Sunday, January 19, 2014

Should Have Gotten A Dog

Growing up my family had the typical collection of pets - a couple dogs (RIP Harry), some goldfish, a turtle, a hamster and a couple of parakeets. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary and certainly not noteworthy when you compare it to some of the other animals I have read about people deciding make for great pets, such as alligators they keep in a bathtub or snakes the owner releases into the wild when they get too big. Still, I want it noted on the official record that the parakeets were my sisters', not mine. You see, I have always thought birds were kind of a silly thing to keep as a pet because in my mind a pet is something you can interact with and that is not the case with birds. They just stay in the cage all day and then you get to clean up their crap-covered newspapers every couple of days. I know all pets require some clean-up but at least with a dog you can play with it to make those clean-up times a little more tolerable. Allegedly some people let their birds out to fly around their house but that just sounds like insanity, especially because I remember the couple of times my sisters' birds got out of their cages and it sent my house into DEFCON-1. Anything which causes that much chaos simply by not being where it is supposed to be does not sound like a fun family pet to me. So, unless you are the kind of person who wants to randomly find bird crap on your kitchen counter in reality all birds do is make noise when you are trying to watch TV and live in a cage which takes up space, which makes them more like a decoration than anything. Oh, and this week I learned they can also get you arrested.

The other day I read a news item about a man in Mexico who was driving down the road when he came upon a sobriety checkpoint. The police were looking around the car when a voice from inside the vehicle cried out that the driver was drunk. It turned out that it wasn't one of the driver's friends trying to be cute - it was the man'a parrot. Normally that is where the story should end but the cops took the bird's word for it, gave the driver a field sobriety test and it turns out the parrot was right - he was drunk - and the owner was arrested. Now, considering I just told you that I think normal birds are a strange pet it is not a stretch to figure out my feelings on the ones which learn to communicate. I feel a little bad about this because I should be impressed by them because it is a talking animal. I mean, if a dog learns to bark a noise which sounds even slightly like a word it gets two million views on YouTube, so a bird being capable of independent thoughts and having the ability to express them should be amazing to me, yet I find them annoying. The problem is that parrots have the vocal abilities but no social ones - meaning they don't know how to control the volume of their voices or wait for a break in the conversation to let their opinions be known. They just squawk out whatever comes into their minds the second it happens. If they were humans they would be the people you avoided at parties and the fact that they are animals do not excuse bad behavior. I guess it is possible that the bird was just doing what most parrots do which is repeat things they hear most often which means this guy was not only driving drunk his family thinks he has a drinking problem and was doing Mexico a public service by getting him off the road. Still, if you've got a parrot and you are trying to teach it to talk do us all a favor and teach it some etiquette while you are at it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Weekly Sporties

-I know it seems like baseball season just ended a couple weeks ago, but the reality is that we are only about a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting for Spring Training. Now, what is notable about the upcoming baseball season is that it will be the last for Commissioner Bud Selig, who has announced he will retire after the 2014 World Series. But before he does that there is a rumor going around that he wants to go on a League-wide retirement tour, stopping at every stadium along the way to say good-bye to the fans. I'm not sure there are enough words in the English language to explain how bad of an idea this is. I'm assuming the Commissioner was inspired by the farewell tour that Yankee closer Mariano Rivera went on in which he was showered by applause and gifts. If that is what Selig is expecting to get on his retirement tour he is in for a rude awakening. The big difference is that while Rivera may have occasionally been a thorn in the side of opponents, he was never seen as the baseball's biggest problem - a title which has been bestowed on Selig at various times during his tenure. Since Selig took over in 1992 (admittedly he did not want the job and was only supposed to be an interim commissioner) the game has seen it's popularity steadily decrease and lose younger fans to sports which move at a faster pace due to its refusal to embrace technological advances like replay, a problem which lands directly at Selig's feet. Also, he turned a blind eye to a fairly obvious steroid problem, instead being content to use the massive homerun numbers to bring fans back after losing many casual fans when the season was cancelled in 1994 (that may not have been his fault, but it happened on his watch) and is now hypocritically trying to clean up the game by going after steroid users by using tactics which are themselves rather shady. Now, this is not to say Selig is a bad guy or that he was a failure. I mean, expanding the playoffs has worked out well and it is not like the sport sank to niche level. Still, I don't think Selig is as popular as he thinks he is and I simply don't see any reason to burst his bubble now. Plus, someone should pull him aside and remind him that even popular commissioners get booed in public. It is one of the unwritten rules of sports - any authority figure from the League Office must be booed simply for showing up. Those boos are only going to get louder when fans think it is their last chance to voice their displeasure at someone so I would advise Bud to stay home and have a party there. Trust me, the teams will still send gifts.

-It is slightly ironic that in Selig's final season the one thing I have been most critical about - his reluctance to expand replay - is about to be taken care of. The other day the League approved expanded replay on just about everything short of balls and strikes. While the expanded use of replay is a good idea, I am still not sure they picked the right system for how to implement it. Going forward each manager will be given one challenge for the first six innings. If they win that challenge they will get a second challenge. This will apply to the first six innings and anything from the seventh inning on will have to be taken care of by the umpires. This is clearly lifted from the NFL's version of replay challenges but the main problem is that I have never thought the NFL's system was all that great. You see, it works off the very flawed premise that a referee will only get one call wrong per half and if you have been watching baseball lately it is pretty obvious that baseball umpires are capable of having very bad days. Teams shouldn't be penalized for that. I guess you could argue that this adds another layer of strategy to the game because now managers will have to decide whether or not they want to challenge something which happens early in the game but that fails to address the very simple issue that they shouldn't have to make that kind of call. The reason you have replay is to make sure that every call is right and whether or not a manager already challenged two questionable calls in the first 4 innings of a game shouldn't come into play. That is why I would much rather seem them adopt a system a little closer to the college football one, which is that everything is reviewed by an independent set of eyes and if they see anything worth taking a further look at they buzz down to the crew working the game. It takes the issue totally out of the hands of the managers and the umpires and makes sure that every call is correct even if the manager is out of challengers. Now, opponents of that plan would point out that if a manager didn't like a call and wanted replay to take a look at it a second time they would simply order their guy to take his time between pitches, thus slowing the game down even more. There is some validity to that but anyone who watched the World Series could see that even a guy taking extra long to adjust his equipment before entering the batter's box would still be faster than a manager coming out to argue an obvious blown call, the umpires gathering to fix that obviously blown call and then the other team's manager coming out to argue the fact they reversed that obvious blown call. Besides, do you know what is worse than a 4-hour baseball game? A 4-hour baseball game in which your team got screwed.

-Because baseball's season now stretches into November and bleeds directly into football season there is only so much a sport fan can watch at one time, which means the NBA gets squeezed out until after the Super Bowl. Most years that isn't the worst thing in the world because there are entirely too many NBA regular season games to begin with and there is no need to burn yourself out on an early season tilt between the Bobcats and the Bucks. I will at least give credit to the NBA for having caught on to this fact and back-loading the schedule so that most interesting games which only happen once or twice a year don't happen until after football has gone into its offseason. However, this year the NBA's willingness to take a backseat is really too bad because it means casual fans are missing out on what has been an historic run by Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant. Durant has been unstoppable this season and has a long string on games in which he has scored at least 30 points. His great play has catapulted the Thunder near the top of the Western Conference standings and has put Durant in prime position to win his first MVP. The thing is that not everyone is as impressed with his play as of late, specifically LeBron James who this week made an offhanded comment about how jealous he is that Durant gets to take so many shots in the course of a game. James says he was just trying to be complimentary but you'd have to be an idiot not to see that he has an ulterior motive, which is to accuse Durant of being a ball-hog without actually saying the words. I don't think James has any particular grudge against Durant (they are teammates on Team USA and no reports of them hating each other have emerged) but at the same time James is in no great hurry to see Durant run away with what he considers to be his MVP trophy. You see, if James were to win the MVP this season it would make him the first player to win four MVPs in six seasons and this smear campaign makes it pretty clear that is an honor he wants. It is not like James is crazy to think he deserves consideration - by some standards it is the best all-around season he has ever compiled - but it is just not as good as what Durant is doing, especially when you remember the Thunder are missing their second best player. But, more than coming off as petty James is also quite wrong in that Durant takes exactly three more shots than him per game, which is almost nothing. If he wants to make a case for why he should remain MVP over Durant he is going to have to do better than that. But, if he really is jealous of one guy being tasked with carrying an entire franchise on his back and doing it all himself, LeBron could always go back to Cleveland.

-When the NFL announced that they had reached a $765 million settlement with a group of about 4,500 former NFL players who alleged the league knew about concussions and their lingering effects my first reaction was that it was a bargain at any price. The NFL wants concussions out of the news and they would have paid any amount to make it happen, which is why the figure actually seemed low to me. Sure, they had some leverage in that the people suing need money for medical bills and they need it now but I still thought the amount would have been higher. Turns out I am not the only one who may think that as this week a judge has put a freeze on the settlement. Now, the judge's halt is based on concerns that the NFL will not be able to make all the payments as necessary (which is absurd because they make $9 billion annually) but there are rumblings that with the extra time and a further look at the books some of the parties who settled may want to back out and re-open the suit because they didn't get enough money the first time around. Considering the cost of medical bills and basic inflation, $170,000 per person seems a little low, especially when you remember that is just an average and some of the players won't even be getting that much (it's based on when they played and how their medical history has been since retiring). I'm sure the specter of having this back in the news would be worth another couple hundred million to the NFL, especially with the Super Bowl coming up which is why I say they should go for it. Here's the thing: I am not one of these people who thinks the NFL is evil - just dickish. They run a sport which is based on violence which would be fine because it is played by willing participants but at the same time they can not act like they had no idea this was going on and pretend they give a crap about player safety when they clearly do not. One of the fundamental tenets of polite society is that we won't remain mad at you for trying to get away with something provided that when you fail at that attempt you act like you are sorry and don't try it again. Even though the number was lower than I thought it should be that is essentially what the NFL was doing with this settlement which by itself was fine but then they had to start acting like they were being generous. That is was too much for me which is why I would like to see that number go up a few million. Every now and again the NFL needs to be poked and reminded that they are not above reproach and the best way to do this is to hit them in the wallet. Sadly I don't think that will happen because there are too many players who need the money too badly to go through more litigation so the NFL will get away with it this time. Still, there are new players retiring every year and many of those guy are going to need medical attention down the line so I hope the NFL keeps their lawyers on speed dial because one of these years they are going to have a group who isn't quite as desperate for money. I guess then we'll finally get to know what the going rate of silence really is.

-This weekend the AFC and NFC Championship games will be taking place. Now, this has been one of the most unpredictable NFL seasons in recent memory which is why it is rather ironic that we still ended up with the two match-ups most experts predicted, New England versus Denver and San Francisco at Seattle. Now, most of the time the NFL is forced to hype up these games and act as if the two teams are traditional rivalries when the reality is that they have only played each other once or twice in recent years but in this case the games feature two teams which could actually be considered rivals of one another. This is especially true in the game between the Seahawks and the 49ers because not only do these teams share a division they really do not like one another. It starts with their head coaches,who have been sniping at each other since Pete Carroll was at USC and Jim Harbaugh was at Stanford. It only got worse as the two teams started playing better the last two seasons and then stockpiled enough talent in the offseason to make them the odds-on favorites to make it to the Super Bow. Add in two contentious games during the regular season and you've got a recipe for actual animosity. For the most part this rivalry has stayed between the teams but now the Seahawks are taking things to the next level and trying to stick it to 49er fans as they are putting a ban on people from California buying tickets to this weekend's game. You see, Seattle prides itself on having one of the loudest stadiums in all of sports and tries to make it as loud as possible when the opposing team has the ball. I guess they figure an entire section of 49er fans would cut into that noise. Personally I have two issues with this policy. The first is that it seems rather short-sighted and underestimates how popular your own franchise could be. How do they know that there aren't any Seattle fans in California? Both states are big in the tech industry so a person could very easily have lived in both places. But the other reason I don't like this policy is because it seems rather bush league. I happen to believe crowd noise is over-rated as a factor anyway. (Think about all the times you really concentrated on something. Do you remember hearing anything? Of course you don't because that is the first thing your mind shuts out.) But even if it weren't trying to keep opposing fans out of you stadium makes you seem petty and thin-skinned, as if the very idea that someone in your stadium would not root for your team is too much for them to handle. The Seahawks aren't the first team to pull this kind of stunt but usually it is done by teams who are afraid another team is going to take over 90% of their stadium. Unless the entire idea of the 12th Man in a myth, that seems like something the Seahawks shouldn't have to worry about anymore.

-Last week I told you that San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was the leading candidate for all four open head coaching jobs in the NFL and until he picked which team he wanted to coach there would be no movement on any of those jobs. Well, after the Chargers lost to the Broncos Whisenhunt wasted no time in deciding to take the job with the Tennessee Titans. (Not the one I would have picked, by the way. I would have gone with Minnesota. Detroit has the most talent but I feel like Minnesota is the more stable organization.) Anyway, once Whisenhunt was off the market two of the three remaining teams quickly filled their voids with Mike Zimmer going to the Vikings and Jim Caldwell taking over the Lions. That just leaves the Cleveland Browns without a coach and while it is not the worst thing in the world to be the only team in need of a new coach it is probably not a good sign that to this point the team doesn't even have a favorite lined up. Normally by this time you would hear something about a leading candidate but according to various reports the Browns are still trying to lock down interviews with a few of the coordinators who are still coaching in the playoffs. This can't be a good sign. (Browns owner Jim Haslem is calling for fans to be patient. It is rather ironic that the guy who fired a head coach after just one season is now calling on people to stay the course and trust that he has a plan in place.) I find myself wondering if the fact the team is having such a hard time lining up interviews has something to do with the quick hook they gave to Rob Chudzinski. Reportedly a few of the coaches the Browns had called about potential interviews also gave Chudzinski a call to ask him what working for the organization was like and you would have to imagine he did not give Cleveland a glowing recommendation. I don't care how specialized a job coaching in the NFL may be, it is still like every other job in the world in that a short stint with a company is going to raise a lot of questions, so it is not inconceivable that some coaches would view the Browns job as a risk not worth taking as it could do them more harm than good down the road. Now, it is not like the team will never hire a coach - it is one of only 32 NFL jobs and it pays extremely well so eventually they will find someone to take the reins. I just can't imagine a high-profile coaching taking over this team now and, frankly, after this long of a wait that would be the only thing which will satisfy the Browns fans who are anxiously awaiting a new coach. Considering the team has only had two winning seasons since they came back to Cleveland I would say they have waited long enough.

-Of course, if the Browns would like to hire a coach this afternoon they could hire Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who would undoubtedly take the job. If you compared resumes to some of the coaches who the Browns are allegedly waiting to talk to it wouldn't even be that much of a stretch as he has a solid reputation as a coach who gets the most out of his players and comes from a family of coaches who have achieved at least some level of success in the NFL. Hell, he even has ties to Cleveland, serving as defensive coordinator under Eric Mangini. (Ok, maybe no one in Cleveland needs to be reminded of the Eric Mangini regime.) The point is, if you needed to hire a coach and brought Rob Ryan in for an interview it would not be the most far-fetched notion in the world. However, Rob Ryan has yet to get so much as an interview for a head coaching position and this week it was speculated on ESPN that it has less to do with his coaching credentials and more to do with his appearance. You see, Rob Ryan is a big guy with a lot of long hair and this apparently impacts his ability to coach a football team. I know that sounds like a stupid reason not to hire a guy who could help you win but, sadly, when it comes to the professional coaching ranks many people think that is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a coach can't even be brought in for an interview. If you don't believe me, just ask yourself why coaches like Rex Ryan and Charlie Weis got gastric bypass surgery shortly before they got their head coaching jobs. Apparently you can't be fat and a good football coach. Now, there is something to be said for the argument that coaching at the professional level requires a coach to look professional. However, that argument can easily be shot down by pointing out that football coaches are allowed to wander the sidelines dressed like hobos. How professional does Bill Belichick look in his cut-off sweatshirt? What about Jim Harbaugh in his $8 Wal-Mart khakis? Also, I think Andy Reid is just as big a guy as Rob Ryan but for some reason he hasn't been held back from getting a couple of head coaching opportunities. That means it has to be the long hair, which is idiotic. The simple fact is that it doesn't matter what your coach looks like as long as they will win your football games and the fact NFL owners use this as a reason to overlook a guy for a head coaching job is another reason I am amazed they made enough money to buy a team in the first place. The good new for Rob Ryan is that the Raiders are bound to need a new coach any month now and his long hair would fit right in over there.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Speak Up

I'm well aware that there are a couple of things which make me an anomaly in today's society. The first is that I prefer to pay for things with cash. I know it is probably not the most efficient way to go about my day but I take comfort in knowing that every place I go will take cash, which is not always the case with debit cards. Also, given all the security breaches which can happen when you pay electronically (I'm looking at you, Target), the case could be made that cash is the safest way to proceed with a transaction. The other thing which makes me look as though I am the last guy advocating for the 8-track is that I still have a landline in my house and use it as my preferred way to make phone calls. Currently most people have become overly attached to their cellphones and figure they will save themselves some money by eliminating their landlines, to the point still having a landline in your house is seen as so last-century. I guess that would work for a lot of people but I have never been that fond of talking on a cellphone. Not only have I never had a phone which fits comfortably to my large noggin, I am chatty, which quickly makes battery life an issue. But more than that is the fact that my cellphones get notoriously bad service in my house... or any house for that matter. It is one thing to not be able to get a signal when you are out and about because that is the vault of whatever store you happen to be in at that moment. Not getting a signal in your own home is a much bigger problem because not only does it make you look like you didn't research the company's coverage area before buying, it is a problem that will keep happening. Besides, I like the peace of mind that comes with a landline. Call me paranoid, but if I am on an important phone call I want to be sure that all my words are coming through clearly. It would be a shame to lose out something important because my call got dropped halfway through a sentence and I kept on blabbering like an idiot.

Now, I've had to come around on the "paying by card" thing mostly because my bank has incredibly inconvenient ATM locations. (I may like paying with cash but not enough to drive 20 minutes in the opposite direction of where I want to end up just to do so.) I've also started to come around on using my cellphone more because of an equally important innovation - standard-issue caller ID. Now, my landline offers caller ID services but you have to be using a phone which comes equipped with it and not every phone in my house is quite as fancy as some others. The one phone which has caller ID will loudly announce who is calling but this means that sometimes I will be in another room, have a phone in my hand and still have to wait until the one phone with caller ID tells me who is calling before I can answer it. Frankly, it makes me feel kind of dumb. However, that is not an issue with my cellphone because every call which comes through that line gets displayed on the screen, at which point I am given the option to take the call, silence it or decline it, which is so much faster. It used to be that I would give most people who asked my home line and only a select few were given my cellphone number. Thanks to the convenience of my cellphone this policy has now flipped and my cellphone is the number given to businesses. However, it has also brought to my attention just how many companies have bought or sold my cellphone number through the years because my cellphone is getting more random calls than ever before. The other day it also became clear that some of the people who bought my number off another company's list must have paid a lot of money for it and as such they had no money left for the actual call.

I immediately knew something was up when I didn't recognize the number because anyone that I would want to talk to on my cellphone should already be in there as a contact. Suspicions were further raised when the number started with an 888. I know cellphone companies have started to get a little creative with the area codes in heavily populated areas but I don't think they have gone that far down the list just yet. Now, whenever a number comes up that I do not recognize I have a half-second internal struggle with whether or not to answer the call. On the one hand, I am roughly 90% sure the person on the other end of the line will try and sell me a product I never wanted to buy. On the other, I occasionally give out my cellphone for business and having to call clients back 20 seconds after they leave you a message looks unprofessional. (It scream, "I was screening my phone calls" and why would a reputable person ever do that?) On this one occasion I decided to throw caution to the wind and answer the phone - something I immediately came to regret. After that half-second telltale pause which lets you know the pre-recorded message is about to start I was straining to hear a sales pitch which was either trying to sell me solar panels or my own Doppler radar, I couldn't tell. Even stranger was the fact that I could hear noises in the background, as if they were coming from between the phone and person talking. It is a sound that any child of the 80s knows all to well as it was the same kind of echo you would hear when your friend tried to play a song they had recorded for you through the phone. This leads me to assume the phone call was taking place at a busy call center and the person was simply holding the phone up to a tape recorder. I don't care how bad the caller's English may have been, this method was worse. As you probably guessed, I hung up rather quickly.

I've always thought the random, automated cold-call was a terrible way to get new business but at least there was something admirable about a group of employees gathering together in a room to call a list of total strangers in the hope of drumming up some business, knowing full well that they would be hung up on by about 95% of the people they called and the other 5% would scream at them and then hang up. I hate calling strangers on the phone even when they are expecting me, so the concept that these people called 500 random numbers every day without knowing who is on the other end of the line is downright heroic to me. (Though, not heroic enough to buy anything from them.) By contrast this new method of calling with a recorded message is not only just as ineffective, it feels much lazier. Also, I would contend it is actually a worse way to do business as most people are polite enough to let a real human speak for a few seconds before hanging up but will hang up on a recording immediately. Those few seconds may not mean a lot to you or me but it is more than enough time to get your company name out there. It probably isn't my place to tell these other companies how to run their businesses but if they want the slightest chance to success they either need to hire people who are willing to read the script or spend a little money on the production value for the message because there is no way I would buy anything over the phone from what sounds like a robot at the bottom of a well. Oh, and they should try and focus on calling people without caller ID because even though I occasionally take the plunge most people are too smart to answer the phone when it is a number they don't recognize.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Timing It Out

I used to really enjoy the show "Inside the Actor's Studio." Sure, at the height of its popularity critics may have accused the show of being pretentious but that is only because it was. But, honestly, how could it not be a little full of itself? Acting is one of those luxury activities (like writing) which isn't actually necessary to advance society. As such the people who make a living doing it need to toe the line when talking about it between showing that they are passionate about the craft without taking themselves too seriously (such as referring to it as "the craft". Now I want to kick my own ass), because then they look as though they have no perspective. Too often this show allowed its guest to ramble on about their jobs as if they were important even though at the end of the day all an actor is really doing is playing pretend and reading words that another person wrote. There is no need to put actors up on a pedestal or give their words any weight yet this show often allowed them to start believing their own hype. Despite that, it was nice to occasionally see actors in a longer-form interview in which they weren't trying to plug a movie or escape without saying anything too controversial. Often it was the most open any of them had ever been in public and since they were talking about their favorite subjects (themselves), all the actors were willing to go into great details about how they got to where they are now. In the end, like all popular TV shows "Inside the Actor's Studio" eventually started to lag in the ratings, mostly because the last few episodes appeared to be scraping the bottom of the barrel. (I mean, P. Diddy? You want to have him be on a show about music I would be all for that but acting? I'll pass.) I admit I haven't watched the show in years to the point I am not even sure it is on anymore.

Clearly I can't miss it too much if I am not willing to go looking for it on my TV dial and that is because the only episodes of "Inside the Actor's Studio" I truly wanted to watch were the ones which featured comedians since I obviously find comedy fascinating. The reason I no longer need the Actor's studio is that the show's lengthy interview style has been copied by many podcasts (if comedy is your thing there are dozens of free comedy podcasts to pick from) and most of the famed questions are asked in one form or another. One of the questions I am always interested to get a perspective on is whether comedy can be learned of if you have to be born with it. Personally I think you have to be born with it because I have certainly seen evidence that nurture isn't that important when nature doesn't produce even results. I'll explain - I once worked with two brothers and even though they grew up in the same house with the same parents they had vastly different comedy skills. One of the brothers routinely had us rolling in the aisles with a hilarious story while the other could bring any joke session to a screeching halt with his awful attempt at a humor. If there is such a thing as a comedy gene it clearly skipped a family member. The only thing I will about say in the argument of whether or not comedy can be taught is that it helps to grow up in an area where you are allowed to develop your natural abilities because the timing of telling a joke is a skill which needs refinement. And this week I was reminded it certainly can't be anticipated.

The other day I fell down the wormhole which is the internet, searching for entertainment. I eventually landed on YouTube, watching clip after clip from one comedian or another. I was slightly annoyed at the commercials which came before about every third video, some of which were almost as long as the entire bit I wanted to watch but the good news is that most of them allowed me to skip to the end after I had put in my required 15 seconds. Everything was going fine until I came upon an entire comedy special which someone had uploaded. The entire hour was there for my amusement and since there was nothing better on to watch I sat down and prepared myself to laugh. Almost immediately I notice that there were little yellow markers on the video's timeline, indicating commercial breaks. This often happens when you watch shows online so I guess it was inevitable that it would eventually find its way to YouTube. Also it seemed fair since this clip was nearly an hour long and I wasn't paying for it, so the least I could do was sit through a few commercials. The problem is that very quickly it became obvious that YouTube has a software program which just inserts commercial breaks at a pre-determined interval with no regard to where the show may be in that time. Sometimes it was just off, such as when the ad started right after the clip faded up from black on what was a TV break on the original broadcast. But the rest of the time it was blatantly bad with the clip cutting to an ad in the middle of sentences or during punchlines. It was very annoying and even though the clip was free it still made me feel like I was getting ripped off.

Look, I am not saying YouTube shouldn't have ads. They don't maintain this site for their health - they are in this to make money and running ads during popular clips is the best way to do it. Also four, thirty-second commercials aren't too high of a price when you remember the average person sit through 8 minutes of commercials for every half-hour of regular TV they watch and that most of the online ads allow you to skip to the end about halfway through. But even with that YouTube needs to be more careful about when they place these breaks. I mean, blindly throwing ads up at a set time regardless of what is coming on screen shows a lack of professionalism because it looks like you take no pride in the details of your work. After all, there is a reason that radio stations hire people to figure out what time commercials should run and which commercials should go in each break. There is a science to it. I know YouTube has thousands of videos uploaded on it every day and hiring a team of programmers who are require to sit through every single one of them and figure out where they breaks should go would be a waste of everyone's time and skill. I'm not asking them to do that because there is no need to spend that much time editing a clip which is only going to get watched by the uploader and nine of his friends. What I do want is for them to take a little more care when applying ads to the clips which they know are going to be popular (and I am sure they have an algorithm which lets them know exactly that). This video had a couple hundred thousand views so I think it would be worth a little extra attention. Trust me, it would work out better for them because comedy nerds like me will be much more open to sharing a clip which isn't ruined by poor timing. For example, I was going to post that video on this blog but decided against it when I saw how annoying the ad breaks were. I may not have a ton of followers but I know how internet commerce works - every pageview is worth it so YouTube should go back and fix this issue as soon as possible. They say the key to a good joke is timing and right now YouTube's timing sucks.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Tag, You're It

Adult life is chock full of social etiquette - those little traditions which no one tells you about but heaven forbid you accidentally break one of them, or else you will be branded as unworthy for future social interactions. The only thing more annoying than how many of these social rules there are is the fact that many came into existence without much explanation and yet are now considered iron-clad. Normally I like a little bit of reason behind my rules, which is why there are many social traditions which I will never fully understand. But the one I want to focus on with this post is the one which states you must always take the price tag off any gift you are giving someone. Why? I mean, we're all adults here - we all know gifts cost money. (Unless you are giving the gift to a child who is too young to have any concept of money in which case they won't care how much the gift was anyway, only if it is loud and bright.) I assume this tradition comes from the days when letting people know how much (or, really, how little) you spent on them was considered rude but aren't we passed this little charade now? I mean, as a thrifty shopper I appreciate a bargain hunter as much as the next person so I would almost rather you tell me how good a deal you got because I'm the kind of person who isn't going to enjoy something if I think the person spent too much money on it anyway. Leave the price tag on, let me know you got it used and on sale and rather than thinking you view me as a person who isn't worth the money for a new one I will most likely applaud you for getting me such a cool gift at such a good price rather.

I say all this and yet I am as guilty of it as the next person because between Christmas and family birthdays I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of months picking at the corner of a price tag, trying to catch enough of a corner to that I can pull the tag off and then spending another few minutes looking at the item from every angle to make sure I didn't miss any. (Perhaps this is why the issue is so fresh on my mind.) I mean, if we're all going to keep up with this asinine tradition the least the store owners could do is come up with a better system, whether it is changing where they put the tags or the adhesive they use to secure them in place. Because right now they certainly aren't doing me any favors. I want to ask you a very simple question - is there any better feeling in the world than the satisfaction which comes from catching the price tag at just the right angle and having the entire thing come off in one piece? (I have found Barnes & Nobles is the best for this and the fact that I even have an opinion on the matter shows you how seriously I take it.) When that happens I am more pleased with myself than a doctor who cured a deadly disease. Conversely, is there anything more annoying that a price tag which refuses to come off? I was fighting with a tag the other afternoon which would only come off in small strips. It must have taken me 5 minutes just to get enough of the tag ripped away enough so that the price was no longer visible, at which point I declared victory and called it a day, only to come back 5 minutes later to take another crack at it because my brain simply doesn't allow jobs like that to go on half-finished.

Now, you may be saying to yourself that this wouldn't be a problem if I just bought items which had the normal, non-sticky tag on them which hangs from a thin piece of plastic. This is mostly true - that is the vastly superior system if you are sure the item you are about to buy is going to remain in your possession for the foreseeable future. However, they pretty much only use this kind of tag when they are selling clothes and I tend not to buy people clothing because I never get the size right. Beside, it isn't like this method is foolproof. In fact, it is actually worse when you are talking about returning items as trying to do that with a tag missing is a whole other set of problems. The other day I went to return a shirt that I had given my father as a gift. (See?) When I was wrapping it I was very confidence it would fit - so confident, in fact, that I had ripped the tag off. Well, it turned out to not be long enough, which meant my confidence had been misplaced. Again, the store was only too happy to take it back but before they would do that the woman behind the counter would need to make an entirely new tag and attach it to the shirt to replace the one I had thrown away. (The reason why this had to be done at that exact second were never properly explained to me. Perhaps they wanted to be ready just in case the person behind me in line was looking for a sweater in that exact size at that exact moment.) Seeing as how the woman handling my return was roughly 80 and on a bad hip it probably took her about 10 times as long as it should have if I hadn't had to take the tag off. So, this system may be a little better but clearly not perfect.

Making this entire process all the more frustrating is the fact that we have already come up with the perfect system, only many store choose not to use it - the normal tags with a smaller, removable piece attached to the bottom with only the price on it. These kinds of tags allow the gift-giver bow to social etiquette and tear away the price without also getting rid of the bar code the person at the register needs in case the gift has to be returned. Hell, I have even seen stick-on price tags with this technology and yet, for some reason, many stores stick with the old-school price tag in which the price is at the top and the code is on the bottom, making it impossible to keep unless you want the person to know exactly how much you value their friendship. I am sure this is done for the same reason all things are done in the retail world - money. I mean, it can't be a surprise that the most common place to see this two-piece tags are places like Pier 1, which is the kind of store in which $80 for bookends seems reasonable. But, really, how much more can these tags cost in comparison to regular kind, especially when you would be buying them in the bulk quantities of your typical chain store? I would contend the price would be more than made up with more efficient workers, especially when Ethel from register 3 isn't being asked to work a complicated printer and the gun which shoots the tags through clothing. I was terrified she was going to hurt herself while re-tagging my item and then I would feel compelled to get her a gift. But I can assure you of this much, if I had I would have been damn sure to leave the price tag on.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Don't Shoot The Messenger

Normally I am a big fan of movies which promise a lot of action but so far I haven't found myself in any great hurry to see the new movie, "Lone Survivor." This is for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is that going to the movies isn't particularly fun anymore. I used to enjoy seeing a film up on the big screen as the filmmaker intended but these days there are so many people who spend the entire movie texting, talking on their phones or bring small children to R-rated movies that it ruins the experience and with the advances in home theater systems you probably only need to see very specific movies (like "Gravity") on the big screen. Another reason that I haven't made plans to go see this movie as of right now is that I kind of feel it will be depressing. For those of you who don't know this movie is based on a book of the same name about a SEAL team which went in with the mission of capturing a high-ranking terrorist and found themselves severely out-numbered. Their plan was to try and escape but they could not so they instead were forced to stand their ground and fight. As you may have guessed from the title, it didn't work out for three of the four of them. Everyone I have talked to who has seen the movie has said the entire theater walked out with this shell-shocked look on their faces and I like my movies to be more upbeat than that. I don't always need a super-fun happy ending but I don't want to walk out feeling sad. Still, I'm sure I will eventually see this movie because from all accounts it is great. However, this week we all learned once again that not all movie reviews are created equally.

If you have seen a commercial for this movie than you probably heard it advertised along with a review which dubbed it, "The greatest war movie since "Saving Private Ryan"." Now, movie reviewers have a habit of going for hyperbole so this is not the most outrageous claim ever but the issue is apparently in who said it. You see, it came from Grantland's Bill Simmons who is primarily a sportswriter. He is also Grantland's editor-in-chief which is why he was there when the studio screen the movie for the site's entertainment writers. Apparently he was very enthusiastic when talking to director Peter Berg after the show was over and Berg asked if they could use the quote for the advertisement. Simmons agreed, never knowing the studio would make his quote the center of the entire campaign. Now there are people out there wondering just who the hell Bill Simmons is to make this kind of statement while I am left wondering what the big deal is. I have never made my feelings towards movie critics (or critics of any kind, for that matter) a secret - I don't like them for the very simple reason of I don't think their opinion matters more than mine and the fact that they think it should is insane. Not only have the majority of them never made a film of their own, which means they have no experience to dwell on, but most of them were working in another department about two weeks ago and only found their way into this position because of layoffs or the regular reviewer going on maternity leave. It is not like you can train for this kind of thing - you just watch a free movie and tell people what you think - so what makes their opinion on a movie any more of less valid than Simmons's? If anything I would say as a producer of the "30 for 30" series he has more experience working with directors than the people who are so angry about his review being granted such exposure.

I guess if you wanted to take the other side of the argument you could point out that Simmons shouldn't be making such a claim because he obviously hasn't seen every war movie since "Saving Private Ryan" and thus couldn't make an accurate determination on "Lone Survivor"'s place in that hierarchy. Admittedly, that is the one area in which Simmons is lacking - he doesn't spend all day, every day going to screeners and there is something to be said for having that kind of mental catalog at your disposal. However, I would argue that his is the kind of fresh perspective the movie industry has been lacking. Far too often I see movie reviewers on TV and they hate everything. Not that I blame them because the simple fact of the matter is that even if your job is as sweet as going see all the new movies eventually you will start to resent the very idea of films. It's the nature of the world - no matter how cool your job may be eventually it will become like any other job on the planet, which is to say there will be days you hate it (I assume those are the days you screen the new Adam Sandler movie). As I mentioned at the top I don't really like going to theaters anymore and I only do it once in a while. I would have to imagine it is hard to do that every day and then try to leave that bias at the door and go into a movie without with an open mind. It is not a stretch to think that a few of these movie reviewers made up their mind about hating a movie before they ever got to the theater. When you think about it like that the idea of a guy who normally watches basketball for hours on end and is truly excited to see a new movie becomes exactly the kind of person I want reviewing my movies for me.

Also, I want to point out that if you have ever taken the time to read the affiliations some of these reviewers have the idea of a well-respected sportswriter giving a positive review to a movie seems downright logical. It is no secret that the worse a movie turns out the deeper they have to dig to find a positive quote to put in the advertisement and on more than one occasion a really bad movie has been accused of inventing a person and title just to make the review look authentic. Compared to that you can see why "Lone Survivor" would be happy to use Simmons' endorsement. I mean, Grantland is a large website and its staff has some major credentials. I would much rather hear what someone from that site has to say if the alternative is some guy from a 40-watt ABC affiliate in Wyoming, especially when you discover he may not even exists. And that is to say nothing of the trend of using Twitter reviews as if they carry real weight. (Comedy Central is notorious for doing this.) Look, I love Twitter but even I would be hard-pressed to take anything I saw on that medium seriously due to it's sarcastic nature and the fact that a third of the people on Twitter are high and another third of accounts are run by spam robots. I am happy to go there for the jokes but I would never be influenced by any review of a movie I ever saw there, I don't care how positive or negative it may be. Look, I'm not saying I want ESPN to add a movie review corner to "SportsCenter" but I would certainly rather hear Jalen Rose's thoughts on this year's Oscar races than hear a movie reviewer try and break down the NBA Eastern Conference.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Drilling The Point Home

On Friday I got a call from my niece with a two part question: would I take her to basketball practice the next day and would I wear my Rajon Rondo shirt when I did? Now, even though I could not do the second half of that request because I do not own a Rajon Rondo jersey (it goes against my policy of owning jerseys of players who are younger than me, which is why I have not bought a new jersey in years (though I thought about doing it in this case)), I was more than happy to do the second part. Not only was it a little one-on-one time with my niece which is always good, I also enjoy these little portals into parenthood because I like to find out what the deal is without having to actually have the life-long commitment of raising another human being. I was especially interested in this particular event because I figure sports (especially basketball) would be right up my alley and I wanted to see if this league would be as full of parents gone wild as I had been lead to believe. My niece is just starting to play organized (and I do use that term loosely) sports but if any number of documentaries or disturbing news clips are to be believed first-grade intramural basketball is more than organized enough to be filled with parents who are screaming at coaches for not having their kids working on the right drills as well as at the kids for not being attentive enough during those poorly-chosen drills. Watching ESPN I have been lead to think every parent is banking on a scholarship for free college tuition and figure the only way they are getting that is if their kid dominates from the very start, so I was ready for anything. Turns out I didn't have anything to worry about.

First off, any illusions that this was for kids who were serious about getting good at basketball were quickly dashed when I saw just how many little girls were in this league. There were 5 teams divided by color and roughly 12 girls on every team, which meant there was no chance for individual coaching. What happened was each team went to one drill area, worked on that one drill for 8 minutes and then the buzzer sounded and they all ran to the next drill area. [Sidebar: "Run to the next drill" may have been the thing my niece was best at, because she was always first in line at the next station.] Also, it was like most organized events I have been to regarding small children in the last few years, which is to say that only about 30 of the girls actually wanted to be there and were paying close enough attention to learn anything. The rest of the girls were clearly just signed up by a parent and would rather being doing anything else, which meant they were killing time by playing with each other's hair, dancing in place, staring off into the distance or covering their ears because the buzzer was scheduled to go off in just under three minutes and they didn't want to be caught off-guard. Getting these girls into lines and getting them to go through the drill was so time-consuming every girl only got one or two turns at each station, which isn't exactly going to turn them into the next Diana Taurasi. Also, it is hard to really know how good a person is at basketball when little things like dribbling, travelling and only playing with one ball at a time never come in to the equation.

So it was pretty clear that even if a parent started off the season thinking this was going to be hardcore training by the time I showed up they knew not to expect this to be a well-oiled machine, which is how it should be. That being said, in some ways the behavior of the parents was disappointing. Don't get me wrong - I was happy that there weren't any helicopter parents trying to take over the show (the biggest douche of the day was the one dad who seemed to want credit for repeatedly dunking an under-inflated ball on an eight-foot rim) but it seemed like most of them went too far the other way and didn't care at all. I swear, the fastest some of them moved all day was to rush to grab a seat in the line of folding chairs on the sideline, immediately take out their phone and never look up again until practice was over, totally content to let the coaches do whatever they wanted as long as their kid didn't lose a limb in the next hour. I was one of the few people who moved every time my niece changed stations so that I could keep an eye on her and she could see that I was actually interested in how she was doing, which surprised me. I was expecting more enthusiasm. I don't want any parent to be the one who challenges the other parents to a fistfight because their kids fouled one another but I don't think this extremely laid-back approach is the answer either because kids at that age aren't going to give a crap about something if you don't at least show a little interest and at six they are certainly old enough to remember if mommy or daddy spent their entire practice playing Candy Crush. If there is a line to be found between over-enthusiastic sports parents and indifference these people haven't quite mastered it yet.

There is a part of me that wonders if a few of these parents were just keeping their emotions under wraps because they are painfully aware of the stigma attached to overzealous parents in youth sports and they don't want to become one of "those" people that all the other parents stare at and judge. I could tell that the impulse to yell out additional instruction was definitely bubbling below the surface of a couple people, especially this one guy who was one of the few people to switch drills along with me. He keep telling his daughter to keep her head up and pay attention and I could totally see him getting more intense if his daughter showed even the slightest bit of interest. (Ironically she have been the most spaced-out kid of them all, so it is also possible that he was just getting frustrated because he spends his entire life trying to get her to pay attention.) Of course it needs to be pointed out I was standing at attention the entire hour so it is just as likely he was thinking the same thing about me. Still, even though he had a few moments where it looked like he cared a bit too much they were very brief. And even if his tempered enthusiasm was all an act, I am happy to report that for all the reports that you can't go to a child's sporting event without a brawl breaking out between parents, most of parents in this particular league appear to have a healthy grasp on reality and know that pushing a kid too hard at this age is more likely to cause them to forever quit a sport than master it. Of course, this was just practice - the games could be a totally different story.