As I was saying ...

A blog about stuff. Updated as need merits.

Stormtrooper hitting his head

Why the Empire always loses

Seven-minute read

It’s really all TK-421’s fault.

He wasn’t at his post, a mistake that led directly to the destruction of the Death Star1. Abandoning an assigned post is a fundamental violation of military protocol.

It’s similar to “I forgot to bring any bullets” in its forehead-slapping stupidity. It’s a court martial offense.

While the temptation might be to personally blame Mr. 421 for the error, his actions are really a sign of greater underlying problems in the Empire’s military training regimen. A certain sloppiness is evident.

It’s the kind of thing that allows a legion of the Empire’s best troops armed with lasers to be defeated by teddy bears throwing rocks. Or that allows the Empire to lose despite the Rebels’ tactical genius admiral leading his entire starfleet into an obvious trap.

One could blame these failures on the Empire’s ego-feeding need to make a big show of crushing the Rebellion in a single battle, which fails repeatedly. But we’ve only ever seen the broad strokes of these embarrassing military campaigns. We never saw the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead view of events.

George Lucas intentionally left stormtroopers as vague, faceless enemies,2 mere tools of a remorseless Imperial machine. He even went so far as to make them easily replaceable clones in the prequels.

Even after six movies in which Stormtroopers were featured heavily, we knew little about them other than:

  • They’re usually taller than Luke Skywalker
  • They can’t aim for shit
  • They bonk their heads on things a lot.
  • They’re aware that the new T-17 is finally coming out

The two most recent movies, The Force Embiggens and Rogue One Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, are the first to give us a more grunt-level view of military life in the Empire and First Order. FN-2187 – aka Finn – and Bodhi Rook.3 are the first Empire/First Order foot soldiers given any kind of major role.

While it is true that Finn (John Boyega) isn’t an original trilogy Stormtrooper, the First Order is a direct descendant of the Empire and clearly holds to its military traditions4. It’s made clear that the Stormtrooper training program was revamped in response to earlier failures, but seemingly not for the better.

Finn, who has been trained as a Stormtrooper since childhood, shows almost no military discipline or ability. His counterpart Mary Sue (Daisy Ridley), despite her background as a dirt-poor orphaned peasant, shows far more acumen at planning and escaping, not to mention calm under fire.

Finn scores poorly for weapons and trigger discipline and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of fighting skills. TR-8R5 kicks his ass easily despite the fact that Finn has a goddamned lightsaber. Mary Sue, who has no military training, uses the same lightsaber to fight off a Sith Lord. Overall, it’s a very poor showing showing.

Rogue One’s former Imperial star fleet pilot Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) doesn’t fare all that well either.

While Top Gun has led us to think that being a military pilot is mainly about making furtive, longing glances across the locker room at fellow pilots, actual flight training and operations involve a lot of careful procedures that must be followed precisely to avoid disaster. Even a cobbled-together band of rebels pilots knows the importance of protocols such as radio discipline, as Wedge Antilles is chided to “cut the chatter” during the Battle of Yavin.

Bodhi is a graduate of an Empire military academy and flight school. He’s a junior officer with the rank of ensign. He’s not only a stick and rudder man. He would serve as commander of whatever craft he was flying.

In Star Trek terms, he’s Wesley Crusher to Finn’s redshirt. He’s a far more trained, far more educated, far more responsible individual than cannon fodder like stormtroopers. Or, you’d think.

Yet he’s an even bigger hot mess than Finn. He’s a ditzy scatterbrain who, like Finn, doesn’t seem as if he received any military training or discipline. He’s nearly useless in planning the assault on Evil Space Google that ends the movie.

Snarky Robot Slave K-2SO (Hoban Washburne) does most of the flying and is responsible for saving the crew from the exploding remains of Jebbush City 6 by flying way from the scene much like a leaf on the wind might.

What’s notable in both Finn and Bodhi, though, is not lack of skill but a decided lack of loyalty.

Finn is shaken by the death of a stormtrooper who was his – BFF? BAE?7 – and promptly deserts, only to, a few hours later and without hesitation, drill blaster shots into his former comrades’ chests. His lack of loyalty shows up again when, after finding out the stakes of Mary Sue’s mission, he decides to bolt the scene and sign onto a freighter.

Bhodi decides to join the Rebellion “because reasons,” although giving characters things like “motivations” or “story arcs” or “dimensions” didn’t seem to be a strong point for the Rogue One writers.

Such unmotivated disloyalty points to deep problems in the Empire and First Order’s lower ranks. Traitors commonly feel that whoever or whatever they have turned against betrayed them first. Paying back this original slight is how they justify their own betrayals. For example, Mark Felt, a.k.a. “Deep Throat” began leaking to The Washington Post after being passed over as FBI director.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Finn and Bhodi are just untrustworthy.

Military training is supposed to use our innate, evolutionary propensity to form tight social bonds – tribalist, really – in small groups. It’s said you don’t fight for a cause, you fight for the guy next to you. Finn and Bodhi don’t even do that. They head for the exit.

Even if we set aside poor skills on display, the Empire’s military training seems to be fundamentally flawed at turning men into soldiers.

It’s why TK-421 didn’t see a need to stay at his post. Or Finn put his own wellbeing above that of others. Or Bodhi turned so easily. Or Stormtroopers are chatting about spaceships instead of guarding the important tractor beam controls right at a key moment. Or your chief deputy you saved from a lava pit throws you down a 10,000 story reactor shaft.

Poor training is why the Empire fell. Well it didn’t actually fall. It underwent liquidation wherein it sold its core assets to Supreme Leader Snape then followed that up by a rebranding and relaunch. Kinda like AOL or Yahoo.

  1. Some blame also lies with the guy who let the blockade runner’s escape pod go. Dude, they’re not paying you to bring back ammunition.
  2. It’s worth noting that Lucas here is doing what propagandists have been doing for years. By depriving the enemy of identity and playing to prejudices he can kill them by the thousands onscreen and no one cares.
  3. Real subtle character naming there, Star Wars writers. Why not just name him Knowthings McDoomedguy?
  4. Such as getting its giant space lasers blown up. Amiright?
  5. Who, by the way, is a ginger.
  6. An explosion that, unlike all other explosions large and small, seems to have no explosive wavefront moving at supersonic speeds that would have crushed the escaping ship like a bug.
  7. All those young stormtrooper dudes and the only woman is Capt. Phasma. Situational homosexuality in the Stormtrooper corps must be rampant.
Key limes

Put the coconut in the lime

Three-minute read

Key lime pie is quite literally the very best thing that you can put in your mouthhole. 1 Well, proper key lime pie that is.

Restaurant key lime pie has left many with the impression that it’s something with the consistency of primary school paste dyed nuclear green and infused with lime-flavored petroleum distillates.

And, for god sakes, do not get your key lime pie out a can.

This is America. We can do better. Granted, our presidential nomination process gave us a choice between a thin-lipped scold and a professional wrestling announcer. But key lime pie needs standards.

It’s one of those recipes that’s easier to make in its purest form. It doesn’t take hours in the kitchen getting the specific gravity of a complex set of ingredients just right. It’s just a fairly simple list of ingredients that you mix together and bake. It’s easier to make than gravy.

The secret recipe for really great key lime pie is this:

  • Buy Nellie & Joe’s key lime juice. 2
  • Make the recipe on the bottle.

But this also smacks of settling, like listening to Hootie and Blowfish or going on a date with me. A tweak here or there to the classic recipe can really make a difference.

Key Lime Pie Top Tip No. 1

Use fresh key limes if they are available. It’s better enough that it’s worth the few minutes of extra effort. One bag is enough for one pie.

Squeezing 15 or so ping pong-ball-sized limes might seem a problem. Cut them in half and use a garlic press. It takes less than five minutes to do a whole bag.

Key Lime Pie Top Tip No. 2

The classic recipe calls for graham cracker crust. The best way to make a graham cracker crust is to take the box of crackers and throw them the hell out the window. Graham crackers are shit.

A crust of crushed-up vanilla wafers with a bit of shredded coconut adds a nice counterpoint to the sweet and tart pie filling.

So get this playing on your hi-fi and let’s go. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Three large handfuls of vanilla wafers.
  • Sugar
  • One can of sweetened condensed milk
  • Three eggs
  • One bag of limes squeezed (about 2/3 of a cup or so)
  • About 3/4 stick of butter, melted
  • Shredded coconut

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Crush the vanilla wafers. I generally put them in a large ziplock bag and roll them with a rolling pin until they’re cookie dust. You should end up with a cup or so. Add two or three tablespoons of sugar. 3 Add two or three heaping tablespoons of coconut.

Mix it all up and then pour in the melted butter as you stir the crumbs. You’ll need a little finesse here. The crumbs should stick in place if pressed with a spoon, but not be drenched. You don’t have to use all the butter.

Butter a 9-inch pie plate. Dump the crumbs into it and lightly press them in place with the back of a spoon until you have a reasonable facsimile of a pie crust. Pop it in the oven for 10 minutes. You can skip this prebaking step if you want your crust to be soggy shit that falls apart.

Mix the sweetened condensed milk, lovingly hand-squeezed lime juice and three egg yolks together. When the crust is done prebaking, dump the filling into the crust, jiggle it around a bit to level it and bake for 15 minutes.

When done, chill it for a couple hours and then try to not eat the whole goddamned thing in one joy- and self-hatred-filled sitting.

  1. Well, in the category of food that is.
  2. Get key lime juice. Regular limes won’t work right.
  3. Don’t leave it out. Also, use real butter. You’re making a pie not a kale and quinoa salad.
Terrible, terrible candy

Candy shopping suggestions for people who hate children

Three-minute read

Not everyone likes children. And that’s OK.

It’s not that we want anything bad to happen to them. It’s just that making them happy isn’t a high priority.

Which is why you’ll want to stock up on candy aimed directly at disappointing the little monsters, some of whom will be dressed as monsters, who ring your doorbell. Or perhaps children in your neighborhood suffer from pica and will eat anything.

Either way, make sure these end up in your Halloween candy bowl.

  • Necco Wafers Oliver Chase was inspired to invent this venerable candy in 1846 after he accidentally nibbled on a stick of colored chalk. 1 Anyone who’s ever choked down a candy heart on Valentine’s Day will recognize that they are made from the same substance as Necco Wafers.
  • Horehound Usually found hiding in the dish of weird ribbon candy on your great aunt’s coffee table. One would be hard-pressed to argue that horehound was even a form of candy. Like Necco Wafers or sorghum, it was invented before they knew how to make things that taste good.
  • Good & Plenty Good & Plenty are greatly admirable for their deceptive nature, a colorful pink and white exterior hiding a heart of evil black licorice. The product name is a striking failure of imagination, promising something that falls short of excellence but will be made up in volume.
  • Smarties A single bite on this aspirin-shaped candy reduces them to a mouthful of sour dust. Their key feature is a tube-shaped wrapper, designed to have at least half of them fall on the floor when opened.
  • Tootsie Rolls Waxy, yet tooth-shatteringly hard! Tootsie Rolls are chocolate in its lowest form, consumable only after exhausting all options, including eating the Nestle Quick straight out of the can with a spoon.
  • Bit-O-Honey The creators of this confection saw someone breaking a tooth on a Tootsie Roll and thought “We can top that!” This candy is however made with all natural ingredients including honey, wood shavings and industrial epoxy resin.
  • Circus Peanuts From Wikipedia: “The leading producers of circus peanuts are Melster Candies, Spangler Candy Company, and Brach’s …” but they are “… sold in generic label bags.” Even the companies that make them won’t own up.
  • Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum A rock-hard rectangle of bubble gum dusted in talcum powder and wrapped in a comic with a joke from 1946. No one in history has successfully blown a bubble using Bazooka Joe.
  • Pop Rocks I heard that Mikey from the Life cereal commercial ate some Pop Rocks and then drank a Diet Coke and his stomach totally exploded! For reals. My cousin knows someone who saw it happen. It’s totally true!
  • Laffy Taffy These candies are to Starburst as Hydrox are to Oreos. 2 They also pick up on the comedy + candy theme pioneered by Bazooka Joe, with a laff in every taffy. Those not candy included can just follow their Twitter feed.3
  • Raisins They’re nature’s candy! Wait kid, come back. Don’t you want to grow up healthy? Fine, have fun paying off the national debt.
  • Almond Joy What better way to introduce children to the soul crushing disappointment of life than to associate the word “joy” with turd-shaped coconut topped with a stale almond.

Some might wonder why certain items are missing from this list, notably candy corn. It’s because candy corn is fucking awesome and people who don’t like it are idiots who don’t know shit about candy or what’s good.

Regardless, with these in your candy bowl, the worst Halloween ever is guaranteed for anyone who indulges. As an additional tip for those using this shopping guide, the best way to clean eggs off the front of your house is warm soapy water, a stiff brush and elbow grease.

  1. I work a block from the former Necco factory, which is being converted to the new headquarters for GE.
  2. Even though Oreos are actually a ripoff of Hydrox. Nabisco just wanted it more.
  3. I toured the Laffy Taffy factory on a field trip in the fifth grade.
I voted sticker

Whoever wins, we all lose

Three-minute read

A few weeks before the 2012 election, I was talking to a friend. “Mitt Romney scares me,” she said in a tone of voice normally reserved for talking about ebola or clowns.

“Really, Mitt Romney scares you?” I asked. The slightly right-of-center former Massachusetts governor squish who helped pass universal health care. “Really, he ‘scares’ you?”

Wouldn’t a candidate like Mitt Romney or Joe Biden be welcome breath of fresh air right about now? Flawed, yes, but basically decent folk. Barack Obama and George W. Bush, if you strip away the politics, at least seemed like decent people.

Instead we have “loudmouth at a bar 30 seconds before he gets punched in the face” running against “superintendent of a women’s prison calling lights out.” This is awful.

Americans only have one option: Don’t vote.

This sounds like cynicism, which I abound in even in the best years. Despite this, enough Pollyanna shines through that I have voted in every presidential and congressional election since I turned 18. Primaries, even.

But the ongoing shitshow of 2016 transcends mere cynicism. Voting for either major party candidate is actually wrong.

I don’t want to go into an in-depth analysis of the candidates’ various political or personal outrages. It would just end up an “I’ll see your ‘Trump University is a scam’ and raise you a ‘Clinton’s cattle futures trading.’” Their many, many, many, many corruptions are so well documented for both candidates over several decades that to argue that either is suitable for office borders on denial of simple facts.

Yet people do. Put nicely, politics causes people to lose perspective on the problems with their own candidate. Or, put less delicately, politics makes people stupid.

The American political system is at its heart transactional. The candidate gets what he or she wants by convincing a sufficient amount of people that they’ll actually get what they want. Clinton or Trump will get the power, prestige and a place in the history books by being president. Even if we get a tax break or a social program or legalized marriage between cats and dogs, it’s hard not to argue the winning candidate gets the better deal in the long run.

But someone has to win. We can’t just not have a president. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a longstanding American political tradition.1 Our vote gets lost in a vast sea of other votes that were cast with millions of different motives, so holding one’s nose and voting goes down a little easier. I’m doing my civic duty! It’s important! USA! USA!

Despite our one vote being one of a million voices, we still own that choice.

It’s important that the country have capable leadership that isn’t corrupt, or cynical, or entranced by bad ideas or whatever faults that might describe that pair. But it’s even beyond that.

A friend of mine is regularly outraged by Donald Trump antics. His argument is that Trump normalizes bad things. It’s a valid argument, to a degree. Unfortunately it’s a dependent on who gets to decide good from bad.

But the argument is correct that it important to draw a line, if only personally. Electing Trump or Clinton means that it is OK to be like Trump or Clinton in American politics. Not just OK. Great. It becomes the way to win.

Trump and Clinton are the worst pair to run for president in my lifetime – professional wrestling announcer vs. Nixon in a pantsuit. They deserve no fealty on our part. It’s not our duty or obligation to give either of them a vote. It’s binary. Either they do or do not deserve a vote.

And they do not. Not at all.

  1. The Simpsons did a brilliant parody of this notion in 1996. Aliens replace Bob Dole and Bill Clinton with obvious aliens Kang and Kodos, only to have people vote Kang into office anyway.
Gillian Taylor talks to Spock and Capt. Kirk

Gone girl

Four-minute read

Of all the movies in the Star Trek canon, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is an outlier.

It’s a total lark, a romp, a love letter to fans who just wanted to have a damn good time watching a Star Trek movie. After the heavy life-and-death themes of Star Treks II and III, it was a welcome respite 1.

Most people remember the film for the “nuclear wessels” scene or Spock nerve-pinching the punk rocker2 on the bus or Scotty saying “hello, computer” into a Mac Plus mouse.

However, one aspect of the movie has bothered me for years. Inside the film’s cheery lightfootedness is an overlooked, incredibly dark storyline.

The plot itself is kinda silly, even by Star Trek standards. The Enterprise crew travels back to 1986 San Francisco – then-present-day – to find some humpbacked whales to bring back to the 23rd Century to appease an angry space probe that looks like a Bic lighter and soccer ball.

As part of the mission, Kirk hooks up with, Gillian Taylor, a cetacean biologist at San Francisco-area aquarium. At movie’s end, she warps off to hang out in the 23rd Century with the Enterprise crew.

The movie doesn’t even begin to explore the ramifications of her sudden, strange departure.

To justify it, Gillian proffers an excuse that she has “nobody here.”3 It’s an unlikely claim, in light of her boss telling her “Don’t tell me fish stories, kiddo. I’ve known you too long” in a mentorish tone.

From her coworker’s perspective the whole incident is a horrifying tragedy and mystery that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. They’d be sick with worry, dreading the worst, as they watch police piece together her movements leading up to her disappearance.

The investigation would find that a day or so prior to her disappearance, as she was giving a routine aquarium tour, some kooky guy jumped in the whale tank and caused a stir.

Witnesses in the tour group would report that she was visibly upset over the incident. Surveillance cameras would show her heatedly arguing with a man in a bathrobe and his companion, in some sort of weird uniform. Suspicious even for San Francisco.

Rather than having the pair, you know, arrested or something, she starts hanging out with of them. Witnesses at a local pizza restaurant would report Gillian and the uniformed man arriving together, then rushing off just as the food arrived.

Gillian became erratic, her coworkers would report, and began missing work as her concern over the wellbeing of the whales in her charge became something akin to an obsession.

The last time any of them saw her in person was when she burst into work, called her boss a son of a bitch, slapped him in a fit of rage and stormed out, driving away in her dilapidated truck. Days later it would be found abandoned in Golden Gate Park.

Her last-known whereabouts would come later that day as she’s spotted on surveillance video in a raucous foot chase through a hospital as she helps kidnap a critically injured Russian spy out of a secure ward.

After that, she’s never seen again.

Compounding the mystery, the transponder signals of the whales both go silent within hours of the creatures’ release because the Enterprise crew absconded with them.

Was she assisting the Russians in some sort of plot, her friends might wonder? Did she get in over her head and get murdered for her mistake?

Her coworkers crying and hugging each other at her candlelight memorial would find little solace as they sort through the evidence and scant details she left behind.

There’d be no way for anyone to know what really happened. She’d just be gone, without a trace.

  1. Star Trek IV was the first Star Trek movie to screen in the then-Soviet Union. The line “the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe” got the biggest laugh.
  2. Interesting fact: Kirk Thatcher, who was an associate producer on the movie, played the the punk on the bus. He wrote and performed the song playing on his boom box.
  3. The crew sure has become really lackadaisical about plucking people out of the past since the time of the episode Yesterday is Tomorrow.
No headphone jack. Less waterproof than a Samsung Galaxy. Lame.

No headphone jack. Less waterproof than a Samsung Galaxy. Lame.

Two-minute read

It’s how you expected phones to be 10 or 15 years from now, not right now.

I’ve always viewed that statement as one of the more insightful analyses of the original iPhone. Consider it a mission statement for the iPhone in general.

The iPhone is quite literally the most important phone in the world in this regard. Yes, Android is important, but it’s inventing the future in a different way. 1

Within a few weeks something close to half of iPhone users will be on iOS 10 and several million will be walking around with phones without a headphone jack, something Android would take years to achieve.2

When Apple does something it ceases to be theoretical and becomes the way things are. Perhaps that’s why people lost their shit over the headphone jack, this Verge story “Taking the headphone jack off 3 phones is user-hostile and stupid” being a primary example.

They also lost their shit when Apple killed PCI slots. Or floppy drives. Or hardware keyboards on phones. Or serial and SCSI ports. Or ethernet. Or Flash 4. Or whatever. So much shit losing through the years.

The cycle works something like this:

  • Step One) Hah hah hah! Apple is so stupid and arrogant!
  • Step Two) Everybody copies Apple as quickly as possible.

Apple’s moves now are clearly about the future, what an iPhone sold 10 or 15 years from now might look like. No doubt they’ve already made concept designs.

It’ll likely be the Platonic ideal of a a pocket computer, Super thin, light, minimalist, perhaps only a thin slab of glass, like the cell phones depicted in the movie Looper. It might not even have a screen. It may be something you wear on your wrist. Or interface with via voice commands. Or some other way.

That amazing, super thin, future phone is not likely to have a headphone cord with a circa 19th century 3.5mm analog jack dangling from it. It will be a wireless, purely digital device. An amazing, sleek future phone would likely have no ports or buttons at all.

Feel free to roll your eyes at Apple citing “courage” as their reason. I know I am. Or have reservations about Apple replacing a ubiquitous, open-standard port with a proprietary one. I certainly do.

But ditching that port is all about getting from here to there. It had to happen sometime. Someone had to do it. Apple did.

  1. Android is a close follower. Its hardware market is too fragmented and uptake of new versions too slow to really drive the industry. Android is important because it runs on cheap hardware and makes computing available to everyone.
  2. 15 percent of users are on Android Marshmallow, introduced almost a year ago.
  3. Heh Heh. “Jack off.”
  4. Anybody remember Android phones being advertised as “Flash ready?” Don’t worry, Godot will get here any minute now!
Barb, rocking her extreme normcore fashion

The Tragically Unhip

Three-minute read

The breakout movie of the summer was … actually it wasn’t a movie. It was TV, some internet show. Stranger Things to be exact. And the breakout character of Stranger Things was … not the person anyone expected.

It was the frumpy, bookish best friend of suburban princess Nancy Wheeler. In a time of steroidal superheroes and TV anti-heroes, Barb pushed her way to the front of the 2016 pop culture pack in her unfashionable librarian glasses, blouses made out of grandma’s curtains and mom jeans.

There is just something compelling about her. She isn’t just uncool. She’s tragically uncool.

In some ways her appeal is due the Boba Fett effect. The villainous bounty hunter has but a few lines, mostly stands around and dies ineptly. Yet he’s seen by fans as the alpha bad-ass of galactic history. Less is more. Mysteriousness adds to appeal.

Many of Stranger Things characters are types generously borrowed from horror, Steven Spielberg movies or, in the case of the teen characters, John Hughes movies. Among the group of preternaturally precocious preteens, we have the the doubter, the dork, the skeptic and the believer.

Wynona Ryder, stealing scenes instead of clothes from Saks,1 is desperate and assured, a foil to the burned-out, morally flexible sheriff, haunted by his own child he failed to save.

Barb is a type also, but she is something more. If Steve is the spoiled rich kid that we loath yet envy, Barb is the uncool kid that we fear becoming, yet sympathize with.

It’s possible to look at her extreme normcore style admiringly and go, yeah, what a bad-ass, she owns that shit! It’s more that she’s just an extreme fashion disaster beyond any kind of help. She’s herself, but that self isn’t anything anyone wants.

She ends up at Steve’s beer and teen sex party because she is Nancy’s driver 2 and cover story. She’d never be there on her own merits. Too uncool. While the other kids are pairing off, she’s left to go home alone. Again.

It’s the blood from her hand – stabbed while trying to shotgun a beer 3 like a frat boy – that attracts the monster, not the fornicating teens, in a nice twist on the trope of laid-then-slayed in horror movies.

And, poor Barb, even in death she’s neglected, written off as a runaway not worth even searching for. Ignored in life, used and then thrown away. That’s Barb. Who hasn’t felt like her at one time or another?

This is why Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers promised “justice for Barb” in Season Two. In a way, it will be justice for all of us.

  1. Yes, this is a cheap shot.
  2. Let’s talk about her car. It’s a Volkswagen Cabriolet, possibly the coolest car a teenage girl could have at that time. It’s also a Mark II, which was not sold until 1988. Perhaps Barb is a Time Lord?
  3. The symbolic link between Barb’s stabbed and bleeding hand and Nancy’s first time should have even the dimmest fan on metaphor alert.
Douchebag

Gawker is Satan’s urinal

Six-minute read

The story had a compelling hook. A Harvard Business School professor got in an email battle over the price of food with the owner of a Chinese restaurant. Powerful professor picks on struggling small business owner! It’s on!

The story quickly went viral. Soon, reporters were flooding the zone with red meat for the torches and pitchforks outrage. Find out how much the professor paid for his house! Reporters ordered food from the restaurant and tweeted photos of it. The reporter who wrote the original story sold T-shirts making fun of the professor.

But even as the viral attention was rolling in, the story blew up in their face. The reporter wrote a followup claiming the professor sent a racist email to the restaurateur. The story was easily refuted within minutes of publication.

Just another scandal for Gawker. It was kind of known for them. Except it wasn’t Gawker. It was a venerable news organization, The Boston Globe, whose reporting was soon to be lionized in the Oscar-winning Spotlight.

But, it could not be more removed from the events of Spotlight. The HBS story was cast as a powerful professor picking on the little guy. But it had metastasized into a powerful media organization doing the same – piling onto some otherwise anonymous schlump who had no capacity or means to fight back. And then it called him a racist.

Even as it unfolded, the incident felt like the picked-over, bleached bones of what Gawker brought to the world. Implicit in the newsroom revolt that followed was the question of why a respected news org would be embracing Gawker’s brand of clapped-out snark-for-snark’s sake.

Even as Gawker tumbles ass over teakettle off the national stage, it seems no one in the news business wants to call a spade a spade. No one wants to admit Gawker was master of its own undoing. Or that it precipitated a race to the bottom. Quite the opposite.

Phillip Bump, in an appreciation of Gawker for the Washington Post, writes “you should be aware that much of what you’ve read on the web to this point has been shaped by the style and brashness of Gawker.”

The site itself – that is, Gawker.com, not one of the eventual spin-offs like Deadspin or Jezebel – was ostentatiously unconcerned about making people angry. If something was interesting to its writers or something was a secret and they discovered it: fair game in their eyes, if not everyone else’s.

It’s hard to find an unkind word about Gawker in the stories of its demise or on Twitter. Eric Wemple, media critic for the Post tweeted “Sure, Gawker wrote a lot of garbage but it was punctuated by world-changing and often doc-based scoops.”

Trevor Tim, columnist for The Guardian, weighed in with “But Gawker was never Bad. They made some shitty mistakes. A lot of news orgs do. The media landscape will be poorer now that they’re gone.”

This is another time the press in an unreliable narrator to an important story. They have a vested interest for their own industry. And I suspect that to a certain extent, mainstream journalists view Gawker like the “monsters from the Id” creature from Forbidden Planet.

They want to be openly biased. They want to call Republicans assholes. They want to be the cool kid by saying mean things and telling gossipy secrets. Gawker did it for them.

Their secret admiration means they can’t see that someone might not see Gawker as brave truth-tellers with the occasional oopsie of a wrecked life as the price of doing business.

Rather, Gawker is Satan’s urinal. Actually, that’s not quite right. More properly it’s Satan’s entire bathroom after a plate of bad oysters.

Yes, its style and tone influenced dozens – hundreds even, of websites. Its snarky, hits-at-any-cost DNA deeply infected the insanity that overran Boston.com in 2014. The scandal left Boston.com a hollowed-out shell of itself. People have fled or been laid off. The Globe’s billionaire owner’s wife is now running it because, hey, why not?2

Yes, Gawker was often in the national discourse. But, as noted philosopher of our times Ian Malcolm said, they “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” For Gawker, it was always about whether they could.

This fact was on display at what was basically the beginning of the end for Gawker, in which it used a blackmailer as a source and outed an otherwise unknown and married Conde Nast executive.

Which is why I don’t get the defense of Gawker by mainstream reporters. Gawker stood for steadfastly for freedom of the press, but it was in the same way someone running around a mall indiscriminately shooting people stands steadfastly for the Second Amendment. It was brave and fearless in the same way a suicide bomber detonating himself is.

Instead of fighting off the Gawker pathogen that infected the journalism industry, the media is mourning it. It laments the “chilling effect” of a vindictive billionaire suing a publication he doesn’t like out of existence.

What many in the press consider to be a chilling effect, most people would consider “exercising caution and thought about what you publish.” What some in the press see as abuse of power by Peter Thiel, others might see as a reversal of unchecked power the press has long enjoyed.

And that’s what Gawker always was. It had power. Its targets did not.

So it did what it wanted. It went places people with more ethics didn’t go. It normalized abnormality. It wasn’t fearless. It simply had no conscience. It was just a bully.

In journalism school, we often heard “If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t do it.” Likewise, if you don’t want your news org to be sued out of existence, don’t out gay people for sport. Don’t run stolen sex tapes, especially of people being raped.

Don’t thumb your nose at decency while nihilistically shouting freedom. Don’t abuse people on the way up. You might find you have no friends in the way down.

Just don’t do these things, and your news org will be fine.

______

Note I worked for The Boston Globe and for its Boston.com subsidiary for a little more than two years.

  1. I was on vacation at the time and would sit by the pool every night, tropical breezes swaying the palm trees, and read about how my employer had once again driven the ship at flank speed into an iceberg.
  2. I suppose it’s an outrage that someone with no journalism background is now in charge. But under the leadership of journalism experts, Boston.com has seen its readership plummet, had more editors and general managers than Spinal Tap had drummers and sold out its integrity. I fail to see what additional damage she could do.
Lefty douchebag

It was only business. I always liked you.

Seven-minute read

The reaction to John Oliver’s 19-minute rant about the decline of newspapers immediately struck a chord among journalists.

Within minutes of the segment’s airing, journalists were jizzing themselves on Twitter over its “truth to power”, “somebody finally said it” qualities. The Washington Post declared it the “best defense of newspapers ever.”

The fact that journalists excitedly agreed with Oliver’s report doesn’t make it correct. To me, that’s a giant confirmation bias red flag. As Upton Sinclair wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Fact is, nothing is particularly bad about the Oliver segment, nor is it the best anything ever, either. It mainly serves to flatter journalists. Who doesn’t want to hear their work is important and people should buy it?

It just misses the point widely. It’s clear he doesn’t understand the problem – the real problem – that besets the industry.

Here’s the complaint: People used to pay for news, and then the Internet came along and everyone gets it for free now. Or they blame mismanagement and layoffs for the long slide. Or stupid reinvention efforts.

Yes, the Internet did cause people to drop print subscriptions. Yes, stupid shit did go down. The publisher of the paper 1 I worked for took home $1 million, largely due to performance bonuses gained from laying off my friends. And yes, Tronc is a buzzword-driven bullshit factory.

I’ll stipulate to all of that.

The internet did destroy the business of newspapers, but it isn’t that “nobody pays for news any more.” It was in deeper, more irreversible ways.

While it is true the internet did destroy the business of newspapers, but not because “nobody pays for news any more.” It was in deeper, more irreversible ways.

From World War II to about the early 2000s, newspapers were a business with near-monopolies in local news and advertising, with eye-watering ad rates to match. One paper I worked at was so lavishly funded that it once had an in-house dry cleaner and hair salon.

Control of news and advertising came about because of a monopoly on something far more important and difficult: Local mass distribution.

Reporters and editors probably don’t like to believe that the core competency that sets their business apart is light manufacturing and product distribution. Newspapers’ appeal to advertisers, whether that be a regular person running a garage sale ad to a multi-million dollar retailer such as Macy’s, was the distribution network.

The logistics of doing this, owning a printing plant, buying paper and ink in bulk, employing a fleet of trucks and drivers, organizing routes 2, were an insurmountable barrier to entry for anyone wanting to capture even a portion of a local newspaper’s advertising business. 3 This gave newspapers double-digit margins and the economic freedom to create giant newsrooms.

As long as the ads paid the bills and made the owners rich, newsrooms could do whatever they wanted. We got things like the reporting portrayed in movies like All the President’s Men or more recently the Oscar-winning Spotlight. This freedom also bred suspicion, if not downright hostility in newsrooms to the business interests of the paper.

But news is a business. Cheap distribution offered by the internet utterly destroyed the monopoly on distribution. When that fell, the monopolies on local news and advertising that newspapers enjoyed fell along with it.

These monopolies can never be re-created, the conditions they spawned never recaptured. Newspapers can try with paywalls and their promise to reach exclusive customers, but revenue from paywalls is about 1 percent of newspaper revenue.

While the Internet was destroying the foundations of the news business model, it also challenged the fundamental idea of the news product itself.

Newspapers grew up in a time of news scarcity. As a result, they are general interest, with a little something for everyone, from international news down to a story about the new PTA president. There was Ann Landers and a bridge column for the blue-hairs, comics for the kids, recipes for mom 4.

If newspapers were a retailer they’d be a Super Walmart. We stock everything! But here’s a thing that most people don’t know about retail (or newspapers): They don’t sell “products”, or in the case of newspapers, “news.” They sell availability.

Consumers can get their coffee at a store instead of driving to the Folgers plant or their diapers without having to deal with Pampers directly. Likewise, newspapers made scarce things – news, crosswords, Ann Landers, Garfield – available to a local audience.

It’s now a largely post-scarcity world when it comes to news. Any story about anything ever is available right now on the magic pocket computers that everyone carries everywhere and fiddles with constantly.

Newspapers still have limited availability to sell – local news and sports, mainly – but everything else is available elsewhere. The newspaper as currently defined – a general interest publication and a sprawling organization to produce it – has no actual reason to exist any more.

So, how do newspapers survive?

They don’t. Or, more properly, they can’t.

That’s hard for some folks to hear. Some people will argue nostalgia and tradition and importance like John Oliver did. But trying to preserve a business in its present form for reasons of “this is how it’s always been done” is not a solution.

I was reminded of this when reading, of all things, an article about the retail business. Ben Thompson of Stratechery dug up a 1991 quote from Sears spokesman after Walmart displaced it as world’s largest retailer.

“We feel the mission of Sears is to be an integrated, powerful specialty merchant, with brand names and our own lines of exclusive merchandise. We feel that distinguishes us from other retail specialty stores or discount chains.”

This is the same kind of “people trust us and count on us we have the best news” happy talk newspapers see as their core brand virtue. Thompson’s thesis is that Sears chose the wrong path decades before, which made its current collapse inevitable.

Newspapers also chose a path decades ago that has led to this inevitable end. It’s right there to be seen.

_____

Note I worked in the news industry for two decades – most of my adult life, actually. I’ve done almost any job possible at a newspaper at every level of the news business, from janitor to pressman to reporter to online producer – even co-founder of a newspaper startup.

  1. Where is he now? I expect him to be nominated to fill Tim Kaine’s Virginia Senate seat, should Kaine be elected vice president.
  2. This one is particularly hard, as it turns out.
  3. Newspaper’s main competition came from people who owned a broadcasting license and a transmitter, which also had a steep barrier to entry.
  4. It was the ’50s and ’60s.
  5. Analyst Benedict Evans observed that Amazon is Google for shopping. In a traditional store, a shopper goes to a physical space to choose from whatever stock the store might have. The promise of Amazon is that it has absolutely everything and that the shopper will be able to quickly find exactly the right thing they want to buy. Google is Google for newspapers. It reduces them from a monolithic organization to a single item, eliminating the need for a central news repository and its limited stock.
Image of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek

There will never be another good “Star Trek” movie

Four-minute read

The sequence showing the Enterprise being destroyed in Star Trek Beyond is a technical marvel.

The techniques that created the vast swarm of ships that suddenly attack, overwhelm and pulverize the iconic vessel is light years beyond the original series. It’s far beyond the model work used to destroy the Enterprise in Star Trek III.

But when the Enterprise goes down in a heroic sacrifice in ST:III, it feels tragic, a lost friend. “My god, Bones, what have I done?” Kirk intones as the crew watches horrified as the ship burns up in the atmosphere.

Star Trek Beyond isn’t invested in its destruction sequence as anything more than making sure it looks as cool as possible. Considering this is the third Enterprise to bite the dust in a movie, it’s not even a surprise plot development any more. 1

Star Trek Beyond just isn’t very good.

By a certain measure it’s perfectly fine. It’s terrifically cast, with fast-paced action, sleek sets, state-of-the-art special effects and a fantastic score by Michael Giacchino.

Problem is, Star Trek Beyond relies on all of these to get by. It’s woefully underwritten, with a stock villain – Idris Elba, unrecognizable and underused as, what’s his name? Krag? Kris? Krall? Krusty? Who can even remember or be bothered to care? Character arcs, at least for those fortunate enough to get one – Sorry, Sulu – are a more like arrow-straight lines. 2

This is something of a surprise considering how well Simon Pegg, doing double duty here as actor and cowriter, dug into his characters’ inner lives in his Cornetto trilogy.

But that’s blockbuster movies these days. Longtime Trek fans whinge about the state of the franchise, but it comes off as a little ungrateful and, frankly, fusty, as so aptly parodied by The Onion.

Before the 2009 reboot, the film franchise had been residing happily in the mid-budget tier, a model set by the modestly-budgeted-but-successful Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. 3 Now, Star Trek needs $200 million to get made and a half billion in box office to break even. It’s big money.

Star Trek Beyond and its two predecessors feel more like giant scale blockbusters because they are. They reduce characters to types – Kirk’s a horndog! Checkov’s Russian! – get the quippy comedy and relationship squabbles right – that Dr. McCoy and Spock sure do bicker a lot! – and even throw in a little world building. They’re the shallowest bits people like about Star Trek.

Trek originated on TV – “radio with pictures” – and it was a show largely about ideas. Episodes such as The Devil in the Dark countered 50’s sci-fi monster tropes (The real monster is us!). Or The City in the Edge of Forever that dealt with time travel paradoxes in a particularly tragic, cerebral way.

Star Trek: The Next Generation went even deeper into this notion of a show about ideas. Deep Space Nine took it in a far darker, bleaker direction.

Yes, by today’s standards parts of it are a bit hokey. And the show and films were even completely silly at times. Or in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, slower than the glaciation of North America while also being completely silly.

Or sometimes completely hopeless, like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Hollywood might not make movies of the type the Star Trek film series used to be, but they do make television of the type Star Trek was – thoughtful, well-written, groundbreaking, experimental.

That’s why the Star Trek Discovery series trailer that premiered alongside Star Trek Beyond at Comic-Con gives such hope. Star Trek’s natural home is series television.

The show has two Trek veterans at the helm, a fidelity to deep Trek history and an environment that rewards strong, clear visions. A more human scale, deeper Star Trek seems the likely result.

Then again, it’s CBS who mainly churns out low-grade trash – Big Bang Theory, anyone? – so maybe not.

  1. The saucer crash sequence in Star Trek Beyond is basically the saucer crash sequence from Star Trek: Generations done with a bigger budget and better tools.
  2. And, note to Star Trek stop using The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage. It’s a 20-plus year-old song that only old people like me think is cool.
  3. Wrath of Khan was produced by Paramount’s television division. It reused footage from Star Trek: TMP, reused sets and rented equipment and employed other cost-cutting trickery to keep costs down ofter the big-budget failure of the previous movie.

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