19 May 2006


15. The Da Vinci Code

We were shocked to learn today that this film, inspired by a pulp bestseller of the same name, opens in theaters today. We thought that, based on all the associated programming/merchandising, etc., that this film had been showing for the past 36 weeks, and was probably due out on DVD sometime soon.
Readers may be aware that controversy swirls around Code like stink on roadkill. There are those who allege that author Dan Brown stole the idea for the story. Some say the story is insulting to their religious beliefs, and even plan to protest the film's showing at theaters as if they were being bilked out of their retirement savings by some monstrous conglomerate.
Let it be known that TBA will not cross the Da Vinci Code picket line. We have had it up to here with the overblown hyping of the whole Holy Grail mystery. The intrigues in the mountains of Southern France, the secret societies and inter-religion squabbling.
The grail is not meant be found. The last best attempt ended in disaster, when King Arthur and Sir Bedevere, within sight of the grail's final resting place in Castle Aaaaagh, were arrested by London Police on suspicion of killing an historian named Frank.
Nor do we care to witness any more television programming based upon Dan Brown's life, his automobile of choice, his childhood schools, or his other lame thriller fiction. He is a decidedly mediocre literary figure, and, anyway, this programming is generally of low production value, and is more often than not hosted by an un-reconstructed Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast in a wide-brimmed hat.
We can take some small consolation in the fact that the film is being mercilessly panned by critics and that Tom Hanks has been made up for his part to look like a vagrant dishwasher at a sleazy diner. Get that man a hair-net!

04 April 2006

TBA will return soon

27 March 2006


14. Unnecessarily Animated TV Commercials

There is a long and storied tradition of animated tv commercials. We have fond memories of Knight Rider being interrupted by a rambunctious conga-line of snack foods marching to the tune "Let's go out the kitchen and have ourselves a snack." Most cereal commercials from our youth also were animated to great effect. Dig 'Um, Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, all as familiar as old friends. These characters were all dreamt up by market researchers, then drawn by artists. They are entertaining mascots for easily differentiated products.
Nowadays, however, there is a strange trend afoot where companies produce animated commercials for no apparent reason other than to employ animators.
For the life of us, we cannot understand why the new Charles Schwab ads are animated. Stock brokering seems a fairly staid occupation--or is there some aspect that lends itself to whimsy or cartoons? One would assume that Schwab employs this technique to somehow set himself apart from other brokerage firms. We are no business maven, but would it not be more sensible to improve and/or differentiate one's product rather than simply roll out flashy commercials for the same product that everyone else sells?
The animation technique used in these Schwab spots is called "roto-scoping," which sounds like a knee operation, but is actually a sort of high-tech tracing. The effect is a creepy and puzzling realism that traps the viewer between real and cartoon worlds. Perhaps not unlike the adventuresome world of brokerage, with its scandals and scoundrels and hypothetical profit margins.
We have rended many garments trying to divine the wisdom behind having humans act out a commercial--to audition, cast, rehearse, and then film the scenes--only to then hire high-tech cartoonists to trace their features and movements using elaborate computerization, and then animate them. Especially when one of the commercials stars famous actor Matt Servitto, who plays Agent Dwight Harris on The Sopranos. Perhaps they are trying to stimulate investment in the roto-scoping industry? Greater minds than ours will have to grapple with this great question.

20 March 2006


13. Bizarre Car Nomenclature

It is one of our favorite pastimes while driving to observe the other vehicles on the road in order to keep current with car stylings, and to see how long it takes a vehicle to appear on the road after seeing a TV commercial for it. What we have really noticed recently is that car names are becoming more and more inscrutable with each passing model year.
It used to be that car names were simple. Easy to pronounce and remember, and representative of some tangible object or creature. Comet, Maverick, Pinto, Charger, Falcon, Gremlin, Roadmaster. Naturally, there were some curious exceptions, like the Ford Granada or the Buick LeSabre.
Nothing like today, however. Nowadays America's roadways are crowded with the likes of the X5, a BMW SUV* that sounds like an experimental aircraft Chuck Yeager flew into sub-orbit back in the 60s. And Toyota has a hybrid car called the Prius, which sounds like some kind of ancient Roman statesman. Prius Maximus. Or perhaps one of Socrates' argument opponents from Plato's Republic. We half expect to start seeing commercials introducing the 2007 Toyota Glaucon.**
Buick has a new model out called the Lucerne. Our best Google efforts have turned up only that Lucerne is a city in Switzerland. What that has to do with Buicks--or cars in general--is beyond us. The word Lucerne is not evocative of speed, or high performance, or any other sensual quality automakers typically shoot for when naming their vehicles. It is, however, quite evocative of Glucerna, a milkshake that is formulated to be safe for diabetics.
The word cobalt comes from the German kobalt or kobold, meaning evil spirit, the metal being so called by miners, because it was poisonous and troublesome (it polluted and degraded the other mined elements, like nickel). And the Cobalt-60 isotope is used as a cancer treatment. So, does Cobalt seem like a good name for a car? If one simply must, under severe compulsion, name a car for an element in the periodic table, we suppose one could do worse than cobalt. Chevy Calcium, for example.
The Ford Fusion, like the Cobalt, seems to trade on a sort of generic association with science. The name implies the joining of two concepts into a new idea. Hence, one would expect the Fusion to be a hybrid vehicle: the Fusion of gas and electric engines. Or perhaps on of the so-called crossover vehicles, the Fusion of car and truck. Or (ideally), the Fusion of rock and jazz, like the group Weather Report in the 1970s. But it is none of these things. It is just a sedan.
Infiniti[sic] names its vehicles as if they are ballistic missile prototypes. G35, Q45, QX56. Is it not impossible to conjure these vehicles' characteristics up in one's mind, or to differentiate them in any way? Imagine yourself at the dealership: "And here we have the QX56. This baby really lit up the salt flats. Wait till you see next year's version, the QX66PL306J, which comes standard with anti-lock brakes, power steering, and Plan 9 From Outer Space!"
*Not to be confused with the X3, the X5's smaller cousin.
**Socrates takes Glaucon to the metaphysical cleaners in Book II of the Republic in the classic dialogue about justice.

13 March 2006


12. Barry Bonds

In the end, history will remember him more for his colossal steroid consumption than for his colossal circuit clouts. Next week Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams will publish Game of Shadows, an analysis of Giants slugger Barry Bonds' Senior Biochemistry Seminar thesis "On Baseball: I Took Cattle Growth Promotion Hormones and Ovulation Induction Drugs So I Could Hit More Home Runs than White People."
If even half of the claims made just in the excerpt of this new book are true, then Bonds should be forced to leave the Giants and move in with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro at the Jose Canseco Home for Disrespected Athletes in Butztown, PA. Once they finish arguing about what color to paint the den and where to put the couch, they can reminisce about their Trenbolone highs, their Deca-Durabolin lows, and that one time they all took a bunch of Norbolethone and went to the Pink Floyd laser show in downtown St. Louis.
Baseball is the most interesting of our American sports, and the most difficult to play well. So difficult, in fact, that many players resort to taking steroids and other substances in order to gain an unnatural strength advantage, or to enhance mediocre or declining skills. If a player is willing to slather himself with hormonal unguents or inject himself with narcolepsy stimulants, then today's long fly-ball out can become tomorrow's home run.
Major League Baseball has historically made a laughable effort to prevent or punish the abuse of these illegal drugs. After all, lots of home runs fill stadium seats. If that is an insufficient incentive to ignore the problem, the Major League Baseball Players Union also stood in the way. The MLBPA is a litigious juggernaut when the subject of testing or sanctioning its members is broached. It took an embarrassing intervention last summer by the US Senate to force MLB to think meaningfully about the problem. Bonds current predicament is a result of the much brighter light being shown on the game's elite sluggers.
A brief look at some of Bonds' statistics shows just how marked the difference is between his pre-and post-steroid accomplishments.* Bonds has been in baseball a long time--since 1986. He has always been a phenomenal player. In 12 seasons from 1986 to 1997 Bonds hit 374 home runs. That is an average of 31 per year, or one home run every 16th time he came to bat.
In the seven seasons from 1998 to 2004** he hit 329 homers, an average of 47 per year, or one dinger every nine at bats. By turning himself into a human science fair, as Fainaru-Wada and Williams allege, Bonds hit nearly the same number of home runs twice as efficiently in half the time. Better living through chemistry, indeed. Bonds is now six home runs shy of Babe Ruth's career total and 47 home runs behind Hank Aaron's all-time mark of 755.
It is hard for us to admit that there is a sad side to this story because Bonds is such a contemptible and spiteful person (and a cheater), but it is inarguable that had he simply maintained his average non-steroid performance until he retired, Bonds would have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot and regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. He was a complete player, a premiere defensive outfielder and base-stealer during his first 12 years. The vengeful jealously into which he sank during the 1998 McGwire-Sosa home run race led him to lay his own mortal greatness on the line for a shot at immortality in baseball's record books. Alas, notwithstanding his great accomplishments, he should never be elected to the Hall at all now, even if he surpasses Aaron's great achievement.
At any rate, however this plays out, it simply cannot happen soon enough that the teams break camp and start the season. Play ball, play ball.
*These statistics appear in similar form in the cnnsi.com excerpt cited above.
**Bonds played in only 14 games last season due to knee injuries.

12 February 2006


11. Mass Media-Induced Weather Hysteria

People rising from their slumber yesterday morning in New England in hopes of having their usual relaxing Sunday were quickly disabused of the notion. Those of us hoping to make a nice omelette or some pancakes and bacon and then lollygag on the sofa and watch the Sunday morning talk shows were not to be obliged these pleasures.
We were instead to be subjected to a nearly five-hour repetitive, totally uninformative news broadcast on at least six channels.
The so-called "Blizzard of 2006" was hardly a blizzard, and actually only netted us about a foot of snow. A foot is a fair amount, but not crippling by any means. Not one of the blizzard pre-requisites was met yesterday, as the newspeople themselves informed us at the time. Then all of a sudden, in a sudden spasm of Orwellian mind control, all the headlines and leads in the news today are trumpeting the Blizzard of 2006.
The media simply cannot stand to not have a brand name to attach to a news event of this kind so they can force its relevance, real or imagined, on us. Even the local meteorologist has become just another product. Channel 4 in our area has dubbed its employees covering the storm the First Alert Xtreme[sic] Team.
Here is the gist of their "coverage:" interminable vignettes of miserable shivering TV reporters standing in the streets of various communities informing viewers that it was snowing, that it was windy, that there had been an invention in recent times called the snow plow, which was used to remove snow from roads, because snowy roads make for unsafe driving, that standing outside for hours during a snowstorm made one cold, that people do not want snow on their driveways, and so use shovels to remove it, and, that it would eventually stop snowing. Their reportage was accompanied by elaborate comparative graphics measuring this event against the fury of the storms of yesteryear. The reporter and anchor, using phony camaraderie and banter, would then attempt to shoehorn the current storm into the pantheon of the worst snow disasters of all time.
And, invariably, on every channel, the reporter would then stick a farcically small pre-schooler-sized ruler into the snow to show how much had accumulated since s/he last performed this experiment four minutes ago. Since the rulers were about six inches long, they promptly disappeared into the snow. Presto: "Look at all this snow, Bob!"
The reporters would also all manage to sneak in some commentary about how unfortunate their lot in life had become, and how they would much prefer to be at home on the sofa watching the Sunday morning talk shows. But their intrepid nature is the stuff of legend and makes it possible for the network to bring viewers such compelling coverage of this important event that we could all observe outside our windows.
We defy these Networks to supply us with statistics showing that people prefer to watch nonstop coverage of a snowstorm in New England instead of CBS Sunday Morning or Meet the Press. Or the Olympics. Or infomercials, for the Love of Pete. And we want cold, hard, empirical data that has not been massaged by their insidious public relations apparatus. New Englanders have seen storms like this 36 times in our lives.
Although perhaps it was not such a bad thing to turn the tv off and spend some quality time with the family, or read a book. Or go outside and shovel.

06 February 2006


10. Speaker-Phone

Occasionally, in the evolution of our human machinery, there arise devices that rear up against us and make our living experience a misery. We are supposed to be enriched by these clever inventions--particularly in our work-a-day lives--but sometimes the signal gets lost on the wrong track when the lights are on but nobody is home.
Have we not all been subjected to the speaker-phone's cacophonous chorus and plaintive beeps and boops? And have we not all been rung up by a colleague only to answer and then hear his distorted and garbled voice shouting back at us through the ear-piece, as if it were trapped inside the Phantom Zone flying through space like the three villains in Superman II? And then, the indignity, to hear his desk chair squeaking, or birds peeping in the oak tree outside his office window, while trying to decipher his squawking treatise on synergistic alliances, or work-flow dimension, or some such. All the while knowing that any number of unknown people are listening to and evaluating this conversation. "Do you mind if I put you on the speaker-phone?" Of course we mind--everybody minds--we all hate it.
We are happy to report that it is not just us who revile the use of this insidious device. It is also officially rude.
Mr. Post ought to know. His great-grandmother wrote the book on manners that he revised, expanded, and adapted for seminars.
We believe the Post family should run further afield, and amend their work on speaker-phone rudeness to include the use of its twisted cousin, the walkie-talkie-cellphone, or, more aptly, the portable speaker-phone.
Both are the impedimenta of a lazy, inconsiderate mind, easily amused by simple technological novelty. Because, in what universe is it sensible to use a telephone to talk to someone on a two-way radio basis? The answer is: possibly in the universe of law enforcement or construction. It is absolutely not in the universe of riding on the subway and telling someone about how you got a parking ticket because you did not see the handicapped parking sign. It is a telephone. Use it as such. Who do you imagine yourself to be, the captain of a mortar emplacement, radioing in firing coordinates?
Devices like speaker-phones and walkie-talkie-cellphones are but de-personalizing tools of convenience. They deaden users to their surroundings and consign the idea of a well-mannered common experience to oblivion. To the Phantom Zone.

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