Monday, August 25, 2008

Look how lucky we are

I've watched very little of the Olympics, but one thing I've noticed is the obvious American hegemony. Now, I have American pride; I always wear red, white and blue on July 4; but sometimes I just want to watch other countries, especially when they're the better team.

The New York Times published a very interesting account Monday describing how much effort--and how much American power--dominated the Games from the very beginning. A large part of it is Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, and his incredibly foresight and business savvy. Back in 2000, the Sydney Games were in late September, and the ratings weren't good. Even before Beijing was officially named the host of the 2008 Games, he managed to convince the president of the International Olympic Committee to move back the dates to August. Many assumed that the Games started on 8/8/08 because of the symmetry of the dates and because eight is a lucky number in Chinese. But that actually hadn't even occured to those in charge. Promising higher ratings, with that wonderful 12-hour difference that caused many events to be aired live in primetime in the East, Ebersol quickly deduced that the Summer Games will do best in mid-August when there is no football or tennis to distract viewers--or cause prime athletes to skip the Games--and when children can stay up late to watch without worrying about homework and school. By the way, American television money accounts for more cash for the I.O.C. than all the world’s other broadcasters combined.

Ebersol also decided months ago to shape the Games around Michael Phelps and his mother (though they neglected to mention anything of his father for days). He also convinced the gymnasts and swimmers to change their competing schedules to accomodate American television audiences.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Oh, Laure Manadou

Every four years, as an integral component of Olympic coverage, the networks film stories spotlighting certain athletes. Some indeed do have a story to tell. But for the average teenage Olympian, their story is just not compelling. Shawn Johnson is an example: The only thing mildly interesting about her ascent to the Olympics was that her hometown was flooded recently. In reality, she's just an incredibly lucky girl who is talented, strong, and worked hard at her sport, but happened to be in the right place and the right time. How her coach knew, back in 2000, that she would be ready eight years later to compete at the highest level--at the prime age of 16--is beyond me.

But the story that's grabbed me, partly because it's so sad, is Laure Manadou's. Even though she had barely squeaked by to be in lane 8 (last place) in the 400 meter freestyle, I was rooting for her. She made a lot of stupid decisions I'm sure she regrets--but to lose your lead and your boyfriend to your rival is just crushing, and to have nude pictures of you surface the day after the very public breakup is just throwing fire on an already burned victim.

Most of the athletes profiled are Americans, just like the Olympics in large part were organized so that the top sports would be viewed live for both the Eastern and Central time zones of the country. Laure Manadou was front-page news for both the Italian and French media, since she practically defected her hometown to join her Italian swimmer. But obviously most people outside Europe had no idea who she was, and she must have given her permission for NBC to profile her, considering the incredibly emotional and raw year she's just had. Why? Did she feel she had to, that she might as well, since a Google search only brings up her nude pictures? Maybe they figured the outpouring of sympathy would be worth it, or it could bring some lucrative deals. But it didn't work; being reminded constantly of everything that's ruined your life has a way of holding you back.

It's no wonder that she's seriously considering quitting the sport entirely.


I don't really want to comment on John Edwards, except for the fact that I really liked his platform and was sad when he had to drop out of the race. I don't believe his political career is over; he'll find some way someday to get back in the limelight.

I'm sick of these scandals, as I'm sure everyone else in America is. But there's one question I haven't seen addressed:

Why would a woman start a relationship with a married man running for president? And then keep his baby?*

I just don't get it. Seems like you're putting yourself in a terrible situation that's only going to get worse. The only thing you'll get out of it is a large check. But then again, tons of other women have gotten involved with high-profile political married men, caught up in the illicit sexiness of it all.

But why is it so important to tell the truth to the media? Did the world really need to know of his infidelity, especially now? No. All it served to do was to make Elizabeth look even more saintly and for her husband to completely lose his reputation, and for the public to be disgusted at large. He would have been better off if he kept it quiet, dealing with his own problems privately without feeding Entertainment Tonight and People, which are not dying for content. John Edwards does not need our forgiveness; he just needs our attention.

*Assuming the baby is his.

Does a presidential candidate need to be tech-savvy nowadays?

Since I’ve been writing a lot recently on trivial issues the candidates are judged on, it’s time to shift the focus on John McCain. He’s gotten some press recently on his computer illiteracy, so much so that he’s in danger of being seen as out of touch and a luddite.

McCain’s inability to email not only strikes some as being another knock against his age but also on his ability to adapt to new things. After having a president that is known for being a stick-in-the-mud on a good day, most voters want someone now who is a little more flexible, and a candidate who looks so feeble with using the basics of computing is not only going to turn off the tech-mad young, but those who can’t believe a guy’s been able to survive the past decade without a computer. Even the poorest of Americans, even the ones who can’t afford a computer, let alone WiFi, usually have a MySpace or an email account they can check at the local library.

The number one perennial insult for anyone running for office must be “out of touch”, to prove that the candidate is out of step with Americans. But America is so vast that one person’s outdated is another one’s fashion-forward. McCain might eschew email and still talks of learning about “the Google”, but I bet there are Americans who are charmed by this. I know two people who barely know the basics of computing (one doesn’t even own a PC and just got her first email address three weeks ago--and she is not a senior citizen), and they are both, incidentally, Republicans, and are likely to vote for McCain. The fact that he doesn’t know his way around a computer might be comforting to old fogeys like these two, who can relate, instead of finding that they are talking circles around them like anyone else.

How important is John McCain’s familiarity with modern technology to voters? It’s more important than Obama’s eating or exercise habits, that’s for sure. Most of the coverage has ridiculed McCain, baffling so many people as to how he’s lived the past decade or so without such basic familiarity with email. His daughter has a blog, for crissakes. Imagine trying to explain that to daddy.

Anna Quindlen has it right when she says that power is isolating, that web searching and fact-checking are for assistants, not for the boss. But it’s true that I also found it unsettling to hear that he relied on his wife to do all the basic online things. Couldn’t she teach him? It’s pretty easy to create a login name and password, and so much computer prowess is amassed from just clicking around, which of course is something the senator doesn’t have the time for. But it’s amazing that a man with seven kids is just so completely unaware of how so much of modern life is conducted on the computer. My brother and I make fun of my dad a lot because he’s pretty computer illiterate (if the AOL icon bar is not in the same place, he freaks out), but even he knows how to email. Sort of.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Are we forced to buy cable?

I recently told my parents that when I live on my own I won't pay for cable. I made this decision several years ago, and in the past few years I find this option easier and easier to do. Cable television packages are pretty expensive, and since I watch much less television than I ever have in my life, coupled with the fact that most of "my shows" are still on the broadcast stations, I don't see the need to spend money I'd otherwise save on something I won't use often. Another selling point for me is that so many television shows are availible online--clips on YouTube, Hulu, South Park Studios, even network web sites carry the episode a few days later. All I need is an internet connection and a DVD player to rent the shows that I want to watch later, and I'm set.

My parents told me that this is impossible to do, that I can't just have the basic stations that I had as a child, before my mom caved and agreed to buy cable. Since I can't pick the stations I want (HBO, Showtime, Trio; ditching Spike, Animal Planet, and Speed), I'd rather not pay for 50 channels I never watch just to get my MTV and Vh1 (or the Viacom empire). Besides, I can catch all the music videos they don't play online anyway. So are my parents right?

Connected with this is the news that Cablevision, which covers my area, is now allowed to offer a DVR service through a user's existing cable box. It's on a remote server instead of an individual DVR that the customer buys separately. The Appeals court ruled, after two years, that this system does not violate copyright law. What's amazing is that in two years, DVR usage has grown from 1 in 14 homes to 1 in 4, which has got to be one of the fastest adoption rates for an emerging technology.

For consumers, this is great. I am one of what seems to be the last remaining household of my class and income bracket that does not have a DVR, and if I can access one, even with limited storage, my options for watching increase, especially as I only watch things online as a last resort.

While of course advertisers are all abuzz about how to get their message out there now that people are skipping commercials left and right, there is potential for new tactics:

Network DVRs also prop open the door to new methods of advertising. Cablevision could insert ads dynamically, customizing and updating commercial pods for different consumers and at different times.

“It allows advertisers to do things they can’t do on a physical DVR,” Mr. Rutledge [Cablevision's CEO] said. “Let’s say you record an episode of ‘Lost.’ Three months later you want to play it back. The advertising that was on ‘Lost’ is stale and no longer applies, but the capability to refresh the advertising exists if the content owner wants to do that with the cable operator."

That's actually pretty cool, from the advertiser's perspective. But then you can't rewatch old commercials and laugh.

You look ugly

Why do girls feel the need to put lots of tiny blonde streaks in otherwise boring brown hair? It doesn't look cool, chic, or make you prettier. It turns your hair a shade of ash-blonde gray.

For those girls who have mousy brown hair, forgo the streaks, the "highlights". You paid a lot of money to look gross. Make it look nice (you'll stand out because your hair is normal) or figure out another way to wear it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Being Healthy is Now a Liability

The Wall Street Journal gave us another gem today:

[I]n a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability?
So because Obama likes to work out and eat healthy, and God forbid, does not care for ice cream, it’s another sign that he’s “elitist” and “out of touch” with Americans, since we’re all fat and eat disgusting fried junk. We can’t relate to someone who buys arugla at Whole Foods, who doesn’t eat “typical” All-American fare like Cheese Whiz, who’s too much of a celebrity and superhuman since he doesn’t have to struggle with what to eat and constantly worry about his weight.

What an insult to the millions of Americans who not only have brains, but actually do care about eating healthy, who exercise, and to all the thin people out there. Those kind of preoccupations are obviously only for the wealthy and the famous. Gyms must be a coastal thing, since according to the article, it’s all the Midwesterners and Southerners (and female Clinton supporters) who have problems with Obama’s food and exercise preferences. And if you exercise too much, not only is it big news but the implication is you are vain.

The article touches on his recent Access Hollywood interview, other presidential “gaffes” with food, and how President Clinton’s oft-discussed McDonald’s habit helped him win voters back in 1992, especially in Southern states like Georgia and Tennessee, since they have a large number of overweight people.

Although Obama, “stays away from junk food and instead snacks on MET-Rx chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and drinks Black Forest Berry Honest Tea, a healthy organic brew,” at times he has to pretend that he really, really isn’t that guy:

Lately, Sen. Obama is more careful. On a campaign stop in Lebanon, Mo., on Wednesday, Sen. Obama visited with voters at Bell's Diner and promptly announced, "Well, I've had lunch today but I'm thinking maybe there is some pie."

He settled on fried chicken and told the crowd he's become a junk-food lover. "The healthy people, we'll give them the breasts," he told the waitress. "I'll eat the wings."
Even though his smoking habit has gotten attention—although even that is considered a liability, since the percentage of Americans who smoke has decreased rapidly—apparently it’s not enough:

Some voters say that even this adds to Sen. Obama's somewhat superhuman persona.

"I mean, really, who quits smoking and doesn't gain any weight?" says 30-year-old Stella Metsovas, an Obama supporter in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Everything, especially in politics, is a lose-lose situation. If Obama was overweight and ate junk food, coverage would be about his health and all the millions of voters who would be turned off by his laziness and disrespect for his body, and Republicans would question how fit he is for the job, physically and mentally. With all the constant coverage on how unhealthy and fat Americans already are, there’s no need to criticize the candidate for taking care of himself and liking what he likes. Mike Huckabee won a lot of support for being vocal about his weight loss struggles, and became an inspiration to many. That’s the kind of initiative voters look for in presidents—and what many see in Obama.