Friday, July 31, 2009

Gone Fishing

I'll be away from the blog for the month of August.  Check in occasionally and maybe I'll post a picture suggesting my whereabouts...  and I'll be back around Labor Day. 

For "Lost" fans, a little entertainment to tide you over until then...



Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Random Foolishness about Renaming TV Networks

NBC -- my favorite network growing up. Home of so many classic 80s and 90s shows, from dramas like ER and The West Wing to comedies like Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier and The Office.  Though they've got some great shows even now, they've come on harder times ratings wise.  They could use a little jump start.  

What about renaming it "Tina Fey"?  I know, I know, it's a little strange, naming a network after a person. But she's on the network, and has been for about a decade. Plus, everybody loves her.  Her show 30 Rock is fantastic.  So why not? It even goes with the NBC chimes -- Ti-na-Fey.   Plus --tell me this wouldn't be better than the peacock:

How could anyone turn away from that smile?  

Bravo -- Another network that has had some great hits, particularly in the last 10 years. But we're always looking for the next thing, a new way to stand out and show you're with it.  How about "Brav"?  It's so cool, it doesn't even need two syllables.  

Lifetime -- When I hear that name, I think to myself, movies of the week, aimed almost entirely at women and with a generous amount of soapy. If that's your pleasure, good on ya, but what about that all so important male market?  Could we reach them? Stealing a page from SyFy, how about Lyfetime? It still has that soft, feminine quality but with an opening to a more diverse demographic.  Brav, watch out with your one-syllable bad self, here comes Lyfetime. 

The Cursive: It's like a big sign saying, "Men need not apply."

Sundance also has a very clear target audience. But what if they wanted to try to resist the mass culture's marginalization of all things art house and expand their audience? Slamdance? Sindance? Nah, abandons the brand.  Plus, Cinemax already has that covered. So to speak. 

How about Sunny D? It's... sunny, it's upbeat, suggests no apparent subtitles or deep dark thoughts.  If you want a little more stand-on-your-own-two-feet, it could be The Sunny D.  Might sound a little too O.C. at first, but hey, maybe that's not a bad thing.  It's light, it's for the kids, it's The Sunny D. 

Lastly, what about CNN?  I have to say, I'd like to change the name just to get some truth in advertising.  It's not exactly what one imagines when one hears the word "news".  (And yes, I realize the same could be said much more strongly of MSNBC or FOX.  I don't even take them on, because I don't think even its watchers think of it as news.)  Seriously, a network that spends most of its time on kidnappings, murders, scary weather, scandals, shark attacks, unvetted internet commentary and celebrity deaths -- that is not a news network. It's a collection of the stories your mom told you to get you to do what she wanted.  (Sure, you can take a piece of candy from that neighbor down the street, that's what that girl in Cleveland did, and look what happened to her.)  (For a much punchier analysis of CNN, check out this clip from Jon Stewart.

CNN: All the news no one thinks fit to print. 

One obvious choices is TNN: the Tabloid News Network. But it's a little tame. Personally, I like STBOOYNN -- The Scare-the-Bejeezus-out-of-You Network. It's a lot of letters, I know. But doesn't it look like a fun acronym to say? STBOOYN!  (Those double-Os are gold.)  And it's so much more accurate... 


Renaming Your Network

Before Harry Potter yesterday Cartoon Network had a music video announcing that "The cartoon Network is not just cartoons anymore."  Which seemed a little weird.  You know, with the "Cartoon Network" name and all.   Apparently the network, which is now referring to itself also as "CN", is branching into reality TV shows, including, according to Entertainment Weekly, "Survive This, in which teens compete in tests of 'endurance, wit and self-determination;'" Head Rush, a game show set on a rollercoaster;  and  My Dad's a Pro, a reality show starring Boston Celtic Eddie House and his son Jaelen.   

This reminded me of the SciFi Network, which changed its name to "SyFy" two weeks ago, apparently so as to de-nerdify (and de-male) its image.  Which seems a little weird.  You know, what with it being a network dedicated to science fiction, and one that is not changing its programming at all.  

And so loathe were they to connect this new network with anything that could be considered nerd-like, none of the print or TV ads I've seen actually explain that SyFy is Sci Fi.  Check out this 15 second clip: 

What is this an ad for? I almost want to say for some sort of anti-depressant.  Except those ads would be more interesting.  

A longer ad, which I'll put below, shows a very trippy party with all sorts of interesting visuals, and lots and lots of women.  This ain't your can't-get-a-date and always-in-his-room-with-the-door-closed brother's Sci Fi; this is SyFy metro, it's classy dinosaurs and cocktail party dresses, it's chandeliers made out of lightning bugs and Escher house parties; it's leather-clad hunks and live action origami! (Huh?)  There's not a spaceship or a nerdy set of glasses to be seen.   

The question is, do moves like this work?  I'm sure marketing test groups are saying they will. But SyFy sounds -- well, so fey.  And will I ever go to the Cartoon Network looking for something other than cartoons?  Maybe.  Certainly people look to MTV for pretty much anything but music videos at this point. 

The whole project, though, makes me wonder if there are other networks that could use a "rebranding", as they call it.  Tomorrow: some suggestions of networks that could use a little sprucing up, and some possible names. 

For now, here's that longer SyFy ad:

Harry Potter and the Battle to Be Brave

Just saw the latest Harry Potter film.  If you haven't, I highly recommend it.  Honestly, I think this series has gotten better and better with each film.   The newest is a bit longer than the last few have been, but it still feels very lean, while giving the characters at the center, particularly the kids, plenty to do.  

On a fundamental level, the Harry Potter stories are about overcoming one's prejudices and seeing the humanity in everyone, including one's enemies.  This is not always as clear in the films as in the books, and it's rarely presented too overtly. But if you watch closely you'll see Harry repeatedly taught, mostly through his own mistakes, that those whom he most despises, though he may have good reason -- Malfoy's sneer begs to be wiped off, doesn't it? -- are nevertheless neither as simple nor as write-offable (new word!) to judge as he thinks.  

Best. Teenage. Sneer. Ever.

Nor are the "good guys" entirely good -- over the course of novels we find out that Harry's dad and his pals were jerks to Snape, and that even Dumbledore has some serious skeletons in his closet. Like this outfit:

Grandma's curtains (complete with tassels).

Only Harry's mother is remembered universally as a kind, talented person. An interesting point, given the fact these books have been written by a single mom.  

Having said all that, the most recent film strikes me as focused more clearly and specifically on the theme of courage.  Every major character in the film is asked to make a decision between cowardice and bravery: to kiss or not to kiss; to reject an inadequate love or remain stuck; to risk though one might fail or to hide; to come clean with one's sins or to live a lie; to sacrifice one's life for the good of all or to flee; to kill or not to kill. (And (SPOILER) in that last case, both choices end up representing stances of courage. Snape's willingness to do a dark deed will prove bravery indeed; and Malfoy's refusal, though it appears cowardice, holds within it a great courage as well.) Truly,  the filmmakers delight in this theme, offering not only these widely varying contexts but wonderfully different tones, from the slapstick to the tragic.  I laughed out loud many times, and unexpectedly.  And I also jumped at least once.  And the ending... well, I won't spoil that if you don't know already. 

One other thing to love about this film: as much as it's about magic and good vs. evil and this strange and wonderful other world, it never ceases to be a story about kids growing up. Some of the best little moments, in fact, involve the three main teenagers just hanging out and talking to one another like teenagers do -- talking about girls, fighting over who gets the new book,the big game, struggling with teachers, bemoaning lost loves.   In fact -- and this is a very large claim to make, I know -- I bet you could be not that interested in the whole magic thing and still really love this film for the school and teenager material alone.  It's that good.  

Tell me this is not the image of every teenager you've ever known.

The Nice White Lady

A little laugh for Tuesday, courtesy of Mad TV. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Petitions in Australia

At the end of petitions, we generally say something like "Let us pray to the Lord" or "We pray to the Lord."  

Intriguingly, in Australia their lead is in generally "Lord, hear us."  A very small change, yet sufficiently different for me that it took me about five months to remember it.  I used to stumble through my petitions, searching for the formula.  

But once I got it, I found its difference instructive. The American formula addresses the congregation; it's a sort of "the prayer's over now, let's all speak" hint.  But the Australian, on the other hand, keeps the focus of the address on God.  "God I'm doing speaking, please hear me."   

In the end, neither way is wrong.  But the variations are fun to think about, aren't they??

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Petitions Part 2: Dos and Don'ts

Yesterday's post about petitions reminded me of a how-to lecture I once heard as a Jesuit novice about offering petitions at mass.  We were given five basic guidelines. 

1) Try to move your petition from the specific to the general. So, for instance, if you're praying for a sick friend, instead of just praying for him or her, pray for them and also for all that are sick.  So, for example, "I'd like to pray for my friend Rex, who has cancer, and for all those who are struggling with cancer."  The idea is, in a sense like my comment yesterday, our petitions mean to draw us all, including the speaker, beyond their own worlds into the larger world of need that we're a part of.   (Of course, it can get silly, too.  "I'd like to pray for my brother-in-law and all brothers-in-law. We pray to the Lord..." "I'd like to pray that my cousin can find a house, and that everyone can find a house. We pray to the Lord..."  "I'd like to pray for my sister, who will be having an ultrasound today, and for all those having ultrasounds, we pray to the Lord....") 

2) Your petition should never attempt to "answer" another petition.  You'll get this at daily mass sometimes:  one person prays for an end to the war in Iraq, and then the next prays "that the citizens of the United States might better appreciate the sacrifice our troops are making to ensure our freedom." Hello, axe.  Care for a grind?  

Speaking of which... 

3)  Never make your prayers inflammatory.  Your petition is not a statement of position, after all; it's a prayer to God. (Note to self: If you're unsure whether you're going too far, YOU PROBABLY ARE.)

4)  My favorite:  Never make a petition into an announcement.  Believe it or not, this actually happens somewhat regularly.  A guy in community knows something that others don't, and uses the petition as a moment to share that information. "I'd like to pray for Mike, who was just diagnosed with a rare skin disease."  "I'd like to pray for the 417 people in Milwaukee who are being held hostage as we speak by armed gunmen."  "I'd like to pray for our community member Randy, who has decided to leave the Society."   Even well intended, "You will NEVER guess what I just heard!" is always a distraction.  (Also: shameless much?) 

5)  Be careful about praying for yourself.  If you've got a big exam coming up, of course you can ask everyone to pray for you.  Just remember, TMI is probably just a few words away.  

I wonder, what other guidelines would you suggest? 



Today at mass someone prayed for a guy I know who has come into hard times.  It really hit me hard.  He and I aren't close friends, but still, I know and love him well enough to feel bad that he's not doing well right now.  When the mass was over I went over to the person who had made the prayer to find out more, and just to share that sense of grief over what this guy is going through. 

A couple days ago, I witnessed a similar experience. At mass I prayed for a pal of mine, and the rest of the day I had people coming up to talk about him, how they love him and wonder how he's doing. 

When we offer prayers of petition, we do so hoping that God will hear our prayers and bring aid to the people in question.  But perhaps petitions also serve the function of changing us who hear them, by expanding our mental and emotional horizons beyond the boundaries that we might have set.  Ezekiel talks about having his heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh. I wonder if the prayers of others aren't one way that the stony places in our hearts get broken open.  

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How Credit Cards Work, Part 3

So, you pay your credit card bill promptly every month. You have no annual fee. What use are you to the banks?

Believe it or not, even if you always pay in full, I was shocked to discover the bank still makes money off of you. BECAUSE, for every charge that you make, the bank takes 2-3% of the amount charged from the seller. This is the cost for the stores of the doing credit card business, if you will, the charge the banks demand for the service. And top of that, banks also charge a transaction fee, a flat rate of 30 cents or more. If you ever wondered why some stores demand a minimum charge of $10-20 in order for a buyer to use a credit card, this is the reason. Maybe it's also the reason that candy bars are so darn expensive at gas stations -- if they only charge 60 cents, bank costs gobble more than half their fee.

A cheap Snickers may satisfy you...but probably not the BP.

So, that's how credit cards work. As I said at the beginning, there's a lot of talk out there at this point that banks are beginning a variety of strategies to try and milk more money from them, ranging from the restoration of annual fees to the truly outrageous moves of changing the dates the bills are due without due notice or changing the interest rates dramatically, and doing it all right now so as to get in before the new credit card reform law goes into effect. The New York Times noted in an article last week that the banks being given the most in the bailout are, of course, the ones demanding the highest fees.

A last thing -- you know how when you sign in for a credit card, the information sheets they give you are so complicated and convoluted, they make it pretty near impossible to actually know what the fees are? Well, a number of graphic designers have suggested a simple form very similar to a nutrition label. The full article, which is very short and worth reading, is here.

And here's the label they suggest (Click to make it bigger):

Definitely a step in the right direction.

And for those frustrated with these and other things some of the banks are doing these days, may I offer a little Friday rage-catharsis.

Star Wars Lightsaber: 3 million credits.
Unlimited Power: Your immortal soul.
A 30 second clip on YouTube: Priceless.

The More in Need, The Less We Care

NIcholas Kristoll has a fascinating column in the New York Times today about studies which show that our willingness to extend compassion (and cash) to people in need decreases the larger the group of people in need. "In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life." Well worth a read.

Tomorrow, the last part on How Credit Cards Work.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How Credit Cards Work, Part 2

On one level, the profit to be gained from credit cards is obvious from the end of our last discussion. Every time a user doesn't pay his bill in full, a bank adds on interest to the amount owed, and assuming that the user eventually pays up, all of that is profit. If we've got 170 plus Americans alone who aren't paying their bills in full, there's a lot of money to be made -- especially given the crazy high rates that are charged, which can go as high as an incredible 23.99% if you're deliquent for a number of months. (Again, assuming they pay up eventually. About three weeks ago, the New York Times ran this report on credit card companies who are settling with far less than the full amount owed in order to get something.)

A far lesser but consistent profit to be gained is from annual fees. Consider, if you have 7 million people using your card, and you charge a very conservative $20/year, you've just brought in $140 million a year. It's nothing compared to the promised land of interest charges, but still, it's a nice chunk of change.

There are three answers to this question. First, we provide the banks with stability. They know they can depend on us by and large to come through with the money we owe. And so even if a whole bunch of people don't pay up (or pay at all, for that matter), they can rest assured that money will be coming in as well as going out.

Second, as long as we're using the card, there's always the possibility that we might not pay in full. Probably most of us have in fact had times when that was exactly the case. So, even if we're not the cash cows others are, the potential for profit is still there. Especially if, as some banks are now doing, they suddenly change the date that bank statements are due without proper notification.

The third answer is the most surprising. Tune in tomorrow...

Monday, July 6, 2009

How Credit Cards Work, Part 1

As you might have read the last few weeks, in light of the ongoing banking crisis a number of banks are floating the idea that they might begin to charge consumers once again for the use of their credit cards. It's not a totally unreasonable idea, as the credit card is a service of great utility to the consumer. Most banks used to charge for them; the fees fell away when some banks removed them to draw in more customers. On the other hand, today such a move is yet another way in which the banks are attempting to pass the costs of their mistakes onto ordinary Americans.

In any case, the conversation has made me wonder about the whole business of credit cards: What are they? And what makes them profitable? So, over the next few days I thought I'd give some of what I've learned. Consider it a sequel to my 3 Part Series on How a Bank Works.

So, first of all what is a credit card? Well, it's the equivalent of those blank checks your credit card company sends you from time to time. When I use my credit card I am basically taking out a loan: the bank fronts the money for the purchases I make, and I am responsible for paying the bank back, with interest.

The idea of the credit card started in the 1920s as a service offered by individual companies to their patrons, like a JC Penney Card or Gap Card today. After World War II, these services became much more widespread, though it still wasn't until 1959 that a bank, Bank of America, began to offer cards themselves, and then only in California until 1966.

All of which is to say, while credit and loans are older than the Bible, the modern use of the credit cards is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The ancient equivalent of credit.

Today, the use of credit will shock you. In 1999, 1.2 TRILLION dollars was charged on credit. Married to the fact that somewhere between 50 and 70% of people don't pay their complete balance each month, it becomes even more clear, it's not just the banks that have dramatically overextended themselves. The National Debt aside, our 340 plus million Americans themselves owe BILLIONS of dollars.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

You Have to Hear This Guy

About four years ago I met Neal and Kathleen Carlson. They were about to have their first child, and we got together to discuss his baptism. Kathleen is a graduate of St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, a great school. And Neal was working as lead singer in a band called "Mink". Here's a fun Mink video, just to give you a flavor:

As punk/Red Hot Chili Peppers as that song is, Neal was a quiet guy when they came to see me, very polite and a little shy. The three of us had a great conversation.

Flash forward to a couple months ago. Kathleen sent me an email to say that Mink had broken up, and Neal was teaching guitar and writing. He had just completed an album, "I Feel Free," and if I was interested, I should go to his website, and download it.

So I did. And I want to tell you, you all should do, too. It is a GREAT album -- not punk (sorry for the punk enthusiasts), but a wide spectrum of infectious poppy rock songs. If you go to Neal's website, you can take a listen to the 12 tracks. You can also download the album for free, and/or pay what you want. And 25% of what Neal earns he's giving to the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital -- which is amazing, right?

My favorite tracks are #7 and #8 -- "My Time is Now" and "Run To You"; I swear, I listened to them once, and then I was just looking for places where I could safely sing them over and over again at the top of my lungs -- not an easy thing to find in a Jesuit community, either. (Eventually I began walking the streets of Santa Clara, where no one knows me, singing at the top of my lungs. It was AWESOME.) And there's lot of other great tracks, too.

So do me a favor -- check this guy out. You will not regret it. Just remember to be generous. Neal and Kathleen are supporting two small kids, living in New York. It ain't easy.

It's not often I get the chance to share something as neat as this. I hope you enjoy it.

PS Neal has another album on the site called "Big Rock for Little Kids" -- it's AC/DC sounding tunes, but for little kids. A wild combination, I know, but it's fantastic too. Hysterically funny, and clever. (To hear snippets or download it, go to his "Music" link, and you'll find it beneath "I Feel Free". I can't stand AC/DC and I loved it.)