Jobs' Strategy is No Bad Apple

by Tate Strickland

The rumblings of dissent are sounding from the tenuous union between Apple and record labels. What about? A mere 99 cents, it would seem.

Record companies are angry with Apple’s Steve Jobs over his refusal to introduce a variable pricing model in the iTunes Store to replace the current 99-cent flat rate. Under such a system, popular songs would cost, say, $1.49 or $1.99 while (to use one of my favorite euphemisms) a “golden oldie” would cost 60 cents or less.

This constitutes nothing more than another example of the record industry’s characteristic stubbornness with regards to change and new technology — an attitude that caused the illegal music downloading epidemic in the first place.

The à la carte approach to music that iTunes employs allows users to “cut the crap,” to put it bluntly. Everybody knows that the vast majority of albums contain one or two duds. With iTunes, users can streamline the amount of money they spend on music by cutting out those songs that they're never going to listen to — and if this happens en masse, the record companies will make significantly less revenue on these songs than they would if they were bundled with the good ones. As a result, record companies want to charge more for the hit song to make up for the bad song they didn’t sell.

This motion by the record company is shockingly anti-consumer and blatantly pro-industry. The music industry needs to be flexible. Forcing an old business model on a new medium is not going to work this time around.

Apple is winning out for now, because record companies have essentially no choice but to follow Jobs’ lead; with more than 80 percent of the legal music downloading market, iTunes is a force to be reckoned with. But the recording industry has surely been looking for options and alternatives. Microsoft’s Zune, launched just two weeks ago as the “iPod killer,” could have been one such alternative. In brief, the Zune Marketplace requires users to buy chunks of 400 arbitrarily defined “points” for five dollars. 79 points buy a song, which equates to about 99 cents per song. (Do the math. At 79 points per song and 400 point blocks, users will pretty much never be able to use all of their points.) But using a point system instead of a simple money system makes it almost inevitable that the Zune will start charging more for more popular songs.

That is, if the Zune can survive that long. Andy Ihnatko writes in the Chicago Sun-Times that the Zune is "so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity." If his predictions are right, it won't be long before the Zune goes extinct — and with it, record companies’ hopes for a more industry-friendly internet marketplace.

What will it take to take down the iPod and iTunes? A lot more than the Zune, that’s for sure. But for now, chalk one up for Apple… again.

(The iTunes logo courtesy of Apple.)

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Rocky's Football Corner #13

by Rick Rockwell

Let’s all do the quarterback shuffle this week.

That’s what they are doing in Denver. That’s what they are talking about in New York. That’s what they wish they could do in Atlanta.

What we’re really talking about is the penchant for coaches to replace quarterbacks, often making matters even worse for their teams. And usually this is spurred on by the impatience of fans, and of course, it is often fueled by quarterbacks who fall out of favor with the sports punditocracy in the media.

Right now, 47 percent of the teams in the National Football League are starting quarterbacks who were not their starting quarterback at the end of last season. Truly, some of that is due to injury: Jeff Garcia would not be starting for the Eagles if Jonathan McNabb were healthy. (Of course, McNabb was injured at the end of last season too.) However, most of the reason for making these changes is to shift blame from coaches who can’t seem to make their offenses go. Sometimes that has little to do with the quarterback and a lot more to do with the offensive scheme, the play calling, and a healthy, stout, and smart offensive line. But because the quarterback is the center of attention on most plays, that player is the center of the so-called fixes for teams.

No doubt, the quarterback is the single most important position on a football field. Champions can overcome a mediocre quarterback (see the Ravens in 2000 when they won it all) but rarely a bad one.

So this week, with their playoff chances slipping, Denver pulled the plug on Jake “The Snake” Plummer. Now, they have rookie Jay Cutler at the helm. That’s a bold change because likely Cutler will lose a few more games before he is really comfortable running an offense headed for the playoffs. The real problem in Denver is a defense that went from excellent to inconsistent. The Broncos could have gone to the playoffs and won with Plummer (they did last year) if the defense was playing at top form. But Coach Mike Shanahan must have figured it was easier to fix problems at quarterback than to overhaul the defense in the stretch run. We’ll see if the gamble pays off.

If Cutler is anywhere as good as rookie Vince Young of the Titans (and Cutler wasn’t nearly that good in college) it will take several games before results will begin to show. Young demonstrated last week in the triumph over the Giants just how dangerous he can be in the fourth quarter. But the Titans have only won four games this year under Young and they aren’t playoff bound.

Actually, the Baltimore Ravens are thanking the Titans for pulling the trigger too soon on the career of one of the great quarterbacks playing right now: Steve McNair. If the Ravens make the playoffs it will be due to what McNair brings to the Ravens’ offense, one that struggled for several years under Kyle Boller. But Boller’s problems were just what we are discussing here – rushing young quarterbacks into starting long before it is time and giving up on older players before they are done. The case of Phillip Rivers in San Diego is the best example of this. Rivers sat behind Drew Brees for several years before blossoming into one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year. Now, that’s a quarterback switch that also has two cities smiling: New Orleans with Brees is a playoff contender and Rivers is directing the best offense in the league.

Now, what would have happened in New York if they had kept Kurt Warner (and let Eli Manning learn a few tricks for a few years) or if Atlanta had brought in an older quarterback to mentor Michael Vick? Oh, but NFL fans are too impatient to wait for those results.

In Dallas, Tony Romo, the quarterback who took over for Drew Bledsoe in a bold move by Bill Parcells this year may look like an overnight sensation. However, he has been on the bench for years learning Parcells’ system. And remember, he didn't win immediately after Parcells put him in at quarterback.

Good luck to the teams who bring out the early quarterback hook, but just remember, impatience is rarely rewarded. Stability and sound decision-making are what build strong organizations.

Postscript Update: The NFL and various cable firms have not resolved their disputes so the Ravens-Bengals game won't be seen by most fans despite their complaints. The Washington Post has the latest here. Check the archives of this column (#11 and #12) for more.

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The Office Pool: Week Thirteen

by Rick Rockwell

Perhaps too late for this season, last week, this column finally hit the same pace of prognostication as the 2005 season. Can that pace be maintained though?

Last Week: .688
This Season: .602

Game of the Week: Ravens at Bengals, Thursday Night

This week the best game comes early with two American Football Conference (AFC) North teams clashing on the NFL's network. (For this column's take on these games, go here.) The Ravens seem unstoppable after they dismantled the World Champs last week. But hold on, the Bengals are fighting for their lives at home. This game should be full of hard hitting defense. Bengal's quarterback Carson Palmer will suffer some lumps, but in the end the Bengals squeeze by, although by less than a field goal.

Falcons at Washington

The fans in Atlanta may have had enough of quarterback Michael Vick. His coach may secretly (or not so secretly) have had enough of Vick and his prima donna ways this season. But you have to admit, the guy can run! He piled up 166 rushing yards last week. So can inconsistent Team Gibbs stop him? After last week's revival in Landover, why not? Washington will escape with a white-knuckle, hang from the edge of your seat, last minute, one point win.

Cardinals at Rams

The Cardinals tried to keep up with the Vikings last week but fell short. But they will give the Rams quite a game. The Rams are over-rated, but play above their heads at home. Both teams should score often on the fast carpet in St. Louis. The Rams escape with a win, but by less than a field goal.

Texans at Raiders

Week by week, the Raiders are playing better football. Maybe by the end of the season, they'll realize the preseason ended weeks ago. Texans' quarterback David Carr has been strong all season, although as usual he's one of the few bright spots in Houston. The Texans should spring an upset on these down-in-the-mouth Raiders.

Cowboys at Giants

This match-up is billed as one of the marquee games of the weekend, with control of the National Football Conference (NFC) East at stake. But the Giants are imploding (evidence: that total collapse in the fourth quarter last week against the Titans) just as Dallas is peaking. After this game, the sports pundits will agree the Cowboys are the best in the NFC; Dallas should win by more than a touchdown.

Monday Night: Panthers at Eagles

Lucky for the inconsistent Panthers, they get the wounded Eagles this week. Carolina should cruise to a win, even in the unfriendly confines of the Linc.

Buccaneers at Steelers

Speaking of elixirs, the Bucs are just what the ailing World Champs need this week after the Ravens crushed them. Sometimes the National Football League (NFL) is all about getting even. This week, the Bucs are the victims.

Jaguars at Dolphins

Apparently, Jacksonville can't win on the road, and the Dolphins are finally playing like some of us predicted they should have been all season. (Can I blame the Dolphins for my prediction woes?) Look for lots of defense and a low score but the Dolphins should notch another win.

Sunday Night: Seahawks at Broncos

The problems in Denver will be evident for at least a few more weeks as rookie quarterback Jay Cutler settles into his new role as a starter. Broncos fans are going to be disappointed that this kid is not the immediate savior they all dream he should be for their team. As for the Seahawks, running back Shaun Alexander showed through his performance on Monday that he is finally back in real form. The Seahawks will take this win.

Colts at Titans

The Titans shouldn't be able to sneak up on anybody for the rest of the season after they exploded against the Giants last week. And the last time these teams played, the Colts escaped with a one-point victory. This time the Colts will roll like an offensive machine, as they have all their cylinders firing.

49ers at Saints

Maybe if this game were on the West Coast the 49ers would have a chance. But the Saints showed off their dominant offense on the road last week, and they are beasts in the Super Dome. The Saints will rumble to another win.

Jets at Packers

The Vegas experts say the Pack should be favored when playing at Lambeau Field in December. Have they been paying attention to how the Jets have rebuilt this year? The Jets should win. Packers quarterback Brett Favre is pressing too much again.

Vikings at Bears

Nothing like a game in the Black & Blue NFC North to make the Bears look dominant again. With the Bears playing at home, the Vikes have no chance.

Chiefs at Browns

The Chiefs' premiere running back Larry Johnson is proving again that he is a human steamroller. The Chiefs' offense should go into high gear here and win easily.

Chargers at Bills

The Bills have proved they will play everyone fairly tough this year. Will the league's best, the Chargers, get sloppy on the road? Not likely. Not this week. Not unless Buffalo gets more than a foot of snow to slow down that Chargers' offense. The Chargers take the win.

Lions at Patriots

The Lions are back in a familiar spot: listed now as the weakest team in the league on my power chart. The Patriots are tuning up for the playoffs. Would the Pats get more of a contest if they scrimmaged against Boston College?

December is here already? Time flies: enjoy the viewing this weekend!

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Rise Above the Influence

by Allie Feras

“I smoked weed, and nobody died….”

So opens a recent TV spot from the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, a program of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The ad continues by showing the narrator sitting on the couch of his friend “Pete,” explaining how nothing bad happened when he tried marijuana. However, he decides to get up off the couch and not smoke weed anymore because he saw more exciting things to do than sit on Pete’s couch.

The campaign’s website says, Our goal is to help you stay above the influence. The more aware you are of the influences around you, the better prepared you will be to stand up to the pressures that keep you down.”

The premise of the campaign is that because teenagers are bombarded everyday by pressures from friends and the media, they should be more well-informed and think about what they are doing before they make decisions that could affect their lives. The ad series focuses not only on drug use, but also on drinking, smoking, and premarital sex.

Other ads in the series include one featuring a girl who has been squished by all the pressures put on her by the “cool kids” to do drugs and have sex.

The website (called "Above The Influence") even concedes that it is just another media influence, saying, “We're not telling you how to live your life, but are giving you another perspective and the latest facts. You need to make your own smart decisions.”

But from the looks of both the website and the TV ads, the only smart decision is their decision. The campaign implies that anyone who gives into these evil pressures to drink, do drugs and have sex is weak, while the characters featured in the ads rise above the influence and go ice skating instead. So much for personal choice!

While old anti-drug commercials were mocked because of their extreme claims about the dangers of marijuana, "Above The Influence" admits that it’s really not all that bad, just boring. But which is more ridiculous? Telling a lie that says: “This is bad, don’t do it?” Or sending the message: “This won’t hurt you, don’t do it anyway?”

Either way, "Above The Influence" is no different from any other similar campaign; it’s just another waste of taxpayer dollars that would be far better spent on real education.

(Photo used with a Creative Commons License from Flickr. Photo by awethum. For a sample of the "Above the Influence" advertising campaign, see below.)

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Film Review: "American Hardcore"

by Hilary Crowe

Most people wouldn’t decide where to spend the next four years of life, let alone their future in academia, based upon the university’s location in one of the birth places of the most awesome musical movement to hit America’s youth, the 1980s hardcore punk movement. (It definitely helped me weed out a few inconsequential ivies and state universities.)

Then again, most people wouldn’t spend nine bucks to sit in a dark room with their dad (the only one brave enough to accompany me) and about 40 other punks-of-all-ages, mohawks expertly spiked and starched, heads freshly shorn for the occasion, drooling over grainy footage of archaic shows and an especially virile-looking Henry Rollins. Bravo for bravado, and hooray for Paul Rachman’s documentary American Hardcore.

This recently released film, based on Steven Blush’s 2001 book by the same title, tracks the development and dissolution of the original hardcore scene from 1980 to 1986. A lofty ambition, as anyone familiar with the music will attest to, but laudable that reel time finally be devoted to the subculture that spread like the plague from So Cal bars to D.C. basements. While Rachman struggles to fit dozens of bands into this postcard from that bygone era, he calls forth the innovators and visionaries of the scene to address audiences via expertly timed and placed talking head interviews.

The film opens with a rapid-fire audio-visual montage of stills and music from live hardcore sets – stage-divers and punches suspended, framed mid-collision in celluloid. Then, just as every head in the theater gets to bobbing along with SS Decontrol’s sonic assault, blood boiling with the rollicking images, the operation screeches to a halt. Awkward silence but for Keith Morris, of Black Flag and Circle Jerks (non)fame, describing the socio-Reaganomic status that sparked the whole sha-bang while sitting poolside in a lawn-chair on his substandard suburban patio. Unable to wipe the maniacally enthused grin off my face, I thought to myself, "This is gonna be good."

I couldn’t have been more right. Rachman’s adaptation is as close to a perfect snapshot as possible. It’s always been easy for teen- and middle-aged yahoos to rip the effort to shreds on the blogosphere; “There should’ve been more music,” “Where’s Hüsker Dü?” “What about Texas and the Midwest?” What about it? For Hardcore’s sake, there’s only so much of the movement a man can capture using faded twenty-plus-year-old footage while sidestepping intra-band legal battles (that’s why neither the Dead Kennedys nor the Misfits made it into the line-up)! I will concede, however, that Rachman’s coverage was biased toward Black Flag and the Bad Brains as the movement’s bicoastal powerhouses, and that San Francisco appeared as a mere blip on the film’s radar. Then again, I said it was as close to perfect as possible, for Rachman had no predecessors and only Blush’s anthology to guide the effort.

For all those fine lines in this otherwise smooth depiction, there are many aspects of the film that even the most scrutinizing hardcore-punk can appreciate; how members of bands like MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) are interviewed in their backyards, in front of swing-sets and various other clues that the buzz-saw guitarists now share those spaces with toddlers. And that all the interviews were done in harsh or poor lighting, in the crappy apartments of decidedly un-famous ghosts of the movement or the sterile, OCD-clean homes of shrewd musicians-turned-businessmen, like Henry Rollins, the film’s aesthetics reflecting the scene’s own unforgiving sound. Also, all the live show and stage footage is in black and white, reeking of nostalgia, like an art history lesson in kicking ass and taking names. And you have to appreciate the hilarity that is old dudes with names like “Jimmy Gestapo” (Murphy’s Law) and “Vinnie Stigma” (Agnostic Front) discussing sex, drugs, and hardcore shows in their drug-addled, slithery voices (needless to say it’s rated R for pervasive language and sex and drug references), tattoos fading like graffiti in acid rain. Other highlights include interviews with media-reclusive D.C. figures Ian MacKaye (Teen Idles, Minor Threat) and Paul “H.R.” Hudson (the Bad Brains), and observing the general mayhem and violence that accompanies the cathartic concerts.

Judging by the reaction in the theater, American Hardcore is one hundred minutes of pure adulatory bliss. It’s one of those films that you go to see knowing full well that you’ll be in good company. I mean, it takes a special person to appreciate the thrill of thrash punk. A few kids in the front cheered when John Joseph (Cro-Mags) was afforded a five-minute soundbite. You don’t get that kind of reaction from Marie Antoinette, I assure you. Even my forty-eight-year-old, Elvis Costello-loving father couldn’t stop talking about how enthralling the experience was. However, this film is not for the faint at heart, or the faint of hearing. After all, the movement’s intensity led to its implosion, a general effect of burning the candle at both ends further examined at the film’s climax.

This film is for those of us who are or ever have been forced to brave seedy district neighborhoods in search of that rare album we know not to bother searching for on iTunes or Napster. This is for everyone whose ears have ever rung for days after standing too close to an amp, or reluctantly returned home smelling of Miller, Marlboros, and the sweat of one hundred or so of your closest friends. Or, at the very least, for those who wish they had.

(Promotional graphic courtesy of Rhino Records. To see the trailer of American Hardcore, courtesy of Sony Pictures, please see below.

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Film Review: "Stranger Than Fiction"

by McKayle Davison

I’m not ashamed – Will Ferrell is one of my favorite actors. What can I say, the man makes me laugh. I loved him as aging frat boy Frank the Tank in Old School. He was hysterical as pompous idiot Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. I even thought he was fantastic as naïve and precious Buddy in the slightly ridiculous Elf. His mere presence on screen is enough to make me giggle.

Needless to say, I was looking forward to Ferrell’s first semi-dramatic role, as IRS agent Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction, a PG-13 romantic “dramady” from director Marc Forster. Ferrell plays a desperately lonely, loveable fuddy-duddy set in his ways. He times his everyday routines to the second, counts the number of strokes when brushing his teeth – you get the picture. Nothing exciting ever happens to Harold. His days are largely filled with numbers and angry taxpayers. That is, until he begins to hear a voice narrating his life, predicting his imminent death.

The voice is that of Kay Eiffel, a suicidal author played believably by Emma Thompson. In fact, Thompson is a little too believable as the slovenly, suicidal Eiffel. She is the creepy lady you know who keeps used tissues up her sleeves and yells obscenities at pigeons. She putters around desperately trying to finish her book about, you guessed it, Harold Crick, without a clue that her subject is a real live person. Eiffel thinks that in order for her book to be complete, Harold must die – something the real Harold sees as a problem.

Clever graphics sometimes measure Harold’s progress, rolling back numbers as Howard brushes or counting his footsteps. This was my favorite part of the film – it emphasized the mathematical precision Harold had adopted as a way to fill the void in his life. Overall the film is visually dull, even boring, but this is a parallel to Harold’s life and it works. While it is in color, there are times when the film seems to be in grayscale, due to the sheer lack of anything bright.

Speaking of dull, Dustin Hoffman plays Jules Hilbert, a professor of literature who attempts to help Harold figure out what sort of book he’s in, and thus what will happen to him. I had high hopes, but Hoffman is completely wasted in this film, never really living up to the potential which he has shown so often in the past. Hilbert’s motivation is questionable, and he seems alternately concerned and indifferent about Harold’s plight, leading to some confusion for the viewer. Sure, Hoffman is the cute, quirky old man he has played in just about everything recently, but there is absolutely no depth to his character.

Harold’s life changes when he audits Ana Pascal, an anarchist baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal is as cute as a button, but she overdoes it a little in the beginning, inciting the patrons of her bakery to shout “TAXMAN” at Harold over and over again. Harold is instantly smitten for reasons unknown, which is unfortunate since Ana hates him. That is, until she doesn’t anymore. The viewer spends about fifteen minutes getting comfortable with the dynamic, when all of the sudden, hey, Ana likes Harold! The film spends too much time emphasizing how different they are, how much they dislike each other, only to abandon that angle completely and with little reason.

I spent a good part of the film confused. My biggest qualm was with Eiffel’s narration. Her voice follows Harold almost all of the time, except when he is looking for or talking about her. Convenient, right? We find out that she has been writing every mundane detail about his life, but whole chunks of time drop out when he is thinking about her, which is a little puzzling. Also, there is no explanation as to why Eiffel is so depressed, or why she feels it is necessary to kill Harold Crick. The amazing Queen Latifah plays her writer’s assistant, but she’s just frivolous. Her talent is wasted, too. In the film she serves to guide Eiffel to conclusions that she could just as easily have reached alone.

The film alternates between being cute and haunting. Ferrell is completely adorable, and instantly likeable. His Harold Crick embodies the old adage “nice guys finish last.” But at the same time, his loneliness is harrowing. It feels deep and real, and I was very impressed that Ferrell could play this so well. It was hard to get over my expectations for him – I half-expected him to strip down to his underwear and go running around the streets, as he does in most every film. He certainly had his funny moments, but he never went for the big laugh, a remarkable show of restraint in a man who can send me into hysterics with one look.

Throughout the film, I just couldn’t get over the sense of wasted talent. None of the characters ever really peak. It’s a great cast, but none of them, with the exception of Ferrell, give a memorable performance. It seemed that the makers of the film were relying on the sheer star-power of their cast, as if their presence on the screen could make up for a lack of substance. I was constantly questioning the characters’ motivation and asking, “Why would they do that?” It’s certainly worth seeing, but try not to expect much depth from the characters. What you see is what you get.

(Promotional photo of Dustin Hoffman and Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Pictures. For the film's trailer, please see below.)

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Giving Thanks

We who are here present thank the Great Spirit that we are here
to praise Him.

We thank Him that He has created men and women, and ordered
that these beings shall always be living to multiply the earth.

We thank Him for making the earth and giving these beings its products to live

--A traditional Iroquois prayer translated by Harriet Maxwell Converse

(The print is from Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

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"Babel:" It's a Harsh World, Honey

by Allison Dunatchik

Title: Babel.
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Elle Fanning, Adrianna Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Koji Yakusho, Said Tarchani, Boubker Ait El Caid.
Genre: Drama.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, some nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug use.

Why do we watch movies? As much as we may grumble about having to shell out ten bucks for a movie ticket, the shallowness of Hollywood, or the bloated salaries of big-name actors and actresses, there is something undeniably alluring about movies. Movies allow us to escape our own mundane lives for few hours – just long enough experience the thrill of leading an exciting life. It’s understandable, then that we love to watch movies about love too perfect to exist, heroes we could never measure up to, and lives too charmed or too dramatic to ever exist in real life. They allow us to suspend reality, and satisfy out escapist cravings. But then there are movies that take reality and hurl it back in your face. Unlike other movies, their aim is to draw attention to those very aspects of life we tend to push to the back of our minds. The recently-released film, Babel (which has a striking resemblance to Paul Higgin’s 2004 film, Crash) does just that as it brings to the screen the sad realities of international discord and cultural division.

Babel follows four loosely intertwined stories that take place in three very different environments at roughly the same time. The first story follows a Moroccan family who had recently purchased a rifle to protect their goats from wild jackals. While tending to their goats one day, the family’s two sons decide to practice their marksmanship by shooting at rocks and cars passing on the road below. One of the boys hits a tour bus, setting off a chain of events that you know can only end in tragedy. As it turns out, the bullet hit an American tourist on the bus and the incident is automatically presumed by Americans to be a terrorist attack. As was likely its intention, this story shows us the tragedy that can arise from one little boy’s mistake when that mistake is complicated by the US’s war on terrorism and does much to reflect the harsh realities of life in a country suspected of harboring terrorists.

The second story follows the story of the gunshot victim (played by Cate Blanchett) on the bus and her husband (played by a rather convincing Brat Pitt) an American couple who had traveled to Morocco in an attempt to save their marriage. With no hospital nearby and the woman losing a considerable amount of blood, the bus drives to the nearest village so the couple can seek medical assistance and contact the American Embassy for help. The couple is forced to wait as diplomatic problems between the US and Morocco forestall the process of sending a medical rescue team, casting both governments as cold-hearted and inept bureaucracies. On top of that, the purely selfish tendencies of human nature are painfully depicted as the bus and the rest of its passengers, fearing a terrorist attack and unable to withstand the heat, desert the couple in the village.

The third story follows the couple’s two children and the nanny who cares for them while their parents are out of town. The nanny (played magnificently by Adrianna Barraza) is to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico but due to the events unfolding in Morocco must take the children with her. Inevitably, as they try to cross back over the border from Mexico to the children’s home in California, they are stopped by the border patrol. The driver, the nanny’s nephew (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) decides to make a break for it, and when the police give chase, he panics and leaves the nanny and two children in the middle of the desert. After a few heartbreaking scenes of the nanny carrying the children aimlessly though the desert under the scorching sun, they are discovered by the police and we learn that the nanny has been working in the US illegally and now faces deportation. The point of this story is painfully spelled out for us as the nanny tearfully pleads with the police chief to let her stay, that she loves the children and has cared for them all of their lives. We cannot help but sympathize with her and balk at the injustice and discrimination present in America’s immigration policies.

The final story follows an adolescent deaf-mute girl in Tokyo whose father was the original owner of the rifle used in the shooting in Morocco. We discover her deep despair as we learn the realities of what it means to deaf in modern society and rendered unable to communicate with most of your peers. By witnessing her grief and difficulties fitting into society, we are shamed for ever having taken our own ability to hear – and anything else for that matter – for granted.

All of these bleak reflections of reality are valid and important to recognize. However, Babel’s ambitious attempt to incorporate all of them in a single film leaves the audience’s emotions rather raw and ravaged. That being said, the film does have two saving graces. The first is in the breath-taking score, composed by Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla that adds a beautiful and almost poetic element to the tragedy of the events that take place in the film. The second is the absolutely stunning scenery that eloquently juxtaposes the barren terrain of Morocco, Mexico and southern California with the overwhelmingly populated and cosmopolitan Tokyo.

The point of the film seems to get at the idea that although geography and international conflict may divide us, we are all humans and our lives, no matter what country we reside in, are all similarly marked by tragedy. If you are of the mindset that movies should be an escape from the realities of life, this movie, which is built on the most heartbreaking of realities, is not for you. However, if you consider movies to be the perfect opportunity to reflect on the harsh realities of life (and you are prepared for two or three movies’ worth of content crammed into one two-hour film) Babel is a well-made and beautifully shot portrayal of the tragedy of human existence.

(Babel promotional photo of Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

(To see a trailer for Babel, check below.)

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Rocky's Football Corner #12

by Rick Rockwell

The biggest game of the Thanksgiving weekend has a lot at stake: 52 million homes and at least $36 million, if not more.

Those are just part of the economic stakes in the game between the National Football League (NFL) and the biggest cable TV operators in the U.S.

The first round of this big game is set for kickoff tomorrow night when the Denver Broncos face off against the Kansas City Chiefs. Because when the kickoff happens, as it stands now, 52 million cable homes won’t see the game.

Last week, this column weighed in on this subject too: how the new NFL Network is cablecasting games but not every fan will be able to see them. When the Washington Post tackled this topic this week, writer Lee Carpenter’s story noted 52 million homes would not be able to see the NFL Network’s games. That’s quite a few more million than this column listed as being affected. (The Wall Street Journal has actually been out in front of this story and was cited directly in Congressional hearings last week.)

Nevertheless, this is a story about greed. Plain and simple.

To those who think it is black and white though, think again. It is not as simple as painting the NFL as the bad guys because they want more money from the cable firms. Last year, the NFL received 20 cents per cable subscriber for its NFL Network from cable firms. But this year, with a set of eight Thursday and Saturday games set to be cablecast exclusively on its own network, the NFL jacked up the price to 70 cents per subscriber. Some think that’s extortion.

But hold on. Aren’t the cable companies also holding up consumers for exorbitant rates already? According to the FCC’s latest reports, the average cable bill in markets where cable firms face no local competition is $45.56 per month, that’s a 23 percent increase from where the rate stood in 2001. Consumers Union and other groups have criticized cable firms for raising rates beyond the rate of inflation and beyond what seems like reasonable rates to offset rising programming costs.

The NFL just wants a piece of the cable bonanza.

Who can blame them? The history of broadcasting in the U.S. shows the NFL has considerable weight with the viewing audience. Rupert Murdoch built the FOX network in the 1990s when he outbid CBS for football rights and ended up wooing CBS affiliates away from their network in great numbers. Some credit the decline of NBC’s ratings with the fact it lost its NFL package and didn’t have that key arena to promote new series. Thus NBC fought hard to get its new Sunday night package this year. So the NFL knows its product is worth quite a bit. One cable network bid $400 million for the eight games now reserved on the NFL Network and the league decided it would earn more in the long run if it kept those games and developed a tradition of broadcasting some of its own games on cable.

This is the league adjusting to the new 21st Century viewing pattern where the audience is splintered and not just watching traditional television. The league is already planning for the new reality of internet viewing and video podcasting too. This move with cable operators is just the first step in that modernization.

By setting up its Sunday Ticket service (where viewers can pay to have access to every NFL game) with Murdoch’s DirecTV satellite service, cable television’s only real competitor, the NFL has shown it knows how to leverage the cable giants.

The NFL is banking on the fact that angry fans deprived of games will soon be calling the FCC, their members of Congress, their city hall, anybody, to vent their anger. The cable firms counter with the theory that real football fans make up only 20 percent of that cable viewing public. They want that 20 percent to pay for the NFL Network on a premium basis instead of having it available on a basic tier, which is the NFL’s demand. What the cable firms don’t want is what happened last week: Congress poking its nose into the thorny issue of cable rates and compensation. Because once that happens, Congress could change the rules for a system that rewards the cable companies in very lucrative ways.

By Friday morning, we’ll know if the NFL was right. We will know if angry fans demanded action in any great number or if they were too full of sleep-inducing turkey to care. Round Two coming next week and each subsequent week on Thursdays, and don’t forget the Senate Judiciary Committee is promising more hearings in December.

Can we hope that all fans can see their games in peace without cable rates getting jacked up yet again? Likely, that’s too much of an idealistic dream.

(Rick Rockwell served as an advisor on telecommunications issues to Sen. Maria Cantwell [D-WA] in 2003 and 2004.)

(For another excerpt from the Senate hearings on the NFL’s cable and satellite deals and antitrust law, see below.)

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The Office Pool: Week Twelve

by Rick Rockwell

Hope is slipping away that this column can replicate the prognostication rate of last year, now some 90 points off the pace. Last week was an improvement, but far from stellar.

Last Week: .563
This Season: .594

Game of the Week: Saints at Falcons

Both of these teams have hit some midseason adversity. Acrobatic quarterback Michael Vick is back to his inconsistent ways: playing tall against superior teams and slacking against the dog teams of the league, which has led to a rash of upsets. Meanwhile the Saints have unleashed a torrent of offense but are asking Drew Brees to pass too much. Whichever team wins this one will contend for the National Football Conference (NFC) South division championship or a wildcard spot, while the other sinks into oblivion. This week, the Saints have the edge, but it is ever so slight.

Thanksgiving Night: Broncos at Chiefs

If the Chiefs want to compete in the American Football Conference (AFC) West, they must win this game. Some are saying the Chief's new coach Herman Edwards should be considered for Coach of the Year, rallying his team after a slow start and key injuries. Meanwhile, the Broncos are limping after a tough home loss last week. They too must win to keep pace in the league's toughest division. Even in hostile Arrowhead Stadium, the Broncos will find a way to pull it out, but by less than a field goal and in the closing seconds. This should be exciting, for those lucky enough to see it.

Cardinals at Vikings

This week's Loser Bowl puts the hapless Cardinals on the road to face the underachieving Vikings. This week, more rumors surfaced that the Cardinals are close to ending their association with Coach Dennis Green. That would be a mistake. But Green can't feel good with all that talk swirling about while he returns to Minnesota where he enjoyed his greatest success as a head coach. As usual, a sloppy game by two inconsistent clubs should produce a last minute showdown where the Vikings, barely, win by a point.

Bears at Patriots

Here's where we get to see if the Bears are really what the hype makes them out to be. If they can beat a tough opponent from the AFC, maybe they are one of the best the NFC has to offer. This year, the Patriots are not among the AFC's elite, but they are still a division leader. This should be a close defensive struggle, with the Patriots winning, late in the fourth quarter, by less than a touchdown.

Texans at Jets

The Jets may have made the Patriots look over their shoulder a time or two this year, but they are probably not going to really challenge for the division lead again or for a wildcard. However, they are having a respectable rebuilding year. Meanwhile, quietly, David Carr is having a strong year at quarterback for the Texans. This will be a close match-up but the Jets' defense will be the difference maker and Gang Green will be the victor.

49ers at Rams

If the revival of the San Francisco 49ers is real, they must show it on the road in St. Louis. This is a real changing of the guard game, with the 49ers on a midseason upset tear. Running back Frank Gore is galloping through teams. The Rams may slow him a bit, but they are not the same team as earlier in the year. Injuries have taken their toll. San Francisco should pull out a win here.

Giants at Titans

The Titans have proven to be strong contenders against NFC teams this year so far. Last week, they could have finished off the season for the Eagles. Will the same happen to the injured and sometimes confused Giants? Don't count on it. After being embarrassed on Monday night, Coach Tom Coughlin should have some answers for the trip to Tennessee. Giants win.

Monday Night: Packers at Seahawks

It won't matter who is at quarterback for Green Bay, this is a mismatch. The Seahawks may bring Matt Hasselbeck off the bench after his injury, and he should have an easy time with the young inexperienced Packers. Quarterback Brett Favre is likely to press too much which is when he makes game-changing mistakes. The Seahawks should cruise.

Steelers at Ravens

The World Champs should put up a strong fight: they don't want Baltimore waltzing away with the division crown so easy. But the Ravens will be too much, playing at home. They should have some defensive schemes that will puzzle the Steelers' offense. Here's where the Ravens exert their dominance.

Panthers at Washington

The Panthers need more consistency if they truly are one of the best teams in the NFC. They should find it against a slumping Washington team, which put up the white flag last week.

Thanksgiving: Buccaneers at Cowboys

The Bucs are struggling and have managed to find a way to win a few but Dallas has finally emerged as the best NFC team. (Yes, that's right Bears fans. Name one other team that has beaten the Colts?) Dallas should be carving up these turkeys just about the same time the rest of the country is doing to the same.

Jaguars at Bills

Why don't the Jaguars wear those cool black uniforms all the time? It seems David Garrard has finally settled in at quarterback for Jacksonville. He should direct the dissection of the Bills with ease.

Sunday Night: Eagles at Colts

Without quarterback Donovan McNabb (lost last week to injury for the season) this is no contest. NBC must be kicking itself for switching to this game in the featured spot. The Colts should crush the Eagles, easily by two touchdowns or more.

Bengals at Browns

The Bengals are turning on the afterburners now, just as the Browns are shutting down for the season. This should be a runaway, with the Bengals roaring victoriously at the end.

Thanksgiving: Dolphins at Lions

Why did I mistakenly put my faith in the Lions the past few weeks? Same reason I mistakenly put my trust with the Dolphins at the beginning of the season? Look for the strong Dolphin defense to throttle the Lions and for once Joey Harrington will look good in Detroit, except now he's throwing passes for Miami.

Raiders at Chargers

The Raiders do play better in these divisional contests, but can anyone stop the Chargers' offense? This is my pick for runaway game of the week, with the Chargers winning big.

Enjoy the Thanksgiving games and enjoy the viewing this weekend!

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The Satire of "Borat" Gets "High Five"

by Jack Douglass

The most thought-provoking and talked-about film of the year isn’t a star-studed drama. Nor is it a high-budget action flick or blockbuster. It’s far from a feel-good, heartwarming family movie.

It’s a comedy about a reporter from Kazakhstan who is trying to marry Pamela Anderson.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan enjoyed two weeks as the nation’s number one movie. Directed by Larry Charles, the film follows a journalist named Borat (famous only in his native country Kazakhstan) who comes to America in search of a good story. But how exactly did this movie sell? How could a comedy do so well when its main character begins the film with the line: “I like you. I like sex!?"

Borat is more than a funny movie. Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen entertains the audience with his often-imitated-never-duplicated character who fumbles with the American language and makes known his hatred of the Jewish population. But Borat’s shocking behavior serves as the film’s basis. The whole thing is shot as a documentary of sorts; I would call it a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, except most of Borat’s interviews are with real people with real jobs. In fact, the majority of the film can be summed up in a single gag: Borat approaches a total stranger and turns an everyday situation into something vulgar and obscene. While at a car dealership, he asks a salesperson how fast he would have to drive an SUV to kill a Jewish person.

So why does he do this? He pushes people’s buttons to gauge their reactions. He knows that, with enough crazy antics of his (as some may call them), he exposes the true American to the cameras. The results can be very revealing: an old man at a Texas rodeo tells Borat how to rid the country of all its homosexuals, while college students drunkenly make sexist remarks when Borat confesses his love for Pamela Anderson. What is it, then, that triggers these reactions? One argument is that people believe they are safe when conversing with someone from a completely different culture and can therefore discuss freely without restraint or fear of stereotypes. That is how Borat speaks; in one scene where he visits a “joke coach,” he discusses making jokes about retarded people and then tells a hilarious story about his own retarded brother “Bilo.”

Cohen knows that too many Americans have irrational stereotypes lodged in their minds about some groups of people. What makes the movie so great is that he exploits this knowledge through his own character, who makes fun of some people’s ignorance. For example, during a feminist meeting he laughs to himself when one of the members states that the size of a female’s brain is equal to that of a male’s. Of course the women present are immediately offended and soon leave, but his point has already been made. Cohen believes that stereotypes we may have about religion, sexuality, or any other subject make about as much sense as believing that the Jewish population consists of “shape-shifters” (he mistakes a pair of cockroaches for an elderly Jewish couple, and his solution involves throwing money at them until they leave).

Even if people fail to see this level of satire, the film has plenty of shock value and fully deserves its “R” rating. I had a hard time choosing which film I thought was funnier: Borat or Jackass 2. Both films had me doubled over laughing for surprisingly similar reasons. When Cohen isn’t hilarious verbally, he more than makes up for it in physical comedy. The film’s most famous and discussed scene by far has to be the naked wrestling match between Borat and his traveling producer that carries from their hotel room to a formal presentation on the main floor. You have to admire the actor for having the courage to do what he does. In fact, thanks to some research on IMDb, I’ve learned that the police were called on Cohen 91 times during shooting, and I can honestly say I believe it. Shock humor aside, the music is also perfect – stay during the ending credits to hear the amazingly bizarre anthem of Kazakhstan.

The one negative aspect that my friends and I agreed on was that the film focused a bit too much on the “Borat-chasing-Pamela” plot. If it had solely been about Cohen interviewing different people from across the country, I feel like I would have enjoyed it more. The ending, however, is a nice payoff, as he makes his boldest move yet and attempts to kidnap Pamela for his wife. Again, his fictional marriage customs serve to satirize America’s ignorance of other cultures and our own stereotypes.

Is Borat worth seeing? I would have to say "yes," but be warned: if you aren’t too offended, if you find the brilliance of what Cohen is doing, you will laugh until it hurts.

I give it: (That's four out of five Borats.)

(The short trailer for Borat from 20th Century Fox is below.)

(For more on Borat, please see: "Borat:" The Aftermath.)

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"Borat:" The Aftermath

by Mick Lenszer

A little over two weeks ago Borat hit theaters and has been raking in the dough ever since. The movie premiered at the top of the charts, contrary to the predictions of many critics, and made just over $26 million in the first weekend. Borat was shown in a mere 837 theaters, beating out several movies including The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, which was being shown in 3500 theaters. Now, Borat has surpassed $90 million and is closing in on $100 million just in the United States.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the premise, and I can’t imagine that’s very many people, Borat is the tale of a Kazakh journalist who comes to America to report on the “greatest country in the world” and travels across the nation trying to gain Pamela Anderson’s hand in marriage. Of course the whole movie is a slap-stick satire, with actor Sacha Baron Cohen playing the naïve Borat, who goes around spouting off his radical, over-the-top views on all things regarding race, religion, gender, nationality…you get the picture.

Many people are now speaking out against the movie, as well as against Cohen and his particular style of humor. Many have labeled him an anti-Semite, for Borat’s particular affinity to making fun of Jewish people, and saying the movie should be boycotted. However, what people don’t realize at first is that Cohen himself is a devout Jew who keeps kosher and respects the Sabbath. While Cohen’s characters, Bruno and Ali G in addition to Borat, all exhibited unbelievable ignorance and stupidity, Cohen himself is a world apart from his characters. He graduated from Cambridge University and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement. Cohen sees his characters as tools for exposing people’s hatred and ignorance. Cohen recently told Rolling Stone that "part of the movie shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it's hatred of African-Americans or of Jews." HBO spokespeople say that they feel Cohen is in many ways educating people about the dangers of ignorance, or at least acceptance of it, just as the television show All in the Family did in the '70s. (The characters of Borat, Bruno, and Ali G were all central to The Ali G Show which was broadcast by HBO in the U.S. in 2003 and 2004.)

But not everybody finds it so enlightening, and not everybody is laughing. It seems that today lawsuits are just another benchmark of success. Two fraternity brothers who appear in the movie are suing Cohen. They say he got them drunk and lied to them before having them sign over consent to appear in the movie. Cindy Streit is suing as well, saying that she was told the footage in which she appears would be used solely for a documentary being filmed for Belarus Television. Continuing on this theme of questionable production practices, the city of Glod, Romania, is expected to file a suit, saying the film company took advantage of Glod's citizens and that the city never received promised compensation. To top it all off, the country of Kazakhstan is throwing around the idea that the film was a political tool used to cast a dark shadow over the country.

While Cohen would be much less successful in his goal of exposing ignorance if he employed more transparent business tactics, that may go against the whole premise of his Borat character. Knowing Cohen, these could very well be carefully calculated events spurring more interest in the movie. Either way, the news of these, and potential future, lawsuits will keep bringing audiences back to the theaters to see and hear Cohen’s message, no matter how shrouded behind nudity and profanity it may be.

(Publicity photo from Borat courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)

(Fox's long-form trailer for Borat can be seen below.)

(For a full review of Borat, please see: The Satire of "Borat" Gets: "High Five.")

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Ben Folds: A New Hope

by Jack Douglass

I think there’s hope for music yet.

Two nights ago I attended the Ben Folds concert in Bender Arena (at American University in Washington, D.C.). This was my first true concert experience since I was dragged to a Vince Gill/Amy Grant performance about, oh, five years ago, so I was naturally excited.

However, I didn’t know what to expect as I had only heard a few of his songs. I went with my girlfriend (who is a huge fan) to the crowded gymnasium full of other excited students. We sat through the opening act, a hilarious Meatloaf look-alike named Corn Mo who rocked “Free Bird” on his…wait for it… accordion. Finally, after numerous “WHERE IS BEN” jeers, the main attraction stepped onto the stage.

For three people, the band produced a deceivingly big sound. All the stage provided was drums, piano, bass guitar, and a synthesizer. Plus, Ben himself didn’t seem like much to me; he dressed ordinarily and wore unflattering glasses. But as soon as he started “Trusted,” all my judgments were blown away. These guys could PLAY.

Each chord filled the gym, and the melodies flowed in an unpredictable yet addictive style. The lyrics, too, weren’t just catchy but meant something. The band sang (yes, both bass and drums, too) about love, death, “what could have been,” trivial everyday situations, and everything in-between. Some of the highlights included “Zak and Sara,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” and of course, “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”

What got me, though, was the crowd’s enthusiasm. As I looked around, I saw seas of heads bopping in time with the occasional arm in the air. My girlfriend screamed the lyrics with the band, and the guy in front of me had to be in some supernatural trance judging by how he moved. Once “Bitches Ain’t Shit” began, the mostly-white audience happily sang along, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

I forgot what concerts were all about; sure, the music itself was phenomenal, and the few songs I recognized were played exactly the same way as I had heard on the CD. But what it boils down to is the experience of hearing the band live and getting swept away by it all. These people were so passionate about Ben Folds, and what gets me is that his music is so great that I just don’t see it as “concert” music. But this is a good thing; it gives me hope that people are getting pumped about actual music. When I think of a concert, I think of heavy drums, lead guitar, and an obnoxious lead singer playing an FM radio favorite. Ben Folds broke that stereotype for me because his instrument of choice is the piano (and he’s damn good at it). I had this previous thought that music was going downhill, and I’ve long ago stopped listening to the radio. Now, thanks to this concert, things are looking up.

(Check below for Ben Folds and his band performing a live cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit.")

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Al Jazeera: Ideology or Profit?

by Laura Snedeker

The highlight of the Washington Post’s Style section today was “Al-Jazeera’s English Face,” an article on David Marash, a former Nightline correspondent who is now the Washington anchor for al-Jazeera English (AJE). He’s been roundly criticized by conservatives for what they see as something practically amounting to treason.

Criticism of al-Jazeera is always cast in ideological terms: "Al-Jazeera is a terrorist network. Al-Jazeera broadcasts hateful anti-Western propaganda to Muslims around the world." And it does frequently air the tapes of senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and more recently Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But that doesn’t make it a “terrorist network” any more than an American network showing a speech by the president makes that network “pro-American.” American networks often show bias in other ways, but the simple airing of a speech isn’t necessarily a show of support for its content. This argument is also difficult to understand given that a new al-Qaeda tape is always the top story in the United States, from the moment it’s discovered right through its verification by the CIA.

The real problem with al-Jazeera is that it brings not only a different viewpoint but a different set of facts to Muslims across the Middle East and around the world. The executives at CNN aren’t necessarily worried that if a Muslim in Indonesia sees footage of American soldiers killing Muslims in Iraq that he might strap on a suicide vest and blow himself up in front of the American embassy. They’re worried he might turn off CNN.

And now that an English-language network will be delivering news from a non-Western viewpoint to English-speaking Muslims, they’re even more worried. What happens to CNN’s profits (or FOX’s or the BBC’s) if people identify more with the viewpoint and stories presented by al-Jazeera English?

It’s quite fortunate for the major American networks that the major cable and satellite services refuse to carry it in the United States, however it’s unfortunate for Americans -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It would be enlightening for many people to be able to watch a network that broadcasts something other than Western news from a Western viewpoint, especially given that the majority of American TV news and newspapers give scant coverage to international events that do not directly concern Americans.

For those who are interested, however, AJE will begin streaming over the Internet. Hopefully, if gains in popularity and is able to overcome the stigma associated with al-Jazeera, it can open the door for other foreign networks in the United States. If cable and satellite companies see a potential market in non-Western media, then they may reconsider. It’s only worthwhile to corporations to refuse a product on an ideological basis when it’s not making a profit.

(For a sample of al Jazeera English's first day of broadcasting, please check below.)

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Homogenized America

by Nick Pitas

The commercial begins with the middle aged, suburban male asking the confused pizza delivery boy, “What’s a Brooklyn-style pizza?”

According to Domino’s Pizza, the answer is that it is something quintessentially “Brooklyn,” complete with testimony from stereotypical old women and body builders with impossibly thick accents. Thanks to the fact that it is sold by Domino’s however, you don’t have to be anywhere near Brooklyn, or even the East Coast to get one.

This case of mistaken pizza identity is a microcosm of a process that is taking place all across the United States. As technology, transportation and the pace of daily life draw the distinct corners of the country closer and closer together, they are becoming more alike than they are diverse. No longer is the distinction between regions and their own dialect, cuisine, and traditions as defined as they once were.

The fact that you can drive down the interstate in any part of the country and see the same gas stations, chain restaurants and housing developments is symptomatic of the cultural homogenization of the United States. At a time that we are exporting more and more of our culture to other parts of the world, that same culture is less distinct and varied that ever before.

Think about it. What is an undeniable, regional piece of culture? How about Tex-Mex cuisine? Actually, you can get that at Taco Bell anywhere in the country. Alright, let’s try country music from the southeast then. Once again, that’s now something that is available anywhere (thanks in part to the strength of the signal from Clear Channel's WMZQ in Rockville, Maryland).

Before you lose hope however, there are still places in which real, good old apple pie Americana can be found. Head to White Post, Virginia and check out my personal favorite Dinosaur Land, where concrete dinosaurs and other fantastic creatures dot the landscape. Places such as Dinosaur Land, and the “silver bullet-style" diner are disappearing quickly, so get your fill before it’s too late, and you see a condo or a Baja Fresh in their place.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Anderson (known as earl53) from morgueFile.)

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Rocky's Football Corner #11

by Rick Rockwell

I learned at least one lesson during the year I spent on Capitol Hill: don’t take away people’s television. Folks get mad when that happens. Politicians run for cover when their constituents start making angry calls about problems with television. Everyone just wants the problem fixed. Quickly.

Time Warner and Disney found this out in 2000 when some of Time Warner’s cable systems unplugged ABC programming for the better part of two days while the two media giants played hardball negotiating compensation contracts. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress threatened to intervene and Time Warner restored ABC’s programming.

So what happens if you take away televised football games?

Likely, the same equation will yield the same results, but the new NFL Network and cable companies haven’t learned that lesson. At least, not yet.

Politicians in Washington don’t seem interested in letting a dispute between the National Football League (NFL), its cable channel and some of the biggest cable operators come to a head without intervening. But they may have waited a bit too long to get involved.

Next week, the NFL Network will cablecast its first football game: Denver vs. Kansas City. If you are in Denver, or Kansas City, you will be able to see the game, one way or another on the NFL Network or regular over-the-air broadcast television. But viewers outside of these markets who are served by Time Warner Cable, or Cablevision or Charter Cable won’t be able to see the game. That’s because those cable systems have not come to an agreement with the NFL on how the league’s channel should be carried and how much the league should get in compensation.

That leaves about 24 million potential viewers in the lurch on Thanksgiving night.

When Time Warner unplugged ABC on some of its systems in 2000, that affected about four million viewers. The complaints rained down on Washington then. Can you imagine the calls this time?

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) can. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter called the NFL on the carpet this week in front of his committee and wanted to know why the league’s demands of cable operators didn’t violate anti-trust law. With no competing pro league, anti-trust law is Congress’ big stick against pro football.

What the league wants is for cable systems to offer its channel as part of basic cable service and not to charge extra for it. The cable operators say the league wants too much for its channel and they need to put the channel on special sports tiers where they can charge additional fees to offset costs.

Specter has intervened in this fight because one of his biggest constituents, Comcast (the nation’s biggest cable operator) of Philadelphia is embroiled in a suit with the NFL, as it attempts to move the NFL Network to premium channels. So Specter’s motives are to protect a powerful constituent, not necessarily to advocate solely for the 24 million viewers who are disenfranchised by the business disputes of these huge businesses.

In the past, the FCC has said viewers should not be held hostage while these negotiations are proceeding. But that is just what is about to happen. The NFL has Thursday night games scheduled on its cable channel beginning on Thanksgiving and for the rest of the season. Seemingly, only government pressure will get the league and the cable companies to relent and find a solution for the consumer.

This is what happens when powerful monopolies collide and no one is there to protect the consumer, the real victim of the collateral damage left by these big business wars. Specter is promising more hearings next month on this topic and to look into vertical integration in cable. And on these important issues, where is the pro-business Senate Commerce Committee -- the committee that often oversees television and cable regulation? Nowhere for the moment.

One can only hope that the sheer volume of consumer complaints on this issue will break this logjam. But for now, it doesn’t look promising. Once again the businesses that control the media and sports are willing to make the fans the losers.

(Rick Rockwell served as an advisor on telecommunications issues to Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2003 and 2004. Cantwell is a Democrat from Washington State who is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.)

(The photo of Sen. Arlen Specter is in the public domain via the U.S. Government.)

(See below for a segment of the Senate Judiciary hearing in question.)

(For an update on this story please see: "Rocky's Football Corner #12.")

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The Office Pool: Week Eleven

by Rick Rockwell

Midseason doldrums hit this column last week. As some have noted, the National Football League is tougher to call than ever this season. But here's the latest attempt.

Last Week: .500
This Season: .597

Game of the Week: Chargers at Broncos, Sunday Night

This game will likely determine the champion of the American Football Conference (AFC) West, the toughest division in pro football. The winner is also likely to be the only real challenge to the Colts in the playoffs. This matches one of the league's best offenses (42 points in a half last week in Cincinnati) in the Chargers against the Broncos, one of the best defenses. The game will hinge on the play of quarterback Jake Plummer of the Broncos. If he can stay relatively mistake free, the Broncos should win at home.

Washington at Buccaneers

By inserting third-stringer Jason Campbell at quarterback, Washington capitulates for this season. Funny, but both of these teams made the playoffs last year and fought two tension-filled contests. Not so during this campaign. The Bucs have had a similar rash of problems this year when compared to Washington. This Loser Bowl should be interesting to watch though just to see which team is more desperate. Tampa Bay should have a slight edge at home.

Monday Night: Giants at Jaguars

Here are two more heavily bandaged squads trying to hold their own. The Jaguars have their own quarterback difficulties. They should never have alienated quarterback Byron Leftwich who plays with real heart, even on bad ankles. The Giants have no such issues and are solid at quarterback and running back. Look for Eli Manning and Tiki Barber respectively to step up and pull the Giants through a difficult contest.

Seahawks at 49ers

Who would have thought the 49ers would be searching for respect and a trying for a .500 record? They should give the Seahawks a tussle. However, even with most of their key players on the injury list, the Seahawks have too much talent to bow to the young 49ers.

Bears at Jets

Coach Eric Mangini of the Jets has his team playing inspired football and they are more than mediocre after knocking a scare into the Patriots last week. They should keep it close with the Bears, but Chicago is too dominant. This should be a close one with the Bears pulling out the win late in the fourth quarter.

Lions at Cardinals

Two of the league's sloppiest clubs go head-to-head. Such sloppiness makes these hard to call. Both teams can really open it up on offense when faced with poor defenses. Look for a track meet with the Lions prevailing. Barely.

Colts at Cowboys

This is where the AFC shows its real dominance over teams in that other conference, the National Football Conference (NFC). The Cowboys are one of the best in that conference. The Colts will put on the usual aerial circus and blow past Dallas by at least a touchdown.

Bengals at Saints

Both of these teams are recovering from dispiriting losses, and the Saints are very tough in their dome. However, the Bengals are due to correct their various problems. Their offense certainly was in high gear last week, even if they lost. Look for quarterback Carson Palmer to have a big day.

Steelers at Browns

This divisional match-up is always nasty. The World Champs righted themselves last week and may finally have it in gear. Too late to do much besides get revenge on the Browns. The Steelers should cruise to a win by at least ten points.

Titans at Eagles

Quarterback Vince Young looked impressive last week against the Ravens, but he is still not up to the caliber of Donovan McNabb of the Eagles. The Eagles win at home.

Bills at Texans

The Bills threw a scare into the Colts last week, but are wildly inconsistent. This will likely be their "off" week. Even nicked up, quarterback David Carr of the Texans is having a strong year. He should pull his team through to a win.

Vikings at Dolphins

It appears the Dolphins have finally awakened. Just like last year, they will give folks fits for the rest of the year and create buzz for next year. Who knew you could win with Joey Harrington at quarterback? Meanwhile, the Vikings have imploded. The Dolphins win at home.

Falcons at Ravens

Quarterback Michael Vick and his mates can't decide if they are giant killers or uninspired and one dimensional. The Falcons are one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent teams in the league, which is also a commentary on Vick. Meanwhile the Ravens have been a solid surprise. Look the purple and black to win at home.

Raiders at Chiefs

This divisional matchup is always a close affair and look for the Raiders to rise to the occasion. But the Chiefs are too tough at home.

Patriots at Packers

The hype machine says legendary quarterback Brett Favre has saved Green Bay's season. Not really. They are still young and weak, but they've had some easy targets lately. Not so with an angry group of Patriots. Look for quarterback Tom Brady to win this quarterback duel.

Rams at Panthers

The Rams are over-rated and the Panthers have yet to play up to their potential. They are due for a big game at home. Look for the Panthers to blow out the Rams and tamp down any hope for the rest of the season for St. Louis.

If this blog column is going to make the prognostication playoffs, .500 won't cut it for the rest of the month. Even with that tension, enjoy the viewing this weekend!

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