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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 12, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Battle Creek, Ad Tricks, Engrish

When I lived in South Bend, Indiana, back in 1982, I once flew into Battle Creek, Michigan. Because traffic from South Bend to Battle Creek was light, to say the least, the airplane was not a jet.

That was when I learned that even when the airport is in an area that was once scraped flat by glaciers, the pilot of a propellor plane is still likely to approach the runway as if he were in a dive bomber.

He does this, I assume, because the sound of screaming passengers is music to his ears.

Why was I going to Battle Creek? I can't remember now -- presumably a book signing or something. But the real reason was that, having grown up on Kellogg's cereals, how could I pass up an excuse to go to Battle Creek, Michigan?

Apparently that's how the producers of the new CBS cop show, Battle Creek, felt as well. I mean, Battle Creek itself is not vital to the show's concept -- it could have been any smallish city. It could have been Greensboro.

But then, Battle Creek has the word "battle" in the name. We could have had that here, too. Instead of the bland, meaningless, unmemorable "Gate City," our nickname could have been "Battle City." Guilford Courthouse was an important Revolutionary War battle, even a turning point. That could have been our nickname, couldn't it?

It isn't, though, so Michigan gets the clever new cop show.

The idea is a pretty good one. It should be, because they got it from the Sandra Bullock - Melissa McCarthy movie Heat, in which a rule-following FBI agent is teamed with a frustrated, hardworking, streetsmart local cop. (Bullock was the FBI agent, McCarthy the extremely coarse cop.)

In translating this idea to male actors in a small city setting, the writers have done a pretty good job of making use of the actors' look and style, and also of scaling the crimes to fit the milieu.

The writing is pretty clever, now and then, as befits the series creators. Vince Gilligan also created Better Call Saul, an edgier but also less entertaining show that debuted at nearly the same time as Battle Creek; and he wrote the Will Smith film Hancock.

And co-creator David Shore has a created-by credit on House M.D. (He was also an actor in Meatballs back in 1979, when he played "Kid Eating Crackers.")

So these are experienced TV guys, working with a concept already proven in a cop comedy.

The trouble is that there is nowhere to go with this premise except the obvious: Local cop resents FBI agent, but FBI agent bails him out; meanwhile, FBI agent lightens up a little.

It worked in the movie, and it worked in both of the first two episodes. But can it work week after week? Can it be the engine driving a long-running series?

But a symptom of the ineffectiveness of this premise in the long term is that in episode 2, they already resorted to the "turn in your badge and gun" bit for the local cop. It took Law & Order: SVU far longer -- years, in fact -- before they resorted to taking away Christopher Meloni's badge and gun.

It's a desperation storytelling move and it doesn't bode well that they went there almost from the start.

Eventually, if this series is to last more than the first season, they're going to have to turn ever-pretty Josh Duhamel (as FBI agent Milton Chamberlain) and ever-manly Dean Winters (as local cop Russ Agnew) into something deeper than the stereotypical roles they're starting with.

Fortunately, they're both very good actors, and the supporting cast shows promise -- especially Aubrey Dollar as Holly Dale and Janet McTeer as Commander Guziewicz. Their characters seem to have a core of reality, whereas the others seem to have something of a one-joke attitude.

I guess the writers have to decide if this is Castle, a comedy with a lot of serious bits, or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a farce with no one you can possibly care about.

Still, good writing and good acting can carry a series for a little while, even if the premise quickly wears thin. I liked the first two episodes, in large part because it isn't as savagely bleak as Law & Order: SVU and because the crimes tend to center around genuine small-city problems.

Look, I'm sure it felt like a joke in the writers' room when they came up with having a maple-syrup cartel that strong-arms and intimidates restaurants into buying only their maple syrup. But the writers were smart enough to make the maple syrup idea actually work in the story; and the physical set-up in which tubes run from distant trees to the central maple processing plant was an understated delight.

I hope the writers solve the problems and turn this into something. I'd like to watch Duhamel and Winters as they grow into plausible characters with a compelling relationship.

*

I'm not sure if Buzzfeed originated the idea, but they're definitely not the only ones doing it. You are lured to a website that promises to show you celebrities who look awful without makeup, or the worst prom dresses ever, or what one-time child stars look like now.

When you get there, directly under and directly over the first picture that you came to see there are big triangles pointing to the right. You click on one of them, and instead of advancing to the next ugly celebrity/sad prom dress/perfectly normal looking ex-child-star, you find yourself taken to a full-page ad on a different site.

When you get back to the page you clicked from, you realize that the big triangle was part of an ad. So you scroll down, finding more arrows that take you either to ads or to other best/worst/top 25 websites. Isn't there some way to get to the next picture in the series you came to see?

It turns out that a modest-sized arrow under the first ad will take you to the next picture. It's white on a grey background instead of neon green on white, so it just doesn't show up.

When a page is designed to trick you into looking at an ad, does it actually work?

Well, it works for the people who own the web page. They assemble a few pictures and add occasional captions. Then they sell ad space to companies who will pay them for every click-through.

So those tricky clicks are profitable -- but the person who's really being tricked is the advertiser. Because they pay by the view instead of by the length of time spent viewing, tricking you into visiting their ad page pays the site owner exactly as much as going to the ad page on purpose.

The advertisers don't mind, however, because between the time you see that you're at an ad page and the moment you're able to press your back button (or close the new window they opened), there's a chance that you'll be intrigued by their "brilliantly designed" (aka "barely adequate") advertisement.

It's a long established principle of advertising that you only sell to a certain percentage of people who see your ad. So when Buzzfeed (or Buzzlie, or whoever it is) seduces somebody into looking at their trivial, often degrading list, and then tricks that person into clicking through to an ad, you become a captive of the odds.

Maybe one in ten thousand viewers of that ad page will end up buying the product. But for the right product, with enough total viewers, that 0.01% see-to-buy ratio means you're in business.

Even though I know this, I still get roped into some of them. I mean, who can resist seeing Worst Photoshop Fails Ever. How Embarrassing! This is a site devoted to people who take selfies of themselves either partly naked or with form-revealing clothing.

But they have also had some work done -- not on their bodies, but on the photograph. There are guys who have spliced their lily-white neck and head onto a buff, well-tanned body obviously belonging to somebody else -- sometimes so out of line that if you really had that combined body you would need immediate surgery.

Or the women who have given their photo a tummy tuck or a breast augmentation -- but they did it by stretching or shrinking one whole region of the pic, so that the items behind them in the picture are also altered.

These mistakes are a dead giveaway that you are (a) vain, so you want people to think you're fit, (b) exhibitionist, so you want people to look at you with missing clothes or in a costume that emphasizes one body region, (c) ashamed, so you feel the need to alter your picture before you display it, and (d) completely inept at using photo-altering software.

But hey, they wanted to be looked at, they posted the altered picture themselves, and some of them are clearly being ironic, so it seems to me to be fair game for O&R: observation and ridicule.

Then there's the single-sponsor site with a theme related to what they're selling: 25 Celebrities Who Are Surprisingly Loaded. Each celebrity picture is accompanied by a caption that explains that even with millions of dollars, they still clip coupons and drive the same cars until the wheels fall off.

The implication is that they are rich because they're so frugal.

And, in a way, they are -- though the coupon clipping is more a symptom of their frugality than a significant cause of their wealth.

The main cause of their wealth is making huge paydays, followed by wise investment and living within their means, so they don't spend away their windfall earnings.

I mean, let's get real. When you get paid a couple of million bucks for a movie or a season of a tv series, then frugal living will allow you to hang on to most of that money.

And I salute these celebs for having that kind of self-control. Because the "normal" thing to do with sudden money is to spend it on long-desired objects, with no thought of the probability that each million-dollar job might be the last.

The history of show-biz (and professional athletics) is rife with stories of people who made a lot of money, but kept spending as if they would always earn at that level.

So I'm all in favor of the "lesson" about frugality and wise investment. But the implication that on a non-windfall income you can become fabulously wealthy by spending hours a week clipping coupons so you can save fifty bucks a month -- that borders on fraud.

That's six hundred bucks a year. Even with compound interest, it's going to take a while to reach a million bucks. And these days, a million bucks is not that much money. In 1920 you could live like a king on the interest from a million dollars invested at 4%. But today, that same $40,000 a year (if you can get that kind of interest) is below the national median. By at least $13,000.

So even if you do become a "millionaire," you need to get at least fifty times that amount to be what a "millionaire" was when the word first became cool.

In other words, when you have a million in the bank, don't quit your day job.

I'm glad some celebrities have handled their money well. I'm always sad for the ones who don't -- or who are cheated by trusted friends and family members so they find themselves poor.

But the real way to become wealthy is to spend significantly below your income. If you're making $100,000 a year, but manage to live on only $60,000 a year, then you can put $40,000 into savings or investments and, over a long period of time, you can turn that into something your heirs can fight over.

But coupons ain't gettin' you there.

So one site warns you not to try to photoshop your selfies because people can tell you altered the picture.

Though, come to think of it, we only notice the bad photoshop jobs. Maybe there are millions of altered selfies where the fakery was so well-handled that we have no idea that the picture has been changed.

Until we see the subject of the photo in person. Um, yeah, let's not forget that there's a real world, in which you can't edit your image in other people's eyes.

And the other site urges you to be frugal, which is good idea, but it implies that mere frugality will somehow make you be "like" celebs who are worth millions but also clip coupons.

Some of my favorites sites are not even educational. They exist only to make you feel superior in some way. Take http://engrish.com. Engrish.com is devoted to displaying hilarious ways that foreigners make a hash of English words and phrases.

For instance, there's the hotel elevator in Taiwan that wants to tell you that the restaurant is on 2 and the pool is on 1. But their pool has a fancy name, "water world," and whoever made the sign managed to screw that up so it says, "Wart World."

Then there's the Korean theater where management wants to make sure you don't try to smuggle a whole family in on your one ticket. So the sign says that you are strictly prohibited from bringing relatives in on your ticket.

The wording? "Strictly Prohibited to enter relatives."

The problem for me is that I have also attempted to speak foreign languages, and I know I've made mistakes at least as bad as these. That's why, when you're in Italy or France-outside-of-Paris, once you've spoken enough Italian or French to prove that you have tried to speak the local language, the locals will usually take pity on you and stagger along in their English, which is much better than your version of their language.

In Paris, when they hear you butchering French, they deliberately speak French more rapidly, and with a more obscure vocabulary, until you're so humiliated you can hardly breathe. That is, if they don't ignore you completely.

Then, if money is involved, they'll take yours and give you the thing you thought you were trying to buy. But never will they show you any pity.

That's Paris. As people in Provence said, "They treat us that way, too." It's nice to know that Parisians are rude even to French people with a regional accent, and not just to Americans.

But they do take special pleasure in being rude to Americans.

Still, Engrish.com is a mixed bag. In many foreign countries, it's cool to have random English words on t-shirts and other items, so they aren't even trying to get it right. There's really nothing about that to ridicule -- it's just a sign of America's temporary cultural supremacy.

It's the failed attempts at expressing an idea that are really funny. "Courage is the first matter of success. I take decisive action decisively if I decided it once." That's a quotation that trembles on the brink of intelligibility, so you start to wonder if maybe it's your fault you can't understand it.

But statements like, "All friend are east, that are don't whelimely," clearly suggest that the foreign speaker doesn't care whether it's actually English or not.

The saddest ones are the instructions or warnings written in the country of manufacture, using the English that they absorbed in school. "When the yo yo is swinging or turuing do not get your face or hair close to it,it minht cause unexpected danger."

I'd be a little more contemptuous of this if I hadn't had American-born students produce similarly misspelled, unintelligible paragraphs on college essays.

Still, I must salute the foreigners who try to use a dictionary (or, even less helpful, a thesaurus) to help them put across a concept that they can express easily in their own language.

Imagine that the following is a Chinese laundry checklist, allowing you to mark which restrictions apply to the clothes you're leaving with them:

Can't bake the universe

Can'tbleach

The low temperature is whole and hot in the floorcloth

Ordinary the universe wash

Sprain lightly with hands

Can't press

Can wash with the hand water under 30 degrees Centigrade

Can't water-wash

Keep flat drily in the shady and cool place after dehydrating

Perch up and air the universe in the shady and cool place after dehydrating

You actually have to decode this if you want your laundry to be done properly. "The universe" seems to be the dictionary word they chose to mean "everything" or "all items." "Can't water-wash" is obviously "dry clean only." "Dehydrating" means they simply chose a fancier-looking word than "drying."

"Perch" was mis-chosen to mean "hang." But ... "The low temperature is whole and hot in the floorcloth"? I really have no idea about that.

And now, here's the truth: Instead of being from a Chinese laundry, this whole huge set of warnings seems to have been on a label on a single t-shirt made in Japan. I have no idea how you could follow all those directions with a single shirt.

Americans are the people in the world least likely to speak a foreign language fluently, even after earning advanced degrees. We are the last people who should make fun of how others stumble on their way into English, since most of us never even try to learn a foreign language.

One of the most common errors is that many languages make no distinction between the definite article ("the") and the indefinite ("a," "an"). And many have no articles at all. So they are baffled by our weird rules for when to use "the," "a," or nothing.

So one of my younger daughter's most treasured t-shirts is one she picked up in the airport on the way out of Japan: "Give peace the chance."

This isn't really something to laugh at. Rather, I salute them for trying to say something in a language they have not properly learned.

And since we can find equally embarrassing signs written by native speakers of English, it's only fair to give equal time to Grammar Mistakes On Signs: http://www.bitrebels.com/lifestyle/grammar-mistakes-on-signs/

At this moment, the handlettered roadside sign that leads this site is "HO MADE APPLE BUTTER."

So much for sounding it out.

"Get a brain, morans!" has the charm of being self-refuting, while a box labeled "Art of Writting" makes you not want to reach inside.

The sign "Sometimes your the dog, sometimes your the hydrant" is all the sadder because it appears on the marquee of Highland Park Junior High, suggesting that the school is doing a deeply lousy job.

Ditto with a sign by Creative Kids Software that reads, "So Fun, they Won't Even Know Their Learning."

And "We Bye Used Cars" is probably deliberate -- to provoke you into coming into the dealership to correct their spelling, only to find yourself selling them your car.

But now comes the sad truth: I know all the rules. I mean it. Every last one of them. I used to get paid as a copy editor. But that doesn't mean I don't make mistakes -- and I mean howlingly stupid ones. I'll type "their" or "there" when I meant "they're," and vice-versa. Or "hear" for "here."

Why? Because we process written language through the sound centers of the brain. So if you're a fast typist, you'll think a word, but your fingers will respond only to the sound of the word and choose by reflex, not by rule.

In fact, the reflexes are so strong that one of my most common typos is to write "the the" when I meant to write "and the." It makes no sense, except that both "the" and "and" are extremely common three-letter words that have no meaning on their own. So when my fingers need to type a common three-letter word, it's far more likely to be "the" than anything else.

We're all imperfect. We just have to hope we'll be lucky enough not to stencil the word "BMUP" on the asphalt as a warning just before a speed bump.

*

You can sue anybody for anything -- but you always run the risk that the judge will be so annoyed with your stupid lawsuit that you'll end up paying the attorneys' fees for both sides.

Recently Jessie Nizewitz, a contestant on the reality show Dating Naked, sued Viacom, which owns cable channel VH1, because in a particular shot they did not blur out her crotch, thus revealing intimate body parts specified in the complaint.

She lost her suit. (Pun intended.) That's because the contract she signed specifically does not promise to hide or disguise the contestants' naughty bits. A producer orally told her that they always blur those parts, which is true, except when it isn't.

So Nizewitz, a former stripper who used to show her body live onstage, without any blurring, did not get to cash in by now claiming horrible emotional distress and trauma because of a momentary flash of crotchal clarity.

Of course, there's nothing momentary on television in this age of DVRs. You can be sure that in hundreds of thousands of homes, that moment was frozen in time and studied, along with exclamations of, "Can you believe it? They forgot to blur this!"

So sure, I might believe (though I don't) that Nizewitz was deeply distressed. But nobody made her appear on the show, and nobody made her sign the contract that completely absolved the producers from liability for showing "unfettered nudity."

If you do a show like this, and then don't like how it turns out, learn from the experience and don't do it again. But don't sue the producers for doing exactly what the contract you signed permitted them to do.

I imagine she was hoping (or at least her lawyer was) that Viacom would regard this as a nuisance suit and pay her something just to make her go away.

But that only happens when you sue somebody who really can't afford to pay a lot of legal fees. Then they'll make the calculation: Even if I win, this is going to cost me a lot. Settling now for $XXX will save me money. So ... I'll offer to settle.

However, Viacom has lawyers on staff. Specifically, they have litigators on staff. So defending the lawsuit doesn't cost them anything more than they're paying anyway. Why, then, would they settle, especially when they're obviously going to win?

Now Nizewitz has to pay her own legal fees, and she got nothing, and so Viacom has made her an object lesson for others who might be looking for a quick payday by crying "trauma" after the fact.


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