I never rent movies. Now I remember why.

Tonight I swung by Blockbuster with my friend Eric so he could rent a movie, and it instantly became one of the most annoying errands ever.
First off, the line to get out was insanity itself. Each and every person had to be interrogated and the process involved much typing on a keyboard. All sorts of ideas ran through my head of how the rental process could be streamlined – many of them using ancient techology – what’s the point of having bar codes on cards and DVDs if they are rendered pointless by a long, involved payment scheme? Why doesn’t Blockbuster do what Mobil Speedpass and Amazon.com do – keep an account, which automatically debits?
Then I realized that what they need is RFID – each DVD should have a RF tag, and your rental card should also have one. Then, all you need to do is select a film and walk out – the RFIDs are read as you walk out, and your account charged. Simple. And if you’re worried about the information privacy implications of this, I ask – what the hell is different from what happens now? They know exactly what you rent as it is, where’s the difference?
Eric’s account was on hold because he had a movie late. He was interrogated about it and treated like a criminal, and – like in many customer service situations – the computer wouldn’t allow the clerk to proceed. Computers, of course, are in charge. He paid a late fee. I was immediately incensed – he could have gone to the public library and borrowed a DVD (for free) and paid less of a late fee. And the library, you get the movie for a week or two.
Why in the world does Blockbuster do this? Eric insisted it was because they were losing potential rental revenue while it was off the shelf. Bull. It’s off the shelf BECAUSE someone rented it! Being owned by movie studios, Blockbuster hardly pays retail price for a DVD. If they rent it twice, they’ve more than paid for it. Everything else is gravy.
So why, if a movie is still checked out, doesn’t Blockbuster simply charge for another rental period rather than bring down the wrath onto it’s customers?
The whole thing is so stupid and unwieldy, that it’s no wonder that Netflix is a growing phenomenon. I just wish that studios would wise up and realize that despite their horror at the mere possibility of piracy (there’s always been piracy, and yet movies today are making bigger profits than ever), they could make huge profits by providing on-demand access to content via broadband. Imagine never having to go deal with surly clerks and long lines at the video rental place – just place an order online and the movie would be delivered to your TiVo overnight. For $4.99 you could watch it as many times as you want in 5 days, then it’s deleted. Right now, a $4.99 rental at Blockbuster includes the overhead of mastering and pressing the disc, the packing and shipping, the case and booklet, the clerks and store…. but if the film is a digital file, the overhead is minimal. Their profit would be enormous.
But, someone might copy it. Just like they’ve been doing since the advent of the VCR.
By the way, the VCR was the savior of the American movie industry – because the studios put movies on copyable tapes.

Did he just say that?!

Here are some of the results of the Style Invitational contest I remarked on a few weeks ago, where contestants were directed to write a line to be secretly inserted into the State of the Union teleprompter in hopes that Dubya would read it without realizing what he was saying:

Second Runner-Up: Like most college men, I did “experiment” with homosexuality . . . (Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)

First Runner-Up: America is built on the hard work of nonprofit organizations, so I would like to pay tribute to just one representative group: the Pleasant Valley Pheasant Pluckers. (Bill Spencer, Exeter, N.H.)

And the winner of the dartboard from the “Keen Eddie” TV show: “Green Dodge Caravan, Virginia plates, your lights are on.” (Craig A. Zimmerman, Manassas)

Honorable Mentions:
I’m about to appoint an ambassador to Bimini; what am I bid? (Russell Beland, Springfield)

Members of Congress, there are going to be some changes made because this building is now surrounded by special forces loyal only to me. (Russell Beland, Springfield)

I repeat my promise to personally pay for the college education of every American citizen who cannot afford it. (Tom Kreitzberg, Silver Spring)

And tonight I am departing from the usual format by asking that you not interrupt me with those annoying rounds of contrived applause (wait for applause.) (Robin D. Grove, Pasadena, Md.)

What’s all the whining about unemployment? All MY friends have jobs. (Art Grinath, Takoma Park)

Global warming can be reversed if everyone just turned his air conditioner around. (Jonathan Paul, Garrett Park)

Anyone who disagrees is welcome to come up here now and speak his piece. (Seth Brown, Williamstown, Mass.)

Nod your head and look serious, then smile before saying the next sentence. (Larry Phillips, Falls Church)

Tonight, we salute three heroines of the Iraqi war: Ima Lyonson, Uffa Beech, and Ivana Runnagen. (Charles Koelbel, Houston)

In Beautiful Technicolor

I’ll bet that most of you don’t know what was so revolutionary about Technicolor, do you? That’s because you are used to modern color film stocks–just take the picture and develop it, and there’s the color.
Well, the magic of Technicolor is that it was the first process to put color into film, and it was far more complicated than you think. The first process developed by Technicolor exposed two frames of black-and-white film for each frame of the picture, one exposed through a green filter and one through a blue filter. When projected, the two black-and-white frames of film were projected back through color filters and a prism, aligned to create a colored image. After much experimentation, Technicolor eventually emerged with a three-color process using red-green-blue and three strips of film – the emulsion of those three strips was transferred onto a clear strip, creating a color print. The colors achieved from this three-strip process were gorgeous, bright, sharp and saturated. Today’s color films can’t approach the stunning images of a true Technicolor film, the same way that HDTV images made up of RGB data are so eye-popping next to regular color television.
I’ve been fascinated by stuff like this for years, and my LA acquaintance Jeff Kurtti only piqued my interest with his library of movie-making reference books and articles — many of which he wrote himself. Now, I’ve found a very comprehensive website that tells the history of Technicolor, complete with examples and images. Check it out if you’re curious about what Technicolor really was.
The site also has information about the many different widescreen movie formats through the years: Cinerama, SuperScope, Panavision, CinemaScope, VistaVision… learn how they were done: they’re more complicated than you expect!
[Update: WNYC’s “On the Media” did a story on Cinerama – listen to it in Real Audio]

Watch good TV NOW

I’ve been watching “NOW With Bill Moyers” recently, and discovering that it’s a fantastic program – like a more in-depth version of 60 Minutes.
In this week’s program, three very interesting stories: first, a in-depth look at the practice of “off-shoring” – companies sending jobs overseas to India, which is beginning to destroy the American middle class (the backbone of the U.S. economy). Many large corporations that are doing this are covering their tracks by hiring consultant companies, which in turn send the jobs to India – gee, just like laundering money!
A large part of the story tells of the job losses and the struggle of the middle class to recover, searching for jobs which can’t be sent overseas.
Even though NOW is a pretty liberal program, I was disappointed that they didn’t tell the audience that now the Republican National Committee has off-shored their fundraising activities. This really burns me. Bush has the gall to insist that his tax cuts are creating jobs and prosperity, and doesn’t even give Americans the job of calling for his fundraising.
The second story is an interview with scientist David Suzuki, who is promoting an upcoming series on the fragile state of balance on the planet. His comments are very interesting and raise issues that most people never think about – but are so fundamental, such as the fact that we have only one biosphere, yet we are destroying it. We continue to foul the air with pollution but surprisingly ignore the fact that we breathe that air.
And the final story looks at higher gas prices; and in an odd twist for a liberal program, discusses the fact that the U.S. does not have enough production capability. There hasn’t been a new refinery built in this country since the 1970s, and this is mostly because of the drive to make cleaner burning fuels and the mergers of giant oil companies.
I can’t recommend this program enough – please take some time to tune in next week, after Washington Week (with the wonderful Gwen Ifill).

Do you know the way to San Jose?

Here’s an odd desire of mine. I mean, odd.
Back in 1981, I lived for a year with my grandparents in San Jose, California. I was, oh, 15 or so. California was very different from Northern Virginia, where I had spent my entire life (before and since). The streets had no pot holes, the weather was always nice, and everything seemed so shiny, clean, and new.
I’m sure this is not the case today on Lynfield Lane; but I would like to see it again. The odd part of my fantasy is this: I want to drive around there. You see, I couldn’t drive when I was a 15 year old, and spend my entire year there being driven to and fro by my grandfather in his huge gold (but luxurious) Cadillac or my grandmother in her thrifty Dodge Colt. I still long for the ability to drive around San Jose myself, taking a left onto Branham Lane, another left down at the Alpha Beta then pull into the public library; or head right to the Almaden Expressway (stopping at Taco Bell on the corner) and down to Almaden Plaza to shop at Emporium Capwell… or in the other direction to school at Lincoln High one block over from the Rosicrucian Museum… The Capitol Expressway, Blossom Hill, Camden Avenue… all these street names are flooding back.
All these places stick in my head. I think having been there only a year without growing up there or having the freedom to explore it makes me yearn to go back. Maybe someday I’ll make a pilgrimage to Lynfield Lane, say hello to Bud Brazil next door, and see if my secret clubhouse in the corner of the garage is still in service.
lynfieldlane.jpgThis all lived hazily in my mind’s eye until tonight, when thinking about this post I called up Mapquest and there it was — Lynfield Lane is still there; the streets still as I remember them, and a grainy satellite photograph reveals the house. You can even see the lighter addition that my grandparents built on the back for my great-grandparents. It used to back up to an orchard, which was replaced by another housing development, but the ditch they call the Guadalupe River is still there, as is Bud Brazil’s “L” shaped house next door. It’s reassuring, somehow.

What Would John Do?

Like most fundamentalists, John Ashcroft thinks far too highly of himself. Note this quote in today’s Washington Post:

Ashcroft has often commented on the bumpiness of his life in politics, which included the embarrassment of losing his Senate seat in 2000 to a Democrat, Mel Carnahan, who remained on the Missouri ballot after he died in a plane crash. Less than three months later, Ashcroft won confirmation as President Bush’s attorney general by a 58-42 margin, the narrowest in recent times. As Ashcroft wrote in an autobiography about his political career, “for every crucifixion, a resurrection is waiting to follow.”

Getting Lucky at California Adventure

Like many people, I’m fascinated by the creative use of technology in Disney theme parks. Yeah, the rides are nice and all, but I’m more interested in how they do it!
Well, Mouse Planet has a little article about a new technology being tested at Disney’s California Adventure: an untethered, walking Audioanimatronic dinosaur named Lucky. Way cool. He walks, has facial expressions and gestures, and even signs autographs by holding a pen in his mouth. Mouse Planet even has video of him.

Lucky stands about eight feet tall, and his head and neck can lift almost straight up. He walks on his two back legs and pulls a very large cart of silk flowers. Lucky and Chandler interact, but Chandler does not operate the character—Lucky is controlled by two discreet operators on the sidelines. Lucky grunts, groans and whines in reaction to Chandler’s comments and events around him. He can blow his nose, wink, smile, and look around.

What is most impressive about Lucky is the degree of articulation in the head and neck, and the wide range of facial features. It’s easy to believe that he is real as he “talks” with Chandler, or whimpers when his balloon floats away, or smiles and winks at a shy child. Lucky’s motions are incredibly smooth—he doesn’t appear robotic in his steps, or the way his head moves around to take in the scenery.

Personal about personals

Now I remember why I stayed away from the internet personals.
About two weeks ago, I recycled my years-old personals ad on Match.com. I spiffed it up a little, put a couple new pics of me (a dour-looking shot taken in the mirror, but hey – I look good after having lost almost 20 pounds).
Well, in the last two weeks, my profile has been viewed a whopping 620 times… and I’ve gotten 7 responses. 5 of those were “winks” where someone doesn’t actually bother to respond to the ad, but just puts the ball into your court. (Of those winks, one was a 25 year old in India. Cute, yes. But there’s more than just an age hurdle to overcome, isn’t there?)
Two of the guys e-mailed me, then never responded when I e-mailed back.
So, in the end, that’s a 0% success rate, isn’t it? It just rubs it in even more that I am not someone who fits in. Anywhere or with anyone.
There are some decent and nice people who read this blog, and every so often when I post a “personal” entry you seem pretty supportive, so here goes: tell me what I should do here. Leave the ad up? Rewrite it? Or just give up on the Internet personals thing altogether?

My money is cleaner than your money

Remember my annoyed claim of how hypocritical Republicans are? Well, how about this one: Ah-nold has been railing against campaign contributions from special interests and how he wants to do away with them. And yet, he’s accepting them. Aha, you say! But wait – it turns out that it depends what the meaning of IS is. He defines special interests as any group that donates money to DEMOCRATS, such as unions and Indian gaming. The corporations that routinely give huge sums to Republican candidates – you know, the ones that want deregulation and favors like that – are not counted under Schwarzenegger’s rules.

Speaking on the “Eric Hogue Show” on radio station KTKZ (1380 AM) in Sacramento, the Republican movie actor drew a distinction between contributions from organized labor and Indian gambling tribes — traditionally Democratic givers he called “real big, powerful special interests” — and corporate donors.

“Any of those kinds of real big, powerful special interests, if you take money from them, you owe them something,” he said.

Any corporate money he takes is irrelevant, Schwarzenegger said, because he wouldn’t be influenced by it.

“There are maybe corporations and companies that maybe the press identifies and says, ‘Well that is a big company, they want certain things,’ ” he said, adding, “I don’t promise anyone anything. There’s no strings attached to anything.”

Larry Noble, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, said Schwarzenegger was painting himself into a corner.

“What he’s doing is defining a special interest as ‘somebody who supports my opponent,’ ” Noble said.

Let’s all gather at John’s house

I just heard this on NBC Nightly News – evidently a privacy advocating organization has made their case for state’s privacy laws by going onto the internet and purchasing the social security numbers and home address information of John Ashcroft, Karl Rove, and other high administration officials.
I laughed heartily.

Fox News: Tastes Great, Less Filling

From the Democratic Underground’s weekly “Top Ten Conservative Idiots“:

“There are hard cases and there are easy cases,” said the judge in the Fox News Fair and Balanced case against Al Franken. “This is an easy case. This case is wholly without merit, both factually and legally.” This appears to be the end for one of the most ridiculous lawsuits in recent memory. (Why in the heck would a news organization be trying to chip away at the first amendment? You decide.) Interestingly, we hear that Fox News have recently been running ads on their network for Hannity & Colmes, featuring Dennis Miller. The ads reportedly contain the line, “It’s Miller Time.” So what’s going on here? Was Fox News’s lawsuit really a principled defense of the trademark holder’s sacred rights? Or are they just a hypocritical right-wing propaganda outlet that’s full of shit? We report, you… oh, never mind.

Deep in the red

Here’s a chart showing the latest deficit figures, from the Congressional Budget Office. Note the years, figure out who was President, and do the math. That’s all I’m saying.

cbo_defecit_graphic.gif