Previous month:
December 2004
Next month:
February 2005

huff season finale

The first season of Huff is over, and it's a typical Showtime series: promising but erratic, better than the average network show but worse than the average HBO show.

Whatever the creators' plan for the show, they seemed to be changing their minds about the program's direction over the course of the season. It started off with a suicide that looked to have lasting implications for the title character, and it was playing out in an interesting fashion, but then suddenly it was resolved and it disappeared. Midway through the season, marital discord was introduced into the plot, and that discord got serious way too fast. By the final scene of the season, the plot shenanigans were piling up by the second, leaving half a dozen cliffhangers for Season Two. Pretty silly, to be honest.

The biggest problem with Huff, though, is reflected in the two most interesting characters (and the actors who portrayed them). Oliver Platt as Huff's best friend, and especially Blythe Danner as Huff's mother, were exceptional ... Danner's performance was a good as teevee got this year, which is no surprise, I suppose, given that Blythe Danner always rules. The problem is, Platt and Danner weren't the main characters. Huff and his wife were much less interesting, their escapades less involving, and Hank Azaria and Paget Brewster were OK but they didn't carry the show. And so each week you found yourself looking forward not to the primary plot threads but to the scenes with Danner and Platt. And that's the recipe for a seriously skewed show.

Grade for Season One: B-

It doesn't look good for Showtime right now. They've cancelled Dead Like Me, arguably their best series, the now-venerable Queer As Folk is coming on its final season, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! wasn't as good in its second season as it was in its first, and the two programs Showtime is now staking their reputation on, The L-Word and Huff, are not as good as QAF and DLM. Maybe Kirstie Alley's Fat Actress will be better.


adventures with comcast

Here's the sequence of events:

1) We give Sara one of our extra teevees and move our second cable box into our bedroom, which requires using a very long non-standard cable cord. Box doesn't work as well with long cord.

2) In the meantime, we like our DVR enough that it makes sense to get a second one for the bedroom so Robin can watch stuff there, which she enjoys. So I go down and swap the old second box for a second DVR box.

3) Problems still ensue, caused, I'm guessing, by the long crappy cord, since stuff worked fine before I moved things into the bedroom. I call Comcast and explain that I am not getting all of my channels in the bedroom, that On Demand in the bedroom is being flaky at best, and tell them about the long cord, saying I wouldn't be surprised that was the problem and if necessary, they can put a new outlet in the bedroom. An appointment is made. I am assuming the appointment is to check out my problem and solve it, by installing a new outlet if necessary.

4) The guy is supposed to come between 12-4. So of course, at 4:00 he gives me a call, says he's running a bit late, and he arrives around 4:15. I've been waiting at home for him all day.

5) Guy takes one look at our crappy long cord, says that's gonna be the problem, goes to his truck and cuts a long cord of standard cable material, we plug it in, 99% of the problems are fixed. The only thing that doesn't work is HBO On Demand ... HBO works, On Demand works, but HBO On Demand gives an error message that I'm not subscribed. Cable guy says this problem needs to be resolved in the office, I sign the papers, he leaves, I call the office. I am charged for his visit.

6) I explain the problem on the phone. They reset the box (of course). We hang up, I call them back later after the reset has taken effect ... problem still exists. They say they will have to send out a technician. I say one was just here ... they say yes, but since the problem doesn't seem to have been solved, they need to try again. OK, I say, let's get someone out here, even though things are much improved, since I do have the one problem still.

7) I note that I'm assuming I won't have to pay for the return visit, since I've already paid to solve the problem, and so I figure I don't have to pay until the problem is solved. No, they tell me, the new visit will be charged. Why, I say, when it's the same problem? No it isn't, they say. According to them, today's visit was to install a new outlet. If they come out again, that's a new problem.

8) But, I say, they didn't install a new outlet today, they replaced the cord, and that seemed to help quite a bit, but the problem (see #3 above) isn't completely solved. No, they say, we didn't come out today to solve your problem, we put out a work order to install an outlet, and I have to pay a charge for that. If another guy comes, that's separate from today's outlet installation order, and it will incur another charge.

9) I ask to speak to a manager. I get put on hold for awhile.

10) We agree that I'll wait 24 hours for the box reset to take full effect, and if HBO On Demand still doesn't work, we can schedule an appointment then. The manager makes a note on my account that I consider this all to be part of the same, already-paid-for, problem. I say good because I'm not paying twice to get one problem solved.


it support

I hesitate to say anything about this, because I know people who work in Information Technology. But I have to rant, because it's so frustrating dealing with IT people.

Sometimes it seems like the best software, according to IT people, is software that doesn't actually have any users. If no one used it, no one would need support, and the IT folks could go back to whatever it is they do. Users never bring good news to support staff, only bad ... users only need support if something goes wrong. Eliminate the users and you'd eliminate all those annoying requests for help.

Maybe it's a social thing. There are jobs that require good rapport with others ... both of my kids have jobs like this, and both of them work well with people. There are jobs that don't require much interaction with the public, and for many of us, that's just the job we need, because we're cranky, or we're hermits, or we're just socially inappropriate. Working in IT is a good job for people like us ... we interact with machines, which is just fine. Except IT support staff end up interacting with humans. And, far as I can tell, the best IT people are the ones who do better with machines than with people (being one of them, I can sympathize). So perhaps it's inevitable that IT support is filled with people who don't work well with others, spending most of their day working with others.

IT support people assume that every single user who contacts them is a complete and utter moron. If they weren't a moron, they wouldn't have a problem. Because they make this assumption, IT support will always walk through a predesigned series of baby steps, because they can't assume the user knows anything more than how to turn on their machine. (Or not ... there are tales of users whose problem was precisely that they didn't know how to turn on their machine.) YOU CAN NOT DERAIL THIS PROCESS! If you explain to the support person that you are not a moron and you have already gone through the baby steps, they will ignore you, assuming that you don't know what you are talking about because you think you aren't a moron but you are by definition a moron because you interrupted their video game. Their solution will always be to start at the beginning (reboot computer, reinstall software, reformat hard drive) because, being a moron, you can't be trusted, you must have screwed something up. You will be treated like a toddler in the midst of your first steps, and will be patronized when you aren't baldly insulted for being a moron.

Here is an example from my own workplace. American River College forces Outlook Web Access on its users. Until recently, their version of OWA was outdated, which made things worse. Among the reasons why this software is crap, I couldn't set it up for internal virus scanning ... I had to download attachments and then run my own virus checker on them once they'd arrived on my hard drive. Since my students send me their papers as attachments, I have a real need for virus checking. OWA also works poorly with non-Microsoft browsers (and this is true even with the updated version). For these and many other reasons, I prefer to have my ARC email downloadable to my own email program using POP3. And so I asked IT support for the basic information on the subject. Here is the reply I received:

"PoP 3 mostly is a pain."

I was also given half of the actual information I needed, which was 50% helpful, I suppose, but which still didn't allow me to use something other than OWA for my ARC email. When I persisted, I was directed to a webpage IT had put together for POP3 users. Unfortunately, it was more outdated than their version of OWA ... it had instructions for Windows 95! Thankfully, I finally figured out how to do stuff on my own ... I gave up asking support, since my queries were such a pain.

Here's another example. Obviously I need email lists for my online classes. ARC IT, in their wisdom (and in their assumption that we're all morons) doesn't allow an instructor to create their own mailing list (at least, I can't see where they allow it ... I suppose it could be hidden in their help pages under "Windows 95"). So I have to ask support to create the lists for me. Before my spring classes began, I asked for such a list, and also asked that they let me know when it was created so I could direct my students to the proper place for sign ups. They "let me know," I suppose ... a few days later I got an automated email informing me that I was subscribed to my own list, and that was the extent of my heads-up.

So let's see ... IT support assumes we're morons, refuses to practice Jesus's "teach them to fish" theory of support, won't let us do anything on our own, gets annoyed when we bother them with problems, thinks everything is our fault ... and what the heck, who among us doesn't think similar things about the people we deal with in our own jobs? But support people's job is to deal with us other people, so their antagonism towards our very existence means they suck at their job.

And yes, I'm waiting for the cable guy, and yes, this all applies to cable support, too. Here are the steps Comcast support follows when you call them about cable problems:

1) Run you through a gauntlet of button-pushing selections designed to get rid of you without talking to a human.

2) When that doesn't work, they put you on hold until ...

3) A human comes on the line and asks you what your problem is, after which they ...

4) Say they will reset your cable box (no matter what problem you have explained to them), after which ...

5) They will tell you a technician must come to your house.

What they won't do:

Assume you know what you are talking about.

Help you take care of the problem on your own ... or rather, they'll try to "solve" the problem electronically, but once you get an actual human they will do everything they can on their end (i.e. they will reset your box) but will give you no advice on what to do for yourself.

The result is a cable guy will come to your house. Sometimes you need the guy, sometimes you don't, but they'll come in any event. Sometimes the cable guy knows what they are doing ... sometimes they don't. Sometimes they know less than I know, and I don't know jack about cable teevee. But I know how to use the Internet, and I've usually got my sources on the screen when the guy arrives, and they are always amazed at the information available to users, usually saying something like "I didn't even know that myself." Yet I know it, and I don't know jack.

Look, I understand that support works the way it does because they often deal with actual morons. But there should at least be room for adjustment when one of us who is not a moron asks for help.

/rant


karma top ten

Steven Levy recently asked the question "Does Your iPod Play Favorites?" The question was raised because Levy found Steely Dan showing up too often when he used shuffle play on his iPod. John Allen Paulos, who coincidentally we are reading in my classes right now, says there's nothing odd happening here, but, as another expert notes, "Our brains aren't wired to understand randomness."

I really like that last sentence. Me, I use shuffle play all the time on my Karma, which is why these Top Ten lists are, well, random. Here's the latest list, as the won't-go-away song of the Karma era returns to #1 (last month's ranking in parentheses):

1. Queen Latifah, "Ladies First" (5)
2. Willie Nelson, "Whiskey River" (1)
3. Prince, "The Question of U" (2)
4. Hall and Oates, "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" (-)
5. Buffalo Springfield, "Expecting to Fly" (7)
6. Buffalo Springfield, "Kind Woman" (6)
7. Simon and Garfunkel, "Cecilia" (3)
8. Prince, "Delirious" (4)
9. Prince, "Let's Go Crazy" (-)
10. Lucinda Williams, "Passionate Kisses" (-)

Falling off the list: Marianne Faithfull, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," B-52's, "Love Shack," and Peggy Lee, "Fever."

#51: J.J. Cale, "Call Me the Breeze."


the gay divide

James Wolcott has some interesting things to say about The L-Word and queer pop culture in Vanity Fair. While his view of L-Word is more positive than mine, I don't think we're that far apart. He begins by referring to "its extraordinary first season," but subsequent discussion wavers between admiration for the audacity of its subject matter ("The show's cliff-hanger episodes—organized fundamentalists armed with smear tactics swamping a small band of freedom fighters—provided an eerie, prophetic metaphor for the fall election") and chuckling good humor for the clunkiness of the show itself ("Mia Kirshner mystifies and annoys as Jenny, the passive-aggressive, eyelashy succubus seducing men and women alike only to pout boohoo as if she were the one seduced"). I think he's right on target: thank god for The L-Word, too bad it's not better. Wolcott puts it quite concisely when he notes "its very existence carries a political charge now. All gay-themed shows do." What will make us all happy is when the artistic charge is up to the level of the political charge. Hopefully Season Two will be when that happens.


i'll never walk alone

Back in 1997, Jillian and I edited an issue of Bad Subjects called "Sport and Play." It was a good issue, if I say so myself ... it included one of the better things I've written, "You'll Never Walk Alone," about being a fan, an essay on Maradona from David Hawkes, a piece on toys from my friends Rittenhurst, and something from my sister Chris, "Throws Like the Girl She Is."

It also featured an article on Tiger Woods by one Scott Thill. I mention this because Thill continues to produce some excellent writing, including some book reviews in the most recent Salon. Among the books he reviews are the anthology of writings on Joe Strummer, Let Fury Have the Hour, that I wrote about here and here. Thill mentions Bad Subjects twice in his column, the second time noting that he "wrote a couple of essays for those unrepentant free-thinkers back in the late '90s." Those days are in my past, but I can't say I mind being called an unrepentant free-thinker. Thanks, Scott!


the 365 days project

I'm a Johnny-come-lately to this, but in case someone else out there is as behind the times as I am, check out The 365 Days Project. In 2003, Otis Fodder posted a different MP3 file every day. The material is obscure, mostly amateur, generally awful, often charming, sometimes all of the above at the same time. The idea seems to require an ironic distance, but on some of the tracks, irony is overwhelmed by the honest emotions of the artists. Which doesn't mean the stuff is "good" in the traditional sense. My favorites from the first 15 days: the back-to-back combo "I'm a Mormon" followed the next day by "Understanding Marx."


no more stone comments

A little more than a year ago I posted a message about a kidney stone I had. It became the most commented-on post in the history of this blog. Apparently search engines were leading people to my post to learn about kidney stones. Though I regularly interrupted the comments to note that I wasn't a medical doctor and that nothing on my site should replace seeing a real doctor, the comments kept growing. Most of them were harmless recitations of pain, and I was glad to provide a place for people to talk things out. But there were also people suggesting treatments, and I did not feel comfortable with that "information" being posted under my name. Recently, one particular "treatment" has made several appearances in the comments. I have checked this "treatment" out, and, shall we say, I am unconvinced that it is anything other than quackery. The website for the company that makes the treatment (they are going nameless here, I don't want more search engines coming around) notes the following:

"The statements on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."

Folks, when you see the above, take everything else the people say with a grain of salt. The second sentence, if read properly, should negate every claim the people make for their "treatment."

Meanwhile, I have removed all comments from the original post, and have closed comments on it.

I am turning off comments for this post as well. My apologies to kidney stone sufferers who need a place to talk ... I hope you find one. But I am not going to be responsible for misguided "information."


state of play

State of Play is a BBC drama of a year or so ago that showed up on BBC America and is now available On Demand for Comcast customers (and I would assume will eventually show up on DVD as well). It's brilliant, a mixture of mystery, newspaper drama, thrills, political intrigue, and sex. The cast is uniformly brilliant, and to me, at least, completely unknown with the exception of the wonderful Kelly Macdonald (no easier to understand here than she was in Trainspotting ... you can actually follow her dialogue as Peter Pan in Finding Neverland, at least). Intelligent British telly series don't last very long, by design, so State of Play is but six hours long ... quite appropriate, to be sure, but unusual for Americans who get upset if The Wire only lasts three seasons.

Perhaps my favorite scene comes when one character gets his teeth kicked in. The result is that he's a slobbering, drooling, pathetic fellow ... and when he has a scene with Macdonald, and he's all blood and saliva and she's all Glasgow, you can't understand a single word! Brilliant!