Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bigot Ted Nugent insults Stevie Wonder

In reaction to the Zimmerman trial verdict, Stevie Wonder announced that he would cease performing in Florida. Obviously many people disagreed with this decision. One who did was the guitarist and right-wing attention whore Ted Nugent  who described Wonder and his decision in ugly insulting terms.
“How brain-dead do you have to be? How strangled by denial, how dishonest, how cheap do you have to be to focus on a clear-cut case where all the evidence, from the DOJ, from the FBI, from the army of investigative specialists in Florida determined that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense against a life-threatening attack by hoodlum, dope-smoking Trayvon Martin,” he continued.  Nugent said Wonder has gone from being one of the most soulful men in the world to “soulless.” He also called Wonder’s boycott “brain-dead.”  “I will pray for Stevie Wonder and all these other numb-nuts who think that Trayvon Martin is more important than the tens of thousands of slaughtered blacks at the hands of blacks,” he said.
Nugent is constitutionally incapable of agreeing to disagree or couching his honest opposition in non-insulting terms. No, like a lot of similar conservatives, Nugent seemingly believes that anyone who disagrees with him is stupid, evil, soulless, and probably racist to boot. While I'm not sure that a man who performs in a Confederate Battle Flag t-shirt has room to call anyone racist or soulless, this is just the latest in a long line of racially charged vitriol from a has been guitarist who is the very picture of intolerance. To the extent that Nugent is the face of the Republican base, and he does seem to be quite popular with certain Republican elected officials, the Republican Party will continue to have low popularity among the coalition that elected President Obama twice. I'm going to write more on this later if I ever get time but people don't vote for people who make it clear that they hate you. We wrote post-election about whether the Republican party could shed its image of racial exclusion or even if it wanted to. As long as Nugent feels comfortable identifying as a Republican, the Republican brand will be racist.

Nugent is entitled to his opinion of course but I thought it might be useful to review each musician's list of notable accomplishments, statements and skill sets.
Stevie Wonder
  • Led a movement to recognize MLK's birthday as federal holiday.
  • Provided artistic inspiration to freedom fighters in Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa
  • Involved in cultural boycott against South Africa.
  • Completely reworked pop, funk and soul music in the sixties and mid seventies. Well respected worldwide but especially in music formats that grew out of the African diaspora.
  • Has incredible skills in composition, arrangement, singing and performing. Pretty much able to fit in any genre he wants. Several disparate musicians count him as a seminal influence.
  • Won over twenty Grammys.
  • With very few exceptions, has been on the side of increased tolerance and human rights for all for most of his public life.
Ted Nugent
  • Supported Apartheid in South Africa.
  • Does not believe all men are created equal.
  • Writes editorials musing that the wrong side won the Civil War.
  • Long history of making racially ugly statements, most recently claiming that the black community has a mindless tendency to violence.
  • Long history of making sexually ugly statements, ie. calling women whores and "c****s". This is a favorite slur of his. He once called Hillary Clinton a "toxic c***" and "two-bit whore for Fidel Castro."
  • Said he wanted the President to suck on his machine gun.
  • Well known for having sex with underage groupies, including allegedly a 12 year old Courtney Love.
  • Adopted an underage girl so he could have sex with her.
  • Musical skills appear limited to a few seventies hits. Seems to be a limited guitarist. Writes songs about sex, killing and more sex.
  • By own admission allegedly avoided Vietnam War draft by not washing for days and supposedly defecating and urinating on himself before appearing at draft board.                                                                                                                                          
So, with that history to choose from how could you not believe that Stevie Wonder is the soulless one here. Ha. Seriously though if I were the sort of (ahem) soulless piece of excrement who was molesting underage girls or shooting fenced in animals for fun then I would definitely call up Nugent and ask him for advice. If I wanted to change popular music across the world and help support liberation movements though, perhaps I would do better by talking to Wonder.

What is interesting to me is not so much that an old racist white man is indeed an old racist white man. No. What is fascinating about Nugent is that white people who presumably know better, like say Nugent's close friend, author and local radio host Mitch Albom, never ever ever publicly denounce, chastise or distance themselves from Nugent's hateful statements. Nor are they called upon to do so. This is the EXACT opposite of what takes place with any black public figure that makes a comment even a smidgeon as ugly as Nugent regularly does. When President Obama said that a police officer who arrested Professor Gates for the crime of being in his own home acted stupidly, you would have thought he said he wanted to eat white babies raw from the reaction he received from the media and white citizens in general. His polling numbers dropped and he had to set up a rather stupid "beer summit". In what world does the President of the United States need to be concerned about offending a two-bit local police officer? This one, evidently.

It is actually useful to have racist cretins like Nugent spewing forth their hatred. This is indeed the soul of the Republican party. It's who they are. The more people who realize this the more difficult the Republican party will find it to win national elections. White supremacy may still be a winning theme in some local districts but nationally the Republicans will sooner or later get tired of getting their brains beat out for the Presidency. And they will have some tough decisions to make. I'm looking forward to the fun...

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Federal Government wants your passwords

Allegedly the U.S. Government is obtaining or trying to obtain your various internet passwords.
I can't say that I am surprised by this allegation. The horrible thing about the post 9-11 world to which Americans have eagerly submitted is that it gave permission to the most power-hungry authoritarian impulses on the both the left and the right to run amok. We have ceded so many rights and privileges of citizenship in order to be safe that I do not doubt that a future Administration will wish to put video cameras and screens in each American's home just to keep an eye on what everyone is doing. If we have to submit to a virtual strip search in order to fly, are subject to random stop-and-frisk walking the streets, have the Post Office scanning every piece of mail that has been sent and sharing that with intelligence or law enforcement agencies without a judge's approval, and have the NSA monitoring phone records and likely phone conversations and real time web conversations, why wouldn't the government just want to make things easy for itself by just getting user passwords? No muss no fuss. They can just sign on as you and read through your email or blog posts or facebook messages without any issues. What's the big deal right? If you have nothing to hide why wouldn't you want the government to have your passwords? What are you? An Al-Qaeda supporter? A fascist? A socialist? A Green Party voter?
The U.S. government has demanded that major Internet companies divulge users' stored passwords, according to two industry sources familiar with these orders, which represent an escalation in surveillance techniques that has not previously been disclosed.If the government is able to determine a person's password, which is typically stored in encrypted form, the credential could be used to log in to an account to peruse confidential correspondence or even impersonate the user. Obtaining it also would aid in deciphering encrypted devices in situations where passwords are reused."I've certainly seen them ask for passwords," said one Internet industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We push back."
A second person who has worked at a large Silicon Valley company confirmed that it received legal requests from the federal government for stored passwords. Companies "really heavily scrutinize" these requests, the person said. "There's a lot of 'over my dead body.'"The Justice Department has argued in court proceedings before that it has broad legal authority to obtain passwords. In 2011, for instance, federal prosecutors sent a grand jury subpoena demanding the password that would unlock files encrypted with the TrueCrypt utility.
The Florida man who received the subpoena claimed the Fifth Amendment, which protects his right to avoid self-incrimination, allowed him to refuse the prosecutors' demand. In February 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed, saying that because prosecutors could bring a criminal prosecution against him based on the contents of the decrypted files, the man "could not be compelled to decrypt the drives."In January 2012, a federal district judge in Colorado reached the opposite conclusion, ruling that a criminal defendant could be compelled under the All Writs Act to type in the password that would unlock a Toshiba Satellite laptop.
Both of those cases, however, deal with criminal proceedings when the password holder is the target of an investigation -- and don't address when a hashed password is stored on the servers of a company that's an innocent third party.
In a display of breathtaking spinelessness the House of Representatives recently refused to pass the Amash Libert-e Act. This bill would have stopped the NSA activities concerning phone records and made it EXPLICITLY clear that what the NSA has been doing is not legal. It's important to notice that most Democrats voted for this bill, while most Republicans were opposed. While it's certain that some of those Democratic aye votes were only allowed by House Minority Leader Pelosi because she knew she already had the votes to defeat it, the fact remains that on this issue at least the Democratic and Republican Leadership as well as the White House were all united in defending the right of the NSA to gather any records on anyone at anytime. Such bipartisanship. It sort of gives the lie to the idea that the House Republicans won't unite with the President on anything. Without Republican assistance this bill would have passed the House. The President and the House Republicans are both in agreement that you don't have any rights the NSA needs to be concerned with. It's also important to point out that the Michigan Republican who introduced this measure, Justin Amash, is a libertarian. I have my issues with libertarians but when it comes to civil liberties at least, many libertarians and liberals are reading from the same choir book. And their interpretation of constitutional scripture doesn't change depending on who's sitting in the pulpit.

It ought to go without saying but I'll say it anyway. Yes it is a dangerous world out there and people in the various law enforcement and intelligence agencies must make decisions I wouldn't want to make. They know things I'll never know. And I want everyone to be and stay safe. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But I still say that unless you have a reason specific to me there is no reason for a government agency to have my password. And thanks to that little thing called the Fifth Amendment I think if you ask me for my password I'm going to tell you to commit an anatomically impossible act.

I think the time has come for us to have a constitutional convention. I'm no attorney and certainly no conservative but it looks to me as if the practices of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are stretching the limits of what our laws were meant to prevent. The new allegations of password requests are just the latest evidence of the old truism that if you give people an inch they'll take a mile. Or put another way,

"Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations"-James Madison

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Movie Reviews-42, Fruitvale Station, Evil Dead, Vehicle 19

directed by Brian Helgeland
I'm not a huge baseball fan. Although I do happen to be currently kicking behind in my fantasy baseball league. Go figure. Snicker. Nevertheless obviously I knew about Jackie Robinson and the mythic figure he became to several black Americans in the post-war era. So watching this film I attained a better understanding of why my maternal grandfather, like Robinson a WW2 veteran, was such an enthusiastic Dodgers fan (Robinson's team). Though this is a sports movie and as such is mostly concerned with struggles between and among groups of men, it has a surprisingly strong secondary story line concerning the love between Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel. She is key to providing Jackie support and love to keep going. She even has some relevant baseball advice. They protect and nurture each other. It's rare to see this in a black couple in a big budget Hollywood movie. This is really odd when you think about it. 42 is a traditional feel good movie. It's also big on sports cliches but it has the advantage in that a great many of these cliches in the story actually occurred.
This film takes place shortly after WW2. Last season the Brooklyn Dodgers were almost but not quite good enough to win the pennant. Changes in American society were afoot. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager/president/part owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is determined to be part of what he thinks are required changes in American society, most specifically baseball. Rickey intends to find a black player who is skilled enough to play in the previously all white major leagues and who is smart and strong enough to deal with the eruptions of hatred that will surely follow from fans, rival players and even his own teammates. Rickey thinks that man is Jackie Robinson.

Robinson is one of the most skilled players on The Negro Leagues Kansas City Monarchs, a flashy shortstop with a quick temper. But what gets Rickey's interest is thinking that Robinson, a former Army officer with a history of standing up for his rights can put that on the backburner and instead more or less turn the other cheek for the greater good (advancement of rights for all black players) . This is something that was probably required at the time and which is still echoed today. It is most definitely not something that was healthy. Robinson would die at only 53 from heart problems and diabetes which were no doubt related to the stress he endured.
Nevertheless Robinson (excellently portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) reluctantly agrees to Rickey's demand. Then as now a white man and a black man taking the same action were often viewed quite differently by white media and fans. Rickey frames this as the guts not to fight back. Don't know that I'd quite see it that way but then again those were different times. Even today black people in white environments often code switch and hide their true feelings. So there you are.
So Robinson, accompanied and supported by his beautiful wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), embarks on a journey through the minor leagues in Montreal and Panama which will ultimately end up with him starting in the big leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers. To say that this came at a cost is something of an understatement. Often sometimes black people can joke about how the open racism of years past could be preferable to the "Who me, I'm no racist" passive-aggressive incidents that are more common today. And often times white conservatives claim with a straight face that black civil rights leaders actually yearn for the legal racism of the good (bad) old days. Well I don't think that's actually true. Nobody black or in their right mind would really want those days back. Some things in America haven't changed of course or are just hidden but many things have changed. The movie shows more than it tells but whether it's something as simple as trying to get a bite to eat or flying on a plane that an airline employee doesn't think black people should be using or having mobs threaten your life with impunity or de jure public segregation in the South and de facto public segregation in the North, being black in 1947 America was full of legal and routine insults to your dignity, safety and life.
Robinson tries to deal with this by attempting to ignore it and rise above it but it's not that easy. The forceful Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Chris Meloni), who claimed indifference to Robinson's race, profanely and almost violently shut down a Dodgers' petition drive to drop Robinson, and who may have coined the phrase "Nice guys finish last", was suspended from baseball in part because of gambling allegations but also for sleeping with a Hollywood actress not his wife. So he's not around to run interference for Robinson. He's replaced by aged and seemingly ineffectual manager Burt Shotton (Max Gail). Robinson must negotiate the initial hostility or disregard of his teammates and more importantly the hatred of white players on other teams who do things like hit him in the head with baseballs, spike him and try to break his ankles. The worst of the worst is Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) who can not help himself from unleashing the ugliest racial and sexual vitriol whenever Robinson appears at the plate. As Robinson himself later tells his wife (paraphrasing) "I will never be broken by these people. But they came close today".

This is ultimately a hip hip hooray movie and so it ends on a positive note, one that happened (slightly differently) in real life . If you're looking for a heroic story this could be a movie you'd want to see. There's no cynicism or antihero stuff here. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. Some bad guys later become good guys. You don't have to be a baseball or sports fan or even mildly knowledgeable about sports to enjoy this film. Robinson and my grandfathers were of the same generation so it was interesting to me to look back and see the sorts of things that people of that age had to deal with. And everyone is dressed sharp! If you have any 40s style clothing readily available, hold on to it. I tell you that style is coming back. Lucas Black, John C. McGinley, and Andre Holland also star.

Fruitvale Station
written and directed by Ryan Coogler
Just see this film. Okay that's really all I need to say. It's by far the best of the movies mentioned here today. From a purely technical point you would have thought this film was directed by a middle aged or old master of film, someone who had been making movies for decades. Nope. Ryan Coogler is only 27 years old and Fruitvale Station is his first feature length film. I don't know how he got so good so young and so quickly but I'm betting this won't be his last good work. The level of quality of display here in terms of the camera work, the lighting, the writing and the way the entire film fits together is truly freaking astounding. There's a reason the Weinstein Company distributed this. There's a reason it won Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. There's a reason Forest Whitaker helped produce it. There's a reason it won at Cannes. Coogler really is that good. This is literally a rookie coming out of nowhere and tutoring grizzled veterans in his field on how to succeed. This has Oscar written all over it but it never feels like it's TRYING to be Oscar bait material, if that makes any sense. This is a rare film that could be critically and commercially successful AND make social commentary. It's rare that one film can do any of those things superbly let alone all three. 

Regardless of what you think of the Zimmerman verdict and we may yet have some final thoughts on that later, one of the most despicable things that the defense attorneys and conservative writers and personalities did and are still doing was to put Trayvon Martin on trial. In their telling a seventeen child was transformed into a MANDINGO SUPER THUG who was looking for trouble and got what he deserved. Well of course he wasn't that. On the other side of the spectrum exactly because the racist mindset has trouble dealing with complexity or recognizing humanity, the Civil Rights movement spent a lot of time trying to find and/or groom perfect victims, precisely because it knew that racists will seize on any imperfection and seek to blow it out of proportion. So if you're an unwed mother or have a fast reputation, sorry lady but you can't be the face of a bus boycott. Trying to integrate baseball, nope you can't fight back against a white racist who hits you in the head with a 90 mph fastball. And so on. 

Well as most people know black people are neither saints from heaven nor demons from hell. Black people are just people. And that is the approach in depicting Oscar Grant that Coogler takes in Fruitvale Station. Of course if you're reading this blog you already know this but again it is quite unusual to see it in a Hollywood movie. Strictly speaking this is an independent film.
Fruitvale Station depicts the last day of Oscar Grant's (Michael B. Jordan-Wallace from The Wire) life. Grant is neither saint not sinner. He's somewhere in between trying to make it. He cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), though he may have stopped. He occasionally sells weed to get by. Oscar has been to prison and suffered through the experiences there. He's a gallant man but he may be somewhat of a lazy one as he's been fired from his grocery store job for being consistently late to work. All the same he loves Sophina. He loves his sister Chantay (Destiny Ekwueme) though he's not crazy about paying her rent. He loves his mother (Octavia Spencer). And he is insanely devoted to his and Sophina's daughter together, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). There is nothing he won't do for her. He's an engaged father. He could be good husband material. Sophina's not sure about that. But when a stranger sees the affection that Oscar has for Sophina he not so jokingly asks Oscar why hasn't he married her. Oscar looks like he's deciding to do that. He's on the verge of turning his life around. He wants to provide for Tatiana and ensure that he has the respect of Sophina and his mother.
Of course we all know how this story ends. It's the little things that make this such a powerful movie. Coogler blatantly foreshadows things at least three times. If the film had a weakness that would be the only thing I could point to. But those moments almost create a majestic and biblical flow to the story. We know what those seemingly innocuous incidents indicate but we can't stop them. Michael B. Jordan hit this out of the proverbial park but everyone involved in this film gave very strong performances. Neal and Diaz deserve special mention.

There's a certain unfair arbitrary nature to life. Why does one person happen to get cancer and die young while another works in an asbestos and lead rich environment and lives a long and healthy life. We don't know. Similarly Coogler shows all the tiny little decisions in Oscar's life that lead him to be on the train and have the fatal encounter with Officer Caruso (Kevin Durand), fictionalized version of real life Officer Johannes Mehserle.
This movie will make you angry but really the defining emotion is sadness. Death is final. There's no coming back. All you can do is hope/believe you will see that person on the other side or remember the good times you had while they were here. This is a tremendously powerful film.

Evil Dead (2013)
directed by Fede Alvarez
I guess you could say this is the anti-Cabin in the Woods. This is of course a remake of the classic 1981 film Evil Dead. I wasn't going to see this but obviously changed my mind. The beauty of the original film lay in just how much dread, horror and unease the actors, producer and director were able to squeeze out of a very low budget movie. And let's not forget the swooping masterful camera work. This remake would have been okay on its own but doesn't hold a candle to the original though it cost multiples of the original budget.  But I think this was aimed at people who hadn't seen the original film. 32 years was a long time ago. There are plenty of people walking around who seemingly don't pay much attention to anything that happened before they arrived on the scene.
So if you saw and enjoyed the original this film might be just ehhh to you. If you didn't see the original, although I would certainly want to know why, if you're a horror movie fan then you will probably enjoy this film. It lacks the visceral nature of the original but tries to make up for it with even more grand guignol. And judging by the massive box office returns it succeeded. This film had limited or non-existent use of CGI. Sometimes classic tropes work for a reason and don't need to be mocked, reworked, parodied or deconstructed. Young people inadvertently calling up forces they neither understand nor control is an old chestnut but it works. Mix it with some Lovecraftian overtones and it works even better. This is not a shot for shot remake. It does some things the same, turns other things around and tries to make its own story. One big change is that one woman takes a much more active role. Actually you see that in a lot of movies these days.
Anyway for those of you who aren't familiar with the story Mia (Jane Levy) has been taken out to an old cabin in the woods by her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Olivia's boyfriend Eric (Lou Pucci). They are waiting for the arrival of Olivia's brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Liz Blackmore). Evidently Mia is a junkie. She's tried and failed to get clean before. Olivia, a registered nurse has decided to lead this intervention in a last ditch attempt to help Mia to get and stay clean. The last time Mia overdosed she was clinically dead for a while. Olivia is a take charge sort of woman and wants David's buy-in to not give in to any of Mia's sure to arrive whining, pleading and guilt tripping. David's not sure he can do this because as with all families his sister knows just the buttons to push to trigger his guilty feelings. In this case they have to do with David not being around for their mother's decline and death.  Later the young people venture into the basement and discover what the viewer via flashback already knows is some serious bad mojo. For some insane reason Eric finds a book (basically The Necronomicon) that should not be read - it even has warnings saying do not read this book- and decides to read from it. Mia ends up getting possessed though neither she nor her friends or brother are aware of this at first. The craziness and bloodlust starts to spread. And there are only a few ways to stop a demon possessed human. And two of them involve total bodily dismemberment or burning. I'm sure you can figure out the rest. Eric is so stupid you want to leap through the screen and slap him around but his poor judgment is a genre norm.

Vehicle 19

directed by Mukunda Michael Dewil
This wasn't a very good movie. Let's just get that out of the way upfront. Unless you happen to be a hardcore Paul Walker fan this movie is not for you. And even if you are such a fan I still wouldn't waste time on this flick. The story started out kind of promising but fell off a cliff. It was hard to care about any of the characters in the story. Because almost the entire story takes place in the confines of a minivan, claustrophobic doesn't even begin to describe the film. People have used this trope with phone booths, car trunks, coffins and elevators and for my money it rarely works unless the director switches back and forth between the confined location and something going on in the outside world. That raises tension. But in this story, the minivan is it. And not only is the location stripped down but along with that almost by definition this is a movie where Walker has almost all of the dialogue. The only good thing about this film was they it helped me to more easily distinguish between a white South African accent and an Australian or New Zealand one.

Michael Woods (Walker) is an American felon who's breaking parole to meet his ex-wife Angie, who works in the US embassy in Johannesburg. Woods obviously wants to meet Angie and make a case for why they should get back together. Angie is just as obviously on the verge of telling Mike to get lost for good. Her voice (we never really see her face) is full of annoyance, regret and almost devoid of affection. But Mike feels that a million to one chance of getting back together is better than no chance. He's not too proud to beg. When he arrives in South Africa he finds that the rental car agency has given him a minivan instead of the sedan he requested. But since he's already late and doesn't quite know how to get to his ex's place (either the embassy or her home) he decides not to make a stink about it.
As it turns out there's a phone in the van that rings. He answers and someone with a very thick Afrikaans accent tells him to make it quick and that everything he needs is in the car. Mike is like who is this and hangs up. He talks to Angie and tries to explain he's running late but she thinks he's either scoring drugs or getting drunk. He then finds a gun under the seat. And shortly afterwards a bound and gagged woman spills out of the space behind the backseat. It turns out that she's a missing prosecutor Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean) who has information about police financed and directed sex crimes. Someone calls back. This someone has identified Mike as an American who is breaking parole by being in the country. They say no harm no foul about the rental mixup but very strongly suggest that Mike drive the minivan to an abandoned warehouse where they can sort everything out. And Angie is calling Mike every 10 minutes wanting to know where he is now. Rachel doesn't want Mike to go to the warehouse. And this kicks off a lot of relatively boring car chases, shootouts, attempted carjackings and so on. Yawn. Mike is an incredibly stupid and selfish man. Rachel is a cardboard cut out. They could live or die but I could not have cared less.

Friday, July 26, 2013

What German Sounds Like

Some years ago in a different department and on a different project I worked with a number of Germans. They were like anyone else once I got to know them. Some were nice, some not so much. Each man or woman was a different individual. I learned a lot from some of them. I learned to stay away from others. But listening to them speak their native language to each other always sounded to me, well something like the video below. I love listening to German opera but as I used to joke with some German co-workers, German is the perfect language for telling people what to do. I'm not yet convinced of its utility for sweet nothings or lullabies. It is difficult for me to detect anger in German language since almost everything sounds angry. And I have the same problem detecting anger in Zulu since some of the saddest and/or angriest Zulu music almost always sounds happy to me. So it goes. That is the problem with only speaking one language. I should have buckled down and learned different languages when I had the chance. Obviously this video is a parody and an extreme exaggeration and not meant to be anti-German.... =)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The British Royal Birth and American Media

Well, that's done. Aren't you excited? If you were like me you were anxiously waiting to get news of the British royal birth. The new Prince of Cambridge was born yesterday and I am just so excited by this news. The rest of you must have been similarly intrigued because most of the American based television news shows I skimmed before coming to work and after arriving home were all filled with American anchors and gossip columnists acting a fool. Lots of precious air time and print space on various American stations and newspapers was devoted to the amount of time that the Duchess of Cambridge spent in labor, what the name of her new child was going to be, how long it would be before this boy would be king, who was ahead of him in the line of succession, how his birth would officially be announced, who was qualified to actually be in the delivery room to verify that he actually arrived from the nether regions of the Duchess and wasn't some sort of nefarious pretender Antichrist switched at the last moment and all sorts of other trivia that was only possibly of interest to various addled headed romantics.  It made this sappy old traditionalist feel a swell of royalist patriotic feeling in his heart and.... wait a minute....

That's right, I'm not British. I'm American. And usually I am not personally emotionally engaged in the arrival of a child into this world unless that child is mine or that of my kith and kin. I am ALWAYS happy to hear that friends, relatives, classmates, co-workers or other people I know are new parents/grandparents/uncles/aunts. I enjoy seeing their baby pics and hearing their funny stories. Why? Because I know these people and like or love them. Other folks? Well the best estimate is that there are approximately almost 400,000 children born every day on this planet. I don't mean to be a curmudgeon but I don't know or care about most of those people. I wish every child on this planet happiness, health and long life. My interest ends there.

I don't understand why it is big news in this country when a new heir to a foreign throne is born. Although you might not know it from some accents heard on various American news shows this country is not a province of the United Kingdom. We actually fought wars to make that point. We have no kings, no nobility and if this country had House words they would probably be "We do not bow"

So it was amusing and confusing to me to see so many American TV producers evidently accurately make the call that their audience cared that William and Kate did what roughly 73 million people (take a little off from that number thanks to polygamists, multiple births and artificial insemination) successfully do each year. Perhaps, and this is a sobering thought, it's news in this country because by some standards we now have less social mobility in the US than exists in the United Kingdom. So we're getting the atrocious class structure without the cool gothic or baroque castles. I'd rather have the castles. Maybe it's just a logical extent of a silly celebrity fixation in which we want to know everything about celebrities. I don't know. I can't help but be reminded of this classic Monty Python clip, which more or less accurately sums up my feeling towards all monarchies.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Robb Stark and The Red Wedding: All his fault??

Robb Stark's Mistakes
Whenever author George R.R. Martin is asked about the Red Wedding he cackles evilly and rants that he won't stop his reign of literary terror until every last Stark is dead dead dead  calmly points out that the normal myth cycle has often featured a boy becoming a man by rising up after his father's death and leading his family to prominence/revenge/justice. But Martin had zero interest in writing that story. So by Word of God Robb Stark had to die. Martin has said art is not a democracy. If you don't like his writing ,read something else. He's certainly not changing his story because of your preferences. I might have something to write on that later as some fans have a bone to pick with Martin and Benioff and Weiss about representation and stereotyping. A really nasty controversy broke out about 3 weeks ago concerning some Season 4 casting news from HBO. But I digress. Anyway the Red Wedding was gruesome to watch on screen. It was horrible to read and according to Martin it was extremely painful to write. That is why he saved it for last (although chronologically it occurs a little past halfway through book 3). But temporarily putting Martin's decision aside, I'd like to step inside the creation and examine if Robb could have avoided certain mistakes and/or the costs that he paid for those errors. 

Hindsight is 20/20. Robb should have realized that Lord Walder Frey was EXTREMELY upset about the broken betrothal. I would not blame anyone for not anticipating Frey's actions at a wedding. People forget that Robb took over family leadership at a very young age and lacked any older trusted male advisor on his father's side. Robb was my favorite character. I strongly identified with him. The North Remembers! With that in mind let's review Robb's biggest mistakes.*

  • Not marrying Roslin Frey immediately. If Robb had married Roslin Frey immediately he couldn't have spurned the Freys for Talisa. The Freys being the Freys, backstabbing b******s that they are, likely still would have tried to switch sides if/when events turned against Robb, but they wouldn't have been able to get him isolated and alone at a wedding. The HBO series changed the reasoning for Robb's decision, making
    it something more romantic and understandable to show viewers. In the book Robb married someone else (she had a different name and background) as much out of obligation as out of love.
    He took her virginity and thus found himself, as he saw it, trapped between two clashing concepts of honor. Book!Robb is more sympathetic to me than Show!Robb. Show!Robb marries for love and is rebellious. But in either book or show Robb should have known that he could not break the Frey betrothal. His honor (in book) and his love and happiness (in show) are simply not as important as his obligations to the Freys and his need to protect his people. So I think it's fair to blame Robb for this mistake. In the book the Freys are already fighting for Robb and have lost loved ones when they learn of Robb's decision. 

  • Not detailing his strategy to Edmure. The show handles this a little differently than the book does but the bottom line is that Robb intended to draw Tywin's armies west and then trap and destroy them through superior speed. This required that Edmure hold his position at Riverrun and not engage with Tywin's forces. Unfortunately Edmure was unclear on the "not engage with Tywin's forces" part, perhaps because Robb did not explicitly tell him not to do that. So Edmure attacks the Lannisters while Tywin and associated Lannister forces are not far enough west. When Tywin learns of Stannis' impending attack on King's Landing, he's still close enough to the capital to rush back and with the assistance of the Tyrell forces, defeat Stannis.
    In the book, although it's revealed afterwards that he's been quietly hedging his bets all along, it's at this point that Roose Bolton decides that now is the right time to secretly switch sides. Stannis' defeat was disastrous for the North. Robb could have bent the knee to Stannis. He could not have done so to the Lannisters. They killed his father. But by taking (temporarily?) Stannis off the board, the Lannisters convinced the Freys and Boltons that their victory was inevitable. I don't blame Robb for all of this as no one could have seen all the various dominoes that would fall. A leader needs disciplined subordinates who follow his orders, even if they don't fully understand them. Robb's plan may not have worked even if Edmure had done as directed. But with Edmure changing the script it had no chance. Given Edmure's capabilities, Robb should have explained his plan further. If you are expecting someone to do something against their every instinct, explain it to them.

  • Sending Theon to treat with Balon Greyjoy. Robb and Theon are close in age and grew up together. Robb took no part in the suppression of the Greyjoy Rebellion (he would have only been 10 years old or younger when it took place). Therefore he has no personal animosity towards Theon or full understanding of the Iron Islands/Greyjoy violent culture. However people who do remember the Greyjoy Rebellion are not so trusting of the Greyjoys. IIRC in show Jaime says seeing Theon at Winterfell was like seeing a shark on a mountaintop.
    Catelyn knows what the Iron Islanders are like and begs Robb not to trust either Theon or Balon Greyjoy. In the book I believe she reminds Robb that Ned would not have sent Theon back. She is stridently against sending Theon as an envoy. Catelyn suggests that if Robb wants Balon Greyjoy's aid he send someone else. Robb doesn't listen, perhaps because he wants to show he's a big boy who's not afraid of Mommy and sends Theon anyway. Theon switches sides and through a toxic combination of shame, guilt, sibling rivalry and resentment attacks and seizes Winterfell, something his father did not order. Then via guile, Ramsay Snow is able to take and burn Winterfell and slaughter its inhabitants. The small garrison which Robb left is also killed while Brandon and Rickon Stark are believed to be dead (in books) or either dead or missing(in show). Symbols matter. You can't be King of the North if you can't protect your own castle/town. This was a serious blow to Robb's authority, legitimacy and reputation. Although Robb could not have known that Balon Greyjoy was already planning to attack the North, this is another instance where listening to Catelyn (even in private) would have yielded better results. Keeping Theon close would not have prevented a Greyjoy attack as Balon makes it clear repeatedly that he thinks nothing of Theon. But it would have prevented the sacking of Winterfell and Catelyn's subsequent release of Jaime Lannister in the belief that Robb and Sansa were the only children she had left. If there is no release of Jaime, there is no retaliation by Karstark, no execution of Karstark, no attempt to make amends with Freys, no Red Wedding. So yes I blame Robb for this.

  • Accepting the King in the North title. While it was a serious bada$$ moment in both book and show to have the big bad GreatJon Umber spit at the mention of southern kings and declare that the Starks were the only kings he would accept, Robb should not have accepted this title. It didn't really gain him any alliances among the other Great Houses and immediately made a rival/enemy of the Baratheons, who were the only other people considering action against the Lannisters.
    If, after Renly's death, Robb had been able to coordinate action with Stannis, Tywin wouldn't have been able to get back to King's Landing in time. Stannis takes King's Landing and the Tyrells are suddenly not so interested in the Lannisters. In fact they might be trying to marry Loras to Shireen Baratheon and Margaery to Robb. Arya makes it to Riverrun. The Freys want everyone to know how they were on Robb and Stannis' side all along. If Stannis had been allied with Robb he might well have shared his experience of fighting the Ironborn and had the necessary gravitas to steer Robb away from the idea of sending Theon back to Pyke. Heck, if Robb accepted Stannis as King, Stannis could have ordered Robb not to do it. Unfortunately Robb had no way of knowing this. Stannis declared his intentions after Robb had accepted the title. But a man trying to fight his way from almost one end of a continent to the other needs flexibility and allies. Declaring premature independence isn't the way to gain either. Robb already had formidable enemies in the Lannisters. 

  • Defending The Riverlands and The North The unfortunate fact about The Riverlands is that, as we discussed before, they are centrally located and not particularly defensible. Still that's Catelyn's homeland. Just as Ned before him, Robb had to act. Once The Riverlands joined his secessionist cause and recognized him as king it wasn't just a question of blood. A king must defend his people. The smart move would have been to stay north of The Neck and send the Westeros equivalent of Seal Team Six to find and rescue Arya and Sansa. Then there is no betrothal or alliance with The Freys or need to send Theon home. But if Robb did send Theon home Winterfell and the North are still strongly protected. Though this was the smart move, it would have been politically and personally impossible for Robb to stay north as his mother's people are attacked, his father is murdered, other Northerners are slaughtered and his sisters are placed in peril. He HAD to go to war. This was a mistake but I don't blame Robb for it.

  • Executing Karstark. Karstark has clearly lost motivation after his sons are killed. The only thing he's living for is revenge. He doesn't seem impressed with his king chasing Talisa and we can only presume he's not too thrilled with the broken betrothal either. He wants to kill Jaime Lannister. He's temporarily prevented from doing so by Catelyn's command and then permanently prevented from doing so by Catelyn's release of Jaime for her selfish (albeit understandable) reasons.
    Seeing Catelyn escape what he views as meaningful punishment combined with Lannister children nearby is too much for Karstark to take. He murders the children. Not only does he do this (and thus as far as Robb knows put Sansa's and Arya's lives at risk) he also shows no remorse for it. Indeed he berates Robb and dares him to respond. I am torn on this because no military leader, particularly not one as young as Robb is, can tolerate subordinates disobeying orders and insulting him. If you are fighting for justice you can't have your people killing kids. Robb had a strict moral code and thus had no doubts on what Karstark's fate would be. But Robb leads a feudal army. "His" soldiers are primarily loyal to their local lords, not to Robb personally. Since he needed Karstark's people to reach his larger goal (rescuing his sisters and taking King's Landing), executing Karstark then, no matter how justified was a mistake. Send him to the Wall or imprison him but don't kill him.
So to summarize although I am a Stark bannerman and want the surviving Starks to reunite and destroy their enemies, at this point that looks unlikely. Though I will tease those of you who haven't read the books (which you should) and remind you all that Ned Stark said that when the snow falls and the white winds blow the lone wolf dies but the pack survives. The Stark wolfpack may be scattered but it's not yet destroyed. So we'll see. Robb Stark made many mistakes. They weren't all obvious at the time but I think Martin did a great job of showing how wars aren't just won on battlefields. They're also won by any other means. Like his father, Robb assumed that other people would try to be as honorable as he would be. Robb was a heck of a warrior and battle strategist but lacked cunning and political experience. And he paid for it.

*As usual, if you've read the books please don't detail anything that's yet to happen in show..

Music Reviews-The Soul Messengers, The Modern Jazz Quartet, The Pharaohs

The Soul Messengers
You may or may not be familiar with the phenomenon but there are some Black Americans who claim descent from one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, or who had African Jewish ancestors who were kidnapped and enslaved, or who converted to Judaism, or who simply very strongly believed that Black people in general were the original Chosen People. The competing religious claims, rivalries and varied histories of all these groups go back for decades and in some cases centuries. They overlap with Marcus Garvey and thus with religions and movements like The Moorish Science Temple, The Five-Percenters, Rastafari and other black nationalist based groups. It's a longer post than I want to write this at this time but suffice it to say that in mid sixties Chicago and Detroit there were Black Jewish citizens, separate from Euro-American Judaism, who were proud of both their Jewishness and Blackness. Ultimately some of these people, known as African Hebrew Israelites, or just Black Hebrews, decided that America was no longer the place for them. They decided to immigrate to what they considered Promised Lands: certain countries in Africa and of course Israel. Their experience overseas was not without headaches as they were pressured by natives to prove their racial/religious/ethnic bona fides. Many people then and now thought they were fake. They believed the same of many of their critics. Some Black Hebrews gave up and returned to the US. Others eventually settled in Dimona, Israel where after several legal battles they were allowed to stay. 

Anyway, politics and race aside, the Black Hebrews who settled in Israel brought with them intimate knowledge of the then current popular and religious music of African Americans. One group that is worth listening to is The Soul Messengers. Like Parliament-Funkadelic, this group had different names and satellite groups that it backed up but it was usually pretty much the same group of musicians and singers despite what the name on the album release might say.
I like this music. It's a melange of gospel, the gospel-pop rock that people like the similar sounding Hawkins Singers were exploring contemporaneously, classic soul, James Brown themed funk, traditional spirituals, reggae, black nationalist themed "spiritual jazz" that echoed people like Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, psychedelic soul a la Jimi Hendrix, and even some old school blues. Some of this sounds like very early Earth, Wind and Fire (WITHOUT Bailey's falsetto) . That's not too surprising since some of the group members who decided to go back to Chicago wound up playing for The Pharaohs, which was the group from which Earth, Wind and Fire took inspiration, influence and a few members.

Not everything on here is great. "Modernization" has a nice groove but the stiff lyrics don't really work for me. The song references ecological and personal dietary concerns. This is groove music. Although there are some extended solos they never ever get in the way of the collective groove. I like that these cuts all have a prominent and deep bassline. The religious elements are more implied than explicitly stated, with the exception of the classic song "Daniel". The recording production is a little dense at times but you can still usually make out the vocals. You will also recognize the song "Na Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" reworked into "Our Love and Savior" complete with Hebrew lyrics. If you are hip to the early seventies soul gospel, before the widespread adaptation of synthesizers, this music will sound quite familiar. Will you like it? I think you might. The lyrics are generally earnest and positive if occasionally less than polished. But the musicianship is pretty good though some of the songs start to run together and sound alike.

Messiah  Burn Devil Burn  Daniel  Heaven of Heavens  Our Lord and Savior
 Prince of Zeal  Do It  Victory  A Place to Be  Modernization

The Modern Jazz Quartet
Both of my parents were huge jazz fans. I think this might have been my Dad's favorite group though he usually avoided superlatives when it came to music. It is certainly the jazz music of which I have the earliest and therefore fondest memories. This group was special because it did not feature any horn players at a time when horn players were the public face of jazz. It was also special because years before the terms "world music" or "fusion" had become marketing tools The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) was mixing bop jazz with a variety of different musics, most notably baroque classical-ESPECIALLY Bach. Also though the group could swing with the best of them they were notably not wild men on stage and often performed in tuxedos. This was an indication that they took their music as seriously as any classical performer and expected their audience to do so as well. In its way this was an expression of black pride as most people often expected black musicians to be more Dionysian than Apollonian. The MJQ by both their attitude and repertoire expressed the belief that serious music belonged to black people just as surely as it did to whites.

The MJQ had a history that went back to Dizzy Gillespie's glory days in the fifties. Like a lot of four man bands The MJQ featured two opinionated and occasionally clashing leaders (Jackson and Lewis) who took the lion's share of leads and solos and wrote most of the music and two guys who generally stayed more in the background, though when called on to show their stuff they revealed just as much skill on their particular instruments. The classic lineup was Milt Jackson (vibes), John Lewis (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Connie Kay (drums).

The group briefly broke up in the seventies when Jackson wanted to do different (his own) things musically, make more money and get away from Lewis while Lewis wished to continue with the classical leaning jazz sound. They reunited in the eighties but of course by the nineties and early 2000's age and infirmities had caught up with them. They've all passed on now. But they left behind a very impressive body of work, one which spans quite a few jazz and classical genres. Milt Jackson (born in Detroit I must add) had an extremely distinctive sound on the vibes and often guested on various blues, jazz or soul releases by other artists. Jackson had a very slow very fat tone which was immediately identifiable. Of course I am not that familiar with too many other vibraphone players besides Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente and Bobby Hutcherson so take that for what it's worth. Either way, once you have heard Jackson play you tend to remember his voice on the instrument.

"Fontessa" is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded in human existence.
I also loved the MJQ's collaborations with The Swingle Singers. If you like that sort of thing you should look for the CD Place VendomeAnd it's a personal pet peeve of mine but do kindly notice how the recordings from the 50s thru the 70's have plenty of body, tone and volume but are not recorded too hot or too loudly. Things are not overcompressed. You're able to enjoy the dynamics of the music. It's loud and full but there are also quiet moments. You can hear every instrument without feeling like someone IS YELLING AT YOU ALL THE TIME!!!. So I appreciated that.

Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez  MJQ with Itzhak Perlman (Summertime)
Softly,as in a Morning Sunrise   All the Things you Are Blues in A Minor   Fontessa
Django   Round Midnight (Live)
Precious Joy aka Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring by J.S. Bach
Air for the G String by J.S. Bach with the Swingle Singers
Little David's Fugue with the Swingle Singers   Bag's Groove  Live with Sonny Rollins

The Pharaohs
As I mentioned above The Pharaohs were a musical group that also touched among all phases of African American music and sought to link these musics backed to their African antecedents (thus the name) The most obvious touchstone was of course West African, specifically Nigerian (Yoruban and Ibo) music. Some of their extended jam sessions could put you in mind of people like Fela Kuti.  It also helped their musical stew that a few of the members were not just African-Americans but actual Africans. So you can hear real time interplay between the music of the African Diaspora and the original African music which inspired it. The Pharaohs also happened to come along at a time when black people were generally calling each other brother and sister instead of n***** and b**** so most of their music, even the blues or other somber pieces generally tended towards positivity and communal experiences instead of negativity or one person standing alone. They tended to be a little more secular and jazz influenced than The Soul Messengers. 

 It's not widely known but blues recording label Chess Records, home of titans such as rock and roll superstar Chuck Berry and blues giants Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, had by the mid sixties also become the operating base to younger forward looking house studio band members and producers. These folks could and did play old time traditional Chicago/Mississippi style blues when called upon to do so but were also moving in more progressive directions, fueled by the free jazz and Afrocentric approach around at the time. Some of these musicians, together with university students and a few other jazz musicians formed The Pharaohs. This group was heavy on percussion, featuring as many as six drummers, combined with other percussionists but all the same there was a lot of space in their music. With the exception of some jam sessions their music rarely sounds overcrowded and never seems overproduced.

Given that near the end of his life Hendrix was moving in a jazzier direction with more percussion, it would have been interesting to hear him record with The Pharaohs. Sadly that wasn't to be. Although they weren't that commercially successful (though they did do the music for Afro-Sheen commercials), part time member and supporter Maurice White eventually formed the group Earth, Wind and Fire and took things in an ever slightly more commercial direction to put it mildly. And he took some of The Pharaohs members with him. So the The Pharaohs basically disbanded. But they had produced two albums, one live and one studio (In the Basement, Awakening) which are hard to find but which, if you are as into that time period as I am, are essential listening. This music fits almost seamlessly with what contemporary musical giants like Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Santana and War were producing. There was something in the water in the late sixties and early seventies and in my view music hasn't been the same since. As always YMMV but if you like a mix of deep Afro-funk combined with a few reworked soul tunes and African percussion explorations you may want to check some of this music out. I think The Pharaohs' version of "People Make the World Go Round" on the In the Basement album is the best I ever heard. A lot of the early work by EWF sounds like The Pharaohs. "Great House" gives you a lengthy electric guitar solo over a steady vamp. Check out their take on the Motown hit "Tracks of My Tears". If you don't smile and dance to "The Pharaohs Love Y'All", then something is wrong with you.

Freedom Road   Ibo Great House Tracks of My Tears
The Pharaohs Love Y'All  Damballah  Love and Happiness  In The Basement (Entire Album)