videohall:

Anybody know what happened to the cat?

I can’t stop giggling at this, even if I am a year behind the curve on this one.

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Poquito Mas Mi Amigo

As much as I hate Los Angeles and swear I will never live in that vast wasteland again, I do tend to spend more time here than just about anywhere else besides Vegas.  Having gone to college in LA and having lived in town a couple of years beyond that, I have a friend base here I like to check in on with relative frequency.

This trip, I didn’t even really have much of agenda to the visit.  I did go to see some movies at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but I mostly just wanted to get away from Vegas and poker for just a minute before the long stretch of the World Series of Poker begins in about a month.

While I love my poker friends and enjoy Vegas a lot, I like these trips because they remind me there was a time in my life where everything was not about poker, both at and away from work.

I also like trips like these since they offer me a chance to hit up some of my favorite LA food establishments that I tend to get somewhat nostalgic for, like Poquito Mas.  For those not in the know, Poquito Mas is hands-down the bet walk in and order at the counter fast food chain there is. Eff Qdoba. Eff Chipotle. And, call me crazy fellow Las Vegans, but eff Cafe Rio too.

I hit up the local Poquito with three of my friends, including Vince, who lived on my floor freshman year of college.  Vince is the ultimate reality check kind of friend both because his accomplishments in life are inevitably always twice as impressive as yours and because he is always ready and willing to call you on the dumb decisions you’ve made in your life the most humorous way possible. Cases in point:

“Oh guys, we can’t go the movie right now, Jess is real busy with work. You know, checking the Twitters.”

“Remember your first big break up when you went a little crazy and made your AIM status ‘Coping’ for a week?”

In other words, he is awesome. One of my favorite people and one who always found this strange detour of mine from my life plan into poker more amusing, strange, and nonsensical than most.

As I grabbed us a booth, Vince rounded up salsa and utensils.  While he was scooping some verde sauce, a man approached him.

“Excuse me, but is that Jess Welman?”

I guess this nice man saw Vince and I chatting in line and deduced we knew one another. Vince was more perplexed and offered nothing but a blank stare.

“I don’t know her,” the man explained,“I’m just a fan.”

Before I go on with the story, let me briefly explain that, yes, from time to time, people recognize who I am from my web video, podcast, and WPT days.  This mostly happens at poker events, but occasionally it happens in the most unusual of places–typically fast food Mexican restaurants.  Like the nice fellow who spotted me in an Oklahoma City Moe’s Southwestern Grill once.  While I always find people saying they like my work flattering, it never ceases to be a little strange for me, as most of my non-poker friends, like Vince, don’t even realize I have been on TV before.

With that in mind, what happens next shouldn’t surprise you.

Vince bursts out laughing, one of those gutteral laughs that comes in waves. I am still unclear on whether or not Vince confirmed who I was, I joined the story as Vince, genuinely doubled over, comes back to the booth, takes a seat, and continues to laugh, stopping long enough to incredulously inform me:

“That guy in the Longhorns hat over there just asked if you were Jess Welman.”

Yup. This is exactly why I came to LA this weekend. 

Pilot Highlights

I’ve already talked about House of Cards, opined for the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project, I’m counting down the days to the premiere of Arrested Development, so it should surprise no one that I took an interest in Amazon’s new Instant Video Pilot Program.

Unlike television, which makes several pilots then has to greenlight shows based on test audiences and feedback from the development department, Amazon is basically crowdsourcing this part of the process to its viewers.  We the audience can watch the pilots, fill out a survey, and make the effort to get the shows we want on the airwaves.  From what I can tell, Amazon is up for greenlighting more than one, but it will be interesting to see what benchmark these shows have to reach to get a full order and just how long this process will take.  Has to be a tense time for the performers and staffs of these shows, as they sit back and see whether their show gets selected or not.

I had heard about Alpha House and Onion News Empire prior to their release this weekend, but I was surprised to see there are actually 14 pilots up for viewing–six kids shows, two animated adult comedies, and six sitcoms.  I wasn’t feeling very cartoonish, but I did check out the six live-action ones and offered up my thoughts both to Amazon and right here in case you are curious what the shows have to offer, ranked in order from best to worst:

1. Betas

While I wouldn’t say this show is the funniest, I will say it is probably my favorite.  While Onion News Empire and Alpha House threw out more jokes, this was the only show in which I found myself pretty invested in both the concept and the characters by episode’s end.  The gist is this: A Silicon Valley startup seeks funding to keep its new social app in development.  At the helm of the project is Trey (Joe Dinicol in a standout performance), who rallies the troops, including his best friend and lead developer Nash.  Trey is the heart and driving force of the story, while the rest of the cast provides a steady stream of laughs with jokes about nerds, internet culture, and startups.

This was the one show I watched where I really did want to see what happens next, which, for me, is what I look for in a comedy. Jokes are great, but if I don’t have some sort of vested interest in the characters, I am not going to stick around.

2. Alpha House

The most traditional sitcom in the bunch, this Washington-set show is kind of like a funny version of “House of Cards” as a quartet of lazy Senators bunk together in a house.  The pilot featured plenty of entertaining jokes, but the real strength of the show lies in the performances.  John Goodman is, of course, awesome.  The real surprise for me though is Clark Johnson. You might recognize him as Gus Haynes from Season 5 of The Wire. I didn’t, as Season 5 of The Wire is pretty terribad and has been banished from my memory along with Season 7 of Buffy and Godfather III.  I don’t recall him being very funny though, so that he got me chuckling in this pilot caught me by surprise.

I will say that the pilot did seem a bit meandering for my tastes. We started with a hilarious inciting incident involving Bill Murray and the pilot did center on finding a new roommate as a result, several other setups were introduced and almost immediately cast away. The speaking filibuster is a great example of a device that was funny and had more potential, but got abandoned rather quickly.

Potential is a word I would use to describe the entire show to be honest. Top notch writers and actors and a premise that works.  I am willing to keep giving it a shot though.

3. Onion News Empire

This satire of “The Newsroom” seemed like it was right up my alley, yet there was something that kept me from getting entirely into it.  Since we are dealing with The Onion here, I know what I am about to say is a bit absurd, but–it is a little too much parody for my taste.  It is the same issue I have with “Community”.  When you become so involved in the parody and the concept of the joke, the characters tend to suffer.  Just look at this season of Community, which has tried to go a little more mainstream and abandoned some of its more out there riffs and parodies.  Now that we are dealing with more “traditional” sitcom set-ups, we are seeing that a lot of the core cast is very one-note (I’m looking at you Annie).  

There are plenty of characters in Onion News Empire, but they tend to be broadly one-note.  I am not asking for a Full House sentimental moment once an episode, but if this gets picked up and doesn’t spend as much time on characters as crafting zingers, I think I am gonna be out.

4. Browsers

If I thought Onion News Empire was going to be up my alley, I didn’t realize that Browsers seems to be basically pulled from my dreams.  It is a musical. About internet content people. And Bebe Neuwirth is in it.  Bebe. Neuwirth.

Yet, this show turned out to be a huge disappointment.

There isn’t a lot of Bebe, unfortunately. Instead, the show focuses on a quartet of interns at a Huffington Post clone searching for link-baiting content across the internet.  The four actors are good enough singers, but the show has made the ill-advised decision to sing original music. Of the four or five musical numbers, three were terrible, one was forgettable, and one was sung by Ms. Neuwirth and contained the refrain “I’m the one with not to fuck”, referring to her status as the big boss on campus. Bebe Neuwirth singing a song about not fucking with her is kind of a can’t-miss setup, but that is more because we are dealing with a talent like Neuwirth and a funny concept, not because the song was exceptionally well-crafted.

It isn’t particularly funny, the characters aren’t particularly interesting, and the songs are more a hindrance than a help. In other words, not a fan.

5. Zombieland

Probably not a good sign that the show most likely to get picked up in this pilot process is 5/6 on my list.  This is a TV version of the amusing Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson flick by the same name.  None of the original cast is back for the show, which is a glaring problem. It is like watching the Greater Sheboygan Community Theater stage a play of the movie. Everything about it is low rent. Plus, as The Walking Dead has shown us, while killing zombies is fun, there is a lot of monotony in an undead apocalypse, so I am already concerned there won’t be enough material for an entire show.  Even in the pilot, they had but one gag that they repeated for 22 minutes with several zombie deaths in between. Bright side if this gets picked up: The Walking Dead might not be the worst zombie-themed episodic show out there anymore.

6. Those Who Can’t

This was a painfully unfunny show about immature teachers at a high school. Honestly, I just can’t get into the manchild humor of shows like “Workaholics” and this is very much in that vein. Barely lasted through the 25 minutes of adults trying to frame a punk student for drug possession, for this show is rather aptly titled.  They just can’t.

No News is Good News

There are very dangerous, scary people in Boston and I am sitting at home with the TV off. I have no news websites open. I look at Twitter, but I find I am mostly getting upset, not learning much about what is happening.

I want to know why someone would do such a terrible thing, but I find these places where I am supposed to look for answers don’t really have them.  They have answers, I suppose.  These nuggets of truth are buried in piles of misinformation, speculation, and people dying to be first, not dying to be right.

You are likely rolling your eyes calling me a luddite, which is fair, I kind of am.  In this instance though, I think the answer to my problem lies less in the past and more in the future.  In fact, AP excluded, I had pretty much given up on most MSM long ago as a regular source of news and information. Like many others, I tend to find interesting articles through Twitter and Facebook.  I find most of my news from new media sources. I admire the ability to quickly turn around information.

Most of the time, this arrangement works fine. You occasionally stumble into some bad information, but it is usually pretty easy to suss out.

Unfortunately, it is in these times of crisis that the Twitter news model seems to fail me so profoundly.

Just a few months ago, I watched in horror as news of the Newtown massacre hit Twitter.  I saw folks posting unverified news updates and pictures of the alleged weapon before police had even finished searching the crime scene.  I remember when someone appeared to figure out who the perpetrator was. Links to the Facebook profile and old pictures hit the Twitterverse minutes later.  It was remarkable to see how quickly information spread.

Problem is, that information was wrong.

The outlet misidentifying Ryan Lanza as the killer could’ve gotten him killed. It didn’t thankfully. Instead, it made an innocent 20 year old kid the subject of international scrutiny as people read his FB posts and Twitter feed and wasted no time labeling him a nutjob and a psychopath.  Turns out he wasn’t. Turns out he was just another emo kid, your typical teenager. And it also turned out that this kid had to deal with this scrutiny on the same day he learned his brother was responsible for the second deadliest school shooting in history.  That person also killed Ryan Lanza’s mother.

Ryan Lanza had to pay the price for others to be first, to prove to the Twitterverse they had something worth saying.  He wasn’t the only one either. There was at least one other young man with the same name who wasn’t even related to the killer whose Twitter feed to this day still has more than 3,000 followers and an author pleading for people to unfollow him because he is not that guy.

As the scene unfolds in Boston tonight, I can’t help but think of Ryan Lanza again. When I think about what I wanted and needed to know about Newtown that day, none of it was so imperative that it merited the massive and deplorable encroachment of privacy that the younger Lanza brother went through.

None of us needed to know the back story of the killer that day because police had already confirmed the threat was dead.  This was not a public safety issue, there was no urgency, and there was no reason the rest of us couldn’t wait until parents had been notified of their children’s passing or that officials couldn’t notify Ryan Lanza before the rest of us.  It would have still been news six hours later. Or even the next day.

There is urgency in Boston.  People in the neighborhood need to know to stay inside, which police are trying to do via automated calls.  Watertown residents need to know to stay away and not stop their car for anyone but an armed police officer.  But do they need to know every transmission on the police scanner?  Is it so important that you are going to compromise the security of police communication while a mass murderer is on the run and could probably stand to benefit from knowing what police are talking about?

Looking at @BostonScanner, it becomes painfully obvious to me that this is a feed with plenty of information, but a fair amount of it is not particularly useful mostly because it isn’t verifiable.  Look at images of the scene.  You tell me if you think the lines of communication there are full of nothing but accurate information.

Yet I see many in my Twitter feed spreading the words of the scanner as if it was gospel.  I also see folks lambasting CNN for not being up to date on information.  I have not watched CNN in several years and have several other reasons to lambaste them besides timeliness, but I will say this:

If I was a journalist (I am not), being a little late to break news would frustrate me.  Breaking news that turned out to be uncorroborated and incorrect in a situation as grave as this would keep me from sleeping at night, probably for the rest of my life.

Folks like @akitz and other eyewitnesses and citizen reporters are great and illustrate what Twitter really excels at–disseminating info in rapid-fire fashion to a wide range of people. As a result, folks like those at Reddit have become very good at putting that information in a central place, creating an, albeit, disjointed narrative.  Sites like Storify allow folks to do similar things, synthesize these bits and pieces into a narrative.  Incredible pieces of journalism and new media have resulted from this. Plenty of erroneous assumptions and dangerous implications have resulted from this process as well though.

I hope that eventually we learn how to fine-tune this process, because it has a tremendous amount of potential.  I hope that the mainstream media figures out how to use Twitter better, and I certainly hope they follow the lead of @AP and institute policies and practices to ensure that they think and evaluate before they tweet.  I am inspired to see that journalists are withholding suspects names until someone officially confirms them, even though they’ve been reported on the scanner.

I am also inspired to see these unifying moments on Twitter, as disheartening as it may be to note that it takes a national tragedy to create a communal experience these days.  We are listening to one another and trying to learn from one another, problem is, none of us have much of anything useful to say about this particular incident. It is like watching cable news, except the talking heads are your friends, who aren’t being held to any sort of journalistic standard.  It has its entertaining moments, but when it boils down to it, it is just a lot of filler until we get the whole story.  Twitter may be where the story unfolds, but we still need folks to put the whole thing together, to fact check, to go back, and to make sure that the official story adds up to more than just 140 characters.

“He was a wonderful man. Let me tell you a great story. He’ll never remember this. I used to live about two miles from the Beverly Hills Hotel when I grew up. In grammar school, I must have been in seventh grade, I was in the candy store in the Beverly Hills Hotel and Jonathan Winters was there, and he was my idol! There was nobody like him! He was all by himself and he was doing 15 minutes for, like a tootsie pop! This guy was doing material for gum! He came up to me, I was just a little kid, and he just started, he was on! He was brilliant, he was funny. I said, would you come home with me? He said, yeah, sure. He came home with me. I swear to god. My mother was cooking in the kitchen, I walk in. I said look Ma, it’s Jonathan Winters! “OH MY GOD!! EGGS !! THEY LOOK LIKE EYES ON A MONSTER!!” … He did 45 minutes in our kitchen! … He went home with me. What comedian would ever have done that? Milton Berle drove me a mile and let me off in the middle of the street. Wouldn’t come all the way home. It was the only time that ever happened. I said would you come home and meet my mother and say hello to my mom, he came home with me. That’s what kind of great guy he was.” —- Albert Brooks, 1988.

Trip Report: The Mary Poppins of Bars

Poker players can be a bit prickly when it comes to discussing cash games, and not just when they lose.  If anything, the poker players I encounter are more secretive about the lucrative cash games they find than their losing sessions. I never quite understood the argument that, if you find a profitably cash game with lots of fish, you shouldn’t tell good people about it. That is, I didn’t understand it until last night.

I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not I should share what happened.  Do I want to protect my little honey pot and make sure no other visiting poker people corrupt my Shangri-La?

In the end, I decided this place deserves a space in this blog.  It is too magical and too special not to, for, my friends, I have found the perfect bar.

I’m not kidding, this place is the Mary Poppins of bars. It is like I carefully hand-wrote a list of characteristics I want my ideal bar to have, sang a ditty in a British accent, then had my militant father crumple it in a ball, throw it in the fire, and tell me never to speak of such ridiculousness ever again only to have this bar float down from the ether via magic umbrella.  Then this bar unloaded a carpet bag full of drunken wonder, all for me.

My friend Tim and I stumbled upon this place earlier in our stay when looking for a place to grab lunch.  Wandering down the river, we stopped to glance at the menu and were immediately won over.  We got inside at ten to 3pm and the waitress regretfully informed us we only had a couple of minutes to order off the lunch menu, otherwise all that would be available was the “Bar Snack” section of the menu.

We were bummed, as the menu looked rather tasty. Then we actually glanced at the bar snacks menu.

“Well Tim,” I said with a sigh. “Looks like we’ll have to settle for your standard bar fare. Think I’ll get the polenta chips and the slow roasted pork belly squares.”

Tim settled for lamb cutlets.  Tough break missing out on the “real” food and having to settle for bar fare.  We enjoyed our meal, but what I enjoyed even more was the Bulmer’s Pear Cider on tap. I’ve been a big cider fan (read: girl) for a long time and Tim was similarly pleased, as his general requirements for  beverages are typically two fold: 1. Fruit 2. Whipped cream.

The place was pretty empty, which got Tim and I wondering what their night scene was like.  

We had a chance to find out last night.  We were fortunate enough to finish up our work at Crown Casino around 10pm, recruited our friend Brett to join us, and headed for what I thought would be a quiet drink.

As we walked down the river, the noise of a raucous Saturday night seemed to be coming from the opposite side of the river.  We neared closer to our destination and I started looking around, fearing our seemingly cool bar was actually lame and unattended at night.

We rounded the final corner and Tim summed it up. “Oh we have come to the right place.”

The place was crowded, but not packed. Half of the bar was being used as a dance floor, but there were still plenty of tables away from DJ and music. As I gently bopped my head to 80s classic Madonna, we ordered a round and grabbed seats in the quieter section of the bar.

If there was one thing about the night I would change, it would be this.  I later realized we wanted to be in the middle of the action, though our seats did allow us to people watch just about everyone in the dance area.  The DJ rotation of 80s tunes continued as we admired an Aussie Rules Football game on a nearby TV.  As I tried to explain the rules, Tim and Brett seemed fairly incredulous that I truly understood this game.

“And if you get the ball through the center posts, that is a goal.  The official, who is dressed in a sassy hat then gives the player the double wink and gun,” I say.

They laughed and refused to believe me. Before I continue with the story of the Disneyworld of bars, let me pause briefly to enter this into the evidence. Exhibit A:

Ahem.

The DJ made his exit around 11 and two young men with acoustic guitars set up on a small stage by the dance floor.  They proceeded to play a series of nostalgic tunes of my youth acoustic-style.  The crowd (and us) were into it and enjoying it, but the grand finale they put on blew the rest of the show out of the water.

I didn’t even realize what was happening, but Tim did.  

“Is that…” He strained to hear harder and was struck by the telling hum. “Yeah. That is ‘No Diggity.’”

No doubt.

Thing is, they weren’t just playing a white and nerdy acoustic cover of “No Diggity.”  Oh no. They were doing the white and nerdy acoustic megamix seamlessly making their way through a good 15 iconic hip hop songs like “California Love”, “Shake That Ass for Me” and “Jump Around.”

As I scanned the crowd, who was singing as loudly and earnestly as I was, I had a very important realization, not to mention a life first:

I was not even in the bottom half of the whitest, nerdiest people at this bar.

These were my people.  This was my home. No diggity, no doubt.  

Even the guys in the bar were exuberantly dancing, white man’s overbite a blazing.  One guy was especially entertaining, often running a large circle around the dance floor before diving back in.  It only got better though.  One of his friends appeared with a new piece of headwear.  I shit you not, it was a scarecrow hat, just like this one:

image

Oh..pardon the frightening Halloween Glamour Shot, but you get the idea. The scarecrow hat made its rounds around the dance floor as Brett, Tim, and I watched with envy, pondering what kind of Oceans 11-like caper it would take to steal it. It looked like I had an opportunity as the Aussies gathered in a circle to sing some sort of inspirational early 90s Aussie pop song to one another, but as I neared closer, I realized the object on the table was just a pointy purse. Before I could locate the hat, the lights came on. It was time to go. The jubliant dance floor participants seemed as reluctant as us to depart, but the waitress told us this happens eveyr weekend and this week was actually less busy than usual. She thought the good weather might’ve kept people at the beach instead of the bar. As we walked back to our hotel, we were doing that postmodern Millenial thing where we reminisce about stuff that happened just an hour prior, as if we might never remember or experence it again.

I feared it would be a fairy tale or something like Brigadoon, where this magical bar appears but once every 40 years to make every aging pop culture nerd like myself feel special, like I have something to live for.  As I wondered if this was all a dream, the flames in front of the Crown Complex started going off.  

“This is OZ, the great and powerful country,” they called to me.  It was real.  

“It was real,” I screamed out.  "You were there Brett.  You too Tim!“ I turned back to the bar and yelled, "And you too, Scarecrow! You were all there!”

This is the thing about Australia I have noticed so far.  There is a familiarity here for me as an American.  Pieces of it feel like home, but others feel as foreign as the Yellow Brick Road.  It is a mystically real place.  People go about their day to day business as we do, but there is always a spark, be it the literal sparks of the Crown flames or the one that comes from a group of blissfully happy nerds singing along to the familiar chords of Snoop Dogg songs.  

Mugging

I am on a work trip in Australia (a sentence younger Jess never thought she would type).  We are staying at an amazing property, the Crown Entertainment Complex in Melbourne.  This place is massive and every square foot–er, metre?–of it is gorgeous.  There are so many restaurants here I could eat somewhere different for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of this 16-day trip and never eat at the same place twice.  There is shopping, there are shows, there is gambling, there is a movie theater.  There is everything your heart could desire, save for one:

A mug.

I have been in Melbourne around five days now and I have yet to encounter a drinking receptacle that my java-addicted self would describe as a mug.  I’ve been served coffee in teacups and steins and what we in the States would describe as a juice glass, but no mugs.

The Googled phrase “Where are all the mugs, Australia?” yielded little explanation.  Asking the locals didn’t help much either.

Unlike my work trip to France last fall, the language barrier isn’t really an issue here.  We all speak English, but trying to talk about coffee really is like trying to  communicate with a koala.

My first attempt to order coffee started out easy enough. The waitress offered an option: “Black?”

“Yeah, with milk.”

“Oh, like  a latte?”

After four more conversations that went the exact same way, I ended up with a latte every time.  I have to say, I am not the biggest fan of lattes.  They don’t really taste like coffee to me. The Australian ones seem even less coffee-like. They are like those lattes you order at Burger King when you are 14 and think, “Look how mature I am drinking coffee!” when what you were consuming bears more of a resemblance to a Baskin-Robbins Chocolate Blast than a Starbucks beverage (side note: There doesn’t appear to be Chocolate Blasts on the BR menu anymore. I haven’t had one in a good decade, but still, small sad tear).

These drinks are also served to you in tiny 8 oz glasses without a handle. Newsflash: glass does not hold heat particularly well. So, you are scalding your hand to drink a beverage that is juts barely a drinkably hot temperature.

Last night, my boss and I ordered coffee and decided it was time to investigate.  In this good coffee cop/bad coffee cop routine, I played the role of bad cop.

“Hello sir, we’d like two coffees in your largest mugs,” my boss cheerily requests.

The bartender (yes, we were ordering coffee at a bar. Somehow in our heads, this seemed like the place we stood the best chance of getting a strong cup of coffee) offered us some options and we admitted we were clueless.

“Do you want black coffee?”

Oh no. Not this again.

“Yes,” I say.  "But can we get it not all the way full with a little room for some milk?“

"Oh, so like a latte?”

“Well, no not really.”

“But you want milk?”

“Yeah, but we can just add it after you make it.”

This is where we cracked the case.  I explained the concept of “cream and sugar” and the bartender was taken aback. His face scrunched at the phrase “then you just pour a little cold milk in there”, as if I had suggested the next step in the American process was to grind up babies and sprinkle accordingly.

So I drank another latte.

I’ve tried to take matters into my own hands.  I took precautions and came to Melbourne armed with Starbucks Via and Splenda.  I didn’t bring creamer though.  After scouring three grocery stores and questioning some locals, I determined that, like mugs, there is no such thing as creamer in Australia.

I bought soy milk and crammed it in my minibar fridge and felt prepared.  I found a hot water pot, I was good to go.  Then I looked around the room and realized I was missing something very important:

A freaking mug.