Monday, January 31, 2005

Yes, they know - more cowbell

What does Blue Oyster Cult think of that infamous "cowbell" skit from "Saturday Night Live"? And just how much of a cult following has that skit generated? Here's an amusing story from Paul Farhi in the Washington Post. C'mon, when's the last time you saw that skit? Treat yourself. And if you haven't seen it and have no idea what I'm talking about, tsk tsk. Rent (or buy) "Saturday Night Live: The Best of Will Ferrell - Vol. 1." Or "SNL: The Best of Christopher Walken."

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The big picture

I've been meaning to post a photo from my friend Libby's website - Monstress Productions - ever since I started this blog. The moments and images she's able to capture from her life in New York City are funny, fascinating, and sometimes just hypnotic. For me, this is one of them:

© 2005 Monstress™ Productions

I wish I could blow this up to a bigger size here, but you can see a larger image over at Libby's site. (Click on the Big Picture archive.) Something about this one really affected me. I suppose I could try to say something about image composition, framing, and all that, but I'd just be pretending to know what I'm talking about. (But the framing is beautiful.) This is what I see: a little man, looking out at the world, and being dwarfed by it. That's a feeling I'm sometimes consumed with, as I ponder just what the hell I'm going to do once I'm done with my studies here in Iowa. I can step off the ledge and take a chance with what's out there, or step back inside where it's safe (but dark).

I also want to thank Libby for posting a link to my blog, which is extremely generous of her. If you've found me through her, I appreciate you reading this. I'm not sure I belong with the other sites she's linked to; the others are legitimate artists who have created some amazing work that deserves to be seen. I'm just some dope who writes about what he read in the New York Times or watched on TV. If you get a chance, please check those sites out; you'll be fascinated by what you see.

Rise and fall

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of professional sports is how fast an athlete can turn from popular to hated. (Or vice versa.) Fans are certainly mercurial. (Guilty as charged, by the way. When hockey player Chris Chelios played for the Chicago Blackhawks, I hated the guy. But once he was traded to my Detroit Red Wings, he was a favorite.) Jerry Seinfeld had it right: We don't really cheer for the player; we cheer for the uniform he wears.

Last night, Sammy Sosa was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Baltimore Orioles. And if you're wondering why I care, Iowa City sometimes seems like an extended (very extended) suburb of Chicago. Many suburban Chicagoans attend the University of Iowa. So we get a lot of Chicago radio, TV, and newspapers here. (We also get some Chicago-style food, which keeps me nice and trim.)

Anyway, you might remember that Sosa was on top of the baseball world in 1998 when he and Mark McGwire were chasing the Major League Baseball home run record. Ever since then, the man had essentially been King of Chicago. How could you not love a guy who was having so much fun playing baseball? His smile, his enthusiasm, his titanic home runs - he was a spectacle for Chicago fans. (Watching him run out to his position in right field holding an American flag after 9-11 was a goose bump-inducing moment.)

But just as the fans can put an athlete on a pedestal, they can also kick it out from under him - especially when a player acts selfishly, pouts, and would rather play someplace else. Sosa whined about being moved from his accustomed spot in the lineup, even if it was a better move for his team because of his advancing age and diminishing skills. He was caught cheating, filling his bat with cork to make it lighter. And during the last game of this past season, he left the ballpark while the game was still being played. So management wanted Sosa gone, his teammates wanted him gone, and the fans suddenly hated him. So, as Phil Rogers says in today's Chicago Tribune, Sosa had to go. From god to goat, in the span of one season. And how bad did the Cubs want this to happen? They'll pay the Orioles $10 million of Sosa's remaining $17 million contract! And they'll receive three marginal players in return for a player who will probably go into baseball's Hall of Fame. Wow.

I wonder how long Sosa's honeymoon will last in Baltimore?

Bad ideas... or am I just cranky?

• I know copycat trends are an inherent part of pop culture. But I can still roll my eyes when I see them coming. Whenever something's a success, others try to shoulder themselves in the door while it's still open. Good business? Maybe. But wouldn't you rather be the one who established the trend? According to yesterday's USA Today, publishers are trying to capitalize on the success of The Daily Show's "America: The Book" by releasing their own political and social satires. May we just assume that most of these will be bad imitations? As much as I enjoy Bill Maher and Air America Radio, will either of these efforts be the right book at the right time, as "America: The Book" was? Will they be as cleverly funny?

• In a commentary for MarketWatch, Jon Friedman has some suggestions for changes CBS can make in its evening newscast. As I've said before, I think this is something worth keeping an eye on; shaking up the status quo can be an exciting thing to watch. Friedman has some interesting ideas, but this made me cringe: "CBS' next move should be fairly simple, really. It should take a hard look at what's hot today in popular culture, such as Jon Stewart, blogs, MTV and ESPN's "SportsCenter."

Well, two out of four isn't bad, I guess. MTV and "SportsCenter"? When's the last time you watched MTV? (Okay, maybe you watch "The Real World.") And with all of it's goofy gimmicks - "Hot Seat," "Fact or Fiction," "Top 10 Lists" - "SportsCenter" is almost unwatchable for anyone who just wants to know who won last night's game. Friedman's point is that CBS needs to entertain its viewers. I agree. But man, don't pander.

Friedman also suggests that CBS "could show only a few stories per night and present the news in an in-depth way, rather than simply broadcasting the tried-and-true format of headline/footage/interview/correspondents' air time." I thought a news show already did this; it's called "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS. But okay, he's talking about pulling in younger viewers. PBS? You got me there.

He also says, "CBS must also make sure the program is interactive and includes the viewers. This would introduce a new element into the nightly news, so the viewers don't have the impression that CBS is talking at them, instead of speaking with them, in a sort of a dialogue." I think Friedman's right, but I wish he'd have suggested how CBS do this. Watching an anchor read viewer e-mails isn't necessarily good TV. And online polls have been done to death (Hello, "SportsCenter"). Do you ask viewers want kinds of stories they want to see on the next night's or next week's news? Hmm...

Friedman's best idea, I think, is having an "irreverent" editorial, a la The Daily Show or The Onion, at the end of each broadcast. It'd be nice to have that kind of perspective each night; it's why The Daily Show feels like such a relief at the end of each day. But that's a line you'd have to toe carefully, depending on the day's news.

Okay, I've lost all of you, haven't I? Enjoy your weekends.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Does this taste funny to you?

If you've ever wondered how much mouse poison it would take to kill a human being (and hopefully, such a thought has never occurred to you), Brendan I. Koerner is here to help yet again in Slate's "Explainer" column.

And if you're curious as to why Koerner felt the need to answer such a question, check out this story. A 15-year old Wisconsin kid had tried to kill his family by exactly such a method. The lesson to be learned here? Inspect your coffee grounds carefully.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Muchas gracias

A quick note of thanks to my friend Clint Trucks, who graciously mentioned this ego trip on his blog at He had some very kind things to say, and I appreciate that. I'm glad we've managed to keep in touch through these blogs. And to anyone who found me through Clint, thanks for reading and I hope you keep coming back.

Detroit? Your turn next year

My friend Mike once referred to Jacksonville as "the Detroit of Florida." I remembered that while reading Tony Kornheiser complain about Jacksonville hosting this year's Super Bowl in yesterday's Washington Post. This should remind the people of Detroit to get ready. Start thickening that skin because the inevitable cheap shots about Detroit will begin soon. You've heard 'em all - the crime, the riots, the cars being turned over and set on fire, and all the other crap that happened years ago. You hear that low-pitched whine? That's the national sports media grumbling about how cold Detroit is, pouting that there's nothing to do in the city, and wishing the "big game" could be in New Orleans, Miami, or San Diego every year.

I hope Detroit proves 'em all wrong and puts on a great show. But I have doubts. And because of that, I'm dreading next year's Super Bowl. (Unless, of course, the Lions are in it - but please, I'm trying to be serious here.) It's great for the city to host such a major event, but not at the cost of being a punching bag. The rest of the country already thinks Detroit is a $#!+hole, and nothing that happens next year will change that. And I'd just rather avoid the teasing.

I like Detroit, I grew up near it, but I know it's not a great city. I would like to point out, however, that the area near Ford Field is developing and growing. Also, "better" cold-weather cities like Chicago, New York, and Boston have never hosted a Super Bowl, while this is Detroit's second time. So just give me time to find some leather to bite down on before taking your shots. Please try to be gentle.

Speaking of Tony Kornheiser...

Mr. Kornheiser has been one of my favorite sports columnists, but I have to agree with this article by Steven Rodrick in Slate, which says TV (specifically ESPN) is destroying the newspaper sports page. As much as I love Tony on the radio and ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," they take him away from writing, which is what got him those gigs in the first place. And it's not just Tony. Sportwriters in every big city have a radio show now, or appear on ESPN (or even FOX Sports Net). I'm going to sound like a curmudgeon, shaking his fist from the porch, but I remember when having a column in a major metropolitan newspaper was the big thing. Now, it's a stepping stone.

As a kid, my writing idol was Mitch Albom. I wanted to be a sports columnist, just like him. I eagerly read every one of his columns in the Detroit Free Press (along with the paperback "Live Albom" collections). But then Mitch started doing radio. First, it was a Sunday night sports talk show on Detroit's old WLLZ. Then he did segments with the morning show. Soon, the Sunday show got bigger, and moved to WJR. Eventually, that became a daily, drive-time program. Mitch also appears most Sunday mornings on ESPN's "Sports Reporters." That doesn't leave much time for writing. (Of course, Tuesdays with Morrie brought Albom a whole new level of success and notoriety, along with a new focus, but let me stay on topic.)

I certainly don't begrudge Albom (or any of the other writers who traded up for radio and TV gigs) for capitalizing on his accomplishments. Who wouldn't do the same thing? I would kill (well, maybe just maim) for that kind of success. Hell, with this blog, I'm still pretending to be Mitch Albom. But I miss those columns. I miss the feeling of excitement whenever Mitch wrote a new one. I'd love the left side of the sports page to give me that tingle again someday.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

No need to visit, Mom

I don't know how many people watch "The West Wing" anymore (I haven't tuned in for a couple of years), but I found out last week that an Iowa City landmark was going to be on tonight's episode. Two of the new presidential candidates (played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits), campaigning before the Iowa caucuses (First in the nation!), stopped in to the Hamburg Inn No. 2. A slice of Iowa City, right there on the tee-vee. Unfortunately, the restaurant on the show looked nothing like the real Hamburg Inn. But they got the interior pretty close. And the popular "coffee bean caucus," in which people leave a bean in their favored candidate's jar, was also included.

Pretty cool. But how about "CSI: Iowa City" next?

Here's more from the Daily Iowan (which Alan Alda was reading in the episode).

More media payola - surprise, surprise?

In lieu of Armstrong Williams's $240,000 handshake from the Bush administration, more editors are surely assigning reporters to investigate whether other "journalists" are on the take. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post turned up one today: syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher. According to the article, Gallagher had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the President's $300 million marriage initiative in 2002.

Here's a forehead-slapping quote from Gallagher: ""Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it? I don't know. You tell me."

Okay, Maggie - I'll tell you. F#$% yes, you did! Journalists shouldn't take money from organizations they're covering! Why is that so f#$%ing hard to understand? And don't play dumb - you know goddamn well that's a conflict of interest.

Pick your label

Step right up, folks! Take the World's Smallest Political Quiz, and see where you stand on the liberal-conservative scale. (I'm a liberal, according to the quiz, which probably wouldn't surprise anyone who knows me. But I lean toward conservative on economic issues.)

Who are those masked men?

Has anyone else been freaked out by those new Nike ads that are running now on ESPN (and during last weekend's football games)? They look normal enough at first, with pro athletes like baseball player Albert Pujols and football player Brian Urlacher imposingly glaring at the camera while wearing tight "performance apparel." Then it takes a turn into "Twilight Zone" territory. The athletes then wear masks, meant to represent their "game faces."

Boo! That's LaDainian Tomlinson of the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Meanwhile, Urlacher has a cage of barbed wire on his head. And some guy's wearing a Venus Fly-Trap. (Thanks to this New York Times article, I now know that's Torii Hunter of baseball's Minnesota Twins.)

All of this is meant to push Nike's Pro sports apparel, a bunch of form-fitting, spandex-type athletic clothing that a guy with my puffy build is never going to wear without seriously embarrassing himself - or going on a major diet. But if these ads scare me into losing my appetite, maybe they're indirectly accomplishing their objective.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Oscar quickie

Okay, I've only had a chance to skim over the Academy Award nominations announced this morning, but one thing jumps out at me right away - Paul Giamatti wasn't nominated in the Best Actor category for his role in "Sideways." That's baffling to me. I wonder if Giamatti is a victim of his oeuvre, which is largely composed of playing down-on-his-luck schlubs. In the eyes of Academy voters, maybe Giamatti wasn't stretching that much.

But I'm not sure who Giamatti would replace among the nominees: Don Cheadle, Johnny Depp, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Clint Eastwood. I'd point to Eastwood, but since I haven't seen "Million Dollar Baby," what can I really say?

Giamatti's snub seems particularly glaring with his co-star, Thomas Haden Church, receiving a Best Supporting Actor nod. Maybe those same voters remembered Church as Lowell the mechanic on "Wings," and figured he made a breakthrough. By the way, Virginia Madsen was also nominated from "Sideways." Ouch.

I also noticed that the film I thought was the best of last year, "Kinsey," only received one nomination (Laura Linney for Best Supporting Actress). But more on this later, after I look over the list more thoroughly.

(Was I out of control with the links?)

Shop around the corner

Thanks to Mis Hooz for sending me this, a nice feature from The Morning News about a used bookstore in Brooklyn called Freebird Books and how it's surviving in the face of continued big chain bookstore growth and internet booksellers (not just, but people selling books out of their basements and garages).

To me, there's a romance about used bookstores, getting lost among the ceiling-high shelves and chest-high stacks of books, the somewhat musty smell of the paper, finding something that you'd always been looking for or forgotten that you'd wanted. I also love the idea, one that this article points out nicely, that a good independent bookstore reflects the neighborhood it resides in.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Carson the Magnificent

from the AP (Douglas C. Pizac)

This photo captures a moment so perfectly that I had to post it. I'm not going to pretend I have a lot to say about Johnny Carson's death, but I am old enough to remember watching him (and it hurts me to admit that), and I certainly remember watching his final "Tonight Show" in 1992.

I see Carson's influence every night on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," when after a joke or particularly absurd moment, Stewart simply gets laughs with a look to the camera or in-studio audience. Even in my limited knowledge of Carson, I know he was a master of that. Stewart sometimes also flat-out imitates Carson, tugging at the knot of his tie and shrugging to save a joke or accentuate a punchline.

Carson also played a key role in the career of Jerry Seinfeld, which is demonstrated on the Volume 1 DVD set of "Seinfeld." (Disc 4, to be exact - thanks for the Christmas present, sis!) I assume Seinfeld's 1981 and 1990 appearances on "The Tonight Show" are included as a thank-you to a man who helped his career immensely.

To me, it's admirable that Carson just lived his life after retiring and didn't try to keep himself in the spotlight, no matter how much he was asked to. (It was revealed last week, however, that Carson couldn't resist still commenting on our culture, and occasionally sent jokes to David Letterman, which he used in his monologue. Good timing with that news, eh?) He knew he had his moment, and left it at that.

The New York Times had great coverage of Carson today, including a terrific obituary, another tribute, a story about his continued joke-writing, and his final monologue from "The Tonight Show."

And if you're like me and want to read just a bit more, here's a tribute from Tom Shales of the Washington Post.

Football post-mortem

Well, I'm not sure I'm ready to open a sports prognostication site. I said yesterday's games would be Patriots 20, Steelers 16 and Eagles 31, Falcons 23. I got the winners right, but neither game was as close as I thought (or hoped) it would be. The Patriots stomped the Steelers, 41-27 and the Eagles smacked the Falcons, 27-10.

To me, the Eagles' victory was more surprising to me, only because they looked so cool (not difficult in those temperatures), calm, and efficient. I don't know if I've ever seen a quarterback look more relaxed while waiting to make a throw than Donovan McNabb was in that game. He could've sipped a cup of hot chocolate while waiting to find an open receiver. His offensive line provided tremendous protection. And the Eagles' defense was disciplined, plugging every hole they were supposed to, never trying to do too much, and giving the Falcons' quarterback, Michael Vick, nowhere to run.

And the Patriots won their game, mostly because the Steelers let them. Pittsburgh made crucial mistakes throughout, turning the ball over four times, and New England simply capitalized on those errors, scoring immediate touchdowns. The Steelers' spirit was crushed for certain when the Patriots prevented them from converting a 4th down and 1 yard-to-go. Pittsburgh ran the ball well all season long, but couldn't get one yard when it was most needed.

I think the Patriots will win Super Bowl XXXIX in two weeks (and then yes, Mis Hooz, football season will finally be over), but the Eagles won't just be happy to be in the game, as one of my friends said. Having failed in three previous attempts to get to the Super Bowl, I think the Eagles know exactly how difficult the venture is, and won't squander the opportunity. It'll be a close, exciting game.

And this photo is for my sister, who finds Patriots quarterback Tom Brady "adorable" and has crushed on him ever since his days at the University of Michigan.

Get in line, sis. I think I have a man-crush on the guy, too.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Snow angels

How about this snow, straight outta Brooklyn? (Photo courtesy of Mis Hoooz.) I can't believe how lucky Iowa's been this weekend, avoiding the blizzards that have buried the midwest and northeast.

Maybe I'm just hungry on this Sunday morning, but doesn't that snow piled on the table look like a giant powdered donut? The diet must be getting to me.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Weekend mix

• Does anyone else have someone in their lives that adds unnecessary drama to relatively trivial events? Someone who spouts ridiculously embarrassing hyperbole ("really suffering," "a major burden of life") in order to give rather pedestrian circumstances some sort of artificial significance? Why do such people do this? Is it a sign that the scope of their lives is just too small? Do they need the drama to make their lives seem more important? Just curious. I'm - ahem - speaking completely in hypotheticals, of course.

• "In Good Company" is a good movie, but I wonder if it suffers at the box office (#4 last weekend) from marketing. It seems like the studio isn't quite sure how to sell this one. Is it a satire of corporate culture? Is it about older, yet not-ready-for-retirement professionals being pushed out by young, ambitious up-and-comers? Yes, on both counts. But I think it's also about the fulfillment of a complete life, not just career success.

And maybe that's why I enjoyed this movie - it's got several layers to it. Not all of them work - maybe because the story should've eventually found a focus - but Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace are so good that they make you care what happens to their characters, and that covers up some of the movie's flaws. Also, Scarlett Johansson is much better than the part she's given. Yet she takes what she has and makes something interesting and believable out of it. It's hard to believe this is the same woman from "Lost in Translation."

• A note of gratitude to Lysol® Mildew Remover for taking care of some ugly black spots that were growing near my windows. (Nothing says "Hey, you should come over to my apartment" to the cute cashier at Target more than buying mildew remover.) The apartment smells a little bleachy, but some open windows and a fan (in 20-degree weather - whoo!) took good care of that. Black spots, bye-bye. I wish I'd have taken "before" and "after pictures.

• I noticed the NFL's San Francisco 49ers hired Mike Singletary as assistant head coach yesterday. Singletary was a fearsome linebacker for the Chicago Bears during the 1980s, who always intrigued me as a kid because he had a teddy bear face with intense, bulging eyes that looked as if he'd tear out your belly and eat it. I wish I had a picture of those eyes, but can't find one. Hopefully, this assistant coach position is the next step toward a head-coaching job for Singletary.

• Let me repeat: Patriots 20, Steelers 16. Eagles 31, Falcons 23.

• One more football note: here's an interesting column from Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post that wonders exactly why some quarterbacks like New England's Tom Brady excel in late-game pressure situations, while others wilt under the stress. (Why do some students do well on practice tests, but freeze up when the stakes are real?) Is there something in Brady's physiology that enables him to perform well in those circumstances? He was cool under pressure in his college days at the University of Michigan too.

• And the real reason I'm not getting anything done this weekend? VH1's "I Love the 90s - Part Deux." This series is television crack for me. I'm not sure why this version is better than the first attempt at "I Love the 90s" - Funnier topics? Better talking heads/"commentators"? I'm just glad it's the beginning of the semester.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Not a big deal anymore

Until reading this article by the Washington Post's Leonard Shapiro yesterday, it hadn't occurred to me that NFL "history" is being made this coming Sunday. For the first time, two teams with African-American quarterbacks - the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles - will be playing each other in a National Football League semi-final game. And for a sport that previously seemed to believe that black players weren't intelligent enough and lacked the leadership skills to play quarterback, this is a notable occasion. So it was appropriate for several sports writers (including Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and Terry Foster of the Detroit News) to point this out.

But as I said, this didn't even register with me while thinking about Sunday's game. That's because it's not even an issue anymore. And that's the true progress, in my opinion. Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick are great players - period - and that's why their respective teams are playing for the chance to go to the Super Bowl on Sunday. When two black quarterbacks play each other in that big game, that'll be big news too. But after that, let's put the issue to rest (and then move on to address why teams aren't hiring African-American head coaches).

-- By the way, the Eagles and Patriots will win their games on Sunday and face each other in two weeks in Super Bowl XXXIX. (I think I have those Roman numerals right.) I know those aren't bold picks, but I think they're the two better teams. Philadelphia's defense will contain Michael Vick's running and passing abilities, and Atlanta won't be able to stop Philly's running back Brian Westbrook. And New England will do what they always do, play efficiently on offense with heartthrob quarterback Tom Brady, and disrupt the Pittsburgh Steelers with their defense.

Patriots 20, Steelers 16 and Eagles 31, Falcons 23. I'm hoping for two close games. And if I'm right on both of this, this blog might become a betting site next year.

Booze makes brainy babes

Some good friends of mine should be very happy with this article in yesterday's Washington Post. According to Rob Stein's piece, women who drink low to moderate amounts of alcohol on a daily basis are more likely to maintain memories and other cognitive functions as they get older. Throw this in with previous studies that said that a drink a day is good for your heart.

So drink up, ladies. Hell, why don't you come to the wine shoppe with me? Some of us men like smart women (despite what Maureen Dowd says), and would prefer you stay that way. Bring some crossword puzzles with you.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

How "Embarrass"-ing

I'm glad someone else was wondering how the town of Embarrass, Minnesota (of recent 54 degrees below zero fame) got its name. More specifically, I'm glad Brendan I. Koerner of Slate's "Explainer" column had the same question and provided the answer.

During the 17oos, French priests and fur trappers, along with French-Canadian lumberjacks had trouble navigating the river running through that part of Minnesota. As a result, they called the area Rivière d'Embarras, which translates into "River of Obstacles" or "River of Obstructions." The name evolved into the Embarrass River, and when the Finnish settled in around the early 1900s, they liked the name (perhaps not knowing what the English translation meant) and kept it. Oui oui, Mr. Koerner.

One quick thought

As I watch the preparations and "pre-game shows" for today's presidential inauguration with breakfast this morning, I'm realizing that it has already been one year since the Iowa presidential caucuses, one year since Howard Dean's infamous "I have a scream" speech. Living in Iowa during those caucuses was an valued experience for me, one I will never forget. It reaffirmed my growing interest in the political process (one that I have probably burdened my friends - and other readers of this blog - with), and my desire to stay informed about what goes on in this country. As graduation looms closer for me, I anticipate leaving Iowa. But I would love to be back in 2007 for the 2008 caucuses.

Chance for change

I don't know how interesting this is to most people, considering the evening network news programs continue to lose viewership. Tom Brokaw balked at that point during his retirement send-off tour, pointing out how many millions of viewers tuned into NBC Nightly News. I wish I had the exact numbers, but this November Chicago Tribune article has some, along with several different opinions as to whether network news will survive.

But once Brokaw retired in November, many media watchers thought this would begin the end of the traditional evening newscast. With the "big three" (Brokaw, Jennings, Rather) breaking up, the days of a solitary (white, male) anchors, lording over an entire newscast would soon pass. And with Dan Rather stepping down from his chair in March, CBS has an opportunity to change how these news programs conduct their business.

Yesterday's New York Times had an interesting piece on the various options CBS chairman Leslie Moonves is considering, each of which looks to reshape a format that seems old and musty, perhaps drastically. Of course, some of this desire for change is fueled by the recent criticisms of CBS News, tied to the botched investigation of George W. Bush's National Guard service. So what does Moonves have in mind? Maybe multiple anchors (led by "The Today Show's" Katie Couric?), more of an "ensemble cast," reporting from different parts of the country. (And that ensemble could include "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart.)

Maybe this is much ado about nothing, and Moonves will end up putting something on the air that just isn't that different. Or maybe no one will care, since so many get their news elsewhere these days. But to me, it's intriguing whenever someone has the chance to alter the status quo and try something new. Sometimes, that results in an embarrassing disaster. But look at the success of CBS's programming over the past few years; I don't think Leslie Moonves has overseen too many train wrecks.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Luke, join the Carb Side of the force

... or is "Starch Side of the force" a better pun? Matt sent this to me last night.


That is "Darth Tater." Yes, the Dark Lord of the Sith has been reduced to a Mr. Potato Head. Turning one of this generation's most famous evil villains into a lovable toy with bulging eyes is a brilliant idea. Hopefully, this is what we see at the end of this summer's "Star Wars: Episode III":

"Anakin, you've become a potato. You know I'm on a low-carb diet."

"Search your feelings, Amidala. You know that is nothing more than a fad diet."

A girl to bring home for dinner?

Here's something you'll either find attractive or disgusting. (That'd be an interesting poll.) Check out a young lady who puts those Hardee's commercials (no, shoving a bunch of straws in your mouth does not make me want to buy one of your burgers) to shame, via

Maybe she can give Takeru Kobayashi a run for his money at this year's Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest.

Still kicking himself

I'm not a San Diego Chargers fan, but as a University of Iowa fan, I felt bad for Nate Kaeding when his end-of-the-game field goal try sailed wide right of the goal post two weeks ago against the New York Jets. He never seemed to miss those kicks at Iowa. Actually, I don't feel as bad for him after reading the first sentence of this article; there could be worse things than living as a wealthy professional athlete in beautiful San Diego. But Kaeding is a small-town Iowa City guy at heart, which this piece illustrates. It's always nice to go home when things are tough.

Million dollar lady

A bizarre story continues for the Detroit Tigers and their pitcher Ugueth Urbina. (Actually, "bizarre" undercuts the seriousness of the story.) Last September, Urbina's mother was kidnapped in Venezuela. She was abducted by men dressed as police officers and held for ransom. Upon hearing the news, Urbina left the Tigers to address the situation. Unfortunately, according to this story in yesterday's Detroit News, Urbina's mother is still being held. The situation doesn't appear close to a resolution, but no one - the Venezuelan government, the Urbina family, the Tigers, Major League Baseball, the U.S. State Department, not even academic experts on Venezuelan law - will discuss the case. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise, given the fragile nature of the circumstances. Evidently, these sorts of kidnappings are becoming commonplace in Venezuela. Relatives of professional athletes, with their multi-million dollar salaries, are especially vulnerable.

The awkward, insensitive question the Tigers are afraid to ask now is whether or not Urbina will be available to play for them this upcoming season.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Now THAT'S cold

I promise not to bitch about the cold for the rest of the winter. At least I'm not living in Embarrass, Minnesota (Who the hell named that town?) where the temperature yesterday was 54 degrees below zero. That's not with wind chill, people. That was the actual temperature.

Anti-social academic

Here's a completely self-centered rant that I don't expect anyone to relate to, but hey, please indulge me. I F***ing hate professors that assign group projects. Give me any paper, any exam, etc., and I will work my ass off to do the best work that I can. But when I have to depend on two or three other people for a project - each of whom I assume to be a slacker somehow - then I get furious and stressed out. I suppose group $#!+ is part of life, and something I might have to deal with in any job someday. But I went back to school to avoid life, man. Dammit. This ruins my lunch.

Op-Ed inauguration thoughts

Normally I would be interested in anything that filmmaker Errol Morris has to say. "The Fog of War" - Robert McNamara's mea culpa about the Vietnam War - and "The Thin Blue Line" - which eventually led to a murder conviction being overturned - were two incredible documentaries. But in today's New York Times, Morris gives his two cents as to why John Kerry lost to George W. Bush. I know the inauguration is this week, and many would prefer to see Kerry up there instead of Bush. But really, unless there is anything the Democrats can learn from Kerry's failure for the 2008 campaign, then what's the point in flogging this very-near-dead horse?

Perhaps a more constructive, useful column is from my favorite conservative (other than my friend Chris), David Brooks - also in today's New York Times. Brooks, whose insightful commentary on PBS's "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" each Friday is much appreciated (and that's two PBS references in one day of blogging, thank you), has an interesting take on those Democrats who feel their platform has to be "ruthless and disciplined," like the Republicans. This is a tactic doomed to failure, according to Brooks, because there are three conservatives to every two liberals in this country. And the Democrats already have those two liberals. There is no more support to rally within the party. Thus, Democrats have to compromise a bit, a la Bill Clinton, to reach those middle-class suburban white families. To achieve that, Brooks says, Democrats "need a leader who will make liberals feel uncomfortable... not someone who will make them feel righteous and good." Ideologically, I'd love to disagree with Brooks. But he might be right, and it's certainly worth considering.

Two hours well spent

Anyone watch part 1 of Ken Burns's latest documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," on PBS last night? The talking heads that Burns has assembled to talk about this boxer's life - such as James Earl Jones, Stanley Crouch, George Plimpton, and Bert Sugar - have some great stories to share. (For instance, during a fight, Johnson asked his girlfriend in the audience which round she wanted him to knock out his opponent. She said the 4th round, and Johnson obliged.) There's also an impressive cast of voice talent narrating the story, including Samuel L. Jackson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. Being reminded of how horribly racist this country once was (and depending on whom you ask, I'm sure, still is) is depressing - and a theme Burns apparently doesn't want us to forget - but Johnson is a fascinating subject. This man was so much more than a boxer; he was a cultural icon.

Though this is probably isn't the point of the film, while watching it, I couldn't help but put on my sports fan cap and think about how culturally irrelevant boxing has become in this country. We'll never see anyone make the sort of impact that Jack Johnson or Muhammed Ali did from their sport. I don't think any athlete (or sport) has that ability anymore, unless you consider pretending to pull your pants down cultural impact.

I'd love to watch part 2 tonight, but it's on at the same time as "Scrubs." Oooh, that's a dilemma.

Reading envy

I found this at the blog of Jamie S. Rich, who's made his trade mostly as a comic book editor and writer, but also has written some terrific stuff on films. He's also the author of a novel, titled "Cut My Hair," which you might want to check out if you're a fan of first-person narrators with a distinct voice and characters who love indie rock music. (His new book, "The Everlasting," is on the way.)

Anyway, I digress: Jamie linked to another blog which puts my piddling (and failed) reading ambitions to shame. This woman is the voracious reader I aspire to be. I have all the ambition, but lack the attention span.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Random thoughts

• If there was any doubt as to whether the New England Patriots are the best team in football - and the favorites to win the Super Bowl - yesterday's 20-3 victory over the Indianapolis Colts should erase that. I imagine most so-called experts picked the Colts mostly because they've become tired of seeing the Patriots win. How quickly they forget: Bill Belichick is probably the best head coach in the National Football League. Given enough time (and he had two weeks to scheme up a defense for the Colts), his team can seemingly beat any team.

(I'm not sure I'd like Boston winning both the World Series and Super Bowl, however.)

• Is anyone else over the Desperate Housewives now? I should've done more with my time than watch the Golden Globe awards last night, but it was irritating to see those five women constantly paraded in front of the camera. Enough already! I'll admit I bought into the hype at first, but now it's out of control. It's an okay show with some beautiful women and a hint of mystery to the storyline, but that's it.

• I have to see "Million Dollar Baby." I was somewhat surprised to see Clint Eastwood beat out Martin Scorsese for the Best Director award at the Golden Globes, but since I haven't seen his movie, it's hard for me to really have an opinion. As someone who loves movies, I'm annoyed when a film is huge with the critics, yet isn't showing everywhere. But according to the Internet Movie Database, "Million Dollar Baby" should go into wider release (even out here in Iowa, hopefully) this coming Friday.

• One more Golden Globes thought: When was the last time Robin Williams was funny? I won't say he didn't deserve his lifetime achievement award last night, because his body of work (I thought he was great in "Good Will Hunting") probably warrants an honor of some sort. But when he took the microphone to accept the award, I had to wonder if the audience was laughing out of courtesy. His "jokes" included:

"I'd like to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press for having an open bar. This makes this evening go kind of well."

"I also want to thank you for having Prince, William Shatner, Puff Daddy and Mick Jagger on the same stage. That is the sign of the apocalypse."

Robin, please go away quietly...

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Sunshine on a cloudy day

I hope my friend Mike doesn't mind me posting this picture, but it's adorable and brought a smile to my face. These are two of his three kids, Nathan and Zoe. (Sorry Talia, I'll put one of your pictures up someday.)

C'mon, how can you not melt at those faces? Nathan was born just before Thanksgiving. And Zoe is already brilliant for her age (4). Hopefully, she doesn't have any trouble finding men in the future. Great job, Mike.

Beating the buzzer - Best of 2004

I meant to add my two cents to all the "Best Movies of 2004" lists released over the past couple of weeks, but more interesting stuff - at least to me - came up. With the Golden Globe Awards coming up tonight, however, I thought I'd blurt out my Top 5 list beforehand, just so I could say "Oh yeah, I picked that movie." Thanks for indulging my ego. In order, I thought the best movies I watched in 2004 (and very early 2005) were:

1. Kinsey
2. The Aviator
3. Sideways
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. Ray

As a copout, I'll also list as honorable mention: Before Sunset, I ♥ Huckabees, Garden State, The Incredibles and Collateral.

I think The Aviator will be the film to clean up at all the big awards ceremonies. Even though the nominees haven't been announced yet, I'd be surprised if it didn't win Best Picture at next month's Academy Awards. And I'd be shocked if Martin Scorsese didn't finally receive his long-deserved Best Director Oscar. Maybe Scorsese's last two films have tried a little too hard to win the golden guy, but I think The Aviator deserves it, unlike Gangs of New York. It's a really good movie (though not as good as Kinsey, in my opinion).

The worst film I saw in 2004? Taking Lives was one of the dumbest movies I've seen in the last 10 years (and that's including shit like Dude, Where's My Car?). Everyone associated with that dreck should be embarrassed.

Here are some other "Best Of" lists: David Edelstein has a good one at Slate, the guys at indieWIRE always have interesting takes, and A.O. Scott's list at the New York Times is interesting because he says Sideways is the most overrated film of the year and critics love it mostly because they identify with Paul Giamatti's schlubby, abrasive lead character. I'm sure Scott's a big hit at those critics dinners.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

SWM seeks dummy with dead-end job?

Do men want less intelligent, less accomplished women in long-term relationships? Maureen Dowd seemed to think so in Thursday's New York Times. Unfortunately, two of Dowd's points of reference for her theory (males pursuing subordinant and, in some cases, non-English speaking, women) are the films "Spanglish" and "Love Actually." Not sure you're tapping into the cultural zeitgeist there, Mo.

But it's an interesting question. Do men prefer women who don't challenge them? I say no, but maybe I don't match the profile of the typical guy. And I certainly don't fit Dowd's example of a rich, powerful man. So maybe I have less to feel threatened about. Though I'm hardly in a position to be choosy these days, I'd prefer an intellectual and professional equal (for some "snap and crackle," as Dowd says). Otherwise, wouldn't things get boring?

However, a few of my female friends who have had trouble finding boyfriends and husbands might agree with this. In fact, in trying to console one of those friends, I've often said that men might be intimidated by her intelligence and career standing. And I'm not just blowing smoke; I believe that. The male ego certainly likes to be fed. (I was going to say "stroked," but that invites too many innuendoes.)

Dowd's column cites a study by psychologists at the University of Michigan, which suggested that "men going for long-term relationships would rather marry women in subordinate jobs than women who are supervisors." The U-M study analyzed undergraduate students.

Another study by four British universities found that "a high I.Q. hampers a woman's chance to get married, while it is a plus for men." Furthermore, "the prospect for marriage increased by 35 percent for guys for each 16-point increase in I.Q.; for women, there is a 40 percent drop for each 16-point rise." (Maybe this explains Hugh Grant's character in "Love Actually.")

So is Dowd onto something here? Or is she taking out her dating frustrations on her readers? Do men just want someone who will look up to them, adore them, and not talk a whole lot? I'll have to begin my own survey.

A good start?

I wasn't going to write about Major League Baseball's shiny new drug-testing policy, but since the steroid use of Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds bothered me so much last month, I thought it was worth at least a comment.

What's impressive is that MLB moved fast on this. I have no idea if this was already in the works, but I'm sure the Giambi and Bonds revelations accelerated the process. Amending the collective bargaining agreement with the players' union in the middle of the contract has never been done before. It looks like the union caved in to the owners, which had never happened previously. But the many players who are tired of competing against performance-enhanced opponents pushed for this.

The new policies come down to this, according to Dave Sheinin's article in the Washington Post:

• The first time a player is caught using steroids, he'll be suspended for 10 days (not 10 games, unfortunately). The previous penalty was no suspension for a first-time offender. A 2nd positive test warrants a 30-day ban. 60-day and one-year suspensions are next on the list.

• An increase in random drug testing. Previously, players could only be randomly tested once a year. Also, players can be tested during the offseason, which wasn't the case before.

• New substances, such as THG (the "designer" steroid Bonds and Giambi had taken), androstendione (which Mark McGwire admittedly took during his record-setting home run season of 1998), human growth hormone, ephedra (which was cited in the 2003 death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler) and other diuretics and masking agents.

I'm not sure if this will "take care of the problem completely," as players union chief Donald Fehr said when the new drug policy was announced. The penalties aren't as serious as, for example, the NFL, which suspends a player for four games (1/4 of the season) if he's tested positive for steroids. But it's probably a good start. Major League Baseball had to do something to regain some lost credibility, as its record books are being rewritten by doped-up behemoths.

The question now is whether this will result in an asterisk being placed next to Barry Bonds's inevitably record-setting career home run total.

Ice Planet Iowa

Right now, the temperature outside is 2 degrees, with a wind chill of -15. It's the kind of cold that, when you inhale, you can feel icicles forming on your nose hairs. Every other word is "fuck" because that's the only word that suitably describes the bone-chilling cold and the pain it causes. Snow isn't snow anymore - it's ice that doesn't give when you step on it. Taking out the garbage earlier was an ordeal. Staying in the apartment to watch movies and pro football (Go Steelers?) while drinking hot beverages all day seems like the smart thing to do. I might set fire to old textbooks to keep my heating bills down. And I foresee lots of blogging...

I know, it's January in the midwest. It's supposed to be cold. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are all freezing too. We're all suffering together.

Friday, January 14, 2005

More than a game

Tonight, the Palace of Auburn Hills hosted a feel-good story that will hopefully help to fumigate the stench of the infamous brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers back in November. Grant Hill returned to the Palace as a healthy basketball player. What's the big deal?

Since leaving the Pistons for the Orlando Magic as a free agent in 2000, Grant Hill has fought a debilitating ankle injury that not only threatened his career as a professional basketball player, but maybe his ability to ever normally walk again, as well. He's attempted to play several times over the past five years, but his ankle kept giving out.

It's an injury he suffered, by the way, while trying like hell to get the Pistons into the playoffs. Detroit fans never seemed to fully embrace Hill, maybe because he was presented as a pre-packaged superstar - the presumed heir to Michael Jordan. And Detroiters like their pro athletes blue-collar (Steve Yzerman, Joe Dumars, Barry Sanders, Alan Trammell). That probably contributed to Hill leaving for Orlando. But being the good guy he is, Hill worked out a trade so Detroit wouldn't be left empty-handed. Ben Wallace, the current face of the Detroit Pistons, was part of the package of players from Orlando.

But I didn't realize Hill's ankle injury was fatally serious until reading a harrowing story in today's Detroit Free Press. A staph infection almost killed Hill. His "leg from the knee down was red and black," according to the article. And here's another gruesome image for you to contemplate: two and a half weeks after the infection, Hill's ankle had a hole in the skin. "[The doctor] cleared away some of the dead skin and basically, right there was my bone."

Detroit ended up beating Orlando tonight, by the score of 101-94. Being in Iowa now, I was nowhere near the game and couldn't even see it on TV. But I hope Grant Hill got a standing ovation from the crowd. He almost literally gave up his limb for the Pistons.

Here's more on Hill from Mitch Albom.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Elektra or E-blech-tra?

This week's movie review quote comes from Manohla Dargis of the New York Times (who, based on how often I seem to quote her, is becoming one of my favorite film critics): "There are a few laughs in "Elektra," principally because the script is a joke."

Actually all the critics seem to hate "Elektra." My buddy Matt pointed me over to Rotten Tomatoes, which collects reviews from critics around the country. As I write this, "Elektra" has a 3% freshness rating (a movie that gets above 60% is considered "fresh," or favored by the critics). I haven't determined if that's the worst rating a movie has ever received, but it has to be close. 1 out of 38 critics liked this one. That one person is Bob Townsend of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (I'd link to the article, but a pain-in-the-ass registration is required.) And he seemed to like Jennifer Garner more than the movie itself.

(Bob apparently uses a different rating system than "thumbs up," but thankfully doesn't tell us which appendage was up for him.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Follow-up on Clooney vs. O'Reilly

Well, some considerable money might go where that considerable mouth is, after all. Bill O'Reilly has accepted George Clooney's invitation (challenge?) to appear on NBC's Tsunami Aid telethon this coming Saturday.

"NBC has faxed us over information that all of the money that you donate to the telethon on Saturday night is going to the American Red Cross -- all of it," said O'Reilly on his radio show Tuesday. "I like that. So, I'm gonna go over and do it."

Part of me thinks O'Reilly just didn't want Clooney to have the last word. But that's being mean, considering O'Reilly looks like a stand-up guy here. A good cause is worth burying a hatchet for.

Since you're just handin' out money...

An amusing essay for bedtime reading: In yesterday's Slate, Art Levine asked the White House Communications Director for some of that Armstrong Williams payola. The man makes a strong case; wouldn't $240,000 go a longer way if a liberal was shilling for Bush administration policies, instead of a conservative?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Get outta my face!

from the Associated Press

I had to post this photo because it's hilarious. Baseball pitcher Randy Johnson, new member of the New York Yankees, apparently embraced the media with open arms yesterday, pushing a camera from WCBS-TV away when they tried to get a picture. When the cameraman defended his right to film - on a public sidewalk in New York City - Johnson responded, "Don't get in my face, and don't talk back to me, all right."

"Don't talk back to me"? Is he kidding? Who is he, an elementary school substitute teacher?

Johnson is supposed to be on David Letterman's show tonight. Boy, that should be a barrel full of laughs.

(Told you I wasn't getting anything done today...)

Clooney vs. O'Reilly -- Episode II

Quote of the Day (well, yesterday):

"this is your chance to put your considerable money where your considerable mouth is... "

-- George Clooney, in a letter to Bill O'Reilly, challenging him to contribute to this weekend's fundraiser for the tsunami victims of southern Asia. (Remember, O'Reilly criticized a celebrity 9-11 fundraiser, saying the money wasn't really going to the victims.)

More from MSNBC.

Mr. Tony is back!

I don't expect anyone else reading (and thank you for reading) my blog to care about this, but I'm thrilled about it, so I'm writing about it.

Close friends and family know I was disheartened when Tony Kornheiser's talk radio show was "retired" on ESPN Radio last March, probably due - though this was never publicly confirmed - to philosophical differences with ESPN Radio management. Kornheiser - co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" and frustratingly occasional (of late) sports columnist for the Washington Post (the material of which inspires the CBS show, "Listen Up") - said he loved doing radio, however, and would be back on the air when his batteries recharged (or his ESPN Radio contract ran out, whichever you choose to believe), most likely on local Washington D.C. radio.

Yes, Tony

That day has come! I wish I'd been following this more closely, but over the past week or so, I'd noticed Tony saying "I talked to (fill in the blank) on the radio today." What? Did this mean he had a radio show again? Apparently, I need to be hit over the head with a brick to get the idea, and that brick came when Tony's "PTI" co-host, Michael Wilbon, mentioned the radio show on his weekly Washington Post online chat. One Google search later, I found Tony's new show, on D.C.'s Sports Talk 980-AM. And best of all, the station streams its shows on the internet! The old, familiar theme song, Tony's co-host, Andy Pollin - it's all back, without the ESPN trimmings, and I can listen to it. And if I wasn't already thinking of getting XM Satellite Radio after graduating in May and rejoining the real world, Tony's show will be part of the XM lineup.

I'm not getting anything done today. And I know my sister will call me a dork for all this. I don't care. I'm a happy, happy man.

Desperate Newshounds

It's been an interesting few days for the media, between the Armstrong Williams payoff and now, the hammer dropping on CBS's fundamentally flawed story on George W. Bush's National Guard service in the 1970s. As a result of an independent panel's investigation (You read it - it's 224 pages), the heads of four CBS News staffers (one producer, three executives) rolled yesterday.

Dan Rather escaped relatively unscathed - at least in the panel's report - but if he wasn't already retiring in March, would he also be unemployed today? (Andrew Sullivan thinks Rather needs to step down now, regardless.) It's hard to believe the face of CBS News wouldn't have taken a fall, as well, though he was busy covering the Republican National Convention and hurricanes in Florida while the accuracy of the Bush report was being largely ignored.

I'm sure some would say this exposes an alleged liberal bias at CBS News. (I was waiting for Bill O'Reilly to level that accusation last night on "The O'Reilly Factor," but he seemed refreshingly even-handed on the matter - at least during the first segment of the program I watched.) CBS was certainly guilty of sloppy journalism, doing what many people see as a problem with today's media: rushing to get a story on the air, before doing the necessary research and fact-checking to ensure accuracy. (At least three forensic experts told CBS the documents questioning Bush's National Guard service were likely false.)

In the end, CBS News was a desperate news department, eager to crawl out of third-place ratings and decreasing relevancy. They just wanted this scoop too badly, and disregarded the usual checks and balances. It'll be interesting to see how long the egg stays on its collective face.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Maybe not extreme makeover

Did you see Michael Moore at the People's Choice Awards Sunday night? I didn't watch, because really, who gives a $#!+, but I had to notice how Moore looked at the ceremony. The styled hair, framed glasses, and facial hair shaved into a goatee - did the Queer Eye guys get ahold of him? (And if so, it's nice to know those boys are still getting work.)

from WJRT-TV (Flint, MI)

Uninterested - maybe

I'm not sure if I wasted an hour last night watching HBO's new show, "Unscripted." (I may have also wasted an hour watching "Carnivale," but I'm willing to watch another 2-3 episodes before I make that determination.) I'll admit I was sucked in by the names of George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh attached to the show. (Their "Section Eight" productions could be renamed "Suction Eight" when it comes to me. Not to reflect the quality of its material, which is often very good, but how it pulls me in, regardless of how it looks on the surface.)

I arguably could've learned my lesson from their previous effort on HBO, "K Street," a fictional documentary-style show following Washington D.C. lobbyists (and "starring" James Carville and Mary Matalin). It was an interesting concept on paper, especially for a political junkie like me, but didn't quite work in its execution. In the three episodes I watched before giving up on it, "K Street" was often more baffling than interesting.

"Unscripted" appears to involve the same premise, only the setting is switched from D.C. to Hollywood. The show follows three aspiring actors (each of whom are "playing" themselves) who are trying to make it in show business; going to various auditions, plugging away in an actors' workshop, and suffering repeated humiliations. Some of the situations are funny, such as Krista Allen excitedly meeting with Garry Marshall, only to find out that he wants to hire her 6-year old son for a sitcom, rather than her. Others, such as Frank Langella's acting teacher relentlessly criticizing and verbally beating his students, aren't. (But maybe that just resembles my writing classes a little too closely.)

I guess I'm wondering why viewers should bother watching this show. Is it to see actors - "the beautiful people" - suffer to achieve a life most of us are supposed to think is glamorous? Is a story about struggling actors really that interesting? How many times have we seen that? (Hey, just wait until this becomes a blog by a struggling writer!) Will people want to watch people endure continual indignation, which is ostensibly why so many of us tune in to "reality TV"?

As Stephanie Zacharek says in her Salon column, "I Like to Watch" (I think a subscription is required to read it, unfortunately), why don't we get a show like this about plumbers, truck drivers, or accountants? It might be just as interesting

Right above the action

If, like me, you're both captivated and annoyed by the "skycam" used in virtually all football games now, here's an interesting explanation about the camera system from Thursday's New York Times. I'm sure you knew it was operated with cables too; all you have to do is look at hang above the field.

As I said, I have mixed feelings about the view. It resembles one of the Madden video games, and you can see more of the play unfold than you often do from the normal sideline view. But I also think TV directors are a little too in love with the shot. Has your stomach ever lurched as the camera switches abruptly from one side of the field to the other during a kickoff return? Pass the Dramamine, man.

Kevin & Kate, Lex & Lois?

Superman will never save you from my evil clutches, Ms. Lane

Director Bryan Singer must've really liked "Beyond the Sea." Why? Well, he's apparently cast the two stars from that film, Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth, to play Lex Luthor and Lois Lane in the upcoming brand-new Superman movie (starring unknown Brandon Routh as the guy with the cape, by the way).

Not sure how I feel about Bosworth, but I love Spacey as Superman's arch-nemesis. Man, I hope this movie is good.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Scott loves Donna (plural)

Things I thought I might never hear? The Donnas this morning on NPR's "Morning Edition." The contrast between Scott Simon's distinctly NPR-type of voice and The Donnas crunching guitars was certainly amusing. It was rather surreal to hear the band rock through songs like "Fall Behind Me" and "Don't Break Me Down," followed by Simon's "thank you." It was also hilarious to hear rock music come from the bathroom upstairs, where my dad was getting ready for the day. The door was closed, but I know Denny was shakin' it, beating his toothbrush or razor against the sink to the beats.

Meanwhile, I was smitten with the voices coming from the radio. The Donnas sound adorable when they're not rockin'. (Their band name used to be The Electrocutes.) You think they'd be pissed with me for saying that? Look at the photo above; how could they get mad at me? And if they did, I doubt I'd put up much of a fight. How hot are women playing drums and electric guitars?

No payout left behind

I heard about this via The Al Franken Show on Air America Radio while driving around town yesterday. (Ann Arbor's WLBY - 1290 AM - is thankfully one of Air America's 41 affiliates. How about an Iowa City affiliate, guys? That's a nice liberal college town stuck in a red state.) Syndicated talk show host and newspaper columnist Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Bush administration to endorse the No Child Left Behind act to his audience. Williams was also asked to persuade other black journalists and media personalities to promote NCLB, as he did with comedian Steve Harvey, who had Education Secretary Rod Paige on his show.

Arm$trong William$

Quoted in USA Today, Williams said he accepted the payment to promote NCLB "because it's something I believe in."

Well, if you already believe in it, Armstrong, why did you need to take $240,000 to extol its virtues?

Even worse, according to Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - also quoted in the USA Today article - is that "Congress has prohibited propaganda" for any government-funded program. Lobbying for anything that taxpayers are footing the bill for, such as No Child Left Behind, is illegal.

I assumed this would be a topic du jour at Jim Romenesko's blog (via the Poynter Institute), which always discusses all things media. And to no surprise, at the top of the page was the news that Tribune Media Services, in lieu of this revelation, had decided to stop distributing Williams's syndicated newspaper column.

"Accepting compensation in any form," said a press release from Tribune Media Services, "from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Now, I'm betting that this isn't a big deal to the general public. And maybe most of you reading this don't really give a $#!+ about someone in the media accepting handouts, especially if it's someone you've never heard of. But as a former journalism major, this really bothers me. Off the top of my head, I can think of two cardinal sins for a journalist: 1) Plagiarizing material, a la Jayson Blair or Mike Barnicle, and 2) Accepting money from any organization other than an employer.

Of course, there's a question as to whether Armstrong Williams is even a journalist. He's a talk show host and a columnist. How much actual reporting or investigation is part of his job? So is he obligated to the same responsibilities that an actual journalist would be? Maybe not. But if you were to watch Williams's show and he expressed an opinion that you happened to share or agree with, how would you feel if you then discovered that opinion was bought and paid for? Whose opinion is he really expressing?

Friday, January 07, 2005

"Garfield" put to sleep

My friend Matt tipped me off to this yesterday. The Los Angeles Times kicked "Garfield" off its daily comics page (the Sunday strip will still run) in favor of a new (and much funnier, from what I can tell) strip, titled "Brevity." Unfortunately, I can't link to the article explaining the decision because it's in the "Calendar Live" section which requires a paid subscription. So I'll quote and link to the article Matt sent me from "Editor & Publisher."

"We're always trying to get some new talent in the comics pages," said Jennifer James, an editorial aide for the LA Times.

Applause for the LA Times! Now other big, metropolitan newspapers (and small market ones, as well) need to follow suit. Newspaper comics sections are filled with outdated, unfunny, long-past-their-prime strips, like "Peanuts," "B.C.," "Beetle Bailey," "Marmaduke," and perhaps the most popular comic strip punching bag, "The Family Circus." These antiques need to be shuffled out and replaced with more fresh blood. Where's the next "Get Fuzzy," "Pearls Before Swine," or

Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post humor columnist, had some funny comments on the matter during his weekly chat at yesterday, referring to "Garfield" as "
just stupid schmaltz."

"'Garfield' is the worst thing on the comics pages," Weingarten also said, "a strip produced by a committee, devoid of originality, devoid of guts, a strip cynically DESIGNED to be inoffensive and bad, on the theory that public tastes are insipid." Yowza!

My close-to-hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, still has "Garfield," but it's been ahead of the curve with pumping its comics page with new blood over the past few years. Besides "Get Fuzzy," "Pearls Before Swine," other strips like "Speed Bump," "Frazz," "Housebroken," and "La Cucaracha" (and a handful of others I unfortunately can't remember) have all gotten a chance in the Freep. But they could probably do even more.

I know many people like old reliable stand-bys in their newspaper, but how many of these strips actually enterain their readers? How many times does one of these mediocre strips elicit a laugh, or even a chuckle?
Reading "Cathy" is just a routine, along with eating that morning bowl of Cheerios. Maybe it made you laugh once, or you related to something in it, so you keep coming back. But how often do you really remember a joke or talk about it with someone else? I've never had a conversation with a friend about "Heathcliff." But I talk about "Get Fuzzy" and "Pearls Before Swine" all the time with one of my good friends. (Is that the third time I've mentioned those strips? Geez, that's a lot of free plug-ola.)

Of course, one person's funny strip is another's groaner. I'm sure "Luann" and "Arlo and Janis" don't work for some readers, but I enjoy them. However, when they run out of gas or their creators decide to put the pens away, or worse yet, farm the work out to staffers, I'd expect them to go quietly and with dignity. And a good comics page editor would be more than willing to send them out the door.

(And if a reader was willing to cancel his or her subscription because "Garfield" was taken out of the comics section, then how seriously was that person really taking the newspaper in the first place? Maybe the newspaper has other problems besides the fat, lasagna-loving cat.)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

He wuz robbed!

I was going to write about this yesterday, but I thought Will Eisner deserved to have the floor to himself. On Tuesday, the 2005 Baseball Hall of Fame class was announced. Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg won the required number of votes to be inducted. I have no argument with either of those players; both were two of the best players at their respective positions (Boggs at 3rd base - mostly for the Red Sox and Yankees, Sandberg at 2nd with the Chicago Cubs) during my formative years as a baseball fan. Actually, Sandberg was probably three years overdue for his induction.

But it really bothers me that pitcher Jack Morris wasn't among the class of 2005. I'm biased, to an extent, because Morris was the best pitcher the Detroit Tigers had during my lifetime as a Tigers fan. But I think fans of the Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins would agree with me, as well. Morris led all three of these teams to World Series championships as their ace starting pitcher. In the 1991 World Series, Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout for the Twins, beating the Atlanta Braves in Game 7. Considering the circumstances, it was one of the best pitching performances in the history of Major League Baseball. Morris didn't reach 300 wins, considered the gold standard for Hall of Fame starting pitchers, but his 254 shouldn't be dismissed - especially considering how significant many of those wins were for his teams. He won more games in the 1980s (162) than any other pitcher.

(blurry, but the best I could find)

I take solace in the fact that's Jayson Stark agrees with me, calling Morris "the ultimate ace of his era." I've grudgingly accepted that Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell might never be inducted because he was overshadowed during his career by Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken. But I can't get over Morris's snub. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

I need that outlet!

An amusing article in today's New York Times discusses the frenetic battle in places like Starbucks and airport terminals for power outlets, which are coveted by those needing to keep their laptops, cell phones, iPods, Palm Pilots, GameBoys, and other assorted gadgets charged. Businesses are recognizing the need (or enabling the problem) and installing more outlets. And not just in walls either; in armrests, underneath chairs and tables, etc.

I ran into this myself last week at Ann Arbor's Sweetwaters Cafe. My quaint corner seat by the window, which I enjoyed quietly staring out of between pages of "Middlesex," was unfortunately right next to one of those valuable outlets. Thus my temporary sanctuary was interrupted by a fellow patron who wanted to stretch the power cord for his laptop across my table to the outlet in the wall. Rather than have the cord run underneath my elbow and next to my coffee, I decided it was better to switch tables with the guy. At least I was still by the window. Right after I switched, another guy came over and plugged his cell phone charger into the wall too.

The power of Jon Stewart?

CNN announced yesterday that it wasn't renewing the contract of "Crossfire" co-host Tucker Carlson (famously called "a dick" by Jon Stewart when he was a guest on the show) and, as a result, "Crossfire" will probably end as well.

I remember my dad was a regular viewer of the show back when Michael Kinsley and Pat Buchanan were the "left" and "right" on "Crossfire," but that was a long time ago. As Stewart said while publicly scolding Carlson and Paul Begala, the show long ago deteriorated from intelligent discourse into grandstanding and shouting. But CNN probably killed "Crossfire" the day it was moved to 4:30 pm EST. Seriously, who's home to watch it then? (Well, besides lazy college students...)

Oh well, Carlson will probably land on his feet. Who doesn't love a guy with a bow-tie?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Will Eisner, 1917-2005

"You can’t die if you single-handedly invented the language of an entire art form and the concept of the graphic novel. It's impossible. He is immortal."

-- Brian Michael Bendis, on Will Eisner.


Early Tuesday evening, I read the news of comic book artist Will Eisner's death on Brian Michael Bendis's message board. He died yesterday at the age of 87 from complications following quadruple heart bypass surgery. (If you're interested, here's a discussion thread where comics creators and fans alike are paying tribute. He influenced and touched a lot of people.) Eisner was a legend in the comic book world who pioneered the concept of the "graphic novel," a stand-alone story or short stories collected in a book format. 1978's "A Contract with God" is often credited as the first graphic novel.

I always kept an eye on the graphic novel section while working at Barnes & Noble (someone had to), and bought as many of Eisner's books ("The Dreamer," "The Building," "Dropsie Avenue," and "Invisible People") as I could with my employee discount. Many of his books depicted slice-of-life stories that touched on social issues like immigration, poverty, racism, and gentrification. Quoted in Adam Bernstein's outstanding obituary in the Washington Post, Eisner said, "I'm dealing with the human condition, and I'm dealing with life. For me, the enemy is life, and people's struggle to prevail is essentially the theme that runs through all my books."

He also adapted several classic stories such as "Oliver Twist" and "Moby Dick." (It's really an amazingly diverse body of work; you can check it out at Eisner's website.) In addition to his novels, Eisner also wrote several instructional books about the craft of drawing comic books, including "Comics & Sequential Art," which a young Ian Casselberry often consulted in the days he dreamed of becoming a comic book artist. It's still sitting by my old drawing table in my parents' basement.

But Eisner might be best known for "The Spirit," the comic strip he wrote and drew from 1940 to 1952. Eisner was asked by his syndicate to create a masked hero to compete with the likes of Batman, but he could never quite embrace the superhero concept. His character, Denny Colt, wore a mask but was a normal guy with no superpowers, a detective who often used nothing more than his fists to get him out of trouble. He also seemed to have varying degrees of success with a collection of femme fatales. (I'd love to have that old employee discount back, so I could buy all the Spirit Archives books that DC Comics has published.)

(In "The Incredibles," director Brad Bird paid tribute to The Spirit in one scene by dressing Mr. Incredible in a blue suit and red tie. He also acknowledged this inspiration in his first film, "The Iron Giant," when his main character brings out a Spirit comic book for the giant robot to read. I'd include a link that could prove this to you, but the only one I can find is from Entertainment Weekly, and the site requires a subscription. Drat.)

Eisner knew that the comic book art form was capable of so much more than the escapist fantasies it typically portrayed, and devoted his career to showing comic books were a viable, valid storytelling venue. As he once said, "I've been trying to prove what the medium can do my whole life." It's truly fitting that perhaps the most distinguished award in the comic book industry is named after Eisner and handed out each year at the San Diego Comic-Con.

Here's one more tribute to Eisner, by cartoonist Neil Kleid. It captures the range and impact of Eisner's influence quite well.

And another obituary, from Sarah Boxer in the New York Times.

from "A Contract with God"