Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hollywood's Writers Strike...An Original Idea

It's been over two months since the writers began striking in Hollywood. I don't think people expected it to run quite as long as it has but it doesn't look like it's going to be ending anytime soon. Now rather than debate who is write in this case and who is wrong, I will just state my view by simply saying that I think the writers are privy to some form of compensation considering it is their work that continues to garner attention rather than the work of the studios. I mean after all, if they didn't write the shows then what would Hollywood produce? I think I speak for the majority of us out there when I say that reality TV is fine but most people look at TV as a means of escaping reality and not a means of looking at it from another angle necessarily.

But has the strike really changed all that much for the average viewer? For TV fans it certainly has. I mean almost daily you can hear people complain about the fact that they can't watch their favorite shows or are dying for TV shows to start again. Networks are losing so much viewership due to the fact that their popular shows remain unaired due to not having any new episodes. "Lost" is supposed to premiere tonight and for those of us faithful viewers, it was supposed to be a season of potential answers. For three seasons we had watched and come away with more questions than actual answers but this season, the producers had promised that we would certainly get the answers we all had been craving. At least to most of the questions. So then why am I not as excited as I should be? Because I have this gnawing suspicion that the strike will not be resolved by the time the produced eight episode run ends. Even if it is, will they have the scripts ready in time for the remainder of the season? Who knows.

But besides television has anything else really been affected? There are a dearth of scripts out there already procured by studios (from what I understand) and so they have a lot to choose from. Perhaps this will be the time for budding young writers to be discovered. Their scripts will be picked up and lo and behold they will pay their fees, join the Writer's Guild and join the picket lines officially. It might be a nice change of pace for some of them but on the whole, I feel that perhaps this incident will put a spark back in Hollywood. This strike will end at some point (or perhaps I'm being too optimistic) and when it does, the writers and the rest of the Hollywood apparatus will get back to the business at hand. What I'm hoping is that this will at least lead to some new ideas. What do I mean? Well I don't know about the rest of the people out there but I'm getting a little worn out by the number of remakes or "re-imaginings" that are going on in Hollywood these days.

Once in a while was okay when you revisited a storyline or character and approached it from a different point of view but when you are using the name of an older film or story and then changing the very essence of it, you are ruining the original more than paying homage. Lately there have been so many movies of this sort that are remakes of old movies and due to the advent of technology, writers and directors are writing in much more extravagant storylines that require the use of special effects either to enhance the story or push it over the top. I don't really understand the point of it if it doesn't do anything to help serve the storyline in some way. Being a semi-movie buff I have seen a lot of the original movies that a lot of today's movies are based on and I can honestly say that I see it as nothing more than cashing in on the popularity of the original. I have yet to run across a remake that I have enjoyed a lot more than the original (okay... the remade Oceans 11 wasn't bad).

But I want the studios to embrace change and new ideas. I think ever since "independent" movies started winning Best Picture Oscars, the studios began to realize that perhaps it wasn't necessary to produce mega blockbusters all the time but that original story ideas on smaller scales were much more appealing to people. The nice thing about Hollywood is that there isn't one particular genre that is favored over others; I think it's fair to say that most every type of movie gets a fair shake at being made. If I was part of the Writers Guild (no... blog writers don't have a guild as far as I know....hmmm... maybe I should go on strike to get one), I would also protest the fact that Hollywood is simply pushing us to make remakes of existing stories which stifles creativity and the chance for newer story ideas to come to the forefront. Why remake classics when we have the classics themselves to admire and remember.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Losing Touch with Reality

I'm a video gamer. I was fortunate enough to have parents who supported our desire to have video games in the house so I was proud to own everything from an Atari 2600 when they first came out. Years later I still have a somewhat childish predeliction for the occasional foray into the video game world simply because I find it to be a good outlet for relaxing after a particularly hard day. However, that being said, I don't consider myself one of those who lives to play video games all the time. While I do play occasionally I don't play nearly as much as some people. Some people complain that there are those who play video games incessantly for hours on end. These are the people who sometimes begin to lose their touch with reality and that can lead to tragic results as was the case with 27-year-old Tyrone Spellman of Philadelphia.

Spellman was recently convicted of killing his 17-month-old daughter in an apparent fit of rage over the fact that the toddler entered the room where Spellman was playing video games (on the XBox to be more precise) and proceeded to pull the game system off the shelf and onto the floor. Angered by this, Spellman proceeded to apparently beat his daughter to death while the girl's pregnant mother slept on in the next room. Spellman confessed to the crime the next day and was recently convicted for third-degree murder and child endangerment. According to Spellman's attorney he confessed to the crime to protect the dead girl's mother but the jury didn't buy that arguement although he was acquitted of being charged with murder in the first. Still, Spellman, speaking through his attorney, stated that he was unhappy with the jury's rejection of his explanation but accepted his sentence.

Already the opponents to the entertainment industry must be readying themselves for the inevitable discussions within the media about the link between video games and violence. And again I state that while the violence in video games may be a catalyst in some instances, I don't think it's the only cause. How can I say that? Well let's think about it. Video games have been around for a few decades while mankind has been around for numerous centuries. In that time are we to believe that there was never any violence? Hardly! In fact human history has always been full of stories of violence against any and all, no one group has ever been spared the ravages of violence for any appreciable time. At that time what was it blamed on? Most likely religious intolerance and dissenting opinions on government most likely. So then how can we conclusively link video games to violent tendencies?

I agree with people who say that violence in video games and in the media in general is a bad thing. Kids are being exposed to these things on a fairly regular basis and with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's hard to avoid the topic of violence. Still, I would say that it's our society, and I mean the global society, that is geared towards violence and not just one industry leading the charge. If group A doesn't like group B then a war of words usually begins and when words end then violence ensues. To paraphrase Karl Von Clausewitz, "war is the continuation of diplomacy through other means". If we are to accept that statement then does that mean that violence in some instances is justified while it isn't in others? The world has been at odds with itself for centuries in one form or another and our society has always been ready for it.

All video games have done is to provide a good scapegoat for the violence. Remember smoking before it became a universally banned activity? At one point it was considered the best thing to do and even doctors were signed on to pitch the quality of one company over another. Now when it's apparent that smoking is bad for you, despite old ads by doctors exhorting the benefits of doing it, no one blames the real cause for rising lung cancer cases which is the smoker themself, not the industry. If you are educated about the potential dangers of smoking then you can't push the blame off on someone else, you yourself are responsible. On the same side, if you feel that violence in video games is bad then don't let kids (or even adults) play them if you think it's being a bad influence. But the underlying cause is still the same, the person themself and those kids (or adults) who have an innate violent nature will be violent no matter what they are exposed to.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Does Tysons Need Metro?

Metro in Tysons Corner is fast becoming in danger of being termed a myth. For decades people have been talking about how the Metro transit system would soon start work on an extension of the Orange Line from Vienna through Tysons Corner and eventually stretching 23 miles all the way up to Dulles Airport. Dulles is currently one of the only airports in the region (which includes National and BWI) that does not have rail access. I mean even the oldest continuously operating airport in the world, College Park Airport, has access by rail (the Green Line stop at College Park is less than a quarter mile from the airport). That being said, I am beginning to wonder why it is becoming so hard to get funding for a worthwhile project.

Now that 'going-green' has become the catchphrase and mantra of every major industry and politician, it's obvious that a mass transit project like Metro would do wonders for the transportation situation in and around the Tysons area. If one were to look at the way Fairfax County has literally exploded in the last decade or so, you wouldn't be suprised to find that traffic has become a bear. I have lived in Tysons Corner for several years now and I can tell you, if you are looking to go anywhere out of Tysons on a Friday evening... you best be prepared to hit some traffic. Though I have learned to live with the heavy traffic volume associated with incoming workers in the mornings and the mass exodus of workers in the evening, I find that it's a hassle getting anywhere out of the area after about 3:00 PM on weekdays. Trips into Vienna take me no more than ten minutes (counting stopping at all traffic lights) on a normal day. During rush hour, that same journey can take upwards of 45 minutes. Why? Simply because there are too many commuters, too small roads and not a great infrastructure to handle it all.

People opposed to the project in Tysons altogether argue that there is no real proof that the Metro will do anything to alleviate traffic problems or such. I can tell you this, if I had to option of catching the train to Dulles or driving I'd catch the train every time. An average cab trip to Dulles from Tysons can run you about $30. For that much, I can probably ride the train several times. Plus from a driving perspective, if I am simply going to drop someone off at the airport it's fine, I can get off by paying a couple of bucks for tolls and getting on the express lanes but if I'm picking someone up, I can be almost certain to pay $4 at a minimum to deal with parking. After all, Dulles has a 'smart' system of giving you up to 20 minutes of free parking before nailing you with parking fees. Unless your party is already there you rarely ever leave before that 20 minute window expires and if you do, you end up in a mad dash to get out before the time expires. I've once seen the machine tell me I had three minutes to exit before being charged. I ran and drove like a madman. Is that necessary?

Metro fares may be on the rise but I can tell you that it will probably help save money for a lot of people in the long run if they have the option of taking the train vice a cab. But airport travel isn't the only reason to do it. All along the Dulles Toll Road are literally a "who's who" of major companies and industries. From Microsoft to Oracle, Fairfax and Loudoun County are literally becoming the hotbeds for tech companies in the region and the growth only continues. Just along the edge of the Toll Road in the last two years there has been such a tremendous growth in the number of offices being built that it's an indicator of just how big the area is for companies of this sort. That being said, not everyone taking the train lives in the area. There are people from Maryland and elsewhere coming to the area for work. Many of them are leaving before the crack of dawn in order to beat traffic and get to work on time. Wouldn't it be appealing to them as well to take the train, save gas money and frustration by making the journey out that way for what will likely be less cost?

Already there have been so many compromises on this project. I had always been in favor of a tunnel underneath the Tysons area for the metro but since that idea was more or less shot down last year it's moot to continue to argue for it. Nonetheless, now this new call by Congress to say that this money would be better spent elsewhere is a surprise. Rather than looking at the positive results that would come from doing something so needed and environmentally beneficial, I can't help but wonder where their reluctance is coming from. Have you been to Tysons at Christmas time? It's a mad house! So many people coming to do their shopping and fighting for parking. If they could take the train to the mall wouldn't they do it? That one season would probably help pay the cost of the addition in no time. Tysons and its surrounding area continues to grow and gain in popularity and unfortunately the infrastructure for the area is not keeping pace. We have such gridlock on weekdays that I sometimes dread getting out of the area in the evenings. Have you seen the Metro in the mornings leaving Vienna? It's packed to the gills! The system will be used; they just need to fund the damn thing.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Perplexing Case of Devraj "Dave" Kori

If there is one thing that Washingtonians are noted for it is their predeliction to panic when there is even a hint of snow. That's not without good reason. I can remember a time back in 1987 when it was snowing in the morning and there were already several inches on the ground but the schools in my district decided to stay open. I ended up going to school and by about mid-morning, school officials realized that the snow was falling much harder than they expected so they decided to close school early. We ended up getting snowed in and had to walk out (though we usually rode the bus about five miles to get home). The school board caught Hell for the decision to keep schools open that day and ever since they have always been a bit gun shy when it comes to making a decision on keeping schools open when wintry weather is predicted.

Last week we had a bit of snowfall here in the region and it was again more than what was originally predicted though nowhere near some of the record snowfalls we've had in recent years. That being said, most school districts either opened late and then closed or just decided to stay open. In Fairfax County they were open despite the fact that snow was falling and roads were getting covered over. Again though, the snow was not bad enough to warrant true panic. However, as students in school are wont to do, they complained. Seventeen year-old high school student Devraj "Dave" Kori decided to do something about it and called up his school board representative. When he didn't get a response on the office line he called up the school board member at home and left a message asking why the board member decided to keep the schools open. A short time later, Kori received an irate message from the wife of the school board member which Kori then posted on YouTube. The story took a life of its own from there and there has been debate on both sides of the arguement ever since.

Some state that Kori was out of line in calling a school board member at home and though Kori claims his call was not meant to be harassing, he feels (and rightfully so) that he didn't deserve the type of reactionary message he received in kind. People on the other side of the arguement state that though Kori had a right to speak to his school board representative, he shouldn't have made the call to his house like that. Now I myself believe that Kori has a right to raise a question about the decision to keep schools open but that he didn't have to call up the board member at home like that. Especially in light of the fact that the total amount of snow we received was not really all that bad. On Thursday there was, at the most, five inches in some of the worst areas that Kori was located. People up north in New England probably scoff at even the hint that schools should have been closed in this type of weather but around here it's unfortunately the norm.

I have been on campus at the University of Maryland in the middle of hurricanes and snow storms (of nearly a foot of snow) because despite the fact that the rest of the state was closed down, the University wanted to stay open so as not to fall behind during exam weeks. A valid concern to be sure but it brings to light the point I think Kori was attempting to make in his call. Kori stated that by leaving the schools open, it subjected students to dangerous conditions which could lead to injury. Driving to campus in the middle of a hurricane or snowstorm is a treacherous choice but if you're that concerned about conditions on the road, then why bother going in the first place? Going to school on such days is a choice and unless Kori's parents were adamant about his having to attend school then the choice should have been clear and he could have stayed home.

That doesn't mean that I condone the reactionary phone call he received which had him being referred to as a "snot-nosed kid" at one point. That was totally uncalled for and unnecessary and more childish than the phone call by Kori which initiated the exchange in the first place. Kori elevated the situation more when he posted the audio clip and phone number of the school board member to the web thereby increasing the noteriety and clearly increasing the amount of harassment the family would face. If calling at home was a problem which resulted in his being yelled at in turn, I don't think that posting a personal home number on the net in such a high profile manner will make things better. Winter weather in Washington is a fairly 'serious' matter with people seemingly dealing with life and death the moment a flake begins to fall. While people in snowier parts of the nation claim that they aren't better equipped to deal with the weather than we are, I ask you how a person down in the Carribbean would react if suddenly snow started falling on the roads. See my point?

I don't think Kori should face anything as severe as suspension or expulsion from school because he has every right to speak out and question his school board for their decisions, but he needs to exercise better judgement about when to begin calling people at their homes. My father called our county executive at home one time during a snow storm but that was after being snowed in our street for over a week and constantly getting the run-around from county personnel handling snow removal operations. He was also civil and clear in his message to the county executive and the result was that within a few hours we got snow plows on our streets. To complain about school being open during a relatively minor snow even in DC is a little childish in my book but then again Kori is still technically a child since he's under eighteen. Still, the reaction he got was even more childish.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Telephoning" Death

I'm sure as kids we have all played some version of the game Telephone. That's the game where you get people all lined up and the first guy whispers a message to the second and so on and so forth. By the time the message reaches the end of the line, there are so many variations and changes that it isn't even close to the original statement anymore. So what does this have to do with the tragic death of Heath Ledger yesterday? Well as the media was so quick to catch on, Ledger was one of those actors in Hollywood who led what could be termed 'a boring life'. He was a stellar actor who showed his diversity in a variety of roles from "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Patriot" to the forthcoming Batman sequel "The Dark Knight". In spite of fame and the apparent trappings that go with it, Ledger never made the news for having crashed his car after a night of partying or for coming out of rehab with drugs in one hand. Ledger apparently led a normal life so much so that the media seemed hell bent on finding something or the other to bring some 'spice' to the story.

As I watched the news last night in the gym, a few hours after the story broke that Ledger had been found dead in his apartment, I watched in grim fascination as rumor after rumor was spread out there in an effort to get the public 'the facts' of the case. Thus began a macabre game of telephone with the media playing amongst themselves. First came the fact that Ledger was indeed dead. Then came the fact that he had been found with a bottle of pills next to him. Next speculation began running around the fact that perhaps he was secretly a druggie but had done an outstanding job of covering it up. Reporters on the scene and in the studio began having conversations regarding the number of times Ledger had been in rehab. According to the entertainment reporter he hadn't ever been seen in rehab but there were unconfirmed reports that perhaps he had been at one time or another. Rumor now becomes fact, at least at that moment. Someone else makes the statement that he was found in Mary-Kate Olsen's apartment. Blatant lie but it's interesting because she's a celebrity just like him. It would have been good for the media and tabloids had it been true. It would have made an already tragic situation all the more Hollywoodized.

Rumor upon rumor expanded and within an hour or so of the story first hitting the air, reporters were still searching for that confirmation that if not a drug overdose, Ledger committed suicide. I find it sickening that it wasn't only tabloid news programs going through this process of scandalization but major news services as well. Has Hollywood become so jaded as to think that if someone dies and untimely death, it is for any other reason than accidental causes? Perhaps Ledger was deathly allergic to a substance in the medicine he took. It wouldn't be the first time that the medical community has fouled up on perscribing someone a medication not realizing that it could have deadly results for someone taking it. Contrast this to the recent death of actor Brad Renfro. I'm sure many of you out there are wondering who he is. If you recall the movie "The Client" starring Renfro as a child who knows the location of a murdered mob boss who hires lawyer Susan Sarandon to defend him from the scrupulous state's attorney, that was Renfro. He starred in several movies that gained him noteriety as well but his death was marred by the fact that he was known to do drugs and had a record.

Though not as prominent or reputed an actor as Ledger, Renfro's death was also tragic but because he wasn't as famous and died a death 'fitting' for someone doing drugs and the like, it was quickly passed on. Ledger's death apparently needs some more drama and so there's been this rush by the media to find out exactly what happened and until the facts are known, they are desperate to make up their own facts or use rumors until substaniated. The real tragedy in this is that the loss of a fine actor will be overshadowed by the fact that there are rumors about his supposed 'darker life' of drugs and alcohol abuse. It may not be true at all, but the media has already succeeded in planting the seeds of doubt in the public's mind. I hope that the rumors end up being false and that the media approaches with equal vigor the call to bring the truth to light. If he died an accidental death due to the sleeping pills he took then the responsible thing to do is clear his name and ensure that the public knows it.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fouling Up the Weather Forecast

I once took a class on meteorology in elementary school. Though it wasn't as technical as it could have been, even from that small glimpse I could tell that it's a very difficult science and due to the changing nature of our planet, making one hundred percent foolproof forecasts was a near impossibility, at least with current technology. It's been a while since I've been in elementary school and though technology has improved by leaps and bounds, it's still rather difficult to make accurate predictions despite what all forecasters attempt to say to the contrary. Now I have no problem with their getting the forecast wrong now and again, I just wish they'd at least admit that they aren't infallible for a change.

Last week in the DC area we had a prediction for no more than one to three inches of snow to fall during the morning hours which would then give way to rain by late afternoon. It was predicted to begin around the tail end of rush hour (around say 9:00) and turn to rain by early afternoon. At least that's what most if not all weathermen were talking about. Unfortunately it didn't turn out quite that way. They got the snow start time just about right; flakes began to fall around 9:45 in the morning but the transition to rain took a little longer than expected and so we got more accumalation than anyone was predicting. It made for messy commutes home in the afternoon and evening and made for a lousy drive back to work the next morning. Now for me, it's a relatively simple thing to make adjustments in my schedule to accomodate changes in the weather like this but for working parents and such, it can be a logistical nightmare. Unfortunately, weathermen around here tend to forget that and still make confident predictions.

Why does it matter whether the predictions they make are accurate or not? Well think about it. The road crews that do the plowing and clearing of roads don't live at the yards waiting the entire winter for those days that it could snow. Their bosses listen to the same weather reports that we regular folks do and if they hear that there will only be flurries with possible accumulations of an inch or less around the region then they plan accordingly. Now if all of a sudden the storm shifts tracks and moves in a direction that wasn't expected that inch could suddenly become one foot. The converse has also been true. Several times a few years ago the weathermen around here put the fear of God in everyone that we were going to be innundated with record snowfalls over the course of a week. People loaded up on the usual snow supplies, bread, milk and toilet paper. I guess people think life will turn into a prison where we have bread and milk and then process it out (hence the toilet paper) for weeks on end.

The region was braced for snow and then "oops", the winds shifted slightly and we got balmy weather while northern states got buried. Now shifting winds are not the fault of the weathermen but the build up they and the news anchors did was enough to get people worried to the point that they stocked up planning to be snowed in for weeks rather than a few days (at the most). Around here at the worst we have been snowbound in our houses for no more than a week. These days, in the more populated parts of the region, they don't take even that long to get us dug out on the main roads. So then why do I have a beef with weathermen? Because I get tired of hearing them speak like unfallible prognosticators who rank themselves up there with Nostradamus. They attempt to claim such knowledge at times that we are expected to believe their every word like the Gospel and plan our lives (or panic) accordingly. What do I expect then? I would expect a little bit of humility.

When they get the predictions wrong at least own up to it rather than claiming that it was a scenario that was completely unexpected due to descending pressure fronts that added some much needed warmer air that pushed the storm front a few miles north and kept the snow away. They will claim they thought of everything except that. As it is there are such vague weather terms out there already in use that they can cover all bases as needed. What's the difference between 'partly sunny' and 'mostly cloudy'? I suppose it's like a optimist and pessimist looking at a glass as being half full or half empty. What about the ubiquitous winter prediction of 'snow showers'? This could mean that snow is expected to fall but it could be wet snow with no accumulation or it could be snow that could yield a few inches. But by terming it snow showers they can cover both possibilities. Fair enough, but at least be honest and tell us that you don't know. Don't boast about your weather machines and super-duper doppler that can pinpoint snow flakes falling to within a third of an inch to any location in the region. I don't care about the machines, I care about knowing how to prepare.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Hate Mondays? Here's the Equation for Why

So a psychologist in England seems to have an inordinate amount of time on his hands as well as a great desire to point out something with scientific backing that requires no real computation but a bit of common sense. However, the work of Cliff Arnall points out that through the use of his equation, today, January 21st can officially be declared Blue Monday... or the gloomiest day of the year. According to his exhaustive research and computation, today is the day that marks the end of the post-Christmas cheer season, the realization of how much debt on has accrued and the realization that there are not many more holidays for a long while now while it's inevitable that you will be going back to work today. So the formula results in major bouts of depression. I'm sure there are a lot of readers out there saying 'Duh' or other such expressions of dismay at so obvious an output to a truly unnecessary equation.

Now having been a part of the working world for over a decade now I can honestly say that there are times when I have woken up on Monday mornings with an overriding sense of dread and there were others where I have woken up with a smile. Now before you think me absolutely crazy, please bear in mind that I have full justification for my attitude. I have worked off and on since my second year in high school and at those times I used to alternate between both phases. I used to dread Mondays because despite it being summer, I used to be up at dawn to get to work and then would spend the whole day there before heading home in the evenings to listen to my brother talk about all the fun I missed out on those days. It was a terrible feeling at times but still, the pride would come from the fact that I was getting paid pretty well for a high school student and getting valuable job experience at the same time. But more than the money, my enjoyment came from the fact that I enjoyed what I was doing and working with the people on my team.

Later on as I progressed through the years I went through a variety of different jobs with different companies and different teams and depending on who I was working with, my attitude varied greatly. Looking back on it now I realized the one portion of the equation that Arnall ignored is probably the most important and that is your co-workers. If you have a group that is constantly depressed or down all the time, the likelihood of your being the same way is greater. However, if you have a fun group that gets the job done and keeps up the attitude then you're more likely to enjoy the coming of Mondays. There was one job I worked where I was the only one born after 1960, I was surrounded by people getting ready to retire who hated their jobs, hated their bosses and hated working in general. I used to dread Sunday evenings because I knew that come Monday morning I'd have to face a week of boredom and frustration.

As I moved on to better jobs I found that attitude changing and though I do have some regret on Sunday nights, it's more from the standpoint that I have to get up early the next day and not because I have to go to work. I now work in an environment where I have a great group of people who I have a lot of respect for, are knowledgeable and are great to work with. Their attitude makes a whole lot of difference and though we all complain at times, I do know that I'm not alone and that I've got sympathetic ears that will help boost any flagging attitude I may have. Perhaps I should patent my counter equation to Arnall's equation and try and rake in the big bucks. At least it would make Monday more memorable.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer: Genius or Mad Man?

The chess world was stunned to hear this morning that eccentric chess genius Bobby Fischer died at the age of 64. Now some may take exception to my calling him a genius but it's the only appropriate means I can think of to describe the man who single-handedly changed the face of chess in America and not just because he was full of bluster and gusto. Fischer came to the forefront in the height of the Cold War when he began challenging Russian world champions in chess and began defeating them with apparent ease. Chess had long been the ruling domain of Europe and for an upstart independent American to come along and rock the chess world in this way was something unprecedented. Of course Fischer was not without what one could term 'faults'. Brash and outspoken, he often found himself in the middle of controversy due to comments he made regarding Jews and the United States in general. He lived the last years of his life in Iceland, away from the limelight.

Some termed his behavior during matches, which began fairly early in his career as being more for show and psychological advantage than for actual complaint. He showed up to matches days late or complained incessantly about the conditions in which he was expected to play. He railed against television coverage of his matches but used them to gain futher notereity. He soon became an unwilling pawn (excuse the pun) in the propoganda Cold War as well. Every victory by Fischer came to be viewed as a victory of American democracy over Soviet communism. It was a stretch to be sure but what was the difference between using that versus later versions of the same analogy with Sylvester Stallone beating communism as both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo? It all ended up being a case for propoganda meant to bolster support for the Cold War funding needed to 'defeat' communism. Perhaps it was his being used in this way that bothered Fischer and ultimately soured his attitude towards his native country.

Still, his behavior, though seemingly irrational may have been a carefully plotted strategy as well. By unnerving an opponent by constantly bickering about lighting conditions or the amount of shine emmanating from the chess table could have been carefully orchestrated to distract an opponent. Some may call this an underhanded way of defeating an opponent but is it really? The great and legendary Japanese swordsman Musashi Miyamoto did much the same in his matches against opponents. When fighting in what was ultimately his penultimate match he showed up late so that when he arrived on the beach designated for his battle, the rising sun was at his back which properly illuminated his opponent waiting on the beach but blinded his opponent who faced the rising sun. Again, this could be termed as cheating but the precepts of war state that you use whatever advantage you may have in order to defeat an opponent who may be much better than you.

Ultimately, that is what chess is all about... the principles of war. Any student of military history knows that chess is the foundation for many military strategies out there all through the course of history. Though he was never really credited as a commanding general in the Cold War, Fischer unwittingly became one. His understanding of the game was deep and unparalleled and even today, there are many who play chess who study his games in order to gain insight into how good a master he was. Gaining a Grand Masterhood at an early age, Fischer was naturally gifted in the game but it was likely his personality that made him stand out. After all, there are hundreds of chess masters in the world today though the general public is largely unaware of them. Why? Because chess is not in the collective conscience of many people anymore. The Cold War is over and there are no chess tournaments held between terrorists and American democracy's champions of chess so who is there to defeat now? Fischer was a product of his time and elevated himself to the ranks of legends through his extraordinary gameplay and eccentricities. It is yet to be seen whether someone else will come to claim the mantel left by Fischer. There may be others out there with the same level of talent, if not more so, but there may never be anyone quite like Fischer ever again.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Do Celebrity Endorsements Really Help?

As much as the latest Presidential candidates are lining up for their run for president, so are their supporters. Soon yards will be filled with posters proclaiming support for one candidate or another and the airwaves will be filled (even more than they already are) with the sound of political messages about this, that, and the other thing. It is the season. It's also the season for celebs to start coming out in force to offer up support to the candidates that they like. Though celebrity support is nothing new really, it is something that has gained a lot more attention in the media over the past decade or so. I still remember the star-studded inaugural gala that was held for Clinton during his first and second terms in office. Hollywood loved him (for the most part) and so they made no mystery about it.

Now celebrities work just as hard to endorse the candidate of their choice simply because many of them have realized that by supporting a presidential hopeful they have an open road into the government in order to attempt and garner support for their individual charity or projects of interest. I mean if I were to approach the White House with a proposal to ban the sale of shrimp cocktails across the United States I would be laughed at. Now if Tom Cruise came to the White House and did the same thing, he'd at least have a few minutes to talk about it before possibly being laughed out of the room. But what other reason do politicians have to run to celebrities for support? Well the money is a big thing. When you're a star in Hollywood so rather than throwing that money away on a new car or billion dollar mansion, why not blow some of it on the future of the country? But does it really help?

Celebrity support is common place these days but I'm curious if it really has an impact on a voter. I mean I may be a big fan of Robert DeNiro but just because he says candidate A is better than the rest of the pack doesn't mean I'll necessarily agree with him. Heck, I may even disagree with him to the point that I may start liking him less as an actor and that could certainly affect his draw at the box office. I mean my money won't be lining his pocket if I don't necessarily like the candidate he backs. But really speaking then why do they do it at all? I have come to think that it's for those people out there who are the ones keeping the stories of Britney Spears latest meltdown or Paris Hilton's latest escapade from finally dying a well-deserved and long-overdue death. It's because there are probably more people out there who are familiar with what Paris Hilton did last week than there are who know what is happening in other parts of the world.

If it has nothing to do with movies or entertainment in general people could generally care less. Don't believe me? What about Arnold Schwarzenegger's run for governor the first time around? Do you ever recall reading about how there was record voter turnout? Why? Did people suddenly wake up and realize that by voting they have a say in the way their government runs? Of course not! That sort of mass outbreak of common sense would signal the coming Apocalypse and I certainly don't think we're there yet (at times it seems we may be getting closer). No, the record voter turnout was simply because people were interested in voting for the Terminator (now known as the Governator). If it becomes possible for Schwarzenegger to run for the Presidency I'm sure he'd win simply because despite his possibly not having any knowledge of world events, at least the country would be happy knowing their president can bench press the president of any other country.

We are becoming more and more obsessed with celebrity news at times that I find it distressing. I'm not saying that we should take more interest in the problems around the world and be cognizant of any and all of it but a little less attention on whether Britney Spears will get to keep her kids or not would be greatly appreciated. After all who cares? She's such a screwed up person right now that I feel allowing her to have custody of her kids would damage their minds more than any drugs could ever do. Celebrities can certainly make the case for our future leaders. I mean though I may not support whosoever Robert DeNiro supports I may like the candidate Clint Eastwood is in favor of. After all, if Dirty Harry says that candidate B is the one he's voting for then who am I to argue? Right punk?

I think that's why so many candidates these days run around for support from celebrities. Obama is happy that Oprah is on his side but at ever political rally that she attends with him, the audience isn't there to see Obama as much as they are hopeful that perhaps Oprah will suddenly grab the microphone and announce that she's giving everyone at the rally a brand new car! At least maybe that's what Obama is possibly hoping. I mean all the fans of the old show "Walker: Texas Ranger" are probably ecstatic that Chuck Norris is supporting Mike Huckabee. That means that they in turn will support Mike Huckabee. That type of blind devotion and faith in the 'knowledge' and 'wisdom' of celebrities is what many of these politicians hope for. They hope that they can get enough fan recognition to gain that edge in the election. It may have been effective in the past but the last few years have led many to become cynical and so they are more interested finding out more about a candidate rather than letting Barbara Striesand sing them their choice. I think it's for the better that way.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Fall of Starbucks?

I remember in high school English courses my teacher describing the heroic epic and how it usually plays out. The hero discovers his path and then eventually takes it reaching a height before falling and then redeeming himself. Take a look at any of the major works out there which can be considered heroic epics and you'll see that this is the general flow of such stories. It's funny that it could also be applied to the retail world and specifically to Starbucks as well. Now I won't call the story of Starbucks a heroic epic but it does have elements that lend themselves to some amount of drama and intrigue and with the latest happenings with the company, there is a chance for it to take an even more dramatic turn in the near future.

As I've often said in my older blogs, Starbucks is becoming so ubiquitous in some parts of the country that you can't not walk into one. The chain which began modestly in Seattle has exploded into a worldwide phenomenon that has changed the way many people spend their leisure time out of the house. Coffee houses have been the norm in Europe and other parts of the world for many years but until Starbucks came on the scene here in the States, the coffee house was seen more as a place for beatniks and the like. Starbucks helped change that image forever and became a cultural icon for a new generation that appears to get it's fix from java as opposed to endless cans of soda.

Starbucks started out at a time when there was no other competition like it. They offered up various combinations and permutations of coffee that very few places (outside of fancy fancy restaurants) could provide. I doubt that most Americans knew what a latte was until Starbucks made it a common utterance around the nation. Being so specialized, it wasn't any wonder that so many people simply accepted the high prices that Starbucks charged for their coffee. To use a comparison to cars (one of my other favorite topics) Starbucks could be compared to a Ferrari. It costs a whole lot more, it's not necessarily practical but for a time it is a welcome escape. Coffee from other places (McDonalds, Dunkin' Donuts, and even gas stations) may be infinitely better but the fact that you can get it double shotted with no whip and soy milk is what makes it appealing to lots of people. Starbucks is the equivalent of shopping at Nordstrom while every other coffee out there can be compared to shopping at Target. Sure the things are similar but it's more about prestige.

Well with the economy going the way it is, people are looking more for cost cutting rather than reckless spending (which is a good thing). Despite urging from the Federal Reserve and Wall Street for consumers to spend, it's kind of hard to do so when you don't know when the other shoe will drop and the market may take another minor nosedive. How does this affect Starbucks? Well, they have literally exploded across the nation which is good but their prices continue to climb which is bad. Now places like McDonalds and such have started offering similar (though not as 'lovingly made') coffees in their stores in an attempt to woo back customers who would otherwise be sitting in a Starbucks store. And their attempts are working too. Their target? Parents.

Why would a parent make a stop in Starbucks before making a trip to McDonalds to get food for the kids when you can pick up a hazelnut coffee in the same place as the food? I mean it's great and all that Starbucks offers food but how many people have you actually ever seen eating something in a Starbucks? They generally go in, grab some coffee and then get out. I have only ever bought food from Starbucks a handful of times myself. I can probably even tell you what I bought each time if I stop and think about it. Starbucks is also starting to get worried about these types of facts now too. You can tell when they are firing the CEO and bringing back the man, Howard Schultz, who originally started the Starbucks boom. They are hoping that the 'magic' he brought to help grow the company into the giant it is today is still with him. It might be a case of too little too late.

Starbucks is great, I still can't get all the same coffees that you get there at other places. I enjoy the atmosphere the music and most of all the people that generally occupy such places. Now I won't say I go there only for the ambiance or company but I do go there because though I'm not a hardcore coffee coniseur I am cognizant enough of what i like and what I don't. Having had some of the coffees at McDonalds, I am impressed but I find it a bit lacking when all that is done to make their specialty coffee drinks is to squirt syrup with water and then pour over ice. Starbucks may be more expensive and do much the same thing but there is a difference. Starbucks actually grinds their beans and brews the coffee they use in their mix. It's a minor thing but enough to make a world of difference in flavor. Starbucks has never advertised this fact but has left it up to consumers to assume on their own they way they assume a Ferrari is a better car than a Scion. Still, not everyone can afford a Ferrari and if Starbucks doesn't get the lead out and increase their sales and decrease their costs, they may find themselves going the way of DeLoreans.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Beating the Polls

We are finally entering the actual election year for the next Presidential race. Although some candidates have been running for over three years now, it's finally time to separate the wheat from the chaff and figure out who appears to be the frontrunner. With the results of recent caucuses throwing everything into a tizzy it's kind of hard to figure out who is really the candidate the American people are really behind. Ask one person they'll tell you one name and ask another and they'll tell you that they like someone else. And there's always that person who still stands steadfast in his unwavering support of Mickey Mouse. While Mickey may not be running, if his name were simply added to the ballot as a joke, I would be curious to find out just how many people would vote for him. Probably more than some of the independent candidates who are struggling to keep up with the election runs of their more prosperous and popular party-affiliated candidates. Still, we rely on the media to help steer us to answers.

If it weren't for the media, and more specifically, the popular media, Bill Clinton may not have been elected during his first term. His appearances on shows like The Late Show or on MTV helped him reach out to the audiences and though he had plenty of skeletons in his closet, it perhaps made him appear more human. Now more than a decade later, candidates continue to attempt to make similar inroads with the people but with varying degrees of success. And as always, political polls are being taken in an attempt to determine a viable candidate. I have never really trusted polls simply because they are far to easy to manipulate depending on what results you want to show. Anyways, the results aren't always correct either; take for example the recent New Hampshire results. Hillary Clinton beat out all the pollsters and the pollsters themselves were left looking sheepish and unsure. How is this possible?

Well it's simple if we look at it this way. When you are making friends, do you look for people with something in common or with completely opposing viewpoints? Friends with commonalities of course; that being said, when polling for your candidate of choice, would you poll more of those who agree with you or less? Why more of course! Now I know most people out there, pollsters in particular will take exception to this. The fact is that these polls are supposed to be completely random and unbiased but let's just say for the sake of arguement that we are attempting to manipulate the people by making their candidate more popular; what do you do? Skew the results a bit in favor of your candidate. Like it or not, the majority of people out there could care less about where a candidate stands on issues of gay marriage and the like, all that matters to most people are the issues that affect them directly. Outside of the political world of Washington, there's very little interest in hardcore politics.

Ask the average American who the frontrunners in the election and you may get two or three of the more popular names but nothing more. Those at the bottom of the totem poll probably exist in a void so if the pollsters are interested in getting their candidate's name out there for the general public why not 'show' that they are more popular in the polls? It's a bit dishonest but then again how are we to know? Like I said, polls are supposed to be independent and random, but then again, people aren't made to sign anything saying I've been polled (especially for these on-the-street type polls). Isn't it possible that the results are coming out the way they are to promote someone over another? Perhaps in New Hampshire the pollsters were more for Obama than anyone else and the results of the polls were made to come out that way. Maybe all the people who indicated they would vote for Clinton or Edwards (or Mickey Mouse) were conveniently only counted ever fifth time while ever Obama supporter counted for two. The results would suddenly shift wouldn't they? Again, I'm not saying that this is what's going on but I would only say that if you truly want to know about a candidate, do your research and don't solely rely on the results of polls.

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