Sunday, December 28, 2008

Netflix instant-viewing queue gets slashed

Online movie rental service Netflix has done a good job bulking up its Internet streaming video library, but the vagaries of Hollywood movie licensing are causing quite a few titles to disappear from the service lately.
Nearly 20% of the movies in my Instant queue today are set to expire soon. The 20 movies range from classics like “The Wild Bunch” and “Dirty Harry” to documentaries like “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Some will be available until Dec. 31, others Jan. 1, and one – the foreign film “Lilya 4-ever” – expires Jan. 16.
The “Watch Instantly” option, available on PCs and various set-top boxes, is a nice extra for subscribers of Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail service. It gives subscribers the flexibility to watch something other than the DVDs they have on hand from Netflix.
But unlike the set-it-and-forget-it management of my DVD rental queue, I actually have to actively keep track of which movies are expiring and when in my Instant queue.
Cnet posted a good article explaining how TV broadcasters can lock up licensing rights for certain movies, causing them to disappear from Web services like Netflix and Apple’s iTunes.
I’ve raced to watch some movies through instant viewing, but 12 have slipped through and fallen into a “Saved” list. They’re saved until they become available for Internet streaming again. Whenever that is.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Routine bust gets big media coverage thanks to beauty queen and her not-so-routine bust

Many news stories would barely get coverage if not for some odd twist or titillating detail that moves the story to the top of the pile.
Such was the case this week with a routine drug-related bust in Mexico.
Major U.S. news organizations looked at the story this way:

Police in Mexico arrested eight people in two trucks at a military checkpoint on Tuesday.
They found a large stash of weapons, including two AR-15 assault rifles, .38 specials, 9mm handguns, nine magazines, 633 cartridges and $53,300 in U.S. currency.
Yawn.The men were suspected gang members from the drug-plagued state of Sinaloa.
Never heard of it.About 90% of the cocaine entering the U.S. passes through Mexico, generating billions of dollars a year for powerful and vicious cartels that corrupt segments of society ranging from the police and army to musical groups.
So what else is new?Oh, yeah, and one of the people rounded up is a 23-year-old model.
Really. Tell me more.
She’s the reigning beauty queen from the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Still don’t know where that is, but I’m very interested. What else?She’s smoking hot and there are pictures. Lots and lots of pictures, including bikini shots.
I love it. Let’s give it team coverage.

In July, the woman, Laura Zuniga, won the Sinaloa beauty pageant, which gave her the right to compete two months later in the national competition in Monterrey. She came in third overall in the contest, which sends the winner to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. In October, she won the title "Hispanoamerican Queen 2008" in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
The Associated Press wrote this about the suspect lineup:
Miss Sinaloa 2008 Laura Zuniga stared at the ground, with her flowing dark hair concealing her face, as she stood squeezed between seven alleged gunmen lined up before journalists.
According to CNN, Mexican newscasts referred to the former preschool teacher as “Miss Pistols” and likened her situation to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Apparently the story wasn’t salacious enough. The Mexican press had to spice it up a little.

Triceratops could go extinct again

Hasbro’s Kota the Triceratops got great reviews from toy critics when it debuted earlier this year. Unfortunately the pricey product launched during one of the worst retail periods in decades.
Hasbro bowed Kota at New York’s annual American International Toy Fair in February 2008, after announcing it a year earlier. Kota is an animatronic baby dinosaur big enough for little tots to sit on.
The Playskool-branded toy is a life-size baby dinosaur with sophisticated electronics. Measuring 40-inches long, Kota reacts to touch and sound with realistic dinosaur noises and movements. It features sensors in 11 areas on its body and reacts to touch by moving its head, tail and horns. Kota even comes with leafy greens that the dinosaur can munch when fed. Priced at $300, Kota wasn’t cheap.
And based on price cuts necessary to move the toy off store shelves, it looks like this one might go the way of the dinosaurs.
Kota was made available to the public on Oct. 1 for $299.99. The price soon dipped to $239.99, then $199.99. Target had it on sale for $99 a week before Christmas. Today Sam’s Club was offering it for $75.41.
The price has cratered – like Earth being hit by an asteroid.
Hasbro also has seen price drops for its expensive FurReal Friends products, such as ponies named S’mores and Butterscotch that are big enough for kids to ride. They boast realistic animation, movement and pony sounds and come with a toy carrot, brush and halter.
Take the 3-foot-tall animatronic brown and white pony S’mores. It had sold for $299.99 this fall, but now is available from Sam’s Club and for $150.
Kids now can pretend they’re riding their pony to the glue factory.

Nerf: From sports to military training tools

Toys have changed a lot since I was a kid growing up in the ’70s. Back then Nerf toys were soft foam basketballs and footballs designed for safe, indoor play.
Today, Nerf is about weaponry – guns that shoot foam bullets and darts. Some look like guns Arnold Schwarzenegger might have used in one of his testosterone-fueled action movies.
Take the Nerf N-Strike Vulcan EBF-25, which has a list price of $43. Toy maker Hasbro describes it as “the ultimate in battery-powered blasting.” Fully automatic, the Nerf gun holds up to 25 darts and can fire up to three darts per second. You can buy extra 25-dart ammo belts so you don’t run out of ammunition to shoot at your friends.
Hasbro carpet-bombed the newspaper circulars with ads for its Nerf weaponry, which runs from handguns to missile launchers. Sure, they only fire spongy projectiles, but I can’t help but think that we could be training the next generation of soldiers with these toys, designed for ages 6 and up.
The tech toys for kids today also are pretty cool. I especially like the spy gear.
With the EyeClops Night Vision Infrared Stealth Goggles, kids can reenact the climactic scene from “The Silence of the Lambs.” On second thought, that’s a bad idea.
With the night vision goggles from Jakks Pacific, kids can see up to 50 feet in complete darkness. The product lists for $79.99, but was selling for $59.99 at Toys “R” Us on Christmas Eve.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The day after Christmas: A second-chance Black Friday

Retailers are having a tough go of it this year. So in an effort to salvage the Christmas selling season, many stores are having big sales the day after Christmas. Some are calling this Friday, a second Black Friday.
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, got its name because it was the date historically when many retailers turned a profit or, in accounting lingo, went into the black. But with many retailers still seeing red, stores have decided another round of door-buster deals were in order.
Kohl’s, Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods were among the retailers with newspaper supplements advertising big sales for the day after Christmas this year.
Among electronics retailers, GameStop, RadioShack and Toys “R” Us were trumpeting major sales.
GameStop spotlighted the red-hot category of music video games on the cover of its newspaper supplement. It’s offering bundles for Viacom and EA’s “Rock Band 2” and Activision’s “Guitar Hero: World Tour.” The sets feature guitar, drum and microphone peripherals along with the actual game for wannabe rock stars.
GameStop is charging $169.99 for its “Rock Band 2” bundle for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. That’s $20 off, or 11% less than the regular price of $189.99. The “Guitar Hero: World Tour” band kit for Xbox 360, PS3 and Nintendo’s Wii console sells for $189.99.
GameStop obviously is looking for shoppers to cash in gift cards on those pricey sets.
RadioShack and Toys “R” Us are smartly targeting people who just received portable devices, like Apple iPods and Nintendo’s DS game machine. Both are selling accessories on discount.
They are offering deals on MP3 music player accessories such as cases, chargers, earbuds, FM transmitters and speaker docks. Toys “R” Us is advertising sales of camera cases, GPS accessories, and video game software and controllers.
With a nod to the coming digital television transition, RadioShack is promoting digital-to-analog converter boxes.
“Hurry – Just a few short weeks until the switch to 100% digital TV,” the ad says. “If you have an analog TV and use a rooftop antenna or rabbit ears, you must take action before February 17, 2009, to continue receiving TV broadcasts. Visit your local RadioShack now for the latest information and the gear you’ll need.”
RadioShack is selling a converter box for $59.99. With a $40 government coupon available from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the final cost is just $19.99. Visit the TV Converter Box Coupon Program Web site.
Converter box sales have been very important to RadioShack lately.
“The sales generated by converter boxes significantly contributed to our results during the last two quarters and also illustrates RadioShack’s reputation for helping our customers choose the best personal technology solutions that meet their needs,” RadioShack CEO Julian Day said in a statement Oct. 23.
Despite a difficult economic environment, RadioShack’s sales rose 6% to $1.02 billion in the third quarter from the same period a year ago. In the second quarter, sales were up 6% to $995 million.
Those year-over-year sales gains followed seven straight quarters of declining sales.

Monday, December 22, 2008

My version of “The Christmas Shoes”

Sentimental songs that tell a story are an easy target for parody.
Whenever I hear “The Christmas Shoes” on the radio, I want to mock it. Maybe it’s my twisted outlook on life. but I can’t take a sappy song like that at face value.
My wife, on the other hand, says the song about a boy buying shoes for his dying mother almost brings her to tears.
One problem with story songs is they can be criticized for poor storytelling. They can’t have any plot holes or logic problems.
In the case of “The Christmas Shoes,” the young boy has gone to the store without any adult supervision. He’s also left his mother on her deathbed to buy her a pair of shoes.
The song is told from the perspective of a shopper waiting at the checkout counter behind the boy. The narrator ends up buying the shoes for the boy after the kid tells his sob story about how he wants his mom to look pretty in case she “meets Jesus tonight.”
Sometimes I find myself singing lines from the song out loud at home or in the car and making up my own lyrics.
In one version, he’s an Iraqi boy trying to buy a pair of shoes to throw at President George W. Bush. Based on a true story!
In another, he’s the Artful Dodger conning some dumb mark into buying him a pair of designer shoes by Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo. Of course, the boy will return them in short order for a big payday.
Both are more entertaining than the original performed by Christian music group NewSong in 2000.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

22-year-old woman auctions off her virginity

A 22-year-old woman is auctioning off her virginity to help pay for her graduate studies. Cue the outrage.
The woman, using the pseudonym Natalie Dylan for safety reasons, is working with a legal brothel in Nevada to sell her virginity. Bidding through the Bunny Ranch in Carson City, Nev., has reached $250,000, according to news reports.
Natalie sounds like a pretty enterprising young woman and doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that she’ll be branded a whore for her one-night stand.
Religious groups will condemn her actions, while libertarians will applaud it.
The monetary value of her virginity shows how rare and prized it is for adult women. Well, at least for the attractive ones. That’s because so many consenting adults lost their virginity when they were minors.
It also says a lot about the men bidding for such a prize. It shows that they believe that virginity is special and perhaps sacred. Maybe they like the idea that since it’s the woman’s first time, she won’t know if he’s a lousy lover or not.
Dylan, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Ashley Dupré (the high-priced call girl who brought down New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer), seems to want almost a “Pretty Woman”-like experience.
Dylan’s profile at the Bunny Ranch Web site says, “Natalie wants her first time to be a combination of a great time with a good connection and a financial agreement the she is happy with.”
In other words, Richard Gere, not Jason Alexander.
She says she won’t necessarily give up her virginity to the highest bidder. She is seeking other qualities from her first lover.
“I’m looking for intelligence and an overall nice person,” she told CBS 13 in Sacramento, Calif. Dylan is a graduate of Sacramento State University. She now hopes to get a master's degree in family and marriage counseling and be a psychologist.
But let’s face it, the money is the main thing here.
“It’s a capitalistic society and I want to capitalize on this,” she said.
Oh, by the way, she says she’s already taken a polygraph test to prove her virginal status, and also is willing to undergo a medical exam.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sorry, Santa, I ate Donner

Kids see reindeer at Christmastime and think: Santa Claus. Other people think: Lunch.
Glenview, Ill., fast food restaurant Fredhots and Fries serves Alaskan reindeer meat hotdogs this time of year. I had one for lunch today. When I ordered it, the cashier called out to the grill man, “One Donner."
Usually when people eat cute, cuddly animals, they’re starving for anything to eat or come from a culture with different ideas about what’s a pet. Think dog on the menu in Korea or cats on the dinner plate in China or guinea pigs on the barbecue in Peru and Ecuador. They're all animals that folks tend to anthropomorphize.
The general public is fascinated with people eating stuff they consider inappropriate or yucky. I lost count of how many reports I saw from the Beijing Olympics by reporters who stumbled on the same outdoor market. Oh, my goodness, deep fried starfish, silk worms and sea snakes on a stick, dog liver with vegetables, crunchy black scorpions, etc. “How can the Chinese eat that stuff?” was the veiled message.
Just today, this story crossed the AP wire: “Pet lovers protest cats on the menu in China.”
Anyway, I may have crossed the line today by eating Donner. I ate him Alaska-style with grilled onions, mustard and pickle spear. So what if Santa’s sleigh is one reindeer short this year. Donner was delicious.

Superstar players, TV coverage and intangibles are the ingredients for a popular pro sport

I’ve often wondered why some professional sports catch on with the public and get embraced by the masses, while others languish or die.
Some sports like boxing and bowling used to be hugely popular and drew big TV audiences decades ago. Now boxing has a smaller, niche following on pay TV, while bowling is an anachronism.
Some pro sports are too engrained in American culture to fade away. Baseball is still our “national pastime,” even though the steroid scandal knocked Major League Baseball down a notch.
The National Football League, since its merger with the American Football League in 1970, is rock solid. It’s become part of American culture, with the Super Bowl considered an unofficial national holiday. Rivals like the World Football League, the United States Football League and the XFL all failed.
Pro basketball used to be small potatoes. Consider that Wilt Chamberlain’s landmark 100-point game in 1962 was not televised and was witnessed by just 4,124 spectators.
The National Basketball Association didn’t become a big deal until the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era of the 1980s.
After the big four of pro sports leagues – MLB, NFL, NBA and the National Hockey League – there is a host of what I call “fringe sports” trying to break through.
Despite a couple of generations of American youth playing soccer, Major League Soccer remains a second-tier pro sport. Other fringe sports include the struggling Arena Football League, which just canceled its 2009 season, and indoor and outdoor professional lacrosse leagues.
To break into the big time, pro sports need superstar players. The NBA needed the Bird-Johnson rivalry, followed by the high-flying athleticism and crossover charisma of Michael Jordon.
The arrival of Tiger Woods helped professional golf significantly. By contrast, tennis has waned because of a lack of marketable stars.
Television exposure is another critical factor behind the success of pro sports. NASCAR got a huge boost from TV coverage of its stock car races. Broadcasts of the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour helped fuel interest in the card game as a sport. Ultimate Fighting Championship has enjoyed a surge in popularity from cable TV broadcasts of the mixed martial arts sport.
But superstar players and TV coverage alone won’t necessarily spell success for fringe pro sports looking for mainstream appeal. There are intangibles – things unique to each sport.
Look at the popularity of beach volleyball. The two-on-two matchups are more exciting than the traditional six-on-six team competitions in indoor court volleyball. Plus, buff men and women in swimsuits working up a sweat and the whole beach milieu are bonuses.
And what about extreme action sports like the X Games? Skateboarding, BMX, Motocross and snowboarding speak to young people who grew up with those kinds of thrill-seeking activities.
Among the sports on the extreme fringe are professional video gaming, juggling, beer pong and competitive eating. And coming in fall 2009, the Lingerie Football League. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bitten by the eBay bug

I went a little crazy on eBay yesterday. I bought 18 old TV Guide “Fall Preview” editions in an auction frenzy. I got the annual special issues for the years 1974 through 1991. They’ll join my existing set for 1992 through 2008.
So now I own 35 years worth of television history.
I decided to start my collection with 1974 because that was the year several shows premiered that sparked my affection for episodic TV shows. (See cover photo above.) Among the shows that debuted that fall were “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” “Harry O,” “The Rockford Files” and “Planet of the Apes.” Hey, cut me some slack, I was 12.
It’s fun to look back at TV shows before they were hits or flops that make you wonder what network execs were smoking. The fashions and advertisements in those old issues are a kick too.
With print magazines disappearing in favor of online-only versions, I have to wonder how long the printed TV Guide has got. In recent weeks, PC Magazine and Crain’s Financial Week have joined the list of magazines that have ceased publishing print editions to focus on their Web sites.

Arena Football League Sacks 2009 Season

The 22-year-old Arena Football League announced Monday that it’s canceling its 2009 season to get its financial house in order.
League officials hope the AFL returns in 2010, according to press reports. But getting fans interested in the sport again after a one-year break could be tough. After all, the United States Football League never restarted after it suspended play in 1986.
The AFL’s woes show that the sports world isn’t recession-proof. Even the NFL, NBA and Nascar have laid off workers recently.
The AFL is one of many pro sports trying to capture the public’s attention. With basketball, hockey, football, baseball, soccer and other sports vying for a slice of consumer leisure spending, the pie just isn’t big enough.
The 16-team AFL lost money last year and has seen corporate sponsorships dwindle in recent months. Teams include the Chicago Rush, Los Angeles Avengers, Orlando Predators and Columbus Destroyers.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Quit stalking me, Summercusp

Listen, Summercusp, you're very pretty and I'm sure a nice person. But I'm a happily married father of two. So please quit pestering me to chat with you or e-mail you or view your private photos when I log in to check my Yahoo e-mail.

You and your friends are very persistent. But I'm not on the market anymore.

Since last month, you've even changed your personal likes to be more in line with mine. "Thrifting, horror movies and Scrabble" are certainly more appealing to me than "poetry and Mediterranean food," but I'm not going to be tempted.

Come on, I'm old enough to be your father. Find someone your own age.

‘Name a star after someone’ for $54, or just flush the money down the toilet

Attention all you grandparents out there who think it might be cute to pay $54 to International Star Registry to get a star named after your grandchild. Why not put that money in a U.S. Savings Bond as a gift instead? Or get them a $50 iTunes gift card? Or buy a couple of nice books or a cool new video game?
Because naming a star after someone, as International Star Registry promises, is a lousy gift. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
The Ingleside, Ill., company says it will record your star name and coordinates in book form with the U.S. Copyright Office. So, basically it’s treated like other fiction that the copyright office protects. Your star name isn’t recognized by any astronomical group or space agency.
International Star Registry is open about this in the Frequently Asked Questions section of its Web site:

Q: Will the scientific community recognize my star name?
A: No. We are a private company that provides Gift Packages. Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star catalog. We periodically print a book called Your Place in the Cosmos, which lists the stars that we have named.

So NASA will never say that star Cindy Johnson has gone supernova or that it’s sending a probe to the Timmy Nelson solar system.
The only accepted authority on star naming is the International Astronomical Union, which has no connection to International Star Registry. The IAU has called attempts to exploit ignorance on star naming a “deplorable commercial trick,” according to The Straight Dope. The Wikipedia entry on International Star Registry has links to other articles about the company.
International Star Registry says it has named “hundreds of thousands of stars” since 1979. Its star-naming packages start at $54 plus shipping and handling. Customers get a 12-inch by 16-inch parchment certificate with their star name, dedication date and telescopic coordinates.
Hey, granddad, how about buying your grandson a telescope instead?

Nuts to you! People love wacky animal stories

If newspapers want to boost circulation, maybe they should devote more resources to animal stories.
People love cute, wacky, weird and inspiring tales of pets and wild animals. Just check out the most viewed and most e-mailed stories on Yahoo every day.
Ask readers what they want and they'll say more hard-hitting investigative articles. But track what they actually read, clip and e-mail to their friends and you'll see animal stories at the top of the list.
Animal stories are universal conversation starters. They're great for sending to parents and showing children. They're not going to cause conflicts like stories about politics or social issues. Everyone can relate to them.
Here's a good example. A woman in DeMotte, Indiana, found thousands of black walnuts stuffed in the engine compartment of her car by an enterprising chipmunk storing nuts for the winter, according to the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana.
Clip that one and send it to Mom.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An open letter to the new owners of TV Guide

Dear OpenGate Capital:

Congratulations on your purchase of TV Guide magazine. Now comes the hard part. Turning that storied magazine brand into a winner again.
Sure, its circulation has fallen from the glory days of nearly 20 million copies a week back in 1980 to 3.2 million today, according to the New York Times. But there’s still value in the brand.
You made a mistake not buying the Web site along with the magazine. With so much video entertainment and news media shifting online, you were foolish not to take possession of an important Internet domain. Good luck trying to get people to find, which apparently will be your new Web site early next year. For now it’s just a placeholder.
As for the magazine itself, I have some unconventional advice. Return the publication to its original compact, digest-size format. By shifting to the current, regular magazine size, you compete more directly with better magazines like Entertainment Weekly.
Plus, when you ditched the digest size in 2005, you lost that valuable space at the cash register in grocery stores. This week I surveyed the checkout lanes at my local Jewel grocery store in Wilmette, Ill., and had a difficult time finding any copies of TV Guide for sale. Since it doesn’t fit into those little racks near the register anymore, the stockers put it with other magazines like Us, People and the National Enquirer on the bigger racks at the entrance to each lane. But it’s been crowded out.
Why not go retro as an experiment? It couldn’t hurt.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Flash marketing for TNT’s ‘Leverage’

Hoping to stir up interest in its new action series “Leverage,” cable television network TNT sent out 1-gigabyte flash memory drives containing the pilot episode of the show to an untold number of viewers.
TNT, a unit of Time Warner, probably used the subscriber list for Entertainment Weekly magazine, another Time Warner property, to put together a mailing list for the USB drives.
I received one on Friday and watched it on Sunday, the same day as the premiere aired on TNT. I’ve gotten advance screenings of TV shows before, but only on DVDs, not flash memory drives.
The stunt was part of a marketing blitz for the show, which included print ads in People, Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide, and marketing partnerships with Hyundai, DirecTV and Hewlett-Packard.
The blitz worked. Sunday’s premiere of “Leverage,” starring Timothy Hutton, drew 5 million viewers. It also delivered 2.1 million adults 18-49, ranking as TNT’s best original series telecast ever in delivery of that key demographic during a regular broadcast season.
It helps that the show, a cross between “The A-Team” and “Mission: Impossible,” got good reviews. Its current score on Metacritic is 69, which falls in the “generally favorable reviews” range.
I thought the pilot was far-fetched, but well executed. Diverting entertainment, but not appointment television. “Leverage” follows a team of thieves, hackers and grifters who seek revenge against those who use power and wealth to victimize people.
The premiere episode made great use of location shooting in Chicago, including scenes in Millennium Park and on the riverfront.
One personal gripe was the name of the evil company on the first show: Bering Aerospace. Come on, that’s too close to Boeing, the Chicago-based aerospace giant. Both companies make passenger jets and have headquarters along the Chicago River. Is this show written by Europeans?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The stupidity of “Buy Nothing” anti-consumerists

Congratulations, “Buy Nothing” supporters, you got what you wanted this Christmas.
For years, your motley coalition of anti-consumerists has been trying to persuade people to stop buying stuff. You derided consumerism, saying it was bad for society and the environment.
Now, you’ve got your wish and can enjoy what it’s like when no one buys anything.
It’s not pretty.
Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. economy. When people stop buying non-essentials, as they did after the economy soured from the financial crisis, it has ripple effects.
Retailers, manufacturers, distributors and companies all along the supply chain suffer. Many companies are struggling and laying off workers. Some companies won’t survive the current recession.
So when people don’t buy out of choice, some people lose their jobs and those people stop buying out of necessity. It’s a vicious downward spiral. Economies are built on people trading goods and services. When that trade stops, well, you get the idea.
Who are these anti-consumerists? They include communists, corporation bashers, environmentalists and religious groups. See Adbusters and Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. Also check out the Wikipedia entry on Buy Nothing Day.
The anti-consumerists have been rather quiet this holiday season. Perhaps they thought it was OK when an enlightened few were following their principles, but not the whole country. Hey, even their jobs depend on other people having jobs and spending their salaries.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Collegiate fragrances? Please not the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A small fragrances company recently started selling perfume and cologne inspired by Pennsylvania State University’s blue and white colors and its campus vegetation.
Masik Collegiate Fragrances says the perfume for Penn State smells of vanilla, lilac, rose and white patchouli. The cologne smells of blue cypress and cracked pepper.
Masik is selling 3.4-ounce bottles of the fragrance for $60. The Harrisburg, Pa., company also sells cologne and perfume that it says captures the smell of the University of North Carolina. And it plans to offer scents for six other universities next year.
That got me thinking about the smells of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I earned my undergraduate degree. After attending an Illini men’s basketball game today at the United Center in Chicago with three other U of I graduates, I asked them what they thought our alma mater’s scent should be.
“South Farms,” they all replied. My thoughts exactly.
Living in the dorms on the south end of campus I can still remember the smell of manure in the air from the nearby South Farms. Covering 1,000 acres in southern Champaign and Urbana, Illinois, the South Farms are where the university conducts agricultural research. That research involves livestock production, crop production, weed science and soil fertility.
That’s great for agricultural science, but not so great for an official University of Illinois scent.
The notion of an official campus scent is pretty bogus. The real smells of a college campus, even the good ones, wouldn’t make a good perfume or cologne. I loved the smell of Papa Del’s Pizza in Champaign, but I wouldn’t want to splash it on my face. Same for the smell of beer wafting from the Illini Inn.
Masik, founded in 2007, says it formulates different “signature scents” for each university. The fragrances are licensed products. A percentage of sales will go to each university’s scholarship and athletic fund.
Masik has a list of distinctive characteristics that it uses “as inspiration” for each university’s scent. They include school colors, mascot spirit, traditions and history, landmarks and architectural style, campus trees and flowers, mission statements, college town charter, and themes in the alma mater and fight songs.
Based on those factors, I’d say U of I’s fragrance would smell like Orange Crush soda, sweaty unwashed Indian chief and cow pies.
Wear it with pride.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Take a break from online shopping; check out humorous marketing campaigns

Online shopping isn’t the only activity sapping worker productivity this holiday season. Clever marketers are luring Internet users into time-sucking interactive advertising campaigns.
J.C. Penney launched a Web site called “The Doghouse,” ostensibly designed to help prevent men from upsetting their wives or girlfriends and being sent to the proverbial doghouse. It offers men such tips as: “Speak less, listen better,” “Apologize without caveats,” “Express your feelings” and “Stop checking out other women in restaurants.”
Best of all, there’s a funny 4-minute 40-second video portraying the doghouse as prison-like purgatory and showing the men stuck there and why.
The true purpose of the Web site is to promote J.C. Penney’s jewelry department, but it’s handled with subtlety. Check it out here.
Less nuanced is OfficeMax’s hit campaign “ElfYourself,” which is back for its third straight year of spreading holiday cheer. The “ElfYourself” Web site enables users to create free personalized holiday e-cards by uploading photos and transforming themselves and others into dancing elves.
The office equipment retailer teamed with JibJab Media, best known for its animated political parodies such as “This Land,” on the project.
Over six weeks during the 2007 holiday season, “ElfYourself” received more than 193 million site visits.
And finally Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is back with another promotion that lets people send personalized video messages from Manning to their family and friends.
Sponsored by MasterCard, the site lets users choose from a list of phrases that they want Manning to tell their friend or family member to cheer them up. As the Web site says, “When giving advice to a friend, it’s important to remember – it’ll mean more coming from Peyton.” Check out "Suite Talk With Peyton Manning."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

‘Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show’ warms my heart

Forget “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Hands down the best Christmas special for my money is the annual “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.”
The “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” doesn’t teach morals, but it hints at a few immorals. It’s a holiday show for red-blooded American men.
It teaches us about foreign countries and cultures. (Where is the eastern European country that hot model is from? Why are there so many gorgeous women from Brazil?)
In fact, the show is a virtual United Nations of beautiful women. There are ladies from Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, Australia, the Czech Republic, the Cayman Islands and Namibia. I say put these ladies in charge of the U.N. and we’d have world peace. And quick.
But seriously, I like the music, the production values, the spectacle and those angel wings. Love those wings.
The 2008 “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” aired Dec. 3 on CBS. An encore presentation is scheduled for Dec. 17 on the CW. Or watch it online here. But not at work.
Victoria’s Secret, a unit of Limited Brands, also has set up a pretty neat interactive Web site about the show and the performers.
For more photos from the show, check out: and

The Little Bucket Boys, a Christmas classic

My wife was putting our 5-year-old son to bed last night when the conversation turned to the Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy.”
“If he’s so poor, how can he afford a drum?” little Christopher asked.
“I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t really a drum, but a bucket,” my wife replied.
“Oh, like the Bucket Boys,” Christopher responded.
They both had a good laugh over that one.
The Bucket Boys are a talented group of young men who drum on 5-gallon plastic pickle buckets to entertain the crowds at Chicago Bulls games. They’ve been performing for the Bulls since 2002.
A representative of the Bulls’ front office discovered the teens playing for tips on a sidewalk in the city’s Magnificent Mile shopping district. Amazed by their energy, synchronization and percussive skills, he signed them up to play during home games.
The Bucket Boys were an instant hit and have since made appearances in a KFC television ad, a spot with Hank Williams Jr. on his “Are You Ready For Some Football?!” intro to ABC’s Monday Night Football, and a shared halftime performance bill for the 2004 NBA All-Star Game with OutKast, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce.
I’ve always thought the notion of a little boy banging on his drum as a gift for the baby Jesus was a little silly. The song’s heart is in the right place, but come on, does anyone really think some rat-a-tat-tat noise is what a newborn and his parents are looking for? Please.
Now can you imagine the Bucket Boys raising the volume at the manger scene? Yeah, the three wise men might be into that. But Mary and Joseph, not so much.
("Little Drummer Boy" artwork by Publications International Ltd.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

McDonald’s Happy Meal toy drives me nuts

The other night while driving my mini-van, I had a sassy black woman in the back seat making comments whenever I turned a corner or made a stop.
I couldn’t see her, but she kept saying, “Let’s go,” “I know that’s right” and “Alrighty, boys.”
Turns out it was a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy.
Specifically it was a plastic figure of Gloria the Hippo from the DreamWorks animated film “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.” When switched on, it’s a motion-activated talking toy. Shake it and it cycles through three lines of dialogue from the movie spoken by actress Jada Pinkett Smith.
Gloria the Hippo is one of eight motion-activated talking toys tied to the movie that McDonald’s is giving away with Happy Meals from Nov. 7 through Dec. 4.
McDonald’s has given away talking Happy Meal toys before, but usually you have to press a button or move a character’s arm or head to make it talk. The insidious thing about the Gloria the Hippo toy is that it’s rounded thanks to the character’s pear-shaped body. And that makes it perfect for rolling around on the floor of a car and talking on its own.
I finally located the toy under one of the seats. For my own sanity, I had “to move it, move it.”

U.S. losing its ability to innovate on tech hardware

U.S. consumer electronics and computer companies have profited from outsourcing manufacturing to low-cost producers in Asia. But the gains are temporary and U.S. companies have become less competitive in the long run, according to a new book by Richard Elkus, a Silicon Valley insider.
The book, “Winner Take All: How Competitiveness Shapes The Fate Of Nations,” chronicles the decisions that led U.S. firms to abandon the manufacturing of TVs and other electronics devices.
Elkus introduced the first consumer video cassette recorder to the public in 1970 as an executive with Ampex. But the company didn’t have the money to produce the VCR itself so it looked for partners.
The CEO of Ampex opted not to partner with Magnavox or Motorola, in part because he didn’t want a potential competitor on U.S. soil. Instead, he partnered with Toshiba, Elkus recounts in the book.
Japan rode the VCR to world dominance in television, displays, image processing and nearly all consumer electronics, he says.
In an article in Investor’s Business Daily, I take a look at whether we’re starting to see Asian firms, namely in Japan, Taiwan and China, take command of design and product innovation in addition to manufacturing.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Drinking games go pro with Beer Pong

Beyond the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, there are tons of pro sports vying for a public following.
Some are legitimate sports like soccer and lacrosse, which require athletic skill and physical conditioning. But others are iffy. These “fringe sports” include professional video game playing, competitive eating and now “beer pong.”
And I thought the movie “Beerfest” was a comedy. Turns out it was practically a documentary.
The college drinking game Beirut has been turned into a sport with cash prizes.
I recently got a press release from a PR firm representing, identified as the creator and sponsor of the World Series of Beer Pong and the “official governing body of the popular drinking sport Beer Pong.” You read that right – drinking "sport." The late Foster Brooks would have made a great play-by-play man.
The object of beer pong is to toss ping-pong balls across a table and into one of several cups of beer on the other end. When a ball lands in a cup, the defending team has to drink all the beer in that cup. The first team to eliminate the other team’s cups wins.
Beer pong is usually played with two two-person teams, one on each end of a table. Each side has six to 10 cups of beer arranged in a triangle.
The World Series of Beer Pong is the largest beer pong tournament in the world. The fourth annual World Series of Beer Pong is scheduled for Jan. 1-5 at the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Last year’s tournament had 600 participants competing for a $50,000 grand prize.
To help players prepare for the big event, sells official beer pong tables, cups and balls, all emblazoned with the group’s sporty logo. And don’t forget to stock up on Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, an official sponsor of the World Series of Beer Pong. Classy.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tis the season for out-of-control shoppers

The Christmas shopping season kicked off with three deaths in two separate incidents at stores holding early-morning sales on Black Friday. Merry Christmas, everyone!
A worker at the Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, N.Y., was trampled to death by out-of-control shoppers who broke down the doors at a 5 a.m. sale. Other workers were injured as they tried to rescue the man. Shoppers stepped over the victim on the ground and streamed into the store. Customers shouted angrily and kept shopping when store officials told them the store was closing because of the death, the Associated Press reported.
At the Toys “R” Us in Palm Desert, Calif., shoppers ran for cover when two men shot and killed each other in the store, press reports said. Joy to the world! (Photos by AP, see links.)
Last year, there were only sporadic conflicts and violence among shoppers on Black Friday, according to Cnet. But in 2006, there were numerous reports of crowds getting violent at post-Thanksgiving sales.
Good news for shoppers who didn’t get the big deals on Friday: Many stores are planning doorbuster sales on Saturday too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Black Friday deals could mean a blue Christmas

Retailers have baited their hooks with tempting after-Thanksgiving sales, but the question is whether consumers will bite.
With Americans worried about the economy, their investments, home values and jobs, many aren’t in much of a buying mood this holiday season. But stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart hope to change their minds with one word: doorbuster.
Doorbusters are those super low-priced items, available in limited quantities, at early-bird sales. They get their name from the mobs of crazed shoppers who practically bust down doors to get inside a store to grab bargains when it opens.
Here’s a snapshot of what’s hot in electronics at this year’s early-bird doorbuster sales on Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the annual Christmas shopping season:
  • Blu-ray Disc players and movies: With Blu-ray Disc now established as the high-definition successor to the DVD, consumer electronics manufacturers and Hollywood studios are driving down prices to encourage mass market adoption of the blue-laser format. Wal-Mart is selling a Magnavox Blu-ray Disc player on Black Friday for $128. (A year ago, the cheapest Blu-ray Disc players were about $300.) Wal-Mart also is selling a Samsung Blu-ray player for $199. Plus, the discount chain is selling several Blu-ray movies for $15 each, including “Iron Man” and “Transformers.” (Blu-ray Disc movies usually cost $20 to $40.)
  • HDTVs: Retailers are sitting on a glut of flat-panel LCD and plasma high-definition televisions ordered before the economy turned south. Add to that struggling and bankrupt retailers like Circuit City and Tweeter liquidating inventory and forcing other retailers to drop prices to stay competitive. For more details, read the article in Investor’s Business Daily. Wal-Mart is selling a Samsung 50-inch plasma HDTV for $798 and a Polaroid 42-inch widescreen 1080p LCD HDTV for $598.
  • Portable GPS navigation systems: Faced with competition from GPS-enabled smart phones and factory-installed car navigation systems, portable navi device sellers like Garmin and TomTom are breaking the $100 price barrier. Wal-Mart is selling a Garmin Nuvi 200 with 3.5-inch display for $97. RadioShack is offering a TomTom One 125 with a 3.5-inch screen for $99.99.
Low-cost notebook PCs and video game system bundles also are popular doorbuster deals this year.
For more deals, check out:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In times of economic gloom, consumers turn to whoopee cushions

Internet audience measurement service comScore came out with its October data the other day and it showed that one of the fastest gaining Web properties was Spencer Gifts. That's right. The same Spencer Gifts that you see selling tacky gag gifts at the mall.
The top gainer by percentage change in unique visitors was, the financial news Web site. That's not surprising given the state of the stock market and the economy. The number of visitors to rose 155% from September to October, reaching 10.6 million visitors.
No. 2 was Spencer Gifts. Its audience rose 144% to 5.1 million unique visitors in October from the previous month. It even beat out, which grew just 59% to 8.5 million visitors during Sen. Obama's historic victory in the presidential election.
Looking for clues to the surge in interest in Spencer Gifts, I checked out its Web site.
I can only surmise that it was some hot gifts that drove the increase in online visitors. Perhaps it was the Insulting Parrot for $14.99. The motion-activated toy bird squawks insults and rude comments to anyone who comes near it. Among the classy quotes: "Polly Want A F*ckin Cracker," "Hey Baby, Show Us Your T*T's!" and "Go F*ck Yourself."
Or maybe it was the Sex Alert Door Hanger for $9.99 or the Beerpong Table for $69.99.
Nah, it was definitely the Insulting Parrot. That's a must-have.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Top 10 worst Christmas songs

Here’s the flipside to my recent list of the top 20 best Christmas songs: the 10 worst. I could’ve done 20, but thought I’d concentrate on the biggest stinkers.
  1. “A Soldier’s Silent Night” (circa 2004) by Ted Berndt

  2. “Santa Baby” (1987) by Madonna

  3. “Frosty the Snowman” (1964) by the Beach Boys

  4. “Little Saint Nick” (1964) by the Beach Boys

  5. “Feliz Navidad” (1970) by Jose Feliciano

  6. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1944), recorded by various artists

  7. “Christmas in Hollis” (1987) by Run-DMC

  8. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” (1979) by Elmo & Patsy

  9. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” (1958) by Alvin and the Chipmunks

  10. “Dominick the Donkey” (1960) by Lou Monte
I can’t argue with the sentiment behind “A Soldier’s Silent Night” by Ted Berndt, but it’s stagey, heavy-handed and interminable. I switch radio stations every time this comes on. Father Berndt sounds like a great man (proud Marine and WWII Purple Heart recipient), but I can’t listen to his recording of a soldier’s poem in heavy rotation over the radio. You can read more about the story behind the recording at
The cloying narration reminds me too much of Mason Adams from the old Smucker’s jams TV commercials or worse yet, Garrison Keillor.
Madonna does some things very well – electronic dance music, for example. But she’s one of the worst actresses to get work in the modern age. Her performance of “Santa Baby” is an extension of her lousy acting. She’s playing a character, some kind of spoiled young lady who would exist only in an old movie. Picture a gangster’s moll who works as a stripper, cracks her gum and is dumb as a box of rocks, but sexy hot. Suffice it to say that her rendition of “Santa Baby” is fingernails-on-blackboard grating.
The Beach Boys are responsible for two clinkers from their 1964 Christmas album.
Their version of “Frosty the Snowman” is just plain awful. They try to jazz up the clunky tune with horn flourishes. That’s like spraying Febreze on a skunk.
“Little Saint Nick” is just a lazy reworking of the group’s 1963 hit “Little Deuce Coupe.”
Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” is a catchy little diddy, but it’s advertising-jingle deep. It’s just four lines of 20 words repeated over and over and over again.
I put “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on the list because the conversational duet between a man and a woman gets annoying after repeated listenings. I also like to make the argument, in jest, that the song condones date rape.
The female voice in the song is called “The Mouse” and the male “The Wolf,” according to Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia. Wikipedia cites Susan Loesser’s “A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life; A Portrait by His Daughter,” a book about the song’s writer.
The lyrics consist of the man attempting to convince the woman to stay with him at the end of a date. He plies her with alcohol. “Well, maybe just a half a drink more,” she sings twice.
At another point, she sings, “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Today the answer might be GHB.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Windows Vista a flop; Numbers tell the story

Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system, launched commercially in January 2007, is “a flop,” says Janco Associates.
Windows Vista has only 17% of the market for personal computer operating systems after almost 22 months in release. Its predecessor, Windows XP, had garnered 37% market share during the same time period, according to Janco, based in Park City, Utah. See the article and charts in the Nov. 24 print edition of Investor’s Business Daily.
What’s worse, Windows Vista has only 15% of the OS market share of business and enterprise users who browse the Internet.
Vista is proof that large companies can make “huge blunders in technology,” Janco CEO Victor Janulaitis said in a press release. “In the case of Microsoft, they no longer can count on moving users to new products as quickly as they want.”
Windows Vista has been knocked around like a ragdoll by Apple’s Mac advertising campaign. Critics say Vista is slow and bloated and not an improvement over Windows XP. No wonder the seven-year-old Windows XP still has 70% market share.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

‘Dow 30,000 by 2008’? That’s a good one

For the investor in your family, a humorous book for Christmas might lift their spirits. has many, such as “Dow 30,000 by 2008” by Wall Street pundit Robert Zuccaro. Published in December 2001, the book predicted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would climb to 30,000 and the Nasdaq Composite would exceed 6,000 by the year 2008.
As of Thursday the Dow was at 7,552.29 and the Nasdaq was at 1,316.12.
Not a big enough missed prediction? Then how about “Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market” by James K. Glassman and Kevin A. Hassett. Published in October 1999, shortly before the dot-com bubble burst, it predicted that the Dow would rise to 36,000 within a few years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My top 20 favorite Christmas songs

It’s a truism in print media that readers love lists.
So, in honor of Christmas, here are my top 20 favorite holiday songs this year:
  1. “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” (2004) by the Barenaked Ladies, featuring Sarah McLachlan

  2. “Christmas Canon” (1998) by Trans-Siberian Orchestra

  3. “2000 Miles” (1983) by The Pretenders

  4. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958) by Brenda Lee

  5. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (1962) by Burl Ives

  6. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943) by Bing Crosby

  7. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944) by Judy Garland

  8. “White Christmas” (1947) by Bing Crosby

  9. “Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas)” (1950) by Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters

  10. “Christmas in Killarney” (1951) by Bing Crosby

  11. “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (1977) by Bing Crosby & David Bowie

  12. “Last Christmas” (1984) by Wham!

  13. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994) by Mariah Carey

  14. “Our Love Is Like a Holiday” (2001) by Michael Bolton

  15. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (1987) by U2

  16. “Linus & Lucy” (1964) by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

  17. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (1987) by John Mellencamp

  18. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (2001) by Bruce Springsteen

  19. “Jingle Bell Rock” (1957) by Bobby Helms

  20. “Oi to the World” (1997) by No Doubt

Some thoughts about this mix of picks:
“God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” by the Barenaked Ladies and “Christmas Canon” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra are great examples of how songs in the public domain can be reinvented by other artists to great effect. The public can benefit tremendously when works go off copyright and talented artists are free to experiment with them.
“God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” is an 1827 English traditional song. “We Three Kings” was written by John H. Hopkins Jr. in 1857. “Christmas Canon” is based on Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” written in or around 1680 in Germany.
Not all Christmas songs are cheery and uplifting. Two of my favorites are melancholy: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Also, don’t look down on me for having Wham! and Michael Bolton on this list. Those songs are catchy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mommy kissing Santa? No problem. Just keep the gifts coming

The Christmas song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” presents an interesting ethical dilemma for children.
If the kid singing the song really thinks he saw his mommy kissing Santa, he’s willing to overlook it and not tell his father about the infidelity, apparently so long as he gets some gifts on Christmas morning.
Purists would say it’s a cute song, because little Johnny doesn’t realize that it’s actually his daddy in a Santa suit. And it’s just some innocent kissing, they’d say. After all, the lyrics aren’t: “I saw Mommy Frenching Santa Claus” or “shagging Santa Claus.”
But that’s not the point. The point is this kid doesn’t seem to mind that some other man is kissing his mommy. Yeah, I’m sure it would have been a “laugh” if Daddy had walked in on the two of them, as the lyrics go.
The 1952 song has been covered by many artists over the years (Paul Anka, John Mellencamp, Jessica Simpson and Twisted Sister, to name a few), but only one appears to have had the moral fortitude to do what was right. That performer was Michael Jackson. Singing with the Jackson 5, Jackson tells his brothers, “I did! I really did see Mommy kissing Santa Claus. And I’m gonna tell my dad.”
Way to do what’s right, Michael.