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So, I'm kind of a sucker for Best Buy's Deal of the Day. It's not so much that the prices are that low -- although sometimes, for some items, they really are -- but they often draw my attention to products that I might not ever consider buying, or even know about. I've been known to pull the trigger on a "deal" simply to see if the hype is warranted.

Halo packagingA couple of weeks ago, one of the DOTD was a half-price sale for something called a Halo Ambient Bias Lighting kit for TVs. I had never heard of this but I did some research (aka "clicked on a couple of google results") and was persuaded that it was a legitimate technology for improving the picture on a typical flatscreen television. This is a good overview of the technology and why it works.

The theory is that when a TV screen is subjected to ambient light of the proper color temperature (for modern HDTVs, it's 6500K), your eyes will perceive the picture to have greater contrast, and they will also be less susceptible to strain due to the increased brightness of the typical LED TV. The ambient light tricks the brain into thinking the TV isn't as bright as it really is, and this makes a difference in viewing comfort, especially if you're watching in a darkened room.

I figured that for seventeen bucks, it was worth checking out, so I ordered two of them, one for the living room TV and one for the screen in our bedroom. The kits arrived last week, and I finally got around to installing them.

The units are elegantly packaged, rivaling some of Apple's packaging, and the installation instructions are easy to follow. I think they could be improved by explaining exactly how Halo improves the viewing experience, but I suppose they assume that you wouldn't be using the product if you didn't know what it did.

Halo installed on a TVInstallation is simple, taking less than five minutes, although it requires access to the back of the TV. The Halo is simply a ribbon of LED lights that are affixed to the back of the TV via peel-and-stick. The unit is USB-powered (USB 3.0, to be precise). Ideally, it's plugged into the USB port on your TV so that it turns on and off along with your TV. If that's not an option, you'll need an USB adapter to plug into a regular electrical outlet; the Halo comes with a remote control so you can operate it independently of the TV. The photo at right shows the installation on one of our TVs; the white strip contains the LED lights, and it's plugged into the TV's USB port.

I mounted the Halo on three sides of our TVs, starting and ending about two-thirds of the way down the sides. If you have a TV mounted flush to the wall, you may need to run the strip all the way around it to get an effective ambient light effect. It's important that the light from the LEDs is reflected around the TV to get the desired effect.

Even if you use your TV's USB port and thus don't need the remote to activate the Halo, the remote still has some useful features, as well as a few inexplicably weird ones. The useful ones are the controls that allow you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs to suit your viewing taste. The weird ones let you turn the Halo's lights into a variety of flashing sequences. I can't imagine a scenario where you want to send a continuous SOS signal from behind your TV, but perhaps I'm living in the wrong neighborhood.

I must admit to thus far being underwhelmed by the difference Halo seems to make on our TVs. For one thing, both units are mounted in cabinets, and the lights illuminate the back and sides of the cabinets, as well as any cabling or A/V components that might normally be hidden in the dark recesses. And in one case, the TV almost completely fills the cabinet from edge-to-edge, meaning that there is negligible ambient light spilling over from the two sides of the TV. 

That's not to say that the Halo doesn't work; we just haven't noticed much difference when watching TV at night in a dark room (which we rarely do). At the same time, the ambient light is not a distraction, and we may find that we like it more as we get accustomed to it. For now, we're operating it at the lowest brightness level.

In the end, at $17, the Halo is not a bad investment; it's a little more iffy at twice that price. But if you normally watch TV in a darkened room and if you experience eyestrain, it's worth checking out.

Tivo Problemo
January 2, 2016 1:13 PM | Posted in: ,

Broken Tivo iconOne of our Tivos (Tivoes? Tivii?) went out last night, right in the middle of an episode of iZombie on Netflix. One second we were watching Liv feast on a delectable dish of brains au gratin, and the next we saw that ridiculous Tivo emoji-guy and the dreaded "One moment while Tivo restarts" message. We all know that one Tivo minute is equal to two trips around Saturn, and indeed, the message never disappeared and the Tivo never restarted. Fortunately, our Plan B kicked in flawlessly and in a minute or two we were finishing the ep via Apple TV.

This morning, we went through the complicated list of things users can do when their Tivo spazzes out. To wit:

  1. Unplug the Tivo.
  2. Plug the Tivo back in.
Of course, that didn't work, so we were reduced to the Nuclear Option: calling Suddenlink user support. That turned out to not be a horrible experience, but the tech was unable to reboot the unit remotely and we scheduled a service call for next week. My guess is that we'll get a new unit.

In the meantime, the prospect of having no TV in our living room was giving half our household the heebie-jeebies, so it was up to me to come up with an alternative. Should be pretty simple, right? Just disconnect the cable from the Tivo, reconnect it to our A/V receiver, and - voila! - wasteland recaptured.

Guess what? Our four-figure-cost A/V receiver doesn't have a coax input. That would be too low-tech; it's HDMI or bust. Wait! I'll just route the cable through our Blu-Ray player and...well, rats. No coax input there, either.

Looks like I'll have to bypass the receiver and connect directly to the TV, meaning that we can't watch Telenovela in 7.1 surround sound. No big deal. It's not a cosmetically pleasing solution, because it means that a length of cable will be draped across the mantel - because, of course, the coax input is on the opposite side of the TV - but it's only temporary.

The cable is not long enough. I'll have to find another length of coax, plus a connector, to make the reach. Fortunately, I never throw anything away, other than receipts that the IRS stupidly deems critical, and I'm able to come up with both components. TV is now connected. All I have to do is put it on the right input.

And...the TV remote's batteries are dead. Because, of course, we always use the Tivo remote to control things. Off to search for AAA batteries. Fortune smiles upon us again; we always stock up on batteries around Christmas.

So...TV connected to cable? Check. Input switched to cable in? Check. Fixer Upper appearing on TV? Uh, negatory. We have to "reacquire" the active channels, a process which is apparently an unholy combination of medieval mysticism and Star Trek technology. You can almost hear gears cranking inside the TV - slooooowly - as it grinds through 300 channels to locate and electronically anchor the three that we usually watch.

It was a process only slightly less painful than a root canal, but we have again have a working TV in the living room and we can get back to the important work. Those iZombie episodes won't watch themselves, you know.

Filling the Dance Gap
June 16, 2015 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent much of a Sunday afternoon downloading Seventies and Eighties TV show theme songs from iTunes and editing them* into gain-consistent 20-second clips with tasteful fade-ins and -outs to serve as fillers between songs in the playlist I'm compiling for an upcoming ballroom dance. If this sounds like fun, you must be a geek, like me. 

You may wonder why a ballroom dance would require the Batman theme as a transition between a fox trot and a waltz. It's a good question, and the answer is simple: it doesn't. But the interval between songs in a prerecorded playlist poses a challenge for the dance DJ or playlist organizer. Continuous music doesn't allow the dancers to gracefully exit the floor to either change partners or take a breather; a comfortable gap solves this problem. 

Now, if a live band has any kind of personality at all, it can fill the space with banter, but with a prerecorded playlist, the gap turns into an awkward silence. One solution is to provide a snippet of music to serve as a transition, such as this one:

Choosing the right music for this purpose presents its own challenge. A snippet of an actual dance song might lead some to believe that it was meant for, well, dancing, and that's awkward in and of itself, as it fades out after twenty seconds. I've found that people respond well to something whimsical and completely different from the dance music, and old TV or movie theme songs seem to perfectly fit the bill.

Not only does this approach fill the silence while providing time for the dancers to do whatever they need to do between songs, it also provides a source of conversation as they attempt to identify some familiar jingles that they may not have heard in a long time. However, one must consider the likely demographics of the attendees, who may be more familiar with the theme from I Love Lucy than that from Friends (or vice versa).

The downside to using filler music, or for that matter, filler silence, is that there's that much less music for dancing. A typical dance set for our group is about fifty minutes, with a ten minute break. That's time enough for about fifteen continuous songs/dances, but a 20-second spacer after each song means that you'll get one or two fewer dances per set. To be honest, most people don't dance to every song in a set, so that's not a big deal. And for those who have the energy to continue dancing, I'll populate the breaks with music, although those songs tend to be out on the fringes of acceptable ballroom dance tunes (think polkas, or country 2 Step, or cumbias).
*I use an audio editing app called DSP Quattro for tasks like this. Now that Apple has dropped its DRM from music purchased from the iTunes Store, you can edit songs directly from your hard drive, although the app must first convert them from the native .m4a format to the .aiff format.

Dancing Batman illustration created by Jesse Lonergan 
About a year ago I posted an announcement regarding an upcoming series on public television called One Square Mile: Texas. One of the planned episodes was to feature Midland. Those plans have come to fruition and the Midland-centric segment will air on February 27 at 7:30 p.m. on our local PBS station.

stonegate.jpgHowever, you don't have to wait to see it, as an online pre-screening is now available. The producers also tell me that the episode will be available online at and on the website.

I strongly recommend this episode to all Midlanders, as it offers a different perspective on life in our city than we're accustomed to seeing in the national media. It's actually a series of personal stories, told by individuals and without any outside commentary or narrative. In other words, Midland (or, at least, this one square mile of Midland) speaks for itself. If you live here, you'll recognize all of the locations and perhaps some of the individuals featured on the program.

The production values are very good, and the filmmakers have managed to document various aspects of life without giving a feeling of intrusion.

I don't believe this episode is intended to be a comprehensive overview of what it's like to live in Midland. In the filmmakers words, "the purpose of the series is to explore what life actually is like for the people living and working in these square miles and to shed light on what it actually means to be Texan in contemporary American culture."

As I stated in my original post, there are many aspects of our city that aren't represented in the square mile chosen for scrutiny. You won't see any of the extremes in wealth or poverty that are to be found in other sections of Midland; there's no direct focus on the oil and gas operations that keep us alive and the only commercial activity that's present is retail. What you do get to see is a glimpse into the lives and perspectives of a few of the people who live here; you can judge for yourself whether the creators achieved their stated purpose. For me, it was a pleasant way to spend a half hour.

A Mile of Midland
January 23, 2013 6:04 PM | Posted in: ,

One Square Mile: Texas is an upcoming PBS television series that will focus on nine very specific geographic areas across our state...including one located in Midland. The square mile in Midland is being referred to as "Holiday Hill Village," and has as its approximate center C.J. Kelly Park, in the northwest quadrant of the city. Here's a locator map of the area:

At first glance, I couldn't figure out why the producers picked this particular area to represent Midland (other than they claim that the locations were "selected from viewer suggestions and were pulled from over 200+ nominations across the state"). For one thing, there are no Tex-Mex restaurants within the boundaries. You have to go out of your way to find a square mile in Midland with no access to fajitas. Plus, there are no pumpjacks or drilling rigs, or at least there weren't any a couple of weeks ago. That may well have changed by now.

On the other hand, I don't have a better suggestion for an area this size that better represents the identity and diversity of Midland, Texas. The boundaries encompass a bowling alley, a Freebirds, a sporting goods store selling guns and ammo, a Christian bookstore, a Cracker Barrel, a home improvement store, one of the larger parks in the city, one of the largest churches in the city, an apartment complex, a new and burgeoning upper-middle-class housing development as well as a more well-worn residential neighborhood, a large junior high school, the edge of a golf course, and some pasture that undoubtedly sports a healthy population of rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. 

Anyway, the producers of the series are soliciting suggestions for stories that arise from life within this square mile area. They are specifically targeting the following themes:

  • Community - What role does community play in this square mile. How do residents interact and socialize? Is community involvement centered at the school, the barber shop, the cafe or the home? 
  • Family - What is the role of family in this square mile? What is it like to live, grow up or raise a family in this square mile?
  • Work - How do people earn a living in this square mile? 
  • Food - How is food a part of the culture in this square mile? 
  • Future - What is the future of this square mile?
Any Midlander can make a suggestion as to a storyline for this segment of the series, via this webpage. So, if you know someone who lives within this square mile and who has a story that you think others would want to hear, drop the producers a note. It wouldn't even be considered crass to nominate yourself, if your address so qualifies you.

A Moving Experience at Church
December 30, 2012 3:27 PM | Posted in: ,

Have you ever visited the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas? It's a spectacular indoor setting mimicking the watery "streets" of Venice, Living Statuecomplete with singing gondoliers. I've never been to Italy, but I'm sure it's exactly like this except for the Harley Davidson store and Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, but with the same pickpocket-to-tourist ratio.

Anyway, some of the featured attractions are the living statues, humans decorated in medieval clothing and monochrome paint designed to make them resemble carved marble. The illusion is made complete by their ability to remain completely still, as still as...well, stone. These actors have an astounding gift, although I can't shake the feeling that they're enhanced by certain pharmaceutical applications.

That I do not possess this particular gift was made abundantly clear this morning in church where my fidgeting was on display for at least a thousand people.

We're meeting in a downtown convention center while our church is being repaired following a recent fire, and one of the [many] challenges is continuing to video-record the Sunday morning services. All media equipment is transported and set up the night before, including our normal three video cameras which have been mounted on temporary stands that resemble nothing more than giant upended peach crates. And, unfortunately, they're about as stable as that.

While they're not in any danger of collapsing, they have the unfortunate ability to pick up and magnify the slightest motion and transmit it through the camera lens, and my camera this morning was the one that was used to project the sermon onto the two big screens at the front of the auditorium. I suspect many of you attend churches with a similar setup.

This was my first time to operate a camera under these conditions, and it will be my last time, and not just because we're moving next Sunday to a different location with - I hope - better camera stands. I'm not the most passive of observers under the best of conditions, and standing for more than an hour on a platform that seemed to move with every breath wasn't the best showcase of my mad camera operating skillz, even without the added mental stress of knowing that any stray movement was being projected for the audience. I never realized it was medically possible for so many body parts to start itching at the same time.

I didn't notice anyone in the congregation becoming motion sick because of the jittery picture on the screens, but I'm pretty sure I overheard one small child ask her mother why we had a meth head working a camera.

The only saving grace to this situation is that I'm pretty sure we're not broadcasting any of these services, so the visual outrage will be confined to those in attendance (and their Facebook walls, of course). But if by some quirk of fate you happen to be present during an airing on TV of this morning's service, do not adjust your set. The problem lies elsewhere.

Ask and Ye Shall Receiver, or Not
November 28, 2012 9:28 PM | Posted in: ,

Have I mentioned that we got a new A/V receiver a couple of months ago? Astute Gazette readers may recall this tragic post in which I documented our tragic inability to watch 3D movies at home because of our tragically old-and-busted equipment (which was really neither, but technology is a harsh mistress).

It's a Pioneer SC-57, and it's supposedly the first all-digital amplifier to hit the consumer market. What does that mean? Danged if I know, but it sounds impressive, both in terms of specs and in actual listening. But, man, was it a major headache to hook-up and configure.

Here's how it looks inside our built-in cabinet:

Photo of Receiver

Note the three boxes atop the receiver, all of which are reminders of my shortcomings as an audiophile. The squatty one on the left side is Pioneer's WiFi receiver that theoretically allows the receiver to lock into our home network, but Pioneer's instructions for configuring it are inscrutable and so its primary purpose is to look tech-y-ish.

The two boxes with the glowing blue eyes are 50-watt Dayton digital amps, and I have mixed emotions about them. If I had more competence and/or patience, they would be unnecessary, because each of them powers a pair of stereo speakers on our front and back porches, respectively. The receiver is supposed to have the capability of doing that itself, by routing signals from two of its speaker outputs to the second and third zones, but, again, I never could get that configuration to work. I know I'm overlooking a simple setting somewhere, but after a couple of hours of fooling with it - including countless trips out the front and back doors to confirm that, yes, we have no decibels - I gave up and went to Plan B. 

Plan B is actually documented in the receiver's user guide, and while this may sound like rationalization (and it probably is), it's a superior alternative, apart from having to spend another $200 to make things work right. This approach doesn't tie up the aforementioned speaker outputs, so I can have true 9.1 surround sound (although there is that pesky detail of having only seven installed speakers). It also gives a tiny bit more control over the sub-zones as I can more quickly adjust the volume of the porch speakers via the amplifier control, whereas there's a fair amount of button pushing to do it via the receiver.

Regardless, I consider it a victory to now have functioning multi-zones, along with the 3D capability. 

Regarding the latter, while 3D is still barely out of the gimmick phase, it's still pretty cool in a nerdy way. And, best of all, it works right out of the box...or, technically, boxes, since it require three of them to give those lovely glasses their raison d'ĂȘtre.
One of the fun things about blogging is that you never know who's going to show up. This email appeared in my inbox earlier this week:

Hi Eric...

Let me start by congratulating you the 'Fire Ant Gazette'...I've been enjoying not only the pics, but your descriptions are quite comical...I really enjoy your writing style. 

As a quick introduction, my name is Naomi and I'm a casting director in Los Angeles.  I came across your site while I was researching for a new show I'm casting for CMT called, 'Redneck Lawn Wars.'  

Basically we are looking for creative/unique handmade landscapes along with owners that are a little rowdy, over the top, proud and want to brag about their creativity skills.  I noticed on one of your recent posts (June 26th), you included a lawn with a Dragon in the yard...very cool. 

So, basically I'm inquiring to see if somehow you could help direct me on how to get in touch with the owner of that yard, as well as to pick your brain a little on any one else you think would be good for our show. 

I'd love to chat with you directly about more specifics of the show and what we are looking for.  I'm attaching a flyer with more info...but please reach out any time 310.555.1234.

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts...thanks in advance for any & all help.


Naomi Pacheco
Dam Legacy Entertainment
Casting Director

(Notice how I got into the whole Hollywood thing by using the ubiquitous fake "555" phone number prefix that every movie in history employs?)

Here's the flyer Ms. Pacheco attached to her email.

CMT Flyer for Lawn Wars

You may remember the "yard dragon" post referred to in the email, but if not, here's the link.

I've forwarded the email to the owner of that amazing sculpture and will let him decide how he wants to proceed. In the meantime, if any of you have a classy "redneck yard" or know of one that should be included in this new TV program, drop me an email and I'll provide you with Ms. Pacheco's contact info (or you can use the email in the flyer, but who knows what kind of starlet/intern is checking that inbox). This could be your [weed-overrun, beer-can-littered, gopher-hole-plagued] path to hick immortality!

In all seriousness - or as much seriousness as I can muster given the subject matter - this does sound like an interesting concept for a television series.
Well, when you're down on your luck, 
and you ain't got a buck,
in London you're a goner.
Even London Bridge has fallen down,
and moved to Arizona,
now I know why.

Midland has four "sister" cities, one each in China, Mexico, Guyana, and the United Kingdom. I'm not sure about the significance of having (or being) a sister city, despite the aforelinked website's repeated references to "common economic interests." Perhaps someone anticipated that we'd be sharing things with one another.

Like, say, families.
We are a British TV company looking for a Midland, Texas family who would like to take part in a NEW TV SHOW.

Would you and your family like to travel to the UK and act as ambassadors for Midland?

Would you and your family like to swap lives with a British family from the Wirral (your sister city) for one week?

Would you like to live in a British family's home while a British family lives in your Midland home?

If you are at all interested or would simply like more information then please contact us at:
And I'll substantiate the rumor that the English sense of humor 
is drier than than the Texas sand. 
You can put up your dukes, and you can bet your boots 
that I'm leavin' just as fast as I can.

The casting producer at a television production company called Knickerbockerglory emailed me this morning to see if I could assist her in finding a family in Midland who was willing to trade places for a week with a family in Wirral, UK. The purpose of the switch is to provide fodder for an episode of a new reality series the company is developing, a "primetime" show called Twin Towns. Here are the details in her own words:
I hope you don't mind me emailing. I'm currently working on a brand new exciting primetime TV series called 'Twin Towns' where families from the US will swap lives with families from the town their home town is twinned with in the UK.

We are looking for families from Midland, Texas who will get the chance to have an all-expenses paid trip to the UK where they will spend a week living in the Wirral which I believe you are twinned with or have a friendship with?

The family we choose will get to act as US ambassadors for Midland and will get to see how the other half live by living the life of the British family they swap with for a week. This will include swapping houses, jobs, children will go the local schools/colleges, they will get to meet the community and experience the local culture as a whole.

We are looking for fun families who would be available for a week between the dates of 16th April and 31st June and would be interested in being on television.
Framed quote: A good cowboy never goes the same way twicePretty interesting, huh? It's legit, as far as I can tell, and sounds like an great opportunity for an adventurous family with a flexible schedule. How could you go wrong with a group of Brits who have a framed cowboy quote on their wall? (Even if it is a rather inscrutable quote. Most cowboys know that stray cattle wander down the same paths. Perhaps I'm too literal.)

But I can't help wondering how the production company will assess the "fun" quotient for prospective families. Are they looking for the quintessential West Texas family...and how would one even go about defining that?

Well, it's cold over here, and I swear 
I wish they'd turn the heat on. 
And where in the world is that English girl 
I promised I would meet on the third floor. 
And of the whole damn lot, the only friend I've got 
is a smoke and a cheap guitar. 
My mind keeps roamin', my heart keeps longin' 
to be home in a Texas bar.

Regardless, if you have a "fun" family and think this is your cup of tea, feel free to email the company and get more information. Just don't plan on taking Jerry Jeff Walker with you, other than on your iPod.

I wanna go home with the armadillo 
Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene 
The friendliest people and the prettiest women you've ever seen.

[Lyrics from "London Homesick Blues"...but you knew that]

Local family featured on HGTV
November 6, 2011 7:00 PM | Posted in: ,

Our weekend TV watching is generally limited to a steady stream of home improvement- and real estate-related shows on HGTV, punctuated by occasional cooking shows on The Food Network. HGTV LogoYesterday afternoon, another episode of HGTV's House Hunters got underway and neither of us were actually paying attention, so when Debbie sat up and said "I think they said she's from Midland!," it took a while to figure out that the woman looking for a vacation home on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, was indeed from our hometown. 

The woman whose house-hunting efforts were being documented is Elisa Manning, and her story will be familiar to many Midlanders. Her husband  Tom was well known in the community as the owner of Manning's Nursery, and he succumbed to cancer last year. His death focused attention on the plight of those who are victims of government and medical bureaucracy. Most of us probably fall into that category at some point in our lives, but it's rarely a life-and-death situation like it was for Tom. You can read more about his situation in this archived story on

Elisa was looking for a home on Molokai to honor the memory of her late husband, as they had enjoyed some special times together on that island. A Molokai website provided a local perspective on the TV program, and a careful reading between the lines of that article shows a certain amount of, well, sensitivity to "outsiders" moving into what I presume is a community striving to insulate itself against the encroachment of commercial development and the perceived negative effects on the island's native culture and social fabric.

I don't know her and didn't know her husband, but my guess is that the residents of Molokai have found that she's exactly the kind of neighbor they'd like to have.

Note: This episode originally aired earlier this year, and yesterday's episode was apparently one of several re-broadcasts. Nobody ever accused us of being on top of things!
It's been several days and I'm still stewing about the final results from Dancing With The Stars. The fact that Chelsea Kane, by far the best dancer on the show this season, didn't even make the top two is astounding to begin with, but to think that she was beaten by Kirstie Alley, who was perhaps the 6th or 7th best dancer of the bunch takes the cake. (And we're not making any jokes about Kirstie eating it, because she really did do a great job in getting in shape and losing weight during the course of the season. I'll grant her that much.)

I realize that DWTS is an entertainment show that happens to use ballroom dancing as a focus to get people interested, rather than a vehicle to showcase - and reward - good dancing. But this is the first season in memory that the best dancer didn't make the top two, and one of the rare times that the best dancer didn't end up winning (Donny Osmond comes to mind as one of those exceptions, winning over Mya who was clearly more talented as a dancer).

This drives home what was probably already obvious to everyone else: DWTS is a popularity contest and the judging is secondary to viewer voting. I get that, and it is what it is. But I shall no longer be an engaged viewer for that reason. DWTS will have to get along without me and my expert commentary. I hope they're prepared to meet that challenge.

For their parts, Chelsea has been a most gracious second runner-up, and winner Hines Ward has been nothing but gentlemanly and gracious throughout the entire season. I was impressed with Ward's development as a dancer...and he was definitely the second-best on the show.

Also, if you're wondering if I'm embarrassed, making such a big deal over an insignificant-in-the-cosmic-sense-of-things TV show, the answer is no, I'm not. I'm a blogger, and that's how we roll.
ABC is airing promos for a new summer fictional drama entitled Combat Hospital. This is a Canadian-conceived show set in 2006 in a military hospital at the Kandahar Airbase in Afghanistan, and purports to depict "the frantic lives of the hospital's resident doctors and nurses from Canada, America, the UK and other allied countries."

Wartime hospital dramas on TV are nothing new. M.A.S.H. was set during the Korean War, and China Beach depicted an evacuation hospital during the Viet Nam War. But both of these shows were created years after the conflicts they dramatized. Combat Hospital will be a fictionalized account of an ongoing war, and that raises some moral and ethical issues in my mind. There's much that doesn't feel right about having a fictional account of a war simultaneous with the actual death and suffering that's taking place on a daily basis in Afghanistan.

  • The show will undoubtedly depict casualties in graphic fashion. What will be the effect of such scenes on viewers with family members or friends who are in actual harm's way?

  • The doctors will surely be able to save some lives in the show. How does that play with viewers whose loved ones weren't saved? And when the inevitable medical failures occur, is there a "multiplier effect" for the grief and trauma of those who suffered loss in real life?

  • Are there ethical implications of having actors portraying soldiers and being paid many times more than the salaries of those men and women in the military who are not acting but serving in the same roles?

  • If the story lines play out true to "Hollywood" form, there will be subplots involving "foxhole romances," and dark humor. Will those things trivialize the real life-and-death drama of the ongoing war? And while there's no doubt that humor is a healing and strengthening technique even in times of intense stress, does it matter that such humor is originating from a writer's imagination? (I don't know if any of the show's writers have served in the military, and specifically in Afghanistan. That could make a difference in the answer to some of these questions.)

  • Will the show's writers be able to keep their personal opinions about the war out of the story lines, or will Combat Hospital be a vehicle for propagandizing a specific political viewpoint? And if the program promotes an agenda or perspective that's the slightest bit at odds with American military goals and strategies, how might that feed the enemy's own propaganda machine and morale?
We live in an age of compressed news cycles and real-time reporting. That's not a bad thing, unless you subscribe to an "ignorance is bliss" philosophy. But when that leads to an overlap or blurring of lines between actual and dramatized events, troubling questions arise.

One might argue that such TV shows serve a useful purpose in helping us to remember the truth in the saying "war is hell," and the reality of the sacrifices being made each day by those serving in the military (and their civilian support infrastructure). The counterargument is that if the actual news reports aren't sufficient for such purposes, then a fictionalized television show won't make any difference.

For me, and I suspect for many other Americans, Combat Hospital is too much, too soon.
I daresay that Georges Seurat's painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is only recognizable to most people in the most vague, I-think-I've-seen-a-poster-of-that-somewhere-before sort of way, and most of us would surely not be able to describe it sight unseen. I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with this; the painting is more than a hundred years old and Seurat is not a tip-of-the-tongue artist like, say, van Gogh or Monet.

But I find it very interesting that when the cast of NBC's TV show, The Office, is inserted into an updated, posterized version of this painting, people absolutely come alive with passionate discussions of every detail of the scene. If you don't believe me, click the preceding link and scroll through the comments section.

Here's a comparison of the two scenes. Drag that vertical bar to the left to reveal the poster (or click somewhere on the painting, if you have an old-and-busted browser). [By the way, if you are indeed one of those artsy purists who knows their stuff, I apologize for cropping the original slightly to make it overlay more closely to the poster. Sacrilege, I know, but we really just lost the umbrella lady's bustle, and a tiny sliver off the top of the painting.]

I guess it's not a big deal, but it kind of saddens me that we can get so excited over a TV show and its characters, and yet a piece of amazing artwork merits nary a second glance. Have we become so cheap in our pursuits?

And here's how out of touch I am: I didn't even know Michael was no longer on "The Office."
Last year, I made the mistake of predicting the outcome of Dancing With The Stars before watching any of the competitors. That was a disaster of epic, Charlie-Sheen-as-a-babysitter proportions. However, after the first viewing, my revised handicapping was pretty darned good, if I do say so myself (and I must, because no one else will). I picked Jennifer Gray, Kyle Massey, and Brandi Norwood to finish in the top three, and nailed two of them. Would have been three, but who could have predicted the Bristol Palin juggernaut?

So, illogically emboldened, and having watched TWO dances this season, I now offer my expert opinion as to how this season will unfold, thereby saving you the trouble of having to actually watch it unless you don't have anything better to do, in which case I'd advise you not to admit it.

But first...let me just observe that this year's cast is remarkable in that there are no "sleepers," no dancers in amateur clothing. I think everyone is equally new to dancing, and while that doesn't imply that they're equally talented or motivated, this should make the competition much more, uh, competitive than in the past.

And, for whatever reason, it seems that the judges have also elevated their expectations. Some of the performances in the first week would have been lauded in the fourth or fifth week of earlier seasons, and they were met with disapproval by the judges. Len, in particular, seems to be more surly than usual, and out of step with the other two judges. 

OK, here's my handicapping, based SOLELY on dancing ability and potential (that is, I'm ignoring the "Bristol Palin Factor," although the only person who might benefit from it is Kirstie Alley). The celeb name is first, followed by his or her pro.

  • Chelsea Kane & Mark Ballas - Chelsea is terminally cute, and has a wonderful on-floor personality. I think she's athletic and coordinated, and danced much better than her early scores indicate. Top 3 finisher, if Mark's weird choreography doesn't sink her.

  • Chris Jericho & Cheryl Burke - OK, this guy's a shocker. Great personality, great moves, and apparently highly motivated. Humble for a professional wrestler. I like his chances; he could well be another Emmitt Smith, but at least a top 3 finisher. (As an aside, I wish to go on record as saying Hollywood could do a lot worse than to recruit actors from the pro wrestling ranks. The Rock has established himself as a potential A-Lister, and Paul Levesque (aka Triple H) turned in a surprisingly nuanced performance in The Chaperone. I'm not a pro wrestling fan, but I'm beginning to be a fan of pro wrestlers as actors.)

  • Hines Ward & Kym Johnson - Another very likable and motivated guy. Kym is a great partner for him, and I think he's a top fiver.

  • Kendra Wilkinson & Louis van Amstel - Playboy bunny with self-esteem issues. Go figure. And yet...she's not a bad dancer, by any stretch. Top seven.

  • Kirstie Alley & Maksim Chmerkovskiy - Kirstie made a terrible impression during the cast introductions, and, frankly, everyone thought she would be this season's Cloris know, the obligatory "oh isn't she so brave for trying this" celeb. But Kirstie is a hoot, and is working her butt off (literally?). Big fan base (no pun intended), and I think she'll be a top fiver.

  • Mike Catherwood & Lacey Schwimmer - Lacey got to the finals with Kyle Massey last year, but poor Mike is beyond her capabilities. He'll be gone after tonight. And it's a shame, because he's a likable guy, too.

  • Petra Nemcova & Dmitry Chaplin - Supermodels typically don't do well in DWTS and Petra won't be the exception. Her tsunami-related backstory will get her some fan votes, though, and she doesn't suck at dancing, so she'll be around a couple more weeks.

  • Ralph Macchio & Karina Smirnoff - Ralph's the mystery man. He certainly wowed the audience with his first two dances, but the second one wasn't great, and the judges called him on it. I don't know whether he can continue to measure up week after week. I'll leave him in the top five, but he could squeeze into the top three.

  • Romeo & Chelsie Hightower - You're probably comparing him to Kyle Massey, but he's no Kyle. He doesn't have the personality to get the fan votes like Kyle did, but is probably as good a dancer. Gone in six weeks.

  • Sugar Ray Leonard & Anna Trebunsakaya - I had high hopes for Sugar (as Bruno calls him), but, sadly, he's this year's David Hasselhoff. TKO in three. (And it's a shame because we really need to see Anna every week. IYKWIM.)

  • Wendy Williams & Tony Dovolani - She's not quite as annoying as Niecy Nash, but every bit as dramatic. Can't judge her fan base, but based on her dancing, she'll be the second one to go.
OK, it's probably hard to figure out my predicted lineup based on the preceding, so here's a more direct predicted order of finish. Check me in May!

Update: The numbers in parentheses show the actual week of exit for each celebrity.

  1. Chelsea Kane - Finals - #3
  2. Ralph Macchio (8)
  3. Chris Jericho (5)
  4. Hines Ward - Finals - #1
  5. Romeo (7)
  6. Kendra Wilkinson (6)
  7. Kirstie Alley - Finals - #2
  8. Petra Nemcova (4)
  9. Sugar Ray Leonard (3)
  10. Wendy Williams (2)
  11. Mike Catherwood (1)
Should you have the good sense to disagree with my predictions, please leave your own in the comments.

Charlie, Charlie, Charlie...
February 28, 2011 3:44 PM | Posted in:

Forgive me if this is the 97th time today that you've seen someone compare Charlie Sheen to a slow motion train wreck that refuses to let you avert your eyes, but I can't think of a better analogy.

I don't want to waste a lot of pixels on the guy, but I can't resist responding to his statement during an interview conducted over the weekend that he's "tired of pretending [he's] not a total, bitchin' rock star from Mars." Actually, he might be surprised at how many of us do believe he's from another planet, but it's probably not accompanied by the sort of adulation he expects.

Got news for you, Charlie: the total fraction of the world's population who gives a flying fritter about anything you do is so infinitesimally small as to be unmeasurable. It probably rounds to zero. It's the little flagellum that waves weakly on the very tip of The Long Tail.

Your professional niche is inconsequential. All the sitcoms in Hollywood could vanish overnight and the only impact would be an instantaneous uptick in Society's collective IQ (which, granted, would be immediately reversed by the inflow of "reality" programming).

Plus, there's the inconvenient fact that what you're doing isn't even acting. You're playing, immature-but-aging philanderer with a substance abuse problem? How is that acting, even in your universe? You should be thanking your lucky stars every day of your life that someone is willing to pay you a boatload of money to be yourself.

Because, frankly, yourself is sort of getting on our nerves.
Against my better judgment, the Gazette will once more be the scene of uninformed opinion and inexpert commentary regarding just about everything related to the Super Bowl. You're invited to join in with your insights, as we select the best and worst TV ads for the year.

Tune in around kick-off, assuming I'm up from my nap by then.
The web is abuzz today about the passing of Jack LaLanne at age 96. The guy was the human equivalent of the Energizer bunny, and he's probably doing jumping jacks in his specially-modified jumpsuit (slits for angel wings, right?) as I type this.

In memory of the world's first "fitness guru," here's a YouTube video of the first episode of his television show, which began in 1951 (one of the few things on the net that was broadcast before I was born, by the way).

Link via Neatorama

Couple of things strike me about this broadcast. First, the ballet slippers; no "fitness trainers" or running shoes existed in those days. Second, the cool workout music: a Hammond organ played offstage. Did LaLanne also pioneer the use of music as a backdrop for exercise?

We may mock his fashion sense and manic sincerity, but the fact is that many of his ideas have stood the test of time and have been scientifically validated.
Broken Blu-ray discKhoi Vinh is a well-respected designer (he reworked the website for the New York Times) and is in demand as a speaker at tech and design conferences around the world. In other words, he's a bit of a geek. And thus I find his experiences with and observations about the current state of Blu-Ray to be sadly affirming of my own. Here's his money quote:
What I wanted, and what I would be willing to guess most consumers want out of Blu-Ray, is simply better looking home video. That shouldn't have been hard to do at all, but the business agenda of the entertainment and technology industries stepped in and subverted that simple equation until it became a complex mess. If you haven't yet made the switch to Blu-Ray, I would urge you to consider carefully before you do.
Khoi is expressing frustration at consumer-grade technology that has professional-grade complexity. I share his pain. Our Sony Blu-Ray disc player continues to gather dust because it refuses to cooperate with our Onkyo A/V receiver. For a long while, I blamed the receiver, and even sent it in for diagnostics and repair. It was returned after a months-long interval while the service company tried without success to replicate the problem. We still can't use the player without plugging it directly into the TV, bypassing the receiver's video circuitry (although still being able to use the digital audio). As a result, we simply don't watch Blu-Ray movies.

As Vinh observes, the Blu-Ray picture is exquisite...when it works. But in my experience, this technology is still not ready for prime time on too many levels.

The Mystery of Bristol Palin
November 8, 2010 6:32 AM | Posted in: ,

We were at a dance Saturday night, sitting at a table with eight other fans of Dancing With The Stars, and someone observed that they were surprised that Bristol Palin was still on the show. The consensus was that Bristol's fan base had kept her in the competition long after her skill ceased to do so.

It is ironic that the one person who really, really seems to want to go home can't do so. Bristol is obviously uncomfortable in this setting - and who can blame her? She may be the only "celebrity" in the history of the show who isn't actually a celebrity: she's not an actor, entertainer, athlete, or politician. Her public appearances have been limited to sitting on stage with her famous mom, or to giving talks to various groups about preventing teen pregnancy. In short, she's a perfect candidate for a show like DWTS, but one who is all too rare.

I know she's homesick, and appears to not really covet the spotlight, but there is some incentive for her to stay on the show as long as possible. The celebrity paychecks increase the further into the season they get, with those who make the final show pocketing a reported $350,000 for the season. I'm sure Bristol isn't hurting for money, but I would also guess that being able to earn a third of a million dollars on her own would be an affirming accomplishment for any young woman in her circumstances. As an advocate for a specific social cause, the publicity she's gaining is simply priceless. And, finally, the longer she remains, the better paid is her dance partner, Mark Ballas (the professionals earn a reported $5,000 per episode).

Strange as it may be, while she has no chance of winning, Bristol has a shot at making the final three. Her skills aren't that far behind those of Kurt Warner, and I think her fan base is much larger than Kyle Massey's. So, we could be headed for an all-female DWTS finale, with one of those finalists being the longest of shots.

I'm not sure who comprises Bristol's fan base, but I disagree with some who think it's Tea Party support that's keeping her on the show. What do you think?
Below is another scan from Debbie's mom's collection of '30s and '40s memorabilia. The Chuck Wagon Gang is still going strong (I wonder what the original group would have thought about the idea of a website?), billing itself as "the oldest recording mixed gospel group still performing with ties to the original founding."

The scan appears to be a promotional flyer, on heavy card stock, and it highlights the group's appearances on the era's Big Dogs of Texas radio: WBAP (Fort Worth), KPRC (Houston), and WOAI (San Antonio).

The "Bewley" in the name refers to Bewley Mills, a flour company. What was it about flour companies that made them sponsors of musical groups on the radio?

According to the group's website, at one time the Chuck Wagon Gang was Columbia Record's second highest selling artist, behind only Xavier Cugat and just ahead of some upstart hillbilly named Johnny Cash.

An interesting tidbit is that even back then, musicians assumed different names for their public personae. In the case of the CWG, Dad was Dave Carter, and he was the father of Anna (real name Effie), Rose (Lola), and Jim (Ernest). I have no idea who Cy is...perhaps the announcer?

Flyer - Bewley's Chuck Wagon Gang

Radio Imagination
October 15, 2010 8:41 AM | Posted in: ,

In my hand, if I pointed it just right
You oughta heard what come to me at night
On that little transistor, my big sister's radio.

So many DJs from so far away
You oughta heard the records they would play,
On that little transistor, my big sister's radio.

Tommy Castro's song, Big Sister's Radio (from his most excellent album, Painkiller), paints a picture of a time and practice that's probably quite familiar to those of us who grew up in rural areas during rock-and-roll's "Golden Age" (I'll let you figure out when, exactly, that was). I have fond memories of sleep outs in our back yard, under star-filled West Texas skies, listening to the same kind of transistor radio described by Castro (" dial").

Depending on weather conditions, we could pick up border-blaster stations from just across the Rio Grande (XERF, XELO), Fort Worth (WBAP), and of course, everyone's favorite, KOMA in Oklahoma City.

KOMA was cutting edge rock-and-roll, and I was oddly mesmerized by the incantation of the exotic places where various dances, concerts, and drag races were taking place...such as Lawton, Hutchinson, Enid, Elk City, and Liberal. I could only imagine how cool those places were. (And, to paraphrase Paul Simon, reality could never match my sweet imagination.)

Anyway, these memories were resurrected by another item from Debbie's mom's collection of memorabilia, which I introduced yesterday.

Promotional photo of Monte Magee

I haven't been able to find much about Monte Magee. On this site, there's a reference to his being a radio personality from San Antonio, and in a catalog of copyright entries, under Musical compositions, there's a reference to a 1938 song entitled In that old fashioned way where the music and words are attributed to a Monte Magee. That year is consistent with the dates of the other items in the memorabilia collection, so I assume it's the same guy.

Now, in case you're wondering, 1938 was WELL before the time I was listening to KOMA on that little transistor radio, and I somehow doubt that the DJs of my time were wearing suits and classy striped ties. But I'm sure some kid, somewhere - perhaps in another area of rural Texas -  was held in thrall by Magee's voice and music.

Following last night's premiere of Dancing With The Stars, it was painfully obvious that my predictions were as bad as Margaret Cho's dancing (which was just about the only thing I got right). But the good news is that this might be the most interesting season yet, for the simple reason that the show has no trained dancers (think Nicole Scherzinger) or Olympic skaters. It's a cast of pretty evenly-matched contestants.

So based on one performance, here's my revised ranking:

  • Jennifer Grey - I nailed this one, even if I did misspell her name. She turned in a beautiful and emotional waltz that had Carrie Ann in tears (which, admittedly, isn't all that unusual). Grey has enough grace and skill (and the right partner in Derek) to continue being the front-runner.

  • Kyle Massey - Big surprise (to me anyway). The kid can not only dance, but is eminently likable and has great showmanship. He's now in my top three.

  • Brandy Norwood - Another surprise. She appears to have a strong competitive streak and the talent to back it up. Another top three competitor at this point.

  • Rick Fox - Much better than expected, with grace and fluidity that can be attributed to Cheryl's expert coaching.

  • Audrina Patridge - At first glance (and second, and third...) she was the typical early-exit eye candy that has generally been reserved for the supermodel genre, but she defied expectations with a very good performance. She might be this year's Pamela Anderson, although not as nasty.
Those are the front runners. Here's the rest of the field, in descending order:

  • Kurt Warner - Warner has potential and he's just a really, really nice guy. Perhaps the fan base will carry him until he sharpens his dancing skills.

  • Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino - I thought the judges hammered him a bit unfairly; with less than a week to prepare (vs. three weeks for everyone else), he did just fine. He's more likable than I expected, too. That's still a lame nickname you got going there, dude.

  • Bristol Palin - Palin was a pleasant surprise: not wonderful, but not sucky, either. Considering her complete absence of experience as a performer, she may have turned in the best routine. That said, she's got a long way to go, and won't be a real contender.

  • Florence Henderson - I predicted a surprise from her...and did she ever deliver! Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with her dancing, but, instead, her salty language and, um, friskiness. In fact, she flashed her "abs" (and other things) in a hilarious but vaguely disturbing challenge to The Situation. Her dancing was mediocre at best.

  • David Hasselhoff - The Hoff was significantly less charming and adept than I expected. He's showing his age, or, rather, his mileage.

  • Michael Bolton - Dancing skills suspect; charm absent.

  • Margaret Cho - My only other accurate prediction. She was awful, although, surprisingly, a good part of that was due to the terrible routine cooked up by partner Louis van Amstel. Cho was probably cast as this year's Kelly Osborne, plagued by self-esteem issues, but I don't think she's nearly as sympathetic a character.

So, there you have it. Feel free to keep this as a scorecard for next week, and judge for yourself the accuracy of my observations and predictions.

The new season of Dancing With The Stars is just a few hours away, and I thought this would be the perfect time to share my predictions on how the competition will unfold. Following is the list of participants along with my handicapping of their chances, based on absolutely no insight or wisdom. Feel free to print this out and remind me as the season goes along of how incredibly lame I am.

  • Bristol Palin - She will be this year's Kate Gosselin, painfully inept through no fault of her own (and without even the on-camera experience Gosselin brought with her) but kept alive for a few weeks by sympathetic women who can't stand Levi Johnston. Exit week: 5

  • Michael Bolton - An old guy who tries to sound black when he sings, and sometimes succeeds, but he'll still dance like a white guy. Exit week: 2

  • Rick Fox - Continuing in the tradition of sucky dancing basketball players, Rick will nevertheless hang around longer than reasonable 'cause the chicks dig him. And guys dig Cheryl Burke, his partner. Exit week: 6

  • Margaret Cho - The comedienne who is not only not funny, but also can't dance. Margaret will be really sad to find out how many Christians watch DWTS. Exit week: 1

  • Jennifer Gray - Nobody puts Baby in a corner (you knew that was coming, right?), and Jennifer is still cute as a bug. I'll bet she can still channel the spirit of Dirty Dancing, too, and Swayze's ghost will give her a boost. Plus, her partner is Derek Hough, and that's good for at least three extra weeks. Exit week: 10

  • David Hasselhoff - The Hoff has the charm and wit of George Hamilton, and is probably spryer than the Sun God, so if he can lay off the burgers and Jagermeister, he'll be a contender. Exit week: 9

  • Florence Henderson - She's no Betty White or Cloris Leachman...thank goodness! Everybody's sexy grandma will surprise us. Exit week: 6

  • Kyle Massey - A 19 year old rapper. Really? How quaint. Exit week: 3

  • Brandy Norwood - She bears a slight resemblance to disco queen Donna Summer. I don't think Donna could dance, either. But somebody's got to stick around past week 6. Exit week: 7

  • Audrina Patridge - Who? Exit week: 1 (I'm pretty sure they'll drop two people right off the bat, to ease our pain.)

  • Mike "The Situtation" Sorrentino - "The Situation"? What kind of stupid nickname is that, for pete's sake? It might as well be "The Yogurt," or "The Garage Door Opener." Still, I'm told he tests well with the core audience - young straight girls and young gay guys. I'm guessing he's got some moves. Exit week: 9

  • Kurt Warner - Much as I respect Mr. Warner, he's going to bring an end to the tradition of football players who do well in DWTS. He's another old (relatively speaking), banged up white guy, and he's just too nice to get down. Heck, he may even be a Baptist. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Exit week: 5
You may have noticed that I've doubled up on some exit weeks. So sue me. To be honest, I'm not sure how long the season is this year. Anyway, the exact weeks aren't important; what's important is that you recognize the futility of guessing what will happen, and then give me big props for the lucky guesses.

Oh, and you want to know who wins? I dunno, but I think the top 3 will be Jennifer Grey, David Hasselhoff, and Mike "The Lame Nickname" Sorrentino.

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