December 19, 2007
The Beatles' Ashram
Posted by Gordon Smith

Today's WaPo has an article about the dilapidated state of the ashram in northern India where the Beatles studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and wrote a slew of songs, including "Dear Prudence," which you can hear and see on this very clever flash site. According to the story, "Maggie O'Hara, a former Hollywood actress who has lived in India running schools for the poor for the past 30 years, has submitted a plan to the government to turn the ashram into a home and school for 2,500 street children from New Delhi, about 115 miles away."

Of course, this wouldn't be on the front page of WaPo's website without the Maharishi connection. And that reminded me of my 9th-grade Biology class, in which our teacher ("Mr. Smith" ... no relation) taught the entire class Transcendental Meditation. Each of us had a mantra, which we were supposed to repeat in our heads for an entire class period. This was biology class!

Mr. Smith was one of the cool teachers -- we both liked "Hotel California," which had been released earlier in the year -- but the TM episode was a bit much. A few years later, Mr. Smith was fired for using the coach's office in the girl's locker room during shower time. Which provides some symmetry to this post, at least if you believe the disputed story that the Beatles became disillusioned with the Maharishi after he propositioned a young woman who was part of the Beatles' entourage.

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December 07, 2007
Bad Movies: Good Movies That I Hated
Posted by David Zaring

Because I see a zillion movies in the theater, and because I assure you that my standards are not high, I'm enjoying reading about the blogosphere's nominees for the worst movies they have seen.  Christine nominates a movie from TV, and Matt Bodie, who tagged us both, identifies some jaw-droppingly awful sequels.  None of this makes me optimistic for the much delayed second X Files movie.

The only movie I've ever walked out of was the totally disgusting and peversely pleased with itself Doom Generation.  It's by a director that people like - Greg Araki.  He's like an 8 year old in that he likes gross things and also like a 13 year old in that he's really, really angry, and he has somewhere between an 8 and 13 year old's ability to write plot and dialogue.  As a cinematographer, he's all adult, though. 

Anyway, the movie features our heroes slaughtering random people and I walked out during the Neo-Nazi gang rape scene on the American flag.  I was like: Greg, dude, I'm on a date here!  Which I was.  I'm happy - but also sorta surprised - to report that it wasn't my last date with the datee in question.

Just to keep things corporate, I'll note that I was no fan of the Enron movie, The Smartest Guys in the Room, made by a bunch of people who had no idea what Enron did wrong, but did know that they were really, really mad about it.  It has an inexplicable 97% on the Rotten Tomatometer, which shows you that that usually trustworthy guide doesn't work perfectly well for documentaries.  Or that the movie wasn't as bad as I thought.

I tag Scotusblog.  Kidding!  But perhaps the non-Solove/Desaian Con-Op people would like to take a crack?

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November 02, 2007
Crocs Watch
Posted by Fred Tung

CrocadilHaving followed the company's goings-on over the past few months (here and here), I finally got a pair of Crocs a few weeks ago.  I guess my little vote of confidence didn't do much good.  Last Wednesday, Crocs stock lost 36% of its value, slicing about $2.2 BB off its market cap.  Ouch! (again).  Crocs had reported that its inventories had quadrupled from a year ago, and it failed to increase its quarterly earnings forecast as it had consistently done in the past.  Traders apparently read this as a sign of slowing growth.  Sales have grown from $24,000 in 2002 to an expected $820-$830 MM this year.  Before Wednesday's bath, Crocs stock had soared to six times its initial offer price from February 2006.  Wednesday night, Crocs' board approved a program to buy back as many as a million shares of its common stock (out of 82 million outstanding). 

Careful.  Crocs bite. 

[Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com.]

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Free Is More Complicated Than You'd Think
Posted by Fred Tung

Every day, thousands of us bloggers give away free stuff over the internet--our "content."  Scott Adams of Dilbert fame had an interesting musing on blogging giveaways in yesterday's WSJ. He blogs about a third of every work day, and his blog draws what he calls "an army of volunteer editors, and they never sleep."  Instead, "the masses told me what they thought of the day's offering without holding anythingNav_logo_dilbert_3 back." 

After a time, Scott decided that he and his blog minions were in fact writing a book, so he compiled the funniest posts and pitched the idea to a publisher.  He got a six-figure advance.  The publisher asked him to delete the parts of his blog archive that were to appear in the book.  No big deal, right?  Traffic there was sparse. 

Wrong!  Fans were outraged.  They were personally offended that he would remove free stuff from the internet so he could sell it in book form.  "It was as if I had broken into their homes and ripped the books off their shelves.  They felt violated.  And boy, I heard about it."  The hostile sentiment found its way to Amazon.com, where the book got negative reviews, not for its substance, but for the fact of its once-free content.

Scott recounts another experiment, where he posted an entire book of his--God's Debris--on the web for free, hoping it would spur sales of the already-published but slow selling sequel--The Religion War.  Fans loved the first book so much,they couldn't wait to get the sequel--for free, on the internet.  By giving away the first book, Scott had "inadvertently set the market value of [the sequel] at zero."   Oops again.

Free is complicated.

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September 18, 2007
Croc Bites
Posted by Fred Tung

Before, I said Crocs rock.  Now, it turns out, Crocs bite.  Looks like kids, Crocs, and escalators don't mix.  It's gotten to the point, CNN notes, that:

One of the nation's largest subway systems -- the Washington Metro -- has even posted ads warning riders about wearing such shoes on its moving stairways. The ads feature a photo of a crocodile, though they don't mention Crocs by name.

Ouch!

Crocs says it's working with the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation on public education initiatives, but that's apparently news to the foundation.

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August 24, 2007
The Poetry and Influences of Rihanna
Posted by David Zaring

Since Daniel Drezner is Rihanna-blogging, I think it’s worth noting that “Shut Up And Drive” is both my kind of poetry and a somewhat surprising hip hop homage to New Order. The poetry front: metaphors can be confusing. But not Rihanna’s. I think I understood that when she opined about umbrellas, she was talking about a protective form of togetherness. But consider this:

“I'm a fine-tuned supersonic speed machine/With a sunroof top and a gangster lean”

Or this:

“Got all the drive but a whole lot of boom in the back/You look like you can handle what’s under my hood”

I’m pretty sure that in “Shut Up and Drive,” Rihanna is comparing herself to a car, and the rest of the lyrics, I think, vindicate my claim. It has a nice consistency and I rather prefer the directness to sorting through, say, an Ode to a Nightingale:

“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet/Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,/But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet/Wherewith the seasonable month endows”

Give it a read, and you tell me what Keats is alluding to.  I think he’s sad. But that’s me - “the dull brain perplexes and retards,” as even Keats will tell you.

I’m actually not a big Rihanna fan – first time I heard her was on a JetBlue flight from San Francisco (love the cable television in every seat).  “Shut Up And Drive” was on, and I thought: they’re remixing “Blue Monday” and setting it to a bunch of young people dancing in an AutoZone. Cool though that was, I wondered about the intellectual property issues. Are Gordon Summer Bernard Sumner and his aging cronies in New Order profiting from this? Or can they only enjoy the respect they are getting from this particular Carribean songstress?

Whatever the answer, I’ll hope for a May-September tour – perhaps with “Shut Up and Drive” being the showstopper both acts can play – in 2008.

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August 10, 2007
Free Wall Street Journal? A Sports Section?
Posted by Gordon Smith

As an academic subscriber to the W$J, I get both the paper version and the online version. I almost never read the paper, but I visit the online site many times a day. Now Rupert Murdoch is talking about bringing down the wall to the online Wall Street Journal. If he does that and FT follows suit, I could save myself a couple a hundred dollars per year.

Earlier this week,  Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten suggested on Marketplace that Murdoch might turn the W$J into a "general interest national newspaper" -- even adding a sports section -- in which case The New York Times "had better worry!" Oddly, this speculation followed an introduction in which he observed, "Rupert Murdoch has an almost unbroken line of failures with American newspapers."

Obviously, we don't know the big plan here, but Murdoch must know that he cannot alienate business readers, the core audience for the Journal. I agree with Rutten that the Journal may benefit tremendously from its new affiliation with companies that can provide video. That looks like the low-hanging fruit. Not a sports section.

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July 17, 2007
The Harry Potter Booksellers' Contracts
Posted by Gordon Smith

My wife's cousin works for a large regional bookstore, and yesterday she described some of the elaborate security measures taken by Bloomsbury to protect the newest installment of Harry Potter. Today, in an email to the Contracts professors listserv, Elizabeth Winston conveniently linked to a story about the security measures in The Economic Times, which describes the booksellers' contracts near the end:

London-based Bloomsbury,which publishes the Potter books in Britain, has hired secure sites across the country to house the book prior to distribution early this week. Several dozen security teams will protect the sites round the clock. Experts say security staff will earn up to £30 an hour with a guard dog, up to £20 without.

Print factory workers in Britain have been threatened with the sack if they leak any details,while German publishers banned mobiles and even packed lunches in the printing plant. Some employees reportedly had to work in near-darkness to prevent them reading the book. It is from Tuesday, however, when copies begin to be sent out to retailers, that the most crucial part of the security operation will come into effect.

The trucks Bloomsbury will use are fitted with satellite tracking systems costing up to £1,000 pounds,which will reveal whether any of the vehicles deviate from their intended route. The books are on sealed pallets fitted with alarms to prevent tampering. At one of the world’s biggest booksellers, Barnes and Noble in America, the books are being kept in padlocked trucks at the insistence of Scholastic. Amazon, the online retailer, has cordoned off special sections of its warehouse to ensure restricted access.

All retailers have had to sign a legal embargo preventing them from divulging any of the book’s content or selling copies before the release time. A spokesman for Bloomsbury said: “we have a litigation specialist poised 24 hours a day, seven days a week to deal with any breaches. It is our intention to enforce the embargo vigorously and seek an immediate injunction if required.” While experts put the cost of all this at £10 million, the lengths to which publishers have gone are not surprising.

Four years ago, Donald Parfitt, a fork-lift driver from Suffolk, was ordered to do 180 hours community service after he admitted stealing pages from Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix from the printing plant where he worked. Last year, one Aaron Lambert was jailed for 4 1/2 years for stealing copies of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince and trying to sell them. Rowling has reportedly received letters from people asking her to reveal the ending of the seventh book because their terminally-ill relative may not live until Saturday.

If you are that desperate, you may be able to find an advance copy on BitTorrent. I am waiting for Saturday, when I will get my copy at Barnes & Noble. Everyone seems to think that Harry is a goner, but I am not so sure. Rowling is nothing if not surprising.

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July 15, 2007
Crocs: Fad or For Real?
Posted by Fred Tung

Imggrapes_3 Are Crocs ugly?  There are websites devoted to their derision.   The proprietary resin ("NOT plastic NOR rubber") shoes have even won Ugly Shoe of the Year awards.  The company's stock, OTOH, has had a pretty good run since its IPO in early '06.  It IPO'd at 21; it closed Friday above 47.

Financial pundits have debated the staying power of the company and its Croslite (TM) clogs.  Now Crocs have finally made it to my Sunday morning reading via the NYT Magazine.  I tend to view this as something of a milestone.  Even if Crocs are just a fad, NYT coverage arguably elevates them to bona fide cultural phenomenon status.  So I wandered around the company's website for a little bit.  The quick history of the company goes like this:

Its (sic) all started when three Boulder, Colorado based founders decided to develop and market an innovative type of footwear called Crocs™ shoes.

Originally, Crocs were intended as a boating/outdoor shoe because of its slip-resistant, non-marking sole. By 2003 Crocs had become a bona-fide phenomenon, universally accepted as an all purpose shoe for comfort and fashion.

I also found out the originals now come in college colors, which for some reason I find endearing.  My kids wear the original ugly ones, too, as does just about every kid in their preschool and many of the parents.  So far my wife and I haven't succumbed (though for me, it's just been about finding my size in a color I can stand).  Probably a shoe and a company to watch.

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July 06, 2007
Ratatouille
Posted by Gordon Smith

We finally found the time to see Ratatouille, and I think it's the best animated feature since Toy Story. Well done, Pixar!

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April 27, 2007
Webkinz: The Sims for Kids
Posted by Christine Hurt

Web_horse_w While Leandra Lederman was here blogging about Second Life, I meant to chime in about a new craze that might be under the radar for those readers without elementary school-age children:  Webkinz.  The phenomenon begins by buying what seems like a benign stuffed animal that is almost indistinguishable from a beanie baby to the uninformed.  In Champaign, the going price is $9.99, although due to shortages, the eBay price seems to be about $20.  But the stuffed animal is no ordinary stuffed animal; the tag on the animal is encased in plastic and when opened, reveals a secret code.  With this secret code you can log on to www.webkinz.com and register your Webkinz_monkey1_w new pet.  (The first year of play is free, then you pay a fee to continue.  As my husband pointed out, if the fee is more than $10, we'll just buy another pet.)  Then, you can begin creating a virtual home for your pet, buying furniture, even adding on to the one room that each pet starts life with.  You must also feed your pet, take him to the doctor, bathe him, and do other things to keep his "health" monitors 100%.

When you run out of your original allotment of Kinzcash, you can earn more.   

You can do a "job" every 8 hours.  My kids' favorite job to do is a matching game where the context is you work in a shoe store and must match all the shoes within a given amount of time.  You can also play games in the "arcade" to win Kinzcash.  Some of the games are just knock-offs of other video games:  there is a game very similar to Nintendo's Bust-a-Move, for example.  However, the games that give the most points have some educational value.  The quiz games, which might ask math problems or science questions, can earn players a lot of Kinzcash.  Another game, which is cross between Scrabble and Boggle, is also good for racking up the Kinzcash.  With the cash, you can keep your pet fed, decorate his pad, and buy him toys.

So, what's the big deal?  Well, of course there's the group that says that computer use at early ages is bad because kids don't use their imaginations or play outside and run around.  See this article.  But that's a parenting issue.  Most forms of entertainment are addictive, and this is one is too.  (I've been known to play a little Quizzy's Word Search by myself just to "get Luke some Kinzcash.")  So, you set limits.  Big deal.  However, there's another criticism that I have heard and that is that kids are being formed into little consumers by pretending to earn money and spend money.  My colleague Bob Lawless (after we introduced his kids to the Webkinz craze) asked me if there were payday lenders in Webkinz.  Actually, there's sort of a pawn shop!  Kids can sell their unused purchases back to the W Store for 1/2 the purchase price.  I think it teaches good lessons, though.  My seven-year-old daughter learned pretty quickly that being able to sell things back for 1/2 price wasn't a good enough deal and so she chooses her purchases more carefully.  My five-year-old son, on the other hand, spends every dollar he has.  His pet's room looks like Tom Hank's apartment in Big, only with more kids' stuff.  But he's learning that he has to save for things he really wants and that he can't let his monkey starve.  These seem like better lessons to learn in a virtual world than in a real one to me.

The only aspect of Webkinz that concerns me at all is that there is the potential for interaction with other users.  There is "tournament" play where kids can play against each other.  We've banned that just because you never know who is a kid and who isn't.  Also, if you have a friend with a Webkinz account and you know that kid's login name, then you can send each other virtual gifts or let your pets go visit each other.  We do let our kids visit with other friends we know in the real world (like the Lawless children).  We were glad to know that the letters they send to each other are pre-written and un-editable, so someone couldn't send your child an inappropriate letter.  (I'm sure there are people who know how to override that, but hopefully we are strict enough about our "friends list" that this poses no problem.)

As far as I can tell, there is no secondary market in Kinzcash and I can't see why one would be created.  All Kinzcash can do for you is to allow you to buy virtual decorations and consumables.  Kinzcash cannot alter the level of play or take you to new levels.  Your Webkinz experience is unaltered by how much Kinzcash you have saved.

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April 13, 2007
Groovy!
Posted by Gordon Smith

This photo of Hillary really brought back the memories for me ...

Hillary

I had a pair of pants just like those!

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April 11, 2007
Kurt Vonnegut, RIP
Posted by Gordon Smith

When I was in high school, Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite author, hands down. Cat's Cradle was my favorite Vonnegut novel, and I read it several times. I also read most of his other novels -- at least those written before the end of the 1970s -- before suddenly losing interest.

Honestly, I can't remember why I found Vonnegut so appealing. He was funny, I suppose. And I liked the way that he flouted grammatical conventions.

Vonnegut died today at age 84. So it goes.

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December 29, 2006
Popular Music
Posted by Gordon Smith

I hardly ever listen to music anymore. Strange because I was a music junkie as a teenager.

As I romped around my favorite blogs tonight, two music posts caught my eye. First, Brayden lists five albums he "can't wait to buy." (People still buy albums?) I hadn't heard of any of the bands, except Radiohead. But I couldn't name a single one of their songs, even though Brayden touts them as "simply the best band in the world, no question."

Second, Paul Kedrosky lists the ten most-played radio songs of 2006:

Rank   Songs              Artist                              on Radio
     1     Be Without You     Mary J. Blige                       395,995
     2     Unwritten          Natasha Bedingfield                 336,276
     3     Temperature        Sean Paul                           324,555
     4     Me & U             Cassie                              312,073
     5     Hips Don't Lie     Shakira Feat. Wyclef Jean           308,903
     6     Promiscuous        Nelly Furtado Featuring Timbaland   292,264
     7     Bad Day            Daniel Powter                       291,256
     8     Check On It        Beyonce Featuring Slim Thug         290,231
     9     So Sick            Ne-Yo                               277,958
     10    Over My Head
           (Cable Car)        Fray                                276,601
    Source:  Nielsen BDS

Um, ok. I have heard three of these songs. Two of them because they were favorites of my daughter.

This year, after being frustrated in her attempts to buy me a Christmas gift, my daughter proclaimed, "you need a hobby!" I have hobbies, of course, but they aren't the sort of hobbies that require a lot of maintenance. (I gave up golf some time ago.) Maybe I should take up listening to music again. That would be good for a few stocking stuffers every year.

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December 28, 2006
The Holiday
Posted by Gordon Smith

No, my holiday break is not all about movies, but my wife and daughters were heading out to see the "ultimate chick flick" (quoting one of them) this afternoon, and I decided to tag along. Anything to avoid grading exams. (My boys stayed home to play Star Wars video games.)

The ratio of women to men in the theatre was at least 20:1. My wife identified only three men, including me, but I am fairly certain a fourth guy slipped in during the coming attractions. Fortunately, I was wearing my pink dress shirt.

The women throughout the theater seemed quite taken by this movie. Lots of knowing laughter and after-movie chatter. I passed some of the time staring at the light fixtures in the theatre. For the most part, however, I was wondering whether I was a bad person because I wished harm on the Cameron Diaz character. Not just that she would have a bad holiday. I was thinking more along the lines of a dread disease.

I will admit that I laughed several times when I was supposed to. Like Dustin Hoffman's cameo in the video store. And a couple of the imagined movie trailers about Cameron Diaz's life. But for the most part, the film was far too predictable to be funny or charming.

Perhaps having a policy of doing anything to avoid grading exams is a bit overbroad.

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