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Matt McHugh
Matt McHugh.com - Blog - August 2004

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SUBJECT:
Life Is a Beach
DATE:
August-31-2004

I hate the beach. Don't get me wrong, I love watching waves and surf. I love staring out to the horizon of water and sky to comtemplate its singluar immensity. I'm fascinated by the multi-layered life of the oceans, essentially the fertile valley to the comparatively stark biosphere of the surface. I'm moved by classic images of tall ships and the 19th century romance of shanty towns clinging to a tenuous existence between the limitless bounty and crushing indifference of the sea.

What I hate is "The Beach." A strip of badge-required Jersey sand where it is mandatory that you go to lie on a towel or huddle under an umbrella for a few hours during every blazing midday when you're "on vacation." It's hot. It's crowded. It's full of screaming kids and muttering seniors and hot young chicks I can't touch and pasty fat middle-aged dweebs like me oggling them. I'm pure alabaster Celtic stock and as hairy as a Greek sailor--front, back, north, and south--and it takes me an hour to slather up with SPF 451 before setting a sticky toe on its sandy shoals. I don't enjoy this. I can read a pulp novel perfectly comfortably on my porch... but no, I have to go to The Beach to do it, or everybody accuses me of "wasting my vacation." And swimming? I love to swim. I've done it in many indoor and outdoor Olympic-sized pools, as well as on half-a-dozen Carribean islands, and it is one of the great pleasures of my life. Wading into the cold, rough, murky, weedy, jellyfish-y, crab-infested, and occassionally sewage-alerted waters of Jersey don't do it for me.

Ah, but I'm "down the shore," so I must go "to the beach." Walks at dawn or sunset don't count. You're there noon-to-three or don't even bother showing up. Just grab the towels, mats, umbrella, chairs, hats, cooler, sunscreen, boogie board, kite, snacks, inner tube, kids, paddle-ball-thingy, bucket, shovel, sandsculpting kit, etc., and get your vacation-nap-taking ass down to the waterline. I swear, it's like Normandy without the gunfire.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
I'm Going Down
DATE:
August-30-2004

Down the shore. That's what we call it in the MidAtlantic NorthEastern United States when the destination is anywhere along the 150 miles of oceanside in New Jersey. Elsewhere in the world, people go "to the beach" or "to the sea" or even "to the coast." In inland Jersey, Pennsylvania, and parts of southern New York, we go "down the shore."

For a vast majority of my 38 years, I have chosen and/or been compelled to go down the shore for a week sometime between Memorial and Labor Days. It's a very love/hate kind of thing for me. Part of me loves the Jersey Shore, part of me detests it. On the plus side, it's a beautifully varigated place--with crusty old bayside shacks and sprawling oceanfront McMansions, grassy sand dunes and rotting pre-war amusement piers, landmark lighthouses and legendary wet-T-shirt-contest bars. The very names of the beach resort towns peppering the shore line--Sandy Hook, Ashbury Park, Barnegate, Long Beach, Brigantine, Belmar, Atlantic City, Sea Isle, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Wildwood, Cape May--are points on a mythological compass set deep in the marrow of everyone who's ever lived anywhere from the Delaware Valley to the New York Metro area. In their turn, they conjure images of childhood innocence, teenage libinious abandon, twenty-something sloth, middle-aged status symbols, and shades of quiet retirement. All things to all people.

On the down side, it's a touristy dump. An overbuilt, crass, commmercialized trap full of chintzy rip-off gift shops and blow-the-kids-529 pleasure boat marinas. Every summer weekend, a reverse commute exodus of middle class riff-raff and their spawn descend to roil its beaches with their flip-flops or soil its bays with their Sea-Doo's. Long have I been of this demographic, and as I sit bumper-to-bumper with them on the Garden State Parkway, I can't help but feel what an icky breed we are. So discontent at home that we must pack our SUV's full of crap and drive two-and-a-half hours to stand at the edge of an ocean that girds the world and buy commemorative boxes of salt water taffy to bring back to the neighbors. Obviously, I'm very ambivalent at the prospect. Fortunately, I'm comfortable with my ambivalence.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
This Band Could be Your Band
DATE:
August-29-2004

Still a-tingle with schadenfreude over the Ludlow Music copyright debacle, I have a modest proposal: everybody who can should make a recording of "This Land." Take Woody Guthrie's recently revealed public domain song, a Depression-era anthem of the common man's stand against private property holders, and make it the Y-generation's post-Napster battle cry at Big Media.

I can hear them now. The Heavy Metal version. The Punk-Pop version. The Hip-Hop version. The Smooth Jazz version. The Kazoo-and-Helium-Sucking version. A multi-stylistic tribute album to the archetype of the American folk song. All proceeds to go to defend RIAA-targeted file swappers.

Hey... that's not a bad idea. Nobody'd better steal that, or I will so sue your ass.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Very Popular Thing No One's Heard Of
DATE:
August-28-2004

I recently got an e-mail ad that included some MP3 players. One in particular, the iHP 120 20GB MP3 Juke Box, had a descriptive blurb that said:

...one of the first MP3 players that supports the new upcoming, and very popular, music file format Ogg Vorbis.

Now, I'm not a religious watcher of new audio file formats, so I've never heard of Ogg Vorbis (turns out, it is a new, open standard music file type--like MP3, only with no licensing requirements). My ignorance aside, how can anything be "new" ... "upcoming" ... and "very popular" at the same time? Generally, the rule is you are "upcoming" for a while, then "new," and after a bit if people like you, you get "popular" to some degree. You could be "new" and "up-and-coming" (I think that's what they meant), though to me, "very popular" is already beyond that stage. Something "upcoming" could be "highly anticipated" or maybe even "very popular with the in-crowd" prior to "making a splash" with the population at large.

In any event, such triple-threat upcoming/new/popular products partake of a reality that only exists in advertising-speak. Still, techie geeks love funny names and open standards, so maybe Ogg Vobis will take off. Though, I think it'll need a name change. I can't imagine people flocking to the Ogg Vorbis aisle at BestBuy.

-- mm

Ogg Vorbis General FAQ on vorbis.com


SUBJECT:
It's Official... I'm Fat
DATE:
August-27-2004

I had my annual physical the other day. Flying colors (thank you very much), except for one thing. The Doc didn't seem concerned, but it bugged me.

I'm about 5'11" and weigh just shy of 210 pounds (fully clothed). According to the Body Mass Index chart, I'm technically just on the cusp of "obese." Now, I've certainly gained a few pounds in the last few years. I've got a respectable spare tire going and I'm working on a set of man-breasts that both repel and fascinate me, but "obese" seems pretty harsh. As do all who do not fare well against such standardized measures, I question the validity of the all-knowing BMI chart. Does this take age into account, or frame, or what kind of shoes you're wearing at the time? Seems to me a pretty shaky bit of generalizing.

OK... granted, I ain't as fit as I used to be. I've always been pretty active and kept in decent shape, but life (work, kids, injury) has hit me hard in recent years and I guess I've slipped. Back in my high school/college wrestling days, I used to be able to gain or drop 10 pounds in a few days. OK... granted that I can't do that anymore, let's see how long it takes me to lose 10 pounds. I'm not going to go nuts, mind you. No exercising for four hours in a rubber suit and then not eating or drinking (believe me, folks, the weight comes right off); no way this pushing-40 bod can take that kind of abuse anymore. But lets see what I can do, if I put my mind to it and simply pay attention to my diet and activity.

I predict one month. Any bets?

-- mm

Body Mass Index Chart on consumer.gov site.


SUBJECT:
Joystick Gone Soft?
DATE:
August-26-2004

I may be experiencing the initial stages of impulse-buyer's remorse. The 80's joystick/TV game console I was so pleased to have purchased the other day seems to be plagued with poor-quality gremlins. In reading user reviews on Amazon about it and other JakksTVGame products, there were almost universal complaints about the joystick breaking easily or never quite working right to begin with. I've only played for an hour or so and haven't noticed a problem yet--though (as many reviewers have mentioned) it does seem somewhat quirky on Ms. PacMan. It's too bad, because the software and gameplay seem EXACTLY like I remember them (though I haven't found the Xevious Easter Eggs I recall). I hope the joystick holds out because I'm looking forward to blowing lots of evenings blasting down memory lane.

Half of all the consumer electronics devices I've bought in the last 10 years have had failed within the first year (e.g., Panasonic DVD player, Aiwa multi-disc CD player, RCA multi-disc CD player, a year-old Sony DVD player is starting to have volume problems) or had glitches out of the box (a Palm 125 with unfixable screen calibration problems). I hate just throwing things out, but nowdays it's always cheaper to buy a new one than to have an old one repaired. The thing that really gets me is that all the problems I've had with the above devices have really seemed like software problems. This isn't some cheap bit of plastic breaking; this is a device that worked fine one day simply refusing to work another. I swear to God it seems like in-built software flaws designed to cause the product to fail just out of warranty. I couldn't prove it in a court of law, but it really, really makes me wonder what these guys are up to. I have plenty of stuff that's 15-20 years old that runs perfectly; nothing under 5. Hmmm.

Anyway, regarding this game gizmo, I hate when good ideas are ruined by cheap/shoddy implementation. As of this moment, I can neither confirm nor deny, but anyone considering buying this should mentally prepare themselves for that rather strong likelihood.

-- mm

Customer reviews for "Namco II: Ms Pac-Man with 5 TV Games" on Amazon.com.


SUBJECT:
That Song is Our Song
DATE:
August-25-2004

Ludlow Music, the supposed copyright holder of Woody Guthrie's "This Land" song, has dropped their "cease-and-desist" threat of legal action against the JibJab web animators for their Bush-Kerry "This Land" cartoon. Lawyers for The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), championing JibJab's claim of fair use, had asked a California judge to pre-emptively rule in the animators' favor thereby nullifying any infringement claims that Ludlow might choose to bring. However, even before any such ruling, Ludlow backed out of the fray.

Why? Did they realize JibJab made fair use of the song and they had no case? Did they cave to the overwhelming negative publicity stirred up by their threats against a clever political satire? Did they adopt the spirit of openess and free exchange that lies at the core of Guthrie's song? Nope, nope, and nope. Turns out that they don't actually own the copyright. EFF lawyers found that Guthrie first published the song in 1945, whereas Ludlow registered their "original" copyright of the song in 1956. According to laws in effect at the time (i.e., this was long before the 1998 Sonny Bono 90-year Copyright Extension Act), copyright term was 28 years from first publication, so the song passed into the public domain in 1973. Ludlow could have renewed the copyright, but because they forgot about the 1945 publication, they didn't do it until 1984... 11 years too late.

So, a quite happy ending all around. The song is free for anyone to use, and copyright holders don't have to get their panties in a bunch over fair use v. infringement arguments. In fact, they get to turn it around as a cautionary tale of the importance of keeping up-to-date copyrights. The only real loser here is Ludlow. Not only does this high-profile outing of "This Land" mean they lose any possible future income from the song, but it makes them look profoundly stupid, as well as greedy. Almost makes me feel bad for releasing my secret recording of the Ludlow Music Glee Club.

Almost.

-- mm

"JibJab Is Free for You and Me" on Wired.com


SUBJECT:
Just Me and My Joystick
DATE:
August-24-2004

I'm not much of an impulse buyer, though lately I seem to be doing my share of it. Today's weekly Target trip (interestingly, this one store seems to be the big beneficiary of my spontaneous purchases... must be something they pump into the ventilation system), I saw something on an end cap (a definite trouble spot for me) that I could not resist. A company called Jakks Pacific has begun marketing video game controllers that look exactly like the old Atari joystick or paddle wheel, or the Midway/Namco ball-on-stick arcade controllers (i.e., the Pac-Man one). These retro-controllers are, in fact, self-contained video game consoles, each with several classic 80's games. The run on AA batteries and have a chord you plug into your TV, and that's it. Boom. You're playing Pong or Break Out or Galaxian or Pitfall or Paleolithic Pete video pinball.

Video games came into existence synchronous with my puberty. Being 13 years old and pumping quarters into consoles at the bowling alley or pizza parlor or 7-11 are some of the formative memories of my youth. I got so good on the Atari 2600 Space Invaders that I can remember playing while reading the liner notes of Steely Dan's Aja without losing a ship. As an awkward adolescent, it was very psychologically comforting to know I was that good at anything. In light of that, the PlayStation addicition of the current generation doesn't seem so sinister.

Anyway, I got the one with:

  • Ms. Pac-Man - not a big favorite of mine, but the wife likes it
  • Galaga - a sequel to Galaxian, a more kinetic twist on the Space Invaders paradigm
  • Pole Position - a racing game
  • Mappy - some Donkey Kong-esque thing I never heard of
  • Xevious - quite possibily my favorite video game ever, and the first and--as far as I know--only coin-operated arcade game to have a TV commerical

You might say that it was a waste of $20, but I tell you truly it's more likely to end up being a waste of 20 hours a week (a much more costly toll).

-- mm

Plug 'n Play TV controller games at jakkstvgames.com.
Xevious entry on klov.com (Killer List of Video Games).


SUBJECT:
Flash in the Panned
DATE:
August-23-2004

As a big fan of Homestarrunner.com, and with the recent explosive hubbub over JibJab, I had kind of gotten the impression that Flash animation was the wave of the future of entertainment and I'm sitting in a little canoe in the harbor just waiting to get swamped by it. However, I just spent a little time poking around Wired.com's flash galleries and was quite surprised to find that a lot of what's there ain't so great. There's lots of pretentious artsy stuff, plenty of flat attempts at humor, and quite of bit of cartoony stuff that's, well, kind of childish. Graphically, some of it is OK, some not--but the quality of the concepts and execution (i.e., writing) is generally mediocre.

I find this very encouraging. I've been feeling mighty left out of the whole craze as I just haven't had the time to get a grip on Flash (what, with my two kids, homeowner maintenance, aching back, blog, short stories, and--oh, yeah--full time job... not to mention, I'm much slower on the uptake of new things than I was 10 years ago). As I should have remembered from the dot-com boom/bust of the millennium, content is king. Technology without creativity yields nothing of lasting value. Every tourist in Times Square goes "wow" when they first see the JumboTron, but they actually stop and watch the street magician.

So, as long as I pull a rabbit out of something on ocassion, I should be fine.

-- mm

Assorted animations on Wired.com


SUBJECT:
The Fresh King of Milwaukee
DATE:
August-22-2004

Walking through a store the other day, I heard a radio ad that I just had to check out. Sure enough. It was. TRUE.

Budweiser Beer (the Anheuser-Busch brand, not the Czech), is launching a new campaign centering around the "freshness" of its beer. They're touting how the labels have very easy-to-read "Born on" dates that indicate the day the beer was "packaged"--which I assume means when the beer was put in the bottle, rather than when a full bottle was put in a six-pack... though it's not completely clear to me. To really drive home the message, they're going to deliver "Day Fresh" beer to select bars as a promotion. That means, the day it's "packaged" (whatever that means), it will be available for drinkin' in trendy nightspots. What a world we live in, folks, where dairy products now have a 12-month shelf life and beer is delivered fresh daily.

In the end, though, I just want to say that, Budweiser, no matter what you do, your beer will still suck. And it does suck. Believe me, I love my beer--even some mass-produced American brands (Yuengling, Sam Adams, Pete's Wicked)--and Budweiser sucks. Fresh or not, it will still be pale, thin, tinny, foamy, chilled weasel-piss gazpacho fit for nothing but a day at the drag races with a barrel o' pork rinds. And your website sucks too. Cheesy, overdone Flash-ridden crap with pseudo-jazz music. Hey Big B... you're RedneckBrau Numero Uno, and filthy rich for it. Be content with that and move on. You've bought the country club... you don't need to keep pretending that you would have been allowed to join.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Silence is Gold, Silver, Bronze
DATE:
August-21-2004

I don't usually watch much of the Olympics, and this quadrennial is no different. It's not that I'm not interested in athletic competition; I quite appreciate the spectacle of humans pushing body and will to the limits, the nexus of skill, strength, strategy, and spirit. However, I've never had any interest in professional sports. Who wins, who loses, who's traded, who's coaching, etc. etc. I just like to watch a good game and could care less who's playing. (That's actually kind of interesting to me, since I love following the insider minutiae of the entertainment industry, yet most sports fans I know might well say something to the effect of they like to watch a good movie and don't care who made it. Right brain, left brain thing maybe.)

You might argue that the Olympics are not burdened by the business end of things the way professional sports are, but they are. The personalities and politics are just as strong; it's only the money that's missing. Besides, whenever the Olympics, winter or summer, are televised, they always feature the same events. I could die happy without ever seeing figure skating again, and as--truly impressive as I find them--I've had my bellyful of gymnastic events, too. Would it kill them to show a little wrestling or judo or archery or something out of the ordinary? This year, swimming is getting an inordinate amount of air time. With the exception of the underwater shots of the turns, swimming may be the least cinematic sport in history. Ooh, look! World-class athletes going about as fast as you walk at brisk pace! Woo-hoo!

However, I did catch a few minutes of gymnastics tonight. They seem to do things that defy basic Newtonian physics--sort of like Wile E. Coyote running in mid-air--that fascinate me. After teeing off on ABC's creationist jab, I doubted there would be anything about their coverage that could impress me. I was wrong, though. During gymnastic floor exercise--which is, in essence, a performance choreographed to music--the commentators were silent. I've always thought it was something of an outrage that you had to listen to three numbnuts chatter during musical routines, as if the uninitiated need ever instant explained to them (this is very difficult move, Jim!), and I was impressed and grateful for their silence. I enjoyed and appreciated it more than I ever have. Who knows... if the same gag order applies in the winter, maybe I'll actually get interested in figure skating. Yeah. Then I'll go see "Disney on Ice." I hope they'll let peek inside the sarcophagus.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Your Crushin' Heart
DATE:
August-20-2004

I received something I ordered in the mail today--an orninthopting Flying Pig toy as a gag wedding gift (get it?). It was shipped UPS in a reasonably sized and padded box (the opposite of the Staples.com packing overkill SOP). There was one interesting characteristic of the package, though. On the exterior was a large, radioactive yellow sticker with bold, black, sans-serif caps, reading:

DO NOT CRUSH

What purpose does this serve? Was the box seriously in danger of a random crushing had it not been thus labelled? Does someone somewhere sort the shipments into Crush/Don't Crush piles. I can envision the "Crush" packages moving inexorably along a convey belt toward a phalanx of merciless pistons that hammer them flat with savage indifference. The type of place through which a cartoon kitten--staggering drunk after a Rube Goldberg chain of events upends a bottle of Ol' Grandad into its innocently yawning mouth--might wander oblivious and unscathed while its bulldog protector flips levers hysterically to shut down the machinery.

Just for fun, I kind of want to send the package back as a pulverized pancake with a reprimand for the inadequacy of their warning.

-- mm

Flying pig on Kites, Tails & Toys


SUBJECT:
A Controversial Wimp-Out
DATE:
August-19-2004

Flipping past ABC's Olympic coverage tonight, I caught a filler piece on the ancient history of the games. The point of it was, basically, that though the world has changed a bit in the past 2,800 years, there is much in the modern Olympics that bears strong resemblance to the original. Many of the events themselves (javelin, discus, marathon, wrestling) are directly descended from the ancient games, and even fan hype and cheating controversies would not have been uncommon three millennia ago.

Anyway, it wasn't the content of the piece that caught my attention. In attempting to draw attention to the nature of things to change and adapt across time, the voice-over asserted that "...the games have certainly evolved over the years" (a reasonable statement, by any account)--yet prefaced that by saying:

The theory of evolution may be controversial...

What kind of backward Sunday-school paranoia has seeped into the lizard brains of ABC execs to insist on coupling "controversial" with the word "evolution?" Or worse, what kind of child-faith proselyte producer thought this might be a good chance to slip in a subtle creationist zinger? With its Disney pedigree and tendrils twined with a major religious-exploitive media empire (Pat Robertson's 700 Club airs on the ABC Family cable network), ABC seems to be slipping easily toward a policy of fundamentalist appeasement. No matter how seemingly small, I mourn every concession our culture makes to individuals who can't tell the difference between religion and science, between faith and knowledge, and who are too lazy to contemplate the notion that God might express himself in something more complicated than a psalm. Perhaps a molecule, or a process, or even the struggle of human inquiry. I find such thoughts profoundly inspiring, and I have no desire to pander to those terrified of them.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Yes, Son, He Would
DATE:
August-18-2004

A favorite lullaby that I've sung to my son since he was born is James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. My 3.5 year-old asks for it by name several nights a week, especially if he's upset or had a bad dream. He's hitting a stage where he stops and asks for definitions of words he doesn't understand. Sometimes, however, he leaps over that to question a bigger concept. For example, recently when I sung him this verse:

There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyon
Waiting for summer, his pastures to change

-- he stopped me and asked: "Daddy, if he sleeps in a canyon, wouldn't he get shooted out?"

See, my problem is that I laugh at such things before I give the explanation, and anything that gets a laugh, he just latches on to and beats into the ground any chance he gets. Just like daddy (so I'm told).

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Hajjstock
DATE:
August-17-2004

Watched a Discovery Channel special on the Hajj, the five-day annual ritual pilgrimage to Mecca and other holy sites, that is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. One of the Five Pillars of Islam is that every Muslim who is able should make the Hajj at least once in their lifetime. Approximately 2 million people from all around the world converge on Mecca each year for it.

Now, as anybody who knows me (or reads my blog... one and the same!) knows, I am not a big fan of religion in general, Islam in specific, and massive, ideologically driven gatherings most particularly. The special was quite interesting, following several articulate, level-headed individuals who tried to put their faith, the Hajj experience, and the world at large into context as the cameras followed them through the exhausting journey from shrine to shrine. I suppose one of the reasons (beside the obvious) that I have an aversion to Muslims is that I've never really known any, or at least never conversed with any about their faith. That's a gap in my experience that I hope to fill someday. As a rule of thumb, I don't think bigotry is a good policy and it bothers me that I've become comfortable with my anti-Islamist seethings.

Still, we all have to walk some line between what we believe and what others do. It's very easy to judge something you don't understand... it's also very easy for someone, feeling judged, to say "You just don't understand!" There's a point at which intellectual honesty and--yes--even spiritual humility demand that you suspend judgement on beliefs that you do not and will likely never hold to personally. Call it the rules religious of engagement, if you will. Agreeing to disagree. Of course, either party can cross the lines in such an arrangement, and it happens quite often. Someday, though, I hope such transgressions end up more as exceptions rather than the rules they seem to be now.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Charity Begins and Ends at Home
DATE:
August-16-2004

Today, walking to work through the Hoboken train station, I saw a homeless person (there are a few in Hoboken, I was kind of surprised to learn), a woman, I guessing 70-ish, pushing a cart. She was so bent in the middle she literally looked like rag doll, her head dangling almost to her waist as she shuffled along. I've seen her before around town over the last few months. I once would have thought a person could live like that only for days.

Of course, I did not help her. I had to get to work. I have a family to support. There are social services to help people like that. I can't go stopping to assist every person I see in need. Besides, what could I do anyway? Help her get somewhere? Find a comfortable spot on the ground for her? The best thing I can do is stay out of her way. She doesn't want to be bothered. When I work and pay my taxes, I ultimately help people like her much more effectively that if I went around doing some yuppie Mother Teresa act.

Uh-huh. Yeah. That's right. Ahh... I feel much better now, back in my comfortably mortgaged home commenting on life's little quirks. I get abstractly think about how lucky I am, and all my trials and troubles seem much more manageable. Still, it's hard to smooth away the feeling that I'm just a bourgeois heel. Maybe if I send some money to a homeless shelter, or Hurricane Charley victims, or leave some old crap I don't want at a Salvation Army dumpster, I'll feel better.

Yeah. That's the ticket.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The Sitcommitments
DATE:
August-15-2004

Now that I've taken it into my head to enter a sitcom contest, I've been rattling around in my head some of the qualities that make a good/bad/indifferent one. Interestingly enough, it seems to me that the first one is the cast--even above the writing. I think of the ones that I've enjoyed over the years (The Honeymooners, All in the Family, The Bob Newhart Show, Barney Miller, Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Scrubs) and what sticks in my mind are the actors, rather than the lines. I think most people would agree that the ones I mentioned are the upper crust of the genre and the jokes and situations in them are usually a cut above the legions of bottom-feeders (no need to name names here), still the best gags of those shows--which are often far from original or unique--in the hands of less capable casts could well have fallen flat. When Ray lobs a mildly witty insult at Robert, it's not the line but Brad Garrett's hangdog expression that makes it funny. Somebody forgetting what they were saying isn't particularly hilarious, except when it's Christopher Lloyd's Jim Ignatowski. A husband threatening to belt his wife is distressing; Jackie Gleason doing with impotent apoplexy is classic comedy.

I guess this isn't news to sitcom pundits (and I'm sure they exist), but it was something of a revelation to me. It's the reason the format continues to survive and prosper. There really is nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to one-liner insults and pie-in-the-face pratfalls that have been recycled for millennia. It's the fashion of the times and the talent of the teller that makes the jokes seem fresh. In trying to envision a sitcom of my own, this puts an interesting spin on things: the challenge is not to wrack my brain for something never-before-done, but to figure out how to make the old new by the contemporary relevance of the dramatis personae.

This little project's already proving tricker than I thought.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The League of Chowderhead Critics
DATE:
August-14-2004

For my weekly partial-viewing (I always have to go upstairs several times to re-put my 3.5 year old to bed) of whatever "genre film" (i.e., anything with special effects, explosions, or blood that isn't a war movie) happens to be on on Saturday night, I sat through the last third or so of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I'm always interested in seeing movies that got a critical drubbing to see if they are really as awful as everyone said. Sometimes, they're not (Daredevil); sometimes, they are (Lara Croft 2). Watching a movie with preconceived raised or lowered expectations is invariably unfair to it, but I'd still have to say that "LXG" was as bad as reputed. Goofy, incoherent, jump-cut cheese with silly dialogue and overkill special effects a few notches below state-of-the-art. Basically, exactly the kind of thing I love to watch on a Saturday night while my wife reads a magazine and rolls her eyes. (Don't feel too bad for her. Any idea how many hours of wedding/makeover/home decorating crap I have to sit through each week? Not to mention Six Feet Under, the most pretentious soap-opera in TV history.)

Somewhere in here, I had a point. Oh yeah...

Watching a movie with preconceived expectations is unfair.

Not that I lose sleep over it, but I do think it's unfair to a movie to approach it with preconceived notions of quality. I'm an almost compulsive reader of critics reviews, though I prefer to do it after I've seen a film. Sometimes, I agree (Adaptation critics's average = A- *); sometimes, I don't (The Village = C+ *). Good, bad, or indifferent, I think all works of art should be judged on their own merits. Of course, what one perceives as a merit can vary widely--Beavis and Butthead do the Met... William Safire at Def Poetry Jam... etc.--but at least your review should be a personal one (as all are), untainted by "expert" opinions. Makes me think of a Woody Allen line:

"I don't know much about art, but I know what I'm supposed to like."

-- mm

* As compiled on Yahoo Movies.


SUBJECT:
We've Got a Situation Here
DATE:
August-13-2004

Cable channel Bravo--known for such programs as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Inside the Actors' Studio with James Lipton and... um... well, I guess that's pretty much it--is launching a new reality show Situation: Comedy about (what else?) the making of sitcom. Following HBO's Project Greenlight model, the concept is to have an open call for scripts for an original sitcom, then they pick five semi-finalists to pitch their ideas. From there, two finalists will get to produce 15-minute "presentation" tapes, and viewers will choose a winner.

Needless to say, I'm taking a whack at this.

Like anyone with a modicum of verbal dexterity, I've sat and watched sitcoms, noting the formula and stewing at the lame jokes, thinking "I could do that." However, that sentiment has never culminated in a desire to actually try it, and this is a perfect opportunity to see if I can. So, I sat down last week and came up with a concept and characters, kneaded up a raw lump of plotline and jokes, and got myself hooked on a strong whiff of the challenge. I have never wanted to write a sitcom or work in Hollywood, so failing at this enterprise will not be particularly disappointing to me. All in all, I'm just curious to see what I'll come up with.

Scripts are due by September 18. I have about a month to go from concept to 30 pages with three jokes per page and a heartwarming twist in Act III. Maybe as I get a little more advanced with it, I'll share tidbits in the blog. And, of course, after it's rejected, I'll publish the complete script on my site (provided it doesn't become the property of Bravo upon submission, which it may... I haven't read the rules). Obviously, I'd love to win (Me! A pretensious self-publisher on a reality show about sitcoms! Oh, the irony. The i-ron-eeee.), but I'm just hoping to have something written by deadline.

I imagine that's the universal hope of all sitcom writers.

-- mm

About Situation:Comedy on Bravotv.com


SUBJECT:
Bad Day For Gays
DATE:
August-12-2004

The (twice-married father of two) governor of New Jersey resigns in the wake of revelations about a homosexual affair! Thousands of gay marriages in California annulled! Not a banner day for the pink triangle set.

The gay marriage thing, I don't care about. Two consenting adults should certainly be allowed to enter into a federally recognized relationship with all the tax, insurance, inheritance, and legal benefits/obligations of marriage. If calling it "marriage" upsets enough people, then call it a "civil union." Problem freakin' solved all around. Anyone who can't accept that is being unreasonable, plain and simple.

The governor thing is a little more interesting. While I have no sympathy for philandering politicians, I also don't think private sexual liaisons have much bearing on one's ability to govern. Whom you're in bed with politically (drug companies, real estate developers, oil speculators, etc.) has a lot more potential impact on your constituents than whom you physically shack up with. It really says something about our culture that with all the growing concern over Governor McGreevy's relationship to fund raising improprieties and accusations of him being in the pharmaceutical industry's pocket, what forces his resignation is a gay affair. Even the fact that the guy in question was given a cushy $100,000/year Homeland security job, for which he was dubiously qualified, doesn't bug people as much as the fact McG was buggering him. Had an identical scandal befallen the gov involving a female, he would have weathered the storm just fine. But he's resigning because he well knows that voters, and even the supposedly more liberal Democratic party, will drop him like a hot potato. On several levels, I'd agree that he probably deserves it--but it should be for how he did his job... not how he did some dude.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Christians Go South
DATE:
August-11-2004

A group calling itself ChristianExodus.org--fed up with the continued national tolerance of abortion, homosexuality, evolution, and the separation of church and state, despite their best efforts heretofore--is now calling for like-minded faithful to emigrate (or is that immigrate?) to South Carolina so they can transform that state with an overwhelming majority, hopefully starting a cascade effect. Though not part of their immediate agenda, succession from the United States is a possibility they might consider down the road.

Now, I'm certainly not in favor of such an idea for a number of reasons, though I fully support their right to try to convince a million people to pack up and relocate as a form of political protest. It's their right, as free Americans, to live where they like and try to shape their local government via the democratic process. And if they actually build a separatist nation based on literal interpretation of the Bible, I'll bet that in the end, it would up be no more or less corrupt and oppressive than our current one -- human nature and the currents of power being what they are. Every society embraces some values and persecutes others; which side you fall on is mostly luck, and always apt to change eventually.

As distasteful as I find the idea of a state where people think the world is only 6,000 years old and public stonings are the will of the Almighty (hey... it's in the Bible!), I'd love for them to try. I just want to see how long it takes for the whole experiment to fall apart, for the first ultra-radical group to splinter off from the moderate-radical establishment whom they feel is not living up to the true Word of God by its cowardly tolerance of the existence of Negroes. Or how long before they decide that the economy, on the verge of collapse, would benefit from a few casino-brothels. We're all hard-wired for self interest. Ideology, used sparingly, can be a useful stimulant and analgesic. Surround yourself with it, swallow it in day and night, and you become a junkie. And junkies always need more and more.

-- mm

Story on ABCnews.com


SUBJECT:
Really Smooth Balls
DATE:
August-10-2004

The Gravity B Probe, launched into orbit by NASA in April, is ready to begin a series of experiments designed to test assumptions in Einstein's general theory of relativity. The concept is (and I do not understand this... just paraphrasing what I've read) that objects moving in space-time, such as the Earth and the probe itself, actually distort space-time slightly, such as the way a baseball resting on a bed might make a little dimple in the covers. Basically, the probe uses four extremely precise spherical gyroscopes that are aligned with a distant star, then measures any axial shift in the gyroscopes. I kind of understand the effect of gyroscopic precession (where a gyroscope being moved in one direction "wants" to shift to another... it's why when you rock a Wizzer® in your hand, it fights), so I can sort of imagine I understand this a little.

My scientific ignorance aside, the measurements needed for the experiments are extremely tiny. An article in Wired.com gives this:

According to project scientists, the angle of that shift would be so small that if the spheres' axes were a kilometer long, the ends would only move by the width of a human hair.

Or even better, explaining how precisely made the gyropscopic spheres had to be in order to register such increments:

Composed of fused quartz, the objects the size of a Ping-Pong ball have no imperfections greater than 40 atomic layers in height. In other words, if the spheres were the size of the Earth, there would be no hills or valleys taller or deeper than 12 feet.

I love stuff like this. Had I a mind not so easily distracted by itself, I sometimes think I might have been a scientist. Had that been so, I'm sure my forte would have been coming up with metaphors like these.

-- mm

Article on Wired.com

P.S. - Bonus points to anyone who knows what a Wizzer is. A forgotten wonder, it seems. It was hard even to find any info about them on the web.


SUBJECT:
In Praise of Earth Tones
DATE:
August-9-2004

My office -- newly built two years ago and custom-decorated according to company specifications -- is completely carpeted in a pointless, muddy-beige color with little flecks of black in it so it constantly looks dirty. I could never figure out why anyone would choose this awful pattern.

Today, I spilled half a cup of coffee on the rug. After I dried it as best as I could, the stain was completely invisible in the rug.

OK. I get it now.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Review of The Village
DATE:
August-8-2004

Went to see The Village this weekend. I'm not quite sure why everybody is so down on this. Critics seem dismissive of it, calling it boring and predictable, and several people in the theater walked out before the end (granted, they were 20-somethings who actually conversed on their cellphones during the movie). I've rather enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's movies (note, I wouldn't call them "films" and I don't mean that as insult) and I liked this one, too.

The main thing critics popular and professional seem to be harping on is that the "big surprise twist," which has become Shyamalan's signature, is neither big nor surprising this time. Personally, I didn't figure it out ahead of time -- though I wasn't really trying (I never do... I mean, what's the point of spending time or money with a movie or book if you're always trying to "outsmart" it by guessing the ending?). Anyway, when it came, I found it satisfying. Not because it was an unimagined shock, but because it made perfect sense. Not "Oh--WOW!" but "oh... yeah." The twist enlightened the story and the characters, and gave you an interesting topic to discuss at dinner. That, in itself, places it miles ahead of typical Hollywood fare. And, if at moments, it fringes on the silly or unbelievable... well, again, most Hollywood movies live utterly in that realm, rather than skirt its edges.

As a "scary" movie, I found it scary in exactly the way I enjoy. Monsters, hinted at. Whispered about. Seen in glimpses to let the imagination do the heavy lifting that CGI usually does nowadays. I don't think there was a single FX shot, except for retouched lighting. Shyamalan really is masterful in a way that few suspense-thriller directors have ever been. He creates fear by letting you see characters you sympathize with being afraid. That's skill. That's storytelling. I'm often bothered by the anonymous body counts in modern "action" movies. Without going too sociological on yo' ass, we are becoming more desensitized to violence and the consequences are real. A movie like this, where each person's fear and suffering is palpable, isn't such a bad antidote to the car-chase, machine-gun symphonies regularly pumped into the veins of the culture.

I liked the story. I liked the performances (Ron Howard's daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, makes an impressive debut). I liked the look of gray skies backlighting the bare, gnarled branches of autumnal Pennsylvania woods, very much like the place I grew up in. I can't say it was the greatest thing I've ever seen, but I don't feel cheated out of the ticket price and babysitter's fee. And, I'll bet even more money, that any critic who watches this film again -- freed from the burden of anticipating it's big "twist" -- will decide it's better than they thought.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Ludlow Music Glee Club
DATE:
August-7-2004

Here's a recording secretly made at a recent rehearsal of the Glee Club for The Richmond Organization's Ludlow Music division, owner of the copyright to Woody Guthrie's song "This Land is Your Land"

This song is our song
We're Ludlow Music
The guy who wrote it
Died in '67
But thanks to Sonny Bono
It's ours for 53 more years
This song, it still makes us money

Two smart-ass web kids
Put it in a cartoon
Which even Arlo
Thought was pretty funny
But that doesn't matter
Because it still belongs to us
This song, it still makes us money

The guy who wrote it
Said he didn't mind if
Other people sang it
Any time they wanted
But don't forget that
Woody was a communist
This song, it still makes us money

This Song is Our Song, Ludlow Music Glee Club (MP3 236k)

-- mm


NOTES:

  • August 2, 2004, radio interview with Arlo Guthrie on npr.org
  • Article on the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act on wikipedia.com
  • Wording of a "copyright notice" Woody Guthrie once wrote in his song books on themomi.org (Museum of Musical Instruments ... in blue, third paragraph from bottom)

SUBJECT:
Bushian Slips
DATE:
August-6-2004

Addressing a roomful of Pentagon officials this Thursday, President Bush was quoted as saying:

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

I'm just going to let that one stand on its own.


Nah... it's worth at least a Bushku:

He will never stop
Thinking like our enemies
Perhaps he should try

More Bushku!

-- mm

Article on reuters.com


SUBJECT:
Fun For Whom?
DATE:
August-5-2004

I went to run a search on Lycos.com today (I know, I know... I was actually doing it as an experiment for professional reasons, okay?) and right on their home page was a pull-down menu called "Fun Search." This contained links that switched randomly, displaying such--presumably--fun things as:

  • Wedding Planning Secrets
    (psst! guys... butt out!)

  • Latest Therapy Fad: Cupping
    (is that anything like spooning... and do you really want your therapist to do it with you?)

  • Take the "Sex and the City" Tour
    (and this is where Samantha got drunk before her first DP)

  • Laura Bush's Cookie Recipe
    (choculate chip sprinkled liberally with nuts)

But the worst one was: Dead or Alive? Abe Vigoda. Now, I've wondered myself from time to time, but to splash it up there just seems cruel to the guy. And sadly, he recently passed away for real.

Wait, that's not true. He's still alive

Actually, he just had a terrible accident and he didn't make it.

No, I'm kidding! I'm kidding! He's fine.

etc.

-- mm

Find out for yourself at abevigoda.com, and listen to an MP3 song on the topic (I swear).


SUBJECT:
Liberty's Glass Sealing
DATE:
August-4-2004

The Statue of Liberty was re-opened today--it's been closed since 9/11--but visitors can only go into the pedestal. A glass ceiling has been installed so you can see the statue's inner structure, but not climb the steps up into it. I read a commentary in the New York Daily News (hey, I was at the barber... it was all they had) lamenting this incomplete re-opening. One quote referring to the hijackers in specific, and presumably Al Qaeda in general, struck me:

"...we are terrorized, which is what those killers wanted..."

I disagree with that on several points.

First off, being vigilant and prudent do not add up to being terrorized, and bravado is not courage. 'nuff said. Secondly, terrorizing Americans is not what the hijackers or their masters set out to do. The hijackers wanted to martyr themselves to a perverted vision of religious glory. Cyanide Kool-Aid or backpack bomb... makes no difference; suicide for God is its own agenda. The al Qaeda leadership that kindled those beliefs wants to gain political power in Arab nations, and the fomenting of Islamist revolutions is the best tool they have at their disposal. And the best shortcut to that is fanning hatred of America as a way to unite populations which already, often justifiably (that's right... we need to stop kidding ourselves on this) distrust the power and influence of the U.S. As I've said often, al Qaeda doesn't care what effect 9/11 had on Americans; they care what effect it had on their recruiting efforts. As much as I hate "schoolyard" metaphors for global politics, this is still apt: the small kid who kicks the big kid in the shins will always win some fans.

In the end, what makes these people so dangerous is that random death and destruction is simply a publicity stunt to them. Refusing to grant them ready opportunities to show off for the locals--even if that means imposing some frustration on ourselves--is the best thing we can do.

-- mm

Mike Daly's op-ed in the New York Daily News


SUBJECT:
That's a Lot of Zakah
DATE:
August-3-2004

It was announced today that (Born-again Muslim?) comedian Dave Chappelle has signed a deal with Comedy Central ultimately worth $50 million for the next two seasons of his show. This includes his pay as the star, as well as a chief writer and producer of "Chappelle's Show," plus a cut of DVD sales.

A few weeks ago, I came across a blurb in a magazine stating Chappelle was converting to Islam, though I have yet to see that confirmed by another source. If it is true, part of the central doctrine of Islam--"Zakah" the third of the "Five Pillars"--is the obligation to give money to the poor, with the amount to be given in proportion to one's wealth. So, in theory, Chappelle could be stickin' it to Comedy Central for spiritual reasons, i.e., to free up captial to redistribute to the needy.

I imagine every other possible contract negotiation strategy has been tried... why not bring something new to the table?

-- mm

Article on reuters.com


SUBJECT:
The Price of Eternal Oranges
DATE:
August-2-2004

Acting on pre-9/11 intelligence, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued an Orange Alert (second highest level) for possible terrorist attacks on several financial institutions in New York city and Newark, New Jersey. This is all based, in aggregate, on such things as photos in a laptop found in Pakistan combined with confessions from an al Qaeda member in custody plus unspecified observations of "pre-attack patterns of movement" in recent months.

Sure, some might say this is largely a political ploy, or that such relatively vague warnings only serve to increase public anxiety, but I have no problem with it. Maintaining heightened awareness is exactly what the average person can, and should, be doing. Goading people into it is, I think, exactly the right thing for the government to do. And if it's doing it for some wrong reasons, well, that's how things are sometimes.

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips is commonly credited with the phrase: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Some may think that such vigilance in anticipation of the next terrorist attack (that everyone seems certain is inevitable) just puts undue anxiety on the population. We need to learn the difference between awareness and paranoia, between preparation and despair. If, ultimately, we can't prevent attack from those who value not even their own lives, the least we can do is not be utterly blindsided by it. Personally, that would cause me a lot more anxiety than a perpetual Orange Alert where nothing happened.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
What's Wrong With This Country
DATE:
August-1-2004

Two words: Dog Costumes.

That's right, you heard me. Freakin'-dog-freakin'-costumes. Right on the cover of the new Lillian Vernon catalog I got in the mail today, Halloween costumes for dogs. And not just some kind of thing that lays across their back like a saddle blanket with a pumpkin face. Not an oversized Jolly Roger collar tag. Not even something forgivable like little fake devil horns for their head. No, full body costumes with legs and masks and everything.

Someone thought these up, went through prototypes, worked out manufacturing specs and a P&L, probably even commissioned market research to determine optimally profitable price points--and now is actually selling the things. And somebody'll buy 'em (I can think of a few friends offhand that are high-probability suckers for this).

You could argue that that kind of creative enterprise is exactly the kind of thing that demonstrates America's greatness--capitalism in action and all that. But, dammit, there are just some things that shouldn't see the light of day, no matter whose mortgage they pay. Are we so hard-pressed for entertainment that we have to debase our very pets in this manner. It just infuriates me.

And you know what gets me most? They don't make them for cats. So again, this year, I'm just going to have to slip a stocking over my cat's head and take her out as a "cat burglar." It was never a good joke, and it's getting pretty tired. Still, she looks really funny in it. And it really pisses her off (hey, she's been yowling in the middle of the night and waking me for more than a decade... she's got it comin').

-- mm

Dog costumes on LillianVernon.com: The Sultan's Favorite Pooch, Spiderman, Batman, Snow White




 





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