Saturday, June 25, 2016

What to say, what to say?

"The US has been warned about its high poverty rate in the International Monetary Fund's annual assessment of the economy. . .  It recommended raising the minimum wage and offering paid maternity leave to women to encourage them to work."

Oh, what to say to Ms. Lagarde, what to say? How about "Fuck off, fascist."

An economist recommending raising the minimum wage and paying people not to work to encourage work, as good an idea as ensuring insurance coverage by mandating the scope of coverage. I'm beginning to regret my remarks. They're not strong enough.

June Jam

Let's celebrate a few musical birthdays.

Clifton Chenier:



Eddie Floyd:



Harold Melvin:



Carly Simon:



Allen Lanier:



George Michael:

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Thrill Of It All

There are a lot of turning points in the story of the Marx Brothers.  New York street urchins in the 1890s, one by one they entered Vaudeville in the early days of the 20th century.  They were a musical act but morphed into a comedy act. They hit the top in Vaudeville, but were stuck there--until they managed to get a Broadway show and were discovered by the tastemakers. They were the toast of Broadway until they moved to Hollywood in the 1930s and became film stars.  They switched from Paramount to MGM in 1935, but their career as a team petered out somewhere in the 1940s, though Groucho went on to great fame in TV in the 1950s.

If I had to pick the most significant turning point, it'd be May 19th, 1924, when they first opened on Broadway in an unassuming revue called I'll Say She Is and became overnight sensations.  Everything up till then had been preparation for this moment, and everything after was them at the top showing the world what they could do.  This show is also the Holy Grail--their earlier Vaudeville apprenticeship can be generally understood, and their later Broadway shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, were turned into movies and are even sometimes revived on stage, but the Broadway show that launched them is all but lost.  Books about the boys describe it somewhat, but Marx Brothers fans want to know more.

And now we have a book to slake that thirst, Gimme A Thrill, by Noah Diamond.  He's done deep research and describes how the show came about, as well as what was in it.  He tells not just about the Marx Brothers themselves, but Will B. Johnstone, a multi-talent who wrote the book and lyrics, and helped developed their characters before George S. Kaufman ever laid eyes on them; Joseph M. Gaites, their low-budget Broadway producer who tended to make money with even lower-budget touring shows; James P. Beury, the other producer who helped get them across the finish line; and all the performers, including leading lady Lotta Miles.

Turns out many of the tales told about the show--usually by the Marx Brothers years later--aren't true.  They said the producer (Beury, though they didn't use his name), was a pretzel-salt magnate who only invested in the show to get a spot for his no-talent girlfriend. Actually, Beury's money came from coal, but he was serious about show biz--this wasn't his first production--and there probably was no girlfriend.

Just before they signed on to the show, the Marx Brothers were in trouble.  A tour of England hadn't gone well, and since they'd done it without the permission of vindictive Vaudeville impresario E. F. Albee, they found themselves banned from the top houses on the circuit.  They took up an offer to play in the "Advanced Vaudeville" that Broadway's Shubert Brothers were trying to make work, but that came to little.  So they were looking for something to reignite their careers.  Gaites, working with Johnstone, had twice produced revues based on the idea of a lovely young lass searching from scene to scene for a true thrill (hence the title of the 1922 revue Gimme A Thrill), but they hadn't worked out. Then the Marx Brothers were added into the mix, which was all the show really needed. (They're all any show needs).

They opened out of town in Philadelphia where they were such a hit they played through the summer. That was followed by a never-ending tour around the country. Gaites was making so much money it seemed he didn't want to get to Broadway.  The Marx Brothers were getting antsy.  Beury bought out Gaites and after playing for a year--and improving along the way--the show finally became the New York smash it was meant to be.

The Marxes ruled Manhattan.  Everyone wanted to see their show, and get to know them.  And Diamond does a great job walking us through each scene of I'll Say She Is--with or without the Brothers.  Some of it is known to fans--especially the theatrical agent scene, which they later filmed as a promotional short for Paramount--and the big closer, with Groucho as Napoleon (as Groucho) and the others as Josephine's lovers.  People at the time said the last bit was the funniest thing they ever did. After running the better part of a year, I'll Say She Is went back out on the road, until the tour ended abruptly when Chico walked out on the show (probably running from gangsters whom he owed money).

So if you want a book that really gets into I'll Say She Is, you can't do better than Gimme A Thrill.  Yet that's only the first half.  The second half of the 360-page book is author Diamond's story.  He grew up a big fan of the Brothers, and become a writer and performer.  Then he got the idea of putting on the first production of I'll Say She Is since 1924.  His research got him information most fans thought lost--including old sheet music and Johnstone's typescript of the show (a bare-bones version).

Diamond reconstituted the show, and also rewrote it, always with a view of being faithful to the meaning of the work. Then, in 2014, ninety years after the original opened, it was performed at the New York International Fringe Festival.  Diamond played Groucho.  This led to offers--including a book deal--and a production that is now playing off-Broadway.  I'm hoping some day it gets out to Los Angeles.

A fine book, written with care (a few minor errors, but I'll let them go) and love. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Hate it when that happens II

Geez, agreeing with Oliver Stone?

It’s a form of fascism"

Close, Olly. It is fascism.

Reboot Booted

HBO has canceled Vinyl, after renewing it originally.  Why?  The simple answer is it flopped--viewership was low, the critics didn't like it, and the show was expensive.  There was a plan to rethink it for season two, but the channel decided it was better to quit while they're behind.  It's doubtful they would have given up, though, if HBO hadn't just named a new president--a new broom sweeps clean.

I don't think Vinyl would have been able to reverse its ratings.  Still, a sad thing.  As badly as they screwed things up, the show had potential.  What did they do wrong?  Let me count the ways:

1.  Showrunner Terence Winter.  I suppose he can write well, and maybe he's got ties with producer Martin Scorsese, but the last show he created, Boardwalk Empire, was a mess.  It may have lasted several years, but it never found its footing.  (HBO likes Winter and David Milch, though they often crap out.  Meanwhile, they turn down shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  It's easy to be right after the fact, but has HBO been betting on the wrong horses?)

2.  The time period.  Doing a show about popular music of any era limits your audience, but 1973 was a bad choice.  The 60s, yeah, even if they're overdone.  The later 70s, once punk (and disco) changed things, might also work.  But this transitional period, even if there's a wide mix of styles at the time, falls between two stools.

3.  The darkness.  Protagonists need problems, but there's also got to be some fun.  Here's a guy who's running a record company, which sounds like a dream come true, but all we see is him failing and flailing.  His marriage is falling apart, his business is going under, he's got a drug problem, he can't do anything right.  Just a little lightness, maybe even the occasional clear success, would have helped.

4.  The murder.  This was the biggest plot mistake.  The pilot had the lead character involved in the killing of a man, and it was there the whole season, hanging over everything, crushing the fun out of the show.  Perhaps they thought they needed something weighty for the drama, but how many murders were there on Mad Men?  This is about the music business in the 70s--there's enough going on (including certain criminal activity) to keep us intrigued if done well.

5.  A better arc.  There can be a lot of things going on in a serial, but there should be clear goals that the characters are aiming for.  It sometimes seemed every episode the show would go in a new direction, meaning there was little cumulative power.

6.  Secondary characters.  A few seemed to be working out--especially Ray Romano and June Temple's characters--but most weren't well-defined, or didn't have enough to do.  Perhaps they would have blossomed if the show had another season.

7.  Is it real or is it Memorex?  The show had an unhealthy mix of real people of the era (played by actors, of course) and made up characters, include "famous" ones who exist in the reality of the series.  Maybe they hoped for some of the excitement of the era by using actual names, but it led to a weird and sometimes uncomfortable mix.

Still, I'm sorry to see it go. The idea was good, it had a good cast and a good look, and I certainly would have given the reboot a chance.  A missed opportunity.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Freaky

A decade ago economics professor Steven D. Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner came out with Freakonomics, a surprise bestseller that taught people to look at the world as an economist does.  For example, they believed a significant but rarely-discussed factor in America's dropping crime rate was legalizing abortion, which meant many children who would have grown up to be criminals weren't born to begin with.

Some of their claims are controversial, but their basic way of looking at things is a useful antidote to how a lot of policy is discussed.  When trying to solve a problem, or deal with a tricky situation, it's worth noting, for instance, that people respond to incentives, or that conventional wisdom needs to be tested like everything else.  It may sound obvious, but many people get stuck in certain ways of thinking.

Levitt and Dubner started their own Freakonomics industry, doing consulting work and following up with two more bestsellers, SuperFreakonomics and their latest, Think Like A Freak--which I just read.  It's a fairly short book (a little over 200 pages of text) that "offer[s] to retrain your brain." I don't know if it goes that far, but, like their previous work, it does suggests helpful ways of looking at things.

What, then, is thinking like a Freak?  It's not that hard to describe, though it can be hard to do. First, admit what you don't know.  Many people make the same mistakes over and over because they won't admit it, or are afraid to be revealed as ignorant.

Identify what the actual problem is--not what everyone says it is, but what the data show it is, as best you can discover.  And try to break down the problem into smaller parts, which are easier to study and easier to solve.

Ask basic questions, as if you know nothing about the situation--come at it fresh.  And, while investigating a problem, try to ignore your moral compass (at least short term) since it can get in the way of effective solutions. Also remember that we all hold deep biases--so deep that we're essentially blind to them.

Never forget that people respond to incentives, but also that they'll try to game the system. Try to come up with experiments that can force out into the open how people respond--not just what they say they'll do, but what they'll actually do.

Finally, be ready to quit--don't throw good money after bad.

That's pretty much it.  Perhaps not earth-shattering (especially after their first two books), but, if followed, revolutionary. In any case, the fun part of their books--the reason they sell--are the stories they tell.

For example, they explain how a young, slight Japanese man revolutionized the world of eating competitions by experimenting with different ways of swallowing a hot dog rather than shoveling it down as everyone else had been doing.  Or how one medical researcher overturned decades of thinking on what causes ulcers by simply doing some basic research (which took a while to be accepted, as most challenges to conventional wisdom are).  Or how a philanthropist figured out that a great way to appeal to potential donors is to promise to stop bothering them with appeals once they pay. Or how a crazy rider in a rock group's contract (no brown M&Ms) wasn't so crazy, but was designed to ensure the concert promoter was paying attention.

The book is easy to read--a key to their success--though I find the style (which I'm guessing is mostly Dubner's) to be a bit too folksy at times.  The ideas won't be much of a surprise if you've read their previous work, but it's still a reminder that we can take certain things for granted, and need to try a different approach now and then.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I'm sorry, Eric, I can't do that

“We’ll make make sure that people know how to turn this stuff off should we get to that point.”

He just seems like a man you can trust. Zero and one, baby.

Revenge Served Hot

"Battle of The Bastards" is a fine Game Of Thrones episode, maybe the best of season 6.  It was also very satisfying in that, generally, the good guys won--something never guaranteed on this show. (Though with Arya taking down the Waif last week, are we on a rally?)

The episode gave us two, two, two fights in one.  This is nice, since I'm generally disappointed when they spend an hour on just one story. And the latter battle is, I think, the best they've ever done. (I know most would pick "Hardhome," and that was good, but it was a little more confusing and had less plot.)

We start in Meereen.  Those backstabbing Masters are lobbing firebombs at the Pyramid.  Dany and the Imp are up top--he wonders if they should take shelter, but she's become fearless. (I hope she understands that while she has dragons, she's not one herself.) He notes Meereen's commerce has come back, but it's a pretty weak defense of his tenure. Her idea, at this point, is to kill everyone and burn their cities to the ground.  Gets to be more like her father every day.  Tyrion convinces her to try a different approach.

And we get a parley where Dany and her crew meet the three head Masters (but not headmasters) to discuss the terms of surrender.  The Masters think she's surrendering but we know better. Just when they think they have the upper hand, she goes all Avatar as Drogon appear at her command.  They fly high above the city as her two other dragons are let go and fly behind. I'm glad the show didn't waste too much time on figuring out how to work dragons--we're just glad to see them.

You can excuse the Masters for not being prepared--no one alive is used to this threat.  They burn the ships in the bay (with people still in them--the Masters were kinder when they burned Dany's ships).  Also--as if it's needed--the Dothraki horde (and Daario) finally ride into Meereen and start killing with gusto.  Pillaging is what they do for a living, after all.

Back at the parley Grey Worm explains Dany's terms.  She'll keep whatever ships are left, of course.  Also, the slaves who protect the Masters can now go home.  As to the three Masters, one of them will have to die for violating their pact.  Two of them immediately give up the third, noting he's lowborn. I know they're under a lot of stress, but they do realize they're talking to Grey Worm and Missandei, two former slaves.  Did they really think that lowborn stuff was gonna fly?  Grey Worm slits their throats and Tyrion pretends he's in Inglourious Basterds, telling the one living Master to let everyone know what happened.

Now we're in the North. Jon, Sansa, Davos, Tormund--and is that Lady Mormont!?--are having a parley with Ramsay Bolton.  We had a parley last week, and two already this show.  You could have made a lot of money on a parley parlay.

Bolton is good here, saying how much he misses Sansa.  He probably does, but he's also trying to get Jon's goat (which isn't that hard). In addition, he's got the arrogance of a guy with the odds in his favor.  He outnumbers them 2 to 1, and holds Winterfell, which can withstand enemies (we've been told in previous seasons) even if the odds are 10 to 1 against.  Jon offers the old-style war (which Tommen will probably be banning soon)--he'll fight Ramsay, winner take all. Ramsay turns him down, and, to be fair, it's a bad deal when you're going to win the next day.  Jon thinks Ramsay's men won't want to fight when they find out he's a coward, but Bolton throws Rickon in their faces. (He also throws an actual face--Rickon's direwolf--at them.) You'd think Sansa might be moved, but she's gotten to be pretty cold (like a Northern girl)--"You're going to die tomorrow" she says.  Ramsay then threatens the fighters with his hounds, but tough old guys like Davos and Tormund can take it.

That night, back at camp, they plot their strategy.  One night left and they're still planning? Haven't they had months to think about this?  This would sure be a good time for Robb Stark--questionable taste in marriages, but the best military thinker around.

Davos notes that Ramsay will meet them on the battlefield or the North will think he's a sissy. I'm glad Ser said this, since it was bothering me why Ramsay wouldn't just shut the gates and wait them out. It is his style to attack, actually, as he did with Stannis.  Speaking of Stannis, they speak a bit about how he defeated the Free Folk--Davos looks at Tormund, but the two haven't had it out on this.  I guess they've moved on.

Back to strategy.  Snow notes they're digging trenches to avoid pincer movements from horseman.  Davos says it's crucial Bolton charge at Jon, so they need patience.  They can buckle at the center and come at him on three sides (a tactic from the Battle of Cannae--has Davos been reading Roman history?).  Jon wants him angry so he'll come at them and not be thinking straight.  They retire.  Sansa comes up to Jon and starts whining about how they wouldn't let explain who Ramsay is, since she knows him best.  Pardon me?  I didn't see anyone keeping her from talking.

Anyway, she notes he toys with people and lays traps.  True enough.  Worse, she knows they'll never get Rickon back--he's too big a threat to Ramsay as heir to Winterfell.  She also says it would be better if they waited till they had a bigger force.  Time out.  She knows of the knights of the Vale, and even sent a raven to Littlefinger, so why hasn't she told her brother? She would rather they rush into certain slaughter?  Play head games with Ramsay, not with Jon.  (Is she afraid he won't take help from the guy who helped kill their dad--Jon is working with the Wildlings, so how picky does she think he is?) She also says she'll die before she goes back to Ramsay. Jon promises he'll protect her, but she notes no one can protect anyone.  If there's a lesson to learn from Game Of Thrones, that's it.

Tormund and Davos, apparently buddies, walk through camp at night.  They both followed kings who were defeated.  Now they follow another man, and he's not a king. Maybe that's progress. Tormund goes off to drink.  Davos can't sleep before a battle so decides to take a long walk. (Won't he be tired during the battle?  He was more a smuggler than a fighter, I guess.)

All along I've been wondering where's Mel. Did they bring her with them?  Where else should she be? And sure enough, she's in her tent and Jon enters.  Now would be a good time for some of that blood magick.  He has an interesting request--if I die, don't bring me back. Hey, I don't work for you, I'm just a vessel for the Lord Of Light. Will we have to do this again?

Just before light of day, Davos comes to where there was once a fire and sees Shireen's toy.  We were waiting for him to find out.  He's going to have some harsh words for the Red Woman, one assumes.

We're back in Meereen.  The Imp is mad at someone for making dwarf jokes back at Winterfell.  Turns out he and Dany are meeting with Theon and Yara.  It's fun to see different combinations of characters meet.  Good thing these two came sailed in after that last battle or they might have been burned.

They will give Dany their ships but want her to give the Iron Islands their independence (and also kill Uncle Euron).  Euron will offer up ships as well, but he'll want to marry Dany and then get rid of her once he's on the throne.  This could still be tricky, notes Tyrion--you can't run Westeros and let everyone be free.  But they're just asking, not commanding.  Dany notes the Greyjoy's father was a terrible king and Yara says We have that in common. Oh, snap!  She keeps it up with the comebacks, and I wish Dany had gotten her in line, rather than smiled.  Hey, don't think just because we're both women that I'll put up with backtalk.

Dany's demands: support my claim as Queen, and stop looting (which, like the Dothraki, is how you earn a living).  I'll guess they'll have to learn a trade, start making something worthwhile. Or maybe they could turn Pyke into the best waterpark in the Seven Kingdoms.

It's dawn at the Battlefield outside Winterfell.  We're with Jon.  We sees some of those burning X's that the Bolton's love--are those real men on them, or dummies. (Is this Burning Man?)

Ramsay's forces are arrayed, and more impressive.  Ramsay comes forward.  With Rickon.  He pulls out a knife and...cuts Rickon's rope.  Run to your brother, boy.  Serpentine, Rickon, serpentine!  This is Ramsay at his best. He's messing with Jon (and Rickon) and we know he loves a good chase.  As Rickon runs, Ramsay calmly shoots arrows, just missing.  Meanwhile, Jon rushed toward him on horseback--maybe not wise, but he can't help himself, as Ramsay knew.  He's got Jon on full tilt, when the idea was for it to go in the opposite direction.

Just as Jon is about to swoop in and pick up his brother, an arrow goes through Rickon's heart.  Rickon, like Osha, came back after being gone for so long, just to be killed after very little screen time.

Now Jon is in the middle of the battlefield, facing the horsemen Ramsay just sent.  They'll mow him down, except just as they're about to clash, Jon's forces pass him and the battle is on.  Ramsay lays back, ordering his men to shoot volleys of arrows into the battlefield.  Where they land he knows not where.  He's killing his own men along with Jon's, which is fine with him, since he's got the numbers (and the sadism).  Davos refused to let his side's arrows fly.

We're right in the middle of the battle with Jon, who slices through a bunch of fighters (though they don't shatter like White Walkers), and is saved more than once by his star power.  Tormund and Wun Wun are there too, getting in their punches. As I've noted before, I don't like giants in this story. Dragons--sure, they're baked into the cake--but giants seem too much for me.  Jon's people took one down at the Wall, and I hope Wun Wun buys it, too, even if he's fighting for the good guys.

There are mountains of dead men and horses, and Davos sends the rest of Jon's soldiers into battle.  Ramsay's got plenty in reserve (Karstarks, Umbers, etc.) and finally sends them into this pile of death.  Their formation is what I guess you'd call a sort of circular phalanx, with spears and shields in front.  Like an old movie with the walls closing in, they're going to suffocate Jon's men.  Snow et al fight valiantly, but there's no way out.

Then we hear a clarion call and it's--actually, I wasn't sure what the symbol of the knights of the Vale was, except a bird and a moon seems like it'd be the Moon Door people.  They look a bit like Stannis's soldiers swooping in north of the Wall, but it's more personal.  Littlefinger is there (far away from the fighting) with Sansa.  They're smiling.  Why is Sansa smiling?  If she'd waited one more day the battle could have been won with less men dying. (Hey, they're just Wildlings.)

Ramsay's people are mowed down, and for the first time he loses his cockiness.  He retreats behind the walls of Winterfell, where he can presumably hold out a long time.  Except he didn't count on Wun Wun, who crashes through the door.  Soon Jon's men are inside and it's over, though Wun Wun dies (about time).  Ramsay says now would be a good time for one-on-one. Surprisingly, Jon agrees, blocking Bolton's arrows with a shield and then punching him repeatedly.  Just as we enjoyed Joffrey get slapped around in earlier seasons, so did we enjoy this.  We've been waiting a long time to see Ramsay suffer, and while this may be fan service, it was earned.  (Meanwhile, Davos seems ready to confront the triumphant Mel.)

But Bolton's not done.  Jon leaves something for Sansa.  They tie him to a chair in a cell where he and Mrs. Bolton have a nice chat.  He tries to get into her head, but she tells him his name and house will be wiped out and forgotten. (Women sure have a vengeful streak this episode.)  Then, with poetic justice, she releases the hounds.  They may like Ramsay, but they like how he tastes better--he hasn't fed them in a week, and soon he's a Scooby Snack.

She walks away as he screams, smiling like Carrie Mathison.  End of show.

That was fun. Only one more to go this season. I expect it'll be mostly about King's Landing, where thing are reaching a boiling point.  Of all the other characters, I most hope we see Bran next week, so we can finally get Jon Snow's full backstory.

For much of Game Of Thrones, the most hated character was Joffrey.  When he was taken care of, Ramsay took his place (and was more dangerous--just as cruel, but smarter).  Now that he's gone, who's the main villain?  I guess the Night King.  And even without him, we've got a lot of battles to go, since a whole bunch of people are fighting for King's Landing.  Things are coming to an end, but it's still hard to see who will win this game.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Giving Them Away

Paul was so talented and prolific, he wrote plenty of hits for others.















Sunday, June 19, 2016

Prostitute sets conditions for surrendering virtue

Mac Attack

After yesterday (though not "Yesterday"), let's look at the solo music of Paul McCartney.
















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