Thursday, September 27, 2007

Walk of Fame or walk of shame, it’s all the same

It’s almost impossible to tell the difference between “Entertainment Tonight” and Court TV because most celebrity “news” seems to involve people in legal trouble.

It’s reaching the point where the Los Angeles County Courthouse needs its own red carpet.

Unfortunately, the slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” no longer applies. So, I’ve been subjected to two weeks of O.J. Simpson’s triumphant return to the police blotter. But this time, he’s accused of armed robbery instead of double homicide, so there’s no “good taste” grace period to endure before you can start joking about it.

Former Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark —who crashed and burned as the lead prosecutor for Simpson’s murder trial — is on TV, handing out free advice to Las Vegas prosecutors. Yeah, like she knows anything about how to successfully prosecute O.J.

Apparently, you can never screw up so much that can’t still appear as an expert on TV. How else could Larry King book guests?

Speaking of screw-ups, who can resist the monumental fall of Britney Spears? Her career has gone the full 360 degrees, from rural Louisiana trash to pop starlet to Beverly hillbilly.

Not bad for someone at the ripe old age of 25.

That her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, seems like the more responsible parent in the two’s ongoing child custody struggle boggles the mind. You feel sorry for the children. And you feel sorrier for the gene pool that Britney and K-Fed reproduced at all. Be it nature or nurture, it’s bad news.

The judge in the case ordered Spears to undergo random drug and alcohol testing. But hours later, she was out partying again, according to numerous reports.

A sober Britney — let’s entertain the idea for a minute — just might keep custody of her children. But after her recent “MTV Music Video Awards” meltdown, her music career could be as dead as her post-“Crossroads” movie career.

Of course, I also thought we’d seen the last of Mariah Carey. But Carey can actually sing.

But I shouldn’t pile on Britney. I might upset Chris Crocker, a 19-year-old from Tennessee who has obtained Internet infamy with his tearful, babbling YouTube plea for everyone to “leave Britney alone!”

The scary part is that Crocker, whose sole talent seems to be the ability to blubber and scream incoherently, has signed a development deal for his own TV show, according to Variety.

If Crocker’s TV show ever airs, it’ll be just one more travesty for which Britney will have to answer. The next time she appears in court, it may be to deal with a class action lawsuit filed by the American public.

Meanwhile, the Phil Spector saga continues, with the judge in Spector’s murder trial declaring a mistrial Wednesday.

Spector, the bizarre 67-year-old record producer responsible for the Wall of Sound, faces a charge of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson.

Given what his syrupy Wall of Sound production style did to otherwise respectable rock albums, a conviction would have made Spector a serial killer.

With his crazy-old-coot antics and crazier hairdos, I’m surprised Spector’s attorneys didn’t try an insanity defense.

Lost in the hullabaloo is the victim, Clarkson, whose Roger Corman-produced, direct-to-video films “Barbarian Queen” and “Deathstalker” were staples of late-night cable TV in the 1980s.

That was when cable TV still aired programming besides “Law & Order” marathons.

Well, I’m sure Clarkson’s death will be a “ripped from the headlines” episode of “Law & Order” soon enough — assuming it isn’t already.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

NASCAR revs its engines and sends hearts racing

At a local bookshop, the sci-fi section begins where the romance section ends. Otherwise, I would never have discovered what is one of publishing’s strangest marketing tie-ins.

I somehow missed the announcement back in November 2005, but Harlequin, the venerable publisher of disposable romance novels, has entered into an agreement with NASCAR.

In terms of cross-promotion, this ranks up there with last year’s bizarre, one-time (I hope) smash-up between Marvel Comics and the CBS soap opera “Guiding Light.”

The less said about that, the better. You can Google it if you simply must know.

NASCAR’s press release, which I found on the company’s Web site, explains:

“The upcoming novels, written by some of Harlequin’s bestselling authors, will have plotlines centering on NASCAR and will feature the NASCAR brand on their covers. Harlequin will serve as the first and only publisher of women’s fiction for NASCAR.”

That was nearly two years ago. By now, there are more than a dozen Harlequin/NASCAR books in print and testing the limits of multimedia synergy. The titles include “Hearts Under Caution,” “Old Flame, New Sparks,” “Speed Bumps” and “Speed Dating.” The covers usually feature race drivers in the spot formerly reserved for Fabio.

I think this is the sort of thing NASCAR old timers have in mind when they say this isn’t your daddy’s stock car racing. Of course, if NASCAR isn’t what it used to be, neither are NASCAR fans.

Back to NASCAR’s press release: “Research shows that of the 75 million NASCAR fans in this country, 40 percent are female.”

Harlequin is counting on at least a few of those female fans wanting to mix their love of racing with their love of love. And maybe it’s not as crazy an idea as it seems because Harlequin isn’t the only publisher trying to cash in on female race fans.

NASCAR analyst Liz Allison, the widow of late NASCAR driver Davey Allison, recently released “The Girl’s Guide to Winning a NASCAR Driver.” Allison calls her book “tongue-in-cheek” and says it’s “just a fun book of how to daydream about your favorite race car driver.”

I hope her readers are in on the joke. In any case, if you look up Allison’s book at, you’ll see that customers who bought it also purchased Harlequin’s NASCAR books.

This isn’t the first time Harlequin has stepped outside of its traditional romance-novel box. Harlequin also publishes a line of comics drawn in the Japanese manga style.

Given that manga is one of publishing’s major growth categories, it makes sense to try to hook teenage girls on comics in the hope that they’ll eventually graduate to Harlequin’s bread-and-butter bodice rippers.

So, where does Harlequin go next? What other professional sports are ripe for romance?

This could be a whole new medium for David Beckham to conquer. I mean, it’s not as if the Los Angeles Galaxy’s $250 million man is putting in much time on the soccer pitch these days.

Maybe I’m just not creative enough. Every time I try to think of a clever title for a romance novel set in the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball, the result sounds more like the title of the sort of movie you’d find in a video store’s back room, if you see where I’m going.

Apparently, there is a thin line between romance and smut.

Anyway, for all I know, Harlequin has already announced deals with other professional sporting leagues and I just haven’t heard about them.

I could go online and Google the answer, but I really don’t want to find out. After what I saw in the bookshop, I’m starting to think there are some things man was just not meant to know.

As for you women, try to keep it to yourselves.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What would Jesus do for an iPhone?

It’s symptomatic of the society in which we live that Steve Jobs had to apologize to his customers for lowering the price of Apple’s hip new gizmo, the iPhone.

Ours is a sick society, in which people feel entitled to, well, pretty much whatever they want, usually with someone else paying the tab.

Two months after Apple devotees made a spectacle of themselves, standing in line for days to pay $599 for Apple’s new high-end toy, they’re doing so again. When Jobs announced last week that Apple was lowering the price of the iPhone by $200, many of his staunchest acolytes in the Cult of Apple cried foul.

They had stood in line. They had shelled out nearly $600, plus tax and the cost of phone service. They had extolled the life-changing virtues of the iPhone to anyone who would listen, and some who wouldn’t. And now their hero, Jobs, was slapping them in the face by giving everyone else — the mundanes! — a 33 percent discount! How dare he!

The angry roar was deafening. And a day later, an apologetic Jobs announced that customers who had already purchased a full-price iPhone would receive $100 in credit good for other Apple products.

It was probably a necessary concession, if only to quiet the Cult. But you Apple fans shouldn’t feel too smug because Apple didn’t cheat you in the first place.

Remember when you finally had your brand new iPhone in your grubby little hands? Remember when you were skipping down the street with glee as you left the Apple store? Remember when you were showing off all of your phone’s cool features to your friends?

You were happy then, weren’t you? In fact, you were deliriously, nauseatingly giddy. The rest of us hated you and your stupid iPhone, and that made you even happier.

You would gladly have paid $800 or more to be the first on your block with an iPhone. At $600, it was a steal, even if it meant eating nothing but ramen noodles for a month to pay your rent.

As economists would say, even at $600, your iPhone gave you a big-time consumer surplus.

Then came the price cut, and that sense of entitlement kicked in. As loyal Apple customers, you felt entitled to the same deal everyone else was getting.

In fact, Apple was just practicing smart business. Apple charged one price at first, knowing its most devoted — one might say insanely devoted — customers would happily pay it. Then, later, it started charging a lower price to everyone else.

Because everyone else isn’t insane, but they still might like an iPhone for Christmas.

Economists call that “price discrimination.” That is when businesses try to divide up their customers, charging each group as much as it’s willing to pay. Businesses like to do this when they can because, obviously, some things are worth more to some people and worth less to others.

By being such a rabid Apple cultist, all of you rabid Apple cultists have practically begged Apple to charge you more. There is no use crying about it now.

I know, you Apple folks still think it’s just not fair that you paid more for your iPhone than all those unworthy latecomers did. So, maybe you should ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the story of workers in a vineyard. At the end of the day, the workers who had been there all along receive their previously agreed pay. Meanwhile, the workers hired later in the day receive the same amount.

The workers who had been there all day complain to their boss, saying they deserve more than the latecomers.

The boss, however, reminds them that they were paid the wage to which they had agreed beforehand, so they have no cause to complain.

Thus endeth the lesson.

So, if you’re still upset about “paying too much” for your iPhone, take it up with the man upstairs.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Wikipedia vindicates the wisdom of crowds

Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. So, how about 200? Or 2,000? Or maybe 2 million?

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is an experiment based on the premise that there is more wisdom to be found in crowds than among a few experts. Created in 2001 by Huntsville native Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia allows anyone to create and edit entries on a vast array of topics, many of which other encyclopedias ignore.

For instance, you can find entries on the Greek poet Homer, his epic poem of the Trojan War, “The Iliad,” and the latest archaeological finds at the site of the historical Troy. You can also find entries on the 2004 film “Troy” starring Brad Pitt and “Age of Bronze,” a comic-book retelling of the Troy legend.

As you might guess, given the proclivities of many of the Internet’s most computer-savvy users, Wikipedia entries devoted to subjects like “Star Trek” can be every bit if not more detailed than entries about George Washington or quantum physics.

But that is one of Wikipedia’s charms. Where else can the uninitiated learn about Capt. Kirk’s encounter with the Gorn at Cestus III? (If that seems like gibberish, you can always look up “Gorn” at Wikipedia.) Encyclopaedia Britannica can cover only so much. But no topic is too insignificant for Wikipedia.

Not that I’m saying “Star Trek” is insignificant.

Wikipedia, however, has had its share of controversy. Because anyone can edit Wikipedia articles, often anonymously, some entries fall prey to vandalism.

Vandalism can appear as racist, sexist or libelous comments. It can also appear as just plain nonsense. And sometimes people get caught editing their own entries, a kind of stealth public relations.

At the more innocent end of the spectrum, sometimes people editing Wikipedia entries unintentionally insert information that is simply incorrect.

Wikipedia’s critics, often in academia, cite such episodes as proof Wikipedia is not to be trusted. But actually Wikipedia’s vast network of users comprise a pretty good editorial staff, weeding out vandalism almost as soon as it appears and quickly correcting the occasional errors of fact. They’re so effective, Wales says, that overall Wikipedia is almost as accurate as print encyclopedias, which experts take years to compile.

A study published in the journal Nature found that the average Wikipedia article contained four errors, compared to three in a typical Encyclopaedia Britannica article.

The difference, of course, is that Wikipedia errors can be corrected immediately. Britannica errors remain “fact” until the next edition rolls off the presses.

Also, Wikipedia has the benefit of other Web sites that help monitor its content.

Another Alabama native, Virgil Griffith of Mobile, developed Wikipedia Scanner, which helps track who is editing what articles. He was inspired by news reports about politicians whitewashing their own entries.

Wikipedia is now one of the Internet’s most popular sites, and it’s an indispensable first stop for people researching just about any topic. That’s a good vote of confidence, no matter what the experts say; they’re just protecting what was once their exclusive turf.

It’s also vindication for the idea that order can arise spontaneously from disorder. Without any central authority behind them, Wikipedia users police themselves, correct themselves and continue to expand Wikipedia’s scope.