Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Updated for grammar and style, with a few minor additions and deletions.

Over the past few months, my wife and I have started watching some “reality” shows on auctions and pawn shops. Our favorite is “Auction Hunters” (wiki) with Allen Haff and “Ton” Jones, two guys with complementary knowledge of valuables who try to turn a profit on storage unit auctions. The episodes highlight their successes, though they make it clear that they have failures as well. Those don’t make for good TV.

Another good storage auction show is “Storage Wars” (wiki) which features a cast of regulars—six people total: two individuals, a married couple, and a father-son duo. At the end of each episode, each team’s profits are tallied and ranked, scoring it as a competition.

There’s also “Storage Hunters” which we don’t find as interesting as the other two, either in content or personality.

Before an auction, the owner opens the door to the unit and prospective bidders get a few seconds to look inside, without touching or crossing the threshold. It’s sad how highly valuable things are lost by storage unit customers who fail to pay the rent. But that’s part of their contract and the storage owners build these placed to make a profit, not provide free space out of the kindness of their hearts. Sometimes valuable objects are in plain sight. More enticingly, the bidders catch a glimpse of just a leg, handle, or case, giving a hint of the nature of the object under the clutter. Otherwise, boxes and bags completely hide the treasures, so bidders have to use other clues, or just outright gamble. The visible items often give clues to the type of person who rented the space, whether it’s indicators of their occupation or hobby, or simply the care with which the items are stored. Also, bidders consider the town in which the storage units are situated as a way to guess the type of things that residents might want to store—whether it’s a beach town, retirement community, or a popular spot for hunting and outdoor recreation.

Before and during the bidding, the shows highlight the psychological tussle between rival bidders. On “Auction Hunters”, Allen and Ton work out a maximum bid and a strategy to dissuade competitors from driving up the cost. On “Storage Wars” the primary buyers know each other and are constantly playing head games. Sometimes it’s about driving up the price to keep the other guy from having enough cash to bid on other units. Sometimes it’s about quickly driving up the price and winning the auction to intimidate the amateurs. But mostly it’s just trash talking. It can be very funny. When the auctioneer says, “going once, going twice”, and Dave Hester shouts a deep, long “yeeeeeeeep” at the last moment, he gets to watch the rival bidders’ faces, the anguish and frustration of having a winning bid taken away just after they get their hopes up.

Digging through units to discover valuable items adds suspense. Producers inevitably insert a commercial break right after a surprised gasp. Once the good stuff is sorted out and trucked away, the buyers try to flip them as soon as possible, to reduce the time and space devoted to a given product. Whether it’s a collector, an antique store, potential buyers are interviewed to assess the value, after which the stars of the show try to get the highest price. Again, it’s another psychological exercise, to gauge the response of a potential buyer. The whole process from auction to resale is an interesting combination of raw capitalism and gambling.

Before we saw those TV shows, my wife had already been a longtime viewer of the PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” (wiki), which provides viewers with the chance to see expert appraisals of items. There’s a bit of suspense, but none of the drama of bidding or haggling.

My wife loves going to estate sale auctions, garage sales, flea markets, and thrift stores. She has a good eye for hidden values and is an accomplished haggler. She’s managed to turn a profit on just about everything she bought with the intent to flip. I’ve gone to a few auctions with her. For me, it’s entertaining and interesting to watch the process, but she’s the expert. I love watching her at work.

Similar to the auction shows are the ones about pawn shops. My son thinks “Pawn Stars” is the best, because it features interesting items without so much drama. We haven’t had a chance to watch that one, but we have enjoyed the show “Hardcore Pawn” (wiki) which chronicles interesting incidents at a large Detroit pawn shop, run by the Gold family: Les and his children Seth and Ashley. It’s fun to watch the Golds and their employees haggle, though the TV show is more about relationships and the drama of patrons who seemingly don’t understand the concepts of mutual, consensual exchanges, private property, or manners. The security staff escort those who misbehave out the door, with all the expected tantrums. However, it’s my understanding that TV producers must obtain a signed release to broadcast a person’s images, so I question the authenticity of many events. Also, as with other “reality” shows, the main characters often engage in squabbles which seem a bit contrived or exaggerated.

At a weblog called “The Zeitgeisty Report” an author named Damien wrote a scathing review of “Hardcore Pawn” in which he accused the show’s producers of “blatantly” reinforcing “offensive” stereotypes. Unfortunately, Damien’s arguments reinforce the misguided notions that negotiating for a low price to maximize one’s profit is the act of a “[s]neaky, eveil [sic] Shakespearean Shylock creature” or an “[e]vil Jew [who] screws over less intelligent minority.” I wonder, if the pawnshop owners were Mexican and the customers Anglo, would Damien still see the haggling as “sneaky” and “dishonest”? Would he view the middle man as “evil”? Or is it just that the Gold family are Jewish? (I’ve never seen an episode in which their religion or ethnic background are mentioned, but I’ll assume Damien is accurate in guessing that they are Jewish because their name is Gold.) I attempted to post a comment on that article, but it’s been “awaiting moderation” for weeks. Here it is (permalink):

Some of the angry encounters are staged. I noticed a microphone transmitter clipped onto the belt in back of a “customer” who was being thrown out of the store. I’m betting that some are real, but to liven up the show, they stage reenactments or maybe even outright fiction. If you were thrown out, would you sign a release to have your image shown on TV? Put people in front of a camera and they usually act differently than they would otherwise.

And, the sibling rivalry subplot is overwrought, probably a combination of selective editing and directors encouraging expressive outbursts on the part of the actors (family members).

But if you see the pawn brokers as evil and dishonest, you may, like many of the troublemakers on the show, be unfamiliar with the concepts of private property, consensual exchanges, and profit margins in consideration of overhead. About 90% of the angry displays are because the person stupidly feels entitled to money that the brokers aren’t willing to pay, or think that they are entitled to enter another person’s private property and say rude or threatening things with no consequence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that such ignorance and stupidity take place in Detroit, which has been devastated by economic collapse which was an inevitable consequence of decades of union and government corruption, welfare “entitlements”, and the like—though for political reasons, those who know this won’t admit it, while the rest are unenlightened to the basics of free market economics.

You give the example of the gyn table being bought then resold for much more, but the fact is that the original sellers don’t have to pay for a giant store, employees, taxes, utilities, advertisement, etc. to find a buyer. They just went to the place Les built, got their money, and were on their way, happy with the result. On the other side, the “George Jefferson” interpretation is completely yours. I say if the guy is happy with the deal he got, then he benefited from the deal. It’s not up to you to decide that the table wasn’t worth $200 to him, because it’s not your $200, not your table, and not your happiness. It’s his.

As for your suggestions of racial or ethic stereotypes being pushed by the producers, I don’t agree. The show is about drama, so the vast majority of customers waiting in line aren’t acting up and are only seen as background to the narrative. Several of the crazy customers are white. The employees seem to be quite varied in race, ethnicity, personality types, etc.. Your “missing chromosome” snark is ignorant (hint: look up aneuploidy, you probably would have said “extra chromosomes” if you knew better, but then it’s jolly fun to exploit people with Down’s Syndrome by making them the punchline of a joke, I suppose).

Watch “Hardcore Pawn” and decide for yourself.

Better yet, watch “Auction Hunters” or “Storage Wars” for better content.


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My earliest memories are from the time my family lived in USAF housing in a suburb of Tokyo (Chofu/Fuchu). Before moving to Tokyo, we were in Okinawa, where my dad was part of the team to help oversee transfer to the Japanese government. He was very impressed with how prepared their people were for every meeting. My parents had great praise for the hard working professionalism and civilized nature of the Japanese. We kids loved watching “Utala Man” cartoons and going to the Yomiyuri Land amusement park.

Billy Beck has expressed similar praise over the years, having worked there a number of times.

It’s heartbreaking to see the devastation, but important to realize that life goes on in most of Japan and they’re quite civilized not to engage in looting.

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What Congress Critter thought this would be a good idea? I’m all for mocking politicians and see no reason to show them respect. They are, after all, whores and thieves on the scale of trillions of dollars. But those people seem to think highly of themselves and the “dignity” of their profession, so what moron figured bringing Colbert before their committee made any sense?

Stephen Colbert is very quick-witted and can be very funny at times. But his always-on “Opposite Day” shtick gets tedious after awhile. And, his character is hard-wired to lampoon Republicans/”conservatives”— some of them make it so easy—but any good satirist ought to see just as many, if not more, targets among the Democrats/”liberals”.

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When Rick Santelli, from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, stated on CNBC (Feb 19, 2009) that traders ought to engage in a “tea party” to protest the insanely irresponsible mortgage bailout, which was rewarding poor economic decisions at the expense of everyone else, I was a bit moved. At least some people on the national scene were getting just how reckless the Obama/Pelosi/Reid machine was and the level to which Americans ought to be resisting. To be fair, Bush signed TARP with a few Republican supporters, including McCain, so the Democrats were only accelerating the large-scale looting of the efforts of taxpayers started a few months before. And, while TARP was unprecedented in its scope and scale, it was the logical progression from all of the travesties mainly tracing back to FDR’s authoritarian meddling in the economy in response to the Great Depression.

All of the political horrors being splashed across the news from the start of the new administration convinced me that in order to dissuade the government from trashing the free market with more of these legislative abominations, it was going to take the kind of determination and courage shown by the Sons of Liberty, who carried out the Boston Tea Party. Widespread non-violent civil disobedience could have warned the politicians away from going as far as they did, but that sort of movement never materialized. People were content to hold rallies and rely on elections, rather than demonstrating their resolve to shut down the machine of government through non-compliance.

When I saw news footage of tea party rallies in the days which followed, I quickly realized from the placards and t-shirts being shown that a good number of these people were rather ignorant, or at least hopelessly naïve. They had all sorts of different agendas, most of which were recycled Republican/”conservative” positions, rather than more principled advocacy of individual rights and across-the-board opposition to government abuse of power. Many were able to enumerate the misdeeds of the Democrats, but few had the insight to recognize that the vast majority of the GOP politicians were similarly unethical, but just in slightly different ways. At best, the tea party movement has targeted RINOs. Unfortunately, it hasn’t done anything to weed out the more irrationally religious candidates and pundits, or the law-and-order types.

When the immigration stupidity in Arizona became associated with a large number of self-proclaimed tea partiers, I saw no reason to hope that this “movement” was going to accomplish anything for liberty, but could turn out to be a net loss—if for no other reason than people who could have taken a stand for individualism against the Democrats were going to be drowned out in the debate. The media focuses on the more vocal, more sensational, oversimplifying the issues and pigeonholing people. And, when political opportunists like Sarah Palin and Mark Williams hoisted the tea party banner for their own agenda, I realized that the people who were sincerely interested in liberty and reining in government on principle were going to lose the opportunity to debate the important moral questions. Instead, people are distracted by Cordoba House (“Ground Zero Mosque”) and other irrelevancies.

Meanwhile, Democrat supporters have happily cherry picked the most irrational, ignorant self-proclaimed tea partiers as being representative of the movement, in addition to playing the race card because a few idiots (or perhaps agents provocateur) showed up at rallies with signs which were racist (or, at least, which could be portrayed as racist). But the race thing started before the tea party became hot, as one liar after another cynically accusing anyone who opposed Obama’s agenda of only doing so because he was black, and not on the principles of freedom.

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Angelina Jolie as a female Jason Bourne makes this an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. I could pick a few nits on the plot, but I was sufficiently entertained to forgive them.

Go see it.

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South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, were the target of threats by a group called “Revolution Muslim.” These ridiculously stereotypical angry Muslims produced a video intimating that Parker and Stone would end up murdered, like Theo Van Gogh, for depicting Mohammad in a “blasphemous” way. Well, the joke was on the angry Muslims:

Mohammed appeared on Wednesday night’s US episode of the cartoon with his body obscured by a black box, since Muslims consider a physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous. Last week, the character was believed to be disguised in a bear costume. When that same costume was removed this week, Santa Claus appeared.

The very idea of blasphemy against any religion is such an obviously human one. There is no god. But if there were a being of such awesome unimaginable power, would it really be necessary for people to protect this god from ridicule? It’s not like this alleged creator of the universe would have the emotional constitution of a fragile young child being mocked on the playground for having a goofy haircut. This is supposed to be an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. Few other human attitudes do more to highlight the absurdity of blind faith than throwing a temper tantrum and demanding that everyone else give respect to the irrational belief in imaginary beings.

In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

The plot of episodes “200” and “201” are quite convoluted and silly, in true South Park fashion. But as with many episodes, it’s a subversive, intentionally offensive morality play. Buddha is depicted snorting cocaine, Jesus admits viewing porn on the internet, but a box covers Mohammed at all times and even the mention of his name by the characters is bleeped in the audio. The closed captions, however, weren’t altered. Even more absurd, a “lessons learned” speech at the end of the show, which made no mention of Mohammed, was completely bleeped out (including the closed captions). Apparently, Comedy Central completely caved to what can only be described as terroristic “warnings.”

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, and years before the murderous riots by angry Muslims, pissed over a few Mohammed cartoons, the episode “Super Best Friends” (July 4, 2001), showed an apparently innocuous cartoon version of Mohammed as part of the plot, but there were no riots, no death threats then.

On April 5, 2006 and April 12, 2006, a two part episode “Cartoon Wars” had terrified characters throughout the US burying their heads in sand to show Muslims that they had no part in the airing of a picture of Mohammed on the show Family Guy (well, the South Park parody of Family Guy). They built the suspense, first showing an episode within an episode with a black censorship box. The next week, they were supposedly going to show it unedited, but Comedy Central wouldn’t air it:


I still prefer the “Douche and Turd” episode, in which Stan decides not to vote for a school election, and is threatend by Puff Daddy to “Vote or Die” (an actual slogan he used in pro-voting commercials). As usual, their over-the-top theme serves to illustrate the stupidity of people feeling obligated to vote in an election, even if they don’t like either candidate.

P.S.: Balko links to a story about a call to ink pens, for cartoonists everywhere to draw Mohammed on April 20, 2010.

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Radley Balko links to an article at Slate explaining the maddening trade-offs involved in tuning keyboard and fretted instruments. I was blissfully unaware of the concept of musical temperament and just assumed that musical notes were perfectly laid out in simple, integral frequency ratios. Thanks, Balko, for making me feel even stupider about music theory.

My introduction to playing music was on a trumpet in the sixth grade, which meant I had a very narrow perspective: one note at a time. I could hear when I didn’t harmonize with another person’s instrument, but that was either a matter of tuning, or a simple result of someone playing the wrong note. Not until high school did the band directors even attempt a cursory sketch of music theory: major, minor, and perfect intervals. Otherwise, it was just rote learning. Play what’s on the page.*

Being a math geek, it always bothered me that the notes on a major scale were not symmetrical, making each letter two semitones apart–the reason there isn’t a black key between every white key on a piano. Why not use a hexatonic, or whole tone scale, so an octave involved six notes instead of the seven notes in a diatonic scale? Put a black key between each white key and adjust accordingly. A C-major scale would no longer be void of accidentals, but wouldn’t that force neophyte musicians to grasp just exactly how a major interval differs from a perfect interval? Alas, the symmetry of such a scale was swapped out for the concept of the tonic. Having done most of my playing on a one-note horn, and never having been taught improvisation, I still only have a fuzzy grasp of harmonics. The idea of connecting that to what’s on sheet music and what’s on a piano or guitar comes as naturally to me as playing Boggle in Spanish. I have a rookie-level ability to pronounce printed words (I have to look up how to pronounce words like “ciudad”) and would be an abysmal failure at writing down words I know by ear (“quatro” vs. “cuatro”).

Another mystery to me was the “Every Good Boy Does Fine” vs. “Good Boys Do Fine Always” discrepancy (treble clef versus bass clef). It didn’t matter to me when I stuck to one instrument. But after a few lessons on the classical guitar (which was already rough going), I was asked to take lessons on the electric bass guitar to replace another student (Chris W.**) in the jazz band, because he was moving. If I recall correctly, his family had a change of plans so he quickly returned and I was spared the agony of compounding two unfamiliar tasks–playing a string instrument and reading bass clef. Unfortunately, it also meant I never resumed the classical guitar lessons.

* On my list of most embarrassing moments is the time I was hired at age 17 to be part of a trumpet trio playing Christmas music in front of a large congregation. At the last minute, we were told to transpose to another key to make it easier for the pianist. The other two more experienced players said “no problem” but I managed to inject a plethora of sour notes. “A little bit of humiliation goes a long way.”

**My Best Man at my wedding, Carlos, played with Chris in a band, doing gigs for high school parties. They were often arguing over what songs to play. As a bassist, Chris was always wanting to play Rush songs, which are heavy on Geddy Lee’s bass playing. Chris was most famous in the high school band for keeping a book of quotes of our band director’s humorous impromptu aphorisms. After it became well-known, Mr. M. would add, “Put that in your little book, Mr. W!” afterwards.

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