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I’ve been blogging again at http://robjquinn.blogspot.com. I hope you’ll give it a try. Thanks!

Monday, March 27, 2006

A Newcomer's View of The Sopranos

A few weeks ago I figured it was time to give The Sopranos another chance. Technically, I’m not a newcomer to the show — I actually saw the very first episode. As I recall, I watched a clichéd mob boss intermittently see a shrink, while saying he couldn’t really talk, and whack people. I promptly decidedly the show was stupid.

Then of course the show became a hit. So, after it’s long hiatus, I thought this would be a good time to jump on board. I thought maybe they’d make a point to indoctrinate new viewers. Failing that, I figured I’d be able to enjoy this supposedly great show, while catching up on my own. I was wrong. I mean, I “get” most of what’s going on. I just haven’t budged off my original analysis.

The Sopranos is ridiculously bad. What the hell makes this show so popular?

I’ve watched at least two weeks — it feels like more — of Tony Soprano, head of a crime family, in a coma, as he seems to dream about being a traveling salesman . . . or, as we finally learn, his spirit is heading “home” . . . or trying to . . . or I don’t know what. Meanwhile, the mob meanders around as if they’re in something a step above a gang. One guy hangs himself because he can’t leave “the family.” One guy acts like a fat, geeky teenager holding a cheerleader’s hand for the first time because he might take over the mob. And the rest of them are involved in spitting contests no more sophisticated than playground spats.

Every Italian cliché is in full bloom. Except for the downright confusing, there’s been nothing approaching a surprise. The show’s called The Sopranos; I knew Tony wasn’t dying. For a while, I thought we were seeing Tony’s life before the mob in the dream sequence (or whatever it was). From what I’ve seen, that might have been the way to go.

Admittedly, I’m new to the show, so maybe I’m missing something. I sincerely hope so, because, so far, this show sucks.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Black. White." — Three Episodes In

Three episodes into the FX series “Black. White.” the show is at least compelling to watch, although falls short of its advertised promise to have the ability to affect any sort of change in race relations. That was likely too ambitious of a goal for a show anyway.

“Black. White.” has paired up two families — one white, one black — to live together, and experience life outside of the house as the opposite race (through the use Hollywood type makeup). The potential of the show is hurt by poor casting.

The producers clearly went with the typical reality show mold of putting conflicting personalities together to create conflict. That was fine for shows like Real World, where nothing was really going on, and manufacturing tension was necessary. Here, the experiment is enough to raise compelling issues, and the personality conflicts merely cloud the issues.

The first two episodes had me embarrassed to be white. The white couple, Carmen and especially Bruno Wurgel, came off as idiots. Bruno’s clearly never experienced being the victim of prejudice, and couldn’t wait to tell the world how letting it roll of your back was the answer we’ve all been searching for. He was like a child with permission to say a bad word as he kept tossing out the N-word, saying he couldn’t wait to be called the derogatory name and watch the stunned reactions of others when he didn’t get angry.

Carmen is just the opposite. Her eagerness to be open to the black experience had her missing the point, and puts her ignorance on display. By jumping in with both feet, such as offering a ridiculous poem with a gathering of a slam poetry group, she shows that she doesn’t get that there are real issues for blacks regarding race. Last night’s episode in which they walked through a black gathering as a mixed couple — Bruno in makeup, Carmen as herself — may have been a turning point.

The black couple, Brian and Renee Sparks, were exposed as having their own racial prejudice in last night’s episode. Prior to that I actually agreed with them almost without fail, except for their asinine attitude that they were there to teach the white people about blacks but really had nothing to learn in return. But their overreaction to Carmen’s use of “black creature” in her poem shed a light on the way they teach their son to be aware of race.

I get why Brian and Renee want their son to be more aware of race issues, and most of what they say makes sense. Nick is fairly clueless, and seems to want to be the stereotyped black teen. He’s apparently out of school at age 16 due to disciplinary problems and proud of it. But Brian and Renee’s reaction to the poem suggests possible paranoia. Using “black creature” was a poor attempt at the poetic by Carmen, not racism. (To be fair, Carmen’s use of “bitch” with Renee during dialogue coaching may have had them on edge.)

The second episode showed why the personality conflicts hurt the show. Carmen went shopping for clothes for her and Bruno to attend a black church (as black people). Renee tagged along to supposedly help, yet allowed Carmen to buy traditional African garb. The Wurgels, of course, looked ridiculous, and Renee merely played dumb as if she hadn’t been asked for input. This had little to do with race, and plenty to do with two people not getting along.

Rose Wurgel, the white daughter, seems to get the project better than anyone. She eases into situations, such as the slam poetry class, aware that racial differences exist. She wants to fully experience black culture, but isn’t making a mockery of it by rushing in.

It is definitely worth watching this series.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Freakonomics — Book Review

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics is an interesting, if not overly practical, look at the world. Mostly Levitt’s work, it takes a statistical approach to a disjointed set of questions with the aim of debuncting convential wisdom on various subjects. Delivering on some of the subtitle’s promise, the book opens readers’ eyes as “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”

Levitt relies almost exclusively on data as he answers questions clearly intended to grab attention. Why do drug dealers live with their mothers? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime? Do parents skills really matter? Why do real estate agents take longer to sell their own homes than those of their clients?

The most intriguing chapter explained how teachers in the Chicago Public School System, offered financial incentives for their students achieving higher scores on standardized tests, were caught cheating their butts off. (Not all of them, of course.) The methods used to catch the cheating teachers — not the students — were rather ingenious, and well detailed. However, that didn’t seem like it was supposed to be the fascinating part, which is why the book comes up a bit short.

The problem was that Levitt and Dubner seemed like they thought they were uncovering some fascinating human “truths” that would shock and amaze. Yet, their main conclusion came down to one thing that’s not so shocking — people like money. Or, more to the point, people like money enough to cheat to get it.

Ya think?

Ok, I may be over simplifying a bit. However, there did seem to be this inherent suggestion that they were offering up some tremendously useful knowledge regarding human behavior. But they just weren’t. Besides that, everything was based on incredible amounts of information, which I feel safe saying readers would never look into. Though there’s no concrete reason to feel there’s something wrong with that, it may leave many feeling left out or, at least, skeptical. It’s simply too difficult to really judge the assertions being made.

In fact, one of the few parts that might have offered something the reader could take away from the book (besides pushing your next real estate agent a bit harder) essentially suggests that parenting has little affect on how kids turn out. I’m not a parent, so I can honestly say that my opinion that this part had plenty of holes isn’t based on defensiveness. In fact, the authors didn’t seem to buy it either as they qualified the hell out of it.

I also had plenty of questions about the assertion that Roe v. Wade, or legalized abortion, lead to a dramatic drop in crime. Certainly the argument was very strong that children who otherwise would have been born were the likely candidates to continue the crime wave. Yet, other factors, such as an improving economy, were too easily dismissed as contributing elements.

If you’re looking for some real insights to your fellow man, Freakonomics will have you looking elsewhere. Otherwise, read it for fun while looking for something better.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Unending Onslaught of Junk E-mail

There’s nothing like waking up to 30 — thirty! — e-mails from total strangers looking to sell me something. I understand the concept behind “e-mail marketing,” for lack of a better term. I’ve even sent one or two likely annoying e-mails nudging folks to “check out the deals at Royal Steele Books.” And, I admit, the biggest annoyance merely amounts to not being able to leave my “business” e-mail open during the day due to constant false alarms about e-mail I actually care about.

However, what I don’t understand is how ridiculously stupid some of the attempts of junk e-mailers are to have me actually open their message. I also don’t understand how these efforts ever pay off, which they must given that they simply never stop.

Let’s think about this: Junk E-mailer sits down at his computer knowing he’s about to send annoying, unwanted e-mails to thousands of strangers. Even if he gets through the filters most of us have set-up (I don’t use them on the business account), he must realize he’s in jeopardy of his messages simply being deleted.

So, it would seem that their subject lines would be critical. Even with the name being foreign in our inbox, we’ll at least read the subject line. A snappy, funny, or intriguing phrase is essential to Junk E-mailer having success. It’s his “foot in the door.”

Right?

I picked out some of my favorite subject lines recently:

o Re: Or write by marking
o Linus, on peace
o but Fee, it deoxribonicleic
o Re: That tell an colony
o Jaquith it vanilla, and imp
o disambiguate censor
o What if you could fool your brain into believing that you are full? Amazing, but true!
o do can by fit endanger

Feel free to enlighten me if you know what the hell “but Fee, it deoxribonicleic” means. Is “do can by fit endanger” a secret message? At least “What if you could fool your brain into believing that you are full?” makes sense grammatically, but anybody biting on “Amazing, but true!” just isn’t paying attention.

Then there are the e-mails I shouldn’t even have to delete! I regularly receive e-mails that aren’t even close to my address, including those sent to:

o badboy57@comcast.net
o Sagal60
o Rue28

Rue? I mean, are you kidding? Do I seem like the actress who played the slutty Golden Girl?

Finally there was this:

From: Katelyn Huynh [mailto:CGbolson@donandres.com]
To: gbolson@comcast.net
Subject: his tell the keep shorn

Was this code for her family-tree research? Signs of a stroke?

The worst part of all this is that Junk E-mailer uses phony addresses, so there’s no chance to retaliate. Yet, there is one, very thin silver lining in this endless onslaught of annoying e-mails that we’re forced to delete on a daily basis. Now, at least we can appreciate telemarketers . . . who can be hung up on.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Buying Bloggers

A while back I wrote about the notion of bloggers representing the first truly free press. I was far from convinced that this was true, or even a good thing if it were true. Corporate America has apparently decidedly it certainly is not a good thing if it were true, though their reasons are far different than mine.

I received a link to an article in yesterday’s New York Times. The article, “Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in P.R. Campaign,” read in part:

Brian Pickrell, a blogger, recently posted a note on his Web site attacking state legislation that would force Wal-Mart Stores to spend more on employee health insurance. "All across the country, newspaper editorial boards — no great friends of business — are ripping the bills," he wrote.

It was the kind of pro-Wal-Mart comment the giant retailer might write itself. And, in fact, it did.

Several sentences in Mr. Pickrell's Jan. 20 posting — and others from different days — are identical to those written by an employee at one of Wal-Mart's public relations firms and distributed by e-mail to bloggers.

Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.

But the strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, has been forthright with bloggers about the origins of its communications, and the company and its public relations firm, Edelman, say they do not compensate the bloggers.


As the article points out later, Wal-Mart isn’t the only company to work with bloggers. However, it reads, “What is different about Wal-Mart's approach to blogging is that rather than promoting a product — something it does quite well, given its $300 billion in annual sales — it is trying to improve its battered image.”

According to the article, messages have been sent to bloggers in which “. . . Wal-Mart promotes positive news about itself.” The author of these messages is “Marshall Manson, a senior account supervisor at Edelman who writes for conservative Web sites like Human Events Online, which advocates limited government, and Confirm Them, which has pushed for the confirmation of President Bush's judicial nominees.”

Wal-Mart claims not to pay bloggers for posting these messages. Even if that’s true, the article says these bloggers were contacted by Manson after criticizing or endorsing Wal-Mart and offered “’newsworthy info about the company and an occasional nugget that you won't hear about in the M.S.M.’ — or mainstream media.”

The article adds:

Wal-Mart has warned bloggers against lifting text from the e-mail it sends them. After apparently noticing the practice, Mr. Manson asked them to "resist the urge," because "I'd be sick if someone ripped you because they noticed a couple of bloggers with nearly identical posts."


Yeah, right.

Even if money does not change hands, these bloggers are in bed with Wal-Mart. At the very least, bloggers who do this are acting as a mouthpiece for these companies in exchange for getting information, which they clearly hope makes their blog more popular. Blogs that are more popular have more money-making potential.

In the interest of full disclosure: I applied for entrance into Wal-Mart’s affiliate program, and was turned down. The program allows site owners to promote deals from the company’s site in an effort to earn commissions.

I have no problem with bloggers making a buck. The goal of making money is the main reason I blog. I’d do cartwheels (or at least try to) if I found a sponsor for The Casual Critic.

That’s not what this is. Sponsors can’t wait to tell readers who they’re supporting. The logos and links of companies are all over the blogs they sponsor. This is also not affiliate selling, in which the connection between site owner and selling company is made abundantly clear.

This, as the person who sent me the link said, is selling out. Companies and bloggers that do this know it’s slimy — it’s why they hide their connection.

Worst of all, it’s more than just an attempt by Corporate America to buy public opinion, which is bad enough but at least we’re used to the form such efforts usually take. This is buying bloggers in a deliberate effort to corrupt the best vehicle available for the voice of the every day guy.

This is disguising advertising as commentary, and if that becomes commonplace we can stop worrying about being whether or not bloggers are a part of a free press. We’ll know they’re not.

Monday, March 6, 2006

The Best (and Worst) Sitcom Finales

I once heard reruns called “comfort food,” which I thought was the best description I ever heard of those repeated episodes of shows we still love. (Since I have ripped him in the past, I’ll give 610 WIP’s Anthony Gargano credit for the comment.) Besides being the equivalent of late night cheezos, reruns are also a great way to catch up on how that show you liked but eventually lost track of ended.

This weekend I saw the last episode of Roseanne, a show I’d watched for years in prime time but drifted away from before its final seasons. My gut instinct after seeing the finale was that it was kind of a cop out — Roseanne had written a book imagining everything about the Connor family hitting the lottery, and Dan’s heart attack had killed him. But, besides the writer in me liking most stories involving anyone pouring his or her soul into pages of text, in retrospect it wasn’t a bad ending at all. It brought the show back to its roots — a poor family struggling through life — and erases the mistake of letting Dan have an affair.

In honor of last night’s Oscars, I decided to hand out awards to the best and worst, and a few other types, of sitcom show endings.

The Worst: The whole last season of Laverne & Shirley leads to this ridiculous ending. First of all, Shirley leaves the show in like the second episode that year. (For my money, Cindy Williams was the cute one, and her departure took away plenty of incentive to watch the show.) So, after weak attempt after weak attempt to make a show around Laverne (Penny Marshall) alone, the show offers up a finale that is an obvious effort to give Carmine (Eddie Mekka) a spin-off. It ends with him moving to New York, finding a roommate, and dancing (literally) in their apartment with the cast of the play they are in.

Most Misguided: While MASH did serious better than any other sitcom, it was first and foremost funny as hell. Yet, the finale found Hawkeye (Alan Alda) in a mental hospital, saw B.J. (Mike Farrell) leave in a rush only to return, and had Klinger (Jamie Farr) end up staying in Korea in a grasp for irony. I don’t remember a single belly laugh from the finale of a show that offered plenty throughout its run. The finale just missed.

Weakest Attempt to be Clever: Newhart was a quirky show, but it certainly deserved a better send-off than it got. In the finale, Bob wakes up with the wife from his previous series, and tells her about this crazy dream he had — the entire Newhart show. I’m guessing that half of the audience missed the joke.

Most Disappointing: Cheers probably never had a chance to live up to expectations for it’s finale. The show was that good. I liked that it stayed the course with comedy, and avoided any fabricated “ending.” Yet, no ending wasn’t quite the way to go. Besides, keeping everything ”as is” was supposed to leave the door open for Cheers specials, and, except for a lackluster reunion on Frasier, viewers never got that.

The Best: It was actually harder than I thought it would be to come up with this one. The difficulty sadly stemmed from the lack of good finales, as opposed to a lot of them. But I have to give the nod to Friends. The finale stayed with what made it so good over the years — it was funny. They wrapped up a few loose ends, but they didn’t make any attempt at some convoluted story line.

Of course, I’m always interested in reader opinions. My scope is a bit youthful, I admit — essentially going back to the early ‘80s — so my wiser readers are especially encouraged to chime in.

Friday, March 3, 2006

Random Thoughts

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point and Blink, now has a blog. I’ve been thinking about Point lately, as I’m reading a similar book called Freakonomics. Gladwell’s blog seems to get a tremendous amount of comments, and a quick glance suggested it is a lot like his first book — lots of observations by a guy a lot smarter than me, but little practical advice. Nonetheless, I’ve added it to my favorites.

Giving credit where it’s due: I found the above at Blinq.

MC Hammer has a blog. His attempt to launch a comeback from the blogosphere has a few more-interesting-than-expected posts. However, I will not be adding it to my favorites.

A reality blog? I’m thinking of starting another blog just for Royal Steele Books. My theory is that my blogs get way more hits than my main site — after all, did you see the 4-for-the-price-of-3 link? — and “reality TV” is still hotter than any genre on television. I’m thinking about a theme of life as an affiliate, life as a disabled guy trying to launch a business, or a combination of the two. The other possibility, or to be more accurate the slight twist on the combo idea, that I’m considering is summed up in a potential subtitle: My Blatant Attempt to Make Money. As always, thoughts are welcome.

I went to the bank for the first time in years yesterday. I came out with a CD rate better than anything advertised on the bank’s site and a better interest rate on a new account. So much for banking online.