Loweded

Apr 15

Lego Your Ego…

Legos are fascinating. The concept that any number of what seem to be a random collection of small plastic pieces can quickly become something quite intricate is really quite awesome. But even Legos have a learning curve. For most of the population, their first introduction to Legos is buying a box based on a final design they really like, and then spending the time mimicking the instructions to come to that final result. Step by step we see how one piece effects the others around it. We see how many small pieces can create a completely new functional part, hopefully having fun the entire way through.

The reason it’s fun, is because deep down we want to know how things are put together, literally and figuratively. It’s something we all have in common. However many things in life have barriers that keep us from exploring how something is constructed. Maybe we don’t have a telescope to see far enough, maybe our funds are limited, maybe the risk of damaging the final product keeps us from opening it up, etc. This is why Legos are a good thing. They have a relatively safe level of risk. They come in all price ranges, have instructions that show us every step of construction, and provide us with every part needed to get the job done. They really require almost no risk on our part.

Risk is a son of a bitch. It’s what separates most of us laymen from the professionals we rely on to take on the risk, we ourselves aren’t willing to take on. However, these professionals aren’t going to work for free. So there you have a very simplified version of why each and every one of us works towards specializing in something that others will pay us for to alleviate their risk. If I know something and you don’t, then you pay me to either learn or complete the task for you.

Before the age of the internet this was the law of the land. If I wanted to learn how to work on my own car, saving me tons in labor costs, then I needed to apprentice with a mechanic or pay the steep introduction price to get manuals and try to learn on my own. Take this concept back to the middle ages and the same system prevails (though even more primitive). An expert blacksmith only became so by apprenticing with a former expert blacksmith, and learning on your own was even more costly. This is now becoming less and less the way of things as the internet has made information more freely available to us laymen.

When I purchased my Jeep Wrangler a year ago I decided that I wanted to understand how it worked. Owning a car is a huge expense with the possibility to become a financial hole in my pocket if I don’t understand how to best fix a problem. Luckily I had the help of a good friend who is very versed in the technical language of Jeeps (a mentor of sorts in the ways of Jeep). I learned by watching him and taking note at first, but now have slowly gravitated towards using the multiple forums and free guides online to taking fixes into my own hands. These guides and forums help to alleviate much of the risk I would normally be too afraid of to have anyone but a licensed Jeep technician handle. Now things like oil changes, checking fluids, spark plugs, manifold gasket replacement, air intakes, tire rotation, brake replacement, stereo installation, belt replacement, differential gear fluid, and most recently removing rust and repainting are all things that I feel no hesitation towards. Look at the price difference alone below. The first price is what a shop would charge, and the second is what I paid to do at home.

Oil Change: $40 - $20

Spark Plugs: $80 - $20

Manifold Gasket Repair: $200+ - $70

Tire Rotation: $20 – Free.

Brake Replacement: $140 - $60

Stereo Install: $150+parts - $110

You get the idea…

By learning how to properly deconstruct and then reconstruct something inside or outside your home, you are removing the labor costs you would need to pay a professional in that field by transferring their charged time to your personal time. A few hours under or inside my Jeep while only paying for parts is time I consider well spent.

Now imagine you buy a Lego set that has a really complicated construction on the box only to find that when you open the box up, there are no instructions. Would you still be able to build it? Maybe, if you put enough time into previous Lego sets learning building concepts by following their instructions. Knowing how Legos go together would definitely make this new instruction-less set easier to conceptualize thus minimizing your risk. Maybe you could build it close to exact with only a small few pieces left over. Outside of being a savant or engineer though, it would be tough to imagine us laymen being able to fully construct it based off one picture on the box.

This is the danger with DIY projects. If you have a lot of money to throw at a problem or project then you may feel the risk is lower for you and that maybe you don’t need instruction, but more often than not you’re going to find yourself throwing money into an endless black hole, while defeating the purpose of learning a new skill and ending up with a broken version of the finished product you hoped to create. Most final constructions or projects come together in a very specific way to perform certain functions for the builder and when you don’t bother learning how to work your way up to the level of the professional you would normally have to pay, you end up damaging the ability of the final product to perform the way you originally wanted. The more you know the better the outcome.

When a DIY project greatly exceeds the cost a professional would charge it no longer serves its purpose other than being a very expensive learning tool. Every project’s pricing is a combination of cost of supplies and cost of labor to the professional. DIY is meant to remove the latter cost. When your lack of skill level bleeds the supply cost over into the cost of the professional’s paid time, you have created a situation where you paid more for a lesser outcome. You can still learn from a costly project and if money isn’t an issue, then maybe you prefer to learn this way, but for most of us on a budget (budgets greatly impact willingness to accept risk) this would no longer serve a purpose for us. It would most likely be a partial or total loss.

How do you avoid these losses? Educate yourself using free tools like online forums, detailed walkthrough videos, and manuals. The greatest tool you have on your side now is the massive amount of communication at your fingertips, via the internet. I learned how to grind, sand, Bondo, primer, paint, and clear coat a terrible rust spot on my Jeep this month. I did it first by reading, watching, and learning the concepts and challenges involved before spending even one cent on supplies. Then I price shopped everything I needed and spent 7 hours of my own free time solving a problem that would have cost me nearly $250-300. I only spent $80. Obviously the more I repeat these concepts the better my physical technique will get even if I know what I’m supposed to do.

If you feel the risk is too high and would rather have a professional do the work for your next project then I applaud that as well. Not everyone has the time or interest in doing their own car work (or insert any project). There’s nothing wrong with that at all and I’m all for professionals making money pursuing their passions. If you think you have all aspects of your next project figured out and think it’s worth the risk to try on your own, then I say go for it! As long as you educate yourself on the risk, techniques, costs, and time, you can do anything.

If you want your new project to most likely fail, cost you a ton of money, or take more time then you have available to throw at it, then spend no time planning it out, don’t research the concepts, and stay away from the wealth of information that is freely available to you online. But I warn you, for every successful innovation/project over the era of mankind’s time on Earth, there have been a few people that have changed the way we do things and construct things, and billions who have failed, gone bankrupt, wasted years being able to produce absolutely nothing but unworkable, faulty, broken knock offs of those very successful few. Success in creating anything is educating yourself on the successes of others who came before you and then improving their ideas.

The most successful type of Lego builder is one who takes the concepts learned from his earlier sets, stares at a box full of random pieces, and now knows how they could fit together. Maybe you try something new and it fails, but it should always be based off solid/rational concepts. You can carry this concept over to any example in any field. A great programmer understands the concepts of programing language before creating anything innovative. A great architect can tell you on paper how strong his building will be before a single beam is raised, because he understands physics. Knowing how to do something before investing in it, leads to the highest chance of personal success and lowers risk. Ignoring the knowledge behind successes before you or around you leaves you in the dark. While you fiddle trying to turn dark to light, everyone else that did their homework is light-years beyond you. You only have so much time on Earth, and so you should consider it very valuable to you. Don’t waste it on feeding an ego that believes it can do anything with no help from anyone. Talk is cheap, results are everything. No one is ever impressed with a half-functional DIY project.

http://www.diynetwork.com/

http://www.ifixit.com/

https://diy.org/featured

http://www.instructables.com/

http://lifehacker.com/

http://www.lego.com/en-us/

Now go and learn from others, dammit! And start them young by buying your kids some Legos!

Mar 27

The More You Owe….

6% of our national debt is comprised of an ever increasing number that signifies the amount of student loan debt that is owed by the borrowers looking to increase their education, thus giving them a competitive edge in a job market where one job for (let’s say) an intern dentistry position will have upwards of 50-100 applicants. That’s true career competition in a sense, but is it healthy? In an economy where the job market is recovering, though slowly, does it make sense that in order to compete you need to plan for anywhere from the average of 30k to possible six figure amounts of borrowed debt to ensure you even get a chance to compete? By the way dentistry is definitely a six figure education.

My situation is what it is. I owe near 50k on my own (not including the 50k my parents covered), split fairly evenly between federal and private lenders. I like to talk openly about my debt, because there’s no hiding from it. My interest rates were in and around 5% for every loan. Maybe only one fell below that range. I had already completed an associate’s degree from a community college paid entirely by my parents (yes I realize how lucky I am). It was 2005 and I wanted to study Graphic Design and four years later I graduated as the US economy tanked. Fun times. Why did it tank? Well partly because of terrible lending practices and partly for the reason that most Americans aren’t educated enough to really handle home buy decisions outside of high school. Not that predatory lenders help this process. The economy tanked and we were told “Good Luck!” by a generation who had a very different college lending experience in their younger days.

So I defaulted. I went over 90 days without being able to send a single dime to my lender. I applied for a credit card through the same private institution who somehow thought my current situation qualified me for a 5k credit line. A person has to eat. That money quickly went and I cringed every time I had to use it. I had to leave the wonderful city of Philadelphia to find some way to cover my loan payments. I was back in my parents’ home, hoping for a job to come along and save me. Nothing is more degrading to your self-esteem like holding two college degrees and having no option but to live at home again.
I’m extremely lucky that a good job came along not more than two weeks after I got home. This is not the case for many students in the same position. It’s been almost four years and I’m still rebuilding my credit. Bad credit leads to worse lending in situations where you have to borrow. It’s the reverse of the snowball effect that David Ramsey always trumpets (and to which I follow now. Thanks Sis!). And I will be digging myself out of this hole for another 4-5 years. It’s getting better, but not when you’re reaching the age that you hope to own a home, get married, or start a family.

First things first I’m not a sob story. I don’t want sympathy. There are people in this world who have to steal and beg to even afford basic sustenance, if there is even clean water or food around them to begin with. This is very much a first world problem and it’s not about me. But my biggest question after experiencing the American “furthering education” dream that you are taught from day one is necessary for life achievement, is why as Americans do we allow federal and private industry to place an un-questioned price tag upon something that benefits us all as a whole society?

Think about it. Day one in school we are told how important it is to be educated, how important it is for success in life, and not one politician can run without spewing the same lie that they think education is the most important thing in the world. If all this is true, then why the hell does this country hate education? Why do people who try to run for president think that those acquiring a college education are just a bunch of “elitists”? Why is an education program the first thing we cut when the belt needs tightened? If we really believe the best education is found in this country then why the hell does America rate near the bottom of the list? Even better of a question, why do we place the highest price tag on something we are constantly told everyone in this country should have the opportunity to achieve?
I’ll tell you why….. Money. That’s it.
There is great money to be made in preaching the importance of education, requiring it for good career consideration, and then saddling each student with as much borrowed money as possible with a hefty interest rate to make sure you make back sometimes half of what you “invested” into the student. This is our system, whether you borrow federally or privately. Both institutions profit greatly off the backs of the average American high school student who just graduated from a high school that doesn’t require basic accounting as part of its curriculum. Why would they require that? It would only damage their returns. Whether you are a homeschooled, private, or public school kid, you will face this same trap come age 17-18.

Borrowing federally is much safer for the student, but defaulting hurts the tax payers and there are limits, thus stunting the economy of which you hope to find a job within. Remember we’re talking about over 1.2 trillion dollars (probably more since you just read that) right now that make up the remaining student loan debt to be repaid. Borrowing privately is essentially taking out a mortgage, except that there is almost no situation where you can ever relieve yourself of this debt if you fall upon hard times. That’s right, you owe till it’s paid or you die. That’s the honest truth of the American dream that no one talks about. In order to participate you had either hope your parents are well off enough so that you can leave college with a fresh financial slate and a degree in hand, or be ready to have a job lined up six months after you leave college knowing that as soon as those required payments start, they don’t ever stop. And remember, in this economy, employers don’t have to pay top dollar because they know supply is low and demand is high.

So what do you do? Well I’d say if you want to play in this system (assuming your parents aren’t fitting the bill) then you need to be ready to ignore distractions within high school that don’t add value to your life after high school. Find an interest you’re good at and develop it. Something you love and figure out whether or not there is any money to be made in it. Design always fascinated me and thus my electives in college were geared towards developing my skills in design. Eh it’s a livin’. I signed up for yearbook, journalism, and any other class that got me in front of the programs and concepts that relate to good design. Along with those courses I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to attend every single elective that relates to accounting or personal finance. Most likely your school won’t require it, because …America! Accounting should be the number one required course, but hey it’s less money in someone else’s pocket if you know what you’re doing, so don’t expect encouragement from the outside world.

Most importantly, ask why. What do I mean? If a counselor tells you that you “have” to go to the best college you can afford, ask them why. For example being from Maryland, University of Maryland was shoved down our throats. They even came in and advertised by talking to our class. Well, for the field I wanted to pursue, that college doesn’t really satisfy a high standard of design education that would help give me any edge in my field. University of Maryland is now on track towards trying to be at the level of IV leagues while remaining a state school. So that means the tuition rates are rising to match the institutions it wants to mirror.

University of Maryland tuition rates for a four year education are around $29,560 for an in-state student (some would say that’s reasonable… I disagree), and $106,304 for an out-of-state student (totally reasonable right?). How does this make sense? It’s the same education set at a difference of 76,744 dollars?! In-state is meant to attract local students and offer a high education at a lower rate, but that means a kid from the District of Columbia will pay over two and a half times the tuition to get the same education. Room, board, and tech fees are exactly the same price for both students but the tuition is completely at the opposite ends of the spectrum. So how much does University of Maryland really cost compared to what they charge? Who knows?

Let’s consider the following. Bloomberg has reported based off statistics kept since 1978 that college tuition in this country has risen by a total of 1,120%. That’s about an increase of 32.94% each year for 34 years. Now to put that into perspective let’s say your company gives you a raise annually at an increase of 2%, meaning every year your income raises by 2% of what you made the previous year. Let’s say starting in 1978, your income as well as the cost of tuition per year matched at $100.

TUITION MATH:
$100 then x 11.20% total increase = $1,120 now. $1120 / 34 years = $32.94 increase per year.

INCOME MATH:
$100 then x .02% increase annually over 34 years = $196.07

This shows us that in the same amount of time (34 yrs.) your income has increased by $96.07. What this means in comparison to the raise in tuition price is that tuition has increased by $1020.00. Now this assumes we start both at $100, but it does the job of pointing out the percentage increase in comparison to the average income increase. Most could say their annual raise is usually in step with the US inflation increase per year, but it’s safe to say that tuition greatly exceeds inflation and it begs the question of how sustainable is this if the goal is to educate as many of our citizens efficiently?

The worst part is that since the economic recession in 2009, I know many people who have been frozen at a set income due to “insert reason from employer”. I’m lucky to work for a great company that rewards success, but many don’t. Meanwhile tuition rates have not stopped their increase. My first year of school in 2005 cost me around 23k, year two was 24k, year three was 28k, and year four was 31k. They have not stopped increasing and I feel bad for anyone who started in 2008-2009 and are either stuck or have had to drop out.
I love my country, but this type of profiting off the backs of students regardless of the productivity or strength of the economy is exactly why we will fall behind other countries (and already have) in educating our population. Education brings innovation, makes us attractive, and strengthens the ability for recent graduates to contribute to the economy by freeing up their income to invest in housing, start a new business, and create jobs (not the empty promise that those higher up will provide jobs while stashing revenue offshore, but actual employment). But none of this is possible if we strap the cost onto the students back from the start and tell them to spend, spend, spend that borrowed money.

School needs to be cheaper (or free?…oh god socialism! the horror!), more accessible to everyone, and with common sense we can see the benefits of investing in early education and reform. A high school education basically leads to poverty, with very rare exceptions, and poverty means welfare, unemployment, food stamps, and all the social safety nets that we have (and pay for), but many think we don’t need. Well it’s possible we wouldn’t need as much of them if we provided the education and resources to put more kids on the path to the middle class. That’s the real American dream. To not starve, to have a shelter, to be able to provide for your family while not having to work 3 jobs with no days off. How the shit do we not consider this top priority. Free community college is being offered and voted upon on many states today and the idea is noble. Even MIT is offering free courses of their top fields. If we give Johnny high school the tools to achieve while he’s young, he’s less likely to need us when he’s older. And education investment is literally billions of dollars cheaper than the many billions we give away in corporate welfare to companies that don’t even qualify as small businesses, which Johnny could one day start with proper investment by the generation before him.

This country is backwards on education. I can think of 1,000 things to cut before education, and yet almost every state immediately downsizes classrooms, teachers, learning materials, and even closes schools (See my dear city of Philadelphia) at the mere mention of budget cuts. How can anyone pull themselves up with their bootstraps if they have to buy the boots on credit? I could go on for hours about how many of the top countries outside of the US (yes other countries exist and many have solved this problem decades ago) have greatly reduced costs and some have offered free college education and continue to rate better than the US. It’s sad, but true.

You don’t create better citizens in the latter end of their educational conquest. You start in the beginning and invest in their early education where it doesn’t straddle them with what equates to a mortgage payment. Money should be flowing into public school education starting from the first day these children hang up their backpacks and sit in front of a willing, but publicly demonized former student looking to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. If you think education is broken, then I’d be willing to agree, but it’s not beneficial to gut it but rather re-define and re-invest in a system that will set children from age 5 to age 18 with the skills that allow them to manage a bank account, understand bad lending, navigate further education, understanding the financial repercussions of buying a home, car, and starting a family. I was a kid stuck in a system where I learned little and then straddled myself with debt to compete. I can’t start a business, I can’t afford a home, I don’t have children, and I’, one of the lucky ones with help from my parents. This country is in love with itself but it hasn’t evaluated itself in a very long time. Stop just waving the flag, and lets start backing it up. Sorry for the length. I know many of us Americans hate reading.

Nov 26

The Future of the Redskins…

There is nothing good about sitting at 3-8 when you defy the odds and win your Division the previous season. Everyone is looking for the key reasons as to how the same top five offense, bad defense and horrible special teams can’t pull it together to win seven straight again. It not easy to explain, but there are many factors that have put the Redskins into this slump that has most of us looking to 2014 for a breath of fresh air.

Compare the two seasons and you find a different final seven games against very different teams.

2012:

Eagles (4-12)

Cowboys (8-8)

Giants (9-7)

Ravens (10-6)

Browns (5-11)

Eagles (4-12)

Cowboys (8-8)

2013: (currently)

Eagles (6-5)

49er’s  (7-4)

Giants (4-7)

Chiefs (9-2)

Falcons (2-9)

Cowboys (6-5)

Giants (4-7)

 

The 2013 Cowboys and Eagles are very different teams this year compared to last year. So are the Giants but in a worse way. Last year’s seven game win streak put the Redskins against teams of which only two finished the season with more wins over losses. Already in 2013, it would look to be that we are playing teams of which four have current winning records above .500. This isn’t any excuse of course, and doesn’t explain why we can’t seem to put points on the board.

 

Many things have happened in the NFL since Robert’s injury and recovery that have not only effected us, but other teams that run the read option. It’s not working as well as it did last year for most teams outside of Carolina and Seattle. They have success with it because it makes up very little of their total offense. Robert’s skill set was geared towards this type of play and sadly that will not sustain wins in the NFL and will most likely injure him further if used heavily. Colin Kapernick is struggling as well with this realization. It can have success, but it has to be a minimal part or exception. Greats like Rogers, Peyton, Brady, and Brees are extremely successful without running it at all. This is where young rookie QB’s have to place their focus, with allowing the read option to be a small portion of their pocket passing to succeed. It can’t be an all-in strategy.

 

Robert has to learn to be a pocket passer and we are seeing week to week that the coaching staff are pushing hard for it. He is having some success and improvement in learning to step up in the pocket and that is encouraging, however he seems to struggle with his pre-snap reads and he still tends to show his intentions too easily, which defenses are picking up. His footwork could use work and he needs to spend time trusting his recently repaired knee. After an injury like that, no QB is going to fully trust it right away, but he will have to work on trusting it more and more to not release throws off the balls of his foot. Planting is central to accuracy and confidence. It will come, but it won’t come immediately for a young QB who had no off-season or pre-season.

You can’t simply blame Robert for this teams inability to get an offense going. There are issues that start at the offensive line that would have even some of the best QB’s scrambling to get the ball out. The most solid part of our o-line is Trent Williams, and that’s about it. When an o-line can’t hold against a defense bringing four men, you have an issue. A pocket passer needs a good o-line and if the coaching staff expects Robert to learn this unknown-to-him play style then they have to protect him. Nothing kills confidence better than hit after hit and Robert has been taking hits that would make pro-wrestling jealous. Until we have depth here, there is no way to expect a second year QB to make huge strides in his ability to operate in the pocket. We were a team that was known for its unbreakable offensive line and it won us Superbowls. This needs to be priority number one this off-season, with the following priority right behind it.

There is nothing you are going to be able to get out of our current secondary on defense that can be seen as a positive. Late round draft picks have seen Rambo struggling with a few improvements and Phillip Thomas’s injury only prolongs being able to see what he could develop into. Our defensive front is not all that bad, but Josh Wilson is not going to be the answer at corner and Hall is only getting older. Hall has stepped up to become the corner he should have been all the time we were paying him big money, and more than likely we will need to pay up this off-season. Losing him to another team will hurt and I think the coaches know this. We need big pick-ups in our secondary if we want to even pretend to stop even backup QB’s from shredding us apart.

 

One thing we need to talk about is coaching. When you have almost the exact same weapons you had the previous season and those weapons aren’t getting open, tackling, hitting their mark, or blocking, it become clear that at some point coaching has taken a dive. Haslett has done what he can with what he has, but he has also lived off this excuse since we switched to a 3-4 defense. We simply don’t have the players to execute this type of defense, and so I think that at the end of the season it’s time to part ways with Jim. Lovie Smith is waiting out there in the wind and has had success in the past. I’m not against picking him up and seeing if he can light a fire under this teams ass. Seeing Haslett sitting in a booth game-to-game (even though it may be necessary with the personnel he has) seems like a coach who is disconnected from his players. The entire secondary is young and I’d like to see him down on the sidelines firing them up and giving them instant commentary on their successes and mistakes. Keep in mind we went from a top ten 4-3 defense to a worst ranked 3-4 defense. There is an issue on defense and I fear it starts at the top.

 

When it comes to offense, I’m undecided on what should be done. I’m not sure firing Kyle Shanahan is the right thing to do, but I will say that there has to be something done about his play calling on important downs. At most, it is suspect. Something about calling pass plays on third and two when you’ve run the ball all day makes me uneasy. He seems to fire on all cylinders in some games and then completely makes calls that boggle my mind in others. Calling a fade to Santana Moss (not a tall guy) on fourth down to tie the game seems like the last play to call in that situation. Something is not correct and maybe it’s Mike’s gambling that he often says he likes to do, that allows these calls to be made? I just don’t know. What I do know is we tend to always abandon the run game when it’s successful, knowing that the Redskins are a run team. I won’t say he needs to go, but I will say he needs to learn to evaluate his situational play calling.

Drops have been a constant this year. There is always going to be a learning curve and growth period for younger WR’s but too often, big plays have come to a halt because of the inability of Moss, or Garcon to hold onto a perfectly thrown ball. You’re paid millions to catch. You’re not always going to catch wobbled, off-mark, or poorly thrown balls, but perfect passes are supposed to be secured. If its in your hands, then its on you.

 

So how do these Redskins get better? Well for one we no longer owe the league 18 million a year for something every team did that off-season, which means we have to be able to re-sign key players and add depth to both sides of the field. O-line needs to take priority and we’ve been calling for it since Mike came to D.C. Secondly our secondary needs depth in ways were veteran players need to come in a teach these younger guys how to successfully play zone and man. Haslett needs to exit and we need to bring someone in who wont radio their dissatisfaction from a booth, completely disconnected from their squad. Mike needs one more year along with his son, but Kyle needs to understand that big flashy plays don’t guarantee wins. If you can win on the ground or in the short passing game, then you stick to what works to grab that W. With an o-line and a full off-season to sync up, you will see Robert improve greatly in the pocket. Robert is still only 23 years old and new to this style of offense. It’s going to take time, but time in the pocket will give you glimpses of what he can be. Just look at Cam Newton now for hope. Receivers need to sync and work on fundamental catching and defense needs to work on fundamental tackling (which has gotten better recently).

Most of all, us fans need to stop thinking that the solution in D.C. is to blow this team up every year and get all new coaches, systems, players, and QB’s. Development takes time and it sucks waiting, but the success known to the Packers, Patriots, Saints isn’t created overnight and requires vigilance to maintain. This off-season will be huge in being able to determine if D.C. acts in a way that will bring success. Watch them closely, because there are no excuses next year if they address these issues.

 

 

 

Nov 21

Black Friday 2013…Sigh

I write about this every year, but were a week away from that one horrible day of the year where millions of Americans go and waste every penny of their expected bonus check (or their regular pay check…ugh) on big ticket items for, well… who are we kidding? They’re purchasing these items for themselves or their spouse.

Before you ask the question let me answer it with my one and only black Friday experience. Yes, I participated once. I needed to pick up a camera for my college studies and had narrowed it down to one that was on sale that glorious day. I thought to myself, ‘what a deal! 25% off the camera I want!’ So I got up at three am and drove to my local Staples and low and behold I was fifth in line. Keep in mind this was back in the day when lines started merely a few hours before the store opened.

So being my first time, I made small talk with the person behind me. The woman in front of me had a walkie-talkie in her hands and was calling out orders to her troops who were lined up at other retailers. The store manager came out and expressed that all the big-ticket items from the ad would be on a table directly inside the doors and that any large items like TVs would be doled out to the first people in line in form of wristbands. I was here for a simple little camera hidden deep within the ad and so I was fairly certain being fifth in line, I’d have no issues.

I believe the store opened at five thirty am if I remember. As it got close the small talk ended, and everyone started facing forward. My Dad sat in his warm truck probably chuckling at it all. Then it happened. The doors opened and literally the four people ahead of me ran in. I was in shock to the point that the people behind me started shoving me forward as if to say, “Hey asshole, let’s go.” So I walked fast and got through the door. The table was in front of me. I saw the stack of cameras and reached my hand out only to find that the camera I had wanted was already picked clean. Four fucking people had already swiped what look like five cameras off the table. The next level up camera for $50 more was sitting there untouched. The people behind me were nabbing items left and right off the table. So I took one into my hands in anger and called my Dad to explain.

Another $50 added to my bill, but what was I supposed to do now? I had waited two and a half hours in the freezing dark. I was beyond tired. My Dad had woken up with me to drive me. We had planned this whole thing out and being fifth in line ended up not mattering at all. So in my anger I got in line to check out, which was already long. I sat and observed the entire fifteen minutes I was in line. People were rushing all over; almost none of them with smiles. The lady who had been on her walkie-talkie in line was yelling at a store employee to make sure he got the right TV off the wall.

It was a huge lesson in what it means to be sold. Being a student of graphic design, I wont lie that it wasn’t fascinating to see how the work I could be potentially doing for a career could drive everyday regular people into mass hysteria. The worst part of it all was realizing that even if a sale got you into the front of those early lines, it was still no guarantee that you’d get the item(s) you set out for. I paid and left.

 

We read it every year about the person trampled under foot as the doors fly open, or the shooting over a TV or PlayStation. Every year I ask the same question: what’s the point? There are deals all year long on big-ticket items if you know how to shop online and aren’t susceptible to the idea that you have to get it now or never. ‘Now or never’ doesn’t really exist in the retail sales market. Time is your biggest advantage as a consumer. No matter how fast something sells day one at full price, it simply can’t remain their forever. Eventually once demand is depleted, the price is as well.

Two years ago online, we bought an elliptical for my fiancé simply by ordering it on Cyber Monday, and we picked it up a few days later for a great price. There was no rushing, no trampling, no freezing cold lines, and no early alarms. Shopping is fun sometimes and I understand the excitement of getting a deal, but in reality black Friday deals happen all year long. The problem is too many people are used to heading to retailers rather than shopping online all year long, so when those ads go out for Black Friday, they seem incredible. Really Black Friday is a chance for retail stores to deplete old stock, while getting you in line with a very limited supply of new items with little mark down.

For example, Jimmy wants an iPad. Best Buy says they’re selling them at $50 off. So he waits in line, but finds out they only have ten available when the doors open. Well, the ten people in front of him are there for the same thing and they snag them all, so does Jimmy just go home? A smart Jimmy would, but most people after waiting that long in the cold are defeated and decide that they have to get something instead of the iPad to make the line wait worth something. So what does Best Buy offer at huge discounts? Old stock items for dirt cheap that Best Buy didn’t unload all year. Jimmy leaves with a TV he didn’t come for and Best Buy has removed one old stock item from their shelves with cash in their hands. A little profit is better than no profit, even if its already a loss for them.

The question I have is if Jimmy wants the iPad so bad, then he should do his research, because he’d find retailers make almost no money off selling iPads, because Apple doesn’t discount them. Had he bought it from Apple at the regular price he’d have the item he wants, wont have to wait in line, and doesn’t risk leaving with a TV. This is why Black Friday is so competitive for retailers. If they get you in their line, they get some type of sale from you, based on how long you had to wait to get in. If you try to visit two stores on Black Friday you miss the big-ticket items of the second store you visit. You have one chance to nab that item and if you’re not first in line, its not guaranteed. And trust me, unless you’re a pro, you won’t be first in line, let alone 10th.

So if you punish yourself every year I challenge you to stay home. Pick the items you want early. Research their prices online. Wait for a sale to pop up and snag them from your couch. Take full advantage of Cyber Monday, and see what’s available there. You don’t have to kill yourself to get deals. If you want that new game console, then do your homework, reserve one before it’s release, and expect to pay full price. Don’t be a dolt and think you’re going to get deals on tech items newly released in November before the sales.

 

Most importantly, if you do go out on Black Friday and wait in line, show some fucking respect to the young kids and store employees that are being forced to work so you can pretend you’re getting major deals. You may have had off Thanksgiving and the following day, but more than likely these people had to miss out on their meal to appease your inability to stay home and be a year round smart consumer. Most of the employees at Walmart and other major discount stores aren’t even making a living wage. Walmart, this year, is asking its employees to donate food to its other employees who can’t afford food for Thanksgiving. Where do you think their getting the food from? We’re talking about a company that prefers its employees go on welfare rather than pay them a decent wage. That alone should keep anyone with a heart away from lining up there that morning, but we all know it wont.  

And remember its not you who are outwitting Walmart for nabbing that Black Friday deal. You’re being sold to the highest degree and in most cases you are the greatest of the ill-informed consumer and that’s exactly what Walmart, Best buy, Target, and others are relying on.

Oct 03

Red Hates Blue’s Version of Red…

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This issue seems to be pretty divisive amongst the two parties and really it comes down to understanding the idea behind the new Affordable Care Act that helps ease people’s worries. I’m going to try and curb my cynicism, because almost weekly I have to hear someone express his or her opinion on the new law which tends to be ignorant of how insurance worked before versus what a mandate means for future insurance premiums.

Before we start, I’d like to express that not everything in any law is perfect, but we have many avenues that can be used to responsibly argue, debate, amend, or in some cases even repeal a law. I’ll also advocate my position that I don’t think the law went far enough. The issues I have with the law is that there is still no public option to compete against private insurance, and that ultimately it is still tied to employers rather than a single payer system, which creates fear in the American workforce to take risks. But alas…it does some great things and reforms many aspects of insurance that laws before had not bothered to evaluate.  

Lets start with how insurance worked before the implementation of the law. Private insurance in this country is and was usually offered by your employer or through your own private means. It was not mandatory that you have insurance and this is one of the issues that added to the rising cost of medical care (amongst many other reasons) and the annual rise in insurance premiums for those that did buy insurance to protect their health.

In 1986 this country agreed that even the uninsured could not be turned away from medical care regardless of whether they could afford it or not. I like this idea. We’re all human and we all make mistakes, and so it inevitable that were all going to be in a hospital one day and with high costs of care it very possible none of us can afford the bill. If you didn’t make enough to afford even your employer insurance (which means you definitely couldn’t afford any outside of your employer) and you broke your leg, it would be inhumane to refuse to fix you. Tea partiers would argue you should suffer the consequences and die from it, but what wont they argue? But then who pays for your care if you can’t? Well its simple: every other taxpayer, and anyone who could afford to pay for insurance (employer based or private). That’s’ right, the rest of us have our insurance premiums annually rise every year to cover those who cannot afford insurance and especially those who can and simply refuse to get it.

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So how do we solve this problem? We’ll we could tell anyone who doesn’t buy insurance that they simply need to fuck off and die, but then what happens if we find ourselves in that position after we lose employment that we can’t afford it? It won’t matter that we once did have coverage, because we now don’t. We’ll a man from Detroit implemented a conservative system that required everyone in their state to comply with buying some form of health insurance or otherwise face a penalty or fee of sorts. It worked out great in his state, not perfect of course, because nothing ever is, but it is considered a success. This man ran for president and much to his surprise… lost… wait… what?! Why did he lose?

Well beyond many of his other stances on other social issues as well as a loose tongue, he was enlisted to fight against the very healthcare reform he had successfully set up in his own state. The look on his face when he had to actually tell a national audience that his program in his home state was not going to be successful for this country was the most telling sign of how far his party had come in their hopes to simply regain control of the White House. So he lost and his argument that he could compromise with democrats as he did in his own state wasn’t enough to earn the trust of the nation.

So the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act headed along on its way. The only thing to do at a time like if you’re hoping to derail it is to create a name for it and push out as much misinformation as possible to get people scared of it. So what does it do? Well go read it right here…

http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/final-health-reform-bill-patient-protection-and-affordable-care-act.aspx

Seriously…read it…I’m not kidding. Stop pretending you have.

In a nutshell what it does is add protections for consumers who purchase private insurance, and creates a standard of which all insurance companies must provide at minimum. This is where things get interesting. Many have argued that their premiums are going to go up and for some that’s entirely true, but there is a reason for this. The reason is that more than likely, the cheap plan you were paying for actually didn’t cover what you thought it did. Bare bones insurance was cheap and in it’s cheapness before the PPACA, your insurance would have failed you when you reached a certain level of care needed. Lifetime limits, pre-existing conditions, etc. These are all things of the past, which now means that insurance companies have to offer you a better product, and as the market teaches us, that means you’re going to have to pay a little more for that service. However even if it’s more than you can afford you are eligible for subsidies if the amount you owe is over 8% of your total income. Not to mention, your current employer insurance will stay the same minus the few standards they need to update to make sure their abiding to a good standard of coverage.

What happens though is that those that aren’t subsidized entirely will have to contribute to their own healthcare or pay a tax to essentially cover their annual care so that you and I don’t have to. Now if that type of forced personal responsibility isn’t a Republican ideal, then nothing is. Then again this whole idea was born from a conservative think tank. If you and I don’t have to cover someone else’s care then we don’t have any reason to have our annual premiums increased beyond normal inflation. Thanks to the 80/20 split that forces insurance companies to take 80% of our money and use it towards actual claims, and the other 20% towards administrative services and CEO bonuses, it’s going to be hard for an insurance company to justify ridiculous increases, which again is what we were trying to curb in the first place. Not only that, but have state by state insurance exchanges where you can shop and compare all your options from multiple companies gives the consumer some say in how much coverage they need or want. 

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I’m not going to argue there wont be growing pains, but isn’t that what real reform is all about? Lacing up your bootstraps or whatever other mantra we’ve heard chanted from the conservative side of American politics since we were thrown into a recession by a deregulated finance industry? Half the country doesn’t favor the PPACA, keeping in mind that 20% of those are people who wanted it to go further, but 72% of this country also thinks holding government hostage for the sake of trying to repeal a law that has been passed in the House, passed in the Senate, signed by a President, upheld by the Supreme Court, and survived 40+ repeal attempts, is an unimaginable waste of time and for some …jobs. The Republican Party is eating itself inside out and I’m not sure for what good reason really. This was a conservative idea that modern conservatives are rejecting. It forces the “lazy” (often a term thrown around) who can afford insurance to pay up so that others don’t have to, and it moves us forward in reforming a completely broken previous system. Now if I could just get a competitive public option pushed through… sigh… politics.

 

 

  

Sep 27

Ben Affleck is Batman…

The title of this post is what I hope I’m saying as I walk out of the theater after my first viewing of Batman/Superman summer 2015. This is probably not the position taken by most with regards to the announcement and truth be told, even my first reaction called for the casting director’s head. However, though I would have preferred to go another direction, schedules and casting rarely line up so easily when you’re hoping for the likes of John Hamm or even Josh Brolin.

So here we are with our new Dark Knight announced and he’s the same man who enriched great films like “The Town” and “Argo”, but also the same man who couldn’t puff out even passable performances in films like “Daredevil” and “Gigli”. So is it fair to judge him on his past? Has he turned a new corner? Honestly none of that matters to me. What makes me nervous is not how he used to be, but more what his current success means for his ego. Ben Affleck was a down and out guy a few years ago and he must have known it. To judge him on his most recent work is probably a better route in gauging whether I think the man can play the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman.

 

This duality is extremely important to understand if you’re not a huge Batman reader. Bruce Wayne and Batman are not the same person, figuratively. Bruce is the young kid who has everything going for him when his parents are gunned down in front of him. Bruce Wayne essentially dies that night. All his innocence, optimism, and love are stunted in the flash of the gun barrel. What grew up beyond that moment was a lost, angry, and unfocused shell of that young boy. The delicate balance between shutting everyone out of his life and yet his desire to not feel alone, eventually (along with a few key events) leads him to the revelation that fear is motivation. If he can encapsulate, hone, and dispense fear into the types of men who killed his parents, he feels he can save all of Gotham.

 

Bruce Wayne becomes a mask. This is key. The Batman is all there is. If you watched these movies growing up thinking that Bruce Wayne is a millionaire who fights crime in his off time, then you have missed the point (though probably due to the films misrepresentation rather than by you own fault). The real state of things is The Batman is a force within Gotham who needs to have a public persona to better help deceive his actions and that deception is Bruce Wayne’s status and roll in Gotham. Bruce is the real mask.

That being said, the hardest thing for me when it comes to the Ben Affleck casting is whether or not this concept is still spearheading the future Batman franchise. Ben has an issue seeming sincere to me even in his current films. I would say Argo is the first film where I felt his character had an internal motivation beyond the surface of seeming to be the best at what he does. Intimidation is also a huge factor with the Dark Knight and though I hope I’m proven wrong, it’s hard for me to see him as intimidating. Even at his most tense in “The Town” there was no part of me feeling intimidated. All of this doesn’t mean because he hasn’t shown it yet, that he doesn’t indeed have the chops to be so.

 

He is starring in a film coming out soon where he seems to be playing a scary mob type guy that shouldn’t be messed with and I’m hoping he brings more to it than the average “cocky frat guy challenging a rival sports fan” type intimidation that he exuded in “Good Will Hunting” or “Dogma”. There’s something special about Ben and I think it lies behind the camera in directing, but I’m not convinced yet that he can expand the role of Batman into a new level, much in the way Christian Bale did. However, I will hold my tongue until we start seeing bits and pieces from the production of Batman Vs. Superman.

 

Some people laugh at how much one casting decision can bother so many people, but this is an iconic character that after years of directors high on the 1960’s color scheme of the original TV show, finally had a good director, set of actors and great understanding of the world of the Dark Knight presented in three great movies (none without their small flaws). I hope Warner Brothers knows what they’re doing, because if they honestly expect the fan base to have to rely solely on Zack Snyder’s excitement after the way he handled the Man of Steel, then there’s a big problem. I’ll wait for a trailer, but mostly I hope Ben keeps that awful Boston accent at home.

Jul 24

An Age of Overvalued Ink…

Every comic nerd my age has that moment where they hit their teenage years and someone tells them that they should take care of their comics, because they could be worth something one day. It happened to me, and it started me on a quest (or hobby depending on how you look at it) to collect, find, protect, and store every comic I could afford. So from that day forth I collected probably over 400-500 issues that I made sure to bag with a white board and store in comic storage boxes. I thought I had it down pat. Buy an issue, read it carefully, seal it up, and store it for long term investment. It wasn’t until many years later that I found out how wrong I was.

 

Everyone knows an older relative that will tell you all about the comics they used to read from the 40’s-60’s and how they used to cost five cents. Most of the time those stories end with, “…I didn’t keep any of them.” Those types of stories almost always help fuel the interest in keeping our comics safe and preserved, but there’s a huge difference between the comics we are preserving and the ones they threw away. That difference is perceived value.

 

Have you ever seen someone who collects national Geographic magazine and wondered why the hell they keep stacks of them laying around or stored nicely? I mean how much could that collection be worth if National Geographic prints millions of copies f each magazine? Well, it’s worth just about as much as some other person who wants them is willing to pay, whether that’s five bucks or five thousand bucks. This is kind of what were looking at today with modern comics. Before I go further, I want to express that worth alone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t collect, because sometimes the act of collecting can be extremely therapeutic. I’m not here to persuade anyone from it, but rather to expand on the idea and crush the myth that your comic collection will be worth millions when you’re about to retire.

 

‘But I hear about all those Spider-man #1’s that are worth tens of thousands!’

 

You sure do, but the important thing to realize is that back in those days the amount of books printed were quite limited compared to the half a million per issue printed today. What makes the first Superman or Batman so valuable is that they were limited run printings, have up to 80 years of age (which requires insane protection from wear), and they are highly popular characters because their introduction changed the industry itself. An important aspect is the amount printed. Action Comics #1, which contains the first Superman appearance as well as being the first popular superhero comic ever, is said to have maybe 50-100 issues in circulation that have survived many ages. Even more so, only a very few of those are of exceptional quality since being first printed. A CGC graded 8.5 copy of this comic sold for 1.5 million in 2010. A CGC graded score of 5 drops its value to around $250,000. Point being that unless you have it hidden in perfect condition in your attic, you should be rolling in millions of dollars to even attempt to own this comic. That’s a true collectible.

 

This is not the type of numbers printed today. When it was first published, the first printing ran off about 200,000 copies of which 50-100 remain, partly because being the first comic to really introduce a super hero, there was little concept of what it could be worth decades from then. Comics like this are the dream that inspires many to purchase two copies of a new issue, run to a CDC grading booth and lock one up for storage and collection. However, even the smaller known Marvel issues are getting massive prints, and with the popularity of CDC grading, the value will only weaken. The more that assume a first printing of Spawn #1 is to be CDC graded and protected, inherently, drops it’s value in the long run (decades), which is part of the issue of arguing any modern comic’s worth to future generations.

 

‘But I got it signed by Jim Lee himself!’

I hate to say this, but… who cares? One of the hardest lessons I learned about getting an issue #1 signed by the artist or author was that its only really worth as much as someone who wants that version of the comic is willing to pay. I have many signed first issue, first prints, but ultimately I will have a harder time selling them (if I ever felt I wanted to), because many feel a signature damages the value of a comic. Yes, you heard me right. Unless Alan Moore signs your first edition, first print of Watchman, you are probably wasting your time with a signature if you seek true monetary value (unless you find the right buyer). If it’s simply for personal collecting, then continue to rock on my friend.

 

The problem is that most current artist work conventions to sell their image and art by attending almost any comic convention they can. Reason being, generally you pay a small price to stand in line and they sign a few issues. Sometimes Marvel or DC pays for them to show up and talk or sign, thus their signatures are free, but in the end I’ve seen many of the same artists within the same year and almost always you see comic fans run from the signature booth straight to the CDC grader (who also charges a stiff fee) to lock up their investment. For many of these events, by the time you pay $25-50 for the convention ticket, $10-20 for the signature, and anywhere from $25-95 for the CGC grading process, you could have invested anywhere from $60 - $165 (not including the cost of the issue itself depending on its current value) just protecting your investment.

 

I put down $20 for a Marvel, Steven King Gunslinger Variant cover and then waited and hour in line to have the writer sign it. About five years later I looked up the value of this book and even with a signature the value hadn’t moved. What had happened, was that I assumed this single issue was worth $20 for the Variant and that the signature would make it even more enticing, but in the end, every one and their mother had a copy just like mine sitting online waiting to be snagged for $40-$60 when not one comic value guide could justify that price. Even more discouraging was that every single person trying to sell hadn’t had one bid or offer. I would have never sold it, but curiosity often leads me to check in once and a while. Ill check back in another 5 years, I’m sure. 

 

The comic industry is fickle. So it pays to have consumers invest a lot upfront for the perceived worth of a possible future value. But I have to wonder, does that actually help add value to a comic over decades of time? With as many issue that pour out weekly, versus the amount of those that are investing in CGC grading, should a brand new comic book that costs $3 on the shelf, be jettisoned to a value of over $200 overnight because it has a sketch variant cover and is contained in a 9.8 Mint CGC rating? I suppose that depends on the perceived value to someone looking to own it. Should we expect that a modern comic could equal the value of an 80-year-old Action Comics #1 Superman appearance of which only 50-100 are believed to exist anymore?

 

‘But I have the variant cover!

There is some attempt by comic publishers to give comic collectors a chance to see perceived value by printing a limited variant cover, which I suppose would mean that because there are less in circulation that they are thus more valuable. But as a guy who chased many of these during my high school and college days, I had to laugh at the idea that when Ultimate Wolverine Vs Hulk #1 was released, the comic store I stopped into offered its variant sketch cover for $200 on its release day. It was not CGC rated and was sitting in a simple plastic sleeve with a cardboard backing, like many of my own regular comics. This store had found a way to use the limited printing to overvalue the release day purchase price of a variant cover. It sent anger through my body, not because I couldn’t afford it, but because already the abuse of over-valuing was now going to be the commonplace way for stores to make much more money off of unknowing and new comic book fans.

 

From that day forward I began researching why a comic (even a variant) could cost $200 on day one and really couldn’t find any solid reasoning other than big comic publishers are going to push to sell the old idea that keeping your comics from your childhood could be worth millions one day. That used to be a true idea, but not simply because DC or Marvel wanted to sell you on the idea, but rather because time, importance, story, and care were the catalyst to understanding why Superman’s first appearance was so extraordinary to our culture. Now we have a system where those great comics of the past are traded amongst those with great wealth as cultural items of importance, while Marvel and DC have adapted their marketing to hope that every comic on their shelves can now be assumed to be the next Action Comics #1. Popularity, mass printing, Variant covers, and high first day prices are only selling the idea of worth, but 50 years from now we could all be looking at a market where no one can afford to trade or sell, because all of the kids my age and younger simply don’t know what it means to hold a comic that’s actually worth something.

 

In the end I say collect for your own personal reasons alone. The fact that you invested a lot of money upfront into a perceived idea of a future value doesn’t guarantee that your collection is indeed valuable. The more popular comics become the harder it’s going to be to sell that one modern issue even 20 years from now if thousands of other people invested the same in protection and grading. If you’re like me, you can dream all day long of getting that one issue that means a lot to you and is indeed worth something (and maybe one day you find it hidden in an attic or in a flea market), but collecting comics for an assumed future value is thinking very short term now a days. Ill keep mine and pass them onto my kids, but most of them even though being in my hands for almost 15 years are worth maybe $1 more than I paid for them on their first day and that’s ok, because in the end its all about the stories and not how much I can get for them. I love comics and even have moved towards digital comics to save room, but a comic, like any other collectible is only worth as much as the guy next to you is willing to pay. I have a fear that many new modern comic collectors are going to be upset years from now when they invested so much for so little.

 

 

 

Jun 26

Being Offended at the Offended…

 

We live in a 24-hour news and entertainment culture. There is no way to get around this fact. As soon as Justin Beiber runs over his neighbor’s trash cans we are alerted via the top spot on Google’s news feed, Twitter, Facebook, and just about every social media outlet known to us. CNN usually picks up the story days later and rushes to push inaccurate information to the embarrassment of anyone watching. This type of instant stream of content was not always the case. There was a time where you had to use payphones to check in with people via landlines. At one point, a celebrity fowl wouldn’t reach your small town until the local paper became aware. And since the beginning of mass communication of anytime there has always been someone in the spotlight saying or doing something stupid, where eventually the public catches wind.

 

One interesting effect of moving from slow news to instant streaming news is that currently we have a generational gap where those who grew up on slow newspapers are now confronted with instant streaming. Imagine a grandparent operating the newest cell phone and you can grasp a little of what I mean. As a culture we often push back against new forms of technology until we can afford it, in which we then praise and adopt it as standard. Everyone knows someone who has said, “I don’t need all those fancy options; it just has to make calls,” only later to catch that person constantly checking their social media once introduced to it. We are constantly re-adjusting to how we obtain media content. This being said, one thing has never changed and that is the ability for someone held in good standing with the public to make a huge error in judgment and say things or do things that shatter their public image. Nixon was found taping his own oval office meetings in which he personally involved himself in criminal acts. He was also caught snooping the DNC. This was the 1960’s. Not 2010. He was (at a slower pace of media) caught and then due to public perception and opinion, resigned his position as President. His actions offended some and probably didn’t bother some as well. He also was assuming not to have these things brought to light and sadly that was his downfall.

 

Recently celebrity chef Paula Deen has come under fire for her under-oath comments relating to a recent deposition regarding lawsuits brought upon her brother and sons managerial practices at their Deen family restaurant. I wont go into specifically what was said, you can read the deposition online on your own free time, but Food Network decided in was in their best financial interests to not renew her contract, which essentially means she is out of a job. What generally happens with these type of situations is that public perception takes the form of two positions: 1) Said person shouldn’t have said that type of comment and it offends me, or 2) She shouldn’t be fired because people are offended at her comments. Personally, I don’t watch Paula Deen and couldn’t care less about what she believes, because I hold no personal investment in her product. I never did and probably never will, though I’m sure I borrowed her macaroni recipe once for free online.

 

I tend to be surprised at the idea that those who scream free speech in this type of case are essentially offended at the idea that anyone would be offended by her comments. It’s as if we should be able to hear her public statements and say, “Meh, not my view and thus I wont pay for it or watch it.” And in theory this should be all it takes, but in reality even though her non-selling product and bad ratings could eventually get her fired via the idea of a free market, it doesn’t advance us as a culture to simply stay quiet when something bothers us.

 

Did her comments seal her fate? Possibly, but not entirely. Public perception is quite forgiving to a person who makes a mistake and admits fully to being wrong. America loves a good come back when it feels the person genuinely believes they made a mistake. Contrary to the miss-held belief that the public is a bunch of raving lunatics who seek to destroy public figures, we often can relate to the person who says something stupid and learns from it. D.C. mayor Marion Barry, anyone? And for those who jump to say, “That guy was a scumbag and shouldn’t have won his position back later on!” I ask this: do you feel the same way about Paula Deen? Often we tend to begrudgingly snarl at the idea of someone making a mistake that we already disliked, and yet accept the idea when it’s someone we followed with great admiration asking for forgiveness. Rarely do we accept a single standard for all. Hey, it’s human nature and in a scientific sense, it’s a form of confirmation bias. We like to confirm that which we are bias to and ignore that which doesn’t help confirm our bias.

 

The reason I throw Marion Barry (for the past times example) and Paula Deen (as the contemporary figure) is specifically, because I grew up in an area where many considered Barry utter trash and unworthy of reelection. However years later I see many of these same people labeling Paula’s issues as a tragedy. Obviously they are of different skin color and often with my area, they are “completely different” circumstances. Marion made enough of an example to change his ways that many in D.C. saw fit to bring him back to office. Paula has seemed to take the different route in that she has her finger aimed at other sources as to why she shouldn’t be held to the standard that every public figure has been no mater the pace of how media gets to us. Some of you may remember also how angry the O.J. Simpson verdict made you, for example. 

 

Barry had a problem with drugs and women. Paula made comments that implied an inability to see the cultural issue with using certain derogatory terminology towards those of a different skin color. Both awful things in the eyes of the public. Did Paula lie under oath? No (we assume). Does that make her comments any more palatable? Sadly for her, no. Culture changes constantly. Even today as DOMA is struck down by the US Supreme Court, we are living in a culture of change. The ideals that Paula grew up in as a child in the South are not the ideals that her current culture has evolved to. There was a time where this type of story would not have mattered in the public eye (especially in the South), and so yes things have changed, but we have evolved to understand that just because something once was, doesn’t mean it was right. Had African Americans not stood up, non-violently, in the streets and shown their offense with demands that our culture no longer see them as third class citizens (or 3/5th a person if you consider the founding fathers) then there would have been no movement towards true equality for them. Even today it is still considered perfectly normal to hold these old racist ideals, though they generally survive only in private.

 

Culture endlessly changes, which is how we learn and refine what it is to be an American in a country where every person is supposed to be considered equal. There are countries where disobedience to the decided state religion is considered a crime punishable by prison and even death. Even in this country this idea is being tested every day. It’s easy to walk away from Paula’s comments and simply allow the free market to determine her fate, but without anyone being able to take offense to her comments, there is effectively no change in her attitudes towards it. It’s essentially allowing a child to steal a cookie before dinner without ever slapping his/her hand. Growing up a certain way doesn’t exclude you from evolving with culture, just as ignoring any racism or inequality because you aren’t objected to it on any level doesn’t exclude you from the cultural conversation.

 

White males, like myself, have it very easy. As Louis C.K. has mentioned in his act, you could essentially transplant a white male back as far as you want in time and they would be able to live a comfortable life, generally free from all persecution. There are no real cultural reigns holding back the progress of a white male’s goals and aspirations though all time. When I was in high school, I overheard a journalism teacher talking to an African American student about a piece he was attempting to write. It sounded like an argument, but the teacher was asking him how it felt to be a minority in an almost completely white school (1.5% black population in my high school and from the same single family). The student kept stating, “You just don’t get it!” The teacher responded, “Well make me get it!” Once again the student responded, “I don’t think I can, you just don’t get it.” And Ill never forget this moment when the teacher said, “If you can’t even explain it to me so that I can get it, then how the hell will anyone in this large school ever get it?”

 

At first I thought, that could be perceived as pretty strong verbiage for anyone stepping into the room right at that moment, but in reality the teacher’s point was to push this student to try and show the rest of us why it is we should care about what this lone African American student was going through on a daily basis. It was a moment I vividly remember and try to reflect on when issues of race pop up locally and on the national scale. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why another’s comments offend someone, but rather why it is that person is feeling emboldened to say them in the first place expecting no consequence. The first step to solving an issue is discussion, which was an unavailable method to the African American community for hundreds of years. They were offended and demanded to be heard and our culture can’t ignore that. The same goes for any minority and even majority. You speak up when you feel wronged or offended, and you should never feel surprised when someone speaks back in rejection of your words. Free speech works both ways. We ARE more politically correct, and it is because our culture is moving away from allowing small-minded people to say anything they want without consequences. In this country you stand for what you believe in and you don’t cry when someone calls you on it. That is what America is and that’s an America I want for my children. Tolerance is a two way street. Deciding not to degrade someone first is always a more tolerant route then to degrade him or her and act surprised when they degrade back.   

 

Paula Deen is an adult who said things in the public eye and now can’t grasp why no one agrees with her excuses for it. That is ultimately her problem understanding current culture. She could have easily admitted that the blame was hers alone and many would accept the more learned Paula back with open arms, but she pointed the finger at the language used by young males in her kitchens, “someone evil” trying to get her out of jealousy, and ultimately even you and I, because everyone says derogatory things. She’s probably got a point, but the public is watching her and right now she seems to have a problem seeing herself in the same light as her audience does. Paula got herself fired. That is the true “free market” at work. 

Jun 25

What Really Scares Us…

 

October is a special time. It opens many of us up to the idea of wanting to be scared for fun. The mix of dead leaves, cold temperatures, and harvest festivals offer a retreat from the summer months. We grab our jackets to stay warm and seclude ourselves to the warmer indoors. It is the perfect annual set up for being more susceptible to fear. We even nestle into a dark theater or our living room couch in hopes of allowing a film to take advantage of our natural hibernation and reclusively throughout the changes of sunny and warm towards gray and cool. I find myself completely at home in late September through mind November. My mind spends extra energy imagining ideas that provoke a heightened sense of fear. In general, we all love a good scare.

 

Though my mind is always active during these months, it hasn’t been until maybe up to the last two years that feature films have caught up to my overactive imagination. Always on the hunt to be frightened beyond belief, I was almost always let down by the horror genre. Films like The Omen, The Exorcist, The Shining, and even on a more campy level, Poltergeist had moments that stuck with me forever. But these weren’t films of my generation. My sister brought me into the know with frequent screenings of these films, and probably at a much earlier age then I should have, which is the greatest gift you can give a kid who loves to be scared.

 

My generation’s additions to the genre are around 80% awful. “Slasher” films, though I hold a special place for some of them, were in no way interesting, thought provoking, or in the most important sense, truly scary. What Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation did in the face of Stephen King’s original work is not only genius, but deserving. There isn’t a time even now watching it where I feel completely at ease, which is not something I can say about most of the horror films of my generation.

 

We are now bombarded with the same gimmicks in the horror genre that ruins regular film genres. For example, the first Paranormal Activity was a neat experience. It had moments that were new and exciting. The original (no sequel) ending was intense and created an end to a really scary film. However it was scrapped for the multiple sequel endings, and the series now suffers for it. It’s no longer scary or thought provoking, but rather exercises in jump scares. Fun, but not really meaningful in story. This same thing happened to the “torture porn” genre of horror films like Saw, Tourista, and Hostel. These films are essentially 90-minute blood soaked exercises in torture, and are proof that blood being spilled isn’t necessarily scary. Though these types of films liter the theaters every October, hoping to squeeze another 100 million per film from audiences, there is a movement on the rise that has reclaimed what good horror should aspire to.

 

Last year I sat down with friends and watched a relatively unknown film called House of the Devil. We didn’t bother with a trailer viewing and simply loaded it up. Let me preface first that horror films are also only as successful as you allow them to be. If you’re in a room with people who are talking, joking, playing on their cell phones, and have lights on, you are generally doing a disservice to the effect you hope to receive. I have found that in most cases, the person who spent their entire viewing on their cell phone (texting or whatever) is almost always the first person who claims that the film wasn’t scary. So it’s best to scrutinize that person as much as possible before and after viewing the film. Atmosphere is everything, and if you don’t respect it, then don’t bother watching any horror film. Moving on….

 

Ti West is only now being recognized for his many films, and in a sense, still is completely off the radar, which is fine by me. Better that then being abused and stretched thin by the normal money grubbing Hollywood executives. House of the Devil follows a simple premise: A college student in the 80’s answers an ad for a babysitting job because she needs to make more money. I know, your first thought is…seen it. You’d be wrong. There is a pacing to this film that leaves your imagination misfiring constantly. You know something is off, but you can’t place it. There are cues that make you consider what you might do in the same situation, but nothing can really prepare you. Everything about the film is nostalgic which adds it’s own level of dread. It’s autumn, this girl is very much disconnected from friends and family (except for a dorm mate), and her decisions blur the line of convincing yourself that you wouldn’t do the same. I can say no more other than after one viewing I was on IMDB looking for more of his films to watch. Lucky for me, I found more….

 

The Innkeepers came next. Often you expect to experience a similar type story or feeling when watching a director’s collection of films. A Kubrick film very much holds certain expectations based on his style and technique. Ti West takes this film in an entirely different direction. There is a campy and humorous effect that relieves you of the high tension and yet adds more to the tension, because you can’t be certain of what hand the film will play with each scare. This story follows the actions of two employees watching the front desk of an old Connecticut Inn that is being shut down after a final weekend. These two are into paranormal investigation and decide to use the last couple days to record sound in a basically empty hotel. This film does something unique with sound where in the scenes of the main characters recording with microphones, we get to hear their recordings. And then separately we don’t in other situations. It’s very much a push and play on sound versus visual scares. The sound based scenes are almost more intense than the visual scares. They do say that 75% of a movie is sound, and this film explores it.

 

There is a more well-known, yet still direct to cable box film series called V/H/S. The second film has just been released, but the first was hailed as a new genre of found footage. I had essentially ignored the trailers and TV spots because it seemed like a serial killer movie about someone who keeps V/H/S tapes. It didn’t seem marketed correctly, and yet when we sat down to watch it; there was so much about it that was new, that I couldn’t turn away. Found footage has been beaten into the ground and we should expect more and more of it to continue to limp through the horror genre. The story is fragmented, but includes basically a group of delinquents who are tasked with retrieving a certain VHS tape from a home owned by an old man. They enter and find a treasure trove. Each tape watched is a 15-20 minute horror short by many different directors. Ti West has a story in there as well as many other indie horror directors. The camera work is still overly shaky on some of the stories, but the stories are true exercises in different types of found footage ideas. No idea is off the table. Supernatural, monster-based, and even mythical ideas are explored, each with their own level and value of good scares. Some are lesser, but in the end each story only gives you so much investment, so it’s easier to walk away if one lacks the ability to really get to you. The second film improves on the concept and is even more fun and thought provoking.

 

In the end, it’s all about the scare. Some like jumps, some like thought provoking scares, some love the slow burn, but if you have felt left out of the horror genre, these are some films to really get you back into the groove. Nothing is better than being able to let off some steam with a good scare. With correct atmosphere and an open mind these films can do just that. I can say that because of my overactive imagination, I won’t watch these films alone, and especially for one particular scene in V/H/S, I didn’t sleep well at all. Ti West has two more films coming this year and I couldn’t be ready enough. The Sacrament is his next film that follows a young man searching for his estranged sister who has become enveloped by an end day’s type cult. Sign me up, because really, the scariest part of a movie should be the drive home afterwards.

Jun 12

Welcome Home Sony…

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Well E3 is turning out to be better TV then…well… TV. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo (who I won’t really be speaking about) had their time in the spotlight to get their messages to consumers and it was Sony who decided to make clear of some things.

 

As many gamers now know, the Xbox One was presented wholly as a media device that also plays games. This is not something gamers want to hear when they are the exact crowd that got Xbox to the level it is today. We expect games to be showcased at any presentation of a new piece of gaming hardware. Microsoft decided to show off how well its new hardware could gather all of your media into one central box and then quickly switch between that media seamlessly. It worked quite nice, but it lacked quite a bit of the showmanship and excitement that Sony brought with their preview conference a month earlier. Sony instead decided to show simply games. Sony kept silent when it came to discussing DRM (Digital Rights Management) and media features.

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Microsoft was grilled for their statements about the Xbox being always on and how they decided to handle the used disc aftermarkets, to which gamers are accustomed. Sadly for them, they confused the conversation and muddled their message for weeks before finally confirming what sounded better than the worst possible scenario, but in reality is no better. By delegating your physical ownership rights to the developer in deciding whether you can resell the game back to a retailer (that we’re told must be a certified retailer…whatever that means}, they have essentially said that the $60 you just paid only allows you to lease the game. You do not own what you can’t resell. Even if a developer allows someone to sell their game back to a retailer and you go there hoping for a chance to pick up that game a little cheaper, it seems that you will be tasked with not only paying to get the disc out the door, but also possibly to activate it when you get home as well. This kills the used game market.

 

Microsoft can try to spin the idea that digital is the way to go, since they are squeezing out the aftermarket and the entire idea behind physical media, but in the end you don’t really own these products if you can only access them via 24 hour license checks (or 1 hour if you’re not on your xbox). Better yet you can’t even play the game you purchased offline for more than 24 hours. No more trips to grandma’s house with your Xbox, where Internet ceases to exist. What do the executives at Microsoft think about you not having solid broadband? Well…go buy an Xbox 360. That’s right. If you don’t have a good enough connection for the Xbox One, then go buy our older, last generation product and get over it. I could write hours about what Microsoft has done over the years to lose my money, but this is about taking your ownership rights, handing them over to the developer who sold you their game, and limiting your use of the game for the “greater good of cloud computing”.

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Sony had one job leading up to E3, and it was simply to stay quiet. I’m not sure if Microsoft assumed that Sony would take up a similar type of DRM stance, and we may never know if Sony originally planned to, but they certainly saw what it did to Microsoft’s selling image. So in their first major PS4 presentation since their preview, Sony made it very clear that they have no intention to require an online connection to play single player games. They noted with a huge image on their main screen that the physical media you buy for their system is yours to do what you wish. Once you buy it (used or not) you own it. Sell it back if you want, give it to a friend indefinitely if you feel the need, or keep it forever. They wont restrict you whatsoever, because it seems they understand that even digital media should still be considered something that you as the consumer do indeed own after you pay the asking price.

 

This is a 65 billion dollar industry. There is a lot of interest and a lot of money to be made if you can satisfy your consumer base. Being from the generation of 8 bit gaming and watching the industry evolve over time, there is nothing more exciting to me than new gaming hardware. Two years ago I switched the majority of my gaming to the PC, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love a good console title. With the PC market I deal completely digitally and it is a great setup, but it still relies on competitive pricing and discount sales to get me to open my wallet. The idea that Microsoft believes I would be willing to forgo the right to choose where and how much I spend on a AAA title (most of which are rushed with little content worth their full price) is sickening. Why would any gamer assume that without a used game aftermarket, Microsoft wouldn’t slowly but surely extend the full purchase price over longer periods of time, making it harder to save money on even games that are a year or two old? If there is no outside competitive force helping drive the purchase price of an older game down, then what forces Microsoft to lower their digital and physical game prices below the standard $60, at least until that game’s sequel comes out?

 

DRM is essentially a way to have a consumer buy something, not own it, and then continue to pay for access to it. This is how the new Xbox will run. Can’t afford Xbox Live? No multiplayer for you (standard for Sony as well though paid online is a respected service). Can’t afford or don’t have the ability for a good broadband connection? Can’t play single player games you bought for $60. Enjoy watching TV and movies on your $500 cable box/BluRay player. It’s never a good idea to drop the consumer to please your developers, because without anyone to purchase, the developers are useless.

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Sony has it right. Gamers know this and outside of the hardcore Call of Duty pre-teens, I don’t see how any gamer (my age at least) could want to invest their hard-earner cash into the new Xbox One. If I have to pay $60 for a game to play it then I should be able to do what I please with that ownership after Microsoft gets their cut as well as the developer (hint: maybe Microsoft should take a smaller cut to help the developer). For me to pay twice for an older game that has run its market course is an insult. You have my kudos, Sony. Goodbye, Microsoft.