Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Which Leader is Kim Jong-un?

Kim Jong-un's grandfather, who founded the ratty North Korean hermit kingdom, was known as the Great Leader. His father was known as the Dear Leader. And now, The Daily Beast asks what Kim Jong-un should be called. I'm thinking "The Not-Yet-Dead Leader" is a good one, or "The He Hasn't Killed All of the Citizens Yet Leader" might still be available.

One reader thinks (and I'm still not sure if he/she was joking or sadly serious) that Kim Jong-il shouldn't be mocked in death, because he meant well. Frankly, if anyone ever meant ill, it would be someone like Kim Jong-il, who starved to death millions of his countrymen and helped fuel the nuclear weapons race. But perhaps we can all come together, crazy letter writer and me and you, and help the impoverished and incredibly weird nation of North Korea come up with a new name for Kim Jong-un.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frank Conniff and Keith Olbermann on Kim Jong-il

It's time for more fun with the late Kim Jong-il, which is fine, because he wasn't much fun when he was alive.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

North Korea's Kim Jong-Il Is Dead

One's mind fills with nasty things to say about North Korea's undearly departed dictatorial godhead, Kim Jong-Il. The fanatical leader has died, according to that country's media.

The first response, of course, is "Good." He was someone who led a country that made its citizens so miserable, so imprisoned, so intellectually impoverished, that his death likely can only improve things. There's always that old commentator's chestnut: Who knows what comes next; it could be worse. And that is true, unfortunately.

But for now, I'll stick with "good."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, Givin' 'Em Hell in Hell

Having watched writer/critic/polemicist Christopher Hitchens on many a talk show, having read a number of his take-downs (sometimes beautifully constructed, sometimes overkill), I was a little apprehensive a couple years ago when I was preparing to interview him. Hitchens was coming back to The Commonwealth Club of California, where I work as VP of editorial and media, and I had arranged to interview him privately for about 30 minutes before his speech. The interview was slated for my column in Northside San Francisco.

I shouldn't have worried; the event organizer, Kara Iwahashi, told me Hitchens is, in fact, very sweet and easy to work with, easy to speak with. So it would have been a fun and interesting interview, had it taken place.

But it was not to be. Just a day or two before his arrival, he canceled his book tour (including our appearance), and announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. We certainly hoped to get him back on our stage when he was well enough to do so, but we never got the opportunity. Christopher Hitchens died today, 62 years old.

Give 'em hell, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chock Full of the Nineties: The Starlog Project, Starlog #198, January 1994

If there is one consistent complaint that is lodged against Starlog in the 1990s, it is that the magazine focused too much on chasing every detail of every science fiction TV show and movie (and occasionally books), while ignoring the fan experience and other aspects of the science fiction universe. The magazine had been strongest in that regard in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when multiple columnists and the magazine’s then-co-publisher made sure the magazine spoke to the heart of science fiction fans.

Times change, of course, and one of the biggest changes from the early 1980s to the early 1990s is the tremendous growth of SF TV programs. With new television networks needing popular products – er, programs – to push, and with Star Trek: The Next Generation having established the viability of syndication for genre TV, the 1990s would see a never-ending succession of programs. We got everything from Trek spinoffs to non-Trek Roddenberry creations to entirely new efforts. That meant that Starlog had to cover this ongoing onslaught of SF TV, whether it was good, bad, or in between. 

But something else changed between the early 1980s and the early 1990s. What was once a 68-page magazine was now a 92-pager, and that meant that the magazine could have easily found space to slot in the occasional space science story or scientist interview, or run competitions that called for reader creativity, or any number of other things. The Fan Network pages, which by the mid-1990s had for years been just compilations of fan clubs and convention listings, was originally created to feature articles about creative fans, their experiences, their lives. As former managing editor Carr D’Angelo told me, the editors were under pressure from the publisher to find these interesting fan-based stories, but that task was easier said than done; it even resulted at least once in a story being published about something that had been reported years earlier in the magazine.

Even in the mid-1990s, however, Starlog still produced the occasional article outside of its usual SF TV coverage. This issue, that article is F. Colin Kingston’s guide to auctions, where fans can buy science fiction memorabilia (such as a $1,500 Cylon fighter model from the original Battlestar Galactica). Get out the credit card.

Starlog #198
92 pages (including covers)
Cover price: $4.95

Odd classified ad of the month: “GIANT WOMEN GROW HUGE in adult books, fantasies! Must state you’re over 21, & sign. $1, long SASE …”

The rundown: The cover is a mishmash of items, apparently none of them strong enough to command the cover by themselves; meanwhile, the work of artist James Bama makes one of many appearances in Starlog publications and is the sole featured illustration on the contents page. In David McDonnell’s Medialog column, the big tease begins, with rumors that a fourth Indiana Jones film is already being written (something that wouldn’t come to fruition for a decade, of course); furthermore, “George Lucas reports that the next three Star Wars films … will probably be shot simultaneously sometime before 1997.” Or maybe not. And in Gamelog, Michael McAvennie reviews Legend Entertainment’s Gateway II: Homeworld, Steve Jackson Games’ Hacker II: The Dark Side, and more.

The Communications section includes Mike Fisher’s Creature Profile of Gamera (misspelled Gammera), plus letters about the need to read, and the requisite debates over the finer points of Star Trek. Booklog reviews Christmas Forever, Tears of Time, Dealing in Futures, Alien Secrets, Heart Readers, The Hidden Realms, Fossil, The Wolf of Winter, Satellite Night Special, Godspeed, and Moving Mars. In his Videolog column, David Hutchison reveals that there’s a new home video release of the Star Wars films called Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Collection, which of course stayed definitive until the next collection. The Fan Network includes Marc Bernadin’s list of fan clubs, publications, and conventions. And in his From the Bridge column, the ever-social Kerry O’Quinn travels the country alone.

In a Startling Starlog Stories faux-pulp layout, Michael J. Wollf (and illustrator George Kochell) examine shows that deal with, um, brains, including a certain infamous Star Trek episode. Tom Weaver interviews Lost in Space actress June Lockhart, revealing – among other things – that she once worked at religious magazine Guideposts to gain experience in the publishing business. Today she’d just blog. Bill Warren profiles genre stalwart Ted Raimi, who was starring in seaQuest DSV at the time. And Will Murray interviews artist James Bama, who painted years of Doc Savage paperback covers, as well as some SF-themed works.

Actress Lindsay Frost (Monolith, Dead Heat, etc.) is interviewed by Pat Jankiewicz, revealing that the first money she earned on stage was “about a madam who ran a whorehouse.” So, no Star Wars, then. Craig W. Chrissinger checks in with Mike W. Barr about the new Star Trek: Deep Space Nine comic book. Rod Taylor and Alan Young reminisce about working with the great George Pal, in an article by Bill Warren. Much is made of the iconic time machine from the same-titled Pal film, and much also is made of Bob Burns, the man who ended up buying and restoring the machine. And Steve Eramo contributes his first article to Starlog, an interview with Doctor Who actor Jackie Lane, who discusses portraying Dodo Chaplet to William Hartnell’s Doctor.

F. Colin Kingston explores the hot commodities on sale on the SF memorabilia auction circuit, and he includes a how-to-bid sidebar (in those admittedly pre-eBay days). Tom Weaver interviews Michael Fox, who discusses acting in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Conquest of Space, Young Frankenstein, Twilight Zone episodes, and more. And in one of the odder or more creative (take your pick) ways for editor David McDonnell to get out of writing his editorial column, the final four pages of the magazine are taken up with imitation trading cards, featuring photos and facts about various Starlog correspondents. It is, at least, an interesting way to put faces to names we’ve been seeing in print for years. It’s also where we learn that Mike McAvennie once “caught 38 quarters after placing them on my elbow.” Talented group, this.
“I used to be made fun of a lot. There was one kid, who will remain nameless, that I’ll never forget. He used to come up to me and say, ‘Raimi, you’re a geek! Hyuk, hyuk!’ Every day he would pop my books and they would go sliding down the hallway. I thought, I have to do something at school. I’m not a jock, so I chose acting; it was natural, it was the only thing I could really do.”
–Ted Raimi, actor, interviewed by Bill Warren: “The Young Ted Raimi” 
For more, click on Starlog Internet Archive Project below or visit the Starlog Project's permanent site.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Latest Northside Column: Where to Go, What to Do and Eat Near the Bay Area

For my latest Common Knowledge column in Northside San Francisco, I talked to Bay Gourmet leader Cathy Curtis about cool places to go, the best foods to eat, neat things to do in the Bay Area hinterlands.
The Bay Area Fun Belt
By John Zipperer 
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a new Russian term came into vogue: “the near afar.” It referred to those newly independent countries bordering the Russian Federation, at once close by and yet more distant than before because they were no longer part of the same empire. 
In the Bay Area, our “near afar” is a stunning belt of hills, wine country, farms, and small towns that girdles our metropolis, and getting there is quite easy. Knowing how to make the most of your time there can be a challenge, so I turned to an expert. When Cathy Curtis is not busy with her duties as the owner of Curtis Financial Planning, she volunteers at The Commonwealth Club as chair of our Bay Gourmet Forum, and she also leads groups of travelers on day trips and slightly longer visits to exciting destinations in the near afar. I asked Curtis to share with Northside San Francisco readers some tips for finding great local getaways.

Read the entire column
When she's not busy giving financial planning advice, Cathy Curtis enjoys showing people how to enjoy the finer features of the world. Photo by Beth Byrne.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hillary Clinton on Gay Rights (Video)

She shows she's lost none of her strengths since her landmark speech in China on women's rights in the 1990s. "Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."

Below, video of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the U.N. today. It made Rick Perry flip out; he claimed Obama was proving himself to be further out of step with the American people; but this is just one more topic on which Perry is wrong. Americans – even young evangelicals – are increasingly with Obama and Clinton (and many Republicans) who don't want to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Dealing with Consultants

For reasons I don't need to go into here, I've been thinking a lot about organizations that bring in outside consultants to evaluate things and offer recommendations. It reminded me of an Internet Whirl column I'd written for Internet World (yes, the column name was a pun) magazine a decade ago, so I share that column with you.
Internet Whirl
Grin and Bear It
The Upside of Letting an Outsider Tell You What You Already Knew 
By John Zipperer
(06/15/01) An e-business consultant was recently in our conference room, commiserating about the challenges he faced helping companies get from point A to B in their Internet plans. He remarked that though he is often mistaken for one, he is no magic fountain of secret knowledge. In fact, he said, “Often, I’m telling them to do what they already know needs to be done.” It may sound like an unnecessary waste of money for a company, but it often proves to be a very necessary reassurance. 

This is a lesson I learned firsthand while working on a project to Web-enable a former employer’s database. We had legacy software specially designed for our type of organization, but it hadn’t been designed to work with Windows NT—which we didn’t know when we started the project—causing us a great deal of trouble when we went live. Only after months of struggle did we get the software maker to admit their software was the problem. It was your typical e-business nightmare: The database was too slow; it often crashed; it didn’t have enough search functions for our customers.

There were other problems, too. We had a number of broadcast e-mail lists I administered, which pulled their addresses out of the same legacy database. Except that the filters for the broadcast e-mail software often failed; people couldn’t get subscribed easily and often got unsubscribed because the system overwrote new lists of subscribers with older lists. Those were the lucky ones. We also heard from more vocal customers who had not subscribed but nonetheless were receiving the e-mail, which in such circumstances translates into spam.

The technical problems weren’t monumental. We knew what we needed to do—upgrade various software programs, bring in a new technical consultant with expertise in our broadcast e-mail system, establish a position of chief architect for all of our technology efforts, and eventually, switch server platforms. We ended up doing all these things, but only after a second trial by fire. The first trial had been handling problems and dealing with customer complaints. The second trial was implementing the new system despite losing the confidence our customers and board members once had in us.

We had to go through a long political charade before we could get the necessary changes made. The board’s solution was to bring in an outside consultant who would do a review of our technology use, needs, and future growth. A local firm was hired to conduct interviews. We worked with them, and then waited anxiously for their report. It essentially restated what we had said all along—what needed fixing, what staffing changes were necessary, and what future investments had to be made to get the company where it wanted to be.

Well, it wasn’t all stuff we’d been saying all along. On one page of the report was a particularly annoying chart that purported to show how our company would fall behind the technology curve if we didn’t keep investing and upgrading. It was an amateurish chart: it indicated no quantities of time or money, just some curved lines, our company’s name, and a description with a dire warning about our future if we failed to heed the report’s recommendations. That graphic was, to me, the final insult of an insulting process. Yet it was swallowed whole by the board, for the sole reason that it had been prepared by highly paid outside experts.

It was galling, but also a lesson in the value of refraining from asserting the need to be recognized for having been correct all along. What the consultants provided (for a few thousands of dollars) was a comforting aura of expertise that our board needed in order to accept our recommendations and accept a new working arrangement with us. In short, it gave them ammunition with which to answer potential critics. Politics is a messy thing, and it ain’t just in Washington. But if one can manage to set aside one’s distaste for it, the bigger picture will unfold.

For us, there was a happy ending; the political games served to get us to where we needed to be all along. Frustrating as it was, it was the right thing to do, because it allowed everyone involved to eventually buy into the plan. But all it required of us in-house folks in the end was a little patience and humility. To reach our goal, that wasn’t too much to ask.

The Star Wars Holiday Special Goes Glee


The 1978 TV one-shot program featuring Bea Arthur, Wookie Life Day, Harvey Korman, an animated Boba Fett, and way too much singing, is being resurrected. It will be the basis of an upcoming holiday episode of Glee, reports Britain's SFX magazine.

Sort of a Muppets Meet The Carol Burnett Show, the Star Wars Holiday Special aired on CBS in 1978 and is generally an unloved – and oft-mocked – part of the Star Wars universe. It only snagged one magazine cover at the time (Starlog #19, above), despite the Star Wars fever raging in the young country at the time. Directed by Steven Binder and written by five writers, including Bruce Vilanch, the show was a hodgepodge of cameos by the stars of the original Star Wars film and new characters trying gamely to make a kiddie-friendly show.

It remains to be seen if Glee will treat it as aging cheese that has become good again or as a source for mocking.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pew! Pew! Pew! Zzzzaaap!

Why post this? Because I like to think I live in a world – er, universe – in which spacemen can have laser battles with robotic warriors in orbit. That's why. Is that a crime?

Pelosi Whets Our Appetite for Newt Gingrich Candidacy

Read the above short note that was posted on Talking Points Memo. Anyone who thought the Democrats were worried about a "smart" Republican like Gingrich becoming the Republican nominee for president simply doesn't know what they're talking about.

And Pelosi does know what she's talking about. But she waved off pleas for details: “When the time’s right.”

Just give us a 15-minute warning before that press conference, so we have time to make popcorn and open up a few cold sodas.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Print Is the New AM Radio

Folio: reports that a regional magazine publisher in North Carolina is starting a new print newspaper. He has spotted the problems that have occurred with the decline (that's a nicer word that collapse) of daily newspapers, and he is concerned that citizens are not getting good information on the workings of their communities and the world. So he is creating a new weekly newspaper that will serve his audiences.

It is counterintuitive only if you aren't paying attention to media and business. Big daily newspapers have basically imploded under the weight of high costs that were no longer supported by massive print classified advertising. Readership has also shrunk, but the newspaper's problems today are primarily advertising revenue-based, not readership based. So daily newspapers have tried to reinvent themselves over and over again, with a lot of wasted money and a lot of amnesia about why people want to read newspapers in the first place (and therefore why advertisers would want to pay to reach those readers in print).

AM radio was once written off as a has-been, overtaken by the superior FM stations. But then talk radio (and particularly the conservative kind) saw an opportunity, and AM radio became hot again.

I see a similar coming opportunity as big publishers lose the ability to publish magazines that drop from something like 900,000 circ to 450,000 or 250,000. Those lower numbers can't support the corporate infrastructure and massive debt loads carried by the big publishers, especially the public ones. But that leaves lots of burgeoning opportunities for smaller publishers (existing and new ones) to step in and successfully publish magazines in many niches at 100,000 to 500,000 circ. I remember pitching a science/science-fiction magazine to a small publisher fifteen years ago when Bob Guccione canceled Omni magazine, which had fallen from more than 1 million circ in the early 1980s to around 600,000 by the mid-1990s. Guccione couldn't make a 600,000-circulation Omni work; many others could have been profitably thrilled with such a number, or even half of it.

That small publisher didn't bite, and I think he lost a good opportunity.