This blog is still alive, just in semi-hibernation.
When I want to write something longer than a tweet about something other than math or sci-fi, here is where I'll write it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interrupting Liberal Victory week to celebrate my dirty old manhood.


More on the victories won by the liberal agenda over the past fifty years tomorrow. Let's instead focus on women with attractive faces and amazingly large breasts.

I knew that would get your attention.

The Huffington Post is absolutely obsessed with Christina Hendricks, the very busty redheaded actress who plays the office manager Joan Holloway Harris on the AMC show Mad Men, but they are not the only website happy to talk about her. Popeater.com ran a poll asking women of they would rather look like Ms. Hendricks or famously thin model Kate Moss, and also asked men who they would rather ogle. While the results are completely non-scientific, women preferred the voluptuary over the mannequin by a ratio of 3 to 1, while men would rather look at Christina instead of Kate by a margin of 5 to 1.

The obvious problem with this poll is the false dichotomy. Ms. Hendricks is naturally busty and weighs a lot more than the average actress today, but she is reality. Kate Moss is also reality, a very thin girl who has nearly no breasts. The choice presented today is between reality and fantasy. The other choice is some woman liposucked to within an inch of her life while she carries five pounds of plastic gel packs on her chest. The silly standard today is the unreality of Playboy models and Carrie Prejean, and I only hope the backlash against them continues.

As for Christina vs. Kate, I find myself in the vast majority. Besides her astounding body, Ms. Hendricks has the face of an angel and a voice that can turn a grown man's knees into melted butter.

I mean this only in the nicest possible way.


It was nearly three years ago I wrote a blog post about Joy Harmon, a 1960s starlet who is the main attraction in Village of the Giants, a movie of deep significance to My People in furtherance of Our Agenda. Ms. Harmon had a facial structure like Julie Christie's, with big beautiful wide set blue eyes and a luscious mouth, but Joy was also one of those big busted blondes in the style of Mamie Van Doren and June Wilkinson. In the dance scene from Village of the Giants, the camera spends a lot of time with her breasts and torso in the middle of the frame, and I have never heard one negative comment from a fan of giant women about the extra pounds she was carrying by today's standards.

I'm glad to see people openly praise Christina Hendricks for standing against the trend of crazy thinness in the entertainment industry today, but she shouldn't be turned into the new standard that must be met. Not one in a hundred women are going to be built like Christina or Joy in their respective primes, and women who aren't so naturally endowed but want to be end up looking like strippers or more specifically, like Pamela Anderson and Heidi Montag. If something positive can happen from this swing back on the pendulum, someone somewhere will remember that our mammalian brains equate a healthy softness in young women with fertility, which is kind of the whole evolutionary point, if memory serves.

Liberal victory week continues:
Reproductive rights


In 1879, the state of Connecticut passed a law banning the sale of any drug or device used for the purpose of preventing conception. It was on the books for decades and nearly never enforced until the 1960s when The Pill was invented. Doctors tried suing on behalf of their patients, but the courts said the doctors lacked standing to sue. In a 1961 case Poe v. Ullman, the court decided not to hear the case, but Justice Harlan dissented. The most famous quote from his dissent is as follows.

"...the full scope of the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause cannot be found in or limited by the precise terms of the specific guarantees elsewhere provided in the Constitution. This 'liberty' is not a series of isolated points pricked out in terms of the taking of property; the freedom of speech, press, and religion; the right to keep and bear arms; the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; and so on. It is a rational continuum which, broadly speaking, includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints."

A few years later, Estelle Griswold of Connecticut Planned Parenthood and Dr. C. Lee Buxton of Yale opened a clinic in New Haven to test the law once again. They were arrested, tried and found guilty and fined $100 each. Clearly, they now had standing and the case went to the Supreme Court, who struck down the statute. In the 7-2 ruling, even those who dissented called the Connecticut law "uncommonly silly". Griswold established the right of married couples to buy contraceptives in Connecticut. A 1972 ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird gave the same rights to unmarried couples, using 14th Amendment rights of equal protection under the law.

Conservative scholars hate Griswold, and point to it as judicial activism. When you listen to our new army of "strict constitutional constructionalists" who listen to Glenn Beck and other ignorant pinheads, it's clear they think the government isn't allowed to do much of anything, using convoluted logic that makes the establishment of the right to privacy look pristine and direct in comparison.

We see in the Park 51 controversy the true colors of these sons and daughters of liberty. They accept the rights of others, but they want those rights to be trumped if any uninvolved party takes offense to the exercise of those rights. They want a weak and toothless government until such time as they want to use government to abrogate the rights of people to whom conservatives object. They claim to love liberty, but they keep courting bigotry and intolerance, hoarding liberty for themselves and denying it to people who aren't "real Americans".

They won't go away easily; they may never go away completely. But it's obvious who believes in the rights of all citizens and who believes those rights only belong to people the easily aroused mob finds unobjectionable.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Liberal victory week continues:
The dismantling of the obscenity laws

We often hear the critics of the current administration talking about "taking our country back", which implies that the people running it today don't deserve it, despite winning in a landslide. There is also an implication that the country does NOT belong to the winners of the election, that the REAL America got gypped in 2008 just because their guy got about 10 million less votes than That Guy and missed getting an electoral majority by 97 electors.

A fair question to be asked when they want to take "their country back" is, exactly how far back? There is a nostalgia for the good old days felt by a lot of people who weren't there during the good old days or who have very bad memories.

Let me be honest and say I'm old enough to have been there. Let me be immodest and say my memory is much better than most.

Many people decry the crudeness of our society, and I would not argue that point. My point is that we have gained in freedom and made a more just society, but that did not come without a cost. I am glad to live in a country where you can't be arrested for buying or selling a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic of Cancer. When I was a boy, there were places where that was against the law.


Censorship against the written word had been going on for a very long time, but when I was a kid the battle went from print to performance. While some of the Beat Poets were harassed by the law, one of the first performers known to the general public as a threat to the public morals for having a dirty mouth was Lenny Bruce. He had been a comic for quite a while, working in burlesque houses and nightclubs. There are old recordings of his act on TV, and his stuff was both clean and stale, the usual uninspired collection of mother-in-law jokes. But his nightclub act began to extend into what we now call observational humor, with lots of observations about sex where using dirty words was close to mandatory. Swearing in a nightclub act wasn't completely unheard of, but most "blue" comics told dirty jokes with a minimum of actual obscenities. Bruce crossed that line, and did so frequently. All around the country, police departments and district attorneys decided that he had to be arrested if he said those things in a nightclub, as though he had a bullhorn and was swearing in front of a schoolhouse or church. He was first arrested in 1961 in San Francisco, the first of many arrests around the country. He would not compromise on his act, hoping to be the vanguard, but he did not have the strength for it. He was tried for obscenity and lost in 1964. He died in 1966, ruined by drugs and a well-founded feeling of persecution.



If I may use a religious comparison sure to offend, Bruce was John the Baptist, paving the way for the one who would come. That young man actually was in the audience one night when Bruce was arrested. He told the police he did not believe in government-issued IDs, a position that should endear him to many Tea Party stalwarts. He was arrested and taken to jail with Bruce in the same vehicle. His name was George Carlin.

Carlin was actually still a clean-cut kid whose act was perfectly acceptable to Ed Sullivan when Bruce was still alive, but within a few years he took a left turn, started dressing like a hippie and letting his beard and hair grow. It was six years after Bruce died that Carlin was arrested yet again, this time for performing live in Milwaukee one of his most famous routines, The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television. Here is the famous preamble to that clarion call to freedom.

"There are seven words you can't say on television: Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker and Tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war."

Between 1964 and 1972, America underwent massive changes. In the earlier trial in New York, a three judge panel threw the book at Lenny Bruce and sentenced him to jail time in a workhouse. He was still free on bail with the conviction being appealed when he died. In 1972 in Milwaukee, the judge at the Carlin case decided his work was indecent but Carlin had the right to say it as long as he caused no public disturbance.

Carlin's comedy album also changed the airwaves. A father was listening with his son to Pacifica radio's WBAI in New York when the Seven Words skit was broadcast over the air. The man sued and the case went to the Supreme Court. The 5-4 decision was that routine was "indecent but not obscene" and the F.C.C. had the right to ban it at hours when children would be likely to listen. This meant that late night radio could be much more free.

It is true that the world has become more crass because of this, but free speech is meaningless if no one takes offense. If entertainment offends you, don't watch or don't listen. For me, American False Idol is a disgusting obscenity even if no one says anything more coarse than "Gosh!" On the other hand, I like it when Peggy Olson on Mad Men says "chickenshit" and means it.



Some localities still try to block stuff, but the Internet is hard to control. The greatest song of the Summer of 2010 is currently available only on The You Tubes, Cee Lo Green's infectiously catchy and upbeat new tune called Fuck You!

This is because liberals stood up for free speech when conservatives tried as hard as they could to deny it. When these self-professed rodeo clowns say they love the constitution, it's a still a pretty good bet that they don't.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Liberal victory week begins:
Ending the draft

I saw a Gallup poll taken in 2009 that states only about 20% of Americans now self-identify as liberal, with 40% self-identified as conservative and 35% as moderate. I'm guessing the last 5% consider themselves Sandinista like my good buddy Padre Mickey. Party affiliations are much closer, with Democrats often in the lead as they were in 2008 when Obama crushed McCain. Party affiliation and position on the political spectrum aside, let it always be remembered that John McCain ran one of the worst campaigns for president in the last fifty years, showing less competence than George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis or Bob Dole, other candidates to took serious electoral ass-whuppings.

Now, the conservative movement thinks of themselves as the standard bearers of "liberty" and "freedom", which in their mind means paying lower taxes. I'm old enough to remember when freedom was the cause of liberals, and freedom meant "not getting your ass thrown in jail for no good cause". Many of the battles for freedom started in my lifetime, and time after time, people who self-identified as conservatives were against freedom and they got their asses kicked like the miserable cowardly dogs that they are.

A lot of young people didn't live through it, but I did. I had some personal stake in some of the changes that took place and nearly none in others, but that doesn't change the facts. Life in these United States is better for all our citizens because of the courage of liberal heroes who stood up against conservative villains.


I start this week of history lessons with one of the most remarkable and hard to predict victories of all, the end of the military draft. The United States has had a draft since the Civil War and there have always been people who complained. It was a real issue during World War I, when there were a lot of people in the country who were against foreign entanglements and didn't see the sinking of the Lusitania as provocation enough to enter a horrible slaughter thousands of miles away. The anti-draft movement of World War II and Korea were much less pronounced, but during Vietnam, it was a real political issue that divided the country along left-right lines.


One of the most vivid signs of that split was how people felt about Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion who converted to the Black Muslims and claimed his religion allowed him to be a conscientious objector. Ali was deeply hated by a large segment of the population, so much so that Joe Frazier, a man who had to struggle against a racist system as well, was cast as an Uncle Tom because so many white scumbags pinned their hopes on him to beat Ali, since anyone with half a brain knew that there wasn't a white heavyweight who had a chance in hell of beating the mouthy and supremely talented boxer and showman.

Men who stood against the draft were seen as cowards, but they faced jail or exile for their beliefs, and quite simply, their argument that the draft was an infringement on their freedom was undeniable. The government could force them into a low paying and exceedingly hazardous job or throw them in jail. In the sixties, there didn't seem to be an alternative to the draft, but as about a half century has now gone by, we can say the draft protesters of the 1960s helped make life better for the generations that followed them, aided by two unlikely allies, the military itself and Richard Nixon.

The military has never liked the draft. Men forced into uniform don't make particularly good soldiers, and in Vietnam, they became a serious threat to the military structure with the not common but still troubling act of fragging. Fragging was slang for enlisted men seriously wounding or killing officers they disliked, named for the fragmentation grenade often used. The military brass knew the problem was draftees and cracking down on discipline would likely make matters worse. Nixon, for as much as he was reviled by liberals then (and now), was a very keen politician who understood that victories did not have to be the crushing of your opponents, but instead might work if you took a major issue away from your opponents. During his administration, the first steps were taken that turned the draft into a lottery which has since been effectively discontinued. The military lobbied hard to increase our military budget so steeply that we could field a smaller and exceedingly well equipped volunteer army to fight any war short of World War III without a draft, even when fighting two long wars today, started when conservative pinheads and military shirkers George W. Bush and Dick Cheney began two conflicts they had no idea how to end.

The end of the draft had a direct impact on my life. My dad was drafted and fought in Korea. He hated it deeply and instructed my brother in ways to make sure the Army rejected him when his time came. Even the lottery was discontinued when my time came and I could stay in school without worrying about it.

The people who fought hardest for this issue were liberals. Those who opposed change were, as usual, conservatives. We won and they lost. This is a steady, consistent pattern of the last half century and there are battles still to be fought or yet to be finished.

More tomorrow.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Anyone get a mars hoax e-mail?


I used to be an e-mail forwarder, but well... the nineties are over, right? I was wandering around the Internets today and I stumbled on this e-mail story that none of my friends who still forward e-mails sent to me. This is a good thing because I would have a hard time staying polite at something with this level of Rock F*#king Stupidity.

There is an e-mail that says Mars will look as large as the Moon some time in August. Tell your friends, tell your children and grandchildren, tattoo the dog, burn an offering and give it to the gods, big big party and you are all invited.

Of course it isn't true, not even close. The math is easy. The radius of Mars is about twice the radius of the Moon, which means if they were the same distance away from the earth, Mars would look to be four times the surface area because the area is proportional to the square of the radius. If Mars was twice as far away, then the two would look to be the same size.

Mars isn't twice as far away as the moon, it's much, much farther away even at its closest. The Moon is about a quarter million miles away. At its closest, Mars is about 60 million miles away. So even when Mars is really close, the Moon is more than 200 times closer.

If someone sends this to you, you have my permission to call bullshit on it. This e-mail has been sent every August for the past six or seven years and scientists are trying to get the word out. It's not working very well. We have these small weak levees of education trying to hold back an angry and rising sea of stupidity.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Random 10, 8/27/10


007 (Shanty Town) Desmond Dekker
Days Elvis Costello
Exodus Bob Marley and the Wailers
Semaphore Signals Wreckless Eric
It Hurts Me Too Eric Clapton
Pressure Drop Toots and the Maytals
Se Tu M'ami (Parisotti) Cecilia Bartoli
Christmas Must Be Tonight The Band
Biology Joe Jackson
Spiderwebs No Doubt

I have my doubts that the random selection process in the iTunes on my Mac would actually pass muster if checked for randomness. I might have a total of twenty reggae tunes on my computer out of 1,200 songs and three of them show up this morning.

Not complaining, just sayin'.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hey, Abe! Buddy! You gotta little sumthin'...
ya know, sumthin' froggy on your face there.


No, not there... over a little to the right. Okay, yeah, now you got it.

Pointy headed scientists are congratulating themselves on the discovery of what they assume to be the smallest species of amphibian outside of the Americas. They have given the new species the name Microhyla nepenthicola, which is Latin for "really tiny frog we overlooked a few times". The creatures had been found before, but earlier biologists made the assumption that these were juveniles, li'l baby froglets that would grow into normal sized critters over time. Turns out this is normal sized for them.

Da itty bitty froggies! Dey so CUUUUUUUTE!


The real reason for the species name for da itty bitty froggies is that they were found living in the puddle of water inside a pitcher plant named Nepenthes ampullaria, a type of carnivorous plant found in Borneo, sweet Borneo*! Other critters fall into these puddles and get trapped and die, and the pitcher plant then lives on the nutrients from the rotting remains. The little froggies are so small that the inside of the pitcher plant is not some claustrophobic death trap, but instead a lovely luxury resort.

Isn't nature wonderful, and by wonderful, I mean goofy? Go figure.

*My sister Karlacita! will know where that is taken from.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Say hello to my little friend.


We've had a very cold August in the Bay Area, lots of overcast days where the sun wasn't visible until noon, if then. That means very little in my apartment, which gets the afternoon sun and faces an enclosed terrace that shuts out any cooling breeze. I finally decided to get a portable air conditioner for the place late last month after suffering through two summers here, though I should say that usually the major suffering only lasts for a handful of days each year.

Yesterday, the cool wave ended. It was 98 degrees in San Francisco and over 100 in Oakland. My sauna like apartment would have been completely intolerable except for the new air conditioning unit, and even it only could keep a very small area cool. On the days when I've used it this month, it could usually cool down my entire living room when used for about an hour before the sun went down. Yesterday, it was on by the mid afternoon and stayed on even after I went to sleep, and could only keep a very small region cool. Getting up from my chair to go to the kitchen or the bathroom, I could feel the heat all over the apartment and it stayed hot until well after midnight. I woke up at 3:30 this morning and finally the rest of the apartment was tolerable.

Today, the forecast says it will be in the mid eighties, which is hot for Oakland but not record breaking like yesterday. The thing is, the forecast for yesterday said it would be in the mid-eighties as well, so we'll see what actually happens. Tomorrow it's supposed to be back to a high in the low seventies, which as a native son is the kind of summer day I really like, though some will complain it is too cool in the morning. I do a lot better in cool temperatures than I do in hot, and I always have. My new little investment, which to my nerdy eyes looks like a robot from Star Wars, meant I actually had a chance to get some sleep last night, so it's already paying off big time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The offending image


I'm on Facebook. I don't like the website much, but I like keeping up with friends. If it were a real place, it would be like some crap mall food court that was the only place everyone could agree to hang out.

The people supporting Proposition 19, the California initiative that would de-criminalize marijuana and let cities decide if they wanted to allow stores to sell it legally and be taxed, had an ad on Facebook and it was getting all those things you want for an ad on a website, like click throughs and "like" votes and fans. But Facebook has decided that a picture of a marijuana leaf is a forbidden image and the ads have been pulled down. You can read more at this link on the Huffington Post.

I am in favor of the initiative and will do what I can to support it. Besides putting this picture on my humble blog, I will post it to Facebook and ask all my friends who have an interest in passing Prop. 19 to do the same.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Monday, August 23, 2010

You people.


Regular readers of the blog know I love the show Mad Men. It does a great job of invoking the early and mid 1960s. I was just a fresh faced lad when these shows are supposed to take place, but I know they get a lot of the details right. Instead of giving a full summary and critique of this week's episode, let me give a plot point that is a tiny spoiler, no more than you might get reading a preview. The new firm has a chance to work with Honda motorcycles. Roger Sterling, a WW II veteran from the Pacific theater, hates the Japanese and does everything he can scuttle the possible new relationship.

The show captures the open racism of the time. This is when the n-word was said openly by unrepentant white racists, many of them Southerners. I remember the "genteel" Southerners on TV using the word "nigras", halfway between the then acceptable term Negros and the word they really wanted to use. It had gotten through to them that the n-word didn't play well on the national stage.

There was no such gentility about anti-Asian racism as the time. We've never turned any of the different slurs into "the j-word" or "the g-word" or "the c-word", and I don't hear people say those words anymore. Maybe I just run with a nicer crowd now than I did then, but there is a lot more sensitivity in the general public and definitely in the media than there was back then.


Except when it comes to Muslims. You can say any kind of slander against anyone in the Islamic community in public or on TV and the the press broadcasts it live for all the world to see. All Muslims might as well have Osama bin Laden on their speed dial according to a disgustingly large segment of the American public. There are videos of a protest against the Islamic community center at Park51, which you may know by the name given to it by idiots. A black guy in a skullcap wandered through, the crowd got ugly and the cops escorted him out before things turned violent.

The thing is, the guy isn't a Muslim. It's hard to make out the thing hanging off his necklace in this picture, but it's a representation of the Puerto Rican flag. The white skullcap was made by the athletic clothing company Under Armor. Still, a crowd of idiots could mistake him for a Muslim and focus all their hatred on him and go home thinking they are the people defending the American way.

I started with the picture of Roger Sterling from Mad Men for a reason other than he looks good in that suit and haircut. His character feels 100% justified to hate the Japanese, but the people around him are asking him to get over it because the war is over. In the minds of many Americans, we are still at war with the entire Muslim world. Let me give George W. Bush some credit, because he tried to stop that kind of talk, even though his attempts at diplomacy were often clumsy. I haven't seen a lot of Bush era people at the forefront of this racist nonsense. The people doing most of the rabble rousing are the clever but nasty Newt Gingrich and the stone stupid Sarah Palin, amplified by Fox News and then carried like a virus by all the rest of the media reacting to them like Pavlov's dog.

Freedom of religion and freedom of speech can be hurtful things, but this is exactly why the founders decided to make them rights instead of privileges that might be put to a vote. I'm a die-hard agnostic, and it would be wrong headed of me to expect all Christians to answer for Fred Phelps or the KKK or sectarian violence in Ireland or the Spanish Inquisition, just as wrong headed as Christians stopping the building of a community center in lower Manhattan or mosques all around the country because "you people caused 9/11".

Things have changed a lot since I was a kid, but the central evil of human nature is unlikely to ever go away. The targets may change over time, but the desire to punish "you people" is deep in our genetic make-up.

We don't deserve to survive as a species. Here endeth the lesson.

Yet again, hating on the Mac.


Yesterday, the Yahoo! fantasy football league run by my nephew Adam had its draft, and that was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours. The Mutant Mercenaries drafted first, so I have last year's best running back Chris Johnson on my team, and I am also happy with several other picks. What I am not happy with is how the software that ran the draft worked on my Mac.

I used my usual browser Firefox, and of course it let me choose players and sort through the data in several ways, but there was a chat window that had no accompanying text box, so I could could read the stuff other people were writing, but could not comment myself. It's possible another Mac browser would have worked better, but this is just another way my Mac does not give me options that were readily available on even the most out of date PC that will connect to the Internet.

Grr.

p.s. I will keep a sidebar up on this blog showing the progress of the Mutant Mercenaries this year. My first game is two weekends from now against my nephew Adam's team, Condoms R 4 Sailors.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Random 2, 8/20/10, Padre Mickey Rule invoked


Another Nail From My Heart Squeeze
I Wanna Be Your Lover Prince

I listened to the eight songs that would have filled out the list. There were some good ones, but nothing as good as this early hit from The Purple One. It's a great example of a simple groove with layer after layer of hooks. It was his first big hit, and while I won't say it's his very best, I will say this guy is one of the ten best American songwriters of the past fifty years.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday Math, Vol. 125: Logical quantifiers

For a statement to pass muster as "logical" in the modern sense, it must be verifiable as either being true or false. For example, if I type "Birds are black", this statement is too vague to be logical. The most common interpretation of the sentence would be "All birds are black", which would count as being usable in a system of logic, even though it is false. If someone states "The panther is the only creature that is black." and I then type "Birds are black", the most common interpretation would be that I was saying "Some birds are black" in a somewhat lazy way, and that is a logical statement and true as well.

To be precise, logical statements need one of the two quantifiers, the existential or the universal. The backwards capital E is the symbol for the existential quantifier. In regular English usage, this would be "Some birds are black." or "Some x has the property P." Being precise, the existential quantifier says "There exists at least one ___ that is ___." The universal quantifier is pretty much the same in standard speech or in precise statement. the upside down capital A means "All ___ are ___."

The quantifiers are not difficult ideas in themselves, but a lot of logical errors occur because people do not understand how to state the logical opposite of a quantified statement. If you want to prove "All birds are black." is false, this is the same as proving "There exists a bird that is not black." is true.

With the existential quantifier, the contradiction will negate the meaning of the statement and switch to universal. The opposite of "There exists a black bird." is "All birds are not black."

In the biggest so-called "controversy" of the moment, many people are taking the true statement "There exist Muslims that wish us harm" and changing it into the false statement "All Muslims wish us harm". Substitute "Muslims" with whatever the popular scapegoat of the era is and I daresay no mental flaw can match this incorrect switching of quantifiers when it comes to bringing evil action into this world.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Now I understand why people hate Brett Favre.


If you are a right thinking American, or indeed a person of any nation with a lick of sense, you care about the decision making process of Brett Favre to the sum of zero.

Sadly, I am not a right thinking American in this case. I am in a fantasy football league. As my game playing friend Jodi says, fantasy football is Dungeons & Dragons for the guys who beat up people who really play Dungeons & Dragons.

So now, all my Poindexter dweeb calculations are up in the air because Favre may or may not return to NFL for the jillionth time, especially because my league is having the draft on Sunday, two full weeks before the season begins. If he returns and if his ankle is healthy, he should be a starting quarterback for one of the twelve teams in the league in which I play. The returning part looks pretty obvious as of this morning, given that he is following his coy routine of the past few years. The ankle surgery is the big if.

With any luck, I'll pick up one of the quarterbacks that should be better than he is and let somebody else pull the trigger on adding this high-strung prima donna to his or her roster. But regardless of that future event, I am now drinking the Hater-ade when anybody mentions Brett Favre.

Some articles about math education.

The standard view is that American kids aren't as good at math as kids in other countries and are learning less than we did "back in the day", but from my own experience I can say that our educational system currently expects more people to know more math than at any time in history. AP Calculus was pretty rare in my era, and expecting high school students to get through statistics or a beginning programming class was absolutely unheard of back before 1973 when the integrated circuit started the computer revolution. When I teach linear algebra at Berkeley City College, I can expect a lot of kids from Berkeley High School sitting in on what is still viewed as a sophomore level college class. Some material has been "dumbed down" without question, most notably reducing the emphasis on proof in geometry. As someone who was actually pretty good at it, I'm not exactly sure when we should ask students to sink or swim with the concepts of proof, but I think it's probably not something we should force on all kids at the age of sixteen with the threat of not graduating high school.

Friends send me links to articles about math and math education. My friend Ken sent me an interesting article from the New York Times quite a while back about the correlation between mathematical success in school and an early talent for estimation. As the article states, the skill of looking quickly at a picture and deciding if there are more blue dots or red dots is math brought down to the level where the test could be administered to lab rats, but people who show an early skill at this tend to do better in math than people who don't.

My friend Art sent a link to a paper done by some researchers from his alma mater Texas A&M that states American students somewhere in their early education are not grasping the concept of the equal sign as well as students from other countries. If the problem is stated as 3 + 4 + 2 = (____) + 2 for example, many students will add all the numbers from the left side and put a 9 in the blank, when the correct thing to do is just add the 3 and 4 to put 7 in the blank. I see things like this in my classes that appear to me to be about reading comprehension, especially on tests. If the instructions say "round to the nearest tenth of a percent", I will invariably have some students ask "Do you mean to the nearest tenth?" It's almost as if they run out of gas before they get to the end of the sentence.

It raises a question relevant to all education, not just math education. Most people who teach a subject decided to do this job because they are good at the subject, and with disciplines like math, music and athletics, innate talent means some people will be better than others even though they put in about the same amount of time in study or practice. It can be hard for the innately talented to get ideas across to people who don't have the same gifts, much in the same way as it would be for a person without colorblindness to explain green to someone who can't tell green from blue.

The struggle continues.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mad Men, Season 4:
Episode 4, The Rejected

I can be a very finicky TV watcher. I can't even begin to list the well-reviewed TV shows that I gave up on. Going the other direction, I was a loyal watcher of several shows that crashed and burned in the ratings. That said, I am currently in love with the fourth season of Mad Men. Like with Breaking Bad, I wanted to watch the most recent season in real time without springing for the ridiculously priced "basic cable" option that is available where I live, so I got the season on iTunes. Unlike Breaking Bad, whose third season I enjoyed very much, I find myself watching episodes of Mad Men twice before I comment on them. As usual, this post will have spoilers after the first photo, so you have been warned.

I'd also like to note that I ripped these pictures off from Tim Goodman's blog at sfgate.com.

If you watch the show, you know Don Draper is to Mad Men what Jimmy McNulty was to The Wire or Tony was to The Sopranos. You'll also know those other shows were filled with interesting and rich characters, and while Don's personal and professional life certainly play a prominent role in the most recent episode, it's Peggy and Pete who really steal the show this week.


In the very first episode, Peggy and Pete felt like plot devices. Peggy Olson was the new girl, so she was there to have things explained to her, which meant also explained to us viewers. The plot gimmick at the end of the first season where she didn't know she was pregnant felt contrived to me, but the show has did a great job of pulling out of what could have been a tail spin. Now, she gets to be young, successful and independent in New York in the mid sixties. This episode was directed by John Slattery, the actor who plays Roger Sterling. Roger quite often gets the funniest line in the episode, but this week it's Peggy who gets the topper. She goes to an odd artistic party at the invitation of Joyce, an assistant photo editor at LIFE. When Joyce kisses her at the party after giving her a drag on a joint, a surprised Peggy says "I have a boyfriend." Joyce comes back with "Yes, but he doesn't own your vagina." Peggy, ever the nice girl, smiles and says "No, but he's renting it."

With as dark as this season has been, a show titled The Rejected promises serious misery. Though there are characters who have a rough time in the episode, most notably Don's secretary, it was great to see Peggy and Pete have some triumphs that may actually be long term.


Pete Campbell's growth as a fleshed out character may be even more remarkable than Peggy's. Even when he was on Angel, Vincent Kartheiser lived on his sneer as much as Kristen Stewart from Twilight lives on her bitten lower lip. But this episode puts many obstacles in his way and he overcomes them like an adult would, and also gives him chances to play a character who is truly happy and not really used to it.

A conflict comes up and he's going to have to dump his father-in-law's account. He takes the news from the other partners at first with his usual bad humor, but the meeting with his father-in-law takes a completely different turn when the older man lets slip that he knows his daughter is pregnant, a piece of news Pete is not yet aware of. He doesn't sulk or whine. He's surprised at first, and then he's happy. He treats his wife like she's the woman he loves. He shows a lot of reserve (his father-in-law calls him a "high WASP"), but you can tell he's enjoying himself and the good news for his family.

He and Harry Crane have lunch with Ken Cosgrove, one of the young men at the old Sterling Cooper who did not get called to make the move to the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Ken was always so cheerful and talented in a modest way, but he's a much more bitter individual now. He accuses Pete of talking trash behind his back, and while Pete at first denies it and some of the accusations might not even be true, he apologizes and the relationship looks to be mended. Besides Ken being more jaded than before, the most shocking thing in the episode is him slamming McCann Erickson, an ad agency that still exists. Ken says he hadn't seen so many retarded people in the same building since he went to work one day with his mom, a nurse at a Vermont state hospital. In one way, it's the standard non-politically correct speech from the sixties the show captures so well, but to blast a company that still exists was startling, even if it is talking about the company's situation forty five years in the past.

Pete also gets to shine when he finally gets around to telling his father-in-law about the conflict of interest at the new agency, and pitches the older man on letting Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce take other products with no conflict, the much larger share of the company pie. His father-in-law calls him a son of a bitch, but Pete just shrugs it off. He doesn't whine, he doesn't threaten, he acts like an adult with a stronger hand and he plays the hand correctly. At the end of the episode, we see Pete as an adult in with the big boys, while Peggy is part of the youth movement of the sixties. The script has already made it clear which group really has the power, but to see them look at each other as the two groups split to go have separate lunches is a brilliant touch of sadness and longing. Series creator Matthew Weiner co-wrote the script, so it's hard to say if director or writer deserves the most credit for this episode. Regardless, it worked flawlessly from beginning to end. I find myself looking forward to new episodes with more anticipation than I have felt in a very long time.




James Kilpatrick is dead and there is only one thing to say.


Jane, you ignorant slut!

Okay, I know he never said this, but Dan Aykroyd's parody of him was about a jillion times more interesting and honest than the real thing. He was the kind of guy who gave dull old racist white people a bad name.

He's gone. I'm glad. If I believed in heaven and hell, I'd say let him go annoy Satan for a while.

(I know the "never speak ill of the dead" rule, but I used to be a regular on alt.obituaries, and that's not how we roll.)

Hey, Google! What's the big idea?

On the other blog, I decided to monetize, which means Google puts ads up that they think will reach the right target market. Currently, I've earned a little over $44 and they pay off at $100, so I expect to get paid almost exactly the same time as Dr. Harold Camping says the world will end. Maybe I'll spend it on something nice but frivolous.

Ice cream for everybody!

Google chooses the ads that go up on the blog and part of the formula for pay is how many clicks the ads get. I don't want to tell them their business, but currently the ad that always shows up is a PG&E ad for more effective shower nozzles.

In Chinese.

Seriously, even if I'm getting good traffic on the site, how many of the people who read my blog are going to click through to an ad in Chinese for shower nozzles? It's almost like Google is trying to cheat both PG&E and me.

But they wouldn't do that because of that whole "don't be evil" vibe over there.

Hmm.


Another ad that shows up only sporadically on my blog is for a column on the gossip website PopEater.com called Naughty But Nice with Rob Shuter. There is absolutely no question that this is a perfect fit for the readers of my blog about the supermarket rags. Heck, I've clicked on it a few times myself.

So, all you smart and not evil folks over at Google, my gossip blog is in English and not Chinese, that's one.

My blog is about gossip and PopEater.com is about gossip. That's yet another one.

Here's one and one. See if you can add them up.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Useless skill sets and the people who love them.


It's remarkable to me that the Spelling Bee has become an institution on ESPN in this day and age. After all, it's not the 1980s when they had no programming to speak of and filled countless hours of time with Australian Rules Football. (Go, Geelong! All for you, St. Kilda!)

I understand the interest in watching it. It's people having to perform a difficult task under pressure. The drama is obvious. But the skill itself is nearly obsolete because of spell check software.

The operative word in the last sentence is "nearly". Here are the words from a late round of this year's contest.

foliocellosis, trompillo, pyroligneous, conjunto, nematodiasis, caprifig, brachydactylous, congener, marouflage, intercolline, genioglossal, borborygmus, Bayesian, lorimer, fazenda, gaminerie, icteritious, keratolysis, dysautonomia, lassi, paravane, metarteriole, Brumalia, mirin, Aufgabe, leguleian, hyleg, bacalao, siffleur, genethliac, meperidine, Bundestag.

My spell checker in Word and in Blogger only recognize Bayesian and Bundestag. I know conjunto because I like accordion music and lassi because I eat at Indian restaurants. These really aren't words people need to know how to spell on anything like a regular basis and there's no shame in hitting the dictionary when stuck with a really tough word with no good synonym.

I call the skill these young folks excel at useless with no disrespect, because I am also a master of a skill that is becoming less useful as time goes by. I still love trivia, but with the Internet, the actual value of having a head full of useless knowledge is becoming less and less useful every day.

Want to know who played Nero Wolfe on the TV show from earlier this century? Go to imdb.com. Or I can tell you. It's Maury Chaykin, the portly Canadian actor who passed away recently. Whether it's entertainment trivia or sports trivia or fun facts about dinosaurs, the computer you are currently sitting at can get you almost anything you want.

If you can ask the right question.

I went to see Inception this week with my niece Holly and her husband Cleavon, and before the film we were chatting about shows we watch and things that have been recommended. Cleavon had friends that talked about a show which sometimes they liked and sometimes they didn't. It was very strange and he couldn't remember the name, though he has seen at least one episode.

"Do you remember anything about it?" I asked.

"There's like... a milkshake?"


"Oh, yeah. Aqua Teen Hunger Force." I said in my most helpful quiz boy manner.

If you type "milkshake cartoon" into the Google, Master Shake and his pals show up three times on the first page of images but only once on the first page of the web search. Sometimes, it's better to have three pounds of gooey gray matter encased in skull bone and chock full to the brim with useless crap instead the best relational database the world has ever seen.

'Cos we are the Aqua Teens!
Make the homeys say ho, make the girlies wanna scream!

Just sayin'.

When Two Buck Chuck becomes a financial burden you can no longer afford...


My home base Trader Joe's on Lakeshore in Oakland has a big display near the front of the store for Vista Point wines. Vista Point used to be an exclusive product at the Fresh & Easy stores, none of which I had every visited, though the closest is down in Hayward relatively near to where I used to live. Now they are selling big 1.5 liter bottles of their wine at TJ's for $2.99. To help my less mathematical friends and those whose eyes glaze over at any mention of the metric system, the big bottle is twice the size of a standard 750 ml bottle, so what would cost you $4 if you choose Two Buck Chuck costs only $3 if you choose Vista Point.

I have not tried the wines myself. I hunted around the Interwebs for reviews, and some ladies in L.A. thought the Vista Point Chardonnay was a little better than the Charles Shaw chardonnay. One guy hated the Merlot and poured most of the bottle down the drain, and merely sneered at the Chardonnay, while Tastings.com rated the Merlot at "highly recommended". Someone on cellartracker.com called the Merlot drinkable.

Here's what I know. It's three bucks for a really big bottle of wine. If you don't like it, you are out three bucks. That's a lot smaller gamble than going to see a movie like Cloverfield, District 9 or The Ghost Writer, where you lose ten bucks and two hours of your life that you can't get back.

Ever.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Don't buy a Mac.


Yes, I'm an old fart, but I'm a tech savvy old fart. Yes, I bought a Mac when it had 128k of RAM. Yes, I figured out that an external hard drive was NOT a luxury but a necessity. Even so, in the early 1980's, Macs were better than PCs and the ideas that moved the personal computer forward were almost all from Apple and later stolen by Microsoft.




That was then, this is now. Back then for example, the San Francisco 49ers were the best franchise in professional football. Nowadays, not so much. Things change.

Don't buy a Macintosh computer. I bought a Mac Mini earlier this year, and it's a mistake I can't afford to fix, so I'm stuck with it for awhile.

I expected less crashes, but I've already had several bad freeze-ups when using the Internet, so I don't see a big improvement in terms of software reliability or speed. The only plus so far is that I've had no issues with iTunes like I did on Windows based platforms.




The software isn't as good. For example, I was really getting good with the latest version of Excel on the PC before my old computer gave up the ghost. There are a LOT of useful features on the PC version of Excel the programmers at Microsoft decided users of Macs didn't need. I know that means people at Microsoft are being dicks, but if you own a Mac, you are the one who suffers.



The command key makes your life worse. If you buy software specific to the Mac, anything that will be Ctrl-C in other software will be command-C instead. So far, so good. The problem is that a lot of the software I use is designed to be used on the 'Net, and some Netware understands the command key and other Netware only understands the control key. The software I use to write my blog posts understands the command key in some instances and the control key in others. Really annoying and a time waster.



And whatever you do, don't buy a Magic Mouse. It looks cool, it means less wires to get tangled, I thought it was a win-win when I was at the Apple Store.

IT SUCKS UP BATTERIES WORSE THAN A WALKMAN USED TO.

I'm keeping track of battery usage with this piece of crap. The first set of batteries lasted exactly one month. The second pair crapped out this morning, so they lasted three weeks. Even when you put fresh batteries in, it will take a while before the computer reads the connection to the mouse consistently.

It pains me to write this. I had expected a much better experience than this with my new computer. I like the Mac ads and seriously dislike the PC/Microsoft ads going back for years if not decades.

I'm not a Mac. I'm not a PC. I'm a human being and more importantly in this case, I'm a human being who has written software and knows how it's supposed to work. Using a computer shouldn't this much of a struggle in 2010. A lot of people are realizing the "nice" tech companies like Apple and Google are becoming just as evil as Microsoft as they get bigger. Most people who whine about Apple are hating on the iPhone. Let me start a trend of hating on their computers, both the dumbed down software and and glitchy hardware.



Friday, August 13, 2010

You and your Johnson.

All the evidence so far is that this is a real ad from about thirty years ago. Johnson Boat Motors were swallowed up Bombadier Recreational Products many years ago, and now they only sell the Evinrude brand. A great American tradition was lost the day the last Johnson sprung full-blown and ready for action from the factory floor.



Because it's all about you and your Johnson.

Random 10, 8/13/10

This Old Heart of Mine Tammi Terrell
Lonely House Teresa Stratas
In The Backroom Brian Eno and John Cale
Ask The Lonely Vonda Shepard
Just One Cornetto Pookiesnackenberger
Papa's Got A Brand New Bag James Brown
You Don't Have To Say You Love Me Dusty Springfield
Hand In Hand Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Respect Aretha Franklin
Fingertips, Part II Little Stevie Wonder

Whenever I put together a Random 10, my old buddy Padre Mickey is never far from my heart. I wouldn't have heard Tammi Terrell's fantastic version of This Old Heart of Mine, much more up tempo than the hit versions by the Isley Brothers or Rod Stewart. I wasn't listening to pop music much in the 1970's and without the Good Padre, I wouldn't know about Brian Eno. While he didn't exactly turn me on to Pookiesnackerburger, we did discover Stiff Records at about the same time, and Just One Cornetto is off the Stiff Records Box Set, a great collection of music. I was very close to invoking the Padre Mickey rule after Mister James Brown sings his great signature hit, one of many to be fair. But also being fair, Aretha singing Respect and Little Stevie ripping up Fingertips, Part II. They don't get kicked off stage for noBODY and that's a fact!

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Trade secrets of a trivia nerd.


I've been a trivia nerd for some time. I didn't go on Jeopardy! back in 1984 wondering if I might do okay. I expected to kick people's butts and I did.

This is a picture of David Crane, one of the co-founders of Activision and one of the best video game programmers and designers in his day. If you don't believe me, ask him. Dave did not have a lot of false modesty, or any kind of modesty for that matter. Well, to be fair, he didn't walk around naked, so he had some modesty. That's a blessing, I suppose.

The guy bought a DeLorean. Does that tell you enough about his personality?

Okay, let me add another little anecdote. Dave didn't like being second best at anything. When it came to trivia, he was good. But as long as I was around, he was second best and he'd just have to get used to that.

(Know where that line is from? I'll put the answer in the comments if no one gets it by tonight.)

So one day, David says to me. "Here's something you can't possibly know. Who are Emi and Yumi Ito?"


"That's easy." I answered, quick as a bunny. "Those are the tiny princesses from the Mothra movies."

He may have asked how I knew that. I might have told him, and I might have let him stew in his humiliation for a while, with a silent warning not to bring that weak stuff into my house.

But I will let out a little trade secret, not only of trivia but also education. There are easy ways and hard ways of asking a question, and he asked a hard question the easy way.

I know enough of language to know the two names were Japanese, and enough Japanese to know the two names were female. A nerd asks me about two Japanese chicks. Tell me another culturally important pair of Japanese females? Obviously, the two little princesses from Mothra.

If he had asked, "Who played the princesses in Mothra?" I would not have had a clue.

It was elementary, my dear Mr. Crane.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wednesday Math, Vol. 124:
Breaking news, P does not equal NP


My friend Ken Rose sent me a link to an article in the New Scientist. Vinay Deolalikar, a mathematician at Hewlitt-Packard labs, is about to publish a paper that proves there are problems in NP that are definitely not in P, which is an assumption people have been working with for some time but no one actually proved. He found a specific problem in the set of NP Complete problems, the one called n-SAT, cannot be solved in a "nice" amount of time. What this means is that if you come up with a method for solving all n-SAT problems, someone will be able to find a particular example of an n-SAT problem that will take effectively forever for your method to solve.

Here's a way to think of n-SAT. In a coalition of politicians, each member has a set of most important issues, but some people in the coalition have conflicting issues. For example, let's say one wants to increase funding for K-12 education, while another want to increase funding for college education. Let's say that given the education budget, only one of those two things can be done, so either choice will satisfy at least one member of your coalition and fail to satisfy another. Assuming that everybody has more than one pet issue, maybe you can make another budget choice on a different issue that will satisfy the people who lost on the education issue. Given any set of politicians each with their own set of priorities, can you make a budget that makes everyone happy at least once or is that impossible given the particular set of politicians? No matter how you think you can best solve this problem, there are some sets in a coalition where finding the right way to satisfy everyone is hard to find, or conversely, you will have to do a lot of work to prove that there is no way to satisfy everyone.

The subtitle of the New Scientist article is "It's bad news for the power of computing". My friend Ken saw the bright side immediately. Cryptography will always be possible, no matter how fast or big computers get. No encoding method is unbreakable, but if it takes a supercomputer hundreds of years or more to crack a code, then if I send you encrypted information using a very secure system, our secret is likely safe between us with a lifetime guarantee.

Deolalikar's paper is a draft, so maybe someone will yet find a hole in his argument, but if his work is solid, and the people who have read it so far think it is, he has solved one of the Millennium Prize problems, which means he's about to get a check for one MILLION dollars!

You are now encouraged to put your hands on your hips with arms akimbo and laugh your best villain's laugh.

Mwwa-HA! MOOAAHOHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAH!

Congratulations to Dr. Deolalikar.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mad Men, Season 4:
Episode 3, The Good News

Season Four of Mad Men is now in full swing. The third episode entitled The Good News aired on Sunday, and several of the themes of the new season were expanded upon. I'm going to give a bare bones review, but it will contain spoilers. If you want full-blown reviews with spoilers from start to end, I recommend this post on HuffPo and this one on Salon.

You have been warned.


The first three episodes of season four have dealt with the holidays Thanksgiving, Christmas of 1964 and the New Year of 1965, showing how difficult they have been for the newly divorced Don Draper. The new ad agency is shown as having early success though still financially precarious, but Don's personal life is a mess. He's drinking too much and we see multiple young women not falling for his charms anymore. The plan is for him to spend New Year's in Acapulco, but first he stops off in San Pedro, California to visit Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), the only person who has known for some time that he is really Dick Whitman. Anna was married to the real Don Draper who died in Korea, and when Dick found out that his identity theft had a victim, he did the right thing and took care of her financially, and "divorced" her when he decided to marry Betty.

This is the first episode where we see Don (or Dick, whatever we should call him when he is with Anna) actually being happy. Since this is a drama, that happiness is short-lived as he finds out through Anna's family that her health is very bad, a secret her sister keeps from her and asks Don to keep secret as well. This seems almost impossible that an adult would be treated this way today, but it actually happened back then, the most famous example being Rex Harrison knowing his wife Kay Kendall had leukemia and the doctors and Harrison keeping the bad news from her because there was nothing to be done.

It was good to see Anna again, though probably not many times more. The show has a habit of having people die off stage, so this might even be her last appearance.


In the third season, it looked like the office manager Joan was going to be written out, but her dream wedding to Dr. Greg Harris (Sam Page) hit some bumps, and she is back as the person running the office at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Her husband is another interesting character who gets short shrift, always a problem with a large ensemble cast, and it was good to see him get some important scenes. His career as a surgeon wasn't fated for success and he joined the Army. Joan wants to start a family, but Greg's uncertain future makes all plans nearly impossible. Still, they get a good scene together where he is able to come to her aid. If the show follows form, it may be a short tender moment before things take a turn for the worse.


Another character who doesn't get many good scenes is Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the transplanted Englishman who made the new firm possible by firing Bert Cooper, Roger Sterling and Don Draper from their old jobs, leaving all four of them free to start anew. In so many scenes, he's just the annoying partner who counts paper clips and legal pads, but several events in this episode help to turn his already precarious marriage inside out. Don, who decides to return to New York instead of continuing on to Acapulco after finding out the bad news about Anna, befriends Lane for the first time, and the two of them have an eventful evening out. They see a comic, who seeing two men alone at a table in front of him assumes they are gay and begins to rib them. Both Don and Lane take the insults in semi-good humor, but Lane finally shouts, "We're not homosexuals, we're divorced!" In some ways, this foreshadows the new prevalence of divorce on the American scene, which will be played for laughs on Broadway in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, which will open a little later in 1965.


Mad Men
is famous for its attention to detail, so it's more than a little disappointing to find a major anachronism in the show. Besides seeing the comedian, Don and Lane take in a movie on New Year's Day 1965. They debate several film choices they see in the newspaper and almost all of them have release dates in the last part of 1964, so they should still be in theaters on the day in question. One movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, was released a year before, so it's a bit chancy whether it would still be showing in Manhattan after thirteen months, but it's still possible.

But after they look at multiple choices, Don and Lane decide to go to Gamera the Invincible, the only Gamera film shot in black and white. (Yes, I knew this. Yes, I'm a nerd.) Here is the problem. It was released in Japan in November 1965 and in the U.S. December 1966. This amount of research is a few keystrokes on the Internet. I hope this sloppiness doesn't continue.

In the comments of yesterday's post, my blog buddy Fran said that TV quality has suffered as the audience has fragmented. I respectfully disagree. One of the major strides forward in television in the past twenty years or so is having shows where the arc of the main characters is more important than solving the problem of the week. This story telling method has been part of the soap opera tradition for some time, but it is now the standard in hour long dramas, and better writers like Matthew Weiner, who worked on The Sopranos before he became the creator of Mad Men, have turned episodic television into an art form that can be considered the equal of the novel. More often than not, the best stuff on TV is significantly superior to big budget films in theaters in terms of interesting stories and compelling characters. I'm looking forward to see where the lives of Don Draper and the rest of the people on Mad Men will end up, and I hope Matthew Weiner can find at least one more good season in him.



Monday, August 9, 2010

Big TV ratings? Not like in my day, whippersnapper!

Mystery voices
Drowned out by too much choice
Not to mention
The sad waste of this wonderful invention
Maintaining radio silence from now on.

Elvis Costello, Radio Silence

Mr. Costello, who is about a year and a half older than I am, writes this lyric about radio being a wonderful invention, but I want to say the same about television, the medium that replaced it as the mass entertainment source. I grew up with TV always existing, while my parents could remember the time before it was mass culture. The TV industry now worries about being eclipsed by the Internet, and of course I'm old enough to tell the young folks about a time before the Internet.

I don't currently watch TV, at least not on my TV, which is connected to a DVD player but not a cable or dish or even an antenna. As I have said before, I'm a broke-ass mofo, but I'm not poverty stricken. I could find the money in my monthly budget to spring for cable TV, whether that's $70 or $100 or whatever, I just don't see that it produces value equal to that cost. I pay about $70 a month total to be connected to the Internet and to have a phone. That cost is easily justified. That's a friggin' bargain.


There are some things I might like to watch live, but very few, and watching them free on the web or paying for a show on iTunes if necessary makes sense to me. I made a habit of watching Keith Olbermann when I had a TV, and sometimes I'd also watch Rachel Maddow. I don't make a habit of them anymore. I like both of them, but Keith lives on a mix of snark and high dudgeon that gets to be too much for me sometimes. Rachel tends towards being smarter and nicer than Keith and it doesn't always play well on TV. That said, if there is going to be a point made on TV that is almost exactly the argument I would make, it's going to be made by Jon Stewart, a decoded Stephen Colbert or Rachel Maddow.

Rachel is currently in a pissing contest with Bill O'Reilly. Let me correct that. BillO thinks it's a pissing contest, Rachel thinks it's a debate. He's winning the pissing contest, she's winning the debate. She says that Fox News has a consistent pattern of race baiting, more pronounced now since Obama was elected, and that the Shirley Sherrod incident was just the latest example. O'Reilly actually responded, which is notable because he pointedly ignores Keith Olbermann who snarks at him regularly. His response was to call her a "loon" and point out that Fox News has much higher ratings than MSNBC, the cable news outfit where Rachel works. Her counter-argument to his "look at my massive ratings" posture is to note that in that particular pissing contest, both his show and Rachel's show are getting rained on by SpongeBob SquarePants.

Bringing facts to a pissing contest. Isn't that just like a girl?


It's a very different world from the one of my youth. We still talk about ratings because there is still a major industry that cares about ratings, but it's like talking about boxing or horse racing. Some people still kind of care about those sports, but when I was a kid, those sports were big damn deals, not fading memories.

Consider the Beatles on Sullivan. I am just old enough to remember it vividly, since I turned eight years old about a month and a half before. 23 million TV sets tuned in that night, which translates to over 70 million viewers in a nation of 190 million people. Not a majority, but a very sizable minority, roughly three out of every eight people. The Beatles made a return appearance the next week and a similar number of sets tuned in, only slightly less.


The thing is, in 1964 this wasn't all that remarkable. The Beverly Hillbillies was the number one rated show for the entire season. In 1964, the most watched episode of the show titled The Giant Jack Rabbit got more viewers than the second appearance of the Beatles on Sullivan but slightly less than the first. Nine times in 1964, more than 20 million sets tuned into The Beverly Hillbillies. These records only go back to 1961, but no other show has nine spots from a single season in the top 100 of all time. In 1977, a very special TV event, the eight part mini-series Roots, put all eight of its episodes in the top 100 shows of the last fifty years. It's possible I Love Lucy had greater saturation in its day, but the Nielsen records only go back to 1961 and there were less TV sets in the 1950s than in the 1960s.

It was a much less fragmented nation when I was a kid, and not just politically. There was less choice than there is today because there were less choices. TV had three major commercial networks in theory, but in terms of ratings there was one leader, CBS. They dominated the Top Twenty shows year in and year out in the 1960s. NBC trailed, sometimes badly, and ABC was a distant third. In a cosmopolitan place like the San Francisco Bay Area, we also had a local independent station, Channel 2 KTVU, and the educational station, KQED Channel 9, which was not yet called PBS. But until UHF came along in the mid-sixties, that was it.


The ratings giant of today is American Idol. No other show comes close to its dominance of the past decade. It is fading from its peak viewership, when about 37 million people would tune in. That's 37 million out of a population of about 300 million, which is roughly one in every eight people in the country at its highest, now down to about one in ten. In the 1960s, the highest rated show could expect about one third of the public would be watching.

More than that, American Idol might be better titled Confederate Idol. Hicks like it better than city slickers, which explains why so many winners are from the South, including the aptly named non-entity Taylor Hicks. On my other blog, it's obvious that supermarket rags think Carrie Underwood, the most country tinged winner in the show's history, is the right fit for their older and unsophisticated demographic, while recording stars who can sell many more times records like Lady Gaga or Fergie are barely noticed at all by the supermarket rags, though they are popular in the Internet gossip pages.

Part of the reason I write this is because I'm really noticing not being the target market anymore for a lot of popular culture, TV, movies and music. There were times in the past when I did watch the most popular TV show or listen to the most popular music. I have seen several of the biggest grossing movies of the year over the past decade, but not all of them. The market has fragmented seriously.

When it comes to the news, I like stuff that teaches me something, discussed by people who know more than I do and reach interesting conclusions. I find that on the Internet from time to time, but on TV, not so much. If I may be allowed a moment with no false modesty, catering to an audience of people as smart or smarter than Matty Boy is not a mass market, and there just isn't that much money in it.