1/21/2011

The Best (and Worst) Television of 2010

  1.  Best of 2010
    1. The Wire.  A show about law enforcement so real, even law enforcement officers praised it.  What the critics - and we - loved about the show, though, was that instead of exploring the phenomenon of crime in a vacuum, the show dared to expose its roots in failed education systems, corrupt political systems, and citizens willing to be manipulated by the media into believing what others wanted them to believe.  Talk about timely.
    2. Lost.  2010 was the year we lost Lost, much to the dismay of the show's legion of generally satisfied though still-puzzled fans. Wonder if Hollywood appreciated the irony: one of their most popular shows wasn't a "lowest common denominator" reality show but a vehicle that required time, attention, loyalty, and critical thinking skills.
    3. Breaking Bad.  This show about a chemistry teacher turned crystal meth maker has a theme that continues to resonate in this era of Wall Street bankers gone bad: once you first compromise your ethics, the long, slow, inevitable slide towards corruption begins.
    4. Mad Men.  Season 4 of our favorite show about advertising may be set in the 1960s but the show's theme remains timeless: the disconnect between perception and reality, and the ability of people to find a way to believe what they want to believe. Too bad the fashion isn't timeless too - so many gorgeously tailored suits!
    5. Boardwalk Empire.  Steve Buscemi chewed scenery as Nucky Thompson, an Atlantic City crime boss coping with the upheaval of prohibition.  Would Nucky's "civilized" approach to crime - avoiding violence, exercising a paternal responsibility for his neighborhood and organization - survive the influx of blood-soaked mobsters interested only in profit?  If you didn't get it before, the show slaps you across the face with it now: laws that attempt to impose one person's morality on other people tend to end in disaster.
    6. The Pacific.  Everyone agreed it wasn't "as good as" HBO's Band of Brothers, but everyone also tacitly understood why: this episode in America's warfighting history was more ambiguous, more miserable, and a whole lot more brutal. The show didn't shy away from those realities.
    7. The Good Wife.  Talk about timely!  This show tells the story of a political wife humiliated by the exposure of her husband's long affair with a hooker.  But the show goes further than merely giving us the answer we've always wanted to the question Why doesn't she leave him?, providing a sophisticated courtroom/political drama-driven soap opera unlike anything I can remember in television before
  2. Other Noteworthy shows of 2010
    1. Modern Family
    2. Human Target
    3. Life Unexpected
    4. Parks & Recreation
    5. Friday Night Lights
  3. Worst of 2010
    1. Bridalplasty.  Brides compete, Survivor style, for the chance to win free plastic surgery in time to look perfect for their weddings.  Demeaning on so many levels, I stopped counting.
    2. Skating with the Stars.  Can we all agree that ice skating, when not performed at the very highest levels of expertise, is simply excruciating?
    3. Toddlers & Tiaras. Little girls wearing too much makeup get bawled out by their moms for blowing the talent competition or gaining weight. Appalling.
    4. Teen Mom.  I've heard some say that the show is worthwhile as a cautionary tale for the teens who watch it.  I've also heard some say it's an appalling piece of exhibitionism, exploiting teens who have so little self esteem they'll seek any attention they can get - whether from boys or television producers, both of whom should know better.
  4. Shows that ended in 2010
    1. Lost
    2. 24
    3. The Wire
    4. As the World Turns
    5. Heroes
    6. Larry King Live
    7. Law & Order
    8. At the Movies
  5. Television Trends
    1. Shows/movies about vampires (Twilight:Eclipse, Vampire Diaries, True Blood), ghosts zombies (The Walking Dead) and all things weird/supernatural (Alice in Wonderland, Inception, Fringe, Supernatural) continued to dominate.
    2. NCIS/CSI/Criminal Minds/Law & Order/Castle/The Mentalist/etc. continued to populate TV Guide's list of most-watched shows, proving that we Americans still love our formulaic crime dramas.  After a hard day at work, who wants to think?
    3. The popularity of reality/talent shows continued to rise, a category now populated by television shows to include:  America's Got Talent, Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, The Sing-Off, Live to Dance
    4. Shows about cooking: Hell's Kitchen, Top ChefJamie Oliver's Food Revolution, everything on the Food Network, and anything having to do with decorating cakes
    5. Comedies: clever (30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, Community), mediocre (Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother) and just plain bad (Two and a Half Men)
  6. Fading Fast.
    1. Glee's ratings stayed strong, but the show increasingly relied on gimmicks (guest stars; tributes to Madonna, Lady Gaga and Brittany Spears; a Rocky Horror Picture Show tribute) to keep viewer attention - never a good sign
    2. Men of a Certain Age.  Got some preliminary attention due to critics falling all over it, until people actually watched and realized the show was about middle aged guys whining about being middle aged.  Who needs a show that real?
    3. Desperate Housewives.  Whoever came up with the idea of shooting the show into an alternative future in which Gabriella is fat and has children should be bound, gagged, and dropped into the La Brae Tar Pits.
    4. American Idol.  Don't know why people are still watching - after years of seeing mediocres win while the real talent gets voted off in preliminary rounds, isn't it time someone starts questioning the paradigm?
    5. Simpsons.  Breaks my heart to put this in the "fading" category, but the edge is gone and many of the shows are starting to feel rewarmed.
  7. Won't Go Away
    1. Extreme Home Makeover.  Don't think I can take too many more episodes of worthy people getting dream houses while everyone in the community cheers and cries.
    2. Two and a Half Men.  I can't explain why this is still on the air.  Soon their going to have to call it two and a half grandfathers.
    3. Scrubs.  Young people behaving immaturely is funny; old people behaving immaturely is just embarassing.  (See Seinfeld.)
  8. Television News:
    1. Some television shows won Emmy Awards.
    2. John Stewart & Steve Colbert flouted their popularity by staging a fake political rally at the National Mall that drew over 300,000 people - more people that the vast majority of "real" rallies manage to draw.
    3. Jay Leno and Conan O'Brian engaged in some sort of unseemly and overblown conflict over The Tonight Show.
    4. Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars proved that Americans can  be partisan about anything, even dancing.

1/20/2011

Top Technologies of 2010 (Successes + Epic Fails)

Thought it would be fun to revisit some of the year's hottest trends, as well as some of the most notable technology failures and flops.
  1.  Tablet Computers (iPad).  2010 was the year that Americans as a whole were able to finally stop sniggering about the unfortunate name of Apple's latest toy long enough to buy about 100 million of them.
  2. Cloud Computing.  When you think about the progress of external storage devices over the past 20 years ...  floppy disks ->3.5" disks -> zip disks -> external hard drives -> USB drives ...  you come to realize that storing data on little droplets of water suspended in the sky was practically an inevitability.
  3. 4G.  For a long time I thought 4G indicated the ability of satellites to stream data at a rate of 4Gigs/second, which would be impressive indeed.  Silly me - turns out 4G stands for "fourth generation" - in other words, it's basically just a marketing gimmick, people!  And yet, my standing outside the local Apple store shouting this at customers as they enter the store seemed to have had little impact on overall sales of 4G technology.  Sometimes you just have to let go.
  4. Smartphones (iPhone 4, iTouch, Droid).  If someone has asked me 20 years ago if I needed a phone that could play my favorite Frank Sinatra tunes, tell me how long to cook meat, and help me identify birdcalls, I'm betting I would have said no.  How naive I was then.
  5. Smartphone Apps.  2% are actually useful (Google Maps, Documents to Go), 2% are wicked cool (Google Sky, Google Goggles), and the remaining 94% are stupid/unnecessary. Now that I think about it, though, doesn't this 2:2:96 ratio also apply to television, movies, internet content, and Facebook posts?  Could it be I've stumbled onto a reality-defining insight, like Murphy's Law?  I've always wanted a ratio named after me! 
  6. Net Neutrality.  We Americans consider uncensored, unlimited access to the internet to be sacrosanct, rather like our 2nd amendment right to bear arms.  Can you imagine the ISP or government brave enough (or suicidal enough) to attempt to control internet content or access in the U.S.?   
  7. Social Networking.  Social networking is in no way a new technology, but it continued to dominate headlines in 2010 - to the extent that even a movie about social networking (Social Network, the story of the founder of Facebook) managed to dominate theaters and win awards.  By way of perspective, the movie about Nelson Mandela's life (Ivictus) came in 7th. 
  8.  HDTV.  Driven by huge drops in pricing, 98% of people in the U.S. purchased massive, HD-enabled flat screen televisions in 2010, 50% of which currently reside on cheap, pasteboard television cabinets purchased from Walmart. 
  9. Television/Movie Streaming.  State-of-the-art 55" plasma television = $5000.  Netflix subscription = $17/month.  Ability to watch Hotel for Dogs in the comfort of your own living room, without the risk of running into friends at the theater who might ask you what movie you're there to see = priceless.
  10. Ebook Readers.  If you can make that case that it's important to have your music collection available 24/7, then can surely make the case that it's important to have your book collection available 24/7.  Notice that this is predicated on the assumption that you can make the case that it's worth large sums of $$ to be able to listen to Barry Manilow whenever and wherever you may be. 
  11. Augmented Reality.  This is all about apps that take pictures and then overlay them with virtual info, like Google Goggles.  This is, I have to admit, kind of cool.
  12. 3D (television, movies).  I'm expecting a correlating spike in headache-reduction technologies for 2011.  (Or perhaps I'm just bitter because, with only one working eye, the whole 3D thing is never going to happen for me - sigh.)
  13. Hybrid/Electric Cars (Prius, Volt).  Would like to think growing guilt over Global Warming precipitated the rush of people purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles and electric cars.  However, I'm guessing it was the laws allowing folks with Priuses and Volts to use the HOV lanes without paying.
  14. Turbines.  The UK unveiled a huge turbine farm in the middle of an ocean somewhere.  Presumably it doubles as an underwater whale obstacle course.
  15. Data Mining.  As opposed to actual mining, data mining in 2010 became scary efficient.  Admit it's a little offputting that everytime I log into Facebook these days, all the ads are for stair lifts, AARP membership, and donut hole medicaid insurance plans.
  16. Ubiquitous Wi-Fi Access. The day I knew wi-fi had become ubiquitous was the day I saw, proudly posted in the window of my local McDonalds, a notice proclaiming: "Wi-Fi Available Here!"  Thank goodness I have instant access to the internet so I can look up the fat content of what I'm about to eat. 
  17. High-Resolution Airport Scanners.  I understand why people are offended, but ask any woman who's given birth in a large hospital if, really, they have any dignity left to preserve.
Postscript: Seems fitting, as long as we're mentioning technology successes, to list some of 2010's headline technology failures:
  1. Deep water oil rigs.  Don't know about you, but I know I won't be eating shrimp for the next couple of decades.
  2. Chemicals capable of diffusing/dissolving underwater oil spills.  Though ultimately ineffective, for a while there it was a good thing to own Palmolive stock
  3. Terrorist explosives technology.  Notable failures in 2010 included the Times Square car bomb in May and Fedex mail bombs in October.
  4. Aircraft engines. Turns out all it takes to bring them down is a little volcanic ash. (Let's hope the terrorists keep using bombs and don't switch to ash.)
  5. Dow Jones trading software.  At one point in May the Dow dropped over 600 points in five minutes, apparently because of a typo.
  6. Whatever software we use to generate joblessness estimates.  Because, whatever software it is that we use now, it unfailingly predicted lower rates of unemployment than later metrics were able to actually verify.
  7. Mine safety technology.  Seems like every time you turned on the television in 2010, the lead story had to do with trapped miners.  On the plus side, our "rescuing trapped miners" technology must be getting better.

1/16/2011

Top Foods of 2010 (and what they say about us as a nation!)

iVillage recently posted their list of the 25 Most Downloaded Recipes of 2010.  I found the list intriguing for the insights it seems to provide about who, what, and where we were as a nation in 2010.  Read on and see if you agree ...
  1. Bacon & Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese.  Fittingly, in a year dignified by financial crisis (unemployment tops 10%), political insecurity (divisive mid-term elections), war (Afghanistan), and natural disasters (earthquake in Haiti, volcanic eruption in Iceland), the #1 most downloaded recipe was that penultimate comfort food, macaroni and cheese ... made even more comforting by the addition of bacon.  Is there anything that bacon can't make even better?
  2. Wicked Good Chocolate Peanut Butter Pudding Cupcakes.  This recipe is basically the confectionary equivalent of macaroni and cheese, featuring no less than four of our favorite indulgences - chocolate, peanut butter, pudding and cake.  Also, the juxtapositioning of "wicked" and "good" adds a nice touch, for if any year could claim the title oxymoronic, it was surely 2010.
  3. Slow Roasted Apples with Maple Whipped Cream.  Proving that we Americans aren't averse to eating healthy foods, as long as you pile a lot of whipped cream on them!  Other examples of "pseudo healthy foods" that enjoyed popularity in 2010: energy drinks, fortified water, sea salt, dark chocolate, pop tarts.  
  4. Chicken Parmesan.  It's fast, simple, cheap, and sounds a lot more elegant/elaborate than it is: basically, our nation's vibe in a nutshell. 
  5. Caramel Macchiato Cider with Cinnamon Cream.  I blame Starbucks for our continuing love affair with ridiculously complex and snobbish desserts masquerading as beverages.
  6. Strawberry Puffs.  A little bit of country in the middle of a whole lot of urban.
  7. Meatball Sandwiches.  A little bit of working man in the middle of a whole lot of foodie.
  8. Pumpkin Risotto.  I blame cable cooking networks for this silliness.  Risotto isn't about nutrition, it's about being able to pompously announce to your peers and coworkers: "As a matter of fact, we're having pumpkin risotto tonight."
  9. Horseradish and Dill Cream Cheese Mashed Potatoes.  Sounds fancy, but when you get down to it, this is just mashed potatoes with a little bit of extra taste thrown in, demonstrating that while 2010 may have been the Year of the Hispanic (immigration wars in Arizona, drug wars in Mexico, appointment of the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court), our country's German/Irish cultural roots still go deep.
  10. Swirled Cheesecake Brownies.  2010's go-to recipe for bake sales, office parties, baby/wedding showers and wakes, because some things - like marriage, babies, death schools in need of money, and offices in need of lame team-building functions - are eternal.
  11. Pumpkin Fritters.  Speaking of oxymorons, love how this recipe juxtapositions pumpkin - as wholesome a food as there is - with "fritters," a method of preparation that involves battering and deep-frying.  Is there anything we Americans can't find a way to deep-fry?
  12. Oven-Baked Veggie Chips.  A dish that even our nation's unofficial Healthy Food Czar, Michelle Obama, would approve of ... and even more so if the veggies come from a garden you've cultivated in your backyard or in cooperation with a nearby elementary school.
  13. Mulled Cranberry Cider.  Cranberries were one of the beneficiaries of the year's obsession with weird fruits and their potential nutritional/dietary benefits.  Other beneficiaries included pomegranates, blueberries, blood oranges, pumpkin, and tomato juice.
  14. Black Bean Nachos.  Did I mention that 2010 was the year of the Hispanic?  We may not like them sneaking across our borders, but we sure love their food.
  15. White Bean and Lamb Cassoulet.  In a year that featured the release of the movie Julie & Julia and a huge spike in sales of Julia Childs' The Art of French Cooking, appropriate that there should be at least one "cassoulet" on the list.
  16. Iced Tea with Cider, Mint and Honey.  In case you weren't noticing, there was a definite southern bias in our choice of celebrity chefs this past year, with Paula Dean leading the charge.  Even McDonalds took note of the trend, launching sweet tea as a permanent menu item nationwide.
  17. Mozzarella-Stuffed Turkey Burgers.  As people continue to process the fact that red meat is basically bad for you in every possible way, turkey experienced a sort of resurgence in 2010.  Some fast-food restaurants even test-marketed turkey burgers as a menu item.
  18. Spicy Oven-Fried Chicken.  America's response in 2010 to discovering that basically everything we enjoy eating is bad for us? Don't change what you eat, just change how you prepare it!  This was certainly the message proselytized by the television show The Biggest Loser and diet programs such as Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers.  True - we're now a nation of hypocrites, pretending that oven-fried chicken tastes as good as pan friend chicken, even though we all know it isn't so.  But at least we're skinnier hypocrites. 
  19. Sausage and Spaghetti Squash Soup.  Sounds suspiciously like one of those recipes that David Oliver and his fellow celebrity chefs spent the past year trying to foist on school food services, laboring under the mistaken impression that if the name of the recipe includes "sausage" and "spaghetti", school kids won't notice that they're actually eating squash.
  20. Grilled Sourdough Pizza with Tomato Pesto.  Fancy pizza isn't a new idea - the California Pizza Kitchen chain has sprawled as far as Virginia these days.  However, new in 2010 was a general upwelling of protest against really gross, tasteless pizza - enough of an upwelling that even Dominos Pizza had finally to relent and start using actual dough (instead of cardboard) in their version.  No longer are Americans satisfied with a huge amount of food for $5 ... now we expect it to be palatable as well!
  21. Ina Garten's Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast.  Appropriate that at least one entre from the kitchen of the "Barefoot Countessa" should make the list.  (Weren't we just talking about oxymorons?)  She's the celebrity chef that gives all the foodies hope that they, too, may one day achieve fame and fortune - no formal training, no off-putting pretension (she cooks in an authentic faux barn!), and (best of all) no intimidatingly skinny waistline.
  22. Maple-Mustard Pork Loin with Roasted Potatoes.  Touted as the perfect headliner for a gluten-free feast and demonstrating that, in 2010, people were still blaming gluten for everything from hyperactivity to autism.
  23. Butternut Squash Tostadas.  A vegetarian entre, and therefore an appropriate entre for a year in which the news obsessed about locavorism, organic foods, canning, pickling, Pioneer cooking, and subsistence gardening.
  24. Sticky Pecan Bites.  Just the thing to sustain you for another long day of standing in line at the local employment office.
  25. Baked Breaded Eggplant with Marinara.  Eggplant?  Seriously?  I think the folks at iVillage threw this one in just to see if we were paying attention.  No matter how bad 2010 was, I just don't see Americans ever embracing eggplant. 
Postscript: Almost as fun as analyzing what's on the list is analyzing what didn't make the list; notably ...
  1. Egg dishes. (Remember that big salmonella recall in August?)
  2. Seafood. (No need to add oil when frying your fish - BP has done it for you!)
  3. McRib sandwiches.  (Nothing good can come from knowing what's in them.)