Latest 3 Things

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

3 Cable Catches

There have been very few technological constants for my generation. We were the generation that started with Atari and now has the Playstation 3; the generation that started with mobile phones in shoulder bags and now has the iPhone; the generation that started with dial in BBS’ and now was the world-wide-web. But for all that change there has been once constant, one wondrous bit of technology that still gets in and out of our houses and lives the same way it did when we were kids, one word as essential to our lives as water, power, and lights: cable. We were the first generation who didn’t know about “rabbit ears” and rooftop antennas. Cable was and is the media engine driving the freight train of middle-class suburbia. In a wireless world, cable is a hard line connection to the information and entertainment superhighway of the world - from the time when it was a few dozen channels, to the time when it will be a few thousand. But for all its wonder, cable’s constancy can produce just as much frustration as it does comfort. That magic black wire coming out of wall connecting you to limitless worlds of wonder also connects to a massive media conglomerate which is less functional that the Palin family in November, and often times makes less sense. So, here are 3 things to hate about the cable we love:

1. Addicted to A Lot Of. It’s not as though there aren’t alternatives to cable. As impossible as it may seem, television is still broadcast over the air, and you can still get the internet through your phone line. But the idea of watching only eight network channels feels like living in a communist country with state-run TV stations and dial-up internet feels about as functional as having the internet completely in Chinese. Like it or not, we’ve become accustomed and addicted to the information superhighway, and the information dirt road offered by these antiquated systems almost seems worse than not having any access at all. Not only do I expect a couple hundred channels, I also expect to have the programming guide built into my television and I’d be more likely to pick up an Us Magazine than a TV Guide. If I saw an antenna on a house, I’d also immediately begin looking for pet chickens, a car on cinder blocks and at least one piece of household furniture being used outside. And if I heard anyone using their telephone line to log into AOL, I would also expect them to, at some point, ask me if I could loan them some money to help them with a scheme to wire a lost fortune to a member of the Nigerian royal family who e-mailed them right after they express their concern that eBay might be a scam. Cable has given me a jones for data and data rates as bad as any substance addiction - and even worse, has made me (as the addict) look at everyone who isn’t addicted like there’s something wrong with them. Thanks, cable... now get me my fix.

2. Holding to No One. It’s not often that I have to actually call the cable company. Aside from starting and stopping service, or inquiring about why the latest weather condition has rendered a system that uses underground cabling useless, it’s mostly a hands-free relationship. But on those rare occasions I’m reminded that the cable obviously doesn’t expect many calls either - because they apparently only have one customer service representative for every three states, and my “approximate hold time”, even if I call at 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, is going to be about 45 minutes. All of this can be explained by corporate (if not good customer service) policy. But what I cannot get my head around is why the company which provides me access to nearly limitless entertainment options has the same mind-numbing smooth jazz on-hold music that they had in the 1970’s. Seriously, my own cable service has fifty channels of just music in almost every conceivable genre, and yet when I’m stuck on hold for the better part of an hour, I’m forced to listen to music that sounds like it was compiled from the trash bin behind an “easy listening” AM radio station. This is like going to Sony corporate headquarters and being forced to watch TV in their lobby on a black and white tube set that takes ten minutes to warm up after you turn it on. C’mon cable, if you’re selling entertainment choices, how about providing me some when I’m forced to spend an hour on hold just to tell you I’m moving.

3. Window Stopping. I’m still not quite certain why initiating cable service requires an on-site visit, because they can damned sure turn it off remotely (try not paying your bill if you don't believe me). Personally, I suspect that the cable-installers union has some sort of dirt on the cable company executives (e.g. the sweetheart deal they have with the “hold muzak” folks) which is keeping them involved in the installation process - because from what I can tell, all they do is connect the wall to your TV, call into the office (which is who really turns it on) and then asks you if you need any help setting your TV up. And for all of this “work” you get to pay 60 bucks. To make any more doing any less, I’m pretty sure you’d have to start taking some clothing off. But what is truly annoying about this “service call” is the scheduling of it. For every other conceivable home service, you can schedule an hour during which you can expect the service provider to arrive. But for cable, you get to select a four hour window, which you can expect the cable provider to arrive approximately 30 minutes after it concludes. If the rest of us were that incapable of planning our time, we’d be fired, alone and/or hungry. Don’t believe me? Try giving your boss, your significant other or your favorite restaurant a four hour window for when you plan on showing up. There’s no better indication that cable is giving us a product we can’t live without than the fact that we actually put up with this as “customer service”.

* * *

No matter how we may rage against it, we are a culture of consumption, excess and addiction. And as our addictions have shifted, changed and matured, the truly successful have been those in the best position to peddle it to us when our social curiosities blossom into full-on cultural shifts: big tobacco, big pharma and now, big data. The newest generations consume data at an exponentially higher rate than any before them, multitasking has become the status quo, and the inability to receive input from more than one source is antiquated to the point of being a cognitive handicap. As our data appetites have grown in both volume and variety, cable has been there, always willing to provide us a new or additional serving, albeit at a price. For all the unsavory, inexplicable and horrible things about it, cable offers our drug of choice in its purest and most potent form - and like any other drug dealer, they do it with all the corporate style of a velour track suit, ostentatious jewelry and an over-tinted windows. But as we gather reasons to hate them, perhaps we should wonder which we hate more: the billion dollar fat-cat company that irresponsibly feeds our info-jones, or just how much we need them?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

3 Irish Flubs

In four short days, the Notre Dame football season will, for all practical purposes, come to an abrubt and thankful ending. Because after this Saturday, there will be nothing left for the Fighting Irish to play for. Four years after the world’s most presumptuous, pretentious and unknowledgable sports fans finally watched the most lopsided rivalry in the history of college football come to an end, they’ll get to watch it happen again (for the third time in four years) - on the world’s biggest stage. Because on October 23, 2010 the brand new sparkling $1.5B Meadowlands Stadium (new home to the New York Giants and New York Jets, and football’s biggest church) will host its very first college football game, and a once proud dynasty will meet a still proud dynasty, as Navy and Notre Dame clash for the 84th consecutive time. There is no more idyllic clash in sports; and nowhere where good versus evil has clearer sides. But on the off chance you’re new to this annual battle, here are 3 reasons to want Navy to beat Notre Dame:

1. Blue-ish Bloods. There is only one thing that I hate more than blue-blooded, entitled, high-society, family-moneyed douchebags, and that’s wanna be blue-blooded, entitled, high-society, family-moneyed douchebags. I mean, the U.S. version of the gold-domed Notre Dame couldn’t be any farther from its Roman counterpart if it was on the moon. Be honest, if you didn’t already know the school was there, what exactly would you expect to find in a town called South Bend, Indiana? One stoplight? Bunch of old guys sitting in a barber shop talking about high school football? A crooked sheriff that everyone knows and a couple of crazy kids in a tricked out Dodge Charger? (Wait, maybe that's Hazzard County.) Seriously though, the closest three towns to South Bend are: Mishawaka, Granger and Elkhart. No, I'm not kidding. Now tell me you’d even guess “Indiana” if I asked you which state those towns were in, let alone whether or not you’d expect that they ring some gilded palace of learning and athletic excellence. Don’t worry, though, they don’t. Of course they think they’re better than the hard-working blue collar state that hosts it, which makes it all the more satisfying to watch the bluest of blue collared schools show them that they bleed red, just like the rest of us.

2. Glory Daze. It’s one of the most American of phenomena, and also one the most universally insufferable. In a culture where the highest values are placed on youth and success while young, it comes as little surprise when many of us hold on to the past a little longer than we should. For most, it’s retelling stories of our scholastic triumphs just a little too often to be interesting, with just a little too much embellishment to be believable, or just a little too proudly to be laughed off as casual reminiscence. But for the Notre Dame fan, it’s something else altogether. For them, it is reliving a past they know little (if anything) about. And for any of them under the age of thirty, it’s a past they can’t recall - because they weren’t born yet. The last great quarterback to come from this purported "Quarterback U" was Joe Montana - Class of ’79. Which is just 15 years later than the last great quarterback from Navy (Roger Staubach). And if 15 years sounds like a long time, it’s more than twice that long since Montana’s rookie NFL season. Despite the fact that the last time they were nationally relevant I was still an undergrad (trust me, that’s a long time ago), Irish fans talk about national championships and undefeated seasons every year. If there was ever a team made to relieve Notre Dame fans of these delusions, it’s one that uses its past successes as a source of humility and perspective rather than as a set of blinders and an excuse to treat a ten-year pattern of mediocrity as an aberration.

3. Dis-mission. At its very heart, the University of Notre Dame, its fans, its students and its football team believe that the military is something that you do if you’re not smart enough to go to college - a sort of national trade school that affords the proletariat the opportunity to, at the very least, risk their lives so that the privileged few who are fortunate enough to matriculate upon their hallowed grounds can be kept safe and free from worry from a world filled with violent and uneducated hegemony. As John Kerry famously opined, they believe that the military is a punitive occupation that you are resigned to if you don’t work hard enough in school. They pay patronizing tribute to the service academies when they come to play football - treating the games like charity exhibitions where they aren’t really going to have to play; after all, they have gifted blue-chip recruited athletes, and as far as they're concerned, we’re playing the game with a few reformed criminals, ruffians and mouth-breathers that we cobbled together just before the season. There is no greater standard-bearer for this Age of Entitlement than the Univerisity of Notre Dame, which feels to its core, that it ought to win just for showing up. If you can’t root against a team like this, and for the team they most routinely dismissed - you’re hardly a football fan, in fact, you’re hardly an American.

* * *
For 43 straight years, from 1964 to 2006, Navy walked off the field of play with the Fighting Irish in defeat. For 43 straight years, a nation of mindless Notre Dame fans, minds filled with the fictions of “Rudy” and the lisped warblings of Lou Holtz, watched their prejudices validated every November - and slept peacefully in the knowledge that no matter their own personal inadequacies, their boys in blue and gold (colors which we had first anyways) would triumph over those haggard souls relegated to paid service of their nation on the front lines of war. But then it all ended. And the opponent they least suspected rose up and delivered a long overdue comeuppance - on the their own home turf, no less. Two years later, we did it again. And on Saturday, with the arrival of a new coach and a few cupcake victories having stoked the fires of South Bend entitlement once more, good will again triumph over evil, hard work and heart will again triumph over birthright and apathy, this year’s Matt Coutures will watch their ill-fated season ended at the hands of real warriors, and maybe, just maybe they’ll realize that’s the way it should have been all along.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

3 Dance Dance De-Evolutions

There's no doubt that dancing changed my life. It was the singular vehicle responsible for transforming me from a shy wallflower to the gregarious extrovert that most of you know today. I’ve written many times about the joy and wonder of dance, suggested it as therapy for just about any manner of blues and waxed poetic on the dance club where I really learned what dancing was all about. But in keeping with their tradition of bastardizing, perverting and utterly destroying any institution they get a hold of, the latest generations are having a similar effect on my most beloved of pastimes. There are of course, notable exceptions. At its highest levels, dancing has actually become more athletic, more artful, and more amazing. Unfortunately, everyone else couldn’t be further from these talented artists. Today’s dancing is yesterday’s seizure, lewd gesture or assault. After nearly twenty years spent on dance floors of nearly every shape, size and style, I may not know what good dancing is, but I surely know what it’s not. Here are 3 of the very worst examples of bad dancing for the casual observer:

1. Drop it like it’s not. Ladies, when someone asks you (1) if you like to dance or (2) if you know how to dance, please understand - they are asking two very different questions. The biggest difference being, the correct answer (for the vast majority of you) to the first question is “yes” and to the second question, a resounding “no.” You being good at shaking your ass is not you being good at dancing, it’s just you being good at shaking your ass (and most likely deluded even about that). Dancing like a stripper - sans pole, Motley Crue music, acrylic heels, or getting paid for it - makes you look, at best, desperate, and at worst, like a whore. Trying to look sexy looks just like trying to do anything does (or in other words, not sexy). The key element is not looking like someone with a muscle condition while dancing is to be genuine, because there is no other activity where being affected is more obvious (or more difficult to watch). Trying to emulate moves you saw on a Britney Spears or Pussycat Dolls video is a solid guarantee you won’t look anything like either.

2. Doin’ the Hump. Gentlemen, sneaking up behind a girl and driving your pelvis into her backside is not an invitation to dance, it’s sexual battery. While this type of behavior may be o.k. in rap videos, Spring Break in Mexico, and the Real World - everywhere else it’s actionably criminal. And though this will likely come as a shock to anyone who regularly engages in the this type of behavior, you’re not a star musician, a party host in Cabo or on reality TV. I honestly can’t recall when this became a widely accepted method of asking a woman to dance, but I suspect it was right about the same time that young men starting trying to attract women by making their crappy cars louder (rather than making them less crappy). What’s more, on the off chance you have successfully achieved an invitation to dance with a woman, a clumsy imitation of your sexual technique is about as enjoyable to watch as two dogs going at it in an alley. Trust me, you have a better chance of getting lucky with a proposition on a hand-painted sign around your neck than you do with your epileptic air-humping.

3. Strictly Ridiculous. Listen, I think it’s great that you’ve got the time and dedication to have taken ballroom dance lessons, and even better if you’ve done it with your significant other and the two of you are able to waltz the night away. But please be clear that (1) not every dance floor is a ballroom and (2) ballroom dancing to music other than ballroom music is like wearing black tie attire everywhere you go; or in other words: it makes you look like an asshole. Bringing special dance shoes to a nightclub is the only thing lamer than bringing your pool cue in its own little suitcase. Dancing with the Stars is a hit because it’s ridiculous, not because it's awesome. Besides, watching you prance around like you accidentally sat on your plunger isn’t even fun to laugh at, because you’re not famous. There’s a reason that ballroom dancing competitions (that don’t involve celebrities) are hard to find on television: because no one wants to see them. Besides, the last time being good at that kind of dancing made you look better than everyone else, folks were wearing powdered wigs and tights. If you find, while looking around to see how impressed everyone is with your hand-placement or soft-shoes, people looking at you like you’re covered in a thin layer of feces, take a hint and save that crap for rest of the douche-bags in your dance class.

* * *

To be certain, this list could have been a whole lot longer. I just didn’t have space to mention flailers, bumpers, and mimes (just to name a few dance floor tragedies that I’m sure you’ll recognize). But for all the horrors I’ve seen on countless dance floors, both public and private, I’ve seen just as many amazing, hilarious and heartwarming things. And for all the times I’ve wanted to run from them screaming (or at least scratching my head), there’s still no place I’d rather be. And with all that time on the dance floor, I’ve learned a few inalienable truths: First, good dancing has a lot more to do with being yourself than it does with technique, skill, or fancy moves. Second, it’s almost impossible to overcome a lack of rhythm, but a good sense of humor is your best hope. And third, unless you’re dancing for money, relax - it’s supposed to fun, and no one worth worrying about really cares anyway.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

3 Bad Threes

So far it’s been a pretty good year of threes. There have been good threes and bad threes, threes to laugh about and threes to cry about, but there’s no doubt that no matter what the threes have been, it’s been good to have threes. It’s been said that good things come in threes, and that three is a magic number. And while I am certainly and obviously a fan of threes, there are certain threes that should be avoided. You know that tricky third step down to the basement, that third period geometry class and Door Number 3 during Let’s Make a Deal? Of course, those are the evil third, threes and triples that you already know. So as your resident master of threes, here are 3 threes to steer clear of:

1. The third drink. There come a point in every evening which involves adult beverages when the decision is made to either keep it slow and steady, let the buzz wear off and get yourself home in decent shape or to pound them like you’re at a frat party, lose almost complete control of yourself (including your major bodily functions) and rely on your friends (or the kindness of strangers) to get you home. And this point is directly following your second drink. You see, the first drink is a nice reminder that you’re a grown up, usually something tasty (top shelf stuff), and is just enough to take a little edge off your day. The second drink is a confident nod to the cocktail waitress or bartender, a confirmation that the work day is officially over and a little well-deserved comfortably numb. At this point, you can still have an intelligent conversation (provided you are capable of one sober), walk around without stumbling, and reliably tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s not. You can even look cool turning down that all-important third drink - decrying the need to drive yourself home, work tomorrow, or just not hate yourself in the morning. But one drink later, you’re that guy/girl, forgetting yourself and your better judgment, apt to do at least one thing you’ll regret or have to be reminded about, and irrevocably altering peoples’ opinions of you. Tying one on regularly is a solid plan, tying three on regularly makes you a drunk.

2. The third course at a meal. It’s no secret, the United States is a fat-ass nation. Or perhaps more accurately, the U.S. is a nation of fat-asses. We do portion control like the Middle East does human rights. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good meal, and like nothing more than the amazing variety of food that is at my fingertips as a result of living in America. But no matter how fancy, incredible or enjoyable the meal, having a third course is the difference between a having great eat and needing a second seat. In practice, what this means is having the appetizer or the dessert - but not both. Sure, they’re going to try to sell you both, but that’s because they make more money when you do - and they don’t have to pay for the gym membership, the bigger pants or the diabetes medication that you’re going to need when you start free-basing chocolate cake to punctuate your nights spent dining out. It’s always shocking to me after eating at a place like the Cheesecake Factory which brings out livestock-sized portions for entrees that you couldn’t finish with three goes at it, and then has the audacity to come offer you an 8-inch high slice of cheesecake that you can gain weight from just smelling. Of course, a quick look around, however, debunks the mystery of who exactly they’re catering to when you spot a couple of super-sized patrons plowing through their dessert course like it’s trying to scamper off their plate. Trust me, unless you want to look like a walking “Before” picture, keep the number of courses at two.

3. The third unbuttoned button. The buttons on a man’s shirt seem innocuous enough. I mean, at first glance, they’re just there to connect one side of the shirt to the other - but in practice, they mean/say so much more. The top button is simple: the only good reason to fasten it is to button a collar in preparation for a tie, because without a tie, a buttoned top button is the most reliable indication of religious zealotry outside of carrying a bible. So, unless you’re strapping up for business, you get one non-button for free. One. The second button is the difference between business casual and actual casual. It’s a necessary accompaniment to wearing that same shirt untucked. It’s the last button you should have to undo on your own during a sufficiently romantic evening. The third button, by comparison, should only be undone when removing the shirt. An unbuttoned third button is the dress shirt equivalent of having “Affliction” written on your t-shirt, and male equivalent of the bare midriff. If you think you need to have three buttons undone to comfortably wear your shirt, there’s a strong possibility you need a bigger shirt and an even stronger possibility that you’re vastly overestimating your size, the aesthetic appeal of your chest, or the likelihood that everyone around you wants to see it. Trust me, the only thing that you can have hanging around your neck that I’m going to need to see is a winning lottery ticket with my name on it. Everything else makes you look like an even bigger douche than your vastly over-bared chest is already doing. If someone really wants to see your torso, they’ll let you know; for the rest of us, two buttons worth is all we can handle.

* * *

In this year of threes, it’s turned out that there are just as many bad threes as good threes, and perhaps even more. And while three is certainly a special number, sometimes it’s just as good of indicator of what not to do. As you might expect, I’m usually a big fan of folks getting to three, because for me, it usually means that I’ve gotten someone to read past 1000 words, and in this age of twitter feeds, micro-blogs and instant updates, that’s a miracle all its own. But, I’d gladly sacrifice a few readers if it meant dealing with a few less drunks, fatties or chest cleavage-baring ass-hats. The fact is that there are no magic numbers, three or otherwise, that excuse you from using your three most important weapons against dumbassery: your brain, your judgement and if all else fails, a mirror.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

3 Facebook Fails

At present, there are two kinds of people in this country: people who use social media, and the incontinent. The age (or otherwise) excused from reliable bladder control notwithstanding, first MySpace and now Facebook have become as ubiquitously a part of our life as cell phones, DVDs and, unfortunately, Justin Bieber. This development means that the same internet which originally purported to be able to connect us all, is finally doing just that. And once we finally ditched the glitter-gasm spam-fest that MySpace devolved into (and left it for the tweens, permanently "aspiring" recordings artists, and insatiable famewhores), we began to reconnect with long lost friends from our home towns, alma maters and old jobs. We finally figured out the difference between oversharing and sharing, the banal and the truly interesting, and real friends versus Facebook friends. But like any other public space, no matter how clean and awesome it starts out to be, the public invariably finds a way to eff it all up for everyone else. On the eve of the feature film that celebrates its improbable birth and rise to power, here are 3 things wrong with Facebook - or perhaps more precisely 3 wrong things you can find there:

1. Private Parts. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re trying to capture on camera something that you’re too embarrassed to have someone else help you take a photo of, don’t. If you can’t think of a single soul who you could ask to photograph you, what on earth makes you think the rest of the world at large has any interest in seeing whatever tragedy you’re trying to record? The mirror-assisted self-portrait is the most reliable indicator of mental disability this side of a helmet, and doing it shirtless or in your underwear makes you look as desperate as you do stupid. And though I’m not the first to say this, please stop making that ridiculous kissy-face - the only people that should be seeing that are people you’re going to kiss. It’s not as sexy as you think. In fact, it’s not sexy at all. It just makes you look like a jackass trying to mug for a reality show where you sell your dignity instead of getting a real job. If there is a dearth of pictures of you on the web, there’s probably a good reason. Just because you have a place to post this kind of self-debasing nonsense, doesn’t mean you should.

2. Dumbville. Sometimes I could swear that the folks who killed MySpace are still hungry for social-network blood. Because just when I think Facebook has finally settled down and become a relatively gentrified place for friends and folks to share their lives with one another, another opportunistic bastard attempts to profiteer on what I can only guess is widespread intellectual dissatisfaction with real life, by creating yet another mind-numbingly trite “social game”. As a result of these obsessive pastimes, instead of getting updates about what my friends are doing, where they’re going, or who they’re hanging out with (things I might actually be interested in), I get an endless stream of notices about whose mob family is growing, whose farm animals have escaped, or what new fish someone got. All this is made exponentially more asinine by the fact that none of these people are in the mob, on a farm, or even have an aquarium. If reality is too boring for you, take a nap, read a book, or catch a movie. Maybe then you’ll actually have something to share that doesn’t make me want to slap you with that shovel you need for your fake farm.

3. Unlikeable. For all that Facebook has, and for all the ways it has connected our lives, both online and off, there is one big thing missing: the “dislike” button. The “like” button was brilliant. A way to indicate approval without having to come up with a catchy comment (the pressure of which can sometimes be overwhelming); a way to support the ideas, preferences and discoveries of your friends, even if you have nothing necessarily to add. But where is the “dislike” button? When did Facebook become “Happyland”?! Why is it that the only two options I have to respond the veritable universe of often inadvisable crap that is posted by my friends for public consumption is either to “like” it or ignore it? It’s like the internet version of the old maternal maxim: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” Are you kidding me? If you have the kind of friends who won’t tell you when they don’t like something you’re doing/saying/ingesting, etc., then you don’t really have any friends. Or maybe that’s why you’re on Facebook in the first place?

* * *

In general, I’m grateful for Facebook. Because as a result of its existence and development, I’ve finally got a way to keep people up to date on what’s going on in my life (and vice versa), without having to spend hours and hours that I no longer have on correspondence, etc. What’s more, its nearly universal appeal has allowed me to find long-lost friends from lifetimes ago, and allowed many of those same folks to find me. It even has a much cleaner mechanism than real life for getting suddenly unwelcome people out of your life. But as Facebook has grown, and tried to continue to sanitize its way as far from the teenage wasteland that its peer network has become, it will discover/has discovered an inalienable truth. The more real life that gets absorbed into it, the dirtier it will become. Because no matter how you scrub it, segregate it, or censor it, real friends, real relationships and real life are messy. And the real success of Facebook will not be finding a way to help us cleanly stay connected, but rather in finding a way to let us all get messy together.