Cable, Piracy, Football, and Other Assorted Ballyhoo

An interesting conversation broke out on my friend Alanna’s facebook wall the other day. She works for a marketing firm, on account with a well-known premium cable company. The link she had posted had a lot to say about the future of cable as relates to streaming applications, and a spirited but civil debate about the future of television and cable broke out in the comments thread (a useful comments thread, imagine that). The main question posed to the assembled was when (not if) cable would be on the way out.

The last time I had cable was almost 5 years ago, and I can’t even really remember why I got it. I hadn’t lived in a home with a cable TV package since moving out of my parents house at eighteen. It probably had something to do with basketball, but soon, the ability to watch Spurs and occasional Mavericks or Rockets games didn’t seem worth the $100 charge Time Warner had levied on me, especially for a connection that broke down into digital distortion or cut out altogether semi-regularly. I returned the cable box before my lease was up, and I haven’t had a cable package since.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that I’m not the only one in this situation. This is an argument we all heard back in the late 1990s when Napster and filesharing began to threaten the recording industry status quo, but the mechanisms by which entertainment companies are lagging behind. I’ve been more or less opposed to piracy in theory if not in practice since the whole Napster debacle began (but admittedly, that was before I had a broadband connection), identifying with many actually well-known and successful artists who bristled at the thought of their work being traded freely over the Internet without their consent. It wasn’t about the money (for me, at least); the idea of a faceless public deciding for themselves what they did with my work made me see red. However, I also saw the logic in the put-upon consumer, who, only caring about two or three songs on a given album, bristled at the idea of shelling out $20 for what essentially amounted to a coaster outside of those few tracks.

We all know the story of music-browsing legitimacy, Spotify, iTunes, et al, but we can only wonder what’s going to happen with television. Once again, I’m opposed on a theoretical level (especially given that a project I am directly involved with is now a target of piracy), but I can see a certain kind of justification when it comes to premium television. An example from my own life: I liked Breaking Bad. I hadn’t really paid attention until the show was already in its 3rd season or so, giving me ample time to catch up on the DVD back catalogue. My internal chronology is spotty on how exactly the events unfolded, but I knew that once I had plowed through the DVDs, I basically just waited for the next season to finish up and hit discs as well, not wanting to go through the rigmarole and risk of pirating the episodes I hadn’t seen, and rationalizing that I wanted to be able to binge-watch giant chunks of the season at once, as I had done with The Wire a few years prior once that series had wrapped. My own ADD and other things kept me from jonesin’ too hard, and by the time season 5b (ugh) was ready to hit the airwaves, I was caught up and ready. I wanted to close out the end of this series that I had loved so much as it unfolded, and living in NYC, I had no faith that I would be able to avoid spoilers until the final season went out on DVD or netflix.

The only problem? Breaking Bad was broadcast on AMC, a cable channel, and I had no desire to install a cable hookup (one more tiny non-argument is that hooking up cable in new and old apartment buildings is an incredibly tedious and mind-numbingly annoying thing to arrange, but that’s neither here nor there) when I had no plans to watch 95% of the programming. I had Netflix, after all. Why should I have to buy the whole damn farm when all I wanted was one cow? With hypocrisy coursing through my veins, I downloaded (most) of the final episodes of Breaking Bad as they came out.

And y’know what? I don’t feel bad in the slightest. If there were any reasonable way to watch Breaking Bad a la carte (ie: without paying close to or over $100 for a cable package with a commitment), I would have happily paid it. As a consumer, I was given no reasonable option by which to purchase the thing I wanted. Yes, at its core, this argument is fraudulent, since creators and content providers are free to disseminate their media by any means they see fit, but I see no reason why I, the consumer, should have to shoulder the cost of a system that is inefficient and broken.

Getting back to the conversation on Alanna’s wall, live sports broadcast were a hot button topic. One commenter said that her household kept up their cable package AND their NFL Sunday Ticket premium service solely so her husband (bf? I can’t remember) could watch his games. That’s a lot of money to watch what essentially boils down to three full games of football per week for only a portion of the year, and blackout restrictions once again continue to protect a system of network affiliates that depend on the ability to exclusively show certain games in certain markets. This is less of an issue with the NFL in particular, as the limited number of games being shown at any one time combined with the massive popularity of the sport means that if you have an “all-inclusive” package like Sunday ticket, AND decent digital antenna, you can watch any of the out of market games AND any of the blacked-out in-market games (that will be broadcast on local networks). It gets much more annoying when dealing with NCAA football or the NBA, two leagues that have a crapload of teams that play a crapload of games. Thus, even though I have a subscription to NBA league pass, some games will ALWAYS be unavailable to me without a cable package. This gets even more annoying when the NBA progresses to the playoffs (doing some research, I found that consumers who have league pass as part of their cable package will get a certain number of playoff games through their subscription, which….seems close to utterly useless, being that they already have a damn cable package. No word on what stand-alone app users like myself get).

It seems as though premium networks like HBO see the writing on the wall with the rise of content providers like Netflix and Amazon. Quaint though it was, the notion of the public gathering as one to watch a broadcast of non-live show all over the country is going out the window in favor of economics and giving the consumer what they want. I fully believe that it’s only a matter of years before nearly every premium cable network offers a standalone streaming service.

Live sports are whole different animal, given how tangled up the system is with blackouts, local affiliates of networks owned by corporate media giants that stand to make a lot of money through the exclusive broadcast of certain games to certain areas, and the fact that sports are more or less the one thing that everybody wants to watch live. I put my money where my mouth was this year, and got subscriptions to both NBA League Pass and NFL Sunday ticket. Combined with my digital antenna, it makes for an (im)perfect solution to not having a cable package. As technology gets better and cheaper, it’s hard to imagine that they demand for this stuff won’t grow, but the networks certainly have the ball in their court (dumb sports metaphor very much intended) when it comes to doling out the content as they see fit.

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The Emperor’s New Food

So last night, Leigh and I went to Eleven Madison Park. For those unfamiliar, EMP is a 3 Michelin star restaurant, and included in almost every food critic’s list of best restaurants in New York City, often at #1. We had been wanting an otherworldly experience for a while, and after a few days of trying to nab a reservation I finally got one for a Tuesday.

This isn’t a food blog and this essay is not a food review, so I’ll dispense with the build-up: we were not very impressed. I’m not against the idea of 12-course tasting menus, experimenting with bold flavor profiles, locally sourced ingredients, or even the idea of paying an extravagant amount of money for a great product. Without getting into any humble-braggy details, I believe firmly that you almost always end up paying for the finer things in life. I’m not the dude who believes that all jeans over $40 are a ripoff. But I suspect, in the case of EMP, that a lot of the patrons may be drinking the kool-aid.

As a cursory google search will tell you, this is not a cheap place to dine, and I think it stands to reason that anybody who parts with that kind of cash for a meal (save for the wealthiest of the wealthy among us) might be tempted to pump up his or her expectations, and also gloss over his or her honest reaction. After all, who wants to admit that they just got bilked out of a few hundred clams? Speaking of the wealthiest of the wealthy, I took a look at the crowd and it seemed that maybe 85% of the people in the place (on a Tuesday) were engaged in some sort of client meeting. In other words, I wonder if the minds behind EMP and other such NYC institutions might coast a little on the fact that their exclusivity and reputation makes them desirable, even if their food is (IMHO) not worth the tab.

There is, of course, no accounting for taste. Maybe the people at Michelin and the leagues upon leagues of raving critics appreciate experimentation, boldness, and creativity much more than I do. As I said, I’m not one to shy away from the strange and out there (I thoroughly enjoyed WD-50 the one time I dined there, and that came with a hefty price tag as well), but I am, at heart, a traditionalist. I’d rather have a tried-and-true classic, executed to perfection, than a bold and daring 12 course tasting menu that hits its mark less than 1/3rd of the time. Nothing I sampled was “bad” per se, but only a scant few of the courses actually made me stop and go “wow” (the cocktails were great, though).

Furthermore, while the service and presentation at EMP were certainly top-notch in a technical sense, it was hard not to feel as though we were being monitored for dutifully amazed reactions to everything put in front of us. With fine dining, I think a restaurant has to walk a tight rope between making the customer feel pampered and setting the institution up as something incredible to marvel at. Too far in one direction makes for a sour experience, and I definitely felt that EMP swung too far towards believing its own legend. Also, the whole experience felt oddly fractured somehow. Things swung back and forth between minimalist and grand. Everything comes out to you on mostly bare plates, arranged just so, with lots of artfully placed morsels, but it’s served in a cavern of a room with towering ceilings and a layout that leaves everyone feeling exposed to the rest of the room, with little o no intimacy possible. It’s somehow ornate and sterile at the same time. I’d personally prefer a more intimate arrangement of tables, with lower lighting and comfortable seating (our corner booth left my back aching minutes into the meal), but that’s just me.

Again, there’s no accounting for taste, and while I knew what I was getting into with this kind of restaurant I certainly feel that the praise continually heaped upon EMP is excessive, to say the least. Even if it’s not my preferred style or something I would eat every day (again, I’d certainly hope not, given the price tag), I feel confident that I can make a fair and impartial judgment on the execution of the restaurant, judging solely by their apparent goals. In the case of EMP, I think they fell well short of the mark that such a reputation and such a bill demands.

Brave New World: Considering Solutions to “The Texting Problem”

I don’t think anybody who reads this blog needs to be reminded of my position on phone use in theaters.

However, this issue has again come to the forefront, after a woman maced a man who had repeatedly asked her to stop using her phone in the middle of a screening.  At this point, we have to consider the practical ramifications of living in a world where making a reasonable request for someone to stop being selfish and rude for two whole hours results in being physically assaulted.

Clearly, people in theaters should not be using their phones or talking or otherwise creating a disturbance. It’s rude, and I’m not going to continue to debate that, so all the Anil Dash supporters can withhold their comments. However, accepting that people are going to continue to be dumb and thoughtless, I can then back off my position and say that people who have been asked by others to cease their rude behavior should own up to it and, y’know, stop. It would appear that some people would rather hurt somebody else than to have their shitty behavior corrected, however, so continuing to reiterate that people “just shouldn’t do it” is no longer going to cut it.

We live in a connected society. We’re tethered to our phones and screens, to a point that some of us are (apparently) willing to assault people to keep those connections active. We can’t uninvent smartphones, however, so let’s think about how we can actually solve this problem rather than continuing to bitch about it fruitlessly.

A while back some waves were made in the film community because some people began throwing around the idea of “screen friendly” theaters (ironic name, don’tcha think?): select auditoriums in theaters that would be designated as phone and device friendly. The response was pretty uniformly negative, and I was among those opposed. However, in light of incidents like the above linked one, I’m rethinking my stance. After all, short of patting down people coming into theaters and confiscating phones, we can’t actually stop people from texting or talking on the phone. We can react, but we can’t stop it. But when there is a clear threat of a violent reaction to the person correcting the behavior (be it a fellow filmgoer or an usher or a security guard), we have to start thinking about a safe way to deal with it, much as it pains me to kowtow to buffoons.

If there were such auditoriums in theaters, they would have to be designated as phone free concurrently with a zero tolerance crackdown on the “no-phone” theaters. In my ideal scenario, that consists of ushers or security being posted inside the auditorium whose sole job is to be proactive about detecting phone use, and who, no arguments, eject first time offenders with no refund. Anything less means that the theater will have a few screenings a day that are guaranteed to be annoying for anybody who doesn’t want to be disturbed, and the others will have a 90% chance of being annoying. I have little faith that theaters that designate “screen friendly” theaters will be proactive about enforcing existing policies or implementing stricter ones. To (most of) the big chains, it’s all about money, not about crafting an enjoyable experience.

Alternatively, I think we need to shift the focus to providing a safe place for people who don’t want their experience disturbed. If Anil Dash and his ilk are correct and the majority of people are totally into people texting and talking and being obnoxious (a dubious claim), then people like me (and nearly everyone else I know) deserve a space too. We need a theater where we can rest easy knowing that nobody will whip out their phone or attack us if we ask them to be quiet. I’d personally love to see a theater with a coat-check like phone-check system, perhaps with lockers for added security (implement the same zero tolerance for screens policy in these theaters as well). To everyone who always counters “What about people who need their phone like doctors, etc”, I say this: if you really can’t be without your phone for 90 minutes, you either have a disgusting security-blanket addiction to technology or you are too busy to go to a movie. Or, in this future semi-dystopia I’ve concocted, you can go to one of the many “screen friendly” theaters instead of ruining my experience like a selfish brat.

So there’s the bottom line: movie talkers and texters are either a selfish minority or an oppressive majority. Either way, if we’re going to talk about the spirit of compromise, we should all acknowledge that people who don’t want to deal with one of the few things they love being soured deserve a place to watch movies too.

Also, if there’s any justice in this world, that woman will be arrested for assault.

Tig Notaro

Last night I saw Tig Notaro perform at Town Hall (courtesy of my lovely girlfriend and Town Hall usher Leigh Schanfein). I had first become aware of Notaro, like (I assume) many others, after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and gave a performance that has been described as “legendary” by fellow comedians and critics alike. It takes a lot of guts, after all, to open a comedy set by waving to the crowd and bluntly stating “I have cancer!” over and over again. Audio clips of that performance have been circulating in various circles and I encourage everybody to go check it out. Not only is it bold, but it’s hilarious.

Last night at Town Hall, Notaro gave another powerhouse performance. Her storytelling chops and precise, deadpan timing were on full display, as well as her ability to control the ebb and flow of audience reaction (an off-the cuff interaction between a crowd member who also hailed from Mississippi was especially enjoyable). The “brave” aspect of Notaro’s performane should not undercut the overall elite level of comedy that was happening in Town Hall that night, but it’s hard not to focus on such a unique and uncompromising moment from a master of the craft. As Notaro wrapped up a bit about being mistaken for a man at an airport after deciding not to have reconstructive surgery following her double mastectomy, she removed her blazer, and a man in the back of the theater hollered out a (hopefully) good-natured wolf-whistle. Notaro was genuinely delighted, letting fly with a guffaw and then saying something akin to “did you not just hear the story? There’s nothing to see here” (I’m doing some very sketchy paraphrasing). She followed up with a playful warning to the audience that she had considered doing the whole show topless, and she was only a few “woos” away from doing so. There followed (of course) an immediate smattering of woos, and Notaro proved she wasn’t bluffing. She put down her microphone, unbuttoned her shirt, and stripped it from her waist, to a surge of cheers and applause.

She riffed on the new situation for a few minutes (how could she not?), and then continued her set, shirtless, with her flat chest on full display, surgery scars and all. She did not replace the shirt until the audience was wrapping up their standing ovation at the end of her set. As the jokes continued, the titters at Notaro’s naked torso gradually died down, and then stopped altogether.

I am, in point of fact, not a woman, and it’s very unlikely that I will ever get breast cancer, so I want to go on the record as saying I can’t be sure of Notaro’s intentions. However, I think a comedian of her caliber understands the inherent value of making statements with jokes, and vice versa, and she also (clearly) understands the enhanced power of those statements that are made without being didactic, condescending, or even with opening one’s mouth. What exactly was Notaro doing by stripping her shirt off? Getting a crowd riled up and engaged, to be sure, but she was also sending a clear message that this was who she was: someone who was not afraid to lay herself, her cancer, and her gender (complete with her new yet unaltered body) bare. To me, she was saying: I don’t care that society has ideas about what makes a woman a woman, and I don’t care that people might think that a woman with no breasts is gross or weird or something to be hidden away and not commented on. She was saying: I’m here, and nobody is going to tell me otherwise. One of the last comments Notaro made concerning her bare chest was (again, I’m paraphrasing) “We’re alive. We might as well have fun!”

Hats off, and shirts off, to Tig Notaro.

A Hipster By Any Other Name

The word “hipster” has been so broadly defined that it’s close to meaningless now. But I can’t think of any other word to describe the unique sense of shame and retconned nostalgia I feel when I shuffle up pop-punk/alt rock playlists from the 90s and early 2000s on Spotify.

In middle school and through most of high school, I felt that I had some sort of cred to uphold. Since I prided myself on supposedly being set apart from the general crowd at my tiny private high school, I made a point of liking the music that tended to rankle the ESD rank-and-file and despise all of the stuff that they loved. There were some noted exceptions to this: a lot of guys on the football team were also really into Metallica, for example, but generally, I felt I had some sort of “artistic obligation” (urgh) to eschew most radio-friendly alt-rock, hip hop, and pop country (Garth Brooks, Pat Green, et al).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been forced to admit that I actually like some of this stuff. Bands like Third Eye Blind, Newfound Glory, Jimmy Eat World, and even one-hit wonders like Wheatus and SR71 have crept onto my listening devices with increasing regularity. As a resort, I’m finding myself nostalgic for stuff that I HATED WHEN IT WAS POPULAR. This seems weird to me, and probably makes me more than a little obnoxious, but I have a really half-baked defense ready.

A lot of this music felt nostalgic BACK THEN. Blink 182 and Fallout Boy and their assorted cohort always seemed to be wistfully looking back on misspent youth, and maybe they were. Maybe groups like Sr-71 were just hyper-aware, and thus able to write songs like “Right Now”, that acknowledged how fucked up and shitty their treatment of girlfriends was. Was that era of music really that unique in terms of generational distance? David Cross once derided groups like these very aptly by suggesting that they sang “10th grade suburban white girl lyrics that shouldn’t be coming out of 30 year old men”. Hilarious as that bit is, if we’re going to be cynical about it, what else were these guys going to sing about? In the 1990s and early 2000s, teenagers were the biggest market share for that kind of music, and they wanted to listen to shit that seemed relatable, right? It’s also possible that these bands just weren’t all that creative and were stuck in a songwriting pattern that emerged when they were angst-ridden teens wailing away in garages. 14 year old Bowling for Soup probably wasn’t all that different from 34 year old Bowling for Soup, but on the other hand, Bowling for Soup wrote a song about being in love with girls that were into rap metal, which didn’t exist when they were in junior high, so who knows.

Regardless, I certainly didn’t have the intellectual fortitude to grasp any of these theories when I was 14 myself, but something about a bunch of kids who hadn’t graduated high school ALREADY BEING NOSTALGIC FOR HIGH SCHOOL rubbed me the wrong way. Looking back, I had it pretty made growing up, but like all dumb teenagers I was convinced that the world around me was absolute shit and that I had to escape at all costs. By that token, bands that all seemed to be fronted by wistful, wet-eyed douchebags made me want to rip my hair out.

But like I said…I like this stuff now. It makes me feel nostalgic for a time and place in my life that existed but I was never really a part of. Maybe my newfound appreciation for this stuff comes from my general “who cares” attitude towards 90% of today’s music, both popular and unpopular (thus the cycle of snotty contrarianism continues). As I did when I found all of the popular stuff insufferable, I’ve reached backward, getting more into The Replacements, Fleetwood Mac, and other ands that people usually discover sometime in their mid teens. Maybe my timing’s just off.

Speaking of timing being off, a side tangent: a more grating offshoot of this kind of radio-rock that I enjoy (albeit a bit more ironically) is buttrock, broadly defined as jocks who blew their knees out playing high school football and decided to become sensitive/tortured rock dudes so they could nail stupid chicks. Ever since Michael Nance swept me off my feet with his amazing karaoke rendition, “Lips of an Angel” by Hinder has seemed like something of a calling card for this genre, but this song came out in MOTHERFUCKING 2006. What???! This blows my mind. Everything about this song, video, and the band’s costumes look like it was ripped straight from 1999/2000. They could have shared a double bill with The Calling and Puddle of Mudd. The mind reels.

Post-Halloween and Cat-calling

I didn’t wear a costume this Halloween. In the past 3 years, in fact, I’m 1-2 on wearing costumes on October 31st. That 1 costume was the FBI composite sketch of the unibomber (unabomber?). Most people didn’t understand it, one dumbass drunk girl didn’t know who it was even when I said “the unabomber”, and apparently some guy at the party had a close friendly friend who was maimed by Ted Kacyynzki (sic). Oh well.

This year, I had some people over to my place for a little horror movie watching, pizza, candy, and booze. That’s pretty much all I wanted to get into this year, and it was great. Navigating the trains, and especially trying to get anywhere in Manhattan, is a huge pain in the ass on Hallowen, and much like New Year’s, I approach the usual adult selection of parties and bar hopping with weary annoyance. I am no Halloween humbug: I love seeing people’s costumes and getting a little lost in the mask of pseudo-anonymity and having a few nights a year where you drink your face off and talk codshit to strangers, but it’s not really my bag, as it exists now. Much as non-douchey people my age love to bash Santacon (lest there be any confusion, fuck Santacon), Halloween doesn’t really feel that much different in New York. I think this is probably my own personal beef with celebrating what is essentially a young man’s holiday. I don’t need to be annoyed for 45% of the evening, dealing with the MTA once again imploding under even the slightest pressure and seeing a bunch of grown-ass adults in black face fighting over who gets to date rape the cougar who can barely walk straight dressed as a schoolgirl in 50 degree weather.

I’d rather bask in what passes for indulgences in the mind of a prematurely cantankerous man pushing 30. Not leaving my apartment. Hanging out with close friends. Eating a lot. Getting pleasantly drunk without having to take a train or cab. Watching great horror movies. These are the things that made up my blast of a Halloween last night. We watched Hellraiser, which nobody else had seen and which looks great on blu, The Ring, an Silence of the Lambs (which is totally a horror movie, shut up). I ate so much candy and pizza I felt like a walking bag of salty gas, and drank so much wine and cider that I passed out at around 2am. What the hell happened to me?

Speaking of blackface…just stop. How is this still a thing that people are doing? Are they just trolls? That’s the only possible explanation I can think of. I can’t believe that any reasonable adult person living in the United States (or most other places, for that matter) can, at this point, consider using blackface in their Halloween costume and still think that it’s a good idea. Just…look, I’m not even going to get into why you shouldn’t do this because I respect people who will read this post more than that. You KNOW it is a shitty thing to do. So stop fucking doing it. Just stop. Thanks.

Speaking of things that people should just stop doing, I feel like I should comment on that cat-calling video that’s going around. Normally, I tend to stay out of these kinds of conversation, because they tend to get very emotional and the rhetoric tends to become garbled when you discuss something so personal (I could go on at length about problems I have with some of the rhetoric being used by some people writing about rape culture, but that’s for another post). However, after getting into a very long and good conversation with my good friend Amy about gamer gate (Amy is one of the smartest people I know, a gamer, and also as level-headed a person as I’ve ever encountered), I realized that I can’t ONLY be critical of the bad rhetoric coming from the side I believe in, I also have to be vocal, as a someone who enjoys all kinds of social and cultural privileges, to speak up when people are habitually doing shitty things.

So in the spirit of ending tacit approval, here it goes: stop doing this. Stop cat-calling. No conditions, no “what ifs”, no bullshit whiny derailing horse shit about how this means the end of chivalry or claims that men are going to start being demonized for saying “hello”. It is not hard for you to figure out when somebody does or does not want to be talked to or approached. It is not hard to respect their wishes. Nobody is saying that talking to somebody is harassment, so stop making that bullshit argument. The people in that video are being annoying and disrespectful at best and predatory/threatening at worst. No one in this video is trying to “start a conversation”, they are attempting to assert authority and feel better about themselves by wallowing in the fact that men are pretty much free to say anything they want to with a woman without consequence. And anybody who is legitimately trying to start a conversation with good intentions is an idiot and they need to brush up on their social skills. There’s a time and a place to talk to or attempt to chat up people, and there’s a good and a bad way to do it. Just in case you were wondering: the good way is to read body language, social cues, and other easy signs to first determine if this person wants to talk at all. If you decide to engage somebody in conversation, do so in a respectful manner. That means something along the lines of “Hi.” It doesn’t mean commenting on somebody’s body, or using a shitty pickup line, or interrupting somebody who is already talking to somebody else. It also means being ready, willing, and able to take “no” for an answer.

I’m getting too far off topic. If you’re a grownup, you should know that this shit isn’t OK. Stop doing it. And if you’re first reaction to that video was to start coming up with tons of ways to shift the conversation to how “unfairly” men are being treated, you should take a good, long hard look at yourself in the mirror and think about how you look at the world.