A pitch for HGTV

Dear Home & Garden Television

It is with some concern that I note that no HGTV program appears anywhere near the “top ratings” lists in the late night time slot. In fact, late night HGTV programming consists of little more than repeats of episodes aired previously in the day. While traveling recently, I hit upon an idea for a show your network could create that could provide some ground-breaking late night content (and, likely, more than a little buzz for HGTV).

The background of this idea comes from an experience in a hotel, but it can be universalized to homes, apartments and so on. When people walk into a room that they and their significant other will sleep in, such as a hotel room, they spend some time looking around, noticing the furniture, closets and so on. Somewhere in the back of their heads, one of the things they are evaluating is if and how they will have sex in that room (though some will probably not admit this). Is that table strong enough to sit on? Is that ottoman the right height? Once you start noticing this, you will quickly realize that private spaces, including people’s own bedrooms, are often set up totally wrong for this kind of activity. Here is an example:

In a large hotel in Las Vegas, a room contains a bathtub constructed for two. It looks like this:


Now you might think that, being a bathtub built to be used by two naked people, there would be some possibility of those two people, naturally, having sex in that bathtub. You could argue, in fact, that this is the whole point of such a tub. But take a good look at the photo. Do you see the problem? Why is the faucet exactly in the spot where one of the occupant’s head would be? Any fantasy you might have about fun in a tub for two is totally ruined by the harsh reality of smashing your head into a piece of metal that should have been placed a meter to the side. And why is that? Why was the faucet placed so stupidly? I submit it is because there is no source that trains designers to think about this kind of thing. It is a real concern people have, but it is never talked about openly, and therefore, not noticed as a need worth serving.

A late night show on HGTV could change that. As a working title, I suggest something like How Are We Supposed to F*$k on That?, though you might want to go with something less provocative. The format would be much like other design shows on HGTV, except that content would be exclusively devoted to design for “personal spaces and needs”. To gain an odd sort of credibility, hosts for the show (one man, one woman) might be drawn from the adult film industry. You are virtually guaranteed to find adult stars with design experience. (A quick Google for “porn star interior designer”, for example, finds this article from ABC news.)

At a guess, the show would likely target a younger audience than some other HGTV programming. I think you would find fairly long list of sponsors as well, looking to get their products noticed in a legitimate venue. An obvious choice, for example, would be Liberator, Inc, who produces furniture intended entirely for sex, but I’m guessing a lot of less overtly sexual products would be interested in buying time or product placement on your show.

As an example, search the Linen & Things web site for “waterproof mattress pads”. You can walk into any L&T and find these in stock, in all sizes. Why? Well, some of it might be for people with bladder problems, such as kids wetting the bed, but in a king-sized bed? I’d wager that the population of people who both have bladder control issues and sleep in a king-sized is vanishingly small, certainly not enough to warrant stocking stocking products for it in every L&T in the country. No, the reason they are there is because lots of people buy waterproof mattress pads to protect mattresses from sex (and not, as you might guess from the pictures, from mysterious blue water). These products are not marketed as such, of course, but that is the reality, one that this show could bring to the public’s attention through product placement.

Naturally, I’m sure you all can think of a number of other ways to push the basic idea of the show, which is why I’m giving the idea to you. Think about it.

(By the way, if anyone feels like designing the title graphic for this show, please put a link to the result in the comments.)

What’s missing in Saturn coverage

A few months back, when General Motors could no longer escape its own incompetence, Saturn was put on the chopping block. It got an unexpected reprieve when Penske, an auto-parts maker, offered to buy it. The reprieve ran out today, when Penske backed out of the deal. So, now the press bids good riddance to Saturn in a number of eulogy-like stories.

All of these journalists seem to be missing a huge part of the story, though, with the kind of “don’t bother looking under the surface” reporting I can’t stand.

The AP story says:

Although GM and Penske reached a tentative agreement to sell the brand in June, the deal collapsed Wednesday after Penske was told by an unidentified manufacturer that its board had rejected a deal to make cars for the new Saturn.

And then… that’s it. Nothing. No information about who this “unidentified manufacturer” might have been, or why they didn’t want to deal. This is unfortunate on two counts: 1) it’s where the real story is and 2) it isn’t that difficult to figure out.

If you get your news from something other than traditional sources, you might have noticed a story still playing out around another tattered remnant of GM: Opel. In a probably increasingly common union of Canadian and Russian companies, Opel is about to be sold to Canadian car parts maker Magna and Russian bank Sberbank.

So what? Well, many people (including, evidently, all journalists) don’t realize that most of Saturn’s recent product line are just relabeled Opel models. This makes it extremely likely that the “unidentified manufacturer” who wouldn’t sell cars to Penske is Magna.

Given that they are both in the auto parts business, it might make sense at first glance why Magna wouldn’t want to help competitor Penske. But it gets more complicated as you think on it more. Why would Magna, who is just getting into the car business, pass up a huge (and highly loyal) built-in market for their new product by refusing to work with Saturn-under-Penske? I can only think of five possibilities:

  1. They are idiots. They have let hatred for a competitor blind them to a good opportunity. Maybe I’m optimistic, but I’d like to think that this isn’t the reason.
  2. They fear a long term merger. It seems to me the inevitable result of cooperation between Magna and Penske in Saturn would eventually result in a merger, hostile or otherwise. Magna may figure that they would be worse off for such a thing. I’m less sure of this reason, but it still smells wrong.
  3. They don’t care about the American market. As Opel is mostly a European brand, it may be that they have enough to handle without adding in the American market as well. This seems implausible, given that Penske would be doing all the work in America in this scenario, and also that Magna is a Canadian company.
  4. They consider the Saturn brand a liability. Read any of the previously linked eulogies of Saturn and most of them mention Saturns as being mediocre cars. It could be that Magna has convinced itself that pitching the Opel directly to America would work better for them. They could be right, but turning your back on millions of already loyal customers seems a might risky.
  5. They want Saturn for themselves. It could be that Magna was betting on exactly what happened: that if they didn’t deal, Penske would walk, leaving Saturn ripe for picking. Even if they only bought pieces of it (branding, customer databases, some dealerships), they would have a huge head start on penetrating the American market.

Of all these, the last seems more likely to me. Which means the current reports of Saturn’s death may be exaggerated.

Vicious cults within the flower

Listening to the Black Box forces me to re-learn a number of things. First: no matter what you might think of Black Sabbath, man, they really knew how to start a song. The lyrics (mostly by Geezer Butler), in particular, were just weird and evocative enough to yank you into their direction. How can you resist songs that open with lines like:

I am the world that hides the universal secret of all time.
Destruction of the empty spaces is my one and only crime


Sorcerers of madness
Selling me their time


Revolution in their minds – the children start to march
Against the world in which they have to live


You’re searching for your mind don’t know where to start
can’t find the key to fit the lock on your heart


My name it means nothing
my fortune is less


Take me through the centuries to supersonic years
Electrifying enemy is drowning in his tears


Reflex in the sky
Warn you you’re gonna die
Storm coming, you’d better hide
From the atomic tide

The second thing I have to re-learn: I’ve been mishearing a ton of these lyrics for years. The Black Box comes with a book containing lyrics, gone over by Geezer, so these are probably as correct as they get. But a lot of them don’t match what’s been in my head. (This is a pity, because I like most of mine better.) Some examples:

In “Behind the Wall of Sleep”, I always heard:
Vicious cults within the flower / Deadly battles with strange power
The actual lyric is:
Visions cupped within a flower / Deadly petals with strange power

In “Snowblind”, I always heard:
Feeling happy in my pain / Icy movement in my brain
The actual lyric is:
Feeling happy in my pain / Icicles within my brain

In “Electric Funeral”, I always heard:
Burning global war machines fire / Like electric funeral pyre
The actual lyric is:
Burning globe of obscene fire / Like electric funeral pyre

In “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath”, I always heard:
You’ve seen right through these stunted eyes
The actual lyric is:
You’ve seen right through distorted lies

In “Megalomania”, I always heard:
I really think it’s schizophrenia that’s messing me up / I’ve singed my soul in the fires of hell
The actual lyric is:
I’m really digging schizophrenia, the best of the earth / I’ve chase my soul in the fires of hell

In one of my favorite songs, “The Writ”, I misheard a bunch of stuff:
The people here think I’m another man / The air is nothing like the ocean I swam for you …
Your sunken ship is laying down in the fog / I wish they’d move it into my frightening world with you …
You walked through me with your lying words …
Your bull and fairy got dismembered in God …
The anger always had its tattoo and curse on you …
I’m gonna get you now before you grow …

The actual lyrics are:
The faithful image of another man / The endless ocean of emotion I swam for you…
The shock troopers laying down on the floor / I wish they’d fallen into my private war with you …
You bought and sold me with your lying words …
Your fallen phallic god dismembered and gone …
The anger I once had has turned to a curse on you …
The fornication of your golden throne …

No bias. No bull. No information.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, it will probably come as no surprise that I don’t consume much mainstream news, particularly the televised variety. Having dinner with my CNN-addicted in-laws a few days ago exposed me to an episode of Campbell Brown: No Bias. No Bull.

The particular segment to which I paid attention focussed on the U.S. government’s impending interventions into the auto industry. To the show’s credit, they did seem to give more air time than the average show to a single topic. Unfortunately, they didn’t fill it with much other than prattle. There were some words you heard repeated over and over, such as “bailout” and “billions”. One word that I didn’t hear at all, however, was “loan”. (I looked for transcripts of this show to verify this, but couldn’t find any. Leave a link in a comment below if you know where they are kept.) You couldn’t be blamed for concluding from the coverage that the government was contemplating giving free money to GM, rather than providing them the federal loans that they are actually requesting. You know, loans that would mean we’d be getting the cash back, with interest. Now, while giving loans to GM is stupid enough on its own, it doesn’t need any media trickery that makes it sound like something stupider, like just giving them free money.

Given that the auto-industry is a powerful lobby, it may turn out that they can weasel out of these loans at some point in the future, so maybe no one actually believes the idea that these would be loans. But if so that is the story, and you’d expect at least a passing comment on it.

While the difference between a loan and gift seems rather fundamental to me, mainstream media seems to either not understand the difference, not care, and/or assume that their audience doesn’t know or care either. They (and this particular CNN show is far from alone here) appear to be happy essentially screaming “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” over and over for a bit, then cutting to a talking head who screams “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” a bit more. When covering the “$700 billion bailout” the government is engaged in now, nearly every media source I watched or read seemed to go out of their way to give the impression that this money was just being pissed away. Some of it surely will be, but mostly the idea is to buy things. While the government will probably overpay for these assets—hard to tell for sure, because the main problem is no one really knows what they are worth—but they are certainly worth more than zero. Most of the money buys instruments that are ultimately backed by houses. This might force the government to be something like a landlord to get value out of these assets, which, gee, seems like a fairly important story for journalists to cover to me. Or, how about the story that, while the plan calls for buying things (and thus, the possibility of recovering losses), the lawmakers that did as much as anyone to cause this mess in the first place are now screaming that this money shouldn’t be used to buy things, but rather to just give money to citizens who can’t add in order to allow them to shirk their obligations. That seems like a good story, too.

Or, how about a story detailing people that saw this collapse coming and how Wall Street will never look the same again. That would be interesting.

Or even just pieces that help inform the viewer, such as a metaphor for what’s causing the credit crisis or what the hell these freaky instruments are that caused all the trouble. Those would be welcome stories as well.

Fortunately, such stories exist. You just won’t find them on television.

Beyond the five W’s

All introductory journalistic training starts with the “five W’s (and one H)” (who? what? when? where? why? how?), representing the types of facts that should appear in the lead of a story. Unfortunately, many journalists these days seem to think that is all they need do: find the most obvious answers to those questions, relate them, move on to the next deadline. While this passes for news, it’s not very useful for actual understanding. The superficial answers to these questions are almost never the truth necessary to draw real conclusions about an event. That requires real digging into these questions (particularly “why?”) and since that is actually hard, you get the kind of limp, gloss-over journalism-like news of today.

Take this CNN story, for example: Nigeria militants ‘raze’ Shell oil complex. As per basic training, the story holds the five W’s:

  • Who?: The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
  • What?: “attacked Shell’s Alakiri flow station, gas plant and field logistics base… killing a guard and wounding four others.”
  • When?: “Monday”
  • Where?: “southwest of Port Harcourt”, Nigeria’s delta region
  • Why?: “The rebel group hopes to secure a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for people in the delta, where more than 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.”
  • How?: They “‘stormed’ the flow station complex…set fire to the facility and ‘razed it to the ground.'”

So, what do you know? Some people blew up an oil station in Nigeria. You’re told that they want the oil wealth for themselves. That sounds reasonable. On to the next story. A few basic problems: first, if the intent is to gain the oil wealth for themselves, why are they destroying the facilities that would let them claim it, rather than taking them over? Seems like a bad strategy. Maybe they have good reasons for this. Maybe there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe they just failed basic economics. The point is, this is a pretty obvious question to at least ask, but journalists don’t seem to be interested. They don’t seem concerned that the basic motivation they give for the event doesn’t really make any sense. It’s almost as if the intent is to sound informative, not actually be informative.

I was on a jury once, and it was very frustrating to watch the lawyers work. You kept wanting to scream at them to ask a certain question, usually one that never came. Is it important they didn’t ask it? Was not asking it strategy, or just incompetence? Who knows? I’m just a juror, so can’t actually ask any questions. Reading modern news stories is much the same experience, except I’m just some guy at a desk and not, you know, the person getting paid to actually report on what’s happening in front of his own eyes.

I looked through the top 10 hits on Google for this particular news story. Some were better than others. Some pointed out that the group is “well-equipped”, “heavily armed”, and using “dozens of speedboats” and “dynamite and other explosives”. Many mention that the group is responsible for reducing Nigeria’s oil output by a 20-25%.

None of these stories, however, even asked the question to which I wanted the answer, much less answered it: given that this is a force of “indigenous people” and most of the indigenous people live on “less than a dollar a day”, from where is MEND getting the money for all these weapons, speedboats and explosives?

A bit more Googling revealed not much more information. Someplace called the International Crisis Group, summarizes the situation in Nigeria and at least says that MEND “has not revealed the identity of its leaders or the source of its funds but its actions demonstrate that it is better armed and organised than previous militant groups.” Contrary to the journalists, this group does care about these funds, claiming they come from oil theft and “protection” rackets, where oil companies pay to avoid being targeted. This is at least more informative, even if it doesn’t necessarily match the current set of attacks. Did Shell just refuse to pay and are now being made an example? Has MEND graduated past the need for such financing? Gee, if only there was some kind of publication or company that would send people to these places, with the job of asking these kinds of questions and reporting back to us.

As before, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Until I do, I will continue to foam at the mouth about it. Sorry.

By the way, I have a theory that this type of shallow journalism also explains why more people seem to be willing to accept conspiracy theories these days. Since the news isn’t actually providing explanations of anything (or, worse, those they do offer contain obvious flaws), people just assume that something else must be going on that makes more sense, and will go through paradoxically nonsensical contortions to guess at it.

For example, with this Nigerian story, a) the attacks seemed geared at stopping oil production, rather than gaining control of it and b) that would decrease the supply of oil and c) raise the price, which d) would be good for other oil producers. Since e) no other theory seems to exist, I’m just going to assume that OPEC is funding these people. Unless I lived in the European Union, when I would assume that Russia was doing it. (Look! I’m halfway to believing things without facts, just like religion would have me do. Must be a conspiracy.)

Virtual film analysis

Having recently completed Awake in the Dark, I was glad to see Roger Ebert’s article on how to read a movie. I immediately started thinking along the lines that some of the commentators did: could this be reasonably done in an on-line way?

I think it could. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as Ebert describes, of course, for some obvious reasons: the crowd would be much larger, the pace would be necessarily slower, the shots to be examined would have to be selected in some way other than yelling “stop”, typing is not the same as speaking, and so on. Even so, it still might be useful. And fun.

I’m tempted to do this myself. Maybe I will if no one else picks up the gauntlet. One way it could work would be like this:

  • Get a domain like cinema-interruptus.org.
  • Install the latest version of phpBB.
  • Create one forum per film.
  • Use one thread per shot.
  • For each film, one registered user acts as the “host”.
  • Lock down permissions in a forum so that only the “host” can create new threads (i.e. shots) in that forum.
  • The host initiates a shot by creating a new thread containing the shot to be examined, with a number in the subject. The initial post would contain things like the time index and so on.
  • Anyone can then post to the thread.
  • Once some criterion has been reached, a new shot is posted. This could be done in a few ways:
    • Some sort of time limit, say, an hour or two. This forces the experience to work in a “live” way, however, which isn’t what the internet is best at.
    • Some sort of “post count” limit is hit. For example, after 50 or 100 (or whatever) posts to the thread, the next shot starts. This has the advantage that the pace of the process is dictated by interest, moving through shots quickly when a lot of people are posting (i.e. at “peak hours”) and more slowly when fewer are paying attention. Disadvantage is that the cutoff is arbitrary. There will surely be cases where it either cuts off to soon or stalls.
    • Allow the host to move on when he feels the time is right. Would probably be the best choice, but would entirely depend on a good host.
    • Some other method.
  • It might be useful, when moving to a new shot, to lock the previous shot/thread. I can see where this would be helpful. I can also see how it would be a hindrance. Probably a choice left up to the host.
  • It might be interesting if the choice of frames was deterministic (e.g. take one frame exactly every 30 seconds), rather than having the host (or, perhaps, requests from earlier shots) pick out “interesting” frames. On the one hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally. On the other hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally.
  • Using one film per forum, run several different movies at once.
  • Close down the site after being sued by the MPAA for copyright violations.

It would take quite a while to get through a film. It would also be a project with many built-in “intermissions” from the point of view of the reader. That is, they’d see a few shots, then go on with their day, then see a few more, and so on. This would be a much different concept than sitting in a dark room for several hours at a stretch. I’m guessing it might make the analysis better, but perhaps not.

Who’s up for it? Would you participate in such a thing?

Harnessing mass fraud

The plague of reality television has spawned some unexpected phenomena over its decade-long life. Most interestingly, shows that allowed public voting demonstrated that people had both the desire and the means to organically organize to rig elections on a massive scale. Once again, the internet demonstrates its core competency, connecting strangers in weird ways, in this case through nexus sites like Vote for the Worst.

The question that’s been bugging me this morning: how to harness this ability? Any thoughts?