Saturday, May 29, 2010

Internet Killed the Everything Star

Once upon a time, there was a video parody of "Video Killed the Radio Star," the song by The Buggles that was the first music video MTV featured in the wee hours of an August morn in 1981. In that context, The Buggles are kind of assholes, since they're bragging that they're going to kill a particular form of media. Not to worry, radio is still kicking and MTV's quality imploded like a collapsing star after ditching music videos in favor of a hodgepodge of "edgy" shows and dynamiting a number of quality animated series (Clone High and Undergrads among them) to protect the suckiness. And then there was this:

I remember seeing this video back when Shockwave was a cool new Web application offering various animated videos and online games. It apparently hasn't changed too much, but this video is already dated. The Internet services are offered through CD-ROMs? And they include Compuserve? And there's still reason to include a Netscape logo in the mix?

My relationship with the Internet is probably about the same as what I have with gasoline: I realize it has a lot of negative effects, but I friggin' need it. I work at a newspaper, and hear plenty of jokes and dire stories about how the Internet is gleefully killing us and everything else on the planet. At the same time, I spend plenty of time online checking out various websites or Netflix. The resources available online are pretty much the only thing that lets me keep up my other website by doing research in news archives and books whenever I want. And if I, say, wanted to see Summer Glau, let's see how different the paths are between whether I have Internet and whether I don't. Ready? Go!

Internet Me does a quick search on Google Images. And for good measure, I carry it through to this blog with a few keystrokes.

So the Internet has this going for it. Which is nice.

Meanwhile, Non-Internet Me is trying to catch a repeat of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or seeing if some magazines might have a shot available. Or I could be taking a cross-country road trip to Hollywood complete with hilarious pratfalls to see the lovely Ms. Glau in person...whereupon I would most likely get mace-Tased right away by her personal security or crushed by her powerful robot arms.

So how much harm or good is the Internet causing in various areas? Let's find out together.

The Video Star, ie Music Videos

I'll always have a special liking for the alternative rock songs that appeared in the late 1990s, since that was generally a good time for music and also the time I discovered WEQX. The music videos of the time weren't really special, but I do remember a few of them. They include Oasis playing with a bunch of military helicopters in an industrial ruin, Radiohead's incredibly weird animated video featuring a limbless EU delegate and other such oddities, and the front man of The Verve plowing a straight line walk through a busy London street. Those are all British bands, I realize. So be it.

I've already mentioned how MTV has pretty much ruined itself, so I won't dwell on that. Strangely enough, music videos have grown more popular since people have stopped watching them on television. It makes sense, really. More people use the Internet than watch MTV or VH1, and the bands apparently realize that if something becomes a viral hit they'll receive much more exposure than they might otherwise get. To that end, music videos have become incredibly awesome. They include the Flobots' animated dystopian future, Depeche Mode's short movie featuring a sort of hostage situation with a man in an out-of-control car, and Mutemath lip-syncing their song in reverse to terrific effect. OK Go are the undisputed kings of the new video scene, having put out amazing videos featuring a backyard choreographed dance, a seamless routine on treadmills, and the best Rube Goldberg machine ever made.

So kudos to the Internet on this one. MTV can keep their crummy reality shows if it means music videos are consistently entertaining now.

Record Stores, CDs, and Radio

There are still a few record stores around, and some chains seem to be doing fairly well (see Turn It Up in New England and Cheapo in the Midwest). And I wish them well, because they both have a nice atmosphere and, well, a ton of CDs. Though I have to confess that I haven't bought any discs in quite some time. I don't have an iPod, so it has more to do with listening to the radio and saving any song I really like as a favorite in YouTube. That and the fact that I'm kind of cheap. Illegal song downloads have been around since the Internet was fast enough to sustain them, but it hasn't destroyed the music scene. By having music be available mostly online or through iTunes, though, it seems like CDs and the stores that sell them might be on the way out. Guess it's time to welcome a vacancy in the mall for a little while before letting another Starbucks move in.

Radio, I'm hoping, will endure. It's possible to play tunes off the iPod in vehicles, but it certainly seems unfair to require someone to pour thousands of dollars into a car and then demand that they go out and buy an iPod to fill with their desired songs and podcasts. So cars will always have stereo systems included in them, and hopefully radios will be a part of that. Plenty of radio stations are chock full of good music with minimal commercials and some pretty good DJs to boot. And then there are all of those concert giveaways and tornado warnings that radio brings you.

Guess they don't make a podcast for that.

Movies and Video Stores

One can pick up an illegal movie download as soon as a movie premieres, if not sooner. But that really can't compare to dropping some money every now and then to hit the theater and see something on the big screen. Not everything needs to be blown up to massive proportions with a nice sound system to get the full effect, though, and I do watch online movies on Hulu or Netflix in smaller windows. So any decline in movie revenues can be attributed to people holding onto their cash to put toward more essential needs or people deciding they don't want to see dreck like Furry Vengeance.

Dear fucking Christ

The Internet can't really be blamed for the gradual decline of video stores, either. The very fact that they're still called video stores when VHS has pretty much disappeared from the market isn't a good sign. And ironically enough, the true threat to them is Netflix and other mail-in services, which utilize the post office, which the Internet also threatens to some degree. It's much easier to have a DVD mailed directly to your house, or stream it online, than make a trip to a video store and face late fees. Though if the Internet kills the post office, you can never get movies ever again. Except bootlegs or a more extensive online stream network, which can be ported directly to your television. Dammit.


It's pretty much the same thing as movies. It's not like commercials weren't already interludes that let you get a snack or take a bathroom break, but TiVo has taken things to the logical conclusion by letting you skip them altogether. Hulu and other streaming sites offer pretty much the same perk: wait a day, miss the water cooler talk, and watch your show with only a scattering of 30-second ads. Of course, these ads can repeat themselves ad nauseum.

Overall verdict: television has had a few golden ages, and though it seems to have progressed from a "stupid reality shows" phase to an "endless cop shows" phase, there are plenty of terrific dramas and comedies out there and the Internet is probably helping them more than hurting them. It was pretty much the entire reason for the writer's strike back in 2007-2008, after all. All told, the Internet is much less threatening to television than the team that makes creative decisions at Fox.

Canceling this, and Arrested Development, and Greg the Bunny, and so on = Rupert Murdoch is going to the special hell

Video Games

Online games are about as graphically advanced as the old Playstation games. The real issue lies in their addictiveness. XKCD already said it very well:

Newspapers and Journalism

So here's my plan: I'm going to bury my head in the sand and ignore any and all bad news I hear related to newspapers.

A terrible strategy, I know, but I'm currently stuck in a situation which is neither dire nor ideal and I'm sure that's how the newspaper industry can be described as a whole. For all the jokes about every newspaper and magazine in the country fading into nothingness in a matter of months, they are still looked upon as a trusted source of local news (and national news, though there are plenty of people who criticize those as "liberal media" while implicitly trusting anything on Fox News). A newspaper subscription is cheaper than an Internet package, but of course a newspaper doesn't come with access to anything and everything ever produced. And those of us who grew up reading the funnies have realized that most of the comics now are bloated relics kept trundling along by an original artist's offspring while the stuff that makes you laugh has migrated online, where amusing people with some degree of artistic skill can reach a wider audience.

So newspapers are in trouble. They apparently can't afford to keep teams like Woodward and Bernstein focused on important stories, and the people who get fired are more likely to be the experienced reporters at a higher pay grade than the cubs who aren't paid much. At the same time, there's always a demand for news, and there seems to be a corresponding demand for accountability. Newspapers might convert into an online product or something like the version of the Minority Report version of the USA Today that morphs to incorporate breaking news, but it seems like there will always be a place for journalism. As long as journalism in general doesn't go off the rails into completely editorial territory.

If that thing leaves the island, that's it. It's over. Everything.

The post office

Which is easier: typing dozens of words per minute in an "electronic mail" that can be quickly and instantly sent to someone, or carefully scrawling out a letter and envelope, spending forty-some-odd cents to send it on its way, and getting it to the mailbox or post office where it will proceed to a destination within a few days.

For idle conversation and other routine correspondence, e-mail is ridiculously convenient. And with companies everywhere urging people to go paperless, will there come a time when the mail system simply collapses for lack of anything to distribute other than glossy junk mail? Well, hopefully not. Sending out cards for someone's birthday or other special events should be firmly in place. I don't think sympathy e-cards where a cartoon duck consoles you the loss of a loved one will catch on. And then there's always Netflix. Sweet savior of the postal system, Netflix!

Books and bookstores

And perhaps Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer said it best for this one: "Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a - it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It's-it's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly."

Apparently books are doing fine, even if they're being printed on paper and that's dying out and allowing trees to grow back and cure the planet of all its ills. Granted, most paperbacks published in North America are romance novels. Tell me, does the strapping guy with the pecs the size of Ohio get the fair maiden? Spare me the suspense! Still, there's something about relaxing in bed or a favorite chair with a good book. We're not at the point where everything had to be on the screen, are we?

Compact discs? How primitive the Martian libraries of the year 3000 are.

Language and grammar

Perhaps the biggest drawback of the Internet is that some idle browsing can inculcate the idea that the human race has gotten stupider since we can hide behind a pseudonym and post messages that look like the ramblings of a drunken 10-year-old. Some people probably post these things to be ironic, but, as Jon Stewart would say, YOU'RE NOT HELPING. Text messages have certainly helped in diluting words to as few letters as can be managed, and then of course Twitter came along. Have a thought? Please be sure to condense it into 140 characters or less, and use the number sign to join thousands of other people in commenting on some current event, or the @ symbol to try to get the attention of celebrities. Oh, if only William Faulkner were alive to take part in it!

I probably shouldn't be so crotchety. For the most part, the Internet is well-versed and coherent, with scholarly articles and widespread collections and a plethora of random sites like this one with the occasional (hopefully forgivable) lapses in spelling or grammar. Still, I'm unclear how a funny cat video can devolve into a debate over whether or not America sucks. And though hilarious, there's always and Lamebook (aka, "White Trash Gets A Facebook Account) to make us question the human race.

But I guess I can't really take too intellectual of a stance here considering the section I'm going out on.


"So you're looking for pornography, are you?" asks the kind Internet Merchant. "Well, I guess I can help you out. I've got a couple of billion images if you care to browse. About the same number of videos, too. It's all free, of course. And you can surf it all from the privacy of your own home instead of going into some sketchy shop or trying to buy a dirty magazine from some store clerk while waiting in line right in front of a Catholic grandmother getting Flintstones tablets for her three grandchildren. Is that all right with you?"

He's quite nice, this Internet Merchant.

You know what? Porn is like the cockroaches after a nuclear blast. It'll always be around, because it's a constantly changing thing. If the Romans took the time to make pornographic pictures out of hundreds of pieces of colored tile, I imagine pornography will always be riding in the wave of new technology like a top-notch surfer. Perhaps newspapers could learn a thing or two from it.

I'll be in my bunk.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Bears Took Over Alaska

By one depiction, Alaska is a black hole of civilization (even if there's a few months where the sun never goes down, but then again light gets sucked into a black hole). By this logic, those guys who came up with the term "Seward's Folly" to describe the decision of Lincoln's Secretary of State to by an enormous chunk of land from Russia on the cheap were right. Not so much because they thought it would be a "hostage territory" vulnerable to foreign invasion (though the Japanese still fought pretty damn hard for a few fragments of the Aleutians during World War II) but because $7.2 million seemed like a lot of money for a desolate swath of tundra and ice. So from the scattered reports that have escaped from the wasteland, it appears Alaska is critically short on women, locked in a losing war with the fearsome moose, packed with kooky politicians who think the Internet is made of tubes and Democrats are embarking on a mission of pulling the plug on old people, and uncomfortably mixing a reliance on alcohol with the greatest ratio of pilot's licenses in the nation.

The other interpretation is that Alaska is a terrific place with some of the best natural beauty in the country. Seward's purchase gave the nation a new tallest mountain, as well as a plethora of amazing forests and rivers and wildlife. And residents came up with the crazy-but-fun-sounding ideas of an epic sled dog race and a bloodying scramble up the shale-littered slope of a mountain. Not to mention all that oil and timber that comes out of the deal.

So grinding all of those traits in a blender yields this:

"And the number one threat to America..."

Alaska was one of the last states to enter the Union and, correspondingly, one of the last states to get a quarter in the program. Designed by Charles Vickers and released on August 23, 2008, the quarter quite simply depicts a huge friggin' grizzly bear snagging a salmon from an isolated river. The only other features to point out are the inscription "The Great Land" (referencing the fact that Alaska could crush much of the continental U.S. if dropped on it) and the North Star, hidden off to the side of "1959" and likely a reference to the magnetic colorstorms that are nicely visible in the state.

There might be some hidden references to other aspects of Alaskan life here, such as the hint of a tree on the shore referencing forestry and/or the natural beauty of the state. And the fact that bears have either massacred all of the residents and taken over the state, or at least ousted all human fishermen and monopolized the salmon market.

They took our jobs! But they're so cute...

It's a little tough to take on the Alaska state quarter. While searching around, I discovered that the crew over at Rifftrax deemed it the most awesome state quarter of the whole bunch. This duo made up the meat of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and in their final showdown they gave Alaska the coveted title over Wisconsin, despite their strong ties to the state from childhood and university studies. It would be a little difficult to match these wits in a battle to mock state quarters, so I'll just sum up that they felt the Alaska quarter was legitimately awesome while the cheese and cow of the Wisconsin quarter were only awesome in an ironic way.

And then there's this:

Governor Palin unveils Alaska's two-bit competitor of the AK-47

With the release of quarters once again corresponding to important events, the Alaska quarter went into circulation only six days before John McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. And if you didn't like the bear design, you can at least be glad that the schedule wasn't tweaked to have the quarter released a year later. If that was the case, the GOP probably would have clamored to have Palin smiling beneath the banner reading, "You betcha!"