Wednesday, December 30, 2009

May Fox and Time Warner Usher in a New Era

If you haven't been following the news, you might not be aware that News Corporation, owner of Fox, and Time Warner Cable have been in a rather ugly shouting match that will likely result in Fox pulling its programming and channels from TWC on New Year's Day.

Let me explain: In the beginning, TV broadcasters put their programming out for free to viewers. If you had a TV and an antenna, you could tune in to NBC. Networks paid locally-owned TV stations to become network affiliates. Advertisers paid networks (and local affiliates) to support free delivery of TV. This was great, unless you lived in some remote area or in a deep mountain valley and couldn't pick up a signal. Thus, the invention of community antenna TV (aka "cable").

All was well. This was a pastoral era where man loved his fellow man, the Russians were the predictable-style bad guys. Life made sense.

Then, it all went to hell. Quickly.

See, cable was something you had to pay for. And that meant you could also subscribe to new "pay channels" like HBO. HBO would charge cable companies a few cents per subscriber to make money since they sold no ads.

As you know, there are upsides to this. If you require subscribers, you can show whatever you want: swearing, commercial-free sports, bare breasts (!) and the like. You can even produce your own shows that don't have to fill a traditional broadcast season... your goal isn't ratings to justify ad dollars. Your goal is to gain subscribers who get you more money.

Like anything else, cable channels realized they could charge a few cents more per subscriber as time went on. Thus began a new tradition of pay channels increasing their rates and having cable companies pass it right on to the consumer.

Today, we have almost 1,000 options for programming on a given cable channel. That's 1,000 channels asking your cable or satellite provider for money to carry programming. Add it up and you know why your bill is so high.

So... News Corp wants to charge TWC a fee to carry Fox programming that TWC thinks is exorbitant. It should be noted, News Corporation owns DirecTV, so Fox has a motive of getting people to ditch TWC for DirecTV.

I predict Fox will, at least temporarily, pull its programming. But what I'm interested in is the larger ramifications... and those might actually benefit us, the TV watchers.

Consider that you most likely already pay for your "free" TV channels. If you have cable or satellite, you pay a flat fee for a basic tier of programming, always including your local channels. So... what if networks and local affiliates, already running in the red because of fallen ad revenue, decide they're no longer free? They'd now ask for a fee, too. That sounds bad on the surface, but let's come back to the fee in a second.

Freed from obligation to advertisers, TV networks could still sell sponsorships, but they wouldn't have to build programming to fit it in. I'm talking a bout commercial-free sports, sponsored by Budweiser with on-screen graphics. I'm talking about your favorite Prime Time shows not needing to force out 22 episodes a year, of which only 12 are good. Writers could act like they do on HBO... write a good story, tell it in as many episodes as you need and be done for the year.

Now, about that fee...

Right now, I have DirecTV and I have hundreds of channels I never watch. Yet, I pay for them out of my flat fee.

What if, with every channel a pay channel, I could sit down and choose my own package... I'd only pick the channels I want and I would pay the price for them. Sure, there could still be package deals. But imagine that. And to go another step... with my personalized list of programming, and digital delivery, I can conceivably be targeted with some new form of advertising specifically tailored to my interests. The prospects are tantalizing.

And... done correctly, everyone can make money in the process of sending me my programming.

So, I'm rooting for Fox to stick it to TWC this weekend. Not because I wish ill on TWC (though, as a former customer of theirs, I can't say they don't deserve it a bit). I'm for hastening the shift from one model of TV entertainment delivery to another.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Airport Security Fails

First off, believe it or not, I have a lot to discuss. So, be on the lookout for more entries in coming days. Now, onto the matter at hand...

I think this whole business about the state of airline security in the aftermath of a terrorist trying to blow up Delta/Northwest 253 on Christmas Day over Michigan... is stupid.

I don't understand why there's an uproar because it's simple: airport security sucks. I don't mean the TSA people who perform the job. From what I can tell, they're doing fine. The system they have to operate under is what sucks.

My surprise is that we haven't had this happen more often.

The issue is not a failure of intelligence (I highly recommend you read Malcolm Gladwell's 2003 piece on this topic here). The issue is related to the problem Gladwell points out though.

Essentially, we treat every person going through security like they could be a terrorist. But... we do it in a way that is designed to cause no undue delay for we, the travelers. Heaven help us if we are delayed at security! You might start thinking the TSA is interested in keeping flights safe if that happened.

Instead, think about it: if everyone walking through could be a terrorist, how would you screen the millions of people walking through the metal detectors every day? Would you stop every person every time the x-ray machine showed something puzzling?

If you said yes, let me ask you: how? Where are you going to do these searches? In the crowded areas right around security? Let's remember most airports had to quickly adjust screening areas in the week after 9/11. They didn't build new terminals. Security is happening in areas far too small to do any kind of large-scale, meaningful searching.

And how many people is this going to take? If you really don't want to stand in line for two hours, we're going to have to hire hundreds - if not thousands - of new TSA screeners. But that... I'll let you do the math on salaries. I know how you conservatives feel about spending government money... even though many of your compadres are railing on and on and on all day about how we need better security.

What I'm saying is, if you want to screen everyone thoroughly, then it has to be done thoroughly. Otherwise, TSA agents have to make on-the-spot judgment calls about who is a threat and who is not. I remember dating and trying to pick out in a crowd which girls were nice and which ones weren't. This was a topic I had a lot of schooling on. I did not, alas, have a 100% success rate.

It's my belief that TSA screening is extremely impractical and, honestly, does little to keep us safe. The first time I flew commercially was in about 1983. Back then, I still walked through a metal detector. I still had my bags x-rayed (A person at the Pittsburgh airport back then even let me go behind the screen as they fed through a test box that I could see had a gun inside! So cool!). How is that different from now, exactly?

And how about this: From 1980-2001, 34 major flights were hijacked. TWO were on USA-based airlines (and both of those were in the mid-1980s and neither occurred on or over US soil).

On one day in 2001, four American jets were hijacked. We haven't had any since. I am compelled to argue it wasn't airport security measures that have led to zero since then. I think, instead, it was mandating that cockpit doors lock from the inside instead of the outside. Think back and remember watching the flight attendant shut the cockpit door... and lock it. From the outside...

Since 9/11, though, the tightened security has helped build a better terrorist. When you couldn't check bombs in bags anymore, they put a bomb in a guy's shoe. Once everyone had to start having their shoes screened, they planned on having people assemble liquid-based bombs smuggled on in water bottles. Now that we cannot carry through liquids that do not fit in a quart-sized bag, they apparently have guys wearing explosive underwear. I can only assume that if we had to fly naked, they'd surgically insert a bomb into someone's body.

Our security would be effective if the terrorists weren't bat-shit insane. These are people who are willing to die. They have crashed planes into buildings, something no one rational ever thought of until about 9 a.m. on 9/11. Our little security measures? I have a feeling they're not so upset about the new rules. Especially if they're going to board planes in places like Nigeria, where - I know this is hard to believe - the US Government has no jurisdiction. I know. Crazy.

So, I propose we go back to the old way. Let people pack whatever the hell they want. Right now, we've got honest people trying to find ways to smuggle aboard items they simply don't want to check. Many succeed. So, open the floodgates. There is no statistical proof that I can locate showing that "increased security" has done anything other than spend a lot of money and piss a lot of people off. I'm still waiting for the big "TSA arrests five with weapons at O'Hare security checkpoint" headline.

And really, in 2005 nearly 43,000 Americans died in car crashes. None related to terrorism that I can find. In 2005, 1,454 people died in plane crashes worldwide! In 2008, again worldwide, total fatalities in air crashes were... 876 (in 147 incidents).

Maybe we should be asking about freeway security.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My Year in Travel

As much as I talk about travel on here, I might as well look back at the year that was in that sense...

First, let's look at the raw numbers of miles flown and flights:

  • US Airways - 58,872 (55 flights)*
  • Delta - 3,444 (6 flights)
  • AirTran - About 700 (2 flights)
  • Continental - 406 (2 flights)
  • Southwest About 500 (1 flight)
The star goes next to US Air because by the end of this month, I'll have been on 62 flights and well over 60,000 miles. And the crazy thing... more than 30,000 of them will have been since October 1, which means (if my math is right), due to US Air's fourth quarter promotion, I will vault from Gold status on US Air, to Chairman's. Which, frequent fliers will hear me here, is bad-ass.

I should note here this wasn't all for business, though the vast bulk was. That said, a few vacation flights in there for sure.

So, where was Jay? Here were some of my travel destinations:

  • Atlanta
  • New York
  • Seattle
  • Portland, OR
  • San Francisco/Oakland
  • Southern California
  • Phoenix
  • Philadelphia
  • New Haven
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Baltimore
  • Chattanooga
  • London, UK
  • Tampa
  • Orlando
  • Ft. Lauderdale/Miami
  • Jacksonville
  • Portland, ME
  • Las Vegas
  • New Jersey
  • Boston
  • Austin
  • Durango, Colorado
And those are just places that I got on airplane to. Belle Glade, FL; Aztec, NM; Sacramento, CA... all kinds of places that I drove to once on the ground.

In fact, I made it to five new states this year, bringing my total state count to 31.

Now, remarkably, I managed to not once get stranded anywhere (that has only happened once and that was in 2008). Plus, I got a lot of flight upgrades. Generally, my travel hasn't been all that bad.

But it hasn't been all rainbows and butterflies either. Aside from things like missing my wife, jet-lag and other stuff, here are some strictly travel-related items that made travel a bit harder than it might have been:

  • Philadelphia International Airport - It really says something about how bad an airport you've got when I will schedule business trips to end in Delaware or New Jersey so I can use BWI or Newark, respectively instead of this trapped-in-1977 atrocity of an airport. And the crazy thing is that there is such a case of NIMBYism in some Philly suburbs that the chance of turning Willow Grove NAS or Trenton-Mercer Airport into a desperately-needed overflow airport are nil.
  • People that think overhead compartments are for their purses/laptop bags. Those, see, go under the seat. I had a guy tell me if he put his laptop under the seat in front of him he wouldn't have any legroom. I am usually very cordial, but I must have been having a bad day. Because I handed him his laptop bag and said "If you wanted leg room, you shouldn't have boarded a plane."
  • Clouds - I'm a little kid on a plane. When I finish work on my laptop, I want to be able to look out the window. Clouds mess this up. Go be cloudy some other day. Or after I land. :-)
And then, there are the things that travel has taught me:

  • Being nice helps, more often than not - I am only a frequent flier on one airline, but man, even being nice to the check in people at other airlines can get you stuff. The people who work behind a counter at an airport - and flight attendants - are used to people just yelling at them non-stop. I have no idea how they handle it. But being nice to them, or at least letting them know that you understand that it is not their personal fault that it is raining and therefore you will miss your connection, can go a long way. In January, I was flying to Austin to visit a friend and the flight was terribly delayed. Mechanical problem. And people were generally calm, but some were freaking out. I got on the plane and the flight attendant was doing his mandated apology as every passenger got on. I simply said something to the effect of "eh, nothing a free beer can't forgive." A guy sitting across from me gave the guy some lip. We each got a beer on the flight. Guess whose beer was free.
  • Look at your rental car. Carefully. - Last month, I got a notice from Avis saying I owed them $400 for unspecified damage to a car. I was fortunate to have enough evidence to show that any damage was not incurred under my watch. Still... if the light so much as hits the car funny in a spot, report it.
  • Be careful of closing doors on the London Tube - If you don't, you might leave your jet-lagged wife behind at Victoria Station and have to hope you can reconnect at the next stop. Not that, uh, this happened to, you know, me and Sarah...
  • Mix business with pleasure - On a trip to Portland Oregon, I was in my hotel room, post-dinner, caught up on work and ironing... at 7:30 p.m. I could've stayed in my room all night. Or... I could've scalped a ticket to see Modest Mouse. I did the latter. Similarly, after a long trip to Colorado and California, I could've ordered room service in my Oakland hotel room. Instead, I hopped the BART to go into San Fran's Mission District. Seriously, if you are fortunate enough to be traveling to cool places, do something cool. I have a trip to LA in January that involves an 11:45 a.m. flight home. I could hang out in the Westin all morning. Or, I could wake up early, drive up to the Valley to have a very early appointment for work, but then... when it's done at 8:30, drive through Topanga Canyon and down the Pacific Coast Highway to LAX (which, at that hour, will be faster than 405). So, instead of a sterile morning in a hotel room, I can put forth a bit of early morning effort and be rewarded with one of the best drives in the country. Like anything else, travel is what you make of it.
Still, though, the best part of all my travels has been coming home to Sarah, who has been amazingly understanding, tolerant and patient with all my running around. The truth is, I'm at home more than I am away. But some weeks, it doesn't feel that way. She has been an amazing support to me all year. And she's the best travel companion I could ask for when she gets to tag along or we go together. :-)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Top 10 Albums of 2009

Well, here we are... another year of music to look at. Truth be told, it was a pretty weak year. I hate saying that, but I think it's true. The standout albums were easy to spot and the ones that came close had some serious flaws. We've been spoiled the last few years and this was the year the karma cycle paid us back. Still, the top 10 I have are excellent. And it was an excellent year for "electronic" music.

As always, my top 10 has a "second opinion" so you know I'm not nuts (or at least someone is as nuts as me). First, a few notable albums that, in my mind were good, but not quite the top 10:

U2 - No Line on the Horizon - This was easily U2's best entry since Pop. I know that a lot of U2 "fans" would dispute this, but these people seem to eschew creativity in favor of pedestrian arena rock. U2, for the first time in more than a decade took risks. And while it's not their best work ever, it's an album that shows that U2 remains relevant, even if their best work still seems to befuddle many of their listeners.

Franz Ferdinand - Tonight: Franz Ferdinand - A solid, if not entirely amazing effort from one of the best Scottish exports of the aughts. Franz plays around with their sound a bit on this disc... it's more hit than miss, but one gets the idea this is the album where the band is stretching its wings, figuring out what will connect on a later effort.

Moby - Wait For Me - Moby confounds a lot of people both with his music and his ultra-left righteousness. But this album shows he's still able to put together a cohesive disc of tracks that bottle up all manner of emotion into, now and then, breathtaking short works.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! - This was very nearly in the top 10. It's a really solid entry. When you consider that this is a band that made it's name on affected post-punk, to hear what starts as a dance album is something. That they pull it off is something entirely more. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs establish themselves as one of the more versatile bands in rock right now and give us a reason to look forward to more.

And now...

10) Matthew Good - Vancouver
Second opinion: Chart

I don't mind saying this... Matt Good is easily the best artist that has been ignored by the bulk of American listeners over the past 10 years. Some of this is not his fault. Most of his material is not available in the United States. If it weren't for the magic of the iTunes store, I wouldn't even have this. But, once again, Good crafts the kind of rock songs that few bands make any more. Relying on his talent and his knack for writing fine rock songs, Good eschews all derivative and creates a concept album about his Vancouver neighborhood that sounds fresh, yet recalls the anthematic work of his past. Good is proving that years after breaking with Underdogs, any album he makes is noteworthy out of the box.

9) Discovery - LP
Second opinion: NME

I like Ra Ra Riot. I like Vampire Weekend. As a sort of fusion, one would think it's automatic that I would like Discovery. The truth is, though, I really liked this album, especially sitting beachside this past summer. Yes, its 30-minute brevity begs questions of just how far this can go. In this case, let's leave it at the band made as much of an album as they had to make... much like a BBC TV series. Songs like "Carby" and "Slang Tang" make it a fun ride, but even "Can You Discover" - a reworking of sterling Ra Ra Riot track "Can You Tell" - show a whole other side of these "preppy" bands. I hope I can expect a Discovery album between each entry from the original bands.

8) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Brooklyn indie is very trying. These guys make it easy. Flat out indie pop that despite constant references to shoegaze, is as catchy and heartfelt as the band's name implies. Few bands have been this accessible and, while Belle and Sebastian references don't hurt ("Come Saturday"), songs like "Stay Alive" and the evocative campus tryst of "The Tenure Itch" make this album an easy listen.

7) Dan Deacon - Bromst
Second Opinion: AV Club

I very nearly made this album of the year. Nothing sounds like it and nothing offers the same payoff. Why not, then? Accessibility. I bet 50% of the people I could play this for, or more, would hear it and go "huh?" And accessibility has to count for something. That said, if you can get into this, you will be rewarded at a level unthought of for this kind of music. If anything, Deacon is playing with a new form of classical music. Themes play off counterthemes, songs are more arranged than played... it's startling. "Red F" shows Deacon's ability to toss it all together into a frenetic mix that, despite a lack of real lyrics makes me want to stand up and sing. But other songs like "Snookered" show the depth of ability here. Deacon has said he wants to work with orchestras. After hearing Bromst, I hope they line up.

6) Pearl Jam - Backspacer
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

Another one where, seemingly, just by being released, it is notable. PJ continues to chug along, turning out outstanding rock time after time. Selections like "Got Some" provide quick power rock that, despite imitators, they can only put out. But after Eddie Vedder's solo effort for Into the Wild, a song like "Just Breathe" shows a side of PJ that fans always knew was there but reinforces why we're likely to be hearing form this band for years to come.

5) Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You
Second Opinion: Spin

Can we make all pop stars like Lily? Intelligent. Catchy. Brash. Wonderful. You cannot help but fall for this disc. While other poppers find one-and-done pop anthems, Lily Allen is pretty determined, it would appear, to use the format to actually be an artist. This means she occasionally mis-steps, but considering how few throwaways there are on this disc, she's clearly doing well. And it is, in many ways, showing the dark side of pop stardom. The jadedness ("The Fear"), tabloid attention ("22") and parental conflict ("I Could Say") are all here, in frank detail. But brilliantly executed.

4) Dave Matthews Band - Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

Death was very good to Sublime, but it meant that that band was done with making music. You hate to say this, but the too-early death of LeRoi Moore seems to have, yikes... energized Dave Matthews Band. This is a ridiculously good album. And while songs like "Shake Me Like a Monkey" bring the kind of old-school DMB energy, it's other songs that put Matthews at a level we haven't heard on an album since Before These Crowded Streets. It's a track like "Time Bomb" that sets this album apart from other albums this year and some of DMB's previous work. The death of a bandmember - and friend - brings issues to the forefront that may be painful to deal with, but make startlingly good music in capable hands. And Matthews undoubtedly possesses those.

3) Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Another album that was perfect for summer but astoundingly diverse... and executed masterfully well. Find another album that manages to include a track like "Stillness is the Move" to something as "indie" as "Temecula Sunrise." Possibly the most complete album of the year in terms of continuity, Bitte Orca is about as accessible an indie album as you can find. And the truth is, I normally expound upon an album this high, but this is a case where the music really does speak for itself.

2) Fever Ray - Fever Ray
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Dear lord this is bleak. And beautiful. The Knife put out a masterpiece with Silent Shout a few years back and one half of that outfit, Karin Dreijer Andersson, puts out a solo album that might even up the ante on The Knife. This is absolutely challenging music and it will not appeal to everyone. And while accessibility may mean something, this is one where I say if you cannot acquire the taste for the music, you are missing out. And big time. It sounds minimal... but that belies a depth both of lyrical content and sound. And there, we have perhaps the biggest brilliance of the album. Dreijer Andersson puts more into less than you might possibly expect. "If I Had a Heart" provides the creepy factor, but it is offset by songs like "Seven" that project a more reflective tone. Give me all the dark Swedish music you can if it's all this good.

1) The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
Second Opinion: Paste

I hate to say it... in the end, it wasn't even close. I may be the only Charlottean to have yet to see this band live, but maybe that even helps make this album all the more remarkable. I think this band has had trouble with some reviews because they cannot be completely assigned to "folk" or "country" or "rock" or "bluegrass." They do take the Appalachian influence and do the most with it... but the most is far and above the best thing I have heard this year. And, again, it was immediate. After two or three listens, there was no doubt this was something beyond the other music of the year. And while it was a weak year, this album would be near the top in any year I've done a list like this. From the opening title track, the Avetts showcase a virtuosity paired with a keen ear for good songwriting that was missing in just about every other release this year. End to end, there are few weak moments. And the high points are insanely high, most notably, in my mind, a song like "Ten Thousand Words" where the Avetts have nothing to rely on other than their songwriting ability. And, as more and more people in areas have started to ask about that band from near Charlotte, this album captures a band on the cusp... and, excitingly, potentially not at its peak. Still, if this is as good as the Avetts get, we've been given a classic.

Monday, November 30, 2009

2009 in Music, part 1

Well, folks... it's that time once again. My annual roundup of all things music from my own selfish perspective. You might want to refresh your memory on last year to see if this holds up at all over time.

Anyhow, we'll get to the 10 best albums soon. For now, partially because rankings in and of themselves do not sum up a year in music - and partially because I need more time to write the albums blog - let's just get to some of the musical housekeeping for the year that was:

Creed of the Year
I'm going to take some pain for this one, because Creed is probably not the best parallel, but... Kings of Leon. I say this because I have their most recent album. It has some good songs. They are all overplayed. They are far overrated as a band. They have vague religious righteousness about them. Maybe Creed is a good parallel. That said, if Creed could write a song as good as "Sex on Fire" the world would be a better place.

Band I'm Glad I Got Into This Year
Hands down Modest Mouse. What the hell took me so long to get on this train? And it was the classic see-band-live-and-love-them-forever thing. Seriously, some great musicians. They can thrash, too. But Isaac Brock is a pretty talented songwriter and knows him some melody, too. I'm late to the game, but happy to be in nonetheless.

Concert Moment of the Year
So, I could pick a lot of things from the Coldplay show, where I saw one of the best mainstream bands of the decade look incredibly comfortable and engage the crowd and all that. But the moment was before they come on stage. Bands usually get to pick their pre-show music. So, it wasn't a shock to hear the normal background set-change music segue into Jay-Z, a Coldplay collaborator. What was more of a surprise was how Coldplay elected to have U2's "Magnificent" blare at full concert volume prior just prior to taking the stage. To me, that was the band saying, "Well, since someone's going to compare, you just go ahead and hear it and then we'll show you what we've got." Point taken. Ballsy move that Coldplay backed up with a killer show.

Creepiest Video Ever of the Year
This isn't even a contest. Good luck sleeping after this, kids:


Pop Song That Can Die, Preferably Quickly
"Single Ladies." I don't like it. I will not put a ring on it. I will change the station. And please stop putting it into TV shows. And I don't care about the baby dancing o YouTube either.

Trend of the Year
The continued rise (and toleration) of free. It's occurring to more and more bands/labels/rational people that there is little need to charge for music itself. There's, simply put, too much money to be made on concert tickets, merchandise, fan club fees, deluxe super versions of albums and more to worry about the cost of a 128kbps mp3 out there. Even as iTunes raised its prices, more and more we're seeing bands use simple economics to reap decent returns. Certainly sustainable returns. Think about it... you could sell 500,000 albums and get $4 for each sold. Or, you could sell 20,000 $120 super-deluxe album packages and get just about the same money. Anyone want to dispute it's easier to get 20,000 people to buy something than 500,000? Seriously... give your music away and put out awesome stuff that hardcore fans will pony up for.

Alarming Trend
Taylor Swift. All of it. Make it stop. I swear, every three years there some new country tart-let out there who gets shoved down our throats. And she is this year's winner. Make. It. Stop. Or please stop trying to make me care.

Biggest Disappointments
Ok, really, this year was a big letdown after last year. I suppose we were due for an off year... the past few have been pretty good music years. This year, just... geez. First off, a lot of bands should have put out EPs instead of albums. The Big Pink debut album has a lot of promise, but only up until about song 6.

But still, a few albums just tanked if you ask me:

  • Our Lady Peace - Burn Burn - Whither OLP? This album just made me sad. You have to consider that this is a band that, by most critical accounts, was easily one of the more creative heavy rock bands of its time as recently as 2001. Then... my lord has this band gone downhill. The worst part? Last song of this disc, "Paper Moon," harkens back to the sound of old and, honestly, I would rather listen to that song (half of it anyway) on a 30-minute loop than this album in its entirety. Fail.
  • Silversun Pickups - Swoon - We got wound up excited for this? Also, the Smashing Pumpkins comparison is lazy. The Smashing Pumpkins, like them or not, never made this bland an album.
  • Third Eye Blind - Ursa Major - This one is more about my own wishes and desires. I want 3EB to be good. Years ago Kevin Cadogan, guitarist, left the band. Apparently, he was a big part of the band, too, because their materials since has been meh.
Top 10 Songs of the Year
There were some awesome songs this year. As always. Let's count them down, shall we?

10) Green Day - "21st Century Breakdown"
On an album that didn't quite reach the heights of its classic predecessor, this song is an easy standout and captures the energy of Green Day at its best.

9) The Airborne Toxic Event - "Sometime Around Midnight"
Not sure what to make of this band, but this song was outstanding (especially in a year with no Arcade Fire to compete with since ATE seems to want to emulate that band).

8) Big Pink - "Dominos"
The best song from a new British band that might just turn into something. Plus, I like the swagger of this song, even if it means these guys are a bunch of bar-room louts. You can do that when you're a rock star.

7) Phoenix - "1901"
Some people are going to rave about this album, but this song was really the standout. And it easily wins the award for indie song to reap the most licensing royalties this year.

6) Lady Gaga - "Poker Face"
Don't even try to argue this point. If anything, I have ranked it too low.

5) Metric - "Help I'm Alive"
They were joking on Sirius/XM that this band and Shiny Toy Guns are basically interchangeable I'm not so sure. Metric has a better track record overall album-wise and, hey, we like Canadians. Plus, this song is better than any on the last Shiny Toy Guns disc.

4) Kelly Clarkson - "My Life Would Suck Without You"
Sarah is making obscene gestures at me for this (especially given the song two spots up, which she feels is more deserving). I dunno. I'm just a sucker. This song sounds like flipping fun dip tastes.

3) Radiohead - "These Are My Twisted Words"
I want to broker a deal with Radiohead: every month, they put out a new song. After 12 months, you've got a 12-track album that you burn and write the name of the year on it. Then you start over.

2) U2 - "Fez (Being Born)"
It had been more than 10 years since U2 put out a song like this and it was too damned long. Far too complex for radio and probably too complex for many of its "fans," too. It's a song like this that makes me step back and understand just why this band was so great. Each band member plays his role, they experiment with the sounds in their heads and, instead of another U2 song with "that sound," you get a creative burst of... I dunno what. But holy flipping lord can I pay this band to just make songs/albums like this again? It's everything the promise of Zooropa and Pop showed... finally in a neat package.

1) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Zero"
I cannot stop listening to this song. From the first moment I heard it this year, to right now this very minute. I listened to it in the gym tonight (and thank god for that or I never would have gotten my workout started). I fantasize about making remixes of this song. This song makes me want to jump on the roof of my car and dance in rush hour traffic. AND... all from a band that I used to put on the jukebox in low-down shady bars in lower Manhattan when I was feeling sinister back in the day. The band is clearly comfortable trying new things and doing crazy crazy stuff in the process. And what's even crazier is I couldn't decide between this song and "Heads Will Roll" from the same album for a couple of weeks. I like options.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dubunking the SEC

It's my birthday and I am feeling punchy. And since I can barely look at my Twitter feed, turn on the TV or leave my house without hearing about how good SEC football is, I'm going to have my wits with people.

For those unacquainted with the issue, the Southeast Conference is widely touted to be the best college football conference ever in the history of the universe. At least by ESPN, which slathers the love on the SEC like my dog does to my bare feet.

I guess that shouldn't be too surprising. Much like ESPN overhypes the NBA (a league ESPN paid a lot of money to broadcast), ESPN's talkies love to hype up the SEC. Some of these idiots go as far as to say a team that loses a game in the SEC might still be better than an undefeated team from, say, the Big 12, another major football conference.

You would think ESPN signed a deal to televise SEC games... oh look: they did!

Beyond this, though, annoying fan after annoying fan is happy to remind me about how much better the SEC is. For instance, they talk about how the teams in the SEC are a step above the rest.

Really? This is a conference that had its championship game set weeks ago. In other words, they have two dominant teams... and a slew of also-rans. The Big 10 gets a lot of pain because it is so rare for a team to escape the conference schedule undefeated. The truth is... the Big 10 consistently fields a better overall field of teams. That might kill some national championship hopes for some teams. But this idea that the SEC is just loaded is just that... a load. Of crap. Highly-touted LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia and the like have shown nothing that anyone could refer to as "elite" this year. And storied programs like Tennessee have a lot of tradition but are crap football sides.

Then, the same annoying fans want to let me know how much better the SEC teams are against other conferences. Friends, I give you the SEC's record out of conference since 1990:

  • Big-12 (20-16)
  • PAC-10 (10-9)
  • Big East (15-20)
  • Big-10 (30-23)
  • ACC (65-50)
  • The old Southwest Conference (20-19)
In other words, they've done well, but the conference is not dominant by any measure.

Then they tout the SEC's bowl game record. OK, let's look at last year:

  • Pac-10 5-0
  • Big 12 3-1
  • Conference USA 3-1
  • Southeastern 3-1
  • Big East 3-2
  • Mountain West 2- 2
  • Atlantic Coast 4-6
  • Big Ten 1-5
So... a nice 3-1 record, yes. But several conferences on this list sent more teams to bowl games than the SEC and one (last year's PAC-10) didn't lose! The SEC had great year before, too, but, again, its teams were hardly the only ones at the party.

Basically, I write this as a wake up call to SEC fans who love to toot their horns... you're standing on a house of cards. And hey, ESPN can hype y'all up as much as they want. This is the same network that crowned Matt Leinart's USC as the best team in college history a few years ago. That team, by the way, lost to Texas in grand fashion in the title game.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Sounds of the Season

For the past three years, I have worked to compile a mix of Christmas/holiday music that celebrates the season, but is performed by current indie bands. It's not because I dislike the old standards of the season... I just choose to not take the holidays quite as seriously as my local all-Christmas-all-the-time radio station might.

In 2007, the mix kicked off with The Dandy Warhols' psychedelic take on "The Little Drummer Boy," segued right into Save Ferris' Judaic send-up of "Christmas Wrapping" and, if I can say so myself, killed for 30+ minutes. It included the modern classic Barenaked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and more.

Last year, I felt I upped the ante with 40 minutes of spirited tunes. Ringing in with The Raveonette's "Christmas Song" and rolling right through to Coldplay's lovely cover of "2,000 Miles."

This year, it was a harder task. The simple fact of the matter is that there is a finite number of indie/alternative Christmas songs. There are fewer yet Hanukkah songs, which is a damn shame. Still, with about six weeks of searching and playing with a mix (and an assist from a Zooey Deschanel song located last night), I think I've got it.

So, dear readers, here's the playlist of the season for me (and with two previous collections, I've got about 90 minute sof totally tolerable holiday fare):

1) Pearl Jam - "Someday at Christmas"
2) Zooey Deschanel (with Leon Redbone) - "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
3) Jack Johnson - "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
4) The Bird and the Bee - "Carol of the Bells"
5) My Morning Jacket - "Santa Claus is Back in Town"
6) The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "All I Want for Christmas"
7) Bright Eyes - "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"
8) Oscar the Grouch - "I Hate Christmas"
9) Phantom Planet - "Winter Wonderland"
10) The Raveonettes - "Come On Santa"
11) Jimmy Eat World - "Last Christmas"
12) Coldplay - "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christas"
13) Jack White - "Christmastime Will Soon Be Over"

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How I Fight a Cold

Last week, when I flew home from a conference in Phoenix, I was a mess. I had known I was due for a cold and, sure enough, it hit with a vengeance.

This was unacceptable. I had to fly to Seattle on Tuesday night and Sarah was going to meet me in Portland for the following weekend. I had to take action. When I fight disease, I fight to win. And while, the cold lingered well past its sell-by date, here's how I went from on my ass last Friday night to a cross-country flight Tuesday night and managed to feel OK:

  • I stop drinking - I know. Rare is the night I don't have at least one drink. It's OK. My doctor says it's fine. Anyhow... From when I got on my flight in Phoenix until this past Thursday night, no alcohol. Zip. Don't need my body processing anything but a virus.
  • I drink all kinds of other stuff. I have a rule with a cold... if I stand up, it's time for a glass of water. I must have had 6 cups of tea a day, too. Lunch? Soup. I basically challenge the virus' ability to make a real dent in me if all I'm doing is, essentially, asking my kidneys to move things along, per se.
  • Drugs. I do not hold back on the drugs. Homeopathic remedies and zinc lozenges are great, but I need some serious stuff. Since they made pseudo-ephedrine a controlled substance, I switched from NyQuil/DayQuil to the new Tylenol Cold suite of drugs. The daytime stuff makes me feel dopey... no idea how addicts can function. The nighttime stuff not only puts me straight out, but it gives we whacked out dreams. Way out there.
That's pretty much the plan. But you do that for 72 hours and things start to turn for you. I'm leaving out the part about hacking up whatever ickiness there is to be had, but no one wants to hear the details of that.

Anyhow, I wasn't feeling grand when I walked into the Sheraton Seattle Downtown on Tuesday evening, but I was miles better than a few days earlier. Fight to win, folks. Fight to win.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A quick clarification

CNN analysts are going on and on about the New Jersey governor's race, extrapolating what it means in the national scheme of things. One analyst talked about how big an indicator Chris Christie's election is... the fact that a Republican could win the governorship in a liberal state like New Jersey! One analyst even called it "shocking."

Friends, here are the governors of New Jersey since 1982:

1982-1990 - Tom Kean (Republican)
1990-1994 - Jim Florio (Democrat, lost in 1994 in a landslide)
1994-2001 - Christie Whitman (Republican)
2001-2002 - Don DiFrancesco (Republican)
2002-2004 - Jim McGreevey (Democrat, resigned)
2004-2006 - Richard Codey (Democrat)
2006-2010 - Jon Corzine (Democrat)

So, since 1982, in New Jersey, the "unlikely" party managed to hold the governor's office for only 16 years, with no democrat serving two terms.

If Christie winning tonight is "shocking," I can only assume the person - or anyone - saying it has never been to New Jersey.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Sad Day For TV Journalism

Today, folks, we learned that an afraid 6 year old can control the national media by hiding in an attic.

A quick note... A few weeks ago, someone asked me which reality TV star I'd like to wish ill on. I chose a certain cable news pundit. The point being: the news shouldn't be called "the news"anymore. News is boring.

But people don't tune in to see boring. And, today shows me we've reached the point where broadcasting the drama of the day - in many cases endlessly debating the drama of the day, if the issue at hand is political - is the key interest vs. informing the public.

Seriously, think about it. A prototype balloon is released accidentally from a home near Ft. Collins, Colo. Would that normally interest you? Granted, the thought of a child in the balloon, helpless up in the Rocky Mountain air... sure, that's scary. But to broadcast the entire incident live - and psyching up viewers with statements along the lines of "what's going to happen to this poor kid?" - is simply irresponsible.

There was no reporting. No asking "gee, did you check the garage? The attic?"

Instead, the news made this into an event. Much like they do with hurricanes, airplanes with faulty landing gears and other "dramas" that make for riveting television.

And that is all well and good... except that these channels claim to be giving you the news.

If today's balloon incident was a movie a la speed, you'd feel cheated to find out the kid was in the attic. You'd think "They got my heart racing for that? No one thought to search the damned house?!" Why tolerate "reporting" that does the same?

And, if anything, the heightened attention puts the pressure on first responders who, suddenly, with the glare of national spotlights and cameras following their every move, become conscious that their efforts are being scrutinized by average American couch potatoes. That doesn't help them. Imagine if the kid had been on board and died. You don't think some talking head would be trying to analyze what the first responders should have done?

Honestly, this is a disgraceful chapter in the history of broadcast news media. Dan Rather, a journalist who 99% got his facts straight, lost his job at CBS for one rushed-out-the-door story. But for the "reporters" who inflated today's balloon fiasco into "news," manipulating viewers in a way that must make James Cameron proud... they're probably getting pats on the back.

This story should have been an end-of-show "kicker" segment... a light and lively "And authorities followed a stray hot air balloon in Colorado thinking a 6-year-old child was aboard. Fortunately, he was found safe and sound in his home's attic."

Instead, the interests of ratings and money took precedence over journalism.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Time and the Quarter Collection

In 1999, I decided to take on a 10-year project. Toward the end of my sophomore year in college, the U.S. Mint started the 50 State Quarters Program and, despite not really being a coin collector, I thought this would be cool.

It was a conscious decision. I decided it wouldn't go seeking out quarters or anything of the sort. I wanted to simply come upon them. With five quarters released each year, I knew I had at least a 10-year project on hand.

And so it began. First, as a small stack of quarters in my dorm room. That summer, after I told my mom I was doing this, she picked me up a $5 folder with slots for each state's quarter. Last week, after 10 years of looking carefully at virtually every quarter that came my way, I found a Montana quarter from the office vending machine... and my collection was complete.

One of the reasons I started the collection was so I could sit back and see just what transpired in my life between acquiring that Delaware quarter and the completion of the collection. And, it's really quite a catalog:

  • I got my first job. And my second. And third. And fourth.
  • I moved South.
  • I got married.
  • I traveled to Europe for the first time... and then went back again.
  • I traveled all over this country, making many of those quarters bring back some memory of being in one of those states. (This is notable since, in 1999, I had been to 13 states. On Sunday, that number hits 28 unless my count is off.)
I could go on. And that's to say nothing of world events, pop culture happenings, technological advances and so forth. Think about it... there was no iPod in 1999.

The good news, though? We often discuss how time flies... going faster and faster all the time. The truth is, it feels like the quarter collection took a long time. Slow, deliberate... it made me realize just how much time has passed. And how I really have made the most of it. I've done a lot, experienced a lot and learned a lot since the collection started. And the next 10 years... I may not be collecting quarters (no way, Jose), but I can take solace in knowing that life isn't a sprint.

It can slowed down and it can offer a world of perspective.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cat Update and more...

OK, first off... the cat. The cat was spotted on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control adoption Web site and was only up there for about a day. Plenty of other cats have remained on there, so we can safely assume this cat has found a new home that is not under my out-front shrubbery. You can all rest that much more soundly, dear readers. :-)

In the meantime, it hit my house last night... by "it," I mean fall. Came home with some friends, got out the fall candles and the like. Even changed the Facebook profile photo to my October avatar.

What's the best about this time of year, though... the smells. I mean it. Beyond the Yankee Candle Harvest scent... this is the time of year to get the spices out.

Last night, that meant a fresh batch of molasses cookies. I use the King Arthur flour recipe for these and, year after year, I am convinced they are the perfect cookie.

  • They smell outstanding. That house-filling smell of spice.
  • They look like a cookie. I mean, these come out of the oven and cool and end up looking like something you would buy in a store... minus the preservatives and all that jazz of packaged cookies.
  • They are the perfect consistency. Soft, chewy... they're damn perfect cookies, I'm telling you.
My wife has decreed that she "needs to make pumpkin bread today." I have two killer gingerbread recipes. I've got a rack-full of spices.

My house... gonna be smelling good through about Jan. 1.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cat

Dear readers, I eat lunch at home some days when I don't get the dog sitter. This is mainly to allow my dog to relieve herself. I mean, I know the feeling of being trapped in a car when nature calls. A cage must be worse.

Anyhow, on Friday, when I came home for lunch, I had a postcard to mail and as I was walking out to the mailbox I saw the mailman driving up. Perfect timing.

In more ways than one. Had I not been out there right then, I doubt I would have discovered (at least for another few days) the Siamese cat that was under one of my bushes. I wondered what was making all the rustling noise and I walk over to see this poor thing camping out under a shrub.

Important side note: I am allergic to cats. I don't mean the dander makes me sneeze. I mean cats make my head explode into a drippy, teary mess. Some years ago, a friend's cat fell out of her arms and the cat, desperately trying to arrest its fall, grabbed onto the closest thing it could... my thigh. Where claws punctured my skin, I immediately developed painful, itchy blotches, much like you would get in an allergy test (which, incidentally is exactly what happened when I was allergy tested).

So, with all that in mind:

  • I see this cat and I want to help it
  • I absolutely do not want to touch it
At first, I figured I'd be rational. We have a "cat lady" down the street. My next door neighbors once told me "she owns, like, 50 cats." This may well be true. Her cats litter (no pun intended) the cul de sac. Some says, turning your car around is like running one of those courses in car ads where the car has to swerve to avoid stuff...

Anyhow, I walk over yesterday morning to say hello and "Oh, by the way, do you happen to have a Siamese?"

She said, sadly, no. But... and maybe this means I should be nice to cat ladies... she goes "I've seen that cat around the neighborhood, but it sure doesn't seem to have a home."

Essentially, the cat lady has a catalog of neighborhood cats. This is a good resource.

OK, so... a few casual conversations with neighbors later, no one knows whose cat this is. Least of all the cat lady who would most assuredly know all of her neighbors' cats.

So, I email the humane society. This, after a call to some of the no-kill shelters reveals that no one, apparently, is accepting cats at the moment. Awe. Some.

The humane society emails me back first thing this morning and it was encouraging. Basically, they cannot take any cats either unless I have proof the thing has all its shots. This cat, right here in my front yard, has no form of ID on hand (or collar). So that's out.

So she recommends I call kill-em-all-if-not-picked-up-in-72-hours Animal Control... BUT then she says that as soon as Animal Control picks up my cat, to give her the reference number because "she has a soft spot for Siamese cats."

Hooray! Guaranteed rescue!

See, I don't like cats in particular. But I do like animals and I would much prefer not to send any cat to kitty Auschwitz. This, seemed to be a winning plan.

I call Animal Control, feeling good about things. I do not reveal that someone is going to swoop in and take this cat. I just want it picked up. No prob. They'll be by tonight. And then I hear the words "Please confine the cat."

"Umm... I'm allergic to cats."

"Well, figure out a way to get it in your bathroom because our guys will not chase a cat."

Fantabulous.

I must have looked like a fine fool grabbing my work gloves from the garage, scooping up this cat, carrying it at arms length into my house and into the guest bathroom. I put a little dish of milk in there to be nice.

You would think - hope even - that this animal that was using my shrubs as a poor shelter to weather a couple inches of Friday and Saturday night rain would be grateful to be indoors with some minor form of sustenance. You, my friend, would be wrong.

Cat tried to make a bee-line for the living room. Umm... NO. Do not push the limits of my generosity, cat. I have gone far-and-away to make sure your little life goes on past Thursday. You can sit in bathroom. Thankyouverymuch.

Anyhow, I now sit and wait for Animal Control. Updates to come...

Friday, September 25, 2009

On Dunbar's Number

I read a fair amount of pop-econ and pop-psych. For instance, Malcolm Gladwell's excellent books, such The Tipping Point, and recently, Outliers. I recently read Chris Anderson's Free, breaking down the potential of companies (or bands) to make money by giving stuff away.

It's interesting to see some topics arise in several of these books and one I've seen in the above - and in some other articles lately - is Dunbar's Number.

In basic terms, Dunbar's Number is 150 - being the maximum size of a given person's true social network. The number was established through research... of course there is some dispute that 150 is the number, but, Dunbar did notice some interesting things. You can find plenty of examples through history of societies that broke apart into two groups when their total populations exceeded 150. Roman army units were made up of 150 soldiers.

The idea is that, once you exceed 150 people in a group, cohesiveness - or common mutual interest - begins to erode. (Warning: that is also an oversimplification).

Most of us, these days, have much larger social networks. I have, somehow, 346 friends on Facebook.

But in reality, do I correspond with all 346? No. It is much easier to keep up to speed on folks. I am happy to know how some people are doing that I don't often talk to. It saves long "catch up" chat that existed before the advent of online social networks. All that is grand.

But functional social groups, I have decided, cannot be so big. Think of a wedding party. Small weddings tend to result in one common experience. You ask my friends about my wedding, they probably tell the same story. Now think of a 350-person wedding. The room divides itself up, partially because, well, there are so many people you don't need to hang out with those other people. Your experience at the wedding is likely different from those of the folks on the other side of the ballroom.

None of this means you should have a certain kind of wedding. The point is, we have limits in our abilities to relate to one another. There is point where you stop caring about the needs of some others because your own self-interests can be supported by an entirely different group.

And once again... this isn't bad. Life would be tiresome if we were always forced to act strictly in the interests of a group. We're not stranded on a desert island. But it's valuable to think that due to the number of people we interact with, we tune out some and put extra emphasis on others. That doesn't lead to a complete view of anything.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Broken Up

Way back in the day, when I was in college, I took a media criticism class. You encounter some crazy stuff in media criticism. There are some folks who think every ad you see contains veiled sexual allusions. Another set of crazies think that all media is designed to protect the bourgeoisie from the workers of the world (Yes, there are Marxist media critics).

But one book we read in that class wasn't nuts. It was by Joseph Turow and titled Breaking Up America.

Bear in mind that, in 2000, there was no YouTube. Streaming video was something you watched on a clunky player called RealPlayer. There were no iPods. You still - GASP - had to use CDs, unless you were using Napster or the more covert Scour Media Agent to download one 128 kbps mp3 at a time which you only - ONLY - played through Winamp. There wasn't a Blogger yet. The Internet, as wonderful as it was, was barely showing its true power.

With that context in mind, understand how Breaking Up America worked. The premise was pretty simple: American media had reached a point where it was simply more profitable to narrow-target audiences and charge advertisers a premium to reach a smaller, but more focused audience.

What I mean is... say you are Tampax. You want to advertise tampons. In the old media world, before wide acceptance of cable/satellite TV, you bought ads during time slots you know women were watching, but you probably bought ads when a lot of people you didn't care about reaching (read: men) were watching. So, you might reach 2 million viewers... but if 40% of them are men, that's not a great value for your ad dollar.

Media proliferation changed that. Suddenly, there were TV networks only for women. This complemented magazines only for women. The audience for those media outlets might be smaller (no men watching/reading) but nearly 100% of consumers of those outlets fell into the target audience. This was a better ad buy. And for the media outlet, it was a great boon. They could jack ad rates to know they had the right audience.

But this led media outlets to realize that it wasn't just in their interests to attract the right audience. It was also advantageous for all of them to repel people who weren't the target audience.

Breaking Up America noted that if you looked at a magazine rack, or the commercials on a cable channel, you would likely either be drawn in or turned off by what you saw. Exactly how the channel wants it to be.

In a business sense, this is perfect. Advertisers will pay more to reach a concentrated audience of viewers/readers.

Now, this is important: with the exception of PBS, NPR and a very small selection of magazines (Consumer Reports for instance), every media outlet you use is dependent on ad dollars. That includes "news" channels. Keep that in mind.

Say what you will about Fox News Channel... they have successfully taken the "fragmentation" model of media success to new heights. They can say "Fair and Balanced" all they want, but be serious for a moment: Fair and Balanced in today's media market is bad business. From a business standpoint, it makes much more sense to be super conservative (or liberal) because you can repel all the viewers you don't want. And charge advertisers more.

I see Fox News every day. I'm not going to talk about what they say. I'm going to talk about the ads I see on there. The Weekly Standard sells subscriptions. Some company is selling "emergency radios" that will no doubt work when your area loses power in a terrorist attack. PACs run right-leaning ads seemingly every commercial break. You think left-wingers want to see all that? Hail no.

And, as a result, Fox is able to reap monetary benefits. CNN, MSNBC... they do the same thing to different degrees. MSNBC on the left, CNN trying (I'm being serious) to play the middle.

There is no incentive for any of these networks to do otherwise. As Mark Bowden points out in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, there is no longer a "disinterested" journalistic voice. And while Bowden doesn't say this, it's mainly because there's no money in disinterested, objective news reporting. After all, once someone tells you what happened, you don't need to tune in for anything else. Punditry, where on-air hosts lambaste new policy or people, is much better at retaining an audience.

Again, this is all good business. But, I am becoming more and more convinced that, at least in politics, it's not helping either side of any debate. It's selling pundit books. It's getting news nets ad money. It's letting bloggers "participate in democracy" by nets picking up blogger reports and reporting that as news.

But it isn't doing one important thing: building any manner of true consensus. We're fast approaching the point where the politically aware are more interested in winning than building policy on... anything. Find me a cable news channel that says "Well, this bill spends way too much money and might raise taxes and that is awful. But suchandsuch is a big problem and we need to find a real way to address this" or "This bill doesn't do enough to help people and we think it sucks, but the truth is progress comes in baby steps and the opposition has valid points."

I'll wait.

...

Oh, you couldn't find that? Not surprised.

With more and more technology enabling us to make individual decisions about the media we consume - from the shows we watch to the music we listen to - we run the risk of forgetting that other people's choices may be just as valid. We surround ourselves with messages and entertainment that reinforces our own beliefs rather than truly trying to empathize with someone different. I hate Nickelback, but you know... tons of people love them. Their (awful) music moves people. And I may not ever let them on my iPod but that doesn't mean Nickelback should be banished from the airwaves. And the same goes for political policy.

If we do not find a way to go beyond our individual media "comfort zones" we're doomed., locked inside individual worlds where every other person doesn't see eye-to-eye with you. I don't mean watch something you disagree with to bitch about it. I mean talk to your friends who disagree. Learn why they feel the way they do. read articles they want you to see. And then... consider them. And, if you really want to save the world, have real discussions about your views and figure out how you can live with each other each getting something, each giving something.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ad Season is Coming!

Like many of you, dear readers, I am excited for the start of the annual NFL season. Let's be honest, of all of America's professional games, this is the one people really wouldn't want to do without. It's compact 17 weeks of regular season play. The regularity of its schedule. It's easy to plan around and, almost always, filled with the kind of drama that you don't need ESPN to point out... the season is that good.

This means Kissing Suzy Kolber will kick into high gear, fantasy teams will be selected and then bitched about... but it also means (gulp) advertisements. With the economy in a rut, it's likely fewer ads will be made, meaning we're bound to see the same ones over and over again. Heaven. Help. Us. I yearn for the day when games go commercial-free, a la international soccer.

Until that fine day, I am stuck. Now, some ads, I can tolerate. Like Coors Light's ads where they take old coaches press conferences and splice in new questions. These are good only because watching coaches act like buffoons doesn't get old:



Now, while I can enjoy those, the issue is that we will be subjected to terrible ads over and over again. Who's ready for Howie Long telling you that your pansy Toyota truck is no match for his Chevy?

But the all time worst... STILL thanks to Chevy:



WHOSE country is it? Can you tell? I am pleased to see that this ad campaign is so reviled that there are more parodies than legit versions on YouTube. Amen for small miracles.

Anyhow, this is the price we pay for the NFL... i must really like the game to endure it all, huh?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Enough is Enough

I generally try to keep calm about the rancor of political debates. I've grown accustomed to pundit blather that fuels ratings-focus "news" channels. But this week, we have hit a level of ridiculousness that I didn't quite think possible. And I'm done. I'm letting it all out.

The town hall meetings that are all the buzz right now are an atrocity. While I certainly think that our congresspeople have stopped doing anything to try and build a consensus among their constituents (which they should then take back to Washington), the people disrupting these meetings have pushed us into a theater of the absurd.

The thing is, see, the Constitution that many of these folks say they are defending was not just the product of someone sitting down and drafting it. In fact, the Constitution was the product of an extremely partisan battle among several groups. The only reason we have a Constitution is because this group found several compromises - each giving something for the benefit of the greater whole.

From what I can tell, compromise is gone. Even though the two different bills on healthcare being debated by respective congressional houses can still be edited and more, many people are saying no flat out. It's almost like you drive home one day in a car that has three tires underinflated, a cracked windshield and a dented passenger door. You contend you want a new car and the opposition simply yells "NO! THE CAR WE HAVE IS FINE! IT GOES WHERE WE NEED IT!"

Perhaps, you don't need a new car, but taking no action isn't going to benefit anyone. Yet, the disrupters say you don't need a new car. Period.

But let's say a wave of rational thought dumps over these folks... they still are either willfully ignorant and victims of misinformation. So... let's address the questions:

Healthcare reform could lead us down the road to socialism!

Lordy. This is like saying no one should get married because it could lead to divorce. And, again, we could spend some productive time together drafting legislation with checks and balances that heads off many of the concerns these folks have.

But we have the best healthcare system in the world!

Do we? Let's ask my brother-in-law who was born with a cleft palette and has needed several surgeries to repair his face and mouth. When he had his last, which was to realign his jaw and properly construct his upper lip and nose, the insurance company said, essentially, "no, his face is good enough." More than a few hours were used to change that view. Or, let's ask my sister-in-law who works full-time, but has to buy her own insurance because her employer doesn't provide it. Despite this, and working more hours than most, she has to pay $50 for a prescription I can get for $7. And she makes less money then me. And is younger so she is default healthier. Or let's ask my friend in Ohio who went to her primary care physician today, someone she's been to before, and still had to sit in a waiting room for an hour and fill our pages of paperwork she had filled out on previous visits.

We are the country that put a man on the moon. That won World War II. That invented powered flight. This healthcare system is as good as we can do?

Well, if we pass this bill, isn't the government going to take away my insurance?

Umm, no. Government insurance would be an available option, competing with private insurance firms.

Oh right. Like private firms will be able to compete with the government!

Well, FedEx and UPS seem to be doing just fine after years of competition with the government-run United States Postal Service. They're doing so well that the Postal Service has to buy advertising on TV to compete, in fact.

Well, that's one example. Find me another.

OK, how about three for starters:
  • Government loans for students and home buyers don't seem to have put the banks' loan divisions out of business. In fact, it's the government-run Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that needed bailouts before the banks.
  • Amtrak, which receives federal funding, hasn't managed to put state-run transit lines out of business in areas like the Northeast. In fact, NJ Transit, SEPTA, the T and similar systems seem to be extremely crowded despite a government-run competitor.
  • Even thought our government runs a military (which also has a government-run healthcare plan!), it hasn't impeded private military contractors from raking in profits.
Well, won't the government force me to use some doctor they want me to use?

They might, especially since my private insurance company already does. Or is that big book of doctors I'm allowed to go to I got when I signed up produced for gaiety? If that's not forcing my hand, I don't know what is.

Well, then they'll ration healthcare! Telling me what procedures I'm allowed to have.

Again, just like my private health insurance provider. Anyone who ever got a letter saying that something wasn't covered because his primary care physician didn't refer him is hearing me loud and clear. Medical decisions have long been out of the doctors' hands.

Well, they'll probably start funding abortions with my tax dollars!

Umm, no. Not only is that not something that will be allowed or encouraged, but let's be honest. I don't know of any provider that covers this. I know a handful of people who had an abortion. They paid cash.

What about these "death panels?" They're going to kill off our senior citizens.

No, they won't. That is a scare tactic. One of the bills being debated covers recurring end-of-life planning meaning the creation of a living will. Normally, these are done with lawyers. No reason a doctor cannot offer counsel here. And why do you need one? Remember Terry Schiavo and that whole mess? If she had a living will, it wouldn't have been an issue. She would have stated her preferences and either be dead or still laying there today.

And the truth with all of this folks... if you don't sign up for the government plan, none of this really affects you. And if you don't like the bill, it's better to talk about your concerns in a rational way.

We are a country divided in thirds... democrats, republicans and indys. All of these groups need to find ways to compromise. And not just on healthcare. But the idea that everything is black and white isn't going to allow America to function in this century. If we cannot find solutions we can all walk away from content, we're doomed.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Like that friend we all have...

You know that friend that was there for you a lot in the past? You had a lot of great times, maybe had a moment or two... but then, one day, that friend changed. At first, you figured it was just a phase. Underneath it all, the friend was still the same. But outrageous happening after outrageous happening, you start to find you can't hang out with this friend as much anymore. You still defend him.her, but even you have to shake your head. And more than anything, you keep hoping that friend will go back to being the way it used to be.

That is how I feel about Our Lady Peace.

Let us go back to 1994. Remember 1994? I loved me all my grunge music, but this - this - was something unique.



Starseed - Our Lady Peace


Had all the heavy stuff I liked, but had a nice unique sound to it. And they were Canadian, which meant they weren't getting heavy U.S. airplay. But they were getting HUGE in Canada. If you were an American fan of OLP, it was like being clued in to some great secret.

In 1998 or so, I saw them open for Third Eye Blind in Philly. There was maybe 200 people there for the OLP set. It was incredible. This band that regularly played to 15,000 up north was our own little house band for 50 minutes.

Lead singer Raine Maida's falsetto was, granted, not for everyone. But songs like this were like nothing else on the radio when I was in college:



Potato Girl - Our Lady Peace


In 2000, they releases Spiritual Machines, a tremendous fourth album that knocked my socks off. When their drummer fell ill, Pearl Jam's Matt Cameron filled in. It was bliss.

Then, apparently wishing for USA success, they ditched everything and went to Hawaii to record with Bob Rock of Metallica fame. The first sign this was going badly was when their founding guitarist left the band. The next sign this was going badly was Gravity, the resulting album. It was, needless to say, deritivie from the start:



All For You - Our Lady Peace


Still there were a handful of moments on the album where you could still hear the band that I had loved for many years. I hoped it was a one-album dalliance. But no.

Then came Healthy in Paranoid Times. In fairness, the first two songs on there got my hopes up, especially the album opener. But from there... it was all "we're Our Lady Peace. And we're a big-time rock band."

What the world didn't need was another sloggy, "dark" rock band in the vein of - dare I say - fellow Canadians Nickelback. And to my great horror, one night, there was David Cook on American Idol, singing "Innocent" by Our Lady Peace. Kill. Me.

Last month, Our Lady Peace put out its latest Burn Burn. Some in the press are heralding it as a return to form. Apparently, they didn't listen to the album. Or, if they did, only to the very end. In the last song, "Paper Moon," we get a brief throwback to Raine's falsetto tricks that made this band sound like, well, Our Lady Peace.

Sure, there are some standard rock anthems on this new disc. But there's nothing there that comes close to the excitement of the past.

And like that old good friend, I wait for things to go back to the old way...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hiking Harper Creek Trail & South Harper Creek Falls

I don't normally blog about hiking. It's something I love to do. Something that challenges me. But writing about most hikes... I mean who wants to read "I climbed for a while and then got to this incredible view."

No, that's why I take and post pictures of hikes. The woods can look the same to many people, but the things trails lead to are the things people can get excited about.

That said, I had a hike today that warrants writing about.

The Wilson Creek Area of North Carolina sits in the Pisgah National Forest. Getting there means driving on gravel National Forest Roads. And it is stunning. I had hiked this area before to Lost Cove Cliffs and North Harper Creek Falls. It is a rugged wilderness area. Any trail guide warns you that it is a remote area and must be treated as such. Where I went today was on another side of the area, just south of Mortimer, NC.

The Forest Service (or someone) has posted a sign as you enter this area from the south noting that in the area you are entering, emergency services are going to have a hard, if not impossible time getting to you. That's the kind of place this is. You want to see the crazy stuff, you have to take the chance.

Before I set out, I made sure I had my Wilson Creek Area map. This is not an area that you want to get lost in. Also in my pack, I take matches, a knife and usual-type hiking "just in case" items. Some other supplies I have with me when I hike:

  • A bandanna - Not to wear. Bandannas are rather versatile pieces of fabric.
  • Emergency water packets - Given to me when I worked in a skyscraper in NYC and after all New Yorkers had to walk home twice in two years. For what it's worth, those air-tight packets had an expiry date of 9/09 on them.
  • First Aid kit - self explanatory
Now, before I left on this hike, I checked a variety of Web sites for information on the hike. The one I used the most was this one. This morning, as I packed my bag, I re-read that trail guide and decided to take a towel and an extra pair of socks. I will admit that the towel was mainly packed in the event I wanted to use the swimming hole toward the end of the hike. The socks... I just kinda had a feeling.

Finally, I need to note, I am a pretty good hiker. I make good decisions. I follow proper trail etiquette. I have handled some rather difficult hikes. That includes the 3,600' ascent up Mt. Mitchell.

Today, dear readers, was the most difficult hike I've ever done. Pardon the pun, but walk with me here. We start at 10:30 a.m.

The hike begins easily enough, along a well-blazed trail. It is well-blazed because there the above-mentioned swimming hole is very popular with folks. Then, came a junction where the swimming hole people turn right and walk uphill half a mile. To the left, is where the people who came to hike go, the Raider Camp Trail. And the moment you do, you come to the first crossing of Harper Creek.

Harper Creek is not a trickle. And there are no bridges on this hike. At this point, the first crossing, I have been hiking for about 30 minutes. The trail guide notes this is the place where you need to decide about moving forward. If you cannot get across the creek, turn around.

I could get across. Rock-hopping. I figured the upstream crossings I have to handle later on to complete the "loop" of my hike cannot be any worse...

The Raider Camp Trail was my hikes primary climb. About 1,200' in just over 2 miles. That is a climb, but not unmanageable. The problem I was having... I had already gone through a troubling amount of water. I was halfway done with one of my liter bottles.

I carry iodine tablets to purify water if I need to restock en route. Trouble is, that method is mainly best for springs. Stream water carries sediment, which I cannot filter.

Still, the Raider Camp Trail is well-blazed. I took it the entire way to South Harper Creek Falls. A 200' cascade, this waterfall is impressive. And you look the other way and there's Grandfather Mountain looming. It's NC at its best. Even the guided group of 10 hikers taking up my solitude couldn't ruin the moment.

The trail guide warns that the easy part of the hike is now over. I still have 4-5 miles to hike back, this time along Harper Creek, to get back to my car.

Folks, this is why you carry a map when you hike. Otherwise, I would be wandering around the Pisgah National Forest right now. Without the map, there would have been no way to know that I was to then take a different trail - feeling like I was backtracking - to go around the top of the waterfall to get to the Harper Creek Trail and begin walking back.

It's funny, though, you start to feel like Magellan or something... you say "hmm, this looks like the way to go" but it's not until you see the correct blaze that you know you were right. It's rather validating.

Now, I know I'm about to cross the creek 11 more times. Why the Forest Service didn't have the trail simply hug one side of the creek the whole way I don't know. I assume they are using our tax dollars to screw with us. Hippie hikers like me vote Democrat and I'm sure this trail design was a revenge tactic on Dems.

Trouble #1: Water is officially an issue at this point. This is not a comfortable feeling, especially when your options are 1) to turn around and climb up a big ravine that will require you to drink water or 2) hike a longer way and conserve your resources.

Fortunately, the only direction I am heading is down if I stay on the creek, so I press on. And in the process of climbing over a fallen tree and some odd roots, I slam the top of my boot into something and crush my left index toe. It's an odd feeling to know that you aren't going to want to look at your tow later on. And then...

Trouble #2: Is this the trail? Chances are, you are a normal person. And that means you hike only every so often and usually in your friendly neighborhood state park. The Wilson Creek Area is not a state park. And this trail, the Harper Creek Trail is not only blazed badly, but very badly. Adding to the fun is that parts of it are ridiculously overgrown. You come to realize that if a plant is not sprouting from the ground directly below you, you are on the trail. Doesn't matter if you cannot see the trail. If it's clear at your feet, you're on the trail. This is occasionally verified by a blaze. You can at least take solace in that you brought a map. And looking at the map tells you that, as long as you are beside Harper Creek, you can only be so lost.

You can be more wet, however. As if bushwhacking through rhododendron and other flora wasn't enough of a physical challenge, the creek crossings provided an extra element of challenge. You're on the trail. There's a blaze right there. Problem: all that is in front of you for 30 feet is water. You can see the trail way over on the other bank. The Forest Service was kind enough to put a blaze over there. That's well and good, but right now it is taunting me. "I'm over here and you're over there! Haha!"

Now, most of the creek crossings were rock-hoppable. Some required some improvisation. My apologies to the Forest Service, but yes, I left the trail once or twice so that I didn't end up in the drink.

You find out on a hike like this just how waterproof your boots are. Mine, from previous experience, are known to be pretty waterproof, actually. I can stand in water up to my ankles and stay dry. But if water overtops that level... water will flow down my sock into the boot.

On two crossings, I cannot believe I did this because it's probably less safe, I removed boots and socks and went barefoot. And I got a look at that toe. Yeah, it's not pretty. Unless you find under-nail bruises pretty.

And on one crossing, I didn't think I needed to shed my footwear. This was a mistake. My foot slipped on a rock and, in the process of bracing myself to not fall down, my other foot slammed into a rock. At least, with matching bruises on each foot, it looks like it's supposed to be that way.

Oh and... yeah, boot, sock and foot are now wet.

Point being, the towel and extra pair of socks got their use. As did my emergency water packets. And, unfortunately, the bandanna did, too.

See, on a descending rock hop (over ground), my footing went an unexpected way. This happens. When I reached down to brace myself, my wrist scraped the ground - and a root - ripping one end of the stainless steel band clean off my watch and giving me some dandy wrist scratches. Sweaty summer hiking doesn't go well with band-aids. The first aid kit would have to wait. And I couldn't use the precious water I still had to rinse the wound. Only option: bind tightly with the bandanna. This worked. Surprisingly well, actually.

I finally came to the swimming hole. The original plan was to go take 30 minutes and relax. Now, I cannot begin to tell you how unattractive an idea that was. I carried on. And in the process robbed myself of a great photo opp. The swimming hole is a SIGHT, but the idea of climbing down and back up... not happening.

At 4:30 p.m. I emerged at my car. Which is... pretty much exactly the time this hike should take (without a swimming hole stop). I would like to thank the group of wonderful people from Monroe, NC who provided me with a water bottle at that point. I should note that came to be because I made a comment about a Penn State shirt one of them was wearing. Say what you want about sports fandom... you meet a fan of one of your teams, they'll do stuff for you.

Anyhow, I smelled like a homeless person, was covered with little pieces of stream, trail and loveliness. And, remember that "trail overgrown" part? Let's not act too surprised that I found a big ol' tick on my leg when I got home to shower. Better the big ones that the little Dear Ticks, though... all about avoiding Lyme Disease.

When all was said and done, it was a rewarding 8.5 miles. I got to see sights that only a handful of people get to see; most people would be daunted by this kind of hike. I challenged myself like I never had... I can honestly say I pushed myself about as far as I care to push.

But it did come at a price. My body will heal (though I shudder to think how my legs will feel getting out of bed tomorrow). My watch can be fixed. But, I was absolutely ready to not be hiking be the end of the day today. And that's not something I say too often.

So next month... going with something much easier.