Sunday, January 31, 2010

President Back on His Feet

For every article I read about how the Republicans are on a roll, there is also evidence of how clueless and leaderless the Party of Followers is these days.

And for every question that has been raised about President Obama's abilities since the loss of the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat to the soft-porn candidate from the GOP, I think the president has answered emphatically that he's still here, armed with a strong agenda, and equipped with a will to see it through. In his recent appearance before the Republicans' meeting (to which he had been invited by the GOP leaders for a Q&A), Obama wiped up the floor with his robotic opponents.

Yes, this is a very partisan blog post. Such is life.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Starlog Web Site Lives ... Again

Just a follow-up to my recent post about the web sites for Starlog and Fangoria being dead for more than a week: is back up (image below is from five minutes ago, as I write this). The Fango site is still not up, but I think we can assume they're now working on bringing that back up, too. In the meantime, check out the Fangoria editors' blog.

Also, this week Fango's online media guru, James Zahn, confirmed via Twitter that he left the Fango fold earlier this month. Methinks they need someone to fix their web sites ASAP.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Video of Anti-Semitic Protest by Fred Phelps' Clan

I finally wrangled the video from my Nexus One to YouTube. Video above. It's short, and not great quality, but then again, so is Westboro Baptist Church.


So Now Fred Phelps Is Protesting Jews and Gays

We all know that the "Rev." Fred Phelps and the members of his family-based cult, the Westboro Baptist Church, are a bunch of ultra-conservative anti-gay crackpots. They are the folks who protested the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, arguing that the soldiers died because God was punishing America for its homosexuals. They also have held protests at the funerals of gay men, with signs declaring "God hates fags."

So, we knew they hated gays. But now they've been going after Jewish organizations, accusing them of being pro-gay. Today, they're in San Francisco with their little band of airheads, protesting outside such organizations as the Contemporary Jewish Museum (see photo below), Hillel at Stanford, a production of Fiddler on the Roof, and more.

I made a short video of the folks at the CJM protest, and I'll post it later today after I fix some upload problems with YouTube. In the meantime, you can get some background on this strange clan here.

The Phelpsies were very much outnumbered by the counter-protestors outside the museum, just as they tend to be everywhere they go. That's the good news. The really bad news? The Phelps clan was young.

UPDATE: Finally got the video. See it here.

If You're Searching for News about Fangoria and ...

There's a new blog calling itself the Fangoria Magazine Newsblog, and it appears to be written by longtime Fangoria magazine managing editor Michael Gingold. It seems to be the only place with new Fango news; the main web site (, as well as its science-fiction sister site have been unavailable online for more than a week. What's going on?

Until we hear some news, the newsblog seems the only place to get updates. So off you go ...

President Obama or Steve Jobs: Whose Speech Was Bigger?

We'll leave aside the obscene modern media atmosphere in which this blog post's title would even be taken seriously. Of course the president's State of the Union speech was the bigger and more important speech given yesterday.

But from a fun angle, can we ask which will have a bigger impact on American life? Don't rush to say Obama's; we know his work will have a big impact on our lives -- that comes with his job. But was his speech something that itself will cause a change or was it a one-off bit of political theater that won't have much effect on the actions of the government or its citizens in the coming year?

Ah, but don't rush to say that Steve Jobs' was necessarily more ground-breaking. After all, he was just announcing a new computer from his company. The iPad is basically a souped-up iPod Touch made bigger and flatter and updated with the latest Apple geegaws. It might be true that in our world today where successful business people are worshipped like emperors or gods that Jobs will get more mileage out of his hyped-up presentation. But Apple's competitors (from Google to Nokia) are decreasing the distance between the Mac-maker and the rest of the pack.

The New York Times' live blogger of the Apple leader's speech couldn't restrain himself from sending up the famously self-promoting Jobs for all of his hyperbole. That's nothing new; I remember the same thing from past speeches of his, including the one I attended as a member of the press many years ago. What's more irritating is that many members of the "news" media in attendance react as if they were Charlie Bucket being handed the keys to Willy Wonka's factory.

Meanwhile, much of the breathless love-affair with Barack Obama from leftwing writers has died away, replaced by a stunned disbelief that the Chosen One would have to actually compromise in the world of politics. Personally, I would like to see him be a bit tougher in dealing with the political opposition, which has given him less than nothing in return for all of his olive-branch proffering. His speech last night was a believable merging of feistiness and intellectual adherence to higher standards of political conduct. More of this, please; and I think we'll see more of this, so in the end, I have to say Obama wins.

I want to own an iPad. I want to have my political life impacted by Barack Obama. Big difference.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So It's Called the iPad, not iSlate or iTablet

Anywho, The New York Times is live-blogging the Steve Jobs sales pitch. When will they shut up and tell us how much it costs?

UPDATE: Naturally, the Apple web site won't post a word about the new product until after Jobs stops yakking.

Yes, I Want an Apple Tablet, but I Don't Think Print Publishers Are the Ones at Risk

Today, Apple is expected to unveil the worst-kept secret of the year: a tablet computer. Rumors have swirled for some time, but my sources tell me what everyone pretty much already knows: There Will Be a Tablet Computer from Apple.

The Baltimore Sun reports that Apple's been doing its usual hardball negotiating with potential content partners, setting prices for digital versions of books (with a generous percentage take for Apple). Others have talked about the possibilities that the tablet could offer for newspaper and magazine publishers. I'm not sure about the periodical publishers -- they (we) have been doing digital versions of our print publications for years, and millions of people already read entire digital magazines, HTML articles, or completely disaggregated bits from periodicals every day. Anyone who wants digital magazines and hates holding print magazines in their hands (it's so much work) has already discovered Zinio or Issuu. What a tablet will do that a laptop computer isn't already doing (or capable of doing) is not readily evident to me, and certainly doesn't qualify yet as a must-buy decision factor for a tablet computer. Print publishing will survive tablets, and publishers will probably find a way to make an additional revenue stream from the new devices. Fine and dandy.

But an Apple tablet will likely have its biggest effects in whatever combination of services and software are possible on a tablet (again, not sure how those differ from a touch-screen-equipped laptop, but whatever). As I've noted recently, to me the magic has always been in the combination of devices into one device, not the birthing of separate devices for each new use (good-bye, Kindle). Make a sleek, lightweight tablet with a touchscreen, voice-enable all of the input features, give it phone capabilities, internet access of course, a big hard drive for viewing movies and listening to audio and playing games, video/still camera, and all of the personal and office productivity software we use almost every day of our lives.

I suspect the Apple tablet will have much of that. And what it doesn't have now, it will in the future. (After all, the computer became the television, your cable provider became your phone and internet provider, your cell phone became your e-mail service and video camera, so why shouldn't your tablet also become a phone?)

Much of the technology reporting has for years been hyper-hype filled, and that is especially true about reporting on Apple products. Hey, I love Apple products. I have two iPods, large-screen Macs at work and at home, and I'm sure I'll buy an iTablet (or whatever it's called) as soon as my finances permit. But not every iteration of iLife is revolutionary. Not each upgrade of the iPhone is a breakthrough.

And if you look over the years at what computers have been able to do (note the 1981 magazine cover above) and each evolutionary leap that has been made due to increasing processor power and ever-more interconnectedness of hardware and data, you see that the whole thing is evolutionary. Steve Jobs is a genius for seeing the opportunities that are thus presented and for pushing his company to go there. (And Apple is not infallible; it just seems that way. Anyone remember the Newton?) But Jobs is not creating these things out of thin air. He is able to look at where the technology goes, what new features and programs and businesses can be enabled by where the technology is evolving, and he's then going there with style and quality.

Others could do the same thing, but I think the modern public corporation is not designed to think in such a way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nexus One Sales Disappoint, but Sales Expansion Continues: Next Stop, Wal-Mart

Listening to public radio news last night, I heard a reporter mention that Google's Nexus One smartphone, thought by some to be a potential "iPhone killer," had sold only 20,000 units in its first week. Compare that with 1.6 million in sales of the iPhone 3GS in its first week, and you might expect Google and HTC executives to be updating their resumes.

But I think you'd be wrong. (For one thing, every single Google employee has a personal net worth north of $4.6 billion, so they're just in the office out of crazy devotion anyway.) Seriously, though, as the news report pointed out, Nexus One has only been available through a Google online store so far, and many (most?) people like to see and touch a product before they buy it, especially if it's as expensive as the unlocked version of Nexus One: more than $500.

Now comes reports that Nexus One will be sold soon from Wal-Mart, though whether it'll only be through Wal-Mart's web site or in its stores is not yet clear. Allegedly, the phone will be sold with a multi-year contract to various wireless carriers. If true, this is a smart move by Google and Wal-Mart. It'd be really smart if it will in fact be available in stores, so potential buyers can get that touch-feel experience.

As I've noted here before, I am one of the early purchasers of the Nexus One, and I'm dearly in love with it. As I lay on the couch this past weekend recovering from a very bad cold that had turned my voice into a sub-Harvey Fierstein gravel, I discovered that I could stop typing my text messages. Instead, I just select the microphone option, speak my response, and hit Send. Even with my voice nearly unrecognizable by me, the service worked perfectly with everything I said. I've been an annoying nerd evangelist around the office this week, showing off this feature to people (though I'm happy to say my voice and health have pretty much returned to normal). That's just one of the features of this beautiful new phone that I like so much.

Ultimately, I neither know nor care if Nexus One is an "iPhone killer." The iPhone's a great product, and Apple deserves every bit of success they've had with it. (Arguably, they could have had more; I would have an iPhone if they hadn't restricted it to AT&T since it came out. Thus did Steve Jobs deliver me into the arms of Google.) Just as Nexus One integrates with Google's suite of online applications, iPhone integrates with Apple's premium suite of hardware and OS. Both are smart strategies; both have given us quality smart phones.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Contrarian View of Losing the Senate's 60-Vote Control

The news is chock full o' stories these days about how the Democrats are reeling from the loss of Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts. The party is almost certain to lose more seats in both houses of Congress in this fall's mid-term elections, so there is much nail biting and wondering if the Obama agenda is over before it really began.

The Democrats will indeed be facing an awful election climate this fall. No doubt. But losing your 60-seat majority in the U.S. Senate is only a bad thing if you actually had been using it to push through your agenda. But President Obama has been intent on being as bipartisan as possible, so he hasn't been running a hardball campaign to get his agenda items passed. He has not been repaid in kind by his friends across the aisle.

So what if you don't have your filibuster-proof majority any longer? Stop acting like Smurfs and start acting like Rahm Emanuel. And best of all: Let the Republicans filibuster. Make them filibuster. Let the cable news channels fill up with hour after hour of talking heads complaining about the mean ol' Democrats not listening to the Republicans -- cuz the tide will turn, especially after we're all sick of listening to the Republicans filibuster.

Filibustering ain't nothin'. It's one party obstructing a bill by talking and talking. It delays progress, but it doesn't hurt you. If Emanuel and Obama and Reid and Pelosi can't take that to the bank and cash it, then they don't deserve to be playing in the big leagues (to mix metaphors with wild abandon).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Oh, and the web site's down again

Guess you thought I'd forgotten about Starlog lately, what with all the techie jabber and all, eh? Nah. I loves me my technology, but print is my first passion.

Above: The greeting visitors receive at

Once You Go Magic Mouse, You Don't Ever Go Back

I love technology. I don't get fundamentalist about it and go all extremist, but I do love the high-tech stuff that works beautifully and is designed with great skill. Such as the Nexus One.

The thought occurred to me as I was using my Apple Magic Mouse. Some people rely overwhelmingly on keyboard tricks to do all of their moves on the computer screen, other people rely mostly on their mouse and use the keyboard only when absolutely necessary. Me? I use 'em both. It's faster. And now I've found that the Magic Mouse for Macs works -- oh, so perfectly. It's top is basically a track pad. Its design is sleek (isn't every Mac design sleek?). And it was a great replacement for the wireless Microsoft (yes, Microsoft) mouse I've been using with a succession of Macs since 2000 (just one of the perks of being an editor at Internet World magazine). (Not that you care.)

To put my love with this little device in perspective: I remember hearing in college that a friend of mine had included the microwave oven in a list of inventions that were absolutely essential for life, and I found that hilarious. I still find it funny. I did not -- and I still do not -- think a microwave oven is crucial for a long and happy life.

But as I was just using my Magic Mouse to scroll down a web page, I found myself thinking that it would be incredibly difficult if this magical li'l mouse were taken away from me. Its functions are so perfectly thought out, so well executed, and so appreciated by moi that its future absence would leave me definitely feeling its absence.

So much of computer use makes one contemplate the future -- gee, wouldn't it be great if I had 10 times the memory on this old crate? What if this thing ran faster? Why can't they just integrate the two programs so I don't have to do it manually? And so on.

Well, in the age of broadband and smart phones and Steve Jobs, there are a good number of products and services that don't make you yearn for the future. You'll still welcome the future -- but you won't be hating the present because it's not the future.

And the Apple Magic Mouse is one of them.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Google's Nexus One, Redux: More of the Same, and Why That's Good

About nine or ten years ago, I was an editor at Internet World magazine, working in cool metallic modern cubicles in Manhattan, surrounded by a number of great editors and designers who were, frankly, smarter than I was. It was a great place to be to learn more about all of the new technology and online trends that were happening or about to happen. One such trend that caught my attention and was a continuing irritant to me was the announcement every so often of a new device. A PDA to do this. A handheld to do that. A cell phone to do something else.

I thought at the time, I don't want to carry one device for my schedule, one device for calling my friends, another device for getting mapping directions, and another device for playing games. Put them all (and more) on one device, and then it becomes magic. Then I don't have to carry around two or three or four different stupid devices, with the inherent danger of breaking or losing one of them. (Which I would; I'm a klutz. My main impetus for getting contact lenses was that I broke my glasses too easily.)

Lo and behold, Steve Jobs was reading my thoughts -- in an entirely non-remunerative sort of way, alas -- and Apple eventually produced the game-changing iPhone. It's a beautiful product, and it revolutionized the cellphone industry. I didn't get one, because Jobs did something else he likes to do, which is to keep things very close to him, so you couldn't get an iPhone in the United States unless you were an AT&T customer. Since I was already happy with T-Mobile, and I knew the hazards of other cell phone companies, I decided to wait.

Eventually along came the G1 smartphone, which T-Mobile sold. And now we have the Google Nexus One, which T-Mobile can't sell but does serve, and I am one squeeky happy customer. But that's more than you needed to know.

However, not all people need or want the same thing. My webmaster was telling me earlier today about his choices. He moved away from an iPhone this year to a separate phone and PDA. His reason was that he didn't want to have all of his important functions on one device, which, if destroyed or disabled, would render him helpless with his work and private lives. As his colleague, I was impressed with his reasoning, even if I was saddened that I couldn't effectively evangelize for the Nexus One.

I just found it interesting that there are good reasons out there to go in the opposite direction from the one I was requiring of the handheld device industry.

One device, many uses still seems like the way to go. But technology companies would be missing a market opportunity if they were purely lemmings and didn't pay attention to customers with other needs.

(But really, but the Google Nexus One. You'll love it.)

Daily Bliss: Google's Nexus One on T-Mobile

AT&T reportedly has to pay between $5 billion and $7 billion to make its 3G wireless network competitive again. That must be quite a shock, considering that AT&T seemed to be on the top of the world since it got its exclusive U.S. rights to sell the Apple iPhone. But competition and development are cut-throat in the high-tech world, and AT&T will have to spend big just to compete with Verizon.

Me? I chose neither. After a terrible experience with a different carrier (which shall remain nameless but unfortunately is still in business), I switched to T-Mobile something like seven or eight years ago. I haven't regretted it. I upgraded to the the G1 smart phone from T-Mobile when it first came out and was very happy with it. My only complaint about it is that it started seriously dying in the past couple months, and I finally had to drive a stake through its heart this past week.

People might call me stupid, but I ordered another phone from the same manufacturer -- HTC -- and stayed with T-Mobile. (Long story; I was just out of the warranty period for another G1, and I was too early to be able to upgrade within T-Mobile's existing plans.) But I stuck with T-Mobile because its service has been great, and the phone that lured me was the new Google Nexus One. It's a beaut. I adore it. Phone calls, Google services, music, video, photos, apps galore. Unlimited texting and internet use. And the interface is friendly. The service is super-fast (I get all four bars in parts of my house where I used to barely get one bar). I could go on, but I can see your eyes starting to glaze over.

Is T-Mobile perfect? No, certainly not. But they've taken good care of me, and I have not had any horror stories about them to share (unlike my previous carrier, which again shall remain nameless so all you can guess is that it wasn't T-Mobile, AT&T or Verizon). Now, mobile phone companies are like airlines: Everyone has very different opinions about them based on their individual experiences. I have no problems with United; I've heard other people rant about how much they hate United. I have ranted about US Airways; friends have raved about how perfect it is. So I'm sure there are T-Mobile haters out there, just as there are people who hate AT&T and Verizon.

But you know what makes a huge difference? I had two phone calls with customer service at T-Mobile in the past week. Each time I spoke to someone (a different person each time) who was very helpful, friendly and sounded like they were doing customer care instead of customer service. They were able to answer all of my questions. I don't know where they were; they sounded like they had southern accents, so I'm imagining Alabama or something, but then again they could have been a couple helpdesk people in Mumbai doing really good Southern U.S. accents. If so, then they get kudos for that, too.

We've all had experiences where a technology or service wasn't working, where the directions for troubleshooting were impossible or didn't address our problem, when the people on the support line were indifferent, hostile, or unhelpful. Businesses should know that these phone support people -- who likely are paid way below their real value to a company -- can make or break a customer relationship. It's a good place to invest at least some of that $5 to $7 billion that any big company has to spend to upgrade its "system."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Robert Löhr's Pre-Steampunk Chess Playing Automaton True Science Fiction Novel

As you can tell from the blog headline, it is difficult to succinctly sum up Robert Löhr's novel The Secrets of the Chess Machine (original title, Der Schachautomat, Piper Verlag, 2005). I purchased this English translation of the German novel about a chess-playing automaton when I found it in the science fiction section of a local bookstore. Set in 1770 and thereabouts, it tells the story of Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian knight in the world of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, for whom he builds the titular machine. Kempelen goes on to showcase his creation across and beyond the empire, and he is hailed as a mechanical genius and a darling of the empress.

Unknown to the admirers but suspected by few, the automaton was a fraud. Built in humanoid form and seated at a cabinet with a chess game atop it, the Turk -- so-called because of its turban and the mystery such a connection provided to the Austrians in the age of the Ottomans -- had back doors and front drawers and more that could be opened to give the audience a peek inside, demonstrating that there wasn't a human inside performing the automaton's chess moves. But in fact there was a human inside, a dwarf who was able to remain unseen because of his small size and some false-backed drawer wizardry.

Unknown to me until I was mostly finished reading the book is that it is based on a very true story. Von Kempelen really did construct the machine; he really did have a small person inside playing the chess matches; and he really did wow the public of late 18th-century imperial Europe. (A replica of the original Turk is pictured above; the original was destroyed by fire in 1854.) But, as Löhr writes in the author notes at the end of his book, there is a fair amount of the story that Löhr needed to fictionalize, including the sympathetic dwarf who is both von Kempelen's aid and antagonist, as well as von Kempelen's character, which Löhr admits deviates in the book from the known facts about the inventor and author.

It is fascinating to follow von Kempelen's little charade and to wonder how it would be greeted today. In the novel, he worries about a loss of his status should he be found out, and this provides much of the drama between him and his assistants. But Löhr explains in his own words that the dividing line between science and showmanship was a bit different in those days, and von Kempelen freely tramped across the line with ease. In our own modern times, we also have a complicated relationship with chicanery and spectacle. Technological marvels still earn people millions of dollars and years of fame, but then so do fake spectacles such as professional wrestling and public magicians. (A writer recently noted the difference between the British and Americans when it came to showmen such as David Blaine, who likes to pull public stunts with his illusions. She argued that whereas Americans go all ga-ga over his tricks, the UK public reacted with mocking and hurled fruit when Blaine suspended himself over the Thames in a glass box without food. The difference, she said, was that the British know the difference between performance and self-promotion.)

Is The Secrets of the Chess Machine science fiction? Historical fiction? Both? Neither? In the end, it doesn't matter. If you love science fiction, you will likely enjoy both the mechanical wizardry in the book and the Enlightenment themes. If you like historical fiction, you'll be well-served with the many real actors who appear in this novel. If you just like a good book, then you're in for a treat.

This was Robert Löhr's first book. He has since written two more: Das Erlkönig-Manöver and Das Hamlet-Komplott. Neither, as far as I can tell, has become available yet in English, but I look forward to reading them when they are.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Crow T. Robot Does Jay Leno Impression

Because so many people on earth are wailing in pain and suffering, I wanted to share this impression from Crow from the long-defunct Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Jay Leno. Not much changed, eh?

Courtesy the MST3K fan club.

Would You Pay $1 Million for Conan O'Brien's Suitcase?

The suitcase that outgoing Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien has put up for sale on eBay is currently (as of 5:55 pm Pacific Time, Saturday, January 16, 2010) at the bid price of $999,999.00.


There's still time to bid.

After all, that's still $29 million less than NBC is reportedly paying Conan to get rid of their late night baggage.

Roger Ebert to Rush Limbaugh: "You should be horse-whipped ..."

Chicago Sun-Times movie critic legend Roger Ebert is, well, a legend for his movie criticism, not his politics. But he makes occasional forays into the political arena, and when he does, he displays both an intelligence and an intensity that does him credit.

He has an open letter to talk show big-head Rush Limbaugh on his web site. I urge you to read it. It is in reference to Limbaugh's suggestion that Obama is out to use the Haiti tragedy for cynical political ends.

Ebert's first sentence: "You should be horse-whipped for the insult you have paid to the highest office of our nation." (If only David Broder could start a column like that.) And it gets better from there.

Limbaugh won't care, of course; having a liberal midwestern media elite criticize him is fodder for his fame. But good people should not let the moral indifference of the Limbaughs of the world prevent them from pointing out the moral indifference of the Limbaughs.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Jay Leno Is Admiral James T. Kirk, Conan O'Brien is Commander Decker

Jay Leno had the perfect job. Every weeknight, he told jokes and entertained guests and his audiences for an hour on The Tonight Show. Then, for some unknown reason, NBC decided to promote him off the show, which they gave to Conan O'Brien, who never seemed up to the task (and certainly didn't entertain a large enough audience to keep people happy). So O'Brien announces his exit from NBC and The Tonight Show almost ASAP, and Leno gets to assume the helm of The Tonight Show once again, leaving behind the sad memories of his short-lived 10 pm comedy show.

Remind anyone else of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Admiral James Tiberius Kirk had been talked into giving up command of the starship Enterprise in return for a desk job at Starfleet HQ. But the new Enterprise captain, Willard Decker, though he had waited and waited and earned his spot in the captain's chair, was deemed unsuited for handling the big threat heading toward Earth: Angry network affiliates. Er, wait, I mean V'ger, a massive cloud ship that destroyed and consumed everything in its way. Kirk schemed behind the scenes at Starfleet to get back command of his ship, and Decker was fobbed off in an arranged marriage with V'ger.

So Leno and Kirk both got what they wanted, even though it created a lot of ill-will between them and O'Brien/Decker.

Yes, I realize this means FOX is V'ger, the giant robot spacecraft strong enough to destroy planets but too stupid to scrape dirt off its sign and read that it's name is "Voyager."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Well, No One Ever Claimed The New Republic Was an Expert on Magazines or Sex

In an article in political magazine The New Republic, writer Tom Bissell reviews Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, a new book by Elizabeth Fraterrigo published by Oxford University Press.

He starts off by writing that Fraterrigo basically succeeds in making her case that Playboy is responsible for the world in which we live in many ways (sexual revolution, appreciation for luxury goods by the masses, some leadership in racial integration, etc.). Much of the rest of the review won't be new or interesting to any of us in the magazine business, but he has this seemingly contradictory statement toward the end:
But it always had something with which to justify itself, which was the quality of its articles, stories, and interviews -- and, as Fraterrigo argues (though does not much explore), it was this that ensured, even from Playboy’s foes, a certain amount of grudging respect. The problem with Playboy was that its editorial content has never been strong enough for it to be only a magazine. It also had to be a lifestyle.
 "[I]ts editorial content has never been strong enough for it to be only a magazine"? Its editorial content did more than earn it "grudging respect." In fact, its editorial content for much of its time was better than the editorial content of most other magazines. The reasons are that editor Hugh Hefner had high standards and he was willing to pay to get the top writers and reporters -- everyone from William F. Buckley Jr. to Joyce Carol Oates to Jonathan Safran Foer to Jane Smiley to ... oh, forget it. None of that seems to add up to much for Bissell, who can't get over the nekkid ladies in the magazine's pages or its wider cultural impact.

Perhaps he just chose his words carelessly and intended to say something to the effect that Playboy's ambitions were always too large to be confined to a magazine, and he would have been correct there. But that's not what he wrote.

Bissell's review is an acceptable introduction to the book, and it might let people decide whether they want to buy it. But it's not good at understanding the point or the medium of the book's subject. His review reminds us that we shouldn't expect penetrating social commentary from that political magazine. (You'll get more from Royal Flush magazine.) Strangely, you have been able to get politics from Playboy for many decades. So which magazine is more dispensable?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pat Robertson Speaks to the People of Earth Once Again

Yes, the man who agreed that homosexuals, pro-choicers, and constitutional scholars had caused the 9/11 attacks has spoken again. Pat Robertson, the oracle of oddity, says -- DURING A FUNDRAISING BROADCAST FOR THE PEOPLE OF HAITI following the devastating earthquake there -- that Haiti has been suffering because it made a pact with a devil. And he wasn't speaking metaphorically, like the pact with the devil that is made by everyone who watches this wingnut. No, according to this transcript provided by Media Matters, the Haitians made a literal pact with Darth Maul himself:
And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, "We will serve you if you will get us free from the French." True story. And so, the devil said, "OK, it's a deal."
While it's obvious he's politicking to get a spot on a future national ticket with Sarah Palin, he probably has sunk their chances by turning off the large Satan crowd that currently supports them.

What Do Jay Leno and Google Have in Common?

They're both self-inflicted problems. The Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien debacle was all the result of terrible decisions by NBC management; Google's debacle in its China business is all a result of terrible decisions by its management, which had lowered its moral standards in order to rake in money in an authoritarian country.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So Much for the Theory that Blogs Would Save News

The Huffington Post is having a featured sale this month! You can tell, because they promote it all over the place day after day after day. Check it out: Move your money out of big banks into smaller banks. It's a way to punish big banks, see, and it's Huffington Post founder Ariana Huffington's pet cause of the moment. So it's featured all over the front page of HuffPo. Repeatedly. As if it's a national movement with broad grassroots support when it's really just a manufactured campaign by Huffington and her crew.

Sort of like the Tea Party of the Left.

What's happening to the political blogosphere? If you've been listening to some of the evangelists for blogs, they are supposed to be better than the mainstream media (and especially newspapers) at reporting real news and what people really care about because they can't be controlled. The blogosphere (a word that always reminds me of Blagojevich, but whatever) was said to be self-correcting, because bloggers will write whatever they want to, regardless of what big advertisers or media barons with agendas or politicians try to get them to do or say.

Media owners with agendas are nothing new, and they're not necessarily bad. When I was a kid (and too young to remember this myself), the Green Bay News-Chronicle ran a long and eventually successful campaign supporting the movement to build a third bridge in the city.

But that wasn't as shameless in its mixing of real news (look, this just isn't so important a movement that it deserves multiple news spots on HuffPo's home page) with a campaign, nor did it have the cult-of-personality feature that has started to take over Huffington's site.

Alas, it's probably the wave of the future. Huffington Post continues to grow (though I check it out less and less often, preferring Talking Points Memo), and media barons love their crusades. But newspapers did it better.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Encore: Patrick Read Johnson's film "77," for the Love of Sci Fi

For whatever reason, the online video to which I'd linked in my post from earlier this year regarding Patrick Read Johnson's film 77 is no longer working. So, courtesy of, here is another copy of the trailer.

European vs. American Economics: Paul Krugman Gets the Facts

Once again, The New York Times' economist and columnist Paul Krugman provides some clarity amid the illusions. He takes a look at the widely held belief in the United States that Europe's economy is stagnant, decaying, and out of date due to high taxes, high social spending, and all around general Europeanishness.

The reality, Krugman writes, is the opposite. The statistics for productivity, economic growth, and much else are very similar for the two economic blocs. Plus they have actual health care that people can use.

Of course, anyone who follows the news carefully could already have guessed that. Just this week, China officially assumed the mantel of the world's number-one exporter. No surprise there; we've been expecting it to happen any day now for years. But which country did China beat out for the title? Was it conservative powerhouse America? Low-cost India? No, it was Germany, the land of lengthy vacations, clean streets, high wages, and a strong social safety net. Even in the second slot, Germany ain't doing too badly. You know how American car companies are either bleeding money left and right or are welfare wards of the state? Volkswagen reported record sales and is on pace to become the world's top carmaker.

So why do we keep following the same political mantra in this country, like political lemmings headed over the cliff?

And the Number One Reason not to Feel Sorry for Conan O'Brien in the NBC Shuffle ...

Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien is getting the short end of the stick in the hullabaloo at NBC, which is rearranging its late-night programming to return Jay Leno to his roost at 11:35 pm (where he actually had an audience suited to that time slot) and push back its other programming by a half hour. O'Brien, if he stays, would start his show 30 minutes later than it now starts. But if he goes, he could receive a reported "eight-figure penalty" from NBC for changing his schedule, says USA Today.

This mess is all of NBC's own making, and I'm sure it has the other network bosses chortling as they drink their morning coffee laced with liquid gold and angels' tears. But really, out of a national population well over 300 million, relatively few people stay up and watch any of the late night TV hosts, so once again we're all getting overdosed by the media about a conflict that doesn't affect us and doesn't change much for anyone.

The Kansas City Star's Aaron Barnhart argues that Conan's right to be upset. Mostly I agree. What I don't agree with is that anyone outside of Conan and his close circle of friends, family, and staff who depend upon his happiness and paycheck should feel any sorrow for him.

He and his bank account will land on their feet. Here's a rule of thumb with which even non-Marxists like this blogger can agree: Never feel sorry for someone who earns more than $10 million just for losing his job.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Starting a Magazine

Hmm, so my plan for a new magazine is being shifted considerably, but I'm enjoying where the new plan is going. Developing a plan -- topics, approach, strategy, multimedia components, etc. -- takes clear thinking, but that's a pleasure in itself.

More info as it develops.

Friday, January 8, 2010

NBC Tries to Fix a Self-Made Mess with Jay Leno/Conan Change #jayleno

Frankly, I never understood why NBC thought it needed to usher Jay Leno off The Tonight Show in the first place when they should have been locking him in for the next 10 years. No, I don't watch late night TV; but millions of people do, and they clearly watched Leno in droves.

But NBC wanted to replace him, for whatever brilliant network programmer reason, so they gave Conan O'Brien the Tonight Show slot (and Conan might be a wonderful person who nurses hurt kittens back to health and makes people laugh, but he's not Tonight Show material -- nor would David Letterman have been, had his early wishes been granted). And Leno got a new five-days-a-week 10:00 pm program.

Which tanked.

I'll admit that I thought Leno would have done better at that hour than he did, but the fact is that he didn't do well at all, despite NBC's claim that he is performing exactly where they thought he would and where they promised advertisers he would. The affiliates, however, were getting hammered because Leno was delivering terrible lead-ins to their 11:00 pm news; and no one was tuning into the end of their news to watch Conan.

So today it looks like Leno will get a 30-minute program at 11:35, and Conan will follow with a full hour. Oh, and NBC suddenly has to come up with five hours of quality 10 programming on short notice (so you know the quality will be great!).

They made the mess, they can clean it up.

UPDATE: Read reactions from Aaron Barnhart -- the original Late Night TV guru.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Hi, I'm Isaac Asimov. Which Science Fiction Author Are You?

This is a year or more old, but I stumbled across this quiz to find out which science fiction author you most represent. After taking the quiz, I was told I was closest to the good doctor Asimov. I think I'll take it again and purposely see if I can get it to tell me I'm Harlan Ellison (even if he has threatened physical harm to anyone calling him a science fiction author -- and therein lies the key to my hoped-for rigging of the quiz).

Who are you?

I am:
Isaac Asimov
One of the most prolific writers in history, on any imaginable subject. Cared little for art but created lasting and memorable tales.

Which science fiction writer are you?

UPDATE: I took the test again, but I missed my Ellison mark. I ended up as Frank Herbert. Who knew?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hubble Looks Back in Time -- 13.2 Billion Years

This has got to be a golden age for deep-space exploration and discovery, and yet it's really just baby steps by us earth-bound monkeys.

Barely a day passes without a headline that makes space geeks like me salivate. Five new planets discovered. Private space ship makes successful test run. And so on.

Today's gobstopper was that "Hubble peers back 13.2 billion years, finds 'primordial' galaxies," to quote CNN's headline. Basically, the deeper in space Hubble looks, the further back in time it is looking. It's a time machine, of a sort. Water found on the moon (okay, that's near-space; still ...).

"These newly found objects are crucial to understanding the evolutionary link between the birth of the first stars, the formation of the first galaxies, and the sequence of evolutionary events that resulted in the assembly of our Milky Way and the other 'mature' elliptical and majestic spiral galaxies in today's universe," in the words of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

And this:
Rychard Bouwens of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a member of Illingworth's team and leader of a paper on the striking properties of these galaxies, says that, "the faintest galaxies are now showing signs of linkage to their origins from the first stars. They are so blue that they must be extremely deficient in heavy elements, thus representing a population that has nearly primordial characteristics."
James Dunlop of the University of Edinburgh, agrees. "These galaxies could have roots stretching into an earlier population of stars. There must be a substantial component of galaxies beyond Hubble's detection limit."
This is as cool as a good science fiction novel. I feel Iain M. Banks-ish. Let the headlines keep coming.

Is ESPN Using Old 3-D Technology? Why Do You Need Glasses?

When I read the news that ESPN was going to launch the ESPN 3-D channel in June 2010, I noted with interest that viewers would still need to wear special glasses to view the screen video in three dimensions.

It reminded me of a note by one of the Starlog/Fangoria editors (sorry, I forget which wrote it) about another 3-D technology that would not require glasses for viewing. The note was in a report on the exit from the publishing company of co-founder Norman Jacobs. Jacobs was involved, we were told, in a venture aimed at bringing 3-D television to the world, and glasses would not be necessary.

It took very little digging to find more information on the company. It's called Magnetic 3D, and you can read a bit about the company and Jacobs' involvement here. Just earlier this week, the company announced that it would be debuting its new line of products at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, being held January 7-10 in Las Vegas.

If you go and see it, let me know if it works.

Vanity Fair Cover Shows the Tiger Woods the Women Know All too Well

I'm beginning to think that you can't beat Women's Wear Daily for media reporting. In one simple paragraph, writer Amy Wicks covers every good snarky comment I wish I'd made about serial adulterer Tiger Woods' latest place in the public eye.

Calling Woods' 2006 photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz one "of the growing list of regrets Woods would like to take back," Wicks refers to the pic that lands on the February issue of Vanity Fair (see photo, right) as "perhaps the side his multitude of mistresses are more familiar with."

Read more at WWD.

Okay, here's one snarky comment Wicks didn't make: Even with all of his bad behavior, he still comes off better than Fox's Brit Hume.

3-D TV Coming to ESPN -- Grab Your Avatar

USA Today reports that ESPN is launching a 3-D channel in June 2010 that will air at least 85 sports events in its first year. The channel, creatively called ESPN 3-D, will air as its first program a World Cup soccer match between South Africa and Mexico.

Soccer might not be the best inaugural program, because so much of the game on TV is long shots showing large portions of the playing field -- that's simply how the game is viewed, with only short closeups. Compare that to baseball, which has tons of closeups but of course only bursts of action. Nonetheless, basketball, college football, and the Summer X Games are also slated to air on ESPN 3-D, so we'll get a chance to see how each fares in this format.

How confident is ESPN in the new channel? Mixed, if you ask me. USA Today says the company has only committed to the channel for one year -- hardly enough time for a channel to build an audience, especially when that audience needs high-end televisions and has to wear special glasses.

On the other hand, "ESPN has been testing ESPN 3D for more than two years, even showing a USC-Ohio State college football game in select theaters and to 6,000 fans at the Galen Center on USC's campus," according to ESPN's own report on the development.

I'm looking forward to the soccer match between the earthlings and the Na'vi.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Star Blazers Now: Space Battleship Yamato Live-Action Film Coming

Step into the way-back machine and join me as my father takes me to the cinema in the late 1970s to see Space Cruiser Yamato, a Japanese anime -- and no one here even knew what anime meant in the 1970s -- featuring a World War II submarine (which appealed to my Greatest Generation father) that was retooled into a spaceship (which appealed to Science Fiction Geek Supreme me) that could go find a way to save planet earth.

The movie amazed me back then. I've since bought the films on DVD and watched them with considerable disappointment. I've had to admit that I was probably under 10 years old at the time I saw Yamato the first time, so my standards weren't exactly world-class. Still, it was so much better than the low-quality limited-animation cartoons we were being fed on TV here in the United States -- and it had a real story that lasted feature-length -- that it was a milestone animated film for me.

Therefore, I was pleased today to learn that there is a live-action film being made of the Yamato story, and it looks quite good. The film is slated for a December 2010 release in Japan, if I'm reading the news correctly. No idea yet when it'll be available in the United States (probably only in very limited release and/or on DVD). For one fan's perspective, provides a short commentary on the film preview (video above).

If you read Japanese, maybe you can get more info (and tell me about it) from the official web site.

Comics and Science Fiction, Part II: Strange Galaxy

I'm sure I'll be finding new examples of forgotten science fiction/fantasy comics magazines for months and years to come, but here's just one I neglected to include in my recent post on the topic: Strange Galaxy. I'd never even heard about it until 10 minutes ago, when I stumbled upon it on eBay through a serendipitous series of clicks that is too complicated to repeat here.

Needless to say, I've never seen the magazine in person, but I think we can guess its content from this cover:

Royal Flush Magazine Gets Publishing Advice from Hugh Hefner

This is officially the 500th post on this blog, so let's focus on one of the core subjects of Weimar World Service: Magazine publishing for fun and profit.

The new issue of Royal Flush includes an interview with Playboy editor Hugh Hefner, in which he relates the story of how he founded that magazine more than 55 years ago. I think most people who follow such things know by now the basic story: In 1953, Hef, former Esquire staffer, creates his own racier magazine on his card table with only a small amount of money; wild success ensues.

In the Royal Flush interview, he fleshes that out some more, building on the question of how it was very rare back in the early 1950s to self-publish a magazine. But he did it: "It's like the bumblebee. Aerodynamically, the bumblebee should not be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn't know that, so he does just fine." Starting with $600 of his own money, mortgaging his furniture, and begging friends and family for a few hundred dollars here and there, he built up the money needed to do the first issue. The most significant investor was his mother, who stepped in after Hefner's conservative father refused to invest; she put up $1,000: "It was the first important money that I received," Hefner tells interviewer Josh Bernstein. "From that ... I was able to secure the rights to the Marilyn Monroe nude that we ran in the very first issue."

It's a good article, and well worth purchasing a copy of Royal Flush (a magazine that I can't quite define, but it has lots of interesting articles and is clearly put together with a lot of talent and devotion. Check it out.)

Magazine professionals who read the article will also appreciate that Hefner knows the industry; for a man who learned to repackage and sell himself and his dreams to the world, he has a refreshingly clear-eyed view of the publishing world, what works, what doesn't, and why. We also get a glimpse at how his prowess with promotion and his knowledge of the distribution system in the country helped him with that first issue.

All well and good. Now, how do I get my magazine business plan to Mother Hefner?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Art of Good and Bad Magazine Cover Lines

My mother, the editor (and art director and general manager) of a regional Wisconsin magazine in the 1970s and 1980s, came back from a magazine design seminar one day and was pleased to report that her magazine (NEWmonth) had been praised by the seminar leader for its design. One thing in particular earned praise: The magazine had only limited cover blurbs promoting articles within, and it met the seminar leader's dictum that a magazine should have no more than three such blurbs on its cover.

Having three or fewer cover blurbs does make for a less-cluttered cover, but I have to side with the thousands of magazine editors who decide they need more text on their covers to catch the reader's eye, whether the publication is sitting on a newsstand or pulled out of a subscriber's mailbox or picked up in a waiting room or accessed digitally.

Magazine cover lines have been attracting my attention again lately, thanks to the recent controversy of Men's Health magazine re-using entire cover lines in multiple issues. The editor reportedly claimed that the re-used cover lines were only on the newsstand copies; subscribers received different cover text. (In essence: We only despise our newsstand buyers, not our subscribers.) The nature of that editorial insult aside, it is a nice reminder about what cover blurbs are really about. They're there to sell the issue -- again, whether it's literally to help the customer make the decision to buy it, or more figuratively to help the reader make the decision to spend some time flipping through or reading the issue.

I am probably an odd magazine reader and magazine editor in that I don't mind cover blurbage. You can certainly have too many -- and too stupid -- cover blurbs. But when done well, the cover blurbs are just as much a part of the cover design as the image(s) and the logo. What's the point of showing Ellen Degeneres smiling from the cover of Time magazine without the now-famous, "Yep, I'm Gay" text?

I recently subscribed to British science fiction media magazine SFX. I received my first issue, which sports no cover blurbs. The magazine promotes this as a benefit of subscribing: "As a subscriber to SFX you get more than the standard high street copy, you will get the benefit of recieving your favourite magazine with uninterrupted cover images, free from any additional text. Perfect for any collection!" Ignoring the punctuation and spelling problems with that statement, I'm sure that's an attractive benefit for many subscribers, and therefore it's probably a smart thing to do.

But I think I'd prefer to get the copies with the blurbs. SFX has very good and strong covers, nicely designed with well-chosen images. They don't look bad without the blurbs; they just don't look like a magazine, so they're not as inviting, at least to this reader. Again: I know I'm in the minority, but that's my two cents.

SFX isn't the only one to do this. The British edition of Esquire does the same (see photo, left). Perhaps the practice will spread, as magazines seek ever more creative ways to cater to their subscribers (who are, after all, small and short-time investors in the publication).

Still, the only magazine I would actually encourage to adopt the practice is Men's Health.