Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday

According to Wikipedia, the term "Black Friday" originally came from Philadelphia and referred to the crowded streets and stores. This was before 1961 which means before shopping malls. Back then most people shopped at downtown department stores and they got really crowded the day after Thanksgiving. Parking garages filled up and there were long lines to check out. Back then, many big stores did not have individual cash registers. Instead the clerk put the payment into a cylinder and stuck it into a pneumatic tube that took it to a central accounting department. They processed the payment and sent it back in a different tube (this inspired the tubes in Futurama).

Other dates may have more shoppers, but the effect would not have been as bad since the Black Friday shoppers were sharing roads and parking with office workers.

The term "Black Friday" became common by the mid-1970s. Stores, especially chains, started having day-after-Thanksgiving promotions in the 1980s. The current fad for being open all night or on Thanksgiving started then. I think that is when stores started having door-buster sales where they would have an item at a very low price in very low quantities in order to get people through the door (and sell them an upgraded model).

The current usage of "Black Friday" is an example of folk entomology. Someone assumed that the term was a good thing because of all of the business the date brings in. So that person guessed that this was date represents the profit margin for the year - the date that a store goes from losing money (in the red) to making money (in the black).

Many stores make their profits from Christmas sales. Most men receive electric shavers as gifts instead of buying one so Christmas accounts for most of the profits for companies like Norelco. For other companies, Christmas provides a boost in off-season sales. But, there are not many companies that can point to a specific day that they went from the red to the black.

Also, that concept only works when you take the year as a whole. The same thing happens on "tax freedom day" in April. That day represents how much of the year you worked for the government. After that you are working for yourself. Except, of course, you get your pay with taxes withheld on a regular basis.

What is new this year is the frenzy to expand Black Friday. Some stores declared that every Friday in November was Black Friday. Others began leaking their Black Friday specials early or made the entire month Black Friday.

Personally, I'm not going near a retail establishment today.

Monday, November 12, 2012


People who want to see a movie about real espionage should give a pass on the new James Bond movie and go to see Argo instead.

In November, 1979, a mob of Iranian "students" broke into the US Embassy and took the staff hostage. Minorities and women were released fairly quickly in the hopes of starting an American civil war (this part is ignored in the movie). The rest of the staff was held hostage for 444 days, finally released just as Ronald Reagan took his oath of office.

But a half-dozen members of the embassy staff got out before they could be taken hostage. Eventually they got out using Canadian passports. What was not generally known until until now is that the CIA was heavily involved in creating a cover story for the embassy staff. How this was done is the plot of Argo.

This is a movie where none of the Americans are even shown with a gun. No one is shot (at least not by an American). But, it still has more suspense than a half dozen Bond movies. It also shows the CIA in a good light, something very rare for a Hollywood movie.

The movie is also a great period piece. Most of the actors were chosen to look like their real counterparts including the big glasses and heavy mustaches that many men wore.

The Iranian revolution came before cell phones and the internet were ubiquitous so, even though I can remember hearing reports about the violence at the time, it is still a shock to see it brought to life.

I have one quibble with the movie and it comes in the first minute. A prologue states that the elected government of Iran was overthrown and the Shaw put in power because the elected government had nationalized oil production and was giving the profits back to the people. This is ridiculous. It was the Cold War and we supported a pro-American government over a Pro-Soviet one.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Anno Dracula

Yesterday was Bram Stoker's 165 birthday (or would have been if he was still around). This seems like a good time to talk about the novel I am re-reading - Anno Dracula by Kim Newman. This is a revised re-issue of a book that came out 20 reads ago.

The novel takes place in 1888 in an alternate timeline from Dracula. In this version, Dracula survived Van Helsing and company and went on to marry Queen Victoria. By the time the novel takes place, vampires are not only accepted, they are fashionable. They also run the country. England is not exactly a paradise. People who object to the new regime are rounded up and taken to a concentration camp called the Devil's Dyke. To advance in society, you really need to be a vampire. So many people are becoming vampires that bloodlines have become polluted and most new vampires are twisted and unlikely to live very long.

On top of that, Jack Seward (from the novel) has gone crazy and is killing vampire prostitutes under the name Jack the Ripper. This threatens the already-fraying social fabric of London.

Charles Beauregard, agent of the Diogenese Club is sent to investigate. He is aided by Geneviève Dieudonné, an elder vampire who eternally looks sixteen. Along the way we find that multiple characters have their own conflicting agendas. Even the Diogenese Club is playing a deeper game than just sending an agent to solve a crime.

The depth of the novel is amazing. Wikipedia has a list of all of the fictional and historic characters who appear. Some of them are less than a cameo. Early on Lord Ruthven (from The Vampyre, the first vampire story written in English) gives a list of other elder vampires and why only he is suitable to being Prime Minister. Other characters are given major supporting status. Even Geneviève is taken from some of Newman's other works.

Dracula himself is more of a presence than an active character. He only appears in two scenes - a flashback to the night that Mina Haker became a vampire and a scene near the end of the novel.

The novel led to two sequels with a third planned for next year.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Disney and Lucas

The headlines say that Disney bought Star Wars and go on to talk about the new Star Wars movies. There is a lot more to the announcement than that.

While Star Wars is the best know part of the Lucas empire, ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) is more important. This is the world's premier special effects facility. They have been involved in nearly every groundbreaking special effects achievement in the last 25 years has come from ILM. They did the first morphing (Willow) and the first computer-generated character (an animated stained glass window in Young Sherlock Holmes).

ILM was created as part of Star Wars. Lucas originally planned to send the movie out to a special effects facility and was amazed to find out that no such entity existed. So he founded one. At first he was paying people who were moonlighting from Disney. The word in the industry was, "Working for George Lucas is a lot of fun but you'll never get rich doing it."

At first they were just Lucas's in-house facility but they broke out in 1981 with Dragonslayer. They have been part of nearly every major franchise including Star Trek, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, the Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Avengers (and Iron Man). Some of the most memorable Best Picture Oscars depended on ILM, movies such as Forrest Gump and Titanic. Disney has a long relationship with ILM going back to Dragonslayer.

ILM also beat out Disney's Pixar for Best Animated Movie with Rango.

The purchase also includes Skywalked Sound which is a major recording facility for movies.

What about the Star Wars franchise? Consider this - the two best out of the series (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) were written and directed by someone else.

Pixar, the Avengers, and the Muppets all continued without being "Disneyfied" so there is no reason to think that Disney will pressure Star Wars to change.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Mockingbird Lane

Previously I expressed skepticism about the reboot of the Munsters. After viewing the pilot, NBC apparently decided to pass on the series but showed the pilot as a Halloween special.

Mockingbird Lane, as the series was renamed, turns the original premise on its head. In the original show the characters looked like classic Universal monsters but acted like regular people and seemed unaware that they were unusual. They thought of themselves as being a normal working-class family and many of the plots could have been rewritten for normal shows.

In the new show, the Munsters know that they are unusual. One of the plots involves Herman getting up the nerve to tell Eddy that he is a werewolf.

Herman looks fairly normal except for all of the scars. Unlike the original, he is smart. He goes through hearts so often that his chest has a zipper. Another of the plots involves getting a new heart for Herman.

Lilly is a sex symbol (rather ironically since the actress who plays her is gay). She still worries that when Eddy was born she wanted to eat him instead of nursing him.

In the original series, Grandpa looked like a vampire but acted like a mad scientist. In the new series he is a vampire who has been obtaining in order to set a good example for Eddy. He has decided to start drinking again and decided that Eddy's scoutmaster would be a good place to start as well as a potential heart donor for Herman. He also bakes cookies infused with his blood so that he can enslave the neighbors.

Eddy wants to be normal and is very upset when Herman finally tells him that he is a werewolf.

At one point Grandpa and Marylin are explaining the cycle of life to Eddy. They are in a hunting blind, watching a deer and explaining about the deer dying and fertilizing the ground for the next generation of deer. Then a cougar kills the deer.

"Does anything kill cougars?" Eddy asks.

A giant, winged creature swoops down on the cougar and Marylin answers, "Sometimes Grandpa does."

The show is expensive and stylish but it is also violent with a dark side that was never in the original. Given the production values, I doubt that NBC could have made money on it. They probably spent more on the special effects for the pilot than on the entire original series.