Saturday, February 26, 2011

a musing: two and a half ideas

This week Warner Brothers & CBS cancelled the remaining four episodes of the season for their #1 show “Two and a Half Men” due to some difficulties with Charlie Sheen. They are currently contemplating what to do with the show next year where they have already contracted Sheen for a reported $1.8 million per episode or a $43+ million commitment. Always wanting to be helpful, I have two and a half ideas for them:

ONE: Do a spin-off. Let’s call it “Alan’s Place” – a nice throw-back to the "All in the Family" spinoff “Archie’s Place” – and set it in Alan’s (Jon Cryer) Chiropractic Office. Berta (Conchata Ferrell) can become the receptionist instead of the maid. The kid, ex-wife and others can still be around.  Charlie, still under contract, can pop up every now and again as the show veers off into a work-place gig.

TWO: Recast the role of Charlie Harper. The producers have previously said this was not ever going to happen, but I’m not sure that they have come up with the best casting option. My suggestion: Emilio Estevez.

HALF: Convert the show into a reality show to burn off Sheen’s contract. Follow him around with a camera and once per week make sure that there’s an interaction with Chuck Lorre.  Let the insults fly!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Extreme Close Up

Sunday is the Oscars! Streets have been closed all week. Hairdressers have been working overtime. The paparazzi are in position. Excitement is in the air. 41 million viewers in the U.S. watched last year – with a global audience nearly of 1 billion.

We watch not only to learn who the approx. 5,500 Academy members have chosen as “Best” in a range of film categories, but also to see the stars in their finery. It’s royalty American style. The red carpet has its historical reference in 483 BC in the play Agamemnon and became the modern status for the elite in 1902 when The New York Central Railroad used plush crimson carpets to direct people as they boarded their 20th Century Limited passenger train.

Movies are about 6% of U.S. exports. 308 movies were released in 2010 that generated $31.8 billion globally. I saw 42 of them (or about 14%). 6.3 billion people go to the movies worldwide with India having the largest attendance – double the U.S. These statistics don’t include ancillary viewing of films via DVD, television and a range of other methods that would expodentially grow the figure. Movies are universal and the annual anointing of the “Best” of is harmless escapism.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences that oversees and hands out the Oscars generates the bulk of its income from the annual awards broadcast. Tweaks are constantly made to the show – and this year there will be some traditions that return (performances of nominated songs) and some that go away (movie genre montages). There is one new addition that I hope doesn’t stick.

For $4.99 anybody can buy an “all access backstage pass” to the Oscars. 
Oscar All Access is a new premium service that gives Oscar fans the ultimate view of Hollywood's biggest night. Beginning with the Red Carpet, and continuing through the Governor's Ball, Oscar All Access members will get unprecedented, behind the scenes access and see the event like never before. With exclusive access to our groundbreaking "360 cam" technology, members can direct their own Oscar experience with just the touch of a mouse.
So we can see the stars back-stage getting their make-up touched up, adjusting their gowns and ties. We can follow them from the moment they arrive at the red carpet to when they leave the stage. We control the camera. We can peek at the Ball to see who’s dancing with whom. Voyeurism has hit a new low.The money generated from this experiment will be dwarfed by the $1.7 million per 30-second ad the broadcast will earn – approximately $80 million going to the Academy. (Their expenses are limited as all of the licensing fees from the films are waived and the stars appear gratis and the network covers a portion of the production costs.) Going deep behind the scenes will take away a large part of the wonder and magic that is the very ethos of the ceremony itself and won’t contribute significantly financially.

What’s next? Cameras in the locker rooms and dugouts to see and hear what athletes are saying and thinking? (Well, actually, that one might be quite the draw, but for totally different reasons...and I think there’s a whole other industry that already has that market handled.)

I’m all for transparency – but this incremental intrusion takes away perspective.  It deteriorates the big picture. Consider the trend in the past 30 years in political coverage. The preponderance of stories today are “process” oriented. Palace intrigue!  Insider coverage! It’s juicy!  Process has a place in our discourse certainly, but it seems to be the bulk of the coverage with the policy issues being secondary.

The result is that the nuts and bolts of governance is of greater import than policy based on the media coverage. Seeing how the sausage is made has its place, but certainly the entire plate of cooked sausages and how they interact with other foods and is digested is ultimately more important than the squeezing and mixing of ingredients.

The current budget debate in Washington D.C. is a good example of process over fact.  Center stage is President Obama who is self-portrayed as making “tough choices.” Off to the right is John Boehner, Speaker of the House who led his chamber last week to pass a budget with $60 billion in cuts to the proposed budget. Off to the left is Harry Reid of the Senate that hasn’t weighed in yet but is plotting approaches. Each of their movements is reported in the context of the political landscape of the 2012 election and who’s up and who’s down on an hourly basis as if the budget were a ballgame or horserace. The important narrative isn’t how the budget is presented but that the President submitted a $3.7 trillion budget that has a shortfall of $1.7 trillion and the House passed a $3.6 trillion budget that has a shortfall of $1.6 trillion and the Senate hasn’t taken up either.  We're half-way through the budget year and a budget isn't in sight.  Certainly budget facts are less dramatic, but ultimately the facts are more important than the story, no matter how exciting it is told.

We know that provocative stories make for excellent entertainment. Wouldn't it be nice to keep it in the movies where they belong.  And let's hope the Oscar's retain some of their mystique and glamour and the All Access Pass bombs.

My picks for Oscar 2010 are:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

LA Municipal Election March 2011

March 8, 2011 is Election Day in Los Angeles County. There are no “major” offices being elected – a number of school boards and colleges will elect representatives as will all even City Council districts. There are also a number of Ballot Measures in Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Many have inquired my thinking on some of these items – either to concur or to make sure they vote the exact opposite! Here is my thinking. Please do vote…democracy works only when we all participate.


City Council District #2 – If I lived here I would vote for Paul Krekorian, the incumbent. He courageously voted against the 4.5% DWP rate increase sought by the Mayor last year.

City Council District #4 – There isn’t a clear candidate to choose from here with the incumbent Tom LaBonge having served the city for decades. If I lived here I would vote for Stephen Box as he has put forward a budget plan for the city that recognizes the different economy that now exists.

City Council District #6 – If I lived here I would vote for Rich Goodman a young man who has energetic ideas for the city.

City Council District #8 – If I lived here I would vote for Bernard C. Parks, the incumbent. Parks (also the former Police Chief) has been a lonely but passionate and articulate voice of financial discipline and responsibility.

City Council District #10 – If I lived here I would vote for Austin Dragon. He has put forward a number of common sense realizable plans for the city and it is time for new blood in this district.

City Council District #12 – If I lived here I would vote for Armineh Chelebian, one of four candidates seeking a soon to be vacated seat. A fiscal conservative she is an accountant by trade and has ably served the district on many commissions and for 7 years as a school board member.

City Council District #14 – If I lived here I would want more candidates! The four choices here are less than exciting, but I’d opt for Rudy Martinez as the best of the lot.
Measure G – Reduces retirement benefits to newly hired police officers and firefighters. It’s nowhere near enough – but it’s a good first effort. I voted YES.

Measure H – Bans bidders for city contracts larger than $100,000 from contributing to candidates for city office. This is very sloppy “campaign finance reform.” I voted NO.

Measure I – Create a position of "ratepayer advocate," whose office would monitor the DWP's accounts. A nice concept but we need less bureaucracy not more – there is expense associated with this, complicates an already complicated process…a nice wish that one position could fix things, but it won’t. I voted NO.

Measure J – Adds a provision to the City Charter requiring the DWP to coordinate its budgeting process with the city's. These are separate legal units and should be budgeted and run separately. One of the big problems is that the city takes the reserves that the DWP builds up for capital projects and uses the funds to cover budget shortfalls – voting yes on this makes that process even easier. I voted NO.

Measure M – Imposes a gross receipts tax on hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries. These businesses already pay city and state business income taxes and fees. Singling out this industry for additional taxes is not fair no matter one’s thinking on drugs. I voted NO.

Measure N – Removes from the City Charter rules on campaign contributions and candidates' spending that are unconstitutional. The Charter requires voter approval for any changes. These sections have been deemed unconstitutional and therefore shouldn’t be in the document. I voted YES.

Measure O – Creates an oil extraction tax. Oil companies already pay city and state business income taxes and fees. Singling out this industry for additional taxes is not fair no matter one’s thinking on the oil companies. I voted NO.

Measure P – Amend the City Charter to create a reserve account. While it would be nice not to have to codify into law something fiscally prudent and long overdue, this is the way things have to be done. I voted YES.

Measure Q – Changes to the process of testing for civil service jobs. Applying for a government job is a huge process and effort – simplifying and streamlining is welcome, even if this is a very small step towards it. I voted YES.


Three (3) City Council seats are to be filled in this election and there are 10 candidates. All of the candidates generally follow a similar political philosophy which tends to be liberal Democratic. My own political leanings are more conservative that this so I see most of the candidates in the same hue. Out of the 10 incumbents Abbe Land and John Heilman would get my vote as would newcomer John D’Amico instead of incumbent Lindsay Horbath who has been an embarrassment during this campaign.

Measure A – Changes the tax structure on billboard companies from $1.44 per $1,000 in revenue to 7% of gross revenues, a 50% increase. The Measure also amends the city’s zoning ordinance to allow many more billboards, tall walls and other usage. Put forward by a billboard company it’s basically a bribe: a self-imposed tax in order to dramatically grow their business. West Hollywood is home to Sunset Strip, Santa Monica Blvd and Melrose Ave – it’s a vibrant city. More billboards won’t dramatically change the city and it’s a much better way to generate revenue than increasing parking fees. I'd vote YES.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bush was right ?!?!

I tend to be a home body when I'm in town but I enjoy traveling and have been fortunate to have done so extensively.

In 2009 I visited Cairo. In an event filled day we hit the pyramids, a mosque and a papryrus factory (which was really more of a shopping opportunity). The cruise ship tour bus navigated the streets of Cairo pushing, honking and going headlong into a maze that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. (The photo to the left is an actual photo of rush hour.)  When former President Hosni Mubarak warned that the streets would turn to chaos it was clear that he hadn’t been amongst his people in some time as chaos is the order of the day in the streets!

The protests that captured the foreign policy narrative for much of the past month showed tens of thousands demanding democracy and change in this ancient land. There may even have been a few million protesters when considering all of the major cities where demonstrations were held. Even if there were 2 or 3 million protesters – it’s a small percentage of a country with 81.5 million inhabitants which is particularly important in the current situation.

Last Friday Mubarak was plucked out of the palace and unceremoniously escorted from the country he led for nearly 30 years is reportedly a "guest" of the United Emirate. In his place the military has taken over. By any definition this was a military coup – not a democratic revolution – so we’ll have to see whether the Army provides actions to support an emerging democracy or just better PR.

The news narrative does not consider this nuance.  While briefly acknowledging that the army that put Mubarak in power originally is again in charge writing the new constitution, the media has been filled with protesters seeking western style democracy. Good has overcome evil! (Cue music.)

It’s somewhat surprising to me that in this narrative that former President George W Bush (#43 not #41) isn’t receiving more credit. While he campaigned in 2000 on a platform of protectionism – after 9/11 his policies changed and his administration aggressively sought to replace dictators with democracy. I never supported the invasion of Iraq but there is little doubt that the result is a fledgling democracy.  The cost (in lives, dollars and morality) of converting Iraq is something that history will judge.  Leading up to the invassion, in 2003 President Bush described the “freedom deficit” in the Middle East and that with a free Iraq the entire region would turn to democracy.

The Bush Doctrine appears to be working as the region is changing. Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen have all experienced protests. Responses and success has varied – from the Iranians suggesting that protestors be beheaded to leaders fleeing their countries.

My ideals for liberty and freedom tell me that the lure of democracy has people clamoring to the streets and demanding change. My ideals would only be nominally correct. The economic reality of the Middle East provides some additional context. “Unemployment is at its highest and most dangerous levels in the Middle East with some estimates putting it as high as 15 per cent. According to Amat Alsowa, the head of the UN Development Program's regional office, the average unemployment rate is 15 per cent in the Arab world, "but it reaches 40 per cent among people between the ages of 15 and 24, totaling 66 million out of the total Arab population of 317 million.”

The U.S. Revolution in the 1770’s was about many things – but at its core was an economic call for no taxation without representation.

The Civil War in the U.S. similarly had many causes – and the economic disparities between North and South were a huge contributing factor.

Democracy may be the result of revolution but economic self interest often overshadows. In December 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved and in its place came the Russian Federation. Many freedoms were instituted and Western style capitalism was attempted. The country suffered terribly as it tried to change to a market-driven economy. 20 years later Russia has begun to return towards a centrally-planned economy - especially related to its natural resources (oil, timber, gold) while providing security and stability for the population.  Note that nobody is in the streets there.
You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.  Gilbert K. Chesterton

President Bush (#43) deserves praise for his vision of democracy in the Middle East. It’s more likely, though, that his economic policies that ruined the global economy are a more fundamental cause in the Middle Eastern protests for out of desperation people are drawn into action. The U.S. economy is in its worst condition in its history by nearly any measure. The accumulated deficit now exceeds all economic activity for a year (GDP) and is growing at an alarming rate. Unemployment is high – with millions falling off of the rolls every month making the number even higher than what is reported. There are trillions of dollars in unfunded commitments well into this century. Democrats, Republicans and all Americans share in the blame. President Bush (#43) must bear more of the responsibility for it was his budgets, his calls for invasion and his reallocation of wealth that have had the most impact. In 2008 he said that he was “sacrificing free market principles to save the economy.” 

The dire economic conditions in the U.S. are the very conditions that have led to revolution and demands for freedom elsewhere. Good thing I’m a home body!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

It’s flat world after all

Love makes the world go around. In that case I better look into membership with the Flat Earth Society!  Kidding aside, I know how to fall in love. [I do so several times a day.] Distinguishing between love and fantasy is particularly important as we celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Named after St. Valentine in 500 AD the Catholic Church then rescinded the Feast Day during the Second Vatican Council in 1969 and the day is now largely a secular celebration of love, affection, and romance between intimate companions. $15.7 billion will be spent, including $681 million on gifts for pets.

I love my doggies, but buying them gifts for Valentine’s Day isn’t in the cards. My friends and I have spent the last 20 some odd years having a singles dinner. Happily for some they’ve graduated to coupledom – but we have some stalwart members. We have outgrown going to a fancy romantic restaurant as a large group to mock the couples cooing at each other. Bitter didn’t quite suit us as the aging process kicked in, so now we just go to one of our favorite places and toast saying “Next year with …”

Finding gainful employment in the current economy feels an awful lot like the dating scene.  Like modern romance, job hunting is virtually virtual.  There are more lookers than buyers. When you do find a match it’s not quite what it originally seemed, or the really good looking ones go quickly.

The unemployment rate fell to 9% from 9.4% last month and from nearly 10% a few months ago.  The political establishment are nearly triumphant in finding a cause-and-effect from the President’s economic policies to the unemployment rate. Fed Chairman Ben Bernake said this week that the reduction is "encouraging."  New jobless claims are at their lowest level since 2008.  The celebration is a bit premature.

Not to get too mathy – but according to the Department of Labor’s own press release  the unemployment rate drop of 4% represents a change of 600,000 jobs. In the very same report only 36,000 net jobs were added to the economy. This is a 564,000 discrepancy in one month and nearly 1.5 million jobs in the past few months. Jobs aren’t being created, the jobless are just disappearing.

More than half a million people, including me, fell off of the unemployment statistics in January. The Federal Government tracks unemployment based on those who are eligible for benefits. The maximum number of weeks an individual may receive benefits depends by state with the longest being 99 weeks. At the 100th week even if you don’t have a job the Bureau of Labor Statistics no longer considers you unemployed…they don’t consider you at all. Contributing to the murky nature of the rate are people who are underemployed (working part-time but want to work full-time).  It's no surprise that new claims are also decreasing:  eligibility has expired.

Out of the jobs that were created, The Week reports that 2/3rds of all jobs created in 2010 were "low paying jobs - $9 to $15 per hour."

Americans put a lot of value in statistics. One assumes that utilizing government resources that the statistic will be unbiased and consistent. How the Unemployment Rate is calculated takes 19-pages to outline its history and methodology.  The rate is not  consistently calculated and therefore comparisons from one period of time to another (i.e. the Depression) can’t really be done without adjusting the rate for consistency.  We can't just accept that "Avatar" is the best selling movie of all time without adjusting for inflation and currency adjustments all movies of all time.
The current Unemployment Rate melodrama is itself a sequel.  In 1981 Unemployment was high and the economy was in recession. President Reagan’s administration changed the methodology four times in a few years leading to a dramatic reduction in the unemployment statistic.

Did the chicken come first or the egg? Does the unemployment statistic go down due to a statistical change and then jobs get created because people think the economy is improving…or are jobs created and the unemployment statistic simply reflects it? The romantic idealist in me this Valentine’s weekend would like to think the latter, and is hopeful that the declining Unemployment Rate will lead more jobs becoming available. The eternally single guy in me knows that the former is much more likely.  The upside?  Next week Valentine’s candy is 50% off!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Toilet Bowl Sunday

Sunday is the big day. It’s the Toilet Bowl! (DIY’s annual counter-programming to the Super Bowl.) I may watch a little but I largely have given up on following sports after having my heart broken in 1986. (Think Boston Red Sox, Bill Buckner and a ball going through his legs.) The Big Game is much more than a sports contest between the Packards and the Steelers.

The Super Bowl will be watched by over 100 million Americans – nearly 1 in 3. With that much attention The Game has become the premier event for advertisers to launch new products. Companies spend more than $3 million per 30-second ad with Pepsi taking 6 ads. Consumers can even vote for their favorite ads online.

Advertising and television have a comingled history. In the late 1940’s there were just 180,000 sets manufactured. After the May 7 1947 inaugural “The Kraft Television Theatre” one 60 second ad ran. “McLaren’s Imperial Cheese, not advertised in any other medium except ‘Kraft Television Theatre,’ is enjoying a gratifying demand. Television viewers who are unable to purchase it at their local stores have called Kraft Foods Company in N.Y. to find out where they can obtain the cheese.”

Today we’re terribly sophisticated and we are well aware of being “sold.” It now takes 5 impressions for an ad to have an impact...not a purchase impact, but just a recognition factor.

The core of the U.S. economy is built around this premise: introduce consumers to a product or service and show them that they want/need/will benefit from it – and they will then engage and purchase. The cycle repeats. Even the most sophisticated and cynical amongst us are impacted – it simply works.

University of Kentucky's School of Journalism and Telecommunications found  that when people view Web advertisements, they store information in two different types of memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory involves facts learned through conscious interaction, while implicit memory involves unconscious retention. Explicitly remembered information includes ad slogans, product benefits, and website addresses. In contrast, implicit memory might only come into play when external stimuli trigger concepts.

Barak Obama successfully used these techniques while building the “Brand Obama” in the 2008 Presidential Campaign.  In 1994 the “Harry & Louise” $20 million advertising campaign in opposition to President Clinton’s Healthcare reform successfully killed any chance of passage.

No matter what your political leaning is, others will spend huge amounts of money and efforts to change your mind. It works enough of the time that the cost and efforts self-justifies.

In American culture and society – the same pattern has emerged. Expose people to a product, and opinion, a philosophy and after a number of impressions there is a shift. Sometimes that shift is tangible in terms of people lining up to buy a product, service or to vote for somebody. Sometimes that shift is less tangible but has an overall impact because it is absorbed. What is clear is that speech has an impact.

Free speech is the cornerstone of America – it’s the First Amendment because the founders felt that it was the most important guarantee in a fledgling democracy. In recent weeks we’ve seen people in Tunisia, Egypt and now Jordan up-end their countries for this right that we often take for granted. Speech is protected here because it’s powerful and effective. The right to speech unites Americans.

In January GLAAD asked CNN to stop inviting “anti-gay” guests.  The nonprofit organization that “amplifies the voice of the LGBT community” said that whenever a gay issue was up for discussion the network would bring somebody on who was anti-gay rather than bringing on somebody who was anti-the-issue. The distinction is important, accurate and powerful. When debating the issue of Gays in the Military – is the discussion best between somebody who supports gays and somebody who hates gays OR between an advocate for equality in the military and somebody who believes that military readiness would be impacted. One could be anti-gay and pro the policy or anti-the-policy and pro-gay. That, in fact, would be a much more interesting discussion!  GLAAD is right in its request – keep the focus on the issue, not on the characteristic.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) people have been surrounded by speech that mocks, harasses and spreads inaccurate information.

People of some faiths have been surrounded by speech that is intolerant, disrespectful and lacks understanding.

Human temptation is to quiet or silence those whom we disagree or are offended by. We mustn’t succumb. A vibrant and engaged citizenry must debate those issues that we differ on. We must do so passionately. Respectfully. Rancor will exist, it’s na├»ve to think it wouldn’t. Speech is only truly free when it pisses us off.

In 1999 I was part of the producing team on a multiple award winning documentary (“Journey to a Hate free Millennium”) that addresses issues of hate through the stories of the Columbine murders, the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. and the murder of Matthew Shepherd. Fred Phelps the agitator from his Wesboro Baptist Church picketed the trial of Matthew Shepherd. Everybody wanted to silence their hateful, ignorant and evil signs and horrific chants. A group of young people who were part of the film created the Angel Project (that has been documented elsewhere and copied often). They dressed as angels – with large wingspans and sheets. The stood shoulder to shoulder and circled the block and sang. The Phelps group wasn’t silenced. They were surrounded by a force greater than they had ever faced before: love.