Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kudos to AP

It's not often one has a chance to praise the press, too much of what they write is just garbage.

But this story is a masterpiece. Concise, robust, meaningful. It ought to be nominated for a Pulitzer. It's sure to be better than the winner. The last sentence both adds new information and is the perfect close. And all the opportunities for judgment, but they just report it straight. Nearly unheard of these days.

(Bonus: Harvard Extension School. Who knew? What, they haven't devalued their degree sufficiently?)

Warm Reception

I just read Daniel Clowes' Ice Haven.  At 90 pages, and told in comic strips, it didn't take long.  And yet when you read a well-done graphic novel (a phrase the self-conscious Harry Naybors, a comic book critic inside the story, mocks), you realize how much the format can get across in very little space.

Clowes is best known to the general public as the creator of Ghost World, a 1997 graphic novel that was a collection of several years of work in his comic book Eightball.  It was turned into a movie in 2001, co-written by Clowes.  Ice Haven, first published in Eightball, came out in hard cover in 2005. It's about the titular town, concentrating on a handful of inhabitants.  There's no single story, and if there's any connecting tissue, it's about the kidnaping of the hapless child David Goldberg.

But it's not a linear work.  The story is told from oblique angles.  Each strip concentrates on one character, whether it's bizarre detective  Mr. Ames (whose wife is cheating on him), secret author Random Wilder, troubled child Charles, monosyllabic convenience store clerk Kim Lee, lovelorn Violet, or quite a few others.  For that matter, the story isn't restricted to those living in the town.  We get a trip back 100,000 years ago to caveman Rocky, the first person to stumble upon the area, a glance at a novel about Leopold and Loeb and a chapter in the adventures of Blue Bunny, a child's stuffed animal.  And different strips are done in different styles.

There's a general sense of yearning, a lot of unease, and enough humor to get us through.  Not unlike real life.

Brown Notes

Depending on your source, blues singer Brownie McGhee was born 99 or 100 years ago. Either way, reason enough to celebrate.





Saturday, November 29, 2014

Would that include the press?

It is unclear how personally involved Clinton was in the UCLA negotiations and whether the requests from her agency were being directed by her or merely from underlings anticipating her preferences.

Merchantilism

Stephen Merchant is best known as Ricky Gervais' collaborator, creating such popular short-run shows as The Office and Extras. (Merchant was also excellent as a low-rent agent in the latter.)  He went out on his own with Hello Ladies, an HBO mini-series that wasn't renewed after one season, but was recently allowed a 90-minute goodbye episode.

I didn't think much of the first and only season, but good or bad, I knew exactly what the finale would offer.  Merchant's done this before.  Both The Office and Extras had special finales after their regular runs, and in both cases sold out the lead character's essence to offer him a moment of grace.  In The Office, David Brent acquires self-knowledge that had been denied him earlier (though his lack of self-knowledge was the whole point of the series) so he gets a happy ending.  In Extras, Andy Millman suddenly loses his shallowness (once again, the whole point of the series), and decides fame doesn't really matter.

Hello Ladies features Merchant as software designer Stuart Pritchard, an Englishman living in Los Angeles who spends most of his time in fruitless pursuit of hot women. But it's not just that he fails--he also doesn't get how empty his goal is.  After all, his housemate Jessica is a lovely woman who's also lost, and while they're friends, they don't try to connect on a deeper level.

I assume if the show were allowed another season they would have developed this relationship, but since this was it, it's rushed into.  The finale gives us Stuart's backstory explaining why he does what he does (who cares?), then allows him to pick up a hot model, have a fling with Jessica, lose her, and finally reconnect once he (and Jessica) realize what's actually important.

I can understand Merchant showing some mercy to his characters, and the audience is probably pleased to get a happy ending. But it doesn't necessarily make for good television.

Rascal

Happy birthday, Felix Cavaliere.  He was a singer and songwriter with the Young Rascals.












Friday, November 28, 2014

Cincinnatus

Sen. Fiorina is considering gracing us with her candidacy.

If she can just get President Portman's endorsement, she's a lock.

Chuck It

Is there a politician who reminds me more of why I hate politicians than Chuck Schumer?  He never says anything except what will help him or his party, but pretends to be speaking hard truths.  (Okay, all politicians do that, but he does it the most egregiously.)

For instance, his latest statements on passing Obamacare.  The way it's been played you'd expect a mea culpa on the law, but it's the opposite, filled with Schumer-speak, guaranteeing not a speck of truth.

"After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle-class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus, but unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem—health care reform...

"...[Only 5% of voters lacked health insurance at the time, so to concentrate on the issue] made no political sense....

"...[If they'd dealt more with the economy first] the middle class would have been more receptive to the idea that President Obama wanted to help them...

"...When Democrats focused on health care, the average middle-class person thought, 'The Democrats aren't paying enough attention to me.'...

"...People thought—and I understand this—lots of people thought this was the only time to do this, it's very important to do. And we should have done it. We just shouldn't have done it first. We were in the middle of a recession. People were hurting and saying, 'What about me? I'm losing my job. It's not health care that bothers me. What about me?' … About 85 percent of all Americans were fine with their health care in 2009, mainly because it was paid for by either the government or their employer, private sector. So they weren't clamoring. The average middle-class voter, they weren't opposed to doing health care when it started out, but it wasn't at the top of the agenda."

So here we've got the senior Senator from New York looking at the complete wreckage of his party--they went from a filibuster-proof majority to a minority in both houses in the past four years.  And here's his explanation: it's because the Democrats are so wonderful and great at solving all our problems.

First he claims the Stimulus worked.  If it did, the public sure didn't notice, according to polls (and according to actual numbers, I'd say).  So Schumer's excuse is Of course it worked, but the public was too dumb to get it, so we should have kept passing more and more laws until they got it, but we just didn't care to.  We counted too much on the public getting how much we were helping them as we moved on to health care, so they were much stupider than even we figured.

The most laughable part is not that the public was too dumb to get how the Dems saved the economy, but his belief that the Dem-controlled Congress could have helped the economy even more if they kept passing big government laws. They'd already passed some of the most expensive ever on the economy, so you'd think that'd be enough, but the idea that they were sitting there thinking "Well obviously we can help the economy even more but we have better things to do" is an insult to even the Americans so stupid that they didn't get how much the Dems were already helping.

Then he says the party had a mandate. I don't believe in mandates in general, unless you run on a very specific plan.  We've only got two parties and one always seems to be winning, and once elected they just try to pass whatever they can.  We were in the odd position of having (by hook and a fair amount of crook) far more Democrats in office than we wanted, so they had a golden opportunity to go to their wish list.  Number one was health care.  They didn't run on it, but nothing would have stopped them from doing it.  And even then, in a watered-down version, it was much more radical than the people wanted and the Dems had to pray when they shoved it down the public's throat that there'd be a good reaction. Didn't happen, but the idea that somehow they could have held back is absurd.

Also funny is the idea if they'd only helped the economy more then the public would have liked their health care law.  Even if they'd done a superb job on the economy everyone would have said "thanks for that, but why are you now wrecking our health care system?" But that can never be said--obviously everything they did was wonderful, especially Obamacare, so Schumer has to give a political reason for the negative reaction.

Which leads to the claim that the law has been a great success--and, once again, the people are too stupid to understand that.

So he manages to say--in a speech mistakenly seen as attacking Democrats--that the Democrats were right about everything, and did everything right, and have constantly helped the American public, and will continue to help the American public, and everyone knows this, and the only reason the party has fallen apart were a few minor political timing errors, done mostly because they care so much about helping people.

PS  Here's an old post from QueensGuy from 2010 about jamming through health care.  Note this semi-prescient line in the comments:

The funniest line in the article is this one: "a bill-signing ceremony in the Rose Garden would provide at least a short-term boost to a beleaguered president." It wouldn't even provide a short-term boost. His signature would be sealing the doom for his party, and perhaps his own presidency.

Lully Bye

Hard to think of too many major composers before Jean-Baptiste Lully, born this day in 1632.  He was a master of French baroque.






Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanks

For your dining and digesting pleasure, background music for Thanksgiving.


Norman's View

Today is my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving.  And what is the most famous vision of Thanksgiving?  I think it's Norman Rockwell's iconic painting:

It's entitled "Freedom From Want" and is one of his "Four Freedoms" paintings.  But the closer we look, the odder it gets.

It's been condemned as a depiction of Americans stuffing themselves while so much of the world starves. But look at that spread.  Not much, is it.  Yeah, grandma is putting down a nice turkey, but there's not too much else on the table.  You've got a bowl of fruit, though for all we know they're plastic. There's a mound of cranberry sauce, or maybe aspic, though whatever it is it doesn't look too appetizing.  Some wilted stalks of celery and behind them some pickles or something?  A covered bowl that may or may not hold any food.  A salt and pepper shaker.  Then there's a cup of something yellow--couldn't be mustard, could it?  And what's everyone drinking?  Water. That's the best they could manage?

But what makes the painting is that immaculate, white table, and the faces of the people.  Notice no one seems much concerned with the turkey.  They're all looking at each other and smiling. Maybe someone told a dirty joke, and they figure as long as grandpa doesn't have his hearing aid in we're okay. Or maybe they're saying "wow, some actual food--and I'm afraid to raise the lid on the bowl because if that's not mashed potatoes I may go crazy."

Finally, there's the masterstroke--that guy in the bottom right-hand corner looking at us.  He breaks through the painting and makes it a different experience.  He's completely in on the joke, whatever it is. Maybe he's telling Norman to finish the painting already--it looks good enough, no need to put more chow on the table.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Giving thanks

"What financial tool are you most thankful for?"

Tony, obviously.

You Don't Say

America is an English-speaking country, but we've got tens of millions who speak Spanish as well.  The interesting question is what's the third-most popular tongue.

Here's a map that shows the most common language in each state after English and Spanish, and there are some surprises.



A few I could guess pretty easily.  Polish in Illinois (I've lived in Chicago and seen all the Polish delis), Italian in New Jersey, Portuguese in Massachusetts, even Arabic in Michigan doesn't surprise me.

And while I knew French would be the language in Louisiana, and I'm not shocked it also shows up in the northeastern states bordering Quebec, I wouldn't have guessed it's also spoken so widely in West Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut.  (And Florida has French Creole.)

And what's Russian doing in Oregon?

Then there are the surprising pockets of Asian languages.  Vietnamese in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Washington?  Tagalog in California, Nevada and Hawaii? Korean in Virginia and Georgia? Hmong in Minnesota?

There are also a few native tongues still playing big.  Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico, Yupik in Alaska, and Dakota in South (but not North) Dakota.

And the winner with the most states--German, which dominates the middle of our nation.  

PS  The page linked above starts with this sentence.

Despite growing efforts to make English the official language of the U.S., America's linguistic landscape is only becoming more multifaceted and diverse every year.

1) What evidence do they have the effort is growing?  It's been around for quite a while. Seems to me the effort has been getting smaller for some time.

2) Multifaceted and diverse?  Are they getting paid by the syllable?

3)  That there's a movement to make English official is a tangential point at best.  Why start with an unnecessarily argumentative introduction?

4)  They seem to think it's odd that the languages people speak grow more diverse while there's an effort to make English the official language.  Sounds perfectly logical to me.

Mac In The Back

Happy birthday, John McVie, the Mac in Fleetwood Mac.











Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'm Really Screwed

Got a scam call yesterday.  It was a guy claiming he's from the IRS.  He had a heavy accent--sounded like he was from India--and didn't act like a government official (not that the IRS would call me directly--they'd probably send a notice first) and I was ready to hang up on him immediately, but the one in a thousand chance it was real kept me on the line a while. (That's why the government is so scary.  Say what you want about big corporations, only the government can come and arrest you.)

The guy verified my address--because, after all, how could anyone find out my phone number and address unless they're in the IRS?--and said I was being charged with something.  I honestly had trouble understanding what he was saying, his accent was so thick.  Then he connected me with his supervisor.

The new guy was quite hostile.  He said he worked for the IRS and I'd committed a crime. I'd defrauded the government and owed money, and might be facing jail time.  For the record, the regulation I broke was #7869126532-RER.  I asked him who he was and he said he already told me.  Then he said--I couldn't understand it all clearly--that I better act quickly since my assets would be frozen, my employer would be notified, my passport would be taken and I could be deported. (Aha!  They discovered I was an immigrant.  Sure, I've been in America almost all my life, but I was born in Canada.  These scams often involve preying on this fear.)

Then he said I would be arrested within the hour.  I think he was about to make a deal when I'd finally had enough--I said I'd call my lawyer and they could talk to him. I don't have a lawyer, but I wouldn't have called him anyway.  I considered calling the government hotline to report what happened, but what could I tell them except it was another scam call. I don't have caller ID and even if I did I'm sure they've got a way to cover it up and make it look like it's from a government office.  I thought the scamsters might call back, but I guess I made it clear by my demeanor that I wasn't buying it, and they went on to the next name on the list.

Or maybe the Feds will be showing up soon and this will be the last post I put up for a while.

Ready Eddie

It's the centennial of Eddie Boyd, the blues pianist.





Monday, November 24, 2014

Cross Words

I just read The Crossword Century by Alan Connor.  Crosswords were invented in 1913, thus the celebration.  Connor is a British writer who has a weekly column on crosswords in The Guardian, so you think he's be the perfect person for this project, but I found it disappointing.

It's a short book--under 200 pages--made up of short chapters, about five pages per.  They jump all over the place and never coalesce into a satisfying whole.  It makes me wonder if this isn't just a rewritten collection of short pieces.

Connor divides the book into two parts, Across and Down, though I can't see the distinction.  He does say that, like a crossword puzzle, each chapter could be read separately, but even if each chapter were delightful (and few are), that's not enough.  He starts with a chapter on the history of the game, but after that it's one unrelated piece after another.  Also, being British, he discusses the cryptic-style puzzle more than the regular crossword Americans are used to.

PS  I did like how he gave clues for the title of each chapter.  Some samples:

1.  All the rage, but beginning to fade? (3)
2.  The writer's craft? (10)
3.  Who wrote words for sharks to sing? (8)
4.  Crazy to be seen in Georgia, twice? (4)
5.  Break this with some eggs? (4)
6.  The sound of Webster's, up to a point? (9)
7.  Sounds like a fight, for two people? (4)
8.  As seen on TV--or on a laptop? (7)
9.  What dumb spies seek? (12)
10.  A detective with sticky feet? (7)

I'll add in a little illustration here so you can avoid peeking at the solutions.

 
Answers:

1. FAD
2. AUTHORSHIP
3. SONDHEIM
4. GAGA
5. FAST
6. ADDICTION
7. DUAL
8. PROGRAM
9. INTELLIGENCE
10. GUMSHOE

Yes, We Know

Happy 69th, Lee Michaels.  He only had one major hit, but I think it's worth a spin.





Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wife Vs. Secretary Vs. Critics

I recently watched Wife Vs. Secretary on TV.  It's a 1936 film featuring the kind of star power only MGM could provide, with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy and up-and-comer Jimmy Stewart.  It was a big hit in its day--almost everything Gable and Harlow made in the 30s were hits--but time hasn't been kind.

The story is about Van Stanhope (Gable), a successful businessman and a wonderful husband.  He's in love with wife Linda (Loy) and dependent on secretary Whitey (Harlow).  Linda trusts her husband, but when events conspire to make it appear Van and Whitey are having an affair, she plans to leave him.  Meanwhile, Whitey's fiancé Dave (Stewart) isn't too thrilled either and leaves Whitey.  By the end, all are wised up, with both couples back in each others' arms.

The performances are all fine, and it's got the usual first-class (if not always exciting) MGM gloss.  The problem is we're right in the middle of the screwball era, and we've got great comic performers (Loy and Harlow starred in a classic MGM screwball earlier that year, Libeled Lady), yet the film, directed by Clarence Brown, is muted.  It's often described as a comedy, but I'd call it a drama.

They should have gone one way or another.  There are plenty of farcical complications, and it could have been wild fun.  Or they could have gone the drama route, with Gable and Harlow not only attracted to each other--they've got the real chemistry in the film, not Gable and Loy--but actually having an affair.  But whether it was the Code, or Louis B. Mayer, everyone in this film is so decent that no one does anything wrong.

A missed opportunity.

Brazilian Wax Tracks

Happy birthday Brazilian composer Claudio Santoro.





Saturday, November 22, 2014

Clint Clips

The Hollywood Reporter has a piece by Stephen Galloway on Clint Eastwood's chances of picking up an Oscar for his latest, American Sniper.  Galloway speculates a film celebrating a Navy SEAL may not play that well with the liberal Academy voters.

I haven't seen the film so it's hard to comment, but I doubt the wisdom of his claim.  I think the voters will respond to a piece if they believe it's sufficiently dramatic and important, and Clint regularly fools them on both counts.

I'll need to see the film for myself.  I saw a trailer and it sure didn't look like there was any glorification. Look at how Galloway describes Clint's situation:

...Sniper's point of view fits less comfortably with the liberal-leaning Academy than Eastwood's two previous best picture winners — one a paean against violence (Unforgiven), the other an elegy about boxing (Million Dollar [Baby]). This movie celebrates real-life Iraq War hero Chris Kyle (Cooper), who had more killings than any other soldier.

So Galloway gets it wrong. Million Dollar Baby was no elegy about boxing.  It was a full-throated appeal in favor of euthanasia, something liberals tend to support.  If Galloway can't see that, I'm not sure I can trust his opinion on American Sniper.

PS  While we're at it, here's an article in the Reporter about the politics of the latest entry in the Hunger Games series.

Apparently both right and left claim the story shows their vision of the world.  Unfortunately, you've got Hunger Games star and noted liberal Donald Sutherland misinterpreting things:

Last year actor Donald Sutherland, who plays the evil President Snow in the Hunger Games movies, was also surprised to learn of a conservative interpretation. “Could someone from the Tea Party sit down and look at this and think of President Snow as, say, President Obama?” a writer for ScreenRant asked. “No chance,” Sutherland said. But then he thought about the question for a while before dismissing millions of conservatives as racists. “Oh, I see what you’re saying," Sutherland said. "Well, the Tea Party doesn’t look at Barack Obama as a dictator; they look at Barack Obama as a black man in the White House … That’s what generates their hatred."

I understand the left doesn't like the right, but the way so many liberals casually call people who disagree with them racist is despicable.  The irony is it's the left a lot more than the right that insists we should be paying attention to skin color.

Then you've got critic Andrew O'Hehir:

"There are many reasons to describe The Hunger Games as a work of calculated genius, but one reason is that its parable of Empire and Resistance feels relevant without being specific, and appeals equally to anarchists and Tea Partyers,” O’Hehir writes.

Good point, except why does he oppose anarchism and the Tea Party?  Tea Party people generally want smaller government.  It's Occupy Wall Street, even if many members are avowed anarchists, that seems to be demanding bigger government.

I'll Have A Hoagy

Happy birthday, Hoagy Carmichael, one of the top American songwriters ever. Not a bad performer, either.









Friday, November 21, 2014

Not just as good. Better. Way better

"Androids can now also take on a variety of human jobs such as receptionist and even news readers."

I particularly like the pop star idea. Let's give that one five years. It's going to have to be something special, with some serious tattoos.

Director

Mike Nichols has died.  A major film director, but I often wonder if that was his greatest talent.

He attended the University of Chicago in the 1950s and later got involved with the Compass Players, who'd morph into Second City.  He teamed up with fellow performer Elaine May, and together they conquered the comedy world, making a hit on TV, Broadway and in recordings.



They were at the center of the new comedy arising then, along with Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart and soon after Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. Nichols and May represented a wit and sophistication rarely seen before in popular entertainment. But the team split up and Nichols looked for something else.  He started directing and realized this was his métier.

He may have been better at directing for the stage than anything else. I can't say for sure, only having seen his production of Spamalot--the Tony-winning musical that needed his hand to become Broadway-ready--but when one looks at the plays that started his career, it's stunning how he started at the top.  Above all, he helped establish Neil Simon with the blockbusters Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner Of Second Avenue (you may think it was all Simon's scripts, but read the playwright's memoirs and you'll see what a difference Nichols made), but also did Murray Schisgal's Luv and the Bock/Harnick musical The Apple Tree.

Later notable stage productions include Streamers, The Real Thing, The Gin Game and Hurlyburly.  He also became a significant producer, presenting unknown Whoopi Goldberg on Broadway and bringing in the musical Annie.

But he's best known to us for his work in film.  I don't know if any other director who began with such a one-two punch, making a couple of films that were both critically admired and huge hits.

In 1966, there was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, the controversial Broadway show which he faithfully adapted (which probably couldn't have been done on screen a few years earlier).  I don't think he adds much to the play itself, but he doesn't mess it up, which is something.  Then, in 1967, came one of the best films of the era, and one of the biggest hits in the history of movies, The Graduate.  True, a lot of it comes from the amazing performances of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and the Buck Henry screenplay closely following the Charles Webb novel, but I'm not sure if anyone else could have pulled it together.  I find some of his directorial affectations the least interesting stuff in the film, yet Nichols, attuned to the comedic feel of the times (without, ironically, being that political), was a the right man for the job, and created a classic.

He never really hit the same heights again in his lengthy film career.  He followed up those two works with a huge flop--a heavy adaptation of the novel Catch-22.  The lighter, smaller MASH, released the same year, caught the insanity of war a lot better and was the hit Catch-22 wanted to be.  After that came Carnal Knowledge, an unusually-shaped film with an openness about sex that challenged the censorship of the time--but the Jules Feiffer script has not aged well.

After that came two out-and-out flops, the sci-fi drama The Day Of The Dolphin and the farce The Fortune.  Nichols was working with big stars, such as George C. Scott, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, and trying different genres, but he seemed to be floundering in the 70s.

The 80s saw at least a bit of a return to form, with better-formed and more successful films such as Silkwood, Heartburn, Biloxi Blues (Nichols' only Neil Simon film, and one of the better big-screen adaptations of the playwright's stage work) and Working Girl.  Maybe Nichols wasn't swinging for the fences quite so much, but he wasn't striking out either.

He started the 90s with a bunch of misfires--Postcards From The Edge, Regarding Henry and Wolf, before creating one of his biggest hits and best comedies, The Birdcage.  After that, Primary Colors--some like it, but I consider it a missed opportunity--and the major flop What Planet Are You From?.

In the 2000s, he adapated some plays for TV--Wit and Angels In America.  Not unlike Virginia Woolf, I'd say he didn't add much to them, but respected the material enough not to screw them up.  His final films were minor--Closer and Charlie Wilson's War--but a reminder that he still could put out something respectable.

Over his career, he won the EGOT--an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony--and in his final years, collected all the lifetime achievement awards--National Medal Of Arts, AFI, Kennedy Center, etc.  But he never retired.  For instance, in the last few years, he directed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death Of A Salesman and Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Betrayal.

When Nichols was young, he discovered what he wanted to do--direct. And, lucky man, that's what he got to do, at the highest level, for the rest of his life.

Master Harold

Harold Ramis would have been 70 today. He maybe did his best work as a writer and director, but let's watch some of his mastery as an actor.








Thursday, November 20, 2014

So close, so close and yet so far, -are

I never quite know what to make of Megan McArdle, but she does a pretty good job here, managing to combine effectively and coherently the truth about both IT departments and financial accounting.

That is, she does a good job all the way to the end, when she completely does a little cartoon train crash: "It means that we've lost track of whose side we're on."

No, Megan, however sweet and confused you may be, the one thing they have not done is lose track of which side they are on. Indeed, the only thing they know is the side they are against. Even beheadings are not as evil as the side they are against.

JR

Let's say goodbye to soul singer Jimmy Ruffin.





GG Of GG

Happy birthday, Gary Green, guitarist for Gentle Giant.






Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Finally, we all agree

Listening to all the left and right chatter about Gruber, I'm heartened. It's pretty clear that 99 percent or so of voters think 99 percent of voters are stupid.

Cicero Psychic

I was reading from The Harvard Classic Five Foot Shelf Of Books. The particular volume, published in 1909 by P. F. Collier & Sons, was a collection of work from Cicero and Pliny (the Younger).

The introduction to Cicero by E. S. Shuckburgh (that's Evelyn Shirley, and he's a man) talks about the great Roman orator's life.  It was a time of transition, and Cicero supported Pompey over Julius Caesar. A bad move, but Caesar was lenient and let him stick around.  Cicero supported the conspirators who assassinated Caesar, and his opposition to Mark Antony didn't work out so well.  That was the end of Cicero, but he's lived on as one of Latin's greatest stylists.

Anyway, in his intro, Shuckburgh writes:

The evils which were undermining the Republic bear so much striking resemblances to those which threaten the civic and national life of American to-day (sic) that the interest of the period is by no means merely historical.

Yes, because we all remember the parlous state of the nation in the early 1900s.

Classics are classics because they're always relevant.  When they stop becoming relevant, they stop being classics.  Facile connections to life today don't make Cicero more significant--if anything they cheapen him.  Were his thoughts so specific to 1909?  More so than, say, later decades when no doubt America would be going through other, unforeseen upheaval?

If you thought Cicero would remain relevant, you should have taken the long view. If you thought he'd be less important, than maybe you should have translated someone else.  I'm disappointed in you, Evelyn Shirley.

Merci

We were so busy yesterday with tributes that we skipped over Johnny Mercer's birthday. Let's correct that right now.














Tuesday, November 18, 2014

DH

Let's give a tribute to one of the great artists of our time, and today's birthday boy, Dennis Haskins, aka Mr. Belding on Saved By The Bell.

And please note because these following clips are taken completely out of context that they're far superior to what they were in the original.






Call A Cab

Great jazz vocalist Cab Calloway was born on Christmas day, but we may have other fish to fry then, so let's celebrate him on the day he died--exactly twenty years ago.










Monday, November 17, 2014

Same Old Same Sex

A friend of mine who's a high school teacher told me about a change in his union's health care coverage.  Previously, domestic partners in homosexual relationships could be covered by a teacher's insurance.  But now, in the growing number of states that allow same-sex marriage, this is no longer the case.  Either you get married or you lose that coverage.

It makes sense.  Formerly, your insurance could cover your wife or husband in traditional marriages, but not your girlfriend or boyfriend, no matter what your living arrangement. It makes sense the same rules should apply to same sex marriage.  Show them you're serious, or get your own insurance.

Jersey Bob

Happy birthday, Bob Gaudio.  Frankie Valli may be the voice of the Four Seasons, but you were the one who wrote all the great tunes.












Sunday, November 16, 2014

Security

So I was in my favorite coffee shop and logged on to the wifi, and my second choice for powerful signal was "FBI surveillance van #884."

Nice try, guys. I'm not about to fall for that one. It's surely a federal crime to piggyback on government wifi.

Off The Balcony

Life Itself is a pretty good biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, taking us back to the days when he and Gene Siskel led the pack in introducing us to what's coming to our local cinema.  The format continued after Siskel died, but when Roger left, it was essentially over.

The final iteration of the show featured critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.  If you haven't heard of them that's probably why the show didn't last long.  But now Igantiy, who writes at the A.V. Club, discusses what it was like, and why the program died.

There was a strict learning curve.  Writing for print and for TV are two different things, and talking naturally but compellingly on camera is not, generally, a talent you're born with.  As Vishnevetsky notes, Siskel and Ebert had years to perfect the process before going national.

But, and I agree with Ignatiy again, the real problem was the format. In the 80s, having a couple guys clue you in to what's happening at the movies was fun, even exciting. You felt like an insider. In the age of the internet, a weekly show on what's available out there will always be one week behind.

Perhaps the format could still work with two truly compelling figures, but it could never command the field as it once did.

Oh Donna

Happy birthday, Donna McKechnie.  A Michigan girl who ran away to be a dancer, and made it.  She's best know for her steps on Broadway, but she wouldn't have gone so far if she couldn't act and sing as well.







Saturday, November 15, 2014

Big Data


Alibaba Links Women’s Bra Sizes to Their Online Spending Patterns

I've never felt so lucky to be a man. There's no simplistic size comparison they can use on us.

At least until they invent (reveal the existence of?) an app that inputs size autonomously. At some point, I'm wondering, will the equations all boil down to "gene . . . more"? What am I saying. Of course they will.

Nosy

I recently was in a nearby smoke shop.  I don't smoke--I was there to purchase a drink.  As soon as I walked in there was an overwhelming incense smell.  I'm not sure if this is a normal part of the smoke shop racket, where they show off their wares, or if the owner just liked it, but it made me sick.

Which got me thinking.  What kind of jobs really smell bad.  Like working in a rendering plant, or the like.  And how much is the rotten smell figured into your salary. Or do you get the position based on your talent to ignore bad smells.

For that matter, do you get used to even the worst sort of smells. The nose gets fatigued after a while in any case, but can you train yourself not to be bothered by something?

PS  I'm sorry to be so ungallant, but occasionally I get stuck in an elevator with a woman wearing far too much perfume.  I try to hold my breath until I'm out of there.

Ole Bolet

It's the centennial of great pianist Jorge Bolet.






Friday, November 14, 2014

Hey! Me too!

Oh Yeah?

I just read Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley, a British journalist who's been on the music beat for years.

The book, at around 600 pages, is a whirlwind tour of 60 years of popular music, starting with the early days of rock and roll.  And Stanley includes all genres--soul, country and western, heavy metal, reggae, dance--it's all pop music to him.  The writing is lively and he definitely has a love for this stuff.  There's also some insightful, if idiosyncratic, views.

If the book has a problem, it's inherent in the project--this is essentially a hit-and-run history of the music.  I recently read a 900+ page book about the Beatles that only takes us up to the end of 1962. It was one of the best things I ever read on the Beatles, or on popular music in general.  Meanwhile, Stanley deals with this seminal band mostly in one short chapter.  And only the biggest acts get a chapter.  Most major artists get a page or two.  Some aren't even mentioned.

If you're well-versed in the subject, perhaps there's not that much new here, but if you want an overview, it's a pretty good job.

PS  My computer gave "Beyoncé" the accent without my doing anything.

Big Daddy

Ellis Marsalis turns 80 today.  He's got a bunch of jazz-playing offspring, but this is the man who came up with the idea in the first place.






Thursday, November 13, 2014

Seen It

I just read Robert K. Elder's The Best Film You've Never Seen, which consists of 35 short interviews with directors discussing some favorite movie they've seen that didn't get the attention it deserved.

In a way, the title is a misnomer.  Several of the film mentioned are quite well known and highly applauded: Breaking Away, A Man For All Seasons, Some Came Running, Trouble In Paradise and Ugetsu.  But to the directors in question (respectively, Richard Curtis, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich, Kimberly Pierce), these films meant a lot, and deserve to be seen by more people.

And that's what the book is really about. Enthusiasm.  Film people telling us which films fascinate them.

Sometimes they pick silly titles--Jonathan Levine chooses Can't Stop The Music and Brian Herzlinger likes Killer Klowns From Outer Space.  Sometimes they go for cult classics--Todd Solondz brings up The Honeymoon Killers.  Sometimes they pick small art films you may have missed--Joe Swanberg mentions Ivansxtc and Alex Proyas The Swimmer. Sometimes they bring up mainstream films that may be forgotten today, or fell by the wayside--Richard Kelly chooses Fearless, Neil LaBute, Blume In Love, John McNaughton, Who'll Stop The Rain. Sometimes they pick films that weren't treated fairly--Jay Duplass feels that way about Joe Versus The Volcano, Bill Condon about Sweet Charity and John Dahl about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.  Sometimes they pick films that are considered complete disasters, as John Waters does with Boom!. Sometimes they picks curios as Phil Lord does with The Beaver Trilogy.  A couple choose films from the American Film Theatre series in the 70s--Atom Egoyan picks The Homecoming and Arthur Hiller The Iceman Cometh.  A couple pick Orson Welles' titles--Henry Jaglom likes F For Fake and Frank Oz The Trial.

But no matter what the choices, what counts is the animated discussions, as filmmakers get into what they see in other works (sometimes seeing things that may not be there).  I've seen more than half of the titles in the book, and many do deserve more attention, but even for the ones I couldn't stand, it was interesting to hear how someone, somewhere, thought it was worth watching.

Forever Young

Yesterday we had a tribute to birthday boy Neil Young, but we only did his early stuff.  He wrote plenty of good songs after he turned 30.












Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Stafford On Staff

Happy birthday, Jo Stafford.  She charted almost 100 songs in the 40s and 50s.






I [Heart Symbol] NY

Happy 69th, Neil Young.  He's perhaps the top singer-songwriter of our era.











Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Like This

Surfaces And Essences, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, is the only book I can think of that's explicitly about analogies.  But there's no reason to feel uncomfortable, since in both look and content--or surface and essence--it's a lot like previous Hofstadter books about how we think*. And that's the point.  Analogies aren't just things that come to us occasionally, they're, as the book has it, the core of cognition.  From childhood, we're faced with novel or at least ill-defined situations, and we're not dumbfounded, because we compare them to what's happened before. We experience the world through analogical thinking.

Hofstadter builds his argument slowly, always offering plenty of illustrations, starting with how evocative words and phrases can be.  By the end he's discussing analogical thinking that changed the world, such as Einstein's. 

I don't want to diminish Sander's contribution.  This reads like a Hofstadter book, but no doubt the collaboration of this French colleague was essential.  In fact, the two published a French edition of the book to coincide with the English version.  Parts of the book explain how it wasn't just a translation, but deep work in analogy: how do you "translate" a paragraph about the everyday experience of traveling on Le Metro in ways that Americans can appreciate.  It's about more than words, it's about deep experience with the world.

I don't know if this book will be as popular or influential as previous stuff from Hofstadter, but it's certainly a worthy continuation of his work.

*Now that I think of it, I have read a book about analogies before--Hofstadter's Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies.

Ross Loss

A lot of my favorite Broadway tunes come from the class that arose in the 50s--Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Strouse and Adams, Schmidt and Jones, Stephen Sondheim.  But the first team that really made it from this era was Adler and Ross, who wrote The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, major hits from '54 and '55.

Who knows what would have happened next if Jerry Ross hadn't died shockingly young, on November 11, 1955, at the age of 29.









Monday, November 10, 2014

Straight From The Drawing Board

How About Never--Is Never Good For You? isn't a particularly descriptive title for cartoonist Bob Mankoff's new book. More helpful is the subtitle: "My Life In Cartoons." But the title is there to catch the attention of a target audience that recognizes it as one of the most famous captions in any New Yorker cartoon.  The full version--showing a businessman on a phone--has him saying "No, Thursday's Out.  How about never--is never good for you." It's deservedly a classic and is quoted by many, most probably not aware it came from the pen of Mankoff.

But maybe no single title could envelop this hybrid book.  At almost 300 pages, it's an autobiography of Bob Mankoff, a history of New Yorker cartoons, a description of how Mankoff runs today's cartoon department, and a collection of great cartoons.

Mankoff was born and raised in New York, and, with a strong sense of humor and drawing talent, decided to be a cartoonist.  This may have been disappointing to his family, but in the late 60s young people were looking to find themselves, and there were still enough magazines out there publishing cartoons that you might make a living at it.  He sold his work to places like Saturday Review and National Lampoon, but wanted to get to the top of that world--The New Yorker.

The New Yorker had been publishing humorous illustrations since its start in 1925, putting out material by such names as James Thurber, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg and so many others, each with a recognizable technique or approach.  Some of the famous cartoons of the early years included a little girl, referring to her broccoli--"I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it"--and a draftsman walking back from a plane crash stating "Well, back to the old drawing board" (which is where the cliché comes from). The New Yorker style would change with the times, somewhat, but was generally oriented toward the relatable, the subtle, the whimsical, and avoided anything too nasty or gross.

Mankoff felt he needed to distinguish himself, so he started drawing with dots--also known as stippling.  A time-consuming approach, but no one else was doing it (maybe because it was so time-consuming).  After hundreds of rejections, he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker in 1977.  Now that he was in the club, he started getting maybe one cartoon in per month, then two a month, until in 1980 he was offered a regular contract with the magazine.  This still meant bringing in ten or fifteen cartoons a week and having most, or all, rejected, but he was in.

At the time, the arts editor, who'd give the thumbs up or down, was Lee Lorenz.  When he took over, there were plenty of famous New Yorker cartoonists regularly contributing, but he also developed a new stable of talent for the magazine, such as Mankoff, Mick Stevens, Jack Ziegler, Michael Maslin, Peter Steiner and my personal favorite, Roz Chast.

A bit later you'd get Bruce Eric Kaplan--aka BEK--who'd not only become a New Yorker favorite, but would also write the classic Seinfeld episode mocking New Yorker cartoons, which gets a whole chapter in Mankoff's book.

In 1992 Tina Brown became the magazine's editor and pushed for an edgier style.  This discomfited many readers, but even if a little harsher than usual, the cartoons continued to be of high quality.  Then in 1997, under Brown, Mankoff was named cartoon editor.  Now it was his job to find new names who'd eventually take the place of the oldsters (i.e., Mankoff's generation).

With the steep decline in general magazine sales that continues to this day, soon there was barely a market for cartoonists, so Mankoff tried to develop talent, taking in promising students and teaching them basic comic technique.  He also would publish them while they were still a little green to spur them on to greater work.  Out of this new generation we get names like Alex Gregory, David Sipress, Drew Dernavich, Matt Diffee, Paul Noth and Amy Hwang.

Mankoff also goes into the process where he and editor David Remnick narrow the thousand or so cartoons sent in each week to the seventeen or so that will make it into each issue.  Then there's the story of the weekly caption contest--a popular back-page feature that started on his watch.

The book is written in an informal, jokey manner--not at all like his magazine's style--but then, this guy does cartoons, not multi-part essays on geopolitical issues.  Copiously illustrated--as you'd expect--it's a quick read, and a fun one, even if you've never seen a copy of The New Yorker.

It Goes Good With Rice

Tim Rice turns 70 today. Not the greatest lyricist, but what can I say, the guy's had a lot of hits.







Sunday, November 09, 2014

A Number's Game

I recently downloaded a chess program. I'm not really much of a player. For one thing, to be halfway good--which I'm not--you've got to know hundreds of opening moves to avoid falling into basic traps.  I'm the type of player who leaves pieces unprotected.  I'm the type of player who keeps going ahead with my plan rather than countering the moves of my opponent. I'm the type of player who barely notices when a major piece is under attack.

Anyway, this program has 12 levels of play, so I decided to play at the highest level to see how I'd do. It took me apart.  The slightest slip--even though I didn't know it was a slip--and it destroyed me.  So I took it down to 11.  Still killed me.  Then 10, then 9.  No chance.  I try 8, then 7, then 6.  I still lose.  Just how bad am I?

At 5 I'm losing but there's hope. The computer doesn't see that far ahead and if I don't make any obvious blunder, sometimes it'll make pointless moves I can take advantage of.  Then at 4 it's great. (for me)  I'll put the opponent's piece under attack and half the time it doesn't care.  I almost feel sorry for it.

Now that I can win, I guess the question is should I stay in my comfort zone, or should I try to climb the ladder.  Think I'll spend a little more time lording it over the dumb computer before I decide.

The Other One

Must have been tough being Tom Fogerty, playing in a band where your brother John writes and sings all the hits. But hey, rhythm guitar is enough for a lot of people, so happy birthday, Tom.









Saturday, November 08, 2014

Let George Do It

Nothing like old movies to make you see how basic assumptions have changed.   To pick one out of countless examples, I recently watched the 1929 film Disraeli, a highly-regarded film in its day from Warner Brothers.  It won lead George Arliss the Oscar.

It was based on a hit play seen on Broadway in 1911, starring Arliss.  He toured in it for years and then made a silent version in 1921. The plot centers on British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, in particular his attempts to purchase the Suez Canal.

In general, Disraeli is a fighter for the British Empire who has to take on opponents like William Gladstone.  By the end, however, Disraeli has triumphed and the Canal is Britain's, meaning they can now control India. Hooray!

The funny thing is today while no one would think of making an explicitly pro-empire movie, millions love Downton Abbey.  Sure, Lord Grantham is often shown to be behind the times, but viewers can't get enough of the era when everyone knew their place--the vast majority with lives of unending drudgery so a lucky few could dress for dinner.

Chuck E, Not Chuckie

Happy 60th, Rickie Lee Jones.





Friday, November 07, 2014

What, he can't do it himself?

Putin must be getting weak: Russian Lawmaker Proposes Mailing Putin Sperm to Impregnate Russian Women

Not sure of the statesman's grasp of biology, but maybe they do it differently in Russia. I also note some rather crude and, frankly, unconstitutional discrimination: they're mailing it only to women. Rumor is that there have been mass resignations among USSRPS drivers. It's one thing if you're going to resemble the postman, but if you're going to resemble Putin, what's the point?


Leftover Vanity Plates Of The Month

MYGZZLR.  Because this is a Prius, it's meant ironically.  But because this is a Prius, it's obnoxious.

NOW SURF.  Yet he was driving away from the ocean.

TO 4 USC.  Was this mean to be two people for the University of Southern California, but there was some trouble with their education?

SUNNI 49.  Bet this car can't get anywhere near an airport.

YNKEENY.  Kind of overdoing it.  And so close to a palindrome.

PZOFWORK.  Well then, guess I'll give you wide berth.

AH

Happy birthday, Al Hirt.  A nice short name for a guy who knew his way around a trumpet.







Thursday, November 06, 2014

Still Crazy

I just read David and Joe Henry's biography Furious Cool: Richard Pryor And The World That Made Him.  It has its flaws, but tells a fascinating and often infuriating story.

Pryor was a giant in standup. If you took a poll of comedians I'm certain he'd be named the top in the field in the past half century. And it's easy to forget how revolutionary he was, since half of all standups are now imitating him.  But as they say, often imitated, never duplicated.

Pryor was born in Peoria in 1940, raised in a brothel run by his grandmother.  He was exposed to a lot as a child, and was even sexually molested.  But he was also a charmer who loved the movies and loved to entertain.  He came to New York in the early 60s and performed in the Village, the same place where Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan and so many others were finding their chops.  The book sometimes compares him to Dylan--whereas Dylan changed what pop music could be about, Pryor did the same for comedy.

He did characters, often down and dirty ones who embodied the black experience (at least the black experience that he'd seen growing up).  But when Bill Cosby hit it big--after making a conscious decision to leave most racial topics behind--Pryor starting copying him.  Pryor, in fact, became highly successful as a sort of Cosby-lite, playing Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show and Vegas and appearing in movies.  But by the late 60s he'd had enough.  He moved to Berkeley and stayed underground for a couple years.

David and Joe Henry, two white boy apparently down with the Brothers, go into the counterculture and how it affected Pryor.  Unfortunately, they present some violent beliefs and an uncritical, almost rosy light.  They also quote Paul Mooney a lot, who may have been Richard's closest friend, but doesn't strike me as necessarily that insightful.  From his comments, it's all about being black. That certainly is part of Pryor's story, but it strikes me as too limiting.  (Maybe that's why Pryor was a great artist and Mooney is a reasonably talented but not especially memorable comedian.)

In the early 70s Pryor returned to standup with a new passion and a new style and language.  He'd moved beyond jokes.  He was more an actor than a comedian, creating little one-act plays out of the characters he inhabited.  It was the beginning of his greatest work, but he couldn't resist the siren song of Hollywood.  Here the Henry brothers compare him, quite properly, to Elvis--the king of his field who'd rather be a movie star by making so-so films.

Pryor did fine supporting work in a number of films, such as Lady Sings The Blues, The Mack and Uptown Saturday Night.  And he could play drama as well as comedy. (Plus a lot of his best stuff was improvised on the set--it got to be that filmmakers would count on him to enliven a scene.)  And then there was his appearance on the first year of Saturday Night Live--the show needed him more than he needed it, and his episode is still one of the best-remembered.

A big disappointment, however, was being a writer on Blazing Saddles but not being allowed to star in it.  He almost certainly would have done a great job, but Hollywood didn't trust him enough yet.

Mind you, there was a reason, and it wasn't just his politics, or his swearing, or even his tempestuous relationship with women.  It was his drug use.  He was generally a professional, but he was also a junkie, always looking for his next fix.  Eventually he became a big enough star that the studios would throw money at him, but not yet.

By the mid-70s he'd released a handful of bestselling comedy albums and was recognized as a master at his craft.  And then in 1976 he made--in more ways than one--the big comedy hit Silver Streak.  From that point on he was a major star.  For the rest of the decade, he'd so some of his best work in film, including Greased Lightning, Blue Collar and Which Way Is Up?

But the big moment, the highlight of his career, was his concert film Richard Pryor: Live In Concert.  It showed him at the top of his game, getting deeper into his characters (and not even relying on old mainstays like Mudbone) and being funnier and more truthful than ever.  The film significantly increased his already sizable fan base.  And it showed you could be a standup and a movie star at the same time.

It didn't take too long for him to tumble.  Always seeking a new high, he started freebasing cocaine, and stopped doing almost anything else. In 1980, in an attempt at suicide, he set himself on fire.  He would recover, but his work would never be the same.  The standup was still good, but not great, and the movies--even as he was offered more and more money--got worse and worse.  Most of them are hard to watch today.

In a final blow, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. He kept performing, but got weaker and weaker and died in 2005.

The book does a decent job of taking us inside Pryor's world.  As great as he was, however, they sometimes overpraise him (not easy to do).  There are also a number of errors in the book making one wonder how much of it can be trusted.  For instance, on page 171, talking about his SNL experience: "He and Jim Belushi faced off as samurai hotel clerks; Jane Curtain interviewed him...." I can almost understand misspelling "Jane Curtin" but saying his performed with Jim and not John Belushi?

Anyway, whether or not you agree with the political and aesthetic judgments, the book is recommended for the well done biographical material.

You Pretty Much Have To Call Him Ray

Happy birthday, Ray Coniff, leader of the Ray Coniff singers.  It's not a sound people listen to much these days.  Let's find out why.










Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Day After The Day Before

Okay, election over, I think.  I'm still out, so what do you think?

The Dude With The Hair

Happy birthday, Mike Score.  He was the lead singer of A Flock Of Seagulls.






Tuesday, November 04, 2014

A Cautionary Tale

"Pittsburgh man burns his legs trying to light furnace while drinking moonshine."
 
If interested, you can read more here but I feel this headline is like one of those longish movie trailers for a summer comedy.   You've seen all the best bits already. 

The Day Before The Day After

Today is the big day!  Some say go out and vote, but if you live in California, does it matter any more?

Anyway, I'm still on vacation, so I can't live-blog the election, or anything like that.  But I'll be watching with the rest of the country, trying to make sense of it all.

If you think you can make sense of it, feel free to leave a comment below.

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