Saturday, 16 September 2006

The New Google Toolbar

I must say that I am a big fan of Google. Beyond anything else, they created the best search engine on the net. Google News is the easiest way to find news stories on any given subject. GMail is perfect for webmail. And, of course, Google is the parent company of Blogger. Among the many things Google has developed over the years is the Google Toolbar. From the beginning I always found the Google Toolbar to be a useful tool. The only criticism I have is that Google periodically updates the Toolbar whether one wants it updated or not. That brings me to what I believe is one of the first serious missteps Google has made, at least in my humble opinion. Namely, Google Toolbar 4 (for Internet Explorer) is largely inferior to the previous versions.

The problem with Google Toolbar 4 is that Google has sacrificed the convenience of the old versions for features that I largely find, well, useless. Among the things that I liked about the Google Toolbar is that it could save searches from session to session. This was very useful in doing research. There would be no need to type the search terms into the Toolbar again, as I could just use the drop down menu to perform previous searches. At least in my short time using Google Toolbar 4, it seemed to me that it did not save searches. Another thing I liked about the older versions of the Google Toolbar is the convenient Page Info button. It is not a part of Goolge Toolbar 4, having been combined with the PageRank button. Personally, I do not care for this at all. Both PageRank and Page Info should have their own buttons.

While it appears that it is no longer possible to save searches in the latest version of the Google Toolbar and they combined the PageRank and Page Info buttons, Google has also loaded down the Toolbar with features which I, at least, will never use. Perhaps the most annoying of these is Goolge's suggestions. Any time one types terms into the Toolbar's search box, a list of suggestions will appear based on "popular" Google searches. First, I found most these suggestions to be utterly useless in helping me find what I wanted. Second, I have never really needed a search engine to suggest things to me in order to find what I want on the net. And then there are the Bookmarks. By Bookmarking pages on the Google Toolbar one can then access these Bookmarks from any computer with the Google Toolbar. As I don't use any other computer than the one own, I have absolutely no use for this feature. Google Toolbar also has a "Send To" button, through which one can send web pages to others via email or SMS. Now this could be useful, but then about the only web pages I send to other people are news stories, which usually come with their own "Send To" link.

The one good thing I have to say for Google Toolbar 4 is that it comes with a "Button Gallery," allowing one to add new buttons to the Toolbar. Among the things one can add are Buttons to search specific web sites or even stay updated on one's favourite RSS feeds. While I can see how this is a nice feature and quite useful, it is not useful enough for me to give up the ability to save searches or having two separate buttons for Page Rank and Page Info. And it is not worth putting up with Google's annoying Suggestions.

Anyhow, I uninstalled Google Toolbar 4 and reinstalled Google Toolbar 3, which Windows 98/ME users must still use (apparently Google Toolbar 4 is incompatible with those versions of Windows). I realise that sooner or later Google will try updating to Google Toolbar 4 again, but in the meantime I can still use my beloved Google Toolbar 3. And when it does update to Google Toolbar 4, I'll just uninstall it again...

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

The Monkees Turn 40

Tonight it will have been forty years ago since The Monkees debuted. The Monkees could be described as a sitcom about a struggling rock group (Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones) who had all sorts of wild adventures. Unfortunately, that description hardly does the show justice. It was a show as had never been seen on television before, a blend of The Beatles movies (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), the Marx Brothers, and French New Wave cinema, among other things. Each episode generally saw The Monkees in a stock plot from old movies, where they might face gangsters, spies, monsters, or even pirates. That having been said, nearly every episode was filled with sight gags, non sequiturs, one liners, comic inserts, and various surreal film techniques (solarisation, slow motion, fast motion, distorted focus, so on and so forth).

Music was naturally central to the show, with the songs being worked into the episodes in what was known as romps. The Monkees romps took a variety of forms. Sometimes a romp could simply be a perfomance clip performed outside the context of the episode. Other times The Monkees might perform a song in a club or a dance. Often the romps formed an intergral part of an episode, often playing while The Monkees were either running from or fighting bad guys. Yet other romps were more or less what would later be known as music videos pertinent to the theme of the episode (for instance, an episode in which Davy falls in love--which sometimes seemed like every other episode--might feature a romp with clips of Davy spending time with his current ladylove). Not only did The Monkees perform songs on their TV show, but they also had a recording career and also did extensive touring.

It is a bitter irony that while The Monkees gained the respect of the television community (in its first season it won Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy, and were nominated for more), but saw little success in their initial run on NBC. In fact, the series had an uphill battle from the beginning. The Monkees met with a certain amount of controversy upon their debut, and some NBC affiliates in more conservative parts of the country simply refused to air a show about a "long haired" rock band. And while the show debuted to some very good notices, it was hardly a winner in the ratings. It its first season it averaged only a 31.4 share in the Nielsen ratings. In its second season it did even worse. It averaged only a 27.2 share. While The Monkees was immensely popular with the younger set, it did not attract a majority of the audience in its first run on NBC.

The Monkees' musical career was nearly the opposite of the show's early history on television. While The Monkees were extremly successful on the recording charts, they were regularly attacked by music critics as being a manufactured group. In the Sixties The Monkees would ultimately have 12 top forty singles--seven of them top ten and three of them hit number one on the Billboard charts. Their albums sold well, too. The Monkees' first four albums all hit #1 on the Billboard album chart. Their fifth peaked at #3 on the chart.

But while the record buying public apparently loved The Monkees, the critics loathed them as being four men hired to play a rock group on a sitcom. This situation was made all the more worse because of one man--Don Kirschner, the show's music supervisor. Kirshner decided from the beginning that The Monkees would not be allowed to play on their own records, regardless of the fact that both Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork had extensive music experience. Rumours that The Monkees did not play on their own songs sprang almost immediately, and eventually the situation would result in a confrontation between The Monkees and Kirschner. The ultimate results of this were that The Monkees would be allowed to play on their songs and produce their own music, and Don Kirschner got fired. Many critics have over the years thrown up the fact that The Monkees did not play on their early albums as an indictment of them, even though this was often standard policy in the early Sixties and such bands as The Beach Boys and The Byrds did not play the instruments on many of their early songs either. Some have gone so far as to refer to The Monkees as "bubblegum," even though the vast majority of their songs sound nothing like bubblegum. Indeed, in creating the sound of The Monkees, songwriters Boyce and Hart drew upon the guitar driven bands of the British invasion (such as The Kinks), blending it with a more American sound. A listen to The Monkees' early albums show that they were more on par with the British Invasion bands the bubblegum groups of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

With regards to the lasting popularity of The Monkees (both the show and the band), it would seem that the telvision community was right and the rock community was wrong. Even though The Monkees was never a winner in the Nielsens, it did become a phenomenon. In the Sixties, Monkees merchandise was outpaced only by merchandise for the shows Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. There were books, games, sunglasses, charm bracelets, a model of the Monkeemobile, and, of course, a lunchbox (prerequisite for any show in the Sixties), among a myriad other items.

Indeed, while The Monkees would leave NBC in 1968 due to low ratings, it would continue to be a favourite rerun in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, every so many years it seems that there is a revival in which yet another generation of Monkees fans are created. The first of these occurred in 1969, when reruns of The Monkees joined the CBS Saturday afternoon lineup. In all, reruns of the show would run on Saturday afternoons(first on CBS and then on ABC) for four years. Another generation of Monkees fans would be created when the show entered syndication in 1975. Still more Monkees fans would emerge when MTV reran the series in 1986. It seems that whenever The Monkees is aired, more people rediscover the show and its music.

I sometimes think that the legacy of The Monkees is often underestimated. With regards to television, it was one of the first shows to feature four young men who were not supervised by some older adult. The Monkees then broke with such sitcoms as Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show. It also stretched the bounds of what was allowed in a sitcom format. Nevermind the musical segments, The Monkees moved faster than even Laugh In would after it, with sight gags, one liners, and so on coming so quickly that it was hard to catch them all. The show utilised such techniques as distorted focus, solarisation, comic inserts, fast motion, and slow motion that had never been used on any TV show before, let alone a sitcom.

Of course, the show's greatest legacy may be to the field of music video. The romps featured on The Monkees were essentially early music videos. In fact, many of them can be enjoyed even when taken out of the context of an episode. An excellent example of this is a romp featuring "The Last Train to Clarksville" from "The Monkees at the Movies." It is a takeoff on 1920 serials, complete with Davy as the hero, Mickey as the moustachioed villain, and Peter as the victim he ties to the railroad tracks. Not only did The Monkees possibly have a lasting influence on later rock videos, but one Monkee in particular is partly responsible for MTV. Mike Nesmith was an early pioneer of rock video, including the video album Elephant Parts. In 1980 he produced a rock video show called Popclips for Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon's parent company, Warner Cable, offered to buy the rights to the show to create their own video channel. When Nemsith turned them down, Warner cable created MTv.

As to why The Monkees has continued to be popular for the past forty years, beyond the music and the show's unusual direction, I think the answer to that may have been provided by Mike Nesmith in commentaries to episodes on The Monkees Season One boxed set. On one of the commentaries Mike Nesmith puts forth the idea that The Monkees probably appeals most to ten year old boys. After all, the plots of The Monkees episodes are largely the sorts of adventures boys enjoy--plots involving gangsters, spies, cowboys, and even pirates. If Mike Nesmith is right and The Monkees is best suited to ten year old boys, this could explain the show's lasting appeal. The Monkees appeals to the ten year old in all of its fans. I must admit that watching The Monkees to a large degree takes me back to the days when I was a child watching the show for the first time.

Regardless, I doubt that popularity of The Monkees will fade any time soon. Currently both seasons of the show are available on DVD sets from Rhino. And the series is currently running on the i network. Their albums are still widely available and their songs are still played on the radio. Forget that forty years have passed and The Monkees are no longer the young men they once were, it seems the TV show The Monkees could well be immortal.

Monday, 11 September 2006

The 5th Anniversary of the Deaths of David and Lynn Angell

Today it has been five years since the attack on the World Trade Centre. Since that time there has been an unfortunate tendency to focus on who was responsible, who was to blame, various conspiracy theories, and not nearly enough written or said about those people who died in the attack. For myself, however, there was one name among the victims whose death brought the attack on the Trade Centre home for me. Among the many victims was David Angell and his wife Lynn.

I did not know Mr. Angell, nor his wife. I never met him nor corresponded with him. I did, however, recognise his name. It was familiar to me as one of the creators of the hit comedies Wings and Frasier. He was 55 when he was murdered.

Angell was born in West Barrington, Rhode Island on April 10 1946. He graduated from Providence College with a degree in English Literature. Following graudation, he entered the Army where he served for several years. Following his years in the army, Angell worked as a methods analyst for an engineering firm and later he worked for an insurance company. His first script was sold in 1977 to the TV series Annie Flynn (a short lived CBS sitcom which aired in June 1978). Two years later he would sell a script to Archie Bunker's Place (a continuation of All in the Family).

It was in 1983 that he joined the writing staff of Cheers. By 1985 he was a supervising producer on Cheers, alongside Peter Casey and David Lee. Together the three of them would form Grub Street Productions. As a team they created and produce the sitcom Wings, which debuted on NBC in 1990. They would go onto create the Cheers spinoff and hit sitcom Frasier. Angell was one of the producers on Frasier until his untimely death. Angell and Casey would also develop the short lived series The Pursuit of Happiness, which aired in 1995.

During his career Angell amassed several awards. He won a Golden Globe and a Peabody. He was nominated for an Emmy 37 times. He won 24 Emmys.

Of course, one cannot talk about David Angell without mentioning his soulmate, Lynn Edwards Angell. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama on August 11, 1949. She attended Auburn University. She met David Angell in Cape Cod and the two were married on August 14th, 1971. For many years she worked as a librarian, supporting the couple through the lean years when her husband was trying to break into television writing. She also typed all of his scripts for television. In a statement issued at the time of Mrs. Angell's death, Mr. Angell's partners Casey and Lee described her as epitomising Southern graciousness and charm.

David and Lynn Angell were returning to Los Angeles from Chatham, Massachusetts, where they had attended a wedding, when they boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston. Flight 11 was the first of the planes to crash into World Trade Centre, hitting the North Tower at 8:46 AM EDT. There were no survivors.

As I said earlier, I did not know David Angell or his wife Lynn. Nonetheless, their deaths helped put a human face on the attacks on the World Trade Centre for me. Over the years I had seen Mr. Angell's name repeatedly on television credits. I had seen him in interviews and read interviews with him. I had seen him on the Emmy Awards. More importantly, he was one of the creators of my favourite sitcom from the Nineties, Frasier. Ultimately, David and Lynn Angell were no more or less important than the other victims of the 9/11 attacks, but my familiarity with David Angell's works made the attacks all too real for me. Regardless, the Angells will long be remembered for their contributions to the world and the field of television.

Sunday, 10 September 2006

Give the Lady What She Wants...And It's NOT Macy's

"Give the lady what she wants." (Marshall Field, founder Marshall Fields Department Store)

The past week or two television has been bombarded with ads for Macy's. I simply took for granted that Macy's was opening a bunch of new stores. Unfortunately, it appears that I was wrong. Instead, Federated Department Stores, Inc. (who own Macy's and many of the other old department store chains) is renaming every single department store they own "Macy's" effective today. Among the stores affected are the legendary Marshall Fields in Chicago and Famous Barr in St. Louis, Independence, and Columbia, Missouri. I must say that, like many, I am not at all happy about this.

Now don't get me wrong. I am very fond of Macy's. I have never set foot in a Macy's store, but like most Americans I have grown up with Macy's nonetheless. As a child I watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade every year. Every Yuletide I watched Miracle on 34th Street. Macy's is very much a part of the American landscape, and very nearly a mythical place for most Americans. To us it is that gigantic department store in New York City that holds the best parade around every year and where Santa Claus is real.

As fond as I am of Macy's, however, I do not appreciate the "Macy's" name being slapped on both Famous Barr and Marshall Fields. To me it is doing a disservice to both of these old, well established department stores. Let's face it, both Famous Barr and Marshall Fields have been around for quite some time. The beginnings of the Famous Barr department store chain can be traced to May Department Stores in Leadville, Colorado in 1877. In 1911 the company moved its headquarters to St. Louis. It can also be traced to the 1911 merger of the Famous Clothing Stone (once owned by May) and the William Barr Dry Goods Company. The legendary Famous Barr Store was opened in St. Louis in 1924, where it still stands. With a long history in St. Louis, Famous Barr is identified with the city in a way only May Department Stores once were. To many Missourians it is our department store.

As to Marshall Fields, it is even older than Macy's. Its roots are in P. Palmer and Co., a dry goods store founded in Chicago in 1852. By 1865 the founder of P. Palmer and Company, Potter Palmer, was in ailing health. It was then that Marshal Field and Levi Leiter bought into the firm. It was renamed Field, Palmer, Leiter & Co. By 1881 Palmer had retired and that year Field would buy Leiter out. The company then became known as Marshall Field & Co.. The famous store at State and Washington Streets, still in operation, was built in 1902. Marshall Fields then has a long history in Chicago. In fact, it is as identified with the city as much as the Cubs or the Wrigley Building. To Chicagoans and most Mid-Westerners, Marshall Fields is Chicago's department store. It seems to me, then, that in giving these stores the "Macy's" name, Federated is in effect denying the long and glorious histories of these department stores, not to mention important parts of the histories of St. Louis and Chicago.

Indeed, I will go a step further and say that it is a disservice to Macy's itself. While I am well aware that Macy's once had stores across the United States (they had stores in Atlanta, Kansas City, and Newark, among other places), like many Americans I tend to identify Macy's with New York City. When I think of Macy's, I think of the famous location at 34th and Broadway in New York City and nowhere else. To apply the name "Macy's" to stores in St. Louis and Chicago that have nothing to do with R. H. Macy (the chain's original founder) or Isidor Strauss (who made Macy's what it is today) is then a disservice to the history of Macy's and its place in the history of New York City. Quite frankly, with the exceptions of stores long owned by Macy's or brand new stores opened under that name, no department store should be named Macy's.

At any rate, it seems to me that I am not the only one who is unhappy that many department stores are now being renamed "Macy's." I know there are people in St. Louis and Columbia who are unhappy with Famous Barr being labelled "Macy's." And I understand that the city of Chicago is pretty much incensed. There have been newspaper articles and editorials decrying the decision to apply the "Macy's" name to the Marshall Fields stores. Many signed an online petition to keep the "Marshall Fields" name. Some have even gone so far as to burn their Macy's cards and plan to boycott the store once the name change is in effect. Quite frankly, I don't blame them. I always enjoyed going to Famous Barr in Columbia. I am not so sure that I want to shop at Macy's in Columbia. It's a brand name I know and respect, but it is not Missouri's brand name for our department store. I am rather hoping that others will follow suit in boycotting the renamed stores and that Federated will be forced to give Famous Barr and Marshall Fields their names back.