Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Holy Shit, J. C. Penney


Ron Johnson was on the roll to end all roles in 2011. He was the man behind the Apple Store. He transformed computer sales from the darkly-lit fringe outfits of the '90s to the bright, minimalist, inviting atmosphere of today. In many ways, he made technology cool, and as a result he saw his bank account grow by some $400 million.

J. C. Penney, hungry for a hip new image, saw an enormous opportunity in Johnson. They brought him on as CEO in November of 2011 and tasked him with turning their tired old retail outfit into a hipster paradise of Apple proportions. So Johnson set to work.
Ron Johnson, JCP
"My ideas are big, you guys."

Step one: he hired a fellow Apple veteran as COO and fired a number of the stuffy old suits at JCP. He was taking the company in a new direction, and their input would be outdated.

Step two: he started courting hip brands, with the goal of redefining the type of person who shops at J. C. Penney.
Ron Johnson, JCP 2
"Seriously, though. Really big."

Step three: he took a jackhammer to the dishonest pricing policies of the old retail market. This was the big one. Standard practice in retail is to price everything on the high end, then have special discounts literally all the time to bring the price down to something that isn't exciting, but fair. Johnson wanted that to change. He repriced everything JCP carried to a lower, fairer price, then did away with constant coupons and specials.

It was a refreshing way for a CEO to look at business. He was keeping the actual, long-term interests of customers in mind. He was treating them like mature adults. Not children. Not sheep to be easily led astray by bright, flashy colors and big red lines through high dollar values and sunbursts with percentages in them. His ideas were truly visionary.
Ron Johnson, JCP 3
"Like, this big!"

And they failed harder than any ideas in the history of retail. I mean, they nearly ran J. C. Penney, a century-old institution, into the ground. As it turns out, people like instant gratification. They respond to it. They almost demand it. It makes them feel clever. When Johnson took that away from his customers, they took their business away from him.

J. C. Penney's stock price was cut in half during Johnson's tenure. Feedback from employees and customers alike was almost universally disdainful. After just over a year, he was removed from his position as CEO.
Ron Johnson, JCP 4
"Oh. Well, shit."

There are two lessons to be learned from this epic failure to market properly. The first is that retailers scam the shit out of you. Their sales practices are deceitful, and are based on the idea that you'll pay full price if you have a coupon pretending that "full price" is a discount. The second is that, if they didn't do these things all of these companies would die. Because we secretly like it.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Holy Shit, the Fasces!

I'm doing something a little different this time. I'm going to give you a bit of background on this thing that you're seeing at the top of the post, then I'm going to tell you a story about something I saw when I was in Washington, D.C. that completely blew my mind. Sort of. I mean, it was more the fact that I picked up on it immediately that blew my mind. It was a seminal moment in my academic development that ultimately would lead me nowhere special. But hey, I've got a blog, right? So that's something.

Anyway, that thing is called a fasces. It's a bound bundle of birch rods with the head of an axe sticking out of it. It literally means power. It was the symbol of executive authority in Etruscan civilization. When the Romans took over, they adopted it as their own.
Abzorbaloff from Doctor Who
They took the Abzorbaloff approach to empire building

Here's how it worked: when a powerful official would stroll around their domain, they would be accompanied by subordinates called lictors. These lictors would carry around a fasces. The axe head would not always be a part of it - it was there to indicate that the official the lictors accompanied had the authority to mete out capital punishment. 

See, if a magistrate saw somebody being naughty, they could theoretically point at them and the lictors would be obliged to walk over and beat the fear of Jupiter into them. If they saw someone being really naughty, they could assign one of the lictors to the role of on-call executioner. The axe head was forbidden within the boundaries of Rome. Within the city, the power of life and death rested solely with the people. Well, you know, the rich ones. But putting a weapon on display was poor taste, at best. Treason, at worst.
Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio
They didn't exactly show leniency for treason, either

More importantly, the bundle of birch rods represented strength through unity. Alone, the rods could easily be broken over your knee. Tied together, they formed a cohesive, stronger unit that even Bane would have a bit of trouble getting through.
Bane breaking Batman
And he broke the Batman over his knee
Now, here's where the story comes in. I learned about the fasces in a high school Latin class, just weeks before I took a class trip to Washington, D.C. I don't know if you've noticed, but just about every important person in the history of the federal government has flashed some serious bedroom eyes toward Ancient Rome. So just about everything in our nation's capital pays lip service in some way toward Roman culture.

On the day we went to the Lincoln Memorial, I was able to put my new-found knowledge to use. Here's a picture of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that you'll find there:
Wait, that's not Daniel Day-Lewis

Notice anything familiar about it? Here's a hint: those aren't just armrests on his chair. He's got two old Roman symbols of magisterial authority under his arm. But there's more. These fasces have no axe head, because they're within the borders of the capital.

Lincoln presided over the country during the Civil War. What better symbol for his authority than one suggesting that strength comes from Union? One that conspicuously lacks a key element, which is only left out when it's in a place where people are forbidden from taking up arms against each other?

All this is basically to say that Daniel Chester French was the right man for the job of sculpting this memorial.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Holy Shit, Turing!

Alan Turing
I briefly mentioned Alan Turing in his capacity as a code breaker during World War II, but I didn't really elaborate. How about I do that now?

Turing was a goddamn genius. He had a mind that handled intricate logic the way most of us handle tying our shoes. During World War II, he helped build the framework for what would eventually become computers, and he did so in an effort to decode the German Enigma Machine. When his efforts paid off, he moved on to a more difficult version used by the Nazi navy, and he did that part himself. Because he felt like it.
How hard could it be?

When the war ended, he decided to continue working on this newfangled "computer" idea, and it's largely because of that decision that you're reading this post today. At one point during his research, a strange question arose. He and his team were creating machines with stored memory. Machines that employed logic with relatively little input from users. The question was, "At what point can these machines be considered intelligent?"

And so the concept of realistic artificial intelligence was born. Turing even gave us a way to determine when we were approaching or crossing that threshold. He got the idea from a party game where two people would go out of sight and type answers to a series of questions, trying to imitate each other so that the rest of the group can't tell who's who.
The game was adapted into film in 1997

The Turing Test is like that, except one of the two players is not a human. The best way to go about it, Turing argued, would be to create a child-like computer then subject it to an education of sorts. And that's what people did. Chatter bots are all based on the principle of the Turing Test. They learn new tricks by talking to people. None of them have quite gotten the hang of it, though.

Well, until last week. At the University of Reading, a chatter bot named Eugene managed to convince a third of a panel of judges that it was a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. Granted, there are some concerns about the methods, the judges, and the parameters. But the test itself was never a dichotomy so much as a general idea of where the fine line is between a machine and a mind. What Eugene tells us is that, while we might not have created a mind yet, we're very close.
Eugene Goostman
And it doesn't at all resemble the terrifying love child of Macauley Culkin and Heinrich Himmler

As for Turing, he became the victim of archaic moral legislation. Alan Turing was a gay man, which was not something you wanted to be in the United Kingdom back in his day. It was illegal for him to be who he was. One day, his house was robbed, so he called the police. It came out while they were interviewing him that he was in a relationship with a man. He was promptly arrested and convicted of "indecency." His punishment was a combination of probation and chemical castration, as well as the revocation of his security clearance. This effectively ended his career.

Two years later, Alan Turing imitated his favorite fairy tale (Snow White) by lacing an apple with cyanide and eating it, killing himself. And that's how Britain showed its appreciation for one of the greatest minds their country had ever produced. A mind that not only laid the groundwork for modern computer science, but saved countless lives by taking the enigma out of the Enigma machine. It only took them 55 years to apologize for the way they treated him. Then 4 more for the Queen to give him a pardon.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Holy Shit, It's That Guy! (Game of Thrones Edition)

I'm gonna take a different approach today. I'm going to go all pop culture and throw educational value to the four winds. See, I've been watching Game of Thrones lately, and it keeps occurring to me that I've seen a lot of the characters before, often in surprising roles. Sometimes, the moment of anagnorisis makes me utter the sacred words of this blog, so I've decided to dedicate this post to those actors.

Here's the rules: It has to be a smallish role in something that was a pretty big deal back in its day. These rules are loosely defined and subjective. I just want everyone to know that I'm aware of that. Anyway...

What started me on this track was actually Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I just recently started marathoning for the first time. Turns out it was way overdue. So, in the first episode of the fourth season, this awkward college freshman turns up, is promptly turned into a vampire, and is subsequently slain by the eponymous heroine:
Pedro Pascal in Buffy
This is what handsome looked like in the late '90s

He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite place him. Not three days later, Pedro Pascal did an AMA on Reddit wherein he mentioned that he had made an appearance on Buffy. If you're not sure who that is, just think of the sexiest Game of Thrones character you know. Whether you are male or female, gay or straight, the correct answer is:
Oberyn Martell being sexy
Speaks for itself.

Next up is Maester Pycelle, or "that perverted old prick in King's Landing." Here he is in the show:
Maester Pycelle, via HBO
Look at his stupid, smug little face.

And here he is piloting an AT-AT walker in the Battle of Hoth for The Empire Strikes Back:
General Veers on Hoth
Gotta hand it to him. He survived serving under Darth Vader. Few officers did.

And here he is choosing poorly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
Walter Donovan choosing poorly
"A cup for the King of Kings." Dumbass.

How about this guy:
The Hound
Essence of brooding distilled to a human face. After it's been set on fire, of course.

Surely he hasn't been in anything too big, right? He's such a memorable character, you'd know for certain if you'd seen him before. Right? Well, all I can say to that is, "Narp."

That's him as the simple grocery boy Michael from Hot Fuzz. Maybe you would have recognized him if he had said more than one mangled word in the film.

This is fun. How about this guy? Joffrey Baratheon, First of his Name, spoiled little shit of a king, played by the only actor who has successfully made me want to stab a child in the face:

King Joffrey
Ugh. Just look at that face. It's begging to be knifed.

Well, here he is with Rachel Dawes during R'as al Ghul's attack on Gotham City in Batman Begins:

Jack Gleeson in Batman Begins
The fact that I don't even want to kick him a little bit is a testament to his acting chops.

I could go on and on like this. Catelyn Stark, for example, was Hermione's mom in the second-to-last
Harry Potter film. Jorah Mormont (aka General Friendzone) was in an episode of Doctor Who. There are so many characters in the series, you'd be hard pressed to not find one with a surprising career history. Let me know if I missed your favorite.

Holy shit. This was fun. I'll do more for other shows with big casts.