Mark Hamill as the Joker for the Dark Knight Sequel

No, that is not a breaking news item. It is a call to action. Here is how I see it, without Heath Ledger, there is only one person who can play the Joker well enough. Mark Hamill has done the voice of the Joker for over a decade, and once you hear him, you know he is The Joker. He did the voice in the animated series and stole the show in the recent hit video game Batman: Arkham Asylum.

His long time co-star in the voice booth, Kevin Conroy, was asked once about how Mark Hamill can do that voice. He said that Hamill goes to another place, that he becomes the Joker. As far as live action acting, don't forget that Hamill rocked Broadway in the lead role of Mozart in Amadeus in the 1980s, and was deliciously evil in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. And, it's been 30 years since he was Luke Skywalker: with some green hair and that voice, no one will think Jedi.

Here's how the Dark Knight sequel with Mark Hamill would work:

Batman is forced underground, as hinted at the end of Dark Knight. Like in Dark Knight, the original Joker has spawned copycats, and Batman can't keep up with them all with the Gotham PD after him. The Gotham PD detective chasing him is named Edward Nigma. He is incredibly smart, a clean cut boy scout, loves puzzles and discovering who Batman's identity is the greatest puzzle he has ever had.

Nigma infiltrates a Joker gang to see how Batman operates. The new Joker discovers that he is a cop and laughs at Nigma's quixotic quest. "Who cares who Batsy was?" The Joker says. "You'll take all the fun out of it. Just. Like. A. Cop." The Joker shoots Nigma in the knee and leaves him behind to slow down Batman during a chase. Nigma has to leave the PD and all he is left with a limp, a pension and a burning anger to unmask the Dark Knight.

He becomes the Riddler to draw Batman away from Joker by committing outsize crimes that strike closer and closer to Bruce Wayne as the Riddler pieces together the Dark Knight's identity. The Riddler is playing with Batman, trying to see what resources and skills Batman has.

As Wayne Manor is rebuilt, Bruce has to decide if his life as Bruce is expendable. The Riddler is getting closer, and if Bruce Wayne is exposed, Batman will cease to exist. "Batman was meant to strike fear into criminals. Now it seems only to inspire them, to challenge them. Maybe a regular guy like Jim Gordon is the best answer to crime. Show the criminals a decent cop, with a family, who's not perfect instead of a rich boy parading around as a bat," Bruce says to Alfred in one dark moment.

The Joker just wants to torture Batman and Gotham for giggles; he doesn't care who Batman is. Except that he realizes that the Riddler is on to something: the greatest torture of Batsy would be to reveal his identity to the city. He captures Batman, peeks under the mask, laughs maniacally, and sets him free. Now that he knows the secret, and Riddler doesn't, he's going to torture Riddler as well. And Batman can't come after him or the secret will be get out. Joker has free reign and the only way Batman can keep the secret is to kill him.

Joker teases the Riddler mercilessly, until Riddler falls for a trap that Batman has laid and finds Joker and proof that the Joker is Batman. Riddler kills Joker, which the Joker finds hilarious, knowing the true secret will die with him. Batman captures Riddler and sends him off to Arkham.

This is just a rough sketch, it's missing an overarching theme (other than being a masked hero eventually backfires), and I have no idea who would play Riddler, but Chris Nolan is welcome to have the idea.

My Mass Effect Rant

Mass Effect is a sci-fi role-playing video game that was released in 2008. I played the PC version, which scored an 89/100 on Metacritic. The game has been lauded for its innovative dialog system, its engaging story and its roleplaying potential. The sequel was just released and has been received by the video gaming public with a huge amount of enthusiasm.

I thought it sucked. Horribly.

Sucky point #1: elevators. There are a lot of them, and they take forever. There's even a damn elevator inside your own starship, and it has less than 5 decks! Some of these elevator rides are at least 15-30 seconds long. And during the whole ride you get to do nothing but watch the back of your character's head. Exciting, no? This is bad design, and, frankly, disrespectful of a player's time. Did Otis Elevator provide funding for this game's development?

Sucky point #2: talking. Bioware is known for shaping a character's personality and the storyline via how the player has them interact with others. They did this to great effect in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In Mass Effect, it feels like half the game is talking to non-player characters with little effect. But the dialogue choices don't reflect what is actually said (somehow this is an improvement?). Eventually, I turned on the subtitles and space-barred through the text. So much for all of that voice acting. Doing so meant that I ended up choosing some dialogue choices randomly, to no apparent difference in any outcome. Did AT&T provide funding for this game's development?

Sucky point #3: story. A soldier is the chosen one to save the galaxy from omnipotent Reapers that wipe out all organic life in the galaxy on a regular basis. Why do they do this every million years or so? They are too alien for us to understand - a writer's cop out, especially in a game filled with aliens. Weak. Even worse was that many of the side quests involved idiotic errands, like telling alien B that alien A like-liked them. Did Clorox provide funding for this game's development?

Sucky point #4: graphics. My 6 year old son wanted to know why my character had a big scar running along his jawline. I pointed out that all of the characters had that same scar, among many others. Oh, and the disappearing terrain tiles on planet was a lot of fun. I remember playing crappy games in the 90s with better graphics, better character animation but a lot less acclaim than this one. Did a plastic surgeon provide funding for this game's development?

Sucky point #5: gameplay. Combat was irritating, level design was boring, controls were rough and it. crashed. a. lot. during. fast. moving. action. sequences. The vehicle controls were deplorable. The inventory system was amateurish. And supposedly there were 'biotic' and 'technological' weapons, but I never noticed these and everything was a gun battle on rails. I don't think anyone would have provided funding to accomplish this.

Yes, a pretty harsh review. Clearly, I don't get what all of the excitement is about. And I could be wrong - most gamers seemed to worship at the feet of this game.

Five new lessons learned about tying shoes

The truth is that even this most basic of life skills can be improved in its teaching and executing, and you have to be open to these things even after thirty years of doing it the old and inefficient way.

I had one hell of a time learning how to do tie my shoes when I was five. My father even took an old Florsheim dress shoe and painted each part a bright color to teach the vocabulary of the shoe (tongue, sole, heel) because I was not getting any of it. The shoe was awesome: more colorful than a clown shoe and utterly ridiculous because it was a dress shoe.

But it didn't matter: I just could not get the knot right long after my younger brother aced it. My sister, who was about 1 at the time, learned before me, according to the ever more exaggerated family myths. Like many of my troubles as a kid, the parents chalked this up to being my fault (lazy, uncooperative, etc.) rather than something beyond my control. My parents were pissed and I felt like a worthless idiot.

It turns out that there are at least 17 different ways to tie your shoes. I found this site by googling 'tying a shoe' and choosing the first site it returned. Lesson #1: check the internet on how to improve on the most mundane tasks. It will prevent you from stumbling along in frustration due to incomplete information and outdated methods. And frustrating others trying to learn your ancient ways. Unfortunately, I learned this only when writing this blog post.

It turns out that many of us have been working with a substandard shoelace knot, at least for beginners. There are two stages to tying the knot: the starting knot and the loop knot. With the standard starting knot, you have to plant a finger on the knot to hold it tight while you do the loop knot. Lesson #2: use a double starting knot instead. You will have both hands free to tie and twist the loops. Go ahead, try it.

It worked, huh? My wife learned this from a coworker whose child was taught this in preschool years ago. Lesson #3: talk to others. Like many innovations, this is simple, effective, but does not appear to have spread very far, in part because who shares shoe-tying information? It happened only because my wife brought it up when discussing the travails of teaching my son to tie his shoes. Even still, I don't expect many to try this, because tying shoes is an everyday task, and people are used to the inefficient method, some will no doubt consider this weird.

Speaking of weird, when I was trying to teach my son, my wife watched closely and pronounced that I was doing it wrong - something about which loop was first, or which way to circle the loop. We realized that righties and lefties do the loop knot differently. Which would make it very difficult for a lefty to teach a righty or vice versa. My father and my son are both righties, and I am a lefty. Lesson #4: find the right teacher.

Lesson #5: Subtle structural issues are often the culprit for what are mistaken as a child's behavior problem. In my case, it was being left-handed. This same lesson went unlearned in many other episodes with me.

The New York Times is not worth paying for

The journalism industry is grinding its way through a nasty transition, mostly because the revenue side has fallen apart. Newspapers traditionally have made their money off of ads, with the reader subscriptions often just to support delivery services or as a minimal revenue source. (This is how 'free' print newspapers and broadcast TV can be 'free': they are so chock full of paid ads.)

But the ads have disappeared as advertisers have moved to radio, TV, the internet and even video games. The internet has made newspapers as a delivery channel exceedingly inferior. The only way for them to survive is as websites. But the ad revenue on websites has taken a huge hit because of the recession and because advertisers are figuring out that ads are easy to ignore on the web.

To save itself financially, the New York Times will charge readers for access to its content. It did this with disastrous results half a decade ago, but again, it feels like it has no choice. Back then, I was one of those who paid for TimeSelect. But the times have changed.

First, there are plenty of other free news sources that seemed to have found a working business model: Huffington Post and Politico come to mind. I think it is because they don't have the expenses of a local newspaper (local, state, regional, etc.). In the global environment for global news, the NYT just doesn't compare to free sources, RSS feeds, etc.

Second, the quality of news has sunk to a point where it is not worth paying for. Journalists have an exceedingly high opinion of themselves that is not based on how well they do their jobs, but simply based on their role in society as 'the press.' This has clearly been the case at the New York Times, with its deplorable reporting about WMD in Iraq, it's phoned in, stenographic political reporting, etc. Money is not draining out of journalism solely because of the internet, but because of low quality.

Yes, if this sounds a bit like the hubris of bankers who expect to be paid because they are bankers, not because they are good at what they do, bingo. The difference is that bankers, so far, have an excellent business model. Oh, and the bankers don't get any of my money either, except for the one bank that bought my mortgage, which I had no choice over.

What should the Times do instead, you ask, you snarky reader? Half the Op-ed columnists are big enough properties in their own right that they could make it as media properties, with speaking fees and book royalties allowing them to 'blog' to readers for free. Tom Friedman, Nick Kristof, Paul Krugman and David Brooks would probably be fine. Frank Rich, Gail Collins, Ross Douhat, Bob Hebert and Maureen Dowd probably don't have the media presence to pull it off. As for the NYT itself, well, like GM, it is probably headed for a slow death regardless of what it does. And it will do so without my financial support.

It's not about connecting dots, it's about management and leadership

It's become apparent that the media has jumped all over this 'spy agencies didn't connect the dots' meme about the Xmas Detroit flight bomber. They act shocked, shocked that this has happened. Wasn't this the whole problem with 9/11 that was fixed with the new security procedures, etc.?

No, actually the unconnected dots story is old and seems immune to modern attempts to correct it. And it is not just a national security story. And it is not about connecting the dots. The truth is that this is a failure of management and leadership, not analysis and data collection. See if you analysts out there can figure out the pattern here:

1986: The space shuttle Challenger explodes supposedly because no one connected the dots on the O-ring and freezing temperatures. NASA's investigation actually points the blame finger at how decisions are made and problems with management sacrificing safety for keeping to the launch schedule.

1999: The dot-com bubble causes the stock market to skyrocket and then tank despite data showing irrational exuberance. People lament the lack of connecting the dots by the Fed, but the problem was that Greenspan didn't take action by raising interest rates and call for more regulation in lending.

2001: 9/11 happens because no one connected the dots on al Qaeda plots. The country solemnly concludes that it wasn't a problem in collecting the information, or analyzing it, but on acting on it. Ditto for Enron, MCI, etc.

2003: The shuttle Columbia explodes because no one 'connected the dots' on damage to the heat shield. But, hint hint, the investigation concludes that management failed to act, not that the analysis was lacking.

2003: We go to war in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction, even though all of the reliable analysis points to there being none. Attempts to blame the analysis fall on deaf ears when it becomes clear that management dismissed the analysis before it was even started.

2008: The housing market bubble pops, taking the stock market bubble down with it. If only the Fed, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the rest of the government connected the dots, right? It turns out that all of the data was collected, the analysis was done, but that decision-makers and action takers chose to ignore it because they wanted to let the good times roll.

Spring 2009: Mexican authorities repeatedly and desperately alert the World Health Organization about an outbreak of a new flu. WHO drops the ball and does not follow its own procedures for dealing with it, and the delay in their response allows a global pandemic to spring forth, killing thousands.

Xmas 2009: An almost plane bombing happens not because the analysis was not done, but because at each step, the decision makers did not act when their own procedures told them to, starting from our embassy in Nigeria, to the NSA intel guys who knew about Nigerian terrorists training in Yemen, to the DHS people who are supposed to flag people who pay for one-way tickets with cash and don't check luggage. Any one of these pieces of intel was enough to blow the whistle, revoke the visa, do the extra search, etc. and block the guy from boarding the plane. But no one pulled the trigger. Why? They didn't think their piece of information was serious enough or sufficient even though all known procedures and common sense says it was. That is a decision-making failure, not an analytical one. And it happened about a half dozen times in this one case alone.

Why does this keep happening? The answer is pretty straightforward, if you connect the dots.

A) Collecting data is much easier than analyzing it. We are really good at collecting data.

B) Analysis is not all that hard either. In all of these cases, the analysis was done and the conclusions were straightforward enough that a kid in elementary school would know what to take away. (Heat shield probably busted: don't reenter atmosphere!) But the analysis (and analysts) are easy scapegoats for the real problem, which is that...

C) The authorities dismiss the analysis because they don't wanna do what it calls them to do. Acting on the analysis requires decision-makers who are conditioned/trained/promoted to move incrementally, cautiously and with consensus to do something drastic, do it quickly and piss a lot of people off. It's just more convenient for them to dismiss the analysis and justify their dismissal under the guise of prudence, pragmatism, etc. And as a result, the disaster happens.

Solution: we need decision-makers who will act when needed, who don't pass the buck or shy away from their responsibility. There is no procedural reform, no mild incentive changes or organizational reshuffling that will make it happen. This is where the nitty gritty of leadership comes in. Executives need a line of Captain Kirks, David Farraguts and George S. Pattons who will act swiftly and they need to support them so they can carry out their whistle-blowing capability. Lives are on the line.

For you, dear reader, a bonus example where you get to play the manager, with your own money:

2010: the stock market is likely overvalued. Here's some analysis in the NYT that is the equivalent of announcing that a 20% downturn is due, according to PE ratios. You now have the data and the analysis. What will you do? If the analysis is right (and I am not saying that it is) and you take that 20% hit in your stocks' value, then you have little to complain about when others take the same cautious route.

Happy No EOY Recap Here

If you were looking for an end-of-2009 recap, here it is. "2009: 365 days of the world being better than it was in 2008."

There will be no recap of this blog's 2009 posts or to recap what has happened to me personally in 2009. The truth is that doing those things smacks of being egregiously self-centered and self-absorbed. Plus, I don't see any demand for it from my 1.5 readers.

Go spend your internutz minutes on something more useful.

The truth about airline security

Lots of people, especially frequent fliers, are upset about the new flight restrictions in the wake of the almost bombing of that Xmas day flight to Detroit.

Yes, the restrictions seem unrelated to the particulars of the incident (restricting carry-on baggage, when the bomb was in the guy's underwear?). Most restrictions have a low probability of doing anything other than making any attempt so cumulatively difficult that terrorists give up. So TSA throws a bunch of smelly crap deterrents at the wall and hope enough sticks that the terrorists stumble away from the stench. Obviously, this is not working well, and I bet it is backfiring. I suspect we are giving the engineers and scientists, who seem to make up 90% of the terrorists, fascinating security-beating puzzles to solve. Wonderful.

Yes, some of these restrictions are probably driven by the airline industry with little actual connection to security. We have a carry-on epidemic in this country, and telling you that 'security' is the reason why you can't bring a metric shit ton of personal belongings into the cabin is probably the only way to handle it. For security reasons, check your bag, or better yet, FedEx your personal baggage train to your destination ahead of time. The plane, see, is a passenger plane, not a flying storage shed.

Yes, airline passengers will be punished for the gaps in the no-fly list and the lack of scanning equipment at airports. Because those gaps are considered a given and serious attempts to close them were abandoned long ago due to cost or other reasons. TSA is operating under the assumption that terrorists will board planes, so they figure the best they can do is to make sure the terrorists can't destroy the planes they board.

Yes, there are security people who thrive on laying down more restrictions. TSA probably has groups of restrictions that get activated based on the incident. This latest round is what we get for a near miss: for a hit, they would probably ban all carry-on luggage and make passengers wear nothing but hospital gowns. And security people who dream this stuff up probably think the notion of balancing freedom and security is some kind of sick joke. It's all security concerns all the time with them. That's how security people are: that's their job.

Yes, the terror attempts are becoming increasingly inept. Three fourths of the 2001 simultaneous hijackings worked, but the whole concept was a one-shot deal. The shoe bombing failed. Now the 'pants on fire' approach has also failed. The Acme Corp. rectally-stored dynamite stick can't be too far off in our collective future.

Yes, it would be much better for everyone involved (other than terrorists) if the security people took a smarter approach to security. Like maybe putting the burden of proof on passengers, like is done for renting a car, buying a gun, getting a mortgage (post 2007) or obtaining a passport. Give everyone a safety score, like a credit score, and have security requirements scale inversely with the score. Airline travel is a privilege, not a right. Don't like that idea? Well, there's tons of others that are similarly outside of the box we are currently in. Like wearing airline-provided flight suits, for an extra charge, and in exchange skipping the metal detector. It will feel like being an astronaut: a new, fun airline experience!

Yes, those of us who don't fly often are snickering at your outrage. Some of you folks fly too damn much; something like 50% of all domestic flights are for less than 500 miles, a flight of little over an hour. Take a train, use a phone, drive a car, send an email. We should ban flights that aren't long enough for drink service. The helicopter and railroad industries probably need the boost.

What would you like to do instead? Because I think that a lot of the bellyaching about the new restrictions is coming from the same folks who want the TSA to go to any length to keep them safe, so long as they are not trying to catch a flight themselves. The truth is that you can't have it both ways, even if TSA was pumping out the most brilliant security procedures ever.