Category Archives: Entertainment and Moving Pictures

NPR: Poor Rich Kids Stressed, Need More Sleep

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This morning, NPR aired a report about teenagers succumbing to the toll placed on them by their grueling advanced placement (AP) homework assignments.

Some of them, the report cried, had to do as much as four hours of homework a night! And one student they profiled – 16-year-old Nora Huynh from Alameda, Calif. – is actually getting irritable with her siblings and suffering headaches because of the vast quantity of homework they’re doing!

Colleen Frainey pets a horse.

Colleen Frainey of Tualatin, Ore., pets her pony. She was so stressed by school that she had to drop a class so she could ride her horse, poor thing. (Credit: NPR)

The stress is so much that some students have to drop their extracurricular activities, like sports and piano lessons, I guess. (I don’t know. This is all foreign to me.)

That report rolled into another on a movement to push back the start time of school because some students are tired in the mornings.

I listened, amused, as I trekked into work. I took an AP class in high school – AP literature, got an A, and tested-out of having to take a lit class in college – and it was more work than the regular-level classes I had. But then, even that homework took a backseat to my work obligations. While others pored over their calculus homework, I raked dishes into a trashcan, assembled pans of lasagna and scrubbed down a kitchen until around 10 p.m. every night. Then, it was home to begin my studies until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

And this is the experience of a large number of teenagers who also would very much like the opportunity to go to college. Because that’s why these kids are crying if they carry less than a 4.0: they’re competing with one another to pursue their postsecondary opportunities. But they’re also competing with their less-privileged peers – the kids making Big Macs and bagging groceries after class.

Missing from NPR’s report – which included the statistic that almost half of high school students were stressed about their homework (half!) – was even so much as a nod to these kids.

One girl profiled in the report did the unimaginable: she dropped an AP class. The result: she now had more time to ride her horse.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

And then to follow that with the suggestion that school starts too early and the petitions to make school start no earlier than 8 a.m. just piled on the insult and injury. Pushing the start of school back means school lets out later. That’s fewer hours for the kids who need jobs to work, and even fewer hours for those kids to complete their homework assignments.

The kids who work already face an uphill academic climb. They are likely to be the first generation of their family to attend college. They won’t have the economic support that their peers enjoy (I myself rarely bought a textbook, and if I did, I usually bought one on discount that was one or two editions older than the one currently being used for the given class). And they won’t benefit from the scholarship opportunities that their AP-involved peers will have (especially as more public scholarship programs, like Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, become merit-based rather than need-based, so that those students with the extra time to pursue a high grade point average will be better positioned than their needier counterparts who must balance academics against employment).

I do hope NPR’s tongue was firmly lodged in their cheek during this story, but if it was, it was well concealed; the report sounded sincere.

More time and attention needs to be given to the plight of those who are overcoming adversity to live their dreams and build better lives. The kid who can’t play with her pony because she has homework (bless her heart) hardly deserves our sympathy.

Call of Duty Double XP Weekend: A Rare and Bloody Treat

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When I text my wife and tell her that I can’t wait to come home and shoot people, she (usually) knows I mean I want to play “Call of Duty.”

I’m not very good. See, I don’t live in my parents’ basement, sans girlfriend, and live and breathe to prestige. I work, 45-plus hours a week, and I have a house and family with all the assorted encumbrances these things entail.

Still, when the evening grows late and after the kid is in bed, it’s nice to grab the ol’ Xbox controller, fire up the console and blast the hell out of some kids.

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 game image

Yee-ha!

It can be a frustrating and fruitless exercise. None of my “real life” friends play it, which is kind of odd given the popularity of the title, but my friends aren’t very hip about a lot of things, I guess. I die a lot. And I die in stupid ways. I fall off buildings and trip over claymores. I stumble across an approaching patrol of enemy players and lose my mind, trying to pepper them all in an ill-advised rain of fire that serves only to give each plenty of opportunity to fire a lethal shot at my skull.

But, I enjoy it. Every now and then, when I get the drop on someone who’s really good and they get soooo pissed that I killed them that they throw a tantrum on the opposite end of the audio feed, I just have to smile and call the evening a success.

This week, a new map pack dropped for the current title, “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” There are not many game franchises that I follow, because 1) I don’t have much time and 2) they can be pretty expensive, because of adding shit like these map packs. I’ve already given you my $60 – don’t charge me again so I can run around on three or four new arenas.

That said, the new maps are actually pretty fun, especially “Cove,” which features a small desert isle-turned-battleground. It’s my own little Midway. It’s great.

In the weekend leading up to the dropping of the map pack, Call of Duty offered a “Double XP Weekend,” which is a really brilliant way to get players reengaged with the game. Let’s face it, running around and shooting people gets old after awhile, and giving people an incentive to drop your disc in the console after it’s been sitting on the shelf for a few weeks reminds them that it might be worth dropping a few more dollars to download the new maps.

Call of Duty Black Ops II medals

The medals you get when you prestige. See that one with the lightning bolt? Top row, second from the left? That’s the one I’m on now. See that one at the bottom right? Not gonna’ make it.

Now, I’ve “prestiged” only once before. To “prestige” (like I have to tell you if you’ve read this far), you basically reset yourself. As you play, you earn “XP,” or experience points, and “level up,” gaining a higher and higher rank and meaningless titles. I’m a brigadier general right now. Know that that means in the game? Not a damn thing. But as you level up, you unlock new weapons. And the better your armory, the better your chances of killing that little prick camping out in the corner and blasting you every time you walk through the door. (God, I hate that.)

Once you reach the top level, you can start over. This earns you “prestige.” Or it should; honestly, if you’ve earned the absolute top “prestige” rank, you’ve invested so much time in the game that most folks just feel really sorry for you. But, once you’ve reached the top, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to keep playing the game, either. So, either you “prestige,” or you move on to something else.

With the Double XP Weekend, I managed to make my way from ground zero up to level 42 of 55. Not bad. It took me a couple of months to make it to level 55 the first time, and about as long the second, when I first prestiged. But, Friday night, with Double XP Weekend upon me, I took a good, stiff drink of whisky (which I keep beside my own decanter set rather than having to sneak from my dad’s liquor cabinet like most of the other Call of Duty players) and prestiged again. Second prestige. Third time climbing the ladder. Another stiff drink.

Let’s do this shit.

You get extra points for headshots, for killing someone who’s hurting someone on your team (“Savior”), for killing someone who just killed someone on your team (“Avenger”), for killing a lot of people in a row (“Blood Thirsty”), for killing people in quick succession (“Double Kill” or “Triple Kill”), for stabbing someone in the back with a knife (“Backstabber”), for killing someone making a fatal mistake, like shooting someone while they’re falling off a building or aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at their feet and pulling a trigger (“Assisted Suicide”), and so forth.

On a Double XP Weekend, all that is doubled. Rather than 100 extra experience points, you pick up 200. For some of the big ones, like being the first person to kill somebody in a match (“First Blood”), you can pick up 1,000 points. That really helps you rank up pretty quick.

And this particular weekend, my obligations were few. I didn’t have anywhere I really had to go. The grass could wait a week before I mowed it. It didn’t take us more than a couple of hours to clean the house. The wife and kid weren’t terribly needy. So my opportunity to sit and kill loser teenagers over and over was pretty abundant.

Making the past weekend even better was that they allowed players to use one of the more popular maps exclusively.

Nuketown 2025

Nuketown 2025 — bringing war to the suburbs.

Typically, the maps rotate, and you can play on one no more than twice in a row, and even then only if a majority of the people who you’re playing with vote for it. But “Nuketown 2025” was available as an option to play over and over again all weekend, and that map is fantastic.

Nuketown 2025 is a made-to-scale museum piece of 1950s suburbia. It’s a cul de sac, with two houses set on opposite sides that you can run through, complete with garages and back yards. In the middle of the cul de sac is a bus, that you can’t go in, and a moving truck that you can. These provide cover and an obstacle for the house-to-house fighting in which you will engage. It’s a very fun – and very popular – map.

While they made the map available so you could play it to the exclusion of all the other maps, the powers that be decided they would not allow you to play one game on it exclusively. There are all matter of games you can choose to play in multiplayer, from the ever-tired “Team Deathmatch,” in which you are assigned a team and randomly pitted against another team and the one with the most kills wins, to “Demolition,” which requires a bit more strategy to seize and destroy a couple of pre-assigned points on the map.

Another game that I rather enjoy is “Domination.” Three points, marked by flags, are designated on the map. Your team must take and hold a majority of these points for a majority of the time. Points are awarded to each team based on how many points they hold and how long they hold them. For instance, if your team takes points A and B, you accrue two points while the other team, holding C, accrues only one. If you take all three – and hold them – you achieve “domination.”

On Nuketown 2025, two of the points are in the back yards of the two houses. Easy enough to hold and almost impossible to take, since the players “re-spawn” in the back yards – that is, when they die, they get dropped back in the game there almost immediately after death. And they’re not going to let you just sit down under their flag and take it for your team.

The point of contention for Domination in Nuketown 2025 is Point B, invariably located almost square in the middle of the map, just behind the open box truck in the cul de sac. The fighting around the point is frenetic. Grenades are thrown, buildings are strafed with fire, bombs are planted and the whole damned thing is just a disaster. It’s great. Really.

But this weekend, another player and I hatched a plan over our headsets. We changed up our weapons. He chose a light machine gun – a powerful but awkward and unwieldy weapon that is actually my usual weapon of choice; it has a lot of bullets, can be pretty accurate at a distance, and is pretty lethal at close range. I chose a shotgun firing a magnum slug. In close quarters, assuming I get you with my first shot and don’t have to pump it or reload it, you’re a goner.

Black Ops II Nuketown 2025

“Point B” is just behind the box truck in Nuketown 2025. Taking and holding it is the key to victory — and it’s bloody damn impossible.

First, we took B. That took an awful lot of dying, but we did it. Then, we charged into the back of the box truck. Near the bottom of the ramp off the back was the point we had to hold. To take it, one of their players would have to hold a position beneath the flag for several seconds – an impossibly long time when everyone around you is trying to kill you, and you’re faced with the prospect of being unable to move, lest you lose the point you’re trying to hold.

My new friend put his back to mine and covered the doors on either side of the back of the truck, including one that enabled him to plug anyone who came out of the enemy’s house or around through the side yard.

As for me, I just sat there with my shotgun and blew the shit out of anyone who tried to take my flag.

Now, one neat thing Call of Duty does in multiplayer is, for a second or two after you’ve killed someone on the opposing team, your audio and theirs are connected. Now, typically, through your headpiece you can only hear the conversation among the members of your team. But for a second after scoring a kill, you can hear the exasperation of the deceased and even offer your own auditory condolences.

So, as the other team tried over and over to take B, I sat with my slug-shooting shotgun and one-shot killed them, then screamed into my headset, “STAY THE FUCK OFF MY LAWN!” and “YOU DAMNED KIDS BETTER GET OFF MY PROPERTY!”

Oh, it was great fun!

However, now the weekend is over, and I am nigh too close to the top. I’m on level 44 of the 55 I need to reclaim my perch, and when you’re not very good, the climb is slow-going. Probably, by the time I get back to 55, the new “Call of Duty: Ghosts” will arrive in stores.

I sure hope it’s got a magnum slug-loaded shotgun and a box truck in it.

What to Keep In Mind Before Feeling Sorry for Paula Deen

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This isn’t the first blog I’ve written about Paula Deen.

You’ll not see the first one. (Well, you might — I tend to drink a bit and post things I shouldn’t; just ask my Facebook friends.)

It started quite tritely with a definition of schandenfreud, made some joke about Sigmund Freud — I don’t know. It was bad. It can’t hurt us anymore.

Nonetheless, while it may seem that I’m “piling on,” I still find no reason to feel sorry for Paula Deen. Her cries on the “Today” show a couple of days ago just made me want to throw a rock at her all the more.

Paula Deen

Paula Deen — for whom no one should weep.

See, my problem is this: she’s a stereotype. A character. A character that’s made a lot of money, mind you, but a character nonetheless. As a character, she hawked a culture of food that was down right lethal, and when faced with the inevitable results of the diet she promoted — type 2 diabetes — she hid it, for three years, because it would’ve been bad for business. Type 2 diabetes is what happens when you eat deep-fried cheesecakes.

Her portrayal as a dame of the South wouldn’t be complete without a lil’ bit of racism, would it? I mean, a plantation-style wedding? Why wouldn’t you have one of these? It was such a great time in our history! We should bring it back every chance we get. Hell, I think my daughter’s sixth birthday will be plantation-themed. We’ll put Cameron in blackface and chase him through the woods. It’s going to be great!

Being a cartoon is a great way to build a media empire if your last name is Simpson or Griffin or Hill (OK, maybe not Hill). But not if you’re a television cook. Food Network, Smithfield, Walmart and Target have all dropped her. Why? Because being associated with an acknowledged racist is bad for their business. And why should our hearts ache because Deen’s little empire is falling down around her?

Deen’s supporters have filled social media sites to denounce the companies that have abandoned her chuck wagon. Oddly, many of those who are defending her openly proclaim using “the N-word” routinely and see absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Nor, I suppose, do they see anything wrong with conducting a business in such a hostile way that black employees are forced to use separate entrances and bathrooms from white workers (as is alleged by lawsuits filed against Deen’s company), that it’s OK to refer to women as “my little Jew girl” (also noted in affidavits given in litigation), and that it’s OK to come to work drunk, strike restaurant staff and make them look at pornography (OK, well, Deen didn’t do this, but her brother — “Bubba” — did, apparently, and it was in his defense that Deen acknowledged having used “the N-word”).

Deen done did wrong. When you support a wicked person, you support a wicked way. And Deen’s empire empire, the one that seems now to be tumbling down, has been built on myths, lies and abuse.

And a stick of butter ain’t gonna’ make things better, y’all.

Better Off ‘Red & Dead’ than ‘Red & Black’

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Once, I dreamed of an independent Signal.

The Signalis the student newspaper for Georgia State University, and once, I was its managing editor, facing a perplexing pickle: out yonder, in Athens, the largest university in the state had an independent student newspaper, publishing daily, while in the midst of Atlanta, the state’s second largest university trudged along with a once-a-week rag still suckling (somewhat) from the school’s tete.

Godspeed, crew.

We were nearly as large, faster growing, with (one would think) far more to write about than that other school based on simple geography. My office was a block from the Capitol, a few blocks from the Georgia Dome and Turner Field, and immersed in a pretty spectacular music, art and entertainment scene. Athens is alright, sure, but … come on! This is ATLANTA!

So, we did what we could. We launched a Web site. That was a start. We recruited writers (and in the process found that our J-school was evidently dearly lacking; many of these kids couldn’t write a lede or conduct and interview to save their lives and I ended up hosting what amounted to remedial journalism classes for staff in our office). I overlooked insufficiencies, sure. My office manager was running a reasonably lucrative drug dealing operation from our reception area, so what? He was punctual and always polite to visitors and callers.

I tried to make the most of what we had at our disposal. I pushed through my plan to spin off our arts and entertainment section into its own publication – the Urbanite – and later discovered that I’d actually managed to spin off one of the main reasons people even picked up the paper (besides the crime reports). Live and learn. I recruited and meticulously trained a reporter who was going to extensively cover crime on campus. She wrote an article about the prevalence of marijuana on campus and where the major supply points were. It was an incredibly popular issue, being that it featured a large image of a pot leaf on the front (free poster?) and that it amounted to a guide on where one could make his or her illicit purchases. Said well-trained crime reporter subsequently died in a car wreck, on the week of Sept. 11, 2001, which led to a great deal of confusion and rumor that we’d lost a writer to the terrorist attacks who had, in fact, actually driven into a building herself. (Still, I maintain that it would have been in poor chase to try and qualify this fact in the memorial we ran on the front of the paper. We still remember you, Tracy. Or Traci. Or Tracie…)

Yeah, OK, so I wasn’t the best of editors. But that’s kind of what I’m getting at: I was learning. I was already working in the newsroom for the Douglas County Sentinel – a daily paper – when I walked in to the Signal office for the first time. I had real-world experience, but I had a great deal to learn.

Student newspapers have dual roles. For one, they are genuine guardians of the student body. Along with all my many missteps, I still managed to be a part of stories that closed a classroom building that, it was discovered after we looked into it, might fall down in a strong wind, as well as coverage that ousted Student Government Association officials for corruption and perversion and overturned SGA elections.

OK, so I moderated a debate in which I called a state representative’s daughter a whore (from the podium) and was chased by the Secret Service after knocking down a photographer in front of Jimmy Carter and grabbing Al Gore’s leg for support. I once stepped on Shirley Franklin, who was then the mayor of Atlanta. I also stepped on the foot of Mark Taylor, who was the lieutenant governor. Mistakes were made.

That is the other role of student newspapers: they’re a laboratory to make said mistakes. They’re the place where it doesn’t hurt as bad when we fall. It’s a whole lot better to learn the skills needed to conduct an interview on the staff of a student newspaper than it is when you get your first “real world” writing gig. That’s sort of the payoff – one gets to learn, and one gets to guard.

In Athens, the esteemed Red and Black has taken a turn, and a dramatic one, from being a student-centric publication to a more professional – and, perhaps, more polished – one. Final decisions regarding content and design have been taken from students and placed in the hands of professionals. This, effectively, means it is no longer a student publication.

In response, editor in chief Polina Marinova and her staff of editors, designers, photographers and top reporters have walked out, establishing a new organization called the “Red & Dead.”

Godspeed! It’s hugely important that you stand up for your morals and take responsibility for the publication you produce. What’s the point of being an editor in chief in name only? No, with this move, the board of the Red & Black have gone from helming a student newspaper to a traditional media outlet run with cheap student labor (as opposed to the normal cheap labor that produces the rest of the nation’s newspapers).

I wish you the best, but I implore caution. You’re truly independent now. That means it’s going to hurt when you fall.

And, I’m sorry, you will fall. We all do. So, please, don’t make student journalists look any worse than I already have.

I’m a Killer – But I’m a Lousy One

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So, there we were – on a street in China, I think it was – pinned down by an enemy who had encamped himself on the edge of a loading platform. Two of my battle buddies were trapped, and there was no way around him. In my ear, I could hear my comrades begging for someone to please take the bastard out.

I hatched a plan. I crept up a ramp near the platform, and rolled a flash-bang grenade into the doorway on the back of the building. It worked; the enemy sprang from his perch and began to unload his whole clip into the doorway, figuring it was being breached.

I shot the poor bastard right in the side of his head. He dropped his gun, grabbed his face and fell to the ground, dead.

In my earpiece, I heard the exclamations of joy from my colleagues as they rushed forward. Alas, my victory was short lived; as the flash-bang had led one enemy to believe someone was exiting the door, the other enemies inside were alerted that someone was possible breaching their little pillbox, and so the baddies began pouring out onto the platform, each gunning for yours truly. I died. Quickly.

If you’ve been wondering why this blog has not been more frequently updated since, say, late November, you have Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to thank – at least for my absence. As for my cohorts on the blog, I don’t know what their excuse has been. One or two of ‘em had a baby or something stupid, I don’t know. Another probably has the clap, and a couple are teachers who are just too timid to post anything interesting, and so choose not to post at all.

Whatever. Pansies.

As for me, I’ve had Modern Warfare 3. See, this blog – like any other blog – isn’t about you, the reader; it’s about me, the writer who shills out $20 a year for the domain name (and that wasn’t even my first choice). It’s my therapy, my loudspeaker, my hobby. I figure, if I’m going to be writing for myself anyway, I may as well send it out into the world somehow, and since people don’t publish pamphlets anymore, I use this blog.

N00b

I'm not a n00b -- but I get killed as often as one.

So, as I come in from work, feed and wash the kid, tidy up around the house and settle in for a little “me” time, I have a few pursuits to enjoy. I can read, catch up on my sewing (yes, I have things that need mending, what of it?), watch a movie or some television, or write. Since I compose these little diatribes on a laptop, it’s rather easy to combine the “watching television” and “writing” things.

Or, I can play videogames. And, for damned near two months, this has been my pursuit; largely owing to the addictive nature of Call of Duty, which I enjoy, even though I’m rather awful at the game.

Seriously, I’m bad. I’ve had messages from people asking me to leave their team. I often finish in the last three on my team, if not dead last. I consider myself a real asset to my team if my kill-to-death ratio is 1:1. And when others finish below me, or when I finish in the top three on my team, I realize that my team has some serious problems. I am regularly and frequently “pwned” by the same enemy, killed over and over and over for the duration of a match.

But, then, I’m a very casual gamer; I’m not some out-of-work 20-something who has all day to sit around in his underwear at his parents’ house and play Call of Duty. I have a daughter, a wife, a house and a job; Call of Duty is a leisurely pursuit; not a major part of my life.

Now, I have learned enough to make myself at least dangerous – if not particularly scary – in the game. I no longer just crouch in a corner and hope no one happens by, nor do I run devil-may-care through an open field figuring that there’s no one around who’d take a shot at me. And, in many instances, I’ve got a 50-50 shot at taking out an enemy if left to fend for myself one-on-one.

But, I get shot in the back a lot, and if there’s more than one enemy in my crosshairs, I’m usually able to take out only one before his buddies do me in. I also get stabbed a lot, and I’m prone to getting sniped and bombed – though I survive a lot of grenade attacks, somehow.

Still, it’s entertainment, and rarely do I get so mad that the game is no longer fun. And if a group is simply way too lethal for me to be competitive, it’s a simple matter to resign myself from the lobby and join another group, searching for greener, easier-to-kill grasses.

Given that I’m writing this blog, you can be sure that I’m not playing Call of Duty tonight, so if you’re hoping for easy quarry, don’t hold your breath. And I’m hoping to begin posting more, because writing these blogs – and my popular “Dispatches from the Road” posts – are rewarding in and of themselves.

Blessed are the Banned Books

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Books

Among the books people have tried to ban in the past year are "Naked Lunch," which is a pretty disturbing book, and "And Tango Makes Three," which is a child's picture book about a baby penguin.

The worst, most graphic book I’ve ever read was William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” I read it because I have a certain appreciation for the “beatnik” writers (especially Jack Kerouac, a poster of hung over my desk for some time before it finally fell to pieces), and because the name of my favorite band, Steely Dan, can from Burroughs’ book. (The name comes from a steam-powered sex toy, to give you an idea of the type of content the book provided.)

I have a strong stomach and a questionable moral compass, and the book successfully challenged even my constitution. I cannot even begin to tell you what the plot of the book exactly was, too tangled was I in the incredibly graphic depictions of man-on-man sex that was followed by neck snapping and other such carnage. Seriously, the book was demented. It’s not one I generally recommend. If I do encourage you to read it, you may be aware that I don’t like you, or you have explicitly expressed a desire for a challenge.

So, with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week drawing to a close, I found a list of the most banned and challenged classic books in America. That “Naked Lunch” came in at No. 73 tells me that many who would have books banned have not even tried to read this particular tome.

The effort to ban books is aimed not at publishers, who will publish what they deem most profitable and have the distribution systems in place that are beyond grassroots challenges, but at public and school libraries where many books are consumed. The objections are over content, and run a gamut from claims of obscenity to stuff that, well, parents just don’t want their children to know about.

The top most challenged book for 2010 – the one that would-be censors have tried most actively to remove from libraries in the past year – was a children’s book called “And Tango Makes Three.”

The picture book is based on the true story of two male penguins at the New York City Zoo who were found taking turns sitting on an egg-shaped rock. In the book, a zookeeper switches the rock for an abandoned egg, which the two male penguins, Roy and Silo, take turns incubating until a healthy baby hatchling, Tango, is born.

To be clear, Roy and Silo are not in a domestic partnership, nor are they lovers or fans of lavish Broadway musicals. From the reviews I’ve read online, the penguins do not even have a stylish in-town apartment to share. The book does not paint the penguins as gay. It does, however, paint them as loving parents working together to raise a baby.

Now, to assume that efforts to ban books don’t affect you because your typical reading list does not include vaguely-homosexual penguin stories, remember that the Harry Potter series also was perianally on the list of challenged books, owing to the claims that it taught children to become witches and wizards, and that the 2010 list also include Stephanie Myers’ “Twilight” series because of it was “sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group.” The religious viewpoint, by the way, was vampirism.

Were the “object-ors” to have their way, many other titles also would be absent from your local library. Remember reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school? You wouldn’t find a copy in the public library. Ironically, both of George Orwell’s books that dealt with closed societies where censorship was the norm – “1984” and “Animal Farm” – also are frequent targets of challenges. So, too, is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Catch-22,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Lord of the Flies” and many more simply fantastic classic novels.

I do not read as much as I’d like to or as frequently as I should, but there are books I’ve encountered that have changed my life. The most exquisitely-written book I’ve ever read, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” is on the list. It’s a book I never heard of until I found it on a summer reading list for an advanced placement class I took in high school, and even with the story aside, the way Ellison crafts his sentences encompasses a grace that I wish I could mimic in my own work. Another of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, makes the list several times for “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Cat’s Cradle.”

In other words, the list of books that have been challenged or banned is without merit; books about baby penguins and classics about homoerotic manslaughter are odd pairings for any literary list.

Oh, and fellow Southerners, you ought to give a damn about this: Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” is the 26th most banned or challenged classic book.

Because these are books that are being removed from libraries rather than bookstores, it’s worth noting that the content and messages of these books are being taken from the reach of people who use libraries rather than bookstores. It is not necessarily the case that the affluent do not use libraries, but those who can afford to often purchase books or buy an e-reader version so they have something to hold on to and share with others as opposed to digging through the stacks of the public library.

In other words, these books aren’t being banned for all of us, just those of us who can’t afford to buy them ourselves, and that’s tragic.

It comes down to personal freedom and self-control. We’re not talking about pornography here (which is what the library computers is for); we’re talking about literature, and titles that have proven so potent that they’ve been in print for generations. They are not providing a framework with which we should live our lives, nor do they claim as such. But they’re art, they’re a part of our national parlance, and we should not allow either ourselves or these books to be victimized by a vocal minority of self-proclaimed interpreters to police the shelves of our local public libraries. If you find something offensive – a new mother breastfeeding a starving man, for instance – then don’t read Steinbeck.

But don’t take it upon yourself to prohibit others from reading Steinbeck as well.

Jesus H. Christ, Netflix: Why Are You Doing This to Me?

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Qwikster

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

So, Monday morning, after awkwardly fondling my alarm clock until the beeping stopped, I pawed for my BlackBerry on my nightstand to see what I’d missed overnight.

One was an e-mail from Reed Hastings, the CEO and co-founder of Netflix. It hit my inbox at 3:44 a.m., almost as though Hastings had sat up all night wrestling with his tormented soul and at last had to unleash his agony via an e-mail to myself and a bunch of other subscribers.

I’ve written before about my conflicted relationship with Netflix, back when they first raised their prices. Then, I talked about how terribly underused the service is in our home and how I’m paying, more than anything, for the peace of mind of knowing that this catalog of movies are available to me. I like Netflix, even a more expensive Netflix. But I don’t seem to have a whole bunch of time to enjoy it.

Then I get this e-mail Hastings that I barely read with my sleepy eyes. I really didn’t get the gist of what he was saying until NPR mentioned it on my way to work. They would split the company in two, with Netflix doing the digital streaming and a new company, “Qwikster,” taking over the DVD business that gave Netflix its start. The big thing I took away from it was, no price change.

OK, do what you want, call it what you want, just don’t raise my price or drastically change the produce I’m paying for. I’m cool with that.

Ah, but as the day progressed it became increasingly clear that, indeed, Netflix was changing the product. Substantially.

The Netflix site is great. You come up with a list of movies you want to see, and the movies that are available to “Watch Instantly” over the Internet, you can, and the others you can get on DVD. I can work with that. If there’s something in particular I want to pull up – a movie or an episode of Dora the Explorer for my 3-year-old to watch, well, I can do that, too. Excellent. It’s worth what I’m paying.

But with the launch of Qwikster, that won’t really be the case, because Qwikster’s DVD cue will not line up with the cue in Netflix. The sites won’t talk to each other. You go to Netflix, see if they have it. If not (and usually, they don’t), you’ll go over to Qwikster and add it to your list.

It makes what was a sleek and seamless interface clunky and contrived.

Why?

Well, we have some theories. Netflix is faced with the innovator’s dilemma. That is, to move forward with its future – online streaming to Xbox, Playstation, Wii, laptop, iPad, etc. users – it has to attack the innovation that made it as successful as it is. You can’t build a new house because your old house is in the way. To move forward with its streaming service, it has to kill its DVD service. That’s why its new Web site is an awkward and misspelled word that no one will remember and that will probably be confused with Napster, which also is practically useless.

(Really? You couldn’t call it “Quickster,” at least?)

Also, Netflix is facing a new obstacle to content: the people who produce it. When the streaming service first started, the content consisted mostly of some old movies I’d never heard of and some documentaries no one wanted to see. Delivering movies over the Internet was a novelty that movie studios were willing to take a flat rate to permit. In short, Netflix paid so many millions of dollars for such and such movies for a year. Now, studios are wise to the gig and they want to be paid per subscriber. That’s where Netflix and the studios have a rub, because not every subscriber uses the services. Studios want to be paid not for their content being viewed, but for their content being available to view.

This is convoluted, but it might have some merit. In essence, the fewer subscribers it has, the less Netflix can be expected to pay for content. If it can keep up revenues while reducing the number of subscribers, it would have more revenue to invest in making more content available.

Further, there’s good cause to kill off the DVD business. For one, the survival of the very service that delivers the product – the U.S. Postal Service – is unsure. The service is hemorrhaging money and discussing cutting back service and closing post offices. Now, we have a one-DVD-at-a-time account, which means that, if we really stay on top of watching our discs as soon as they arrive, we can get through about two movies a week. Not bad. But if the postal service kills Saturday delivery (as they likely should), that kills our ability to see two DVDs a week, too. That would cut down the number of movies I can watch in a given year by 50 percent with no cut in price for what I’m paying for the service. That would be enough to make me cancel that part of my subscription.

DVDs also are a pain. They get lost. They get scratched. You’re dealing with a relatively fragile product that you’re sending into all kinds of private residences where people are treating them all kinds of ways. If you can deliver content without using these fragile discs or a third party – the post office – then that’s preferable. This is also the area of the business where Netflix (or Qwikster, I suppose) that truly faces competition from vendors like Redbox and, well, to a lesser degree, Blockbuster.

Here’s what I want: the movies I want to see – including and especially new releases – available instantly for one flat monthly rate. Hell, I’ll pay Netflix my whole $16 a month and ditch the DVDs if they’ll let me see this summer’s blockbusters over the Internet. It’s worth it to me. I gather it’d be worth it to a lot of other folks, too. It could be a pretty profitable venture for Netflix and for the studios that provide the content that Netflix delivers.

My problem is, I can’t see at all how Netflix plans to get there from here.