Thursday, October 18, 2007

The New Democrats Are the Old Republicans.

Daniel Gross has a great essay in the current Newsweek. The headline is "Dems Are the New Republicans." The gist of it is that, this time around, the establishment candidate is a Democrat, Hillary Clinton. So-called Wall Street Republicans are frustrated with the Bush administration's incompetence and fiscal irresponsibility. The business elite traditionally has been fiscally conservative but socially moderate. As the Republican Party has become more and more extreme in its social policies, as well as spendthrift, it has alienated that key part of its base. Right now it matters because those individuals are big donors, but they represent a lot of votes too.

Unfortunately, the Democrats face the same risk. As they move to fill the vacuum left by the Republicans, they move further and further away from what it is fair to call their Socialist wing. Conceivably, a leftist splinter third party candidacy could have the same effect Nader's had in 2000. Working against that scenario is the fact that the 2000 election came at the end of an eight year Democratic administration. Now the electorate is suffering from Bush fatigue, so a leftist third party candidacy seems unlikely to get much traction.

And although Hillary Clinton grew up as a Goldwater Republican in Park Ridge, Illinois (which is known locally as Park Rigid), it seems hard to imagine that a Hillary administration won't be Democratic in most traditional senses. Having grown up a Goldwater Republican myself, I'm not too worried.

Monday, October 15, 2007

When Bigger Isn’t Better.

You see them everywhere: in stores, bars, restaurants, airports, and hotel rooms. I’m talking about big screen televisions; specifically, wide screen flat panel video displays.

They look great, in that televisions have always been way too bulky and a screen only a few inches thick that can be hung on the wall is terrific. The problem comes when you turn them on. A bad picture made bigger is not an improvement.

There's nothing wrong with the display panels themselves. The problem is with the signals they're receiving. Garbage in, garbage out.

In public places like bars it’s not so bad, because you’re usually sitting much further away from the screen than you would at home. The flat panel screens tend to be very bright, so the fidelity loss isn’t too noticeable when you’re sitting 15 or 20 feet away from the screen.

But put one of these things into your home or, as I’ve experienced several times recently, into a hotel room and the illogic of it becomes as clear as the picture is fuzzy. Most hotels I have been in recently have had fairly modest-sized 26-inch units, but one proudly advertises its "42-inch HDTV flat screen televisions" in every room. It fails to mention that they are not feeding the units an HD signal, so the picture is terrible.

Even the smaller units, which usually are bigger than the conventional TVs they replaced, look like crap if they’re being fed by the same old distribution system, as every one of them I’ve experienced has been.

Even less of an improvement is a 4:3 aspect ratio picture stretched to the much wider 16:9 ratio. Yes, it fills the wider screen, but the stretched out Silly Putty images look ridiculous. If you have access to the remote control it’s usually easy enough to figure out how to reset for the correct aspect ratio, but the default setting appears to be 16:9 and most people seem content to leave it that way.

I’ve frequently experienced pixelization, where the picture breaks up in places into lines or blocks of random pixels. This occurs, to paraphrase a crude expression, because they are trying to stuff 10 pounds of video signal into a 5 pound distribution system. Since all digital video display systems work by processing only difference information, i.e., the things on the screen that change, this problem is especially noticeable in programs like sports broadcasts and action movies, where everything on the screen changes at once and quickly. In other words, the very thing most people are buying these units to watch, they reproduce the worst.

Even many of the stores that sell this equipment can’t seem to get a good picture on it. I have commented on this in stores and had salespeople tell me that their internal video distribution system isn’t as good as what you can get at home. If that’s the truth, it’s insane. If you’re trying to sell the things, shouldn’t you make sure the picture on every single unit in the store is as good as that particular unit is capable of reproducing?

And the displays are capable of producing good pictures. I’ve seen it done. In some smaller stores they don’t use distribution at all. They have DVD players attached directly to each display and get a good picture that way.

Unfortunately, I believe this phenomenon is happening because most people can’t tell the difference. Picture size they understand, picture quality they don’t. I have worked as a video producer so I know, from working in professional facilities, how good even a standard definition picture can look with well-maintained equipment and a high quality signal. Sadly, that isn’t what most people are watching and all of the new stuff coming out now isn’t much of an improvement, not because the HD displays aren’t capable of producing a terrific picture, but because most of the entities responsible for getting a video signal to the display (whether in a bar, store, or home) are either incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary to deliver a signal of the highest possible quality.

I don’t have HD at home, but I noticed when sporting events started to be broadcast in HD, the picture on my conventional TV got better. It’s not magic. I know my display is not capable of reproducing an HD picture. What happened was that the program producers simply started originating a better picture, which looks better all the way down the line, even on conventional televisions. (For the record, my TV is a Sharp 4:3 ratio CRT that’s about 20 years old, and my signal is digital cable from RCN. Yes, the TV overscans a little, but the picture overall is better than what I’ve been seeing in hotel rooms.)

How bad are the pictures in these hotels? Have you ever copied a VHS cassette onto another VHS cassette? Yeah, they look that bad. In my experience last weekend, in a very nice hotel, the local broadcast channels looked especially bad. The cable channels looked better, but they weren’t HD. Even the very expensive movies the hotel sells through an on-demand system weren’t HD. At least the previews for them were not. I wasn’t about to spend the money to see if the films themselves were any better. There is no reason to believe they would be since the problem is with the distribution system the hotel is using.

But, like I said, apparently most people can’t tell the difference. I’ve never been able to understand why someone would buy one of those "big screen televisions" that are based on a rear projection system. Those have been around for many years. Again, what good is a big picture if the picture quality sucks? Those suck particularly because they lose brightness as well as resolution in the transition from projector to screen.

I can understand using front projection systems in meetings and such. If you need a big picture because of the size of your audience, it’s acceptable to give up some quality. But in your home where you’re probably going to sit six to eight feet from the screen, why is a big fuzzy picture considered more enjoyable than a smaller sharp picture?

One more thing I just don’t get.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I'm Trying to Start a Trend.

Whiskey is one of those English words—like aging, center, color, maneuver, and many others—that Americans and Brits spell differently. American writers often struggle to use the British spelling when referring to scotch whiskey (i.e., 'whisky,' no 'e'). UK writers occasionally return the favor. An American would never think of spelling color with a 'u' just because the subject is colors used by an English painter, for example. Why should whiskey be any different?

I'm trying to start a trend in which American publications spell whiskey the American way, regardless of the type of whiskey being discussed. I would expect publications in Canada or the UK to do the same, favoring their spelling.

The sole exception would be that when stating the proper name of a specific product, the word will be spelled the way the producer spells it, and also be capitalized as befits a proper name.

Example: That sure was some good scotch whiskey.

Example: Pass me another drink of that Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky.

Why do I think a change of practice is needed? The problem is that maintenance of the dual spelling protocol suggests that "whiskey" and "whisky" are two different words with different meanings when they are not. There is no definition difference between them. They are merely alternative spellings, with one preferred in the United States and the other preferred in Great Britain, along with a long list of other words about which nobody has this problem.

However, the maintenance of this pained protocol, which leads us to write things like "whisk(e)y" to feel like we're covering the category with a single word, also leads many people to conclude that, in fact, they are two different words with two different meanings, and they imagine all sorts of nutty distinctions.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

MLS Playoff Picture.

Of the thirteen teams in Major League Soccer (MLS), eight make the playoffs. By comparison, eight teams make the Major League Baseball playoffs, but baseball starts with 30, not 13.

So MLS is pretty generous.

But, still, playoffs are playoffs, anything can happen in the postseason, and a close playoff hunt at the end of the regular season is always good drama.

As of right now, every team has either two or three regular season games remaining. My team, the Chicago Fire, has two.

Six teams have clinched playoff berths and two teams have been mathematically eliminated. That leaves five teams fighting over the two remaining playoff spots. That's exciting for any sports fan. Chicago is one of those five teams, currently ranked second among them with 36 points. (Teams get three points for a win, one for a tie, none for a loss.)

Our two remaining games are against DC United, in Washington, and against the LA Galaxy here, in that order. DC is one of the teams that has clinched. LA is now at 30 points but has three games to play.

There is every chance it will all come down to the final match of the regular season in front of a capacity crowd at Toyota Park. I already have my tickets.

The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

Please indulge me as I brag on myself a little bit. Volume 7, "Foodways," of the New Encyclopdia of Southern Culture, is now in print and I'm very proud to have written the Bourbon Whiskey entry (page 127). I'm proud to be associated with the whole enterprise, which is a very nice balance of serious scholarship and fun reading. If you are interested, as I am, in the general subject of Southern foodways, this is a must-have book. Click on the link below to buy it from