A comment on commenting systems, specifically Kinja

My Kinja profile pre merger

My Kinja profile pre merger

It seems like there are very few good commenting systems on the Internet. Based on my experience, the free or low-cost services can be very barebones, sluggish or just a pain to use (I guess you get what you pay for). After being saddled with Facebook Comments for several years, I was happy when my previous employer switched to Disqus. It’s not perfect, but it was the service I was most familiar with and it offered a fairly robust series of moderation tools that I _definitely_ put to use.

I no longer have to moderate comments on a regular basis but I’m still partial to Disqus, especially because it’s the system used on one of my favorite websites — The A.V. Club. Commenters there have a love-mostly hate relationship with Disqus, particularly during the service’s hiccups. At the same time, A.V. Club stories garner dozens and hundreds of comments and Disqus (mostly) handles the workload.

Unfortunately, that’s apparently about to change in the next few months. In the past few years, The A.V. Club and its sister publication, The Onion, were purchased by Univision. The Spanish-language broadcaster has been expanding into different sites and also added the Gizmodo network (formerly Gawker). One of Gizmodo’s assets is a content management system called Kinja.

Based on previous media reports, it appears that The Onion and A.V. Club will move over to Kinja. Although there wasn’t official confirmation at the time, it’s started a series of comments on A.V. Club. (NOTE: The move has been announced after I first wrote a draft of this post and is taking place Aug. 23.)

In a recent comment, someone asked what was so bad with Kinja. Here was my stab at a response —

I’m not sure about _all_ the objections about Kinja, but the biggest annoyance for me is that posters and their initial posts start off in a “pending” status.

When you’re in pending status, your comment is out of view unless the reader clicks on “View Pending.” Even then, the pending comment is displayed in gray and tagged “PENDING APPROVAL” to reinforce how “pending” it is.

Posts can be moved out of pending if they get enough likes/stars. I also believe that the posters can earn a trusted-sort of status but the process of how this is done isn’t well explained.

I must admit I haven’t seen _too_ much spam on Kinja sites lately, but trolls still abound. Generally, the system puts up unnecessary hurdles to interaction.

All in all, it’s a clunky system. Also, as I understand it, It’s the underlying content management system for the blogs that use it (like Deadspin). It makes it easier to swap content between sites, but they all look bland and cookie-cutter.

For as much as people gripe about Disqus on A.V. Club, the users there have built a vibrant community centered around a common love of pop culture. It’s gotten a bit more combative as the site has published more politically focused articles (which seems somewhat understandable, given the current president’s symbiotic, yet toxic relationship with the media). The comment area has also remained a reliable fixture of the site, even as it undergoes changes (with some longtime features being cut and some dubious elements added — including some sponsored content that the commentariat lustily mocked).

Despite the increasing politicization, The A.V. Club comment area remains a mostly positive forum full of inside jokes, truly awful puns and considerable passion. I sincerely hope that the switch to Kinja doesn’t negatively affect this oasis.

The20: ‘La La Land’ is a nice place to visit…

The Los Angeles skyline as seen from the Getty Center in December 2014.

The Los Angeles skyline as seen from the Getty Center in December 2014.

I’ve seen “La La Land” twice, so I think it’s safe for me to venture an opinion. It’s interesting that jazz plays such a interesting role in the film as one of the life passions that one of the lead characters pursues. If I were to compare “La La Land” to a jazz piece, I would say that there are some interesting themes, but the ensemble relies on the same beat too often. 

The film contains a lot of enjoyable elements, but it doesn’t necessarily gel — especially at the end, when such cohesion is needed.

The film, being set in Los Angeles and providing several fun, brightly colored musical numbers, inevitably draws on artificial constructs of filmmaking. Unfortunately, writer and director Damien Chazelle seemed to lean on these constructs too often and it became distracting.

For example, it’s not an uncommon staging technique (especially in theater) to isloate people by placing them in a spotlight and fading the lights around them. Although there are other ways to reproduce the same effect more naturally in cinema, it’s not a bad way help heighten an emotional moment.

Unfortunately, repeating the technique about 10 times in a two-hour film greatly diminishes its impact and ultimately takes the viewer out of the story.

It may be that Hollywood-centric stories generally draw from a general pool of cliches and expectations that other L.A. films have established, built upon and distorted over the decades. “La La Land” draws on these expectations, but doesn’t seem to exceed them. 

This was especially clear when Stone’s actress character is called into an audition reminded me of the end of “The Muppet Movie” where Kermit and the gang finally gain audience with a studio exec and sign “The standard rich and famous contract.” While Stone is winning in that scene, it doesn’t really go beyond ground tread by frogs and pigs about 40 years ago.

Chazelle can have a deft hand behind the camera. That’s readily apparent in the showstopping opener, “Another Day of Sun,” which was shot in a single, flowing take over two rows of stopped cars on a Southern California highway interchange. The selection of shooting locations is also a fun trip around an idealized Los Angeles, including the Griffith Observatory and the currently closed, but fondly remembered Angels Flight funicular railroad. 

The energy of the opener and the subsequent song helping to establish the female lead lend the film a tremendous amount of energy. This energy seems to fade gradually as the film progresses into the story between Emma Stone’s Mia and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian.

Although music remains a present campanion through the film, if often takes a backseat to the drama of Mia and Sebastian’s courtship and the ultimate fate of the relationship.

In the climax of the relationship storyline, music plays in the background until it suddenly stops on a critical beat of the dialogue. The song’s sudden silence adds a unique texture to the scene in a way that feels more natural than the camera blocking for the scene.

The camerawork during these scene — an argument — plays up a common filmmaking technique. The scene starts with the two characters in the frame together — even when one character is speaking and facing the camera, the other character is still in the frame.

This shifts as the argument builds tension. The couple stops sharing the frame as Chazelle isolates each character — helping to signify the growing distance in the relationship. I think it was a fascinating decision to show close-ups of Mia and Sebastian’s faces, allowing the emotions on each of the actors’ faces to unfold in grand scale.

Ultimately, I don’t know how effective the scene is because of relying on a standard technique.

I love that Chazelle deploys different camerawork depending on the scene, although I wonder if it wholly comes together. The final number, a medley sequence recounting the events of the film if they had gone differently, is exhiliarating. It makes a play for the viewer’s heart, but it didn’t quite work for me. It relies on there being a great love story at the core of the film and I don’t think that ever fully took root. 

There’s enough to “La La Land” to make me want to visit, but I’m not looking to stay.

3 stars out of four.

Written in 40 minutes.

Vital discussion on media consolidation not aided by false quip

Yes, Comcast is a huge conglomerate, but it and 5 other companies really own 90 percent of _all_ media?

Yes, Comcast is a huge conglomerate, but does it and 5 other companies really own over 90 percent of _all_ media?

It is ironic that a letter to the editor about media literacy would contain a wild, unsubstantiated claim about the media. Both the Enterprise-Record and the Chico News & Review ran a letter from Richard Sterling Ogden promoting a community radio program focusing on media literacy. Unfortunately, both copies of the letter ran the claim that “Six corporations own over 90 percent of media…” This claim has been floating around for years and, as far as I can tell, it’s a bit of easily repeated hokum that doesn’t have a scintilla of proof.

It’s frustrating when these unfounded and demonstrably false claims are repeated without any verification because it can diminish otherwise valid concerns about media consolidation. Because I loathe to see inaccurate, feel-good noise drowning out valid, useful information on the Internet, I often respond whenever I see this unproven claim repeated and taken as gospel (Here’s an example from Business Insider). What follows is generally what I post.

The simplicity of the statement “six corporations own over 90 percent of media” is its undoing because “media” could mean everything, including print, radio, broadcasting, recorded music, cinema, pay-TV, online media, etc., in every country across the world. Six corporations may have their fingers in many of those categories, but not all, and not in all countries.

Even if you generously narrow the definition of “media” to just the United States, one can quickly deduce that there’s no apparent merit to the claim.

For example, of the 1,774 full-power TV stations in the United States, about 20 percent of them are public television stations. Public television stations are licensed by various schools, colleges, non-profit entities — not, as far as I can tell, the nefarious six corporations.

The remaining 80 percent is less than 90, even if the rest of them were owned by these corporations (which they’re not). Yes, most TV stations air programming from broadcasters like Disney-owned ABC, CBS Corp. or Comcast-owned NBC, but the actual stations are owned by different companies. There are only about 79 stations owned and operated by the sinister six — that’s just 4.5 percent of the total number of stations. Again, 4.5 percent is not 90 percent.

The linked table itself acknowledges that the six companies control 70 percent of cable networks. I don’t have the time to verify that claim, but it’s not necessary because 70 percent isn’t 90 percent.

I could do the same thing for radio stations, newspapers and news websites. When you add them all up, I don’t think you’re going to get to 90 percent.

Ultimately, people who decry the potential for mass manipulation shouldn’t engage in it themselves.

Who had the most airtime during the GOP debate? Advertisers.

Here's a breakdown of how much airtime each candidate, and advertisers, received during Thursday's GOP presidential candidate debate aired on Fox News Channel.

Here’s a breakdown of how much airtime each candidate, and advertisers, received during Thursday’s GOP presidential candidate debate aired on Fox News Channel.

Thursday’s debate of Republican candidates running for president in 2016 on Fox News Channel turned out to be pretty exciting. While most of the post-debate analysis has been focused on what the 10 candidates said, some are looking at how much airtime each candidate received. I took it a step further and considered how many commercials aired during the program.

My findings? Advertisers handily won the airtime battle.

I didn’t have a stopwatch, but based on my review of the broadcast, I estimated Fox News aired a total of about 16 minutes of commercials during six breaks. If it’s correct, that means that commercials took up a larger portion of the 2+ hour-long debate than any of the individual candidates. That’s more than current frontrunner Donald Trump’s 11 minutes and 14 seconds, as calculated by The New York Times. Ads had nearly triple the airtime of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was one of the leading candidates.

Since Fox News was running the show, it could and did take commercial breaks during the event’s scheduled two-hour running time (it ran over by about four minutes). During the first break after about 30 minutes, The New York Times’ graphics department tweeted a breakdown of how long each candidate spoke during the initial segment.

I was interested to see how little time some of the candidates received, especially compared to Trump, who has become a major attraction in this election’s early going. By that point, each candidate had relatively little time to speak — Walker got only 34 seconds, but even Trump got less than two minutes. I was amused by Fox News airing commercials during a civically-oriented event, especially because I’m used to commercial-free debates before the main general election (less than 15 months away!). I was curious if Fox News would have more commercial time than airtime for some of the candidates.


Ultimately, I was surprised to see that it’s likely that advertising outpaced _all_ of the candidates instead of just a few.

I didn’t have a good way of keeping time of the commercials during the debate, so I tried to collect the data after it ended. Thankfully, I was able to find a Washington Post transcript of the event and a YouTube user’s upload of the entire debate sans ads (that YouTube link may be yanked down due to possible copyright infringement).

The video was 1 hour, 49 minutes. Thanks to Fox News showing the time on its rotating channel logo, I could see the recording started at about 5:58 p.m. Pacific daylight time and ended after 8:04 p.m. PDT — about 2 hours, 6 minutes. My math determined there was a 17-minute difference between the two durations. I subtracted about a minute to account for short teaser promos that the YouTube user also edited out, but I don’t have a firm idea of how long those teasers really were.

The transcript indicates there were six commercial breaks during the broadcast. If the breaks were of equal length, each one would be 2 minutes, 40 seconds. It’s plausible that there were 15 total minutes of ads — that would make each break about 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

So, by my estimate, Fox News aired 15 or 16 minutes of ads. By comparison, here’s the final airtime tally as calculated by the Times:

Although advertising time dominated over the candidates, 15 to 16 minutes of ads over a two-hour period (or 8 minutes per hour) is extremely light by today’s broadcasting standards. It’s common for networks to air 18 to 20 minutes of commercials an hour. We could have seen nearly 40 minutes of ads during this two-hour event.

I initially lamented the intrusion of advertising into a civic event, but many people noted the breaks were relatively short and some enjoyed what was being advertised. On the other hand, some were frustrated by the total number of breaks in the broadcast.

While we may argue which presidential candidate won the debate, Fox News and advertisers seemed to win the night as there were predictions of record-breaking cable news audiences.

‘How I Met Your Mother’ subject of my top comment of 2014

My top comment of 2014 was about "How I Met Your Mother" - “They had the option to not run the pretaped segment and shoot a different ending.”

My top comment of 2014 was about “How I Met Your Mother” – “They had the option to not run the pretaped segment and shoot a different ending.”

Kids… in May of 2014, your father tuned in for the final episode of a television program called “How I Met Your Mother.” Coincidentally, watching the show is how I met your mother.

Just kidding. The only thing I met in the spring of 2014 was a new chicken wing place, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, the show had long been a favorite of your father’s. It featured six friends your father’s age as they made their way through a Los Angeles TV studio made up to resemble New York City. The main character, named Ted Mosby, was on a quest to find his ideal partner.

What attracted your father to the show was relatively inventive and funny storytelling and an energetic set of characters played by actors whose individual dynamics played well off each other. The show, especially in its early years, seemed like a worthy descendant of “Friends” and “Coupling.”

Ted’s quest continued for nine years through numerous twists and turns, including dating one of his friends, Robin, but it was finally leading to the final episode where Ted would finally meet the woman who would become his wife.

After eight seasons where each season took roughly one year of time, the final season was primarily set in a single, long weekend where each of Ted’s friends met the mother before fate (and the show producers) finally allowed the story to reach its natural conclusion. Ted met the mother… but that wasn’t the end of the story.

And kids, much like this poorly thought-out story-telling mode that I’m struggling to stick with, the story of “How I Met Your Mother” went slightly off the rails.

You see, despite nine whole years of saying the story was about how Ted met the mother and spending an entire season of episodes expressly building up to this resolution, the show’s producers made it clear in the last five minutes of the episode and the entire series that we were all wrong — the story was about how Ted, who was
telling the story in a series of flashbacks, was indirectly seeking his kids’ blessing to rekindle an older relationship years after the mother had died.

Needless to say, that resolution didn’t sit well with a lot of people who took to the Internet to voice their dismay. One of those people was your father. Back in 2014, websites encouraged readers to leave comments at the end of stories (and to help prove Sturgeon’s Law everyday). People could also click to approve comments that they
liked or found useful.

Your father would comment on various topics from time to time. His comments were only sporadically liked, but he would see his most success in 2014 when he wrote the following on a review at The A.V. Club:

“They had the option to not run the pretaped segment and shoot a different ending.”

At the end of the year, 233 people had liked the comment making it by far the most liked comment your father had written in the 2014. Your father had been responding to speculation that the show’s creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, had to stick with the ending that they filmed with the actors that played Ted’s children when they were teenagers several years ago. The actors had obviously aged and didn’t look like they did nine years ago.

My simple point was that Bays and Thomas didn’t have to stick with the ending that they planned out years ago. Had the producers wanted to choose a different ending, they certainly had it in their power to do so.

But they didn’t.

In interviews after the show, Bays and Thomas have said the ending was what they had envisioned all along.

Although Bays and Thomas had set their course several years ago, their vision of the destination was unsatisfying given the direction the show actually took. One can set out with a destination in mind, but the goal can change based on the actual journey.

The journey of “How I Met Your Mother,” especially in the early years, had a strong focus on Ted and the woman he would ultimately end up with. As the years progressed, that relationship ended and future stories focused on other relationships Ted was seeking or other hi-jinks involving the rest of the group.

The earlier relationship was still a component of the series, but it didn’t seem like a primary focus despite some fans wanting the two characters to get together. I was satisfied from a line from the very first episode where Ted said this woman wasn’t the mother.

From that very first episode to the last season, I had bought into the premise that the show was about Ted meeting the mother.

Practically every aspect of the show, up until the final five minutes of the series, had been pointed in that direction and I would’ve liked to see the series end with a happy or satisfying resolution along those lines.

However unsatisfied I may be with the ending, I can respect the creators’ decision to end the show as they feel fit. I didn’t feel they had to be constrained by the ending they filed years ago, and it doesn’t seem like they were.

And that kids, is how I met mango habanero chicken wings. Oh, but the place closed so I went back to Chipotle after a respectful mourning period.

The end.

Racing home to the Mexican National Anthem

While one can’t go home again, sometimes it’s nice to visit. My semi-annual return to Southern California this week was filled with great time with family, seeking out new experiences and reliving fond memories. Turning on the radio on my way home from the train station tonight sent me back to my college years, more than 14 years past.

I first tuned into KPBS, but after a minute of their evening classical programming, I spun the proverbial dial to 91X (XETRA 91.1). The last few minutes of their “Loudspeaker” program reminded me of San Diego’s local music scene, which I only was able to sample briefly after college before I moved away. I was a little surprised to hear what sounded like profanity during one of the songs, but I quickly reminded myself that 91X broadcasts from Tijuana into San Diego.

I was served another reminder of 91X’s cross-border origin when the disc jockey announced that regular programming would be interrupted for “The Mexican National Hour,” which typically airs on Sunday evenings.

I was surprised by what I heard. The Spanish-language “La Hora Nacional” sounded much better than it did 15 years ago. Back in the day, the show sounded like it was initially recorded in an empty gym and relayed to local station via shortwave before it was played back on 91X on a shoddy, beat-up tape. It sounded echo-y and awful, and I would quickly turn to another channel until the alternative music returned (or “Loveline,” but that was a different time).

Although I was only able to understand a portion of the show (show archive), the current “La Hora Nacional” sounded reasonably entertaining (for a 77-year-old government-produced program geared to promote national unity among other things). It featured an upbeat set of hosts discussing a variety of topics. It is something I may seek out and listen to later.

Hearing “La Hora Nacional” brought back other memories of listening to 91X in college. After studying late at the library, I would often be on the road home at midnight when the station was obligated to play the Mexican National Anthem (conveniently and simply named “Himno Nacional Mexicano”). I don’t why the station chose the version it did, but they would play an instrumental version of the song that lasted about four minutes. One of the TV stations broadcast a version that featured children singing, but the radio version was about four minutes of the anthem melody repeating over and over until you thought it was finished and then it would repeat a couple more times.

The song isn’t quite an earworm, but it was fascinating listening to it to see how many times the melody would repeat. It also became a bit of a challenge for me to see how far I could drive while the anthem played. I joked I could get home without speeding in the time it took for the song to play, but I never made it.

Since I moved away from San Diego, I would occasionally try to tune in for the Mexican National Anthem, but 91X only plays it over the air and not on their Internet streams. I was finally able to tune in for the nightly event about a year ago, but it was a bit different and shorter than in years past.

As someone who has loved radio for decades, I get a kick out of the tradition of U.S. stations playing a patriotic song as they signed off, or signed on, for the day. It is something that has definitely gone by the wayside (unless you’re Adult Swim and air an off-kilter sign-off).

While U.S. stations moved away from the sign-off tradition, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. still started and ended its broadcast day with “O Canada,” during the years I lived in Michigan. The CBC has since started broadcasting around the clock, so it too has ended this tradition.

The version of “O Canada” that I saw was an elaborate production with a bold orchestral arrangement of the song set against a wide array of images evoking the Great White North and its diverse population (YouTube video posted by eastest566). It’s something I still enjoy seeing and listening to years later — even the cheesy prelude segment about how essential the CBC is.

In the years since I’ve become a volunteer DJ, I taken to keeping the tradition alive in a small way. Since my weekly program ends at midnight, I nearly always end with a jazzy performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I certainly don’t do the specific jargon one uses when actually ending the broadcasting day (because I’m not), but I like to end with Duke Ellington’s take on the National Anthem although I sometimes switch to versions by Bonerama or Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby.

Who knows? Maybe there’s someone in a car listening to my show trying to see how far they can get by the time the song’s over.

Looking at the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony a week later

The Olympic flame is lit during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo)

The Olympic flame is lit during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

I finally got around to watching the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics last Saturday. I had the unique opportunity of watching it with my roommates, which made the experience more enjoyable and offered some insights that I may not have seen by myself.

We got pulled into the event when my roommate asked about the infamous Olympic rings malfunction. I quickly switched from a repeat of men’s curling to show the moment, along with the rest of the event. Although I knew what would happen, the others in my viewing party were intrigued to watch the flying stars coalesce and have four of the five expand properly into the rings.

They were also amused to hear that Russian TV viewers apparently didn’t see this, as the broadcaster there swapped the live goof with a dress rehearsal where it went right. One thing that I don’t think has been discussed much is that the correct ring sequence was projected onto the arena floor at the very end of the ceremony.

In the end, the ring malfunction was certainly noteworthy, but there were many, many other aspects to remember. Some portions of the artistic presentation were draggy (and I was often quick, perhaps too quick, to announce the three times where I initially skipped some segments during my first, partial viewing).

We were all dazzled by the deployment of dozens of video projectors to seamlessly turn the arena floor into a giant screen. The graphics were vivid and the actors’ movements juxtaposed with the video made for an excitingly dynamic display.

Some of the more trippy moments included the segment with the soldiers marching through a shifting historical line map of St. Petersburg, especially when there were explosions that appeared to come from canon in a fortress.

Characters perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip )

Characters perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip )

The arena seemed to disappear when a star field was displayed toward the end of the event. At one point, my roommate remarked that he couldn’t tell where the stadium floor was. The star field was part of a well-done display where a constellation of athletes was suspended midair. The use of an enormous and sophisticated gantry system was responsible for all the gigantic and fanciful objects flying through air and largely worked (aside from the aforementioned ring malfunction).

While I definitely enjoy watching sports and related events live, it’s certainly nice to have it on a digital video recorder. We were able to easily skip past some segments (like the two interviews with tennis player/Olympic torchbearer Maria Sharapova), while briefly touching on key points like how odd President Obama looked during his interview with Bob Costas.

I felt like a bit of a know-it-all about some portions of the event because I watched parts of it and read articles online. I could envision this might be how NBC announcers feel, especially since they have some advance documentation of what’s scheduled to happen.

The superlong Parade of Nations sped by at 4x speed while we paused on highlight countries, like Canada, the U.S. and Russia. We also made stops at Mexico to point out athlete Hubertus von Hohenlohe was set to compete in a mariachi-inspired skiing uniform, Germany with their great dayglo rainbow uniforms and the Indians competing as Independent Olympic Participants (due to a corruption scandal). I was able to use the giant floor map of each nation to point out the differences between the two Olympic languages (English and French) and Russian with its Cyrillic alphabet.

As the event wound down, we were definitely ready for the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. I wasn’t favorable to giving some of the torchbearing honors to athletes who didn’t compete in the Winter Olympics, but I relented when I considered how the event can honor all of Russia’s sports accomplishments.

Still, I was heartened to see the final two torchbearers were Winter Games vets — pairs skater Irina Rodnina and hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak. As the pair ran, I realized they were headed outside through a giant set of doors and remarked they had a long way to go. It was a nice touch that they ran past the performers, volunteers and staff who helped pull off a wonderful ceremony.

Rodnina and Tretiak finally made it to the base of the outdoor cauldron and, together, they set off a sequence of mini-flames that jumped up the monument’s spine and brought the main cauldron to life. We were satisfied with the launch of these Olympics as fireworks erupted around the cauldron, the arena and the Olympic center.

More than a week later, the Opening Ceremony seem to have been a superb introduction to the sporting events we’ve since seen. The execution of the events seems similar to the opening — plenty of polish with some grandiose displays, but there are some things around the edges worth noticing (like sparse snow in some areas). It will be interesting to see how the Russians wrap things up with the Closing Ceremony on Sunday.

Other thoughts:

• We really, really loved the floor video projection. I wondered if there’s a way to incorporate this projector technology into sporting events. For example, less than half a football field is in active use at any given time during a game. It might be tricky, but it would dynamic to show replays or stats on the turf. I don’t know how well this technology works in daylight, but it clearly succeeded in an indoor setting so I could see possibilities for basketball, hockey or curling.

• The segment on the Soviet era was interestingly avant-garde. We all enjoyed when one of the NBC commentators noted the Art Deco steam train that floated overhead was a commonly understood symbol of propaganda. “All aboard the propaganda train!” a roommate quipped.

• Others have remarked that the event had a perhaps excessive nostalgia for the Soviet era, yet forgetful of the reign of tyrants like Joseph Stalin who engaged in brutal purges and other policies that affected millions. We shouldn’t forget those who perished or suffered under Sovietism, but I was shocked to be reminded that 20 million Russians lost their lives during World War II.

• Finally, NBC should be dinged for the extremely dubious decision to once again cut the Olympic Oath segment from its broadcast (taken this time by Russian short track speed-skater Ruslan Zakharov). As I opined during the London Games where NBC also cut it, the brief oath is impactful as one athlete pledges on behalf of all that they will compete fairly and drug free in the spirt of true sportsmanship. I swear, it’s only 54 words:

In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.

Amid all the pageantry, I think it’s important to not lose sight of such a key element of the Games. It’s such a short portion of the program (and it’s a required segment of the ceremonies), it’s baffling why NBC continually chooses to cut this.

Review: Couldn’t fall for ‘Her’ (** of four)

For a movie about the unexpected romantic connection between a man and his computer, “Her” from writer/director Spike Jonze was oddly disengaging.

I must admit that I didn’t enter the film with a lot of energy on a lazy Saturday afternoon, but I was completely checked out and ultimately dissatisfied at the end of the film’s 2+ hours (although my two companions enjoyed it). I was so desperate for something energetic to happen that I was expecting/hoping the protagonist would jump off a building in the final scenes. Alas, no.*

Joaquin Phoenix does a decent job portraying Theodore Twombly, a relatively successful, yet schlubby, man who ironically works as an intermediary writing romantic and touching cards for others, but is unable to find romantic fulfillment for himself since before his marriage ended in divorce.

Enter Samantha, an artificial intelligence “operating system” voiced by Scarlett Johansson, whom Twombly develops a near-instant rapport with. While Twombly appears as a man who desperately needs a connection, Samantha has different motivations, but becomes as smitten as he after she absorbs the emails and other detritus of Phoenix’s life.

While the couple’s love apparently deepens as they explore the frontiers and boundaries of their nascent relationship, I continued to feel on the outside. Perhaps it may have been more engaging if the AI had a physical presence (although the film addresses that in a quirky way). I do not fault Johansson’s performance given what she had to work with.

Oftentimes, creators of TV and film are encouraged to show and not tell. Given the non-corporeal status of the titular character, Jonze has to resort to Samantha telling more often than not. Compounding that problem is that the dialog can be oddly clunky at times, such as in scenes were Samantha says she feels liberated by her lack of a body. The act of showing the development of the relationship falls on Phoenix’s shoulders, but his earnest effort failed to win me over.

The pacing of the movie is often languid, which had the unfortunate side effect of lulling me into a near stupor. Interspersed are rare frenetic and jarring moments — some of them deal with virtual sex experiences that aren’t necessarily obscene, but audibly suggestive. They are blatant enough to justify the film’s “R” rating.

On a positive note, the film is often beautiful and slyly futuristic — 3-D interactive games that work!, a Los Angeles subway that goes to the ocean!, high-speed rail in California!, etc. One of the brightest moments was a puckishly profane non-playable character in the game Phoenix plays.

The film is firmly set in Los Angeles, but occasionally includes other-worldly glimpses that likely reflect the secondary filming location in Singapore (the high-speed train and the Chinese language signs were easy tells).

Perhaps one of Jonze’s points is that people are as likely to succeed in finding unexpected ways to connect as they are to fail. One can see that theme repeated throughout the film, at Phoenix’s job, with the AI and other characters’ relationships.

Even in the end, when I wanted Phoenix’s character to jump off a building, at least he was with someone.

* – Such comments are about fictional characters. In reality, suicide is a serious matter and I wouldn’t kid about it. Know the signs. Go back to previous paragraph.

Two stars out of four.

Much ado about Miley and MTV

Luna Rossa Challenge heads close toward the bridge during the first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, in San Francisco.

Instead of watching Miley at the MTV Video Music Awards, I watched yacht racing on TV. In this photo, Luna Rossa Challenge heads close toward the bridge during the first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, in San Francisco.

The response about Miley Cyrus’ performance at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards was surprising. The Los Angeles Times has a decent recap. Since I haven’t cared about the VMAs since … well, I’ve never cared about the VMAs or watched them live … I spent my evening watching yacht racing on San Francisco Bay and a travel show about trains and national parks.

Since the response varied from outrage! to mocking to parodying the response, I thought I would give MTV a video/page view and check it out.

The performance was a medley of three songs, in which Cyrus sang in two of them. The first part featuring Cyrus’ song, “We Can’t Stop,” included performers in teddy bear costumes or wearing teddy bears won at the county fair. Cyrus herself wore something that looked like a teddy bear jumper with the bear’s ears forming much of her top.

The first part — which lasted about half of the total performance — was a bit bizarre and off-beat, but perhaps an interesting way to present an underwhelming song from a so-so singer. Or maybe not so interesting — there were some stone faces in some of the audience reaction shots. Some of Cyrus’ dance moves and gestures foreshadow the second part of the medley — where things go a bit bonkers.

The second part featured Robin Thicke and his summer hit, “Blurred Lines.” Before Cyrus continues singing, she tears off the already skimpy bear outfit and reveals a flesh-tone top and bottom similar to what the female dancers wore in Thicke’s video. If you’ve seen the video, it’s OK to accept the costume for what it is, but Cyrus’ performance goes over the top at this point.

There are risque dance moves and extremely awkward poses where Cyrus sticks her tongue out and gestures with her arms in a bratty fashion. Cyrus somehow obtains a foam finger and uses it in sexually suggestive ways. It was more lewd than provocative.

The third part of the song featured Thicke’s new song “We Can’t Stop,” with performances  from Kendrick Lamar and 2 Chainz. The song seemed energetic, but I didn’t discern a hook that I would enjoy listening to again. Cyrus is absent for most of this part until the end where she and that darned foam finger appear again.

I’ve already tipped my hand when I said Cyrus’ performance wasn’t very provocative. As the performance progressed, I felt her routine was other things — tawdry, annoying, superficial and overdone — but it didn’t seem provocative enough to deserve even a scintilla of the commentary that it has sparked.

Much has been written about how Cyrus has been working to transform from her “Hanna Montana” image and how Sunday’s performance is one more calculated move in that process. Perhaps it was, but all the calculated moves in the world don’t always add up to a winning number. Arguably, Cyrus has been trying to change her image since 2009 when her performance of “Party in the U.S.A.” at the Teen Choice Awards sparked a similar outburst of chattering.

“Party in the U.S.A.” was a hit four years ago. Based on Sunday’s performance, it seems like Cyrus is playing the same schtick and hoping to strike gold again. We’ll see how that goes.

Speaking of the same schtick, several of the commentaries noted that pundits often vent about the VMAs, even if the controversies seem contrived. MTV may fashion these moments to help create buzz and keep eyeballs on their channel, but I have to wonder why at this point. MTV has long since moved past music television in its programming and an event like the VMAs seems as vestigial as an appendix compared to the network’s current offerings of pregnant teen mothers, teen werewolves and more pregnant teen mothers.

That said, MTV’s strategy seems to still work — the performance has gotten eyeballs to the brand. The old folks have done their part by either waggling their fingers at Cyrus or just shaking their heads.

As for me — after dipping my toes in this folderol, I’m just waiting for the next yacht race to start.

10 reasons why ‘The Purge’ premise rankled

Although it recently left local theaters, I wanted to mention why the advertisements and basic premise of “The Purge” teed me off. I had no intention of seeing it — this sort of home under siege thriller is not my kind of movie, but the dystopian future concept was infuriatingly flawed. I was constantly thinking of more and more reasons why it couldn’t work (or would very quickly fall apart).

The A.V. Club posted a review of the film and I added a comment detailing why I thought the society of “The Purge” would simply be unworkable based from the ads. My comments on the matter received 137 likes from fellow commenters, so I thought I would present them here.

I supplemented the list after someone who saw the movie pointed out some details that were missing from the trailers. It was interesting, but it didn’t seem to make the premise any more workable than before.

  1. If all crime is legal, what’s stopping the terrorists foreign and domestic from bombing the hell out of everything? If there is a Fortress America in the near future, the idea of the Purge seems to give terrorists a free pass for 12 hours. Perhaps this would allow the military to stop threats without the mamby-pamby law, but that brings us to:
  2. No law-enforcement or military organization would readily be available to maintain order. Even if they weren’t stood down as the review indicates, there would probably be a lot of fragging among the ranks or trying to defend themselves from civilians who felt slighted over the past year.
  3. However, that’s apparently not the case — a commenter noted federal employees are out of bounds. This fact instantly betrays the idea of equal (non) protection under the law.
  4. A commenter also noted that there was apparently a “no heavy weapons” rule. That sounds intriguing, but it seems unenforceable considering the likely lack of law enforcement during the Purge. Unless there are federal agents monitoring the annual massacre and doing nothing besides looking for violators of that one specific clause. That seems particularly evil.
  5. Let’s say the government and rich people try to use robots to defend their property. No human thought means there would be no desire to strike back during the Purge, right? Sure, until someone hacks the system.
  6. The idea of the Purge is a health and insurance nightmare. First, there would realistically be no medical care during the event because no rational person would probably expose themselves during it. Second, paying for medical care after the fact would be a nightmare — what sane health insurance company would cover injuries that would be inflicted during the 12 hours? There’s no legal recourse to sue the person who inflicted the injuries … because all crime is legal. The injured citizens would have to pay for their injuries entirely out of pocket. Only the ultra-rich would be able to afford to pay for medical care from what happens, leading to economic ruin for everyone else and the rest of the nation.
  7. The movie appears fixated on the idea that some would go all-out killing each other, but the laissez-faire nature of the Purge seems to indicate that any number of other heinous crimes could and would take place. The ads show rioting, but any number of unconscionable acts would likely happen, like sex crimes of all sorts.

    Perhaps some sex offenders would be “taken care of” during the Purge, but how does that balance out the fact these sex crimes could happen during the 12 hours and be all hunky dory?

  8. Even if heavy weapons are excluded, that brings up a point I forgot to mention earlier — there could be cyber terrorism from outside sources.
  9. Also, what’s to prevent a bank from stealing everyone’s money? Even if you invest in a bank that _promises_ it won’t steal your money, a bank could go back on its word and be in the Bahamas before you can say “D’oh!” Again, there would be no legal recourse and the weakening economy would again damage this society’s chances for survival.
  10. Finally, this whole system seems geared to create a really violent, really stupid populace, like that of “Idiocracy.” Only the ultra-violent or ultra-rich would seem to survive this nightmare, leading to an increasingly violent population.

I’m sorry this is a bit long, it’s been bugging me for weeks for all the reasons stated above — and the fact that “Star Trek” did it as a small aspect of an episode nearly 50 years ago (the “Red Hour” in “The Return of the Archons“).

Apparently, that’s not a coincidence — the writer/director apparently had it in mind, according to Badass Digest.

I should probably accept that this home-invasion movie isn’t for me, but the half-baked political angle rankled.