November 30, 2007

No Child Left Behind (or with critical thinking skills)

Posted in Life in Los Angeles, Teaching at 6:14 pm by loolar

Sad, but true.

The latest annoyance, thanks to the idiocy known as “No Child Left Behind” (code name: No Teacher Left Standing), is that we’re spending 8 weeks doing a straight from the prep course book CAHSEE review (California High School Exit Exam). We might as well be a strip mall prep course – only $49.99!

That’s right, folks, because if our scores don’t raise enough, we’ll get more administrative, bureaucratic oversight, despite the fact that four years of home-grown innovation have our scores through the roof. See, they’re rising, just not “fast enough.” So to preserve our autonomy, we have sunk to the lowest of the lows – teaching to the test. Normally we’d be studying Fahrenheit 451 right now. And writing about it.

I love the irony. (No, I don’t.)

Please, please, please, for the love of learning instead of cramming crap standardized tests, tell your congressperson/senator to REPEAL No Child Left Behind.

Underfunded Schools Forced To Cut Past Tense From Language Programs

The Onion

Underfunded Schools Forced To Cut Past Tense From Language Programs

November 12, 2007

Saving Baseball

Posted in Life in Los Angeles, NFL and other lesser sports at 12:03 pm by loolar

So with the World Series now a distant and mostly irrelevant memory, I have come to wonder – why don’t I care? Why are fewer and fewer people watching baseball?

Let me start off by saying that I have nearly zero baseball knowledge. Football is my sport. Now, there are certainly age-old debates why one sport is better than the other, but as my man Jimmy recently stated, “can’t we just agree that these are apples and oranges?” Sure. Delicious, juicy oranges vs. rotten, mealy apples. But I digress. It doesn’t change the fact that baseball is in trouble.

While stadiums are routinely selling out, the newer stadiums being built are also smaller. And television revenues are shrinking compared to other sports (most notably, NFL, NBA, and NASCAR*).

The fact is, the boys of summer are, well, boring. Watching the Cleveland-Yankees series a few weeks ago, I’d swear a reaction shot of Joe Torre showed him nodding off. During the game. I mean, why not? Nothing was happening anyway.

Now, I can argue about a number of things about baseball that are pointless. Five and seven game series for instance (what kind of a pansy game makes you beat the other team more than once? Damn, it’s already got 9 innings for a comeback, now you want another chance tomorrow – and the next day?); or how about the terminally long 162 game season. Are you serious? How do the fans keep up?

I have a theory about this**: I think baseball, developed back when there were a lot of vacant lots and people with nothing to do anyway, had to justify these guys playing a game for a living, or face resentment from the new fans. Solution? Make these guys play as often as a working stiff goes to work, five days a week.

Well, now that we have pampered pansies like Manny Ramirez and A-Rod making millions every time they scratch their jockstrap, do we really need the illusion?

But those things aside, and recognizing that baseball is steeped in tradition, even really, really, really pointless and annoying ones (Is there any good reason not to put the player’s name on the back of the jersey? That was a rhetorical question, because the real answer is, “who gives a rat’s booger about baseball,” but if you were to take that question seriously, the answer would be, “only to annoy me.”), I think I can still offer some critical changes that would really change the face of things:

  1. No more than one relief pitcher. I would love someone who cares to look up the stats on this (I got bored after two minutes), but I would be shocked and awed if I’m wrong. It’s my perception that the number of triple plays has drastically shrunk in the past 2-3 decades, and the double play is as rare as the triple play used to be. Baseball has become a boring pitcher’s duel, or a slugger derby. Where is the fielding? What are the other seven guys doing while the pitcher and catcher have all the fun, y’know, besides spitting and scratching their crotch? BORING. However, if managers can’t substitute seventeen guys in from the bullpen; if they only get a single reliever, you’d see a lot more interest and debate as to when to bring in your single reliever when your starting pitcher tires (the current debate consists of five words: “Jesus Christ, take him out!”).
  2. No designated hitter (related to the first point). Weakloaf in extra weaksauce, you pansies. Perhaps if the pitchers had to work on their hitting as much as their pitching, we’d have more excitement in the fielding game, and no more nancy-skirts prancing up to the plate and swinging like Mary Poppins with an umbrella. Again, more interesting fielding opportunities, and less pitching duel-slugger crap.
  3. Cheaper Tickets. Look, the fans of tomorrow are in diapers today, and there’s no way in hell I’m taking my son to a Dodgers game when it’s going to cost us $120 in tickets alone ($80 if we ditch his mommy) – to sit in the damn nosebleeds! Add a couple of hot dogs, cokes, crackerjack and peanuts, and there goes another $40-50. Want a hat, too? $35. And face it – if you don’t take your kid to a live game, his head will explode from the boredom of watching it on TV, especially compared to, y’know, watching grass wilt (or, as is more likely, playing a video game or watching an action movie). So with more families electing not to go to a live game, and therefore never becoming fans enough to endure it on TV, you know that means lower television revenues. Start realizing what Hollywood has figured out about feature films – they’re just commercials for the DVD. And the live game should just be the “concert” that gets you to buy the “record.” Make it cheap, or face losing your fans – and lucrative TV contracts – of tomorrow.
  4. Cheaper Parking. You bastards. After charging me $40 to sit with the pigeons in the rafters, you’re going to charge me $15 to park my car, too? Forget it. Not going.

And I haven’t been to a Dodgers game in nearly two years. I did go to a single MLB game this year – the Padres at Petco park (corporate naming to be attacked in an upcoming rant), because, hey, Jimmy got tickets for free, and that park is lovely. But we spent $60 each on food and beer. Crap food and crap beer, mind you. For that cash, I can get a steak and a nice glass of wine.

Oh, and I think you should be able to get a runner out by pegging them with the ball. But let’s be realistic; if we’re going to allow that, the batter should be able to take the bat to first to club the First Baseman.

*not actually a sport
**based purely on nothing

The Death of the Entertainment “Industry”

Posted in Life in Los Angeles, Movies, Music, World of Warcrack at 11:57 am by loolar

Thanks to Adam Shostack who forwarded this wonderful and simple breakdown (intentional word choice by me) of the current status of the demise of the Entertainment Industry, and it’s hastening by the current Writer’s Strike, as written by Marc Andreessen (co-founder of Netscape and inventor of the graphical web browser – you’re using one right now).

Those who know me know that I have been predicting, since I worked at MGM years ago (left the company in 2000), that this would all come to pass. I just never stated it as elegantly as Andreessen. My argument went something like this:

In the beginning, the studios controlled everything; actors, writers, directors, labor, etc. Actors were brought in and trained in song, dance, elocution, you name it; same with the others. It was an apprenticeship-based model where the studios acted as sponsors; in return, your loyalty was expected and given.

The actors were the first to defect, when big-name stars wanted to go make movies with other stars on projects they cared about, but which happened to be “under contract” at other studios. The actors unionized first, and seeing actors no longer as the “flagship brands” of certain studios became commonplace in the 50s.

The directors were next, heightened by the auter movement of the 60s, and the influx of foreign films. Suddenly directors were acknowledged as being more than glorified cameramen, and they were in demand for the unique perspective and vision they brought to a project. They unionized, and likewise were no longer beholden to certain studios.

The writers followed next in the 60s and 70s. Gone were the sweatshop-style typewriter farms churning out episodic, made-to-order serials and shows.

Finally, the producers got into the gig, separating themselves from the studio architecture to become “independent” producers; this was the birth of “indie” cinema in the 80s.

So what did Studios still provide?

Well, the talent was all independent, but someone still had to foot the bill. Studios provided production financing, insurance, post-production financing, marketing and distribution.

But the indie producers eroded the first three in the 80s. Soon venture capital and bank money was available from stodgy book keepers who wanted the sexiest investment you could find – making movies. Which left marketing and distribution.

When I joined MGM in the late 90s, that was all that was left. And once I got a look at the financing models (I worked in Budgets and Forecasts), I was stunned and appalled. Without exception, the amount of money spent to market a film was at least equal to half the production costs (and in most cases, more). So if we spent $60 million making a movie, we were spending at least $30 million to market it. That business model can’t survive for long (and for MGM, it didn’t). Studios quickly began to co-finance films in the mid-90s to share the burden and the risk. Most big pictures nowadays are co-productions, except for the “surefire” hits with built-in audiences, like SPIDER-MAN.

In fact, the only thing keeping the studios afloat was the DVD revolution. I know this. I was directly working with the numbers of a major studio every day. Without the DVD library, we were tits-up in a year. It’s no mystery that two years ago, once consumers had finished replacing their VHS library, MGM ran out of gas.

So I said, with only marketing and distribution keeping the studios relevant, how long is it before the distribution takes over (the movie theaters), and begins creating their own content? But the internet got there first.

Now, in 1999, most of the internet ventures failed. Broadband wasn’t available to enough of the market, and most desktop computers were barely up to the task. Additionally, content creators didn’t understand the new model, and just tried to create 1/2 hour shows like TV. But it was just a matter of time.

Enter YouTube. The user-creators have figured out that a short needs to be no longer than ten minutes, and most try to clock in at three minutes, just like a top 40 hit on the radio. So that’s the distribution. And the marketing? The best kind – viral, or “word of mouth”; or, email by forwarding, as the reality has shown.

The studios are already extinct; they just don’t know it yet.

They can repeat the mistakes of the now entirely irrelevant music business, or they can embrace the change, as Andreessen so elegantly outlines it. My guess is they will embrace nothing, and will sink like the bloated carcasses they are. Studios are no longer lean, mean vanity operations of a single creative executive such as Jack Warner or Daryl Zanuck in the 40s and 50s; they’re corporations, with boards and shareholders and entirely too many bureaucrats whose sole interest is in preserving the status quo. Moreover, since the various studios work together to create what the industry is, the motivation to innovate and break from the herd is even lower.

And so I predict they will continue to spend $150 million on movies that fewer people come to watch, spending in excess of the budget in vain efforts to reach someone, anyone, to convince them to come see. But they won’t be watching – they’ll be on the internet, playing World of Warcraft, watching YouTube, texting pictures and videos to friends, and finally, making their own entertainment, with cheap cameras, video game clips (the new “machinima” genre), and with their own friends and family as stars.

Good. Welcome back to the populist storyteller model. It’s been a few centuries.