Friday, February 12, 2016

"Shop Around" by The Miracles

It was 55 years ago today, on February 12 1961, that "Shop Around" by The Miracles became the first single released by Motown to sell one million copies. The song was written by Smokey Robinson and Barry Gordy. It reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

How Twitter Can Survive

The microblogging service Twitter has been in the news a lot lately. Last week Buzzfeed reported that Twitter was instituting an algorithmic timeline, where tweets would be displayed according to what an algorithm determines people want to see. This threw Twitter into a frenzy, with the hashtag #RIPTwitter trending. All of this turned out to be a tempest in a teapot, as Twitter revealed that the new algorithmic timeline would include multiple opt-out options.

This week Twitter was in the news again. This time around it was because according to the service's latest quarterly report its growth has stalled. Twitter's users totalled 320 million in its fourth quarter, the same as in its third quarter. This resulted in Twitter's stock declining on Wall Street. There were even a very few stories that even questioned the possibility of Twitter's survival, such as this one at Investor Place and this one at the New Zealand Herald.

My own thought is that it is too soon to write Twitter's eulogy yet. Let's face it. While 320 million users is nowhere close to the 1.59 billion that Facebook has, it is still nothing to be ashamed of.   In fact, it is still the most used social media site after Facebook. That puts it ahead of Google+, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Now I have to admit that its growth having stalled is disturbing and is probably a sign that the service is in trouble, but I don't think it is something that cannot be reversed. Here then are the ways I think Twitter can save itself.

1. Don't Try to Be Facebook: A common complaint that Twitter users have had about the service is that it is trying to be too much to be like Facebook. This complaint was made about the new profile design introduced in the spring of 2014. It is a complaint that was made when news about the algorithmic timeline broke. The fact is that most Twitter users don't want Twitter to be like Facebook. What is more, many Twitter users don't even like Facebook. Quite simply, Twitter and Facebook are two very different services. Facebook is a social network where one can connect with friends and family. Twitter is a microblogging service where one goes to learn news, chat, or express his or her feelings. In other words, Facebook is where you go to see pictures of your sister's new baby. Twitter is where you go to find  out news about last night's Democratic debate. Given the difference between the two services, there is no reason Twitter should try to be like Facebook.

2. Accept That Twitter Has Always Been Fairly Easy To Use:  A concern often expressed by Twitter's current leadership is that the service is too hard to use or understand. I have no idea how they convinced themselves of this, as it is far easier to use or understand than Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, or just about any other social media site. There is nothing simpler to understand than Twitter's timeline, which is in reverse, chronological order. Similarly, there's nothing complex about tweeting, save that it has to be 140 characters or less. Twitter has been very easy to use for most of its history and any changes that  have been made have actually made it harder to use.

3. Remove "While You Were Away" and "Who to Follow" from the Timeline: Speaking of things that make Twitter harder to use, "While You Were Away" and "Who to Follow" are two of them. Both disrupt the timeline, making it harder to see tweets in reverse chronological order. In the name of keeping things simple, Twitter should do away with "While You Were Away" entirely or at least give users a means of turning it off. As to "Who to Follow", they should move it to the right sidebar where it once was, give people a way to turn it off, or, preferably, both.

4. Give Retweets, Mentions, and Follows Each Their Own Tabs:  When I first started using Twitter there were separate tabs for retweets, mentions, and follows. Unfortunately Twitter merged the three into a single tab several years ago. I really did not appreciate this and it is the primary reason I use HootSuite rather than the Twitter interface. Having retweets, mentions and follows all under the same tab makes it very hard to keep track of things. It is all too easy to miss a mention or retweet. If they truly want to make Twitter easier to use, then they should restore them to their own tabs.

5. Keep the Timeline in Reverse, Chronological Timeline as Twitter's Default: Giving Twitter users the option of a algorithmic timeline is all very fine and well, but Twitter should never do away with the reverse, chronological timeline. It has always been Twitter's strength and the reason Twitter has become so popular with news outlets and users. Indeed, in my experience most users do not like algorithmic timelines. Consider every single time Facebook has tried to do away with its Most Recent feed. There have been howls of protest to the point that Facebook has had to restore it. What is more, a frequent complaint about Facebook is that users can't keep their news feeds set to Most Recent and have it stay that way. One has to wonder if a lot of users would not just as soon Facebook do away with their algorithmic "Top Stories" feed all together! I rather suspect that Twitter might find many of its users will not opt in to the new algorithmic timeline. In fact, I suspect the majority of them won't. Given that people seem to dislike algorithmic feeds, they should probably keep their emphasis on the classic, reverse chronological timeline.

Ultimately I think that for Twitter to survive it has to emphasise simplicity. Twitter was simple to use in 2009. Since then it has grown more complex with several unnecessary changes. I think if Twitter returned to the simplicity it had in 2010, then it could easily survive and even thrive. If it doesn't and if Twitter continues to make changes, then forecasts about its demise might become all too true.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Frank Finlay R.I.P.

Frank Finlay, the British actor who played Porthos in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) as well as starred in the TV show Bouquet of Barbed Wire, died on January 30 2016 at the age of 89.

Frank Finlay was born in Farnworth, Lancashire on August 6 1926. He attended St Gregory the Great School but left at age 14 to train in his father's vocation of being a butcher. He received a  City and Guilds Diploma as a butcher. His first stage appearance was in 1951 at the Farnworth Little Theatre. He played in repertory as well before winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Afterwards he appeared in productions at the  Royal Court Theatre. He worked a good deal with the National Theatre. He later appeared on Broadway in Epitaph for George Dillon (1958–59) and Filumena (1980).

Frank Finlay made his television debut in a 1956 production of The Twopenny Diamond. He starred in the 1960 sci-fi series Target Luna. He appeared in such TV shows as Onion Boys, BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, Big Guns, and ITV Play of the Week.

In the Sixties Mr. Finlay made his film debut in Private Potter (1962). He appeared in such films as Life for Ruth (1962),  Doctor in Distress (1963), The Informers (1963), The Wild Affair (1963), Hot Enough for June (1964), The Comedy Man (1964), A Study in Terror (1965), Othello (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966), The Deadly Bees (1966), The Jokers (1967), Robbery (1967), I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967), The Spare Tyres (1967), Inspector Clouseau (1968), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), Twisted Nerve (1968), The Molly Maguires (1970), and Cromwell (1970). He starred in a television mini-series adaptation of Les Misérables. He appeared on such shows as Studio 4, Z Cars, Thirteen Against Fate, and Armchair Theatre.

In the Seventies Frank Finlay starred in the TV shows Casanova, Bouquet of Barbed Wire and Another Bouquet. He appeared in the films Assault (1971), Gumshoe (1971), Danny Jones (1971), Sitting Target (1972), Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974), The Wild Geese (1978), Murder by Decree (1979), and Ring of Darkness (1979).

In the Eighties Frank Finlay appeared in such films as The Return of the Soldier (1982), Enigma (1982), The Ploughman's Lunch (1983), Lifeforce (1985), The Return of the Musketeers (1989), and King of the Wind (1990). He appeared on the TV shows Tales of the Unexpected, The Black Adder, and The Two Ronnies.

In the Nineties Mr Finlay starred in the TV shows Common as Muck, How Do You Want Me, and The Sins. He appeared on the TV shows The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Lovejoy, Heartbeat, and The Grand. He appeared in the films La mansión de los Cthulhu (1992), Gospa (1995), For My Baby (1997), So This is Romance? (1997), Stiff Upper Lips (1998), Dreaming of Joseph Lees (1999), and Ghosthunter (2000).

In the Naughts Frank Finlay starred in the TV shows Johnny and the Bomb, Life Begins, Prime Suspect, and Four Seasons. He appeared in the films The Martins (2001), The Pianist (2002), Silent Cry (2002), The Statement (2003), Lighthouse Hill (2004), and The Waiting Room (2007).

There was a very good reason Frank Finlay was so prolific. Quite simply, he was extremely versatile. He played his fair share of heroes. He was Porthos in no less than three movies. He played Inspector Lestrade in two separate films. Curiously both movies featured Sherlock Holmes facing Jack the Ripper (Study in Terror and Murder by Decree). Over the years he played Jean Valjean, Casanova, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was also quite good at playing villains. He was Iago in the 1965 film version of Othello. He played the lead villain in Shaft in Africa. He played both Shylock and Brutus. Frank Finlay was an actor who could play nearly any role and he always played them well.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Super Bowl Commercials 2016

For many the Super Bowl is about the big game, the championship of the National Football League. That having been said, I suspect for most people it is more about the commercials that air during the game. Indeed, I suspect most years coverage of the commercials that will air and do air during the game receive as much, if not more, coverage than the game itself. It would seem that not everyone is necessarily a fan of American football, but a lot of people are fans of well done commercials.

Sadly, like last year, this year's batch of Super Bowl commercials did not seem particularly remarkable. Many of them seemed like any commercials that debut at any other time of year. They could easily have premiered during a rerun of Madam Secretary in the middle of July. This year's batch of commercials also differed from last year's another respect. There were no overly controversial commercials. There was nothing like the extremely tasteless Nationwide spot  "Make Safe Happen" from last year.

Of course, there it must be pointed out that the trend towards serious, inspirational commercials of the past few years appears to be over.  Among the most serious commercials to air during the Super Bowl was one that aired only in the St. Louis market. In a simple commercial with the hashtag #SlamStan, well-known St. Louis lawyer Terry Crouppen summed up the feelings of St. Louis fans towards Rams owner Stan Kroenke for moving the team to Los Angeles. As someone who rooted for the Rams when they were in St. Louis, I must say I agree with Mr Crouppen entirely. There were only a very few commercials that aired nationally that could be considered serious or inspirational. There was the very well done Jeep commercial "Portraits", celebrating Jeep's 75th anniversary, and an Audi commercial with a retired astronaut and David Bowie's song "Starman", but that was about it. For the most part this year's commercials aimed more for humour. That many of the commercials simply weren't very funny is perhaps beside the point.

Not only were some of the commercials not that funny, some of the commercials were of the sort that should never air during an event in which food is often served. Quite simply, the past few years have seen pharmaceutical companies buying time during the Super Bowl for medications for conditions that turn most people's stomachs. There was a commercial for the toe nail fungus medication Jublia (who also aired a spot during last year's Super Bowl as well).  There was a commercial for the Irritable Bowl Syndrome with Diarrhoea medication Xifaxan. There was a spot for AstraZeneca, a medication for Opioid Induced Constipation. While I suppose there is no truly good time for commercials dealing with such conditions, I would think the Super Bowl, given people often eat and drink during it, would be among the absolute worst times to air them.

Beyond the pharmaceutical commercials, the worst commercials were attempts at humour gone horribly awry. NFL's "Super Bowl Babies" spot, which puts forth the theory that an inordinate number of babies are born after a Super Bowl victory, just seemed stupid and unamusing to me. Doritos's "Ultrasound" was not simply unfunny, but a bit frightening too. Quite simply, the commercial centres on a pregnant woman getting an ultrasound whose unborn foetus wants the Doritios her husband is eating. While the ad shows nothing (fortunately there is nothing like the Alien chest bursting scene), it is a bit disturbing when one starts to think about it.... As to the worst commercial aired during Super Bowl 2016, it could well be the absolute worst Super Bowl Commercial of all time were it not for Nationwide's distasteful "Make Safe Happen" ad from last year. The Mountain Dew commercial "Puppymonkeybaby" featured a creature with the head of a pug, the torso of a monkey, and the bottom of a baby. It is truly disturbing to see and difficult to dismiss from one's mind once one has seen it. I suspect many who saw the ad yesterday may well have had nightmares last night...

As to what I consider the very best commercials from this year's Super Bowl, here they are:

Terry Crouppen "Slam Stan"
 I think it can be said that Terry Croupen speaks for all former St. Louis Rams fans in this commercial that aired only in the St. Louis market. I know he summed up my feelings perfectly. As Mr. Crouppen says, "Just because it's legal and you're rich enough to do it – that doesn't make it right."

TurboTax "Never a Sellout"

It is hard to go wrong with a respected British actor like Sir Anthony Hopkins, especially when one is parodying the idea of respected, big name actors doing commercials. This is easily one of the funniest commercials to air in years.

Budweiser "Simply Put"

As I said, it is hard to go wrong with a respected British actor.  And while this commercial is funny, it deals with a very serious subject. Quite simply, Dame Helen Mirren does her part to discourage individuals from drunk driving (or as they call it in the UK, "drink driving").

Heinz "Weiner Stampede"

The two best commercials of this Super Bowl involved dogs. Okay, Heinz's "Weiner Stampede" is a bit of a one joke idea, but it is terribly cute as well as funny. I mean, what is cuter than a bunch of dachshunds dressed as hot dogs?

"Dorito Dogs"

Dorito's may have had a total misfire with their other commercial, but this was easily the best commercial of this year's Super Bowl. Quite simply, a group of adorable dogs plot to get their paws on some delicious Doritos.