Saturday, October 26, 2013

Movie Reviews-Sunlight Jr., The Conjuring, Pacific Rim

Sunlight Jr.
directed by Laurie Collyer
This movie is extremely well acted, written and directed. It's Oscar bait. It also takes a left turn (pun definitely intended) to put itself firmly on one side of a social question. This happens in the film's denouement. I was blindsided but some other people who saw the film thought that the twist was incredibly obvious and that I evidently simply hadn't been paying attention to earlier events. Either way afterwards I felt a little manipulated. But sometimes those are the feelings that a good writer/director brings forth right? YMMV on the ending. It made clear poverty's cost. It also might make you think just how far are you from a much reduced standard of living? This is a pretty bleak film that doesn't pull punches on what impoverishment does to people. There are choices that people make that are informed or rather deformed by lack of money. 


Melissa (Naomi Watts) is a convenience store clerk who lives in a motel with her boyfriend, former construction worker Richie (Matt Dillon- who seems somehow not to have aged at all over the past twenty years-good genes and clean living or deal with the Infernal Powers?). Richie is permanently crippled and lives off his small disability check. Richie's got a good heart. He is mechanically handy but also likes to drink. He hasn't fully accepted that he can't do the things for his girlfriend that he'd like to do, and no I'm not talking about sex as Richie and Melissa have a pretty active intimate life. I'm talking about simple things like buying his girlfriend a working umbrella or leaving the motel. Richie doesn't like that Melissa is the breadwinner or that his car runs out of gas as he drives her to work. Richie never feels sorry for himself and refuses to let anyone else do so.

This film, much like Collyer's past work (Sherrybaby), examines the lives of the working poor. These are people for whom a $800 unexpected bill might as well be $80,000. They don't have the money. Low wage jobs are all they have. They obtain food from food banks and store rejects and buy clothes at secondhand stores.

Melissa claims to be interested in a company college scholarship program and occasionally nags her officious and callous boss, store manager Edwin (Antoni Corone) about the opportunity but he's not interested in helping her succeed. His primary interest is in keeping the store staffed. The store is open 24-7. His second interest is in bossing Melissa around. He's the sort of low class person who really enjoys exerting power over other people. And his third interest, though he rarely makes this too obvious, could be in Melissa herself. It's close to sexual harassment. He says things to her that he would not say to a woman at his level precisely because he knows that Melissa has little choice but to accept such verbiage. 

Melissa's previous boyfriend, the volatile, abusive, and cunning Justin (Norman Reedus),a small time drug dealer, decides that he wants Melissa back (his restraining order has expired). Her nos don't matter to him. He certainly doesn't think a wheelchair bound Richie can stop him. This frustrates Richie as Justin is exactly the sort of punk he would have (and may have) beat the dogs*** out of before his accident. And wheelchair or not Richie is still game to throw Justin a beating. Justin's harassment of Melissa is also complicated by the fact that the entrepreneurial Justin is Melissa's mother Kathleen's (Tess Harper) landlord.

You can watch this movie and consider the differences between the ideals of masculinity and femininity and the real way in which men and women live their lives. If masculinity means providing and protecting, something which Richie has trouble doing, how does his "failure" impact his relationship with Melissa? And if femininity means being protected and having the ability to be soft, how does poverty impact Melissa's views of herself and Richie, since with few exceptions she has to be hard and brusque to protect herself as Richie can't quite do that. I liked the camera work here. You rarely felt that you were watching a film. It was almost like a documentary.

The way the film was shot brings home the claustrophobia and diminished expectations of everyone in the movie. Whether it's Melissa ruefully noticing that Kathleen's home/foster care is infested with roaches and bedbugs (which have hurt the children) or Kathleen attempting to bond with her daughter by awkwardly pointing out that at least Richie was never physically abusive, you get the consistent feeling that everyone here has a very very low bar for what they consider success. Richie and Melissa do have one sweet moment that hints at future happiness. There are some relatively explicit sex scenes, some extremely intense emotional moments and a few physical fights. You may know people in Melissa's and Richies's situation or even be in their situation. Hopefully this film will help lower the contempt for the poor that seems to be almost de rigueur in some circles. No black people were stereotyped in the making of Sunlight Jr. though the movie still can't resist throwing in a streetwise Latina who is Melissa's co-worker and best friend. Kathleen's husband is black and only wants some peace and quiet when he gets home.

The Conjuring
directed by James Wan
Although I am certainly not opposed to explicit gore or sex in horror films, usually I find that the best horror films, the ones that really scare you don't always go over the top with explicitness. Some films do so quite well, like the infamous scene in Reanimator with a doctor who's lost his head but many of the classic films are more famous for what they don't show than for what they do. Curse of the Werewolf had a lot of erotic appeal for both genders though no actor or actress was ever shown naked. Horror is in the mind and the terrors or delights the mind can dream up are far more fantastic or frightening than another gallon of spurting blood or another starlet du jour taking her top off. Ironically the director of The Conjuring, James Wan, is someone who is equally adept at both styles as he directed both the so-called violence porn in Saw and the quiet frights of Insidious.
The Conjuring then is a definite throwback to the less is more school of thought regarding horror movies. There's no explicit sex. The obvious special effects don't make an entrance really until the final third of the film and even then they're quite subdued. Despite the scarcity of blood, this creepy little film is something which is both engaging and frightening as hell.
And it was frightening even as it mostly hewed to the normal processes found in movies like this. Supernatural evil attacks people who must find someone to help. The heroes have some issues of their own around their job but when the evil attacks someone close to them it becomes personal!
I don't mean to dismiss the movie because I enjoyed it but once again I found myself asking what would Supernatural's Sam and Dean Winchester do in a situation like this? This movie is understated and claims to be based on a true life story. This is a great film to be watched in the dead of night when you're all alone. You might think differently about that noise you heard on the steps or wonder what did the dog really see that made it bark so urgently. The next morning, is that knife on a different kitchen counter than where you left it? If you hear something but your significant other or children swear they didn't say anything are you okay?

Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into an old home in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Perron is a truck driver. He has put almost all the family's money into a home large enough for his family. But almost from the start there are some odd occurrences. The family dog flatly refuses to enter the home. Birds crash into the side of the home and die. The family finds a boarded up entrance to the basement and re-opens it.  Carolyn starts getting strange bruises over her body that can't be explained by vigorous sex while her daughters hear or see things that aren't there. Once the dog dies, things get even worse, culminating in a seeming poltergeist experience, which Carolyn sees for herself. I'm sure that fictional dogs are tired of trying to protect or warn their humans. Just ask Sounder, Old Yeller or Grey Wind.
The family gets in contact with Ed (Patrick Wison) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, seasoned paranormal investigators, demonologists, researchers and psychics. Lorraine is the psychic of the couple. She's often frustrated by her husband's attempt to protect her after an exorcism that went very bad for her. If you're a movie or paranormal buff you may also recognize their names from The Amityville Horror phenomenon. They investigate the home and find (or in Lorraine's case) see evidence to convince them that there is a supernatural presence therein. After some research of local history and property records they even think they know what the presence is and what it wants.

The next step is to get a Catholic priest to do an exorcism. But the problem with discussing your plans in a haunted house is obviously that the presence which haunts it now knows all your plans and how to counteract them. So that sets up an epic knock down drag out fight between the Warrens, Perrons and their allies on one side and an unclean Satanic spirit on the other.
Great work, occasionally chilling, and always weird. Whether it's a sleepwalking daughter banging her head into a chest of drawers or a creepy doll that has a mind of its own this film brings the thrills with judiciously used special effects and lots of old fashioned camera work. If you avoid horror movies because you can't let go of your disbelief, this might work for you as it is quite grounded in realism. The sense of impending dread permeates this film. It is the scariest movie I've seen in a while. Even though Wan is using techniques that have been parodied by other movies and which we've all seen a million times before, in his hands they still manage to give the viewer a jolt. As mentioned this is based on a true life story. YMMV. But the Warrens strongly believe in heaven and in hell. Their statements and their real life pictures (shown at film's end) add to the seriously disturbing verisimilitude. The music is suitably creepy. It helps maintain the sense of unease that this film draws forth. Livingston does a great job as a young father who's just trying to protect his wife and family.

Pacific Rim
directed by Guillermo Del Toro
This is an extravaganza of a film directed by someone who really knows how to do such things. It could be described as the thinking man's Transformers in some aspects I suppose. It's an action movie, loud and full of macho cliches, but under Del Toro's direction these work a lot better than in Bay's hands. There are no slow motion or down blouse shots of Megan Fox but there's also no irritating Shia LeBoeuf. So I guess that's a fair deal. Also despite some surface similarities, it's a completely different movie. The macho cliches work but on a different level they're also reversals of those cliches. At over 130 minutes Pacific Rim runs a little long but like all good movies you hardly notice it. I was surprised after watching it that that much time had elapsed. With only one small exception I didn't think the movie dragged at any point in time. 
In the year 2013 an interdimensional portal opens up in the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately however humans don't have the time to examine the physics of something that until recently was only theoretically possible or wonder about the question of why didn't all the water fall through the wormhole or what is the impact on the earth's gravity or tides of having what is essentially a black hole inside the planet. No, see the film is unconcerned with those questions because you see gargantuan monsters called Kaiju come through the portal and start wrecking everybody's stuff. These things are like Godzilla, if he was on steroids and crank and in an even worse mood than normal. The Kaiju have come to kick a$$ and chew bubblegum. And they're out of bubblegum. The usual weaponry like fighter planes, artillery, tanks and such take too long to work against the Kaiju, are cost-prohibitive in terms of lives or money or just plain ineffective. And throwing nukes against them would obviously get rid of too many humans. 

So being nothing if not inventive humanity comes up with something called Jaeger (German for hunter) machines. Jaegers are massive humanoid machines that have the mass and strength to go toe to toe with Kaiju and physically beat them down and rip them apart. Jaegers are also outfitted with oodles of cool weaponry including but not limited to howitzer autoguns, rockets, flamethrowers, and most memorably, swords. Jaegers are operated by a two man crew. Jaegers are generally too powerful and complex for one man to operate. And even two people can only operate them by linking their brains together in something called the drift. While in the drift the human will is greater than the sum of its parts. The drawback to the drift though is that you have immediate and permanent access to all of your drift partner's memories, fears, secrets, their entire conscious and unconscious, going back to birth. There is no privacy or separation or ego in the drift. Obviously most people can't tolerate this so drift candidates tend to be people with EXTREME self-control and/or people who are already emotionally intimate with one another on a primal level: siblings, spouses or parents and their children.

Got all that? Good. Because the Kaiju are coming in faster and larger than the Jaeger teams can kill them. Increasingly it's the Jaegers who are on the losing end of battles. In fact the human civilian command team thinks it's time that the Jaeger program was shut down while humans experiment with massive walls to keep the Kaiju out. Note the symbolism of the walls here because it's important, if a little overt. Separation doesn't work. Integration does.
The military commander of the Jaeger program Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba in a extremely Alpha male role) doesn't think closing the program is a good idea. Deprived of public resources he takes the program private. He's looking for good Jaeger pilots and thinks he's found one in Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam). Raleigh is a former pilot who's now working on building the wall. He used to work with his brother before his death and isn't sure he's got the stuff any more. He's nonetheless intrigued by Pentecost's challenge to his masculinity and more so by Pentecost's adopted daughter Mako (Rinko Kukuchi). Mako oversees the pilot training program and wishes to participate in the war herself though Pentecost forbids it.
The film's resident eggheads are Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), two rival scientists and Kaiju experts who have competing theories about the best way to defeat the Kaiju and what the Kaiju even are. They provide most of the film's laughs. They also get to play against the Hong Kong gangster Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), one of the sources of funding for Pentecost's program, a dealer in black market Kaiju organs and someone who, according to Pentecost, should never be trusted. Clifton Collins Jr., Robert Kazinksy, Max Martini, and Ellen McLain also star. This was a really fun goofy movie. Leave your skepticism behind and just have a good time enjoying the flick.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Why Black People Generally Don't Vote Conservative

If you read what the blog members have written here, over time you will find a wide variance of opinions. Some people are strong feminists; others are skeptical of or hostile to feminism. Some are adamantly pro-life; others are just as profoundly pro-choice. Some are quite supportive of expansionary activist government; other people look askance at increased executive authority. Some are anti-war; others support increased drone strikes at America's enemies. Some people are gung ho about gay marriage while others think that linking gay issues to black issues is somewhat opportunistic and ahistorical. Some people's views evolve or change over time; others remain as rigid as Mount Everest. And so on. In short, just like every other black person in America, the black people on this blog have different views on different issues. And that's also reflected in and among the blog readership regardless of race or gender. That should not be a surprise to anyone.

Occasionally you will hear some conservatives (usually but not always white), express frustration and even outrage that in presidential elections, the black electorate usually supports the Democratic candidate. In fact since 1964 the Republican Presidential candidate has struggled to get more than 10% of the black vote and sometimes has gotten as little as 3-4%.

Such conservatives wonder then since black people also tend to show greater levels of religiosity and occasional adherence to "traditional values" why more black people don't vote for conservatives, especially social conservatives. There is a very easy answer to this which is embedded in the picture at the top of this post.
The post-Goldwater modern Republican party has made peace with and actively sought the vote of numerous whites who, as Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg first noted in his landmark 80s study of Michigan Macomb County Reagan Democrats, often have a profound distaste for black people and any public or private policy they think is likely to help black people. In a follow up recent focus group study on tea party conservatives and evangelicals and their attitudes about the President and the shutdown Greenberg found that race was still key.
We expected that in this comfortable setting or in their private written notes, some would make a racial reference or racist slur when talking about the African American President. None did. They know that is deeply non-PC and are conscious about how they are perceived. But focusing on that misses how central is race to the worldview of Republican voters. They have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly “minority,”and their party is getting whooped by a Democratic Party that uses big government programs that benefit mostly minorities, create dependency and a new electoral majority. Barack Obama and Obamacare is a racial flashpoint for many Evangelical and Tea Party voters.
This hostility to black people flows through conservative thought. And as history is often just propaganda by other methods this animus has attached itself to the new film 12 years a slave. Investors Business Daily, a rabidly right-wing paper claims that much of the film is exaggerated, a white man wrote the book to try to start the Civil War, slavery wasn't that bad and that all this film will do is get the Negroes riled up. Seriously.
But historians suspect much of the story — which recounts cringingly graphic tales of skin-stripping floggings and paddle-breaking beatings — is apocryphal. They found the book was actually written by a white abolitionist who exaggerated slave mistreatment as part of a propaganda effort to bring about the Civil War.
To assure the historical accuracy of the film, producers hired Harvard professor and civil-rights activist Henry Louis Gates Jr. You may recall the name: He's the Friend of Barack who cried racism after police detained him at his Cambridge townhome a few years ago, inspiring the famous White House "beer summit" between the president and the cop he called "stupid." Predictably, Gates doesn't question the veracity of the slave memoir.
Slavery and Jim Crow were bad enough without Hollywood fictionalizing what actually happened in order to further a political agenda. Distorting reality only fans the flames of racial hatred. Hollywood should be careful not to give creative license to racial arsonists who leave truth on the cutting room floor.
This isn't quite the same as Holocaust denial but it's in the same universe. Hollywood usually puts out a Holocaust/WW2 movie about every five years or so. There are books about it released more frequently. Not counting Pat Buchanan can you think of any prominent conservatives who will publicly question if the Holocaust was really that awful or if a movie about the Holocaust ought to have showed the human side of an overworked SS Sturmbannfuhrer, who after all wasn't that bad if you got to know him. Probably not.
The Tea Party candidate for Mississippi Senator is seeking the support of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
And lastly just as I was finishing this post a North Carolina GOP Precinct Chair was forced out for among other things complaining that whites couldn't say "n*****" and boasting that if the new voter id laws would "hurt a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything" that was fine with him.

There's more but I think the point is clear. I do not think that every Republican is racist. That's obviously not the case at all. But the Republicans as a group have jumped in bed with some very ugly people. Like anyone else who's made some questionable social decisions, they're infected with something that's not so easy to get rid of. Until Republicans can find the political equivalent of Valtrex, most black people, even if they really really LIKE the idea of low taxes, limited government, unlimited corporate power, no social net, strong military, and traditional social values, are going to reject any Republican seductions during Presidential elections. Many* black people finding themselves on the same side as people waving the Confederate Flag and yelling the South's gonna do it again, are going to immediately recheck their mapquest and get back on the highway.

*-doesn't apply to Dr. Ben Carson, Herman Cain, or Star Parker among others...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

ObamaCare: Sebelius Says President Obama Was Blindsided

The federal government's website portal for PPACA (ObamaCare) has not worked very well. The federal government has not released information about how many people have been able to successfully sign up for health insurance via the federal exchange, only that millions of people have visited and that demand remains high. Well, yes I guess demand would be high once you pass a law stating that people must buy a product.

Although the rollout has so far not been very complimentary to the technical skill set or managerial know how of the people involved in overseeing the launch, I believe that over time, things will be fixed. I work in IT and have been a team lead, programmer, project manager and business analyst -- sometimes all in the same job. I've worked on projects that have proceeded quite smoothly from the first glimmer in some vice-president's mind to a low level underpaid coder (often me) migrating code to production. I've also worked on projects that were poorly designed, insufficiently tested, lacked buy-in from appropriate stakeholders, had unrealistic launch dates, lacked proper funding, had the wrong personnel, or attempted to solve problems that either didn't exist or could be fixed more cheaply and much more simply in other ways.

It's a RARE large project that meets all its target dates and deliverables and comes in on time, under budget and with no post-launch fixes. As project complexity, scope and size increase the chances of perfection or even anything close to perfection (eg. Six Sigma) decline dramatically.

I have never worked on anything approaching ObamaCare's size or scope. I have worked on legally required projects which did have (within the business world) massive national scrutiny and visibility. The general rule on any project is that EVERYONE must keep their team and their supervisor aware of issues that could impact the launch date or launch deliverables. The Company CEO may not care if you have to stay overtime for 20-30 hours over the next month to rewrite and test programs that downstream feeders use. That's your problem not his. But if you discover that not only will you need to rewrite programs but also that several databases will have to change, the project design is flawed, the chosen middleware has significant issues, the testers don't know how to test, the system lacks required data and it's impossible to meet several legal requirements by the current launch date, that's something that management at the HIGHEST level should know. God help you if you knew something like that and didn't run and tell. You don't want to see your name in the paper as the reason the stock price took a nosedive. If the Company can't do something required by federal law or the IRS, the CEO and Chairman should know ASAP.

That's why I was shocked to learn that according to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius no one told the President that the launch wasn't going to work. She's somewhat coy about whether she knew and didn't tell.

Before it even launched, red flags went up about the Obamacare website. Health insurance companies complained about it, and the site crashed during a test run. But nobody told the President of any of it, the nation's health chief told CNN. Kathleen Sebelius said President Barack Obama didn't hear that there may be problems with the sign-up portal for his signature health care law until it went live on October 1. That's when the site nosedived into a technical abyss. 
It's not like no one saw this coming. When the website crashed during a test run, just a few hundred users were on it. But the Obama administration went ahead with the launch. Waiting was not an option, Sebelius said. 
A Senate GOP leadership aide called the situation "odd." "Everyone was surprised by her statement that the President was unaware of the website's failures until a few days into it," the aide told CNN. "They had been claiming that the Obamacare rollout was his top priority and that he was receiving regular updates, which was inaccurate. And he gave remarks on October 1 about how great it was and that people should go sign up," the aide said. "Assuming that he didn't know that the website didn't work, why did they let him make that speech when they knew it had crashed in testing? Did really no one recommend a delay to the President? It just seems odd." 
Before the website's launch, Republicans made targeting the program a centerpiece of their agenda. Many insisted they wouldn't vote to fund the entire government unless Obamacare was defunded or delayed. They said that the website's woes show that the Obama administration and the federal government generally aren't capable of executing what the GOP says was an ill-advised program from the get-go.


Generally speaking the powers that be don't like hearing bad news. You certainly don't rise in any organization, public or private, by constantly telling your supervisors about failure, especially if the failure is yours. Some of the people I've worked with and for have made it quite clear that they want good news from their reports. But the smarter leaders value accurate news over good news. Whether you're in IT or not, you're in a job because someone thought that you could help the organization solve problems and/or make money. If a leadership team is proceeding on inaccurate information it can't solve problems. It is embarrassing to have to delay a launch or kill it completely because of issues. But it's worse (IMO) to turn in substandard work that doesn't meet specs and indeed worsens the problems that would be addressed by successful launch instead of resolving them.  You do that and you see exactly what you see now-a lot of blamestorming, desperation moves, attempts at spin, and knee jerk reactions to criticism. If the people at the top aren't careful this can add weight to rivals' claims that there ought to be a management change, or failing that a scaling back of authority, scope and responsibility.

My mantra at work is "Let's get it right. Let's tell the truth." It strains credulity to believe that the President did not know that the primary interface of his signature program would not work properly. What the heck was Sebelius talking about in Cabinet meetings? "Yes sir Mr. President, everything is going just fine with PPACA implementation. Yes sir! You have nothing to worry about. We're doing just fine. You don't need to be concerned about the PPACA."

Someone, whether it was the President, the HHS Secretary or the tech leaders overseeing the launch, made the decision to roll the dice and see what happens. And here we are. In my work if some vice-president left the CEO/Chairman hanging out there like that they'd be fired. You might as well tell the truth because there's not much room for deceit in IT. Either the process works and does what it's supposed to do for an acceptable percentage of time or it does not. Of course a good boss often takes the hit for mistakes his employees make while good employees often cover for mistakes their boss makes. That's life. I have to believe that that is what's happening here.



Do you believe that President Obama did not know of website problems?

Should Secretary Sebelius be fired?

How long do you think it will take to get website and related code fixed?

If you have a boss, do you keep him or her in the loop on major issues?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Music Reviews-The Como Mamas, United Soul (US), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

The Como Mamas
Just as you might expect from the name, this trio of singers (Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, Della Daniels) hails from Como, Mississippi. Two of them are sisters. The Como Mamas sing the kind of hardcore real gospel and spirituals that inspired and informed so much of African-American popular music. They generally do so a cappella. This isn't music that they went to school to learn how to sing. This is stuff they grew up with in their community. Smith is also a preacher while Taylor's and Daniels' grandfather Miles Pratcher was a professional musician (guitarist, fiddler) who played with many other bluesmen, including Mississippi Fred McDowell. So this music is something they've been with all of their lives. Della Daniels once had an invitation to record in Nashville as a young woman but her mother turned it down out of protectiveness. Smith is the primary "lead" singer. Obviously the three ladies were also inspired by such people as Dorothy Love Coates, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and of course Aretha Franklin. The women have been singing together since they were children.

The album which I have by them is Get an Understanding which was recorded live in their local church. It's a pretty representative sampling of what they sound like. It is made up almost entirely of traditional gospel or gospel blues songs or works by Thomas Dorsey or James Cleveland that are so well known that they might as well be traditional. Cuts include "God is Able", "Nobody's fault but mine", "Ninety Nine and a Half Won't Do", "One More River to Cross", "I know it was the blood" and many others. There are occasionally a few flat notes or other mistakes but not very many. Their harmony is not the tightest I've ever heard but if a woman's voice may be said to have gravitas and authority, and I think it may, all three of these women's voices have those qualities. I don't know that I would get more work by them yet or not but I was certainly quite happy with what I heard. I think all three women are contraltos. Some of their music (mostly alternate versions) is included below.
Trouble in My Way   I got Jesus Count Your Blessings We're Getting Ready (For the Room Upstairs) Old Landmark

US (United Soul) 
Music with Funkadelic
United Soul was both a Funkadelic side project as well as a farm team for Funkadelic . Some United Soul members would later officially join Parliament-Funkadelic. George Clinton's stated ambition was to build an entire funky empire that could be as artistically diverse and as financially successful as Stax, Motown, or Invictus. He didn't quite reach that goal but there are a number of Detroit or New Jersey based music groups that came out of the P-Funk organization and had at least some success. US wasn't really one of them probably because this, their only official album was never released back in the day by Westbound Records. So I guess that sort of put a damper on plans of worldwide renown. 

This self-titled release is virtually indistinguishable from Funkadelic in terms of songs but the production is much much better and cleaner than early Funkadelic albums. Most of these tracks would show up in different forms in later official Funkadelic releases. P-Funk fans will recognize several of them. This is a very short album even by seventies standards and especially by Funkadelic standards. It's really more of an EP than an album. It walks that fine line between hard-core soul and funky rock-n-roll that P-Funk and other groups perfected. As mentioned the players/singers on this album include obviously George Clinton himself and a few current Funkadelic players as well as then current United Soul members guitarist Garry Shider and  bassist Cordell "Boogie" Mosson, who would each become integral parts of the P-Funk sound in later years. Shider was always a visually arresting part of the P-Funk concert experience as he would often perform wearing a diaper.

My favorite song on here is "Be What You Is" which is an ode to naturalism and honesty, a paean to staying in your own lane and virtually the 11th Commandment from God Himself, delivered in a stentorian baritone that had me believing that Isaac Hayes was appearing on the cut. But nope. I'm pretty sure that's Garry Shider singing. I've said it before but it does intrigue me that this sort of hard soul singing has mostly vanished from modern R&B. It's been replaced by male singers whose singing sounds to me as if they never went through puberty. But to each their own. 

"I Miss My Baby" is pretty generic soul that's typical of the Northern soul sound of the time. It's not bad but I don't find a whole lot that's special about it either.
"The Rat Kiss the Cat on The Navel" is a nazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzty sounding song both lyrically and sonically. As I've mentioned elsewhere this sort of stuff is updated hard core blues of the kind Elmore James and Howlin Wolf did. It wouldn't have sounded too out of place on their albums if the song were slowed down and the guitar effects and volume were removed/reduced. But if you like fuzz, this song is for you. There are alternate (more danceable) versions of later Funkadelic classics "Baby I Owe You Something Good" and "This Broken Heart". There are only seven cuts on this album/cd so don't go in expecting a huge sprawling release. There may be more out there from this group but we'll have to wait and see. AFAIK, George Clinton doesn't have the rights to this music. Those are owned by Westbound records owner and publisher Armen Boladian. So who should have this? If you're a P-Funk fanatic as I am, you should and probably do have this already. For less enthusiastic P-Funk fans this might be worth buying just for "Be What you Is". Depends on the price. If you're into stoner type music but want a little rhythm this could be up your alley. But if you don't like P-Funk or are just mildly curious about them, this probably isn't for you. There are better, cheaper and more representative releases that P-Funk newbies should check out.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
by Elton John
This was Elton John's most successful studio release and imo has most of his greatest hits. It was a double album that wasn't initially meant to be released as one. I was too young to remember when this first came out but a few years later at the school I was attending at the time I recall a few cuts from this album being played. Also black radio dj's weren't averse to playing "Bennie and the Jets". Elton John was invited to play that song on Soul Train. Still, it wasn't until much much later in life that I really started listening to Elton John and went back and picked up this album. It's rare that a double album only has a few clunkers on it and that happens to be the case here. There is a very high signal to noise ratio on this album. I always thought the album cover was a bit of an inside joke by Elton John to clueless fans. The album was released a few years before Elton John came out as bisexual in a Rolling Stone interview. This, strangely enough, upset and shocked some of his American fans in the seventies. There was so much camp and gender bending going on in pop music at the time that even a man dressed up like a modernized Liberace complete with red rhinestone heels and pink jacket, apparently just wasn't enough to trip any gaydar in seventies America. Go figure.

Anyway, if you have listened to any pop, rock or classic rock radio in the past forty years you've probably heard some of these songs, maybe even more than you would like or care to admit. 
This album spans a pretty wide range of genres and styles. At some of them John is more skilled, at others, not so much. No one is ever going to mistake him for a reggae artist and thus the less said about the truly execrable Jamaica Jerk Off, the better. As you probably know Elton John generally writes and arranges most of the music he records but most of the lyrics are usually written and written first by his longtime songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. This seems to be a rather odd way to work as Elton fits the music to the lyrics rather than the other way around but obviously it's been quite successful. 

I've always been impressed with Elton John's prodigious piano playing skills but I also love the way in which the songs are written leaves a LOT open to interpretation. I think this was by design. Taupin always knew his friend and co-writer was gay and so there aren't a lot of extremely specific "MAN WANT WOMAN" type of songs in the Elton John ouevre but nevertheless the emotions that are raised are not really peculiar to any gender or sexuality. Love can sometimes hurt. People get lonely. It's good to have fun. Those are things everyone can agree on no matter the angle of their dangle or the particular glide to their stride. And songs are often more fun when they aren't so obvious anyway.

Some people have claimed that Dirty Little Girl flirts with misogyny but I don't see it. The song could also possibly be the greatest F*** you song ever recorded. Bennie and the Jets is stripped down pop/R&B that puts a lot of emphasis on the one. All the Girls Love Alice tells of the lesbian adventures of the underage title character. Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting is old school highly danceable 50s style FUN Rock-n-Roll with a modern sound. It's Little Richard meets David Bowie.  Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding is somber prog-rock that swells into bouncy rock-n-roll. Candle in the Wind is a homage to Marilyn Monroe (later retrofitted for Princess Diana). I've Seen That Movie Too is another breakup song. Sweet Painted Lady examines the prostitute's life (this is a theme that Taupin returns to frequently) while Harmony is another beautiful sad piece that can be understood any way you like. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is another masterpiece that defies easy interpretation. It could be another relationship gone wrong. It could be about getting off the road to fame and fortune. It could be about a number of things. It's up to you. That's only about half of the songs from this album. I love this release. Its hits outshine the crap. Sonically everything is crisp and clean with guitars often getting almost as much prominence as Elton's piano.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Obamacare Losers

First of all, if you've got health insurance, you like your doctor, you like your plan - you can keep your doctor, you can keep your plan. Nobody is talking about taking that away from you."
President Barack Obama

President Obama's statement has been shown to be untrue. I don't ascribe ill intention to the President or PPACA supporters. PPACA may prove broadly beneficial. But those who lose their current coverage and receive no government subsidies will be worse off. The counter to the claim that they're worse off is that their new plans will have increased level of (mandatory) benefits which are better for them and society. 

I am unconvinced by this argument. It's exactly like saying that instead of driving your $12,000 compact car with minimal upgrades and a low chance of being undamaged in an accident, you MUST purchase a fully loaded $60,000 large sedan, SUV, or pickup truck with a better chance of surviving a serious collision. So the government forces auto companies to stop making the $12,000 compact that you prefer. Though you have little financial capacity and less desire to drive something large which also has voice activated commands or rear view cameras, the choice isn't yours anymore.
At least 146,000 Michiganders — and possibly thousands more — with health coverage purchased directly from insurers now are learning their polices will end Dec. 31 because they don’t meet the minimum requirements of the federal health care act. Under the law, each policy must cover essential benefits in 10 categories. Instead of beefing up these policies, insurers are opting to drop them, advising consumers to consider other policies that are now available either from the insurers directly or though the Michigan Health Insurance Marketplace, also known as the state exchange. The policies that are ending were often less expensive on the individual market because they provided limited benefits and were sold to healthier consumers.
And that was fine with consumers such as Josh Mulder. Mulder had landed a plan several years ago that cost his Wixom family of four just $291 a month. That policy will end Dec. 31, according to a letter from his insurer. The policy didn’t cover things such as maternity care or prescription drugs, but, Mulder said, his family is generally healthy and he was willing to take the risk.“I had a great rate,” he said. Rates that meet the required benefits under health reform average $762.06 a month on the Michigan Health Insurance Marketplace for his family of four..

Purchasing health care is not like purchasing an automobile but the principle is the same. The government is mandating a specific choice. Maybe this is okay because the government already requires that vehicles have certain safety features and pass certain tests. You can't purchase a new car without seat belts or air bags.  

Often people who make this argument have trouble delineating any point where the federal government can't mandate or regulate. But let's take that objection seriously. It does have some validity. A government which wants to prevent vehicular carnage can surely attempt the same in health care no? I'd say no because drivers directly impact other people. The people detailed in this article are not those fierce individualists or (in some people's minds) lazy freeriders who haven't purchased insurance. They've already purchased insurance which fits their needs and budget. 

The government is making them purchase additional insurance which they don't need and may never use in order to subsidize other people's insurance choices. If I am a sixty something worker I may no longer need to cover my child until he's twenty-six. If I am a forty something man I have little use for insurance that mandates well woman visits or contraceptive coverage. If I am a thirty something fitness guru I may not desire extra coverage which allows multiple doctor visits. If I am a woman well past her reproductive years I may skip an insurance policy that includes maternity care. And so on.

Some might argue that such people are wicked selfish folks. Perhaps. But we are all self-interested. In a marketplace people are able to pursue their own self-interest. For some, the PPACA has reduced choice and raised costs. This is not a good thing.
A utilitarian may claim that it will all be worth it if the people with increased coverage and lower costs outnumber the people with the opposite. We lack that data. But if the PPACA's goal was to give coverage to those without, it may have been wiser to do a simple transfer payment. Raise taxes on everyone and give the money to those without insurance; cut taxes on those without insurance and allow them to use the money to purchase insurance, or open up Medicare/Medicaid to anyone without insurance, regardless of age or income.

Those decisions all have their own cost-benefit analyses. But they would have been more straightforward than reducing choices and raising costs for some with insurance in order to subsidize favored groups with insurance or give insurance to those without. I have no problem paying higher income taxes to get someone else insured. I have a major problem with being forced to buy coverage I don't want and lose coverage that I like. Can you afford to pay twice as much for insurance coverage as you do now? Because I couldn't. I think a law that results in that outcome needs editing. PPACA supporters may feel differently. That's fine. I simply ask that they at least acknowledge that the PPACA does harm some people. That data is in.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Reviews-Pym, The Beauty of Trees

by Mat Johnson
Just. Get. This. Book. Now. Seriously. Temporarily stop reading this review and carry yourself over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your local library and arrange to have this book sent to you, downloaded to your reading device, or ready for you to pick up somewhere. This is the best book I've read so far this year. It's also FUNNIER than hell.

Although some of the humor in the book may be most deeply appreciated by those who are Edgar Allan Poe experts or academics (tenured or not) or scientists, or people suffering from unrequited love or those rare birds who are all of those things I truly believe that you will find this book hilarious no matter your race, ethnicity, work experience, age, gender, sexuality, blah, blah. It's freaking funny and that's it. It's UNIVERSALLY applicable to the human condition. I am very very very happy that I crossed this book off my "to read" list. I am definitely going to find more work by Mat Johnson to enjoy. I may start with his graphic novel Incognegro which I'm pretty sure I have laying around the home somewhere.  It was a gift from my brother who is a comic book fanatic. It's amazing that entire worlds lay at your fingertips. All you have to do is reach over and pick them up. Pym is so complex and so simple at the same time that after you finish you ask yourself why didn't I think of that?

This book is both parody and satire that touches on slavery, racism, American race relations, inter and intra-racial personal interactions, academia, art, and most especially Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It had been decades since I had read this work of Poe's. I remembered nothing about it. And according to both Mat Johnson and his in-universe stand-in I didn't miss much. Poe's work was a hastily written and poorly designed pulp novel about a mysterious journey to Antarctica, a racial mutiny, encounters with savages/pseudo-humans so black their teeth were black and a final meeting with a larger than life mysterious white figure. Having reread it after reading Pym, I can say that Poe's work was internally inconsistent and somewhat racist (though that was of the times). It did however inspire similar works by Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness and most fortuitously Pym. So that's a good thing.

Much like Erasure, this book very much brings to mind such writers as Vonnegut, Heller and Twain. I've rarely read satire done so well and created from such seemingly disparate elements.
So what's it about you ask? Well Chris Jaynes, professor of African American literature has just been denied tenure and thus been effectively fired from his campus teaching position. He was the only black male professor at the university. He thought that if he were denied tenure he would shoot up the place or suicide bomb the faculty cafeteria but instead he mostly got drunk and cried. His department committee recommended tenure but the University President overrode that decision. At semester's end Chris decides to confront the President and " him how we do where I'm from, go straight Philly on him, and I knew all about that business because although I had never actually punched someone in the face before, as a child myself I had been on the receiving end of that act several times and was a quick study".

The meeting with the President doesn't go as Chris would like. In fact it goes bad from the start. Both Chris and the President are embarrassed when Chris barges in and catches his boss, a proud Jewish man, listening to Wagner. Chris is angered more when the President explains to him that Chris was hired only to teach black literature and be on the diversity committee and NOT to examine general American literature or expound on whiteness motifs in Poe's work. The President doesn't think Chris is smart or experienced enough to branch out and even if he were, that's not what the President wants. Chris doesn't think that just being on a "cover your a$$" and ultimately powerless diversity committee makes any sense. Later, in the bar running across his triumphant and dismissive black replacement, an angry hip hop theorist, Chris catches a beatdown. Even though it was in rhythm though it should not be confused with the downbeat. That is, as Chris explains, a completely different type of beating.

Fortunately however Chris has some good luck when he discovers a narrative by Dirk Peters, the "half-breed" companion of Pym in Poe's novel. Now believing that Poe's novel might have been based on truth, Chris decides to put together an all black Antarctic expedition to see if there really is a black nation out there that escaped colonialism or if some albino giants really do exist. To join him on this quest he brings along:
  • Booker Jaynes: Chris' much older cousin, a hardcore black nationalist, civil rights activist and deep sea/salvage diver. Having lost faith in most black people post 1967 or so Booker is bossy, bitter and quite paranoid. He remains "blacker than thou". He has a dog named White Folks. 
  • Jeffree and Carlton Carter: Sewage department workers and engineers, conspiracy theorists, web hosters, photographers, adventurers. They are also gay. Very openly so.
  • Angela and Nathaniel Lathan: Angela is Chris' former girlfriend and has remained the great lost love of his life. Upon hearing that she had divorced, Chris invited her on the journey with the hopes of the obvious. Angela said yes but neglected to mention that she had remarried. This causes some mixed emotions on Chris' part, to say the least, particularly when Angela expresses hope that Chris and her husband Nathaniel will be friends. Nathaniel is an attorney and far more financially successful than Chris.
  • Garth Frierson: Chris' childhood friend and someone who helped him move. Garth is an overweight unemployed everyman bus driver from Detroit with a passion for Little Debbie snack cakes and the artwork of Thomas Karvel (an obvious parody of Thomas Kinkade). Garth is convinced that Karvel lives in Antarctica. Garth does not appreciate everyone pointing out that his devotion to Karvel's work is a bit strange considering that Karvel never puts any black people or signifier of "blackness" in his art. He also doesn't appreciate anyone trying to steal his sugary snacks, of which he has prudently brought hundreds.
These people all reach Antarctica and discover that indeed some of Poe's novel was true. They also get enslaved. How they deal with this misfortune is the source of (pardon the pun) some of the book's blackest humor. Did I mention this book was funny? Virtually everything is skewered by Johnson's wit, whether it's black people claiming they're Native American while trying to push their naps underneath a do rag, or a white person seeing Chris, who could pass for white under certain conditions, and immediately assuming that he is white and thus obviously in charge of the group. At one point a half starving delirious member of the party launches into a longwinded doctoral dissertation on the evils of racism and the cannibalistic greediness at the heart of Eurocentric culture. His companion, who's in a very bad mood and had been silently ignoring the speaker for the past three days, punctures this heartfelt soliloquy by snidely asking "Are you saying hip-hop is any better?" When the person must answer in the negative, his companion sagely nods and goes back to ignoring him.

This book can be understood and enjoyed on multiple levels, from the satirical metafiction that it is to a simple rollicking good time. What I am trying to say is again, just read this book. It's written in first person, which normally I'm not fond of but that narrative device is perfect for this story. It combines humor with some very serious, even painful investigations into reality. 

The Beauty of Trees
by Michael Jordan
No it's not by THAT Michael Jordan. Have you ever read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and other books by J.R.R. Tolkien? One thing that shines through very brightly is that the author had a love for flora, especially trees. In Tolkien's creations, the best people take trees very seriously. It's the reflowering of a long dead tree that signals the return of the rightful king while the destruction of trees in the Shire herald the end of innocence and the arrival of evil, industrialization and some hard adult moral choices. Tolkien was a romantic at heart so it's no surprise that trees held such a special place in his heart. I think this book would likely be Tolkien approved. I grew up with elms and apple trees around my home. Unfortunately back in the day we lost our elm tree to Dutch elm disease, that cursed plague. Detroit has a lot more greenery than you would imagine while Michigan in particular is well known for apple and cherry trees. If I ever had real money not only would I have a gothic/baroque/art deco home made of stone I would also make sure to locate it next to and around a variety of different trees. This book lists 100 of the world's best known trees and depicts them in all their magnificent full color glory. It gives their various Latin names and descriptions of their histories, quirks, range in which they are found and the role they've played in the environment or human history. Some of these trees have immense cultural significance. Unfortunately cultural significance can by definition be quite specific as we see in Zimbabwe where there is a movement to eliminate "foreign" trees, that is trees brought from Europe. Many trees which we've come to think of as native to one land actually were brought over from other places long ago.

When you think about it it's amazing that you can have a living organism that can survive for hundreds or even thousands of years. It's even more amazing that trees provide much of the air we breathe, food and shelter for animals and other plants we need, and prevent soil erosion. Yet we often seem hellbent on destroying as many trees as we can. Trees represent a bridge between past and future as some grow so slowly that the planter may never see the full growth in his or her lifetime. They are something for the benefit of the next generation and all those thereafter.

It's fall now and Michigan is undergoing its normal beautiful transformation. After buying and reading this book I find myself more curious about the trees I see in my own backyard or in the remnants of forests that still abut my subdivision. I'm right on the border between city and country and this book makes me more interested in the country. To be honest I didn't find all of these trees beautiful. I thought the baobab was just ugly and the southern live oak, while gorgeous, brings up for me too many unpleasant antebellum associations. Still, each of these trees is special in their own way. If you are at all interested in the natural world, this coffee table book with glossy photographs is something you will want to have.


Red Flowering Gum


Southern Live Oak