Archive for the 'pop culture' Category

Coming soon to your living room: Joost

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

I wrote here a while back about Joost; as a current beta-tester I can send invitations to anyone who’d like to try the service. If you’ve been curious to see what the noise is all about, just send me an email at mrtoast (AT) suddenlink (DOT) net, and I’ll be glad to wrangle an invite your way.

Since my previous Joost post, the latest news is that the developers are trying to get their content into more than just your PC; they would love to have it embedded into your home TV, as Tech Digest reports in this article:

New CEO, Michelangelo Volpi, said, “Joost is a piece of software and it can reside on a variety of platforms. It could be on a television set-top box. Or potentially it could be embedded in a TV set with an Ethernet connection, or on a mobile phone, or in some alternative device that might come out in the future.”

This word follows recent comments by David Clark, Joost’s Vice President of Global Advertising, who hinted that the company is talking to hardware manufacturers about embedding Joost software in various third-party devices. Details, including the names of other companies who might be involved, have not yet been revealed. But Joost’s founders are clearly on a fast track to work the same sort of magic with the upstart video-on-demand service that they did with Kazaa and Skype. Covering all the media bases, the company is also looking at creative ways for sponsors to advertise their products more effectively as well.

The company’s likely foray into big-screen TV is revealing. Following Microsoft’s failure with Windows Media Center to generate much interest among users for watching TV on their computers (something that apparently only hard-core geeks get enthusiastic about), Joost realizes that its content will be much more popular on that most familiar of living room media players, the TV set. The company is also ramping up its programming by making new deals with CNN, Sony TV, the NHL, Sports Illustrated and Cartoon Network, along with other recent offerings from CBS and Warner Music.

I think this is going to be huge. Again, email me if you’d like an invite to get in on the ground floor and check it out yourself.

Mr. Gadget Guy

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Yes, yes … I have been shirking my blogging duties of late, sorry folks. Sometimes RL (Real Life) does intrude on the cyber world; don’t you just hate it when that happens?

In fact, I’ve been so out of touch that apparently I’m the last person on Earth with Internet access to discover the very bizarre “Shoes” video, or even worse, Gary Brolsma the Numa Numa guy. I mean seriously, ten million freaking people have seen this video since he released it in 2004, and I’m just now hearing about it? Damn, my “hip quotient” has got to be in negative numbers here.

But wait, there may be some hope for me yet. In the photo on the left, I hold in my hand the latest toy I acquired this week, an iPod clone made by Sansa and sporting the decidedly un-sexy name of the “e-250″. (Sansa also nicknames the device “The Li’l Monsta”, a tag I like even less; I think instead I will simply call it my “Faux-Pod.”) With two gigabytes of memory, it will hold oodles of choice tuneage and also plays FM Radio, photos, and videos … although I suspect I might go blind trying to watch them on its tiny screen. Despite a few very minor but occasionally frustrating quirks in the interface, I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. Unlike some other lightweight plastic MP3 players I looked at, the Sansa has a rugged “liquid metal” back panel which gives it a nice, solid heft. Battery life is excellent: I’ve been using it all week for at least an hour or two a day and have yet to need a recharge. Best of all, I got it for a mere $89, which is a great deal compared to $149 for a 2-gig iPod Nano.

Techno-nerd that I am, I confess that I’ve always been a bit of a gadget freak. I do loves me my digital toys, so it’s a bit surprising that I have yet to decide on a new camera. In the last installment of this thrilling saga posted here more than two months ago, you may recall that I was torn between the Canon S3-IS long-zoom P&S and the well-respected Nikon D-40 Digital SLR. Since then I’ve been able to put my hands on both models at my local Big Discount Store, which unfortunately did little to help me decide between them. I liked the D-40 for its solid feel and excellent quality, and according to my nephew the professional photographer, Nikon is the only brand on the planet worthy of serious consideration. But given how few photos I take, I have a hard time getting past the $549 price tag, and also thought the 27-82 mm zoom range was a bit limiting. I also was hesitant about its proprietary battery pack, lack of image stabilization, and the fact that the 2.5″ LCD screen can’t be used as a viewfinder when composing shots (which, to be fair, is the case with any DSLR). The Canon, on the other hand, uses common AA batteries, has a more flexible 36-432 mm zoom range, and also shoots video — which the Nikon does not. But when I actually held the S3-IS, it didn’t have the same “pro” feel as the Nikon, in fact it seemed more fragile and almost toy-like. And to muddy the waters even further, Canon has just announced that this model is being discontinued, to be replaced with the S5-IS which ups the megapixel count from 6 to 8 and increases the size of the LCD screen from 2″ to 2.5″ along with a host of other upgrades. The downside is that the S5 will not be available until July, and for at least the first couple of months is likely to command a price close to its suggested retail of $499. However, the introduction of this new model could cause some dealers to discount the S3 even further in the next few weeks.

Now, to confuse me even more (if such a thing is possible at this stage), I’ve been reading glowing reviews of a new Fuji superzoom comparable to Canon’s, the Fuji Finepix S700 (right). With seven megapixels, a 10X optical zoom giving an effective range of 38-380 mm, picture stabilization, a big bright 2.5″ LCD screen, and full VGA movie mode, this camera seems to be one heck of a deal at only $215. At that price, I might go ahead and get this thing just for grins, and if for some reason I really don’t like it, at least I haven’t blown a big wad of cash. But to be honest, I can’t see what’s not to like. If anyone has any personal knowledge about this model, please drop me a line. At the moment it’s looking like this camera could very well be my next gadget.

The Broadband Boogie

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

One of the reasons I’ve been so vocal about internet radio on the blog here lately is that with my limited mobility, I find myself listening to it a lot during the daytime while Mrs. Toast is at work. I’ve become a big fan of Pandora, which is just one of the services likely to disappear from the ol’ Web Radio dial on July 15th if the RIAA is able to uphold the recent ruling that jacks up royalty fees to levels that are unsustainable by most webcasters.

If you haven’t visited Pandora before, it is awesome. Drawing on the practical application of the Music Genome Project, Pandora uses actual human beings who listen to and then classify songs by a number of musical attributes. Say, for example, you’re a fan of Bruce Hornsby as I am; according to Pandora, Bruce’s music features “vocal harmony, a vocal-centric aesthetic, major key tonality, and prominent use of rhythm.” By “seeding” my search list with this artist, Pandora creates a custom streaming radio station just for me that includes not only The Bruce, but other artists I’ve never heard of who make music containing these same musical elements. As the station plays, you can fine-tune it by giving each track a Tivo-style thumbs-up or thumbs down, which is taken into consideration as it makes future selections. After a little while, it gets positively uncanny in its ability to play little-known tracks that you really like, and it pisses me off to no end that this innovative site will likely have to shut down due to the short-sighted greed of the record industry.

Another artist I’ve recently (re)discovered through Pandora that has actually prompted me to buy their CD is the power-pop band Fountains of Wayne. Named after an outdoor furniture and landscaping store in Wayne, New Jersey, you probably remember them from their 2003 hit “Stacy’s Mom“, the video of which featured the lovely and talented Rachael Hunter appearing in the title role in a variety of provocative poses. A lot of people dismissed that song as a novelty and the band as a one-hit wonder, but these guys have a lot more going for them than just this ode to teenage lust. Frontmen Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood have perfected the ability to write short, catchy pop-rock songs with more hooks than your Dad’s tackle box; for example, Schlesinger penned the title track for the Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do!“, which landed him both a Golden Globe (1996) and Oscar nomination (1997) for Best Original Song in a soundtrack.

For further evidence of the band’s affable quirkiness, consider the first single from their new album “Traffic and Weather”, entitled “Someone to Love” (watch the video here). Like “Stacy’s Mom”, the song is populated by richly-drawn characters: protagonists Seth Shapiro and Beth McKenzie lead lonely single lives as they toil in their dull day jobs. Even though they live in the same building, they are unaware of each other even though it appears there’s a good chance they could be very happy together. That the narrative takes an unexpected twist at the end, and that this entire detailed mini-soap opera plays out in a mere three minutes and 54 seconds is a testament to Schlesinger and Collingwood’s formidable songwriting chops, and more than one person has declared the duo to be “The New Lennon-McCartney”. While that assessment may be a tad premature, it should be noted that a good while before they wrote the songs that would define an entire generation, John and Paul were penning lightweight pop ditties like “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do”, so the seemingly audacious comparison may have some merit after all; only time will tell.

My favorite track on FoW’s new album, however, is a paean to the automobile, in the great tradition of car songs such as “409″ by the Beach Boys, “Shut Down” by Jan and Dean, “GTO” by Ronnie and the Daytonas, “Little Cobra” by the Rip Chords, etc. — although the vehicle in question here is a somewhat unlikely ’92 Subaru. But FoW manage to combine an engaging story line with crunchy lead guitars, an immediately hum-able melody, snappy woo-hoos and handclaps, and an awesome break near the end of the song that recalls The Who at their windmilling, power-pop best. Check it out for yourself:


In fact, I liked it so much after hearing it that I ordered the CD, and who knows, maybe you will too. But it’s not likely that the RIAA will keep people like us in mind when services like Pandora (not to mention thousands of other internet radio streams) must shut down rather than pay outrageous new fees that in most cases exceed any income they make. Not only do the listeners lose, but the artists lose exposure and record companies will see CD sales decline even further. So, great; nobody wins, and everybody loses. Who the fuck came up with this brilliant idea?For the latest news in the ongoing battle to save net radio, click here.

Joost Crazy

Friday, May 11th, 2007

For the last month or so, I’ve been a beta-tester for the new interactive video-on-demand service called Joost (pronounced “Juiced”). You’ve probably heard of it; Joost is being hyped by many as the Internet’s next “killer app“, and is the brainchild of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, those two wacky Scandinavians who brought you Kazaa and Skype. Joost positions itself as “Internet Cable TV”, but to me it’s more like a large collection of videos grouped by common subject matter into “channels”. In this way, it resembles YouTube more than your local cable service, except the videos are all high quality and professionally produced; there’s none of the “user-generated content” found on YouTube and other similar sites.

Programs on Joost range in length from one or two-minute shorts up to full-length features of 90 minutes or more. You can pick and choose from an inventory of about 150 channels, including offerings from CNN, The Comedy Channel, MTV and many others. (See the full channel overview here.) Note that these are NOT exactly the same as their cable TV counterparts. If you select MTV, for example, you can choose only from a limited selection of programs, mostly episodes of “Laguna Beach”, “Punk’d”, and “My Sweet 16″. Other channels feature game shows, music videos, comedies, sports, and a few (but not many) movies.

All the video is streamed directly over the web to your machine, in real time, on demand. You pick the program you want to watch and start viewing it, no worries about it being “in progress”. When the show’s over, if you do nothing Joost will play the next program in the list, like a cable TV station. However, you can stop it at any time and come back later, or pick another program on another channel. For the geek minded, Joost is technically known as a “hybrid peer-to-peer application”, which uses the same technology its founders developed for Kazaa. A diagram and explanation of how it works can be found here.

Here’s a few screen shots of the basic interface (click each pic for a larger version):


The quality of the video is pretty decent, which came as somewhat of a surprise to me after being used to the small-sized, grainy content found on most other sites. Joost can stream either in a window or full-screen, and looks quite good in either.

Up until recently, Joost was available only to a very small and select number of beta testers. I had submitted my request to join way back in October, and just got my “invitation” to sign up last month. The first few weeks after I began watching were pretty rocky; evidently a lot of people got their invites at the same time I did, and the service had trouble handling the sudden increase in load. Videos would stutter or not play at all, and for a while I was jokingly referring to Joost as “The Error Message Channel” because most often what I saw was this:


I was not the only one, either, as the developers noted on their blog:

As you might have discovered already, we’re having some problems with the central servers in Luxembourg… We’ve been flooded with demand, which is fabulous and ultimately will make the system stronger, but since it’s unaccustomed to this level of usage it’s stumbling a bit, whereas we’d like it to be sprinting.

However, a new version of the program was released this week, and most of these problems seem to have been fixed. It still burps occasionally, but I’ve been able to watch for several hours at a time without any major interruptions. Some of the shows have been quite interesting. For example, I like documentaries, and found a fascinating film on the National Geographic Channel called “Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories“. An ordinary guy by the name of Mike Shiley just decided one day, pretty much out of the blue, to pick up a camera, go to Iraq, and shoot a movie about normal, everyday life there; it’s a point of view you definitely won’t get from the US military’s PR machine. Another favorite has been “The Saturday Morning Channel”, which features several old cartoon series that I loved as a kid, including Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Joost claims they’re adding new content all the time, and have made deals with some big-name distributors to feature their programming. Record companies are beginning to take notice of Joost as a way to promote their artists, so there are quite a few music videos on the site. You’ve probably never heard of most of them, but that’s the whole point.

The best part is that it’s all free to watch. Joost makes money by inserting occasional commercials into the program stream, just like a regular TV station does, but the good news is that they limit the ads to two or three minutes per hour as opposed to the ten to twelve minutes per hour that you’re subjected to on broadcast TV.

At the moment, Joost is still in the beta stage and requires an invitation to sign up and start watching. However, as a current beta tester, I can “invite” as many people as I want — so any readers of this blog who would like to try it out, just drop me a note to mrtoast AT suddenlink DOT net, and I’ll be more than happy to send you one. A couple of caveats to keep in mind:

1) You MUST have a high-speed, broadband internet connection. Dialup will not work, and the fatter your pipe is the better. 1 mBs downstream is the bare minimum, 2 mBs is recommended, and 3 or 4 will rock. (If you’d like to test your connection speed, click here.)

Note that Joost has the following to say on their web site about bandwidth:

“Joost is a streaming video application, and so uses a relatively high amount of bandwidth per hour. In one hour of viewing, approximately 320Mb data will be downloaded and 105Mb uploaded, which means that it will exhaust a 1Gb cap in 10 hours. Windows users should note that the application continues to run in the background after you close the main window. For this reason, if you pay for your bandwidth usage per megabyte or have your usage capped by your ISP, you should be careful to always exit Joost client completely when you are finished watching it.”

Since my cable-modem service provider charges a flat monthly fee and does not cap my bandwidth, this is not a problem for me, but may be an important factor if yours does. Call them and ask if you’re not sure.

2) Joost requires a fairly snappy machine. The newer your PC and the more memory you have, the better it will work. The following system specs are recommended:

  • Windows XP Service Pack 2 with DirectX 9.0c
  • Pentium 4 processor (or equivalent), 1GHz
  • 512Mb or more RAM
  • A modern video card with DirectX support and at least 32Mb of RAM
  • About 500 MB free disk space

3) Like any other form of TV, Joost will be a HUGE time sink. You will find hours of your life disappearing in front of the screen, so be sure you have lots of spare time on your hands.

4) Finally, remember that Joost is still in BETA. It is not guaranteed to work. It might conflict with other stuff on your computer (although I haven’t had any real problems). No technical support is provided. It might scare your dog. It may cause cramps, nausea, headache, irritability, sleeplessness or warts after prolonged use. Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages. For educational and recreational use only. Not recommended for children. Close cover before striking. May be slippery when wet. Use only in a well-ventilated area. No purchase necessary, void where prohibited, your mileage may vary, etc.

Seriously, I don’t mean to scare anyone off — as I say, my experience has been pretty good, with no conflicts or serious problems. As with any new software that hasn’t been fully tested yet and may still be a bit buggy, I would advise at the very least setting a system restore point before installing Joost. A backup wouldn’t hurt either, but like any smart computer user, you’re doing that on a regular basis anyway, right? Of course you are.

Will Joost ever replace “real” TV? Probably not, especially once HDTV really gets off the ground in 2009 when analog goes dark. The founders point out that Skype hasn’t put the phone companies out of business either, and is merely an alternate method of providing a service. But Joost is still a very big step in a direction that many broadcasters have been thinking about for a long, long time, and it will only get better as both the quality of the content Joost can deliver and the technology behind it continues to improve. Even with its current limitations, I’m still quite impressed. Again, if you’d like an invitation to check it out for yourself, “joost” let me know.

More on internet radio

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

For anyone who might be unclear about the effect of the new fee structure recently set by the Copyright Royalty Board on small internet broadcasters, let me draw an illustrative parallel. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it should give you a rough idea of the problem.

Let’s say you’re in a band. For the last year or two, you’ve been playing at a club called “The Royalty Lounge”, and charge $5 a head to get in. You’ve agreed to give the club a 12 percent cut of your door proceeds; each week you average about 100 people, so you pay the club $60 and split the remaining $440 with the rest of the band. Fair enough, and simple too.

Now one day the club owners have a meeting and decide they’re not getting enough money from you. Instead of a flat percentage, they want you to pay them a fee of 12 cents per song per person for every song you play. So the first thing you have to do is count the exact number of people in the club during each and every song in your set (which is a pain because it adds a layer of record-keeping you didn’t have to deal with before), and tally up all the figures at the end of the night. But let’s assume for this example that it averages out to the same number of 100 people. You play four sets of ten songs each, which means you owe the club 40 x 100 x 0.12 = $480, which is 800% more than you had to pay previously! That leaves you only $20 for yourself and the band.

Now let’s take the analogy one step further, and add this wrinkle: due to increased competition from other clubs who don’t charge a cover, “The Royalty Lounge” decides it’s going to become non-commercial, which means that you can no longer collect the $5 entrance fee, so you now have no income whatsoever. But, at the end of the night you still must pay the club 12 cents per song per person. How long could you and your band survive under these conditions? It wouldn’t be long before you were forced out of business.

This is the position that small internet broadcasters find themselves in as a result of the new CRB rules. I may seem a bit reactionary about the sinister motives of the RIAA in this matter, but there’s no question in my mind that this is anything but a coincidence. The music industry was totally blindsided by the mp3 phenomenon back in the Napster days, and is determined to avoid any loss of control over their “product” as technology continues to change the way music is made, distributed, and consumed. Sure, they want to keep selling you CD’s at inflated prices, but despite outward appearances it’s not about the money from webcasting fees; killing off internet radio is an attempt to turn back the clock to the days when the major labels had total control over who could hear what, as Lucas Gonze says on his website:

To the major labels, revenues from webcasting royalties are not significant in comparison to revenues from the iTunes store and comparable online distributors. The iTunes store, mainly. If the webcasting industry disappears from the face of the internet, that is an acceptable level of collateral damage as long as revenues from premium services like iTunes rise enough.

Lost in all of this is any concern whatsoever for the public’s exposure to new and eclectic artists, or for independent commercial-free stations that play what they want to play without pressure from labels or advertisers. The music industry wants whatever remains of internet radio after this debacle to become a boring corporate medium overrun with ads, mediocrity, and payola — just like commercial broadcasting is today. And their lobby is powerful enough that they just might get away with it.

UPDATE:

A recent development offers some hope; last Friday, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) introduced legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Donald Mazullo (R-IL) and captioned H.R.2060, The Internet Radio Equality Act” which would set aside the flawed CRB decision, establish an equitable fee schedule on a par with other radio services, and keep independent voices from being silenced.

Today (5/1), webcasters will be converging on Washington for a “Hill Walk” to make members of Congress aware of the measure and petition their support. If I were closer and physically able, I would be there — but instead I’ve done what I can do, which is to contact my own representative in the House, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX). He sent me this reply:

There are many Stations in East Texas that are operated by volunteers and radio enthusiasts that are harmed by the CRB’s ruling. It is my hope that Congress will exercise oversight in this matter and come to a resolution that ensures these Stations will be able to continue to offer listeners a broad range of music and program content.

All right! So it would appear that Louie “gets” the issue and is on board; with any luck there will be enough noise from the general public that this legislation will move forward. If you’d like to help, see here for details, including links to write your Congressperson.

Ask them to please support H.R.2060, The Internet Radio Equality Act. Thanks.

My good buds in the Senate

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I took my own advice a while back, and wrote to my representatives in the House and Senate about the recent disastrous ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board which will most likely result in the extinction of internet radio. Somewhat to my surprise, last week I received the following reply from Republican Senator John Cornyn:

Thank you for contacting me about the important issue of music performance rights. I appreciate having the benefit of your comments on this important matter.As you are aware, rapid advances in communications technology have led to the development of digital television and radio, as well as subscription satellite television and radio services. These new capabilities expand the range of choices available to consumers; subscription satellite radio is one of the most successful examples of quickly advancing technology. I welcome such consumer-driven innovation and enjoy a personal satellite radio subscription.As expected, technological innovation also brings with it the threat of copyright infringement. While recent technology advances represent important achievements, we must, on principle, protect the intellectual property rights of those responsible for such innovation. You may be certain that I will continue working with my Senate colleagues to strike a balance between copyright protection and technological advance and that I will keep your concerns in mind should the Senate consider relevant legislation during the 110th Congress.

I appreciate having the opportunity to represent the interests of Texans in the United States Senate. Thank you for taking the time to contact me.

Sincerely,

JOHN CORNYN
United States Senator
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

And then, today I got this message from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison:

Thank you for contacting me regarding copyright protection. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue.Copyright protection has been central to America’s prosperity and job creation. Movies, books, computer software, television, photography and music are among our unique American products and some of our most successful exports. United States industries depending on copyright protection employ nearly 4 million workers and produce over $65 billion of our exports ( more than agriculture and automobile manufacturing.

Protecting content in a high-technology age is a new and daunting problem, and copyright protection is an important challenge as the broadband revolution offers even more far-reaching possibilities and opportunities. With new speed and interactivity, the entire store of movies, music, books, television and raw knowledge can be made widely available. I believe copyright protection is a foundation of innovation, and copyright law should work to ultimately protect the best interests of consumers. Intellectual property is the creative core of the information age, and I agree this is a pivotal issue for Congress to address.

I appreciate hearing from you and hope you will not hesitate to keep in touch on any issue of concern to you.

Sincerely,
Kay Bailey Hutchison

There are two ways to interpret these replies. The first is that these responses are the typical Washington Waffle; you will note that neither reply is especially committal one way or the other, nor do they exactly address the subject I was writing about. In all probability, some lowly staff member reads all incoming mail and tries to determine its general subject matter and whether the writer is “fer” it or “agin” it. You can almost hear them thinking, “Hmmmm. Internet radio? Well lemme see, it’s not exactly telecommunications, but it’s sort of commerce-related. Maybe science and technology? No, it doesn’t really fit any of those. Wait, how about Music Performance Rights? Yeah, that’s it. Close enough.” Senator Hutchison’s office tagged the issue as “copyright protection”. In either case, the staffer fired off a boiler-plate form reply and the Senator never actually read the message.

But on the other hand, perhaps the lawmakers do indeed give thoughtful consideration to the concerns of their constituents, personally and carefully reading every word of letters they receive from them. Hey, it could happen. So just in case i actually do have an ear in Washington, I sent this message to reinforce my points. Note my persuasive yet diplomatic style:

Dear Senator:

Thank you very much for your reply to my recent contact to your office concerning music performance rights (copyright protection). I appreciate that you are cognizant of this issue and working to strike a balance between the interested parties.

I am a lifelong broadcaster, and a fan of Internet radio. Since my initial message to you two weeks ago, the Copyright Royalty Board met on April 16th and refused to reconsider their initial action to raise royalty fees paid by Internet broadcasters to stratospheric levels which would force many of them to shut down. As I am sure you are aware, National Public Radio led this drive for a rehearing, arguing that the CRB’s decision was an “abuse of discretion”.

Unfortunately, the Judges did not appear to fully consider the ramifications of the new royalty structure, and that avenue of appeal has now been closed. I am therefore urgently asking for your help.

In addition to being a former broadcaster, I am also a musician and understand that those who create the music we all enjoy deserve to be fairly compensated for their efforts. I am not opposed to reasonable royalty payments for musicians and songwriters. But the key word here is “fairly”, and the CRB’s new rates are simply unrealistic and unreasonable, with markups of 300 to 1200 percent from the previous payment structure. Even though the director of Sound Exchange, Mr. John Stimson, said he “look(s) forward to working with the Internet radio industry”, there will be no “industry” left to work with if these disastrous fees go into effect. Few Internet broadcasters will have the financial capacity to pay these exorbitant rates which in many cases exceed their incoming revenue, and will simply be forced out of existence.

In the last week since the CRB refused to consider a rehearing, the news media has been full of dire stories from Internet broadcasters facing imminent extinction. Here is but one example: AccuRadio founder and CEO Kurt Hanson says he makes money by selling advertising time, but the new royalty rate increase would far exceed the revenue that ads bring in. “This rate hike would absolutely shut us down if it’s put into effect,” he said. “Our revenues last year were about $400,000. We thought our royalty obligation under the previous deal would have been about $48,000. Our royalty obligation under this new deal would be $600,000.”

Mr. Hanson’s story is typical of many, many Internet broadcasters who now face the prospect of crippling royalty payments. Even more appalling, noncommercial webcasters who do not sell advertising and have no income whatsoever would still be forced to pay huge fees under the CRB-mandated royalty structure. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I am very concerned that this action is the death knell for Internet radio, a medium that has brought unprecedented choice and diversity of entertainment to myself and countless other Americans. Webcasting also serves as a valuable conduit for many independent artists who have a difficult time breaking through on other forms of radio.

There is one last chance to save Internet radio, and that is intervention by the House and Senate to demand that the CRB determine fair and reasonable royalty rates that will not bankrupt web broadcasters. However, time is of the essence as these fees go into effect on May 15th.

I implore you and your colleagues to take whatever steps are necessary to keep this date from being forever known in the future as “the day the music died”.

Thank you very much for your time and interest in this matter.

Sincerely,
“Mr. Toast”

Of course, in case you were wondering I did use my real name. It will be interesting to see if I get anything but another form letter in reply to this message, but at least I’ve done what I can do. As I mentioned to the good Senators, time is growing short and a groundswell of public outcry over this travesty of justice might actually prevent these rates from going into effect on May 15th. Want to help? Write your own representative and let your voice be heard. Feel free to copy and paste any of the above if you like, or visit this Live365 page for more specific suggestions.

More on this topic to come.

Random grocerocity

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

An otherwise ordinary trip to the grocery store can be a fascinating experience in cultural awareness, or at very least the power of marketing in our lives. Two quick examples:

1. Based on the success of Unilever’s “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”, several grocery chains have come up with their own “house brand” versions of the product. Kroger has their “Butter, It’s Not”, and the HEB stores here in Texas have something called “You’d Think It’s Butter”. I don’t know why they don’t just stop beating around the bush and call their product “I Can’t Believe It’s Not I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”. Also, “You’ve Got To Be Shitting Me, Whaddaya Mean This Ain’t Butter?”, or “If This Is Butter, Then I’m Freaking Tony Orlando And Dawn” might be good alternate names as well.

2. This whole celebrity product naming thing is getting out of hand. This weekend Mrs. Toast picked up a package of Nolan Ryan Steaks. Would someone please tell me what the hell a former professional baseball player has to do with USDA choice meat? So let me get this straight: I can buy Nolan Ryan® beef, marinade it in some Paul Newman Dressing®, cook it on my George Forman Grill®, cut it with an Emeril Knife®, and then eat it on Martha Stewart® Tableware? What’s next? To complete the cycle, Sheryl Crow Brand® Toilet Paper? (“So strong, you only need one square!”)

Please, stop the madness.

It’s new to me

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

Turning to a lighter topic today: wandering hither, tither, and yon on the Internet, I stumbled across a wacky web site called “Will It Blend?” containing a series of videos where in each exciting 2-minute episode, a dorky middle-aged host in a white lab coat inserts various objects into a standard-issue kitchen blender and grinds them to a pulp. Isn’t the web a wonderful thing?

Among other things, he’s blended cell phones, CDs, metal tape measures, a bathroom plunger (left), stuffed animals, cassette tapes, and my favorite: a baseball. At the end of each segment, the pureed contents of the blender are dumped ceremoniously onto the table to the bouncy beat of 50′s game show music while the words, “Yes, it blends!” flashes on the screen. I thought it was hilarious and figured I’d uncovered a hidden treasure. I mean, who the hell inserts a live video camera and a beer (still in the can!) into a blender until it turns into a mushy pulp, besides a 19-year old drunken redneck? This has to be how “Mythbusters” got started, right?

But upon further investigation I discovered I’m a Johnny-Come-Lately to the Mixfest. It turns out that WIB is a viral marketing campaign for the Blendtec company, who not-so-coincidentally manufactures the implement of destruction used on the program. The show has been around for a while; it originated as a gag on YouTube, and became so wildly popular there that the company decided to produce videos for their own web site. Host Tom Dickson (who is also, again not-so-coincidentally, the company’s CEO) and his Blender of Doom have appeared on The Today Show with Meredith Viera, been interviewed by Katie Couric on CBS, and the show has been seen by millions. Who knew? Apparently, not I.

My other discovery, which so far as I know has not (yet, at least) become a worldwide phenomenon is a quirky little show called “Cube News“. It’s hosted by the adorably goofy Kim, a spunky lil’ ol’ Southern gal (right) who talks a mile a minute on subjects that all office cubicle-dwellers can relate to, like the etiquette of invisible walls, the perils of body odor in the shared workspace, how to handle those photos of you having sex with a co-worker posted on the company web site, and coping with the dreaded “chair-butt syndrome”. It’s sort of like “Dilbert” on acid.

This stuff is the latest wave of video known as “User-Generated-Content” (UGC). One of the first big shows of this genre was “Rocketboom”, which started from nothing and took off after it was picked up by Tivo, making an instant media darling of host Amanda Congdon. She went on to host a similar video podcast on ABC, and is currently developing a new program for HBO. Lots of people are now hoping to duplicate her success with low-budget productions like “Will It Blend” and “Cube News”, and quite a few people — mostly college students — indeed watch YouTube to the exclusion of “real” TV. Video equipment and editing software has become so affordable that nearly anyone can produce a technically decent-looking show, but the key factor, as has always been true with any performance, is that it still takes creativity and talent to make something people will want to watch and be entertained by.

Which fails to explain either Rosie O’Donnell or Sanjaya Malakar.

In any case, I’m late to the party — again — on this whole UGC thing, so please leave a comment if you’ve got a favorite YouTube video or podcast you’d like to share. You might also want to send me your kipper ties, calico brocade shirts, and alpaca flairs. Yeah, I wanna be so hip it hurts.

My comic life

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Man, I seem to have a thing for comic strips lately, so apparently I have the intellectual capacity of a 14-year old. Hmmm. But as a former (and occasionally current) radio disk jockey, I got a good chuckle out of today’s “For Better or Worse” strip; here’s an abbreviated version with just the setup and the punch line:

Like yesterday, click the image above for a larger version — or better yet, go to creator Lynn Johnston’s web site for the full strip.

Speaking of disk jockeys, I suppose I should weigh in on the Don Imus affair, as he was one of my idols when I was a struggling young jock many years ago. While I think his remark was tasteless, insulting, and stupid — that’s what he does. Why do you think they’re called “shock jocks”, for heaven’s sake? The man is not a racist, and had the sense to realize he’d stepped over the line and sincerely apologized for it. The good that the I-man has done for disabled and disadvantaged kids over the years, as well as his thoughtful public discourse (admittedly weaved in with a liberal dose of offensive comments as well) on significant issues has been virtually overlooked in the headlong rush to condemn him. But look for Imus to resurface sooner or later on satellite radio alongside Howard Stern, yet another sign that traditional terrestrial broadcasting is continuing it’s inexorable march toward becoming a bland, boring, politically-correct, over-regulated vast wasteland.

You may also know that renowned Hawaiian crooner Don Ho passed away last week. (This may seem like a radical shift in subject, but bear with me here.) Although unmistakably hokey, the entertainer will always be special to Mrs. Toast and myself. We spent our honeymoon in the Islands at the legendary CoCo Palms Hotel on Kauai (later destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Iniki) where he was the resident performer. We’ll never forget attending his dinner show at the resort; as he strolled through the crowd singing his signature tune “Tiny Bubbles”, he stopped at our table and sang directly to us for a brief period. At that exact moment, thousands of little tiny bubbles erupted from some sprinkler-type system in the showroom’s ceiling, filling the air to provide a special effect for the tune. Many of them landed on our dinner table, and for years afterwards we jokingly sang “Tiny bubbles/in the salad” to each other.

Later in his career, he would make fun of the song’s swaying, silly lyrics. “I hate that song,” he often joked to his audience. He said he saved it for the end of his show because “people my age can’t remember if we did it or not.”

Anyway, we were sorry to hear of his passing at the age of 77 due to heart disease. Mr. Ho had ten children, and some of them are in fact curly-haired. Therefore, could it have been possible that Don Imus was merely comparing the Rutger’s women’s basketball team to the offspring of the legendary Hawaiian performer?

Nah, I didn’t think so either.

One for the record books

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

I don’t often blog about that most mundane of topics — the weather — but today was unusual. We’ve had nice spring-like temperatures during most of the past week, with highs in the 70′s and low 80′s, which is pretty typical for this time of year in East Texas. So imagine my surprise when I glanced out the window to see this:

The local TV weatherman confirmed it – this is a first, ever. In the entire history of meteorological record-keeping, it has never snowed before in April here. We might occasionally see a flurry once every five or six years or so, but it’s always been during the coldest months of December, January, or February.

Today’s mini-blizzard is just bizarre, and could perhaps be seen as further evidence of a disruption of global weather patterns. While the popularly-used phrase “global warming” makes most people think of climate change as a uniform temperature increase all over the planet, the reality is much more complex. Coincidentally, just this Friday the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meeting in Brussels, released its report detailing how species, water supplies, polar ice sheets, and regional climate conditions were already responding to human emissions in the atmosphere. The panel’s co-chairman, Dr. Martin Parry, said that widespread effects were already measurable, with much more to come.

“We’re no longer arm-waving with models,” he stated. “This is empirical information on the ground.”

And today, the information on the ground here in Texas was about an inch deep.

PS: This post also marks another historic milestone — my very first video appearance on the blog. Now you will clearly understand why I got into radio instead of TV.

A Rolling Stone gathers no ash

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Perhaps you’ve heard the (latest) bizarre story regarding Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards?

Richards was recently quoted in an interview with the pop music magazine NME as claiming that he had snorted the ashes of his father, Bert, who died in 2002. In response to the question “what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever tried to snort?”, Richards replied:

“My father. I snorted my father. He was cremated and I couldn’t resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow. My dad wouldn’t have cared, he didn’t give a shit. It went down pretty well, and I’m still alive.”

But the real story here is that it was later claimed the comments were an April Fools’ joke. Frankly, I’m not so sure; would anyone seriously be that surprised if it were true?

Meanwhile, executives at Walt Disney Studios have decided that Richards is apparently too unpredictable to promote the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End“, in which the rocker makes a cameo appearance alongside Johnny Depp as the father of Captain Jack Sparrow. A Disney vice president said, “When I heard the ashes story, I thought, ‘How are we going to spin this?’”

“Keith won’t be doing a lot of publicity for this movie.”

God, I love show biz.

Unky Funkle

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Every family has its “black sheep”, and mine was my Uncle Larry. When I was growing up in Massachusetts in the late 50′s, I seldom got to see but often heard about my father’s brother, whom my mother referred to — with obvious disgust — as “your drinkin’ uncle”. Larry lived in Montreal, and for most of his life eked out a meager living as (gasp!) a musician, a career choice my parents considered to be somewhat less than respectable. They couldn’t understand why he never seemed to want to find, as they put it, “a real job” like my dad had at The Shoe, (United Shoe Machinery Corp., a major New England employer and 20th-century North Shore landmark).

But the nine-to-five life was not for Uncle Larry. He played sax and clarinet in a jazz/swing orchestra and toured all over Canada and the Northeast, where his band appeared most often in night clubs. It was probably due to spending so much time in these venues that he acquired a taste for drink (thus my mother’s nickname), and he could well have been an alcoholic. But back in those days, alcoholism was not widely regarded as an illness worthy of medical treatment, but rather as a personal weakness, and in my mother’s eyes Uncle Larry was just a drunk, plain and simple. Looking back on it with what I know now, it’s also altogether possible that he may have occasionally indulged in something stronger than booze (as was the custom of a number of jazz musicians of that era), although I can’t say for sure. My dad hinted at this once or twice, but I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, and it’s impossible to know now if he ever had any actual proof or was merely suspicious.

On at least two occasions, my family took me along on the 300-mile drive from Boston to Montreal to visit him. Of course, at the tender age of ten or eleven, I would hardly have been allowed into any club where he might have been appearing to hear him play. But Uncle Larry always seemed to have a special fondness for me, his only nephew, and would serenade me on the sax at his home while I sat at his feet, listening in raptured amazement. Until that point in my life, the only music I had ever heard coming from a live instrument had been my school’s marching band; this was something totally different. It might have been Goodman, Coltrane, or Monk, but I had never heard anything like it before. It damn sure wasn’t John Phillip Sousa, I knew that — and I loved it. He would close his eyes and blow these incredible licks, then look at me with a twinkle as he curled a smile around his reed. He wasn’t just playing the music, he was feeling it and breathing it with “soul”, although that’s not a word that was heard much back then. I’m pretty certain that if I have any musical genes in my body (which I like to think I do), I got them from him. I know without any doubt that I got my love of music and improvisation from my Uncle Larry. I worshiped him, and could never understand why my parents were so ashamed of him.

I only saw Uncle Larry a few times before he died from a sudden illness in the mid 60′s, when I was about 14 or 15. I’ll never forget my mother’s reaction when she learned of his death: “good riddance,” she said. I was shocked, and angry. In retrospect, it seems very strange to me that my parents were less than forthcoming when I asked for details of how he died, and why only my father went to his funeral, leaving me and my mom at home. It bothers me that those questions will never be answered, but that’s water over the bridge now.

Today, nearly 40 years later, the tables have turned and I am the Funky Uncle to my only nephew whom I am incredibly fond of. (I may not be considered the “black sheep” of the family, but my earlier career in the radio and record business brought me awfully close.) My nephew Jeffrey will be mortified if he should happen to read this, but I recall that when he was a very little tyke, I used to bounce him on my knee. Back then he had trouble saying his own name, which came out “Reh-ree”; we uncles and grandparents thought this was incredibly cute, and for the longest time that was our nickname for him. I suspect he hated the name (particularly when we still called him this long after he turned 21), but tolerated it because, well, that’s just the swell sort of kid he was. If I were to call him this to his face today, however, I suspect I might get a fork in the eyeball or at the very least a very dirty look, so I will refrain.

In any case, the kid is all grown up and is making one heckuva name for himself as a photographer based in Noo Yawk City. He also has galleries in L.A. and Tokyo. Before starting his own business, he spent many years in fashion photography, and you probably saw his work if you ever looked at any glossy glamor mags like Vogue or Vanity Fair. These days, he specializes in what I would call “organic” photography: the relationship between light, space and color in objects such as plants, animals, glass, and water. While many of his images look digitally manipulated, he shoots on film and then uses chemical processes in the darkroom to create stunning works of art. Here are but two small samples:


In the last year or so, he has made some major scores. A number of his photographs were selected to grace the set of “My Super Ex-Girlfriend“, starring Uma Thurman. Here are two low-res screen shots from the movie of Uma standing in front of his artwork:



Later this year (scheduled release date, 12/17), look for his artwork to appear in “The Tourist” with Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, and Michelle Williams. He’s also been featured on the cover of the Miami Herald’s Home and Design magazine (the green photo in the center):


Jeffrey Rothstein: remember the name. He’s going to be big-time megawatt famous, and his Funky Uncle Toast is proud as hell. His Great-Uncle Larry would be too.

Smokin’ & Jokin’

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

You think you know him well; he’s been exhorting you to “prevent forest fires” since 1944, but relatively few people are aware of how zealously the Department of Agriculture maintains the image of good ol’ Smokey Bear. Here’s a few Bear Essentials: did you know that Smokey has his very own zip code (20052)? Or that the nation started taking wildfires more seriously after a Japanese submarine attacked the coast of Southern California during WWII, prompting fears that enemy incendiary shells could set off raging forest fires, which in turn led to the ad campaign from which Smokey eventually evolved? Or that Walt Disney’s “Bambi” was the first forest service mascot for one year, paving the way for the idea that a cartoon animal could heighten public awareness of forest fire prevention? Or that there was a “real life” Smokey the Bear, who died in 1976?

I learned all this and much more today when I stumbled across Smokey’s web page. If you’ve got too much time on your hands like I do, it makes for some fascinating reading. Most interesting of all are the guidelines under which Smokey can be presented in the media; a 17-page PDF document details everything from the type of educational activities and materials Smokey may be associated with, down to the specific pantone colors that are to be used for the various elements in the Smokey Bear logo. Commercial licensing of the character is allowed, with this caveat: “Smokey may not be depicted as endorsing a product, but he may appear with the product. Smokey’s message should always address wildfire prevention.”

For anyone who might be thinking of donning a Smokey Bear costume for a party, parade, or any other reason whatsoever, think again. Not only are costumes licensed by the USDA to be used only by US and Canadian Foresters, Community and Volunteer Fire Departments, but the regulations governing such use sound like they were written by a military tribunal. Some of these are unintentionally hilarious, for example:

Individuals who wear and use the costume must agree to:

1. Use the costume only to further public information, education, and awareness of the prevention of wildfires.

2. NOT TO SPEAK during appearances. Conversations or explanations should be carried out by the accompanying official (escort).

3. Never appear in less than full costume.

4. Remain anonymous at every appearance and in any publicity connected with an appearance. This includes being photographed without the head.

5. Appear dignified and friendly. Avoid clowning and horseplay.

6. Refrain from using alcohol or drugs prior to and during the Smokey Bear appearance. This condition applies to officials as well.

Appearances

1. The person wearing the costume must exhibit appropriate animation to be effective. Express sincerity and interest in the appearance by moving paws, head, and legs.

2. There shall be at least one uniformed escort to accompany the Bear. The escort shall guide the Bear at the elbow.

3. After donning the costume, the escort shall inspect the suit. Check for the following:

  • Is the drawstring tucked in?
  • Is the zipper out of sight?
  • Are the buttons fastened?
  • Is the belt firmly fastened to the pants?
  • Are the pant cuffs neat?
  • Is the hat crown up?
  • Is the head straight on the shoulders?
  • Is the fur brushed generously?

4. A private dressing room is necessary for putting on and taking off the costume.

5. The costumed Bear should not force itself on anyone. Do not walk rapidly toward small children.

Wow. That’s a lot of rules for putting on a lousy bear suit, but I guess the US Forest Service goes a long way towards protecting Smokey’s image. Which means they probably wouldn’t be too happy at this Photochop job:


Like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa“, I call my creation “Bad Smokey”. But at least his fur is brushed generously.

The dangers of alcohol

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

Forward: this weekend is St. Patrick’s day, a holiday celebrated by Irish and Non-Irish alike with the traditional drinkin’ o’the beer. For the benefit of those who might overindulge this weekend, here’s a cautionary tale in the form of a news item from the Wind In The Wire “what were they thinking?” department:

A flying leap from a Bahamas-bound vessel into the Atlantic Ocean resulted in a collapsed lung and hypothermia for a 35-year-old Orlando man. Michael Mankamyer was spotted taking a running leap off the Carnival cruise ship, “Glory” by a fellow passenger shortly before 1 a.m. Friday. The witness added that he (Mankamyer) was quite intoxicated at the time.

The Glory and another cruise ship in the area joined the Coast Guard cutter “Vigorous” and two helicopters in searching the water for the man. After cooperating with the Coast Guard, the cruise ship resumed its journey about 4 AM. The cutter continued searching, and found Mankamyer around 8:45 AM. Officials say he had drifted 15 miles north during his eight hours at sea, somehow managing to remain afloat.

About 3,400 passengers and crew were aboard the ship, including at least one traveling companion of Mankamyer. It was on a seven-day trip from Florida to the Bahamas that began last Saturday. Following his rescue, Mankamyer refused to speak with reporters.

###

The fact that this story involves alcohol does not surprise me. What does surprise me is that Mankamyer was not a college student on spring break.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

(Story/photo credit: Miami Herald)

Got no time

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Are you “on time” today? Hopefully you remembered that in the government’s infinite wisdom, it enacted the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandating that the switch to daylight savings time would come three weeks earlier this spring, and end one week later than normal on the first Sunday in November. Accordingly, you should have set your clocks forward one hour at 2 AM this morning. But when it comes to computers and other electronic devices which have the time change pre-programmed for the first Sunday in April as it’s been done for decades, this could be easier said than done. For example, when I first tried earlier today to set my computers manually, they stubbornly jumped back to what they thought was the correct time, almost as if to say, “no, you idiot, we artificially-intelligent machines know when to change the time, and this ain’t it.” Even more exciting, they are plotting to spontaneously advance themselves by an hour come three weeks from now if I don’t put a stop to their siliconious treachery.

Fortunately, there is a fix for this in the form of an operating system patch from Microsoft, formally known as KB931836. This update to Windows will allow your computer to recognize the new dates. However, to download it, your system must pass the “Windows Genuine Advantage” validation test — an onerous and controversial anti-piracy program designed to ferret out bogus copies of Windows, and phone home details of your system to Redmond if it finds one. Not that I think any of my über-responsible readers would have anything less than the genuine article on their machines, but in case any rogue software pirates have stumbled upon this site in a drive-by blogging, you anti-social criminals can get the file you need (which goes by the easy-to-remember name of WindowsXP-KB931836-x86-ENU.exe) from several alternate sources without having to validate your copy of Windows. Far be it from me to condone such nefarious activity by telling you exactly where you can find this file. I do have standards, you know.

For information on adjusting other electronic gadgets containing microprocessors (which may include your Blackberry or other PDA, Mac, cell phone, radio, television, VCR, Tivo, microwave oven, thermostat, camera, MP3 player, automobile, GPS system, video game, home security system, cable TV box, dishwasher, stove, electric blanket, your pet, and possibly even yourself) see this helpful article from Business Week.

This event is much more of a hassle in the corporate world than it is for home users, perhaps even more so than the much-anticipated “Y2K” bug which had very little actual effect. Microsoft is taking heat for not warning early enough of possible impact from the DST change to its applications, especially Exchange, and business users are also grumbling about how the company is now addressing the snafu as well.

“Microsoft has 14 pages of fine print on how to address DST using the Exchange Calendaring tool,” said one corporate user. “We’re on revision 19 as of March 8. You also have to watch a video on how to do this. It takes 23 minutes. It gives me a headache.”

I personally think the new time change is absurd and confusing. More significantly, there are serious questions that the stated goal of “energy conservation” will be realized. According to a report prepared by a staff member of the California Energy Commission, “there is no clear evidence that electricity will be saved from the earlier start of daylight savings time”, and in fact usage could possibly increase due to peak load demands in the morning when it is still slightly darker and cooler.

But when was the last time the government did anything that made sense?

Gawking as national pastime

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

Here’s a thought-provoking article from Chicago Tribune columnist Cal Thomas. I don’t often find myself in agreement with his conservative views, but some of his points are spot-on; America has, indeed, become a nation of gawkers. I don’t believe, however, that most people think these objects of our media attention exhibit particular “heroic” (or for that matter, anti-heroic) behavior. It’s more the train wreck effect, something to divert collective minds from the depressing news of war and terrorism. In any case, I’d like to know what you think; please read and comment.

-0-

PUBLIC LIVES
by Cal Thomas

Anti-hero: A main character in a dramatic or narrative work who is characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage.

Consider what occupies and diverts our attention from substantive matters: Anna Nicole Smith; Britney Spears; the astronaut gone wild, Lisa Nowak; the sleeping, dating, marital and divorce arrangements of film stars. It is all about the base, the tawdry and the anti-heroic. Today’s heroes are cartoon characters, and those (Superman, Batman, etc.) are from another era in which real heroes mattered.

Some blame television networks, especially cable, for our increasingly prurient interests. In recent days, TV has gone down into the septic tank with so many of the rest of us and delivered not what we need, but what we seemingly cannot get enough of. TV wouldn’t be obsessing with it if we didn’t demand it.

USA Today reported on a Pew Poll that found most Americans believe the media overdo celebrity news, but they watch it anyway. Sixty-one percent say they think the media overplayed Smith’s death, but 11 percent followed it as closely as the 2008 presidential campaign (13 percent) or the Super Bowl (11 percent).

Can you name the last person you heard about who behaved in a classic heroic manner? How about our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan? The media ignore their heroism, even when they are awarded medals for bravery. When the word ”hero” is used at all, it is generally to label someone who is simply doing his job or her duty.

There’s little time to explore heroism among a people who prefer to indulge themselves in stories about a Qantas flight attendant having sex in the airplane lavatory with actor Ralph Fiennes, or Bridget Moynahan of ABC’s Six Degrees announcing that she is pregnant with the child of ex-boyfriend and New England Patriot All-Pro quarterback, Tom Brady. Who gets married before having children these days? And what difference does it make in our ”anything goes” culture?

Politically, heroism disappeared around the time of Harry Truman, with brief reappearances during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Now, everything is poll-tested and ”leaders” follow the opinions and base instincts of those they should be persuading to follow them. Today, when one speaks of ”vision,” they are usually referring to Lasik eye surgery.

There is little sign any of this is about to end. Last week, ABC drew nine million viewers to The Outsiders, a prime-time program about a group of Arizona polygamists. Commenting on the appeal of such a show, correspondent John Quiñones said, ”I guess (it’s) the voyeuristic appeal.” It’s true — we are a nation of gawkers.

To some extent this has always been so, but television has made gawking easier and the objects of gawking more accessible. This indulgence in the base and banal has had a corrosive effect on our collective spirit. It also lowers our defenses against those who would destroy us.

It isn’t as if we haven’t been warned about self-indulgence in secular and sacred writings. In his Republic, Plato has Socrates describe the effect on the soul of grace and gracelessness in the material culture:

“Our aim is to prevent our Guards being reared among images of vice — as it were in a pasturage of poisonous herbs where, cropping and grazing in abundance every day, they little by little and all unawares build up one huge accumulation of evil in their soul. Rather, we must seek out craftsmen with a talent for capturing what is lovely and graceful, so that our young, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, will receive benefit from everything about them. Like a breeze bringing health from wholesome places, the impact of works of beauty on eye or ear will imperceptibly from childhood on, guide them to likeness, to friendship, to concord with the beauty of reason.”

You won’t find such “craftsmen” on television. Better to turn it off, or get rid of this unfriendly guest, than to allow for the creation of another generation of anti-heroes and gawkers.

©2007 Tribune Media Services

Extra!

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

MR. TOAST SHAVES HEAD, GOES INTO REHAB!

TEXAS (AP) – The blogosphere was still in shock this evening after the pop icon known as “Mr. Toast” unexpectedly shaved off all his hair before a stunned group of onlookers earlier today. The stock market plummeted, rivers reversed their flow, and planes fell out of the sky as the world reeled from the astounding news. Major television networks interrupted their regular programming to trot a non-stop parade of behavioral experts including psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists (with a couple of phlebotomists thrown in for good measure) in front of the cameras, all seeking to answer the endless public cries of “Why? Why would anyone do such a shocking thing? Why? Oh my God, Why?”

Paparazzi from all over the world converged on the Lone Star state trying to snap pictures of the newly bald Toast, however he remained secluded at an undisclosed location, releasing only one publicity photo (shown above) to the media. When it was pointed out that the image strongly appeared to be Photoshopped (and poorly at that), Mr. Toast responded that anyone foolish enough to consider going to this website to place a minimum one million dollar bid for the locks of a former Pop Icon also might conceivably be dumb enough to fall for this stunt as well.

In an attempt to escape the media circus, I, er… that is, Mr. Toast then checked into Rehab. Seriously. OK, we’re talking about cardio-pulmonary rehab here people, where you work out on exercise machines at the local hospital while a nurse monitors your vital signs. Yeah sure, it’s supposed to help people with heart or lung problems stay healthier and technically speaking it’s a “multi-disciplinary program of care for patients with chronic respiratory impairment that is individually tailored and designed to optimize physical and social performance and autonomy” but it’s still rehabilitation and maybe I was kidding about the hair thing but hey give me a freakin’ break already.

At least I’m wearing underwear.

Good advice

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

On my random web travels today, I stumbled upon this cool blog on a site called Blogster. Here’s a snippet of a post that stood out:

Years ago a teacher made each student in the class write down our top 5 goals for our lives on a little piece of paper. Ok, now think about it. In my adolescent brain my main goal at the time was a date for the big Homecoming Dance. Yet, somehow I managed to jot down my top 5. This simple list took me 5 minutes to think of and will take 5 lifetimes to achieve.

1. Love. Discover true and everlasting love and don’t let go.

2. Play. Believe in magic.

3. Laugh. Find joy in all things.

4. Forgive. Accept that people are imperfect.

5. Live.

These are some great words to live by. Life should be this simple, so how does it get so damn complicated? This further advice (found at a different site) is not nearly as inspirational, but probably more practical:

1. Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead of me, for I may not follow. Do not walk beside me either. Just pretty much leave me the hell alone.

2. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt and leaky tire.

3. It’s always darkest before dawn. So if you’re going to steal your neighbor’s newspaper, that’s the time to do it.

4. Don’t be irreplaceable. If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.

5. Always remember that you’re unique. Just like everyone else.

6. If you think nobody cares if you’re alive, try missing a couple of car payments.

7. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.

8. If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.

9. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

10. If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

11. If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

12. Some days you’re the bug; some days you’re the windshield.

13. Everyone seems normal until you get to know them.

14. Duct tape is like ‘The Force’. It has a light side and a dark side, and, it holds the universe together.

15. Generally speaking, you aren’t learning much when your lips are moving.

16. Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.

17. Never miss a good chance to shut up.

18. Never, under any circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.

The preceding has been a Wind In The Wire Public Service Announcement.

Let’s look at Love from both sides now

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Love is a beautiful thing…

valentine_12.jpg

…or not.

valentine_11.jpg

News you can use

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

Since I’ve been sidelined by my lung illness, I’ve found that I get tired easily and as a result, often take naps for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Raised under a uniquely American work ethic that considers such behavior “lazy” and unproductive, I’ve always felt a bit guilty about this.

But today has brought sweet vindication in the form of news from a team of American and Greek researchers who have found scientific proof that naps are good for you. According to their study, those who take at least three daytime naps a week lasting 30 minutes or longer cut their risk of dying from a heart attack by 37 percent.

“If you can take a midday nap, do so,” advised co-author Dimitrios Trichopoulos, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Trichopoulos and his colleagues followed almost 24,000 originally healthy men and women in Greece for more than six years. Of these, 792 died, 133 of them from heart disease. Slightly more than half the study group took regular midday naps, a popular activity in Mediterranean societies. The nappers’ death rate was only about two-thirds the rate among Greeks who stayed awake all day, the study found.

Regular siestas apparently lower stress, which is frequently associated with heart disease. This report in the medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine is the latest in a number of studies that have found links between heart troubles and physical or emotional stress. “There is considerable evidence that both acute and chronic stress are related to heart disease,” Trichopoulos said. “An afternoon siesta in a healthy individual may act as a stress-releasing process [and] reduce coronary mortality.” Napping provides the body with an opportunity to recover from stress, and can result in measurable improvement in a person’s blood pressure, heart rate, hormones, sugar and cholesterol levels.

Napping is a much more commonly accepted practice in many countries outside the USA; here, boiler-room pressure to stay competitive tends to cause most bosses to frown upon daytime sleepers. However, some forward-thinking employers have realized the value of helping their workers avoid stress and stay healthy, and have set up “nap rooms” for employees use during the day. This progressive attitude can make a huge difference in the therapeutic value of an afternoon siesta.

“Here, if a person naps, people say, ‘You lazy slob’,” said Peter Vitaliano, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. “In the Mediterranean countries — like Greece, Italy and Spain — they say, ‘Did you have a good nap?’ So there’s going to be a difference how much naps help.”

I’m glad to know that I’m on the cutting edge of health, and I encourage my readers to do the same whenever they get the chance. Maybe right now. If you’re reading this blog at work, you can’t be doing anything that important, so why not grab a few zz’s? If your boss complains about you sleeping at your desk or office, just show them this prescription from Dr. Toast for reducing stress and avoiding heart disease, and point out how taking a nap could save your life. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled.