Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lost minute costumes

A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a party store to search for Halloween costumes. While in there we looked at many of the packaged costumes and I was reminded of the glory of what the copy writer for the packaging must compose due to licensing restrictions, especially for costumes that clearly are based on an actual person but where that person's name cannot legally be used.

A long curly-haired wig on a man with some round-framed sunglasses is "Radio DJ" because they can't call it "Howard Stern" (who's actually an on-air personality, but that is a distinction that wouldn't necessarily make the costume sell any better). That sort of thing.

However, the one that struck me as both the most inspired and most risible was a shoulder-length bowl-cut wig where on the photo it was paired with a shaggy mustache and round-framed sunglasses. This was in the "'60s" section (and why costumes can be decade-specific is a topic for another time), along with the tie-died paraphernalia. The picture on the package was a dead-ringer for the male half of a popular duo who had a variety program, the late Sonny Bono. Obviously they couldn't call it "Sonny Bono," but what did they turn that into? "Hippie singer" or something like that perhaps?

No, rather than try to adapt it based on his occupation they changed it to words that sounded somewhat like his name: "Silly Boy."

Whether that pertains to him being the butt of the jokes on the TV show he shared with then-wife Cher or to his time as a California politician is another question.

(Note: It is entirely possible that there's some other reason why the wig has that name, but nonetheless the picture on the bag is meant to look like Sonny Bono, so I'm sticking with this explanation.)


Another set of costumes that were particularly noteworthy are the "sexy" versions of just about anything. Nurse, cop, super-heroine, and the like are staples of any party. Pretty much anything that can be adapted to show skin on a female is all that's necessary to qualify in that category.

One would think that male horror icons would be beyond the scope of that area. However, there's also (I'm not making this up) "Sexy Freddy Krueger."

It's starts with the brimmed hat and claw gloves that undoubtedly are part of the (what we'll call) standard Krueger costume. However, the iconic striped sweater, with slashes, is instead a mini-dress. So, apparently, if Freddy's legs hadn't been disfigured along with the rest of him in the fire and he showed them off he would have been making People magazine's list rather than tormenting children in their dreams. (Or both; I suppose those aren't intrinsically mutually exclusive.)

I'm not suggesting that there aren't people whose fetishes wouldn't go that way; obviously the company wouldn't bother (in this case) to pay the licensing fees to be able to use the actual character name unless they believed they would sell enough costumes to make back that investment.

What's more disturbing is that someone at the company who owns the rights to Freddy signed off on turning a character that struck fear into… well, something that is only scary in the way it causes one to question the psyche of the costume wearer.


Here's hoping you won't be resorting to any costume mentioned above.  Happy Halloween!

(Photos of my costume will be revealed in the next post.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Who's sexyist?

Recently Esquire magazine declared English actress Kate Beckinsale the "Sexiest Woman Alive." Given that this is an annual event conducted by the magazine, it's a title she will hold only for a year, after which point presumably she will cease to be sexy ever again.

Sexiness is apparently a fickle suitor.

Given that Esquire doesn't also select a sexiest man alive this practice could be seen as sexist. Of course, given that People is handling that male title it may be more of a copyright thing. It's entirely likely that both are sexist.

Whether the fact that Esquire selected a 36-year-old for the position, ostensibly suggesting to their readership that it's perfectly acceptable to fantasize about women who are technically old enough to run for president (of course, not that Kate is eligible due to matters of citizenship), makes it any less sexist is arguable. They still seem stuck on making their top criterion the requirement that the woman look phenomenal in her underwear, so it's something of a mixed message to the readers: Women are still worthwhile as they transition out of youth but as long as their looks haven't succumbed to the nature of aging.

But hey, the covers of women's magazines are filled with images of good-looking female celebrities as well, so maybe the appeal of being sexy runs hand-in-hand with unavoidable sexism.

What's not debatable: The term "sex" can go both ways (connotation-wise), depending on the suffix applied. (It's also subject to bad double entendres, but that's another story.)

Which brings us to the real purpose of today's post: language rumination.


If one takes the root word "sex" and appends "-ist" to it, the resulting term, sexist, pertains to gender; a "sexist" remark is made about a person's sex. However, if one appends "-y" to that root instead, sexy generally connotes something that is attractive in a way pertaining to copulation, i.e., to the act of what (in common parlance) is having sex.

The former is more apropos, as "sex" as a word means being either male or female; "gender" technically pertains to type, but not exclusively to being male or female.

(Ah, the things one picks up while reading books. They have no pertinence to regular conversation, and they make one seem condescendingly erudite, but nonetheless words have particular origins that do not change merely because most people are not aware of them.)

However, the point here is not that the root word is interpreted to mean both. Such is the way language goes; words get used in multiple contexts that differ in connotation. It happens. It's part of what keeps things interesting.

The terms made from the different suffixes are strictly associated with the one meaning of the root word, with no variation that the root word can have. Sexy never alludes to gender, and sexist never pertains to copulation.

Further, the derived terms retain a specific positive or negative connotation. Sexy is always good; sexist is always bad. That's not so much intrinsic to their meanings but from the way those terms have been associated. Sexy gets overused, particularly in advertising, to the point of being almost without impact; sexist suggests a prejudicial insult, but technically could describe an innocuous statement that pertains to something about gender ("Women have ovaries" is sexist in the context of being about a physiological aspect of one sex, but it is unlikely to be thought of as a sexist statement; there's no judgment attached).

And of course, if one takes sexist and inserts another e between the i and second s one gets back to sexiest, and we have come full circle. Sort of.

Something that is without question about all this: Ruminating about the language in this way is not sexy.


And now, some abject pandering to the snarky contingent of the internet:

Something else that's probably not likely to elicit an argument: It's lucky for Kate Beckinsale that she is known as the "sexiest woman alive" because with movies like Whiteout she's unlikely ever to be known as "Academy Award winner."



Go ahead.  Let me have it.  Click the "thoughts on this" link below and go wild.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Uniform disorder

When a few years ago I discovered the Uni Watch website I was somewhat surprised—albeit pleasantly—that there were a great number of people out there who were similarly affected with this minor disorder I have: noticing what sports teams are wearing.

Well, everyone who watches sports notices that the teams are wearing uniforms; that's how we know who is on which team.  But not everyone pays that much attention to the specific aesthetics, or analyzes the changes to the uniforms, or ruminates on whether those changes are improvements over how they were before.  Only a particular type of fan goes that far, and this is a site for us.

Sometimes when introducing a highlight on SportsCenter (or other sports shows) they will mention when a team is wearing a special uniform, whether it's a brightly colored alternate jersey or a "throwback" version of a vintage design or a tribute to a particular event, but it's merely a brief allusion (and, I suspect, mostly to help the viewer understand why the teams don't look like they usually do, not so much to spotlight the differences).  This site takes it to another level, focusing not on how the teams played but how they looked playing.

You may wonder why anyone would do that, but let's stop for a moment and reflect on the fact that before every entertainment awards show there's hours of "red carpet" coverage where the "fashionistas" dissect what the celebrities show up wearing, and that's on television.  This is merely one little website.  But if it helps to draw an analogy, let's say it's a tiny bit like Project Runway for heterosexual males. 

(Stereotypes invoked, yes, but tell me I'm wrong.)

The thing is this: Given the massive amount of money sports teams make from merchandising, these uniforms are a huge business; it's all good and well that fashion designers get their work spotlighted at the aforementioned awards shows, but it's not like that translates much to the average person; not only are the gowns prohibitively expensive for many women but there's few opportunities for them to be worn period. However, you're going to see a lot of people walking around sporting a cap or jersey in emulation of what they saw an athlete wearing on a field or court.

And where would hip-hop be without baseball caps? It's de rigueur. It's fashion.


More than you need to know—well, not that all of this doesn't fall into that category, but hey, you've read this far:

As to why others who visit the site are afflicted I cannot say but for me it started early. As a child I invented my own football league, with teams of my own creation, and designed uniforms for all of them. (For a couple years I even came up with a schedule for the teams, and each one was assigned to a corresponding NFL team. The winners were determined by whose NFL analog scored more points. Yes, I had way too much time on my hands back then.)

("Back then"?)

So, yes, I'd been paying attention to these details since I was a lad, and even progressing into adulthood had not extinguished the inclination. I hadn't designed any uniforms since those formative years; the impulse to create had waned but the tendency to notice what others had created remained. That manifested itself merely in looking closely at highlights or photos from games at the beginning of the season to see if there were any identifiable modifications since the previous year's uniforms.

To be honest, I don't visit the site daily or anything, and much of the time I only skim the story for something that catches my attention. I'm not as gung-ho about it as those who post the stories or those who comment on them. I have left very few comments; I tend to drop by in the evening, long after the dust has settled about whatever topic was discussed during the day, and generally whatever opinion I may have about it someone else has probably already stated.

It is one of only a number of areas in which I have some interest. Let's leave it at that.

But it wasn't until I discovered the Uni Watch site that I realized I was not alone.


Anyway, the reason this comes to mind now: Recently the site organized a survey, open to its readership, where they sought to get rankings of the home uniforms for each NFL team. In the survey one could give each team a score of 0 to 5 (with 5 being the best). At the end the results were tallied so they could see which team got the highest average, the second highest, and so through the lowest. In theory this would determine which teams were considered to have the best and the worst uniforms.

To give you some idea about the readership (or, at least, what I think the makers of the survey expected of the readers), the survey featured just a list of the team names with buttons for 0 through 5 next to them; nowhere on the survey itself were there photos or diagrams or descriptions of what the respective uniforms looked like. Yes, there were links to see the uniforms back at the original post that announced the survey, but I suspect  the idea was that anyone who'd choose to participate would simply know.

And yes, I knew them all off the top of my head.

I didn't spend a lot of time on the survey. I knew I could sit there and really dwell on each one, but I didn't have that level of inclination. Whatever score came to mind I selected and moved on to the next team. And I noticed that a lot of team I gave 3's; their uniforms were fine but not spectacular. There was one team whose uniforms had bothered me ever since they started wearing the current design a few years ago, and that was the only 0 I gave: the Buffalo Bills.

And if you really want to know why they bothered me so, feel free to ask. In short, they're way too busy, with too many similar shades of blue. They seem like the owner (or whoever chose) couldn't decide on a reasonable color scheme.

When the results of the survey were announced recently—well, when finally I got around to visiting the site and discover they'd been announced—I wasn't so much concerned with which team's uniforms were "the best"; I didn't have a strong opinion about that (and besides I believe that tends to be too heavily influenced by which team someone considers his favorite, which makes that less than objective). I skimmed over the listed top ten but dwelt longer on the teams listed as the bottom five.

Now, having read the site and sometimes the comments on and off for a while now I had a reasonable idea about which teams were going to be on that inglorious list. Still, when I saw which team was noted as having been rated the absolute lowest, I felt a twinge of satisfaction. The survey-taking portion of the readers of this site gave ranked the Bills as the worst.

It's a pathetic validation, I know, but a tiny validation it was.

Now, I should admit that of the other four teams on this bad list I actually ranked them relatively high, so on the rest of them I was out of step with the consensus, but on the one about which I felt the strongest (albeit negatively) I was not alone. And is that not what the internet is supposed to be. A window to a world where one is not a freak by one's self, but part of a group of freaks?


The survey of readers on the Uni Watch site regarding the NFL team uniforms showed that, at least amongst those who follow what the teams wear closely, they tend to be traditionalists. The top two vote-getters—the Bears and the Packers—adorn themselves in uniforms that have remained virtually unchanged for decades.  The rest of the top ten are all teams that have stuck with their look for a long time (or in the case of the Jets, Giants and Chargers, who have gone back to uniforms that are reminiscent of old uniforms) The teams that fared the worst—the Vikings, Seahawks, Jaguars, Bengals, and aforementioned Bills—all have changed and incorporated some level of attempted innovation (albeit rather poorly in some cases).

People like what they grew up with, and people like whatever their favorite team wears, but what gets the highest marks are what pays homage to the game's history.

That the respondents rated so poorly uniforms that incorporated what one could consider innovative elements (with the notable exception of the Bills, whose uniforms really are a mess), such as the Vikings' vertical stripe running from the shoulder down to the pants and forming a horn not unlike the one on their helmets, suggests that those who filled out the survey (who have strong opinions about the uniforms) tend to be conservative in their ideas about uniforms. That's hardly surprising, given that sports tend to appeal to the conservative side of people; what is most appealing about sports, on some level, is that history is regarded with such admiration, and by its nature admiring history puts a premium on conserving the traditions established in that history.

The great irony the results showing a preference for sticking with how things were is that if the teams never changed their uniforms the site would have nothing to report except when a new team was added. There'd be only so long that the fans could debate a given team's uniforms before there was nothing further to say; whether the unis were great or awful would be established (whether a consensus or not) and that would be it. Only because teams' management (for whatever reason—but most likely merchandising potential—have decided from time to time to change the designs the Uni Watch fans have had a wealth of material to discuss.

And it allows for the instances where the teams where the vintage "throwback" uniforms to fill with enjoyment those who preferred those looks (even though, frankly, often those throwbacks look dated and archaic, in my humble opinion—but clearly I am in the minority here, so that's to be expected).

And let's face it: Does anyone wish the Broncos had kept those brown uniforms they apparently started out wearing?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The comfort of bad news

One recent morning when I turned on the TV the news programs coincidentally featured stories about gruesome incidents. One channel had a reporter talking about a fatal car accident, another had the anchor talking about a shooting spree in a gym, and another had an aerial shot from a helicopter showing houses engulfed in flames. The only place I could find something innocuous was to switch over to SportsCenter, and that was only safe because the local team had won their game last night.

Good news is no news.

It's not so much that good news is intrinsically uninteresting; it's that good news frightens us.

I'll elaborate.

Reporting good news rings of hubris; it's almost beseeching the Fates to bring about something bad. When something bad has happened, the proverbial other shoe has fallen, and as ridiculous as it seems, it almost allows for breathing easier; we know what has gone wrong.

With good news, we're left uneasy, concerned about when it will turn to bad news.

There's no logical reason for this, but somehow it seems accepted on a tacit level even by the ardently scientific. Something deep down says: Karma is a bitch. Stay humble.

Bad news sucks, but we're better prepared for it than the good stuff.

Oh yeah, we have issues, but at least we have the morning news to distract us from those...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Seventh inning stretch: Talkin' baseball (divinity)

Please sit down for this rumination on our national pastime... even if you don't care for baseball...

Saturday night the Angels lost to the Yankees in an extra inning game that lasted over five hours, putting them down two games in the best-of-seven league championship series.  That's what the box score will report.  The highlights showed how the Angels got the lead and ended up having their "closer"—the pitcher whose role is to pitch in the last inning and "close down" the other team with overpowering stuff—gave up a home run to put the game back in a tie.  The play that will be forever associated with the game is the error made by the Angels' second baseman in the bottom of the 13th inning that allowed the Yankees' winning run to score, which the analysts could blame on the bitter New York cold.


The Angels were playing the Yankees in the championship series because they'd defeated the Red Sox in the earlier divisional round of the playoffs.  That was noteworthy because the Angels had never beaten the Red Sox in the playoffs previously.  Going back 23 years when Boston played California/Anaheim/Los Angeles (of Anaheim) in the post season they'd won every time, including eliminating the Angels the last three times they'd been in the playoffs.  The Red Sox certainly seemed to "have the Angels' number" when it came to these post season match-ups.  However, this year the Angels defeated the Red Sox not only by sweeping that series, but by scoring three runs with two outs in the top of the 9th.  Getting that proverbial monkey off their back seemed destined to occur.

Not that there's any logical reason why the events of the past have any direct influence over the current situation.  Certainly a player who had been on the team before and suffered those losses might experience some psychological effect on his confidence, but given how many games these professional athletes play that shouldn't be much of a factor.  It's superstition, and as someone I used to know was apt to say, the only person who made anything off superstition was Stevie Wonder.

More so than any other sport baseball thrives on these superstitions.  Certainly the fans in Boston know about that, given the longstanding belief in the "curse of the Bambino" where the fact that the Red Sox didn't win a World Series from 1919 to 2004 was attributed to some superstition regarding the trade of Babe Ruth from Boston to the Yankees back in the early part of last century.  There was the infamous Bill Buckner flub in the 1986 World Series where the Red Sox were on the verge of winning and an error allowed the Mets to pull a come-from-behind victory.  The heartbroken Boston fans had to blame it on something, and attributing it to supernatural forces going back to before anyone on the field had even been born seemed as reasonable as anything.  It couldn't be just dumb luck.

Of course, the Red Sox were in that position to lose the '86 Series because they'd come back to defeat the aforementioned Angels in the league championship.  There the Angels were at one point a single strike away from going to their first World Series and ended up blowing it.  There had been a very real likelihood at many points that the Sox would not have even been there to lose to the Mets, but they appeared to have fortune on their side—but fortune that did not extend from the playoffs to the Series.

And maybe there really are forces operating beyond our human comprehension that influence these events.  Maybe there's some storyteller in the sky who knows the drama of a streak of losses in a big game, or to a particular opponent, that makes for something easy for people to understand (and easy for sports reporters to milk for air time or column inches).  And eventually that story plays out with the team breaking the streak. 

The Red Sox won the Series in 2004, with talk of the curse having been broken.  When they won another title in 2007 Bostonians seemed to have forgotten there ever was a curse.

This year's story line featured the Angels breaking their curse with the Red Sox.  That was the fortune allotted them by the proverbial baseball gods.

However, that doesn't make it the only story line in the 2009 post-season.

Between the regular season and playoffs the Angels had been very successful against the Yankees over this past decade.  They're one of the few teams with a winning record against the Bronx Bombers during that time.  In certain ways the Halos have had the Yankees' number in a manner similar to what the Red Sox had over them.

And even before the Yankees jumped out to a 3-to-1 lead in the series, I couldn't shake the feeling that this year's story may feature the Yankees breaking their pattern of losing to the Angels.  They haven't won a World Series since 2000, which may not seem that long but by Yankee standards that's a hideous drought.  Or at least it's something that the New York-biased sports media will be able to spin into a story.

Does any of this make any sense?  Of course not.  It's far more logical to suspect the Yankees will win because of their strong pitching staff and batting order laden with All Stars; they did win more games than any other team in MLB this season, so by all rights they should be favored to win the most games in the post-season.  However, that's not how it works with these intuitions; they're gut feelings that merely get justified by analysis.


Make no mistake:  I am not rooting for the Yankees.  Not in the slightest.  I was raised an Angel fan, and although I had to stop being one after the heartbreak of 1986 (I was in the stadium at the game where they were one strike away and then blew it--as I mentioned way back in this post) I certainly continue to root for them.  I just can't believe in them.

And that's the nature of all of this.  My superstition may be that if I get my hopes up and believe they'll win that undermines all possibility of it happening.  In 2002 when the Angels did win their first (and only) World Series title I was pleased but at no point did I think they'd actually do it.

It's sheer folly to claim any credit (in a reverse sort of way) for them succeeding that year because I refrained from having any confidence.  There's no absolute pattern of victory since they fell from my grace; they've lost plenty of times even when I had no faith in them.  And just to reiterate: I do not claim to be a fan; as noted, that stopped 23 years ago (out of emotional necessity).  At most I can claim to be a follower.  The "real" fans would be completely in their rights to declare me as vanquished from the kingdom (although I'd say I left of my own accord).

But I'd be lying if I claimed there wasn't that little part of me that didn't harbor a tiny suspicion that I need to maintain the lack of confidence in them—not because I can influence the outcome in a reversed way, but out of deference to the team I once actively supported; there's no guarantees that me giving up on them will make them win but there seems the likelihood that me believing in them will eliminate that possibility.

Which is absurd, of course.  However, it seems to operate on some level of my psyche that cannot be completely overwhelmed by intellect, that is not utterly dismissed due to its illogic.

It's probably a self-defense mechanism, and suggests that my lack of belief is really delusional; deep down I never stopped being a fan but I had to convince my conscious mind that I did because I couldn't take the disappointment over and over.  Maybe so.

But it remains the case that one cannot prove that there isn't a connection between me having faith and them being thwarted by the baseball gods.  Not that the baseball gods are just looking to screw me but that they do regard my ostensible stand in the matter. 

Is that any crazier than the fans screaming their heads off at the TV, their hats turned backwards (in the "rally cap" position) believing that they bring about a positive outcome?


It's tricky not to at least concede the possibility that for some team it's just their year, that they are being smiled upon by the forces of fortune.  No matter how bad the situation seems in the middle, how hopeless victory appears, somehow they rally back and win.  Just this decade alone two obvious examples come to mind. 

Back in 2004, when the Red Sox won that curse-breaking title, they had to first win the American League pennant by coming back against the Yankees.  In the best-of-seven championship series they lost the first three games—a hole out of which no team had ever climbed—and then they pulled off the unthinkable, winning the last four games in a row. 

Two years before that, the Angels had finally made it to the first World Series appearance in team history.  However, going in to game 6 they were down three games to two against the Giants, and by the middle innings of that game they were behind and it looked to be over.  But then they rallied not only to win that game but to dominate game 7 and earn their rings.

And there's plenty more examples out there.

It's hard to look at the odds they overcame and think mere random chance brought about these results.  Not that it's impossible, but certainly our proclivities leave us inclined to think there's a distinct possibility some kind of divinity for the great American pastime had a hand in the outcome.

If nothing else, attributing it to "it was their year" allows the losing team's fans to feel less bad.  Their team wasn't fated to win, and thus it wasn't that their team didn't play well enough or that they as fans didn't root hard enough; it was out of their control, and hence isn't something over which they should beat themselves up.

And when it continues to not be your team's year over and over, such as with the Chicago Cubs (who haven't won a World Series since 1908), it's comforting to blame it on a curse (although in this case it involves a goat, not a trade of Babe Ruth). 

Whether it's genuine up to some higher sports power or merely dumb luck where a delusion attributes it to non-existent forces, one thing is non-debatable:  That's part of the game.

And the beauty of baseball: There's always next season, when one can hope that the story the baseball gods wish to tell has one's team celebrating in October (and possibly in to November). Not that I'll be hoping, but you know what I mean.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sound Walk: Can you hear me now?

A week ago Saturday evening we ventured out of the house.  During the day we'd seen a notice on the back of a local weekly paper that in what's known as the East Village portion of downtown Long Beach (i.e., the bohemian section) a free event would be taking place:  Sound Walk.  Having no specific plans for the evening, and being that the East Village is only a little over a ten-minute walk we opted to give it a look-see.

Sound Walk was like an art walk, except the pieces all involved sound in some way.  Spread over a few blocks, either out on the street or in a little gallery or set up in an abandoned office space or in the back of a rented U-Haul parked in an alley (see photo at left... sort of), there were dozens of artistic pieces involving various media.  Some were musicians (or "musicians") playing droning noise works, some were antique sound equipment set to play, some were photos with little speakers behind them.  One involved headphones suspended from a tree (which one could don and hear clicking sounds, the origin of which I couldn't discern).  This is just a sampling of the sort of things that had been done.

Probably the coolest was a group where they'd wired up a broom with a microphone which ran into a computer and back to headphones.  One guy walked back and forth along the sidewalk, sweeping the bristles against the pavement.  The vibrations were processed by the computer to have interesting effects.  However, in order to hear the sound one had to grab a pair of headphones attached to the guy with the broom—five pairs hung from hooks along his belt, and he didn't stop to let the headphones be grabbed; you had to be quick, and after you got them on you needed to keep pace with him as he moved along. (No, I didn't get any photos. I wasn't there as a journalist.)

About the art itself… my wife admitted as we walked back home that with some of them she felt like she wasn't smart enough to understand.  I replied that I didn't think the point was to understand it; the point was to experience it.

Which is precisely the sort of thing someone who didn't understand it either would say, I know.

But I do believe that the point of art is not to get across a specific point but to elicit reactions in the audience members—provided that they are open to the experience. That reaction may most often be What the hell is that?, but at least that's something beyond utter indifference.

Or not being experienced at all.

It's not really art until there's an audience; up to that point it's merely creation aspiring to be art.

If nothing else, it was something different than just sitting in front of the TV. Although one of the art pieces was four small TV sets in a darkened empty office building, arranged in a semi-circle on the floor in a corner, with images of flames on each one. So there was a bit of TV involved.

That part I understood. I think.

And some of it wasn't that complicated:

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Even more Hawaii photos (Baby, every time we kiss... hot lava)

The photo site has been supplied with a fresh batch of Hawai'i pictures (from our honeymoon back in early July), featuring the sites of:

Rainbow Falls

Pepe'ekeo Scenic Drive

Akaka Falls

And the surrounding Akaka Falls State Park

With a focus on this fern

The area around Kahuna Falls

And a little thing called... flowing lava

Go check 'em out
. You'll feel like you've been there.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

DVRs: Recording a wonderful life

Nostalgia tends to make one of my age pine for the "good ol' days," but I want to take a moment to acknowledge that some things are far superior now.  Most particularly, I wish to commend the makers of technology for the Digital Video Recorder (DVR).  I know it's not exactly new (although it's still not commonplace in all households, despite what commercials might have you believe), but it is truly marvelous.

I remember back in the days of my childhood, where if one wanted to watch a TV show one had to make the effort to be in front of the set at the moment it was airing.  Eventually the videocassette recorder (VCR) became viable at a consumer level and one could set it to record on tape a signal that was broadcast on the TV, so that with some effort ahead of time one could later watch a show even if one was not home at the time.  This also could facilitate the scenario where two programs aired simultaneously that one wished to see, so one could record one while watching the other.

Relative to missing the shows altogether this was a vast improvement.  However, it created a new dilemma: having a videocassette ready to record, and then afterward keeping track of what had been recorded and where.  Obviously, if one was starting with a blank tape and one rewound and viewed the recorded program immediately upon getting home or after the other show was done, and that was the only thing one had taped, it was pretty simple.  However, the ability to record for later viewing serves to make one more inclined to want to watch more, which in turn brings on recording more, which tends to lead to situations where one has multiple recorded shows on the same tape, which means that either one keeps meticulous lists of what is on what tape, or one wastes a bunch of time popping in tapes and searching through them to figure out where the desired program was recorded.

So it was either devote the time up front to stay organized, or devote the time later to find the haphazardly recorded show.  Either way, a new task emerged that was not specifically about the watching but regarding being able find what to watch.

As with any linear access technology, if what one wished to see was near the end of the tape and it was set near the beginning, one would have to devote sometimes minutes to just getting it cued up before viewing could begin.  And we won't even digress to the limitations of the videotape itself, with the potential for the tape unspooling out in to the player, where when ejecting the cassette the strands of iron oxide-covered plastic looked like a piece of chewing gum one had stepped in, and where the medium itself deteriorated.  And let's not even go off on how the tracking might need to be adjusted in order to get a reasonably clear picture.

Oh, and to figure out what time something was going to be airing in order to set a recording one had to… check TV Guide or the listings in the newspaper!

Now, with hard drives big and fast enough to take in the massive amount of information in a digital TV signal, we can dispense with external media (the tapes); the system merely writes the data to the drive.  No more trying to remember if there's some available space on a tape.  No more having the tape run out before the end because one underestimated the space left on the tape (or one accidentally recorded at the wrong speed). 

That alone would be an impressive improvement, but that's just the beginning.  Because it's basically a computer, it keeps track of what has been recorded in a convenient list that dynamically updates as shows are added or deleted.  No more handwritten lists of what is where. 

But we're just getting started.  There's no searching through TV listings in a magazine or newspaper; there's a guide that shows what's scheduled to air on all the channels at the various times, so one merely need scroll through the grid of programming to the applicable channel and time, press one button, and schedule the show to record.  No setting the VCR to record at the wrong time or to the wrong channel (or, in some circumstances where it just recorded whatever channel the TV was left on, having someone else change the channel and record the wrong show altogether).  And better still: one can set the system to automatically record the series, so that the next week the show will be recorded without you having to make sure there's a tape in the device, without you having to remember to trigger the recording to occur.

Simple setup, with automatic start and stop (but with options to override if necessary), and dynamic maintenance of what's been recorded:  It's better in all ways.  Surely that's enough, right?

No, the best is functionality that was not even possible with VCRs.  The DVR is not merely ready to record something in the future, it is recording (temporarily) what you are actively watching, so you can pause and rewind the live show.  And if you decide part way through that you would have wanted to record it (perhaps for someone who isn't home yet but may want to see it later) you can tell it to record then and it will include not merely from that point forward but as far back as you watched.

And as the capacity on the hard drives in the DVRs grows, the amount of available space for recording increases as well, reducing the likelihood of running out of space.

The biggest limitation now for many systems, but which with networking will be overcome in the future, is that if one has multiple TVs in the house, one has to record the show on the DVR attached to the TV on which it will be watched.  That was the one thing videotapes had: one could pop them in whatever TV was in the room.

I know this sounds like a sales pitch for TiVo, but I'd say that particular one and its propensity to try and anticipate what you might like based on what you've previously recorded is one of the only downsides to this whole thing.  And that's just because they tried to get too fancy and think for us.  It should know that when we watch TV we aren't inclined toward thinking.

Of course, just as the VCR allowed for recording and therefore increased how much one could watch, the DVR technology has taken that and run with it.


I don't know if everyone with a DVR in their home ends up being like us in this respect, but in the several years that we've had one the list of recorded programs has grown past the point where realistically we could watch it all.  When my wife moved out of her apartment she had before we moved in together, the DVR unit she gave back to the cable company had hours of shows that had never been watched, even though they'd been recorded over two years ago.  When the DirecTV guy hooked up the dish and DVR units in both the living room and bedroom a mere six months ago both started out empty; now both have over 50 hours worth of shows and movies.  That's a cumulative 100 hours of viewing material where one or both of us thought at one moment in the past, Hey, that looks like something I'd want to watch, but already we're to the point where if we did nothing over a full weekend but watch recorded stuff (and that means not sleeping) we still couldn't catch up with what we've amassed on a single unit in half of a year.  And it's unlikely that if we were to undertake such a venture that we'd actually enjoy what we'd recorded, regardless of it quality; it would feel like an obligation rather than recreation (much like back in college where when I had to read an assigned book for a class it would not be something I'd enjoy as much as if I had read it just for pleasure).

And this is something for which we pay a reasonable fee each month, at least because we believe we really like TV.

Obviously, one doesn't always find oneself in the same mood for something later; whatever motivation one had when pressing the button to record may have been unique to that moment, never to emerge again.  It's not that it became any less interesting necessarily, and in our minds it holds some association with something we might eventually watch, so it doesn't just get deleted.

However, given that the list of recorded shows is displayed such that the most recently recorded ones are at the top, it does prove to be the case that the farther down we need to scroll in the list the less to find something likely it becomes that something will be viewed.

The more time that passes between the pressing of the Record button and the pressing of the Play button the less the likelihood that Play button will get pressed at all.  And in certain cases the rationale for recording starts to fade from memory (why did we record this Letterman from three months ago?), but the assumption is that there must have been a reason.

And the reason is always:  Because we could.

Although the hard drives in the DVRs get bigger and allow for recording all this stuff, there's still the same number of hours in the day.  However, for some blithely optimistic reason, on an unconscious level we seem to think that somehow there will be.

But maybe it's just us.


It is surely an optimistic gesture, this recording of more than our free time realistically allows; it connotes a belief that, somehow, opportunities will present themselves eventually.  A pessimist would not bother, figuring that after a while, when the queue was filled to such a point, it was pointless to keep accumulating material.

Thus, we are optimists.  That must count for something.