as a factor in hiring, or do we regard that as unconscionable? The Nova story says: "As uncomfortable as you might be with it, you have to consider race in hiring - because the alternative is business failure."

But no, it isn't true. The argument, much like the Nova story itself, is a pungent crock. If I hired a Hispanic person who spoke no Spanish, I'd be no closer to avoiding the Nova disaster. If I hired a white guy who spoke fluent Spanish, I could avoid the Nova disaster. The ethnicity of the employee is irrelevant. If GM wants to launch a car in a new market, they need native language speakers and marketers who are knowledgeable about the target market. Even though experts in Venezuelan marketing would indeed be disproportionately Hispanic, they would not have to be Hispanic. And so to make "being Hispanic" a plus in the hiring decision, you are discriminating unfairly.

And this, mind you, is in the very limited case of an exporter looking to introduce an American product to a foreign market. How the Nova story is supposed to be universal is completely beyond me. If I run a hardware store in Omaha and need to hire a stocking clerk, how does the cautionary Chevy Nova tale inform my hiring decision?

These are the thoughts that go through my head when some lecturer launches into the exciting story of the Chevy Nova, and the ironclad case it makes for embracing workforce diversity. This is what I go through when I see an affirmative action debater masterfully recite the tale as if she's playing the ace of trumps.

And now, to calm down, I will play some Grand Theft Auto IV. Take me away from all this, GTA. Make the hurt stop.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Anti Cigarette Ads

I loathe these ads. These anti-smoking TV commercials produced by Oh the arrogance. Oh, the preachiness. There are several variations of them where anti-smoking crusaders with megaphones set up camp outside the swank offices of "big tobacco", and loudly chastise "big tobacco" with evidence of how many people are killed by cigarettes every year. Here are a few examples.

Now, call me crazy. Call me wacky. But aren't the smokers themselves 100% responsible for their own deaths? Not 95 or 98% responsible, but 100%, all-the-way responsible for any cigarette-related ailment that might come their way? Entirely, wholly and absolutely responsible?

No? Well then don't you have to show me an example of someone who was successfully bamboozled by "big tobacco" into thinking there was nothing wrong with cigarettes? Don't you have to show me a guy who says "Wait a minute, you're saying cigarettes are hazardous to my health?" Because I'm seriously doubtful that guy exists. Historically, sure. Maybe as recently as 40 years ago, there might have been one person left in American who hadn't gotten the news. The warning on the pack became mandatory in 1966. Our schools, our TV programming, our entire culture is saturated with the anti-smoking message. It's just not possible to grow up in this country and be ignorant of the fact that cigarettes are dangerous.

Having said that, if you want to continue to blame "big tobacco" for cigarette deaths, you have to do enormous logistical cartwheels. First, you have to absolve parents of any responsibility in monitoring their children. Then, you have to make a case that peer pressure so clouds a young person's judgment that they are literally forced into the irrational decision to start smoking. Then, you have to ascribe such addictive power to the cigarette that a person is entirely blameless in not being able to quit. And above all that, you have to weave a complex conspiracy theory about how cigarette companies are using the most artful and devious methods to hook new generations of young smokers, even though they are legally bound not to and would face staggering penalties if caught.

Where is this damning evidence of Big Tobacco's lies and deceit? Oh, the Truth has evidence. They have a great, damning, Tobacco executive quote from, wait for it... 1971.

19 friggin 71. Is that the best you can do, Truth? You got any quotes from 2005? 2006? We all know that the cigarette companies disseminated lies about smoking health's risks - dozens of years ago. Punitive damages ensued. Enormous settlements were paid. The cigarette companies don't lie anymore. They walk on eggshells. Don't you know that? Where's your more recent evidence of lying? Got any?

These commercials are an elaborate kabuki dance with one purpose and one purpose alone: to remove any kind of agency from the smoker himself. To absolve the smoker of all responsibility. It is this disrespect, ultimately, that angers me when I see these commercials. It's this worldview that holds that a human being is passive and powerless, and can just be swept along in the currents of whatever "big tobacco" wants you to think. It's a profoundly dark, uncharitable and contemptible view of humanity. It places (in this case) the anti-smoking megaphone-holding activist in a position of superiority over the poor smoking plebs. This is the same worldview that says the lottery is a tax on the poor, or, recently, that voters are disenfranchised if they have to show photo ID at the polling station. What a bunch of wretched, lobotomized fools you and I are assumed to be. Incapable of taking any responsibility for any action. In this worldview, business is saddled with all the moral agency, and individual people have none.

Let's say that the "Truth" commercials worked. Let's say that everyone at the big 4 or big 5 cigarette companies simultaneously looked in their bathroom mirrors at home and said "My God. What am I doing? What have I become?" - and they all quit. Let's say they were all driven to paroxysms of guilt by the Truth ads and they all closed up shop. How long do you think the average smoker would be inconvenienced by the shortage?

My guess is: they wouldn't be inconvenienced at all. Because smaller, independent, and foreign suppliers would smell opportunity and immediately step in to meet the demand. See, that's the thing about capitalism. If it costs 50 cents to get a pack of smokes to a consumer, and the consumer is willing to pay $4 for that pack, you better believe that consumer will be getting his packs. Where there's demand, there will be supply. You can't guilt-trip all the suppliers in the world into abstaining from making their profits. Eventually someone's going to say "I need to feed my family, I have a tobacco crop, and smokers know what they're getting into." And you know, he'd be right.

So maybe cigarettes should be banned? Maybe that's what "The Truth" should push for? Does "The Truth" want to ban smoking? ... No, of course they don't. Besides the fact that we have a little thing in this country called Freedom, it would be impossible to enforce. So, if the Truth doesn't want to ban the manufacture of cigarettes, and if they won't lay any blame at the smoker's feet, and if they know, deep down, that megaphone-wielding 21 year olds can't really bring the global production of cigarettes to a halt, then what, exactly, are they trying to do?

Maybe they're just a bunch of imbecilic, confused jackasses who just enjoy making preachy commercials? Yep, I think that's it. And hey, I don't smoke! Never have!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Morphine - Kind of a Disappointment

You can imagine how excited I was as the nurse held up the full syringe of morphine, doing the little tap-tap on the tip to produce that dribble from the needle, preparing to inject the whole, sweet draught directly into my feverish bloodstream.

Yes, the part of me that was still thinking clearly had only one word in mind: awesome.

The backstory is that I've been suffering from a gradually worsening case of tonsillitis. I had started a course of penicillin, but the doc was afraid the bug was too nasty and switched me to a more powerful antibiotic called Augmentin. But the drug didn't help. I had fever, chronic headache, fatigue, dizziness whenever I stood, a hacking cough and a killer sore throat. To say nothing of the tongue thrush, sour stomach, the shakes, and diarrhea with the consistency of chocolate in those kit kat commercials where they show how they make the kit kat.

I was in bad shape. I was rapidly using up my sick days, and the antibiotics weren't working. Last saturday night, the fever and headache got so bad that I thought I might as well go to the emergency room before I was no longer capable of doing so.

One very reassuring thing about the emergency room is that you can immediately see 5 other people that are worse off than you. "Well at least I'm not that guy." you can say to yourself. I found myself, after a bit of a wait, on a gurney on one of the main thoroughfares of the hospital. The doctor would see me shortly. I immediately conked out into a semi-stupor. When the doctor arrived and I had given him a rasping version of the story, he said he was going to stabilize me with an enormous IV dose of antibiotics, and a shot of morphine for the pain.

And now, readers, is when I perked up. Morphine. Not advil. Not Bufferin. Not even codine, which a doctor in England had given me once. Morphine. The real shit. The most powerful pain killing opiate ever devised by man and science. A narcotic with unrivaled potency. And when I say there was a full syringe of it, I'm talking about a fat, old-time syringe.

I'd never been high before. Tried pot a few times but never felt much. Booze just makes me sleepy. I was ready for a trip. An experience. As the nurse prepped my IV there in the corridor, I envisioned a white stallion trotting up alongside my gurney. He would whinny and snort and motion for me to get on. Feeling nothing but euphoria, I would climb on his strong back, gripping his mane in my fingers - and he would take off at a gallop, down the long, long hallway. Together we'd ride, right out of the hospital, and up into the sky, up up and away, the wind in my face - my hospital gown flapping freely in the rear - and we'd take to the clouds, never looking back.

That, at least, was the plan. Though in a lot of pain and with a sickening fever, I still had a giddy optimism about me as the nurse now was ready to apply the morphine shot to the newly inserted IV. This was it. I had my passport. I was ready to trip. As the morphine entered my body I waited calmly for the first few bars of Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem. I figured that's how it would start. Then... a warming sensation in the belly. Here we go.... I waited....

And nothing. Zip. Nada. The "morphine", if that's really what it was, very quickly took the edge off the headache and the sore throat. Not "killed" the sore throat and headache. No. It just took the edge off. So I still had a bit of a sore throat and a headache. After a friggin SHOT OF MORPHINE. And the trip? Where was the trip? I was sober, man. I could have struck up a conversation about the flagging Las Vegas housing market. I had no buzz.

Morphine! Morphine for God's sakes! Isn't this what they give soldiers on the battlefield when they've had a leg blown off? Wasn't there that scene in Saving Private Ryan when the one dude (the medic) has had his stomach blown open and he's dying, and they jab him with a morphine dose? Remember that scene? That was just a tiny dose of morphine, and the guy instantly goes passive. I had a huge syringe of morphine! And I had no mood altering experience, and I still had a headache! How's that for luck!

Well, the fever's down now. It's a few days later. The tonsils are feeling better. The sore throat is gone. Still a little feverish. Still fatigued. But on the mend. What have I learned from this experience? I've learned that morphine just isn't all that great. It's essentially no different than tylenol PM. Unless the hospital was pulling some placebo shit with me and didn't actually give me the real thing. Which maybe is possible. I'll have to look at the bill.

Monday, April 14, 2008

220 Annoyances

201. Movies that have adult characters puffing away on asthma inhalers as a cheap way of making them interesting.

202. Restaurants that refill their ketchup bottles. Do they at least rinse them?

203. Someone doing an English accent just to be cute.

204. I don't like not knowing whether or not I'm going to get the whole coke can on the plane. Will it be the whole can, or just that little plastic cup? I can actually handle not getting the whole can, so long as I'm prepared. But there's no standard. There's no universal policy. Sometimes, seemingly at random, you get the whole can. Other times, just the very small cupful of coke and a wan smile. How am I expected to manage my thirst?

205. Old couples at restaurants who sit in total silence for the whole meal.

206. When you mis-enter one line on a long, tedious online form, and you submit it, and then the site points out your error in red, but then - surprise! Every line has been erased and you have to retype the whole damn form from scratch.

207. These "people" who "submit reviews" to the Zagat Survey, who use the same "annoying quotation mark style" that Zagat does in its capsule review, "not seeming to realize" that there is "no need" to do this, as they themselves "are not summarizing" fifty other reviews.

208. A guy in front of you at Starbucks unfolding a list.

209. Friends, family and coworkers: Do not email me things that require me to sign up for some bullshit in order to view whatever it is you're sending. I have to register with some site to see your photo album? I have to give my name and email to view your party invite? I have to create an account and password to open your animated holiday card? I ain't doing it. Why are you trying to get me to invite even more junk mail and spam into my existence? Why are you trying to put me on yet another marketing database? Why do you even need the help of a third party website to show me some photos anyway? Just zip them and send them for Gods sakes.

210. Slot machines that are programmed to give you a lot of close calls.

211. Thomas Friedman's incessant attempts to coin phrases.

212. No sugar added ice cream.

213. I am now officially tired of seeing the lower case "i" and "e" in front of products, services and companies. I give Apple a pass, because it's a market leader, and it already had that reputation for whimsical names. But every crappy tech product being called the iThis or the eThat - it's starting to get on my nerves big time. I was recently on a website where I could buy an eFridge, and if I clicked on it it would go in my eBasket. Look I understand that new words and concepts arrive naturally in the language. I accept that we need an abbreviation like I-Banking to refer to internet banking. But I don't see any reason why we have to spell it iBanking. What worries me is that run of the mill shitty companies are using the iSpelling technique as code for "Please have confidence in this product. Clearly it is on the cutting edge." This is a recipe for trouble, people.

214. When you enter a restaurant with one half clearly empty, and you're told there's a wait.

215. Deaf people who want their children to be deaf.

216. Failing, for the millionth time, to match that two-digit number at the end of the pinball game. Has anyone ever won the match game?

217. Websites that rely on spelling mistakes to get your traffic.

218. People on the left side of the moving walkway who aren't walking.

219. You know what I don't like? The first time you go skydiving, you have to be harnessed to another dude. The instructor. This is terrible. The very first time you skydive is probably the most exhilarating. The most emotional and crazy and adrenalin fueled. No jump will probably ever give you the rush that the first one will. And the first jump has to be the one where a leathery old skydiving instructor is mounted on you. Isn't there some skydiving instructional school somewhere that can train you so well that you don't need a guy on your back on the first jump? I don't mind the dude on the 10th or 20th jump. By then it's old hat. It's just another jump. But the first time - give me some freedom!

220. You know, when I use my hands to illustrate a concept to someone I'm talking to, I always defer to the listener's perspective. Like, if I wave my hand when I say "from beginning to end", I'll wave it right to left. If I'm describing a headline or a marquee title, I'll sweep my hand right to left. If I say "to the left" or "to the west", I'll point right. Basically, if there's any kind of timeline, or directional significance to whatever I'm explaining, I defer to the perspective of the person I'm talking to. And I apparently AM THE ONLY ONE ON EARTH WHO DOES THIS. Just saying.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Quidditch Just Isn't Very Well Thought Out

The rules of quidditch are really stupid, and I'm going to explain why in excruciating detail.

Now I'm guessing that you, the reader, either already know the rules of quidditch, saving me the need to rehash them, or - you're saying "what's a quidditch?", in which case I predict you're really not going to care once you find out. Either way, I don't need to explain the rules. But here they are anyway as a reference.

OK. Imagine soccer. Except somewhere on the grass there's a little chocolate bunny. And when the chocolate bunny is found, the game ends and the finder's team get 15 extra points.

Now, how much effort would you put into scoring goals in this version of soccer? Not too much, huh. Wouldn't proper strategy dictate that the whole thing just turn into a massive bunny hunt? And when a player spotted the bunny, he would call over his "seeker" to grab it, and that would be it?

I mean, why would you even bother with the soccer ball?

This, basically, is Quidditch. Who would give a rat's ass about scoring a goal in this game? The majority of the positions and players in the sport involve scoring goals through floating hoops - but in almost every case, the winner of the game will have nothing to do with how many goals are scored. The goals mean nothing. For the goals to ever make a difference, one team would have to score at least 15 more goals than the other team.

And if one team scores 10 more goals than the other in a soccer-like scoring environment, but loses anyway, then what kind of game is that?

The only game I can think of in real life that has a similar cheap-win mechanism is 9-Ball pool, wherein a player can make 8 consecutive, exquisitely perfect shots, then screw up the last shot and allow the opponent to immediately win the game. But even in 9-Ball, you play best-of-7 or something.

And why the hell are fictional games & sports in sci-fi and fantasy always just 3 dimensional versions of familiar sports? Quidditch is just field hockey with a z-axis. (And a chocolate bunny.) Where's the invention? Where's the fantasy? Is the future of sports really going to be the sports we already know, except we all fly around?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Blu Ray Wins the Format War. So What?

I have two points here.

First, who does Sony think is going to rebuild a DVD collection from scratch to make it all Blu Ray? Is anyone going to do this? Yes, we did rebuild our VHS collections for DVD - that's true. But a) the difference between VHS/DVD is night and day, b) DVDs offer tons of superior convenience like interactive menus and slim storage, c) they offer boatloads of extra content, and d) VHS hasn't entirely gone away anyway. Some people still use it for hard to find items and for recording.

Now why would anyone rebuild a DVD collection into Blu-Ray? Do any of those reasons hold up? No, they don't. Blu-Ray is only a marginal improvement. There might be a gradual migration of sales, sure, but nothing like the arrival of the DVD standard. This is laserdisc, folks. You heard it here.

The second point is that the entire video sales industry is about to start showing symptoms of the terminal illness that is currently afflicting the music business. Why would anyone buy music if they can download it for free? The only thing keeping the patient on life support at this point is that some people still haven't figured out how to share music online. Why do you think Barry Manilow has been putting out chart-topping CDs lately? Could it be because his audience is the only demographic left that still gets its music from Target?

I already know early adopters that illegally share movies online. Probably you do too. The only thing slowing the mass adoption of movie stealing is the still (at this point) high memory and RAM demands that these downloads make on current computers - movies are big files - and also a general ignorance on how to do it easily. But over time, and I'm talking only a few years, both of these obstacles will vanish.

"But movie downloads give you a grainy, low resolution picture!" say the studios. "Plus, you get no extra content!" Sure, sure. But it's free, and that's the key word. You know what food always tastes good? Free food. It's the same with Batman Begins.

Government enforcement? Impossible. I've said this before and I'll say it again. If your intellectual property can cheaply and quickly be converted into ones and zeros, there is absolutely no way to protect it from piracy. That's essentially a law of nature. The cost it would realistically take to enforce anti-piracy policy would be far greater than the benefits gained.

Movie-download-pay-services? Won't work. How can you beat free? Movie-download-for-free-if-you-look-at-some-advertising services? Same deal. How can you beat free with no ads?

We are only a few years away from the complete collapse of the home video market. There will always be a market for the movie theater experience, but the act of going to a store and buying a "thing" that you take home and unwrap and slide into an expensive player? Those days are fast approaching their end. Everyone will be carrying around massive movie collections on keychain flash drives, all acquired illegally and for free, and it just can't be stopped. There might still be a few people - A/V geeks, who want the whole hi-def experience and who therefore will still shell out big bucks for legitimate movie-watching equipment and the movies themselves - but they will be few and far between. They will be like their counterparts in the 60s and 70s: the guys who had their own screening rooms where they could run films at home. But the rest of America will watch lower-res free movies.

You don't think America will settle for lower-res? Think about the telephone. When I was a kid, there were no cell phones. Every call was on a land line and it was crystal clear. Now, it's the 21st century, I live exclusively on a cell phone, and the quality of any particular call is shitty. "Hello? Can you hear me? Can you hear me?" That's modern phone life. We settled, en masse, for shitty phone reception because the reward was the enormous convenience that came with cell phones. Movie viewing is about to take its own step backward, for similar reasons of convenience.

Short sell those film stocks now, people, the floor is about to fall out. And Blu Ray. Think about all the champagne corks popping over there at Sony. Do they have any idea what's about to happen? The format war is over. But Blu-Ray didn't win. My keychain flash drive won.