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April 30, 2004

Joan of Arcadia

I am not a religious man. While I do have a faith, it is not through or helped by any of the established religions. That being said, I feel the best new show on TV is Joan of Arcadia. This show mixes decent drama and humor into a world in which God talks to a high school girl.

Joan is not really about faith or religion, though. It is more about listening to that voice inside you, paying attention to those around you, and trying to be a better person. They use God as the means to prod Joan along that path. It is a journey of discovery for her as she started as a girl with no friends, new to the town and school, and has been "forced" to expand her horizons and do new things and meet new people. It's sweet without being forced. And there are reasonable consequences for her actions.

So many shows move toward melodrama; the consequences and devices used to move the plot forward are so unreal it is unbelievable. In this show, the consequences are very real; Joan refuses to retake a test on which she did very well and, while the students rally around her in an idealistic and passionate way, the administration threatens her with expulsion. In the end, Joan choses to retake the test and prove she earned the grade and to save her friends from reprisals. In another episode, she misinterprets God's instructions and winds up destroying her best friend's artwork. This leads him not to want to be around her and greatly impacts both their lives as they learn how much they have come to rely on each other. When they make up, it is believable and heartfelt.

My only complaint with the show is that the writers try to force more outside stories involving the rest of Joan's family on the viewing audience. Many of them seem superfluous or forced. I like Joan, that's where the interest and the direction come from for the show. I only really want to learn about her family if they are involved in her story that week.

A good show, well acted, and with a minimum of melodrama and unrealistic behavior. Watch it while you can, because like most good things, it likely won't last!

April 22, 2004

Comic Books Today

Comic books are not for children any more.

Actually, they haven't been for kids since 1984, the year that DC Comics published Alan Moore's Watchmen series. Shortly after this seminal work, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns was released and the down and dirty, gritty, realistic comic book genre came into its own and has persisted since.

Price is another consideration. Most children can't afford to buy comics today, at least not on a regular basis. The average price for a comic book these days is $2.50. Some of the bigger titles (Batman, Superman, X-Men) you can still get for $2.25, but many and a growing number of titles are either $2.95 (DC) or $2.99 (Marvel). And almost all independent titles are in the high range.

Another way in which comic books are no longer for children is the cultural influence they have. Big authors, movie scriptwriters/directors, and other top-named talent either got their start in comics or have written comics. Ray Bradbury, Warren Ellis, William Shatner, Kevin Smith are just some of the talent who have or are working in the comic book industry. People like Neil Gaiman, who started in comic books and had a notable run on The Sandman, was such a good storyteller that his Sandman comics frequently were pitted against and won in awards programs that are traditionally only for books/novellas. He has since gone on to write several novels of his own which have all been NY Times bestsellers and very inventive reads.

Lastly, comic books are a visual media. This is why so many comic book properties get used in television, movies, and advertising. You have the combination of a visual and written story that can provide many different layers and elements to the reading public. For example, Stan Lee's classic Spider-man story in which Spider-man is trapped under a collapsed building was a seminal work for its time as most of the story was told visually only without thought balloons or narrative. Neil Gaiman and James Robinson have both used pages of written text with opposing splash pages of pictures to tell a deeper story that doesn't interfere with the beauty of the fully-painted artwork. Many fine-arts people have done work for the comic book industry and have pushed the quality of the original artwork from the classic "four-color" newsprint to fully painted water colors and oils, multimedia presentations, computer generated images, photography. I remember some of Bill Sienkewitz's work on Batman, Stray Toasters, and other works really pushing the industry forward. Today, Alex Ross's fully rendered oil paintings rendered in ultrarealistic detail is the new bar toward which all others are reaching.

Even just the right combination of artist and writer on a "standard" monthly comic book can deepen the meaning and impact of a story. The work currently being produced on Daredevil, by Marvel comics, is incredible; I would stack that story up against almost any novel I've read recently. Miller/Mazzuchelli on either Daredevil or Batman is another example of the right combination at the right time with the right character. Or what about the feeling and intensity that Paul Dini and Alex Ross have put into each of their over-sized works for DC Comics reinterpreting Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and the Justice League of America? Each takes a concept that is inherent to the character (Hope, Truth, Justice, etc.) and uses the words, the story, and the artwork to convey that single thought. It is poetry.

The best part about the change that made comic books no longer for kids? The fact that the overall quality of story and artwork, as well as the high-calibre talent working in the industry today, means that the comics that kids do read are that much better and will make that much stronger of an impression. And that means these properties will be around for the next generation.

Which means, in the end, that comic books will always be for children.

April 18, 2004

Initial thoughts on this year's NBA Playoffs

Just a couple of comments:

1. Bill Walton is arguable the worst color commentator ever.
1.A. Bill should not be allowed to comment on a game in which his son is playing. Not only does Bill hate the Lakers, but isn't that conflict of interest to announce the game in which your son is playing (even if he plays for a hated rival)?

2. I saw some of the worst refereeing ever on the opening day of the playoffs this year. It culminated in the last game where there were two obvious goal-tending calls missed, quite a few no-calls called, and a number of exceptionally late calls made where, on replay, you could watch the ref's eyes follow the ball and wait to call the foul until after seeing if the shot was missed. This happened in every game (and I watched all 4 of them).

3. If, as a ref, you don't SEE the foul, don't call the foul. Just because you hear a thwack sound doesn't mean it happened on the play you are cut off from. We've got three refs; if each would just call only the fouls they actually see happen, then the game would flow better and you wouldn't have so many phantom fouls called by the ref who is completely boxed out from the play (and therefore couldn't possibly have seen what he called).

4. Sometimes players just trip and fall. There is an incidental contact rule-- use it.

5. The rules state that the person who initiates the contact is the one on whom the foul is to be called. Stop calling a foul when an offensive player jumps into a defensive player who is just standing there with his arms raised. Reminds me of the Reggie Miller days-- when he would leap in the air, kick out his legs, and somehow his kicking someone is their fault and he would be awarded free-throws. Stop it!
5.A. On only one play did I see the refs do this; when Francis drove straight at Shaq, leaped into his chest, bounced off, and threw the ball at the rim (and the damn thing went in!), the refs didn't blow the whistle. They should have-- on Francis-- but that's another argument.

6. Players, after 3 quarters of basketball, you should know how the refs are calling the game. Put those petulant, whiny faces away and just play the damn game. Don't expect a foul on every play.

7. Why can't professional players keep their feet in bounds when they receive a pass on the sidelines? Why must they take that step backward?

8. Indiana hasn't gotten a lot of respect from the media all year long and yet they have the best record in the league and played an incredible first game. Indy-Detroit will decide who goes to the championship.

9. Kobe -- people complain you take "too many" shots when you drive down the court with your head down not even looking to pass. I can tell in the back court when this is going to happen and I haven't been wrong yet this season. If I can tell, don't you think most defenses can?
9.A. Payton -- if you learn the triangle, you will actually be able to do more, shoot just as often, and be an even better play-maker than you were in Seattle. Try learning the offense before you say it stiffles your creativity.
9.B. Slava/Luke/Devean -- When the post player passes back to you and the defense is laying off you by 5 or more feet, TAKE THE SHOT. That's the point.
9.C. Fisher is arguably the least selfish player in the game. He accepted a reduced role (even though he has played better and understands the offense better than Payton), he plays hard on both sides of the court, and knows that his defense is just as important as any offense he can provide. He should get the 6-man award, but won't even be in consideration for it.

10. For as much as I like basketball (and football for that matter), you are all over-paid entertainers. Start being humble that we (the paying/viewing public) ALLOW you to play a game for a living and make more than most of us will ever see in our lifetime. Stop acting like thugs, stop acting like this is your right, and start showing some honesty, respect, and humility.

April 8, 2004


In the original framing of our country, our founding fathers were concerned with making sure that all branches of the government had proper checks and balances, and that each branch had a means by which they could check and balance the other branches.

Originally in the Constitution, the person with the highest number of votes won the Presidency and the person with the next highest number of votes became Vice-President (Article 2, Section 1, Clause 3). I believe this was an inherent check and balance as designed by the creators of our country. Typically the two highest vote getters would be from different party affiliations or philosophies and they would have to work together toward common goals. It also ensures that the primary resource for the President was someone with a different understanding than his own, so he would be provided with council that someone who generally agreed with him may not give. This seemed to work well as our country quickly grew to be one of the finest and most powerful in the world. Early in our country's history, we also tended to have many more strong parties (Wigs, Whips, Hawks, Doves, etc.)

An amendment to the Constitution (Amendment XII) changed the election process to allow a Presidential candidate to choose their running mate. I believe this change has created the needlessly antagonist bi-cameral situation in which we now find ourselves.

Just imagine how differently many of our country's biggest moments might have turned out if the President's primary advisor (the Vice-President) had a different philosophical bent. The President would see different sides and likely consider ideas from more perspectives and directions than if the Vice-President was like-minded. And the animosity between the executive and legislative branches would be greatly nullified as the concept of "party politics" would be greatly erased.

We are currently going through a bitter election process where the Republicans and Democrats are starting to sling the mud early and often. This is going to be a long 7 months until the election. Imagine if we legitimately had strong candidates from more parties. Imagine if the people knew that the top two vote getters out of X number of candidates would get the Presidency and Vice-Presdency. Imagine if those two people had to work together in order to take our country forward for the next 4 years (with the President taking the lead and the Vice-President offering council and alternative solutions).

Imagine, just imagine, voting for the BEST person to do the job (regardless of party) and having the two best choices getting into office and working together.

Oh what a different country this would be!

Parking Lots

Why is it that people lose all sense of reason and propriety in a parking lot?

First, the designers of parking lots are, to a person, mad. Absolutely bonkers insane. Otherwise, parking lots would be more logically laid out, sized to fit actual vehicles, and the spaces would be designed for use.

Second, people in general seem to forget that all the same rules of the road apply while in a parking lot. Unless a lot indicates othewise, lanes have a right side and a left side, turn signals should be used, and through traffic has the right of way. In California, all pedestrians ALWAYS have the right of way.

Thirdly, what the hell are people thinking when it comes to the predatory reaction they have to "hunting" for a spot and "defending" their spot when they find it? Relax, people, it's only a 10 by 15 foot piece of ground. I'm truly surprised there aren't more mall killing sprees where someone just snaps because another driver took "their" parking spot (the scene in Fried Green Tomatoes comes to mind where the two young women steal Kathy Bates' spot and she 'accidentally' slams her car into theirs 5 times).

Finally, when designing a parking lot that has more than one place to eat in it, and especially if there are multiple eateries all in the same location, make sure there is ample parking. "Ample" in this case is defined as one car per person for each who are legally allowed in each restaurant plus ten. So if you have a Quiznos with a restaurant limit of 20, a Carl's Jr with a restaurant limit of 15, and a Daphne's Greek with a restaurant limit of 30, you add up those numbers (65) and add ten to it (75) and that's the number of parking spots that should be in the area of those eateries. Not 20.

Solutions? Whenever possible, parking lots should flow in one direction and in a circular fashion. This allows for spaces that are angled so that you can easily pull into them, easily pull out of them, and have a chance of seeing traffic behind you (because the traffic is only coming from one direction). This also allows people to move through the lot without backtracking and interfering with the other traffic entering the lot. Yes, this might mean you have to park farther away from the place you are visiting. 65% of America is overweight; we can use the extra 2 minutes of walking that farther space provides us.

I'll leave my recommendations at that. If I think about it too much longer, sniper towers, barbed wire, and those nifty spike strips will be involved in making sure people flow through the parking lot in an orderly fashion.

Get off the phone, turn down the radio, use your head, obey the laws, be respectful to others (especially pedestrians), and we might all survive the parking lot experience.

April 7, 2004

Grocery Store Cards

Albertsons is my current grocery store of choice. There is one within a mile of my apartment and one very close by work, so convenience is certainly a big factor. One of my big reasons outside of convenience has been that they always have had generally low prices with no gimmicks.

However, after coming out of the California workers strike, Albertsons switched to using a Store Card.

The benefit of the grocery store card is that the grocery store in question (and all of its affiliates and third party members) can track where you shop and what you buy. The incentive to you, the shopper, for them having this insight into your life and habits are the sweepstakes, rewards, and "lower" costs on some in-store items when you use the card. In essence, they are paying you to be market research for them.

I went through this with Vons awhile back. I noticed that the prices were generally rising over the course of a month or so, then the cards were introduced. The "savings" you could get from the card brought the prices back down to the value those goods had before the introduction of the grocery shopping card. I also had to put up with phone calls and mail from the company all relating to the card.

My local Albertsons also slowly, over the course of a few weeks, raised all of its' prices. Now they've introduced a grocery shopping card of their own. When I do the math on soda, meat, breads, and other items and subtract the "savings" amount from the current non-card cost of items the price drops to the month-ago price for the same item. Coincidence?

I do not want my grocery store tracking where I go and what I buy. With all their computer automation tracking their own goods, services, and inventory, they know closely enough what I buy. I would rather they not spend the millions of dollars on promotions, advertising, and rebates and instead just give me the lower prices I've come to expect from my grocery store.

Just when they are coming out of the strike and trying to lure people back into the stores, they raise prices and irritate at least 10% of their shopping public by introducing these store cards. I would expect they would lower prices and offer other incentives to get us back. But what do I know; I'm just another one of their loyal shoppers who they have angered with the strike and who is now further ired by the store card. Of course, if there are enough people like me, the chain has to close down the store. I'd rather cut profit margins short-term to get people back in the habit of shopping at my stores after months of striking workers, then raise prices a little at a time back to normal values once the habit has been re-formed. But again, what do I know?

There is a Stater Brothers grocery store not too far away from where I live. It doesn't have any gimmicks or grocery store cards. Their prices are generally low in all areas. Guess where I'll be shopping from now on?

April 6, 2004

April Fools?

Google announced on April 1st a new email system that they plan to introduce in the near future. Many were skeptical of the announcement, as this company has a history of doing April Fools pranks. However, it appears to be legitimate.

This new system promises to allow EACH person's mailbox to be 1 GIG in size, doesn't need you to maintain (by moving or deleting emails) it, and uses Google's patented search features to aid you in finding the right email in your box.

All this for free.

The only thing I didn't see is whether they provide any sort of anti-spam programs with that. If not, I bet the 1 GIG will be reached much sooner than they envision! I currently receive between 200 and 300 spam emails into my Bulk email box a day in my Yahoo! account. Multiply that out, and it adds up quickly.

Hopefully this email system will be safe, secure, and simple. If so, I expect to use it whenever it is launched to the open public (it is currently in beta).