Recession seems to have quieted the anti-Wal-Mart crowd

April 28, 2009


FROM JASON’S CHECKBOOK — As recession’s grip persists, it’s no surprise I’ve been hearing less bourgeois bitching about the “evils” of Wal-Mart.

I’ve been arguing with friends for years about the merits of the world’s largest retailer. It seems they have many reasons for hating the big box stores: perceived “unfairness” toward employees, impact on local economies, a classist dislike of the organization’s clientele, and a schadenfreude-esque attitude about Wal-Mart’s success.

But it’s been my contention that Wal-Mart is heroic, that its everyday low prices have done more for the American poor than any welfare initiative. When you can buy a can of corn for $0.79 instead of $1.29 at the local grocery, it saves families an enormous amount.

Estimates show the company saves Americans $12 billion a year.

My wife and I shop there for groceries every week, and end up saving $40 or so each trip on standard groceries. I get savings of five to 10 percent on standard goods like deodorant, video games, and weed killer. Putting that kind of discretionary income back in my pocket is one hell of an economic stimulus plan.

Increasing purchasing power is a good thing. And if you can do it for the lower class, then it’s a doubly good deed.

If you want to talk about really evil corporations, let’s talk about ones like Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch. Those are corporations that put a premium on peer pressure, and use it to reduce purchasing power by convincing young people that paying more for less is a good thing.

They prey on pre-teenagers, convincing them it’s ok to waste $80 on a single pair of jeans in order to attain social status. They create artificial class divide.

In my mind, creating low prices for toothpaste, bread, milk, underwear, paint, pencils, and plates is far more admirable. It provides inexpensive goods, reduces opportunity cost, and provides jobs. And it’s a hell of a lot better than handing someone a check and inducing a state of welfare dependency, because it creates wealth.

Wal-Mart has often been criticized for being too big for its own good, for “monopolizing too much of the retail industry. But clearly it hasn’t. There are Wal-Mart competitors who carry their own weight: Lowe’s and Home Depot have cornered the hardware industry by providing better selection and supply. Amazon destroys Wal-Mart in online sales by providing a better ‘Net store. Netflix, iTunes, et al are quickly moving to crush traditional on-the-shelf media sales. Target is eating away at Wal-Mart’s clothing sales margins by providing better-quality threads at competitive prices — and that’s an area where entrenched retailers like JCPenney and Macy’s still hold sway.

Wal-Mart might be the biggest, and often has the best deals, but it’s still just the biggest tuna in the economic ocean. It can’t eat all the other fish.

In fact, BusinessWeek reported in November that the great supplier’s advantage is already eroding as sleeker business models evolve.

Wal-Mart isn’t immune to shifting market trends. If consumers demand something better, then Wal-Mart has to change its strategy. Right now, though, the strategy seems to be working. Wal-Mart’s quarterly sales rose 1.7 percent in March while rivals struggled just not to lose cash (and while many retailers, such as Circuit City, close their doors altogether). At the same time, the company actually raised its first-quarter share guidance!

“Wal-Mart’s performance last year would be considered strong at any time and for any retailer, and certainly during one of the most difficult global economies in decades,” CEO Mike Duke wrote to shareholders last week.

“Our U.S. stores are delivering faster checkouts, a friendlier shopping experience and cleaner presentations,” he continued. “We are on the move internationally and today have more stores in more markets. People who have never shopped with us previously are now loyal customers.”

The company created 33,000 jobs in the U.S. last year.

Uber-critics of the Wal-Mart model always paint this weird vision of a future where we all wear gray jumpsuits issued by our local big-box masters, who have usurped the government and turned America into a corporatocracy. That’s just silly. As long as people want something, there will always be someone who can come up with a newer, better idea to provide it than the establishment.

The other complaint that seems most prevalent about Wal-Mart — and this one really gets me — is “how bad” the company is to its workers. This is usually presented in a twin argument: That Wal-Mart does not let its workers unionize, and that the workers are not paid enough to survive.

First: If you want to hurt the poorest of the poor, support unionization at Wal-Mart.

The problem is that pro-union activists don’t look at their track records. They see unskilled labor as a market that demands a living wage, but they don’t look at the failures of their efforts. Ford just posted a $1.7 billion loss because union labor has hijacked its profitability, and the unions can’t stop the plant closures and lay-offs.

Want another example? Just look at the U.S. steel industry. Or how about grocery stores? Prices at grocery stores that use unionized labor are much higher.

I’m not suggesting all unionization is bad. Look at what education unions have been able to do. The problem is that unions tend to work well inside a monopolized market, but elsewhere they only generate massive inflation by creating an artificial wage hike. Too many unions are busily pricing themselves out of jobs, and then wailing when industry fails and begging government for a bail-out.

Wal-Mart shouldn’t be unionized. Shelf-stockers and check-out operators were never intended to earn living wages in part-time, unskilled positions. Upping hourly wages and benefits for unskilled workers might seem like a humanitarian thing to do, but consider the ripple-effect it has on pricing; higher pay means higher prices means less purchasing power for the lowest earners. Lower purchasing power means less consumable utility, which means recession, which means lower purchasing power for everyone, not just the poor.

The average hourly pay at Wal-Mart is just under $10, and is always heads and shoulders above the minimum wage. That’s not bad for the hundreds of thousands of non-skilled workers they employ — who in many cases would not be elsewhere employed.

Wal-Mart has helped me. Wal-Mart has helped you. It has helped the poor, and has generally evened the playing field and slowed class divide. What more can you ask for?

I suppose you could ask for $250,000-a-year jobs for every man, woman, and teen in America, with a free convertible in every driveway and 55-cents-a-gallon gas at the pumps. But does anyone really think that’s realistic?

At some point, the “gimme-gimme” entitlement attitude here in America became the norm, and we all became complacent. We forgot that we became an economic superpower because we worked hard and were competitive.

Midnight showing: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

April 25, 2009


FROM JASON’S INDIE THEATER — There are very few movies my wife has the patience to sit through, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is her favorite.

The bright colors, the singing, and her obsession with all things Roald Dahl are enough to overcome the mild ADD that has her wiggling out of her seat during the movies I like. So she was like — and forgive me here — a kid in a candy store last night when the local $3 theater gave a midnight showing of the 1971 “children’s” movie.

The place was packed with the gangly and socially awkward denizens of the nearby Oberlin College, which made the experience fun. Dorm life being what it is, they were keyed in to every drug reference and sexual subtext thrown up on the screen. They sang along at all the right parts. How could we not join in?

They went bananas at all manner of phallic symbols — from the pumping pistons of the Everlasting Gobstopper machine to the ejaculatory tubas in the “car wash” scene (especially when Mrs. Teevee was shot in the face with a big wad of… “bubbles”).

There were huge laughs when Bill said, “You were born to be a Wonka-er,” because it ostensibly sounded similar to “wanker.” Everybody started rolling when 13-year-old Charlie insisted on buyinghis grandfather tobacco.

One loud-mouthed frosh in the front row bellowed, “WRONG!” when Mrs. Teevee identified Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” as Rachmaninoff. But for such a literate crowd, they sure were scratching their heads at the Oscar Wilde or Ogden Nash quotes. One girl didn’t get the Shakespearean origins of, “Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head,” and shouted, “What the hell?!”

And we were all a little uncomfortable together in the dark theater when watching how the on-screen adults acted toward the children. The threat of child molestation has profoundly changed the acceptable ways to touch kids in the past 30 years. When Slugworth (aka Wilkinson) would grab a child from behind and start whispering in his or her ear, it took an insidious tone. And even some comments by Willy seemed wildly unacceptable and inuendo-filled.  It’s easy to see why Johnny Depp took the Michael Jackson interpretation in the 2005 remake.

Next Saturday, the same theater is screening Labyrinth at midnight, with several more as-yet-unnamed cult classics to follow through the summer.

I’m eager to see whether the college kids will arrive at the same conclusions as The Greatest Movie Ever Podcast host Paul Chapman about the film — whether it’s all about a young girl’s escapist repression of childhood sexual abuse.

Won’t that be enlightening?

I’m glad for experiences like these. I mean, I have a 42-inch flatscreen plasma TV at home, so there’s nothing really pressing anymore about going out to the movies… that is, unless they offer something I can’t get at home. At least one cinema owner is trying to foster an actual movie-going experience instead of just collecting an outrageous sum to slap people in cramped seats.

The management didn’t get pissy at the kids for being boistrous. Nobody was upset at the singing, or yelling for anyone to be quiet. It was a communal experience, a kind of group enjoyment typically only available at a ball park. And it’s why I’ll be going back to the Apollo Theatre.

So if you made it this far, here’s a reward:

Wallpaper of the Week: G.I. Joe

April 24, 2009


FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — I’m not sure how I feel yet about the upcoming live-action G.I. Joe movie, The Rise of Cobra. But if it is anything like the recently-launched G.I. Joe: Resolute on Adult Swim, then it at least has a fighting chance.

And that’s half the battle. The other half, as you can imagine, is knowing.

I was grinning madly and hopping up and down in my chair watching the Resolute webisodes the other night. This ‘toon is serious. People die. They get shot in the head at close range. There’s blood. A familiar Joe is assassinated, and 10.4 million Russians are murdered in a single thrust by Cobra.


There are no Viper pilots parachuting to safety at the last second. And Snake Eyes… let’s just say Snake Eyes is badass, even with a trench knife through his palm.

Like anyone born in 1980 or thereabouts, I watched the old cartoons and played with the toys until the legs and thumbs were broken. Lots of days were spent building sandbox Joe forts and waging complicated campaigns, so there’s a powerful nostalgic connection.

One thing I’ve always found interesting with any 1980s cartoon franchise is how much more compelling the villains are than the heroes. I mean, who else found themselves silently rooting time and again for Destro and the Baroness to finally hatch a winning scheme, or for Cobra Commander to grow a pair (boy, does he ever in Resolute!)?


I think much of that feeling is wrapped up in character design. While Cobra agents are slick and powerful and domineering almost to the point of being alien or robot, the Joes are near-uniformly tall, strapping lads and lasses, clean-cut and boistrous in all-American gear. They’re practically quarterbacks and homecoming queens in red, white, and blue-speckled military garb.

Which gives birth to a realization, watching one or two episodes recently as an adult: The series was incredibly jingoistic, to the point of being an overt recruiting tool for the armed forces. It’s probably just as responsible for today’s rash of “rah rah sis boom bah” patriotism as any Reagan speech.


The ‘toon might as well have been intercut with Starship Troopers-level nationalist propaganda. They’re doing their part. Are you? Join the Mobile Infantry and save the world!

I can’t imagine that the new movie will have that same slant. After all, this is war-weary America, and Hasbro and Paramount surely are smart enough to understand that cheerleader patriotism doesn’t really jive with post-Korea, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq viewers. Right?

At any rate, just given the leather outfit and sexy glasses, I’m already backing Sienna Miller’s Baroness.

That aside, enjoy these older-school Joe wallpapers. More can be found, strangely enough, at Skywarp’s Hardy Boys Casefiles Encyclopedia. There’s a mash-up for you.

Død Snø: Shawn of the Dead meets the Third Reich?

April 18, 2009

dodsno01FROM JASON’S DVD PLAYER — I now know two words in Norwegian. Død means “dead,” while Snø translates easily enough to “snow.”

I doubt I’ll ever have use for the phrase, except when I go hunting at Blockbuster this summer for the Norwegian-indie-Nazi-zombie-horror-comedy flick Død Snø, set for release June 12 in the States.

Seemingly taking queues from Shawn of the Dead’s simultaneous genre-revitalizing and self-mocking humor, the Scandinavian undead epic pits reanimated fascists against vacationing teens who stumble on a cache of stolen Nazi gold.

The pillaged treasure was hidden during the Reich’s occupation of Norway during World War II, and a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque cursed horde rises to claim it back when the protagonists find it in a desolate mountain cabin.

Seriously, this is a geek orgasm. I can’t wait to see it.

I’m not normally a fan of zombies flicks, though several works in recent years have worked to change that (the aforementioned Simon Pegg film and Left 4 Dead among them). I’ve never been a fan of gore for gore’s sake; but if a work can be more about creativity and subtle fun-poking at genre cliches instead of blood and intestines, then I’m all in.

I also don’t really give a hoot about another Romero allegorical commentary about American consumerism.

Dead Snow sounds like it’s going to be more horror than comedy, but with consistent piss-taking — I’m just not sure whether they buzz around the movie is due to intentional or unintentional humor. Norwegians are smart. They can’t possibly think they can get away with stock baddies like Nazis rising from the icy grave, for shit’s sake.

One thing is sure: I like Scandinavians. They seem so laid back. I’ve never heard of anyone being prejudiced against them. The northern ladies are hot (I’d like to bjork de bjork de bjork them like the Swedish Chef). And somehow they seem to be at once at the leading edge of fashion while still wearing Thor hair and knit sweaters.

The film was released in Norway on my birthday in January, and was shown at Sundance before IFC purchased North American distribution rights. IFC is the same indie party behind Y Tu Mamá También, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Fahrenheit 9/11, and the controversial Transamerica.

Unfortunately, kids, you won’t be able to slap Dead Snow on your Netflix queue this summer because IFC has an exclusive distribution deal with Blockbuster — though I give even odds that Blockbuster will be belly-up in the next year.

Regardless, Død Snø is already getting decent ratings from folks in-the-know, scoring 7.0 on IMDB. That’s better than Innerspace, The ‘Burbs, Young Guns, Heavy Metal, Hot Shots!, Ghostbusters 2, or Talladega Nights.

There are some weird demographic splits in the mix, too. Usually, zombie and other horror flicks are the demesne of the male geeks, but tracking for Dead Snow is actually better among females. What’s more, it’s getting an average IMDB rating of 9.5 from women 45 and older, while men in the same age group only give it an average 6.2.

And that’s got me wondering.

I’ve only got one beef so far with the movie: the tagline. It’s “Ein! Zwei! Die!” That’s fine, I suppose, but if you’re a Nazi German, then you think they’re saying, “One! Two! The!”

Oh, and by the way, I know that pesky Ø symbol has been nagging at you the entire time you’ve been reading this. Here’s the wiki entry so you can stop obsessing.

Wallpaper of the Week: White rooms, soft lighting

April 17, 2009


FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Most days, I want a wallpaper that tells a story, or at least taps a pop reference like Batman or Cowboy Bebop. I’m not so much one for landscapes and still-lifes unless they are of a superior artistry or convey some deeper emotion or attachment.

Which is why I’m so surprised that I like the chan-famous white rooms motif. These wallpapers are all about chunky shapes, sharp corners, and blazing sunlight cutting slants and squares across walls and floorboards. They are about clean, open spaces and contrasting soft and sharp natural light. They’re about balance and proportion and symetry.

I do not have an eye for interior design; that’s my wife’s bailiwick. Left to me, our walls would not be laden with decorative wrought iron, candles, and deep-stained wooden shelves. There would be no hanging plants and pictures.

I like straight lines. I like clean slates. My walls would be tabula rasa. I’d be living in an empty studio with spartan furniture and bare pine planking.

And that’s why I love these wallpapers. They give my desktop a feeling of space and organization — of perspective and freedom.


Further from religion, closer to humanist redemption

April 15, 2009


FROM JASON’S EPIPHANY — It took a huge philosophical earthquake to shake off my early religious indoctrination. But every once in a while an aftershock will catch up with me.

There was one in the car today.

I wasn’t thinking about epistemology, or god, or the meaning of life, or whether there is an afterlife. Some subconscious mechanism just clicked as I rolled down the highway. I felt a deep peace. It was like the four corners of the sky scrolled back and I could see the entire sweep of the universe, and my small situation against its infinite span.

“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan

I felt small and frail.

For those of us who were conditioned like dogs at an early age to believe there is an almighty and judgmental force in heaven, it is very difficult to surrender all that Christian guilt of original sin. Even after you grow up and realize there is no creator god and no eternal reward, there is still a child inside hoping to avoid punishment the whole snake-and-apple fiasco.

“All natural institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” – Thomas Paine

The dam holding back those worries broke a bit more in my car today. They washed out and dissipated. The release was sudden. Convictions are processes, not states.

I suddenly embraced — not just intellectually but intrinsically — the idea that I am a passing nothingness, in no way special. I will not make a mark on the life of the universe. I was disparate matter and energy for trillions of years before I was born, and in another 50 or so years I’ll revert to that dust and heat again.

And that’s just fine. Who the heck am I, anyway?

“There is no other life; life itself is only a vision and a dream for nothing exists but space and you. If there was an all-powerful God, he would have made all good, and no bad.” – Mark Twain

I grew up in the church, surrounded by people who would tell you that without god there can be no peace of mind. I heard them repeat time and again that non-Christians were constantly searching for something greater than themselves, searching for a god to relieve their tensions, their worries, their anxieties and loneliness.

That’s not true.

Real freedom is knowing that no fickle god is keeping a tally. It’s knowing that you have a few decades to be kind to your fellow humans without the threat of a zealous god standing over you with whip in hand. It’s knowing that your choices can be based on enlightened self-interest, not an ingrained fear.

“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”- Albert Einstein

Real freedom is counting the gods that have fallen by the wayside: Jove, Odin, Freya, Gaia, Zeus, Hera, Horus, Ra, Snoopy, Apollo Mithras.

Even now, the number of Americans who self-identify as believers in the Christian god is sloping off. The number of people who think the United States is a Christian nation has dropped to 62 percent (John Adams wrote in 1796 that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”) Only 48 percent self-identified as being both “religious and spiritual.”

Atheism is slowly growing as the old religions become impotent. The pious pray into empty air and receive no answers, but science yields computers, cheap food, sanitary homes, electricity, cars, men on the moon, and defibrillators.

Nearly 12 percent of the world’s population now calls itself non-theist, though only 2.3 percent call themselves atheist. American Atheists claim that 50 million U.S. citizens do not claim believe in a higher being.

“Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.” – Thomas Jefferson.

The old ways are fading away, to be replaced by a beautiful humanism. The reasons are obvious.

People are finding that religion does not offer tangible solutions, but in fact cause strife, war, infighting, division, poverty, and ignorance. Christians are generally just as unhappy as anyone else, enjoying the same divorce and suicide rates. American moderates continue to identify religion as their culture, not their actual belief systems. And nebulous theological feel-goodery is no substitute for real happiness.

Child-molesting priests haven’t helped the believers’ image. Nor have cotton-candy-haired shyster televangelists. Conservative homophobia in the 21 century is coming to be viewed as equivalent to the open racism and sexism of previous centuries. And the more people actually read the bible, the less they are impressed with its open promulgation of violence, oppression of women, and outright prejudice.

As time passes, the testaments become barbarous relics.

“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” – Abraham Lincoln

I’ve been called a pessimist once or twice, and when I was ensnared in the web of Christianity as a child I certainly felt more jaded toward those with whom my views did not align. I was even contemptuous of other Christians whose doctrines did not match mine. There was a certain proprietary jealousy there, and an eagerness to be right all the time at the expense of others.

That was back in my dark ages, and it’s an embarrassing past I’ve been trying to escape.

These days, I am more optimistic, more willing to forgive. Isn’t that ironic? By shedding the trappings of religion I’ve seemed to achieve everything to which the devout aspire. I look more kindly on my fellow man. I am a much better listener, let me tell you. I have found logic — the tool of Satan, many god-fearing folk would say.

Just think what would happen if we traded the words of Jesus for the words of John Lennon. Maybe our collective human mantra should be: “It doesn’t matter how long my hair is or what color my skin is or whether I’m a woman or a man”

Or maybe those of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.”

BumpTop and Real Desktop are a start, but a true 3D interface would be more than just a skin

April 13, 2009

FROM JASON’S 3DESKTOP — The word “beta” in my Gmail inbox made my eyebrows take a happy-go-lucky jump, but once installed I found the BumpTop beta was just a piece of elaborately done-up nagware.

The eyebrows came back down and settled in a scowl.

There is a Prime Directive for my computers: There shalt be no shareware. Everything must be freeware, open source, or purchased. No adware, trials, or postcardware. No promotions. No commercials.

I took perhaps three minutes to sate my curiosity about BumpTop, then scoured it from my PC.

I love the idea of a 3D desktop, a virtual space using a physics engine to toss around files, pile them up, to basically treat your computer like a living space. It would make your desktop as comfortable as your bedroom.

But the options right now are limited, and severely flawed.

BumpTop isn’t the only name in the game, though it was the one to get early branding for its product last year. Real Desktop is a robust competitor, offering a crippleware version that has its own issues though it’s stable and completely free.

Real Desktop’s light version (I refuse to spell it “lite”) is decent but extremely limited. It doesn’t mask out RocketDock like BumpTop does, which is a plus, but both suites have their problems: The camera angles can be quite awkward. Dragging into a folder can be quite a pain. Both are susceptible to the “Show Desktop” widget.

BumpTop’s a bit laggy, even through my NVIDIA 9800 GT. Real Desktop doesn’t let you place anything on the walls, and doesn’t come with any neat-o widgets like Bump does, which means you are effectively wasting at least a third of your desktop at any given time.

And both affect only your desktop — no other folders at all.

The ideal Explorer replacement would convert my entire hard drive into a virtual world straight out of Hackers, allowing me to navigate the entire file structure in a true space environment. Let’s be honest here — the conventional Explorer interface is 20 years old now, and hasn’t changed all that much since the ol’ DOSHELL days.

MicroSoft’s file manager is functional, but not fun, and it’s organized but not necessarily intuitive. It needs an update. I’m just waiting for the right program… or maybe the right OS… to be ushered in. Imagine what kind of functionality we could eke out of a multidimensional interface instead of a flat one.