Archive for the ‘‘Culture’’ Category

Cutting the Cord

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

The lamest thing about NBC’s Olympics is not the insipid announcing or the constant shuffling of events or the focus on drama instead of sport. No, the lamest thing is their online streaming.

No, scratch that. The streaming is actually very good. It’s easy to find events, the video is smooth and you can do a picture-in-picture thing to effectively watch two events at once. Even better: you can actually watch the events instead of puff pieces about the athletes, if you can imagine.

No, what’s lame is the business model. Streaming is only available to cable subscribers. You have to be subscribed to NBC, CNBC and MSNBC in order to stream events live to your computer. This may sound fine to NBC and its paleozoic business outlook. But it’s death for the modern viewer.

And it’s death to their finances. NBC is throwing away potentially millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars by not making their streaming more accessible. Prime time viewing will draw lots of eyes for a long time — their ratings have been through the roof. But streaming brings in new customers who would prefer a cleaner more current version of their coverage. And NBC could make trainloads of money off of it. I would personally pay at least $50 for unlimited access to Olympic coverage if I weren’t already paying the cable company for it. Just a million customers would bring in a cool $50 million for NBC of which the cable companies would get zero.

(Update: I’d forgotten that Comcast owns NBC and is therefore able to use the Olympics to sell crappy cable packages. That, of course, doesn’t apply to customers of other cable companies or customers who have cut the cord to cable. And the less said of the sleazy Comcast-NBC acquisition, the better. My general point remains unchanged: Olympic streaming should produce piles of money, not aggravation.)

But it’s bigger than that. The current trend is of customers following content rather than providers. Forget what NBC would make now; they would be setting up a gold mine for the future. You wouldn’t have to juggle six channels and tape delays to find what you want. Go to NBC, pony up some cash and the entire Olympiad would be laid out for you. Instead of this, they have hitched their wagon to the dying cable model. (See update above for why they’ve done this).

It’s not exactly news that cable is dying. My personal journey away from cable is like that of ten million other people in this country. When we lived in Texas, we had an elaborate and expensive cable package. When we moved to Pennsylvania, we ditched it. This wasn’t because we didn’t want it but because we simply couldn’t afford it until we sold our Texas home and my wife had a job. But even once those things were cleared up, we didn’t go back. We realized that we hadn’t missed cable. Between Netflix, Amazon and online streaming, we pretty much had everything we wanted. I’ve recently upped the subscription slightly to get Olympic coverage and football games. We’ve also had grandparents moving in with us for long periods and they miss the TV. But if I could, I would cut the cord completely.

The Great Recession has only accelerated this trend. People need to save money and cable is an obvious place. But even when (if?) the recession ends, I don’t think they’re going to stampede back. Consider the following replacement we put in place for a cable subscription running $100 a month:

  • The main thing we watch broadcast TV for is Doctor Who. For $2 an episode, we get it on Amazon or Itunes within 24 hours. And we own the digital copy. Total cost: $28.
  • We also like The Daily Show and the occasional sitcom. Hulu and Comedy Central’s website fill that gap for the cost of watching a few ads.
  • Most other stuff we get from Netflix streaming or DVDs. Total cost: $240 a year.
  • I recently subscribed to MLB.tv. I now have access to any baseball game that is not blacked out in my area. I’ve been watching my Braves all season; I watched the end of Matt Cain’s perfect game; I watched Bryce Harper’s debut. This is better than cable; way better. Total cost: $125.
  • If the NFL and NCAA had similar packages, I would buy them. NFL has Sunday Ticket, but it is only available to either Direct TV subscribers or those who can’t physically get Direct TV because of line-of-sight issues. It also costs $350, which is ridiculous. Let’s assume they come to their senses once the Direct TV contract runs out and offer it to everyone at a reasonable price. Let’s assume the NCAA does so as well and the two combine for about $300 in cost.
  • We’re now up to a grand total of about $700. For that price, I get to watch any network television I want, when I want. I get to watch any baseball game in the country (and any football game if the NFL/NCAA ever pull their heads out of their asses). I get to make sure my daughter watches decent TV like My Little Pony instead of horrid TV. And cutting off her TV is as simple as changing the router password. And I still have $500 left over to buy any DVDs, blu-rays or downloads that haven’t been covered already. Or I can just throw myself a big party with some very expensive scotch.

    Jesus Christ … why is anyone staying with cable? If channel surfing really that much fun?

    I’m not going to say that cable is dead … yet. Cable can be very much alive if they start competing with that model. They’re doing this in their own way with On Demand movies and sports packages. But they have not gotten within screaming distance of the convenience, cost and mobility offered by other services. I can stream Netflix and MLB to any device no matter where I am in the United States; I can barely watch Comcast in my living room. I can watch Netflix or Amazon through an iPad app; for Comcast I need a huge box next to the TV. I can cut Netflix off with an e-mail; I’m locked in to Comcast for months. Netflix charges me $20 a month for as many downloads as I want; Comcast turns me over and shakes me by the ankles to see if I have any loose change.

    That may have worked ten years ago. It’s a recipe for extinction now.

    Cable companies are making tons of money right now, so they think everything is fine. But they are ignoring two things: (1) they are making money because they have little monopolies all over the country; (2) they are making money off the expectations of older customers. My daughter’s generation will simply not stand for this. Already, she expects content to show up on any reasonably flat surface at a touch with no commercials. She’s a part of a generation for whom everyone gathering around the Ol’ Radiation King at 8:00 to watch Seinfeld and eight minutes of commercials will sound as quaint as party phone lines do to me. She will navigate through a dozen internet services to find precisely what she wants at the best price and the least fuss. And cable … isn’t that.

    Update: You might wonder what provoked this rant. Up until a few months ago, I had a minimal cable package. I ran the line into the back of my television and got a good number of channels with some in HD. We got PBS for the kid, football in the fall and a handful of other channels for the grandparents. We were fine. Then Comcast decided to “improve” their service. Suddenly, we needed a box and another remote control for every television. And the results was fewer channels and no high definition. It tells you how little we watch TV that we didn’t even notice this for a month.

    So, as result of Comcast’s service improvement, we paid more, got worse service and were blessed with a big white elephant sitting next to every TV in the house. This is not a business model for the 21st century. It’s the business model of someone who has a monopoly … one that is doomed to extinction.

    The Doctor Who Challenge: Days 1-3

    Monday, July 30th, 2012

    Apparently, there’s a tumblr going around for a 30 day Doctor Who challenge, a bit of summer fun to bridge the way-too-long gap between Series 6 and 7. There seems to have been no starting date. Everyone is proceeding at various paces as the meme goes viral.

    You know me: I can’t resist a list and especially not a list on my favorite subject. So I’ll bite. I’ll concatenate a few just so the blog doesn’t get swamped with Doctor Who posts. This post will be longer than most because I had already written and shelved a long pointless post on my favorite Doctors.

    (more…)

    Happiness

    Saturday, July 28th, 2012

    I’ve been saving this link, with 15 videos of people being very happy, for when I needed it. After a week like this, I needed it. A good bookmark for when I or anyone needs it in the future.

    Copying is Theft

    Friday, July 13th, 2012

    You know, I really despise the argument used in this video that “copying isn’t theft”. As someone who has had work copied and plagiarized, I can tell you that it absolutely is. A book, a movie, a song — this is something someone worked on, invested their time, tears and often money in. It didn’t just fall from the sky. Intellectual property rights have gone too far, I agree. But let’s not pretend that copying someone’s work without their permission isn’t a violation.

    Note the deformed logic of the video. The portray people sharing with each other. But file sharers don’t share shit. They’re not putting their hard work up for free. They’re simply taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s a sharing caring rainbows and ponies lovefest. That’s garbage. That’s a thief claiming to be a secret socialist.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
  • Starry Night … in dominoes.
  • A great interview with the Skeptical Environmentalist.
  • The DEA can’t justify it’s own War on Drugs.
  • This post, on whether kids should hate their parents, deserves a feature-length post from me. Suffice it to say that I, uh, split he baby on this one. I’m my daughter’s friend when I can be but if she doesn’t hate me once a week, I’m not doing my job.
  • The Shakespeare Project: The Winter’s Tale

    Monday, June 18th, 2012

    Do people really think that Hermione is literally brought back to life in Act V? Reading it, it was obvious to me that Hermione had been alive, living in secret. Paulina keeps the statue in secret and visited it twice a day; she discourages Leontes from touching it; the statue is of an aged Hermione. I knew what it was a ruse (in fact, I suspected it from her off-screen death in Act III). But apparently, there is some controversy over this point.

    (Of course, Mamillius remains dead. In that respect, the Winter’s Tale reminds me of the biblical story of Job. All ends in happiness when Job gets a new family. But I often wondered about his first family, whose destruction and death seems little more than a plot point in the story of Job’s life. The death of Mamillius is swept under the carpet, a side note to the redemption of Leontes.)

    The Winter’s Tale is another problem play, possibly better defined as a romance. It does seem a bit schizophrenic at times, with Leontes delivering biting lines in Act I and an epic peak of tragedy in Act III. But Acts IV and V proceed to dance on the edge of tragedy while turning to comedy with the minor characters and a love story between the two major ones. This contrast is embodied by Autolycus, whose singing and joking create a very different mood, often in the midst of high drama and touching love-play.

    One nettlesome aspect is that the finale and all the big revelations and plot twists happen off stage. I really am confused as to why Shakespeare did this so often — e.g., moving the funniest parts of Taming of the Shrew offstage. Perhaps this is a performance vs. reading thing?

    One of the constant themes that comes up in Shakespeare is the contrast between the nobility and the commoners. It is the nobility who become so obsessed with honor and status that they drive people to despair, suicide and ruin. It is their petty squabbles and jealousies which drive the plays’ conflicts. And it is the commoners who, more often than not, save the day with common sense. The Winter’s Tale embodies this well. Leontes is one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve encountered in a comedy — vindictive, jealous, arrogant and unheeding. Polixnes throw away whatever good will we might have born him by flying into a vindictive rage over his son’s marriage plans and almost brings about a second tragedy. You can contrast that against the simple shepherd who saves Perdita, matches her with the Florizel and brings about the final resolution.

    Up Next: I’ll go ahead and throw in Pericles even though Shakespeare only wrote half of it.

    Sex and Drug Panics

    Sunday, May 27th, 2012

    There are three explanations for the occasional eruption of laughable panic-mongering stories about teenage sex and drug use:

  • The media are extremely gullible and believe any crap that kids tells them. Very possible, as we’ve seen in the child sex abuse hysteria of the 80′s, for example. Every reporter on Earth wants to believe he is the one that people will tell what’s really going on.
  • The media know (or at least suspect) the stories are bullshit but don’t care because they get ratings. Also very possible. Most of the media would mud-wrestle their own mother to get an extra point in the ratings. And certain media personalities thrive on panicky stories.
  • These stories represent repressed fantasies. I wouldn’t dismiss this for certain stories like the supposed “Rainbow Parties”. The accounts often read like they were written one-handed. “And then … the girls put on different colored lipstick. And then .. they .. service all the boys. And then … they have multi-colored rings on them.” Seriously. If you put some of these articles on an erotic stories website, no one would notice anything unusual about them.
  • I think it’s all three. Moral panic stories strike a media bullseye — appealing to their vanity, their need for viewers and their own repressed desires. I just wish the public were more skeptical.

    Which One, Sherlock?

    Sunday, May 27th, 2012

    I originally read the Sherlock Holmes cannon back in college. I enjoyed the stories but didn’t love them. Doyle tends to be a bit long-winded and, even when young, I found Holmes’ methods to be more dramatic than scientific. They make for good stories but real crimes are not solved by scuffs on boots and cigar ashes. Often times, the solution to the mystery was either very obvious or not accessible at all until Holmes revealed the extremely esoteric path he followed to suddenly present the solution. My favorite story was Hound of the Baskervilles, which I found wonderfully creepy.

    But, over the last decade, I’ve slowly become a Holmes devotee. I re-read the stories when I bought my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed them. Doyle is still long-winded, but I enjoy the digressions and back stories. And while Holmes’ methods are still more dramatic than scientific, they are fun. I enjoy the journey. And I thoroughly enjoy the character, who is one of the most wonderful in fiction. I think Steven Moffat described him best: Holmes is a man who wishes he were some sort of god.

    And that brings me to the point of this post: Holmes is back in the public eye. We have had two movies from Guy Ritchie and a BBC series. And, thanks to Netflix, I’m now watching the classic Granada television adaptations. There a million portrayals out there and I should probably watch the Rathbone films before I even think of blogging about it. But I thought I’d go ahead and address the big question: which Holmes do I prefer so far?

    And the simple answer is: all three of them.

    The Jeremy Brett television series is the most faithful to the books, virtually a transcription. This is a little bit of a weakness as it tends to be staid and predictable to those who have read the books. The style is very classical and slow. What elevates it to excellent television is Brett, who simply embodies Holmes. His portrayal is as precise as a scalpel. Every gesture and word is exactly as one would envision from the books. There’s a very understated joy in the performance that makes the Holmes character so fascinating.

    The Ritchie films are a cut below and probably my least favorite. That’s praising with faint damnation as I enjoyed both films, have the first on blu-ray and will probably buy the second soon. Robert Downey, Jr. is great in the role and has a fantastic chemistry with Jude Law. I wasn’t that taken with Rachel McAdam’s Irena Adler, especially the ridiculous way she was killed off. But Jared Harris’s Moriarity is a wonderful portrayal. And I like the way Holmes’ thinking is portrayed — with rapid edits and quick bursts. This reaches a climax in Game of Shadows when he and Moriarity both think out their moves in advance. I found myself grinning like an idiot in the theater.

    The weakness, I think, is that they make Holmes a little too eccentric, especially in the first film. I can not imagine Holmes living in squalor or being so disheveled and mumbling. But … that’s their interpretation (or, more likely, Downey’s). If I can put my image of Holmes aside — and I usually can — I don’t have a problem.

    But I think my favorite is the recent Moffat-Gattis effort on BBC. With six movies down and at least three more to go, it has been a pure pleasure to watch them unfold. It combines the best of both worlds: by moving the stories to the present and adapting them, yhere’s enough new to keep the audience on their toes and enough winks and nods to the fans to keep them happy. The casting has been strong and the secondary characters — particularly Lestrade and Adler — have been outstanding. The portrayal of Holmes’s thoughts, his use of technology, his controlled eccentricities — all are perfect. And the dialogue and plotting are as sharp as you would expect from the team that has made Doctor Who one of the best shows on television.

    But what makes it great are the two leads. Cumberpatch embodies Holmes the same way Brett did — as a precise arrogant genius who borders on sociopathy. His portrayal is much more sarcastic than Brett’s but flows from the same vein: portraying Holmes as man who thinks of himself as more than human. And Martin Freeman is simply one of the best Watsons. There is a tendency to make Watson kind of dumb so that Holmes looks smarter. Good productions — like the Ritchie films and Granada series — stay away from this. Freeman’s Watson is smart, tough and can (almost) match Holmes quip for quip. The chemistry between them is so good, the constant jokes about them being gay partners don’t hit a false note.

    We’ll see if Moffat and Gattis can keep the ball in the air for another series (and if Ritchie can). But … so far … it’s a great time to be a Holmes fan.

    The IPO

    Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

    Two things about Facebook’s massive faceplant:

    1) Anyone could have seen this coming. The hype was so intense there was no way FB could live up to it. For a company not turning a profit, a $100 billion market cap was just absurd.

    2) It’s just three days.

    I’m always astonished by the manic pace of financial news. I think our economy would be a lot better off if we just ignored them and worked.

    UK Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
  • The rise of resistant diseases is one of the biggest reasons I fear socialized medicine. Innovation is critical to the next century and I am afraid that price controls will kill it.
  • Amazing pictures of the Kowloon City.
  • This is why I read Joe Posnanski religiously. A post about nothing. And it’s beautiful.
  • I was going to write an article taking apart Buzz Blowhard Bissinger on the subject of college football. Now I don’t have to.
  • A study says women value sleep more than sex. This is unsurprising although the reasons are a bit different than what they think. It’s pure economics. For women, sex is available (mostly) when they want it so sleep takes priority. For men, you have to get it when you can, so everything else is secondary. I think Seinfeld did an episode on this, no?
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
  • So my daughter has taken to watching My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic lately. I’m fine with it, since the show is a lot more sophisticated than the stuff she’s liked before. It’s also far less abrasive and ugly than most of the animation that dominates morning TV. Still, I do not understand the brony phenomenon. Really?
  • The best magazine articles ever?
  • The amazing thing about environmental fear-mongers it that they are never discredited by being totally and completely wrong. Thankfully, a handful will own up to it.
  • This story, about potentially innocent men not being informed about flaws in the evidence against them, is appalling and should be bigger. Where the anti-big-government types when it comes to getting innocent people out of jail?
  • The thing that strikes me about this photo essay about the poorest place in America is how relative poverty is. I’m not saying they are not poor or are facing few prospects. I am saying that if you saw the same thing in much of the world, you’d think you were looking at the richest part of the country.
  • Lonely Among Us

    Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

    I’m a little late on this, but the Atlantic ran a recent story arguing that all of our social networking is making us lonelier than ever. There are a few leaps of logic that are too much to me, such as the leadoff anecdote about the lonely death of Yvette Vickers. The author regards it as somehow horrifying that she died alone, unnoticed for six months and her only communications had been with old fans.

    Why is that a problematic anecdote? Because it’s not like people have never died alone before. What was unique about this case was not that a woman died alone and no one noticed for a while. She was childless, not religious and most of her friends were dead. What was unique was that she was not alone; that her contacts with distant fans, however superficial, at least brought her some flitting human contact.

    The article maintains an early balance, pointing out the social media mainly amplify our existing social structure and it does not appear that social media are causing the rise in loneliness. But then it goes off onto one of the most aggravating journalistic excess: the personal stream of consciousness. It mainly rehashes the same argument we have been hearing for years: social media create an artificial social image, social media are superficial, etc., etc.

    The problem is that the Facebook experience she describes is atypical. There are narcissistic people out there who have a zillion friends and carefully cultivate their image. But for almost all of us, it’s a way to stay in contact with people we actually know, to dump off a quick update in the busy world to let people know what’s going on. The typical user has about 130 friends, which is close to what our brains can deal with. And they know most of them pretty well.

    For many, social media are not a replacement for social contact but an intensifier of it. I mentioned last week how I used Facebook to alert everyone I knew to be gallbladder problem. In the process, I heard from several people about their own gallbladder surgeries. Maybe, in the pre-internet days, they would have called the hospital to talk to me. Maybe. But I doubt it.

    Facebook allows me to send pictures to my parents and keep them up to date on their granddaughter. The last time we were in Australia, it allowed my wife to meet up with a childhood friend for the first time in decades. I have had numerous good conversations start from, “Hey, I saw what you said on Facebook yesterday.”

    My political blogging fits the loneliness description more. But while it’s true that the blog and twitter feed don’t harvest close personal friends (and probably does feed some narcissism), it does give me an outlet for stuff I’d just be pacing the room and ranting about. It does, hopefully, give some of my readers something to talk about to their friends. And it allows my friends to choose whether they want to deal with my politics.

    Sullivan’s readers pushed back hard on this, pointing out actual research that shows that an internet user is less isolated than a non-internet user in the same circumstance. Think of how awful it would have been for Yvette Vickers without the fleeting contact of the internet.

    In the end, have heard this line of crap since the dawn of time. Every invention from the printing press to e-mail was supposed to make us a soulless society, to deprive us of real human contact. I’m sure, when man first painted figures on the walls of caves, some self-important dick was saying, “Well, this is all fine. But we’re becoming a soulless society. People don’t pantomime buffalo hunts anymore.”

    But it seems, as the article argues in its more sensible paragraphs, that this is something we have chosen: to have a world that is more connected than ever even as we get lonelier for various reasons that are probably completely unrelated to internet technology. The decline in families and tight-knit communities is a loss. But we are also in world where someone is seconds away from communicating their thoughts to millions, where friendships can be forged over almost anything and where one needs never lose contact with old friends. I too am concerned about the reconfiguring of our social model. But I’m unwilling to get hysterical about it.

    Humans are social animals, no matter what the misanthropy people might think. We will never move to a society where people prefer loneliness over companionship or machines over people (a few genetically self-correcting exceptions aside). I see the enthusiasm for social media as a response to loneliness, not a cause of it. And as such, it’s a good thing.

    Update: More from Althouse.

    The Shakespeare Project: Twelfth Night

    Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

    That’s more like it.

    Twelfth Night is why I started this project. I had never read it; never seen it. And it was a pure delight. As usual, the nobility in the play — the Duke, Olivia, Viola and Sebastian — are mainly background to the true comedy workings of the secondary characters. The interplay between Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Maria, Fabian, Feste and Malvolio is the highlight of this frantic play. Their interactions, particularly in the cruel plank played on Malvolio, are hilarious. A good comedy needs a straight man but Twelfth Night features two: the vain Malvolio and the idiotic Sir Andrew, both of whom are played like fiddles for the amusement of Sir Toby.

    That’s not to give short shrift to the convoluted romance around Viola. The overbearing melodramatic proclamations of the Orsino and Olivia serve as a sharp contrast to the more practical behavior of the others. Today, the homoerotic aspects — Orsino in love with a boy and Olivia in love with a girl — would be played to the hilt. I’m not quite sure how it went in Shakespeare’s day, with Viola being played by a male actor (a boy pretending to be girl pretending to be a boy). But the plot is tighter than a drum, culminating in a head-spinning Act V when everything finally comes to fruition and then is resolved neatly.

    As I think about it, however, my favorite character has to be Feste, the Clown. He is the most intelligent and insightful person in the play, playing his role as a fool perfectly, moving the characters with subtlety and giving the last melancholy lines. He rapidly became one of my favorite Shakespeare creations.

    Next Up: The Winter’s Tale

    The Shakespeare Project: The Taming of the Shrew

    Thursday, April 12th, 2012

    Wikipedia has about 745 pages on this play attempting to divine its true origin, its possible version and its possible meaning. You will rarely see people bend themselves into such amazing shapes to try to somehow exonerate the writer of a piece of literature and claim that the words on the page either aren’t his or aren’t really what he meant. The discussions continually circulate back to he old, “oh, that’s satire” excuse, even though Shakespeare is not generally that subtle.

    But there’s a good reason for all this rigamarole: The Taming of the Shrew … well … isn’t good.

    Oh, it has some redeeming qualities. Kate starts out as a good character. Smashing the lute over Hortensio’s head made me laugh, even thought it happened off stage (in act, almost all of the really hilarious stuff, including the wedding, happens offstage). Her initial wordplay with Petruchio is so sharp that I hoped I would go on to read more, that this would be another Beatrice and Benedick. Alas, by the end of that very scene, she is already reduced to a passive complaint woman, not even objecting to being engaged.

    There is some fun dialogue when Lucentio and Hortensio are trying to woo Bianca. But that whole plot twists itself with the needless disguises, ultimately resolved in about two lines of dialogue. The character of Tranio is one of my favorites. He is probably the smartest man in the play. If there were any justice, he would have run off with Bianca.

    Really, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the notions that this was a rough early draft or something that Shakespeare rushed out on deadline. There are just so many missed opportunities, so many problems, so many plot holes that I can’t believe this is what he intended to write.

    Hence the contortions.

    Next Up: Twelfth Night