The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 3, 2013

Yet Another Stupid Idea: Pop Culture for the Easily Distracted (or I Want my ADDTV!)

Filed under: Culture, Random Stuff — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:36 am

One of the main challenges I have with this Blog is trying to come up with a steady stream of good ideas for things to write about.  Naturally, this is a lot harder to do than it looks.  After all, there are only so many dead shopping malls I can write depressing travelogues about around here, and most of them are taken (although I do really need to do some followup posts one of these days.)  In fact, it’s pretty common for me to be pretty much out of good ideas at any given time.  Because of this, I am getting ready to resort to plan B:  Bad ideas.  I’m pretty sure I’m not going to run out of those anytime soon.

Over the past few weeks, one of the things I’ve watched with unusual interest is all the hype on the Internet surrounding the final season (or half-season, as the case may be) of Breaking Bad.  As it has transpired over the course of the past eight weeks, I’ve seen no end of analysis, theories, speculation and other assorted discussion  running rampant all over the Internet.  After each episode, detailed summaries of the plot were plastered across the Internet in numerous places, and dissected in great detail by commenters.  People practically wrote entire dissertations trying to figure out how to interpret what happened and speculate on what hidden meaning might be behind it.  Eventually, it seemed like virtually everyone had some theory as to what was going to happen in the end (mine was something along the lines of Walter going out in a big “everyone ends up dead” style shootout and the big pile of money getting set on fire and burning to ashes, which turned out to be kind of semi-accurate but not really.)  The conclusion came this past Sunday as the final episode aired, and now with the full story told, people seem to be speculating endlessly on what it all meant, and how it’s supposed to be interpreted.  It was interesting to watch how Breaking Bad went from being considered a reasonably good cable drama to being a must-see show in its final season, to becoming almost a cultural phenomenon of sorts as the final episodes aired.  There’s really only one problem with the whole thing as far as I am concerned:  I can’t be bothered to actually watch any of it.

For reasons that I’ve discussed in previous posts on similar subjects, I just can’t be bothered to actually watch most TV, movies or sports these days.  That isn’t to say that I’m not interested in it, just that in most cases I’m not interested enough in it to actually watch it.  Lately, I find that I’ve all but completely stopped watching TV, and although my overall movie viewership is up over the past couple of years from the virtually zero that it used to be, I still don’t watch all that many movies.  Even for sporting events I typically don’t bother watching at all, and just look up the scores later.  I must also confess that on more than one occasion I’ve excused myself for a restroom break during a movie in the theater and used the time to look up a plot summary for the movie I’m currently watching on Wikipedia.  Yeah, I know, spoilers and things like that, but to be honest, spoilers just don’t bother me.  As I’ve said before on this Blog, I have basically no ability to suspend disbelief, so I tend to take most movies at face value.  Knowing what’s coming next doesn’t really affect that, and as long as I’m not spoiling it for anyone else I don’t see much harm in doing it.  But I digress.

I suspect that a lot of the speculation and rumor that has surrounded Breaking Bad over the past couple of months is coming from the types of people who couldn’t stand the thought of writing a book report back in high school, yet probably didn’t realize that they were practically doing just that without even the prospect of being able to get any credit for it. Although I seriously doubt that any of the classic literature being studied endlessly in high schools around the world is at risk of being replaced by television dramas anytime soon (for one thing, I seriously doubt you could get the average teenager to sit still for 62+ hours of anything, much less if they were going to end up being graded on it)  I doubt all the interest in this type of thing is going unnoticed among the academic community.  I suspect it’ll be a matter of time before some random college out there is offering a credit class on Breaking Bad (and somehow I don’t think it’s going to be a chemistry class.)  And yet, I wonder just how many of those people speculating on the Internet are in the same boat as I am, watching the whole thing from a distance but not actually partaking in any of it?  There’s an entire subculture on the Internet that seems to thrive on this type of thing (although Breaking Bad is the latest and perhaps most visible example to date, a similar phenomenon can be seen around many other popular shows, with Game of Thrones being another prime example) but there’s no way that all of them are actually watching the shows all the time.  Even the Breaking Bad finale got only around 10.2 million viewers, good for only about #82 on this list of the most watched TV series finales (For comparison, the two season premiere episodes of The Big Bang Theory shown last Thursday on CBS each had nearly twice as many viewers.)  Although those numbers don’t account for people watching on DVRs, I suspect that a lot of the interest is coming from people who aren’t actually watching the show.  This is where my bad idea comes in.

It’s when you start to think phenomenon in terms of sports that it all starts to make sense.  On a typical Sunday during the NFL regular season there can be as many as 14 games being played, and the average fan with the average TV setup would be hard pressed to actively watch more than 3 of those games, and they can sort of watch maybe 5 or 6 games if they flip around the channels.  The problem with all that flipping around is that a game like football has a lot of dead time in between plays, not to mention about half a zillion commercial breaks per game.  And there’s always the nagging sense that while you’re sitting there watching the refs stare into their replay box as they deliberate a coaches challenge on one channel, something exciting could be happening on another one.  You could see how someone could be driven to distraction pretty easily by the whole thing.  Fortunately, the NFL has figured this out already and come up with their own solution: NFL RedZone.  RedZone is a cable network that basically distills an entire Sunday’s worth of NFL action into a single channel, switching around between games just when things start getting exciting.  Last year Rembert Browne of ESPN sister site Grantland wrote a fascinating article about spending a Sunday in the RedZone studio and seeing firsthand just how much effort goes into trying to distill a Sunday’s worth of NFL action into a readily digestible form.  When you think about it, it’s basically the ADD version of football.  Why not do the same thing with other television?

Granted, the TV version of this type of thing wouldn’t necessarily need to be an eight-hour live studio broadcast with teams of dedicated people scouring the airwaves for juicy little tidbits during prime time.  I’m thinking of something more along the lines of a Sportscenter type highlight show for television, with assorted commentary and analysis thrown in for good measure.  Of course the big-name shows would get most of the airtime (in much the same way that the more important games get most of the airtime in a sports highlight show) but they would still have the flexibility to put stuff from other shows in.  Naturally, most of the show would be composed of highlight reels from the shows being covered, covering all the interesting bits from the latest episodes while leaving out most of the filler.  This way, in an hour (or two, if a network has enough good shows) someone can get their pop culture fix for the week and know all they need to know to overanalyze and/or speculate wildly about whatever show happens to require overanalysis or excessive speculation at any given time.  And then they have the rest of their week free to just ignore the TV.

Naturally, there’s no way the networks would actually go for this kind of thing, since they’re kind of dependent on having people watch the actual shows to sell advertising and make money.  For some odd reason, the various studios and networks haven’t had much luck trying to monetize random speculation about their shows from people on the Internet speculating about their stuff without actually watching it.  Just ask the producers of Sharknado how well that one has been working out for them (although to be fair I did actually manage to watch a decent portion of that one when it aired.  Best comedy of the year, by far.)  Ideally, I could see something like this being best done by a third-party network in order to keep the whole thing from turning into an exercise in slobbery self-promotion, but if something like this ever happened it would probably be the individual networks doing it with their own shows (and yes, any network actually crazy enough to do something like this would probably find it necessary to hire a number of new executives dedicated to doing nothing but meddling with this show all day.)

In other words, there’s no way it’s ever going to happen, at least not in any sort of useful form.  But it would certainly be a lot more convenient than actually watching television, wouldn’t it?

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November 12, 2010

The Magic of Real Things

Filed under: Culture, travel — Brian Lutz @ 11:44 pm

I had originally intended to have this post up a couple of weeks ago, but that was back around the time that things, as described in the post directly below this one, started going from being just a little crazy to being just plain ridiculous.  Now that I’ve started the new job things have finally managed to settle down some, which should allow a bit of respite, for at least a couple of weeks until Thanksgiving arrives and brings with it the whole general mishmash of the Holiday season (assuming that you haven’t already been wallowing in Holiday stuff since August, that is.)  Anyway, this post is intended to be a followup to a previous post from a couple of weeks ago,  which itself was inspired by the short trip I took to Disneyland in May, but sat in my draft queue for several months before it got finished. 

To briefly summarize the previous post, I talked a little bit about some of the challenges facing the designers (or Imagineers as the case may be) of the various theme parks in trying to create believable fantasies, and how this ultimately runs into the seemingly impenetrable barrier that comes with an inability for some people (especially adults) to suspend disbelief.  Although we can still appreciate the technical achievements that have gone into the creation of these parks and their various rides and shows, eventually there has to be a point where one will inevitably realize that Mickey Mouse is just a guy in a suit, and that the hitchhiking ghosts riding in your doom buggy are the result of animatronics and trick mirrors.  Those of us who might be bringing children along with us for the trip will make an effort to maintain the illusion for the benefit of the kids for at least a while, but they too will come to the same conclusion. 

So what can be done about this?  Well, right now, not much.  After all, the problems I’m talking about here don’t seem to be hurting Disney any.  In fact, Disneyland and Disney World managed to actually increase their year-over-year attendance figures in 2009 in spite of the economy, and the Disneyland Resort currently boasts record numbers of annual passholders.  California Adventure is expected to complete a major overhaul in 2012, headlined by the addition of Cars Land and the now open World of Color nighttime show, as well as significant rethemings of several other rides and areas of the park.  If you can manage it, I happen to think the parks in both California and Florida are well worth visiting as is, but as I’ve thought about this, I’ve wondered if there might be a completely different approach to a theme park that could not only provide an entertaining destination for people of all ages, but completely eliminate the issue of suspension of disbelief.  Why not build a theme park based on the real world?

Yeah, I already know that pretty much everything else I’m going to write here  is basically just delusions of grandeur (at least unless the stock options I have at my new job somehow manage to make me ridiculously wealthy,) but if you think about it, there are a lot of things in the real world that I think could be just as fascinating to children and their parents alike as any elaborately crafted animatronic ride-through.  Take, for example, manufacturing.  These days, the sheer amount of machinery and automation that goes into the production of all sorts of everyday items is staggering, and I suspect that most people these days don’t have a clue where most of the stuff they use on an everyday basis comes from.  Although TV shows like How It’s Made and Unwrapped have become popular enough to establish a small niche genre on cable TV, there just aren’t a lot of factories out there that people can go in and take tours of (Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey PA sort of fits the definition, but it’s only a simulation of the manufacturing process, as the number of visitors it attracts is too much for the actual factory to handle.)  Unfortunately, most factories tend to be dangerous and loud places, and wouldn’t exactly be good places to be bringing a couple million visitors a year into. 

Even so, if you could find a way around the various logistical problems involved, I could see a ride through a working factory being something that could have the potential to be quite popular.  After all, you’ve got plenty of action to watch (provided it can be done in a way that it can be made easily visible to spectators,) you’ve got a story to tell, and you wouldn’t have any problem stocking the gift shop at the end of the ride.  In fact, there’s a semi-obscure attraction offered at Disney’s California Adventure park with a small-scale tortilla factory that serves mostly to supply tortillas to some of the nearby restaurants, but also offers free samples to the guests as they pass through.  It’s a fairly basic operation without a lot of moving parts involved, but it does act as a bit of a proof of concept.  Of course, putting a small factory into your park making various trinkets is one thing, but if you really want something impressive you’d have to go for something big like a steel mill.  Quite frequently on TV shows you’ll see the giant smelting furnaces pouring out tons of molten steel to form giant billets and girders, and it looks like the type of thing that would be quite impressive to see in real life.  It also looks like the type of thing that could probably result in fiery death if you made one wrong move around the stuff, but that’s beside the point.

Then again, if you’re trying to build a whole theme park based on this stuff you’d probably need a whole lot more than that, but there are still plenty of possibilities.  I’m sure we’ve all seen young children fascinated by heavy construction equipment, as evidenced by the ongoing popularity of Tonka trucks and shows like Bob the Builder.  I’d be willing to bet you might even find a few grown-ups out there who, given the chance, might enjoy the chance to play around with a full-sized backhoe or a bulldozer for a while.  Once again, we’re running into some major safety issues, but remember that this whole thing is pretty much delusions of grandeur in the first place, so we can all pretend it’s perfectly safe for now.  And that you aren’t going to run out of stuff to dig in oh, about three days.  Even if you don’t exactly want random people off the street wandering around in heavy machinery, I think some people would find it interesting to go on a ride through an active skyscraper construction site to see how the things are built.  Which, of course, presents its own set of quite likely insurmountable challenges.

And even though big heavy equipment seems like the star attraction here, I think there’s a possibility that even slightly more mundane things could be interesting to play with given the proper context.  I know I personally like to tinker around the kitchen when I get the chance to do so, and would enjoy the chance to play around with some of the latest kitchen toys you’ve been hearing about in the really fancy places these days.  Stuff like sous-vide machines and liquid nitrogen freezers that most people probably won’t ever see outside of an Iron Chef America episode sound like they’d be fun to experiment with and try out, but are hideously expensive and would practically take up my whole kitchen here.  Heck, even spending some time a well-stocked kitchen of high-end equipment would be something I probably wouldn’t get a chance to do otherwise (they actually have a pretty nice kitchen downstairs in the lounge area at my apartment complex, but using it requires a costly rental of the entire lounge, making it impractical.)  Sure I’d probably manage to burn food and/or extremities horrendously in the process, but it would be fun to play with for a while, right?

And even though things like this would most likely be impossible to pull off in real life thanks to some combination of impracticality and/or swarms of rabid lawyers, you can still see elements of some of these in some of the places we have already.  In addition to the above mentioned tortilla factory example at California Adventure, there are several theme parks that include “behind the scenes” rides or tours, and I happen to think something like that would be interesting to do someday.  Those are pretty much only showing you what’s behind the scenes at a theme park, but when you think of the logistics involved in running a place that millions of people pass through yearly and keeping everything from falling apart at the seems, you can begin to appreciate the efforts needed to do this.  Ultimately, now that I think about the concept more and get it down in print (or whatever the virtual equivalent is supposed to be called) I doubt it would be possible to get an entire park out of these things (if nothing else, you’d probably want at least a few thrill rides to keep things interesting) but when people finally start to get bored of fantasies, no matter how elaborate, maybe a good strong dose of reality might be just what’s needed to keep things interesting.

September 7, 2010

It’s the Most Nerdiest Time of the Year: PAX 2010 Roundup

Filed under: Culture, Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 7:32 pm

"Bad ideas I have had", part #17,653 in a series.

 

As anyone who follows the video games industry is well aware, the Penny Arcade Expo has become a pretty big deal.  Last year’s PAX completely maxed out the available space in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, and sold out completely with a total attendance reported in excess of 60,000 people.  In 2010, not only did PAX expand to the East Coast for the first time with PAX East in Boston, but PAX Prime (as the Seattle show has been dubbed) has expanded even further, moving its main theater and concerts to Benaroya Hall and allowing the exhibition hall to expand even further.  This year for the first time, PAX brought with it major announcements, 

Once you have been to PAX enough times, you begin to realize that ultimately the exhibition hall is only a part of the whole experience, as there’s all sorts of stuff to do.  The Console Freeplay areas provide rooms full of systems and a big library of games you can check out, which provides a nice little opportunity to try out some of the stuff you might be on the fence about.  There’s all sorts of panels all throughout the three days of the show, and although only a handful were of interest to me this year, there’s a good chance everyone’s going to find at least one worth attending.  As usual, there were also the concerts which are a big draw, although this year I was unable to attend either of them.  There was also more content this year more tailored to professional interests in game design and development, something I’ve occasionally tinkered with in various forms but haven’t ever been really all that serious about (that’s probably a subject for another post, but who knows if I’ll ever get around to actually writing it?)  And as usual, PAX is also one of the more interesting people-watching locations you’re going to find anywhere (assuming that those are actually people in some of those suits, at least. ) After the jump, a roundup of some of the stuff I saw at PAX 2010.  Also a quick note:  Don’t expect to find much on the games themselves.  To be honest, I didn’t try a whole lot of them, and virtually all of the big-ticket games on the show floor require waiting through lines measured in hours to get anywhere near them, something I just don’t have the patience for. 

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April 4, 2010

Software Development Makes Strange Bedfellows

Filed under: Culture, Technology — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 11:39 pm

There are times in our lives where we find ourselves looking at where we are, where we have been, and how we got from there to here, and just have to wonder where it all went wrong. Fortunately for me, this isn’t one of those times , but as I look back and ponder some of the events that have transpired in my life since the beginning of the year, I do find myself scratching my head. Honestly, I think that if someone had told me on January first where I was going to be at the beginning of April, there is a good chance that I would not have believed them. Yet here I am, having had two or three good curveballs thrown at me by life, just pondering exactly how it is that I have gotten here. Fortunately, all of this has worked out to my advantage (a fact that I am grateful for) but certainly not in any way that I would have expected it to.

At the end of last year, I was working at Microsoft on one of about a dozen different contracts I have been on there over the past decade. Even as a contractor, Microsoft is a relatively nice environment to work in, and for the most part I have enjoyed it, but there are some teams that I have found to be better to work on than others. Unfortunately, the last team I was on was on that I turned out not to be a good fit for, and just before the end of the year, a rather abrupt decision was made to end my contract. Although I thought I got along reasonably well with the team and the job was paying the bills, the work I was doing was a rather significant step backward from what I had been doing on my previous contract, I really wasn’t learning any skills from this that were applicable to anything but the specific job I was working on, and I got the sense that the test development on this particular team really wasn’t heading in the right direction. Facing limited prospects for being able to return to another Microsoft contract due to short eligibility and a still relatively weak job market outside of Microsoft, I had no idea what was going to come next after this.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to find out, as a friend of mine who happens to recruit for the local Harvey Nash office contacted me with a potential short-term contract for a small iPhone development studio in Downtown Seattle. Not having a whole lot else going on at the time, I decided to give it a shot in spite of my having spent all of about ten minutes actually using an iPhone before applying (although much of my prior experience in software testing has been on mobile apps, mostly on the Windows Mobile platform.) Upon learning a bit more about the company, I found out they had done a number of iPhone apps for MTV and other media clients, but couldn’t find out much else. I sent a resume over on a Thursday, and was awakened on Monday morning by a call asking if I could report the next day. Some paperwork an a day later I found myself in an old loft apartment in a 120-year old Pioneer square building, where I learned that I would be performing testing on the Beavis and Butt-Head iPhone application they were developing for MTV.

This came as just a bit of a shock, to be honest. Sure, I was familiar with Beavis and Butt-Head (having gone to high school in the mid Nineties, I’m pretty sure I knew of at least one Beavis among my classmates, if not more) but I had always assumed that they had just faded off into obscurity along with most of the rest of the Nineties. Sure they’d get back to the stuff eventually, but they’ve still got plenty of Eighties pop culture to recycle before they got back to that.) In fact, aside from some DVD releases a few years ago, Beavis and Butt-Head hadn’t been seen much of anywhere since they left the MTV airwaves. Oh, and did I mention that back when I was 12 or so I got grounded for watching the Simpsons? I’m pretty sure my mother would have killed me if I had ever been caught watching MTV, much less Beavis and Butt-Head. Nonetheless, the not-so-dynamic duo stared at me from a three-inch screen waiting with a few hundred bugs that needed to be found and fixed. When you’re working in software development, there’s a bit of a natural tendency to try to maintain professionalism by mentally disconnecting the work itself from the subject matter being dealt with, but to be honest, it’s impossible not to take notice of the sheer ridiculousness of the situation when you find yourself having to write a bug report that includes the word “Bunghole” in it, watching 40 minutes worth of video clips full of potty humor to make sure they’re encoded correctly, or spending an hour scouring the Internet in an effort to determine how to translate the word “Fartknocker” into Portuguese. I’m sure my mother must be really proud.

Even if that was all that was all I had going on these days, it would be unusual enough, but another curveball came in the form of the announcement of the Apple iPad, the greatest invention since whatever was the greatest thing before sliced bread  (at least that’s how Steve Jobs and half the Internet seemed to regard it.) As tends to usually be the case with Apple product announcements I met this one with a dose of healthy skepticism, but it seems that people were impressed by what they had seen.  Almost immediately it seems like just about everyone wanted their iPhone stuff to go to the iPad as well, including MTV with the Beavis and Butt-Head app we had been working on.  This meant redoing a lot of the animation inside of the app (and bringing back an artist that had helped out with this earlier in the process) and having to basically go retest everything on the iPad simulator that comes with the SDK (which comes with a fair number of limitations compared to the physical device, which almost nobody outside of Apple except for a few scattered late night talk show hosts had any access to prior to the official launch date)  In one final bit of irony, the iPad version of the app managed to make it into the app store before the iPhone version (which hasn’t actually made it yet as of this writing) in time to be available at the iPad launch. 

None of that quite explains how I managed to end up with an iPad sitting on the desk next to me, purchased with my own money (there will be more on that later, including a semi-thorough review) but with the way things have been going, I can’t say I’m too surprised.  Meanwhile, the short-term contract I started in January has turned out to be a lot less short-term than I expected, and nearly three months later I’m still in, and working on a number of other projects they currently have going.  In the meantime, if for some reason you’re looking for a quick hit of lowbrow 90s pop culture or some flimsy justification for the purchase of an iPad, you can find the app I’ve been working on here:

Beavis and Butt-Head for iPad (iTunes link)

Beavis and Butt-Head for iPhone (Coming Soon)

November 6, 2008

The Ongoing 1980s Pop Culture Recycling Program Remains in Effect

Filed under: Culture — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 1:33 am

With Halloween now officially in the books and the elections done with (bringing with them four years of sunshine and rainbows or fire and brimstone, depending on your political persuasion,) the stores are now free to go ahead and load up the shelves with wall-to-wall Christmas cheer for the next couple of months.  As usual, Costco got an early start on the whole thing this year, with Christmas trees and ridiculously oversized yard decorations making their appearance early in September, but with the passing of All Hallows Eve, they’re ready to pour on the Holiday cheer, beginning with the toy aisles, chock full of all the hottest toys for the season… assuming it’s still 1986.

 

Back in the day, Teddy Ruxpin was one of the hottest toys on the market, in spite of its exorbitant pricetag of $70 (about $131 adjusted for inflation.)  For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the product, Teddy Ruxpin is an animatronic teddy bear that tells stores (from specially designed cassette tapes) with synchronized facial movements, and was also the subject of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon show.  Ultimately, Worlds of Wonder(the company which originally sold Teddy Ruxpin) became the victim of their own success and the stock market crash of 1987  and went bankrupt, but surprisingly enough, the Teddy Ruxpin brand has been through a number of different companies between then and now, and this bear has also made the switch from cassette tape to digital media in its current form.  Interestingly enough, the new Teddy Ruxpin has the same MSRP of $70 as the old one, although Costco knocks more than $20 off that price to sell these for $46.99.

Another of Worlds of Wonder’s more notable products (and one that actually found its way under the Christmas tree for me and my brothers back in the day) was Lazer Tag,  It turns out that this is another brand that hasn’t strayed too far from the shelves of your friendly neighborhood toy store, although the product bears more resemblance to the current lineup of Nerf guns than to its Eighties counterpart (which is probably not surprising, since both the Nerf and Lazer Tag brands are owned by Hasbro these days.)  As with all the toys the cool kids wanted back in the day, Laser Tag also managed to spawn a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series known as Lazer Tag Academy, in the grand tradition of tacking a paper-thin plot onto a 30-minute commercial.  Although I’m sure these Lazer tag sets are superior in just about every way imaginable to the old stuff, the style just leaves something to be desired.  I’d much rather see the old style Lazer Tag stuff on the shelf again, even if the design was so Eighties it was ridiculous. 

Having grown into a state of semi-responsible adulthood without having bothered to father any children along the way (yet, at least) means that I don’t really have much of an excuse for hanging out in the toy aisles at the store these days, but I’m sure that between now and Christmas I’ll probably run into more of this type of stuff.  I have noted that there’s been an ongoing trend for a number of years now to recycle 80s pop culture for the now grown up kids of that generation to pass on to their children, and these are just a few examples of some of the things that I was pretty sure I’d never see again after 1992 that have somehow found their way back to the shelves.  Then again, with a few exceptions, it’s not like the current pop cultire is really pulling its weight, but that’s another post for another time.

August 8, 2008

In Defense of the Traditional Shopping Mall – Part 1: The Reports of the Mall’s Death are Greaty Exaggerated

Filed under: Culture, Malls, shopping — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 2:57 pm

Over the past couple of days, I have noted that a significant number of visitors have arrived at this site from an article posted over at WorldChanging Seattle that was linked by BoingBoing.  As seems to be the case withmost of the incoming links to this site, the article deals with the decline of the traditional enclosed shopping mall, and the open-air “Town Center” type developments that are taking their place.  The article specifically touches on a few subjects (from something of an Urbanist, and to a lesser extent environmentalist perspective) that I have had sitting on my “to do” list for a while now, and there are some topics in the article that I would like to comment on.

The article over at WorldChanging (an activity that generally falls well outside of the scope of this particular website) cites a number of local malls as examples, but focuses primarily on Factoria and its upcoming redevelopment.  The overall tone of the article seems to suggest that the area’s shopping malls are on a rapid descent toward oblivion, which just isn’t the case.   The article’s claims that the malls in the area are headed down the proverbial tubes is greatly exaggerated, and even though the mixed use “town center” paradigm that the article discusses is becoming increasingly popular in the area’s shopping centers, the Seattle area’s traditional malls aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  In the article below, I’ll explain why this is the case.  Since this seems to be turning out to be far longer than I originally anticipated, I will split this into several parts.  The next part will discuss some of what makes malls go into decline, and a third part will discuss some of the goals of the Urbanists with regards to “Town Center” type developments, and explain why things may not work out there quite the way that they would like them to. 

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June 14, 2008

SHOCKER! Superman’s SECRET Secret Identity Revealed!

Filed under: Culture, Entertainment — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:03 am

(Note:  This is a crosspost from buzz.mn, although those of you unfamiliar with that particular site probably won’t have a clue what’s going on here.  For a word of explanation, Lance Lawson was a (very) obscure comic that ran in a few papers back in the late Forties featuring a quick “solve it yourself” mystery that always seemed to result in someone murdering someone, lying transparently about it, and getting busted for their crimes all within four panels of the funny pages.  There was also some clue inside the comic that’s supposed to tell you why the perp is lying that you’re supposed to find, some of them easier than others.  A more thorough explanation and some examples can be found here, and “new” Lance Lawson strips extracted from the old microfiche can be found every Thursday over at the Buzz (a recent example can be found here.)  For those of you who still don’t get it, you can skip to the end for a bit of real-world context.)

In this day and age, Superman is one of the world’s iconic comic book superheroes, and in most modern societies not being familiar with Superman and his backstory would probably be the type of thing that might be indicative of subeterranean living accommodations. As a result, I’m sure that almost everyone (at least those of us who reside on Earth Prime anyway) are well aware of Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent… Right? Not so fast.

As the shocking photo you are about to see below reveals, Superman had a SECRET secret identity that he has successfully kept hidden for over 70 years… Until now. This photo, taken from a recent GSN rerun of a 1966 episide of I’ve Got a Secret inadvertently reveals the shocking truth behind Superman’s TRUE secret identity:

That’s right, it turns out that even the whole “Make everyone think he’s Clark Kent” spiel was a ruse. The one day Superman appeared on national TV just happened to be the one day he forgot to “fix” the unmistakable hair comma, revealing once and for all that Superman’s TRUE secret identity was none other than that of everyone’s favorite bringer of suspiciously swift justice, Lance Lawson!

When he’s not crashing through walls and banging crooks’ heads together or pretending to pretend to write for the Daily Planet, it turns out the Man of Steel keeps himself busy smashing through flimsy alibis and collaring crooks with astounding speed. Do you think that Mr. Lawson could really manage to solve any crime that he happens to come across in four panels or less if he DIDN’T have X-ray vision? Besides, what would make you think an invincible Kryptonian Man of Steel wouldn’t be bored out of his skull covering sewer board meetings and cat-in-the-tree stories all day when Lex Luthor is off on vacation? Has anyone here ever seen Superman and Lance Lawson in the same room? Didn’t think so.

Nice try, but the gig is up Mr. Lawson (or should we say… SUPERMAN!?) Sure would explain a lot though, wouldn’t it?


The Real Story behind the picture: As stated above, the picture comes from a 1966 episode of I’ve Got a Secret where Bob Holiday was the special guest. Bob portrayed Superman in a short-lived Broadway musical entitled It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!that lasted for roughly four months in 1966, but later got turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1975. As for Bob Holiday, it doesn’t appear that he had any further involvement with showbiz after this role, and he later became a homebuilder in Pennsylvania, which he continues to do to this day. He even has a website with some stories of his short-lived Broadway career and video of his I’ve Got a Secret appearance, where he “taught” Steve Allen to fly, although you can pretty clearly see the wires at times on camera while he’s doing so, at least when you watch on television.

March 30, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Filed under: Culture, Sports — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:01 pm

(Programming note:  Posting may be light here for the next week or so, but I plan to write at least one post each day over at buzz.mn while the host of that site is on vacation (it’s not so much guestblogging as usurping, but that’s beside the point.)  This particular article is a crosspost from there.  The rest of my buzz.mn blog entries can be found here.)

Well, I’ve been trying to think Spring, but lately it just doesn’t seem to be working all that well. The picture above shows the scene this morning when I got to church. According to the news, some places in the Puget Sound area got as much as six inches of snow overnight, and there’s been scattered snow throughout the area since Wednesday. I suppose for those of you who live in some frozen wasteland snow in late March probably isn’t all that unusual, but considering the fact that over here getting snow more than two or three times over the course of the Winter is considered abnormally snowy, this seems to be just a tad excessive.

Nonetheless, the calendar says that it’s just about time for the Boys of Summer to take the field for another season of Baseball. Although in recent years I haven’t followed baseball as closely as I used to, in my family Opening Day is practically considered to be a holiday, celebrated with hot dogs and apple pie (NOTE: Due to ongoing criminal investigations, the Cream will not be provided with apple pie this year.) Although rooting for the home team (which around here happens to be the Mariners) seems to be the order of the day, living in the middle of nowhere meant that there really wasn’t a “home team” where I lived, which meant that I had to make do with whoever’s games we could get on cable TV. For many years, this meant the Chicago Cubs, whose games came to us via WGN out of Chicago via the not-so-silver tounged Harry Caray (who I got to meet once at a Spring Training game in Arizona, which the Cubs of course lost.)

Soon faced with the realization that backing the Cubs wasn’t exactly a winning proposition (the ’84 playoffs were probably a good sign of this,) my allegiances eventually shifted toward the Atlanta Braves, whose games played on TBS. Given their frequently dismal record during the late Eighties, expectations were set low, until they suddenly managed to get good in 1991, and pulled off the miraculous worst-to-first comeback and even more improbable playoff win against the Pittsburgh Pirates to reach the World Series in 1991. Although I would later learn to respect both of them as players and people, Kirby Puckett’s game 6 walk-off homer and Jack Morris’ 10-inning shutout in game 7 of the 2001 World Series are both in the top ten of my most traumatic baseball experiences. Although a couple of years later the expansion Colorado Rockies would give us something that would reasonably call a home team, my loyalties remained with the Braves until my family moved up to Seattle, where the Mariners were a cellar-dwelling team at risk of being moved to some random city in Florida. We figured they could use all the help they could get, so we hopped on the bandwagon. And what a ride it would turn out to be.

Then came the 1995 season, when suddenly everything came together, and the Mariners managed to get into the playoffs by winning a one-game tiebreaker with the California Angels, then pulled off an even more improbable comeback from a 0-2 deficit in the Division Series to beat the Yankees before finally losing the ALCS in six games to the Cleveland Indians (who would then go on to lose to the Atlanta Braves in five games. All in all, not a bad year for baseball in our family.)

Although the Mariners didn’t make the World Series (and have not yet done so in their 30 year history) that 1995 run ensured that the Mariners would stay in Seattle, and set the table for the incredible 2001 season, in which the Ms would win 116 games and host the All-Star Game, but lose to the Yankees in five games in the ALCS. Among the highlights of the season that I saw in person were the All-Star Game itself, with Cal Ripken’s home run in his final All-Star appearance (marked today by a plaque in the visitor’s bullpen at Safeco Field,) and the “victory lap” that the team took around the diamond carrying an American flag the day that baseball resumed following the September 11th attacks. Oddly enough, I was working in a concession stand at Safeco Field for that game (something that I would do for anywhere from 5-15 games a year for several years on a volunteer basis, to help raise money for various nonprofit organizations. It was hard work, but it provided plenty of opportunity to be at the ballpark. I can best describe the experience as similar to trying to watch the ballgame through a hole in the fence while serving beer and hotdogs to everyone else crowded around. I must have served thousands of the things, yet surprisingly enough, I still consider the hot dogs at the ballpark to be superior to those you can find just about anywhere else (just don’t ask me to actually pay for one.) This concession standexperience came in handy when I took a trip to Disneyland a couple of years ago, and found that the food prices inside the park almost seemed reasonable in comparison.

Since that 2001 season, the Mariners haven’t given us a whole lot of reasons to celebrate, but nonetheless, there’s nothing to compare to a beautiful summer evening as you watch from the cheap seats as the sun sets over the third base line as the National Pastime plays out on the field in front of you. Sure, my team ends up being down by six runs in the fourth inning more often than I would like, but still, a bad day at the ballpark beats a good day at work anyday. Feel free to share any baseball memories you have here. Even if the Twins did beat the Braves in the ’91 series, we can all agree that we don’t like the Yankees, right?

Oh, and Play Ball.

March 22, 2008

A Cavalcade of Somewhat Delightful Easter Merchandise

Filed under: Culture — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 2:08 am

As the Winter begins to give way to Spring, thoughts begin to turn to the renewal of the Earth that the change of season brings, and the promise of the Summer ahead.  It also brings with it the Easter holiday, and with it, nightmare-inducingly huge inflatable Easter Bunnies hawking chocolate, as you see above.  And that’s just the beginning.  Although the quantity of Easter-themed merchandise you’re going to find at your friendly neighborhood mega-mart doesn’t come close to the massive quantity of Christmas merchandise you’d find during the last three months of the year, you’d be surprised at just how much the stuff there is out there these days.  I’d say that the quantity is probably similar to what’s available for Valentine’s Day, and that one’s starting to look way too overcommercialized already.  I had previously noticed the apparent convergence of the assorted holidays (or at least the type of merchandise they’ll try to sell you for them) but there’s no shortage of kitschy, ridiculous or just downright questionable merchandise unique to Easter alone.  After the jump, a look at the somewhat delightful merchandise without which the stores would like you to believe that Easter would not be complete. (more…)

March 10, 2008

How Do I Say “Carbon Offsets” in French?

Filed under: Culture — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 2:46 pm

If you’re an environmentalist these days, it probably doesn’t take a whole lot to convince you that the planet is headed for some form of unspecified generic Eschaton in a pollutant spewing hydrocarbon handbasket.  Sure, you might be living in an Earth-friendly yurt made out of recycled fair trade organic hemp and biking 150 miles a day to work and back, but what about all those other people who have the audacity to actually enjoy the conveniences of modern society?  There has to be some way to convince them to see the error of their ways, but since the last street corner protest ended with a trip to jail on an indecent exposure charge, some other approach is going to be needed. 

The good news for local commuters is that in an effort to get people out of their single-occupant vehicles and into other more Earth-friendly forms of transportation, the Washington State Rideshare Organization has begun offering a number of prizes for people who use alternative forms of transportation to commute.  On the other hand, the grand prize in this contest isn’t  exactly what I’d call Earth-friendly:

That’s right, you can help save the Earth and reduce your carbon footprint by getting out of your car for a couple of days (to enter the contest requires using some alternative to commuting in a single-occupant vehicle just twice during the contest period,) only to drastically increase your personal carbon footprint by flying more than 10,000 miles (roughly 5,000 miles in each direction) from Seattle to Paris on a CO2-spewing jet plane.  For that matter, just how many people would have to participate in something like this for the resulting reduction in carbon output to not be completely obliterated by the 3.7 tons of CO2 (according to the calculator on this site) generated by the round trip to Paris?  For comparison, that site estimates my car’s annual CO2 output to be just a little bit less than 5 (4.954)tons.  Based on an estimate that I will drive my relatively average (on fuel efficiency) car somewhere around 13,000 miles this year to generate those 5 tons of CO2, offsetting the carbon generated by the trip to Paris would require this program to result in about 9,650 miles less driving by people in order to break even on the flight.  That’s not even counting any carbon-generating activities that might occur during the 7-day trip, nor does it include any of the other prizes in the contest (which include a TV/DVD player combo, a couple of shorter weekend trips within Washington, and a number of various gift cards.) 

Although I tend to be skeptical about much of the current global warming hysteria going on, and I don’t doubt that there will be enough participation in the program to cover those 9,650 miles, I suspect that the trip is probably going to end up negating the majority of whatever benefit this program might have for the environment. 

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