Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Spiderman 3 Rant

Okay, I know this is hopelessly late because I'm the only person in the universe who didn't see Spiderman 3 in the theater, but wow, how cheap and exploitative was that beam scene? First we have a large metal object crashing into a skyscraper (with a POV shot from people in the building no less), followed by innocents on the ground getting debris scattered over them, followed by people in the building falling from death inducing hight (to be saved by a swooping Spiderman).

I'm not sure if we've yet answered (honestly) the question of whether or not America is ready for a film about 9/11, but we've at least answered the question of how long it will take for the latest watershed Event That Changed The Universe to get subsumed in the pop-culture machine and become a shorthand allusion through which lazy writers and reckless auteurs can graft a sense of (unearned) significance onto their empty eye candy or jolt the numbed senses (and sensibilities) of a weary audience with a sense of danger and dread that can no longer be imparted through the use of stunts, special effects, or narrative.

P.S. [Later Edit]--I've never been a big fan of the conceit of having superheroes refer to each other by their civilian was and is a sort of causualness with one's most precious commodity, the secret identity, that seemed at odds with the seriousness with which they took their jobs. This conceit (which I've noticed in Justice League Unlimited) is growing increasingly irritating. In the last thirty minutes of the film Spdierman fights without his mask and they all yell "Peter" and "Harry" at each other. Apparently nobody in the year 2007 has invented a telephoto lens (this in a film about competing photos of Spiderman) or advanced listening technology to eavesdrop on distant conversations.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


My review of Rendition is now available at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

Link is here.

Kiva Micro Loan

After doing some research about various charitable organizations, I participated in a micro loan toady through Micro-loans are small to no interest loans for people who generally don't have collateral necessary to get loans from larger institutions. It was a model advocated by Muhammad Yunus for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Kiva is a non-profit that facilitates micro loans to small entrepreneurs. A pharmacist in Tanzania is requesting a micro loan of $550 to restock and expand her business. If you think this is a worthwhile investment, click here for more information, and please consider joining me in helping to fund this project.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Euchre Whining--"You're a Sandbagger"

I've been playing at a different site than I normally do recently, and I've run across the reemergence of the social player who enters tournaments and then grouses about things that competitive (i.e. good) players do to try to win.

I had one player pitch a fit when I donated (called up a euchre to avoid a loner). I've run into a culture that holds on to the old rube that calling alone with 8 points is poor sportsmanship. And I've seen an increase of people getting euchred complaining about "sandbaggers"

Sandbagging is passing when you could call.

The majority of accusations of sandbagging are inherently contradictory since the order proceeds in a clockwise direction. I've heard people accuse others of sandbagging when the person calling actually was to the right of the alleged sandbagger. That means the person called before the other person had an opportunity to call. This by definition is not sandbagging. For example, I had a person call into me from first base (I was dealer), and then accuse me of sandbagging? Huh?

But that's not really my complaint. My complaint is that there can be strategic reasons for passing when you could call and make a point. Like going alone at 8, this is not evidence of poor sportsmanship, it is evidence of skill.

Say I'm at first base and the ace of space is turned up. I have the two black jacks, the king of spades, the ace of clubs and the 9 of hearts. I could very easily call into my opponents hand and be reasonably sure of getting a point (I might even go alone depending on the score). If I pass and and fortunate enough to have my opponents call, I get two points for euchring them (and a pretty good idea of where the remaining trump are based on who called). If they don't call, I still get first bid on second go round and can call clubs (again, maybe even alone) for a guaranteed point. My contention is that any player who doesn't "sandbag" here is just a poor (or social) player and not somebody I'd want as my partner.

Another obvious situation for sandbagging is if you are sitting third base and playing stick the dealer. You may have two sure trick and maybe a third. Would it be better to make a borderline call or to force your opponent to make a call and get two points for making three tricks instead of one?

People who don't like sandbagging should NEVER play stick the dealer, since absent stick the dealer one can punish the sandbagger by simply throwing in the hand (making the bagger lose the opportunity to get a point).

In my experience, the players who complain the most about sandbagging are infrequent or intermediate players who are frustrated at getting set on a bid they are used to making--one which would probably fly if there were an even trump distribution. Consciously or not, they think the fact that someone didn't call is a guarantee that the trump is evenly distributed and hence feel safe(r) calling a thin hand.

In general I believe the more aggressive team usually wins and that one should call if one can. An underrated component of the game, however, is knowing your opponent. If you know your opponent likes to call thin, sometimes the lost opportunities for borderline points can be made up for by euchres.

Players who complain about sandbagging are like a football team that is behind complaining that the other team is playing a prevent defense when they normally blitz or claiming that it is unsportsmanlike for an offensive line to let a defensive lineman get by in order to set up a screen pass. It makes no sense.

More Blockbuster Stupidity

I've written in the past about different ways Blockbuster has messed up (in my opinion).

One of their last big shenanigans was to roll out and advertise to death a "no late fees" policy that was anything but "no late fees." More recently, they've been trying to bit into Netflix's subscriber base by pushing Total Access, a service where their online rentals can be returned to the store and used as a voucher for a free rental--effectively doubling the number of rentals you could get for the same subscriber price.

Blockbuster recently announced that they were raising prices for this service. Okay, that doesn't bother me too much. Price wars are nice for the consumer, but they have to end eventually. More irritating is that they put a cap on the number of in store trades ins on several of their subscription options. But again, I could live with it. After all, the decision is mine whether I want to pay the premium for unlimited in-store trades (where it's easier to find TV on DVD available then it is to get high demand titles shipped) or have a limit.

I selected the option where I get five (5) in-store rentals each month, and that's where my current beef lies.

I was at a store yesterday and asked what had to be an anticipated question with the new, capped trade in service: "How many in-store trades do I have left in my billing cycle?" The inexplicable answer? "We don't know."

It was explained to me that the store had "no way" to access (no pun intended) that information. The register/computer simply spit out a denial whenever the customer was over his or her limit, at which point they asked if he/she wanted to continue with the transaction.

Now lets think about this for a second. There is absolutely no legitimate customer service reason why the register can tell you that you are over but can't tell you how close you are to being over. The computer can tell you when your Blockbuster Rewards is up, how many rentals you need until a free rental, and when your rentals are due.

The only rational conclusion I can come to is that Blockbuster doesn't want you to have that information. Why? Well, if my receipt tells me, "Hey this is your last trade in until the end of the month," then I'm going to stay away from the store for a week or two until I have another trade in. But if I go to the store, wind through checkout, and at the point of exit am told, "you are over your limit" then I might be more likely to say (standing at the register with the DVD I want in my hand), "Oh, bother...well, I'll just pay cash for this one rental and then come back when I have more trade ins." Now, instead of walking out of the store happy about my transaction and service, I'm walking out angry and feeling fleeced of extra couple of bucks.

This is just bad customer service. It is penny wise and pound foolish. Blockbuster is spending all this advertising money to try to get new customers and then going out of its way to alienate rather than satisfy them. If Blockbuster spent a fraction of the effort keeping customers satisfied (rather than squeezing them) that they did trying to get them to try the service in the first place, they would be better off. They may wrestle an additoinal $5 rental out of a loyal customer only to find that customer cancelling a monthly $20 subscription.

And they wonder why Netflix continues to kick their butt.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Emma (25-31)--Almost too Gallant to be in Love

I find I don't have much to say about Chapter Six of Volume I, in which the obsequious Mr. Elton graces the stage in body for the first time. The bulk of this chapter centers on Emma's drawing a portrait of Harriet Smith and her misunderstanding Elton's praise of it as an infatuation for its subject rather than its creator.

There are two prominent instances in which the omniscient narrator reads and recites Emma's thoughts, a technique Austen uses throughout to blur the line between objective fact and subjective perspective. After Elton praises the art work of Emma's he has seen at Randalls, the next paragraph begins:

Yes, good man!--thought Emma--but what has all that to do with taking likenesses? You know nothing of drawing. Don't pretend to be in raptures about mine. Keep your raptures for Harriet's face. (27)

At the end of the chapter, when Elton asks to take the picture to London, we are told:

"This man is almost too gallant to be in love," thought Emma. "I should say so, but that I suppose there may be a hundred different ways of being in love."

One odd feature that stands out when these two exchanges are juxtaposed is that the latter uses traditional punctuation (the quotation marks) to denote that we are hearing Emma's exact thoughts and not a general description of them. The former example does not come with those quotation marks, but surely we are meant to understand the first example as being a direct quote as well, aren't we?

One could, I suppose look at these quotes and attribute the difference to the non-standard use of punctuation in a culture where printing is not quite ubiquitous. Whether this is the case, or whether Austen is intentional, the effect is a further obscuring of the line between thought and speech, public and private, narrator and Austen.

Oh, when these quotes are wrenched out of context and placed side by side, I don't think too many readers would have any trouble distinguishing whose thoughts are being represented. Over the course of a novel, though, I wonder if the gradual conflation of narrative description with Emma's thoughts doesn't give us a skewed representation of reality making us as surprised as Emma when objective reality imposes itself on our (and her) subjective experience.

The most obvious example in this chapter of what I am calling an abrupt narrative shift is Knightley's comment "You have made her too tall, Emma" (30). The paragraphs immediately preceding this comment are meant, I think, to convey a composite of several different interactions. (The chapter covers the formation of the idea of the painting to the completion of the painting.) We move rather seamlessly from Elton's representative comments (supplied to illustrate how Emma received them) to one specific comment of Knightley during one specific viewing.

My point here is not that this narrative foreshortening is unique to Austen--it isn't. What is interesting and somewhat different is the lack of signals indicating the transition from montage to specific event. We are forever doing double-takes, large and small, in this novel. Although less egregious (and irritating), this device reminds of those dream scenes in film where there is no music nor fuzzy lighting to designate that a person is dreaming.

More so with the conflation of narrator's description and Emma's thoughts than the movement from montage to specific scene, I find these devices have a cumulative effect of pushing us towards Emma's views of the world. With their repetition, I would argue, we gradually forget how much of the novel's other characters and our opinions of them are mediated through Emma. It's a surprise not just when they don't conform to our (i.e. Emma's) expectations, but also when they are surprised by Emma's behavior. (Since her motivations and thoughts--not accessible to them--are so thoroughly familiar to us.)

The comic nature of these surprises is how often they occur in the novel without us getting clued in. Mr. Elton is not almost too gallant to be in love...he is too gallant because he is not in love (with Harriet).

Austen doesn't hide the voice of reason, whether Knightley's or her own, she just shows how easy it is to not hear it while attending to those other more vibrant voices that confirm what we want to hear. Of Emma's art, the narrator says, "There was merit in every drawing--in the least finished, perhaps the most; her style was spirited; but had there been much more or less, or had there been ten times more, the delight and admiration of her two companions would have been the same" (27). The observation that it is the drawings that are "least finished" that show the most merit symbolizes easily and clearly that Emma's core nature is good but that the more she applies her art(ifice) to her projects, the less merit they express.

This is a reading of Emma that is not inconsistent with what we are told in Chapter One. That she thinks a little too well of herself should not be taken to mean there is nothing in her to think well of. That her admirers are not serving in the office of true friend (as Knightley will put it later) with their flattery is easily overlooked in its lack of immediate consequences.

The paragraph regarding Emma's drawings ends with a perfect example of the blending of sincere narrative description with judgmental evaluation: "A likeness pleases every body; and Miss Woodhouse's performance must be capital" (27). It is only in the word "must" that the tone of censure is heard, and how easy it is to rush past it, to not linger on the unpleasant (such as Emma does not linger on the paintings when the work becomes burdensome).

[For more close readings of Emma, click on the labels for this post.]