21 August 2011

On Saturday Morning Cartoons

I was up early yesterday morning, not feeling particularly well, so I turned on the TV.  I caught the end of the [adult swim] loop: episodes of Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Squidbillies and Stroker and Hoop.  After that, I switched to the other Cartoon Network feed and caught an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Then I popped in the Green Lantern: First Flight Blu-ray and watched three of the bonus Justice League episodes.  By then, my wife was up and we caught Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo on Cartoon Network and capped off my Saturday morning of animation with an episode of Transformers: Prime on Hub.
Ahsoka Tano is the coolest character added to Star Wars since Yoda.
It was a blast going through all that stuff, most of which I hadn't actually seen before.  Yet, one thing that really irked me was the realization that not one of my local stations shows a single cartoon on Saturday mornings anymore.  I get that now they have two different Cartoon Networks, Boomerang, Hub, two different Disney Channels, their own DVD/Blu-ray/digital libraries and access to streaming content on half a dozen devices.

Saturday morning cartoons were different from weekday after-school cartoons.

Sure, they ran Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all six days, and I can remember Transformers on Saturday mornings (the three fourth season episodes aired on Saturdays here) and later The Adventures of Batman & Robin aired on Saturdays, after Batman: The Animated Series had been a weekday show.

But for the most part, the stuff they showed on Saturdays was different.  Garfield and Friends, The Smurfs, The Tick, The Real Ghostbusters, The Snorkels, Pac-Man and perhaps the greatest of them all, Muppet Babies...you had to catch those on Saturday mornings.

The other part about this was that it was really the only time of the week that child my age was 1) generally allowed to pick what to watch on TV and 2) had to actually make a choice between channels.  The rest of the week, even the rest of Saturday, we rarely had more than one channel showing cartoons at the same time.  But on Saturday mornings, particularly after Fox really began showing cartoons, it was a frenzy!

Switching between as many as three channels isn't overwhelming today, of course, and I'm not so deep into "cranky old man" mode that I think kids today should only have a few hours a week to choose from three channels of content.  I think it's terrific that there are more options--and that those options include a lot of solid shows that have come along since I was a child.  Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Transformers: Prime are both great; I actually like both those shows more than the recent movies in either franchise and to be honest, Prime is superior in a lot of ways to the Transformers that I grew up watching (though, until they have Grimlock and the Dinobots, it's still a one-sided competition).  Yet, despite the obvious ways in which today's cartoon situation is superior to that of my childhood, I can't help but feel that today's kids are being cheated out of the kind of structure my generation enjoyed.  Cartoons were special for us.  I don't know that today's youth feel that way.

07 August 2011

Netflix DVD Renter, 2001-2011

In light of the new Netflix membership plan changes, we have elected to become streaming-only subscribers.  It was really the only prudent choice, given "My Abysmal Netflix Rental History."  In fact, we just finished watching The Blind Side on Blu-ray which has the distinction of being the last disc we'll have rented from Netflix.  It's shameful, really, to look at how infrequently I've made use of my account.  Below is the entirety of my DVD and Blu-ray Disc rental history.
  1. The Peacemaker
  2. Wild Things*
  3. Jerry Seinfeld: I'm Telling You for the Last Time*
  4. The Insider
  5. The Sopranos: The Complete First Season - Disc 1*/**
  6. The Sopranos: The Complete First Season - Disc 2*/**
  7. The Sopranos: The Complete First Season - Disc 3*/**
  8. The Sopranos: The Complete First Season - Disc 4*/**
  9. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie***
  10. Swingers*
  11. Major League Baseball: All Century Team
  12. The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season - Disc 1*
  13. The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season - Disc 2*
  14. The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season - Disc 3*
  15. The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season - Disc 4*
  16. Dr. No*
  17. Bull Durham*
  18. Monty Python and the Holy Grail*
  19. National Geographic: Secrets of the Titanic
  20. Sex and the City: The Complete First Season - Disc 1
  21. Sex and the City: The Complete First Season - Disc 2
  22. Sex and the City: The Complete Second Season - Disc 1
  23. Sex and the City: The Complete Second Season - Disc 2
  24. Sex and the City: The Complete Third Season - Disc 1
  25. Sex and the City: The Complete Third Season - Disc 2
  26. Airheads
  27. Chicago
  28. The American Presidents - Disc 3
  29. The American Presidents - Disc 5
  30. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  31. The In-Laws 
  32. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete First Season - Disc 1
  33. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete First Season - Disc 2
  34. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete First Season - Disc 3
  35. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete First Season - Disc 4
  36. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete First Season - Disc 5
  37. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete First Season - Disc 6
  38. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season - Disc 1
  39. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season - Disc 2
  40. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season - Disc 3
  41. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season - Disc 4
  42. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season - Disc 5
  43. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season - Disc 6
  44. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season - Disc 7
  45. Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns - Disc 1
  46. Monster-in-Law
  47. Surviving Christmas
  48. Shadow of the Vampire*
  49. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - The First Year - Discs 1
  50. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - The First Year - Disc 2
  51. Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Third Season - Disc 6*
  52. Underground Railroad
  53. Sicko*
  54. Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fifth Season - Disc 2
  55. The True Story of The Bridge on the River Kwai
  56. Gods and Monsters
  57. Modern Marvels: Baseball Parks
  58. The Big One
  59. Tatooing
  60. Jeeves & Wooster: Season 1 - Disc 1
  61. Jeeves & Wooster: Season 1 - Disc 2
  62. Mother, Jugs and Speed*
  63. Roger & Me***
  64. King of California
  65. Blood Diamond
  66. Run, Fat Boy, Run
  67. Anne Frank Remembered
  68. Repo! The Genetic Opera
  69. Fanboys
  70. Just Buried
  71. Paris, Je T'aime
  72. Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill
  73. Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus
  74. Frost/Nixon
  75. The Wrestler
  76. Bob Saget: That Ain't Right
  77. The Blind Side
* indicates a title that we have since purchased and added to our library
** I actually rented The Sopranos: The Complete First Season twice so I could watch it with my friends
*** I don't actually think I watched these

Now, it's not as bad as it may seem because I actually suspended my account for several months at a time on a few occasions over the years because I knew with school and work I just wasn't likely to make much use of my account.  I would guess that I may have cumulatively gone as much as two years without being active.  Since last Spring, when we began streaming via the Wii, we've made far more extensive use of our Netflix account.  We streamed 68 movies last year and I've streamed 79 movies and two short films so far in 2011.  That's not counting TV content; we watched the entirety of My Name Is Earl last year, and we streamed all of The Office and 30 Rock that were available at the time (we got to the latest seasons of those as they were released earlier this year and are looking forward to the most recent seasons of those going live soon).  Those numbers also do not reflect several movies that my wife streamed without me.

With twelve months in a year and ten years of membership (120 months) and 81 discs received (remember I got The Sopranos: The Complete First Season twice), I averaged 1 disc received every 1.48 months.  Given that I stayed on a 1-disc-out-at-a-time plan for most of that time (including a few years where it was just 1 disc a month), it's not as awful as I feared.  Still, there's no denying that I got a lot less out of my membership than I should have.  Streaming is clearly the better format for us.

"The Dark Knight Rises" First Looks

Like any other Bat-fan, I've been waiting for our first looks at The Dark Knight Rises.  Since we live in the age of Photoshop, there have been fan made doctored photos online since The Dark Knight opened, offering speculations about which characters would be included, casting choices and even possible titles.  In the last couple of weeks, Warner Bros. have begun releasing official photos (and a teaser trailer) so I thought it was okay to take a moment and survey what we have been allowed to see and know to date.

Tom Hardy as Bane
The first released photo gives us a look at Tom Hardy as Bane.  Early reaction was that he looks like an S&M-themed wrestler, though in fairness...that's how Bane has always been described.

The Dark Knight Rises Teaser Poster
Then came the teaser poster.  We're looking upward at crumbling buildings, the Bat-logo looming over us.  It suggests a Gotham City falling apart and desperate for a champion.  That's what I first thought, and I can probably find dated evidence I said so before the teaser trailer was released.

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman
Catwoman on the Batpod?  Is she that bold a thief, or is there an alliance between Bat and Cat?  Fans are irked at the absence of cat ears, but 1) we don't know there isn't a cowl of some kind that just isn't shown here and 2) I think the costume is fine without it, really.  Her hair style reminds me of Julie Newmar's appearance as Catwoman--and no matter what you think of the 1966 TV series, that's a good thing.

Rumors, Speculation and Possible Spoilers

The teaser trailer has many fans convinced that Bane will break the Batman, or at least, Bruce Wayne and that Bruce will give way to a successor under the cowl by movie's end--ostensibly, John Blake, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  IMDb also lists Liam Neeson as reprising his role as Ra's al Ghul, with Josh Pence playing Young Ra's al Ghul and Joey King playing Young Talia al Ghul.  There's no adult Talia in the credits, but it's suspected that Marion Cotillard is playing her despite being credited as playing "Miranda Tate."  If Ra's and Talia figure into the story then it may turn out that Ra's's Lazarus Pit will be used to restore Bruce, rather than see him find a successor.  (The Lazarus Pit is a pool of special water/chemicals/ooze/whatever that can resurrect a person and has kept Ra's alive for centuries, but each time he comes back, he's less stable.)

Comic Book History of the Characters

Batman, Bane and Ra's have been tightly linked with one another in comics for several years.  Ra's long held out hope that Batman would succeed him as head of the League of Assassins.  Bruce got as far as falling in love with Ra's's daughter, Talia, with whom he had a son, Damian Wayne (the latest Robin), and has had alliances at times with Ra's, but has always rejected the idea of succeeding him.  After "Knightfall" (the story in which a Venom-fueled Bane defeated Bruce Wayne and broke his back), Bane eventually got off Venom and even teamed up with Batman to fight a Venom distributor.  Ra's tired of waiting for Bruce and tapped Bane as his heir apparent, but that didn't pan out and Bane took it as his personal mission to track down and destroy all of the Lazarus Pits across the world.  For a time, it was also speculated that Thomas Wayne was the father of both Bruce Wayne and Bane, but that didn't prove true.

Theories about the source material for the screen story has already affected back issue prices for Legends of the Dark Knight #11-15.  For further reading about stories that combine key elements, here are some suggestions:
  • Batman: Birth of the Demon - graphic novel; origin story of Ra's al Ghul
  • Batman: Son of the Demon - graphic novel; Batman and Talia marry and she becomes pregnant - mostly disavowed by mainstream continuity until a few years ago when Damian Wayne was introduced as the product of that story
  • Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 - First appearance of Venom, a super-steroid to which Bruce Wayne becomes addicted; collected in Batman: Venom trade paperback
  • Batman: Vengeance of Bane - First appearance of Bane
  • Batman: Knightfall - 19-part crossover story collected in two trade paperback volumes that tells how Bane released all the patients at Arkham Asylum to overwhelm Batman and then, at his weakest, Bane fights him and breaks his back
  • Batman: Vengeance of Bane II - The Redemption - Following "Knightfall," Bane rehabs and gets off Venom
  • Batman: Bane of the Demon #1-4 - Bane falls in with Ra's al Ghul by way of Talia
  • Batman: Legacy - 12-part crossover in which Ra's and Bane team up to release a plague, collected in a trade paperback
  • Batman: Bane - One-shot follow-up to Legacy showcasing 
Catwoman figures into some of these crossover stories, and here's her first meeting with Bane (which takes place after the back-breaking fight between Batman and Bane):
Batman #498
Naturally, there's no reason anyone who just wants to see The Dark Knight Rises needs to ever read or even know any of this.  The film is not beholden to anything that has been published in comics, so even reading these tales of how these characters have all intertwined with one another is no guarantee that you'll have any more insight into the film than you have without reading them.  For those who may be interested to begin exploring the realm of Batman comic books, though, these are all good places to start.  Batman's sales have been good, so he's largely unaffected by DC Comics's "The New 52" relaunch, meaning that, for the most part, these stories should all still be respected as having happened in the new comics.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, see my spotlight series on "The New 52."

06 August 2011

Standard & Poor's Downgrades U.S. Credit Rating

Highlights from the Standard & Poor's press release on downgrading the credit rating of the United States from AAA to AA+, with commentary:
We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process.

Do you suppose that S&P took notice when Senator Mitch McConnell cheerfully declared that hostage taking was the new legislative norm henceforth?  Do you suppose that was a reckless, stupid thing for an elected official to brag about?
The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.

Yup, they noticed.  Yup, it was a reckless, stupid thing to say.
It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.
S&P affirms what both parties have been shouting: we tax too little and spend too much on Social Security and Medicare.  Only before you take this as evidence that SS and Medicare need to be completely gutted, read on.
The act calls for as much as $2.4 trillion of reductions in expenditure growth over the 10 years through 2021. These cuts will be implemented in two steps: the $917 billion agreed to initially, followed by an additional $1.5 trillion that the newly formed Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is supposed to recommend by November 2011. The act contains no measures to raise taxes or otherwise enhance revenues, though the committee could recommend them.

So S&P also noticed--as did all the angry Democrats--that the debt ceiling deal does not raise revenue, because the Republicans refused to compromise on that point.  How inspiring was the revenue-free deal?
Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act. Key macroeconomic assumptions in the base case scenario include trend real GDP growth of 3% and consumer price inflation near 2% annually over the decade.
Maybe now that Standard & Poor's has made clear that refusal to let the Bush tax cuts expire is a bad thing, someone in the GOP will finally be reasonable about letting them die.

Our revised upside scenario--which, other things being equal, we view as consistent with the outlook on the 'AA+' long-term rating being revised to stable--retains these same macroeconomic assumptions. In addition, it incorporates $950 billion of new revenues on the assumption that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for high earners lapse from 2013 onwards, as the Administration is advocating. In this scenario, we project that the net general government debt would rise from an estimated 74% of GDP by the end of 2011 to 77% in 2015 and to 78% by 2021.

Our revised downside scenario--which, other things being equal, we view as being consistent with a possible further downgrade to a 'AA' long-term rating--features less-favorable macroeconomic assumptions, as outlined below and also assumes that the second round of spending cuts (at least $1.2 trillion) that the act calls for does not occur.
Back to not trusting Congress to make good on the debt ceiling deal.  Now for some money talk about interest rates:
This scenario also assumes somewhat higher nominal interest rates for U.S. Treasuries. We still believe that the role of the U.S. dollar as the key reserve currency confers a government funding advantage, one that could change only slowly over time, and that Fed policy might lean toward continued loose monetary policy at a time of fiscal tightening. Nonetheless, it is possible that interest rates could rise if investors re-price relative risks. As a result, our alternate scenario factors in a 50 basis point (bp)-75 bp rise in 10-year bond yields relative to the base and upside cases from 2013 onwards. In this scenario, we project the net public debt burden would rise from 74% of GDP in 2011 to 90% in 2015 and to 101% by 2021.

Will interest rates increase in response to our credit rating being lowered?  According to everyone who warned that constantly threatening to shut down the federal government if it didn't agree to plans to gut the federal government was a bad thing, yes.

When comparing the U.S. to sovereigns with 'AAA' long-term ratings that we view as relevant peers--Canada, France, Germany, and the U.K.--we also observe, based on our base case scenarios for each, that the trajectory of the U.S.'s net public debt is diverging from the others. Including the U.S., we estimate that these five sovereigns will have net general government debt to GDP ratios this year ranging from 34% (Canada) to 80% (the U.K.), with the U.S. debt burden at 74%. By 2015, we project that their net public debt to GDP ratios will range between 30% (lowest, Canada) and 83% (highest, France), with the U.S. debt burden at 79%. However, in contrast with the U.S., we project that the net public debt burdens of these other sovereigns will begin to decline, either before or by 2015.

Now, what I'd like to note about this paragraph is that every one of our peer countries mentioned in that paragraph provide universal health care to their citizens.  They're in better economic shape than we are.  They are, however, in better physical shape than we are and they have much more reasonable health care industries.  If they can do it, there's no reason we can't do it except for the fact that some of us don't want to do it.

In summary, then, Standard & Poor's has just told us--in full view of the entire world, no less--the following:
  • Hostage taking and constantly threatening to shut down the federal government and/or default on our debts is no way to run a country.
  • There is no belief that Congress will even honor its own feeble, revenue-less plans; much less begin operating responsibly.
  • We must increase revenue.
  • While entitlement programs are costly, other countries manage to provide full universal health care while operating more responsibly.
I hope you're all happy, "shut it down!" Tea Party people.  Your shenanigans and obsession with refusing to raise revenue while "sticking it" to President Obama has colored us as so childish that Standard & Poor's doesn't trust us to even run a country befitting a world leader.  And make no mistake: it is the constant shenanigans that are responsible for this lack of faith in our ability to manage our books properly.

05 August 2011

Quit Blaming Bush

It may be surprising, but I'd like to take a moment to defend former President George W. Bush, who has become the singular scapegoat for our economic woes.  As mentioned in a recent post, "Already Broken," many Americans feel that three years later, it's high time we quit assigning blame to Mr. Bush.  After all, he's been out of office for almost three years.  Taylor Swift has released eight of her fourteen singles since then, and "White Horse" was released in December 2008 and did most of its chart run during the nascent days of the Obama administration.  To some degree they're right.

We're to blame.

When Bush took office, the federal government had a surplus to be used to make a considerable payment on our debt.  Instead, it was squandered on needless tax cuts.  This would have been fine, had Bush responsibly kept the revenue level equal to the spending level--which he did not.  It's one thing to just pay the bills, but it's quite another to actively take in less money than you need to pay those bills.  We welcomed those tax cuts in 2001, and only Congressional Democrats balked when the Bush administration announced on 1 August 2001 that it was going to borrow $51 billion from the credit market to cover the cost of the tax cuts.
Democrats seized on Treasury's about-face, blaming President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax package, which includes the rebate checks, and expressing fears it will sow the seeds for a return to days of government red ink.

But the Bush administration sought to dismiss those fears, saying the need to borrow in the third quarter is a short-term cash squeeze and doesn't signal a move from budget surplus to deficit.
Give credit to Representative Charlie Rangel (D-NY), who declared at the time, "The whole Republican rationale for passing such a big tax cut is that we needed to send the surpluses back to the people. How ironic is it that we are now borrowing from the people in order to pay them their checks?"

In August 2001, though, everything was all hunky dory and our biggest concern was whether we would like the contestants on the new season of Survivor.  Debt schmebt.  Then came the decision to go into Iraq--no monetary value can be assigned the loss of life (last I saw it was near 4000 Americans), but the calculable figures for the cost of the war are staggering by any measuring stick.  We're quite angry as a society that we're still in Iraq, now that we've buried our own and received the bills for the operations there, but we were even angrier in 2003 when anyone suggested it was foolish to start a war of choice.  You're welcome to consult then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines if your memory is fuzzy.  We can pitch a fit about being in Iraq today, but let there be no mistake: we wanted to be in Iraq.  President Bush had enormous support from the country when he had Congress rubber stamp his invasion plans.
Remember this?  Take a good long look, America.
Throughout the eight years of his administration, Mr. Bush oversaw a seemingly endless parade of de-regulatory legislation signed into law that effectively placed business owners on the honor system.  There were objections, but even during good times these are the kinds of issues that fail to engage the interest of most Americans and during seven-plus of his years in office, he was a wartime president and criticism of his policies was tantamount to anti-Americanism.  Want to know the difference between the loyalty of Bush's supporters and the loyalty of Obama's supporters?  Obama supporters have called him out for Libya, whereas Bush's supporters wouldn't listen to arguments against his tax cuts or invasion of Iraq.

This idea that we need to quit "blaming" Bush isn't about requiring Obama to take ownership of his presidency.  It's about continuing to deny our own culpability for what happened between 2001-2008.  Conversely, assigning blame to failed economic policies and an ill-planned war of choice is not about continuing to vilify Mr. Bush or to let Mr. Obama off the hook for his presidency.  It's about recognizing what happened that led from a position of economic health to where we are today.  I've made mistakes in my life, and I know this for certain: the only way to fix a problem is to understand it and the only way to avoid repeating it is to learn what to avoid doing again in the future.  You can't do either of those things by refusing to own up to what got you into a mess.

Quit blaming Bush and take a long hard look at how you spent his eight years in office.  If you had one of these stickers, chances are you had a hand in getting us into this mess.
Incidentally, it was a lot harder than I had imagined to find photos on the Internet of pro-Bush bumper stickers and rallies.  You couldn't sit at a red light without seeing them for several years, but now Google searches only seem to find anti-Bush propaganda.  So kudos for being that thorough in covering up the evidence that you stood by Bush once upon a time.

Oh, and while it may be snotty, this is my "I told you so" moment.  I spent eight years questioning the prudence of continued tax cuts and an unnecessary war of choice.  I cast losing ballots for Al Gore and John Kerry, and for Democrats running for Congress.