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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Action Hero Respawned

A lone hero against almost insurmountable odds. Slim chances of survival. A constant barrage of bad guys with big guns and unlimited ammo. These are the makings of an action movie from my childhood. After Star Wars allowed the Science Fiction genre to make the jump to hyperspace, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg set their sights on terra firma and the old days of the Republic Serials. Instead of robots with lasers, Nazis with lugers were the bad guys. A treasure with biblical ramifications was the MacGuffin if you will, or plot device that grabs your attention, pulled you along the story towards its conclusion.

Regardless of the plot or other devices like Big Dumb Objects and Alien Space Bats (look them up), Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest of the Indiana Jones movies, save the last one, all had one distinguishing feature that changed the action adventure genre, the not so good, good guy. After all, Indiana Jones was labeled a tomb robber and he didn’t exactly wear a white hat. His neutralities aren’t explicit but he’s willing to not give a shit about someone if it doesn’t figure into his plan. He even grabs one women by the throat and threatens to choke her. He does however, take umbrage at child abuse and slavery in the second film. Yet, for his lack of true north on a moral compass, Indiana Jones also possesses a sense of wry humor and mortality. Something that went away with the Schwarzenegger and Stallone action heroes, who never show pain and never run out of ammo. Jones was an ordinary Joe in extraordinary situations and he never missed an opportunity to make light of his human faults. He could bleed and be hurt and took note of how much he was at times, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”

If Indiana Jones was the hero of childhood, then the high school and college crowd could identify with characters like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon and John McClane in Die Hard. They were still ordinary people in ordinary professions, namely police officers who became embroiled in extraordinary scenarios that tested their mettle. They were also flawed. Riggs was semi suicidal over the death of his wife and somewhat crazy. McClane had a problem with authority and had bad habits like smoking and drinking, which Riggs also did. Riggs and McClane represented a more noir style of hero, a sort of detective with vices that doesn’t always get to be the hero and doesn’t always save people. Still, what made them similar to Indiana Jones was their ability to make light of their shortcomings and take a punch. They also talked and said things during a fight that was more realistic than just getting hit and hitting back. McClane taunted his gargantuan opponent in Die Hard, “You should have heard your brother squeal when I broke his f**king neck.”

But multiple sequels diluted the brand and extensive copycats killed the genre of the thinking man’s action hero. The 21st century ushered in a new crop of action heroes with Rick O’Connell from The Mummy franchise and Ben Gates from National Treasure's. While O’Connell was more for blowing away his opponents, Ben Gates rarely, if ever uses a weapon to settle differences. Still, the idea that a quirky action hero with faults and idiosyncrasies helped humanize the character and made him more relatable to audiences of Americans who watch while gulping down buttered popcorn, sugary soda, and milk duds. Soon, however, the history was neglected and the same old problems caused the franchises to sink into the abyss of repetition, over exposure, and disbelief of premise, even if the premise was supernatural in nature. Speaking of O’Connell, another action star was born out of the sequel. Dwayne Johnson was poised to take the baton of blockbuster action hero and the passing was sort of even acknowledged in The Rundown in which Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a cameo. “Have fun” was his only line and was said in passing of Johnson.

Yet, after three action films, Johnson didn’t quite capture the same amount of street cred as an action hero like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. He was very well spoken and articulate and had the opportunity to make the landscape of Hollywood his playground. Instead he chose to be more conscious of “the brand” and took to more kiddie and family fair with films like The Game Plan, Race To Witch Mountain, and The Tooth Fairy. It certainly has been more profitable for him. If you compare his family films which show a gross revenue of more than $661 million vs. his action films which show only a bit more than $287 million in gross revenue sales. If you like, you can add the $443 or so million from The Mummy Returns despite him only being on screen for a few minutes. The end was more CGI then actual acting and that is why I removed it. I will not discount that his presence helped attract more viewers but he certainly was not top billed.

With the role of the action hero being more about personality over physicality, the chance for stars like Christian Bale, Matt Damon and Daniel Craig came about and in 2008 the hopes that a familiar man with the not so white hat would save the landscape of action adventure films without the need for pirates or mutant powers, or a batmobile. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull promised to return the fanman back to the fanboy status he so nostalgically waxed on message boards and blogs. However, the film was a shame. While it’s kind of neat to see a hero or protagonist find himself in over his head physically, the action side of Indiana Jones seemed more akin to braving the crowds at a Bob Evans on a Sunday after church. Hey, it’s hard for the young folk, too. Still, we were promised a return to the golden age of 80’s geekfare. CGI was supposed to be reserved for some background images and other things but it was clear that old school SFX trickery was not in use. Although, the aliens looked rather cheesy like their 1950s counterparts but I can’t decide if that was intentional or just a bad batch of interns at Lucasfilm.

But what should have been realized by Hollywood was that a new brand of action hero was being reborn… er respawned into existence. This one was shorter than the rest and even wasn’t even all that real, but he managed to make huge waves, in my opinion, among the troubled waters of the Hollywood Action Hero. That hero is Nathan Drake and the film isn't a film.  It's a video game series for the Playstation 3 called Uncharted.

Until 2007, the Playstation mascot was pretty much whoever was the leading protagonist of the currently released Grand Theft Auto title. However, a full year before Indiana Jones dusted off the fedora, Nathan Drake hit the shelves in Uncharted: Drakes Fortune. Sadly, I did not pick up the game and resisted it from the outset. I downloaded the demo and found the controls harder than normal, especially using grenades. The demo contained one of the most frustrating levels which involved being pinned down in a jungle setting among what looked to be like a courtyard ruins. It is nearly impossible, for me anyway, to complete that section without running out of ammo, which leads me to run headlong into the fray to duke it out with a baddie to get his gun. Because of that demo, I pretty much stayed away from the game for nearly three years. Boy, was I missing out.

It’s kind of fitting though, because had I actually played the whole game before seeing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I would have probably imploded. Taking a few years to shrug off the damage to my childhood perpetrated by Spielberg and Lucas I was able to come back around and get into Uncharted. If you haven’t played it or the sequel you are missing out on what are probably the greatest action movies not on film or television.

The hero, a supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake has all the faults and quirks that had embodied Indiana Jones, John McClane, and Martin Riggs. He’s a lovable jerk who can run and gun and still be a dick to people with a smile. Game play notwithstanding, the true treasure of this series is the script and cut scenes. The acting and motion capture of the characters is a near perfect facsimile of real life. Nolan North, whose name sounds almost like an action hero, gives Drake a sense of humor and humility. The guy goes throw so much crap and gets hurt, a lot, but still has the balls to call someone an asshole. The catchphrases are not catchphrases here. There’s no, “Hasta La Vista” or “Yippie Kay Yay” to cling to, just, “Keep smiling asshole” and “ Oh, crap.” And it’s not like he’s some piece of beefcake to entice girl gamers like Lara Croft was to guys. He has not extraordinary features and has a typical look but it’s the personality that makes him so likeable.

I spent a week on Uncharted and a week on Uncharted 2, all of which will be drooled over by me in an upcoming post. I While I made it a point to try and collect ever single bauble on screen in part one, I’ve completely forgotten about picking up treasures because I’m so engaged by the action. Now, I’m not just talking about the actual game play. I’m speaking about the integration of cinematics and cut scenes into the story. It all flows seamlessly. To use an example, in games like Grand Theft Auto, which I also love, you have an open world. You travel from place to place and do missions. Each mission starts with a cut scene or setup and then it switches back to actual game play. In Uncharted, you could be walking along and then a tank just bursts through a wall at you or a bridge gives way and you suddenly surrender control of the game to this second or two of action and then you are back to running and it all happens without loading or cutting away of the action. Naughty Dog found a way to tie actual game play to storyline without sacrificing atmosphere and commitment from the player. The timing does not skip a beat. You feel like you are playing a movie more than a game because of the constant interplay of movies and NPC action that pushes the character along. Not to mention, the storyline is compelling and the acting is top notch.

Take note Hollywood, Naughty Dog has succeeded where you have severely failed in bringing back the action hero. Unfortunately, there is talks for a movie in the works which can only mean epic fail is on the horizon for the newly crowned king of the action hero genre. Talks are still early and hopefully Uwe Boll will be nowhere near this project lest it suck more than it probably will. Looking at what happened to the reigning queen of action video games, Lara Croft, when she was put into two lackluster films, I’d hate to see how bad Hollywood could screw this up.

Of course, you’ll have to get someone into the role of Nathan Drake and I fear the usual Hollywood machine will try to turn this film out with Bradley Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Gerard Butler, or Ryan Reynolds taking the lead role. Might I make a suggestion? If you’re going to do it, why not use the guy who created the character, Nolan North. He kind of has the look of Drake in the game and after all, it was his physical form that was used to model the character using motion capture suits. He definitely has the acting chops for the dialogue and given the proper weight and free climbing training he could totally pull it off.

Sadly, I know this will not be the case. The only other acceptable substitution could be that of Nathan Fillion. He actually happens to be a year younger than North. Eddie Cibrian has the facial look, Josh Duhamel has the physique but truthfully, I think Nolan North should be the only real choice for the film. I think from a game fan standpoint you appease a huge concern over a movie being made not to mention those unfamiliar with the film will be drawn in by the everyman appeal of a virtually unknown actor except those trained to pick up his voice from other video games. I also feel the inclusion of a bunch of lesser known actors would do wonders for its credibility among the other game to film projects. Once again, can we say Tomb Raider and Doom?

Then again, to pull this off would be nothing short of an action hero’s regular day. The odds of success are against you. The amount of bad guys in Hollywood coming at you with all kinds of unlimited crap. Slim chances of survival at the box office. Sounds like the perfect scenario for Nathan Drake. Hail to the new king of Action Heroes. Have fun, but don’t get comfortable.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Inventors of The Frisbee and Easy Bake Oven Have Died

Two inventors of famous toys from the annals of pop culture died this month.

Walter Frederick Morrison died at the age of 90. He originally invented what was better known as the Frisbee. He fought, as a pilot, in World War II and was short down in Italy. He was a prisoner of war for 48 days. After the war he designed the flying disc, got an investor and eventually sold the rights to Wham-O who renamed it The Frisbee. Sadly, Morrison died on February 9th.  Details are sketchy at the moment. He was either found on a roof or became stuck in a storm drain. In either case, his body was retrieved after three hours of attempts with a long stick

Ronald Howes took the idea of street vendors roasting chestnuts and created an appliance found in many, built to scale, plastic kitchens around the world. The Easy Bake Oven used a light bulb, sometimes a 100 watt version, to cook brownies and cakes to near salmonella breeding perfection. What kid didn’t intend to impress their pretend boss from the Lemonade stand by having their cootie loving wife of two days cook up a wonderful three layer Easy Bake Cake in just under three hours?  Dinner was always a success and ended before the street lights came on.  Howes died on February 16th at the age of 83. It is estimated that it will take three months to cremate his body, but it should smell delicious.

These deaths follow the news that Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell, died on January 16th. The viewing for his funeral took place as late as 1am and mourners were asked to please pull to the second window.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Meh Meal

Time for another tale of Little Mongo.

Once upon a time, specifically on a Monday, Little Mongo went to a wonderful place with magical creatures walked and talked and looked something like food. That place was McDonald’s. You see Little Mongo’s Daddy was a member of a service organization that held their meetings on Monday nights and that meant that sometimes Little Mongo got to go Mickey D’s as a treat.

We’d all pack up the family truckster, which at that time was a silver Maverick with black vinyl interior that flayed the skin from your arms and legs in the hot summers. It was complete with an AM radio with the push button presets that made you feel like you were at a vending machine. Still, it got us from point A to point B and at that time, car seats weren’t as required as they are today.

So, there we were at McDonald’s on Route 40 in Uniontown, which was just a couple of minutes away from the restaurant where the Big Mac was created. This McDonald’s, however, was not in a shopping plaza but right off the road main road in a row of three restaurants that made up what I liked to call the primary colors of fast food. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Burger King all in a line. Further up the road there was a Wendy’s and Hardees, and a Rax, too. There’s a blast from the 80s. But I preferred McDonald’s over the others, even though the Pizza Hut had a cocktail cabinet version of Galaga which was pretty awesome. The two main reasons I chose the Golden Arches over the King or the Hut was that I could get a Happy Meal and sit on a train.

That’s right, in the main eating area of the restaurant there sat a group of seats fashioned into a locomotive and a number of cars, each with a table. The locomotive was a two seater with the table set up as the dashboard of the engine. Not content with sitting anywhere else, I immediately staked my claim to that engine seat and if circumstances [read: obscured visibility] permitted, I was willing to jack someone, Grand Theft Auto style from my seat. I hated facing backwards on that damn thing. Once I was seated and got my nice little cardboard box, with two holes cutout of the base of the arches for little fingers to carry, I was ready to nom nom nom that bad boy up. Life was good. And afterwards, we’d usually play a stupid trick on unsuspecting patrons as we would stack a ketchup packet or two beneath behind their front wheels. When they backed out it looked as if they ran over a small rodent.

If the weather was particularly nice we would go out into the playground area of the restaurant. Back when McDonald’s had their equipment outside and it was primarily made of metal instead of molded soft plastic. Our McDonald’s consisted of a few Fry Guy spring riders, a giant Grimace that you stood inside and just rocked back in forth as if you were a shake and he had just gulped and a Big Mac Climber. I mean Big Mac as in the character from the commercials. You know, the constable or Johnny Law of McDonald land. The thing consisted of a hole in his butt that had ladders. Climbing one ladder put you into his head which was open with metal bars that kept you from falling out. Now if you took another ladder you could end up inside his hat which had holes in it to look out. It was kind of like a sweatbox in a Georgia prison but it was still fun. Something that always troubled me about that Big Mac character, he was a horrible representation of law enforcement. The Hamburgler was always loose, the Fry Guys were always jacking other people’s fries and that Captain Crook character always stole a bunch of Filet-O-Fish and never did any time down at Gitmo.

In later years after I pretty much outgrew the playground equipment, they were removed and now most Playland’s as they are called are indoors. I’m sure there were some pretty horrific accidents that occurred at the hands of a huge metal hamburger that you could potentially fall out of onto the concrete. In fact a quick Google Street View of route 40 shows the horrible truth of my lost childhood. The McDonald’s no longer has the distinct shape it once had. Instead it is now an outdated glass box housing a Playland inside the restaurant. Worse yet, the Pizza Hut down the road is gone, leaving only an empty hut and sign out in the front of the parking lot. It’s a shame.

My interaction with McDonald’s nowadays is limited as I’ve grown up. I still try to eat there once in awhile and look forward to the Monopoly game in the fall, even though it is a rip. Of course, I eat way too many bad things as it is now that I’m into almost into the back nine of my 30s. I’m sure I’ve passed along some quips on my unhealthy love of the Baconator. But, living where I live, now, near the equally busy area around Route 30, I have loads of choices for fast food including the original fast food primary colors of Red/Yellow, Red/White, and Red/Blue/Yellow. But, now I have a two and a half year old who gets to enjoy the prefabricated plastic Playland in the newer McDonald’s Big Mac Museum.

Frankly, it was about time. The store that sat in the spot, previously was sorely outdated. It looked like a rogue Miami Subs mated with a Taco Bell producing the ugliest shades of pastels known to man with a speckled grey color for table tops. Now we have this huge McStarbucks looking thing with weird cushions and mosaic tiles and they have yet to get one of my orders right. But inside the automatic sliding doors lies a huge jungle gymonstrosity. My kid loves it. At first we took it easy letting her just climb around the bottom platforms under close supervision but since she turned two in July of 2009 we’ve loosened up the grip and she pretty much runs wild in there. I do get concerned over the older kids not having the ability to be aware of a smaller child in the area but that was quickly resolved as I witnessed my child taking out a kid twice her size on the slide when the older kid tried to climb the tube from the bottom. She can hold her own.

Gone are the days of the sharp metal chutes and ladders as well as the old train I used to pine for on Tuesday mornings. Now we have hip looking seats and backs like something out of a IKEA catalog. Another drastic change to the iconography of McDonald’s is the Happy Meal. I said before that it was customary to get a small cardboard box that contained a burger, fries and a toy. Growing up, the toy ranged from hot wheels to something tied to a popular movie, usually Disney. Now, the toys are not much more than cheap plastic and the presentation itself of a Happy Meal is in a paper bag instead of the box. I understand the need to be eco-friendly or reduce costs but come on, you could use recycled cardboard and tout yourself as green.

Sadly, my kid will grow up in a world where all of the greatest things about mass consumerism and 80s advertising will be replaced with this madness. In fact, I had a conversation about this with my wife as my kid threw a forearm at line jumper for the slide. Happy Meals aren’t the same, the playground equipment is different, and I bet that a guy like Jim Delligatti could not invent a revolutionary sandwich like the Big Mac in the corporate giant that is McDonald’s, today. Something like that would be constructed at the McLabs with scientists in white coats and no souls. The ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that built the backbone of corporate America has wrought with scoliosis which is corrupt and contrived. Big business goes after the little guy for using just the letters ‘MC’ in something, regardless of the intention to confuse trademark or not.

The world is passing out Meh Meals to our inner child and the toy inside is a lead paint based piece of crap from China called capitalism. I’m am SO NOT lovin’ it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Get Your Old Layout Back, Unlimited Energy, Answers To Meaning Of Life, And Who Killed Kennedy

Anyone who hangs around Facebook long enough will start to see a lot of changes being made to the layout of the homepage.   It sucks and for every layout change there is a ton of groups that get started to protest it.   That'll teach them at FB Corporate.   "OMG (Internet slang quota per post reached), the loyal subjects are rising up with pitchforks to use harsh language on us."

If you haven't figured it out.   THEY DON'T CARE!   But what we care about is sticking it to the man and changing things back to that last level of sucktitude.   Meaning, we bitched about the last change and now they've changed it again but we want the last change back which we bitched you see where I'm going with this?  

Ok, that all being said, there are a number of pages coming down the pipeline touting that they can make your whites whiter, your brights brighter and return your previously crappy layout to its original state.   Guess what?   They're scamming you.   Basically, what they want you to do is to go through and suggest their page to your friends who will then join out of disgust for the new layout and do the same.   Next thing you know, you are on a list to be blasted with advertisments or maybe even worse.  

Take it from me.  Don't buy into these scammers.  Why?   Well, for one, what group requires you to invite all your friends in order to make something happen?   Secondly, why do they misspell words, change the lettering or add different characters, such as a c with a hook on the end of it like this one...  Chances are if you can't see that one it is because it was pulled for being scamworthy.

Secondly, the same trick is being used to trick people into beliving that you can increase your Mafia Wars stats, your Farmville coinage, or any other Facebook game that takes a lot of time to play.  

So, please, a word to the wise, don't let these a-holes think they can promise you anything by inviting all your friends.  Now, pass this post to all your friends and tell them the wonders of Mongo Inc. Products and my wonderful moneymaking schem....venture.

GM Execs Way Underpaid According To Man Who Wipes Own Butt With $100 Bills

Oh, Bob. How funny you can be at a time like this. According to Mr. Lutz who is/was/is GM’s Vice Chairman, the top 25 executives at GM are ‘way’ underpaid. Really? Now, I would have expected this kind of announcement to come from the union who represents the factory worker or someone who helps build the cars. However, this comes from the people that ran the company into the ground, flew a private jet to Washington D.C., to beg for government money, and now expects to come out of Chapter 11 with the same perks that helped get them into this mess in the first place.

Lutz talks of talent retention and the ability to keep executives at the company. Well, guess what? Your executives can leave and go work for another company and get six figures. The folks you screwed over may not be able to just say, “Eh, screw it. I’ll go work for another company.”

According to The Consumerist,
GM has hired a new chief financial officer, Chris Liddell, who will be paid in $750,000 plus stock awards. Special adviser Steve Girsky is being paid $1.1 million for sitting on GM's board of directors and for advising Whitacre. His pay includes $200,000 a year as a director and a monthly grant of salary stock valued at $75,000, or $900,000 a year.
Wow, that seems like a real hardship. It’s a wonder you haven’t foreclosed on your homes and been forced to work as a greeter at Walmart. I mean, how do you make ends meet? Want to know a little secret? We’re doing it. Us little jerks who have to budget and scrimp and save and wait for the layoff axe to swing towards us are doing what we can and we’re dealing with it. We are taking advantage of what resources we have to get by and you guys claim you’re underpaid. Do you think you’re owed anything? You built the Aztec! Seems like karmic justice to me.

You know what really burns me on all this is that we continue to bail out these too big to fail companies and they think it’s ok to just keep doing business like nothing happened. Talk about billing it forward. How do you ever expect to be respected as a corporation ever again? Are you guys living in a fantasy? How’s the magic beans there? Because pretty much that’s what you idiots are doing, buying magic beans by continually paying these huge salaries while turning over ownership to the government.

Once upon a time, I could look for an internal job posting and see a job grade attached that posting. However, that went away. You want to know why? Because someone very smart and possibly very evil said, “A job here is about the opportunity, not the pay.” If I worked for GM and said that to an executive, who complained about their pay, I’d be fired. And it’s not even like Lutz said, “Well, they aren’t being paid what they should be according to their talents and responsibilities.” No, he used the words, ‘Way, Way, Way, Underpaid.’ That probably means a comma for every ‘way’ he mentions.

If you are in a position to be a part of the rebuilding of one of the most well known American companies I think you should be compensated accordingly, if, IF, you can produce the turnaround we expect you to. That means, for awhile you may be paid the same as some low level executive for a company out of Cleveland. Then, after all is said and done and you end up walking on water and help the company become profitable, sustainable, and respectable, then I say let’s give you a little something, something for the effort. To think that from day one you are entitled to any HUGE bonus for a company that is emerging from bankruptcy is simply insane. If that’s why you went to work for GM or any other troubled asset recipient company then you should walk into a board meeting and a 30 year veteran assembler should be able to push a button causing you to drop straight into the incinerator.

Dude, the AZTEC!


Friday, February 12, 2010

Let the Games Begin, Eh

The 2010 Winter Games are here. Regardless of how people feel about the Olympics or your general distrust of a governing body like the IOC, you have to admit that it’s just a cool sight to behold. The U.S. definitely got caught up in the 2008 Summer Games in Bejing with the Michael Phelps whirlwind in and out of the pool and I personally loved seeing Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh snap up the gold in Beach Volleyball. But for all the fanfare and bravura that the Summer Games hold, I still find something more magical about the Winter Games.  And I also feel the slowly rolling eyeballs of my wife shifting around as I get geeked over this.

For any of us that grew up in the early to mid 80s we are all pretty much familiar with the EPYX line of Olympic Games titles like Summer Games, Summer Games II, and of course Winter Games. I can remember being in grade school and playing Summer Games on a Commodore 64. The state of the art graphics *sarcasm* that was the C-64 made us drool at the prospect of competing in events like diving and the pole vault. I actually found a glitch that let me keep going until the height of the bar in the pole vault was way above the screen. But even then, the Winter Games edition was so much more fun and to this day I don’t think I ever successfully completed a bobsled run.

Maybe it’s the snow and the winter themes that make me want to watch the Winter Games more. If I were still in high school or college I could probably get away with vegging out in front of the television to watch all the events, but sadly, adulthood has robbed me of that luxury. In fact, I remember sitting in my homeroom in 1992 watching the U.S. Hockey team play a few rounds. Unfortunately, we took fourth place that year, far removed from my all time childhood geek moment in 1980 of seeing the Miracle On Ice. At the age of five I thought it was Pittsburgh that one because I hadn’t quite separated the Pittsburgh Steelers from the rest of the sporting world. So a win for the U.S. in my mind was a win for Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t be true for another 11 years when The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup.

But three years earlier, something out of the ordinary happened at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.  What seemed like a joke became a phenomenon as the Jamaican Bobsled team blazed onto the games, no pun intended.  While they didn't even finish, due to crashing their sled, they gained notoriety for showing what many consider the spirit of the games by picking up their sled and walking to the finish line.  They simply made it look fun.  They managed to qualify in 1992 and 1994 but did not win any medals.  However, they did reach 14th place which put them ahead of the U.S., Russia, Italian, and French teams.  Sadly, they did not qualify in 2006 nor did they qualify this year.  It's a shame, really, because they did win the gold at thr 2000 World Push Bobsled Championships.  Maybe next time, mon.

Also, us 30-somethings can remember that prior to 1994, the games ran in parallel with the Summer Games. Then skipping only two years, the Winter Games went opposite the Summer Games letting me bask in my dorkiness every couple of years.  That brings me back to the 1994 games.

It was a snowy Friday in February and I was a freshman in college. A high school buddy of mine had just transferred to the Oakland campus but still had friends at the UPJ location, where he spent his Freshman year. He invited me to trek up to see them for the night, which happened to be the night that Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and Oksana Baiul competed for the medal in figure skating. The whole Kerrigan-Harding scandal was all the rage at the games and now it was time to see just how good everyone really was.

Johnstown is only around 90 minutes away from our hometown, but it's in what we call the snow belt. Being a recent transfer student myself, I was going from the mild climate of Myrtle Beach to the freezing concrete jungle of Pittsburgh so this trip took me full circle at seeing a winter wonderland. UPJ’s campus is/was like a ski resort. Nestled into the woods and with the new fallen snow, the campus buildings resemble the ski atmosphere of Aspen or the Poconos. This was a great setting in which to enjoy the Winter Games and to hold our own.

Between the main dorms, the frats and apartments, there lies a road that goes down a huge hill. The snow had packed into a slope of sorts and had become slick. We all took turns running from the top and diving onto our stomachs as we careened down the hill. I’m sure I was doing irreparable damage to my body, but at that age and with alcohol, anything was possible. We spent the rest of the evening watching the carnage of Tonya Harding breaking a shoe lace and ultimately Oksana Baiul taking the gold. It wasn’t exactly a very manly sight to see us critiquing the performances but again, with alcohol, anything is possible.

I spent the night curled up under a blanket on the cold tile floor of a dorm room and the next morning, my friend Scott and I made our way back down to civilization. The snow had continued to fall another couple of feet that night. I was totally unprepared for the weather, opting for a leather jacket, IIRC (mandatory Internet slang quota for this post reached). But I was really unprepared to see the snow up over the back bumper of Scott’s AMC Eagle. This did not phase Scott in the least.

You have to understand Scott to truly appreciate his insanity. This is the kid in high school that knew how to make bombs. He has a civil engineering degree and now works for the DOT. Go figure. In any case, while he was a freshman, the year before, we experienced The Storm of the Century. Being at UPJ, Scott was kind of like Dennis Quaid trekking to New York City in The Day After Tomorrow. He went out for a walk one day to the local Giant Eagle Supermarket. As he walked, he kicked something hard with his foot. He bent down and cleared around it and found a car that was buried in the snow. Again, I saw insane because he decided it would be a good idea to just go out for a walk in the snow that had buried a car.

But back to the Eagle. If I ever move to a region that ends up with a ton of snowfall, I would highly consider getting one of these classics. It’s like a tank. Scott had outfitted his with a hood ornament that was an actual Eagle from one of his childhood trophies. As I was lamenting the chore of having to dig out the car before we could leave, he simply said, “Get in.” I did and he fired up the beast. Threw it in reverse and simply backed out over the snow. As we drove away, I looked back at our parking space which now resembled the bottom portion of a Styrofoam packing insert. We drove out onto the highway which was completely devoid of cars, buried or otherwise.

While I was keen to catch what I could of the Olympic Games that year, I felt that I deserved a Gold Medal for using downhill body sledding and Scott deserved one for snow driving. Unfortunately, these events are not a part of the games, yet. The skeleton needs to just get rid of the sled and we’d have it. That may seem highly dangerous, but I’ll say it again…with alcohol….you get the picture.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Five Things That Need To Go Away In 2010

T-Pain Auto Tune Insanity
The Super Bowl put the last nail in the coffin for this gimmick that is so overused in popular music that it has become a source of inter cranial bleeding. The premise of the Bud Light commercial updates the old “Wassup?” ones for Bud where a guy calls up his friends after drinking a Bud Light and begins speaking in T-Pain style. Auto tune and the voice box are overdone and just need to go away. Any number of artists today employ the auto tune method and it really shows in live performances. *cough*Taylor Swift *cough* Oh, come on. You explain to me how she can win all these awards, be named artist of the year, blah blah blah and she can’t effing sing live? It’s the magic of the studio and a mixing board is all I’m saying. Do you feel like I do? Yes, that was a nod to Mr. Frampton.

The UPS Whiteboard GuyThe first time I saw this doodler for the shipping company I thought Steve Perry found a new job since Journey decided to go with a Filipino YouTube guy that sounds like an Engrish version of….well, Steve Perry. And just in case I thought I was the only one who thought this… apparently someone was so confused they posed the question to Yahoo Answers.

The guy’s real name is Andy Azula and he is the creative director for an ad agency that was hired by UPS to do those commercials. When the commercials first began to air, the street magician style of drawing that ultimately revealed a UPS logo was kind of neat. However, after the first few ads, like anything else in this world, reality was wiped off the whiteboard and computer generated graphics replaced what looked like utter magic. Actually, according to an article on Slate, he does do the drawings, but they are redrawn in between takes to speed things up. What makes me want to see this guy get chased by the dry eraser is that we now know that he isn’t REALLY doing the drawing on the fly, so the magic is gone and now it’s not as catchy and cool.

Reality Shows
I will cry about this till I am blue in the face and then some. Of course, there is no way in hell I will ever see my dream come true. Not in 2010. Not in 3010. Reality shows are now a fact of life and they are like Walmart, taking over everything. How many shows and clones do we need? We all know reality television is fake, right? It’s professional wrestling that’s real, right?

With Jersey Shore being the latest show to capture the hearts and minds of idiot America, we have to realize that these folks are neither from Jersey nor are they even full blooded Italian, save Vinny, which is appropriately stereotypical. Ellen even tested these d-bags with a test and they flunked. Apparently, Snooki thought Canada was one of the original 13 colonies. Can we deport these idiots?

Shawtie / Shortie / Shorty
There are far too many songs with the term shawty in it. Nobody really wants to divulge WTF (Mandatory Internet slang quota reached) a shawty is and I really don’t care who is a shawty, if she’s out on the dance floor, has boots with fur, a fruity booty, or is like a memory in my head. Just stop it.

Reboots, Remakes, and Adaptations
This madness has to stop. Since Spider Man 4 fizzled, they’ve decided to reboot the franchise. We’ve got The Karate Kid which neglects the entire idea that Karate was a Japanese form of martial arts since the reboot is set in China. We’ve got a Nightmare on Elm Street remake with the guy from Bad News Bears playing Freddy Krueger. Highlander and Red Dawn remakes. We’ve got a new Clash of the Titans coming out, a Night of the Demons remake, We’ve got an A-Team movie, Johnny Quest movie, and a Smurfs movie. SMURFS!!!!!  I mean EFFING SMURFS!  And John Lithgow and Wallace Shawn are in it.  Didn’t y’all learn from G.I. Joe, Speed Racer and Transformers? You know what insanity is, doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.   SMURFS!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snowmageddon 2010

In 1993, the South Western PA area had one of its biggest storms to date. It was deemed the Storm of the Century. It was fitting as how there was less than 10 years left in that century. Not that bold of a statement considering. Of course, at that time, you had to see a plow truck on its roof in a ditch to cancel in my hometown. The following year, during which I was a freshman at Pitt, we had one of the coldest winters on record. To know the campus in Oakland, you are aware of the wind whipping in between buildings. As you turn a corner onto Forbes or Fifth Avenue, the protection of the tall structures are gone and you are enveloped by gust of icy daggers, ripping into your skin. Still, classes went on as the temperatures dipped into the sub zero range.

It wasn’t until, then Governor, Bob Casey was in town for a routine check up on his heart that the issue of cancelling classes was addressed. The Governor put the city into a state of emergency and classes were immediately cancelled. Of course, that effectively closed all student services and I was left to eating cold cereal or Ramen Noodles for sustenance. Still we dealt with it.

Now, to compare the events of this past weekend to those of the Tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the earthquake in either China in 2009 or the one in Haiti this past January is stretching it a bit. Fact of the matter is that we’ve been spoiled for far too long. Me included. We all sit around and wax nostalgic about having three feet of snow, no school for a week, and a snowman bigger than that damn statue on LOST. And in that same breath we bitch about how we never see that kind of weather anymore. My wife is a snow junkie and wants to see it up to the window. Me, I’d rather have snow on the ground for most of December, including Christmas, and then be done after January 15th.

So, when my wife got all excited that we were going to get “some” snow to the tune of four to eight inches, as was originally predicted by the local meteorologists, she got into this nesting mood and decided that we needed to go out and buy lots of food to hold us over until Monday. “Oh, it will be nice. We’ll make warm dinners and sit and watch the snow in our nice warm home.” Then, as the hours rolled on into Friday afternoon, and the snow started to fall, the tune changed. “Get your ass home, we’re getting a foot of snow!” This was the call I got at work on Friday around 3:00. As we continued to watch the news the totals jumped every hour until we were expecting up to 18 inches. The lights began to flicker in and out as the heavy wet snow began to cake up on the trees and power lines.

Well, we were ready for the snow. We went to bed in awe of the thick fluffy blanket that descended onto our house and trees and cars. What we weren’t ready for was the power outage.

I woke up around 7:00 and called to cancel an appointment I was supposed to have at 10:00. That was because I had a “Dude, where’s my car?” moment when I looked out in the driveway. I went back to sleep for a couple of hours and figured I wake up and enjoy some time in my chair watching the snow and drinking some coffee. Around 9:30, I woke up and we had no power. By 11:00. The temperature was down to 68 in the house and falling. We had no wireless signal due to the outage and our basement, was slowly falling below 56. We made the decision to tough it out at my in-laws until the power came back on later. I spent a good two hours shoveling the driveway and the cars out of the snow. Our road was completely bare because all of the snow was now in our driveway. While the shoveling went smoothly up near the house, the treated snow that was on the road had melted and packed down in my driveway after being plowed. It was harder than hell to get rid of it.

As the temperature inside the house reached the low 50s, we packed out enough for an overnight trip and left. Our cats, which I hated to leave had enough fur to keep them warm, and they could always tunnel underneath our bed covers to stay warm. We were heading for civilization. While our road was sufficiently plowed, the surrounding main roads were hardly touched. We barely made it to my in-laws who were nice enough to carve out a space in their driveway that was big enough for our van.

Every couple of hours, I called the house to see if our answering machine picked up, letting me know the ordeal was over. No change. I called the power company who told me that the best prediction for all customers to have power restored was Friday. This was a week after the storm. I feared we were going to have to pack up our cats and bring them over to the house, putting us at eight in one house, which is only three cats shy of crazy cat lady status. That evening we went back to check on the cats and became excited. As we drove through our neighborhood we saw signs of power on along our road. However, once we reached the top of our hill we noticed a block or so section that was still in the dark. Our hearts sank as we feared that our hopes of dodging that deadline of Friday was too good to be true.

My wife and I slept in her old bed which was uncomfortably small. If this was going to be an extended stay we needed to make better arrangements. We decided to go back Sunday morning and retrieve the mattress from our old futon as well as enough clothes and food to help out her parents throughout the week. We both travelled back to our house along the bad roads and found that the temperature in the house was now 48. The refrigerator was defrosting and the tray underneath was full. We had taken the biggest items that required cold and put them in a cooler on our back porch, which was down near 30 degrees as the outside temperature dipped down towards zero. I built a fire in the basement to being the temp back up over 50 and we gathered up the rest of our stuff needed for the week. We fed the cats and made a plan to bring them back over if the temperature dropped below freezing. We also turned the faucets onto a drip after running hot water through the pipes.

After coming back to my in-laws I learned that some electric company trucks were in the area and hopefully we’d be back in business soon. That estimate of Friday made me still cringe because I realized that the power company was going to hit the biggest areas first to restore the most power to the most residents. Then they would move on down the line picking up the few spots that still needed it. That meant that our area would probably be last as we were only a couple of blocks among thousands of residents without power.

We unpacked all our belongings, stocked their fridge and made preparations to be there for awhile. Just about time for Super Bowl kickoff, I felt the urge to try calling the house one last time. A few of my Facebook friends who lived in the area were without power and had updated their status to say they were back up and running. The previous attempts to dial were met with no ringing and that familiar shrilling tone and voice that stated it was sorry that it could not complete my call. This time was different. One ring. I was slightly excited. Two rings. I was getting more excited. Three rings. Oh, boy! Four rings. Hot damn. “H, you’ve reached…” My answering machine picked up the call. Our power was restored. And probably within a half hour of us leaving with most of our worldly possessions. “Son of a bitch” I yelled. Just to be sure, I called again and as the fourth ring passed, I held the phone up to my wife’s ear. “Yeah!”

I took a car load back and shut off most of the faucets. I made sure everything was still running and the temp was already up to 64 degrees. Yep, it had come back on shortly after we left. As we settled back in to our home, got warm showers and slept in our nice soft, BIG bed we realized that we don’t appreciate what people go without on a regular basis. We take for granted the simplest of luxuries that we think of as just standard, everyday rights. You walk through a darkened house and immediately try the same light switches fourteen times because you just assume that they work and don’t even realize that you still don’t have power. It’s habit, not instinct. Instinct would be making yourself more prepared for such an outage. Having enough warm blankets for the duration of the outage or at least enough flashlights to see where you are going.

But, in all, we bitched and moaned about not having power for a total of 24 to 30 hours. The storm rated fourth on the list of total inches of snowfall in our area, behind that storm from 1993. We lost power but didn’t end up any worse than being put out of a weekend. For all the fear of freezing pipes and kitties, the temperature never went below 40 degrees in our house. It just goes to show that if you want to get your power back on in a storm, don’t call and complain to the power company. Don’t twitter or bitch on Facebook or hope to use other social networking sites to shame your provider into working faster. All you have to do is pack up all your stuff and plan to be out of your home for a week. Then, the power will magically be restored once you unpack at your temporary shelter.

Oh, and don’t buy a hell of a lot of food that needs to be refrigerated. That’s a sure fire way to get your power to go off in the first place. Take care to all those still in the dark and stuck in the snow.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Receipt After Me, "I Am Not a Crook."

Imagine, if you will, you are shopping in your favorite vanilla flavored big box store for some goods that were made overseas. You check out at the cashier, paying for every item and upon being handed your receipt, you shove it into the bottom of your pocket or purse beneath three pounds of crap. Then, you walk three feet to the exit where some poor bastard is standing by the door. As you make your way towards the exit, the greeter or whoever it is stops you by, asking to see your receipt.

Now, you have two options. You can drop your bags and dig around in your pockets for that receipt or you can say, “No thank you, and keep walking.” In either case, you may find yourself spending more time in the store than you planned.

So, what is it about a receipt checker that has all the net heads and geeks online so much in a tizzy? This is a hotly debated topic, well…at least over at the Consumerist where every other story is about someone being “detained” at a big box store like Walmart or Best Buy. After all, the ramifications are pretty low in comparison to what people think is one step away from having to carry papers like some Eastern Europe Cold War era country.

The idea behind checking of receipts is about theft and loss prevention. Although, a lot of places will tell you that it is a movement to ensure, you the consumer, are not ripped off on your purchases. Frankly, I don’t see how that works because I was already ripped off when I paid the prices I did for the items in my bags. But that it is another story about whether I should really keep shopping at stores that I feel are expensive. Yet, is there really any correlation between some Joe Schmoe who is being paid minimum wage to check my receipt and the total disintegration of the Constitution of the United States? No. This is about defiance of authority, rallying against corporate greed and just being a dick. But hey, I love doing all three when it suits me.

Frankly, I shop at Best Buy, pay for my items and then instinctively have my receipt at the ready when I leave. It’s almost Pavlovian conditioning when I see a yellow shirt at the door. Yellow shirt, receipt out and ready. Never did I imagine I could just say “No, Thank you” and be on my way. I never realized I was within my rights to refuse showing my receipt at a regular store. Now, I know full well when I go to Sam’s Club that I have to show my receipt when I leave. I signed up for that when I bought a membership there. But there is nothing that says I have to show my receipt to the yellow shirt at the door of a Best Buy. And even though affiliated with Sam’s Club, I am not obligated to show my receipt to the sleeveless smocked ones at the doors to Walmart. Actually, I’ve never had them check my receipt going out.

The short answer is the motto of the Greek Goddess Nike who says, “Just do it.” Who really cares? I don’t believe I’m surrendering any rights by doing so. But there are these fanatical constitutionalists who believe that receipt checking is one step away from putting up the Berlin Wall.

The long answer is that, sometimes, I just don’t feel like being a team player and hate these intrusive disruptions to my flow…sounds like a urologist needs to be called. People who have the sole job of keeping me from leaving some place are that much more the enemy. When I shop in the mall and that greasy guy at the kiosk tries to sell me crushed oyster pearl cream or a nail file made of diamonds or that stupid octopus thing that massages your head, I leap into action.  This just happened over the Christmas holiday.  He saw me moving quickly and actually ran, RAN, around the little cart and attempted to get between me and a store and said, “Sir, can I show you this…blah blah blah.” To which I said, “No, thank you” He then continued to press by saying, “Well, then can I ask you a question.?” To which I said, “Actually, no you cannot,” and went about my way.

These guys are ten times worse than any receipt checker, but it’s that running of interference when you are in motion that grinds my gears. I know the guy at the door of the big box store is just doing his job and nine times out of ten they really don’t even check the receipt so I could hold up one from another store. But every so often you get that one person drunk on authority, or as Cartman calls it, a-thor-it-tye. This is the a-hole that causes me to dig deep in my pocket and pull out a middle finger. This is the guy I am willing to go rounds with just because he shot first with a snotty attitude or look of entitlement. He is the one I will say, “No, Thank you,” to and hope he tries to get all super cop on me. Perhaps I will try it, once, just to see what happens. You will probably read all about it on the Consumerist….or the police blotter.

So, what are your thoughts on receipt checking? 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

North Face Sues South Butt While World Giggles Uncontrollably

I considered the title to this as Corporate Legal Department thinks they Got a Match? Our Face and Your Butt. 

I’m posting this in the regular blog as well as the shop just because this whole premise is funny to me, but then again so are jokes about flatulence. Here’s the back story.  16 year old Jimmy Winkelmann from Missouri founded a parody company called The South Butt. The premise is a parody of overly priced, pretentious outfitter, The North Face. Personally, I find it hilarious since you are comparing anatomy and I love their tagline, “Never Stop Relaxing"  which spoofs The North Face's "Never Stop Exploring."   The logo design for North Face has three curved lines like a mountain while The South Butt has two curved lines in an opposite direction and opposite side of the logo.

Logo for The North Face and South Butt
along with picture of Winkelmann

Here lies the problem. The North Face is suing this young upstart entrepreneur, who is now in college, over a pending trademark application. I guess they saw a possible confusion between their Face and his Butt mark.  Winkelmann countered the cease and desist demand by North Face by offering to sell out for a million dollars. North Face declined and then outright sued.

So, they went to court and the judge, between fist of laughter, told the two stop butting heads and work out their problems through mediation. Things didn’t go well and The North Face asked for an injunction if no settlement could be reached. That won’t be seen until April of 2010.

Here’s where I applaud the young man. He had an idea, he made it happen and now he’s being punished for it. He even shamed…or pwned The North Face by donating clothes to a Children’s Hospital and simply asked The North Face to match it. They expressed no interest. Now that’s business. That will go far in the court of public opinion.

The quibble over saving face…or butt is not for me to decide. Frankly, I think North Face is a bit of a snob and regardless of Gore-Tex or HyVent in their products, their prices are ridiculous and their brand is usually for people who go to ski resorts to wear the trendy clothing and not actually do any skiing. Aspen pretentiousness is all I’m saying.

As a shopkeeper with a penchant for parody, I throw my total support behind the little guy here considering the playing field for market share is clearly in TFN’s favor. I love the idea of totally going after an entity that is owned by a bigger conglomerate and tries to pass itself off as being rooted in its supposed product line and lifestyle. It’s Vanity Fair for crissakes!

This is simply The North Face beating its chest so that it doesn’t become the butt of someone else’s joke. Too late, I say. While I do admit that some of the tactics are a bit juvenile and won’t score him points in a favorable ruling. However, they are totally playing into the humor by saying things like “There could be brand confusion.” Of course, an 18 year old, now armed with the basics of copyright and trademark law can now humorously craft a response like “There appears to be little recognition, if any, that the savvy of consumers precludes anyone from confusing a face with a butt.”

At the heart of the matter, Jimmy wanted to pay for college and got some startup money from his parents to match his capital. Now, he’s producing a clothing line that is smacking the ass of corporate business just a little too much. My only suggestion to him is too maybe relax the parody a bit and become more of a niche business. Parody works for a reason and if you dip into that well too many times you run the risk of becoming a one joke comedian. If you want to thrive in a business that spoofs you need to develop your own model that nods to another. The more you poke the big lion in the cage with a stick, the more you risk pulling back a bloody stump. TFN probably has more legal defenses than Jimmy can afford and no amount of public support will trump that.

Still, I’d love to see him win this one, just on principle alone.

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