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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Riddle me this: What do Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and Star Trek Discovery have in common?

You wouldn’t think two of my favorite shows, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Star Trek, have a lot in common. But as of recently, they share one very interesting feature: Both are asking die-hard fans to pony up a lot more money than one normally expects to pay for such entertainment. MFMM, after three seasons on Australian TV with international streaming distribution, launched a crowdfunding campaign to make a feature film (and hit their goal within days). After five Star Trek series on ad-supported broadcast TV and 14 films, Star Trek Discovery is being used as the flagship series of CBS’ new streaming service, CBS All Access, on the theory that Star Trek fans will be willing to pay a monthly fee.

What’s even more interesting is the very different reception these strategies have gotten. With MFMM, it’s very positive. Fans are eagerly pledging, with some even kicking in thousands of dollars in exchange for a chance to appear onscreen or get a piece of wardrobe after the shoot. The tone of the chatter on social media is excited and hopeful. The press coverage emphasizes the dedication and enthusiasm of the fan base rather than the fact that thousands of people are paying a lot of money, most for very minor incentives like a postcard or access to “inside info” (more or less a fan club), so they can get to see a movie they would otherwise have paid 12 bucks for at the theater.  ("Put your sassy magnifying glass away because there’s no mystery here, fans are absolutely humming for a ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ movie,” says this HuffPo article.)  

But the response to ST:DSC on CBS All Access has been far more negative and cynical. Even die-hard ST fans who plan to pay for the service (like me) seem to be resentful. While fans on social media debate whether the series is likely to be any good (as ST fans will), the response to putting it on CBS All Access for U.S. viewing (it will be on Netflix elsewhere) is universally negative. There’s a lot of grumbling about CBS’ greed and abuse of the franchise. The tone of media coverage is more like, “Will rabid ST fans fall for CBS’ money-making ploy?” ("CBS hopes that fans will embrace that vision — and, with credit cards in hand, help build a new business to carry the company forward,” says Variety.)

There are some obvious reasons for the disparity, like the fact that MFMM fandom feels like the little engine that could, since the show isn’t widely known, and the fandom is young and hasn’t been overtly exploited for decades. Also, a crowdfunding campaign on the front end of a project feels voluntary, while a streaming distribution scheme for a finished product feels like being overcharged. The different responses the two efforts have received are more psychological than anything else; MFMM feels inclusive and optimistic, while ST:DSC feels coercive and mercenary.

But in the end, they’re not actually so different. For whatever reason, the producers are calculating that a dedicated fan base will pay well above market price for access to this particular product because they want it so badly. What’s more, MFMM fans are handing producers their hard-earned money with no guarantee they will actually get a movie. (Do people realize that Kickstarter itself offers no guarantee that a project will be completed? I wonder how many people have actually read the terms of service? “The creator is solely responsible for fulfilling the promises made in their project. If they’re unable to satisfy the terms of this agreement, they may be subject to legal action by backers.” In other words, if you sent the creator money and they didn’t make the thing, you could sue them. Good luck.) At least with ST:DSC, you don’t have to pay a dime until the product actually exists (which it does; the premiere is a few days away!), and for that matter, until the product has actually been seen and reviewed. And yet, people are more negative about the ST:DSC model. Humans are funny that way.

Interesting thought experiment: What if the two were reversed? What if ST:DSC had had a crowdfunding campaign and MFMM were being used to anchor a paid streaming service? Would the responses be reversed as well? Possibly not, because MFMM is still relatively small and hasn’t already been monetized to death the way ST has. But still, I wonder.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The end of the line

This morning, a Facebook friend posted this wonderful New York Times article from 2008 called “The Curious World of the Last Stop.” Reporter Andy Newman rode to the end of every subway line in the city and wrote about what he found there. Reading it, I was reminded of my own end-of-the-line story. I think about it surprisingly often, but I’ve never written it down before.

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to spend summers in a rented beach bungalow in Far Rockaway. She was one of a shrinking group of old folks from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who still did that. The neighborhood out there was getting rougher and rougher, and those who could afford it had long ago started summering farther out on Long Island or at the Jersey Shore. But my grandma never left Williamsburg and Far Rockaway. That was her world.

When I was little, my father used to take me to visit her there. Sometimes, we’d go just for the day; sometimes, Dad would leave me with Grandma for a little vacation. I'd stay a few days, going to the beach and playing skee ball on the boardwalk. As I got older, we stopped going. But when I was in high school, I decided it would be nice to visit Grandma in Far Rockaway, maybe one last time. I called her and told her I was coming. She was so excited. I knew she'd be out buying fruit and stale marzipan as soon as we got off the phone. She insisted she would meet me at the subway stop so I wouldn't get lost finding her bungalow, so I gave her an arrival time.

This was the 1970s. No internet with interactive trip planners, and no cell phones. I was a Manhattan kid. To me, a long subway ride was, like, 45 minutes. So off I go: transfer to the A train, get a seat, I'm all set. I ride. And ride. And ride and ride and ride. The time I gave Grandma comes and goes. And still I ride. I'm starting to feel kind of bad, because now I'm late, and my old grandma is standing there waiting for me. I figure I'm going to keep her standing for 15 minutes…no, 20…no, 25. No. ONE HOUR. The ride to Far Rockaway, the end of the A line, was a full hour longer than I had thought possible. And when I finally arrived, Grandma was standing there with a big hug and a smile. She never said a word about the time. We walked to her bungalow, where there was fruit and stale marzipan, which I ate gratefully. It tasted like humble pie.

To this day, I can't even tell this story without feeling horrible. Forty years later, this is still my greatest regret -- I made Grandma wait for an hour at the end of the line.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

That mysterious pain is an underregulated industry kicking you in the face. Again.

Freeze your credit, they said. That'll protect you from identity theft, they said. Except: "A security freeze doesn’t protect you if the thieves break into the vault of the company that maintains the freeze. That’s what happened here, and we will now spend years seeing what happens next."  (NY Times) Yup. The bastards broke into the system where they keep the magic PIN that unfreezes your credit file.

That said, you should still freeze your credit, on the theory that maybe you're not already doomed. Not a very sound theory, but what the hell, hope springs eternal. That’s what they told my husband and me to do when we discovered we had an identity-theft problem. I believe their exact words were, “When you’re done waving goodbye to all your horses as they run down the road, never to be seen again, why don’t you go ahead and lock that barn door?”

You can freeze your credit with each agency online, by phone, or by snail mail. (More info here.) Depending on state law, it might cost a little money. Based on a sample size of two (my husband and me), each method offers advantages and disadvantages.

Online: You get your magic PIN immediately (for all the good it does you — see above). But you feel all queasy about sending your social security number and other identifying information over a system that seems less secure than the diary you had in junior high with the little lock and the key you kept in the special-treasures box in your desk drawer. And for some reason, sometimes after you input all your info, the damn thing still says “Sorry, Charlie, no can do,” forcing you to try calling anyway.

By phone: It’s still an automated system, only you have to wait to get your PIN by snail mail. But for some reason, it might work even when the online one doesn’t. Same queasy feeling applies. Plus there’s that robotic voice reminding you that your finances are actually overseen by AI gnomes from the uncanny valley.

Snail mail: Didn’t do it, but I suspect you’ll send off your request and forget the whole thing until you get a reply. If you get a reply. And that queasy feeling isn’t going away. Especially given the fact that one of the easiest ways to steal someone’s identity turns out to be putting in a change-of-address request for them, because the U.S. Postal Service has no security whatsoever. My husband and I learned this the hard way. In no time at all, all your mail could start going somewhere else. Oh, the post office will notify you of the change…AFTER it’s been made. And good luck getting it changed back. But I digress…

Be warned, the credit agencies' websites will do everything possible to direct you toward their credit-monitoring products, which cost money. They make it really difficult to find the free and/or cheap stuff, like requesting your free credit report or placing a freeze. That's because, unless and until you pay for their monitoring service, you are not their customer, you are just a pain in their ass. In fact, you (or your data) are the product they are selling to their real customers, the lenders. So when you freeze your credit, you’re making it harder for them to make money off you. Navigating credit agency websites is not unlike trying to find the bathroom in a casino. You just want to take care of urgent business that should cost you nothing, but somehow you keep winding up back at the slot machines.


(Hint: "The Wall Street Journal reports that in the months leading up to the attack, Equifax spent at least $500,000 lobbying federal regulators and Congress to relax regulation of credit-reporting companies. Among the focus of its requests? Data security and breach notification, cyber security threat information sharing, and the coup de grace: limiting the legal liability of credit-reporting companies.")

PS — In an effort to control the free-fall of its reputation, Equifax has dropped its credit-freeze fees for those unfortunates in states where such fees are legal. For 30 days. And they’re not paying your fees at the other two agencies. But hey, you can always still pump quarters into their slot machine.

PPS -- The Equifax website told me my data was probably compromised, so I signed up for the free credit monitoring. That process was suspiciously quick, and the confirmation message said only something like, "your request has been received," so I suspect my data just went to a holding pen to be dealt with later. Probably a dot matrix printer in back of a Denny's somewhere. Which is probably more secure than whatever they were using before. And if those bastards start charging me for the monitoring service after the free year is up, so help me god, I will blog about it so hard. Not like it matters anyway though. A free year of credit monitoring is like saying, "This bank is protected by armed guards. Who go to lunch in an hour."

If the Star Trek series were beers

TOS: Heineken. It’s the first beer you discover that actually tastes like something, and you fall in love. You order it again and again and again. It certainly beats that godawful piss from Anheuser-Busch. Lord knows there are times when you overindulge and later have regrets, but that’s ok. You have standards, and Bud is not gonna cut it. After awhile, you discover there are other good beers – maybe even better beers – and you stop ordering Heineken. But now and then you go back to it for nostalgia’s sake. Yep, still satisfying. In some ways, your first love is always your favorite.

TAS: Shandy. Is it beer? Is it soda? The answer is YES! You feel like, as an adult, you shouldn’t be drinking it at all, but it becomes a guilty pleasure. Hiding underneath all that fizzy lemonade is a unique buzz you come to enjoy – a combination of sugar and alcohol that you keep coming back to. But you don’t tell people because, let’s face it, you’re putting soda in your beer.

TNG: Amstel Light. Finally, a new beer! After all those Heinekens, everyone is talking about how great this is going to be. And it looks so classy in that brown bottle with that impressive coat of arms. You try it – and it tastes like nothing. It’s not bad, exactly. It’s just bland. Inoffensive. A watered-down version of a decent beer. All around you, people are guzzling it like it’s the greatest thing ever, and you just can’t figure out why. But still, you’re just grateful people are finally branching out a bit, so you keep your opinion to yourself, and when offered an Amstel Light at a party, you just smile and say thanks.

DS9: Sam Adams Boston Lager. Damn, that is good beer. This is what happens when you really let beer be beer. At first, you think you will never need another beer. But suddenly, there are lots of good beers all around you. Sam Adams is great, yeah, but – it’s not always what you want. Some days, you admit privately, it lets you down. There are all these little craft beers constantly beckoning. “Try me!” they say, and sometimes you do, and sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they’re awful. But you keep coming back to that Sam Adams, because more often than not, it delivers.

VOY: Corona. OMG it’s like Amstel Light all over again! It’s the holodeck of beers, conjuring up a fantasy of lounging on a deserted, white, sandy beach with your impossibly hot sweetheart, toes in the water, sun in your eyes. You reach out, grasp an ice-cold bottle just deposited there by some mysterious, invisible hand, take a sip, and…nothing. It’s a nice dream, and you check in with it from time to time just for the pretty, but usually you leave disappointed and unfulfilled.

ENT: Guinness. Either you love it or you hate it. It’s rich, dark, and robust – but not to everyone’s taste. What’s more, a lot can go wrong with it. If it’s not fresh, or it’s not poured just right, or it’s too cold or too warm, it can be downright foul. But when it’s good, it’s so, so good. Complex, deeply satisfying, with a thick, creamy head you could just take a bath in. Maybe not the beer you want to drink every day with all your meals – but one that holds special rewards when you’re willing to give it the attention it deserves.